Easter in Whitby

To many nowadays Whitby is possibly better known as the place Dracula fictionally landed in England than for its very real part in the Christian past. Yet in 664CE it was the centre of a major controversy which was decided at a conference which has come to be known as the “Synod of Whitby”.

It’s fairly simple to state the basics – by 664, the Church based in Rome was following one way to calculate the date of Easter, and the “Celtic Church”, derived from the missionary efforts of Irish monks and in turn back to the efforts of Romano-British missionaries like Patrick (who was originally from what we now call Wales), was using a different system….

In Britain, where some of the Saxon kingdoms had been converted to Christianity by the Roman mission led by Augustine in Kent, and others by Celtic missions, things reached a head in Northumbria. There a royal marriage saw a king and queen from different traditions, King Oswiu following the Ionan or Celtic tradition, Queen Eanfled following the Roman. The Easter date could vary by about a month, from late March to late April; so awkwardly one half of the court might be celebrating Easter Sunday and the Resurrection of Jesus, and approaching Pentecost/Whitsunday, while the other half was still engaged in the ritual mourning of the pre-Easter fast of Lent. There were also by the way a few other minor Roman v Ionan differences including the form of monkish/priestly tonsures.

Seemingly for some time a Northumbrian counsellor, Aidan, kept things running reasonably smoothly despite the awkwardness, but after his death hotter heads forced the issues and the public disputation of the Synod became inevitable.

I’ve seen the issues of the Synod dealt with in many different ways – but one of the clear points is that both sides saw it as – well, an issue of heresy, as Janina Ramirez explained recently in her BBC series “Saints and Sinners”. In effect, Easter was so important, and thus how you did it so important, that if you were celebrating on different dates the Church was not united – and in that case, one side must be orthodox, and the other heretical….

At this point people often go into argument about which side were the heretics, and of course Protestants will often want to side with the Celts against the Romans and their ‘Catholicism’. I really don’t find that interesting or helpful. Yes, the Synod came down on the side of Rome – but I kind of want to say “So what?” Yes, the Western Churches now celebrate the date by the Roman definition – again, “So what?” Modern thought also tends to say that in a sense it’s “So what?” – so long as we agree over a broad enough area. The question nobody seems to ask is “Does the date matter at all?”

As far as I can discover before the early 300s, insofar as Christians celebrated Easter at all, they didn’t have a specifically Christian date. They celebrated it, apparently, on the date of the Jewish Passover, or to celebrate the ‘first day’ Resurrection, on the Sunday afterwards. And actually I suspect that they didn’t celebrate quite that formally anyway – just that the annual Jewish event would cause the Christians to specially remember the Passover aspect of Jesus’ sacrifice, a sacrifice and subsequent resurrection which they commemorated frequently in the ‘Communion’ service anyway.

The date and the calculation process was decided by the Council of Nicaea in 325, related to the Spring equinox. This was because the Imperial Church needed regular ‘nationally agreed’ holydays/festivals in a way that the early church didn’t because it wasn’t a state religion. I understand the calculations also included a way to actually avoid the Jewish Passover date. Which looks to me a bit perverse….

By the time of Whitby, the break-up of the Roman Empire into East and West under pressure of barbarian invasions, and the spread of Christianity outside the empire, particularly the Celtic areas, and just generally the lack of communication and so on compared to today, meant that only three centuries down the line there was already a variation in the dating. Whence the Whitby problem….

BUT….

As I said, before 325 the Church wasn’t too bothered about the exact date of Easter. And there’s a reason for that, found in Paul’s letter to the Church at Colossae.

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.

Col 2:16-17 (NIV)

Paul is dealing with people in the early church who were insisting on precise observance of the Jewish Law. And they would ‘judge/condemn’ those who weren’t fussy about the observances. And Paul simply says “That kind of thing isn’t important. All the Old Testament rules, ‘kosher’ dietary rules, rules for festivals and so on, were there to prepare in various ways for Jesus’ coming, not intended to carry on after he came. The new ‘kingdom’ of Messiah Jesus would be worldwide, not limited to one ethnic group; and the kingdom is not to be hindered by perpetuating the old rules and imposing them on the new believers in Jesus. Those rules ‘foreshadowed’ Jesus, helped people when he came to understand what he had done; but they were now no more needed as everyday rules than the scaffolding in needed when a building is completed.

