The State of New Testament Studies: eschatology

This arrived in the post yesterday.

Publication date is 05 November 2019.

Delighted and humbled to be part of such a project with such an array of scholars.

The book is a fantastic ‘go to’ resource to familarise yourself with pretty well any topic within contemporary New Testament studies.

My chapter surveys developments in the study of New Testament eschatology and how, over the last century or so, eschatology has (rightly) moved from the margins to the centre of New Testament theology.

Key figures discussed along the way include Johannes Weiss, Albert Schweitzer, Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, C. H. Dodd, Werner Georg Kummel, Oscar Cullmann, Jurgen Moltmann, Norman Perrin, Margus Borg, N. T. Wright, Brant Pitre, Timo Eskola, James D. G. Dunn, J. Richard Middleton and Richard Bauckham.

What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘eschatology’?

Perhaps it evokes some sort of end-times scheme. Or perhaps it raises questions likeWhat happens when I die?’; ‘What is heaven?’; ‘What about judgement?’ ‘What does it mean to have a resurrection body?’ ‘What will the new creation be like?’

While these are certaintly important and pastoral eschatological questions, they tend to relegate eschatology to the future rather than of relevance to the here and now.

Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to eschatology. My argument is that there is no area of Christian theology that is more relevant to Christian living in the present.

So the focus of the chapter is broader, looking at how, as Jurgen Moltmann famously said ‘Christianity is eschatology’. Here’s a snippet.

Particularly post-Moltmann, and reinforced by Bauckham, the renaissance of eschatology is characterised by a recognition that it represents the spine of early Christian faith, giving the rest of the skeleton support, shape and ability to function. Without it, the entire body collapses. Such eschatology is intrinsically particular; right across the New Testament it is relentlessly Christological, focused on the person, resurrection and enthronement of Jesus. (249-50)

What is an Anabaptist view of Brexit? (1)

The B word. It didn’t even exist a short while ago and now apparently it’s one of the most spoken words in the English language. It’s pretty well impossible to get through a day without it intruding. And as we approach 31 October that cacophony will rise to a crescendo.

I haven’t said much on this blog about Brexit (in fact I haven’t had time to say much on this blog full stop). It’s not because I’ve got my head stuck in the sand and don’t follow the news (I do – rather too much probably, it is an addictive soap-opera-horror-show on both sides of the Atlantic).

The reality is that it is not obvious how to articulate a ‘Christian’ response to Brexit.

If you were to preach or teach about Brexit, what would you say?

Those that confidently pronounce judgement that leaving is a disaster or mock the stupidity of the entire Brexit fiasco sure have plenty of ammunition, but such responses don’t take us very far apart from maybe feeling better about ourselves. I freely confess that much of my response to the unfolding ‘debate’ in London and the catastrophic ‘leadership’ from the Conservative Party from Cameron, to May to Johnston is a gut reaction to an entitled, arrogant, destructive, narrow sort of English nationalism that, as an Irish observer, presses every one of my red buttons. But that isn’t a very good basis for a mature theological reflection! It is no good misusing the pulpit as a platform for one’s own political opinions and prejudices.

An alternative approach is to step back from partisan politics and issue general appeals for tolerance and civility in public life and particularly against whipping up fears for populist political ends. While important in our increasingly fragile political environment, there is nothing particularly Christian in this. Indeed, there is little distinctively Christian in most arguments I’ve heard from Christians and church leaders either for or against Brexit. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation. The debate revolves around complex issues of economics, national sovereignty, trade, immigration and law, untangling those is proving to be well-on-nigh-impossible practically, let alone theologically. Reasoned Christian responses to Brexit tend to revolve around analysis of such issues and therefore largely mirror reactions in the media and wider society.

A digression – I’m reminded here of this exchange in between Humpty Dumpty and Alice in Lewis Carroll’s, Through the Looking Glass (p. 364.) A key reason behind the fiasco is that over three years after the Referendum, no-one is still sure what the word ‘Brexit’ actually means. Different factions fill the word with whatever meaning that best suits their interests.

