Review: Thinking Through Creation by Chris Watkin

Thinking Through Creation: Genesis 1 and 2 as Tools of Cultural Critique

by Christopher Watkin

I had heard of Christopher Watkin, professor of French though at Monash University, a few times through friends who work for AFES at Monash and those who go to his church. But it was only when I did an Open Learning course he was teaching, 'Postmodernism and the Bible: Derrida and Foucault' that I became a fan. Christopher and I share the same desire of seeking to listen carefully to the ideas of others, and then interact with those ideas from a Christian point of view.

After completing the course, Christopher asked if I would like to receive free copies of some of his forthcoming books, in exchange for reviewing them online: I happily agreed — free things!

The first of these new books, Thinking Through Creation is a great read, and I hope it will quickly became a classic among those, like in AFES, who are seeking to equip Christians to think deeply and Christianly. This book is the first of a much larger work that Christopher intends to produce, doing similar stuff across the whole Bible: not just reading what the text of Scripture says, but unpacking the underlying ideas, and the values and actions which flow from these.

Chirstopher looks at the philosophical and ethical implications of the doctrine of the trinity, of creation, humanity, personhood work, Sabbath, power, functionalism, environment and much more. For those who have already read a bit in this, much of the content will be familiar, but it is great to have a one-stop-shop for all these ideas. 

Likewise, Christopher is not the first writer to expose unsatisfactory dichotomies, by finding a more sophisticated middle way (his term for this is 'diagonlisation'). But his contribution to this area of nuance and synthesising approach is a highlight of the book, as he uncovers so many of these false dichotomies: 

  • Impersonal structure vs Unstructured personhood (tackling the Euthyphro Dilemma masterfully)
  • The one vs the many
  • Reality is transparent to language vs Language imposes an alien structure on reality
  • Functionality vs beauty
  • Fact vs value
  • Nature vs culture
  • Intellectual work vs manual labour
  • Sacred groves vs trees as facts (you'll have to read it to see what on earth that means?! :-P)

A particular strength of the book is the way in which Christopher provides substantial quotes from and interaction with various philosophers and other theorists. This is more than the easy grab-quotes from an IVP apologetics book, but rather genuine contact points with different philosophical views. Reading the footnotes and supporting material gives you heaps of leads to explore further, both Christian and non-Christian thinking.

There were a few points where I raised an eyebrow or wanted more:

  • I am not convinced that love comes before power, as Christopher argues on page 35ff. Why not both? If power is seen as secondary, then, as it seems Christopher goes on to argue, we cannot form an ethic were the possession and use of power also has a place. Power is entirely subservient to love. While, love, service and personhood are fruitful paths to explore social ethics, I also think the just and proper use of (and restraint of) power is also a fruitful and ethical path to explore at the same time.
  • Some of the political and social applications left me wondering how this would work out 'in the real world' of globalised economic. Footnote 7 on page 57 points to The Jubilee Manifesto edited by Michael Schluter and John Ashcroft to explore further, so it's great to have a good pointer. However, I would love to have a bit more meat on this occasionally, to stop this ethical reflections from seeming like thin idealism.

  • On page 94 he writes "Christ is the only normal human being to have ever lived, and his character defines perfect humanity". And I am cautious about this statement. Is it a bit too Barthian/supralapsarian? The unfallen Adam was a normal human being... and defines perfect humanity, too, no?
  • I think there is more to the ethical caution against 'playing God' than Christopher gives credit on page 114. You know, Jurassic Park I, II, II, Jurassic World and now Jurassic World II.
  • I would have liked to hear an explanation for why, if the biblical worldview apparently solves to many problems, Christians have not historically been more consistent on all these matters. But then maybe this is for Volume 2: Genesis 3 and beyond?

The writing is clear and engaging, although there are extended quotes from philosophical sources and a decent smattering of technical terminology ('basicity' was one that particularly made me laugh). The text is broken up with simple diagrams and helpful headings which help you keep track of the argument.  Each chapter ends with a summary of basic ideas and rich tutorial-style questions for further reflection or discussion. There is also a glossary at the end of the book.

The book would be a great training text for uni students, MTS apprentices or theological students. It would also be enriching reading for the tertiary-educated Christian keen to keep thinking deeply. The would would serve preachers as a great companion book for sermon preparation, to help apply theological concepts to everyday life.



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‘I’m Love By God’ or ‘I’m In Christ’ is a hopelessly incomplete answer to the question of identity

It's super common to hear Christians say that 'What defines us is being in Christ' or 'What really matters for our identity is being loved by God'.

We say it a lot because it's true. And because this is a central and interpreting factor in our identity. The problem comes when this idea is over-stated and over-preached so as to actually erase our identity.

The issue is, 'I am in Christ' does not fully tell me who I in particular am. It doesn't tell me my identity, so as to identify me in distinction from you, me or the the apostle Paul. Yes being in Christ is a fundamental part of who I am. But what makes me Mikey-Lynch-in-Christ as opposed to Don-Carson-in-Christ? What makes me Me-In-Particular?

And this is where we need to own that all our other particularties are indeed parts of our identity. We are, in a sense the sum total of our all generalities and distinctives. I am human. An Australian citizen. Some who sinned in these ways. Who was sinned against in those ways. Someone who has this patchwork of preferences of dislikes. A person who has been in these places and seen these things. I am someone who has these abilities and incapacities. All of these things go into making me me.

To deny these things play any part in my identity is not only oddly irrational, but also denies that all these things are also the work of God and of Christ. He is the creator. To be loved by God is to be loved as a particular creation he made and placed in a certain place in the time and space of his creation. 

So what does it mean to say that 'we are first of all loved by God', or 'the key thing that defines us is being in Christ'? What we properly mean is that these things are fundamental, central, defining and interpretive. I am MORE defined by being in Christ than by being in the lowest maths class. I am MORE defined by being loved by God than by being a sinner. Being a Christian is more important than being a member of my biological family.



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Different types of discrimination have different boundaries

Not all discriminations are bad. There are legitimate and justifiable and legal forms of discrimination. Then there are illegitimate, oppressive, unjustified forms. We have cultural expectations and even laws to prevent illegitimate disriminiation. 

However, the kinds of differences for which people might be discriminated against are different, and so the points at which discrimination is legitimate are also different. Here is a slightly editing list from the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act:

  • Age
  • Race
  • Sex
  • Irrelevant Medical Record
  • Gender Identity
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Sexual Practice
  • Relationship and Martial Status
  • Pregnancy and Breastfeeding
  • Religion Belief or Affiliation
  • Religious Practice
  • Political Belief or Affiliation
  • Political Activity
  • Disability
  • Association with Any of the Above

These are not all the same and so we should be careful in our thinking, laws, memes, rhetoric, preaching, moral outrage, Faceobooking etc from drawing total analogies between them. At the same time, it's worthwhile noting that there are some similarities: they are all things that someone could be unjustifiably excluded or criticised for. Many of them are things that are a significant part of a person's sense of self and experience of life.

 A bunch of reflections:

  • Everyone changes age, but it is much harder to see how a person can change race or disability.
  • There are legitimate contexts where one might legally discriminate based on these things:
    • age-based programs
    • certain restrictions for minors based upon age of consent
    • cultural groups for particularly ethnicities to preserve culture
    • religious and political groups for particular affiliations to further their cause
    • biological sex-restrictive groups/service and spaces for the particular issues relate to that sex
  • Some of these categories have more distinctives than others:
    • There are very few matters of significance that distinguish people of different races. And so there are very few justifiable grounds for discrimination.
    • There are some biological differences between the biological sexes that might allow for more forms of legitimate differentiation.
    • There are many ways that we can make more and more space for those with disabilities, but there are limits to this, and so at some point, there will be justifiable ground for discrimination. The category of irrelevant medical record recognises that there might be relevant health issues.
    • There are some significant developmental differences between age.
    • Relationship status, gender identity, sexual practice, religious belief and practice and political belief and practice are all in part exercises in human intellectual and moral choice.. As a result they are much more complex than inherited or acquired characteristics outside of our intellecutal and moral control.
  • Some forms of discrimination happen due to not making ways for people to be more fully involved — eg for disabilities or women having children or single people in a culture that is built around marriage couple and families. These are more 'sins of omission' rather than 'sins of commission'.
  • Affirmative action is a peculiar kind of positive disrimination to counteract historic negative discrimination and is a very complex minefield to be discussed another day
  • There is a distinction between religions affiliation and religious practice, just as there is between sexual orientation and sexual practice. It is possible for someone to identify as Anglican and never go to church, and likewise it is possible for someone to have a sexual orientation but not be (or want to be) sexually active.
  • We need to be careful about creating to simplistic a hierarchy of which things are foundational parts of someone's identity and which are incidental: is sexual orientation necesasrily more fundamental to a person's sense of self than their political affiliation? We must be careful to jump to conclusions on this.
  • On the other hand, it is possible that some of these things are a minute part of a person's sense of self. They are incidental to their identity and lived experience, and so their sense of frustration comes when they are excluded or discriminated against in some way that reduces them to this or that matter.


