Archive for February, 2010

Jesus in the Qur’an and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas

February 26, 2010

I’ve been to some of the Islam Awareness Week events at Nottingham University this week – including a talk about Jesus and Muhammed. I was surprised to hear that Jesus (or “‘Isa”) is mentioned much more frequently in the Qur’an than Muhammed is, and that several things are said about him in the Qur’an which, to my mind at least, suggest that he is more than a prophet.

One of them is the well-known verse (5:110) where several (possibly apocryphal) events from the life of Jesus are recounted: 

Then God will say, ‘Jesus, son of Mary! Remember My favour to you and to your mother: how I strengthened you with the holy spirit, so that you spoke to people in your infancy and as a grown man; how I taught you the Scripture and wisdom, the Torah and the Gospel; how, by My leave, you fashioned the shape of a bird out of clay, breathed into it, and it became, by My leave, a bird; how, by My leave, you healed the blind person and the leper; how, by My leave, you brought the dead back to life; how I restrained the Children of Israel from [harming] you when you brought them clear signs, and those of them who disbelieved said, “This is clearly nothing but sorcery”

Quite often people point out that this verse has parallels (and is probably dependent upon) the “Infancy Gospel of Thomas” (and also the “Proto-Evangel of James” for the talking baby Jesus story). There are also allusions to things in the Canonical gospels, such as healing the blind and the leper, and raising the dead. But rather than doing a “source criticism of the Qur’an”, perhaps we should consider also the theological implications of this story.

1 1 When the boy Jesus was five years old, he was playing at the ford of a rushing stream. And he gathered the disturbed water into pools and made them pure and excellent, commanding them by the character of his word alone and not by means of a deed.
   2 Then, taking soft clay from the mud, he formed twelve sparrows. It was the Sabbath when he did these things, and many children were with him.
  3 And a certain Jew, seeing the boy Jesus with the other children doing these things, went to his father Joseph and falsely accused the boy Jesus, saying that, on the Sabbath he made clay, which is not lawful, and fashioned twelve sparrows.
  4 And Joseph came and rebuked him, saying, “Why are you doing these things on the Sabbath?” But Jesus, clapping his hands, commanded the birds with a shout in front of everyone and said, “Go, take flight, and remember me, living ones.” And the sparrows, taking flight, went away squawking.
  5 When the Pharisee saw this he was amazed and reported it to all his friends.”

Following Oscar Cullmann (in his translation of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas in Hennecke and Schneemelcher (eds), N.T. Apocrypha, I:363-417), scholars have tended to see the stories about Jesus in the apocryphal gospels rather as gratuitous miracle stories – or “‘theologically mute’ stories of marvels”  when actually they have a purpose and theological significance (Stephen Gero, “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas: A Study of the Textual and Literary Problems” Novum Testamentum 13 (1971), p.47), much as the “nature miracles” of the canonical gospels have a theological (Christological) significance. In the case of the “animation of the birds” story in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, there is both a point about observing the Sabbath (Jesus is rebuked for making clay birds on the Sabbath) but also a Christological point: it is no accident that Jesus makes these birds out of clay before giving them life. This is parallel to what God does in Genesis 2:7:

“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.”

The version of the story in the Qur’an is even more closely parallel to God’s creative activity in Genesis 2:7, with the added detail that Jesus breathed into the bird so that it became a living being:

Genesis 2:7 Qur’an 5:110 (excerpt) Infancy Gospel of Thomas 1:2-4(excerpt)
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. how, by My leave, you fashioned the shape of a bird out of clay, breathed into it, and it became, by My leave, a bird Then, taking soft clay from the mud, he formed twelve sparrows.[…]

But Jesus, clapping his hands, commanded the birds with a shout in front of everyone and said, “Go, take flight, and remember me, living ones.”

It seems to be bizarre that the Qur’an (usually an advocate of a low Christology!) should include this tale, given the high Christology implied by the story and the details of phrasing in the Qur’an. According to the Qur’an, God created Adam out of clay (7:11-12) which makes it even more clear that Jesus is doing a divine, creative thing. To be sure, the text inserts (by my leave) to a number of Jesus’ miraculous signs out of monotheistic embarassment, but the problem seems to remain. How can it be that Jesus is doing something which the Qur’an ascribes to God, if he is merely a prophet?

