The BBC recently re-broadcast a fascinating documentary on the latest developments in cosmology (originally broadcast in 2010). British readers can watch the programme here on iPlayer until mid-November.
What struck me was this. Those who find a biblical cosmology fanciful in the light of modern science have no idea of the cosmology proposed by modern science!
Christians believe in a heavenly realm, populated by spiritual beings, separate from our realm, but significantly affecting it.
We can assume such ideas are fanciful and alien to modern science.
But it may not be as strange as we may think. According to the current standard cosmological model, cosmologists believe our universe started with a big bang and then expanded for a quadrillionth of a second after which everything slowed. This was followed by a period of inflation in which the universe expanded in a fraction of a second to a quadrillion, quadrillion times it former size (though we do not how this happened).
But there are some problems with this model. Galaxies do not work in the way they should. In our solar system the further a planet is from the sun, the slower it moves. That is what we would expect to happen given our knowledge of the laws of physics. The same should be true of galaxies, but it is not. Stars at the centre should move faster than stars at the edge. But in fact they move at just as fast as those at the centre. According to the laws of physics, this should lead to galaxies flying apart.
So to make galaxies work as they should according to the laws of physics there needs to be more gravity and that means there needs to be more matter that there appears to be. But cosmologists could not find this extra matter. So they invented it. They theorised the presence of ‘dark matter’. It is called dark matter because it cannot be seen. Unlike ordinary matter it neither emits light or reflects it. Indeed we have no idea what it is.
The calculations suggest that for every kilogramme of normal matter there are another five kilogrammes of dark matter. And this dark matter is everywhere, all around us. Five-sixths of the universe appears to be made of something different from the matter from which we are made, something unknown to us. It is a kind of particle of which we have no experience. It is able to pass through ordinary matter without us noticing. Millions of dark matter particles are streaming through us all the time.
This is starting to sound similar to a biblical cosmology – another form of existence, unseen by us, existing alongside our experienced universe, acting upon it in unknown, but discernible ways.
This is not the only problem with the standard model. The expansion of the universe should be slowing according to the standard model as gravity starts to pull the universe back towards itself. But its expansion is actually increasing. So cosmologists postulate ‘dark energy’ – an tremendous source of unknown energy in ‘nothing’ that creates ‘nothing’.
I am not suggesting dark matter is the heavenly realms (although who knows!). Nor am I wanting to mock modern cosmologists. Quite the opposite. I am full of admiration for their work. Rather I want to highlight how a biblical cosmology is not as ridiculous in the light of modern science as people may assume.
In a similar vein, the BBC have also broadcast an awe-inspiring film-length documentary on the hunt for the Higgs Boson particle in their Storyville series which British viewers can watch here on iPlayer. I did shed a tear at one point as a marvelled at the fulfilment of the cultural mandate in this amazing collaboration to explore God’s creation. On the other hand, there is an extraordinary moment when one of the world’s leading cosmologists says the chances of the cosmos being anything other that chaotic are so remote that it is as if there is a benign hand on the dial, finely tuning our universe. But rather than accepting this, he says there therefore must be multiple universes, most of which are chaotic, and ours just happens to be one of the few that works. Notice two things about this argument. First, what drives this thinking is not what can be observed (the scientific process), but a prior commitment to rule out a benign hand on the dial (a God). Second, for this worldview to work, there must be a reality outside our universe. Once again materialists who find a biblical cosmology fanciful in the light of modern science have no idea of the cosmology proposed by modern science!
It’s a pleasure to let you know that WorshipGod, the Sovereign Grace Music conference, is returning to the UK in May 2015. The website has just gone live. Speakers include Kevin DeYoung, Mike Reeves, Jeff Purswell, Rick Gamache and Bob Kauflin. Plus there will be a range of seminars for pastors, musicians and worship leaders which, if last year is anything to go by, will be really useful. I’ll be doing a seminar on ‘Cultivating A Fruitful Life in the Word’.
For more information go to worshipgod.org.uk.
The Crucified King is a great book. It explores the relationship between the atonement and the kingdom of God. In evangelicalism today these themes are often kept asunder, creating contrasting approaches to mission, or they notionally held together without much sense of genuine integration. As it happens I am thinking of writing something on this topic, albeit at a more popular level.
Treat argues that the Old Testament background to the ministry of Christ presents a pattern of “victory through sacrifice”. This is mirrored in the New Testament emphasis on the kingdom established by the cross. Turning from biblical to systematic theology, Treat shows how the theme of Christus Victor (Christ defeating Satan through the cross) makes sense through penal substitution (Christ bearing the penalty of his people’s sin). Christ disarms Satan’s power to accuse.
Tom Wright addresses this divide in his book, How God Became King. Wright blames the early creeds. But Treat provides ample evidence from the Fathers to show that they held kingdom and cross together. Instead he argues it is modern problem. It is not always helped, he suggests, by the emphasis in Reformed theology on the two states of Christ (his humiliation and exaltation) and the three offices of Christ (Prophet, Priest and King). In Calvin these categories were overlapping, But, where they are kept apart, it becomes hard to integrate cross and kingdom. I think Treat’s perspective is a helpful corrective (though I’m not persuaded it accounts for the separation of kingdom and cross in popular evangelical missiology).
The Crucified King is a remarkable tour de force of biblical and historical scholarship, all presented in an accessible form. Quite apart from its content, it is a model of good theology. But its content does matter. This is an important contribution to an important issue. I would have liked to see Treat spelling out the implications because this issue does shape contrasting approaches to mission and discipleship. I would also have liked a greater emphasis on how the atonement enables God’s people to experience the coming of his kingdom as good news. But perhaps this leaves something for me to say!
