About Me

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Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Thursday, 26 March 2009

On the theological importance of clear grammar in songs

So there I was last Sunday singing a song that I like very much ('Hallalujah' by Brenton Brown) when I was struck by a couple of the lines in verse 2.
Your love is surprising, I can feel it rising
All the joy that's growing deep inside of me

What is the 'it' in the clause, 'I can feel it rising'?

Is it
(a) God's love? or
(b) the 'joy that's growing deep inside of me'? or
(c) is the joy inside me God's love and so 'it' refers to both of them?

The most natural reading of the song is (a) although, as we shall see, (a) might easily be taken to imply (c). (b) is not impossible though somewhat unnatural.

Does it matter? Well, it does a bit. Here's why. I think that (a) is very unclear. What would it mean for God's love to rise within me? The most natural meaning is to take it with the following line and identify the rising love of God with the growing joy (i.e., to embrace view (c)). and (c) come very close to unintentional idolatry. Someone certainly would be on highly questionable ground if they thought about what they were singing and affirmed (c).

God cannot be identified (in a strong sense) with any part of his creation. God's love might inspire deep joy to rise within me but it is not identical with that joy. God's love is not a fuzzy feeling that I have. To speak of God's love is to speak about God not about my emotions.

Now religious language is not always super-precise and one could construe view (c) as a loose way of saying, 'Your love surprises me and causes joy to rise deep within me'. Indeed, I am pretty sure that Brenton Brown intended to say that I am am pretty sure that most who sing the song would translate it that way without even thinking about it. So there is not much harm done.

But it would be great if songwriters - who do have plenty of time to craft their songs before releasing them to the public - thought even more carefully about theology and potential misreadings of their lyrics.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Frankenstein's Bible: a little rant!

My wife is currently reading through a 'chronological Bible' (click here for details).

The basic idea is to reorganize all the material into its supposed chronological order so that you can read it from start to finish ... in chronological order. The strapline is "through the Bible as it happened" (Urm ... I don't think so!)

It must have been a monumental amount of work - a real labour of love for those who did it - and it has been very beautifully produced.

First let me say that I do not think that this reorganized Bible is utterly without merit. I do see plus points.

That said, I must say that I really, really do not like it. This for several reasons.

First off, the project is an impossible one anyway. What do you do with all the material that we cannot place into a biblical timeline with any accuracy? (e.g., Joel). Once you are committed to a strictly chronological ordering you have to find it a home in the timeline but we simply are not sure where to put it.

Q - what about a book like Isaiah which has a very complex relationship to the Bible's timeline. Parts of it are easily placed into the 'as it happened' order but other parts are simply impossible to locate with any surity. Plus, if scholars are right, the book of Isaiah was composed over quite a long period and would require scattering across a wide chunk of the narrative material. But by chopping it up in this way you lose the book of Isaiah - the literary whole in which the parts relate to each other in ways critical for interpretation.

Q - What do you do with material that scholarship distances from traditional views of authorship? E.g., Proverbs was not written by Solomon.
A = you ignore scholarship and place, for instance, Proverbs in the middle of the Solomon story.

What about fictional material such as Job that is set outside the biblical plotline? A = you stick it after Genesis 11 (thereby breaking the critical narrative flow from Gen 11 to Gen 12).

There are all sorts of other odd-ball moves. For instance, critical to the structure of Deuteronomy are the parts near the start where Moses recalls for the people of Israel all the things which God did for them when leading them out of Egypt years earlier. All these historical remeberances are relocated back in time and inserted into the accounts in Exodus and Numbers. In doing this the Deuteronomic accounts lose their critical nature as retrospectives delievered to the nation on the edge of the Promised Land (i.e., they are set later in the plot so moving them earlier messes up the 'as it happened' aim) and Deuteronomy looses its critical historical preamble.

The four gospels cease to exist but are simply merged into one giant, obese and repetative gospel that does not have canonical authority for the church. As any first year Theology student will tell you, whilst there is indeed merit in comparing the gospel accounts (perhaps in parallel columns), it is critical that we see them as distinct literary wholes.

