Transformative Bible Reading

This post is not a cheap shot at the “please read your Bible more” brigade, but an exploration into the truly transformative effects the Bible brings to bear on an individual or community.  Furthermore, this is not about bibliolatry either!  When Thiselton, from whom much of what follows is derived, talks of Transformative Bible Reading, he is referring to the work of God in Christ by the Spirit at work via a proper hermeneutical use of the Bible.

P. T. Forsyth lamented, 110 years ago, about the “…the decay among our churches of the personal use of the Bible.”PeterTForsyth

And there is good reason for this.

Anthony Thiselton rightly talks of the “transforming effects of the Bible”:

“The Bible does not spoon feed us as if we were babies, but provokes us to do some adult thinking of our own.”  And this is why the Scriptures lead to transformation after God’s purposes.

And this is precisely why I think the Bible is a mere dusty heirloom in many homes, including some Christian homes.  I think we kind of intuitively know why, Martin Luther certainly did, “The Bible confronts us as our adversary, demanding response and transformation.”

So we know it is generationally neglected.  We know it is powerful and transformative.  We know it is God’s written Word-in-the-words-of-men to us.  Yet we are beguiled into taming it so that it accords with our own prior wishes, concerns and expectations.  And I am not alone in thinking a tamed Bible makes tame Christians.

A reason why the Bible is marginalized and attacked is suggested by Professor Anthony Thiselton, “The Bible can transform and enlarge our vision, so that we are no longer trapped within our own narcissistic selfhood or within our own limited tradition or limited community.”  In other words, God uses the Bible to shatter our illusions about pretty much everything, which explains in part why it is attacked, marginalised and mocked.  We human beings simply don’t like having our illusion bubble burst, but the Bible is the pin that pops it.  In Flowers that Never Bend, Paul Simon sings,

“Through the corridors of sleep past the shadows dark and deep

my mind dances and leaps in confusion.

I don’t know what is real, I can’t touch what I feel

and hide behind the shield of my illusion;

So I continue to continue to pretend

that my life will never end

and the flowers never bend with the rainfall.

In other words:  God will not allow us to “continue to pretend” forever!  The Bible forces us beyond ourselves/communities into a truer vision of reality:  GOD.  Thiselton again, “The social reality of our everyday life is structured in terms of relevancies.  Yet the truth of Romans 5:5 and God’s love being poured into our hearts “will constitute a new set of motives that redefine criteria of relevance for the believer.”

In other words:  God’s loves changes us by changing what we think is relevant in our everyday life.  Thiselton continues“The goal of transformation into the image of Christ is to see the world through the eyes and interests of God’s purposes for the world.”

God’s love poured out does not give us personal fuzzy feelings of religious vagueness, but rather it turns kittens into lions, and babies into adults, and people, like David, after God’s own heart – a dangerous thing indeed!

So no wonder we struggle with it.  We’re fallen, fallible and finite.  And within church should be the exact place where we hear this challenge.

We need to man-up and woman-up so that our kids grow-up truly transformatively Bible-savvy.

Lest we join those in Mark 7:13 who “…nullify the word of God…”

We nullify the Bible in so many ways.  Ludwig Wittgenstein says this is why struggle and judgment include “a battle against bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”ludwig

And it is this “language” of the text that, according to Thiselton, “delivers us from self-preoccupation or self-centeredness, as we open ourselves to what is “Other”, “beyond”, or to the voice of God.”  For when we are not “open” we prove our own “bewitchment of intelligence.” Another way to say we actually allow the bliss of ignorance to facilitate the theological-cognitive dissonance that maintains the social relevancy of our oh-so-busy everyday lives.

