Jake Belder
Oct 29, 2014

For my research, I have been doing some broad reading on the theology of work and vocation. Most recently, I have read Gary Badcock’s book, The Way of Life: A Theology of Christian Vocation, in which he argues against the notion that each Christian is uniquely called to a specific career. Badcock suggests instead that the vocation each Christian has is more general – a call to love, faith, and obedience to the will of God – and that each of us will work out what that looks like in our individual lives.

Christians first and foremost need to understand that their calling and vocation is to be holy in whatever circumstances they find ourselves in, Badcock says. Commenting on 1 Peter 2.4-5, he continues,

Here there is more than enough to sustain a Christian theology of vocation, for the task is to be holy where we are, amid the responsibilities of ordinary life, and within the community or communities in which we live. Or, as a rather different theological source puts it, ‘Life in the Holy Spirit fulfils the vocation of man’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1699). Everything else must be secondary to this or, better, a function of it. To be ‘for God’ in life – this constitutes the Christian doctrine of vocation. It must be so, for the Christian vocation is a response to God, and the human response is constituted as much by the specific character of each person as by the general call of God to faith and obedience. ‘What does God call me to do?’ is a question that nobody but I can answer. But the specific nature of each response, and the ensuing variety of Christian vocations, must not be allowed to cloud the fact that the fundamental structure of the Christian calling is the same in each case: the call is to the love of God, and because God is love, to the love of one’s neighbour. What remains is to find the way of doing this that corresponds best to what lies in the self, to one’s special gifts and qualities, within the specific circumstances of one’s life. More than this cannot be done, and nothing more than this can be required of us (123).

On the whole, I don’t think Badcock says enough about the significance of our work, but I do think he makes a valuable point here. Many Christians experience a great deal of stress over the question of whether or not they are doing the will of God, but often that concern is focused on the idea that God has a blueprint for their lives which they must follow to the letter, and that they are doing something wrong if they haven't figured exactly what that looks like. In response to this, Badcock is right – the answer to the question, ‘What is God’s will for my life?’ begins with the pursuit of godliness. And when we set ourselves to be ‘for God’ in this life, he will put us where he needs us to be in order to use us for his plans and purposes.

Oct 27, 2014

The publication of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer is one of the most significant moments in the history of the English Church. It was the first Protestant prayer book and the first attempt at reforming the worship of the Church after England’s ecclesiastical break with Rome. Thomas Cranmer was given the task of creating an English liturgy for the people that would help shape their worship and belief as England wrestled through the changes of the Reformation era.

I read the preface to the 1549 edition last week for a module I’m currently enrolled in on issues of authority in Anglicanism, and a number of things struck me. In the first place was Cranmer’s insistence that worship was for the purpose of growing in godliness. This appears a few times throughout the preface (which is only a couple of pages): The ‘common prayers in the Church…[are] for a great advancement in godliness’; ‘The whole Bible should be read over once every year’ so that everyone ‘should (by often reading and meditation in God’s Word) be stirred up to godliness’; and so on.

Cranmer notes that the trappings and ceremonies that had been introduced in centuries prior to the Reformation hindered people from becoming more godly because worship became so completely inaccessible to them. Whether it was the fact that the Mass was conducted in Latin, that so little Scripture was read, or that good things were distorted and ‘grew daily to more and more abuses’, Cranmer was firm in his conviction that ‘because they have much blinded the people and obscured the glory of God, [they] are worthy to be cut away and clean rejected’. He even goes so far as to poke a bit of fun at the difficulties of just trying to follow Roman worship:

The number and hardness of the rules called the Pie, and the manifold changings of the service, was the cause that to turn the book only was so hard and intricate a matter, that many times there was more business to find out what should be read than to read it when it was found out.

Thus the prayer book was introduced as a means of simplifying the worship of the English Church. It is important to note that Cranmer was not inventing anything new. This was truly an act of reform: to take things that had been passed down from the Early Church, to strip them of whatever had distorted them in more recent centuries, and to give back to the Church something that would once again form them into the likeness of Christ. That is why amongst the changes Cranmer made was to renew the emphasis on the primacy of Scripture. In his famous phrase, he wanted Christians to 'hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them', and so he completely saturated the worship of the Church with Scripture, both by having nearly the whole Bible read through every year in the context of gathered worship, and by infusing the language of the liturgy itself with Scripture.

