1 year blogging

Happy New Year to all FaithinIrelanders !

Many blogs have end of year lists of the best books, films etc. Rather than do that, I hope it does not seem too self-obsessed to reflect aloud on 1 year of blogging (I began on 1st January 2010).

Some observations:

– As far as I’m aware there are very few theoblogs of any theological persuasion in the Republic. Why not I wonder? (Or am I missing something – happy to hear of them.) The fact that four of a limited number –  including pioneer soon to be veteran Creideamh.ie, NellyandI (a blend of theology and medicine) and too rarely posting Transfarmer and Sayer – all belong to the same wee church as me just highlights the question. Or at least raises another about what has prompted this outbreak of blogging in Maynooth!

– Blogging in general seems still to be only on the outer margins of the Irish church’s consciousness in a way that I suspect is not true in the US (or Britain?). Few Christians (including church leaders, Bible teachers, theological students, I’ve talked to seem to read or even be aware of blogs in general; are there any pastors who are actively blogging in the Republic of Ireland?). Is this just a numbers thing or something else?

– I’ve found the discipline of regularly putting ‘pen to paper’ really helpful. I guess I process thoughts as I write rather than as I talk. So writing is enjoyable and blogging gives an outlet for the scribbler’s itch. I don’t have any great agenda beyond this – I hope people who visit find it a useful resource and a safe, civil place for conversation.

– On safe, civil places to explore theological ideas and their implications for life – this is one thing I love about teaching at IBI – it has a broad evangelical ethos that give space to students (and teachers) to do this. Again and again students have said how much they enjoy this and how, in the busyness of church life, there is a rarely a structured forum for it to happen. So I’m a bit surprised how limited an activity blogging remains here.

On FaithinIreland itself: I haven’t been carefully planning themes to post on – they just sort of emerge connected to the broad theme of living out a faith in Jesus in an Irish context. A quick review shows these are the ones that have shaped this weblog and I’m glad of suggestions or ideas for 2011 (I’d like to get into some more Christology).

Faith and politics: especially Christians in a plural culture; post-Christendom; engaging with culture

The continuing story of the crisis facing Irish Catholicism

Mission – with a highlight an interview with Chris Wright

Contemporary Ireland: Political and financial crisis, issues of markets and (im)morality; politics.

Men and Women in ministry: arguing for an egalitarian position

Evangelicalism: Irish perspectives;theological issues within; changing shape of

Life in the West: comparisons with global Christianity; fragility of a Western way of life – volcanoes; Credit Crunch; snow & ice

Books: the backbone of this blog – stuff on Paul, mission, God, faith & culture, justice etc

Gospel: a big theme. A  highlight of the year being our Summer Institute with Scot McKnight and my blog interview with him

Irish history: a minority and amateur interest here and there

Consumerism and other faith and contemporary culture issues

Bible Studies on Mark:-  I’ve enjoyed these simple reflections more than anything else. Nothing beats Jesus!

D word musings

Everywhere this freezing Christmas have been reminders that life is continual battle against a whole bunch of D words!;

decay, decline, decrepitude, degeneration, depreciation, deterioration, dilapidation, disintegration, disrepair

Our oil boiler packed in; we came back to the house yesterday to burst pipes (not too much damage); Northern Ireland (where we came from) is in chaos with tens of thousands of families & farms having no water supply for over a week; seeing family and friends and noticing the effects of ageing! (but not in the mirror of course); our back privit hedge has died in the cold and gone brown; for good measure our 17yr old microwave decided to quit; and I reckon the clutch in our car is starting to go …

Quite simply our bodies, our machines and our creations wear out. Relentlessly. As some pessimist put it

Health is just the slowest possible rate at which one can die

What is your reaction to unexpected things going wrong – with a body or a machine?

Mine goes like this:

(i) complain at the ‘inconvenience’

(ii) wish in vain it hadn’t happened

(iii) work out (and likely grumble about) what it is going to cost to fix

(iv) get on with things.

But musing on this a bit, such a reaction is pretty pathetic.