Not even the Sabbath, please note. I’ll likely come back to that in another blog soon, in relation to ‘Sunday Observance’. But fussy Easter observance, no. The connection to the Jewish Passover suffices to help give context for Jesus’ sacrificial death as a ‘Passover Lamb’; some new calculation of the date that divorces Easter from Passover was just not needed. On top of which, far from being a major heresy, clearly the disagreement about Easter was a disagreement about something very much man-made centuries after Jesus. And much of the inconvenience that caused the Whitby synod was even more man-made rather than divinely prescribed stuff, like the fasting for the forty days of Lent. Christianity doesn’t need such artificial ritual celebrations – our fasts should be more purposeful as part of special prayer or personal discipline.

And the need for that man-made festival was, if anything, itself part of the bigger heresy of having a ‘Christian’ state in the first place – for more details on that, see the rest of this blog and future posts where I hope to fill some of the gaps in what I’ve already written….

But quick summary – in Jesus’ “kingdom not of this world” things like days and dates are unimportant. Easter needn’t be celebrated annually at all, and so it doesn’t matter if there’s disagreement about the anniversary. Indeed remembering it as Passover connected with the Jewish festival is probably more real than having a special Christian date. One reality here is that effectively we celebrate Easter at every ‘Communion’ meal when we use bread and wine to remember Jesus’ broken body and shed blood.

And don’t get me started on Christmas…!

Footnote – the full text from Colossians 2, to show how vehement Paul was about it….

16 Let no one, then, judge you in eating or in drinking, or in respect of a feast, or of a new moon, or of sabbaths, 17 which are a shadow of the coming things, and the body is of the Christ; 18 let no one beguile you of your prize, delighting in humble-mindedness and in worship of the messengers (‘angels’ SL), intruding into the things he hath not seen, being vainly puffed up by the mind of his flesh, 19 and not holding the head, from which all the body–through the joints and bands gathering supply, and being knit together–may increase with the increase of God. 20 If, then, ye did die with the Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances? 21 –thou mayest not touch, nor taste, nor handle– 22 which are all for destruction with the using, after the commands and teachings of men, 23 which are, indeed, having a matter of wisdom in will-worship, and humble-mindedness, and neglecting of body–not in any honour, unto a satisfying of the flesh.

Col 2:16-23 (YLT)

Democracy and Referenda

In our recent referendum I was basically on the side of ‘Remain’ partly because on the economic side I had realised that compared to when we were last ‘out of Europe’ we had the Commonwealth, the remnants of the former British Empire, still rather geared for trade with us, and we don’t have that any more, and partly because I’m quite worried by some of the narrow nationalism and even sheer racism of many on the ‘Leave’ side. Lots of attitudes there I’m not comfortable with….

But this was a case where there wasn’t really an obvious ‘Christian’ answer on the issue, especially for an Anabaptist with no desire to be bossing the state around. This item is more on the topic of democracy itself.

It is well known that the Greeks invented democracy. And like lots of ‘well known’ things, that’s only a part truth. For starters, it was basically the Athenians, not all the Greeks, Greece back then was rather like Germany before Napoleon, or Dark Age Britain – a collection of small independent states, usually based on a city. And even Athenian democracy wasn’t much like ours. To start with, only Athenian citizens could vote. Adults only, like us; but NOT women, and NOT slaves – so only quite a small minority to begin with. I’m not even sure it was all the men – ancient societies often only recognised a man as adult when his father died or he married and had his own household…. And although Athens ruled quite a wide area and even had an overseas empire, most of the people of the empire couldn’t vote, and even most of those in the mainland Greek bit of the empire wouldn’t be entitled. On top of which, voting only took place in assemblies physically meeting in Athens – so even citizens could only vote when they were around to attend the assemblies, and in an age without phones and internet etc., many decisions would be taken before some citizens even heard about the issue….

And Greeks didn’t, in fact, regard democracy all that highly. Plato, an Athenian himself, really despised it and preferred something we’d regard as pretty much ‘Fascism’. He probably did realise that his hypothetical alternative of ‘philosopher kings’ was idealism a bit outside real world probability….

Why was democracy thought bad? Well basically, because it wasn’t like our system, electing representatives to turn things; rather, it was like having an endless series of referenda, mass public votes in an assembly of thousands gathered together. And the problem was that it could all too easily turn into a nasty kind of ‘mob rule’ with decisions being taken thoughtlessly, irrationally, very heat of the moment and carried away by not always desirable emotions; and often by only the day after they’d have changed their minds and realised the problems of the decision – but it might be too late to correct it. One story has them deciding a brutal punishment for a rebellious place in their empire, and the next day having to send a fast galley to catch the messengers of the first decision and prevent the punishment…. Yes, the people got their say – but at the expense of a lack of stability, and sometimes the unleashing of the nastiest aspects of human feeling.

