Sunday, July 5, 2020

Re Reading and Rereading Scripture

Last week I mentioned the death of Professor James D.G. Dunn.

This week Church Times reprints an article by Jimmy from 2013 which demonstrates his carefulness in scholarship and clarity in making an argument - on this occasion on reading Scripture with respect to arguments for and against the ordination of women. (From memory I think 2013 was when the CofE agreed to proceed with ordaining women as bishops.)

It can seem fraught “rereading Scripture”, after all, where might it end?

But we have to do it. This past week I have been pulled up with a start to find that Jonathan Edwards - yes, the Jonathan Edwards beloved of many evangelicals, influential for centuries on the ministries of well known preachers and theologians - owned slaves ... and thought this was consistent with Scripture.

I have just started reading A.C. Grayling’s The Age of Genius in which he argues that the 17th century gave birth to the “modern mind.” Inter alia, p. 9, he mentions Cardinal Bellarmino’s 1615 reply to Paolo Foscarini’s argument that Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the universe was consistent with Scripture. Bellarmino argues that the heliocentric model contradicts not only the interpretation of Scripture by the “holy Fathers” but also “modern commentators.”

Four hundred years later (1) no teacher of Scripture within the mainstream of Western and Eastern Christianity, no matter how wonderful she or he finds the “holy Fathers” thinks them correct on this matter, and no (2) “modern commentator” of 20th or 21st centuries teaches what Bellarmino asserts.

Scripture has been reread!

Part 2 or “further thoughts”

The trick, I suggest, with rereading Scripture is not to assume (whether eagerly or fearfully) that all rereading heads in only one direction (from the thin end of the wedge to the thick end?).

Even rereadings need rerereading.

Consider, many of the first Christians read Scripture in respect of military service through the lens of Jesus and determined that Christians could not join in the violence of war. Then, Constantine and all that, a rereading led to an acceptance of the validity of military service and fighting in wars (albeit with hope that all wars one was conscripted for were “just wars”). 1700 years later has that rereading settled the matter once and for all? Not really. Many Christians today are wary of military service and for a range of sound reasons, from unwillingness to kill another human being under any circumstances to healthy cynicism about the true aims and aspirations of warring nations. And many Christians think its okay ... just the other day I read a news item about a Russian Orthodox cathedral devoted to the military!

One could go on ...

I won’t save for observing that the importance of doing theology is doing that which continually assesses claims to true understanding of the purposes of God.

Monday, June 29, 2020

St Peter's Day Pot Pouri

Professor James D.G. Dunn has died

One of the great privileges of my life was to have Professor James (Jimmy) D.G. Dunn as my supervisor when I studied for a doctorate in Durham, UK, 1990-93.

Jimmy was a prolific scholar, excellent teacher and communicator in written and spoken word, with his career summarised in this Wiki entry. Warm tributes have been flowing around the world over the past couple of days via Facebook and other internet comms. Good examples are here, from Scot McKnight and Jeff Wisdom.

I endorse everything everyone has been saying. Jimmy was simply one of those remarkable people in life who are gifted in ways most of us are not while also being a wonderful person to be around - warm hearted, hospitable and humorous.

Perhaps the best thing said is by Jimmy himself, because it glorifies God, captured in this Tweet by Bishop Helen-Ann Hartley:

‘I doubt if I could commend (or blame) any one book for who I am today and would rather attribute any praise (or whatever) to the Holy Spirit’

What is the Gospel?

I spent a bit of time over the weekend thinking about the Gospel.

Yes, again!

If we ask the question, What is the Gospel according to Matthew/Mark/Luke/John? we get a different answer each time if we focus on the programmatic statements near the beginning of each Gospel.

From Matthew, focusing on the Beatitudes, we see the Gospel as God's blessing of people against the normal criteria of life.

From Mark, the Gospel is the coming of the Kingdom which manifests itself in signs of power and wonder. (I acknowledge this is a summary of Mark, not a specific statement he tells us Jesus made).

From Luke, focusing on the first preaching of Jesus in the synagogue in Capernaum, the Gospel is the proclamation of liberation for the oppressed.

From John, the Gospel is the promise of abundant, eternal life, symbolised by the first sign of Jesus, changing water into wine.

