Love in Paul (2): ‘agapeism’

In the last post the (rather clumsy) word ‘agapeism’ cropped up – that love explains everything of importance in Pauline ethics.

From The Apostle Paul by Rembrant (Wikipedia)

But is this the case?  And if so, what follows? What implications are there for Christian life and church ministry?

This series of posts is exploring those two questions.

A couple of big picture points that support the idea of agapeism in Paul and then a comment about words for love in Paul.

First, there are at least 5 areas in Paul’s life and thought where love is central

1. The apostle’s personal experience of God’s love and grace

2. Soteriology (salvation / atonement) – how Paul’s understanding of divine love is radically reshaped by the cross

3. Ecclesiology (church life) – how for Paul love is integral to the identity and communal life of new communities of believers in Jesus the Messiah and Lord.

4. Pneumatology (the work of the Spirit, human experience of God’s love) – Paul’s theology of how believers experience the love of God through the Spirit and are morally transformed.

5. Eschatology (overlap of the ages / future hope) – how the apostle sees love as a powerful ‘weapon’ in conflict with forces of sin and evil; love in the present as a foretaste of the life to come

Second, on a purely statistical measure, love permeates Paul’s epistles

Leon Morris pointed this out many years ago. Paul uses the noun agapē (love) 75 times, the verb agapaō (to love) 34 times and the adjective agapētos (beloved) 27 times. This totals up to over 42% of the usage of these words in the NT.

More than just numbers, Paul’s use of ‘love language’ fits a consistent pattern – it is always positive. Love describes the goodness of God and flows from God – it leads to believers’ love for God and of one another.

The other Greek word for love in Paul, used much less frequently, is phileō (to love, twice), It has numerous cognates such as aphilargyros (no lover of money), philadelphia, (brotherly or familial love), philanthrōpia (love for people); philoteknos (lover of children).

Phileō in Paul is never used to refer to divine love or human love for God. The sole appearance of philotheos (love of God) in 2 Timothy 3:4 is in negative contrast with philedonos (lover of pleasure).

The other two best known Greek words for love, storgē (affection) and eros (passion), are not used by Paul, or any of the NT writers, at all.

Third, their absence has led some Christians to theorize what amounts to a hierarchy of loves

This hierarchy starts with eros at the bottom as the ‘lowest’ form of love (linked to sex and passion), followed by storgē, then phileō and agapē at the top.

There are at least two problems with this. One is that it is an argument from silence. No-where in the NT is such a hierarchy suggested. Despite popular Christian assumptions, there is no solid basis to say agapē is a higher form of love than phileō or that eros is a form of love best to be avoided.

The other problem is that such hierarchy all too easily feeds into long-established dualistic tendencies in Christian theology where the body – with its passions and desires – is seen as less ‘spiritual’ than abstract ‘higher’ forms of love.

All sorts of distortions follow – not least deep ambivalence about sex, marriage and the goodness of the body. Historically that ambivalence expressed itself in distrust of women as a source of temptation and potential sin to men as well as the link of celibacy with spiritual purity and sex with impurity. But maybe that is a subject for another day!

However, after saying this, we are left with what to make of the remarkable fact of how dominant agapē is in Paul – and the rest of the NT. I’ll come back to this in the next post – stay tuned!

Should churches be kept open?

Last week, in the Republic of Ireland, the four Roman Catholic Archbishops wrote to the Taoiseach Micheál Martin requesting a meeting to talk about lifting the ban on people attending religious services under Ireland’s Level 3 Coronavirus restrictions. Level 3 is now in place for all 26 counties – with a high likelihood that it will go to Level 4 or 5.

In the North, religious services are permitted, highlighting the difference between ROI and the UK on this issue. Apparently, Ireland is currently the only place in Europe with such restrictions on public worship in place.

From a Catholic perspective being unable to attend Mass is not just an inconvenience, but strikes at the core of Catholic practice. The Archbishop’s letter talks of Mass not being simply a gathering of people ‘but profound expressions of who we are as a Church’.

This conversation echoes one happening in the UK. At the end of September a letter signed by 700 church leaders (including quite a few Presbyterian Church in Ireland ministers) across the UK was sent to Boris Johnston and the leaders of devolved parliaments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, urging them not to stop people from attending church services.

As far as I understand, it was signed on a personal basis rather than being a formal submission from denominations and church networks.

To: The Prime Minister Boris Johnson, First Minister Mark Drakeford, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill Cc: Members of Parliament, Members of the Scottish Parliament, Members of the Welsh Parliament, Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly

24 September 2020

Dear Prime, First and Deputy First Ministers,

As church leaders from across the four nations of the UK, we have been deeply concerned about the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic across society. We have carefully followed government guidance to restrict its spread. But increasingly our concern relates to the damaging effects of anti-Covid restrictions on many of the most important aspects of life.

Our God-given task as Christian ministers and leaders is to point people to Jesus Christ, who said he came to bring ‘life in all its fullness’. Therefore, we are troubled by policies which prioritise bare existence at the expense of those things that give quality, meaning and purpose to life. Increasingly severe restrictions are having a powerful dehumanising effect on people’s lives, resulting in a growing wave of loneliness, anxiety and damaged mental health. This particularly affects the disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society, even as it erodes precious freedoms for all. In our churches, many have been working tirelessly to provide help to those most affected.

We entirely support proportionate measures to protect those most vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2. But we question whetherthe UK Government and the devolved administrations have it in their power either to eliminate this virus or to suppress it for an indefinite period while we await a vaccine. And we cannot support attempts to achieve these which, in our view, cause more damage to people, families and society –physically and spiritually –than the virus itself.

