Scholarship: Stars, not the Sun – Wisdom from John Donne (Chris Spark)


      The sacred academy above
Of Doctors, whose pains have unclasp’d, and taught
      Both books of life to us—for love
To know Thy scriptures tells us, we are wrote
            In Thy other book—pray for us there,
            That what they have misdone
Or missaid, we to that may not adhere.
Their zeal may be our sin. Lord, let us run
Mean ways, and call them stars, but not the sun.

This is a section from a work by John Donne, The Litany.

Donne was a 17th Century Anglican clergyman, as well as a rather important writer. Two phrases which he coined are ‘no man is an island’ and ‘for whom the bell tolls’ (Metallica fans are especially fond of the latter). I would by no means endorse all he wrote, but, my goodness, sometimes he expresses the beauty and power of the Christian faith with depth I have seldom heard outside of Scripture. His words can be genuinely breath-taking. I first came across Donne through the sublime poem ‘A Hymn to God the Father’, one of the most wonderfully real and beautiful reflections on the personal significance of atonement I have ever experienced. Later I encountered ‘Death Be Not Proud’, a piece I think I would like read at my funeral.

The Litany, which is where I started this post, is an extended poetic reflection on various beings – from Father, Son, Spirit, Trinity, to different groups and orders of people. As with his wider work, I don’t think everything in it is awesome, and I would have to disagree fairly strongly at a number of points.

But section 13, quoted above, struck me as full of wisdom for many of us today who regularly engage with scholarship about Christ and Scripture – whether we do that in preparation for preaching or teaching, for general reading and interest, or for other reasons. If I understand what he is saying rightly (which I may not!), he helps us in two excellent ways:

Firstly, Donne would warn us against the kind of dependence on, and even worship of, scholarship which makes us ‘the sun’ (and in which we can let it eclipse the Son). In this way we might think and speak as if scholarship was always done from a neutral or completely transparent perspective, or treat it as almost canonical. We uncritically defer to scholarly opinion as it currently stands (or that of our favourite scholar or scholars), and this may indeed be a way of not having to do the hard work and thinking (and training and learning) ourselves. I know that temptation in myself.

Donne rather seeks that we be saved from what ‘they have misdone, or [m]issaid’, so that ‘…their zeal may not be our sin’.

This is well said, and even better if heeded.
But on the other hand…

Secondly, he would also encourage us to actually listen to, and make use of, scholarship. He speaks of scholars as ‘[d]octors, whose pains have unclasp’d, and taught, [b]oth books of life to us—for love’.

Some of us are at times in danger of what I think is a silly scorning of scholarship, where we have a fundamentally sceptical attitude, often arising from self-defensiveness. In my opinion (as one who is tempted to it at times!), this attitude lacks a basic Christian principle of knowledge: humility. If we won’t genuinely listen and consider what those who have spent a good deal of time learning have to say, we are very unlikely to ever discover areas where we are wrong – because we already think we have all the answers!

Now of course we will definitely have to disagree with scholarship at times – Paul did say the cross would be foolishness to the world (1 Corinthians 1), and no doubt that includes many scholars. Besides which, scholarship itself disagrees with itself very often. But to dismiss the opinions of those who have worked hard at learning, rather than humbly, if critically, listen – well that is to sow arrogance and to impoverish our riches for understanding the depths of God’s word as it has been given to us.

‘Stars, but not the sun’. There is a bit of wisdom from an old poet for all of us who stand on the shoulders of giants.

Moralism vs. Jesus

I’m presently preaching through the book of Judges and loving every minute of it. I never imagined how such a dark and confusing book could be so gospel-rich. Last Sunday I covered the story of Samson – 4 chapters, in one hit. It wasn’t an easy thing to do but I sensed it was better way to handle the narrative and retain the big picture. And the big picture was clearly Samson points us to Jesus.

In fact all the Judges point to Jesus in one way or another, because they all show us how human deliverers are insufficient. Some are better than others of course (such as Othniel and Deborah), but all are weak and flawed, and all eventually die. Jesus is not weak or flawed. He is the perfect deliverer-judge. And he doesn’t die.

The most powerful connections to Jesus in the Samson story was his birth and his death (everything in between was an absolute disaster!). One entire chapter (Judges 13) is devoted to the birth narrative – something unequaled with any other judge in the book. But just note the parallels: Samson’s birth is announced by an angel; Jesus’ birth is announced to Mary by an angel. Sampson is miraculously conceived in a barren woman; Jesus is miraculously conceived in a virgin. Samson is consecrated to God from the womb; Jesus is consecrated to God from the womb. That’s more than a coincidence.

