A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (14)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: What do you think Paul really means when he says love is the fulfillment of the Law? I ask this especially because it seems to me that by the Law of Christ, he does not simply mean Christ’s take on the Mosaic Law. The Law of Christ seems to involve: 1) some reaffirmation of some of the OT commandments; 2) the new imperatives of Christ himself as redone in the latter part of Rom. 12 and 13, and 3) new apostolic imperatives like ‘let those who will not work, not eat’! It seems clear to me from Rom. 10.4 that Christ is the end of the Mosaic Law, the end of the Mosaic covenant, and this is surely what Gal.4 suggests when Paul says the Mosaic covenant was an interim arrangement for God’s children until they came of age and maturity, whereas the new covenant is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic one, which Paul does not equate with the Mosaic one. In short, Paul in Galatians and elsewhere is not in the main attacking nitpicking legalism, nor is he anti-law, rather he makes all sorts of demands he sees as part of ‘the law of Christ’ (see Gal. 6). I do not think it’s adequate to say that Paul just believed that love in itself is the whole fulfillment of what God requires of us. Or at least, love has a very concrete shape and texture that includes all these other imperatives. I’ve not been happy with the New Perspective folks who wanted to say ‘works of the Law’ in Paul’s letters merely refers to the boundary rituals that divide Jew from Gentile. This is saying too little. What is your take on all this vis a vis love and Law?

PATRICK: That’s a big question in every sense Ben! I agree that we need to interpret Paul’s attitude to the law in a multi-layered way. Much difficulty I think has been caused by Old and New Perspectives pitting binary choices against one another. I find a threefold framework helpful (Brian Rosner).

1) The law is renounced as a means of justification (Gal.5:4). The Mosaic covenant has come to an end, the Abrahamic covenant is fulfilled. The law has no soteriological function (Gal.3:21).

2) The Mosaic law is fulfilled by life in the Spirit (Gal.5:5-6); not through Torah obedience, but in love of neighbour (Gal.5:14). The law could not accomplish the ‘outcomes’ described by the fruit of the Spirit (‘against such things there is no law’ Gal.5:23). Galatian believers are to carry each other’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ (Gal.6:2).

3) But the law still has a key place in Paul’s thought. It is reinterpreted in at least two ways:

(i) As prophecy, witnessing to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Dozens of examples exist. The story of Abraham in Romans and Galatians is one. The Torah itself affirms that God is a God of Jews and of Gentiles. Paul’s gospel is actually a consummation of the Torah’s promises.

(ii) As a source for ethics. In lots of places Paul continues to use the law as a source of moral guidance and wisdom. The ‘love command’ for new Christian communities, is developed from the Torah where it applied to Israel (Gal.5:14 / Lev.19:18). Paul does not include regulations on ‘boundary markers’ like circumcision, Sabbath, food laws and festivals because his focus is missional – on the place of Gentiles within the family of God. It is as if the law has been redefined or filtered in light of the gospel.

Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (13)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: P. 114 is one of the more important diagnoses in the book of what is wrong with the way Western culture views love. Love as a legal right, non-traditional marriage arrangements as a legal right. But the Bible says love is a gift, not a right. It’s not something owed to us by society or the world. I like the quote from Simon May

“Whereas becoming even a fairly competent artists or gardener or editor or plumber or banker or singer is dearly purchased with long effort and then only by the few with sufficient talent, love is [thought to be] a democracy of salvation open to all.”

And you are right that modern notions that love itself can save us without need for repentance, or humility or obedience to God, are over-confident about the power of merely human love. Without our sounding like the Grinch who Stole Christmas, how do we explain to people that real love is costly, is not free, and demands all that we are and have if is to be really transformative, and while we are at it— it needs to be God’s love that is the ultimate change agent of human personality???

PATRICK: I think it’s about where you start. Christians believe in the gospel (good news) of God’s victory over sin and death through the life, atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the living Lord. It’s this message that the great gospel sermons in Acts tell, they don’t begin with bad news. Similarly, when it comes to very different understandings of love, I think the best tack is to focus on how the Bible’s ‘Message of Love’ is packed with good news. That’s the message we have been given to witness to.

