About Me

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

Monday, 28 December 2009

wisdom from John Webster

"Christian theology has a singular preoccupation: God, and everything else sub specie divinitatis. All other Christian doctrines are applications or corollaries of the one doctrine, the doctrine of the Trinity."

John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, Cambridge: CUP, 2003, p. 43.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

The freedom of God

We all wish to maintain 'the freedom of God' in our theology but what exactly might we mean by it? My worry is that the notion of divine freedom is often wheeled in to get people off the hook of universalism.

So the argument goes like this: Well
1. God is love and he does desire to save all people; and
2. God is sovereign and he is able to save all people. But
3. we must not embrace universalism because this would be to compromise God's freedom - i.e. to tell God that he has to save everyone. But if God has to show mercy to all then it is no longer mercy. God loves in freedom - he does not have to love people.

Try as I might I find myself unsympathetic to this line of thought.

What notion of freedom is operative here? To me it looks like the freedom for God not to be himself. Consider this example: "God is truth but we must not say that he cannot lie because this would compromise his freedom." Biblical writers did not think in this way. They maintained that it was impossible for God to lie. And it is impossible for God to be tempted or to sin. For God to do these things would be for God to act in ways that are contrary to who he is.

It is the same with divine love. God is love. For God not to love would be for God to act contrary to who God is. Why would anyone consider such freedom a virtue?

So is God not free? God is free. The freedom of God means (at very least) that God is free to be who God is and that nothing external to God determines who God is and how God acts. To put it a little simplistically: God's being and actions are not dependent on creatures.


What do you think of a doctrinal basis of faith that opens with a statement about the Bible?

If you don't like that move (and I hate it) - what is wrong with it? Surely we need to establish the truth of the Bible before we can move on to discuss its content, right? (That's a leading question because I obviously don't think so.)

Ineffably sublime

Thought for the day:

we need some more songs with phrases like "ineffably sublime" in . . . but not many more.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Was Paul the first Christian?

I used to get annoyed by books that called Paul the first Christian (as if Christianity did not originate in Jesus' mission! You got it - I am a traditional kind of guy). Now I also get annoyed for a different reason. Now I get (mildly) annoyed because I don't think that Paul was a Christian at all.

OK - I don't mind calling Paul a Christian if I am allowed to define the term BUT I think that the word is so loaded with associations that we are probably wiser to avoid calling Paul (or any Jesus-believers in the first generation) 'Christians'. Anachronism is almost unavoidable. And the idea of Paul as a convert from Judaism to Christianity bears almost zero relation to how Paul would have conceived of his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus.

So I was thrilled to see a new book by the Jewish NT scholar Pamela Eisenbaum entitled Paul Was Not a Christian. I bought it because the title was so perfect!

Well - I am half way through and so far it is great. I don't agree with all her judgements (e.g. I think that the Paul is Acts is closer to the historical Paul than she suspects [and I think that the Paul of Acts was no Christian convert either]) but I wholeheartedly agree with her basic thesis: Paul did not convert from Judaism to Christianity.

Eisenbaum has a good discussion of how Paul incresingly became understood as a convert to Christianity (indeed as the convert par excellence). Augustine and Luther play key 'baddie' roles here. She also has some excellent material introducing relevant aspects of Second Temple Judaism as the background against which to interpret Paul.

So - I'm looking forward to some Christmas reading. Groovy baby!

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Advent thought 8: The Perfect Advent Meal

What is the perfect Advent meal?

Advent looks forward to the coming presence of God to his people in the person of the Messiah.

We need a meal that, like Advent, holds togather the two-phase coming-of-God-in-Christ.

How about the Eucharist?

Here is a meal that looks back to the first advent ("in remembrance of me") and also looks forward to the second ("proclaiming his death until he comes"). It is an anticipation of a coming banquet in the kingdom of God when we shall eat with Jesus.

But it is also, by the Spirit's work, a communion with Jesus now. It is a sacrament that mediates the presence of Christ by the Spirit through the material stuff of bread and wine.

And this reminds of that the coming of the Son of Man at the end of the age, whilst future, can be anticipated in our present experiences. We can know something of his presence now. The presence-in-absence of the one who is to come.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Advent thought 7: Take Christ out of Christmas

I have half a mind to start a new campaign to "Take Christ out of Christmas."

