Archive for April, 2009

Judaism, Christianity, Islam: “Distinct and Undivided”?

April 29, 2009

I’ve just got back from an inter-religious discussion event organsied by the Nottingham University Jewish Society (J-Soc) called “Distinct and Undivided”. Three clerics (a Progressive Rabbi, an Imam and a Vicar) from London were holding a public conversation about relations between Christianity, Judaism and Islam, during which the audience could also ask questions. There was also a (kosher) buffet served afterwards, so I managed to get some falafel and salad as well, which is always a bonus.

The conversation itself did raise some interesting points, but I felt that the “ground rules” given at the beginning really impoverished the discussion and prevented these points being fully developed. The Christian speaker started by drawing a distinction between a “debate” and a “dialogue” and said that the event would be the latter – which he then went on to define in a very Hegelian way: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. This didn’t bode well, I felt!

The approach taken by the Jewish Rabbi and the Christian Vicar in particular was fairly pluralist – the question of conversion came up and they both tried to say that it wasn’t their aim to convert people to their own religion, but that people should just celebrate who they are. The vicar did concede that the New Testament seemed to command mission but that it needn’t be taken literally or prescriptively: The “Great Commission” is only a few verses, after all, and it apparently reads “make disciples of all men” – so if we are to take it literally we should not evangelise to women. Of course, this is a parody of what “taking the Bible literally” actually means, and the text actually says “make disciples of all nations”! Another question from a J-Soc member pulled the speakers up on their apparent readiness to disregard their own scriptures in order to maximise the common ground between the different religions, which was an absolutely valid point: The Rabbi then admitted he did not consider the Torah to be the word of God; and the vicar made appeal to “you can interpret it how you like” line. By this stage I was developing more respect for the Imam, who at least held that the Qur’an was entirely true and divinely inspired, although he too seemed ready to reinterpret “problem texts” when questioned on the penalty for apostasy. The approach the three speakers were using for interfaith dialogue was really exemplified by their answer to a question on whether unity within a religion (intramural debate) or relations between different religions (extramural debate) was more important: the answer was that all religious debates are intramural; after all, Christians, Muslims and Jews all worship the same God.

In fact, after the event, chatting with some of the other people from the audience, I got the distinct feeling that none of the adherents of any religion felt that this was a good approach. The first thing a guy from J-Soc said to me was that the Rabbi didn’t represent his views, or the views of 90% of British Jews – and I wanted to add that I did not agree with the vicar’s insistence that Christ was not the only way to God. Christian, Jewish and Muslim students seemed to be unanimous that at least two of these three religions must be wrong – since they are fundamentally irreconcilable. To model the kind of approach to interreligious dialogue given by the Rabbi and the Vicar really does mean you have to compromise on core doctrinal points of your own religion. But why not take the Imam’s approach of holding your own religion to be true and seeking to be consistent with that, and then talking to those of other religions from that perspective?

For a Christian, such an approach must not compromise on the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, and his divine-human identity. He must not be conceded to be a mere prophet, or teacher, or just one of many ways to God. The New Testament’s bold insistence on the universal validity and need of the gospel must be given full force – and we must not abandon the hope that our non-Christian partners in interreligious discussion will be converted. Of course, and I shouldn’t need to say this, nobody can be compelled by argument or pressure to trust Christ – but it should be something we prayerfully hope for.

From this perspective it is possible to have authentic friendship and relationship with an adherent of another religion – the differences between our religions are honestly highlighted and given full recognition, as well providing us with a chance to talk about common points of contact. In some ways this is harder than the kind of pluralism that pretends diverse faiths can all be equally valid – because it involves tolerating the right of someone  to believe what we believe to be wrong.  Tolerance of people’s right to false belief is great, and a Christian thing to do, but it doesn’t mean we cannot criticise that false belief. None of the religious students I spoke to objected to this kind of approach – it seems we don’t want syncretism, or postmodern acceptance-of-everything-as-true, but real, honest debate.

And with that in mind, come along to Lunchbar this Friday (1st May) where the speaker will be addressing the question “Do all religions lead to God?”. 1.00-1.50pm, Portland Building Atrium. Free lunch included etc etc.

