In honour of IBI students

The past week was a huge encouragement as well as being too hectic – the buzz of a start of the new IBI term. Lots of new faces as well as returning students – all embarking on something sacred, personally challenging, and designed to be about spiritually transformative learning in community.

So, this in honour of IBI students:

1. The passion and enthusiasm of students:

Committed Christians studying theology and the Bible are, in my experience, overwhelmingly very hard working, keen to learn and are open to integrate that learning into life and ministry. That journey can be tough and unsettling as well as rewarding – no (?) other subject goes as deep personally and spiritually, as well as being an academic challenge. One of the most encouraging things for me over the last 10 years has been (by and large) the absence of cynicism and jadedness and the presence of a sincere desire to know and serve God.

God knows, Ireland could desperately do with some Good News.

2. The sacrifices many make:

I’ve been involved in many interviews over the last while as well hearing many stories from students of what it has taken for them to get to (and stay in) college. In the brutally bad Irish economic context  – with its ever rising unemployment, disappearance of part-time jobs, zero state grants to students of private colleges, churches struggling with budgets, and uncertain future of the entire Eurozone – I’ve been humbled again and again by the determination and thirst of students to study and learn and by faith being put into practice, often at real personal and financial cost.

3. 1 Corinthians 1:26-27:

Paul’s statement may have a had a bit of baggage behind it (the Corinthians’ self-regard) but it goes to the heart of the identity of the church as a community of ordinary people who are there by grace alone. At IBI we have made a sustained effort to reflect that diversity. Students (and staff) have struggles, sins, failures, burdens, fears and worries (just as much as any other group of Christians in any local church do). It is in that reality, honesty and reflective self-awareness that (I think) God does transforming work through his Spirit. Our focus is on learning – which includes academic biblical and theological learning of course, but that needs to be combined with growth in humble self-knowledge, Christ-likeness and loving God and others in actual day to day practice if it is to be authentically Christian.

Lots more could be said about what the particular challenges of theological training but that’s for another day. In the meantime, do pray for those starting (and re-starting) at IBI – they need it!

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Date Christian Girls

I dunno, is it just me or is there something weirdly incongrous about reading a serious article on a serious theology blog while this image sits pouting at you in the side bar adverts?


Tom Gilliam: a response to ‘Was Karl Marx Right?’

Do you agree that the older you get the more you realise how little you know?

Life is big and complex. We might know quite a bit about a very specific area(s) but let’s be honest, we don’t know a whole lot about a whole lot (at least I don’t).

And that’s why we need each other – to listen and learn from those who know more than we do about certain areas of life. The NT has a lot to say on this  through Paul’s image of the church as the body of Christ. Each part needs the other for the body to work well. Each part can’t function without the others.

So this is all to say in a long-winded way how wonderfully helpful I found this response by Tom Gilliam to last week’s post (reproduced here with permission, thanks Tom) on Was Karl Marx Right? and John Grey’s bleak analysis of capitalism’s self-destructive legacy. Tom is not only a dear friend, fellow member of MCC, imminently graduating MA student from IBI (!)- he also has experience in the corporate world and has thought deeply about the relationship of faith and business.

Have a read and comments, as ever, welcome – it would be good to have some discussion on this. (Any bold text represents my emphasis)


I suppose the first thing I’m wondering is what exactly is meant by the term “capitalism” (Grey also uses “free market” as a synonym)?  Is it possible that the term is used as uncritically today–to summarize the reasons for all that is economically and socially undesirable–as it might have been used a decade ago (three decades ago?) to summarize the reasons for all that was good, i.e. “God bless free market capitalism” (and maybe democracy, too!)?  It seems probable that most contemporary commentators picture something in the term which in some ways must surely differ from what Marx had in mind when he talked about capitalism.  I confess I don’t know enough about Marx to have a sense of exactly what he was seeing when he wrote, other than perhaps industrialization and its effects on people/society.

So what is capitalism for us today in Ireland?  Is it an immigrant who doesn’t speak any English giving away pens for a “donation” on the street corner of Maynooth?  Is it the system that a neighbour’s daughter (who owns a local shop) is enslaved to or rather is in bed with?  Is it the business practices of the multinational publicly traded Tescos, Essos and Intels of the world?  Is it the game changer Ryanair?  Is it Talk Talk, with its lack of “corporate courtesy” (as per the Taoiseach)?  Is it the hard-driving and competitive (and state-owned) petroleum company Statoil of Norway?  Is it ARUP, Extreme Ireland or The Irish Times? (to name a few current capitalistic employers linked to people at MCC).

