John the Baptist, faith and doubt

John the BaptistThe Gospel reading for this Sunday, Luke 7:2–20, includes John the Baptist’s famous sending of his disciples to ask Jesus whether He “is the one” or whether they should wait for someone else. From time immemorial, scholars and other theologians have debated over the question of whether this is an indication that John the Baptist was himself beset by doubt about Jesus’ identity.

There are, broadly, two views:

(1) John had no doubts about who Jesus was. He was simply performing his last teaching duty to his disciples by sending them to Jesus and having them ask Jesus effectively to confirm that He is indeed the Messiah. Thus, John ensured that these disciples severed their exclusive attachment to himself and re-attached themselves to Jesus instead. In other words, their mission from John was an acted out version of his words in John 3:30: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

(2) John did indeed doubt Jesus. Despite having borne witness to Him and pointed others to Him, while in prison John began to wonder whether in fact Jesus wasn’t the real deal after all. Perhaps he shared the narrow and mistaken expectations of Jesus’ disciples and rightly recognised that Jesus didn’t fit that pattern.

The attraction of the first view is obvious. John the Baptist was, according to Jesus Himself, the greatest of the prophets of the Old Covenant. To have a record of His final words being those of doubt seriously tarnishes the reputation of the great prophet, which fits ill with the whole story of John’s life to that point, especially in Luke’s Gospel, where Luke so clearly points out the parallels between the annunciation and birth of the two cousins, John and Jesus.

However, there are difficulties with this view. First, the plain sense of the text gives the impression that John was asking the question, not merely asking the disciples to investigate for themselves. Moreover, we have the disciples returning to John to report Jesus’ reply—something they wouldn’t have had to do unless they thought that John was asking them to inform him of the answer. Thirdly, John up to this point has been preparing for Christ. Surely he would have pointed them to Christ himself, and sent the disciples merely to see for themselves what he had told them already—in which case they wouldn’t have had any need to report back to John. This is further underlined by the fact that Luke tends to minimise John’s role of pointing to Jesus, rather than preparing for him. John isn’t even explicitly mentioned at Jesus’ baptism.

On these grounds, the second option seems more likely: that John himself began to waver while in prison and had to be reassured by Jesus via the testimony of his (John’s) disciples.

However, I like to follow the advice I received as an undergraduate from one of my teachers: “Whenever possible, avoid the either-or in favour of the both-and.” In the case of Luke 7, this principle applies, at least homiletically.

Option 1: John remains steadfast in faith

John is in prison, aware that the time of his ministry is over. Jesus must increase, he must decrease. However, many of his disciples remain loyal to him and, unlike Andrew and Peter, have not begun to follow Jesus. Therefore, John completes his God-given ministry by sending them to Jesus with the question: Are you the Christ. He knows the answer, and he knows that once they get to Jesus, they too will find the answer. As they do. John’s job was to point people to Christ, and he did so even from his incarceration. And as Pastor Larry Peters preaches so well, in this he is an example for us to emulate, and an encouragement to remain steadfastly Christ-focused in all our life—thinking, doing, witnessing.

Option 2: John wavers

The great prophet—the greatest of all the prophets according to Jesus—had completed his task of preparing Israel for the coming of the Messiah. Yet when Jesus did come, and John rightly identified him as that Messiah, his faith wavered. Like the disciples of Jesus, like the crowds, like the Pharisees and the scribes, John too expected a different sort of Messiah from the one Jesus turned out to be. John, too, succumbed to the temptation to be a theologian of glory. And so he sent the disciples to ask Jesus for reassurance. And, ironically, this fact can be a reassurance for us, too: like Moses, like Jeremiah, like the dim-witted disciples of Jesus—and like us—John too wavered in his faith. But if that’s all, it’s still cold comfort in the end. “You aren’t the only one” may be some consolation to someone struggling, but in the end the problem remains unsolved. However, John is a man of the Word to the end. Instead of speculating, or examining his own faith in the silence of his dungeon, he goes to the object of his faith: he sends his disciples to Jesus to find reassurance, to have his faith strengthened. And it is this, rather than the strength of his faith, that makes John the true example for us to emulate: when he was in doubt, when his faith wavered, he went to Jesus to be strengthened.

So which is it? In the end, it doesn’t really matter. For this is not really a story about John, but a story for us. Whether it is for the strengthening of one’s weak faith, or for leading others to faith, there is only one option, only one method: go to Jesus. As Horatio Bonar put it in his beautiful hymn on discipleship:

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Come unto me and rest;
lay down, thou weary one, lay down
thy head upon my breast.”
I came to Jesus as I was,
so weary, worn, and sad;
I found in him a resting place,
and he has made me glad.

