Saturday, 26 December 2015

Predestination And Preaching

In his discussion of the 'pre' element in predestination, G. C. Berkouwer insists that "he who speaks of God's counsel in terms of human categories will have to be aware of the inadequacy of his words." He maintains that the inadequacy of our words is particularly felt when we speak of before and after with respect to God. In his attempt to understand the language of predestination, Berkouwer speaks of the "depth-aspect" of salvation. He emphasizes that "the depth-aspect of salvation is not a matter of hiddenness which goes beyond the knowledge of faith ... not something far distant, not a vague threatening reality, but the foundation of salvation." Seeking to understand the idea of "before the foundation of the world", he writes, "These words do not occur in Scripture as threat, but in the decisive depth-aspect of salvation. They are not placed in a context in which they make us dizzy in the face of an unapproachable 'eternity' ... but they are intended to show us the source of our eternal salvation ... 'Before' indicates that this divine act of salvation, preached to us by the gospel, is free from what we know in the world to be arbitrary and precarious ... When we speak of the depth-aspect, we mean that eternity does not stand in contrast to what in time became historical reality, but rather that the salvation accomplished by Christ's death of reconciliation cannot be merely historical, but that it has its eternal foundation in the love of God."
 * A proper understanding of theological language is only attainable within the context of the obedience of faith. Here, we are emphasizing the integral relationship between Christian doctrine and Christian experience. We need both the Holy Scriptures and the Holy Spirit. The Word of God speaks to us of the Gospel which does not arise from our human experience. The Holy Spirit brings this Word from the Lord, and it becomes real in our human experience, changing us so that we become grateful to God and obedient to Him. The language of predestination may be understood as a form of expression, which the believer, who has willingly submitted himself to the authority of grace, uses to confess his faith in Christ.
 * A proper understanding of theological language is only attainable within the context of encounter with God. This does not imply a retreat into subjectivism since faith's subjectivity has meaning only in relation to the God in whom we put our trust. The language of predestination is understood in direct connection to the Gospel through which we come to know God in Christ. Set in this context, predestination need not be regarded as a form of determinism which threatens to strip human experience of decisive significance. Jesus said, "He who has seen Me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). When we place His words at the heart of our understanding of the gospel of God's sovereign grace, we can rest assured that, in our encounter with Christ, the revelation of God's love for us is not threatened by  a hidden God whose secret will cannot be known.
 * A proper understanding of theological language involves the recognition of the inexpressible character of the God whom we come to know in faith. The gift of God's grace, in Christ, is "an inexpressible gift" (2 Corinthians 9:15). When the believer seeks to express his gratitude to God for this inexpressible gift, he finds it quite impossible to give adequate expression to this gratitude which he feels so deeply. He is almost certain to use language which, at best, will contain certain ambiguities and which, at worst, will suggest misleading impressions if his language is not understood as a groping after a form of expression that is worthy of a virtually inexpressible Reality.
     Through this approach to the doctrine of predestination, we are able to preach the Gospel as a joyful message, which is filled with true gladness. When 'the mirror of election' (Calvin) is a clearly reflecting mirror, which points us clearly to Jesus Christ, and not away from Him to an unknown God, we will preach the Gospel with both joy and urgency. 

Friday, 25 December 2015

Karl Barth the Preacher: “Keep before your eyes our Lord Jesus Christ”

Prior to his ‘forty years as a professor’, Barth spent ‘twelve years as a preacher’ (Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (from the Foreword to the German Edition). As a theologian, he never lost sight of the importance of preaching. Although he worked for so many years in the university, he always saw his theological work as part of the church’s work: ‘I said to myself. “If I am a theologian, I must try to work out broadly what I think I  have perceived as God’s revelation. What I think I have perceived. Yet not I as an individual but I as a member of the Christian church”. This is why I call my book Church Dogmatics. “Church” here does not mean that the church is responsible for all that I say, but that I as one member of the church have reflected on what may be perceived in revelation and tried to present it to the best of my conscience and understanding’ (A Karl Barth Reader, 113, emphasis original).
Barth’s theological work was a part of the church’s work. Ultimately, however, it was a part of God’s work. At the heart of his work lay his relationship with God, a relationship which involved him in listening to God and speaking to God. Concerning the importance of listening to God, he writes: ‘The object of theological work is not some thing but some one… The task of theological work consists in listening to Him’. Stressing the importance of speaking to God in prayer, Barth insists that ‘without prayer there can be no theological work’. He stresses that this ‘rule… is valid under all circumstances pray and work!’ This does not mean that we begin with prayer and then regard prayer as incidental to the work which is done - “theological work does not merely begin with prayer and is not merely accompanied by it’. Barth stresses that ‘prayer… is work… very hard work’. He insists that the work itself is essentially a prayer: ‘every act of theological work must have the character of an offering in which everything is placed before the living God’ (Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, 163 (emphasis original), 160).
As we hear Barth speaking of the importance of prayer, we come to the very heart of the man not simply the theologian before his students, not merely the preacher before his congregation, but the man before his God, the man listening to God and speaking to God, the man who says to us, ‘Keep before your eyes our Lord Jesus Christ’ (A Karl Barth Reader, 104).

