John Calvin on Scripture: Inventing God

IdolI am going to assume that you have noticed the power of social media to provide a voice and platform for opinions, however outlandish; perhaps you are reading this or have previously logged onto Rekindle and consider our biblically charged approach to issues outdated and irrelevant. Though if that is the case I am not sure why you have continued reading. Another thing I have observed on social media is that there are nearly as many opinions about God – ranging from her character to his non-existence – as there are adorable cat videos. God, it would seem, is up for definition. Tragically, it is often those who profess to be Christians whom I hear reimagining or revising God. But this does should not surprise us in a church landscape where the Bible is considered a relic, a quant piece of our history rather than the living Word of God.

John Calvin put his finger on this human tendency when he wrote that the human heart is a “perpetual factory of idols” (1.11.8). Briefly surveying a few Old Testament passages he asserts that idolatry has plagued humanity since time immemorial. Our history and the whole earth is “polluted with idols.” If God did not exist then this would not be a problem, for we would then be free to create him in our own image. However, if God does exist then it is to our spiritual peril that we believe God to be contingent with our feelings and desires. Calvin writes, “Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity.” One of the most prevalent errors heard in pulpits around the world today is contained in the phrase: ‘I think God…’, as if what we think determines who God is. Earlier Calvin says Christians who do not approach God’s Word in order to learn from God who he is “exult in their own vanity” (1.6.2). 

Christians must therefore be committed to the study of Scripture, for the Bible is not merely human words about God but his very words to us. This is how Christians have treated the Bible throughout the past two millennia. Churches that prefer the god conjured up in their own image worship nothing more than an idol. While churches that prioritise Scripture can know God as they encounter him in his inspired word. Listen to Calvin, “No one can get even the slightest taste of right and sound doctrine unless he be a pupil of Scripture. Hence, there also emerges the beginning of true understanding when we reverently embrace what it pleases God there to witness of himself” (1.6.2). When our opinions about God outweigh what God has clearly laid out for us through his written revelation we demonstrate only our pride in vain musings and obtain nothing more than the idols of our hearts. “Errors can never be uprooted from human hearts until true knowledge of God is planted therein” (1.6.3).

Do not accept opinions or settle for feelings. The next time your pastor or a preacher prefaces a point with ‘I like to think God is’ or ‘I cannot believe that God would’ tell them you prefer God’s truth to their thoughts. “God has provided the assistance of the Word for the sake of all those to whom be has been pleased to give useful instruction…Hence, we must strive onward by this straight path if we seriously aspire to the pure contemplation of God” (1.6.3). Calvin goes on to say that those who turn from God’s eternal Word wander from the only path, never reach the goal, and stagger blindly in vanity and error even though they seek God (1.6.4). To seek God is to search the Scriptures. Anything less is to search for God where he cannot be found or known.

Chris Pratt: The Church’s Responsibility to the Next Generation

Generation AwardAppearing repeatedly on my social media feeds this week was Chris Pratt’s speech, after accepting the MTV Generation Award. What has garnered a lot of attention was his ninth rule for living: if we are willing to accept that we are imperfect then we can experience grace. “Grace is a gift, and like the freedom we enjoy in this country that grace was paid for with someone else’s blood. Do not forget it. Don’t take it for granted.” Putting aside the fact that Pratt accomplished in 15 seconds what Bishop Michael Curry failed to do in 15 minutes at the Royal Wedding, I want to pick up Pratt’s understanding of this particular award and the expectation tied to it. Pratt said, “This being the Generation Award I’m going to cut to the chase and I’m going to speak to you, the next generation. I accept the responsibility as your elder.”

Having recently had our first child, the reality of being responsible for the next generation has become both unavoidable and uncomfortable. I confess it is very likely an indication of my own selfishness that no meaningful thought on this task preceded the arrival of my son, which is to sideline the New Testament model that makes older and more mature Christians responsible for the younger. Pratt seems to understand this call in an age when many Christians only invest in their peers and the nuclear family. In 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You, Tony Reinke argues that one of the imperative responsibilities we have for future generations is the discerning use of pervasive technology. If we fail in this area those follow us will suffer the consequences. But I want to highlight another responsibility we have towards the next generation, specifically in the church.

