Dead white imperialists

On showing my brother and family around Dublin and arriving at St Patrick’s Cathedral only to realise that it cost quite a bit to get in for two families.

While undecidedly humming and ahhing at the door, a woman leaves and says to us, “Don’t bother, it’s just full of dead white imperialists.”

So we didn’t.

Bird’s Eye View of Paul (15) Debating imputation

Continuing our tour through Michael Bird’s excellent book, A Bird’s Eye View of Paul

An aside on imputation

Since the Reformation, much has been made of imputation as the basis of justification: the double sided notion that God imputes the merits and obedience of Jesus to believers, and imputes back their sin to Jesus on the cross.

One reason why some Reformed people are so vehemently opposed to N T Wright is that he says there is no such imputation going on in the NT. It just ain’t there. He rejects the notion that some abstract ‘righteousness’ of Jesus can be transferred to another person. In other words, a key platform for Reformation understanding of justification by faith is built on sand.

Michael Bird has an interesting take on this. On the one hand, he agrees with N T Wright that the classic imputation texts [2 Corinthians 5:21; Romans 4:1-5; 1 Corinthians 1:30; Philippians 3:6-9] don’t explicitly say what some people want them to say.

“Well, the fact of the matter is that we cannot proof text imputation … the texts come close to saying something like [imputation], but fall short of doing so … if we think we can find … the entire package [of imputation] … in all of these texts we are sadly mistaken”

On the other hand, he argues that taken together there is overwhelming evidence that the NT does support some form of imputation. It is hard to understand the cross without some sense that Christ’s perfection becomes the believer’s, and the believer’s sin and imperfection in some sense becomes Christ’s.

Bird explains it in terms of what he calls incorporated righteousness. Through incorporation into Christ by faith, what is Christ’s becomes ours and what is ours becomes Christ’s. Paul’s favourite phrase for the Christian after all is someone who is ‘in Christ’.

And imputation is ‘a necessary logical inference to make’. It makes sense of how the NT talks in lots of different ways, of how there is a ‘transfer’ between believers and Jesus; how he takes what is ours and we are given what he is.

– Believers are ‘in Christ’ – in union with him.

– He is the New Adam

– He is perfect and sinless

– Believers are declared righteous in Christ, who alone fulfils the law

– Righteousness if a ‘gift’ given to believers

Some comments

The real issue here is that the NT is a not a systematic theology textbook. The strong sense of imputation Bird describes is more implicit than explicit. It is more an assumed truth than an issue specifically addressed in a letter to an early church community.

If the classic Reformed doctrine of imputation needs an overhaul, in theory this should  pose no problem to a church that is semper reformanda (always reforming). Reality though is different. As Thomas Kuhn showed years ago with science, people can invest so much in certain interpretations and systems, that when challenged, rather than being open to fresh understandings, defend those interpretations to the hilt.

Hauerwas on education

Still reading bits of Stanley Hauerwas around the subject of church and state. Here’s a typically provocative quote from After Christendom;

I can think of no more conformist and suicidal message in modernity than that we should encourage students to make up their own minds. This is simply to ensure that they will be good conformist consumers in a capitalist economy by assuming that ideas are but another product that you get to choose on the basis of your arbitrary likes and dislikes. To encourage students to think for themselves is therefore a sure way to avoid any meaningful disagreement. That is the reason that I tell my students that my first object is to help them think just like me. [98]

Now that makes you think.

Best Kept Secret (9) What is the Gospel?

I’d been looking forward to reading this chapter of John Dickson’s book, called ‘What is the Gospel?’ Scot McKnight in his summer institute at IBI mentioned Dickson as the closest example to what he [Scot] will be saying in his upcoming book In the Beginning was the Gospel. I posted at length on what Scot had to say that week and the two of them are also very close to what Michael Bird was saying the need to get beyond a narrow individualistic gospel in his book on Paul.

This is the longest chapter in the book. I’m going to highlight the big points but its worth reading in full:

The gospel has a specific and limited content

– Gospel (good news) is intrinsically attached to the kingdom of God

– Isaiah 52:7 looks forward to the ‘beautiful feet’ of he who would announce the unveiling of God’s kingdom – which is what Jesus does (Mk 1:14-15)

– The gospel is about the news that God, through his Messiah, rules as king of all

– The gospel is to preached, announced, taught, promoted, within the overall mission of helping people to ‘realise and submit to God’s kingship or lordship over their lives.’

