ABORTION THEOLOGICALLY CONSIDERED (3): What does the Bible say?

Credit: RTE

Continuing a series of posts on abortion, engaging with Richard Hays’ chapter on the topic in his The Moral Vision of the New Testament, in light of the upcoming Referendum on 25 May 2018.

So what does the Bible say? At one level, the answer to this question is simple – nothing. No text addresses the issue directly.

In a sense this is not that surprising – here’s why. In Scripture, children are seen as a wonderful blessing from God. Not only is the child to be loved, but children are a source of security and a guarantee of future lineage. In the OT in particular, childlessness is a terrible affliction, so having children is a source of great joy

Children are a heritage from the  Lord,
offspring a reward from him.
Like arrows in the hands of a warrior
are children born in one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
whose quiver is full of them.

Psalm 127:3-5

In this sense, the Bible portrays a world, as Hays puts it, “in which abortion would be not so much immoral as unthinkable or unintelligible.” (449)

Various texts are sometimes marshalled to provide biblical support for opposition to abortion. But none of them comment specifically to the issue, and the use of some texts is far-fetched.

To cite Exodus 20:13 “You shall not murder” as an anti-abortion text is to beg the question. Yes, it can be claimed that abortion is murder in the sense that it is intentional killing of a human person. But such a view depends on how human personhood is defined. And Exodus 20:13 says nothing to that question.

The text probably most commonly cited is Psalm 139:13-16

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.

Now, this text is relevant in relation to modern debate about abortion, but like any text it needs to be read in context. A Psalm of David, its focus is not a general statement about the status of the unborn, but a song in praise of God’s loving omniscience and foreknowledge, specifically his providential hand of blessing upon David in the face of potentially deadly opposition. Such a lyrical poem is at best only tangentially related to the issue of abortion.

Similar comments can be made about Luke 1:44 (Elizabeth’s child leaping in her womb). The text is Christological – focused on the unique identity of Mary’s son Jesus. As Hays comments, “To extrapolate from this text … a general doctrine of the full personhood of the unborn is ridiculous and tendentious exegesis.” The issue of abortion is simply not in view.

And also Matthew 19:14 “‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Again, to try to use this text about children as one which somehow speaks against abortion can only, as Hays puts it, “be judged as an embarrassing instance of decontextualized prooftexting.”

We should pause here for a moment to acknowledge the fact of the paucity of Bible texts that address, even indirectly, the issue of modern abortion. Understandably, some Christians will either not want to acknowledge this fact or will try to make some texts say far more than they actually do say about abortion. Neither move is helpful.

Better upfront to recognise that, when it comes to modern abortion practice, the lack of direct biblical teaching means that we will need to look at broader biblical principles in order to develop a considered theological response to a contemporary issue.

This is not at all unusual. While there are many contemporary issues that are addressed directly in Scripture (think of how much the Bible has to say about money for example), obviously there are many which are not (think artificial intelligence for example). We do not live in the biblical world, but Christians affirm that the ancient text, inspired by the Spirit, continues to speak powerfully and relevantly into our world. Bridging the gap between the two worlds is what hermeneutics (the methodology of interpreting the text) is all about.

More on that in the next post.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

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ABORTION THEOLOGICALLY CONSIDERED (2): Minding our Language

Ireland and Abortion
Credit: RTE

“The first task of normative reflection about New Testament ethics is to form the thought and practice of the Christian community.” (Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 445.)

What Hays argues here is crucial to the challenge of thinking about abortion. Where do we begin? In the last post I listed some possible jumping off points. But notice how none of them fulfil Hay’s primary task above.

Debates about whether the foetus is a person with inalienable human rights is language and thought foreign to the New Testament. Focusing on practical arguments against, and negative implications of, abortion fails to ‘think Christianly’ about the issue.

For example, arguments about the high level of safety for giving birth in Ireland, the negative impact on the life-saving ethos of the Irish health system, the traumatic impact on many women, how abortion favours men, possible gender selection and abortion as a form of euthanasia could be made (and are) by those with absolutely no Christian commitment.

Don’t get me wrong. Many of these are good arguments in their own right. But they are political and pragmatic arguments that fit the norms of secular pluralism. If this is the primary language Christians have for opposing abortion, then we are failing to be salt and light to the world.

For what is the church but a community of disciples called to witness to the good news of Jesus Christ, the risen Lord? Our thinking and practice for all of life is to be shaped by this story above all others. To use political and pragmatic arguments against abortion is to fail to articulate who we truly are and what we believe.

