Saturday, December 15, 2012

Guns and Smallpox

The widespread reaction among my friends to news this morning of yet another mass shooting in Newton, Conneticut, USA is one of utter horror followed by “not again”.

One of my friends, Ralph, commented on FB

How many more mass shootings, how many more heartbreaks, will it take for US society & leaders to end wide access to such lethal guns?

To which I replied
You didn't need to qualify your description of "guns" with "lethal". Guns are designed to kill. That's what they do. They have no other purpose. Being "lethal" is what occupies the totality of being a gun. That's why responsible governments strictly control their availability and use. Or, they ought to.

But, you know that already.

No doubt, this killing will prompt much hand-wringing in the US over gun control. I wish all the best to those campaigning to increase it. However, they are up against a number of powerful adversaries, including the NRA. The right to carry arms is prescribed in the US constitution, though it was written in a time when village militias needed to defend themselves against attack by the Redcoats. Then, there’s the fragmentation between Federal and State government, so before you say “the government has to do something”, you have to say which government.

There's also a profoundly visceral side to this, which, I am sure, the NRA and it’s allies play to the full. It’s to do with the process of disarmament and a heightened sense of self-preservation. Put simply, it says that if the US implements a process of disarmament, then all the good guys will hand their weapons in first, leaving the bad guys with all the guns. How then do you defend yourself from the bad guys? By getting a gun, of course. By the way, it’s your constitutional right, there’s a chain store down the block, and you’re supporting American Industry. Like all good temptations, there are a thousand (apparently) good reasons not to refuse.

It strikes me that the situation is rather like an infection. Once it has taken hold, it’s incredibly difficult to dislodge. Just like eradicating individual smallpox viruses, you have to remove or adequately control every gun in every State. Allow just one back in, and it will bring ten more with it. Before you know it, you'll have an escalation and you'll be back to where you are now.

I am not irreconcilably opposed to guns. I know that people kill people, not guns. I also know that farmers need guns to kill animals. But we don't currently live in an era in which our villages can be attacked by King George III's stooges, and there's a quantum of difference between the damage a madman can do with a kitchen knife and a semi-automatic rifle. However, it never ceases to shock me that, in the US, my neighbor has the right to carry apparatus that is perfectly designed to kill me, or 20 kids at an elementary school, if he so chooses.

It will take a massive effort to pacify the gun-controlling population of the US. But, if we can eradicate smallpox, surely we can improve gun control.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

John's Alternative Christmas Story

The Odd Gospel

Though there are four Gospels in our Bibles (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), only two (Matthew and Luke) cover the birth of Jesus. If you go to a Christmas church service this year and hear some Bible readings, they would almost certainly be from Matthew and Luke.

So, what of the other two Gospels? Mark starts his narrative in Jesus’ adult life, and John is so totally left-field, he seems to be starting from an entirely different planet. In fact, John doesn’t start with the birth of Jesus; he starts with the Creation of the universe (the least you could say about John is that he doesn’t lack ambition).
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. John 1:1-3.
Deliberately invoking the language and imagery of Genesis 1, in which God says and it is done, John puts the Universe and its Creator in order. He emphasizes the role of the “Word” in this creation, and then identifies this mysterious, eternal “Word” as Jesus, saying “The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us” (John 1:14). 

It all started with a baby (or did it?)

How does this relate to the Christmas story? The way John sees it, God first creates the universe and He then enters it “in the flesh” in the body of Jesus Christ. The circumstances of His arrival are chronicled in Matthew and Luke; the Creator arrives as a small, vulnerable baby, just like any human being, into a tribe that has had a special, but rather stormy relationship with God. That’s why John can write “He came to that which was his own…" (John 1:11).

Why did God enter into His creation “in the flesh”? John’s answer is so that we can see Him in the flesh. John puts it this way “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.” (John 1:18).

The puzzling thing here is that John would have known several Old Testament accounts of people seeing God (Isaiah 6:1-6 etc.). However, in none of these accounts do we get the sense of seeing someone in the same way that you see someone you are living with. This, I think, is what John’s Gospel is trying to say. Previously, we could see the image of God in His Creation, or we could imagine what God is like in the same way that you'd imagine what a person was like from the shadow he would cast on the ground in front of you. But, it wasn’t until God lived for a while among us in the flesh that we truly got to know Him. No longer did we have to imagine God from special writings, or infer Him from his actions in history, we could get so intimate with Him, we could even smell His body odor. That’s quite a confronting thought for those who only see God as a kind of superlative, distant, royal celebrity, but that’s how John wants us to see it.

Look at me

As you might have gathered by now, I’m quite a fan of John’s Gospel, and I spend quite a lot of time thinking about it. Going over it again in recent times, however, I noticed yet another puzzling aspect of John’s prologue; the apparent intrusion of John the Baptist.

There’s a scene from The Simpsons in which Maggie, the youngest, arrives and Homer, Marge and Lisa are entranced by the new addition to their family. Frustrated by his family’s single-minded devotion to a rival sibling, Bart jumps up and down shouting “Look at me! Look at me!”. That’s what I thought of John the Baptist’s intrusion into the scene in John's Gospel. He seemed to be there to divert attention from the main event.

You could even write the Baptist out of the script, and it would still make sense. The following is an abridged version, and if I read it out in Church, I wonder how many people would spot the fact that something is missing.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.

What is missing are the two references to John the Baptist in John 1:6-9 and John 1:15. My abridged version above makes sense in terms of the Creator and His entering into the world, but what it lacks is a specific witness who truly "gets" it. This, I believe, is John’s crucial role and that is why he is essential to the story. In other words, what is the point of being “seen” if there is no-one to “see”.

