Thursday, 25 August 2016

Richard A. Muller’s Forthcoming Book on Providence

How exciting! I’ve just discovered that Richard Muller has a book on providence coming out at the beginning of 2017. (I could have done with this in 2007, but anyway . . .)

Rather than cut ’n’ pasting blurb from the publisher’s website as I normally do for these sorts of things, I thought I’d show you how technologically adept I am by using Microsoft’s Snipping Tool instead. Hopefully it will work out fine. If it doesn’t, I’ll revert to my old ways.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

A New Biography of Søren Kierkegaard

Imagine my surprise this morning when I received through the post, quite unexpectedly, a new biography of Søren Kierkegaard and a jute bag adorned with the Danish philosopher’s face!

I can only assume that I have been sent the biography (though perhaps not the jute bag) to review, and so review it I shall in due course. In the meantime, here are some of the details about the biography (not the jute bag) from the accompanying press release:

Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016

Søren Kierkegaard lived an extraordinary life. His story is filled with romance and betrayal, family curses against God and acts of grace toward others, humor, drama, quiet observations, and riot-inducing polemics. He died in the midst of his fierce “attack upon Christendom”: alone, misunderstood, and infamous.

[. . .]

The Danish philosopher, theologian, social critic, and writer is now widely recognized as one of the world’s most profound writers and thinkers. His influence on philosophy, literature, and on secular and religious life and thought is incalculable. He is known, amongst other things, as “the father of existentialism” and as the man who introduced the ideas of anxiety and the leap of faith to the modern imagination.

[. . .]

His attack on Christianized nationalism helped inspire the pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer to resist the Nazis. He has inspired novelists such as Mann and Kafka and poets like Eliot and Auden.

Yet one is hard pressed to find a biography that explains simply what Kierkegaard’s life was like or gives a straightforward overview of his books . . . until now.

Kierkegaard: A Single Life highlights the interesting and controversial aspects of Kierkegaard’s life, telling a story that few today know, and provides brief, straightforward overviews of his key works.

The biography is endorsed by a number of significant names, including Rowan and Jane Williams, Stanley Hauerwas, and William T. Cavanaugh.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Who Acts in Worship? A Brief Critique of Worship as Self-expression

What are we doing when we worship? If anything, we are responding to what God has already done for us in Jesus Christ. Our triune God is active in the sacraments, in the Word, and even—yes, I’ll say this, somewhat guardedly—even in our singing if it proves to be a place of genuine encounter between God and Christians. True worship is a participation in the life of the triune God, where the Holy Spirit leads us to the Father through Jesus (cf. Eph. 2:18). Our liturgies, however structured, however informal, are God’s action: it is God who acts in the sacraments and God who acts in the Word. I don’t believe that participants in liturgy are passive recipients as such; while we contribute nothing to God’s action, we still actively respond (by the Spirit) to God’s gracious calling. But the emphasis of worship is on God—not on us, but on God.

James K. A. Smith builds on this train of thought. The primary actor in worship is the triune God; if it is not, then the primary actor is me, and worship becomes little more than self-expression where I declare how devoted I am to God. The important thing here, Smith notes, is that worship must be sincere and novel: ‘If I worship in order to show God how much I love him, I might start to feel hypocritical if I just keep doing the same thing over and over and over again.’ (James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016), p. 75). Thus anything that approximates to ‘traditional’ worship is regarded as poor or inauthentic or even as ‘works righteousness’ that tries ‘to “earn” God’s favor’ (p. 76). The problem here, as Smith recognises, is that ‘the worship-as-expression paradigm makes us the primary actors in worship [and] breeds its own kind of bottom-up valorization of human striving that slides closer to works righteousness’ (p. 77, emphasis original).


But if worship is not about me expressing my love and commitment for God, what is it? Smith continues,

Instead of the bottom-up emphasis on worship as our expression of devotion and praise, historic Christian worship is rooted in the conviction that God is the primary actor or agent in the worship encounter. Worship works from the top down, you might say. In worship we don’t just come to show God our devotion and give him our praise; we are called to worship because in this encounter God (re)makes and molds us top-down. Worship is the arena in which God recalibrates our hearts, reforms our desires, and rehabituates our loves. Worship isn’t just something we do; it is where God does something to us. Worship is the heart of discipleship because it is the gymnasium in which God retrains our hearts. (p. 77, emphasis original).

Is it possible that the common but implicit identification of worship with singing fosters an understanding of worship as self-expression? If so, is it time to place less emphasis on the songs, even the hymnody, and focus instead on the psalmody? Or will even this lead to self-expressionism?

