When in Romans by Beverly Gaventa

9780801097386In Pauline scholarship circles it is fairly well known that Beverly Gaventa is working on a commentary on Romans for the WJK New Testament Library series. Over the last decade or more she has published close to twenty essays on various parts of Romans and most recently her presidential address at the 2016 SBL gathering was on Romans 13. Most of these essays are in edited collections which often are not cheap to obtain. Therefore this little book - and it is little, only 128 pages - When In Romans is a welcome and (also) accessible introduction to Gaventa's reading of the letter. It is dependent on the research she has been doing, evidenced by many of the footnotes pointing to the various essays she has published, but is written for a wide audience.

What excites many about Gaventa's work on Romans, is that she sees Paul as an apocalyptic theologian and so reads Paul apocalyptically, which no commentary of Romans, at least post-Lou Martyn's Anchor Bible commentary on Galatians (1997) has yet to do. At some point, fellow apocalyptic Pauline reader, Douglas Campbell, will also provide a commentary on Romans and it will be interesting to see how the two will compare. I think there will be lots of overlap, but also differences, for example Gaventa is not convinced by Campbell's suggested reading of Romans 1-3. (One place to find a brief description of Campbell's reading can be found in his contribution to Four Views on the Apostle Paul).  

In the four brief chapters, with introduction and conclusion, that make up When In Romans, Gaventa shows amazing grasp (as of course you'd expect) of the letter. She makes the letter come alive and demonstrates how it connects together - too often, as she points out, we read it in sections or as set of individual verses. Gaventa's reading is theo-centric and Christo-centric, it sees the plight of humanity as cosmic and the solution of the gospel as equally cosmic and universal. She reads Paul's not just for what he said, but also for how the church today might hear him. The only bit of the letter that isn't really addressed is Romans 13, but see above and note that she is beginning to give attention to that bit of the letter (partly to say we shouldn't read it in isolation from the rest of the letter!)

 If you struggle with Romans, if you remain unsatisfied with the other readings out there - from the likes of Dunn, Wright, Moo and co. - Gaventa offers (I think) the beginning of a much more satisfactory and helpful reading of this the most famous of Paul's letters. When In Romans is a wonderful little book that can be read fairly quickly, but will benefit from re-reading. It will certainly help me when I next come to preach or teach on Romans. If you know people who can handle the likes of Surprised by Hope or When God Became King by Tom Wright, they will have no problems in reading When in Romans and it will be to their benefit. This book certainly whets the appetite for her longer treatment when it finally appears, and suggests it will be a landmark study;  she will do for Romans, what Martyn did for Galatians. 

You never get the one you want: A Christmas Sermon

There’s a saying I like, but before I share it,

if you have children with you this morning you might want to cover their ears for a moment.

The saying is this about children:

‘You never get the one you want.’ [i]

The point of this saying is to point out that we don’t know what we’re doing when we have children – we think we know what we’re doing, but we quickly learn that we don’t.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t have children,

but I’m questioning the notion that we are somehow fully in control of these decisions and what they mean.

We might equally say churches never get the minister they want

or that they always choose the wrong minister.

Some of you might be thinking that this Christmas morning,

as you sit there wondering where this is going.

Let’s see if I can turn this into something for you go away and think about over your Christmas lunch.

We never get the children we want,

because they come to us as strangers.

Where they share our genes,

and we shape their environment and their lives in particular ways,

they also come to us unique,

and they have that special gift to both surprise us and at times distress us.

Most of us love our children,

but who they are is only in a very small way in our control.

And in this we have to learn to love them not for what we want them to be,

but for who they are.

Think about the times, on witnessing a new behaviour, or a new reaction,

you might have heard the phrase,

or you might have said the phrase:

‘where did that come from?’ or ‘where did she get that?’

Think about how children can be suddenly very hard of hearing when you

want them to do something

and also can be suddenly very good at hearing when you’re trying to say

something you don’t want them to hear.

We never get the children we want,

we want our children docile, obedient, perfect.

We want children who will fit into our lives,

as the verse from the carol Once in Royal David’s City goes:

            ‘Christian children all must be mild, obedient, good as He.’

The problem is right from the beginning they refuse to do what we want them to and I’m told this continues all the way into adulthood,

of course I’m also told we get our own back when we’re old and refuse to do what they want us to do!

There is always a tension between parents and children,

of having to live around each others lives.

Much of what I am saying is true also of marriage,

and true also of being part of the church.

We create expectations;

we create moulds into which we want to fit one another.

and at this point we arrive at the Christmas story,

because I want to suggest we also never get the God we want.

We want a God who agrees with us, who will say yes to our plans.

We want a God who keeps us safe from harm and suffering and upset.

We want a God who will make everything right without any waiting and any struggle,

and instead we get Jesus.

Through Advent we’ve been thinking about the four names

the prophet Isaiah gives to the hoped for king:

            Wonderful counsellor, mighty God, prince of peace

            and everlasting Father.

And each week we’ve been invited to see what these names mean in the light of Jesus,

and what we’ve found is what we think they mean at first glance, is played our differently in the life of Jesus.

We never get the God we want.

In our reading from John’s gospel,

we hear that the world did not recognise him

           and those who were his own did not receive him.

God in Jesus is not the God we want,

but it is the God we get.

And there is no other God, hiding, waiting to jump out,

there is no other God of our own making, of our design.

The God in Jesus we don’t want,

is the God we get.

God comes to us in Jesus

            as a crying baby,

            unable to fend for himself,

            unable to do anything to make our lives better.

We were thinking last night about

whether God gets messy,

and there is a real truth that God embraces our mess:

            birth is messy,

            children are messy,

            and becoming adults is just another kind of mess.

