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On the regulative principle of worship

I was asked the following question on curious cat, but I was told my reply was too long, so here it is:

How do you make sense of the Regulative Principle of worship, a position so counter-intuitive that at its extremes it begets incoherence? Especially given that the churches to which you’ve belonged will have practiced this principle differently?

The regulative principle of worship (RPW) is one of the things I was most unsure of in my move towards Presbyterianism, but I’ve grown to appreciate, even if I have lots to learn about it. For clarity, I understand the principle to be that in corporate worship we may only worship God in ways that he has told us to worship him in Scripture. I would start by questioning whether the RPW is as unintuitive as you suggest. If God is as the Bible describes him (holy) then it makes sense that we could not make up our own ways to worship him.

1. However the very point of the RPW is that we need Scripture to guide us in corporate worship. So what does Scripture say?

– Immediately after the fall, the first issue we encounter is the question of how to worship God rightly. Cain thought he could bring any old animal from his flock to worship God with. But he was wrong. Undoubtedly there is a heart issue here too but as so often, heart issues make themselves known in formal ways.

– Under the law the principle is made clear in the second commandment and spelled out in great detail in the various ceremonial laws. Not only is God alone to be worshipped (1st C) but he is to be worshipped in the way that he chooses: not through idols, but (implicitly) as set out in his word (2nd C). The case of Nadib and Abihu, consecrated priests of God, offering ‘strange fire’ is the classic example. No idolatry, but an offering made to God in a way that he had not commanded.

– Under the gospel we worship God ‘in Spirit and in truth’. Although there is a characteristic NT emphasis on our heart, it’s not clear to me that this means that the forms no longer matter. Paul teaches that ‘when we come together’ special rules apply. We meet on the first day of the week. We remember that God is still a consuming fire, even if, as during much of the OT period, God does not immediately consume the false worshipper! We have a high priest who has gone through the heavens, so that part of our worship is accomplished by faith in him, but we still offer God a ‘sacrifice of praise’. I don’t know Hebrews very well, but it seems that a good deal of what it is doing is showing that it is inappropriate to continue with OT ceremonies under the New Covenant. The argument is not that forms are irrelevant, but that the forms of New Covenant worship are now simpler, because of the atoning sacrifice of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Historically, this is exactly what has happened: the important breaks with the RPW have been attempts to supplement the simplicity of gospel worship with a variety of Old Covenant style sensory spectacles.

2. I’ll add two broader arguments that I find persuasive:

– worship is faith expressed. Just as the church has no right to create dogmas that are not in the Bible, so too the church has no right to create additional ways of worshipping God that are not in the Bible. E.g. mandating fasting during lent

– the RPW is freeing. Without the RPW the worshipper is at the mercy of the church authorities who can impose whatever forms they like, as long as they are not contradicting the word of God. History shows that all manner of things can flourish in these circumstances. Remembering that our hearts are idol-factories, the RPW frees us from many sinful inventions.

3. Qualifications

– none of this means it is easy to move from Scripture to public worship without serious thought and learning from other Christians who have gone before us. It’s not just about proof-texting.

– none of this means that traditional ways of worship have no authority.

– none of this guarantees that our worship is acceptable. It is a brake not a barrier.

– none of this means that there isn’t some responsibility on the church to order our corporate worship. But they should not involve new ways of worship.

Of course, there is much debate about what a ‘way’ is. But that’s a discussion we want to have, because the principle is a good one, I think. Perhaps you want to elaborate on how you see it producing incoherance?

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On narrative preaching

I’ve been asked to preach a narrative sermon as part of my ministry training course, and that brought to mind some reflections on narrative preaching that I wanted to share here and invite feedback on.

There are brothers who, desiring to be Biblical and to reflect the nature of God’s revelation, have been led to preach the parables as provocative stories, leaving their hearers to work out what is meant. After all, that’s what Jesus did. Reveal too much too soon, the theory goes, and the point of the parable is lost.

