Foundations: No.76 Spring 2019

Editorial

 

The current issue of Foundations is mainly comprised of the six papers on the subject of “worship”, delivered and discussed at the 2019 Affinity Theological Study Conference, which was held in March at The King’s Centre, Northampton.

In recent months Martin Salter has taken the decision to step down as editor of this journal and the Affinity council is very sorry to see him go. We a very thankful to him for his work on the previous two excellent issues and we trust that he will continue to know God’s blessing on his ministry as part of the leadership team at Grace Community Church, Bedford.

Since the vacancy for the editorship has not yet been filled, and since I retired at the recent Conference from the position of being its Chair – having occupied that “office” since the inception of Affinity – I have been invited to write this editorial. This being, therefore, a time of transition and change, it will be profitable to focus on those things which must change and on those which must never change.

Fixed and Flexible

All Christians, all churches and church bodies need to be both fixed and flexible – fixed with respect to those things which never change but flexible with respect to the way in which one relates and applies those fixed realities in an ever-changing context. A classic verse which spells this out is Acts 13:36: “For when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep” (NIV). David’s generation was very different from those of Abraham, of Moses and of Joshua before him, just as Hezekiah’s would be very different from David’s generation after him. Some of the demands faced by Moses, leading God’s people in the wilderness, were quite different from those of Joshua, leading the people into the Promised Land. And the needs faced by David, now that God’s people had been settled in Canaan for generations, were yet different again. Some things, however, never change: God is unchangeable – the Father is the eternal Rock; the Son is “the same yesterday, today and forever”; and Hebrews 9:14 informs us that the Holy Spirit is “the eternal Spirit”. God’s Word is unchanging, and so is the gospel and the eternal realities of which it speaks. The perennial danger for us is to emphasise only one part of the tension in which we live: we may so emphasise the importance of being fixed on the unchanging realities that we fail properly to contextualise things in our time and place; or we become so attuned to cultural trends and changes that we fail to maintain continuity with the people of God in past ages and in other places than our own. We may do something even worse: become fixed where we should be flexible and flexible where we need to be fixed.

What takes place when God’s people gather together is one area where it is essential to be both fixed and flexible. To state the obvious, while we worship and praise the same God as Moses and the apostles, it would be absurd to read and preach from the Old Testament in biblical Hebrew and from the New Testament in koine Greek, or to sing the psalms in their original Hebrew. The semantic content of God’s Word is unchangeable; the languages in which that content is to be expressed must change from nation to nation and, indeed, from one period to another. The papers in this issue address some of these matters.

The gospel is something that is fixed and is that upon which we must ever remain fixed. It is essential to stress both the definite article and the noun. First, it is the gospel – there is no other. In the modern global village, philosophies and life-style choices compete, side-by-side, for the allegiance of the twenty first century “consumer”. This is the context in which the gospel is to be made known. But although surrounded by a bewildering variety of world views, ideologies, religions and philosophies, the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is called to proclaim, without compromise or equivocation, that the gospel is not simply one option amongst many, which is to be offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, but is the very truth of God and the only remedy for humanity’s greatest need. Ancient Rome had a veritable pantheon of gods but Paul was utterly convinced that it was only the gospel which was the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes and this is why he was so eager to preach it to the people of Rome, whether they were of Roman or Greek origin, for it is precisely because there is only one gospel that it is universal in its scope and appeal.

The noun, of course, is equally important: the gospel. The good news is defined in various places within the pages of the New Testament, sometimes bringing out one particular emphasis, at other times a different one; but central to this message is a series of glorious events – the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, events which deal with the fundamental problem of human sin and God’s wrath upon that sin. Whether it is Peter preaching in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost to his fellow Jews or in Caesarea to the household of Cornelius; whether it is Paul preaching in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch or proclaiming the divine message to the people of Athens at the Areopagus; or whether he is reminding his Corinthian readers of the gospel at the outset of the great fifteenth chapter of his first letter to them, or urging faithfulness in persecution upon young Timothy (2 Tim. 2:8), this is the message which the apostles identified as “the gospel” (1 Cor. 15:1-11).

