The notion of “prophecy”

“The notion of “prophecy,” as this is understood by various generations of readers (1 Thess 5:19) does not accord with a widespread and popular view today.  Many today regard this in either of two ways which partly diverge from mainline tradition.  Some regard prophecy primarily as predictions of the future; others adopt the classical Pentecostal sense of viewing prophecy as a spontaneous, staccato-like, pronouncement made from within a congregation.  Thomas Gillespie, and others argue that, by contrast, it often constitutes pastoral, applied preaching which conveys the gospel.

This view can be found “throughout the centuries” as the normal interpretation among the church fathers, Aquinas, Calvin, John Wesley, James Denney and many others.  Ambrosiaster and Augustine see “prophecy” as explanatory exposition of scripture (Augustine, On the Psalms 76.4; NPNF1 8.361).  Thomas Aquinas asserts that “prophesying” (1 Thess 5:19) “may be understood as divine doctrine . . . Those who explain doctrine are called prophets . . . ‘Do not despise preachers'” (Commentary, 52).

Calvin declares, “Prophecy means the art of interpreting scripture” (60).  Estius insists that it does not mean “private interpretation” (Commentarius, 2.592).  Matthew Henry remarks, “By prophecyings here we understand the preaching of the word, the interpreting and applying of the scriptures” (Concise Commentary on 1 Thess 5:19-20).  John Wesley writes, “Prophecyings, that is preaching (Notes, 694).  James Denney says of the prophet, “He was a Christian preacher” (Thessalonians, 239).  Such an army of witnesses might suggest that further thought is needed, before we readily endorse either of these two more popular views of what 1 Thess. 5:19 and similar passages mean about “prophecy.”

Introduction, pg. 5-6


I Suffer Not A Man To Suffer Not A Woman To Teach

There are some verses in the bible that have been read as culturally time-bound and therefore limited in scope and application.  Others have been interpreted as timeless, and therefore interpreted as timeless (see here)!  1 Timothy 2:9-15 is one such passage, a complex passage in the Greek, that has fallen foul of the hermeneutical confusion that befalls some categories of the church, notably the American holiness movement, and various other ‘complimentarian’ groupings.

Throughout church history, i.e. traditionally, these verses have been read as a universal code for female decorum and then applied generally to women everywhere!  This has determined what some women have worn as jewelry, how they did their hair and what clothes they wore, etc.

The inevitable consequence of this has been a restriction of women’s role within the church.  The Reformer’s varied slightly on this:  Luther offered women the privilige of leadership by way of exception in times of necessity (which was generous of him); Calvin and Knox were adamantly against women in any kind of ministerial role.  They each show their hand in awful ways:  Knox in a nasty little title: First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, and Calvin who wrote that women are “by nature born to obey men.”  Calvin and Knox make Luther’s offer look quite lovely!

That these verses have been used like this to control, limit and restrict, seems quite unwarranted given the local circumstances that formed the context of Paul’s writings here.  But to be clear from the start, it is always a Christian ideal for women to present themselves in modesty and propriety, but it is no less the same for men too!  The trouble is, we now equate these verses with not only a bullying use of power and control, but it also looks too much like a tame but rigid 1050’s American Evangelicalism.  Truth is, men too easily use power and force.  The desire to dominate is to be avoided by women and men.  Humility in service is the responsibility of both sexes.

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The Belly-god

bb-header-logo4The funny guys over at Babylon Bee have hit on a Forsythian nerve of mine.  The headline ‘Half of Congregation Dies Of Starvation As Sermon Goes 15 Minutes Over Time‘ is brilliant satire, as are almost all of their other articles; a much welcome relief to the tedium of seriousness we Protestants can so easily find ourselves caught up in.

My first thought upon reading it was to think that the people in this satirical church were dying of starvation precisely because too many sermons are woeful in their duration, content and depth;  and secondly, remembering two theological giants famous for, among many other things, their preaching.

The first, John Stott, metaphorically places the nail underneath the hammer:

John_stott“Basically, it is not the length of a sermon which makes the congregation impatient for it to stop, but the tedium of a sermon in which even the preacher himself appears to be taking very little interest.”

And secondly, in the context of a favourite of mine, the theological giant that is P. T. Forsyth, I remembered his particularly penetrating and thoroughly uncompromising assessment of the situation, as the metaphorical hammer comes down and hits the nail on the head with astonishing accuracy:

blueforsyth-5“With its preaching Christianity stands or falls… The demand for short sermons on the part of Christian people is one of the most fatal influences to destroy preaching in the true sense of the word… Brevity may be the soul of wit, but the preacher is not a wit.  And those who say they want little sermons because they are happy to worship God and not hear man, have not grasped the rudiments of the first idea of Christian worship…. A Christianity of short sermons is a Christianity of short fibre.”