In the conclusion of the book I try to draw the three strands of love in the Bible together. Strand 1 is God’s relentless love unfolding through the OT and NT. Theologically it’s the identity of Jesus as God’s beloved Son who dies for us that marks a revolution in the understanding of divine love. Strand 2 is the call for a whole-hearted response of human love for God. Strand 3 is resultant communities of God’s people loving one another and their neighbors with Jesus-like love. As your late friend Larry Hurtado says, Christianity’s love-ethic marked it out as unique in the ancient world. We need to teach and inspire people with these truths – ultimately that’s why I wrote the book.

But words count for only so much. The challenge for us as individual Christians and churches is to ‘explain’ what love is by our lives and communities. It is our lives and churches that are the ultimate hermeneutic of the gospel. People are rightly sceptical of the church and its hypocrisy which says, in effect, ‘Don’t mind our broken relationships and toxic communities, believe our message of love anyway!’ John put it pretty bluntly didn’t he? He who claims to love God but does not love his brother shows himself to be a liar. Honesty and truth-telling is all we have (Hauerwas).

Down With This Sort of Thing: How is the Gospel Good News in Contemporary Ireland?

Now we are pretty well all confined to quarters, maybe it is time to catch up with some reading.

Praxis Press is a new Irish Christian publishing venture. They published their first book last year – Down With This Sort of Thing by Fraser Hosford. Other ones are in the pipeline.


This is what I said in endorsing the book

It is so good to see an Irish pastor writing about theology, culture and mission for our contemporary Irish context! Fraser Hosford asks an important question – how is the gospel good news in Ireland today? What is so fresh about this book is that he answers this question by engaging thoughtfully and graciously with what real people in Ireland today actually think, believe and hope for. It is from this foundation of careful listening that Hosford unpacks how the gospel is good news for all of life. Peppered with stories and illustrations, the result is a very readable account of how the gospel leads to a flourishing life. Anyone writing about such a great theme has my attention, I suggest that he should have yours as well.

Highly recommended. Not only an excellent read but by buying a copy you will be supporting a new Irish Christian publisher committed to helping the church think about and practice mission in 21st Century Ireland.

A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (12)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: Another of your main themes is that love is inherently interpersonal. You even predicate this of God, talking about the relationships within the Trinity. I remember the famous saying of Vic Furnish that the love the NT is talking about is not like a heat-seeking missile that is attracted to something inherently targetable and likable in the object of the love. I understand what you are saying here, but since we are all called to love our neighbor as ourselves, it seems to me that self-love is presupposed, and that is not interpersonal per se. Right? And that leads me to ask about 1 John 4, is the author really meaning when he says ‘God is love’ that God’s character couldn’t be described that way if God had no one else in the universe to love? Really?

PATRICK: This is an interesting theological question that impinges on worship as well. No, ‘God is love’ whether he has someone else to love or not. While John’s statement that ‘God is love’ is unique in the Bible, it is not as though love stands above all other divine characteristics (see John’s parallel statement in 1:5 that ‘God is light’). It is to say that all that God is and does is loving.

How much we can say for sure about the ‘inner’ workings of the trinity is debatable. As you know a social model of the Trinity has been advanced in different ways by theologians like Miroslav Volf, Jürgen Moltmann, Colin Gunton, Cornelius Plantinga and others. It has been popularized by people like Tim Keller in The Reason for God, and before him by C.S. Lewis. It is not without its critics, such as Fred Sanders, Stephen Holmes and Karen Kilby who say it is too anthropocentric – reading human experience ‘back’ into the incomprehensible mystery of the triune God. An example of what they criticize is the use of the Greek word perichoresis to describe the inner ‘dance of love’ between Father, Son and Spirit. I really like that image and talk about it in the book – there’s plenty of talk in John about the Father’s love for the Son and the Son’s love for the Father after all. But I accept its limitations and potential problems.

BEN: Let’s deal briefly with some of the hard sayings, like those who do not love do not know God. In what sense is that true? I agree that without God’s love, we could not have or receive salvation— true enough. True enough, we love because God first loved us. But I have to say that I’ve met a lot of persons, for example some of my Muslim and Jewish friends, who know a lot about the Biblical God, and know the Bible often better than many Christians. Yet, I can’t really say that they love God in the way 1 John describes the matter. They don’t really worship God per se, most of them are secular Jews or Muslims. I suppose we could say they know about the real God in ways that are often accurate, but they have no personal relationship with that God, taking ‘to know’ in the deeper relational sense of the term. Does this make sense?