The public worship of the Christian church is particularly essential for our nation’s wellbeing. As we live in the shadow of a virus we are unable to control, people urgently need the opportunity to hear and experience the good news and hope of Jesus Christ, who holds our lives in his hands. The supportive relationships that churches nurture between people are vital, and simply cannot be dispensed with again without significant harm. And most of all, we know that regular gathering to worship God is essential for human life to be lived to the full.

We have been and will remain very careful to apply rigorous hygiene, social distancing and appropriate risk assessment in our churches. As a result, church worship presents a hugely lesser risk of transmission than pubs, restaurants, gyms, offices and schools; and it is more important than them all. We therefore wish to state categorically that we must not be asked to suspend Christian worship again. For us to do so would cause serious damage to our congregations, our service of the nation, and our duty as Christian ministers.

We therefore call upon the Westminster and devolved governments to find ways of protecting thosewho truly are vulnerable to Covid-19 without unnecessary and authoritarian restrictions on loving families, essential personal relationships, and the worship of the Christian Church.

Yours sincerely,

It is a debate worth having. What do you think? There are no easy right and wrong answers here.

Is this unreasonable special pleading by churches? Is it in danger of being perceived as putting ‘our’ interests (the need to meet for worship) above the health of others? Where does government start to ‘overstep’ its role? At what point does government concern to protect public health (and in Ireland a chronically underfunded health service and woefully inadequate ICU capacity) become overly destructive of other critical aspects of life?

Notice that neither the Catholic Archbishops nor the UK church leaders are talking about economic damage. This is very welcome. While of course crucial, evaluating policy via a narrow economic lens is profoundly destructive. Rather, the UK letter talks of the ‘dehumanising’ effect on people’s lives and, like the Archbishops, that gathering to worship God is essential for human life to flourish.

Ian Paul is someone I read and highly respect. He was interviewed on Sky News about the UK letter which he signed. Here’s his take. (And it’s very well worth reading his reflections on communicating in this sort of public context on his blog here). And see how he well be brings the conversation around to hope, fear and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Love in Paul (1)

In researching and writing a book on love in the Bible, some interesting things come to the surface.

Did you know, for example, that agapē (the noun for love) does not appear once in the book of Acts? Another is the curious marginalisation of love in many systematic theologies and in NT theologies. There are surprisingly few full length treatments of love in the NT.

And when it comes to Paul, I suspect that love is not one of the first things that many people associate with the apostle. More likely you’ll think of justification, or mission, or modern debates over women in ministry or church leadership etc.

So it has been refreshing to read Douglas Campbell’s Pauline Dogmatics. I read it over the summer when working on an academic article on love in Paul. More than anyone I’ve read recently, Campbell (rightly) puts love front and central in Paul. He calls this ‘agapeism’ – that love explains everything important in Pauline ethics.

The other refreshing thing about Campbell’s big book is how he doesn’t just unpack Paul’s theology and leave it there. His whole enterprise moves in the direction of application to the complexities of our modern world.

Here’s a flavour of Campbell talking about how Paul talks about the love of God revealed at the cross.

This is the first post of a series on love in Paul.

The story about Jesus centered on the cross is a story of love. To speak of a God acting definitively in Jesus as he goes to the cross is immediately to grasp that God is love and to a degree that we find hard to fathom. This God was prepared to die for us – the critical import of Rom 5:6-10. The Father and the Spirit delivered up their beloved Son for us to a horrible death, and the Son obediently accepted this fate, sacrificing himself for our sakes. And they did so while were yet sinful and hostile. There is no greater love than this – a love, it should be emphasize, that was revealed ultimately in the ghastly event of the cross and that must never as a result be reduced to mere sentimentality. Jesus loved us enough to die hideously for us when we stood on the side of those who executed him. Love is this sort of action, and it characterizes our God all the way down.

Douglas Campbell, Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of Paul’s Love, p. 257.

Cruciform love is just one way Paul talks of the love of God. We’ll explore a few more in the posts to come.

Why go back to (physical) church?

The local church I belong to has not met physically together since March. Since we don’t have our own building and there will likely be further lockdowns, we don’t really know when we will meet face-to-face again.

Since these are musings, allow me to explore a question:

‘Why not keep doing church from home?’

Let’s be honest, there’s a lot going for it.

First, hasn’t it been an unexpected blessing actually to have Sunday as a day of rest rather than another day of frenetic activity? Church leaders have a Sabbath too – the preaching is recorded during the week. Isn’t it a pleasure to curl up on the sofa, cuppa in hand, to watch church online? It’s also so much more flexible given how many people’s work commitments include weekends. If you can’t make ‘live church’, you can always tune in at a more suitable time.  

Second, isn’t online church still ‘real church’? There is worship, prayer, preaching and even communion. Community is built as people connect over video before or after the service. There can be virtual Bible studies and youth events during the week. The calling of all Christians to witness, to serve and to love God and neighbour isn’t changed by how they meet on Sundays. Indeed, maybe online church can help to free us from equating ‘church’ with a couple of hours per week on a Sunday morning.  

Third, online church seems much more cost-effective and environmentally friendly than traditional church. Just think of all those car journeys saved. Just think of the millions spent on church buildings and the cost of construction, heating, insuring, equipping and maintaining them. Might online church help us to re-evaluate our expensive attachment to bricks and mortar?

So, what do you think? Is the Coronavirus pandemic a time for a radical reimagining of church? Are we better off staying virtual?

I think my answers to those two questions are ‘Yes’ and ‘No’.

‘Yes’, this is a good time to think hard about traditional church – to ask why we were doing what we were doing. What lessons can we learn for doing church differently in the future? It would be interesting to hear your answers to that question.

