Wednesday, December 29, 2021

May We All Have A Better 2022

In recent years I have sought to round off the blogging year before Christmas and signal to readers that I am taking a holiday from the blog.

This year, for various reasons, it feels okay to do a small amount of blogging after Christmas - yesterday's and today's posts. But a blogging holiday is beginning at the posting of this post - likely won't be back writing until around Monday 17 January 2022.

2021 has felt a gruelling year and this is an unremarkable statement because it seems as though everyone in the whole world had found it gruelling.

May we all have a better 2022!

Right at the end of this present year of 2021, we have learned of the death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Looking on Twitter, lots of people, including many Anglican clerics, have something to say and often in the form of lovely stories about ++Tutu's life, faith, witness, generosity and laughter. There is no need for me to add to these good words. But the Anglican Communion has been better off, has it not, for the brilliance of this man - as a leader and as a communicator?

A Christmas thought: for Christians, Christmas is all about the worship of Christ. Both shepherds and sages lead by their example on this matter. And John's Prologue poetically explains why we worship the Infant Christ: God has become human so the human can become divine.

"And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent in our camp, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. ... From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who has come from his home in the Father’s heart, who has made him known." (NRSV adjusted by me).

Arohanui to all readers - lots of love to you all,


Tuesday, December 28, 2021

On Some Commentaries in 2021

A correspondent recently mentioned appreciation for those occasions when I mentioned commentaries, so, in the penultimate post for 2021, here are a few thoughts, mostly relating to the several commentaries I purchased this year.

I have never had as many commentaries on OT books as on NT books so this year - I can't recall exactly what prompted me - I purchased only OT commentaries.


Looking for something both deep and different on Ruth I ordered The JPS Bible Commentary: Ruth : The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation Commentary by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Tikva Frymer-Kensky (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2011). 

This has an excellent and wideranging introduction (75 pages including notes). The commentary itself consists of Hebrew text and English translation in parallel at the head of each page and commentary below that. Typically there is one verse per page or even two pages so this is a commentary which leaves no stone unturned.


Naturally another JPS commentary is in order for Exodus. This is The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation Commentary by Nahum M. Sarna (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1991). The Introduction is briefer - just a few pages and then into the text itself. Exodus is longer than Ruth so the text (Hebrew and English in parallel) at the head of each page has a varying number of verses, from 1 to many. The commentary is thorough in its attention to the details of the text and the theology of the text.

I have long known that Brevard S. Childs' commentary on Exodus is a tour de force, so I also purchased The Book of Exodus: A Commentary by Brevard S. Childs (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1974). Later I had a facepalm moment when I realised I already had a copy (which I had obtained for free) - I now keep my all my commentaries in one room!

This commentary is ambitious in scope - it offers, first, a translation of the Hebrew text (but does not offer the Hebrew text as well) then:

1. Textual and Philological notes

2. Literary and History Problems of the Tradition

3. Old Testament Context

4. New Testament Context

5. History of Exegesis

6. Theological Reflection.

NB: not all these sections are offered on all passages - some passages create no issues, questions or interests for, say, "New Testament Context."

Thus the commentary is comprehensive in degrees many commentaries (focused on original text, translation, textual problems which the translation seeks to resolve, and discussion of the meaning of the text) do not.

Naturally, compared to the JPS and its overtly Jewish perspective on the text, this is an overtly Christian perspective on a text of ancient Israel. Nevertheless the "History of Exegesis" section (in particular) demonstrates Childs' wide reading of Jewish commentary on the text.

At the beginning of the commentary, Childs makes a couple of statements which brilliantly and simply sum up the task of the biblical commentator.

First, noting that within the commentary, Childs is developing the then relatively new discipline of "canonical commentary" and his personal, lifelong development of his take on "biblical theology," he talks about the purpose of this particular commentary:

"The purpose of this commentary is unabashedly theological. Its concern is to understand Exodus as scripture of the church. The exegesis arises as a theological discipline within the context of the canon and is directed toward the community of faith which lives by its confession of Jesus Christ." (p. ix)

In similar vein, but expanded to also discuss the authority of Scripture, Childs begins the Introduction to the commentary with a discussion of "The Goal of the Exegesis."

"The aim of this commentary is to seek to interpret the book of Exodus as canonical scripture within the theological discipline of the Christian church. As scripture its authoritative role within the life of the community is assumed, but how this authority functions must be continually explored. Therefore, although the book in its canonical form belongs to the sacred inheritance of the church, it is incumbent upon each new generation to study its meaning afresh, to have the contemporayrr situation of the church addressed by its word, and to anticipate a fresh appropriation of its message through the work of God's Spirit." (p. xiii)

To which I say AMEN.


On any reckoning, Judges is among the most challenging, if not the most challenging, books of the Bible, because it attributes actions to God or godly people which strain moral credulity. There is also the modest question of how the victorious conquest of Joshua gives way to the intermittent strife of Judges - is Judges the more reliable guide to the history of Israel between Moses and David? Archbishop Justin Welby, in his Foreword to the commentary refered to below, says,

"Judges is notoriously the darkest place of the Old Testament" (p. v).

Almost needless to say, I haven't had much in the way of commentaries on this book, not racing to preach on it. So when I saw some good promotion for a new commentary, I ordered it. 

Isabelle Hamley is Secretary for Theology and Ecumenical relations and Theological Advisor to the House of Bishops, and a Visiting Research Fellow at Kings College London. She has written God of Justice and Mercy: a theological commentary on Judges (London: SCM, 2021).

This commentary is quite different to the JPS/Childs ones listed above. It offers no translation of the original text and notes are light in comparison. In part, that is in keeping with the intention to write a "theological commentary". In another part, there is an intention to write a readable commentary of a reasonable length, able to be appreciated by a larger readership than the respective hefts of the JPS series and of Childs' particular in-depth approach. But, if the potential buyer is wondering about value for money, this readable commentary of a reasonable length is the tip of an iceberg of deep scholarship which Hamley has mastered and delivers in summary form.

