Skip to content

My friend John (not a Christian) was joking with me over breakfast about Christians crow-barring Jesus into talks that begin elsewhere.

"I'd like to hear a Christian speak about God and Jesus for 15 minutes and then say 'But you know in a funny sort of way that's a bit like cheeses... or monkeys... or communism, or whatever.'"

He was joking, but I had to agree. 

First Jesus says 'The kingdom is at hand, repent and believe.'  (Matt 4:17)  Then He invites people to examine sex, money, power, religion and relationships through the lens of this kingdom (Matt 5-7).

I reckon that's what we should aim for.  'God and Jesus' first.  Then life makes sense.  John was right.

See - I do believe in 'speaking better than they knew'?


Dan Barker of the Freedom from Religion Foundation tells of his past in evangelical Christianity

I was a "doer of the word and not a hearer only." I went to a Christian college, majored in Religion/Philosophy, became ordained and served in a pastoral capacity in three California churches. I personally led many people to Jesus Christ, and encouraged many young people to consider full-time Christian service.  (Here)

And here's his conversion to atheism as told to a journalist here

[Barker] lay on a burlap cot in a church in a Mexican border town where he'd come to give a guest sermon. As he peered out at a splash of stars, Barker had a sudden profound sensation that had nothing to do with intellect, the kind of deeply felt moment more commonly associated with finding God than losing Him. He was, Barker understood, utterly alone here.

"For my whole life there had been this giant eyeball looking at me, this god, this holy spirit, this church history, and this Bible. And not only everything I did but everything I thought was being judged: Was God pleased? I realized that that wasn't there anymore. It occurred to me, 'I own these thoughts. Nobody knows what I'm thinking right now. There's no fear of hell, no fear of judgment, I don't have to be right or wrong, I can just be me.'" It felt as if charges had been dropped for a crime for which he had been falsely accused. It was exhilarating and frightening all at once. "When you're ready to jump out of an airplane to skydive, you can be terrified but excited at the same time," he says. "There's a point where you go, all right, let's do this."

It strongly reminded me of John Bunyan's conversion:

"As I was passing in the field, and that too with some dashes on my conscience . . . suddenly this sentence fell upon my soul, Thy righteousness is in heaven; and, methought withal, I saw with the eyes of my soul Jesus Christ at God's right hand, there, I say, is my righteousness; so that wherever I was, or whatever I was a-doing, God could not say of me, He wants [lacks] my righteousness, for that was just before him. I also saw, moreover, that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse; for my righteousness was Jesus Christ himself, the same yesterday and today for ever (Heb. 13:8)."

"Now did my chains fall from my legs indeed, I was loosed from my affliction and irons, my temptations also fled away, so that from that time, those dreadful scriptures of God left off to trouble me; now also went I home rejoicing for the grace and love of God."

In both conversions naturally enough it was their view of God that changed and that changed them.  Both were weighed down under the scrutiny of Heaven.  Both found a joyful liberation in the death of God.  (Of course Barker's empty heaven does not remove his spiritual masters but multiplies them).

Nonetheless, I think the similarities are very instructive. 

Because what did/does Barker need?  More theistic proofs?  These would only have strengthened his notion of a 'giant eyeball' in the sky.  And who could blame him if he wants to be free of that?

Yet there are a hundred apologetic strategies that drive the Barkers of this world firmly into atheism, not away.

What should we do instead?

Let's seek to give them what Bunyan got - true freedom through Christ crucified.


In a Christian book shop this morning they were promoting a new apologetics book with the strapline:

Why God probably exists.  Why Jesus is probably divine.

Hardly the language of revelation (i.e. of the gospel!)

The book consisted of four theistic proofs, a couple of chapters on Jesus and then some answers to thorny questions.  An epilogue asked readers for their verdict on Jesus.

I mean really.  What the?? You might as well say,

Here's little Jesus.  He stands in the dock, but thank God he's got some excellent advocates called apologists.  And they can prove there's a good chance He's God (and don't forget God probably does exist after all).  So won't you please find in favour of the defendant? 



Follow my simple scheme:

STEP 1:  Ask yourself this question.  What is more attractive than Jesus?  Let's call this thing X.

