New Zealands Tragedy and the Problem of Evil

 NEW ZEALANDS TRAGEDY AND THE PROBLEM OF EVIL – Peter Corney

 

On the 27th August 2020 the New Zealand’s High court brought down the judgement of imprisonment for life without release on Brenton Tarrant the Australian terrorist who attacked two Mosques in New Zealand on March 15th, 2019. He shot and killed 51 people and seriously injured 40 others with semi-automatic weapons. This terrible tragedy struck at the heart of the way New Zealanders think of themselves, as tolerant and inclusive people. Many of the victims were relatively recent immigrants to N.Z.

 

This event raises many questions for us: Is the perpetrator, a self-confessed member of the extreme ‘alt -right’ and a ‘white supremacist’, part of a growing movement that will further stress our democratic liberal societies and how do we counter that? Given what appears to have motivated this act how can we survive the pressures being created by the massive people movements around the world, the clash of cultures and the xenophobia they produce? Can we reign in the spread of these toxic ideological viruses on the ‘Web’ that seem to be the way many like Brenton Tarrant are radicalised?

 

There are deep tensions in Europe as they have coped with several large waves of people fleeing the violence in North Africa and the Middle East. Some countries have reintroduced border controls in spite of the EU’s policy on free movement. The Pandemic has added to existing tensions, and the financial and unemployment pressures it brings will increase these.  It also raises the question of the disturbing link between ultra-right-wing and extreme nationalist politics and religion. This includes for example; Hindu nationalism in India, Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, and Islam and extremist violence in Pakistan to non-Islamic groups. All public figures on the political left or right, and particularly religious leaders, need to take great care with their rhetoric in these dangerous days. Christians need to remember “that they will know we are Christians by our love.”

 

But in addition to these socio-political questions another ancient question raises its head once more. It is a question we prefer to keep at bay till another atrocity hits our screens. It is the reptile we keep locked away in the cellar of our minds – the reality of evil.

 

Our writers have turned to metaphor to name it and the paradox of its presence alongside human goodness and beauty. It has been called “the worm in the rose” and “the maggot in the breast”. Alexander Solzhenitsyn made the point most elegantly when he wrote, “the line dividing good and evil goes right through the heart of every human being.” In its larger mystical sense St. Paul described it as “the mystery of iniquity” and Conrad as “the heart of darkness.”

 

But however we name it we must face it if we are to defeat it, both in our societies, our nations and ourselves. Optimistic Humanism wants to deny it. Scientific Naturalism wants to explain it away as the blind indifferent and brutish survival process of evolution. Secular sociology and psychology want to explain it sociologically or chemically.

But we all know this will not do. These explanations are inadequate and reductionist. When confronted with the beast we instinctively feel its malevolent spiritual reality. It may be that the reason that our first response is either to deny or rationalize it is because we do not want to face its presence in ourselves and the challenge it presents. But face the challenge we must, or the darkness will overpower us. When Bonheoffer faced the darkness in the form of the German Nazi party in the 1940’s he wrote: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

 

Of the many horrors of the 20th and 21st C that one could recount I chose two reflections by people who were actually present when the beast got off the chain. I chose them because they reveal in a very personal way that when intelligent and sophisticated people are confronted with rampant evil, they can only describe it in terms that reveal their intuitive sense of its malevolent spiritual reality.

 

In 1993/4 General Romeo Dallaire, a Canadian army officer was appointed the Commander of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda. Due to an inadequate force size and the negligent unwillingness of the UN to make decisions, in spite of his repeated appeals, he was unable to prevent the deaths of 800,000 people in the intertribal mayhem and murder that erupted over a period of 100 days. In his heart-rending book “Shake hands with the Devil” he writes: “This book is the account of humans who were entrusted with the role of helping others taste the fruits of peace. Instead we watched as the devil took control of paradise on earth and fed on the blood of the people we were supposed to protect.” Later haunted by the experience he was driven close to suicide.

 

The second reflection comes from the experience of a young German lawyer, Sebastian Heffner who fled to England in1938 to escape the Nazi regime. There he wrote a description of Germany’s seduction and corruption by Hitler entitled “Defying Hitler.” In an icy passage he describes the evil he sensed in Hitler well before it took expression in ‘the final solution’. “For a moment I physically sensed the man’s odour of blood and filth, the nauseating approach of a man-eating animal – its foul, sharp claws in my face.”

 

So, is the New Zealand terrorist a deeply psychologically disturbed person or a mad man, or is he madness in the service of evil? Is he a racist, a religious and political fanatic, fanaticism in the service of evil? When and where was the point he stepped beyond reason, morality and reality, surrendered to the darkness and was overpowered?

 

When we ponder the reality of evil other questions leap forward. Can it ever finally be overcome, not just personally, but universally? Who calls evil to the final accounting? Will there be an ultimate universal Hague, a final court of justice for the unnamed victims of history? Will there be a final judgment for the monsters of ancient as well as modern genocides? Is there another kingdom, a kingdom of light that can and will overcome the kingdom of darkness?

 

The responses posed range from Nihilistic despair that says that life is absurd and without meaning and so there is no reason why anything cannot happen in a meaningless random world. To the Optimistic Humanists who, in spite of all the evidence, believe more education and social engineering will solve the problem. They seem unaware of the naiveté of their position in the light of the fact that it was the most sophisticated, highly educated and aesthetically aware nation in Europe that designed and permitted the Holocaust.

Then there is the Existentialist response of heroic decision in the absence of no ultimate meaning, purpose or values. Like the hero in Camus’ novel “The Plague”, Dr Rieux, who works courageously on fighting the plague knowing all the time he cannot finally win but who finds his meaning in his actions. Of course this is ultimately no different from the disillusioned young men in David Fincher’s film “Fight Club” who find meaning in the visceral violence of bare knuckle fighting, or Hemmingway’s meaning in action, “Nobody ever lived their life all the way up except Bullfighters.”

 

The above are modernist responses, what would a Post Modernist say? With its rejection of all grand narratives of meaning and the embracing of moral relativism they are driven inward to individual subjectivity – what feels good or right to the individual. This leaves them at the mercy of their own thin personal resources distorted by their internal disfunctions and limitations. Ironically within their rudderless world there may be a seed of hope as their subjectivism may lead them to rediscover the core of their humanness – “made in the Image of God.” But the journey will be fraught because they will also meet the darkness and dysfunction within themselves as well.

 

Then there is the current Western flirtation with Eastern Mysticism and its concept of peace through disengagement from that which it claims produces evil and suffering – attachment, desire, individuality and difference. Leave desire, individuality and the self behind and merge oneself into the cosmic sea of universal oneness. Transcend the illusory world of difference. To critics of EM this is just the ultimate escape, the destruction of the self, a kind of mystical suicide. In the end these mystical and mental gymnastics will, I think, prove uncongenial to Western individualisms preoccupation with personal autonomy and self-interest. In fact it is mostly ‘EM light’ that’s flirted with in the West. Historically it  has a bad track record of indifference to social and structural evil. Despite their Constitution the iniquitous cast system is still alive and well in modern India. [i]

 

But there is someone who offers another way, the way of redemptive suffering, someone who suffers with and for us. Who neither denies, nor withdraws from evil but engages with it to defeat it. His actions take him into the heart of suffering caused by evil and to a final, terrible but triumphant confrontation. This one is ‘The Christ’, crucified and risen, “the lamb of God offered for the sin of the world”, God who becomes one with us in our humanness in his incarnation in Jesus.

 

Johns Gospel describes him in this way: “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Although to his friends on that dark night when they came for him it seemed that it had. When the police and the betrayer arrived to arrest Jesus at night, he said to them “This is your hour, when darkness reigns.” Yes! Like every oppressive regime before and since this is when the secret police always arrive, at night in the darkness. There is a deliberate play on words here by Jesus. As he said on an earlier occasion “men love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil”

 

But evil overplayed its hand; in attempting to destroy him it destroyed itself. Its cunning, its overweening pride and will to power overreached itself. It precipitated a final showdown with God and his sovereign will and his absolute power, justice, and mercy. There is only one outcome in such a contest. And so, on the cross Jesus bears all that evil can do, not only in its destructive violence and blood lust, but also through its primary goal, the separation of humanity from God and then people’s alienation from each other. So, he identifies with us in our suffering, but also suffers for us by bearing justices’ penalty for our willing participation in evil. He suffers death and then defeats it in his resurrection. The cross reveals how implacably opposed God is to evil and how unrelentingly for us is his love.

 

How are we to live now in the light of all this? As Christians we understand that we live now in the tension between the two kingdoms. The kingdom of light has broken in with the coming of Jesus, the decisive battle has been won but the final surrender and the consummation of the Kingdom of God is yet to come. It is like the situation in Europe as WW2 drew to its close. The decisive battle with Hitler’s army had been fought and won late in 1945, the Axis forces were routed and in retreat. It was now only a matter of time before the final surrender and the enemy laid down its arms. But of course, if you were in an allied infantry group on the front line there were a dozen more small but deadly battles and skirmishes to survive before you reached Berlin and the formal surrender. That is the Christians position now in the world. God has won the decisive battle on the cross; the end is now decided but we are still exposed to the crossfire of evil and each day we must act both personally and socially to confront and defeat it. [ii]

As a Christian I also need to remind myself that Christians have sometimes betrayed Jesus by also descending into religious fanaticism that has led to division, discrimination, and violence. This is a tendency that lurks in our fallen natures and we must guard against it constantly. Only by submitting to Jesus’ commands to love our neighbour and take up our cross daily and follow him can we defeat evils seduction to partisan and sectarian destructiveness.

 

[Peter Corney August 30th 2020]

 

[i] For a fuller description of these responses see Chp’s 4-9 in “The Universe Next Door” by James Sire IVP 2004

[ii] Some elements in this article first appeared in a different form as a response to a similar tragic event in Norway in July 2011in which a lone terrorist, Anders Behring Breivik, with a similar profile, killed 77 people.


A reflection on Mary Jesus’ mother in the light of Covid 19’s decimation of our nursing homes.

AS WE REFLECT ON THE LIFE OF MARY THE MOTHER OF JESUS AS PRESENTED IN THE BIBLE HOW SHOULD THAT EFFECT OUR CHRISTIAN LIFE AND RELATIONSHIPS AND OUR PRAYERS? (By Peter Corney)

Recently I was asked by a Christian friend to explain the significance of Mary the mother of Jesus for a Christian today. Protestants are often confused by some of the views and devotional practices of Roman Catholics in relation to Mary.

The brief notes below were my reply to his questions. Ironically this was written during stage 4 lock down in Melbourne due to the Corona virus pandemic. The infections and deaths in Victoria were very high in retirement homes, and because women tend to live longer than men these homes have a very high percentage of elderly woman. Tragically as a result there was a large number of deaths among elderly women. Many of these women were someone’s mother who died without the comfort and presence of their loved ones. This caused me to reflect on our present culture’s treatment of the elderly.

In 2017 The Sydney theater company presented “The Testament of Mary” a dramatic and contraversial monologue in which the Irish actress Alison Whyte presented a powerful imaginary interpretation of Mary breaking her silence after 2,000 years to reveal her story and pain. Written by the Irish author Colm Toibin, brought up as a Catholic he is no longer a believer but says he remembers as a boy each night’s Rosary that ended with the words he still cherishes;  “Hail Holy Queen, mother of mercy…..to Thee we send up our sighs, mourning, and weeping in this valley of tears…..Show us the blessed fruit of Thy womb, Jesus…” (The Australian, Review 7/1/17) This is a personal insight into how powerful is the Catholic devotion to Mary. This is one of the issues I will address.

These thoughts have been arranged in the following way. First, all the Biblical references to Mary are listed, these should be read before you proceed to my reflections.

References:

Isaiah 7:14, 9:6-7. (The OT prophecy of the Messiah and his birth.)

Math 1:16-25 (The birth of Jesus)

Math2:1-23 (The visit of the Maji and the flight into Egypt.)

Lk 1:26-56 (The birth of Jesus foretold)

Lk 2:1-20 (The birth of Jesus)

Lk 2:21-40 (Jesus’ presentation in the Temple)

Lk 2:41-52 (Jesus at the Temple when he is 12yrs)

Jn 2:1-5. (At the wedding in Cana.)

Mk 3:20-35 (The family question his mental state!)

Jn 19:25-27 (At the cross)

Acts 1:14 (In the upper room at Jerusalem with the other disciples after the ascension)

Note also: 1Tim 2:5-6. 2 Cor 5:16-19.

Some general introductory comments

  1. It is sometimes said that, theologically, Roman Catholics have over claimed and Protestants underclaimed the significance of Mary. This is probably an overhang of the Reformation and the reaction to the excesses of Mariolatry of the period.
  2. Given that many human fathers have been remote or distant and over-authoritarian and, in some cases, violent and abusive it is understandable that for some people a mother figure would be easier to pray to as a mediator with God.
  3. This is partly the explanation for the “Roman Catholic overclaim”. This grew up in the popular piety of the medieval Church but was not formally proclaimed till the 19th C in 1854. Remember also that Papal infallibility in doctrinal claims was not proclaimed formally till around the same time – 1870! Mary’s assumption into heaven without passing through death wasn’t officially proclaimed till the 1950’s. The claim that she is Co-Redeemer is also late. The more radical Vatican Council of 1962-65 backed away a bit from these claims and softened some of the wordings as they reached out to Protestants. The later Polish Pope JohnPaul II began a more recent conservative trend back to the past. Mary is a strong focus of Polish Catholic piety. The phrase “mother of the Church” could be accepted by some Protestants depending how it is defined but it is not a Biblical term. A saying that is sometimes used by Catholic theologians is “Death through Eve life through Mary,” once again like the previous phrase it depends exactly what you mean!

If we base our knowledge, doctrine, and practices on Scripture rather than tradition what can we learn from Mary and take into our following of Jesus, our convictions, and our practices of prayer and worship?

  1. The Gospel accounts clearly show that Mary was the obedient, humble servant of God, through whom God became incarnate, a human person and Messiah for our salvation and reconciliation with God. She is an example of “the servant mother” who gives birth to the “servant King” who ushers in the Kingdom of God. That obedience was in the face of many difficult tests and challenges for a young woman.

While promised, she was not yet married to Joseph and would be concerned about the shame an unmarried pregnancy would bring on her. (Later in the Gospels in an intense encounter with Jewish teachers [John 8:41] we see their attitude to Jesus expressed in a way that could imply they knew his past and the rumour of him being born out of wedlock and so illegitimate, a label they used to discredit him.)

Mary gave birth in difficult and rough circumstances. We have romanced the stable and the manger on Christmas cards and in nativity plays but it would have been unhygienic, rough, risky, and cold.

Later she was taken on a long and difficult journey to Egypt when Jesus was still an infant becoming a refugee to escape Herod’s attempt to kill the child. She would also have to live with the knowledge of all the other children killed by Herod’s pogrom in Nazareth to try and eliminate Jesus. Herod was part Jewish and knew the Messianic prophecies of a coming King, a feared new rival to his position and power.

To cope with all these challenges at a young age she must have been a special person of strong character and faith. Her response to her cousin Elizabeth’s encouragement, who was to give birth to John the Baptist, is in Luke 1:46-55, ‘Marys Song’, or as we know it in Anglican Prayer Book “The Magnificat.” It reveals her strong and well taught Jewish faith and knowledge of what the promised Messiah will inaugurate. There was a common belief among Jewish woman that the son born to any young Jewish woman could be the Messiah this arose from the promise in Isaiah 7:14.

In her song of praise, Mary affirms the radical agenda of the Messiah (Compare Luke 1:51-53, to Luke 4:14-21 Jesus’ announcement at the beginning of his public ministry). Marys song is a worthy inclusion in our regular worship, both public and private.

When Jesus is presented to the Lord in the Temple by Joseph and Mary as a baby, as the law required the first born son to be so dedicated, the faithful old worshiper Simeon and the prophetess Anna (Luke 2: 28- 38) reinforce for Mary (and Joseph) what she has been told by the angel, her cousin Elizabeth, and the visitors to the stable at Jesus’ birth. But note verses in Lk 2: 33-35 and the hint of the grief Mary will experience in the future, something she could not imagine at this stage of her life.

This experience in the Temple at his presentation reinforced the knowledge that their son was special and the longed-for Messiah. This would be staggering knowledge for these two-ordinary people. As we know from the reactions later of the disciples it took a long time for them to understand the true and full universal significance of the Messiah and his Kingdom and to displace their temporal, limited and national political expectations.(See Acts 1:6)

2. Mary’s essential role in the physical birth of Jesus raises the great significance of the incarnation – God taking on human flesh.