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Mirrors 10th November 2017

  1. A silly article about a silly argument against the existence of God.
  2. How do you philosophically justify your hobbies?
  3. "No Lutherans, Zwinglians, Calvinists or Anabaptists were harmed during the making of this episode." Carl Trueman being interviewed on First Things about The Reformation.
  4. The Pyramid of Clarity for organisational leadership.
  5. Carl Trueman’s reservations about The Nashville Statement from 43:15-50:50
  6. If you’ve not heard John Sikkema’s story, maybe you could tune into this free webinar? 


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What ‘We’ Have Gotten Wrong in Cultural Engagement… and Why It Wouldn’t Have Mattered

There's a lot of helpful stuff out there about how Christians and Christian organisations can interact more skillfully in a social setting where Christian ideas and institutions are not necessarily perceived as normal, acceptable and persuasive. Accepting this reality will stop Christians from coming across as rude, mean, oppressive or gospel-less. Becoming more thoughtful in this area might help us be more persuasive in general, and more distincitvely Christian.

I don't agree with everything that gets said on this topic. Sometimes the recommendations are bad. Sometimes they are overstated, reactionary, narrow, too morally and theologically soft.

But in this post there's two particulary things I want to touch on about this chatter. 

There's No Simple 'We'

The problem with some of this talk is that it speaks about a global Christian 'we': WE have done this that or the other. WE have failed in this or that way. Generalisations can of course be made. However generalisations are extremely clumsy tools for analysis. 

Generalisations also confuse and blur culpability and agency in all sorts of ways. The 'we' could be seen to be 'leading institutions'... or 'vocal Chrsitians in the media'... or 'patterns and tropes in preaching, book writing and Facebooking'. But these are not things that can easily be laid on the shoulders of the whole Christian community. Nor can they be easily fixed. Institutions have a stubborn and slow life of their own. Patterns of speaking and writing are perceived to endure and predominate even when they are in the minority or have been in decline for a long time. Vocal Christians in the media often don't fairly represent every other Christian.

Bold and universal declarations about what 'we' have done and what 'we' should do need to be toned done and balanced out.

It Wouldn't Have and Won't Matter Heaps Anyway

The strong implication in a lot of this talk is also that if 'we' had done things differently, then Chrsitian ideas and institutions would have been more persuasive or if 'we' do things differently now, we could in the future have a greater opporutnity to be persuasive.

There's some truth in this, for sure. But only some. 

Because the movement of culture ideas and practices are out of our control. The creates books and Chrisitans and culture— like those by Don Carson, Andy Crouch and James Davison Hunter— all point out that the larger the cultural artefact or grouping, the less we can control or predict its effects. 

So in the case of Christianity's acceptance and influence in the West: I very much doubt that a few thousand more tactful John Dicksons would have change things much. A larger cultural mood and trajectory was and has been happening, and our masterfu, gentle, nuanced and gospel-centred cultural engagement can only ever have a minimal effect on it.

What then?

What's my point then? What should be I do?

  • Keep praying and preaching and living the godly life. We are ultimately not just passengers on a historical or sociological journey... we are servants of God in his soverign rule over history.
  • Much of the thoughtfulness and tact is still good and right... even if it won't guarantee a different outcome. So keep working at interacting with our soceity on all its different levels with reflection, love and a desire to bring glory to Jesus.
  • I need to also cultivate virtues that will serve me in decline of influence and rise of hostility: forgiveness, contentment, courage, integrity, peace, prayerfulnes.
  • It's very likely that the future of Christianity will continue to be in the Global South and in the East. So rather than trying to 'win' amongst the secular west, we need to also play our part in investing in a healthy and rich and mature church among different cultural groups. We can share what we have learned, and hopefully protect the true emerging church (as opposed to the so-called 'Emerging Church Movement') from becoming reactionary, jingoistic, fundamentalist, theologically eccentric and so on.


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Mirrors 3rd November 2017

  1. @ArthurGDavis replies to my comments on his proposals for change to campus ministry 
  2. Final Pop-Up Blog Tour event for 2017 will be happening in Hobart on 21st November 
  3. Interesting podcast on the Reformation in this whole podcast, but last 4 minutes are intriguing: 1. Atheists must realise most people are religious and religion is a very powerful force   2. Islam is 600 years younger than Christianity, so it is going through its torments now 3. Islam doesn’t have the same distinction between church and state that Christianity has 4.  Don’t tell history in a bedtime story way, that reassures and whitewashes. History should disturb us
  4. The whole ‘generation’ thing is dumb. But I like the concept of Xennial. anyway 
  5. This event looks interesting: The Tasmanian Dilemma — Should I Stay Or Should I Go?
  6. What is slowing you down or making you mad that you should just replace?


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“Your Identity Is Valid”... surely not a blanket statement, right?

This poster has been buzzing around in various forms. A friend of mine saw this poster at UTAS recently:

Why 'Valid'?

'Valid' is an interesting choice of word. What does it mean in this context? Cogent? Coherent? Legally legitimate? I think I get what it is aiming to say: there are many identities that people can hold, that if someone holds it, they should be treated respectfully according to their expressed identity.

But 'valid' is an especially telling choice. For my identity to be respected and accepted in kindness... it must be legally validated in some way. A person cannot be received and loved unless they are affirmed and legitimised. It's not enough to have freedom to discover and/or define your identity: what you discover and define must be declared legitimate. It's not enough for me to respect your chosen identity, I need to legitimise it.

Does ANYONE Really Want to Say All Identities Are Valid?

Now I may not entirely agree with that as intended by the poster-maker, on their own terms and limitations, on transgender issues. But more: not even the poster-maker seriously believes this is a blanket statement, right? Does anyone really want to say that absolutely all identities are valid without exception?

 

— What of the extremely and destructively delusion identity: I am Satan?

— What of an identity of deep self-hatred: I am ugly, worthless and no one would ever love me?

—What of an immoral or self-destructive identity: sub-cultures around extreme eating disorders or extreme sexual practices?

— What of a conservative religious identity: I am not my experienced sexual and gender experiene, but am instead a child of God and should live according to God's norms as revealed in the scriptures of my religion, and not according to my experience/inclination?

We all outline certain boundaries around which identities are valid and which are not. I expect that the poster maker, and those sympathetic to its declaration would argue that such boundaries are obvious and commonsense and universally understood. But this is an assertion disguised as a fact. Manifestly this has changed dramatically in our culture over the last 100 years, and is different from culture to culture. It is not as intuitive as it might seem.

What Word Is Left to Describe Respect and Acceptance without Legitimising and Approving?

We need to work hard at treating people with dignity and respect, listening to what they saying, and accepting and acknowledging what they are going through. But part of loving other is to not entirely agree with and approve of their interpreation in all situations. The give and take of friendship, leadership, medical care and government is to respect individuals while also upholding other values and standards which may be considered unhealthy or immoral or untrue in some way.

I think we all know what this is like, when we are dealing with people whom we recognise to be severely and destructively psychologically disturbed or criminally inclined. We want to humanise the person and listen carefully to the person, while not accepting their current interpretation of their experiences.

But to use the example of the criminal or the mentally ill is painful and clumsy and ineffective. It sounds like millitant, hateful, fighting words... are you saying that X other group are therefore criminals? Is that what you're saying? How dare you...

So there is a gulf between this sub-category and everyone else. And no rational way to discuss whether something sits on one side of the gulf or the other. And no allowance that some of the realities that apply in the extreme cases, might apply in more subtle cases of psychological instability or immoral action.

We have lost words to describe this respectful treatment without agreement. For 'respect' and 'accept' and 'acknowledge' are now all loaded up with concepts of 'approve' and 'celebrate'. We need new words. It's tricky huh?



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Mirrors 7th October 2017

  1. This is a really great response to the issues around sensitivity and freedom of speech
  2. There was a delay getting a bunch of my sermon-lectures from this Semester up online, so here are 5 of them in our series on the history of Christianity:
    1. The radicals of church history
    2. The Crusades
    3. Didn’t The Early Church Invent Christianity?
    4. The Miserable Puritans?
    5. Colonialism and Missionaries
  3. Great to hear expert guests on this episode go hard against ideological attempts to legalise "sex work" 


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When a team grows to big to be everyone’s friend

Recently, the AFES Hobart staff team has grown outward and downward. I am direclty overseeing 5 staff, but there are 2 additional staff being overseen by our FOCUS team leader. Next year there will, God-willing be 2 MTS apprentices and another part-time staff in the mix.

What's been particularly different for me, is not particularly the number of people, but the layers: having staff one step removed from me, 'reporting' to someone else. I've been in that situation before with the FOCUS staff team, and it's always a bit different and a bit tricky. Why? Because I no longer have the same directly relational bond with the person one step removed.

This means that there is less affection and trust. It means that it is harder for us to be persuasive to each other in quite the same way, and easier for us to misunderstand, annoy or hurt each other. It's a little easier for them to not want to submit to my instructions and a little easier for me to be suspicious of a more distant team member.

Building relationship

Of course I need to go out of my way to invest in that relationship, being considerate, prayerful, interested. I aim to meet briefly, once a month with these staff, just to keep a point of connection.

