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Happy Reformation Day!

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

‘The first and keenest subject of controversy between us’

Thus Calvin described the doctrine of justification in his response to Cardinal Sadoleto. He could not have put it more accurately, for, from the moment Luther understood from Romans 1 that God’s righteousness is an entirely unmerited gift, justification was the matter of the Reformation. ‘Nothing in this article can be given up or compromised,’ wrote Luther, ‘even if heaven and earth and things temporal should be destroyed’. It is the belief, he said, ‘on which the church stands or falls’. Not everybody grasped or shared this: men like Erasmus thought Reformation could be a mere moral spring-clean; radicals took it to be a simple revolt against the old ways; Zwingli just opened the Bible, but not really to find Luther’s idea of justification there; and some, like Martin Bucer and Richard Baxter, just understood justification differently. However, Luther’s experience with Romans 1 was to be the model for the mainstream Reformation: through the Bible, the essential matter of justification was discovered. Justification was what made the Reformation the Reformation.

For those who accepted that God freely declares sinners to be righteous, justification was a doctrine of comfort and joy. As William Tyndale put it, ‘Evangelion (that we call the gospel) is a Greek word and signifieth good, merry, glad and joyful tidings, that maketh a man's heart glad and maketh him sing, dance, and leap for joy.’ Luther himself felt that by it he was ‘altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.’ And no wonder: the fact that he, a failing sinner, was perfectly loved by God because he was clothed with the very righteousness of Christ himself gave him a dazzling confidence.

When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell, we ought to speak thus: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? Does this mean that I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means. For I know One who suffered and made satis­faction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where he is, there I shall be also.’

This happy, heartfelt reaction to justification can be sensed in the music of the Reformation. Take, for instance, the traditional ‘Hosanna’, sung at the Mass. In 1555, Palestrina, then almost the official musician of Rome, wrote a new score for the ‘Hosanna’ in his Mass for Pope Marcellus. To hear it is to hear Rome’s Counter-Reformation spirituality: it is exquisite music, but there is something cerebral and dutiful about the choir’s intoning of the Hosannas. A hundred and ninety years later, Johann Sebastian Bach, an ardent Lutheran all the way down to his tapping toes, wrote his version of the ‘Hosanna’, and the difference is striking. The exact same piece was set to music, but in Bach’s Lutheran hands, it has an entirely different resonance: now the Hosannas are belted out with an unmistakeable, unbounded enthusiasm and joy. Such was the natural effect of believing Luther’s doctrine of justification.

Taken from pp171-173, The Unquenchable Flame


What is Trinitarian Affective Theology?

Monday, October 29th, 2012

Trinitarian Affective Theology's central axiom and hermeneutic is that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are a communion and union characterized by harmonious selfless-love. All other aspects of theology, such as God’s purpose and motive for creation, Christology, spiritual anthropology, sin, grace, justification, etc., are then understood through this foundational lens.

Like Augustine, affective theology begins to form this conclusion about the Trinity from 1 John 4, "God is love."  But what is love? It’s time for a bit of grammar: the Bible uses love as a transitive verb—a verb that requires an object.  Love in the Bible is not the end or the goal but defined rather by the object that captures our affections.  Therefore, for love to happen there must be a lover, love, and a beloved someone or thing.  Trinitarian affective theology understands “God is love” to mean that eternally the Father (the lover) has initiated love to his Son, the Son (the beloved) in response has eternally reciprocated his love for the Father, and the Holy Spirit (love) is the bonding agent that communicates the love between the Father and the Son.  The Father is not concerned for himself but only his Son, and the Son is not concerned for himself but only his Father, and the Holy Spirit is the person who communicates this self-less love between the two (John 8:50-55).  In Jesus's prayer to the Father he describes this dynamic of their relationship as "the glory that I had with you before the world existed" (John 17:5).  The essence, the weightiness, the heart of God is an eternal loving family—Father and Son united in Spirit.  God is love.


A slightly less profound goodness for spreading

If all of this is true, Trinitarian Affective Theology understands the motives for God to create to reside in his social ethos of three-in-oneness—that is, the eternal love that God has in himself overflows into creation (Colossians 1:15-16). Or in the words of the heavenly Dr. Richard Sibbes (1577-1636):

If God had not a communicative, spreading goodness, he would never have created the world. The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost were happy in themselves, and enjoyed one another before the world was. But that God delights to communicate and spread his goodness, there had never been a creation nor redemption. God uses his creatures, not for defect of power, that he can do nothing without them, but for the spreading of his goodness; and thereupon comes all the subordination of one creature to another, and all to him.  Oh that we had hearts to make way for such a goodness as God would cast into us, if we were as we should be.  God’s goodness is a spreading, imparting goodness. (Sibbes, Successful Seeker, v. 6, 113.)