Setting the pattern

The Baptist’s role as a witness is well worth exploring. As the first witness in John’s Gospel, he is representative of all subsequent witnesses, including us.
  • John was “sent” from God (John 1:6). The Greek word for “sent” is “apostelo”, from which we get our term “apostle”. So, John the Baptist is the first “Apostle” on record, but he gets his head cut off long before the band of twelve start to organize themselves into a recognizable Church. The term, then, doesn’t refer to a rank in an organization, but to a calling. Everyone who witnesses Christ is an “apostle” in the sense that their witness is “sent” from God. Three centuries later, the authors of the Creeds would use this idea to describe the whole church as “apostolic” to capture this sense of a shared calling among all believers
  • John’s prerogative as a witness was to testify (John 1:7). His role wasn’t merely to passively “see” but to communicate what he had seen. As is the pattern for all Christian witness, John’s testimony involved both words and actions.
  • The point of the testimony is to bring “all men” to faith (John 1:7). There’s no discrimination here between those who are in God’s “special” tribe, and those outside.
  • John, himself, was not the light, but he was there to bear witness to the light (John 1:8).
If only we would allow these last words to sink in. When we bring “all men” to faith, we are not bringing them to faith in ourselves. Rather, we should seek to bring them to faith in the “true light that gives light to every man”, Jesus Christ. 

So much of what we think is Christian witness is actually concerned with convincing people that we are the good guys. I’m all in favor of Christians establishing a credible witness, and choosing the right, but ultimately, we’re not here to vindicate ourselves. If we follow the Baptist’s lead in pointing people to the true light, then we have freedom to acknowledge and engage our sins and shortcomings, as he did. In other words, we can do our best, but it will not be enough to save. Only God, in Christ, can do that, and a faithful witness, such as the Baptist’s will not allow us to forget it.

Not the true light

It is profoundly dangerous to allow ourselves to be seduced by the notion that we are the light. This mentality is manifest in the fundamentalist religious movements that preach domination by a strongly hierarchical and theocratic organization. They emphasize obedience to themselves, regardless of their actual competence or knowledge. It’s usually done by a bait-and-switch – the bait being some exclusive claim to God, and the switch being a shift in the believer’s allegiance to the (alleged) physical representation of God on earth, which, lo and behold, is none other than the incumbent leadership. The leaders imagine themselves to be the true light by some special revelation, and the truth becomes pliable in their hands. One tell-tale sign is a habit of continually revising history to vindicate the movement's current leaders.

John’s Gospel openly rebukes such a mentality in John 1:15
John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”
Because we are modernists, we like to think that the latest is the greatest. However, the convention in John’s time was exactly the reverse; if someone preceded you, they were greater than you - the oldest was the greatest. This is reasoning that the Baptist uses; Christ was there first, so he must be greater than me. If Christ is greater than all of us, including the First Apostle, then we are all answerable to Him as the ultimate authority, including the highest Bishops, Prophets, Popes, Rabbis, Mullahs and Gurus in our respective religions. Applied simply, it means that anything that does not recognize Christ as the ultimate authority to whom we are all answerable, is not a Christian witness. 

Of course, there are plenty of religious movements that claim allegiance to Christ, but their Christ is more fantasy than flesh. John’s Gospel is insistent about what kind of Christ is the real thing, and the real thing is visible in the fleshy baby in the manger, to human view displayed, as one of my favorite carols puts it.

What the two Johns tell us

So, John the Baptist plays a vital role in the prologue to John’s Gospel. He, like us, is there to witness God in the flesh and to testify about what he has seen. Its a role that's intrinsic to the created order of things. Matthew and Luke record witnesses of Christ’s advent in the stars, in angels, shepherds and Magi, but in John’s Gospel, the Baptist is the first to really “get” it, and he sets the pattern for how we should “get” it, too.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Suffering, and the Gospel of Job

In our next Bible study, my wife asked if we could look at suffering.

No problem, said I, and instantly regretted it.

How do you explore such a vast and important topic? So, I set about reading Job, who ought to know a thing or two about suffering. At least, I thought, he should know more than me.

I then regretted that, too.

Job is a complex book and a really fine example of Old Testament literature. It defies our ingrained instincts to explain suffering (and all human experience) within a simplistic moralistic framework. According to Proverbs, Job is the impossible man - he is righteous, and things ought to go well for him. But, his world abruptly falls apart without apparent cause or explanation.

Given that I'm inclined to join the dots (not always successfully), I could not help notice the parallels between Job and the Christian Gospel. That's why we might rightly refer to it as the Gospel of Job;

The beginning and the end

The story of Job starts and finishes with God. Our lives start and finish with God. All our experiences (in fact, the whole cosmos from the Big Bang to the End of Time) happens within the context of God. Rev 22:13 "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end."

It's not about you

The story of Job is about the vindication of God. It's not about me

This deserves some further thought.

When Paul rhetorically answers the objection that unbelievers somehow undermine the purposes of God, he writes ...

What then? If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it? May it never be! Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar, as it is written, “That You may be justified in Your words, And prevail when You are judged.”

Vindication might seem a daunting issue, but the message of Job and Paul is that whatever experiences and directions we creatures go through, the ultimate outcome is that everyone will say "The Creator was right in what He did in His creation"(e.g. Dan 4:7, Rev 4:11).  In fact, it's impossible for God to not be vindicated through His creation unless His designs were flawed in some way, whether we are blessed or suffer, whether we believe or not.

It's all about you

As God vindicates Himself through His creation, He also vindicates us. We're not just insignificant pawns in a vast, impersonal cosmic chess game. God has a purpose, though we may not see it. 

Your just deserts

Perhaps the most profound nuance of the book is that God does not restore Job's fortunes because Job is righteous - He does it to vindicate His name. Jobs friends/tormentors persistently regard God as an object or mechanism that should react appropriately to a person according to his or her merits. They think that God has afflicted Job because of some hidden sin, and they go about probing him to find it.

Even Job's understanding is far from perfect - his experience of suffering doesn't automatically grant him insight. His laments are filled with regret - not that he had brought his calamity on himself by some unknown sin, but that he didn't sin enough to warrant death.

