Thursday, May 31, 2007

Conventional and Covenantal Signs

In semiotics it is usual to think that a signifier is connected to a signified by social convention. The meanings of words depends on their usage by a community.

The Lord’s Supper may be considered as a word / sign. Let us take the bread and the wine as the signifiers and the body and blood of Jesus as the signified.

At least in part, the basis of the connection between the signified and the signifier in the Lord’s Supper is much clearer than is the case with most words and their meanings, where the development of the signification is opaque to most users.

The Supper may be analogous to a prominently and authoritatively coined neologism, or perhaps to the naming of a child, where the signifier and the signified are publicly established by someone competent to bring about the connection and duly documented.

Bread and wine were established as signifying the body and blood of Christ (in the ritual context of the Supper) by the Lord Jesus’ words of institution and his command that this should be done in memory of him by his disciples. The connection is conventional and social. Because of Jesus’ “public” and documented act, for the community that looks to him as its Lord, bread and wine in the Supper signify his body and blood. This meaning is reinforced by the regular usage of the church.

But a Calvinistic doctrine of the Supper does not merely think of the bread and wine as enacted words or simple symbols, connected to the body and blood of Jesus only by a convention that they should call to mind the body and blood of Christ.

In the Supper there is not only a conventional signification but a covenantal connection and union between the sign and the thing signified. Christ has covenanted to give us his body and blood spiritually when the bread and wine are received with faith. His Spirit works in faithful accordance with his promise so that as the bread and wine are given, so Christ is unfailingly offered to his people and received by them with gratitude.

Similarly in the case of the Bible, the words have their meaning by social convention and usage, as with other words. They are God’s words because he once spoke them. They are publicly documented as such. The church receives the words of Scripture as God’s words, recognises them as canonical and regularly repeats them in her liturgy. But the words of Scripture also come with God’s covenantal promise that by the Spirit they are his powerful and effective words to his church today.

Ultimately the word signs of the Bible signify Christ. But they do more than merely refer to him or communicate information about him: they genuinely communicate him to his people to be received by faith.

Implications of the Model Reader

According to Umberto Eco, texts assume, indicate and develop a “Model reader” who is required to cooperate with the text, if it is to be meaningful.

Similarly, Wolfgang Iser describes an ‘implied’ reader. The reader may be modified and transformed by the dynamic interaction between text and reader. The reader is active in the encounter with the text and it elicits responses from him, but he is also constrained by the text. An interpretive community will tend to share an understanding of what readings are legitimate.

We may apply these ideas to the Bible and to the Lord’s Supper (which as a visible word may be considered as a text). The Bible and the Supper indicate for whom they are. They call for and develop the responses their Author intends, if they are received rightly.

The very structure of the Supper, giving of bread and wine, for example, casts the “reader” as the empty-handed, hungry, humble, grateful recipient. He must receive God’s gift with faith and thanksgiving, in fellowship with all those who are called to the Supper.

Eco’s and Iser’s theories are discussed in Miles, Johnny E., Wise King – Royal Fool: Semiotics, Satire and Proverbs 1-9 Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series (London / New York, T&T Clark, 2004), p23f.

A deist doctrine of Scripture

We are familiar with a deist doctrine of creation and would reject it. It is not that God made the world and set it going like some great watch, only to stand back and let its run its course according to some mechanism he had set up. Rather, God constantly sustains and governs the world he has made.

Similarly, we must reject what might be called a deist doctrine of Scripture. It is not just that God inspired the Bible and cast it out into the world: he continues to speak it today to his people by his Spirit. Our view of the Bible is not impersonal and mechanistic: the words of God come to us afresh on his Spirit-breath as his address to us.

Postmodern attack on Liberty of Indifference

Often overlooked… is the… postmodern claim that “what you want” is not entirely up to you. Both biological nature and social environment program you to want some things and not others and to perceive only certain objects and only in certain ways…. You are a product of power…

Aichele, George, The Control of Biblical Meaning: Canon as Semiotic Mechanism (Harrisburg, Trinity Press, 2001), p17

Some contemporary evidence for types of social and biological determination may help to make the claim that there is no such thing as liberty of indifference, only liberty of spontaneity, more credible and comprehensible to those who find it difficult. My choices are real and are really mine, even if who I am is a product of all sorts of factors, such as my genes, my upbringing, my creation, my living in God’s world under his sovereign rule.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Pre-Ordination Reading?

Any suggestions for pre-ordination retreat reading? Or indeed any other stuff that a new or newish minister should read? I guess if any new stuff is to be ordered before I go away, I ought to get Amazon onto it soon.

So what might one read?

The Bible, of course. Maybe especially Acts 6, 20; the Pastoral Epistles.

The BCP ordination service, or maybe even CW, I suppose, if we must.

Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor

C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers

John Piper, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals

Derek Prime, On Being a Pastor

Douglas Wilson, Mother Kirk

Jeff Myers, The Lord’s Service

I’m thinking of taking something I haven’t read yet. Maybe:

Jay Adams, Preaching with Purpose

John Owen, On The Duties of Pastors

Is there anything especially suitable from the early church?

Would Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule be good reading?

Something on counselling, I guess: Paul Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands?

I could probably do with spending some more time with the Canons of the Church of England, though I’m not sure how edifying that would be.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Getting Over Grammatical Historical Exegesis

Grammatical Historical Exegesis is good as far as it goes. We want to seek to work out what Amos probably meant to his first audience and what Paul probably meant in writing his letters to the Corinthians. Our interpretation should pay careful attention to what the text actually says and we mustn’t leap to conclusions or to applications. The thought associations in my brain, which may be provoked in part by the biblical text, must be weighed against the Scriptures, not unreflectively prefaced with “thus says the LORD”.

Yet we also want to get over GHE. We are much more interested in what God the Holy Spirit means in speaking these same words to his church today than in what the human author may have thought. Praying for the Spirit’s help, we want to understand God’s words as fully as we can, with all the connections and implications that we can perceive. We will think in terms of the fullness of meaning and associations, not simply reduction to some essence or crunching down the text into propositions, principles, sermon headings or aim sentences. Significance will be located within a Biblical world view and symbolism suggested in the Bible will be taken into account. There may be many helpful perspectives on a passage and we don’t want to be overly anxious about not straying from the human writer’s main point, or too minimalistic in our reading.

In getting over GHE, the transcendental or incarnational hermeneutics of John W. Nevin may be of use.