But the gospel is more than ‘God reigns’ – it is all about how the reign has been revealed to the world in the deeds of the Messiah, Jesus.

– Authentic ‘gospel telling’, Dickson says, will recount the broad narrative of Jesus’ life. The good news is all about Jesus and what he has done.

– The ‘gospel’ therefore corresponds closely to the story told in the 4 gospels

– Like Scot McKnight and Michael Bird, Dickson goes to 1 Cor 15:3-5; Roms 1:3-4 and 2 Tim 2:8 as key texts where Paul stops to unpack what is meant by the good news he preaches.

– Paul’s summary in 1 Cor 15 mirrors the structure of the gospels in emphasising:

i. Sin atoning death

ii. Burial

iii. Resurrection

iv. Appearances

v.  Of the one vindicated by God to be Messiah / Lord

As with Romans 1:3-4

i. The story of the gospel fulfils the purpose of the Scriptures

ii. Jesus is a royal descendant of King David, the awaited Messiah inaugurating God’s kingdom

iii. He is raised from the dead and demonstrated to be ‘Christ [Messiah] our Lord’. The resurrection is a key part of the gospel, demonstrating that Jesus is the glorious son ‘in full possession of the Spirit-life of God’s kingdom’.

iv. This ‘book-end’ summary of the gospel dovetails with the beginning and ending of the gospels. Jesus is God’s appointed Lord.

–          2 Timothy 2:8 summarises the same themes in an even shorter way. The gospel is all about Jesus raised from the dead and descended from David.

So what is the gospel?

“for Paul is the news of Jesus’ royal birth, authoritative teaching and miracles, sacrificial death and burial, glorious resurrection and appearances to witnesses. It is the whole story of the Messiah, establishing him as Lord, Judge and Saviour in God’s kingdom.” [126]

And within this story of the Christ, are found themes of sin & atonement; faith & repentance. The gospel story has deep theological significance.

“The gospel (message) and the Gospels (books) are one.”

This is why, early in church history, the titles of the 4 gospels were called “The Gospel according to Matthew …Mark ….Luke …John. ”

What Dickson is saying here is that you can’t preach the gospel detached from the story of Jesus (the gospel is NOT a set of abstract theological ideas). And you can’t tell the story of Jesus without unpacking its spiritual significance.

“The gospel message is the grand news about how God’s coming kingdom has been glimpsed and opened up to a sinful world in the birth, teaching, miracles, death and resurrection of God’s Son, the Messiah, who will one day return to overthrow evil and consummate the kingdom for eternity.” [127-8]

And from here Dickson demonstrates how this is the gospel preached by the first Christians in Acts. They recount the saving achievements of Jesus Christ our Lord, from birth to exaltation. Gospel preaching is introducing people to who Jesus is and what he has done.

Some comments and questions:

Are most evangelical presentations of the gospel more like a series of theological concepts virtually (or completely) detached from the story of Jesus?  Where what Scot called the ‘plan of salvation’ gets equated with the gospel and ends up reducing the gospel down to what is in effect a ‘sin-solution’?

And one effect of this CAN be (I’m not wanting to stereotype here) that there is a sense of ‘having arrived’ once I believe the gospel and ‘get saved’. The sin problem is dealt with. A result can be that living kingdom life in the power of the Spirit in the hope of the kingdom to come at the return of the Messiah, can get marginalised. I suspect that many evangelicals do not really have a place for, or know what to do with, the kingdom of God.

Are the gospels seen as spiritual milk, stories setting the scene for the real important theological stuff in Paul and Hebrews?

I remember missionary and then Principal Dr Peter Cotterell at London Bible College (now London School of Theology) telling us how looking back over his Christian ministry if he were to change one thing it would that he would have taught and preached far more from the gospels than he had done. The reason for that neglect (I’m paraphrasing here) was a traditional evangelical ‘plan of salvation’ gospel that majored on the mechanics of the atonement (justification, propitiation etc) and had little place for the ministry and life of Jesus as told in the gospels. And his rediscovery of the gospels was very much part of how the story of Jesus is packed with theological depth and significance from which all else in the NT flows.

Comments and thoughts, as ever, welcome.