Pseudo-Clement and the Syrophonecian woman

April 29, 2009

The Pseudo-Clementines sound like an odd citrus fruit, but are (at the earliest) third-century sermons purporting to be from the first-century Clement, Bishop of Rome. I’ve been working on Matthew 15:21-28 and picked up on the relation of the same incident in Psedo-Clement’s Homilies:

“There is among us one Justa, a Syro-Phoenician, by race a Canaanite, whose daughter was oppressed with a grievous disease. And she came to our Lord, crying out, and entreating that He would heal her daughter. But He, being asked also by us, said, ‘it is not lawful to heal the Gentiles, who are like to dogs on account of their using various meats and practices, while the table in the kingdom has been given to the sons of Israel.’ But she, hearing this, and begging to partake like a dog of the crumbs that fall from this table, having changed what she was, by living like the sons of the kingdom, she obtained healing for her daughter, as she asked. For she being a Gentile, and remaining in the same course of life, He would not have healed her had she remained a Gentile, on account of its not being lawful to heal her as a Gentile.”
Pseudo-Clement, Homily II:19

Bearing in mind that this is essentially fictional expansion of Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts, there are some interesting points (beyond finding out that the name of the woman is Justa – perhaps a question the UK Borders Agency can add to their “Are you really a Christian?” exam) raised by Pseudo-Clement.

For a start, he seems to make the exact opposite point to Matthew with relation to the grounds of the Canaanite/Syrophonecian woman’s acceptability. Pseudo-Clement has her converting to Judaism and following the (Mosaic) Law in order to get Jesus to heal her daughter. Matthew has Jesus stating explicitly that her request is granted on account of her faith (15:28) and no mention of conversion to Judaism is made in either of the gospel accounts.

Why would Pseudo-Clement come up with such a bizarre theology, considering that the overall thrust of his homilies is not Judaistic? Perhaps his copy of Matthew had the textual variant ἔξεστιν in15:26 (“It is not lawful to take the children’s bread…”) rather than ἔστιν καλὸν (“It is not good/fitting to take the children’s bread…”) – this would make sense of why he feels that (at least, before Easter) the woman must convert to Judaism to receive any blessing from the Messiah. ἔξεστιν is found only in one major Greek manuscript  – Codex Bezae (D) – the readings of which, according to Aland, originate from a theologian of the third/fourth century at the earliest, probably located in or around Egypt (The Text of the New Testament, pp.67-69). This might give us more of a clue as to whom Pseudo-Clement was – he must be writing in the third or fourth century at the earliest; and using a Greek manuscript with the readings of Codex Bezae, suggesting that he was not anywhere near Rome, but in fact likely to originate from the eastern end of the Mediterranean. It’s not conclusive, but a bit more specific than the description of him as a “post-Nicene pseudonymous author” in NPNF.

Finally, it’s interesting that Pseudo-Clement doesn’t describe the daughter as suffering from demon-possession, as Mark and Matthew do, but as being seriously ill. Perhaps even by a few centuries after the New Testament, such things were being de-mythologised?

“The God Who Wasn’t There” and Jesus

April 26, 2009

Recently I’ve seen adverts and trailers all over the internet for a forthcoming film called “The God Who Wasn’t There“, which claims to do for religion what “Supersize Me” did for fast food. I checked it out, but I don’t think I’ll be parting with the Student Loan Company’s money to go and see it any time soon.

It really surprised me that the filmmakers claim that the early church were “unaware of the idea of a human Jesus” and (I surmise) that the gospel traditions that have Jesus being a real human being are therefore secondary. Logically, I guess, they must then proceed down the “Jesus never existed” avenue, which I really wasn’t expecting from something trying to portray itself as based on legitimate scholarship.

I’d be interested to know how the filmmakers substantiate their claim that the early church did not think of Jesus as being a human being, though. Usually the objection is the other way around – that Jesus’ earliest followers did not think he was a God!

Justin Martyr mentions in his second-century Dialogue with Trypho that he believes Christ to be both man and divine. Interestingly, he mentions that some “of his race” (either Christians, or Greeks more generally) struggle with the idea, but from the angle of ‘How could Jesus be divine?’ rather than ‘Was Jesus human?’.