Here are some jottings from DiPuccio, William, The Interior Sense of Scripture: The Sacred Hermeneutics of John W. Nevin Studies in American Biblical Hermeneutics 14 (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1998)

“For Nevin, the Incarnation is the transcendental (or top-down) archetype of all hermeneutics and philosophy.”

n the editor’s preface, Charles Mabee comments: “This is an important issue for those of us trained in Eurocentric historical-criticism of the Bible (called by Nevin “grammatical-historical method”), and we will have our cages rattled yet one more time by this book. As all practitioners of Eurocentric historical-criticism may readily acknowledge, there is very little “transcendental” about it. Yet, it is important to hear this criticism from a fresh angle that is neither postmodern nor fundamentalistic…. Nevin’s primary concern was not to allow the collapse of faith into the merely human. (pviii) ... This book provides us with a paradigm for biblical study that is both old and stunning in its freshness.” (pix)

“Nevin’s transcendental and even mystical hermeneutics is presented here to the church and the academy as a postcritical but orthodox alternative to modern and postmodern systems.” (p3)

“The spiritual is first, inmost, foundational and substantial; the natural is secondary, outmost, contingent, and phenomenal.” (p45) but there is a real connection or correspondence between them.

“The genius and power of Nevin’s system rests on the fact that the spiritual world is foundational to all else. As Paul once said, “the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18). Behind our mundane world is an immense and unfathomable “spiritual” cosmos which is, in a manner of speaking, more real and more concrete, than the world of sense. The heavenly is not a metaphor of things invisible and eternal. In other words, it is we who are the “metaphor”, God is the “reality.”” (p48)

“Following the pattern of the Incarnation itself, the historical sense (inseparably joined to this higher spiritual sense) is not diminished or set aside; rather, it is sanctified and ennobled.” (p49)

“Mercesrsburg’s sacramental [ and analogical] understanding of language…” (p49)

“sacramental and organic view of creation” (p50)

“The Incarnation serves as the archetype of the sacraments and the word by uniting distinct things (that is, the created and divine, unlike in their natures) into an indivisible, organic whole without transmutation or separation. It denominates the relation between the sacramental sign and the grace which it signifies, as well as the relation between the words of Scripture and the divine life they embody….” (p53)

“… an incarnational view of language… which sets the stage for his sacramental view of Scripture…” (p54)

Nevin: “The whole constitution of the world is sacramental, as being not simply the sign of, but the actual form and presence of invisible things.” (p55 citing Erb, NT 372-373

“For Nevin, … the Scriptures are the incarnation of the Divine life in human language. They are “the very embodiment in natural form of a supernatural spiritual power and glory surpassing immeasurably the reach of all merely natural intelligence and thought.” [Nevin, “Christianity and Humanity” p476] … Like the two natures of Christ, the words of the text are organically joined to the spiritual life they embody.” (p79)

“Even more fundamental than an understanding of the Bible’s grammar and history (though these are necessary) is a true faith which holds directly to Christ in and through the apostolic life and teachings of the church. Those who disregard or minimize the necessity of this first principle, or who adopt a worldview based upon other foundational principles (e.g., rationalism, humanism, historicism), can never grasp the true life and meaning of the Scriptures.” (p80)

“The continuity between the incarnate Word (Christ) and the word written was the basis of Nevin’s sacramental view of the Scriptures.” (p81)

“Allegorico-mystical Exegesis” (p87ff)

“The words of Scripture are to Christ what the body is to the soul.” (p90)

“The interior sense of the Bible is not behind, beyond, or even before the word, but in the word.” (p91)

typological more than allegorical since historical sense retained (p91f)

Spiritual-Dynamic Inspiration and Exegesis (p100ff)

“Because so much of the historical evidence used in biblical scholarship and ancient history is (relatively speaking) indirect, inferential, and even tenuous, it is often sorted and adapted to support a variety of theoretical constructs. Or to put it another way, though historical facts and grammatical constraints do indeed limit the variety and scope of our interpretations (some constructs / interpretations are impossible to sustain), they may still yield a number of competing interpretations. The ever-changing and even contradictory history of biblical criticism over the past two centuries ably bears this out.

Consequently, our exegesis, as well as our critical disposition toward the Bible, is moulded, to a large degree, by our presuppositions. Conscious or unconscious, this pre-understanding shapes the criteria we use to adjudicate questions of meaning, historicity, and authorship. Every method of interpretation, therefore, is rooted in assumptions which often depend more on faith than on demonstration. Nevin was on solid ground, then, in rejecting many of the presuppositions that have been superstitiously appended to the historical-critical method in favour of the Apostles’ Creed and the catholic tradition.” (p111)


I've no idea if they're true, but as its exam and dissertation-handing-in season, some may be interested in these observations from Roland Barthes. He comments that the concept of plagarism was virtually unknown and hardly conceived of by the more collective medieval mind and is largely a product of modern, individualistic, monocular society.

Plagiarised from Hawkes, Structuralism and Semiotics p120 ish.

Of course, the good of medievals were much less concerned about consistency of spelling too: a way for them to express their individuality, perhaps?

Mrs Lloyd plays on Radio 4

You can listen again to Mrs Lloyd playing part of a Haydn piano sonata on Radio 4's Sunday programme using the BBC website.

There's also an interview with Revd Professor David Peterson about Oak Hill and discussion of evangelicalism in the Church of England more generally arising out of the 'changes' at Wycliffe Hall. There's also mention of the AOCM survey about bias in suggesting which colleges ordinands should attend and contributions from WATCH, Fulcrum and Anglican Mainstream.

I thought the item was from about 34-43 mins in, but I may well have been baffled by the technology.

Here's their blurb:

Conflict at Wycliffe Hall
Wycliffe Hall is one of the Church of England's main theological colleges, the home of Anglican evangelicals, and it is not a happy place. Soon after a new head arrived a third of the staff is reported to have resigned and there are claims that the staff generally feels bullied and intimidated. It is also claimed that the Thought For the Day contributor, Elaine Storkey, has been threatened with disciplinary action, and the former Principal, the Rev Professor Alister McGrath is said to have no longer any connection with the college. Now is this just a little local difficulty, a question of incompatible personalities, or does it mark a change of direction, a move to a more conservative expression of evangelism within the Church? Roger is joined by the Guardian's religious affairs correspondent, Stephen Bates.
Listen (4m 0s)

Friday, May 25, 2007

Media Studies

I can’t keep up with all the Oak Hill and Wycliffe goings on in the press. I shall have to make a trip to the common room to catch up.

