Tag Archives: theology

Verses that don’t say what you think they say (4)

Solus Christus, Baby! By Christ Alone! - DatPostmil

TRUE!

But Christianity’s claims are not as simply exclusive as we tend to think. Consider these verses:

No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. Jn 6:44

“Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.” Jn 6:55

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.  Jn 14:6

but also:

And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd. Jn 10:16

So the claim is that Jesus is the only means by which a person can approach God.  That’s what Christianity proclaims, but its doctrine is complex. Given that the OT has many examples of people who are engaging with God without knowledge of Jesus, a fuller understanding sees Jesus as the one who opens the way, enabling people to enter as a result of His death at Calvary; as a result I am very confident I will be surprised by who is up there with us.

However that NEVER allows the church not to proclaim the grace and mercy of God as the way to find Him; if non-Christians don’t respond to that message, it is LIKELY, though not certain, that they won’t make it, and such a proclamation will gather some who hadn’t got the message via their own religion. To the extent a church fails to endorse active evangelism of non-Christians of any sort, to that extent it is being unfaithful to God. Which is not, of course, to endorse crass, confrontational, and ineffective evangelism. But all must be actively called by Christians to discover Jesus for themselves.

Part of the problem that in this multi-faith world it is FAR more comfortable to avoid issuing such challenges to those outside the faith. Of course they’ll be fine when they stand before the judgement seat of Jesus. They’ve lived good lives. They’ve inspired many. Such is a gospel of works – and is well short of the Christian message of all needing grace.

 

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Marian Shrines

On a recent visit to Montserrat I saw the following statement

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This is a concept that Protestants get twitchy about. The board outside the basilica is helpful: the problem comes when in practice the focus remains on Mary and Jesus in effect gets ignored. I know too many ex-Catholics to be enthusiastic about their general record, but equally the number of ex-Protestants in the Catholic church is not trivial. Certainly the style is one that the British are sceptical of: modern Catholic churches in England would not welcome this sort of iconography. Yet any attempt to be simplistically dismissive ends up endorsing the sort of vandalism that our Protestant forebears endorsed at the time of the Reformation. That was appalling, and we need to be discerning.

The temptation is to make the easy grab; there’s nothing right with the Catholic church, they are a sect like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons, and need to be treated as such, or there’s nothing WRONG with Catholicism, they are just misunderstood and their heart is in the right place and that’s all that matters. In response to Rome’s massive persecution at the time of the Reformation of groups and individuals whom Protestants would now call their own – Waldensians, Hussites and lollards before Luther, and many Lutherans, Calvinists and Anglicans after 1517 – it is easy to be dismissive of their present attempts to do better as merely a deception. Or we can argue that it was all a sad mistake over language – a conclusion that the Lutheran RC agreement does offer some support for.

An interesting feature of this notice, and what I saw at one of the churches I visited in Barcelona, is the absence of any respect for the holy anymore. The Montserrat service was received as a tourist show, with people having to be silenced. At the Barcelona church kids were playing in the most place and having their photographs taken by their father while posing in front of the sacred statue. Of course the insistence of the modern church on emphasising the loving nature of God to the virtual exclusion of anything else probably accentuates this: ‘take off your shoes because the ground is holy’, is an approach which has little resonance today.

And it is in that context that one element in Catholic theology comes back to bite us. Catholic theology argues that the saints are conscious and aware of what is going on on earth. Specifically it suggests that we can ask them to pray for us in the same way that we Protestants ask Christians friend still on earth to pray for us. We however draw the line at asking for those who’ve died to do so. The messy question is why we – and Paul in the New Testament – ask for those prayers. However once we’ve accepted that those requests are legitimate, not least because they are clearly made in the New Testament, we have to address why it’s NOT legitimate to ask the saints above to pray as well. One protestant answer is to deny that the saints above are conscious, a view which requires some wriggling in the face of certain verses (e.g. Moses appearing with Jesus at the transfiguration having died), but does solve a lot of problems. The other is more interesting: if intercession is asking the God in whom we have HOPE for things, then it makes little sense for those who see God to intercede. However the fact that Jesus is described as ‘interceding’ for us in heaven (Heb 7:25) muddies the waters here. The iffy paraphrase of the Living Bible does follow the Protestant logic to its conclusion: ‘He is able to save completely all who come to God through him. Since he will live forever, he will always be there to remind God that he has paid for their sins with his blood.’