First, it assumes an entitlement or right to an easy life, that, when disturbed even at a superficial level, is a legitimate source for complaint. But a right to an easy life is a very recent notion and it sure isn’t a Christian one. In fact, exactly the opposite should be the expectation for Christians called to follow a crucified Messiah.

Second, linked to this, watching the news of families taking buckets down to the local river being interpreted as an unprecedented and outrageous failure of the water company that people have had to resort to such primitive methods speaks loudly of Western exceptionalism massively detached from the daily desperate search by millions for water to live by.

Third, any surprise that life will frequently be hard should be dispelled by Genesis 3:17’s account of humanity’s toil following the Fall.  That machines break, pipes burst, bodies wear out and die is all part of the ‘inbuilt obsolescence’ of a deeply broken and imperfect creation where things happen that are deeply and awfully not the way God has designed or wants them to be. That’s not fatalism, it is realism about the nature of things.

Fourth, demanding or expecting things to be comfortable is a form of self-centredness – ‘I’ should have things ‘my way’. Just how deeply this runs is revealed by my reactions when things go wrong. It represents a consumer mindset that runs against the gospel’s call to a gracious and generous life towards those in need and a heart that can rejoice in the Lord whatever the circumstances:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! (Phil 4:4).

Fifth, Christian hope looks forward to a new creation where all those D words become gloriously and permanently meaningless. Lets look forward to ripping a whole lot of words out of the dictionary.

One.Life (4)

Chapter 3 of Scot McKnight’s new book One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow is Imagined.Life

Scot continues his theme of kingdom of God life being far broader and bigger and all encompassing than a privatised personal and pietistic faith. He does this through sketching 8 examples of concerns found in the parables of Jesus. Parables can be seen as stories of kingdom life. They are stories of God’s ‘kingdom come’ on earth and what life in the kingdom of God looks like in practice.

Take note, says McKnight, Jesus never told a ‘personal piety parable’. He did tell many stories of the sorts of attitudes and behaviour and values that mark those who belong to the kingdom of God.

Here are the 8 examples Scot chooses (no Bible refs given):

God is at work in your ordinary work: the parable of the man sowing seed shows that God is at work in the everyday activities of life such as teaching a child to read, or making a cup of coffee for someone.

The little is Large: the parable of the mustard seed shows how apparently insignificant things we do can have significant consequences – such as encouraging someone, visiting a neighbour in need.

Kingdom and non-kingdom people co-existing in peace; the parable of the wheat and the tares shows a mixed field where someone’s identity if revealed at harvest. Meanwhile kingdom people are to live in peace with non-kingdom people (as much as possible I would add – it takes two to live in peace).

Giving all to kingdom life: the parables of the hidden treasure or pearl of great price show that Jesus’ followers are to give all to his kingdom life. And this might mean radical steps of faith and self-sacrifice to serve others in need.

Giving instead of hoarding: the parable of the rich fool show and the rich man who does not help Lazarus, speak of a different world where those who have help those who have not. Such stories challenge kingdom people to be marked by generosity and grace.

Don’t trust the religious experts: the parable of the Good Samaritan reveals a world where Jesus’ followers are simply to be Good Samaritans – to love and care for the poor, the marginalised, the vulnerable, the lonely.

Hearts matter more than religiosity: a parable like that of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector reveals a world where kingdom people are marked with humility, sober self-awareness of their own sinfulness and a subsequent lack of arrogant judgementalism towards others.

Judgement happens: the parable of the net points to a world where there are ultimate consequences for what we do. Those who respond to Jesus’ call to follow will find life; those who reject him will find self-fulfilment does not fill but leaves us empty.

Scot’s point in these vignettes is help readers see how the parables are ‘revolutionary scripts’ that Jesus’ followers are called to enter into. They embrace all of life – daily actions, attitudes, money, relationships, hope, justice – for they are portraits of another way of life – kingdom life.

And when you start to look at the holistic embrace of this kingdom life it is much more than reducing the good Christian life down to acts of personal piety.

