Archive for April, 2013

Evidence That Demands a Verdict, 2

Poking around among evangelical books and websites that deal with the resurrection of Jesus is a pretty disappointing business. The things the NT has to say about Jesus’ resurrection are routinely ignored. The significance of the resurrection is rarely explained from a biblical theology standpoint. The significance of the resurrection is rarely explained at all. There is a strong assertion that it matters, but little on why it matters.

What is the issue that dominates evangelical discussion of the resurrection? Proofs. Historicity is the obsession. On the web, over 90% of the space seems to be given to this question. Can we believe it?  Is it ridiculous? Etc. The resurrection is largely an apologetics issue.

Where significance is assigned to the resurrection, it is nearly always viewed as a proof. Jesus’ resurrection proves something else about him. His divine identity. Or maybe that his death was ‘successful’. That sort of thing. It doesn’t have theological content of its own, but it guarantees the truth of other things that do have such content.

So really, we’re spending our time on this giving proofs for something which is itself a proof of something else. That’s a few steps removed from the realities involved, isn’t it.

How much space does the NT give to proofs for the resurrection? Very, very little. Even in the preaching in Acts, there’s almost nothing. ‘We are witnesses’ – that’s about as close as it gets. But Paul, of course was not a witness, so he doesn’t bother with this ‘witness’ theme much at all (one mention in Acts). But ‘we are witnesses’ is not adduced primarily as a proof. It is not answering the question ‘how can we know these things really happened.’ True, it does encourage confidence in the message, but it serves a wider function. For one thing, it identifies the nature of Jesus resurrection as something physical and concrete, that could be seen. Also, it identifies the apostles as the ‘ones chosen’ (Acts 13) for the job of announcing Jesus. What they have to say about Jesus is uniquely authoritative. For they are the witnesses.

But there is no attempt to take the ‘proof’ angle on this. No guided tours of the empty tomb. No Exhibit A: the leftover graveclothes. People are simply invited to trust the apostles’ announcement.

In fact, throughout the NT, Jesus’ resurrection is not argued for, not defended or backed up. It is announced: boldly, joyfully declared. It is unpacked, dwelt upon, taught about, celebrated, explained, linked to the OT scriptures. We are told why it is important (1 Cor 15). We are not told why we should believe it, beyond this basic assertion of the witnesses. In other words, for the apostles the resurrection is largely a theological matter, rather than a narrowly apologetic concern.

The resurrection is sometimes treated as a sign or proof of something else about Jesus, especially in John’s Gospel. But this is only one angle on it out of many in the NT. And certainly not the main one. Paul isn’t really interested in this angle. Rather, the resurrection is loaded with its own theological content. There’s plenty of that to chew on, which Paul does at length.

In summary, there is a high degree of discontinuity between apostolic talk about Jesus’ resurrection, and evangelical talk about it today. We are not capturing the apostles’ witness or message. We’re not even trying. We’re off doing our own thing with the resurrection, scratching our own intellectual itches. The resurrection has been highjacked by the apologetics people, and doesn’t seem to be available for discussion outside that framework.

This amounts to a distortion of the gospel message in the evangelical tradition, at the point which biblical theology suggests should be the heart of the matter. In fact, we don’t seem to have taken on board the insights of Biblical theology at all, after a whole century. This is concerning.

Check out your favourite intro to Christianity course. What does it say about the resurrection, beyond apologetic defence of it? Is there any theological content given to it?

I took a look at 2 Ways to Live, and I’m pleased to say that it’s better than most at this point. It manages some content for the resurrection. The resurrection means that Jesus is now Lord and King over the world. That’s pretty good, as far as it goes. It’s narrowly focussed on the issue of rule. But it’s a good start! And at least they say something about what the resurrection means! Most evangelicals don’t manage even that.

In the prayer to pray, you say

Thank you for sending your son to die for me that I may be forgiven.
Thank you that he rose from the dead to give me new life.
Please forgive me and change me, that I may live with Jesus as my ruler. Amen.

That’s pretty good, isn’t it. It responds to Jesus’ death and resurrection, twice each. Hints of the new-age transformation which Jesus’ resurrection brings, even. There’s biblical theology shaping this, even though it doesn’t come through heaps clearly or richly.

Christianity Explored, by contrast, is very poor. In the prayer of response in Tice’s book, you say

I now understand who Jesus is. I understand that when he died on the cross, he was being punished in my place, so I could be forgiven and have eternal life. I gratefully accept that gracious gift.

And that’s it. That’s ‘who Jesus is’ – the one who died. The resurrection does not function at all. There’s nothing to respond to in it. Seems it plays no part in ‘that gracious gift’. The CE website page on Jesus’ resurrection sticks to historicity, issues – there’s not really any meaning given to the resurrection.