‘No’, despite what I’ve said so far, online church feels second-best. Theologically there is an essential physicality to the Christian faith. The Word became flesh and came to live among us. We are embodied people made by God to relate to one another, and that happens best in person. A central thread of the Bible story is that of God’s people, together as a body called to worship, love and follow their God. Jesus’ command to break bread and drink wine in his memory is best obeyed sharing the communion meal together around the Lord’s table. If love includes caring for others, it’s hard to do that well via a screen. Young children, I suspect, come off worst from the shift online – they need physical relationships, play and learning with friends.

But there are other problems with online church. It all too easily ends up being a product designed to fit the personal preferences of its ‘customers’. It encourages individualism and erodes the difficult calling of genuine community. We can choose whom we hang out with and when. It generally suits those with comfortable homes, internet access and who are relatively self-sufficient and makes invisible those who don’t. My guess is it will weaken a church’s commitment to mission. And it also enforces an already powerful trend where worship, teaching and even Bible reading is all mediated via a screen. This tech take-over of church is now almost complete and, I think, has profoundly dehumanising results – it narrows further our worship of God to listening passively to a screen.

So, while I’m grateful we have been able to continue to ‘meet’ as a church, my hope and prayer is that we will be able to worship together again ‘in the flesh’ once more – as Christians have done from the very beginning of the church.   

[These ‘Musings’ are from the latest edition of Vox]

The Age of Disappointment

There is much excellent writing by talented authors on the cultural, social and political challenges of our times. This is one of the best.

David Brooks in The Atlantic on ‘America is Having a Moral Convulsion’

It could also be called ‘The Age of Disappointment’ or ‘What Happens When Trust Disappears’ or ‘Why Trump is in power’ or even ‘The Disintegration of America’.

Some clips below – but well worth a read in full.

And for followers of Jesus, Brooks’ forensic analysis raises all sorts of questions. And not only in the USA – many of the trends he talks about are present throughout the West, and are certainly here in Ireland.

Christians are to be people of the gospel – of good news. The story Brooks tells is an unremitting tale of bad news. Societal fragmentation, injustice, fear, despair, depression, insecurity, anxiety, familial breakdown, rage, violence, selfishness, individualism, the collapse of a civic commons and institutional decay.

A tragedy for the church, it seems to me, is when it mirrors the distrust, fears and hopelessness of the world. Brooks’ comment about (some) American evangelicals is telling

Evangelicalism has gone from the open evangelism of Billy Graham to the siege mentality of Franklin Graham.

Any Christian leader reading this article and especially Brooks’ final paragraph, should, I think, be asking ‘How can I, how can our church, embody Christian virtues of trust, faithfulness, kindness, justice, love of God, neighbour and even enemy?

Not in order to ‘save’ America, but to fulfil the Christian calling of being people of the gospel, people of hope, faith and love.

From David Brooks

Trump is the final instrument of this crisis, but the conditions that brought him to power and make him so dangerous at this moment were decades in the making, and those conditions will not disappear if he is defeated.

… The emerging generations today … grew up in a world in which institutions failed, financial systems collapsed, and families were fragile. Children can now expect to have a lower quality of life than their parents, the pandemic rages, climate change looms, and social media is vicious. Their worldview is predicated on threat, not safety.

Unsurprisingly, the groups with the lowest social trust in America are among the most marginalized …

Black Americans have been one of the most ill-treated groups in American history; their distrust is earned distrust …

The second disenfranchised low-trust group includes the lower-middle class and the working poor…

This brings us to the third marginalized group that scores extremely high on social distrust: young adults. These are people who grew up in the age of disappointment. It’s the only world they know … In the age of disappointment, our sense of safety went away. Some of this is physical insecurity: school shootings, terrorist attacks, police brutality, and overprotective parenting at home that leaves young people incapable of handling real-world stress. But the true insecurity is financial, social, and emotional.

… In this world, nothing seems safe; everything feels like chaos.

… When people feel naked and alone, they revert to tribe. Their radius of trust shrinks, and they only trust their own kind. Donald Trump is the great emblem of an age of distrust—a man unable to love, unable to trust.

… By 2020, people had stopped seeing institutions as places they entered to be morally formed, Levin argued. Instead, they see institutions as stages on which they can perform, can display their splendid selves. People run for Congress not so they can legislate, but so they can get on TV. People work in companies so they can build their personal brand. The result is a world in which institutions not only fail to serve their social function and keep us safe, they also fail to form trustworthy people. The rot in our structures spreads to a rot in ourselves.

The culture that is emerging, and which will dominate American life over the next decades, is a response to a prevailing sense of threat … We’re seeing a few key shifts.

From risk to security

From achievement to equality

From self to society

From global to local

From liberalism to activism

For centuries, America was the greatest success story on earth, a nation of steady progress, dazzling achievement, and growing international power. That story threatens to end on our watch, crushed by the collapse of our institutions and the implosion of social trust. But trust can be rebuilt through the accumulation of small heroic acts—by the outrageous gesture of extending vulnerability in a world that is mean, by proffering faith in other people when that faith may not be returned. Sometimes trust blooms when somebody holds you against all logic, when you expected to be dropped. It ripples across society as multiplying moments of beauty in a storm.

Simply beautiful

I heard this on the radio this morning – must admit that my wife and I both shed a tear or two. Both our mothers had alzheimers.

This is from Nick Harvey in England. His father, Paul, a former music teacher, who now has dementia, is given four notes by his son from which to improvise a piece of music.

The result is hauntingly beautiful and captures, I think, the tragedy of someone losing their mind alongside a reminder of the intrinsic dignity and humanity of each human life.