There was the exchange over Oak Hill in the Church Times over the last couple of weeks.

The Church of England Newspaper have reported the AOCM survey as “Oak Hill ‘being snubbed by church leaders’” as some ordinands were encouraged not to study here.

Some video’s been dug up of Revd Dr Richard Turnbull (from a Reform conference in October 2006) apparently saying that 95% of the people in this country are heading for hell unless they trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and that the good news of the gospel needs to be urgently brought to them.

Andrew McSmith in today’s Independent:

Along with Comment from Charles Nevin.

And Stephen Bates in yesterday’s Guardian.,,2086769,00.html

And was DP being interviewed for the Radio 4 Sunday Programme today? I think they’ve even recording some of Mrs Lloyd’s wonderful piano playing, though I’m not sure Hayden is breaking news.

Right, off to Paris for the weekend with Oak Hall and a couple of talks on Psalms 1 & 2 in my rucksack.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Puritan or Evangelical

Here's Mark Noll trying to capture something of the differences between Puritanism and American evangelical Protestantism:

Although Puritans stood against [Roman?] Catholic and Anglican formalism, salvation for the Puritans was still mediated by institutions - family, church, covenanted society; in evangelicalism (at least in American forms) salvation was in principle unmediated except by the written Word of God. Puritans protested against nominal ecclesiastical life, but they still treated institutions of church and society as given; American evangelicals created their own communities, at first ecclesiastical, then voluntary. Puritans accepted authority from designated leaders; American evangelicals looked to authority from charismatic, self-selected leaders. Puritans fenced in enthusiasm with formal learning, respect for confessions, and deference to traditional interpretations of Scripture; American evangelicals fenced in enthusiasm with self-selected leaders, individualistic Bible reading, local grassroots organizations, and intuitively persuasive reason.

Noll, Mark, America's God pp173-4 quoted in D. G. Hart, John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist (Philipsburg, P & R, 2005) p 26

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The grammatical structure of the universe

Tzetan Todrov apparently calimed that:

Not only all languages, but all signifying systems conform to the same grammar. It is universal not only because it informs all the languages of the universe, but because it coincides with the structure of the universe itself.

Tzvetan Todorov, Grammaire du Decameron (The Hague, Mouton, 1969), p15 quoted in Hawkes, Structuralism and Semiotics, p96.

One who believes in a wise and "orderly" creator might have more reason to believe that than the atheist.

If it's true, then it seems plausible to me that we might see these deep universal structures especially clearly in the Bible and the sacraments since they are words and signs that the Creator God has given us. They may be central paradigmatic signs (even microcosms) that enable us to read something of the whole of creation declaring the glory of God to us and bearing the marks of having been made according to grand plans and purposes.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Hebrew time check?

I'm afraid my semester of Hebrew ("some islands of knowledge, but much is still sea") doesn't allow me to comment, but surely F de Saussure is wrong to say that:

Hebrew does not recognize even the fundamental distinctions between the past, present and future.

Course in General Linguistics pp116-117 quoted in Hawkes, Terence, Structuralism and Semiotics (London, Routledge, 1977), pp27-28

That seems kinda important to me. Maybe someone could explain it all to me and save me from the possibility of much sermon-silliness along the way?

The Great Code

Bible students, especially those sympathetic to interpretive maximalism, might enjoy:

Frye, Northrop, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature Collected Works of Northrop Frye Volume 19 edited by Alvin A. Lee (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2006) Originally published 1982. (And perhaps the subsequent Words with Power: Being a Second Study of “The Bible and Literature” (New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990)).

I only had a short time to flick through it in the library. Has anyone read it?

Frye was not a Bible scholar and I think maybe not a believer, certainly not a traditional evangelical. He taught English literature at university level and realised that to understand Blake, Shakespeare, Eliot - indeed, pretty much anything written in English - his students really needed to know the symbolic and imaginative world of the Bible.

The title is taken from Blake who said that: “The Old and New Testaments are the Great Code of Art” (p10).

The book is Frye's personal encounter with the English Bible, and its role in shaping the human imagination and western culture.

Frye speaks of an “imaginative literalism” (pxvii) and describes metaphorical, allegorical and descriptive conceptions of language. He sees “allegorical, or metonymic [language], characterized by monotheism and a sense that there is a divine force transcending nature, so that words get their meanings allegorically by reference to ideas in the divine mind;…” (pxxxvi).

The Bible contains elements of the metaphorical, allegorical and descriptive but for Frye it is best seen as oratorical rhetoric, metaphorical and poetic language being used with existential idioms, direct address and kerygma. It is above all a proclamation (pxxxvii). The imagery and narrative of the Bible forms a mythological universe (p5). There is, apparently, ladder of “polysemous (multilevelled) sense” (p8), whatever that is!

I smiled to read Frye's reflection that even some readers of good will “may feel that to attempt a fresh and firsthand look at the Bible is mere foolhardiness, and of course they may be right, but the years have brought me an elastic conscience and a tenure appointment.” (p17).

No doubt there is plenty of wierd and wonderful stuff in the book showing how the Bible has been misunderstood as well as understood, but it looked like there might be some great Jordanesque insights along the way about the meaning of watery trees, gardens, bread, wine and so on.

Here are the chapter headings: (You've got to love the fact that Frye's book shares the chiastic mirror structure he sees between Old and New Testaments).

PART ONE: The Order of Words

Ch 1: Language I

Ch 2: Myth I

Ch 3: Metaphor I

Ch 4: Typology I

PART TWO: The Order of Types

Ch 5: Typology II: Phases of Revelation

Ch 6: Metaphor II: Imagery

Ch 7: Myth II: Narrative

Ch 8: Language II: Rhetoric

Thursday, May 17, 2007


I just caught the last few seconds of Rev’d Dr Giles Fraser’s Thought For The Day on Radio 4 today.

He seemed to be saying some good things: that theology is not just about information, that imagination is important and that there are what might be called poetic truths where a scientific sort of exactness is not what’s important.

He argued that the best theology will always be stuttering, reaching out to express the inexpressible and that ultimately silence is an appropriate response to the greatness of it all.

