Tag Archives: College

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Confessions of a “reluctant” “inner city church planter”

There’s a bit of a conversation happening in the Australian Evangelical Blogosphere (so about the smallest pool in the world) about inner city church planting. They’ve got me mulling over next year and life at Creek Road South Bank – a new church, in Brisbane’s inner city, that I’ll be serving as the Campus Pastor (note, I think just about any name/title for a ministry position can sound a bit ego driven, the emphasis here hopefully will remain on the “serving” not on the “Campus Pastor”).

Here are some of the posts I’ve read…

The answer to the question “do we need more inner city church plants?” is clearly a yes.

It’s the answer to any question about “do we need more churches?” Churches are like broadcast towers that send the message of the Gospel around Australia – we need something like the National Broadband Plan to ensure good Gospel coverage around Australia. We also need more workers to work in these churches, and we definitely need more Christians. Australia isn’t meaningfully becoming less Christian, Australia has never been particularly “Christian” – church attendance was high when we started because people were forced to go to church. Australian laws might have assumed or reflected a Judeo-Christian moral framework – but that was the default, it didn’t mean they were written by people whose hearts were owned by Jesus, even if some of our early colonists were passionate Christians, others weren’t. We need more churches in Australia because Australia is full of lost people. And so are our inner city areas.

Which is why, for want of a better understanding of the nuance of what the church I’m part of is doing (hopefully this post will clear this up a little) – next year I’ll be an “inner city church planter.”

I’m finishing college soon. I’m thinking about what life in ministry, post-college, is going to look like for me, and what I thought it would look like before college. So just indulge me a little with this poorly structured stream of consciousness response to the posts above. It’s more about me than most posts you’ll read here, but indulge me a little.

Why I do what I didn’t want to do…

I feel like this whole South Bank thing is forcing me to think through a whole heap of competing thoughts and passions of mine in a way that hopefully ends up being consistent and a healthy compromise on my youthful idealistic zeal.

Before college I was pretty outspoken and cynical about church planting (or church planters) – and what I meant was inner-city church planting. I was cynical about the guys who wanted to plant churches without working with an established church, in a hip, non-denominational way (or even in the denomination but not of the denomination) – they’re the guys who were a little bit too sure of themselves, a little bit too sure of their central place in God’s plan. Or so I thought (and still think). I was especially cynical about people who wanted to plant megachurches.

This quote I shared from a guy assessing church planters a few years ago still resonates with me… It’s still a problem.

It’s amazing how many young pastors feel that they are distinctly called to reach the upwardly-mobile, young, culture-shaping professionals and artists. Can we just be honest? Young, upper-middle-class urban professionals have become the new “Saddleback Sam”.

Seriously, this is literally the only group I see proposals for. I have yet to assess a church planter who wants to move to a declining, smaller city and reach out to blue collar factory workers, mechanics, or construction crews. Not one with an evangelistic strategy to go after the 50-something administrative assistant who’s been working at the same low-paying insurance firm for three decades now.

One of the problems Josh Dinale identified with the current crop of church planters is:

“1) pastors wanting to be the next Mark Driscoll

the more I connect with young pastors (yeah I know I am still generally young, having said that, I have been in Christian minsitry for 10 years, I have been around the block a few times) I am seeing guys who look like Driscoll, speak like Driscoll, act like him, teach like him. I am sorry to tell you, but you are NOT him. you  are fearfully and wonderfully made, God has a plan for you, and you alone. I am pretty sure it is not to be like Driscoll but to be the best pastor God has created you to be. Be content with where you are, minister out of your gifts not someone elses.”

Mike Bird also identifies a similar trend.

“I’ve come across many young men who seem to think they have some kind of destiny to become the next Mark Driscoll or the next Tim Keller. They have a church planting strategy from the movie Field of Dreams. Remember the motto of that movie: If you build it, they will come. But the reality is a bit more complex as church planters are not just battling against a secular culture, but competing with existing churches in their area and even competing with existing church plants. In addition, many church planters are abandoning their denominations to plant these new independent churches, leading to a kind of righteous remnant mentality, cultivating a very low ecclesiology without historic bonds to the past, and looking down disparagingly on pastoral leaders who decide to keep working within their existing denominations.”

The whole “thinking you’re the new Driscoll” thing is nothing new (see this post from 2009 – five years ago) – Driscoll has an incredible ability to create fanboys out of the disenfranchised. But I haven’t spoken to many Driscoll fanboys lately, most people in that sort of camp seem to be man-crushing pretty hard on Matt Chandler. And most people of the generation slightly above me seem to be keen to shave their heads, read CS Lewis, and be Tim Keller.

Part of my reluctance to embrace the inner city thing is that there’s a perception that to do this sort of ministry you have to be some sort of bleeding edge hipster. And while I score pretty well on the “Are you a Christian Hipster?” tests because I like specialty coffee and craft beer (and I have a decorative typewriter, and a beard), I don’t want to be that guy.

As soon as ministry becomes about the minister it starts being dead.

This is also my problem with Josh’s thoughtful corrective – I may have been fearfully and wonderfully made – but more importantly I’m being amazingly remade into the image of Jesus – and it’s him people should be thinking about when they go to church. Not me. Or any pastor. If we talk about something a pastor brings to the table, or the locale, and it’s something other than Jesus, we’re talking about the wrong thing. I’m not naive, I think there are good pragmatic reasons that I’m not a bad fit in the inner city, but as soon as I start thinking about myself being a good fit, or being in any way necessary, or the inner city needing me to come in and save it – the narrative is wrong.

I don’t want to be an inner city church planter.

I don’t want to target the yuppies with a trendy and edgy ministry.

I do want to play my part in God’s program of reaching people, including the yuppies, including people in the inner city, and the regions, and the small towns. Sacrificially, doing ministry that resonates with people of whatever culture is around me – a bit like Jesus did when he entered Jewish culture as a Jewish man who spoke the language of the people around him, and told stories they could understand… using imagery they were familiar with… everywhere he could.

I might be a pseudo-hipster, but I have good reasons not to want to be an inner city church planter. I love regional Australia. I grew up in country town New South Wales (after a few years in Sydney), I worked in regional Queensland after uni. And regional Australia punches above its weight on the evangelical scene. In my experience. I think, and still think, that the human resources we suck into cities would, in the providence of God, also produce great results in regional areas. Regional areas and regional people need the Gospel.

Plus. I don’t buy into the tendency to spiritualise “the City”. Cities are significant because there’s a high concentration of people there, but the whole “heaven is a city, therefore city” thing just strikes me as ridiculous. This is a quote from a Christianity Today article about Tim Keller’s philosophy/theology of City ministry from a few years back…

““Surely God’s command to exiled Israelites applied to Christians in New York: “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you” (Jer. 29:7). Long before that, God had designated cities as places of refuge when Israel entered the Promised Land. They remain so today, Keller noted—which explains why poor people, immigrants, and vulnerable minorities such as homosexuals cluster in cities. They attract people who are open to change. Paul did most of his missionary work in cities, and early Christianity flourished within them. Revelation portrays the final descent of the kingdom of God to earth as a city, although a garden city, with fruit trees and a life-giving river at its center. Keller suggests that, had Adam and Eve lived sinlessly and obeyed God’s directions, they would have made Eden into just such a city.”

I get the appeal of the vision of transforming a culture from the city out (ala Tim Keller), but having spent time in a parochial regional centre that wanted no bar of most of what came from a city, simply because it came from the city, I’m not sure how effective this nationwide campaign of transformation is going to be beyond the urban elite, and those who wish they were urban elite in regional cities – who never really gel with the culture of their town or regional city.

I do, however, think that cities are incredibly useful for producing dominant cultural narratives, that do filter out into the regions via the consumption of media and advertising. But if you’ve ever watched the ads on regional television, you’ll know that even the impact of these zeitgeisty narratives is limited, and watered down by being presented along with not so slick regionally produced media.

And I do think the Gospel is the best story there is going round, and it should be told more, and it should become part of conversations where different narratives compete – ala Peter Hitchens presence on Q&A last night. We need to get better at telling the Gospel story in the places where stories are told or presented professionally. And being crucified for it.

I like what Keller’s attempts to transform culture from the city, but I’m pessimistic about the impact of his method beyond the city. Though less pessimistic than Carl Trueman. I’m less Presbyterian than him too.

“And, to put it bluntly, Keller is the transformationists’ best shot today.   It does not matter how often we tell each other that our celebrity transformationists are making headway, such claims are only so much delusional hype.  A Broadway play and a couple of nice paintings do not help the man who cannot rent space to worship on the Lord’s Day.  Indeed, I wonder if any of these transformationists have ever asked themselves whether what we are seeing are not in fact transforming inroads into the culture but the modern equivalents of bread and circuses designed to gull the gullible — meaningless trivia, conceded by the wider culture, that make no real difference; where and when the stakes are higher and actually worth playing for, no quarter is, or will be, given.

Surely it is time to become realistic.  It is time to drop the cultural elitism that poses as significant Christian transformation of culture but only really panders to nothing more than middle class tastes and hobbies.  It is time to look again at the New Testament’s teaching on the church as a sojourning people where here we have no lasting home.”

