Monday, May 01, 2017

Mass Destruction

Melvin Tinker, Mass  Destruction (EP)


It is a great pleasure to be asked to write some words of introduction to the latest book of my long-time friend, Melvin Tinker. He has many gifts, one of which, not the least, is as an apologist for the faith. Melvin’s contemporary  style, his wide reading, his knowledge of the Bible, and his theological grasp enliven and inform all that he has to say.

The new book may be thought of as an exercise in consistency, or better in Christian integrity. None of us have any difficulty in finding warm and comforting words from the Bible: Psalm 23, or Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, or the way Jesus welcomed children, or fed the hungry and healed the sick. But the Bible has a darker side. Not only Jesus’ kind words and deeds, but his anger, his driving men from the Temple with a hand-made whip, his pointed remarks about the division his teaching will cause, and his statements on Hell as well as on Heaven, for example.

In this book Melvin is dealing with this darker side. If the Christian teaching about the Bible being one book, with one overall theme or message, is true, we must not overlook its darker side. The  darker side of Jesus’ ministry, but also the deeds of the ‘God of the Old Testament’. In a day when the Bible is dissected by the critics, or divided by specialists, this in itself is a welcome emphasis.  The Bible is the one word of God, and its entirety is to be taken seriously and faced honestly. The darker side cannot simply be brushed under the carpet. Apart from anything else, this is simply to push the culture further away from the sunnier side of its teaching. For as was aptly said, ‘If you belittle the disease you belittle the physician.’ The Lord our God is one Lord. Integrity demands that we form a consistent judgment of both the shadows and the sunshine.

Preparatory to this, we need to be reminded of God’s character. Any attentive reader of the Bible can see that it is impossible to make sense of it without the idea that God has a mind of his own. He is not simply the rather ineffective help to satisfying the latest desires of men and women. In any case, these are constantly shifting, with an ever-enlarging portfolio of ‘rights’ to benefit from.  God is not a human agent, not even a human prime minister or president or business leader, but our Creator and Lord. He is not driven by his desires to please us, but is just and holy. Because of this his love, disclosed in his covenant with Abraham and in Jesus the Mediator of the Covenant, is not moody, but deep and unwavering, rooted in his own unchanging character, and involving the humiliation and death of God incarnate. God did not spare his Son but delivered him up for us all.

God has a plan. Much of the detail of this plan is hidden from us, but it is clear that it involves the choice of a people, the people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and of blessing of them through a gracious covenant. This arrangement both allows for the  people’s chastisement if and when their fidelity to the covenant falters, and their protection from the attacks of surrounding nations intent on snuffing them out. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, says that in the Old Testament the people of God were under age, ‘under guardians and managers’ while being surrounded by bitter enemies. Both the correction  and protection of his people required that their God  undertook acts of holy discipline and destruction. 

In other words, Melvin is arguing from the Bible itself, that it is necessary to contextualize the darker side of things. These are not isolated events which show us that God, is capable of losing his temper, or of being vicious and bloodthirsty. This is not how the destruction of the Canaanites is to be seen. Rather they are instances of his protective care of his people, just as the disobedience of his own people has to be visited with the destructive-corrective action of God. These are parts of one consistent picture, what Melvin refers to as the non-partisan action of God. Not an isolated case of bullying or of loss of composure, but the understanding of God as ‘the judge of all the earth’ who ‘does what is just’. Though God is high and lifted up, nonetheless he has a deep commitment of grace and love to his unprepossessing people. The nations surrounding Israel were not pure and innocent, but idolatrous and abominable. Their actions revealed their detestable character, calling for righteous  punishment.

God does not suddenly grow up, as if the caterpillar of the Old Testament becomes the butterfly of the New Testament. However, his revelation does develop from being focussed exclusively on Israel to his concern for the international church of Jesus Christ.  This is the true, the full, ‘Israel of God. ’It is in Jesus Christ, the Suffering Servant, that we see God’s wrath and grace best refracted.

To spell out these dark themes in some detail is characteristic of the courage and commitment to the truth that is Melvin’s outlook. Some of this makes uncomfortable reading, but then Melvin’s  aim is not  to ‘speak to us smooth words….illusions’, but to be faithful to the God of Israel and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. As he says, both Testaments portray ‘God in his holiness as implacably opposed to all sin which issues in judgment, and yet in his love he shows mercy which calls for repentance’.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Augustine the pilgrim - II

When in the City of God  Augustine compares the two cities and their inhabitants in some way, the theme of pilgrimage becomes prominent. As in chapter 17  of Book 19, ‘The grounds of the concord and discord between the cities of on earth as being engaged in pilgrimage.(City of God, 17.19) Such people live by faith and at the same time take advantage of the peace of the earthly city. They live ‘as it were, in captivity, and having received the promise of redemption, and diverse spiritual gifts as seals thereof, it willingly obeys such laws of the temporal city as order things pertaining to the sustenance of this moral life, to the end that both the cities might observe a peace in such things as are pertinent thereunto.’