And then with regard to his death, the author of Judges tells us that those who died with Samson that day were more than all he had killed his entire life (Judges 16:3). This was in fulfilment of the promise the angel of the Lord gave to his mother, “he shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines” (13:5). The next time the Philistines appear in the Bible is in 1 Samuel, but Israel is no longer ruled by them; Israel is at war with them. And that war continues for centuries all the way to king Hezekiah. But never again are the Israelites ruled by the Philistines as they are in the times of Samson. But note again the parallels with our Saviour: Both are betrayed, Samson by Delilah and Jesus by Judas. Both are handed over to Gentile oppressors. Both are chained, tortured, mocked, and put on public display. Both chose to sacrifice themselves. Both died with their arms outstretched. And both enabled God’s people to triumph over God’s enemies by their deaths.

The story is a wonderful pointer to the true deliverer-judge who defeated our two great enemies, sin and death. Jesus’ death freed us from sin’s rule just as Samson’s death freed Israel from the Philistine rule. That doesn’t mean that we don’t sin any more just like it didn’t mean that Israel’s problems with the Philistines ended with Samson. What changed is that we now have the power through Christ to say no to sin and to refuse to let it reign over us.

So what did I do with the middle; that is, the record of his life? I simply retold the story, reading the pertinent verses and showed how even a man like Samson, whose life was completely out of control and lived for self could be used by God when his purposes are at stake. This is made very plain to us in chapter 14 where Samson goes against his parents counsel and insists they “get” for him Timnite girl. We are told in the follow verse, “His father and mother did not know that it was from the LORD, for he was seeking an opportunity against the Philistines” (14:4). This is an interpretive key for the entire narrative. It informs us this was all in God’s plan. God was going to use Samson’s weakness to bring about a confrontation between the Israelites and the Philistines. They had become way too comfortable together. This was God’s way of prying them apart.

Well that sermon did open a few eyes! However at the end one faithful brother (whom I have a very good relationship with) came up and said, “Great Sermon Peter. That was a great connection you made between Samson and Christ. However, didn’t miss the obvious?” I said, “Go on.” “You had in the congregation a very large number of men, all of whom are tempted by lust on a daily basis. Samson’s life was ruined by his lust. You never made the connection.” He was right. I alluded to it of course, but I never pointed it out clearly. Nor did I take the time the time to drive it home.

The question is – should I have? There are two concerns I can see if I chose to go down that road.

1. I would likely obstruct or at least weaken my main point (the big idea) which was the entire story points us to our need for the Saviour. You can’t preach a message on the story of Samson, majoring on the dangers of lust and then add something at the end how this points to Jesus. I’ve tried it before. People wind up thinking most about what was stressed. They would go away thinking a lot about the dangers of the sin of lust and not a lot about Jesus.

2. I don’t think that was the main issue – even in Samson’s life. Samson’s biggest problem wasn’t a struggle with lust (in fact it doesn’t appear that he struggled with it at all!). It was unbelief. He lived for himself, not God. He lived to please himself, not the Lord. And as a result, his life spun completely out of control. He wanted freedom, but his way. What he got was bondage. He became a slave of his own sinful desires. And of course that is the point Paul makes very plain in Romans 6. Which is why we all need the gospel!

Perhaps if I preached that passage again, I might do things a bit differently – but not too much differently. I’ve heard enough moralizing sermons in my life (particularly in the Old Testament) that have put me off teaching about sin. I already know I sin. What I need is the answer to overcome it.

And that lies in Jesus.

Life by death (Rob Harrod)

Recently I had the privilege of attending the annual Men’s Christian Convention here in Christchurch. David Cook from Sydney was helpfully unpacking truths from John 11 and 12, and showing us their vital application to life and ministry. On the second night he highlighted something that has been much on my mind and heart for much of this year. David opened up John 12:23, 24: "And Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." Here Jesus states that He will be glorified through His death. Through His death on the cross He will be like a grain of wheat falling into the earth and dying, and in death He will bring forth much fruit.