That’s a serious distortion. But it’s perfectly in line with how evangelicals everywhere are always presenting Jesus.  Alpha is worse again. In reviews of Christianity Explored, I haven’t seen any evangelicals criticise this aspect of the course. Apparently people are pretty happy…

Don’t you think it’s time we evangelicals repented of these distortions, and let ourselves be challenged and guided by Biblical Theology? Because we know where it would guide us to: to the apostolic gospel – centred as it is around what God has done in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

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Relocating the resurrection

Posted: April 24, 2013 by J in Bible, Theology
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Something’s happened to the resurrection of Jesus in modern times, and Reformed people are partly responsible.

Here’s the story: In the late c.19th – early c.20th scholars like Vos and Ridderbos pioneered a new way of reading Scripture: they read it as a theological story. The message (or theology) they found in Scripture was the message of the Bible’s narrative, rather than the more abstract and propositional theology which had prevailed in the Western Church up till then. This new approach came to be called Biblical Theology. In Biblical theology the links between things are first and foremost narrative links, rather than logical ones. Biblical theology tied our understanding of the Christian faith more closely to the history of redemption, or salvation history as it is often called. I.e., the story of the OT and NT.

The content of Christian theology was not much disturbed or challenged by this new approach. But the shape and structure of theology was. In fact, Biblical theology presents us with a changed theological landscape: all the old elements, but in new places and relations to each other.

In particular one category has emerged as more important than previously realised: the eschatological. The arrival of the future kingdom of God has come into the spotlight in a new way as central to the apostolic message. And one event has emerged as central to that eschatology, and thus central to the apostolic gospel: the resurrection of Jesus.

For most of the history of the church, Jesus has been primarily connected with the event of the crucifixion. Since the 4th century or earlier, the Cross, not the empty tomb, was the standard symbol of Christian faith. The RC church uses the crucifix – the cross with Christ hanging on it. The resurrection was important – but the weight of our theology fell on the death. Jesus was the one who died.

Biblical theology has challenged that structure. Jesus’ death is vitally important, but the event most connected with Jesus, the event uniquely distinctive for the Christian faith, is his resurrection. This was the event the apostles preached, which brought the Christian church to birth (see Acts).  God ‘gave us [his church] new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.’ (1 Peter 1). The resurrection of the dead is one of the ‘foundations’ mentioned by the writer to the Hebrews (ch.6). It is what one must believe to be saved: ‘if you…believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved’ (Rom. 10:9). Indeed it is the meaning of the most basic early Christian confession: ‘Jesus is Lord’. To say Jesus is Lord was to say with Peter that God has made Jesus Lord by raising him from death to his right hand (Acts 2:33-36). It is a resurrection confession. The resurrection of Christ was such a defining event for the early church that they began to meet on the Sunday, instead of the Jewish Saturday. For Sunday is Resurrection Day.

How does resurrection come to hold centre stage in NT Theology? It’s like this: biblical eschatology divides history, not into a series of dispensations or covenants, but into two: the old age and the new. The old age is characterised by what Paul calls ‘flesh’: corrupt humanity, distorted creation-order, and above all, death. The old age is symbolised by its founder or father, Adam. “In Adam all die” (1 Corinthians 15:22).

The new age is characterised instead by what Paul calls ‘Spirit’: a new mode of living in which God fills everything and glorifies and empowers his whole creation: “The earth will be filled of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14). Above all, the new age is the age of resurrection, the age of life. It too is summed up by its founder or pioneer, Jesus. “As in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive.” And it is Jesus’ resurrection that inaugurates the new age.

So strong is this connection between Adam, the old age and death on the one hand, and Christ, the new age and resurrection on the other, that this can be called the large-scale story of the Scriptures. If you pan out far enough to get the big picture of redemption history, the two big events since the creation are: Death – in Adam, and then Resurrection – in Jesus. This is just what Paul does in Romans 5:

Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.  Romans 5:18.

In fact the Old Testament is full of images of death, the most powerful being the ‘exile’ theme.  Whereas the New Testament is saturated with the language and imagery of resurrection. There are significantly more NT references to Jesus’ resurrection and new life than there are to his crucifixion and blood. And most of the references to Jesus’ death are immediately followed by reference to his resurrection.

This is not to say that the death of Christ is displaced from the heart of things. It is still central to our faith and confession: ‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures’ is one of the two ‘things of first importance’ (1 Corinthians 15). It still carries core theological weight. But in the structure of the apostles’ thought about Jesus, his resurrection gets more prominence and weight. It is the great new achievement of Christ, the turning point in the whole story of redemption, the great eschatological moment at which the new age arrives. So after the verse just quoted on the death of Jesus, Paul goes on to spend fifty four verses on the other thing of first importance: Jesus’ resurrection. Get the idea?