At the risk of getting side-tracked, there are, I think, at least three reasons Christian opposition to abortion tends to be framed in the language of secular pluralism. Feel welcome to add your thoughts on comments on others

i) We hope that we will get a better hearing from those in power if ‘religious’ ideas and language are avoided. In other words, we play the political game on its own terms.

ii) We have deep (perhaps explicit, perhaps unconscious) assumptions that society should and can be shaped by ‘Christian values’ and that it is our job to ‘save’ or ‘transform’ Irish society. Our focus is outward, on seeking to influence and shape the public sphere. There tends to be a blurring of distinction between the church and the world.

iii) A more negative one – we don’t actually believe what we say we believe. When push comes to shove, it is in politics and power that we trust to bring justice and hope, not the foolishness of a crucified Messiah. We put all our hopes and energy and money and time in the political process.

So, following Richard Hays and others, when it comes to abortion I’m suggesting that our language needs first and foremost to be that which is forming the thought and practice of the Christian church as an alternative kingdom community in the world.

Hays puts it this way

“Regardless of what others may do or think, regardless of what the law allows, how shall we as people who belong to Jesus Christ live faithfully under the gospel with regard to our treatment of the issues of pregnancy, abortion and childbearing?” (445)

To begin to answer those questions we need to think biblically and theologically for this is the language of the people of God (next post).

But notice how this also shifts the focus of the discussion.

Rather than ‘by-passing’ the Bible and theology and jumping straight to the politics of the world, we first must do business with what Scripture says – and does not say. And we need to listen hard what the issue of abortion says to us – to the Christian community. In other words, abortion is not an issue ‘out there’ which we sit ‘above’ in moral purity, it is one which will challenge our practice and priorities.

It is one thing to be against something, but a deeper challenge is how can the church embody a life-giving alternative vision of a world without abortion?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Abortion theologically considered (1) : what we are not going to talk about

Ireland and Abortion
Credit: RTE

CONTEXT

First, some context for the vast international readership of this blog.

On 25 May 2018 Ireland will hold a referendum on abortion. Or, to put it more precisely, a referendum on whether to repeal the 1983 8th Amendment to the Constitution which reads

The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.

The Supreme Court has recently made it clear that the unborn have no constitutional rights. Those rights begin at birth. If the 8th is repealed, this leaves the way clear for the Government to introduce proposed abortion legislation.

The new law, if subsequently passed in the Dáil, will include the following:

  • Abortion being allowed up to 12 weeks “without specific indication”. Effectively abortion on demand.
  • Abortions to be provided on the grounds of risk to the life or ‘serious harm’ to the health of the mother.
  • No distinction will be made between physical and mental health risks.
  • Abortions legalised in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, including cases which will lead to the loss of life of the baby shortly after birth

The choice to include mental health on the same footing as physical threat is highly significant. In practice abortions for a physical threat to the mother account for about 0.2% of births. In the UK, 99.8% of abortions are carried out due to threat to the mental health of the mother.

There was some uncertainty about whether the legislation therefore would allow for full-term abortions on the basis of risk to the mental health of the mother. The Government proposals will theoretically prohibit abortion once the foetus is ‘viable’. This is roughly up to six months of gestation. (The bill cannot be formally tabled in the Dáil unless the 8th Amendment is repealed. Obviously, if it is not repealed, general abortion is off the table).

So, as I read it, the Government is effectively proposing abortion on demand up to around 6 months. This represents a dramatic shift from an extremely restrictive approach to abortion to an extremely liberal abortion regime.

How to ‘think Christianly’ about such an issue?

One option is silence, but that’s simply avoiding the issue. Abortion needs to be talked about. Individual Christians and churches need to be speaking and teaching and reflecting self-critically on the ethical and moral challenges posed by abortion and the upcoming Referendum.

WHAT WE ARE NOT GOING TO TALK ABOUT (apart from this post)

Now, at this point one route would be dive into all sorts of observations as well as various arguments against abortion. At the risk of self-contradiction, I’ll talk briefly about some below and then not talk about them any more in posts that follow. An explanation is at the end if you get that far.

Some potential leaping off points are:

(1) The obvious one that the Referendum itself is indicative of huge cultural, political and religious shifts within Ireland since the 1983 Abortion Referendum.

(2) There is the back story of the X case and subsequent 1992 Referendum on the right for a woman to travel overseas for an abortion without fear of prosecution.

(3) There is the fact that Ireland is one of the safest places on earth to give birth. To use fears about the mother’s safety to introduce abortion on demand is wildly disproportionate. Current legislation allows abortion if there is a life-threatening risk to the life of the mother. There could be a debate about legislation specifically to allow abortion for fatal foetal abnormality and / or cases of rape and incest without introducing general abortion on broad grounds.

