Friday, 13 July 2007

Change of scene

Hello all. This is just to let you know that this blog has moved. I have started a new version of this blog at There you can find basically the same stuff as here, though hopefully I'll update it more frequently, as well as some downloads on a new resources page. I hope to see you there some time. If it doesn't work out I'll come back, delete this post, and move again.

Love Andrew

Friday, 11 May 2007

Getting our enemies sorted out

Recently I found myself preaching on Easter Sunday and had to think about how to talk about the meaning of the resurrection. The easiest way to talk about the resurrection is to talk about it as a victory over death. This is true, of course; but I was struck by the fact that the significance St Paul sees in the resurrection has, I think, more to do with what it does to sin. "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still... dead? No: in your sins" (1 Cor. 15:17).

I think there is a tendency to speak of Death as the real enemy of God and life as its solution. We speak of death as the "great enemy." However, as Byron pointed out in a wonderful post some time ago, death is not the great enemy but the last enemy. The great enemy is sin, and we should not forget it.

In this, I found this quote from Oliver O'Donovan deeply helpful:
"The resurrection restores the life of all mankind, reversing the effects of sin; it reorders the disorder of which death is the emblem, and vindicates God's original act of creation." (Desire of the Nations, 142).
At the end of the day, a gospel where death is the ultimate enemy will be close, but finally inadequate.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007


Morning breaks away from us,
The sun's brow - first light's seen.
Her journey will be much like ours:
From gloom to glory, with struggle in between.

At first she travels slowly,
Shaking off the night's last space,
As we through clouds watch, hoping
In her glow our own steps to trace.

But shucking aside horizon's darkness,
The trials of night's long journey,
She rises out of history's burden,
And sets her face on beauty.

And we who sit beside the lighthouse,
Look squinting into the day,
As our own hopes rise before us,
And darkness fades away.

So lightly falls upon us wisdom,
Often cloudy, at back of mind:
He who raised her up this morning,
Will make us, too, shine in time.

I wrote this poem several years ago now. Every new year's morning, my family go before dawn to the lighthouse above lighthouse beach, Port Macquarie. I wrote this about that one year. It's not perfect, but I hope you like it.

Wednesday, 28 February 2007

The Discipline of the Church

There was a good deal of interesting discussion in response to a previous post about Discipline and the Lord's Supper. There, I suggested that I didn't think refusing communion to people was a particularly helpful method of discipline. In the light of the discussion, further things need to be said.
1. Church discipline is important. The church is a holy community, and a little bit of yeast leavens the whole batch. Christ, our paschal lamb, has already been sacrificed, and so our life now, which Paul portrays as "celebrating the feast," needs to be lived in sincerity and truth (1 Cor. 5:6-8). As a result, it is crucial that the church be able to judge its members (1 Cor. 5:12).

2. But this rings immediate alarm bells. What about Matthew 7:1-5? First and foremost, the church is a community where judgement is supended, where sins are forgiven, where people are bourne with! How can you say we must judge? This is a crucial corrective. There is to be no arrogant judging of the kind that neglects planks in eyes. The church must be humble; it must be a place of grace, forgiveness, and patient welcome.

3. Yet this doesn't mean no judgement. Jesus himself concludes this section with "then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbours eye." The difference is the tone and the aim. Right judgement and rebuke within the church, showing my sister her fault, aims at restoration; wrong judgement aims at triumphalism and pride. Our aim must be to "regain" our brother (Matt. 18:15).

4. This kind of judgement is the judgement done "in a spirit of gentleness" (Gal. 6:1). This kind of correction is not arrogant, but humble, aware of the possibility of our own failure (Gal. 6:1-5), and seeking only the good of the other. In this kind of restoring work I aim to "bear others burdens," while respecting the fact that "each must carry his own load," and so look first to my own faults.

5. Yet, this attempt to restore may fail. In order for the church's purity and character to be preserved, there must come a time when a line has to be drawn (Matt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 5:1-5, 13). Crucially, this line is drawn not by any one individual, but by the whole community. How is it to be drawn? In the New Testament context it seems to have had to do with association (1 Cor. 5:11; 2 Jn 7-11). The danger is not simply immorality, but hypocrisy: bearing the name of a brother or sister whilst living immorally is so serious that Paul will say "Do not even eat with such a one."