Finally, Cranmer states something about the unifying purpose of the new prayer book, and in doing so, says something significant about the whole question of comprehensiveness and bringing a diverse church together by means of a common form of worship:

In this our time the minds of men are so diverse that some think it is a great matter of conscience to depart from a piece of the least of their ceremonies, they be so addicted to their old customs; and again on the other side, some be so new-fangled that they would innovate all things and so despise the old that nothing can like them, but that is new; it was thought expedient, not so much to have respect how to please and satisfy either of these parties, as how to please God and profit them both.

That last line is incredibly significant. Cranmer wanted to see the English Church united, but he was not willing to let that merely be a surface or superficial unity (like we, in many ways, unfortunately seem to have today). For him, that unity had to be expressed in true commonality of worship (the extent of that commonality is an important question, of course), and even more, in the shared goal of glorifying God and of growing in holiness.

We would do well if our unity was based on those same goals today. Does that mean a return to the Book of Common Prayer? No, but perhaps it is worth thinking about whether something like Common Worship, in all its vastness and diversity, actually maintains the commonality of worship Cranmer called for, or whether it is intended more 'to please and satisfy...parties' rather than 'to please God and profit them'.1

1 Let me add that I say this as one who is, on the whole, an admirer of Common Worship.
Oct 25, 2014

Every week I use Twitter to share a variety of articles and posts and other interesting things I have seen and read across the web. They are then collected here and posted at the end of the week.

Please note: This will be the last instalment in the Miscellanées series. I simply don't have the time to continue to put this post together each week. From here forward, all the links I share on Twitter will also be posted to a new Tumblr blog, and archived there. A link for the Tumblr site appears in the menu bar above.

Here are the links from the week of 19-25 October 2014.

  1. Hallowe'en is Coming: some thoughtsMichael Sadgrove muses on whether there is still a place for Hallowe'en. An interesting post.
  2. 33 thoughts on reading – Some great thoughts on how to make the most of the reading experience. This is a manifesto I can very happily get behind.
  3. 10 reasons why you shouldn't have a church website – In a day where conventional wisdom seems to be that a good website is crucial for a church to have, this is a very interesting post.
  4. The gospel and telepathy – This is fun: "Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if you're unable to communicate telepathically."
  5. An Extraordinary Synod, IndeedGeorge Weigel has some interesting insights on the recent Roman Catholic Synod on the Family that took place in Rome earlier this month, which he says was quite extraordinary in a number of ways..
  6. Reading Wendell Berry at Costco – This article is a review of James K.A. Smith's latest book, How (Not) to be Secular, but also offers some really helpful insight into Smith's thought, as the reviewer draws from a number of his recent writings.
  7. A Tale of Two Deaths – A brilliant piece from Matthew Lee Anderson on the sacredness of life and courage in facing death: "To choose death, even when death is inevitable, is a fundamental betrayal of the sacredness of life. It is a concession to the enemy, not a triumph over it: it claims for itself ‘dignity,’ but it is a false dignity that comes from binding oneself to that which destroys human life."
  8. The Death of the Parish – Here is a thoughtful post from David Koyzis on how our use of cars has impacted our ecclesiology.
  9. Loving the Hunt: Kuyper on Scholarship and Stewardship – This is a good post on why in scholarship, among other things, it can't always just be about the end results. The process of inquiry is just as important.
  10. Seeking self or costly discipleship? Standing with the persecuted – Another great post from this week from David Koyzis: "At the moment, [Christians in the global south] need us to stand in solidarity with them, and we will not do so credibly if we have accepted a faith that downplays the path of obedience to a God who claims the totality of our lives as his own. It is just possible that the best antidote to a peculiarly western religion focused on the self is to open our eyes and ears to our persecuted brothers and sisters overseas."

