To assume the Gospel is to lose the Gospel

To assume the Gospel is to lose the Gospel

“If you get to the place as an individual in a family or in leadership in a local maxresdefaultchurch, you get to the place where the Gospel is that which is assumed, but which you’re not particularly excited about, the next generation puts the Gospel to one side.  It assumes it too but doesn’t really care.  The generation after that loses the Gospel.

So when you come likewise to something like the Lord’s Supper, I would argue that one of the groups of churches that is most likely to lose the centrality of the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, is precisely the Plymouth Brethren; precisely because it’s so central for [them].  That’s not an insult, it’s a perennial danger in every denomination:  that which is most understood to be central can accidentally become that which is merely assumed – and then is on the edge of being lost!”

D. A. Carson

“A perennial danger” maybe the perennial danger.  I have found that as wonderful as being involved in a church can be, the power of assumptions are quite something to behold.  We assume too much because what we assume is too little.  There is a cognitive displacement that takes place, as though the Gospel is a stepping stone to actual ministry, or actual church business:  The Gospel is actual ministry and it is actual church business.  I suppose it gives rise to the reason why Carson would also say “I cannot think of  why any thinking Christian would not want to study theology.”  

Any departure from the Gospel is, of course, a catastrophic mistake more serious than if the escaping Israelites had set up home in the middle of the parted waters as they escaped the despotic Pharoah.  Many churches have “set up home” in the place where they are still being redeemed, because they have assumed the Gospel, they have fallen for the perennial danger; they have cuddled the wolf thinking it is a lamb.  This leads inevitably to a fossilising of corporate church life and of personal devotional life.  That is how the theological wolves pacify the churches today.

Institutional monotony is as alive and well in decaying Catholic churches as well as so-called charismatic-evangelical churches.  Give us a baby in a manger any day but do not give us the Christ who walks on water or wakes the dead!”  The Gospel obviously gives both – and shows that the baby doesn’t stay in the manger because he likewise doesn’t stay in the boat….or the grave for that matter.  A water-walking, dead-rising Messiah is a Messiah we can’t control, and the moment we have controlled him…..it’s not Him but another sentimental Hymn of slogans (this is the point to say that a truly great hymn can be reduced to sentimental sloganeering no less than a soppy bad hymn – it is the culture in which it is sung that makes the difference).  If it is a culture of Gospelised content, then wonderful.  But if not, then it is noise and wind!

Let us not lose sight of the Gospel because we’ve been too busy or too lazy to see it.  In 1534 John Calvin wrote on the importance of the Gospel, the opening of which reads:

jean-calvin-028“Without the gospel
everything is useless and vain;
without the gospel
we are not Christians;
without the gospel
all riches is poverty,
all wisdom folly before God;
strength is weakness…”

I have quoted it in full here, and it is a brilliant reminder of the things that are of first importance.  Our cognitive displacement is, I think, part of our tendency to sloganeer words rather than live with their reality and depth.  In other words, actual biblical content has been displaced in favour of mere words that are biblical but function as religious slogans.  This happens in our worship, mission, evangelism and devotions.  Often, what we think is Christianity is a parody, a shadow a pale reflection.  The Gospel, and all its content and entailments is biblical Christianity.  An assumed Gospel is a sloganeered Gospel, empty of power, depth and meaning – and who wants that?  Not me!

And we say this because we love the church.  And we love the church because Jesus loves the church.  Dodman Cross

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History and Truth (greatness and brokenness)

History is always told from a certain angle or perspective.  We’re told that history is written by the winners; and that the only thing we ever learn from history is that we never learn from history or that we are condemned to repeat the history we do not know!  Even good history is offered from a particular perspective, no less than a good map is produced from a certain angle for a particular reason.

Rowan Williams writes, “Good history makes us think again about the definition of things we thought we understood pretty well, because it engages not just with what is familiar but with what is strange.  It recognises that “the past is a foreign country” as well as being our past.

In the context of “truth”, history can be told from multiple angles, and seeming opposites.  “Well they can’t both be true!”  Yes they can.  I recently discovered my notes taken from an unknown place and time given by Bible scholar D. A. Carson.  He spoke of the same [American] history being told in two different ways, both accurate, both true, both very different!

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The God Who is There

Slavoj Zizek, Slovinian philosopher and cultural critic, said that the only way to be a true atheist is to go through Christianity.  This series of videos will do just that!

