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.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The BBC, the Jeer Crowd and my loss of faith temporarily averted

Did the BBC website pull an article today?

Earlier today, I read an article on the BBC website about (I think) the US State Department's report on religious persecution worldwide. The banner headline was "Persecution of Jews and Muslims on the Rise".

The problem is that I can't check it because I can't find the article. Did the BBC pull it?

If the BBC did pull it, it might be because it was bad reporting. The persecution of people of any (or no) religious persuasion is alarming enough, but if you leave out the Christians, you leave out a large, or even a majority, of the story of religious persecution world-wide.

The body of the BBC article cited several cases, including one of a Christian girl with mental difficulties who faced the death penalty in Pakistan because of her alleged apostasy. Whereas the body of the article acknowledged the persecution faced by Christians around the world, the banner headline did not. So, what was the BBC trying to say? The persecution of religious Jews and Muslims is unacceptable, but it's OK to bully Christians because we western Europeans are riddled with white post-Christian guilt?

Another reason could be that the article’s comment thread became an echo-box for the Jeer-Crowd of Angry Atheists. Their tone can only be described in terms of the bullies blaming their victims. Yes, we've brought this on our own heads because we're stupid bigots who have an imaginary friend in the great flying spaghetti monster. No other narratives tolerated here, thank you.

Enough, I thought. I have lost faith in the BBC’s capacity to report on religion with any semblance of balance, and it had shamelessly played to the gallery. I was about to vent on an angry blog, when I found the article had apparently vanished.

Now, if you visit the BBC website, you'll find an entirely different article - How Religions Change Their Mind. For the record, I find the tenor of this article quite engaging, and I might even give Karen Armstrong's comments my qualified agreement.

I can't post a comment, though, and neither can you. Maybe the BBC has had enough of the Atheist Jeer-Crowd hijacking its threads. On one hand, I'm glad, but I'm also mightily ticked off that their lack of civility has, again, denied me a voice.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Response to 'The Once and Future Scriptures' - Part 1


The Once and Future Scriptures – Exploring the Role of the Bible in the Contemporary Church (OFS) is a collection of essays recently circulated to the Anglican Diocese of Brisbane in a public consultation initiative. It invites Anglicans in Queensland to submit their responses, so here is mine. I have prepared this response with the assumption that the reader has access to OFS; if you, dear reader, don’t, you may find this post difficult to follow.

OFS raises a legitimate concern; how should we, as a Christian community, regard the Bible? It’s an important concern to address in an age and a culture which increasingly considers the Bible to be “bollocks” (as a sweet young person put it to me this week). To the Christian, however, the question is akin to asking “how should I love my wife?” The danger is that it can easily be truncated to “should I love my wife?” In preparing this response, I have operated under the presumption that the questions raised in OFS are inclined more to the former than the latter.

As my time is limited I don’t know how far I’ll get in responding to the whole collection by the time allowed for receiving responses. My response is necessarily selective, but I hope to cover the important ground. If I have misrepresented any of the views and opinions expressed in OFS, and there is an appreciable risk that I have, I unreservedly apologize and ask for correction from those who might know better.

Essay 1 - The ‘Problem’ of the Bible

By Gregory C. Jenks


My reaction to this essay starts with a cautious, qualified agreement with much that Jenks has to say. He is alarmed that many Christians have claimed far more of the Bible than they should. In defending the “inspiration’ of the Bible, they have marooned themselves in a rising tide of academic criticism. In other words, they have set themselves up as cannon-fodder for the counter-claims of an unbelieving generation and, in doing so have pushed the Bible out to the lunatic fringe of modern, enlightened, respectable society. I agree, to the extent that certain streams of fundamentalism refuse to enter into the dialog between vision and observation (the dialog between religion and science, if you like), and that they actually ignore the content of the ancient texts that they seek to defend.

However, Jenks promulgates his own fundamentalism. To him, there appears to be no legitimate alternative to his own humanistic, post-enlightenment reading of the Bible. Not wishing to jettison the Bible altogether, he ties himself in knots over his church’s claim that it could possibly be ‘inspired of God’, and suggests that we consider it not as an expression of divine authority, but as a mortally wounded peer that deserves our pity, not our obedience. Worryingly, Jenks calls us to uncritically accept Biblical criticism, while developing a natural skepticism to whatever the Bible says about itself. Whereas I can agree with his impulse to seriously address Biblical criticism, his position is as imbalanced as the fundamentalists he despises.

Jenks is what I would call a pre-Johannite. He is thoroughly knowledgeable on matters of religion, but appears unable to discern the contours of God in the fog. He appears to me to be in the position of the believers who first heard John’s Gospel. They, no doubt, were thoroughly experienced and learned in religion; even being fully conversant with the sacred writings that now make up the majority of our modern Bible. Yet John was able to open his Gospel by telling them that “No one has ever seen God …” (John 1:18), which was an audacious claim to make to a people who lived and breathed scripture and religion. John’s Good News, though, was that the contours of God could be seen in the fog in the tangible form of Jesus Christ "... but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known". All the stories, psalms, oracles and teachings up to this point came to their culmination and full expression in this one, unique, human individual. This, I think, is what Jenks misses. Without it, we Christians have nothing more to offer than a revelation of our own souls. With it, we have the canonical revelation of God, which, by divine appointment, is also the revelation of the canonical man.