STEP 2:  Lift X high.  Be loud.  Be proud. 

STEP 3:  Celebrate a job well done when unbelievers agree that X really is better than Jesus.





 Like many churches across the country, we're planning our involvement with the Passion for Life mission initiative taking place in Easter 2010.  Here are ten thoughts on these kinds of missions in no particular order.

  1. 'A mission' should be part of a church's ongoing life of mission.  The one-off sports event with gospel talk at half time is one thing. Having a bunch of Christians join a local sports team season by season - befriending and gospelling non-Christians there - now that's an ongoing life of mission.  Its effects will be so much more hidden and ambiguous than the grand week of events.  But the impact will be so much greater for the kingdom.
  2. 'A mission' should be owned by the whole congregation.  The priesthood of all believers applies especially here.  It takes a body working together with speaking and serving gifts working in harmony.  Too often we impose a mission on an unprepared church from the top down.  The events will be unbalanced, few will bring friends and the strong impression will be given that mission is something compartmentalized - done only at special times and only by special people.
  3. The greatest problem with our 'missions' is that typically our Christians don't know any non-Christians.  Not very well anyway.  Now by all means door-knock your locality. By all means lift high the name of Jesus in your community at large. But our priority must be our neighbours, friends, colleagues and families with whom we are already involved.  Or if we're not already involved, we ought to be.  Ideally 'a mission' should be a dew point collecting together the scores of gospel conversations that Christians are already having with the people they're involved with.
  4. Our perceived need for apologetic events is inversely related to our willingness to love our neighbours.  In other words - if we actually loved our neighbours we'd probably find that we didn't 'need' apologetics events after all.  The real trouble is that we're not actually involved with non-Christians, we don't really love them.  And so the only bridge into Christian things that we can think of is an 'apologetic' bridge.  I use the term 'apologetics' advisedly (click my 'apologetics' tag for more).  Because 1 Peter 3:15 (where the word 'apologetics' comes from) is not describing the 'apologetics' that people tend to do today.  1 Peter 3:15 is about giving the gospel reasons for the hope that is so obviously in you as evidenced by your many and deep interactions with unbelievers.  Now if we lived in 1 Peter 3:15-world then our friends and neighbours would see this hope and would ask us about it.  We could give some kind of witness, but - joy of joys - we could also bring them along to a mission event where this gospel hope would be proclaimed by a gifted evangelist.  And if this were the case we'd be praying to God that the evangelist would stop trying to be culturally relevant and would please just sock it to our friend with Christ. The reality is that a) our hope aint that evident and b) we don't get close enough for non-Christians to see it anyway.  Therefore the only way we can think to get non-Christians in the door is to put on talks about "What Jesus would say to the G20 summit" or whatever. 
  5. Conversion is not a process. Conversion is a miracle. How much of our evangelistic strategy belies the evangel we say we believe. 
  6. Non-Christians are nowhere near as excited by 'A Christian view of the Credit Crunch' as Christians are.
  7. If it's credibility you're after, non-Christians figure that the thing (really the only thing) that Christians can speak on credibly is Christianity.  There might be a clue there.
  8. The bible must be front and centre if people are to truly trust the living God and not simply the oratory powers of a visiting speaker.
  9. Often we greatly underestimate the amount of Christian input a non-Christian is expecting / willing to bear once they've accepted an invitation by a trusted Christian friend.  It's a huge deal for a non-Christian to come to an event in the first place.  They're basically expecting to be proselytised.  But once they get there, guess who's afraid of proselytising?  Not them.  Us.
  10. Evangelism is summons to Christ not the presentation of interesting information.  Calling people to repent and believe the gospel at our mission events sets our evangelism in its proper context.  Just by itself a call for people to trust Christ on the night is a powerful demonstration of the nature of the gospel. We ought to call people to Christ and not simply a follow up course  


Just watched this documentary on the Large Hadron Collider: "The Big Bang Machine." (BBC4) presented by Brian Cox.


Here's an extract from around 4:20 - 7:20.   

Physics is stuck and the only thing left to do is recreate the universe as it was a fraction of a second after the big bang.  That's what the LHC is designed to do.  To smash bits of matter together at energies  never before achieved so that we can stare at the face of creation...