Does Hamley make a success of explaining the darkest and most difficult parts of Judges? The answer to that question, in my view, begins by denying that some simple solution is at hand, if only the commentator would find out. So Hamley doesn't succeed where others have failed. But (to the extent that we get to know her through her words), she does understand that she can aim to do the best she can, and that best seems to me to be very good - sensitive, discerning, probing - as she offers as much sense as she can for the darkest place of the Old Testament.

Further Thoughts

The great thing about blogging is that the blogger is both writer and editor, so I can undulge myself a little and bring in two further books, one not strictly a commentary and one a commentary but not one I bought this year.

Walter Moberley, who has featured in ADU previously, has written, The God of the Old Testament: Encountering the Divine in Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 2020). Across six chapters, Moberley comments on the following significant passages from the OT:

Proverbs 8; Exodus 3; Psalm 82; Genesis 4; 2 Kings 5; Psalm 46, Jeremiah 7 and Micah 3.

Moberley always engages deeply with Scripture and his insights illuminate brightly.

Finally, looking at a few commentaries recently, I realise that in a world of many, many commentaries per book of the Bible, there are commentaries worth having and commentaries not worth having. By that evaluative remark I mean that some commentaries kind of talk their way through the scriptural text (and, as far as that goes, offer explanations and so forth of use, especially if that commentary is the only one available to you) but fail to dig deep into issues present in the text, providing the bits and bobs of information about the issues which enable you and me the readers to think carefully through the matters at hand.

I do not feel any need to talk about commentaries I have which I would not buy if I did not have them already. But, as an example of the commentary I would definitely buy again, I would like to share one commentary to which I consistently return again and again when I am working on something from Luke's Gospel. That commentary is C. F. Evans Saint Luke (TPI New Testament Commentaries) (London: SCM; Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990). It is a mine of information and a treasure trove of scholarship which is both deep and wide. It is a great commentary (as others have recognised through the past three decades) and a model for all commentaries.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Christmas as Fulfilment

What has struck me this late Advent as we move towards Christmas 2021?

It is best expressed in sharing the text of my sermon from last Sunday - Advent 4:

St Paul’s West Melton; St Columba’s, Hornby; St Saviour’s Templeton

Readings: Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:45-55

God fulfils his promises

The Magnificat according to the Message:

46         And Mary said, I'm bursting with God-news; 

47           I'm dancing the song of my Savior God. 

48           God took one good look at me, and look what happened - I'm the most fortunate woman on earth! What God has done for me will never be forgotten, 

49            the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others. 

50           His mercy flows in wave after wave on those who are in awe before him. 

51           He bared his arm and showed his strength, scattered the bluffing braggarts. 

52           He knocked tyrants off their high horses, pulled victims out of the mud. 

53           The starving poor sat down to a banquet; the callous rich were left out in the cold. 

54           He embraced his chosen child, Israel; he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high. 

55           It's exactly what he promised, beginning with Abraham and right up to now. 

 It is not difficult to imagine a young woman in 2021 singing a different song …

 V1: This is going to change my life

V2: I am about to be married, what will my husband think?

V3: Am I going to suffer sorrow when my son is martyred and dies an early death?

 All very Mary centred in its concerns.

Mary’s Song is remarkable because it is very God-centred:

this is what God is doing in and through me – Isn’t God amazing?

Look at what God is up to, God is turning the world upside down.

The rich and powerful are going to get their come uppance – that’s God’s plan.

Also God’s plan: good times are coming for the poor and powerless.

Now this is not the main thing I want to say today, but let’s pause and note that everytime our political will is expressed – at an election, through legislation in parliament – in favour of the poor and against the rich, we are lining ourselves up with this remarkable song of Mary.

What is that main thing I want to say today because I think God wants us to attend to it and take it on board?

It’s this: Mary tells us that God keeps his promises – God fulfils his promises.


54         He embraced his chosen child, Israel; he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high. 

55           It's exactly what he promised, beginning with Abraham and right up to now. 

When Jesus is conceived in Mary’s womb and born in Bethlehem, God’s plan is being worked out according to God’s promise.

The plan is a very old one: that there would be a remedy for Adam’s sin which involved the formation of Israel, beginning with Abraham; and through this people – Abraham’s descendants – the world would be blessed by God.

None of this Abraham or Israel or the world deserved – God’s kindness and mercy motivate this plan and the promises associated with it.

But what was happening to the plan? When Israel got stuck in Egypt until Moses came along; when Israel was beset by enemies until David overcame them, it was tempting to wonder if God would keep his promises to Abraham. God did.

Then Israel let themselves down again, undid the remedy for sin with more sin. Exiles happened. Jerusalem was sacked.

Was all lost? It looked like it. But the prophets, including Micah whom we have heard from today, prompted by God’s voice in their ears, said “No!”. The plan is in play, a new David is coming.

But that was hundreds of years before Mary conceived Jesus and his birth in Bethlehem.

That was a long time and many generations of Israelites to keep faith and believe through the silence of those centuries that God would keep his promise.

2000 years after Jesus birth, death and resurrection, we can both celebrate his birth as a mighty act of fulfilment of God’s promises to Abraham, and wonder when the final fulfilment of God’s promises will take place.

Mary’s own example of taking God at his word; and her song affirming and proclaiming that God has kept his promises, encourages us to continue to trust God, to believe and act on the belief that God has everything in hand; and in God’s good time, all will be well. 

Covid, Omicron, inflation, uncertainty, disruption, anxiety and anger – that is what our eyes see and our ears hear. 

But in our hearts and minds, are we trusting that the same God who brings Jesus to birth according to his promise, will bring a new earth and a new heaven to birth, also according to God’s promise? 

Looking ahead to next Monday: A review of some commentaries sighted in 2021.

Monday, December 13, 2021

Theologies of Christmas [UPDATED]


A post at Psephizo, entitled "Why do Matthew and Luke offer different birth narratives?" is well written and names a number of important issues in the reconciliation (if possible) and differentiation of the two accounts.