I’m enjoying this book as Scot gets into his Bible stuff. I suspect the sub-text – how Jesus’ call to kingdom life is far bigger and deeper and grander than a narrow individualistic gospel – will resonate more strongly if (like Scot) that has been your experience of evangelicalism.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Treading water

Went with the good wife and 2.0 children to see The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Now I’ve read wildly varying Christian reviews on this one – compare Ben Witherington (go see it) and Chaplain Mike at Internet Monk (avoid this travesty) for example.  Most other media reviews have been unenthusiastic – sometimes simply spiteful.

A two line review: Better than I thought it was going to be.  I’m with Witherington and not with Chaplian Mike. Plenty good enough to enjoy and be entertained by, as well as some theology lite floating around in green mist….

One.Life (3)

Chapter 2 of Scot McKnight’s new book One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow is called Kingdom.Life

Mcknight continues his challenge to the reader to consider the meaning of life – in this chapter he gets into ‘Jesus the Dream Awakener’ – how Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God is essentially ‘God’s dream for this world come true.’

But this wasn’t just Jesus’ notion – it was the longing of Israel. When Jesus used the word kingdom and attached it to ‘now’ and ‘arrived’, it was dramatic stuff. But what had arrived? Many Christians are unsure how to answer this question.

[I agree with Scot here – most Christians are aware that Jesus taught about the kingdom of God, but most don’t appreciate how central it is to all he said and did, and the term remains fuzzy and ill-defined.]

Partly this is because popular evangelicalism reduces Jesus’ message down to an inner ‘personal relationship with Jesus’. Curiously many evangelicals have bought into the old liberal theology (I guess he’s thinking of Schleiermacher et al) that kingdom is an inner spiritual experience.

Three things attach to the Jewish sense of the word kingdom:

King – who would rule. Specifically the Messiah. And a Jewish king means the end of unjust rule by corrupted and compromised Herodians like Herod Antipas and his masters, the Romans.

Land – the Messiah will rule a kingdom from Jerusalem and life will be renewed under Torah.

Citizen – each member of the kingdom will love and serve the king, God’s anointed one and this renewed community becomes a blessing to the nations.

These are concrete realities says Scot- and as the NT unfolds he argues that this renewed community of Israel becomes the church as ‘the partial and imperfect manifestation of the kingdom of God.’ [Big jump here from Israel to church – I’d have liked a bit more of a tour of how one leads to the other, especially given the level of disagreement among Christians on this].

So kingdom is all about ‘God’s society on earth’. It is all about ‘may your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’. And the church is to embody this kingdom here and now. [This is a very McKnight concern – to connect kingdom and community].

He gives the African illustration of Ubuntu – that identity is found in relatedness and community. An African saying is that ‘A person is a person through other persons’. And this, argues Scot is what kingdom is about. We are not lone individuals, but members of Jesus’ kingdom community. This is far more than ‘a personal relationship with Jesus’

Kingdom life is concerned with justice, love, forgiveness, hope, relationship with God and others.

“Christianity that is only about me and for me and concerns me – and in which I spend my time assessing how I am growing in my personal relationship with God – lacks the central society focus of Jesus.  That form of Christianity is not kingdom.”

Strong words. So to muse on this a bit more – what are some implications if some forms of ‘me-centred’ evangelicalism become theologically detached from Jesus’ call to ‘kingdom of God life’?

Incarnation: could Jesus sin?

For this Christmas week I thought it appropriate to do some posts on the mystery of the Incarnation. The posts are prompted from a book I’m browsing by Oliver Crisp called God Incarnate: explorations in Christology in preparation for teaching a course on Christology in the New Year.

Today – could Jesus sin?

Crisp lives up to his name in how he writes. In a chapter called ‘Was Christ sinless or impeccable?’ he explores whether Jesus was sinless because he successfully resisted all temptation, (the sinlessness view) or was he sinless because he, the Word made flesh, could not sin (impeccability).

If asked, which option would you agree with?

The great weight of orthodox historical theology is on the impeccability side of the argument and it is this traditional view that Crisp sets out to defend as the only one that makes sense and which is consistent with the Incarnation.

Some conservatives and evangelicals have suggested the sinlessness view. Crisp names as examples Charles Hodge, Millard Erickson, Trevor Hart. Their concern is to affirm the full humanity of Jesus. How can Hebrews 4:15 really speak of authentic temptation if Jesus could not sin?

