Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Fatal Discord helps me sleep better

Following up a recommendation, I ordered and am now reading Michael Massing's Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind (Harper, 2018). I am only about 25% through it, so this is not a book review. But a couple of matters are worth reporting on.

First, this is a wonderfully told story of the early 16th century. Michael Massing (so far) is telling the twin biographical stories of Erasmus and Luther, via alternating chapters. A nifty way of keeping this reader's attention. But along the way, Massing is not afraid to head down some profitable sidetracks as he explains this or that development in philosophy or theology or gives us a biography in miniature of a relevant character in the plots of church history.

A few nights ago I was reading about Reuchlin, a man I had not heard of, who single-handedly turned German biblical scholarship towards the importance generally of the Old Testament and in particular the importance of learning Hebrew, all in the face of immense vitriol towards the Jews.

It is that vitriol that I especially want to report today. I knew well - having studied Luther when at Knox Theological Hall - that Luther was a factory spewing filth when it came to his excoriation of the Jews. What I was less aware of was how much he was a man of his times, unfortunately, when we read statements by other church leaders and theologians. Further, Jews were being expelled from various cities in (what we now call) Germany, and in some cases even slaughtered. There were confiscations of Jewish books. My reaction reading about these kinds of things in this first quarter of the book is that the Holocaust of the 20th century had a deep, longstanding reservoir of hatred and bigotry to draw on. Was it a case of "when" and not "if" that reservoir would spill over into the terrible events experienced in 1933-45?

Finally, Massing writes so well that it is a pleasure to read him - a few pages each night not only advances my knowledge but also assists me to sleep better!

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Clearly we need clarity

In the post below I note a controversy over the appointment of a high-ranking Oz clergyman to the position of Interim Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome - a controversy arising because of remarks made about 10 years ago about the resurrection. The social media campaign about this led to some mainstream media news articles and that, almost inevitably, led to a refutation - what I do believe - by Dr Shepherd of the conjectures being aired about what he does not believe.

Here I am not particularly concerned with Dr Shepherd's views on the resurrection nor of those of his critics. But I am keen to reflect a little out loud on what we think we are doing as Christian pundits when we use the word "clear" (or clearly, clarity).

I tweeted a little about the controversy and in one tweet back this was tweeted:

"So give us clarity. Is it acceptable for a man that clearly denies the Resurrection to hold such a position of senior leadership?"

Irrespective of whether Shepherd himself "clearly" denied or affirmed any aspect of the Resurrection, the word "clearly" raises questions when we discuss theology in relation to Scripture.

I presume, for instance, that in 1611, if I were reading the Bible in contemporary English for the first time as a young man, I could exclaim, "The Bible clearly teaches that God made the world and everything in it in six (twenty-four hour) days" and, presumably, the only people to deny my confident "clearly" would be those who read Genesis 2 as well as Genesis 1 and engaged me in a discussion about time and creation within the biblical narrative itself.

But in 2019, post-Darwin etc, it is not so clear what what the Bible means by Genesis 1's six days of creation. Is the best we can do, the clearest we can be, to say, "Clearly the Bible is truthful and the descriptive language used in Genesis 1 must now, clearly, be understood in a way which corresponds to the complex, long duration of the world as we know it coming into being"?

That is, between 1611 and 2019, "clearly" on an aspect of creation has been forced to give way to a new, revised statement on what the Bible means. We need to take words such as "clearly" carefully when we talk Bible and theology, but we do not need to do away with them. Science makes no clear claim as to whether God created the world or not and the Bible in 2019 as well as 1611 makes a very clear claim that God created the world.

What is clear about the resurrection of Jesus?

I think we can make some incontrovertibly clear statements about the resurrection. For instance,

- Believing that Jesus had been raised from the dead made all the difference in the world to the first Christians.

- Appearances of the risen Jesus, as evidenced by 1 Corinthians 15, were widespread among the community of followers of Jesus.

- The four canonical gospels attest that the tomb of Jesus was emptied of his corpse.

- The witness of some accounts of appearances of the risen Jesus is that the risen Jesus engaged in physical acts such as speaking, eating and drinking.

