The future of Irish Bible Institute: reflecting on the past

The Future of IBI and the ‘Great (economic) Reversal’

As a Bible Institute we ask and encourage students to do a lot of critical self-reflection – within a mentoring programme and within many assignments. ‘What have I learnt through this experience?’ ‘Why did I think, act and feel that way before?’ ‘What influences have shaped my theology and how has it changed and developed in light of what I have been studying?’ ‘How will I seek to act differently in the future and why?’

So it’s only right that I do a bit of critical self-reflection from an IBI perspective about where we are.  And let me say that what is said on this blog represents my personal views and are not representative of IBI or MCC or anyone else ..

First, let’s remember that there is no sacred / secular divide: this post may be ‘business focused’ but it is still about ‘spiritual’ things. All of life before God is ‘spiritual’.

I think that there are two areas for questions at least – the PAST and the PRESENT, and it’s the PAST in focus in this post.

  1. THE PAST: Were we wrong in discerning God’s will? Did we act unwisely? Were we sucked up into the myth of the Celtic Tiger like everyone else and are wrestling with the consequences now? And if we weren’t wrong, what is there to be learnt as Christians from this experience?

The details of the deal are all public (see this previous post) so there is no problem talking about it. Nor am I transgressing into confidential Board business.

General reasons to press ahead with the 2005 deal:

IMPACT FOR THE GOSPEL: It represented a new and creative way forward if IBI was to grow and make a bigger impact across Ireland. And the shift from borrowing offices, and packing up the library to a purpose designed facility did make a huge difference. Not only physically, but in terms of credibility, quality of student experience, university validation, student numbers, reputation and so on.

MOTIVE: The whole deal was non-commercial. It was an act of faith and grace by the business partners. It would enable us to move into new premises without a huge fundraising campaign and would eventually ‘pay for itself’. Sure motives are always mixed and the human heart deceitful – but there was no personal gain for anyone. I really don’t think it was an issue of ‘consumerist greed’ for bigger and better.

RELATIONSHIP: relationships are, in my humble opinion, the most important factor in any working together – especially in Christian ministry but also outside it. This deal emerged out of a relationship of trust and goodwill.

DILIGENCE: it was complicated. A lot of time and effort was spent by people with outstanding expertise in the right areas; legal, financial, evaluation of risk etc. The risk factor was not being able to find commercial tenants or losing tenants for a long period. In 2005 this risk was judged to be acceptable.  Of course, this was the issue that came back to bite us when tenants left in June 2011 and no new ones were around in the crash.

PRAYER: much prayer went on around this whole issue – for wisdom, guidance and discernment. Everyone together agreed to press ahead.

‘PUT AND CALL’: this was a ‘put and call’ agreement whereby IBI entered into a legal agreement to buy back the building for €3.5 million at the end of a 14 year period. This is a huge amount of money, but the asset was the building. (It had doubled in value to c. €7 million even by 2007). It was estimated it would be at least worth double the €3.5 million in 2019. So, if all went according to plan, the whole idea would be ‘debt free’.

REGRETS?  Would we do the same thing again? Did we ‘mis-hear’ God?

I think we would (nearly) do the same thing again but not the ‘put and call’. Experience would make me more cautious, especially around a future debt of €3.5 million, even if (apparently) comfortably secured on a building. Being in debt gives control away to others (like a bank) and can tie a millstone around an individual’s or an institution’s neck; it removes flexibility and limits options.

But there is another reason I’d be more cautious. The crash has exposed the hubris, self-deception and out of control greed of a largely unregulated capitalist system. Let loose, it ran itself into the ground and much of the global economy with it – and I think there is much worse to come – Spain anyone? Being in debt to such a system, emeshes you in its grip. The crash should, I think, make Christians especially, cautious of being under the power of a system that ultimately cares only for capital.

I’m no economist or banker, help me out here, but it seems to me that Christian organisations should be very wary of taking on long term obligations of debt around buildings and should aim to grow and develop debt free as much as possible.

HUMILITY: There are a lot of humbled tycoons and property developers and ordinary investors around Ireland today. [And plenty who should be humbled and contrite but aren’t – but I’d better stay on point!]

