Too little too late

January 8, 2015

The official confirmation for the Church of Scotland that the majority of their presbyteries have backed legislation which will allow the appointment of ministers in a same-sex relationship comes as no surprise. The legislation also makes clear that being in a same-sex relationship is no bar to becoming a candidate for the ministry. While the presbytery head-count of 54.6% to 45.4% may seem rather close, the final affirmation required by the 2015 General Assembly will be far more decisive. Assemblies tend to be more liberal than the church membership at large. We can also expect moves that will allow same-sex weddings in parish churches.

While radicals in the Kirk will be celebrating, what of the evangelicals? I was never one of those who predicted a mass exodus of congregations. Of those who left the Church of Scotland, only a handful have done so en mass. Most such congregations have split. By and large, there have been handfuls of members leaving on their own, disillusioned by the lack of fortitude shown by their minister. Anyone who imagines that a minister leaving the Church of Scotland is taking the easy option needs to think again. As well as losing their home and a job from which they could not be sacked (unless for some gross misdemeanour), there is a massive reduction in salary no matter what other denomination they go to. Those who have demitted their charges have acted with great faith and courage. Those who remain complain that we have left them to continue the fight. Our reply is, What fight? There was no fight to speak of. Rather there was only compromise.

And yet, what if there had been a fight? What if evangelicals had been better organised, more willing to raise the stakes if the radicals got their way? The closeness of the headcount at presbytery level suggests that Albert Bogle’s compromise might not have been necessary. If the Biblical principle for sexual union as being exclusively between one man and one woman had been as well argued throughout presbyteries and congregations as it was on the floor of the Assembly in 2014 there might have been a ground-swell against the radicals. We will never know.

Andrew McGowan has formed the Covenant Fellowship which allows church members to register their dis-satisfaction at the Kirk’s trajectory. Sadly this is fifty years too late. The fact that acting principal clerk George Whyte has welcomed the formation of this new group speaks volumes. They can angrily jump up and down like Rumpelstiltskin but they have surrendered their trump card—that they will never leave the Kirk; and that’s all 121 George Street cares about.

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A mixed-up economy

May 21, 2014

Why did the General Assembly decide overwhelmingly to pass legislation that will permit congregations to call a minister who is in a Civil Partnership?  It was not in order to glorify God.  It was not in order to be faithful to scripture.  It was not to keep the evangelicals happy; nor was it to give the revisionists what they want.  The evangelicals opposed the legislation; the revisionist tried to revise it to make calling a minister in a CP easier.  Commissioners passed this legislation because they are persuaded that this is going to put the debate to bed—at least for a few years.

Remember—most members of the Church of Scotland don’t really care one way or the other.  They just want everyone to get along as one big happy family. They are annoyed at Scott Rennie for stirring up a hornets nest in the first place; and they are annoyed at the evangelicals for making such a fuss.  What has been decided is “we are traditional, but you don’t have to be if you don’t want to be”; and to most kirk-folk that’s the perfect solution.  A mixed economy.

Alan Hamilton, Convenor of Legal Questions, is to be congratulated for a masterful performance.  He graciously but effortlessly batted away every ball bowled at him.  Finlay Macdonald (ex-Mod, ex-principal clerk) defeated 351:206.  New Testament scholar, Dr.Paul Middleton, defeated 424:165.  And Jeremy Middleton (no relation) defeated 369:189.

Alan’s committee offered the Church a mixed economy; conceded indeed that there already is a mixed economy in the Church.  He conceded that this brings with it legal risks.  The legislation is a form of discrimination and the only guaranteed way to avoid legal action is not to discriminate at all.  But the law, as it stands, allows Churches some lea-way.  But he could not assure the Assembly that a disappointed minister in a CP who was rejected for a charge might sue the Church successfully.

He was sure that this would not be the last word in the matter; in the future the Church could move in either direction.

During the course of the debate there were the usual plethora of silly faux-legal points and non sequiturs.  Moderator, John Chalmers, dealt with these in his usual patient manner.  One chap cited the recent case in Brazil of three women marrying each other in the one ceremony—had the committee considered how much more mixed the mixed economy might become?