I could rant on and on but I will spare you.

To me this Bible is like a Frankenstein's monster made by chopping up and then stitching together different body parts to create a new life - a life which, whilst composed of beautiful parts, looks hideous as a whole.

Conclusion: this Bible is even worse than The Amplified Bible!

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Human Freedom is not of ultimate importance

All Christians believe in human freedom and maintain that human freedom is important.

But, of course, we do not all agree on what 'freedom' is. Typically Calvinists, for instance, would maintain that freedom is the 'freedom to do what we want to do'. But this minimalist view of freedom is compatible with determinism. Consequently the view is often referred to as the compatibilist view of freedom.

For Arminians this is not good enough. They would agree with Calvinists that a free human action is one in which a human is permitted to act as he or she wishes. But, that is not enough. For an action to be free it must also the the case that the actor could have done other than what they did. This view is often referred to as the Libertarian notion of freedom.

Well, the philosophy of all this is very complex and I do not wish to defend one of the notions over against the other.

My point is simply this: libertarian freedom is not of ultimate importance.

What slightly perplexes me is the centrality that libertarian notions of human freedom have in some Christian theologies. No doubt this is something to do with the influence of the Enlightenment and a stress on the importance of individual choice in western worldviews. But on some theologies you'd think that the most important thing in the universe is that God preserve human libertarian freedom at all costs. God even allows humans to hold his cosmic purposes to ransom in order to preserve their freedom. After all, the only alternative is to compell people to love him but that would not be love, right? We'd just be robots. Right?

All this leaves me feeling rather cold. Don't get me wrong. It may well be that libertarianism has something very important to add to our understanding of freedom. It may be that it really does matter that our freedom is, for a while at least, not fully determined. Perhaps, for instance, our notions of moral responsibility require it (whether they do is a moot point).

But should we make it the heart of our theologies?

On the one hand we end up placing more blame on ourselves for bad things that happen. All the bad stuff is the result of human free choices. Really? Is it all Adam's fault? Earthquakes? Disease? Granted a lot of bad stuff is the result of human free choices but you cannot blame the whole shebang on what we choose.

On the other hand we can end up taking more credit for our good choices than we should. We can even slip into thinking that God does his bit in sending Jesus to die and we do our bit by choosing to follow Christ. But even our good choices are, in biblical terms, choices enabled by God.

I think St Paul may be a little perplexed by all our talk about the centrality of freedom. In Paul's thinking those outside of Christ are slaves to sin and are not free at all. They cannot choose to please God. Freedom is found in Christ but even this freedom is freedom to obey God not the freedom to do as we wish. Choosing to sin is not, in Paul's thinking, freedom.

And I must confess that a deep Calvinistic instinct inside of me blanches at the thought that God would allow human libertarian choices to stop creation reaching the goal that God intends for it. I simply cannot believe that God would be reckless enough to grant that much power to humans. I genuinely find the thought horrifying (and I don't even think of myself as a Calvinist).

And I say all this even if God did give us libertarian freedom. I simply cannot see that this kind of freedom is of such ultimate importance that God would preserve it at the cost of the world going to Hell in a handbasket. And, strictly speaking, I do not see how on strong versions of freewill theism God can guarantee the salvation of even one person. Sure he works tirelessly to achieve the salvation of people but he will never override someone's freedom. So there are no guarantees. In theory it would be possible for Jesus to die for the world and yet not a single person ever finds salvation.

I know that this will offend a lot of people but I simply register my belief that for God to behave in this way would be grossly irresponsible. I am convinced that whether we have libertarian freedom or not, one way way or t'other God will get his will done. Human freedom will not thwart God's purposes.

Friday, 20 March 2009

A Sacrament of De-Baptism?

So I was listening to Radio 2 at lunch time and there was this chap called John Hunt who is seeking to get the Parish church at which he was baptized as a baby to remove reference to his baptism from the parish records.

Mr Hunt has become the pioneer in a rejuvenated campaign for a way of cancelling baptisms given to children too young to decide for themselves whether they wanted this formal initiation into Christianity.