In the incarnation God declares the following:

  • His great love for us expressed in the costliest way as it takes him to the cross to bear our sins and redeem us from the just judgement of God’s law, that which we could not do for ourselves. (Roman 3: 19-26)
  • His identification with us in all our fragile humanness.
  • It is a declaration of the infinite value and dignity and sacredness of every human person. Whoever they are, whatever they have done, whatever they have achieved or failed to achieve, whatever worldly status may or may not have been conferred on them, each must be treated with the greatest care, respect, justice and equality. This is the basis of all human rights and responsibilities.
  • (We must always remember that rights, and responsibility for them are reciprocal. We cannot demand them from others without also granting them to those who disagree with us and to those we demand them from. This is particularly relevant in any discourse over rights, it must be respectful. This is a particularly sensitive issue in our present context. See footnote *)
  • We are created in the image of God and redeemed and recreated in and by the image of God in Christ. (2 Cor.5:16-19
  • 3. Marys role in the incarnation shows Gods affirmation of the ordinary person, consider the following:
  1. Mary was from an ordinary small village and working-class family, probably poor.
  2. Her fiancé was a tradesman, a carpenter. (Remember most of Jesus’ first disciples were fishermen.)
  3. She lived in a small rural village.
  4. She was a Jew, at that time an occupied oppressed people ruled by Rome.
  5. As an unmarried girl her pregnancy put her in a position where she could be rejected or at least treated with disrespect or shamed in her village.

This affirmation of Mary as Gods choice for this special role, given her place and status in her culture at the time , speaks strongly to our attitudes and who we affirm or reject.

4.Mary and our own mothers:

  1. We should be grateful to God for the sacrifices our own mothers made for us and share that with them.
  2. If they are still alive we should pray for them regularly.
  3. We should accept responsibilty for their care and quality of life in their declining years.
    (The present pandemic has revealed, to our shame, the great weakness in our national policies and funding of aged care. This is, in spite of the fact that until the recent pandemic we have never been so prosperous as a nation. It has also highlighted the trend to the marginalising of the aged in special aged care homes rather than in the more natural community of cross generational families. Special hospice care will be necessary in serious ill health and advanced dementia cases but should be the exception. The Federal policy of financial support for aged persons in their own home or the home of their children should be encouraged and increased.)                                                                                                                                                                                      5.Mary in our worship, public and private and implications for children who have left home.

(a) The Scriptures do not give support to the idea of praying to or through Mary, nor do they support the idea that she is our co-redeemer or that with Jesus she sits at the right hand (or left) of God. 1Tim 2:5-6 makes this very clear.

(b) But in our teaching and preaching and corporate worship we should give a significant place to her example of faith, obedience to God, and self- sacrifice. The idea of an annual special day of remembrance and honouring of Mary is quite appropriate. This could be incorporated into Mother’s Day celebrations in the West.

(c) The regular use of the Magnificat (Marys Song) sung or read regularly in worship and private prayers is a very legitimate and an appropriate tradition, as in Anglican worship.

(d) We could make much more of Marys role in our Christmas celebrations, by emphasising her courage, strength, and self-sacrifice.

(e) In our personal devotions as we reflect on the fact that although she had such extraordinary experiences and revelations from God, she was not without her moments of doubt, confusion, and anxiety about her son, just like us.  Mark 3:20-35 and John 19: 25-27 reveal that, and Johns record of Jesus committing his mother into His friends care while He hung on the cross is a very moving example to us.

(f) Mary also had to cope with the fact that as Jesus’ public ministry advanced his love had to be shared with others (Mark 3: 33-35). This is a common experience of mothers as their sons and daughters leave home, marry, their circle of friends enlarges, and their work and their families take more and more of their time.  Children need to reflect on this and not forget or neglect their mothers.

Peter Corney (August 2020)

 

*Footnote: In his Massy lectures “The Rights Revolution” the Canadian academic and politician Michael Ignatieff makes the very important point that Rights are reciprocal and when this understanding is present it gives Rights the capacity to create community but if absent to fracture it. He also says that Rights talk must not monopolise our discussion of the common good and exclude the qualities of compassion, kindness, humility, civility, respect, and love. The Canadian experience is worth reflecting on as they have pushed the Rights agenda harder than most Western democracies. (See my review of M. Ignatieff’s book of The Massy lectures on my blog at <petercorney.com> )

 

 


The parable of the travelling collector of musical instruments by P.Corney

THE PARABLE OF THE TRAVELLING COLLECTOR OF MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS

A long time ago an inveterate traveller and collector of musical instruments from all over the world heard for the first time a musician playing a violin. He had never seen or heard such a wonderful sound and was unknown in is own country. As was his practice he purchased one and received some lessons in how to play it, although not very well.

After he returned home from this particular journey, he excitedly told his friends about this new instrument he had found and the beautiful and enchanting sounds it could make. They all gathered expectantly for an evening at his home to hear it played. Unfortunately, he had received only the most rudimentary instructions and had not practiced. The sounds that emerged were more like a cat in pain! His friends were polite but as they left, they were heard to comment that who would want to purchase or learn to play such an instrument. The violin was rejected and never took root in that place, rejected not on the best example of its potential but its worst!

Sometimes ideas and truth are rejected not on their true merit but on a bad example. Often the Christian faith suffers from this same problem. That is why we always need to point people to Jesus in the Gospels, his life and teaching.

Peter Corney.

 


Christians and cultural transformation – by Peter Corney

CHRISTIANS AND CULTURAL TRANSFORMATION

 

By The Rev. Peter Corney OAM (June 2020)

 

 

The current “Black Lives Matter” protests, particularly as demonstrated in the US media, jolted me into a fresh consideration of the Christians role in social and cultural transformation. While in deep sympathy with the core concern of the protest and the majority of the protestors, it was disturbing to see the level of violence and disorder and the reactions of Donald Trump. For those of us who witnessed the civil rights demonstrations in the 60’s under the leadership of the Rev. Martin Luther King and other Christian leaders with their insistence on non-violent action, the comparison was a disturbing commentary on the present changes in our culture, its moral leadership and the source of its ethical motivation.

I was reminded of lines from W B Yeats poem “The Second Coming”, written in 1919 at the end of WW1 and the outbreak of the great flue pandemic. The seeds of Europe’s social, political and economic fragmentation in the 1930’s and 40’s were sowed at this time. The bitter harvest of those seeds was the Great Depression, Fascism and the destruction wrought by WW2.     

 Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere 

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

 

The following are my thoughts and reflections on our need to renew our vision of the Christian responsibility for Social Transformation

 At the beginning of His public ministry Jesus announced:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because He has anointed me             

to preach good news to the poor

He has sent me to proclaim freedom  for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to release the oppressed

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Luke 4:18-19.

 As followers of Jesus many Christians understand this announcement to contain the imperative to proclaim the Gospel in both word and deed, to pursue both evangelism and social justice. Another way of expressing this is to see our mission as including the task of Social Transformation. [See Kenneth Bailey’s commentary.  [i] ]

 If we accept that the task of Social Transformation empowered by the Gospel is integral to the mission Jesus has entrusted to us we need to also understand that it is a complex and challenging one.

 In developing countries Christian missions and development workers have discovered that the process involves at least six elements:

  1. The spiritual and moral transformation of individual people by the Gospel.
  2. The transformation of people’s world view by education and worship.
  3. The transformation of community and social relations.
  4. The transformation of local leadership and economic and political structures.
  5. The transformation of education and health.
  6. The transformation of a community’s physical and technical resources (capacity building) that enables major changes to be made.

All these things are interconnected, one impacts on the other.

A question we need to ask ourselves is: “Does this model apply to Christian communities in the cities of developed countries like Australia?” The need remains as critical in many parts of the ‘developed world’ as the ‘undeveloped.’ All societies are in constant need of reformation and transformation by the Gospel and the values of the Kingdom of God. It would not take long to compile a list of areas in Australian society in need of transformation right now!

 For example if we think about the present problem of homelessness for a significant number of people in Melbourne and the failure of state governments to provide sufficient social housing for particular groups of needy people in our communities. Could a Christian social transformation model be applied to this need by local churches and particularly new church plants?

One of the reasons we tend to deflect or avoid a response to this in our minds is because we think of the institutions that already exist to meet needs like this, often initiated by the Church in the past, and presently supported by or provided by the State. But in many cases they are currently very inadequate, social housing is an acute example but only one of many.

In the case of social housing several approaches might be applicable:

  1. Political pressure at local council level and state and federal political level.
  2. The purchase and provision by churches of houses or units set aside for this purpose and on – going support by local churches for their management or arranging to connect with existing Church welfare agencies.
  3. Certain church families providing short term accommodation in their homes or on their properties by building a small flat or unit.
  4. A new Church plant could be built around a particular social need.

Equipping and envisioning Church members well to take part as constructive initiators and facilitators in the processes of transformation is challenging and a very important first step and requires careful education, training and reorientation of expectations.

Most clergy and pastors are trained in theology and pastoral skills but rarely in social and cultural awareness or community development and social transformation skills. This leads us to an attractional model of ministry centered around our physical buildings, services and events. This model is not working very well in our current culture. So my first point is to say how important and strategic I think this venture is.

In the recent past there have been some experiments in “missional church planting” and the house church movement. Currently the so called “Underground Church” is an interesting model. (See the “Underground People” on Vimeo) :https://vimeo.com/256315051?ref=em-v-share

After many years in pastoral ministry one of the things that has become very clear to me is that unless you keep your foot on the pedal as a leader and teacher there are three things that drift off the local churches agenda. They are:

  1. Evangelism
  2. Justice
  3. Critical engagement with the culture. (By this I mean whether our discipleship is seduced and modified by the cultures norms or whether our discipleship challenges those norms and we seek to live differently and so influence our culture.)

What happens is that our focus has a tendency to drift inwards, probably because we are so practiced at self interest! Our piety becomes introverted and singular, concerned only with our own relationship with God. Of course in the end this is a false trail for two reasons: first, because the Bible allows no such singular focus. We are to “love God with all our heart soul, mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves.” And loving my neighbor means I will want to introduce them to Jesus, if they are hungry I will want to feed them and if they are in need I will want to help with practical compassion, if they are being treated unjustly I will want to see justice flow for them. The second reason self-interested piety is a false trail is because our anxiety about our relationship can subtly lead us away from trust in God’s grace to us in Christ and the Cross. This false trail is deeply ironic because this singular focus also leads to the erosion of the very thing I have become so preoccupied with – my personal relationship with God. This is a false trail because love and obedience are inextricably linked in the NT. The words of 1John 2:3-6 make this very clear.

                       ‘We know that we have come to know him

                        if we obey his commands. Those who say,

                         “I know him,” but do not do what he commands

                        are liars, and the truth is not in them.

                        But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly

                        made complete in that person. This is how we

            `           know we are in him: whoever claims to live in him

                        must walk as Jesus did.’

 There is of course an opposite trap to this introverted spirituality, it is one that those of us with a passion for social justice sometimes fall into – working for justice in God’s world without keeping God’s love alive in our hearts. This pathway leads to ‘spiritual anorexia’, cynicism and a negative, despairing attitude to the state of our culture and a loss of hope. We become part of the problem!

Some historical observations about Christianity’s relationship with culture is helpful as we consider these things. I have borrowed and adapted categories first developed by H. Richard Niebuhr as he reflected on this. [ii]

Six relationships can be observed historically:

  1. Christianity under the culture. Eg: Persecution under the Roman Empire in the first three centuries; Byzantine Christianity oppressed by Islam under the Ottomans’; the Church under Communism in Laos or China today.
  2. 2. Christianity against the culture. Eg: Where the Church is actively opposed to the dominant culture, as in the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany with Bonheoffer and Niemoller, or The Solidarity movement backed by the Catholic Church and opposed to Communism in Poland in the 1980’s.
  3. Christianity over the culture. Eg: Where the Church dominates and controls the culture, exerting power over it as in the Holy Roman Empire from the Middle Ages till the 15th C., or Geneva under Calvin.
  4. Christianity withdrawn from the culture. Eg: Where the Church disengages and withdraws into ghettos or closed communities like the Anna Baptists in the 16th C or the Amish in North America or the Exclusive Brethren and some forms of Evangelical pietism today. The motive may be either fear of contamination from the culture or a desire to create the Kingdom on earth in an ideal community.
  5. Christianity absorbed by the culture. Eg: Where the Church is seduced by the dominant cultures values and conforms to them, adapting its values and beliefs to fit the culture. The contemporary Western Church reveals many examples of this like: Liberal theology, adapting the Gospel to the current world view or plausibility structure. Prosperity gospel teaching, or ordinary Christians adopting the same materialism and consumerism of those around them. Racism and tribalism – Apartheid in South Africa, tribal conflict in East Africa, and the culture of violence and confrontation in Northern Ireland are all tragic examples from the recent past.
  6. Christianity transforming the culture. Eg: Where Christianity acts like salt and light in the culture, reshaping its values and affecting public policy like the influence of the 18th and 19th C. English Christian social reformers. Not long ago we celebrated the two hundredth anniversary of the work of Wilberforce and the Christian movement for the abolition of the slave trade.

But it is not as well understood that Wilberforce and his friends in the Clapham circle created 69      different societies for the reformation of English society and the spread of the Gospel. Western countries like Australia, Canada, North America, New Zealand and many of the Commonwealth countries are the inheritors of their far reaching work of social transformation. The scope of their concerns took in education, factory reform, child labor reforms, health, workplace safety, prison reform. They were even involved in the passing of special laws for “the protection of native peoples” in the British colonies, (which sadly colonists did not always follow.) They began The Bible Society, CMS, The Mission to India, the RSPCA, the list goes on. It was a remarkable achievement.

My final comment is an artistic reflection on our disturbed times.

In Ridley Scott’s iconic film Blade Runner we find ourselves in Los Angeles in the future.  The setting is bleak; “….ecological disaster, urban overcrowding, a visual and aural landscape saturated with advertising, a polyglot population immersed in a Babel of competing cultures, decadence and squalid homelessness.” [iii]  But juxtaposed with this social decay is brilliant technological achievement. High above the teeming filthy streets live the wealthy few in luxurious gated skyscrapers.

In one of the early scenes we find ourselves in the head office of a high tech corporation who are the creators of Cyborgs – advanced robots who are almost indistinguishable from humans. But some of the Cyborgs have gone feral and hunting them down is the core of the films plot. A ‘Blade Runner’ is a bounty hunter of rogue Cyborgs.

As we view the interior of the luxurious penthouse office we see an Owl perched on a stand. Then the Owl takes flight, passing in front of the vast plate glass windows behind which a brilliant orange sun is setting.

The symbolism is deliberate. The Owl has always been seen as a symbol of wisdom. In Roman mythology he accompanies the Goddess Minerva, Goddess of wisdom. But it was the German Philosopher Hegel who famously wrote “…the Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk…,” by which he meant, that philosophy only comes to understand an historical condition as it is passing away. [iv]

This image right at the beginning of Blade Runner is telling us that the films bleak vision of the future is what the sunset of our epoch will look like – the twilight of Modernity and Post Modernity. [v]

The question posed is: As the Owl spreads its wings and the sun sets on Western Culture is our wisdom about the cause of its decay clear and sharp enough to enable us to transform it from decay to renewal?  Has the West fallen so far from the values and world view that delivered us the best that Western culture has produced that we can’t recover?

In these times we need something more powerful than the wisdom of Minerva – we need the Wisdom of God to help us transform decay into new life!

As we regularly pray the Lord’s Prayer “..may your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven..” let us pray that God will move and inspire us his people to once again bring the transforming truth and values of the Kingdom of God into our culture and society in both word and deed as we faithfully wait for the final consummation of His Kingdom and the renewal of all things.

End Notes

[i] Kenneth Bailey “Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes – Cultural studies in the Gospels” IVP 2008, pp147-169.

[ii] H. Richard Niebuhr “Christ and Culture” first published in 1951 (Torch Books 1956.)

[iii] Clayton. J. (1996) “Concealed circuits: Frankenstein’s Monster, the Medusa and the Cyborg.” In Raritan Quarterly Review No 15 Vol. 4 (Spring) pp63-69.

[iv] G.W.F Hegel (1996) From the Preface to the “Philosophy of Right” (1821) Prometheus Books, New York.

[v] Or Hyper modernity.


Reflections on our troubled world – a message for Christians

Reflections on our troubled world – A message for Christians.  By Peter Corney May 6th

As I nightly watch the news of our troubled world – at present the Pandemic, but of course the violence of places like the Middle East continues and the persecution of particular people groups like the Myanmar Rohingya or the Uyghurs in China continues as if there were no pandemic – questions flood my mind: “God where are you in all this chaos and pain? Why don’t you act to judge and save and protect the innocent? And Lord, if you are acting, why is it hidden from us?”

Yes! I am aware of God working through individuals through His ‘common grace’ and the many often unseen acts of care by individuals and neighbours and the heroic work of medical staff and volunteer agencies. Reading the moving writing of Trent Dalton in the weekly Australian Magazine as he records the acts of simple kindness by ordinary Aussie neighbours as they reach out to one another in this ‘lock down’ phase of the pandemic is heart-warming.

Nevertheless in the midst of the bigger picture the questions persist. But I have found some helpful perspective in returning to the writing and theology of a thoughtful Christian who found himself in a chaotic and violent time in the crisis of the 1940’s and the war in Europe.