Of course, this message needs to be “unpacked” – who is this Christ? Immediately, this raises the issue of his uniqueness and his nature(s), and this, in turn, leads on to the being, nature and character of God. Why did Christ die for sins? What does this sentence mean? This inevitably necessitates defining and explaining the word “sin” and God’s view of it. Furthermore, the sermons in Acts 2, Acts 10 and Acts 13 make clear reference to the Old Testament Scriptures, and this is spelled out twice in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4: “according to the Scriptures”; and although Paul does not cite specific Bible passages in his message to the Areopagites (though he does quote a Greek poet – he was, after all, preaching to people who did not know the Old Testament Scriptures and who would not have recognised its unique nature, status and authority), it is abundantly clear that his discourse is saturated with the truths which the Old Testament proclaims, truths both about God and about humanity. This, of course, means that a certain view of the Bible is part and parcel of the one gospel. These truths are as relevant to twenty-first century humanity, whether in the “developed world” or the “developing world”, as they were to first-century humanity, whether Jew or Gentile, Roman or Greek, wise or foolish. The gospel is to be practised in the way that Christians live, in private, at home, at work, in society at large and in the church; it is to be proclaimed both to the world and to the people of God; and it must be protected against all attacks upon it.

The long history of the Church demonstrates, however, that at particular periods different gospel emphases need especially to be protected and proclaimed. One thinks of the ecumenical church councils of the early centuries when the doctrine of the Trinity was protected by being formally articulated in the Nicean and Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creeds, just as the unity of the Person of Christ in two natures was safeguarded in the great Chalcedonian statement. It was surely appropriate for the magisterial Protestant Reformers to press the importance of the doctrines of union with Christ, justification by faith, the sufficiency of Scripture and the right and duty of private judgment, just as the seventeenth-century Puritans were right to give massive attention to the doctrine of holiness, and the eighteenth-century evangelical leaders to assert the necessity and nature of new birth. The question, of course, arises as to what are the particular truths which need to be stressed in our day in the West? The answer must surely be similar to that which the poor, deranged demoniac gave to the Lord Jesus: “I am Legion, for we are many.” Where does one begin? I shall enumerate just a few matters which we need to emphasise.

First, no doubt, is something to which reference has already been made: the uniqueness of the gospel. As cultural trends push harder and harder for the Christian message to be confined to the private sphere, it is important for us to stress that the gospel deals with great objective realities and for this very reason we cannot allow them to be effectively privatised. But the gospel must be practised, as well as proclaimed. Where Christians and churches are actively seeking and promoting the welfare of their neighbours and are eager to do what is good and helpful to those outside of the church of God, there will be less of a credibility gap when we speak into the public realm of the truth of the gospel. In this connection it is surely noteworthy that Rosaria Butterfield relates in her excellent book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert that it was the kindness of a Presbyterian pastor and his wife in welcoming her into their home and genuinely befriending her that led, under the blessing of God, to her repentance towards God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, one of the consequences of which was her abandonment of her lesbian lifestyle and of her championing the rightness of homosexual relationships. Much of the evangelical drum-beating against gay issues had simply alienated her, being harsh, strident, metallic and, therefore, so unlike the Lord Jesus himself: grace, as well as truth, came by Jesus Christ. Did not Augustine of Hippo comment on the fact that Bishop Ambrose of Milan had shown kindness to Augustine and how this had played a part in his coming to faith?

Following from what has just been said, we need to understand that we have not been created as exclusively cerebral beings but we are those who have a rich emotional life. The great B. B. Warfield wrote a wonderful essay entitled The Emotional Life of Our Lord. The Perfect Man did not deny his emotions but they played an important part in his incarnate life and death. Indeed, since Christ will forever be the God-Man, he still has a human emotional life. Possibly, in the realm of apologetics, it has not always been appreciated that the defending and the commending of the gospel must appeal to the emotions, as well as to the intellect: since we are whole people, the affective aspect of our nature is important as well as our cognitive faculties. The imagination can bring both elements together. This may well be part of the explanation for the effectiveness of C. S. Lewis as an apologist: he not only had a razor-sharp intellect, which could expose fallacious reasoning, but he also possessed a vivid imagination and knew how to appeal to the imaginative aspect of his readers. In this connection, Glyn Harrison’s book A Better Story has much to teach. He identifies the way in which the gay community has been very effective in presenting a narrative which appeals to the emotions; evangelicals have often approached the whole gay issue – and, indeed, gender matters in general – with cogent arguments which all but fail to convince and persuade the unbeliever. The reason? No doubt we must reckon with the condition of the unregenerate heart. And it is surely right to appeal to the emotions via the mind, rather than directly. Was it not Socrates who said that the appeal to the emotions was the basest of all appeals? Well, yes, when it is the only or the primary appeal; but definitely no, if we ignore the emotions. Without necessarily believing in a zeitgeist, we need to reckon with the fact that we must not only engage the unbelieving messages of our day but also the mood of people. Possibly, conservative evangelicals in the West have not been as strong in recent years at engaging the imagination and emotions of an unbelieving world as we have been at seeking to engage their critical faculties.