He could have mentioned Romans 3:19 at that point but I guess what he said is true. God is ultimately incomprehensible and we can only speak about him with confidence because he has graciously given us his true, reliable, clear, sufficient and authoritative Word.

But I’d say on the whole I’d be happy to hear a bit less from Dr Fraser. I’m no expert on Fraser’s theology, but in the bits I’ve read and heard he often appears very sure of himself and ready to speak in the most forthright terms. Maybe I’m being oversensitive, but it seems it’s the conservative evangelicals who really get his words flowing.

He seems to hate penal substitution, claiming it is barbaric, unbiblical and morally indefensible. He thinks homosexuality is not a sin but a gift from God. He dislikes Christendom. And takes an extraordinary attitude to parish boundaries: you shouldn’t distribute a map which shows part of someone else’s parish, or something. He even seems to reject “The idea of an omnipotent God who can calm the sea and defeat our enemies”. He thinks: “What the reformed traditions often don't get is that they have given up worshipping images only to worship a book.” And argues that “there can be few more chilling examples of theocratic fascism than Calvin's Geneva.”


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Go Back To Your Churches And Prepare For Government

The 11th annual Oak Hill School of Theology: A Higher Throne – Evangelicals and Public Theology today was just wonderful.

Praise God for Oak Hill and David Peterson and Dan, David, Kirsten and Garry. Oh, and the Lord Jesus Christ and the power of his gospel!

Dr Dan Strange argued in ‘Evangelical Public Theology: What on earth? Why on earth? How on earth?’ for a “transformational model” of Evangelical Public Theology, avoiding false dichotomies some “Two Kingdoms” models, of the earthly and the heavenly, physical and spiritual, judicial-covenantal and material, individual and cosmic, civil and religious, God’s law in one realm of life and another. God is sovereign, Jesus is Lord and King over all, the Bible is our ultimate authority and God commands that this be acknowledged by everyone, in every sphere of life. Evangelicals should be “offensive” and “thick” in the Public Square (rather than retreating / defensive or thin / lowest-common-denominator). Jesus is Lord is public and political truth.

Revd Dr David Field’s ‘Samuel Rutherford and the Confessionally Christian State / Covenanted Nation’ advocated the long term goal of rulers and nations obedient to Christ with constitutions that acknowledge him as the King of King and where government is based on the wise application of God’s authoritative and sufficient Word. The only alternatives are idolatry or polytheism. Atheistic secularism is bankrupt and “principled” pluralism is unstable.

Dr Kirsten Birkett spoke on ‘New Living in an Old Creation’ expounding and applying Oliver O’Donnovan’s vision of Christian ethics based on the gospel of Jesus Christ. The resurrection is God’s vindication of this creation and its transformation. We are to love God and our neighbour in all of life. The greatest need of every person is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Dr Garry Williams’ paper ‘Gabbatha and Golgotha: The Cross and the Public Square’ argued that Hugo Grotius is right to use political categories of ruler and judge in understanding the cross and stressing its public vindication of God’s justice. Far from being un- or anti-ethical, the penal substitutionary account of the atonement also has lessons for public life grounding and limiting retributive justice and representation.

We are to make haste slowly as we reflect theologically and prayerfully preach the Word of God in the power of the Spirit, seeking to disciple the nations for Christ and bring every aspect of our personal, family and national lives under his Lordship.

Does anyone know if we can pre-order the book yet?

Next year’s school of theology is on 21st May: Dr Thomas SchreinerRun to Win: The New Testament Warnings.

Job Opportunities at Wycliffe Hall

According to The Guardian today there is trouble at Wycliffe Hall. A number of the academic staff are apparently unhappy with Revd Dr Richard Turnball’s leadership and "those who have resigned include the director of pastoral studies, the director of studies, tutors in liturgy and evangelism and the college's vice-principal and tutor in New Testament studies".

I had heard of positive noises about Turnball and that he wants to emphasise the Bible and evangelism.

David Virtue reproduces the article here.

There’s also some discussion about it on the “Thinking Anglicans” website.

Some traditions are bad

Evangelicals probably need to learn much more than we do from the great traditions of the church. But as Augustine recognised "Tradition" alone cannot be ultimately authoritative. He said:

“If we are to look back to long custom or antiquity alone, then also murders and adulterers, and similar persons can defend their crimes in this way, because they are ancient.”
Cited in Martin Chemnitz, Examination of Council of Trent, Part 1 (trans. Fred Kramer; St. Louis: Concordia, 1971) 307.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Bible as Map

No doubt many children’s talks have been given likening the Bible to a map. I might give one myself one day. Here’s Kevin Vanhoozer arguing that thinking of the Bible as map (or atlas) is a jolly good guide:

… “atlas” catches the irreducible plurality of Scripture, the many ways the theodrama is rendered.The Bible is a literary atlas: a collection of bookmaps that variously render the way, the truth, and the life. Note that… “map[s]” are texts that provide directions. And this is the ultimate purpose of Scripture: to direct us to Christ, the way of truth and life.

Truth is the fit between text and reality, between what is written and what is written about. But maps remind us that there is more than one kind of fit. We can map the same terrain according to a variety of different keys and scales. A road map need not contradict a map that highlights topography, or a map that highlights historical landmarks and points of scenic interest, or a plat of survey that shows where properties begin and end. Each type of map reflects a certain interest.

…there is more than one way to “map” reality. The proof: there is no such thing as a universal all-purpose map. A map is actually an interpretative framework, not a mirror of nature. Maps highlight what they want their readers to know. Some maps tell you about the borders of various countries; others tell you where to find buried treasure. It is one thing to ascribe inerrancy to a map, then, quite another to know how to interpret it. To understand a map, you need to know its conventions. For example, you need to know the scale. You also need to know the key that explains how to read the various symbols used by the cartographer to represent places like rivers and cities. Finally, you need to know the legend, which is a way of imagining the world. The Bible is composed of different kinds of literature, each of which maps the theodrama in a distinctive way.

Yet all the maps are reliable: they correspond—in different ways!—to this or that aspect of what is really the case. They are not only compatible but complement one another. Maps are no good, however, unless you are oriented. The Rule of Faith serves as a kind of compass in this regard, reminding us that all the biblical maps ultimately point in the same “Christotelic” direction. The canon is a unique compass that points not to the north but to the church’s North Star: Jesus Christ, the alpha and omega of the whole theodrama.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J., ‘Lost In Interpretation? Truth, Scripture and Hermeneutics’ JETS 48/1 (March 2005) 89–114 pp103-104

Maybe too many ideas for one short children’s talk and a bit of jargon busting needed, but there’s something to get us on the way there, isn’t there?