Granted, much of the Bible is narrative; stories are a powerful way of communicating; and good sermons often reflect these truths, taking people on a journey and retelling stories. But even though Jesus preached in parables, I try not to.

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For a start, I’m not sure that any of the apostles in the rest of the New Testament tell any uninterpreted parables. Let me know if they do. But assuming they don’t, why doesn’t Paul for example preach the same way Jesus does? Because he’s distorting the pure message of Jesus into his theological framework? Because he’s contextualising the teaching of the Messiah to philosophically-minded Greeks and barbarians? I think not. It’s because he’s operating in a different salvation-historical context.

Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us that Jesus taught in parables as a way of enacting the judgement of Isaiah 6, that “seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand” (Luke 8.10 // Matt 13.14, Mark 4.12). As I understand it, Jesus used parables deliberately to conceal the truth, at least at first glance, from those “outside”. But those on the inside are enabled to interpret the parables, because they are given the “secret of the kingdom of God” (Mark 4.11).

When you have the secret, everything is no longer in parables.

Now consider that the word “secret” is the same word that is translated “mystery” in many English versions of Paul’s letters. The mystery hidden from the ages in God but now made known. The mystery that is Christ. The mystery of the gospel. The apostles don’t teach in parables because Christ is now risen in glory and the Spirit has been poured out on the church. Now they set forth the mystery of the gospel plainly, as they ought (Col 4.4). To speak in parables without interpreting them would be put salvation-history into reverse gear and pretend that Christ had not been raised.

Even when we are preaching on the parables in the Gospels, we need to recognise that we are not in the same salvation-historical place as Jesus’ first hearers. The parables are part of books that aim to present the “gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1.1). In the Four Gospels the Holy Spirit reveals plainly the mystery of Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, great David’s greater Son. Parabolic preaching that is not using the secret of the kingdom as an interpretative key is not actually faithful to the inspired text or the one who inspired it.

The same reasoning could perhaps apply a fortiori to the puzzling parts of the rest of the Bible. If Jesus’ own teaching needs to be interpreted in light of the mystery of the gospel to make sense, then how much more does the Old Testament? (Irenaeus and Luther make this point, I think.)

So, narrative preaching – maybe, but parables floating free of the proclamation of the gospel? No.

 

Reflections on episode one of ‘the Secret’

We watched the first episode of ‘The Secret’ last night. It dramatises a true story, about an adulterous affair and its disastrous consequences, that took place over a decade or so in Coleraine, a town on the north coast of Ireland.

The events being so close to home, there has been some controversy about whether it is a story that should be told at all. But it feels a lot like the story of David and Bathsheba, and, taken in that light, it is well worth watching. It is excruciating, partly because it is so close to home.

Our villain is first seen leading the singing in his (Baptist) church as the flock hold their Bibles aloft. Later on he takes the Sunday school away for a day trip in a mini-bus. He reads his Bible. He prays. He seduces, if you like, coram Deo.

So a cautionary tale, that has me fleeing sexual immorality.

But a tale that, thankfully, is not totally close to home. There is something very human about the way religion is portrayed in ‘the Secret’. The singing is happy but trite. Our villain receives slaps on the back from the congregation as he returns to his seat. The theme of the pastor’s sermon is ‘the (Baptist) church’. Our man knows his Bible inside out, and quotes it impressively in the Bible study. When prayer appears, it is not the ‘fruit of lips that confess his name’ but a fierce discipline, a punishing self-submission.

That that this might be the experience in some churches, in some Christian lives, is undeniable. Status in the Christian community, preaching focused on the church rather than God, joyless attempts to live in my own strength. Thankfully, on the whole, this has not been my experience. May it never be.

And so a cautionary tale that has me running for my life, to God and to Christ.

the-secret-tv

 

The Theology of Zephaniah

This post is the second half of an essay introducing Zephaniah.In this post I outline what I think are the leading theological themes in the book of Zephaniah, and give a bibliography.