Overall, it makes an excellent case for each writer composing a story to express a viewpoint; and its weakness is that it offers no grounds for thinking that either account is anchored in history = what actually happened.

A specific weakness, in all accounting for the historiography of Matthew and Luke's early chapters, are their difficult-to-reconcile accounts of the reason why Nazareth becomes the place of Jesus' upbringing: in Matthew, Nazareth is a refuge from Herod in Judea; in Luke, Nazareth is the home already for the holy family, who only leave it for the purpose of the census and its requirement that they respond to it in Bethlehem itself. And that matter is scarcely touched on in this particular account at Psephizo.


The other day my association with Academia (a kind of mega academic articles repository, here is one you might like because we spotted your interest in that subject, store and alert thingy) led to an email promoting "The Birth of Jesus: The Evolution of Jesus in the Infancy Narratives" by William S Abruzzi. It is quite a long article but its thesis is simple: 

"Numerous stories about the birth of Jesus were written during the first several centuries. When considered as a group, they tell us more about the evolution of early Christian beliefs about Jesus than they do about his actual birth."

The opening sentences set out an approach unlikely to be found in many pulpits this Christmas, or in books published by, say, IVP or Paternoster Press:

"Every year at Christmastime, millions of Christians throughout the world hear these words from Luke's gospel. They also hear stories of three Wise Men traveling from the East to pay homage to the newborn "King of the Jews;" of shepherds "tending their flocks in the field;" of a star shining over the place of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem; of visits by angels; of warnings given in dreams; of the massacre of innocent children by the evil King Herod in his attempt to kill the infant Jesus; and of Joseph, Jesus' earthly father, taking his family to Egypt in order to escape Herod's wrath. While these tales provide a beautiful prelude to opening gifts under the Christmas tree, none of them is true. They are all fables. Indeed, the modern version of the Christmas tale is a synthesis of several independent stories merged into two distinct and contradictory infancy narratives presented in the opening chapters of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Most Christians are completely unaware of the inherent contradictions presented by the two infancy narratives."

I certainly agree that in many churches in Aotearoa New Zealand, an annual "Christmas pageant" service (perhaps held yesterday, the Sunday nearest the middle of December) will have been a "synthesis" of Matthew and Luke: wise kings and shepherds appearing on the same night before the Infant King.

I am not so sure about boldly declaring of Matthew's and Luke's accounts (included along with other Infancy Narratives), "They are all fables." Such a declaration assumes we know what didn't happen as well as not knowing what did happen.

Matthew and Luke agree on certain things: Joseph and Mary are the earthly parents of Jesus; Jesus is conceived in the womb of Mary without human sexual intercourse taking place; the birth takes place in Bethlehem, when Herod the Great is (local) ruler of Palestine/Israel, and the upbringing of Jesus takes place in Nazareth.

Matthew and Luke tell different stories from one another: as we all know, there are wise kings in Matthew and not in Luke; shepherds in Luke and not in Matthew; a threat from Herod which drives the Holy Family to temporary refuge in Egypt according to Matthew and unmentioned in Luke. Notably, Matthew gives us Joseph's encounters with God's divine messages whereas Luke gives us Mary's encounters with God's divine messages. None of these differences are necessarily contradictory.

The most obvious contradiction (in my view) between Matthew and Luke is how they report the Holy Family arriving in Nazareth. 

Luke has  a natural sequence, with not a hint of a shadow of a threat of persecution by Herod, in which birth is followed by circumcision, followed by presentation in the Temple, followed by return to Nazareth, warranted because "they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord" (Luke 2:39). Further Nazareth has been Jospeh and Mary's home and so the journey to Nazareth is a return home.

Matthew has a different natural sequence which takes the Holy Family to Nazareth, and that journey is not a "return home" but the making of a new home: fear of Herod's persecution leads to the journey to Egypt; Herod's death leads to the possibility of return to Judea; but a new Herod ruling over Judea leads to a decision to head to Galilee, in which district lies Nazareth where the new home is made (Matthew 2:19-23).

We can only speculate what sources (if any!) Matthew and Luke each have in order to arrive at such differences in the telling of the birth and infancy of Jesus. 

Here I am interested in the theological considerations which drive Matthew and Luke, as well as Mrk and John to their respective versions of the beginnings of Jesus' life, whatever their sources may have been.

Matthew, to begin with the first of our canonical gospels, tells a story of Jesus as a new Moses. The first Moses was threatened with infanticide at the decree of a king, though the king was Pharoah and the location of the threat was Egypt and not Judea (Exodus 1-2). Moses is protected through refuge in a basket and then a hidden life in the court of Pharoah himself. The second Moses is protected through refuge in Egypt. But Matthew is also telling the story of Jesus as a new Abraham (see the genealogy in Matthew 1) and a new David (so the prophecy from Micah associated with Bethlehem as the place of Jesus' birth, Matthew 2:6). Through story, Matthew sets out the theological (or christological) significance of the baby Jesus in relation to the story of the people of God known as Israel: fathered by Abraham, taught by Moses and ruled by David.

Mark, most likely written before Matthew and Luke, doesn't bother with any details about Jesus' birth (though he tells his story as the story of a man with a family, since they appear at certain points). Theologically, he sees no need to underline Abrahamic, Mosaic or Davidic qualities of Jesus. Everything Mark wants us to know about Jesus is found and emphasised in Jesus' preaching and miracle working or in his encounters with religious authorities. There is no back story to Mark's Jesus: just the front story of Jesus the preacher, power worker and provocateur.