“Script” is Vanhoozer’s other big metaphor for Scripture in The Drama of Doctrine: A canonical linguistic approach to Christian theology (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2005).

John Williamson Nevin (1803-86)

I really like the sound of John W. Nevin’s High Church Calvinism.

Amazon are meant to be winging his book on Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper, The Mystical Presence, to me and I can’t wait! B. Gerrish calls it: “The most intriguing discussion of Calvin’s eucharistic thought in English”.

Grace and Gratitude: The Eucharistic Theology of John Calvin (Eugene, Wimpf and Stock Publishers, 1993) p3

Nevin went to Princeton Theological Seminary in 1823 and was chosen to teach Charles Hodge’s classes while Hodge spent a two-year sabbatical in Germany. Nevin became a professor at the new Western Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, where he taught from 1830-1840. In 1840, Nevin assumed the position of professor of theology at the newly-established German Reformed seminary in the small town of Mercersburg in central Pennsylvania.

Along with Philip Schaff he promoted what became known as the known as the Mercersburg Theology.

Nevin seems to have been properly reformed and positive about the sacraments (believing in the “spiritual real [or true] presence” of Christ in the Supper), the Church year and liturgical worship.

According to Michael Farley:

After the liturgical controversy died down, however, Nevin devoted his later years to developing a sacramental theology of the Scriptures, and he even admitted the imbalance of his earlier sacramental writings with respect to preaching. In 1879, he confessed that:

In our past controversies with regard to the Lord’s Supper, we may not have done justice always to what must be considered in this way the true and real preeminence of the Word above all sacraments…[W]e may have failed to intone properly what the presence of the Lord in his Word means, without which there is no room to conceive of his presence among men in any other form. Should this have been so, let us trust that it may be so no longer.

John W. Nevin, “The Bread of Life: A Communion Sermon,” Reformed Quarterly Review 26 (1879): 28.


Nevin, John W., The Mystical Presence: A Vindication of the Reformed or Calvinist Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist (New York, Lippencott, 1846. Reprint, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000)

Theodore Appel, The Life and Work of John Williamson Nevin (Philadelphia, 1889) containing Nevin's more important articles.

DiPuccio, William, The Interior Sense of Scripture: The Sacred Hermeneutics of John W. Nevin. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1998. – treats Nevin’s sacramental view of Scripture and preaching

Farley, Michael A., “The Liturgical Theology of John Williamson Nevin.” Studia Liturgica 33 (2003): 204-222.

Hart, D. G. John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2005.

The Mercersburg Theology, edited by James H. Nichols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Wentz, Richard E., John Williamson Nevin, American Theologian. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Charles Sanders Peirce

The American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), the founder of American pragmatism or "pragmaticism", sounds like a pretty extraordinary fella.

Max H. Fisch said:

Who is the most original and the most versatile intellect that the Americas have so far produced?

The answer "Charles S. Peirce" is uncontested, because any second would be so far behind as not to be worth nominating. [He was] mathematician, astronomer, chemist, geodesist, surveyor, cartographer, metrologist, spectroscopist, engineer, inventor; psychologist, philologist, lexicographer, historian of science, mathematical economist, lifelong student of medicine; book reviewer, dramatist, actor, short story writer; phenomenologist, semiotician, logician, rhetorician and metaphysician.

(in Sebeok, The Play of Musement)

For Paul Weiss, writing in the Dictionary of American Biography for 1934, Peirce was "the most original and versatile of American philosophers and America's greatest logician".

Bertrand Russell said Peirce was "certainly the greatest American thinker ever."

Peirce’s collected papers are published (a little haphazardly, apparently) in 8 volumes and there is also a chronological publication project in 5 volumes so far. Pierce’s published works run to about 12,000 printed pages and his known unpublished manuscripts (about 1650) run to about 80,000 handwritten pages.

Currently, considerable interest is being taken in Peirce's ideas by researchers wholly outside the arena of academic philosophy. The interest comes from industry, business, technology, intelligence organizations, and the military; and it has resulted in the existence of a substantial number of agencies, institutes, businesses, and laboratories in which ongoing research into and development of Peircean concepts are being vigorously undertaken.

I’m wondering if any of this stuff is useful for understanding the words of Scripture as signs and the Lord’s Supper as a (word) sign.

I’ve plagarised most of this stuff from: Burch, Robert, "Charles Sanders Peirce", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2006 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .

Peircean Semiotics

What Peircean meant by "semeiotic" is almost totally different what has come to be called "semiotics," and which hales not so much from Peirce as from Saussure and Charles W. Morris…. Peircean semeiotic derives ultimately from the theory of signs of Duns Scotus and its later development by John of St. Thomas (John Poirot).

In Peirce's theory the sign relation is a triadic relation that is a special species of the genus: the representing relation. Whenever the representing relation has an instance, we find one thing (the "object") being represented by (or: in) another thing (the "representamen") to (or: in) a third thing (the "interpretant"); moreover, the object is represented by the representamen in such a way that the interpretant is thereby "determined" to be also a representamen of the object to yet another interpretant. That is to say, the interpretant stands in the representing relation to the same object represented by the original representamen, and thus represents it to yet another interpretant. Obviously, Peirce's complicated definition entails that we have an infinite sequence of representamens of an object whenever we have any one representamen of it.

If that’s confusing, this bit I really don’t get:

One set of distinctions among signs was introduced by Peirce in the early stages of his analysis. This distinction in this set turn on whether the particular instance of the sign relation is "degenerate" or "non-degenerate." The notion of "degeneracy" here is the standard mathematical notion, and as applied to sign theory non-degeneracy means simply that the triadic relation cannot be analyzed as a logical conjunction of any combination of dyadic relations and monadic relations. More exactly, a particular instance of the obtaining of the sign relation is degenerate if and only if the fact that a sign s means an object o to an interpretant i can be analyzed into a conjunction of facts of the form P(s) & Q(o) & R(i) & T(s,o) & U(o,i) & W(i,s) (where not all the conjuncts have to be present). Either an obtaining of the sign relation is non-degenerate, in which case it falls into one class; or it is degenerate in various possible ways (depending on which of the conjuncts are omitted and which retained), in which cases it falls into various other classes. Other distinctions regarding signs were introduceed later by Peirce. Some of them will be discussed very briefly in the following section of this article.

