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.

What is the place of joy and laughter in the Christian life?

You might read this question and think several things:

You might think, ‘But joy is not equivalent to humour and laughter’.

And of course you’d be right. Joy, in a New Testament sense is a hopeful rejoicing in light of the gospel, whatever particular circumstances we find ourselves in (Philippians 4:4). There is joy even, or particularly, in the midst of suffering and persecution. But I’d like to maintain that it all nigh but impossible to be joyful and for that joy not to find expression in humour and laughter, in some form of visible delight at life and in others.

You might think this is a rather silly and trivial question for this normally deeply serious and intellectual blog (!)

I’d like to suggest that it is perhaps one of the most serious and important theological questions we can think about.

You might think that this is a naïve question that could make those who struggle with depression and other mental health issues feel even worse for rarely ever feeling joyful.

Yes, that is a possibility, but I’m not suggesting a law or required behaviour. Joy and laughter cannot and should not be forced.

So here are some admittedly superficial musings on joy and the Christian life. They take two forms.

One is ‘ON SERIOUSNESS’  – where life is just too grave, earnest and significant to be distracted from what is truly important (this post)

One is ‘ON JOY’ – for joy to be a visible, tangible and frequent characteristic of a mature Christian faith (next post)

Feel welcome to add your own comments for either side.

ON SERIOUSNESS

Humour and joy are not exactly what come to mind listening to the news each day. The world is a very serious place. Here’s a particularly cheery vision of the future to brighten your day.

Is it therefore a sign of triviality to find joy and laughter in the midst of what can seem overwhelming darkness? A type of naïve superficiality indicative of a moral and intellectual failure to engage with the realities of the world? A retreat into self-absorbed self-delusion where we fool ourselves that the world is not as bad as it seems while amusing ourselves to death? (to paraphrase the late Neil Postman)

There are many Christians who say ‘Yes’ to these last three questions. They may not have worked out a formal ‘theology of non-joy’ but their theology is visible in their lives and faces and worship. (Like the old joke about Presbyterians being people of deep deep joy – so deep it never surfaces).

Such Christians are resolutely serious – there is, after all, much ministry to be done which has eternal consequences. There is much pain and suffering to try to alleviate – and to endure. There is much sin and injustice to confront. All this doesn’t leave much room for the self-indulgent superficiality of laughter.

After all, the Bible is not exactly a joke book. Indeed, from Genesis 1-11 onwards, much of its power and relevance comes from its stark unsentimental realism about the world and human nature. The history of Israel is true to our world of violence, power-politics, human pride, injustice and forced displacement. The wisdom literature of the OT faces the darkness and ambivalence of our human experience head on.

Jesus is the ‘man of sorrows’ and apocalyptic prophet of the kingdom of God – not a slick, easy on the ear, joke a minute preacher. The climax of the biblical narrative leads to a crucified Messiah. Darkness and evil are confronted at the cross. One day in the future all will be judged by a perfect and righteous God. Christian mission has therefore eternal consequences.

I can think of many sober and serious Christians I’ve known. Mostly I can think of their rather grim faces. (There is an Ulster saying about someone having a face like a Lurgan Spade. It was used to cut peat in the bog and was long and thin).

And I freely admit to belonging to this tribe at times – of sometimes despairing of hope when looking at the state of the world and man’s inhumanity to man – let alone my own sins and failures. It seems to me that without Christian hope, the only logical attitude to life would be nihilism. Atheist optimism seems to me to be whistling in the dark.

And there certainly is a type of ‘Christian’ joy that is a sign of triviality and self-indulgence. Where life is focused around ‘me’ and what makes me happy. Where I am in my own little bubble and either unable or unwilling to step outside it to listen to and help others. Where I am joyful if I have all I want and miserable if I don’t. Where God is there to meet all my needs and faith is little more than a resource to help me live a more fulfilled and happy life.

This is a pseudo-faith that finds happiness in a lack of engagement with a holy God, a lack of worship, a lack of repentance,  a lack of lament, a lack of mission, a lack of self-sacrifice and a lack of service.

In contrast, authentic Christian faith is genuinely a serious business.

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?

Contested Love (3) love as the supreme virtue

9780300118308I’m skipping on in Simon May’s Love: A History to an important chapter on the evolution of love within Christianity.

