Friday, October 25, 2013

On Heaven's Walls

The Bricklayer
scored his brow.
Despite his straining art
he now
had not one course
to plumb.
The sweeping arches in his mind
would not form,
for each brick placed
would fall
into the endless depths
that swallowed all.

His many bricks
and keening skill
could not bridge
gravity’s will.
No strata
could be found
from which to spring.
No ground
on which to lay.
No mix
of cement and stone
would fix.

Despairing, he watched
the downward arc
of his industry.
Each creative spark
illuminating nothing
as it passed
through eons of empty night
and at last,
shunned by the indifferent void
it died,
crushed in a weightless world
by weightless pride.

Your back, bowing
beneath the weight
of knowing
would but elate
if your feet would yield.
Yet you see what falls
because you stand
on heaven’s walls.
as you mete the edge,
the Architect of
your teetering ledge.

An Explanation

What I have tried to describe here is one of life's great paradoxes - the paradox of knowing. Of all the creatures in the universe we are (as far as we currently know) the only ones that can survey their own finitude. We have knowledge of what we are, but that knowledge tells us that we are almost nothing.

The gravity metaphor explores this. If we were in free-fall, we would perceive a weightless world and all our efforts to build would simply disintegrate as it fell around us. Yet we perceive the pressure of weight, like the action and reaction of a weight above our heads and our feet on solid ground. Could we feel this pressure because we live in a peculiar juncture between time and eternity? The picture I have attempted to invoke is of someone peering over the edge, into the void below - his perspective possible not because he is falling, but because he is standing. Is it because his vantage point is from the walls of heaven? And, what would he see if looked up and around?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Mormon Doctrine of Eternal Progression


I first wrote this piece in 2006 and got it posted on a couple of websites, including Tekton. I have reposted it here to reinvigorate it with a couple of very minor edits. Some of the links have changed, and I have done my best to update them.

The purpose of this post is to quote primary authorities within Mormonism, so that the reader can see what was actually written rather than getting it second-hand, and to challenge the claim that it is supported by the Bible.

Mormon sources

First, God himself, who sits enthroned in yonder heavens, is a man like unto one of yourselves, that is the great secret. . . . I am going to tell you how God came to be God. We have imagined that God was God from all eternity. . . God himself; the Father of us all dwelt on an earth the same as Jesus Christ himself did, . . . You have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves; to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done; by going from a small degree to another, from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, ...

Joseph Smith, Times and Seasons, Vol. 5, pp. 613-614

Mormonism claims that all nature, both on earth and in heaven, operates on a plan of advancement; that the very Eternal Father is a progressive being; that his perfection, while so complete as to be incomprehensible by man, possesses this essential quality of true perfection – the capacity of eternal increase. That therefore, in the far future, beyond the horizon of eternities perchance, man may attain the status of a God. Yet this does not mean that he shall be the equal of the Deity we worship, nor shall he ever overtake those intelligences that are already beyond him in advancement; for to assert such would be to argue that there is no progression beyond a certain stage of attainment, and that advancement is characteristic of low organization and inferior purpose alone. We believe that there is more than the sounding of brass or the tinkling of wordy cymbals in the fervent admonition of Christ to his followers – ‘Be ye perfect even as your heavenly Father which is in Heaven is perfect’
James Talmadge, Articles of Faith

The principle of eternal progression cannot be precisely defined or comprehended, yet it is fundamental to the LDS worldview.

Lisa Ramsey Adams and Elder Bruce R McConkie

This gradually unfolding course of advancement and experience -- a course that began in a past eternity and will continue in ages future -- is frequently referred to as a course of eternal progression.

Elder Bruce R. McConkie.

Lorenzo Snow, who was President of the Mormon Church from 1898 to 1901, wrote the following in a poem entitled "Man's Destiny":

Still, tis no phantom that we trace
Man's ultimatum in life's race;
This royal path has long been trod
By righteous men, each now a God:

As Abra'm Isaac, Jacob, too,
First babes, then men--to gods they grew.
As man now is, our God once was;
As now God is, so man may be, --
Which doth unfold Man's destiny. . . ."

The Gospel Through The Ages, by Milton R. Hunter, 1958, p. 113

Where Does This Doctrine Come From?

The logic pursued by the Mormons I have spoken to seems to be based on the idea that change and progression are natural principles, therefore they apply to God as they do to the rest of creation. The idea that God’s invisible qualities are visible in creation is supported in Romans 1:20 and Mormons interpret the father-son relationship between the Heavenly Father and Jesus as pointing to other father-son relationships before and after this world. Mormonism asserts that because we are the children of God, it is our destiny to progress in this life and the next in order to attain the perfection that God himself presently enjoys.

As regards the progress of the Saints and their attaining perfection, there are two main NT references;

1. Matthew 5:48 (as quoted by Talmadge) Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. In context, it is clear that Jesus is delivering a damning criticism of the Pharisees because they conveniently limited God’s directive; the Pharisees were teaching “love your neighbour but hate your enemy”. The original command in Leviticus 19:18 does not make this distinction; “You shall love your fellow man as yourself. I am the LORD” (from Prof Robert Alter’s Translation of the Five Books of Moses). Jesus is not preaching ontological perfection (as Talmadge asserts), but that our love should be as perfect as God’s, which extends even to his enemies.

2. Hebrews 10:14 states that the one sacrifice of Christ has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. In context, the writer is contrasting the old system, which can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship (see Hebrews 10:1). The use of the past tense is crucial in this verse. It says the saints have been already made perfect, but nowhere in the NT do we find sinless saints, not even Saint Paul and Saint John (by their own confession). The perfection mentioned in Hebrews, therefore, cannot be an ontological perfection. The verse, however, makes sense when we understand it to mean being made perfectly acceptable to God, or being made ‘whole’ in our union with Christ. The saints are perfectly acceptable to God not by their own merit, but by the merits of Christ in whom they enter the Holy of Holies. The perfection of the saints is in the past tense because it was achieved in the past, at the cross of Christ.

There is no support in the Canonical Bible for the notion that human beings can become, in their very nature, as God is now.

Theological Implications – the Orthodox View

The orthodox view is that God created the cosmos, and it exists within him.
Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made, John 1:3.
For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. Colossians 1:16
This is ex nihilo creation, which Mormonism explicitly rejects.

The orthodox view states that there can only be one God, because there can only be one ultimate origin of everything. God is the unchanging datum, from whom a changing universe is created. He is answerable to no-one, and owes his being to no-one. Only such a God could say, as Jehovah said to Moses, I will be what I will be (Exodus 3:14). Only such a God could claim to be the alpha and omega (Revelation 1:8 and 22:13) within which all time and space is bracketed. Being subject to no higher authority, God is truly a law unto himself, but he will not act in a way that denies his own nature.

Theological Implications – the Mormon View

In polar contrast, the Mormon view is that God emerged from the cosmos, and lives as an inhabitant of it, subject to principles and laws that were not of his own making. Further, there is not one God, but an infinite number, all of whom are progressing in experience, knowledge and intelligence, though we need only concern ourselves with the God who rules the universe that we inhabit (which is henotheism).

We accept the fact that God is the Supreme Intelligent Being in the universe. He has the greatest knowledge, the most perfect will, and the most infinite power of any person within the realm of our understanding. . . . 
Yet, if we accept the great law of eternal progression, we must accept the fact that there was a time when Deity was much less powerful than He is today. Then how did He become glorified and exalted and attain His present status of Godhood? In the first place, aeons ago, God undoubtedly took advantage of every opportunity to learn the laws of truth and as He became acquainted with each new verity He righteously obeyed it. From day to day He exerted His will vigorously, and as a result became thoroughly acquainted with the forces lying about Him. As he gained more knowledge through persistent effort and continuous industry, as well as through absolute obedience, His understanding of the universal laws continued to become more complete. Thus He grew in experience and continued to grow until He attained the status of Godhood. In other words, He became God by absolute obedience to all the eternal laws of the Gospel--by conforming His actions to all truth, and thereby became the author of eternal truth. Therefore, the road that the Eternal Father followed to Godhood was one of living at all times a dynamic, industrious, and completely righteous life. There is no other way to exaltation. 
Milton R Hunter.

God earned the right to become a god by his own self-effort. The path to exaltation is a path of learning, experience, effort and industry (compare Gnosticism, for example). Mormon teaching differs widely on the role of the cross of the Saviour in this journey of the saints, and it is noticeably absent from Hunter’s description of the path to exaltation.

If God (and Jesus) was a man like us, then did he/ they have need of a saviour? I canvassed my Mormon friends with this question, and the answers I got were;

1. There has been no revelation from [the] prophets on any specifics relating to these matters (from a Mormon Bishop)

2. Short answer, Yes , as far as I follow it, they [sic] would have had a saviour (from an active member of a Mormon church).

3. Our Heavenly Father was born and did live in mortality on another earth. Did He have need of a Saviour? I don't know the answer to that question. I do know that He is my God, and that He knows and understands me. He has reached perfection and desires the same for His children (from a Mormon Bishop).

The full version of answer 3 differentiates between God the Father, who was born on an earth, and Jesus, who was born in a spirit realm before coming to this earth.

What Does It Mean To Us?

Ralph Bowles (former Rector of St Stephen’s, Brisbane) once told me that the Trinity is the Gospel. I think there is much merit in this view and it aligns closely with the view of the Apostle John, in particular. John opens his Gospel with the audacious claim that the creator of the cosmos became flesh. We can follow John’s train of thought in his Gospels, Letters and Revelation, through Jesus’ submission to death on a cross, to the resurrection, the present age of the Church and the Final Judgement. I think that paramount in John’s mind was the question of why the omnipotent God, who wraps up skies and silences heaven, should purposefully set things up so that he, himself, would have to die on the cross. The conclusion John reaches, is that God is love. It is such a perfect love that it would have to give of itself to the point where there was nothing more to give. If God had sent his 2IC, his lieutenant, or even a close relative, he would not be expressing this love, he would be simply getting his credit card out; and that does not mean much to a God who could create a thousand ‘sons’ in an instant (“What? Jesus is dead! Never mind, I’ll just make another one”).