Signs are qualisigns, sinsigns, or legisigns, accordingly as they are mere qualities, individual events and states, or habits (or laws), respectively.

Signs are icons, indices (also called "semes"), or symbols (sometimes called "tokens"), accordingly as they derive their significance from resemblance to their objects, a real relation (for example, of causation) with their objects, or are connected only by convention to their objects, respectively.

Signs are rhematic signs (also called "sumisigns" and "rhemes"), dicisigns (also called "quasi-propositions"), or arguments (also called "suadisigns"), accordingly as they are predicational/relational in character, propositional in character, or argumentative in character.

Because the three trichotomies are orthogonal to each other, together they yield the abstract possibility that there are 27 distinct kinds of signs. Peirce argued, however, that 17 of these are logically impossible, so that finally only 10 kinds of signs are genuinely possible. In terms of these 10 kinds of signs, Peirce endeavored to construct a theory of all possible natural and conventional signs, whether simple or complex.

See further:


Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, 8 vols. Edited by Charles Hartshorne, Paul Weiss, and Arthur Burks (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1931-1958).

The Essential Peirce, 2 vols. Edited by Nathan Houser, Christian Kloesel, and the Peirce Edition Project (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 1992, 1998).

Writings of Charles S. Peirce: a Chronological Edition, Volume I 1857-1866, Volume II 1867-1871, Volume III 1872-1878, Volume IV 1879-1884, Volume V 1884-1886. Edited by the Peirce Edition Project (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 1982, 1984, 1986, 1989, 1993).

See also:

Friday, May 11, 2007

Theoretically Speaking

Terry Eagleton comments that hostility to theory means an opposition to other people’s theories and an oblivion to one’s own.

Anthony Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1992) p472 citing Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1983), p.viii

Yes, perhaps, but its easy to feel a sympathy for getting on with “it” rather than talking about “it”, or even talking about talking about “it”.

Getting very silly

I've just read something about the paradox of scepticism. The great problem is: how do I know that I do not know?

I don't know!

When you read that sort of stuff, you can't help feeling its time for something else.

John 8:32 or 2 Corinthains 4, perhaps.

Bible parole and Systematic Theology langue

I’m not sure if this is right or useful or interesting? The ideas probably aren’t new but we usually wouldn’t say it quite like this. Not sure there are any real gains! But for what its worth, and in case someone might say something helpful…

I’ve been trying to think about some of the ideas of semiotics (the study of signs, especially words as signs) might be applied to the doctrine of scripture.

One key semiotic concept is a distinction between langue (language as abstract system) and parole (language in use, utterances).

As I suggested here, Christians are claiming that human langue is used to make the inspired parole of scripture.

Some scholars such as George Lindbeck in The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age have been influential in suggesting that we think of doctrine in linguistic terms. Doctrine could be seen as the church’s grammar, its rule for speaking about God.

One might say that the canonical Scriptures properly come to constitute or effect a kind of langue, a normative, finite and bounded system which serves as a controlling doctrinal framework and presents an authoritative world-view which makes other theological speaking possible. The inspired scriptures are canonical parole, particular utterances authoritatively put to use by their first speakers and subsequently normative in all right reading and preaching of the bible. Every possible legitimate use of the bible, taken together, would amount to the abstracted langue which stands behind scripture and is implied by it, the sum of its interpretation and application, its systematic theology and world view. Just as a language system (langue) is not entirely accessible to the speakers of a language but is a conceptual matrix that shapes their speaking, so bible readers are unable to fully state all that the bible means and implies. A perfect and comprehensive systematic theology could never be written. The langue that stands behind scripture exists in the infinite mind of God and makes each individual parole of scripture possible, meaningful and coherent.

Thiselton notes that “Culler compares the double axes of langue and parole with the endless process of interaction between understanding and pre-understanding in the hermeneutical circle.” (New Horizons, p537)

In the relationship between langue and parole there is paradox which is suggestive of the hermeneutical circle or spiral in the formation of doctrine. Langue is made up of parole and determined by and does not exist in the world apart from particular utterances. But langue also pre-exists uses of it and makes parole possible. This is somewhat analogous to the relationship between the biblical text and systematic theology. The human interpreter of scripture inevitably brings to each parole of the bible his doctrinal system, his pre-understanding which seeks to approximate the langue of scripture, but this is also to be re-shaped by the parole of scripture, which alone are ultimately authoritative.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

A Few Words on Speaking Well in Church

Its been a bit quiet here, not because I’ve had nothing to say, you understand, but because I’ve been putting Ecclesiastes 5v2b into practice: “let your words be few.”

I was surprised to discover last Thursday that I was due to preach in college chapel today on Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 / Acts 20:1-6. Its worth having a look at the rota every now and again.

Obviously because of the admonitions against foolish speech in Ecclesiastes 5 I had to cut all the best gags out of my talk, but here are a few jottings:

In order to keep my words few, I’ve put in lots of God’s.

I had far too many words for the 10 minutes allowed, of course, so there's plenty of exclusive material they didn't get in chapel today here!

Readings: Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 & Acts 20:1-6


May the words of my mouth

And the meditations of our hearts

Be acceptable in your sight, O LORD,

Our rock and our redeemer. (from Psalm 19:14)

Ecclesiastes 5 is not exactly the most encouraging chapter for the preacher:

Ecclesiastes 5v2 - “Let your words be few”.

Perhaps I should stop there?

I was tempted to go and sit down at this point and leave you with a dramatic enacted sign – a piece of prophetic drama like Isaiah going about naked (Is 20:2-4) or Ezekiel acting out the exile (Ez 12:1-7).

I could have avoided the wearisome toil of preparation and all that “vanity and a striving after the wind” but frankly I was too worried about incurring Marion’s wrath.

But what of the possibilities of lectionary preaching?!

Perhaps Acts 20 can come to the rescue?

No doubt Dr Dr Sleeman can tell us the immense potential of a Salvation Geography reading of our verses from Acts, but I'm afraid I couldn't see it.

Acts 20 does at least rehabilitate sermons, if Ecclesiastes 5 has made us suspicious of them.

In Acts 20v2 we find Paul “speaking many words of encouragement”.

And in v7: Paul talked until midnight and as he talked on and on, Eutychus falls into a deep sleep and tumbles out of a window to his death!