God's WordIn the Old Testament book of Amos one of the themes that emerges is Israel’s rejection of God’s truth. As God’s covenant people Israel were entrusted with God’s law and expected to live in accordance with it (2:4-5). His law should have governed their lives and given shape to their worship. Yahweh also sent prophets but Israel silenced them (2:12; 3:7), hating those who spoke God’s truth (5:10). Appropriating Paul’s words in Romans 1, Israel exchanged God’s truth for a lie, for idols, and in order to live independently of God’s rule. How did this happen? As Amaziah said to the prophet in Amos 7, God’s words were unpleasant and uninspiring. They were burdensome, ‘Come on Amos, your unhealthy fixation on sin and insistence on God’s judgment simply isn’t what Israel want to hear. You need to adapt your message for the people, for the culture and their felt needs.’ But listen to Amos’ reply: The LORD took me from following the flock and said to me, “Go prophesy to my people” (7:15). The popularity of God’s truth does not alter its significance.

What is the outcome of Israel’s rejection of God’s truth? Look at Amos 8:11, “I will send a famine on the land—not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD.” He goes on in 8:12 to describe people desperately searching for a word from God without finding or hearing it. D. A. Carson comments on these verses, “The point is that people who do not devote themselves to the words of God eventually lose them. The loss is catastrophic.”

What does any of this have to do with Chris Pratt or the next generation? In the next verse we are told that by abandoning by the words of God and God allowing that decision spells death for the generation to come, “the lovely virgins and strong men” (8:13). Israel’s rejection of God’s truth, his life-giving word, would lead to spiritual death and exile. Part of this tragedy we often miss is that those who came next would suffer a similar fate. The next generation will experience God’s silence and judgment because the current one had abandoned God’s truth. This should jolt us from our complacency and impress on us the responsibilities we have for the next generation in the church. The church that undervalues God’s gospel, contained in his inspired and true Word, brings death on the generations that will follow. The church that undervalues the Bible is not relevant, they are robbing the next generation of hearing from God.

Steve Jobs and the Creep of Technology

Steve JobsThough originally said in dismissal of market research, Steve Jobs’ now famous words, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” teach us something about consumerism and technology. Who would have thought before 2007 that you needed a cell phone as powerful as a computer? And just three years later we were convinced that everyone needs an almost identical device, just with a larger screen. I am talking respectively about the iPhone and iPad, two pieces of technology I cannot imagine my life without. So perhaps Jobs was right. In fact he most certainly was. But notice that he refers to what people want, not what they need.

As I wrote in a previous post, the choice to live in the modern sea of technology is unavoidable. But the flood of devices, social media, and apps means we are in serious danger of drowning in it. Technology is not merely tailored to meet a need while remaining hermetically sealed from the rest of our lives. They almost always demand more space than we intend to give them. As James Sire puts it in The Discipleship of the Mind, technology imposes how it is used. When I finally got my hands on my iPhone 3G it was so that I could have a cell phone and music player in one device. But six years later my iPhone – no, not the same one – has crept into most areas of my life, shaping how I do things, and even my thought processes.

The word technology is derived from older ones meaning ‘craft’ or ‘skill.’ And many Christian authors trace it back to Genesis 1-2, understanding it as a part of God’s appointing mankind to subdue and cultivate the creation. With this perspective we can rightly view technology as a tool. Theologians have observed this as a distinguishing mark of our species and indicative of the image of God.  One of those authors, Elaine Graham, in her essay The “end” of the human or the end of the “human”?, says that technology is a gift from our Creator, who has made us like him, to be creators. Technology, therefore, is God-given and we should ensure that our use of it is God-honouring. The question to ask then is: What does discerning use of technology look like?