The substantive debate began when Jerry Middleton stood to propose his counter motion which, in summary, sought to return the Church to an undiluted traditional/Biblical position.  I know Jerry, and have heard him speak on several occasions.  He is a formidable debater and clear thinker.  This was Jerry at his best.

He made several excellent points.  He said that we could be setting up candidates in a CP for disappointment: we train them for the ministry but when they seek a charge they could be met with a brick wall.  He feared that the legislation was not legally water-tight.  Fundamentally, it is just plain wrong.  It is illogical to declare one thing (the traditional understanding of human sexuality) and then affirm a practice that runs counter to that understanding.  This is not simply about people having different opinions.  Those who affirm what the Church says is its position (traditional/Biblical) regard as sinful what is being permitted, to be repented of, not a blessing to be celebrated.

There followed a rather good debate in the sense that it was a debate.  I heard Steven Reid and Mark Malcolm speak well in support of Jerry.  I was very sad to hear erstwhile evangelical Neil Dougall (now Convenor of the Ministries Council) oppose Jerry.  I also have to express a certain disappointment in some of what Alan Hamilton said, including that he was quite happy to envisage someone in a CP prayerfully considering God’s calling in their life.  If I had cherished sin within my heart God would not have heard my prayers, comes to mind.  In closing he said that what he and his Committee offered was new ways for new challenges in new times.

The legislation now goes down to the Presbyteries to approve.  If they approve it will come back to next year’s Assembly for final approval.  I am already hearing complaints among evangelicals who have remained within the Kirk that the fact that I and those like me have left will make victory on the floor of Presbyteries harder.  If I thought there was any mileage in winning the debate I would have remained.  It’s because I see no possibility of this legislation being rejected that I decided it was time to go.  Perhaps if those now complaining about our departure had been more vocal and supportive a few years ago we would be in a better place now.

This legislation is simply a way of giving a legal procedure for what is already the reality.  I wonder how long it will be before the revisionists try to liberalise it so that there is no need for Kirk Sessions to follow the complicated procedure.

TALKING GOD #7

December 23, 2010

TWO TRICKY QUESTIONS

I want to tackle a couple of questions that this doctrine of God’s unchangeable nature sometimes raises in people’s minds. 

The first is this: if God never changes, then how can we talk about God becoming angry, for example, or grieved?  How can we talk about God having compassion for his suffering people?   When we becoming angry or grieved, when we are filled with pity, there’s a change in us.  One moment we’re not angry; then something happens; and now we are angry.  One moment we hadn’t heard of someone’s plight; now we have, and we’re filled with pity.  Is God emotionally detached from his creation?  Is he unconcerned and unaffected by the plight of his suffering children? 

That is certainly not how the Bible portrays God.  He does not live in glorious isolation, insulated and insensitive to what happens in the world.  We only have to read the Gospels to discover just how much the heart of Jesus goes out to us in our distress.  So are we wrong to say that God never changes?

The answer is to recognize that God’s experiences do not come upon him as ours come upon us.  Our emotions are subject to our circumstances.  Things happen, we are taken by surprise, and we react.  God is never taken by surprise.  He knows what will happen.  And he has chosen how he will respond.  His emotions are never an involuntary response to an unexpected situation. 

The other question is this: if God never changes, why are there passages in the Bible which talk about God changing his mind?  The most famous example of this is in Jonah in relation to the Ninevites.  In Jonah 3:4 the prophet proclaimed the word of the Lord:

Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.

Nineveh was not overturned.  So what’s going on? 

Turn with me to Jeremiah 18:7:

If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down, and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I planned.

That’s exactly what happened in Nineveh.  The people repented—which was the point of the warning.  Jonan 3:10:

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened. 

God was being consistent with his character.  It is God’s nature to hate sin and to love repentance.  God changed his mind with regard to destroying the Ninevites, but the change of mind was consistent with his character.  Warnings are meant to be heeded.  They need not be the last word. 

Let me remind you of Jesus’ parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Mt.18).  The king had cancelled the servant’s massive debts; yet the servant was unwilling to overlook the tiny amount his friend owed him.  The result?  The king changed his mind; he cancelled the cancellation.  Jesus says (Mt.18:35):

This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from the heart. 

It’s unnerving.  But nobody can say they don’t know where they stand with God.  He is the God who by his very nature is looking for an excuse to show mercy.  When we repent he will receive us.  But if we are presumptuous, if we “take a loan of him”, he will judge.

