Category Archives: Theology
There’s a tendency in theological debate for people to appeal to the ‘plain reading’ of Scripture as some sort of trump card.
“This is the plain reading…”
“Oh if that’s the case, then it’s settled then.”
Appealing to the plain reading very rarely settles anything. You end up having a debate about what exactly this ‘plain reading’ might be, as both sides want to claim that honour for their own point-of-view.
My suggestion: let’s abandon this whole method of argumentation altogether. Why should the ‘plain reading’ be the right reading or even the better reading?
In fact, what does the ‘plain reading’ refer to anyway?
Is the ‘plain reading’ the reading that deals only with the surface meaning of the text, without taking into account genre or literary devices or historical, cultural, linguistic factors or authorial intent? If that’s the case, then almost no Christian I know would argue that the plain reading is the best reading.
But if the ‘plain reading’ of Scripture is the reading that accounts for the complexity of genre, translation, background etc., then what purpose does it serve when we label it as the plain reading? Why use the term at all? Why not argue for the ‘best reading’, or the reading that makes most historical, linguistic and contextual sense?
Indeed, to use the ‘plain reading’ argument is, in my mind, just a way bullying the other person to accept your position without actually having to defend your case. In other words, it’s an exercise of power. “This is the plain reading…” is not a neutral statement. It carries with it the assumption that the ‘less-plain’ reading is automatically the wrong reading, and that somehow simplicity is self-authenticating. Where does this assumption come from? Is it actually true? Has the assumption itself been tested? (And if it has been tested and found to be true, I doubt that the test itself would be very simple.)
So I reckon let’s quit appealing to ‘plain readings’. It’s lazy argumentation and is a roundabout way of exercising power. By all means put your reading out there as the better reading but be prepared to defend it. Whether it’s the ‘plain reading’ or not shouldn’t matter.
An interesting opinion piece in this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald, ‘University Lectures Are A Legacy of Our Pre-Digital Past’, got me thinking about preaching. Is preaching as a medium of communication also a legacy of the pre-digital past? This one-person monologue, delivered in countless churches week-by-week – isn’t it also something we should reconsider given the proliferation of the type of instant, multi-sensory digital means of communication that we are consuming every other day of the week? If university lectures need re-examination, then surely so does preaching, right?
I guess a broader question is: of all the different kinds of valid means of reading and teaching the Word of God (e.g. public reading of Scripture, personal encouragement, one-on-one Bibles study, small groups, video and net-based ministries), why privilege preaching?
In the next series of posts, I thought I’d rehash a seminar I delivered at a preaching conference last year and get the conversation going (so please comment away).
In this first post, I’d like to begin with definitions. What do we mean by Biblical preaching?
Here are a number of definitions I came across:
- Sociological: ‘A public formal monologue to the congregation.’
- Peter Adam: ‘The explanation and application of the Word in the assembled congregation of Christ.’
- John Stott: ‘To open up the inspired text with such faithfulness and sensitivity that God’s voice is heard and God’s people obey him.’
- Phillip Jensen: ‘Preaching the gospel by prayerfully expounding the Bible to the people God has given me to love.’
Not ever content with just going with what someone else said, I feebly attempted my own amalgam of the above and came up with this as a definition of Biblical preaching:
Biblical preaching is declaring God’s Word to people by faithfully expounding the Scriptures through the power of the Holy Spirit for the glory of Christ.
With my definition I’m trying to capture three elements:
1. I want to define BIBLICAL preaching. Preaching as a means of communication is pretty universal. Parents can preach to their kids; sales-people can preach to their prospective buyers; other religious leaders can preach to their congregants; motivational speakers are preachers too. But I want to attempt to capture what Biblical preaching is. It is, first of all then, tied to faithful exposition of the Scriptural text.
