Sep 202013
 

“In the beginning, when God created…”

The opening verses/chapters of Genesis are almost guaranteed to excite debate. Whether it is science v. creationism, or poetry v. history, interpreting the opening part of Genesis seems to cause splits between Christians and atheists, and Christians and other Christians.

Creationism (and its associated ‘young earth’ and ‘seven literal days’ doctrines) has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons (actually, maybe for all the right reasons) in recent weeks here in Scotland. A Christian group, working in primary school chaplaincy, were handing out creationist literature to the pupils, even the very youngest. Chaplaincy is a privileged position in schools. Chaplains are allowed in only at the invitation of the Head Teacher. It is clearly understood that proselytising is not acceptable, although that is not to say that we cannot share an understanding of our Christian faith. Handing out faith tracts which represent a fairly marginal position to children who do not have the critical faculties to assess it is, I would suggest, an abuse of that privilege.

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Sep 202013
 

This is just a short post to re-establish my blogging habit.

I had intended starting to blog again a while ago but struggled to work out what to write about, and what direction to take this blog. I’ve previously used it to reflect on ministry, but that’s perhaps a bit too close to home now that I have responsibility for two congregations and two parishes. There’s only so much you can say without it getting very personal, very quickly.

However, I was cycling with a friend recently and I was saying that the one thing I really miss from my period of supervision is the opportunity to chew the fat on theological issues. I’m a (not so) closet academic. Not that I’d ever want to teach/lecture, but in the sense that I enjoy exploring theology in a more academic, almost detached manner. Coming back to parish work always keeps that well-grounded though, but it’s too easy to get caught up in just ‘doing’ and not take a step back to ask ‘why?’ every now and again.

Student placement and probation reports encouraged us to think theologically in our reflections on ministry. But I want to do more than just that. We don’t stop learning, and theology, albeit that it flows like treacle at times, also doesn’t stand still. I want to get my brain working again  and discuss the ‘angels on pinheads’ stuff as well as the genuinely challenging theological issues.

Given that it’s not going to be done on a Sunday morning in a sermon, or at a Bible study group, I need to find other outlets. Online discussions are useful, but, ultimately, get messy and unfulfilling. Nevertheless, blogging is a useful outlet for brain-dumping, and sorting through thoughts and ideas, so this is a re-start to blogging again.

As always, the primary purpose is for my own benefit, sorting through thoughts and ideas. But if I can be presumptuous enough to expect some people to read what I’m writing, then you are welcome to contribute your thoughts.

So, write then!

Sep 242012
 

Apologies up front – this is yet another ‘brain-dump’ post as I attempt to get my head round some thoughts.

One thing I miss about not having a supervisor is the opportunity for theological discussion. And since I haven’t been blogging much either then I’ve not had an opportunity to engage through that medium either. That’s not to say there hasn’t been ongoing theological engagement, but it’s been in settings where the topics up for discussion have tended to be the same old contentious chestnuts – and it’s fair to say that it’s getting a tad wearisome.

However, I have been dipping in and out of some other theological reflection areas, and one that has my old grey-cells working at the moment comes from some of the writings of Andrew Perriman. In particular, his Kindle book, Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective, has got me thinking about all sorts of issues. The Kindle book is a collection of selected blog posts, so it’s not really necessary to purchase it, but it does help having it all in one volume, and with a bit of editorial gloss.

His key premise is that scriptural interpretation of crucial parts of the New Testament ought to be approached with what he refers to as a ‘narrative-historical’ hermeneutic. This, he suggests, is a paradigm shift in approaching these texts. And, to be fair, I’m having a hard time readjusting my perspective to see the texts in that light. And I’m attempting to do so, because I think his approach has some merit.

My own theological progression has moved through a number of stages, and is now a significant distance from the conservative-evangelical approach I was primarily exposed to in my early years as a Christian. I can identify a ‘paradigm shift’ when I first read NT Wright. His writings had a major impact on my eschatological understanding. Exposure to Barth at university reshaped my outlook on revelation. The blog and books of Scot McKnight had a further impact on my understanding of ‘God’s Kingdom’, and also refined what was already my general approach to scriptural interpretation.