TALKING GOD #6

December 23, 2010

ATTRIBUTES OF GOD

We’re now going to be thinking about what theologians call the attributes of God.  In other words, God’s nature, his character.  How would you describe God?  What words can we use? 

There are different ways of categorising God’s nature, and personally I can’t see that one way is any better than another.  The important thing is that we are drawing our conclusions from scripture.  Given our Presbyterian heritage we can do no better than turn to the Shorter Catechism.  Question 4 asks: What is God?  And the answer given is:  God is a spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.

God is a spirit—we thought about that last week.  What kind of spirit is God?  In other words, what adjectives describe God?  Infinite, eternal and unchangeable. 

These three adjectives apply to everything about God.  They apply to his very being, to his wisdom, to his power, his holiness, justice, goodness and truth.  Everything about God’s nature is infinite, eternal and unchangeable. 

GOD’S BEING

First of all then, let’s think about God’s being.  We are human beings.  Our being is finite; we are mortals; one day we will die.  Our being is limited.  We can only be in one place at a time.  Our being is changeable.  We grow, physically, emotionally, mentally.  We are always learning and adapting.  God is not like us.  He is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable.

What do we mean when we say God is infinite in his being?  We mean that God has no spatial limitations.  He is present in every part of his creation all the time.  In other words, there are no no-go areas for God.  No-where is literally God-forsaken.  The technical term is that God is omnipresent.  There is no “whereness” to God.

Ps.139:7-10:  Where can I go from your Spirit?  Where can I flee from your presence?  If I go up to the heavens you are there, if I make my bed in the depth, you are there.  If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me.

Here’s something to think about.  Everything we are saying about God is true about all three persons of the Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  So even though we talk about the Holy Spirit coming at Pentecost, that does not mean that when the Spirit came upon the disciples in the Upper Room he hadn’t been there already.  It means that the Spirit was experienced in a new and unique way.

It’s the same for our Lord Jesus.  We talk about Jesus leaving heaven at Christmas time and coming into the world.  But the Son of God was in the world already.  And he certainly never left heaven.  What we mean is that the Son of God made himself known to human beings as a human being. 

Let me quote something from one of the early church fathers, Cyril of Alexander:  [The eternal Word] subjected himself to birth for us, and came forth man from a woman without casting off that which he was…although he assumed flesh and blood, he remained what he was, God in essence and in truth…For although visible and a child in swaddling clothes, and even in the bosom of his virgin mother, he filled all creation as God, and was a fellow-ruler with him who begat him, for the Godhead is without quantity and dimension, and cannot have limits. (quoted by Reymond p.170)

What, then, are we to make of verses which talk about being separated from God eg.Isa.59:2:  But your iniquities have separated your from your God

Not physical separation, but spiritual incompatibility.  God is not present in the same sense for every creature. 

Quotation from Herman Bavinck (Doctrine of God p.164)  When you wish to do something evil, you retire from the public into your house where no enemy may see you; from those places of your house which are open and visible to the eyes of men you remove yourself into your room’ even in your room you fear some witness from another quarter; you retire into your heart, there you meditate: he is more inward than your heart.  wherever, therefore, you shall have fled, there he is.  from yourself, whither will you flee?  Will you not follow yourself wherever you shall flee?  But since there is one more inward even than yourself, there is no place where you may flee from God angry but to God reconciled.  There is no place at all whether you may flee.  Will you flee from him?  Flee unto him.   

God is also eternal in his being.  In other words, God has always existed in the past and will always exist in the future.  He never began to be, he knows no growth or age, he will never cease to be.  Ps.90:2: Before the mountains were born or you brought for the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

And he is unchangeable in his being.  Think about it.  There are only two ways for someone to change—either they get better or they get worse.  Either they improve or they deteriorate.  The idea that God could get worse is a very scary one indeed.  How much worse? 

But what about the idea of God improving with time?  If that were possible, if it were possible for God to be a better God, a more loving Heavenly Father tomorrow than he is today, it would mean that today we are dealing with a less than perfect God.  It would mean that tomorrow God could learn something that he doesn’t know today.  To suggest that God can change, develop, mature like we do, is a very unsettling thought.