D. A. Carson takes us through the whole Bible storyline in this excellent series designed for those who know nothing or very little about the Bible or the Gospel.  Enjoy.

Doing Theology

Theology

Theology is the most amazing subject, and one of the most misunderstood.  It can relate to the entire discipline of religious studies, but Christian theology is more specifically the study of what the Scriptures say.  This is not minimalism, since this study includes exegesis, historical criticism, careful analysis of method and epistemology, and then comes the careful presentation of this.  Theology can thus be defined like this:  disciplined discourse about God.  This discourse is fully and finally constrained by the Bible.

Exegesis

Exegesis is the study and work carried out on the final form of the text which is considered as an integral and self-referring literary object.  It includes, but is not limited to parsing, word study, and syntax at various levels (clause, sentence, discourse, genre) while being attentive to literary features and the running argument. The running argument is the idea that the task of the exegete is never complete.  One can study a text using all the skill and tools available, and get to the end of the text and be satisfied, and in this sense it is complete, but the self-referential nature of the authority of Scripture means that an ‘end’ is never achieved, since it is God’s ever speaking Word to us through all generations.  It is because there is always something to discover in God Himself, that there is likewise a never-ending discovery awaiting the careful reader of the Bible.

Biblical Theology

There are about six competing definitions of Biblical Theology, which make it quite hard to define.  However, Biblical Theology may inductively focus on the whole Bible or select biblical corpora.  It certainly involves a salvation-historical study of the biblical texts; this is the understanding and exposition of the texts along their chronological line of development – this aspect of Biblical Theology is vital for preachers today in a age of almost total biblical illiteracy.  Five elements are essential to Biblical Theology:  1.   It reads the Bible as an historically developing collection of documents.  2.  It presupposes a coherent and agreed canon.  3.  It presupposes a profound willingness to work inductively from the text – from individual books and from the canon as a whole.  Its task is to deploy categories and pursue an agenda set by the text itself.  4.  It clarifies the connections among the corpora, i.e. it is committed to intertextual study, because Biblical theology, at its most coherent, is a theology of the Bible.   5.  Ultimately and ideally, Biblical Theology will call all people to a knowledge of the living God.  In other words, it does not stop with the Bible’s structure, corpus thought, storyline, or synthetic thought; it must in a sense, capture the experiential, the existential element.

Biblical Theology focuses on the turning points of the Bible’s storyline, and its most pivotal concern is tied to the use of the Old Testament in the New.  All Christians must read the Old as filtered through the New.  Old and New Testaments are subsets of Biblical Theology, which forms the whole.

Historical Theology

Historical Theology is the written record of exegetical and theological opinions in periods earlier than our own, a kind of parallel to the diversity of exegetical and theological opinions that are actually current.  It is what is known as the diachronic study of theology, the study of the changing face of theology across time.

Systematic Theology

Systematic Theology is Christian theology with a systematic internal structure.  This means it is organised on atemporal principles of logic, order, and need, rather than on inductive study of discrete biblical corpora.  This is why it can address broader concerns in Theology.  Thus Don Carson can say, “It is not merely inductive study of the Bible, though it must never lose such controls, but it seeks to be rigorously systematic and is therefore concerned about how various parts of God’s gracious self-disclosure cohere… The questions it poses are atemporal… the focal concerns are logical and hierarchical, not salvation-historical.”

Some people cheaply knock Systematic Theology, which is foolish.  The issue is not whether it is legitimate, the issue is the quality of one’s Systematic Theology reflected in its foundational data, constructive methods, principles for excluding certain information, appropriately expressive language, and logical, accurate results.  Ultimately, Systematics must be controlled by the biblical data and be aware of going beyond how various truths and arguments function in Scripture, not least because a number of fundamental Christian beliefs involves huge areas of unknown, such as the Incarnation, Trinity, and God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.  It is precisely because the Bible has a unity that Systematics is necessary.

Who Needs Theology?

Theology is the most exciting thing on the planet, no, the universe, no even that’s too small.  Theology is amazing because God Himself is amazing.  I heartily recommend the book ‘Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God’ by Stanley Grenz and Roger Olsen as a great place to start.  It will even make you laugh – who says theology wasn’t fun?  My thanks for the above to Andy Naselli, who has worked closely with Dr Don Carson over many years.  You have made theology exciting to me, and I hope the flame burns bright in others.