Two Ways News is a weekly collaboration between Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen – a newsletter and podcast on a topic to encourage gospel thinking for today (subscribe at twoways.news).
With Tony away on holiday, Phillip has brought in his brother Peter Jensen for a special conversation on Easter, their new books The Coming of the Holy Spirit and The Life of Faith: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine, as well as the upcoming King’s Coronation.
Below are some snippets of the conversation. Listen to the full episode to glean more from the depth of their insights, and to enjoy some good ol’ brotherly banter in between.
Phillip: Peter, can you remember your childhood Easters?
Peter: I have to say only vaguely. What I do remember, is the Procession of Witness. But that was more my teenage years. I have to say in my childhood, the only thing I can think of is chocolate.
Phillip: Did we have chocolate eggs and egg hunts?
Peter: I seem to remember some degree of chocolate. But the day Good Friday was taken extraordinarily seriously by our parents was an important day. We were told why it was called Good Friday, namely that Jesus died to save the world that day.
Phillip: Mm yes. Tell me about the Procession of Witness. What do you remember?
Peter: Well, the Procession of Witness began as a sort of protest against the opening of the Easter Show on Good Friday. And so the Anglican churches decided to have a Procession of Witness through the city. Eight or nine thousand people (perhaps more) gathered and marched in parishes, or perhaps organizations as well—like the boys society and girls society—through the city. I think it ended up at Hyde Park and there was probably a service there. In later days, it ended up near the Cathedral. But in any case, there was a service and a sermon for the folk who had gathered. It was quite fun, but I don’t think there were many people looking on.
Phillip: Well, the city was empty.
Peter: Yes, the whole city was closed. But it was a good thing to do; it was a protest, but it was a protest in favour of the gospel. So it was a gospel occasion.
Phillip: But it was a gathering of the tribes so to speak. I remember in my first year of university. I went to the procession and there was my tutor in geography. And that was how I suddenly found that he was a Christian and he became a great friend all the way through university.
Peter: How interesting. My memory is that you were not supposed to carry ecclesiastical accoutrements such as crosses and things like that. This may be a mythological story, but it’s a good story,
Phillip: Well, let’s leave the myth running.
Peter: The myth goes that there was one parish in particular that sang as it went along, “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war. With the cross of Jesus, left behind the door.”
Phillip: It’s a good story.
But the secularization of Easter continues. I haven’t seen it yet this year, but there will no doubt be newspaper articles this week pointing out the pagan background of Easter time, as there are most years.
Peter: It does, doesn’t it? It happened first with Christmas, and with articles about how Christmas was originally a pagan festival taken over by the Christians in the fourth century or something—which is absolute rubbish as far as I can see. Historically, it’s much more likely that the time was chosen by the early Christians as a suitable time to celebrate the birth of Jesus because it was nine months after the passover (and their thinking was that Mary’s encounter with the angel was around passover). So the timing of Christmas was an intentional attempt to fit in with the biblical story.
20-30 years ago, the Sydney Morning Herald editorial for Christmas Day—and for Easter—was often written by a clergyman, and was always about the coming of Jesus. Now, the Easter and Christmas editorials go out of their way to not even mention Jesus, or if they do mention Jesus, it’s a sort of perverted view of Jesus that Jesus came just to spread love, like some pop star. And it just seems so extraordinary that you can take Good Friday, the day of a crucifixion of all things and turn it into well… into what? How do you see the secularization of Easter and Good Friday?
Phillip: I see the dating issue—that Easter is an ancient pagan celebration of spring, but that doesn’t really work here, does it? We’re here in autumn. And we’ve just moved out of daylight saving because the days are actually getting colder. But the idea of the bunny coming forth and the idea of the egg—and Christians can go along with these kinds of secular ideas such as the egg is empty like the grave. But frankly, it’s the sales of chocolate that keep Easter as a very important part of our culture, and hot cross buns. Where would we be without hot cross buns?
Phillip: Yes. So I heard on the radio this morning, and they were saying, “Well, this is going to be a great week of spiritual music. On Good Friday, listen to Bach’s St John’s Passion.” And for me, it’ll be problematic because it’ll most likely be in German, and I won’t understand what’s being sung anyway. And then they said, “On Sunday, you’ll hear the spiritual music of nature and renewal.” And I thought, yes, they have secularized the resurrection—the idea of starting things again is that we’ve come to spring, we’ve come to the new year. And I thought, well, it doesn’t work for me poetically in Australia. But it also is just secularized.
Peter: Yes, and intentionally so. And if I may say so—forgive this word—but stupidly so. After all, what is our greatest problem? The greatest problem we have is sin and death. And this is what is confronted at the foot of the cross and in the resurrection. The Easter message of cross and resurrection, the forgiveness of sins, and the defeat of death has to be the greatest message of history. And what are we doing with it? Turning it into bunny rabbits? Why?