 So here's the aim - to stare at the face of creation.

And this is the means - to smash particles together.

Notice the disjunct between the stated aim and the means!   Cox excites us about the scientific quest promising us a 'face' to creation.  Of course "face" says communicative, conscious.  It says personality.  It's no wonder that Cox wants to reach for this kind of language because at bottom it's personal reality that we long to see.  But all Cox can give us is particles.  This is the trouble. 

What do you say of a person who promises you a face but gives you only particles?

What do you say of an enterprise that can describe a face only in terms of its sub-atomic particles?

He continues...

...Every civilization has its own creation story.  The ancient Chinese, indian mystics and Christian theologians all place a divine creator at the heart of their creation stories.  Science too has an elaborate story that describes the universe's genesis.  It tells us how the fundamental constituents of the cosmos took on their form.  The difference with this story is that we can test it.  We can find out if its true by tearing matter apart and looking at the pieces.  All you need is a machine powerful enough to restage the first moments after creation...

 This was the sentence that made me sit up and take notice: "Every civilization has its own creation story."  And Cox puts 'science' in there among Indian mystics and Christian theologians.  Ok good.  We're all telling stories about the world around us - scientists included.  But what does Cox say is the difference with science?  Answer: "we can test it."  Hmm.  How will science be tested?  Tearing apart matter and looking at the pieces. 

Well now that's a very sensible test if you think that matter is what explains everything.  If you have a story about the world that says everything came about via material means then test matter.  Yes indeed that's testable.  But it's not the only thing that's testable.  What if your story about the world says 'Everything came about via the Word who was with God in the beginning and then became flesh and dwelt among us.'  Is that testable?  You betcha!  Every bit as much as the 'science' story.  It's just that you test this story in ways appropriate to its nature.

All science works by testing its object of study in accordance with its nature.  You don't do astronomy with a microscope - your means of testing is adapted to the thing tested.  So if you think it's all about matter, you study matter.  But if you think it's all about the Word then you study the Word.  Theology in this sense is completely scientific.  It is taking its Object of enquiry completely seriously and pursuing thorough investigation according the nature of the Word - ie it is listening obediently to Him.  That's good science.  And it's our only hope of actually seeing the Face that explains our world.  Particles won't get you to the Person - but the Person can help you explain particles...


Cox continues...

In the beginning there was nothing. No space, no time just endless nothing.  Then 13.7 billion years ago from nothing came everything.  The universe exploded into existence.  From that fireball of energy emerged the simplest building blocks of matter.  Finding experimental evidence of these fundamental entities has become the holy grail of physics.

Notice first that this creation story is just as miraculous as any other.  "From nothing came everything".  No explanations are given.  None ever could be.  This is the astonishing miracle at the heart of our modern creation story.  It is not the case that only primitive 'religion' believes in miracles.  The 'science' creation story is equally miraculous.

And again do you how science proceeds?  It proceeds like theology.  The scientific worldview says there must have been simple building blocks of matter that existed after the big bang.  Of course we've never observed these.  Nonetheless the worldview tells us they must have existed.  Therefore science seeks after evidence of what it believes to be true even without the evidence.  It has faith (an assurance of things hoped for (Heb 11:1f)) and from this faith it seeks understanding.  That is the scientific pursuit and it is no more or less a faith-based enterprise than theology.  And that's no bad thing, it's just the way things are.  It would just be nice if scientists came clean about it!

The point is this - don't let anyone tell you science is about matter not miracles or fact and not faith.  The truth is we all have our creation stories. 



Don't believe me?  Check out this article which seeks to explain the fine-tuning of the observable universe.  (source: MetaCatholic).

Here's a representative quotation:

Physicists don’t like coincidences. They like even less the notion that life is somehow central to the universe, and yet recent discoveries are forcing them to confront that very idea. Life, it seems, is not an incidental component of the universe, burped up out of a random chemical brew on a lonely planet to endure for a few fleeting ticks of the cosmic clock. In some strange sense, it appears that we are not adapted to the universe; the universe is adapted to us.