“Oh that my request might come to pass,
And that God would grant my longing!
“Would that God were willing to crush me,
That He would loose His hand and cut me off!” (Job 6:8-9)

At least he appealed to God directly; his friends simply theorised about what God should do and how Job might manipulate God into granting him a favourable outcome.

Job's biggest gripe

Job never tries to justify himself, but he looks for an advocate in heaven. Essentially, he says "if I have sinned, tell me about it"; he never argues "I am a good guy, and I don't deserve this." His biggest complaint is his apparent inability to get the Almighty's attention. The irony is that he already has the Almighty's attention but he, like us, can't see it.

Job's advocate

The "big reveal" of the book is that the advocate that Job seeks appears in none other than God Himself. It is God who defends Job against the Adversary. Unaware of God's disposition, Job laments
For He is not a man as I am that I may answer Him,
That we may go to court together.
There is no umpire between us,
Who may lay his hand upon us both. (Job 9:32-33)

Later, New Testament theology will identify our advocate in Jesus Christ (1 John 2:1). As the New Testament teaches that Jesus Christ is fully and wholly God, it retains the idea that God is our defender.

A type of Christ

Job's journey is much like Christ's. He starts off in a position of wealth and privilege, is publicly humiliated and falsely accused, and gets raised up at the end to the glory of God (see Phil 2:5-11). 

Job is representative of us, as Christ is. Job shouts our greatest fears to the sky in our stead - that we are nothing, and everything that we say and do ultimately comes to nothing, and that the sky will continue to roll over us, unheeding. It is this fear, I believe, that cries out "My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?" (Psalm 22:1, Matt 27:46, Mark 15:34).  Yet, in all his anger, Job cannot bring himself to curse God

The Gospel of Job

The Gospel of Job, like the Christian Gospel, tells us that God is our witness, and what we experience, say and do does matter, even if we find ourselves on the ash heap scraping boils off our skin with a piece of broken pottery.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Hellenism and the Canonical Man

One of the phrases doing the rounds in scholarly circles of late was “the Hellenisation of Christianity”.

Until recently, I had no idea what it meant, other than that it was a bad thing. The basic narrative was that Jesus had started out with a really good Gospel, but in subsequent centuries, Hellenism had crept in and corrupted it. Just how Hellenism had corrupted the Christian Gospel had eluded me.

That is, until I got an invaluable insight from an extended reflection on the Nicene Creed in L Charles Jackson’s book “Faith of our fathers”. Jackson's study goes much further than to compare the “Faith of the Fathers” with the Hellenized Gospel, but he does illuminate the differences, which I shall attempt to repeat here.

Not Hercules 

If you want a primer in Hellenistic theology, the good news is that you can get one that’s both fun and accessible. Disney’s 1997 animation “Hercules” covers much of it, and it even does it with a thumping “Gospel” sound track. I should know, my daughter loved to watch the video with me when she was a toddler. (Such is the relationship between an indulgent father and an insistent daughter, we had to watch it a million times, or so it seemed.) Notice how close to the Christian Gospel the Hercules story is;
• Zeus has a son, Hercules, who finds he is blessed with superhuman powers
• Hercules plays a key role in defeating Hades’ plans to overthrow the gods
• Hercules’ willingness to sacrifice his life to save his dame earns him immortality and the right to ascend Mount Olympus, home of the gods.

Hercules is a Hellenistic Christ, but he is unlike the Christ of the Christian Gospels in several profoundly important ways, and so are his “divine” parents.

Importantly, the “gods” of Olympus are constrained in their actions by the larger forces of fate. Hades has to wait for the planets to align before unleashing his hellish plan, but fate works against him. Zeus is unable to tell his own son how to attain immortality (because he doesn’t know?). There’s a very real sense of vulnerability, as the primeval forces, (the Titans) from which the gods owe their existence, rise up against them. It needs a superhuman, Hercules, to save the gods.

The problem is that all these characters (Zeus, Hades, Hercules) are neither true gods or true human beings. They are something in-between. They are really superhuman, but they remain agents of the larger forces of fate, and this is something of which the Bishops of Nicea were acutely aware.

The introduction of a Hellenized, superhuman Christ can be traced back to the early history of Christianity, but not its genesis. For example, in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (a Second or Third Century reconstruction of Jesus’ boyhood), there are legends of the immature Jesus turning clay into living birds, and striking a rival dead because he had yet to learn to control his superpowers. It’s important to note that these stories are pre-dated by the Canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), and they chart the encroachment of Hellenism into the Christian Gospel.

The Hellenized, superhuman Jesus persists in Christendom today. Our need for heroes will always be with us, and we often ram Jesus into the hero-shaped hole that we create. If it’s not Jesus, it might be Hercules, or Doctor Who; Steve Jobs or Mother Teresa, or whoever is the subject of the latest franchise. The trouble with this kind of hero-worship is that it all boils down to who has the greater super-hero. Will Batman beat Superman in a fist-fight? If you’re not on that bus as Spiderman pulls you back onto the bridge (and, be honest, how many of us have actually found ourselves in this situation), how does this story engage with you and your “real” life? Can you really say, when Tarzan swings through the trees for a fleeting moment of redemption, that God is with you? Where is the Immanuel, who delights to live with His people, day in, day out (because He loves them)? Does He just swing in, snatch us from the jaws, and swing out again?

In the light of Jesus’ exploits in feeding the multitude, foreseeing the future, walking on water, raising the dead, and affirming his immortality at the resurrection, it is sorely tempting to regard him as superhuman; an essentially different species than you and I.

In the light of his relationship with his heavenly Father (e.g. he didn’t even know the Father’s plans about his own return, see Matt 24:36, Mark 13:32) , it is sorely tempting to regard him as something less divine than God. The result, then is a mixture, a chimera, the offspring of an unholy marriage between heaven and earth, but not something that properly belongs in either sphere.

What’s wrong with the superhuman Jesus?

So, what is so wrong with a superhuman hero, who is not unlike Hercules (except with less of the chopping-off-heads-of-monsters)? Why did the Bishops at Nicea go to war on the Hellenized Jesus?