Phillip: Well, it’s because they’ve got nothing to say, really. One of the problems of atheism has always been that it’s a negative philosophy. It tells you what not to believe, but can’t actually tell you what to believe. And so there is no meaning or purpose or outcome. There is no significance. It’s a big problem.
But it’s harder for them to secularize the death of Jesus. It’s like this book by Tom Holland, which I presume you’ve seen, where the crucifixion is outlined at the very beginning of the book with graphic detail, pointing out how Holland’s world has been shaped not by his atheism and not by his Greco Roman love of history, but by the crucifixion which changes his values, morality and so on.
Peter: Yes, and actually, I was listening to Mr. Holland this morning, in a podcast in which he lectured on this very subject and talked about the way he’d been involved in the aftermath of a terrible Middle Eastern conflict where men had been crucified and women had been appallingly treated. And so crucifixion came alive. He talks about crucifixion in a vivid and horrible way. Who else could but God could turn a symbol of shame and horror into a symbol which is universally recognized and is deeply redemptive? Who but God? It is, I think, one of the most extraordinary stories.
Phillip: Everyone’s been trying to set up empires for centuries. But no one does it by getting themselves killed. No, it’s not the method which people choose. But without resurrection, that doesn’t work, either. The resurrection is so important, isn’t it? But I am not sure that we Christians have pushed the doctrine of resurrection clearly enough. It seems we preach the gospel of the cross and this is the great message. But then, in preaching the resurrection, it tends to be the after thought or the postscript—that Jesus died for our sins, and our sins are paid for, and Jesus calls out it is finished, and by the way, he rose from the dead three days later. The resurrection plays a much more important and central role than this in Christian understanding and gospel.
(See the audio starting at 15:50 for a further extended discussion of the significance of the resurrection.)
The Jensen Brothers’ New Books
Phillip: So Peter, you and I have just produced two books. So tell me about your book The Life of Faith: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine. What’s it about? Why’d you write it?
Peter: Well the important thing is that your book on the Holy Spirit, which is only one part of Christian doctrine, is fatter than my book which summarises the whole of Christian doctrine.
Phillip: It’s because you know so little and I know so much.
Peter: Or possibly because you preach longer sermons than I do? Anyway, this book The Life of Faith is an introduction to what’s called Christian doctrine. Christian doctrine means Christian teaching, and especially the teaching of the Bible. But it’s also seen in the light of how people have read it through the years, because we’re not the first readers of the Bible. People have been reading the Bible for two thousand years. And although they’re not infallible any more than we are, it’s good to listen to what other people are saying too. And the book tries to take us through the big subjects of the Bible, which is what Christian doctrine is meant to do—subjects like God, the creation, the end of all things, the meaning of the gospel, Christ, his humanity and deity, humanity, and the Christian life.
It was aimed originally at first year doctrine at Moore College (where I used to teach ). But I think it’s suitable not just for people starting out in theological education, but also for general readers who may want to find out what Christian doctrine is saying. I certainly envisage it being read more widely than by theological students.
I also find that many theological doctrine books tend to be—I have to be careful here, I’m insulting many people, I’m sure—but they tend to be a little bit like textbooks, which you consult on different subjects. Whereas my aim with The Life of Faith was to write it almost like a narrative, so that you can read it through and get the sense of the whole. And then you can start studying the individual parts. So it’s a beginning book. It’s intended to give a whole picture. It’s intended to show how the parts integrate. And it’s an invitation to go further.
Although there are some technical words in there, they don’t dominate. And I trust I’ve explained them. And then I give further reading. So it’s potentially useful for a range of readers—even for a thoughtful non-Christian person who wants to understand the Christian faith. I also think that it’s possible that ministers who are in pastoral ministry and working away for several years, may come back to it as a refresher, and I hope that it might do something for them. But these are my hopes, whether they are true or not, that’s up for the readers to decide.
So now, what about this book on the Holy Spirit?
Phillip: Well, yours is a book of systematic theology. But that doesn’t mean it’s unbiblical. It actually is the Bible, isn’t it, for it to be systematic theology. My book is more of biblical theology.
Peter: So what’s the difference? How do you see the difference between these phrases, systematic theology or doctrine, and biblical theology?
Phillip: I think in systematic theology, your mind sets out the issues that need to be organized. You study the topics or the concepts that are important which you’ve derived from the Bible, and for which you find the information within the Bible. Whereas in biblical theology, we’re saying, “Well, how does the Bible lay out this information? What’s its storyline?” But to give the storyline correctly, you need to actually look at the totality as well, and the systems that lie behind that.