PATRICK: I don’t pretend to know the answer here Ben – I like where you are going though. Clearly very many people who have no Christian faith can and do love in remarkable ways, so I agree with you. It seems to make most sense of lived reality to say that John is referring to a specifically Christ-like love and those who do not know God will not be motivated to love in this way.

But I think John’s point is primarily about love as the visible evidence of an invisible spiritual reality. If I can quote myself (!): “to be in relationship with the God who is love, means that someone will reflect the character of God. Not to love shows that there is no true relationship. The vertical shapes the horizontal. John does not explain how this process works in practice; he simply describes an apparently inevitable implication of knowing the God who is love.” p.110

Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (11)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: On pp. 86-87 you rightly note that agape rarely occurs in the LXX of the OT and where it does occur, it does not refer to God’s love. And yet agape and its cognates are all over the NT– quite the contrast. You suggest this is to be explained by the fact that a deeper understanding of love, presumably due to the Christ event, led to the preference for a term for love that didn’t carry previous baggage or issues with it. Can you say a bit more about this?

PATRICK: This is an argument from silence, but I think it makes best sense of the facts that you have summarized. I rely on Leon Morris’ classic 1981 study Testaments of Love here. The facts are striking. In the NT agapē appears 116 times and philia (friendship) just once. Of related words, agapaō occurs 143 times and phileō 25 times; adjectives agapētos (beloved) 61 times and philos (friend) 29 times. In total, agapaō words appear 320 times and phileō words 55 times. Other Greek words for love like storgē (affection) and eros (passion) do not appear in the New Testament at all.

So why did the NT writers start using what was effectively a new word for love? I find Morris persuasive – he suggests that it is not so much that agapē creates a new meaning for love, but that the revolutionary gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ so transforms previous understandings of love that a new word is needed to express it. (I think this sort of thing goes on quite a bit in the NT in light of the Christ-event. Jesus’ use of ‘Son of Man’ fills that concept with new meaning in line with his unique understanding of his messianic mission; Paul and other NT writers ransack the OT and Greco-Roman culture for metaphors and images to explain the cross; John fills logos, a word known to Jews and Greeks, with revolutionary new Christological significance).

BEN: I love your chart on p. 105, and with your permission would like to nick it and use it for my students. The interesting thing is that John and 1 John are the texts with the most references to agape love, and after that Ephesians and then Romans. Pondering this for a moment, you hold up the notion that Paul should be seen as an apostle of love, as much as say the Beloved Disciple (whoever he was— but that’s a discussion for another day. Bauckham and I agree it’s not John Zebedee). What strikes me is that Paul and the BD are also the very ones who talk the most about conflict with others, being hated by others, judging the sins of various persons other than one’s self, and justice issues to some extent. It seems we’ve have swallowed our culture’s message about real love being tolerant, non-judgmental, not demanding when it comes to various ethical mores etc. What is your diagnosis as to why this has so infected or affected the church itself, rather than us being a change agent for real agape on the cultural notions ? How can we go about reversing these trends?

PATRICK: You are welcome to nick the chart of appearances of agapē in the NT Ben! It comes from Robert Yarbrough’s BECNT commentary on 1-3 John. Before trying to answer your question can I point to the surprising fact that Acts is the only book in the NT where agapē does not occur – not once. Connect this to all those gospel sermons in Acts and a good case can be made that ‘God loves you’, while true, is not how the first Christians understood the gospel. The gospel is preached in Acts without mention of God’s love. Maybe that’s a discussion for another day …

To reply to your actual question (!) I think Paul and John talk so much of love because they understand from pastoral experience, and from theological revelation, that love is the essential requirement for their new communities to survive and thrive. They are anything but naïve. In the letters of 1-3 John there seems to have been communal tension and external pressure and this is pretty well everywhere in Paul. We struggle to appreciate just how unprecedented were the first Christian communities in the ancient world. It had never seen anything like Jews, Gentiles, slaves, slave-owners, men, women, Scythians, barbarians, Roman citizens, rich and poor belonging together in relationships of mutuality and equal status before their God. Such diversity is difficult and requires costly love; it means the ‘strong’ making space for the ‘weak’ (Romans), it means putting others first, it means leaving your ‘worldly’ status behind (1 Corinthians, James). It means being accountable to one another – including disciplining each other if necessary.