Clearly the problem is not words themselves – nor even many words, nor long sermons.

What we need is the right sort of speaking and listening, and the right sort of attitudes.

And Ecclesiastes 5 can help us.

v1 tells us to watch our step.

We are to guard our steps when we go to the “house of God”.

I know there’s no such thing as the house of God today, not like the Jerusalem Temple, anyway.

Or rather Jesus is the House of God

But in 1 Timothy 3, Paul says, “I am writing these things to you so that… you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God.” (vv14-15).

The church is God’s house and there are house rules – we’re to mind our manners.

We are being built, 1 Peter 2, “like living stones… as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

1 Cor 11:18 warns us against divisions when we come together as a church.

God is everywhere, of course, but Jesus tells us he is specially with us where 2 or 3 gather in his name (Matthew 18:20).

If guarding your steps mattered when you came to the Temple, how much more for us:

“For you have not come to what can be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them…. But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel…. Let us offer God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb 12:18-19, 22-24, 28-29)

We’ll want to think about how these verses apply when we’ve come together as a church, when we speak and sing to God,

and how we speak to and about one another in the church, knowing that all our speaking is done in God’s hearing.

v1 tells us that “to draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools”.

“Take care then how you hear.” (Luke 8:18)

“Know this, my beloved brothers:

let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” (James 1:19)

“Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,

as in obeying the voice of the LORD?

Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,

and to listen than the fat of rams.” (1 Sam 15:22).

The systematicians amongst you may have noticed the false dichotomy in v1.

Better to listen than to offer the sacrifice of fools, but its not just a choice between silent listening or foolish sacrifice.

There is a Third Way.

Rather than offering “the sacrifice of fools”

we are to “continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.”

We worship God, of course, with our lips and our lives:

“Do not neglect to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” (Hebrews 13:15-16)

“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17)

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1)

Those of us who are prone to engage our mouths before our brains would do well to heed the admonition of v2:

We are not to be rash with our mouths,

nor let our hearts be hasty to utter a word before God,

v2, “for [because] God is in heaven and you are on earth.”

In other words, we are to know our place! : “God is in heaven and you are on earth.”

That’s one reason why we are to “do all things without grumbling or questioning.” (Philippians 2:14)

After all: “Our God is in the heavens; he does what pleases him.” (Ps 115:3)

He wants it this way!

Next time you find something to grumble about,

just remember that your loving heavenly Father is the King of the Universe and you’re not – and it’s a good job.

The All Wise God thought it’d be best this way,

and who are we to argue with him?

Does God need our advice?

“My thoughts are not your thoughts,

neither are your ways my ways,

declares the LORD.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth,

so are my ways higher than your ways

and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Is 55:8-9)

“Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?

Will what is moulded say to its moulder, “Why have you made me like this?”

Has the potter no right over the clay…?” (Romans 9:20-21)

Therefore, v3, we are to let our words be few.

“The more words the more vanity,

and what is the advantage to man?” (Ecclesiastes 6:11)

So: “… when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do,

for they think that they will be heard for their many words.

Do not be like them,

for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:6-7)

We can’t inform, impress or manipulate our heavenly Father with our words.

Don’t be like the self-satisfied Pharisee who trusted in himself that he was righteous and treated others with contempt.

Our prayers are not for us to tell God how marvellous we are, or how much better than everyone else we are.

Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled (Luke 18:9).

Perhaps the ambition and arrogance of youth make many of us especially prone to foolish talk about the future.

We need to be careful of great boasts:

“… the tongue is [such a small part of the body but]… it boasts of great things.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!

And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness.

The tongue is set among [the parts of our body] …

staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life,

and set on fire by hell….

no human being can tame the tongue.

It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

With it we bless our Lord and Father,

and with it we curse people who are made in the in the likeness of God.

From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.

My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” (James 3:5-10)

Remember you don’t know the future:

“The words of a wise man’s mouth win him favour,

but the lips of a fool consume him.

The beginning of the words of his mouth is foolishness,

and the end of his talk is evil madness.

A fool multiplies words, though no man knows what is to be,

and who can tell what will be after him?” (Ecclesiastes 10:12-14)

“Come now, you who say,

“Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit

– yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.

What is your life?

For you are a mist [perhaps we might say “a foggy vapour”]

that appears for a time and then vanishes.

Instead you ought to say,

“If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”

As it is, you boast in your arrogance.

All such boasting is evil.” (James 4:13-15)

We might like to check out some of our songs for excessively bold claims about how godly we’re going to be, as all our days we sing this song of gladness (or whatever)!

Or what about how we speak to and about others in the church:

We need to be careful not to despise those who don’t live up to the very high standards we have for them.

Don’t scorn those whose faults you don’t think you’ll fall into.

Perhaps you’re tempted to be dismissive of the ministries of others without knowing all the facts, and while making all sorts of allowances for yourself in other ways?

“… how can you say to your brother,

“Let me take a speck out of your eye”,

when there is a log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:4)

“Who are you to pass judgements on the servant of another?

It is before his own master that he stands or falls.

And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand….

Why do you pass judgement on your brother?

Or you, why do you despise your brother?

For we will all stand before the judgement seat of God.” (Romans 14:4, 10)

“Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father.” (1 Timothy 5:1)

We need to be careful that all our talk is appropriate for us as God’s children:

“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths,

but only such as is good for building up,

as fits the occasion,

that it may give grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4:29)

“… sexual immorality and all impurity and covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among the saints.

Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place,

but instead let there be thanksgiving.” (Ephesians 5:4-5)

The final verse of Ecclesiastes tells us that “God will bring every deed into judgement”, including “every secret thing” (12:14).

Remember that “whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.” (Luke 12:3)

So, in the church there’s to be no gossip, no slander, no back-biting. no critical spirit.

Sunday lunch and the college coffee break are not designed for well-honed sermon reviews.

As Mother might have said:

“If you can’t say something good, don’t say anything at all”.

“When words are many, transgression is not lacking,

but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” (Proverbs 10:19)

“Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.” (Proverbs 21:23)

“Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.” (Proverbs 17:27)

Here’s a good proverb to remember (especially perhaps in Biblical Languages classes):

“Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” (Proverbs 17:28)

– I guess you just have to work on a deep expression and a sagacious nod!

