Responses to my friend the other Steve….

The following were comments from Steve on two recent posts, the ‘Controversy Revisited (1)’ and also the original ‘Beast Revealed’ which unfortunately I had to withdraw.  My responses below.  The issues seem interlinked so I’m responding to these together rather than separately.

Love God, love one another. That is the whole of the Law; the rest is commentary; go away and study it. If you’re falling out with one another, if you’re hurling anathema at one another; you are seriously missing the point. Can you have a go at finding biblical support for reincarnation? It would be a seriously good Idea for Calvin, Zwingli and the Borgias to have to keep coming back until they got it right!

Powerful stuff suffused with God-sense, to which I say Amen (this sentence refers to the original ‘beast revealed’ post; thanks Steve for liking it, I’ll try and remake the point as soon as I can find a suitable ‘hook’ to hang it on. SL). They forget the context of love your neighbour and the parable of the Samaritan. In that culture, then, your neighbour was your enemy, the Amalekite you went out and massacred. The difference between a Samaritan and a Jew? I’ll be blowed if anyone knows. I have no idea why Greeks and Romans are hung up on filioque. A 30-year war, a devastated central Europe and millions of dead for 95 theses? I reckon old Martin has been sat outside the gates this last half millennium commiserating with Augustine about not thinking things through.

First the relatively trivial; no, I can’t see any support for reincarnation for those who’ve had a full life and messed it up, though I have wondered about the possibility for those who die in infancy deprived of a full life. But rightly the Bible doesn’t tell us about things like that; we need to concentrate on what’s relevant to us, and trust God for other people’s fate.  Given a generously forgiving God, Calvin and Zwingli I think got it right enough to expect to see them in heaven, just a bit chastened (as no doubt I will be about some of my errors I haven’t realised in this life!).  The Borgias – that’s up to God in each individual case obviously, not condemn the whole family, but it does unfortunately seem that many of the Borgias were so deliberately wrong it’s questionable whether reincarnation would help them anyway.  Luther and Augustine again I expect to meet in heaven.  The main fault for all these theologians, Calvin, Luther, Zwingli and Augustine, was their involvement in, and their inability to see the problems of, the state church idea.  Their basic personal relationship to God appears to have been OK.  Judging by other periods in Europe, the wars or similar were likely to have happened anyway for secular reasons; the ‘Hundred Years War’ between Britain and France was not religious.

‘Love God, love one another’ – I’m not arguing!!  Nevertheless theology is necessary because it’s ‘knowledge about God’ – true knowledge makes a true relationship with God much easier, false knowledge or understanding may mess up that relationship or even completely destroy it.  Of course abstractly true theology without genuine spiritual rebirth won’t help; as James points out, the devils probably know more theology than we do but it hasn’t helped them.  But false theology obviously risks putting your relations with God on a false basis – unitarian theology completely wrecks the idea of the atonement and that makes faith in Jesus as saviour just a bit difficult….  I would also point out that biblical love, ‘agape’ is not just any sloppy old sentimentality but implies very much caring.  God’s judgement is not opposed to his love but part of his caring.

There are comparatively few things in the New Testament that seem to justify anathemas and the like.  And even then, in the NT this is about the church as an independent body which does not expect the state to privilege the church or punish ‘heretics’.  In such a context people’s beliefs are voluntary, and the position is somewhat akin to other voluntary groups like sports clubs – if you join you’re reasonably expected to more-or-less keep the club’s rules, if you won’t keep the rules the club is likely to eventually ask you to leave, but you won’t be punished as a criminal by the state for your dissent from the sports club!  Obviously a reasonable club makes every effort to keep you, but you can’t go on forever committing deliberate fouls which mess up everybody else’s enjoyment of the game or even injure them and give a bad impression to the outside world.  The situation should be broadly similar with the church.  Being a state church messes this up in all kinds of ways; a state has all kinds of worldly aims inappropriate to the faith and is using the religion for such ends as cohesion and conformity in the state. 