In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth and the heavens are the work of your hands.  They will perish, but your remain; they will wear out like a garment.  Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded.  But you remain the same, and your years will never end.  (Ps.102:25-27)

The psalmist is saying that this world is like a thread-bare jumper, a frayed and fading collar on an old shirt, a well-worn pair of shoes.  But not the Living God.  Let me spell out four very practical implications of this. 

1. This means the God we worship today is precisely the same God as revealed in the Bible.  He is the same God who revealed himself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the same God who spoke to the prophets.  What the Bible tells us about God is true today as it was then.

2. It means that God is not like certain people who blow hot and cold.  One minute they are pleased to see you the next they’re not talking to you.  Sometimes we hear God described as the God of surprises.  And there’s a sense in which that’s true.  His love and grace and mercy do often take us by surprise.  But there is a sense in which there are no surprises with God.  There is a sense in which there is a blessed predictability with God.  For example, God hates sin.  Always has; always will.  On the other hand, God always forgives our sin when we confess and repent.  We never need to worry that our sin is too great or too heinous or that God is too angry. 

3. It means that God’s plans remain the same.  When I’m making plans to meet up with someone I tend to say, Let’s pencil that in.  I know it’s better to put it in my diary in pencil because I might have to rub it out and reschedule.  We make plans, but we have to be flexible because we never know what’s going to happen. 

Not so with God.  His plans never gang aft a-gley.  Heb.6:17 talks about the unchanging nature of God’s purpose: But because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath.

God’s ultimate plan is to restore creation so that the prayer will be answered: thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

It’s also true to say that within that universal plan, God has a plan for each of his children.  We do not know that plan, it only unravels itself gradually over time.  The details are different for each one of us, but the purpose is the same for us all.  Rom.8:29:  For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

That’s the plan for each and every Christian—to be conformed to the likeness of God’s Son.  In other words, God’s plan for us all is that we should be like Jesus—in our devotion to our Heavenly Father, in our love for others, in our temperament and character, in ambition and zeal—to be like our Lord Jesus. 

4. It means that God always keeps his promises.  If God has said he will do something, he will do it. 

And can I again point out that what we are saying is true for God Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Our Lord Jesus is the same yesterday today and for ever.  (Heb. 13:8).  And in Acts 1:11 the two men dressed in white said to the gaping disciples as they watched the Lord ascend to heaven:  This same Jesus who has been taken from you into heaven will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.

TALKING GOD #4

December 23, 2010

GOD IS SPIRIT

A second fundamental truth about God is that he is spirit.  

John 4:24 God is spirit and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth.

What does it mean, that God is spirit?  First of all, it means that he does not have a body.  He is incorporeal.  American theologian Robert Reymond puts it like this: He has no extension in space, no weight, no mass, no bulk, no parts, no form, no taste, no smell.  (Systematic Theology p.167)

We should not think of God in terms of size or dimensions.  We shouldn’t think of him as being infinitely large, nor as infinitely small. 

It also means that God is personal, that he is self-conscious, self-determining, living and active.  He is not an impersonal force or energy.  (“May the Force go with you.”)

It means that God is invisible. 

Now to the king eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever.  Amen. (1Tim.1:17)

What about those passages in the Bible which talk about certain people seeing God?  For example Moses.  Ex.33:11 says that the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face as a man speaks to his friend.  God caused his glory to pass by Moses while he hid Moses in the cleft of the rock.  Moses saw God’s back after he had passed by.  However, we do read that God said: my face shall not be seen.  (Ex.33:21-23)

I think we need to realize that there are times when God has to use the language of the human body just in order to be able to communicate with us.  So we read about God’s hands, and his feet, his eyes and his ears.  We call this “anthropomorphism”.  Humanising something that is not human.  How can we talk about God seeing our plight without eyes; or hearing our prayers without ears? 

God does not have eyes or ears or a back.  It’s a way of describing the effect on Moses.  No one can see God and live.  We could never bear the total revelation of God.  Yet, God has chosen on occasions, somehow, to show something of himself. 

And let me inject a little bit of Christology here—something about the doctrine of our Lord Jesus Christ.  John 1:18: No one has ever seen God; but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side has made him known.

And remember what Jesus said when Philip cried out: Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.

