Monday, October 18, 2021

The profile of this convert is high!

 In the news last week, The Right Reverend Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, formerly Bishop of Rochester (among several high profile roles in the Anglican Communion), has converted to Roman Catholicism (albeit specifically into the Anglican Ordinariate).*

The Tablet carries the story here. The tone and content of Dr Nazir-Ali's testimony is respectful of his Anglican heritage.

"I believe that the Anglican desire to adhere to apostolic, patristic and conciliar teaching can now best be maintained in the Ordinariate. Provisions there to safeguard legitimate Anglican patrimony are very encouraging and, I believe, that such patrimony in its Liturgy, approaches to biblical study, pastoral commitment to the community, methods of moral theology and much else besides has a great deal to offer the wider Church. ...

Ministry in the Church of Pakistan, in the Middle East generally, in the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion remains precious to me and I see this as a further step in the ministry of our common Lord and of his people. At this time, I ask for prayers as I continue to pray for all parts of the Church."

On the other hand, some of what others are saying is, well, just not so:

"Headlines broke Thursday which rocked the Anglican world down to its core."

That's from an article by Mary Ann Mueller, here. Not all Anglicans have heard of Dr Nazir-Ali; it's a while ago since he was a Diocesan Bishop; most Anglicans are not about to be turned towards Rome because another Anglican - even a bishop - has made that personal decision for themselves. The core of Anglicanism is not that rockable really.

I find myself in response thinking about and reflecting on the following:

(1) Whether or not there are any wider ramifications for global Anglicanism, this is a personal decision for Dr Nazir-Ali in the context of his own journey of faith and engagement in the church of God. We can and should only wish him well as he seeks the heart of God, the mind of Christ and the life of the Spirit. Ditto for any convert from Canterbury to Rome, whether high or low profile. And vice versa!

(2) There may be things to think about - some observers likely will say, “There jolly well are a lot of things to think about.” 

For instance, is something wrong with (say) the Church of England / the Anglican Communion / GAFCON that no form of Anglicanism could hold Dr Nazir-Ali back from stepping forward into (on his own testimony) the Anglican patrimony within the Roman Catholic Church as the best way to be Anglican? 

(And if there is something(s) wrong, can it(they) be fixed? 

An intriguing question to ask, given Dr Nazir-Ali’s well-known theological, ethical and mission optical conservatism, is why even GAFCON (with which he has had something to do) has not provided a pathway for remaining rather than going.)

My own response to whether this conversion highlights what is wrong with global and local Anglicanism is:

- Of course it does. If all was well he would not be converting.

- It doesn’t take a high profile conversion to tell us all is not well. (I could share my correspondence with you, that would also tell you our faults, foibles and failings :).)

- The question (to me) is: am I content to be in this church rather than another, given no church is perfect? (My answer: I am so content. If you haven't left for Rome/Constantinople/Geneva it may be your answer too.)

(3) What does it mean to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus: and does it mean I should be in a particular church because only in that church is it possible to be correctly aligned as a Christian with God’s will for the church?

I find that being a Christian, faithful to the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of the apostles, is hard work but it benefits from other Christians with their understandings and examples to inspire me, to challenge me, to correct me and to guide me. And those other Christians have anchored their discipleship into a variety of settings (denominations). Some of my favourite Christians are Catholic ... Baptist ... Methodist ... etc. And many Anglicans :).

I also find myself thinking (in reflection since the news last week) that I am pretty sure my accountability to God on the day of judgment will have heaps to do with how my life has grown and developed closer and closer to the life of Christ, become more and more open to the fullness of God in Christ developing in me than to which church I belonged, what doctrines I believed with correct precision and whether I was perfectly nurtured through an exquisitely balanced ministry of word and (correct) Sacrament.

Put another way: the challenges I find in the church of God to which I have been called and in which I have been planted are not resolvable by "finally" admitting that Anglican polity and teaching would be perfected through conversion to (in the instance being considered) Rome. Rather, looking at my diary this week and thinking somewhat guiltily about the emails I am yet to respond to, all issues before me are resolvable in the life of the Spirit, through the teaching of Christ, and opening our hearts to the love of the Father. More simply: human nature is not perfected through church polity and doctrine but through the work of God.

