About Me

My photo
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).

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Deep Church Rising cover

Very excited! Andrew Walker and I now have a cover for our forthcoming book Deep Church Rising. (We also have a title. It was previously called various different things, including Deep Church and the Recovery of Christian Orthodoxy.)

Hope you like it. We love it.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Podcast interview with Robin Parry about demons and exorcism

Here is Randal Rauser's podcast interview with a very confused man (myself) on the demonic.

It is about this book:

Baked beans

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

When apologetics does more harm than good

I am a believer in the importance of apologetics. Really I am! However, as I have argued previously, when apologetics is done badly it can do more harm than good.

Apologetics can go wrong in various ways. You may have a good case for faith but present it in the wrong way or at the wrong time or to the wrong person.

Apologetics can also go wrong by offering trite answers to serious and difficult questions. Here is an example I came across today.

This is a well produced little video and it is intended to provoke thought rather than to offer a detailed philosophical defence of God in the face of evil. Nevertheless, it offers a trite and simplistic "answer" to a deeply serious issue that for many people is a very existentially troubling one. As such, while it may be helpful to people who don't think deeply it is liable to backfire on many who struggle with it.

The disanalogy between the dentist and God is so glaringly obvious and also so clearly relevant to the argument that as soon as one starts to ponder the patient's case for God it falls apart like a sandcastle in your hands.

The problem is that a clearly bad argument is presented as a stunning stop-the-atheist-in-his/her-tracks argument. This makes Christians look smug and dumb (and more than a little insensitive). It raises the worry that if this is the best Christians can do then perhaps the atheists are right. Hence, the apologetic backfires.

This kind of apologetics makes me angry. I would rather a believer said that they do not know the answer to a question (if they don't) rather than offer up this kind of bullshit, albeit well-intentioned bullshit.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

WTFWJD — Christians and the F-bomb

Had an interesting chat with Chris Tilling and Lucy Peppiat in a pub at the airport in Baltimore on the vexed/non (delete as appropriate) issue of Christians swearing. Chris told us the typically Tillingian tale of how he gave himself swearing therapy in a Christian bookshop to get over his aversion to dropping the F-bomb. Only the Tilling would do such things!

There was a recent incident in the news of a parishoner in the UK complaining that her vicar had a car sticker that said WTFWJD. This, said the lady, was blasphemy! The vicar begged to differ. She said that there was a big difference between blasphemy and vulgarity. The F-bomb is vulgar but it is certainly not blasphemous. Amen.

I know loads of Christians who are more shocked when they hear "F-ing this" and "F-ing that" than when they hear actual blasphemy. Film censors take the same approach. Drop two or more F-bombs in a movie and you get a R rating (though you are welcome to have plenty of gratuitous violence and graphic, promiscuous sex) but you can avoid that if your actors just say, "Oh Jesus Christ!" instead.

This reminds me of an evangelical Religious Studies teacher I met in Oxford back in 1990. One of the pupils in his lesson said, 'Oh Jesus!" in a less than prayerful way. The teacher replied, "Don't let me ever fucking hear you take the Lord's name in vain again!" That response worked amazingly! Many may think the teacher's reply more offensive than the pupil's exclamation, but perhaps that simply shows how much our sensitivities about bad language are shaped by cultural factors other than Christian faith.

As Chris Tilling pointed out in our conversation, when the NT tells Christians to speak in wholesome ways its target is matters such as gossip, slander, lying, and the like. Using swear words is not inherently sinful (although it may certainly be sinful depending on the context in which one does it).

A few years back I hosted a gathering in Worcester of evangelical OT scholars interested in feminist hermeneutics (the superb book that came from that gathering can be found here). We had a fascinating discussion on some of the vulgar language used by OT authors that translators would never dare to try to find contemporary equivalents to (or their Bible translations would never be used in church!).

My beef is not with those who use the F-word but with those who devalue its power by using it all the time as the equivalent of "urm"—a filler until your brain can catch up. This sucks the life out of it by making it invisible by its sheer ubiquity. The F-bomb works best when used sparingly.

But WWJD? He would never drop the F-bomb, surely!

Actually, the Jesus I read about in the Gospels is someone who I could very easily believe would do precisely that if the word had been available in first century Aramaic. Jesus was not meek and mild, he was meek but wild. He knew how to fire verbal rockets at injustice and hypocrisy.

