Thursday, July 16, 2015

Missing the main thing

An important reminder from 19th C fellow of Queen's College, Cambridge, William Mandell as quoted on The Proclaimer blog:

it is evident, that unless from the Scriptures we attain a practical acquaintance with Jesus Christ, as the Saviour of sinners, unless, in this respect, we find Him of whom Moses in the law and the prophets did write, however, correct or extensive may be our information as to matters of a merely critical, historical, chronological or geographical nature, we do in fact, overlook the great end of their promulgation, we lamentably fail to derive from them that most important instruction which principally they were intended to convey.

Exodus 23:20-33

has a very obvious structure:

God says to Israel:

(1) I am sending my angel ahead of you (v20)

(2) I will send my terror (v27) / the hornet (v28) ahead of you

3 principles for a godly society from Exodus 21-23

A godly society must begin with God and worship.

The goal of a godly society is worship, rest and festivity.

A godly society requires liberty under the law, justice and good neighbourliness. 

(influenced by James Jordan's Lectures on Exodus)

The Gospel According to Frozen

My parish magazine item for August:

My five year old daughter is very taken with the Disney double Academy award-wining film, Frozen. Maybe the children or grandchildren in your life are too? In many ways it’s no doubt an excellent film. And it’s been very successful: accumulating nearly $1.3 billion in worldwide box office revenue, it is the highest grossing animated movie of all time. You may well know it’s anthemic song, “Let it go!” and even this August we may find ourselves asking, “Do you want to build a snowman?” In fact, my eldest son has taken to pleading with me, “Please will you stop singing that annoying song, Daddy!”

I have argued before that the good news of the Christian faith is what we might call the true or ultimate fairy story. All the stories which we tell are really variations on the theme of the Bible’s story, God’s story of the world – or sometimes protests against it. All the best stories involve some kind of problem or crisis, a Fall, and a resolution, rescue, redemption or deliverance. Death and resurrection is the shape of all life. We all long for a happy ending, but can it be true? Christianity’s great story is that God loves this wonderful yet broken world. Jesus is the mysterious stranger, the Prince from another world who kills the dragon and gets the girl. At the cost of his own life he triumphs over evil and he and his bride, the church, live happily ever after.

Yet the writers of Frozen are on record as saying that they are deliberately trying to tell a different kind of fairy story. In the film, the crisis is that Anna is gradually freezing. As in Narnia, an endless winter without any Christmases threatens. Anna is told that she can be saved only by true love. She imagines that might come from the charming and dashing Hans, who turns out to be a rotter of the worst sort. In the end, Anna finds that she has to look within for true love. She can’t depend on some handsome fella to swoop in and rescue her. She has to dig deep and stand on her own two feet. It’s Anna’s own love for her sister that saves the day.   

Although there’s something to be said for this, the Bible would tell us, I think, that it’s basically wrong! One of the most important things to grasp about the Christian worldview is that it sees us as sinners in need of rescue. Yes, we are astonishing, mysterious, deep creatures, made in the image of God himself. But if we look within our hearts we won’t find perfect, true love. There are all sorts of confused and contradictory loves in our hearts. And the fatal flaws of selfishness, sin and pride touch everything. In the end, we are part of the problem not the solution. We cannot fix ourselves or our world. We need the perfect love of God from outside to come down and save the day. The Bible’s story is of God in Christ to the rescue, a story that interrupted and transformed history in a stable in Bethlehem more than two millennia ago, and is still changing lives today.  

But for all their rejection of the classic fairy story, the writers of Frozen can’t totally escape God’s story. We are characters in the drama God is performing whether we like it, or realise it, or not. Anna’s act of true love is self-less and self-sacrificial: she jumps in front of her sister, Elsa, to save her from Hans’ sword-thrust – and thus the curse is broken. Which of course is an echo of Jesus’ laying down of his life for us on the cross. God’s reality breaks in to all our stories and begins to make sense of them. A happy ending depends on realising what the story is and embracing it as our story.

The Revd Marc Lloyd

I owe many of the ideas for this article to a talk given by The Revd Dr Tim Keller at the Evangelical Ministry Assembly this year. See: /

Sunday, July 12, 2015

OT civic law: principle & application

A friend suggested that we distinguish between the principle and application of Old Testament civic law (following Thomas Arnold in this). The Old Testament shows us how principles applied in practice in Israel. We must discern the principles and apply them to our own situation. The close our situation to that of ancient Israel, the closer the application will be to the original instruction. The classic example of this would be the command to fence your roof in ancient Israel  given in Dt 22:8 (roofs being flat busy places from which one could fall and be injured). It would normally be absurd to fence your sloping unused roof in modern Britain but that commandment might lead you to fence your swimming pool.

Number of words in some key texts

Some parishoners reminded me of this today, though it appears not to be true in this exact form.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Volume of British & Biblical Laws (again)

The BBC reported that in 2010, 3,506 laws were introduced in the UK – that’s nearly 14 laws every working day.

A government report admits that between 1983 and 2009 Parliament approved over 100 criminal justice Bills, and over 4,000 new criminal offences were created.

In 2009, 23 Acts of Parliament were passed running to a total of 2247 pages.

Since the 3rd Century AD, there’s been a Jewish tradition mentioned in the Talmud that there are 613 commandments in the Hebrew Bible.  

In other words, the UK government could pass 5 times more laws in a year than God thought sufficient for ancient Israel and as a guide for his people for all time. 

The uses of the Law

It is possible to provide metaphors to help explain the uses of the Old Testament law:

(1) Like a portrait, the OT law shows us what God is like

(2) Like a mirror, the OT law show us our sin

(3) Like a torch or a map, the OT law shows us how to live.

