scrabble tiles

SCRABBLE to solve
the Problem of EVIL

1. (verb): scratch or grope around with one’s fingers to find, collect, or hold on to something.
Eg. “She scrabbled at the grassy slope, desperate for purchase”.
2. (trademark): a game in which players build up words on a board from small lettered tiles.

In Genesis 3:14-5, we read that following the deception of Eve and the transgression of Adam,
The LORD God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this, CURSED are you more than all cattle, and more than every beast of the field;
On your belly you will go, And dust you will eat All the days of your life;
And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed;
He shall CRUSH your head, And you shall strike his heel.”

Now you might or might not believe that the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden has any historical truth to it. For my part, I have wrestled hard with the question of whether there is adequate historical evidence to believe in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus (I’d be happy to talk through my conclusions!), but I haven’t had the chance to give any meaningful time and energy to engaging with the historical question of Adam and Eve — and all of the associated biological, anthropological and theological consequences that an answer to such a question will have.

So I suggest that we come to this discussion simply as mere humans agreed that EVIL is a real problem to which we do not have all the answers, and for which we need everybody’s help. Indeed, we could divide it into a variety of different problems, but here I want to zoom out as far as possible to consider the problem in its most general terms. So I come to this story in Genesis asking that we leave aside our scientific and/or religious opinions to one side for a few brief minutes, and consider instead, regardless of its factual truth or falsehood, whether there is any new perspective that Moses’ account of this ancient Israelite legend might give us upon the even more ancient Problem of Evil. On my part, I find the passage challenges me to consider afresh this question: ‘What is EVIL?’

Specifically, is evil a CURSE from God, or a demonic power we can CRUSH?

Being a playful and childlike soul who finds it hard to think seriously about a subject as sobering as evil without my mind distracting itself with a less weighty theme, I find myself shuffling around the letters, hoping that somehow the secret to unlock the solution might be hidden before our very eyes.

‘Perhaps…’, I hear the rationalizing half of my brain suggest, ‘perhaps, all we need to do is to replace E with H’. I wonder if I’m in danger of falling, like Alice-in-Wonderland, down a rabbit-hole. But my brain continues: ‘…and before you say “EH?”, let me try and explain…’

1. EVIL, according to Moses’ story, involves EXILE and HURT.
a. EXILE, in that Adam and Eve are forced to leave the paradise of perfect pleasure represented by The Garden of Eden.
b. HURT, being the specific consequence that God explicitly declared over both Eve (in child-bearing, Gen. 3:16) and Adam (in farming, Gen. 3:17).

But what if we didn’t withdraw from God in EXILE, but instead took our HURT to God?

2. HURT involves PAIN and SUFFERING.
a. PAIN is a low-level physical feedback system designed to help us avoid damaging ourselves. Repeat after me: ‘Pain is good, just ask someone with leprosy’. (Leprosy causes a decreased ability to feel pain, resulting in repeated injuries and infections due to unnoticed wounds).
b. SUFFERING, on the other hand, is our high-level intellectual narrative telling us that the story we are living will end in tragedy (I learnt this from Julian Baggini, The Virtues of the Table, pp.53-54). Pain only translates into suffering insofar as we interpret our pain to mean that we will subsequently experience negative consequences — if we think the pain will have positive consequences, then it becomes ‘but a momentary trial’ (eg. 2 Cor. 4:17).

The problem of suffering is thus a problem primarily of HOPE, and only secondarily of HURT. Of course, it is vital to ensure that our hope is well-grounded, and that we’re not deluding ourselves and effectively becoming victims of ‘intellectual leprosy’, preventing us from properly feeling and responding to potential damage. This quest for a well-grounded hope leads us to questions concerning reality: what is the nature and character (if we might allow ourselves to personalise the transcendent forces which will determine our ultimate end) of ‘the powers’ (ELOHIM, ‘God’) that threaten to overwhelm our vulnerable human minds, bodies, — and spirits?

If we are to talk in terms of ‘God’, can we coherently and convincingly talk about God being good?
Since Epicurus, thoughtful people have argued ‘No’, in three simple steps:
i. If God is unable to prevent evil, then he is not more powerful than the other transcendent powers — that is, He is not the ‘Sovereign Elohim‘; which is to say that He is not God.
ii. If God is unwilling to prevent evil, then he is not good.
iii. If God is willing and able to prevent evil, then why does it exist?

This is a valid argument, and a profound question. Let’s begin by addressing the first assertion, and consider that word so beloved by conservative evangelical Christians — God’s ‘SOVEREIGNTY’.

3. SOVEREIGNTY involves RESPONSIBILITY and therefore (one might suggest) CULPABILITY.
a. RESPONSIBILITY: The duty to deal with the consequences of a wrong.
b. CULPABILITY: The guilt of actively allowing or passively permitting a wrong.

We rightly feel that an honourable God with sovereign power over everything must surely have a responsibility to deal with the consequences of evil. Now in our twenty-first century context we might better understand the responsibility of an honourable sovereign less in the terms of a feudal monarch’s honour (cf. Anselm, Cur Deus Homo), and more in terms of a multinational corporation’s social responsibilities.

If there is demonstrable injustice in the supply chain then the director at the top of that chain needs to take responsibility — and if he isn’t willing to make the necessary changes, then we consider him culpable for the wrongs that continue to be perpetuated. It doesn’t matter if the factories where the injustices are evident are under the control of corrupt and malicious middle-managers! If you are truly sovereign and good, then you need to do something about it! If this is true for NIKE, then how much more should it be true for God!

Now, we could cut straight to the chase, and point out that in the person of Jesus, who submitted — to John the Baptist’s confusion! (Matt. 3:13-15) — to ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1:4), God has already essentially said ‘Sorry’ to humanity, acknowledging his personal responsibility for the problem of evil, and demonstrating his willingness to do whatever was necessary to solve that problem, however humiliating the solution might be. And we know that the journey of Jesus that began with his baptism ended unavoidably with him being crucified by the angry mob of humanity, for the claim that he was the designated ruler of the kingdom of heaven. We had the chance to tell God what we think he deserves for allowing injustice to continue in this world — and we took that chance and crucified Him. Whether or not God is fairly culpable, He is certainly not unwilling to take responsibility.

This is generally the approach which Calvinists take to the problem of evil — address the first prong of the trilemma by accepting that God is indeed sovereign, and thus actively responsible for every tiny detail of the world that we experience; address the second prong of the trilemma by swiftly and confidently proclaiming the gospel, hoping that the message of the cross adequately demonstrates the goodness of God’s character, even if the mystery of evil remains unresolved. Being by nature an impatient evangelist with a weighty sense of the urgency of the call of Christ, this is the approach to which I have tended to be most sympathetic.

But perhaps this time we could probe that contemporary image of the multinational corporate supply chain and see what insight it might give us into how a good sovereign might manage the RISK involved in releasing CHOICE to middle-managers. For while at one end of the theological spectrum Calvinists emphasize the ineffable sovereignty of God, at the opposite end the emphasis is instead put on free choice as a necessary precondition for real love.

And before we move on to talk about choice, we must first finish our discussion of God’s sovereignty by establishing that although God does take responsibility for all that happens, a biblical worldview will not allow us to assign Him direct culpability for it. James 1:13-15 makes quite clear that God is not the active cause of evil: Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’, for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. Insofar as there are spiritual forces at work in this process, they are not to be identified with God but with “that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Rev. 12:9; cf. James 4:7, 1 Peter 5:8, Eph. 6:11-12 ). The Christian claim is not that all spiritual power is good, but that among the various heavenly principalities and powers, the sovereign God “is light, and in Him is no darkness at all” (Jn. 1:5, cf. James 1:17).

We must now begin to tread carefully, for to speak of freedom and choice is to enter a theological minefield. Whatever you do, don’t start throwing around the phrase ‘free will’, without first carefully considering what you actually mean, or you might unwittingly unleash the pent-up fury of several centuries of unresolved Christian controversy, and find yourself crushed under the weight of Luther’s diatribe against Erasmus, and if you manage to emerge from that, then you’ll still have to deal with Augustine’s criticisms of Pelagius.

We could sidestep two thousand years of theology and try to wrestle directly with the teaching of Scripture, but we will still find that a straightforward reading of the New Testament makes clear that the human will is not so free as one might like to think. “No-one can come to me unless the Father has granted it to him,” Jesus says (Jn. 6:65) — for as He explains elsewhere, “flesh gives birth to flesh, but [only] the Spirit gives birth to spirit… [which is why] I said ‘You must be born again’ ” (Jn. 3:5-6). Paul reaches the same conclusion, “that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (Rom. 7:18). This is why he tries so hard to make clear that “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). John says similarly that “to become children of God…[one must be] born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn. 1:13). Even James agrees that the decisive choice in an individual’s salvation belongs not to that individual but to God: “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth” (James 1:18).

So in fact the human will is not ‘free’. Specifically, we need to understand that a person isn’t born again because they chose to follow Jesus — rather, a person can only choose to follow Jesus if they have been supernaturally born again. But just because we affirm the necessity of irresistible saving grace to regenerate spiritually-dead sinners, this does not logically require that we deny spiritual agency that is genuinely free (though not independent — this is the freedom of partnership as ‘coworkers with God’, eg. 1 Cor. 3:9) on the part of those who have been born again, and are now “seated with Christ in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 2:6), “far above all principality and power and might and dominion” (Eph. 1:21). “For where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17).

For although on the subject of salvation I seem to remain a theologically conservative evangelical whose emphasis rests entirely on the sovereignty of God, those same theologically-conservative evangelical convictions also commit me to take straightforwardly the biblical exhortation to “…eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (1 Cor. 14:1). And when it comes to the prophetic word of God, we find that far from the comprehensive determinism sometimes associated with certain Christians’ use of the word ‘sovereignty of God’, there is instead a dynamic flexibility to God’s sovereign government of the world. We see this explicitly in Jeremiah 18:7-10, where God personally promises to be radically responsive to human choice:
“If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it”.

So there is then real freedom of choice — just not an unlimited freedom. Rather human choice is limited and constrained by boundaries on various levels. Some of those constraints are dynamically dependent on the decisions we choose to make, while others operate at a more profound depth than can be reached by mere willpower.

Without a secure underlying sense of SAFETY, we cannot rest.
But without ever experiencing DANGER, we become bored. (Credit to CS Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet (1938), whose thoughts on the good of danger have catalyzed my thinking on this topic).