We want a God to take away the mess,

            but for the large part God comes to sit with us,

                        play with us,

                        dwell with us in our the mess of being human.

                        and out of that mess God brings salvation.

In the story of Jesus’ birth from Matthew’s gospel, we are told that Jesus will be Emmanuel, he will be God with us.

I said at the beginning of these reflections

that we never get the children we want,

and that means we have to learn to love the children we are given,

and in this way,

we can learn to want different things,

to change our expectations,

to revise our plans and dreams.

It's the same for church,

church is about learning to love the people we are given,

The annoying ones, the quiet ones, the demanding ones,

Jesus says learn to love them, because

hey I had to learn to love you!

In the same way,

and more so,

we might not get the God we want,

but we are called to love the God who is given,

who comes to us in Jesus

and in learning to love the God who gurgles in a manger,

and later dies on a cross,

we also learn that our wants are transformed,

and our desires are re-directed,

and that although we don’t have control of our lives,

it does not matter for God is with us in the mess

and he will lift us up

and turn ashes into beauty,

            death into life,

            despair into hope,

            doubt into faith,

            hate into love,

            indifference into compassion,

            pride into humility,

            weakness into strength,

            silence into song,

            mourning into dancing,

            fighting into peace,

            suffering into glory,

            sinners into saints.

Thanks be to God that he is the God he is

and not the God we want.

And Happy Christmas!


[i] The saying originated from Stanley Hauerwas.

Two Poems for Christmas

Here are two poems for Christmas written by Paul Goodliff.

Every mother is a little lost,
heart-abandoned to their new-born child.
Indifferent to the waking and the cost,
the moment’s awareness, and the hair run wild.

But this one, straw-laid and linen-wrapped
somehow called forth more than just
the wonder and the usual joy.
Something more like worship— rapt
attention, woven into love just short of lust.

The memory of the angel’s glance
from heaven to her virgin womb,
and the stirring, more than simply chance
of hormones or, she might assume,
the thought of Joseph and his love, her groom;
it struck her then, as also now,
that this was different, divine somehow.

No, this one was different,
it was certain, and so strange.
Yes, her heart was won
by birth and God’s loving intent
that she should be the mother
of the Saviour of the world, the one
who would redeem — another
story, almost entirely,
than the one she had imagined
or her family might arrange.

This one would almost surely break her heart,
yet love her to be his willing slave.
No doubt about it from the start —
the one she bore, her world to save.


The Star-lit child

He who made the stars and skies
under the star-lit heavens lies
murmuring in the straw, now wrecked
upon earth’s farthest shore
this One whom God calls his elect.

The hands that fashioned matter’s form
are curled around a stem of corn
and grip a finger, proffered, when
shepherds visit, unimportant men
who, stunned by angels’ choirs and news
search for a stable – no time to lose
to find a mother and her babe awake:
signs of God’s love for humans’ sake.

With passing weeks a star shines still
brighter than Venus, more brilliant, ‘til
those who search for truths’ bold claim
find a king who bears loves’ name.

And will I too the search pursue
to find God’s purpose made anew,
and journey to that place, and pray
to him who is Love’s Truth, Love’s Way?

Yes, though now there be no star
nor angel choirs, nor, from afar
those students of vast heaven’s voice
that speaks of glory, birth and choice.

The Daystar from on high has shone
now in my heart, and heaven’s song
is sung in quieter tones and hushed
before a sleeping child, uncrushed.

Here I will stay to find new grace
from heaven’s rich store, the stable place
where God’s great love and mercy weaves
the pattern that, in this babe, believes.

Wonderful Counsellor: A Sermon for Advent

‘And the government will be upon his shoulders.’

I can’t read those words at the moment without thinking of the forthcoming

inauguration of President Trump

and my expectation of how little he will resemble

the one expected in these words from Isaiah.

The words we have read from Isaiah 9

were probably written for a coronation, very much like an inauguration,

for the new king about to be crowned.

They were written in the hope of a new wave of peace and prosperity.

They were written in the hope that the new king would be one anointed by God

as a wonderful counsellor, a carrier of God’s power, an everlasting father and a

prince of peace.

In the main the hopes of Israel were ultimately found wanting,

very much like our own hopes in those who give the possibility of newness –

Kennedy, Blair, Obama, Trump …

and so the promises were pushed forward, awaiting fulfilment one day.

What does it mean to expect one who will be wonderful counsellor?


In the context of Isaiah 9

It is a reference to one who will govern with great wisdom,

whose plans and policies will be wonderful for all the people

and so serve the flourishing of the nation,

in terms of peace and prosperity.

Again we look to those who govern us,

to initiate and put in place plans and policies

that will benefit the whole nation,

that will result perhaps not in wonder, but at least in higher approval ratings!


We don’t just read this passage in its immediate context,

but also in the light of the gospel,

For the early church came to read the Old Testament

in the light of Jesus

and Isaiah 9 was rich in royal messianic imagery

and readily seen as pointing to Jesus.

So the question we ask is what does it mean to see Jesus as wonderful



Wisdom is certainly associated with Jesus.

Luke’s gospel twice says that the young Jesus was filled with, and grew in, wisdom

and, according to Mark’s gospel, when Jesus starts preaching the crowd

are amazed and ask what is this wisdom that has been given him?

And in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, Jesus is said to be the wisdom

of God, although a wisdom that confounds the ‘wise’.

If Jesus is wise, he is also seen in terms of wonder in the sense that he is no

ordinary teacher or prophet.

Throughout the gospels, it is said the people were amazed, or astonished.