2. I want to capture the VERTICAL dimension of Biblical preaching. God is actually speaking his Word through the preacher. There is therefore a power that must be at work for hearers to change. I guess this vertical dimension is what old-school preachers (like Martyn Lloyd-Jones) would call ‘unction’ or ‘anointing’. John Calvin wrote:
It is certain that if we come to church we shall not hear only a mortal man speaking but we shall feel (even by his secret power) that God is speaking to our souls, that he is the teacher. He so touches us that the human voice enters into us and so profits us that we are refreshed and nourished by it.
3. I want to capture the HORIZONTAL dimension of Biblical preaching as well. The preacher is preaching to God’s people in order to edify them. As he expounds Scripture and applies it, he is simultaneously exhorting his hearers (Peter Adam). Both the vertical and horizontal dimensions are key. Without the vertical, preaching is powerless. Without the horizontal, preaching won’t grow the church and bring about conversions.
Put simply I believe that Biblical preaching is PROPHETIC TEACHING. By this I am referring to prophecy in the broadest terms. (Note: I do believe in the continuation of the gift of New Testament prophecy as a smaller subset of this, but that’s for another post on another day perhaps). Here I simply mean prophecy in the ‘men spoke from God’ sense of the term (2 Peter 1:21). This is the vertical dimension in operation.
But preaching is also teaching because of that horizontal dimension. Therefore preaching is anchored in study, preparation, understanding and analysis of both the world of Scripture and the world of the hearers (John Stott).
Now the mix of prophecy and teaching can vary from preacher to preacher or even from sermon to sermon. It’s unimportant to distinguish which bits of a sermon correspond to which. However, I believe that Biblical preaching must have both elements. In other words, it is not just a spontaneous prophetic message; nor is it just a prepared lecture or seminar or workshop. It is God speaking to his gathered people through a prophetic teacher who expounds and applies the Bible. Nothing less than that will fulfil God’s mighty purposes for this ministry for the glory of Christ.
(Another note: different church traditions seem to privilege one over the other. Charismatic/Pentecostal traditions tend to emphasise the prophetic element of preaching and will tend towards spontaneity and less systematic exposition of the Biblical text, while Reformed Evangelical traditions tend to emphasise the teaching element of preaching and will sometimes be indistinguishable from a lecture. Which does your church tradition lean towards?)
So why privilege preaching? Well, I’m not quite at a full answer just yet. Next post I’ll be proposing that preaching as a mode of communication best reflects God’s own primary speech-act. But in the meantime, I’d love to hear your comments and critiques, so fire away!
Thinking aloud here:
- Discipline is different to punishment.
- The goal of discipline is restoration and growth; the goal of punishment is retributive justice.
- Therefore discipline, when exercised correctly, is always in the context of grace, regardless of how harsh it may appear to be.
- It is grace because restoration of relationship is always the goal. Justice does not and can not take into account relationship, or it would not be just.
- Discipline stops when a person is restored. Punishment only stops when justice has been served.
- The God-given role of government is primarily that of retributive justice (and therefore ‘punishment’). There may be disciplinary and restorative elements built into a compassionate legal system, but justice must be its primary function. Cf. Romans 13:4.
- God’s stance over his children is always grace, and therefore he does not punish us for the sins that Jesus has already paid for but disciplines us for our good. This is not in opposition to grace, but because of his grace. If God were to punish us, then there would be no possibility of restoration and he would simply ‘give us over’ to our sins and let us suffer their consequences (cf. Romans 1:18-32).
- Part of God’s discipline for us may be for us bear the legal ramifications (i.e. punishment) of our actions (e.g. when we commit a crime), but as far as God is concerned, he is exercising grace in his relationship toward us, because he is seeking our repentance, restoration, and growth.
- Church discipline and parental discipline are mirrored on God’s discipline. We don’t punish our church members or our children for the sake of justice, we discipline them out of love. This is grace. Cf. 2 Corinthians 2:5-11.
- To ask: ‘How do I show grace in discipline?’ is the wrong question. To discipline is to show grace. Seeking a person’s restoration after an offence is always more than that person deserves.
