Archive for August, 2009

Barth on Christian Ethics: “You have been told, O man, what is good”

August 24, 2009

“I admire the ethics of Christianity, and try to live by the moral teaching of Jesus, but I don’t believe he was the Son of God.” A common enough position, perhaps even still the default one for the English middle classes, but according to Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth, such a position doesn’t even make sense. Christian ethics are not detachable from the gospel, and from the history of God’s relation to humanity in Jesus Christ.

Perhaps the most concise statement of Barth’s position on Christian ethics (from a theologian not known for his brevity!) is his 1946 essay Christliche Ethik, republished and translated in God Here and Now (Abingdon, Oxon / New York: Routledge, 2003). First of all, Barth says that Christian ethics derive from God, not a human philosophy or world-view:

Christian ethics is the attempt to repeat what has been said to man, to repeat in human words and with human concepts the divine commandment. Christian ethics rests upon the attentiveness and openness of man for God’s commandment, for God’s own answer to the question about the good… Christian ethics begins, therefore, not with what might be called reflection. It begins with hearing.”

Such a position, Barth admits, does make Christian ethics confusing to non-Christians,

“It must always be the case, therefore, that Christian ethics takes its point of departure from what must be a puzzle to him who is not yet or perhaps no longer prepared to listen to God. Such a one must always be baffled by the question of whence Christian ethics derives its concepts, how it uses them, and how the same concepts have such a different meaning and effect here from their meaning and effect elsewhere.”

but Christians should not try and “evade” grounding their ethics in the gospel, and in God’s revelation. In seeking to evade this, they make their ethics sub-Christian, and they themselves become no longer willing to listen to God. If this is true, then the final grounding for Christian ethics will not be accepted by non-Christians. The answer to the question about if and why divorce is wrong must ultimately be “God forbids it” (c.f. Matthew 5:31-32) and not that it damages families and societal fabric. But is this all that can be said on Christian ethics? Has Barth set up a position vulnerable to that A-Level philosophy standby, the Euthyphro dilemma? Although Barth doesn’t explicitly interact with this objection, I think he circumvents it by his situating of Christian ethics with reference to God’s action in history – i.e., the gospel:

“Christian ethics is connected with a history between God and man which has taken place, still takes place, and will take place in the future… To say it with the simplest words possible: God became, was, and is a man. And it happened that God as this man was not a success, but had to suffer and died as a condemned criminal on the gallows [i.e. the cross]. And it happened, further, that this man who was God was raised from the dead. But thereby it happened that every man in him and all men by Him were exalted to the glory of God. I anticipate. The conclusion of this history consists in this: that it will happen, it will be revealed for all and to all [i.e. finally and publicly], that our guilt and need is taken away by the person of this man, and that we are called in the person of this man to the glory of God.”

I can’t agree with the “all men by him” in a salvific sense, but, that aside, this is the history to which Christian ethics must relate. Ethics is, as Barth says, “the fruit that grows upon this tree” and cannot be understood if this history is omitted or mis-interpreted. It is from this vantage point that we can begin to define what “good” and “evil” are – and we find that they are not at all abstract, free-standing notions as Plato (and indeed, the Enlightenment!) thought they were.

“Good, in the Christian sense, is that conduct and action of man’s which corresponds to the conduct and action of God in this history. That human work is good, therefore, in which man accepts- and not only accepts but affirms- that God humbled Himself for him in order that man might live and rejoice. That activity of man is good, in the Christian sense, in which man acknowledges that he stands in need of this divine mercy; yet that he is not only in need of it, but also shares in it … That human conduct and act of man’s is good, therefore, which corresponds to the grace of God.
What then is evil, in the Christian sense of the word? Evil is that conduct and act of man’s in which he contradicts the content and the action of God’s history, in which he hurries or sneaks past the suffering and the joy of Jesus Christ. That deed of man’s is evil in which man, openly or in secret, because of anxiety or pride, is unthankful.”

It seems odd to define good and evil in Christian ethics without reference to love, but that is not really the case here. Ultimately defining the good as doing what is “loving” is unclear – what or who are we to love? All sorts of evil acts can be presented as loving by shifting the goalposts of who they are loving towards. The Scriptures specify the “what” and the “who” of love. We are to love God and our neighbour, according to the Bible; but… we know this by grace and are able to do it only by grace. Finally, thankfulness for grace produces love – knowing the gospel of salvation by grace leads us to perform the good. It is, incidentally, exactly the logic of Titus 1:2-4:

 Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness— in the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time, and which now at his appointed season he has brought to light through the preaching entrusted to me by the command of God our Saviour…

The gospel is the truth that leads to godliness. Paul, too, relates this to the “greatest drama ever played” of God’s plans for the world – giving good biblical warrant for Barth to proceed as he does.