Feel free to comment on any of these items or recommend further articles or posts related to the content above using the space below.

Oct 20, 2014

One of the things I hear every now and then from newer preachers is that they have an ambition and desire to be able to preach with simple notes, or even without notes. At our college Communion service at St John’s College the other week, the visiting preacher preached without notes, and many people said afterwards how amazed they were by this. And rightly so – she didn’t stumble at all, the words ‘uh’ and ‘um’ were pretty much absent from her vocabulary, and the sermon was clear and structured.

Does this mean that all preachers should aim to preach without notes? When people suggest to me that they should, there are a few things I usually say in response. That is not because I presume to be an expert on preaching, but having done it regularly over the past three years, I have a few thoughts borne out of experience.

In the first place, every preacher has different abilities. The preacher at our Communion service clearly had the sort of memory that could just absorb things as she prepared, which could then be distilled verbally without any written prompts. My brain doesn’t work that way, however. It’s not that the stuff I take in while I prepare to preach doesn’t stay there, but the way my memory works, were I to go into the pulpit without notes, I would have a lot of difficulty calling it all back to mind. Give me a pen and paper and I can probably write it all out again, but to share it all verbally without prompts would be difficult for me. As a result, I use a script when I preach, and I’m unapologetic about that fact. I’ve worked hard during the week to expound the text and to put the sermon together, and when I get into the pulpit I want to make sure that everything that needs to be said gets said clearly.

Secondly, in response to this, some new preachers are concerned that if they use a script it will sound like they are reading an essay. That will only be true if you write it like an essay. One of the things you learn when you preach is to find your own voice. For me, that means that when I write a few sentences or a paragraph for a sermon, I read them back to myself to make sure it sounds like something I would say. It means I don’t always use proper grammar, that I don’t worry too much about colloquialisms, and that I sometimes write in a sort of ‘stream of consciousness’ style. And because I try and write in the way I speak, when I get into the pulpit, I only need to glance at a line I’ve written to remember what’s there. That frees me up from having to focus too much on it to make sure I read it correctly.

Sometimes after I’ve made these points, those who advocate preaching without notes might make one final comment, and that is to suggest that to preach a scripted sermon is to stifle the work of the Holy Spirit. Honestly, I think that is nonsense. When I preach, I can think of at least four distinct ways I depend on the work of the Spirit: first, to sanctify me; second, to write the truths of the passage I’m preaching from on my own heart first; third, to guide me in my study and preparation; and fourth, to take my words and to use them to open up the truth of God’s Word so that his people will be built up in faith. If that’s not depending on the Spirit, I don’t know what is. And yes, that means that sometimes when I’m preaching I will feel prompted to say things other than what I’ve written. But more often than not, it means I stick to what’s on the page in front of me.

If you can preach with bullet points or without notes, that’s great. But I don’t think that is a goal that every preacher needs to aspire to. God uses you as you are, with your unique abilities and gifts. And if your desire is simply to proclaim his Word faithfully so that his people are transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ, and so that others come to know the risen Lord Jesus, then he will do that work by his Spirit whether or not you need to have notes in front of you.

(And yes, that's a photo of me preaching from a couple of years ago. With notes.)

Oct 18, 2014

Every week I use Twitter to share a variety of articles and posts and other interesting things I have seen and read across the web. They are then collected here and posted at the end of the week.

Here are the links from the week of 12-18 October 2014.