The problem, according to the Church Fathers, is that the Hellenized Jesus is a mixture; an alloy, or confusion of the divine and the human, but neither fully one nor the other. The Creed contests this notion by affirming that He is both fully God and fully human.

If Christ were not fully divine, he would be constrained by larger forces. If he is vulnerable to them, he can be overthrown by them. He might be the major player in the game, but he does not set the rules. The story of Christ’s life, then, is not the culmination of a plan conceived at the Creation of all things, but a one of compulsively reacting to the hand that fate dealt him. He might have gone through the agony of the cross as he played out his cards with all the nobility of an exemplary hero, but the gains bought through his sufferings could all be undone by a shift in the currents of fate.

In other words, there can be no security in the salvation that God has to offer, and the promise of Isaiah 43:13 is void;

Even from eternity I am He, And there is none who can deliver out of My hand; I act and who can reverse it? 

If Christ were not fully human, his exploits and his status would be beyond our reach. The reason he could do all that wondrous stuff was that he was fundamentally different to us. This isn’t just about raising Lazarus, but it’s also about Christ’s access to Heavenly Father – his ability to live a “right” life. If Christ were not fully human, then there is no hope for us as we seek to live “right” lives. The door remains closed to us, and it will only open if we become what we are not, superhuman.

The implications of this last point are horrifying. God save us from a “gospel” that says we must become what we are not. Contrary to that dreadful religious ditty, God does not want me for a sun-beam. He wants me to be what I am, a human being.

It’s also elitist. The Hellenized Gospel is all about super-heroes. It has nothing to offer for the “least of these” (Matt 25:40, why does Jesus think that the "least of these" are so important?), except for an awesome story that’s played out by the other, more “important” people in life.

Incidentally, it strikes me that the opposite of Hellenistic is catholic, which is an essential characteristic of the Church, according to the Nicene Creed. Where the Creed calls it “One, holy, catholic and apostolic church”, I hear a message about not needing to qualify to get in. In fact, you get in by baptism, not by ascending Mount Olympus in some superhuman feat of strength.

The Canonical Man 

So, if we are not to be superhuman, what should we be?

Enter, what I call, the Canonical Man.

The term might be new to you. If it sounds too religious and philosophical, let me bring it down to earth by saying that the Canonical Man is Jesus Christ.

I’m using the term “canon” in the sense of a measuring rod, or something that sets the standard. For example, the International Prototype Kilogram, or IPK, is a perfect cylinder of platinum and iridium alloy that’s used to define the mass of a kilogram. Its the canonical kilogram, and it’s what every measuring device in the world should be calibrated to. If you weigh the IPK on your weighing machine and it says something other than exactly one kilogram, you need to adjust your weighing machine.

It’s the same with the Canonical Man. If you are something other than what the Canonical Man is, you need to adjust yourself. In other words, if you want to know what it is to be truly human, you should look to Jesus Christ.

This, I believe, is borne out in the Bible. It’s behind the phrase “Son of Man”, first used in Daniel 7:13-14, then by Ezekiel, before it became Jesus’ favorite way of referring to himself. It’s also behind the idea of Jesus as Ultimate Judge. Christians are (or ought to be) familiar with the idea that they will be judged by Jesus. What might be less well understood is that Jesus judges our humanity by his own; in other words, Jesus is the standard by which we are all judged – we are measured by Him.

What do we know about the Canonical Man?

Surprisingly, quite a lot. Frustratingly, not enough.

The good news is that if there was any divine activity around the life of Jesus and those who recorded it, the New Testament reliably provides the essentials. The bad news is that if you want to know the answer to questions like “what car would Jesus drive”, you won’t get an answer because it’s not on the agenda. To be fair, there are much less trivial questions that the New Testament does not answer, but I suggest they would get answered if we start with the New Testament agenda and move to specific contexts from there.

This is where the Canon of the Bible becomes important. If we are to look to Jesus for what it means to be truly human, where do we find him? The answer to this, I believe, is not in your imagination, but in the Jesus of the flesh, who was witnessed by those who wrote the New Testament. Like the IPK and our weighing machines, if we imagine Jesus being or doing something that’s not in line with the Jesus of the New Testament, we need to adjust our perspective of Him.

And, whatever else we can say about the Jesus of the flesh as recorded in the New Testament, we can conclude, emphatically, that he was fully human.

I find this tremendously encouraging; the center of the Creator’s plan was not simply how to make a brighter super-nova, or how to impress human audiences by beheading a Hydra in record time, but it was (and remains) a human being. That means human beings like you and I are at the center of the universe. We have value because God values us. If God, the Creator of all things seen and unseen, sets things up so that at a singular point in history, He becomes truly and fully visible as a true, full human being, then we need to recalibrate our sense of just how important human beings are in the grand scheme of things. The Incarnation (posh word for the Word of God becoming flesh, per John 1:14) changes everything that we think we know about God and man.

Return to Nicea 

Returning to the Nicene Creed, it’s noteworthy that it spends so much time defining who Jesus is, and what he is not. About half of the Creed is occupied with Jesus.

Incidentally, topics such as “my commitment” and “the level of my involvement in the local church” hardly feature in the Creed, which presents an uncomfortable message to certain expressions of evangelicalism and a myriad of Christianisms that major on the believer’s experience or commitment. It’s not that commitment or involvement are unimportant, but the over-arching message is that Jesus Christ sustains the body of believers, not the other way round.

To me, the agenda of the Creed makes most sense in the context of the conflict between the Christian Gospel and Hellenism. It’s more than just marking boundaries; it’s saying that if we want to understand what it means to be truly human, we should look to Jesus as the Canonical man. At the same time, it says that if we want to understand what Divinity is, we should also look to Jesus. Whatever we think we know about ourselves and God, we need to calibrate it against what we see in the Jesus who features in the New Testament.