(4) Not that Damian Thompson is himself an infallible pope among Catholic journalists but he is well informed and has nice if acerbic turns of phrases and so it is somewhat ironic that this week he writes an article headed Is the Pope a Protestant? and includes the line "Pope Francis is presiding over the Anglicanisation of the Catholic Church." (In the end I don't think such critics of Francis have any empathy for the church adapting to a changing world).

So, I wish Dr Nazir-Ali well and do not think the core of Anglicanism today is thereby rocked.


Incidentally, also in Anglican news this week ... here ... Forward in Faith North America ...

"While the Anglican Church in Kenya currently maintains an orthodox understanding of the Gospel, it should be noted that every province that has adopted women into the episcopate has, in time, yielded to the pressures of the culture and left Biblical morality.

Listen to the words of Saint Paul to Timothy, "For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths." (2 Timothy 4:3-4)

Lastly, your Grace, for the sake of the Gospel and our unity in Christ we call upon the Anglican Church in Kenya to refrain from further actions of division and to repent of your actions which have directly harmed your brother and sister Anglican Christians around the world."

*For those new to these things, the lack of recognition by Rome of Anglican ministry orders means Dr Nazir-Ali is received into the church as a layperson but reports say he will soon be ordained as a (Roman Catholic) deacon-then-priest. As a married man the future Fr Nazir-Ali will not be eligible to become a bishop.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

The Mark of the Beast - Revelation as Apocalyptic Literature (4/4)

So, the Book of Revelation is a letter to the churches, it is a prophecy from someone (John) who sees himself in the tradition of God's "servants, the prophets" with appropriate forthtelling against evil and foretelling of what is about to come.

And: Revelation is a kind of literature which is weird, strange and very, very hard to understand (if trying to decipher its imagery) but just a little bit less weird, strange and hard to understand if we read it as "apocalyptic literature", that is, as literature of a kind also found in the Bible when we read Daniel, Zechariah, quite a lot of Ezekiel and parts of Isaiah, as well as literature not found in the Bible but found in publications with titles such as "Old Testament Apocrypha" or "New Testament Apocrypha", including books such as 1, 2 and 3 Enoch, the Ascension of Isaiah and the Apocalypse of Moses.

That is Revelation is a letter which encourages (and disciplines) the churches of Asia Minor and a prophecy which boldly proclaims a message to the churches and to the world around the churches via the use of language which is imaginative and of a kind found in other ancient writings, especially from the period 200BC to 200 AD.

Let's look at a few examples: (in order of appearance, not necessarily in order of significance relative to the overall message of Revelation):

1. The Commissioning of John (1:9-20): this passage incorporates significant imagery found also in Daniel 7:9-13; 10:5-6; Ezekiel 1:24; 43:2; Isaiah 49:2; Zecharish 4:1-7; Daniel 10:20-21; 11:1; 12:1 re angels assigned to nations) and also found in other apocalyptic literature, probably also derived from similar passages.

2. The Heavenly Throne Vision: (chapters 4 and 5): here the background passages are extensive and may be found through a Bible with good cross-referencing or in a study Bible's notes or in a commentary. Again, Daniel, Ezekiel and Zechariah figure prominently; and the image of Jesus as the Lamb is coherent with use of animal imagery found in apocalypses, including, of course, the beast of Daniel 7 found also in Revelation 13. The Lamb is both a transformation of the Lion of the tribe of Judah and a contrast to the dominating power intrinsic to the beast.

3. The Vision of the Beast: (chapter 13; see also 17-18): here, almost certainly directly related to the vision in Daniel 7, an awful beast rises out of the sea, as an expression of evil and malevolence, in obvious contrast to the glory and compassion of Christ - an anti-Christ, anti-God figure who receives the worship of the non-Christian inhabitants of the earth. Actually there is more than one beast, because a second beast rises out of the earth (13:11) in order to serve the first beast and with iron-discipline ensure the worship of the first beast.

In particular, the second beast 

"causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the number of its name" (13:16-17). 

Cue the subject of this series of posts, the mandation of a vaccine against Covid-19 as a "mark of the beast" because of the potential for a vaccine certificate or passport to be used to prevent people from engaging in everyday commerce and other social activities unless they can demonstrate this "mark."

Of course the connection between the "mark of the beast" and any "compulsory vaccine" is easy to make and (after an enlightening conversation yesterday with a local church leader) all the easier to make in a circle of Christians in which the eschatological teachings of the 1970s and 80s prevail still (you know, the teachings where the world would end "one generation" after the formation of the modern State of Israel in 1948, the anti-Christ was Henry Kissenger, and one world government was secretly being formed on the back of electronic banking requiring a chip implanted in all our foreheads).