  1. Christian worship is boring – An interesting post on the formative role of worship. The author says it is meant to be 'a long term education in becoming un-excited.'
  2. Church Planting Essentials: Patience – Great post from Phil Whittall on learning to be at peace waiting to see God work: 'We believe that Jesus intends to build His church and has asked us to help. So we do what we’re told and we wait.' He's writing from the vantage point of a church planter, but I think this applies to just about everyone in ministry in the West.
  3. Tom Wright on Dooyeweerd and KuyperSteve Bishop posts an interesting Google Translate-translated article from a Dutch website (hint: it's a bit hard to read) in which Tom Wright talks about the ways he has been influenced by Dutch Reformed thinkers such as Herman Dooyeweerd and Abraham Kuyper.
  4. Why Study Theology? – Here is an good and thoughtful piece from John Webster on why the study of theology is so crucial for ministry.
  5. Forget Facebook, Abandon Instagram, Move To A Village – This is an interesting piece on the benefits of village life, particularly in terms of social and societal factors. There are potentially some insights for the church here, not least the discussion of the ideal size of a village.
  6. Retirement Home ChristianityRichard Mouw offers a really helpful post on why you can't preach the same thing in every context.
  7. Ladies: Give Us Your Most Productive Years, We'll Hold Your Eggs For You – If you need yet another example of how broken the world is, here are some companies who are willing to pay to freeze a woman's eggs during her most productive working years so they can get the most out of their female employees. Yes, this is for real.
  8. When a Pastor Resigns Abruptly – In light of a rather big event in the American evangelical world this week, here is a really thoughtful piece on the dangers of pride in ministry. Always check your character, or better, have someone do it for you.

Feel free to comment on any of these items or recommend further articles or posts related to the content above using the space below.

Oct 15, 2014

Why do we need a gospel that transforms all of life? Because otherwise our witness in the world is compromised.

As for me, I will believe in no belief that does not make itself manifest by outward signs. I will think no preaching sincere that is not recommended by the practice of the preacher.
– Signora Neroni, in Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers (p. 275)
How can any one remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life?
– Dorothy Sayers, 'Why Work?' (p. 8)
I am still convinced that one of the major reasons why people reject the Gospel in the West today is not because they perceive it to be false but because they perceive it to be trivial.
– John Stott, ‘The Mind, the Spirit, and Power’, in A Faith and Culture Devotional: Daily Readings on Art, Science, and Life (p. 46)
There seems little point in a religion which is merely a weekly social event (apart, of course, from the normal pleasures of a weekly social event), as opposed to one which tells you exactly how to live, which colours and stains everything… What’s the point of faith unless you and it are serious – seriously serious – unless your religion fills, directs, stains and sustains your life?
– Julian Barnes, Nothing to be Frightened Of (p. 64, 81)

We are always quick to deny the assertion made by so many in our culture that Christianity is irrelevant. But perhaps they are just keenly observant, and see a Christianity in which our lives don't look all that different from theirs. People notice when the gospel does not transform the whole of your life, and they will simply write it off. No, if Christ is Lord, everything matters, and everything must change.

Oct 13, 2014

Recently I have been working my way through Anthony Trollope’s series of novels collectively known as The Chronicles of Barsetshire. One of the things I enjoy about Trollope’s writing (although it took me a bit of time to get used to) is the way in which he intersperses comments from his own perspective into the narrative. In the middle of telling the story, he will pause and take a minute to reflect on something the story has drawn out, often something to do with human nature, and it is almost as if you are sitting there actually having a conversation with him.

Sometimes those reflections are more poignant than others, such as this from Barchester Towers:

Considering how much we are all given to discuss the characters of others, and discuss them often not in the strictest spirit of charity, it is singular how little we are inclined to think that others can speak ill-naturedly of us, and how angry and hurt we are when proof reaches us that they have done so. It is hardly too much to say that we all of us occasionally speak of our dearest friends in a manner in which those dearest friends would very little like to hear themselves mentioned; and that we nevertheless expect that our dearest friends shall invariably speak of us as though they were blind to all our faults, but keenly alive to every shade of our virtues (194-195).

Trollope is right, of course. A good mix of James 4:11 and Matthew 7:12 would do us all well.

Oct 11, 2014

Every week I use Twitter to share a variety of articles and posts and other interesting things I have seen and read across the web. They are then collected here and posted at the end of the week.

Here are the links from the week of 05-11 October 2014.