Don’t you know me Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time.  Anyone who has seen the me has seen the Father.  (Jn.14:8,9)

What about those occasions in the Old Testament where the angel of the Lord appears to certain people, but then we’re told that this angel was none other than the Lord himself.  There’s an example in Judges 6, the story of Gideon.  v.11 says that the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon and greeted him.  But a few verses later in v.14 we’re told, The LORD turned to him and said…And then in vv.22,23 Gideon exclaims, Ah Sovereign LORD, I have seen the angel of the LORD face to face. But the LORD aid to him, Peace.  Do not be afraid, you are not going to die.

Let me make the following points:

1. There is only one God, and he will not permit any creature, even an angel, to rob him of his glory.  An angel from God would not allow itself to receive worship.

2. Yet, it is clear from this passage, and the others, that the angel of the LORD, is the LORD.

3. Since God the Father never allows himself to be seen; likewise, God the Holy Spirit; the angel of the LORD must be God the Son.  He is the only person of the Trinity whom we know for a fact has come in the flesh.  Paul says in Col.1:15 that Jesus is the image of the invisible God.

The technical term for these pre-incarnate appearances of Jesus is theophany.

Let me draw your attention to two verses in John’s Gospel.  In Jn.12:40, John quotes Isa.6, when Isaiah responds to the Lord’s question, Who will go for me?  Inv.41 John says: Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him.

Then in Jn.8:56 Jesus says: Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad. 

And when his enemies mock him, he says: I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I am. 

The invisibility of God leads us to the second commandment: You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath on in the waters below.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them, for I the Lord your God and a jealous God… 

Scripture places a complete ban on producing images of the Living God, be they pictures or statues.  As a consequence, the Jews were again unique in the ancient world in not having an image of their God.  There’s a wonderful story of the Roman general Pompey marching into the Jerusalem temple, heading straight for the Holy of Holies, tearing aside the dividing curtain, and to his amazement finding no idol of the Jewish god. 

The reasons for this ban are multi-laired.   The first and simplest is that no-one has seen God; and therefore any representation of him would be a lie.  It would not be accurate.  Second, any image of God would have to be in the form of something that has been created, and that would be to demean him.  Presenting God in the form of an animal, would inevitably lead people to think of him as having the characteristics of that animal.

Think about the story of the golden calf in Ex.32.  Aaron wasn’t enticing the people to worship another god.  He presented the calf to them as the Lord their God.  But the result of imagining the Lord as a calf or a bull was an orgy. 

So too when we imagine God as a human being.  He becomes just like us.  Even a superman, or superwoman, is much less than what the True God is.  

Idols are a way for us to control our god.  They are the product of our own hands; a god made in our image.  Idolatry is the de-throning of the God.  Christopher Wright: A great reversal happens: God who should be worshipped becomes the object to be used; creation which is for our use and blessing becomes the object of our worship.  (The Mission of God p.165)

Christopher Wright (p.167) quotes Job 31:26-28: If I have regarded the sun in its radiance or the moon moving in splendour so that my heart was secretly enticed and my hand offered them the kiss of homage, then these also would be sins to be judged, for I would have been unfaithful to God on high.

Then he makes this connection with the modern world: We look for such magnificence and power, and worship these things wherever they inspire awe and trembling admiration; in the stadiums of great sporting triumph or in the lives of pampered sporting heroes; in massed battalions of soldiers, parades or military hardware or on the decks of aircraft carriers; on the stage of rock concerts or the glare of TV and movie celebrity; on the pinnacles of the thrusting towers of corporate power and greed in great cities.  All of these can be enticing and idolatrous. 

And then he makes this devastating conclusion: In trying to be as God (in the original temptation and rebellion) we have ended up as less than human…As long as other gods are worshipped the living God is to that extent denied what is rightfully his—the total worship of his total creation.

TALKING GOD #2

December 20, 2010

DOES GOD EXIST?

Question: How do we even know that there is a God? 

Probably the most important question in human philosophy is: Does God exist?  It’s an important question because the answer will affect the whole of human life.  Is mankind the supreme being; or is there a Being superior even to us who is to be loved and obeyed, and indeed, worshipped? 

Throughout history human beings have grappled with this question and tried to find the answer through logic.  Let me put to you three so-called proofs for the existence of God. 