Perriman’s work though, challenges me in a new way. If I’m reading him correctly (and this is part of the issue of getting my head round his approach) what he seems to be suggesting is that much of the ‘future-focused’ aspects Jesus’ teaching in particular have already come to pass (but with resonances for a future still to happen). Jesus’ teaching, he is suggesting, is about the consequences of conflict with Rome, and holds a much stronger ‘corporate’ dimension than most western evangelical teaching allows.

It is this ’embedded in (already happened) history’ which shapes Perriman’s hermeneutic. And it does pretty much make sense as he presents it. One can see how the NT’s warnings on future ‘consequences’ have already been played out in the early centuries AD. The implications of this for thoughts on hell in particular are especially crucial. The ‘destruction’ and distress can be found, quite readily, in the historical events of the Jewish revolt (and remember, these warnings have a Jewish context, first and foremost) and its aftermath.

Perriman is not, I think, suggesting that these warnings, and the teachings we derive from them, are ‘time-limited’ – they are pertinent in all ages, I’d suggest. But his eschatology takes a quite different shape as a consequence. Where I’m struggling is how this impacts on our teaching of the Bible in our present day and age. In one sense, there is the danger of history repeating itself, and so that certainly becomes a focus. And his thoughts on hell and heaven fit into those I already hold as a consequence of other theological development. But I guess where I am struggling is how to present such a ‘paradigm shift’ to ‘the pew’. And I think that that is because I’m not fully clear on the implications yet of such a hermeneutic. More thinking required.

Jan 102011
 

I’ve just finished Scot McKnight’s book, The Blue Parakeet and have thoroughly enjoyed it, both as a challenge and an affirmation. His basic premise is that we all read the Bible with our own bias and preconceptions – and we should all be honest about that. Nothing new there really – except perhaps the call for honesty from all readers and interpreters.

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Dec 062010
 

Of the point behind my Masters thesis that is.

My mate Bryan at Greyfriars Parish Church, Lanark, has recently started streaming the Sunday morning services. No bad thing and on, Sunday’s snowy morning, an ideal opportunity for those unable to get to church to do more than just listen in, but to get to see what was going on. Undoubtedly, using video technology allows people to feel more part of something than simply listening to the audio.

Sunday had a slight twist to it – it was communion. A short flurry of discussion on Facebook certainly gave the impression that some who were tuned in from home shared in communion using what they had in the house. I somewhat cheekily wondered if epiclesis worked through cyberspace and that comment triggered a little bit of a (gentle) bashing.

But it’s a serious question (even though it makes something that ought to be simple, more complicated) and, in my opinion, impacts on our understanding of sacramental ministry. Bryan suggested that it was sufficient to rely on Jesus’ promise that where two or three are gathered in His name, He will be with them. Which begs the question, “Why do you need an ordained minister to pronounce an invocation, when it’s God who does all the work?” This was the core of my thesis – the Church of Scotland needs to get its brain round sacramental ministry if it is going to encourage more innovative forms of worship – and video-streaming services isn’t exactly at the extreme end of the innovation spectrum.

Someone else wondered whether it would therefore be possible to perform a baptism over the airways, so to speak. It’s exactly the same issue. Is there some sort of ‘essential presence’ that a minister, and only a minister, brings to these sacramental acts? Or is it simply a case of the practical consideration that it gets done ‘properly’, with no under-the-table jiggery-pokery?

The point I made in my thesis was that conversations around these issues really need to be happening right now, otherwise we end up with a free-for-all which will, ultimately, cause further argument within an organisations which could well do without further cause for dissension in the ranks. And these conversations need to be focused on what is happening in churches now and not just at some academic, ivory-tower, theological level.

MTh Research

 

In August 2010 I completed a postgraduate year at the University of Edinburgh, School of Divinity. Following a Masters by Research course, I used the opportunity to investigate the Emerging Church movement particularly as it impacts on the Church of Scotland. I opted to do an essays + short dissertation route as it provided scope for wider and more varied study. The fruits of that year – the three research essays and the dissertation – may be downloaded from here.