Sundays in Mark (30) 10:13-16 More than hug therapy

This week our simple Sunday reflection is on Mark 10:13-16 and the story of the disciples acting as body guards against parents sending their children to Jesus to blessed in some way by a touch from the miracle working prophet. This is more than hug therapy – it’s perhaps a desperate need for divine intervention.

Repeatedly in this Gospel, we’ve seen examples of what I’ve called ‘messianic mania’ – the teaching and healing reputation of Jesus causing crowds of people to seek him out.

The Greek here for indignant is strong – he’s really annoyed. Jesus does not want to be protected from ministry needs. The children are not a burden to be escaped. They are to be welcomed and blessed. Healing and wholeness is a foretaste of the kingdom to come. The kingdom is for all, especially the apparently unimportant.

And in typical style, Jesus takes the opportunity to create a teaching moment. His mission is to proclaim the arrival of the good news of the kingdom of God.  This kingdom is bound up with the Jesus, God’s annointed servant. To enter the kingdom is to align yourself with the Messiah. It is not so much that children have simple child-like trusting faith (though many take this passage to mean this), but that entering the kingdom means giving up your adult rights of autonomy and self-determination, to become a disciple, a follower, of the man from Nazareth.


There can be few things more challenging (and insulting) to our modern minds than to be told we can only enter the kingdom of God by accepting the invitation of the King to ‘lose’ our lives, become learners, and admit that we can’t enter by our own achievements or status or efforts. Lord, help us to put aside our pride and come freely to you like little children to receive your blessing, acceptance and welcoming arms.

The Little Children and Jesus

13People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.

Hauerwas on writing

Reading stuff on church and state means reading some Stanley Hauerwas. By way of a tangent, here is a fantastic quote of his on writing from an interview in Third Way

I think that when I’m writing (which is most of my life) I’m never sure I know what I am doing until I do it. But I’ve tried to maintain a high standard in everything I do. The temptation is to think, ‘Oh, I can just dash this off because I’m Stanley Hauerwas,’ but I’ve never giv­en in to that temptation – I hope I’ve never given in to it – because I think that every forward I write, every book review I write, every essay I write, every book I write, has to be the very best I can do.

Somehow I think this might mean that Stanley Hauerwas ain’t going to be joining the blogging world any time soon.

But such serious dedication to a calling is deeply impressive. Colossians 3:17 comes to mind:

And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Changing Irish morality

The recent Irish Times ‘Sex, Sin and Society‘ survey wasn’t that surprising in that it confirmed well established trends in changing Irish attitudes to moral issues.

One thing that jumps out to me from the findings below is how Christian ethics regarding sex and marriage are likely seen by most Irish people, not as liberating and ‘good for society’, but as limiting, intolerant and judgemental.  ‘Sin’ is a marginalised concept of little relevance. Ireland is fast moving into a fully post-Christendom culture.

A question: what challenges do these findings pose for Christians in Ireland?

Q. How would you define your sexuality?
96 % Hetrosexual, 4 % Homosexual, bisexual, asexual or declined to say.

Q. Do you admire those who choose long-term celibacy for religious or moral reasons?
48% Yes 35% No 17% Don’t know

Q. Do you regard sex outside marriage as immoral?
15% Yes 79 % No 6% Don’t know

Q. Would you think less of a person if he/she revealed to you that he/she is gay or lesbian?
5% Yes 91% No 4% Don’t know

Q. Do you think gay couples should be allowed adopt children?
46% Yes 38% No 16% Don’t know

Q. Do you believe the recently enacted civil partnership legislation undermines the institution of marriage?
23% Yes, 60% No, 18% Don’t know

Q. Is virginity a quality you would value in a potential partner?
50% Yes, 36% No, 13% Don’t know

Q. At what age to you believe it is appropriate for young people to begin having sex?
Less than 18 – 28%, Aged 18 – 18%, 19 years and over – 14%, Not until married – 5%, Don’t know – 12%

Q. In banning underage sex, the law now provides that boys can be prosecuted for having sex with girls under
17, even if consensually. Girls cannot however be prosecuted for having sex with underage boys. Do you believe
this law is correct or incorrect?
7% Yes, 87% No, 6% Don’t Know

Q. Couples in Ireland increasingly live together before marriage. Is this trend more or less likely to result in
stable marriages?
57% More likely, 25% Less likely, 18% Don’t know

Q. Do you think gay couples should be allowed to marry?
67% Yes, 25% No, 8% Don’t know

Q. Should people who have changed their gender be allowed to change their birth certificates to reflect their
new sex?
48% Yes, 39% No, 13% Don’t know

A Wright turn of phrase

Reading stuff about church and state and came across this quote by N T Wright.