The reaction has been such that the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra are going to record the piece with Paul Harvey.

God’s Love Versus God’s Wrath? (2)

This post looks at Kevin Kinghorn’s recent book But What About God’s Wrath?: The Compelling Love Story of Divine Anger. Kevin Kinghorn with Stephen Travis. Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Writing as a Christian philosopher in the Wesleyan tradition he sets out to give an answer to the age-old question of how can a God of love also be a God of wrath.

This is no easy task of course and the title of Kinghorn’s book indicates the challenge of reconciling how divine love and wrath are to be understood.

His overall case is that God’s wrath arises in response to human sin and disobedience and is always an expression of divine love. Here’s a bullet point summary:

  • Divine wrath is rational action undertaken by God in response to human oppression and self-destructive behaviour.
  • It is purposeful – designed to achieve constructive desired outcomes (human flourishing).
  • Divine anger is the flip side of God’s care and compassion. God acts to confront and overcome injustice that harms his good purposes for us. [What loving parent would not act to protect their child from harm – done by others or self-inflicted? Love means confronting evil].
  • Love is an essential attribute (intrinsic to being) of the triune God. Wrath is not.
  • There is a fundamental asymmetry between divine love and divine wrath.
  • God, as a benevolent and loving heavenly father, always seeks the good for human beings.
  • Other divine commitments – like justice, holiness and glory – can be subsumed under the fundamental benevolent goal of bringing life to all people (this is important – see final paragraphs below on love and glory).
  • At specific times and in specific situations, God’s wrath is the most appropriate means of getting people to turn away from oppressive and/or self-destructive behaviour. Kinghorn calls this ‘God pressing the truth on us’ about ourselves.
  • God is always willing to abandon wrath where repentance occurs.
  • Sometimes divine wrath is experienced by God withdrawing his presence and protection (think God’s threat to withdraw his presence from Israel during the Golden Calf incident for example). At other times it involves God raising up an agent of wrath (like Assyria or Babylon).
  • In this sense divine wrath is like a megaphone (my image). It shocks us into facing hard truths about ourselves with the aim of bringing us back to a flourishing life of love and obedience to God.
  • This is no easy process – it will be painful and difficult. (This is, as I read it, a sort of psychologising of God’s wrath – it’s aim is to change human thinking and behaviour)
  • When it comes to final judgment, experience of divine wrath is self-chosen separation from God. (This echoes C. S. Lewis’s image of the doors of hell being locked on the inside).
  • Kinghorn does not believe any good moral case can be made for divine wrath taking the form of ‘active retribution’. For this to be moral, there would have to be some good purpose in God actively punishing those who have rejected his invitation to life. Kinghorn can see no such good.

Linking back to the first post, Kinghorn’s framework is ‘Wrath as loving warning’.

He rejects Calvin’s notion of double predestination (some predestined for eternal life, some predestined for eternal punishment). Similarly, the idea that God is glorified when his perfect will is fulfilled through people suffering eternal separation “is clearly not consistent with benevolent love’ (p. 67).

It is not that he is glorified as he wills for people to be separated. Rather he is glorifed as his benevolent desires for all people’s well-being are revealed. This revealed desire, of course, is so often expressed through Scripture in terms of God’s lament and sorrow when the people he loves turn from him and head toward the path of self-destruction … God could never be glorified at the expense of his essential attribute of benevolent love. (pp. 67-68)

I’m with the Wesleyan on this one. How about you?

Thinking about the colour of my skin

This is a reflection I wrote for the PS column of Contemporary Christianity

It is also published on Jesus Creed on Christianity Today’s website.

Galatians 3:28 is one of the better-known verses in the Bible: 

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” 

Christians, rightly, rejoice at its liberating truth – all joined ‘in Christ’ through faith are ‘one’. This unity transcends the great religious, socio-economic and gender divisions of the ancient world. The implications are astounding – in God’s eyes all human beings are of equal value and dignity regardless of religion, ethnicity, net-worth, social standing, intelligence, physical disability, education, gender, age, or skin colour.

However, it’s one thing to affirm an inclusive principle, it’s quite another to put it into practice. From its earliest days, a challenge for the church has been to live up to its calling to be a radically inclusive community in contrast to systemic inequalities that define the world.

At this point Wilberforce is often referenced (rightly) as an inspiring example of Galatians 3:28 in action – taking on, and defeating, the economic and political might of the slave trade. His dogged determination, and eventual success, is a story worth telling. 

But I wonder if it also rather too conveniently air-brushes the darker history of Christian rejection of the radical social and political implications of Galatians 3:28. 

Perhaps if you are reading this you might be like me, a Christian with roots in Northern Ireland evangelical Protestantism. Over the years I’ve thought a lot about theology and the intersections between evangelical identity, faith and politics. I’ve also thought a lot about gender, particularly how innumerable gifted women have experienced marginalisation within the church and the inbuilt privilege and assumptions I have as a man. For centuries the dominant paradigm was that women were simply inferior to men. If we had space, we could quote Chrysostom, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and Hodge and many others. More recently, modern ‘complementarians’ shy away from the inferiority argument, instead making the historically novel, and logically questionable, claim that women are equal in status and gifting with men and yet selected leadership roles in church and family are open only to men.

But why is it, I ask myself, that it took the death of George Floyd for me, in my 50s, to even begin seriously to think about the colour of my skin?  