And it’s obvious too, that for IBI, things did not go according to plan. Despite all the planning and experts and advice, the truth is we all have very little idea what the future holds. That truth should make us humble. Jesus’ hard words about the ‘rich fool’ focused on his arrogance and self-sufficiency apart from faith and trust in God. While we did take a lot of time to seek God and the decision itself was soaked in prayer, the need to raise €1 million was not part of the original plan. It has thrown us back on the sufficiency of God alone for it is ‘beyond us’.

GUIDANCE: Without getting too lost in Calvinist, Arminian or Open Theist debates, let me ask you a question: if things don’t work out the way you expected or hoped, does that mean you ‘missed’ or ‘went against’ God’s will? 

Of course there are many things we do that are against God’s will – the Bible has a wee word for it called ‘sin’.

But if we make decisions in good faith, seeking wisdom, taking counsel, through prayer – how are we to interpret subsequent events that seem to question the rightness of the original decision?

I was talking with friends recently who, with hindsight, would make very different choices. And I guess you can think of plenty of things you’d do differently too (I know I can!). How are we to think theologically about past decisions that we wish we’d not made?

Sometimes living with the consequences of those decisions can be very very tough, without much discernible redemptive bigger purpose, where there is not a nice happy ending.

And sometimes things DO in the end work out in an amazing way. [And coming back to IBI, the current opportunity is an amazing one for lots of reasons]. Does that ‘confirm’ our decision was all part of God’s bigger plan?

I have some thoughts on these questions, but this a blog for conversation. so comments, as ever, welcome

Tim Keller on Ross Douthat on why is Christianity marginalised in the West

A friend pointed me to the fact that Tim Keller has a blog … had missed that. As with everything Kellerite it is worth reading and listening to.

He has just started a series on a book by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat called Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (The Free Press, 2012).

Well worth a read.

Some people bash the church as if it is solely responsible for the increasing marginalisation and irrelevance of Christianity in the West. It’s interesting the Douthat does not mention internal factors at all in his 5 big reasons. He’s more into sociological analysis. This is how Keller summarises things:

1) Political polarization between the Left and Right in the USA has drawn in many churches and weakened its credibility. [And to add an Irish context, the legacy of how deeply entwined Protestantism and Catholicism became with Unionist and Irish Nationalist identities]

2) The sexual revolution means that the biblical sex ethic now looks unreasonable and perverse to millions of people, making Christianity appear implausible, unhealthy, and regressive.

3) Decolonization, Third World empowerment, globalization, has given the impression that Christianity was imperialistically “western” and supportive of European civilization’s record of racism, colonialism, and anti-Semitism.

4) The enormous growth material prosperity and consumerism works against faith and undermines Christian community.

5) These four factors had their greatest initial impact on the more educated and affluent classes, the gatekeepers of the main culture-shaping institutions such as the media, the academy, the arts, the main foundations, and much of the government and business world.

I’d want to add to these 5 an internal dimension: things like the church’s own captivity to the Enlightenment / consumerism / Christendom and such like. Those are all big easy to throw around words that would take a ton of unpacking, but the bottom line being that a factor in the church’s marginalisation surely has been its failure truly to be the church. Hauerwas and Newbigin have plenty to say on this.

However … what Douthat says sounds right. I get a bit weary of church-bashing as if if only we could do this and that, all will be well. And since we don’t, we are to blame for the ‘move to the margins’.

For in the end such church bashing does a number of regretable things:

ultimately it is people bashing. The ‘church’ is actually embodied in local a congregation of all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds. Are they culminatively responsible for the marginalisation of the church in the West? Are they to be made to feel guilty for such failure? How constructive can such a blame game be?

it is too narrow. As Douthat argues, the story of the decline of the church in the West is a combination of several huge cultural shifts. He has a particular American focus. These will play out slightly differently in different contexts, but the overall story is persuasive. There are bigger principalities and powers out there that express themselves in ways inimical to Christianity.

– it tends, however unintentionally, to assume that ‘we’ are centre stage – that ‘we’ have the ability, power and influence to change the culture, to regain ground.

– it tends to be negative.  Yes, let’s have a longing for reform and renewal. But also let’s be realistic as to the how the wider culture is now in a place where the claims of the Christian faith as seen as bizarre, irrelevant, possibly dangerous and unattractive.

What then is a response to the increasing marginalisation of the church in the West?

Another way of asking this is how to introduce constructive change. With guilt, warnings, frustration and impatience, or perhaps a re-writing of the Christian story (a la Mclaren for example)?