The doctrine of eternal progression places God within the constraints of an impersonal universe, such that he is not free to submit exclusively to his own love for us, nor to his own justice (“I’d like to help, but my hands are tied”). It also flatters with the promise of divinity through a process of experience and knowledge (compare the serpent’s appeal to Eve in Genesis 3:1-5). The emphasis on earning our exaltation relegates the cross to a moral example; we salute the crucified Christ as we pass, and we are grateful to leave our sins there, but the road ahead is one of advancement by a process of obeying the law. Finally, God is not God and eternity is not eternity.

Post Script: Ex Nihilo and Genesis 1:1

There is just enough play in the Hebrew of Genesis 1:1 to raise some interesting possibilities. Prof. Robert Alter translates it as When God began to create the heavens and the earth… Also, the name used for God, Elohim, has a plural form and it is properly used to describe ‘gods’ in some places in the Pentateuch as well as a singular ‘God’ in others.

Was God up to something before the creation? The Bible does not tell us explicitly, so any answer must be speculative. If we understand the creation of the cosmos to include the creation of time itself, then the question of what happened before the beginning of time becomes meaningless.

Does the plural name of God suggest a Council of gods? Some Mormon apologists argue that the idea of such a council is consistent with the ancient religion of Egypt (it is certainly true of Babylonian religion – see the Flood account in the Gilgamesh Epic), and it is reflected in some ancient Jewish teachings. These apologists may be right, but we must question whom it is that we seek guidance from. Are we to take instruction from some ancient pagan religions (even the paganism practised in ancient Israel) in preference over the Bible?

It must also be noted that there is not one sane translation that mentions more than one God in Genesis 1:1. The justification for these ‘one God’ translations is not found solely in this one verse, but in context with the remaining corpus of the canonical Bible, which is polemically monotheistic. In other words, if you want to believe that more than one god was involved in the creation, you could stretch the opening words of Genesis just far enough to fit your theory, but you would have to ignore everything that follows it in the Canonical Bible.

I am he: before me there was no God formed neither shall there be after me. I, even I, am the Lord; and beside me there is no saviour. Isaiah 43:10-11

Thus saith the LORD the King of Israel, and his redeemer the LORD of hosts; I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God…Is there a God beside me? yea, there is no God; I know not any. Isaiah 44:6 & 8

Useful Links

This one was written by senior Mormons; and this one was written by Sandra Tanner, one of the most prominent anti-Mormon apologists. Both sources are quoted above.

Martin Jacobs 2006

Saturday, August 24, 2013

When Atheists and Skeptics are Right

Not being an atheist or skeptic I’m often disheartened by critical messaging on social media and TV. Sometimes it is intentionally confrontational, sometimes it’s nothing more than a light-hearted poke, and often it is simply crass or just wrong. Sometimes it is articulated well, sometimes it is puerile and, usually, it is nothing more than just a tee shirt slogan. Always, I feel it. Perhaps I should just grow a thicker skin.

However ugly the full-grown expression might be, it often grows from a seed of truth. This post is all about one of those seeds. I want to say to you skeptics and atheists that, on this issue at least, you are right.

The criticism or ridicule that I have in mind may be broadly categorized as a reaction against the kinds of claims made by believers that they are somehow special, or better, or more privileged than the “others”. A previous generation might have used the phrase “holier than thou”. At its heart, it’s a visceral reaction against what I call Religious Exceptionalism.

Put simply, Religious Exceptionalism states that because I subscribe to such-and-such a religion, or go to so-and-so church/temple/mosque/synagogue, I am entitled to all manner of privileges in this world and the next. The key term here is “because”. It’s using God to escape the bell-curve of probability; to elevate myself above my neighbors; to consider myself separate from them.

These privileges might be identified within a religious belief, but they can also be identified in a secular sphere. They can range from special knowledge or revelations, to the right to occupy land or to persecute other people-groups. Like skin colour, or sexuality, they are a self-serving set of criteria that I can use to consider myself better than, or more deserving than. They make me one of the good guys, and because of that, the universe owes me special consideration. They make me the exception.

Leading popular critics, such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Lawrence Kraus, have capitalized on this criticism. In the recent debate that I attended, the repugnance exuded by Kraus and his supporters against Religious Exceptionalism was almost palpable, even if he didn’t express it in those terms. What drove him was the sense that we believers considered ourselves better than him and his science because of our beliefs. (Incidentally, I think his repugnance is only partially justified, and a balanced reflection indicates that he and his colleagues are supplanting one kind of Religious Exceptionalism with another – a form of anti-Religious Exceptionalism if you like – even though he aspires to anti-Religious anti-Exceptionalism.)

One cartoon by Alan Krumin showed a Rabbi, an Imam and a Bishop approaching the Pearly Gates guarded by Thor, the Viking god. The caption was something like “What happens when you support the wrong team.” In the face of this, it would be hopeless for me to try to explain the differences between Judaism, Islam and Christianity, and why I am one and not another, and perhaps that’s the cartoonist’s point. But I also see a sense of repugnancy at the perceived exclusion of the “other” religions from heaven. Am I entitled to enter those Pearly Gates and, if I am, what makes me so? What gives me the warrant to believe that I am the exception?

In my reading of the Bible, I see both bad news and good news for Religious Exceptionalism.

The bad news is that there is nothing in myself that makes me qualify for heaven or, indeed any other worldly or other-worldly privilege. I am not the exception, not even if I go to the “right” church and say and do the right things. For instance, when God directs Israel to occupy the land, he says
It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land … for you are a stiff-necked people Deuteronomy 9:5-7
In other words, Israel could not justify its privilege on the basis of its own rightness or religious preferences.

This scenario, in my reading of it, sets the pattern for all privilege and exceptionalism. Indeed it forms the bedrock of New Testament theology. Paul frames it in terms of faith and works
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works Ephesians 2:8-10 
The Reformers distilled it further to Sola Fide– Justification by faith alone, as opposed to justification by works.

The point of Paul and the Reformers is that our claims to privilege are not based on “works”. I understand the term to mean both the things we do and the things done to us, particularly as they relate to religious observation.

The seminal NT example of a religious “work” that is done to you and by you (if you are a Jewish man) is circumcision. How many times does the NT reinforce the message that we cannot justify our privileges by being circumcised or by circumcising our sons, or even by the state of being circumcised? Paul puts it bluntly in 1 Corinthians 7:19 “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing”. We cannot use it to justify our claim to privilege.

Likewise, Christian theology kicks against all kinds of Religious Exceptionalism. We Christians are good at forgetting this. Though we aver from Exceptionalism by circumcision, we often allow it to creep back in, in different clothes.

I was recently criticized for saying a prayer in church in which I described us as “dumb” in the context of God’s peerless wisdom. Do we think that we are entitled to being smart because we go to church? Would it be wrong to characterize our church as being full of idiots, of which I am the lead idiot? Where is the spirit that says that God often glorifies Himself through the foolish things of this world? Do we not realize that we, ourselves, could actually be those foolish things? Have we resorted to justifying ourselves based on our intellects and education? We need a new generation of Reformers to remind us that we are not the exceptions.

The good news is that God has made all the privileges of Christ available to us, through faith (for example, see Ephesians 1:3). There is access to heaven in this life and the next. However, these are not privileges that I am entitled to – I have no right to them. It is precisely because they are a gift that I can claim no exclusiveness to them – I do not own the franchise; not even partially.

In this context, I rightly see myself as the everyman that I am. I have privileges, but I am not entitled to them. I do not possess them by right. When God wishes to take them from me – the privilege of being alive, for instance – I have no reason to complain. There’s nothing in me that makes me the exception, and what privileges I have, I have by the grace of God. Surely that’s good news for us all because my neighbors, who are equally as unqualified as I, live under His grace too.

I feel sure that God wants me to enjoy and exploit whatever privileges he extends to me, including my life, my intellect and my education. By following in kind, He wants me to desire the “others” to enjoy and exploit their privileges too. In this economy of freely giving and receiving – the economy of Grace - there is no place for Religious Exceptionalism. In this respect, the atheists and skeptics are right, even if they are right for all the wrong reasons.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Atheism denies a reasonable basis for morality

The killing of Canaanite children, commanded by God in such passages as Deuteronomy 20:10-18, and other such acts, invokes moral outrage among atheists. My response is that Atheism denies a reasonable basis, or warrant, for morality; therefore, there is no reason to believe the atheists’ outrage. The moral outrage expressed by atheists as a recruiting drum for Atheism is one of the great propaganda triumphs of our time.


Last Wednesday, I attended the debate between Lawrence Krauss  and William Lane Craig. Although the subject was “Has Science Buried God?”, Krauss spent much of his time preaching the moral superiority of his position because, he believed, the killing of Canaanite children was a moral evil. It followed, then, that the Judaeo-Christian God was morally evil and ought to be killed and buried. Coincidentally, I had had a very similar conversation on-line the week previously with a couple of atheists.

My argument is that Atheism denies a reasonable basis, or warrant, for morality. Before we get to what the argument does say, we’ll have to deal with what it does not say.

What the argument does not say – 1 Atheists are immoral

The first misunderstanding to get past is that atheists are immoral. It may be because that is how most people on both sides hear the argument, but it’s wrong.

This is not about whether atheists have the right moral equipment, a “moral compass” if you like, nor if they are any better or worse at using it. In reality, atheists often make good moral decisions, but it is irrelevant to the argument. Even if it were true that every Theist consistently made better moral decisions than every Atheist, it would still be irrelevant. What the argument looks for is a reasonable warrant for these moral decisions.