There is a spectrum in the contemporary church here. At one end are churches made up of a loose coalition of Western individualists with all their assumptions around autonomy, rights, liberty and self-sufficiency. This will be a church where the depth of mutual accountability pictured in the NT seems pretty alien. It’s doubtful such a church is going to go anywhere costly and difficult. At the other end of the spectrum are some missional churches who have confronted this head-on in creating ‘total church’ communities that demand very high levels of buy-in. While effective in countering Western individualism and rightly focused on mission, they can have a downside. Recent reports in Christianity Today recount the fall of one well-known leader over a bullying style and serious relational damage done in the churches and organization he led. Strong leadership without love is also a dead-end.

Love and mission, love and truth, love and accountability need to be held together – that’s a challenge of leadership and vision.

Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (10)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: Thanks for the good exposition on the Song of Songs. You are so right that the later Christian allegorizing of the text, spurred on by an ascetic and non-Jewish approach to sexual love, has done that text no justice. It reminds me of the advice we got in junior high at church in regard to the raging hormones, which amounted to this oxymoron: ‘sex is dirty, save it for the one you really love’. Your book does one of the best jobs I’ve seen in striking the right balance between emphasizing the goodness of human sexuality and its expression, and at the same time emphasizing the right contexts in which that should happen without violating God’s demand for our holiness, and love of neighbor in the proper way. Comments?

PATRICK: I enjoyed writing every chapter in the book but this one was one of my favorites. The poetry is beautiful as is its vision of human erotic love. The text uses ancient imagery, yet it speaks right into our world in its depiction of a joyful sexual relationship of mutual desire and respect between the two lovers. As you note I’m not persuaded by later allegorizing of the text within both Jewish and Christian traditions. One reason for allegory is that the Church has had enormous problems with affirming the goodness of the body and of sex. Whereas the Songs rejoice in the touch, sound, scent and taste of another’s body without a hint of shame, from the early church fathers onwards sex and sexual desire have been inextricably connected with sin and failure to live up God’s higher calling of celibacy. You know something has gone deeply awry when comparing Augustine’s description of the first sex-scene between Adam and Eve in The City of God (free of lust, in command of the will, without passion and with calmness of mind, and with no corruption of the body, Adam lies upon the bosom of his wife!) with the uninhibited passion of the Songs.

I trace this in more detail in the book, save to say that today things have switched around dramatically. Within a hyper-sexualized culture, now the Church has a very difficult job articulating why on earth sex should be limited to marriage between a man and a woman. It seems to be a repressive ideology both to the unmarried and to those who are not heterosexual. In contrast to the church fathers, the idea of celibacy has become inconceivable nonsense within Western culture – and is an embarrassment within much of the Church. We face the challenge of affirming sex and the body as good gifts of God – Christian spirituality is not some sort of gnostic escape from the body with its tainted desires. Rather, sex is to be used within an exclusive relationship of monogamous marital love. Yet we also have much work to do to recover a theology of celibacy and singleness (I talk more singleness and a theology of the family in chapter 10 on Jesus’ teaching on discipleship love).

[PM: if of interest see this mini-series on the Song of Songs, sex and celibacy]


Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (9)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: Yes, God’s people are to love, even love their enemies, because that is the character of God himself, but since God is also a righteous and holy God that wants justice amongst his people and in the world, it seems to me that while love is not a social program in the Bible, nonetheless, it is a viewed, perhaps as a byproduct, as a means to change society for the better. Yes we love the marginalized because God loves them, but that love has no concreteness to it if we are not trying to improve their living conditions etc. Jesus after all told us we need to be feeding, clothing, and visiting the least of these in prison. That sounds like a social program to me, even if it’s motivated by love. Comments?

PATRICK: I agree. Love is tangible action for the good of another. I conclude chapter 2 on Deuteronomy 10 with an appeal for Christian integral mission based on loving others in need as we have been loved by God. In regard to the global refugee crisis, for example, I say

“One thing is sure: our hard-edged capitalist culture has no room for those who are not contributing to its ruthless system of acquisition and consumption. The church’s vocation is to provide, with generosity and love, that room for those forcibly displaced” (p.41).

As you know, the history of evangelicalism during the 20th century was marked by major divisions over the relationship between the gospel and social action. It was John Stott and Billy Graham who had a key role in Lausanne 1974 in helping the evangelical movement recover from an unbiblical split of the two that had characterized 20th century fundamentalism. I’m certainly not wanting to go down that fundamentalist path of retreat from social action. My critique is of a hermeneutical jump where the New Testament’s overwhelming emphasis on love within God’s new covenant community is uncritically broadened to apply to the world in general. For example, where Jesus’ and James’ teaching about caring for the poor within the kingdom community subtly shifts to become a basis for political action to end all poverty.