Recently I have been re-reading some of the war time sermons of Helmut Thielicke, the German pastor and scholar who continued to preach and pastor his people through the nightly bombing and chaos of WW2 Germany in which his own home and Church were destroyed. A contemporary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he was part of the German resistance to Hitler and the Nazi ideology, and in 1941 he was forbidden to speak or travel. He was also dismissed from his university teaching position and forbidden to publish books or articles. He was finally given permission to deliver one evening lecture per week in the Stuttgart Cathedral Church. He decided to speak on Luther’s Smaller Catechism, and through that vehicle he sought to prepare people for what he believed were the terrible things they would experience. He drew crowds of 3,000 people weekly as the air raids intensified, eventually the Cathedral was destroyed and they moved to other churches and halls, as one by one they were destroyed by the allied bombing. But the people kept coming. It is an inspiring story of faith and courage. He says “What we were doing was teaching theology in the face of death. There the only thing that was of any hope at all was the Gospel itself. Everything else simply dissolved into thin air. We were living only upon the substance of our faith. And these desperate hours also helped us to find that substance.”[i]

As he struggled with the same questions I mentioned above, in the midst of the crisis of those times, he preached that God’s role in world history can only be understood from the end, not from within the midst of it. “Not until the world’s last hour strikes, that hour of the Second Advent, when faith will see what it has believed, and unbelief will be compelled to see what it has not believed – only that last hour of the world will make known the meaning of history.” He went on to emphasise that till then life must be lived by faith not sight; faith in three things: (1) faith in God’s goodness, (2) faith in God’s presence with us, (3) faith in the knowledge that God has acted in Christ and his death and resurrection to save and reconcile us to himself, and one day to restore and renew the whole world. [ii]

Between our now and the future renewal of all things, we live as God’s people with the tension of being members of two kingdoms – the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world. There will be times when great numbers of people will embrace the Gospel and even particular nations will embrace the values of God’s Kingdom in their societies. And there will be times like ours when they are rejected. But, whatever our times, our primary task remains the same – to go on proclaiming the Gospel of the Cross, and to live out its values in our individual lives and Christian communities. For whenever anyone embraces the Gospel of the cross, they are secure within, safe in the grace of God, whether in prosperity or poverty, peace or chaos, moral decay or an existential crisis of meaning and purpose in their society.

Thielicke also makes the very insightful point that the Christian faith is always twofold: (1) Faith in what God has done in Christ and (2) Faith that is contrary to appearances, especially when particular historical and cultural appearances oppose the Gospel and appear to overpower it.

Our challenge in these times is not to live in despair, negativity or denial, but hope – hope of the future God is bringing in, and a confidence in the message we have to share, the Gospel and its power to change and renew people’s lives now.

Peter Corney

 

Footnotes

[i] From the forward by H. Thielicke to a selection of the lectures. Page10, “Man in God’s World.” First published in 1958 in German and then in 1968 in English by James Clarke.

[ii] Helmut Thielicke Page 15 “Christ the meaning of life” Pub.  James Clarke 1965. See also “The Prayer that Spans the World,” Sermons on the Lord’s Prayer from the WW2 period of nightly bombing in Germany. First published In German in 1958 and then in English in 1967 by James Clarke

 

*These thoughts can also be found in the conclusion of Peter Corneys recent study discussion guide “The Gospel and The centrality of the Cross”. Available by order from Peter at <aphantom@ihug.com.au>


“The Corona Virus, Modernity and God” by Peter Corney

THE CORONA VIRUS, MODERNITY AND GOD      by Peter Corney  (Palm Sunday 2020)

Our present crisis created by the Corona virus epidemic has triggered in my mind a memory of a phrase from the old Litany in the BCP, “from plague, pestilence and famine…and sudden death. Good Lord deliver us.”

When I was in theological college studying for the Anglican ministry in the early 60’s daily chapel was compulsory and every Wednesday we said the ancient  Litany with its memorable refrain and supplication – “Good Lord deliver us.” I can still hear it in my mind!

Written by Cranmer in the 16th C its language is Elizabethan. Its theological expression is cast in the understanding of the Reformation. It reflects what the reformers believed our attitude, our relationship, and our duty to God should be – one of complete dependence on the grace of God.

This moment of memory and reflection caused me to go to my bookshelf and take down the 1995 edition of “An Australian Prayer Book”, (that has now largely replaced the Book of Common Prayer  in Australian Anglican worship), and find its version of the Litany to compare with the very robust 1662 version. While the AAPB Litany keeps the idea of “saving us from sudden death” there is no longer any mention of “plague, pestilence and famine”. Generally, I think, it’s a much lamer version!

I may be drawing a long bow here but I began to wonder whether I should really be surprised, after all, the 1995 version is a document written in and shaped by ‘modernity’. The modern world of brilliant technology, advanced medicine, prosperity, vast financial resources, and in our progressive social democracies general Social Security, have given most of us a sense of entitled security. All of which has ameliorated much of the uncertainty, fragility and vulnerability of life as it was in the past, and we have got used to it!  And yet, now we suddenly find ourselves vulnerable, exposed, and not only to a rampant virus we can’t yet control. Also exposed is the unattractive side of our natures. We see the selfish hoarding of food and medical supplies, political point scoring among our party leaders when what we need is bipartisan co-operation (although co-operation is improving recently), carping and critical media attacking our political leaders as they struggle to respond to a rapidly evolving crisis.[i] We see people, so used to the unrestrained freedom of individual choice, ignoring or flouting the advice and instructions of government and medical advisors about their social behaviour and putting others at risk. I may be wrong about the modern Litany but the impact of modernity upon our view of life, our expec tations and our behaviour is clear and disturbing. No one wants to go back to surgery without anaesthesia , infection without antibiotics or measles and polio without vaccination’s, but there is much about the society we have created by the uncritical embracing of modernity that is troubling, negative and destructive to a holistic view of human flourishing .

Facing up to the following questions will be a good start. Why, in spite of our unprecedented prosperity, has modernity produced greater family dysfunction, marriage breakdown and greater numbers of children in state care? Why has our incidence of mental health problems risen so much and why have we provided so inadequately to meet the challenge it presents to our health system and society?  Why have our financial institutions and systems produced so much dishonesty, corruption and venal self-interest as revealed in our recent Royal Commission?  Why has the attendance and involvement of average Australians fallen away from Church -going, religious faith and attention to our spiritual needs and their value foundations that historically have shaped our culture? Why, until recently, have we become so insensitive to the destructive impact of our modern way of life on our environment?

We need to reflect deeply on these issues during this crisis and use it to consider what we each need to do to create a more caring, less selfish and more equitable community, one that intentionally supports people in whatever difficult state they find themselves. We need to particularly support marriage and family, children, a holistic education approach, and give attention to the depth and sources of our values. We are privileged to live in a working democracy, but only a commitment to the common good will sustain it and its ability to meet its constant challenges.

What do we mean by ‘Modernity?

Historically ‘Modernity’ is roughly that period of our history that runs from the beginnings of the industrial revolution in the 19th C to the present. It includes the evolution and growth of the Western free market financial system, modern communications, marketing and consumerism, and now the rapid growth of high technology, modern medicine, etc. It is marked socially by the move from the village to the city, rural to urban, from communal cultures to more impersonal large cities where our     ideas of authority and responsibility have evolved away from communal ones to more individual ones. Some social commentators would say that in the West we have now moved to ‘hyper individualism’ which is the mark of ‘post modernity’. The present preoccupation with identity politics would seem to reflect this.  [ii]

Modernity is also linked to ‘secularism’ and its effect on our sense of the sacred and the transcendent. Charles Taylors writing has shown comprehensively how this has developed historically, philosophically, theologically and socially in his “A Secular Age.”  [iii] The modern urban industrial world has gradually closed us off to nature, “the heavens” and the transcendent. This has been a gradual process, it’s as if we were at the Australian Tennis open and while absorbed in the game on the centre court, due to a prediction of rain, the roof of the stadium has been gradually closing to the heavens and we didn’t notice!

We have become ‘materialists’, not just in the sense of being seduced by consumerism, marketing  and the cheap and ready availability of goods and services all in multiple choice  – “ Which mobile phone in which colour with which apps with which payment plan would you like?”  We are now also ‘materialists’ in the sense of gradually coming to believe that reality is defined only by the material world of the physical. We no longer seriously believe in a ‘metaphysic’, that reality includes that which is bigger (Meta) and greater than the physical and material. This has been reinforced by a popular form of ‘scientific materialism’ whose tendency is to reductionism in its approach to knowledge and knowing. Its belief or doctrine is that the only ‘real’ things are the material and physical – energy, matter, atoms, particles, forces, etc., things we can measure.  It’s a bit like describing music as just fluctuating air pressure that the human ear is capable of detecting. It’s an accurate statement as far as it goes but there is so much more to say!

This greatly limits the field of the exploration of knowledge and wisdom and it has nothing to say about the questions that are of most importance to us and the meaning of our lives: – What is a satisfactory ethical basis for determining what is right and wrong? What is the nature of Justice, love, goodness, honour, beauty and truth? What is a virtuous life and why should it be pursued rather than a completely self- interested one? What is the nature of evil and how should we respond to it? How do we create a free society that is based on a view of the common good?

Also the loss of a strong historical perspective and knowledge from general education has also impoverished us intellectually. This is often joined by what C S Lewis called “chronological snobbery” where modernity’s pride in its achievements has treated as premodern superstitions the knowledge, wisdom and spirituality of the past and so discarded them.

These ideas in their popular form have closed much of the contemporary mind to the idea of the transcendent and the deeper reality of God, though not entirely as Taylor points out.[iv] It leaves our culture in a kind of existential vacuum of meaning and purpose and eventually produces for many a vague and perverse nihilism. Cultures abhor a spiritual and moral vacuum and so they seek to fill it with substitutes, this leads either to seeking constant superficial distraction or entering into denial or despair. All are evident today but we may see them challenged or exaggerated by the current crisis of the pandemic, particularly as our normal distractions are removed by isolation.

Some of us will be touched by loss and grief by this virus. We may lose loved ones, family, friends, and colleagues. In this present ‘fallen’ and imperfect world how to live involves also how to grieve. Loss in its various painful forms is one of our constant companions in life, and at a time like this it becomes a more familiar and threatening one. It may come in the form of a loss of Job and financial security or in its most painful form in the death of someone we love. The Christian faith tells us that the way for us to grieve and survive is only by first loving the one who will always be there and will never pass away. The answer is not to stop loving life and family and friends but to encompass life and our loved ones in our love for God and His love. Only in this way can our grieving be suffused with hope, the hope that is bought by Christ’s death and resurrection, which has transformed death and ushers in Gods coming Kingdom in which “God will wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev 21:4.) In the words of Augustine it is a hope that is guaranteed by the one “who can restore what has been lost, bring to life what has died, repair what has been corrupted, and keep thereafter without end what has come to an end”.[v] Our love for the ones we love and their love for us is preserved and hidden with Christ in God.

We must also always recognise that grief and loss are complicated and often infused with anger at the world and God, even with ourselves. To reach the point of bringing this to God and reaching the hope described above can be a very slow and difficult journey for many of us, even if we have been Christians for many years.  Never the less it is in this hope that as Christians we live and grieve and die.

Peter Corney.

Footnotes             

[i]   Although one very positive thing to emerge in the last few weeks has been the way the state Premiers have put aside party politics to create  what is now in effect the decision making body for the whole country chaired by the P.M. during this crisis.

[ii] The philosophical roots of Post Modernism take us back to the post WW2 emergence of the Existentialism of Sartre and Camus and the 60’s – 70’s social revolution. In fact a reading of Camus’ novel “The Plague” is worth doing while you’re in ‘lock down’!

On the sensitive issue of gender and identity politics it is important to note that where identity politics has taken on racism and discrimination it has helped to push modern society to be fairer and more just on many levels and so sits in the best tradition of Western liberalism. But at its extreme edges it can fall into the socially fragmenting tendency of Post Modernity’s hyper individualism. The democratic social project requires a ‘social contract’ where individuals accept their responsibility to the common good as well as their right to individual freedom. There are always tensions in this ‘contract’, they can only be managed constructively by consultation, listening and genuine community, but hyper individualism is often the enemy of these.

[iii] “A Secular Age” by Charles Taylor published by Harvard U.P 2007. See also the article by Taylor in the Hedgehog  Review Fall 2010  https://hedgehogreview.com/issues/does-religious-pluralism-require-secularism/articles/the-meaning-of-secularism. Also James K.A. Smith’s very helpful primer for Taylors rather large book!  James K.A.Smith “How (Not) to be secular –Reading Charles Taylor” pub. Eerdmans 2014.

[iv] Taylor points out we are, as he puts it, “Cross pressured” – conflicted about our experiences, the rumour of transcendence persists in our lives in all sorts of ways through music, art, literature, nature and relationships of love, and even in our encounters with evil that we cannot explain just by our rationalisations from sociology and psychology.

[v] At this time I have been reading James K.A. Smith’s very thoughtful journey with Augustine and his life, “On The Road With Saint Augustine –  A real world spirituality for restless hearts,” pub.Brazos Press 2019. I am indebted to Smith for these thoughts on loss and grief and for the quotations from his very helpful book. See p. 212-217.

 


The Centrality of the Cross (This is series of seven studies for groups – 68 pages)

 

 

The Gospel and the
Centrality of the Cross

By Peter Corney

 

 


 

 

The Gospel and the
Centrality of the Cross

The preaching of the Cross as the power and wisdom of God.

A study of 1Corinthians 1-3 with observations on the exercise of power and knowledge in contemporary culture.

By Peter Corney (2019)

Contents

Introduction

Chapter 1:   In Christ’s death on the Cross is centred the Power and Wisdom of God

  • Why are we not seeing that Power and Wisdom more widely displayed in our current preaching and evangelism?
  • Is it the current negative and hostile cultural pressures on Christianity?
  • Is it that the Church has failed to preach the “Scandal of the Cross”?
  • How can we recover the New Testament teaching of the Cross in our preaching and discipling?

Chapter 2:   The Corinthian Church – a case study of Christians whose values and world views were not sufficiently transformed by the Gospel

  • Their disunity – Paul and Apollos.
  • The influence of the values of their culture.
  • The challenge for us in the Post Christian West.
  • The need to recapture an influence in tertiary education.

Chapter 3:   Examples of theological reductionism in the preaching of the Cross

  • The Cross as an example of moral courage.
  • The Cross as an example of the moral power of passive resistance to evil and violence.
  • The Cross as an example of the reversal of worldly values.
  • The NT teaching on the Cross as the radical challenge to our fallenness and alienation from the Holy God.
  • The centrality of the NT teaching of substitutionary atonement to the meaning of the Cross.

Chapter 4:   The radical difference between God’s Power and Wisdom and those of the world

  • Our culture – the sea we swim in and the air we breathe.
  • God’s Wisdom and Power is essentially relational.
  • Our cultures understanding of Knowledge and power. Two examples:
    (1) “Scientific Materialism” (or Scientific Naturalism), and
    (2) Radical individualism.
  • Nietzsche’s prophecy- no solid ground now just adrift on a restless sea!

Chapter 5:   God’s secret hidden wisdom

  • Decreed by God but hidden from before time began and now revealed in the Gospel of the Cross.
  • The Church now responsible for its declaration to the world.
  • Its purpose is to bring us the restoration of our intimacy with God, to once again “see God face to face” and to behold his glory.
  • God’s glory is a rich Biblical idea; it includes not only the experience of his blazing holiness and love but also the truth and meaning of all things – true Wisdom and knowledge.

Chapter 6:   God’s power and political power

  • The conflict between God’s power and worldly political power.
  • The persecution of the Church and our response.
  • An illustration of the conflict in the trial of Jesus.
  • Jesus’ incarnation as an example of how we are to exercise power and the key question to ask in all situations.

Chapter 7:   Common human barriers to the Gospel

  • Our fallen natures and the desire for independence and our resistance to God’s authority.
  • The role of the Holy Spirit and the value of reasoned apologetics.
  • We cannot achieve reconciliation with God by our own efforts.
  • The initiative lies with God.

Conclusion…

Appendix:    Essay “Eden – No Entry!”

Recommended Reading

Introduction

At the time of writing[1], we in Australia are focussed as a society on the abuse of power in our institutions. We have had in recent times a series of Royal Commissions into the abuse in our institutions of: children, failing child protection systems and youth detention centres, people with a disability, the treatment of the elderly in nursing homes, the treatment of the mentally ill and family violence. Since 2013 we have had seven federal Royal Commissions on these themes and at least six State commissions. Then there has been the commission on the abuse of power and corruption in our banking and finance sector and one on Trade Union governance and corruption.

In addition, the marginalisation of and discrimination against people by ethnicity and gender has become a major focus of popular discourse with the emergence of identity politics. There is also a deep cynicism in the electorate about the political system and its vulnerability to corruption and pressure from those with money and power. This is a very confronting time for the thoughtful Australian citizen.

In this context one of our dangers is adopting the “ideology of oppression”[2] as the only lens through which we can view and understand history, the social structures of our culture and human nature. This can lead us into a new “nihilism” and loss of hope, believing Nietzsche’s claim that “Man is just the will to power,”[3] or worse, to embracing radical political solutions that recent history has shown us are even more oppressive than the state of some of our present institutions. The other temptation is to give up the task of reforming the institutions that we have constructed to serve our hard-won democratic processes and give in to cynicism or despair.  The reality is that “Culture is both oppressor and gift giver, to think of it only as oppressor is naïve, unbalanced and ideological.”[4]

We also need to understand the relationship between power and authority as they are not the same. Power is the ability to command or lead, to make decisions, to get things done. It can also be the ability to dominate, control and compel submission in others, and so the relationship between power and legitimate authority is crucial. Legitimate institutional authority can be created in a number of ways, by democratic processes that delegate permission and delineate the scope of the exercise of power, or by the common acceptance of tradition and values. In individuals who may have no formal institutional position it can be by the recognition of their possession of knowledge, wisdom, experience and above all of virtue and character.