This Jesus is not a Hellenistic superhuman, but fully God who fully entered into our humanity. Its good news because we do not need to become what we are not. Its good news because us ordinary non-superhumans have seen one of our own fully connect with the divine, and we connect in exactly the same way. Its good news because our messy, ordinary lives mean something.

Because Jesus Christ was human, you are important. And so is your neighbor, and his neighbor, and so on, until the ends of the earth.

That’s a message worth taking to the ends of the earth, as Jesus commanded.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Psalm 136 for hobby Biblical Hebrew nerds

Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good, For His lovingkindness is everlasting.

I don’t know much Biblical Hebrew, but I know just enough to know I’d like to know more. So, in response to the reading of Psalm we had at Church on Sunday, I found myself looking up the Hebrew.

This Psalm has a call and answer structure. The caller calls “Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good” (verse 1), “Give thanks to the God of gods” (verse 2) etc, and the repeated answer replies “for His lovingkindness is everlasting”. Its easy to imagine the lead guy doing the calling, and the assembled congregation doing the replying. 

Here is the Hebrew (remember to read from right to left);

הודו ליהוה כי טוב כי לעולם חסדו

A near literal translation is “Give thanks to the LORD for good for everlasting is His lovingkindness”, and it sounds something like “Hodu le-YHWH ki tov ki le-olam hasdo”.

Notice how much more condensed the Hebrew is than the English. The English translation above uses 20 syllables, but the Hebrew has only 13 (if I count them rightly). This is a characteristic of Biblical Hebrew – the authors were remarkably economical with their written words. It may be because, unlike today, words were not cheap. In fact it took considerable resources to write, preserve and copy written texts, so much so that the people who had the skills, the scribes, could make a handsome living out of it.

Notice also the almost perfect symmetry of the opening stanza, which looks to me like a mini-chiasm. A chiasm is a literary device in which the first idea corresponds with the last; the second with the penultimate; and so on until you reach the central idea on which the whole rests. It’s named after the Greek letter chi (Χ), which graphically illustrates how the two sides point to the centre. That’s how a chiasm works – the central idea is the most important because it supports everything either side.

Here’s my interpretation of the mini-chiasm in Psalm 136:1;

Give thanks*************************************His lovingkindness

******to the LORD******************everlasting*******************



This places “good” (tov/טוב) at the centre of the chiasm. 

Moving outward, the two “for”s (ki/כי) are mirrored.

“The LORD” (le-YHWH/ליהוה – here with the preposition "le" meaning "for" or "to") is mirrored with “everlasting” (le-olam/לעולם - again with the "le" preposition, which appears to me to yield something like the English compound construction "for ever"). There are strong associations between these words, particularly if you think of the LORD as the everlasting, or eternal one, in contrast to His creation.

Finally, the first and last words, "give thanks" (hodu/הודו) and "lovingkindness" (hasdo/וחסד) differ by only two letters, but they rhyme. 

Incidentally, we don’t have a simple word that adequately and succinctly encompasses the meaning of this last Hebrew word, so we use complex constructions like “lovingkindness”, or “merciful faithfulness” (hence the multiplication of syllables in the English). It’s the unwavering, active disposition of God to work for the good of His people.

Not only does this literary device make the opening stanza easy to remember, but it deliberately points to the goodness of the LORD at the centre, which supports and provides structure to everything that surrounds.

Friday, June 22, 2012

A new dawn, or the invasion of Poland?

The following is my response to a FB conversation about gay marriage, in which another poster had written "Some things people may like to consider ..."

@ [] if you've got something to say to me, I'd prefer it if you'd address me personally, rather than some disembodied, abstract "some people".

“Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” (Matt 7:12) - I actually take this very seriously, hence my comments about being torn on the issue of gay marriage. I actually don't want gay people to be unhappy, but I think gay marriage causes more problems than it solves.

My problem is that I don't see a win-win scenario. Gay marriage seeks to redefine and re-orientate marriage around a person's private felt needs, rather then the public, lawful institution that has served the public good for millennia over a very broad range of social and religious contexts .

I don't subscribe to "slippery slope" cliches, but having achieved the objective of redefining marriage to satisfy felt needs, I can't see how you can mount a legal defence against expanding the definition of marriage to include felt needs in other possible combinations. If you were to reduce the criteria down to nothing more than a "stable, loving relationship", then you necessarily have to accept yet more stable, loving relationships involving any number of permutations of sexes, numbers of people (from 1 to infinity, inclusive), parents and children and even species. The issue is not whether the individuals involved feel that their needs are being met in whatever bedroom they choose to sleep in, but whether these relationships ought to be cemented and affirmed in law, with all the privileges and responsibilities that comes with marriage. That's why I see this proposal as a dissolution of marriage.

So, my being torn goes something like this; imagine yourself in 1930's Britain, and you are concerned about the well-being of your neighbors over the north sea, who are evidently in turmoil. I would write something like, "Dear Germany, I would like to see you living in a stable, safe living-space (lebensraum) and I don't wish to interfere with your aspirations for a happy and fulfilled life, but invading Poland is the wrong way to go about getting it."

Finally, I find any appeal to history to support gay marriage lacking credibility.

There's a brief survey of ancient Greaco-Roman attitudes in the recent publication "Sexegesis" as follows (citations removed for brevity, but you can look them up from the preview here - page 90);

"In the ancient world, one can find mixed things said about homosexual sex and same-sex relationships. In the Graeco-Roman world, generally speaking, same-sex relationships between women were routinely condemned, while homosexual acts by men were tolerable, though it was thought shameful for a man to allow himself to be the passive or penetrated partner in the sexual act. Still, other Greek and Roman authors regarded homosexual acts with disdain. Juvenal mocked the drunken debauchery of women that often led to lesbian sexual acts. The Socratic tradition of both Plato and Xenophon condemned homosexual acts. The Old Testament resoundingly rejects homosexual practice (Lev 18:22; 20:13) and the rejection is continued in post-biblical Jewish literature as well. For instance, the author of the Epistle of Aristeas typifies Jewish attitudes to pagan sexuality when he states that: “For they not only have intercourse with men but they defile their own mothers and even their daughters.” In Sibylline Oracles the author condemns the Phoenicians, Egyptians, and Latins who “hold unholy intercourse with boys."'