Thursday, 24 December 2015

"From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race", (Apollos / InterVarsity Press, Leicester / Downers Grove, 2003) by J. Daniel Hays

In his 'preface' to this book, the fourteenth contribution to the series, 'New Studies in Biblical Theology', the Series Editor, D A Carson, describes the series - 'In God's universe, mind and heart should not be divorced: in this series we will try not to separate what God has joined together' (9) - and commends this book - 'This book deserves the widest circulation and the most thoughtful reading, for it corrects erroneous scholarship while calling Christians to reform sinful attitudes' (10).
This is a book of the heart. The author, who served as a missionary in Ethiopia from 1982 to 1987 (11-12), writes with a passion. This is immediately evident from the first two pages of his 'Introduction' (17-18). He begins by describing 'a conversation with ... a Black professor and pastor'. The author described 'the race problem' as 'an important issue for the Church today'. His friend 'quickly corrected' him 'by stating emphattically that it is the most important issue for the Church today' (17). Citing Emerson and Smith's 2000 study, Diviided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, he notes their statistics - 'there is a tremendous disparity betwen the way White evangelicals view the problem and the way that Black evangelicals view the problem ... two-thirds of White Christians believe that the situation for Blacks is improving, while two-thirds of Black Christians believe that the situation for Blacks is deteriorating' - , their analysis - 'Whites tend to see the race problem in individual terms (how does one person feel about another person of a different race?) ... Blacks usually see the problem as extending beyond the individual to societal structures, a much more complicated situation' - , and their proposal - 'limited success in dealing with the race problem in the Evangelical Church will occur unless Evangelicals engage with the societal structural problem as well as with the individual attitude problem'. When Hays quotes their powerfully challenging words - 'Is the situation hopeless? If white evangelicals continue to travel the same road they have travelled thus far, the future does indeed look bleak', the reader may expect that this is going to be a highly emotionally-charged book. This would be a mistaken first impression. While the author's commitment to the cause of 'racial reconciliation' (11) is abundantly clear throughout the book, this is much more than an emotional appeal.
This is a book of the mind. Its scholarly character may by highlighted by observing the length of its extensive Bibliography (pp.207-230). Even the list of 'Abbreviatons' runs to over two pages (14-16). Since this book is such heavy reading, the reader will appreciate that in each of the major chapters - five on the Old Testament (chapters 2-6) and three on the New Testament (chapters 7-9), the author provides us with a final section entitled 'Conclusions'. The final chapter presents the book's 'theological conclusions' and 'appropriate applications'. In this excellent summary, the author shows himself to be a man of courage, e.g. 'Racial intermarriage is sanctioned by Scripture ... this conclusion ... is the most difficult for some White readers to come to grips with ... it is critical that we proclaim clearly and without ambiguity that the Scriptures approve of interracial marriages between believers ... White Christians in the United States will make little progress toward racial reconciliation if they continue to deny this biblical truth' (203-204). He is able to speak with the kind of conviction because he has put the time and effort into ensuring that his argument is well grounded in a painstakingly careful study of the Word of God.
In his 'Final thoughts', the author gives, in a single sentence, a most helpful summary of this book which has plenty of information and a good deal of inspiration:  'an exegetical and an emotional appeal to the White Christians in the United States to embrace a theology and a practice of racial equality and unity that is based on Scripture' (206). The book's value will be enhanced by its three indices - 'modern authors' (231-235), 'Scripture references' (236-239) and 'ancient sources' (240). Although the author had the situation in the United States firmly in view when writing the book, we, in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the world, should be most grateful for this work which is immensely impressive in both its competence and its courage.   