How would Jesus accomplish His purpose? How would He save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21)? How would the Lamb of God take away the sin of the world? By His death! The grain of wheat MUST fall into the earth and die, and through that death … Fruit would come! Life would come! Salvation would come! (Isaiah 53:8-10). All by the death of the suffering servant in the place of his people. In John 12 we see that this is not only a wonderful picture of what Jesus does, but it also provides a pattern for our life and ministry. This is how the disciples of Jesus must also live, individually and corporately. This Christ-like selflessness must characterise both the Chrisian believer and the church.

We often focus on the individual outworking of this biblical principle, but I want to draw your attention to one New Testament example of this selfless attitude seen in the events surrounding the establishment and early life of the church in Antioch, a major city some 500 km north of Jerusalem and the capital of the Roman province of Syria. Antioch was the third largest city in the Empire after Rome and Alexandria. Here are six examples drawn from the book of Acts of churches and believers learning to think and live ‘us’ and not ‘me’, being willing to fall into the earth and die in order to see real gospel fruit.

(1) Persecuted believers continue to preach Christ. Believers fled from Jerusalem (Acts 8:1) under intense persecution. Christians had lost their homes and jobs, and their lives were under serious threat. All because they aligned themselves with Jesus and His Church. The natural tendency in such circumstances would be to go quiet about Jesus in order to avoid more trouble. These believers did the opposite. They arrive in Antioch and freely and boldly preach the Lord Jesus despite the threats (Acts 11:19-21).

(2) A persecuted church still cares for others. The persecuted believers in Jerusalem could have been excused for retreating into a shell of self-interest: keeping their heads down for fear of more persecution. This was emphatically not the case: the church’s ‘ear’ was still open to hear of God’s work in other places, to pray for it, and to help where they could. (Acts 11:22-24) They send Barnabas (the ‘son of encouragement’) to assess and strengthen the work in Antioch. A 500km journey to benefit others! For the Jerusalem church it was clearly not all about them: it’s about their Lord’s glory, the good of their brothers and sisters in Christ, and it’s about the world hearing the gospel.

(3) Barnabas recruits Saul (Paul) to help the church in Antioch (Acts 11:27-30). The gospel work in Antioch was going forward strongly (Acts 11:21-24), but Barnabas longed for it to be established and further extended. He thinks of his friend Saul and believes he could make a significant contribution to the work in Antioch, so he goes off to Tarsus (240km away) and recruits Saul. These two men spend a year teaching many in Antioch, pouring out their lives to build up the church. Barnabas doesn’t care that the gifted apostle Paul might become more prominent – all he cares about is the fame of Jesus Christ and the good of the church.

(4) The generosity of the church in Antioch toward their brethren in Jerusalem (Acts 11:27-30). Hearing of the real need of the Chrisians in Judea because of a widespread famine, the Christians in Antioch (even though most of them have never met any of the believers down there) determine to send financial "relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea."

(5) Very different men work together (Acts 13:1).The leaders of the church at Antioch were a very diverse bunch. Barnabas, a Levite from Cyprus who had been a prominent encourager in the Jerusalem church; Lucius of Cyrene in North Africa, perhaps one of the founding members (Acts 11:20); Manaen, who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and was probably from a noble family; Simeon, called Niger; and Saul from Tarsus in Cilicia, who had been a Pharisee and fanatical persecutor of the church! These men, despite their differences in personality, background and gifts, worked together selflessly for the good of the church and the glory of Christ.

(6) The church in Antioch surrendered key leaders to frontline mission (Acts 13:2,3). Led by the Holy Spirit as they worshipped, prayed and fasted, the church set apart two of their most able, useful, influential and much loved leaders to a new work. This was not easy, these men still could have been very useful to the work in Antioch. They sent away two beloved pastor-teachers for the benefit of others and the glory of Christ. This became known as the first of the apostle Paul’s missionary journeys, through which many came to Christ and churches were planted throughout the Roman empire.

May the Lord help us, as individuals, families and churches, express the same selfless spirit in our lives and ministries today! And may the Lord use us to bear much fruit to His glory!

I’m Wrong (Chris Spark)

We’re both right.

That’s something an old friend and I used to say to each other in our teen years (I think the credit should go to him for originally coining it, but I could be wrong…). It was most likely usually used in the course of discussion of things like science fiction, music, and teenaged philosophy – not uncommonly in the potato and pumpkin fields of North Canterbury as we earned money to buy guitars and cymbals. We used ‘we’re both right’ when we differed on something and wanted to end the discussion happily. And we used it partially in jest.