Luke, whether he knows of Matthew's Gospel or not, seems disinterested in Jesus as the new Moses, but he is very interested in Jesus in relation to the Roman Empire (so the big driver in his story of Jesus' birth, Luke 2, is an imperial census which draws the Holy Family from Nazareth to Bethlehem; later, in Luke 3, the beginning of Jesus' adult ministry is set very precisely in terms of "the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius"). For Luke, the kingdom of God is both an alternative to the kingdom of Rome and not a rival to the kingdom of Rome (a theme in Acts). Theologically, Luke's Jesus is a new and greater Caesar/Lord, who also fulfils a number of Israelite prophecies - hopes and aspirations for a new and better day. Thus, the presentation in the Temple, at the end of Luke's story of the young infant Jesus, is less about fulfilling legal requirements and much more about Anna and Simeon's joy at seeing the fulfilment of their hopes and aspirations. Fittingly, for Luke's Jesus as an ideal human ruler of a world kingdom of gentleness and compassion, his version of Jesus' genealogy goes past Abraham to Adam himself.

John, whatever his knowledge of Matthew, Mark and Luke, is, like Mark, disinterested in details of Jesus' conception, birth and infancy. But somewhat like Matthew and Luke, John is interested in the ultimate origins of Jesus. A new Moses? Descended from Abraham? Adam? Ok, says John, but let's go further and deeper: Jesus is the Word present before time began; Jesus is the only Begotten Son who comes from the Father's heart. Christmas is all very well as a festival of birth but why have such a limited celebration when we could celebrate Jesus as the agent of creation itself? (So, John 1:1-18).

Wonderfully, each of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is agreed on one thing: Jesus is the Son of God!

And each says that in quite different ways: Matthew 2:15; Mark 1:1; Luke 1:35; 2:49; 3:38; John 1:18, 34.

Theology by narration!

Monday, December 6, 2021

Is this an odd era for Christian politicians?

Last week our main party in opposition, the National Party, elected Christopher Luxon as its leader. He is therefore the Leader of the Opposition and potentially our next Prime Minister.

Christopher Luxon is a Christian and has views on things such as abortion and euthanasia which seem exceptional to some in our media but which are pretty standard for a large majority of Christians in New Zealand, whether Protestants or Catholics.

Oddly, however, he says he has not been to church for five years. (Here he offers a jokey kind of explanation for this.)

Across the Tasman, Scott Morrison is Prime Minister and well-known for his Christian beliefs and for his involvement in a large Pentecostal church (though it is not Hillsong as a number of people have mistakenly supposed). But some of his decisions and actions as Prime Minister don't sit easily with some of us who are his brothers and sisters in Christ. In particular, as PM he presides over a harsh approach to New Zealanders in Australia!

Of course, US President Joe Biden is a Christian, a Catholic faithful in attendance at Mass and a Catholic at odds with many Catholics who cannot understand his failure to uphold Catholic teaching on the sanctity of life to the point where a number of US Catholic bishops think he should be denied communion.

Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister, to be fair doesn't make a great show of his Christian faith, which may be just as well given his odd pattern of behaviour, decision-making and somewhat eccentric approach to leadership. Many commenters would not be as kind as I have just been in that sentence!

Yet recently Boris managed to pull some kind of ecclesiastical deal to enable his third marriage to be a Catholic marriage in Westminster Cathedral!

Over in Russia, Putin lacks no shortage of fans in the Russian Orthodox Church. Yet he may be about to invade Ukraine.

This brief survey, which could be extended into other countries, especially in Europe, perhaps leads to the conclusion that it is difficult to find consistency among political leaders who profess to be Christian.

Oh, and we should not forget Angela Merkel, recently stepping down as Chancellor of Germany: the most sensible of all Christian politicians in this present era?

Regular in church/irregular in church. For abortion/against abortion. Sensible leadership/foolish leadership. Kind/unkind. It is interesting, is it not, that the phrase "Christian politician" is not a useful guide to what we might expect from a politician so described?

But, more deeply, might we observe that this may not be some uplifting sense of "diversity among Christians is to be welcomed and celebrated" because we do not all think alike? 

Rather, such difference among Christian politicians is a sign of deep fractures in global Christianity, fractures of the kind that are debilitating for the cause of Christ? 

What are non-Christians to think when, say, they recognise that Boris and Joe and Angela and Scott all follow the way of Christ? To those outside of or even against the way of Christ, that way must seem, well, a little confusing!

Monday, November 29, 2021

Returning serve?

Down Under in Aotearoa New Zealand we are moving into the Traffic Lights mode on Friday this week, meaning when a region is Green certain freedoms are permitted, Orange fewer freedoms, more restrictions, and Red the most restrictions and least freedoms, where, roughly, more freedom is granted to the fully vaccinated (adjudicated by possession of a vaccination pass) and more restrictions apply to the non-vaccinated.

Last Friday the bishops of Tikanga Pakeha of ACANZP issued the following pastoral statement:

"From the time of our nation’s first lockdown response to the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequently throughout these extraordinary times, we as Bishops have met weekly together to pray, to support one another and to reflect on our leadership through the rapid changes in our nation’s continuing response to Covid-19.  The foundational unit of the Anglican Church is the Diocese; that group of individuals, communities and organisations who gather around the bishop. We honour and respect the independence and integrity of each Diocese, whilst seeking in these circumstances, to offer as much consistency and commonality as we possibly can. 

Out of a deep love for the church and the people we serve, we have sought to approach the next stage of our nation’s response to this world-wide health emergency in a way that reflects two key agreements in common:


    1. The normative position for worship, events and gatherings, is that they will be fully-vaccinated. In other words, vaccine certificates will be required to attend services of worship, events and gatherings.  This fully vaccinated approach, as the norm, reflects the best and most current health advice available to us, as we seek to do all that we can to minimise the risk of anyone becoming infected with Covid-19. 


    1. We have a pastoral responsibility for the care of all people. This responsibility is to both vaccinated and non-vaccinated, but particularly to the most vulnerable. This care includes those who may not be able to worship with us because they have chosen not to be vaccinated. It also includes those who are in quarantine after exposure to infected people and are awaiting test results. Such pastoral responsibility also includes those who are ill, or those who are choosing to limit their potential exposure to infection because of their level of vulnerability or the level of vulnerability to members of their households. We are committed to supporting local Churches in finding ways to minister to all.