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‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

A third response is to say nothing. Now I have some sympathy with church leaders who have not preached about Brexit (and I have not heard a sermon addressing Brexit – have you?). What do you say, for example, if your congregation in England or Northern Ireland is split down the middle just as the Conservative and Labour parties are?

But saying nothing is inadequate. Like it or not, Brexit has become a defining moment that will shape politics and society in the UK, Ireland and Europe for the foreseeable future. It requires theological engagement, so what follows is some ‘thinking out loud’ towards that goal.

The title of this post asks what is an Anabaptist view of Brexit. As I have often said on this blog over the years, I am an Anabaptist at heart. Researching, writing about and teaching the New Testament only continues to confirm those sympathies. So the next post will try to sketch some principles for thinking about Brexit through an Anabaptist lens.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The Message of Love is on its way!

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Delighted to announce that The Message of Love will be out in September. You can pre-order your copy now before it sells out!!

Seriously, I won’t be pushing the book on this blog apart from this announcement and maybe a couple of posts when it comes out.

Few things are more boring than an author obsessively banging on about their book.

So excuse me this post and then we will move on.

It has taken up weekends, evenings and holidays for the last couple of years or so, so it’s exciting to see publication in sight.

I’ve loved writing about love. For me, the book effectively turned into a biblical theology of Christianity.

It did not start there but that is where it feels like it finished.

By ‘biblical theology of Christianity’ I mean it engages with the great core questions at the heart of the Christian faith. That theology emerges via exegesis, discussion and contemporary application of 17 individual key ‘love texts’ in the Bible.

The sorts of issues are listed below. They are not a table of contents but some of the theological themes that surface along the way.

Who is God and what is he like?

God’s love for his people Israel – unbreakable covenant love, judgement and forgiveness.

God’s just love for the poor and marginalised

The love of the Father for the Son

God is love

God’s great love shown in Jesus Christ

God’s love poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit

Human love for God

Wholehearted love for God – heart, soul, strength

The cost of discipleship love

Love and worship

Love and obedience

Love for one another

The difficult discipline of love as a foretaste of the future

Enemy love

Love, freedom and the Spirit

Erotic Love: sex, the body and desire

Love and Marriage

Misdirected love: the love of money

Every chapter has discussion of implications for how the ‘Bible Speaks Today’.

The more these themes came into focus, the clearer it became how and where a biblical theology of love confronts and contrasts with how love is understood in the twenty-first century West.

Overall, the book discusses how the Christian faith is effectively a beautiful vision of a flourishing life together. 

But it also asks some hard questions.

If God’s people are called to love and worship a God who is love, what does that look like in churches? In how Christians treat opponents? In a culture where the church is often seen as opposed to love rather than the embodiment of it?

If love describes God’s character, his dealings with his people and his attitude to the world; if love is the ultimate goal of his redemptive work and is heartbeat of the Christian life and future hope; if churches are to be communities of other-focused love – what challenges does this pose to churches today?

To you and I?

Where do we need repentance and renewal? What is the connection between love and mission?

That hopefully gives you a flavour of what The Message of Love is all about.

A couple of encouraging endorsements are in from NT scholars Scot McKnight and Ben Witherington.

Press Reviews

For close to two decades I have studied both how the Bible presents love and how Bible scholars have expressed that presentation. Luminaries like James Moffatt and Leon Morris, from two considerably different traditions, have become standard treatments but I found both coming up short for different reasons. No one will ever offer the final word on what the Bible says about love, but I know of no volume that is as thorough, sensitive to context and contour, as Patrick Mitchel’s sparklingly clear and faithful exposition of how the Bible presents love, how in fact the God of love loves the world and the people of God in Christ. This will become a standard text for my classes on New Testament theology.