It is a legal requirement in the UK today for employers to assess the risks to the health and safety of their employees while they are at work. ‘Why then,’ asks the responsible citizen of the twenty-first century, ‘did God not foresee the dangers of this world that [you Christians claim] He created? Because if He did foresee them then He can’t be good…’

To which the theologically-conservative Christian replies, ‘Well, He didn’t just foresee it, He specifically and sovereignly selected it among all the possible options’. The skeptic’s brow furrows in visible bewilderment. Then the Christian continues, ‘But He’s going to work it all together for good, eventually — at least for those He predestined…’

More recently, Greg Boyd has enthusiastically advocated an alternative possibility, suggesting that the future does not have any actual existence — it exists only in terms of various open possibilities. Therefore not only (a) does God not ever in any sense (with possible unusual exceptions) determine people’s choices, but that (b) He actually doesn’t know what those choices are going to be until people have made them. Since part (a) of Boyd’s thesis is already outside of what a Calvinist would consider to be Christian orthodoxy, it is perhaps unsurprising that this suggestion has not been well received in Calvinist circles. In particular, it seems to undermine the possibility of affirming God’s Providence, as Joseph does when he says to his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20) — and we’ve already mentioned the promise of Romans 8:28, that God works all things together for the good of those who love Him.

Now I have already said that while I affirm that the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit works in such a way as to determine people’s consequent choice to follow Jesus, nevertheless there are some choices that are real and undetermined. In particular, I see sanctification as being about learning to voluntarily choose to consistently unite your thinking and feeling with Christ, through whom you have already been united in the spirit and therefore justified (through no choice of your own, but through God’s choice).

And I like the idea of thinking about the future in terms of possibilities. Certainly ‘possibility thinking’ is a good, useful and necessary human tool — and so I instinctively assume that we should be able to root it in the nature and character of God. If God is infinitely wise, then there’s no reason why He couldn’t, before the beginning of time, have mapped out all the possible consequences of every conceivable human (and angelic) choice throughout history. God could then have committed in general to do whatever necessary to ensure that eventually all things would be worked together for good, and specifically to become incarnate and die to bear the consequences of whatever foolish choices humanity might make.

So we can affirm that God will eventually bring about the best of all possible worlds, without committing ourselves to justifying every incident in history as the best possible route to that ultimate goal. This is not to say that anything that happens is ‘outside of God’s plan’ — just to encourage us to appreciate that a good plan doesn’t require a totalitarian leader micromanaging the decisions of all involved, but rather leaves space for all who are involved to make a genuine contribution that actually makes a difference, while simultaneously ensuring that there are adequate safeguards in place to avoid unnecessary danger.

In particular, we can note that God’s primary mode of engaging with history is through dynamic partnership with His people. So in general God doesn’t frequently intervene to prevent pain and suffering, but rather allows us to see and experience the negative consequences of foolish and sinful human choices, so that we might learn to actively partner with Him — both naturally, as we grow in scientific understanding of the natural mechanisms built in to creation; and supernaturally, as we release the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit through prayer.

This seems to me to integrate the strengths of Greg Boyd’s innovative idea into an orthodox evangelical theology that affirms God’s sovereignty in salvation. Indeed, having thought it through like this and disentangled God’s specific sovereign action(s) from His general commitment to allow humanity to experience the natural consequences of their actions, it then feels less significant whether you deny or affirm that God had actual foreknowledge of what would happen before it did.

(You may feel that I have failed to deal with one of the most difficult implications of affirming the sovereignty of God in an individual’s salvation — the corollary that God doesn’t choose to save all those whom He created. Was it not then malicious to create them in the first place? How can a good and loving God create people who are eventually left to suffer endlessly in hell? I have wrestled with this question here. First, we should note that a finite quantity [eg. of judicially-inflicted pain] can be stretched out over an infinite time-frame — suppose a point A was to move half the remaining distance towards an end-point B each day… Second, we can consequently see that hell is not an infinite punishment but a finite one in which each person experiences judgment precisely proportionate to their sin, small or great. Third, it is thus possible that a generally law-abiding non-Christian could experience more joy in their life-time than pain in the after-life.)

In our quest to CRUSH the Problem of Evil, we have now addressed the dimensions of Hurt (CRUSH), Sovereignty (CRUSH), Choice (CRUSH), and Risk (CRUSH) — which just leaves U.

If you were here in front of me, I’d be unlikely to be able to resist pointing a finger at you and telling you in no uncertain terms that the real challenge of solving the Problem of Evil is recognizing that ‘the problem is U‘!

You would protest: ‘Who are you to judge me! How dare you! I’m not evil!’

Which highlights that the final and fundamental dimension of the problem of evil that we need to address is that of JUDGEMENT.

The interesting thing about the Problem of Evil is that, having untangled God’s holy sovereignty from sinful human choices, we can turn the Problem inside out. Which is to say that while some might find that the existence of Evil makes it understandably difficult to believe in God, the non-existence of a Transcendent Moral Authority (‘God’) would mean that ‘Evil’ would have no objective existence. For if the things you call ‘evil’ are not actual trangressions of transcendent moral reality, but are merely things that you (and perhaps your culture) find offensive and unjustifiable — then by what right can you impose your [community’s] standard upon the one you have judged to have committed ‘evil’?

This is why to properly ground the Rule of Law, we need to affirm some sort of Natural Law — which explains the lack of success of those prosecuting Nazi war crimes at the Nuremberg Trials. But that is an essay for another day.

Our point here is that in speaking of ‘Evil’, a person necessarily implicitly appeals to a transcendent moral authority — ie. a ‘God’. It is therefore likely that in rejecting ‘God’, you are not rejecting the logical necessity of a good and sovereign transcendent power — you are just refusing to submit to the sovereignty of ‘God’ as you have encountered Him. Which is understandable, because on the one hand it feels like He is self-righteously condemning you (‘what do you mean God thinks I’m a sinner?’), and on the other hand it seems that He fails to meet your own standards of goodness (‘why do bad things happen to good people?’).

Now the good news is that ‘JUDGMENT’ doesn’t start with ‘U’. It starts with ‘J’ — for JESUS! As Christians we believe that the full revelation of God’s sovereign goodness is found only in Jesus Christ. Jesus didn’t self-righteously condemn sinners, but outraged the religious establishment by seeking out their company (Mk. 2:16) and declaring their sins forgiven (Mk. 2:5; Lk. 7:47). And on the cross Jesus proved (Lk. 23:34) as a person His total commitment to the standard of non-retaliatory forgiveness and love for enemies He had preached (Matt.5:38-48), and demonstrated as God His divine willingness to submit to the judgement pronounced upon sin (Gal. 3:13).

So we might say that God’s judgment isn’t about condemnation and punishment, but rather about discernment and discipline. But what is the difference between ‘condemnation’ and ‘discernment’, or between ‘punishment’ and ‘discipline’? If you are never willing to explicitly condemn anything as beyond the limits of what is acceptable, do you really have discernment? If you are never willing to punish the transgression of a clearly communicated boundary, then are you really exercising discipline?

My wife and I have been wrestling with how to deal with the temper-tantrums and ceaseless pushing-of-limits our two young children (currently aged 3 and 1). What does it look like to put consistent boundaries in place to help our kids manage their emotions, control their behaviour, and understand how to relate well to other people? How do we establish the truth that ‘actions have consequences’ without being harsh?

Various friends of ours have recommended the teaching of Danny Silk, pastor at Bethel Church in California, and the author of Loving Our Kids On Purpose (LOKOP), Keep Your Love On (KYLO), and Foundations of Honor (FOH). One of his major themes is about ‘Removing the Punisher’: “Punishment is driven by fear and creates fragile relationships in which the level of trust is low and the level of anxiety is high” (FoH p.79). Rather than ‘punishment’, Danny Silk talks in terms of ‘consequences’. But in reading LOKOP, it becomes clear that Danny Silk does actively impose disciplinary consequences on his children (eg. for not going to sleep at bedtime — ‘I’m not tired’ — his son is given extra chores to help tire him out) that are more than the mere consequences that would naturally follow their actions. As I use the word, this active imposition of artifical consequences is ‘punishment’. But although my definitions don’t quite align with Danny Silk’s rhetoric, I thoroughly agree with his point that discipline should be motivated by a love rather than any desire for retribution; and that the aim must be primarily to train a child in self-control, rather than simply to enforce submission to your control.

Just as the misery of suffering essentially depends on the narrative lens through which pain is experienced, in the same way the harshness of condemnation and punishment depends on whether or not we know we are loved by the one imposing that consequence. And when we know we are loved, it becomes possible to receive a word of correction without feeling condemned. And when we understand the reasons why we must submit to painful processes of discipline, then it stops feeling so much like punishment.

So judgement in itself is a good and necessary thing — so long as we know that we are unconditionally loved by the one who judges us. And “God demonstrates His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). So through Jesus the Problem of Evil is solved. Humanity no longer has to languish under its CURSE, instead we can CRUSH it underfoot.

Which is to say that our fundamental problem is that we’ve been looking at life all backward. But if instead of running away from God in exile, we would instead TURN to Him for healing for our various hurts, then we would find that the problem of E-V-I-L had also been turned around, becoming instead simply a problem of how then we should L-I-V-E.

The decisive blow against evil has been struck — but to comprehensively remove all trace of evil from our world there remains much still to do!

And the key is to understand FEAR — for this is the underlying reason that we run from God in exile, rather than toward Him for healing; and why we shrink back from the problems we see oppressing the world around us, rather than boldly stepping forward to work out solutions.

There are three Greek words used in the New Testament for ‘fear’. The standard word (47 occurences) is phobos, from which we get the word ‘phobia’. Sometimes this is a negative fear, as in Romans 8:15, where Paul says “For you have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear (phobos), but you have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry ‘Abba, Father!'” But sometimes this is used to describe a positive quality, as in Acts 9:31: “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.”

Then we have the words deilia and deilos, meaning ‘timidity’ or ‘cowardice’. This is purely negative: “God has not given us a spirit of timidity (deilia), but of power, love and self-control” 2 Tim. 1:7.

The third word is eulabeia, ‘reverent caution’. This is used only twice, and both in the Letter to the Hebrews: once for the acceptable attitude believers should have in coming before God in worship, and once to describe how Jesus Christ Himself called upon God in prayer.

It doesn’t seem too great a leap to then suggest that in general all fear is made up of these two component parts: appropriate reverence and timidity. And only as we come to fully understand the nature of the thing we fear can we say for certain in what ways we are unnecessarily timid, and in what ways we are rightly careful. As Christians we should be fearless, but not rash.

This is why the ‘fear of the Lord’ is still the beginning of wisdom — even in this New Testament age, when we do not have a ‘spirit of fear’. We do well to stay reverently mindful that God still requires that we approach God on His terms, rather than ours — which is to say, through Christ, with gratitude for His supreme sacrifice upon the cross, and with the willingness to fully surrender our lives to God and say (like Jesus did) ‘Not my will, but yours be done’ (Lk.22:42).

When we’ve given God the reverence He deserves then there’s a certain sense in which we can ‘reverently’ say to absolutely everything else, however frightening it might first appear and however dangerous it might actually be, ‘You don’t scare me! Even if you kill me, you can’t separate me from the love of God!’ (cf. Rom. 8:38-39). And in that apostolic confidence (cf. Phil. 1:21) we can go forth into all the world! But there’s another sense in which it is wise to take the time to let the seed of godly vision develop into a complete plan, and then to see what that plan will cost to pursue (cf. Lk. 14:28).

