Monday, November 25, 2019

Romans 14-15 and the unity of the church(es)

Does Romans 14-15 help us much when we have a dispute in the church?

We all agree that Romans 14-15 is primarily concerned with a question of eating which is dividing the Roman church. (Secondarily, there seems to have been an issue about observing festival days (14:5-6) and drinking wine may also have been a problem (14.21)

In my experience, perhaps in yours also, we do not seem much agreed about applying R 14-15 by analogy to other issues troubling us these days.

Perhaps we can, perhaps we should not. You may have thoughts on that in comments below.
We might usefully observe, however, verse 3, which reminds us that our unity is in the God who welcomes us: "... for God has welcomed them" where "them" equals "that lot over there with whom you disagree so strongly."

Yet it would be odd, would it not, if we read Romans today for its universal theology of salvation (i.e. its timeless, applies everywhere and to everyone message of the gospel of the saving power of Jesus Christ) yet not for its applicability to the church of today in respect of our disputations?

Having said that, I wonder how you find Romans 14-15 as a "dispute settling" method? Even in respect of eating in Rome, is it clear by 15:6 how that dispute was settled? (And, if it looks like Paul was pushing for the dispute to be settled in favour of "the weak", in the long run, as Christianity parted ways from Judaism, "the strong" won and not "the weak.")

Sure, Paul generally sets out an excellent case for "going along to get along" in Christian fellowship (e.g. 14:19: "Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding."). Also, sure, Paul is very clear about not causing a brother or sister to stumble (14:20-21). And, very surely, Paul clearly warns against being "the ruin of one for whom Christ died" (14:15).

But much less surely can we say that Paul is simply saying that the "weak" on an issue always have things work out their way because the "strong" on the issue should always make life easy for them. For example, Paul challenges "the weak": "and those who abstain must not pass judgement on those who eat" (14:3; see also verse 10) and generally urges all sides of issues to recognise the other side as they honour the Lord (14:5-6).

Further, Paul is focused on these matters at a simple level: two groups, one should give way to the other (even as both groups should love, accept and honour the other). He does not get into the complexity of (say) one group holding the other group to emotional ransom; or of one group playing cute political games with the other.

There is also the complexity of determining who on issues outside of food, drink and festival days in ancient Rome are "the strong" and "the weak". Do these neatly map onto "conservatives" and "liberals" in 21st century Anglicanism? Probably not! Do these neatly map in synodical contexts onto "the majority" and "the minority"? Possibly so. (What if the majority in (say) the Synod of the Diocese of Christchurch is part of a minority within the General Synod?)

But complexity should not dissuade us from applying Romans 14-15. There is much in these chapters which steers us to Christ, which reminds us of Christ's teaching (e.g. not judging one another), and which challenges us to be like Christ:

"Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God." (15:7)

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Romans and the unity of the church (and churches)

A recent lectionary reading was Romans 13:8-10 (cited below). Roman 13 lies very close to, surprise, Romans 14 and 15. In those latter two chapters Paul, in the “application” part of his great letter, works on a very thorny issue for the Roman church (which means, by extension, both within and across the house churches of Romans 16).

The whole letter, of course, is a letter deeply concerned for Christian unity, because Paul is (theologically if not emotionally) desperate for unity between Rome’s Christian communities and himself, as well as between Christians in Rome at loggerheads with each other over theology and practice, veering confusingly between poles of law and grace, familiar Judaism and fledgling Christianity, Abraham’s true and false heritage and so forth.

Many readers here will be familiar with the trajectory of Romans through Christian history as a book which continues to be invoked in order to nudge (or blast) Christians towards true theological appreciation of the gospel - the Reformation and the Barthian revolt against German liberalism being the most notable examples (which I can think of).

But such nudges or blasts are not typically welcomed with complete collapse of the critiqued as they recognise the clarity of opposition towards them. Stout defences have been mounted (even named as in "the Counter Reformation") and so Romans is subject to debates, theological storms, and general rumblings of an ongoing nature, the most widely engaged present one working with the word “perspective”, as scholars propose and counter-propose “the New Perspective on Paul.”