All this affects how we are to understand the nature and legitimate use of power and its limits and the role of permission to exercise it, how permission is given and then how accountability for its exercise is structured. Our democratic political system has developed some principles, structures and systems to do this but is not perfect and cannot be applied simplistically to all institutions. It also raises the question: From where do we personally gain the wisdom and character to exercise it rightly?

In this series of studies in 1Corinthians 1—3 the focus is on the power and wisdom of God as demonstrated in the death and resurrection of Christ and the preaching of the Cross.

This message about God’s power, its purpose, and how he exercises it, is the message that Christians are charged with speaking into and living out in the present culture. A context of heightened awareness of the abuse and misuse of power in the society and institutions we have created and in which we live and work.

Chapter 1:   In Christ’s death on the Cross is centred the Power and the Wisdom of God

Read: 1 Corinthians 1:17–31

“You are great Lord and greatly to be praised;
great is your power,
and to your wisdom is no end.”[5]

In 1 Corinthians 1:18 Paul makes the startling claim “that the message of the cross … is the power of God” and in vs 23-24 that “Christ crucified … is the power of God and the wisdom of God.” It is a claim he repeats in Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.”[6] And in Colossians 1:19-20 he makes the staggering claim that through Christ’s death on the cross God effected a cosmic reconciliation of “all things” alienated from Himself and affected by the Fall. So the New Testament message is clear – in Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection is centred and expressed the power and wisdom of God and if we are to see that power and wisdom at work afresh in our culture we must revive the preaching of the Cross.

As Christians we believe that God’s power[7] is not just the greatest power but the source of all power and his law is the guide to the just and merciful use of all power. His wisdom is not just the greatest and most comprehensive wisdom but the source of all true knowledge and wisdom.  The essential purpose and action of God’s power and wisdom is relational, it is directed to our salvation and the restoration of our relationship with God.  Its method is ‘incarnational’, it is centred and demonstrated in Christs incarnation, his life, his death on the cross and his resurrection. This gives the Christian a radical and unique understanding of power and wisdom and how it should be exercised.[8]

This leads us inexorably to some challenging questions.

If this is true, then why are we not seeing this power more widely at work in our evangelism and preaching today? Why are we seeing so many of our young people falling away and failing to embrace in their discipleship the challenge of Jesus to take up their cross and follow him?

Is it the context in which we work and its negative and often hostile cultural pressures on Christianity? There are certainly many, but the NT Church also faced hostility. Paul acknowledges the hostile attitude of the two major cultural groups of his time; the Greco-Roman culture and the Jewish culture. (See 1Cor 1: 18-25) The Greek and Roman culture found this message foolish and ridiculous. The Greek word in the text is translated as ‘foolish’ (vs 18); it is the word from which we get ‘moronic’ in English! The Jews on the other hand thought the crucifixion of the Messiah was a ‘scandalous’ idea (vs 23), a heresy that struck at the heart of their beliefs, an idea that would cause a good Jew to stumble and fall away from the true faith. So, like many people in our own culture today, both groups found the idea of God’s death on a cross as alien, strange and offensive. Yet, this message was the power that set off the spiritual explosion that created the New Testament Church!

So, we come back to our question: Why are we not seeing this power at work more broadly through our preaching and evangelism? Is it just the hostile environment of aggressive secularism?

The following are some of the factors in the present cultural context in which we work in Australia, and more generally in the West, that are often raised as barriers to the Gospel:

  1. The loss of the Christian memory in our Western culture.
  2. The growing aggressive secularism of our culture.
  3. The cynicism and loss of respect for the Church due to the exposure of the Church’s involvement in and cover up of the sexual abuse of children by some of its clergy and leaders.
  4. The spirit of modernity that finds the Gospel and its imagery and concepts strange and alien and pre-modern.
  5. The popular narrative of “Scientific Materialism” (or ‘naturalism’) that has so captured the modern mind that it has lost its openness to anything beyond the material and physical. Like the roof of the Tennis Centre on a night threatening rain, it’s gradually closed to the heavens, to the transcendent, to anything greater or bigger than the material. We were so absorbed in the game we didn’t notice![9]
  6. The counter narrative of Post Modernism where there is no absolute truth to find. The only authority is the individual’s subjective perspective. An attitude that finds the truth claims and moral absolutes of the Christian faith offensive to its selective relativism and cynical scepticism.
  7. The contemporary atmosphere of radical individualism and personal freedom so dominates the Western mind and desires now that it accepts few ethical and moral restraints on individual freedom of choice.
  8. The prosperity of the West that has so distracted us with constant entertainment, advertising and information. The ubiquitous screens of our mobile phones keep us in constant but superficial communication, we no longer have the space or time in our lives for the solitude and reflection that serious religious faith requires.
  9. The nihilism that has overtaken much of our contemporary philosophy and the arts has led many thoughtful people to a kind of bleak despair. A trip to our most avant garde gallery in Tasmania, MONA, is an interesting but rather depressing experience. Our culture seems to leave people with three options – denial, distraction or despair!

So, is it that these cultural forms of resistance or distraction have blunted our efforts at communicating the power and wisdom of the Cross, or is that we have failed? Have we failed to focus on the message of Christ crucified? Have we been seduced into modifying the message to suit the prevailing spirit of our age and so reduced it and accommodated it that we have gradually changed or weakened the New Testament teaching? Being mocked, dismissed, laughed at and rejected as weird is not a pleasant experience. Have we failed in the discipling of our young people to prepare them for this form of rejection when they witness to the Cross? Jesus said, “If you want to be my disciple you must take up your cross and follow me.”[10]

Every culture has some form of resistance to the message of the cross, or a way of attempting to disarm its power. That is because all cultures contain forms of resistance to God in the shape of human pride and independence – the core of our original resistance.[11] These take many forms, it might, as in the spirit of secular modernity, be an intellectual resistance in the form of the idea of ‘autonomous human reason’ that operates disconnected from any link to the transcendent. For example, in its manifestation in ‘Scientific materialism’, that we referred to above, it locks out any concept of a ‘metaphysic’ – something bigger than or in addition to the physical and material. So all we have to work with in attempting to answer our questions about the meaning and purpose of our lives is the physical / material, just matter and energy, particles and forces. Needless to say, this approach fails to provide any satisfactory answers to our most pressing and important human questions about the nature of justice, right and wrong, the reality of evil, the good, the virtues, beauty, art, love, loyalty, honour, the ultimate meaning and purpose of our lives. (This idea is expanded later in Chapter 4.)

Every age has its mental and emotional ‘plausibility structure’, what it finds believable or unbelievable. On the other hand, the resistance may be less intellectual or philosophical; it may be a hedonistic preoccupation with pleasure, or an obsession with utopian political dreams without God. The resistance takes different forms in different cultural epochs.

So, if we are to resist falling into the trap of reducing or accommodating the message of the Cross to the cultural pressures of our age; or on the other hand, retreating into a cultural and intellectual ghetto and failing to engage our cultures dominating ideas and idols; what do we need to do?

There are three steps we need to take:

  1. Re-examine the NT explanations of the meaning of the Cross and the rich and diverse range of ideas, images and metaphors it uses. The following are some examples that reoccur in the NT:
    1. The legal: The idea of justification or acquittal before God’s law. Because Christ has paid the penalty for our sin we are then declared justified or righteous through our faith in his death for us and his righteousness is imputed or attributed to us. (See Romans 3: 19-27. This passage is very important as it illustrates how Paul brings together in the one sustained argument several different ways of explaining how Christ’s death achieves our salvation.) See also Romans 5:1-2 & 9, 8:30-34, 10:10, 1 Corinthians 6:11, Galatians 2:15-21, 3:10-14, Titus3:4-7 and Acts13:38-39.
    2. Redemption /ransom: A ransom was the price paid for the setting free or redeeming of a slave. We who are slaves to sin and the laws judgment on us are set free by Christ’s death for us as a ransom price. The freedom can also be from the power of a hostile or foreign political power. (Romans 3:24 Mark 10:45, 2 Timothy 2:5-6, Hebrews 9:11-15, 1 Peter 1:18, Titus 2:11-14, 1 Cor 1:30, Ephesians 1:17, 14, 4:20, Colossians 1:13-14, Gal 3:13-15, 23-29, 4:5.)
    3. A sacrifice/substitutionary atonement/shedding of blood: the idea that Christ’s death is a substitutionary sacrifice in our place that atones for our sin which we appropriate individually by our faith in him. (Romans 3:9-26, 1 John 2:1-2, 4:10, 1 Corinthians 15: 3-4. Hebrews 2:17. (The letter to the Hebrews is a sustained explanation of the anticipatory nature of the OT. Temple sacrifices for sin, and in particular the Day of Atonement that anticipates their fulfilment in Christ’s final once-for-all sacrifice on the cross. See also Isaiah 53:5.)
    4. Reconciliation/Relational: The possibility of reconciliation and peace with God is achieved through his action in Christ to forgive us. (2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Romans 5:10-11.)
    5. Victory over evil: In the Cross, death and resurrection of Jesus a great spiritual conflict is engaged in, victory over evil is achieved and sin and death are vanquished by Christ. (1Corinthians 15:54-57, 1John 5:4-5, Colossians 2:13-15, Hebrews 2:14-15, Ephesians 6:10-13.)
    6. Liberation/Freedom/The Passover: Jesus as the Passover Lamb (Exodus 12: 1-24) whose blood both protects us from God’s judgment and death and liberates us from slavery. In the Exodus account it is the liberation of Israel from Egyptian power and enslavement. Paul applies the Passover to our freedom through Christ in I Corinthians 5:7-8. (See also Mark 14:12-26 where Jesus institutes the Lords Supper in the context of the Passover meal and note vs’s 23-24.)

In Luke 4: 16 -21, at the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus announces his mission and describes it in startling terms of “proclaiming freedom for the prisoners … and release to the oppressed … to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Isaiah 61:1-2). It has been noted by some scholars that the phrase “the year of the Lord’s favour” was associated with The OT year of the Jubilee in which every 50 years people were freed from their debts; if their right to their family property had been lost this was restored; slaves were freed; etc.  (See Leviticus 25: 1-10)

  1. Rebirth/renewal: The idea of being spiritually reborn in Christ through his death. (See John3:3-15 and Titus 3:4-7.)

In these and other NT images, metaphors, illustrations and explanations, sometimes used singularly and at others in combination, are contained the revolutionary idea that “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” on the Cross (2 Corinthians 5:16-21). We need to revisit and study this rich mine of NT teaching on the Cross before we seek to apply it to our generation.

  1. Second, we need to engage and understand our generation’s longings and hopes, the causes of its despair, its guilt, its fears and confusions, its false confidences, and think creatively how we can apply most appropriately the rich variety of illustrations and metaphors of the NT to explain the meaning of the cross to them. Now it is in this work that we have to take the greatest care that we do not reduce or adapt the core meaning of Christ’s death to the spirit of our age. In Colossians 2:8 Paul says: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” In our case is it the spirit of ‘secular modernity’ and its idea of autonomous reason and its rejection of the transcendent?

Also, in this process we need to remember the role of the Holy Spirit. This is a spiritual battle, as Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 2: 1-5: “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.” He makes the same point to the Thessalonian Church “Our Gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.” (1 Thessalonians 1:4)

  1. So the challenge we have is to restore the NT preaching of the Cross to a central place in our evangelism and the making of disciples. We need to examine the content of our preaching and the spirit in which we approach it to see if it stacks up with the New Testament preaching and teaching. In 1 Corinthians 1:17 Paul gives us the disturbing warning that we can, by our anxiety to accommodate the Gospel to be more acceptable to the human wisdom of our times, empty the cross of its power! We do this by our theological reductionism, our adaptions and omissions, what we emphasise or de-emphasise, and by our lack of dependence on the Holy Spirit. The word he uses is translated here as “empty”. It can also be translated as “hollowed out, deprived of content, made ineffective.” The stakes are high here for if we empty the Cross of its power to save, we condemn those we are trying to communicate with to alienation from God and we also condemn the Church to a spiritually powerless decline in our culture.

Questions for discussion

  1. Which of the nine cultural barriers to the Gospel mentioned above do you find most challenging and why?
  2. Which of the NT examples of explanations of the Cross do you find are the most appropriate to explain the meaning of the Cross to people today?
  3. Which of the NT examples given above do you find yourself avoiding and why?

 

 

Chapter 2:   The Corinthian Church – a case study of Christians whose values and world views were not sufficiently transformed by the Gospel

Read 1 Corinthians 1:1-17, 2:6-16, 3:1-22

“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world,
but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom.12:2)

Sometime after Paul planted the Church at Corinth Apollos arrived, the gifted teacher from North Africa. His particular gifts helped to build up the Church, but his style was different to Paul’s. We learn from Acts 18:24-28 and 19:1 that Apollos was an Alexandrian Jew, a recent convert, a scholar and gifted speaker who was particularly effective among Jewish enquirers and new Jewish converts of the ‘diaspora’, the Hellenised Jews living in Greco- Roman cities.

Alexandria in North Africa was founded and built by the Greek kings at the height of their power. In the first century it was the principal city of North Africa, a major sea port, famed for its architecture, its learning and sophistication. It had a great library of thousands of works. Although a Greek city, it had a large Jewish population and became the intellectual centre for the Jewish dispersion. It was there that the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament was produced. It was in Alexandria that Jewish scholars sought to synthesise the Philosophy of Athens with the Old Testament.

This is where Apollos was trained and so he would be fluent, not only in the OT but also in Greek thought and the whole Alexandrian tradition of interaction and apologetics between Athens and Jerusalem. He would also be trained in ‘rhetoric’ and the art of speaking and arguing your case which was part of the Greek tradition.

Now it appears from 1 Corinthians 1:10 -17 3:1-17 that something of a popularity contest had arisen over Paul and Apollos and their different styles and this had led to divisions in the Corinthian Church! But notice that Paul never criticises Apollos, his criticism is levelled at the Corinthian Christians and their attitude. In 3:18-21 he takes them to task for their immaturity and their values and world views, they are still not transformed enough by the Gospel. They are still governed by the values of their culture, “…you think you are wise by the standards of this age.” (vs18) (in their case by the attitudes of the Greco/Roman culture of the Empire and second Temple Judaism). These were the two main cultural groups that made up the Corinthian Church.

What were some of those attitudes?

For converts from the Pagan Greek and Roman culture, they had absorbed the Greek emphasis on learning and philosophy (what they termed ‘Wisdom’) and also the skills of rhetoric, the art of persuasive argument in public speaking. Their religious inclinations were speculative and syncretistic. Many were cynical like Pilate “What is truth?” It was also a culture based on status and power, and education or learning was a factor in their view of status.

The Jewish converts also had a high view of learning, but this was in the Jewish Rabbinic tradition and the legalism of Judaism. They also valued Wisdom but understood it in the sense of right living through keeping God’s law.

But to both groups the preaching of the Cross was a problem. It was deeply countercultural and either absurd intellectually or morally offensive. For the Romans crucifixion was a death only appropriate for slaves and serious crimes against the Empire, crimes that required the ultimate deterrent. Even to that very cruel and brutal culture crucifixion was seen as an appalling death. To educated Romans and Greeks it seemed absurd and, in their philosophy and idea of wisdom, without merit to associate religious truth with the cross. It was a symbol of weakness, failure, immorality, humility, torture and defeat, not power.

For the Jews too it was deeply offensive, they saw it as the ultimate curse. Deuteronomy 21:23 says: “Anyone guilty of a capital offence was to be put to death and their body hung on a tree … anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” The notion that the anticipated Messiah would endure this was unthinkable. (The same reaction is expressed in Islam today; the idea of a crucified God is unthinkable to them.)

So, for both groups the preaching of the Cross was culturally embarrassing and a huge barrier. And yet it was at the heart of the Gospel the NT Church preached! In the introduction to his letter to the Christians in Rome Paul says: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, and then to the Gentile.” (Rom 1:16)

This is all very applicable and challenging for us now in a Post Christian Secular West

We can easily forget how our minds and emotions are shaped by the culture we inhabit and lose our sense of critical appraisal of that culture – where it is ungodly, and where its ideas, general assumptions and presuppositions are now in conflict with a Christian and Biblical world view. We can easily slip into a sense of embarrassment with the NT teaching on why and how the death of Christ rescues us from our alienation from God as it seems so foreign to our culture, just as Paul describes its reception in his culture as “foolishness to the Greeks.” But unlike Paul we can react by reducing the message. We can for example say: “The Gospel is all about God’s love” but fail to explain why that love was compelled to take on human flesh in the incarnation and die for us on a bloody cross, and how that deals with our sin and alienation from a holy God. There is only a small step in such omissions from reducing the Gospel to emptying it of its power. In the next chapter we will look at three common examples of how this is done in some popular preaching.