Yet the Bible is not an encyclopedia of information on all subjects, but “a source of transformation that then shapes readers in accord with God’s purposes for them”, for if it was merely an encyclopedia of information, devoid of a relational “I-Thou” reading, then the text becomes “merely a mirror of the self, which bounces back what the reader desires or expects to hear, [thus] it will hardly transform the reader” (Thiselton).  For me, this chimes with Forsyth who wrote in his outstanding 1907 book Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, the Bible is “…so much more than literature, because it is not merely powerful, it is power.  It is action, history; it is not mere narrative, comment, embellishment or dilution.  It makes history more than it is made by history….It is news to the world from foreign parts.”

post01-bonhoeffer-centuryBonhoeffer offers a superb analysis of how our nature interacts with relating with God through the Bible, “Either I determine the place in which I will find God, or I allow God to determine the place where he will be found.  If it is I who says where God will be, I will always find there a God who in some way corresponds to me, is agreeable to me, fits in with my nature.  But if it is God who says where he will be, then that will truly be a place which at first is not agreeable to me at all, which does not fit so well with me.  That place is the Cross of Christ.  And whoever will find God there must draw near to the Cross in the manner which the Sermon on the Mount requires.  This does not correspond to our nature at all.”

We are constantly in danger of reading the Bible as though prescribing medicines “in accordance with the patients whims” and this is to be first noticed or observed; then named and finally and decisively tackled in a deliberate intention towards what Bonhoeffer called “the cost of discipleship” which includes transformative Bible reading as a central aspect.  Forsyth again, “The theology of the Bible is but the moral adequacy and virility of the word of the Cross, and the thews of a powerful Gospel.”

It is the Divine promise that shapes both the nature of reality and how the present is to be understood.  T. S. Elliot may be right that “humankind cannot bear very much reality”, and this may explain the reason behind Forsyth’s lament that opened this post, and it also explains why the Bible is often maginalised within and attacked without the Church.  But if Thiselton, Bonhoeffer, Wittgenstein and Forsyth are right (and they are), God somehow uses faithful interpretive reading-in-relationship of Scripture so as to transform, save and renew.  It is dangerous; it is necessary and it is so very vital.

Dodman Cross

 

 

A Theological Colossus

A Theological Colossus

Peter Taylor Forsyth (1848-1921) is a theological colossus coming out of Scottish Congregationalism. I have heard him quoted and cited by T F Torrance, Alister McGrath and other luminaries (Gralefrit – ahem). He has been the most consistently abiding theological influence on my own life and thinking. I once knew a powerful visitation of God’s Spirit while studying The Holy Father.  True and amen.

PeterTForsythThis son of a postman, excelled at university graduating with first class honours when he was 21. Steeped in liberalism, he was ordained to the ministry at Shipley, Yorkshire in 1876. He had a fresh encounter with the grace of God in Christ in 1878 which renewed his mind, expanded his theology and gave him succour for his febrile state of health.

“It also pleased God by the revelation of his holiness and grace, which the great theologians taught me to find in the Bible, to bring home to me my sin in a way that submerged all the school (academic) questions in weight, urgency, and poignancy. I was turned from a Christian to a believer, from a lover of love to an object of grace. And so whereas I first thought that what the Churches needed was enlightened instruction and liberal theology, I came to be sure that what they intended was evangelization….” Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, pp192-193

He then became the principal of Hackney Theological College in Hampstead then back into parish ministry.

Forsyth holds together in a pastoral and prophetic synthesis, the rigors of academic theology, (The Person and Place of Jesus Christ), a deep love for the church (The Church and the Sacraments), the joy of prayer (The Soul of Prayer), preaching as sacramental as the traditional sacraments, a love of the arts (Christ on Parnassus) and a unifying vision of the Cross (The Work of Christ). He is relevant to every phase of ministry, every era of the age we live in and every teacher, preacher and pastor.

Here are some quotes that may be useful:

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Exegete of the Eternal

In yet another excellent sermon published in ‘Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History’ (ed. Jason Goroncy), P. T. Forsyth skillfully exposes, by force of logic, the poverty of ignorance in understanding Christian things in general, and specifically in this section of the sermon, Creeds in particular.  He calls these contemporary interpreters of Christian things people of “narrow mind” and “narrow soul”.

