Category: Christian Doctrine

The Establishment Principle Today

Historically, the Establishment Principle has meant (1) official state recognition of Christianity as the national religion (2) endowment of the church by the state and (3) civil government having a clearly defined responsibility with regard to religious matters.  This responsibility extended to promoting the peace and unity of the church, ensuring the due observance of gospel ordinances and even the suppression of blasphemy and heresy (Westminster Confession, 23.3)

All this was possible in a world such as 17th century Scotland, where Christianity was the only religion, there was only one Christian denomination, and politicians and churchmen shared the same faith.  But what can the Establishment Principle mean in a society where Christians are a minority, the church has broken up into literally thousands of denominations and political power lies in the hands of a determined secularism?

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The Cambridge Companion to the Trinity

The Cambridge Companion to the Trinity, ed. Peter C. Phan(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. xiv + 417pp. hb. £55).

This volume brought out the hidden statistician in me, and I found myself counting the proportions.  Of the twenty-one contributors only one, Karen Kilby from the University of Nottingham, was working, at the time of writing, in the UK: a sombre reflection, surely, on the state of Systematic Theology in Britain.  The provenance of the writers is not always clear, but at least fourteen are from the US.  Three are from Korea; and the editor, Peter Phan, is originally from Vietnam, though now living in America.

Equally interesting is the denominational distribution.  Nine appear to be Roman Catholic, with one each from the Lutheran, Greek Orthodox and Romanian Orthodox traditions, and another from the ‘Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)’.  The stimulus given to Roman Catholic trinitarianism by the work of Karl Rahner has clearly not been matched by a corresponding stimulus to Protestant theology from the work of Barth and Moltmann.  But then, the volume ignores both the late T. F. Torrance and the late Colin Gunton.

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Kirk Fudge on Gay Ordination

The Theological Commission appointed by the Church of Scotland in 2011to examine issues relating to the ordination of those living in openly homosexual relationships has now prepared its report, and one thing is sure: very few of those attending the forthcoming General Assembly are going to have the stamina to read it.  Ninety-four pages long, in double column, it takes almost as long to get to get to the point as it took the children of Israel to get to the Promised Land; and if it can’t quite be said that the commissioners spent all their time in the wilderness it can certainly be said that they spent most of it in unnecessary preliminaries and in irrelevant discussions of such matters as the Kirk’s place in the ‘holy, catholic church’.

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Covenant Theology

Covenant (or federal) theologyis so called because it uses the covenant concept as an architectonic principle for the systemizing of Christian truth.  The seeds of this approach were sown by John Calvin (Institutes 2: 9-11) and there are already hints of it in Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), Henrich Bullinger (1504-1575) and Zacharias Ursinus (1534-1583).  But it took some time to develop fully, though by the early seventeenth century virtually all orthodox Reformed theologians came to accept it and work out their theology within its framework.    Such theologians as Johannes Cocceius in his Summa Doctrinae de Foedere et Testamento Dei Explicata (Amsterdam, 1648) and Herman Witsius in his De Oeconomia Foederum Dei cum Hominibus (Leeuwarden, 1677; ET 3 vols, London, 1763; 1822, 2 vols) represent covenant theology in fully developed form.  English divines also generally adopted the covenant theology.  John Preston, The New Covenant (London, 1629), John Ball, A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace (London, 1645), Francis Roberts, Mysterium & Medulla Bibliorum.  The Mysterie and Marrow of the Bible: viz. God’s Covenants with Man (London, 1657), and William Strong, A Discourse of the Two Covenants (London, 1678) are but four examples.  In keeping with this, the Westminster Assembly used a covenant framework in drawing up its Confession of Faith and catechisms, as did The Marrow of Modern Divinity (London, 1645).

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‘My Lady Bishop’

Last week’s decision of the Church of England not to allow women bishops will have little immediate impact here in the Highlands.  We do, of course, have our own form of Anglicanism, Eaglais Easbaigeach na h-Alba, but neither the Archbishop of Canterbury nor the General Synod has any authority over Scottish Episcopalians.  They already have women priests, including the Reverend Shona Boardman in Stornoway, but no women bishops, though that is certain to change when (and it’s when, not if) the Church of England finally mitres women.

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Christian Worship: the Regulative Principle

The Regulative Principle was defined by John Calvin as follows: “God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word.” (from the tract, ‘The Necessity of Reforming the Church’ in John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, Vol. 1, p. 128).

In elaborating this principle, however, Calvin and his successors are much clearer on the negative than they are on the positive.  Their focus falls on what is not prescribed or authorised and is therefore forbidden.  Calvin’s own personal concern is not with the questions which troubled later Puritanism (e.g., vestments, psalms/hymns), but with the abuses of Roman Catholic worship: for example, the use of images, the worship of saints, appeal to the mediation of angels, the adoration of relics and the sacrifice of the Mass.  It is worth noting here that such practices are not only not sanctioned by scripture but are forbidden by it.  In application and practice, the Regulative Principle may not differ hugely from the Lutheran/Anglican principle that what is not forbidden is permitted.

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The Christian Experience of Suffering (3)

Some of the lessons are brought out even more clearly in the twelfth chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews.  The passage is too long to quote in full, and we shall confine ourselves to the leading feature of its teaching.

We learn in the first place that we must not expect to derive blessing automatically from suffering.  Affliction by itself, no matter how great its intensity, does not sanctify.  

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The Christian Experience of Suffering (2)

A second passage that deals with this subject is Romans 8:28: ‘We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose.’

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The Christian Experience of Suffering (1)

Anyone who in these days accommodates his teaching to the assumption that the Christian life is arduous is faced with the preliminary objection that he is fundamentally out of tune with the believer’s experience.  Many contemporary Christians would insist that they live lives of unmixed blessedness, without conflict, failure or pain.

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Ministry in the 21st Century

Of this year’s six new entrants to our BTh programme only two are candidates for the ministry.  The remaining four, including three women students, have other careers in view.  Though the numbers are disappointingly small, the trend is welcome, and should help dispel the idea that the Free Church College is only for ministers and only for men (though the main illusion at the moment seems to be that the College is only for international students, not for home-grown ones.  Our own young people seem to suffer from Free Church College phobia.)

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