I’m not suggesting that our system is perfect – it very much ain’t! But our ‘representative’ system is a quite good compromise that avoids much of the faults of Athens’ democracy, and gives some of the good points of other systems but moderating their bad points. We get many of the potential advantages of kingship or aristocratic rule – but with ‘kings’ who are accountable to the wider citizenship through the electoral process, not just selfish ‘autocrats’.

But a referendum sets that aside….

One of the problems is that in the UK we don’t have the kind of formal written constitution that many countries like the USA have, carefully written down to provide all kinds of ‘checks and balances’, including for example the provision for a ‘Supreme Court’ to review our parliament’s decisions to check whether they’re constitutional or not. Our arrangements have evolved in a more ad hoc kind of way and much of it is a matter of ‘convention’ which doesn’t really have any legal binding force and could in theory be overturned by Parliament tomorrow.

Written Constitutions tend to recognise that some rights, for example, should be stable and long-term and not able to be easily changed perhaps on a day when many MPs are absent or some such – or indeed generally changed by a short-term majority. Changing the actual Constitution and the long term rights it enshrines will generally require much more than a simple majority vote. Typically the change will require both that a larger than usual quorum of MPs must be present, AND that even then a larger majority than ‘50%+1’ must vote for the change; and something like a referendum may be required as well, and again with a significant majority required, not just a few. A typical phrasing might be that change requires “Two thirds of those present and voting”. In other words there’s a serious effort to ensure that the change requires pretty much a true majority in the country positively voting for it, as opposed to just the votes of a party that may have been elected by the votes of only a quarter of the country….

And that, I think is arguably the problem of our recent referendum; such a change should have required a greater majority endorsing it, to be a truly clear victory rather than a ‘close call’ that might have been different for essentially accidental reasons. (I’m not sure of the truth of this but I heard the other day that before the referendum Nigel Farage himself had said that a vote as close as 52/48 would be unsatisfactory!) As it is, it is likely to leave things unsettled for quite a while to come, and that’s bad in itself.

So one of the things I’m saying is that it may be time to have a firmer written constitution for the UK, with the necessary provisions to protect the constitution itself and the relevant rights, and provide a firm basis for referenda. Essentially – that constitutional change requires a truly decisive majority.

I’m generally in favour of democracy – other systems may be more efficient at times, but the flexibility and pluralism of democracy generally wins out. Yes, a dictator is more efficient – but what if the guy with that power is evil?

On the other hand, I don’t worship democracy, and I’ve a feeling that too many people in the West do effectively worship it. And democracy has its limits; there are many aspects of reality which simply can’t be changed no matter how often you vote for them to be changed. You can’t change 2 + 2 = 4 by voting for a different answer; the most you can achieve is to change the names of the numbers, which will nevertheless continue themselves to behave as they have always done. And the Earth will basically orbit the Sun like Copernicus said and that can’t be changed by a vote. (And BTW, yes I do know that technically the two bodies actually orbit their common centre of gravity – in this case the practical difference is minimal… and you still can’t make the old Ptolemaic system true just by voting on it!!)

Anyway, the above is thoughts inspired by the referendum. I think I’ll do a separate post on some other aspects, like how you get democracy to work if you also believe in a decidedly monarchical God….

A Matter of Debate – “Who Would Jesus Shoot?”

First off, sorry for a recent bout of inactivity on this blog.  Hopefully there’ll now be quite a few new posts in the next few weeks.   For now, just to draw your attention to an interesting debate that took place last year, related to many of my regular themes….

A Matter of Debate – “Who Would Jesus Shoot?”

Alarmingly, if you Google up that phrase “Who would Jesus shoot?” you’ll find a lot of people – mostly American – who seem to think Jesus would be happy with shooting people. Particularly, of course, in the context of warfare. That’s why the phrase was chosen as the title of a debate in the autumn of 2014 between Canadian Mennonite theologian Tom Yoder-Neufeld and the Oxford Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology Nigel Biggar. Tom is of course a pacifist; Biggar has written books defending ‘Just War’ theory and regularly lectures on it.

