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Jack and Sheila
(Text as at 18/12/2010 19:58:05)
When you meet up with friends you haven’t seen for 17 years, there is an element of risk, especially if you’ve been invited to a Gospel meeting after tea. Such was the case with an out-of-the-blue invitation from Jack and Sheila. Their church Grace Baptist Church (Link) in Maryland, East London, has a regular outreach meeting. Jack had known since 1989 that I had backslidden somewhat, because I had included him on the circulation list of my Tractatus1, receiving the friendly rebuke that I had an Undisciplined Mind; which I presume meant that I didn’t discipline my beliefs to be in accord with the Truth, or else allowed myself to entertain too many heresies.
In case I sound over-critical in what follows, I must state that Jack and I have always been open about our disagreements. Jack is one of the gentlest and most sincere people one could hope to meet, but one who knows his own mind and has a clear grasp of the issues he thinks are fundamental.
As background for non-participants: while we were both at Brentwood Road Evangelical Free Church in Romford, Essex (Link), we had a certain affinity in that, maybe unlike most church members, we both had an interest in doctrine, even if not quite the same view on what sound doctrine was. Also, Jack’s son Peter was a very bright boy (now on the verge of becoming a consultant anaesthetist) to whom I taught the rudiments of Hebrew.
Before tea, and after catching up on news of who’d died in the intervening years, we discussed the doctrinal position of Grace Baptist Church, which is that of the London Baptist Confession of Faith (Link (Defunct)) of 1689, and with which all members of the Church have to concur, with the exception that they are allowed to have doubts over the claim in 26.4 that the Pope is the Antichrist. It would be easy to raise a snigger at this rather antiquated idea, but a more serious objection is to the wisdom of imposing on any congregation such a long statement of sustained exegesis. Is it supposed to be inspired, on a par with the Scriptures themselves? Of course, this would be denied (and was when I raised the matter), but if it is not inspired, why insist on it? Doesn’t it encourage people to dissimulate, or sign what they don’t understand? Place no greater burden … but we have all this doctrinal baggage.
It is difficult to know where to draw the line. Christian congregations are supposed to know and believe the truths of Christianity. The church members are supposed to “equally yoked” in the Lord’s work, and this isn’t possible if not all believe the essentials. However, different groups have different beliefs as to what the essentials are. If you only accept into fellowship those who believe the same as you do, you’ll end up as a congregation of one. So, a line has to be drawn somewhere. In my zealous days, I and others of like mind would fall silent during hymns of dubious doctrine, and not say the dispensationally-inappropriate portion of the Lords prayer. We’d not take Communion, even at the risk of being mistaken for “sinners”, and wouldn’t sign any declaration of faith that was intended to be understood as asserting doctrines we disagreed with. This meant we couldn’t be accepted into fellowship at any church worth being in fellowship with. This was the case at Romford Evangelical Free Church, where Julie and I couldn’t be accepted into fellowship, because we wouldn’t take Communion and didn’t believe in eternal conscious torment for “the wicked” (otherwise known as most of your friends and relatives). Howeer, we were very close friends with the then Pastor and his wife, much more so than were those in fellowship, probably because they could speak freely with us rather than having to watch out for church politics all the time. Then another pastor came along who was less fussy about doctrinal niceties, and we were enfellowshipped. But in retrospect, this was the beginning of the end, for me at least.
We did come up with our own declaration (Link (Defunct)), which is somewhat brief, and which I eventually couldn’t sign either when I ceased to believe in Biblical inerrancy. It was however, only incumbent on Trustees, and writers and speakers were not to transgress during their writing and speaking. I still accept the rather magisterial-sounding tenet “the recognition of Scripture as the sole arbiter in matters of Christian doctrine and practice and that received tradition and opinions are of no binding authority”, which was a swipe at all Christian traditions, including our own. I would, though, write it differently today to make the grammar less clunky.
