On Liberty and Lockdown: Or…CovidDiary Day 365 (March 20th 2021)

A signpost in central Cambridge promising “changed priorities” around the corner…

It’s been a while since I wrote a CovidDiary.

346 days to be precise.

But we’re now almost a year on from the announcement of the first lockdown in the UK. And it was a year ago to the day that I started this diary. I therefore thought it a good moment to reflect personally on where I find myself.

To that end, I want to write about how lockdown has taught me the value of liberty, “rightly ordered”. My launching pad for doing so has been a series of conversations with friends and guests on the Politics at the Cross+Roads podcast (the issue has cropped up in a number of places, but one place to start is this solo episode). I partly started the video series to figure out a few things about myself, a bit like trying to map out my own corner of the sky against a set of constellation points. It’s therefore not surprising to me that convictions have taken shape, with some becoming stronger and others falling away. Even still, I have been surprised at how strong some of those convictions have become. And one of these has concerned the value of liberty.

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Tim Farron (Politics at the Cross+Roads, Episode 5)

For episode 5, I had the pleasure of sitting down to speak with Tim Farron, MP. Tim is the Liberal Democrat MP for Westmoreland and Lonsdale in Cumbria and was leader of the Liberal Democrats between 2015 and 2017. He is the author of A Better Ambition: Confessions of a Faithful Liberal published by SPCK in 2019.  


Tim spoke to me about the need for greater humility among liberals across the Western world, about the Christian roots of liberalism and the Liberal party in the UK and about the need to disagree well. My conversation with Tim was slightly shorter than some of the others and this is due to the fact that I caught Tim on the night the budget was released. My thanks to Tim for generously offering his time on a very busy evening. 

A podcast version of this conversation is available here.

Jonathan Aitken (Politics at the Cross+Roads, Episode 4)

For the fourth episode of Politics at the Cross+Roads, I sat down to speak with Jonathan Aitken. Jonathan was Conservative MP and cabinet member before he was dramatically sentenced to 7 months at Belmarsh prison for perjury in 1999. Following his conversion to Christianity, Jonathan trained for ministry in the Church of England and now serves as non-stipendiary priest at St Matthew’s Westminster in London, and as prison chaplain at Pentonville Prison. We had a delightful conversation about prison rehabilitation, the power of forgiveness in a culture that is losing the will to forgive (at least collectively, if not on the individual level), about his Anglo-Catholic evangelical faith and about the need for Christians to be small-p political in their involvement in public life. You can find this interview and others on iTunes in both short and long format here.

Nigel Biggar (Politics at the Cross+Roads, Episode 3)

In the third episode of Politics at Cross+Roads, I had the pleasure of speaking with Christian ethicist, Nigel Biggar. Nigel is Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Christchurch College, University of Oxford. Before that, he taught theology and ethics Leeds and Trinity College, Dublin. Nigel has written on pretty much all the big topics in ethics and public life—war and peace, medical ethics and euthanasia, the nation, empire and much more. He also has a new book out on rights with Oxford University Press.

In the course of the episode, we discussed rights and duties in the context of the pandemic, thinking Christianly about the nation and the importance of realism. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did. 

You can listen to the shorter podcast episode here on iTunes.

Mary Harrington (Politics at the Cross+Roads, Episode 2)

In the second episode of Politics of the Cross+Roads, I spoke with the writer Mary Harrington. Mary is a columnist for Unherd and her work has appeared in, among other places, the Spectator, the Plough, the Conservative Woman and SDPTalk. Mary’s writing has had a big influence on my own thinking around liberal individualism, freedom of speech and the need for reconstruction in the late-modern west.    

Mary spoke a great deal in our conversation about her experience of motherhood and how this has shaped her politics. Mary also discussed limits and progress, how humans are inherently religious creatures and how her local church community roots her in something bigger than herself. I hope that you enjoy listening. 

You can also listen to a shortened version of this on iTunes here or in its entirety here.

The Noetic and Ontological Role of the Spirit in John’s Gospel

Throughout the ages, John has been often been referred to as “the spiritual gospel”. Some have used this moniker to describe John’s interest in deeper, theological truths (and on some occasions, the erroneous corollary was drawn that John was disinterested in historical matters). But another way that we can think of John’s gospel as a spiritual gospel is its many references to the spirit, and its emphasis on the coming of the Holy Spirit. In this post, I want to draw out two aspects of the Spirit in John’s Gospel that have struck me as I’ve read and listened to the Fourth Gospel, and examine how John’s account of the Spirit has informed, and can continue to inform the Church’s pneumatology. These two aspects are the noetic role of the Spirit, in reminding Jesus’s disciples of who he is, and the ontological role of the Spirit as the agent that unites us to the Son and unites the Son to us.

