Saturday, 29 December 2012

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The Massacre of the Innocents

There's an interesting discussion about this. Jim McGrath is glad the story isn't historical, and God didn't really neglect to warn all those other families of what was going to happen. Tony Jones is glad it did happen; if you disbelieve it, he says, you silence the victims.

My own take is different. I'm sure it's not historical, but that's not the point. Matthew is reworking the story of Pharaoh killing the babies. In both cases, they're trying to get rid of a potential threat, by slaughtering infants. The threats are different; Jesus was a potential rival, while the Israelites were  breeding too fast, and could have become uncontrollable. But the reactions are the same.

I don't suppose the Pharaoh story is historical either, but both stories work because this is the type of paranoid reaction which might be expected from a king. If Josephus' story of Herod's last days - the king had the sons of the chief men in Jerusalem banged up, with instructions to kill them as soon as he was dead, to ensure that the city mourned - has anything in it, he must have been precisely the sort of tyrant who would react in this way.

So even if the story isn't historical, it still encapsulates truth. A new king is born, one who, simply by existing, poses a threat to the kingdoms of this world. When the authorities hear the news, they lash out. Jesus, not for the only time in Matthew, looks very like Moses. There's theological truth there which goes far deeper than mere history.

PS There's an update here from Jim McGrath.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Junia and the C of E

(I'm not finding it easy to read this Greek. I can manage 'Hagia Iwnia' (Saint Junia) above the female figure, and presumably the one on the left is her (likely) husband St Andronicus. I'm not sure about the larger figure in the middle)

I've been neglecting this for a couple of months; I wish I could manage to post weekly, but unfortunately I haven't been well, and constant headaches make it very hard to think straight enough to manage coherent posts. The ridiculous decision of the C of E regarding women bishops has inspired me though.

My own personal position is that bishops are a nonsense. Calling a District Chair a bishop would just be a change of name, but creating an extra tier of ordination so a Chair could be an Extra Important Minister in a Fancy Purple Shirt for life would be absurd. I've come across ministers who'd love it, but what's the point? It would change the nature of the Methodist Church, from a relatively non-hierarchical denomination to a more hierarchical, top-down, less democratic one, and that I'd have to oppose if it ever comes up. Rumour has it that the Anglican-Methodist 'conversations' were originally driven by a certain minister who fancied a Purple Shirt for himself. However, it's all been going on for a very long time, and it hasn't gone very far. I can't see the Methodist Church being transmogrified into another Anglican ghetto somehow. However, if you must have bishops, why discriminate?

I saw the item about the House of Laity's narrow failure to approve the measure, and there was a clip of the inevitable stuffed shirt (you can tell this is something I feel strongly about) pontificating about how all the apostles were men. But were they?

The answer depends, as so often, on which bit of the Bible you happen to be reading. Matthew and Mark regard the Apostles and the Twelve as the same; they may not be able to agree as to their names, but there's definitely not a vagina between them. Luke varies this a little; he replaces Judas with Matthias, and offers a handy definition of an Apostle. One of the men (andrwn) who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us-- one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection. (Acts 1:21-2). So an Apostle, to him, is a man in the strict sense of the word, who's been a witness to Jesus' ministry and resurrection. John avoids using the title.

 Paul however, writing a generation earlier, takes a different view. The Twelve and the Apostles are not the same. In 1 Corinthians 15:5-8, he mentions that the risen Christ appeared to Cefas (Peter), then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to lots of people all at once, then to James, leader of the Jerusalem church, then to 'all the apostles', and lastly to Paul himself. The Twelve may or may not be a subset of 'the Apostles', he doesn't say. But he mentions other Apostles who are not members of the Twelve, and he lists the group as having experienced a separate appearance.

The apostles he mentions are: himself, Andronicus, Junia, Cefas (Peter), and James the LB. John, the other 'pillar' in Jerusalem, doesn't appear to be an Apostle, at least as far as Paul's concerned. The interesting one is Junia, described as 'prominent among the apostles' in Romans 16:7.

It's a woman's name. However, if you mention the fact in the wrong circles, you'll probably get into an argument. This is why I gernerally avoid conservative evangelicals, incidentally. I can't stand the wretched petty arguments. If they come looking for me, fine, I'll fight anyone, but I won't go out of my way to get into a punch-up, metaphorical or otherwise.

This is what the Anchor Bible Dictionary has to say about Junia:

JUNIAS (PERSON) [Gk Iounia (Ἰουνια)]. The only woman who is called an “apostle” in the NT (Rom 16:7). She was born a Jew, and is closely associated to Andronicus. Her name was the Lat name of the gens Junia (see the material in Lampe 1985 and StadtrChr, 66–67, 146–47, 152–53, 296). Women were often called by the name of their gens without cognomen (similar examples are Mary [Rom 16:6] and Julia [Rom 16:15]). Two groups carried the name of the gens Junia: the noble members of the famous gens, and the freed(wo)men of the gens with their descendants. The second group outnumbered the first. The chances therefore are that the Christian Junia was a freed slave of the gens. Either way, she probably had Roman citizenship: slave masters with famous gens names like “Junius/ia” possessed Roman citizenship and in most cases passed it on to their slaves on the occasion of their emancipation; the freed slaves bequeathed the gens name and the citizenship to their freeborn children. Without exception, the Church Fathers in late antiquity identified Andronicus’ partner in Rom 16:7 as a woman, as did minuscule 33 in the 9th century which records iounia with an acute accent. Only later medieval copyists of Rom 16:7 could not imagine a woman being an apostle and wrote the masculine name “Junias.” This latter name did not exist in antiquity; its explanation as a Greek abbreviation of the Latin name “Junianus” is unlikely.