By contrast, the Christian teacher, the “preacher-scholar” is an “exegete of the eternal” and that includes history, culture and so on, but especially the scriptures and the creeds.  So many people, many of them Christians, are so quick to dismiss things they don’t understand, that (quoting Ernest Renan) he writes, “We begin examining before we have appropriated enough to fit us to examine.  Very few people have acquired the right to disbelieve in Christianity.”

People dismiss great historic institutions like the creeds out of ignorance and even novelty for things that are new (as is supposed).  But, argues Forsyth, “Our creeds are at once old and new.  It is not abolition the need but reinterpretation.  Many people don’t bother to understand, arguing instead for such deceptively slippery concepts as the “simple directness” of plain speaking, as though it were the only “mode of spiritual expression.”  He writes, “Plainness of speech is not worth the price if it costs squatness of thought and baldness of vision.”

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The Belly-god

bb-header-logo4The funny guys over at Babylon Bee have hit on a Forsythian nerve of mine.  The headline ‘Half of Congregation Dies Of Starvation As Sermon Goes 15 Minutes Over Time‘ is brilliant satire, as are almost all of their other articles; a much welcome relief to the tedium of seriousness we Protestants can so easily find ourselves caught up in.

My first thought upon reading it was to think that the people in this satirical church were dying of starvation precisely because too many sermons are woeful in their duration, content and depth;  and secondly, remembering two theological giants famous for, among many other things, their preaching.

The first, John Stott, metaphorically places the nail underneath the hammer:

John_stott“Basically, it is not the length of a sermon which makes the congregation impatient for it to stop, but the tedium of a sermon in which even the preacher himself appears to be taking very little interest.”

And secondly, in the context of a favourite of mine, the theological giant that is P. T. Forsyth, I remembered his particularly penetrating and thoroughly uncompromising assessment of the situation, as the metaphorical hammer comes down and hits the nail on the head with astonishing accuracy:

blueforsyth-5“With its preaching Christianity stands or falls… The demand for short sermons on the part of Christian people is one of the most fatal influences to destroy preaching in the true sense of the word… Brevity may be the soul of wit, but the preacher is not a wit.  And those who say they want little sermons because they are happy to worship God and not hear man, have not grasped the rudiments of the first idea of Christian worship…. A Christianity of short sermons is a Christianity of short fibre.”

The problem is that we think we’ve cornered the market on short-attention spans, so trapped in a lifestyle that we’ve chosen of instant news feeds, permanent social media harassment, portable offices that beep, flash and ping every few seconds – we call these things “mobile phones”, we must be so important in the cosmic scheme of things, that we choose not to think deeply about a lot of things, we demand to be entertained; and when we are called to think, we think thinking is time-wasting and unproductive!  I mean, doesn’t that pillock-in-the-pulpit know how distracted I am?

pt5bn7qtbIs the preacher the equivalent to the Medieval Court Jester?  Singing the sermon-songs that seek attention and promise entertaining aka Robbie Williams?  Who wouldn’t prefer Raunchy Robbie to Preachy Richy?  What chance do I have?  Let me entertain you; must I entertain you?  Do you need entertaining?  Why do you need entertaining?  Why me?  Why you?  Why here?  Why now?  Why?

Manure!  These guys, Forsyth and Stott and gazzillions of other unnamed faithful, preached at length twice on Sundays, with many people being present at both, as well as mid-week meetings that actually included exegetical study and exposition of the biblical text (admittedly the TV wasn’t so good back then), but still!

Now, may I get a little theological here?  If Stott’s comment is the reason for Forsyth’s comment (even though Stott was a generation after Forsyth – stay with me), then my goodness, preach a short sermon and get it over with – put us all out of our bored and hunger fuelled misery.  Forsyth also said that a bad short sermon is also a sermon that is too long.

Just preach well preachers.

