Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Feast of the Holy Innocents

Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, a day that Christians have historically set aside for remembering the baby boys of Bethlehem that Herod cruelly slaughtered (Matthew 2:16-18).

Also called Childermas, the Feast was instituted between 400 and 500 AD by the Latin-speaking church and intentionally placed within the octave of Christmas to emphasize that the Holy Innocents – considered by many to be the church’s first martyrs - gave their life for the newborn Saviour.

But the Feast is also a time when the church annually reaffirms her commitment to the sanctity of life. As George Grant observed last year,
It has long been the focus of the Christian Church’s commitment to protect and preserve the sanctity of human life--thus serving as a prophetic warning against the practicioners of abandonment and infanticide in the age of Antiquity, oblacy and pessiary in the Medieval epoch, and abortion and euthanasia in these Modern times. Generally set aside as a day of prayer, it culminates with a declaration of the covenant community’s unflinching commitment to the innocents who are unable to protect themselves.
As Dr. Grant’s words suggest, today is a time for us to mourn, not only over the Bethlehem martyrs, but over the tens of thousands of innocent victims who have been slain on the altar of the abortion industry.

Further Reading

The Magi, the Massacre and Herod the Horrible

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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Strange Alliance

Hillary Clinton with Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu,
head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation
In my print and online publications I have sometimes had occasion to comment on the strange alliance between fundamentalist Islam and Western left-wing politics. (For example, see here.) This strange alliance has been particularly strong in 21st century Europe.

On the surface, left-wing politics and fundamentalist Islam share nothing in common. Well, almost nothing. They do share in common a hatred of traditional Christianity. Peter Hitchens put his finger on the psychology of the Left’s alliance with Islam in his book The Rage Against God, when he noted that,
“The Left’s hostility to Christianity is actually specific, because Christianity is the religion of their own homes and homeland, the form in which they have encountered – and generally disliked and resented – the power of God in their own lives. Islam, for most of their time on Earth, has been an exotic and distant creed, never taught to them as a living faith, and never likely to be their own, or to require their obedience. Therefore they can sympathise with it because it is the enemy of their Christian monoculture and as an anti-colonial and therefore ‘progressive’ force. Some Marxists formed alliances with British Muslims despite their highly conservative attitudes towards women and homosexuals. Others prefer to live in a state of unresolved doublethink.”
I said earlier that hatred of traditional Christianity is the only thing that Islam and the political Left share in common. However, there is one more thing. Both are incredibly intolerant of dissent, as seen by the recent coalition of the OIC with the Obama administration to push through a UN resolution that many fear will criminalize criticism of religion.

That fundamentalist Islam is virulently opposed to free speech is common knowledge. However, myself and others have argued that a dogmatic intolerance of opposing viewpoints is actually one of the hallmarks of progressive liberal politics, as the following resources make clear:


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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas and Church: Do They Go Together?

This year Christmas Day happens to fall on a Sunday. That means that many American Protestants will do something they are not used to doing: they will attend church on Christmas Day.

Do Church and Christmas Day go Together?

When my wife and I first moved to America from England, we found it odd that almost all Protestant churches were shut for Christmas Day, though many Protestant liturgical churches will have Christmas Eve services.
In England, church attendance on Christmas morning is as much a part of the celebrations as stockings, mince pies and carols. In fact, many English men and women who hardly ever set foot inside a church will attend their local Anglican church on Christmas morning. Indeed, walking to the village church on Christmas morning, accompanied by the festive music of the church’s bells, is such an integral part of an English Christmas that when we moved to America my wife and I found it difficult to imagine a Christmas without it.
In America, the tradition of going to church on Christmas morning has been preserved mainly among Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, with the exception of a handful of liturgical churches. The reformed Presbyterian church that my family attends reintroduced the practice a few years ago.
Keep reading...

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Celebrating Advent in the Spirit of Saint Boniface

Ye clouds and darkness, hosts of night
That breed confusion and affright,
Begone! o’erhead the dawn shines clear,
The light breaks in and Christ is here.

Earth’s gloom flees broken and dispersed,
By the sun’s piercing shafts coerced:
The daystar’s eyes rain influence bright
And colours glimmer back to sight.

So shall our guilty midnight fade,
The sin-stained heart’s gross dusky shade:
So shall the King’s All-radiant Face
Sudden unveil our deep disgrace.