What the argument does not say – 2 Atheism has no warrant for morality

The next misunderstanding is that atheism has no warrant for morality. In fact, it does, but it’s instinctive or acquired, and it still lacks a reasonable warrant.

The key word here is “reasonable”, meaning something that has a reason for its existence and something that can be used to reason with another person. It’s no surprise that Atheists use the killing of Canaanite children as an emotive argument that appeals to how we feel about it, rather than using it as a rational argument based on reason.

What the argument does not say – 3 Instinctive or acquired morality is bad

The next misunderstanding is that instinct or acquired knowledge provides no warrant for morality. It’s not what the argument proposes. It’s wrong because our instincts and acquired knowledge can, actually, provide a very good warrant for our moral decisions. To argue that they cannot will be to argue that none of our senses can convey to us a representation of the reality that we live in. Furthermore, it does not matter where our acquired knowledge comes from. What matters is that we have a perception of morality. Like all our senses, that perception is necessarily limited and often flawed, but it is there nonetheless. Further, we know we can be deceived by our instincts or acquired knowledge, and we look to reason to balance and correct us. In other words, instinctive or acquired knowledge can guide us to the moral good, but we still need to apply reason to them to prevent them from misdirecting us.

What the argument does not say – 4 Christianity is Superior to Atheism

William Lane Craig did it, and I did it in my exchanges on-line, but it is not necessary to the argument. We both got sidetracked into arguing the case that Christianity is superior to Atheism. It’s the natural response to someone’s enquiry into what else there might be, but my argument does not rest or fall on the truth of Christianity.

Technically, this is the fallacy of alternatives, which says that A cannot be true because an alternative, B, is true, or that A is true because B is untrue. My argument does not need an alternative as it stands or falls on its own truthfulness.

On this basis, my argument is not an argument for Christianity. It is actually no more than an argument against the kind of moral outrage expressed by atheists against God.

What the argument does not say – 5 Proof of God

In his book Reasonable Faith, William Lane Craig admits that the Moral Argument for God is a weak argument. In fact, all you need to do to get rid of God is to get rid of morality, and this is where many thinking atheists knowingly go, and where many unthinking atheists unknowingly go.

Possibly, this is the source of the myth that atheists are immoral. However, it is probably more accurate to say that they are amoral. Immoral suggest something that is against morality, whereas amoral suggests something that is without morality. When a shark bites a diver in half, it is acting amorally, but if one diver were to do the same to another (say, with an underwater chainsaw) he or she might well be acting immorally.

Immoral and amoral

The difference between immoral and amoral is one way to properly approach the argument.

In the example above, the shark is acting amorally because it is simply doing what it is programmed to do by its evolutionary inheritance. Most people believe that human beings are different; hence the equivalent act by a human being is qualitatively different. The difference is understood as morality, and so the human diver equivalent of a shark biting a man in half is immoral, or morally evil.

However, according to Atheism, there is no qualitative difference between the human diver and the shark. Human beings and sharks are both products of the same undirected evolutionary processes that we learn about at school and on all the nature channels on TV.

We might think we are morally superior because we have better brains, and hence can think or model the outcomes of our actions (more on this later) – what we understand to be intelligence. We can also make decisions – what we understand to be free-will or agency (more on this later, too). Whereas I can confidently say that I would prefer to have a higher functioning brain than not, there is no empirical, unfalsifiable, experimental evidence to say that having a brain is morally better than the alternative. More to the point, in the Atheistic cosmos, the purposes that serve me and my brain are not intrinsically more moral than the purposes that serve a creature without a similarly developed brain, like a shark or an HIV virus. We just think we are cool because we have one, and the shark or virus doesn’t.

Reasonable and Unreasonable

Unfortunately, the immoral/amoral differentiation does not translate well to reason. When we say that someone is unreasonable, we say that he or she acts against, or opposed to, reason. We don’t have a good equivalent to say that he or she acts without reason – a kind of areasonableness, if you like.

(An older generation would have equated with “without” reason to “against” reason because of the common belief that everything had a reason or a purpose and thus unreasonableness was a denial of the reason for things and hence objectionable – a belief that is now not as widespread as it once was.)

The death of reasonable morality

Faced with the impending death of reasonable morality, the Atheist attempts to put it on life-support by appealing to those valued human characteristics of intelligence and agency. I find the various drips applied to be inadequate, as follows.

Drip 1 – Atheistic Philosophy

From a philosophical point of view, the only avenues open to the atheist are Utilitarianism or Consequentialism, both of which are hotly debated by philosophers of all stripes.

Utilitarianism justifies its actions by doing the greatest good to the greatest number of people. Whereas I agree with the outcome, I find the warrant areasonable because it is founded on the assertion that doing good to people is a moral good. For instance, we could take the view that we have multiplied well beyond the point at which our planet can sustain us. So, from a certain planetary conservationist point of view, the moral good could actually be the extermination of as many people as possible.

Consequentialism justifies its actions by the predicted consequences. Krauss touched on this on Wednesday night, saying that we make decisions based on our understanding of where they will take us, and that the best decisions are the result of rational thought. Yet again, I agree with the outcome, but the warrant is areasonable. It presumes that there is a “there” to go to, but if Atheism were true, and the cosmos is actually an undirected, random phenomenum, then there is no “there”. The best that we can hope for is that we make whatever decision we make in order to get us what we want. The singular flaw here is that this is not morality – it is simply our strategising to get the best outcomes for ourselves.

Drip 2 – Evolutionary Inheritance

From an evolutionary biological point of view, those supposed values of intelligence and agency are far less certain than we thought about a century ago. We know that other animals display a remarkable degree of intelligence – the capacity to model the future and hence make decisions based on a range of potential outcomes. In the Southern US, dolphins team together to drive fish onto the muddy banks of the rivers, where they snap them up. Their intelligence may be quantitavely less than ours, but it is not qualitatively different. Importantly, like them, our intelligence serves us in getting us the best possible outcomes, but there is no scientific means to tell us whether these outcomes are morally better or worse than the team of dolphins snapping up fish on a river bank. If the fish had a point of view, they would definitely challenge the dolphins' actions, regardless of the intelligence and mutual teamwork the dolphins display in carrying them out.

Even agency now appears less certain than it ever did. B F Skinner, his pigeons and his science of radical behaviouralism set out to scientifically dispell the myth of agency. I’ll defer the assessment of how successful he was to those more qualified than I, but at its heart is the notion that our sense of agency is a delusion; we are controlled by our environment far more than we like to admit. This is no ethereal proposition – the entire advertising industry is founded on it. On the morality of human freedom, Skinner said, "It is a mistake to suppose that the whole issue is how to free man. The issue is to improve the way in which he is controlled".

Further, Sir Doctor Jonathan Miller, an Atheist, described human consciousness as an oil slick on the ocean of the subconscious. If the ocean moves the oil slick, what moves the ocean if not our environment? I don't object to this analysis, but what it says is that we, including the atheists, are far more sensitive to the cues around us than we thought.

Contrary to Skinner and Miller, I believe we have the capacity for agency despite the influence of our environments and the instability of our subconsious minds. My reasons are entirely experiential – to borrow from Rene Descartes, I decide, therefore I am. Those decisions might be less independent than I thought, but I don't think I am entirely captive to my environment.

My point here is that the foundation of instinctive or received morality is crumbling. How can we even know the moral good, when our thoughts and feelings are shaped so profoundly by our environments and our instinctive subconscious is so unstable? It seems untenable to believe that rational thought will unfailingly guide us to the moral good. Indeed the very notion of rational thought could be no more than myth and delusion.

Drip 3 – Animalistic Morality

Krauss tried his hand at naturalistic morality, and failed dismally. He said that homosexuality was normal because it is found all throughout the mamallian kingdom. I have no wish to comment on the morality of homosexuality here, nor even its prevalance in species other than humans, but the underlying premise of Krauss’ argument was plainly silly – it was areasonable.

For example, infanticide is prevalent throughout the mamallian kingdom. When a male lion takes over a pride of females, he kills all the cubs he can find. This serves the utility function of ensuring that his DNA, and not a rival’s, is propagated. According to Krauss’ argument, then, we can justify the killing of step-children by their step-fathers. Of course, we recoil from such a possibility because we consider ourselves to be somewhat above the animals. But, if we rise above the animals in infanticide, how can we then descend to them in our sexuality?

The gods of atheism 

The Atheist’s position is thus exposed. His sense of moral outrage is nothing more than his evolutionary heritage generating within him the kind of fight or flight response needed to protect his selfish genes. That this genetic protectionism is projected onto a group such as the Canaanites is purely coincidental. The choice of which side to support is wholly arbitrary – if his genetic coding predispositioned him toward the invading Israelites, he would be cheering.

However, that is not good enough for the likes of Lawrence Krauss and Sam Harris. They have judged the God of Deuteronomy and found him wanting. I believe that the basis for this judgement cannot be reason, because that is impossible in an Atheistic cosmos, despite the application of various kinds of life support that I described above. What they really mean to say is that they don’t like this God. Maybe it’s because their evolutionary heritage does not allow them to. Their problem is that such a statement lacks the same kind of rhetorical punch, it sells less books and there is nothing in it to compel people to Atheism.

If they like something, and I don’t, who is to say that they or I are morally superior? Effectively, then, they destroy morality, and with it the foundation on which they base their criticism of Christianity.

At least Friedrich Nietzsche knew the consequences of declaring that God is dead. With the death of God comes the death of reasonable morality.

A tip of the hat to Anselm

In my exchanges with atheists on line, I tried to convey to them the idea of what God is by using Anselm’s Ontological Argument.

Simply stated, Anselm says that God is the greatest conceivable being. And, as what is in reality is always greater than what can be conceived, God exists.