In general, following Christ costs everything — but He’s worthy of it all, so the equation is simple. But God is interested not only in our whole-hearted devotion, but in our increasing discernment. And so there may be some tasks He to which He calls us where we will find that the resources He has given us are only sufficient to the task if we use them in the most effective way. ‘You can’t pour out your alabaster jar at the feet of every single person that you meet’ (cf. John 12:3-7). As CT Studd said: “Only one life, ’twill soon be past — only what’s done for Christ will last”. Which is to say, reverently, YOLO!


Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. (Ephesians 5:15-17)

Excellence, Brokenness, & Simple Obedience

I’ve meant to put some of these thoughts into writing for some time now–and thought I should finally put out at least a sketch of my thinking, even if I’m not able to write an eloquent essay. In fact, that this subject should be addressed in this manner is very apposite, as you shall see.

The Call To Excellence

Our topic is ‘The Call to Excellence’, a subject which some may think so blindingly obvious that to waste one’s time discussing it is needless, though I have encountered others who seem of the opinion that this is one of the more important messages that needs to be declared to today’s church. My own take on the matter is that this is an important issue to think through, not because I want to straightforwardly affirm the usual encouragement to strive to be the best you can be for the sake of the glory of God, but precisely because I want to dismantle the simplistic power of such rhetoric.

As Christians we are called to excellence—but in a way that is counterintuitive and quite contrary to the world’s pursuit of it.

We begin by acknowledging the biblical basis of this idea. There’s Paul’s call (1 Timothy 4:12) to Timothy to be exemplary in all of his conduct – and we rightly apply that same exhortation to all Christians. And Paul again tells all believers that whatever they do, they should “do it as unto the Lord” – therefore with all the excellence they can muster.

And then there’s the various biblical heroes of the faith whose lives we are called to imitate, like Daniel who distinguished himself because he had “an excellent spirit” (Dan. 6:3).

Certainly in the environment in which I grew up (specifically, Christian boarding schools), the idea that Christians are called to excellence was a very familiar one. I have been privileged to have been given an education in which I was consistently encouraged to grow in knowledge, skills and understanding, and given opportunities to develop in academic study, sport, and drama. “Study to present yourself approved unto God”, Paul tells Timothy (2 Timothy 2:15), and the same exhortation was applied to us – though whether Paul meant quite the same thing by ‘study’ as did my teachers, I’m not entirely sure.

And I excelled: nine A*s at GCSE, four As at A Level, I was captain of our school football team and we won the interschool tournament twice, I broke most of the athletic records for the track events that I ran, I was named Sportsman of the Year, Scholar of the Year, and Best Actor for my part as Hook in Peter Pan. I applied to Cambridge University, ranked the best university in the world, and I was accepted.

True Excellence is found in Christ Alone

Unfortunately the sorts of achievements that the world might consider ‘brilliant’ and ‘excellent’ are nothing but what the Bible calls ‘confidence in the flesh’. In Philippians 3:5-6, we find Paul’s list of reasons that he might be ‘confident in the flesh’, but he concludes it thus:
“Yet indeed I count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish.”

As Christians we affirm the ‘call to excellence’ – if and only if the definition of ‘excellence’ has been narrowed to include only “one thing… the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14).

Now, this doesn’t mean we have nothing to learn from those who aren’t Christians. From the very beginning of the Bible (Genesis 4:20-22), credit is given to those outside of the family of faith for the cultural and technological advances they achieved.

But what it does is radically shift one’s perspective on the significance of such achievements. What’s the point of being a pioneer in the field of music or metallurgy, if ultimately you will be destroyed by the wrath of God?

Brokenness, Not Brilliance

And particularly in Christian ministry, the implications of this need to be integrated into our practice. Paul says to the Corinthians, “when I came to you, I [deliberately!] did not come with excellence” (2:1), “lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect”.

Paul is speaking of the eloquence of his words, but surely the same applies to the proficiency of a worship band, the impressiveness of church architecture, to so many things that we think are necessary to impress the watching multitudes!

I don’t know quite how hard to press this theme—because, as I began by acknowledging, there is biblical truth in the idea that we are called to excellence. And even as I write about worship bands, I know that someone will point out Psalm 33:3 instruction to “play skilfully”; even as I talk about architecture, I’m sure someone will remind me of the “beauty and glory” of the Tabernacle of Moses.

Nevertheless, I am convinced that our primary task is to let our flaws and our brokenness be visible and unhidden – “that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us” (2 Cor. 4:7).

Simple Obedience Changes History

This becomes particularly relevant because God is not a distant, silent deity who has merely revealed principles that we must work out how to put into practice, but rather a living, active communicator, who answers us when we call to him, and speaks to us when we listen.

And as we surrender our lives – not just our religious identity, not just a tenth of our income, not just a few hours on a Sunday morning, not just our intellectual assent to some doctrinal propositions – as we surrender our lives to Jesus, He will begin to lead us by His Spirit. And the situations that the Spirit leads us into, may be precisely those situations that our strengths and skills seem least suited to.

Certainly this is not always the case. God has plans to prosper us, not to harm us. And as we delight ourselves in Him, He will give us the desires of our hearts. But the reality is that our ultimate satisfaction is found not in superficial success, but in a growing and deepening revelation of the reality of Jesus Christ.

And this is good news. Because if we are supposed to ‘achieve excellence’, then we all too easily find ourselves locked into the rat-race to be better than everyone else – which is clearly a game that not everyone can win! But when we realise that all the excellence belongs to God, then we are set free to obey whatever he calls us to do, confident in the knowledge that through the power of His excellency, our simple obedience will change the course of history.

Every Simple Salvation Prayer Counts!

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This post is intended as a brief defense of the practice of street evangelism, and in particular, my habit of counting responses.

Since taking part in the School of the Circuit Rider, I have been persuaded of the power of keeping count of the number of people who respond to the gospel when we are involved in evangelism. It’s particularly helpful when on a regular basis you are going out onto the streets trying to share the simple gospel, and having to wage a constant battle against disillusionment and discouragement as you find more people closed to the message than are ready to hear it, let alone respond. Because the fact is that even though most people might be disinterested, there are *always* at least some who are open. Matthew 9:37 *promises* that “the harvest is plentiful”, and I am convinced that this is a truth that applies in every place and at every time — not just to first-century Galilee. The gospel is always the power of salvation, and as we lift up Jesus, people will be drawn to Him.

If it seems like this isn’t working, then the problem isn’t the gospel, nor even the hardness of the hearts of those that we’re trying to reach. It’s that we’re called (Matthew 9:37-38 tells us) to pray for more labourers. We’re not just called to win the lost to Christ, we’re called to mobilise the saved, and we’re called to pray. I’ve said it before, and I’ve said it again: one anointed evangelist that led a thousand people to faith every night couldn’t reach the whole world even in a thousand years — but if two people would both win one person to Christ and each train that person to win another person, and train them to do the same, and so on, and so on, then every year their number would double, and in less than forty years their numbers would have equalled that of the world’s population.

Now, one might conclude from this that we hardly need to worry about evangelism at all–surely those figures show that it’s discipleship rather than evangelism that should be our priority! But the truth is that in the kingdom very rarely does the same person share the gospel with someone, lead them to the Lord, disciple them, and continue to train them as they develop as a leader. Rather, Jesus tells his disciples, “I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor” (John 4:38). If we want to see a movement take place in which new converts find themselves easily leading others to the Lord, we need to be prepared to put in our share of hard work, in prayer and apparently-fruitless sowing of the word of God.

And — to come back to our original point — it is a vital encouragement when you have embraced the call to live a lifestyle of evangelistic seed-sowing to remember that there are people responding to what you are doing. And as you repeatedly go out and share the gospel message, and a few of those with whom you share consistently respond in faith or at least interest or openness, then the number of those who have responded will grow! I at least find this very encouraging.

However, it is true (I have found!) that some dislike this practice of counting the number of responses. There are a number of objections that I have encountered, and I will now try to respond to them.

Objection #1. Didn’t Jesus explicitly say not to rejoice in outreach testimonies, but in personal salvation?

The reference here is to Luke 10:20, after the seventy short-term missionaries that Jesus has sent out come back rejoicing that even the demons submit to the power of the name of Jesus, and Jesus tells them “do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven”.

But I would argue that Jesus’ comment is about maintaining perspective, not about an absolute prohibition on sharing outreach testimonies. Indeed, their testimonies have the immediate effect that Jesus is filled with joy through the Holy Spirit. One could also point out that this passage in fact affirms that salvation is the thing we should prioritise in our rejoicing!

Objection #2. Counting the number of ‘salvation prayers’ devalues the other parts of the process.

I have to admit that this has sometimes been an unintended side-effect of my energetic persistence in rejoicing in the number of responses where people respond to the gospel and pray a simple prayer receiving the gift of salvation through Jesus.

Our friend Abigail has written eloquently on her blog to this effect–about how a simplistic celebration of someone turning to Christ “misses out all the doubt, waiting, patience, confusion, praying, and more doubt”, and can cause a Christian to start “comparing myself to other Christians, and feeling truly rubbish”. (And let me take this opportunity to say briefly how amazing Abigail is: she was one of the first people we met when we moved into Arbury (that’s North Cambridge, for those of you reading who aren’t from ‘ere!), and has been part of our discipleship-group/house-church since the beginning; she’s now just finished her first year of university, and spent the summer in mission in Ukraine).

Certainly there are many things that I still need to learn about how to encourage people to engage in evangelism. Maybe in our numerical record-keeping, we should record and rejoice in every single gospel conversation (or even just conversation with a stranger–particularly for those of us who struggle to start talking to new people), not just the ones that end positively. But hopefully at least as people get to know me they will see that my heart is not to convey any sort of competitive condemnation.

Objection #3. It’s about individuals — not numbers!

I absolutely agree that God loves each individual person specifically, uniquely, and infinitely. As Jesus encouraged his disciples: “Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father knowing it. But in fact, your Father knows the very number of hairs on your head. So do not fear–you are more valuable than many sparrows!”

But I disagree that counting the number of responses diminishes the significance of the individuals concerned. If we look at the book of Acts it is clear that Luke is thrilled — almost obsessed! — with the numerical growth of the church: from the original count of “one hundred and twenty” (Acts 1:15), then on Pentecost “there were added about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41), then later “the number of the men came to be about five thousand” (Acts 4:4). One could also look at Acts 6:1, 6:7, 11:21, 14:21, 16:5, 19:26 — all these verses emphasise the growing number of responses to the gospel.

Objection #4. It’s meaningless without follow-up.

Sometimes this objection appears on its own, sometimes it is given in reaction to my response to the previous objection–‘Ah, but the numbers in Acts are referring to newly baptized church members, not just apparent responses to some simple gospel presentation’. Even when people aren’t objecting per se to the keeping track of numbers of responses to evangelism, the frequent question that appears in answer to an attempt to enthusiastically share this evidence of gospel breakthrough is something like ‘Hmm, really?–and what about the follow-up?’