No longer then may we disguise
Our dark intents from those clear eyes:
Yea, at the dayspring’s advent blest
Our inmost thoughts will stand confest.

So opens the ‘Morning Hymn’ of the 4th century Christian poet Aurelius Prudentius Clemens. (To read the rest of the poem, click here.)

Aurelius’ poem captures the spirit of the season we are now celebrating, the season of Advent. The hymn reminds us that in the early church the season of Advent was a time when Christians anticipated Christ’s second coming. It was a time when they expectantly waited for Him to come and judge the earth, scattering the darkness with His light.

The theme of light conquering darkness was the message that Boniface took to the ancient Germans in the 8th century.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

History of 'O come, O come, Emmanuel'

"O come, O come, Emmanuel," is one of the oldest Christian hymns that we possess. The words are based on the ancient Latin text "Veni, veni, Emmanuel" while the musical setting derives from an antiphon stretching back at least to the time of the 12th century. There is some evidence that the original antiphon, from which our metrical version of the song derives, may itself have evolved out of earlier Hebrew temple liturgy, which could push the origins of the work back to the very time of our Blessed Lord. The significance of this is almost staggering as we realize that Jesus Himself may well have sung this very piece, or an earlier version of it.

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Monday, December 19, 2011

Scripture Readings for the last week of Advent

At the Chuck Colson Center I have published special scripture readings, together with reflection questions, for each of the days this week, the last week of Advent. To get the scriptures and questions, click on the following link:

North Korea update

I have posted an article on the Christian Voice website today giving an update on North Korea following the death of the monster Kim Jong Il. The situation in North Korea has been much on my heart over the last few years, because of researching the situation for both Christian Voice and Open Doors ministries. To read my article, click on the link below:

From Eucharist to Pulpit

Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles in Paris France

The blood (and bones) of the martyrs is the seed of the church

“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” So wrote the church father Tertullian at the close of the 2nd century, even as Christians were perishing under the reign of emperor Septimius Severus.

Throughout church history, Tertullian’s words have been a constant reminder that God works in unexpected ways, using the Persecution of His church to strengthen and expand her.

More recently it has been impressed upon me that while it is true that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, this is also true of their bones.

Rethinking Unquenchable Fire (complete series)

Over the last few days I have been doing a series of blog posts on the topic of Unquenchable Fire. Following are links to all the posts in this series followed by a summary of my basic argument.

Jesus’ Use of Isaiah 66 (Unquenchable Fire, Part 5)

Many little details in Isaiah 66 resonate so clearly with the ministry of Christ and the apostles.
66:21 continues the theme of the Gentiles coming in. “Who are the people meant by ‘and some of them also I take?’” asks Claus Westermann in his commentary. “Taking the words by themselves, there seems to be no way of getting around interpreting them in the sense of ‘not only from the Israelites, but from the Gentiles as well’.” (Westermann’s commentary Isaiah 40-66 A Commentary, p. 423). This, of course, immediately brings to mind the missionary activities of the apostles. Verse 19 even mentions missionary work – the sending out of individuals to distant peoples to proclaim God’s glory. Interestingly, the apostles self-consciously invoke the “all nations and tongues” of Isaiah 66 to show that God is doing this work now in and through His servant Jesus.

Unto Us a Son is Born! (Unquenchable Fire, part 4)

Over the last week we have been exploring the themes of the book of Isaiah in our ongoing series on unquenchable fire. Today I would like to explore how all the themes we have been exploring come to play in and through Christ’s messianic work. In Jesus the entire narrative Isaiah is telling reaches its eschatological climax. And that, my friends, is what Christmas is all about.
Jesus is the Servant who brings God’s people back from exile and vindicates YHWH’s name by making a spectacle of the dark powers. Jesus is the one who holds out the promise of comfort to Jerusalem. Jesus is the Servant who brings His people back from exile and vindicate them (65:18-19; 66:5-13). Jesus is the one who begins to extend the worship of the Lord to the Gentiles and to spread God’s images throughout the whole earth. In short, it is through Christ that the entire story of Israel reaches its fulfillment and dramatic climax.

Gehenna in Isaiah 66 (Unquenchable Fire, part 3)

(This post is the third installment in a five-part series arguing for a preterist interpretation of hellfire. To get links to the entire series, visit my post 'Rethinking Unquenchable Fire (complete series).'