Out of such debates scholars have had (if we may call it this) fun working out the “centre” or “message” or “target” of Romans. Is what matters in Romans found in chapters 3 and 4? If so, what do we make of Romans 9-11 - a footnote, an appendix or an aside? What if the point of Romans in in chapters 9-11? Or, is it Romans 14-15 - an issue over vegetables/meat eating has driven Paul’s greatest theological essay?

Recently I ordered Scot McKnight’s latest book Reading Romans Backwards: A Gospel of Peace in the Midst of Empire. Its focus is, according to its Amazon page,

"To read Romans from beginning to end, from letter opening to final doxology, is to retrace the steps of Paul. To read Romans front to back was what Paul certainly intended. But to read Romans forward may have kept the full message of Romans from being perceived. Reading forward has led readers to classify Romans as abstract and systematic theology, as a letter unstained by real pastoral concerns.

But what if a different strategy were adopted? Could it be that the secret to understanding the relationship between theology and life, the key to unlocking Romans, is to begin at the letter’s end? Scot McKnight does exactly this in  Reading Romans Backwards.
McKnight begins with Romans 12–16, foregrounding the problems that beleaguered the house churches in Rome. Beginning with the end places readers right in the middle of a community deeply divided between the strong and the weak, each side dug in on their position. The strong assert social power and privilege, while the weak claim an elected advantage in Israel’s history. Continuing to work in reverse, McKnight unpacks the big themes of Romans 9–11―God’s unfailing, but always surprising, purposes and the future of Israel―to reveal Paul’s specific and pastoral message for both the weak and the strong in Rome. Finally, McKnight shows how the widely regarded "universal" sinfulness of Romans 1–4, which is so often read as simply an abstract soteriological scheme, applies to a particular rhetorical character’s sinfulness and has a polemical challenge. Romans 5–8 equally levels the ground with the assertion that both groups, once trapped in a world controlled by sin, flesh, and systemic evil, can now live a life in the Spirit. In Paul’s letter, no one gets off the hook but everyone is offered God’s grace.
Reading Romans Backwards places lived theology in the front room of every Roman house church. It focuses all of Romans―Paul’s apostleship, God’s faithfulness, and Christ’s transformation of humanity―on achieving grace and peace among all people, both strong and weak. McKnight shows that Paul’s letter to the Romans offers a sustained lesson on peace, teaching applicable to all divided churches, ancient or modern."

We will see as this monograph is digested whether it contributes to settling current Pauline debates or fuels their fire!

So, with such thoughts, and anticipation in the background, Romans 13:8-10. I found myself reading this with the radicalness of the passage jumping up and exegetically smacking me in the hermeneutical face!

Here is Paul, citing different laws - well known "ten commandments" but also "any other commandment" - and declaring, completely in keeping with the Lord Jesus, that every commandment is summed up in "Love your neighbour as yourself." Then, Paul says, what this summary, overriding commandment means is, "Love does no wrong to a neighbour, therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law."

And the exegetical smack in the hermeneutical face? This: I wonder in our Anglican and other controversies (e.g. virulent if not vitriolic debate in the States over Beth Moore and women preaching to men) if we are exhibiting any reckoning with this passage when we argue over the rules of Christian living.

Is, for example, a woman preaching to a mixed gender congregation doing any "wrong to a neighbour"?

What harm to our neighbours or to the body of Christ is done if a congregation moves forward to receive the eucharist with diverse understandings of the eucharist shared across the congregation?

I could go on.

Comments please on the matter of Christian ethics being driven and shaped by Romans 13:8-10?

Here is the passage, via the NRSV:


Romans 13:8-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Love for One Another

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law."

If we could agree on Romans 13:8-10, might we find ourselves with a new and solid ground for Christian unity?

Monday, November 11, 2019

Bleak or blessed? A rejoinder to and extension of previous post, by Bryden Black

The following guest post, by the Rev. Dr. Bryden Black, Christchurch, picks up on matters brought forward in the previous post (last Monday) and thread of comments below it ... It begins with an address to one of the commenters on the thread, the Rev. Ron Smith, Christchurch.