His teaching contradicted all usual assumptions.

His teaching confounded the authorities;

He engaged the powerless crowds,

He spoke of a world that was coming, and had come, in which the impossible was

made possible.

What is wonderful about Jesus, is the impossible becomes possible.

Jesus comes to re-describe reality.


Every Sunday the church declares the impossible is possible in God and with God.

There should be wonder every time we open the scriptures.

If you come to church and are never astonished at what is read, what is done,

then either you need to listen more carefully or the church is not announcing the


Stories of coming to baptism, of the saints of old, of lives befriended, surrendered,

transformed leave us in wonder and we see that Jesus is not a person just of

words – he is not only our teacher - but a person of action, of deeds, of miracles,

of changing lives.


If Jesus provokes wonder, he also provokes opposition,

because his counsel, his governance is not more of the same,

but a challenge to the pattern and order of the world.

Those in power to not respond with wonder,

but with counsel on how they might end Jesus.

They were happy with the possible, and feared the impossible

that Jesus announced.

In there is both wonder and opposition,

before we too quickly think of the world as not including us,

we must come to terms with our rejection of Jesus’ wonderful counsel.

We must admit to ourselves and even to each other,

where we have not stomached the teaching of Jesus,

where we have called it impossible, foolish, romantic.

The church, like the world, continues to wrestle with Jesus the wonderful Counsellor.

We continue to need to be convinced,

to have eyes and hearts transformed.

We dare to believe, we cling to gospel stories in hope that,

then is now, that this is that, that the past is present. [i]

And where we do this,

we will find opposition, we will find those who cannot tolerate,

who will not tolerate this Jesus,

those for whom there is too much to lose.

Where the church faces no opposition, it is probably because we have allowed

ourselves to be dulled to the call, the vision, the demand of Jesus to follow.

The church is called to embrace the wisdom of Jesus,

which announces the end of the world as the world knows it,

and which from certain angles looks like foolishness,

but it is the only reality.

Walter Brueggemann says this:

            The ‘increase of his government’ will not be by supernatural imposition

            or royal fiat.

Instead, it will come about through daily intentional engagement

            of his subjects,

            who are so astonished by his wonder

that they no longer subscribe to the old order of power and truth

            that turns out to be in the long run,

            only debilitating fraudulence.

            It requires an uncommon wisdom

to interrupt the foolish practice of business as usual. [ii]


I wonder what it would mean, what it would look like,

for us to embrace the wonderful counsel of Jesus –

this ‘uncommon wisdom’. [iii]

It is almost impossible for us to see the world other than as we have it,

It is almost impossible for us to act in the world other than as we have it,

We are so entangled in the world,

            that to see and act in accordance with Jesus’ wisdom,

            seems beyond our reach.

And so why our first prayer must be,           

            God grant us the gift of eyes to see,

                                    ears to hear,

                                    hearts to respond,

                                    hands to act,

            that are in accordance with the mind of Christ,

                        that is, his wonderful wisdom.

The uncommon wisdom of Jesus

            will call us to live a different way of life,

            just read the Sermon on the Mount.

Or look to his ministry where we see it so clearly modelled for us:

            in how he makes time for children;

            in how he chooses to visit Zacchaeus, a tax collector;

            in how he calls the wrong type of people to be apostles;

            in how he doesn’t give up on his disciples;

            in how he responds to those who question him;

            in how he resists temptation by bring well versed in scripture;

            in how he extends forgiveness to those beyond the pale;

            in how he refuses the use of violence even when be faced with arrest;

            in how he is gentle with the woman at the well

                 and the woman who had been bleeding 12 years;

            in how tells stories which defy neatness and instead offer continual wondering;

            in how he does not ignore the cry of those who need mercy like Bartimaeus;   

            in how he sees beauty and not waste in Mary’s use of expensive perfume;

            in how he challenges the grip wealth can have on a heart;

            in how he brings freedom to a man bound by demons and chains;

            in how he sees faith in those outside the Jewish faith;

            in how he doesn’t disown the law, but brings it to his proper end;

            in how he sees his life as something to be laid down on behalf of others;

            in how he sees the cross not just tragedy, but glory.

This is an uncommon wisdom,

            which is both wonderful and wondrous,

                        and at the same time it is the politics of God

                                    an economy of grace,

                                    in which Christ is the key. [iv]


[i] This of course picks up the work of Jim McClendon.

[ii] Walter Brueggemann, Names for the Messiah, 16-17.

[iii] There is a reminder here also of a work by a Baptist minister John Peck who wrote with Charles Strohmer, Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World.

[iv] Here I am deliberately echoing the titles of a series of books by Kathryn Tanner.

Barrie White: In Memoriam

The news has come that Barrie White, the Baptist historian and former Principal of Regent's Park College, Oxford died on Saturday 12th November 2016.

I'm sadly too young to have any memories of Barrie White in his prime. Hopefully others will fill that gap.

White was Principal of Regent's Park College, 1972-1989 and in the 1970s and 1980s the leading Baptist historian of his generation, especially of Baptist 17th century beginnings. His doctoral work completed in 1961 was published as The English Separatist Tradition: From the Marian Martyrs to the Pilgrim Fathers (Oxford, 1971). His other major work was The English Baptists of the Seventeeth Century (1983, 1994), but alongside that was as editor of three volumes of Association Records of the Particular Baptists. There would have surely been other book-length pieces if dementia had not taken its toll on his mind from the early 1990s onwards. White remains one of the most important non-conformist and Baptist historians and will be remembered alongside the likes of W. T. Whitley, E. A. Payne and G. F. Nuttall. He was honoured in 1999 with a festschrift, Pilgrim Pathways, edited by William Brackney, Paul Fiddes and John H. Y. Briggs.