As a proof of God, Philosophers, such as Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig agree that Anselm is undefeatable. Critics say that it is a semantic trap. Again, I’ll leave the assessment to those more qualified than I, but I like the trajectory of Anselm in bringing us to an understanding of what God is. I think Anselm is particularly useful in dispelling ideas of God that have him sitting on a remote cloud in a bathrobe and long beard, or that he lurks around corners and meddles with our affairs according to his own caprice.

In my discussion on morality, I suggested to my Atheist antagonists that they had conceived of a greater being than God. This greater being was no less than the Higher Moral Standard to which they imagined that God was answerable to. According to Anselm, then, if the Higher Moral Standard was greater than the Yahweh of Deuteronomy, then Yahweh was not God, the Higher Moral Standard was. In other words, there was still a God; it just was not Yahweh.

The response of one of the atheists was quite remarkable. To his great credit, he understood the trajectory of Anselm, but his Atheism pulled him back. He concluded that he had found a greater being than God, and that being was himself. I responded that I would hesitate to offer him worship, and he quipped that he would be satisfied with cash donations. We concluded the conversation there, on what I hoped was a cordial note.

I cannot go the same way as my atheist interlocutor. It would be deluded of me to think that I am that Higher Morality, not least because I presume to know better than my neighbour, and his neighbour and so on.

On Wednesday, Krauss ridiculed believers in saying that there had been about a thousand “gods” in history, so we are probably deluded in believing that ours is the “right” one. If he had followed Anselm, he would have realized that instead of the thousand or so “gods” proposed by the various Theisms, Atheism presents us with several billion – the entire human population of the cosmos, to be precise, multiplied by the number of times we change our minds from day to day.

The argument that Yahweh performed a moral evil in Deuteronomy is therefore an argument for, not against, God. If true, the damage it does to the Judeao Christian religion is that it demotes Yahweh down the order, but it does so by proposing a greater being than Yahweh and hence relocates God on a level higher than Yahweh. It’s a shuffling of the pack, but it’s not a denial that the pack exists, or even that Yahweh is present as a player in the pack.

Of course, Christians recoil from the notion that Yahweh could perform a moral evil, and so they turn their attention to whether the killing of Canaanite children was actually a moral evil. Craig put forward a plausible scenario, that drew much ridicule from Krauss. More commonly, Christians would say that we do not know all the reasons why God would do such a thing, but we must believe that he did not do a moral evil. Hence, we come to the possible source of the myth that Christians say that we must simply accept it by faith.

It is reasonable to argue that the Christian model of God is inaccurate? For instance, that it was wrong to credit the killing of the Canaanites to the Divine Will? To do this, one must first acknowledge that there is a Divine Will, and that it willed something other than the killing of the Canaanites. The dilemma the atheist faces is that he cannot go there without contravening his own Atheism. He is forced to state that it was an act of greed and xenophobia, but if that greed and xenophobia was nothing more than the outworking of the Israelites' evolutionary heritage, how can he say it was morally evil?

The final score, Craig v Krauss

I found Craig’s response to Krauss’ objection reasonable, though time did not allow him to develop it fully. In my assessment, Craig did not develop this argument against Krauss well enough, but instead proposed an alternative based on the Judaeo-Christian tradition. I respect that Judaeo-Christian tradition, and understand that Craig was proposing a plausible scenario, whereas Krauss did not, but it was not necessary to defeat Krauss. Krauss, like many atheists dismissed the alternative, not because it was implausible, but because he did not like it.

If we dismiss everything because we don’t like it, where would we be? We would certainly not be thinking rationally, which is ironic, as Krauss has crossed land and sea to try to persuade us that rational thinking is the morally right thing to do.


I have yet to see a way to defeat the argument that Atheism denies a reasonable warrant to morality. This being the case, the atheist has no reasonable warrant to object to the killing of Canaanite children, or any other act, for that matter. It is his perogative to like it or not, but that is not morality. The morality of these acts can only be addressed in the context of Theism. Atheism is defeated in this case.

It seems to me that there are only two possibilities; that there is a God and we live in a moral universe, or that there is no God and we live in an amoral universe. The Atheist's outrage at the killing of Canaanite children has meaning in only one of these universes, and it's not the one with no God.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Lucifer's Parables

The parables of Jesus comprise a wonderful anthology of wisdom. Usually, he starts them with “The Kingdom of God/Heaven is like …” and then goes on to describe a scenario of how things are.

Just for fun, I thought it might be interesting to attempt an anthology of un-wisdom – anti-parables, if you like - that start with “The Kingdom of Hell is like …” and then go on to describe the absurdity how things are.

Here’s my first attempt

The Parable of the Pygmy

The Kingdom of Hell is like the Pygmy who claimed he was a giant. There was some substance to his claim because he was taller than the other pygmies in his tribe, and he had never seen a giant, let alone measured himself against one. When he was told that there might be giants beyond the world he knew, he reacted indignantly. “Are you questioning my vertical superiority?” he demanded. “If there were giants,” he then claimed, “then I am their chief, because I am a giant.”
This is how I see everyone who claims to possess some kind of moral superiority over others, whilst denying God. Sam Harris seems to fit this role.


The point of this parable is not to argue about who is taller. It’s more about the merits of being tall. In other words, why is being tall a good thing, and how can having it imbue the tall person with authority? If atheism were true, then these qualities and perceptions would be a Darwinian hangover from the time when our hominid ancestors walked the savannah in Africa, and the taller ones were better equipped to see the horizon and thus set a direction for the clan. The result is that tallness qualifies an individual to take authority.

But why apply this to tallness, and not a sense of morality? If atheism were true, the same processes that produced tallness also produced our sense of morality, our other virtues and our intellects. So, if our perceived association of authority with tallness is a Darwinian hiccup, how can we account for our perceived association of truth with morality and why does this give someone who perceives himself as moral the right to define morality? Like the Pygmy's perception of his own tallness, such a person is simply calibrating his moral compass by his own morality.

Harris, and his guild, argue that humans are innately special because of their intellects and morality. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that he is a Berkeley professor with a keen sense of morality. However, if his atheism were true, his intellect and morality would be nothing more than a Darwinian hiccup in much the same way as his tallness (or lack thereof) is. And, what of the humans who are not intellectual, who are not moral? We may not like them (another Darwinian hiccup), but we are essentially the same species, brought into being by the same processes, and destined for the same end. What, then, is the reasonable basis for our claim that we are good and they are bad?

Ultimately, there is none, so we resort to instinct, which naturally tends to confirmation-bias and tells us that we are the good guys, because, hey, we are us, and we keep affirming our own goodness and we have surrounded ourselves with friends and family who tell us that we are good and those that didn't have since been expelled from our clan. Surely it hasn't escaped the Professor of Neuroscience that even our instincts are nothing more than Darwinian hiccups?

So, with that in mind, let’s return to the parable with a post script

Now in the Pygmy’s forest there lived a predatory species of Drop-Bears. The Drop-Bears hung in the trees by their elasticated tails and bungee-jumped down onto their prey below. They were a fine example of evolutionary design because their tails were just the right springiness to get them to within four feet of the ground. Any further, and they would bury their jaws into the ground; any less, and they would miss their prey.

One day, the King Pygmy walked through his forest with his servants, proudly pointing out all he could see because he was taller than they. Unknowingly, he walked below a Drop-Bear that promptly bungee-jumped down from its tree and bit his head clean off. The pygmy-servants, who were only three feet tall (and thus safe from the jaws of the Drop-Bears), ran away in terror, but at least they had their heads.

The Drop-Bears would have rejoiced that night that a Pygmy had developed a smidgen of vertical superiority. But they didn't because the evolutionary process that had equipped them with their fine tails didn't equip them with the intellectual or moral capacity to rejoice.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

An oasis in the desolation - real romance

Usually (or so it seems to me) the stuff pumped out from the TV on marriage is a depressing litany of failure and ideological posturing; so much so that I routinely avoid it.

On Friday, I caught myself watching a BBC documentary - Episode 3 of Love and Marriage: A 20th Century Romance - possibly because it featured Toyah Willcox and Robert Fripp (she of punk rock, and he of King Crimson). It also featured four other couples I had never heard of.

I was so impressed that, if ever it was up to me, I'd recommend it as part of a marriage preparartion (or reparation?) course. These couples were all different in their own right, but what united them was their experience of the challenges and rewards of a total life-commitment to their husbands and wives within the bond of marriage. It was an inspiration to see the their absolute determination, love and teary-eyed joy in their marriages. It was something they decided to do, something they worked at. They hadn't just fallen into it and passively let it happen. They didn't just go along with it while they could get something out of it. They were absolute about their marriages. They truly embodied love.

After the so-called sexual revolution and current challenges to the most fundamental social institution on earth, will the infamous Gen Y ever 'discover' the joy of marriage? I hope so.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Response to 'The Once and Future Scriptures' - Part 3


Following my responses to Chapters 1 and 2 of “The Once and Future Scriptures – Exploring the Role of the Bible in the Contemporary Church” (OFS), here is my response to Chapter 3, “Wisdom as well as Facts” by Steven Ogden, Principal of St Francis Theological College and an adjunct Lecturer in the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University.

Same disclaimers and qualifications as before.


Reading through these essays, the one question that nags at my thoughts is the question of agenda. Why has the Archbishop published this book at this particular time, and what response does he want of the Anglican Church in Queensland?

OFS addresses serious challenges to the Christian community, particularly in the context of its relationship with the Bible, which aligns with the Bible’s own admonition to “…make a defense (apologia/ απολογια) to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence … ” (1 Peter 3:15)

Notably, Peter’s admonition opens with the directive to “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts”. In other words, the apologia of the Church is spoken from the perspective of faith - not just any faith, but an essentially Christian faith that believes in Christ as Lord.