We see this to be true at the peak of God’s creative act when he says “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” God creates humanity as the visual illustration of his likeness that he had before the creation of the world.  The likeness and the image of God in humanity therefore reflect the reality that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have in themselves, i.e. male and female are united in spirit and flesh in harmonious self-giving love (Gen. 2:24; Ephes. 5:31-32).  Humanity was therefore created to know God, and to know God is to love God as God loves, and to reflect this love with each other.  

If we jump ahead in God’s story we discover something even more amazing, we are saved from our hatred of God to a greater reality than Adam and Eve had prior to their fall. That is, the glory that Jesus has with Father before the foundation of the world, Jesus desires to give to us, that we may be one with each other as God as the Father and Son are one (John 17:22-24). We get to participate in the divine communion and union of God through the person of the Holy Spirit—talk about the goodness of God spreading!  That is Trinitarian Affective theology in a nutshell.

So much more could be said, needs to be said here about Trinitarian Affective Theology; thankfully it has been said. Hopefully just a small taste here of God’s goodness and Trinitarian Affective Theology might entice you to check out other material like the Table Talk with Ron Frost on God’s Heart and Ours

HT: David Searight, member of the Cor Deo mentoring team and former Theology Network ASW in Edinburgh.

Did you miss Transformission South West??

Friday, October 26th, 2012

Dave Bish (UCCF South West Team Leader and blogger at the blue fish project) says...

On Saturday 20th October we gathered in Exeter for our sixth Transformission conference. The aim is simple - look to Christ. A veritable band of brothers gathered to preach Christ on the theme of Adoption. Mike Reeves spoke in the two plenary sessions - showing us the wonderful welcoming heart of Jesus' Father who is also our Father, and the free adoption we have in him.


In between, either side of lunch, delegates were assigned a seminar on Adoption and.... church history, evangelism or Bible reading. Smaller scale opportunities to gaze on Christ together and apply the gospel to our lives. We were thrilled to have a good representation from across the South West and a growing number of friends joining us from local churches.

One student reflected that she couldn't believe she'd never heard such goodness about God before, while another was dumbfounded that so many of his friends hadn't come. We don't know why they didn't come either, but we're trusting God met with those who did, to transform them for mission - to be those overflowing with the love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit - well placed to commend the Triune God to others.

Dave managed to sneak Mike outside to ask him a few questions about the Triune God - here are the first three of nine short videos where Mike explains why understanding that God is Trinity matters so much. Dave first posted these on his blog, the blue fish project.





Why I love historical theology

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

I remember the first time I got excited about church history. Please don’t stop reading!

I was part of small group being taught by a UCCF staff worker, Andy Grundy, who was animated as he told us the story of the life of William Tyndale; a genius linguist and pioneering theologian, cruelly betrayed and bravely martyred. I was on the edge of my seat. The story was gripping and Tyndale’s loyalty to Jesus was touching, but what really caught the attention of my heart was the fact that, although I stood in the wake of this man, I hadn’t heard of him until that afternoon. I was a Bible-believing evangelical, happily going about my quite times without a clue that I owed my English Bible to this man. He had lived and died to make the scriptures available to me. This was the heritage I never realised I had, and I found it deeply moving to discover it.

Not long after, I found one of my personal spiritual ruts had its cure in the past. This time, it wasn’t about what someone had done so much as what they had thought and taught. Somebody had lived through something similar to me, fought the battle, seen the light, and written all about it long before I was born. The hero was Martin Luther, and the battle was that I was just never sure I was really a Christian. As a young teenager, I’d become a Christian hundreds of times, convinced that my sins and doubts proved nothing genuine had happened at my last ‘conversion’. Was my faith real? Did I truly believe, or was I fooling myself? Luther came in like a bulldozer and showed me that real faith wasn’t self-conscious and inward-looking as I had been, for that was faith’s greatest enemy. Instead, faith simply looks to Christ and believes his promise of mercy, love, and security. By looking at my faith (or lack of it) all the time, I’d made it all so complicated when the reality was beautiful, liberating simplicity. Just Jesus! I owe Luther a pint or two of Einbecker when we meet in the new creation.

More recently, my theological study has taken me into fifth-century Egypt where I have kept company with Cyril of Alexandria and his friends. These men are famous for their stunningly massive theology of the person of Christ: God who walked the streets of Nazareth. As I’ve learned how to peel back the layers of different cultures, ages, and language, I’ve found that our fathers in the faith saw Christ with a depth I’d never really known. Reading Cyril and the others, I’ve frequently had my eyes opened to the wonder of Jesus and my heart enlarged by his love and humility. I hope that something of Cyril has rubbed off on me when I think of his love of worshipping the Lord, his seriousness about scripture, and his sensitivity to the pastoral needs of his congregation.