Here are some extracts from early short articles written on the task of Baptist history.

The first is 'Writing and Preserving Baptist History', The Fraternal (April, 1965)

Why does more and better Baptist history need to be written? So that the wisdom and experience of our past may be harnessed to the making of decisions about our present and our future.

Tradition has a place: what the Holy Spirit taught yesterday may have, must have, a bearing upon what He would teach us today. Nevertheless we must beware of a crude fundamentalism, which in place of "Holy Church says" or "the Bible says" inserts "the Puritans say" and so commit our mind and conscience to the keeping of another age. That way lies blind dogmatism and a theological strait-jacket. Some of our brethren might like to appeal to John Smyth, others to the Confession of 1677, others yet again to the assembly of 1689, and still others to the wide canvas of the 17th century Baptists. They are all wrong: we may not confide ourselves to the keeping of a man, or of a confession, or of an assembly, or of an era. But we should listen respectfully to what they have to say when, in the light of Scripture and of the Spirit, we are on our knees on behalf of our tomorrow.

When we make up our minds about our denominational policy and future (and these may not be quite as much bound up together as some people think), when we strive to evaluate just what it is that God has entrusted to us, which we have to contribute to the wider family of the people of God- then let us take into account our yesterdays. To neglect this is to deny, implicitly at least, that the Holy Spirit ever had anything worth saying to another generation which has not yet been said (or heard!) by ours.

... the brutal fact of the matter is that the state of Baptist historical writing at the moment, in both quality and quantity of work done, is such that it is virtually impossible to claim that any era of our history has been treated in depth.

I believe it is high time that we got down to producing big books on Baptist history ... What we need is detailed studies covering the ground at six inches to the mile, and they are just not available. And not only are the monographs chiefly notable for their absence but, as a denomination we are, generally speaking, almost criminally careless with our primary records.

 ... it is really remarkable that there is no detailed study of what English Baptists have said about Baptism over the years. Neither have there been full-length studies across the centuries of our attitudes to ordination, to the Lord's Supper, to authority in Church and State.

Fifty years on we have made some progress. Some big books have been written - the four volume series on English Baptists, to which White contributed the 17th volume, and more recently David Bebbington's one volume Baptist Through the Centuries. Likewise we now have more detailed studies of Grantham, Kiffin, Taylor, Keach, Rippon, Fuller, Spurgeon, Faringham, Steele, Shakespeare, as well as a reader on 17th Baptist Women Preachers.

Sadly I think it might be said that we can still be not as careful with our recent primary records as perhaps we should, but as Baptists we now have a wonderful, accessible resource in the Angus Library, in which Barrie must have spent many hours.

The second selection of extracts comes from 'The Task of the Baptist Historian', Baptist Quarterly 22 (1968):

... "Why bother with Baptist history anyway?" there are certain things which can be said at once: first, if Baptists do not investigate and care about Baptist history no-one else will. No-one else is likely to take the time or the interest to sift the diamonds from the dust of our denominational yesterday. No-one else will be prepared to attempt the reconstruction of that yesterday from our generous but annually diminishing early source materials. No-one. else will have the same creative sympathy with that yesterday and under- standing of the texture, the subtle overtones and undertones, of our denominational heritage in its national setting. To say this does not, of course, mean that non-Baptists should not be encouraged to write Baptist history or that Baptists from other lands should not touch English Baptist history. There is certainly always a sense in which the onlooker sees most of the game: a detached observer may well discern patterns and meanings which those too closely caught up in their own personal or partisan enthusiasms. may miss. Nevertheless, when all this has been readily and cheerfully admitted, it remains true that if Baptists are to wait for others to do their fundamental research for them they will still be waiting, with a sense of growing disappointment, for a good many years to come.

... Baptists can far less easily ignore their own history, their own heritage, than they can that of other Christians. To slam the door, as it were, upon their yesterday would be, first, to lose their identity and most of their understanding of why they stand where they do and, secondly, to limit all their insights into the Word and the Will of God to the narrow vision of the present generation and even, on some occasions, to that of the local congregation. On the other hand Baptists dare not allow their yesterday to dominate their today for two other reasons: first, because their own past does not speak with one voice; there is, for them, no golden age of an "undivided church" where all the Fathers spoke with a single unanimous voice. T h e second reason why Baptists cannot allow their past to have the last word is that to do so would be to bolt and bar another door: that against the continuing, contemporary, guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

... Baptist historiography is always in danger of domination by a spirit of historical fundamentalism according to which the past becomes a chunk of dead rock from which anachronistic but superficially relevant proof-texts are chiselled to the required shape.

... it is not the denominational historian's task to be a partisan, he must always be aware of the greater army marching the same way to the left and right of him; he must resist the temptation to rub the rough edges off history in the interests of a later respectability and he dare not forget that whilst Baptists have often been brave they have even more often been bigoted. It is not the Church historian's task to whitewash anyone, least of all his own side.

... One thing should now be entirely plain: whilst the basic ingredients [of Baptist history] may remain the same, there is a great. deal more involved in telling that plain, unvarnished tale adequately than perhaps some of our predecessors ever realised.

There will be a thanksgiving service at New Road Baptist Church, Oxford, where Barrie had been a member for many years, on Monday 28th November, 12pm.

A Vision for Life in Strange Times: A Sermon

Adam Curtis is a BBC documentary maker

whose films seek to explain and explore our world.

His most recent is a BBC iplayer only film called Hypernormalisation. [i]

Curtis begins with the claim:

We live in a strange time.