(4) We could talk about the political reasons behind the campaign to introduce abortion in Ireland. These are not irrational and inconsistent: they make perfect sense within a certain understanding of political reality otherwise abortion would not be widely available globally. They include: a Western narrative of the liberated autonomous individual; freedom from ‘misogynistic law’ that ‘controls’ what women can do with their own bodies; and the belief that maximum choice equals maximum freedom equals the maximum good. In this sense abortion is a regrettable but necessary experience for a pregnant woman who for whatever reason does not want a child at that particular time in her life.

(5) Abortion could be framed as a human rights issue. Evangelical Alliance Ireland has taken this approach “rather than as a matter of religious dogma or of reproductive health.” If the baby is a human being, he or she has a right to life as much as any other human. (This approach does seem to have been dismissed in law by the recent Supreme Court decision mentioned above).

(6) Some talk about the essential ‘sacredness of all human life’ and try to oppose abortion that way. This tends to lead to all sorts of complicated medical discussions about when life begins and is the foetus a person?

(7) We could talk about how damaging abortion is for women; many of whom come deeply to regret past action.

(8) We could go the political activism line and examine where TDs and their parties stand and seek to influence their decision-making.

(9) We could begin by talking about abortion as a form of euthanasia, namely the deliberate eradication of people with disability. For example, in Iceland, there is now a 100% abortion rate for babies with Down Syndrome. This despite Down Syndrome not being an illness and Down Syndrome people being some of the most loving and fun people in existence (not that being loving and fun is required to be able to exist). New technology for non-invasive testing for Down and other disabilities will inevitably lead the UK (and Ireland if abortion is introduced) to follow Iceland’s trend.

(10) We could talk about the impact of introducing a culture of intentional and medically needless death into the Irish health system that was designed and intended to save life.

(11) We could talk about abortion being, far from a victory for feminism, a victory for patriarchy and men acting irresponsibly. Quite simply, men benefit significantly from abortion. Men do not have to bear the pain, trauma and memories of ending a life within their own bodies.  Men don’t face the possibility of subsequent long-term complications from an invasive medical procedure; men don’t face the threat, implicit or explicit, that their partner will leave them if they don’t have an abortion. Rather, abortion suits many men because they don’t have to face the long term consequences of their actions – financial, emotional and relational. They remain ‘free’ of such inconvenient ties.

(12) And we could talk of the implications of continually improving technology for earlier and earlier gender identification within pregnancy. If the current Irish legislation leaves open abortion up to viability, it would be naïve not to be aware that a proportion of abortions will be due to the baby having the ‘wrong’ gender. Globally, and ironically, the ‘wrong’ gender is female (think China and India for example).

But we are not going to talk more about any of these issues. Why? Because, quite simply I do not believe that they are the place to begin when thinking ‘Christianly’ and theologically about abortion.  We’ll try to do that in the next few posts.

(civil) Comments, as ever, welcome

The Song of Songs, love, sex and hidden meanings (5): the sexual revolution and Christian marriage

Aharon_April_Song_of_Songs-Last-1

OK,  some thoughts on marriage in this little mini-series set off by reflecting on allegory and the Song of Songs.

Contemporary Western attitudes to marriage are complex and, at times, contradictory. On the one hand, marriage is legally and socially less significant – a lifestyle choice ignored by increasing numbers of people. Yet, on the other hand, it is a status vigorously pursued as a legal and human right for those formerly excluded from a male-female heterosexual understanding of marriage.

Much confusion arises from different understandings of what marriage actually is. Modern views of marriage are, at key points, historically novel – radically so. Yet, such has been the cultural success of the modern concept of marriage, that it has swept all before it – including much Christian understanding and practice of marriage. The result has been that much Christianity in the West lacks the theological resources to imagine marriage, sex, and the body in radically counter-cultural ways.

So what is this dominant modern view of marriage? It is shaped by at least two major innovations:

Innovation 1: A revolution in the understanding of sex

  • celibacy is incomprehensible (our previous post)
  • being sexually active is an essential part of being human; repression of who we are sexually is harmful and oppressive
  • sex is an activity detached from reproduction. (This is technically possible only in the blink of an eye historically. Remember that for the early church fathers sex was only legitimate if done for procreation. Sex for pleasure was a venial sin).
  • Detachment from procreation frees sex to be a leisure activity – primarily a source of pleasure, fun and self-expression.
  •  Thus sex becomes an end in itself – a source of personal self-fulfilment and expression of identity
  • Modern sex is therefore deeply linked to modern consumerism – it is no accident that sex is used to sell pretty well anything.

