Archive for April, 2010

Paul and Jesus

April 28, 2010

Hello! It’s been a while since I’ve posted – but I’ve not given up blogging. Just not done it for a while, though I have kept on reading quite a few other people’s blogs. Kind of like my attitude to playing cricket.

Anyway, thought I’d mention that BeThinking.org have put up an excellent lecture by David Wenham on whether Paul is the real founder of Christianity. David Wenham is also the author of a number of books on the subject – Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity? (Eerdmans, 1995) and Paul and Jesus: The True Story (SPCK, 2002), both of which I’ve managed to find in my university library, so if you’re a student at a university which offers Theology/Religious Studies you might be able to read a copy for free. Of the two, the second is probably a bit more accessible.

The debate, which I had not encountered at all until coming to university, revolves around the charge that Paul actually invented what we would recognise as “Christianity”, and that Jesus (if he even existed!) taught something entirely different to Paul, and did not believe he was the divine Son of God or that his death was sacrificial (“for our sins” 1Cor 15:3; Gal. 1:4).

This is something which a lot of more liberal Jesus scholars have put across, and which quite a lot of non-scholars have found quite attractive. The idea finds a lot of resonance (apparently – I’ve not read it yet) in Philip Pullman’s new book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. I think part of the attraction is the idea that you can have Jesus’ moral teaching without all the crazy stuff about the resurrection, sacrificial death, Son of God stuff. In fact, you can have Jesus as just a human being (which is probably all you’ll find if you look at the gospels with atheist presuppositions) who taught some nice stuff but was misunderstood by his followers and misrepresented by the Church. It’s a lie, but a tremendously powerful lie because it lets you have Jesus on your own terms (he can even be an atheist if you want) and because he’s not God incarnate he can’t challenge you any more than Plato or Cicero challenge you: Take the bits of his teaching you like and discard the bits you don’t. It’s a way of being against the Church without necessarily being against Jesus (at least, not the Jesus you think really existed).

Wenham deals with these arguments very cogently, particularly in the area of Christology. I won’t summarise the arguments in this post, but I’ll just add that I’ve been studying some stuff Paul wrote for my dissertation and have discovered quite a few verbal parallels with the teaching of Jesus, and much theological cohesiveness between the attitudes of Jesus and Paul to (in this case) civil government. The two of them aren’t opposed, at least not in the texts I’ve been studying.

General Election called, and the Westminster 2010 declaration

April 6, 2010

In case you missed it, the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has just called a General Election for the 6th May. David Cameron is probably right to say that this is one of the most important elections of our generation in terms of deciding the future direction of our government. So I’d encourage everyone to vote, and to consider carefully who they vote for. If you haven’t registered to vote yet, you can download a form from http://www.aboutmyvote.co.uk and then post it in to the address on your form. They need to be received on or before the 20th April, so you have just under two weeks to register.

Some Christians I know are a bit ambivalent about whether Christians should get involved in politics. Shouldn’t we be more concerned with the Kingdom of God than the kings of this age? To be sure, I agree that the two aren’t the same, but I think Christians should take an interest in politics and, if they have it, should exercise their right to vote. The New Testament calls on us to pray for those in authority, that they may do their jobs well and justly – and in praying for good and just rulers, are we not also bound in a democracy to do what we can to vote for those who will be good and just rulers?

Lutz Pohle, in a book on the interpretation of Romans 13 in 20th-century Germany (Die Christen und Der Staat Nach Römer 13: Eine typologische Untersuchung der neueren deutschsprachigen Schriftauslegung [Mainz: Matthias-Grünewald-Verlag, 1985]), suggests some reasons why Christians should view politics as significant, even if the significance is ultimately temporary and limited:

The government is significant because it can affect the witness of the Christian in the world, and their ability to share their faith: “it can permit and make possible, even promote it, or it can attack it, hinder it and suppress it.” (p.11)

Second, Jesus’ “Render to Caesar” saying (Mark 12:17) recognizes a place for legitimate political/earthly power, which is in itself not irreducibly and in principle opposed to the Word of God (p.12). However relative and limited the good that can be achieved by governments, it is still good and as such an object of interest to the Christians.