Scot McKnight, Professor of New Testament, Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, Lombard, Illinois, USA

Oddly enough, it has been decades since a really good study of love in the Bible has appeared. Finally, we may now thank Patrick Mitchel for remedying this oversight in The Message of Love. There is a reason that Jesus said that the great commandment has to do with love, and Paul said love was greater than even faith and hope. It is because God himself is love, it is the essence of his character, and Mitchel in this book lays out for us how that is a consistent theme throughout the Bible. Highly recommended.

Ben Witherington III, Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies, Asbury Theological Seminary, USA

 

 

 

 

 

 

Musings on beauty, Barth, buildings and blessed hope

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Had a wonderful hike up Slieve Donard over the bank holiday weekend. Can’t say it was easy (getting on you know) – after rather a lot of huffing and puffing there were fantastic views to enjoy – including the best golf course in the world (last photo).

When have you last heard a sermon on beauty? Or read something on the relationship of beauty and theology? There were a lot of people on pilgrimage up Donard – all doings something physically demanding in order to experience beauty. There is something compelling about beauty – humans are drawn to it and go to literally great lengths to see a beautiful place.

Within the evangelical Christian tradition in which I grew up, live and work, beauty has tended to be neglected. There are probably a few reasons for this. Four come to mind, and these are simply musings, feel free to add your own reasons.

And if it is the case that beauty is marginalised within our lives, our theology, our churches – what might be some ways to recover an appreciation and experience of beauty? Beauty can be found in many places, not just a mountain top experience. Where do you find, and take time to appreciate and perhaps create, God-given beauty?

1) The Revealed Word versus Natural Theology

Christianity is a religion of the Book. Christians believe God has revealed himself in his written Word which therefore has authority above any other source of revelation.

No-one was a fiercer opponent of any form of natural theology (the idea that God can be in some way known outside his self-revelation in Jesus Christ the Word of God) than Karl Barth. His great ‘NO!’ to natural theology insisted that there could be no such thing as ‘theology from below’. Its fatal weakness is to open the door for human hubris to reinvent God in our own image.

Barth was in the midst of a fight against classic liberalism and its utter failure to speak out against the rise of national socialism. I am no Barth scholar but he may have softened his views towards the end of his life. But the point is Barth was essentially right. No natural theology can ‘reach God’. Without revelation we end up turning ‘God made beauty’ into ‘beauty is God’.

The Christian gospel is essentially mysterious, surprising, scandalous and apocalyptic. It can only be revealed by God in his Word and through his Spirit, never discovered in and through human reason – whether through the physical creation or beauty of mathematics (I’m told maths is beautiful and wondrous but have to take others’ word for it!) or whatever other forms of natural theology.

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2) Suspicion of beauty: musings on church architecture

But, I wonder, has the flip side of the supreme authority of the revealed Word been an overly suspicious attitude to beauty within much post-Reformation Protestantism?

As if beauty is, at best, a secondary distraction and, at worst, a pathway to idolatry and worship of the created world rather than its creator?

Take the Reformed Tradition of which I am also a part (Presbyterian). The theology of the Word is reflected in the architecture of its churches. The early Presbyterian churches in Ireland were stark ‘meeting houses’ – and most churches today remain plain and simple. The pulpit and the Word is what matters. There is, I think it fair to say, deliberately not much a tradition of the beautiful in the design of Irish Presbyterian churches.

Or take another strand within evangelicalism – that of culturally adaptable communities who deliberately eschew ‘churchy’ buildings, imagery and symbolism in favour of modern pragmatic facilities which, with the best will in the world, are hardly ever beautiful.  Beauty, within such pragmatic utilitarian theology, is simply not ‘useful’ and therefore effectively unimportant.

As I’ve gone on as a Christian I find I desire and appreciate beauty more than I used to. Beauty has the power to draw us into the presence of God beyond the world which we can control and manipulate. Dismissing beauty, or seeing it as an optional ‘add on’ to what really matters, seems to me to deny something essential about God, the creator of beauty. And, as a result, such spaces fail to inspire or draw our hearts towards him in wonder and praise. Rather, they can merely echo the narrative of our pragmatic, utilitarian and relentlessly ‘this worldly’ capitalist culture.