Now assuredly, Trypho, [the proof] that this man is the Christ of God does not fail, though I be unable to prove that He existed formerly as Son of the Maker of all things, being God, and was born a man by the Virgin. But since I have certainly proved that this man is the Christ of God, whoever He be, even if I do not prove that He pre-existed, and submitted to be born a man of like passions with us, having a body, according to the Father’s will; in this last matter alone is it just to say that I have erred, and not to deny that He is the Christ, though it should appear that He was born man of men, and [nothing more] is proved [than this], that He has become Christ by election. For there are some, my friends, of our race, who admit that He is Christ, while holding Him to be man of men; with whom I do not agree, nor would I, even though most of those who have [now] the same opinions as myself should say so; since we were enjoined by Christ Himself to put no faith in human doctrines, but in those proclaimed by the blessed prophets and taught by Himself.
(Dialogue, 48:2 – emphasis mine)

Clement of Rome writes at the end of the first century AD that Jesus is a descendant of Abraham:

From him [Abraham] also was descended our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh…
1Clement 32

Of course, this is nothing that the New Testament authors have not already taught- Clement is alluding to Romans 9:5 which also calls Jesus “God”. Moments after describing Christ’s divine status and preeminence over all creation in Colossians 1, Paul can talk about his “body of flesh”, his afflictions and his death. The same divine-and-human Jesus is seen in Philippians 2. Disagree with the early church if you will, but don’t claim that they were unaware of the idea of a human Jesus, or, for that matter, of a divine Jesus.

Lunchbar: Why does God want to stop me having fun?

April 25, 2009

On Friday the speaker at the CU Lunchbar in Nottingham was answering the question “Why does God want to stop me having fun?”. (Hopefully it’ll be up to listen to online soon, and when it becomes available I’ll add a link)

One of the key points the speaker made was that such an objection to the gospel implies that Christianity is all about restraining people from having fun – but in actual fact (almost) everyone doesn’t seek to live an absolutely hedonistic lifestyle of getting the maximum amount of instantaneous fun they can. Instead, people defer gratification. Why? because there is something else which they are seeking to have that is more valuable than the maximum amount of instantly available fun in any given moment. An example is revision – few people find it is what they would get the most amount of fun from doing, while they are doing it, but it is done in the hope of achieving a degree which can help them to get whatever it is they desire – money, status, the admiration of others etc. So in actual fact most people are prevented from having as much pleasure as they could be having at any given moment in time, in the pursuit of something which, it is hoped, will provide greater or more lasting happiness.

So the question then becomes: What is really worth pursuing as our ultimate goal and motivation? What is most worth possessing? It is in this way that we can see that pursuing relationship with God makes sense – and in this way that it actually becomes possible to truly enjoy everything else. The gospel does not say that other things are bad (as it is often perceived as doing!) – food, money, comfort, friendships, health, sex… but what is bad is to seek to enjoy them without reference to God as their creator and as our ultimate joy and goal.

Fun in the Library

April 21, 2009

The atmosphere in the library’s pretty intense at the moment, but there’s still space for amusement… even from books!


Now, my French is a little rusty, but I don’t remember any souffle in the Old Testament. Unless that’s what manna is…


This one is more tragicomic… the spelling doesn’t make me optimistic about the scholarship therein…


And finally, something a little more low-brow.

Scripture and Christology

April 20, 2009

I’ve been working on an essay for my Christology and Atonement module, and had one of the best, but broadest essay prompts ever: choose one particular doctrine of Christological controversy and show how it compels a particular reading of a text of scripture which could be read otherwise. Geeky, I know. I’ve also had a bit of trauma with it today, having found out the word limit is 500 words less than I had assumed, and therefore having to cut out John of Damascus and Leo the Great entirely from my essay, and paring Origen down to a soundbite. (Sorry, guys. We can chat more about your stuff in heaven!)