Call it a fluke, a mystery, a miracle. Or call it the biggest problem in physics. Short of invoking a benevolent creator, many physicists see only one possible explanation: Our universe may be but one of perhaps infinitely many universes in an inconceivably vast multi­verse. Most of those universes are barren, but some, like ours, have conditions suitable for life.

The idea is controversial. Critics say it doesn’t even qualify as a scientific theory because the existence of other universes cannot be proved or disproved. Advocates argue that, like it or not, the multiverse may well be the only viable non­religious explanation for what is often called the “fine-tuning problem”—the baffling observation that the laws of the universe seem custom-tailored to favor the emergence of life...

It boils down to this:

“If there is only one universe,” [Physicist Bernard] Carr says, “you might have to have a fine-tuner. If you don’t want God, you’d better have a multiverse.”

So, we're told, it's a choice - either we posit some kind of god or we posit an unobserved and unobservable reality, a multiverse. 

To be honest I don't think that is the choice.  And I don't think the Christian position is to deduce from the data 'some kind of god.'  It's not as though we're the brave defenders of 'The Cosmic Finetuner'!  More on that in the next post.  But first let's have some fun thinking about the multiverse as a faith commitment

Because above all else, that's what the multiverse is.  It is not a conclusion suggested by the data.  It is a theory that comes to the rescue of a scientist determined not to accept the alternative.  Don't let any naturalistic scientist tell you they deal in the realm of objective fact while the Christian runs off to the realm of 'blind faith.'  Not only have scientists not observed direct evidence of the multiverse, there can be no direct observation of alternate universes - they lie beyond the reach of experimental science.  There's nothing more 'intellectually honest' about postulating a multiverse as opposed to faith in intelligent design.  That's the minimal point I'm making at the moment.  I don't actually think the real choice is between fine-tuning and multiple universes (more in the next post) but if the scientific establishment think that those are the options, then both positions should own up to being faith-based.

And that's ok.  True enquiry is necessarily faith seeking understanding.  This was Anselm's description of theology, but, as these considerations show, it holds also for science.  Everyone has beliefs about the nature of reality that shape how they enquire into that reality.  On top of this methodological issue, those beliefs further shape how the data is understood.  No-one simply deals with 'the facts'.  What we believe affects every level of our enquiry.  This is not a lamentable state of affairs, it's just the way things are.  And it means that all endeavours, science included, are believing endeavours.  This is inescapable.  (Go here for a post on the Large Hadron Collider as a prime example of faith seeking understanding).

All scientists are believers.

Next post we'll consider this supposed crossroads - either multiverse or Cosmic Fine-tuner.  We'll see that in spite of what the scientific community thinks (including the Intelligent Design proponents!) we do not follow their methods, forced to choose between absurdity and deism!  We tread a different path.  


Are we really post-modern after all?  Actually isn't the West incurably modernist?  Isn't post-modernism just ultra-modernism anyway?  And who gives a flying rip?  All these thoughts jostled for prominence as I read the first five pages of the Times this afternoon.  I'll let you guess which thought won.

Here's what brought on this A-level philosophizing.  On page 2 the Editor comments on the pundit-confounding fall in oil prices.  He writes:

Wayward forecasts have been part of the human condition since at least the Oracle at Delphi. People hunger for insight into the future; numerous methods of forecasting, from the statistical to the mystical, aim to satisfy that need. The painful truth is that the only non-trivial predictions that can be made confidently lie in the natural sciences. In human society, there is no equivalent to Newton's laws of motion and gravity.

Now I stopped doing science when my physics teacher said there were exceptions to laws he'd just spent two years beating into us.  I was outraged that, having concocted and then memorized my ridiculous mnemonics, they proved to be more like helpful suggestions than laws.  So I don't know much - but something in my brain was registering puzzlement as I read this afternoon. 

First, are Newton's laws really such a bedrock of absolute certainty?  Second, what does it say about a person when they opine 'Life's full of uncertainty, but one thing we know: F=ma'?   It certainly is painful but is it really true that 'the only non-trivial predictions that can be made confidently lie in the natural sciences'??  You can see why all those modernism / post-modernism questions were getting raised.