I love historical theology because it’s changed my life. Next to the friends and family who have shown me Jesus and nurtured my faith, I’m indebted to men and women long dead who wrote theological books, beautiful hymns, and honest prayers. Athanasius, John Bunyan, Anne Steele, John Calvin, and many more. Of course not everything from the past is easy to read, or even worth the effort – but there’s gold to be found! Theology Network does loads of the hard work for you by picking out the classics and making them available online. I can’t recommend highly enough that you sit down sometime with Richard Sibbes to kick you off and learn from an old saint who walked your road before you, and now cheers you on with a great crowd as you go.


Dan Hames photographed in the act of enjoying historical theology
HT: Dan Hames, Theology Network ASW in Oxford.

Talking about Jesus and the Trinity from the OT

Friday, October 19th, 2012

So “Where does Jesus say, ‘I am God, worship me!’...?” Of course, the answer to this common Muslim question is that Jesus doesn’t, or at very least he does not use those actual words anywhere in the Gospels. And so any verse you come up with from the Gospels is likely just to get dismissed by the Muslim person you are speaking with. The issue of course is whether we would expect Jesus to say, “I am God, worship me!” in the first place. It assumes a lot about God and what he is like and what he would say. It may well be what we would expect Allah of the Qur’an, but we need to start with the God of the OT and think about what he is like.

Give up Jacob – do you realise who that is?!

So let’s rewind and start again. “Where does Jesus say, ‘I am God, worship me!’...?” The way to have a great conversation is to reply, “Which God are you talking about? Are you talking about Allah? Or, are you talking about the God of Adam, Abraham and Moses?” Now that probably wasn’t the answer your Muslim friend was expecting, but it is exactly the right kinds of questions to be asking.

The next step is to open up the OT scriptures. A simple verse to open up is Genesis 3:8 where we read of the God of Adam walking in the garden of Eden. Already we are encountering a God who is very different to Allah. This is the kind of God you really could imagine entering the human race.

Where else might you go? You could check out verses that talk about a person called the Angel of the LORD. For example, it is the Angel of the LORD who speaks from inside the burning bush to Moses (Exodus 3:1-6). Note verse 6 – the Angel speaks as though he is God and Moses says that he was afraid to look at God. This is no created angel representing God (check out Genesis 48:15-16 to see this Angel really is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob). What’s more because he is the Angel of the LORD, then he has been sent by someone else called the LORD. He is the one sent by God in heaven. And this is exactly how Jesus keeps talking about himself. Check out John 5:36-40:

I have testimony weightier than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to finish—the very works that I am doing—testify that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

What we are beginning to see in Exodus 3 is that there are two persons called the LORD, two persons who are God. This all becomes clearer when we get to Exodus chapter 19. There the unapproachable, hidden LORD of heaven descends on Mount Sinai in a thick cloud. Exodus 19:24 reads, "The LORD replied, "Go down and bring Aaron up with you. But the priests and the people must not force their way through to come up to the LORD, or he will break out against them." There are two persons called the LORD and what we learn at Sinai is one could be seen and one could not; one who travelled in the pillar of cloud/fire and one who spoke from heaven at Sinai. So in Exodus 33:10-11 Moses would speak face to face with the LORD in the tent, yet later in the same chapter having asked to see the LORD’s glory Moses is not permitted to see his face (Exodus 33:18-23). There is no contradiction if we have been reading Exodus carefully! These verses are but the tip of the iceberg, but already the Jesus of the Gospels is beginning to become much clearer. Check out how John introduces Jesus to us. John 1:14-18 is an exposition of Exodus 33-34 (dwelling/tabernacled, glory, Moses, law, grace & truth are all allusions), but it is verse 18 which caps it all off: “No-one have ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” John wants us to think back to the unseen LORD and the visible LORD of Exodus 33-34. Jesus is the LORD Moses spoke to face to face in the tent.

Well, there’s far more that could be said on this topic and far more OT texts we could look up. But that’s enough to get you started…!

HT: Jonathan Carter, former Theology Network ASW at Cambridge, and current PhD student at New College, Edinburgh.

The Old Testament and Witnessing to Muslims

Thursday, October 18th, 2012

How should we go about trying to witness to Muslim people? There’s lots that could be said on this question, but here I want to persuade you that one key is to use the Old Testament lots.