This is so typical of what the church does to the Bible. It elevates it to the status of a holy book, the Word of God, what have you; according to some, its author was the Deity himself in person. It's raised up so high that it can't be allowed to say anything which doesn't suit the church. If it does, we either ignore it altogether (when was the last time you read Ps 137? Be careful, or you might have to believe that killing babies is sometimes a blessed thing), or we bowdlerise it altogether, and pretend it means something it doesn't. As we see, if the church wants to hold forth on the necessity of an Apostle being male, lo and behold! A woman becomes a man, just to suit the bigots.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

How to study the Bible

David Nilsen has a great post here. When I first became a Christian, I was told, like so many people, that the Bible is the Word of God and all that. I don't like the term, though it's better than calling the sermon the Word, because the Bible actually calls Jesus the Logos. He's the revelation, the Bible is the witness to that, and preachers come a very poor third. I should know, I'm a preacher myself. Let's not get them confused!

My response at the time was (and still is) that if we want to call the Bible a holy book, however that's phrased, we ought to take it extremely seriously, and know what's in it. My pastor decided to promote one of these guides to reading the Bible in a year, so I got a copy, and started reading. My immediate reaction was that I was being fed some very strange ideas. I never believed, for instance, that Ezekiel 28 was about the fall of Satan, though it took a few years before I worked out what it's really about. Much of what I read seemed as dull as ditchwater, especially the genalogies and all those regulations in Leviticus, and the pastor admitted to being bored as well. After that, I was determined never to let anyone tell me what the Bible 'meant' again.

So I started reading through it consecutively, over a year. This was a bit better; I read through it twice, and at least got some idea of how books fitted together. I didn't get much more than that, though, and wanted to look at individual passages more deeply. What, for instance, was that wretched stuff in Ezekiel actually meant to communicate?

So I started collecting commentaries. A quarter of a century later, I'm still collecting them, and I have more questions about the text every year. It never ends.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Called to Love and Praise (1)

My attention was recently drawn to this Methodist sttement (available via the link halfway down the page here) on ecclesiology, adoped by Conference in 1999. 'Adopted' in Methodistspeak means that it's been accepted by British Methodism, as opposed to 'recieved', which means it's been noted, but doesn't have quite the same official standing. I've read a lot of these documents over the years, and have rarely been happy with any of them. One abiding fault is the lack of accessibility, which raises the question of the intended audience. The report is dense, divided into numbered paragraphs, and requires a certain effort to read. So was it written for Conference, for theologians, for the Methodist people, or who? The introduction hopes that it will be useful to two groups; 'those involved in ecumenical conversations' and 'all Methodists'. I suspect the real intended audience is the former group, and if so, it's a pity. If we want ideas to be available to our congregations, then we have to package them better than this. A high point was reached in 'Faithful and Equal', on racism, which was published in 1987. It was practical, accessible, and was published as an attractive booklet. We need to maintain the standard.

It's a long document, 33 pages after removing a stray copy of an order of service which I managed to staple onto the back of it. I won't be able to deal with the whole thing in a single blog post, but God willing, I'll work my way through it.

It starts, in Part 1, by noting the changes in the church and the world around us since the last such statement, The Nature of the Christian Church, 1937. Patterns of life have changes, as has our understanding of the world around us. We're more international, more multiracial. Churches have become more ecumenical. Biblical scholarship has developed; Black, Liberation and Feminist theologies have developed, though it may be a little difficult to discern their influence.

The document is a response to a Memorial received by Conference 1991, and this will have determined some, at least, of the emphasis.

‘The Medway Towns (4/20) Circuit Meeting (Present 49. Vote 42 for, 1 against, 6 neutral)
requests that a review be made of the Church’s policy and Standing Orders concerning
membership (Reception into Full Membership), considering: 1. the importance of baptism as being
‘received into the congregation of Christ’s flock’; 2. the contemporary understanding of the term
‘membership’ and the searching questions posed by non-Methodist Christians participating in our
acts of worship; 3. the bearing of office and voting rights; 4. the importance of ecumenical cooperation and emphases (e.g. inclusion of members of other Christian denominations without
‘transfer’; 5. the questionable use of membership as a basis for statistics, assessments, finance,
etc.; 6. that sharing in the Lord’s Supper (with counts and averages if need be) and/or baptism
(with certification) would be more appropriate possible criteria.’

Section 2.1; 'The Triune God: God's Reign and Mission' is probably the weakest, perhaps partly because of its brevity. It runs through Old and New Testaments, presenting a traditional view of God's relationship with his people, bolstered by numerous Bible references. The problem here is that it would require a book, or a great deal of work on the part of the individual reader, to get much out of it. Then we need to ask ourselves how relevant it really is. This is where practical experience becomes vital to theology. Paul, for instance, fought hard to get Jews and Gentiles to live together within single congregations, despite the cultural differences. This barely acknowledged in the report. The picture given of the first-generation church is the optimistic one presented in Acts, written at the end of the 1st Century AD, rather than that which we get from Paul's letters, which present first-hand evidence of what he had to deal with.

In Antioch, Peter (Cephas) was persuaded by some strict Jews who came from James, leader of the church in Jerusalem, to stop sharing table fellowship with Gentiles. Presumably the point was that the food wasn't kosher. Paul's reponse seems to have been explosive (Galatians 2:2:11-14); table fellowship was vital to his understanding of what it meant to be church, and the issue arises repeatedly in his letters. In Corinth, he found that some (presumably the family hosting the church, and a few of their friends, as it's hard to see who else could have been involved) were eating their fill, while others, coming late, who may well have been slaves who had to work all day, went hungry (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). This looks like a class issue, but once again, Paul's response is explosive:
'For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.  What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!'