Extraordinary events keep happening

that undermine the stability of our world.

Suicide bombs, waves of refugees, Donald Trump,

Vladamir Putin, even Brexit …

and no-one has any vision for a different, or a better kind of future.

He goes on to say

‘We’ve constructed a simpler, but fake world into which we’ve all bought …’

and where ultimately ‘nothing ever changes.’

Curtis says

This has allowed dark and destructive forces to fester and grow outside.

Forces that are now returning to pierce the fragile surface

of our carefully constructed fake world.

It is a bleak analysis.

I said to a friend this week who recently had a baby,

What kind of world are we bringing our children into?

To which she replied, ‘utterly terrifying.’

And another Baptist minister friend was asking this week

'What in heaven's name are we to do with what the Hell is going on around us?' [ii]

Now this might be overstating things,

But it is certainly true that 2017 is going be a different world

than we began in 2016.

Someone told me this week if you had place a bet on Brexit, Trump for

presidency and Leicester winning the Premier League, you’d be a multi-millionaire!

These strange times lack perhaps much to be cheerful about …

(thank God for Ed Balls on Strictly!)

And this is Remembrance Sunday

in which we remember equally non-cheerful times

in which millions died, or more accurately millions were killed.

The church after 1918 and 1945 was left searching for something to say.

For the wars in Europe saw Christian kill Christian.

We bear the scars of these wars today,

There is a worry that we might be re-opening them.

Adam Curtis I think is right in that we have not been offered a vision for a

different, a better future.

The visions at the beginning of the 20th century failed,

resulting in two world wars.

The visions of Clinton and Blair and their ‘third way’ failed,

The vision of Bush to defeat terrorism with military might has failed.

The hope of Obama is about to be overturned, and ultimately his hope

has not reached and transformed the lives of many in middle America

and so one reason why the result this week is what is it.

But there is a vision,

A way of seeing, a way of living,

That offers hope, and peace, and life.

It is called the kingdom of God.

The prophets announce it:

            ‘See I will create a new heavens and a new earth’ (Isa. 65.12)

            ‘The days are coming when I will make a new covenant’ (Jer. 31.31)

            ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! … I will put breath in you …’ (Ezek. 37.4, 6)

            ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all people …’ (Joel 2.28)

           ‘They will beat swords into ploughshares,

                        and their spears into pruning hooks.’ (Micah 5.3)

Moses teaches it:

            Consecrate the fiftieth year

and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.

            It shall be a jubilee for you. (Lev. 25.10)

The Psalmist sings it:

            He upholds the cause of the oppressed

            And gives food to the hungry.

            The Lord sets the prisoner free,

            The Lord gives sight to the blind,

            The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,

            The Lord loves the righteous.

            The Lord watches over the foreigner

            and sustains the fatherless and the widow (Ps 146)

and Mary joins in:

            He has brought down rulers from their thrones

            But has lifted up the humble.

            He has filled the hungry with good things

            But has sent the rich away empty (Lk 1.52-53)

Jesus proclaims it and embodies it:

            Blessed are the poor in spirit

            Blessed are those who mourn

            Blessed are the meek

            Blessed are who hunger and thirst for righteousness

            Blessed are the merciful

            Blessed are the pure in heart

            Blessed are the peacemakers

            Blessed are those who are persecuted (Matt. 5.3-11)

The church in Acts practice it:

            All the believers were together

            And had everything in common.

            They sold property and possessions to give to anyone in need.

            Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.

They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,

Praising God (Acts 2.44-47)

Paul preaches it:

            ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek,

            Slave or free,

            Male and female

            You are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal. 3.28)

John of Patmos sees it:

            ‘there before me was a great multitude that no one could count

            from every nation,

            tribe, people, language,

            standing before the throne and before the Lamb.’ (Rev. 7.9)

And again:

            I saw a new heaven and a new earth …

            I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem,

            Coming down from heaven from God …

            He will wipe every tear from their eyes.

            There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain (Rev 21.1-2, 4)

That’s a vision,

a re-describing of reality

a learning to speak Christian,

a ‘believing that a coming future of God will prevail

over the deathliness of the present.’ [iii]

In the kingdom of God

            There is a refusal to see those that are ‘other’ as threats,

but as human beings

            There is a refusal of economics that only serves our interest,

but practices generosity      

            There is a refusal of war as a means of making peace and reconciliation

            There is a refusal of environmental self-indulgence,

but practices humility and compassion

            There is a refusal of nationalism either seeking to isolate or dominate,

but instead builds bridges and opens doors

            There is a refusal of adult arrogance and power,

                        but an embrace of the child

The purpose of the Bible

is to impress upon his readers a different view of the world,

a world in which there is a Creator

            a world in which there is evil

            a world in which Christ has come

                        and at the cross terminates one world

                                    and in the resurrection raises a new world.

The purpose of the Bible

to refurbish the Christian imagination with

alternative heavenly and divine visions of how the world is and will be.

The purpose of the Bible

is to reveal Jesus as Lord.


who is the First and Last,

who is the Living One,

who is the faithful witness,

who is the Lamb who was slain,

who is coming soon.

The book of Revelation says

that the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of Jesus,

and so while kings, queens, presidents, prime ministers of this world

will rule for some years,

Jesus will reign for ever and ever.

Jesus is our future,

the author and perfecter of our faith.

Where do we go from here?

We pray for the gift of discernment –

            To see the possibility of death where others find progress or success

            To see the reality of resurrection and hope where others

are consigned to despair [iv]

Alongside that, we immerse ourselves in the Bible:

            ‘In the middle of chaos, celebrate the Word.