It also makes the light chit chat when we cross paths, the interactions on email and SMS, and the time together in combined staff meetings all important. Time spent talking, chatting, reading the Bible and praying and eating corn chips is all important.

Letting go of the need to be liked

But at the same time, I need to make peace with the fact that part of growing the team, is moving away from needing a tight relational bond with everyone. I need to let go of that desire as well as the burden of guilt for not doing more. I need to be ok with the fact that I'm perceived as a bit more removed, and a bit more bossy and unapproachable or whatever. I need to not be driven by a need to be liked.

But I also need to make sure I lead in other ways which make up for the lack of close relationship.

Leading through vision, policy and character

I might no longer have the same relational pull, but I can possibly have an even stronger influence in setting a clear vision and set of priorities. Perhaps those team members closer to me might zone out when I set vision: they know who I am, and they are following me, not some vision statement. But those who are less close to me rely a bit more on a clear sense of what we stand for and where we're going.

Likewise, clear policies about expectations and freedoms and communication need to be spelled out and consistently applied. I need to not 'punish' team members for appealing to these policies, as if that somehow shows they are not Really On Board.

Crucial here is also my own character and conduct. In my speech, actions, consistency and integrity, I will need to strive to lead the whole team not based on my rapport with personalities, but instead based on alignment with our vision and fair application of our policies. My team needs me to be a just, merciful, faithful and kind leader, so that they don't miss out through favouritism or sloppiness.

Leading through other leaders

Laslty, I need to give responsibility to build team ownership and rapport to those staff who are leading other staff. They now have the job of providing relational glue. I need to teach and train and encourage them to invest in that, as this might be a new job that they have not consciously recognised.

I need to support their decisions, and allow them freedom to lead. Of course I need to hold them accountable to the vision, to our policies and to their own conduct. But I want to beware of undermining them. I also need to help their staff resolve issues with their immediate team leaders wherever possible, rather than relying on me always stepping in.

 And finally, I need to ask for a greater degree of communication from these team leaders, I want them to report to me not only on their own work, but also on the progress of the whole team.



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Mirrors 22nd September 2017

  1. Sandy Grant's lecture on Same Sex Marriage
  2. Lol!... but also an admission of a failure to listen.
  3. A conservative Roman Catholic discussion of Game Of Thrones with more substance than suspiciously Freudian tut-tutting 
  4. Survey finds even atheists consider fellow atheists less moral. 
  5. Why is the Knights Templar? 
  6. Haven’t followed Jordan Peterson before. Seems like an interesting character


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We need a Venn Diagram for family, home, marriage and legal significant other

I've already blogged on this before here.

Family is a powerful value-word. It features in discussions about 'normal' and 'non-traditional' families—are they all equally 'family' and are they equal in every way? But it also features in church contexts: where we (over)load the spiritual family of the church with all sorts of expectations, measures and ideals. Inded the idea even spills over into corporate and nationalistic settings.

What happens with a lot of our discussion is that a series of words, often with several different meanings and overtones for the same word, all get blurred together. So that we have far too much fuzziness in our thinking about how the following are the same and different, or necessarily required by each other:

  • Family—blood relations and natural children.
  • Legal family—legally incorporating others into your family through marriage and adoption.
  • Home—a group of people who accept, care and live together with a range of pledges of loyalty to each other and the permanency of that home.
  • Legal significant other—be the person who has significant legal rights in relation to another.
  • Marriage—union to express sexual love, start a family (both as a union and through having children), found a home and be the lifelong legal significant other.

But these aren't all the same, and don't necessarily all go together:

  • The church is a metaphorical 'family' in a way that doesn't over-rule our blood relationships or potential sexual attractions.
  • A spouse is not family in quite the same way that a brother is. How much more a mother-in-law. 
  • An adopted child is not family in quite the same way that either a spouse or a natural child is. 
  • An immediate blood family, or even a marriage union sadly doesn't always found a stable home.
  • An adult child is not bound to the home of their birth family in quite the same way that the husband and wife are.
  • Different cultures and individual families include a smaller or larger circle of blood relatives into their home.
  • A marriage might not always successful in giving birth to children.
  • I might choose to make someone other than my blood relatives or spouse my significant other for all sorts of various reasons.

But what is striking is that 'family' and 'marriage' carries with it an expectation of permanence and obligation on some level. A very serious act of 'disowning' or 'divorcing' needs to be done to completely break a family or marriage bond in a way that few other social ties require.



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Mirrors 15th September 2017

  1. Does Christianity Oppose Reason? My recent sermon/lecture at Uni Fellowship of Christians.
  2. What can we learn from the Puritans? by Sinclair Ferguson 
  3. If Catholics tended to emphasise procreation & Lutherans preventing immorality, Puritans emphasised companionship
  4. My sermons from the Launceston Men’s Bible Conference. The 3rd one should be called “What’s God’s Plan for My Life?” 
  5. A very helpful series on bullying among church staff. (Part 2) (Part 3) (Part 4)


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Mirrors 25th August 2017

  1. Have You Found Truth? my first sermon from the @CBS_UNSW mission last week 
  2. How do you talk about answers to prayer in an evangelistic sermon? My 2nd sermon from @CBS_UNSW mission
  3. This post misleadingly implies Xn ethics is just a matter of ‘opinion’, rather than grounded in the Bible text. But it is also revealing of the authority for author’s own ethics: ‘My experience says otherwise’.
  4. Women’s, black, queer studies—you name the sub-group & it'll have an academic discipline devoted to it. This is not to say that many of these topics do not touch on legitimate objects of study. This partitioning of the humanities is significant, b/c it reflects & reinforces the divisions in which everything is now political. It puts students in silos where they're not inconvenienced by the need to listen (as opposed to critique & dismiss) alternative opinions. Carl Trueman on American university administrators.
  5. Tim Keller and Michael Keller on campus ministry. Check out the link at the end of the article to Parts 2–4 of the same series.


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Levels of agreement with fellow Christians on political matters

It's tricky when Christians speak up in public, especially if they experience opposition... because I want to stand side by side with my fellow believers. My instinct is to stand with them, even if I don't fully agree with them, rather than throw them under the bus for not saying things quite the way I would. But then again, I often DON'T agree with what they are saying or how they are saying it.

So I try to filter the different levels of agreement and disagreement I might have with fellow believers. This helps me in my thinking and my explaining. And allows me to stand with my brothers and sisters without compromising my own convictions on secondary matters:

  1. Spiritually, I agree with my brothers and sisters in Christ on our faith in Christ. I can accept someone as a fellow believer, even if I disagree with them quite strongly on their actions and opinions in other ways.
  2. Ethically, I usually agree with them on the moral principals in God's Word. There are some points where fellow Christians may see something as a black and white moral issue, but I perceive it to be an area of conscience and wisdom. This is especially the case when we are extrapolating from the explicit words of Scripture.
  3. When it comes to political theory, we might disagree on the best form of government. Of course some believers are very strongly convinced that a small government free market democratic approach to politics is grounded in the Bible, so that it is really a matter of ethics. But then again others have a higher view of monarchy or socialism. Personally I am not convinced by those who advocate fiercely for one politicl theory as necesarily Christian.
  4. Even if I DO agree broadly with the political theory of my fellow believer, we may not agree on a particular public policy. Public policies are almost always the combination of ethical principles and practical considerations. This means that we might dial in our ethical ideals at various points. Almost always public policies will have positive and harmful direct and indirect effects. This leads to a range of different possible views amongst Christians.
  5. Which priority we give to various ethical and policy issues is a matter of strategic agreement. Our reading of what the burning issue of the moment is, and what is the gateway issue, or front line of battle is influenced by many complex factors. As a result we may differ on this reading, and differ on our person sense of responsibility to rally to a particular issue.
  6. This then leads on to the particular part we see ourselves as playing in the broader public discusission. This is a matter of role agreement. Often Christians speak about 'What WE should be emphasising right now', as if there is only one possible conversation that can be had at any one time. This is a very simplistic way of looking at things: a narrowly public relations journalistic/political view. The reality is that there are a range of different roles and perspectives and levels of conversation that all going on concurrently and in a complementary manner. For example, a lobbyist speaks more bluntly and polemically than a social worker.
  7. I may agree with a fellow believer on all of the above maters, but not like the way they say things. There is a matter of rhetorical agreement: "You're not WRONG... you're just being RUDE" might be our thought.

It's tricky isn't it? And what's especially tricky is when the critic of Christianity OR the zealous Christian activist blurs these all together:

"If you stand for the gospel, you will hold to these ethical issues, which means you will have this political outlook, agree with these public policies, and their current importance and so you will speak for them in this particular way"

Hardly.



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Should Christian Unions Be More Holistic in Engaging with the University?

Arthur Davis sent me a link to a really intriguing article he wrote about the future of campus ministry, that we then read as a staff meeting here in Hobart.