The wisdom and eloquence of the world

In 1 Corinthians 1:17 Paul says that “Christ sent me to preach the Gospel not with wisdom and eloquence lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” What Paul means by wisdom and eloquence is what we would call the current ideas and ideological fashions that dominate the times in which we live, and the common narratives and rhetorical tactics that are used in the popular discourse to discredit Christianity. In our context it is ideas like the assumed conflict between science and religion; the rejection of the transcendent as part of reality (that there is something greater than just the material and physical); that moral values are just a social construct and have no origin in any transcendent or objective truth.[12]

Challenging Atheistic Secularism and Autonomous Reason

In relation to serious philosophical and thoughtful discussion of ideas, particularly in the public space, Christians today need to return to a more confident and less apologetic stance and to assert our right to challenge the assumptions of aggressive secularism.

Christian theology and apologetics must no longer concede all authority to determine or adjudicate how we understand epistemology (our theory of knowledge) and ontology (our theory of the nature of being) to the current philosophical discourse and in particular the common assumptions of many in politics, the media and higher education. We must recognise that the philosophical project is never neutral or an unbiased search for truth. Everyone has presuppositions, sometimes they are aware of them, at other times not. If we believe that the source of true knowledge and wisdom is God, then our position must be to reject the idea of autonomous reason. Our stance must be that true knowledge requires both theological insight and human reason. This means we must step back into the public domain, including tertiary education, in relation to the whole range of thought and knowledge. The French philosopher Etienne Gilson put the point succinctly; “If man is made in the image of God, how can he know himself without knowing God?[13]

Atheistic secularism has spent considerable energy pushing religious thought and experience into the private domain of personal preference and experience. At the same time, it has also claimed the right to critique, reject or interpret religious thought and experience in purely psychological or materialist terms (like brain function). But at the same time, it resists the right of theology to critique its reductionist, materialist and anti-metaphysical views! We cannot allow that narrow control over the presuppositions of higher education and the discussion of knowledge to go unchallenged as the only valid position.[14]

Hans Kung, the European philosopher and theologian, made this point strongly: “Modernity’s house has been, with two world wars, at least in the case of fascism and Stalinism, burned down to the foundation walls. … Modernity finds itself in transition, as a paradigm that has grown old and that must be built up anew. … We must deny the reductionism of Modernity with respect to the deeper spiritual and religious levels of reality. We must also deny Modernity’s superstitious faith in reason, science and progress along with all the destructive forces that this faith has unleashed … in the course of our (recent) history.”[15]

Now that does not mean that we reject the critical power and insights of the Enlightenment and retreat into a new kind of fundamentalism. But if our core confession is “Jesus is Lord”, then we must challenge the reductionism of Modernity and the sceptical destruction of all foundations by Post Modernity. This may be the only way of constructively saving Modernity from itself and saving Post Modernity from collapsing into complete subjectivity and nihilism. As Kung says, “Hope must remain empty without a final ground of being.”15

If we are to be true to our confession of the Incarnation, we must pursue this path and reject the false opposition between faith and reason. We must embrace the truth that only an incarnational faith can lead us to true knowledge. In this faith the Divine takes on human flesh in Christ – the transcendent with the human: human rationality, human feelings and passions with Divine wisdom, human frailty with God’s power (See Phil.2:5-11). This path will challenge the sense of superiority that atheistic secularism, autonomous reason and scientific reductionism assume, and the idea that faith is a private matter and has no place in the discussion of knowledge, morality and public policy.

Given our current political and social contract in the West, if we wish to pursue in the democratic project a true liberal pluralism and multiculturalism, then success can only be achieved if we respect and give genuine space in the public debate and policy formation for religious views and beliefs, and uphold freedom of religion and respectful religious expression. The state must provide unequivocally for this freedom and strictly limit any legislative impositions that threaten or undermine it.

Theologically Christians will also reject the temptation to pursue an apologetic approach that operates on the assumptions of Secularism, Positivism[16] and Scientific Materialism. That was the well-meaning but mistaken pathway of liberal theology that contributed to our current intellectual and spiritual impotency, and our retreat from the “scandal of the Cross.”

Paul is bold and confident in his faith in the Gospel “We… speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” (1 Cor: 6-8.)

Questions for discussion

  1. What are you most tempted to de-emphasise in the NT explanations of Christ’s death? Do you think that is valid?
  2. In your evangelistic preaching do you make the meaning of Christ’s death a key part of your preaching?
  3. Which of the NT metaphors or illustrations of Christ’s death would you choose as most relevant to the people you work with?

Chapter 3:   Examples of theological reductionism in the preaching of the Cross

Read 1 Corinthians 1: 17-25, Romans 3:19-26, Hebrews 9:11-15, 10:19-23, Isaiah 53: 5-6

“Christianity is concerned with God’s holiness above all else; which issues to man as love, acts upon sin as grace,
and exercises grace through judgment.
The idea of God’s holiness is inseparable from the idea of God’s judgment as the mode by which grace goes into action.
And by judgment is meant … the acceptance by Christ of God’s judgment on man’s behalf.”[17]

The following are three common examples in some popular preaching of hollowing out or “emptying” the Cross of Christ of its power. They are all illustrations of majoring on an aspect of the Cross’s significance that is true, but not its core meaning – they are reductions.

  1. The first example emphasises that the Cross is primarily an example of moral courage and self-sacrifice. “Greater love has no man than this that he is willing to lay down his life for his friend.” We are familiar with this theme in Anzac Day services. It is a powerful and noble image. But unless the application to Jesus’ death for our sins is drawn the image fails to explain the reason for and the result of Jesus’ act of moral courage. The Cross is meant to make more than a moral impression on us, to do more than just lift our moral idealism! Its purpose is to redeem us from our moral guilt before God’s law and our inability and failure to live up to the righteous life to which He calls us. It is about our accountability before God and his holiness and how He dealt with that justly and mercifully.
  2. The second example emphasises that the Cross is primarily an example of the moral power of passive resistance to evil and violence — that sin, evil and violence can be ultimately defeated by non-violence and passive resistance. Once again, this has an aspect of the truth to it, but to explain the Cross fully we need to move beyond parallels to Ghandi and Martin Luther King, inspiring as they both are! We need to enter into an explanation of the real spiritual battle being engaged in the death of Christ in the spiritual realm. As Colossians 2:14-15 explain “…having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he (Christ) has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”
  3. The third example has similarities to the second. It is to see the Cross as primarily an example of the reversal of worldly values. That immoral use of power can be defeated by the power of truth, love and justice. Now while this is a legitimate and admirable aspiration to hold out to people in their community and political life, it does not necessarily lead them to the personal experience of God’s freedom from the temptation to misuse power in their own life. It is this freedom that is the source of the inner motivation to act for truth, love and justice in political action. As P.T. Forsyth points out in his book The Cruciality of the Cross: “Public liberty rests on inward freedom and the Cross alone gives moral freedom.”17 It is in our personal experience of the freedom of forgiveness and grace through the Cross that we have the desire and the strength to work for “public liberty” in the daily experience of life. The brutal facts are that the powerful (in worldly terms) most often seem to win through money, influence and the abuse of power. So while the ideal held out in this example is noble and challenging, it does not explain the essential meaning of what takes place in Christ’s death on the cross and in his resurrection, and how it empowers a person to act morally. Nor does it explain why God exercises his power in the particular way of the Cross.

Each of these aspects of Christ’s death has some moral value and attractiveness but on their own they are reductions of the full meaning of his death and resurrection. They may be used as starting points, but they must go further. While they may be a strong appeal to our moral courage to confront the world’s misuse of power, they do not explain how the Cross changes our relationship with the holy God nor deal with our own personal accountability for the abuse of power. On their own they all lead us back to the essential problem of our inability to keep God’s moral law. God’s law is not a ladder we can climb to reach approval. It is a ruler that shows us how short we fall and so points us to Christ and his atoning death. The problem, and God’s solution, is outlined very clearly by Paul in Romans 3:9-26.

The three examples above may touch our conscience to try and live with more moral courage, but they do not address our inability to do it consistently. They lead us instead to a sentimental and over-optimistic humanism that is powerless in the face of human weakness and our fallen tendency to “the will to power.”3

When describing the preaching of the false prophets of Israel, Jeremiah said “They dress the wounds of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” (Jer. 6:14). We must deal with the heart of the problem, and to do that we must communicate God’s radical solution in the Cross.

A failure to preach the Cross as a substitutionary atonement for our sin and fallen state fails to grapple with the radical nature of our human moral and spiritual problem, one that is deeply embedded in all of us. Consider the following Biblical truths:

  1. Our fallen nature is bent towards “the will to power.” — First in challenging God’s authority, and then in exercising exploitative power over others. The prevalence of this in marriage, business and political leadership is sadly all too evident.
  2. God’s moral order is an expression of his love for us. It is his design for human flourishing. But we consistently seek to overturn or subvert it. As a result, we have created extremely destructive behaviours that continue to cause immense human suffering. This includes our exploitation of, and damage to, the natural environment whose health and stewardship was entrusted to us by God.[18]
  3. God holds us accountable for these decisions and actions. He has created us as moral beings with the freedom to choose and the knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong. We are responsible and accountable to Him and his law.
  4. The Bible regularly uses language and images that depict God’s essential holiness as like a “refiner’s fire” in whose presence evil and sin cannot survive but is consumed. The two cannot coexist before Him. Deut 4:24 says “The Lord your God is a consuming fire.” These Biblical statements about God’s character do not sit comfortably with our contemporary “therapeutic culture” of constant affirmation and acceptance. Nevertheless, they correctly describe God’s insistence on truth, righteousness, justice and holiness. God’s love is a holy love.[19]
  5. If we are to enter his holy presence, our sin and evil must be dealt with and removed justly. The radical nature of our problem required a radical solution – our repentance and acceptance of God’s provision of a universal and once-for-all act of atonement made by Christ on the cross.

The principle is clearly laid down in the Old Testament at the very beginning of God’s covenant with his people and was regularly enacted in the Temple liturgy on the Day of Atonement. This ‘anticipation’ (Heb. 9:8) finally found its fulfilment in the Messiah’s coming in Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection and ascension. The NT explains the fulfilment of the OT anticipation and its availability now to all people clearly in the letter to the Hebrews (See Hebrews 9:1-28.)[20]

In recent times, among some Evangelicals, objections have been raised against the idea of “Penal substitution.”[21] In his outstanding book “The Cross of Christ” John Stott carefully and comprehensively addresses these objections.[22] For example he makes the point that some find the idea of the ‘imputation’ or transfer of our sin to Christ and his righteousness to us (2 Cor. 5:21) as unjust and offensive. But Stott point out this is based on a misunderstanding; imputation does not imply the transference of one person’s moral qualities to another, which would be impossible. “No, what was transferred to Christ were not moral qualities but legal consequences: he voluntarily accepted liability for our sins.”[23] The Biblical teaching about substitutionary atonement must also be understood within the orthodox creedal teaching on the nature of the Trinity.

Stott sums up the Biblical material in this way: “When we review all this Old Testament material (the shedding and sprinkling of blood, the sin offering, the Passover, the meaning of ‘sin bearing’, the scapegoat and Isaiah 53,) and consider its application to the death of Christ, we are obliged to conclude that the cross was a substitutionary sacrifice. Christ died for us, Christ died instead of us.”[24]

An issue that is also often raised by contemporary people is that an emphasis on the atonement and a bloody sacrifice sounds like an echo of primitive paganism that we have surely outgrown. This gives apparent strength to the moral appeal of the three examples we have presented of some contemporary preaching as they all avoid this criticism by omission of substitutionary atonement! But in fact, the NT explanation of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross is the complete opposite to the pagan idea and practice. In the Christian faith, it is God who, in his love for us, makes the sacrifice himself to satisfy the law’s righteous and just demands. In pagan worship, it is the human worshiper who attempts to placate the gods or spirits by offering their own sacrifice. But in the Christian Gospel, as Paul explains in 2 Cor 5:18-19, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ …  God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.” The unique and humanly counter-intuitive thing about the Christian Gospel is that God takes the initiative and makes the sacrifice himself.

Questions for discussion:

  1. Do you think it is possible to find contemporary images of the atonement that are faithful to the NT teaching? Can you think of any examples that would clearly explain substitutionary atonement?
  2. If people’s reaction to Biblical atonement imagery is negative because they no longer understand or accept the holiness of God and its serious implications for our moral condition, should we then start at a different place and try to create first an awareness of God’s holiness? If so, how could we do that in a way that resonates with contemporary feelings and attitudes (such as the current outrage and condemnation about child abuse, corporate corruption such as ‘wage theft’, or racial and other forms of discrimination, etc.)?
  3. Why do you think the idea of atonement is so pastorally important and positive for believers?

Chapter 4:   The radical difference between God’s Power and Wisdom and those of the world

Read: 1 Cor 3:1-23 and 15: 20-25

“Power belongs to God, and steadfast love to you O lord.” Psalm 62:11-12

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” Proverbs 1:7

We have seen that Paul’s first reason for writing to the young Corinthian church was to address their disunity over their teachers, but below this problem lay a deeper issue he wanted to challenge –their immaturity and worldliness. The Corinthian Christians’ values and world view were still not transformed enough by the Gospel; they were still dominated by the values and ideas of their culture. He describes them in in 3:1-2 as “people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ.” Two things prized by their first century Greco/Roman culture were wisdom and power, but their culture’s understanding of them was nothing like the Wisdom and Power of God.

The Corinthian church’s problem should not surprise us. We are all deeply influenced by the culture we are raised in and in which we live every day. It’s the air we breathe, the sea we swim in! In our time of constant digital communication, popular entertainment, advertising and marketing it has been described as “liquid modernity”, a wave that constantly washes over us every day. We should never underestimate its influence to shape and reshape our values, beliefs, prejudices and presuppositions.

When we embraced Christ, whether that was a decisive conversion experience at a particular time, or a realisation we gradually grew into and began to identify as a follower of Jesus, we passed into a whole new world of values, beliefs, and understandings of how we are to now think, live, decide and act. We entered into a whole new perspective on how we are to understand reality and the meaning and purpose of our lives. We began, as Paul puts it, the process of entering “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16) or, as he describes it in Rom 12:2, of no longer conforming to the pattern of this world but being transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we will know God’s will for how we should live. We entered the Kingdom of God and the realm of its values!

This is the key issue Paul is addressing here with the Corinthian Christians. In these first three chapters of 1 Corinthians, he is focussing particularly on the attitude to Wisdom and Power. So our key question in this chapter is to identify the essential difference between the fallen world’s view and God’s view.

God’s view of Wisdom and Power.

Paul’s rather startling answer in 1 Cor 1—3 is that God’s Wisdom – true wisdom – is summed up by two words: Christ crucified. And God’s Power – true poweris summed up in two events: the Cross and the Resurrection. (The emphasis on the resurrection comes later in the letter, in chapter 15.)

In chapter 1 Paul says: “For the message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God … in the wisdom of God … [He] was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached (the cross) to save those who believe” (vv 18 & 21). The aim and purpose of God’s Wisdom and Power is our salvation – our rescue, reconciliation and restoration. They are focussed on removing the barriers to, and making possible, our restoration to fellowship with Him and then to one another in loving human community. In a word God’s Wisdom and Power are essentially relational. Their purpose is reconciliation driven by love!

In the Cross and the resurrection, God does what all the world’s wisdom and power so often fails to do. It brings reconciliation, peace, unity, and deliverance from what enslaves us, our misdirected passions and our will to power over others.

The bigger picture of what is achieved by God’s power and wisdom is the final consummation of the Kingdom of God, in which the kingdoms of this world are finally gathered in unity and peace under Christ (Isaiah 2:1-4). In Romans 8:18–24, Paul paints an inspiring and cosmic picture of the “universal restoration of all things”[25] and the whole of creation’s renewal in the new heavens and the new earth.[26] Between the “now and the not yet” of the Kingdom of God, Christians are called to bring anticipations of that peace and restoration wherever we can in both individuals and communities, amidst the transient kingdoms of this world.

God’s wisdom and power have nothing in common with the world’s ideas and practices; the world sees wisdom as knowledge and power as strength and control. To further emphasise this 1 Cor 1:26-31 reveals that God grounds His wisdom and power entirely in grace, and expresses that in choosing “the weak things of the world to shame the strong … the lowly things of this world and the despised things … to nullify the things that are…” The common human elevation of pride, self-assurance and achievement, our mastery and knowledge of the physical world, our status, the money we have accumulated, our ‘leadership’ through the control of others, all these have almost nothing in common with God’s view of power and wisdom. For example, God’s idea of leadership is characterised by servanthood and the model of Jesus, the suffering servant, who lays down his life for others.[27]

Now this message had all sorts of disturbing implications for the Corinthian Christians, as it does for us. Our twenty first century preoccupation with wisdom as knowledge and power as control over others are shown in the following two examples:

  1. The first example I mentioned earlier is the false wisdom of ‘Scientific Materialism’ or ‘Scientific Naturalism’. This popular narrative is based on a narrow view of reality and the self-sufficiency of human reason. It rejects metaphysics[28] and the transcendent dimension of reality, so its tendency is to reductionism in its understanding of, and approach to, knowledge and knowing. Its belief is that the only ‘real things’ are the material and physical – energy and matter, atoms, particles, forces, etc.[29] Scientific Materialism is not just a method of discovery but contains a belief or doctrine that limits the field of exploration to what it thinks of as the ‘facts’ of the physical and material world. This has been referred to as ‘the fact/values divide.’[30] It is asserted that there is the realm of publicly verifiable ‘facts’ and the realm of socially constructed ‘values’. The second is a so-called private realm, where religion, morality, the virtues, and values like justice, goodness and love reside but cannot be verified in any objective way and, it is claimed, are relative and changeable. The Christian World View cannot accept this artificial divide.