I think the example we get from the New Testament church, especially from Paul, is that it’s incredibly unlikely that we’re going to change a city by producing cultural artefacts – the Roman Empire was eventually transformed by the sheer weight of Christian converts, but I think we produce Christian converts by borrowing or subverting cultural artefacts to tell the story of the Gospel. The early church grabbed hold of a bunch of terminology associated with the announcing and promoting of a new king, they used terminology and titles for Jesus that were identical to the terminology and titles used of Roman emperors, but they promoted a king who was crucified, which was a cultural anathema, and was never going to result in immediate wholesale change.

Paul’s Areopagus speech, probably the best strategic attempt at cultural change we see in the New Testament, ends in what many would suggest is a failure to transform… most people laugh at him, and only some are transformed… and yet his speech, which presents the Gospel in a culturally informed way, is recorded in one of the longest lasting transformative texts in the world.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

Paul goes to the heart of the city, the best place to tell the story of the Gospel, and he tells it in a culturally engaged way. But it doesn’t instantly transform the whole city (Jonah might be a better story about a city being transformed).

Which is why I’m excited that Creek Road South Bank is telling this story, hopefully excellently, at the Queensland Theatre Company’s Billie Brown Theatre, every Sunday. And it’s why I’m excited that our band is aiming for musical excellence, and Creek Road Media is aiming to produce culturally engaging video that tells this story in excellent ways. And I hope this does result in transforming the lives of enough individuals so that the fabric of our city starts to change. Person by person.

I also get that inner city ministry is incredibly hard. Because of the Inner City Pressure (cf this Flight of the Conchords song).

It’s hard because people who live in places that tell incredible narratives that provide apparent satisfaction to deep desires are often pretty convinced that they already live in heaven, while simultaneously feeling profoundly dissatisfied because they are surrounded by lots more people who both are broken, and reveal one’s own brokenness through interpersonal interactions.

But ministry is hard everywhere. Because it involves gathering a bunch of people who naturally think about what’s best for their sinful selves – even while God is uniting them behind the cause of the gospel by his Spirit. Let’s not fall into the trap of hyper-spiritualising inner city ministry.

Inner city ministry – and by extension, inner city church planting, is important because there are people in the inner city.

And, in a city like Brisbane, it’s strategic because there is public transport to the inner city from just about every corner of the city – and evangelical churches in Brisbane are not well represented in the statistical breakdown of religious belief in our city. So if people from parts of the city where there’s no evangelical presence can get to a place where there is, because they’ve been invited there by people who work in the City, then that’s a good thing. The notion of place or a patch for churches is just culturally out of touch. We don’t live, work, and play in the same suburb. Our relationships are likely to stretch not just across suburbs, but across cities, states, and countries. Building a strategy for church planting based on geographic saturation is a bit old school. People travel. We’re better of putting churches in strategic hubs – in Brisbane this might mean places where there are major shopping centres, that people are already in the habit of travelling to…

Image: Relationship networks visualised using Facebook friendships and flight routes, Credit: Robot Monkey

South Bank is also exciting for me because we’ve got a burgeoning ministry to refugees in Brisbane, and many of them live around where this church plant is happening. We’re reaching the world from Brisbane. I’m not sure Iranians on bridging visas are going to be all that enthused about a pastor with a fixie, and a well manicured ironic moustache.

… to do what I do want to do (or rather, what God wants us to do)

Paradoxically, part of the reason I’m excited about being an “inner city church planter” is that I didn’t ever want to be an “inner city church planter.” The bigger reason I’m excited is that I’m not going out on my own as some gung-ho, got all the answers, inner-urban hipster type who is cutting all ties with pre-existing structures. I’m part of a team, that is part of a church, that is part of a denomination, that also has a bigger agenda in terms of church planting. That’s a great way for ministry to not be about me.

While it looks like I’m an “inner city church planter” because each Sunday I’ll be at a new church in Brisbane’s inner city, that’s not what really excites me about next year. As exciting as it is. I went to college as a Presbyterian because being a Presbyterian is a great boat to fish from in Queensland to do Gospel ministry, because I’m theologically pretty Presbyterian, and because I like the attachment to a narrative that has history, that unfolds and is deliberately linked to things that have happened in the past, rather than being deliberately disconnected. I think it’s a little disingenuous to attempt to start a church with a clean slate. With no ties. With no baggage.

I’m excited about being part of the Creek Road team for a few reasons. Mostly because I’m excited about what I think is a reinvention of “team ministry.” I’m excited about team ministry at least in part because I’m an extrovert, but I’m theologically excited about team ministry in terms of what it looks like for a church to function well as the body of Christ, where each bit of the body uses different gifts in complementary and sacrificial ways, that benefit a variety of congregations who are either part of Creek Road, or part of our network. The approach we’re taking at Creek Road has the potential to be incredibly scalable – with some of the benefits of franchising a business in terms of quality control, pooling of resources, and some sort of “brand identity” (which, lets face it, is part of the appeal of denominations), but also the flexibility to do things differently in different places based on who is there – both in the pulpit, and in the congregation.

I think if people in ministry are just thinking about their immediate patch they’re thinking too small. If we’re only thinking about the city, but not the regions, if we’re only thinking about reaching Australia, but not reaching the world, then we’re omnifocused to our detriment, and the detriment of the church’s mission. It’s possible to focus on more than one thing at once. Despite what certain personality types will tell you. Jesus was pretty happy to leave this mission global (making disciples from every nation), while providing a starting place that was geographically bound (first in Judea, then Samaria, then the ends of the earth). We not think global, and act local and global, simultaneously?

Physical presence is a big part of ministry, but the God we serve is transcendent and omnipresent. And prayer works. And prayer is ministry. And communication isn’t geographically contained anymore. Physical distance has collapsed into bits and bytes that can be fired through the skies. Why are we so keen to limit our footprint to our suburb? Using the incarnation of Jesus as a paradigm for local ministry is terrific and necessary, but we’ve also got to learn from the Apostles who used mediums that could be copied and spread, and fly through communication networks (like the Roman roads), whose relationships and span of care stretched across geographic boundaries.

I don’t think of myself as an inner city church planter because I want to serve the church and its mission wherever I can, not just in South Bank.

I don’t think of myself as an inner city church planter because I’m part of a team that is intentionally trying to create resources that will serve churches anywhere.

I don’t think of myself as an inner city church planter because, as part of the team at Creek Road, I’m contributing, with the rest of the team, to what happens every week in three different locations.

Mike Bird’s suggestion, in the face of this whole inner city church planting trend thing is:

“So I’m wondering, without disparaging church planting efforts, if we need to focus more on church rejuvenation over church planting in areas already well served with churches.”

I think this question presents a classic false dichotomy (on the back of a false premise – that there are areas well served with churches). And I don’t buy it. Why not do both? Why not focus equally on both?

Denominations are in a position to do that – so are bigger churches within denominations. Just about every objection to “inner city church planting” raised in those posts linked above is addressed by a model that sees big churches using their resources to serve and help smaller churches, be it starting them from scratch, or in partnership. And this is why I’m excited about the Creek Road model (you can read a bit of an explanation of this model here), and why I’ve signed up.

Big churches have an incredible opportunity to provide resources for small churches – in their own city, or beyond, that help in the rejuvenating process, they have the opportunity to start new churches that share the economies of scale and resources of the mothership. Whether or not regional churches take up the opportunity is entirely up to them, and there’s a gap between city culture and regional culture that needs to be carefully bridged. But Australia is full of people who don’t know Jesus. I’d really like more people to know Jesus. That’s why Robyn and I quit our jobs and left Townsville to go to theological college. It’s why I’m a candidate for ordination with the Presbyterian Church. It’s why despite myself I’ll be hanging out in a new church in Brisbane’s CBD next year with Creek Road.

We need more churches in the inner city because we need more churches everywhere. Brisbane will have a population of 3 million people in 2020. That’s heaps of people who need to know Jesus. That scales up the wider you cast the net – Queensland’s population is growing, Australia’s population is growing, the global population is growing. We need more churches. We need better resourced churches.

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10 propositions on the relationship between church, mission, and worship

This semester at college, in the wisdom of our curriculum setters, I’m doing some nicely overlapping thinking across three of my subjects – Church Ministry and Sacraments, Christian Worship, and The Modern Evangelical Movement . This is my attempt to integrate some of that thinking and give you some of the fruit of the grunt work I’ve put in on a couple of essays. I’ll post those essays at Venn Theology at the end of semester if you’d like to read more…

1. It starts with God – God is a relational God – both internally, within the Trinity, and externally – on his own mission – the Missio Dei (Mission of God in Latin). This mission is to gather a people to himself, who will glorify him for eternity – and he conducts this mission by sending Jesus and the Holy Spirit into the world.

