The beginning of the new year has been an exciting time of outreach activities at universities across the country. It has been particularly joyful for me (David) to get involved with Christian Unions again and engage with questioning students. In the past month I have been to three very different mission weeks – each unique and reflective of the university they are in.
First of all was Durham – a beautiful university town with a large and active CU – I loved doing the lunch bar there and then had the delight of sitting beside a couple of people at the main meeting, who had only come because of the lunch bar. It was a long but worthwhile journey.
Contrast that with the University of Abertay (Dundee) lunch bar the following week. A handful of people with only a couple of non-Christians present. You would think that this would have been very discouraging – think again. Firstly, I was really encouraged by the two mission speakers, Simon Attwood and Lucy Thompson – who were part of my congregation in Dundee during their own student days. Part of the Solas mission is to help train young workers like Simon and Lucy. But even more encouraging was the fact that the two non-Christians turned up at church on Sunday! Never despise the day of small things.
Finally on to Aberdeen, where the CU ran a weeks’ worth of lunch bars and evening talks. I did five talks for the lunch bars. These were well attended with an attentive audience asking lots of questions. It was very stimulating to speak to people who knew little about Christianity and who were very open.
There is no doubt that there is ignorance, opposition and apathy in many of our universities – but there is also an open door, open minds and hearts that are being opened by the Holy Spirit. Andy and I are delighted to share in that work with UCCF.
The Prime Minister was mocked for saying that ‘Brexit means Brexit’. Such truisms are surely too simplistic for the sophisticated British electorate? The First Minister announced at the Glasgow Pride event at the weekend, “Love is Love” – and was applauded. But what does that mean? Just as ‘Brexit means Brexit’ sounds good to those who think Brexit is a good idea and think they know what it means, so ‘Love is Love’ sounds good to those who think they know what it means. But what does it mean? What is love? Is love more than a feeling? More than a second-hand emotion? And what does love have to do with government policy?
For those who are naturalistic materialistic atheists or agnostics, there is a real problem. If everything is reduced to the chemical, the physical and the biological then love is, like humanity, just a collection of chemicals. As the late great atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell declared, “we are a blob of carbon floating from one meaningless existence to another”. ‘Love’ therefore is simply a chemical reaction, something which makes the ‘Love is Love’ truism meaningless in almost every sense, but especially in determining government policy. After all why should one chemical reaction be considered more significant than another? Hate after all is hate – and it too is a chemical reaction. But hate is bad. Agreed? But how do we know that? In a materialistic world there is ultimately no good and bad, just social constructs and evolved language. Who is to say that just as we are told we can change the social construct of gender, that we cannot change the even more malleable construct of language? Maybe Orwell was right in his dystopian vision of 1984 – how long before we have crowds shouting ‘hate is love and love is hate’?
There is another even more obvious problem with saying that love is love in a Godless world. What if someone’s chemical reaction is to marry ten people? Or to marry their sister? Or they have a chemical reaction that attracts them towards children? No one doubts that these things exist but does that mean that because ‘love is love’; polygamy, incest and paedophilia should be government policy? Of course not. Before going any further it needs to be stressed (because there are those who think this and there are those who thinks it is being implied) that I am not equating homosexuality with these at all. I am trying to deal with the logical basis (if one is allowed to think logically in today’s emotive political culture) that the First Minister set our for her ‘consultation’ (which is of course nothing of the sort, as the result is already pre-determined) announced at the weekend in which people will be able to self-declare themselves to be whatever gender they want – without any need for medical or psychological evidence. ‘Love is Love’ is a nice soundbite to be applauded by an unthinking crowd, but it is not a reason for government policy – especially because it is so vacuous.
But is love irrelevant? No – we need to define what it is. Perhaps the Darwinian understanding of humanity can help here? Love is more beneficial to humanity than hate because we have learned that reciprocal altruism benefits the species as a whole- whereas hate destroys it. It’s a good argument. But is the ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ argument enough? Is that a sufficient basis for government policy? It’s certainly an improvement on love is love, but it still remains hopelessly inadequate. There may be times when hate actually benefits a particular group and society – would that make it right? And there surely is a time when even reciprocal altruism is not enough. What about that most absurd and evil of Christian doctrines, as Christopher Hitchens declared, ‘love your enemies’?
Because for the Christian there is a different and more concrete version of love. The Apostle Paul teaches about it in 1 Corinthians 13, the Lord Jesus exemplifies and practices it – and the Apostle John sum it up neatly in his first letter.