- Therefore parents and church leaders need to remember that the same hand that deals discipline is also simultaneously dealing grace. They are not in opposition to one another; and you do not undermine discipline by showing grace, nor undermine grace by exercising discipline.
A friend of mine studying Christian counselling is working on an assignment that is asking them to come up with an integrative approach to psychology and counselling in light of this quote by John Macarthur Jr:
‘Any counsellor who desires to honour God and be effective must see the goal of his efforts as leading a person to the sufficiency of Christ. The view that man is capable of solving his own problems, or that people can help one another by ‘therapy’ or other means, denies the doctrine of human depravity and man’s need for God. It places the Spirit’s transforming power with impotent human wisdom’. John Macarthur Jr., “Our Sufficiency in Christ” (1991).
Late last night I spent about 15 mins typing out an ‘off the cuff’ way in which I might approach it. Since I’ve been trying to teach my youth leaders how to think theologically, and because I think there’s no greater discipline for anyone in Christian leadership than to be able to think theologically about any and every topic, I thought I’d post up my rambling response. The content isn’t very important (and may have lots of problems with it). However, it’s the method and the way of going about it that I would like for those who are seeking to think theologically to be able to apply. Here goes:
The integration part is what I struggle with as I have no idea how to tackle that side of things. I also can’t think of many readings/papers off the top of my head that would help. But this would be the direction I’d be thinking (very tentatively):
1. Explore the doctrine of human depravity. What is meant by ‘total depravity’ in the Reformed (i.e. Calvinistic) understanding? Total depravity means that humanity is thoroughly corrupted by the fall in every faculty and completely unable to help himself. That includes psychological, emotional, physical, mental fallenness as well. It doesn’t mean we’re as bad as we could be, but it does imply helplessness, particularly in relation to living the kind of life that God created us to live. This impacts: firstly, the client seeking help; secondly, the counsellor giving help; and, thirdly, the discipline of psychology (apart from Christ), which, being a product of human understanding, will never be sufficient in itself to truly help.
2. Explore the sufficiency of Christ in terms of ‘salvation’ in the fullest sense. Salvation is not just saving our souls. It is the total and eschatological renewal of our entire fallen humanity. Christ is the first fruits of that new creation and by his death and resurrection has secured for human beings the only access we have to that renewal and restoration. This is ultimately an eschatological reality. But because Christ has risen, the future is brought into the present by the gift of his Spirit, so that united to him, we begin to experience this renewal from the inside out. That certainly includes renewal of our minds and emotions.
3. Explore the doctrine of ‘common grace’. That is, there is still wisdom ‘in the world’ apart from Christ that is wisdom precisely because it reflects some of God’s residual and orderly goodness as discerned in the world, even in spite of the fall. So though human wisdom cannot save and bring ultimate renewal (for only Christ can), it can be used as a basis for some limited and temporary relief of human ailments (just take medicine for example). Total depravity does not mean that God leaves himself completely without witness in the world, nor does it mean that everything is as corrupt as it could be. By God’s grace, he still allows his image bearers to do good by seeking and implementing worldly wisdom in order to hold back the full effects of the fall. Secular psychology and other medical professions fall into that category.
4. Explore the tension that this creates for the counsellor (and this may be where the integration lies). On the one hand, your hope will need to be in the power of Christ to renew and regenerate sinful people. Only Christ can bring ultimate healing and restoration. But even for born again believers, that’s something which is only going to be completed in the new creation. In the meantime, counsellors need to apply God’s ‘common grace’ in all its forms as it is available to them, in order to help people ‘cope’ and receive limited forms of healing and help, in the prayer and hope that God would ultimately enter into their lives and work from within. A Christian counsellor will recognise the impotence sin renders their discipline in the ultimate sense, and yet understand that God has given them a task to do until Christ returns to do as much limited good as possible. A Christian counsellor knows that he or she cannot heal and restore in the way that only Christ by his Spirit can, and will always be praying that the person can experience a hope and healing that psychology and counselling alone will never bring. However, (especially) for the person who has the Spirit, counselling techniques and wisdom from the realm of psychology can definitely be used by God (and by his Spirit) to unlock areas that would otherwise remain locked within a broken person’s psyche. A Christian counsellor will always see his or her job as helpful but not necessary, as God can and does heal brokenness completely without psychology with a good dose of Spirit-led renewal and grace.