I’m going to reveal my anabaptist sympathies here.

Let’s faithfully, authentically and joyfully preach and live out the good news of Jesus Christ, the risen Lord in our local church and community. Let’s keep in step with the Spirit and as we so let’s love God wholeheartedly and love our neighbours as ourselves. Let’s do what in our ability and responsibility to do and let’s not deceive ourselves that we hold the key to turning the tide of Western culture around.

Comments, as ever, welcome

The future of the Irish Bible Institute

Dedicated readers will have noticed that my volume of blogging has been turned down in recent weeks. The main reason is that the place where I work – Irish Bible Institute – has launched a major building project.

The bottom line is that we are trying to raise €1 million in 6 months.

This has meant that the small team is flat out working on the daily challenges of running programmes, teaching, mentoring, listening, marking, researching, writing and so on, on top of fundraising. You can read all about it here

This post is simply about the project. But I also want to do some follow up theological reflections on ‘beyond fundraising’ – and trying to think about what are we to learn and hear from God in all of this? 

Maybe after reading this you have some questions and comments, not so much on the project itself, but theological questions and issues raised by it? It would be good to discuss them in later posts.

Moving into a new fitted out building in 2005 was fantastic: it helped with the launch of new BA and MA degree courses in 2006 and 2005, significant growth of student numbers, a quality base from which to operate in terms of classrooms, student area, library and offices as well as a city centre location for all sorts of events and meetings by other Christian organisations.

We’ve seen hundreds of students from all over the country through the doors doing a variety of full-time, part-time, modular, summer school, Certificate, Diploma, Degree and MA courses.

Before that we’d been borrowing a church building and literally packing up offices and the library every Friday afternoon! (Jacob Reynolds and I worked in the crèche – make up your own conclusions).

The shift was dramatic and the benefits obvious. Suddenly, specific things that we’d been praying for – our own city centre base, accessible nationally, good quality university validated courses, IBI as more truly an Irish Bible Institute (not just Dublin) … all materialised in a short space of time.

The dreams of developing a good quality centre for theological education and leadership development in Ireland and for the Irish church were being realised.

You can read some encouraging things people have said about IBI here

All this was the result of an unexpected and generous offer where a businessman and his partner took out a loan to buy 9,400 q ft of a new office building. We moved into 4000 sq ft, the other 5,400 sq ft was rented commercially. The tenant’s income paid the interest on the loan. And then in 2019 we entered into an agreement where we would buy the building for a total of €3.5 million. Even by 2007 it was valued at €6.7 million, so if we could not raise the money we would have a valuable asset which could be sold and we could move on. There were also costs of fitting out what was a new empty office block for which a loan of €300,000 was taken out by IBI to be paid back in 2018.

This whole process took about a year. We prayed about it. We sought expert advice. Our Board had excellent people well qualified to deal with the issues, complexities and risks. There was unanimous agreement to go ahead.

This all meant that we were able to operate in Ulysses House virtually rent free from 2005-2011.  However, everything changed with the economic crash. I’ve blogged about it herehere, here, here and here and here.

In June 2011 our commercial tenants left, rents have fallen dramatically and renters are scarce, the Bank which issued the loans has lost billions and exited Ireland. Without tenants we can’t sustain the rent payments. We have an annual operational budget of about €500,000, half of which comes in via student fees and half of which we fundraise. We have no endowments or sources of state funding. Every year since I first got involved in 1994, it has been a walk of faith as to whether the budget would balance – and it has, every year. God has been gracious. It’s been quite a journey.

Right across the commercial sector, massive renegotiations of loans are happening as recapitalised banks in dire straits try to clear up their loan books. The businessmen who have the loan on our premises have been doing the same. Between them, us and the Bank, a deal has been agreed that if we can raise the €1 million, this will clear all the loans of €3.8 million and give us ownership of all three units of 9,400 sq ft 7 years ahead of schedule and for about 25% of the original amount envisaged.

That would be an amazing solution.

  • Strategically, it is a critical step in securing the future of the Republic of Ireland’s only non-denominational evangelical theological training college.
  • This is a once-off opportunity which will deal completely with all loans and costs (totaling over €3.9 million) associated with the building at a discount of 75%.
  • It will be necessary if we are to achieve validation with a new university when the current validation with the University of Wales ends in 2013-14.
  • It would give us the long-term security of a home of our own in an ideal location for students from all over Ireland to access.
  • It may give us the opportunity of developing a hub of Christian organisations in the city centre

So, that’s where we are. Things are off to an encouraging start.