The problem is that we think we’ve cornered the market on short-attention spans, so trapped in a lifestyle that we’ve chosen of instant news feeds, permanent social media harassment, portable offices that beep, flash and ping every few seconds – we call these things “mobile phones”, we must be so important in the cosmic scheme of things, that we choose not to think deeply about a lot of things, we demand to be entertained; and when we are called to think, we think thinking is time-wasting and unproductive!  I mean, doesn’t that pillock-in-the-pulpit know how distracted I am?

pt5bn7qtbIs the preacher the equivalent to the Medieval Court Jester?  Singing the sermon-songs that seek attention and promise entertaining aka Robbie Williams?  Who wouldn’t prefer Raunchy Robbie to Preachy Richy?  What chance do I have?  Let me entertain you; must I entertain you?  Do you need entertaining?  Why do you need entertaining?  Why me?  Why you?  Why here?  Why now?  Why?

Manure!  These guys, Forsyth and Stott and gazzillions of other unnamed faithful, preached at length twice on Sundays, with many people being present at both, as well as mid-week meetings that actually included exegetical study and exposition of the biblical text (admittedly the TV wasn’t so good back then), but still!

Now, may I get a little theological here?  If Stott’s comment is the reason for Forsyth’s comment (even though Stott was a generation after Forsyth – stay with me), then my goodness, preach a short sermon and get it over with – put us all out of our bored and hunger fuelled misery.  Forsyth also said that a bad short sermon is also a sermon that is too long.

Just preach well preachers.

Just eat well before church if you can.  Even our belly-god knows when our spirit is being fed and our hearts warmed by the food that is Christ proclaimed.  For we do not live on bread alone…..

They Never Will Care

They Never Will Care

PeterTForsythA student (of Forsyth) was sent to preach in a comfortable suburban chapel, and whose route. . . . took him through one of the worst slums in London.

“The sight of barefoot children in sordid alleyways, and all the other signs of deprivation, incensed him to an anger which he could not contain as he faced his furred and feathered congregation from the pulpit.

Waxing eloquent on social justice he recalled to his hearers what he had seen, and being met with a sea of complacent faces he blurted out:  ‘You don’t care, do you?  Damn you!’

Next morning, he found himself . . . . in Principal Forsyth’s study.  Forsyth was holding in his hand a letter of complaint from the church officers, and for several minutes the student was subjected to a stern lecture on proper pulpit behaviour.

Eventually dismissed, the hapless young prophet was just going through the door when Forsyth called out to him:  ‘Oh, just one word more, Mr …..  They never will care, you know – damn them!'”

Keith Clements, P. T. Forsyth: A Political Theologian? in Justice and the Only Mercy, Trevor Hart, pg. 146-7


Preaching: A word from elsewhere

thebible_brueggeman_theologian“I heard a Rabbi say not long ago, that Christian pastors have ruined the life of a Rabbi, because a Rabbi is a scholar and a preacher; but Christian pastors are social workers and therapists and a bunch of managers, and now people in his synagogue expect him to do that!

I would think that preachers – I think it’s exceedingly difficult – but I think that preachers have to decide what the main tasks are and practise enormous self-discipline about not being drawn away to do other things that do not properly belong to the ministry of Word and Sacrament….now you can’t do that completely…

But I believe that many preachers finally get around to their sermon in their fatigue from everything else.  And if imagination is the key to good preaching, you cannot be imaginative when you’re exhausted! 

So I think it has to do with ordering ones priorities, for the sake of ones best energy.  And that, for many preachers, that means really deciding that this is the main task, and if you want the congregation to have missional energy and all of that, preaching is the pivot point for all of it.

If a pastor decides that, then a pastor is going to make more time for reading and study and prayer, which are the disciplines that cause the pastor to live, to some extent, in a different zone.  And if we are to bring a word from elsewhere, then we have to live to some extent, elsewhere, and I don’t think that’s very easy given the huge demands and expectations on most pastors.”

Walter Breuggemann

(You can see this short interview here)

Although this very short interview does not fully outline the task of preaching or pastoral care, as this was not Breuggemann’s point.  To my mind, he is suggesting that Christian ministry of any kind but especially that linked to Word and Sacrament, is less effective when conducted in the toxic atmosphere of fatigue.

The problem is that our toxic atmosphere of fatigue is also a toxic atmosphere of relentless activism (I wonder if there’s a link), so much so that we’ve made it a virtue, to the point where we feel guilty or feel compelled to express embarrassed justification when ‘caught’ reading a book – because when in-toxic-ated, we neither view nor value reading a book, or study, or even prayer as work!  

So although not all questions are answered here, what WB does remind us of, is the supreme importance that the Gospel subverts our common narrative and purifies the toxicity all around us and crucially, in us.  We need men and women called by God to Word and Sacrament, who are serving and feeding the Church from playful and thoughtful rest; playful and thoughtful study and playful and thoughtful prayer!

I don’t even know how to do it but I’m gonna die trying…..

Interview with British Theologian Rev. Dr. Derek Tidball

tidball_derek_dianneOn the 21st June 2015 Rev. Dr. Derek Tidball was the guest preacher at church, and you can listen to his sermon here.  Derek is a British theologian, sociologist of religion, former Principal of London School of Theology, retired Baptist minister and author of numerous books, the most recent one of which I have read is ‘Preacher, keep yourself from idols’, a very helpful reminder of the priorities for the minister/preacher!

After the service I had the privilege of sitting down with him in my study and asking him a few questions:

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