But there is something profound in it I think. Not that we were profound (our discussions sometimes got very interesting, but ‘profound’ may be overreaching!). The profundity is in what it revealed about us that is common to so many of us. We didn’t like being wrong. When we held views, or made arguments, for two opinions that were clearly different, and wouldn’t fit together, we found it easy to say we were ‘both right’ than to admit one of us was wrong. Even if it was a case of saying one of us must be wrong, even if we weren’t sure which – it was still easier to say ‘we’re both right’.

Being wrong is really, really difficult. Actually, that is not quite right. Being wrong is easy. Admitting you are wrong, that is another kettle of fish. That is hard. One of New Zealand’s finest singer songwriter talents, Bic Runga, had a song on her first album called ‘Sorry’ with a line that went ‘it’s not that hard to say, so why can’t I say it now?’ The answer of course is that to say sorry is to admit I’ve been in the wrong. And to admit I’m wrong in that or any other way is just hard.

Should it be so hard? We are wrong all the time about a million things. And we so often claim to be happy to be corrected, to be happy to be shown to be wrong, to ‘hope I’m wrong’. Occasionally some of us manage to say ‘I was wrong’ – in the past tense. That is still hard enough, and rare enough. But it is a little safer, because that was the old me. I was wrong (but I’m right now).

But when it comes to actually being wrong now – acknowledging we are wrong, admitting it, and changing – it is hard. Because to be wrong feels like it is to question our value. To undermine the justification for our existence.

That is where Christianity is really hard. It can be hard in lots of ways for people to accept. But among the most universally difficult is this – to be Christian is to say ‘I’m wrong’. And not just in one area, or about one theory, or on one occasion. Rather, to become a Christian is to say, at the most fundamental level, I am wrong. As Jesus puts it, our hearts are wrong (Mark 7:20-23). As the Apostle Paul puts it, our rejection of God makes us thoroughly wrong and in big trouble (Romans 1-3). And that’s why, at the heart of the start of being a Christian, and essential to the continuation of being a Christian, is repentance – turning around, because you are continually admitting you are wrong.

“8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:8-9

If we confess our sins. In other words, if we say we are wrong. There is the real rub.

But there is the real freedom, too. To be able to admit we are wrong, and to know that at the same time we are justified. It’s not about being right anymore. Rather, as Paul puts it in that discussion of our wrong-ness: it’s about this: “Let God be true, and every human being a liar” Romans 3:4

It’s about us all admitting we are wrong. All of us. Each of us – including me, including you. On a level playing field of wrong-ness. And, having been freed from needing to justify our existence by being right, we can get on with really living. Because it is Christ’s right-ness that justifies us, not our own.

For those of us who are Christian teachers and preachers and pastors, I suggest this means we need to help our people get better at being wrong. Because they are anyway, whether they admit it or not. And perhaps the first way to help them admit they are wrong is to show them how. We can own up to being wrong, We can express the freedom of God’s justification in Christ by admitting the areas and ways we are wrong, rather than passionately holding on to our right-ness and defending ourselves all the time.

We are not both right. We are all wrong. I’m most certainly wrong. And Jesus is right enough for the lot of us.

Conservative – but not necessarily in politics (Peter Collier)

I was talking to a friend recently about Stanley Cripps. Stanley Cripps was a Labour politician in the UK during the time of the Second World War, and a committed follower of Jesus Christ. My friend told me that when he got elected as a member of the Labour Party in the UK, he was no longer allowed to be involved in the Anglican pulpit where he was from! It was felt that if you were an Anglican Christian you could not possibly serve the Labour Party at that time!

We may wince at people having such firm political views that they could not countenance that other committed Christians would believe anything differently. However, we need to make sure we don’t repeat the error.

Take for example the term ‘conservative’.

I am more than happy to wear the label ‘Christian’; indeed, delighted to do so. I believe Jesus is the Christ, and he is my Lord and Saviour. It is a privilege to be associated with Him in this way.

I am also very delighted to wear the label ‘evangelical’. The word ‘evangelical’ stems from the greek word ‘euangelion’ which means ‘the gospel’; an ‘evangelical’ is therefore ‘one who preaches the gospel’(of Jesus Christ, it is understood), or ‘one who believes the gospel proclaimed’. This is therefore a wonderful description of a Christian person: someone who believes and preaches the good news of Jesus Christ.

The problem with these two labels is that many people wear them with whom I would fairly seriously disagree. Indeed, some people wear these labels whom I doubt are evangelical or indeed even Christian at all. Others wear these labels and yet, while acknowledging they are Christian, we still have fairly major differences in our understandings of the Bible.