And I readily concede that it is good and important to do whatever we can to help those who respond to the gospel to transition into some Christian community where they will be able to be taught and discipled and encouraged and held accountable to continue growing as a Christian. I believe just as passionately in discipleship as I do in evangelism.

But on the other hand, I am convinced that even if there is no way for us to ever connect with someone again, we have still been commissioned to share the gospel with them. And even if the fault for failing to follow-up does lie fairly on us, then we can still trust that God is able to use whatever seed of gospel truth we succeeded in sowing when we had opportunity to do whatever he wants in that person’s life. “God’s word will not return void!”

In fact in the Book of Acts (specifically ch. 8:26-40) we see that God engineered a situation such that an evangelist was unable to arrange any follow-up: when Philip shared the gospel with the Ethiopian, the man responded instantly and was baptized in some water that happened to be at hand, and immediately “the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away”.

Aside: A Parable
Still considering the question of the effectiveness of evangelism without adequate follow-up, consider this hypothetical situation:
Imagine a person who knew nothing of God, who was struggling with all sorts of serious sins, who one day encountered one of our simple evangelists as he was walking through town. ‘Hi, do you have a minute?, can we share the message of Jesus with you?’ The person is too shocked by the offer to immediately refuse to listen, and our evangelist takes advantage of the pause to begin sharing.

She explains how everything starts with the God who created everything, whose love is infinite and irresistible–but does he know that love? No? Well, that’s because all of humanity has been cut off from God ever since the first human beings turned away from God in mistrust and unbelief. But God so loved the world that he sent Jesus to die for us, to demonstrate his love for us–and there’s no greater way to show love than to lay down your life for someone! And because of his death, the penalty for our sin has been paid! We can be forgiven, we can have assurance of eternal life, we can receive the indwelling personal love of the Holy Spirit!

Our evangelist asks, ‘Is there any reason why you wouldn’t want to receive this gift of salvation?’

Suddenly the Holy Spirit pierces through a lifetime’s apathy to spiritual things, and ignites a tiny spark of faith in the heart of our hypothetical person, and to his surprise he finds himself saying ‘Er okay, do I have to do anything?’

‘Well, like any gift, you have to unwrap it and receive it! May I lead you in a simple prayer right now?’ And before he knows it, he’s repeating a simple salvation prayer: ‘Father God, I’m sorry for the wrong I’ve done; Thankyou that Jesus came and died to set me free; I believe–I want to receive the gift of salvation; In Jesus’ name, Amen.’ To his astonishment, his eyes are beginning to fill with tears — before the evangelist can tell quite what’s happened, he’s made a quick exit.

Now suppose that person fails to connect with any Christians who are able to encourage him to grow in his faith. He doesn’t have a Bible. He continues to be trapped in various ungodly addictions. A neutral human assessment would see no convincing evidence of clear sanctification in his life. Suppose that he dies, just a year later, in a tragic car accident.

His body is buried; his spirit ascends before the judgement seat of God. The devil appears, cackling diabolically: ‘I think this one’s for me!’

But suddenly Jesus speaks: ‘Just hold on a minute, let’s do this properly!’ An angel is dispatched and returns within an instant with a large book — the devil grabs it out of his hand, and opens it. He starts flicking through the pages, which reveal a series of incriminating photographs. ‘See what he’s like! Pornography, theft, cheating, stealing, bullying, lying, swearing, fornication, sexual abuse, rape, abortion, murder! He’s mine, I tell you!’

‘Hold on’, Jesus repeats, and he turns to a page where there’s a single photo of the man standing talking to our evangelist. Beside the photo is written a transcript of the conversation that took place. Jesus lays a finger of his nail-pierced hand next to a particular phrase, and reads it slowly. ‘What? What are you saying?’ the devil rants, increasingly agitated. Jesus repeats it louder, and then louder: ‘Jesus came and died to set me free’. And then, so soft it’s barely a whisper, in a still small voice: ‘He’s definitely mine’.

A mighty angel appears with another book, from which is read out: “FOR WITH THE HEART ONE BELIEVES AND IS JUSTIFIED, AND WITH THE MOUTH ONE CONFESSES AND IS SAVED”. ‘What about all this?’ screams the enraged devil, reaching for the first book, and trying to find again the condemning evidence. But now there’s nothing but blank pages. ‘Argh, where did they go?’ screams Satan. The mighty angel speaks again: “HE CANCELLED THE RECORD OF THE CHARGES AGAINST US AND TOOK IT AWAY BY NAILING IT TO THE CROSS”. The devil disappears in a cloud of fury. Jesus beckons the man towards a banqueting table where a lavish feast has been set out. Too stunned to immediately respond to the invitation, the man mutters to one of the angels, ‘Whew, that was close!’ The angel’s booming voice thunders forth again: “WHO COULD BRING A CHARGE AGAINST GOD’S CHOSEN ONES? IT IS GOD WHO JUSTIFIES. WHO IS HE WHO CONDEMNS? IT IS CHRIST WHO DIED, YES RATHER, WHO WAS RAISED FROM THE DEAD, WHO IS AT THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD, WHO ALSO MAKES INTERCESSION FOR US.”

Objection #5. How can you reliably judge whether people are sincere in their response?

I admit that this is difficult. Some would say it’s always impossible to say with certainty whether someone — certainly a new convert! — has saving faith.

But Paul writes to the Thessalonians saying, “we know, brethren loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction”. And if we believe the Book of Acts, Paul was only in Thessalonica for “three Sabbath days”, so not long enough to see the long-term fruit and sanctifying evidence of the faith of the Thessalonian believers.

Strictly speaking, we try to make clear that the numbers we share are numbers of salvation-prayers prayed, rather than of guaranteed salvations. And certainly in many situations there is not the visible evidence that Paul speaks of. But on the other hand, sometimes there is! Sometimes you see the tears running down people’s cheeks, or the joy in their faces, or just the light coming on in their eyes. And I don’t want to undermine the authentic reality of assured salvation which simple faith guarantees, just for the sake of erring on the safe side in my reporting of numbers.

I speak sincerely, in the fear of the Lord, when I say that I don’t want to be guilty of exaggerating our evangelistic success. But I confess that my greater concern is that I would never fail to respond with exuberant joy whenever it seems that one who is lost has been found, one who was dead is now alive. It so strikes me that in the parable of the Prodigal Son, the Father doesn’t even wait for the son to finish saying his ‘sinner’s prayer’ before leaping on him in inappropriately extravagant celebration. And I don’t want to be like the older brother, critical and self-righteous, refusing to join in the rejoicing. I want to be like the Father.


1≤3 : A Meditation

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One is less than or equal to Three — taking theological truth from mathematical mundanity.
“Count the stars — if indeed you can count them.” (Genesis 15:5)

This post is a little exercise in hearing God’s voice — using a simple mathematical equation as a springboard for spiritual contemplation.

I realise that there may not be many others who find this as inspiring as I have — and when I recently tried to share this profoundly meaningful triad of mathematical symbols with a few friends we quickly ran aground in a cross-cultural debate about the proper way to write the less-than-or-equal-to symbol. So I share my thoughts here in an attempt to help whoever’s interested to squeeze some theological revelation out of this self-evident piece of mathematics. (Perhaps this sort of thing was the point of my having studied Mathematics and Theology at Cambridge.)

Before starting though, it is necessary to address the comment occasionally voiced that one is not ‘less-than-or-equal-to‘ three it is simply ‘less-than’ three. For this comment is merely mistaken. And while I admit that it is peculiar to actually write 1≤3, the fact is that it is a perfectly legitimate mathematical sentence, for if we were to consider the set {x≤3}, then 1 would certainly be a possible value of x. Alternatively, we could put it like this: one may not be equal to three, but since it is certainly less than three, it is consequently logically true to say that it is less-than-or-equal-to three.

Okay — trivialities completed, we press on in hope of theological profundities.

One is less than Three — obvious truths point to ultimate Truth.
What can be known about God is plain to them, for God has shown it to them. (Romans 1:19)
“…and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)

The first nugget of theological gold that we can mine from this equation (and indeed, from any equation) is that for equations to function at all depends on the existence of Truth. Obvious truths like this point us towards the existence of ultimate Truth. And in a world beset by relativism and all manner of postmodern pandering to insufferable nonsense, it is encouraging to step back from the fray and take solace in the fact that mathematics at least can provide us with sound, reliable, unquestionable Truth.

And a mathematical mind could even easily construct a little proof to refute the pernicious doctrine of absolute relativism: ‘Suppose there are no absolute truths; then it would follow that There are no absolute truths would be an absolute truth. Contradiction! QED.’

But we can go further than arguing the mere existence of mathematical truth — we can follow this trail of revelation by noting that mathematical truths consistently and inexplicably describe with impeccable precision the behaviour of the universe in which we live. As the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Richard Feynman once commented, “The fact that there are rules at all to be checked is a kind of miracle; that it is possible to find a rule, like the inverse square law of gravitation, is some sort of miracle. It is not understood at all, but it leads to the possibility of prediction”.

I have elsewhere referred to this inexplicability as ‘The Orderliness Argument’ for the existence of a consistent God who enables and sustains the natural laws of the universe. And in a similar vein, one could use the Cosmological and Teleological Arguments to argue for (but not ‘prove’ — note my epistemological caution!) the existence of a spiritual and eternal Creator and Designer; the Moral Argument then shows that even evil points towards the existence of absolute moral Goodness; finally, the Historical Argument confirms our faith in the God of the Bible and leads us to identify the biblical God with these other philosophical accounts of Deity.

One is equal to Three — the mystery of the Trinity, and the dignity of ‘The Person’.
…he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. (John 5:18)

Thus far we have simply contented ourselves with the trivial observation that if one is less than three, then it is necessarily also true that one is less-than-or-equal-to three. But now that we have mentioned the God of the Bible, whom we believe to be One Holy Undivided Trinity, the One and the Three now grow in significance, causing our philosophical courage to rise and our analytical boldness to grow.

For the biblical God reveals himself through the Scriptural narrative as uniquely One — the God who alone is worthy of worship, and also as Three — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Now to be one God and yet three Persons implies no necessary contradiction: Trinitarian dogma does not state that God is one God and three Gods, or one Person and three Persons, but rather merely one God and three Persons.

But the fact that each of these Persons is fully God means that it seems somewhat meaningful to suggest that ‘1=3’ in the context of the Trinity. Properly, what we mean is perhaps something more like V(1P)=V(3P), where V(x) is the function assessing the Value of x, and xP is the number of divine Persons. And since the infinite value of the divine Persons follows from their divine nature, it is independent of their number.

Yet although our argument thus far has minimised the significance of the personal, one cannot meditate on the very fact of the existence of these divine Trinitarian persons, without also coming to a weighty sense of the dignity of ‘the Person’ in general, even and perhaps especially as that applies to non-divine Persons. Persons like you and me, ordinary everyday human persons, with idiosynchratic mannerisms and annoying habits. You do now have to have read Emmanuel Mounier to appreciate the potential significance of this. And the fact that the second Trinitarian person actually became an incarnate, embodied human person only strengthens and confirms our intuited sens of the awesome value of each and every individual person.