Just eat well before church if you can.  Even our belly-god knows when our spirit is being fed and our hearts warmed by the food that is Christ proclaimed.  For we do not live on bread alone…..

Mushy Squishy Touchy Feely

In two separate articles by two different theologians, separated by continents (America and Europe), and 100 years, I read the budding frustration of what was happening within Sunday School education, followed by the flowering of the present state of adult education in the Western church today.

P. T. Forsyth was suspicious of the effeminate in contemporary religion in his day.  The same charge has been levelled at the church today: a place for women, children and the deluded.  I’ve heard that said with my own ears.

In an address to the Sunday School Union in 1900, Forsyth set his sights on the shapelessness of what passed for Sunday School teaching:

PTForsyth“The Sunday School is too much left to well-meaning and hard-working people, who, with all their earnestness, have no experience of controlling others, and no sense or power of discipline.  The teachers are . . . . gentle and fear to hurt feelings; or they are too tender about ejecting black sheep . . . . They have young ideas about what Christian love means.  They are too anxious to be loved and not enough concerned to be obeyed . . . . I am afraid that many teachers have more interest in the affections of their scholars than in their souls.”

P. T. Forsyth ‘As Congregational Minister’ by Clyde Binfield in ‘Justice the True and Only Mercy,’ pg. 172-3

Admittedly, some of his language needs qualifying today.  I would want to rephrase notions of control and discipline; ‘ejecting black sheep’ is a little mysterious; and finally what would mean to obey in this context?    I am not afraid of these notions, just that my 21st century conditioning requires that of me, as any misreading/misapplication of this could quite easily slip into authoritarianism.  The thrust of Forsyth’s comment is about right, and continues to be about right for today.

What Forsyth bemoans in the bud, Michael Hardin bemoans in the flowering.  For if Forsyth was right (and he was), the inevitable consequence will be what Hardin observes in today’s church:

In his ‘What The Facebook’ (pg. 65-66) he writes,

WTF“…I have met thousands of Christians and have been in countless churches.  Sadly, most of those I have met do not know their Bibles….How can we encourage Christians today to take the Bible seriously enough to pay attention to its narrative flow, to its novelistic detail, to its story or plot line? . . . . .

. . . .We desperately need more and better Bible education in the churches.  Adult Sunday School classes in so many churches teach little more than pabulum.  There is no real thinking going on or engagement with the actual text of Scripture.  Often education in the church has become a mushy squishy touchy feely “what do you think?” as though the pooling of ignorance is beneficial.  It is time for the rest of Christianity to knuckle down and for everyone to learn how to read Scripture, to learn its story and reap its benefits.  If we don’t get serious about our biblical literacy we might as well cede the Bible to the Fundamentalists and that is something I will never do.  Will you join me?”

Obviously there are exceptions here and there.  These comments are macro-observations by two sharp cultural critics who have a high value on theological and biblical literacy.

 

 

SUN

‘Let your light shine’

A Devonshire Summers day

 

They Never Will Care

They Never Will Care

PeterTForsythA student (of Forsyth) was sent to preach in a comfortable suburban chapel, and whose route. . . . took him through one of the worst slums in London.

“The sight of barefoot children in sordid alleyways, and all the other signs of deprivation, incensed him to an anger which he could not contain as he faced his furred and feathered congregation from the pulpit.

Waxing eloquent on social justice he recalled to his hearers what he had seen, and being met with a sea of complacent faces he blurted out:  ‘You don’t care, do you?  Damn you!’

Next morning, he found himself . . . . in Principal Forsyth’s study.  Forsyth was holding in his hand a letter of complaint from the church officers, and for several minutes the student was subjected to a stern lecture on proper pulpit behaviour.

Eventually dismissed, the hapless young prophet was just going through the door when Forsyth called out to him:  ‘Oh, just one word more, Mr …..  They never will care, you know – damn them!'”