Romans, written out of years of experience of these tensions, is largely devoted to the issue of Jewish-Gentile relations. The church was, in all probablility, set up by Jewish believers, but Claudius expelled them from Rome in 49 AD. The church survived, but can only have been run by Gentiles. In 54 AD, Nero came to power. Despite his subsequent reputation, he was a popular, liberal ruler. It's worth noting that history was written by senators, or in other words the mega-rich. Their assessment may have something in common with the Republican take on Barak Obama's presidency. He allowed the Jews to return, but meanwhile they'd lost their status and their property. some of them went back to the church, but there were tensions which Paul addresses directly in chapter 14.

Some people are eating 'everything' (14:2), presumably including the roast pork which originated from the local temple of whoever it was. Meat was expensive, and routinely came from temple sacrifices. At festivals, it was often given away to the poor. Hence, of course, the issues Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 8-10. Gentile food was intrinsically non-kosher, so the Jewish members of the congregation would have followed the line taken by Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in Daniel 1, and eaten only the vegetables. Then some 'observe the day' (14:5-6), while other don't. No doubt this is a reference to the Sabbath. The 'works of the Law' Paul refers to repeatedly in Galatians 2-3, and again in Romans 3:28, are the things which distinguish Jews from Gentiles; principally circumcision, Sabbath, and the food laws. These are the things which cause tensions in the churches Paul addresses, but, to him it's vital that table fellowship, which he sees as foundational to the single community of the local church, be maintained. Paul appeals to both sides not to put 'stumbling blocks' in each others' way. Each should do whatever they believed right, and they shouldn't judge each other' (14:8-23).

In a somewhat different way, this advice is just as relevant now as it was then. We have congregations where elderly stewards insist that 'We don't want to be happy-clappy', meaning that there's no room in 'their' church for the livelier worship which might help to attract younger people. They're excluded, almost guaranteeing that the church will die with their generation.  A black congregation may decide that they want livelier, more participatory worship, and there may then be tensions between them and ministers or Local Preachers who don't want other people participating (except perhaps a 'good reader'), or insist on starting 'on time' at eleven, leaving no space for the church's sceduled chorus leader, and finishing 'on time' at twelve, when the congregation dislike one-hour hymn sandwiches. I speak from experience here!

We have multiple cultures within our churches, and without, and if we're to rebuild them, then we have to find ways to incorporate them all, and deal with situation where individuals con't or won't adapt. Not many people are going to be attracted by a traditional hymn sandwich, led by a one-person band preacher, but when we try to move away from that model, there's opposition. A more practical report, dealing with issues like these, which arise in the daily lives of congeegations and circuits, would be more than welcome. What's needed here is an ecclesiology which, like Paul's, emphasises not only the indivisible nature of church, but the equal status of all. To him, neither Jew nor Greek was better than the other: 'God shows no partiality' (Romans 2:11). We, in our context, need to insist that neither black nor white, old nor young, is superior to the other, and insist that that's worked out in our practice at every level. An ecclesiology which is not spelled out in ways which are accessible to the people in the pew, who most need to hear what it says, and which does not directly address the situations in which our congregations find themselves, has to fall short.

I'll continue this in another post.


Saturday, 1 September 2012

Worship Wars

There's some real wisdom here from Michael Spencer, with a follow-up here. The thing that jumps out at me is just how similar, and yet dissimilar, this is to the situation I'm familiar with. In British Methodism, the challenge is to include younger people; to find ways of making the church attractive to those who aren't living in a former age, like the perplexed octogenarian who once asked me why something which worked when she was in Sunday School wouldn't work now. Like Michael, I'm convinced that a healthy church makes room for all ages, in worship and elsewhere.

I've also been told that if I didn't like the way a church did things, or I didn't agree with the leadership, I should go elsewhere. I've even been told that in a Methodist church, and we're suposed to be broad-minded. I couldn't disagree more strongly with that approach, and I can't see it as being remotely consistent with what we read in the Gospels about the first being last, etc. Leaders who think everyone has to agree with them are unfit to lead. Far too many people fall for this nonsense; often, the most valuable people in a church are the ones who see things are going wrong, and stick it out until they can put things right.

Friday, 17 August 2012

God continued

The problem of talking about an infinite being in terms comprehensible to finite beings like myself remains. We're very good at imposing our own categories on God, seeing himself as a projection of something in ourselves, and I've long found it impossible to avoid the impression that all these people who seem so sure about what God is are doing exactly that.

There was a time, some centuries ago, when people must have felt completely powerless. Life was poor, nasty, brutish and short. God decided when and where we were going to be born, to die, and all the bits in between. Most people were subsistence farmers, living from hand to mouth; there were regular famines and outbreaks of disease; now and then God might get a bit upset and zap the sinners (and everyone else for miles) with plague or whirlwinds or something equally nasty. Even when we died, God would be sitting there with his little lists. Made before creation, one named those who were predestined to heaven, the other those predestined to hell. But if your name was on the second, it wasn't anything to do with God. Don't blame him; it was your own fault for sinning.

It's not an attractive picture of God, but in an age before bacteria or viruses were invented, when eating during the early spring depended on a good harvest the year before, something of the sort was probably inevitable. There had to be some explanation of it all - European culture has a bit of an obsession with lining everything up, making it all consistent, and explaining it -  and an arbitrary, all-powerful deity supplied it.

Slowly, things moved on. The 18th Century saw the introduction of new agricultural techniques which increased the food supply; by the following century, better ships and the growth of empire enabled the import of large quantities of grain. People driven off the land fed the army, navy and the factories; wealth flowed in from slavery and colonial exploitation. As the cities grew, the introduction of piped drinking water and sewers slashed the child mortality rate, and the population exploded. People began to feel more powerful, more in control of their environment, and this impacted their understanding of God.