Amidst babel, speak the truth.

Confront the noise and nonsense and falsehood of death

with the truth and power and efficacy of the Word of God.

Know the Word, teach the Word, nurture the Word, preach the Word,

defend the Word, incarnate the Word, do the Word, live the Word.’ [v]

It is in the Word

            that we will come to see the world in new ways

            and so see the crucified and risen Jesus at work in the world

and so attend to his way.

Where do we start in the Bible?

The Beatitudes is a good place.

In these nine blessings we find a vision for life,

We find what it looks like to be Christian: [vi]

            It is dwelling with

those who are poor, those who are mourning, those who are meek

            It is allowing God to change you into

those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,

                        those who practice mercy

                        and those who are pure in heart

            It is living the life of

                        those who are peacemakers

                        and those who love God even in the face of death.

In these strange times,

Where everything seems to falling apart

Where today we remember those who fought in wars

because no alternative could be found

We say there is a vision,

            A vision for life

            And it is found in Jesus

Let us continue to be captivated by it,

            Continue to trust in it,

            And continue to live it

                        For the love of God

                        With the grace of Jesus

                        And in the power of the Holy Spirit



[i] http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p04b183c/adam-curtis-hypernormalisation

[ii] Jim Gordon, ‘Thinking of Advent, Worrying About the News, Recovering Faith in the Good News’: http://livingwittily.typepad.com/my_weblog/2016/11/thinking-of-advent-worrying-about-the-news-recovering-faith-in-the-good-news.html

[iii] Walter Brueggemann, ‘Vision that Trumps Violence’ in The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann Vol. 2 (WJK, 2015).

[iv] William Stringfellow, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land quoted in Charles L. Campbell, The Word Before the Powers (WJK, 2002).

[v] Stringfellow, An Ethic for Christians, quoted in Campbell, The Word Before the Powers.

[vi] I borrow this from Sam Wells, ‘Dwelling in the Comma’ in Learning to Dream Again (Canterbury, 2013).

Remembering Baptists: James McClendon (again)

On this day in 2000 James McClendon died. He was one of a few Baptists to offer us a systematic theology and in my opinion it is the most important we Baptists have so far.

Here lies some of the opening lines from each of his 3 Volumes.

From Ethics:

Theology means struggle. It may begin as Bonhoeffer said in silence, but when the silence is broken, a battle begins. This seems regrettable; in matters of great moment, the human heart yearns ceaselessly for secure truth, and it is easy for us to believe that unchallenged beliefs are self-evident truths. A little reflection, however, will show that this is not so; in fact we very often have believed without doubt or contradiction what turn out to be mere falsehoods ... Thus when we set out upon Christian theology or ethics we must be reconciled to the fact that here as elsewhere hard truth is not available without hards struggles.

From Doctrine:

In shaping its teaching, the church seeks simply to be the church, so that Christians may be a people who find in Christ their centre, in the Spirit their communion, in God's reign their rule of life.

From Witness:

Consider the following image: We Christians, in the short time, we have existed, as measured by humankind's longer history have all crossed into a unknown realm, in Jesus' phrase "a kingdom"; we have explored its boundaries, discovered its laws, encountered its majesty, found our true selves buy finding it. Now, like so many Marco Polos, we return to find our homeland a strange country. Unaware of our journey, it speaks a language we have not heard when abroad. Its ways, seen now through our refocused eyes, are at once familiar and questionable. We wish to tell of our exotic journey and to divide our booty with those at home, but how can our offer be understood? The image is in several ways defective, yet it has its point; Christians must take their place anew the old setting. To find the new standpoint in our earthly homeland calls for a Christian critique of its culture; thus we will see where and how the church must stand to be the church.


How Baptists Read the Bible (& Violet Hedger)

 On Tuesday morning a few of us gathered for morning prayer.

We read from the Psalms, from 2 Kings and from 1 Timothy.

The 1 Timothy reading included the verses we have read this morning:

‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man’ (1 Tim


and elsewhere in 1 Corinthians it says,

‘women should remain silent in churches’ (1 Cor. 14.34).

What do we do about these verses?


Violet Hedger was the first woman to be accepted for training as a Baptist minister.

The year was 1922.

She trained at Regent’s Park College, although the principal,

Henry Wheeler Robinson, (who had became principal after she was accepted,)

did his best to pretend she wasn’t there.

In fact, where as all the other male ministerial students had their examination

fees paid for by the Principal, which was the custom,

Violet had to pay her own.

It was only in 1990 Paul Fiddes, who was the then current Principal at Regent’s

Park, wrote Violet a cheque to cover those fees.

The cheque was for £5!

Following her training,

Violet went on to be a Baptist minister in Derby, Halifax, Chatham, and Chalk


It was during the war that she was minister at Chatham in Kent.

And her church there, Zion Baptist, was bombed three times.

On the final occasion it was bombed,

she was buried in the rubble and knocked unconscious,

she was rescued but left permanently disabled.

Not that this stopped her. Her final pastorate at Chalk Farm,

saw her rebuild – both physically and spiritually – the bombed-out church.

It was said of Violet that she was:

‘a pioneer in women’s ministry

            she battled against family opposition

            widespread prejudice

            emotional breakdowns

            and physical disability

to fulfil the ministry to which the Lord called her.’ [i]

She died in 1992.


In 1941 she wrote an article for the Baptist Quarterly reflecting on her ministry. [ii]

She begins by saying

‘a newspaper placard asserted to me as I walked through Oxford Street, that “War gives woman her chance.” If that be true, then it s tragic that only in this awful failure of man’s control of the civilisation he devised is a chance given to half of humanity … It should be ‘the Church gives woman her chance.”