Jesus is first and foremost the Risen One. And his Father is ‘the one who raised up Jesus from the dead.’

So then, for Christians to live by the sign of the Cross could be considered misleading: the empty tomb, though harder to hang around your neck, would perhaps be a better symbol to reflect the shape of biblical theology.

The Wrath of God

Posted: April 20, 2013 by J in Bible, Theology
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I am frequently struck by the strange ways people talk and feel about the wrath of God. Especially Christians! This is one of our best doctrines, one we should be celebrating, one that should get real traction in the world. But somehow we’re not, and it doesn’t. I’ve written about it before, but I’m going to keep chipping away at this.

I was struck lately reading about David’s troubles in 2 Sam 24.

David answered Gad, “I have great anxiety. Please, let us fall into the LORD’S hands because His mercies are great,  but don’t let me fall into the hands of man.”      2 Sam. 24:14

Here is a verse, I think, to shape our thinking about the wrath of God into a biblical-theological shape. David has led the nation into sin, and there is to be disciplinary action. Which sort would David prefer for Israel? He gets three options, each more terrible than the others. No easy choice! Not surprising then that David says,”I have great anxiety.”

Here’s why David’s words should shape our thinking about the wrath of God:

Most of the world is and has always been seriously, deeply worried about things that threaten their lives and wellbeing. If you’re not, then you’re living in a little insulated bubble that’s probably artificial, and can’t last long. Trouble and anxiety is a common denominator of human experience. When David says, “I have great anxiety”, he speaks like Everyman.

Things are not right in David’s world. There is sin, and God will not put up with it. There must be change – painful change. David’s choice is this: he has to fall into someone’s hands, either God’s or man’s. Either way there will be wrath.

Our world has been plagued by strife since the beginning. Violence, bloodshed, war, terror.  The weak come under the power of the strong, and are exploited, mistreated, terrorised or killed. These are the things of every day. For us humans, wrath is a given. The wrath of man: merciless, heartless, senseless.

David is offered an alternative to the wrath of man. And this question of an alternative is the big question for everyone who suffers at the hands of man. Is there any way out of this? Is there any alternative to this living hell? For left to itself, the wrath of man knows pity and no end.

There is one alternative for David: the wrath of God. And he grasps at the opportunity. He knows it is far preferable to the wrath of man. For God is kind. “His mercies are great”. You could never say that about man!

And this is the alternative facing all who live in a sinful world. Will we be left to suffer this wrath forever, or is anyone able to do anything to stop it? Either there’s someone who cares enough and is strong enough to stop the violence and take out the evil men and the evil everywhere – or there isn’t. In the past, people believed there was: they believed in the wrath of God. More recently, they’ve tended not to.

Which would you prefer? The wrath of man or the wrath of God?

There’s anxiety either way: something to worry about on both sides. Which worry would you choose?

The Christian gospel says that God is such a God. He hates what our world has become and will not put up with it. He will come in awesome anger to take down all those who abuse and harm and trample the weak. He will overthrow all the systems that entrench violence and injustice and oppression. He will smash the lot of them, grind them so fine they will float off in the breeze and never be seen again. Then the world will be a safe place for little people to live in at last.  The meek will inherit the earth. That’s the wrath of God. The wrath of God says, things will not be like this forever.

It’s either that, or else, things are going to stay as they are. The wrath of God, or the wrath of man.

And things staying as they are is a dream which only the super-privileged have about their little bubble world. It’s a dream for those who’ve closed their hearts to the suffering multitudes. It’s the oppressor’s dream: that he’ll get away with it, that there’ll be no reckoning. But for most people who’ve ever lived, things staying the same is not a dream but a nightmare.

So you pays your money and you takes your choice. Which would you prefer?

Me, I’m with David. I’ll go for the wrath of God every time. Because he’s kind. Whatever you do, God,  don’t leave us to ourselves down here. It doesn’t take much to turn us into devils. Many have already turned. Don’t leave things the way they are.

In fact, where no one is concerned about the wrath of God, you can be sure in that place pretty soon everyone will be terrified of the wrath of man. Look at Soviet Russia as a massive example.