Barth’s way of setting up Christian ethics seems to have a number of attractions. It seems to be biblical; it avoids the vagueness of unqualified reference to “love” and at the same time does not make God vulnerable to a caricature of an arbitrary dictator – God’s character revealed in the gospel, his plans for his creation revealed in the gospel, and his grace to us revealed in the gospel all underpin the idea of listening to, repeating, and obeying God’s commandment. The Bible is not a law-book, but rather tells us the gospel which produces the fruit of Christian ethics in the lives it transforms.

What, then, of the fact that Barth makes Christian ethics unintelligible to those outside the Church? How now will the Church persuade those outside to behave morally? The answer is – she can’t; at least, not so far as those outside remain outside. If the gospel is the tree on which Christian ethics grows as fruit, we cannot expect to find it growing on different trees. Instead of urging non-Christians to behave as if they were Christians, perhaps it would be better to urge them to become Christians – for only then, if Barth is correct here, can they understand, affirm and practise Christian ethics.

A thought on Luke and the date of Jesus’ birth

August 18, 2009

Luke’s mention of a census (ἀπογραφὴ) around the time of Jesus’ birth has often been a problem when trying to date the birth of Jesus, so much that it has become a commonplace of popular as well as academic discussions of Jesus’ birth. Both Luke (1:5) and Matthew (2:1) put Jesus’ birth in the context of Herod’s reign, i.e. in or before 4 BCE, when Herod died. The problem then is that the only census we know about from extrabiblical sources that occurred under Quirinius happened in 6 CE (Josephus Ant. 17:342-44, 354; 18:1-10) – a full ten years later. So there’s a disparity here.

Some scholars suggest that the census was begun under another governor, and completed under Quirinius; that Qurinius was governor before 6 CE – possibly in 7/6 BCE – supported by the fact that we know from an inscription that an (unnamed) Roman citizen was a legate on two separate occasions, in Syria at least the second time. Or others have suggested that Luke 2:2 be translated “This was the registration before Quirinius was governor of Syria” rather than “This was the first registration…”. The Greek could mean this, but it is a bit forced. Or, as many scholars have found themselves having to do, we might say Luke has made a mistake here – even A.N. Sherwin-White, who reckoned Luke among the greatest ancient historians, thought he had erred with the date of the census (Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, 1963, pp.162-171).

So has Luke made a mistake? Robert Stein (in Jesus the Messiah, 1996, p.55) suggests that we give Luke the benefit of the doubt, because he seems to be a very reliable historian on other matters. This is fair enough, although being right about a lot of other things doesn’t always mean one is right about a different issue (take pretty much every theologian who ever lived as an example!). But I think there is something else which I’ve not found mentioned in discussions of Luke’s dating of Jesus’ birth that suggests Luke does not think Jesus was born in 6 CE – his comment on the age of Jesus when he begins his ministry.

In Luke 3:23, Luke says that Jesus was “about thirty years old” (ὡσεὶ ἐτῶν τριάκοντα) when he began his ministry, which was during the ministry of John the Baptist – dated to between 25/26 and 29 CE by Luke 3:1-2, and about 28 CE by John 2:20 (see Stein, p.57; Bock, Studying the Historical Jesus, 2002, pp.71-75). If Luke had meant to imply Jesus was born in 6 CE at the time of Qurinius’ census (of which he is aware – Acts 5:37) then he would only be 22/23 at the oldest when he began his ministry, which is a bit too young to be described as “about thirty” (I’m 22 in 6 months!). If, on the other hand, Jesus was born in 7/6 BCE, he would be 33-35 when Luke and John say he began his ministry, which is close enough to thirty for Luke 3:23 to be a good description. So given that:

  • Luke thinks Jesus was “about thirty” when he began his ministry, which is likely to be ~28 CE
  • Luke also associates Jesus’ birth with the time of Herod (1:5) – before 4 BCE
  • Luke knows about the 6 CE census (Acts 5:37)
  • 22/23 is too young to be “about thirty”

… it is unlikely that Luke wants us to understand from his reference to the census that Jesus was born in 6 CE, assuming he can count. This might not get us much further, but I think it rules out that Luke has got it completely wrong. It certainly should rule out the common claim that “according to Luke’s gospel, Jesus was born in or around 6 CE” – Luke really can’t mean for us to understand this from his account.

As for the wider problem of the census… my hunch is that there may have been a different census, earlier, during Herod’s reign – although I have to admit we don’t have access to any records of this.

First name… Ali?

August 14, 2009

… this came through our letterbox today.


Well…  it says “Genuine”. I’m convinced.

Amazon recommends…

August 12, 2009

I’m a sucker for recommendations… most of the time. Most of the time, their clever statistical analysis manages to mail-merge some books, music or DVDs I’d really like to me. Today though, I was recommended something truly awful, so I clicked on the little “Why was this recommended to me?” link to find out why they thought I’d like it. Here’s the surprising connection I discovered: recommends recommends

Turns out, Calvinists who are into New Testament studies are flocking to buy The Shack… While Amazon presumably don’t distinguish between people who buy books because they like them and people who buy books to do a Robert Fisk style debunking of them, I was surprised that these books were statistically linked to The Shack. But perhaps the reason is that these books are all “Christian” books (and categorized as such by Amazon), and The Shack has sold many copies, topping the “Christian bestseller” charts.

I’m developing a theory about “Christian bestsellers”, to wit: The most read books are often the least helpful ones. The last time I actually went into a physical Christian bookshop (that of a well-known UK chain named after two theologians of stature) the ground floor was filled with dross – health-and-wealth titles, less-than-God-centred biographies, success manuals and Christian fiction. These were obviously the ones selling, by their places on the “chart”. In fact, you had to go to the basement to find theology books, bible study guides and so on.

I don’t suppose it’s entirely the fault of the booksellers, or the publishers who advertise and market books like The Shack (though I’d rather they promoted some popular-level edifying, biblically faithful books!) because part of the reason bad books sell well is that we like what they have to say. We find the challenge of biblically faithful books a bit too much to bear, so opt for ones which flatter our preconceptions and tell us that we’re OK as we are. Or perhaps we like how the prosperity gospel books offer us health, wealth and success. Or we feel our Christian lives are not where we want them to be, and instead of the slighty vague and always hard approach of going back to the gospel and working it out from there, we feel more comfortable with a bullet-point “How to…” guide of being suddenly awesome at prayer, or an expert at leading Bible studies. So maybe if we want to see better Christian books, we should start buying, reading and applying some good ones, rather than taking the self-flattering, easy options that don’t confront us with the biblical gospel and the living God.

Abraham Lincoln on the Victory of God

August 10, 2009

Though the 16th President of the United States was far from being an orthodox Christian, I think one episode of his presidency, and a memorable quotation of his, illustrate something important about the gospel. Lincoln is praised by many historians for bringing political reconciliation to his party by putting his most vocal opponents in his cabinet with his supporters, and thus forcing them to get along together.Lincoln’s policy of reconciliation is thought to have promoted peace and stability, when recriminations against his opponents would have been dangerous for his party and the country. Concerning this policy of his, he is quoted (informally) as having remarked “do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?

Likewise, does God not destroy his enemies when he reconciles them to himself in Christ? We were God’s enemies, but have been reconciled:

For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:10-11)

And yet, those who are in Christ are no longer his enemies, but adopted as sons of God. In this way, Abraham Lincoln’s quote illuminates God’s victory over a rebellious humanity. We can think of the victory of God over all of his enemies – those he destroys by reconciling them to himself and turning them into his children, and those who remain opposed to him, do not repent, and whom he will destroy in judgement. God destroys all of his enemies.

University Challenge

August 3, 2009

This evening I was on an episode of University Challenge, representing the University of Nottingham. I’m a big fan of quizzes, and so getting a chance to appear on the great-granddaddy of all TV quizzes was not to be passed up! It was a close match against Girton College, Cambridge, and after a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, we lost 145-180. I like to think that we gave them a good enough match to not besmirch our fair university’s reputation, and loved Jeremy Paxman’s little comment at the end: “Nottingham, I would have thought you’d have done a bit better than that”. Never mind. It was a great experience, and a lot of fun. In the UK, the episode is available to watch until next Monday evening on the BBC iPlayer.parrot