BEN: Let’s talk about the Shema for a moment (pp. 56ff.). As you rightly stress, ahav is the word here for love, which is a more generic term used for the love of all sorts of things and people in the OT. It even is used for the love of mundane things— like Esau’s soup! And as you rightly stress, loving God involves cognitive as well as affective and behavioral love. My issue with the Shema is— how in the world was hard-hearted Israel supposed to love in the total way described in the text when they did not yet have the ongoing internal presence of the Holy Spirit in them and in their community? This sounds like the Don Quixote song ‘To dream the impossible dream’ or like Thomas More’s Utopia. Even Christians who are full of the Holy Spirit have trouble loving God with all they are and have. So how should we view incredibly demanding exhortations like this without trivializing them as just dramatic hyperbole?

PATRICK: I guess that question could apply to all of the OT in comparison to the NT. As you know much better than me, 2 Corinthians 3 is probably the most explicit text in the NT in terms of comparing the ministry of the Spirit Old to New. It is with Christ and the gift of the Spirit that God’s people now have the ‘veil removed’ and are able to ‘see the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror’ (2 Cor 3:18). In regard to love, I see it like this: human love for God in Deuteronomy is obviously real. God doesn’t give intentionally impossible commands. But in the NT, humans can enter into a deeper transformative relationship of love with God through the Spirit of Jesus. The Old foreshadows fulfillment in the New. (And we should say, present new covenant experience of love in turn foreshadows perfection of love to come in the new creation – 1 Cor. 13).

As an aside, this relates to wider theological debates about love within the Christian tradition which I could only mention in passing in the book. Luther’s theology of love is particularly interesting and significant. He distinguished between divine love (amor Dei) and human love (amor hominis). Humans have genuine capacity to love, but this love is marred by sin. God’s love alone is perfect; it loves what is sinful (humanity) in order to make it good. We are not loved for our innate lovability, but out of God’s grace. It is being united to Christ through faith, that we are enabled to love both God and fellow humans aright. In other words, justification by faith leads to participation in God’s love. A couple of quotes from Luther illustrate the point:

“Paul’s view is this: Faith is active in love, that is, that faith justifies which expresses itself in acts” (Table Talk, 1533). “[Paul] does not say ‘Love is effective.’ No, he says: ‘Faith is effective.’ He does not say: ‘Love works.’ No, he says: ‘Faith works.’ He makes love the tool through which faith works.”

A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (8)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook


BEN: Let’s talk about the circumcision of the heart, an important idea in both the OT (p. 37) and the NT. On the face of it, the text of Deut. 10.16ff. indicates that God’s people must circumcise their own hearts— they must repent, not be hard-hearted etc. and turn back to God and thus be able to love God. But in the NT this act of internal circumcision seems to be the work of the Spirit. It seems to be something humans can’t do for themselves or to themselves, at least not without divine help. How do you view this matter? Where should the emphasis lie?

PATRICK: That’s a very interesting question. I think there are strong continuities here OT to NT. In both cases the great good news is God’s prior love which elicits a human response of love in return.

The chapter on Deuteronomy 10 is called ‘God’s love for the outsider’. Love is a major theme in Deuteronomy (think the Shema of 6:4-5) and in chapter 10 Israel is told to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (10:19). Verse 19 is paired with verse 16, “ Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer.” Their love of the ‘Other’ does not come naturally, it requires repentance and a turning of their hearts (the seat of identity) to God. What ‘circumcision of the heart’ seems to mean here is internalizing the generous and indiscriminate love of Yahweh himself who “defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing” (10:18) and remembering how they themselves were beneficiaries of such life-saving love.

There is a strong continuity here with Paul’s talk about true circumcision being a matter of the heart, a spiritual response to God not merely an external physical act (Rom 2:28-29). In both cases circumcision of the heart has to do with appropriate human response to God’s prior love. Yet it is not all dependent on human will. Deuteronomy 30:6 locates heart circumcision with God: “Moreover, the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live.” In the NT, it seems to me, this promise is fulfilled in the gift of the Spirit whose fruit is primarily love. Again, there is both continuity and discontinuity – the Spirit enables believers to love and be in relationship with God and one another in a way that was not available in the OT.