This peace [that is, the peace of the heavenly city], is that unto which the pilgrim in faith, refers to the other peace, which he has here in his pilgrimage; and then lives he according to faith, when all that he does for the obtaining thereof is by himself referred unto God, and his neighbour withal, because, being a citizen, he must not be all for himself,  but sociable in his life and actions.(City of God, 19.17)

Another ingredient in his two cities view was his recognition of the ‘ordinary daily judgments’ of God ( City of God20.1) as operating on the just as well as the unjust. His view was not that the profession of Christianity afforded a cover of protection against daily troubles and disappointments, a bubble in which those within could see the problems of others while having none of their own. But as we have seen in his preaching for Augustine,  being a pilgrim was fuelled by a disparagement of the achievements and standards of this world, and by the celebration of its passing and its supplanting by the eternal city of God.

He also has another argument for the same conclusion, an appeal to the ‘all things come alike to all’ outlook of the book of Ecclesiastes.  (City of God, 20. 2,3)  Though we have seen Augustine’s move to a view of history as ‘secular’, as not providing in the events of providence further any developments of his saving purposes, which were completed at the Ascension of the Saviour, nonetheless in this era God continues his judgments through providence.  ‘[M]an, sometimes in public, but continually in secret feels the hand of Almighty God punishing him for his transgressions and misdeeds, either in this life or the next.’

Thus in the things where God’s judgments are not to be discovered, His counsel is not to be neglected. We know not why God makes this bad man rich, and that good man poor; why he should have joy, whose deserts we hold worthier of pains, and he pains, whose good life we imagine to merit content; why the judge’s corruption or the falseness of the witnesses should send the innocent away condemned, and the injurious foe should depart revenged, as well as unpunished; why the wicked man should live sound, and the godly lie bedrid; why lusty youths should turn thieves, and those who never did hurt in word be plagued with extremity of sickness; why infants, of good use in the world, should be cut off by untimely death, while they that seem unworthy ever to have been born  attain long and happy life; or why the guilty should be honoured, and the godly oppressed; and such contrast  as these – which who could count, or recount? (City of God, 20. 2)

Augustine’s argument is that neither the incidence of ups nor of downs in life correlates with personal character. God’s judgments are unsearchable, and his ways inscrutable.

Although, then, we see no cause why God should do thus or thus, He is whom is all  wisdom and justice, and no weakness nor rashness, nor injustice, yet here we learn that we should not esteem too highly those goods or misfortunes, which the bad share with the righteous; but should seek the good peculiar to the one, and avoid the evil reserved for the other. (City of God, 20. 2)

In the next chapter he supports this by discussion of Solomon’s reflections in Ecclesiastes. This rule of historical interpretation, to treat the character of human lives as neither evidence for nor as evidence against the blessing of God, severely limits the historical judgments that observers may make as to the blessing or judgment of God, and makes the construction of a  theological commentary of the period an impossibility. Nevertheless the apparent randomness of the happenings has lessons for those that have eyes to see.

The full version of this paper along with the others from the recent Affinity Theology Conference will be put on their website shortly

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Augustine the pilgrim

Ruins of Hippo

The City of God was completed three years before Augustine died. The Barbarians overcame this Roman province of Africa later in the century. They reached Hippo in 430, the year of Augustine’s death. Christianity was wiped out. In this case at least Tertullian’s saying that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church was inapplicable. The retrenchment of Rome from its outer provinces, the division of the empire into two halves centred on Rome and Constantinople, accentuated the importance of Rome in the West, and this was underlined by the Crusades, leading to the Holy Roman Empire of which you and I are heirs. The rest is history.

The book, long in Augustine’s mind, was begun in 413, with various pauses, - Books IV-V  in 415, Book XI by 417, Books XV - XVI by 425, Book XVIII in 425, with the work finished in 427, fourteen years after it was begun. It is a massive, meandering work, full of learning and argument, but rather higgledy-piggledy on first inspection. Augustine planned it, from the very beginning to answer the pagan Roman charge that the disaster of 410 had come about as a result of the Romans’ foolish adherence to Christianity, and their rejection of the old Roman religion.

The book is about the nature of Rome, its destiny as a city, and the contrast with the city of God. It is of interest to us as providing indicators of Augustine’s mature thinking of the Roman empire, and of its place in the history of salvation.

Augustine identifies the city of God with the Christian church,  the kingdom of God. Not the ‘mixed’ empirical church, but the church of the elect on earth at any one time. It is to such people that Augustine is addressing his sermons.  The City of God is composed of Christians, and the dead departed, and the yet to be born. They have a king, Jesus. Sociologically in this present era this kingdom it is seated within the terrestrial city, Babylon.  It does not have one discrete social identity, but worships as social groups,  as churches scattered throughout Babylon, the country of Israel’s exile, as referred to by Peter in his first letter. (I Pet. 5.13)

So the people of God are physically within Babylon, and are also inhabitants of Babylon. There is friction between the two. The horizon of Babylon is this life, that of the members of the city of God, God’s eternity, and the coming of the seventh age. Babylon is governed by cupiditas, selfishness, the city of God by caritas, love of God and neighbour, the life of which will culminate in the age of glory, Jerusalem the golden.  Unappreciated by the citizens of Babylon, the citizens of the City of God also are destined to live again after their deaths and, and those who have never been other than citizens of Babylon are to be punished eternally. To  our taste, at least as this is judged by what we talk about,  there is a disproportionate emphasis on this side of things in the book. Augustine never ceases to extol the state of glory.