One approach basically says that the very fact that we can conceive of a God must mean that a God exists.  A more sophisticated way of putting it would be this: our idea of God is that of a being which is greater than anything else.  Even atheists, when they deny the existence of God, are denying the existence of a supreme being beyond which nothing greater can be conceived.

Well, says this argument, how can you have the idea of something beyond which nothing greater can exist, if the reality behind that idea doesn’t actually exist?   Indeed, the very fact that such a reality doesn’t exist would mean that it isn’t greater than everything else.  After all, anything that doesn’t exist can’t be greater than anything that actually does exist. 

Do you find this argument persuasive? 

It’s shot full of holes.  Just because we can imagine something doesn’t mean that it has to exist.  We can imagine fairies and unicorns and mermaids. 

Yet—might there be something more to it than at first sight.  We might not believe there are fairies at the bottom of the garden; but as Christians we do believe in the spirit-world.  Unicorns and mermaids have a basis in fact, in that they are inaccurate descriptions of real animals—the rhinoceros, and the porpoise. 

We have to acknowledge that belief in God or in several gods is universal.  Every tribe, every culture, has or has had a concept of the divine.  Why?  Where has the idea come from? 

Another argument is based on cause and effect.  We know that everything has a cause.  Nothing happens without something causing it to happen.  So how did the universe happen?  Why is there anything and not nothing? There must be a First Mover.    There must be an Eternal Something. 

Perhaps the universe itself is self-existent, self-creating: the universe has always been there.  The problem with this theory is that the universe doesn’t act as if it is self-existent.  The universe is cooling down, like an oven that has been turned off.  It doesn’t keep itself going.  It is, in fact, decaying, like an apple or banana left in your fruit bowl.  The universe looks as if it has had a beginning; but instead of maintaining itself, it is clearly heading towards an end.  So who started it?

A more modern version of this argument is the one called Intelligent Design, which Dr. Alistair Donald spoke to us about during our Mission.  The irrefutable fact is that the universe seems to be designed.  Everything about our planet appears to be designed to support life—the Goldilocks Effect. 

It is just the right size; it rotates at just the right speed; its distance from the sun is spot on; it tilts at just the right angle; the land-water ratio is just perfect.  Too much heat, too much cold and there can’t be life.  We need light, but not too much ultra-violet.  We live just beneath an air screen shielding us from millions of extra-terrestrial missiles every day.  We live just 10 miles above a rock screen that shields us from the ferocious heat at the earth’s core.

Who created all these screens and shields that make life on earth possible? 

The choice is that either the universe developed all these features by chance, or that it was designed.  Either the universe has been planned or it’s an accident. 

And may I suggest that chance really is not an explanation; rather it’s the refusal to give an explanation.  When scientists explain things they operate on the assumption that this is a regular universe where everything occurs as a result of the orderly procession of cause and effect.

Yet, if they are evolutionists explaining the origins of the universe, they abandon the principle of sufficient reason and assume that the cause of everything is an unthinkable causelessness, chance or fate. 

A third attempt to prove the existence of God by logic relates to our sense of right and wrong.  Where do we get our sense of morality from?  Is it just from society?  But if that is the case, why is it that some of the greatest moralists in history have been those who have challenged their society, criticising the moral failings of their contemporaries? 

If there is no ultimate arbiter of good and bad, right and wrong, then morality becomes subjective.  Who is to say that within a given context slavery is wrong, or racism, or genocide?  Might is right. 

There must be a God to whom we are accountable; who, because we are accountable to him, has given us this universal sense of what is right and what is wrong.

None of these so-called proofs are a clincher.  If they were then there would be no atheists.  Some theologians dismiss them out of hand as completely useless.  I think that’s a bit hard.  Perhaps we can call them pointers rather than proofs.  They suggest the existence of God.  But I would never rely on them totally. 

From its opening sentence the Bible presupposes the existence of God. 

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  (Gen.1:1)

For us the existence of God is the great presupposition of theology…that there is a self-existent, self-conscious, personal Being which is the origin of all things, and which transcends the entire creation, but is at the same time immanent in every part of it…The Christian accepts the truth of the existence of God by faith.  But this faith is not blind faith but a faith that is based on evidence, and the evidence is found primarily in Scripture as the inspired Word of God and secondarily in God’s revelation in nature. (Louis Berkof)

The Bible tells us that we should be able to work out the existence of God from nature.  Ps.19:1-2 The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands.  Day after day they pour forth speech, night after night they display knowledge.

