About Me

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Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

The stars and the shepherds

For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth,
And praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth!

It struck me this year that in this well known Christmas carol Phillips Brooks describes the angels that announced Christ's birth to the shepherds as "morning stars." And not without reason. Luke describes them as "a multitude of the heavenly host" (2:13). That is Old Testament language and it is interesting to take a wee peek at it.

A very common epithet for God in the Hebrew Bible is “Yhwh of hosts” (yhwh tsebaôt), “God of hosts” ('elohê tsebaôt), or some other combination such as “Yhwh God of hosts” (yhwh 'elohîm tsebaôt). For instance,
Thus says the Yhwh,
who gives the sun for light by day
and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—
Yhwh of hosts is his name . . .
(Jer 31:35)
The epithet, in one version or another, appears almost 290 times in the OT. Clearly the idea was a prevalent one in ancient Israel. The “hosts” or “armies” in question are sometimes Israel (Exod 6:26; 12:17, 41, 51; 1 Sam 17:45) but there are more than a few references to “the host/army of heaven.” Sun, moon, and stars are clearly amongst the host of heaven (Gen 2:1; Deut 4:19; 17:3). However, the phrase is also clearly used of the divine council (1 Kgs 22:19; 2 Chr 18:18). Indeed, the link between the sun, moon, and stars and the “gods” is clear in the warnings to the Israelites not to worship the “host of heaven,” clearly identified as the sun, moon, and stars conceived of as gods (Deut 4:19; 17:3; cf. 2 Kgs 17:16; 21:3, 5; 23:4; Jer 8:2; 19:13; Acts 7:42).

That these heavenly armies/hosts (tsebaôt) were sometimes actively involved in warfare is suggested by the Song of Deborah in Judges 5. There we read:
“The kings came, they [i.e., the tribes of Israel] fought;
then fought the kings of Canaan,
at Taanach, by the waters of Megiddo;
they got no spoils of silver.
From heaven the stars fought,
from their courses they fought against Sisera.”
(Judg 5:19–20)
Here the stars in heaven are pictured as joining the armies of Israel in fighting against Sisera. The earthly battle had a heavenly counterpart.

This idea of the stars as God’s heavenly army fighting for Israel is also found in the vision in Dan 8:1–14 that depicts the empire of Alexander the Great as a goat with a horn (Alexander). The horn is broken off and is replaced by fours horns (Alexander’s four general who divided his empire after his death). The vision focuses on a “little horn” descended from one of the four horns. This is Antiochus IV, the arch opponent of Israel and Israel’s God: “Out of one of [the goat’s four horns] came a little horn, which grew exceedingly great toward the south, toward the east, and toward the glorious land. It grew great, even to the host of heaven. And some of the host and some of the stars it threw down to the ground and trampled on them” (Dan 8:9–10). Here Antiochus’ opposition to Israel is presented as a battle against “the host/army of heaven.” And he has some measure of success — some of the stars (i.e., the heavenly army) are thrown to the ground and trampled (cf. the assault on the stars in Isa 14:13). Here we seem to be presented with a vision that highlights the heavenly dimension of Antiochus’ earthly conflict against the temple in Jerusalem. The attack on Jerusalem’s temple was an assault on the very stars of heaven, on the divine council itself. Of course, this is a symbolic vision but it is of interest because it reveals the continuing influence of the ancient association of stars and heavenly beings.

These stars/gods were made by Yhwh and so worship Yhwh. Thus Ezra prayed,
“You are Yhwh, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you” (Neh 9:6; cf. Ps 148:1–3).

So the association of angelic beings and stars — indeed the blurring of any sharp boundary between them — was well established when Luke wrote his Gospel. Luke clearly imagined an army of angels worshipping God and proclaiming the good news but it is also very plausible to suggest that these angels were linked in Luke's mind with the stars. It is the stars themselves — the hosts of heaven — that declare the birth of the Saviour to the shepherds.

The interesting question this poses for us is what we modern people are to make of this. We do not think of stars in the same way that ancient people did. We see great big balls of burning gas; we do not see angels. And while we cannot give up our modern understandings of stars I think that we have disenchanted the cosmos too much. I suggest that we need to recover a mystical sign-ificance to astral bodies. We need to grasp that for us too stars can point beyond themselves to the transcendent God and his glory in creation, indeed, to his gospel. But how do we re-enchant the cosmos without losing the discoveries of science?

Friday, 21 December 2012

Today the world ends, but ... look on the bright side

I wish I were a glow worm
A glow worm's never glum
How can you be grumpy
When the sun shines out your bum?