So the word ‘city’ in ‘City of God’ operates differently from ‘city’ in the city of ‘Babylon’. We must put from our minds the idea that between the two there is any political concordat or covenant, or could be, but also that between them there are any physical barriers. The people of God are in Babylon in the sense that they live and work alongside Babyloners. Unlike the later Anabaptists, they are to actively promote their inevitable participation in it.

Augustine has an interesting chapter in the City of God on neighbourliness in Babylon headed ‘Of living sociably with our neighbours: how fit it is, and yet how subject to crosses’. (City of God, 19.5)

He also has things to say about the emotional state of pilgrims.

[A]ccording to our religion and the scriptures, the citizens of God, as long as they are pilgrims, and in the way of God, do fear, desire, rejoice and sorrow. But their love, being right, straighten all these emotions. They fear eternal pain, and desire eternal joy. They sorrow for the present, because they sigh in themselves, waiting for their adoption, even the redemption of their bodies. They rejoice in hope, because that shall be fulfilled which is written. They fear to offend, and desire to persevere. They sorrow for sin and rejoice in doing good….And as they are strong or weak, so do they desire or fear to be tempted: rejoicing or sorrowing in temptation. (City of God, 14.9)

The days of state and church and their relations was not yet. Constantine did not bring in a positive church-state relationship as part of the constitution of the Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire and its dissolution into various national concordats between church and state, and the life of those churches that dissented from any such relationship, was still to come. In Augustine’s day the only relation is that of the tolerance or intolerance of the city of God by the current political authorities. This is one important way in which Augustine’s conception of two cities is more than verbally distinct from Luther’s and Calvin’s conceptions of two kingdoms. For ideally, one of these kingdoms is ruled by the magistrate in a formal arrangement with the church, upholding the confession of the church. Augustine conceives of no such relationship

For Augustine the relationship between the cities is much less formal.  The ethics and ideals of Babylon and those of the church make living together possible. In the last section of the book Augustine makes this clear in  the chapter mentioned earlier, City of God, 19.5. subtitled ‘Of living sociably with our neighbour: how fit it is, and yet how subject to crosses’, and two others: ‘The grounds of the concord and discord between the cities of heaven and earth’.  (City of God, 19.5) And ‘The peace of God’s enemies, useful to the piety of His friends as long as their earthly pilgrimage lasts’. (City of God, 19.26)

Wretched then are they that are strangers to that God, and yet have those a kind of allowable peace, but that they shall not have for ever, because they used it not well when they had it. But that they should have it in this life is for our good also; because during our commixture with Babylon, we ourselves make use of her peace, and though faith does free the people of God at length out of her, yet in the meantime we live as pilgrims in her. And therefore the apostle admonished the Church to pray fore kings and potentates of that earthly city, adding this reason, ‘that we may lead a quiet life in all godliness and charity’. (City of God, 19.26) 
The suggestion behind these words is that the relations between the two can be beneficial, and will ebb and flow. Very different from his earlier ‘Christianisation’ views.

So the citizens of the city of God do have business in the city of Babylon. Reading some of Augustine’s letters one is struck of the seriousness and naturalness with which he corresponds with Roman officials in Babylon about matters of administration, and how he seeks the advantage of the church thereby. But it is not that Augustine is two-faced, but that he is, as a cultivated Christian Bishop, at the interface of church relations with Babylon. He wears two hats, as all Christians do in Augustine’s conception of the two cities.

Augustine does not have a concept of common grace, though there are occasional references to the ‘good gifts’ that God grants to the inhabitants of the city of this world. (City of God, 15.4) And he does have a rudimentary idea of natural law, the eternal law, from Scripture and from the Stoics such as Cicero. The members of the city of God have duties to their pagan neighbours. Earthly peace is important though not all-important. Hence his discussions of just and unjust wars in the City of God

But, so it seems to me, such activity in the ‘cities’ is thoroughly consistent with Augustine’s conception of their different character. Augustine was not an Anabaptist, and though other - worldly, he does not seek to flee from duties and responsibilities arising from the intermingling of the two cities. As a citizen of the heavenly city, he was also within the earthly city. The discharge of earthly duties is a social and may be a political matter.  But a person’s religious view as a Christian is not for Augustine a political matter as far as the earthly city is concerned. So at leastAugustine seems to have argued.

This is an extract from a paper given at the Affinity Theological Study Conference, 2017