Monday, February 24, 2020

Anglican Ecclesiology 2020: Lambeth or Boycott?

As the Anglican Communion heads this year towards Lambeth 2020 - the opportunity every 10 years or so for every Anglican diocese throughout the world to be represented by its bishop(s) at a conference - it is worth a few words on the ecclesiologies which are at work among us.

A noticeable phenomenon in the run up to Lambeth is the willingness of bishops who disagree over That Topic to gather there (including, intriguingly, Kenyan bishops whom their Archbishop is permitting to attend even though he himself will not).

That is, this year there will be an underlining of the fact that the division among Anglicans around the globe is not "because of That Topic" but because at least two different ecclesiologies are held by Anglicans.

The (as I will call it) Lambeth ecclesiology is held by those who understand that Anglicans hold various matters in common (enabling meeting together) and many matters in difference (so meeting together is opportunity to talk about these matters).

By contrast the (we may as well call it) GAFCON ecclesiology is held by those who understand that Anglicans may (actually, should) divide over certain matters, that that willingness to divide is critical to Anglican character, and that correct doctrine is prerequisite for meeting together. A GAFCON ecclesiology, in other words, is a willingness to boycott meetings when it is determined that people holding the wrong doctrine are going to turn up.

From an historical perspective we might note - I think reasonably and fairly - that a Lambeth ecclesiology flows with the arc of Anglican history, noting the ways in which Anglicanism has followed the via media, enabled both Protestant and Catholic sentiments to hold together within the framework of one prayer book and generally gone with Hooker's arguments about avoiding Catholicizing and Puritanizing extremes. A GAFCON ecclesiology, by contrast, is a Puritan ecclesiology finally dominant in a fairly significant number of Anglicans around the globe. (Strictly, a majority of "Anglicans in the pews" but a minority of Anglican provinces).

Of course much remains to be seen about how these ecclesiologies unfold this year. For instance, will Lambeth 2020 be an environment in which (say) "debate" is encouraged compared with "discussion"? Will the grassroots of bishops be able to move a resolution from the floor of the conference or will it be a stage-managed conference in which such democratizing possibilities are ruled out? Might GAFCON 2020 unexpectedly put out an olive branch towards Lambeth?

Also, of course, we could have an interesting discussion about which ecclesiology is "Anglican/unAnglican" or "better." I think that is a little pointless. "Anglican" is always contestable. Hooker wrote not because he had an idle Sunday afternoon to fill in with hypotheses about ideal Anglicanism but because there was a contest. The first Lambeth Conference was not called because the ABC thought it a nice idea. There was a contest of ideas which needed sorting out.

But what I would like to set out here is my reasoning why Anglicans contemplating boycott of Lambeth 2020 should re-think their position.

(1) It is not a good ecclesiology to force or enforce a point of view by not turning up to engage in conversation/discussion/debate. Necessarily an ecclesiology willing to boycott is willing to divide and an ecclesiology willing to divide the church always diminishes our witness as Christians. Nevertheless I acknowledge that GAFCON does not see itself as a dividing of the Communion permanently so much as a gathering place for those who will re-commit to practical unity when the remainder of the Communion wakes up to its theological error.

(2) That Topic can be characterised as a matter of doctrine, of adherence to orthodoxy and thus, on the face of it, justification for boycott appears reasonable, even heroic: "We are not going the way of the world, we are resisting the cultural hegemony which is shaping the church when it should be the other way round." But it is not a fair characterization. Not least because it does not do justice to faithful Anglicans who have come to a belief that orthodoxy on the doctrine of marriage is neither as simple as some statements make out (e.g. there is not one, single, global view on remarriage after divorce, which incidentally has led to no boycotts of global Anglican conferences ever) nor beyond debate in the light of new understanding on homosexuality. That is, unless we believe that Anglicanism is synonymous with the revelation of an unchanging understanding of homosexuality, it is simple respect for brothers and sisters in Christ to acknowledge that Anglicanism could include those who think there is an unchanging revelation and those who think there is not on the matter of homosexuality.

(3) Anglicanism through history has made accommodation to changes in understanding of God's revelation in Scripture. I have no idea throughout the Communion how many Anglicans hold to an understanding of the six days of creation in Genesis 1 which would be completely at home in, say, the 16th century while also at great variance with discoveries about evolution, age of the universe and of our planet, actual progress of creation in respect of light and matter. But I am sure there are some, even as many, many Anglicans have made the adjustment of an historic understanding of Genesis 1 in order to teach a doctrine of creation compatible with both the text of Genesis and with accepted scientific discoveries. And there is no boycott proposed because Anglicanism accommodates both views in its midst.

(4) While we can readily acknowledge 1001 ways in which the sexual revolution of the 20th century has unleashed a cultural tide of opposition to traditional, biblical, orthodox Christian sexual morality, itself part of a larger tsunami of philosophical change and challenges flowing against Christianity since the Enlightenment, we can also distinguish that cultural tide from the specific point of difference on homosexuality among Anglicans.