Scientific Materialism as a popular narrative has contributed to producing in our present culture of late modernity a vacuum of meaning and purpose. It offers no way of answering our most important questions about the meaning and purpose of our existence and the values by which we should live. It shuts out (and in some cases even ridicules) traditional sources of their explanation, and ignores or dismisses over fifteen hundred years of acquired knowledge in Western culture on these matters.

It can be described as the ‘windowless room’ whose doors all lock behind you as you enter – a brilliantly lit space in which a certain kind of knowledge can be discovered. But it has no windows through which we can look out on to the wider aspects of reality. Hence the criticism that it is reductionist. It’s a bit like describing music as fluctuating air pressure that the human ear is able to detect. It’s an accurate statement as far as it goes, but it is reductionist. There is so much more to say! It also leads to the impoverished view of equating wisdom with mere knowledge of the physical world.[31]

This idea in its popular form has closed much of the contemporary mind to the idea of the transcendent and the deeper reality of God. It leaves a culture in a kind of existential vacuum of meaning and purpose, and eventually a pervasive and vague nihilism. Cultures abhor a spiritual and moral vacuum and so they seek to fill that in some way. As we observed earlier, this leads either to seeking constant superficial distraction or to entering into denial or despair. Cultures that follow this path tend to fall slowly into moral and social decay. This in turn can lead a culture into a political vulnerability to authoritarianism, fascism or violent utopianism as a solution to their dysfunction. Europe has seen both in the recent political disasters of the 20th century.[32]

  1. The second example of our contemporary quest for power is the development, at least in the West, of radical individualism. Here, the quest for power is focussed on the individual’s quest for personal autonomy and complete freedom of choice – from the brand and colour of your mobile phone, to preferred gender, to whom you will sleep with tonight, to what you believe is right and wrong. The individual is now the sole source of authority, a self-authorising agent who acknowledges almost no external restraints on the freedom of their will. Authority is now located subjectively in the self, and what is authentic or genuine or true is what and how I feel and decide.

This of course becomes a ‘hall of mirrors’ in which the only perspective I have is my own, because I can admit no other reflection! It is the ultimate trap, a kind of ethical, philosophical, emotional and spiritual narcissism. It is as if Western culture has developed a collective personality disorder, and like all people afflicted with narcissism it is relationally alienating and destructive.

This is the end of a long journey that Western culture has been on since the enlightenment in our quest for wisdom and power. Once we gradually decoupled that quest from the authority of God it was inevitable that we would come to believe in autonomous human reason as the sole means of obtaining wisdom.

Nietzsche, that erratic but insightful 19th Century atheist and prophet of our future, maintained that once belief in God died for Western culture, the inevitable result would be “the triumph of the will” and this, as he rightly discerned, would also lead to increasing our tendency to the “will to power” over others.[33]

If this is an accurate description of the present shape and direction of the mental and emotional landscape of Western culture then it is in for a very hard time, because radical individualism is in the end socially destructive. We are created as social beings, we are meant to live in community, and we only flourish in the context of interpersonal love and respect, beginning with the primary community of the family. To live in community requires accepting limits and boundaries to our individual freedoms and choices. It imposes on us duties and obligations to others and the common good, and a set of common values and commitments.

If you break this down too far, our communities become dysfunctional, our families, individuals and our politics become dysfunctional. This appears to be the present trajectory of Western culture, and so as we float adrift in a sea of radical individualism and moral relativism the storms are approaching.

Nietzsche has an arresting image of what will happen to Western culture once belief in God has died. He says it will be like leaving the stability of the land and launching out on to an uncertain sea – “we have left the land and embarked … we have burned our bridges behind us – indeed we have gone further and destroyed the land behind us … Woe then when you feel homesick for the land … there is no longer any land.”3

But the good news is that storms can make people re-evaluate what really matters to them. Storms expose the vacuum of ultimate meaning in our lives. John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace, was converted to Christ in a storm aboard a sailing ship!

Preaching the Gospel of the cross in this environment – to an anxious generation clutching their smartphones to check their latest message of affirmation or rejection – is a challenge, but presents many opportunities to connect with their growing mental, emotional and spiritual crisis.

Questions for discussion:

  1. Can you think of any personal encounters you have experienced with “radical individualism” that have been destructive to relationships and community?
  2. What do you think is the most constructive way of challenging radical individualism?
  3. How can we build into our lives and relationships the idea of God’s wisdom and power being essentially “relational”, and its purpose being reconciliation and unity?
  4. What do you think of Nietzsche’s description of the future of Western Culture (see above), and if it is accurate, how can we make a connection to it with the Gospel?

Chapter 5:   God’s secret hidden wisdom

Read 1 Cor 2:6-7 and Eph 3:7-12

‘God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the knowledge of the glory of God displayed in the face of Christ’ (2 Cor 4:6)

The idea of a secret or hidden Wisdom or a divine mystery hidden since before time began but now revealed sounds strange to our contemporary minds. But Paul wants to drive home just how different God’s wisdom and perspective is from our transient and partial worldly wisdom and knowledge. It is a wisdom whose origin is in the eternal mind and purposes of God, it existed before the world began, as expressed in John 1:1-14.[34] God’s Wisdom is centred in Christ, his life, death and resurrection. His love for us goes all the way to the cross and its purpose is our reconciliation to Him. This Wisdom says Paul is now being revealed in the preaching of the Gospel through the Church. (Eph 3:7-12)

At the end of the NT this emphasis that God’s Wisdom and plan transcends this age and is not bound by time is reinforced with a remarkable description of Jesus as “the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.” (Rev 13:8)

The knowledge that Paul urgently wants to share is that now is the time to reveal this “hidden Wisdom”, because God through the Holy Spirit has established and empowered His Church to be the witness to his Wisdom.[35] Now is the time for the Church to proclaim the Wisdom of the Cross to the world. He expresses this succinctly in Eph 3:10 “God’s intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known…” This then becomes the Christian community’s primary calling till Jesus returns to consummate the Kingdom of God.

The second extraordinary and encouraging idea that Paul brings to us in 1 Cor 2:7 is that this divine plan was “for our glory”. God wants us fallen, broken, self-serving people to experience His glory! “… we declare God’s Wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.” But how does this declaration of the Gospel bring glory to us?

As we have seen, the primary goal of God’s Wisdom is relational – to restore us to true fellowship with Him. We shall see Him “face to face”[36] in a relationship of intimate love and friendship in which His full glory will be revealed to us. To hear, understand and embrace the Gospel is how we enter this renewed relationship.

Isaiah 59:2 tells us that “… your sins have hidden his face from you …”. But the Cross removes that barrier between us and the glory of God. We know this now because through faith God has given us “… the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.” (2 Cor 4:6) In the present time, as Paul explains, we experience this treasure in “jars of clay”, our present fragile and mortal bodies.[37] We also glimpse that reality partially now in nature’s glory, and imperfectly in human love and friendship, in art and music, but the unfiltered reality of God’s glory awaits us. One of the challenges now in the present is for us to maintain and deepen through the Holy Spirit our present intimacy with God and to reflect that in our relationships with others in our daily life.

God’s glory is a rich Biblical concept: it describes the overwhelming experience of His presence and the radiance of His majesty, his blazing holiness and love.[38] It also carries with it the idea of weight or gravitas, the weight of truth. To experience God’s presence is to experience the essence of love and joy and to finally understand the truth and value of all things. Jesus said “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free”[39]

Questions for discussion:

  1. Why does the experience of God’s total acceptance of us in Christ bring us such joy, relief and satisfaction?
  2. Why is the sharing of this experience an important key to effective personal evangelism?
  3. Why does the experience of God’s love and acceptance bring a new perspective to “the truth and value of all things?”

Chapter 6:   God’s power and political power

Read: 1 Cor 2:6-10, John 18:28-40, 19:1-16 & 15:18-21

There is a difference between power and authority.” (anon.)

If anything sums up the preoccupation of worldly politics, corporate business, and many of our human institutions it is the pursuit of power. In politics the pursuit of power is often for an end that is claimed to be the common good, but so often the end becomes a justification for bad means!

The irony of our obsession with power, particularly political power, is as Paul says in 1 Cor 2:6 that “the rulers of this age … are coming to nothing.” All worldly power eventually fades away. The kingdoms of this world rise and fall and their leaders pass from memory. In verse 8 he says of his own time “None of the rulers of this age understood it [the mystery of God’s action in Christ], for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”

The word Paul uses here for Lord is Kurios (Gk). In the first century it was the title given to the most powerful person in the world, the Roman emperor. The political system of the most powerful earthly Lord of that time killed the Lord of all, the creator of heaven and earth!

This clash between Christ’s Lordship and worldly power recurs throughout our history because the Christian’s ultimate loyalty is to Christ and not to any political leader, party or ideology. This lies behind much Christian persecution past and present, and the ongoing antipathy to Christian values in our present post-Christian culture wars.

If we examine the trial and sentencing of Jesus, we can see the conflict that often arises between God’s power and the exercise of worldly political power.

There is a fascinating moment in Jesus’ encounter with Pilate the Roman Governor who was the representative of the greatest political and military power at that time. He alone had the power of life and death in Palestine at that moment.

In the record of the trial, Pilate is revealed as uncertain and conflicted about the charges brought against Jesus. He seems to be looking for a way out of condemning him, but he is also anxious to avoid an incident of civil disorder. He is frustrated that Jesus will not answer his questions. Finally, he says to Jesus “Don’t you realise that I have the power to release you or to crucify you?” Then Jesus speaks “You would have no power over me at all if it were not given you from above.”[40] In that moment we are reminded that there is no power greater than God’s that all power derives from God, and that Pilate, a representative of first century absolute political power is subject to God and God’s ultimate plans and purposes.

This does not relieve Pilate in some deterministic way of his personal moral responsibilities and his freedom of choice in his final decision about Jesus. These responsibilities are given to us by God, and their moral imperative cannot be abrogated by us by claiming the overriding plan of God. The two realities of our God-given choice and His will and plan are ultimately only resolved in the sovereign will of God, the details of which are often hidden from us. Pilate knows the charges are trumped up and Jesus should be freed. But in the end, he makes an expedient political decision to avoid a disturbance of the “Roman Peace” that his masters in Rome demand. Human history is often the outcome of these kinds of expedient choices made in self-interest by us in our exercise of power.

In Acts 4:24-31 there is a remarkable prayer recorded that shows the attitude and response of the first century Christians to the oppressive exercise of worldly power over the infant Church. It is a clear guide for us. Peter and John had been imprisoned for openly preaching the Gospel. When they are released, they gather their fellow believers and they pray this prayer:

“Sovereign Lord, you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:

‘Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together

Against the Lord
and against his anointed one.’

Indeed, Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against you holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’

And after they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.”

The implication of this passage is clear for us today: If we believe that God is sovereign and his eternal purpose will prevail, then whatever persecutions we experience, soft or hard, we should keep speaking the Gospel of the Cross with boldness in the power of the Holy Spirit.

You can also see in the trial of Jesus by the ruling authorities of his day a clash of power between Pilate and the Jewish leaders. Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, has no military or political power like Pilate. But he understands the psychology of fear and the power of self-interest, and he has political cunning. He manipulates Pilate through his deepest fear – how his political masters in Rome will feel about a possible insurrection against Rome’s order and control. “If you let this man go you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a King opposes Caesar.” (John 19:12) This is a cynical ploy by any measure. The Jews hated Caesar and the Roman occupation and power. But it worked, and Pilate caves in to the tactic. This is a typical scenario in many political contests.

But below the surface of opposing political powers, another more personal struggle is taking place here – between Pilate and his conscience. He knows Jesus is innocent, but his fear and self-interest win out. When the truth confronts our conscience we always have a question to answer and a decision to make – In this struggle for power, am I willing to pay the price for truth or will I sacrifice my values and principles to win, to save my skin, to promote myself or, at the most pathetic level, to avoid embarrassment or ridicule? Whenever the Gospel is proclaimed there will frequently be these conflicts and clashes between God and the world that is turned away from Him.

The question that contemporary Christians face is: “Will I submit to the powers of my culture and its expectations, or will I take up my Cross and follow Jesus?” Our great hope and secret is that when we decide to take up the cross and to live out and speak out the Gospel of the Cross, God’s power and wisdom are released into the world and our culture to do their work. Paul in his letter to the Church at Rome, the city that was then the centre of worldly power, says “I am not ashamed of the Gospel because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.”[41] Charles Spurgeon, the great 19th century London preacher, said “The gospel is like a caged lion. It does not need to be defended; it just needs to be let out of its cage.”[42] The tragedy is often it is we who keep the cage doors locked!

God taking on human flesh in the incarnation of Jesus is the ultimate demonstration that God exercises his power relationally. He steps into the world we have disfigured and disturbed by our will to power, and he identifies with us in the pain and violence caused by our abuse of power. He becomes our servant and the means of our rescue and restoration. He is the suffering servant King. This is the model we are to follow in the exercise of any power that we have in relation to others. And we all have some power in relation to others, whether it be in professional, corporate or community leadership, in marriage, parenthood or in friendship.

Here is a question we can apply to any exercise of power or influence we have in life: “Will it lead to relational good?” E.g.: Will it lead to a healthier community, family or marriage? Will it lead to a better and fairer work place? Will it reconcile or divide? Will it deepen relationships or erode them? Will it build trust or create suspicion? These are also questions we can use to evaluate the morality and wisdom of any political leadership that is presented to us for our society.

Questions for discussion

  1. Can you think of an example in your own life where someone with influence (power) shaped your life for good?
  2. What do you think is the difference between power and authority? (See the description in the Introduction para’s 4-5 on Page 1.)
  3. What is the difference between legitimate and illegitimate authority?
  4. If, as Christians believe, ultimate authority resides in and comes from God, how do we recognise legitimate authority in people and human institutions?
  5. How important is character in the effective exercise of positional power?

Chapter 7:   Common human barriers to the Gospel

Read: Romans 3: 9-26

“…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Rom 3:23

Behind the wisdom of the world that finds the Gospel ‘foolish’ and naïve lies another barrier to the Gospel that is common to us all, and that is our resistance to God’s authority – human pride. Its origin is in the fall and our rejection of God’s authority described in our foundation story in Genesis chapter 3.

That resistance can only be broken down by the Holy Spirit. This is why evangelism in any form, whether sharing your faith with a friend, preaching from a pulpit, engaging in a public forum or doing apologetics and arguing the reasons for faith, must be undertaken with prayer and dependence on the Holy Spirit.

But as pointed out in the Essay in the Appendix “Eden – No entry!” the task of communicating the Gospel does not preclude the role of reasoned argument and the removing of misunderstandings and false ideas (partly the role of apologetics). Most people’s knowledge and understanding of Christianity and other faiths is very rudimentary and based on popular narratives that are often false or very simplistic – “All religions are the same”; “Science has disproved the existence of God”; “God is just a psychological projection of our needs”; “The Church has misused its power in the past, so its message can’t be trusted”; and so on. But these discussions always need to be conducted graciously, with an attitude of dependence on the Holy Spirit. Facts, ideas and reasoned arguments should not be used as logical battering rams!

There is another barrier to accepting the Gospel and the cross which probably arises out of a certain kind of parenting or lack of parenting. It is the desire or need to prove oneself to God, to appease or gain his favour in some way, to try and make oneself good enough for our heavenly father. At first this seems to be the very opposite to resisting God’s authority, but in fact it is connected. There is in the person who desires to make themselves good enough for God a false assumption, that they can win God’s approval by moral effort, good works or strict religious practices.

The history of religious practice and rituals is full of descriptions of elaborate and rigorous spiritual and physical disciplines. Elaborate methods of prayer and meditation, physical exercises to control the body and focus the mind, difficult pilgrimages, fasting, prostrations, flagellation and deprivations. For some, there is the idea that God can be found via a rigorous intellectual journey through philosophy and rational exploration – “If I study hard enough and long enough, I will find God.”

While there is value in some of these approaches, their underlying weakness and danger is that they can be based on two false assumptions: (1) that by our own efforts we can achieve intimacy with God, and (2) that the initiative lies with us.

Both assumptions fly in the face of what the Bible tells us and what the experience of the people of the Bible reveals. If we take the experience of two of the most outstanding and influential people of the Bible, Moses and Paul, we can see this clearly.