Innovation 2: Romantic fulfilment

  • Everywhere in a thousand ways Western culture affirms that the path to individual fulfilment is through authentic romantic love
  • Such love is equal, sexual, intimate and exciting. It is the Other who meets our needs and us theirs. It is ‘us’ and then the rest of the outside world.
  • This vision of romantic love is also new historically – never before in human history has happiness, meaning, fulfilment and purpose been so invested in one relationship.
  • The stakes are high – if the relationship doesn’t deliver exalted hopes then its future is in serious doubt
  • Rising divorce rates suggest that our ‘all or nothing’ investment in marriage / the ‘perfect one’ / ‘true love’ as the ultimate source of identity, happiness and future hope is unrealistic and unsustainable. There are sadly a lot of broken dreams out there.

How has this framework impacted marriage ?

At least two ways:

1. You might think that it would undermine marriage and you would be right.

Marriage rates in Ireland are still high, but on the decline. Many places in the West are far ‘ahead’ in this trend. This makes sense – logically marriage is an optional extra, unnecessary to a fulfilling relationship. For increasing numbers people the thinking is, why bother?

Easier and quicker divorce also follows – if it is not working out, then get out. (I’m speaking big picture here. I’m well aware that many try heroically and self-sacrificingly to make a marriage work and it still fails with associated enormous heartbreak. It takes two to make a relationship function. But the trend is a devaluing of marriage as a life-long commitment).

2. If marriage is only about fulfilment, love, romance, sex, mutuality and happiness then gender also becomes logically irrelevant.

The reshaping of marriage in the West has been about the rights of two individuals ‘in love’ – so it matters not if you are heterosexual or homosexual or somewhere else on a spectrum of human sexuality. This explains the social revolution of the West’s rapid adoption of same-sex marriage. The speed that traditional norms have been abandoned is indicative of how firmly entrenched a romantic individualist view of sex and marriage has become.

Notice though that children are secondary to this pursuit of authentic love. In contrast to a historic, traditional understanding of marriage as the context for conceiving and raising children, the West’s reshaped understanding of marriage has largely detached it from procreation.

This also means that there is now no logical boundary to the pursuit of the perfect relationship. At the moment marriage is limited to two people, regardless of gender in an increasing number of Western nations; it is hard to see why Western culture will not widen its social experimentation to include other forms of ‘pure love’ – love between free, equal consenting adults in whatever arrangement they find fulfilling.

[Can’t remember where I read someone raising the ironical point that the West’s shifting views of sex and marriage, while totally alien to Islam, makes it difficult rationally to resist the argument for polygamy to be legalised. This both on the grounds of ‘free choice of consenting adults’ AND on the grounds of tolerance & inclusion of other ways of life.]

Challenges facing Christians

I said earlier that in the face of the West’s revolution in understanding of sex and marriage, that much Christianity is struggling to articulate a vision for and practice of marriage that is counter-cultural. That’s a big claim and these are blog musings – but what do you think?

I wonder if we are so impacted by Western culture’s revolutionary understanding of sex and romance that these implications follow:

  • adoption of same-sex marriage by many churches and denominations in the West – eg the Scottish Episcopal church vote in 2017, the similar direction of travel of the Church of Scotland, continuing deep divisions in the Church of England, the Episcopal Church in the USA etc etc.
  • assimilation of Western romantic individualism that marginalises the idea of marriage as a life-long covenant commitment. Here’s a favourite quote from Stanley Hauerwas talking about a minister doing a marriage preparation course and thinking it

..… interesting to ask if they love one another. What a stupid question! How would they know? A Christian marriage isn’t about whether you’re in love. Christian marriage is giving you the practice of fidelity over a lifetime in which you can look back upon the marriage and call it love. It is a hard discipline over many years.

  • a subtle revolution in Christian understanding of and practice of divorce. I know this is a painful and complex area and this is not meant in a judgemental way. But it is here that a Christian understanding of marriage should be most counter-cultural. However we understand and apply the Bible’s teaching on divorce, it is crystal clear that it is a disaster; it should be practiced with the utmost seriousness and in limited circumstances. An easy divorce and remarriage policy and divorce rates similar to that of the wider culture would be signs that the church is losing its vision for Christian marriage. [For a very helpful resource on this see the work of Dr David Instone-Brewer of Tyndale House here.]
  • A marginalisation of the practice of celibacy. As I said in this post, while associated with some bad theology, celibacy was the default ‘best option’ in church teaching and life for hundreds of years. It is clearly the New Testament’s preference. Yet today, singleness is not valued as at least an equal option to marriage. While studies vary and stats are unreliable, it is also pretty clear that rates of pre-marital sex amongst young Christians are climbing due to enormous cultural pressures.

Question: do you think celibacy losing credence within the church as well as being incomprehensible outside it?