Well two pages after Newton was set forth as the only Rock on whom we can depend, Oxford Physics Professor, Frank Close said this:

At the beginning of the 20th century, science could explain almost all physical phenomena then known. Isaac Newton’s laws of mechanics described the heavens; the Industrial Revolution both inspired and was driven by thermodynamics; and Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetic waves explained light. The atomic nucleus, relativity and quantum mechanics were not yet in the lexicon, but soon would change everything.

As the 21st century begins, a similar story might be told – of far-reaching theories with tantalising implications, and of ambitious experiments with the potential for discoveries beyond our present imaginings.

So apparently everything has changed since Newton.  Our Rock has gone.  But don't worry, this is a new century and this time we'll definitely get it right.  How?  Well now we have the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) which begins smashing particles next week.  Frost's article on the LHC was entitled: Journey back to the beginning of time is nearly complete

The article is full of this strange mixture of confident assertions and admitted bewilderment.  See, for instance this:

Why are there three spatial dimensions; could there be more? If dimensions beyond our ken are revealed at the LHC this would be one of the greatest cultural shocks of all. Our theories work if everything is massless and flits around at the speed of light, yet if it were so we could not be here. How did mass emerge; what indeed is it?

We know how the seeds of normal matter emerged in the relatively cool afterglow of creation. However, it appears that “normal” matter is but 1 per cent of the whole; we are but flotsam on a sea of “dark matter”, whose existence has been inferred from theoretical cosmology but remains undetected. What that dark sea consists of, how it was formed, why there is any matter at all rather than a hellish ferment of radiation, are unknown.

Now as I said, I'm no scientist but is science really fit to answer the "why three dimensions?" question?  What kind of scientific answer would it be that didn't instantly beg more?  In the first paragraph we are told that the scientists' theories 'work' upon assumptions that should have rendered life impossible.  In the second paragraph we are told that their theories lead us to posit a hundred times as much matter as scientists actually detect. 

Well alright then!  Now I can understand why such hype over LHC.  This thing had better produce the goods!

I am cheered though by the optimism of those involved.  The article finishes on this confident note:

"What actually took place in that long-ago dawn, only nature knows. Soon humans will too." 

I mean Close had just told us that finding the origin of the universe (time zero) was like finding 'the end of the rainbow' but still, you've got to admire the passion for scientific endeavour. 

The other article on page four was just as confident.  It was entitled:

Mysteries of the Universe will be solved, starting next Wednesday

It said things like:

"The mountains of data produced [by LHC] will shed light on some of the toughest questions in physics. The origin of mass, the workings of gravity, the existence of extra dimensions and the nature of the 95 per cent of the Universe that cannot be seen will all be examined. [ed: Apparently the Times Science Editor has closed the dark matter gap by another 4%.  Someone should tell the professor!]  Perhaps the biggest prize of all is the "God particle" - the Higgs boson. This was first proposed in 1964 by Peter Higgs, of Edinburgh University, as an explanation for why matter has mass, and can thus coalesce to form stars, planets and people. Previous atom-smashers, however, have failed to find it, but because the LHC is so much more powerful, scientists are confident that it will succeed.

I do genuinely love the enthusiasm.  What a quest!  Here are people convinced that they will find this dark matter (and maybe they will!), convinced they will find the 'God particle' (and maybe they will!).  But their investment in the existence of such entities is explicitly that their world-views just don't work without such unproved phenomena!  They need these unobserved and often unobservable things to be true or else their theories fall apart. 

Don't let anyone tell you that science deals in hard fact while religion deals in blind faith.  We are all in the business of 'faith seeking understanding.'  This is how Anselm described theology in the 12th century.  But I hope we can see it's also how science works.  We believe and we move forwards on the basis of those beliefs.  We find confirmation as we go.  But as we set out we don't have in our grasp that which faith seeks. Instead our intial faith is grounded in the internal cogency of its object.  For the scientist this object is the self-authenticating explanatory power and even elegance of the existing theoretical paradigm.  For the Christian it is the self-authenticating Word of God. 

None of this is to posit some false antithesis between science and religion - the very opposite.  The theologian can and should do science and the scientist is already doing a kind of theology (just with a different logos - a different object of faith).  

But here's the point - both the scientist and the theologian begin from the foundation of faith.  From there the faithful follower explores and articulates that faith and tests it against its object.  So it is with theology, so it is with science.  The proper method for both is the same.