What other theological categories or avenues of thought would you add to this?
Have you ever found it difficult to discern the truth of a matter, especially when it’s a biblical or theological issue that tends to polarise people? Well I frequently find that to be the case.
Here are some quick thoughts on what sort of things get get in the way of me actually properly weighing up and discerning the truth of a matter. These are some of the common roadblocks to discernment that I suffer from:
- Assume that everyone else is biased except you.
- Don’t actually read the arguments of an opposing view but only as they are represented by those with whom you agree.
- Take the opposing view to its most extreme and unhelpful logical conclusion and dismiss it on the basis of that.
- Find caricatured examples of people who hold the opposing view and reject that.
- Take on the weakest arguments and knock down those ones while ignoring the significant (and often more recent) contributions to the debate.
- Get your information from the blogosphere and assume that if it’s blogged about or in Wikipedia, it must be true.
And in light of the last point, maybe you should stop reading this.
What would Jesus protest about?
One of the top news stories has to do with the protests that began on Wall Street now spreading throughout the world, especially in European countries like Italy and London. One of the protesters apparently dressed up as a Jesus with the placard: ‘I threw the moneylenders out for a reason!’
So it got me thinking: what did Jesus really protest about when he marched into the temple and threw out the money-changers? Was it really because they were corrupt or greedy or financially unscrupulous? Is this a parallel situation to the protests happening around the world against corporate greed?
A closer look at the Gospel accounts in Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19 and John 2 would probably cause us to think again.
In short, by overturning the commerce of money-changers, Jesus was actually overturning the very fabric of Jewish temple worship. Nothing in the texts identify Jesus’ anger as directed against greed or financial dishonesty. In fact, the money-changers (note: not “money-lenders”) and those selling animals were doing the public a service. Without them, it was impossible for travelling pilgrims to come and offer sacrifices at the temple.
So Jesus kicking up a storm over their presence in the outer court (the court of the Gentiles) was a visual statement declaring two radical things: firstly, that the old order of temple worship was over. John 2 especially makes it clear: Jesus is the new temple. Then secondly as a related point, Jesus quotes the Old Testament that declares the goal of the temple is to be a house of prayer for “all nations” (Isaiah 56:7). By overturning and destroying the very system of Jewish temple worship which divided Jews from Gentiles (and here furthermore was actually preventing Gentiles from worshipping in their designated space), Jesus was declaring a new age when worship would equally be available to all, for he himself would be that temple in whose body Jew and Gentile are radically united as one (Ephesians 3).
So what would Jesus protest against?
If I could be so daring to suggest, I believe Jesus would protest in Italy at the Vatican. More than that, he’d protest in any place where ‘church’, sacred buildings, and ‘religion’ eclipsed the reality of Jesus being the one and only perfect meeting place between God and people. He’d also protest against any religious system that continued to separate God’s people based on culture, ethnicity, gender, tradition, experience, or education.
Jesus is the true temple. He’s come to bring a radical worship through his death and resurrection and by his Spirit (see John 4). This temple, unlike the Jewish temple, unites rather than divides. By his heavenly session and his Spirit of intercession, we truly have a ‘house of prayer’ in which we dwell and can freely relate to God our Father.
As the obituaries pour in at the news of Steve Jobs’ death, many Christians have noted and quoted his very sobering view of life, death and the pursuit of dreams. It’s from his 2005 Stanford University commencement address. In it he says:
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
Now I don’t particularly want to bring Biblical commentary on that. It’s obviously got so much to commend it as a perspective on life – something I wish more hedonistic non-Christians would share. However, Biblical Christians would clearly also want to take his statements further – much further, into eternity, and think about that should affect the way the sons and daughters of eternity ought to live. That’s for another person and perhaps another blog to comment on. (One such blog is here.)