There are therefore a few other labels that get applied to people who believe what I believe.

A very common one is to call me (and who believe similar things to what I believe) ‘conservative’.

I am more than happy to be called a ‘conservative’ when it comes to theology. For to be conservative means to want to keep things as they have been. This is what is encouraged in Scripture. Paul wrote to Timothy, ‘the things you have heard from me, in the presence of many witnesses, pass onto reliable men who will be qualified to teach others’ (2 Timothy 2:2). Timothy was not to come up with some new teaching, but pass on the ‘good deposit’. Similarly, Paul says Titus is to select elders who ‘hold to the trustworthy message as it has been taught’ (Titus 1:9). Titus is not to find elders who are ‘progressive’ in their views, but who stick to the same old message. And in Jude, the author speaks of defending the message which has ‘once for all been delivered to the saints’. Since this message has been delivered once for all, there is no need for any improvement of it.

Christian belief, by its nature, then, is conservative. That is, it looks backwards to find truth. Now the term ‘backwards looking’ in our society immediately conjures up a negative image. That is because it is assumed that knowledge is ‘progressing’, and humanity is learning more. While that may clearly be the case in certain fields, such as science and medicine, it is different when it comes to the knowledge of God (which is what theology means). The best way to get to know God is not by humans philosophising more and for longer over time. The way to get to know God is by God revealing himself. And since God has done that in the past, in many and various ways in the Old Testament, and then finally through his Son Jesus Christ, then the way to find true knowledge about God is to look backwards, into the Scriptures of the Prophets of the Old Testament and Jesus’ appointed witnesses in the New Testament. Consequently, authentic theology is not ‘progressive’ in the sense that we are learning more about God than has already been revealed in Jesus and in the Scriptures; the way we learn about God is to look backwards into the Word of God with the Spirit helping us to understand and receive God’s word.

Consequently, I am happy to describe my beliefs as being ‘conservative’.

However, there is a great problem with this description in our day and age. It is loaded with a different meaning. The term ‘conservative’ is frequently associated with social views which are then expressed in political n parties. ‘Conservative’ then becomes a political term. And of course, in New Zealand at the last general election, a party was founded called the ‘Conservative Party’ which many Christians support.

It is important we realise what is meant by this term when it is used regarding social views and politics. It is different to what is meant when speaking about theology. To have conservative social and political views means looking back to the way society used to do things. Often the hot-button areas are in things like the laws about marriage and sexuality. Conservative politics also tends to emphasise personal responsibility.

Those of us who are ‘conservative’ in our theology because we believe the truth about God is to be found in the Bible will often find ourselves agreeing with various aspects of conservative social agendas and conservative politics. In part, this is perhaps because biblical Christianity once played a more influential role in our society than it does now.

However, we need to be careful. Being conservative theologically does not necessarily mean we will be conservative in our social views or our politics. For example, in the past, people who were left handed were made to write with their right hand. As a lefty, this is one area where I am definitely a social progressive! Similarly, views held in the past about disabilities and race are not views which I would wish to endorse. And even in areas where the Bible would critique the ways our society has changed, such as the roles of women, I believe that previous societies were often harsh and indeed un-Christian in their views and consequent legislation.

Consequently, while I am happy to be called a ‘conservative’ in my theology, I am less happy to wear the term to describe my social views, and even less my political views. I am glad that many Bible-believing Christians are eagerly supporting a Conservative Party. I am also pleased at some of the issues they are raising for discussion and giving people an opportunity to vote on the basis of. I am more than happy to hear from Christian brothers and sisters why they think I ought to vote for the Conservative Party. I do have one large concern, however, as a (theologically) conservative evangelical Christian. My concern is that it is assumed that all who are conservative evangelical Christians ought to, or do, support the Conservative Party (over other parties). Or that the Conservative Party speaks for ‘us’ conservative evangelicals. It doesn’t and it won’t – at least not always, and not all of us. It is important that we do not too closely align God’s infallible authoritative word, given once for all in the past, with a very fallible political movement in the present.

There may well be good reasons for Bible-believing Christians to vote for the conservative, and if you think there are – great! And I’m eager to hear those reasons. However, let us also acknowledge that who we vote for in New Zealand is an area of Christian freedom; let each servant of the Lord Jesus examine God’s word and do what is right in their own conscience on this matter – recognising it may be different for different servants, as it was for Stanley Cripps and many of his contemporaries.