I have waited until now, Ron, to respond to you—often the first cab off the rank—as I’ve been enjoying the various lines of conversation developing here, raising not just intriguing ideas, but perhaps even rather vital ones. And trying now to maintain the good faith I’ve been at some pains recently to cultivate between us, it’s time to address your take on matters ’Strain, with which you kicked things off. 

Since you have necessarily given us some of the details of your own life experience in your comments, it might help you (and others) similarly to know some of my own autobiographical details. For in this way, we may all evaluate better our respective understandings of our own various experiences. And yes; those with sharp eyes and ears will pick up key echoes of Bernard Lonergan at work: evaluate our understandings of our experiences. What I am deliberately attempting also here is a cross reference to another thread, where Bowman threw down the hermeneutical gauntlet. See please “So, you be the judge ... of many links and what they say (UPDATED)”, especially comments dated Nov 3, 2019 at 4:10 PM through to Nov 4, 2019 at 2:20 PM. We’ll come back to this thread at the end. 

With apologies now for the subjectivity, on which I have tried to be necessarily selective to the task. But if we in the AC, at all its various levels, from the grandly global down to the humbly parochial and back up again, are ever, ever to emerge from this “slow moving train wreck” (Tom Wright, of our dear Church) with anything like a scrap of dignity (humanly speaking), we really need to learn engagement “face-to-face” (Emmanuel Levinas)—with humility and openness, mirroring the very Being of the Triune God in whose Image Christians claim humanity is made, and are now graciously being redeemed in Christ Jesus. [Sorry; H/T my own The Lion, the Dove, & the Lamb.] And no; I am not trying to reinvent the Indaba Process. I am merely facing facts, as per Oliver O’Donovan’s seminal judgment that the real, true conversation has barely begun. [My own take on the reasons why is not the point of the thread here.] 

My father was born in Melbourne of Kiwi parents. He finished his secondary schooling back in Christchurch. He fought with the ANZACs in North Africa, and was captured by the Italians just ahead of El Alamein, finishing the war a POW both in Italy and Germany. He was a personal friend of Charlie Upham, their being ‘in the bag’ together. My parents were married after WW2 in Opawa. Her story is even more fun and varied; but because she was a very private person and an only child, I will respect that privacy. 

My first encounter with Australasia was in utero, but I was then born in London coz me mum happened to be there at the time. Between the ages of 0-41⁄2 we’d gone around the world twice, mostly of course in ships! Australasia featured twice, and I recall that second return from Southampton to Auckland like it were y’day. (There are of course earlier distilled ‘pictures’ too.) The “Crossing of The Line” antics mid Pacific were a sight to behold for one just four; the Captain had only just vacated his Table for all the children on board to have a massive High Tea, with moi in his chair. It were my fourth birthday, see! 

Fast forward. After leaving school in UK, I took an extended ‘gap year’ back in Australasia, mostly but not exclusively as jackaroo and useless shepherd. Thereafter of course, UCR (University College of Rhodesia) featured, and I took a BA Gen in what was then Salisbury. I was also massively ‘educated’ beyond the academic ... Let the reader understand, and not just uni life, but Rhodesia, 1965-80. 

During that uni period, there are three vital things to note. Having kicked ‘the religious habit’ a few months after the Bp of Winchester laid hands on me at Confirmation - it was after all the 1960s - I became a believing, practising Christian during a university mission led by Peter Hall, who later ministered in Birmingham and SE London. Secondly, UCR was supposedly a multiracial oasis surrounded by ... well, what? Given the history of Southern Rhodesia/Rhodesia, it was never quite RSA with its Apartheid. Even if there were some grotesque parallels, there were also many significant differences. And those very differences granted for a start that very campus, a University College of London. Lastly, I met there my wife-to-be, who became a doctor and remains a faithful member of RCC. 