BEN: There is a strong emphasis in your book on the church being the church, and you see the social side of the Gospel as a sort of overflow to local communities, but not a matter of a direct focus on the world and changing the world (p.283 especially). I was thinking about the Salvation Army while reading this, and thinking they at least would strongly disagree with some of this, with the church focusing on itself and loving itself, and simply being an alternative witness, rather than having a direct prophetic ministry in the culture, and a reaching out to better the culture quite apart from evangelism. John Wesley once said there is no spiritual holiness without social holiness, and he went about prodding Wilberforce to get the abolition legislation passed in Parliament to the day he died. He went about founding orphanages, and poor houses, which is eventually where General Booth got the idea. I know you are not talking about the church becoming like the Amish, and withdrawing from culture and society, but could you articulate for us what you do mean to say a bit more clearly?

PATRICK: One theme that was continually reinforced for me in researching chapters on the Old Testament and the New, is how the Bible’s overwhelming emphasis is on the spiritual authenticity of the community of the people of God, called to obey and imitate their God in every aspect of their lives together. And love is what that life together looks like. I say on the page you mention that “There is virtually no focus, Old Testament or New, on transforming the world outside the covenant community.” Love for God and each other is the missional task of the Church.

Now, as your question suggests, that sounds like a pretty insular thing to say! If seems to fly in the face of a lot of evangelical social and political activism, but I think we need to take seriously how uniform Scripture is on this theme. I believe that the primary calling of the church is to be the church – a foretaste of God’s kingdom and justice in the present. I worry when I see Christians ‘leaving the church behind’ and becoming consumed with making this world a better place through social and political action. I wonder if this turn to politics is in part a disillusionment with the church and a lack of confidence in the gospel – as if persuading those in power to do the right thing will advance the kingdom. In contrast, I’m struck by Jesus’ and the New Testament’s rather magnificent disinterest in the affairs of Empire. The real king of the world is the risen Lord.

This is not to say Christians in their individual lives, and local churches in their communities, should not be busy showing God’s love and justice with those in need around them (Galatians 6:10; 1 Peter 2:9-12). This is a ‘bottom up’ witness to the world, not a Christendom ‘top-down’ attempt to control levers of power. I could start to comment on (some) evangelicals in your part of the world Ben and their apparently uncritical support of a certain President in order to advance Christian values through profoundly unchristian means – but I’ve probably said too much already!

BEN: Interesting that you brought that up, your fellow resident of Dublin, who is certainly a Christian, by whom I mean Bono, would disagree with your reading of the material rather strongly. But I don’t disagree that the primary mission is for us to be the church in the world and fulfill the great commandment as well as the great commission. Nor do I disagree with your critique of things in America where the civic and Christian religion are syncretized in unhelpful and unBiblical ways.

Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (7)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook


BEN: Why you think so many people have mistaken God’s love to mean unconditional tolerance of anything, or as something that is a substitute for obeying God, whereas Jesus says ‘if you love me, keep my commandments’ and that is found in the OT as well?

PATRICK: That’s primarily a cultural and philosophical question. I couldn’t get into this too much in the book but love has a fascinating history. What you describe is the culmination of an evolution of ideas that have become virtually sacred in the West.

I can only recommend Simon May’s Love: A History again here. He’d point to nineteenth century Romanticism as a crucial turning point that continues to exert enormous influence in how we understand love today. A core belief here is that love is unconditional, a spontaneous gift that seeks nothing for the giver, that affirms the loved one in who they are.

The cultural power of such beliefs means, I think, that many Christians have real difficulty in making theological sense of how the Bible consistently ties love and obedience together. I talk in the book about the ‘paradoxical nature of Christian love’ – believers are loved, forgiven and even become ‘friends’ of Jesus their Lord (John 15). Yet, as you note, Jesus is crystal clear that friendship takes the form of obedience to authoritative commands. And his core command is to ‘love one another’. That love can be commanded seems strange to us, perhaps because we too easily ‘reduce’ God to a loving coach enabling us to live our lives better. In researching and writing the book I was repeatedly reminded of the unequal relationship of love between God and his people.