Of course, describing these trends is easier than saying how best to respond.

Four challenges come to mind:

i. At the very least these are issues we need to be talking about, thinking about theologically, and articulating in teaching and preaching an authentic Christian vision for sex and marriage..

ii. Too often the first response of the church has been to resist and oppose changes in the law enacted by secular governments as a way of ‘protecting’ marriage. Too often absent, has been a first response of looking at ourselves – how church practice and beliefs around sex and marriage have been profoundly formed by Western individualism and consumerism. It is when the church practices sex and marriage well that it will have most impact, not when it takes the Christendom option in a post-Christendom culture of fighting and losing legal battles in the courts.

iii. Almost finally! – there is a need to combine teaching and practicing that vision with listening to people who do not fit within modern church assumptions about the default best option being heterosexual marriage with 2.2 children; singles, people with same-sex attraction, people self-identifying as LBGT+ etc.

iv. Finally finally – let’s return to the Song of Songs. The two lovers are ‘perfect’ – their pristine love captured in beautiful lyrics. We don’t read of them getting older. We don’t read of imperfect lovers making mistakes and failing to love well. Theirs is a wonderful picture of idealised love. It both gives us an inspiring vision and reminds us that our lives and relationships are inevitably marked by sin and selfishness, and our sexual lives are no different. So in all our thinking and teaching about an ideal Christian vision for love, sex and marriage, we also need to practice forgiveness, compassion and tons of grace.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Ben Witherington @ Irish Bible Institute on ‘Rethinking Romans’

Last Friday we had the great pleasure of hosting Prof Ben Witherington for IBI’s 2017 ‘Summer Institute’. The theme was ‘Rethinking Romans’.

IBI was full and it was a terrific day of teaching on Paul’s most famous epistle. It was also a pleasure and privilege to meet Ben and his wife Ann. He is remarkably prolific and has blessed the Church worldwide with a lifetime of top-class scholarship made accessible for teachers, preachers and lay believers.

He is also a top-class communicator. There are lots of video resources out there, but what doesn’t come over in those more formal recordings is Ben’s wit and humour – it was a fun day as well as an educational one. Thank you Ben.

Romans is perhaps the most influential letter ever written in human history. Every chapter resonates down the centuries of Christian theology. Themes like Christian anthropology, sin, justification, ethics, pneumatology, eschatology, predestination, Israel and the church, and Christian morality all emerge in the course of Paul’s persuasive argument for Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome to be united.

For example, take justification. From Luther, Calvin & co onwards – right on through to the New Perspective on Paul from the late 1970s to the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) between the Roman Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) and the Lutheran World Federation – justification has been a continuously ‘live’ theological issue for centuries and Romans is at the heart of it all.

I’m not going to recount all that was covered in a packed day, but here are 8 snapshots. For more you can always go to a copy of this book sitting on my desk!

Snapshot 1: A female Apostle

Romans 16:7: ‘Greet Andronicus and Junia’ – a husband and wife team, both apostles, who are noteworthy in that group.’Deal with it’ said Ben in regard to Junia being a female apostle.

They have been jailed with Paul. Women did not tend to go to jail in antiquity. This is an indication of a remarkably courageous and counter-cultural witness which is also a deconstruction of patriarchal paradigms.

Following the work of Richard Bauckham, Ben suggested that Junia – which is the Latin name of Joanna – is the SAME person who is a patron of Jesus in Luke 8:3. Andronicus and Joanna were ‘in Christ before me’. Was this Joanna, wife of Chuza, of the gospels who was a patron of Jesus who then later became a co-worker of Paul? She went to Jerusalem with Jesus. Chuza could have had the Latin name Andronicus, or she may have been widowed and remarried.

If so, Ben suggests that we should think of TWO prominent names among the Jerusalem believers – that of the apostle Peter AND the Apostle Joanna (Junia).

Now that’s a head-wrecker for all sorts of theologies build on male apostleship AND those that elevate the primacy of Peter. All sorts of implications follow …

Snapshot 2: What is Romans all about?

Ben argued at length that Romans is best understood through the lens of ancient rhetoric – hence his series of NT ‘socio-rhetorical’ commentaries on the New Testament. The key ‘thesis statement’ of Romans is, he argued, Romans 1:16-17.

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

The whole thrust of the letter is aimed at Gentile believers in Rome to understand their place in God’s story of redemption, and the place of Jews, and Jewish believers in Jesus, in that story.

Paul’s big concern is to ‘level the playing field’ between Jewish and Gentile Christians and to appeal for real embodied unity, love, and common worship among the Christian communities in Rome.

The gospel is first to the Jew. Gentiles are not to think more highly of themselves than they should. It is God’s power and God’s gospel that graciously includes both Jews and Gentiles.