A very Old Testament

Why is that the case? Well, there’s a bucket full of good reasons, but what I want to show is that is that the OT should be the key plank in our overarching apologetic with Muslims.

Think about it: the Muslim position is that their prophet Muhammad (who lived about 600 years after Jesus) came in continuity with Jesus and the earlier prophets of the Bible. In fact, the Qur'an itself tells people to look at the previous scriptures if anyone is in doubt as to what is revealed in the Qur’an. Yet, the problem Muslims face is that when you read the Qur’an it differs on significant matters with the Bible. So the Muslim is forced to say, “Your Bible has been changed!” Ever heard that before?!

Now this is a difficult view to defend because we have complete copies of the Bible from centuries before the Qur’an was written – how can the Qur’an say check out the Bible, if it was already corrupted? But there is an even better answer! Muslims typically believe that it was Christians who changed the Bible, especially the apostle Paul and the council of Nicea (325AD). So when you pull out your favourite NT verse to show Jesus is God, Muslim people tend to just to dismiss it as being exactly the bits they expect to be corrupted.

But what happens if we can get all the important points from the OT? Suddenly we have out-maneuvered the “Your Bible has been changed!” charge. Muslims tend to trust the OT more, because they think that Jewish teachings are much closer to Islamic teachings (none of that polytheistic Trinity nonsense and they don’t eat pork etc). But even if they think the Jews changed the OT, then here’s the question to ask: Did the Jews change the OT scriptures and the Christians change the NT scriptures independently, yet to teach the same ‘wrong’ doctrine?! Or, to turn this around, if the OT and the NT both agree on a key doctrine, yet the Qur’an disagrees, then who should we trust? By using the OT we are showing that the problem is with the Qur’an without actually saying so and at the same time showing why we can have such confidence in the message of the NT!

I remember a Muslim guy rather aggressively telling my friend that Paul invented the whole idea of Jesus dying for our sin. My friend opened up Isaiah 53 with him and suddenly he went quiet and started listening. So are we ready to use the OT?

Check back here in a few days to learn how…!

HT: Jonathan Carter, former Theology Network ASW at Cambridge, and current PhD student at New College, Edinburgh.

Focus on... St Andrews Theology Network

Tuesday, October 16th, 2012

St Andrews is a unique place to study Theology as a Christian. A great number of our professors, lecturers and tutors would classify themselves as Christian, and they provide a great example of what a praying academic looks like. In some courses we’re reminded that true theology is only done through prayer and encouraged to make prayer a daily habit. Yet, at the same time, we do have to deal with the divisions that arise out of theological disputes, and we face the difficulties of learning how to integrate a living faith with our academic studies.

In the beginning was the Word

The focus for our group this year is two-fold. From an internal perspective, we want to really equip Christian theology students with the tools and support needed in engaging with these issues. There are so many perspectives and factors that play into these, and they can be quite overwhelming, especially for those who are just now beginning to study (but for us 4th years, too!). With this in mind, our format for the year is to have weekly topics about some of the more common trouble areas – for example, authority of Scripture, hermeneutics, models of the atonement. We have a mixture of academics and pastors coming in to share insight in these areas, and already this year we have gained a great deal from their wisdom. While the bulk of our meetings are given to these discussions, we are also seeking to be intentional in praying together. We know that it is so easy to get caught up in debates, so we have built in some prayer meetings in order to take a step back and refocus on Christ as a theological community.

In addition to our weekly meetings, we have some other events and socials on the schedule. As the New Perspective on Paul has been quite a hot topic in our college – especially with Tom Wright here – we decided it would be useful to host some “New Perspective Evenings” in which we could informally discuss the different facets of the debate and their implications. Our first one last year was well attended and was helpful in framing the debate for further discussion. We are hoping to continue with more evenings this year and look forward to fruitful conversations.

From a missional perspective, we are focusing on taking steps to build good relationships within our college. There has been some tension in the past between our group and other theology societies, and in general between those who would call themselves evangelical Christians and those who wouldn’t. As a first step, we recently hosted a “Wine and Pudding” social in conjunction with the college society that was incredibly encouraging; there were a lot of great conversations, and we’re hoping that it has set a good precedent for dialogue and friendship between the groups.

Visit the groups section for more info on Theology Network groups!

HT: Sydney Drain, Theology Network group leader at the University of St Andrews.

What are you up to today in light of your theology of tomorrow?