10 suggestions towards responding theologically to the Coronavirus pandemic

M12597 Dept of Health_COVID-19 Poster_For Public Offices AWLast Sunday in church we received a communication about Coronavirus from HQ. It was perfectly commonsensical and useful: consider how to greet one another, especially those on welcome duty (probably not shaking hands). Wash hands and generally be sensible in trying to limit potential for spreading the coronavirus as you meet in community.

This is all fine and good to have the issue acknowledged and basic guidelines set out.

But what might be some distinctively Christian things to say at a time of confirmed pandemic? What theological issues are being raised by potential quarantining of whole countries, wall-to-wall media coverage; limitations to travel; economic crisis; pressure on health services; and heightened vulnerability among the aged and ill?

What to make of wildly divergent estimates of potential numbers of deaths? In Germany Angela Merkel said possibly 58 million people in Germany could get it (70% of the population), while an expert virologist said, based on China, it would be more like 40,000. So, give a death rate of say 2.5% of those who get it and that is a rather large margin of error of between 1000 and 1,450000 deaths!

In Ireland you have health minister Simon Harris say that he takes seriously the possibility that the country with a population of 4.8 million could have up to 120,000 deaths. If the death rate is 2.5% that means everybody would have get the virus (he is obviously working with a worst case scenario much higher death rate).

The maths isn’t the issue and I am not qualified to dispute the figures one way or another. The issue is the massive fear and uncertainty of just how bad things are going to get.

These are just initial sketches written on the train home from work, please feel welcome to add your own suggestions for relevant theological themes.

1. Love your neighbour

From Christianity’s earliest days, it was known as a movement of compassion and care for those in need. Such teaching is embedded in the gospels and in John, James and Paul. Their teaching is in turn rooted in the Jewish scriptures which speak of God’s impartial love for the widow, alien and stranger. Christianity lay behind the development of hospitals and the idea that all people, made in the image of God, are worth caring for.

Such love is costly and other-focused. It is impartial – given to those in need rather than making judgements about who is worth loving. The twist in the tale of Jesus’ story of neighbour-love in the parable of the Good Samaritan is that loving your neighbour means practically caring for your enemy.

As the pandemic spreads, love means considering others before yourself. It sure isn’t panic buying in supermarkets. Obviously self-care is part of this – you don’t want to catch Covid-19 and pass it on. But the pandemic calls Christians to consider how they can prioritise helping the weak, the isolated, the elderly who may not have the resources and physical ability to look after themselves.

2. Do on to others as you would have them do unto you

The ‘golden rule’ should govern all Christian behaviour all the time. As Bob Dylan puts it in ‘Do Right to Me Baby (Do Unto Others) in Slow Train Coming

Don’t wanna judge nobody, don’t wanna be judged
Don’t wanna touch nobody, don’t wanna be touched
Don’t wanna hurt nobody , don’t wanna be hurt
Don’t wanna treat nobody like they was dirt.

But if you do right to me baby
I’ll do right to you too
Ya got to do unto others
Like you’d have them, like you’d have them, do unto you.

As much as possible we are to be responsible for not unnecessarily risking the health of others. Especially if in good health and/or young, we may think there is massive hype after what is probably something like a dose of flu. But Jesus’ teaching calls us to put ourselves in other’s shoes – and those include the slippers of the elderly and those with underlying health issues, especially respiratory.

3. Hope not fear

There’s a lot of fear about. Not only for our health but also economic – and that means jobs and all they represent. There is proper and responsible caution about trying to contain the virus. Already today we are told no indoor gatherings of over 100 people which will stop a lot of churches meeting. And this may be necessary.

But when does concern for health and safety turn into unfounded fear? Fear that becomes corrosive and destructive? Fear than becomes overly self-protective? Fear is not a Christian characteristic. Crisis should reveal Christian virtues of faith, love and hope, not anxiety, selfishness and despair.

4. Pandemic as ‘a school for exercise and probation’ of faith

Eusebuis’ Ecclesiastical History tells of how the early church was known for its sacrificial care for the sick in times of war, famine and plague. This is a description of events in Alexandria as recorded by Dionysius (Eccl Hist XXII)

For the very heart of the city is more desolate and impassable than that vast and trackless desert which the Israelites traversed in two generations … men wonder, and are at a loss to know whence come the constant plagues; whence these malignant diseases; whence those variegated infections; whence all that various and immense destruction of human lives…

… But now all things are filled with tears, all are mourning, and by reason of the multitudes already dead, and still dying, groans are daily resounding throughout the city…

[This pestilence was} a calamity more dreadful to them [the pagans] than any dread, and more afflictive that any affliction, and which as one of their own historians has said, was of itself alone beyond all hope. To us, however, it did not wear this character, but no less than other events it was a school for exercise and probation.