Thursday, 4 August 2016

The Experiences and Psychology Behind My Academic Study of Providence

Warning: navel-gazing ahead!

Of all the theological topics that could possibly be studied, why have I chosen to focus on the doctrine of providence? Questions about divine predetermination and God’s providence have always interested me, at least since I came to faith in my early teens. And so I suppose it was only natural that I gravitated towards essay questions on election, determinism, and the like when I studied theology as a university undergraduate—and the advantage of studying at King’s College London under Colin Gunton et al. was that I was introduced to Karl Barth’s distinctive take on election almost immediately. But the wider question remains: Why have these sorts of questions always interested me? It’s a truism to say that no theology is developed within a vacuum; context is important and influential. And it’s difficult to analyse steps taken or attitudes that date back almost thirty years. But in my attempt here to do just this, I have detected a possible pattern that could explain why the doctrine of providence continues to intrigue me.

Fundamentally, providence is about God’s provision—and provision has been a big issue for me. While my tween- and teenage years weren’t especially harrowing, I did have a parent who often ignored the harsher realities of life. Our kitchen drawers were stuffed with unpaid bills; we prized fifty pence pieces for the electricity, gas, and even television metres; and we lived continuously with the threat of bailiffs, who occasionally came and removed things from our council house. And I very often missed school on Monday mornings because I had to wait for Mum to get her unemployment benefit so we could buy some breakfast. The usual weekly pattern was for Mum to use at least half her benefit to repay neighbours the money that we had borrowed from them the previous week—a cycle that lead us to borrow again from them later in the same week. By the time I reached eighteen and began to study my A Levels (I didn’t move straight from secondary school to further education), my circumstances had changed so I could make a point of providing for myself—though, regrettably, such self-provision occasionally included my manipulation of others to provide for me. These days, my state of affairs has vastly improved, and I am far from any situation that would render me or my family hungry, homeless, or impoverished. Given the economic climate, who knows what will happen in even a year or two? But for now, my life is far more comfortable than it was back in the eighties and nineties.

That said, I still fear situations where I detect a lack of provision for me. Well, ‘fear’ is probably too strong a word, but I am often apprehensive of social situations where I am not in control or a major contributor to what is expected to happen. So, for example, for typical church bring ’n’ share lunches, I tend to bring my own sandwiches because I can’t guarantee that the food on offer will be free from tomatoes (*shudder*) and/or mayonnaise (*double shudder*). And I feel the need to bring my own drinks because I drink neither tea nor coffee, and, as a diabetic, I shouldn’t drink fruit juice. Now all this might make me seem overly fussy or even precious, but a relatively high level of self-provision in these sorts of social situations is very important for me; in general, I don’t feel I can rely on other people to supply exactly what I believe I need; and, rightly or wrongly, I am connecting my present idiosyncrasies to my predominantly teenage experiences.

Now why am I indulging in such public self-absorption? Believe me, I haven’t listed as many details as I could—you should thank me for sparing you from these! But I can’t help but wonder if my interest in matters of predestination and providence are intertwined with my perceived need to provide for myself. If my behaviour has been and continues to be shaped by an assumption that I have to provide for myself because I can’t rely on anyone else, then the doctrine of providence, with its emphasis on God’s provision for humanity, is certainly going to be of interest. Does God provide everything? Does God provide some things but expect me to provide other things? Does God provide nothing other than, say, resources for me to provide for myself? These questions are not disconnected from my experience, it seems, and I think it’s telling that my research has attended more to God’s self-provision for the world in Jesus Christ than in God’s specific provision for individuals à la John Calvin. Moreover, there are matters addressed by the doctrine of providence that also resonate with my experiences and psychology. I struggle with a perception that if someone else is good at something, then I cannot be any good at that same thing—it’s a kind of zero-sum game. If someone publishes an essay on providence espousing a view I disagree with, then it is me who is obviously holding the wrong view and not the other person. And my published research on providence has often focussed on issues pertaining to the supposed zero-sum relation between God and creation, where God and creatures are seen in competition. Thus a link between my research interests, my experiences, and my psychology is highly probable—and I would go so far as to say that other scholars’ research interests are rooted far more in their experiences and psychologies than is commonly articulated.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

inScripturations #11: 1 Samuel 11:2a


(There’s some good raw material in 1 Samuel, though I suspect I’m a little late to the party with this one . . .)

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Keeping Up Appearances in 1 Samuel 16:5-12

1 Samuel 16:5b-7 says:

And [Samuel] sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

But shortly afterwards (16:11-12), we read:

Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.”

