Make Mine a Double!

It was good to be a middle aged has-been (or, perhaps more accurately, 'never-was') this Christmas.  While I poured myself a brandy and listened at leisure to the long-awaited Celebration Day and Mark Knopfler's new album, Privateering, I took some perverse satisfaction from the thought that worthily earnest Pastors of the Creative Arts in urban churches everywhere were probably abstaining from zinfandel for twenty-four hours in order to fast and pray that the rumours of a joint U2-One Direction album and tour in 2013 might prove true.  The Beautiful People would no doubt regard such a happening as potentially the greatest opportunity for evangelism since Pentecost; prehipsteric dinosaurs like myself would see it in the same way that we would see a worship workshop led by a praise band made up of demobbed Uruk-Hai: a most ominous development in the church's battle for Middle Age.

While sheltering in this nostalgic cleft provided by the rock of the aged, I also found time to read two important books which made an impact on me so immediate that I embodied some of their insights into my sermons last Sunday.  The first was Rob Lister's God is Impassible and Impassioned and the second was Jonathan Pennington's Reading the Gospels Wisely.  Both are available as real books and for kindle.  The two volumes emerge from different academic tribes: one is about systematic theology, one about biblical narrative.  But when it comes to good books, why choose?  In this case, better make mine a double!

Now, I am neither a theologian nor a biblical scholar.   All I do is teach church history during the week and preach on Sundays.  Thus, I read volumes like these as an avowed amateur and an outsider, and with only one question: how can these books help me to preach the word of God with greater clarity?  From this perspective, both books were very profitable.

Lister's book is a fine articulation of the orthodox understanding of divine impassibility. He provides a sound history of the various shades of impassibilism and passibilism and then gives his own position.  His view is actually that which was orthodoxy until the metaphysics of Kant, Hegel and, more recently, the Hallmark Channel, made the idea that God does not suffer emotionally as we do implausible and distasteful.  Using concepts drawn from the Christology of Cyril of Alexandria through to the important work of modern Roman Catholic theologian, Thomas Weinandy, Lister does not simply provide a defense of the classic doctrine but develops it in very helpful ways. Most significant in this regard is the notion of God as being impassioned.   Yes, he argues, God has emotions which are analogous to ours; he is not the static, unmoved Mover which the critics of orthodoxy love to hate. Yet God is impassible and does not suffer in the way that creatures do.   Lister demonstrates that we need to understand passion language as applied to God in terms of analogy, taking it with full seriousness but not reducing it to univocity through simplistic anthropomorphism.  God is impassible but he is also impassioned.

Particularly significant is the centrality to his case of God's being as Trinity.  Yes, I know that some of the Beautiful People will no doubt read the following comment and then immediately accuse me of being a middle-aged white racist, but here goes anyway: the Trinity really is a vitally important doctrine.  Indeed, Trinitarianism is absolutely central to all Christian doctrine and life.  The more one thinks about the inner being of God, the more it is clear that overflowing, dynamic, active, impassioned life is fundamental to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, an argument made as eloquently by Lister in this book as it was by Peter Leithart in his recent volume on Athanasius.  The dynamism of the inner life of the Trinity makes the univocal predication of static categories to God inappropriate and misleading. This is a point which cannot be overstated in the current climate of a slack orthodoxy which is all too frequently justified on the basis of a truncated history of theology and all too casually sanctified by the mantric repetition of the current cant, 'gospel centred.'

Lister's case is finely tooled and substantial, a rich blend of exegesis, theology and application.  I will not risk spoiling the argument by attempting to summarise it in any detail; rather I simply commend the whole book to the reader with the encouragement that, for a volume of profound theology, it is as accessible as it is passionate -- or even, one might say, impassioned. 

So how did this impact my preaching on Sunday?  In a very real sense, Lister did not change my mind on anything of any importance.  What he did do was sharpen my theological categories and make me think more carefully about how to integrate divine transcendence and impassibility with the evidently impassioned God of the biblical narratives.  When preaching on the Incarnation, as I have been in the morning services during December, such matters are particularly pointed.  As a student of Owen, I always want to make sure I set the Incarnation in its Trinitarian context and also use the categories of classical Christology to explain how Christ grows in knowledge and learns obedience.   This book supplemented Owen's insights and gave me more foundational theology for preaching the reality of the Incarnation.

Turning to Pennington's book, this is the kind of volume I always enjoy as an outsider to a discipline.   It is charmingly written, and concise but comprehensible.  It provides both a decent survey of the history of New Testament gospel scholarship, a fine account of the most pertinent current issues, footnotes leading to further reading, and solid discussion of hermeneutical theories as they impact the reading of gospel narrative.  Pennington wears his learning lightly, intersperses the scholarly discussion with humorous examples and asides, and, as a former pastor, knows what the terminus of the discussion has to be: how should we then preach?   Too much of the hermeneutical writing of the last thirty years has been buried in Gnostic jargon.  It is as if the authors of such, frustrated by the fact that most people find well-written texts generally easy to read, decided that it was necessary to produce a mountain of books that are completely opaque.  If economics is the art of showing how something can work in theory which never actually works in practice, then hermeneutics too often seems the science of showing that what works relatively easily in practice cannot possibly work in theory.

In contrast to this neo-Gnosticism, however, Pennington writes with great clarity and practical helpfulness.  He provides general principles and then through judicious biblical examples shows how these principles make a difference to how the texts are to be understood and thereafter preached.  His major argument is that the four gospels must stand as the capstone of Christianity, theologically, pastorally and personally.     He is particularly good on how to connect narrative to application in the sermon.  His case is well made; and I found myself inspired to read the gospels once again with fresh and eager eyes.

So how did this impact my preaching on Sunday?  Well, I am going through Luke in the evening service at the moment and the two pieces of advice which I immediately took were, first, accept the fact that the meaning of a narrative cannot be reduced to a single point (so do not even try to exhaust its meaning in a sermon), and, second, simply focus on retelling the story and allow that to push you to Christ as gift (we might say the indicative) and as example (the imperative).  Not exactly rocket science, I know, but his structural suggestions on this were most helpful.  To borrow a phrase from Eric Morecambe, sometimes I seem to have all the right notes, just not necessarily in the right order.   Pennington helped me find that order this last Sunday.

So if perchance U2 and One Direction do not unite and thus revolutionise your church life this year through ushering in the millennium, you may have to fall back on those hackneyed biblical staples, the ordinary means of grace.  In that desperate situation, these are two books which you will find most helpful.