We thus have a dangerous situation where voting in the late-modern world is a bit like the
problem of sex in the late-modern world: we all know how to do it but we’ve all forgotten why.


At IBI we’ve been encouraging undergrad and post grad students to consider using Zotero. It’s an add on to the Firefox web browser. I did download it a couple of years ago but never got into using it. This time I’m getting into it.

The neat thing is that you can use to it to build up a database of references to books, web pages, pdfs, etc. Really cool is that by visiting a compatible site like Amazon you just click on the blue zotero logo in the address bar and bing – it populates the bibliographic reference for the book.

Then when in Word, to add footnote, just open the zotero add in, click on the item you want in the zotero database, and it generates your footnote. When it comes to the bibliography, you just click and – wonder of wonders – you immediately have a complete bibliography generated.

And the handiest of all is that you can choose whatever style of referencing you need.

There is quite a bit of work editing and saving the references in Zotero to get them the way you want them, but once done they are there for good. You can also (for free) choose to synchronise your zotero database with their server to back it up.

I’ve been trialling it while writing an article and the verdict is –  BRILLIANT! Sad I know, but when I created a fairly big bibliography with one click it gave me an absurd amount of satisfaction.

What went on at Bethany Home?

Press interest has been high over the last few days regarding the Bethany Home for mothers and children and what went on there during its time of operation from 1921-1971.

According to the Irish Times, it was a place of detention for women convicted of petty theft, prostitution, infanticide and birth concealment.

219 unmarked graves of children have been located in Mt Jerome cemetery.

The big difference here is that this story hits right home into the small world of southern evangelical Protestantism. While the Church of Ireland has denied formal responsibility, apparently C of I clergy were actively involved in the management committee. An evangelically orientated trust apparently had overall oversight

Former residents are asking the Govt to include them in the state’s redress board for those mistreated in religious institutions for which the state also had significant responsibility. So far the Govt has said no, since supposedly the ‘clients’ were there supposedly voluntarily and the length of stay was not that long. There is increasing pressure for this to change.

Details will probably keep emerging and I’m only surmising from press reports. But this whole sad affair seems to be another insight into how ‘holy Ireland’ treated the weakest and socially marginalised. This time the twist is that this was a Protestant run home. This takes us right back into the early to mid 20th Century zero-sum ‘battle’ between Catholicism and Protestantism.

There seem to be two big questions outstanding:

1. Is there evidence of systemic neglect and abuse?

From 1934 the Home had to register cause of child death. According to research by Griffith College lecturer Niall Meehan, two thirds of the deaths occurred from  1935-1944, before it gained recognition under the 1939 Public Assistance Act and was given more resources by the State.

Meehan has published an article about Bethany in History Ireland , which states that 54 children died from convulsions, 41 from convulsions and 26 from marasmus, a form of malnutrition and 19 were still-born. He points out that the government’s own inspectors brought concerns about increasing mortality, illness and chronic overcrowding at the home to the then dept of local govt and public health. This evidence is serious, and it would significant to hear the story from someone involved in working or running the Home what conditions were like. It should be said that nothing I have heard or read gives any hint of the sort of systemic violence and sexual abuse detailed in the Ryan Report on treatment of children in religious institutions.

If there is a case to answer, what should the response be from the Church of Ireland, or any evangelical groups connected to running the Home (if still in existence)?

2. What is the responsibility of the State?

The big political issue is what responsibility the state bears if there was serious neglect. This is where the religious zero-sum game between Catholicism and Protestantism seems to rear its ugly head. The accusation is that the govt actively deprived Bethany of recognition and funding because of its evangelical / Protestant ethos. After it gained recognition the serious health issues appear to have rapidly resolved.  A key inspector of the time is charged with being more concerned about Bethany’s active proselytism, than with the welfare of the children. And the State had an active role in sending children to the Home.

So far the response of the state has been a legal one – to deny requests by survivors to be included in the State Redress scheme. Given the state’s obvious failure to protect children in its care, this seems to me an unsustainable position. What do you think?