Iv v4 our passage focuses explicitly on how we make vows:

The wife and I were discussing this passage over our cocoa last week when I pointed out its irrelevance:

“You know all this vow stuff, well, I don’t know how many of us are in the habit of making vows.”, I said, “I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever made any vows, have you?”

Mrs Lloyd smiled tolerantly and said, “Well, what about when I married you?”

11 months on and I’d forgotten the whole thing!

So (if you’re married) how are you doing on your marriage vows?

Remember your promises:

to love, comfort, honour and protect your husband or wife,

forsaking all others,

being faithful to your husband or wife as long as you both shall live? (Common Worship: Pastoral Services p106)

Or what about the promises made at your baptism?

To reject the devil and all rebellion against God,

to renounce the deceit and corruption of evil,

to repent of your sins,

to turn to Christ as Saviour,

to submit to him as Lord?

Are you fighting valiantly as a disciple of Christ, against sin, the world and the devil,

remaining faithful to him to the end? (Common Worship, p353f)

Perhaps promises you made as parents or godparents?

(see Common Worship, p352f)

Is it time for a Reformation of family worship or to buy another improving gift?

And many of us will make vows at our ordination.

For the Anglicans amongst us:


We will promise, with the help of God:

to be diligent in prayer, in reading Holy Scripture, and in all studies that will deepen our faith and fit us to bear witness to the truth of the gospel;

to strive to make the love of Christ known through word and example, and have a particular care for those in need; to be a faithful servant in the household of God, after the example of Christ, who came not to be served but to serve;

to endeavour to fashion our own lives and that of your household according to the way of Christ, that we may be a pattern and example to Christ’s people;

to work with our fellow servants in the gospel for the sake of the kingdom of God;

to accept the discipline of this Church and give due respect to those in authority;

in the strength of the Holy Spirit, continually to stir up the gift of God that is in us, to grow in holiness and grace. (The Ordination of Deacons)

We’ll promise: “… in public prayer and administration of the sacraments, … [to] use only the forms of service which are authorized or allowed by Canon.” (The Declaration of Assent, Common Worship, p.xi, also in Canon C15 Of the Declaration of Assent, The Canons of the Church of England, 6th edition, Church House Publishing, 2000, p99)

And say: “I do swear by Almighty God that I will pay true and canonical obedience to the Lord Bishop of [this diocese] and his successors in all things lawful and honest: So help me God.” (The Canons of the Church of England, 6th edition, Church House Publishing, 2000, Canon C14 Of the Oaths of Obedience, p98)

In other words, I will obey the canons if the Bishop tells me to (as long as they don’t make any unlawful or dishonest ones).

So it might be a good idea to have a look at the Canons!

According to v5: “It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay.”

Don’t make any vows that you wont or cant keep.

The messenger in v6 is the Temple Enforcer – the Priest or Levite or their representative - who comes to chase up that vow you made (c.f. Malachi 2:7).

The messenger is not going to be very impressed with:

“Oh, I’m sorry – my vow was a mistake” – and neither is God.

Maybe we’ve tried to excuse ourselves before now by saying:

“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it”.

I imagine God would be even less impressed by vows made with your fingers crossed.

Don’t risk the anger of God by the promises you make (v6b).

“It is a snare to say rashly, “It is holy”, and only to reflect after making vows.” (Proverbs 20:25)

If you wanted to build a tower you’d sit down and count the cost and work out whether you had enough to complete it, wouldn’t you?

Otherwise you’d start the foundation and not be able to finish, and make yourself a laughing stock (Luke 14:28-30).

The one “who swears to his own hurt and does not change” is the one who can sojourn in the LORD’s tent and dwell on his holy hill (Ps 15:4).

[Well, my words have already been a few too many]

The conclusion of our passage is the same as the conclusion to the book of Ecclesiastes as a whole: “God is the one you must fear.” (v7; c.f. Ecclesiastes 12:13f; c.f. Luke 12:4-5)

We are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12)

And that will involve the sanctification of our speaking.



* * *

Some other notes:

I’m giving the English verse numbers, the Hebrew verse numbers are one behind in this section.

V1 implies that going to church is not synonymous with being on the right track: especially then, one must watch one’s step.

On sacrifices see Is 1:11-20.

The mistake (v6), segagah, claimed to be an unintentional / inadvertent sin, a sin without knowledge or intention (see Num 15:22-31 c.f. Lev 4:2ff)

On rash oaths - Lev 5:4

Almighty God not All-matey-God

The people’s words to Moses about hearing God’s word: Dt 5:27

The commandment to hear God’s word: Is 34:1

The sacrifice here is the zebah, the peace offering, which is in part consumed by those participating in the sacrificial celebration (Ex 18:12; Dt 12:6-7). There may be some idea of the sacrificial banquet degenerating into foolishness?

The harlot of Proverbs 7:14 offers sacrifices and pays vows

On keeping your vows: Dt 23:21-23

On watching the feet etc. - Prov 1:15; 19:2b; 25:17; 4:27

On sacrifices: See Prov 15:8; 21:3, 27; Hos 6:6; Amos 5:22-24

Job’s promise of silence (Job 40:3-5)

“nothings”, habalim, frequently in the OT = idols

Many of us will be professional talkers.

Direct commands in this passage:

(1) Guard your steps when you go to the house of God (v1)

(2) Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God (v2)

(3) Let your words be few (v2)

(4) When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it… Pay what you vow (v4)

(5) Let not your mouth lead you into sin and do not say to the messenger that it was a mistake (v6)

Surely one of the main applications of these verses from Ecclesiastes is that our sermons shouldn’t just stumble from one lame gag to another.

It would be foolish to preach preoccupied with what other people might think of you.

Foolish to fear men, rather than God in your preaching.

Even if you can dazzle the congregation with your erudition and eloquence, and have everyone rolling in the aisles, it would be foolish to think that you could impress God.

This particular sermon has risked being more of a warning than an example and if you haven’t found it terribly amusing so far that’s because I’ve left out all my most brilliantly witty material.

In order to let my words be few, I thought I’d confine myself largely to pointing to some other passages of Scripture than shed light on our reading from Ecclesiastes.

* * *

Adam was meant guard the garden-sanctuary (Gen 2:8) and the priests were meant to guard the Temple (Num 18:7). The teacher tells us that when we come to the house of God we’re to guard ourselves.

Jesus fulfilled his vow “not my will, but yours be done”.

Jesus has the words of eternal life (John 6:68). The words he has spoken to us are spirit and life (John 6:63).