It spells out ways that we can round out our campus ministries to be more effective in all four of the following modes:

1. Evangelism

2. Piety

3. Apologetics and

4. Dialgoue

Historically here in Australia, Arthur says, we are strong on the first three, but not so much on the fourth—unless it is a debate or a ‘dialogue meeting’, where the focus remains maining apologetics and evangelism. He is pushing in this article for us to think more about how we can genuinely contrbute to the life of the university, not merely as outsider missionaries coming in to train and to preach, but as citizens of the community, seeking to enrich the whole academic endeavour and formation of university students.

Arthur sees the ministry of the Simeon Network in Australia, connecting Christian academics to think deeply about how their faith informs their research as an example of this.

What I like

I like the desire for holism. Evangelism should be more than the thin, fundamentalist type of preaching. Discipleship should be more than being accountable about pornography use and daily quiet times. Training should be more than how to share you faith and run a Bible study.

I also agree that we want Christian groups that exist as part of the larger university community and are good and engaged citizens of that community. This is why I favour Christian Unions over uni churches doing evangelism to uni students. A Christian Union is able to be more deliberately and demonstrably committed to the university. They exist for the sake of the uni, whereas uni churches can sometimes seem to have a slightly more mercenary relationship: we are merely coming on to campus to save souls and scoop up potential congregation members.

I like the outlook that sees graduates as a third part of campus ministry. Graduates from Chrsitian Unions should not simply be seen as a recruiting ground for apprenticeships and a support raising base. Christian Unions are well positioned to keep investing at that high university-educated level into the gradutes from the ministry as they go into their working lives. Even if we can't do heaps in this area, it seems fitting that we should do something... or work closely with groups like City Bible Forum and Simeon Network who can pick up where we left off.

What I’m cautious about

1. There is a limiation to how many events and programs we can run: the reality is, there are only so many events we can fit into our calendar, only so many things we can organise, promote, run, and follow up. Given the limited time and energy we have, I am convinced that the main focus for Christian groups should be evangelism and leadership training, rather than holistic worldview interaction. It’s not that we shouldn’t seek to do this, but just that it can’t be our main emphasis.

2. You don’t need a new event, program or publication for every distinct thing: the lazy way to fix a perceived lack is to start something new—a new conference, event or website that will focus on the lacking area. And so it might seem like the positive response to Arthur’s article is to start new events that facilitate more of the dialogic engagemenet with the university. And the risk is that this takes too much time and energy to be sustainable.

However there are two other solutions which I try to work out in our local ministry and which are more efficient:

a) Weave holistic integration into the existing programs: Chrsitian Union meetings, missions, debates and dinners are all contributions to the life of the university. They are all para-univeristy structures, just like the Philosophy Club or the Alumi Keynote or the Residential College Tutorial Program. The best Christian Union evangelism and discipleship is academically deep and stimulating and so ticks all 4 boxes.

b) Encourage Christians to engage with the structures of the university itself: we don’t need new programs, new lectures, new publications. We can keep encouraging journalist students to be invovled with the student newspaper, politics students to weigh into student politics, high achievers to engage in various Dean’s List programs, residential students to connect with that community.

3. There is a limitation to how open Australian academics are to new networks: I am also delighted to see the growth of the Simeon Network, and hopeful that it will go from strength to strength. But my limited experience of interacting with Chrsitian academics, as well as the bits and pieces I hear from other campus pastors, is that they don’t all have the energy of inclination to invest in a new program.

These are busy people with lots of commitments. And some of them go to thoughtful churches that serve them well in their efforts to integrate their research with their faith. They are engaged in ministry through their local church or other networks they are engaged in. Not all academics are necessarily interested in taking on a new commitment to meet, write and present to a Christian academic forum, nor to mentor young Christians in their field.

Perhaps in places like Tanzania, where Arthur is, where there are a higher percentage of Christians in the universities faculties, there will be larger numbers overall that make this kind of stuff bigger and more vibrant. But as with other cautions in this post, I don’t want to tie holistic Christianity to ‘programs, events and publications committed to holistic Christianity’.

4. Participation and Dialogue is Massively Time Consuming and Minimally Effective

In so many areas, it is true that more time talking, listening, eating and laughing woudl build connection and respect and understanding. This is true for families, staff teams, neighbourhoods, members of different political factions, staff and students, different nationalities, different religious groups. We could spend all our free time building rapport and connecting and understanding. It’s a nice idea. But it doesn’t in the end achieve much. And it takes heaps of time and resources to organise. It’s idealistic and after a while, exhausting.

Surely there’s a better way? Surely we can weave a stance of relationship building into productive activities. Can we take the time to listen and connect and love as we go about our business?

  • Rather than set up staff-and-student morning teas, take the time to chit chat before and after class?
  • Rather than set up getting-to-know-you meetings with other student societies, go and talk to them when they have stalls set up around the campus, and be friendly with those posted near you at O Week markets.
  • Rather than hosting inter-religious dialogues, ask for their input when you are going to prepare teaching and training on topics related to their beliefs, or listen to members of those religions when they attend your events.


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Mirrors 11th August 2017

You know what? I don't think I've done a Mirrors roundup post for 2 months! Sorry about that!

  1. Josh "I Kissed Dating Goodbye" Harris is doing a documentary on what went wrong with this book and its effects.
  2. The Da Vinci Code, Feminist theology, art history and Opus Dei: 3 fun lectures from University of Calgary
  3. As a matter of fact this University of Calgary Centre for Christian Thought has heaps of great stuff
  4. "Big shoutout to Tom Pugh" for giving Stephen McAlpine's blog a makeover.
  5. I don't agree w/ Moody's (or even author Atwood's) reading of the story. It's best as a critique of the Taliban IMO. 
  6. This article sees the connections between the Handmaid's Tale and Saudi Arabia.
  7. I  don’t 100% agree with everything here but I like @nm_campbell’s dismantling of the wacky end of anti-ABC sentiment
  8. Key to being President of the USA? George Dubya says 'humility'. Great convo between Clinton and Bush Jnr.
  9. Super helpful series of articles on how to make the church safer for victims of domestic and family violence
  10. I listened to this a bit getting in the zone for @CBS_NSW mission Have You Found Truth? I acutally spoke at this week.
  11. New series of @HomecomingShow by @Gimletmedia off to an amazing start!!! Nice to hear Colin getting a taste of his own medicine...
  12. Church order, persecution, heresy and mission. my first sermon-lecture in our Origins: History of Christianity series.
  13. Deeeep thoughts on both Harry Potter and the iPhone. When Mohler is good, he's really good.


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Learning How and Why Well Meaning People Get Things Wrong

The Julia Baird article and susequent discussions about Domestic Violence and how they can manifest in Christian relationships and poorly dealth with in Christian circles has been a distressing but welcome thing. It shows how the Bible can be twisted and misunderstood and so it helps us think more carefully how we explain and apply the Bible. It also shows how people can be listened to poorly and given extremely bad advice. And these failures can have disastrous effects.

A difficulty I have in reading about these things is that I can’t easily see myself or my church communities in the descriptions. I am told that it happens and that churches are often doing a bad job in this area… but I sometimes struggle to see how it ends up happening and how churches do a bad job in a way that I can easily relate to and improve on.

This is where I have found it super helpful to hear the ways in which friends, family and church leaders get things wrong. It is really enlightening and troubling to hear what they thought they were doing and why they got things so wrong, even when they meant well. Then I see how I could make the exact same mistakes. As long as I think church leaders "Out There" are heartless sexists who are somehow eager to promote domestic violence, I won’t know if there’s anything I can do better. Becuase if I sincerely seek to be compassionate, respectful of women and if I am eager to stop domestic violence. It remains a problem for someone else Out There, not for me.

But I have found it eye-opening to hear what kinds of misunderstandings can lead even very well-intentioned family, friends and church leaders to give terrible advice and accidentally protect abusers and make victims feel unsupported, trapped and even blamed.

Some of the things I am learning:

  • It is so important to understand how charming and persuasive abusers can appear to those outside of the privacy of the family home. There might be other tell-tale signs of the possibility of abuse, but they are subtle unless we know what to look for.
  • The abuse can make the victim unsure of themselves, and so we might not perceive them to be reliable. In fact the abusive partner may even do things to enhance this perception.
  • The victim might have doubts about whether or not they are being abused, and worried about whether they’ll be believed, and so they might actually downlplay the severity of the problem.
  • A vicitm of abuse is often isolated by their partner, and so the kind of continuity of contact that we normally rely on to build trust and facilitate support and counselling might be lacking. We might need to be more proactive than we are used to being.
  • The way we teach in putblic and talk and counsel in informal settings can easily be misheard. Things we might mean in a ‘softer’ way, may have a ‘harder’ meaning within the rhetoric of abuse.

In part this underscores the fact that we need to hear many different types of stories: both the stories of victims and the stories of those who have failed to support victims and are honestly repenting and seeking to do better.