In my interactions with various religious groups, a persistent meme is the question of who is a Christian. Various solutions are put forward, depending on the proponent’s agenda (usually, the proponent wants to justify his or her claim to be a Christian). In this milieu, and on my reflection of the Bible and the history of the Christian Church, my solution is this; a Christian is someone who worships Jesus Christ.

I mean worship in the broad sense, as in admire, try to emulate, concern one-self with, obsess over. In this sense, people can “worship” political visionaries, football players, music stars or soap opera celebrities; Elvis Presley worshippers build shrines to Elvis Presley in their homes; Margaret Thatcher worshippers devour all books Margaret Thatcher; Apple worshippers despise Microsoft, Google, Samsung or any of the competition (and the competition-worshippers do the same to Apple); and so on.

I also mean it the narrow sense that we hold Jesus higher than everything and everyone else, and offer to him only that which ought to be offered to The One God, after the First and Second of the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:3-6).

In my reading of OFS, my concern is that its relationship with Christ-as-Lord is tenuous, ethereal and possibly antagonistic. Rather than expounding orthodox understandings of Christ-as-Lord, the agenda of OFS is the overt promotion of Progressive Theology, which has (in my understanding of it) distinctively un-Christian trajectories.

The major difference I see between Progressive Theology and Orthodox Christianity is to do with the locus of truth. Orthodox Christians see the locus of truth in the person of Jesus Christ, who, they believe, is the “way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). Progressive Theology sees the locus of truth in the experience of the individual, particularly those individuals whose thinking has been shaped by the academy and science. At a personal level, the Christian sees God in Christ, whereas the Progressive looks for God in his or her own soul. Viewed in these terms, Progressive Theology is actually a modern form of Gnosticism, as commentators like Ralph Bowles have observed.  (see Ralph Bowles’ important qualification on the timing of his review at the foot of this blog)

It seems that Progressives regard Christ-as-Lord as incomprehensible dogma because it cannot be empirically proven within the framework of modern science and thought. Even so, Progressive Christians seem to retain some reverence of Christ, though he may be diminished to a Christ-idea that has no basis in “true”, “historic” persons or events.

I cannot help but draw parallels with other religious movements (Islam, Mormonism, Universalism etc.) that have similarly tried to co-opt Jesus to their movements on their own terms, but ultimately fail because, to do so, they must ignore what he says about himself. Progressives get round this by saying that Jesus didn’t say those things about himself – they were retrojected onto him after the event by an act of sustained, corporate hero-worship by the primitive Christians.

These movements like Jesus because he is a good man, but they refuse to worship him, which brings me to my definition of what makes a Christian.

So, why is OFS being promoted to the Church by the Archbishop? Is it an apologia to the Church on behalf of its critics, or from the Church on behalf of its advocates? Does the Archbishop wish to dissolve the boundaries/skin of Christianity such that questions to and from no longer have meaning? If so, how can we retain our identity and shape as the body of Christ? If he is simply tossing Synod a bone to chew on, I respectfully suggest that he should listen more closely to Christ’s commandment to Peter to give the Church something more than something to exercise its jaws upon, but to feed it (John 21:15-19).


Steven Ogden subscribes to Progressive Theology, but he wishes to moderate its extremes to make it less antagonistic to Orthodox Christianity. The moderation Ogden proposes is to make room for the experience of the believing community in evaluating the truthfulness of things such as Holy Scripture.

Ogden uses two passages to explore the relationship between facts and wisdom; the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) and the Prologue to John’s Gospel (John 1:1-18). Progressives, he says, have been too hasty in dismissing these passages as having no value because they cannot be empirically proven. He argues that these passages can be regarded as having truth in them because they serve a utility function for the community of believers.

Ogden’s essay includes many inflammatory statements. He defers from stating his own position on them (whether he believes them or not), which leaves readers like me with the tricky task of inferring his evaluation of them. It appears to me that he is reluctant to dismiss the Bible as having no value, which is why he recoils from the Progressive extreme that regards it as untrue. However, he has no place for Christian dogma and distances Jesus from the New Testament by aligning with secular (atheist?) critics such as Burton L Mack. Mack and his colleagues subscribe to the notion that the early Church “talked up” the divinity of Christ and attributed much myth to him in a sustained, corporate act of hero-worship.

Ogden’s post-modern stance is illustrated in his description of an argument between two German theologians - Paul Tillich (1886-1965) and Karl Rahner (1904-1984) - as “old”. From this perspective, then, the New Testament (circa 48-110) might appear as nothing more than a fossil relic of an unenlightened era that has some usefulness today because it makes believers feel good about themselves.



Currently, there is a battle in the public square over the authority of Scripture. My concern with this controversy is that tie and energy are misspent in an unwinnable war. As a result, and in the name of truth, truth has become a casualty. I say “public square” because the debate is more nuanced in the ivory towers of biblical scholarship, than in public jousting, media events and meretricious sound bites. However, to illustrate the character of this polemic, let me make a stark contrast between the antagonists.

In one corner is Christian fundamentalism. In general, fundamentalists can be characterized by a particular view of truth, where truth is universal, absolute, identifiable, and in their possession. In this context, and in circular fashion the Bible is used selectively to support truth claims, which are used in turn to bolster the epistemological authority of the Bible or the ecclesial authority of the Bible teacher. In the other corner, there are exponents of what could broadly be described as progressive biblical scholarship. In general, the progressives can be characterized by a particular view of truth, where the epistemological value of a biblical text is carefully measured on the basis of historical method and corresponding empirical evidence. If a story cannot be empirically substantiated, it is not true. Truth here is context-specific, relative, identifiable and in their possession. (Pages 44-45)
Footnote 2: In Australia, a ‘conservative evangelical’ is not necessarily a fundamentalist. The difference hinges largely on epistemology.


As far as this is an observation of the current “battle” I don’t object.

I baulk at Ogden’s insistence of empirical evidence, because nearly all of the miracles of the NT cannot be demonstrated empirically (how do you demonstrate that Jesus walked on water?). Ogden’s inference is that because these events cannot be replicated by modern science, they cannot be historical.

Sadly, Ogden’s footnote is about the sum of the attention he gives to the “conservative evangelical” position. That’s a major blunder for a work that is intended to address the whole of the Anglican Communion in Queensland.

Ogden quotes Mack on the Incarnation

... the importance of Jesus “as a thinker and teacher can certainly be granted and even greatly enhanced once we allow the thought that Jesus was not a god incarnate, but a real historical person”. (Page 55 from Mack's Who Wrote the New Testament)


Mack misses the implications of the incarnation entirely, which is that the man, Jesus, is and was both fully and wholly God and a fully and wholly a real historical human being. Not, it must be stressed, a super-human or demi-god.

Ogden on the Prologue to the Gospel of John

Nevertheless “the Word” in the text does not relate directly to the Jesus of history. Moreover, the doctrine of the Incarnation itself, even in its earliest forms, cannot be subjected fruitfully to the scrutiny of historiography. Therefore, on epistemological grounds, the prologue can be dismissed as liturgical refinement or theological invention. (page 44)


Ogden’s exegesis is preposterous. How he can read the Prologue and not follow John’s trail from the Divine Logos to the human Jesus is beyond me. His position on the value of the Prologue is as presuppositional and dogmatic as any fundamentalist.

Ogden on Progressive Theology

So I want to make a few modest suggestions as to how the progressive position may prosper. (Page 45)

Ogden on Tillich and Rahner

… For [Tillich], the reality of the ‘Christ-event’ was actualized by faith through human participation; it was not captive to the particulars of historical research. (page 46)

… Rahner accepted the general findings of modern scientific exegesis about the life of Jesus. (Page 47)

… In brief, Tillich and Rahner had a commitment to the importance of history and considered the results of New Testament exegesis important. They had a macro-view of history as God’s medium of self-diclosure. But this raises a problem, in that, while they thought it was important for Christology to be grounded in exegetical findings, they did not feel bound to them. (page 47)


Ogden’s semantics lose me. The best I can make of this is that Ogden generally endorses the positions of Tillich and Rahner, but by not being bound to “exegetical findings”, they are at liberty to create their own imaginary Christs.

Ogden on history

In some theologically conservative circles, the assumption has been made that recourse to history will remedy deficiencies in theological knowledge; that is, if there is a credibility gap (e.g. the resurrection) then a piece of historical evidence might address it (e.g. the empty tomb). In other cases, an over-reliance on history can be seen to undermine the credibility of orthodox beliefs; this is, if history can explain everything, then there is no room for faith (e.g. miracle stories dismissed).

Ogden quoting Richard Rorty

Truth cannot be out there – cannot exist independently of the human mind – because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own – unaided by the describing activities of human beings – cannot. (page 50 from Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony and Solidarity).


Rorty aligns with my own Model Theory (that I have developed independently) in that the models we use to describe the prototype are always less than the prototype. We might differ on semantics; I think that the prototype is always true (or right), whereas Rorty sees truth as a property that we project onto the prototype.

Ogden on experience

Experience is hard to define. It can be expressed in and shaped by language (page 51).


I agree that words do more than simply convey our thoughts and experiences to others – they actually shape and form those thoughts and experiences. This becomes evident in translation processes, in which a thought expressed in the original language has no equivalent in the translated language. In these cases, word-proxies or approximations are used. Language gives form to experience. I wonder if this is a legitimate extension to the Biblical claims of the agency of the Word in creation (cf Gen 1:3 etc and John 1:1-3).

See also Matthew 6:22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light.” This isn’t a statement of the biological function of the eyes, or how to maintain yourself in a healthy physical state. Its more about what we choose to look at or how we look at it, especially our experiences. The language we use to express these experiences actually affects our spiritual, corporate health.