I suppose Grey’s thesis is this:  isn’t it ironic that Marx got his revolution (ie. bourgeois destruction) through the very system he sought to undermine?  That’s interesting, but is the insight helpful?  Perhaps the more meaningful question for Christians is what economic (and political) system does the best job of pushing back the effects of the fall–i.e. how does our society justly create the greatest “good” for the greatest number of people (is that the right measuring stick?)

I confess that a system of willing buyers and sellers (for goods, services, capital) and un-coerced risk taking by those who can afford it has a great deal of attraction for me in this regard, yet I would never condone capitalism without constraints.  Grey is absolutely right that the insane borrowing he notes is likely to never be repaid but only inflated away.  However, he mistakenly conflates governmental (and perhaps household) borrowing (both of which have been used to perpetuate the anathema of unsustainable consumption by voters like us) with capitalism. 

One could argue that part of the financial crisis we face today is:

(1) the criminal failure of boards of directors to discharge their fiduciary responsibilities toward all shareholders;

(2) the ineptness of multiple nations’ governments to be the financial regulators they claimed to be (think “regulator” in mechanical terms, like that found on early steam engines); and

(3) governments’  resulting utter stupidity in bailing out both providers of capital (e.g. European lenders to Irish banks) as well as whole enterprises (e.g. General Motors) whose employees and assets should have been redeployed under more competent leadership (this is what happens in bankruptcy with assets that have inherent value). 

As an aside, I believe capital markets are much stricter schoolmasters of companies which act unwisely (e.g. Lehman Brothers which received no U.S. government bailout) than they ever can be with either governments or the households who vote for them.

Grey says that the problem is that a middle class existence is no longer even an aspiration for many people–they now face “a lifetime of insecurity”.  I agree that this may hold true for many in the West.  He outlines the bourgeois life as one of fulfilling careers, freedom from the struggle of living on an insecure wage and the protections of savings, home ownership and pension (e.g. lives without fear); however, the picture he paints sounds more like the promises of a post-war social democracy than of capitalism per se (for example, fear and greed are said to be the classical drivers of stock market extremes–perhaps they represent the extremes of all capitalism?). 

Grey also notes capitalism’s “endemic instability”.  In regard to this I wonder if capitalism ever promised stability and if instability is inherently evil/negative/bad (financial theory would say that such any increase in risk or variability of an enterprise is indeed costly)? 

I do think there is something to his observation of the “destructive” nature of capitalism (however defined) but, it must be asked, compared to what–stasis?  Complete stagnation?  What is the base case?  Perhaps even capitalism’s destructive tendencies might have more to do with capitalists (which–truth be told–are us, if we have any euros set aside in savings or in any non-governmental pension funds) than any intrinsic good or evil in capitalism’s systems. 

Maybe capitalism just (most) elegantly, faithfully and rapidly manifests the desires of the human heart to society:  magnifying and accelerating either the God-glorifying goodness of capitalists who see themselves as God’s stewards or the creation-destroying evil of the capitalists whose gods and masters are themselves alone.  Yet I suppose this reality should be considered when thinking about the desirability of capitalism as an economic system.

I wonder if the lost middle class which Grey laments is instead beginning to be found in places like India or China and is actually growing there (due to capitalism?).  Perhaps in the Western world we have become so accustom to entitlement and wealth that we actually resent capitalism’s shifting prosperity and “bourgeois lifestyles” to other places in the world?  History makes us believe we ought to have a monopoly (couldn’t resist that term 🙂 ) on the bourgeoisie. 

Also, I’m not sure what to make about his assertion that capitalism is “destroying its own social base”.  Is it capitalism’s “endemic instability” and inevitable self-cannibalism that is responsible?  Or alternatively is it a lack of wisdom, debt fueled excess consumption, a lack of governmental checks and balances and an entitlement mindset–where risk and reward are decoupled–which are the more salient factors in such destruction?  Again, however, if it is capitalism which fosters the mindset which leads to such poor stewardship then it is indeed suspect as a desirable economic system.

The last word:  if not markets–with willing buyers and sellers–then what?