At the same time, the old Calvinism was crumbling. Wesley's Methodism popularised Arminianism, the idea that God gives us free choice in salvation, if not much else. In the same period when Samuel Wedgewood issued his anti-slavery medallion with the inscription 'Am I not a man and a brother?', moving on from seeing black people as the descendents of Ham, predestined to servitude, the Methodists proclaimed that anyone could be saved, not just those on the right little list. In the face of increasing exploitation and social dislocation, and the beginnings of 'scientific racism', which declared that black people were little better than the great apes, some people, at least, began to value our humanity a little higher than before.

At the same time, God shrank a little. Salvation still depended on his grace, but it was our choice to accept it or reject it. The language of omnipotence was retained, with little thought given to the fact that there was now a hole in that divine potency; something had been ceded to mere humanity. It worked, for that society, at that time, when everybody was familiar with the Christian story, and virtually everyone believed it. The problem wasn't lack of belief, but theologies which no longer worked, combined with an enormous social upheaval, and a church which was failing to adapt to the changes. When John Wesley and his friends went out to preach to the Kingswood miners, they weren't preaching to atheists or pagans. The audience was made up of Christians who found themselves cut off from the church.

Since then, of course, the world has changed again, and, if declining church attendance is anything to go by, our discourse about God is failing to strike much of a chord in our potential audience. The big problem I see is that the world has got bigger. In Wesley's day, the idea that we all had the freedom within God's grace to respond - or not - to the Gospel was a reasonable one, since it could safely be assumed that everyone would come into contact with the message. That no longer holds true.

To take an extreme case, an illiterate villager in some remote part of Saudi Arabia - where over 20% of the population is illiterate - is extremely unlikely ever to come into contact with Christianity. So what chance do they have to 'choose' salvation? Similarly,  what of a child growing up in Britain, in a family with no contact with the church? We can no longer pretend that everyone has the opportunity to accept the Gospel, so what we have, in effect, is predestination by the back door. If God gives a child to a devout Christian family, then, in a classic Arminian theology, they have every hope of heaven. If he gives that child to a devout Muslim family in an Arabian backwater, then it's almost inevitable that they're 'going to hell'. That God is no more just than the Calvinist deity with his little lists. We need to rethink.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

What about God?

Tony Jones has issued a challenge to progressive bloggers to do a post about God. He thinks, perhaps rightly, that progressives/liberals/call them what you will don't talk about him much compared to evangelicals.

I'm sure he's right, but the trouble is, some conservatives know - or think they know - altogether too much about God. He wants this, he rejects that - usually some people the conservatives don't approve of, like publicans and sinners in ancient Judea - he can't do this and he can't do that. The latter really worries me. How can you use the word 'can't' of omnipotence? Surely the word implies that God can do anything he likes, even turn lead into gold or tell the tide to go back out when it's only halfway in. If he doesn't do things like that, maybe we be should be asking some awkward questions, which won't be settled by your favourite prooftext. I've even heard a preacher say that God 'always' wants to heal, and if he doesn't it's probably your fault for not having enough faith. I'll hold my nose and pass by that one as fast as I can before I write a naughty word. Not many of them manage to plumb such depths.

What we 'know' about God is mostly what tradition tells us, and we think we read out of the Bible. That's one of the big problems with a conservative approach to the text; you can make the Bible say anything, if you just find the right prooftext. It never seems to say anything they don't want to hear. We all 'know' God is immanent, which is a big word meaning he's with us. In our hearts, in a favourite conservative term. He's also transcendent, an equally big word meaning he's out there. Somehow, we have to square the circle and make him both at once, since that's what tradition says, and sure enough, there are well-known prooftexts for both. At one and the same time, he's sitting on his throne somewhere up in the third heaven, and he's also in our hearts. Tradition, of course, also says he's omnipresent, which is a nice way out of that one. He's everywhere, all at once.

He's clearly not one of us, whatever he is. Allegedly, he's both one and three at the same time, which we clearly aren't. I'm not going to get into that one; last week I was accused of heresy for (supposedly) denying the Trinity, and once a month is enough for that sort of thing. And he's the Creator, which means he's not a created being. In some way, he has to be utterly different from us.

We however, subsist within creation; we can't imagine anything outside it. That implies that whatever we think about God, it's likely to be wrong. Language is a created thing; it can't describe God any more than the finite can comprehend the infinite. Maybe that's why liberals (I prefer the term to 'progessive'; people think they know what it means) don't write so much about God. We're not so confident about our prescriptions; it's more a case of 'O let us never, never doubt, what nobody is sure about'. That's Hilaire Belloc, by the way. A great writer of doggerel, even if he was a fascist. The one thing we can say for definite about God is that he's like nothing we can possibly imagine. That's a lot less comfortable than anything you hear from conservatives!

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Reading Genesis literally?

Jim McGrath brings up a point I hadn't thought of. In Genesis, Adam and Eve are literally 'one flesh'. They're one individual who's been cut in two to make a sort of prototypical human community. In Mark 10, Jesus is made to say that a man will leave his parents, be united to the wife, and they will become 'one flesh'. The passage has to be metaphorical, since Adam and Eve start as one, and become two, while any other couple start as two and (hopefully!) become one. So the use of the story in Mark is rather more sophisticated than you normally get from the sort of fundamentalist preacher who I remember banging on about 'leaving and cleaving'.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Stories of Salvation

It's about time I stopped neglecting this blog! I've added a pretty picture showing one of many reconstructions of Solomon's temple, which I freely admit to having nicked. It's meaningless, but conventional.