But all such teachings fail to reckon seriously with the text of Revelation even as they earnestly believe they are reading the text literally.

As prophecy, Revelation is railing against evil in the world, including idolatry and political power forming itself into an idol commanding total allegiance - illustrated in apocalyptic, imaginative language about beasts and marks.

The challenge of the beast as an image to us as readers is to reckon truly, seriously and rationally with the potential of government to destroy humanity rather than to serve humanity and to demand total allegiance as though a god requiring worship. The beast in human history is Genghis Khan, perhaps even Henry VIII (Anglicans: discuss ...), definitely Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, possibly now the ever aggrandizing and increasingly persecutorial Xi Jinping. Revelation as apocalyptic literature exposes (reveals) the true nature of despicable evil expressed through out of control imperialism.

The mark of the beast is then the sign of our commitment and dedication to this anti-God, anti-Christ autocrat: think wearing swastikas, not electronic chips.

AND the mark of the beast is certainly not a complusory vaccine. Of all the things governments are doing around the world today about vaccination against Covid-19, aggrandizing power in the service of idolatry is not one of them. 

Vaccination, since its discovery in recent human history, has been a servant of humanity, and government promotion and financial support for vaccinations have been in the service of society. There is no "beast" here and even less so a "mark of the beast."

As a matter of fact re commerce: it continues in many forms even in Lockdowns, noting that online shopping is a thing. Further, in my own country at least, the Prime Minister has decisively said in a recent press conference that a vaccine certificate will not be required in order to go to the supermarket or pharmacy or medical centre.

So: nothing to see here. Let's move on. Let's look, rather, at China's influence on world commerce and its threat to Christians among its own citizens and in neighbouring countries such as Taiwan.

PS Isn't God amazing ... letting Henry Kissenger live so long!

Monday, October 4, 2021

The Mark of the Beast (3/n) - Revelation as Prophecy

I am now back from a pastoral visit to the Chatham Islands which lie c. 800kms to the east of (roughly) the middle of the South Island and are part of the Diocese of Christchurch. Although there is internet connection to the islands, my internet access on such visits is only occasional, and may not be very fast, so best policy was to encourage readers to not make comments while I was away. 

Now I am back, let's return to the Book of Revelation and a leisurely exploration of the current links being made between the Covid vaccination and the Mark of the Beast (links being kept alive as we speak because over the weekend a large group of Christians gathered in Auckland for a protest meeting against lockdowns and vaccination, against the regulations restricting gatherings). In the last post I explored the question of Revelation being a letter. This week, Revelation as a prophecy.

In Revelation 1:3, John writes,

"Blessed is the one who reads aloud in the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near."

Further John describes himself as a "servant" in 1:1 and this word is a code word for "prophet" (see 10:7; 15:3 (Moses as prophet); 22:6, 9). So his own consciousness, as composer of the book, is that he is writing a prophecy. The description in 1:3 is matched by a warning in 22:18-19:

"I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book ... if anyone takes away from the word of the book of this prophecy ..."

What does this mean for how we approach Revelation, seeking to understand it?

In the Old Testament, prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah (all drawn on in Revelation), to say nothing of Amos, Hosea and Micah, speak to the present state of affairs, usually Israel and/or Judah and sometimes surrounding nations, diagnosing spiritual ills and political ailments, with a laser like focus on injustice, and then forecasting a future in which divine judgment is coming, though a remnant will survive it and form the basis of God's restoration of God's people.

What do we find in Revelation as a book of prophecy? (Necessarily brief so apologies in advance for missing details):

1. The ills of the seven churches are diagnosed and the impending judgement of Jesus Christ against the churches is announced, with the "carrot" of future blessings for those who repent and for those who are faithful. A parallel, that is, to the OT prophecies which spoke directly to Israel and/or Judah.

2. The ills of the world around the churches are diagnosed and the impending judgement of Jesus Christ against the evildoers of the world is announced (e.g. 20:11-15), with little by way of hope for restoration of the nations of the world (but see 22:2), and much by way of robust encouragement for the saints of God who will not escape the malevolency of the evildoers (e.g. chapter 7).