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” 1 John 3:16 (NIV). “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
1 John 4:10-11 (NIV)
These are profound and deep words that require a lot of thought, meditation and practical working out. But they are real and concrete. What if they are true? They provide substance and meaning to ‘Love is Love’ by telling us and showing us that ‘God is Love’. That does not mean that anything we feel is love can then be considered to be God. It does however give us an objective and real standard outwith ourselves, by which we can judge and be judged. It is the most radical and revolutionary teaching of Jesus Christ, which once turned the world upside down and can do so again. Perhaps our society really needs to come to grips with and understand the love of God in Christ – so that love ceases to be a second-hand emotion and instead becomes the dynamic of us all?
Contemporary Germany may be the European leader, but the Berlin Wall still casts a long shadow over the country’s economic, political and spiritual landscape.
BY GAVIN MATTHEWS
“Germany’s neighbours have nothing to fear from its new-found strength. Berlin does not want to dominate Europe, but to exercise leadership … something that will be essential in a post-Brexit world.”
Josef Janning and Almut Möller (European Council on Foreign Affairs)
German strength today is built on its size, economic performance, and political stability. More than 80 million people live in Germany, making it the largest nation in Europe. While the figures for both total GDP, and GDP-per-capita vary between different calculating bodies, there is unanimity in their reporting that Germany is the economic leader within the EU. Several of the world’s richest and most well known corporations are German, such as Volkswagen, Allianz, Siemens, Deutche Bank, BASF, ThyssenKrupp and many more. In 2017, the German economy has exhibited strong growth, in exports, industrial production, manufacturing, and factory orders, and is now outperforming other advanced economies in the global recovery.
Internally, however, economists continue to observe that despite federal spending to stimulate the states which once formed the GDR, the old ‘East Germany’ still lags behind the West. While state economic stimuli continues to flow eastwards, internal migration moves in the opposite direction, especially of the young and the entrepreneurial. The ‘West’ outperforms the ‘East’ in wealth, health, life expectancy, productivity and consumption. Perhaps only in education do the states of the former GDR lead the way.
It was the implosion of the Soviet system which led to the reunification of Germany in 1990. Since then, it has been a stable federation of 16 states (“Länder”) of significantly varying sizes – there are over 18 million Bavarians, but only just over 1 million found in Saarland. The Federal Government, with its chancellor and bi-cameral legislature, has some parallels with the US Constitution, and controls all matters of defence, foreign policy and currency. Virtually all other powers are retained by the Länder, including most tax-raising responsibilities.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), suffered a drop in popularity during the migrant crisis, running into 2016. Pundits at one stage even suggested that she might not even seek re-election in the autumn 2017 poll, however successes in “this year’s three regional elections have restored Mrs Merkel to pole position in German politics”.
On the international stage, Merkel’s European leadership has been consolidated by: (i) the defeat of Le Pen in the French elections ensuring a solid Franco-German relationship; (ii) Brexit; and (iii) the arrival of a more provocative and eccentric incumbent in the White House. There is now the widespread expectation that Merkel can win in September, extending her chancellorship at home and maintaining her influence as the “alternative leader of the free world”. Precisely what her anticipated victory will mean at home depends on the make-up of any post-election coalition, which is the norm in German elections.
Migration has been the most divisive and politically sensitive issue of Chancellor Merkel’s current term in office. She has pointedly made Germany a welcoming place for vast numbers of refugees. For her, this seems to have been a matter of conscience and conviction. German politics is inevitably conducted against the collective memory of the 1930s, and Merkel has actively promoted a racially and culturally diverse, welcoming Germany, in contrast to the horrors of the past. The ensuing cultural friction from the high levels of immigration is something the far right has sought to inflame and use to further its political agenda.
Immigration peaked in 2015-16, with Germany receiving the most asylum seekers of any European nation. So significant was Germany’s share of the influx into the EU, that its historic trend of population decline was actually reversed that year. About 200 city mayors from Westphalia wrote to Chancellor Merkel saying that they were “overwhelmed” with migrants and “seriously concerned for our country”. Pressure on Merkel has since eased with a sizeable reduction in immigration rates, coupled with the development of a significant emigration trend.
The tensions around immigration centre on two issues: crime, and the influence of Islam. In both cases, journalists and politicians who are resistant to immigration promote figures which are far higher than those from Liberal sources. Right-wing writers claim that, “10 per cent of young German males are Muslim”, while liberals say, “the [total] number of Muslims in Germany is way lower than people think” – only around 5 per cent of the total population.
Crimes involving immigrants in Germany have made headlines repeatedly over the last few years. The sexual assaults on women, committed by immigrant men, have been well reported, as was the jihadist attack on the Berlin Christmas market in December 2016, which killed 12 people. Less heavily reported have been the attacks upon immigrants. Official figures suggest as many as 3500 such attacks occurred in 2016.