2. The Church is on a mission from God – The church is the gathered people of God. We are instruments of God’s mission. United with Christ, equipped by the Spirit to take part in the gathering of God’s people. The church is a divine pyramid scheme – it exists to grow itself. Our union with Christ has an “incarnational” pay off, where when we act together as the Body of Christ we are being like Christ to the world around us. Mission is one of our primary tasks as a church, some have suggested mission is our human focused task, while worship is our god focused task,

3. This mission involves the proclamation of the Gospel in word, deed, and “being” by a priesthood of all believers– perhaps, after reading John Dickson’s Promoting the Gospel this week, “the promotion of the Gospel” is a better category. But we’re all on mission together. This mission will necessarily involve words, but it will also involve demonstrations of the truth of the gospel through how we relate to one another and the world around us as the people of God.

The church’s participation in mission to the world began in earnest with the calling of Paul (Acts 9:15), who defines his mission, which he invites his churches to partake in, as preaching Christ to those who have not heard (Romans 10:14-16, 15:17-21), as Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20, Colossians 4:2-6), to bring them to faith (Romans 10:17, 16:25-26, 1 Corinthians 9:19-23), and present them mature in Christ (Colossians 1:25-29).

The church is called to be different (Col 3:1-17, Romans 12:2, 2 Corinthians 3:18), and its conduct and ‘being’ is a fundamental part of its mission (John 13:35, 17:14-18, 20-23, 1 Peter 2:12, Matthew 5:14-16, Romans 12).

Some see social transformation as the content of evangelism, emphasising the incarnation and conflating “setting the oppressed free” with “proclaiming good news” (cf Luke 4:18-19) – but the preaching of the good news is what truly frees the oppressed.

4. While how we do and think of church (ecclesiology) and how we do and think of mission (missiology) are very closely related – they must be distinct – we can’t collapse them into each other. Many modern “missiologists” see the church exclusively as a tool for mission, so the social context of the church shapes church. If the church is incarnational, and is an entity equipped by God to do certain things (teach the gospel, administer the sacraments, “worship”) – then there are certain things that are non-negotiable even if they’re culturally weird. This is particularly true because part of how we define the church is by looking to the New Creation – where there is no mission to expand the church because the people are already gathered.

5. The Reformers worked with a “mother” analogy for the church. This is helpful. Though mission wasn’t a big deal during Christendom, and was more the role of governments who were understood as God’s tool for expanding the Christian state, the idea that the church is simultaneously responsible for “begetting” the faith of believers and nurturing believers is helpful – especially in the light of discussions and debates about who Sunday gatherings are for – where a dichotomy between serving believers and serving seekers has been unhelpfully pushed in recent times.

6. Mission is worship. If worship is magnifying the work of God as we praise, glorify and serve him, and involves the sacrificial giving of ourselves and our gifts for others (which I think is the definition of worship) – then mission is a form of that. Perhaps the ultimate form of that in our time and space – though this changes in the New Creation.  Participation in the mission of the church, as a subset of the mission of God, can be understood as an extension of the God glorifying purpose of each individual believer for which he has given us gifts that we are to use to build the body.

7. Worship is God focused, but involves being “poured out” in the service of others – Paul frames glorifying God, worship, and service, as using one’s gifts to serve others (Romans 12:1-12, 15:14-17, 2 Thessalonians 3:1-5), and sees preaching the gospel as his service and priestly duty (Acts 20:19-27, Romans 1:1, 15:16, Ephesians 3:17, 1 Corinthians 9:15-18, Colossians 1:23-29, Titus 1:1).

God gathers his people to pour them out as gifts for others (Romans 12:1, Ephesians 4:1-16 (Especially if, following Carson, the church is understood as the “host of captives” cf the Levites (Numbers 8, 18)), Philippians 2:17, 2 Timothy 4:6).

Spiritual gifts are used in the service of others, to produce maturity (Ephesians 4:8-16, Colossians 3:12-17, Romans 12:1-16, 1 Corinthians 12, 14), and to proclaim the excellence of God amongst the pagans (1 Peter 2:9-12).

The language used of the church in these passages is the language used to define worship.

8. Worship is mission. This does not necessarily follow point 6, but when point 7 is introduced the argument becomes a little easier to make – the way the church worships God functions as a testimony to others, and thus, alongside point 3, leads to the conclusion that our explicitly God focused worship of God is part of our mission. Because it is part of who we are as God’s people, and who we are as God’s people is part of our mission. This is not its only function – because it is part of what it means to truly be human (if the chief end of man is to Glorify God and enjoy him forever), and we will continue worshipping after every knee has bowed to Jesus, and in the throne room of God after judgment – where there are no non-Christians to gather. But in the here and now – our decision to not worship ourselves, or our idols, is part of our testimony to who God is – and is the only right response to the gospel of Jesus’ Lordship.

9. So, Corporate Worship – the stuff we do when we gather – is also mission.  The tasks of the church – preaching, the sacraments, and ‘worship’ (in the what we do at church sense of the word) – involves making a clear and appealing presentation of the gospel of Jesus. Clarity requires some form of contextualisation. Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 14 seems to base the unbeliever’s response to the gathering in their ability to perceive the truth of the gospel in the clarity of the gathering – corporate worship, the sacraments, and identity shaping orientation in the form of the Sunday service achieve this goal, and simultaneously the goal of worship and mission – when they involve the gathered people of God sacrificially serving one another with their gifts in a manner that clearly demonstrates and declares the truth of the gospel of the crucified saviour. Both aspects of the “mother” role of the church are accomplished in this manner.

10. Clarity on what the gospel is, what mission is, and what worship is, should nurture Christians and encourage them to worship with all of their lives, by being on mission with all of their lives. The Sunday gathering of the church should do this, thinking of the church as the permanent community of God’s people, on a permanent mission, rather than just God’s people when they gather, and missionaries when they’re outside the walls of the gathering is also helpful.

None of this seems all that controversial unless you spend a bunch of time reading stuff by people who disagree with points 3, 4, 9, and 10. Most Christians agree with 1 and 2, while 5, 6, 7 and 8 are matters that are settled by how one understands what the church is, what the gospel is, and what worship is… the methodology I used in coming to these conclusions was largely to start with a look at how the Bible develops the concept of what it means to be the people of God, and how this people is called to interact with God, with each other, and with the world around them.

I think this is a pretty useful way of thinking about life, and church – and even stuff like music – does anybody have any qualms with the logic?

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11 Exciting things (studying at) Queensland Theological College has taught me

There’s something nice about looking back over your old essays and realising that you’ve developed – for me this is true both in terms of my writing, and my thinking.

In a haze of essay induced insomnia the other night I started writing a list of things that College has made me more sure of, or taught me, that I think will be useful for the rest of my life.

1. The gospel is the lordship of Jesus – This means it first functions corporately, and individual salvation, where Jesus deals with sin, is a result. This effects the way I articulate the gospel. It’s not about me. Or you. It’s about him. I was convinced of this in first year, partly from a “word study” – which is a pretty poor basis for making decisions by itself, but partly because it’s a really cohesive summary of both the Old Testament expectations of a coming king, and the New Testament presentation of Jesus. Individualism is a relatively new animal. The word study – the Greek word we translate as gospel was already used in Roman culture as the word for when a herald announced a new king.

2. The Gospel should be proclaimed with wisdom, grace, winsomeness, clarity – and this means understanding the world around you. – What I love about the wisdom literature, Paul, Augustine, and Luther, is that they provide a model for engaging with the best thinking the world has to offer – and using it, or rejecting it – to proclaim Jesus. They also provide a model for using the best methods available to communicate.

3. Biblical Theology as the key for holding the Bible together and understanding anything – spending time reading German scholars who are either deists, or functional atheists, who bring this presupposition to the Biblical text and emphasise its humanity (which is an important aspect) over its divinity (which is the most important aspect) is depressing. The Bible makes the most sense if you allow for some divinely inspired intertextuality between the 66 books that were put together in our one book. Biblical theology makes doctrine possible.

4. The fundamental hermeneutical importance of purpose – I’m increasingly convinced that each book of the Bible is written for a purpose, or two, or three – otherwise, why write them. Often the purpose is explicit, sometimes it’s clearly implicit, other times its a product of its context which is revealed by other books (like reading Psalms against the history of Israel). Any “big idea” of a passage should somehow relate to the big idea of the book – or you run the risk of communicating something the author isn’t.

5. The book as hermeneutical unit. As a corollary to the last point, this means that if each book is a coherent piece of literature, of varying genres, then you’re expected to, by the second reading, know how the book ends, and appreciate how the particular passage you’re looking at helps the author communicate his purpose. This also assumes that the Bible is meant to be dwelt on and read more than once. This means textuality is the first step before intertextuality – so, for example, the best way to understand what function Matthew is having the Pharisees play early in the gospel is by seeing how they develop by the end of the gospel, not how John treats Nicodemus, or even, necessarily, how the Pharisees were actually perceived in history – though these are important.

6. Mission (making the gospel known to people) is worship, and includes being, saying, and doing. I’m not yet ready to argue that mission=worship, but I’m sure it’s a subset. Most passages where Paul talks about evangelism involve the sacrificial use of one’s gifts to serve the body, and reach others. How we do corporate worship is to be intelligible, and should result in visiting unbelievers converting.