We could also think about the Gospel according to Paul - the Gospel is the power of God to save every person, Jew and Gentile, reconciling humanity to God through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Are there many Gospels? (Is Christianity confused? cf. ... many denominations ... or, worryingly, video memes doing the rounds this week as some American Christians argue against face mask wearing because God created us in his image and breathed his breathe into us ...)

I kept pondering through the weekend (you may be pleased to know!)

Notwithstanding the programmatic statements near the beginning of each Gospel, each Gospel is a rich array of events and expositions, of miracles and messages. No Gospel is solely defined by its basic programmatic message. Thus, I conclude, the there is one Gospel which is expressed in a variety of ways across the variety of the four Gospels (and the other New Testament writings).

The Gospel is Jesus encountering people and changing them for the better - where the change for the better is always a turning towards God, a transforming of lives in love and holiness.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

What can we say? Nothing and everything?

For the glory of God is a human being fully alive, and the glory of humanity is the vision of God (St. Irenaeus).

Fundamentally the Gospel is obsessed with the idea of the unity of human society (Masure).

Amidst the swirling, whirling controversies and contretemps of this present time (so e.g. Trump can hold a rally by virtue of attendees signing  that they will not sue him if they get the virus; we have heroes in NZ re the virus who are dramatically cast as zeroes overnight here when a mistake occurs re control of our borders; and, as statues around the world are toppled, even a statue of Gandhi is under threat), what are we to say? There are moods and mood swings in our world which seem impervious to rational discourse. Perhaps we should be silent?

Yet this fractured world of ours is in a terrible situation - noting not just the fractures induced by the Pandemic and police killings in the US, but also Syrian strife continues, North Korean posturing alarms and China v India horrifies. “Black Lives Matters” - whatever we make of this sentence-and-political programme (e.g. Mohler), it is simply not appropriate to be silent in the face of oppression and systemic violence. A ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5) is a ministry - an action, not a slogan - which must work with history and its tale of injustice which is not yet made just.

Look again at the two citations above (copied there from my permanent sidebar of quotations). Both speak to God’s great purpose for his beloved humanity. It is simply not possible to say that God’s purpose for a fully alive, unified humanity is being fulfilled in a divided world. Do we not have everything to say about this situation?

Is not the genius of the Gospel that it is a message of hope, joy and love for each individual and for all of us as humanity? The Gospel is personal and social simultaneously.

Of course often we Christians get the Gospel wrong because we focus on one to the exclusion of the other. (We shouldn’t beat ourselves up about this - it is difficult to keep both foci going at the same time.)

But at times like this in the life of the world, we could and should be clear: there is a lot going on which is simply wrong when measured against the insight of St Irenaeus and Masure.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

A Kingdom theology for such a time as this?

A week or so on from my past post and our world (well, perhaps it is "the Western world" ... no statues being toppled in North Korea) is both as sane and as mad as ever.

The sane aspect is we are reflecting at a deeper level on the subtleties of endemic, implicit racism (e.g. where we white people think we have it all sorted but don't reflect on why it is that (say) the committee we belong to or the leadership structure we are part of is uniformly white). A Press column this morning by a local academic Mahdis Azarmandi captures neatly the difference between intention (to be racism free) and outcome (everything remains dominated by the colour "white").

A further part of the sanity is questioning whether we have fully understood the complexities of the historical background to present situations (e.g. does this statue or that street name over simplify the past through focus on success or virtue rather than on failure or flaw of some historical personnage).

I also appreciate the sanity of comments made here on ADU - thank you!

The mad aspect of the past week or so is a global Western society seemingly willing to turn on itself, to accuse itself of failure without sober estimation of success and to make hasty decisions on the basis of a minority approach to matters which otherwise would be maturely handled with debate and democratic process.

A further part of the madness, however, is yet another black person killed by police in the USA, and the deterioration of democratic process in the normal world leader in democracy, the USA. A Trumpian approach to democracy can scarcely complain about mob rule raging through US cities!

But what is a Christian to do and to think through these weeks?