The local Anglican diocese, Southwark, refused to amend the baptismal roll as Mr Hunt had wanted, on the grounds that it was a historical record.

"You can't remove from the record something that actually happened," said the Bishop of Croydon, the Right Reverend Nick Baines.

Well, I am a credo-baptist so I don't advocate the baby baptism thing anyway. Obviously I have some sympathy with Mr Hunt.

And yet ...

And yet I cannot help but think that this is getting hung up about nothing. The Bishop is right - this is an historical record and should not be removed. When someone gets divorced we do not remove all record that they were married.

What exactly does John Hunt think the record of his baptism in the parish records signifies? That he is really a Christian even though he is an atheist? I don't think many Anglicans would seem him as a Christian.

Mr Hunt has his own certificate of de-baptism. OK - I don't mind that if it makes him feel better, but surely that is enough. That is the baptismal equivalent of a certificate of divorce.

And I think that I would even support the case for Parish records to be updated to record that so-and-so has been de-baptised (or some unobjectionable way of saying something like this). But striking out the original record is just pointless.

Which makes me suspect that this is actually just another of those tiresome publicity stunts of secular humanists that seem to crop up not infrequently whose aim is to give profile to their cause.

The feeling that I got was that what Mr Healy and co. were really after was a ban on infant baptism (on the grounds that it violates the human rights of babies). Now I am theologically uncomfortable with infant baptism but if I am right about the real end game then they are nuts!

The problem with some secular humanists is that they are simply not liberal enough or tolerant enough. (In this they have something in common with a fair few Christians)

I tentatively suggest that the best way to combat the intolerant politics of secular humanism is to provide a good Christian defence of Liberal Democracy.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

I am John Wesley

I have just taken a quiz on facebook which is said to be scarily accurate. It asks you lots of questions and then tells you which famous theologian you are.

I am John Wesley

I do love John Wesley but I think it is a big stretch to suggest that my theology is a lot like his. After all, I am not an Arminian and that was kind of important to old Johnny W. I believe, unlike Wesley, in things like unconditional election and irresistable grace. I always imagined that I was a bit more like Calvin (although not that much like him either).

Oh well - Wesley it is.

That said, I am flattered to be compared to a Christian theologian that fabulous. It is he who is diminished by association with me, not vice versa.

Friday, 13 March 2009

A Revelation about the Earth at the Centre of the Universe

I have just been reading Peter S. Williams' new book A Sceptic's Guide to Atheism (due out immanently).

In it he takes the arguments of 'The New Atheists' to pieces. Anyway, I have just come across an interesting fact that I never knew before. I just had to share it (but I bet you all knew it anyway)

One common (and very poor) argument against the Bible is that the Bible sees humanity as central in God's purposes but that since Copernicus the earth has been demonted from the centre to the margins of the universe. Now, of course, it does not take much brain power to work out that this is a weak argument. Nevertheless, I have now discovered something new (to me) and interesting about the Ptolemaic view of the universe which was dominant before Copernicus.

The abovementioned naff argument about the demotion of earth is prediacted upon the idea that the Ptolemaic view placed the earth in a very prestigeous position (and Copernicus moved it from that central location). Not so!

The Ptolemaic view saw the earth (not flat, by the way, but spherical. The idea that people before Columbus used to think the world was flat is pure myth) at the centre encased in spheres within speheres (like a Russian doll). The planets and stars were on these speheres.

OK - so the idea is that the earth is at the centre. But, and this is what had never occurred to me before, we are mistaken to think that this was perceived as an especially noble location. For the medieval Christian the very centre was in fact Hell (contained within the sphere of the earth). Does that mean that they thought that Hell was the centre of God's purposes? One hopes not! And the most exaulted parts of the universe were, in fact, the heavens on the periphery.

Our error is that we have assumed that to be at the celestial centre was perceived as being in the best place.

The irony of this is that Galileo argued that the Copernican revolution promoted humanity by relocating the earth to the heavens like the stars.

How interesting is that !!!!