Getting back to the main plot, in the car on the way to the meeting, Jack opined that the Open Bible Trust (OBT) hadn’t been good for me. This is one of many diagnoses of where I’ve gone wrong. I think the idea was that we were an off-shoot of the Plymouth Brethren, and obsessed with Prophesy. This was not very close to the truth. Well, the OBT certainly would have difficulty with parts of the Baptist Confession, but does not claim to be a Church, and so is excusable in its focus on Bible Study. That’s what it does. Affiliates tend to worship in their local church. In any case, had I not come into contact with the OBT (or their forebears, the Berean Forward Movement), I would probably now still be a Carthusian, much to the detriment of my wife and children. What is close to the truth is that the OBT and its forebears had an obsession about “joined-up thinking”. You should try to understand the Biblical message as a whole, and note God’s different dealings with men at different times and places. Acts-282 Dispensationalism is, in one respect, just a (rather clever) attempt to make things fit together. The trouble with this approach is that if you try to join up your thinking too much, you may find (or think you’ve found) that it won’t all fit.
I was somewhat ambivalent about the invitation to a Gospel meeting. Just what did Jack hope to achieve? As far as the facts and the logic of the Christian faith are concerned, I imagine I know as much as any professing Christian, though I’m aware that mere intellectual knowledge is irrelevant to which side of the divide you’re on. Additionally, Jack believes in the persistence of the saints (it’s in the Baptist Confession). Unfortunately it seems to be a doctrine of doubtful utility, since the rider is that it’s the saints that persevere, so failure to persevere is a symptom of non-sainthood. We briefly discussed his son Peter in this regard. I also mentioned Spurgeon’s story (which I probably heard first from Jack) about the drunkard coming up to him and claiming to be one of his converts. “Glad to hear it, came the reply, because you’re obviously not one of God’s converts.” Because evangelical Christianity stresses the importance of faith, declension in this department is worse than a mere moral backsliding or a false set of priorities. Maybe if I’d just killed my wife and family, but sincerely repented of it, I’d be much better off in Jack’s book, destined for eternal bliss rather than the long frazzle. But one must not jest about such things.
It would have been easy to feel somewhat affronted, but I decided that Jack had concern for me and was doing what he could. In any case, I’m still open to persuasion, if not to abdication of responsibility. Maybe, the hope is that by the foolishness of preaching the Holy Spirit will do his mysterious work. Besides, there’s a long tradition of evangelical neophytes confronting liberal Bishops with “the Gospel”, on the presumption that they’ve never heard it before. I have to plead guilty to something like this. Looking back on my early 1980s correspondence with the Prior of Parkminster, after I’d “come out from amongst them”, it’s difficult but to diagnose ridiculous presumption, and I’m amazed he went along with the correspondence so long.
Anyway, after struggling through the traffic, and failing to pick up a reluctant delinquent (with whom I presumably share a boat), we arrived 5 minutes or so late during the first hymn. The minister, Pastor Blaize (Link) read from the New King James Version the first part of Chapter 10 of John’s Gospel, the very familiar passage about Jesus as the “the Way, the Truth and the Life”. He then expounded the passage in a wholesome and animated manner, speaking without notes. He firstly focused on the exclusivity of the claim in the famous verse – the “the” – and then talked on the three elements of the hendiatris. I can’t remember all the details, but could probably reconstruct them, having heard that particular sermon so often before. The style reminded me of that of Rev. Godfrey Fielder (whom I’ve sadly lost contact with; despite vigorous Googling, I couldn’t find any contact reference for him, or for his brother Geraint).