The gospel is shocking and surprising – a crucified Messiah. But rather than be ashamed of the cross (as everyone in antiquity would have been), Paul is determinedly not ashamed. The only explanation for embracing the cross in this way is if the cross has been shown to be a place of God’s victory over death – in the resurrection of the Son.

Along with Richard Hays and N T Wright, BWIII goes for pistis Christou meaning ‘the faithfulness of Christ’. But his faithfulness is always accompanied by others placing their faith in Christ. The faithfulness of Christ is the basis of faith in Christ. Jesus’ faithfulness in mission means that anyone (you or I) may believe (response of faith)

When if comes to righteousness, Ben contends that it would be better if the dikaio word group was not translated as ‘justification’ at all. It is too redolent of legal / impersonal language to capture the way righteousness is all about God setting relationships right. It is all about moral transformation – that is the heart of Paul’s concern for the believers he writes to in the New Testament.

Snapshot 3. No imputed righteousness but moral transformation of the believer

Ben is a Wesleyan. His commentary on Romans is one of the few written from an Arminian perspective. While he said he has much to thank the Reformers for, not surprisingly he interprets Romans in a very different way to traditional Calvinist readings.

For example, take Romans 4, Abraham and righteousness. The righteousness in question is that of Abraham. It is NOT Christ’s righteousness somehow imputed to believers. God sees us as we are. Ben sees imputed righteousness as a ‘legal fiction’. Imputed righteousness is not there in Romans 4 – it is reading back into the text by the Reformers who were overly shaped by Latin translations of the text.

What is being talked about is an imparting of righteousness to believers, in the Spirit which leads to holiness and moral transformation.

Luther’s presuppositions led him to read Romans 7 as typical of the Christian life. But it is a total misreading of the text to see it as a description of the normal struggles of the believer (an internal conflict of flesh versus spirit). What Paul is doing is talking about the pre-Christian condition through the lens of Adam.

I agree wholeheartedly with this view of flesh and Spirit. For more on flesh / Spirit see this post. My chapter ‘Solus Spiritus’ in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life argues, as the title suggests, for the Spirit being at the core of Paul’s understanding of new creation life that leads to a transformed moral and ethical life in the world.

Snapshot 4: a transformed life of holiness

Ben’s reading of Romans 8 can be summarised like this:

This is not to say Christians cannot sin, it is to say that Christians are without excuse. Whatever your struggles are, greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world. Call on the Spirit of God. We are in the process of being sanctified by Jesus Christ. I am saying that we sin against the grace of God. God’s grace and Spirit is sufficient to help us avoid intentional sin. Christians are MORE responsible for their sin than non Christians.

This reflects the high expectations of holiness in the Wesleyan tradition – and of course Ben would add – Paul and ultimately God himself.

So Christians should be eagerly pressing on to the goal of the new creation and resurrection life to come. If we are not, we are failing to fulfil our calling.

Snapshot 5: God is good – not all that happens in this world is of God

Romans 8:28 famously says

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him

Ben argues that this is a long way from God fore-ordaining all things such that cancer, violence, injustice and evil are all somehow part of his good plan.  God is not the one who blights us, sends us disease, and afflicts us. Not everything in this world is of God – there are powers of darkness and evil at work.

The ones for whom all works together for good are not some abstract humanity – they are the ones who love God. Paul’s concern is the destiny of those who love God. This is a word of encouragement. Today we can know that if you are in Christ you have a great destiny.

Snapshot 6: Can  you lose your salvation?

Basically the answer is ‘Yes’.

Ben argued that ‘lose salvation’ is the wrong way to look at it. Paul’s warnings are not about misplacing your faith – they are about intentional apostasy. Calvinism does not take Paul’s warnings at face value – or the warnings of Hebrews 6.

It is clear, he contends, that apostasy is possible. This is ‘throwing away your salvation’ rather than losing it.

Snapshot 7: N T Wright can be wrong

As is well known and I have posted about here, BWIII is not a fan of NTW’s equating Israel with the Church. The former argues that Romans 9-11 is about how the Jews are TEMPORARILY broken off from the people of God, but God is not finished with them yet. When the full number of the Gentiles is gathered in, there will be a divine overcoming of what Paul calls the ‘impiety of Jacob’ – which is non-Christian Israel. The church is not Israel. Israel will be saved when Christ returns – by faith in Jesus, by grace.

I’m still figuring out this one. Reading my old post and listening to Ben, the differences are not that great. There is one story, the only way in is by faith in Jesus, the Mosaic law has come to an end. The Abrahamic covenant has been fulfilled.