When the New Testament sets out to tell us about salvation, it doesn't give us a nice neat doctrinal package with all the ribbons nicely tied, or even tell us to go through a ceremony, like going to the front at the end of a service and saying a ritual 'sinner's prayer'. It tells us a story. Behind that, however, lurk other stories, half seen, like the fossilised remains of our simian ancestors.

The one we all know about is, of course, Paul's comparison of Jesus with Adam. Adam was the first man, and he messed up. He sinned and, to borrow a Pauline phrase, fell short of the glory of God. Humanity was kicked out of the garden, and somehow (Paul doesn't explain how, though the church later devoted many gallons of ink, and, no doubt, cubic kilometres of hot air, to trying to explain it), we all managed to sin in Adam. So we're all polluted. Then Jesus came along, the Second Adam, and did a rather better job. He didn't sin. For his fidelity, God raised him up and exalted him, making him, as it were, his viceroy over creation, set above all created things.

Of course, we don't hear much about the latter bit. It isn't exactly the Doctrine of the Trinity as set out in the Nicene Creed, modified by the Council of Chalcedon, and modified again by the Western Church a few centuries later. You can't expect the poor guy to proclaim doctrines invented long after his death.

But I don't think this was the original story. Nobody before Paul seems to have seen the Fall in Genesis 3, and I think he invented it for a reason. Jesus was a Jew; he proclaimed his message to Jews, and there was a familiar story of sin and redemption available to him, and to his church.

That, of course, is the story of the Exile and the return. Pre-exilic Israel was clearly as polytheistic as any other nation, worshipping Yahweh, Ba'al, Asherah, Molech (if he was indeed a separate god), the sun and moon, and the heavenly host. Some, of course, believed that they should worship Yahweh alone, and it was this faction which eventually won out. They believed that the Exile was a punishment for polytheism, or idolatry as they saw it. The exile resulted from sin, but it wasn't the end of the story. God hadn't finished with his people after all, and the return, by a small group of people who were sponsored  by the Persians to put Jerusalem back on its feet. Persian policy was to encourage the religions of its subject peoples, and so the Temple was rebuilt. This was later spun into a glorious Return, with which all those who came to be known as Jews identified.

We can see this story being re-used in John. First, we find the story of the cleansing of the Temple (2:13-21). The author has moved this from shortly before Jesus' arrest, where we find it in the Synoptics, to near the beginning, and clearly he must have had a purpose in doing so. The Temple has been turned into a marketplace, and Jesus drives out the merchants so that it can function as 'a house of prayer for all nations'. The language is softer that that used in the Synoptics, without the accusation that it has become a 'den of robbers'. The comment about the nations, also found in Mark, could be a reference to the market having been established in the Court of the Gentiles, but most likely it's intended to make the point that Gentiles are included. The Temple is to be replaced by the risen Jesus, who becomes the new temple.

The next story concerns Nicodemus, a leading Pharisee, who meets Jesus at night. Physical darkness is, of course, sometimes used as a metaphor for spiritual darkness. The Jews have sinned, the Temple, the centre of the cultus, isn't what it ought to be, and God has rejected them. Nicodemus is told (3:1-10) that he must be 'born again' of water and the Spirit. God himself is involved in the process - the Jews tended to think of God as transcendent, 'out there', but divine extensions; his Word, his Wisdon, his Spirit, etc; were thought of as being present with us. Water is explained a little later; in the next story (3:22-36), we find Jesus and his disciples baptising. This developed out of Jewish ritual washings, to remove impurity.

So we find the pattern of exile and return repeated. The Jews have sinned; the Temple isn't acceptable to Jesus, and by extension, to God. Nicodemus, who seems to function as a representative Jew here, is in darkness. Through the action of God, and the purifying effect of baptism, a renewed Israel is brought into being. It's not a case of Israel being 'superseded' by a Gentile church; the author is a Jew, writing for a Jewish community. He's reworking a traditional story to explain how Israel can be renewed through Jesus.

Paul, of course, worked in a totally different context, with Gentiles. The Exile story would have meant nothing to them; they'd never identified themselves with the people who were taken into captivity, or with those who eventually came home to Jerusalem.  So he had to use a different story, and over the course of time, we've lost sight of what John is saying here.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Moltmann on open communion

There's a good post here from Richard Beck. I think Moltmann's on the right lines; I particularly loathe the idea that eating together has some connection with chuch discipline, or that access to it should be restricted. That strikes me as even worse than the situation Paul critiqued in Corinth, where some (presumably those organising the meal) were stuffing their faces, while others got there late and went hungry.

I'd suggest though, that in practical terms, a cup of coffee and a biscuit together after the service, or a bring and share meal, is probably more meaningful to many people than a ritual 'meal' in the service. Beck's hit the nail on the head with his last paragraph. Years ago, I was at a communion service organised around a picnic, with communion taken during the meal. We should do things like that more often.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Charles Taylor

So one of the monsters has been convicted, of a lesser offence. There's been no attempt to prosecute anyone for the atrocities committed in Liberia during the civil war there. None of the other major rebel leaders involved in Sierra Leone's war can be prosecuted as they're all dead, some of them at Taylor's hands.

And, of course, there have been no prosecutions of the people behind the war. It could never have happened without the European diamond dealers who were only too happy to buy smuggled diamonds, or the arms dealers who supplied the weapons. Then we might mention the banks which took deposits form those who made themselves rich on stolen diamonds, without asking where the money came from.