To hear the debate – sorry there doesn’t seem to be video available – go to this link;

https://soundcloud.com/bloomsbury-1/who-would-jesus-shoot

Tom and Nigel approach the issue in quite different ways. That in itself says something. In conventional understanding I’m not sure there was a winner; but I understand that Nigel was admitting he’d need to rethink some of his positions. Anyway, have a listen and let me know what you think….

While Tom was in the UK for several weeks he spoke all over the country including one session for the Cheshire/Greater Manchester Anabaptist Group, where he did a session based on Ephesians, on which he has written a rather good commentary.

Ian Paisley – end of an era…

Ian Paisley had a considerable effect on my life and thought. In the late 1960s when I went to Uni, I was still pretty vague about Church-and-State issues, and most of what I did think was liberal secular rather than biblical in nature. Then I encountered the resurgent Ulster Troubles with in effect ‘Evangelicals like me’, people with whom I clearly shared a great deal of common beliefs, behaving in ways which appalled me but which they claimed were very much biblical. I had to ask myself if they were right – in which case, to be honest, I might have concluded that if that was authentic Christianity, I didn’t want anything to do with it…!

As I’ve recounted elsewhere on the blog, I came up with the (still unusual) analysis that the problem was not in the disagreements between Catholic and Protestant, but in their agreement that you were supposed to run a ‘Christian state’. Take out that factor and you simply had disagreements which could be conducted without bombs and guns and so on. But with that ‘Christian state’ idea, it wasn’t really possible to have peace – both sides wanted their version to be the favoured version in the state, both wanted the other side to be discriminated against, and both naturally wanted not to be discriminated against themselves; and this had everyday practical results which led to the fighting we saw in the ‘Troubles’. (History had meant that in Ulster/Eire things had always remained stressed so that the less fraught situation of mainland UK was unable to develop).

Following from that analysis, I discovered that the New Testament doesn’t in fact teach that ‘Christian country’ idea, which in fact goes back to 3-4 centuries after Jesus, but teaches a somewhat different relationship between the Church and the surrounding world. This in turn led me to the major Christian group which practises the NT teaching, the Anabaptists of the Reformation era and their modern descendants – for more detail see elsewhere on the blog.

Ian Paisley I feel ambivalent about. I have little doubt that he was a genuine Christian of good intentions; but his upbringing in Northern Ireland meant he was in a way ‘trapped’ by the prevalent ‘Christian state’ thinking, and couldn’t get outside it – and so sadly much of his life and effort was wasted on pursuing the goal of a ‘Protestant country’ and leading people there into what were unfortunately unChristian activities rather than the really devoted defence of the faith that they believed it to be.

I’ll probably write more about this in the near future – I wanted to respond to the news of Ian Paisley’s death, but I didn’t want to do a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction without some deeper thought about it….

An heretical Hymn

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,

Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;

The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,

That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;

The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,

The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

I heard my country calling, away across the sea,

Across the waste of waters she calls and calls to me.

Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head,

And round her feet are lying the dying and the dead.

I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns,

I haste to thee my mother, a son among thy sons.

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;

Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;

And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,

And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

Words by Cecil Spring-Rice; Music by Gustav Holst, adapted from ‘Jupiter’ in the ‘Planets’ suite; this version is known as ‘Thaxted’.

I find this hymn deeply troubling, and almost more troubling is the rarity of Christian protest at it. It is frequently sung at Remembrance Day services, was sung at both the wedding and the funeral of Princess Diana, and of course recently was part of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. That second verse is rarely sung, and I suppose we must be thankful for small mercies….

In its present form it apparently reflects the trauma in Britain of the massive losses in the First World War of 1914-18; In its original form it was called ‘Urbs Dei’, the City of God, and was somewhat re-written after WWI. That title of course links it back to Augustine whose book of that name was a massively influential exposition of the concept of ‘Christendom’, the Christian state that began under the Emperor Constantine and still goes on in various slightly different forms including England’s established church. It was that idea which influenced the writer of ‘I Vow to Thee my Country’ with its perspective of dual allegiance to nation and to God.

Vowing things to your country is perhaps not necessarily unChristian; I still find it a matter for concern that it is the first strong line of the verse. I would much have preferred to put God first and my duty to him, and only later say what duty I might owe the earthly country. It is one of the problems of thinking of a ‘Christian’ holy nation that it tends to deify the nation, to end up in practice putting the nation first; it is as Jesus said of God and another worldly temptation – you can’t serve God and Mammon (money), it’s all too likely that Mammon will win out, and it is the same with God and state. I recall seeing a documentary about the modern Russian Orthodox Church from which it was all too obvious that for some Orthodox priests God exists for Mother Russia rather than the other way round.