One is less than the Triune God — wonder, consolation, and other theological implications.
…what is man that you are mindful of him? (Psalm 8:4)
…for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart… (1 John 3:20)

But to say such things without qualification is dangerous in a world so full of commercialized self-help coaches and glib feel-good gurus. So no sooner have we asserted the worth of the human person, than we must immediately proclaim again the matchless glory of the invisible God and lift our eyes away from our poor and broken selves, up towards the heavens.

As we begin to do so, we realize that even our entire planet is but a mote of dust suspended in a sun beam. But rather than overwhelming us with existential dread in the face of our apparent insignificance, the immensity of the universe should rather fill us with an unspeakable wonder that releases a wordless joy. It is perhaps the joy of being reminded that we are not God, while simultaneously knowing prior to all analysis that the heavens demonstrate that nevertheless Someone is! And that Someone is glorious.

And in this revelation there is supreme consolation, for it means that for all the dignity and responsibility that comes with being a person made in God’s image, still we can be justified in (and by!) confessing that our sins are manifold and our problems are beyond our abilities to solve.

One Heart — no Love without the Trinity.
God is love. (1 John 4:8)
We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19)

This is a good point for me to freely admit that we are now springing rather creatively from our simple equation into the realms of revelation. For I now want to draw your attention to the fact that the ‘<3' looks remarkably like a heart (indeed, it is a standard emoticon).

So we note next that God does not call us just to reverently tremble before him. Rather, He invites us to love Him with all our hearts, minds, souls, strength. And, as all the pop songs on all the radio stations in all the world testify, it is Love that the human heart longs for. This is what we were made for!

And here we make the controversial claim that unless the Trinity is acknowledged to be actual reality, then in fact Love is deprived of its ontological foundation and necessary rationale, and becomes nothing “but a second-hand emotion”. For only if we can affirm the existence of a plurality of eternal Persons can we conceive of and invoke the reality of eternal necessarily-interpersonal Love. Without God, love might be a fleeting feeling or a chemical contingency, but love cannot be the capital-L Love that the inspires the poets, commissions the prophets, and promises to heal the world’s wounds and solve the planet’s problems.

The Heart on its side — Love laid down is the greatest Love.
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. (1 John 3:16)
Greater love has no one than this, that to lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)

That established, we look again at our mathematical muse, and note that in our equation’s emoticon the heart lies fallen on its side. What, we ask, might this signify?

And in answering we remember that it is a truth universally acknowledged that there can be no greater demonstration of love than to lay one’s life down for one’s beloved. Thus a lover irreversibly gives up his everything for the sake of her whom he loves; thus the story of Romeo & Juliet captivates our imaginations with its two lovers each confirming their supreme love for the other by willingly embracing Death.

Without being distracted by the tragedies of Shakespearean romance, we press on to identify the true and final fulfilment of this ‘love laid down’ — and, in Jesus Christ crucified, we find it. As the apostle John sums it up in his First Epistle: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us”.

‘One’ opens his mouth — Love will not be silent.
For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died….We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God! (2 Corinthians 5:14,20)

And so the contemplation
of this simple equation
has led us to the revelation
that Jesus died for our salvation.

But permit me one final observation before we conclude: that the less-than symbol’s triangle somewhat resembles a mouth, or perhaps the stem of a speech-bubble. Which leads us to conclude with the comment that Love cannot be silent, but necessarily must result in vocalized praise and declarative adoration, in joyful summons and unrelenting invitation.

And on that I will end, with a summons for you to consider the claims of Christ, and what it might look like for the shape of your life to be conformed to the cruciform love of Jesus. And if you’re ever around in Cambridge on a Sunday afternoon, then there’s always an invitation for you to join us for lunch amidst a community of people imperfectly attempting to work out the implications of a Love that surpasses understanding.

Sketching Out A Fractal Theology

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This was a revelation that I had a few years ago, which Phil asked me to put into writing and I never did. More recently, at the YWAM Leaders Gathering in Lyon, Carl Tinnion was talking about kaleidoscopes and fractals, and urging us to think through how embracing the possibilities of chaos might allow us to lead more open-handedly. So, with that in mind, here at last is my attempt to begin sketching out a fractal theology.

Preamble: Our Insatiable Desire For Beauty
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Ecclesiastes 3:11

The human heart has an insatiable appetite for beauty. We look and we see and we like what we see — and so we grasp and we take and we taste and see whether or not that which looked good really is good. But our hunger is for an ever deeper taste of goodness, our desire is for an ever richer experience of beauty. Our heart refuses to be satisfied with any finite manifestation of the good, the beautiful or the true. We are curious, like questioning children infuriating their poor parents with endless requests for deeper understanding.

Sometimes we are told that this desire, this curiousity, this lust for the infinite is a bad thing. But to deny this is to deny our humanity. And to deny this is to blaspheme our Creator’s divinity. It is God who has set eternity in the human heart.

Fractals: Delightfully Complex In Their Simplicity
“Being a language, mathematics may be used not only to inform but also, among other things, to seduce.”

We come then to the fascinating mathematical entities known as ‘fractals’, which are basically patterns that are similar at every level of magnitude. Such a definition might not satisfy real mathematicians, who discuss such things using words like ‘topological’ — but it communicates the idea well enough for us to look at some examples.

Our first specimen is a thing called ‘the Koch Snowflake’. The construction of the Koch Snowflake is very simple. First you take an equilateral triangle. Next, you divide each side up into thirds and turn the middle third of each side into the base of a new equilateral triangle. Then you repeat. Infinitely. At the age of fifteen, my maths teacher thought it would be amusing to set me the task of working out its perimeter and area. Which I did by working out a recursive formula and then applying it. Fascinatingly, the length of the perimeter tends to infinity, while the area never exceeds eight fifths that of the original triangle. The key thing to notice is the exact self-similarity of this object at every level of magnification.

In contrast, the Mandelbrot set is a more complex thing, possessing only quasi self-similarity–which is to say that at greater zoom it approximates but never quite replicates itself.

Biblical Fractals: The Cherubim
“…their appearance and construction being as it were a wheel within a wheel…”
In the last few decades, fractals have helped further scientific understanding in a huge range of different fields. But I found it utterly astonishing when I saw that the biblical cherubim appear to possess exact self-similarity. Quite a claim, I know. But let’s look at the relevant passages.

In Revelation 4, John talks about how one of the living creatures had a face like a lion, one the face of an eagle, one the face of an ox, and one the face of a man. Then in Ezekiel 1, Ezekiel says something similar–but rather than saying that the four had faces like a ox/human/lion/eagle respectively, he says that they each had the faces of all the four different creatures. And then–to prove the point–in Ezekiel 10 he says that each has the face of the eagle, the lion, the human and–not, contra the NLT, the ox! but rather “the face of a cherub”. Which, we saw in Ezekiel 1, is the four-fold fractal face.

I would love for someone with artistic talent to attempt a visual rendition of these fractal cherubim. It would be something like Michelangelo crossed with Escher. And certainly nothing like the typical depiction of baby-faced cherubs.

Theology: Typology Is Just Fractal Christology
“In the type there must be evidence of the one eternal intention; in the trope there can be evidence only of the intention of one writer. The type exists in history or temporal experience and its meaning is factual, that is, objective…” (Jonathan Edwards)

Perhaps this is true, you finally concede, but what is the relevance of this? Surely all this talk of fractals is nothing but mathematical snobbery and theoretical uselessness!

But I would beg to differ.

For when one begins to train one’s eye to see the fractals around you, one realises that even theologically this is not such a new thing–in fact, finding christological fractals is a standard trick in the arsenal of any competent preacher. It’s just that it usually goes by a different name: the name ‘typology’.

Moses, almost killed by a tyrannical king at his birth, leads his people out of slavery. David, rejected by his brothers but filled with zeal for the house of God, refused to be deterred by political opposition from establishing worship on earth as it is in heaven. Jeremiah, a weeping batchelor, stood boldly against the false prophets of his day to declare the good news of the new covenant. Ezekiel, aged thirty and by a river, suddenly experienced the opening of heaven and the infilling of the Spirit of God, and was commissioned as the Son of Man to enact the word of God to the watching world.

And who do all these remind you of? That’s right — Jesus!

Anyway, this is what we call typology. And this is just a tiny slice of a rich and fascinating subject of infinite depth. Because if Jesus is the Word through whom all creation was made, then actually we should expect all of creation to echo and exemplify various characteristics of the nature and character of Jesus. If you’re interested in more reflection upon these lines, then I highly recommend James Jordan’s book Through New Eyes.

Discipleship: Great Commission as Recursive Equation
“Fractals are normally the result of a iterative or recursive construction or algorithm.” (Paul Bourke)

The Gospel of Matthew famously ends with Jesus commissioning his disciples to go and make disciples. What is less frequently commented on is that this is undeniably a recursive task, as is emphasised by the task of “teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you”–including, most importantly!, this very Commission. This is seen most clearly in Paul’s exhortation to his readers to “imitate me as I imitate Christ”.

And if the Great Commission is a recursive equation, it must follow as a logical consequence that the church should be a dynamically fractal organism of believers grafted into community with God through relationship with each other, and gradually being transformed into the likeness of Christ.

Prophetic Hermeneutics: The Inevitability of Fractal Fulfilment
“Those who study Bible prophecy are aware that many prophetic passages have multiple references.”

I am convinced that thinking in terms of fractals also helps with getting one’s head around the interpretation of biblical prophecy. There are various examples of the double reference of certain prophecies–eg. Isaiah 7:14’s promise that God would give Ahaz a sign by way of a virgin conceiving and bearing a son.

Once one has managed to grasp the strange idea that God’s prophetic word might function in some sort of fractal way, it’s an incredibly attractive suggestion. It’s almost enough to persuade me to be a Six-Day Young-Earth Creationist and a Premillenialist together at once, purely for the neatly symmetrical fractal chronology that would result!

But lest we get too quickly carried away, let us first look a little more closely at prophecy, and see why one might think that a fractal effect might occur.

The thing to notice is that with prophecy we have to hold two things in tension: on the one hand, there is the permanent fact of the prophetic word (as seen clearly by Ethan the Ezrahite in Psalm 89:26-33); on the other hand, there is the dynamic responsiveness of the prophetic word to faith and repentance (as God unequivocally tells Jeremiah). Now, permanent promises that are interacting throughout history with varied responses of faith and repentance (the results of which are themselves affecting subsequent levels of faith and repentance) are again going to function as a sort of recursive equation.

And so to my mind it would seem that the only conclusion is that the various promises of blessing and prophecies of judgement that God has made throughout history must therefore ultimately come together in the sort of apocalyptic end-time scenario of which someone like Mike Bickle speaks. In which case, he seems right to suggest we start praying for abundant revelation and insight into the days in which we live!