3. But what is the laser like focus of the prophecy in respect of what the world is to be judged on? Is it justice (so one famous book on Revelation) or something else? On the whole I suggest the focus is on idolatry first (the aggragating of power and glory to the forces of evil and to the human rulers in thrall to them; manifesting as violent, murderous persecution against God's people) and then on justice (e.g. the economic corruption of the merchants of the great city in Revelation 17).

In sum: Revelation is a prophecy which forthtells against the failings of the churches and the evil idolatry and injustice of the world, and foretells of the coming judgement against the churches and the world, a judgement which will come soon but not soon enough to prevent imminent martyrdoms for some of God's people.

But there is a massive twist in the actuality of the language of Revelation as a book of prophecy. The language used is mostly the language of another (but related) kind of ancient Jewish literature, the language of apocalyptic literature, the language, that is, of Daniel, of some chapters of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah, of some books we call "apocrypha" such as 1 Enoch and of gospel chapters such as Mark 13 (which is sometimes called "The Little Apocalypse").

Next week: Revelation as apocalypse. All will be revealed :).

Monday, September 20, 2021

[Not yet] The Mark of the Beast (2/n) so John Spong instead

John Spong

Before we get to a further post on The Mark of the Beast, I note here that Bishop John Spong has died, a figure of some theological/controversial note and, in my recall, often mentioned in the earlier days of this blog.

To mark his death I happily post this excellent essay by Archbishop Rowan Williams, from 1998. It repays reading, whether or not you are interested in Spong. 

The Mark of the Beast (2/n)

Last week I looked at the Book of Revelation as a pastoral letter to churches in Asia Minor, a letter of encouragement and also of challenge.

Revelation is also a book of prophecy. ... But sadly, I am not going to being able to spend time on this matter until Monday 4 October. 

Nota Bene: I have an opportunity to be offline from Friday 24 September to Friday 1 October inclusive and thus will neither post comments nor a blogpost during that period. Your patience is appreciated.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

The Mark of the Beast (2021 version) Post 1/n


To cite a now ancient cliche, we are living in interesting times. So "interesting" are these times that a percipient NZ political commentator, Chris Trotter thinks we are re-living the Protestant Reformation. (He doesn't call our times "interesting," appropriately he calls them "strange and disturbing.")

So strange and disturbing are these times that Antonio Garcia Martinez has written an essay "The Christ with A Thousand Faces", exploring "How trad Christians and woke progressives are unknowing co-religionists, and how the leading moral battles of our age really come down to casting." OK, I hadn't seen that trad Christians and woke progressives are co-religionists, but he has a point!

Then our friend and colleague in following Christ, Pope Francis is working on some radical reforms to the church's power structures. It all seems very Anglican! (Perhaps we are both re-living and reversing the Protestant Reformation :).

However, something very strange and disturbing, very seriously, is that we live in a time of misinformation, sometimes coming from the mouths of Christians, and with potentially very bad consequences. Naturally I am speaking about those Christians who link receiving a Covid vaccine with the Mark of the Beast. This has come up recently in our local Christchurch Press in an article entitled, "Covid-19: Mark of the beast or manna from heaven? Christianity's vaccine issue". (I have a small walk on part in the article.)

That's gotten me thinking a bit about Revelation, its message and its relevance for our times. Just may be there is more than one post in this ... Bear with!

First things first. A helpful way to think about Revelation and its mysteries is to think of it as three literary genres wrapped into one document.

1. It's a letter.

2. It's a prophecy.

3. It's an apocalypse.

Revelation as a letter to seven churches in Asia Minor

Sure, you have to wait, er, three verses, but in Revelation 1:4 you could be reading one of Paul's letters, except its by John:

"John to the seven church that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him ..."

And, sure, there is a lot of stuff after that which is very unlike Paul or Peter or James or that other John when they write a letter, but there are seven individual letters in chapters 2 and 3, and then, consider the ending in Revelation 22:20-21:

"The one who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon."

Amen, Come, Lord Jesus!

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen."

We've head that before, haven't we?

1 Corinthians ends with these words in 16:21-24:

"I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Let anyone be accursed who has no love for the Lord.

Our Lord, come!

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.

My Love be with all of you in Christ Jesus."

OK, so a letter, so what?

What do churches need from some authority writing to them? Answer: encouragement and perhaps a tune up. A pastoral need, in other words, met by a pastoral letter.