We are asking people who are interested and supportive to do three things:

Pray – for this need to be met

Give – it works out at about €100 per square foot.  We are fundraising in Ireland, UK and USA. All help welcome.

Get Involved yourself – get the word out to others and invite them to pray, give, mobilise. We are glad to meet people as possible.

Comments, as ever, welcome

Evangelical Universalism (5) oxymoron?

The title of this post is the title of Robin Parry’s article in the recent Evangelical Quarterly.

His argument is for a ‘NO’. The two are compatible.

Derek Tidball doesn’t quite give a bald ‘YES’ …. but he gets close.

He rightly says it depends on your understanding of ‘evangelical’. If defined in primarily theological terms and as a bounded set, Parry’s proposal will be rejected. Universalism relies on substantial speculation, quite a bit of eisegesis and sits outside the tradition of classic evangelicalism.

But if you define evangelicalism in more fluid terms, a centered set, it’s more tricky to say where and when an idea has moved so far from the centre that it is outside the bounds. Certainly it is on these sorts of grounds that Parry is arguing.

Derek is circumspect here – but does say personally that he finds the way the Bible is being handled is contrary to genuine evangelicalism.  He also wonders if universalism is borne out of cultural accommodation, evangelicalism presenting itself as a civil faith.

So what do you reckon? Is ‘evangelical universalism’ an example of a diluted evangelicalism accommodating itself, even out of good missional intentions, to the culture?

As I said earlier, it would take a hard heart not to feel the pull of what Parry is arguing for (or is that statement itself an example of dilution?).And I do believe there is a surprising and generous ‘wideness in God’s mercy’ otherwise God would not a God of grace.  But I find his case, however well argued, unconvincing.

Evangelical Universalism (4) biblical material

So to Derek Tidball’s discussion of the biblical material in his answer to the question ‘Can evangelicals be universalists?’ in the  current edition of Evangelical Quarterly.

Jesus

– talks frequently of the final separation at the end / terror of hell (Mt 5:22; 18:8-9; 25:41, 46; Mk 9:42-48).

– Gehenna (Mk 9:48) – rejection, destruction and everlasting fire.

– John’s Gospel; strong dualism of those with eternal life and those not

Tidball argues there is no hint in Jesus that God’s judgement is irreversible or temporary but rather final. Parry’s acknowledgement that no contemporary of Jesus would have thought he was any sort of universalist, Tidball says this should be conclusive.

Paul

Parry’s case depends on establishing two ‘strands’ within Paul’s teaching, let’s call them strand A and strand B

Strand A: two ways; two types of people; two destinations. Romans 1:16-17; 2:7-9. 1 Cor 18; 6:9-10; Gal 5:21; 1 Thes 4:13; 2 Thes 1:9 (“everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord”), 2:10-12.

Strand B: Language that talks of a God who unites all creation under his reign. 1 Cor 15:26-28 (God is “all in all”). Philippians 2:10-11 (every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus as Lord). Colossians 1:20 (all things reconciled). Ephesians 1:10.

Do such ‘strand B’ texts imply universal salvation – and somehow trump strand A?

Tidball argues no: the two strands are not in tension or contradiction. It does not work to use strand B to trump strand A because strand B does not imply universalism. Indeed each of the four texts above can be best interpreted as teaching the opposite. For example, in 1 Cor 15, God is ‘all in all’ when all things are subject to him his enemies are destroyed, not re-educated or converted.

Such texts have no mention of hell being a temporary place – to argue they do is to do eisegesis not exegesis. The ‘all’ that Parry builds much upon, is all who are in Christ, not all individuals without exception – see 1 Cor 15:22.

Romans 5 develops this exclusive theme – the ‘all’ of Romans 5:8 is all (Jew or Gentile) who are in Christ as opposed to being in Adam. To argue for universalism from this and other texts goes directly against Romans 2:6-16; 14:11-12; 2 Thes 2:7-10 etc.