6. Once this line is crossed, it seems right to me that the excluded person should be denied the Lord's Supper. But in the Corinthian context it also seems that the community's judgement would by this point have been so clear that this would not even be a possibility.

7. This creates all sorts of difficulties in pastoral practice. I know from my little experience in pastoral ministry that things are never clear, always complicated, and frequently hard. Yet I also believe firmly that if the church is to be faithful, it needs to take this word seriously: its holiness matters. Hopefully, its spirit of gentleness and love will be so compelling that the line only needs to be mentioned, rarely drawn.

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Discipline and the Lord's Supper - Some thoughts

As mentioned previously, I found recent discussion about exclusion from the Lord's Supper as a means of discipline very interesting. Recently, my church heard a series of sermons on the Sacraments (available here) which provoked a lot of thought.

My biggest surprise was in reading again what Paul says of communion in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11. In particular, Paul's words at the end of chapter 11:
"Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world."
Several things are interesting here.
  1. This is a warning to Christians. This is a warning about the way Christians should share the Lord's Supper together. If there is a message for unbelievers here, it is by implication only.
  2. Unworthy eating and drinking leads to judgement; but this judgement is not the judgement of condemnation. Rather it is discipline, sometimes in the form of sickness or physical death, "so that we may not be condemned!"
  3. Unworthy eating and drinking is about sharing communion "without discerning the body," which the context helps us see has to do with care for fellow brothers and sisters (see vv.17-22). It does not mean "taking communion while there is sin in your life."
It seems to me that (a) there is no clear message here about whether or not unbelievers should receive communion; and (b) there is no clear word here about when or if someone should be denied communion because of sin in their life. To be sure, there is a link between sin and "discerning the body": failing to discern the body is a particular sin. Yet we cannot view "unworthy eating" as eating when there is sin in your life. This is not what Paul is talking about, and if we're honest, who could then eat in a worthy manner?

What about 1 Corinthians 10? Do we get anywhere there?

The key point in this passage (esp. vv.14-22) is that sharing in the Lord's Supper is something. It is not that the bread or wine is anything in itself (see v.19), but drinking the cup and partaking of the table is a sharing in the body and blood of Christ. The act is something, something that means it cannot go along with partaking of the table of demons. "You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons... Or are we provoking the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?"

There is a clear assumption here and in chapter 11 that it is Christians who share in the Lord's Supper. However, it seems to me that the question of whether unbelievers might share communion is simply not addressed. To be sure, there will be consequences if they are simultaneously partaking of the table of the Lord and the table of demons, or if they are not discerning the body. Yet for the unbeliever, who comes in ignorance, can we really assume these consequences will be negative?

Likewise it appears to me that the question of sin and discipline and exclusion from communion is more complicated than we might have thought. There seems to be no indication whatsoever that there should be any judgement done other than self judgement (11:31). Have we made a mistake in linking sharing in communion too closely with church membership, so that to "expel the immoral brother" (5:13), we have to exclude them from the Lord's Supper and so, perhaps, deny its basic character as a meal of grace?

Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Discipline and The Lord's Supper

Over on Faith and Theology, Kim Fabricius has posted a great hymn which has occassioned some interesting discussion. The issue raised there is the extent to which exclusion from the Lord's Supper is really an appropriate method of church discipline, or whether it actually undermines the logic of that sacrament.

Sunday, 11 February 2007

The New Testament and the Word of God - Part I

Christian faith is dependent on the idea that God speaks, that God communicates with people, revealing himself and his works. Christian thought has traditionally identified that speech as Scripture, and this identification has become perhaps the most distinctive mark of evangelical Christianity today. The evangelical position is driven by the conviction that God himself speaks in the Scriptures, that what Paul says of “all Scripture” in 2 Timothy 3.16 is true of the whole Bible, that the Scriptures are “inspired” by God. This series aims to investigate the structure and meaning of this conviction in relation to the New Testament. In the first part of the series I intend to address the rationale and structure behind this understanding of Scripture: why it is right to understand the New Testament as the word of God. In the second part I hope to discuss the meaning of this conclusion: what it means for scripture to be the word of God.