What he says and what I say

“… Christianity was born with the Bible in the cradle …” (page 8). The picture I get from this remark is that the careless midwife accidentally dropped something into the crib – the inference being that the Bible is a mere adjunct to the Christian church. My reaction is that the Bible is the product of the Church, but the Church is also the product of the Bible. Whilst it has variously expanded and contracted it’s formal writings and expressions, the Bible remains the Church’s raison d’etre. Without the Bible the Church is no longer the Church, it might be something, but that something is something that is not a Church.
“There seems to have been no debate within earliest Christianity about the content, form, or authority of the Scriptures inherited from Judaism” (page 9). Whereas I don’t take issue with this statement on face value (it appears that the scriptures were commonly accepted until Marcion in AD 140, as Jenks notes), Jenks appears to miss the way in which the New Testament Authors mined the scriptures as they formulated and explained their perception of Jesus to each other. Perhaps the question was not so much one of canonicity, but where they could find the narratives they needed to communicate the meaning of their encounters with the Son of God.

“In the Western Church, the Bible was reinvented as a tool for shaping the life of the Church and the pious individual at the time of the Reformation” (page 11). Jenks offers no evaluation of this as either a move in the right direction or not. Just prior to the Reformation, European commoners were separated from the Bible by literacy and language, but that was not always the case. The Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek speakers of the ancient world had access to the scriptures, and they used them for shaping the life of the believing community and believing individuals. It was an imbalance of access that the Reformation sought to correct.

“Since the Reformation, grassroots Christian views of the Bible have become increasingly exaggerated and na├»ve, claiming far too much for the Bible. In this uncritical attachment to the Bible (known as ‘Biblicism’) the Christian Scriptures are defended as uniquely authoritative, inerrant, infallible, historically correct, self-sufficient, internally consistent, self-evident in their meaning and universally applicable” (page 11). Jenks names his bogey-man – it is the fundamentalist who stridently believes the Bible. In so far as many of these fundamentalists actually stridently believe their strident beliefs, contrary to the Bible, I agree, but Jenks appears more than eager to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

“While ascendant religion tends to cling to power and protect its privileges, prophetic religion operates from the margins of respectability…” (page 12). Thus Jenks muses on the similarities of his own guild with ancient Biblical prophetic traditions. He even talks of the academics emerging from their isolation to engage in this conversation. I find these comparisons somewhat ironic, given that the traditional prophets, whilst emerging from their own wildernesses to deliver a disturbing rebuke to respectable society, moved in an entirely different direction to that of Jenks.

“As a result of our increased knowledge of the ancient past, the historical character of the Bible has been seriously compromised” (page 13). Jenks makes no qualifications here, not even to the historical narratives in the Bible that are well attested in extra-Biblical archaeology and other extant sources. I know that’s not always the case, particularly with much of the Biblical historical narrative prior to and 7th Century BC, but Jenks appears to regard the Bible as a homogeneous block such that he even questions those more ‘recent’ passages that can be demonstrated to be historically reliable.

“At the same time as the historicity of the Bible has been challenged, we have been able to gain a much more accurate understanding of the cultural and social dynamics of the ancient communities who first created and used those texts.” (page 13) Jenks assumes he knows who these communities were, which is a difficult position to hold when you challenge all knowledge on authorship. I don’t object to finding a good fit to a particular community and agenda, but unless you acknowledge your own uncertainties (and there are many) you end up building dogma on supposition.

“Not only are the events represented in the Bible more often fictional than historical, but the texts themselves have an uncertain pedigree as well as a confused history of copying and transmission. Moses did not write the Pentateuch, and David did not write the Psalms.” (page 13). Dogma and conjecture. Unfashionable as it is to say so in the current academic climate of scepticism, it is possible that Moses and David made their contributions to these works, though Jenks does not appear to be interested.

“Critical investigation of the world behind the biblical texts has established beyond reasonable doubt that the origins of the Bible were very different than Christians like to imagine.” (page 14). Which Christians is Jenks thinking of? What does he mean by 'beyond reasonable doubt' if it not an uncritical acceptance of Biblical criticism. Jenks appears to be intoxicated with this own authority in this area.

“More confrontational still, what of the unacceptable values and immoral practices encoded in the text? Even if God did not command the ethnic cleansing of ancient Palestine, the Bible seems to have been written and approved by people who liked to imagine that God did. These sacred texts are increasingly recognized as artefacts created by persons with particular cultural and religious agendas in the ancient world, and the modern reader can find herself an intruder in an unfamiliar landscape when exploring the world of the text.” Jenks allows his modern agenda to judge the directives described in the historical narratives of the Bible. He does not allow for the possibility that these directives were actually given and carried out in desperate times, but that the grace of our Lord Jesus means that we no longer have to repeat them. He does not allow theology to inform his perspective, which is remarkable because he identifies himself as a person of faith.