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Odd chapter and verse divisions in the Bible: I wish this WAS how it happened

[Stephanus’] fourth edition (1551) is possibly even more significant as it is the first edition of the Greek New Testament that divides the text into verses. Until then, the text has been printed all toegether, with no indication of verse division. There’s an amusing anecdote associated with how Stephanus did his work for this edition. His son later reported that Stephanus had decided on hius verse divisions (most of which are retained for us in our English translations) while making a journey on horseback. Undoubtedly he meant that his father was ‘working on the road’—that is, that he entered verse numbers in the evenings at the inns in which he was staying. But since his son literally says that Stephanus made these changes ‘while on horseback’, some wry observers have suggested that he actually did his work in transit, so that whenever his horse hit an unexpected bump, Stephanus’s pen jumped, accounting for some rather odd verse placements that we still find in our English translations of the New Testament

Bart Ehrmann, isquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York: HarperOne, 2005), 80.



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The evolution of Modern Islamic views on The Crusades

I've been reading The New Concise History of the Crusades (Lanham: Roman and Littlefield, 2006) by modern mediaeval expert Thomas F. Madden. It's a very readable, popular-level book, drawing on his expertise in this area.

His final chapter and conclusion are fascinating, how the remembering and retelling of history changes over time... and in the process distorts history.

For a long time the Western world saw the Crusades and a good thing

Until the last 70 years or so, much of the reflection of the Crusades was positive. It was a noble and glorious cause. As a result, 'crusade' had the overtones of a "grand and glorious campaign for a morally just goal" (215).

Bringing civilisation through the process of colonialisation and the Great War were both portrayed as glorious Crusades. In fact the the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after Wolrd War I was seen as the final chapter of the Crusades.

The Western, anti-religious and anti-colonial revisions of the Crusades

From the Enlightenment into the 19th Century, the Crusades began to be seen by some intellectuals as a horrible example of senseless, intolerant religious war. Saladin was portrayed as a wonderfully chivalrous leader whose sophisticated civilisation was brutalised by the Crusaders. 

Marxism likewise provided a new lense through which to examine the Crusades: they were simply an early, imperialistic land-grab.

The historical evidence, as weighed by Madden, do not justify either of these secularist readings of the motivations of the Crusaders or the cultural realities of the Crusades. They are more anachronistic re-readings than accurate, contextual explanations.

The Crusades were not an important thing for the Muslim world until the 19th and 20th centuries

The simple fact is that the crusades were virtually unknown in the Muslim world even a century ago.... Westerners may be surprised to learn that Muslims int he Middle East have only recently learned of the crusades.... It must be remembered that although the crusades were of momumental important to Europeans, they were a very minor, largely insignificant thin to the Muslim world. (217–218)

It seems that knowledge of the Crusades was introduced to the Middle East by colonialism, to show how Western imperialism was a good thing for the Middle East... and that kind of backfired :-P

Once the Western world began to critique colonialism and revise and critique the history of the Crusades in the second half of the 20th Century:


 Arab nationalists and Islamists agreed fully with this interpretation of the crusades. Poverty, corruption and violence in the Middle East were said to be the lingering effects of the crusades and subsequent European imperialism. The Muslim world had failed to keep up with the West because it had been dealt a debilitating blow by the crusaders, a blow that was repeated by their European descendents in the nineteenth century. (220)

 

The reality of the Crusades vs the modern re-tellings

But Madden asserts that this just does not reflect the historical reality:

Scholars have long argued that the crusades had no beneficial effect on Europe's economy. Indeed, they constituted a massive drain on resources. The rise of population and wealth in Europe predated the crusades, indeed allowed them to happen at all. Rather than decadent or 'assaulted on all sides' the Muslim world was growing to ever new heights of power and prosperity after the destruction of the crusader states in 1291. It was the Muslim world, under the rule of the Ottoman sultans, that would invade western Europe, seriousyl threatening the survival of the last remnant of Christendom. The crusades contributed nothing to the decline of the Muslim world. Indeed, they are evidence of the decline of the Christian West, which was forced to mount these desparate expeditions to defend against ever expanding Muslim empires. (221–222)

And in reflection on the use of the Crusades in some modern Muslim rhetoric:

It is not the crusades, then, that led to the attacked of September 11, but the artificial memory of the crusades constructed by modern colonial powers and passed down by Arab nationalists and Islamists. They stripped the medieval expeditions of every aspect of their age and dressed them up instead in the tattered rags of nineteenth-century imperialism. As such, they have become an icon for modern agendas that medieval Christians and Muslims could scarcely have understood, let alone condoned. (222)



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The ‘literary and linguistic miracle’ of the Qur’an?

I attended a Christian-Muslim debate last night at UTAS last night between Samuel Green and Sheikh Wesam Charkawi. The Sheikh made much of the literary and linguistic miracle of the Qur'an.

I was left pondering how one could really falsify this assertion. The Sheikh didn't really give objective measures by which one could assess whether or not the Qur'an's 'perfection' had been matched or not.

And as soon as such measures were articulated, surely then matching the Qur'an's perfection becomes a matter of colour-by-numbers.

So either the assertion is unfalsifiable... or false.

One of his proofs was a quote from E. H. Palmer's introduction to the Qur'an:

"That the best of Arab writers has never succeeded in producing anything equal in merit to the Qur′ân itself is not surprising."

Although the quote in context actually makes a similar point to my post:

"That the best of Arab writers has never succeeded in producing anything equal in merit to the Qur′ân itself is not surprising. In the first place, they have agreed beforehand that it is unapproachable, and they have adopted its style as the perfect standard; any deviation from it therefore must of necessity be a defect. Again, with them this style is not spontaneous as with Mohammed and his contemporaries, but is as artificial as though Englishmen should still continue to follow Chaucer as their model, in spite of the changes which their language has undergone. With the prophet the style was natural, and the words were those used in every-day ordinary life, while with the later Arabic authors the style is imitative and the ancient words are introduced as a literary embellishment. The natural consequence is that their attempts look laboured and unreal by the side of his impromptu and forcible eloquence."



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Constantine Christianity Conspiracy: amazing how little evidence there really is

We are doing a series on the history of Christianity at the UTAS Christian Union. As much as time and energy allows, I am trying to engage with some primary sources, rather than just Wikipedia pages and general 'introduction to church history' texts.

At our first 'Citywide Gathering' we did the topic 'Did the Early Church Invent Christianity?'. As a part of that I read a bunch of theories claiming that Constantine basically created Christianity as we know it today in 325AD, suppressing the more diverse and pagan Christian spiritualities of the previous centuries and burning their texts en masse.

So I read every extant primary source related to the Council of Nicaea. And was bowled over just how little evidence there is for these theories. At all. For theories that are so widely reported and repeated in various ways, there is basically nothing at all. It's all an exercise in speculative reading between the lines. It genuinely is a paranoid conspiracy theory of the 'the 1969 moon landing never happened' or 'the American government did 9/11' or 'the world is ruled by Illuminati lizard men' variety.

I mean Constantine didn't really even get the theological issues at stake. He tried to get both sides of the Arian Controversy to kiss and make up and just stop talking about it. And even after Nicaea he kinda changed his mind and started supporting the Arians more than the Nicaeans.

Amazing.

There are some objections to Christianity that really tie us in knots a bit. This isn't one of them.



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Millennial Missionaries: selfish and superficial? Or sacrificial with better haircuts?

Have you seen this yet? It's pretty funny:

 


And no doubt there is that strand of self-absorbed and materialistic millennial attitude and behaviour. What is especially powerful about this video is how it cunningly exposes the power of buzz words to manipulate and justify our actions. As long as you string together the right God-words you can mask the most repulsive wordliness. I've seen this not just among the young and trendy, but also among the pompous traditionalists.

BUT. I also feel uneasy about this video  It's funny... but I could imagine this is how an older missionary perceives many millennials... when it's really a matter of much more superficial differences: 

  • A millennial might dress more stylishly. Their clothes may not cost more than the missionary of a previous generation... and yet the older missionary is suspicious.
  • A millennial might take the time to appreciate and enjoy the environment they find themselves in, in good conscience... where the older missionary mainly talks about missing vegemite.
  • A millennial might talk about their feelings, pleasures and preferences in good conscience... where the older missionary thinks it's more discreet to not mention such things.
  • A millennial might question, challenge and reject pointlessly burdensome patterns of missionary behaviour and expectation that don't serve the cause of the gospel, but have just become normal. 


But the millennial missionary may well work just as hard, sacrifice just as much. What seems like cutting and penetrating critique, might just be resentment and predjudice.

I have often heard sneering and judgmental comments about 'trendy urban church planters with their lattes'. And knowing many hardworking and pious urban church planters in our Australian cities, this really does indeed betray exactly this kind of very shallow judgmentalism. Anyone who fancies that urban church planting is comfortable hasn't tried it. But sure, the coffee is better.



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Applying 1Corinthians 11:2–16 in the 16th century

Two interesting sections from John Calvin's commentary on 1Corinthians:

Regarding the covering of the head:

 Let us, however, bear in mind, that in this matter the error is merely in so far as decorum is violated, and the distinction of rank which God has established, is broken in upon. For we must not be so scrupulous as to look upon it as a criminal thing for a teacher to have a cap on his head, when addressing the people from the pulpit. Paul means nothing more than this — that it should appear that the man has authority, and that the woman is under subjection, and this is secured when the man uncovers his head in the view of the Church, though he should afterwards put on his cap again from fear of catching cold. In fine, the one rule to be observed here is το πρέπον — decorum If that is secured, Paul requires nothing farther.

