The Three Words

Christians hold a very high regard for the notion of ‘The Word of God’ and rightly so.  But it does seem to me at least, that we confuse categories and blur boundaries.

There are three Words:

  1. The Word that is Scripture
  2. The Word that is Christ
  3. The Word that is Preaching

Evangelicals (and I count myself among them – the UK ones at least) in particular are especially bound to such a high view of Scripture that they call it ‘inerrant’ and a ‘final authority.’  I think this often leads to a classic confusion of the written Word usurping the enfleshed Word, Christ.  It calls for great hermeneutical care to allow the three Words to be what they are in themselves, independent yet inter-related in very complex and subtle ways.

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Thinking About Theology

It’s always helpful to have working definitions of theology interacting with each other, rather than one, flat, bland and bloodless offering; a few definitions are floating around this blog somewhere or other!  Michael Jenson has got a great little book out called ‘How To Write a Theology Essay‘ designed to help new theological students write good essays.


His chapter titles suggest a keen focus on practicalities, such as ‘How not to lose heart before you start’, ‘What is a theology essay’ and ‘Types of argument for your essay’, among many other great short chapters.

I like his question:  ‘What is Theology in any case?’ and his response:

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Christian Community

LifeTogetherRe-reading Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I have been re-staggered by his sheer realism of Kingdom perspective.  Bonhoeffer is no religious hack mass producing religious visions of a utopian ideal – an ideal that only serves to wear thin before wearing out the Christian community.

“Innumerable times a whole Christian Community has been shattered because it has lived on the basis of a wishful image.”

Of course, he admits there are those who come in among the community with a definite image of what it should look like and what it should be, and lo and behold, they often have the plans to enable the community to get there!

“But God’s grace quickly frustrates all such dreams.  A great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves, is bound to overwhelm us as surely as God desires to lead us to an understanding of genuine Christian community.  By sheer grace God will not permit us to live in a dream world even for a few weeks and abandon ourselves to those blissful experiences and exalted moods that sweep over us like a wave of rapture.  For God is not a God of emotionalism, but the God of truth.”

The point is quite wonderful.  The genuine Christian community is one that sees, identifies, experiences all the garbage that goes with its own manufactured dreams and visions; its own “great disillusionments.”  The community that clings to man-made visions (even if they are wrapped up in religious language and presented with biblical texts), fails to recognise this inherent idolatry.  Such a community, or church, may look and sound like a religious gathering, may even be great at social action, and evangelism, but the die is cast:  “Sooner or later it is bound to collapse.”

“Every human idealised image that is brought into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be broken up so that the genuine community can survive.  Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself, become destroyers of that Christian community even though their intentions may be ever so honest, ernest, and sacrificial.”

n-BONHOEFFER-large570This is liberating news, it is good news.  The Church is not to succumb to man-made idolatries, nor is she to succumb to fads and gimmicks, visions and utopias that smooth out the necessity and urgency of being the Community of the Christian Church.  God will not be mocked!

“The bright day of Christian community dawns wherever the early morning mists of dreamy visions are lifting.”

Dreamy visions are an idolatrous plague on the Church, especially in the management controlled, targets obsessed West, because they become a means of assessment and measurement.  That is why we often count success in numbers attending, or by the state of the bank balance.  We are conditioned this way, and so we take it into church, devise plans and strategies, and so lose the heart beat of the Christian community.  Bonhoeffer reminds us, the Christian community is not measured by trendy techniques ripped from a secular world, but by the continuing, nurturing, profoundly simple act of thankfulness.

We cannot engineer the Kingdom of God among us.  Pity the fool who tries.  But what we can do is grow into the community by practise and communion.  We are all bent on a self-centred, self-serving, self-focused love.  It is precisely why we need saving.  But when we bring this into the community, unchecked by the Word of God, we masquerade as angels of light among our brothers and sisters, when in Kingdom reality, we are shadowy fools neither under-standing nor standing-under the Word of Christ.

“Christian community is not an ideal we have to realise, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate….In other words, a life together under the Word will stay healthy only when it does not form itself into a movement, an order, a society, a collegium pietatis (Association of Piety), but instead, understands itself as being a part of the one, holy, universal, Christian Church, sharing through its deeds and suffering in the hardships and struggles and promise of the whole church.”


“We hold fast in faith to God’s greatest gift, that God has acted for us all and wants to act for us all.  This makes us joyful and happy, but it also makes us ready to forego all such experiences if at times God does not grant them.  We are bound together by faith, not by experience.”