Government responses have included both strong denunciation of such assaults, and prosecutions. Coupled to this have been legislative attempts to limit the wearing of the Burqa by civil servants at work, along with a 10-point plan to define “national identity”. The fact that a large majority of Turkish citizens living in Germany voted to endorse President Erdogan’s curtailment of Turkish democracy highlights the significant cultural differences between most Germans and many of the recent arrivals. This continues to cause concern across the country.
Germany today treads a wise and careful line in terms of handling its history. The crimes of the 1930s and 40s are not ignored, downplayed, justified, or excused. The impressive Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (pictured), in the heart of Berlin epitomises the way the country deals with its past.
Culturally, Germany today is a highly secularised society. One poll suggested that Germany is the third most atheist nation in Western Europe. The loss of the traditional values associated with Christianity is also seen in the decline of the churches, widespread acceptance of abortion, and the largest “gay/LGBTI community in Europe”.
Research over the last decade has revealed that the health of the churches continues to be far worse in the former East Germany than in the West. The East continues to exhibit far higher rates of those calling themselves Vollatheisten, “full” or “committed atheists”. If the former East Germany was counted as separate country, it would be one of the most secular states in the world, where public declaration of Christian faith can still receive a hostile reception. The fact that the massive church decline which began under the eye of the Stasi, continues amongst the youngest sections of ‘East German’ society today, is of great concern to the churches.
Elsewhere, state persecution is sometimes blithely seen as a cure-all for churches, as in Tertullian’s noted formula: “The Blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” The GDR demonstrates that Christians should not naively assume that such a loss of religious liberties in their context will automatically reverse their numerical decline and restore their vitality. In the GDR, such harassment did not dynamise the church, but decimated it, with few signs of recovery decades later.
Oliver Ahlfeld, of the Evangelischer Gnadauer Gemeinschaftsverband, reports that the German churches have yet to fully adjust to their minority status in society, and need to overcome their divisions in order to preserve their witness in their culturally resistant context. He believes that most German Christians are “too busy, too rich, and too secure in their everyday lives” to impact Germany with the Christian gospel. “I am praying that this will change, and I do not expect the changes to be quick; but maybe the next decade will contain some surprises,” he adds.
Contemporary Germany may be the European leader, but the Berlin Wall still casts a long shadow over the country’s economic, political and spiritual landscape.
The only way the Reformation could possibly not still matter, says MICHAEL REEVES, would be if beauty, goodness, truth, joy and human flourishing no longer mattered.
Some 120 years after the Reformation got going, some 120 scholars assembled in Westminster to write the necessary documents for a reformed church in England. The first question and answer of their Westminster Shorter Catechism is a beautiful, prize flower of Reformation thought:
What is the chief end of man?
Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
The glory of God and enjoyment of him: these inseparable, twin truths were guiding lights for the Reformation. The Reformers held that, through all the doctrines they had fought for and upheld, God was glorified and people were given comfort and joy.
Through justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ, God was glorified as utterly merciful and good, as both supremely holy and compassionate – and therefore people could find their comfort and delight in him. Through union with Christ, believers could know a firm standing before God, gleefully knowing him as their ‘Abba’, confident that he was powerful to save and keep to the uttermost. Without a priestly hierarchy detached from the world, believers could all call each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister’, living every part of life for the kind Father they had been brought to enjoy. It has been our belief in this book that the Reformers were right in this, and therefore the Reformation still matters, for through these truths lives can still blossom and flourish under the joy-giving light of God’s glory.
FEAR AND PRESUMPTION
A good test case of this can be seen in how differently Roman Catholic and Reformation theologies thought of our assurance of salvation. Can a believer know they are saved?
On the side of the Reformation, the Puritan Richard Sibbes argued that without such assurance we simply cannot live Christian lives as God would have us. God, he said, wants us to be thankful, cheerful, rejoicing and strong in faith: but we will be none of these things unless we are sure that God and Christ are ours for good. “There be many duties and dispositions that God requires which we can not be in without assurance of salvation on good grounds. What is that? God bids us be thankful in all things. How can I know that, unless I know God is mine and Christ is mine? … God enjoineth us to rejoice. ‘Rejoice, and again I say, rejoice,’ Philip, iv. 4. Can a man rejoice that his name is written in heaven, and not know his name is written there? … Alas! how can I perform cheerful service to God, when I doubt whether he be my God and Father or no? … God requires a disposition in us that we should be full of encouragements, and strong in the Lord; and that we should be courageous for his cause in withstanding his enemies and our enemies. How can there be courage in resisting our corruptions, Satan’s temptations? How can there be courage in suffering persecution and crosses in the world, if there be not some particular interest we have in Christ and in God?” 