The moral of this story — swear by all means but do so sparingly and do so well.

Develop the Christian virtue of holy vulgarity.

Perhaps I ought to get me one of those bumper stickers . . .

Monday, 9 December 2013

Joel Willetts on Messianic Judaism

Joel is a fabulous NT scholar — one of my fave!
This book is a very good introduction to Messianic Judaism with some terrific chapters—I especially appreciated the biblical chapters. On the ball!

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Patristic Universalism by David Burnfield

I was kindly send a review copy of David Burnfield's Patristic Universalism: An Alternative to the Traditional View of Divine Judgment (Boca Raton, FL: Universal-Publishers, 2013) by the publisher.

Burnfield helpfully sets out the outline of what he means by "patristic universalism" in a number of key ideas:
1. Sin will be punished
2. Salvation comes only through faith in Christ
3. God continues to evangelize people even after they die
4. Everyone will be judged when they die
5. The purpose of hell is remedial not retributive
6. The duration of hell is not eternal
7. Everyone will eventually be saved
The book is an attempt to defend that view by means of Scripture, reason, and tradition.

Chapter 3 seeks to make a case from reason. This is not, for the most part, by means of the "traditional" kinds of philosophical arguments such as one would find in the work of Thomas Talbott and Eric Reitan. (Although a couple of such arguments make an appearance.) Rather, the reflections spin out of various issues of Christian praxis. If the traditional view of eternal torment is correct then why, asks Burnfield, do we not see Jesus and the apostles rushing around in a panic trying to get everyone saved before they die? What do we say about those who have never heard the gospel or those, such as some of the mentally handicapped, who cannot "make a decision for Christ"? Such issues problematize the traditional view. I thought that Burnfield had some good points to make in this chapter but his reflections were not knock-down arguments against traditionalism. Indeed, some of them are matters that traditionalists have long pondered and have some sensible things to say about. Personally, I believe that the case from reason against the traditional view of hell is even stronger than Burnfield suggests. I am in basic agreement with the author but I would be interested to see the thumb screws turned even tighter.

Chapter 4 seeks to make a biblical case. It does so by considering key texts grouped around certain themes
1. Texts about the salvation of "all" (Ps 22:7; John 12:32; 1 Tim 2:3–6). Burnfield argues that "all" means all.
2. The promise that "Every knee will bow" in Isa 45:22–23 and Phil 2:9–11
3. The "one" and the "many" in Isa 53:11–12; Rom 5:12–21; 1 Cor 15:21–22
4. God's desire to save all (Matt 18:12–14; Rom 11:25–26a; 1 Cor 15:23–28; 1 Tim 4:10; Titus 2:11; Heb 2:8–10; 1 John 4:14)
5. Texts about the restoration of all things (Matt 19:28–30; Acts 3:19–21; Col 1:20)
Burnfield had a lot of sensible things to say about most of these texts and he is certainly right that they do lend themselves to universalist interpretations. This approach to texts is quite helpful, especially for those with evangelical backgrounds who are very focused on the wording of texts. It is not quite the way that I would approach organizing the material in that I tend to try to understand things from the perspective of the biblical metanarrative and doctrinal loci. This however, is simply a difference in approach. I was in agreement with a lot of Burnfield's exegetical conclusions.

Chapter 5 seeks to make a biblical case for the claim that God offers mercy to the dead and that the moment of death is not a point beyond which one's fate is sealed forever. Burnfield is very helpful in showing how the traditional case is based on a far flimsier basis than is often thought. Heb 9:27 ("it is appointed for all men to die once, and after that to face judgment") looms large in traditionalist arguments and Burnfield helpfully shows that this text simply cannot support the theological house that has been built upon it.

He then launches a range of arguments from reason, Scripture, and tradition to try to show the possibility of salvation after death. From the side of "reason" Burnfield worries that many people do not accept the gospel for a range of reasons that are very understandable (they may not have heard the gospel, they may have been misinformed about the nature of the gospel or the case for it, they may have heard the gospel from Christians who were abusive, etc.). Surely, he reasons, God would not stop seeking such people simply because they have died. The biblical arguments are a bit of a mixed bag. There is some very interesting and insightful reflections on a range of texts but most of it falls short of a strong biblical case for post-mortem evangelism. There are some of the usual suspects (1 Pet 3:18–20; 4:6) but also some unexpected texts brought into play. The upshot is that while Burnfield does show that the biblical case against mercy beyond the grave is weak and that there is a biblical case for it, it is a less than clear case. The author is aware of this and does not claim to have knock-down arguments. In the end the Bible itself cannot break the deadlock on this one — wider theological issues will always be playing a fundamental role in how people assess and weigh the evidence. Personally, I agree with the author's instincts on mercy beyond the grave.