Over the last few weeks I’ve begun to read up on slavery and the bloody history of white colonialism in Africa (too many atrocities to name but we could start with Britain in multiple places, German genocide in Namibia and millions dying in the Congo under Belgian rule). And then there are the tens of millions more men, woman and children kidnapped and transported to lives of unimaginable brutality in a global slave trade designed to prop up the developing economies of the colonial powers. And this doesn’t even include the violent suppression, and local exterminations, of indigenous populations in places like Australia and the United States. To this you can add Apartheid in South Africa and the appalling more recent history of deliberate systematised racism in America post-Lincoln (summarised in this excellent video by Phil Vischer of Veggie Tales fame). 

And white Christianity has been, and is, deeply implicated in this toxic history. Yes, that’s a sweeping statement but one, I think, that is impossible to deny. White supremacism isn’t a delusion of the radical left, it’s a defining assumption of modern Western history. Underneath it is an ability of those claiming the name of Christ to detach political and economic activity from what they profess to believe. In other words, to read the words of Galatians 3:28 but leave their radical implications conveniently behind in favour of power and money.  

Edward Colston. Wikipedia

Take Edward Colston, so recently thrown into Bristol harbour (well his statue at any rate). A slave trader who made vast profit from human lives, but also a churchman and philanthropist, well known for his generosity to good causes (hence his statue). 

So is this PS just an exercise in ‘white guilt’? After all, you may be thinking, ‘What has all this got to do with me? I’m not responsible for the past. Nor do I live in the racially segregated USA.’ 

Well, let me suggest that recent events are challenging that sort of detachment, wherever you live. If you are a white follower of Jesus and haven’t thought about what that means as a Christian, then this is a good time to start. Indeed, the very problem with ‘whiteness’ is that it is taken to be the ‘norm’ – and we don’t think about what seems to be normal (which is why I’d never thought seriously about being white until now). 

One Christian scholar challenging these sorts of assumptions is Professor David Horrell who has studied how Galatians 3:28 has been applied by white Western Bible interpreters. He concludes that 

“… though it may be uncomfortable to acknowledge it, is not our racialised identity one significant part of that complex intersection of facets of identity to which we should – indeed must – pay attention? …  Assuming that our interpretation is uncontextualised – unmarked, unlocated, unraced – is, I would suggest, no longer a feasible option.” 

In other words, if you are a Christian, you are a Christian first and a white person second. It is as Christians we are called to reflect theologically and critically on the intersections of whiteness, power and injustice. This means beginning to appreciate that our reading of history, theology, the Bible and Christian identity is deeply shaped by our whiteness. And then to put those assumptions under the searchlight of texts like Galatians 3:28.

In doing so we will be better placed to begin to seek out, befriend and listen to non-white voices and perspectives. This is especially needed in such an ethnically monochrome society like Northern Ireland. Maybe, just maybe, as we do so we will begin to understand, and to feel, what it means in day-to-day experience to be non-white within a ‘default’ white culture. And once we begin to see things through non-white eyes, perhaps, just perhaps, we will find ourselves called to act against systemic inequality in the church and wider society.

God’s love vs God’s wrath? (1)

When’s the last time you heard a sermon really engaging with themes of divine wrath and judgment (rather than just a passing reference)?

How do you understand how the love and wrath of God relate to one another?

This is no abstract question. How you answer it will have profound implications for your view of God and of the ‘morality’ of Christianity for a start.

This post, and a couple more follow-ons, is prompted by reviewing for a journal two recent books on divine wrath and love. I’ll get to them later. I’m also engaging with Tony Lane’s (who taught me theology many years ago!) important book chapter ‘The Wrath of God as an Aspect of the Love of God’, in Kevin J. Vanhoozer (ed.), Nothing Greater Nothing Better: Theological Essays on the Love of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), pp. 138–167.

For many, the idea of the wrath of God puts them off Christianity altogether – it’s primitive and repulsive.

Generally within the church, wrath is mentioned rarely if at all.

In many churches I’d wager you could go years without hearing teaching on the wrath of God. One writer wryly draws this parallel

Most preachers and most composers of prayers today treat the biblical doctrine of the wrath of God very much as the Victorians treated sex. It is there, but it must never be alluded to because it is in an undefined way shameful ..

R. P. C. Hanson, God: Creator, Saviour, Spirit (London: S.C.M., 1960), p. 37.

The Bible has a lot to say about the love of God. While there are major debates to be had about what it means that God is a God of love, few (if any?) Christians would question the idea that ‘God is love’ in principle. After all, John states ‘God is love’ categorically, twice.

And love is so deeply woven into the biblical narrative that to try to imagine Christianity (or Judaism) without love at the centre of ethics and worship is pretty well impossible. God’s love for his people and his world, human love for God in response, and human love for one another, form three great strands of the Bible story.

But Christians start to diverge widely when it comes to the wrath of God. A number of responses can be observed, and these are just sketches, not comprehensive descriptions.

i) Love and wrath opposed to one another

This is where God is disassociated from from the ‘lower’ attribute of wrath. Love is effectively opposed to wrath.  Wrath is not an admirable quality: it smacks too much of vengeance and is a destructive emotion, ‘unworthy’ of a God of infinite love.

To make a coherent serious case for this view would require significant reinterpretation and re-reading of a wealth of biblical texts that have no problem attributing both wrath and love to God. For example, portrayals of a God of wrath in Scripture are crude anthropomorphisms – human authors attributing all too human-emotions and actions to God. And we have now moved on from such limited perspectives.

Or you could go the full-on Marcion route and set up the wrathful God of the OT against the loving God of (parts of) the NT. The latter rescues us from the former.

As already mentioned, much more common, is an unspoken denial of the wrath of God. Quite simply it is never talked about and such a silence says a thousand words. Wrath has become a taboo subject.

But why is the church today so reticent about talking about wrath?

I think several factors are at play

– the belief that the attribute of wrath does not belong to a God whose defining attribute is love. Love and wrath do not mix.