(Lutheran Service Book 699:1)

Freedom of Speech and the BNP

We live in interesting times. For the first time ever, the BBC invited the BNP’s leader, Nick Griffin, to take part in an edition of its flagship discussion programme, Question Time. Their justification: the BNP represented the UK in the European Parliament and should, therefore, be treated as a normal political party and invited to engage in public debate.

The reaction was predictable and rather worrying. Politicians, the media and various other beacons of public opinion put enormous pressure on the BBC to withdraw the invitation; protesters protested, marchers marched, and placards were made and held aloft. Apparently, the BNP’s views are so reprehensible that they should not be given an airing in a democratic society.

That’s right: a democratic society should not allow certain views to be heard, in the name of democracy.

The programme, too, was predictable. Instead of the usual menu of current affairs and party-politicking, the entire show was dedicated to grilling, roasting and generally attacking Mr. Griffin. Only one question on a non-BNP -related topic was heard. Under the heat, poor Mr. Griffin came off rather badly, unable to give a convincing account of himself or his party.

Meanwhile, outside the studio the protesters protested and placards were held aloft.

The following morning, the newspapers and electronic media had a field day.

So what?

Most sensible people have little sympathy with the BNP’s worldview or political aims. However, things have come to a pretty pass when democracy demands the silencing of those whose views are reprehensible to the majority. On the morning-after, the Daily Express labelled Mr. Griffin, apparently without any irony, “A Disgrace to Humanity”.

We can only claim to believe in freedom of speech when that freedom allows those to speak whose views are most odious to us. Racism is bad. Immigrant-bashing, Holocaust denial and all that stuff is also bad. But pelting people who hold unpleasant views with eggs in order to silence them, as was done recently outside Westminster, is also bad. If the barometer of public opinion gets to decide whose views are allowed and whose are banned, we no longer operate in a democracy. Morally, there is no difference between silencing Nick Griffin on the BBC and silencing Dietrich Bonhoeffer on German radio in January 1933.

As the old cliché goes,

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

Regardless of who coined the phrase, you can’t quibble with the sentiment. You’d better not—just in case it’s your views that fall foul of public approval. If you are a Christian, that’s more than likely.

When in Rome…

Should one be pleased that this is not just a Protestant rot? Or horrified that this kind of stuff is creeping even into the RCC? The latter, I suggest.

The one comforting thing is that the congregation looks decidedly middle-aged-plus. The young, at least in some parts, are looking elsewhere.

Who of where?

I have been looking for an excuse to post something, just in case anybody ever actually looks here. Well, Matthew Mason has just given me one.

Alas, I came out as follows:

You’re St. Melito of Sardis!

You have a great love of history and liturgy. You’re attached to the traditions of the ancients, yet you recognize that the old world — great as it was — is passing away. You are loyal to the customs of your family, though you do not hesitate to call family members to account for their sins.

Find out which Church Father you are at The Way of the Fathers!

Intriguing. I have heard the name. Must go now and find out more about myself. Let the journey of discovery begin!

The killing of unborn children – when it suits us

I’m sure there were countless others who were horrified and saddened to hear or read about the apparently random murder of Claire Wilson in Grimsby last weekend. To make the story even more tragic, she was seven months pregnant at the time. The baby died with her.

Apart from the tragic incident itself, there is something very striking about this news item. Apparently without exception, the UK news media have referred to the the killing of a pregnant woman and her “unborn child” or “unborn baby”. And well they should. However, almost without exception, the same news media refer to “foetuses” and “potential life” when babies—some of them in the eighth month of pregnancy like Claire Wilson’s baby—die as a result of procured abortions.

What’s the difference? In the one case, we had a mother who was pregnant and had allowed the child to grow—and this life was brought to an end by a horrific attack by a violent stranger. In the other, we have mothers who are pregnant and do not allow their children to grow, but rather ask a medical professional to end its life. In the one case, we hear of the murder of an unborn child; in the other, of the termination of a pregnancy.

What’s the difference?

Love at first sound

Thanks to a tangential comment in a comment by Confessing Evangelical, I have discovered Spotify. I love it!

If I ran a record shop – or even a music download business – I would be worried, very worried.

Go and check it out. It’s the best thing since most good things of this earth.

New Volumes to Luther’s Works

Exciting news: Concordia Publishing House are about to roll out new volumes in the “American Edition” of Luther’s Works. The first new volume will be coming out later this year. Anyone interested in Luther and not able or willing to work with the German/Latin originals should be cheering. Read more here.