But it's a bit of closure. Taylor funded his bid for the Presidency of Liberia with stolen diamonds, and caused untold suffering in the process. It's a vast relief that he, at least, won't be on the loose again for many years. If ever.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Creation Take 2 Part 1

Genesis 2:4-7 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up-- for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground-- then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

In the first creation account (Genesis 1:1-2:4a), which I wrote about here: Part 1 , Part 2 , Part 3 , Part 4 , the emphasis is on God as the sole creator. At least part of the intent is polemical; the God of Israel is the one who creates, and powerful deities like the sun and the moon, which were worshipped in the Jerusalem Temple before the exile (2 Kings 23:5) are robbed of their names and reduced to mere lights in the sky. Human beings are created - male and female, with each sharing the same importance - and appointed to exercise dominion; to be God's viceroys on earth. They're told to multiply and populate the earth in this context; obviously, they can't carry out their appointed role without doing so.

In the second creation account (Genesis 2:4b-25), the emphasis is different, on the creation of humanity, and there are enough points of difference to justify treating this as an independent creation account, which has been placed beside the first by subsequent editors.

The name used for God is different. In Genesis 1, God is 'Elohim'. It's a word with a broad range of meanings; it can mean God, a god, the gods; it can refer to lesser divine beings such as angels, and it's even used of Samuel's ghost in 2 Kings 28:13. 'God' is probably as good a translation as we'll get in this context, since it's so obviously used of Israel's god. In the second account, God is 'Yahweh Elohim', conventionally translated as 'LORD God'. Yahweh is his personal name, which is revealed to Moses rather later in the story, so it means something like 'Yahweh the god' or 'the divine Yahweh. The repetition looks like a way to emphasise the godness of God, if you like.

Genesis 1 begins with an unformed chaos; Genesis 2 with the land. The physical universe is assumed to be there already, but there's no life; that comes into being in 'the day', singular, in which creation takes place. Again, we have a contrast with the six days of Genesis 1. Some more conservative interpreters will want to slot this account into the framework on Genesis 1, but too much is created in one day, and it doesn't fit. Two things are lacking for life; there is no water on the earth, and there's nobody to work the land. The seas aren't mentioned, but no rain has fallen. The land is seen to be dependent on the presence of a farmer. Two types of plants are mentioned, shrubs and herbs. Shadeh, 'Field', carries a wider meaning than just agricultural land. Most likely what's meant is both fields and pasture, where many shrubs and trees might be expected, and arable crops. Herbs, on the other hand, would be agricultural crops. Fields, of course, can't exist without a farmer to till them, and in many cases, a similar situation exists with pasture. I can't answer this one with reference to the ancient Near East, but in a British context, abandoned pasture will soon revert to woodland. The author is thinking of an artficial landscape, brought into exitence by human effort.

It's worth looking at this comparison table, which I stole from here:

Obviously, the two have a great deal in common. In both, creation is the work of a single deity, the Israelite God. However, there are distinct differences, and whoever put the two texts together probably didn't feel any need to harmonise them in the way traditionalist Christians do today. Our concern with consistency is a product of our culture, not theirs.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

The Nicene Creed

We used the Nicene Creed in church last Sunday. We hardly ever say it at my church, and I find I dislike the thing more every time. I began to dislike it twenty years and more ago, when I found out about the filioque controversy. The Creed is supposed to unite the church, but here it was being used in a divisive way. The Western Church added 'and the son' in early medieval times, and this contributed to the Great Schism of 1054, when Eastern and Western Churches mutually excommunicated each other.

The Western Church regularly claims that the Eastern version subordinates the Son, but there's not much evidence of it in Orthodox practice. The Eastern Church, on the other hand, accuses the Western of subordinating the Spirit, and there may be something in that. Embedded in both these claims, however, is an assumption that the internal structure of God can be adequately described in a form of words. But how can language, the creation of a created being, suffice to describe the infinite? My own belief is that if we can describe or understand something, it isn't God. The danger of absolutising language is that we risk creating an idol; the form of religion is threatening to become more important than the ultimate truth it strives after.

If we go back to the original form of the Nicene Creed (the Creed we use is actually a revised version of a 'second edition' issued at Constantinople in 381), the divisive intent is clear.

We believe in one God, the Father, Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible;
and in the one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father,
only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father; God from God,
Light from Light, Very God from Very God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father,
through whom all things were made, both in heaven and in earth;
who for us men and for our salvation came down and was incarnate, was made man, suffered, and rose again on the third day,
ascended into heaven, and is coming to judge the living and the dead; And in the Holy Spirit.

And those who say: "There was a time when he was not",
and: "Before he was begotten he was not", and: "He came into being from nothing",
or those who pretend that the Son of God is "of another substance" [than the Father] or
"created" or "alterable" or "mutable", the catholic and apostolic church places under a curse.

(Translation stolen with great daring from

The Roman Empire was too big for one man to rule effectively, and almost collapsed during the 3rd Century. It had been divided from the establishment of the Tetrarchy in 293, until Constantine's defeat of Licinius in 324. Now Constantine was faced with the task of reuniting it, and found the church and the skills of its bishops to be a useful tool. I don't believe the oft-repeated claim that Constantine was a Christian, even a saint, but that's another story.

The church, however, was divided itself, over Christology. Constantine called 318 bishops together, in 325, to settle the issue by fiat. They met at Nicaea, in what's now western Turkey. The Arians believed that Christ was the first created being, as per Colossians 1:15, and all else was created through him. The Orthodox had a higher Christology, and held that he had existed from eternity, made of the same substance as the Father. (It feels unnatural to me calling Jesus 'Christ', but I don't think I can avoid it here. It's actually a title, 'Anointed One', but that meant nothing to Gentiles, so Paul and his successors used it like a name, and we still do so today. It's like bumping into Mrs. Windsor on one of her walkabouts: 'Good morning, Queen, how are you today'. It doesn't feel right.)