When the final verse of Isaiah speaks of God’s enemies suffering a worm which does not die and a fire that is not quenched, this should not be taken as an isolated proof text establishing an endless hell, but should be read in the context of Isaiah’s entire narrative. That is why I spent time in the preceding posts establishing that narrative. Isaiah 65 and 66 are permeated with the rich panoply of theological themes we have already explored, in particularly

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Background to Isaiah (Unquenchable Fire, part 2)

Isaiah 66:24, along with the two verses that proceed it, are the summation of the entire book of Isaiah. Isaiah was writing to the nation of Judah from about 740 to 687 BC. This was during the period when the waning Assyrian empire was trying to reassert her power in the Ancient Near East. Isaiah prophesied that the king of Assyria would invade the land of Judah as judgment against her sins (Isaiah 7:17; 8:7-8) and he also prophesied that the Northern Kingdom of Israel (sometimes also called Samaria after its capital) would experience God’s righteous judgment for her sins (Isaiah 9:8-21).

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Unquenchable Fire (Part 1)

Earlier in the year I used my morning devotions to do a Bible study on unquenchable fire – a phrase which appears in Mark 9 and Isaiah 66 and which is often taken to be a reference to the everlasting fire of hell.
But first, some personal background.

Sam Harris on Evolutionary Ethics

“It is easy to see why the study of the evolutionary origins of ‘morality’ might lead to the conclusion that morality has nothing at all to do with Truth. If morality is simply an adaptive means of organizing human social behaviour and mitigating conflict, there would be no reason to think that our current sense of right and wrong would reflect any deeper understanding about the nature of reality. Hence, a narrow focus explaining why people think and behave as they do can lead a person to find the idea of ‘moral truth’ literally unintelligible.”

Further Reading

Review of The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

Sam Harris on Moral Relativism

I am currently reading Sam Harris' book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Harris is an atheist possessed of what seems to be unlimited faith in science. But while the book has much that is objectionable from a Christian perspective, it is also filled with gems of sense floating around like bits of confetti without any foundation. Listen to what he says about relativism:

"While few philosophers have ever answered to the name of 'moral relativist,' it is by no means uncommon to find local eruptions of this view whenever scientists and other academics encounter moral diversity. Forcing women and girls to wear burqas may be wrong in Boston or Palo Alto, so the argument will run, but we cannot say that it is wrong for Muslims in Kabul.... Moral relativism, however, tends to be self-contradictory. Relativists may say that moral truths exist only relative to a specific cultural framework - but this claim about the status of moral truth purports to be true across all possible frameworks. In practice, relativism almost always amounts to the claim that we should be tolerant of moral difference because no moral truth can supersede any other. And yet this commitment to tolerance is not put forward a simple one relative preference among others deemed equally valid. Rather, tolerance is held to be more in line with the (universal) truth about morality than intolerance is. The contradiction here is unsurprising. Given how deeply disposed we are to make universal moral claims, I think one can reasonable doubt whether any consistent moral relativist has ever existed."
Further Reading

Robin Phillips' Review of The Moral Landscape


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Monday, December 12, 2011

Why I am not a Roman Catholic

Earlier in the year my friend Brad Littlejohn wrote an article for his blog titled ‘Why I Won’t Convert’, outlining his continued commitment to Protestantism. Now it’s my turn. Having used my previous post to reaffirm my commitment to Calvinism (kind of), I wanted to use the present post as an opportunity to explain why I am not a Roman Catholic.

First the qualifications. Keep in mind that I am still in the process of learning about Roman Catholicism and I do not claim any expert knowledge. I cannot even guarantee that what I will say is not tinctured with protestant caricatures or uncharity. I am hoping my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters will enlighten me on any factual mistakes in what follows.
The purpose of this post is not to claim any special authority on Roman Catholicism, but simply to explain from a personal point of view why I have not chosen to convert. What follows is not written out of any sense of antagonism towards Roman Catholics. Rather, it was written after feeling pressure from a traditionalist Roman Catholic brother that I should convert to Rome. (No problem there: if someone believes that RC is the true church, they should want to convert me out of love. But equally, it only seems fair I should respond by explaining the reasons I have chosen not to convert.)

Finally, although I will be critical of Roman Catholicism, this should not be taken as overshadowing my strong commitment to ecumenism that I have articulated elsewhere (see my article, ‘Sola Fide: The Great Ecumenical Doctrine’) nor my belief that Roman Catholics are Christians.