So much so that as I read the scientific optimism for LHC I couldn't help but think of that biblical verse:

"Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1)

What differs is not the method.  What differs is the object of faith.  To put it all too simplisitically (but I think with some explanatory power!): the majority of the scientific establishment trusts in the logic of humanity.  The theologian trusts in the Logos of God.


More on faith and science:

All scientists are believers

Both the multiverse and Intelligent Design are wrong!

Christian cosmology



Ok, another little example of engaging with non-Christian world-views.  This is from a wedding sermon I gave a few weeks ago.  The great majority of the congregation were not Christians. The couple asked me to speak from 1 John 4:7-12.  I'll quote a part of the sermon and then make some comments.  (Just so you know I've tweaked the last paragraph since giving the sermon.)


Why is virtually every film, every TV show, every novel, every pop song obsessed with people falling in love and getting together?  If they're not obsessed with falling in love and getting together, they're obsessed with falling out of love and drifting apart.  You can't get around it: this kind of committed, mutually self-giving relationship consumes our culture and consumes our hearts.

Why?  Why do all the songs say ‘Love is the greatest thing'? 

Craig and Debbie know.  That's why they chose this reading from the bible.  Why does the world say ‘Love is the greatest thing.'??  Because God, the greatest thing, is love. 

That's the famous phrase from our reading.  Verse 8: "God is love."  Coming into church this afternooon you may not have known any verse of the bible - now you know one.  "God is love."

God's not just in a long-term relationship.  God is an eternal relationship of committed love.  God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit love one another, uphold one another, pour their life into one another from eternity past to eternity future.

The committed love of marriage is a faint picture of the incredible love that binds the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Whether you believe in Him or not, whatever concept of God you've brought to church this afternoon, allow it to be shaped by God's own word.  God is love.

God doesn't just do love.  God is love.  His very existence is an existence of love.  Love is the very stuff of His being.  The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are who they are because they are constantly giving and receiving love.

Why do the songs say love is the greatest thing?  Because the greatest thing, God, is love.  To put your finger on the ultimate pulse of reality you will find the committed love of these three Persons.  Of course the whole world sings of love.  How could it not?! 

But here's the terrible tragedy.  The world doesn't know why love's the greatest thing.  And so the world is left with this groundless, abstract thing called love.  It becomes a mere feeling for us to praise and magnify, and, in all probability, to watch slip through our fingers.  Love, without this grounding in God, becomes only a sentiment to be admired.  But if that is all that love is, then today is robbed of it's meaning.  If love is just a feeling, we may well smile at the happy couple, we will praise their participation in this grand myth called love.  But then we'll go home wondering if there's any real substance to it all.  But to all that, the bible says Perish the thought!!  Love has a grounding.  As verse 7 says "Love comes from God".  That's why Craig and Debbie want us to think about these verses.  The God who is love will breathe meaning back into that old cliche that 'love is the greatest thing'.  And in doing so He will provide a foundation not only for Craig and Debbie's marriage but for all of our lives.  So let's pay attention to these verses for the next couple of minutes...


Four observations.

First, the Christian can take upon their lips non-Christian sentiments and use them truly.  But in doing so we commandeer those propositions and press them into a quite different service.  So 'love is the greatest thing' on the lips of a non-Christian means what?  Well it could mean many things but at the end of the day it effectively boils down to 'love is God.'  Love itself becomes the object of worship.  But what does 'love is the greatest thing' mean on the lips of a Christian?  Well in the kind of context I tried to give in the sermon, it becomes testimony to the entirely different truth 'God is love'.

Secondly, I really mean it when I wonder out loud How can the world not sing of love?  I am happy to draw attention to this universal sentiment that 'love is the greatest thing.'  But I will tell the non-Christian that he or she doesn't really know why it's their sentiment.  And that even the terms of that sentiment are distorted into falsehood.  'Love is God' seems a hairs-breadth from the truth, in fact it's idolatry.  And idolatry is not a stepping stone to true worship.