Conclusion: The Fertility of Fractal Faith
Now before I go off on too eschatological (and doubtless controversial) a tangent, let me bring my sketch to a close with the modest claim that, whether or not you agree with the details of my suggestions as to where a fractal theology might lead, I think I have successfully shown that looking through the kaleidoscopic lens of self-similarity does at least offer the possibility of contributing to a variety of areas of Christian conviction.

Now I’ll leave you to mull on that while I go enjoy looking through my kaleidoscope…

A Priestly Vocation

Download this essay as a PDF

priestlyvocationA rather roundabout account of how it is that I have come to consider myself a candidate for Anglican ordination.

The Blossoming of my Anglican Heritage
My grandparents on both sides are Anglicans, respectable citizens of the (once?) Great isle of Britain, pillars of their communities, and loving parents of the missionaries my mother and father have become. All Saints, Lindfield is the church in which my mother grew up, and remains my parents’ main supporting church. My father was christened as a child, but then converted through Charlotte Baptist Chapel in Edinburgh, re-baptised, and eventually ordained by them as a reverend minister as my parents were sent out into the nations to help reach East Asia’s billions with the gospel message of Jesus.

I was born in the Philippines, as were my brother and sister, but it wasn’t until being sent to Chefoo School, Malaysia, as a primary school boarder that my Anglican formation begun. Each Sunday morning we would walk down the long and winding school drive, past the flourishing ferns of the surrounding rainforest, to an old nissen hut that went by the deceptively grand title of All Souls’ Church. which each week was the stage for a full rendition of the Holy Communion service from the Book of Common Prayer. I remember the tedium of the liturgy being outdone only by the rambling sermons of the unpronouncably (at least to my English eight-year old mind) named Reverend Ng. I remember being convicted when a missionary speaker gave an altar call–but not quite summoning up the courage to make my way to the front to surrender my life to Jesus. I remember spending each Sunday leafing through Annie Valloton’s illustrations in the church’s Good News Bibles. I remember sitting next to Phil and snickering at the discovery of the Song of Songs. I remember the privilege of being asked to do the lectionary’s Bible reading.

Meanwhile in Singapore, where I went ‘home’ for the Christmas and Summer holidays, our family went each Sunday to the nationalistically named (Singapore was, of course, originally a British colony) St George’s. At least we went there until after church one Sunday I said to my parents–‘You know that thing the preacher said… doesn’t it say the opposite in the Bible..?’ Which catalysed my first conversion to Presbyterianism, as we thereafter attended Adam Road Presbyterian Church. Nonetheless, faithful nominal Anglican that I am, we would return each Christmas eve for Midnight Mass, and–even in the tropical heat of equatorial Singapore–I would enthusiastically join in with In The Bleak Midwinter, and all the rest of England’s favourite carols.

At secondary school in India, I churched mostly at Union Church (once home of the apostolic cricketer CT Studd), and it was there that I was baptised. I joined the Anglican communion only on those Sunday mornings when I rolled out of bed slightly too late for Union’s 10.30 service, and so had to make my way further up the hill to St Stephen’s 11am Eucharist.

But at university, I again found my home in an Anglican church–this time it was St Barnabas on Mill Road. Having encountered God powerfully in my final year of school but still not quite (!) got my life together–nor discovered the humility to confess to another my need– ‘Barney’s‘ evening service gave me a place where I could anonymously come and experience the healing presence of the Holy Spirit. I also discovered a thoroughly radically group of students, who drew me into a lifestyle of expectant and exhilirating prayer that has become the driving force of all that I do.

But when you are running after God with all of the zeal you can muster, it is hard to be content with the steady and slothful pace of a parish congregation. I converted again to Presbyterianism, and I remember my confirmation as a member being misinterpreted as a conversion to Christian faith: ‘This is the greatest day of your life!’ a sweet old lady told me, after the service. After graduating with a mixed degree in Mathematics and Theology, I was employed as Church Evangelist, but in retrospect being a convinced Charismatic I was perhaps never going to have any long-term future in a denomination which forbids the (public) speaking of tongues.

Taryn and I joined YWAM in Harpenden, where we were initially part of Christ Church Harpenden, an independent evangelical church recommended by some friends at CPC, and then at New Covenant Fellowship, Luton a newly beginning Pentecostal church-plant that invited myself and Taryn to be involved with worship, preaching and leadership.

My Doctrinal Convictions
Meanwhile, my doctrinal convictions were settling into place.

I believe that for mortal homonids such as ourselves, the universe is an impossibly complex thing to come to terms with, and that to do so in any meaningful sense requires that we extrapolate from the limited evidence at hand and put our faith in that which mere rational analysis cannot ever satisfactorily prove. Which is to say that everyone has faith in something, and our actions show what that faith is in.

I believe that time and space and matter and forces that act thereon came into existence at a particular point–and that this points to the existence of a Being who transcends time and space. I believe that the existence of life on our astonishingly green and fertile planet, in a universe which is astonishingly hostile to the earliest inklings of anything which might grow and reproduce, leads to the conviction that this transcendent Being is a deliberate designer. I believe that the instincts of human conscience, and the recognition of the ideas of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in diverse cultures and countries, cannot be convincingly grounded without postulating that the transcendent Being (of whose existence we have already been convinced) is also a consistently and perfectly moral Being. Indeed, because morality is nothing but the code which governs interpersonal relationships, He (with the requisite mutterings about such a being not being gendered in any recognisable way) must be a personal Being, and in fact an interpersonal Being.

I believe that this Being is not some silent static supposition, but a living and active participant in the great drama of Time. I believe that He hides himself in the numerous nooks and crannies of creation, like Easter eggs hidden in a childhood garden, to reward those who can be bothered with the effort of seeking him. I believe that He reveals himself to those who seek him–and sometimes to those who do not!–and that he’s done so to people from all tribes and tongues throughout history. I believe that the Hebrews–Abraham and his Mesopotamian clay tablets, Moses and his Egyptian papyrus scrolls, Paul and his parchment epistles–have been particularly frank and honest about the way in which He revealed himself to them; I do not believe that such true and authentic honesty could be possible without the inspiration of the very Spirit of this self-revealing transcendent Being.

I believe that communication by the power of the written word is all very well, but that it can never compare with face-to-face encounter. I believe that Jesus the carpenter from Nazareth has made such encounter with God possible.

I believe that this Jesus was a real, historical, human being. I believe that there is ample manuscript evidence not only for the belief that such a man lived, but also that he died unjustly and painfully on a Roman cross, that he was buried in a high-security tomb, and that he was then seen by multiple witnesses three days later, having been raised to a new yet true sort of life. I believe that those witnesses are to be trusted, and that the proof of this is the corroboration of their distinct testimonies, and their willingness to suffer even unto death for the sake of these testimonies.

I believe that Jesus’ death was not some political accident, but the most profound and significant event in human history. I believe that for the sake of humanity, such a death was vitally necessary; I believe that though it was motivated by obedience to the will of God, such a death was entirely voluntary. I believe that the fact of the cross proves paradoxically both the seriousness and the irrelevance of our sin.

I believe that this story of Jesus dying for our sins and rising again, this demonstration of the power of the love of God over the curse of death–this is good news! This is singular, unique and unprecedented. If it is true, then the problem of evil is solvable, then the tragedy of any person’s life is redeemable.

I believe that just hearing this message can transform hearts and minds and reconcile people to God. I believe that we therefore have a missionary mandate to communicate this astonishing announcement to whoever we can, however we can. But particularly by living lives which resonate with the power of this death-defying lavishly-loving abundant life.

I believe we cannot do this of our own free will. But I believe in the Holy Spirit, who shortly after the resurrection of Jesus began to fall in power upon those who believed in the death-defying life of Jesus. I believe that that same Spirit is still at work today, fanning into flame the flickerings of faith in our feeble and faltering hearts, convicting us of our self-satisfied hypocrisies and self-indulgent wickednesses, teaching us how to pray prayers that go beyond our mere human vocabularies, propelling us out in awkwardly overambitious mission to a bruised and broken world.

I believe that this is what we were made for, we human beings. Not to survive with the fittest, but to lay our lives down in sacrificial love, daring to do what has never been done before–not for the sake of vainglorious pride, but for the greater good of our communities, and for those outside the dotted lines which mark the boundaries of those whom we consider ‘our neighbour’. I believe that since a transcendent God has made us for this empowering experience of relationship with him and through him with others, it is no surprise that when we reject him and live as if self-sufficient, we instead find ourselves–at best!–tired, bored, and angry.

I believe that we need community. I believe that the communities that we most need are communities of faith in this invisible, transcendent, powerful, morally flawless, personally loving God; communities that would take the life of Jesus as their model, the death of Jesus as their message, the resurrection of Jesus as their motivator; communities that would dwell in the presence and walk in the power of the Holy Spirit; communities that would read and hear and think through and grapple with and live and breathe the story of the Scriptures.

I believe that to have a church like this is impossible–but I believe more strongly that nothing is impossible with God. And I believe that God can and will and is raising up churches like this, and bringing them together, preparing them for the day when the same Jesus–who was born of the virginal Mary, who was sentenced by Pontius Pilate to immediate execution, who died and rose again–when this same Jesus will return in glory to the same Mount of Olives just east of the walls of Jerusalem where he was last seen.

Presbyterian Polemic leads to Anglican Doctrine
These convictions have been mine for some time now. But it is only more recently that I have been persuaded of the truth of some of the more minor claims of Anglican doctrine–and interestingly it has not been Anglicans that have persuaded me of these things.

The first of these relatively minor points was the baptising of infants–‘christening’. Growing up in close proximity to more than a handful of Baptist missionaries, I must have frequently heard the argument that such a thing was absurd. Baptism is a symbol of faith in Christ–and how can an infant too young to understand the gospel message have saving faith? I had seen Anglican christenings, had even vowed with the congregation to uphold *name* in their new life in Christ, but never had I heard a vicar explain the biblical rationale for such a thing, though I had seen several Anglicans who seemed uncertain there was one. It was only upon attending Cambridge Presbyterian Church that I heard the case for infant baptism. The point that persuaded me was the view of the Apostle Paul that circumcision was a sign of faith–and yet circumcision was clearly permitted for infants. That, combined with having grown up in a missionary family, understanding the gospel for as long as I can remember, but frequently being plagued with doubts as to whether I was old and wise enough to make an informed commitment–when in retrospect I wish that I had sooner dived in foolish childlike faith into the rich and true love of God.

A second issue was the whole issue of political power and the church’s engagement with such–‘Christendom’. That history has too many incidents of wicked men claiming the name of Christ in defense of their evil deeds is a point that I readily concede. But it seemed every story I had heard explaining church history was one which skipped from the deaths of the apostles past the conclusion of the canon of the Scriptures through what was unquestioningly considered the irredeemable corruption of Constantinianism, the dark ages of which were only concluded by the light of the Protestant Reformation. It was only upon coming across the fascinatingly intelligent high-church Presbyterian Peter Leithart that I found someone who argued persuasively that a politically influential Christianity might not per se be a hypocritical denial of all that Jesus stands for.