The evangelical understanding of Scripture is based on the apostles and their authoritative witness to God’s work in Jesus. Their witness is authoritative because it was an authorised witness. The apostles were authorised by Jesus to be his witnesses. This authorisation is central to the accounts of Jesus’ appearances to his disciples after his resurrection. They were to be his witnesses to all nations (Matt. 28:16-20; Lk. 24:47-48; Jn 20:21). This witness was to be under the teaching and in the power of the Holy Spirit, who had been promised by Jesus before his death and after his resurrection (Jn 14:26; 16:12-13; Acts 1:8), and who was sent by the ascended Lord to his church (Jn 20:21; Acts 2:1-33). Jesus envisaged people coming to believe in in him through this apostolic witness (Jn 17:20). This comissioning as authorised witnesses was acknowledged by the apostles (e.g. Acts 5:32). Although in a different position, divine authorisation was also central to the apostle Paul’s conviction of his vocation to bring the gospel to the gentiles (Rom. 1:1-6; 16:25-26; 1 Cor. 11:23; 2 Cor. 2:17; 5:18-21; Gal. 1:12, 16; Col. 1:25; 1 Thess. 2:4, 13; 2 Tim. 1:11; Tit. 1:1-3).

The apostles’ witness is authoritative also because of the unique relationship of the apostles to Jesus: they were eyewitnesses. The significance of this unique relationship is noted both by John (1 Jn 1:1-5) and Luke (Lk. 1:1-4). It was this unique knowledge of Jesus that put the apostles in a position to testify to him, and so they were authorised for that task. They were to commanded by Jesus to testify because they had been with him from the beginning (Jn 15:26-7). The apostles were the authorised witnesses to Jesus. Their testimony to Jesus is the apostolic gospel.

Within the New Testament it is clear that from the beginning this authorised apostolic testimony to Jesus, the apostolic gospel, was received by the early church and recognised by the apostles themselves as the word of God. The Thessalonians received Paul’s testimony “not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word” (1 Thess. 2:13); the word of faith proclaimed by the apostles stands beside the word of God in the Law that “is near you” (Rom. 10:8); Paul expects anyone who has spiritual powers to acknowledge, “that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:37-8); Paul and his companions are not “peddlers of God’s word” (2 Cor. 2:17); and Peter writes that, “You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God,” which “is the gospel that was announced to you” (1 Pet. 1:23-25) and says that the commandment of Jesus was “spoken through your apostles” (2 Pet. 3:2). Thus the written letters of the apostle rightly demand obedience (2 Thess. 2:15; 3:14). The apostolic proclamation of Jesus is not simply a human word, but a divine word with divine authority.
See also the numerous references to the spread of the gospel in the book of Acts, where the message is frequently identified with the word of God: 4:4; 6:7; 8:4, 14; 13:26, 49; 14:3; 15:7; 20:32. The paradigm of understanding scripture associated with Karl Barth, which emphasises that Jesus is the Word of God and sees the New Testament as primarily a witness to this word, can run the risk of not doing justice to this powerful testimony within the New Testament of the apostolic gospel being regarded as the word of God (this point is well made by Peter Jensen in The Revelation of God). While defending the crucial point that Jesus preeminently reveals God, this paradigm tends to unhappily distance the New Testament documents from the category of “word of God" somewhat. The right balance is struck by Oliver O’Donovan: “Scripture is not the first moment of God’s self-announcement; that is the historical deeds themselves by which he raised up Israel and Jesus. But neither is it a moment after God’s self-announcement, a retrospective commentary that could be peeled away, leaving the core intact. Scripture is, we may say, God’s administration of his self-announcement, the record he has authorised to it and the seal he has set on it to confirm that it is true.”

The apostolic gospel is the word of God. An evangelical understanding of the New Testament flows directly from this recognition, for the New Testament is the definitive exposition of the apostolic gospel. Two things must be said by way of explanation.

First, the apostolic gospel is the core content of the New Testament. The naming of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as “gospels” rightly reflects their core content. They are written proclamations of “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1), apostolic witness to the person and work of Jesus (Lk. 1:1-3; Jn 20:30-31). The book of Acts is the record of how “with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,” and central to it is the record of special moments of this apostolic witness (e.g. Acts 2:14-42; 3:11-26; 4:8-12; 7:1-53; 8:26-40; 10:34-43; 13:16-41; 16:22-31; 24:10-21; 26:2-23). Similarly, explanation of the gospel is central to the letters sent by the apostles to the earliest churches.
This is not as straightforwardly evident as it is with the book of Acts and the Gospels. However, Paul’s ministry of “defence and confirmation of the gospel,” is clearly reflected in his letters. He is an apostle “set apart for the gospel of God” (Rom. 1:1), and his words to the churches are flooded with references to this message. At a number of points, especially at the openings of letters, these references are explicit and sometimes extended (e.g. Rom. 1:1-5, 16-3:31; 1 Cor. 15:1-8; Gal. 3:23-4:7; Eph. 1:3-2:22; Phil. 2:6-11; Col. 1:15-23; 2 Tim. 2:8). We can imagine Paul saying of his letters as well as his ministry, “woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” Similar things can be said of the later epistles (see e.g. 1 Pet. 1:3-9; 1 John 1:1-10). Likewise, the exhortations of the book of Hebrews are based on lengthy exposition of the meaning of Jesus’ work; and the Book of Revelation echoes with praise to God for what he has done in Jesus (e.g. 5:9-10; 11:15-18).

Second, however, it is obvious that many parts of the New Testament are not just straightforward statements of the gospel. The book of Acts is also concerned to document important moments in the history of the early church; and the letters are concerned with a range of issues, from household codes and community organisation to circumcision. Yet, these wider concerns are not incidental to the gospel, but an integral part of it. They are the “Therefore” that flows from the cry of “Blessed!” at the work of God in Christ (e.g. 1 Pet. 1:3, 13). Appeals to the work of Christ in the context of instruction reveal the organic connection between the gospel and its implications (e.g. 2 Cor. 8:9; Tit. 2:11-14). The apostolic gospel was wider than a simple statement. It was the testimony to how God had worked in Jesus, which had profound implications for every aspect of life. It required elaboration. Proclaiming the gospel innevitably entailed its application in the real lives of those individuals and communities that accepted it. Testifying to the gospel meant teaching of its implications. So the apostle Paul proclaims Christ, and this means “admonishing” and “teaching” (Col. 1:28). The New Testament is the authoritative “expansion and interpretation” of its “decisive and central confession.”
This broader understanding of the apostolic task of witnessing to mean the application of the gospel to the early church was reflected in the broader commission the apostles received. They were commissioned, fundamentally, to testify to Jesus, but this would entail a broad range of activities. Amongst other things it would mean: “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28.20); binding and loosing (Matt. 16.18-19); forgiving and retaining sins (Jn 20.23); and judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt. 19.28; Lk. 22.30). Essentially, that is, the apostles were authorised by Jesus, not just to proclaim the message, but also to guide the church. They were to make disciples, and to teach them and lead them. Within the New Testament, this broader commissioning is reflected in apostolic “commands of the Lord” relating to church practice (e.g. 1 Cor. 14.37-38; 2 Pet. 3.2; 1 Cor. 7.25; ); and it is the basis for exhortations to hold to apostolic “instruction” and maintain a “standard of sound teaching” (Rom. 16.17; 1 Tim. 6.13-14, 20; 4.6, 11; 2 Tim. 1.13-14; 2 Jn 9-11). The gospel entailed instruction. But this apostolic instruction was not separate from the message; rather, it was part and parcel of their commissioning to be Jesus’ witnesses – it was the practical content of the message of reconciliation with which they had been entrusted.

The New Testament derives its authority from its connection to the gospel. As Oliver O’Donovan comments, “At the centre of the biblical message is an announcement of what God has done in history – “when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son…” (Galatians 4:4) – and in that announcement all the authority of the biblical texts finds its source." The source of authority is there, because, as Christian experience attests, in that announcement, God himself addresses us. Yet it is not just this central announcement that should be regarded as the word of God, but also the wider teachings that flow organically from this centre. O'Donovan, again: “The New Testament is the totality of what this eyewitness generation was given to tell us about God’s work in Jesus, just as Peter’s famous sentence (“You are the Christ”) is the centre of it.” So the implication in 2 Peter 3:15-16 that Paul’s letters are Scripture is to be welcomed, along with the assertion that “all Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Tim. 3:16). The New Testament is to be received as the word of God because it is the definitive record of the uniquely authoritative apostolic proclamation and explanation of the gospel.