Since the argument was so familiar – and it was an attempt to persuade the listener – I was considering various issues during the sermon itself. The first was just why substitutory atonement was necessary. This wasn’t strictly the topic of this sermon, and I don’t remember it being touched on much, and my mind wandered off a bit to the sermons I’d heard on that topic. I wasn’t sure whether Scripture really explained or just assumed this doctrine, though I’d heard many a rant that made the attempt. It is almost as though God had got himself into a bit of a bind with respect to his own righteousness, and couldn’t just forgive – the penalty had to be paid by God himself who’d set the penalty in the first place (the wages of sin are death; without the shedding of blood is no remission, Caiaphas’s unwitting prophesy that one man should die for the people and so on). I can’t remember whether this is actually argued for in Scripture, or whether these things are just claims that exegetes have tried to explain and defend in response to sceptical claims that the whole idea of blood sacrifice is rather crude and a rationalisation of historical practices.
Then I thought of truth. However appealing the “simple gospel” is, if its logic depends on falsehoods, then it cannot be accepted. This issue came up again in a private discussion I had with Paster Blaize after the service. The Apostle Paul sees a symmetry between the first and the last Adam, the fall and redemption, and argues on this basis. But, if there was no first Adam, and there was no fall of man (even though man is universally sinful), then the argument may fall apart, depending on what its logic is. It might be a literary analogy, like one might use an analogy from Hamlet. But Paster Blaize was insistent that it be taken literally.
The theological problem of theodicy is how we can reconcile the existence of a perfectly good God with the state of the world as we know it. The answer is to posit an initial creation in a perfect state, followed by one or two falls – that of Satan and later that of Adam. But the accounts, if taken literally, aren’t really credible. In fact they are so obviously incredible, that I (and maybe most people who would label themselves Christian) cannot take them literally without doing violence to their intellectual integrity. How can one found one’s life on some sort of double-think whereby you attempt to believe as literal truth what is obviously figurative - whether or not the original authors intended it so … arguably, the NT itself has a strong line in sensus plenior (Wikipedia: Sensus plenior) - just because the self-appointed orthodox insist on it?
Finally, life. This reminded my of another general concern I have with Christian metaphysics – the vitalistic claim that some special magic called “life” can be breathed into matter and make it alive. Is there any such thing? Hasn’t this been disproved by biological science? It seems that there are Christian materialists (of an otherwise conservative persuasion) who try to face up to the apparent facts of biology. I’m not sure what their handling of the scriptural passages is like, as they are mostly philosophers.
So, that was the sermon and my simultaneous musings. Thankfully, there was no “altar call” at the end, but an invitation for all to enjoy a buffet dinner in an upper room. I noticed that a family of Bangladeshi appearance and of limited command of English seemed to have availed themselves of this opportunity for a free meal.
In conversation with Pat (the grandmother of the absent delinquent), I was challenged on five counts.
The evening ended from my perspective with a brief and friendly conversation with Pastor Blaize. We discussed the matter of the interconnectedness of Adams and falls, briefly touched on above, and also touched on belief. Pastor Blaize distinguished 3 forms of belief, using Scholastic terminology that’s rather out of fashion these days, and which I couldn’t quite follow. I expect the following Link might clarify matters, though I’ve not really pursued it yet. I promised to follow the discussion up with an email.
- Firstly, the old chestnut of intellectual pride (not quite expressed in that accusatory way). Can one by searching find out God? Well, no – which is why I have an antipathy to natural theology, and all theological “clarifications” of the constitution of the Godhead. This ought to have a “keep out” sign on it, but was the preoccupation of the post-apostolic early church up to the end of the fifth century at least. But trying to make sense of the Bible is really part of exegesis. There are lots of tough questions about the world that scientists have answered, clarified, or are on the way to answering, and this is the backdrop against which exegesis must take place. Science cannot go back before the Big Bang, and much of cosmology is more speculative than other areas of science, but biology and geomorphology are on a firmer footing and it is mere arrogance to ignore their pronouncements just because our exegesis (or our choice of exegetes) “proves” it wrong. I’ll cover the details of this argument elsewhere.
- Secondly, don’t expect anyone to be able to persuade me into belief. This was a counterpart to the first point, and not just a theological remark. I think the good lady had gathered that I was fairly smart, and unlikely to lose many arguments. I must make up my own mind. I accept this point completely. Anyone capable of arguing with me on an equal or superior footing is likely to be too busy with public duties to have the time for the likes of me; or so the former Archbishop of York said (in more polite terms).