Yet the very confidence that Sibbes upheld as a Christian privilege was damned by Roman Catholic theology as the sin of presumption. It was precisely one of the charges made against Joan of Arc at her trial in 1431. There, the judges proclaimed: “This woman sins when she says she is as certain of being received into Paradise as if she were already a partaker of … glory, seeing that on this earthly journey no pilgrim knows if he is worthy of glory or of punishment, which the sovereign judge alone can tell.” 
That judgment made complete sense within the logic of the system: if we can only enter heaven because we have (by God’s enabling grace) become personally worthy of it, of course nobody can be sure. By that line of reasoning, I can only have as much confidence in heaven as I have confidence in my own sinlessness. But while such thinking made sense in Roman Catholicism, it bred fear, not joy. The need to have personal merit before God left people terrified at the prospect of judgment.
You can still feel it when you see a medieval fresco of the Last Judgment; you can hear it in the words of the Dies Irae that would be chanted in every Catholic Mass for the Dead:
“Day of wrath, day that will dissolve the world into burning coals … What am I the wretch then to say? What patron I to beseech? When scarcely the just be secure. King of tremendous Majesty… do not lose me on that day … My prayers are not worthy, but do Thou, Good (God), deal kindly lest I burn in perennial fire.”
It was exactly why the young Luther shook with fear at the thought of death, and why he said he hated God (instead of enjoying him). He could not be thankful, cheerful, rejoicing and strong in faith, since he believed only in God as a judge who was against him. It was a view of God reinforced by a carving he would pass underneath every time he entered the city church in Wittenberg: “On a stone relief above the entrance to the cemetery surrounding the church, Luther saw, carved into the mandorla (an aureole shaped like an almond), Christ seated on the rainbow as judge of the world, so angry the veins stand out, menacing and swollen, on his forehead.” 
With his discovery that sinners are freely declared righteous in Christ, that all changed. No longer was his confidence for that day placed in himself: it all rested on Christ and his sufficient righteousness. And so the horrifying Doomsday became for him what he would call “the most happy Last Day”, the day of Jesus, his friend. The consolation it brought to all who held to Reformation theology was captured perfectly in the striking wording of the Heidelberg Catechism’s question and answer:
What comfort is it to you that Christ will come to judge the living and the dead?
In all my sorrow and persecution, I lift up my head and eagerly await as judge from heaven the very same person who before has submitted himself to the judgment of God for my sake, and has removed all the curse from me. 
Comfort in Christ for the struggling believer: that was the theology of the Reformation.
What happens to us after death was no sideshow issue for the Reformation. Luther’s very first skirmish – that October day in 1517 when he nailed his 95 theses to the church door – concerned purgatory. Purgatory provided relief for the problem that nobody would die righteous enough to have merited salvation fully. It was (and is) often viewed as a halfway house between heaven and hell – nowhere near as good as heaven, but not so bad as hell – but purgatory was meant to be a place exclusively for the saved. It was the place where Christian souls would go after death to have all their sins slowly purged from them. Through time in purgatory, sinners would be purified and made finally fit for heaven.
The doctrine of purgatory had got into full swing in the late Middle Ages, and fear of the place began to spawn a vast purgatory industry. Prayers and masses would be said for souls in purgatory, and special ‘chantries’ were founded, with priests dedicated to saying those prayers and masses for particular fortunate (wealthy) souls. And then, of course, there were indulgences: awards of merit handed out by the church to those who had earned (or bought) them. These indulgences could ‘top up’ an individual’s own personal merit before God, so fast-tracking them through purgatory, or even allowing them to leap-frog purgatory all together (with a ‘full’, or ‘plenary’ indulgence). It was an indulgence-monger, Johann Tetzel, who stung Luther into action with his blood-chilling religious marketeering. According to his notorious jingle, “When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs”.
None of this has really disappeared from modern Roman Catholicism. The Catechism of the Catholic Church still affirms belief in purgatory and indulgences. Indeed, when Pope Benedict XVI wrote about the last things, he gave more pages to considering purgatory than to heaven and hell combined. And why not? When justification is thought of as a process of growth in righteousness (as it is in Roman Catholicism), purgatory and indulgences make sense. Without the righteousness of Christ given to us, how else can anyone be righteous enough for heaven, unless they have much more time to grow than this short life affords?
But to the Reformers, purgatory quickly came to symbolise all that was wrong with the Roman Catholic view of salvation. John Calvin argued clearly and bluntly that, “purgatory is a deadly fiction of Satan, which nullifies the cross of Christ, inflicts unbearable contempt upon God’s mercy, and overturns and destroys our faith. For what means this purgatory of theirs but that satisfaction for sins is paid by the souls of the dead after their death? Hence, when the notion of satisfaction is destroyed, purgatory itself is straightway torn up by the very roots. But if it is perfectly clear from our preceding discourse that the blood of Christ is the sole satisfaction for the sins of believers, the sole expiation, the sole purgation, what remains but to say that purgatory is simply a dreadful blasphemy against Christ?” 