The relevance of the Old Testament "civic" law for us

It is debatable to what extent the Old Testament law can be neatly divided up into the moral, civil and ceremonial. All laws are moral in a sense. Who wants an amoral or immoral law? All life is lived in community and must be ordered and under authority. All laws touch civil society. And ceremonial is in escapable: it's there in how you greet your family in the morning, how you eat your breakfast - or at least you hope it is!

Anyway, there is some usefulness in the division.

So, what use is the Old Testament civic law given by God to ancient Israel for the "ordinary" 21st Century Bristish Christian?

Well, it has the same uses as all of God's laws, but perhaps some of them are not so easy to see. We may not have any slaves or oxen and we may not be in a position to re-write the statue book in a more godly form.

And here we always need to remember the caveat that these are God's law for Israel under the Mosaic covenant. They teach us what our laws should be, along with the rest of Scripture, but they are not those laws simpliciter.

(1) The Old Testament civic law given to Israel reveals the character of God.

God's words are never arbitary. They flow from who he is. God's people are to be like him. He is a God of holiness, love, justice, righteousness, community, kindness, generosity, fairness and much more.

(2) The Old Testament civic law given by God to Israel reveals our sin.

Of course it reveals Israel's sin too! This is not a utopian law. It is a law for people who are killing one another accidently and deliberately, a law for people who sleep with the wrong people and fail to return the lawn mowers they borrowed.

Yet when we compare our laws (even though they are so influenced by the Bible) and our society to the one imagined in the law (for example, with it's benign system of endentured servitude or it's systems of social welfare provision or debt cancellation) we see how far of God's standards we fall.

(3) The Old Testament civic law given to Israel reveals how God's people should live and order their society.

It stresses that life cannot be individual and privitised. Community, society, village, town, city and nation matter to God. He is king of this world not just of heaven. He is the God of contracts as well as Holy Communion. 

In our personal dealings and in so far as we are responsible for the ordering of our family, our school, our clubs and societies, our church, our village, we can try to live out the wisdom the law of God has taught us. We may have more ability to shape community life near us than we think.

And we have a vote - in fact quite a lot of votes. And we can belong to political parties (or not). And stand in elections.

Even the most unpromising parts of the civil law of ancient Israel are not the Word of God Emmeritus. They are useful for correcting, rebuking and training in righteousness so that we may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

God's contracts, people's contracts & courts

When God makes a covenant or contract with someone, he writes it down.

Christians are sometimes too foolish, or lazy, or super-spiritual, or trusting, or something, to write their contracts down, but they would do well to learn from God's example.

The Bible's way is that when people have a dispute, they shouldn't just fight it out amongst themselves: they should appeal to an authority to sort it out for them.

(In the Bible flight rather than fight can be an honourable course). 

Though Christians are not to take their disputes before secular courts but to the church (according to 1 Corinthians 5), the church is pretty immature, inexperienced and confused over legal matters so the elders might sometimes tell people that their case is complicated and the church isn't up to it, so they could use some Christian lawyers or even a secular court to help them sort it out. Though they are not as Christian as they should be, our courts at least have been thinking about how to do this stuff for a few hundred years whereas the church has largely neglected the law of God which would have taught her how to adjudicate wisely. In Paul's day, of course, we could expect Jewish Christians to know the law rather better than many believers do today.

(This stuff is influenced by James Jordan's Biblical Horizons lectures, Studies in Exodus on Ex 21:18-21, by the way)

Modern prisons & the Bible

The Bible doesn't really have prisons, except for those awaiting trial.

Prisons are pretty good at locking up convicted criminals for a while and therefore keeping them from directly inflicting physical harm on those outside prison. But they punish the whole of society because they are are eye-wateringly expensive and rubbish at re-habilitation. It turns out to be a bad idea to lock criminals up with other criminals! They are not a good influence on one another. The education, work and reform offered in prison are often minimal. Drug use and violence are sometimes rife. It is easy for someone incarcerated to go from bad to wrose as he serves an apprenticeship with a gang of cons.

One of the Bible's major alternatives to this is a carefully regulated temporary period of endentured servitude for those who are unable to pay their criminal fines. This has several advantages. The victim is compensated for his crime rather than having to pay for the criminal to be locked up. The criminal does something useful and may well have the opportunity to learn a trade or gain useful skills. There is dignity in this work. He pays his debt. And the scale is personal rather than institutional. In a small agricultural community made up of relatively large households, it is likely that everyone will know how everyone else treats their servants. There is less need for a prison inspectorate and the brutality that can sometimes exist amongst those who want to be prison guards in a closed-off world is more difficult. 

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Biblical law and English law

On the government legislation website, the most requested piece of legislation is The Data Protection Act 1998. It’s 92 pages long. That’s enough to tell you that modern British laws are rather different from Biblical laws. 

Modern laws sometimes aim to be comprehensive and are intended to be strictly applied in specific situations. 

Biblical laws include exhortations and principles, as well as "laws" in the narrow sense. They are somewhat sermonic. They invite reflection and application. They are intended to teach wisdom. They are meant for all God's people rather than to be the property of a professional class of lawyers. They are to equip the saints for godly living at all times and in all places, including the right ordering of society, when that is in their power, but that does not mean that they can be simplistically and exclusivley written into the law code of any individual nation. They have the merit of relative brevity. With a reasonable amount of study, it would be possible to have a good idea of what the law of God is. Far harder to have a command of modern English law. Soon you would be in the hands of the experts in one particular sub-genre of legislation.