One of the primary reasons I have not converted to Rome is because Rome does not seem to be Catholic enough. Consider just three areas where Protestants normally find fault with Rome: (A) Rome’s sacramentalism; (B) Rome’s claims to universality; (C) Rome’s concept of authoritative traditions or the magisterium.

Now these three areas are indeed problems, but not because Rome puts too much emphasis on these things, as Protestants often erroneously claim, but too less. The real reason Rome’s sacramentalism is a problem is not because she is too sacramental, but because she is not sacramental enough. The real reason that Rome’s claim to universality is a problem is not because she claims universality but because she isn’t universal enough. The real reason that Rome’s concept of an authoritative tradition is a problem is because her traditions are not authoritative enough. Let's take each of these in turn.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Kind of a Calvinist

A couple days ago when I told a local brother that I attended a reformed church, he asked if I was a Calvinist myself. Perhaps there are others who would like to know: is Robin Phillips also among the Calvinists?

The short answer is kind of

The reformed tradition has many strengths, ranging everywhere from its emphasis on the importance of loving God with all our minds, to a robust appreciation for God's sovereignty, to an understanding of the totality of Christ's Lordship. Moreover, it avoids the errors inherent in competing traditions like Roman Catholicism, modern evangelicalism, Lutheranism, and the list could go on. And I have written a positive review of R.C. Sproul's Chosen by God. So why the "kind of"?

The reason for the qualification is because the reformed tradition, even at its best, does seem to be characterized by a subtle Gnosticism, specifically in its approach to the material world and to instrumental means. This reached fruition in the Puritan movement though the Gnostic tincture is by no means limited to the Puritan strain. I have talked about this in more detail in my post 'Are Calvinists Also Among the Gnostics?' (recently updated to take into account recent reading).

(I also have questions about the Calvinist approach to grace, which seems to be tinged with a zero-sum mentality. But that is a subject of another article.)

Anyway, check out my updated post 'Are Calvinists Also Among the Gnostics?

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Thursday, December 08, 2011

Boreham and the Power of Perception

"Love achieves its creativity by being perceptive" wrote Oliver O'Donovan in his book Resurrection and Christian Order.

I like that quote, because it encapsulates the reality that for the great artists of the Western tradition, creativity was a form of love. This is the point that Josef Pieper made so eloquently in his tender book Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation.

Great sculptors like Michelangelo could look at a slab of unworked marble and ‘see’ the finished product that they would then take months to lovingly bring to reality. Similarly, Bach could be given a series of five or six notes and instantly realize in his mind the potential those notes had for an entire invention. (In the case of the Goldberg Variations, Bach was able to take a simple musical statement that by itself might seem unimportant and, under the loving care of his creativity, to worked it into some of the finest music that has ever existed.) This is similar to the way that we are the workmanship of our Heavenly Father, whom He is steadily bringing to completion (Ephesians 2:10). The Lord sees us not as we are, but as the people He is making us into and the people He will have brought to perfection when we are finally glorified.

If this is true of the way artists perceive raw materials and how God perceives us, it can also be true for how you and I perceive the world. We can train ourselves to observe the glory and beauty inherent in the world we inhabit.

Children do this naturally, since they have an inborn sense of wonder and enchantment. Part of what it means to grow in maturity, however, is to recover this sense: to learn to once again experience a child-like delight in the things we have become accustomed to taking for granted, to perceive the world around us in fresh and exciting ways. As I have observed elsewhere, we can begin to feel about the moon like a young child feels about a silver dollar in his pocket; we can begin to perceive events that would otherwise be merely routine (like the sun rising in the East) as being part of the delightful dance that we have been privileged to get a sneak peek at.

Like lovers who find creative ways to explore each other, and through such perception realize the potential of love’s creativity, we can begin to find creative and fresh ways to perceive our world. As a lover unveiling the apparel of his beloved to explore what is normally hidden from view, by approaching the world in love we learn to remove the veil of cynicism, boredom and ungratefulness that normally conceals the wonder and enchantment that was there all along.

This is an important perspective since we live in a world that has become increasingly disenchanted and stripped of this sense of wonder. As I explained in my earlier post, ‘A Festival not a Machine,’ the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries implicated a view of the universe that was increasingly mechanistic in its orientation. Similarly, the Protestant reformation (for all its indisputable benefits) mitigated against a sense of wonder and enchantment by disputing the notion of sacred space (a topic that William Dyrness has recently written about and which I hope to publish on in the near future).