Anyway, I chose to look at the Arian controversy and Colossians 1:15, where Jesus is called the “firstborn of all creation”. In the fourth century, Arius taught that only God the Father was uncreated and eternal, and that therefore Jesus (the Word) was a created being who acts as a kind of demi-God – the agent through whom God creates and saves. His teachings were summed up – either by himself, his supporters, or his detractors – in the phrase “there was a time when he [Christ] was not”.  Arius claimed that his view was taught by scripture, and one of the texts he appealed to a lot (which is why I chose it) was Colossians 1:15:

 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation

Arius understood the genitive “of all creation” firstly as a partitive genitive rather than a genitive of subordination. A partitive genitive suggests Christ belongs to the set of things “creation”, as the firstborn. So an analogous genitive might be a student who is “top of the class” – the student is a member of the class, as the top of it. However, this is not the only way to understand “of all creation” – for example, the NIV translates the phrase as a genitive of subordination with “firstborn over all creation“. An analogous genitive would be to say someone is the “teacher of the class” – the teacher is not a member of the class!

Secondly, Arius understood the word “firstborn” to refer to Christ’s temporal status – that he preceded everything else, but had a beginning in time at some point. He also understood “firstborn” to qualify the Son’s relationship to the Father, as well as the Son’s relationship to creation.

One of the things that surprised me in looking at some of the early Church writers on Colossians 1:15 was that many of them also understood “firstborn” to qualify the Son’s relationship to the Father. Justin Martyr for instance:

…we know Him to be the first-begotten (πρωτότοκος – lit. firstborn) of God…
(Dialogue with Trypho 100.1)

Theodoret of Cyrus:

Thus is he the firstborn of creation: not because he has a created sibling but because he was begotten before every creature

Notably, Athanasius denies this:

Accordingly it is nowhere written in the Scriptures, ‘the first-born of God,’ nor ‘the creature of God;’ but ‘Only-begotten’ and ‘Son’ and ‘Word’ and ‘Wisdom,’ refer to Him as proper to the Father.
(Athanasius, Against the Arians 2.62)

And rightly so. To be fair to those who argued against Arius, a lot of them did do what seems to be the obvious thing and read on to the next few verses, which clearly distinguish Christ from the creation. However, I haven’t found a single ancient commentator who makes an appeal to the use of “firstborn” in Psalm 89:27 – “And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth” – which, according to Gordon Fee (Pauline Christology, pp.250-1) and Donald Macleod (The Person of Christ, p.57), had become a recognised Messianic title by the time Colossians was written. For Paul (or whoever – it is possible that Colossians 1:15-20 is a quote from an early hymn) to call Jesus the firstborn over all creation was to claim that Jesus was the Messiah and was the rightful heir and ruler of creation. It’s not a statement about coming into being or being “eternally begotten” at all.

So why is it that I can find this idea only in modern commentaries? Eduard Schweizer (The Letter to the Colossians, pp.251ff.) raises an interesting idea – it is because Paul’s world of ideas has been largely lost to Greek commentators by the 3rd/4th centuries; and so they were essentially unaware of the Jewish background of Messianic titles in this text (One might object that Paul may have been writing to a Gentile church – I’m with those who think it likely that Paul is quoting a bit of a hymn here that may well have been written by a Jewish-background Christian). This made it possible to interpret things like “firstborn of all creation” in a way that Paul didn’t mean. Of course, Arius had some other texts, and some philosophical presuppositions about what it means to be a monotheist as well, but it seems like a loss of touch with the world of ideas of the New Testament may also be partly to blame in allowing him to develop a heretical interpretation of this verse. A first-century Jew would never have thought of “firstborn of all creation” as referring to time, but to a position of honour and status promised to the Messiah in the Psalms.

Which brings me to a question I was chatting about on Saturday with another Christian theology student: How important is it to do the contextual and “critical” study of Biblical texts in terms of Christian reading of Scripture? We’d both noticed rather a lot of academic work that only seemed concerned with “What did this mean to the original writer/audience?” and agreed that this wasn’t a good approach for e.g. a sermon, or bible study; or even for doing systematic theology. We both agreed, too, that it was necessary to work out the implications for us, and that, believing the Scriptures to be God’s word as well, those implications are authoritative. But I think the close initial study of the text in terms of its historical context, and the world of ideas in which it makes sense, is important before we move on to applied or systematic theology. It doesn’t give us all of the answer, but maybe it can help prevent us from getting the wrong answer.