7. Systematic theology is a product of biblical theology – creation and new creation are profoundly important. The Bible is the best method for understanding God’s revelation because it points to how he is revealed in Christ. It teaches us about God. It teaches us about us. It does this best when you figure out how different passages relate to us through Jesus and the narrative of salvation history (how God worked out his plan over time). The new creation is the telos for most aspects of systematic theology, creation supplies us with the tools to figure out the nature of things sans sin. Sin obviously messes things up – so much that it gets its own point below. But understanding what we were meant to be, and how we will be, is important.

8. The incredible significance of the fall – bad theology, bad ethics, a weak understanding of Scripture, and too positive an anthropology (understanding of humanity) flow from playing down the effect of sin. Sin breaks everything. So much that God sent Jesus to die to atone for it to not just move us past our initial anthropology when we are united to him, but move us towards our future anthropology. Sin especially breaks our ability to think, and particularly our ability to know God and ourselves. All the problems in contemporary theology, and in public debate, stem from failing to understand how sin has affected humanity.

9. Ethics is a product of Biblical Theology, Systematic Theology, the fall, mission, and eschatology. This is the conclusion of 6, 7, and 8. How we lived is framed by the theological realities, who God is, who Jesus is, who we are, and where we’re going.

10.Integrating ideas is important. I feel like I’ve got a better, more nuanced grasp of things I knew before college, partly because I’ve put time into reading, not just people I agree with, but critically reading people I don’t, and figuring out – with help from brilliant and ministry minded lecturers – how things fit together. I complain a lot about the stress of college, and the workload, but there’s no doubt when I read stuff I wrote a few years ago my thinking has developed – and the beauty of a well thought out college curriculum is that it has developed through integrating multiple streams of thought and data into one or two big ideas. I’m convinced that if you have an anaemic view of one thing, the flow on effect to all other things is more significant than you might think (except Greek). So if your doctrine of Scripture is wonky, everything else is wonky – this is true for most doctrinal points.

11. Practice makes better – especially with writing. I’ve produced, after culling things back to their word limit, 30,000+ words a semester of essay, that’s 150,000 words so far. My essays now are much easier to read, and their arguments much more cohesive, than in first year, and I’m producing them in significantly less time. Having something that forces you to produce work, and assesses it, is great for honing a craft.

I certainly slept better after thinking about why I was spending so much time on an essay.

*Disclaimer – these thoughts are my own, and not necessarily representative of anything the QTC faculty teaches or believes if they don’t want to teach or believe said things…

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Getting in touch with your inner Luther

I’m currently working on an essay on the Reformation. When I say currently, I mean for the last four hours I’ve been finishing my reading with just a few more articles. No seriously. Just a few more. And on Tuesday I’ll write my thoughts into something cohesive, which will then be submitted by Friday.

That’s the plan.

Anyway. I’ve been enjoying reading some of the polemics written around the period of the Reformation. And while I probably owe much of my theological heritage to John Calvin, as a Presbyterian, I find Luther resonates a bit better with my personality, as a young hot-head blogger.

Anyway. The Luther Insult Generator has been doing the rounds online. Its popularity led to a server change, and thus a change in web address. So. Update your bookmarks. Snot-nose.

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Mad Skillz: How to run a debate at a theological college

Weird. Apologies to Arthur and Tamie. Just found this post in my “pending pile” thinking I’d posted it on the 24th of May. So, here you go. An extension to Mad Skillz for 2011.

Arthur and Tamie are pretty cool. I can tell that just by looking at their blog. And when you read it you’ll see that sometimes you can judge a blog by its cover. Or design. Anyway. I met Arthur once. At NTE. He was starting a Christian forum that I enjoyed participating in for a while back in ’05. Fast forward a few years and Arthur and Tamie are in Melbourne, studying at Ridley, ready to head to Africa to teach people about Jesus.

So anyway, Arthur and Tamie have a mad skill. They can run debates. At college. That are interesting. Here’s how.

Here’s how Arthur and Tamie ran debates at Ridley Melbourne.

Rationale (what and why?)

1. Make it engaging. The debate is for exploring issues together, not for being settled and definitive.

2. Make it fun. The debate is serious but it must not be dour. Be sure to create levity: compering that is warm and amusing, and speakers who love to laugh.

3. Make it irenic. The debate must be winsome and bridge-building, tactful and wise from top to bottom. Kill off potential antagonism and division.

4. Make it polemical. The debate must actively challenge people’s thinking. To that end, it’s useful to phrase the topic in terms of an artificial dichotomy: “Will the real Mars Hill please stand up?” “Mission: stay or go?”

5. Make it practical. The debate topic must relate directly to ministry and mission. A poor topic: “NT Wright’s understanding of justification is more accurate than that of John Piper.” A more useful topic: “New justification = better mission.”

6. Make it public. Although the debate is an in-house event, make sure it’s good enough to be published. Conduct it as if you will put it online—and then do so!

Procedure (when and how?)

1. Run one debate each semester. It’s quite easy to organise and is fantastic for building community.

2. Hand-pick the speakers. They need to be people with a good level of charisma and people-skills: people who can truly engage with the audience, acquit themselves well, and bring a positive light to both the issue and the college community. The speakers should also represent the whole college community, including both students and faculty, women and men.

3. Use an appropriate format. A traditional debating format may be fine, but be ready to vary this in service of the topic.

4. Prepare the teams. Gear up the speakers to interact directly with the topic, giving them guidelines and appropriate scaffolding, then leave them to prepare on their own.

5. Promote it effectively. Advertise with posters two weeks before the debate, and promote it creatively and casually.

6. Keep it short. 45 minutes is plenty of time for the entire debate.

7. Present it creatively. Pay close attention to the craft of the whole event. For example, introduce the debate using video clips, music, or infographics.

8. Announce a winner. This is not to pronounce a judgement on the issue at hand, but to promote reflection. Presenting a winner helps move the audience from being passive observers towards being proactive thinkers. Get an adjudicator who can do this aptly and wisely.

9. Provide a way forward. The topic isn’t abstract, so conclude the debate with recommendations for the audience, such as books to read or conversations to have.

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Ahh. Holidays…

Semester One finally finished for me yesterday. Which is delightful news. Because it means that other than a PR contract I have to fulfil in Townsville in two weeks, and some bits and pieces over the next two weeks (like preaching on Revelation 19-20 at Scots). It would be horrible to forget that. Wouldn’t it. To turn up at church not realising you’re meant to be preaching.

Anyway. Semester One essays will eventually be posted over at Venn Theology. I was particularly happy with the essay I wrote on the relationship between special and general revelation (reading the Bible, and science). Other essays included a look at hope in the book of Jeremiah, a review of a German guy’s view on Luke (his name is Conzelmann), and one on the role/authority of tradition in the church.

I feel like I’ve learned a lot, and I was infinitely less stressed this year. Not sure why. Maybe it was the almost complete lack of social life.

Anyway. That’s a long way of saying you may see more, or less, of me in coming weeks. Depending entirely on how long Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood takes me to finish…

What does your perfect holiday day look like? Especially a winter holiday day. I’ll be trying to produce a string of them in the next few weeks, and could do with some inspiration.

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Bible Study Software: To buy, or not to buy, and if to buy, which to buy

Accordance, or Logos. That is the question.



One of the perks of having slaved away over a hot computer over the holidays in my holiday job (more on that later) is that I can afford to invest in some Bible study software that will hopefully make my attempts to grapple with Greek, Hebrew, and essay writing, a little bit easier.

There are three options out there (fourth if you include just using the interwebs).

I’ve basically ruled out BibleWorks – because getting it to work on a Mac requires clunky parallel operating systems and I pretty much flat out refuse to do that – why would I go back to an inferior operating system? If I were a Windows user I may well go with it – because it has the benefit of being a cheap and easy language parser. But, because I’m a superficial marketing driven purchaser I can’t get past the ugly website and shoddy looking, WIndows 95esque user interface.

Next option, by price, is Accordance – and specifically the Scholars Premier + Library Premier option, currently on special for $599. Now. Accordance is designed for Mac. But I don’t like its website. It was designed for language work, and kind of tagged on the library stuff later. Twitter loves it. I put a call out yesterday and almost every response I got (possibly because the @accordance account retweeted my tweet) was in favour of Accordance.

The option I’m currently leaning towards is Logos. Logos just looks schmick. And it has multiplatform support in built. And the ability to add module after module of good stuff. Accordance has modules as well – but it doesn’t have the same publishing base (as far as I can tell) that Logos obviously offers. The base level Scholars pack is $629. It just looks schmick too. And as a marketer I like that. It looks like a Bible software package marketed by Apple, rather than made for Apple.

My college principal, a Mac user, uses Accordance, while possibly the widest reading lecturer at college uses Logos. Both have suggested their product of choice is a good choice.

Should I flip a coin?

Some helpful links if you’re facing this decision:

Arthur wrote a good little post pondering the merits of these packages here. There’s a lot of bloat – but the bloat might be useful if ever I do decide to pursue further study (a possible option in my mind).

This Ligonier comparison is worth a read too.