They are not ground-breaking theology or cutting-edge research. Nor are they the work of a dedicated and gifted theologian. They were written largely from the point of view of my own interests as I tried to grasp a little of the bigger picture of the challenges facing the Church of Scotland in a changing society and how engaging with newer forms of church could influence that. In other words, bear this very specific context and background in mind if you wish to shred them ‘theologically’.

MTh Research

Download: Dissertation - Converging Conversations  Dissertation - Converging Conversations
» 480.7 KiB - August 20, 2010
MTh dissertation. The need for 'intentional' dialogue if the Church of Scotland is to engage effectively with new forms of church.

Download: Essay - Tentative Steps towards an Emerging Kirk  Essay - Tentative Steps towards an Emerging Kirk
» 204.1 KiB - August 20, 2010
MTh Research Essay 2 An analysis of the Church of Scotland's engagement with Emerging Church through a 2009 report from Ministries Council and Mission and Discipleship Council.

Download: Essay - Looking Beyond the Labels  Essay - Looking Beyond the Labels
» 206.2 KiB - August 20, 2010
MTh Research Essay 1 An investigation of some of the underlying issues behind some of the 'post-' labels commonly associated with Emerging Church.

Download: Essay - Unity In Diversity  Essay - Unity In Diversity
» 270.5 KiB - August 20, 2010
Mth Research Essay - Barth Course Using the creedal church mark of 'One', this essay critiques Emerging Church from a Barthian perspective.

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Jun 012010
 

In the spirit of not making any public statements, but encouraging discussion and understanding of the subject which cannot be named (why do I feel like we’re in a Harry Potter story?) I would like to point to some good and thought-provoking articles which were themselves pointed to in JohnFH‘s blog which I sometimes dip into (except for his Hebrew stuff which goes whizzing over my head).

The first is an article by Richard B Hays which is an adaptation of a lengthier book section. It is a pretty comprehensive statement of the conservative position on homosexuality. I recall reading the full book section in 2nd year New Testament studies and found it to be useful then. That was not long before General Assembly discussed the issue of human sexuality. The Mission and Discipleship report (.doc file, via OneKirk) and the congregation discussion resource document (1.5M pdf file, via OneKirk) they produced drew heavily on this work for the conservative perspective. It was also at the heart of a ‘refutation‘ at the time by Paul Middleton, but that work never fully engaged with Hays and so I was left feeling that it was a somewhat selective and not entirely convincing counter-argument.

The second referenced article is by Kim Fabricius (on Ben Myers blog) is a useful ‘in a nutshell’ view from the other side of the debate. The comments are extensive and worth a skim through. It is not a point-by-point argument and assumes a degree of ‘honest’ scholarship which recognises the ambiguity in many of the scriptural references to homosexual activity. If that’s not your ‘place’ then I would recommend doing some wider reading before decrying what Kim says. An ‘honest’ approach will/should leave Romans 1 as one of the few ‘unambiguous’ texts which need to be dealt with. Thereafter you may engage with his propositions and reach your own conclusion.

Finally, the third article referenced is not a theology one, but rather a media comment on a recent sex scandal in Australia. It makes some very valid moral/ethical observations which, I think, are quite pertinent to the whole discussion.

*Updated 18/7/11 to fix dead links

May 192010
 

I recently heard a sermon that got me thinking, “So what?”

Well, it actually got me thinking a lot more than that, although it was primarily because I didn’t agree with a lot of it – or, at least, felt it was ‘lacking’ in certain areas. But it was the ‘So what?” question that got me going and I was wondering how often we don’t adequately deal with the ‘So what?’ of our faith and what we say about it.

Let me explain what my particular ‘So what?’ issue was in this instance.

The preacher took an opportunity to have a bit of a dig at the ‘God is love’ approach to Christian faith. This, they felt, was a limited understanding of God and threw away a significant part of the Bible which speaks of God’s justice, wrath and judgement. We got the ‘God loves us’ bit, but in the usual illustration of a loving parent who chastises (punishes) their child ‘for their own good’. I got the distinct impression that God didn’t do nearly enough of that these days and we would be well warned that he might just decide to smite us all for being miserable sinners one day.