The whole gender and related matters are, in any event, but the symptoms of a much deeper issue which it is crucial to address both in evangelism and in the Church’s pastoral and teaching ministry. I refer to the whole matter of human identity: what is a human being? The different influences which have led to the “dehumanised” view of humanity are various and it is beyond the brief for this editorial to trace those influences. Suffice it to say that in society at large the idea that there is something objective about human beings which confers a unique dignity and status upon us has long since vanished. The upshot of this is that, precisely because people are made in God’s image, they still feel that there must be something special about them and thus there is a longing or a quest for transcendence; the tragedy is, however, that this sense of being unique is no longer underpinned by recognition of the objective reality which accounts for it, namely, the image of God. There has been a tragic loss of the nature of human identity. This lost sense of identity manifests itself in various ways, one of which is that some people seek their identity in their sexuality. This is one of the reasons why the whole gay and gender issues are so emotive: the moment one questions the rightness of a gay lifestyle or the decision to transition to a different gender, people may feel that their very identity as human beings is coming under attack. In this context it is essential that we stress that although humanity is in a state and condition of sin, it is human beings who are in this state. If Jesus’ parables of the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the lost son teach us anything at all, one of the things must surely be that human beings – and very lost human beings – matter supremely to God. Indeed, nothing demonstrates this more wonderfully than the cross of the Lord Jesus. As Archbishop William Temple once expressed it when answering the question as to what he was worth: “I must be worth a tremendous amount because God gave his only Son to die for me.” Unworthy, we most certainly are; worthless, most definitely not! Too frequently the gender issue is discussed by evangelicals without getting underneath to the bedrock issue that we are all God’s image bearers.

Once we raise the matter of human identity as being in God’s image, this inevitably raises the being and nature of God and the doctrine of creation. These are crucially important truths which our society desperately needs to hear articulated. Christian apologist William Lane Craig has observed that although he believes the cosmological argument to be one of the most powerful weapons in the apologetic armoury, it is not this which connects with most students these days. What does connect with them is the fact that for there to be objective moral standards there must be a transcendent Creator who has laid down those standards. Since everyone has some objective moral standards; and since these cannot be in place without an adequate foundation, Craig has discovered that many have been led to belief in a Creator God through this approach. C. S. Lewis argued in a similar way in his famous work Mere Christianity.

Clearly, the gospel is not truly proclaimed unless Christ crucified and risen is proclaimed. But our context is vastly different from those evangelists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who could assume that many of their hearers were living their lives in a theistic context. Even in the mid-twentieth century an evangelist such as Billy Graham saw much fruit from gospel proclamation which could still assume a fair bit of background awareness of certain aspects of biblical truth. Those days are now well and truly over. For the gospel to be meaningfully proclaimed today, it is essential that we first lay down deep foundations: the being and nature of God; the reality of the created order; the uniqueness of humanity as God’s image-bearer. Only when this has been done does the gospel make sense. This does not mean that a vast period of time has to elapse before we preach Jesus and the resurrection – Paul got there pretty quickly when he was before the Areopagus. But he started far back with God as Creator, the uniqueness of humanity and the obligation not to worship idols, before coming to the summons to repent, a summons grounded in the resurrection of Jesus (which presupposed his death) and his judging the world on the last day.

So, as Affinity seeks a new editor for this journal and a new chair for its theological study conference, let us ensure that we serve God’s purpose in our generation: that we remain fixed on great gospel realities and apply them flexibly in an ever-changing environment.

Stephen Clark
Minister of Freeschool Court Evangelical Church, Bridgend, lecturer in systematic theology at the London Seminary, Principal and Director of the Theological Training Course of The Evangelical Movement of Wales, and lecturer in systematic theology.

May 2019

 

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