– Christians being shaped and formed by a contemporary culture that prizes tolerance, inclusiveness, diversity and love, and which, as a result, has little place for the moral judgments associated with divine wrath

– An Enlightenment mentality (Tony Lane), in which humanity stands at the centre of reality, imagines a God (if he exists) who is like a cheerleader for human progress, not transcendent and holy God to whom everyone is accountable

– A sentimental view of God and love, emptied out of theological depth and detached from the biblical narrative, that has no capacity to integrate divine love and wrath. Instead, God is assumed to be a benevolent, kindly force, depersonalised to such an extent that ‘God is love’ becomes ‘love is God’.

ii) Love and wrath detached

A second response emphasizes wrath as an inevitable and impersonal consequence of human self-destructive behaviour. A cause-and-effect process that results in our human sin, selfishness, disobedience and injustice bringing judgment upon ourselves.

This view does not deny a connection between God and wrath. But it decouples wrath from God’s personal response to human rebellion. God is left somewhat ‘out of the picture’, allowing wrath to be experienced due to self-destructive human behaviour but not being personally wrathful. Indeed he has done everything imaginable (the cross) so that humans he has created and loves do not experience the inevitable consequences of their own actions.

The classic proponent of this view is C. H. Dodd (1959). God is detached from ‘the irrational passion of anger’.  The concern is to distance God from all-too-human destructive, angry and emotional reactions to displeasing behaviour.

There’s a lot to be said for this view.

– Great care is needed not to project human limitations on to God. God is not irrational, arbitrary or capricious, nor vindictive or petty, delighting in pouring out his wrath on his enemies. Especially in the past, there was no shortage of preaching and teaching which did portray God in exactly such terms – with horrible results.

– Dodd is right that much language of wrath in the NT does depersonalise it in terms of a process that culminates in inevitable judgment (a future day of wrath). In Paul, divine anger (thymos) appears alongside wrath (orgē) only once (Rom 2:8). Wrath is more like a condition everyone is under but can be redeemed from due to the loving initiative of the triune God revealed in incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

– Most theologians (and I’d put myself in this category) also affirm that there is a fundamental asymmetry between divine love and divine wrath. Love is God’s essential attribute, but wrath is not. By ‘essential attribute’ I mean that which is intrinsic to whom God is in himself. Wrath is ‘secondary’ in that it only exists as his response to something ‘outside’ of God (human sin, forces of evil). ‘God is love’ does not find a parallel in ‘God is wrath’ (thank God!). God is ‘slow to anger’ – the story of the Bible is about God acting to redeem, restore, forgive, heal and warn so that those he loves will not face judgment.

But, while true in what it affirms, Dodd’s view does not do full justice to how the Bible talks about the wrath of God

– Tony Lane notes the irony that while, on the one hand, there is a major move in theology away from divine impassibility (God is beyond emotion, not controlled or influenced by forces outside himself) to affirming that God does indeed feel love, on the other hand there is a simultaneous move away from God personally feeling angry (Dodd).

– It is difficult, in other words, to argue that God’s love is personal and his wrath is not!

– There is also a moral question. What picture does it give of God if he does not feel anger at human injustice? Let’s personalise that question. Does not God feel anger when an adult man sexually abuses a powerless child?

– To be loving is not to be indifferent to evil and suffering – quite the opposite.

– The overwhelming picture of God in Scripture, taking into account anthropocentric language, is of a God who is passionate about justice and personally committed to overcoming all powers that destroy and corrupt his good creation. We see this in the OT but also in the language and teaching of Jesus in the NT. Yes, Paul uses impersonal language to talk of divine wrath, but God is far from a detached observer – he is active in giving people over to wrath (see point 3 – wrath as loving warning).

– Divine wrath is the ‘other side’ of divine love. For God not to feel anger at the corroding and awful impact of human sin would mean he is not a God of love.

– While Dodd did not hold this theology, his view is too close to the ‘watchmaker God’ of Deism who winds up the universe and then in a detached way, watches events unfold.

iii) Wrath as loving warning

A third perspective is divine wrath as loving warning. Here, God is responsible and actively involved in wrath. His anger is directed against specific behaviours that are destructive of his good purposes in the world.

41ca5vx0vcl._sx331_bo1204203200_I’ll talk more of this perspective in a later post. It is argued, for example, by Kevin Kinghorn in his recent book But What About God’s Wrath?: The Compelling Love Story of Divine Anger. Kevin Kinghorn with Stephen Travis. Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2019

Divine wrath takes the form of actively co-ordinating events that bring judgment, especially on God’s disobedient people, Israel. For example, despite multiple prophetic forewarnings, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile become the climatic events of divine judgement in the OT.

As we’ll discuss, this is primarily wrath as a self-chosen experience as a consequence of self-destructive human behaviour. But it differs from Dodd in that God is wrathful (angry) at sin. He is actively responsible for human experience of wrath. But his motive is always for the good of those he loves. His goal is to change behaviour and avert an ultimate self-destructive experience of wrath.

iv) Wrath as foreordained active retribution

A fourth perspective in Christian theology is shaped by a particular understanding of divine sovereignty characteristic of Augustine, Calvin and much subsequent Reformed dogmatics. If God is the ultimate sovereign over every single event, then responsibility for divine wrath is taken ‘all the way’ to its logical end.

This results in Calvin’s self-confessedly ‘dreadful decree’ of double predestination.

(And let me add here this was not a big theme in Calvin. His writing is frequently pastoral and theologically enriching. He is a profound theologian of the Spirit and of union with Christ. Double predestination was one ‘logical’ outworking of his theology of divine sovereignty, not the core of his theology. But, having said this, it is also one of the most unfortunate aspects of his theological legacy).