Moses had run away from God’s call to him in Egypt and his accountability for killing an Egyptian slave driver in anger. He ran into the Arabian Desert and took on a new identity as a simple shepherd. But God pursues him there and reveals himself to him in the burning bush that blazes with fire but is not consumed, and he realises he now stands on holy ground in the presence of God. This experience did not come to him from within himself. It came to him from beyond himself. Now he is faced with a decision: How will he respond to God?

Paul on the other hand believes he is doing God’s will, energetically ridding Judaism of the blasphemous Jesus sect that threatens to compromise the purity of God’s law. Paul is an intense and rigorous religious person. On his way to arrest yet another group of Christians, Jesus meets him in a revelation of blinding light on the Damascus road. We don’t find God he finds us!

From the moment of our first rebellion against God’s authority, the scriptures are the story of God planning our rescue. From His call of Abraham to the incarnation of Jesus and his death on the cross, God takes the initiative. Our rescue, redemption and reconciliation are by grace alone. Dick Lucas, in his commentary on Colossians, expresses it clearly: “Reconciliation with God does not wait on human achievement but upon human acceptance of God’s means of reconciliation.”[43]

Once we are confronted with the Gospel we have a choice, to accept God’s grace or turn away. Our “will to power”, our fallen desire for autonomy from God, must now submit to His authority and accept His grace in Christ and the cross. This is the wisdom and power of God.

Questions for discussion:

  1. In what ways has some popular preaching and teaching unwittingly contributed to the problem of people trying to prove or make themselves good enough for God?
  2. What other motives may drive our desire for independence from God?
  3. What are some other barriers you have encountered in your experience of sharing the Gospel with non-Christians?

CONCLUSION…

As I nightly watch the news of our troubled world, questions flood my mind: “God where are you in all this chaos and pain? Why don’t you act to judge and save and protect the innocent? And Lord, if you are acting, why is it hidden from us?”

As I prepared these studies, I had been re-reading some of the war time sermons of Helmut Thielicke, the German pastor and scholar who continued to preach and pastor his people through the nightly bombing and chaos of WW2 Germany in which his own home and church were destroyed. A contemporary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he was part of the German resistance to Hitler and the Nazi ideology, and in 1941 he was forbidden to speak or travel. He was also dismissed from his university teaching position and forbidden to publish books or articles. He was finally given permission to deliver one evening lecture per week in the Stuttgart Cathedral Church. He decided to speak on Luther’s Smaller Catechism, and through that vehicle he sought to prepare people for what he believed were the terrible things they would experience. He drew crowds of 3,000 people weekly as the air raids intensified, eventually the Cathedral was destroyed and they moved to other churches and halls, as one by one they were destroyed by the allied bombing. But the people kept coming. It is an inspiring story of faith and courage. He says “What we were doing was teaching theology in the face of death. There the only thing that was of any hope at all was the Gospel itself. Everything else simply dissolved into thin air. We were living only upon the substance of our faith. And these desperate hours also helped us to find that substance.”[44]

As he struggled with the same questions I mentioned above, in the midst of the crisis of those times, he preached that God’s role in world history can only be understood from the end, not from within the midst of it. “Not until the world’s last hour strikes, that hour of the Second Advent, when faith will see what it has believed, and unbelief will be compelled to see what it has not believed – only that last hour of the world will make known the meaning of history.” He went on to emphasise that till then life must be lived by faith not sight; faith in three things: (1) faith in God’s goodness, (2) faith in God’s presence with us, (3) faith in the knowledge that God has acted in Christ and his death and resurrection to save and reconcile us to himself, and one day to restore and renew the whole world.[45]

Between our now and the future renewal of all things, we live as God’s people with the tension of being members of two kingdoms – the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world. There will be times when great numbers of people will embrace the Gospel and even particular nations will embrace the values of God’s Kingdom in their societies. And there will be times like ours when they are rejected. But, whatever our times, our primary task remains the same – to go on proclaiming the Gospel of the Cross, and to live out its values in our individual lives and Christian communities. For whenever anyone embraces the Gospel of the cross, they are secure within, safe in the grace of God, whether in prosperity or poverty, peace or chaos, moral decay or an existential crisis of meaning and purpose in their society.

Thielicke also makes the very insightful point that the Christian faith is always twofold: (1) Faith in what God has done in Christ and (2) Faith that is contrary to appearances, especially when particular historical and cultural appearances oppose the Gospel and appear to overpower it.

Our challenge in these times is not to live in despair, negativity or denial, but hope – hope of the future God is bringing in, and a confidence in the message we have to share, the Gospel and its power to change and renew people’s lives now.

Peter Corney September 2019

Appendix:   Essay “Eden – No Entry!”

“Jesus took the tree of death so you could have the tree of life” (Tim Keller)

“I am a passionate believer in the unity of knowledge – there is one world of reality.” (Professor John Polkinghorne theoretical physicist and theologian.)

In our exploration of the meaning of God’s power and wisdom in 1 Cor chapters 1-3, we have seen that they are essentially relational in their action and purpose, exemplified in the incarnation – “God with us” – and Christ’s death and resurrection to reconcile us to God.

We have also seen that they are in dramatic contrast to the way the world generally understands and exercises power and wisdom.

But this leads us to some other critical questions:

  1. Does this emphasis mean that we can therefore ignore or dismiss all human wisdom and learning?
  2. Does this lead us to an anti-intellectual fundamentalism?
  3. Does this justify a retreat from engagement with the ideas and ideological fashions of our times?
  4. Does this emphasis on God’s power in contrast to worldly power mean we can retreat from any involvement in political action or worldly power structures?

The answer to these questions must be an emphatic No! But they are a temptation for us. Christians in the past have at times retreated in these ways. That retreat is a strategic error for it leaves the field of ideas, intellectual and cultural influence, and political power to those who ignore or reject God’s wisdom. We must engage with, but not be seduced into playing only by, the prevailing or dominant philosophical or ideological rules! We must insist on respect for our presuppositions that reality includes the transcendent, and God as creator and upholder of all that is. (Colossians 1:15-17)

All this raises the further question of the role of reason in our engagement.

If we look at Paul’s example in the NT, we see not retreat but vigorous engagement. Paul did not live in a modern democracy and so his political options were limited but he could and did work on the power of ideas shaped by the Gospel and urged the Church to live out a new set of values in their communities. In Acts 17: 16-34 we have a clear example of Paul’s evangelism engaging the culture and ideas of the Greco /Roman culture of Athens. He goes to the common place for the discussion of ideas, the Areopagus on Mars Hill, and debates with the philosophers and rhetoricians quoting their own poets to them as he argues from their acknowledgement of the “Unknown God” to whom they have erected a statue in the Agora.

The result of this example of engagement is described in vv 32 -34: “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’ At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.”

Another example of such engagement occurs when Paul was in Ephesus. He hired a lecture hall belonging to a man called Tyrannus and lectured there daily for two years. Rhetoricians’ putting forward their ideas was a common practice in cities influenced by the Greek culture of the first century. Acts 19:10 says it was such an effective strategy that “…all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia (part of modern Turkey) heard the word of the Lord.”

Also, when Paul arrived in a new city, the first place he attended was the Synagogue where he entered into discussions with the Jews of the Dispersion. The phrase that is used in Acts to describe these encounters is “He reasoned with the Jews”, the Greek word used in the text is that from which we get the word ‘dialogue’, or it can also be translated as ‘reasoned with’ or ‘to debate’.

Paul is a wise and gifted apologist who connects with the culture in which he finds himself, whether it be Jews of the diaspora or Greek intellectuals. He is not afraid to use reason and debate, and his strategies involved cultural adaption. He says in 1 Cor 9: 22 “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

Having observed that Paul is unafraid to use reason and dialogue in his encounter with ideas opposed to or different to the Gospel he also knows the limits of human reason. In Romans 11: 33-36 he quotes a hymn of praise composed of a number of Biblical phrases to emphasise this:

“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!

How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!

Who has known the mind of the Lord?”

Reason alone will not bring us all the way to God, we also need divine revelation because, like all our human faculties, our reason is limited and imperfect.

By “Divine Revelation” Christians mean two things:

  1. God’s specific revelation of Himself in Christ and God’s Word. We receive this by hearing God’s Word or reading the Gospel. (See John 1: 1-18)
  2. God’s general revelation of himself and aspects of his nature in creation. We describe it as “general” because it is nonspecific. In our fallen state, we can easily distort or misread it or, worse, make nature the object of our worship as in Paganism and Pantheism. (See Romans 1:18-32) (In the case of a person’s commitment to “Scientific Materialism” or “Naturalism” they generally exclude any notion of the transcendent from their investigations of nature and trust in the self-sufficiency of human reason. This leads to an inevitable reductionism)

Christians also believe that it is the work of the Holy Spirit in our minds and hearts that brings true understanding and awareness of God to us as we observe and experience creation. The Holy Spirit brings understanding and conviction as we ‘hear’ the Gospel. (2 Cor. 4:6. John 1:6-9)

In relation to knowledge and our purpose, the limits of our reason mean that our capacity to develop a comprehensive knowledge from nature and reason alone is limited and often leads us to a narrow and reductionist view of reality that rejects the transcendent. This approach to epistemology and ontology locks us out of the answers to the vital questions of meaning, morality, values and our ultimate purpose.

The Judeo/Christian foundation story in Genesis and in particular chapters 1-3 remind us of why the wisdom and power of God in the Cross is necessary to regaining access to a true, and eventually comprehensive, knowledge and wisdom.

The story in Genesis 2:9 tells us that in the centre of the Garden of Eden was “the tree of life” and “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” The man and the woman are placed by God in the garden to tend it and enjoy it in fellowship with God. In 3:1-13 they are told they could eat the fruit of any of the trees in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In the story, the essence of the temptation and the great lie presented to humanity was that by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they would become “like God”, even though God had told them their act of disobedience and independence would cause their death! But “when the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it and gave some to her husband.” Here is the Judeo/Christian theological explanation of our constant quest for autonomy, to live without God through our own quest for knowledge, wisdom and power. This is the explanation of secular modernity’s story of slowly unhooking the quest for knowledge and meaning from the transcendent. The Genesis story continues but doesn’t end well. Adam and Eve are ejected from the garden and all it represents in terms of intimacy and fellowship with God. Their ejection is described in a dramatic way in Genesis 3:23-24. God banishes them from the Garden of Eden and “… placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.”

The way back to the Garden is now blocked by a “flashing sword”, a graphic symbol of the denial of access! In other words, the way back to fellowship and intimacy with God, the way back to life as it was meant to be, must now be by another way. The way back to true wisdom, to a comprehensive knowledge and understanding, to a comprehensive or “unified field of knowledge”, [46] one that includes not only our physical world but the larger reality of the meaning and purpose of our lives and the source of values, right and wrong, good and evil must be by another way, another gate! The way through autonomous reason, nature and the material and physical world alone will not take us there.

Now it is important not to misunderstand this point. The discoveries and mastery of a great deal of our physical world that modern science has delivered has to be celebrated, enjoyed and encouraged. Every time when we hear of another new medical breakthrough to overcome disease or enhance physical life, we should rejoice at the creative ability God has given us. He has given us the freedom and capacity to discover true knowledge about our world, especially in the physical and material world. But we cannot find a “comprehensive knowledge” by human reason alone. We must come to the tree of knowledge now by another way. We need Revelation. This may sound strange to those raised in the mental framework of secular modernity, a framework that has forgotten or rejected the Christian heritage and learning of Western culture.

The new way, the gate of entry that God has provided back to ‘the Garden’ and the trees of Knowledge and Life is through the Wisdom and Power of the Cross. This is how we must find our way back to God, to true freedom and life, to the fullness of wisdom and knowledge.  This “way” back to the trees of Life and Knowledge is by another “tree”, the Cross, the tree on which Christ died. The NT. says that “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sins and live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24. See also Acts 5:30, 10:39, 13:29, Galatians 3:13)

Picking up the symbolism and imagery of Genesis 1-3 was natural for the NT Christians with their Jewish background. And so the Cross, as the “Cursed tree” in Jewish law (Deut 21:23 Gal 3:13), becomes a graphic biblical image to explain what must be embraced if we are to find the way back to the “tree of life”, to fellowship with God and the answer to our rejection of God’s authority that shut us out of “the Garden” and all it represents. The Cross is the means of our reconciliation with Him and the way back to true wisdom and knowledge, the proper use of knowledge, and the power of creativity God gave us at creation to “tend the garden”, to care for it and to unfold its amazing complexity, beauty and potential.

The NT closes with the book of Revelation and in the last Chapter 22:1-5 there is a rich symbolic picture of the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God. In the centre of the picture is the tree of life, whose leaves it is said “are for the healing of the nations”, a time when division, violence and war will be redeemed and all our human folly and will to oppressive power shall be healed. It will be a time when we again will “see God’s face”, our intimacy with Him fully restored. This is the goal of God’s Wisdom and Power, but it is only achieved for us fallen people by hearing, understanding and receiving the Revelation of the preaching of the Cross. That is why it is the Church’s primary task.

Peter Corney

Recommended Reading

“The Cross of Christ” by John Stott. Published by IVP 1986

“Pierced for Our Transgressions” by S. Jeffery, M. Ovey, A. Satch. Published by IVP 2007

“Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross” Ed. by Mark Baker. Published by Baker Academic 2006

“The Cruciality of the Cross” by P.T Forsyth. First published in 1909. Currently in the Biblical Classics library by Paternoster Press 1997.

 

 

 

 

Peter Corney is the Vicar Emeritus St Hilary’s Anglican Church Kew Vic

< Petercorney.com >

[1] 2019

[2] The ideology of oppression is the idea that history, societies, social structures and norms and human relationships can be explained principally through the single lens of the oppression of the majority by a controlling powerful minority and the human drive of the will to power.

[3] Nietzsche’s analysis of our core human drive. See “Beyond Good and Evil” S36. Also his essay “The Antichrist” for a succinct summery of his idea of ‘The good’ as ‘The will to power’. Found in “Twilight of the Idols” published by Wordsworth Classics 2007 p 95-96. “The Gay Science” N.Y. Vintage Books 1974 p 124.

[4] Jordan Peterson “The 12 Rules” page 302

[5] Augustine from the introduction of his “Confessions.” Translation by J.G Pilkington, Pub, Folio Society 1993 Page 13.

[6] Biblical quotations are from the NIV, except where noted.

[7] The Greek word is ‘dunamis’ from which we get in English ‘dynamite’.

[8] For a more detailed explanation of Pauls use of power and wisdom in 1 Cor. See C.K Barrett’s commentary pages 40-98. Published by Black’s 1976 Ed.

[9] This is Charles Taylors thesis in his book on “Secularism.”

[10] Mark 8:34-38

[11]  Genesis 3

[12]  The following are some typical examples: (a) Science and Christianity are in conflict. (b) That religion is part of our superstitious, primitive and unenlightened past and, now that we have come of age, we can leave it behind. (c) The limitations and inadequacy of “Scientific materialism” and its rejection of metaphysics and the transcendent and its limited view of knowledge and epistemology (d) The idea from sociology of “Social Constructivism”, that our social values and morality, like marriage, have no absolute or transcendent origins they are merely constructed by us in our social interactions and enforced through the exercise of power by certain groups in society to control others. Therefore, we are at liberty to change them any time that suits us. (e) The idea that all history and human ontology can be viewed and interpreted through the narrow lens of power and its use to control others – “the ideology of oppression.” (f) The negative history of religion is frequently put forward as an argument and because of a near universal lack of historical knowledge, especially in the young, this means there is a very limited knowledge of historical facts and so there is an inevitable lack of balance in such discussions. Then there are the kinds of rhetorical devises such as the use of abusive, emotional and marginalising terms like: “Christianity is conservative, regressive, prejudiced, intolerant, phobic, medieval…. etc.”, which are thrown about rather than engaging the ideas with balance, rational argument and discussion.  (Interestingly the Greek word translated ‘foolish’ in the English text of 1Cor.1:18 could be translated as ‘moronic!’ The ideas that Paul preached about the Cross sounded ‘moronic’ to many of Pauls Greek hearers! But to those responding with faith it was the power of God for their salvation.)

[13] Page 11 “The Unity of Philosophical Experience” by Etienne Gilson, 1937 Ignatius press. Reprinted 1999. Distinguished French Christian philosopher. Professor of Medieval Philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris 1921-32,Uni. Harvard, Uni.Toronto, etc.

[14] In the 1960’s and 70’s Christian apologists and writers like Francis Schaefer- “Escape from Reason”, “The God Who is There,” developed cogent arguments that equipped thoughtful young Christians and tertiary students to challenge the position and attitudes of atheistic secularism, in the case of Schaeffer by helpfully tracing and critiquing its philosophical roots.

In more recent times David Bentley Hart’s “Atheist Delusions” coming from a more historical perspective has produced a brilliant expose of the shallow and ill-informed history behind many popular criticisms and assumptions of the Christian story. See also Rodney Stark “The Rise of Christianity” Harper Collins 1997.