The difference is BWIII’s insistence that ‘Israel’ does not mean church and Israel has a distinct future which involves many Jews being brought into the story of Jesus.

Snapshot 8: If you are a Christian, you are not your own

Quite simply the framework for Romans 12-15 is this

You do not belong to you. You belong to the Lord.

Live accordingly through faith in Jesus and by obedience to the Spirit.

You can’t get much more counter-cultural to Western individualism than that.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Contested Love (5) the deadliest opponent of love?

9780300118308Getting back, eventually, to Simon May’s fascinating book Love: A History.

We are in chapter 7 on ‘Why Christian Love is not Unconditional’

We don’t tend to link thinking about money with thinking about love. They are very distinct things are they not? What has one to do with the other? We assume that wealth, and the things that go with it, are benign, if not actively good. It does not have much to say, one way or the other, about our loves lives does it?

May writes as a philosopher looking in to Christian theology and ethics from the outside. While I don’t agree with some rather sweeping generalisations, he nails the Bible’s warnings about the spiritual danger of wealth and its connection to pride.

Pride destroys our capacity for love. Thus it is the deadliest sin of all.

Jesus’ greatest enemies, he says, are money, pride and hypocrisy. They feed into vanity, greed, selfishness, a lack of concern for others, and a vain morality that pretends to be for the good of others but is about making ourselves feel good.

Love, in contrast, is a determined focus on the good of the other.

“Jesus’ tremendous focus on money and the vices of pride – hypocrisy and self-righteousness – returns us to a central theme of this book: the precondition for love … is submission to the real presence of the other; submission to her individual lawfulness and what she calls on us to do …

And this is why money and the pride and self-sufficiency it fosters, are Jesus’ main target in his prophetic denunciations within the Gospels

… pride and the some of the conditions of wealth-accumulation can be huge impediments. Pride is about self-protection, self-sufficiency, barricading oneself against one’s neighbour, absorption in, or the business of self-esteem, a myopic dedication to one’s own prestige and power that darkness the mind to the reality of others – all attitudes that exclude submission; while the pursuit of wealth necessarily places the impersonal demand of utility at the centre of our relations with those caught up in this ambition – a far cry from the attentiveness that is at the heart of love …

This theme is so overwhelmingly pervasive in Jesus, that May asks this question.

What might your answer to it be ?

Why then has Jesus’ message been so perverted? Why has Christianised civilisation been so concerned with sex, and so much less inhibited by Jesus’ preaching against pride, possessions and power? Whether we are talking about the historical Church, the ‘civilising mission’ of Victorian Britain, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (the atheistic embodiment of the deeply religious Russian nation) and its unspeakable vanity of bringing revolution to the whole world, the ‘manifest  destiny’ with which American ‘Anglo-Protestantism’ dignifies itself, or the Christian fundamentalism that gives it such strident voice today – in all these cases intense sexual prudery is combined with ruthless pursuit of power and property, flaunted with the very pride, the very self-congratulatory lording it over others, to which Jesus’ whole life and death are a standing reproach …

He concludes with this stinger.

it is remarkable how often people who seek to civilise the world by force, often in the name of Christianity and with a sense of being guided by God, themselves profess a hierarchy of values so completely at variance with those of Jesus.”

pp. 105-6.

Do you agree – is pride the greatest opponent of love? What else makes the flourishing of love all but impossible?

Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (9): Medical Ethics, Disability and the Cross

I’m deliberately posting this on Easter Sunday – the content is profoundly appropriate.

This is a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.

The outline of the book is in this post. This is an excerpt from Chapter Seven, Medical Ethics, Disability and the Cross.

How do we think of modern medicine? What questions do we need to be asking as Christians when facing life and death decisions? In whom or what do we trust and how is this revealed in what we expect or hope medicine to do for us? What should we be saying NO and YES to?

This is a long conversation ranging over a number of topics. The thread tying them together is Hauerwas’ work in critiquing liberal modernist assumptions within the practice of medicine and how ‘the disabled’ are treated.

As Brian Brock puts it at one point .. “the technical apparatus of caregiving, organized by liberal society, gets to define the field” (201). This is the tyranny of the expert; how power is ceded to the medical professionals : how we put our trust in medicine to such a point that –  as Hauerwas likes to say – we begin to believe that it will enable us to get out of life alive.

Books discussed are Suffering Presence and Naming the Silences. This post only touches on one aspect of the discussion – Brian & Stephanie Brock’s encounter of the health care system through the experience of their disabled son Adam, who also has leukemia and a degenerative eye condition. It’s a very honest and moving account.