The only thing I want to pick up on is to suggest that many Christians wouldn’t know that Steve Jobs’ worldview as articulated in that quote is something known as Existentialism (or at least something very similar to it). Whether Jobs himself is an existentialist or knows it is beside the point (in fact, he’s apparently a Buddhist). The point is simply that his words don’t come in a vacuum, they come from within a worldview.
And so it got me thinking: how many Christians know enough about other worldviews to know what Existentialism is, how it evolved from naturalism and nihilism (the non-theistic varieties anyhow), and how it can be understood and critiqued from within? I want to suggest that unless Christians do grapple with these philosophical questions and spend some time reading about and understanding worldviews, we’re going to be very shortchanged when it comes to engaging with people who embrace Steve Job’s (or anyone else’s) philosophy of life.
So where’s a good place to start? Let me recommend a fabulous book that’s helped me and so many in introducing the different kinds of worldviews. I think it’s essential reading for all Christians. It’s by James W. Sire called The Universe Next Door.
In the mean time, here’s the full video of Jobs’ commencement address.
I don’t like writing book reviews. The main reason is, I’m a quick reader but not a detailed reader. I assume that for a book review to be decent, some attention has to be paid to the details, and I don’t particularly want to do that.
However, as someone who is one of the first in my circles to have gotten hold of this book (via Kindle) and read it, I thought it would be worth putting some thoughts down on a page somewhere. There will no doubt be better reviews than this one, and when they turn up, I’ll link them to this article.
I picked up this book because of its premise and its recommendations. Its premise is to “make sense of social justice, shalom and the Great Commission”. The first two items: social justice and shalom, have been the flavour of a new generation of young evangelicals who have been exposed to writers such as N.T. Wright and Christopher J.H. Wright (among others – those are the two who have influenced me). The recommendations of this book come from such respected luminaries as Mark Dever, D.A. Carson, Michael S. Horton, Thomas Shreiner, and P.T. O’Brien. When they write in such glowing terms, you gotta take notice.
Having read the book in nearly one sitting (I spent a lot of time on the train yesterday), I can say that it’s been ultra-helpful for me personally as I’ve been wrestling theologically with some of these issues for awhile now, ever since I picked up Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright. I can say now that it’s probably one of the top three books I’ve read this year and I hope its influence will spread and its central thesis carefully chewed over, examined and appraised by my generation of socially active younger evangelicals.
Rather than going through a chapter-by-chapter analysis, here are my highlights from the book.
1. Attention to exegesis. The authors don’t allow us to be swept into convincing rhetoric that stays at the big picture level without dealing with specific texts.They do this so deftly, since this is not intended to be a scholarly work. Don’t be fooled though! Though they write as pastors, the exegetical work no doubt lies in the background and surfaces just enough to make their case very convincing.
2. Clarifying important concepts and ideas. The book rightly identifies that there is a lot of murkiness and slipperiness in a lot of recent talk about this issue. Much of the recent literature is very enthusiastic about concepts such ‘mission’, ‘social justice’, ‘shalom’ and ‘kingdom’ but never spend time to defend it exegetically or even clarify what is meant by these terms. They very helpfully ask (and deal with) important questions such as: Is there a difference between God’s mission and the church’s mission? Is the gospel primarily about cosmic renewal or forgiveness of sins? Is it biblical to speak about Christians ‘building the Kingdom’ through social or other means? What do we mean by ‘social justice’? Is ‘incarnational’ ministry a valid way of speaking about what Christians are called to do? What is biblical shalom and how does it come about? Will the new creation be continuous or discontinuous with this old one? Those are exactly the kinds of questions discerning young evangelicals should be asking in the midst of current enthusiasm for social concerns.