A question: what is Christian love? How would you define it? What is distinctive about Christian love as compared say to love in our wider culture today?

I had quite a few quibbles with May in the this chapter. Not surprising I guess, he is venturing into detailed areas of Christian theology and painting with a broad brush. There are half-truths and generalisations, but the overall thesis is intriguing.

He argues that two major shifts in the history of love happen that are intimately linked to how love comes to be understood within Christianity.

  1. Love is elevated to become the supreme virtue. There is no better thing than to love and be loved. The idea of love as eternal and supreme is everywhere in the West.
  1. Love as divine: in love we are united to the divine. And this experience of divinity is radically democratic – open to all ordinary people.

He traces this development, beginning with Jesus. (and this is one place that it is ‘Yes, but’)

Jesus is not linked to the two developments above. He is firmly located within OT categories of love as command and obedience. May says Jesus speaks little of love – I think this is overplayed with significant elements of love within the life and teaching of Jesus passed by.

May pits Jesus against John (love as divine) and Paul (love as supreme). Again, I am not convinced that there is such a wedge between Jesus, John and Paul when it comes to love.

[And there are links here back to our discussion of the New / Old Perspective on Paul – with love in the apostle’s teaching seen in some frameworks as part of Christianity’s love / grace / freedom set over against the law / legalism / slavery of Judaism.]

May argues that the claims made for love by Paul are uniquely extravagant in the history of love – love fulfils the law. [But I would argue that love is deeply rooted within the law – Deuteronomy 6]. May sees a radical disjuncture of OT to NT (Paul) in terms of love. A sort of Old / New Perspective on Love.

“one thing that is obviously happening is the creation of a new morality – based on so great an intensification of Old Testament morality that a genuine revolution in values has occurred.” 87.

What do you think? Is love within Paul a ‘new morality’ and ‘revolution’ compared to love in the OT?

Moving on, it is Augustine, May argues, where love becomes the greatest virtue and from which all actions and morality flow.  But what happens is how love not only answers questions of flourishing and ethics, but deeper questions of existence and meaning.

“love is to be the lodestar of our lives and, if blessed with the capacity to exercise it, we can aspire to imitate God. It was only a matter of time before the outrageous conclusion was drawn that through love we, ordinary men and women, can ourselves become divine.” 87

A bit of a villain in the historical exaltation and divinisation of love is Martin Luther who he quotes as saying “we are gods through love.” He acknowledges that Luther is well aware of potential heresy here – again I think this is overplayed.

But things get really interesting in how May perceptively links Christianity’s elevation of love as the supreme virtue WITH a deep awareness of the need for humility within Christian spirituality.

To fill in what I think he means here: if we are commanded to imitate the love of God, such love is only possible because of grace, the gift of forgiveness, the Spirit and God’s enabling.  Love is always first from God.

If Augustine is the theologian of love, he is also the theologian of grace: we are not self-sufficient. “The Grace of God makes a willing man out of an unwilling one.” 90

We find our fulfilment in God (Augustine’s restless heart).  May sees Augustine as very Platonic – the ladder of ascent to the divine. It is by grace that humans can ascend to caritas (divine love, selfless love, eternal love) rather than cupiditas – lower love, without reference to God.

It is this unique combination within Christianity of an ascent to divine love combined with a deep emphasis on humility, that is so powerful and enduring. Such love is hard – it requires obedience and persistence and discipline.

The implication I think is that he means love only comes slowly, it needs character, it is a virtue that is the fruit of moral integrity and dependence on God.

“This view of love expresses the reality that exaltation and abasement are related to each other in a profound dialectic – a dialectic incomparably revealed in the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ. ‘Wanting to be gods’ is inseparable from wanting to go the way of the Cross. The crucifixion of the incarnate God is not a gruesome paradox, as Nietzsche was to characterise it, but rather speaks a deep truth: if you want to be ‘Gods and Saviours of the world’ you have to be (and not merely appear) humble.   (92)

How convincing do you find this?

What are the essential requirements for love to flourish?

 

Stephen Fry and the disease of Life

Stephen Fry is almost an honorary member of our family. It’s rather unlikely that he knows of his esteemed position, but he’s been an integral part of parenthood & childhood (via Harry Potter audio books) and, more lately a source of fun and education on QI, and in the rediscovery of classics like A Little Bit of Fry and Laurie and Blackadder. [Hugh Laurie is another honorary member].