Is it all a debate between Romans 13 and Revelation 13? (Is that debate even needed when it is city councils voting to "defund" the police? If Trump is your president, has he really been appointed by God? But if he hasn't, he is so bizarre that I found myself - rereading Revelation - unable to see him as a simple beastly manifestation of evil?)

Is it (per one post I read) a neat conceptual analysis in which I refuse to "bow the knee" for Black Lives Matter (because I discover this movement includes lots of socialist-come-communist type agenda) but will "bow the knee" for Jesus? Apparently bishops and politicians around the world have been arranging photo opportunities for the former when the bishops should have been focused on the latter.

Is it possible - it seems it is - that almost any thought I have about these matters, on second thoughts and closer inspection turns out to reek of privilege and shine with whiteness?

My humble (as a not entirely up with the play pundit) but probably privileged (as a white person with a certain set of advantages through education etc) thought is to ask what the Kingdom of God might be in this situation? I hope it is okay to ask this question.

What is the Kingdom of God like?

Jesus gives the answer in a number of parables which is kind of not an answer because we have had 2000 years of debating the meaning of some parables! Some unkind observers might say that we have also had 2000 years of avoiding application of the meaning of the parables we have not debated.

But the Kingdom of God is about life with the King - with Jesus as the centre of society - God's new society. In this society the first will be last and the last will be first. Jews and Greeks, Samaritans and Romans, all from east and west and north and south are welcome. There is no racism in the Kingdom (e.g. Galatians 3:28) because the King is equally King of all in his kingdom. There is no racism in the Kingdom because there is no people group Jesus did not die for.

Yes, many Christians have misunderstood this, from infamous examples like Afrikaners touting the Bible as supporting Apartheid through to all the not famous examples of you and me inadvertantly contributing to the kinds of outcomes Mahdis Azarmandi writes about in the column linked to above.

Also, Yes, when we understand the Kingdom better (as, e.g. Simon Peter did, through the testimony of Cornelius), we cannot go back, only forward towards the realization of Galatians 3:28.

But the Kingdom of God is also like this: In the Gospel according to John, "kingdom of God" becomes "eternal life" (read John 3) and eternal life (also "abundant life", John 10:10) is the complete - satisfying, fulfilled - life of the believer in Jesus Christ. That is, in a situation such as today's, when "action" - protests, statue toppling, statute revision, name changing (to say nothing of counter-action and resistance to change) - is to the fore, the Kingdom of God in this situation is not only about social change towards God's vision for a new, ideal society. It is also about each human person finding their best life in God - Jesus the centre of each life as well as the centre of society.

A whole of gospel witness to the Kingdom cannot see "action" as the sole demonstration of the transformative power of God in the political realms of today's world.

A whole of gospel witness to the Kingdom sees the need for all people to be transformed by God's power: to be free of racism is not yet to be free of all sin - of the flaws within which damage our neighbours and fracture our relationship with our Creator.

When we debate here in NZ whether statues of Captain Cook should remain standing or towns such as Cromwell (named for Oliver not Thomas) should be renamed, isn't King Jesus more interested in who we, today's flawed characters, are, and what we are going to do about our flaws?

Might we also say that a Kingdom perspective would also raise questions about "realms" and "reigns" as the presence of "other kingdoms" is felt by Christians?

There is something chilling in the air these days when not only statues but also other viewpoints are "smashed". When dissent is not tolerated, freedom to preach the gospel of the kingdom is threatened. Whether we are in the realm of Trump (suppressing the truth, dismissing dissenters, making fun of worthy opponents), or the reign of Xi Jinping (cracking down on protestors in Hong Kong, imprisoning Uighur Muslims, playing games with the Vatican) or in the kingdom of protest feeling pressed to change the name of a pub, we Christians have a lot of work to do between Romans 13 and Revelation 13 because, frankly, I am not sure that any of these realms are addressed comprehensively by either chapter!

What does it mean to be in the Kingdom of God in the kingdom of this sane and mad world?

Monday, June 8, 2020

Eradicating racism (and history)?

Both on Psephizo: Adrian Chatfield and Ian Paul.


The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has spawned uncountable news stories, many, many opinion pieces, and thousands upon thousands marching in protest across America and around the world.