What is vowed to the country is really disturbing, starting with the fact that it is vowed ‘all earthly things above’. Apparently I am to vow ‘entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love’; no, even with the qualification ‘all earthly things above’ this is just too much. The country by implication comes before family, before friends, and before all the other human beings who don’t happen to be citizens of the country, and before lots of other things which also deserve my love. Further, this love ‘asks no question’; even God allows us to ask questions of Him in love – see the example of Job, of Paul about that thorn in his flesh, and of many of the prophets as they suffered in His service. Also though it’s not quite the same thing we are told to ‘test the spirits’ ( ) in church affairs, not just take things for granted. If the country wants no questions asked that’s a bit over the top; and in any case the whole of history tends to show that what countries want should be questioned, otherwise you end up not asking questions about things like the Holocaust.

The rest of verse one is a bit worrying even without knowing it’s related to the First World War; “the love that stands the test; that lays upon the altar the dearest and the best. … that never falters… that pays the price… that makes the final sacrifice” – the ‘final sacrifice’ being of course to die for the country. Hmmm – would I make that final sacrifice for ‘my country’? For the country in the abstract, no, I don’t think so; for any current whims of our government, no way!!! For the narrow racism and domineering wishes of the extreme right, again no, because there are heavenly values which should preclude that. But for the people and for the best of Britain, yes, possibly. But even at the earthly level there is plenty of the ‘dearest and best’ that wouldn’t, for me come second to the country, while precisely because the country itself is very much an earthly thing, there would be a lot of faltering to be sure that I was paying a price for good reason.

But there is a bigger problem, not quite so evident in verse 1 but made all too clear in verse 2; this ‘hymn’ doesn’t envisage just that I sacrifice myself for others, as Christians should be willing to do. All too clearly in verse 2, it expects that I will go to war on my country’s behalf, become a soldier fighting for my country. Although phrased in terms of dying for my country, it’s first about being willing to kill for my country – a soldier who won’t kill is not a great deal of use! And immediately, this is a conflict not with earthly things but with the heavenly, with my obligations to God himself. Like, I believe I shouldn’t kill for my faith, should follow the example of Jesus in ‘turning the other cheek’ and being willing to suffer death rather than inflict it – but according to this hymn, I am going to kill for ‘my country’, an entity far less than God, far inferior in every way! How does that add up??

About Gay Marriage

Why, you might ask, have gay people insisted on ‘marriage’ rather than ‘civil partnership’? Is the word itself really so important, so long as you’ve got equivalent rights? There is a quirk of our constitution, because England has an established church, which makes the issue significant.

Back to basics; people make all kinds of legal arrangements for both their personal and their business lives. In some cases these arrangements are so common that for convenience the law provides what might be called ‘templates’ of these, standardising them, bringing them under common legal procedures. Partnerships are an example in commerce, adoption in personal affairs. In some cases these arrangements may be considered so beneficial to society in general, beyond those directly involved, that they come with tax breaks, next-of-kin rights and other benefits. Marriage is one such example.

In religious states like Muslim countries with their Shari’a law, the marriage laws will reflect the beliefs of the religion in question – though they may allow some latitude to foreigners’ marriages. In the countries of ‘Christendom’ the marriage laws have generally reflected the teachings of the Christian Church, though most Western states have long allowed secular (‘registry office’) marriages, divorce, and other features not quite according to Christianity. Until comparatively recently it was pretty much taken for granted that marriage was between a man and a woman, especially since homosexuality, being a sin, was illegal anyway in such ‘Christian’ states. Now that homosexuality is legal, and indeed many other sexual practices between consenting adults have been decriminalised, things have changed and the formerly persecuted gay community now seeks to be as equal as possible – or at least a very vocal segment of it does.

If you were designing from scratch a plural society which respects many different beliefs and unbeliefs, you would I think include a ‘civil partnership’ which in a way would not need a sexual implication, a deal for companionship and shared life which might be very flexible. It need not, for example, be ‘monogamous’, given the number of religions which accept polygamy, though if tax breaks and the like were involved it might not be unlimited in terms of the number of such partnerships one person could form. The various religions existing in the state could use the ‘civil partnerships’ as a legal foundation for religious marriages but would also have internal disciplines for their members in the matter (as sporting bodies have their own internal rules for various things).