As bishops, we are committed to constantly reviewing these principles, and the protocols and policies that are being established in each Diocese regularly, to ensure that we continue to reflect the greatest level of care possible. 

 As we continue to navigate this season together, we would also like to take this opportunity to thank and honour all those who lead and serve within our church in Christ’s name and who work for the coming of Christ’s Kingdom. We continue to faithfully hold each other before God in prayer.

 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7

Yours in Christ,

            Bishop Ross Bay

Bishop Steven Benford

Bishop Peter Carrell

Bishop Justin Duckworth

Bishop Andrew Hedge

Bishop Steve Maina

Bishop Philip Richardson

Bishop Eleanor Sanderson"

There is, I note in some comments in NZ social media, some lines of response to church leaders who (e.g. above) follow rather than resist the Government's lead in managing our national response to Covid-19, which accuse us of a degree of spinelessness.

"If you want to attend church this Advent or Christmas, bend them knee and show your govt papers at the door.

What has the country come to? Or the churches that accept this?

"The church's subjugation to the state is one of the more disturbing aspects of NZ's situation"

"When churches allow govts to determine who may or may not worship, they have bent the knee."

A slightly different strategy is to cheer on one of our MPs when he writes to the Government asking why they would not support his attempt to amend legislation passed last week so that churches are exempt from requiring vaccination passes from our attendees.

There are other ideas and ecclesiastical decisions to be found on the net (which I won't link to because this post is not intended to spark discussion of other church leaders' announcements), the gist of which amounts to "the church must not exclude people so must not impose vaccination pass requirements."

Are some churches - my own included - both spineless and exclusive?

On the latter, the question of "exclusion" is not quite as simple as it might seem. Under the Traffic Lights Framework, for instance, to include the unvaccinated in services is to exclude people who turn up once the maximum number for a service is reached (100 at Green, 50 at Orange, and 25 at Red). Given that we are heading towards 90+% of the population being fully vaccinated and that at Green and Orange there is no ceiling on numbers of attendees, there is actually greater inclusiveness of people gathering together in person for worship when vaccination passes are required.

Further, as our statement above makes clear (and similarly but with some differences, also the Roman Catholic Church), even where vaccination passes are deemed normative, there is an obligation to find ways and means to connect with the unvaccinated. One way is that "normative" actually allows for some services to be exempted from the norm.

What about the matter of meekness in following the Government? The charge that we have too readily given in to allowing the Government to determine who can come to worship and who cannot?

Is it time to "return serve"?

My response is:

1. We are in a pandemic fighting a virus which (a) affects people irrespective of nationality, race, culture, colour or creed, and (b) is well known to spread quickly through unvaccinated people gathering for large events, but less quickly through vaccinated people when they gather.

2. Accordingly there are no special groups who have special ability to determine their own health and safety requirements let alone special reason to be exempt from regulations and guidelines that apply to all gatherings. (The MP's letter mentioned above is very strange in its special pleading without rational underpinning.)

3. In my experience travelling around my Diocese, Christians are not uniformly compliant with requests from their church leadership to do things which are currently only enccouraged: mask wearing is the stand out example of variability across congregations.

4. Further, the range of viewpoints among Christians on how the virus spreads and what is best to manage its spread is a large range, so the chances of a church or a denomination determining for itself what would be best practice and for that best practice to be supported by sound scientific advice is remote.

5. Put a little differently, there is no reason to think that churches could do better than the Ministry of Health advised Government in the determining of regulations and the issuing of guidelines.

6. Ergo, what the Government advises is the best we can do under the circumstances.

7. Consequently, to follow that advice is a matter of wisdom and not of abject subjugation to a secular power.

8. Much matters here re the language we use. Yes, a vaccination pass can be described as "a Government paper" but it can also be described, in the context of a pandemic, as a declaration of health status and of minimal risk factor in spreading the virus. And that declaration is important to all the people planning to gather for worship through this season.

As we say in our message above:

"Out of a deep love for the church and the people we serve, we have sought to approach the next stage of our nation’s response to this world-wide health emergency ..."


1. The above apologia for the line we Anglicans (and other churches) are taking is not intended to critique churches which are taking a different line (e.g. to live with limits and to not impose vaccination pass requirements). A decision has to be made, one way or another, and there are good reasons for decisions being made. The apologia is against the critique of being subjugated, not against those whose decision is different.

2. After composing the above, I happened to read a little further on into Rowan Williams' book Looking East in Winter: Contemporary Thought and the Eastern Christian Tradition (subject of some posts here recently). Just before I sat down to write this Addendum I posted a comment below to the original post which mentions Bonhoeffer ...

++Rowan, discussing both Evagrius and Bonhoeffer, in a chapter entitled, "Justice, Distance and Love," writes, with some pertinence to my discussion above:

"... a 'contemploative' political practice might be summed up as one that seeks to make room for the narrative of the other; one that does not begin by attempting to absorb this narrarive into itself, and thus is willing to learn how it is itself seen and understood. Only a practice of this sort can ultimately ground a politics that works towards the difficult common ground on which majority and minority can negotiate together: the prevalent pathology of our political life seems to be the idea that majorities obliterate the interst of the minority and that political victory is - while it lasts - licence for a majority to enforce its agenda. ... [pp. 192-93]

"To say we must learn to distance ourselves from our commitments in politics in order to arrive at both justice and love is at first sight a bizarre recommendation, suggesting a corrosive indifferentism. But the dustance involved is not a refusal of commitment; it has rather to do with what it is that we are committed to. Bonhoeffer's commitment is manifestly a serious and costly affair, but it is a commitment neither to victory nor to innocence. It is a commitment to the Wirklichkeit he evokes - the reality both of a many-layered and historically complex acting self and to the rpecise demands of a particular context; as well as a commitment to a radical and all-powerful mercy beyond all planning and justification.  [p. 193]"

Monday, November 22, 2021

Is Theology Immutable? On Modernism, Innovation and Development

Theology, one might say, working from blog to blog in the 21st century, is either in a state of constant flux (new thoughts, changing ideas for changing times, let's keep up folks or the church is doomed, doomed I tell you to be extinct by 2063 or even 2047) or desperation (true theology is truth, the truth cannot change, and all the churches in the world, even the Roman Catholic Church under Francis, trying desperately for 'relevance' are doomed, doomed I tell you, unless they get back to core and very ancient beliefs ... for which the eminent guide is "my" blog). 