Sundays in Mark (72) Jesus and women

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark.

Jesus, the Messiah, the beloved Son of God,  is dead; executed by pagans, rejected by Israel, abandoned by his disciples. The story of the gospel has reached both its climax and its nadir.

And isn’t it remarkable, that in the midst of these dark and momentous events, Mark inserts a little interlude about Jesus and women. Too easily these verses are skipped over.

But we’ve seen that Mark is much too canny an author to be putting in irrelevant padding. No, these verses are significant. But how?

At one level, like a good story teller he’s setting up the women’s involvement in the burial and resurrection to come.

But at another level, his matter of fact description reveals some fascinating things about Jesus’ relationships with, and dependence on, women.

While Mark mentions three specific women, ‘many others’ were present. These were all Galilean women. And this group of women had had the surprising and remarkable role of basically being Jesus’ ‘ministry support team’ in Galilee.

Luke makes this even more clear in Lk 8:1-3. He also mentions some specific names among ‘many others’ who accompanied and supported Jesus’ itinerant ministry.

1After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; 3 Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.

So here we have the Messiah, the Son of God, soon to be revealed as the risen Lord, being supported in his mission to Israel and to the wider world by a fairly substantial group of women.

It is these women who risk being there to be with Jesus as he faces death. It is these women who would be first to minister to Jesus in death, just as they had in life. And it is these women, who would be the first witnesses of the resurrected Lord.

Now of course it is one thing to highlight these facts, it is another to translate them to the contemporary church.

A ‘hard patriarchialist’ might say the women had to stand in because the men had failed! But there is no hint of this here (or anywhere else in the NT). On their own these verses are highly suggestive of the remarkable and vital role of women within Jesus’ mission. Taken with Jesus’ own counter-cultural inclusion of women within the kingdom of God, and the overall thrust within the NT of equality in the new community of the Spirit, this passage forms a piece in the NT jigsaw picture of the honoured and indispensable role of women in the earliest Christian community.

Comments, as ever, welcome.   

Women at the cross

40 Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. 41 In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.

best caption?

What about a caption competition for this, taken in the Mercedes Museum in Unterturkheim?

Funniest wins a Ritter Sport (appropriately more German engineering …).






A Reformed take on sanctification

I was over recently at the Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference run by Rutherford House, this year’s theme being sanctification.

Apart from Edinburgh being effortlessly the best city in the UK and Ireland, if not in much of Europe, it was an enjoyable, educational and stretching couple of days in the splendid surroundings of New College.

New College

IMHO the conference has improved significantly in structure, with plenty of shorter papers over a wide variety of related topics complementing the plenary speakers who included Oliver O’Donovan, Michael Horton, Richard Lints, Henri Blocher and others (very american feel in input and attendees). It was also nice to meet up with my ex-PhD supervisor Derek Tidball who opened the conference by preaching and who’s also our current external examiner at IBI.

The ethos tends to be Reformed, systematic, heavily academic – and while not a way of doing theology that I naturally feel at home with (I much prefer a biblical theology that unfolds the narrative(s) of Scripture as this is what the Bible itself is doing all the time; and I get lost in the sometimes labyrinthine detail of what this and that Reformed theologian thought), I’m glad to learn a huge amount from scholars in this tradition.

I thought I’d give a flavour of a couple of the papers in a couple of posts.

Michael Horton is one of the pre-eminent Reformed theologians around today. Here’s a little bit of what he had to say (in a long and very engaging paper) on divine and human agency in sanctification

Christ died for us, but he does not repent and believe for us. He is the life-giving vine, but we are truly fruit-bearing branches. Our good works arise from our union with Christ, but they really are our good works. It is not the Spirit who is believing and obeying in our place. The Spirit works within us, not for us, so that we are the ones who are “..bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col. 1.10).

Now that sounds at first blush that we ‘co-operate’ with God in our sanctification. In other words, synergism, where some of our spiritual progress is due to God and some to us.

But Horton rejects any form of synergism.

What he wants to hold together here is that sanctification as well as justification is an act of God, appropriated through faith. How do this without making sanctification synergistic between man and God?

(These are my words not his incase I misrepresent things). The key is union with Christ. God’s grace is so poured out into the life of the believer that he/she is liberated from the old nature to be freed to live, through the power of the Spirit, a new life pleasing to God. Our response to God’s grace is ours, but even that assent does not derive from us, but is a work of the Spirit.