4. Zephaniah’s theological message

According to most authors, the coming Day of Yahweh is the overarching theme of Zephaniah (e.g. Baker, 2012, p254). For Motyer (1998, p897), Zephaniah has ‘only one topic, and he never digresses from it’. Other authors (Dillard and Longman, 1995, p419; Boda, 2012, p905) also mention the themes of God’s faithfulness and mercy to the remnant and the universality of God’s sovereignty. However, I think these themes are best seen as Zephaniah’s particular emphases in the prophetic tradition of the Day of Yahweh as Yahweh’s holy warfare (Stuart, 1987, p231). We will identify four particular characteristics of Zephaniah’s proclamation of the coming Day of Yahweh, before concluding by pointing out an underlying theme.

1. The Day will be cosmic and universal in scope
Zephaniah loudly proclaims that the Day of Yahweh will have a world-wide impact. The book opens in §2.1 with the striking repeated statement that Yahweh will sweep away ‘all from upon the face of the earth’ (1:2). The word ’earth’ here could simply mean ‘land’, but the allusion to Gen. 1 (Berlin, 1994, p13) suggests Zephaniah is thinking of ‘a kind of undoing of creation’ (McConville, 2002, p222).

The oracles against the nations in §2.3 expand on what is meant by ‘the day of the anger of Yahweh’ (2:3). Zephaniah successively picks out representative nations to the east, west, south and north of Judah, showing that Yahweh’s day will target all the nations (Motyer, 1998, p931). But on the Day that Yahweh consumes all the earth in the fire of his jealousy, he also promises in §2.5 to ‘change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech’ (3:8-9, NIV) in a reversal of the curse of Babel (Gen. 11).

Zephaniah shows us that the Day of Yahweh will be cosmic and universal in scope, both in judgement and blessing. However, this is balanced by the second theme.

2. The Day will be centred on Judah
Amos testifies to an expectation that the Day of Yahweh would bring light for God’s people (Amos 5:18). But, in line with Amos, Zephaniah teaches that Jerusalem/Judah can expect to be at the heart of the terrifying judgement that the Day of Yahweh will bring. §2.1 begins (1:2-3) and ends (1:17-8) with an abstract outline of universal judgement, but at its centre is a fine-grained picture of the effect of the Day on Jerusalem, down to the details of different areas of the city that will be impacted. Far from being overlooked, ‘at that time’ Yahweh will ‘search Jerusalem with lamps’ (1:12, NIV).

A similar point is made in §2.3, where the oracles against the nations conclude, on Moyter’s (1998, p901) analysis, with a lament for ‘the oppressing city’, where morning by morning Yahweh shows forth his justice in the temple (3:1-5).

In §2.5, despite the universalism of the salvation, Judah remains at the centre of the Day: the haughty will be removed from Zion, and instead of fighting against her, Yahweh in her midst will be like a warrior celebrating winning the battle (3:17, NIV).

Jerusalem/Judah then will be at the heart of what Yahweh will do in the coming Day, both in judgement and salvation.

3. The Day will leave behind a remnant
The third theme Zephaniah draws our attention to is the discriminating nature of the Day. Yahweh’s anger will not sweep away everyone. This is implied in the careful searching Yahweh will do in order to find those in Jerusalem who harbour complacency in their hearts (1:12) and becomes clearer in the call to seek Yahweh (2:1-4) in order to to be ‘hidden on the day of the anger of Yahweh’ (2:4). From 2:7 onwards we see the presence of a remnant, which is most easily understood as those who have been hidden on the Day, and who are now in a position to take possession of new territory. The focus shifts fully to the remnant in §2.5, where we see that those left in Israel will be humble (3:12 c.f. 2:3) in contrast to the proud in the nations (2:10, 15) and in Jerusalem (3:11) who will be taken away. However, the remnant is not pictured as being worthy of escaping the judgement: it is Yahweh himself who removes their shame (3:11) and takes away the judgements against them (3:15).