On the sidebar of this blog I link to other blogsites, one of which belongs to a Catholic philosopher, Edward Feser. Edward's latest blogpost is a review of a book by someone I have never heard of, Peter Geach. [H/T Bowman Walton in a comment o last week's post]. 

"Catholic philosopher Peter Geach’s book Providence and Evil is interesting not only for what it says about the topics referred to in the title, but also for its many insights and arguments concerning other matters that Geach treats along the way.  Among these passing remarks is a brief but trenchant critique of those who propose a “denatured” brand of Christianity in the name of “man’s evolution and progress” (p. 85).  Theirs is the view that Christian tradition is “mutable,” so that “with the progress of knowledge a doctrine hitherto continuously taught in one sense now needs to be construed in another sense” (pp. 86-87).  Geach doesn’t use the label “modernism,” but that is what he is talking about.  "

The post then unfolds in an interesting way as a discussion of truth, its sources in revelation and reason, and the danger of Christianity becoming a modernist version of itself to its detriment and effective death. 

So far so good (as far as the argument goes) but what then interested me is the discussion which develops in the comments below the post. In this discussion one point made is that whatever we think of modernism we should take care that we do not have an argument against modernism (e.g. as an unwelcome development of theology or, more simply, an innovation) which is also an argument against any development in theology (with the particular frisson in a Catholic context of the presence of developments in theology which are not well explained by either revelation or reason such as the Assumption of Mary). In such discussion there is some consideration of the difference between "innovation" and "development" (and that recalls for me somewhere in Rowan Williams' book of recent posting here the Eastern Orthodox position of immense suspicion of "development").

What is a theologian to do?

Here are a few quickish thoughts, in no particular order of priority:

1. Is "revelation" a set of ironclad rules, regulations and propositions (albeit found within narratives as well as sayings and statements in Scripture) so that, indeed, once understood, there can be no change?

2. Is "revelation" a revealing of who God is (Father, Son and Holy Spirit; with the Son incarnated in the life of the world as Jesus of Nazareth) so that, indeed, there might be development in understanding of revelation (e.g. from Mark's Gospel to John's Gospel, from John's Gospel to Paul's Gospel) as well as an ironclad  bulwark against error such as Modernism (because it denies revelation and is no development of it)?

3. And if we answer (2) affirmatively, do we then have other possibilities for development (even, it might be argued, innovation) in our understanding, providing we always work from the revelation starting point? For instance, a new understanding of women in church leadership is possible through a new appraisal of the meaning for human life of the Incarnation (of God inhabiting human life for the sake of the abundant life of all). There is no "development" of the basic revelation of the Incarnation but there is a development of the meaning of the Incarnation for women as well as for men.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Assisted Dying in Aotearoa New Zealand

I am pretty confident that when the NZ Catholic Bishops write a paper, the last thing they think about is what Archbishop Cranmer (aka the blog of that name, not the 16th century archbishop) will say about it. But say something Archbishop Cranmer did, when the NZ Catholic Bishops published "Ministers of Consolation and Hope Ngā Kaiārahi o te Aroha me te Tūmanako: Principles and Guidelines for those working with and ministering to people contemplating assisted dying."

The Catholic bishops proposed:

"With the advent of assisted dying in New Zealand, we find our beliefs about human life at odds in a new way with the law of our country. 

The law change provides us with an opportunity to renew our commitment to the dignity of every person in practical ways: advocating for equitably available effective palliative care; forming outward looking parishes that reach out to the lonely, sick, elderly and disabled and their whānau; supporting in prayer and other ways those who are engaged in caring for people at the end of life, including those contemplating assisted dying. 

At the same time, those ministering to the dying and their whānau will find themselves facing new challenges brought on by the introduction of euthanasia to our land. Aware, on the one hand, of the Church’s clear teaching about euthanasia and, on the other hand, equally aware of the Church’s clear teaching on accompaniment and the Christian duty to bear witness to the compassion and mercy of our loving God who never abandons his people, some priests, chaplains, spiritual companions and other lay ministers may find themselves in a place they would rather not be – a place of personal tension or struggle. 

The following guidelines draw on sacred Scripture, the Church’s long tradition of caring for the sick and dying, and the Magisterium’s insights concerning ‘accompaniment’, which all remind us that the role of every Christian minister is to be a bearer of the enduring hope and consolation that flows from our central belief in the power of the Lord’s resurrection."

So far so good (I reckon) and the detail in the paper is clear, careful and caring. There is much to learn from it and to put into practice in the light of it. But within the paper there is a proposal which perhaps will give many readers pause for thought and prayer (my italics):

"If an individual priest, chaplain, pastoral worker, healthcare professional or caregiver decides that there is a limit to their ability to accompany a person seeking assisted dying, such a decision should be fully respected. At the same time, they should ensure that provision is made for the person to be accompanied by another" (7.ii)

There is a bit to think about there, is there not? If I disagree with a person's choice to end their life, and my objection is a moral one, based on (say) my understanding of doctrine, or my concern that this choice is made under duress, the moral basis for my determination to not accompany them is a moral basis for not seeking a replacement.

That's about as far as I want to go re a critique of this document. Cranmer goes further. Here I want to make some supportive observations (with gratitude for the paper and the work that lies behind it) before concluding with a general concern about pastoral care post the legislation coming into effect just over a week ago.

1. Accompaniment of people on a journey towards death is a kind response to a person whether or not that journey involves a choice to hasten the end. No pastor should be penalised for setting aside their own convictions about that choice in order to be a minister of God for the dying person. Every pastor should be permitted to accompany a person choosing to bring their life to an end. (We should recall that the Act permits such choice only under circumstances which could be summed up a medically severe.)