Stephen Fry’s given us all much fun and joy, for which I am hugely grateful. We ain’t going to throw him out of the family just yet. You are welcome to dinner anytime Stephen!

Stephen FryIn his most recent interview yesterday he says he is glad that what he said has got people talking. And how.

I’ve had a browse of (an admittedly tiny) selection of Christian responses. Tiny because, as Stephen Fry says, this life is short and we’ve got to make the best of the time we’ve got 😉 – and that probably doesn’t include hours reading people trading insults in the comments section of the Guardian (of more below).

One of the most gracious and moving was by someone called Chris Stead. His story of faith, hope and love in the midst of watching powerlessly the daily traumatic suffering of his daughter, gives the lie to superficial stereotypes of Christians blindly and unreflectively following a ‘stupid and capricious God’. Christians can and do rejoice at the utter goodness of God even in the midst of great suffering. Facing suffering with dignity and hope and strength is woven into the fabric of Christian faith. It is Christianity which has inspired countless millions to give their lives caring for others  – and to continue to fight injustice and to alleviate suffering often at great personal cost.

One of the most unpersuasive was by Canon Giles Fraser in the Guardian. He got an awful bashing in the comments section from atheists and others quite rightly rather vexed that his ‘defence’ of God led to the conclusion that

For God is the story of human dreams and fears. God is the shape we try to make of our lives. God is the name of the respect we owe the planet. God is the poetry of our lives.

I’m sorry but this is liberal twaddle at its worst. ‘God’ is exempt from the charge of being responsible for evil and suffering because … he doesn’t exist outside our imaginations. Well, that’s things solved then. God is ‘love’ in the abstract. To be honest I’m at a loss how someone who holds such a view can continue to work as a paid cleric in the Church of England. Would not the local humanist association be more fitting?

In a very good piece, Krish Kandiah, the newly appointed President of London School of Theology, highlights the parallels between Fry’s moral outrage and how C S Lewis moved from atheism to Christian belief. He also says this

At the heart of the Fry’s argument is the idea that the world that exists is as God intended it to be. He assumes that God deliberately created a universe with appalling undeserved suffering. But a central doctrine of the Christian faith is that God created a good and perfect world and after the fall of humanity nothing is fully as it should be. To blame God for natural disasters and childhood cancer is like blaming the landlord after tenants have trashed their house.

Closer to home, Aberdonian exile Kevin Hargaden at Creideamh, points out the irony in Stephen Fry’s moral outrage – from whence comes the morality? He also rightly argues we need to move beyond philosophical speculation to specifics of the Christian God incarnate in Jesus Christ. And when we do this we see that

There are many problematic things about Christianity. There are weak points where opponents can score points. Suffering isn’t one of them. The God that the Christians declare is one who revealed his divinity in momentous suffering … no human has ever been more human than when the Godman suffocated under his own weight. The new-atheists never try to kill that God. He’s already died. He sides with the suffering and the broken, the oppressed and the downtrodden.

I find myself saying “Yes … But” to both Krish and Kevin.

Yes Krish’s first three sentences are I think indisputably accurate description. But it’s the last line that isn’t fully convincing. The atheist sceptic will reply, “OK, even if I accept that man is directly responsible for the vast amount of suffering that goes on in the world, God is still ultimately responsible. He created the world in the first place and made this world of natural disasters, suffering and injustice possible.” In other words, while the Fall introduces death and sin and all the horrors that follow, including a twisting of creation itself, presumably God could have chosen not to create.

Yes, Kevin puts it so well: it is often in suffering that goodness and love and grace are poured out in profound ways. God is no deist; he is a God of utter love and compassion; he is on the side of the poor and oppressed; he has even entered our world of suffering and embraced death in Christ. The heart of God is revealed in the tears of Jesus at the death of his friend Lazarus. Jesus’ grave-side indignation is at the way death ruptures the way things should be. His raising of Lazarus foreshadows the resurrection to come when death will be done away with. But a focus on God’s response to evil and suffering, however loving and self-sacrificial, still does not answer the objection that an omnipotent God made this post-Fall world possible.