The other advantages of such a mould of Christianity slowly began to dawn on me. The instinctive commitment to hard-fought visible unity, rather than quick and easy doctrinal schism–that’s one thing I like. Then there’s the actual fact of genuine local churches (thousands of them, in parishes across the country), rather than the incongruity of evangelical rhetoric about ‘the importance of the local church’ coupled with congregations drawn to their favourite attendable church from the various farflung corners of the city.

But there was one point of Anglican doctrine for which I had never heard any biblical defense, nor did I think it particularly likely that I would: in a word, bishops.

The insight of Ruskin‘s Gothic imagination
The first spark of revelation on this matter came from a rather unusual source.

Rewind to the year after I graduated, when the incomparable Phil had invited a group of friends to join him in a cottage in the Lake District. We were part of that privileged party, and in between striding up hilly peaks we managed to squeeze in a visit to the one-time abode of the great nineteenth-century Anglican architectural critic John Ruskin. I couldn’t resist buying a copy of Ruskin’s ‘Selected Writings’, and while in the Lake District read his celebrated essay on The Nature of Gothic. In this essay he suggests that

the systems of architectural ornament, properly so called, might be divided into three:
— 1. Servile ornament, in which the execution or power of the inferior workman is entirely subjected to the intellect of the higher ;
— 2. Constitutional ornament, in which the executive inferior power is, to a certain point, emancipated and independent, having a will of its own, yet confessing its inferiority, and rendering obedience to higher powers ;
— and 3. Revolutionary ornament, in which no executive inferiority is admitted at all.

He goes on to explain how the first division consists of Classical architecture, which “could not endure the appearance of imperfection in anything”; the third, Renaissance architecture, in which “the inferior detail becomes principal… and the whole building becomes an exhibition of well-educated imbecility”; the second, mediaeval Christian Gothic architecture, which recognises both the value and imperfection of every soul, “bestowing dignity upon the acknowledgement of unworthiness”.

Now, my interests are more ecclesiological than architectural, and so the thing that immediately interested me was the analysis of architectural styles applied as an analogy of different denominational leadership structures, with ‘servile ornament’ corresponding to authoritarian Papism, ‘revolutionary ornament’ to an anti-episcopal Prebyterianism, and ‘constitutional ornament’ to a unifying and yet releasing Anglican Episcopalianism.

Not that you should take my word for this–read Ruskin’s essay and mull over it; then tell me what you make of the idea. And at this point I had yet to see any hint that there might be some biblical basis for the existence of bishops. That had to wait until the following year…

How a Southern Baptist missionary made me an Episcopalian
We had just finished doing Youth With A Mission’s Discipleship Training School, during which a clear prophetic word had called us to commit immediately to full-time missionary service with YWAM. But ‘immediately’ is rarely (if ever!) quite as immediate as it sounds, and before returning to Harpenden as full-time staff, we had to return to Cambridge, inform our church of our plans, and begin inviting people to partner with us. Having nowhere to live, we went to stay with my parents, who that year were back at All Nations Christian College. I mentioned to my father that when we returned to Harpenden we were also planning to be involved with New Covenant Fellowship, a Pentecostal church-plant in Luton. As he was teaching a course on church-planting at the time, he was rather pleased by this, and had soon given me several books on the subject that he thought might be interesting. I cannot remember any of the books but one–T4T:Training for Trainers, by Steve Smith. But that one gripped my imagination and filled me with fiery excitement. It is both the story of the most successful church-planting movement in recent times, and a detailed defense of the biblical basis of the principles underlying it. It persuaded me that the revival for which we have been praying is–or must be!–nothing less than a church-planting movement. And it persuaded me that one of the vital keys for such a thing to occur is the rediscovery of the simplicity of the nature of ‘church’: ‘wherever two or three are gathered in my name…‘.

But how did a house-church movement connect with the conviction that had taken root in my heart that night-and-day worship was not just valid, but vital? And how could the incredible accounts of missional multiplication in Asia be reproduced in the post-Christendom context of the UK?

And the key revelation came in a little chapter towards the end of the book, where the author is addressing the question of whether Paul’s command to Timothy that a ‘novice’ not be ordained means that for all of the missional effectiveness of releasing young leaders to start and lead new churches, in fact it is clearly unbiblical to do so. But in fact, argues the author, we need to recognise the distinction between the potential Ephesian episkopos in Paul’s letter to Timothy, and the potential Cretan presbuteros in Paul’s letter to Titus. Only the former must not be a novice; the latter is required merely to be ‘devout’. Anyway, by the time the author had sketched the differences in context between the two superficially similar sets of criteria for Christian leadership, he had convinced me that there was indeed a possible biblical argument for a certain sort of hierarchy in church leadership.

And having had those Presbyterian preachers function as Anglican apologists, the idea that a multi-tiered Episcopalianism might be more missionally effective and more exegetically sound than a flat Presbyterianism was the last straw–! And so in my mind I was now a convinced Anglican. (Though it is worth reiterating that I am very grateful for my Presbyterian experience, and was mightily encouraged to have my Presbyterian former minister give his blessing to my potential Anglican vocation.)

The Unanticipated Effect of Pentecostal Unction
It should be remembered that at the time I was still happily committed to our Pentecostal church in Luton, in absolutely no hurry to up and leave for the Anglican church. My conviction is that if the Spirit leads you to move from one church to another, you should follow that leading without any hesitation–but if the Spirit does not thus move you, then you should remain part of the congregation of which you are a part, even if there are aspects of doctrinal emphasis or understanding with which you may begin to differ.

I may be called to the Anglican church, or I may not be. But I am certainly called to be a missionary and an evangelist–as we all are! (Matt. 28:19, 2 Tim. 4:5, etc.)–and God in this season had called us to help plant this church! And to catch people’s attention with the simple gospel message of Jesus in whatever way I could.

It was not long after we returned to YWAM Harpenden, and to church with NCF in Luton, that our church hosted the Brazilian pastor whose church network we were linked with. We had a weekend conference, and Pastor Raimondo (as was his name) preached on The Power of The Cross. Then on the Sunday morning as his sermon drew to a close, he invited forward those who were called to Christian leadership. I was specifically called to the front. He laid hands on me and blessed me, praying a prayer of impartation, asking that I would receive the fullness of the unction that God had given him, to do the work of ministry and pastor God’s flock.

A few days later I woke up with the crazy idea that I should run for Archbishop. ‘Running for Archbishop’ was a number of things, none of them perfectly realised. It was an attempt to do some street evangelism in a way that tied in with an internet strategy. It was a joke. It was a serious attempt to try and demonstrate what my newly-arrived-at missional Anglicanism would look like when put into practice.

Because that’s the thing, that it’s not a hum-drum ‘we are gathered here today’ sort of Anglicanism that I’ve been converted to, but a propulsively Pentecostal, almost manically missional GO in peace to love and serve…’ Anglicanism. The episcopal thing is not a relinquishing of the missionary mandate to hierarchical authoritarianism. Rather it is a recognition that the missionary mandate (which each believer possesses with full apostolic authority by virtue of the Great Commission) is best served by an upside-down multi-tiered servant-hearted ruggedly-Gothic (in a Ruskinian sense) hierarchy that is absolutely releasing and empowering but also discerning and patient. The virtue of patient discernment being that it makes it possible for a multitude of disparate individuals to speak in harmony.

Rather than requiring that “all that occurs…should always be under the control of the eldership” (Presbyterian Book of Church Order 8.4.1), affirming a multi-tiered hierarchy of leadership allows leaders to release control, allowing people to make mistakes, knowing that a lay-person is not a deacon, who is not a priest, who is not a bishop. The job of leaders in the church is most certainly not to be in control of all that occurs! Rather, it is to discern and confirm those whose leadership is under the control of the Spirit of God (which of course means those that are releasing others to be led by the Spirit of God, rather than by the authoritarian control of man).

‘Running for Archbishop’ was about the fact that as an English layperson I had God’s full permission and authority to declare the gospel with all the might I could muster–while still affirming my recognition of the established ecclesial authorities of the land.

The Moment I’d Been Waiting For
So we did the ‘Running For Archbishop’ thing, much to the confusion of all the people who get our news updates. We did street evangelism in seven different cities around the country–we didn’t see anyone come to the Lord. A few weeks later we were involved with the Circuit Riders, and suddenly discovered how to do street evangelism in a way that worked. Or maybe we just suddenly stepped into that breakthrough evangelistic anointing–it’s hard to say.

We spent the rest of the year happily at New Covenant Fellowship, me never quite working out how to put the T4T multiplying vision into practise in a church that already had a strong and specific way of going about cell-group discipleship and Sunday morning meetings.

We returned to Cambridge, and rather than return to CPC, decided that as well as being involved with the Anglican Fresh Expression that is the Cambridge House of Prayer (with which YWAM Cambridge is partnering), we would take the opportunity of a new beginning to try and put this vision of multiplying house church discipleship into practice. I put together a Simple Christianity discipleship course, and we announced our new course to the world. We were delighted when John and Inge said they would like to be part of this vision for house church–we had no idea that these would be Inge’s last few months.

Soon after arriving back in Cambridge I was in a pub talking to Andrew Taylor, the ordained Pioneer Curate who leads the Cambridge House of Prayer. What exactly is a house of prayer? was the question we were discussing. Specifically– is it a parachurch-like less-than-church sort of anomaly? Or could it be a church? A different-church? A more-than-church?

After a somewhat heated discussion, Andrew paused and said to me– ‘Have you ever considered Anglican ordination? You know, I could recommend you…’

Meeting with my Vocations Advisor
Over the last six months I’ve been meeting with Father Robert, the vicar of the Little St Mary’s, and the man appointed as my Vocations Advisor. He’s been asking all sorts of probing questions, and listening patiently as I attempt to describe my call to the ordained Anglican priesthood.

After our final meeting, his conclusion is that he ‘discerns a priestly vocation’, but that nevertheless he recommends that we put things on pause for a year, for if I were at this moment to proceed up the next rung of the ladder towards ordination, I would be turned down by the Diocesan Director of Ordinands on account of appearing at least on paper insufficiently Anglican.

This, upon consideration, is actually exactly what I want. For at the moment I am more than busy enough trying to get this Revival & Reformation DTS established and sustainable. And I want to continue doing that without too much distraction for at least the next two years, without worrying about jumping through any Anglican training hoops.

The Communion of Saints
It’s an odd position to be in, to not be an active part of any actual Anglican church, but to have suddenly been anointed with an energetic conviction that not only has God has not finished with the Church of England, but that it will a key instrument in the Holy Spirit’s purpose of bringing a revival to this land greater than any previously seen.