And Horton used Herman Bavinck to reinforce this point. The ‘covenant of grace’ is unilateral – it all derives from God. But it is ‘destined to become bilateral, to be consciously and voluntarily kept by humans in the power of God’.

How convincing is this distinction between ‘bilateral’ and ‘synergistic’ to you? Is Horton (and Calvinism) seeking to have his cake and eat it? Or is it a vital distinction to maintain?

How you view Horton’s insistence on monergism (sanctification as well as justification is all a saving work of God’s grace alone) versus synergism (where God and man in some way co-operate, I’m skipping over important details here) – will map out an answer of whether you are of an Arminian or a Calvinist disposition …..

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Was Karl Marx right?

Gotta listen to this if you can.

I happened to catch A Point of View last Sunday morning on BBC radio 4. (Basically a 10 minute reflection by a guest, in the schedule slot where Alistair Cooke used to give his beautifully crafted Letters from America).

John Gray, who is a philosopher and author, makes his case of how Karl Marx was right, but for the wrong reasons. Gray argues how it has been capitalism (not communism) that has destroyed the bourgeoisie life.

By bourgeoisie he means the middle class dream of a job for life, accumulation of capital, land and house ownership, security, retirement with pension – the dream of a life under control, filled with assumptions of orderly progress.

Marx despised this vision built on capitalist foundations that he hoped one day would collapse to be replaced by a communist revolution that would usher in a more equitable and humane society.

If Marx was wrong about communism, Gray argues, he was far more profoundly right about capitalism than most economists of his day and ours. For he saw how capitalism was inherently unstable and would eventually destroy its own core constituency – the middle class.

John Gray

Gray makes the case that this is exactly what has been happening before our eyes. As Marx said, in capitalism “everything that is solid melts into air.”

Capitalism is the most revolutionary economic system to evolve in human history. The unleashed market knows no bounds. All is endless and ever faster change. Companies and entire industries come and go at a seemingly ever faster rate.

Endless innovation, increasing job insecurity, ruthless outsourcing, expendable labour – all these are hallmarks of the late capitalist age in which we live. [I blogged a while back about the effects of this sort of unstable capitalist society on the world of work here].

Now of course capitalism has been endlessly productive and has generated great wealth and increased prosperity. [for example see here]. Its defenders will say it has made the lives of millions far better than could ever been imaginable before the 20th Century. The bourgeoisie life was available to all. Everyone could be middle class.

But what Gray says is striking – capitalism is a process of ‘creative destruction’ and the very process of wealth generation is reaching a point that capitalism is destroying the very people it is founded upon – the middle class.

How?   Because that vision of safety, planning, savings, progression, and retirement has been blown out of the water. Over the last 30 years in the USA, Europe and elsewhere the bourgeoisie lifestyle has been eroded and fragmented. Job security has all but disappeared (unless you happen to be an Irish civil servant :)) ; trades and professions have all but vanished;  life long careers belong to a previous generation (like my father’s); the bourgeoisie dream of security though house ownership has been exploded with booms and busts – for most in Ireland today it is more like a millstone of debt abound one’s neck than a secure asset.

So ironically, says Gray, more and more, life within capitalism is akin to Marx’s insecure proletariat – living day to day, without savings and without any firm foundation for the future. Life as a successive number of predictable stages is a fading dream. Work itself is transitory and difficult to hold onto in a globalised hyper-competitive market.

For most people in early 21st capitalism, life is uncertain and out of their control. The Credit Crunch was due to capitalism’s inequality and instability where the rich and powerful few made billions, took insane risks with other people’s money and broke the system. Its effects on the younger generations will continue to work out in decades ahead.

If work is an ever changing context requiring adaptability and retraining, capitalism’s bankrupt systems of government is forcing students to take on increasing amounts of third level debt that will hinder their flexibility and options.

“The prospect facing most people today is a lifetime of insecurity.’

And then he says something very interesting. He argues that capitalism has not only eroded its own foundation but it has stripped away the values that held the bourgeoisie life together. Values of  thrift, perseverance, loyalty, saving don’t ‘fit’ within a fast changing, mobile and flexible market that is in continual transformation.