3) Dualism

A third reason for the marginalisation of beauty is the legacy of the Enlightenment. As Descartes’ dictum, ‘I think therefore I am’, unfolded historically, the elevation of reason promoted a type of dualism between the ‘higher’ mind (reason) and the created order. This sort of Cartesian dichotomy impacted Christian theology in spirituality that neglected the physical world – including the body and the affections.

To be fair, such dualism has a much longer legacy than the Enlightenment – one of Augustine’s negative legacies is still felt in his neo-platonic linking together of sex and sin for example.

Regardless of how exactly these influences developed, my point is that Christianity has a long and an ongoing struggle with dualism. Deliberate focus on and integration of beauty within Christian theology and practice can act to overcome such dualism. God has created us with minds, hearts and bodies and calls us to worship him holistically using all our God-given senses.

4) Sin and the Fall

A fourth possible reason for Christian ambivalence towards beauty is the doctrine of the fall. This world is broken. Sin, death and injustice stalk creation, which itself, Paul tells us, groans for liberation from its bondage to decay (Rom 8:21). Wrongly understood, the brokenness of creation can lead to an anti-worldly theology of escapism – where there is little of value to be redeemed here. Our main task is to ‘get the hell out of here’ and not get too entangled with temporary marginal distractions like pleasure, beauty and the joys offered by the material world.

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Towards a Christian integration of Word and Beauty

God is an artist.

The fact that we live in a wondrously beautiful world tells us that beauty is a creation of God. All beauty derives from him. The universal human desire for beauty points us to how we are created with a sense of wonder to appreciate, enjoy and create beauty. The Psalms are full of this link between appreciating the beauty of creation and the worship of God.

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.

They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.

It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth.

Psalm 19:1-6

Yet the next verse of the Psalm continues

The law of the  Lord is perfect,
refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.

The beautiful world is never detached from the beautiful Word.

As someone who ‘deals with’ the Bible every day, the more I study it the more I am struck by its beauty. It is a magnificent work of art as well as God’s inspired Word. Each book is a remarkable literary work in its own right. Overall, at heart it is a story that overflows with images, symbols and themes that draws readers into a magnificent drama of divine goodness, beauty and love versus all that would corrupt and destroy.

In the New Testament we are even told that it is in and through Jesus Christ that ‘all things were made’ (John 1:3; Col. 1:16). It is this beautiful creation that is in the process of being redeemed by its triune creator.

The new creation will be a place of unimaginable beauty (Rev 21-22). What is the image of the new Jerusalem but a vision of perfect beauty in which God dwells with his people? The future outcome of this drama is a restored creation in which love, beauty, worship and goodness flourish in all their all fullness.

All this means, I suggest, is that Christians should be people above all others who love and appreciate beauty.  A Christian theology of beauty integrates Word and world, creator and created with hope. Beauty points us to God himself in thankfulness and praise.

Not saying you have to climb a mountain to experience beauty! But why not take time out to search out, experience, create, appreciate and share beauty wherever you are.

Thus endeth the sermon

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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A tribute to carers

My mother died recently after some years of gradual decline due to dementia, hastened by a bout of pneumonia. She was 92. I happened to be the family member with her in hospital in the early hours of the morning when her life ended. The nurse on night duty was wonderful. She had supplied a mattress, sheets and pillows for me to stay the night. When I told her what had happened, she was kind and compassionate well beyond mere efficiency. Her care that night has prompted these musings.

Over the last few years as a family we have met countless health care professionals – carers, nurses and doctors – the vast majority of them women. I am beyond admiration for every one of them. Carers visiting at home do so under poor rates of pay, working unsocial hours, doing often extremely difficult work under unrealistic time pressures. Yet, they not only do their job but forge genuine relationships of care and love with elderly and often helpless people.