Last week, Christians had cause to be shocked that President Trump used armed forces and tear gas to create a path through protestors to make a photo opportunity of him standing in front of an Episcopal church holding a Bible. (Literally "a Bible" because when asked if it was his Bible he said, No, it was "a Bible." One of the few true statements to come from his lips!)

(A subsidiary shock for some of us was that some Christians turned on those who condemned Trump for his behaviour.)

The protests have raised the question, not only in America, but here and elsewhere, with Coronavirus as a backdrop, When will we eradicate racism from the human story?

The vaccine, it has been observed, already exists, and each of us have access to it.

Certainly, for Christians, observing Trinity Sunday yesterday, there is much to reflect on:
- The Trinity as a community of love provides no basis for racism;
- The Gospel is always a call to repentance from behaviour and attitudes which are imperfect in their imitation of the holiness and love of God.

Overnight another question has emerged (albeit not an original question) as news reports from the UK tell us of a statue of a slave trader in Bristol being shifted by protestors and thrown into the sea, and also of a statue of Churchill being defaced with graffiti describing him as a racist.

Does eradicating racism today necessarily involve erasing historical memory of past sins of racism?

(In New Zealand, for example, we are in the midst of a period, 250 years after Cook's voyages of "discovery", of revising our estimation of Cook. In this case the direct charge against Cook is less about his racism (e.g. to the extent that he assumed the British were superior to all races met along the way of his voyages) and more about the racism he spawned (e.g. flowing from his voyages were the European settlers of these islands, we, their descendants today, have a natural tendency to celebrate Cook while not celebrating the Polynesian navigators 800 or so years before Cook who found their way here, back to the islands they came from and then back here with the firsts settlers of these islands).

My own instinct is not to remove and/or destroy statues - they are a monument to times past when things were different and thus a reminder to us of past wrongdoing and of present need to maintain our repentance of that wrongdoing.

But I imagine I have my limits - if I visited Germany or Austria I suppose I wouldn't be thrilled to find a statue of Hitler still standing.

But perhaps we can make useful distinctions?

There is nothing good to say about Hitler.

Churchill by contrast, for all his ill-chosen words about other races, did lead the fight against the scourge that was Hitler. That is, one can say good things about Churchill even as we reckon with his faults.

We might also observe that nobody is perfect.

If perfection is a criterion for erecting monuments to men and women, there should be none. But that seems a shame, for some of us humans have lived remarkable lives and leave treasured memories and memorable achievements.

Back to racism.

We should pray for America. Especially here in NZ. If the Treaty of Waitangi as a foundation document for our nation teaches us anything about racial harmony it is that it is very, very hard to achieve. Even with the Treaty as a starting point, we have made some terrible misteps, not least because for a long time we forgot about the Treaty!

Sunday, May 31, 2020

A Pentecostal blessing ...

This is very good ... and (noting recent discussions here) ecumenical!

Four Images: A Meditation for Pentecost

Monday, May 25, 2020

Have Kiwi church leaders been too deferential to the NZ govt?

A Twitter buddy has fairly regularly been posing the question, Why have church leaders been so deferential to the government imposing restrictions on churches during our period of Lockdown?

Alongside news of church leaders in conflict with authorities in countries such as the USA and Britain (which includes CofE vicars in conflict with their bishops over churches being shut up), NZ church leaders have had an interesting couple of months in Lockdown (to speak generally at this point).

In Level 4 when the whole country was locked down the issues were whether clergy should have been deemed "essential workers" and why could not clergy be permitted to pray with those who were dying and to take funerals. Were church leaders too deferential to the government?

In Level 3, when funerals and weddings for up to 10 people were permitted, Were church leaders too deferential to the government about that limit on funerals? (Funerals for the most part much more difficult to postpone than weddings.)

In (the current state of) Level 2, where we may hold church services for 10 or fewer people (and, under certain conditions, funerals for 50 or fewer people) while various commercial enterprises involving people socialising (from bars to brothels, though the better comparison with churches might be schools) may entertain higher numbers, Are church leaders being too deferential to the government?

[Note in passing: yesterday I was interviewed about the limits, along with Paul Martin, Catholic Bishop of Christchurch, see here. See also this Taonga article.]