Peter: Yes, they both presuppose two things, I think. First of all, the unity of the Bible. So much scholarship these days doesn’t have that belief. They think of the Bible as 66 books that all go in different directions. But we believe in the inspiration of the Bible, and the unity of the Bible, so that’s the first thing. The second thing is the way that the Bible interprets the Bible; that is, if you want to know the real meaning of the Exodus, the real meaning of the Passover, the real meaning of creation, in the end, you will find the New Testament telling you these things—that new and old belong together. In fact, you can’t really understand the New Testament without the Old Testament. And I think biblical theology is one of the most wonderful subjects of all. And it enables you to interpret the Bible by the Bible.
Phillip: So in The Coming of the Holy Spirit, I start off with Jesus. That’s not the beginning of the story, but that is the endpoint that the whole Bible theology is going to be moving towards. There’s been many controversies about the Holy Spirit, ancient ones, the division between the Eastern Orthodox and the Western, and modern ones in Pentecostalism. With the controversy, it seems to me important to be looking at the Bible’s texts from within the Bible’s narrative, rather than looking at the Bible’s texts from our ideas, which are inevitably controlled by the controversies. And so when I look into the Bible to confirm my already held theological view, I get my proof texts from the Bible. Whereas if I say, “Well, look, how did the subject of the Holy Spirit come up in the Bible? Where did it come up? Who taught it? For what purpose?” And of course, it’s Jesus in John 14-16, where he was speaking to the disciples on the night he was betrayed, with the greatest, clearest teaching about the coming of the Holy Spirit. So that’s the starting point, from which we can then start to understand what happened in the book of Acts with the preaching of the gospel and what the Christian letters tell us about the fulfillment of Jesus plans for the coming of the Spirit. It’s aimed to, in a sense, address the issues of today, because Christians are very confused about the work of the Holy Spirit, but in a non-controversial way.
Peter: Well, Philip, I was about to mention your method that the book in a sense, falls into two halves. And the second half is a series of short essays—which you’ve called appendices—on different topics to do with the Holy Spirit. And they just struck me as extraordinarily valuable. And, of course, when I picked up the book, what did I do? I went immediately to the essays and I read all 34 of them. What do you say about this subject? What about that subject? It’s a sort of funny way to write a book, but I think it works.
Phillip: As I was writing the book, you keep on coming up to a topic that is going to occur several times. And so you don’t want to explain what something is several times, nor do you want to lose the thread of the argument by hiving off into a three or four page essay on things such as speaking in tongues and baptism with the Spirit. And as I went on, the number of separate topics got bigger and bigger, and so I either have to explain it five times or put it in an appendix to explain it once.
Peter: Okay, well, I found it valuable. And finally, one of the things I’ve often noticed is one of the difficulties with expository preaching (which I believe in and champion) is that you can preach for three years and go right to the Bible, but never really talk much about some subjects, like the Holy Spirit. Hence the need for doctrine and the need for books like this that bring together all that is said about the Holy Spirit, which is quite extensive.
The King’s Coronation (and birthday conference)
Phillip: Do you remember the Queen’s coronation?
Peter: Yes, I remember the announcement of the death of King George VI. I was sitting in a classroom, in primary school, and the headmaster came in with great gravity, and told us about the king’s death. It was so important because the king–much more in those days than these days–was our King. Our parents and their grandparents had fought for king and country and for empire. And they meant it. So it was really significant. The coronation of Elizabeth II, I remember less, though I do have some memories of it. But it was before television. And so the impact of it was far, far less. But it was indeed an absolutely remarkable occasion. And very Christian.
One thing I can think of in particular is the whole thing is a Christian service. The Archbishop of Canterbury plays an absolutely central role in crowning the new queen. That’s a tradition that goes way back. And two other things that I particularly think of is the promise to maintain the Protestant Reformed religion–which sounds very old fashioned these days, but the Queen promised this. And the second is the words of the Archbishop, if I remember correctly, in talking about the Bible, and really referring to it as the greatest treasure that this world has: the Bible, the Word of God. He places the Bible in her hands.
Phillip: And we’re going to be talking about the King and his coronation on the King’s Birthday. It’s been a long time since we had a King’s Birthday holiday, and you and I will be talking about “Long Live the King”.
Peter: Yes, it’s a funny phrase isn’t it. I’m sure the king is hoping that this phrase comes true. His parents certainly lived long, and he has lived long, but the hope is that he lives longer. And we’ll talk about it after the coronation. Do you think there’s going to be much change in the coronation?
Phillip: I hope not. I think Charles is a conservative in these kinds of traditions. But he has made it clear on other occasions that he wanted to be a defender of faith rather than a defender of the faith. But whether he expresses that in the coronation, or whether he is free to express it in the coronation is another question.
Peter: And he did say it a long time ago. You hope that he may have thought again about it actually. But it will be interesting to see.
Phillip: Yes, the King’s Birthday Conference will be held here at Moore College and it’ll be live streamed elsewhere around Australia. And I hope people will tune in as you and I talk through bigger issues. It’s a moment to think about government and Christianity and their relationship. We hope you will be there.