- Combining the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of Paul, the New Testament attests to "the" resurrection of the dead being a transformation into a form of being beyond our imagining (e.g. a form of being that will not lead to marriage; a form of being with as much or as little resemblance to our earthly bodies as a plant has to the seed from which it germinates).

- The words "physical", "spiritual" and other words such as "transphysicality", when used to discuss the form of body of the risen Jesus encountered by his followers and described in the gospel and 1 Corinthian 15 accounts, require careful elucidation and explanation if controversy and/or confusion is to be avoided.

- When, according to Scriptural accounts, people were raised from the dead (such as Lazarus, the son of the widow of Nain) readers are not intended to presume they will not subsequently, eventually, die in the usual human way, thus such resurrections are resuscitations and not examples of "the" resurrection from the dead.

Readers will have noted that what I don't propose as "incontrovertibly clear" are statements such as:

- The tomb of Jesus was empty from the third day and that proves that Jesus rose from the dead.

- The four gospel accounts of the events associated with the resurrection of Jesus (i.e. the discovery of the empty tomb, the appearances of Jesus) and the account given in 1 Corinthians 15 are easily harmonised into one seamless account.

- Considered together, the four gospels accounts of the events associated with the resurrection of Jesus and the account given in 1 Corinthians 15 should be read as reliable, consistent, trouble free, objective historical descriptions of a public event.

- All Christians agree that "physical resurrection" is the best descriptive phrase for what happened to Jesus on the third day after his crucifixion.

Now, I believe that we can be "clear" about a number of matters concerning the resurrection of Jesus. For instance, referring you back to the post below and my citation there from Robert Jenson, I am very clear that the tomb was emptied of Jesus' corpse on the third day after his crucifixion. My clarity flows out of both the scriptural accounts and other considerations such as Jenson brings to bear on the matter - considerations, for instance, that it is more likely the tomb was empty than not, given the lack of history of veneration of the corpse of Jesus at the tomb of Jesus. But I acknowledge that I cannot be incontrovertibly clear about this. It is always possible - as the Gospel of Matthew acknowledges, in its final chapter, that the empty tomb might be because of skulduggery with the corpse being removed from the tomb.

I also recognise that unclear statements and words or phrases within statements do not help us in discussion of the resurrection. The Shepherd controversy highlights that words such as "physical" and "spiritual" need explaining ... Jenson highlights that "body" needs elucidation ... Paul himself in 1 Corinthians 15, within another resurrection controversy, takes great care and trouble to work through what our resurrection bodies will be like.

We need clarity when talking about any great matter of doctrinal importance. Clearly this is so!

Monday, January 14, 2019

Holiday musings

As I resume blogging - approximately once a week in this new era in my life - I am also winding out of holiday mode into picking up the tempo as we go working mode. Here I will stick with "holiday musings", perhaps next week taking up "work musings."

Teresa and I, along with 4 million plus Kiwis were blessed this post-Christmas holiday period with some hot summer weather. It was not obvious before Christmas that this would be so. Nor, indeed, the day before we left Christchurch when I watched a day's cricket at Hagley Oval with a nippy wind in my face!

That eventual heat made us appreciative of opportunities - sometimes quite briefly -  to be in some of our special Down Under summer spots, with special reference to water: Kaikoura Coast, Tahunanui Beach, Pohara, Tata Beach, Gisborne, Tolaga Bay, Tokomaru Bay, Te Araroa, East Cape, Raukokore, Opotiki, Gisborne (again), Mahia Beach, Lake Waikaremoana, Napier. Also appreciative of cars with air conditioning!

Exploring the East Coast of the North Island was new to me. I had been to Napier and Gisborne before, but never driven the road between these two towns, nor driven the coastal route from Gisborne to Opotiki. Our journey took in some memorable places, generating some pics below.

Memorial to Sir Apirana Ngata, outside St Mary's Memorial Church, Tikitiki

Extraordinary stained glass window in east wall of St Mary's Memorial Church, Tiktiki. Two WW1 Maori Battalion soldiers kneeling at the foot of the cross, the crucified Jesus and slain soldiers set within Paradise.