Naming the Silences (1990) talks about the need to hear and listen to those actually suffering before talking about suffering. It also hones in on the issue of facing childhood leukemia. Brock, the interviewer, is coming at this discussion from first hand experience of both. He comments that

I feel in an especial position to revisit it and probe the whole theology of modern medicine and the role of church and family in offering a better way. (214)

These are my words and they may or may not be accurate to the discussion: the issue here is how the juggernaut of medical professionalism and high-tech treatments swamps our humanity. We treat because we can, but all sorts of ethical and moral questions do not get asked.

For example, in the children’s leukemia ward, progress of how to treat childhood leukemia is mostly made by what is, in effect, experimentation on children. There will be little benefit for the child being experimented on, but over time advances are made … and so goes the process. But this is a process that is largely hidden from parents and children. (215-16)

Brian Brock tells of he and wife fighting to have their son treated free from involvement in medical experimentation – and how incredibly difficult it was. Hauerwas adds:

SH: I was talking to one oncologist who said, “You know, we’re pretty good now at curing hard tumors.” And I said, “How did you get there?” And he said, “Oh we just used the drugs we had. We’ve had them on hand but we just got better at doing it.” I said, “How’d you do that?” And he said, “We experimented on kids.” And I said, “Did they die?” And he said, “Yes.” And I said, “Did you tell the parents it was experimentation?” He said, “No, we told them it was therapy.”

Even if they had told them it was experimentation, many parents of course are so desperate to have their children live they’ll say, “Oh yes, do whatever you think is necessary.” I do think that what’s crucial here is a truthful medicine, in which the parents have some sense that if they want to use these experimental techniques on their kids, that their children may well suffer pain they wouldn’t otherwise have suffered and will also die. (216)

Which leads a bit further on to this exchange ..

BB: We are in an odd kind of Mobius-strip world in which medicine can then only be funded because it is experimental and going to produce more high-tech medicine.

SH: I keep saying that Americans are committed to the idea that if we just get smart enough then with our medical technologies we will be able to get out of life alive! It’s not going to happen.

BB: Taking it back down to the concrete level: even with all the improvements in success rates, leukemia is still a terrible disease to treat because what you are treating is the bone marrow. You can’t get to it without a needle or a drill. And you treat it by injecting poison that is so toxic to the body that you have to put it in an arterial vein. If you put it into a peripheral vein it will burn right through the blood vessels and into the surrounding tissue. This means that when the disease is discovered you need both to get the chemo going and to surgically implant a port, so you don’t burn up too many of the peripheral veins with the chemo. But the kid at the point of diagnosis is pretty sick, so their immune system is not working very well.

I say all that because I vividly remember sitting on the edge of the hospital bed with Adam on my lap and holding the wound on his chest from where they’d put the port in. My despair was complete as I saw the incision slowly splitting open because his skin and his blood were unable to muster the strength to bind the wound. I tell this story because leukemia is a disease that leaves no marks at all, but the treatment leaves incredible wounds. I know people would find your comment about the barbarism of those treatments offensive, and yet any truthful account would say that it’s the treatment that is so scarring. You cut and stick and poison the kid because the only alternative is their dying. (218-9)

And Brock adds this from the perspective of a parent of son who is mentally delayed and largely non-verbal.

Adam hurts but he can’t verbalize where it hurts. He thus seems incapable of being incorporated within this medical narrative. In this, he seems to be more than a canary in a coalmine— another way that you often talk about disabled people— because he reveals modern medicine for what it is. Because he is impermeable to the mutual pretenses that govern our lives, for him there seems to be no other reality than trust and communion, or its lack. Without a horizon of future or past, he demands presence. (219)

And it is this demand for presence that meant that the Brocks decided that they would not subject him to the cruelty of a bone marrow transplant and 6 weeks in a bubble to avoid infection. To be separated from physical presence would be beyond bearing.

It did not come to this –  but these are the sorts of questions that Hauerwas and Brock are probing and encouraging Christians to think hard about rather than unthinkingly go with the modernist flow of whatever the medical experts say.

It would be wrong to end here without some more theological comment. At the end of the chapter Brock raises the idea that disability is a hermeneutical key to reading Hauerwas. By this he means that as Christians we are to live by and under the cross.

The Christian faith is not a success story. It is God’s glory revealed and victory won at the cross. The church and all theology can never move past the cross. We live in a world that Hauerwas has spent his life trying to engage Christianly – a world of war, pain, mental illness, physical illness and death, slavery, patriarchy and so on. (237)

He is, I think, an ‘anti-success theologian’. He takes seriously that the foolishness of God is wiser than the bankrupt wells of human wisdom.  And that is profoundly counterintuitive in a North American culture dedicated to success, happiness and positive thinking.

Comments, as ever, welcome.