Today (Monday 25 May 2020), when we expect the government to announce a raising of the limit on gatherings including religious services (but with a strong hint to date that it might be as low as a rise to 20 or fewer persons), Will church leaders be too deferential to the government?

Speaking quite personally, I feel somewhat goaded by the question of deferentiality.

After all, what is leadership if it lacks boldness and bravery, refrains from speaking truth to power and so forth? Am I and colleagues somewhat "wet" in the face of this (at worst) trampling on the rights of churches to worship freely or (at best) seeming ignorant sidelining of the church by a government that appears not to understand churches? (After all, for all of us inspired by the Barths and Bonhoeffers of 1930s Germany, the true test of leadership, surely, is to NOT be deferential to a government imposing control on the churches!)

I also find my goaded self being a bit defensive. I have an explanation, a justification for this seeming "deferentiality". Would you like to hear it? (Well, you are reading this post!).

However, I recognise that, whatever I say here, future historians might adjudicate that we have been too deferential. So, it maybe that I and others are guilty as charged.

But, for what it is worth, and may a future historian please read this before making their adjudication, here are some thoughts.

(1) In Lockdown, we have never been in Nazi German or Stalinist Russia or any other kind of anti-Christian dictatorship. We have been in a global Pandemic, guided by epidemiologists as to the best way to combat transmission and our government's Minister of Health is a Christian and our Director-General of Health is a Christian. In general terms, deferentiality by everyone, including church leaders, has been deferentiality to a common national cause. This period has been about working with the government for the common good. This has not been a period to be anxious about "Bill of Rights" freedoms to exercise the practice of our faith etc.

(2) There have been very good reasons for some restrictions placed on Christian ministry. For example, to have been granted the right (in the first weeks at least) to minister to dying people would have been to also require PPE gear to be appropriately protected when making that pastoral call. But the reasonable priority was for doctors and nurses to have that equipment. (Nevertheless, I would acknowledge, and future historians may argue that after those first few weeks, the government and health boards could have changed the restrictions once PPE supplies improved.)

(3) Actually, anecdotally, some church leaders have wanted to be less deferential than they have appeared to be but, it turns out, their congregations have not shared their enthusiasm. Christians are human beings and as human beings they can read news reports about the spread of the virus and the importance of strict control of how we engage with other human beings to prevent spread. Effectively it appears that many church leaders’ deferentiality to the government has been deepened rather than weakened by their congregations.

(4) Ultimately, our deferentiality has been to the virus! If COVID-19 has taught humanity anything, it is that it demands respect. Disrespect this virus at your personal peril. The tragic narrative of the past few months includes many stories of churches around the world meeting in defiance of the virus only to have church members (and leaders!) catch the virus, sometimes leading to death. If Kiwi Christians have the good sense to show deferentiality to the virus, why would church leaders differ from their good sense?

(5) Nevertheless, a sharp question arises when we ask about some aspects of the Lockdown restrictions.

Should church leaders, for example, have been much more aggressive in response to perceived contradictions between the Level 2 restriction to 10 or fewer people being able to meet in church and many more being able to meet in restaurants and conferences?

Should we have made a stronger case for our ability to create and implement restrictive conditions in order that any gatherings would conform to the kinds of conditions that businesses and schools are being made to follow?

(6) Then, there are the counter questions. Currently, as I write, there are some colleagues drawing attention to this news item, out of Germany, in which 40 people, gathering for worship after their churches have re-opened, have contracted the virus. Shouldn't church leaders back off any pressure on the government for churches to re-open, be patient, and wait for the government to exercise its scientifically informed wisdom? On this line of thinking, deferentiality, contra my Twitter buddy, is a very good thing!

For what it is worth, I think some care is needed with the German news story. First, this is an outbreak after permission had been given, not when a church completely lost deferentiality and defied the German government by holding a service. Secondly, we are not Germany, by which I mean that we have a remarkable situation in which there has been no case of community transmission of the virus for several weeks. The very few cases now appearing are all (I repeat, all) related to known clusters. That is, the risk of an outbreak in a re-opened NZ church is effectively zero.

That is enough - let's see what the government says later today.

Update: our government has lifted the limit on gatherings including church services from 10 to 100 while we are in Level 2. And we might be out of that Level into Level 1 before many weeks pass.