Faith is ...

I was just thinking of all those "Love is ..." cartoons.

So I thought I'd start a "faith is ..." equivalent.

Here is Paul Tillich

Having faith is ... "to accept the fact that I am accepted, in my total unacceptability."

Not sure that he's right but there is something in what he says.

Feel free to suggest alternatives

Friday, 14 December 2012

Theology after Metaphysics?

I need some help.

I keep reading and hearing about "theology after metaphysics" and "post-metaphysical theology" and so on and so forth.

I have thought a little bit about that — I confess, only a little — and I am confused.

What on earth is theology without metaphysics? Metaphysics is what stops theology dissolving into a mere socially constructed language system with no reference beyond the language system itself.

I know what theology that does not discuss metaphysics is — I have written some myself — but theology that rejects metaphysics . . . sorry. I have not a clue.

Well, OK, I do have a clue. The work of D. Z. Phillips may be said to be "theology after metaphysics." I can see that the term would apply to his work and the work of like-minded thinkers. But much as I liked and respected the guy and admire his work it seems to me to be a dead end for Christian theology.

If we wish to retain a historic understanding of talk about God as Creator, for instance, it seems to me that one simply cannot do so without metaphysics. In fact, it is sensible metaphysics that can save theology from making the kind of silly mistakes about divine action, say, that often land Christians in unnecessary conflicts with the sciences.

I am open to correction here so feel free to explain why I am wrong.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Are Christians a "Third Race"? No

The early church began to speak of Christians not as Jews or Gentiles but as something new — a "third race" alongside Jews and Gentiles.

I understand the logic behind this and there is perhaps a sense in which it has some truth. However, on the whole I find the notion unfortunate and unhelpful.

I will not develop the case for this here but will simply assert my understanding of the issues. If that is of any merit to anyone then great. If not, fair enough.

It seems to me that speaking in terms of biblical theology there is not a third race. There are Jews and there are Gentiles. There is no third category.

Christ-believers that are Gentiles when they are united to the Messiah do not cease to be Gentiles;
Christ-believers that are Jews when they are united to the Messiah do not cease to be Jews.
What they are is Gentiles in Christ and Jews in Christ.
What they are is Gentiles and Jews eschatologically transformed in Christ.
What they are is Gentiles and Jews united as one body in the Messiah.
BUT they remain Gentiles and Jews.

Of course, we all know that "in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek" (Gal 3:28) but this should not be understood to indicate that all distinctions between Jew and Gentile are removed in Christ. If they were they there would be no differences between men and women (on the basis of the same text) and that would really mess up things!!! Yes, salvation and receiving the Spirit do not depend on whether one is a Jew or a Gentile — in Christ, there is no difference. But that is a different proposition from the eradication of all distinctions between Jew and Gentile identities.

So I think that we should avoid talking of Christ-followers as "a third race" — much better to conceive of the ekklesia as a body of eschatologically renewed Jews and Gentiles united to the Messiah by his Spirit. Our Jewish and Gentile distinctives remain (as do all the wide variety of distinctives between different Gentile ethne).

The unity of the body of Christ is not uniformity but a unity that holds together great variety.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Hell and the Image of God

God has made human beings in his image, as his icon in creation. For God to torment such divine representatives forever and ever in hell seems akin an act of perpetual divine indirect self-mutilation. Is that an unfair thought? It may well be unfair so please just say so if you think it is. It is just a rough thought.

I guess the more substantive issue underlying the thought concerns whether God would ever abandon his icons to everlasting damnation. It is very hard to imagine that God would desire to forever abandon creatures of that nature. So what would cause him to do so? Indeed, what would cause him to do so so quickly and easily (i.e., at death)? Would he not put up more of a fight before forsaking his images forever?

I do not believe that God would ever abandon such a creature. God did not create trash and he will not trash what he creates.

Sad reflection on Brad Gregory's new book

So, I have been reading more of the Brad Gregory book, The Unintended Reformation. Oh, it is simultaneously enlightening, fascinating, and depressing.

It makes you wonder what may have happened had the Reformation been a "reformation" of the church rather than a schism (followed by a splintering into a million Protestant pieces) within the church.

But it is hard to see how Humpty can be put together again this side of the eschaton.