2. Accompaniment (it seems to me, reflecting on other situations of accompanying people in life's journey) is a greater opportunity to influence a person to reconsider their decision than not accompanying them.

A general concern:

3. Yet ... there is a question of whether a commitment to accompany in such situations has a consequence NZ churches might not be comfortable with: the embedding of euthanasia as a morally correct option within our society. 

Worse: could the embedding of euthanasia as a morally correct option within our society diminish the possibility of palliative care as another option for the journey towards death? That question lurks within this article today on Stuff. Over time there is the prospect that euthanasia will become the only option for medical progress for the terminally ill and/or those experiencing an overwhelming suffering.

What are pastors to do?

Monday, November 8, 2021

Looking East in Spring: enjoying and making sense of Rowan Williams (3/3)

This will be the last post on Rowan Williams' book on Eastern Orthodox theology (for the time being, at least) and other things are on the horizon of interest (including the NZ Catholic Bishops advising on pastoral care when people choose to end their lives (per NZ legislation coming into effect yesterday, per notice from Archbishop Cranmer of all bloggers!)


Yesterday's sermon, working from Ruth 3/4, Hebrews 9 and Mark 12, prompted me to talk about Jesus as the centre of history: anticipated in Jesus' genealogy per Ruth, and looked back on per Hebrews, especially in Hebrews 9:26:

"But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself."

What is history but the imperfection of the world playing out. A Garden of Eden would generate no history (because no conflict, no change, no fear of future change). History flows from the fall and not from creation. What is the centre of history but the intervention of God in Christ to "remove sin". The end of history is then the fullness of salvation from sin, Hebrews 9:28:

"so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him."

Looking East

Such thoughts, however, are given a bit of a nudge by Rowan Williams' discussion of the theology of Olivier-Maurice Clément (November 17, 1921 – January 15, 2009). In a chapter discussing "liturgical humanism" he introduces the reader to the theological outlook of Clément and includes this from him:

"The meaning of history, like the meaning of the human subject, is to be found beyond the limits of the world - but this is a "beyond" that has, in the Incarnation,become interior to history and humanity ... It is the death and resurretion of God made human that truly constitutes the End of history, or rather the End in history so that the word "end" does not signify some kind of closure but an infinite opening, a threshold of light. This is an End that judges history's totalitarian pretensions, its illusions and hypnoses, this End, we have argued, wounds history with the wound of eternity and opens up in it the path of repentance and so of hope." (pp. 142-43, cited from La revolte de l'spirit (Paris, Stock 1979), p. 141.*

But this means, Williams elucidates, that to be human 

"is to be summoned to 'communion'" 


"The invitation to engage with the act of love that has eternally engaged me is at the same time the invitation to engage with the human other who, like me, is already seen by God and addressed by God" (p. 143). 

Williams goes on, p. 144, to point out that nothing here is particularly novel to Clément but what the latter points us to is 

"how liturgical life and experience embody the new humanity ... The humanism to which Clément directs us is visible and effective s liturgy, specifically as eucharistic litrugy; and if we are concerned to engage persuasively with a world threatened with an immense range of dehumanizing forces, we must be explciit about the connection between Christian anthropology and Christian liturgy" (p. 144).

I find this (and other things time and space do not permit me to share in this post) to be exciting: liturgy is the living out of the new world God in Christ has invited us to live in, the new creation is experienced in the old history which Christ has "Ended".

Something of the passion of Clément for the eucharist is captured in what Williams says next:

"Clément, in the autobiograph from which I have already quoted, describes his pre-Christian frustration in terms of being 'hungry for the Eucharist', hungry for a practice that would exhibit the new humanity he was gradually becomieng aware of - a humanity characterized by royal authority, priestly mediation and prophetic showing of 'the End already present.'" (p. 144 citing Clément's L'autre soleil (Paris, Stock 1975), p. 142).

That is a wonderful liturgical and humanist vision, and one Anglicans can embrace! 

*Williams backs this up with a lovely quote from Henri de Lubac who once wrote that 

"Christianity is not one of the great things of history: it is history which is one of the great things of Christianity" (Paradoxes of Faith (San Francisco, Ignatius Press 1987), p. 145, cited by Williams, op. cit. p. 144 n8.

Monday, November 1, 2021

Looking East in Spring: enjoying and making sense of Rowan Williams (2/n)

(The title of the post, and the book referred to in the post are introduced in the post below, from last week).

There are some lovely moments in this book - one might even (taking a cue from a citation below) call them epiphanic - illuminating, enlightening, opening up new insight(s) into the truth of God.

Here are a couple of those moments, for this week ...

"not a programme or an ideology, but an epiphany" (p. 7)

That is (in my paraphrase of that whole page) we shouldn't compress what it means to be a Christian or our "understanding of the kingdom of God" or what it means for the church to be church into an ideology or a programme (a course, a cycle of worship services and meetings, a specific application of  theology to life). When (to cite something else from that page) "finite being is summoned to a communion with infinite trinitarian being in which the act and purpose of that infinite love is ... a permeating or saturating presence" we are zooming beyond "ideology" and "programme" to an experience of the divine life which overwhelms us, which floods us with light - the light of pure truth, truth beyond text and ordinary experience - to epiphany - God breaking into our lives.

Then, this paragraph, on the "social Trinity" in the course of discussion of what "filiation" means, that is, "we are adopted into the relation that Jesus enjoys with the Father and [] we are enabled to pray with his prayer [Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6; Farewell Discourses of Fourth Gospel] (pp. 71-72):

"The maxim that 'the Holy Trinity is our social programme' can readily be misunderstood as a naive picture of divine and human 'sociality' assimilated to one another, the persons of the Trinity being thought of as separate subjects brought into harmony; but there is a sense in which it can perhaps be defended. The self-communicating, self-repeating life of God is such that its activity sets up a chain of implication for us, whereby we see that what we desire for our own healing is inseparable from the desire for the healing of others - because the communication of who and what God is entails the sharing of an energy that cannot but make for personal communion, and thus cannot but make for a state of affairs in which each agent is involved in bringing alive in every other the reality of self-communicating/self-repeating life - life that gives life and so give the liberty to give life all over again."