Now, I don’t deny that the Bible speaks of a God of judgement, but surely that is the point of the cross. Jesus was judged in our place. All our iniquities were laid on him. He became sin for us. And whatever other verses you want to throw into the mix. Christ’s death on the cross brought about forgiveness for our sinfulness, did it not? God looks on Jesus and pardons us, does he not? Yes, God judges, but God has judged Jesus so that we won’t be.

Or am I missing something? Was Christ’s death on the cross not quite enough? Did Christ only die for some of our sins?

And if that’s not the case then, other than to illustrate (one of) the purposes of the cross, why keep banging on about God’s judgement and wrath? Is it because it simply goes against the grain to think that people are getting away with things we don’t like? But is this not the very point of God’s grace – we have ‘got away with it’, even the worst of ‘it’? It’s not grace otherwise! It’s our own efforts to self-improve to be ‘good enough’ to be accepted.

But what of texts which speak of a final judgement? We still have to go back to those questions about Christ’s atoning death. It either did it all or it didn’t. If it didn’t, we’re all stuffed. If it did then beating me down with how awful I am and God will judge me is a pointless exercise. What is more likely to get a response – a threat or a gift? If the ‘judgement’ of God only falls on those who reject his gift, then why offer only a threat and ignore the gift? And if it is the gift that matters, why dwell on the threat?

I get the need for a balanced picture of God. I’m just not sure that the correct balance is 50:50 and that whenever ‘God is love’ is preached it needs to be balanced with judgement. Otherwise, we risk, I think, diminishing the life, death and resurrection of Jesus with a whole series of ‘So what?’ questions.

Mar 262010
 

My recent musings on Emerging Church have also been getting me thinking about some of the theological underpinnings of EC and, to a degree, traditional church. At the moment I’m still trying to get them straight in my head and one mechanism for me to do that is to do a bit of a brain-dump on here. That’s really just to serve as a warning that this particular blog post is probably going to be even more incoherent than usual and will almost certainly present a point of view which is far from fixed and will need considerable refinement.

It has also been prompted by a couple of questions from Scott, and in particular his most recent question about some of the underlying assumptions we make when ‘doing mission’. So, in no particular order, some thoughts on theology (and more to follow in subsequent posts).

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Mar 112010
 

I was a conference yesterday about Emerging Church within the context of the Church of Scotland. It was both inspirational and frustrating. Some of the projects are doing fantastic work and really growing as ‘church’ – and not just in the outreach work sense that I’ve been having a go at in recent posts. We’re seeing embryonic communities which are growing into worshipping communities and then hitting brick walls. Many of these projects are reaching unchurched people and making Christian faith relevant and meaningful. And yet there is a sense of ‘so far and no further’.

And, unfortunately, it’s the Church of Scotland’s law and structures that are often the problem. That’s not to suggest that there aren’t people who are trying, often creatively, to provide solutions, but there was still an underlying sense of not taking Emerging Church seriously. If I may parody it somewhat, it seemed that there was a willingness to set up a working party to look at the questions that would need to be addressed by a committee who could produce a report to create a task force who would consult widely to produce a report that could go to a council and be presented to GA for consideration by presbyteries to ascertain whether there was support for changes to develop a new style of ministry.

Meanwhile community projects are being slapped on the wrist for overstepping parish boundaries or are unable to share the sacraments because their eminently qualified leader doesn’t have the ‘right sort’ of theology degree and isn’t ordained. There was much talk about training and the need for a new focus on missional skills for ordained ministries. But I can’t help but feel that a more open approach to development of lay leaders or the already qualified members needs a better look at. Why do we allow someone to ‘preach and teach’ at a youth club yet become very cagey when they might do it from the pulpit, as it were? There was also talk of a more modular approach to training, building on existing skills. So how about an approved ‘sacramental theology’ bolt-on to make sure it’s all done above board and with theological rigour and that makes sure the appropriate box is ticked for church law? And maybe it’s time to get over the suspicion and angst about it that has persisted for several hundred years since the Reformation.

So, what’s the solution? A presbyterian church with flexible structures, “boundary blindness” (thanks to Peter Neilson for that one) when it comes to parishes and a real commitment to training its people to become the body of Christ in the community. And maybe a church that relaxes its ecclesiology and grasps more of the kingdom instead. Shouldn’t be too tall an order. Maybe a report to GA is called for.