Regarding verses 14–15:

"Doth not even nature itself..." He again sets forth nature as the mistress of decorum, and what was at that time in common use by universal consent and custom — even among the Greeks — he speaks of as being natural, for it was not always reckoned a disgrace for men to have long hair.  Historical records bear, that in all countries in ancient times, that is, in the first ages, men wore long hair. Hence also the poets, in speaking of the ancients, are accustomed to apply to them the common epithet of unshorn. It was not until a late period that barbers began to be employed at Rome — about the time of Africanus the elder. And at the time when Paul wrote these things, the practice of having the hair shorn had not yet come into use in the provinces of Gaul or in Germany. Nay more, it would have been reckoned an unseemly thing for men, no less than for women, to be shorn or shaven; but as in Greece it was reckoned all unbecoming thing for a man to allow his hair to grow long, so that those who did so were remarked as effeminate, he reckons as nature a custom that had come to be confirmed. 



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What should I call my book?

I'm about to submit a manuscript to Matthias Media, which God-willing they will publish. The working title has been 'Living Well', but I'd like to give them some ideas for a title and sub-title that is a little bit more explanatory and a lot more catchy. As you can see below, I haven't really advanced much further with my brainstorm. Can you help?

If your suggestion, or something very much like it, ends up getting used I'll send you a free copy of the book :-)

What's my book about? It is an ethics book exploring the topic:

  • How we hold together theologically the ideas of living well in God's good but fallen creation, with the commands to die to self and sacrifice for the sake of the gospel in these last days. 
  • It is also an exposition of Christian freedom as the framework that helps us make different decisions about how we might sacrifice good things for the cause of Christ.

Main title ideas

  • Living Well at the End of the World
  • Living Well While Dying for Christ
  • The Good Life of Dying for Christ
  • Live for the Kingdom
  • Joyful Sacrifice
  • Single Minded in a Complex World

Subtitle ideas

  • Living well in God’s world and making decisions in the last days
  • How do we live zealously for the kingdom while loving people and enjoying God’s creation?
  • Why it's really good and we're actually free to sacrifice for the sake of Christ

Some random words and ideas

  • Simple vs Complicated
  • Really Good Because it’s Really Real
  • Burnout vs Sellout 
  • Worldly
  • Wartime, lifeboats, cure
  • Sacrifice
  • Urgent
  • “Even Soldiers Get Icecreams Sometimes”


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Mirrors 9th June 2016

  1. "It's not life hacking [to get just get a Solution] but hacking being human." A very emotional and personal episode of the Startup Podcast about a startup founder juggling work and parenting.
  2. Reflecting on complementarianism and domestic violence.
  3. I try to squeeze a little bit of God into my rollerblading podcast occasionally. Listen at 6:13–7:15  for an example.
  4. A Gospel Coalition Australia article on Sgt. Peppers
  5. A far superior (but still critical) article on the perceived imbalances in Equip 2017 than the one in Eternity.
  6. Your church needs to be less stable
  7. Some tips on a welcoming mind-set and welcoming habits for a welcoming church.


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Gender differences, the Bible, the church, preaching, cultural forms and the workplace

There has been some heated discussion in response to a sermon by Carmelina Reid and a video segment at the recent Equip Women's Conference in Sydney. Two big points of contention were 1) the relevance of 1Corinthians 11 to appropriate Christian women's hair length today and 2) whether the Bible teaching about Eve being created to be a 'helper' to Adam should somehow affect the way women conduct themselves in the workplace. Seeing some of the reactions on Facebook, it seems to me that quite a few issues are raised here, that are worth exploring:

  1. We need to be careful, in a reaction against particular Bible teacher, that we aren't reacting against the Bible itself... or endorsing a unteachable heart in response to the Bible itself. In some of the reactions to the 1Corinthians 11 exposition, it seemed hard to distinguish how much people were reacting to the apostle Paul himself, and how much to Carmelina's exposition of his teaching. In a sense, the fact that God HAD said that hair length was at one time an appropriate expression of godliness should measure our reaction to what it may or may not mean for us today. For others some of the reaction, I suspect, would encourage a removed attitude to the Bible: if I don't like the sound of what it says, I should feed that intuitive reaction, rather than suspend it to be open to being changed by God's word.
  2. Love for our brothers and sisters in Christ should be preserved wherever possible when we disagree. This is hard when we strongly, emotionally disagree with someone else, especially when they are in a position of power or influence and we feel judged or rejected by them. There's nothing wrong with disagreeing strongly with each other. But something goes wrong if we drift quickly into a stance of anger, condescension, sneering and mockery. There might be points where we disagree so significantly that we cannot find a way to speak about the beliefs and teaching of others without being stern or satirical in the way we describe their views. But we need to be slow to get there.
  3. It is honest and respectful to acknowledge those secondary (and beyond) things where Christians differ. It's right to recognise that there are some points of doctrine and some passages of Scripture that Christians disagree on. This is a gesture of love to our brothers and sisters, recognising that they exist and their convictions are sincere and are that they are still loved in Christ. This is also an admission of humility too: we might be the one who is wrong! It is a helpful signpost to the fact that we might possibly be approaching an area of biblical teaching that is less clear. The amount of acknowledging we do differs depending on the context we are in: a local church, a conference for a parachurch with a tight doctrinal basis or a broader non-denominational event.
  4. We need to preserve confidence in clarity meaningfulness of the Bible and the importance of doctrine. When it comes to these passages we need to be clear whether these points of disagreement are of primary, secondary or tertiary (or further down the list) importance. Saying that something is of tertiary importance doesn't mean it doesn't matter, and doesn't have consequences, but it does mean that it is not fundamental to genuine Christian belief. And admitting that genuine Christians disagree does not mean that Scripture is without meaning, or that this meaning might not be grasped more clearly. We need to accept fellow believers with whom we differ, but that is not the same as somehow celebrating that different doctrinal convictions are equally good. And we need to recognise when we come to points where Christians might differ, while still having confidence to make a strong case for our understanding of the text.
  5. Public preaching and teaching needs to be clear on how it relates to official instruction. Whether teaching in a church gathering or an inter-denominational conference, the public teachers need to give some thought to what relationship their teaching has to the official position of the church or parachurch. In some contexts, I might not comment on something like the baptism of infants in depth because of the interdenominational platform—the teaching would be different in a local church.
  6. Preachers and listeners need to be aware of the nature and limitations of public preaching and teaching. Public teaching necessarily will be incomplete and imbalanced in some way. We can't say absolutely everything in a way that will be fairly heard by every possible person. In fact in order to be persausive and clear we may even deliberate be incomplete and imbalanced so that one truth might cut through. Recognising this risk, however, should make preachers aware of the need for care and nuance, to limit unnecessary trouble. But those of us who are listening to preaching need to work on careful and nuanced hearing. We need to strive to travel with the teacher, strive to grasp what they are trying to say, however imperfectly. We need to do some work in filling in the discliamers and balancing ideas. Rather than reacting to what we think we've heard, we should first ask what they thought they were saying.
  7. Cultural expression is a secondary, but still significant concern for biblical ethics. God looks at the heart, not merely the outward appearance. But this doesn't mean that cultural expression is irrelevant to Christian ethics. We communicate things through cultural and we live together in culture, unavoidably. We have to figure out how to love with the externals of words and actions and dress. Whatever we might think about the appropriate application of 1Corinthians 11 today, clearly the text is saying that some kind of cultural expression (head coverings and hair) is important on some level for Christian conduct.
  8. Appropriate cultural expression becomes harder in diverse communities with little agreed upon shared cultural norms. This challenge in applying 1Corinthians 11, or other biblical teachings that are connected with cultural expression, is that we live in a very diverse cultural context. More than that, we live in a cultural context that has increasingly resisted any kind of shared, civic culture. There are very few things that we agree upon as a kind of mediating 'lingua franca' for cultural behaviour. As a result, we must be much more open in our encouragements to culturally appropriate behaviour. Not only should we say 'this might mean this is the godly way to behave' but we need to also affirm 'but also it might not be this at all, but something else'.
  9.  More clarity would be helpful among complementarians, about the difference between biblical commands about gender difference and general inclinations and cultural norms arising from gender differences. It is important to observe that the explicit Bible teaching on gender roles is applied to marriage and the official teaching leadership of the local church. Because of this, many insist that we must restrict application of these principles to these contexts only: not to any other area of Christian ministry, let alone broader men-women relationships or secular work patterns. I largely agree with this. However, the danger with this approach is to make these instructions fairly arbitrary, and disconnected from anything in the created nature of men and women. So I have sympathy for those complementarians who want to explore how the Bible's teaching on the differences between men and women affect other areas of life: we don't stop being men and women when we step outside of the church. The problem comes, I believe, when these more global applications become commands (or very strong encouragements). If, as the Bible teaches, men and women are different and were created to be different, we might expect there to be generalisations about what many women are like and what many men are like. We might expect there to be behaviours that can be described as more 'masculine' and 'feminine', more 'paternal' and more 'maternal'. This in itself is fine. But to say that all men must be masculine and paternal (or that all women must be feminine and maternal) according to a narrow pattern, is going too far. We can recognise these tendencies and the underlying gender differences that might feed into them, without mandating them. We should still make space for men to be more feminine and maternal and women to be more masculine and paternal, without passing judgement.
  10. Nothing much constructive comes from discussing whether 'feminism' is good or not. As a term it now gets used in so many ways, to describe so many different ideas that sometimes contradict each other. It is no longer possible to say in a simple way that 'feminism is good' or 'feminism is bad'. Which feminism? Which bits? For those who want to critique feminism, it seems to me that it is no longer effective or persuasive to make blanket statements about 'feminism'. By all means critique particular feminist thinkers or particular branches of feminism. But to make global statements about 'feminism' is unconstructive, it seems to me. Likewise, to insist that everyone must adopt the label 'feminist' in order to be a good person is an odd linguistic legalism.
  11. Save the outrage for when it's really needed. If everything is outrageous, nothing is outrageous. If everything is outrageous, nothing is good. Perhaps if the sermon and video content from Equip made strong, unequivocal negative statements like "You cannot ever be a godly Christian and have short hair" or "Christian women only work in the secular workplace to make men shine and nothing more", this might be different. But if someone simply arrives at different conclusions to you, within the realms of Christian orthodoxy, and expresses them in an unnuanced way: is this worthy of outrage? Of walking out in protest? Of publishing a critique not merely on a personal blog or Facebook Page, but in a public newspaper, that itself is watched by the wider media? We live in a culture that escalates very quickly, when hot topics come up. It would be a peculiar honour to us Christians in this particular social context if we were quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. Be dismayed, confused, annoyed, critical. But resist the urge of outrage unless really neeed.