  1. These 75 Iconic Photos Will Define The 21st Century So Far – The title is pretty superfluous (and I even left off the worst part of it), but this is a great collection of photos, and I think a lot of these will certainly be enduring images of this century.
  2. The Image of God & You – A great post from Jordan Ballor, who writes, 'As great a challenge and responsibility as it can be to recognize and affirm the image of God in other people, it is likewise often difficult to see God’s image in ourselves... We must [learn to] live in a way that is worthy of our honored status as God’s imagebearers."
  3. Pursue God: How God Pulls Us to Himself – Here is an excellent piece by James K.A. Smith on the relationship between vocation and worship. He rightly says the two are inseparable, as worship trains our hearts to desire the right things, equipping us to do our work for the sake of Christ and his Kingdom.
  4. Richard Hays and the New Testament’s Witness on Homosexuality – A summary of the chapter on homosexuality from Richard Hays' book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, which N.T. Wright suggests is the best brief treatment on the issue.
  5. Sexuality and Silence – This is a helpful post from Andrew Wilson on why churches should not remain silent on controversial ethical and moral issues. We need to be a voice of clarity amidst all the confusion.
  6. Bible in the Raw – Here is a good piece on the Fulcrum blog on the subject of Bible translation, which includes a bit of a call to consider learning the original languages.

Feel free to comment on any of these items or recommend further articles or posts related to the content above using the space below.

Oct 9, 2014

I have just finished reading The Integrity of Anglicanism, a book by the late Bishop Stephen Sykes, which is a fascinating and incisive work aimed at addressing the question of whether or not Anglicanism – and more specifically, the Church of England – has a distinct theological standpoint. The book is in part a sustained critique of the idea of 'comprehensiveness', the notion that the Anglican Church should be a place where (in some cases, radically) different theological perspectives can exist in unity. Sykes essentially concludes that as attractive as this idea is in theory, it is simply incapable of working in practice, and undermines Anglicanism's integrity.

As popular as the idea of comprehensiveness is, Sykes ends up arguing that Anglicanism actually does have a shared theological standpoint, 'whether or not its theologians are aware of it and are prepared to think carefully and critically about it’ (74). He suggests that this standpoint is most evident in its liturgies and canon law.1 If this is true, though, Sykes wonders, why then is there no ‘genre of Anglican theological literature corresponding to Roman Catholic systematic theology’ (74)? He continues,

I can only imagine three explanations; it may be that Anglicans have special insight into why the whole enterprise of systematic theology is a waste of time… But so far from this being the case, we would more easily be able to show how pathetically grateful Anglicans are to have some writing on which to cut their theological teeth and how parasitic Anglican theological education is on the existence of such literature. Or secondly, it may be that my argument about the existence of an Anglican standpoint is fallacious. And in this case I hope it will not be long before its errors have been exposed. Or, thirdly, and I can see no further possibilities, it may be that the contemporary Anglican communion is in gross dereliction of its duty to foster the critical study of its own standpoint as a church participating in the universal Church of Christ, to its own impoverishment and to the impoverishment of its contribution to the cause of Christian unity (74-75).

These are strong words, but an important challenge. I find myself sympathetic to much of Sykes' critique of comprehensiveness and the need to articulate a distinctive Anglican theological standpoint. This is not to diminish the way in which Anglicanism has always sought to make room for theological exploration, but a recognition that this process should not result in what can end up looking a lot like relativism. When it does, it fosters a unity that is only institutional, and in many ways illusory. This, I think, is the situation we find ourselves in today. And we are left, as Sykes says, impoverished.

True unity is rooted in shared belief. To be sure, Anglicanism has never been a confessional Church in the sense of the Reformed and Lutheran Churches, and has always been characterised by a degree of diversity, largely owing to its nature as a national Church. Nor should it necessarily be. However, as Paul Avis demonstrates in his book, Anglicanism and the Christian Church, early post-Reformation Anglicanism did have greater commonality in its theological foundation, but this has eroded over time as different movements and traditions, particularly those influenced by liberalism, have become more prominent. Sykes' call, then, is to recapture a shared foundation – not that we try to recapture the 16th- and 17th-centuries as a sort of 'golden age', or that we become a confessional Church, but simply that Anglicans take up the task of doing theology, to work out and express our theological standpoint, and from there to draw all the traditions of the Church into the process of discernment and refinement so that we will come to build our unity on a common faith. Sykes is happy to affirm that Anglicanism by nature has always been a broad Church, but he also recognises that we need to draw boundaries and establish foundations if our unity is going to be real and lasting.