Ogden on the Incarnation

… historical evidence is scarce for major Christological themes (cf the Incarnation). However, there is the experience of the early church as found in Scripture and tradition. This does not mean, however, that just because a disciple, a gospel writer or an early theologian thinks something is true, that it is true. (Page 52)


Yes, but the Christian has already determined that his or her perspective of truth is to be calibrated against the Incarnation. It is what Christian Dogma is all about.

Ogden on epistemological authority

…Further, by experience, I am not talking about the lone (male) heroes of the faith. So, experience may include the ancient authority figures, from Paul to Augustine and beyond, but real epistemological clout comes from contemporary corporate, intersubjective experience. (page 52)


In other words, we tend to trust our immediate experiences. Psychologists would call these the emotional cues on which we base our seemingly “rational” decisions (thus rendering these decisions mostly “irrational” even when we think they are not).

Ogden on certainty

… the quest for certainty is fraught with difficulties and there is always an element of doubt. (page 52).


Does Ogden think that the walk of faith is a quest for certainty? I think of faith as something that informs my decisions in the context of uncertainty. True, we seek certainty, but, being incapable of reaching it, we have to live by faith. Perhaps that is what Ogden means, but he seems to hide his understanding behind his semantics.

Ogden on the expectation of finding a grand narrative

This represents a shift in expectations from the ambitious modern expectation of establishing a comprehensive fail-safe epistemological system (cf. grand narratives) to a cumulative process that canvasses incremental and collaborative increases in knowledge (cf. wisdom).(page 53)


Ogden recoils from the modernist expectation that a grand narrative can be discovered. What happened to God, who is the ultimate grand narrative? To be fair, he is critiquing modern expectations, and recognizes that faith is not the poor substitute for certainty that modernism supposes it is.

Ogden on knowledge

Epistemology is related to the idea of establishing new knowledge, which is true knowledge. If epistemology is narrowly defined in empirical terms, however, then a text like John’s prologue has little or no value. (Page 56)


Isn’t “old” knowledge true as well? Ogden’s semantics lose me here.
Note that Ogden is arguing against extreme Progressive Theology because, presumably, he sees value in John’s prologue that he does not want to lose to it.

Ogden’s conclusions

Consider the bottom line and assume the parable does not come from the lips of Jesus, but emerges from an early church community. So, the parable expresses the shared memory of a faith community. Its placement in the gospel presents the figure of Jesus as a messenger and model for a new way of living. Through the experience of the reign of God, which for them was proclaimed and embodied by the historical Jesus, there is potential for transformation. In other words, it is about new perceptions leading to new experiences. In and by itself, the parable does not constitute a complete or unambiguous truth statement. But this faith community bears witness to the historical Jesus as a source of transformation, because its shared memory has been enshrined in and enlivened by the narrative context. The story is an existential expression of that witness. Presuming we are no longer captive to modernity’s bifurcation of the material and the spiritual, there is wisdom here. Moreover, the elder son’s response not only emphasizes the complexity and ambiguity of human relationships, but it serves to underline the importance of the transformative experience.

John 1:1-18 is a complex example, but like the parable, truth has to do with the wisdom of a particular faith community. This involves the concrete, critical, and corporate reflection on experience, which finds new life in narrative form. Unlike the parable, however, John’s prologue is making a claim about the person of Jesus. Ironically, the fact that the prologue is arguably based on an early hymn, using ancient tropes to interpret the significance of Jesus, serves to underline the wisdom-making process. So where does history come in? Certainly the historical Jesus did not write the prologue and the prologue is not a historical description of Jesus of Nazareth. But this does reflect the wisdom-making processes of a historic faith community, which is grounded in the memory of a historic figure, and given new life in a living narrative tradition.

In many Churches, John’s prologue is read on Christmas Eve during the service of lessons and carols, or on Christmas Day. It is a remarkable corporate experience. It does not prove the doctrine of the Incarnation, but it rings true with the faith community.

In that inspired reading-in-community, the faithful feel, apprehend, even claim that the historical Jesus has contemporary existential significance. In and of itself, the text is not a historical fact. However, that this reading-in-community has power for real people is a fact that deserves to be part of the epistemological equation. This is not the same as saying, because a faith community believes something, it is true. It is saying, however, that just as experience has a role in contemporary liturgy or an early Church hymn, it also has a role in contemporary biblical interpretation. Today, there are many within and without the Church, who want to know the facts. This is important. But we must take the next step and open the doors for wisdom. (Page 58-59)


I contend the assertion that Jesus did not say, or author the parable of the prodigal son. There is no empirical evidence that he did not. Ogden dogmatically asserts that this passage was retrojected onto the Christ-figure by the early Church as a way of providing itself with an identity or self-understanding. His concern is about how this process of projection can retain any sort of value for the contemporary church within the framework of Progressive Theology. I suggest that his difficulties would be resolved by understanding the Church as being a product and custodian of the parable, rather than its producer.

On the Prologue to the Gospel of John, Ogden seems to allow for all possibilities except that it should be believed. The only statement of Ogden’s that I find myself in agreement with is that Jesus did not write it. The Prologue is Dogma, and it has profound implications on how we understand the cosmos. Further, without it, the remainder of the Gospel of John lacks coherence and meaning, and for this reason alone, it deserves better treatment than the Progressives seem willing to give it.

No, the Prologue does not prove the doctrine of the Incarnation by empirical demonstration, but it does assert it as revelation. Remarkably, Ogden does not say how it “rings true for the faith community”; perhaps he thinks it is a beneficial delusion. This appears to me to be his failure to comprehend the idea that it rings true because we accept its truthfulness by faith, and that we have some understanding of the implications of the Incarnation on our present circumstances (whereas Mack does not). Notwithstanding the truth or untruth of the Prologue, it is Christian dogma, which returns me, yet again, to the agenda for publishing OFS.

Ralph Bowles' FB message 2 July 2013

A clarification: Recently I posted links to three articles in my blog, containing a review of a book. I understand from a friend that others have concluded that the timing and matter of these posts was related to our upcoming Diocesan Synod. In fact this is not so. I was asked my opinion of the book/course last year, so I looked into it and wrote a review in January. I have been considering what to do with it for months, and it occurred to me the other week to publish it on my blog, and link it to Twitter and Facebook for the interest of others. This was my decision without consultation with anyone, taken without thinking about Synod at all. Any relation to other issues at Synod is coincidental, or providential, depending on your theology.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Your old men will dream dreams

I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten
And afterward,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.

I want to thank Wayne Zcshech for his message at our church tonight, in particular for giving me a fresh perspective on this passage from Joel.

Much of my young adult Christian life was formed in the Charismatic movement of the '80s. We understood Joel's vision in terms of the spiritual gifts, or 'charismata' that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 12:7-11, and that they were ordained for the church on the day of Pentecost. Peter opens his appeal to the crowd by quoting this very passage from Joel on that day in Jerusalem.

Wayne's sermon today challenged me to release this passage from the narrow confines of my charismatic experiences. It made me feel small and selfish, but in a good way - I am pre-occupied with my own, small world and my own experiences. I don't doubt that Joel's message relates to the kinds of spiritual gifts that I looked for as a young Christian, but it also relates to a more universal truth - that our ability to dream dreams can die, and that God is the One who re-awakens it.

Joel's passage was not even the main text for Wayne's message - in fact, it was so incidental, that I could have easily missed it. Wayne's message was about his experiences of living as a missionary in the Ukraine for twenty years. He explained how this part of the world had been ground into the dust by a succession of dictatorships and war, from Stalin to the Nazi Occupation to the collapse of the Soviet State. Millions died. Then there was Chernobyl. The result, according to Wayne's observations, was an inter-generational malaise in which you did everything you could to survive and the golden rule was never to stand out from the crowd. The only management style known was bullying.

In 1991, Ukraine got its independence. But, as Wayne noted, the Soviet Empire was not designed to be carved up. Recession followed as the old networks, supported by centralized planning, fell apart. It fell particularly hard on Eastern Europe because concepts of innovation and initiative had been tortured out of its people.

They had lost their ability to dream dreams.

So Wayne, an Australian Christian, set about creating a church in a small town 90 km from Kiev. They managed to purchase a building, but the critical issue was that its small congregation was 100% unemployed. How could they even heat the building, or bring food to the church? Wayne set about creating industry - by setting up bio-gas and bio-diesel enterprises, and by growing mushrooms. The latter provided employment for about 35 people until the business failed (Wayne didn't give us the details, but we got the impression that any kind of business would be treated with jealousy, suspicion and never-ending bureaucratic meddling). Wayne was also instrumental in setting up the first Ukranian Cricket ground and training facility (curiously, for the many Moslem Pakistanis who capitalized on the Ukrainian education system).

What I found riveting was not just Wayne's account of his successes and failures, but how he saw the Spirit of God bring life to his adopted town - not just in a kind of euphoric religious experience, but in giving men and women the dignity of meaningful work and a sense of being able to build for a better future. 

As he mentioned this, I remembered Joel. Joel starts with the years the locusts have eaten. His immediate audience is a people who, because of prolonged calamity, oppression and disaster, had lost hope. When it seemed that the only path was a long, weary trudge into oblivion, the Spirit of God awakened in this small community the ability to dream dreams.

(Edit: It's Wayne, not Mark)

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Response to 'The Once and Future Scriptures' - Part 2


The next windmill in my current Quixotic quest is the Reverend Dr Cathy Thomson’s essay “Scripture as a Normative Source in Theology” for no better reason that that it is Chapter 2.

Same disclaimers and qualifications as last time.


Thomson’s essay falls into two halves. In the first she explores the question of how we draw meaning from the Biblical scriptures, how we use them to direct (or justify) our behaviour and develops five principles for “ … governing the use of Scripture as normative source of theology” (page 33). In the second she takes her model and applies it to the passages in the New Testament (NT) that claim that Jesus Christ is God.