To this might be added the Qur’anic claim that Jesus, alone of all the prophets, is sinless; and that (arguably) he did not die. This is in tension with the normally low Christology of the Qur’an. Even from the Qur’an there are suggestions that Jesus is more than a human prophet.

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Barth on why social action is not preaching

February 18, 2010

Why does the Church do social action – that is, helping meet the needs of those around us, through soup runs, community projects, clothing collections, medical missions etc.? Sometimes it is said that this is done as a way to proclaim the gospel, or to “open doors” for the gospel. But is there a problem with this? Karl Barth seems to imply so – it turns it into “propaganda” and ignores the true motivation which is genuine Christian love for our fellow human beings, and above all, for God:

“But there are also other elements in the life of the Church in which what we say about God is addressed to our fellow-men but which cannot seek to be proclamation. To this group belongs a function which from the very first has in some form been recognised to be an integral element in the life of the Church, namely, the expression of helpful solidarity in the face of the external needs of human society. This, too, is a part of man’s response to God. When and because it is he response of real man, necessarily in terms of Mt. 5:14 it is a shining light to people among whom alone man is real man. If God exists for man, as the Church’s prayer, praise and confession declare in answer to the proclamation heard, then this man as the man for whom God exists must also exist for his fellow-men with whom alone he is real man. Yet the special utterance about God which consists in the action of this man is primarily and properly directed to God and not to men. It can neither try to enter in to quite superfluous competition with society’s necessary efforts at self-help in its straits, not can it seek, as the demonstration of distinctively Christian action, to proclaim how God helps. “That they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven,” that they may be a commentary on the proclamation of God’s help, is, of course, freely promised, but cannot be its set intention. Like prayer, praise and confession, especially in cases like Francis of Assisi and Bodelschwingh, it has always been spontaneous, unpremeditated, and in the final and best sense unpractical talk about God. …

If the social work of the Church as such were to try and be proclamation, it could only become propaganda, and not very worthy propaganda at that. Genuine Christian love must always start back at [turn away from] the thought of pretending to be a proclamation of the love of Christ with its only too human action.”

Church Dogmatics 1/1, p.50

Anselm on Theology: Faith seeking understanding

February 17, 2010

I’ve been reading Karl Barth’s book on Anselm, Anselm: Fides Quarens Intellectum (German original 1931 – English translation London: SCM, 1960). There seem to be plenty of points of affinity between Barth and Anselm: the discussion of whether Barth is influenced by Anselm or just portraying him in a Barthian light I’ll leave to those who know better. There’s a lot of direct quotation of Anselm in the book though, so the points of affinity are probably genuine.

One of the things I found most arresting was Anselm’s portrayal of the role of theology. His famous statement credo ut intelligam (I believe in order that I may understand) is well known, but reverses the order that we’re brought up to assume. Post-Enlightenment philosophy teaches us that we should understand in order to believe. It’s what, amongst other things, Scientific method is based upon. For Christian theology, Anselm argues, this is inappropriate because faith can never be argued to on neutral grounds (Proslogion 1:100, 18) and that “the aim of theology cannot be to lead men to faith” (Barth, p.17). Anselm does not seek to “prove” the truth of the Christian faith, but to understand it (Barth, p.14). Faith must come from hearing the “Word of Christ” – Anselm’s term for the message from Christ, which can authentically be conveyed in human words about Christ, and by accepting this message, which is the work of the will, enabled by divine grace. (Thus, Barth points out, it is completely inappropriate for Schleiermacher to have put Anselm’s credo ut intelligam on the title page of his On the Christian Faith (p.26 n.1) – since Schleiermacher in fact took the opposite approach to theology!)

There are fundamental parts of the Christian proclamation – what Anselm calls the Word of Christ -which are mysterious and cannot be established a priori by reason alone. The Trinity, or the Incarnation, or the Resurrection would be examples of these. As Tertullian said of them, they are certain precisely because they are impossible (De Carne Christi 5.4: Certum est, quia impossible est), and to be believed because they are absurd (Prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est). This is not to say they are irrational, or super-rational – because these are misleading categories – but to highlight that one can only understand these things when one believes in them.

It’s easy to see how this could be lampooned by atheists – held up as examples of Christians sacrificing their intellects or just generally being stupid. If I remember correctly, Dawkins (mis)quotes Tertullian on this point with great glee in The God Delusion. I don’t think Anselm (or Tertullian, or Barth – or any other Christian theologian who takes this line) is committing intellectual suicide, but rather recognising a truth about faith and knowledge that has been obscured by the Enlightenment: What we believe affects what we understand and how we make sense of the world.