It’s a tension that I resolved in my mind by some combination of three ideas. The first thought was that just as the priest-in-charge of a particular local congregation wouldn’t be a regular weekly member of another, so I–as a vocational missionary, called by God to help start new churches–shouldn’t be expected to be (indeed, what with trying to start house church gatherings at the same time as pioneering a particularly long and intense version of the world’s most intensive discipleship programme, we were terrifically busy). The second was that the Church of England is not a narrow membership-based church, but a broad accepting open-armed servant of the community that quite explicitly states from time to time how it exists not just for church-goers, but for the whole nation. And third, that my theological convictions were now quite passionately Anglican–indeed (I would argue), more recognisably historically Anglican than many Anglicans (even ordained Anglicans) that I knew.

But when Inge’s death brought our Sunday house church gathering to a premature end, we started joining Sunday fellowship at our local parish church, the Church of the Good Shepherd. And so–finally!–I am visibly a part of the Anglican communion.

I suppose that visible communion is one of the main things that this is about. My sense of missionary vocation was forged in an exhilarating few weeks of prayer in the second term of my second year, for which the initial catalyst had been a frustration with Christian disunity and the consequent prayerlessness and missional ineffectiveness it caused. So while I am absolutely convinced that the Great Commission gives any Christian believer all the authority they need to make disciples — and therefore to gather together as ‘A Church’, and baptise new believers and break bread in celebration of the Lord’s Supper — yet I believe that it is worth the effort of trying to be visibly unified in our communion.

I believe in ‘one, holy, catholic, apostolic church’. If a church is to be ‘apostolic’, then it has to release the missionary potential (and destiny!) of every one of its members, empowering them to be pioneering apostles, proclaiming the gospel wherever they go, and initiating new gatherings of those who believe. And as the church thus multiplies, in unpredictable Spirit-led fashion, it is meant to remain ‘one’. This was Jesus’ prayer, and he suggests that continued Christian unity is as important a factor in ‘the world believing’ as evangelism itself (Jn. 17:21).

The Priestly Vocation
Will you be diligent in prayer, in reading Holy Scripture, and in all studies that will deepen your faith and fit you to bear witness to the truth of the gospel?
By the help of God, I will.
Will you lead Christ’s people in proclaiming his glorious gospel, so that the good news of salvation may be heard in every place?
By the help of God, I will.
Will you faithfully minister the doctrine and sacraments of Christ as the Church of England has received them, so that the people committed to your charge may be defended against error and flourish in the faith?
By the help of God, I will.
Will you, knowing yourself to be reconciled to God in Christ, strive to be an instrument of God’s peace in the Church and in the world?
By the help of God, I will.
Will you endeavour to fashion your own life and that of your household according to the way of Christ, that you may be a pattern and example to Christ’s people?
By the help of God, I will.
Will you work with your fellow servants in the gospel for the sake of the kingdom of God?
By the help of God, I will.
Will you accept and minister the discipline of this Church, and respect authority duly exercised within it?
By the help of God, I will.
Will you then, in the strength of the Holy Spirit, continually stir up the gift of God that is in you, to make Christ known among all whom you serve?
By the help of God, I will.

I will, I will, I will! But–at least so far as ministering the sacraments of Christ as the Church of England has received them–not quite yet.

Should experience be a source for theology?

(An old essay, rediscovered. I post it particularly for the bit about Elihu–whom I consider something of a defining influence.)

Theology: Christian Consistency & Intellectual Integrity
The task of the theologian is to aid the Christian Church in its quest for intellectual integrity: that is to ensure that the Church’s sacra doctrina is consistent. This consistency must be firstly with the message of the Church, as revealed in the “the prophets and the apostles” – as Barth rightly reminds us, “we must keep to Holy Scripture as the witness of revelation” . Secondly, the teaching of the Church must be consistent with itself. Paul’s words to the Corinthians regarding the need for intelligibility apply equally to rational coherence as they do to the more obviously charismatic gifts : “If the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?”. Thirdly, the teaching of the Church must be consistent with her practice, for “faith alone, without works, is dead”, and “God will bring every deed into judgement”. The task of the theologian is thus to pursue integrity of thought, speech, feeling and action.

This being established, we can now ask in what ways experience should act as a source for Christian theology. There are a number of points to be considered on this subject – this essay is by no means an attempt to offer a comprehensive discussion of all the nuances involved, but simply to provide some account of the challenges that a theologian must face in dealing with the subject of experience, and then to make a few suggestions about the role of experience within theology.

Problems with ‘Experience’
Firstly, the most important thing to say regarding ‘experience’ is that there is no part of a person’s life that is not ‘experience’. Further, to somehow delineate ‘religious’ experience from ‘secular’ or ‘normal’ experience – as contemporary Western culture so consistently does – is both unhelpful and deluded. If God exists, and sustains the cosmos by His sovereign grace, then the very fact that we are able to experience anything is because of His grace – and is thus in some sense at least should be ‘a religious experience’. And apart from the necessary theological critique of the idea that any thing is truly independent of God, the fact must also be acknowledge that the way we experience the world is conditioned by our cultural-linguistic background (as Lindbeck so rightly points out). The way we interpret the facts of our existence is utterly dependent on the meta-narratives with which we understand our lives, be they implicit or explicit.

However, it must equally be acknowledged that our understanding is dependent on our experience. That there is a mutual conditioning of understanding and experience is vital for the theologian to take into account, for two reasons. Firstly, the theologian must have the humility to recognise that he will have, at best, a limited understanding of sacred things until he has himself experienced them. This is why the best theology begins with prayer and rises towards doxology: as we so clearly in the apostle Paul, and in Augustine’s Confessions. Second, the theologian must appreciate that the need for experience in order to truly understand is equally true of his audience: be they his fellow theologians, philosophers in a secular university, or the congregation of his church. This is why Barth is wrong when he says that the Church is “not to allow itself to take its problems from anything else but Scripture” . If the infallible Word of God declared in Scripture is to become incarnate in the world in which the Church finds herself, then all the problems – philosophical, ethical, and otherwise – of the world must be answered “with grace, seasoned with salt”.

The Poverty of our Experience
The supreme problem that the theologian faces with regards to experience is the chasm that often looms between the glorious subject of the Church’s holy teaching and between experience – both that of our audience and of ourselves. And this is precisely not something that can be overcome by human effort – it is solely dependent on the gracious activity of God. This is why any discussion about theological experience must acknowledge that the most important aspect of any man’s experience is the testimony of the Holy Spirit with his spirit that he is a child of God. Whether one has experienced this testimony is something that no man can know of another – and even of himself, no man can understand what is meant by this until he has experienced it, and then only by faith. When faced with an audience who has not been ‘born again’ (a phrase which we will use, in spite of the way it has been misunderstood and abused), the theologian must therefore expect to be misunderstood. And even when a man has been spiritually regenerated, there will remain truths that he has not yet grasped. Indeed, this will be true of each of us, for “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my thoughts higher than your thoughts, says the LORD”. But this is a reason for hope rather than despair, for (in this passage, Isaiah 55) it is precisely because of this that God chooses to have mercy on the repentant man.

For this is the experience of every Christian: that once we were dead in our sins, but now we are alive in Christ. And this is the role of the theologian: to declare the word of God in faith that His “word will not return empty”, but that in the proclamation of His Word, God will act to bring people into a fuller experience of His glorious grace; to bring the unbelieving from spiritual death into life, and to bring the faithful closer towards spiritual maturity. Or at least, this is the role of the Church. The theologian’s role is to grapple continually with the tension between the need for contextualisation and faithfulness. On the one hand the theologian’s task is to help make the Word spoken by the Church become incarnate in the situation in which she finds herself, on the other hand the theologian must be continually testing the teaching of the Church against the witness of the Scriptures and the testimony of the Spirit.

The Necessity & Vitality of Testimony
This is why Christian testimony is so important and so powerful: because in our stories of how God has intervened in our lives we demonstrate that experience and theology are related. Augustine’s Confessions is the classic example of this. It demonstrates not only that our experience can be interpreted theologically – and not only can, but inevitably is – but also that our theology – that which we consider most important, our ‘god’ – will propel our experience. He also demonstrates – in his almost unconscious speaking of the Psalter – that Scripture and ‘experience’ are not opposed theological sources, but rather that Scripture is a lens through which we can understand our experiences.

Of course, the Bible is itself testimony: the written narrative of the experience of the people of God. And within the Bible we are confronted by a vast spectrum of experiences which we continue to encounter today: the sense that once God spoke powerfully to His people, but now He is faraway (eg. Ps. 89); the misunderstanding of the word of God because of the incompatibility of the cultural-linguistic framework of the audience with its delivery (as in Acts when Paul and Barnabas do miracles expecting the people to glorify God and listen to their preaching of Jesus as Lord, but instead are heralded themselves as gods); the overemphasised desire to experience the Holy Spirit that leads to a false sense of what is truly wisdom (1 Corinthians).

This latter tendency – to put to great an emphasis on experience, at the expense of the integrity of theology – is a particular problem; and one that is by no means uniquely Corinthian. In their commendable emphasis on the unique authority of the Word of God, the Reformers tended to be very pessimistic about the role of experience in theology, and this has unfortunately at times left a legacy that has effectively quenched the Spirit. To refuse to engage with experience as a theological source may seem to be the easier option, but a theology which is unrelated to experience will ultimately help no one.

Elihu: Theologian Amongst Philosophers
Most importantly though, the theologian must remember that the experience of the people whom he is addressing pales in comparison to the importance of the experience to which he is calling them. We see this in the book of Job, a story which reflects profoundly on the relation between experience and theology. The hero of the story is, at least by my reading, the little-known Elihu. Younger in years than the rest of Job’s friends, he sits silently while they proffer various theological analyses of Job’s apparently incongruous situation (surely God does not let the righteous suffer!)

Eventually, after they have failed to offer Job any comfort, Elihu’s frustration with the dead theology of his elders explodes in a passionate defence of the glory of God. In content, his analysis of Job’s situation is fairly similar to that of Eliphaz, Zophar and Bildad – and this has left many commentators baffled as to why Elihu is not also rebuked by the LORD at the end of the story, as the other three are. However, such commentators fail to appreciate that although Elihu has said much that is the same as that of his companions, he has not – for all his imperfections – failed to speak rightly of God (cf. Job 42.8) because he has acknowledged the glory of God, and indeed his “heart trembles, and leaps out of its place”(37.1) as he contemplates this glory. It is this heart-felt proclamation of the all-surpassing majesty of God which paves the way for the LORD himself to appear to Job, addressing Job in the midst of his experience of suffering and finally calling him into an experience much better than his initial circumstances.

The role of the theologian – the man who dares to speak of God – must be the same. Firstly, to sit silently with the people of this world and try to understand something of their experience – to become incarnate. Secondly, we must ourselves experience and tremble at the glory of the LORD. Thirdly, to wait upon the prompting of the Spirit, until finally we can say with Elihu “my heart is indeed like wine that has no vent; like new wineskins, ready to burst. I must speak, so that I may find relief”. And finally we must declare with boldness the word of God, in faith that He will then act, and call people into a new and more glorious experience of His grace.