Acts 14:17 Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.  (Paul to the people of Lystra) 

Calvin: men cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see him. 

Ties in with Intelligent Design.  Everything that exists gives evidence of God’s existence.  More than this, the Bible also tells us that every human being has a deep, inner sense that God exists.  This is not to say that we have within us a full understanding of God’s nature.  But it does explain why peoples all over the world have a sense of the divine.  Thus, if we deny the existence of God it is because we are actively and deliberately suppressing something we know to be true. 

Rom.1:18-20 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness since what may be known about God is plain to them because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.   

Paul is saying there that from creation we should be able to conclude that there is a God, one whom no-one can be greater (eternal power and divine nature).   The fact that human beings have worshipped that which is created—the sun, the stars, animals, themselves—demonstrates how perverted our notions of the divine are—worshipping things which are inferior to ourselves.  But there is within the human soul the need to worship something. 

It’s only when we turn to the Bible that our ideas of God are clarified.  Calvin illustrates this beautifully: Just as old or bleary-eyed men and those with weak vision, if you thrust before them a most beautiful volume, even if they recognize it to be some sort of writing, yet can scarcely construe two words, but with the aid of spectacles will begin to read distinctly; so scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds, having dispersed our dullness, clearly shows us the true God.  (Institutes I.vi.1)

Creation can tells us that God exists.  It can tell us that he is the creator, that he is imaginative, that he is powerful and majestic.  We can even discern God’s love and grace from creation.  But not always.  We might equally conclude that God is cruel and capricious. 

Only from scripture do we learn that God is holy.  Only from scripture do we learn that we are sinners in need of a Saviour; and that God loves us so much that he sent such a Saviour into the world.  If we are going to know God we need the Bible. 

Let me make just say one more thing about how we know God.  The contemporary theologian, Douglas Kelly, makes the extremely important point that whatever truth we need to know about God, indeed, anything about our faith, can only be learned within the community of the church. 

Scripture teaches throughout that God, who is truth, makes himself known to mankind by means of both Word and personal communion within a covenant context.  God speaks his Word to his image-bearers, not in a vacuum, but within a personal relationship.  And this personal relationship in which God’s speaking occurs is always in the bounds of a covenant community.   (Systematic Theology p.16,17)

We learn together.  And when, as the church, we talk about learning together, we don’t just limit ourselves to those who are physically present.  We listen to the saints who have gone before us.  We listen to our brothers and sisters throughout the world.  To exclude their voices would nothing but the utmost arrogance. 

As the hymn puts it

We need each other’s view’s to see the limits of our mind

That God in fact turns out to be far more than we’ve defined

 TRANSCENDENCE AND IMMANENCE 

I want to draw this first talk to an end by introducing you to two important concepts which are foundational in any discussion about God.  The first says that God is transcendent; the second says that God is immanent.  The reason why it is important for us to grasp these concepts is that in many other religions these concepts are held to be contradictory.  God cannot be both transcendent and immanent.  The Bible, however, teaches that the True God is both.

To say that God is transcendent means that God is distinct and separate from the created order.  God is not part and parcel of creation.  Thus God is unique.  There is God; and there is creation. 

This means that the New Age idea of God being everything and everything being God is quite wrong.  It’s one thing to say that we see God in everything, meaning that we see God’s handiwork in creation.  It’s quite another thing to refer to nature as divine.  The technical term for that is “pantheism”—everything is God, everything is an extension of God.  Listen out for this philosophy in some of the song of Disney movies like “The Lion King” and “Pocahontas”. 

God is transcendent—he is over and above, he is distinct from creation.

To say that God is immanent means that is present within his creation. Deists are those who believe that God exists and that he is transcendent; but that he has nothing to do with his creation.  It’s as if the creation is a wind-up toy car.  God has wound the key, and then let the toy car go wherever it goes.  He has nothing more to do with it.  If there are bumps and crashes along the way that’s nothing to do with him.  But that’s not Biblical. 