The churches in Asia Minor get this in spades. Things are building against them, times are tough, the power of Rome is so threatening you can feel the edge of the sword in your Laodicean mind and flinch Pergamumly at the crack of the torturing whip you're imagining with a cold sweat in the middle of the night. John writes to encourage them - to put some courage in them and he does this by acknowledging the depth of the danger they are in, by probing the true (and, frankly, disturbing) nature of the evil rising against them, while also and always presenting the love and power of God - the love which will see them safely into God's eternal presence is the same love which led to the Lamb being slain for them, and the power which will eventually triumph over all evil and depravity of political and economic power.

They also get a tune up! In most (but not all) of the seven letters, no matter how well a church is doing, Jesus has something they need to do something about. No slacking, no slouching, no sucking up to false teachers and their immoral leaning, and no swaying half way between being hot/cold for God.

And that's what the churches of the world today need too! We're feeling vulnerable, threatened and worried about where change and Covid are taking us. And, to be frank, there's a lot of false teaching - misinformation out there, by which I mean "in there, in the church." We're vulnerable and we have improvements to work on.

Score 10 marks for the relevance of Revelation for the church today!

Next week, a few words about Revelation as prophecy for today. Don't worry, we'll get to the mark of the beast before Christmas :).

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

When does life begin?

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), 

2270 Human life must be respect and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person - among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life. [Jeremiah 1:5 and Psalm 139:15 are then cited in support].

2271 Since the first century the Church hyas affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. ...

2272 Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grace offense. The Church ataches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life. ...

2273 The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation: ...

Arguably the most famous Catholic layman in the world today is President Joe Biden, and readers here are likely familiar with the fact that over the past year or so a debate has broken out within US Catholicism (and beyond, because it has a "liberal" v "conservative"//Francis v Burke etc globalizing aspect to it) about whether Joe Biden's views on abortion are reconcilable with his continuing to receive the eucharist. This debate and the Catholic life and character of Joe Biden are reported on comprehensively in this Politico article, "A Private Matter: Joe Biden's  Very Public Clash with his Own Church." (H/T: Bowman Walton). As an aside, a fascinating line in the article is this:

"There is no such thing as mainstream, there is no such thing as extreme, and there is no such thing as liberal — there is Catholic.”"

Even more recently, within the last week when the Texas state legislature has passed a "smart" law which effectively bans abortions in that state after a woman is six weeks pregnant while (so far) avoiding being struck down because it is "unconstitutional," Joe Biden's views have hit the headlines again.

With the help of Auntie Google, here is Joe Biden through the years:

2008 (NYT): "Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic nominee for vice president, departed Sunday from party doctrine on abortion rights, declaring that as a Catholic, he believes life begins at conception. But the Delaware senator added that he would not impose his personal views on others, and had indeed voted against curtailing abortion rights and against criminalizing abortion."

(This past week, but referring to 2015 views), 3 September 2021 (New York Post): "President Biden delivered a broadside Friday against the controversial Texas anti-abortion law, at one point saying that he did not agree with the proposition that human life begins at conception.

However, Biden struck a different note while he was vice president, telling an interviewer in 2015, “I’m prepared to accept that the moment of conception is a human life and being.”"

Then, this week past, after the Texas decision: 

3 September 2021 (Catholic News Agency): "President Joe Biden (D) said on Friday, Sept. 3, that he does not believe life begins at conception - contradicting his previous statements on when life begins.

Biden answered a reporter’s question on abortion on Friday, after addressing the August jobs numbers at the White House. “I respect those who believe life begins at the moment of conception,” Biden said. “I don’t agree, but I respect that. I’m not going to impose that on people.” "

There is no intrinsic reason why Biden (2021) cannot be correct. Our understanding of things can change. One moment we believe the sun travels around the earth, the next the earth is travelling around the sun. But is Biden (2021) correct and Biden (2015), Biden (2008), nearly all Catholics everywhere and many, many other Christians wrong?

It is only possible that Biden (2021) is correct if some kind of redefining is taking place because it is not like the biological facts of "sperm and egg meet and SOMETHING TAKES PLACE" have changed. We could, for instance, define the beginning of life as, say, around about 13 years of age, when a "differentiation" takes place and the life form realises that he/she/they do not have to do everything Mum and Dad say, have a teen rebellion phase, and thus (so to speak) "the individual is born". Ok, I am jesting, but (I can only presume) that Joe Biden is now thinking that life begins at some stage later than conception. Definitions of when life occurs, if not when sperm and egg combine, could occur through theological and/or sociological and/or legal considerations.