Let me explain. For the majority of people in Britain Christmas is a time for families to get together, exchange presents, eat good food, watch TV (, and argue).

I have nothing against this.
I like presents.
I like good food.
I like worthwhile TV.
I like families.
(but which is best? There's only one way to find out ... [that parochial allusion will make no sense ot Americans])

But this is not Christmas. It is a secular Winter Festival. So here is my inclination - Let's take the 'Christ' out of 'Christmas' and call it for what it is - Wintermas.

The countdown to Wintermas is not Advent but something else - let's call it Mad-Spent (as everyone went mad and spent lots of money that they did not have).

Now the common Christian reaction to this is to chastise the world and to call it to "Put Christ back in Christmas". But I have two problems with this:

1. I don't see why non-Christians should be expected to celebrate a Christian festival. Why should they? And why should we get irritated if they do not? (And let's be honest - Christmas was a pagan Winter festival before we borrowed it anyway)

2. I think that the sober reality is that even if the population in general did put Christ back in Christmas it would be as no more than a bolt-on to the real focus of interest - Wintermas. It is not obvious to me that this is a desirable state of affairs.

So perhaps we need to try a different strategy. Perhaps we need to put some clear blue water between Advent and Mad-Spent and between Christmas and Wintermas.

Perhaps we need to accept that the British public at large are not Christians and are not going to be celebrating Christmas. So perhaps we should let Britain have its Wintermas and our focus needs to be on helping the Church to do Advent and Christmas well - to reclaim them, as it where.

Now that is a challenge because most Christians I know - myself included - are much more devoted to celebrating Wintermas than we are to celebrating Christmas. So if we want to put Christ back in Christmas then let's start by setting our own house in order!

Friday, 11 December 2009

Storm troopers in bar

Nobody stops to think about the Stormtroopers

God is Love

God is not anger though He can be angry, God is not vengeance though He does avenge. These are attributes, love is essence. Therefore God is unchangeably love. In judgment He is love, in wrath He is love, in vengeance He is love – ‘love first, and last, and without end.’ Love is simply the strongest thing in the universe, the most awful, the most inexorable, (not to be moved by entreaty) while the most tender.

Thomas Allin. Christ Triumphant. 1878. Rpt. 9th ed. Canyon Country, CA : Concordant, n.d. 76 - 77.
Thanks to Beryl Spikings for pointing me to this quotation.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Bohemian Rhapsody - Muppet Style

Hannah Whitall Smith on the mother-heart of God

I am not totally convinced by the theological method here but my heart does warm to this.
My problem is that I think that our understanding of God's love must be grow from and conform to the revelation of divine love that we see in the story of God's engagement with creation, with Israel, with Jesus, with the church, etc.. It must be an understanding following the contours of the story of the cross and resurrection.

That said, I do think that our reflections cannot even get off the ground without some prior experience of love. I also think that our experience of love will inform our theological reflections as we go. So whilst Hannah's comments here cannot be all that must be said (and she would be the first to agree) they are nonetheless helpful.

Hannah Whitall Smith was a 19th century Quaker-turned-Wesleyan-holiness-preacher from the USA. She was an influential holiness speaker and writer and was one of the inspirations behind the Keswick convention (though I don't think she was ever directly involved with it). The following is from her autobiography:

My children have been the joy of my life. I cannot imagine more exquisite bliss than comes to one sometimes in the possession and companionship of a child. To me there have been moments, when my arms have been around my children, that have seemed more like what the bliss of heaven must be than any other thing I can conceive of; and I think this feeling has taught me more of what are God’s feelings towards his children than anything else in the universe. If I, a human being with limited capacity, can find such joy in my children, what must God, with his infinite heart of love, feel towards his; In fact most of my ideas of the love and goodness of God have come from my own experience as a mother, because I could not conceive that God would create me with a greater capacity for unselfishness and self-sacrifice than he possessed himself; and since this discovery of the mother heart of God I have always been able to answer every doubt that may have arisen in my mind, as to the extent and quality of the love of God, by simply looking at my own feelings as a mother. I cannot understand the possibility of any selfishness on the mother’s part coming into her relation to her children. It seems to me a mother, who can be selfish and think of her own comfort and her own welfare before that of her children, is an abnormal mother, who fails in the very highest duty of motherhood . . . Since I had this insight of the mother-heart of God, I have never been able to feel the slightest anxiety for any of his children; and by his children I do not mean only the good ones, but I mean the bad ones just as much.