The ‘best’ universalist text is perhaps 1 Tim 4:10 “we have our hope set on the living God who is the saviour for all people, especially of those who believe.” But, Tidball argues, it is best translated within a particularistic framework of the letter and Paul more generally. The ‘especially’ understood as explaining the precise identity of the ‘all’ – ‘to be precise, those who believe’.

General Epistles and Revelation

Tidball refers to Howard Marshall and N T Wright on a regular basis who both conclude that there is no hint of a second chance post-mortem salvation in the NT.

Hebrews 9:27 – death followed by judgement

2 Peter 3:9 (the Lord does not want anyone to perish but all to come to repentance). This is a key text in a universalist argument, but to extrapolate out from this verse a conclusion that, to coin a phrase, God must get what he wants, is to interpret the verse  contrary to the whole flow of 2 Peter 3 which talks of the ‘destruction of the godless.’

1 John 2:2 – Jesus the atoning sacrifice for our sins and also the sins of the whole world. But John is strongly a two kinds of people / two paths  guy (see 1 John 5:23). This verse needs to be interpreted as talking of one saviour for all (the whole world) – whoever they are, across all ethnic, racial, gender, social and religious barriers.

Revelation: Lot of ground to cover here. Parry sees 14 and 20 as speaking of judgement, but 15 and 21-22 holding out the triumphant hope of God’s universal triumph. The latter ultimately overcoming the former. The judgement of the damned in 14 or 20 is not necessarily ‘for ever and ever’.  The open gates of the New Jerusalem point to a welcome for the judged – they will not be excluded for ever. But, Tidball contends such a reading is forced and speculative. The open gates are symbolic of peace. The whole context is of ultimate victory and the utter defeat of evil and judgement of God’s enemies to a second death (21:8).

Some concluding discussion in the next post.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Evangelical Universalism (3) reflecting on evangelicalism

This is an extra holding post 😉 – some reflections on ‘evangelical’ on this Easter Saturday.

When it comes to ‘evangelical universalism’, the question is not so much whether traditional evangelical interpretations are beyond challenge, critique and perhaps significant reform (after all don’t evangelicals believe in semper reformanda?), but whether such reform can be sustained exegetically and theologically.

In theory, evangelicals can live with all sorts of grey areas but agree on the core essentials of the faith. In practice this isn’t so neat – just have a browse through this series to see how serious, Bible-believing Christians and scholars come to different conclusions about exactly what the Bible does teach on a whole raft of issues.

More importantly, they differ over the significance of those issues for defining core evangelical beliefs. Some people’s non-essentials are other’s core etc.

Christian Smith has written a book about such “pervasive interpretative pluralism” – and responses to it reflect that pluralism!

It seems to me that most of the big debates and hot topics (hell; universalism; women in ministry; penal substitution; moving beyond the Bible to theology – to name a few recent /ongoing ones) that cause big stirs within evangelicalism do so because, at least for some, they are pushing the boundary of evangelical orthodoxy.

For example, on women in ministry, it seems to me that there is a strong exegetical and theological argument to be made for ‘mutuality’ and a significantly weaker and inconsistent one for various forms of hierarchicalism. Some want to make that a core issue and pin the gospel to it in a ‘slippery slope’ type argument.

Evangelicals will ‘defend the core’ because they are passionate about the gospel. After all, if there is no agreed core, there is actually no such thing as Christian orthodoxy let alone evangelicalism.

Why mention this? Well, it seems to me that the Parry-Tidball debate fits exactly within the inherent ambiguity and fuzziness over how to define evangelical, and the difference of opinion over what is an essential or non-essential matter.

Parry is arguing that his ‘evangelical universalism’, whether you agree with it or not, should be a legitimate evangelical interpretation since it is coming at the texts and the issues within a recognisably evangelical theological framework: in terms of theological starting assumptions and hermeneutical methodology.

Tidball is defining evangelicalism more narrowly; arguing that unless Parry’s view can be sustained biblically, it hasn’t the theological weight behind it to be considered evangelical in any meaningful sense.

Parry’s proposal that universalism be considered an orthodox evangelical option is a massive paradigm shift both historically and theologically. But that is not the main reason the vast majority of evangelicals will, like Derek Tidball, be un-persuaded. It is because evangelical universalism is perceived as both ‘threatening the core’ (as Parry is well aware and responds to – see the first post) and resting on thin exegetical foundations.

Comments, as ever, welcome.