Thirdly, none of this depends on agreeing with a non-Christian definition of love.  It's not a case of saying 'Hey, you love love, I love love, everyone loves love.  Lemme show you the best love.'  We can't do that because verse 10 describes love in terms that are completely off our natural radar screen.  According to God's word, love is bloody, sacrificial, atoning death.  And that for enemies.  I've never found the non-Christian who will agree to that definition of love in advance!  We simply do not share a common understanding of love from which we can argue to divine reality. 

Fourth, I'm very fond of that kind of phrase: 'Allow yourself to be told...'  I don't know where I first picked it up but it's kind of my whole theology of revelation.  Preaching (but in fact all speaking of Christian truth) is declaring with divinely delegated authority: 'Allow yourself to be told something you do not know, could never anticipate and will never have under your belt...  Put yourself in the path of this meteor from above...  Receive something that you absolutely do not already have in your grasp.'  It is news that we tell.  Revelation.  I try to have my rhetoric shaped by that.



Ok, so we've noted the danger of fiting Jesus into a pre-fab system of truth. We don't want to do that.  But Missy has asked the $64 000 question.  It's basically this: What do we do when speaking to a non-Christian - isn't it desirable at least sometimes to bring Christ to them according to their preferred programme?? 

I'm not going to be able to answer this very well.  But I'm just going to give some thoughts as they occur and then I'd love if others chimed in with how they go about this.

My first thought is this:  If we're doing evangelism then we are necessarily relating Christ to non-Christian thought-forms.  Even if all we do is read out the sermon on the mount it will be heard from within a pre-existing mindset.  What's more it will be heard as remarkably similar, if not completely continuous, with human philosophies.  Think about it.  We all live in a universe made by, through and for Christ and which proclaims Him in every detail. Everyone is working with the same conceptual raw materials and can do no other than come up with some re-arrangement of Christian truth.  When the pure stuff is brought to bear on discussion people will say 'Yeah, yeah.  That's just like X.'

But is it?  And is it ever true to say to a person 'You know it is just like X.  And I'll add Y and Z to your X and we'll build towards saving knowledge of Christ.'

Well let's think about the nature of truth.  Paul says we find truth in Christ - hidden in Him in fact (Eph 4:21; Col 2:3).  Jesus says He is truth (John 14:6) and even goes so far as to say that God's word (which He also calls 'truth') when not related to Him, leaves people in terrifying ignorance.  (John 5:39f; 17:17). 

Truth is relative.  It stands in strict relation to Christ the Truth (good name for a blog I reckon).  His subjectivity is the one objectivity.  What is there outside of Him in Whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden?  Rearrangements of Christian reality yes - but because of that re-arrangement they are rendered blasphemous falsehoods.  The true test of a proposition is not its conformity to an abstract notion of reality or reason or scientific law.  The true test is its relatedness to Jesus.

It is simply not the case that discrete parcels of truth lie around the universe largely intact.  It is even less true that sinful humanity has some capacity (or inclination!) to assess these propositions, divorced as they are from Christ.  It's outright Pelagian heresy to imagine that such 'discrete propositions' and such 'objectively assessed' truth will lead a person to Christ.  Christ leads us into the truth.  Study of abstract truth does not lead us to Christ.

Now, what about non-Christian philosophies?  Can a Christian take a sentence from Homer (either Simpson or the poet!) on their lips and use it to testify to Christ?  Of course!  But in doing so they have vindicated Christ not Homer.  They have not given testimony to the rightness of that proposition in its own context.  They have commandeered it and pressed it into Christ's service - the service it should have always rendered.  This is precisely the language of 2 Corinthians 10:5 - taking every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ.

In this verse Paul paints the picture of these renegade 'thoughts' that have gone AWOL from Christ.  We arrest them and press them back into the Lord's service.  But what we don't do is grant these thoughts a civilian existence, as though they'll do the Lord's service no matter what uniform they're wearing.  No.  Either they're in obedience to Christ (explicitly wearing the uniform) or they're a pretension setting itself up against the knowledge of God (2 Cor 10:5).

Ok, but now we're back to the inescapable problem.  Here is a non-Christian with all their presupposed notions of truth that can only lead them to error.  Now here comes Christ the Truth.  And we've already conceded that the non-Christian cannot but hear Christ according to their presupposed notions.  So what do we do?