Put it another way. Forget for a moment Fry’s examples of eye-burrowing worms (which might not  actually exist apparently) or bone-cancer in children. These are emotive and awful diseases, but ultimately a distraction in the argument. The much bigger ‘complaint’ Stephen Fry really has is the ‘disease’ of Life itself.

While he says that life is to be celebrated, shared, enjoyed and lived to the full (Amen), it is a simple fact that the very possibility of life as we know it means the inevitability of death. For life is terminal, one way or another. We are fairly fragile carbon-based life forms which, sooner or later, start to malfunction and then die. And most of the time death involves suffering. Getting old, as my 90 year old father says, is ‘not for wimps’. So Fry is really blaming God for designing a world in which death and suffering were possible.

The irony in this whole discussion is that both Stephen Fry and Christians desire and want a world without suffering, pain or death – and both feel the desperate ‘wrongness’ of this broken world. Stephen Fry blames God for allowing this world to exist. Christians believe that this broken world was not God’s original design. Death and suffering are alien intruders who will one day be evicted.

It seems to me then, that there are two big background questions lurking behind this discussion:

Why creation at all?

Where does evil (that led to the Fall) come from?

And it is here I think Christians need to be upfront and say there aren’t easy answers. For, as far as I can tell, Scripture does not ask those sort of philosophical questions (the book of Job gets nearest).

As to why creation itself, we can suggest answers such as the creative glory of God, the wonder of the cross, the necessity of human free will, the context for faith, love and hope to flourish, the mysterious purposes of God that are [unsurprisingly beyond our knowledge since he is God and we are not] – but that’s as far as we can go.

And when it comes to the origin of evil, the Bible simply does not tell us how it came to be. It does say that Satan rebels and becomes the enemy of God, the ‘prince of this world’ and the author of evil. But this is not quite the same thing as saying how evil entered a good creation.

We can, however, insist on the certainty of three things that shape our thinking about God and suffering.

1. God is absolutely and utterly Good. As Kevin and Chris Stead highlight, this goodness is revealed in his response to suffering. It is revealed in his ultimate end game which is blessing. It is supremely seen in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2. God is God: omnipotent creator of all and Lord of history. He is not to be explained away in order to excuse him from the responsibility of being God (Giles Fraser)

3. Evil exists and is opposed to God. Despite what Stephen Fry asserts, God is not the author of sin, suffering, disease, injustice, and death. God stands against these things deeply and passionately than any human can imagine. He overcomes them at infinite personal cost. It is at the cross where God’s absolute goodness, omnipotence meet head on with the forces of evil and defeat them utterly (Col. 2:15). That decisive victory is what gives hope of a world without bone cancer or holocausts or even death itself.

So while Stephen Fry sees ‘God’ as ultimate bad news, Christians will insist that the gospel of God is the ultimate good news: good news about who God is, what he has done, what he is doing and what he will do.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Barth, Schweitzer and the weirdness of Christianity

At particular times in the history of the church, ‘disturbers’ have emerged, protesting against the cultural captivity of the church. They have rightly seen that authentic Christianity should never be domesticated and made ‘safe’.

Maybe you can think of some ‘disturbers’. A couple that come to mind are:

SchweitzerAlbert Schweitzer’s apocalyptic Jesus brushed aside the anaemic Jesus that had resulted from 19th century liberal theology’s quest for the ‘historical Jesus’. Schweitzer was magnificently right in his rejection of the un-Jewish and un-troubling Christ of the First Quest. His portrait of Jesus of the Gospels was far closer to the truth – even if Schweitzer finally drew the wrong conclusions about Jesus as a failed apocalyptic revolutionary.

The 20th century Jesus Seminar was in many ways a replay of the First Quest – a de-historized Jesus, shorn of miracles and the eschatological urgency of the kingdom of God. One of N T Wright’s many achievements has been his compelling rejection of the methodology and conclusions of the Jesus Seminar in his Jesus and the Victory of God. What shines through Wright’s work on Jesus is how he brings the Gospels, and their main subject, to vibrant disturbing life.

Another ‘disturber’ was the Swiss pipe-smoker Karl Barth. His protest was against a culturally captive form of Christianity, unable even to identify the threat Hitler posed.  His great ‘NO’ to any form of natural theology denied that God could be reached ‘from the bottom up’. Barth’s genius was to insist on absolute otherness of God; God could only be revealed from the ‘top down’ by the triune God himself.