Nothing speaks to me more of the distorted priorities of Western culture than how poorly funded and valued are carers and nurses. They work at the sharp edge of human mortality. While capitalism appeals to self-interest and pursues accumulation of wealth, my mum’s carers do their job out of a sense of vocation. Of course they work for pay, but to a woman, they give of themselves far beyond any contract of employment in order to maintain human dignity and care to some of the weakest and most vulnerable people in our society.

We are embodied beings and our bodies wear out and die. I’m musing here, but it seems to me that much of our culture is effectively gnostic. By that I mean it values the abstract above the physical. We fear death and prize fickle and transient things like respect, image, status, power, beauty and success. Money itself is simply a means to such ends and it is pursued relentlessly. When the capitalist system fails, no price is too high to fix it, regardless of the cost to ‘less important’ and ‘soft’ professions like caring and nursing, mental health provision or disability services.

In saying this, some may retort ‘What’s your alternative?’ Hospitals need funding. Funding comes from taxes. Taxes come from those who work and create wealth. If everyone was a carer the system would collapse. Yes, but I’m pushing back against distorted priorities within recent neo-liberalism (or ‘turbo-capitalism’) and the damage it is wrought globally – and in Ireland particularly. See this excellent article on ‘financialisation’ for more detailed discussion of what has happened.

Nor does a rampant capitalist culture contain any logical impulse towards doing justice, righting wrongs or, dare I say, loving others. It prizes individual happiness, comfort and pleasure, but is largely indifferent to those that fall by the wayside of the capitalist dream.

At the risk of massive generalisation, I wonder if women tend to be less seduced by such gnostic dualisms than men? Is that why it is overwhelmingly women who get their hands dirty in the mess of sacrificially tending and respecting ageing bodies? I honestly do not know the answers to those questions, save to say I want here to pay tribute to all those wonderful carers who contributed to looking after my mum in the last years of her life.

But I do know that the Christian faith is anything but gnostic. The entire Bible values the earthly, physical and material aspects of life. It begins with God willing a good creation into being. It climaxes with the incarnation of God’s Son. He enters human history, born of Mary and is Israel’s promised Messiah. He heals the sick and raises the dead. He is crucified under Pontius Pilate. He sheds real blood and suffers real death. His resurrection means that all in him have hope of a resurrection body in a renewed creation.

You can’t get more committed to the pain, complexity and physicality of the world than that. The cross reveals the true nature of our God. As one theologian puts it, ‘The uttermost depth of human misery has been plumbed by the incarnate Lord.’

And that is very good news indeed.

Mostly serious musings on humour

This blog can be a rather earnest place. Like any social media it presents a particular face to the world – in this case mostly theological ideas and issues discussed through a critical lens. By their nature, the subject nature is on the serious side. And fair enough too – the Christian faith deals with big questions of identity, purpose, injustice, hope, sin, forgiveness, judgement, suffering, reconciliation, death and new creation (for a start).

Larsen GBut life is also absurd, ironic, poetic and funny. This world is bursting with beauty.  Each day is an opportunity to learn, to love, to laugh and praise God for his goodness.

On laughter – has anyone written a good theology of humour? If so, I’d like to read it. Stanley Hauerwas has spent a life doing serious theology in an entertaining way.

I do think, in spite of considerable evidence to the contrary, that theology can and should be, in some of its modes, funny. Theology done right should make you laugh. It should be done in an entertaining manner. Humor is not the only mode of entertainment the discourse of theology can take, but it is surely the case that we are often attracted to speech and writing that is funny. This calls into question the presumption by some that if you want what you have to say to be entertaining, then what you have to say cannot be serious. I have tried to defy that presumption by attempting to do theology in a manner that “tickles” the imagination.  (The Work of Theology)

I think it’s harder to write such theology than speak it. In teaching and speaking there are so many more possibilities for bringing in irony and humour – a facial expression, a tone of voice, a throwaway remark, an off the cuff joke, a witty response to a question. But those are not to hand as easily in writing. Just think how many smiley emojis are needed not to cause insult and offence with an email joke.