That point of difference is Anglicans awakening to two realities among their families, friends and congregations:

(1) that beloved people have the courage to identify that they do not belong to the assumed normality of heterosexuality so that when we are talking about "homosexuals" we are no longer talking about an "us" and "them" division of society but about our sons, our nieces, the person who sits next to us in the pew who reads the same Bible, sings the same hymns and prays to the same Lord as everyone else in the congregation.

(2) these beloved people are driven like everyone else with sexual desire, with ambition for intimacy, with longing to love and to be loved in the permanent embrace of a lifelong partnership. And, here is the point of difference, such awakened Anglicans asking whether it is a dereliction of doctrine, a revision of orthodoxy, a simple caving into cultural tides to propose that the church might view lifelong partnerships between two people of the same sex with commendation rather than condemnation. At stake here, similar to 3 above, is a new understanding of what it means to be human, to be granted the gift of life, including the capacity to love another, in the context of creation.

In other words, it is reasonable to propose that when Anglicans differ on this matter we might remain in the same room, attend the same conference because we can respect that difference has arisen in a responsible manner, not because of a tragic lapse into heresy etc. Essentially this is what ACANZP's General Synod 2018 decisions mean.

And if Hookerian Anglicanism means anything at all, does it not mean that we approach matters of dispute seeking to understand the reasoning which has led to the issue or issues at stake with a willingness to seek accommodation of reasonable points of view?

Monday, February 17, 2020

Who wrote John's Gospel?

The answer to the question "who wrote John's Gospel?" does not come easily, and across the world of scholarship there is no agreement whether the author is (1) John the son of Zebedee (2) another John (3) someone else (but somehow the gospel became associated with John the son of Zebedee). Then there is a parallel keenness of interest in whether the author (whatever his name) is the disciple described as the one whom Jesus loved (the Beloved Disciple).

These two debates meet in John 21 (though it is possible that talk in that chapter about the Beloved Disciple being the writer, verse 24, is only referring to this chapter which may be an epilogue to the gospel rather than a part of the whole gospel).

For the first and only time we have a reference to "the sons of Zebedee" (verse 2). And the Beloved Disciple (verse 20) is one of the seven disciples mentioned in verse 2. The seven disciples are:

Simon Peter,
Thomas called the Twin
Nathanael of Cana in Galilee,
the sons of Zebedee,
two others of [Jesus'] disciples.

Given that the Beloved Disciple is not Simon Peter (because Simon Peter asks Jesus a question about the Beloved Disciple) and unlikely to be Thomas or Nathanael (since there is no intrinsic reason why we wouldn't have the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Nathanael if this were so), the Beloved Disciple is either James or John (sons of Zebedee) or one of the two unnamed disciples.

Christos Karakolis makes a point I have never previously thought of or heard of:

"It is striking that the three named disciples of 21:2 are the only disciples to have made a confession of faith referring directly to Jesus." [p. 666, see below for full bibliographical details]

Karakolis provides John 6:68-69 (Simon Peter's confession), 20:28 (Thomas' confession) and 1:49 (Nathanael's confession) as the texts supporting this claim.

There is another observation which Karakolis makes which I hadn't thought of or heard of before. When Peter says he is going fishing (21:3) and the others agree to follow him (within a gospel which has not previously informed readers of the fishing background to Simon Peter, Andrew and the sons of Zebedee),

"This information reveals in an indirect way that all disciples present, including the sons of Zebedee, share a fisherman's experience, although it is not clear whether this is their actual profession. Only thus can their spontaneous response be explained, a response in which everyone in the group immediately agrees to follow Peter in a nighttime fishing expedition on a rather unpredictable and dangerous lake. A man without fishing experience would not have followed so willingly." [p. 664]. 

That is, we can reasonably surmise two motivations re the names given in the list. On the one hand, the author says to us his readers, for this third and final resurrection appearance of Jesus, the three "confessors" were present (from a narrative perspective, a closing of a loop in the story). On the other hand (and assuming a bit of knowledge of the other gospels), that author tells us that at least three known fishermen were present in a group of people motivated to respond to a lead by Simon Peter to go fishing.

It is an odd way to finally but uniquely mention the sons of Zebedee who otherwise appear near the beginning of the other gospels. And even odder seems to be a lack of mention of Andrew, another known fisherman, whose prominence otherwise in the Gospel of John could lead us to reasonably presume that he was one of the seven.

What to make of this in respect of determining the name of the author of John's Gospel?

First, the reference to the sons of Zebedee need have nothing to do with the authorship. They are mentioned because they strengthen the idea that this particular group were not crazy or foolish to join Peter in his fishing expedition. Secondly, even if we surmise - for fishing reasons - that Andrew likely was one of the unnamed disciples (though puzzling as to why he is not thereby named), we are still left with one unnamed disciple who could be the Beloved Disciple and if the latter is the author then we do not have a name for the author.