She goes on to tell several stories, like:

  • I was delighted when, leaving after I had taken a service, I was bidden “Goodnight” at the door by a short-sighted but loyal deacon, who said, “You should come next Sunday and hear our own minister.”
  • At one Yorkshire anniversary, I crawled under a scaffolding to the pulpit, and then, forgetting, that I was standing on a small box, I stepped back, and disappeared in the middle of the sermon!
  • There are many who doubt if it be safe to be buried by a woman. A family – members of my own church – asked the Vicar to take the graveside service, and I that in the house!
  • I am very cheered that my deacons’ wives say that their husbands have never been home so early from deacons’ meetings before!
  • Of course, there are some whose main concern is the kind of frocks a woman will wear, or her hats. Having seen some minister’s ties, I think there is little need for worry!
  • At a town in Surrey, where I was taking an anniversary, my hostess came to meet me. She expected someone tall, elderly, with glasses, wearing a widow’s weeds. As no such person appeared, she went home and left me on the platform!
  • So many churches think of women in terms of washing-up and tea-making – estimable occupations in themselves, and I think highly of those men who undertake such duties at home, and wish they would do them sometimes for the church.
  • The Call to a spiritual vocation comes in the same way to a woman as it does to man; brooding over the week that has to be done to evangelise and rebuild the world, there comes a clear to this Christian ministry …


Why tell the story of Violet Hedger?

Why remember her life?

I think one reason is it tells us something about how Baptists read the Bible,

and verses like the ones from 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians.

As Baptists we take the Bible seriously.

We believe Scripture to be trustworthy and authoritative

and yet we have ordained Violet and many other women.

Many Baptists (but not all) have said that women should teach,

that they should have authority over men,

that they should be the opposite of silent in church.

In my 6 years at Belle Vue we have welcomed the ministry

of Ruth, Myra, Sheila, Emma – all ordained ministers of the gospel

and that is not forgetting the ministry of Sue, Brenda, Kalbi and Liejse.

My own life is grateful to many women who have taught me the gospel:

Maggi, Fleming, Carol, Beverly, Sally, Beth, Paula, the list could go on …

This appears in direct contradiction to the teaching of

1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians.


Let me offer some suggestions on how Baptists have tended to read the Bible. [iii]

  • We have said the most important place to read the Bible is not by ourselves at home, but to read it together as a congregation.
  • We have said we know Jesus through the Bible, we discover and encounter him within the Bible, but we know Jesus beyond and before the Bible and that he has authority above the Bible
  • We read the Bible to discern the mind of Christ for our life and mission, that is, we read it intentionally and expectantly, not casually or occasionally.
  • We read the Bible believing that there is more light and truth that God will reveal to us, which means:
    • We read the Bible in the present tense – addressed to us today, here, now.
    • We read the Bible as part of an on-going conversation within the church to what being a Christian looks like
    • We accept that there will be sometimes a diversity of interpretation and the strong likelihood of disagreement, but we are bound together in friendship and in trust.
    • We read the Bible with modesty, we do not claim to have the final word
  • We read the Bible with the Holy Spirit, who guides us into truth.


What this means is that when we come to the ministry of women in the church,

we have looked to Galatians 3.28:

            ‘there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free,

            neither male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’

We have looked to Acts 2:

            I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

            Your sons and daughters will prophesy …

We have looked to Acts 10 and how the Holy Spirit fell upon Gentiles without

them becoming Jewish …

and to which Peter said has ‘God has shown me …’ something new

and later defending his actions to baptise by saying that

God has given the Holy Spirit to both Jew and Gentile and so who was he

to hinder God.

We ordained Violet and many other women,

            because we came to see that the Spirit was leading us to read the Bible in

new ways, just as he led Peter.

            because we came to see that baptism is the great leveller,

                        it removes any sense of hierarchy or restriction.

            One person has suggested we ordain women, because we baptise girls. [iv]

In so doing we have overlooked the verses in 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians, [v]

We have discerned that they are not binding on us,

            but that rather they were words written for particular problems in

particular churches. [vi]

We have said the Bible is not a text book or an encyclopaedia,

                        in which ever verse carries the same weight.

            Instead the authority and leading of the Spirit

            and the witness of other parts of the Bible have lead us and continue to

lead us to affirm, recognise, receive, the ministry of women.

We continue to ordain those like Violet because we continue to discern a call in

the lives of women to ministry.

We remember Violet Hedger

because was among the first whose call to ministry was recognized.

We remember Violet Hedger

because without her and others like Edith Gates,

many other women’s call to ministry might have been denied.

We remember Violet Hedger

in a world of “locker room” talk,

in which women can still be seen as subject to the power of men,

            to which we say the gospel says different.

We remember Violet Hedger

because she is evidence of the way we read the Bible as Baptists.

We are not literalists or liberals,

instead we seek to read carefully and be open to the inspiration of Holy Spirit

to lead us into truth as we discern it.

As we continue to consider issues of sexuality, abortion, euthanasia, war, immigration,

money, Europe, Islam, and many more,

            It is this way of reading the Bible we have learned,

                        looking to Jesus,

dependent on the Holy Spirit

                        holding our interpretations lightly,

                        but our convictions strongly

               that will see the church be faithful to her Lord.


[i] http://www.bmsworldmission.org/sites/default/files/8%20Violet%20Hedger.pdf

[ii] Violet Hedger, ‘Some experiences of a women minister’, Baptist Quarterly 10.5 (1941)

[iii] I’ve been helped here by Curtis Freeman, Contesting Catholicity (2014), 273-309.