It would be nice if the alternative to the wrath of man was something soft and fluffy. Like ‘being nice’.  But it isn’t. Things are serious down here, too serious for that sort of wishful thinking. There’s going to be trouble ahead. Only question is which sort. Only two options. Man’s wrath is what there is for most people. God’s wrath is the other option. And his mercies are great. There’s hope there.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is portrayed as the innocent one who is killed unjustly, the suffering righteous man.  As he dies, Jesus says ‘into your hands I commit my spirit’  – in that moment he makes the ultimate choice on behalf of us all. Jesus faced the wrath of man, and was crucified but it, and chose not to fight it himself. He’d trust his Father to fix it. At the cross, Jesus ‘entrusted himself to him who judges justly.’ He ‘left room for wrath’ – not the wrath of man, but the wrath of God. He chose to break the cycle. He chose, not things going on as they are, but death. Death – and resurrection. Jesus, like David, chose for his people the wrath of God. Thank God he did.

God’s wrath is not something to play down in our God-talk. It’s better than that. It’s our only hope. And  there’s about five billion people out there who are going to like the sound of this.

“Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan,
I will now rise up,” says the LORD;
“I will place them in the safety for which they long.” 

Psalm 12:5

Laying the ashes

Posted: April 19, 2013 by J in Mission, Pastoral issues

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A neighbour has asked me to conduct a ceremony at Rookwood to lay the ashes of her mother, who died recently. Mum was a devout Catholic, whole family is Catholic.

Said I would.

So, does anyone have any experience in laying ashes? What can you suggest? Liturgy resources?

I’m so often still doing things for the first time…

The Joy Of Sex first edition cover from 1972

They became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools… For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged the natural good of sexual intercourse for unnatural,  27 and in the same way also the men, giving up the natural good of sex with women, were consumed with passion for one another.                           Romans 1:21-27

Paul is telling the story of how mankind, by losing its connection with God, became confused and disordered, and lost its connection with ‘the good’. We lost wisdom, and turned to foolish and destructive ways. Morality, for Paul, is inseparable from wisdom.

This is not primarily a story about the malice of mankind, about deliberate evil – though that comes later. It is mainly about the darkening of our minds, about folly – embracing evil as good and rejecting good as evil. Mankind rejected the worship of God – which gives life – and turned to the worship of created things – which degrades. The good things they had they neglected and lost. What they turned to instead was not good but harmful.

In this context Paul mentions sexual behaviour, as a key area in which this folly is played out. First he makes the point that they gave up the good of sex. Sex was a natural good, part of the good of a good creation, to be enjoyed, man with woman and woman with man. But they turned away from that to something not in line with nature, something unnatural: homosexuality. That’s a bad deal. Humans were duped, taken in, ripped off. Scammed.

If we are to tell this story to our society, we’ll be telling a story about how things are in the created order. It’s a story that starts with the blessedness God intended for us and built into the nature of the world. The creation is not neutral: it’s good. We need to start by talking about the natural good of sex.

When our spokesmen sound off about the evils of homosexual practice, the problem is they sound like men who aren’t getting much sex themselves, and aren’t that worried about it. They speak of sin, but not of loss. We don’t hear them saying, ‘These people are losing out’. There’s none of Paul’s emphasis on an exchange.

In other words, we’re only hearing half the story, the second half. The theology that helps make sense of all this is often sadly lacking. The positive message of the good creation, of sex as a created blessing, which we Christians should be boasting in, that is largely bypassed. We go straight for the negative.

Here’s what I think Paul would want to hear injected into this debate:

Isn’t sex good! It’s just amazing that we get to enjoy this wonderful blessing together, this radiant expression and consummation of our love. And to make babies! Babies are good too. We have been made male and female: sexuality is built into our humanity, it’s natural and right and good, something to be celebrated. Sex is so good, it seems too good to be true. But it is true, it’s a gift for us humans to enjoy as we make families together.

When we do that, when a man and woman come together and form and sexual union and have babies and start a family – they become more fully human, they fulfil their humanity in a new way. They learn to love in a new and fuller way. We grow as human beings through this gift. Thank God he gave us sex! God is that sort of generous God.

Once we’ve said that, then we’ve got some context to discuss questions like homosexual practice. The key word is going to be exchange.

I don’t hear much of this message in our evangelical circles. I think our bad theology of creation hinders us. Usually when we talk about sex, we sound anxious. We talk about it largely as a problem.

Our message about sex needs to be much more positive, and much less worried, if the negative is to get a hearing. The world (and indeed our own people in the church) get the impression we evangelicals are not that keen on sex.

But if we don’t love sex, then I think Paul would say we haven’t got much to offer on the homosexual issue.

I like the title of Andrew Cameron’s ethics book: The Joined Up Life. What we Christians have to offer to world is a view of life where everything is joined up. Not just everything in my personal life. Everything. A view where we start to see the connection between us and other people and the ‘natural world’ and the turning of the seasons and the structure of time and – everything. A view of life that’s about learning to live in sync with the rhythms of our world, learning to move in the direction of the good that flows in the created order. We have to offer a life that is in the truest sense, ‘natural’.