I Love the Bible

cadbury dairy milk marvellous mix-ups with maynards jelliesI love the Bible and I love preaching from the Bible.  Today alone I tried to prepare a sermon for Sunday.  I tried scattered prayer and random reading of various books.  I even ate a bag of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk ‘Marvellous Mix-Ups’ with Maynards (which were freakin delicious by the way), in the hope of some sugar-fuelled divine inspiration.


Until I opened my Bible and actually began reading the Word of God for itself.

P. T. Forsyth writes that the greatest reason why the preacher must return continually to the Bible is that the Bible is the greatest sermon in the world.

And I agree.  So much value does he place on preaching that he writes that with preaching, “Christianity stands or falls.”  But he adds what I think is a treasure beyond words for the one who preaches, since preaching “is the Gospel prolonging and declaring itself.”  Yes!  With preaching the revealed Word of God, Christianity stands or falls.

The Bible is not nationalist.  Although God’s purposes are worked out through that Old Testament rabble known as “Israel”, God is not a Semite, nor is He a Zionist, nor is he a nationalist – contrary to popular belief – which would be a fair point among some observers of the plight of some parts of Western Evangelicalism.  And for that, a fair critique could be levelled.

But as I said, the Bible is not nationalist, nor is it a history of Israel, but it is a history of redemption.  It is not the history of an idea, but of a long divine act.  Its unity is a dramatic unity of action, rather than an aesthetic unity of structure.  It is a living evolving unity, in a great historic crescendo.

It does not exist like a library in detached departments.  It has an organic and waxing continuity.  It is after all a book.  It is a library, but it is still more a canon.  You may regard it from some points as the crown of literature, for it contains both the question and the answer on which all great literature turns.

It is the book, as Christ is the Person, where the seeking God meets and saves the seeking man.


(with help from P. T. Forsyth and his ‘Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind’)

The Urgent Need for Biblical Literacy

At the turn of the 21st century, I studied the whole Bible over nine months.  It was the most dramatic and faith building event in my life up to that point.

Studying the Bible before studying any formal theology was a life-saver.  I have found that most (99%) theological colleges assume a certain amount of biblical literacy.  This is a monumental mistake.

Our advanced post-modern cultural situation is revealing that biblical literacy is at an all time low, whether a person is Christian or not.  This includes men and women going into Christian ministry.  Aside from the problems this inevitably creates among the ‘called’, it affects evangelism, in that, we can take nothing for granted in what people know of the Christian story.

We can’t assume anything, unlike a generation ago when there was a mental framework of sorts, at least some kind of rickety scaffhold people had with which to engage in Christian discussion or debate.

This creates a two-fold problem in our churches.  For if the minister/preacher isn’t at least high average competent in the entire story-line of the whole Bible, and if those listening to sermons are biblically illiterate post-moderns, the dumbing down, the milky wishy washy sermonising, the infantilizing, the cliche driven pop-culture rhetoric will become the dominant paradigm for how the church understands itself.

Thus, the Bible becomes a kind of Sunday School cartoon book with pictures to colour in.  I have never found a Sunday School that has taught the kids, for example, Job or Revelation.  But boy-o-boy have they done Jonah and the whale, David and Goliath, Daniel in the lions den, oh, and Noah and the flood – what a sweet story that is!

I won’t even mention the cherry-picking of Jesus stories in the Gospels!

I really do think it is that serious.  In a sad addition, we must also acknowledge the rampant immaturity in many churches, and that among the long-term, Christianese speaking, pillars of the community, who often show more passion over what type of music is played than whether heresy is being preached from the pulpit.

There are no short-cuts to speed our journey.  No gimmicks that will rescue us.  No silver bullet that will cure us.  There is no way round the simple fact that God’s people must know God’s word.  And to do that we need to read it; and read it again, and then some more and keep going.

It’s living and active – how can we tire of it?

How can we assume we’ve read all there is in it?

At what point do we think we are the finished product, schooled to perfection in the Bible, no longer needing it?

For the church not to be so easily derided by our critics: new atheism, secular society, suburban mediocrity, infantile fanatics, petty media, etc, we must be in the Word.

And by being in the Word, we are better able to confront Pharoah, Caesar, Empire.  Being in the Word, we are more likely to be confronted ourselves.  Confronted by a loving and holy God, perfect in beauty and awesome in majesty.  Being in the Word helps us, enables us, forces us to take the ruddy great plank out of our own eyes first.  Being in the word is being transformed.

