Anthropology Ethics Pastoralia

Fruitfulness in the Ruins

Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it.[1]

So, Kevin DeYoung has—unwittingly I assume—caused some disagreement and distress. In a recent blog post, he argues that ‘It’s Time for a New Culture War Strategy’. In short: children. Lots of them, faithfully discipled.

I can understand why his article, as it stands, was hard for some childless couples and some single people to read. I suspect a few more caveats or acknowledgements of the complexities and pains of life would have been helpful. But, whether or not one is persuaded, his argument isn’t new. And whether or not we personally agree with him, it really shouldn’t, as someone suggested on Twitter(!), unite all evangelicals in disagreement.

In what follows, I want to do three things. First, I’ll make some preliminary observations to frame the main substance of this article. Secondly, I’ll examine what DeYoung actually says, as although I have some questions of my own, I think he’s been misunderstood and misrepresented by some.[2] And thirdly, I’ll explore whether or not his basic thesis (or my reading of it) holds water.

John Webster Prayer

Freedom and Prayer

I’m just parking this Webster quotation here; no further comment is necessary.

Evangelical freedom, emerging from our being put to death and made alive in Christ and the Spirit, is thus freedom from the care of self which so harasses and afflicts the lost creatures of God. My freedom is in part my freedom from final responsibility for maintaining myself, a freedom which is the fruit of my having been liberated from the anxious toil of having to be my own creator and preserver…

A particular mode of this freedom is the freedom to pray. Prayer is an act of evangelical freedom because in it is expressed our liberation from anxiety and self-responsibility, and our freedom to live on the basis of fellowship with God and trust in the divine promise. Prayer thus expresses the fact that, as we have been set free by God, so we have had taken from us the evil custody of ourselves which we thought ensured our safety but which in fact fastened us to sin and death. Prayer, indeed is at the centre of the fellowship with God which is determinative of whatever is authentically humane.

John Webster, ‘Evangelical Freedom’, in Confessing God, 225-26.


Easter Sorrow

What to say when Easter joy
Is silent? When in my heart
I sense a still-sealed tomb?
When death has won and cries of peace
Are violent intruders, mocking
in the gloom.

What to say when others’ joy
Seems shallow? And seeds of doubt
Are planted in the ground,
In fields that now for years have stood
Long fallow—empty, dry and barren
Seasons round.

What to say when voices cry
“He’s risen!” and Alleluias
Scald my angry mind?
Weary resignation and
Depression, the only consolation
I can find.

What to say? My cauterized
Rejection of Easter’s joy
Will seek another cave,
Another Mary, witness of
Resurrection, as silently
He weeps before a grave.

Photo by davide ragusa on Unsplash


Love’s Bonds

A man I never knew has died and I am sad.
Parents, not my own, are sick, 
and I am anxious as I wait for news.

Strange that I am grieving
at the death and pain 
of people I have never known.
But he was a beloved friend 
of my friend. They are parents
of another friend.
And I am bound to both my friends
with bonds of memory, affection, hope, and
so I am bound
to those they love.

Grief is the strangest thing. Death rips 
us from the people we have loved,
yet death cannot rend love.
In victory, death deepens 
love. Love is never so strong 
as when it faces death.

I have learned today death 
deepens friendship. 
Even as it tears and claws at life,
death binds me to my friends with deeper bonds of love.
I weep with them. I watch and wait for news.
I pray. We pray. And we are held by Love.

Love that is as strong as death. 
Jealous of the grave.

Photo by Jamie Haughton on Unsplash

John Webster Pastoralia Prayer

Grace in a Time of Coronavirus

In our current trials, painful as they are, we are being given a gift—a gift as Christians, a gift as pastors, a gift as churches and a gift as nations, if only we will take it. This time of losses, restrictions, anxieties and griefs, it also a matchless opportunity for grace.

In The Culture of Theology, John Webster invites us to take our own existence, and the situation in which we are placed, with full seriousness. He asks, ‘In what sense can theological existence be cultivated?’, and answers, ‘The first thing to say is that it can’t.’1 Although he is writing about the ‘anatomy of a theologian’, what Webster says here applies equally to our understanding of all human existence in the light of the gospel. This seems more obvious now than at any time in my lifetime. If we believed it, how refreshing it would be! It would calm our bubbling anxieties, cool our frenzied conversations, soothe our restless fears.

Pastoralia Suffering

On Coping (or not) with a Crisis

I’ve been trying to work out why I’m feeling existentially disconnected from CoV-19-related fears. I’m taking it seriously, but it’s not registering in any deeply personal way. Partly it’s that my routines are largely undisrupted. But as I reflect on people’s reactions I think there’s more, because a lot of these feelings have been my friends for more than 2 years now. 

Early in December 2017, I had a fairly epic nervous breakdown. The reasons are unimportant. But the consequences were horrible. We’re all different, and in no way was my situation as bad as a global pandemic or the most severe health risks of contracting the virus. But I look at people’s reactions and changed circumstances and think: Been there, done that. (Or: Am there, doing that.) 

Ministry Theology

Our Abusive Leaders: Do We Love God?

And Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37–40, ESV)

The recent and growing number of stories—sadly all too believable—of repeated and grotesque abuses of power by evangelical leaders are wearying and burdensome to read. But it is important not to shut our ears and close our eyes to them, nor to close ranks and shut down those who cry for justice.

There are many reasons for (evangelical) Christians to vigorously oppose and deal with these recent abuses within our midst. Many of these reasons will, rightly, focus on the harm that preening bullies have caused their victims, and the ongoing harms that these victims experience. That is to say, it is right—absolutely right—to be motivated by love of neighbour.

But beyond and above that, a Christian’s greatest motivation is love for God. This is the first and greatest commandment. Love for neighbour is like it, but comes second.

Anthropology Christology Scripture

The Word Became Flesh

“Something is always going. Something is always disappearing.”

Those words of a friend, still young, still near the beginning of adult life, haunt me. In early adulthood, so much of life is flux: jobs, relationships, housemates, houses. Friends drift into and out of our lives. They move cities and they get married and they have kids. The relationship changes. Ambitions are frustrated, dreams die.

In middle life, hair grays, skin starts to sag, waistlines expand, illness hits, parents die. Decades pass like years. Muscles wither, joints stiffen, bending down becomes a major chore. Friends die, siblings die, spouses die, children die.

All flesh is grass (Isa 40:6).

John Webster Theology

Theology in the Order of Love (2)

For even as it is better to enlighten than merely to shine, so it is better to give to others the fruit of one’s contemplation than merely to contemplate.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II.188.6

Last time, with the help of John Webster’s essay “Theology in the Order of Love”,[1] we considered the shape of the God-given order within which we do our theological work in relation to God, and in relation to the communion of saints. And we thought about the necessity of gratitude to God for making us his friends, and giving us a share in his knowledge.

This time we will explore what Webster says about the need for gratitude in the communion of saints, and generosity in sharing what God has given us to know.

John Webster Theology

Theology in the Order of Love (1)

In that same hour, Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”

Luke 10:21

John Webster (1955-2016) was a theologian’s theologian,[1]writing theology of the highest order, always in a desire to serve the communion of saints. Few if any contemporary theologians can match the breadth and depth of his thought. And few have thought as deeply or as theologically about what theology is, its relationship to other disciplines, and the virtues required of true theologians.

One of the hidden gems in Webster’s output is the last theological essay he wrote before his untimely death, “Theology in the Order of Love”.[2]It is an exquisite exploration of what is required of us if we are to be faithful (pastor-)theologians within the economy of the Triune God’s creating and saving works.