Friday, October 12th, 2012

It was the confident, menacing gaze of the oafish preacher which destroyed any courage the students may have had to challenge his previous sentence. He was fully aware that his opinion was highly debatable and would ruffle more feathers than a battery hen attendant with a life-long vendetta against poultry; but he relished the fact that any objections made in the Q and A would be powerfully defeated due to his greater age, confidence and bible knowledge. I slumped in the seat of the stuffy classroom where the university’s Christian Union met and did my best to reciprocate the preacher’s sentiment with a look of moody disapproval. In hindsight I imagine that this look was the preacher’s prize; every face of his listeners which turned to shock, anger or worry was like another skittle rolling in the alley.


Signorelli's 'The Resurrection of the Flesh'

I have no remaining memory of what the text or topic of the talk was, only the sentence in which we were exhorted to ‘not be bothered with politics, or be too concerned for the environment, because God’s gonna burn it all up in the end anyway’. He must have had 2 Peter 3:7 in mind, which refers to the heavens and the earth being ‘stored up for fire’, a fire which many theologians take to be for purification rather than destruction. Alas, my naivety left me silent as I churned through a list of people who I wished were present to challenge the motion: Wilberforce, Luther King Jr. and so on. 

‘God is gonna burn it all up in the end anyway’. As these words ricocheted around my mind, I thought of a view over Rio De Janeiro from Sugarloaf mountain I had enjoyed the previous year. The rich red and yellow glow of the sun as it kissed the water on the horizon, still spreading its light over the magnificent combination of human settlement and rugged mountains. I also remembered the spread of fields that surrounded my upbringing in Wiltshire, enriched through April showers yet lit up by an early glimmer of summer’s sunny hope. The taste of my late Granny’s apple pie when the pastry would crumble and give way to the tangy sweetness of stewed apple. The sound of Pachabel’s Canon in D Major, which because of its painful beauty has become the most unoriginal piece for a Bride’s entrance. These things are just small tastes of the wonderful world we live in, which God himself describes as ‘good’ no less than seven times in the first chapter of the Bible, before announcing after having surveyed his entire work of creation, that it is ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31). However, I couldn’t help thinking that if God’s final verdict on the world is a trip to the cosmic scrap heap, then my enjoyment of these things would be somewhat dampened.

Despite my frustration, this preacher (who had incredibly chunky hands and in my mind’s eye morphs further into the image of a gorilla in chinos every time I recall the event) did make a vital truth lodge in my mind. What you believe about the future determines how you will act in the present. If I think that my eternal destination is a cloud, upon which I’ll sit in a nappy strumming a harp, then I would hone my musical skills and do some sit-ups. If I think that there is no hell, then I might vigorously pursue a career in sex, drugs and rock and roll because ultimately there would be no consequences. If I think that God will eventually destroy this world, I might decide to begin helping him out on his demolition project now. Our understanding of the final act in the drama of history has a major influence on the way we read the script today.

So is our planet headed for heavenly healing, or doomed for the deity’s dumpster of destruction?  

Here are three highly recommended resources that answer that question and help us think through today’s implication of God’s future plan:

The Physical Future - Paul Blackham

Why does Jesus' resurrection matter? - NT Wright

Where are we Heading? Armageddon or Apocalypse? - Mike Reeves


HT: Jack O'Grady, Theology Network ASW at King's College London

The most exciting thing possible...

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

Welcome to the re-born Theology Network blog! Here you will find snapshots of all things theological, mini books reviews, news from the Theology Network groups and events, and lots more besides. We’ve left the posts from the old Merrie Theologiane blog below for you to peruse for your amusement.

Theology Network is driven by a conviction: theology is not the preserve of ivory tower academies, it’s not first and foremost meant to be a matter of reading what one theologian says about another theologian (and usually in language that’s pretty difficult to decipher!) – theology proper is simply about knowing God better. And that is what makes theology the most exciting thing possible! Really? Yes really. Christian theology is a matter of getting to know the God of the Bible better, and the truth is, He is wonderful.


A boy doing some theology

That’s why theology is so exciting – it’s about knowing this God; the God who is, from all eternity, a Father loving his Son by his Spirit, the God who has revealed himself to us in the Scriptures, the God who has himself come to us in Jesus Christ and displayed his unimaginably great love for us on the cross. That’s why Christian theology is so exciting, it’s not a matter of trying to bend our minds around some philosophical construct – it’s about knowing this God!  And Christian theology is transformative: as we dive deeper into knowing the true and living God, he grips not only our minds, but our hearts too – how could knowing him more not lead us to love him more, since he is lovely?! And then theology becomes very practical: as Jesus taught, when we love him, we will obey his commands (John 14:15).

So let’s do theology – let’s know God better, love Jesus more, and join the revolution!

And here are some great places to start:

Audio: Mike Reeves – Enjoying the Trinity: A Delightfully Different God

Article: Michael Horton  - Union with Christ