Yet we have a gospel traditionally associated with one of those two sons of Zebedee. What does Karakolis say?

"The implied reader should identify the Beloved Disciple, who makes his appearance later on in the narrative of this chapter [ch. 21], with either one of the sons of Zebedee or with one of the two unnamed disciples of 21:2. However what seems like a riddle to the modern reader of the Gospel would probably have been obvious to the implied readers of the Gospel." [p. 669]

Karakolis then goes on to argue that because the Greek re the sons is, literally, "the [plural] of Zebedee" that the implied readers would have understood that this "meant the sons of Zebedee" and thus that we can safely conclude that "the implied readers knew the individual names of the sons of Zebedee" [p. 669]. Further,

"The Beloved Disciple is very close to Jesus and a person that is often compared to Peter and found to have superior faith and a closer relationship to Jesus than Peter has. From the perspective of the implied reader this person should therefore be a most significant apostle and not an unknown and insignificant character. From an historical point of view John of Zebedee was such a person." [p. 669]

Karakolis goes on to work through the pros and cons of the still possible identification of the Beloved Disciple with one of the two unnamed disciples and concludes,

"Although such an interpretation remains possible the odds are in favour of the identification of the Beloved Disciple with one of the sons of Zebedee." [p. 676].

Who wrote John's Gospel? We cannot rule out the possibility that it was John the son of Zebedee. But neither can we confirm it!


Christos Karakolis, "The Sons of Zebedee and Two Other Disciples: Two Pairs of Puzzling Acquaintances in the Johannine Denouement," in Hunt, Steve A., Tolmie, D. Francois and Zimmermann, Ruben (eds), Character Studies in the Fourth Gospel: Narrative Approaches to Seventy Figures in John (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2013, pp. 663-76.

POSTSCRIPT: here is a succinct statement of the argument for the authorship of the Fourth Gospel being John but not John son of Zebedee. Rather, it is "John the Elder."

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Whither eschatology?

When will Jesus return?

He has promised to do so.

We are getting ever closer to the exact point when it is 2000 years since Jesus taught about his Second Coming (though no one knows when that anniversary will be reached, only when it will have been reached, c. 2034).

Does it matter whether it is 2000 years since?

Here is a thought: in the year 4020, if the Lord has not returned, will we Christians be any more or less anxious about the not yet fulfilled promise?

Is Christianity - as a faith movement, as a way of living, as an aspiration to rule the world [kingdom of God] - timeless or time bound?

Can we continue - as long as the sun shines on our planet - just being faithful, quietly ignoring the promise to return?

Or will we get anxious as we confront the challenge of the end - eschatology - as Jesus taught it? (By "confront" I mean have a wide ranging, earnest, global, potentially church splitting debate agonising over "what Jesus really meant" ... as we do over, you know, Another Topic.)

Of course the challenge has been faced before!

I am old enough to remember the 1970s and the excitement which Hal Lindsay's The Late Great Planet Earth induced (or was it surfing a wave already heading towards Christian shores?).

In NT itself there are signs of distancing between the inaugurated eschatology of the Synoptic Gospels and Paul (e.g. 1 and 2 Thessalonians) and the realised eschatology of John's Gospel - between the former's conviction that Jesus would be returning very soon and the latter's disinterest in the matter.

Yet, if Revelation is the last NT document to be composed, the ending of the collection of new sacred scriptures fans the flames of urgency and anticipation about Christ's return.

As best I understand periods of renewed urgency and anticipation in the history of the church, Revelation is the much invoked scripture which continues to fuel such flames.

One of the puzzles in 2020 - I venture to suggest - is that when we live in a world anxious about its future (if Coronavirus doesn't kill us, it will destroy the global economy; if global warming doesn't fry us, it at least raises the question whether we humans deserve to call Earth our home, so perhaps we should all leave), there is not a new outbreak of eschatological fervour, a renewed yearning for Christ to Return, to release us from the mess we are in.

And, surely on past performance, the corollary of eschatological fervour, the enthusiasm to identify the AntiChrist would have no shortage of candidates to consider, starting with one Donald Trump.

I mean, look at how many Christians more or less idolise the ground upon which he walks!

So, a question, "whither eschatology?"

Will we show a renewed interest in the matter?

Will we engage with some decent depth of commitment in the exegetical puzzle of what Jesus meant when he taught the imminent end of the world, even before the generation hearing his teaching had passed away?

Monday, February 3, 2020

What has Christianity Ever Done for Us? I mean apart from ...

I reckon that Dominion by Tom Holland is a great book - a must read on the history of Christianity and the history of the world since Christ. For all sorts of reasons. I may draw attention to some of these in coming posts.

Meantime, here is Tom Holland writing a snapshot or three from his book for a UK magazine, with a nice riff on a famous line from The Life of Brian.