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Test of Faith (trailer)

This is an excellent new resource for a course on science and Christian faith aimed at small groups. It will be released on 3rd July 2009.

It includes
1. The DVD (here is a trailer for it)
2. A Study Guide
3. A Leader's Guide
4. A book

Sunday, 8 March 2009

A Quick Thought on Spatial Metaphors for Heaven

We are used to thinking of 'heaven' (i.e., God's space) as 'up'. That is certainly an important spatial metaphor used in the Bible and the tradition.

I am interested in work by various biblical scholars that has shown that the temple in ancient Israel was seen as a microcosm of the created order. The temple, so biblical scholars tell us, was creation-in-miniature. In this model the central part of the temple - the most holy place - represented the heavenly realms.

What is interesting is that the spatial image here is not of the heavens 'above' but as the heavens 'within' - the spiritual depth dimensions of creation. The hearts of the world.

I'm not suggesting that heaven is 'within' rather than 'above'. I'm suggesting that both metaphors are helpful and the presence of both warns us not to take the language over-literally.

The image of heaven as 'the depth dimensions of creation' is an interesting and suggestive way of thinking of the heavenly realms.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Whilst we're having a dig at Calvin ... check this debate out

I really do like Calvin but I am enjoying the following debate over Calvinism in an online review of Randal Rauser's book Finding God in the Shack.

Rauser is critical of Calvinism in his book and some Calvinists have taken strong exception to that (understandably). So here is one of them critiquing Rauser and then Rauser's reply (with a bit of heady too and fro). All very stimulating.


For the record: in my view Rauser has not misunderstood Calvinism at all. His critique is spot on.

Should we thus abandon Calvinism? No, but, in my opinion, it does need some reworking.

Wisdom from Calvin (plus a cop out?)

Here is a great theological exposition of Lamentations 3:33 from John Calvin. But it is hard not to think that he cops out at the end.

Lam 3:33. "For he [Yhwh] does not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men."

'This is another confirmation of the same truth, that God takes no delight in the evils or miseries of men. It is indeed a strong mode of speaking which the Prophet [Jeremiah] adopts, but very suitable. God, we know, puts on, as it were, our form or manner, for he cannot be comprehended in his inconceivable glory by human minds. Hence it is that he transfers to himself what properly can only apply to men. God surely never acts unwillingly nor feignedly: how then is that suitable which Jeremiah declares, – that God does not afflict from his heart?

But God, as already said, does here assume the character of man; for though he afflicts us with sorrow as he pleases, yet true it is that he delights not in the miseries of men; for if a father desires to benefit his own children, and deals kindly with them, what ought we to think of our heavenly Father? ‘Ye’, says Christ, ‘who are evil, know how to do good to your children,’ (Matt 7:11). What then are we to expect from the very fountain of goodness? As, then, parents are not willingly angry with their children, nor handle them roughly, there is no doubt but that God never punishes men except when he is constrained.

There is, as I have said, an impropriety in the expression, but it is enough to know, that God derives no pleasure from the miseries of men, as profane men say, who utter such blasphemies as these, that we are like balls with which God plays, and that we are exposed to many evils, because God wishes to have as it were, a pleasant and delectable spectacle in looking on the innumerable afflictions, and at length on the death of men.

That such thoughts, then, might not tempt us to unbelief, the Prophet here puts a check on us, and declares that God does not afflict from his heart, that is, willingly, as though he delighted in the evils of men, as a judge, who, when he ascends his throne and condemns the guilty to death, does not do this from his heart, because he wishes all to be innocent, and thus to have a reason for acquitting them; but yet he willingly condemns the guilty, because this is his duty. So also God, when he adopts severity towards men, he indeed does so willingly, because he is the judge of the world; but he does not do so from the heart, because he wishes all to be innocent – for far away from him is all fierceness and cruelty; and as he regards men with paternal love, so also he would have them to be saved, were they not as it were by force to drive him to rigour.