The most obvious point to make is that in an age where early adoption is gospel, we should approach technology cautiously, gauging its usefulness and potential invasiveness. For companies and developers are certainly offering us what we want but not necessarily what we need. Technology is pushed onto us every day: friends, adverts, and recommendations suggest that every product is one you cannot live without. But I did live without it, for years. I managed to have meaningful relationships apart from Facebook and Whatsapp. I was productive before the rise of productivity tools. I found music that I liked without being told, ‘Those who bought this also bought…’ Those are trivial examples but the point remains: the Christian is called to be discerning and measured, perhaps especially with regards to technology.

Let me conclude with one last point. We have seen that technology is a useful gift and tool from our Creator God. Ultimately our technology should serve us and help us to serve God and love our neighbours. But the inherent danger of technology can be summarised under two paradoxical urges: control and idolatry. Firstly, technology promises power, sometimes even omnipotence, as it enables us to control everything around us. In a sense, the elevation and heightened expectations of technology deceives us about the human condition, and its limitations. We must remember that we are creatures, given tools with which we can serve God. Secondly, we must remember that those tools are not God. When we find they are beginning to control us, determining how we live and demanding our worship, we must turn again from idols to serve the living and true God.

This post originally appeared on at LifeWay Media blog and is published here with minor changes.

Church Growth: A Response

Recently on Rekindle, Graham has reflected on church metrics. What I’m posting here was originally written as a comment on this post, but I’ve decided to move it to a post of its own, because I feel the topic is important enough to (try) keep the conversation going. Here’s what I had to say.

I wonder if Graham isn’t singing in harmony with Carl Trueman and others: there is a big problem with our current desire to be popular and celebrated. Churches are finding themselves in awkward positions, where their use of metrics is driving them to look a pale shade of early church life. We really should be heeding these warnings, and considering where our use of metrics and our ungodly desires are urging us on in increasingly unhelpful directions. This is something Graham’s post makes inroads with.

However, it might be worth separating the issues he raises: on the one hand, we need to discuss the wrong desires that are calling for data-comfort, and on the other, we are reading data wrongly, and so need to be helped to use it properly. His post addresses the first, but I think a Rekindle series on the latter would be helpful (and demanding). Perhaps we should attempt it.

Data is a fantastic feedback tool, and larger churches (especially) should have people who know how to interpret and are listening to all the data they can get their hands on, because of the nature of these institutions and the use data feedback provides as a management tool. If done properly, I think it could even help address the problems of Trueman and co.

I read Natural Church Dynamics by Schwarz a little while back. He locates himself within the church growth movement, but almost completely ignores attendance figures because of their inability to explain their existence. All his measurables revolve around the quality of church life because he sees these as the ‘growth forces’ that result in worthwhile numerical additions. I say this to flag the reduction of metrics to church attendance in Graham’s post, but also to segue into this next point.

What I found interesting while reading was the significant overlap between Heard’s 5Ms and his 8 growth forces: both see health as the crucial factor that influences numbers. Whether that is helpful or right, and if both, the exact way maturity influences conversions are useful conversations that we should be having.


In my original comment, I posted a quote from Tim Keller’s Center Church. I just dropped it in there, out of nowhere. I included it because I felt it provides useful language and an accessible framework, which holds together both the need to be faithful and the need to reach the lost. For the sake of continuity, here’s the quote:

“As I read, reflected, and taught, I came to the conclusion that a more biblical theme for ministerial evaluation than either success or faithfulness is fruitfulness. Jesus, of course, told his disciples that they were to “bear much fruit” (John 15:8). Paul spoke even more specifically. He spoke of conversions as “fruit” when he desired to preach in Rome: “that I might have some fruit among you also, even as among other Gentiles” (Rom 1:13 KJV). Paul also spoke of the “fruit” of godly character that a minister can see growing in Christians under his care. This included the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22). Good deeds, such as mercy to the poor, are called “fruit” as well (Rom 15:28).
Paul spoke of the pastoral nurture of congregations as a form of gardening. He told the Corinthian Christians they were “God’s field” in which some ministers planted, some watered, and some reaped (1 Cor 3:9). The gardening metaphor shows that both success and faithfulness by themselves are insufficient criteria for evaluating ministry. Gardeners must be faithful in their work, but they must also be skilful, or the garden will fail. Yet in the end, the degree of the success of the garden (or the ministry) is determined by factors beyond the control of the gardener. The level of fruitfulness varies due to “soil conditions” (that is, some groups of people have a greater hardness of heart than others) and “weather conditions” (that is, the work of God’s sovereign Spirit) as well.
The church growth movement has made many lasting contributions to our practice of ministry. But its overemphasis on technique and results can put too much pressure on ministers because it underemphasizes the importance of godly character and the sovereignty of God. Those who claim that “what is required is faithfulness” are largely right, but this mindset can take too much pressure off church leaders. It does not lead them to ask hard questions when faithful ministries bear little fruit. When fruitfulness is our criterion for evaluation, we are held accountable but not crushed by the expectation that a certain number of lives will be changed dramatically under our ministry.”

