Foundations: No.77 Autumn 2019


The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (2 Timothy 2:24-26)

I find myself, on sabbatical for a few months, with the honour and privilege of sitting in the Editor’s chair for this issue of Foundations. That will teach me to speak up in Affinity Council meetings about how important it is for us to continue this important ministry! A new longer-term Editor will, God willing, take over in the new year to commission and edit articles for the future. But for now you are stuck with me. As I wondered how to begin, this passage above from 2 Timothy 2 came to mind as an especially relevant text to consider as we go about our ministries, especially intellectual or theological ministries such as Foundations, in our day and age.

As I write, tempers are flaring up in politics, the Press, and social media as a General Election campaign hots up. The lack of civility in public life, and the often-vicious rhetoric that opposing sides in current national debates fling at each other ought to be a cause for profound concern. The issues which we in our churches and fellowships and denominations have to discuss over the next year, however, will be far more important than Brexit or the future of the National Health Service. We have matters of eternal significance in our hands. God’s people, finding themselves “in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation” are meant to “shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life” (Philippians 2:15-16). However, we are often tempted to just the kind of toxic engagement which we so deplore in the secular state.

One of my favourite bits of sixteenth-century canon law speaks about how “the condition of the state is ruined when it is governed by people who are stupid, demanding, and burning with ambition”. At the same time, it continues, “the church of God is struggling, since it is committed to the care of those who are totally incompetent to assume so important a task. In this respect it has fallen very far short indeed of those rules of the blessed Paul, which he prescribed to Timothy and Titus. Therefore we must find an appropriate remedy for so serious a plague on our churches.”[1] If we in the churches want to critique the way that public engagement happens in our national life, we must make sure that we are living by our own professed biblical standards as we do. 2 Timothy 2 is just one text for us to reflect on as we seek to do this.

The Lord Jesus exemplified both zeal for the truth and a deep love for people. Christ is often held up as an example to follow, however, by people who seem to enjoy giving offence and wish to tear others down with their salty rhetoric and pejorative epithets. There is a well-known meme (a sort of online poster) which often does the rounds on Facebook and Twitter, for example, featuring a picture of Jesus clearing out the temple, with the lesson, “If someone asks ‘What would Jesus do?’, remind them that turning over tables and breaking out whips is a possibility.” Paul’s perplexed exasperation with false teachers in Galatia is also sometimes presented as a model for emulation, especially when he says, “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” (Galatians 5:12). This is taken, along with the prophets pronouncing woes upon people, as carte blanche for us, not simply to speak clearly and passionately against error, but to insult and excoriate and attack our political or ecclesiastical enemies.

It is interesting to note that there is no sense in Acts that the apostles chose Jesus’s forceful cleansing of the temple as the model for their own stance towards religious opponents, even after his death at the hands of the temple establishment. In Acts, physical violence and verbal abuse are directed against Christian leaders, but never undertaken by them (e.g. Acts 4:3, 5:18, 7:58, 8:3, 9:1, 12:1-3, 13:50, 14:5, 14:19, 16:19, 17:5-6, 18:6, 19:29, 21:30-36, 22:22-23, and 23:12-15). I think it is likely that part of the very purpose of Luke’s second volume is to exonerate the early Christians from malicious charges that they were not peaceable, showing where the violence surrounding the proclamation of the gospel actually originated. Moreover, Jesus rebuked James and John for even suggesting retribution against those who rejected him (Luke 9:51-55), and certainly did not give a deservedly harsh answer to every ridiculous thing said or done against him. Even as he was unjustly crucified it could be said of him, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).

In our own polemics and public engagement, we would do well to meditate more on this aspect of the Lord’s example, not to mention his intense prayerfulness (e.g. Matthew 14:23, 26:36, Mark 1:35, 6:46, 9:29). I am not suggesting that we ought simply to be silent. Yet we are neither divine, all-knowing and sinless saviours, or apostles of Christ with prophetic insight and revelation. So I think we ought to be more wary of too quickly claiming to imitate Jesus and the godly authors of Scripture before we have heard their strictures on harshness, discourtesy and disproportionate argumentativeness. Let us attempt to do as they say, before we boldly permit ourselves to do as they did.

The apostle Peter also tells us not to attract negative attention from those around us because we are “meddlers” (1 Peter 4:15). The word means “one who busies himself in the affairs of others in an unwarranted manner”.[2] He is concerned that in our rejection of worldly ways and the topsy-turvy times in which we live, we Christians can sometimes come over a bit self-righteous. Paul told the Thessalonians “to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs” (1 Thessalonians 4:11), but Peter knows some who have different aspirations. As Peter Davids comments,

it is probable that our author is concerned that Christians in their rejection of idolatry and pagan morality or their zeal for the gospel not put their noses (or worse) into situations in which they ought not to be involved and thus justly earn the censure of pagan culture for transgressing culturally approved limits. Gentle persuasion is one thing; denouncing idolatry in a temple courtyard is another, as might also be interfering in the affairs of another family, however well-meaning it might be. No Christian should disgrace Christ by being guilty of such things.[3]