By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death.

https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.v.xxii.html

Somehow, God’s good purposes are furthered by this scenario. Somehow, there is something good, something of value, in God foreordaining people to ‘eternal damnation’.

This is a long way beyond an experience of wrath as ‘self-chosen’ and even further from wrath as an impersonal ’cause and effect’ process. It also goes beyond wrath as God’s ‘warning shout’ to humanity. Rather, it is God actively fore-ordaining multitudes to an experience of divine wrath and judgment.

How this is reconciled with ‘God is love’ is hard to explain – to put it mildly.

Those following Calvin here have tried at great length of course, typically referring to themes of holiness, glory and mystery.

But, to my mind, it is attempting to defend the indefensible. Double predestination is incompatible with any coherent understanding of a loving heavenly Father. What loving father would create children for such a fate?

Comments, as ever welcome.

Tim Page: reflections on a great character and a wonderful life

I haven’t had the heart to post for a few weeks now. Towards the end of June my oldest and dear friend Tim Page died after a final three year battle with cancer.

Tim PageThere is a fitting tribute in the Irish News that gives a glimpse of a remarkable and lovable man.

Below is what I said at his funeral. It seems appropriate to post it here since Tim was one of the most regular readers of this blog and we had many related conversations over the years. There is a post from Tim on this blog linking to his telling of his one year post stem-cell transplant journey. It’s very hard to read today but the character talked about below shines through.

Rev Fiona McCrea gave a lovely tribute telling the rich story of Tim’s life and Rev Alex Wimberly of the Corrymeela Community, of which Tim and Ruth were members, also participated, praying in thanksgiving for a life well-lived and for Tim’s grieving family and friends.

When in the isolation Burkitt Ward of St James’ hospital Dublin for his donor stem cell transplant in December 2017 Tim asked me to speak at his funeral if he didn’t make it out the other side. And there was a high chance he wouldn’t.

I was humbled to be asked but said it was a task that I never wanted to take up. It turned out to be 2 ½ years later and here we are. None of us want to be, but here we are.

He also said he’d given me advance time to prepare! And you would think I would be, especially after sitting with Ruth around his bed last Saturday and saying goodbye. But I suspect all of us feel utterly unprepared for today. We are still trying to come to terms with the reality that he didn’t make it out of that last battle. His body had finally had enough.

We don’t want to be here because, as St Paul puts it in his first letter to the Corinthians, death is the great enemy. Tim talked about this. He didn’t have much time for platitudes, even if well meaning, that death is a friend to be welcomed, like a hospitable host ushering you in to the next life.

No, he knew well that death is a destroyer of life and Tim fought it with all his might. Not just over the last 2 ½ years of course, but on and off for over the last 30.  He was incredibly resilient and I’ll come back to that resilience in a moment.

We grieve today for that loss of life. But not just life in general, the loss of a particular life. A truly wonderful life – to quote the name of one of his favourite films played on his 50th birthday.

I don’t say that lightly. I’ve known Tim for over 50 years. He’s been my closest friend and I can’t think of a better person or a better friend. And I’m sure Ruth would say here that there couldn’t be a better husband, and Downey and Christopher a better dad … and Primrose a better son, and Rosalind a better brother .. and we could go on I am sure ..Maurice, Jane, Page, Iris, Marigold, Janet, Steven ..

We grieve for the loss of a great character. And I don’t mean that in an Irish way, where to call someone a ‘character’ tends not to be a compliment! I mean it quite literally.

Character is formed over the course of a life, through thousands of choices made every day. It doesn’t happen by accident. Good character is reflected  in virtues, bad character in vices. And Tim is deeply loved by so many because of his character – who he was as a person – in those choices for the good that he made throughout his life

And so what I’d like to share for a few minutes are some reflections on Tim’s character. There is so much I could say but 6 particular virtues come to mind as I think about Tim.

These are just my way of thinking about Tim – I am sure that all of us could add many many more …

  1. LOVE

The first and greatest virtue is love.  As I’ve mentioned, Tim was a life-long friend. But not just to me – to others and I think of Craig and Brian especially. And many others in BT, in Corrymeela and elsewhere. He shaped his life around commitments to others and projects and organisations that he saw made a difference.

And of course most of all he shaped his life around his love and loyalty to his great friend, partner and love of his life, Ruth. And then later to Christopher and Downey, his beloved sons.

I joked once that Ruth is far too good for him. He landed on his feet when he met her – and of course he instantly agreed. And one of the mostly lovely things about Tim is that he never stopped praising his wife. He knew he was deeply loved and how blessed he was to have someone so unselfishly orientated to another’s good – for that is what love is.

But that joke was not really true. It is better to say that they have been so wonderfully suited together as a couple who have loved one another through good times (and thankfully so much of Tim’s life was not defined by illness) and hard times as they vowed to do in Coleraine just over 26 years ago

“for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.”

That’s what love is about – a relentless commitment to the other’s good. Tim and Ruth lived it out together. Right to our very last zoom call, Tim’s concern was not for himself, it was for Ruth, his family and his friends.

And this brings me back to that remarkable resilience. It wasn’t I think primarily about himself – it was primarily for Ruth and for Downey and Christopher.

He was so bursting with pride and love for you both as I’m sure you know. To see you make your own way in life. For Downey with IBM and Christopher being accepted to the PhD programme.

But of course that love was not based on your achievements: he loved you unconditionally – as a parent, as a father, who only wanted the best for his children – to see you flourish.  

2. HONESTY

A second virtue is honesty. Or truthtelling.