Sykes wrote these words in 1978, but as far as I know, his call has yet to be answered, at least within the Church of England. And certainly, with all that's going on today and the way the fractures in the Church are growing, it is more urgent than ever that we seek unity in the way Sykes calls us to – indeed, in the way Jesus calls us to.

1 There is an intriguing tension that emerges when a Church that prizes diversity of theological perspectives and traditions claims to hold a 'common' form of worship. Sykes is right to note that our liturgy embraces a particular theology, as you cannot say something that means more than one thing at the same time. This results in different traditions either attempting to interpret the liturgy to fit within their tradition's theological framework, or to simply ignore the tension, such that only keen observers will note the dichotomy between the theology professed in the liturgy and the theology articulated by the church/tradition.
Oct 6, 2014

Stories of people who have given up their Christian faith because of science are not uncommon. In his recent book, How (Not) to be Secular, James K.A. Smith, interacting with Charles Taylor’s tome, A Secular Age, makes this observation about such people (page numbers in the paragraph reference Taylor’s book):

If someone tells you that he or she has converted to unbelief because of science, don’t believe them. Because what’s usually captured the person is not scientific evidence per se, but the form of science: ‘Even where the conclusions of science seem to be doing the work of conversion, it is very often not the detailed findings so much as the form’ (p. 362). Indeed, ‘the appeal of scientific materialism is not so much the cogency of its detailed findings as that of the underlying epistemological stance, and that for ethical reasons. It is seen as the stance of maturity, of courage, of manliness, over against childish fears and sentimentality’ (p. 365). But you can understand how, on the retelling, the convert to unbelief will want to give the impression that it was the scientific evidence doing the work. Converts to unbelief always tell subtraction stories (76-77).

Smith goes on to note that, not surprisingly, those who convert to unbelief usually had an immature faith to begin with, one without any real grounding and therefore easily toppled. And when they paint their conversion as a growth in maturity, this only ‘betrays the simplistic shape of the faith they’ve abandoned’ (77). But it is also important to note that this conversion is not simply about a quest for knowledge. It goes deeper than that. Smith continues:

Such tales of maturity and ‘growing up’ to 'face reality’ are stories of courage – the courage to face the fact that the universe is without transcendent meaning, without eternal purpose, without supernatural significance. So the convert to unbelief has ‘grown up’ because she can handle the truth that our disenchanted world is a cold, hard place. At the same time, there can be something exhilarating in this loss of purpose and teleology, because if nothing matters, and we have the courage to face this, then we have a kind of Epicurean invulnerability. While such a universe might have nothing to offer us by way of comfort, it’s also true that ‘in such a universe, nothing is demanded of us’ (p. 367). Now the loss of purpose is also a liberation: ‘we decide what goals to pursue’. God is dead; viva la revolution (77-78).

In the end, then, despite the narrative told by the convert of a noble quest for knowledge, this new-found belief in science is not entirely about growing up and being able to face reality, but is more an attempt to hide from the brokenness of this world and an excuse to live however you want.

However, with a framework devoid of all meaning and purpose, after the initial rush of 'exhilaration', the end result can only be misery. There is a better way, and that is to move beyond the immature faith these converts once held – not to give up on faith, but to seek a faith that fully and truly embraces the reality of Christ’s Lordship over all of life and all of creation. It is this Christ who has been victorious over sin and death and who now reigns as King who provides the only answer to the brokenness of this world, and who alone provides meaning and purpose. It is this Christ who offers to us life in all its fullness as we surrender ourselves to him, and die and rise to new life with him. And what's more, our lives are invested with new and profound meaning and purpose as we, in the power of his Spirit, are enabled to begin to actually do something about the brokenness of the world by seeking to bear witness to his redemption and his Lordship in everything we say and do.

That, of course, is a conversion story seldom heard in public. But it's far more exciting and life-transforming.

©2014, Jake Belder. Disclaimer here.