I found the first half quite illuminating. As far as the second half is concerned, I always enjoy a guided tour through the Christological passages and I nodded in agreement to Thomson’s narrative of the history of these passages. But her inferences, I believe, were wrong. Taken as a whole, the thing that troubles me the most about this essay is the contrast between Thomson’s exuberance in exploring modern communication theory in the first half, and her discombobulation in dealing with the Christological scriptures in the second. In dealing with the former, her language is peppered with certainty and confidence; in the latter she backs away from Trinitarian claims, stating that scripture only ever suggests the full divinity of Christ. That’s not how I read it. I wonder that if the NT authors were to shout their message into Thomson’s ear with a bullhorn, she would resolutely refuse to believe it was anything more than a mere suggestion.

This is the thing I find most troubling about Thomson’s essay. Read back to front, it’s an attack on Trinitarianism, backed up by Thomon’s inferences from communication theory. If this were the case, Thomson wishes to rehabilitate Arianism and Gnosticism to the Church. There are very good reasons why the Church Fathers declared these ideas anathema, and we modern Christians would be wise to listen to them.

Communication and Model Theory

In a strange nexus of developing flood models as a profession and doing Christian apologetics as a hobby, I have developed a theory that I call Model Theory. I mention it here because it aligns with much of what Thomson has to say. It goes something like this
  • A model can be a word, an intellectual concept or a toy train set.
  • The model is always less than the thing it models (the prototype). If it weren’t, it would be the prototype.
  • Given that the model is less than the prototype, the features included in the model are a narrow selection of the features of the prototype.
  • The selection process reduces the model to only those features that illustrate or address particular behaviors, questions or concerns. Good models do this well.
  • Therefore, you can’t expect a model to answer a question that it was not designed to answer.
This last point is particularly important in asking questions of the Bible. Thomson is right to remind us that the scriptures were written to address particular concerns in a particular culture and at a particular time. We risk much by importing scriptural statements into our own culture and time without understanding the ‘spirit’ in which these statements were written.

I use the word ‘spirit’ deliberately here because it is a word Thomson labors to avoid. To be fair to the academic tone of Thomson’s essay, it’s a word that will solicit a murmur of ‘amens’ in Ekklesia, but it won’t fly in Academia. Yet, that is what Thomson appears to miss. The ‘Spirit’ of the New Testament (as I read it) is something that is preoccupied with the vision of God presented to the authors in the fleshly person of Jesus. They weren’t philosophers hiding in their caves until their own ‘eureka’ moments drove them out; they were confronted with a Jesus who invaded their own humdrum existence, and then spent their time and energy trying to explain it to their friends and neighbors with models that their friends and neighbors could comprehend (e.g. the Temple).

Hence the Bible is the (canonical) Model of the revelation of God in Christ, and hence why it will not answer every question we have about it. Hence we cannot approach the Bible with the expectation that all our questions will be answered; questions such as “give me an explanation of how can the man Jesus be fully God?” Instead, we see God made fully visible in man, asking us who we think He is (Matt 16:15), and we are confronted with the fact that, whatever models we hold in our mind about what it means to be human, or God, they must be re-formed by what we see in Jesus in scripture. That is what ‘canon’ is all about.

This, I think, is what it means to have the Spirit illuminate our reading of scripture, and this is what informs us as we contextualize its message in our present circumstances – in Thomson’s parlance, how the scriptures are normative source in theology.

What she says and what I say – Model Theory

Thomson opens with a discussion on what normativity might mean “One emerging insight is therefore that normativity is usually about the management or control of behavior(s). Within a faith community this might of course, and validly, be referred to as ‘guidance’ rather than control” (Page 27). I agree here, and would add that the NT authors would probably have had no clue about our modern concepts of control. We think of control as pressing a button on a remote and the TV changes channels. In a world before mechanization, this kind of automatic, unthinking response in humans would have seemed incomprehensible. The ancients, of course, did know about ‘command’ (see Matt 8:5-13), but for a command to work, you’ve got to tell someone what to do and they have to think about how to do it. Thomson and I probably agree that the thinking-about-it-part is fundamental, but not understood well enough in Christian circles.

“The source is the word spoken; the spirit hovering over the, as yet, uncreated deep. The source is God, or perhaps it is the point at which the sheer uncreated potential of God meets its own mysterious actualization in creation. It is seedpod at the heartbreaking and glorious moment of generation; it is the welling up of the originating spring, impossible to locate at any point in space, at any moment in time.” (page 27). Thomson waxes poetical (no problem with that, unless she intoxicated with her own insights), but seems to veer towards a gnostic perspective with her assertion that this ‘source’ is impossible to locate – Scriptures teach us that it is located in Jesus (e.g. John 1:18).

“… it is necessary to recognize (with some regret) that the written word can never be purely ‘source’ by any stretch of anyone’s imagination. This is because it is always an attempted representation of something that precedes it, whether in thought, imagination or in reality.” See Model Theory above.

“… the biblical interpretative exercise enterprise has been led into a condition both of greater freedom and greater complexity. The first is disinclined to uncover ‘truth(s)’. The second makes the assertion of truth claims increasingly more difficult.” (page 30) Thomson veers into post-modernism, but seems to anticipate an counter-post-modern reaction by adding “The postmodern theologian does not claim that Scripture contains no truth, but that the vagaries of recollection, writing, reading, and dissemination render it impossible to make absolute truth claims out of the text. On a more positive note, the contemporary theologian is likely to consider it appropriate to look to Scripture to learn about the derivation of faith historically, the apprehension of faith personally, and the mystery that seems to undergird these processes.” Do I care about what Post-Modern Theologians think? Given that Post-Modernism ultimately fractures truth into personal experiential constructs, I don’t see anything within it that compels me to comprehend or acknowledges anyone’s experiential constructs but my own.

Thomson’s hermeneutical principles are listed on Pages 33 to 34. On face value, I don’t find much to object to here. Thomson is right to recoil from the use of the Bible to justify coercive religion, but something more muscular is needed that her implied plea for us all to be nice to each other. My bigger concern is that she uses her hermeneutical principles to seed doubt in the Trinitarian understanding of the Christological Scriptures.

What she says and what I say – The Christology of the New Testament

I have transcribed the entire section of Thomson’s essay below. My main reason for doing so is my agreement to Thomson’s narrative on the history of these scriptures, which is remarkable because we sit at very different ends of the theological spectrum. When you see opponents corroborate the facts, you know you’ve got good history. However, I disagree with Thomson’s inferences and the agenda for which she uses them.

How does Thomson know that the texts were “… no less enigmatic or elusive, inconsistent or ambiguous, than we find them to be today”? Why does she even think “we” find them in this state? I find a remarkable, unambiguous consistency in these texts. Did the early Christians think like me, or her? I suggest that neither of us knows for sure, and these kinds of generalizations and categorizations about what passed through the minds of the first Christians are unhelpful speculation.

Why does Thomson back away from the high Christological claims of the New Testament? “The writers of the New … seemed to claim for him redemptive significance suggestive of qualities understood to be characteristic of the divine.”? The message of the Divinity of Jesus is not an adjunct to the message of the New Testament; it is its whole reason for being. Why couch these statements in uncertainty, with qualifiers such as “seemed to claim” or “suggest”?

What is Thomson’s point with “It is also clear that the earliest texts which could be interpreted as pointing to the divinity of Jesus were probably drawing from liturgical material that would have been in use well before the gospels were written, and centuries before the divinity of Jesus was asserted in doctrinal statements such as those produced by the Council of Nicea in 325 CE.”? On the one hand, she acknowledges that statements relating to the Divinity of Jesus were in circulation before the writing of the New Testament, and on the other she can’t join the dots between the NT and the Nicene Creed. I suggest that her difficulties would be resolved if she embraced the idea that the ideological leadership of the Christian Church has always understood that Jesus was Divine, but it’s ways of promoting and defending the idea have been expressed in different ways, according to the circumstances at the time.

Incidentally, I find the use of CE instead of AD intensely annoying in Christian publications. If Christ were God, then this is the Year of Our Lord. Diluting it to “Common Era” might mollify the humanists, but I am not a humanist and I fail to see why I should toe their line.

Why does Thomson say “There is ambiguity in all of these texts, which makes it difficult to ‘ground’ biblically any Chistological claim of divinity.”? I suggest that the root of Thomson’s difficulties is her persistence in squaring these Christological scriptures up against her Model of what Divinity is. If her Model is faulty, and its faults are apparent in her failure to get the right answers to her questions from it, then it’s her Model that needs to change.

Thomson finds more difficulties in the titles, or descriptions used by Jesus and those around him, particularly “Christ” and “Son of Man”. She would benefit from some Model Theory here; these titles are themselves models that convey part, but not all, of what Jesus is. True, “Christ” simply means “anointed one” and it is roughly equivalent to “authorized representative”. Also “Son of Man” is simply equivalent to “human being”. When applied to the Christ of Scripture, however, these models may be expanded to “one who is authorized by God to implement the policies and practices and modus operandi of the Kingdom of Heaven” and “one who has inherited all that it means to be truly human and thus has the right to represent all human beings to the heavenly realm”. To the extent that Thomson criticizes a narrow interpretation of these terms, I agree. However, she falls on her own sword by reducing, not enlarging, how these models are applied to Jesus Christ, the Son of Man.

Thomson revisits the conflict between Arius and Athanasius (here is my brief account). She avoids taking sides in this essay (leading me to think that she’s a tyre-kicking fence-sitter in this regard), but oddly, she appeals to Nietzsche for the final word on the matter. “The ignominious ‘will to power’ later articulated by the philosopher Nietzsche displayed the full force of its ire in a history of exclusion and belittlement meted out by both sides.” (page 40). I suggest that had Arius been less dogmatic and egotistical in his claims, the machinations of the fourth century might have been mitigated and Neitzsche might not have been so offended by them.