4. The Day restores the fortunes of the remnant
The book concludes with the two sets of three promises that will take place ’at that time’ (3:19-20), a phrase earlier associated with the Day (3:9). Yahweh promises to restore the fortunes of those who mourn for the festival (the context suggests a reference to the humble remnant who seek Yahweh) by making them praised in all the earth (3:19,20). This section forms an inclusio with 3:9-13, which suggests that 3:14-17 also refers to the remnant. In the Day of Yahweh (3:16), the remnant’s shame and guilt will be taken away (3:11, 15) so that they can enjoy an unhindered and unending relationship with Yahweh, where saved Zion will sing for joy and Yahweh will sing a song of triumphant love over the people he has saved (3:14-17).

Conclusion: The underlying theme
While the Day of Yahweh is undoubtedly the controlling motif, it would be remiss to comment on Zephaniah without bringing into focus the central theme in its proclamation of the Day of Yahweh: that it is the Day particularly of Yahweh himself (Baker, 1996, p852). On that day, Yahweh will personally search out and fight against the people who have not sought him (1:6), but strikingly, rejoice over remnant Zion with ‘loud shouting’ (3:17). In the meantime, his people must seek him, and wait for the Day when Yahweh ‘rises’ (3:8). For Zephaniah, the Day of Yahweh will be an intensely personal revelation of Yahweh himself.

Bibliography

I’ve starred resources I found most helpful:

*Baker, D.W. (1996) ‘The Theology of Zephaniah’ in Elwell, W. (ed.) Evangelical dictionary of biblical theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Paternoster Press, pp851-852.

Baker, D.W. (2012) ‘Zephaniah’ in McConville, G. J. and Boda, M. J. (ed.) Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets: A compendium of contemporary biblical scholarship. United Kingdom: Inter-Varsity Press, pp254-255.

Berlin, A. (1994) Zephaniah: A new translation with introduction and commentary. 1st edn. New York: Anchor Bible, New York.

Boda, M.J. (2012) ‘Book of Zephaniah’ in McConville, G. J. and Boda, M. J. (ed.) Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets: A compendium of contemporary biblical scholarship. United Kingdom: Inter-Varsity Press, pp899-907.

Kselman (1992) The Book of Zephaniah’ in Freedman, D. N. and Staff, A. B. (ed.) The Anchor Bible dictionary, volume 6. United States: Bantam Dell Pub Group, pp1077-1080.

Longman, T. and Dillard, R. B. (1995) An introduction to the Old Testament. Leicester: Apollos.

Mason, R. (1994) Zephaniah (Old Testament guides). Sheffield: JSOT Press.

*McConville, G. (2002) Exploring the Old Testament: V. 4: Prophets. London: SPCK Publishing.

*Motyer, J.A. (1998) ‘Zephaniah’ in Mccomiskey, T. E. (ed.) The Minor Prophets: An exegetical and expository commentary: Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi (minor prophets: An Exegetical and expository commentary). United States: Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group.

*Robertson, P. O. (1990) The books of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah. Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Stuart, D. (1987) Word biblical commentary Vol. 31, Hosea-Jonah. Waco, TX: Paternoster Press.

Sweeney, M. A. (1991). A form-critical reassessment of the Book of Zephaniah. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 53(3), 388-408.

Sweeney, M. A. (2000) The Twelve prophets (Vol. 2): Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi (Berit Olam series). United States: Liturgical Press.

Sweeney, M. A. (2003) Zephaniah: A commentary. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, Publishers.

Introducing Zephaniah

Zephaniah has long been a favourite book of mine, ever since some memorable one-to-ones with a friend in London who was preparing to teach it on camp.

Last term we had to write a short essay covering the dating, authorship, outline and theology of a Minor Prophet: basically the kinds of things you normally get in the introduction to a commentary. My submission received a decent mark, so I thought I’d post it here for the benefit of those who don’t have access to good library resources.

Today I’ll post my discussion of the date, authorship and outline of Zephaniah and follow up with the theology of Zephaniah and the bibliography in another post.