My diocese of origin is Mashonaland/Harare, my being ordained there in 1977 by a wonderful man, Paul Burrough. For you history buffs, Southern Rhodesia was once part of the Church of the Province of South Africa. This meant that the flavour of Anglicanism in that part of the world was distinctly ‘spiky’, by and large. I well remember once seeing with bewilderment the celebrant at the end of HC wander off into the corner and start reciting the Fourth Gospel’s Prologue! For you see I was (still am, among many other dimensions) supposedly an Evangelical! In fact, only a wise ecclesial decision had established an explicitly Evangelical parish in Harare, Avondale, who were allowed to use the 1662 BCP as opposed to the South African Prayer Book, thus averting the importation into Southern Rhodesia (for a while) The Church of England in South Africa. We’ve been here before folks! Well, sort of ... After 8 years of ministry in Harare (none of which was with St Mary’s, Avondale, BTW), my wife and I with then 2 children went back to England, where I embarked upon an intense two year period of doctoral study at Wycliffe Hall, my old training college. What a blast! We then returned to Melbourne. 

David Penman, a Kiwi, was the Archbishop in 1987, whom I’d already met in 1985 while our longer term plans were developing. Again, long story short, I became, first, the Field Worker in the Dept of Evangelism & Church Growth, and then its Director, 1988-94. The Dept had been duly established by Abp DP under a truly great man, Peter Corney, then vicar of Kew and Archdeacon of Evangelism, and all this ahead of the so-called Decade of Evangelism around the AC (ala Lambeth 1988). Remember that folks ...?! 

Of course it was an impossible task, with an over ambitious job description. Yet both DP and PC were/are missionaries at heart - thank you Lord for their tutelage. Rapidly, I was forced to crawl with the worms and fly with the eagles (yes; those with sharp eyes and ears will pick up key echoes of Deut Isa). From engagements with small parish groups—and that meant inevitably encounters one-on-one so often—to inter-church bodies (VCC, NSW Uniting Church Mission and Evangelism group), with even the odd national jaunt, it was a real ride! I am ever convinced they got less than I received! 

Phase Two of my ministry was a curate’s egg. Anchored in the rapidly changing Inner City Parish of Port Melbourne, we, a small team, tried a Comunity Development model of local mission. Two ‘programmes’ stood out. There was this ‘Youth Group’ of kids, 9-15, from the High Rises, which we co-shared with the UCA next door. Its suburb, South Melbourne, had the reputed highest youth suicide rate nationally. And what a fantastic joy—and tragedy ... And then there was the Asylum Seeker Centre venture. Federal Govt funds MRCs, Migrant Resource Centres. And despite the often bad rap the governments across the Ditch themselves might get, here is a one-stop shop, well oiled with cash, of which we were JEALOUS. We turned such a vice into a virtue; we befriended members of the local MRC, and our ASC ‘traded’ with them. Gloriously, the ministry is still going, having morphed for the fifty-first time; see David Spitteler on FaceBook. 

From all of which I’d have to say I have a certain series of takes on the churches and the Church across that Ditch. I have had friends (let alone contacts) from just about every brand of Anglicanism you might muster amongst that ‘variegated creature’ that is the Anglican Archdiocese of Melbourne! And please don’t forget the interchurch and interstate stuff either. In addition, the actual individuals and/or parishes (or whatever groupings) will all have their own respective ‘Rubicons’, as it were, when they do or don’t or might ‘cross over’ and move - yet ...? [See “So you be the judge ...” @ October 23, 2019 at 11:30 AM]

Sure; some of what I once knew may be somewhat outdated, but we still have some key contemporary links. Our oldest daughter and family live there still, and my wife and I of course see them frequently enough, doing joyous grand-parenting duties! Crucially, Peter Corney is still alive (running his active website too!), and we’re in contact off and on, and meet up occasionally. We always call in on fellow Port Melbourne types when over—always! And then there’s my most long-standing acquaintance over there ecclesially (never quite became a friendship due to geography), Peter Jensen and his wife Christine, whom I first met when we were together in Oxford 1976-77; and we cross paths once in a while still also. And last but certainly not least, how’s this for Providence?! On the very first Sunday after 22nd February 2011 earthquake, who should come popping into St Christopher’s (where I was PiC at the time) but an old School friend I hadn’t met in years; we were in the same Boarding House together, for goodness’ sake! He’s ... got something to do with Sydney Dio Synod etc. We’ve met a number of times since; our wives have met; and it’s all great fun. Yet when they are not present, while the range of subjects is vast, it always includes our respective global takes on the dear old AC and her ragged clothing ...