- Thirdly, read the Bible. I had already intended to do this, but it was good to be reminded. I’ve started writing up my thoughts3 as I do so.
- Fourthly, watch out for the deceiving activities of Satan. I don’t know what to make of this. It’s an easy answer to why people disagree with you - they are deceived by Satan. Satan hasn’t featured much in my recent thought, other than as a stage prop in Descartes’s “evil demon” argument where he searches for some indubitable proposition, and ends up with the indubitable proposition that he exists, for even the evil demon – who can deceive him as to the existence of the external world or even of his own body – cannot deceive him about this, because a doubt implies a doubter. Interestingly, Descartes assumes that a good God would not allow him to be deceived in the matters he most clearly perceives. Unfortunately, he was wrong (in that Descartes’s philosophy, important though it is, is incorrect). One of my major tenets is that the world is open to investigation4. Maybe this is also false, but we have no good reason to think so.
- Finally, come to a decision. Again, this is a fair point. I had come to a decision 18 years ago, but am reviewing that decision in the light of my subsequent philosophical training. Additionally, the passage of years will enable me to approach the matter from a fresh perspective. My previous decision was that:
I suspect my review will affirm the first two bullets, but maybe there is a third alternative.
- Fundamentalist Christianity is worth believing in but is plain false.
- Liberal Christianity is a muddle that is not worth pursuing.
- There are no other alternatives.
Jack tells me that there was an attempted robbery outside the Church after we left. Satan again.
On the way home I think I resolved an issue that had been bugging me on the way over. On the inward journey, some condensation kept sticking to the outside of the car windscreen making it difficult to see where we were going without the windscreen-wipers on, which was rather odd on a hot, dry but humid afternoon. It looked as though some oil had been spread there, but it was suspiciously symmetrical. After the service I investigated, but no oil was to be found. I presume the problem was that the humidity was so great that the blast of cold air from the air-conditioning in the car was cooling the windscreen sufficiently to cause external condensation, which, as we were stuck in a traffic jam, wasn’t dispersed by the wind. On the way home, we travelled faster, and didn’t have the air-condition on full blast, so the problem went away. It’s important to follow these things up. In my first year at grammar school I was diagnosed with short sight and given a pair of spectacles for the first time. The joy of being able to see blades of grass for the first time was somewhat mitigated by my mother’s insistence than they have ear-pieces that stopped them falling off, much to the merriment of my classmates and my deep humiliation. Anyway, I’ve always had a habit of experimenting with things, so I placed the glasses’ lenses on a mirror to see what would happen. Lo, there were little black blobs at the point of contact. I thought this must be condensation or something, though diligent observation revealed none, and I let the matter rest. It was years later when we studied diffraction patterns in “A” Level physics that I realised they were “Newton’s Rings” (Wikipedia: Newton's rings). A genius follows up these things. Someone who’s merely clever lets the opportunity slip. I resolved not to do this again. Realising you don’t understand something is an opportunity to learn, and applies to all spheres of intellectual endeavour. Maybe that thought is also an intimation of Satan? Anyway, it doesn’t make for a cosy life, though maybe for a more satisfying one.
Footnote 1: I’m trying to work out why I even care about the above matters any more. If a Christian has to believe 6 impossible things before breakfast, then I can’t join the club, and that’s an end to it.
Footnote 2: If I remember correctly, in F W Farrar’s sequel to Darkness and Dawn (I forget the title – my copy seems to have “walked”) - a historical novel which deals with the Bar Kochba revolt - there’s a character called Aher5, who’s always disputing, and isn’t comfortably part of the community. But when the chips are down in the final confrontation with Rome, he comes down on the right side. I feel a measure of sympathy for him. The Lord knows those that are his, and it’s no-one else’s business. And let him who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity – that’s the Christian’s duty.
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