3. Recovering the centrality of the gospel. The best thing for me is that DeYoung and Gilbert show that the ‘old stuff’ that we young evangelicals have been taught isn’t that wrong: the mission of the church is essentially the Great Commission. Our mission is primarily that of bearing witness to, proclaiming and preaching a good news of forgiveness and reconciliation achieved by the work of Christ and calling people to repentance and faith in him. Our mission is to make disciples of all nations. That’s it. To summarise their central thesis:
The mission of the church is to go into the world and make disciples by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit and gathering these disciples into churches, that they might worship the Lord and obey his commands now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father. (p. 62)
4. Locating our social and mercy ministries under the category of ‘love’ rather than ‘social justice’. The authors are very clear that what they do not want to do is to discourage or deflate a concern for the poor, socially disadvantaged or enslaved peoples of the world. However, they want this concern to be Biblical both in its source and in its demonstration. Rather than locating it under the blurry term of ‘social justice’, they see that Christ’s command to ‘love our neighbours’ is sufficiently important as a motivator to get moving to care about those around us in holistic ways.
The Christian will be generous and compassionate toward the suffering and the disadvantaged, realizing that all we have is a gift from God and that we share God’s image with the poor. But in the constrained vision, this care is a matter of love and compassion, not automatically a matter of justice. (p. 182)
5. A call to Biblical realism. Some of the calls for Christians to social action is enjoined with a grand vision of ‘participating in Kingdom building’ on earth as it is in heaven. It is the classic liberal vision of bringing God’s Kingdom here on earth through radical transformation of social structures. A lot of this talk neglects to take into account the ‘not yet’ aspect of eschatology, as well as (most importantly I think), the way in which the Bible speaks about God’s Kingdom. God’s Kingdom is God’s work, God’s mission, God’s accomplishment through Christ, not ours. We receive the Kingdom, enter the Kingdom, but are never told to ‘build the Kingdom’. In their words:
God certainly uses means and employs us in his work. But we are not makers or bringers of the kingdom. The kingdom can be received by more and more people but this does not entail growth of the kingdom. We herald the kingdom and live according to its rules. But we do not build it or cause it to grow because it already is and already has come. (p. 134)
There is a tendency towards a sort of triumphalism when we think of being able to ‘transform cities’ and ‘build God’s Kingdom’ in the here-and-now before Jesus returns. That’s a great vision but has always made me a little uncomfortable, as I don’t see that in the mission of the disciples in Acts or in the pages of the New Testament. The authors argue that Jeremiah 29 is a better way of understanding God’s call to his people while we live in the tension of the ‘now and not yet’. We’re to seek the welfare of the cities we are in, love people around us, do as much good as we can, but our hope is in God’s new city coming from heaven to earth, not in our ability to transform our cities to be the New Jerusalem before Jesus returns.
The new heavens and new earth are not something that we build for ourselves out of the ruins of our fallen world. They are a gift from God to his redeemed people. Christians do not build the holy city, New Jerusalem, from the ground up; it doesn’t rise from the ashes of Babylon (Revelation 18–19). Rather, it comes down from heaven (Rev. 21:2), a gift of God to his people. It is “the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). (p. 206)
There’s a lot more I could write about, but I won’t given the length of this post already. If I have one criticism of this book it would be that I wish they would engage more openly with Tim Keller as they do with Chris Wright when it comes to these issues. They do quote Keller, but only in positive and supporting terms. I wonder however, if there are aspects of Keller’s vision for Redeemer and cultural / city transformation that should stand up to more direct scrutiny. I would also want to read Chris Wright’s Mission of God in more detail so I can see if all their critiques are fair, but I can’t help but feel that he is their main target in terms of evangelical scholarship on this topic.
And before I sign off, I reckon their last chapter, written as a sort of imagined dialogue between a young fiery new pastor and a seasoned evangelical pastor ought to be required reading for every young man wanting to head into the pastorate. I just wish I had read it when I finished Bible College 7 years ago.
Now read a “proper” book review by John Starke from the Gospel Coalition here.