Furthermore, since Anselm sees belief in God and assent to the Word of Christ as thinking correctly about reality, we can add that Christians claim to be speaking truth about reality, rather than retreating into subjectivism: If it seems different to you, it must be that you hold a distorted picture of reality because of unbelief. Is this arrogant? One might think so; but it derievs from a position of intellectual humility in the face of God’s revelation. As Barth writes of Anselm’s definition of faith: “Intelligere [understanding], the intelligere for which faith seeks, is compatible with a reverent ‘I do not yet know’ or with an ultimate ignorance concerning the extent of the truth accepted in faith. But it is not compatible with an insolent ‘I know better’ in face of the ‘that…’ of this truth.” (p.27). Theology must position itself so that it claims to seek and to speak truth about God, while recognizing that this truth is given to it in grace and not by right. It should be bold but not arrogant; humble but not equivocal.

What implications does this way of thinking have for evangelism? Does it call into question a common method of apologetics – seeking to argue something along the lines of “If Jesus rose from the dead, his claims to be the Son of God are true. Historical investigation validates the New Testament accounts of Jesus rising from the dead. Therefore his claims are true – and therefore also the gospel, so you should believe it.”? Or indeed things like the Cosmological or Teleological arguments for the existence of God? I think it might. So if we accept this picture of the relationship of faith and understanding, might it not free us in evangelism to say what we know to be true without having to defend it on “neutral” (hostile) territory? Instead of accepting “I understand in order that I might believe” and fighting a losing battle to argue people into the Kingdom, one could recognise the message of “I believe in order that I maight understand” freeing us to challenge this assumption and to present the gospel on its own terms. It’s a challenging thought, and one that brings up (for me at least) worries of becoming unintelligible to those outside the church, subjectivism and the other theological “F Word” (“Fundamentalism” being the number one) of Fideism. What I’m wondering, and invite comments upon, is whether these are justified concerns or manifestations of a lack of trust in the transformative power of the Word of Christ?

“Religious status”, or, Why I am a “Christian”

February 10, 2010

My Facebook profile has a field titled “religious status”. So do the profiles of a lot of my friends. Many Christian friends I know use the field to explain a little bit of their faith – “saved by grace” or “follower of Jesus Christ” or something similar.

In January’s Christianity Today there was a short feature on how Christians use this field:

Facebook asks users to define their religion with fewer characters than it takes Twitter users (who receive 140 characters) to say what they ate for breakfast. Some Christians identify themselves with their denomination, a Bible verse, or a phrase like “staggered by the grace of Jesus.”

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler identifies himself as “Evangelical Christian/Baptist.” Relevant editor Cameron Strang says he’s “Christian–Amish.” Former coordinator of Emergent Village Tony Jones says he’s “emerging.” Mars Hill pastor Mark Driscoll? “Religion Sucks,” he writes.

Mine says “Christian”. Quite deliberately. Without wanting to criticise others’ creative use of the “Religious status” box, I’d like to explain why.

By merely putting “Christian”, I am trying to identify with the whole people of Christ; not just my church or denomination. When I first joined Facebook I did put “Christian – Baptist”. I changed it after my first term involved in my university CU because I had come to recognise I shared a meaningful fellowship and unity in Christ with others who belonged to different denominations. I use a label which does not separate what God has brought together in Christ. 

By merely putting “Christian” I make clear my commitment to the Church, and not just to individualistic faith. I have a personal relationship with God; I know that Christ died for me. But I know also that I am part of something bigger than me and God – that I have been brought into the Church, the body of Christ. The Church is important to God (see Eph. 3:10!) and I want to make it clear that it is important to me also. I use a label which identifies me as part of this community.

By merely putting “Christian” I lay aside my right to pick-and-choose the content of my belief for myself. Today it is common, even fashionable, to choose what parts of a religion one will believe in; even to combine beliefs from different religions in a modern syncretism. I no longer want to do this. I want to believe that which God reveals about himself in his Word. Freedom of thought is great, but it is also an opportunity for us to be idolatrous. Instead, may I choose to believe rightly the faith given to us by God in the gospel. I use a label which is not devised by me.