One need not, then, accuse Christians who seek to promote the good by involvement in politics of confusing the Kingdom of God with the kingdoms of this age, nor of being “Neo-Constantinians” or “theocrats” (though such ideologies do certainly exist!). Equally, since we are dealing with the murky and temporary world of politics, with relative goods and shades of grey, one need not agree with every single policy of a party or candidate in order to vote for them – it is permissible to vote for the “lesser of two (or three, or four…) evils”.

With that in mind, I’d like to commend something I’ve signed called the “Westminster 2010 Declaration of Christian Conscience”, which calls on all parliamentary candidates (and so, all of our next MPs) to ‘respect, uphold and protect the right of Christians to hold and express Christian beliefs and act according to Christian conscience’. This is something that is going to become increasingly important for Christians in many professions – doctors and nurses and other medical staff who are concerned about abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide; teachers and school staff who face aggressive secularization of state schools, and many others who are concerned about the possibility of laws being passed which will require them to act against their conscience.  

This isn’t just special pleading by Christians. It isn’t about making Britain a “Christian nation”. It’s not partisan or denominational either. It’s about highlighting some important areas of concern to Christians, and, perhaps, opening up discussion on where exactly conscience and religious freedom fit into the competing hierarchy of “rights” which UK and EU law have established. Or, better yet, on whether these “rights” are a good or possible basis for law and justice in a pluralist society (They’re not – but that’s a topic for another post!).

But the declaration also pledges that its signatories will themselves refuse to act in unjust or immoral ways, even if commanded to by law. So there is an issue of civil disobedience. I don’t think this is wrong for Christians when the law calls upon them to do things that are wrong (cf. Acts 5:29) and that calls to civil obedience (e.g. in Romans 13:1-7) do not rule this option out. But consider it carefully before signing it, because it is a big deal.

Hopefully, this will make an impact on the candidates who are elected. And hopefully, our prayers for good and just rulers will be answered, whatever the results of the general election.

Why “Good” Friday?

April 2, 2010

He enters the capital to applause and singing crowds. Days later, he leaves it, beaten, stumbling, and being led to the place where they put him to death. As he dies, there’s darkness, despair and anguish.

Why, then, do Christians commemorate this as “Good” Friday?

The answer is so well-known that any child in Sunday school can tell you; yet so deep, profound and mind-expanding that the greatest minds in church history have found themselves speaking in hushed, humbled and reverent tones. He died for us. He died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3). He died to make peace between us and God (Romans 5:1-11).

Amazing love! How can it be
That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

Why should God die for us, for me? Why would God want to do that? For someone like me, who’s grown up in a country with a heritage still shaped by the gospel, it can seem familiar enough to skip over lightly. Speaking about the gospel with people from different religious and cultural backgrounds has opened my eyes to see how surprising this is, and how offensive it sounds. If God comes to earth, surely he would be welcomed, feted, enthroned? That would be “Good”, right? Palm Sunday should be “Good” Sunday, followed by “Terrible Friday”. Surely? In any case God wouldn’t submit to betrayal, wrongful arrest, abandonment, miscarriage of justice, beating, humiliation, mocking, and a slow, painful death. Right?

But here’s where we’re wrong. Here’s where God’s wisdom shows us to be foolish. Here my idea of what is “good” is shown up for the shadow it is – for God’s good plan subverts human wisdom. This is what God actually does! Glory is achieved through sacrifice. Christ’s crown is one of thorns. His enthronement is his execution. The innocent one is condemned that the guilty may be pardoned.

It’s crazy stuff. We would never, ever, not in a million years, work out that this was what “good” meant. No philosopher could tell us what we can see happening at the cross. When the Church calls this Friday “good”, it is able to do so because of the revelation given it by God. We call today “Good” Friday in opposition to the world and its wisdom. We call it “good” by faith and not by visible appearances.

Sunday is coming, and we know this is not the end. He has died; He has risen again. There will be a visible triumph. But, today and tomorrow are here before the day after tomorrow comes, and I’m going to spend a little time more reflecting on the message of the cross before I sing “Risen, Conquering Son” – for only the former makes the latter possible, and only reflecting on the first day will help me to understand the third correctly.

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.