So; Bleak - or blessed?

Well; the slow moving train wreck is surely upon us—always would be, if my assessment in that earlier thread is correct; see October 23, 2019 at 11:29 AM on “So; you be the judge ...”. For Tom Wright has sadly nailed it: we are “a slow moving train wreck.” And lastly, crucially, do please also recall that Terry Fulham exegesis of Isa 40 I cited again under that earlier thread “So, you be the judge ...” @ October 30, 2019 at 8:59 PM. We will NEVER appreciate what’s going on until we acknowledge that scorching Sirocco wind from the Sahara, Isa 40:6-8, sandwiched as it is between otherwise beautiful, hopeful oracles. One has to ponder deeply why it forms such a crucial part of the prophet’s call narrative as he stands in the Council of Yahweh, overhearing their deliberations, only to interject, “What shall I cry?”
[MUCH of course turns on who’s saying what, on where all the inverted commas go - or don’t go.] 

Yet if I may/must push back in a most specific direction, dear Ron, to all you’ve said on this thread alone above, even if via that inevitable medium so tested by time, satire, I’d publish - which I will not - a ‘translation’ I’ve sighted of the “GSSC response to Sydney”, Taonga 13 Nov 18. It would surely make a cat laugh, and a script worthy of any Monty Python Sketch or Goons Show. Sure; it’s a bit amateurish - perhaps. YET it helps to reveal so aptly where we are truly at. “Lost in Translation” doesn’t begin to cut it (and its author is not an Anglican, BTW, just a Christian ‘expert’, working in journalism - and NOT an Aussie! These things are always fascinating). There are many, many dynamics at work here ... Including the Providence clearly witnessed throughout Isa 40-55. For Providence is, as Mr Beaver, states: 

‘Safe?’said Mr Beaver; ‘don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he is good. He’s the King, I tell you.’ 

So; as they say in Shona, “Tatenda!”, Ron, Thank-you. For thanks to your customary kick-start, there may just be a wee angelic crack opening up here on this blog: I DARE TO BELIEVE - AND HOPE, AND TRULY LOVE. God being my Helper ... Amine! 

PS. January 2000 saw us return to Chch and begin another chapter. But that’s another story (perhaps) for another time ...

My answer: blessed - or bleak? 

And now for the thorniest of questions, Peter’s title. Herewith my meagre stab at an answer: neither and yet both, both and yet neither. 

“Now, surely, you’re merely playing word games, Bryden”, quickly comes the retort! Well; again, yes and no; sic et non, as the medieval Latin theologians used to say - with now a distinctly modern, or should that be postmodern, twist. How so? Via a very careful examination of some key New Testament forms of discourse. I shall be brief. 

Let’s start with Paul. In the likes of say Rom 5:1-5 and thereafter chapter 8, “suffering” and “glory” are clearly opposites. They are opposites both by nature and chronologically. The one state follows the other, it seems. Similarly, we have a pair of opposites, driven by the Old Testament form of covenant, in Galatians, chs 3-4. For you cannot get a greater pair of opposites than “blessing” and “cursing”. Yet even here there might be hints of something else being at work as well. And Paul, the Christian rabbi, plays a gloriously figurative game from Torah, 4:21ff. (Caveat lector; I have just played my own wee game.) 

The greatest and most succinct form of opposites in Paul might possibly be 2 Cor 4:17-18, set within that remarkably dense passage starting at 2:14 and running right through to 6:13. Here the nature of each is additionally qualified by adjectives, as well as by the stark, chronological nature of each. 

But let’s turn now to the Fourth Gospel, and ask an essential question, which, if we don’t even realise is a question, we will never understand what John is up to. Cutting to the chase, What is the nature of “divine glory”? And when and how is it revealed? John’s entire book gives us both question and answer. To be sure, I’m not now going to go about exegeting 21 chapters of some of the most, yes, glorious literature in the world. 