As I’m getting into more and more conversations with younger people – many of whom are wonderfully passionate about Jesus in their lives, almost all of whom will be the next generation of leadership in our churches and in our city – the one thing that holds my heart suspended in my chest in many of these conversations is my fear that they can be dangerously undiscerning. In seeking deeper, richer, more intimate, more vibrant experiences with God – all of which I am enthusiastic about – I fear, however, that a lot of the foundations are being neglected, or even at times deliberately set aside in reaction against a perceived drier, older orthodoxy.
I plead with those who are on that road, please, please, please: be discerning. Have your Bibles open. Have your leaders be your sounding boards. And remember this advice I helpfully got from my mate Mikey Lynch (head AFES dude in Tassie): ‘What you learnt from those who taught you the gospel is most likely still right.’ (That was an inadequate paraphrase. What he meant was: don’t go too far from your foundations. What seems new and exciting is probably not right. What is closer to the old and solid stuff that led you to Christ is most likely still correct.)
So what does discernment look like?
I preached a sermon about a year ago that was my attempt at giving the young adults of my former congregation at Chinese Christian Church Milson’s Point the fruit of my journey. As some would know, I dipped into a bit of Charismatic teaching over the past few years, being as sympathetic and willing to learn and be changed as I could. And while I would still put myself somewhere around the John Piper mark when it comes to my view of Charismatic things, I have learnt a heck of a lot in the past few years, mostly about what it means to be discerning of something that can be so good, and (I still believe) a genuine work of God, and yet not be without some very significant problems.
I thought about blogging the main arguments of my sermon in a few posts, but being short on time (and basically lazy), I thought the sermon on its own to listen to is probably still the best way of accessing what I had to say.
It’s not definitive. It’s not going to be entirely correct. Be discerning about that too! But I hope it’s helpful. It’s streaming below (just click play) or you can download here.
It’s pretty clear from Scripture that our final hope as God’s people isn’t for a disembodied existence in ‘heaven’ but for a bodily and a resurrected future in a new creation. We are not Platonists, who value the spiritual over the material. Neither are we escapists, who see that our ultimate destination is an escape from earth to go to heaven. Rather, the Bible is clear that in the end, it is heaven that will come down to earth and renew the entire cosmos as that final home which God has prepared for those who love him (Rev. 21-22).
Now most thoughtful Christians I know believe that. And yet, I still find so many use slippery language when speaking about this future. What do I mean? Well, many of those who believe in a resurrected renewed creation still use the term ‘heaven’ to describe that final state. And when I’ve tried to encourage a more precise use of terminology, I’ve been told things like: “Of course when I use the word ‘heaven’, I don’t mean a disembodied existence in the clouds; I mean the new creation. We mean the same thing, so don’t get too hung up on the terms.”
Well, call it a bit of a hobby-horse of mine, but I think in this instance terminology does matter. I reckon it matters a lot when we use the term ‘heaven’ to mean ‘new creation’, and here are a few reasons why:
1. The Bible doesn’t ever use ‘heaven’ to mean our final hope as believers. Certainly there are different ways in which the term ‘heaven’ is used. It can just mean ‘sky’. It can also be a merismus when used with ‘earth’ (i.e. ‘the heavens and the earth’ – Gen. 1:1) to mean the totality of the created order. It’s also used to mean the spiritual abode of God who reigns in and from heaven (Psalm 2:4). And finally, it’s also used as shorthand for the new world order that God has established (hence ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ – Matt. 3:2). However, when the Scriptures speak of the new creation, ‘heaven’ isn’t the term used, ever.
When we use a Biblical term like ‘heaven’ but add to its meaning (i.e. ‘new creation’ or ‘final salvation’), it invariably affects our exegesis. A clear example is when Jesus speaks about ‘storing up treasures in heaven’ (Matt. 6:20). Because we think that ‘heaven’ here means ‘the place you go when you die’, we think Jesus is speaking about storing up wealth for when we get to the new creation. But I don’t think that’s at all what Jesus meant. I think he meant ‘heaven’ more in terms of the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’, and since the Kingdom of Heaven is God’s new world order that has already broken into the present by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, Jesus is actually talking about treasure in the here and now, not the future. Now what I actually think that means I’ll save for another post, but you can see how easy it is to read unbiblical meanings into a Biblical word just by the way we use a Biblical word in unbiblical ways.