Michael Bird is best known as a biblical scholar. His book A Bird’s Eye View of Paul is our introductory text on Paul in Porterbrook Seminary. (Apparently the US Publishers didn’t appreciate the punning title and published it under the more prosaic, Introducing Paul.)
Now Bird has produced a lively systematic theology. Bird is evangelical, Reformed, Calvinistic and Anglican (with a Baptist background). What makes Evangelical Theology distinctive, he claims, it its focus on the gospel. This is gospel-centred systematics. He says, ‘I intend to undertake this theological exercise of constructing an evangelical theology by putting the “evangel” at the helm.’ (21) Here’s how this evangel-ical theology is to be undertaken: ‘1. Define the gospel … 2. Identify the relationship of the various loci to the gospel … 3. Embark on a creative dialogue between the sources of theology … 4. Describe what the loci look like when appropriated and applied in the light of the gospel … 5 … What array of behaviours, activities, applications, and consequences follow on from [these] findings.’ (81-82)
This gospel-centred approach means, for example, that the order of topics is different from most other systematic theologies, especially the place of eschatology (the kingdom of God). Bird’s order is: revelation, Trinity, eschatology, christology, soteriology, pneumatology, anthropology and ecclesiology. This reflects Bird’s definition of the gospel: ‘The gospel is the announcement that God’s kingdom has come in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Lord and Messiah, in fulfilment of Israel’s Scriptures. The gospel evokes faith, repentance, and discipleship; its accompanying effects include salvation and the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ (52) Bird is not the first person to put eschatology nearer the front end of systematics (see, for example, Peter Jensen’s shorter At the Heart of the Universe). But it is good a move. This is systematics shaped more by the narrative of the Bible than logical structures.
The book is over 800 pages long with another 100 pages of bibliography and indices. But any sense that this might be an intimidating read is soon dispelled by the lively, engaging and occasional jocular style. This might irritate some, myself included. That said, people like me have plenty of more sombre alternative systematic theologies to turn to and I suspect it will lighten the process for a younger audience. Here’s a sample: ‘When I explain Calvinism to people, I usually say this: “People suck, they suck in sin, they are suckness unto death. And the God who is rich in mercy takes the initiative to save people from the penalty, the power, and even the presence of this sin. This is Calvinism, the rest is commentary.’ (24) Or on page 451 we are given ‘some comic belief’: ‘Why does God always have to use his left hand? Because Jesus is sitting on his right hand!’ At this point I’m getting pretty fed up with the jokes There are also some anomalies in terms of the level at which it is pitched. The first item we meet the word ‘epistemology’, for example, it is defined, but not the rarer and more complex word, ‘nominalism’.
As with any such undertaking there are points where I disagree with Bird. Stephen Williams highlights some specific deficiencies in his review in Themelios. The idea of creating gospel-centred systematics is welcome. But I’m not persuaded the ‘gospel-at-the-helm’ approach has created something which is very different from other evangelical systematic theologies. There is regular engagement with contemporary theological debates which is welcome and many readers will find this helpful and engaging. But I’m not sure that the missional implications come through as much as they could in a systematics with the gospel at the helm. Nevertheless I would happily use it with people.
We seem to have a growing number of good contemporary, thorough introductions to systematic theology at the moment. For example:
- Michael Horton, Pilgrim Theology (amazon.com and thinkivp).
- Michael Horton, The Christian Faith (amazon.com and thinkivp).
- Gregg Allison, Historical Theology (amazon.com and thinkivp).
- Alister McGrath, Christian Theology (amazon.com and thinkivp).
- Tony Lane, Exploring Christian Doctrine (amazon.com and thinkivp).
- John Frame, Salvation Belong to The Lord (amazon.com and thinkivp).
- John Frame, Systematic Theology (amazon.com and thinkivp).
All of them are have their distinctive emphases and styles. My problem is I can’t decide which I like best.
There was a problem with the first print run of my book Titus for You. The quality of paper and finish was not up to standard. So The Good Book Company and The Gospel Coalition have teamed up to make the slightly-less-than-perfect copies available free to pastors in the Third World as part of The Gospel Coalition’s ‘Theological Famine’ campaign. The idea is that anyone travelling to the Third World can receive some copies to take with them. All you pay is the postage within the United States. You can find more details here.
Tony Reinke has an interesting interview at Desiring God with David Wells and Douglas Groothius reflecting on our interaction with social media. He ends with six questions to gauge how our iPhones are changing us which I’ve transcribed below:
- Am I becoming like what I behold in my iPhone? Are my face-to-face relationships conforming to modes of communication that are shaped by my online habits?
- Am I overlooking my finiteness? I am finite. I am a man severely limited in what I can know and what I can read and what I engage and what I can care about. So do I want to know everything? Do I fear being left behind on what’s trending online right now?
- Am I multitasking priorities that should be uni-tasked. Specifically is my time with God in the word and I prayer being distracted and even being replaced by digital interruptions?
- I am deleting my embodiment? Do I truly value the personal, face-to-face relationships in my life over the disembodied relationships I maintain online? Are my face-to-face relationships with my neighbour, my wife and my kids suffering as a result?
- I am losing interest in the gathered church on Sunday? Baptisms, the Lord’s Supper, corporate worship, the laying on of hands – do I truly value the embodied reality that is my local church? Do I fiddle through it on my phone looking for something more entertaining?
- Am I careless with my words? It’s easy for my words to be published online. So what self-imposed limitations do I have to filter what I say and do I have any accountability in my life for what I say online?
Today sees the publication of my latest book, Titus For You. It’s the first volume in the Good Book Company’s God’s Word for You series not to have been written by Tim Keller. Published alongside it is a Good Book Guide on Titus for group Bible studies. Here’s a video of me introducing the book …
The Guardian newspaper has done a beautifully-produced, thought-provoking feature on the seven deadly sins of social media. But remember – the medium is the message!