15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.

Again, a big detailed chapter. Here is a key quote summarising one of Crisp’s  arguments against the sinlessness view – that it fails to take properly into account Christ’s unique identity that make him unlike any other human being.

It would make perfect sense to say that if an individual is fully and merely human as well as being impeccable, then he or she is incapable of sin. But the same cannot be said of Christ, for two reasons. First, he is fully but not merely human – he is also a divine. Secondly … one traditional account of the Incarnation suggests that the Divine Son of God assumes a sinless but peccable human nature, which, by virtue of being united to the Son, is rendered incapable of sin.

In other words, Crisp says we have to imagine the implications of a Chalcedonian Christology of the two natures of Christ working itself out in regard to sin and temptation. He suggests an interpretation of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness to turn stones into bread. Jesus’ human nature is ‘peccable’ (if taken in isolation from his divine nature). He is hungry, he is aware that to turn the stones into bread would be to give in to temptation, he knows he has the power to do so. He is thus in a ‘psychological state’ of being truly tempted.  Yet he resists the temptation in the power of the Holy Spirit in his human nature. [So far both views are OK with this]. Yet if he were going to sin in his human nature, his divine nature would ensure he does not. Hence impeccability – Christ has the capacity to sin (peccable human nature) but cannot do so (because his human nature is united to his divine nature).

Why insist on impeccability? Because Christ is the God-man, fully human AND fully God in one person. To say that he could have sinned is to say that Jesus in his divine nature could sin. Or to put it another way, that God could be in opposition to God. Taken to its logical conclusion, the sinlessness view begins to undermine the essential goodness of God.

So, all clear then?

Incarnation: implications of Christ as embryo

For this Christmas week I thought it appropriate to do some posts on the mystery of the Incarnation. The posts are prompted from a book I’m browsing by Oliver Crisp called God Incarnate: explorations in Christology in preparation for teaching a course on Christology in the New Year.

Today – an applied Christology of the person

In a chapter on ‘Christ and the Embryo’ Crisp develops an essay on the status of embryo as person and related modern bioethical issues.

[This relates to a Forum we had at church recently on start of life issues led which Dr Andy Neil reflects on here]

Interesting and important territory, rarely I suspect, covered.

To be honest I’m not a great fan of the highly rational, ‘analytical’ and somewhat speculative form of theological argument that Crisp is engaged in. It seems far removed from the earthiness,  reality and story of the NT gospels and epistles. But it does develop important theological perspectives but you’ve got to have your left side of the brain in gear to stay with it.

He offers a Christological argument for viewing humans as persons from conception. And further suggests that a properly Christian theological account of personhood cannot ignore the Christological implications that the Word became flesh.

Big chapter, so cutting to the chase:

To hold to a Chalcedonian orthodoxy of the person of Christ [Jesus Christ; fully God, fully man consisting of two natures, human and divine, united in one person] Crisp argues that Jesus must be considered a fully human being at conception.

Why? Orthodox Christology says that the Incarnation is where the divine Word assumes a fully human nature, the two are united in the one person of Jesus Christ. There is never a moment when the human nature of Christ is not united to his divine nature. To ‘delay’ this unity to a point beyond conception (say for example the foetus ‘becomes human’ at some later stage of development) would be to lapse into (a temporary) form of Apollinarianism (that Christ only appeared to be fully human but had not a human soul).

It is important for Christology that the human nature assumed by the Word is complete; otherwise the Word is not fully human at the moment of Incarnation.

And this has implications for how we think about human personhood generally.

Like Christ other human beings are conceived with a complete human nature.

This is not to say that this is a complete definition or description of human personhood – but it is a ‘minimum threshold’ for human personhood.

And it is interesting and slightly bizarre (and new to me anyway) that Thomas Aquinas did NOT believe that Christ had a normal foetal development. Because he believed that only a fully formed embryo could have a ‘rational’ soul (for males after 40 days), he held that Jesus was conceived as a fully formed embryo!

Crisp does engage with various objections to his proposal.