I gather some would focus their definition on when the heart starts beating, others on when birth takes place, and so forth. 

I also observe that when (say) Jim and Josie are trying to conceive a child, the instant they know that life has been conceived in the womb (and sometimes couples "know" right after conception has taken place), that life is the child, the human being they have desired. But when (say) parliamentarians are debating some revision to abortion law, perhaps around the number of weeks which may elapse for when an abortion is legally permissible or the range of conditions for which abortion is permitted, the language tends not to talk about a "child" and "abortion" itself becomes a euphemism for what is being legally permitted. That is, within society, there are a range of definitions occurring in a variety of contexts in talk about the same biological phenomenon of a living being in the womb.

Back to the President: isn't the challenge here for Joe Biden, or any of us who profess the name of Christ, that the definition of "when life begins" is theological as much as it is biological or anything-else-ogical?

The Catholic Catechism is right to cite those Scriptures which understand life in God's eyes as beginning at conception.  Those Scriptures are common to all Christians. Perhaps even more importantly, what those Scriptures speak of is the comprehensiveness of God: the God who sees and oversees all of life, the God from whom nothing is hidden and to whom all is present.

It looks like Joe Biden (the individual) is theologically in an awkward place. I think even we Protestants can say that, whatever the awkwardness of the place that "President Biden" is in in relation to the debate within US Catholicism about whether he should be given communion or not. (I say "President Biden" because I suspect that if 1. Joe had retired from politics, and 2. Joe had changed his mind from 2008/2015 to 2021, there would not be a debate about whether communion should be given to former politician Joe Biden.)

Certainly, Protestants can have some sympathy for US Catholicism: the beliefs of Catholicism about when life begins are very clear, very solid and very much adhered to. To deny these beliefs and present for communion is a challenge in respect of the meaning of communion (which, among other things, is a sacrament of belonging in a context where belonging and believing are tightly connected). Protestants, after all, are themselves denied communion in Catholic churches because of what we (do not) believe.

I personally find it a puzzle that Biden has shifted from a position of "I believe life begins at conception AND I am committed to legal abortion being available in a civil society which is not uniformly Christian" - so many Christian, Catholic and Protestant politicians would adhere to - to his current position.

What the articles above do not convey is the rationale within his own mind for his new definition of when life begins.

Monday, August 30, 2021

The challenge(s) of reading Scripture in 2021

Reading 1

Sometimes, discussing various issues of the day, one side or the other or another raises the question of slavery, the New Testament and Christian ethics. One argument being that it took a while for Christians to figure that slavery is wrong, fullstop, because it wasn't banned by any of the New Testament writers. Therefore, we cannot rely on the NT for our ethical determinations as Christians. A counter-argument being that, although it wasn't banned, St Paul (especially in Philemon) undermined slavery as an institution in society, so effectively the NT declared it was wrong. Therefore, the NT is a final word on slavery.

Except, a counter-counter argument is that, nevertheless Christians through many centuries waxed and waned on the matter, here banning it and there supporting it, and only finally in the 19th century did Christians, universally, "get the message" that there shouldn't be slavery (ever again). Whatever was going on with Christians reading the NT, on slavery (at least), its message was not universally clear and decisive.

Even a relatively early commentator and theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, writing on Ecclesiastes 2, offers a theological argument against slavery and not a simple appeal to one biblical rule on the matter, in this Twitter thread.

On the whole I am inclined to the view that within Christianity, our ethics on slavery developed, albeit on lines set in motion by the NT. The NT is clear that slaves are to be well treated and the master and slave, mistress and slave are sisters and brothers in Christ. It is difficult to sustain an ethic of being family together when half are free and half are slaves! It is not clear, however, from the NT, that slavery should end immediately as a human practice. Our common conviction in the 20th and 21st centuries that slavery should not be a human practice lacks the unequivocal, explicit support of the New Testament.

That the NT does not offer a clear reading against slavery is illustrated by this very recent 21st century Tweet:

Now, let me hasten to add, nearly 100% of readers here will have 100% of Christian friends, family and colleagues who not only do not think this way but would never even have such a thought cross their minds. This post is NOT about lurking pro-slavery theology in the global church. This post is about how the NT (indeed all of Scripture, an OT text is coming up below) is a complex document to read in respect of ethics in a changing world.

Christians do move beyond the strict, literal words of Scripture to new positions on matters of human ethics. In this case, the pastor cited above is reading Scripture as though it is 121 AD and not 2021 AD with 1900 years of context re slavery to also bring to his reading of Scripture.