A Christian theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, says truth is all that Christians have. We need to be able to tell the truth about ourselves and our world. Neither are the way they are supposed to be.

And Tim would be the last person to say he was this perfect virtuous person – he had his weaknesses and failings.

But while most of us try to cover up those failings, and put on a good face, Tim was probably one of the most honest and vulnerable people I’ve ever met.

Honesty takes courage – an extra virtue I’m smuggling in here. All through his illnesses, he was always brutally honest. He shared his joys and his fears. Sometimes he raged at God. And how many times it was just painful hell and he wanted nothing else but switch off reality and go play computer games.

And Tim’s antennae for truth had its downside! He had an unerring knack of detecting bluff. When you were with Tim you never had a safe dull conversation. You knew you would be lovingly interrogated as to what was really going on!

That honesty was a form of love – he wanted authenticity, realness, deep relationship.

3. JOYFULNESS

The third virtue is joyfulness. I mean by that a joy in life, that is infectious.

I remember when were probably around 12 Tim exclaiming with great conviction “Mitch, computers are the future!”. I didn’t know what a computer was of course. Vaguely aware they were the size of warehouses and did things for governments.

But of course Tim was right. And his love of innovation, early adopting of technology and computing led him to his degree and career in BT.

Another more recent memory is Tim escaping from the Doctors and taking the Enterprise to Dublin for a day out on his own. It was some time after the first stem cell transplant in Belfast … we met for lunch in Trinity College and he went shopping to get something special for Ruth . He really shouldn’t have been there but his mischievous side delighted in doing what he shouldn’t. 

He loved life: he was curious, a student of ideas; business and management. Always open to hear what interested you.

Heck he was even willing to listen to a bit of Bob Dylan in the last few months – but I don’t think I sold him on that one …

I learnt a huge amount from him on dealing with change and how think about organisations. He loved thinking about how to improve people’s experience and make work not only more efficient but also more human.

I recall him saying when the cancer came back once again and he to retire from BT, one of his great losses was missing that team of talented people. That was Tim – he loved working with others, seeing the best in others, and as a leader – encouraging others to flourish. And this is why psychology and coaching was such a big part of his life

This links very closely to the next virtue which is humility.

4. HUMILITY

If you know it all you have nothing to learn. Arrogance is the opposite of humility and the last thing that described Tim was arrogance.

He was always ready with a witty self-depreciation when he knew he got too serious or intense. I will so miss his big laugh, his poking fun at himself, even in pain, his lack of self-pity, his dignity in all the indignities of being so ill for so long, his dry wit.

You saw his humility in how he got uncomfortable with people saying he was inspirational. He’d say I’m just someone who’s sick and doesn’t want to be and who’s trying to get through one day at a time …

Marva Dawn is a theologian we talked about at one point, she wrote a powerful book ‘Being Well When Ill’. Her suffering through multiple illnesses shaped her spirituality – and it also did with Tim.

By that I mean he was keenly aware of how fragile and short life was, and the foolishness of thinking he was in control, or could control things. And how empty so much human rhetoric of control and solutions are – especially around medicine.

He knew, however great the medical treatment gets, we don’t get out of life alive. We all face death.

But rather than lead to despair, that led him to prayer and trust in the loving kindness of God. Prayer is a form of humility and Tim was a person of prayer.

It is also linked to the next virtue – kindness

5. KINDNESS

At the core of Tim’s life was his love for God and being a follower of Jesus. His was what I call a generous orthodoxy – he had no time for meanness and drawing tight lines.

Tim was shaped within the Methodist tradition that, going back to John Wesley, places great value on the social implications of the gospel. That disciples of Jesus are called to imitate him in their love and concern for others.

You saw that in Tim’s life in a 100 different wys. Two immediately come to mind

You saw it in his taking up Park Running after the first transplant and completing all the Park Runs in NI and raising many £1000s for cancer research – and inspiring so many others in the process.

You saw it how he treated people. Ruth said the other day in hospital how Tim knew everyone’s names: from Professors to care assistants to drs and nurses to cleaners: And he knew about families and lives, and he kept a list.

That was Tim – its linked to humility. He was always so deeply appreciative of the unearned blessing of an accident of birth resulting in having free access to first world treatment by highly qualified professionals.

There is a humility needed to be kind.

Tim had every excuse to be consumed with his own troubles, but I suspect that if you interviewed all the hundreds of care workers who looked after Tim (and they were fantastic) – you would come away with hundreds of stories of Tim’s kindness and thoughtfulness – of his appreciation and thankfulness for their care.

Kindness is miles away from weakness – it takes strength to love and to be kind.

6. HOPE

The last virtue I want to mention is hope. Hope is a virtue in that it affirms life, it blesses others, and it gives tremendous strength to endure difficulty and hardship. It looks forward to a better future

We often talked about hope and the love of God. And if both can make sense in a world so marred by suffering and death.

Now I don’t think we came up with the answer! There isn’t a nice neat one. But Tim knew for himself the love of God, he knew the goodness of God – and he knew his life was in God’s hands.  

And he died – as we had often talked about – in the sure hope that God has done something about that world of suffering and death. That he’s confronted it head-on at the cross, and defeated that enemy in the resurrection of the Son

Tim died in that resurrection hope. He looked forward, as Christians do – to a new life, a new creation and a new body, free of sickness and disease. Where death will be no more, and the God of life will be all in all.

You can see it in the songs and readings he’s chosen today

And so as we experience today at the deep loss of his presence among us, I think he would say to us,

“Yes its right to lament, to weep, to grieve – for death is not a friend. But death will not have the last word.”

In the meantime, like everyone else here, I’ll miss you terribly brother.