Those willing and able to work with the German/Latin originals should be cheering, too, because some of the earlier volumes of the Weimarer Ausgabe are beginning to appear on Google Books. Information on that can also be found from the link above.

Adam Flew to the Moon

Courtesy of Issues, Etc., a priceless piece of OT exegesis from that fine scholar of the Hebrew Bible, Benny Hinn.  Enjoy!

“Adam Flew to the Moon” by Benny Hinn

Resurrection Faith

I know a lot of bloggers have drawn attention to it already, but just in case it’s slipped anyone’s net, I thought I’d add my own link:

A.N. Wilson, the famous biographer and notorious religious sceptic, who wrote biographies of Jesus and Paul with the express intention of demonstrating that Christianity is on an untenable foundation, has become a Christian. He wrote about his re-discovery of the Christian faith in a column in the Daily Mail. Here are a couple of excerpts:

My belief has come about in large measure because of the lives and examples of people I have known – not the famous, not saints, but friends and relations who have lived, and faced death, in the light of the Resurrection story, or in the quiet acceptance that they have a future after they die.

The Easter story answers their questions about the spiritual aspects of humanity. It changes people’s lives because it helps us understand that we, like Jesus, are born as spiritual beings.

Historians of Roman and Jewish law have argued at length about the details of Jesus’s trial – and just how historical the Gospel accounts are.

Anyone who believes in the truth must heed the fine points that such scholars unearth. But at this distance of time, there is never going to be historical evidence one way or the other that could dissolve or sustain faith.

Of course, only hard evidence will satisfy the secularists, but over time and after repeated readings of the story, I’ve been convinced without it.

This tells you something about the power of the Gospel: the birth of faith through the “repeated readings of the story”. It also tells you about the potentially wonderful evidentiary power of people living their lives as Christians, “riends and relations who have lived, and faced death, in the light of the Resurrection story, or in the quiet acceptance that they have a future after they die”.

Not that apologetics and dealing with the challenges of the sceptics is a waste of time or futile. Only it must remain in its proper place: as a kind of winsome bulldozer, clearing away the outer defences that prevent people from even hearing the Gospel in the first place. But the message of the resurrection is in itself sufficient.

On the evening of the first Easter, Jesus appeared to His disciples after they had heard the report of the women from the tomb, after Peter had witnessed the empty tomb, and immediately after Cleopas and the other disciple had returned from Emmaus to tell of their encounter with the Risen Lord. Yet, when He appeared, they doubted and were filled with fear. How did Jesus deal with their doubt and fear? By simply pointing to the reality of the resurrection: showing His hands and feet pierced for the world, and eating some fish to demonstrate that He was indeed alive. And they believed, and fear was replaced by joy.

And those two signs are still being offered to us: Christ who died for us, Christ who was raised for us. In those two facts, the fate of all humanity – and of every human being – is decided. And those two facts alone can overcome doubt and fear with faith.

Why is the Church Apostolic?

I am working on my eternal project, a Master’s Thesis on the Porvoo Common Statement (PCS). On re-reading the Statement, I noticed anew the following definition of the Church’s apostolicity:

Apostolic tradition in the Church means continuity in the permanent characteristics of the Church of the apostles: witness to the apostolic faith, proclamation and fresh interpretation of the Gospel, celebration of baptism and the eucharist, the transmission of ministerial responsibilities, communion in prayer, love, joy and suffering, service to the sick and needy, unity among the local churches and sharing the gifts which the Lord has given to each. (para 36)

This is striking stuff. The basic message is this: the church is apostolic inasmuch (or insofar…?) as it does what the apostles were sent to do.

This is quite distinct from the understanding of apostolicity, which sees the Church as recipient of gifts through the apostles to her. In the context of the PCS, this is in partly a result of the necessity to re-interpret the episcopacy in a way that can encompass Anglican and Lutheran views as well as the burden of history, and part of a much broader tendency within the modern ecumenical movement.

It just seems to me to be a tragically narrow and (despite the best of christological intentions) geocentric understanding. To be apostolic is to do stuff, rather than to be something. How tiresome, how laborious.

Is this perhaps another corollary of Vatican II’s re-definition of the eucharistic sacrifice, and the broader re-conception of the Church as the people, rather than the hierarchy? After all, since Vatican II, it’s been explicit that at the Mass, the whole congregation sacrifices the Immaculate Victim, not only through the priest but with him. In a similar way, in PCS, the whole church does apostolic things, not only through the apostles (i.e. the office of the apostles in the Church today) but with them.

It’s also interesting to see that works of mercy and human care are also subsumed under the heading ‘apostolic’. Would be pernickety to quote Acts 6 to argue against this identification?