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Movement at the QTC station

Speaking of press releases… it was announced to us yesterday at college, and released to the world via a media release, that the Rev Dr. Bruce Winter is stepping down from his role as principal at our college and moving into a role as a research professor, lecturing in New Testament and Systematic Theology.

It’s cool that he’s sticking around, sad that he’s stepping down. So a little bittersweet. I’ve really appreciated Bruce’s hermeneutic and his emphasis on family based ecclesiology. Plus he’s a leading expert on the socio-historical context of the New Testament and going to Greece and Turkey with him was a pretty life changing experience.

That photo sits on his desk. In a frame. Because I put it there.

If you’re an Old Testament/Hebrew expert who wants to fill theses big shoes – then QTC would like to hear from you.

Last exam today

Today is D Day. Or ד ים. I have my final exam for the year, and despite being on the last day possible it’s the exam I feel least prepared for. I think I only need to get thirty percent in the exam in order to pass… so I should be ok. But remind me next year not to neglect my languages for the sake of my essays.

Oh. And if you’re the praying type – 10am. I’d appreciate it.

Don’t pray that I get what I deserve, pray for mercy.

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Sixteen things I love about college

Lest you read that last post and think that I’m a negative nancy who isn’t enjoying the College experience, let me put your mind at ease with this list of things I am loving about being at college… I listed 16 because the experience has been more positive than negative – and I suggested 12 improvements.

  1. Studying with my wife
    What an amazing privilege. I need to keep reminding myself, even when she gets better marks than me, that it’s an amazing opportunity to live life together (all hours of the day) in a way that we couldn’t when we were both working, and we possibly won’t again for a long time.
  2. Filling in gaps/gaining knowledge
    Knowledge is like high fructose corn syrup. And I’m like a fat kid addicted to soft drink. Knowledge might puff you up – but it’s addictive and I’m enjoying the process of trying to quench my seemingly unquenchable thirst. I love reading. I love ideas. I love debating with scholars in my head and on paper. The library is an awesome new discovery for me. I managed to studiously avoid the library in my first degree. But, so many books, so little time. Our librarian is also amazing.
  3. Writing Essays
    Knowledge will only get you so far, I love the process of communicating knowledge through writing. Essays are where it’s at as far as motivating study and clarifying thoughts and arguments goes. I have thoroughly enjoyed the topics I’ve chosen to write about where choice is available, and benefited from the exercise when choice isn’t.
  4. Having the Bible come to life
    Standing in front of the Bema in Ancient Corinth is possibly literally a once in a lifetime experience, doing it with a bunch of people from college and a lecturer who specialises in first century Roman culture and its interaction with Christianity is an amazing experience. But that’s only the tip of the obelisk when it comes to the question of how college has fleshed out my understanding of the background to the Old and New Testaments. I’m pretty firmly settled on historical context being an important hermeneutical key – so the chance to dig around in primary source documents from the Ancient Near East, Qumran, Greek and Roman philosophy, and political proclamations from the Roman empire has been a really rewarding experience.
  5. Having to justify our presuppositions, and having our assumptions challenged
    College is a stretch, some scholarly ideas are worth considering, and you’re almost always richer for undergoing the process of considering (and rejecting) them. Someone told me that if you get to college too late in life you’re already to set in your ways for it to effect you – I hope that’s not the case for me.
  6. Being taught by faculty who love the Bible and love us
    While the pitfalls and potholes of modern scholarship are many and varied, our staff are academically excellent and theologically orthodox. They model the appropriate approach to scholarly pursuits, while also demonstrating a love for God’s word and for us. It’s encouraging to see the two spheres of theology and ministry come together like they do in our teachers.
  7. Mission
    Before we went overseas on our trip we went to Toowoomba for a week of mission. It was an experience. Time spent with other people, in a foreign church, seeing how stuff gets done in the real world, and doing some RE and other evangelism stuff, was great.
  8. Studying with other people
    Some people have told me that the best thing about college is the relationships you form with other people. It’s probably true. I’ve loved serving with others on mission, travelling overseas with 20 other students, and just hanging out and chatting about significant (and not so significant) theological and practical issues. The college community is a blast, and little random acts of generosity and kindness from other students have been greatly appreciated.
  9. Constructive arguments about theology
    I love arguing. I love arguing with smart people in an encouraging way and having my thinking stretched.
  10. Chapel
    Chapel services have been pretty amazing experiences. Hearing fellow students and the staff preach, singing together, being encouraged by God’s word, singing and praying together has been a consistent highlight of the week for me all year.
  11. Handball
    Seriously. How cool is handball. I heard it’s almost banned at other colleges in Australia.
  12. The Coffee
    Roasted with care. Ground fresh every morning. Brewed scientifically. Turning a profit. How can I complain.
  13. The Drive
    We did have the coolest car going to college from the northern suburbs of Brisbane. The drive to and from college was almost always eventful.
  14. Language “study hour”
    So, you may have the impression that I don’t love studying Greek and Hebrew. You’re right. but one thing I do like is that QTC built time to study the languages into the program so we don’t have to at home (in theory).
  15. The Location
    Eating lunch overlooking the river. Oh, the serenity.
  16. Free Bread
    Brumbies give us free bread every Wednesday.
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Twelve things I would change about the college experience

As a follow up to my last post about college related stress, and on a slightly similar note, here are some things I would change about the Bible College/Seminary (for American Readers) experience. You can sum up these points with “make the college experience more reflective of real life.” I have some other thoughts about the process the Presbyterian Church uses for sorting out its candidates. But I’ll keep this general for the sake of maintaining my position as a candidate…