Chapter 6 picks up the issue of hell and offers a biblical case for seeing hell as having a restorative purpose. He considers texts that see punishment as divine correction and as provoking repentance. He also considers texts relating to the duration of hell. He makes a generic case on the basis of a range of divine punishment texts that divine punishment lasts for as long as it needs to to achieve its restorative goal. This one of the best chapters in the book, perhaps the best. There was some interesting and creative discussion of texts, some of which are often left out of the discussion.

Chapter 7 seeks to answer classic objections. In particular the classical texts used to "prove" that hell is everlasting. This is such well-trodden ground that it is hard to say anything new and creative. But Burnfield gives a good account of the case against traditionalist readings of the texts in question. While not original, it is, for the most part, a solid and helpful discussion. And I think he is spot on — these texts do not teach everlasting hell. The chapter then considers other classic objections (universalism violates freewill, it minimizes sin and divine holiness, it makes the cross of Christ redundant, it undermines evangelism, it is a recent theological idea without roots in the tradition). He has many helpful things to say on all these questions.

My expectations in reading the book were a little out of tune with the book that I read. The title led me to expect an exposition of Christian universalism that took its starting point from certain early church fathers and their theological exposition of Scripture. If that is what you are after then you will be disappointed. There was indeed an attempt to engage these venerable Christians, especially in the final section of the book. However, Burnfield was very clearly coming at the issue from an evangelical Protestant background and it is that evangelical theological heritage that is the dominant shaping force in the the book. (In this he is just like me.) The patristic material had clearly influenced Burnfield's thought but more as a seasoning introduced into the recipe at a later point, after the dominant taste of the dish had already been created. Burnfield's engagement with the Fathers does not come from reading the Fathers themselves but from secondary sources — books about what the Father's said about universalism. Every patristic quotation is lifted from a book that quotes it. This means that it is hit or miss whether the footnotes will provide the patristic references for the quotations. Sometimes they do but sometimes they simply provide the page number in the secondary source from which the quote was lifted (or, on one occasion the quote was from a book quoting another book quoting an early father). This can be somewhat frustrating if one wishes to trace down the quotations to read them in context. If one if wanting to get one's head around the teachings of the different Fathers then this book is probably not the place to go.

However, Burnfield makes no pretense to be a scholar of patristics. This book is a clear attempt at universalist apologetics aimed at thinking laypeople and not at scholars. And at that level it works fine. It brings into play a wide range of very instructive quotations from the Fathers that are well worth setting before thoughtful believers. And the fact of the matter is this — that a rigorous scholarly study of the patristic sources (as one will find in Ilaria Rameli's new Brill volume of almost 900 pages) would not yield a different result on the teachings of these Fathers than Burnfield offers. They really were universalists, just as he says.

All in all, this is not a flawless book but it contains much that is commendable and helpful to thoughtful Christians and serves as a good entry into a lot of the key issues in the current debate.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Cathedrals bring out the meaning of stones

I was sitting in the Advent service in Worcester's beautiful cathedral last Sunday, looking around at the candle-lit walls and reflecting about the words of the stonemason I spoke of in my last post. It occurred to me that the craftsmanship of the cathedral's architects and stonemasons actually brings out something of the God-directed orientation of stones, and of the rest of creation.

In the classical Christian tradition, at least until the late Middle Ages, all of creation participates in God's divine Being, Truth, Goodness, and Beauty to one degree or another. The meaning of things — any things — is not found in things themselves but in God, their ultimate cause. All things come from God, depend on God for their being at each and every moment, and exist for God.

In him we live, and move, and have our being.

As such, even humble stones participate in God and only make sense as what they are when seen in relation to God. But stones do not wear their God-orientated meaning on their sleeves (unless inscribed by the hand of God). Yet, looking around the cathedral I saw stones that led the eyes heavenward towards the invisible God; stones that were not simply co-opted to some extrinsic and alien purpose but which were fulfilling their goal or telos in pointing Godward; stones that cried out in silent praise to their beautiful creator.