Let me also hasten to add, that this post is not another foray into That Topic. It could be, but it isn't. Plenty of previous posts on That Topic. Comment there.

Rather this post is about how we actually read Scripture, in day to day or common usage, as well as how we might read Scripture agreeably together.

Reading 2

That this seemingly straightforward task of reading Scripture agreeably together is not straightforward has been highlighted this week by an (at best) interesting take on a familiar Scriptural text by committed Christian, President Biden.

"During a press conference following the attacks at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul in Afghanistan, the US President said the American service members standing guard at the airport who lost their lives in the attack were heroes and part of the "backbone" of America. 

He then quoted from the Old Testament to commend their eagerness to go to Afghanistan:

"Those who have served through the ages have drawn inspiration from the Book of Isaiah, when the Lord says, 'Whom shall I send…who shall go for us?' And the American military has been answering for a long time: 'Here am I, Lord. Send me. Here I am. Send me.'"

The verse, from Isaiah 6:8, come from a vision from the prophet Isaiah where he sees God and is convicted by his own unrighteousness and offers to serve God and preach His message to unrepentant people. 

After quoting scripture, Mr Biden continued: "Each one of these women and men of our armed forces are the heirs of that tradition of sacrifice of volunteering to go into harm's way, to risk everything - not for glory, not for profit, but to defend what we love and the people we love.

"And I ask that you join me now in a moment of silence for all those in uniform and out uniform - military and civilian, who have given the last full measure of devotion""                                     

There is no questioning here in this ADU post about the willingness of US military personnel to serve sacrificially in global hotspots of trouble and strife. (NZ would be a Japanese colony were it not so.) But Isaiah 6:8, as this comment by Samuel Goldman in The Week makes clear, is the wrong verse to choose in order to correlate US military mission with God's mission:

"Biden's point was that the Marines and other personnel overseeing the evacuation knew they were in danger of precisely the kind of attack that occurred but continued their duties anyway. In that respect, it was a fitting effort to honor their courage. 

But the Biblical verse he used was a bad choice to make that point. Jews read Isaiah 6 as describing God's calling to serve as prophet to the chosen people. For many Christians, it is seen as prefiguring the vocation of missionaries to promote the Gospel. In both interpretations, the phrase "Here I am" expresses willingness to participate in the fulfillment of divine purposes.

The conflation of foreign policy with a religious vocation is a recurring tendency in American history. It's also a dangerous one, because it transforms agonizing calculations of risk and benefit into contests between good and evil. Biden is leading American forces out of Afghanistan and appealed to national interests elsewhere in his remarks. Yet the crusading attitude that the Bible quote expressed is part of the reason we have failed to secure those interests for the last two decades. To avoid similar disasters in the future, we need to remember that presidents are not prophets and the U.S. military is not the army of God."

Somehow in President Biden's mind, his reading of Scripture has picked up a laudable response to any call from God to any human or divine task, "Here I am, send me", whisked it out of context - a fairly stable context of readers through thousands of years, reading about a prophet called of God to announce God's message - and applied it to a controversial military mission. 

Both the President and the pastor offer readings of Scripture that (fortunately) very, very few people also share (though clearly the President has an influence which could change the odds in favour of any one else in the future attempting a similar reading). Each highlights that reading Scripture with "one mind of Christ" in 2021 remains a challenging task.

Reading 3

Last week I wrote about the one (Nicene) creed, two (Eastern/Western) versions and that sparked some very illuminating comments - thank you - which dug deep into issues of "reading": what were the Nicene Fathers and the Toledo Father/Pope "reading" as they read their Scripture within their contexts of theological struggle? 

And, what were and continue to be the consequences of sticking to their respective readings to the point where they became emblematic of "tribal" identities in the centuries leading up to the never-healed schism of 1054? 

It is easy to turn on the pastor and the President with their readings of Scripture. But as long as the East and the West of Christianity are divided, none of us can claim to have perfected the art of reading Scripture in order to engender a truly undivided common reading of God's written Word! 


At a very technical level - the level of textual criticism where scholars work with variances or obscurities in the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts of Scripture and try to work out what the original text likely said - there are challenges "reading" the text in order to make sense of it. For the geekier Greekiers among us, this post on Evangelical Textual Criticism may be of interest, concerning "Calvin's Conjectures."