– If personhood begins at conception, what of all the wasted embryos? (perhaps 50% of embryos are lost naturally).

– Saying personhood begins at conception is easier than actually knowing when conception occurs – it isn’t that clear.

– Human personhood requires development of the embryo beyond a bunch of cells – perhaps a heartbeat, perhaps a primitive streak, perhaps a brain.

I haven’t space here to get into his responses – I will if someone asks in a comment ! 🙂

So Crisp concludes that if a compelling Christological argument can be made that human personhood begins at conception, there are significant bioethical implications for IVF, stem-cell research, and abortion.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Incarnation: on the Virgin Birth

For this Christmas week I thought it appropriate to post some theological quotes on the mystery of the Incarnation. The quotes are taken from a book I’m browsing by Oliver Crisp called God Incarnate: explorations in Christology in preparation for teaching a course on Christology in the New Year.

Today – the Virgin Birth

In a fascinating, if at times a bit torturously complex, chapter, Crisp argues that while the Virgin Birth is not necessary in order to hold to Chalcedonian orthodoxy, it is a very ‘fitting’ way for the Incarnation to occur.

In this he broadly follows Anselm (if for different reasons) who argued for the fittingness of the Virgin Birth based on 4 arguments:

i. God had never before created a human being via Virginal Conception

ii. As the curse originated with a woman (Eve), so it is fitting that salvation proceeds with Mary

iii. Mary’s place within the history of salvation rebuilds the hope of women

iv. As Eve was created miraculously from Adam without sex, so it is fitting that Christ’s human nature is created from a virgin, Mary, by miracle.

Now while Anselm’s thinking may not strike us as particularly persuasive, Crisp agrees that the Virgin Birth is fitting for different reasons:

A special birth signals the fact that it is a divine person taking on human nature, not the beginning of life as a new individual, as a normal process of human generation from two human parents might suggest … What the traditional doctrine provides … is a signal, or marker for the Incarnation that preserves the uniqueness of this event without explaining it (it is, after all, a divine mystery). On the one hand it ensures there is no ambiguity about the conception and birth of Christ. He was not born as a result of an indiscreet liaison out of wedlock, nor did he begin to exist at the moment of his conception only to be ‘co-opted’ or ‘adopted’ by the Second Person of the Trinity … On the other hand the traditional doctrine of the Virgin Birth points to the fact that Jesus of Nazareth is the second person of the Trinity. It is the pre-existing person of the Word of God who assumes human nature in addition to his divine nature at the Incarnation. And this unique event is marked by the mode of his conception and birth. God Incarnate, 99-101.

Incarnation: on the pre-existence of Christ

For this Christmas week I thought it appropriate to post some theological quotes on the mystery of the Incarnation. The quotes are taken from a book I’m browsing by Oliver Crisp called God Incarnate: explorations in Christology in preparation for teaching a course on Christology in the New Year.

The cover picture of the book is painted by the author

Today – on the pre-existence of Jesus Christ

Does Christ pre-exist the Incarnation? The simple traditional answer to this question is this: yes, if this means that Christ, who is the Son, the second person of the Trinity, pre-exists the Incarnation; but no, if this means that Christ pre-exists his conception in the womb of Mary Theotokos as a human being … It is the Word who exists in some sense ‘prior’ to the first moment of Incarnation. In so doing, the Word takes to himself the human nature of Christ and becomes a human being in addition to being a divine being. But prior to this event no human called Christ existed, although the divine person who is Christ existed. (So Christ is necessarily a divine being and only contingently a human being.) God Incarnate, 56.

However there is another way of thinking about this traditional view that sees the Christ as a phase in the life of the Word. Crisp gives the illustration that when he refers to ‘his wife aged 12’ this is to an earlier phase of the life of the person who would become his wife. Similarly, being his wife is a later phase in the same individual’s life. The individual ‘pre-exists’ that phase of her life – and ‘perhaps that is all the Pauline corpus, taken as a whole, seeks to express in regard to the person of Christ.’