Only three of Hannah's seven children lived to adulthood (one went on to marry the philosopher Bertrand Russell)

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Sins worthy of Hell

I just nicked this from Jim West too. I was rather taken with the Obama voters bit.

Holy? I beg to differ.

I just spotted this on Jim West's site. Funny thing is that a few years back our music dept were sent this as a demo tape. We never did decide whether it was serious or a joke. One presumes a joke - I mean, it cannot be genuine, right? - but you honestly never know.

Cool online shopping

This Dutch website is very inventive. Click this link and just watch (don't click anything - trust me)

Advent thought 6: the environment and advent

I must be going nuts. Today my Advent reading was Psalm 85. What struck me were the following verses.
1. LORD, you poured out blessings on your land! You restored the fortunes of Israel...
9 Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him, so our land will be filled with his glory...
12 Yes, the LORD pours down his blessings. Our land will yield its bountiful harvest... (NLT)

What struck me were the references to 'the land'. I had never thought of Advent and 'land' before. But the Psalmists hope is not just for salvation for a people but for a people-in-a-land. This is a very earthy hope. An 'eschatology' (if we can use that term broadly) with an environmental dimension. Not a hope for land per se but for land-as-habitation; for land-as-environment. This is not 'Deep Ecology'.

The hope is also not just for any people but for this people (Israel). It is not just for any land but for this land (the Promised Land). However, the symbolic connections between Israel and humanity as a whole, and between the Promised Land and the earth as a whole, allow for the Psalm's implications to ripple out from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.

Indeed the prophet who uttered the oracle in Isaiah 65:17ff saw the restoration of Israel in his land as indisolvably tied to the new creation and the salvation of the nations.

Christian hope grows from the hope of Israel-as-fulfilled-in-Jesus. His first coming and his second coming were tied to 'the redenption of Jerusalem' (Lk 2:25-32) and to the the salvation of the nations and the resurrection of the created order itself (Rom 8). Christian hope (realized in Christ) is about the rescue of both Jew and Gentile but not apart from their earthy environments. We are saved along with the whole creation. Ours is a gritty, earthy hope - a hope with soil and grass and grain.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Advent thought 5: hope for the hopeless

Today I was praying through Isaiah 40:1-11 as part of my 'Let's-try-doing-Advent' adventure.

It was vv. 6-8 that caught my attention.

6 A voice said, "Shout!" I asked, "What should I shout?" "Shout that people are like the grass. Their beauty fades as quickly as the flowers in a field. 7 The grass withers and the flowers fade beneath the breath of the LORD. And so it is with people. 8 The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God stands forever."

I was thinking about hope. Isa 40 is a text intended to reignite hope in the hearts of the Jews living through Babylonian exile (and I tend to think that chapter 40 is addressed to those still in the Land and not to the exiles, but that's neither here nor there for now).

We humans are frail creatures - like grass. And sometimes circumstances are such that we even struggle to hope. Sometimes it can feel as if darkness if our only companion. That's part of our fragility - we can be broken not only physically but also psychologically. Can we speak of hope in such a situation?

We can speak of hope in an objective and in a subjective sense. If someone feels hope then we might speak of subjective hope. Objective hope refers to the reality of a situation irrespective of how people feel about it.

Now the prophet contrasts the weakness of humanity (like grass) with the stability of God's word (it endures forever). And objective hope is grounded on God's word of promise. There is hope because God promises to redeem. That is the case whether or not anyone knows it; whether or not anyone believes it. In the end we have hope because God ... And any Christian hope that we feel is only genuine Christian hope to the extent that it is founded on that word of promise.

But there is a rest to be found here. Feeling hope is important - and Isa 40:1-11 set out to inspire just such hope - but in the end there is nothing that we can do to eradicate our objective hope because that depends on God and not on us. Nobody is in a genuinely hopeless situation.