In the language of a bear with a much smaller brain than that of ++Rowan and the Orthodox theologians he is engaging with, if the Trinitarian life of God, received through our adoption into the relation which Jesus enjoys with the Father, means we are made whole (healed) and, moreover, are energized by the same power of love which has filiated us into the Trinitarian communion of love, then we cannot but want to both share that love with others and pray with Jesus that they also will be made whole in the same way that we are; and such healed individuals, necessarily will be healed not only as discrete individuals, but also as individuals who relate to others, and so the society of humanity is also healed. Thus the Holy Trinity is our social programme!

Next week, likely a bit of good stuff on liturgy ...

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Looking East in Spring: enjoying and making sense of Rowan Williams (1/n)

When I saw notice of the publication of Looking East in Winter: Contemporary Thought and the Eastern Christian Tradition (Bloomsbury Continuum: London, 2021) by Rowan Williams, I could understand "Looking East" because of the sub-title but "In Winter" had me flummoxed. Was this something about unthawed relations between Eastern and Western Christianity? Why not "Spring" (perhaps there is a new season of life in Eastern Orthodoxy?) or "Summer" (perhaps there is a new sense of warmth in Eastern and Western relationships)? It's spring as I write here Down Under, hence the title of this post.

In fact, as Rowan Williams explains, 

"The book's title picks up an image used by the great fifth-century writer Diadochos of Photike ...: looking east in winter we feel the warmh of the sun on our faces, while still sensing an icy chill at our backs. Our divided and distorted awareness of the world is not healed instantly. But we are not looking at this phenomenon from a distance: we do truly sense the sun on our face; and we have good reason to think that the climate and landscape of our humanity can indeed be warmed and transfigured. And, as Yannaras so stresses, this is the promise that the Church must embody if it is to be credible in what is at the moment a notably wintry world." (p.8)

Now, this is a marvellous book and I am loving its insights into something I know little about but am drawn to, Eastern Orthodox theology. Maybe in another post I'll say something about what generally excites me about Eastern Orthodoxy, a la Rowan Williams doing a wonderful "insights from massive survey of the literature" job for me. But here I want to focus on something he says which I find to be illuminating about the eucharist.

In the chapter entitled "Liturgical Humanism" Williams explores the matter of the relationship between liturgy and engagement with the world, and writes,

"But if what we most want and need to proclaim and to share with our world is the fleshly reality of the new community, the possibility of a transition into the new world that connects us with the depths of the familiar world, we need to keep liturgical action at the centre of our vision. As the Orthodox tradition represented by Clément and others insists, the question that we should be asking ourselves about liturgy in our churches is not whether it is instructive, even instantly intelligible, let alone entertaining, but whether it looks as though it is grounded in listening to the Word and event that has interrupted human solipsism;* whether it looks as though it is credibly changing the vision and the policies of those participating, so that they are awakened to the active realities of person, liberty, communion and - ultimately - resurrection."

*I assume Williams means by this the interruption of the world by the Incarnation.

I understand Williams to be saying (i.e. plausibly saying to Anglicans who read his book and delve into the mysteries of Eastern Orthodox theology) is this:

Critical to our witness to the world that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died and rose to inaugurate a new comunity (i.e. new kingdom, a new society) is that the world sees the reality of the new community here and now as a community living in this space and time and anticipating a new space and time (or timelessness).

And that new community is made by the eucharist for which we gather to both recall the death and resurrection of Jesus, look forward to his coming again and join our sacrifice of praise with the heavenly praise of God Father Son and Holy Spirit.

And for us Western Christians, who may get all that without Eastern theologians assistance, there is the possibility that what we may not get without their insights is that the eucharist should be a listening to Jesus as the Word of God who has broken into the world and disrupted the world in such a way that our experience of the Incarnation-via-eucharist transforms us and how we engage with the world so that the world sees us as fully alive (i.e. resurrection-people) and prototypically living out the new community of Jesus the Incarnate One.

Implicitly we are being challenged through such Eastern Orthodox theologians to be disatisfied with notions of the eucharist as "something we Anglicans do, but other Protestants don't value in quite the same way," or "I like going to Mass, it helps me to process the week I have had and to be ready for the week to come," or "It's so neat that Jesus meets me and tells me he loves me as I eat the bread and drink the wine," or "I like the eucharist because it reminds me that Jesus has forgiven all my sins." All such statements are perfectly fine as statements describing what happens in the eucharist/Mass but they are not the fullness of the theology of communion which Williams is advancing here.

What do you think?

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 missiological 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? which 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).

(5) A (Catholic) Twitter buddy here talked about Dr Nazir-Ali coming "home to Rome." What I am trying to say above is that if any earthly city is a spiritual home for me and my understanding of being Christian, it is ... Jerusalem!!

(Added later) (6) I see now that Dr Nazir-Ali has written something of an apologia in the Daily Mail (here). Frankly I find this begging some questions, about the advantages of Catholicism v Anglicanism. Sure Anglicanism has faults, but Catholicism’s claim is not that it has none. Take one Anglican fault adduced in the article: some kind of diffidence in moral leadership on the international stage. Has Dr Nazir-Ali not heard of the internal Catholic critique of the deal Pope Francis did with China re the appointment of Catholic bishops there?

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

*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.


Incidentally, also in Anglican news this week, here , is Forward in Faith North America railing against the recent move of the Anglican Church of Kenya to ordain a woman to the episcopate:

"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."

What is very interesting here is that (effectively) within GAFCON is recognition that not all Anglicans think alike, not all Anglicans have the same definition of "orthodox" and not all Anglicans are agreed on what "directly harms" a fellow Anglican!

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 :).