So, even if the prohibitions of Lev 20:13 are nothing more than a reflection of extant attitudes, then the worst that can be said of them is that they reflect the conservative end of the spectrum. That's not so different from the situation that we find ourselves in today. Plus ca change, as the French would say.

I find it significant that although ancient attitudes might have varied much as they do today, there appears to have been no widespread or sustained support for canonizing these sexual relationships into marriage.

What is clear is that the push to move same-sex relationships into the territory of marriage is unprecedented in history. Some believe that it's the dawn of a new age of enlightenment; I see it as the invasion of Poland.

I've said enough, but I have previously written to Kevin Rudd on the matter, and got a response, which you can find here, if you're interested.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Nicene Creed

My home Bible-study group asked if I could present something on the Nicene Creed, and what it might mean for us today.

I tried to keep it brief, but failed spectacularly. To cut it down to digestible size, I split my study into three parts ...

The Nicene Creed with commentary
The Nicene Creed - a brief history
The Nicene Creed - reflections

The Nicene Creed - Reflections

Contrary to popular myth, and the perspectives offered by such movements as the Mormons and Jehovah’s witnesses, Constantine did not use the Council of Nicea to impose Trinitarianism on the Empire in AD325. Indeed, it was Arianism that was coerced by the State under the political machinations of Constantius II in the following decades, but it ultimately failed because of the dogged faithfulness of Athanasius to New Testament scripture.

The language of God
The linguistic formulations of the Nicene Creed mark something of a watershed in the development of Christian theology. In previous centuries, the authors of the Bible expressed their theology by story and type, whereas Nicea expressed its theology in the language of categories, relationships and prepositions. This perspective of Nicea persists as the lingua franca of Christian theology. This is no bad thing, provided the Christian understands that the intent of the Councils and their Creeds was to point the believer to Christ, and to the scriptures that faithfully describe Him. I consider myself a Creedal Christian, but I do not consider the Creeds to be the canonical expression of Christianity. The canonial expression of Christianity is, uniquely, Jesus Christ. The Creeds, I believe, do a good job of explaining who He is and in guarding against the more dangerous misrepresentations of my Lord and God.

What makes heresy dangerous?
When I started my exploration of theology many years ago, I, like many others, wondered why it could be considered even remotely important. Surely, the important thing was how I lived my life. Surely, if I continued in my devotions, God would look after me. The Councils, I thought, were preoccupied with irrelevant minutiae, like how many angels could stand on a pin-head.
Like many others, I viewed the theological debates and creeds as an exercise in boundary-marking; if you could affirm such-and-such a formulation of words, you were in, but if you couldn’t, you were out. They were arbitrary rules designed to exclude undesirable factions from church membership, or so I thought.
However, the more I look at theology, the more importance I see in it. Fundamentally, theology shapes our understanding of what it means to be human, and I can think of nothing in the human experience more profound than that, be it expressed in a religious context or not.
The theology of Christ goes to straight the heart of the matter. Jesus Christ is not just the canonical expression of Christianity, as I noted previously, He is also the canonical expression of humanity. Whilst showing us what it means to be truly and wholly God, he also shows us what it is to be truly and wholly human.
By “canonical expression”, I mean the prototype, or the archetype; the true “thing” against which one measures all other expressions of that “thing”. For the Christian, this means following Christ. What we see Christ do, we aspire to do; what we see Christ being, we aspire to become. We do not do what we do not see Christ doing, and thus we use Him as the measuring rod of what we should do and what we should be. In this context, then, it is paramount that we have a clear picture of who Christ is, and of our relationship to Him.
It is not enough, though, to simply use Christ as the measuring rod for what we are and what we do because, as the scriptures say, He is also our saviour and judge. This understanding of Christ as our exemplar, creator, saviour and judge is intimately bound with the understanding of His nature as both fully human and fully divine. These are the issues that the Bishops took to the Councils, and they transcend denominational, or even religious boundaries. Athanasius and his colleagues strenuously argued to preserve the highest regard for both the fully human and fully divine nature of Christ, and that they were not in conflict.
If Christ’s divinity were diminished, by Arianism for example, then our humanity is diminished because something less than God had entered into and engaged our human existence. Under such a theology, human life loses it’s value because God has deemed it to be something not worth engaging in and suffering for. God would only interact with us by simulation or by proxy. God would not be giving us Himself, undermining the claim that He is love.
If Christ’s humanity were diminished, by Docetism for example, then God would remain distant, unknowable and inaccessible. We would have to become something other than human to make that vital connection to God. We would have to dismiss human experience, with all its joys and frustrations, as irrelevant or meaningless in our attempts to make ourselves into worthy superhumans. God would not be glorified in the mundanity of human existence.
It is no coincidence that Arianism typically tends towards a program-oriented religion. In it, Christ might have shown the way, but he did not become the way, which means that it remains for us to follow some religious program in an attempt to catch up to him. The Christian understanding of grace is undermined by the attempt to ascend to heaven. As is apparent in the mid 4th Century, Arianism usually degenerates into an undignified free-for-all as various voices promote their favourite routes up the mountain, to the exclusion of all others. Christ as God answers this by emphatically stating that God has already come to us – the reality of heaven has already come down to earth, and our perspective and actions need to change accordingly.
Theology matters, because it answer’s Christ’s enduring question, “But who do you say that I am?” (Matt 16:15, Mark 8:27, Luke 9:20). The answer to that question also holds the answer to the concomitant question; “But who do we say that we are?”. These are the questions that are well worth asking in our quest to understand our existence and place in God’s good creation.

See also 

The Nicene Creed – A brief history

The Creed is a statement of faith that uses particular formulations of words to define what the believer believes, thus excluding what is considered to be dangerous heresy.