So the Lord doesn’t look take appearances into account, but the text seems to make a point of saying how handsome is David. How should we understand this?

One commentary notes, ‘Appearance may not be what counts for God’s choice, but the text almost seems to delight in saying that he could be handsome anyway. “This is the one!” God declares (v. 12b). This handsome one must also be the one with the heart to be God’s anointed.’ The same commentary goes on to suggest:

The irony of this text is that when David appears, he, too, is handsome. This text does not argue against our efforts to make ourselves, our communities, our programs attractive. It is a question of priorities. Appearance alone is no substitute for matters of the heart, but if we tend faithfully to matters of the heart, the grace of God within will often show an attractive face to the world.

Bruce C. Birch, ‘The First and Second Books of Samuel: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections’, in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, edited by Leander E. Keck et al. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998), vol. 2, pp. 947–1383 (pp. 1099, 1100)

King David wrote many lovely psalms.
I can appreciate the sentiment, but this explanation seems to take with one hand what it gives by the other. As Birch says, it’s almost as though the text delights in David’s appearance; the only thing David doesn’t seem to have is a kitten and a fireman outfit. Now what I’m going to say isn’t anything earth-shattering, but it seems to me that even though the Lord reveals to Samuel that God sees the heart and ignores external appearances, the narrator of this passage could not help but note the external appearances because the narrator is not God! So the tension between 16:5b-7 and 16:11-12 is not a contradiction but a difference in perspective because those responsible for the text of 1 Samuel retained the boundary between their editorial work and the narrator. It is the narrator and not God who makes the comment about David’s good looks.

So I’m not convinced by Birch’s explanation when he applies the passage to church programmes and similar. If anything, the passage could elicit almost an opposite interpretation—that because appearances don’t truly matter to God, we, our communities, our programmes don’t need to look attractive, either. I’m not sure this holds. But what we do have in the passage is a description of David, a man who looks every inch a monarch and looks as though he conforms to the stereotype, but who then goes on to be a completely different kind of king and leader to what everyone else was expecting.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

One Bad Pig’s New Album: Love You to Death

In the very early 1990s, One Bad Pig was my favourite band. And their 1990 album, Swine Flew, remains a classic CCM recording (at a time when not all CCM was σκύβαλον) that still holds up fairly well today. A short while ago, I was pleased to hear that the Pig were recording some new songs, and these are now available on Amazon.com and iTunes as Love You to Death.

As a teenager, I would have gone out and bought Love You to Death without a second thought. These days, I rarely buy or download full-length albums without first listening to the samples on either Amazon or iTunes. And I have to say, nostalgia isn’t enough to make me download the whole of Love You to Death. What continues to appeal about much of the Pig’s early material is the sheer sense of fun and anarchy (see the YouTube video below) that comes through the music. But on hearing the samples, Love You to Death seems desperately trying to recapture a formula that no longer works almost thirty years on. That said, one track did stand out: Sunday Skool Rawk, a pleasingly raucous medley of old-time Sunday school tracks that descends into the aural silliness of old.

I will listen to the iTunes previews a few more times to see if any of the other tracks eventually grab my attention; but Sunday Skool Rawk will do for now.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Is There a Need for a Trinitarian Theology of Providence?

In a recent article, Alexander Pierce argues for an explicitly trinitarian theology of providence, that is, a theology of providence that recognises both that the economic operations of the triune God are undivided (e.g., creation is the work of the Trinity) but appropriated where necessary to a specific divine person (e.g., creation is appropriated to God the Father). In his conclusion, Pierce offers ‘two explicit axioms’ of this approach:

(1) The triunity of the Christian God necessarily shapes Christian doctrine: Specifically, this model provides resources to enhance the generically monotheistic accounts most often put forth concerning divine providence; in contrast to these standard considerations, divine activity in the world, on the part of the Christian, needs to be considered in terms of God’s tripersonal identity.

(2) The providential activity of the eternal and omniscient God encompasses his election and creation: Providence is not merely the action God takes once he elects and creates, but instead comprises all divine activity ad extra, for the eternality of God does not fit with a temporal sequencing of divine activity that suggests he is merely figuring things out as he goes along.

Alexander H. Pierce, ‘Opera Trinitatis ad Extra Tanquam Providentia Dei: A Dogmatic Adumbration of God’s Teleological Triune Activity’, Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 33:2 (2015), pp. 163–172 (p. 172)

The general thrust of Pierce’s article is that the trinitarian shape of divine providence emerges as we consider the story of the triune God’s dealings with creation, from the act of creatio ex nihilo (God the Father) to sanctification and eschatological communion (God the Holy Spirit) via redemption and reconciliation (God the Son). Pierce writes,

The perfect communion of mutual love and glory between the triune God and his sanctified creation quite literally is the raison d’être of all operationes externae trinitatis. Divine providence is in its broadest form this all-encompassing enactment of God’s plan to bring about his end for creation. (p. 171)

This is fair enough; and, to indulge in a spot of shameless self-promotion, I argued along similar lines in my Providence Made Flesh (it’s an international bestseller in an alternate universe, you know), contending that the entire biblical narrative needs to be taken more seriously when describing providence. But Pierce also comments,

Despite the recent proliferation of theological reflection on the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of providence has remained nearly unaffected. In many cases the questions of contemporary theology have set the terms of theological inquiry rather than the normative formulations of ancient Christianity. However, the expository task of theology must be undertaken before apologetic concerns are satisfied. (p. 171)

I empathise with Pierce here, insofar as the Church should be able to articulate a theology of providence on its own terms—presumably a doctrine of the triune God’s gracious and faithful (self-)provision for the benefit of creation—rather than formulate one solely apologetic in intent (one that, for example, attempts to explain why good things happen to bad people—and yes, I did put it that way). But to say that ‘the doctrine of providence has remained nearly unaffected’ by recent reflection on trinitarian doctrine is surely overstating things; I suppose much hangs on what Pierce means by ‘nearly unaffected’. There are significant voices out there, from Karl Barth to John Webster and Charles Wood (and dare I add my own to the list?), who certainly account for providence in trinitarian terms.

But there are another couple of questions here; they might prove to be silly questions, but they’re ones I want to ask. First, if Pierce is right to say (as he does and as he is) that ‘the doctrine of providence encompasses all divine activity in the Creator-creature relationship’ (p. 163), then how far does the Church actually need to articulate a doctrine of providence at all? Its teachings on creation, redemption, reconciliation, sanctification, and eschatological communion, taken together, testify to God’s providential action—thus making providence more of an adjective to describe God’s action and not a doctrine per se. And secondly, if the doctrine of providence does encompass all divine activity ad extra, then this divine activity takes place within a fallen, sinful world; so what would a doctrine of providence actually look like were it to be exposited apart from apologetic concerns? On the basis of what Pierce has argued, it seems that eschatological communion requires a fall, which implies (and possibly strongly so) that apologetic concerns must lie at the heart of the doctrine of providence—if only because the emphasis is not so much on triune divine activity as such, but on how the triune God of providence wills to act towards the world.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Pride and Privilege

This photo appeared on my Facebook wall this morning. It has been produced by Conservative Post, a seemingly US-based news outlet whose mission (according to its Facebook page) is ‘to spread Conservative values [presumably US Conservative values] to the world’. Not so long ago, I would have read the captions on this picture and nodded in silent agreement. I wouldn’t deny anyone the right or the opportunity to be ‘proud’ of who they are, but for me—a white, cisgendered, and probably middle-class (with working-class roots, I hasten to add) man—well, I shouldn’t need to be made to feel ashamed of who I am. I should be ‘proud’ to be white, straight, and male! But these days a picture such as this one makes me uncomfortable. This is how I now perceive the background that leads to the expression of this kind of sentiment:

  • white people (especially white men) have held positions of power and privilege for centuries;
  • the world, for better or for worse, is arguably more aware of difference and alterity these days;
  • along with this awareness comes a desire to treat differences equally and/or fairly;
  • the elevation (intentional or otherwise) of those who had been in low(er) social positions to high(er) social positions is an effect of this desire;
  • those who had been in power (and who, for the most part, are still in power) are now threatened by such social elevation, for it presumes and warrants the sharing of power and privilege;
  • and this results in the perceived disenfranchisement of those who are, in reality, still in power.

I don’t know how fair this account is—I suspect that for the Conservative Post and similarly minded folk, this will simply be a laughably unconvincing analysis (though I would want to stress that what I’ve written above is hardly an analysis worthy of the name). But it’s a framework for understanding issues of privilege that makes sense to me. And, of course, it doesn’t just apply to matters of race or ethnicity—it relates to gender, disability, and probably a whole load of other things that I haven’t even noticed, let alone begun to appreciate.

I wanted to write something against this photo and the sentiment it expresses. I can understand it; but these days, I cannot see how the distribution of a captioned photo such as this one helps to promote peace in our fractured world. In my view, Christians, in all their diversity, need to stand against these sorts of attitudes because the body of Christ is not and cannot be homogeneous.