What is the basis for Thomson’s clarity, and why does she contest it in “Clearly a series of early liturgical affirmations at once uplifting and ambiguous, and a set of different titles for Jesus that were inconsistent, and again ambiguous, could hardly by themselves lead to the formation of the well-worked metaphysical formulae that took on the status of Christological doctrine in the fourth century.” I suggest that the creeds resulting from Nicea are better understood as a narrative on the Christological texts – they are Models that are designed to address a question that Thomson believes is unanswered, the relationship between Jesus and the Father.

“It is also indisputable that the formation of these definitive doctrines about the person of Christ were as much dependent on the philosophical milieu of the day within which an Aristotelian system of metaphysics (characterized by concepts of essence/substance) was dominant.” (page 40) So, the creeds used the words and models available at the time to respond to an appreciable challenge to the Christian Gospel. We should use whatever words or models are available to us to do the same. The answer, I suggest, is not to discard the Nicean formulations because they are tainted by Aristotelean language, but to understand those concepts in order to uncover the meaning intended by their authors.
“The discussion also demonstrates that in the development of early Christology Scripture has not provided an unambiguous or self-referential system.” (Page 41) Or so Thomson would like us to think.

Finally, Thomson fails to differentiate between description and explanation. Where it is concerned with the Divine, the Bible has much of the former and little of the latter. I think this in itself is illuminating; if we had a God that we could fully explain (that could be fully represented in our conceptual models), he would be less than us, and hence he could not be God. Further, we might reflect on why God made it so. I beleive it is because we creatures were created to behold Him. We might be able to communicate some of that vision in words, but we will never be able to fully explain it.

Extract from Thomson's Essay on the Christological Scriptures, pages 35 to 40

In order to validate these principles, one presupposition must be in place. This is that Scripture is not a self-regulating system characterized by inner consistency, or self-interpretative possibility. Even at times in the history of Christianity when the interpretative freedoms claimed above were not imagined, theologians always looked outside of the text to make sense of the import of the text. And the texts themselves were considered no less enigmatic or elusive, inconsistent or ambiguous, than we find them to be today. If we examine some of the textual material central to the Christological discourses within the early Church, this becomes clear.

It is demonstrable that Church teaching about the person of Christ did not emerge in an uncomplicated way out of the biblical study of the early Church. Scripture suggested that Jesus was a devout follower of the God of Judaism, but not only that. The writers of the New Testament through the telling of stories about his life, and though theological treatises such as those contained in the letters of Paul seemed to claim for him redemptive significance suggestive of qualities understood to be characteristic of the divine.

This biblical process however was not a neat chronological one within which can be traced a gradual evolution of ideas starting with the identity of Jesus as God’s Son, and ending up with doctrinal statements about his divinity. Nor is there a chronological movement from narrative elements describing Jesus’ life to proclamatory material making sense of the narratives. It is clear that the gospels contain confessional elements reflecting the faith of the communities out of which they emerged. It is also clear that the earliest texts which could be interpreted as pointing to the divinity of Jesus were probably drawing from liturgical material that would have been in use well before the gospels were written, and centuries before the divinity of Jesus was asserted in doctrinal statements such as those produced by the Council of Nicea in 325 CE.

Examples of liturgical texts of this sort follow. The first is the Psalm cited in Heb 1:8-9, which recognizes Jesus as the Son of God and suggests a special status for him:
But of the Son, he (God) says:
‘Your throne O God is [or, God is your throne] for ever and ever,
And the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness
Therefore God, your God, has anointed you
With the oil of gladness beyond your companions.’
Jesus’ status as son of God the Father is further reinforced in the hymn in John 1:14
‘And the Word became flesh
And lived among us
And we have seen his glory
The glory as of a Father’s only son,
Full of grace and truth’
In the baptismal formula of Matt 28:19, Jesus is represented as co-equal with God. This is evident long before there is any doctrine associating him with the metaphysics of ‘substance’ relating to notions of divinity, or suggestive of a Trinitarian concept of the godhead; ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.'

Another text thought to have originated as liturgical material is Col 1:15-20
‘He is the image of the invisible God
The first born of all creation
For in him all things in heaven and on earth were created
Things visible and invisible
Whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers
All things have been created through him and for him
He himself is before all things
And in him all things hold together
He is the head of the body
The church
He is the beginning
The first born from the dead
So that he might come to have first place in everything.
For in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell
And through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things
Whether on earth or in heaven
By making peace through the blood of his cross.
In terms of determining the nature of Christ the first two of these tests are intriguing but ambiguous, attributing ‘sonship’ to Jesus, but not necessarily divinity. The third is suggestive of a Jesus co-equal with the Father and the Spirit, which may be read to imply divinity, but could be understood in the sense of a son and spirit derived from/by God, but sharing divinity. The Colossians text displays a heightened rhetoric which describes Jesus as having every possible divine attribute; he is the image of God, Creator of the World, head of the ekkelesia, occupying first place in everything, in whom God was pleased to dwell, but he is not portrayed explicitly as divine. There is ambiguity in all of these texts, which makes it difficult to ‘ground’ biblically any Chistological claim of divinity.

More ambiguity surrounds the names that were used of Jesus and by Jesus of himself as the New Testament documents bear witness. Jesus was the Messiah, in Greek Christos, or “the Christ’. This means, literally, “the anointed one”. The promised Messiah was the one who could come to release Israel from oppression and rule them in peace as their king. In the gospels, Peter recognized Jesus as the Messiah (as well as Son); ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” (Matt 16:16). Martha also recognized this identity of Jesus: “Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who was expected to come into the world” (John 11:27). Yet Jesus never used this terminology when referring to himself. In the Markan account of Jesus’ trial however when the high priest asks of him, “Are you the Messiah?” Jesus enigmantically says, “I am,” and then goes on to employ a different title again – the “Son of Man”, which requires its own explication.

Jesus also never referred to himself as God’s Son, and always answered ambiguously when others called him this. However a passage from Matthew’s Gospel does seem to suggest the thought of himself as God’s Son; “All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father , and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt 11:27). Also interesting is Jesus’ use of the title “Abba” which points to a sense that Jesus had that he was ‘son of God’ in a special, if undefined, way.

The acknowledgement that “Jesus is Lord” (kyrios) is one of the earliest Christian confessions of faith. It had powerful theological associations, because it was used “to translate the Tetragrammatron, the four Hebrew characters (YHWH) used to represent the sacred name of God in the Hebrew Scriptures.” The most significant occurrence of the use of the word “Lord” to designate Jesus is found in Phil 2:9-11, a passage which is very early – probably pre-Pauline – yet which has a developed sense of possibility that Jesus might have divine attributes.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
And gave him the name that is above every name
So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend
In heaven and on earth and under the earth
And every tongue should confess
That Jesus Christ is Lord
To the glory of God the Father
Here the early Christian writer takes a Hebrew Bible declaration (Isa 45:23) that every knee will bow to the Lord God, and transfers it to the Lord Jesus Christ, which again suggests the divinity of Jesus without claiming it explicitly.

The term “Son of Man” is possibly the most difficult of the titles of Jesus to interpret, because the scholarship that examines it is not conclusive. Apart from a few exceptions, Jesus is the one who uses this title in the New Testament: seventy times in the Synoptic Gospels and twelve in the Gospel of John. In two palces the titles are used by others (Acts 7:56; John 12:34). Jesus never claims to be “Son of Man”, but there are times when the gospels seem to portray him as referring to himself when he uses it (Matt 8:20; Mark 8:31). On the other hand the term “Son of Man” in common usage in Jesus’ day often implied simply the sense of “I”. It is possible that Jesus used this title in this rather mundane way, and the early church invested it with apocalyptic meaning.

Theologians of the early Church – searching within the above range of vital liturgical New Testament texts suggestive of Jesus’ divinity – might themselves be convicted of that claim, but their theological task was not assisted by the essential inconsistency and ambiguity of the texts themselves. And the history of the first few centuries of the Christian Church tells us that despite the plethora of such reverential texts, the issue of whether or not Jesus was divine was hugely controversial. Arian [sic] and his followers disputed the divinity of Jesus; Athanasius averred it. These men were contemporaries, respected leaders of the Church, and theologians of the same city of Alexandria. They were familiar with the same philosophical thought-forms and they use the same Scriptures to form the basis of their theological views. Demonstrably, then, the truth of Jesus’ divinity was not derived from scriptural material in an uncomplicated manner, as though it lay, a clear theological concept, a glittering jewel, merely to be mined, extracted, from the text. It was deliberated upon, thought about and prayed (and fought) over for centuries. The ignominious ‘will to power’ later articulated by the philosopher Nietzsche displayed the full force of its ire in a history of exclusion and belittlement meted out by both sides.

If the Scriptures serve as a normative source for theology, it is clear that they have not been applied exclusively in doctrinal development. Clearly a series of early liturgical affirmations at once uplifting and ambiguous, and a set of different titles for Jesus that were inconsistent, and again ambiguous, could hardly by themselves lead to the formation of the well-worked metaphysical formulae that took on the status of Christological doctrine in the fourth century. This is, namely, that Jesus was “one in essence/substance” (consubstantial/homoousios) with the Father, and not “of similar substance” (homoiousious). And that Jesus was one person with two natures, human and divine so that a distinction within Christ was placed squarely on the level of nature while the unity resided fully in the sphere of the person. Clearly this Christology emerged out of more than a dispassionate appraisal of the relevant scriptural texts. The process involved interpretation of the text that would have engaged what I have referred to above as “matrices of meaning and perceived possibility” as these existed for individual theologians and their immediate faith communities. It is also indisputable that the formation of these definitive doctrines about the person of Christ were as much dependent on the philosophical milieu of the day within which an Aristotelian system of metaphysics (characterized by concepts of essence/substance) was dominant.