J.Ramsey Michaels also writes of how Peter may have known of Christians who set themselves up as guardians of public morality”, pretending to legislate and lecture everyone on goodness and virtue.[4] This is reminiscent of the wry comment of a medieval archbishop called Theophylact of Ohrid (1050-1108), who said that, “A meddler is someone who loves to mind other people’s business in order to find reasons for attacking them.”[5] They are mischief makers, what in the online world is nowadays called a “troll”.[6] If people don’t like it when believers go around behaving like that, we are not to take comfort in the fact that we are “meddlers for Christ”. That is not the sort of offence he wants us to cause. If we suffer because we are insufferable, that is not being Christian; it is being cringey. It is not the sort of reputation we ought to covet. “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name”, says Peter. May we suffer the slings and arrow of outrageous opposition in a way that glorifies God and puts our opponents (and not us) to shame.

In my article below on the epistle of Jude, I outline what that pithy letter has to say about contending for the faith. He calls us to join the struggle against false teaching in defence of orthodoxy, because there is a perpetual battle raging. As Hilary of Poitiers (310-367) noted in the early church, “there is a constant battle between the assertion of truth and the defence of pleasure”.[7] Hilary describes how this takes hold in individuals, as our minds start to follow our fallen wills: “Enquiry after truth gives way to the search for proofs of what we wish to believe; desire is paramount over truth… But instead of trying to set up our desires as doctrines, we should let our doctrines dictate our desires.” Yet people are often more zealous for the things they inwardly yearn for than they are for what sound doctrine teaches. So, in the end, they begin to cloak their more culturally-comfortable teaching in pious-sounding words even while they abandon true reverence for the faith.[8] We have seen this again and again in the last few centuries (as I expand), and we see this all around us today. Yet Jude’s advice is distinctly different to what many might expect. Just as James warned his readers to avoid bitterly ambitious quarrelsomeness based on wisdom that is “earthly, unspiritual, and demonic” (James 3:15), so contending for the faith, in Jude’s book, is an activity characterised by mercy, and self-awareness.

All this being said, there is at least a case for some careful use of satire in Christian communication, as Dr Tom Woolford points out in his article below on the use of that comedic device in the book of Isaiah. After studiously defining what satire is, and its various types, he exegetes certain passages in Isaiah to show how the prophet repeatedly uses not only subtle but also biting satire to make his points. Examining and unpacking the implications of this for us today, he is also wise to note that there are certain controls on the use of satire, which mean that zealous firebrands in social media groups ought to be wary about its use, and cognisant of the usual effects of it before they leap in. This is a provocative article, and those wishing to critique its conclusions will surely need to indulge in equally careful exegesis and learned exposition. (We do, of course, invite rejoinder articles of similar depth and sophistication for future issues of Foundations!)

One area of theology where there has been sharp debate in the past is over the so-called Filioque clause in the Nicene Creed. Does the Holy Spirit proceed from the Father alone, or from the Father and the Son? This question divided Eastern and Western Christendom almost a thousand years ago, and it still divides many today. In an exercise in “constructive dogmatics”, Jake Eggertsen examines this question in our next article. He seeks to engage with Scripture and tradition in dialogue with theologians from the past and the present to help answer this important Trinitarian question, in a way that is irenic and thoughtful.

Next, we return to the Areopagus in Athens to look at what Paul’s address to the Greek philosophers of his day can teach us about the fraught question of whether Christians and Muslims worship “the same God”. Does Paul’s speech on Mars’ Hill about an “Unknown God” he was now making known to them justify referring to Allah as the same God as the God of the Bible, as some people think it does? In constructing his case against this recently popularised idea, Tim Dieppe interacts with sources ancient and modern, to help us in our apologetics today.

Speaking of apologetics reminds us that one of our primary tasks as Christians in our confused and confusing society is to reach out with the good news of the gospel to unbelievers. In that regard, Dr Donald John MacLean looks in depth at the question of whether Jesus standing at the door and knocking in Revelation 3:20 is an evangelistic appeal or not. Many have seen it that way, and preached it that way to great effect, but it is common today for commentators to reject such use in mass evangelism, and many are concerned with the picture often painted of a seemingly impotent Christ yearning for unbelievers to exercise their free will and open the door so he can save them. On the other hand, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many Reformed writers and preachers did actually draw stirring conversionist appeals from the picture of Jesus standing at the door, without theological qualms. As an expert in historical theology, MacLean examines why, and finds that ecclesiology matters far more than we may realise when it comes to our application of the Bible in preaching.

Ecclesiologically, our book reviewers in this issue are from a number of different backgrounds: Anglican, Baptist, Presbyterian – which is after all what makes us in Affinity such a richly diverse and fascinating bunch! I am grateful to them, as I think you will be, for giving time to read, think, and write about some recent publications of note.

I hope you will enjoy this issue of Foundations.

Dr Lee Gatiss

Director of Church Society, a Lecturer in Church History at Union School of Theology in Bridgend, and Adjunct Professor at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids.

 November 2019

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