I reckon we should be talking a lot about what’s natural. There are reasons why we don’t. We’ve learnt a bad theology where we distrust nature, assume it’s corrupted and condemned and has nothing for us. We too often find ourselves trying to live as strangers to the creation, rather than seeking our right place in it. We’re not looking for connections at all. For us, Holy = Disconnected. Bad theology has hidden from us the path of wisdom.

When it comes to sexuality, a particular reason we don’t talk about nature is that that ground has been occupied by the gay lobby (Not all gay people are part of the gay lobby, some of these comments are aimed more narrowly at that movement).  The popularisation in recent times of the concept of ‘sexual orientation’ as opposed to ‘sexual preference’  has provided a fairly powerful ethical basis for homosexuality, grounded in nature. The gay gene was a red herring that led nowhere at the scientific level, but it did have the effect of scaring us off from talking about ethics based on the nature of things. By taking that ‘high ethical ground’, the gay movement now often talks ethics more persuasively than we do. We meanwhile have retreated into abstract rulesy morality.

Time to repent of all this, and learn to talk like the apostle Paul. “They have given up the natural good and exchanged it for that which is against nature” (Romans 1:26). “Does not nature itself teach you what is right here?” (1 Cor. 11:14). We need to get talking, and talk a lot, about ‘the nature of things’, about how things are. About the direction, the moral direction, of the creation. And how we can get with its flow. Not just in the area of sexuality: in all our ethics.

“Love builds up, knowledge puffs up” (1 Cor 8:1) – that’s an example of Paul talking functional creation-ethics. Acquiring knowledge does not always produce a healthy outcome: it can distort people’s self-perception. Something that definitely does promote wellbeing, however, is loving treatment of our neighbours. So he says, fall in line with reality here, learn this wisdom, and value kindness more than knowledge. The book of Proverbs is full of this kind of functional ethics, concerned with what makes for shalom.

This idea of nature is not some stick for us to beat our neighbours over the head with, however. They don’t want us lecturing them about nature any more than they do about morality. Our talk about this is going to be primarily intramural, within the Christian church, among the people who want to know how to please God. That is the right and normal sphere for Christian living to be taught in. We need to give believers a vision of a good creation, and of a ‘joined up life’ which finds and enjoys the natural created good in every area. Sexuality is merely one of these areas. In this area we need to teach our people, including our young people, a sexual ethic based on God’s desire for our blessedness. To wrongly use sexuality is to miss out on the good, and fall into destructive ways.

However, others outside the church will ‘overhear’ that discourse, and of course at times our neighbours will ask us for our views. When that happens, we’re going to make a lot more sense to them, talking about what’s good than about ‘what’s right’. Because when we talk right and wrong they hear us meaning something quite abstract and ideal. But sex as part of a whole package of living that lines up with God’s world and purposes, that makes for shalom; sex as a way of enjoying ‘the good’ given to us in the creation – that makes a whole lot of sense.

And that’s where Jesus comes into it. Because the good is not that easy to find. There are many obstacles in the way. The ground grows weeds instead of food and we exploit and murder each other instead of helping our brothers, we don’t know the God who made us, and things are generally out of joint. Sin has banished shalom from our lives. But Jesus is the one restoring all that: “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20). Jesus is the healer who comes to us speaking “Shalom!” into our troubled lives (John 20:19,21). In his broken body raised to new life, there is a new beginning for all humanity. In him all things can find their natural good once again, becoming the things they were created to be. Including us.

In Jesus we are invited to set out on the road to health and peace, the path to wholeness and true humanity. We are not there yet, none of us except Jesus. The path may not be easy. But the way is open.

The good of sex is not easy to find, either. For many, this is an area surrounded with pain and misery and fear and shame. The redemption of our sexuality is something we all need, for everyone’s sexuality is distorted in various ways. But in Jesus there is hope. We can be healed and connect with the good in this area also. This is part of what Jesus brings us, part of the good news story we’re telling. Sex can be a powerful destructive force. But with wisdom, it can become a life-giving force, contributing to our blessedness.

When people ask us about homosexuality, we needn’t feel obliged to answer in exactly the same terms they’ve framed the question in. As Christians we will want to start with Jesus, the one who helps us reconnect with reality and live wisely and well, finding and enjoying the good. If people have no patience with our story, and just want a sound bite, perhaps we can’t satisfy them. But we want to tell this story. Calmly, confidently, consistently.