I’m a writer. I love writing. If there is one thing I’d like to do better, it is to write serious theology entertainingly and imaginatively. I’m trying to do this in what I am writing at the moment and find it a huge challenge.

Seems to me that humour has multiple facets theologically speaking. I’m sure you can think of more than these three for starters …

Humour as gracious invitation

Po-faced Christians who never smile are somehow life-denying. They tend to take themselves so seriously that they can become inhospitable to others. Only those who share their serious God-given mission are accepted. Humour is hospitable – it invites others to a share in a mini-experience of joy. It is a gift of relationship offered to the other. So one way of looking at the overly serious Christian is someone who is ungenerous and stingy when it comes to blessing others through humour.

This is why a preacher who is deadly-earnest all the time had better be a brilliant communicator to hold people’s attention. He or she is not ‘giving’ people much in terms of generously drawing them in to the sermon.

Humour as humility

At its best, humour helps us to laugh at ourselves. That’s why self-depreciating humour, done honestly, humanises us. (Humour that humiliates the other isn’t funny – it’s just an aggressive power play. Dishonest self-depreciation merely tries to draw attention to the self). We are finite beings, full of desires, hopes, fears, mixed motives and plans. Life is transitory. We are here today and gone tomorrow. All our grand ambitions and projects will be forgotten sooner than we like to think.

I was clearing out some books recently. One was by an author I knew. He’d signed the front page for me. He seemed to have a long life ahead of him but a few years later he was dead. Now here was his book – all but forgotten and now out of date.

As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like  a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it and it is gone (Ps 103:15-16).

This means that, while we take faith and discipleship seriously, we need to have a healthy scepticism about ourselves.

Humour as weightlessness

Yet humour can be double-edged. There are few things worse (in my humble objective, unbiased and completely reasonable opinion) than a lame joke thrown in to a sermon ‘to lighten up’ all this ‘heavy’ theological talk. Give me the serious preacher any day.

Such humour can point to a lack of faith in the power of God’s Word and the power of the Spirit to speak into people’s lives, bringing transformation and renewal. It can be a rather desperate attempt to make following Jesus a comfortable and essentially unchallenging calling. Such humour can trivialize the gospel and the cost of Christian discipleship. Such preaching lacks ‘weight’.

Which all sounds very heavy theological talk but there you go. I’m back in earnest mode again …

So, to finish on a hilarious note (which makes my German wife roll about in mirth every time):

Question: ‘Where would you be without a sense of humour?’

Answer: Germany.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

ABORTION THEOLOGICALLY CONSIDERED (4): biblical paradigms

Ireland and Abortion
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.

If the Bible says little or nothing directly about abortion, then we need to reflect theologically on the issue, using the wider framework of the Bible’s rich teaching on God as the creator and author of life.

Hundreds of texts proclaim God as one from whom all life comes into being. For example, this is true of the beginnings of both Testaments: Genesis 1-2 in the Old and John 1 in the New (where the ‘In the beginning’ of John 1:1 echoes Genesis 1:1).

Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. (John 1:3-4).

Similarly, in Colossians 1:15-16

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.

For Richard Hays this means

“Wherever new life begins to develop in any pregnancy, the creative power of God is at work, and Jesus Christ, who was the original agent of creation, has already died for the redemption of the incipient life in utero. That is why Barth can say, “The true light of the world shines already in the darkness of the mother’s womb.” We are privileged to participate in the creative work of God through begetting and bearing and birthing children, but there can be no new life without the generative power of God.” (450)

This means that life is not ours to do with as we will. Intentionally to end a pregnancy “is not only to commit an act of violence but also to assume responsibility for destroying a work of God” (450).

(The abortion debate directly relates to other life and death questions around euthanasia, suicide as well as war and non-violence. To be consistent, Christians who are against abortion should I think also be committed to not taking life in those circumstances as well).