And this feeling he also expresses in Isaiah, ‘Ah! I will take consolation from mine adversaries’ (Isa 1:24). He calls them adversaries who so often provoked him by their obstinacy; yet he was led unwillingly to punish their sins, and hence he employed a particle expressive of grief, and exclaimed ‘Ah!’ as a father who wishes his son to be innocent, and yet is compelled to be severe with him.

Fabulous stuff! Three cheers for Calvin (again!). But then comes the possible cop out

But however true this doctrine may be, taken generally, there is yet no doubt but that the Prophet here addresses only the faithful; and doubtless this privilege peculiarly belongs to God’s children, as it has been shown before.

Sure - the text is addressed to Israel (not sure how faithful they were but they were elect) but does it follow from that that this privilage only belongs to God's children? Calvin was applying his points universally as general claims about God's way with humanity and then he suddenly pulls the rug from under his own feet. Apparently God does not punish the faithful for fun but it turns out that he might punish the unfaithful for pleasure.

I hope that Calvin is wrong. Actually that's a lie. I'm sure that he's wrong. But I love him still!

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

New Book on Worship due out very soon

There are various tensions in Christian worship and, rather than opting for a balanced approach or a one-sided approach, Philip Greenslade recommends that Christians learn to embrace both extremes of each polarity.

1. Worship is about glorifying God by enjoying him. So it is about pleasing God and self.
2. Worship is world affirming (with a positive view of creation) and world denying (confronting fallen political powers).
3. Worship is charismatic and liturgical.
4. Worship is a transforming intimacy and an engagement with transcendent majesty.
5. Worship is both prophetic praise and realistic lament.
Worship remembers the past and anticipates the future.
6. Worship embraces spontaneous, instinctive cries and a learned language.
7. Worship is Trinitarian and Christ-centred.

It is by worshipping at the extremes that we can experience deeper riches in our knowledge of God.

‘In this hugely important book, Philip Greenslade offers us a paradoxical vision of worship that both liturgical and spontaneous; tearful and festive; reverent and intimate. It is a great riposte to so much ‘middle-of-the-road’ Christianity.’
Ian Stackhouse, Senior Pastor, Guildford Baptist Church, UK

‘Here is a biblical vision of worship as God-centered, passionate, intimate, world-shaping, explosive, politically subversive, brutally honest, prophetic, Spirit-led and yet rooted in tradition. If this does not inspire you to worship then you may be dead!’
Robin Parry, author of Worshipping Trinity

‘In this highly readable book Philip Greenslade has convincingly demonstrated that integrated worship is not an option but a necessity. I highly recommend it to pastors and church leaders.’
Simon Chan, Earnest Lau Professor of Systematic Theology, Trinity Theological College, Singapore

‘This is an erudite guide to a new (and yet perhaps old) way of thinking about how we do church.’
Ron Man, Worship Resources International

‘A timely and important challenge to the contemporary church to recognise the limitations of polarised, one-dimensional worship.’
David Peacock, Head of Music & Worship Department, London School of Theology

Philip Greenslade has been a full time lecturer and tutor with CWR since 1991 and is the general editor of the Cover to Cover Bible study notes.

Farmer in the Dell

Monday, 2 March 2009

Euthanasia - a heretical thought

I am very cautious about attempts to legalize euthanasia. I am well aware of all the practical problems with doing so. However, I have never found a convincing argument to the effect that Christians should believe that euthanasia is always wrong in principle.

Why is it? No, honest - why?

The almost universal answer that I get from Christians is that only God has the right to take life. Now there is a good instinct in that claim but what interests me is that most of those who tell me this think that in some situations it is permitted to take a life (perhaps in war, perhaps in capital punishment). So most of these sincere Christians believe that sometimes it is permitted by God that human life is taken by humans.

Once one has crossed that line then it becomes a lot less clear to say that mercy killing is never permitted by God. Never? In fact, I do not find it at all hard to think that in principle God might use euthanasia in some circumstances to mercifully take a life. To me that has always seemed reasonable.

I'm not sure that I could ever do it. My instincts would be very much against it but I would not rule out a priori that it might be the right thing, indeed the holy thing to do in a particular situation.

So shoot me!

Cow Funeral