Unfortunately in the UK we aren’t designing an ideal pluralistic system from scratch. Indeed although in so many ways we do act like a pluralistic democracy, we are still technically a Christian country with an established Church. Technically the Church of England is still the legal norm and everyone else, including other forms of Christianity, are only ‘tolerated’ in an impliedly ‘second-class’ way. Anglican marriage is still significantly privileged in small ways.

If you are a gay person seeking equality, this is basically unacceptable. A church which is technically part of and deeply entangled with the state refuses to treat the gay community as equal; this is not just “there are some people around who disagree with us”; this is effectively continued discrimination against the gay community in and by the state itself. For now we have ‘same-sex marriage’ equally for all – except still the state church is allowed to refuse it – indeed has been positively banned by law from doing it, as has the connected but disestablished ‘Church in Wales’! I think it unlikely that this compromise will endure. I think in the end one of two things must happen; either the ‘Church of England’ will have to accept gay marriage, to keep their established privilege but not be discriminatory, or they will have to accept being disestablished. And they may face similar arguments in other areas as well.

Churches which are not established, and have no special privileged position in the state would be a different matter; it would be reasonable for them to disagree with homosexuality and choose not to do same-sex marriages for their own members – interestingly they might nevertheless use the neutral civil partnership for non-sexual relationships….

The tragedy of this is that the present bitter controversy need never have happened, at any rate as a dispute between an established church and the gay community. Christianity was never intended to be established, as I’ve been saying elsewhere in this blog, and so should never have been involved as it was in the criminalisation and effective persecution of gay people. Ideally, Christianity should have remained a voluntary religion, of those who humanly speaking choose to join the church; and they would not be seeking to rule society at large, so everyone else would be free to do – well, not quite whatever they liked, but whatever the state and/or its alternate state religion might allow. I’m not saying the situation would be friction-free; but the whole dynamics would be very different.

As it is, the imposition of Christian behaviour on everybody in a ‘Christian’ country has created all kinds of problems. These included persecution of other religions and of variant forms of Christianity; and legal intervention in all kinds of sexual issues, of which homosexuality is pretty much the last one outstanding – the others beyond that being things like paedophilia and rape which are unlikely ever to have wide social acceptance…. This inappropriate imposition beyond Christian ranks has also created all kinds of attitude problems.

Put bluntly, the only way there can be a resolution is for Christians to abandon the notion of ‘Christian states’ which seek to impose Christian morality on all citizens, and return to the New Testament notion of being an independent voluntary organisation within the earthly state. Only then will we be able to work out a ‘modus vivendi’ with people whose morality in this matter we disagree with. As I say above, this makes the Church of England’s position untenable one way or the other; they must sacrifice either Christian sexual morality or their favoured position and influence in the state – they cannot continue to uphold both.

“Penal Substitutionary Atonement”

This interpretation of the Atonement, of how Jesus’ death deals with our sins, has been under fire recently , and I can see why, but I also think we still need it.

Before starting on ‘PSA’, I want to firmly register that although it has been a very prominent interpretation of the Atonement, it is not the only one by a long way, and I don’t regard it as the most important. In many ways the Atonement, and the way God has made it known to us, is a ‘one off’ thing – and the Bible uses all kinds of pictures from our more everyday world to describe it; none of those pictures fully describes it, and many of the pictures have subsidiary aspects that shouldn’t be pushed too far. For example, one picture is of Jesus ‘paying a ransom’ for us; especially in some of the things meant by the Greek word, it’s a good picture – until someone pushed it too far and saw it as a ransom paid to Satan, as if he were entitled to be paid to release us! For me, I think the most satisfactory picture of atonement, with fewest problems, is ‘debt’ and the forgiveness of debt. We should also remember, by the way, that the Atonement isn’t just about payments and satisfactions – it’s also about reconciliation, and an action on God’s side that challenges us to seek that reconciliation, that change in our relationship to God.

PSA can be caricatured. It can look as if God is like some human tyrant who has made rules and decided to enforce them with an arbitrary penalty of death – then the human idiots break the rule, and somebody has to die or God will lose face, so Jesus gets arbitrarily killed so we don’t have to be…. The version of PSA used by the Jehovah’s Witnesses can sound very much like this caricature, as by rejecting Jesus’ divinity they have also rejected many other possible views of the Atonement.