If the Word is the Christ, then it is true to say that both before the Incarnation the human Jesus of Nazareth did not exist, and that before the Incarnation Christ pre-existed. Both of these things can be the case because the Word is Christ. True, the human Jesus of Nazareth does not exist before the Virginal Conception. But in an important sense, Christ does pre-exist the Incarnation – or at least the Word does and, since Christ is simply the Word Incarnate, we can say that Christ pre-exists the Incarnation as the Word of God. God Incarnate 57.

An Advent Reflection: Why this way?

You might have expected a major press conference announcing his impending arrival, followed by a media frenzy: rolling 24 hour news and global network coverage; talking heads discussing the significance of the upcoming event for months beforehand. Everyone in Bethlehem waiting with baited breath.

What you got was a private message to a group of dirty sheep herders with reputations for dishonesty; a revelation to some mysterious pagan star gazers and a few days later in Jerusalem a couple of harmless Old Age Pensioners being let in on the secret before they died …

Why this way?

You might have expected a mother of wealth, class and social standing; with royal robes and royal blood; a lady of substance, pampered and protected, familiar with pomp and ceremony. Suited perfectly to the job.

What you got was an obscure teenage girl from a Galilean backwater, a peasant’s daughter with no experience of life, limited education, and few prospects in a man’s world.

Why this way?

You might have expected a palace; splendid, impressive and imposing. Tastefully decorated, lined with gold and purple; all possible comfort provided; first class medical expertise on hand to look after this invaluable new life. An entrance into the world truly fit for a king.

What you got was a lean-to in a Palestinian 2 up 2 down semi; an animal shelter, with cracks in the walls, filled with the acrid smell of urine.

Why this way?

You might have expected a national holiday, public celebrations, messages of goodwill from kings, queens and emperors, the rich and the powerful, politicians, religious leaders and innumerable ordinary people.

What you got was an enforced journey of 90 miles for a heavily pregnant woman; registration at the command of a distant dictator; a death squad sent at the command of a vicious despot; and refugee status in a foreign land.

Why this way?

You might have expected a childhood of privilege, honour and respect; followed by a life of wealth, power and cocooned luxury with every whim gratified and every need met.

What you got was the mundane routine of small village life for 30 years. Learning a trade. A life spent without owning a home, leaving behind not one written word, never travelling outside the small region of Galilee and Judea. Only experiencing luxury in the palaces of his accusers.

Why this way?

You might have expected a mission aimed at political power; speeches whipping up emotion; the relentless pursuit of popularity; threats of violence to liberate the land; pragmatic opinion poll policies; nationalistic rhetoric to gain the crowd’s loyalty.

What you got was ‘love your enemies’; ‘turn the other cheek’; ‘bless those who curse you’; ‘whoever humbles himself like a child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven’ ‘I have come to give my life as a ransom for many’.

Why this way?

You might have expected a messiah to lead his people into glorious triumph over the occupying Roman forces. Victory parades; ticker tape celebrations; adoring crowds, songs and speeches; then monuments and memories.

What you got was a coward’s secret betrayal, a kangaroo court; brutal undeserved violence, torture, mockery, public humiliation and a slow agonising death.

Why this way?

You might have expected an ‘I told you so’ tour after the resurrection; a shaming of enemies; a surprise visit to Pontius Pilate perhaps; chat shows; a global tour; book deals; celebrity status; TV interviews before astonished millions.

What you got was a revelation to an unimportant woman in the garden; not being recognised by two friends out for a walk in the country; having to convince others who could not believe their eyes; low key appearances to the disciples and to some others – before disappearing all together, leaving behind only the stories of his followers.

Why this way?

Well maybe God wants you and me to be surprised, shocked even, at Christmas.
Maybe God is bigger and stranger than we think
He does things that we don’t expect
He is unpredictable

And the irony is that Christmas is so predictable. Like an inoculation – we have just enough Christmas to make us immune to the real thing.

Christmas is all about the triune God doing things his way. And his ways are definitely not our ways. They are better and grander and more grace-filled than we can begin to imagine. They culminate in the astonishing good news of the self-giving eternal Word made flesh, so that whoever believes in him might have life in his name.


[This Advent Reflection was written BB – before blogging. So it makes its debut on FaithinIreland, tho I wrote it a few Advents ago …]