Five Steps to Feeling Better About Killing Unborn Children

The old guard, out-dated media, hate-filled Christians, and a few pesky psychologists – as well as psychiatrists – have for too long persuaded the general public that abortion is harmful. Fortunately in recent times this oppressive narrative has been overturned. If we ignore the fact an unborn human is killed during an abortion, they certainly have become “safe, pain-free, and convenient.” But another phenomenon has been harder to deal with: our consciences. It is almost as if we know that killing another human out of self-preservation is wrong, even evil. So I have assembled a few of the choicest ways to get around your annoying conscience, arranging them into five easy steps.

1. Use cold, scientific, and dissociative terms

Firstly, you have to stop using phrases such as unborn child and words that make you uncomfortable, like ‘human,’ ‘baby,’ and ‘life.’ What you need to do next is depersonalise and dehumanise whatever is growing inside the womb. The word foetus is a great tool when doing this. No one gets attached to a foetus, surely a foetus does not have feelings or significance. I would go as far as saying you should give up the word abortion, opting for termination. You know, like when you cancel your contract with MTN or Standard Bank. You could go even further and refer to it simply as an operation, opaque enough that you could be speaking about the removal of an appendix. The bottom line is you must choose your language carefully, which will help you to think less about taking the life of an unborn, helpless child.

2. Major in women and forget the foetus

women's reproductive rightsThis step will sound both extremely selfish and selectively narrow, but you need to make abortion a matter of women’s rights, freedoms, and challenging the patriarchy. This is a very effective step because it proves that anyone who values a foetus does not value women. In fact, anyone who tries to tell a woman that terminating her unwanted growth – similar to cancer really – is wrong is a chauvinist and bigot. Who gets to tell others what they can and cannot with their bodies? Oppressors. This rhetoric provides a remarkably impressive smokescreen, entirely obscuring the fact that another body is even in the frame. If you find that this step is not working, either to ease your conscience or defeat your opponents, just remember that it is always those with power who get to choose, with no regard for the weak. And those weak-minded fundamentalists and even weaker foetuses have no say.

3. Forget the evils of ‘service providers’ such as Planned Parenthood

This is a very important step if you are to successfully sear your conscience about certain abortion practices and clinics. We do need to first consider the undeniable facts: Planned Parenthood sells the organs of terminated foeti. Now, this may sound like something that Nazi doctors would carry out, experimenting on hapless Jews and other minorities in the 1940s. But it is not, because they are experimenting on foeti, not humans. Though it is odd that the organs and tissue harvested from whatever is growing inside those pregnant women can be matched with and even given to actual human babies. While working towards forgetting the obvious evils done in these clinics we can also learn from these practitioners: they are remarkably calloused to the point that it is strength, like a worker’s blistered hands. Just listen to how they speak about killing unborn babies (crushing spines and dismembering foeti), without a hint of remorse. Powerful. Nietzschean.

4. Speak about victory, progress, and triumphs

planned parenthoodMany doctors around the world and throughout history have laboured tirelessly to preserve the lives of children growing inside the womb. Simultaneously – and somewhat ironically – vast progress has also been made in the field of abortions. This might seem disingenuous. On one side doctors are caring for these foeti and on the other they are killing them, yet both are commended. But let’s overlook this peculiar paradox and speak exclusively about historical victories, such as Roe versus Wade and Casey versus Planned Parenthood. Thanks to these momentous triumphs women have reclaimed their reproductive rights and bodies. Simultaneously the shackles have been thrown off of medicine, meaning its advances can now be used to kill those it was designed to and initially sought to protect. Progress indeed.