The Bible tells us that God is intimately involved in creation.  One of the names of Jesus emphasises this: Immanuel, God with us. There’s a wonderful verse in Isaiah that marries the transcendence and the immanence of God.  Isa.57:15: For this is what the high and loft One says—he who lives for ever, whose name is holy; I live in a high and holy place [transcendence] but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the contrite [immanence]. 

That’s a good place to finish—the True and Living God, is the Talking God; the God who though he is above and beyond us, the high and lofty One, is the God who Immanuel; beyond us, yes; but also beside us and within us.

December 20, 2010

[During November and December I gave a series of very basic lectures on the Doctrine of God.  They are meant to reflect orthodox Christian belief from a Reformed point of view.]

INTRODUCTION

We talk a lot about God in the church.  We talk about what he has done for us, about saving us from our sins, about how he has answered our prayers, about how we feel him close to us when times are hard.  We talk a lot about God and what he has done for us.  But we hardly ever talk about God’s nature, God’s character, about those divine qualities which set God apart as different from us and the rest of creation—his self-existence, his infinity, his eternity, the fact that he never changes, that he is almighty, all-knowing, omnipresent. 

We tend to think more about God in relation to ourselves, rather than in relation to himself.  And therefore we deprive ourselves of enormous spiritual blessing.

Charles Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher of the 19th century said in a sermon that the study of God both humbles the mind and expands it. 

He who often thinks of God will have a larger mind than the man who simply plods around this narrow globe. (quoted by Packer in Knowing God)

The modern theologian, JI Packer identifies four benefits to the believer from knowing God.

1. Those who know God have great energy for God. 

2. Those who know God have great thoughts of God.

3. Those who know God show great boldness for God. 

4. Those who know God have great contentment in God.

(from  chapter 2 Knowing God)

My aim, then, in giving these talks, is not an academic exercise.  My aim is boost your faith.  I hope the result will be greater energy, great thoughts, greater boldness and greater contentment in God, 

I’m calling this series Talking God.  First, because we are going to be talking about God.  We’re not talking politics or talking football. We’re talking God.

But secondly, because the God we’re talking about is a talking God, a communicating God.  As we’ll discover, the only reason we can “talk God” is because God talks. 

HOW CAN WE TALK GOD?

God cannot be expressed but only addressed.  (Martin Buber, I and Thou, 1923)

It sounds good; it sounds very respectful.  But is it true?  Is it true that we cannot say anything about God, know anything about God; and therefore must be content with a relationship with the unknown?  Because if it is true that God cannot be expressed, then there can be no talk about God. 

Buber was a Jewish philosopher, and according to him you cannot seek a relationship with God.  You just have to be open to God coming to you.  Surely in attempting to speak about God we are in grave danger of misrepresenting him, of saying something that is wrong and therefore blasphemous.  Isn’t it rather arrogant of us, imperfect, finite creatures that we are to attempt to say anything about one who must, by definition, be perfect and infinite?  Surely it’s better if we just say nothing. 

As wise, and as respectful as this may sound, it is not the Christian position.  The Christian position is that God can be known.  The reason God can be known is not because human beings have the capacity to put God under the microscope; but because the True God has made himself known to us. 

The Bible reveals God to be a God who reveals himself; the God who allows us to know him.  If God had not done that, if God had not taken the step of making himself known to us, then all our theologising would be guess work.  We’d be groping in the dark.  Which is what we believe non-Christian, non-Biblically based religions, amount to, ancient and modern. 

Two texts.

Jer.9:23,24 This is what the Lord says: Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight, declares the Lord.

John 17:3 Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

The Bible tells us that we can know God.  He is a God who communicates with us.  He is a “talking God”.  

John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. 

From all eternity there has been “Word” in God.  Within the Godhead—within the Holy Trinity—there has been a community of speaking, a community of communication.  And therefore, if, as the Bible says, human beings are made in the image of God, it should not be thought of as strange that this God—this communicating God—should speak to us in order to reveal himself to us. 

That is not to say that we can know everything about God.  I once heard JI Packer refer to a  bishop in the 5th century who reckoned that he knew as much about God as God did!  To know everything about God would make us equal to God.  The finite cannot comprehend the infinite.  However, we maintain that it is possible for us as human beings to obtain some knowledge of God; enough, indeed, to serve God’s own purposes for us.