As in Ulster to this day, the wars in Europe over the Reformation were not really over the ‘95 theses’ but over having a state religion.  Without that idea you could have had a right ding-dong argument about those theses but not the slightest need to raise even a fist let alone a sword, bomb, or bullet; with a state religion there pretty much has to be war, persecution, etc., to satisfy what the state requires of the religion entangled with it, whether it be a form of Christianity, or Islam, or Japanese Shinto, or indeed by a sociologist’s reckoning the godless ‘religions’ of Nazism, Communism, etc.  Using Christianity as a state religion goes back to the 4th Century Empire, with slightly different versions then developing in the ‘Orthodox’ east and ‘Roman Catholic’ west after the Empire broke up.  Unfortunately the Reformers didn’t challenge the state church situation but rather relied on their local ‘princes’ to support the Reform, resulting in a religiously partitioned Europe.  If you think about it such an idea is inimical to Christianity with its basic idea of personal spiritual rebirth through faith.

One problem here is that yes, God could just arbitrarily make things come out right; but that would be kind of unreal, and of course the wrong kind of coercive on His part.  For human lives to be real and significant we have to actually ‘work out/live out’ these things, and God must, at least to some extent, let us do them bit by bit as we learn while, as ‘judge of all the earth’ guaranteeing there will be no ultimate injustice.  Before the Reformation there was a totalitarian single church in Western Europe, and people who tried to reform it without state support didn’t have the clout to make it stick, though they seem to have been more effective than many realise.  But in broad terms the Reformation sort of ‘had to’ happen as it did both to achieve all the changes it did and also to open things up for the radicals to have a space to be heard, leading in the end to greater religious freedom and a hearing for the ‘free church/ Anabaptist’ case such as I’m putting forward in this blog, and hopefully in due course to the abandonment of what still remains of the unbiblical state church. 

[Massacring the Amalekites – the subject of Old Testament warfare really requires a lengthy post and I am working on it.  In the meantime the above paragraph contains some relevant ideas]

Samaritans and Jews?  The difference starts with the split-up of the original Jewish kingdom after Solomon, into the larger Northern Kingdom based on Samaria and the smaller Southern kingdom of Judah based on Jerusalem.  By setting up a rival to the Jerusalem temple the Northern Kingdom came to be regarded as heretics in the eyes of the southerners.  The Northern Kingdom fell to foreign invasion a long time before the southern, and it seems their already compromised religion got yet further compromised by the invaders’ paganism. 

Eventually Judah and Jerusalem also fell and a considerable portion of the population were deported to modern Persia/Iraq.  Then a conquest of the conquerors brought a ruler who curried favour with subjects by allowing the displaced to return.  A large number of Judeans returned to the southern kingdom area and rebuilt the Jerusalem Temple.  Samaritans remaining in the north opposed and harassed this, increasing enmity between the two groups.  It seems that the Samaritans had inter-married with their conquerors to a significant extent; in Judea the group rebuilding the Temple responded by a policy of ethnic purity, stricter than had been the case in the old kingdom.   By NT times the Samaritans were an enclave in the central highlands of Israel, where some still remain to this day, with a Jewish state more or less surrounding them, though Galilean Jews were also considered inferior and part-paganised by the southerners in Judea proper.  The situation could be compared to Northern Ireland in many ways.  Jesus’ kingdom reconciled Jews and Samaritans, as well as Gentiles, though of course many also rejected him.

The ‘Filioque’ (‘- and the Son’) was a credal issue which was part of the break-up between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.  This messy dispute was arguably another problem resulting from having a state church.  It is academic philosophical theology done in the wrong spirit and in the wrong context.  Technically I think the Romans were just about right; the Holy Spirit is the Spirit equally of both Father and Son in the Trinity – but the very use of the word ‘technically’ shows that we’re no longer in the same world as the New Testament, where theology is more concrete than that and less abstract and academic.  Essentially I think both churches were playing politics in which the Roman Church was looking for a way to be more independent of the Eastern Church and make higher claims for the Pope than the eastern bishops of Alexandria etc.  The ‘filioque’ disagreement was a pretext in that worldly political issue.

The temptation of assuming that God ‘must want’ a religious state in which his people ‘lord it over’ others is really seductive – so much so that far too many people who think of themselves as Christian (and some who basically really are Christian) fall into that temptation and can’t see how the New Testament rejects the idea.  Sadly this leads to unChristian conduct.  


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