By being in the Word, we are able to be biblically faithful and biblically prophetic as we give answer for the hope that we have.  It is prophetic, timely, mature, loving and relational.

There are no short-cuts.  We need feeding, God’s precious people need feeding, the world needs feeding.

Go on.  Pick up your Bible and read.


Killing the Pulpit

preaching-the-good-snoozePeter Taylor Forsyth refers to the Sacrament of the Word as the distinctly Protestant Sacrament that invests the pulpit with dignity.

In an 1885 sermon, he bemoaned the tendency of his age to depreciate the power of the spoken word.

He cites fellow preachers who bemoan their Sunday Sacramental duty, contemptuously attending to Sundays when they would rather be about their so-called “practical” work during the week!

And then he says this……

“And we are constantly pressed with the demand for short sermons.  I believe myself that short sermons are mostly themselves too long.  The man whose preaching is simply tolerated has no right to preach as long as ten minutes.  The man whose preaching is welcomed has no right to be as short as twenty.

We listen gladly to political speeches of an hour [and in our day we could add TV and cinema], and the reason is that we have an interest, amounting to a passion for the subject.  Let us have enough knowledge of the subject of religion [Christianity] as to choose only competent men for ministers, and let it be so real and passionate to us that we take pleasure in what our prophet or expositor has to say for an hour if he likes.

I don’t hint that all sermons should be an hour long.  But I do think short sermons are killing the pulpit and sending the people to the altar or platform.”

P.T.Forsyth, 1885 sermon entitled ‘The Pulpit and the Age’ in Jason Goroncy’s collection of Forsyth sermons entitled ‘Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History’ pg.134

The reason this caught my attention was the reference to the limited attention spans of (1885) Christians who hear preaching regularly.  Current educational methods espouse a whole range of styles that are designed to engage the weary listener and to keep them engaged [we genuinely do live in a short attention-span age and I think it is because of the celebrated fact of our information-saturation age].  Preaching has had a bad rap because it is now common parlance that preaching is nothing more than a monologue by a moron to mutes.  When preaching is the merely lame passing on of information, of facts, of “truths”, then we will reap a harvest of chaff and weed.

Bad preaching by a bad preacher to spiritual infants may make that crass statement true, but genuine biblical preaching, with a man or woman filled with the Spirit of God, after seriously engaging study and prayer, wrestling with the Word of the text for the people of God, a people who should come willing and expectant, is going to be alive with prophetic power enough to raise the dead.  Preaching is not about mere information, but confrontation and transformation; not information but wisdom.  Not good ideas for nice people, but God’s salvation plan for redeemed rebels.  Preaching is the sword that pierces our hearts too!

There is no place for boring sermons by boring preachers to bored people.  But there will always be a place for sermons preached by men and women called and equipped by God to preach the Word of God in a manner that is at once insightful, challenging, piercing and winsome, that the Church may be built up into the glorious likeness of Christ.


Prophets, Peace and Truth

The task of a prophet is not to smooth things over but to make things right.  The function of religion is not to make people feel good but to make them good.  Love?  Yes, God loves us.  But his love is passionate and seeks faithful, committed love in return.  God does not want tame pets to fondle and feed; he wants mature, free people who will respond to him in authentic individuality.  For that to happen there must be honesty and truth.  The self must be toppled from its pedestal.  There must be pure hearts and clear intelligence, confession of sin and commitment in faith.

And peace?  Yes, God gives peace.  But it is not a peace that gets along with everyone by avoiding the hint of anything unpleasant.  It is not achieved by refusing to talk about painful subjects or touch sore spots.  It is a peace that is hard won by learning to pray.  There is evil to combat, apathy to defeat, dullness to challenge, ambition to confront.  There are persons all around us, children and parents, youth and adults, who are being trampled and violated, who are being hurt and despised.  Any preaching of peace that turns its back on these is a cruel farce….

…There are times when truth will receive a wide hearing and times when it will not.  Jesus had a congregation of five thousand one day and four women and two bored soldiers another.  His message was the same both days.  We must learn to live by the truth, not by our feelings, not by the world’s opinion, not by what the latest statistical survey tells us is the accepted morality, not by what the advertisers tell us is the most gratifying lifestyle.  We are trained in biblical faith to take lightly what the experts say, the scholars say, the pollsters say, the politicians say, the pastors say.  We are trained to listen to the Word of God, to test everything against what God reveals to us in Christ, to discover all meaning and worth by examining life in relation to God’s will.

Eugene Peterson, Run with the Horses, 86-87

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