His logic is simple: purgatory strips Christ of his glory as a merciful and fully-sufficient saviour; it also destroys any confident joy in us. No joy, no glory: it went entirely against the grain of Reformation thought, which cared so passionately about those twin prizes.
A PROTESTANT PURGATORY?
And yet. While Protestants have almost unanimously been averse to the idea of purgatory since the earliest days of the Reformation, things are changing. One of the darlings of modern evangelicalism, C. S. Lewis, was as winsome as ever when he turned his pen in support of some form of purgatory in The Great Divorce and Letters to Malcolm. He and others have made many think again with arguments that are as revealing as they are appealing.
Jerry Walls has assembled what is probably the most thorough case for a Protestant acceptance of purgatory, and his argument is worth hearing. Walls actually agrees with Calvin’s classic argument against purgatory, but suggests that there is another way to think of purgatory without falling foul of Calvin’s anathema. That is, purgatory could be thought of not as a place to pay off any remaining debt uncovered by the blood of Christ, but instead as a place where those who are already forgiven might go on to become fully holy and so fit for heaven. In other words, purgatory should be seen, not as a place of punishment, but as a school where the taste for holiness is cultivated such that graduates might fully enjoy heaven, instead of feeling out of place. There in purgatory, Christians will not get more forgiven (their forgiveness is complete), but they will get acclimatised to the holy atmosphere of heaven.
To illustrate, both Jerry Walls and C. S. Lewis turn to John Henry Newman’s poem, The Dream of Gerontius, the account of a soul’s journey from death to judgment and then purgatory. Near the end, the soul approaches the throne of God (and in order to appreciate the pathos of the moment, it is worth listening to Edward Elgar’s musical rendition of The Dream). At that point, the full orchestra blares out the terrifying holiness of God and in pitiful strains the soul cries out to be sent away to purgatory, unable to bear the dazzling brightness of God’s presence.
“Take me away, and in the lowest deep
There let me be, And there in hope the lone night-watches keep,
Told out for me.
There, motionless and happy in my pain,
Lone, not forlorn,—
There will I sing my sad perpetual strain,
Until the morn.
There will I sing, and soothe my stricken breast,
Which ne’er can cease
To throb, and pine, and languish, till possest
Of its Sole Peace.
There will I sing my absent Lord and Love:— Take me away,
That sooner I may rise, and go above,
And see Him in the truth of everlasting day. “
Now, Lewis and Walls may have sidestepped Calvin’s volley, but there remains something entirely incompatible with Reformation thought here. True, purgatory is not now meant to finish off the work of the cross in securing our atonement. The problem is to do with some of those other basic questions we have seen raised by the Reformation: What does God give us? Himself, or some other thing called ‘grace’? What is our new life? Knowing him, or being enabled by him for something else? Here in The Dream, the soul thinks (and we are clearly meant to agree with it) that holiness and transformation will best happen away from the presence of God. There, ‘lone’ and ‘absent’ from the Lord, self-soothing, the soul believes it will best mature. Apparently absence makes the heart grow fonder, even in eternity.
The soul’s logic is at complete odds with all we’ve seen, that we find our joy and we find ourselves transformed through our communion with God, by glorying in him. Our sanctification is not something God ever enables from a distance, with hands off. We find ourselves “transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory” precisely as we “contemplate the Lord’s glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Finally, when he appears, “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
The soul claims to be ‘happy in my pain’, but the overwhelming tone of what it cries is one aching, stricken, ‘sad perpetual strain’. That is where any purgatory must leave it: belief in purgatory brings sadness and discomfort. Reformation thought, on the other hand, always sees joy found in the glory of God. True happiness is found pressing into (not away from) the brightness that purifies and heals.
S. D. G.
What the Reformers saw, especially through the message of justification by faith alone, was the revelation of an exuberantly happy God who glories in sharing his happiness. Not stingy or utilitarian, but a God who glories in being gracious. (That is why dependent faith glorifies him, according to Romans 4:20.) To steal from his glory by claiming any credit for ourselves would only steal our own joy in so marvellous a God.
And the glory of God, Calvin believed, can be seen not just in justification, the cross and the face of Christ: the whole world, he argued, is a theatre of God’s glory.  Throughout creation we see the sheer largesse of the creator: “Now if we ponder to what end God created food, we shall find that he meant not only to provide for necessity but also for delight and good cheer. … In grasses, trees, and fruits, apart from their various uses, there is beauty of appearance and pleasantness of odour [cf. Gen. 2:9]. For if this were not true, the prophet would not have reckoned them among the benefits of God, ‘that wine gladdens the heart of man, that oil makes his face shine’ [Ps. 104:15 p.]. … Has the Lord clothed the flowers with the great beauty that greets our eyes, the sweetness of smell that is wafted upon our nostrils, and yet will it be unlawful for our eyes to be affected by that beauty, or our sense of smell by the sweetness of that odour? … Did he not, in short, render many things attractive to us, apart from their necessary use?” 