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Berkouwer and Philosophy

Berkouwer approaches the questions of God, man and evil differently from philosophical theology. It should not, however, be thought that his approach is unphilosophical. He is concerned to think clearly about these issues. He is, however, concerned to deal with “actual knowledge of God” (This expression is used by T. F. Torrance in God and Rationality, p.165. It occurs in his chapter, “The Epistemological Relevance of the Holy Spirit.” This chapter first appeared in Ex Auditu Verbi,  a collection of articles published in honour of Berkouwer, pp. 272-296) and the perspective such knowledge offers concerning “actual man” (Man: The Image of God, p. 13) as he faces the “existential” problem of evil (Sin, p. 15). This perspective refuses to build an independent system and then apply it to the questions of God, man and evil (cf. T. F. Torrance, God and Rationality, pp. 165ff.).  In adopting such an approach, Berkouwer is allowing his philosophical thinking to be dominated by the reality of God. He recognizes that, in any Christian philosophy, God’s revelation of Himself must precede man’s knowledge of God (Holy Scripture, p. 10; cf. T. F. Torrance, God and Rationality, p. 181). The recognition of the priority of revelation is understood in neither a fundamentalist nor an existentialist context (cf. T. F. Torrance, God and Rationality,  pp. 168, 177). It is set within the  context of the affirmation of “the epistemological relevance of the Holy Spirit” (T. F. Torrance, God and Rationality, pp. 165-192) in both the revelation of God and man’s reception of that revelation (cf. Holy Scripture, Chapter Five – “The God-Breathed Character of Holy Scripture”, pp. 139-169; T. F. Torrance, God and Rationality, pp. 168, 185).
When the philosophical framework of Berkouwer’s theology is understood, it becomes clear how he is able to deal with the criticism that he has not answered the philosopher’s questions. Such a criticism of Berkouwer may also be an implicit criticism of the philosopher’s way of asking questions rather than Berkouwer’s theological method. The consistency with which Berkouwer follows through the conviction that God is the living God is most impressive. He allows the living Object of faith to inform his faith at every point (cf. Holy Scripture, p. 10; T. F. Torrance, God and Rationality, p. 115; J. Rogers, Confessions of a Conservative Evangelical, p. 58). Throughout his theology, he proclaims the living God who cannot be reduced to an abstraction, even for the purposes of theological discussion. His theology proclaims that man has to do with the living God and, therefore, man cannot be discussed without taking this God into account (cf. Man: The Image of God,  p. 27, where Berkouwer emphasizes that a true knowledge of man is not possible apart from the self-knowledge which comes through knowledge of the living God).
What is the essential difference between Berkouwer’s theology and philisophical theology? We must not suggest that the one approach is philosophical while the other is not. It is a difference in the way of asking questions (cf. D. G. Bloesch, The Ground of Certainty, p. 124. Concerning the problem of evil, he writes, “Christianity offers no all-encompassing explanation of evil. But it does point to the sure and final answer – Jesus Christ.” The conclusions reached concerning a particular question reflect the way in which that question is asked). The Christian asks his questions about God, himself and evil in a spirit of faith because he knows that he is not simply ignorant man seeking intellectual knowledge but sinful man seeking divine forgiveness.
Berkouwer’s theology does not seem to be particularly suited to overcome the polarization between the believer and the unbeliever. It appears to accentuate this polarization. This impression is, however, only apparent. His theology promises to overcome polarization within the believing Church of Jesus Christ, so that she might be set free from asking the wrong questions in the wrong way (cf. D. G. Bloesch, The Ground of Certainty,  p. 61. He holds that Berkouwer’s greatness as a theologian is directly related to his ability to “explain what the faith does not mean as well as what it means”), and thus be be set free for the real task of proclaiming Christ to an unbelieving world. Through such proclamation, the polarization between faith and unbelief is overcome not by argument but through conversion .
The value  of Berkouwer’s approach to the issues with which philosophy has concerned itself lies in his consistent emphasis on the existential character of these questions. This existential character requires to be recognized by all who discuss these questions, if the discussion is not to be merely theoretical and lacking in moral seriousness. Thus, the Christian’s concern is not simply with winning an argument but with leading others in the entirety of their existence to faith in Christ. This can happen when the non-Christian approaches the discussion with a real openness to the possibility of being converted to Christ.