Yet more broadly it is seems clear that the intercession of those saints for the Catholic church has not resulted in a healthy church; its failings and corruption over the years give atheists much ammunition. Of course it might have worse if the saints in glory hadn’t been praying, but that’s rather difficult to prove.

Overall the issue raises hard questions where neither side is entirely biblical on a simple reading of scripture!

 

When the bible bites back…

One of the advantages of reading the bible straight through is that you get to see the passages that are usually ignored by preachers. This has been been my experience in the last few days looking at Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians; there are some verses in them that I’m sure I’ve never seen…

On church authority

1 Thess 5:12 in most versions is something like:

But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you NRSV

This is followed by v 27

I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of them. (NRSV)

So what we see here is a strong endorsement of clear church authority in the earliest days of the Gentile church; 1 Thessalonians is dated very early. In our individualistic membership of the church today we need to respect our leaders and take their authority more seriously; wandering around between churches for no good reason is deeply flawed.

On love for the brethren

We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing. Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.’ (2 Thess 1)

It is extraordinary to my mind that Paul rates the growth of the love between the brethren as being as important as their faith growing more and more. And it’s a perspective that many of us who roll up to church once a week, or even maybe get along to a housegroup once a week as well will find challenging; our relationships in the body should be growing lots – and on that test we (I) fail spectacularly.

We (I) need to do better…

Pacifism and parenting – a new point in the pacifist debate?

I’ve been engaging with the debate over pacifism recently as a subtext of my studies in Constantine. Much is said on the topic, and the view of the early church seems to be very mixed, with strong defences of pacifism from both Origen and Tertullian, yet there is clear evidence of Christians being present at all levels in the Roman army and government before Constantine. Following his rise to power, pacifism was largely rejected, although a continuing strand discouraged ex-soldiers from being given clerical office. By the middle ages it had become an ideal for some monks, but the crusades and the military orders – Templars, Hospitalers and Teutonic Knights amongst others = demonstrate that on the whole church was reconciled to the use of force.

The Reformation reopened the debate, and the Anabaptist tradition espoused most visibily in recent years by Yoder and subsequently made more popular by the efforts of Hauerwas seeks to justify a strongly pacifist interpretation of the New Testament. This follows quite naturally from some of the comments of Jesus about ‘turning the other cheek’. The problem comes when this is taken to exclude Christians from any coercive role in a state; as Constantine’s defenders point out, are we to tell the office holder in the state to resign if they become a Christian?

The traditional ‘move’ in the ethical debate is to separate the role of the Christian as an individual from what they do as a officer of state. This is criticised by the pacifist tradition in favour of arguing that it is God’s command not to resist evil / take revenge etc, and this is not challenged by the change of hats. It is my contention that this fails to note the role of parents in using force and ensuring justice for their children; if Molly is beating up her little brother Timothy, it is clearly the duty of the parent to address this sin / evil / breach of justice. In doing so the parents are fulfilling a role that they have voluntarily adopted, especially these days. Yet our pacifist co-religionists fail to extend a similar legitimation to Christian officers of the state. Is this coherent?

As ever with pacifist arguments, once the dam is breached, the rest of the case for Christians to enforce the law with force must be admitted; if it is my duty to protect Timothy from Molly as a parent, it is surely equally my duty to protect Timothy from the rampaging criminal. If I can do that as a parent, I can surely do it as a officer of the law. And if I can use force to stop the local criminal, it follows that I can use the police to protect a small island from pirates, or an army to protect a state from invaders.

Justin Peters’ testimony

This is a response to the fascinating document which Justin Peters, an American preacher whose shredding of the ‘Word of Faith’ movement in his ‘Call for Discernment videos is superb. Yet despite this service to the church, he was left with a sense of preaching the faith, but not really believing it himself. For him this led to a time when he responded more to God: ‘I had a guilty conscience to be sure, but did not have a true, gut-wrenching godly sorrow. I had never genuinely wept over my sin until then.’

He uses the bible to justify the claim that this is the ONLY gateway to a true relationship with God, going so far being ‘rebaptised’ after this experience, having first been baptised as a seven year old, when believing in Jesus was on a level with believing in Santa Claus. He extends his exposition to defend the Calvinist position that such repentance is given by God to His elect – so it’s not something to which can aspire, but just happens. That’s a secondary debate that I’m going to park for now.

There is a strong tradition in the Calvinist tradition that we should experience some such ‘gut-wrenching’ sorrow. This is what underlies the Calvinist revival tradition – most clearly seen in Jonathan Edwards’ experience in the early 18th century. Yet it is one that carries over into early Methodism, where a clear awareness of your own sinful state before God is the starting point for conversion. The ‘Evangelical’ movement is usually separated from this earlier Puritan tradition by Evangelicals’ willingness to allow the process of contrition to move to resolution by engaging with the grace of Jesus relatively quickly; the Puritans expected the period of contrition to be measured in days. Yet both remained committed to an expectation of visible contrition, as a result of engaging with God, before the salve of the Cross was to be applied for the individual. Both traditions are thus highly sceptical of the modern emphasis of preaching God’s love first…

The danger at this point is, of course, that it becomes the PREACHER who hangs his listeners over the flames of Hell and frightens them by such stories into signing up to the faith, rather than the process seeing God bring to an awareness of their sins. We can go too far the other way. The book of Acts shows us Peter being unsubtle in his criticism of the Jews on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), though it is notable that his focus is on the visible events of the arrival of the Holy Spirit. Stephen similarly does not model gentleness on any understanding we can cope with in his attack on the leaders of the Jews that gets him martyred. (Acts 7).

However I want to pursue is how far a ‘gut-wrenching’ experience of repentance is a necessary precursor to coming to know God. A review of the gospel stories of Jesus’ encounters with people seems to offer little evidence for it. The emphasis there is far more on living out the decision to repent; thus Levi and Nathaniel are called to follow Jesus, and the Samaritan woman is wowed by Jesus’ knowledge of her life so that she tells all her neighbours (John 4). Peter’s reaction to the miraculous catch of fish hints at this sort of reaction (Luke 5), but it is notable in its uniqueness, and it doesn’t make the other gospels. From a historical perspective, Augustine’s ‘Confessions’ offers an experience that might or might not be what Peters insists on; he is indeed deeply miserable in his garden when he hears ‘Take and Read’, though it’s hard to assess. Is it ultimately about his struggle with lust, rather than ‘sin’. https://www.ccel.org/ccel/augustine/confessions.xi.html Similarly CS Lewis’ report of his conversion in ‘Surprised by Joy’ doesn’t have such an episode, nor does GK Chesterton offer any such event. This modern paradigm can perhaps be traced to Luther’s experience of sin and being released from it when he discovers the meaning of Romans, and is seen in ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, but that doesn’t make it normative.

And yet Peters’ focus on the need for genuine repentance is important. The issue however is whether it needs to be expressed by a specific experience, or whether, as with all conversion, the process can be gradual. The central issue is one of true engagement with God leading to a changed life in the medium term; the problem comes when we try to bottle this and do it purely on a human level. We’ve already touched on the ‘scare them into heaven’ approach. There are a number of alternatives. One is the ‘sign up now and all will be well for ever’ – a perversion of the ‘born again’ movement which validly emphasises the need to engage with God – but makes the process so easy that it takes no real commitment, requires no repentance and has no meaning. We have the ‘join the community, enjoy the buzz, have a great time at church’ approach, that at best does lead people to seek more, but at worst legitimates their sinful lifestyles. We have the Catholic solution to the conundrum; as the established church, it needed to offer its religion to all the citizens of the Roman Empire. As a result it came to see baptism as a infant as the entry point to the church and engagement with the sacraments as the way to progress. As ever, at its best, such an approach can lead to true engagement with God, but when combined with a desire to conform without such engagement, can easily lead a formalised religion with no reality.

An interesting feature of this story is Peters’ decision to be ‘rebaptised’. Whatever else happened, that isn’t it; you can only be baptised once, so he is rejecting his baptism at the age of 7 and claiming his new one as his baptism. Note, in passing, the problem for who favour believers baptism in the legitimation of the cycle of feeling that a further baptism is justified because the first one wasn’t real. However I do want to highlight that baptism does point to a specific point of transition in a person’s life, which should be recognised in our theology. Instead we have a tendency to downplay the crisis of conversion, perhaps leaving a legacy of people hanging around in our churches because it’s a comfortable place to be, rather than because they’ve met with God.

So – what conclusion are we to draw? Surely we must accept that God works in a variety of ways to bring His children to new life. An experience that is central to the spiritual life of one person may have no resonance in the life of another – because that’s not God’s priority for them. Of course this can be taken too far; at some point if a person is TOO far from a pattern of experience that resonates with the rest of the Christian community, it becomes necessary to conclude that they haven’t actually engaged with God at all. The complexity comes where the same experience is truly of God in one person – but not for another; Satan has disguised himself as an angel of light, as we are warned (2 Cor 11). It is here that the gift of ‘discerning of Spirits’ becomes required…

Feminist theology

There are a number of Christian beliefs which I wish I didn’t hold: I wish I could be a universalist; I wish I could give equal legitimacy to gay relationships; I wish divorce and remarriage wasn’t such a no-no. And I wish I could buy the claim that men and women are not inherently distinguished; instead I  would argue that men are tasked with leadership and authority roles which it isn’t right for women to exercise.

This is a minefield. Over the centuries the church has got it badly wrong, suppressing the gifts of women to an unhealthy extent. Actually that wasn’t restricted to women; the ability of most to develop their gifts to any significant extent wasn’t really an option. But the failure to offer women the education that was available no doubt left us deprived of their gifts. This can be over stressed; the church did better than the cultures from which it was emerged, and the New Testament hints at women having a significant role in the early church, though one that faded subsequently.

The issue is, of course, about how we interpret the bible. For the purposes of this discussion I’m taking Genesis as authoritative, which given that Jesus did so in his condemnation of divorce, seems appropriate. So what does this give us?

Genesis 2 offers us the story of the creation of woman. She is bought to Adam, and he NAMES her. This matches his relationship to the animals, whom he has named and has authority over. We name what we have authority over; even in our culture, the parents’ naming of their children reflects our authority over them. And this occurs BEFORE the fall; it’s not after it. Thus suggesting ‘Had God wanted demonstrate that woman is less fit to rule, he would not have given them the same calling to take dominion’ misses the significance of being a queen; a queen shares the king’s authority in reality, though ultimately under his authority.

It’s also important to recognise the words used in the Hebrew for rulership. The type of rule that the man is described as exercising over the woman as a result of the curse of the fall is מְשָׁל ‘mashal’ – the sort of rule exercised over a foreign land, rather than the rule of the king of Israel over Israel, which is the word מְּלֹךְ ‘malak’ which has the concept of taking counsel in it. So the fall results in a collapse of the relationship between man and wife from consultative and healthy to domination and unbalanced – as the phrase about ‘Your desire will be for your husband’ also suggests.

Turning to the New Testament, and its use of the creation story, we have 1 Tim 2:

‘8 Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. 9 I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.

11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.’

The point here is that women, after conversion, are still limited in what they should do. If we are to take this passage seriously, we have to provide an interpretation that engages with the reference to the events in the Garden. My own preference is to see this as a ban on church leadership for women; a policy that remains in place in theory in most of Christendom, though the drift towards Catholic parishes being headed by a woman religious because of the shortage of priests is a reality that is unhealthy. A particular problem relates to what is meant by ‘teaching’: it may well relate to the specific laying down of what the church believes on a topic that is distinct from week by week preaching. If so, this provides space for a woman to be the one who brings the sermon on a Sunday; however this leaves open the question of when ‘teaching’ IS occurring in the church. Not a topic I want to open up now.

A detail to bear in mind any discussion of this issue is way in which the punishment that lands on Adam and Eve persists to this day. Men still till the ground with great difficulty, and women suffer pain in child birth. Any attempt to minimise the truth and implications of the rulership of men over women should be able to point to these other effects being removed before claiming that women are to be released from the rulership. So when Christians by miraculous means are painlessly producing babies and our jobs don’t require the ‘painful toil’ and ‘the sweat of the brow’, then the rest of the package is defunct. Until then, we should resist trying to avoid what does seem clearly taught as part of the reality of living – though this is NOT an excuse for men being gratuitously dominant over women.

Finally we must recognise that the existence of what seems to be a gift from God doesn’t create the right for the possessor to use it. This is most clearly seen in presently celibate people; such individuals are gifted to be parents and sexually active, both good gifts from God. But just because they have that gift doesn’t mean they have the right to exercise it. So the fact that a woman appears well equipped to be a church leader doesn’t constitute evidence that she is fulfil that role.

Conclusion

‘Had God intended for man to rule over woman, he would have stated it more clearly when creating her. Instead he speaks it out as a consequence of her sin, and by doing so he relays the pain it is inflicting on both humanity and creation, but also, to the heart of God… It is time to set Eve free.’

I hope I’ve challenged the logic of this rhetoric. We are called to be faithful to the God who is revealed in the bible, even when He requires us to go against the fashionable views of the world that have come to dominate large parts of the institutional church.

Finally – to shoot us at men; the reason why women end up doing the jobs which the bible seems to indicate should be reserved for women is because we duck our responsibilities. We sit back and let them do the sharing, the leading and the praying. We may be sitting back in church because we have over committed ourselves at work – making our career the centre of our lives instead of finding God’s balance for it.

Recommended reading:

David Pawson Leadership is Male

John and Paula Sandford Restoring the Christian Family

Christians whinging about ‘Easter’ – who do you think you are?

This year the meme ‘we shouldn’t celebrate Easter because it’s pagan’ did the rounds on facebook. It is depressing to see mixture of ignorance, arrogance and superstition that drives this meme. Let’s take it apart.

  1. There IS reason to complain about the name ‘Easter’. Not that it comes from Mesopotamian Ishtar – as the fact that the name is only found in Germany and England reveals; elsewhere a name derived from Pascha is used for the Christian feast. It’s probable that the name of feast day comes from the Eostre, a Teutonic goddess of spring and fertility, though even that may be invalid. However given that all the days of the week are named after pagan deities in English, to be consistent you’d have to abandon those as well. Thor’s day, Woden’s day, Saturn’s day etc. Use those and Easter, or neither…

  2. The dating of Easter was finally set by the Council of Nicaea called by Emperor Constantine in 325. He didn’t invent the feast, merely got the council to get the minority of the church in Asia that was holding it on one date to come into conformity with the practice of the vast majority of the church that was holding it on another. It is certain that the feast had been celebrated by the persecuted church that preceded the days of Constantine; why do we, who’ve never been significantly persecuted, think we have the right to criticise those who were?

The modern challenge to Easter usually comes from ‘Sola Scriptura’ believers who try to pretend that it is possible to construct a working faith merely from the things in the bible. Whilst this is an improvement on the proponents of the ‘New Testament church’ fantasy – who try to do the church like they did it in the New Testament, but still insist on using the New Testament (think about it) – it not much better. The core objection is the idea that the Holy Spirit took a sabbatical from the earth for some 1500 years after the death of John until the Reformation. Really?

But it’s also defective because it fails to engage with the material in the New Testament that indicates that Christians are to be formed by the people through whom they were converted; Paul’s references to the Corinthians as his children who are to obey him as a result makes this clear. And any such Christian who wears a wedding ring is to be giggled at… In practice we ALL have traditions that we inherit; whilst it is appropriate to test them against scripture and discard what is CONTRARY to scripture, it is not biblical to pretend to a tradition free scripture.