Christ Church, Raukokore - the North Island's corresponding church to the South Island's Church of the Good Shepherd on the shores of Lake Tekapo?

Hicks Bay - one of a series of famous East Coast beaches.

Mahia Beach - arguably as nice a beach-to-have-a-holiday-home-beside as any beach in Aotearoa NZ!
The occasion of our visit to this lovely but remote part of Down Under was the Unveiling of the Memorial to Archbishop Brown Turei, at his marae and nearby urupa (cemetery) at Whangaparaoa, on Saturday 5th January. Everything went well and we were privileged to be participants in this occasion of great importance for Archbishop Brown's whanau, for Te Pihopatanga o Aotearoa and for our church as a whole. The following day, back in Gisborne we were also privileged to be guests of current Archbishop and Pihopa o Aotearoa, Don Tamihere.

Now, these brief reports do not tell the whole story of all places and churches visited recently, nor or people met and books and articles digested. And, in comments on my previous post, below, there continued to be much food for thought. And, and ...  I notice continuing "events" in the wider, global Anglican story of our times ... and I note that these mostly continue to be about That Topic. So my "holiday musings," here below, are not solely catalysed by our East Coast adventure.

Musing 1: holidays can be an opportunity to recall, again, what an extraordinary world we live in. I thank God not only that God created our wonderful world but also that we have One whom we can thank. A musing through these past few weeks has been about whether as church we bear witness to the God Whom We Can Thank for the gift of life and of love. We worry about whether atheists pray or not when in a foxhole on the battlefield, but what do atheists do when absorbing the beauty of an East Coast beach?!

Musing 2: holidays can also be an opportunity to be reminded that many Kiwis are happy and contented with their lives. Finding well patronised restaurants and cafes in holiday places, with happy, laughing patrons, or walking the beaches and meeting people enjoying sea, sand and sun, I find myself musing that the progress of the gospel Down Under is difficult because life here is so darn good for lots of people. Now - of course - I do not wish for misfortune to drive us back/forward to God but my musing is that we continue to have a huge challenge communicating to fellow Kiwis that God is worth bothering about, that the truest, deepest, enduring secret to life (Colossians 1:27) is Christ and not Kiwiana! Working also from Colossians - an epistle I have been reading especially these past few weeks - our question today is how we can make the secret "clear" to our fellow Kiwis (Colossians 4:4).

Musing 3: nevertheless, while not wishing this to be so, I have also been musing on whether we are very close to (climate) catastrophe? That same summer heat at times has felt unusually hot. We know the climate is changing. Recent news reports have talked about the heating of the planet's seawater and the probable acceleration of general global warming as a result. How close are we to a global catastrophe with respect to climate?

Musing 4: I have kept reading Jenson's Systematic Theology, including his chapter on the resurrection. Coincidentally, there is an emerging controversy over the newly appointed Interim Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome, the Very Rev'd Dr John Shepherd, because of some remarks he once made about the resurrection (see news reports here and here). Jenson himself is very careful and nuanced about the resurrection and would have words to say to Shepherd's critics (to the extent, e.g., that they throw terms like "literal" around without nuance). But Jenson makes one of the best points ever about why the tomb was empty: concluding discussion on what "body" means in respect of human bodies, the body of Christ in sacrament and as the church, he writes

"The organism that was Jesus' availability - that was his body - until he was killed would have as a corpse continued to be an availability of this person, of the kind that tombs and bodies of the dead always are. It would have been precisely a relic, such as the saints of all religions have. Something other than sacrament and church would have located the Lord for us, would have provided a direction for devotion; and that devotion would have been to a saint, and so would have been something other than faith and obedience to a living Lord. The tomb we may therefore very cautiously judge, had to be empty after the Resurrection for the Resurrection to be what it is." (p. 206, Vol 1 Systematic Theology).

UPDATE: Shepherd has responded to his critics here. AND we could add this in here (Rowan Williams on John Spong ...).