Friday, 7 December 2012

The Unintended Reformation

I am currently reading a really fascinating book. In a nutshell what Brad Gregory is arguing is that the Protestant Reformation played a pivotal role on the journey of Western societies towards
A hyperpluralism of religious and secular beliefs
An absence of any substantive common good
The triumph of capitalism and its driver, consumerism
The secular world we live in today is the unintended eventual result of the train of events set in play by the Reformation. None of this was what the Reformers had in mind — indeed, they would turn in their graves if they could see the longterm consequences of what they did. Nevertheless, he argues, the Reformation shaped the world we now live in in ways far deeper than many have realized.

It is a pretty controversial book, as you can imagine. I have no doubts that it will bring joy to a fair few Catholics and enrage Protestants. However, the basic argument seems rather plausible so far (I am about half way through). I have long suspected that the Reformation did play an important role in the rise of secularism but this book makes a far more detailed and eloquent case for that vague instinct.

The author, Brad S. Gregory, is the Dorothy G. Griffin Associate Professor of Early Modern European History at the University of Notre Dame.

Hardcover: 520 pages
Publisher: Harvard University Press, 2012
ISBN: 978-0674045637

Highly recommended, even if you don't agree with it all.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Major new book on baptism

The long anticipated book by Anthony Cross on baptism — the fruit of decades of research into the history and theology of baptism — is now just about to go to press.

Anthony is a very capable biblical scholar and historian and this book will be essential reading for those working in the area. Here is the cover blurb.

The subject of baptism continues to be of considerable interest—though it frequently appears within broader studies of sacraments, liturgy, worship, and ecumenical studies, and within confessional bounds: credobaptist or paedobaptist — yet it is rarely discussed by Evangelicals. This book, however, is neither an apologetic for credobaptism nor paedobaptism; rather Cross believes that, as practiced today, both forms are a departure from New Testament baptism, which, he maintains, was an integral part of becoming a Christian and part of the proclaimed gospel. He argues that the “one baptism” of Ephesians 4:5 is conversion-baptism and that the baptism referred to in the various New Testament strata refers to this “one baptism” (of Spirit and water). The study sets out the case for this interpretation and contends that in key passages “baptism” is an example of synecdoche. The case is then made for a sacramental interpretation of baptism from a thoroughgoing Evangelical perspective. Cross concludes with reflections on the necessity of baptismal reform and the relevance of a return to conversion-baptism for the contemporary church in a post-Christian, post-Christendom, mission setting.

‘The challenge of this thesis … is essentially simple: we are called and challenged simply to accord the significance to baptism that it is accorded within the New Testament.’

John E. Cowell, Minister, Budleigh Salterton Baptist Church, UK, and Senior Research Fellow, Spurgeon’s College, London

‘This is a remarkably detailed, biblically focused, and ecumenically sensitive book on the sacrament of baptism. Like Beasley-Murray in his classic study on baptism, Anthony R. Cross brings new insight to the indispensable role of Christian initiation both in personal faith and the life of the church. Highly recommended!’

Timothy George, Founding Dean, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama; Chair of the Doctrine and Christian Unity Commission of the Baptist World Alliance

‘This rich theological work on such a significant subject is a gift to the whole church. It is full of good scholarship, wise in judgment, and practical in its insights. We are given a timely contribution on the meaning of Christian identity, inviting us all to reflect again on the biblical teaching, our doctrinal affirmations, our sacramental understanding, and what amounts to faithful practice in the church of Christ.’

Brian Haymes, former Principal of Northern and Bristol Baptist Colleges, and President of the Baptist Union of Great Britain

‘Carefully using an impressive range of biblical, theological, and historical scholarship, Anthony R. Cross argues that baptism lost the importance that it had in the New Testament and pre-Nicene church; but that in post-Christendom baptism’s significance is re-emerging. When it embodies New Testament themes of conversion, faith, community, and ethics, baptism once again emerges as a sacrament of untold potential, enriching discipleship, and empowering mission. This mature fruit of “Baptist sacramentalism” offers gifts to Christians of all traditions. I recommend it enthusiastically.’

Alan Kreider, Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana

‘Anthony R. Cross makes a compelling case both for the inseparability of faith and baptism and of water and Spirit baptism. The evangelical insistence on justification by faith alone, he contends, should and must make room for “baptism” as a biblical term encompassing all three: faith, water baptism, and Spirit baptism. Arguably the most important book on baptism since George Beasley-Murray’s Baptism in the New Testament, extending and enriching the argument of that seminal work.’

J. Ramsey Michaels, Missouri State University

Anthony R. Cross is a Member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of Oxford.

ISBN: 978-1-62032-809-5
420 pages
$46 (approx £28.60)
available online in the next few weeks (if you look today you will not find it)