Mission and Abraham

April 18, 2009

God’s promises to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-2 are hugely significant verses in the history of the world, and in the story of the Bible. D.J.A. Clines famously demonstrated how they constituted the unifying theme to the whole Pentateuch (The Theme of the Pentateuch) and, actually, they have a much wider significance than that. Stephen Dempster (Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible) shows how God’s promises to Abraham are developed throughout the Old Testament, and point forward to Jesus Christ. It’s easy (and amazing!) to see the significance of this in terms of Jesus as the fulfilment of the Messianic hope, and see how Abraham’s promises are fulfilled in Romans 4. One aspect of the promise to Abraham I haven’t thought so much about, though, is that of blessing to the nations.

It’ve often found it easy to think that it is only with Jesus and the New Testament that God becomes interested in saving people outside of ethnic Israel. Not so. While Jesus’ death makes the inclusion of both Jew and Gentile in one new people possible (Ephesians 2:11-22), God has always intended to save people from every tongue, tribe and nation. This snippet makes the point perfectly:

…in Genesis 12:1-3 we also see the flowering of world missions. “In you, all the families of the earth will be blessed.” It is not only that Abraham is blessed, but that he is blessed in order to be a blessing to the nations. Joe Novenson says, “When God made his covenant promises with Abraham, Abraham went from being a guest on this planet, to a host.” Abraham had been a guest here until by grace he had been brought into God’s redemptive plan. Afterward, no longer a guest, it was his role to be a blessing, just as a host is to be a blessing to his guest. Now he is a blessing to all the guests on this planet … Here is Abraham going from being a guest to a host, and now his job is to be a blessing to the nations. This is the foundation of world missions right here. You don’t have to wait until Matthew 28:18-20.

(J. Ligon Duncan, “Preaching Christ from the Old Testament”, in Preaching the Cross, pp.53-54.)

Isn’t that great?

Mark’s Big Question

April 15, 2009

Today I’ve been working on an essay on Mark’s gospel. The question at the centre of Mark’s gospel is the identity of Jesus – and the gospel seems to turn on the episode often referred to as “Peter’s confession of Christ” in chapter 8:

And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am? Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”

Jesus himself asks this question, and Peter answers that he is the Christ. Who is Jesus? Jesus is the Christ; the Messiah. But is this really the answer Mark is hoping we’ll get at? Are we supposed to applaud Peter’s statement here?

In light of what follows, and Mark’s wider narrative of the way to the cross, I’m not sure we should. Peter’s answer to the question “You are the Christ” (8:29) is true, but it’s not the whole story: before we can applaud Peter’s faith, Mark continues the same episode with a shocking exchange of mutual rebuking between Peter and Jesus, culminating in the suggestion that Peter’s denial of the divine necessity (δεῖ – “must” or, perhaps better, “it is necessary”) that the Christ will suffer means he is playing the role of Satan! Just before this, we have the account of the “botched” miracle (8:22-26), which serves as an “acted parable” of faith. Mark uses the restoration of sight as a metaphor for spiritual “seeing” things throughout his gospel. By placing this two-stage restoration of sight miracle just before Peter’s confession, perhaps we are supposed to understand that Peter’s confession and then rebuke of Christ show his eyes are only half open – that is, he only comprehends half of the truth about Jesus. Peter does not understand the necessity of Jesus’ death, and won’t finally understand until after the crucifixion.

Richard B. Hays points out in “The Moral Vision of the New Testament” that the whole “narrative strategy” of Mark “challenges the reader to… answer the question ‘Who do you say that I am?’ by acknowledging Jesus as the crucified Messiah” (p.79). This is an insight I’m becoming more and more convinced about. There’s just so much in Mark that points to the cross, and that Jesus isn’t the Christ the people are expecting, but the one they need, who must go to the cross. From the rest of the New Testament it is clear that both Jews and Gentiles had big problems with this idea – in 1Corinthians 1:23 it is a stumbling-block (σκάνδαλον) to Jews and foolishness (μωρία) to Gentiles, and an “offence” (σκάνδαλον again) in Galatians 5:11 and 1Peter 2:8. The idea that the Christ would be crucified was literally scandalous, and if you think about it – it still should be! The idea has become perhaps too familiar to us, and to our culture, if people aren’t shocked by this message.