Karl BarthThus, God, for Barth is both the Revealer and the Revelation. It is God alone who can choose to reveal himself, and he does so in Jesus Christ. It is God’s Spirit alone who can effect God’s revelation in Christ. It is a mixture of hubris, pride and naivety that leads people to believe that they can put God in a nice neat box. Barth blew up the box.

Schweitzer and Barth, in very different ways, saw clearly that when we downplay the ‘weirdness’ or ‘Otherness’ of Christianity, God and the gospel become quickly domesticated, diluted, insipid; unable to stand against evil; to give prophetic witness; to form radical and counter-cultural communities of faith; to speak of an alternative kingdom of God that has broken into this world.

It’s no coincidence that both Barth and Schweitzer spent much time considering Jesus. The Jesus of the Gospels just isn’t dull, predictable, undemanding, easily accommodated into our lives and having little to say about the broken world in which we live.

Once we lose touch with the weirdness of Christian faith, it is inevitable that we end up with a form of Christianity that is virtually indistinguishable from the wider culture.

So what are some signs that we have lost touch with the strange Otherness of Christianity?

Here are some suggestions in no particular order – feel welcome to add your own:

1. When the content of much Christianity tends to be primarily therapeutic.

God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. The church is a community where you will be loved and accepted unconditionally. The gospel will give your life new significance and meaning. God will help you navigate through the storms of life. The pastor is there to remind and encourage you that you are loved.

This is Christianity lite – a form of spiritual consumerism that promises all and demands little. God is there for you because you are worth it.

No place here for the NT’s embrace of suffering, injustice and persecution as ‘light and momentary troubles’.

No place here for the notion that being a Christian means death: death to the self; death to sin; death to an old order of existence.

2. When faith is assumed.

This is perhaps the most damaging legacy of Christendom. Everybody is ‘in’; everybody has been baptised; Christianity is natural, universal, and all-embracing. The focus of preaching and teaching is on equipping and exhorting and encouraging members to be more committed to helping the church maintain its structures and existence. Mission is marginalised and almost irrelevant.

Little place in an assumed faith for the deep mystery of the atonement: that somehow in one man’s death and shed blood, something happened of universal spiritual significance that forgiveness and freedom from sin needs to be appropriated through repentance and faith.

3. When Jesus is marginalised.

God IncarnateYou know – things like his apparently crazy teaching on non-violence. His teaching on money and possessions. His utterly uncompromising demands of his followers. His passion for justice. His words of coming judgment. His unrelenting eschatological focus on the kingdom of God and his urgent summons to enter now.

And, to top all of this, is the NT’s exalted Christological claim that this local Rabbi was God in the flesh. A completely unexpected development; foolish nonsense to Greeks, revolting heresy to Jews, unbelievable religious jargon to contemporary atheists, a threatening universal truth claim to modern pluralists.

This is why I love this picture of Jesus by Oliver Crisp – it brilliantly captures the otherness of Jesus who resists all easy categorisation.

4. When the Spirit is paid only lip-service.

Pentecostals and charismatics rightly protest against a sort of virtually ‘binitarian’ Christianity, where the vital, central and life-giving role of the Spirit is replaced with a form of rationalism. Where there is little expectation of the empowering presence of God himself to change lives, heal, and work visibly in the church and the world.

5. When ‘God is on our side’.

I mean by this a form of religious nationalism where Christianity is co-opted to bless and sanctify our politics; our identity; our nation. ‘God bless America’. God on the side of the British Empire. God on the side of Catholic Ireland’s fight for freedom against that Empire. God on the side of [Protestant] Ulster not to be subsumed within Catholic Ireland.

God sure does switch sides a lot doesn’t he?

Once God is safely for us, then our enemies are unrighteous. Since error and heresy have no right, all sorts of horror follows. For examples, read some Irish history.

6. When we buy into the sacred / secular divide.

A nice image here is of an orange and a peach. A Christian view of life is not orange – nicely segmented into distinct categories, with spiritual being one sitting alongside work, family, leisure etc. Rather life is like a peach – one whole fruit where everything is spiritual with Jesus as the centre stone.