Biblical roots
Proto-creeds, or creed-like formulations can be found within the Bible
  • Deuteronomy 6:4: Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!
  • Matthew 28:19: … the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit …
  • 1 Corinthians 8:6: … yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.

Early baptismal liturgy
By AD200, the Baptismal liturgy in Rome (as recorded by Apollinaris Claudius) had developed into a now-familiar pattern by asking the baptismal candidate the following questions:
  • Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?
  • Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was born of the Virgin Mary, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and was dead and buried, and rose again the third day, alive from the dead, and ascended in to heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead?
  • Do you believe in the Holy Ghost, in the Holy Church, and the resurrection of the flesh?
The baptismal candidate would then affirm his or her faith by answering “Credo”, or “I believe”.

The Council of Nicea (AD325)
The Council of Nicea was called by the Emporer Constantine in AD325 after his conversion to Christianity at the Battle of Milvan Bridge (AD312). His Edict of Milan in AD313 made the empire officially neutral in regard to religious worship, and it ended the state’s hostilities to the Christian church. It was not until AD380 that Christianity was made the official state religion under the Edict of Thessalonica.
Among other issues, the Council was called to answer to Arius, who threatened to split the church with his teaching that “there was a time when the Son was not.” Constantine recognized that a schism in the Christian church would be just one more destabilizing factor in his empire, and he moved to solve the problem by calling for the Council. The location of Nicea is the modern-day town of Iznik about 90 km south-east of Istanbul in Turkey.
The Council was attended by a couple of hundred bishops (the traditional figure of 318 may be an over-estimation). The vast majority were from the East with less than a dozen from the rest of the Empire. They were divided into three groups;
  • the Arians who believed that Christ was of a different substance to God - heteroousios;
  • the Orthodox, who believed that Christ was of the same substance as God – homoousios;
  • the Eusebians (after Eusebius of Ceasarea), who believed that Christ was of a similar substance as God – homoiousios.
Incidentally, we are mainly reliant on Eusebius’ accounts for the historical record. Eusebius would later turn on key players in the Orthodox camp, notably Athanasius of Alexandria, who attended Nicea as a young clerk.
There is no question that Constantine wanted a unified church after the Council of Nicea, but he did not really care about how it might be achieved; he left that to the Bishops. The Othordox group prevailed and won over the Eusebians and dismissed the Arian position, formulating the Nicene Creed in such a way to unambiguously anathematize it. The Council thus affirmed the view prominent Church fathers prior to Nicea; that Jesus Christ is fully and wholly divine and deserving of our worship and obedience as to God alone. Arius was banished, but not silenced.

The Council of Constantinople (AD381)
In the decades that followed Nicea, Arianism experienced many victories, and there were periods when the Arian Bishops constituted the majority of the visible ecclesiastical hierarchy. When Constantine died in AD337, he was succeeded by his second son, Constantius II, who supported the Arian faction. Constantius II promoted his semi-Arian agenda through the Councils of Rimini (AD358) and Seleucia (AD359), however the theologians he supported were ultimately discredited and the malcontents he opposed (Athanasius and others) emerged victorious. Constantius II is not remembered as a restorer of unity, but as a heretic who arbitrarily imposed his will on the church.
Athanasius, who had been removed from his see five times (once by a force of 5,000 soldiers), continued in his outspoken opposition to Arianism. The Arian faction finally collapsed amid political infighting and in AD 381 the Council of Constantinople, under the influence of Athanasius, met and reaffirmed, without hesitation, the Nicene faith, complete with the homoousious clause and its Trinitarian formulations. The Athanasian Creed, although attributed to Athanasius, was probably written some time after his death.