So Gray proposes that Marx was right – everything that appeared solid has melted into air. Sudden ruin, insecurity and instability are here to stay. The most recent capitalist collapse holds the prospect of currency breakup, governments falling, inflating away vast un-payable debts – with all the harsh implications those events have on already struggling citizens. And even the mega-rich can lose their fortunes from one day to the next.

So this perpetual revolution of capitalism is the world in which we live. He doesn’t predict the end of capitalism – it will continue to reinvent itself. But he does conclude that capitalism itself has killed the bourgeoisie dream it inspired in the first place.

Now, if accurate, where that leaves the people of God as pilgrims through this transitory world is a whole other blog post or ten … maybe a bit more  like the vast majority of their fellow Christians around the rest of the globe … ?

And what are some pastoral implications for churches, full of people with increasingly insecure and unpredictable futures?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Drink for thought?


Sitting on the table of a restaurant was an advert for ‘Brewdog – beer for punks’. Its part of the ‘Craft Beer Revolution’ – the small, authentic, independent beers fighting the good fight against the big corporate anodyne and inauthentic beer barons.

Here’s a flavour of the ‘call to arms’ to join the Brewdog revolution:

Would you class yourself as unique? An individual? More than just a cog in the corporate machine? The chances are the beer you’re drinking will be able to answer that question for you.

You see we at Brewdog want to give you the power back – the power to decide what actually goes into your glass regardless of what those monolithic brands, billboards ads or flashy TV commericals want you to buy.

Brewdog drinkers are people who have freed themselves from the soulless, Dawn of the Dead style haze inflicted by mass-produced watered down and all too familiar mainstream beers.


Here is the consumer as freedom fighter. The consumer as courageous counter-cultural individual. The consumer as seeker for authenticity. The consumer as visionary and participant in a new community within an ‘upside down’ social order. The consumer with an ethical conscience. The consumer as revolutionary (the picture has a Brewdog bottle with executioner’s hood standing beside a Stella Artois bottle with its neck in a guillotine).

A new kingdom ushering in an era of ‘freedom’ (and nice profit along the way if all goes well).

A kingdom vision where we, the consumers, are king.

Which all brings to mind another kingdom – another revolutionary kingdom; another counter-cultural community; another kingdom that will overthrow its enemies; another kingdom of justice and ethics and liberation.

But keep pressing and these two kingdoms begin to part ways.

This second kingdom includes the weak and the marginalised who don’t get to rule their own lives

In this second kingdom the self itself is called to die

And in this second kingdom money don’t get you far.

In this second kingdom, the consumer is not king, but a disciple of the resurrected servant-Messiah who is the king of kings, and Lord of Lords.

And maybe the biggest choice we can face in our lives is to answer these questions; Which kingdom? Which king?

Sundays in Mark (71) The Centurion’s exclamation

Over the last two weeks I’ve been reflecting on Mark’s account of the death of Jesus, specifically how his death (1) reveals the identity and mission of the Son of God; (2) is associated with impending judgement on the temple and today (3) the significance of the pagan Roman soldier being the one to recognise something of Jesus’ true identity.

Wasn’t it John Wayne hundreds of years ago (1965) who, playing the soldier in The Greatest Story Ever Told, exclaimed in his drawling American accent that ‘Truly this man was the Son of Gawd’?

‘Tis unfortunate that this line still tends to get automatically associated with Wayne’s hammy acting.

For it is a crucial turning point in Mark’s narrative. The centurion on duty would have witnessed the whole crucifixion and the extraordinary events surrounding it. It is clearly the manner of Jesus’ death that convinces him of … what?

As a Roman, does he recognise Jesus’ extraordinary status and authority, perhaps his god-like power and transcendent identity? He is awestruck by Jesus, but he expresses his thoughts as a pagan Roman soldier. One thing is for sure, this Jewish rabbi does not belong on the cross.

Mark takes the Roman’s words to another level of meaning. His gospel has begun with the proclamation that it is all about the good news of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. Here, the Roman, unwittingly confirms the truth. His public exclamation must have ‘spoken’ powerfully to the Christians in Rome to whom Mark writes. Jesus is God’s Son, not the Emperor.

And, I like to think, this Gentile recognition of the Jewish Son of God prefigures the inclusion of the Gentiles under the Lordship of the risen Christ. The good news of Jesus is good news for all.

The Death of Jesus

33 At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

35 When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”

36 Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.

37 With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.

38 The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”