Bats with baby faces in the violet light

So, I changed the randomly generated avatars for people with no uploaded pictures from geometric patterns to cartoon faces. Apparently, they generate from your email address, so that you always get the same one. I hope no-one is offended by the way they came out…

Read More

Truly ‘incarnational’ ministry

Embarrassing half-retraction time… At Spring Harvest, I heard a sermon from Juliet Kilpin. I’ve known Juliet and Jim for fifteen years or so now. She described their ministry as ‘incarnational’ which made me wince. Not because of what I said in the previous post, but because she was right, and I immediately wanted to retract, or at least edit, the post. They have lived a life of faithfulness and refusal to compromise in the hardest places. Gloriously – miraculously perhaps – some people who talk of living incarnationally do live it out, the way it should be lived. It was a privilege and a challenge to reconnect with the two of...

Read More

What does it mean to be ‘Reformed’?

I have always been fairly comfortable describing myself as ‘Reformed’. The sort of theology I have found most energising and informative for my own ministry, prayer, and thinking has been recognisably within a Reformed tradition; the denominational tradition which has formed me finds most, at least, of its roots in the recognisably Reformed tradition of the English separatists and Puritans; and so on. The tag, like any other, carries the potential of misinterpretation: for a while British Evangelicals were apparently¬† supposed to decide whether they were ‘charismatic Evangelicals’ or ‘Reformed Evangelicals’. I have always wanted to tick both boxes (for those who have seen Rob Bell’s Everything is Spiritual, this is the moment to grab a marker pen and say ‘Yup!’). ‘Reformed’ is at least well-defined theologically, however, and so less available for misinterpretation than many other labels. A couple of years back, I became gradually aware that it was becoming fashionable to be ‘Reformed’ again. In the States, John Piper and Mark Driscoll, amongst others, were (in different ways) creating a re-energised Reformed Evangelicalism; in this country a certain species of Anglican evangelical found in the tag a rallying call for a more defined and aware self-identity; younger leaders in my own denomination found a cause and an identity in some mixture of these various renewed traditions. The old ‘Reformed’ vs ‘charismatic’ distinction is thankfully more-or-less collapsed; others, equally unhappy, have sprung up in its place (Reformed evangelical vs ‘open evangelical’; Reformed vs emergent – where’s my marker pen…) Colin Hansen’s Young, Restless, and Reformed captured a mood well. It was a mood that I found puzzling – there is so much that is good about it, at least from where I am sitting. People were beginning to understand again that the doctrine of election is pretty central to the gospel; were committed to serious, doctrinally-informed Biblical preaching; were wanting to combine theological seriousness with fervent worship and a commitment to evangelism. As some of my American friends would put it, ‘what’s not to like?’ And I got on well with the folk I met who self-identified with the tradition. But something niggled; something wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t any particular doctrinal position: I could and do wish one or another of these folk thought differently (or even just more…) about this or that, and I object strongly to the focus on denying the preaching ministry to women which seems endemic within the movement, but that wasn’t the problem I felt; it was more about tone that content – a sense that it wasn’t what was being said, but the way it was being said, that disturbed me. At a conference this week, I think I put my finger on it (the conference was a colloquium of the excellent Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in Britain project, and so circled around some of these areas, but it was really a matter of thoughts coalescing in my mind, not any particular paper or comment, that got me thinking this way). In published writings and public pronouncement, these people too often feel (to this reader/hearer at least) just too convinced of their own rightness. In my experience, it is rarely true when you meet them one-to-one, but in public, the tone is just somehow wrong – too brash; too self-confident; not, strangely, Reformed enough. At the heart of the classical Reformed tradition, perhaps particularly in its Baptist expressions, is an intense and intrinsic self-criticism. As the great slogan has it, ecclesia reformata semper reformanda. A slogan, incidentally, too-often mistranslated. The participles are both passive: the church has been reshaped and remade (by the agency of God), and always will be reshaped and remade (by the agency of God). Because of this, true Reformed Christianity necessarily sees all its pronouncements and conclusions as provisional. Its confidence – and it should be confident – is a humble confidence, based not on a conviction of its own rightness, but on an awareness that, in the good sovereignty of God, honest efforts may be used for good even if misguided. God has spoken; but our words are not His words, and our unshakeable belief in His truthfulness can never become an unshakeable confidence in our correctness. The classical accounts of Reformed faith parse this carefully: it is not because there is new revelation, but because our sinfulness and blindness will constantly need correcting; the faith is delivered once for all to the saints, but we constantly distort and warp it. The necessary ongoing correction and repair of the church is not our work (if it were there would be no hope), but God’s. God will carry out this work by His...

Read More

What branches grow out of this stony rubbish?

A chance conversation this morning worried me. It seems that someone had read something on this blog and, knowing something of the contexts I live and work in here in St Andrews, had assumed it was intended as a veiled criticism of a particular person. It wasn’t. In all honesty, it surprised me to discover that folk in the ‘town’ rather than ‘gown’ side of St Andrews might find anything of interest here. This blog is intentionally an academic exploration of ideas – if that’s not obvious enough, check out the regular quotations in Greek and Latin… The ideas that I explore here are suggested by all sorts of contexts and triggers. Almost always, it is the coincidence of three or four conversations or things I’ve read or listened to that coalesce to form the belief that a blog post might be worthwhile. The subjects I deal with – the nature of Evangelicalism; theological concepts; church life – are such, however, than inevitably several of the ideas I explore or criticise will be ideas held, and perhaps taught, by people I know: colleagues in St Mary’s, or pastors in the town, or leaders in student Christian organisations. In some cases I am aware of this; in others, no doubt, I am not. Because I had assumed that the readership was mostly further afield and more ‘academic’, I had not been particularly careful about the phrasing of comments even when I have known. I now see that this was a mistake, which has led to misunderstanding in at least one case, and I am sorry for it. I will try to be more conscious of potential overlaps between what I say here and the people I worship with and live and work amongst in real life. All that said, my task as an academic is to discuss ideas. I have found this blog a useful place to do that. Inevitably, the ideas discussed will on occasion be topical, controversial even, in one context or another here in St Andrews. Not all of my colleagues, or all of the local pastors, are right about everything (some of them aren’t even Baptists!) But if there is no-one named in a blog comment, it is not aimed at anyone in particular. That simple. I’m not in the business of trying to undermine unnamed people behind their backs (and, to be honest, if I was, I’d find a more effective way of doing it than a blog that only occasionally gets 100 hits in a...

Read More

St Andrews Conferences

Two excellent conferences to look forward to here over the summer. Genesis and Christian Theology will bring Kathryn Tanner, Gary Anderson, David Fergusson, John Milbank, Rusty Reno, Ellen Charry, and some of the home team into conversation, continuing the series of Scripture and Theology conferences. The Art of the Psalms brings a more diverse collection of poets, composers, and theologians together. Bookings and short paper calls open for...

Read More
get facebook like button