See also
In response to Mormonism “Those abominable creeds” by Ron Huggins

The Nicene Creed with commentary

Nicence Creed (1)
I believe …
Often rendered “We believe” to harmonize with the plural of 12. However, the singular is appropriate here because it is the statement of an individual in the context of a congregation to affirm identification with the Christian faith-community.
Contrary to atheism and post-modernism, Christianity asserts that what a person believes makes a difference. This is true in a practical sense because we do what we do because of what we believe. We also tend to believe what we believe to justify what we do, but Christianity has a particular regard for belief because it orients the individual’s perspective toward an objective, external truth.
Further, the fact of believing is not enough. The important thing is what we believe in. Importantly, the Nicene Creed does not say “I believe in my self, my abilities, my potential”, but points the believer beyond himself to belief in God.
Luke opens his Gospel by stating that he has written it so that the reader (Theophilus) may know the truth of what he believes (Luke 1:1-4).
… in one God …
Christians, like Jews and Muslims, believe in only One God. This is an important prelude to the following statements concerning the relationships between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The creed states the assumption of the ancient Shema: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord (Deuteronomy 6:4).
… the Father Almighty,
Jesus calls God the “Father” and teaches us to do the same in the “Lord’s Prayer” (Matthew 6:9 etc). Like all words, “Father” cannot fully describe God, but it does convey the sense of some of God’s attributes, particularly the progenitor, protector, provider and ultimate authority on all that exists.
Maker of heaven and earth,
And of all things visible and invisible:
Includes the entire cosmos, even the things we cannot detect or comprehend (Genesis 1:1). Orthodox Christianity has always discriminated between God and His creation. Importantly, God is not bound by the laws and principles that govern creation; He is the One who sustains these laws.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, …
The Creed applies the title “LORD” to Jesus Christ, which was applied to YHWH in the Old Testament (see “LORD God’ in Genesis 2:4 etc). There is only One LORD, not three. Many NT authors freely apply this appellation to the Son (Mark 16:19, Luke 24:3, John 4:1 etc., Acts 1:21, Acts 2:36 etc., Romans 1:4, James 1:1, Jude 1:4, Revelation 22:20-21)
the only-begotten Son of God,
The Son is in a unique relationship with the Father. While others were sons of God in a generic or derivative sense (see Psalm 2), Jesus is the archetypical, or original Son of God by nature.
The true (canonical) image of God is given to us in the only-begotten Son, per John 1:18 No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him. (NASB)
Begotten of his Father before all worlds,
Difficult to translate, and sometimes rendered “Eternally begotten of the Father”. The Son was not “created” in time, but was brought forth from the Father in eternity, beyond and outside time. Our prepositional language uses “before”, but the phrase “before time” is a nonsensical construction. In contrast to the Arian Heresy, the Son was not begotten in time before the creation of everything else. As He was begotten beyond time, he truly shares the divine nature of God.
God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God,
The Arians believed that Jesus could be called god but not true God. In other words, they believed the Logos (the "Word", a popular title for Jesus in early Christian literature) was the first creation of God, necessary to mediate between the unknowable distant God (a concept borrowed from Platonic thought) and creation(2). As a reaction against Arianism, the Nicene Creed strenuously affirms the true and full divinity of the Son, whilst maintaining the distinctiveness of the persons of the Father and the Son.
The crucial inference is that (the true) God is not distant and unknowable, but has been made known to us in the flesh in the person of His Son. God is fully visible, accessible and glorified in the Person of His Son.
Begotten, not made,
The creed tells us that just as when a woman gives birth she does not create a child out of nothing, being begotten of God, the Son is not created out of nothing. Since the Son's birth from the Father occurred before time was created, begotten refers to a permanent relationship as opposed to an event within time, hence the qualifier that the Son was “begotten”, not “made”.(2)
Being of one substance with the Father,
Homoousia: God the Father and God the Son are equally divine, united in substance and will. Father and Son share the same substance or essence of divinity. That is, the Father and Son both share the qualities and essential nature of God. However, sharing the same substance does not mean they share identity of person(2).
By whom all things were made;
The Bible tells us that through The Son, as Word of God, all things have been created. As Logos, the Son is the agent and artificer of creation. (John 1:1-3, Colossians 1:16).
Who for us men, and for our salvation came down from heaven,
See John 3:16. Sometimes rendered “for all”, but “for all” has been criticized for implying Universalism. The “us men” refers to the people (male and female) who are reciting the Creed in faith.
The prepositional language is not intended to describe a physical downward journey, like the descent of an elevator, but the putting off of the lofty status and privileges of heaven. Philippians 2:7 describes is as God “emptying” Himself in order to enter human existence.
And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, And was made man,
Incarnate means, literally, “in flesh”. The Creed recognizes the vital role of Mary, and emphasizes the absence of a human father. God truly became truly and fully human. Contrary to early heresies such as Docetism, God did not simply don an “earth-suit” to do some sight-seeing, but fully entered into all the constraints and frustrations of human existence. (John 1:14, Philippians 2:5-11)
And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate.
See Matthew 27:11-55 etc. “Under Pontius Pilate” places Jesus in the real stream of human history – Christianity is more than metaphysical speculation.
He suffered and was buried, And the third day he rose again …
Jesus truly suffered and died. He didn’t “dodge the bullet” by swapping places with some unfortunate proxy (per the Qur’an), nor did he slip off his earth-suit at the critical moment. Jesus’ resurrection is many things, including triumph over the last enemy, death itself. Ultimately, the resurrection of Christ (Matthew 28:1-10) is the vindication of God and His unstoppable commitment to human life.
… according to the Scriptures,
The “Scriptures” here refers primarily to the New Testament and enjoins believers to believe its content.
And ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of the Father.
Christianity does not teach that heaven is physically “above” the dome of the sky, but the prepositional language best describes Jesus’ return to the unseen realm of the divine, in contrast to His descent in 12. Likewise, he is not now literally sitting next to the Father, but shares his authority and honour, as implied in our phrase “right-hand man”.
And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead:
Affirms the belief in the return of the King, who will judge every person who has or will ever live. All creation is answerable to its creator, and will affirm that God is just and true in His judgements. (Matthew 25:31-33 etc.)
Whose kingdom shall have no end.
Despite the efforts of all His enemies, God’s Kingdom is unassailable. (Psalm 145:13 etc)
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, The Lord and giver of life,
The Hebrew concept of “spirit” is “life-breath”, and it refers to the essential living being of a person that dwells deep within. God’s essential “life-breath” breaths life to us all in more ways than one. The Holy Spirit is also called “Lord”. As the Creed has already affirmed One Lord (2, 5), it also affirms that the Holy Spirit also shares in the divine nature of God. (Gen 2:7)
Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son,
The addition of the words “… and the Son” (filioque) caused the Great Schism between the Western (Roman) and Eastern Churches. Rendering it “from the Father through the Son” may resolve the controversy, because it retains the monarchy of the Father in the Holy Trinity.
Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified,
The Holy Spirit is God, as are the Father and the Son, and worthy of the same worship due to the Father and the Son. He is given the same name (singular) as the Father and the Son in the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19. At the other end of the behavioral scale, sin against the Holy Spirit is regarded as being worse than sin committed against the Father and the Son (Matthew 12:31), which was tragically demonstrated in the sudden deaths of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11.
Who spake by the Prophets.
The Holy Spirit inspired the Prophets and the Bible. The role of the Prophet is to speak the Word of God. Prophesy is much more than predicting future events with the benefit of divinely inspired foresight; it is about making sense of the immediate situation in the light of the Word of God (Jeremiah 1:11, 13).
And I believe one Catholick and Apostolick Church.
There is one Church, not many churches. It is “Catholick” because it is universal, and “Apostolic” because it is founded on the witness of the apostles. Other renditions include “Holy”, meaning that the Church is the peculiar possession of God.
I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins.
Not several, different Baptisms for different purposes, and not requiring repetition after sin. God’s cancellation of my debt of sin encompasses all my sin – past, present and future. (Acts 2:38)
And I look for the Resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.
Christian hope does not look forward to being relieved of the burden of existence, but the joyous, continued and unending celebration of life, when the cosmos is fully reconciled to God in Jesus Christ. (Revelation 22:17)
I tell the truth. I agree. So be it. Make it so.
(1)   This version from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer