Archive for September, 2009

Lunchbar: Christianity – just a crutch for the weak?

September 26, 2009

Lunchbar has started again at Nottingham University – every Friday at 1pm in the Students’ Union (Portland) Building. Yesterday’s topic was “Christianity – just a crutch for the weak?”

It is often alleged that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, are good insofar as they provide comfort and meaning to “weak” people, but that “normal” or “strong” people can get by just fine without any help from religion. It’s a similar claim to that made by Marx; that religion was the “opiate of the masses” used to stop them complaining about conditions in this life, because they would be rewarded in heaven. It can take a subtler and less aggressive tone: “That’s great if it helps you, but I don’t think I need it”, but it is perhaps a confused and arrogant attitude, as our speaker suggested.

Viewing Christianity as a crutch for the weak is potentially confusing because we don’t necessarily see accepting help or a solution from someone else as weakness in other areas of life. We also don’t see the admission of weakness as a weakness itself. For example, we don’t see somebody as weak if they need help to understand Quantum Physics, or fix their television set. We don’t see it as weak to see a doctor when we are sick. In short, we don’t see it as weakness to accept an external solution to a genuine need.

Christianity claims that Jesus Christ offers a solution to genuine needs. Two important ones are our need for love, purpose and meaning in life, and our need for a solution to the problem of death.

Humanity as a whole recognises a need or desire for answers to the big questions of life; and most people are even more aware of the need for meaning on the personal scale. What is the point of life? What should I do with mine? Is it all worth it? Christianity claims to provide real, true and fulfilling answers to these kinds of questions.

The second need is that with which we are presented by the problem of death. Everybody dies. Most of us have a sneaking suspicion that this is not right; that there is something wrong about death. There is. The Bible speaks about death as an enemy, as something evil, and as something deeply ambiguous even where it is not to be feared. Horror is a legitimate emotion when considering the grave. And yet, Christianity claims that Jesus Christ has overcome death; that it will be destroyed; and that with Christ we can be raised immortal. Christians do not hope merely for an ethereal existence after death, floating around playing harps all day, but a real, embodied, corporeal existence. As was helpfully pointed out during the questions, this is one of the things the resurrection demonstrates: it does not simply vindicate Jesus’ claims to be who he says he is (although it does), nor simply that he has solved the problem of death (although it does), but also what kind of solution Jesus has provided. As Jesus was raised, bodily, immortal and glorified; so too the Christian will be. Jesus offers a genuine, complete, and wonderful solution to the problem of death – something we all need.

The existence of needs does not, as was pointed out, necessarily mean that a solution to those needs actually exists. But it does mean that serious offers of solutions to those needs are worth investigating – and the Christian claims stand up to this kind of investigation. They also show that Christians are not being “weak” in accepting the solutions offered by Christ to these needs. They genuinely accept genuine solutions to genuine needs. It is, perhaps,merely a different kind of weakness to refuse an external solution to these kind of needs and to seek only the kind of solutions which we can provide for ourselves.

Why New Testament ethics can’t be summed up by “love”

September 22, 2009

The first and greatest commandment, Jesus tells us, is to love God; the second to love our neighbour – and on these two the whole Law and Prophets depend. Paul echoes this in Romans 13:8: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” and it is also prominent in the Gospel and Epistles of John. So why is it that Richard B. Hays does not use “love” as one of his focal images in his synthesis of New Testament ethics in The Moral Vision of the New Testament (London: T&T Clark, 1997)?

First, there are some New Testament authors for whom love is not an ethical emphasis. Hays mentions Mark’s gospel here – discipleship is defined more in terms of following Jesus and taking up one’s cross than it is by love. “If Mark were the only Gospel in the New Testament canon, it would be very difficult to make a case for love as a major motif in Christian ethics” (p.200). Hebrews and Revelation also have only sporadic references to love, and Acts does not contain the word “love” (more properly, any of the various Greek terms translated “love”) either as a noun or a verb. Luke is not opposed to love, but it does not form part of his narrative in Acts about the emergence and growth of the church. The problem is then that synthesising the ethical teaching of the New Testament with a focal point of “love”  drives these texts to the periphery of the canon, which is “an unacceptable result” (p.202).

Second, love is not really an image which can become a focal point in the same way as Hays’ suggested triad of “Community, Cross and New Creation” but an interpretation of an image. Hays points out that what the New Testament means by “love” is embodied and shown most clearly in the cross. The gospel narrative gives meaning and content to “love”, rather than the other way around:

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. (1John 3:16)

In addition, though Hays does not mention it, John 3:16 might be better translated:

For thus God loved the world: He gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but shall have everlasting life.

John 3:16 begins with a statement of the manner in which God loved the world (God loved the world in this way, that he…), not about the degree to which he has loved it (“God loved the world so much, that he…) 

Apart from the focal image of the cross, love is ambiguous in meaning, which leads to the third reason Hays does not adopt it as a focus: the term can easily become debased in popular use and detached from the cross. Hays quotes Stanley Hauerwas to this effect: “The ethics of love is often but a cover for what is fundamentally an assertion of ethical relativism.” If love becomes a focal point of ethics, rather than the points of community, cross and new creation, ethics can lose its moorings in the gospel story. The radical demands of Christian discipleship made by the New Testament (e.g. Mark 8:38) might not be seen as “loving” things to impose upon others. I think that this is a very important observation – almost every appeal I have heard to evade the didactic moral teaching of the New Testament has been based on the priority of the admonition to love. Yet if we take the point Hays makes that the New Testament’s gospel narrative gives content, shape and meaning to “love” then such evasions become much less persuasive. We need to look to the gospel narrative, the Christian community and the Christian hope to know what we are to love and how we are to love it.

God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1John 4:9-10)

Reason #73 why I love the Anglican Church

September 20, 2009


Not only does it have the subtle commend-the-good dynamics of thanking me for not smoking, but it’s a cross-stitch!

Render to Caesar

September 11, 2009

One of the books I’ve been reading for my dissertation is Christopher Bryan’s Render to Caesar (Oxford: OUP, 2005). As well as being one of the more well-written books I’ve read so far, I’ve found it really helpful both in presenting an attractive synthesis of the New Testament’s teaching on government; and in the questions it raises about approaches to Jesus and the New Testament which interpret early Christianity as a politically subversive or revolutionary movement.

Many scholars do read early Christianity in this way – for example, Jacob Taubes talks about Paul’s letter to the Romans in terms of “a declaration of war against Rome”. Richard Horsley has written much on New Testament political theory and sees Christianity in this revolutionary sense. N.T. Wright takes much of this onboard too, perhaps motivated by a desire to (correctly) affirm the public and universal nature of Christian claims about Jesus.

Bryan does not question this reading of the New Testament as a subversive or revolutionary manifesto by appealing to an anachronistic division between secular and sacred, private and public spheres. In fact, his seventh chapter draws out precisely why this modern idea cannot apply to the New Testament or the world where Christianity began: politics, even Roman politics, had a theological and religious dimension. He does not deny that Jesus and the apostles had things to say about Caesar’s empire. Instead, Bryan questions whether those who see the political teaching of the NT as a revolutionary agenda are reading it closely enough, and sets it in the canonical context of the prophetic tradition:

“My conclusion, briefly, is that Jesus and the early Christians did indeed have a critique of the Roman superpower, a critique that was broadly in line with the entire biblical and prophetic tradition … I think that the biblical tradition challenges human power structures not by attempting to dismantle them or replace them with other human power structures but by consistently confronting them with the truth about their origin and purpose.”
(p.9 – emphasis in original)

One of the frequent claims made in the literature on this topic is that the early Christian confession “Jesus is Lord” was meant in the sense that “Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord”. It is common to find scholars arguing that Christians were persecuted for proclaiming Jesus as “another King”. Does not Acts 17:7 bear this out? Actually, Bryan points out, this is a Jewish accusation against Paul that seems to be ignored by the Romans, and which Paul himself denies (Acts 25:8). In a world of many gods and many lords, Christians were not persecuted for proclaiming Jesus as Lord, but rather, because they refused to pay homage to the Roman divinities – Bryan adduces a wealth of ancient evidence that the most common charge against Christians was that of superstitio and impietas (pp.116-7) i.e., that they did not honour the Roman gods and thus became a “security risk” to Roman society, inviting the gods’ displeasure and wrath.

When Christians called Jesus “Lord”, “Son of God”, “Saviour”, they were not using these terms in the same sense that Romans used them as a title of Caesar. This Christian rhetoric was not a parody of imperial rhetoric or “deliberately calculated treason”, as Crossan would have it, but should actually be read against a Jewish background rather than an imperial Roman one. This seems to me to be a fair and crucial point – surely the early Christians meant rather to identify Jesus with YHWH by calling him “Lord” (κύριος – used to translate  יהוה in the LXX) rather than to identify him with Caesar.

To digress a moment, this can be seen by a look at Philippians 2. There are many Greek terms that are used in secular literature as technical terms of government and politics – Peter Oakes is quoted by Bryan as an example of someone who reads this as a subversion of imperial rhetoric. Yet the real parallel is with the Jewish background of Isaiah 45:

Isaiah 45:24

Philippians 2:10

… that to me every knee shall bend and every tongue shall swear by God … … so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord ,to the glory of God the Father.
ὁτι ἐμοὶ κάμψει πᾶν γόνυ, καὶ ἐξομολογήσηται πᾶσα γλῶσσα τὸν θεὸν ἱνα ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ πᾶν γόνυ κάμψῃ ἐπουρανίων καὶ ἐπιγείων καὶ καταχθονίων καὶ πᾶσα γλῶσσα ἐξομολογήσηται ὁτι κύριος Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς εἰς δόξαν θεοῦ πατρός.

This passage is about identifying Jesus with YHWH’s throne rather than with Caesar’s throne.

In addition, Bryan examines the Synoptics and John against their Jewish background and concludes that Jesus was no Zealot – he did not make the cause of Jewish home rule his own. His teaching does, however, indicate a concern for God’s glory, which includes that rulers set in place by God understand their power to be a gift from God and exercise it justly. This is not about the form or structure associated with that power, nor (and I think Bryan is aiming his remarks at his adopted country of the United States here) whether or not those in power are Christian or not, but about rulers doing their God-given task of ruling. For Bryan, abdicating the responsibility or political power given to us is just as much a sin as its misuse: “If you are Caesar, you must not claim to be God, but you may no more step aside from being Caesar than a mother may abandon her children or a captain the ship” (p.128).

All in all I found this a very helpful book and Bryan’s synthesis of the New Testament’s attitudes to government very helpful. It’s also very easy to read and I’d recommend it highly!

Fun at the British Library

September 5, 2009

Today I visited the “Treasures of the British Library” exhibition in London. A bit geeky, but it was really good. Some of the British Library’s most famous and historic documents are on display – from sacred texts to a profanity-laden draft of one of Harold Pinter’s plays.
Some of the manuscripts I was most interested in seeing were the Biblical texts. Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus were both on display. It was worth getting to see them to understand some of the points in NT textual criticism about the “corrections” to Sinaiticus and other manuscripts. These were written in the margins and clearly distinguishable… an important thing to grasp as I hadn’t really understood how scholars knew which were the “corrections”. Most of these on the pages shown seemed to be spelling variations! Reading the text was quite hard as there are no spaces between words, and capital letters are used (with a lunate sigma resembling C used rather than Σ). Sinaiticus is exciting to see in particular because of its value in witnessing to the integrity of the Greek New Testament text (and also as one of the most important Septuagintal witnesses) and anyone who claims that the text of the Bible has been corrupted by the church would do well to go along to the BL with a modern edition of the Greek New Textament and do a comparison. Or just view it online.
Other exciting Bibles were the Lindisfarne gospels, which are beautifully illustrated and still look vivid after hundres of years, and the Gutenberg Bible (though, rather disappointingly, the page on display was from the preface!).
In a separate display were three misprinted Bibles, including the famous “Wicked Bible” which omits a crucial “not” from Exodus 20:14 (leaving “Thou shalt (or, ſhalt) commit adultery”), one which misprints Matthew 5:9a as “Blessed are the place-makers”, and one which prints 1Corinthians 6:9 as “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall inherit the kingdom of God?…”. There’s a post from a while back on The Merrie Theologiane about these, and other, misprints, called “Bibles worth burning”. A cautionary example of the need for careful proof-reading!

Some church posters

September 1, 2009

Found by a friend of my sister, in Kent somewhere…

Fancy a change? Try Church

Fancy a change? Try Church

Spread God's light all over this land

Spread God's light all over this land

They’re almost, but not quite, in the same league as my all-time favourite: “CH__CH: What’s missing?”