Now - and this is a tentative experimental thought - even our subjective hope must be dependant on God. As frail creatures our ability to have have faith, hope, love, and joy is fractured. But in Christ God even enacts our side of the equation. Christ lives a human life on our behalf. He has faith, hope, love, and joy. The Christian life is a life in which the Holy Spirit gradually enables us to participate in Christ's faith in God, his hope in the divine promises, his love of Yahweh and of his creatures, and his joy in the divine glory.

If that is so then even our felt-hope is grounded in God's promise of redeem creation and in Christ's faithful human response to that promise. May the Spirit grant us all a taste of that hope this Advent.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Advent thought 4: Christmas as Eschatology

Christian theology traditionally sees 'eschatology' as a subdivision of systematics dealing with the return of Jesus, judgement, heaven, and hell. It is typically set aside in a box of its own, separate from the theology concerned with the story of Jesus' first coming.

Advent, by bringing the first and second advents into doxological communion, warns us against hermetically sealing off eschatology in such a way. I think that Greg Beale was spot-on in his essay "The Eschatological Conception of New Testament Theology" (1997) when he observed that the whole of NT theology is eschatology.

Advent alerts us to what I yesterday called the two-phase eschatology of the NT (in fact, I think that this is over simplistic as the place of AD 70 also need factoring in along with the fall of Rome, etc.). It makes us recognize that the coming of God-in-Christ is an eschatological event from first to last. It teaches us that we need to see Christmas as an end-time event in the story of God's engagement with creation.


I wonder what light that might shed?

Cool. :-)

Friday, 4 December 2009

Advent thought 3: 2 for 1

I did not grow up in a Christian family and so my only connection to Advent was the beloved 'Advent Calendar'. Man, I loved those things. Opening the little doors to discover what lay beneath! But Advent meant no more to me than a countdown to Christmas (and, though I was aware of the story of Jesus' birth, Christmas meant no more to me that good presents, good TV, and good food).

When I became a Christian I quickly migrated into free church charismatic circles and here we 'do' Christmas and we 'do' Easter but we don't 'do' anything else in The Christian Year. So I was always aware when Advent started - we still have Advent Calendars - but I never really 'got' it.

I was amazed to discover a couple of years ago that Advent is not simply a countdown to Christmas but in fact brings together anticipation for the first and the second comings of Jesus. (I can hear all my Anglican and Catholic friends laughing - "Like everyone knows that dude!" Well, I had to hang around academic theologians for over twenty years before I discovered it!)

My initial reaction, after recovering from the news, was to think, "What a mess the Church has made by starting The Christian Year with a confusing mash-up of the first and the second coming of Christ."

But then I started to get the wisdom of it.

Old Testament traditions do not contain a single, unified eschatological vision but different threads of hope that tangle and disentangle in different traditions. Certain motifs crop up again and again in differeing combinations (e.g., the return of Israel from exile to the Land, a coming Davidic Messiah, the defeat of Israel's enemies, a new covenent, the pilgrimage of the nations to Zion to worship Yhwh, the giving of the Spirit, new creation). No single place pulls it all together but the impuslse to synthesize and hold the motifs together somehow or other was strong.

So it was that longing for a better future was woven into the fabric of Second Temple Judaisms (albeit in various different ways).

The surprise of the salvation that Jesus brought was that it fulfills the unified hope of Israel not in a single seriel-act of redemption but in a two-stage event.

Phase 1: Jesus' first coming, his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and the giving of the Spirit ...

Phase 2: Jesus' second coming to bring the work of his first advent to completion.

By holding together the first and second advents the Chruch was not confusing matters but helping worshippers to perceive that we cannot understand either advent apart from the other. The salvation wrought by Christ is a single salvation albeit implements over a long period.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Regina Spektor, "Laughing With" lyrics

No one laughs at God in a hospital
No one laughs at God in a war
No one's laughing at God when they're starving or freezing or so very poor

No one laughs at God when the doctor calls after some routine tests
No one's laughing at God when it's gotten real late and their kid's not back from that party yet

No one laughs at God when their airplane starts to uncontrollably shake
No one's laughing at God when they see the one they love hand in hand with someone else and they hope that they're mistaken
No one laughs at God when the cops knock on their door and they say "We've got some bad new, sir,"
No one's laughing at God when there's a famine, fire or flood