The answers revolve around these observations. The Son of Man’s Hour of Glory is when he is “lifted up” from the Earth. This is the revelation of the divine glory, the Father’s eternal glory, which is shared uniquely and singularly with the Son (say, ch.17), who as Incarnate One reveals and embodies and enacts that very glory here on Earth. Yet that revelation is far from straightforward. And this revelation is far from easily or straightforwardly - at least in the first instance, seemingly - received or acknowledged or realised (yes; that key word I play with in God’s Address). For that very process of being “lifted up”, that essential drama whereby the Father is glorified in the Son and the Son glorifies his Father (see esp 13:31-32, 12:20-36), is a classic piece of double entendre, where the thing is explicitly double layered, and even more so ... 

For being “lifted up” means two things in John: quite literally, it means being physically strung up some metres above the ground upon a Roman gibbet; then, both physically and spiritually it means being “lifted up” out of the grave. The Hour of Jesus’ glory is the impenetrable combination of both crucifixion and resurrection, resurrection and crucifixion. Here is the divine glory shown, declared-and-demonstrated amongst humanity—by means of crucifixion-&-resurrection-&-resurrection-&-crucifixion. Nor are we quite done. 

That divine glory precisely and intentionally spills over. For the Glory of the Father is notably, when the full drama of the Fourth Gospel has run its course and the Hour of Glory has come, the begetting of many additional sons and daughters (τέκνα/ tekna = children) from among humanity, through the Son (υióς/huios), Jesus, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. They are granted “eternal life”, which is nothing less than their dwelling in/with the Father and the Son in the Spirit, and this God’s dwelling in/among them (see especially 13:3- 17:26; 20:21-22; and see too therefore Rev 21:3,22-24). More formally, we may say that the destiny of human beings is nothing less than to participate in the life and light, the love and freedom of the triune Godhead, “sharing the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4), an idea beloved of the Eastern Orthodox Church. 

So what has happened to Paul’s more simple – or is it really so simple? - set of opposites with which we began? The clue for him of course is the most famous opening set of chapters to 1 Cor, chs 1-4. Here divine and human power, and divine and human wisdom - both pairs of opposites - get smartly flipped on their heads. So even within Paul and his theological patterns of thinking, and so exhortation to forms of Christian living, we meet some profound forms of paradox. 

So; back to Peter’s question. Is the future bleak? Or is it to be blessed? Once again I answer as above. But this time I hope with the Gospel’s rays of Jesus passing through the prismatic effect of all that I have said, so that our language, and our forms of thinking, let alone our very forms of living practice, are filtered by Jesus’ Death and Resurrection. That is to say, in as much as we humans are “in union with Christ Jesus”, so too will the Holy Spirit pass us through/shine us through the prism of cross and resurrection, resurrection and crucifixion, refashioning us (back) into the Image/Form of God. Just so, Phil 3:10-11, with its compressed chiasmic form, set firmly within its remarkable context. 

And just so too, Rom 12:1-2, set within its context, marking it as the fulcrum of all else: 

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercies, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual/reasonable worship. Do not be conformed to this world/aeon, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Bleak or blessed?

A bit short of time this week.

This is "Anglican Down Under" so once again we take a look across the Ditch.

David Ould has written a diagnosis and prognosis of current controversies in the Anglican Church of Australia in the Anglican Church Record.

I suggest a critical observation within the article is this:

"The constitution and polity of the Anglican Church of Australia is more conservative than other Provinces. It declares the 39 Articles and Book of Common Prayer to be our standard of doctrine and worship, not just historical documents to be acknowledged. Bishops promise to uphold the constitution in their consecration vows and can be held to account on that basis. Further, the federal-type nature of our national church means that doctrinal and liturgical changes can only be made with the approval of General Synod and the individual dioceses. This prevents more extreme decisions being taken and has, in the past, encouraged a more collaborative approach to making big decisions."

I infer that the paramount question before our sister church, in the light of recent events and synodical statements, is this:

Will ACA determine to work collaboratively on a solution to the sharp differences between bishops/dioceses?

I don't know about you (especially if you are an Australian reader) but between unilateral actions in or by some Dioceses and statements re revisionist leaders should leave, I am failing from across the Ditch to see public signs of collaborative intention.

Is the future of our sister church bleak or blessed?