What point is there in passing on the sexual wisdom we have learned, without helping people find the source of that blessing and healing, Jesus Christ? What’s more, if we suspect that people are not ready to accept that wisdom, alienating them with it will not make it easy for people to give us a hearing about what they really need first and foremost – which is Jesus.

We are not called to go and make heterosexuals. We are called to go and bring people to the one who can knit their lives back together, and knit them into the fabric of God’s purposes of blessing for his creation. When we’re talking sex, let’s be faithful to that calling.

Well, I’ve been pretty clear on what I hate about our current approach to the homosexual issue. What do I have to offer in its place?

What I think this debate has seriously lacked is theology. It needs a big injection. Let’s have a go now.

When we talk to people about how life should be, about what human relationships should be like, about ethics, in other words, it’s vital that we give the message that we actually care about the good. Not just the right: the good. We want people to hear us saying we care about their wellbeing and prosperity. We have a heart for the wellbeing of all people everywhere. Whatever the details of our position, we want them to know we’re starting from that place. In other words, our ethics is grounded in love.

Luckily, the Bible starts at the same place. God creates us in relationships and blesses us. I.e. he creates us for blessedness, and sets up the world to enable that. God wants to see us prosper and enjoy the good. This is ultimately symbolised in the Sabbath day, which functions like the goal of the creation process. God does not create a neutral world, but a good one. The creation is in line with his will and purposes from the beginning, and so he is very pleased with it. We could say that the world has a moral value or character.

Not only is the creation good, it is connected. The good of everything is interconnected with the good of everything else. Human society’s prosperity is not independent of the good of the animal kingdom or of the vegetable. These are not competing spheres, not separate, but interdependent. That’s how the world is structured. ‘The good’ is not an abstract category, but is grounded in the reality of the creation. It arises from the nature of things. Blessedness, then, is a matter of taking our right place in the web of relationships that God has made.

A word later used to sum up this condition of living in line with the nature of things, of enjoying wellbeing and blessedness, is the word shalom. Often translated ‘peace’, the word really has the broadest possible reference. To say something is ‘right’ or to say that it brings shalom are two ways of expressing the same thing. ‘Right’ and ‘wrong’ really mean ‘what makes for shalom’ and ‘what destroys it.’ Right and wrong, then, are not abstract ideals. They are functional categories, about what works and what doesn’t work, what lines up and what doesn’t line up, with the creation God has made and the plans he has for it.

From the beginning, God tells us some of what is involved in prospering in the good world he has made. He tells us about how things are, and how to live in line with that reality so as to prosper. He gives us what the Bible calls wisdom. Wisdom is not something different from ethics: it is the driving force of ethics, it is having “faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrew 5:14). In the bible, wisdom is morality.

In this story, things that are wrong are not wrong because they break the rules in the book. Rather, the rules that are there are there because those things are wrong. The rules inform us what kind of world God has made for us. They tell us which sort of behaviour lines up with the rightness of things, and which sort doesn’t. As we better understand the nature of things, we gain the wisdom to live so as to enjoy shalom.

This view of ethics, of course, makes it open to investigation and study. People can learn about what ‘works’ by the method we call ‘the hard way’: learning from mistakes. Children brought up on a constant diet of TV do not prosper. This can be demonstrated, and so we can learn not to treat children in this way. It is ‘wrong’: it doesn’t line up with the nature of things, so it does not produce ‘the good’ for children. An arrogant, insulting manner makes for bad relationships, and so we can recognise it is unwise. We do not need all our ethics to be divinely revealed. Wisdom is something we anyone can acquire to some extent by thoughtful reflection on life’s experiences. Ethics is an area which has room for discussion and debate and disagreement.

This gives us a great deal of common ground in talking ethics with non-Christian people. If we begin our ethics with a statement of the authority of Scripture, we place an impassable obstacle in the way of ethical discussion with non-believers. We shut it down before it’s started. But if we are able to talk, as the Bible talks, about the way things are, then there is much to talk about together. And best of all, we will have moved from discussing the form of our ethics (the Bible), to its content (the reality of the good world we live in).

Ok, I know we haven’t got to homosexuality. But we’re getting there. Tomorrow.

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I don’t know if you’re like me and feel that the way us evangelicals handle the issue of homosexuality leaves something to be desired? I want to reconsider our approach, but first let me spell out what dissatisfies me about what normally goes on.

First, we let the world set the agenda. A small vocal minority is pushing homosexuality hard in the media, so it seems like everyone’s talking about it. In reality, most ordinary Aussies are not talking about it, it’s not an issue that’s looming large on their horizons. The vast majority of people are of course heterosexual in inclination, and never consider a homosexual lifestyle. But for the media it’s a good stick to beat the churches with, and it makes for sensational copy. So they push it.