2. Who says words don’t matter? Frankly, words and terms matter a lot, especially for those who might hold to a high doctrine of inspiration! I find it a little ironic that some of the very people who value the words of the Bible enough to go and spend three or four years studying Greek and Hebrew are a tad blase about the use of words in this instance!
The truth of the matter is, words and their meanings do matter. When a word is used enough to mean something it doesn’t mean, over time, the meaning of the word changes. Take for instance, the adjective ‘terrific’. Most people today would say it’s a positive term (and I used it in this way in a recent sermon), but its original meaning would be quite the opposite. In fact, ‘terrific’ and ‘terrifying’ were more or less synonyms once upon a time (as were ‘awesome’ and ‘awful’). Word usage matters. Meanings change.
Now of course many a postmodern would delight in such changes. “Ah the slipperiness of language triumphs again,” the closet Derridean extols! Sure, with words like ‘terrific’, ‘cool’, ‘sick’ etc. I’m not really fussed about. But Biblical words? I dunno about you, but I’d like to think that precision matters a lot in cases like this.
3. You can’t use the term ‘heaven’ without carrying the notion of escapism. Even if you mean ‘new creation’ by the term, the very nature of the word ‘heaven’ is that it has a counter-term: ‘earth’. And since we’re on earth and we are looking forward to ‘heaven’, we necessarily speak of ‘going to heaven’. It’s a going… a going away… a getting out of earth. Sure you may not mean that, but you can’t help but imply it.
When, however, you use ‘new creation’, the ball-game changes. It’s a tad unnatural to speak of ‘going to the new creation’. It’s more natural to speak of ‘waiting for the new creation’, or ‘being a part of the new creation’. Where’s the escapism in that?
4. ‘Heaven’ is already a commonly used term in our culture, and it already carries with it many wrong notions that (even in Christian circles) are Platonic and escapist. So when we use a term like ‘heaven’, even though we might mean ‘new creation’, people hear ‘sitting in the clouds playing harps’. We’re not helping anyone by using this term when there’s a perfectly wonderful Biblical alternative like ‘new creation’. That terminology hasn’t been overused and I believe it will implant the correct Biblical notions in people’s minds.
5. Sometimes I find myself using the terminology of ‘going to heaven’ just out of sheer laziness. Quite frankly it’s much easier to speak about salvation in those terms, especially to kids and teenagers. I find myself thinking: “I just want them to understand salvation. I don’t really want to complicate things at this point.” And as a consequence it’s just quicker and easier finding common ground and using the term ‘heaven’ to mean our final salvation.
Probably many of you resonate with this (what I call ‘laziness’ – ‘coz let’s be honest, it is!). However, let’s think about what’s lost as well as what may be gained. What we’ve done is this: right at the beginning of a person’s spiritual understanding we’ve plant a skewed concept of salvation that will invariably affect them down the track. Who says that a Platonic, spiritual over material, escapist eschatology doesn’t matter? Aren’t we, in all sorts of ways, paying the price right now for this sort of laziness by having to go back and explain to people, ‘Ah well, no, salvation isn’t quite what you think it was. It’s not just about your soul, or just about going to heaven, or even just about YOU… it’s about the whole creation…” Wouldn’t it be better for our new Christians, children and youth to understand all this right from the outset?
(It just occurred to me that this may be the same reason why in our gospel presentations we often gloss over the resurrection of Jesus. Mmm… perhaps more food for thought?)
So please, stop using ‘heaven’ when you mean ‘new creation’. Use ‘new creation’ instead. With my kids, I talk about ‘God’s new world’ or ‘when Jesus comes back and makes everything new’. You may have better terms for kids and teenagers. If you do, I’d love to pinch them. But whatever you do, please, don’t mince your words. Don’t talk about heaven.