1. Dating

The book of Zephaniah presents itself as ’the word of Yahweh that was to Zephaniah … in the days of Josiah’ (1:1) , i.e. 640-609 B.C. Josiah was a reforming king whose rule, in the view of the authors of Kings and Chronicles, marks one of ‘the highest points in the post-Solomonic phase of the monarchy’ (Boda, 2012, p899) after the low point of his father Manasseh. Although this dating has been questioned, recent critical scholarship tends to assign ‘the greater part of the book to Zephaniah’ (Kselman, 1992, p1078). One author who disagrees with that view is Ben Zvi (discussed in Berlin, 1994, pp34-40). Ben Zvi dates the final form of the book to the post-exilic period, where its message would have been most meaningful (Berlin, 1994, p34). However, Berlin points out that even Ben Zivi acknowledges that core material in the book can probably be traced to Zephaniah himself (1994, p33,42).

Scholars debate when Zephaniah is to be dated within Josiah’s reign. Berlin (1994, p34) says that the consensus is that Zephaniah prophesied before Josiah’s reforms in 622 B.C. because Zephaniah’s description of Jewish society is so similar to the portrait of Judah before Josiah’s reforms in 2 Kings 22. However, a number of commentators (e.g. Baker, 1996, p851) note that Josiah’s reforms, while celebrated by the author of Kings, appear to be centralised and top down. Zephaniah may be targeting a literal ‘remnant of the Baal’ (1:4), priests who persisted in serving Baal, despite state opposition to the practice. In favour of a post-reform date, Robertson (1990, p254-256) points to Zephaniah’s extensive verbal links with Deuteronomy, the discovery or production of which is usually taken to have provided the theological impetus for Josiah’s reforms (Sweeney, 2000, p494). In my view Robertson’s argument is compelling and has not been overturned by other scholarship (e.g. Mason, 1994, p41). Accordingly, we can date the substantial body of Zephaniah to between 622-612 B.C., after the discovery of the book of the Law, and before the fall of Nineveh (Baker, 2012, p254).

2. Authorship

Following the current consensus, I take Zephaniah as substantially authored by the prophet himself. Zephaniah seems to have been a common name, and may reflect a godly family (Zephaniah means ‘Yahweh has hidden, Baker, 1996, p851). We are given no information about the prophet himself apart from the four generation genealogy, which goes back to Hezekiah. This unusually long genealogy is normally taken to mean that Zephaniah was a descendant of King Hezekiah, whose reforms Josiah in many ways imitated (Baker, 2012, p254). Blenkinsopp (cited in Berlin, 1994, p66) defers from the consensus by suggesting that Zephaniah’s father ‘Cushi’ is an Egyptian, due to the similarity between his name and Cush, the Biblical name for Egypt. The longer genealogy would then serve to authenticate Zephaniah as a true Israelite (Berlin, 1994, pp66-67). However, according to Deut. 23:7-8, only children born to second generation Egyptian-Israelites were fully Israelite, so in my view the majority opinion provides the best explanation for the presence of the genealogy.

3. Contents

Berlin (1994, pp12-19) notes that there is little consensus on how to subdivide Zephaniah. The following description of the contents of Zephaniah builds on the analysis of Motyer (1998, pp901-902) and Sweeney (1991):

  1. Superscription (1:1)
  2. Call to seek Yahweh in the light of the coming Day of Yahweh (1:2-3:20)
    1. The Day of Yahweh I – cosmic and individual judgement (1:2-18)
    2. Call I: seek Yahweh humbly (2:1-4)
    3. The Day of Yahweh II – worldwide and local judgement (2:5-3:7)
    4. Call II: wait for Yahweh trustingly (3:8)
    5. The Day of Yahweh III – universal and local salvation for the remnant (3:9-20)

 

 

Why do Catholic Christians pray to Mary?

I was asked the other day on behalf of someone who’s a Catholic Christian why Catholics pray to Mary.

There’s a whole larger theological sweep, comparing Mary with Eve as the mother of all the living, and, as the bearer of God, with the ark of the covenant. But from a bit of digging around in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the following seems to me are the key points that the doctrine is drawn from.