And we play along with them. We let ourselves be drawn in to public debate about this far too often. As though it were a core concern of ours. Or to put it another way, we’ve let the media paint us into this little corner.

It’s a mistake to let the media dictate what we talk about. Let’s stop doing it.

Second, our way of talking about this obscures the gospel instead of making it plain. We have let this become an argument almost exclusively about Biblical authority. Which for most people feels like a pretty abstract concept. So the debate goes like this:

Them: people should be free to be homosexual if they like.

Us: no, it’s wrong.

Them: why do you say it’s wrong?

Us: because the bible says so and that’s the rule book.

Them: (pull incredulous faces).

There’s nowhere to go after that. The whole thing shuts down about there. In particular, there’s no room for Jesus in this debate. We take an approach that excludes him. By making this an argument about biblical authority, we narrow the whole thing extremely. At the end of the debate, no one has spoken or heard any gospel.

Related to this, we confirm people’s idea that Christianity is all about rule-keeping and the Bible is basically a rule book. This is disastrous. The world likes to paint us in these colours, as heartless legalists. And on this issue we are helping them do the painting. Whether we ‘win’ or ‘lose’ this battle, we make it that much harder to win the war. Which is the war for people’s souls.

Even worse, by excluding the proper context for the bible’s prohibition, we give the impression that the rule itself is arbitrary. Why is homosexuality wrong? Because the bible says so. That’s it. Why does it say that? Because God says so. Why does God say that? God gets to make the rules. Who are we to question him?

At the end of this discussion no one is any the wiser.

So the message we give the world is that Christian ethics are about unquestioning adherence to an abstract moral code. This is unhelpful, and indeed unfaithful to the gospel. In our concern to defend this issue, we’ve fallen into some serious theological distortions.

And need we add, it doesn’t get much traction out there… In fact, I think our position often sounds a lot weaker than it actually is, the way we put it across.

I have more concerns about our approach. We talk about this as ‘a battle we can’t afford to lose’. It seems we feel obliged to push back on this until we’ve successfully swayed society to our point of view. But is this really the role we want to have ? The moral policeman, the parent figure who guards and monitors the behaviour of the children?

The truth is, the church has for so long seen itself as an institutional power, a big hitter in the social realm. It has a long history of taking this ‘moral policeman’ role, and finds it hard to give it up. Is it possible there’s a residual sense of entitlement at work here – a feeling that we are authorised to tell people what to do? If others contradict, we’ll speak louder, we’ll insist, we’ll fight for our position. We feel it’s our duty.

My question is, who has called us to do this? What does this have to do with the mission of the church, this lecturing our neighbours? My impression is that ‘the church as moral censor’ is exactly what people have been turned off by in the past 50 years.

Related to this is the matter of tone. Our talk about sexuality in the public sphere is too often negative and anxious in tone. We give the impression that we experience the whole sex thing as a problem. That’s not good. We’re seen to be reactionary, tearing down but not building anything helpful.

I would argue that much of what we say about homosexuality in public is counter-productive and gives ammo to the gay lobby.  For that movement has a narrative in which we are oppressors trying to crush and humiliate them, while they are brave freedom fighters who have thrown off the shackles of our hateful prejudice and found the courage to be true to themselves. All their arguments with us go on within this narrative framework. And all our replies are filtered through it also. As long as this story goes unchallenged, everything we say, no matter how true or reasonable,  strengthens their position, and wins sympathy for their cause. Ordinary people are not very keen on homosexuality, but once they’ve had a dose of the narrative, they find themselves wanting to stand up for gay rights. As Jeeves would say, it’s Psychology. Unless we can dislodge the narrative, our every effort just pushes people further the other way. Every shot we fire is into our own collective foot.

This alienating approach from our spokespeople has a cost at the local level. It’s making our mission that much harder. By entrenching negative stereotypes of the church and the Christian faith, this sort of polemic against homosexuality is burning the very bridges we’re working so hard to create. It’s one thing for people to be offended by the gospel of Jesus –  if it causes offence, so be it. But it’s another matter for them to be offended by all this stuff above.

Well, that’s my beef. In the next couple of days I want to set out an alternative approach to ethical issues like homosexuality that I think will get us more mileage and do less damage to our mission.

Have now finished Wellsie’s excellent suggestion, Walton’s Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament. Takes me that long to read a book, I’m afraid.

It is a remarkable book, very useful indeed. I found I wanted to read it all, and got insights into the OT all along the way. Sadly nothing much about human sacrifice, which was my original interest. But plenty of gold.

Incidentally Andrew Shead from Moore College also recommended this book. His comment about it was:

It is an excellent survey, puts you in touch with all the primary sources, and, although I think he overplays his hand from time to time, in general he is a model of proper theological appropriation of comparative material.