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Giles Fraser (Politics at the Cross+Roads, Episode 1)

In this first video in the Politics at the Cross+Roads series, Giles Fraser talks about how he sees the relationship between socialism and conservatism, about whether the pandemic is a post liberal moment and how the local church roots us in a place and in community.

You can also listen to this episode in shorter form here or in its entirety over on iTunes here.

Trailer for Politics at the Cross+Roads

I’m putting together a podcast called Politics at the Cross+Roads. As the name suggests, the podcast sits at the intersection or the crossroads of Christian faith and political conviction. In Politics at the Cross+Roads, I  interview interesting Christians in the public square about where they are politically and how their faith helped them get there. 

This a new series which features conversations with prominent public figures who are Christians and who also openly discuss their political convictions. 

So, in the weeks and months to come, join me as I speak with well-known, thinking Christians from across the political spectrum, looking at why they’ve come to the positions they have and how their faith has helped them get there. 

Together, we’ll explore such questions as, how do your political convictions and your faith interact? When has your Christianity come into conflict with your politics? And what does the Christian faith have to say to the political tradition you inhabit and what does the political tradition you inhabit have to say to your faith? 

So keep an eye out on the blog (www.thesaeculum.com) under the Politics at the Cross+Roads section, as well as the blog’s YouTube channel and on iTunes for audio and video conversations with well-known guests over the next few months. 

I hope that you enjoy watching and listening. 

History and Theology in The Church and Academy

A plea for biblical scholars to recognise the scriptural nature of the texts they study and for preachers to take the history behind the text more seriously.

In this piece, I want to make the case for biblical scholars to be more theological in their scholarship and preachers more historical in their homiletics.

Biblical Scholars Should be More Theological

The term theological can be used so broadly as to mean anything: about God, about systematic theology or, even more broadly, with an eye to the Church. If by theological we include this last and broadest sense (writing for the church), then we could list any number of biblical scholars, including foremost among them, NT Wright, who has done more than most to communicate the message of New Testament texts and the Christian faith to a lay audience. Writing for the Church is absolutely vital to biblical studies. It is the lifeblood of biblical work. It is not simply that the Church needs theology. Theology needs the Church. Markus Bockmuehl, when once asked about what made him excited about the future of biblical studies, answered quite rightly, “the existence of over 2 billion Christians worldwide”.

But I mean something slightly more specific when I write that biblical scholars should operate in a theological mode. I mean that they should engage with the historic doctrines of the church, its tradition and the creeds. For biblical scholars to be theological means for them to allow the doctrines, tradition and creeds of the Church dialogue with, shape, chasten and enlighten their readings of the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible.

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The Calling of St Paul?

A Stained Glass window depicting the Conversion of St Paul, St Paul’s Church, Cambridge

January 25th marks in our church calendars the traditional date for the “Conversion of St Paul”. The evangelist Luke relates the dramatic account of Paul’s conversion twice, in his follow-up volume to his Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 9:1-9; 22:6-21; cf. 26:12-18).

But was Paul converted?

I’m reading through Acts in preparation for an Intro the New Testament course and I’ve been re-thinking the “Paul was converted” argument, mainly thanks to this 2019 blog post from the late Larry Hurtado here. Hurtado argues for the following couple of points:

  • if by religion we mean changing from one religion to another, then we cannot speak of conversion in Paul’s own experience, since the earliest Jesus followers did not form a new religion but a new sect within Judaism
  • Nevertheless, we can still speak of conversion in Paul’s thinking, if we strictly apply this to Gentiles who Paul urged to turn or convert from their idols to worship the one true God (1 Thess 1:9-10). But in his own experience as Jewish follower of Jesus, Paul speaks of coming to a new revelation and a new calling (Gal 1.11-17), in a way that strikingly mirrors the experience of OT Prophets.

So Paul was called, not converted. That’s not to say that Paul wasn’t interested in conversion, however. Rather, he had in mind a “twin track” approach that dealt differently with Jews and Gentiles: Gentiles “converted” from pagan religions to the worship of the one true God (see 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10) but for Jews, like Paul, turning to Jesus entailed coming to a right understanding of the purposes of the One God of Israel for his people, and for the nations (Galatians 1:11-17).

This reading of Paul’s calling has very important implications for a number of areas of Christian life. In the remainder of this post, I will focus on just three: (1) Jewish-Christian relations, (2) the importance of the Old Testament and (3) Christology and Theology.

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