After a long debate, the Council declared that Christ was made of the same substance as the Father, co-eternal, and that all things were made through him. A letter of Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, suggests that the vital term 'homoousios' ('same substance') was dictated by Constantine himself. A couple of bishops who refused to sign were excommunicated and sent into exile. Constantine subsequently changed his mind, and supported  moderate Arians, such as Eusebius, who'd developed a compromise, that Christ was made of 'similar substance' (homoiousios) with the Father.

This set the scene for a series of divisive creeds, written by one side or the other in accordance with the preference of the reigning emperor. Under Constantius II, a son of Constantine who won a civil war against his brothers, and came to be sole ruler of the empire, a series of Arian creeds was produced. The controversy even reached the coinage, with the short-lived emperor Magnentius issuing a large coin with a chi-rho reverse, carrying the letters alpha and omega.

(Image nicked from

It's an obvious reference to Revelation, where the phrase is used repeatedly. The intent seems to be to declare Magnentius' orthodoxy, in contrast to the Arianism of his enemy Constantius. Orthodoxy was finally restored, at least in the empire, by Theodosius I, the last man to rule the united Roman empire.

The end result was that the imperial heartlands in Europe were orthodox, the 'barbarians' to the north Arian, the Egyptians and others Monophysite, the North Africans divided between the orthodox and the Donatists, and the east was Nestorian. The creed could be described as 'ecumenical' only to the extent that everyone who disagreed with it had been flushed out and excommunicated. One might well speculate that the concentric pattern, with orthodoxy in the centre and 'heresy' on the periphery, might be due to political tensions underlying the theological controversies.

The Nicene Creed, then, is the product of a divided church, and it played its part in the development of that division. Not only that, it takes study to understand it properly. The modern version used by the Western Church is:

We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried, and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father. And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end.

And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. And we believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. And we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

How many people walking in off the street would get all that stuff about 'eternally begotten' or 'of one being with the Father'? How do we allow for the fact that the Greek can't be translated exactly, and in making a translation, we subtly alter the meaning? Do we need all that detail anyway?

Some would say that we do. But my own view is that all those dreadful 'heretics', Arians, Monophysites, Nestorians and the rest, were just Christians who happened to intellectualise their faith in somewhat different ways. Some of them are still with us; I have a liturgy belonging to the Church of the East, which contains the 'Creed of the Three Hundred and Eighteen Fathers', which, as far as I can tell - I have one in English, and the other in Greek - is identical to the creed of Nestorius, who held that Mary was the mother of Jesus' humanity, but not of his divinity, since the two natures remained separate. The Coptic Orthodox Church, which has often been called Monophysite, though they themselves deny it, is still going strong in Egypt, and twenty years ago I had the pleasure of meeting the then Coptic Pope, and visiting a Coptic church in Birmingham. Faith is a matter of the heart, not formal theological statements, and I can't believe those people weren't legitimately Christian!

It could be worse, of course. Some statements of faith are horrendously prescriptive; leave out a comma and you're bound for hell. But I think it goes too far, and its history demonstrates that. I've nothing against the idea that we can use a simple summary of the Gospel, based, as the historic creeds are, on the story of Jesus. I wouldn't be comfortable with a doctrinal statement, however basic, as the Gospel isn't a doctrine. It needs, however, to be comprehensible, inclusive rather than exclusive, and expressed in everyday language. We need to be open to the possibility of change in the wording; not everyone expresses themselves in the same way, and why should they?

Friday, 10 February 2012

Winter night shelter

I spent the other night helping at a pilot for a winter night shelter using church premises. We only had one customer, when we had ten beds available, and there are probably 300-500 people sleeping rough in Birmingham. It's the first week, and obviously something isn't working. It seems to be partly the referral system, operated from the city centre, and partly the churches being out of town. this one's only a mile and a half, but it's not visible from the main road, and there's a possibility some people may have got lost. A bus from the city centre might fix it, but no doubt we'll get things ironed out over the next month. Next year, we hope to run it on a larger scale.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Looking at Jesus

Recently, I was involved in an online discussion about some of the problems we have in the church, and someone said we should get people to look at Jesus not at the church, or words to that effect. I can't remember the exact phrase they used.

I've heard things like that many times over, and I'm sure I'm not the only one. It's a standard response to criticisms of the church, which I suppose sounds a bit more 'spiritual' than another one I've heard: 'Look at that lot over there, we're nothing like as bad as them'. We are, after all, supposed to be following Jesus.

Unless someone claims to have had a vision like Paul's - in which case we might wonder about their sanity - our one source of information about Jesus is the New Testament, principally the Gospels. These were, of course, written by people in the church, for people in the church. They were preserved by the church, selected and labelled 'holy scripture' by the church. They were interpreted and reinterpreted over a couple of thousand years, by the church. So how can we separate Jesus from the church, when everything we think we know about him is mediated by said church?

This comes down to the relationship between scripture and church tradition. The Orthodox maintain that the Bible is part of the tradition, albeit a rather special part. I don't know a lot about how this works out in practice, but it seems realistic. The New Testament is wholly a product of the tradition; the Old may have been inherited from the Jews, but the fact that the Orthodox use the Septuagint, the Ethiopian Orthodox add 1 Enoch to that, the Catholics use the Hebrew scriptures, but add the extra books form the Greek, and the Protestants eliminate everything but the Hebrew books, is all down to the various church traditions.

The Western Church traditionally exalted tradition alongside the Bible. This is all very well, but it makes me uncomfortable. What happens when it's wrong? How do you correct it?