“Indeed, the most of our brethren, by their exceeding great love and brotherly affection, not sparing themselves, and adhering to one another, were constantly superintending the sick, ministering to their wants without fear and without cessation, and healing them in Christ, have departed most sweetly with them.”

Many also, who had healed and strengthened others, themselves died, transferring their death upon themselves … So that this very form of death, with the piety and ardent faith which attended it, appeared to be but little inferior to martyrdom itself.

Among the heathen it was the direct reverse. They both repelled those who began to be sick, and avoided their dearest friends. They would cast them out into the roads half dead, or throw them when dead without burial, shunning any communication and participation in death, which it was impossible to avoid by every precaution and care.”

Compared to this the Coronavirus is pretty mild stuff! The Pope’s call to priests to visit the sick is an echo of such courageous love. Putting others first at risk to yourself is profoundly Christian. It is not every man and woman for themselves, but how as communities of disciples we can look after those in need. Of course the Pope’s call is problematic as to how it would work without risk of infecting the healthy. But its instinct is absolutely right.

Behind such action is a belief that death does not have the last word. Christians believe death has been overcome already in the death and resurrection of their Lord. It has lost its sting and power.

5. The illusion of control

In this excellent article (tks SS) the author, wandering empty streets in Venice, reflects on mortality. Is a subtext of panic in the West about loss of control?

If we can only cling to these totems, if we can only wear these items, if we can only take these precautions, we will be safe — not just from death but from the consciousness of its possibility. We will be, once more, comfortably sterilized; we will exist, once more, in a world in which our bodies are under our control.

The virus has confronted us Westerners – cocooned in our technology, medicine, knowledge and freedom – with our own mortality. My daughter says sometimes that human civilisation is only a couple of short steps away from anarchy and chaos and I think she’s right. We are being reminded that we are not in control – however much we like to think we are masters of events, our lives and even our bodies.

As Stanley Hauerwas likes to say, in the West we like to think we have the medical technology to get out of life alive.

The trouble is life has a 100% death rate.

6. Grace not blame

The illusion of control is closely linked to the blame game. There has to be someone to blame for things going wrong. And so you have xenophobia, racism and verbal and physical attacks on individuals or communities associated with ‘causing’ the virus and threatening ‘our’ way of life. Rather than solidarity, sympathy and help and “there but for the grace of God go I”, there is judgment, fear and hate.

I don’t need to say more here – Christians are called to the former, not the latter.

7. Pray

I liked Ian Paul’s comment that when washing your hands, don’t sing Happy Birthday twice, pray the Lord’s Prayer.

Prayer is bringing our concerns and fears to God in faith and trust. It is asking his blessing on others. It brings us consciously into his presence and re-orientates us to think, talk and act in light of the truth that God is God and we are not.

8. Economics

There has been plenty said on this blog over the years about the destructive myths of hyper-capitalism and the toxic effects of the love of money. But of course a well-functioning economy is crucial for human flourishing. You only need to look at waiters standing in empty squares in Rome to see that the days ahead hold much uncertainty for millions of people in regard to possible recession, closures and loss of jobs.

empty square

There are pastoral and practical responses here for churches to help those effected. There is prayer for those in our church communities in management of businesses and organisations to make wise decisions. There is debate and lobbying of government to use its unique authority and power to help individuals unable to work and businesses to survive.

9. Gaining a sense of perspective

There is a deep modernist narrative to life in the West: expectations of endless growth, freedom, happiness, travel, insurance against risk, comfort, health, low infant mortality and long-life. The pandemic poses a moderate and probably temporary challenge to that narrative. Perhaps in a year it will be all but forgotten.

I have posted about this before, but perhaps this is a good time to reflect self-critically on those expectations. It’s worth reminding ourselves how localised geographically and novel historically our modern expectations are.

infographics_malaria03-25If we lived in sub-Saharan Africa we would be used to death and the fragility of life. See this graphic of malaria, a preventable disease. Annual deaths are 438,000. There are 214 million new cases each year (thks SS).

10. Witness

The job of every disciple, whether in a pandemic or not, is this

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15a)