  1. Make ministry more of a priority
    I feel like I’ve been sucked out of any sense of normal church life (well, normal based on the last eight years of heavy involvement in church life) by the college experience. I’ve almost forgotten what its like to talk to somebody on a week night, or talk about anything other than what I’ve learned or been thinking about during the week on a Sunday. It’s what people ask. And I’m often too tired or distracted to care. College students are meant to be involved in church life, as a candidate I’m meant to do ten hours a week… But count off the hours of church on a Sunday (twice), Bible Study, and a Staff meeting and my time is up. This may be my bias against languages speaking – but I spend a lot of my time doing language grunt work, and a lot of that time wondering what the payoff is in terms of my future ministry, the answer, in the day and age of amazing computer programs and multiple reliable translations, “not a whole lot.”
  2. Teach more practical stuff, earlier
    Maybe if I’d done MTS I wouldn’t be saying this – but shouldn’t our facility for training and equipping people for ministry be training and equipping people for ministry. I’m sure most ministry stuff is better caught than taught – but having some formal apologetics training, and a bit of pastoral care/counselling training from the outset would be terrific, and ending up with some how to do the business of church would be nice too. Just thinking about the practical side of ministry, and how things are going to work in the real world when rubber meets road, would be a more valuable exercise than most language classes (there it is again). Role playing, talking to experts, practical stuff that gives you some idea at how you might tackle awkward pastoral issues wold be heaps more useful than hoping you get some really sticky situations in your 10 hours of parish time.
  3. Get students thinking about modern communication technology
    Call me biased, but I reckon every Bible College student should blog. Blogging helps to find a written voice. It’s a chance to articulate thoughts on issues raised in class. It’s a chance to be creative, and to think about application. It’s a chance to get ideas out into the world. Blogs could even be part of the assessment process. Vocational ministry is about communication. Bible College students should be thinking about how to use technology, social networking, emails, anything they can get their hands on – for the sake of the kingdom. Blogging is great for crystallising thoughts. They should not only have to blog, but they should have to post comments on the ideas of their friends (on their blogs). This is only a partly serious suggestion. But most marketing people think the Internet is the future – so we have to encourage people in ministry to be thinking about how it fits with their future. The college itself needs to think about how to use the web better, both in terms of its own homepage and the wider world of social networking, blogging, and multimedia stuff.
  4. Make students teach RE as a community service/part of the curriculum
    Why are we keeping young, dedicated people who are being educated about the Bible out of what is a golden opportunity for loving and serving our communities.
  5. Equip students better mentally to cope with Scholarship
    Rather than spending a week before college starts grappling with the Greek and Hebrew alphabets – we should be helping prepare students for the challenge of dealing with  stupid “Emperor’s New Clothes” scholars are going to present to their thinking. Academia rewards new and exciting ideas – which gives rise to a lot of people getting excited about really dumb stuff that shouldn’t be taken seriously past showing why it’s dumb. College should not be a time where you lose your faith and have doubts preyed on by scholars with an agenda who you’re not really warned about. Some scholars are wolves in wool
  6. Modernise assessment processes (get with the programs)
    Seriously. Who uses pen and paper for anything other than taking phone messages (other than GTD people) any more? Why am I expected to lug a pen into an exam and scrawl illegibly as fast as I can answering four questions in 2 hours? Get with the times. Students inevitably write slower than their ancestors, and type faster. Concerns about plagiarism or cheating with the power of the Internet are both stupid and unfounded – a) because you can check for plagiarism as quick as you can say “google” and b) because the whole idea of a robust education is getting people to interact with the ideas that are out there – and it’s stupider to expect students to rote learn said ideas in order to regurgitate them in an exam situation. There are tens of good computer programs out there aimed at making the art of theology easier – why aren’t these being deliberately included in the curriculum so that a lifetime of sermon preparation/Bible teaching is also easier?
  7. Make language learning more reflective of reality, and more useful
    Most ministers I speak to who use Greek and Hebrew (and its a minority) do it with the aid of books and computer software. And yet we’re expected to memorise paradigms and rote learn vocab in order to spurt it out on demand. I can’t imagine that situation ever arising in the real world… “Excuse me Reverend, could you tell me, on the spot, why this word in my KJV is translated in that way” – aren’t we better off teaching (and I’ve got to give my Hebrew lecturer credit here) people to understand the way the language works (like an animal), equipping students to dissect words and getting a bit of linguistic theory under their belts to avoid illegitimate totality transfers and to understand semantic ranges. At the moment we spend so much time doing rote learning stuff and writing out paradigms until our fingers and eyes bleed that we’ve got almost no time to look at the actual Bible or think about any of the other three subjects.
  8. Get rid of exams
    Why do we think asking for regurgitation in two hours, on paper, is a good way to assess thirteen weeks’ worth of work? No one does, and it isn’t. Assessment on a regular basis (to encourage people to keep up with the work – rather than trying to cram it into the short term memory) that is more closely modeled on the real world (discussions, presentations etc) is surely a better gauge of a person’s progress. Show some initiative and encourage people based on educational notions of learning styles and the like.
  9. Make assessment marking less arbitrary (death to word limits)
    My own, very personal bugbear,1 is the word limit. Word limits are entirely arbitrary. I am not suggesting no limit on writing – but to use words is dumb. It misunderstands language. It actually encourages dense rather than flowing writing, and complexity over simplicity. Let me explain. Every sentence is an idea. That sentence was five words. My last three sentences used a total of thirteen words. Other people may use the same number of words to express less, others more. Others may use the same number of words but triple the number of syllables, or enhance the complexity of the words they use. We all know that shift+f7 gives you a thesaurus that is capable of turning your rudimentary slang into highbrow academia. Essays should be given a qualitative assessment, not a quantitative one. Students should be penalised for including stuff that’s irrelevant to their argument – but they should not be penalised if their argument required extra words because it needed them. And if you want a limit in order to make the lecturer’s job easier when it comes to marking – set a typeface, type size, and line spacing – and then set a page limit. That will encourage more concise writing. That’s how journalists do it too. You write in column inches, not in word counts (unless you’re a freelancer paid by the word). And you cut stuff from the bottom if you have to edit it. Lecturers should stop reading when the writing gets boring. That’s real life. It’s also reflective of preaching (where you should go as long as you’re interesting – according to QTC’s preaching lecturer). The vast majority of my time writing assignments is trying to cut five hundred words from an assignment that doesn’t have five hundred words to spare. The only options seem to be to lose substantial and important logical steps to an argument, or to go over the word limit and cop a penalty. If anybody knows how to, in 2,000 words, interact with scholarship (at least 10 peer reviewed articles), the Bible, and other primary documents while answering a question that is contentious enough to be at the scholarly coalface, then please, let me know.
  10. Make assessment criteria clearer (and stick to it)
    The Australian College of Theology provides guidelines for assessing essays that almost universally get ignored (so far as I can tell). Of the five essays I’ve had marked thus far – only one referred directly to this criteria in terms of the mark given, the rest seemed just to go with some sort of vibe (though the marks have all been fairly similar).
  11. Encourage the development of the fruit of the Spirit above the fruit of the head
    I’ve chatted to a few people disillusioned with the college process online, and in real life, in the last little while – and if a criticism comes up enough, from enough different people, sooner or later you’ve got to wonder if it has merit. Assessment of someone’s capability to do ministry is almost always based not on what they know, but if they know God. And if they are suitably gifted. I don’t know how the college can do his better – but I don’t think stress, diarrhea, grumpiness, worry, academic envy, and tiredness, nor did I notice broad knowledge of scholarly opinions, Greek parsing, or Hebrew pronunciation mentioned as desirable attributes in Galatians 5 (and my Greek isn’t that bad, nor is the semantic range of the items in the list that broad).
  12. Start later, finish later (or at the same time)
    Again, a personal bugbear. Our college advertises that it finishes in time for students to beat peak hour home. Which is great. What they don’t advertise is that you have to drive to college in peak hour. We live 17 km from the college (according to the GPS) and it takes 40 minutes to get there in peak hour, and 25 minutes off peak. Peak hour seems to start at about 3pm anyway – so the trip home isn’t substantially faster. And seriously, who is at their best in an 8.30 class?

1 I know I break this rule a lot here – I write too many words. But seriously. I’m a journalist. Brevity is my thing. You will find almost no adjectives in my writing. I don’t pad out my sentences with flowery language. I might choose a cool noun here or there, but I try to carry my writing with my vocab in one word bursts. I try to be a sniper rifle, not a shotgun. Word choice is about precision, not about scattering a few words in the breeze hoping one will hit the target.

School’s Out

Today marked the last day of class for the year, and the day I handed in my last essay. Just five exams in the next three weeks between me and three months of resting my brain (perhaps).

A word of warning though, over the next three weeks this little corner of the internet is going to, once again, be filled with amusing anecdotes from the desk of Nathan Campbell. That is to say it’s going to be filled with notes from my studying, for my benefit. Because blogging is my learning style. And hopefully for the benefit of others. And for your entertainment. Stay tuned for my attempt to create some church history history with my series of Early Church History Trading cards, and some theological venn diagrams, some Greek, and who knows what else I might throw in the mix. Maybe some Hebrew vocab memory hooks. Exciting times.

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Doug Green on Genesis – part 2

More notes from Doug Green… including some more speculative stuff (by his own admission) that was pretty thought provoking. You’ll notice that in order to convey the essence of some sort of characteristic Doug would often add “ness” to the end of a word, and occasionally negate that with an “un”… my spellcheck didn’t really like that so much…

Evangelicals have a low view of what it means to be human even before we introduce the subject of sin. In our unfallen condition we were like God as a son is like his father.

The Fall Stuff – less pretty, and a little more speculative…

We know how the story in Genesis 3 transpires – the “king and the queen” reject their undergodness. The consequences of Adam’s sin have been understood conventionally in expressions like the WCF.

Five things that happened in the fall:

  1. Exile from God’s presence – there’s an interesting connection between Israel’s story and Adam’s story. Adam and Eve are tossed from the garden – which opens up an interesting insight into the human condition – do we live in a perennial state of homelessness. Sin has rendered us spiritually homeless and homesick. If we’re honest with ourselves even our experiences of being at “home” – family, tribal connections etc – are a longing for a deep feeling of home. Why does it feel so good to be “home”… Psalm 37 – we live out our days in a foreign land… there’s an interesting “human condition as homelessness” notion at play. Fulfillment is found in coming home to God. So Israel, when they return from exile, rebuild the temple. The Prodigal Son is a great New Testament example. Home and family is one of the new gods of Australian culture. But it’s a god destined for failure because humans (and thus families) are sinful.
  2. The king is dethroned and the son loses his inheritance – the language is of dethronement, of being cast back into humanity. The dethroned king is also the disinherited son (another link to the Prodigal Son – the father is willing to restore the disinherited).
  3. No longer “like one of us” – take this with a grain of salt… By sinning the first humans fell from the almost godlike status – Genesis 3:22 in the NIV is typical of the received tradition “behold, the man has become like one of us” – it seems to be saying that it was in the fall that we became like God. Which seems to completely contradict this position. Was the serpent telling the truth? When he said “you will become like God” – the Hebrew could be equally translated in the past tense – what he once was – “behold, the man was like one of us, he used to know good and evil. But now he is no longer…” This would be consistent with Genesis 1 – where humanity was created like God. That should have been Eve’s response to the serpent when he said “you will be like God” – “but we already are”… now, because of the fall they’re no longer entitled to the life of the Gods. In Doug’s opinion the serpent tricked both Eve and the translators of Genesis. If this interpretation is correct then the gospel story – the redemption – can be understood as taking us back to being like God. If this is correct then not only did humanity used to be like the heavenly beings but also that status was essential for understanding the difference between good and evil. Everything, under the one word torah, was good – other than disobeying and doing the one thing that God has prohibited. Because they had this “law” they were able to discern between good and evil. What do Adam and Eve have after the fall that would fit into the category of now knowing good and evil?
  4. After the fall we lose our moral compass and don’t think straight anymore. So. If this interpretation is correct – before the fall, Adam and Eve were like God and able to pick the difference between good and evil. The command gave them the guideline for making this distinction. The serpent lies. They already know.  Eve’s response should have been “you’re a liar.” The knowledge of good and evil is something they lose. That is compromised. As a result of the fall. This is part of humanity’s problem – we call good evil, and evil good [ed note – cf Romans 1]. Moral confusion, far from being marks of the true humanity, is a mark of fallen humanity. One dimension of the gospel then will be that through the Spirit, and union with Christ, will realign our moral compass and restore us to full humanity. The sinful nature has damaged our ability to think straight. Similar picture with Jesus and the demoniac – who is insane, and once Jesus heals him, he sits at his feet “in his right mind”…
  5. It results in the loss or reduction of our original glory – “the Lord God made garments of skin” – traditionally understood as requiring an animal sacrifice (which has been read in as atonement). God’s clothing of Adam and Eve is a symbolic act of changing their cultural status. A big deal in ancient culture – clothing carries symbolism of a change of status (white wedding dress). Clothing the man in skins may be the Lord identifying them with the animals. They become more like animals than gods. They’ve lost their godlike status and their new status is more like the animals. A stretch. Sure. But so is the atonement reading. Daniel 4 – one of the consequences was being dethroned as king, throughout the OT there are stories of kings being dethroned that are framed as a retelling of the Adam story. When you read them this way they can give us some insight into the human condition. So the story of Nebuchadnezzar is an example – what do you do when you have worldwide dominion? You wander around looking at what you’ve done – this is a picture of a king who thinks he rules the world. It’s arrogance and hubris. The words are still on his lips when a voice comes from heaven – “your royal authority has been taken from you” – echoing Adam’s dethronement. You will be “exiled from people” and will “live with the wild animals” until he recognises that he is not God. The description of Nebuchadnezzar is beastly – he has become an animal. He moves from the pinnacle of human experience, glorifying in his achievements to the humiliating state of “an animal” – this is the human story. We’ve moved from royalty to being beastly. Nebuchadnezzar’s redemtion is a gospel story – his sanity is restored, he praises the most high, he puts himself under God’s authority, he ends up in a better place (good, bad, better – the redemption cycle). Redeemed humanity is elevated from a beastly humanity to a humanity that exercises dominion – back to where we should be, but possibly in a better place than we began in. The transformation comes when we recognise God as God. True humanity will rule creation, rather than being a ruled over creature, only when we recognise God. Nebuchadnezzar “my knowledge, my understanding, returned to me” as a result of submitting. Sin makes us insane. The good news is that Christ makes us sane.