5. Believe the lies

I am not here revisiting Planned Parenthood (above), or medical professionals who have successfully grown wealthy by butchering humans and trading their body parts. I want to finish where we started. Many people who have had abortions might try and tell you they regret it, will never forget it, and suffer intense emotional scarring as a result of it. What should you make of this? There is no doubt that the vast progress in the field of medicine means abortions are standard and safe procedures, resulting in little or no pain. Your body, future reproduction, and sex life will not be endangered. But will you be able to walk away both physically and emotionally whole? Yes, of course. What do those people who have had abortions and spend their entire lives regretting them really know? This is arguably the hardest step, because it involves the killing off of your conscience. If you are unable to do that, then abortion – for whatever reason – will always haunt you. So believe the lies: convince yourself that killing an unborn, defenceless, and  miraculous new life will not affect you, permanently.

Doodle: Interpretation versus Information

LibraryA few weeks ago, after the men’s Bible study that I am involved in, someone asked me what study notes and material I received at Bible college. We have been reading through Romans and anyone who has read it carefully will be familiar with the occasional confounding phrase, even passage. Therefore the question is understandable. Furthermore, I remember being in awe of Bible teachers as a young Christian in my teens and assuming that with enough commentaries I would be able to do what they did. However after an honours in theology and just over five years in local church ministry I was able to answer this man’s question quite differently to how I might have ten years ago. While there is no denying my library has grown in that time, while my savings have shrunk, what I have learnt formally and in my day-to-day Christian life is that reading and understanding the Bible has less to do with information and more to do with interpretation. Let me explain.

At college we did have courses on specific books of the Bible: Exodus, Psalms, Proverbs, Ezekiel, Mark’s Gospel, Acts, Romans, and Ephesians. But, as you might picked up from that list, many books were excluded, even though I lived on campus as a full-time student. You might also have noticed from the list above that seemingly more important books, if one can make such a distinction, were omitted: Genesis, Isaiah,  John’s Gospel, and Revelation. But the value of the book studies we did, along with other more general courses, was that we were taught principles for interpretation, tools for faithful reading. What are those? Simply put, we were equipped to read biblical texts carefully, in context, and by considering things like genre and original or authorial purpose. For example, in our course on Ezekiel we learnt tools for understanding Ezekiel that can be applied to all Old Testament prophecy. Sadly, such an approach is all but lost in many churches today where Bible verses are treated like the sayings of Confucius,  explaining the vast theological confusion that currently reigns.

In his useful, compendious, free, and excitingly titled essay New Testament Hermeneutics, G. K. Beale provides a few questions that might further help you understand what I mean by interpreting the meaning of a text:
1. Does the meaning reached fit with the larger context?
2. It is in harmony with rest of biblical revelation?
3. How well does it illuminate the rest of the passage?
4. How does it compare with other commentators’ interpretations?

What you will notice from Beale’s questions is that commentaries are only mentioned in the last. The preceding questions deal with reading the passage in its context (historically and in the biblical storyline), making use of clearer passages in Scripture, and considering a passage or verse within its immediate surroundings. How you read the Bible is in some ways more important than what you read about the Bible. In the same way that you do not pick up a novel, open up to a page at random and read a couple of sentences believing that that is what the novel is about, we should not treat Scripture as a repository of unrelated but inspiring sentences. Meaning is determined by close reading, knowing the context, and comparing your interpretation with the rest of God’s revelation in Scripture.

HermeneuticsIn conclusion, if these disparate thoughts can actually be brought together, the Christian faith is not housed in a body of work or library but in the living text, God’s inspired words. We benefit immensely by reading scholars who have sought to correctly interpret the Bible throughout history, we even learn as we study those who interpreted it incorrectly. But at the end of the day we must meet God in his Word, as he addresses us in his text. This is how God has chosen to reveal himself, rebuke his people, and reach those who do not know him.