So, if the answer to the question “Who is Jesus?” isn’t just “The Christ” but “The Crucified Christ”; “The Messiah who must suffer and die”, how do we get this across when using Mark’s gospel evangelistically? I think the Free gospel project UCCF are running at the moment touches on this scandalous theme a little – the ‘graffiti’ on the page with 8:27-30 raises the question of why Jesus has to die – but doesn’t major on it, concentrating more on affirming the divinity of Jesus. (Which is something Mark thinks is important, too, but which only intensifies the scandal that Jesus should die on a cross!) Maybe there’s room for presenting this more explicitly – because if the “real Jesus” we want people to find in Mark’s gospel is the crucified Christ then we should tell them about that – and also why Jesus died. “Free” does do a very good job of raising the “why did Jesus die” question in the comment on 10:45 and the endnotes, actually. But perhaps it tones down Mark’s emphasis on the cross, and on the corresponding need for those who want to follow Jesus to be prepared to suffer as they do so (8:34-38). If CUs are about “making disciples of Jesus Christ in the student world for the glory of God” then we don’t want to hide the nature of Christian cross-shaped living from those we reach out to. Maybe it’s possible to draw these two ideas together more that I have done previously, in evangelism using Mark’s gospel… something to try out anyway.

What’s your theological worldview?

April 13, 2009

Just taken this quiz… I think it’s pretty good as far as these things go – some questions could be a bit more nuanced, but, hey, I’m happy with the results.

You Scored as Reformed Evangelical
You are a Reformed Evangelical. You take the Bible very seriously because it is God’s Word. You most likely hold to TULIP and are sceptical about the possibilities of universal atonement or resistible grace. The most important thing the Church can do is make sure people hear how they can go to heaven when they die. 

Reformed Evangelical
Neo orthodox
Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan
Roman Catholic
Classical Liberal
Modern Liberal



Nailing it to the cross

April 12, 2009

At church this morning, as part of the Easter Sunday service, we had one of the best visual illustrations I’ve seen for a while. The minister had placed paper and pens on all the seats beforehand and encouraged us to write, draw or scribble on the paper something we have valued more than God, or, if you like, that we have done against God. Then we were to fold or scrunch them up – representing the mess sin makes in our lives. At the front he had some bags, chains and scrunched-up paper of his own to represent this – and covered it with a sheet and a (photocopy!) of a sacrificed lamb. Yet underneath the sheet the mess was still there. No – what we needed was something else entirely. He then got a laundry bag, and got the children to collect in all the papers on which we’d written/drawn our sin, put it in the bag, along with all the mess at the front, and threw in a blank piece of paper to represent our future sins. Then he actually physically nailed the bag to a huge wooden cross at the front of the church, explaining how Christ’s death takes away our sin.

I thought this was great – not only is it a hugely visual and memorable act, but it really hammered home to me (excuse the pun!) that my guilt as a sinner has been dealt with – it is nailed to the cross and dealt with there. It’s a tremendously liberating truth! It reminds me of one of my favourite passages in the Bible – Colossians 2, which just cannot be read in a passionless voice. You want to shout it:

“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Col. 2:12-14)

Paul here is rejoicing in the truth that Christ has, by the cross, dealt completely and forever with the “debt” of our sin. I think he has in mind here the accusatory role of the Law (Rom. 4:15; 5:20) which shows us that we are sinners and guilty before God. This guilt is taken away at the cross forever – it is left there; it is dealt with in Christ, the one who was nailed to the cross. Paul then goes on to proclaim Christ’s victory over the demonic powers and to point out the foolishness of abandoning these truths for merely human religion, which is all show and completely powerless to deal with our sinfulness (Col. 2:23).

It’s this truth which inspires words like these, by Horatio G. Spafford. They’re part of one of the best hymns of all time, and have quite a moving story behind their composition.

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!