That is why I prefer the picture of ‘debt’; there is nothing arbitrary about the penalty of debt – it’s “You owe it – you should pay it”. And in the context of debt, there’s a very real cost to be met by whoever clears the debt, whether that is the debtor himself or a kind friend who pays in his stead, or whether the creditor forgives and by so doing, faces the cost of the debt himself.

If you have seriously considered the nature of sin (though I’ll pass over that discussion here) you will have realised that being a sinner does effectively mean that you owe God your very life. You’ll also have realised that ‘the wages of sin’ is death not in an arbitrary way but because sin kills/destroys in you the kind of life that lives in God’s way. It is ‘soul-destroying’.

In the Old Testament this was depicted in the practice of sacrifice, in which the sinner ‘paid for his sins’ by the sacrifice of an animal which ‘substituted’ for the sinner himself. In an era before money, and with sacrifice the ‘common currency’ of religions, making a sacrifice dramatically demonstrated the need for the sinner to pay his debts, and the idea that the debtor owed his life to God. Many probably didn’t fully realise it, but in the context of a creator of the universe as opposed to the more limited gods of paganism, God didn’t need the sacrifices, it wasn’t a case of for instance feeding a hungry god. As prophets reminded Israel, the animals were already God’s animals, so even in the Old Testament God in fact symbolically supplied the sacrifice as a generous act of forgiveness. We should by the way note that in most ancient cultures there wasn’t a sharp line between the religion and the justice system that we observe in a modern pluralist culture; for example, the Roman ‘throwing criminals to the beasts’ in the arena was considered a religious sacrifice as well as an act of justice.

Old style justice used ‘penal substitutes’ more than a modern justice system which thinks in much more individualist lines. Family members might be held accountable for each other, for example, or communities for members of the community – even in capital crimes. So through most of history before and since the time of Jesus’ earthly life, human justice systems contained many examples of ‘penal substitution’, voluntary and otherwise, which as examples of substitution seemed suitable pictures of Jesus’ substitutionary self-sacrifice for us . The point is that as with other parables and images in the Bible, the bit that illustrates our message may be accompanied by other aspects of that human activity which are less helpful, so you don’t say “It’s exactly like…” you say “It’s a bit like this aspect of an everyday human situation….”

To take a rather obvious example, when Jesus called fishermen among his first disciples, he told them that as they followed him they would become ‘fishers of men’ – but I’m pretty sure he never intended the metaphor to be pushed to the point that his followers would be catching men for food!

With such caveats, I think we might still use the ‘Penal Substitutionary Atonement’ imagery, simply to convey the idea of Jesus standing in our place to suffer what otherwise should legitimately have fallen on us, while ‘majoring’ on other imagery. Two examples from older criminal justice systems do survive in the modern world and may be useful imagery. One is from the notion of ‘bail’, when someone else ‘stands surety’ for you and will pay the penalty in your place if you default. Another is simply the notion that when you have done something criminal and a fine is declared an appropriate penalty, if you haven’t the means of payment a relative, friend or other generous person may of course pay the fine for you.

In many circles ‘PSA’ is regarded as not just ‘AN image’ but THE major theory of atonement. I think that is wrong, it would be better that we should use it only as one partial image of atonement. If taken as THE doctrine, it has problems, whence the recent challenges. But why did it come to seem so important? Having thought about it I’ve concluded that it has to do with the ‘state church/Christian country’ issue.

On the one hand, the state isn’t necessarily very concerned about God himself – to them the purpose of having a state religion is the way it provides support and motivation for the laws of the state, encouragement to be good citizens (indeed rulers would often be cynically exploiting a state religion they didn’t themselves take seriously). That’s why the state would punish religious deviance – it wasn’t just seen as a difference of opinion but as an attack on the state’s moral foundations. With Christianity being wrongly used as a state religion, the state’s concerns influence and unbalance the way atonement is presented.

On the other hand, there would be a temptation to interpret the divine justice in terms of the human rather than the other way round, to use features of human justice to actually define God’s justice rather than merely to be an image. So you end up describing God’s dealings with the unsatisfactory aspects of the human imagery, portraying God as actually like the more tyrannical kind of human ruler, with somewhat savage and arbitrary penalties and with laws like ‘the laws of the Medes and Persians’ that he can’t set aside.

There’s more to be said about this, but I think it will be better in part 2 of my item about ‘Hell’….