The sacred / secular divide attempts to neuter the universal Lordship of Christ over all of life. It reduces Christianity to some sort of Kantian subjective experience. Truth becomes individualised and privatized. The gospel is reduced and personalised. The church has little to say to the world.

7. When we lose touch with the eschatological heartbeat of the Bible.

The OT and NT look forward to a new creation; a remaking of all things within a different order of existence where death is banished. No hospitals, doctors, medicines or morgues there. A future where evil and sin will have no place and justice will be done for ever.

But this is not just away in the future sometime – the future is already here in the present. The ‘proof’ is the presence of the promised Spirit, a foretaste of God’s rule to come. The resurrection of Jesus is the forerunner of the resurrection to come for all who belong to him.

Now that just doesn’t sound ‘normal’ and rational and scientific does it? Such a vision invites scorn and ridicule (as well as joy and hope). Well, let the scorn and ridicule come for Christianity is nothing without eschatology. Whenever the church loses focus on future hope it becomes fat, lazy, complacent and inward looking.

 

So, any attempt to make Christianity acceptable and reasonable to modern culture by removing the ‘unbelievable’ bits is doomed to failure. Even with the best of intentions, what remains will bear little resemblance to historic orthodox Christian faith.

I’ve nothing against good apologetics (defending the historic reliability of the Bible, the historicity of the resurrection etc) but increasingly I see a Christian’s primary task as simply announcing and telling and discussing the good news as it stands – without apology, or qualification or embarrassment. (And without aggression, arrogance or coercion either).

The irony is that it’s when we take it upon ourselves to change the story and try to make it more popular and relevant, that we do the greatest damage.

In other words, let the weirdness and Otherness of the Christian gospel stand on its own two feet. This is the apostolic story that we have been given – let’s keep to the script and trust in God to do the rest.

Suggestions for rediscovering the weirdness of Christianity

Canterbury Cathedral Jesus
Canterbury Cathedral Jesus

Dictionary definitions of “weird” explain it as “very strange” “bizarre” or “peculiar”.

Maybe you disagree, but strangely enough, even in these post-Christendom days, I don’t think too many people in Ireland think of the Christian faith as bizarre, very strange or peculiar.

Let me suggest that it would be a good thing for the health of the church if both Christians and non-believers were able both to understand and experience more of just how weird Christianity really is.

The picture of Canterbury Cathedral captures something of what I’m getting at – the strange ‘Otherness’ of Jesus.

I’m by no means saying I’ve got this all sorted (!), but the longer I am a Christian and the more I have thought about the gospel, about the ultimate story of the Bible, about the life and mission of Jesus, about the atonement, about what it means to follow Jesus, about the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, and about the nature of Christian hope – the stranger and stranger Christianity becomes.

There is, to put it differently, a deep and profound ‘Otherness’ to the gospel of God.

In Ireland, and many places in the West, Christianity remains deeply embedded in history, culture and popular perception. Church spires puncture the skylines of every town and city. A declining, but significant proportion of the population still attend church for some sort of reason.

I’m speculating here (hey isn’t that what blogs posts are for? Please correct me if I’m off base here) but I suspect that for many people in Ireland, Christianity is seen as a mixture of:

(i) a code of rules for religiously-minded people who like to get out of bed on a Sunday morning to assuage their guilt

(ii) an irrelevant and boring institution

(iii) a malign force of religious conservatism that has no place in a pluralist Ireland.

However you cut it, it isn’t seen as particularly bizarre or radical. It remains, for the time being, socially acceptable and unremarkable. It’s part of the furniture, even if of the dusty antique sort in the ‘good room’ that is used for polite conversation with visitors.

I also wonder how ‘weird’ Christianity is for many professing, committed Christians, many of whom have grown up in church: Sunday mornings, singing hymns, prayer meetings, preaching, Bible studies and such. For such people (and I am one) it is a familiar, predictable and largely unsurprising world (especially if you are an Irish Presbyterian 🙂 ).

If I’m even partly right on this description, why is this the case?

What, for you, is most ‘Other’ or ‘weird’ about Christianity?

And where most has the sheer ‘otherness’ or ‘weirdness’ of Christianity been diluted or domesticated?

Comments welcome – I’ll add some more thoughts in the next post.