Catholic position:
Luke 1.28-30. Mary is uniquely the favoured one because The Lord is with her. (p570)

Luke 1.48 “All generations will call me blessed” – “the Church’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin is intrinsic to Christian worship” (p222)

Luke 1.38 “Let it be to me according to your word” – “Without a single sin to restrain her, she gave herself entirely to the person and to the work of her Son” (p110)

This is the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception: “The Blessed Mary was, by a singular grace and privelege of Almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ…, preserved immune from all stain of original sin” (p110)

It follows that because of her unique position that “we can pray with her and to her” (p571): “because of Mary’s singular co-operation with the action of the Holy Spirit, the Church loves to pray in communion with the Virgin Mary” (p571), including “entrusting the supplications and praises of the children of God to the Mother of Jesus” (p569)

Protestant position:
Luke 11.27-28. More blessed than the body which bore Jesus are those who hear and keep God’s word. While Mary is certainly blessed, true blessing comes from honouring God, not physical or biological closeness.

Mark 3:31-34. Jesus’ mother and brothers stand outside the house where Jesus is teaching and ask him to come out to them. It looks like Mary did not always have full confidence in Jesus – are we sure she was sinless? (Cf Mark 4.11 – to be outside the house was to be outside the kingdom and not understanding Jesus’ teaching) On the other hand, Mary’s position is not fundamentally unique: while certainly blessed to be the mother of our Lord (Luke 1:42-43), Jesus declares that anyone who does God’s will is his brother or sister or mother.

Therefore, we do not need Mary’s help in bringing our prayers to God, and Scripture does not encourage us to seek it. Rather:
Ephesians 3:11-12 – We have full access to God through Jesus
Romans 8:26-27 – The Spirit of God intercedes for us to the Father
Romans 8:34 – Christ Jesus is interceding for us at God’s right hand
Hebrews 10:19-22 – We can draw near to God in full confidence, because of the blood of Jesus.

Our Lord gives us our pattern for prayer: “this then is how you should pray: Our Father…” (Matthew 5:8-13)

Made like God

An assembly talk for 4-6 year olds.

Good morning. my name is Sam and I’m a follower of Jesus.

We haven’t met before. But if I asked you who you were what would you say?

You’d probably tell me your name. And that’s great.

But is there something that all of you are?

Is there something that every person on the planet is? – a human being

What’s a human being?

The Bible tells us who we all are – it tells us what it means to be a human being. If we go to the start of the Bible we find that

God said, “Let us make humanity in our image, after our likeness.”

Let me tell you a story.

There was once a Father and a Son who were toy makers. They loved to create toys that were exciting and fun. They created tractors, and bricks and computer games and crayons and tea sets. They had great fun together making all these things.

But one day the Father said to his Son, “I know what would be really fun. let’s make a toy that is like us”. The Son said “if it’s going to be like us it would have to be able to talk like us and laugh like us and think like us and even be able to make things like us. If we made a toy like that, it wouldn’t just be a toy, it would be our friend.”

And the Father said, do you think we can do it? And the Son said, yes!

And so do you know what they did? They took a piece a normal piece of wood, and they crafted it together. They took extra care over it, because this was going to be a toy that wouldn’t just be a toy, but would also be their friend. And when they were finally finished, the toy woke up. And the father said to the toy “Hi. I’m the Father and this is my Son. We made you to be like us”. And they had. they had made a toy that could listen to them and laugh with them, and think like them. And over time they even helped the toy to make it’s own mini toys, just like them.

Boys and girls, we are a lot bit like the toy in that story. The Bible says that God has made us to be like him, and to be his friends. We can talk like God, we can laugh like God and think like God. We can even make things ourselves, a bit like God. We can’t do all those things exactly the same as God. But we can do all those things.

And that means that every one of us and every person on this planet is very special. We have all been given a gift, even if we don’t know it. God has made us, and he’s made us like him.

And that means that the best thing in our lives is doing what we were made to do. And that’s being God’s friends. Talking with God and laughing with God, thinking about God and even making things with God’s help. This is who we are made to be.

So let’s always remember this: that we are all made by God to be his friends.