Recently a major philosophical challenge has been mounted by John Milbank and the Radical Orthodoxy movement. They have thrown down the gauntlet in powerful academic terms to the hegemony of autonomous reason, atheistic secularism, scientific materialism and the myth of neutrality in tertiary education, politics and public policy formulation. See “Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason” by J Milbank, Oxford: Blackwell 1990, and James K A Smith “Introducing Radical Orthodoxy – Mapping a Post-Secular Theology,” Baker Academic 2004. Smith’s book is the best place to start for an excellent introduction to and evaluation of Radical Orthodoxy. An interesting development among Christian Psychologists that resonates with R.O and its critique of secular reason is the “Transformational Psychology view”. (See “Psychology and Christianity – Five views” IVP Academic 2010.)

[15] Hans Kung “Theology for the Third Millennium” page 8,9 Doubleday NY 1988

[16] Positivism is a philosophical system that recognises only that which can be scientifically verified or which is capable of logical or mathematical proof and therefore rejects metaphysics and theism.

[17] P.T. Forsyth “The Cruciality of the Cross” Paternoster 1997 Ed. Preface page viii.

[18] Genesis 1:26-38 &2:8-9,15.

[19] See the following texts: Habakkuk 1:13. Zechariah 8:16-18. Psalm 5:4-6 &Vs’ 15, 24. Psalm 50:16-23. Isaiah1:11-17, 57:15-18. Hebrews 10:31 & 12:29. 1Peter1:15-16.

[20] See also Hebrews 10:1-14.

[21] Penal Substitution is “the doctrine that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin” page 21 “Pierced for our Transgressions” by S. Jeffery, M. Ovey and A. Sach IVP 2007. This is an excellent survey of the debate and it gives well considered answers to the objections that are commonly raised to the doctrine.  See also Mark Baker (Ed.) “Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross” Baker Academic 2006. Baker’s book is an interesting attempt to find contemporary images to explain the Atonement.

[22] John Stott “The Cross of Christ” Pub IVP 1986. See chapters 5and 6.

[23] Ibid pages 148-149.

[24] Ibid page 149.

[25] Acts 3: 19-21

[26] Revelation 21:1-7, 22:1-5.

[27] Luke 10:42-45

[28]  Metaphysics is that branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of reality – literally that which is beyond or bigger than physics – and the study of being (ontology).

[29] ‘Scientific Materialism’ must be distinguished from the ‘Scientific Method’ which is a distinct methodology for approaching research and testing hypothesis.  It has brought us an extraordinary understanding of our physical world but it also recognises its limitations.

[30] See  pages 106 -108   “Total Truth – Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity” by Nancy Pearcey  Crossway 2004

[31] The philosophy of “Critical Realism” developed by Roy Bhaskar offers an encouraging new approach to developing a more open and multi layered approach to the nature of reality. It has been embraced by a number of Christian scholars like Alistair Mc Garth Prof. of science and religion at Oxford, a scientist and theologian and NT. Wright the NT scholar and John Polkinghorne the theoretical physicist and theologian. See R. Bhaskar “The possibility of naturalism: a philosophical critique of the contemporary human sciences.” Pub. Routledge 1998 3rd Ed.)

[32] German and Italian fascism and Marxist communism.

[33] Page 124 Nietzsche “The Gay Science” N.Y. Vintage books 1974. (See also note 3)

[34] John 1:1-14 The Word – the Logos (Gk.), is the Divine Wisdom that existed before creation, the third person of the Trinity who becomes flesh in Christ’s incarnation, He is the Wisdom of God!

[35] See Acts 1- 3.

[36] I Cor. 13:12.,  1John 3:2

[37] 2 Cor. 4:6-18.

[38] Isaiah 6:1-6.

[39] “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” John 8:32.

[40] John 19:8-11

[41] Romans 1:16

[42] Page 17. “Total Truth” by N. Pearcey Ibid.

[43] Page 55 “The Bible Speaks today- The Message of Colossians and Philemon”, R.C.Lucas. IVP.

[44] From the forward by H. Thielicke to a selection of the lectures. Page10, “Man in God’s World.” First published in 1958 in German and then in 1968 in English by James Clarke.

[45] Helmut Thielicke Page 15 “Christ the meaning of life” Pub.  James Clarke 1965. See also “The Prayer that Spans the World,” Sermons on the Lord’s Prayer from the WW2 period of nightly bombing in Germany. First published In German in 1958 and then in English in 1967 by James Clarke

[46] “A unified field of knowledge” (or ‘Unified field theory’) is a term that is used in physics to explain the attempt to describe all the relationships between the fundamental forces and elementary particles in terms of a theoretical framework. (Michio Kaku the theoretical physicist more humorously described it as a “An attempt to seek an equation an inch long that would allow us to read the mind of God!”)


“Eden – No Entry”

 

The following essay “Eden – No Entry” is taken from my recent study book “The Gospel and the Centrality of the Cross,” which will be available on the website soon for free download. The aim of the essay is to show how the Gospel and the Cross is the key to finding our way back to a true understanding of the knowledge of reality. C S Lewis wrote “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” (From “The weight of glory.”)

                           “Eden – No Entry!” 

 “Jesus took the tree of death so you could have the tree of life” (Tim Keller)

“I am a passionate believer in the unity of knowledge – there is one world of reality.” (Professor John Polkinghorne theoretical physicist and theologian.)

In the study book The Gospel and the centrality of the Crossthe preaching of the Cross as the power and wisdom of God – with observations on the exercise of power and knowledge in contemporary culture,”  I explore the meaning of God’s power and wisdom in 1Cor chapters 1-3. In these chapters we see that they are essentially relational in their action and purpose, exemplified in the incarnation – “God with us” in Christ’s birth, death and resurrection to reconcile us to God.

We also see that they are in dramatic contrast to the way the world generally understands and exercises power and wisdom.

But this leads us to some critical questions:

  • Does this emphasis mean that we can therefore ignore or dismiss all human wisdom and learning?
  • Does this lead us to an anti-intellectual fundamentalism?
  • Does this justify a retreat from engagement with the ideas and ideological fashions of our times?
  • Does this emphasis on God’s power in contrast to worldly power mean we can retreat from any involvement in political action or worldly power structures?

The answer to these questions must be an emphatic No! But they are a temptation for us. Christians in the past have at times retreated in these ways. That retreat is a strategic error for it leaves the field of ideas, intellectual and cultural influence, and political power to those who ignore or reject God’s wisdom. We must engage but not be seduced into playing only by the prevailing or dominant philosophical or ideological rules!  We must insist on respect for our presuppositions that reality includes the transcendent and God as creator and upholder of all that is. (Colossians 1:15-17)

All this raises the further question of what is the role of reason in our engagement.

If we look at Paul’s example in the NT, we see not retreat but vigorous engagement. Paul did not live in a modern democracy and so his political options were limited but he could and did work on the power of ideas shaped by the Gospel and urged the Church to live out a new set of values in their communities. In Acts 17: 16-34 we have a clear example of Paul’s evangelism engaging the culture and ideas of the Greco /Roman culture of Athens. He goes to the common place for the discussion of ideas, the Areopagus on Mars Hill, and debates with the philosophers and rhetoricians quoting their own poets to them as he argues from their acknowledgement of the “Unknown God” to whom they have erected a statue in the Agora.

The result of this example of engagement is described in vv 32 -34: “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’ At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.”

Another example of such engagement occurs when Paul was in Ephesus. He hired a lecture hall belonging to a man called Tyrannus and lectured there daily for two years. Rhetoricians’ putting forward their ideas was a common practice in cities influenced by the Greek culture of the first century. Acts 19:10 says it was such an effective strategy that “…all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia (part of modern Turkey) heard the word of the Lord.”

Also when Paul arrived in a new city the first place he attended was the Synagogue where he entered into discussions with the Jews of the Dispersion. The phrase that is used in Acts to describe these encounters is “ He reasoned with the Jews”, the Greek word used in the text is that from which we get the word ‘dialogue’, or it can also be translated as ‘reasoned with’ or ‘to debate’.

Paul is a wise and gifted apologist who connects with the culture in which he finds himself, whether it be Jews of the diaspora or Greek intellectuals. He is not afraid to use reason and debate, and his strategies involved cultural adaption. He says in 1Cor 9: 22 “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

Having observed that Paul is unafraid to use reason and dialogue in his encounter with ideas opposed to or different to the Gospel he also knows the limits of human reason. In Romans 11: 33-36 he quotes a hymn of praise composed of a number of Biblical phrases to emphasise this:

“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!

How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!

Who has known the mind of the Lord?”

Reason alone will not bring us all the way to God we also need divine revelation because, like all our human faculties, our reason is limited and imperfect.

By “Divine Revelation” Christians mean two things:

  1. God’s specific revelation of Himself in Christ and God’s Word. We receive this by hearing or reading God’s Word and reading or hearing the Gospel. (See John 1: 1-18)
  2. God’s general revelation of himself and aspects of his nature in creation. We describe it as “general” because it is nonspecific. In our fallen state, we can easily distort or misread it or, worse, make nature the object of our worship as in Paganism and Pantheism. (See Romans 1:18-32) (In the case of a person’s commitment to “Scientific Materialism” or “Naturalism” they generally exclude any notion of the transcendent from their investigations of nature and trust in the self-sufficiency of human reason. This leads to an inevitable reductionism in their understanding of reality.)

Christians also believe that it is the work of the Holy Spirit in our minds and hearts that brings true understanding and awareness of God to us as we observe and experience creation. The Holy Spirit brings understanding and conviction as we ‘hear’ the Gospel. (2 Cor. 4:6. John 1:6-9)

In relation to knowledge and our purpose, the limits of our reason mean that our capacity to develop a comprehensive knowledge from nature and reason alone is limited and often leads us to a narrow and reductionist view of reality that rejects the transcendent. This approach to epistemology and ontology locks us out of the answers to the vital questions of meaning, morality, values and our ultimate purpose.

The Judeo/Christian foundation story in Genesis and in particular chapters 1-3 remind us of why the wisdom and power of God in the Cross is necessary to regaining access to a true, and eventually comprehensive, knowledge and wisdom.

The story in Genesis 2:9 tells us that in the centre of the Garden of Eden was “the tree of life” and “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” The man and the woman are placed by God in the garden to tend it and enjoy it in fellowship with God. In 3:1-13 they are told they could eat the fruit of any of the trees in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In the story, the essence of the temptation and the great lie presented to humanity was that by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they would become “like God”, even though God had told them their act of disobedience and independence would cause their death!  But “when the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it and gave some to her husband.” Here is the Judeo/Christian theological explanation of our constant quest for autonomy, to live without God through our own quest for knowledge, wisdom and power. This is the explanation of secular modernity’s story of slowly unhooking the quest for knowledge and meaning from the transcendent. The Genesis story continues but doesn’t end well. Adam and Eve are ejected from the garden and all it represents in terms of intimacy and fellowship with God. Their ejection is described in a dramatic way in Genesis 3:23-24. God banishes them from the Garden of Eden and “…..placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.”

The way back to the Garden is now blocked by a “flashing sword”, a graphic symbol of the denial of access! In other words the way back to fellowship and intimacy with God, the way back to life as it was meant to be, must now be by another way. The way back to true wisdom, to a comprehensive knowledge and understanding, to a comprehensive or “unified field of knowledge”, [i] one that includes not only our physical world but the larger reality of the meaning and purpose of our lives and the source of values, right and wrong, good and evil must be by another way, another gate! The way through autonomous reason, nature and the material and physical world alone will not take us there.

Now it is important not to misunderstand this point. The discoveries and mastery of a great deal of our physical world that modern science has delivered has to be celebrated, enjoyed and encouraged. Every time when we hear of another new medical breakthrough to overcome disease or enhance physical life we should rejoice at the creative ability God has given us. He has given us the freedom and capacity to discover true knowledge about our world, especially in the physical and material world. But we cannot find a “comprehensive knowledge” by human reason alone. We must come to the tree of knowledge now by another way. We need Revelation. This may sound strange to those raised in the mental framework of secular modernity, a framework that has forgotten or rejected the Christian heritage and learning of Western culture.

The new way, the gate of entry that God has provided back to ‘the Garden’ and the trees of Knowledge and Life is through the Wisdom and Power of the Cross. This is how we must find our way back to God, to true freedom and life, to the fullness of wisdom and knowledge.  This “way” back to the trees of Life and Knowledge is by another “tree”, the Cross, the tree on which Christ died. The NT. says that “He bore our sins in his body on the tree that we might die to sins and live for righteousness, by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24. See also Acts 5:30, 10:39, 13:29, Gal 3:13)

Picking up the symbolism and imagery of Genesis 1-3 was natural for the NT Christians with their Jewish background. And so the Cross, as the “Cursed tree” in Jewish law (Deut 21:23 Gal 3:13), becomes a graphic biblical image to explain what must be embraced if we are to find the way back to the “tree of life”, to fellowship with God and the answer to our disobedience and rejection of God’s authority that shut us out of “the Garden” and all it represents. Our act of trust in Christ and his death on the Cross is the act of obedience that opens, as it were, the gate back into the garden. As C S Lewis expresses it in a memorable phrase: “…in obeying, a rational creature consciously enacts its creaturely role, reverses the act by which we fell, treads Adams dance backward, and returns.” (From “The Problem of Pain”)

This brings our reconciliation with God and the way back to true wisdom and knowledge, the proper use of knowledge, and the power of creativity God gave us at creation to “tend the garden”, to care for it and to unfold its amazing complexity, beauty and potential.

The NT closes with the book of Revelation and in the last Chapter 22:1-5 there is a rich symbolic picture of the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God. In the centre of the picture is the tree of life, whose leaves it is said “are for the healing of the nations”, a time when division, violence and war will be redeemed and all our human folly and will to oppressive power shall be healed. It will be a time when we again will “see God’s face”, our intimacy with Him fully restored. This is the goal of God’s Wisdom and Power, but it is only achieved for us fallen people by hearing, understanding and receiving the Revelation of the preaching of the Cross. That is why it is the Church’s primary task.

Peter Corney

End Notes

 

[i] “A unified field of knowledge” (or ‘Unified field theory’) is a term that is used in physics to explain the attempt to describe all the relationships between the fundamental forces and elementary particles in terms of a theoretical framework. ( Michio Kaku the theoretical physicist more humorously described it as a “An attempt to seek an equation an inch long that would allow us to read the mind of God!”)


Reflections on our times inspired by C.S.Lewis

Reflections on today’s culture inspired by C.S.Lewis. By PETER CORNEY

The Lewis quotation that inspired this reflection comes from his essay “The Abolition of man”.

“Such is the tragi – comedy of our situation, we clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible….”

Currently we constantly hear the call for political and commercial leadership with more honesty and integrity, with less pride and avarice, and in the case of our politics, less of the ugly and sterile quest for revenge. The recent Royal Commission has also called for a new corporate culture of honesty and transparency in our Banks and financial enterprises.

And yet, as Lewis contiues; “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.  We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

As Lewis points out with his graphic metaphor of castration our present culture renders these qualities and virtues impossible because we have made our culture morally sterile. We have turned away from the belief in moral absolutes and the transcendent origin of the highest values and virtues. We are now lost in a confusion of Post Modern relativism, radical individualism and a false view of personal freedom that is really the desire for individual choice unrestrained by any boundaries of morality, truth and reason.

The sense of moral and spiritual accountability to God has been steadily eroded by the secularists who reject any reality beyond the material and physical world. They want to enclose us all in their well-lit, tightly locked but windowless room of scientific materialism that rejects any ‘meta physic’, nothing bigger or beyond the material and physical. And yet they have no satisfying answers to our most enduring questions about meaning, morality, the highest good and our ultimate purpose.

To change the metaphor we are a “cut flower culture” that has severed our values and virtues from their roots and so it should not surprise us that the flowers of the moral virtues are slowly withering and dying.


Praying the Psalms – a confession! by Peter Corney

Praying the Psalm’s – a confession! by Peter Corney

As a young man at theological college I found the discipline of the daily chapel services and the saying of the psalms sometimes a chore, sometimes boring, and sometimes a blessing.

Full of energy, impatient to rescue the world, more an activist than given to reflection or meditation the daily saying of the psalms mostly went past me, although sometimes the depth of their cries to God arrested even me!

But like all good disciplines their daily repetition meant their phrases seeped unconsciously into my mind. But to seep into my heart required something else – the experience of the inevitable difficulties, pain and disappointments of adult life and ministry. For the psalms are the cries of men and women who believe in God and are trying to serve Him in the ordinary challenges and often unanswered questions of life as well as its joy filled moments – the moments when Gods presence is felt like lightning or when He seems absent or silent.

They are the ancient yet constantly contemporary prayers of God’s people. They have been prayed for thousands of years by Jews and Christians. As a Christian I am immensely thankful for my ‘spiritual great grandparents’, the Children of Israel and for their preservation of these cries to God from the heart.

Even those awful imprecatory psalms where the prayer calls on God to curse and judge those who have taunted, wronged or hurt us, yes even they resonate! For those cries have been in my throat too in my darkest moments of self-pity, self-righteousness or anger, thoughts and feelings that, thank God, in the end drive me back to Christ on the cross bearing my sins and the suffering and evil and violence we are capable of inflicting on one another. Drawing me to cry out for forgiveness and the strength to love and forgive those who treated me badly or unjustly as Jesus commanded and to leave the judgement in God’s hands.

The psalms are not for the spiritually faint hearted!