That is why Johann Sebastian Bach, when satisfied with his compositions, would write on them ‘S. D. G.’ for Soli Deo Gloria (‘Glory to God Alone’). For through his music he wanted to sound out the beauty and glory of God, so pleasing both God and people. The glory of God, he believed, gratuitously rings out throughout creation, bringing joy wherever it is appreciated. And that is worth living for and promoting.
In fact, wrote Calvin, that is the secret of happiness and the secret of life. “For whatever the philosophers may have ever said of the chief good, it was nothing but cold and vain, for they confined man to himself, while it is necessary for us to go out of ourselves to find happiness. The chief good of man is nothing else but union with God.” 
Against everything we are told today, happiness is not found in ourselves, in appreciating our own beauty or convincing ourselves of it. Deep, lasting, satisfying happiness is found in the all-glorious God. All of which is really just another way of saying:
What is the chief end of man?
Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
JOY AND GLORY STILL MATTER
The only way the Reformation could possibly not still matter would be if beauty, goodness, truth, joy and human flourishing no longer mattered. We have been made to enjoy God, but without the great truths that the Reformers fought for which display God as glorious and enjoyable, we will not do so. Seeing less of him, we will be lesser and sadder. Seeing more of him, we will be fuller and happier. And on that note, we should leave the last words to John Calvin. This is why the Reformation still matters: “it will not suffice simply to hold that there is One whom all ought to honour and adore, unless we are also persuaded that he is the fountain of every good, and that we must seek nothing elsewhere than in him. … For until men recognise that they owe everything to God, that they are nourished by his fatherly care, that he is the Author of their every good, that they should seek nothing beyond him — they will never yield him willing service. Nay, unless they establish their complete happiness in him, they will never give themselves truly and sincerely to him.” 
It is with sadness and respect that everyone here at Solas CPC remembers Gordon Wilson, who passed away yesterday in Dundee. Gordon was the co-founder of Solas and served as the first Chairman of the Board of Trustees. The organisation owes a great deal to his initial impetus and his drive.
He once told me about the combination of circumstances which brought him and his wife Edith to St Peter’s Free Church in Dundee, where he came to feel that David Robertson’s gifts as an evangelist were not being developed effectively enough. He believed that after years of church decline it was time for a Christian counter-attack. This was the genesis of Solas, which he described, saying “I managed the business side, including the eventual incorporation and strategy (and money where I had the legendary reputation of being able to say ‘No’ to spending!). Everything else was dealt with by David, and in its early form it was a platform for his evangelism. The longer term aim was to provide training and education for Church-based Christians to give them confidence to project the faith to the wider public.”
Since Gordon retired as chairman in 2013, he has maintained his interest as the work of Solas has grown and developed. As a movement we give thanks to God for his vision and we rejoice in the great hope of the gospel which Gordon longed to see spread far and wide.
D. J. Randall, Chairman
On behalf of St Peter’s Free Church:
The congregation of St Peter’s have been deeply saddened to hear of the death of one of our members, Gordon Wilson, the former MP and leader of the SNP. Gordon was also the founder together with myself of the Solas – Centre for Public Christianity. He and Edith have been a lively and lovely part of our fellowship for the past few years and we will miss them enormously. Humble, generous and servant-hearted, they have been a consistent encouragement to us. At a personal level I will miss his humour, wisdom and insight, not only into political affairs but also other aspects of humanity. He was kind, gracious, loyal and intelligent. I regard him as a significant mentor, influence and friend. Before he died he told me that he had no fear because he knew where he was going, only sorrow for the family that he would leave behind. We share with Edith and the family in that sorrow and pray that they would know the comfort of the Comforter. We give thanks for Gordon and his life and witness. Scotland will be a poorer place without him.
As I write these words, the news has been filled with the growing death toll and horrific stories from the Grenfell Tower disaster. Grenfell raises many deeply disturbing questions. How could so many people burn to death right in the heart of one of the most modern cities in the world? How could so many mistakes be made? The Grenfell tragedy also reminds us how suffering and evil are also bound up together—an accidental fire is in one sense a ‘natural disaster’, but then into the mix is added poverty, greed, bad management, and gross human error.