“To remain significant, and especially to continue as a site for divine-human encounter, the Bible may need to be read contrary to its literal and historical significance.” In other words, Jenks holds it up as an object lesson in how not to do stuff.

“We note the abuse of creation implicit in many biblical texts and much Christian theology …” If it weren’t for these Biblical texts and Christian theology, we might not even have a concept of creation, much less a theology for how we relate to it and to its creator. Where there has been an abuse of creation by us Christians, we have the Bible to correct us.

“The mono-cultural assumptions of the Bible seem radically incompatible with the realities of life in the twenty-first century” Has Jenks never read about the crowd of every tribe and tongue and people and nation in Rev 5:9 and Rev 7:9, or how Christ is reconciling all of creation to himself in Col 1:20. The New Testament is remarkably vocal in its opposition to mono-culturalism. Jenks appears to dismiss these Biblical voices from formulating his understanding of the Bible.

“The more we know about the Bible, the worlds from which it derives, and the dynamics of reading any text in our own time and place, the less the Bible is able to live up to our expectations. For its own sake as much as for ours, the role of the Bible needs to be reimagined.” (page 17). It appears that Jenks hopes to save us from our reliance on the Bible as an authoritative voice that informs our expectations.

“The value of our religious traditions will not be their assumed superiority of the traditions of other religious communities. Nor will we make the mistake of thinking that the validity of our tradition is derived from either its historicity or the capacity of earlier generations to express themselves in ways that we moderns find cogent or convincing. Rather, the value of our tradition – and ultimately of the Bible itself – will be generated by the capacity of Christianity to facilitate human transformation and ecological justice; taking us beyond ourselves for the sake of the larger web of life at whose centre we find God” (page 19). Here is Jenks’ version of the Great Commission. I have two responses;

Firstly, I don’t object to initiatives that seek human transformation (hopefully, for the better) or ecological justice. However, these honorable goals regularly degenerate into fads, only to be replaced by the next agenda. My concern here is that by re-centering the mission of the Church on the felt need of the time, it will find itself forever chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It is better, in my view, to centre on Christ’s commission, but to contextualize it to meet the needs of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Only then can the church properly address human transformation, ecological justice or whatever other challenges arise, secure in the knowledge that we have a strong home-base from which we can face the new challenges that we have yet to face.

Secondly, the ‘place’ we find God is not in some metaphorical web of life, but in the person of Christ Jesus. We find Christ in the scriptures and in our experience, but we calibrate our understanding of Christ by the Christ we see in scripture. Our traditions, including and especially the Bible, do their best to point us in this direction. They are better than other traditions because other traditions point us in other directions. It’s what the Christian canon is all about.

“The God celebrated and proclaimed by this kind of Christianity will draw us beyond the Christian Scriptures, but we shall never leave them behind.” What arrogance to think that we can somehow ascend higher than the canonical revelation of God in the Bible. No student is greater than his teacher (Matt 10:24).

“Not only will we need to learn how to read the Bible differently, we shall need to rewrite so much of our creeds and liturgies.” Thus turning our backs on all that historical Christianity offers. We shall, for all intent and purposes, dishonour our fathers and mothers.

“As ancient oriental literature, the Bible comes to us from times and places that are profoundly foreign to us, and will forever remain strange; even when we delude ourselves into imagining that we are comprehending and practicing ‘biblical values’” (page 18) To me, it seems obvious to overcome this perceived difficulty by educating Christians in reading the Bible within its own frame of reference, or to put some work into understanding what it says. Jenks seems eager to capitulate to modernism like an over-indulgent parent capitulating to a truculent child at the first sign of a confrontation.

“Instead of rehearsing the mighty acts of God in times past, we shall focus on discerning the wisdom of God for the present times.” (page 19). Who defines this present wisdom? Presumably, Jenks himself and those made in his image.

In his closing arguments, Jenks squirms over the Anglican Church’s Constitutional claims that the (Biblical) scriptures are “given by the inspiration of God” (Articles of Religion, 6). Like a lawyer trying to impute meaning into a statement that was never the intention of its author, he challenges (page 22) the question put to candidates for ordination in the Australian Prayer Book, “Do you wholeheartedly accept the canonical scriptures of the Old and New Testament, as given by the Spirit to convey in many and varied ways the revelation of God which is fulfilled in our Lord Jesus Christ?” [AAPB 786] To Jenks, the "many and varied ways" of the Prayer Book could be reconstructed to include the outright rejection of any and all faith in the reliability of the Bible.


In understanding the relationship between the Bible and the Church, I suggest a different paradigm than Jenks'; we are the witness of the word. We are shaped by it, and we give it finite, tangible form and dimension as we express it to the world. We don’t just carry it around; we live it and we let it live in us. Jenks seems to grasp some of this in his consideration of the "world within the text", but he baulks at suggestions of its authority.

In response to Jenk's apparent willingness to elevate other religous traditions to that of the Bible, I look to what I call the Canonical Man. The Canonical Man is the one against whom we measure up, and He is Jesus Christ, our God. It is axiomatic that all our canonical scriptures and traditions point to Him, and that gives us the criteria that we can use to address issues of canonicity and authority.

Yes, Mr Jenks, it is all about Jesus.