Romans 3:23 – because we’ve sinned we now fall short of the glory of God that attached to us as unfallen humans (rather than being a case of missing God’s standard of perfection). Psalm 8 – for all have sinned and we no longer have our heavenly nature. We are “falling short” humans.

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Liveblog: Ben Witherington III on Acts

Ben Witherington III, blogger, biblical scholar and widely published New Testament author, is guest lecturing at QTC today on the book of Acts.

I’ll be updating it as the three hours of lectures go on – check back in this arvo for the final version. What follows are bits and pieces from his lectures:

One of the things I would want to stress to you is that what we’re dealing with in Acts is a form of ancient historiography. Luke is writing in the traditions of Hellenistic and Jewish history writing that had their own conventions which are not identical with the conventions of modern historiography.

One of the great problems with interpretation of the text is anachronism – reading our concerns, our modern concerns, back into the text. Acts is one of the main areas where this happens.

For example: Acts 2 is about a miracle. The miracle of speaking in tongues. But it’s ultimately about empowering the church for mission, not about a particular kind of post-conversion spiritual experience that we will all receive.

All of us are guilty of anachronism – we all read the Book of Acts with modern eyes.

Hermeneutically speaking we need to have some rules about how we read Acts.

  1. If we find a repeated pattern we can assume this is normative.
  2. If we find a special event not repeated it might be an unusual historical occurrence and not a principle on which we should hang out shingle.
  3. Does the author of Acts affirm the pattern? Positive repeated patterns are a good interpretive rubric (the telling of Saul’s conversion as a very important event is told three times – clearly it’s important). Does the author of Acts condemn the pattern. Some texts are “go and do likewise” others are “go and do otherwise.”
  4. We can’t just deduce doctrines from the reporting of history unless we have other methodologies – Acts reports what happens, not always what ought to have happened.

Chapter 6 begins “so the word of God spread…” one of the things about the structure of the book is what we have in the book of Acts is an arrangment of panels of material with little linking summary statements – like this one in Acts. Acts is not presented in strict chronological order – there’s a broadly chronological order, but sometimes Luke wants to give background flashbacks to help follow through a theme in the narrative. There’s finess in what Luke is doing. He is operating like Roman historians who tell the chronological sequential narratives about different regions in different literary units. We have some of that in the book of Acts.

Luke is wanting to talk about the geographical spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome. This is historiography, not biography. It’s not just about Peter or Paul – in fact, after Acts 15 we don’t hear about Peter again. It’s not a biography of Paul and it ends on an unfinished note. There’s no story about the death, or martyrdom, of Paul. This is not bios but a historical monograph.

Luke isn’t interested in the Acts of the Apostles but the Acts of the Holy Spirit – how the work of the gospel is fulfilled throughout the world.

There’s lots we’d like to know that Luke is not telling us. Don’t eisegete. We need to be comfortable with the limitations of the text. We can’t bring our own interests into the text. We have to let Luke be Luke. Ancient historiographers were not as hung up about chronology as we are. They didn’t measure time like we do. They were less concerned about precise chronology and happier with general accounts, we can’t impose our precision on their accounts. Ultimately the text as received is what God has decided to give us. It’s important that we leave dogma at the door.

The phrase “The Word of God” refers to the oral proclamation – not some document, in a culture where less than 20% of people could read the primary method of receiving the good news was through oral proclamation of the good news. That’s what the phrase must mean throughout the book of Acts (not the Hebrew bible, not any written documents).

We live in a culture of texts as “literate” people. They weren’t. Most ancient people preferred the oral word to the written word. Consulting with living voices and eyewitnesses was culturally preferential to reading written accounts. Written documents had very limited functions in antiquity. They were not for everybody.

This is a massive work by ancient standards – Luke contains the limit in letter count that you could get on one piece of papyrus. Luke was pushing the envelope in terms of content, Acts makes use of the space on a papyrus in a similar way. Ben thinks Theophilus was Luke’s patron. A real person, not a general title for “lovers of God”…

On the Stoning of Stephen…

Stephen is a Greek speaking Jew, speaking in the synagogue of the freedmen. Stephen is meant to be a deacon, looking after the practical needs of the church, and here he is preaching.

There are a lot of parallels between how Luke tells the story of the death of Jesus and how he tells the story of the death of Stephen. In essence Stephen models Christ’s death. Luke is using a historiographical tool to use history to teach morality. He’s encouraging Christians to follow the model of Isaiah’s suffering servant – and providing a biblical framework for Christian martyrdom – “father forgive them”…

The “Acts of the Apostles” is a misnomer – it’s not anthropological or biographical but theological – and this informs its approach to history. We hardly see any of the apostles except for Peter and Paul.

Luke sees himself as writing in the tradition of Jewish historiographers – like the Maccabees and OT writers.

There’s false witness in both accounts, born out in the Sanhedrin. Jesus should have been stoned (if not for the passover festival). Because there were probably 400,000 people in the city at the time the Jews wanted to make sure that it was the Romans who killed Jesus so that no Jews could say that the problem was of Jewish origin. In the case of Stephen it’s the Jews who carry out the killing. Romans reserved the right of capital punishment in their own hands. The Jews had no legal right to engage in vigilante justice. Their only recourse to capital punishment (legally) was the violation of the Holy of Holies in the temple.

The Romans would never execute a Jew on the charge of Jewish blasphemy. Jesus was executed on a charge of treason, claiming to be a king. Stephen was stoned for blasphemy.

The account of the stoning of Stephen is the longest narrative in Acts and contains the longest speech – it was obviously important to Luke. Luke is dealing with an explanation of how Christianity and Judaism have split. He’s explaining the origins of this split. The ending of the life of a pious Jew, Stephen, and the emergence of Saul/Paul as a force for the gentile mission is a pivotal moment in this movement.

One of the repeated themes of Acts is “father forgive them because they are ignorant”… this comes up in Peter’s sermon “you crucified Jesus because you were ignorant”… Luke doesn’t want to write off Jews, he wants to show that they are not forsaken but that they are in a position where they have rejected Jesus.

In the speech of Stephen we see a retelling of sacred history – from Abraham on, recounting the sad story of the unfaithfulness of the Jews to the work, word, and messengers of God. It’s a repeated pattern in Israelite history, all the way down to Jesus. The Sanhedrin aren’t thrilled with this reinterpretation of their history – in their mind they are good evangelical, bible believing, Jews. This was the ultimate insult. And it resulted in the death of Stephen.

The end of Stephen’s speech is not recorded – the speech (like many times in Acts, eg Paul in Athens) goes on until it is interrupted – and at that point the speech cuts off and is replaced by narrative. This is what happens here. Stephen is in full swing, condemning the Sanhedrin – who become teeth gnashingly furious. It’s when Stephen calls Jesus the “Son of Man” (the only use of the title in Acts) that they rush him and kill him (which is where he cries out “do not hold this sin against them”).

Paul’s “persecution of the church unto death” is the sin he constantly dwells on when describing his pre-Christian life. In Philippians he calls himself “blameless under the law” – nobody could accuse Saul/Paul of being a lawbreaker. But he kept the letter of the law while missing the spirit of the law. He makes this point and then acknowledges that he is the “least of the apostles because he persecuted the church unto death.”