But an event like Grenfell—and the other examples of suffering, tragedy, violence and death that daily fill the headlines—raises another question too. Where is God in all of this? Indeed, many sceptics and doubters would argue that pain and suffering clearly tell us that there is no God. As Richard Dawkins put it:
The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.
It’s to answer tough questions like this that we created the SHORT/ANSWERS video series—brief, 3-4 minute films, taking the hardest questions and the sharpest challenges to the Christian faith, and addressing them in a way that both Christians and non-Christians can understand.
Our latest film addresses the question of pain and suffering and suggests the question isn’t so much what God may have said about suffering and evil, but whether God has done anything about it. You can watch the video on YouTube here and it’s also on Facebook and in even shorter form on Instagram.
Last week, Andy and Al were at a Quench event in a coffee shop in Perth. Andy spoke on ‘How Can I Believe in Christianity When the Church Is So Evil?’ Among the audience was a gentlemen who had begun attending an Alpha Course at a local church but still had questions—indeed, we were told that this very question was one of the major stumbling blocks for him. The man asked questions in the Q&A and afterwards, he and Andy were able to talk. He said to Andy: “That’s the first time I’ve heard somebody answer that question in a way that’s persuasive”.
Apologetics, which we’re passionate about at Solas, is about just that: dealing with people’s honest questions so they are no longer stumbling blocks, so they can see Jesus clearly. Whether it’s the historic misbehaviour of parts of the church, or suffering and evil, or science and faith, or any of a thousand other questions, Solas is there at the coalface, online and offline, helping people see, as 1 Peter 3:15 puts it, that there are reasons for the hope that we have. Thanks for your prayers and your financial support that make this possible.
Has science education become indoctrination? This is the question posed by Dr Alistair Noble in The Solas Papers #6. Dr Noble is a former HM Inspector of Schools for Scotland and now Director of Centre for Intelligent Design.
In this Paper, Dr Noble explores the differences between science (as a science) and scientism as a wholly naturalistic and secular worldview which excludes any possibility of the supernatural. Unfortunately, it now seems that in British education today, the teaching of science has been subject to similar exclusions. The open discussion of differing, theistic theories of origins has been severely restricted. Has this turned science education into a kind of Trojan horse for humanist and atheist belief systems?
Our concern … is whether a secular indoctrination process is at work in British and European society, programming people against religious belief and, if so, whether education is an accomplice in this.
At the beginning of 2016, John Cleese, surprisingly, tweeted that he would “like 2016 to be the year when people remembered that science is a method of investigation, and not a belief system” The difference between these two positions is fundamental to understanding the nature of the scientific method and the extent to which science can inform and direct our world. “A method of investigation” is an accurate description of science; “a belief system” is what can be described broadly as “scientism.”
Now all of this might not matter overmuch if it remained purely a matter of intellectual debate about the nature and limits of science. But scientism has become a popular belief… much more sinister is recent guidance from the Department for Education for England and Wales and, to a lesser extent, the Scottish Government, limiting the scope of the discussion of origins in science lessons. This has come about largely in response to representations from bodies such as the British Humanist Society and the Scottish Secular Society.
At its heart, apologetics is beautifully simple and intricately connected to the heart of the gospel. As I’ve wrestled with people’s questions, I’ve learned there are a number of basic principles that apply time and again, no matter who I’m talking with.
1. Know what you believe
This is a challenge for those of us raised in the Church, or who have been Christians for decades. Too often we give how-shaped answers to why-shaped questions. If somebody asks you why you are a Christian, giving a narrative of how you became one isn’t always helpful. Many of our friends want to know why you’re a Christian now, today, with all of the challenges to your faith that daily attack you. What’s your elevator speech for Christianity?
2. Rediscover the power of questions
We’ve tried to reduce evangelism to formulas or methodologies. But the most powerful form of sharing the gospel is talking to people. Learn to ask your friends what they believe (or don’t believe). If a colleague at work is a Muslim, try saying, “I’ve never really talked to a Muslim before. What do you believe?” Or if a friend self-describes as an atheist, respond, “ ‘Atheist’ tells me what you don’t believe. But what do you believe?”
3. Engage people’s honest questions
Don’t ignore objections. A few months ago I met Alex, a young university student, who introduced himself to me as an agnostic. “I used to be a Christian,” he explained, “but I was raised in a fundamentalist family.” Questions about religion were forbidden in his family and church. Alex began to read atheist books and eventually abandoned his faith.
“But you introduced yourself as an ‘agnostic,’ ” I said gently. “What happened?” Alex explained he attended a local atheist group, and discovered that they were, in his words, “fundamentalists too.” Questioning was not allowed there either. Alex told me he didn’t know what to believe or disbelieve any more. Then, he asked me if I thought he was lazy. I replied, “There are two types of agnostics. A lazy agnostic is somebody who can’t be bothered to find the answer to the God question. An active agnostic is genuinely searching for the answer, but just hasn’t found it yet.” We talked long into the evening and slowly began to deal with some of the questions Alex had buried for so long.