The Reformation was both a reaction against the corruption of the late medieval church, and a political movement. In many ways, inevitably given the bitterness of the time, it over-reacted. The Reformers needed an alternative authority to put in place of the Roman Catholic church hierarchy and tradition, and chose the Bible, meaning, of course, the Bible as interpreted by them. However, the reality that it's always the church which interprets scripture remained unspoken. The result is a tradition where most people are unconscious of the church's influence on their understanding of what they read.

At the same time, Protestants don't have much theology of the church. Most of the time, they think in terms of the local congregation; if they think of the wider shurch at all, it's normally in terms of the denomination. When it comes to church unity, there's a tendency to slip back into the western tradition of monocephaly; and dream of 'visible unity', the church as a single organisation under a single head. This is, of course, the Roman Catholic model which broke down before. The part-Catholic, part-Protestant Anglicans try to maintain a version of this model, and all I can say is that it doesn't seem to work very well.

It might be more practical to work towards something more akin to the Eastern tradition of polycephaly, where churches retain separate orgaisations, but fully recognise each other. We'd have to get a bit less precious about the things which divide us, whether that be the 'Apostolic Succession', baptism, women bishops or women's hats (seriously, I was once told that Methodists don't worship God properly because we don't make the ladies wear hats in church), but I don't think that would be any bad thing!

There's a fissiparity in the Protestant tradition which has both good and bad aspects. On the one hand, it can renew itself relatively easily. On the other, anyone can go off and found a church if they're disgruntled or want to be important. At the extreme and of this, we get something like the Westboro Baptist Church, which seems to be little more than a single family with a gift for rather nasty attention-seeking. Anyone can take whatever little snippet of the Bible they like, and use it to justify pretty well anything. The widespread use of God's name to legitimate pure homophobia is a perfect example of what can so easily go wrong.

The problem here, of course, is that homophobia is part of the tradition, though it's never been emphasised before. So it's as easy for Catholics to trot it out as for Protestants. It may, perhaps, be harder for the former to move on, just as it took them longer to adapt to Biblical criticism, and it still can't handle the idea of women priests. When they adapted to criticism, though, they managed to do so together, while Protestants split, with some adapting - though we still lack a tradition of liberal exegesis - and others reacting and heading off towards the slough of young-earth creationism, just as we remain divided over homophobia, wonens' ministry, and a host of other things, from the essential to the utterly trivial. Very often, people remain dogmatically wedded to traditional positions, without realising that tradition is what underlies their claims that their positions are 'biblical'. Because they've never considered the relationship between scripture and tradition, they have no idea of where they actually are.

Occasionally, I've come across people trying to contrast scripture and tradition; essentially, they were engaging in a polemic against churches which they maintained 'follow tradition'; they were 'biblical', and hence better. Yet these people were more firmly wedded to tradition than those they criticised. This is the danger when we try to contrast Jesus and the church; there's a failure to examine our idea of Jesus. The Jesus we're supposed to look to is always traditional, always utterly tame and unthreatening. So much so, if fact, that I wonder why they wasted wood and nails on crucifying someone so transparently harmless.

We have, of course, got four portraits of Jesus in the New Testament. Unfortunately, we don't often read them side by side, and people don't normally become aware of the quite significant differences. However, they portray him as someone who could get quite narked with people from a different strand of Judaism, who had a major quarrel with the religious set-up and the people who ran it, and who seems to have been quite happy with one of his disciples carrying a couple of swords. He allegedly predicted that his followers would get into dire trouble with the authorities, but his portrait has been reworked into something which could efficiently transport butter in its mouth. The groggy old church has gone toothless, as James Joyce put it, but because we're not aware of the real relationship between the church, its tradition, and scripture, we're not able to correct ourselves. The real Jesus was a dangerous fellow to know; most of his inner circle got themselves martyred, according to tradition. If we start looking seriously for that Jesus, the church won't know what's hit it.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

In the Beginning 4

I've gone through the first creation account in Genesis, but haven't really looked at the theology we can get from it. It looks rather like the stories told by other Near Eastern peoples of the time, but at the same time we can see how it's evolved, from the conflict between God and the Chaos Monster which we glimpse in Psalm 74, to a position where great sea monsters are now a detail, created by God along with everything else.

Any careful reading of the Bible will show beliefs evolving, and that's an important lesson. They're not set in stone for all time. Similarly, these stories have to be read in the context of their own time and their own culture, if they're to be understood. They don't relate to our modern scientific worldview at all, and if we read them as though they are, we're likely to end up with a nonsense like young-Earth creationism.

The great difference between this and the creation narratives of other peoples is that it makes God wholly and solely responsible for creation. Without him, there would be nothing but the primal watery chaos. No being exists without his command; there is no earlier chaos monster. It's there in earlier Israelite belief, but by the time Genesis 1 was written - I suspect some time after the Exile - God has grown considerably, and the monster has shrunk to a mere creation. The result is a picture of creation which is still relevant to our modern belief system.

I can never quite make up my mind whether trinitarian Christianity is a form of absolute monotheism or not, but if not, it's pretty close to it. We believe that God is unique, the only uncreated being, intrinsically different from anything in creation. The Israelites were a long way from this; they believed in many Elohim, divine or heavenly beings, of whom one was God. Much of the Old Testament was written be people who believed in many gods, only one of whom could legitimately be worshipped by Israelites, but the author of Genesis 1 has moved beyond that. Like the author of 2 Isaiah, he believes in a single God, who he portrays as uniquely creative. He may be one among many Elohim, but he's a bigger and better version than the rest. It's sufficiently like our monotheism to pass, even if we have to pretend that the 'us' of 1:26 refers to the Trinity, not the heavenly host. It remains useful as witness to a belief in a creator God who we share with the ancient authors and editors of the text.