In this framework, it is a distraction to get into arguments of when a foetus becomes a ‘person’ – he or she is a manifestation of the creative life-giving power of God.

If all life is a gift and does not belong to us, this means that to end life is an extreme act. As Hays says, there might be extreme circumstances in which it may be warranted (I assume he has in mind here examples like fatal foetal abnormality or a major medical risk of the life of the mother) but such action would be very rare and require compelling evidence.

Three lines of metaphorical reasoning

To develop his argument, Hays gives three lines of metaphorical reasoning – three ways the theological world of the New Testament overlaps with the contemporary practice of abortion.

1. The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)

The subversive double point of the parable is that (1) to love your neighbour means loving your enemy (2) it is the hated Samaritan who shows rather than receives mercy.

In relating this to abortion, Hays argues that the point is not that the foetus is somehow a ‘neighbour’. Rather, it is that we are called to become neighbours to the weak, powerless and helpless. Like the Good Samaritan, to go beyond boundaries to offer life-sustaining care to those whom we naturally would not consider worthy of our compassion.

Such life-giving care would go out to the mother in a ‘crisis pregnancy’ as well as the unborn child.

Such an approach subverts legalistic questions such ‘Is the foetus a person?’ Hays is compelling here – such a question is like the lawyer’s to Jesus: ‘Who is my neighbour?’ He wanted to know so he could limit his obligation of care. Questions about the personhood of an unborn child have behind them a desire to limit obligation and care – ultimately by killing the life it represents if it is not ‘defined’ as a ‘person’.

Instead, Jesus widens the scope of those to whom we have moral obligation. He tells us at the end of the story to “Go and do likewise.”

2. The Jerusalem Community (Acts 4:32-35)

Let’s remind ourselves of Hay’s approach to thinking ethically about abortion.

“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.)

Hays is doing that here. This text is well-known. ‘There was not a needy person among them’.  His point is that within the church there can be no grounds for abortion on economic grounds or on the incapacity for the mother to look after the child. Within the community of the people of God, sharing and love are the answer, not abortion. For the church to acquiesce in abortion on pragmatic grounds is to fail in its vocation to be a radical community that bears one another’s burdens.

Church discipline is also relevant. Men need to be held responsible for children they father: by supporting the woman emotionally and financially; and by being there for the child as it grows up. Within the community of faith they do not do this alone – it can take a community to raise a child and support a family through love, support, prayer and encouragement.

3. The Imitation of Christ

Hay’s third paradigm is the imitation of Christ (Rom 15:1-7; 1 Cor 11:1; Gal 6:2; Phil 2:1-11). The Christian life is cross-shaped. It means giving up rights for the sake of others just as Jesus did.t is a life lived in relationship with others, often at significant cost and inconvenience.

Hays applies this to abortion this way. The pregnant woman cannot just be told ‘You must have the baby, abortion is wrong’ or some such moral imperative. Or the example Hays gives of ‘You must imitate Christ by suffering for the sake of this child.’ Rather, if one part of the body is in difficulty the whole body experiences the trial. While only the woman carries the baby, the church community as a whole can assume the responsibility of caring for the mother and the child when it is born. This is what it means to be a community of welcome. Hays remarks that

“If this proposal sounds impractical, that is merely a measure of how far the church has drifted from its foundation in the New Testament.”

Abortion as a test of authentic Christian community

Examples like these begin to shape imagination, thinking and behaviours that inform an authentically Christian response to the question of abortion.

  • God the life giver
  • Being a neighbour to the weak, vulnerable and helpless
  • Bearing one another’s economic and practical burdens like a crisis pregnancy
  • Imitating Jesus in looking after those in difficulty

This is why the question of abortion for Christians is one that first challenges the church and its radical practice of welcome, care, generosity, community and love.

For those in Ireland, how much have you heard this perspective articulated and discussed amongst Christians and churches in the Referendum debate?

How would it change the debate?

If it has been pretty well absent, why is this do you think?