Keith Clements, P. T. Forsyth: A Political Theologian? in Justice and the Only Mercy, Trevor Hart, pg. 146-7

PTForsyth.jpg

Theodicy: The problem of evil – for beginners

Theodicy: The problem of evil – for beginners

Below are four excellent introductory pictoral videos that introduce the problem of theodicy, and how we can begin to think about it theologically.

No doubt we’ve all heard people say, (rather dismissively as though this is their lifetime study project):  “I don’t believe in God because of all the evil and suffering in the world!”

Heard it all before mate!  If I had a £1 for every time I’d heard this!  As though it’s the Ace in the pack!  “Oh, yep, you got me!  I’m just another delusional Christian living in denial of the evidence!”

As if the absense of evil and suffering would create humble worshippers in their millions!  Hardly.

‘The odd I see’ all around me is the evidence of evil everywhere, not least that which originates in me.  The-od-i-cy or ‘theodicy’ is the way in which theologians have engaged with all this ‘odd’ as they sought to integrate a comprehensive Christian worldview.  To not engage is to not theologise.  Disengagement creates a feeble Christianity that ‘won’t go there’, when Christian theology insists:  Go there you must; there are no off-limits, no out-of-bounds, no secrets, no dirty laundry, no skeletons in the closet of Christian Theology.

P. T. Forsyth’s theodicy is masterful and you can read a brilliant introductory series to it here  or read a comprehensive treatment of it here.

As an aside, though not at all unconnected, in Forsyth’s 1896 book ‘The Charter of the Church’, he writes,

“Culture, aesthetic or even religious, is now the most deadly and subtle enemy of spiritual freedom.  It is the growth of culture in the decay of Gospel that the soul’s freedom has increasingly to dread.  It is there that our Noncomformity is in most danger of being untrue to itself and its mission.  We are suffering.  But it is less from grievance now than from success.  We share a prosperity which is passing through variety of interest, refinement of taste, aesthetic emotion, tender pity, kindly careless catholicity, and over-sweet reasonableness, to leanness of soul.  It is more at home in literature than in Scripture, and in journals more than either.  And it tends to substitute charity and its sympathies for grace and its faith.”

(pg. v-vi)

Here, Forsyth likens suffering as it relates to Christian faith with not suffering, as we would typically understand it.  It is a strange irony that human prosperity inevitably leads to a “leanness of soul”that proves quite deadly to actual biblical faith.  Elsewhere, in Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, he states with his usual eloquent genius, “[Another] vice of the Christian hour is spiritual self-satisfaction, well-to-do-ness, comfort.  The voice of the turtle is heard in the land.”

The Bible is ultra-realistic, even brutal in not allowing humanity to escape to our man-made utopian fantasies of a pain-free future.  This seems to me to prove the point:  Sin is unreality.  The Bible will not let us get away with sloppy thinking or cheap living.  In this way, God uses suffering to force us to face evil and suffering’s reality in Him.

Anyway, I suspect this one subject alone is the greatest need of our time, and possibly the most misunderstood and not-understood.

  1. Evangelism without a working paradigm of theodicy will be just ‘ism’ without the evangel;
  2. Mission that does not articulate theodicy will be superficial;
  3. Preaching that doesn’t begin to adumbrate theodicy is going to be a pleasant time of jokes and story telling that will be forgotten by the time the lukewarm coffee is served;
  4. And ministry that does not address theodicy in the lives of all people will likely lead to a sentimental avoidance of all things nasty (i.e. the stuff we don’t talk about in polite society), in thought, word and deed, a theological dissonance of sophomoric proportions!

People will suffer, and unjustly at that, so it is the task of a robust theodicy to speak into this great big gaping abyss.  For it was of course, into the great big gaping abyss of human sin and rebellion that the Son of God did hang on a tree until all of humanity had been reconciled to him.  Our salvation is the way of suffering.  “Picking up your cross” is not the same as picking up your socks!

These four excellent videos will introduce you to this complex discussion.  They are the creations of a superb educator, and you can visit his YouTube channel here.