This is how Luke introduces the story of Saul/Paul.

On Paul
Iconography – icons were not intended to be photos but representations of the character of the person. Big heads were not symbols of knowing lots, but of being wise. Descriptions in ancient texts functioned in the same way – they’re not so much about what the people looked like (which was not an issue for ancient writers) but descriptions linked with character.

Who is Paul: he’s responsible for over a third of the New Testament.

Paul the teacher (Acts 11:26)
Paul the prophet (Acts 13:9-11)
Paul the apostle (Acts 14:4, 14, Galatians 1:1, 2 Corinthians 8:23)

Ben reiterates that “The Acts of the Apostles” is a silly name for the book that Luke would have been bemused by. The inspired part of Acts begins with verse one, not with the late addition of the title.

On Barnabas (Paul’s missionary buddy)

Originally Joseph, Barnabas, the name, means “son of prayer” or “son of encouragement”… he’s a Levite convert from Cyprus, part of the 70 select disciples of Jesus, he sold his land to help the poor, held to have been stoned in 60AD.

On Paul again
If we met Paul today, quite a lot of us would probably find him difficult to get on with.

Paul’s Roman citizenship is a trump card that he trots out to save his life. He doesn’t mention, directly, in his letters that he was a citizen. It’s Luke who mentions that.

Paul was probably amazingly fit – his missionary journeys required long treks through harsh terrain. Some of the geography he had to cross in short periods of time were pretty incredibly hostile. To walk from Perga to Pisidian Antioch (like Paul did) requires 600 miles of walking over some pretty massive hills.

When you start seeing the proportions of what’s going on you see that being called to be the “apostle to the Gentiles” is like being told you’re the apostle to the whole world except Israel.

On Paul’s Conversion
There are three accounts of Paul’s conversion in Acts (ch 9, 22, 26) – they are widely separate. The first is in the third person, told about Paul. The second and third are in the first person. Paul himself is reporting the story. In both cases he tells the story in a rhetorically effective way depending on his audience. Paul is speaking to the crowd in the temple precinct (ch 22) and King Agrippa and Roman officials (ch 26).

The first account is Luke’s account of Paul’s conversion. Luke wasn’t there. So where did he get it from? Luke 1:1-4 – he consulted with the eyewitnesses. In this case he must have received it from Paul, his companion from the second and third missionary journeys recorded in Acts.

Acts 9 is straightforward narrative. One of the things Ben wants to dispel is that Paul’s name doesn’t occur as a result of the conversion but when he runs into Sergius Paulus (who has an inscription in Galatia) that he changes his name.

The Greek form of the name Saul, σαυλος meant “to walk like a prostitute” in Greek. Which isn’t likely to work in the work of his missionary context. παυλος in Greek just meant “a short person.” The name change comes because of his missionary work in the gentile world, not because of his conversion. That’s a myth.

Luke, in composing Acts, knows, when he writes what he writes, that he doesn’t have to tell the story on the first go – because he’s going to come around to it again later in the piece. The provision of more detail is a rhetorically effective account – not a contradiction. It’s an elaboration to keep the narrative retelling fresh on the second and third iterations. The mechanism of the encounter – the voice of Jesus speaking to Saul – is the same in each account. Verbatim.

Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus makes it clear that when you persecute the church you are persecuting Jesus, and that his salvation was not through keeping the law – but through grace.

What is the change that happens in Paul’s life? What is the process that we’re talking about? Does he go from being a Jew to being a Gentile? No. Does he go from a person who believes in the Hebrew scriptures to one who doesn’t? No. What happens is that he goes from being an opponent to a proponent of Jesus as a messianic fulfillment. This is not a new religion. But the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise of blessing to the nations. We can not forget that we have been grafted in to Israel through the work of faithful Jewish missionaries.

Paul doesn’t ever call us Christians – but talks about us being “in Christ” – has that ever struck you as odd as a description of the people of God? This is not a mere metaphor. We are being told that Christ is present everywhere at once. He is the atmosphere in which we live. When Paul wanted to describe who we are, he said we are “Jew and Gentile” in Christ. In Romans 9-11 he goes on a rampage rebuking the Christians for thinking they had supplanted the Jews.

He says: “I would be willing to be cut off from Christ permanently if my people could be reconciled and brought back in” – which one of you would willingly give up your salvation to save others…

and then (paraphrasing)…

“You Gentiles are the wild olive branches that have been grafted in” so you have no basis for being arrogant.

The truth then, and the truth now, is that many Jews don’t believe in Jesus because of the church. Not because of Jesus.

This conversion story has a call that comes with a commission. Paul was not just called to be a follower of Jesus but commissioned to be part of the ministry of the body of Christ. This is true for everybody. Paul and Peter’s missions were not geographically exclusive. It wasn’t a turf war. Paul, Peter, and Apollos were all part of the same team ministering in the same cities.

There’s not always a crisis point that leads to conversion. Sometimes it’s a process that takes time. Your conversion does not need to replicate what happened to Saul. It’s like labour – some are short, some are long, some are painful – in the end a new creature is born. There are a variety of patterns of conversion in Acts. It’s a mistake to schematise what our God personalises.

The eyes have it: sight as the thorn in Paul’s flesh

Galatians (Paul’s earliest work) 4:12-15: “I plead with you, brothers, become like me, for I became like you. You have done me no wrong. 13As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you. 14Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. 15What has happened to all your joy? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.”

What is this about? Ben thinks Paul had ongoing eye problems. When you have a vision you’re supposed to report what you saw, and Paul, on the Damascus “heard” the Lord Jesus. “See with what large letters I write my name” why did Paul write in large letters and need a scribe? What was the stake in his flesh? A physical problem that was chronic but did not effect his ministry. In the ancient world the eyes were seen as the windows to the soul – bad eyes meant a bad soul. Ancient peoples didn’t believe that the eyes were a receptacle of light but the things through which the soul projected…

Paul says, when I came to you you did not condemn me, and did not spit (which was the appropriate cultural response to the “evil eye”… the Galatians didn’t judge Paul on that basis.

Why did Paul need a personal physician on his missionary journeys? Because he had a condition that was not fatal but needed treatment all the time.

Why did the Corinthians say his letters were powerful but his presence weak? He had an ethos problem – his eyes. They weren’t impressed with his appearance. But his words were powerful.

The Roman soldier who was first up the wall was given incredible honour – when Paul escapes persecution via the basket lowered down a wall he claims to have been “first down the wall” an inverted version of Roman honour.

The early letters of Paul are not the early thoughts of Paul – they’re letters from the experienced Paul. Years after his conversion. It seems that Paul laboured in the vineyard for many years before seeing any results.

Ben draws a parallel between Jacob and his post wrestle itch (from Genesis) and the purpose it served as a reminder – and Paul’s continued malady. This doesn’t mesh with prosperity/health gospels – and many prominent and influential Christian ministers and thinkers have died of diseases or suffered chronic ill health. We can’t link prosperity and faith.

Closing points (of sorts)

Luke’s lithmus test for salvation is the Spirit – there is no Christian without the Holy Spirit – we can only tell if someone has the Spirit or not by their words and conduct. Water baptism does not save (or do anything).

Tongues (angelic language) are a legitimate and biblical gift (not found in Acts 2 – but mentioned later).

The Holy Spirit’s job is to convict, convince, convert. It will always point people towards Jesus.

Our gifts are for the benefits of others. The fruit of the Spirit is for the nourishing of the body. There is one fruit of the Spirit – not many. In the Greek. These fruits are meant to be present in all Christians. The fruit of the spirit is about character renovation, the gifts are about ministry. There’s not a necessary link between gifts and maturity. Gifts should be exercised by the mature. If you can’t speak the truth in love you need to stop speaking it. Your character is more important than your gifting. Christianity is more often caught than taught.

“The most important ministry you can have is not the songs (etc) that come from your mouth but the fruits that come from your life.”

The Spirit in the Book of Acts, above all other things, is the spirit of mission and evangelism. All the other achievements of the Spirit (eg healing) are peripheral to that mission.

Disciplines of a godly theological student

The title of this post is a play on the title of a popular book – not a comment on my own character. The more weeks of college I attend the more I realise that training for ministry is a multistrand process… theological education includes elements of the following (that I can think of):

  • Ancient History (Understanding the culture and context of the Old and New Testaments)
  • Modern History (Church history, understanding the context of different commentators etc)
  • Philosophy (Understanding how different ideas interact)
  • Linguistics (Greek and Hebrew)
  • Literary criticism (understanding genre, intended audience, etc)
  • Counselling (pastoral stuff – though this seems to come mostly from “on the job” training)
  • Communication (preaching, essay writing, etc)
  • Theology (studying God via doctrine and the Bible)
  • Mysticism (studying other religions from history)
  • Sociology (understanding the nature of human relationships throughout time)

Have I missed any? No wonder our principal doesn’t want us pretending to be studying business and mareketing principles. We’ve just got no time. And no wonder my head hurts.