4. Know what the gospel really is
That sounds obvious, doesn’t it, but a good deal of our problems in the Church stem from forgetting. We’ve allowed the gospel to become tangled up with political positions, culture wars or moralism. As an atheist friend once put it to me, “I know what you Christians are against, but I have no idea what you’re for.” A brilliant, if tragic, observation.
Conclusion: Clearing the Ground
Ultimately, the task of apologetics is largely one of debris clearing: removing the obstacles so people can see Jesus clearly. Arguments can’t bring somebody to faith, but they can help create a climate in which faith is possible. Ultimately, what people need is not a clever argument, but to see the greatness and attractiveness of Jesus. Our task, and the task of apologetics, is simply to present Him as clearly as we can. And then get out of the way.
These last few weeks it’s been exciting to walk onto university campus after university campus and to talk to thousands of students about Jesus and the gospel. We’re in the middle of university mission season and so far this year, David and I have been at Edinburgh University, Aberdeen University, Dundee University, Abertay University and, internationally, at five universities in Canada. Coming up later this month, I’ll be at Liverpool Hope University, one of two main speakers for their mission week.
A university mission week is an annual event where the Christian groups on campus come together to organise a week of events—usually centred around lunch-bar and evening talks. Christian students mobilise to saturate the campus in flyers and posters, invite their friends and drum up publicity, so that the talks are filled. We then take controversial, engaging topics, tackling questions that people are really asking. For example, at Edinburgh University I spoke on “Isn’t God Irrelevant in the 21st Century?” whilst at Aberdeen University my first talk was entitled “Many Paths, One God?”
Too often the church is perceived as being afraid of or not interested in people’s honest questions—but what we find in reality is that when you tackle them head on, answer them with clarity and compassion, then allow time for dialogue and Q&A, and finally show how the answer connects to the gospel and to Jesus, God often shows up in amazing ways.
At one mission week in January, as well as the regular talks, we also organised a dialogue with an atheist member of the Philosophy Department, one of the most well-known faculty members on campus. The Christian Unions partnered with the Secular Alliance to sponsor the event entitled “Is Christianity Irrational?” I had the privilege of addressing hundreds of young skeptics as the professor and I interacted and answered questions. Afterwards, we had many signing up for the follow-up courses. You can watch an interview with two members of the Secular Alliance here: https://www.facebook.com/rzimcanada/videos/1430999990253039/
One of the pressures that a secular society tries to assert is to encourage Christians to privatise our faith—to withdraw from the public square and to shrink our faith to something that has absolutely nothing to say to the worlds of education, or work, or politics. University missions are a great corrective, as they remind us that Christianity is a public truth claim—if the gospel is true, it effects everything, not just “my personal relationship with Jesus”. They also remind me that the gospel can stand up in the marketplace of ideas, in the very heart of our universities, and more than hold its own.
Whenever I do a university mission, what excites me is not just the examples of God at work in the lives of non-Christian students, but the way these mission weeks excite a passion for evangelism in the Christian students who get involved in them. I remember a student at a mission last year who began the week incredibly timid and shy. Mid week, she plucked up the boldness, with much encouragement from friends, to invite a non-Christian friend to a talk. Her friend came, listened, asked questions in the Q&A, then hung around afterwards and talked to the speaker for several hours. Later that same afternoon, her friend gave her life to Christ. I will never forget the joy on that student’s face as the realisation sunk in that God had worked so powerfully through her.
I often tell students that being a student is a wonderful time of life. (I loved it so much that I did a PhD and managed to remain a student, at least part-time, for ten years, by which point if I hadn’t graduated my wife would have bludgeoned me to death with a blunt object.) But being a student is also a time when you have to make some big choices, before work and life and family and money and everything else crowds in. Two choices in particular. How much time you will invest with God and how much time you invest into the lives of others. Your answers to those questions will ultimately determine the impact you make on your culture.
In a world desperate for answers, we need Christian men and women prepared to commit to Christ wholeheartedly, live boldly, give dangerously, think deeply and speak and live authentically. University missions offer an incredible opportunity to help students lay some strong foundations for this.
Insight for January 2017 is now available. Read it online at ISSUU.com (embedded below) or download the PDF file.
This will be the last PDF version of Insight. We will be moving to a bi-weekly email newsletter soon. To continue receiving the newsletter, make sure you are signed up to our mailing list (see the subscribe form at the bottom of this page).
[ddownload id=”7257″ style=”button” button=”black” text=”Download Insight Sept 2016 as a PDF file (%filesize%)”]