[iv] https://seanfwinter.com/2007/05/01/we_ordain_women/

[v] For some suggestions on how to read these verses see Tom Wright, ‘Women’s Service in the Church: The Biblical Basis’ http://ntwrightpage.com/2016/07/12/womens-service-in-the-church-the-biblical-basis/ and in the case of 1 Cor 14, see Lucy Peppiatt, Women and Worship at Corinth (Wipf & Stock, 2015)

[vi] Leonard Champion, ‘The Ministerial Service of Women’, Baptist Quarterly 20.5 (1964), 202.

A Short Interview with Tim Carter

A short interview with Tim Carter, who has just published The Forgiveness of Sins (James Clarke, 2016)

You seem to have an obsession with sin! As your new book and your previous book are about sin. What led you to write both the first, and then this new book?

Actually, I prefer to think that I have made progress in moving from writing about sin in the first book to writing about forgiveness in the second: that feels like I am moving in a positive direction! Actually something that bugs me about the church is that we have been given an amazing message of forgiveness, yet we are very good at making people feel guilty…

The first book grew out of a sense of dissatisfaction with the way in which people seemed to assume that St. Paul must have had a really negative view of human nature because he talks about people being enslaved to sin. In that book I tried to argue that Paul refers to sin as a power in the specific context of the debate concerning justification by faith rather than by works of the law: he wanted to define the human plight in a way that made it clear the Torah was not an effective boundary marker separating righteous Jews from Gentile sinners. To this end Paul argues that sin reigns over everyone, whether they observe the law or not, and the only solution is to die with Christ to the power of sin and to live one’s life in the liberating power of the Spirit. In this way the ethnic boundary marker of Torah is replaced by the eschatological boundary marker of Spirit-reception.

The second book arose from the realisation that Luke writes more than anyone else in the New Testament about the ‘forgiveness of sins’, yet he is often criticised for having a weak theology of the atonement: particularly in the version of Luke-Acts found in Codex Bezae, Luke seems actively to avoid suggesting that ‘Christ died for our sins.’ That led me into exploring the link between the forgiveness of sins and the death of Jesus in Luke-Acts. I think that Luke actually sees a close correlation between divine forgiveness and human interpersonal forgiveness.

Sometimes people ask why Jesus had to die before God could forgive us. The answer is that he didn’t, at least not in the sense that the wrath of God had to be satisfied by some sacrificial bloodletting before he could bring himself to forgive us. Rather, in Jesus God himself takes the place of the innocent victim of injustice, and it is from that context of suffering and vulnerability that God extends forgiveness to sinful humanity. Without the cross, the idea that God could just write off the sins of those who perpetrate atrocities against others is abhorrent: only through the death of Jesus does God have the right to forgive our sins. That’s why Jesus’ prayer for forgiveness from the cross (recorded in Codex Sinaiticus) is so important.

Then I found myself wondering about the phrase ‘the forgiveness of sins’, its antecedents in the Old Testament and other Jewish writings, the different ways it is used in the New Testament, and the contexts in which the phrase is used in the early church. The more I looked into it, the more I felt that this subject was important enough and interesting enough to warrant writing a book about it.

How have you found the time to research and write alongside being a local church minister? Have Brighton Road had to hear lots of sermons on ‘the forgiveness of sins’?

It’s taken twelve years! I have benefited enormously from opportunities to share my thoughts at a variety of study groups: Steve Finamore ran a small study group a few years ago; the Colleges ran some conferences for ‘Baptist Ministers doing Theology in Context’ and LST ran a series of annual research conferences; then there was the annual British New Testament Conference. Without the seminar opportunities provided at these events the book would never have been written: I aimed to produce a paper every year, and each of those papers became the basis for a chapter in the book.

The advantage of writing about something like forgiveness is that there is a constant interplay between the reality of pastoral ministry and what I read in the study. And I am fortunate in that I find that studying invigorates my ministry. So, I aim to spend half a day a week studying and make full use of study weeks and sabbaticals to bolster that. Brighton Road have been fully supportive of my studies, and I am profoundly grateful to them. They haven’t had to sit through loads of sermons on forgiveness, but if any of the brave souls who have bought the book actually read it, they will find the basis for a number of sermons in its pages.

Can we expect to see in the future a third book on sin?

I have, on occasion, been referred to as ‘Dr Sin’ at Brighton Road, and I am not sure I want the label to stick! At the back of my mind are some thoughts about guilt and shame which would tie in with the ‘sin’ theme, I guess. But whereas immersing myself in forgiveness has been good for me, I am not sure that exploring guilt and shame would be such an edifying experience. Anyway, there has been a fourteen year gap between the last book and this one, so don’t hold your breath.

What have you been reading recently that you might recommend?

I’d want to recommend two great books that tie in with the theme of forgiveness and atonement.

Simon Gathercole has written a pithy study entitled, Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul (Baker Academic, 2015): in about 100 pages he explores different ways of understanding the death of Jesus and examines 1 Cor. 15:3 and Rom. 5:6-8. It’s a book that can be read at a single sitting, but which stimulates a lot of helpful thinking and reflection.

A second book which is really well written is David Downs’ Alms: Charity, Reward, and Atonement in Early Christianity (Baylor University Press, 2016). This explores how Jews and early Christians all saw atoning value in practical acts of mercy, and argues that this way of thinking can also be found in the New Testament. The challenge that stays with me from reading this book is a practical one: faced with the rise of docetism, the church argued that orthodox belief in the physical death and resurrection of Jesus went hand in hand with caring for the physical needs of the poor. It’s a potent reminder that faith and praxis always need to go hand in hand.