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Liberty of conscience means slightly different things in the Bible and in political theory

As I was trying to write about Christian freedom for the book I'm working on, I began to get that slippery/fuzzy feeling in my head, that something wasn't quite right. Often this feeling comes when I am conflating ideas. And in this case I think I was.

Christian liberty in the Bible: free from human rules, answerable only to God

You see, in the Bible, and confessions like the Westminster Confession of Faith, Christian "liberty of conscience" is about our freedom from human rules and doctrines. Our consciences should not be bound by false religion, or extra-biblical scruples and traditions, because we are ultimately only answerable to God.

This concept of liberty of conscience does not uphold the freedom of men or women to believe in a false religion, nor in their freedom to hold unbiblical positions on moral issues. Our consciences are NOT free from God's word.

But when we speak about 'liberty of conscience' in political science, we mean a slightly different thing.

Liberty of conscience in politics: freedom from human coercion in matters of religion and morality

This idea is about stopping secular governments from over-reaching. They should not legislate too much in matters of morals and religion, so that individual liberty of conscience is preserved. This concept argues for allowing diversity in church demoninations, and diversity in religious beliefs and even diversity in moral opinion. We must allow people to act and worship according to their own conscience.

A version of this might even apply in a church setting. For example, the Presbyterian Church of Australia's 'Declaratory Statement', that is appended to the Westminster Confession of Faith says  "That liberty of opinion is allowed on matters in the subordinate standard not essential to the doctrine therein taught, the Church guarding against the abuse of this liberty to the injury of its unity and peace".

How does New Testament Christian liberty related to liberty of opinion?

I don't make this observation in order to argue that the second kind of liberty is extra-biblical and so unbiblical. In the first place I just want to conceptually separate them, so that you and I can think and speak more clearly.

I actually think the two work well together. I think the teaching about Christian liberty in the New Testament points in a way that encourages to allow a certain degree of liberty of opinion in the church and especially in society as a whole. Romans 14 strongly argues that people are ultimately responsible to God, not to human authorities (including church leaders). The same chapter also stresses that we are each individually responsible to God for our personal beliefs and actions. It is not enough for us just to conform to external powers, whether in the church or in the world: anything that does not come from faith is sin.

A wise church leadership or civil government will consider where and how to allow freedom on points of disagreement regarding religion and morals. To leave room for individual responsibility and the ultimate lordship of God, it is good and right to restrain the reach of human authorities, even if they not adding to God's word, but only seeking to enforce it, as they understand it. So we should give a wide space around individual beliefs and moral action, to support genuine conversion and sincere moral action.

A final reason for supporting the second kind of 'liberty of conscience' is the truth of human fallibility and sinfulness. We human leaders are likely to be wrong when it comes to morality and religion, from time to time! If we are aware of this risk, then we will have an extra, biblical reason to be guarded in how narrowly we presume to legislate beliefs and behaviour.



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Anxious entrapment and urgent intensity in evangelical leisure time?

I came across this strange passage in Andrew Cameron's Joined-Up Life:

In this connection, I offer a word to those who work hard in evangelical churches, as either members or leaders. They're not legalists, and have a healthy sense that they may enjoy morally indifferent goods. They also have a strong sense of being the 'perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all'. But oddly, we sometimes drift into a new form of anxious entrapment. The obligation of 'service to all' totally dominates us, so that our leisure-time uses of adiaphora must erupt with urgent intensity in order that we may feel free. Paradoxically, these preachers of freedom can feel quite trapped."

(Joined-Up Life page 208)

What do you think Andrew has in mind here? Can you relate to this phenomenon?



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A few quibbles with Piper’s ‘Christian Hedonism’

I'm working on a footnote where I want to say a few quick things about John Piper's 'Christian Hedonism'. I feel like many people appreciated Desiring God for showing us that it's a good thing to enjoy God and all his good gifts— that this actually glorifies God as well. But I don't know how many people were fully brought on board with Piper's full system.

Here are a few quick quibbles I could think of with the 'Christian Hedonism' system as I understand it. Have I got it right? What would you add? What would you clarify... or disagree with?

 

  1. I am unconvinced that we are commanded to rejoice, I would rather say we are exhorted to rejoice. A very in the imperative mood is not necessarily a command.
  2. I don't think it is true to say that 'we glorify God by enjoying him'. While our joy in God does glorify him, this is not the overarching category for how we glorify him: we also glorify him by obeying him and relying up on him and so on.
  3. I disagree with the idea that the one overarching impulse for human activity is 'seeking joy'. Seeking to do the right thing can't easily be collapsed into that. Joy is the wonderful benefit of the Christian life, rather than its primary goal.
  4. I am troubled by the claim that we can only please God if we pursue joy. We can please God even if we do not experience of joy from time to time, or focus on the pursuit of joy in a particular act.

  5. While the term 'hedonism' is used to be helpfully provocative, I think it is more offputting than illuminating.


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Recruiting for Ministry: from jobs in church to full-time ministry

Across Australia there’s lots of thinking and praying about recruiting for ministry. We are trying to find new pastors for vacant churches, new people to join staff teams, young people to do MTS apprenticeships, new elders for our churches and new people to help with music or creche or small group leadership.

Recruiting for ministry has to be more than public announcements and reactive recruitment. Public announcements can raise general awareness about ministry needs and occasionally flushing out keen volunteers, but it often doesn’t work. It can create the impression that we are always desperate to push people into ministry, recruiting out of guilt and neediness, rather than raising people up and drawing them to a vision.

Reactive recruitment relies on people to stick up their hands and put themselves forward. Once they have volunteered themselves, we then plug them in. This severely limits the amount of people we will bring into ministry, because most won’t necessarily volunteer. We might also end up putting people into ministry who are unsuitable, since we are relying on their own willingness rather than their actual giftedness.

A more satisfactory ministry recruitment plan is much more holistic, much more bound up with our discipleship work, and ultimately much more fruitful. The same principles apply equally well, whether we are recruiting new pastors, new elders or new Sunday school teachers. Here are some basic elements of proactive ministry recruitment:

1. Teach and proclaim the vision of the gospel.

As we do the basic work of teaching and preaching the Scriptures as they reveal Christ to us, people are led to repent from their sins and depend upon Christ alone. We are compelled by our love of God to live for him and our vision of the world around us and the times we live in are shaped by God’s word. A motivation for ministry comes from us ‘getting’ the gospel.

2. Raise awareness of ministry opportunities.

We shouldn’t wait until there is a gap for us to raise awareness of ministry opportunities. Churches should think of ways to share how people are serving the gospel: ‘ministry spotlights’ during the church meeting, a ‘ministry expo’ after the church meeting, little testimonies in the bulletin and so on. At a broader level, we need to think about ways to raise awareness of ministry in our region or ministry niche, to help in recruiting people from elsewhere to come and work among us.

3. Invest in individual spiritual maturity.

Recruiting people for volunteer roles, MTS apprenticeships and staff roles flow naturally out of investing in people’s spiritual maturity. As we disciple people in preaching, small groups and one to one, we help them grow in obedience and commitment to serve God in ministry. It is a good idea for staff to set a recurring task to ‘scan the roll’ and think about how to help members of their church grow in Christ and become active in ministry.

4. Make use of events.

Events don’t do all the work for us, but they are one piece of the puzzle. A range of events can help speed up the recruiting process: ministry expos, training courses, Challenge Conferences, MTS Dinners. In the same way, with recruiting staff, it can be worthwhile to visit Bible Colleges and conferences to speak about needs in your area.