Well here's one tempting response.  Simply oppose everything they say.  They buy into post-modernism - we counter with modernism.  They're comfortable with irrational claims - we respond with rationalism.  They say 'truth is relative' - we insist 'truth is absolute.'  They indulge in immorality - we preach morality.  Well you may well get a discussion going.  But have you brought them to Christ?  Or to the 1950s? 

Tim Keller ministers among the groovy lefties of Manhattan.  What's his approach?  Traditional religious values?  No, as he likes to say the bible is not left wing or right wing - it's from above.  Whatever we say into these debates must make that clear.

Another thought.  Jesus did not come onto the world stage addressing 'universal human concerns'.  He wasn't born into the Areopagus as the Ultimate Philosopher.   He did not open with: 'We all know the truth about relationships, money, power etc.  I've come to bring you the ultimate experience of these.'  No.  He comes specifically and almost exclusively onto the Jewish scene, addressing Jewish hopes and concerns.  He comes as Messiah into a very specific, encultered setting which He had been meticulously preparing for Himself for centuries.  A people had been formed, a law had been given, a land, kings, prophets, priests, the Scriptures.  And the understanding, ideals, hopes and problems of this people are actually quite strange to the natural ear.

They worried about ceremonial cleanness and atoning sacrifice; about land and exile; about Sabbath and the throne of David.  They were a particular people with particular patriarchs and a particular God called Yahweh who was (and is), among other things, their tribal deity.  They were concerned about His particular promises - His covenant - and their particular fulfilment.  The Jesus-shaped hole at the heart of Israel was a very peculiar shape indeed - at least to modern sensibilities.  It is, in many ways, very different to what contemporary evangelists consider as the Jesus-shaped hole of today's 'enquirer'. 

And so when the LORD incarnate comes as His own Prophet, He does a couple of peculiar things that we modern evangelists don't really do.  First He comes in fulfilment of the Scriptures.  All the Gospel writers do this but Matthew especially introduces Jesus as the fulfilment of the Old Testament.  Here is the One at the centre of this history and this people and these hopes.  Do we present Jesus like that? 

The other peculiar thing Jesus does is to begin by saying 'Repent and believe the gospel.'  That's not His punchline - that's His opener.  'Repent and believe the gospel' He commands.  And then He unpacks the life of the kingdom.  On those terms He speaks of relationships, money, power etc.  First the beatitudes - the gatehouse to the kingdom - then a description of this kingdom life.

What would evangelism look like that followed this pattern?  Something like this I think: "You've been speaking to me about love / freedom / fear / power / addiction / sexuality / abortion / capital punishment / healthcare / education / the state / animal rights / whatever.  Jesus has a lot to say on those issues but I'm going to have to back up from our discussion and give you a bird's eye view.  Let me give you the bible's view on X in three minutes."  If your friend isn't willing to do this then they're not willing to have a serious discussion anyway.  Present your biblical theology of the issue with Jesus at the centre.  Now Jesus is your non-negotiable.  He is the vantage point from which you address the subject.  He is not in question - everything else is.  Even use language like "For the sake of argument, work with me on this.  I'm describing Christ's universe - He made all things, He came into the world to reconcile them etc etc...  Doesn't that explain perfectly what we find when it comes to X?'

What you don't want to do is say 'X is absolutely true.  Now please investigate Jesus and I hope you find that He fits the criteria already established by X.'  I find Karl Barth's warning on this particularly salient:

The great danger of apologetics is “the domesticating of revelation… the process of making the Gospel respectable. When the Gospel is offered to man, and he stretches out his hand to receive it and takes it into his hand, an acute danger arises which is greater than the danger that he may not understand it and angrily reject it. The danger is that he may accept it and peacefully and at once make himself its lord and possessor, thus rendering it inoccuous, making that which chooses him something which he himself has chosen, which therefore comes to stand as such alongside all the other things that he can also choose, and therefore control.” (II/1, p141)

More Barth quotes here.

Anyway I've got a few more things to say but I've rambled on too long.  Maybe a worked example or two would help.  Perhaps that's what I'll blog next.

But I'll leave it there for now.  What do you think?


Twitter widget by Rimon Habib - BuddyPress Expert Developer