Precisely because of this, I was excited when my good friend Michael Dalton introduced me to the writings of F.W. Boreham. Rather like  George MacDonald (see my article 'Clothing Truth with Beauty'), Boreham is able to help us find beauty in unexpected places, to perceive splendour in the ordinary, to be filled with wonder over those little things that most of us overlook. Boreham is able to help us to behold the grandeur – even enchantment - in what would otherwise seem everyday and commonplace.

I am currently reading Boreham’s book A Packet of Surprises, and am continually delighted at his ability to perceive the world through the eye of love’s creativity. He is able to take something that most of us might find prosaic and commonplace - whether the alphabet, a painting, or an apparently trivial conversation - and transform it into an occasion of glory. I plan to start reading the book to my children at the meal tables because his warm and fresh perspective is one I want them to imbibe.

(John Broadbank Publishers is bringing many of Boreham’s titles back into print. They also have a blog that has numerous articles about, and selections from, the writings of Boreham)

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Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The Queen's Power

How much power does Her Majesty the Queen (long may she live!) actually possess, people sometimes ask me. Is her position purely ceremonial now? Well, no. Her Majesty the Queen is actually the most powerful person in Britain. Those who would wish for the UK to abolish the monarchy on the grounds that the position is now purely ceremonial would do well to consider the following facts (particularly the last two sentences), taken from FAQ of The Heraldica website:
Her Majesty is the Head of State of the United Kingdom and is Head of the Commonwealth. She is Sovereign of the British Orders of Knighthood, Sovereign Head of the Order of St. John, Lord High Admiral, and, in theory, is all-powerful, the source of justice and the fountain of honour.  However, her power is limited by the (unwritten) Constitution.  The Queen's real power lies in her being able to deny absolute power to anyone else.  For example, it is in her power to dismiss the prime minister and dissolve Parliament.

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Monday, December 05, 2011

The Powerful Tongue

St. Faustina
St. Faustina (1905 – 1938) once remarked as follows about the tongue:

“The tongue is a small member, but it does big things. A religious who does not keep silence will never attain holiness; that is, she will never become a saint. Let her not delude herself - unless it is the Spirit of God who is speaking through her, for then she must not keep silent. But, in order to hear the voice of God, one has to have silence in one's soul and to keep silence; not a gloomy silence but an interior silence; that is to say, recollection in God.”

Many Christians think that the ethics of speech involves simply not sinning with one’s tongue. But St. Faustina, following the book of James, suggest that silence – or at least being slow to speak - should be the Christian’s default mode.

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Saturday, December 03, 2011

Blessings You Can Chew

In Angels in the Architecture, Douglas Jones has an excellent chapter titled “Worshiping with Body.” In this chapter Jones notes the prominent role occupied by feasting in the Biblical narrative.

Jones draws our attention to some of the many places in Scripture where fine food is talked about as being a blessing. For example, when Isaiah is prophesying about the time when God will bring salvation the ends of the earth, he speaks of “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.” (Is. 25:6)
God gives His people blessings they can chew, and part of our ability to receive these blessings depends on our food preferences growing in maturity. It is on this point (food maturity) that Jones believes Americans are sadly lacking, and he points to the examples of the French and Italians to shame us.
It is difficult for modern Americans to get their heads around the fact that food is an area where maturity is even possible in any objective sense. Given our Gnostic assumptions, we tend to think the Lord is only interested in attitude issues, and that the actual stuff of our diet is a thing indifferent to Him. We easily understand that the Lord is concerned in how we eat (i.e., we must be grateful, we mustn’t grumble, etc.) but we instinctively feel He couldn’t possibly care about what we eat. However, if God promises to bless His people, not just with any food, but with good quality ‘rich’ food, then the quality of food cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to God.

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Friday, December 02, 2011

Robin Phillips Speaking at ASCH Conference

The Winter Meeting of the The American Society of Church History looks like it's going to be an extremely enriching time and not only because I will be one of the speakers. A draft of the meeting and the scheduled speakers can be downloaded here. My talk deals with 19th century American secularism and how it arose partly as a byproduct of the dualisms of the Second Great Awakening. To book a reservation at the conference, click here.

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