5. Ministry prospectus and job descriptions.

Basic summaries of the purpose and nature of your ministries can help people better see what needs to be done and why it is important. So also job descriptions can make roles seem more clear and concrete. Spelling out the details of purpose, vision, function and expectations make the role more ‘real’ and also help in overcoming objections people might have.

6. Personal recruitment, orientation and commitment.

You will struggle if you rely on drawing people into ministry from afar. You need to get up close, personally inviting people into ministry roles - actually looking them in the eye and asking the question. Orientation is also very helpful. As Al Stewart says, ‘If you let people play with the puppy, they are much more likely to want to take it home’. It’s worth the expense to fly potential staff down to see things first hand, or give a trial period to potential kids ministry leaders. But don’t leave the edges vague, especially with volunteers. There needs to be a point when people make a definite commitment one way or the other.

7. Ongoing training, encouragement, coaching, and review.

Of course recruitment doesn’t end when someone ‘signs on the dotted line’ - we need to keep investing in people by providing the training and resources they need; the relationship and community to encourage them; the coaching to get better and the regular reviews to help them see progress and plan ahead. This both helps people grow in their existing roles, but also creates a positive ministry culture: people want to get involved in ministry with you!



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Mirrors 12th May 2017

  1. Should we make our 'public' website entirely for the new visitor? Personally, as a visitor, I like to get a bit of grit and vibe of the actual community. I find overly polished ‘pitched’ websites annoying.
  2. Fascinating: seems all research says that front page web mag sliders don’t work
  3. Seems to underplay the now/not yet of exile.  Yes Christ ends the exile. But in Revelation we are still in Babylon.
  4. Oldie but a goodie. Remove the final (4th) panel from Peanuts comic strips and they become bleakly existentialist.
  5. New eBook on measuring outcomes in Not For Profits. They provide excellent clarity on what 'outputs' and 'outcomes' are: 'doing what we said we'd do' and 'making a difference'.
  6. Great, brief, but rich papers on a Christian approach to national and international social issues


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Growing past the 100 barrier and why we get stuck

Many of the churches in our Tassie network have plateaued between 100-200 people - and sometimes stayed this way for years. This is often called the ‘200 barrier’ (in practice somewhere between 100 and 200). 

The reason for this plateua has got to do with a bottleneck in the life and shape of the church. The capacity for the church to engage and incorporate and adjust to new people is geting seized up by a whole bunch of little things. And all sorts of signals are being sent to visitors and existing members which makes it hard to grow.

This is what people mean when they talk about ‘growth barriers’ - points where churches tend to plateau - they might grow for a season, but then oddly shrink back to roughly the same size. Because there are whole bunch of things that cause these growth barriers, they can’t be fixed simply by improving this or that program. A much larger change has to take place.

So how do we make progress with this ‘200 barrier’? How do we get past this 100-200 people point? To get past this particular ‘barrier’ is often the hardest of all, because it requires the church to change BOTH its leadership style AND its community life at once. Books, articles and lectures I’ve come across suggest the following things:

1. Vision and prayer

Setting a vision for growth is crucial if we and our leaders and our people are going to be motivated to make costly changes. And deep, kingdom-centred prayerfulness, that repents earnestly and looks beyond our immediate needs to ask bigger and bolder things of God is the kind of thing a truly gospel vision produces.

2. Volunteer leaders and leaders of leaders

The change in leadership that is needed for a church to grow, is the change from a paid leader and a bunch of pro-active volunteers muddling along together to a growing team of leaders and even leaders of leaders, some paid, but most volunteers. The more people are engaged in serious ministry, the more people can be engaged, incorporated, disipled and empowered. And to recruit and sustain more people ministering, you need more leaders of leaders to recruit, oversee and coach them well.

This means doubling or tripling the number of people we want in ministry, and doubling or tripling the number of people who have a significant role in recruiting, overseeing and coaching those in ministry. In other words make leadership development a high priority!

3. Act like a chuch of 200-300

It’s silly and pointless to pretend you are a church of 1000 people if you only have 85. But it is do-able to learn some habits and values of a church twice your size. Often the regulars at your church think of it as smaller than it is, whereas visitors come expecting more from you - as an already-biggish congregation.

So reading, visiting, and learning from just-slightly-larger churches can be helpful: how do they do things up the front on a Sunday? How do they communicate with the congregation? How do the do ministry?

4. Multiply ministry and multiply ministry staff

Last of all, most of the stuff about breaking the so-called ‘200 barrier’ talks about breaking out of the mould of being one single comunity with one main leader. Instead multiply leaders and multiply ministries.

This might mean working hard to gather the resources to appoint a second full-time senior pastor. The ministry capacity another gifted and trained pastor can bring is massive. It will be a financial stretch that will require some persuasion and maybe some creativity - but it’s the last time your budget will have to basically-double because of adding a single staff member!

This might also mean adding a second Sunday service - something I have written about in a previous newsletter - another way to open up the church to more people and more ministry opportunities.

Or it might simply mean being much more pro-active in growing the other ministries of the church - how to multiply more growth groups? More avenues for training, socialising and evangelism? How to grow the shape of the Sunday school and youth ministries?

Summary

This is hard work, and involves big changes and a new ways of doing church and leading in ministry. No wonder it’s hard for us to get past. But I really want to encourage us to do some talking, thinking, reading and praying about how we could remove unnecessary human barriers to our existing churches being even more fruitul for the gospel.



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If we fail to guard Christian liberty we undermine Christian joy in God’s good gifts

A great and insightful bit of pastoral theology from John Calvin:

In the present day many think us absurd in raising a question as to the free eating of flesh, the free use of dress and holidays, and similar frivolous trifles, as they think them; but they are of more importance than is commonly supposed. For when once the conscience is entangled in the net, it enters a long and inextricable labyrinth, from which it is afterwards most difficult to escape. When a man begins to doubt whether it is lawful for him to use linen for sheets, shirts, napkins, and handkerchiefs, he will not long be secure as to hemp, and will at last have doubts as to tow; for he will revolve in his mind whether he cannot sup without napkins, or dispense with handkerchiefs. Should he deem a daintier food unlawful, he will afterwards feel uneasy for using loafbread and common eatables, because he will think that his body might possibly be supported on a still meaner food. If he hesitates as to a more genial wine, he will scarcely drink the worst with a good conscience; at last he will not dare to touch water if more than 2135usually sweet and pure. In fine, he will come to this, that he will deem it criminal to trample on a straw lying in his way.For it is no trivial dispute that is here commenced, the point in debate being, whether the use of this thing or that is in accordance with the divine will, which ought to take precedence of all our acts and counsels. Here some must by despair be hurried into an abyss, while others, despising God and casting off his fear, will not be able to make a way for themselves without ruin. When men are involved in such doubts whatever be the direction in which they turn, every thing they see must offend their conscience.
(Institutes, 3.19.7)

He then goes onto to describe how Christian liberty, should always be guided and directed by love and self-discipline and modesty:

For there is scarcely any one whose means allow him to live sumptuously, who does not delight in feasting, and dress, and the luxurious grandeur of his house, who wishes not to surpass his neighbor in every kind of delicacy, and does not plume himself amazingly on his splendor. And all these things are defended under the pretext of Christian liberty. They say they are things indifferent: I admit it, provided they are used indifferently. But when they are too eagerly longed for, when they are proudly boasted of, when they are indulged in luxurious profusion, things which otherwise were in themselves lawful are certainly defiled by these vices. Paul makes an admirable distinction in regard to things indifferent: “Unto the pure all things are pure: but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled” (Tit. 1:15). For why is a woe pronounced upon the rich who have received their consolation? (Luke 6:24), who are full, who laugh now, who “lie upon beds of ivory and stretch themselves upon their couches;” “join house to house,” and “lay field to field;” “and the harp and the viol, the tablet and pipe, and wine, are in their feasts,” (Amos 6:6; Isa. 5:8, 10). Certainly ivory and gold, and riches, are the good creatures of God, permitted, nay destined, by divine providence for the use of man; nor was it ever forbidden to laugh, or to be full, or to add new to old and hereditary possessions, or to be delighted with music, or to drink wine. This is true, but when the means are supplied to roll and wallow in luxury, to intoxicate the mind and soul with present and be always hunting after new pleasures, is very far from a legitimate use of the gifts of God. Let them, therefore, suppress immoderate desire, immoderate profusion, vanity, and arrogance, that they may use the gifts of God purely with a pure conscience. When their mind is brought to this state of soberness, they will be able to regulate the legitimate use. On the other hand, when this moderation is wanting, even plebeian and ordinary delicacies are excessive. For it is a true saying, that a haughty mind often dwells in a coarse and homely garb, while true humility lurks under fine linen and purple. Let every one then live in his own station, poorly or moderately, or in splendor; but let all remember that the nourishment which God gives is for life, not luxury, and let them regard it as the law of Christian liberty, to learn with Paul in whatever state they are, “therewith to be content,” to know “both how to be abased,” and “how to abound,” “to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need,” (Phil. 4:11).

(Institutes, 3.19.9)



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