I would agree with that assessment. Walton does at times draw conclusions that don’t clearly flow from his material. But the material itself is clearly presented, highly interesting, and most relevant to reading the OT. Basically he’s providing a whole lot of context so we can get a sense of where the OT sits comfortably in the thought traditions of the day, and where it stands out with a critique of those traditions.

That’s pretty important don’t you think? If a writing includes nine traditional ideas, and one original, new idea, the emphasis is surely on the new one, right? It’s what stands out. So this provides a whole dimension of insight into the emphases of the OT.

Walton sees ANE scholars as tending to disparage Christian faith, and he sees confessional scholars as tending to ignore ANE studies. Both of these approaches are inadequate, he says. Confessional writers have nothing to fear from ANE studies, and much to learn. They can’t afford to ignore them any longer.

The book is nicely set out too, and easy to read one chapter at a time. He keeps reminding you of his main methodological principles along the way, which is good. Writing style is pleasant in general, with occasional rough patches. Well-referenced, a good number of footnotes. Quite a responsible, well-researched presentation. There’s a lot of scholarship packed into this little book, and he makes it accessible for us dummies. Nice.

Of course you don’t get to go in depth into anything, but this is an introductory book. Gives a good overview of the field of ANE literature studies, and how they relate to the OT.

I felt I learned something good in almost every chapter. For instance, the place of naming creatures as a part of the creative act itself – I hadn’t been aware of that. Sheds interesting light on Genesis 2. The idea of the city as a religious centre, the home of a god who had built the city for his use – that shed some light on Genesis 11, Babel. Fascinating to compare ANE prophecy with Israel’s prophecy: only in Israel is there a regular theme of judgment in prophecy. Elsewhere the theme is virtually unknown: prophecy normally served to bolster the status quo, not challenge it. Only in Israel did the prophets often speak against the current regime.

I couldn’t help wondering if it wouldn’t have helped to include more the insights of other disciplines besides literary studies: broader archaeology etc. There’s a little of this, but not much.

Anyway, definitely worth owning and reading. A bargain at $20 or there-abouts.

Now I can get on to reading what I’ve really been wanting to read for ages: some beautiful Colin Gunton. The One the Three and the Many. Mmmm. That’s my reward for effort!

Enjoying People

Posted: April 9, 2013 by J in Mission, Theology
Tags: ,

I want to confess to you an obstacle to mission here in Canterbury that I’ve found in myself. I don’t find it easy making friends with non-Christian people.

It’s not just that I have less in common with them, or that I can’t tell them my favourite joke about Pentecostals. It’s also that when I do get friendly with someone who doesn’t know Jesus, I start to feel a bit guilty.

It’s like this: as I get to know people, I find myself liking  them. Even enjoying them. But I know from my evangelical theology that God basically disapproves of them. So if God disapproves of them, who am I to go enjoying them? Won’t that send the wrong message to my neighbours? How are they going to learn that God disapproves of them, if the main Christian dude they know actually likes them?

So I feel kind of bad about it. I feel like it would be more faithful for me to be pointing out their sins, and kind of distancing myself from these people, so they’d know they’re not ok the way they are. I see other Christians doing this all the time, what’s wrong with me that I don’t do it? It’s true that many of these Christians don’t seem to have actual friendships with non-Christian people. But at least everyone is clear about where they stand, right?

In fact, as I think about it, isn’t liking and enjoying really an intrinsic part of being a friend? So now I’m wondering, is it a good idea to befriend non-Christian people at all? Because if I as a Christian express pleasure in knowing a non-christian person, doesn’t that sort of imply that my God also takes some pleasure in them? I can’t see how they can avoid the conclusion that God feels friendly toward them, if people like me are friendly in Jesus’ name.

Wouldn’t it be a better witness to avoid the whole friendship thing, if it is intrinsically misleading? Wouldn’t that better express God’s disapproval, help them to realise that they cannot be accepted the way they are?

Which makes me wonder about this whole ‘Jesus, friend of sinners’ thing. I mean, was that really wise? Had Jesus thought through the implications, what message he was sending about God’s heart? I know that Pharisees and co. were the bad guys, but you can kind of see where they were coming from with their concerns about Jesus’ behaviour. He’s just confusing everything. What happens to the holiness of God if people like Jesus or you and me make friends with sinners?

Imagine if after all our efforts in local mission, our neighbours ended up with the idea that God might get close to them, and be a friend – the way they are? What a disaster. No, I need to rethink this mission thing, it’s all a bit problematic.

Does anyone have a copy of the Pharisees’ Mission Handbook I can borrow?