But God can be funny
At a cocktail party while listening to a good God-themed joke or
Or when the crazies say he hates us and they get so red in the head you think that they're about to choke

God can be funny
When told he'll give you money if you just pray the right way
And when presented like a genie
Who does magic like Houdini
Or grants wishes like Jiminy Cricket and Santa Claus

God can be so hilarious
Ha ha
Ha ha

No one laughs at God in a hospital
No one laughs at God in a war
No one's laughing at God when they've lost all they got and they don't know what for

No one laughs at God on the day they realize that the last sight they'll ever see is a pair of hateful eyes
No one's laughing at God when they're saying their goodbyes

But God can be funny ...

No one's laughing at God
No one's laughing at God
No one's laughing at God
We're all laughing with God

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Advent thought 2: Putting tragedy in its place

I was reading I Cor 1:7 this morning about Christians eagerly waiting for Jesus to be revealed (the second advent). It got me thinking about tragedy.

It seems to me that the story of Jesus (which is the story of Israel and of humanity writ small) requires that Christians take evil, pain, suffering, and grief very seriously. No faith that has a cross at its heart can do any less. However, it also refuses to allow such things to have the last word. No faith that has resurrection and ascension at its heart can be ultimately tragic. So the Christian metanarrative simply does not have a tragic plotline.

Two errors are to be avoided:

a cross without a resurrection. Those who would have us believe that unless we embrace the darkness and surrender to the night we have not taken it seriously would prefer a cross without a resurrection.

collapsing cross and resurrection. Obviously no Christian would get rid of the cross but many are tempted to collapse cross and resurrection so that the cross itself ceases to be a moment of injustice, evil, and the experience of God-forsakenness. It becomes instead no more than a moment of glory and triumph. Such theology tends towards an over-realized eschatology in which Christians should be walking in all the benefits of the new creation now.

We need to take care to

(a) hold the cross and the resurrection/ascension apart. In Jesus' story Holy Saturday serves as a buffer zone to stop Good Friday and Easter Sunday from collapsing into one another. We need to allow the pains of Calvary their own integrity; their own moment - Space and time to be themselves. We need to regognize that real evil can invade our lives in the present age and that there is a very real 'not-yet' dimension to our experience of salvation.

(b) hold the cross and resurrection/ascension together. After the resurrection we can never do justice to the story of the cross if we ignore the empty tomb. The resurrection does put Golgotha in a new light. It does not trivialize it; it does not call evil good; it does not make pain into unpain; but it does set night in the context of coming dawn and infuses the shadowlands we inhabit with hope.

This is what Alan Lewis refers to as 'stereophonic hearing' - hearing the cross both apart from and in the light of the resurrection. And it is not a static posture but a dynamic, dialectical one.

It allows us to acknowledge real and deep brokenness in our experiences without ever surrendering hope.

God's last word on humanity is not the cross, and not the tomb, but the risen Lord. In his glorified body our human future is fleshed out. That is why the Christian vision whilst allowing space and time for pain cannot, in the end, be a tragic vision but must be a hopeful one.

Hope does not say that everything is fine. Indeed, if everything was fine there'd be no need for hope. Hope says that everything is not fine ... but one day it will be.

And as a little provocative aside, let me say this: Consider the traditional view that some humans - perhaps many or even most - will be forever lost (whether condemned to eternal torment or annihilated). Is not this view an ultimately tragic one, in part at least? Tragic for the some/many/most people who are not saved. Perhaps even tragic for the saved who would experience the eternal loss of loved ones. Tragic also for God's purposes of redeeming all creation. To that extent is it not a vision of a cross without a resurrection? Is it not a vision insufficiently informed by the shape of the gospel? Could it perhaps be that the mainstream Christian tradition is - ironically - insufficiently Christian? Just wondering.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Wisdom from Woody

Woody Allen once said,

"I don't want to achieve immortality through my work ... I want to achieve it through not dying."

I like that!

And if the resurrection of Jesus is anything to go by (which, of course, it is) Woody's instincts are spot on! Immortality is not so much fun if you are not around to enjoy it!

Thought for the Day: putting theology in its place

Thought for the day

You can love your theology all you like but your theology will never love you back.

Did William Carey choose wisely?

Did William Carey choose wisely?

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