“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’….

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The Curious Incident of the Woman Taken in Adultery

I’ve recently seen some very superficial interpretations of the text I discuss here, and thought it was time I put these thoughts out.  In the original essay of some 12+ pages I discussed a couple of other issues and left one of them a bit unfinished – I’ll probably come back to those later in the year….

John 8; 1-1

Early in the morning Jesus went (2) back to the Temple and as all the people came to Him, He sat down and taught them. 

(3)The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in the act of adultery and, placing her in the centre, (4) they said to Him – they were talking to test Him so that they might trump up a charge against Him – “ Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of adultery.  (5) Now Moses ordered in the Law to stone such as she, so what do you say?” 

(6) But Jesus stooped down and wrote with his finger on the ground, (7) and as they kept on questioning Him, He raised Himself and told them, “Let the sinless one among you throw the first stone at her!” (8) Stooping down again, He wrote with His finger on the ground.  (9) But they on hearing it went away conscience-stricken, one after the other, beginning from the oldest to the last, until Jesus was left alone with the woman as she stood there. 

(10) Jesus raised Himself and asked her, “Woman, where are your accusers?  Has no one condemned you?”

She said (11) “No one, Lord!”  So Jesus told her, “Then I do not condemn you either.  Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

It’s certainly a striking story, and the broad outline of the meaning is clear.  But do we perhaps see it a bit superficially – even take it a bit for granted?  Let’s go through it looking a bit deeper ….

The first thing we may miss is that this is effectively a court scene.  We tend to think of rabbis as the equivalent of Christian ministers, conducting services, preaching, running the synagogue, and so on.  Today this is largely true, but even now there is some residue of a rabbinic function that was more important in New Testament times.  The rabbi was a judge with legal authority in the Jewish community.  We see a hint of this in an episode when a man came to Jesus with the request “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me!”  On that occasion Jesus refused jurisdiction, and made the incident the occasion for words about avoiding greed.  But in fact he really could have acted as a judge as requested; and in this case of adultery, a life-and-death case not serving personal greed, he takes a different attitude.

The point is that when the scribes and Pharisees put this woman in front of Jesus they weren’t just asking for an opinion; they really were in effect putting her in the dock.  Therefore when Jesus eventually said, “… I do not condemn you …” he was not expressing a mere personal opinion;  had he condemned the woman it would have been the equivalent of a judge passing sentence – and the unfortunate woman would have been stoned to death by her accusers.

The Motives of the Accusers

The woman’s accusers had, I think, two motives; one more-or-less good, the other very bad indeed.  The sort-of-good motive is simple – the woman had sinned, she had been caught in the act, they had a straightforward concern that justice be done according to divine law.  We’ll come back to that one in more detail later.  But somewhere along the way the accusers slipped into a far worse motivation – they realised Jesus was nearby, and that they could use the case to make trouble for him.  After that they may still have professed a concern for justice, but the reality was that they were using the woman for other ends altogether, which was an unjust and unfair thing to do.

How would this make trouble for Jesus?  I think they saw a neat ‘catch-22’ in the situation, whereby whatever Jesus did he would lose.  If he said the woman should be stoned, then stoned she would be; and Jesus, as the rabbi who gave that judgement, would be in trouble with the Romans who reserved death sentences to themselves.  (Remember we know that from Jesus’ own trials and death, when the Jewish leaders handed him over to the Romans).  A Jesus executed by the Romans over an illegal death sentence would – so they thought – be discredited as Messiah. As a bonus, if Jesus chose that way, he would appear harsh and unforgiving to the ‘tax collectors and other sinners’ who followed him.  I don’t think they particularly wanted that outcome, however; the other option probably looked both better and more likely.

In this second option, they thought that a Jesus who associated with ‘tax collectors and other sinners’ would let the woman off – and thus would discredit himself by flouting the law and denying justice to the aggrieved husband.  A Jesus who rejected God’s law would be as useless a Messiah as a Jesus executed for breaking Roman law ….  Note that if this was their preferred option, the scribes and Pharisees had little respect for the law themselves – they didn’t care that the guilty woman was likely to escape justice, so long as they hurt Jesus as a result.

They must have thought the scheme foolproof.  Jesus couldn’t wriggle out of this one – support divine law, he was in trouble with the Romans, and probably with the ‘tax-collectors and sinners’ among his supporters; reject divine law, or refuse to pass judgement on so clear a case, and he would lose all Jewish support.  Let’s see how Jesus deals with it ….

He writes on the ground!  All sorts of suggestions have been made about what he wrote – but we don’t know.   One plausible suggestion is that the word used here is not the simple Greek word for ‘write’, but a more specific word which could mean ‘set down a record against’, and that Jesus was writing down the sins of the accusers, or at least key words that would bring their sins to mind.  Whether or not that is true, in the short term, he seemed almost to be ignoring the situation, and we can see some of the effect of that on the accusers.  They press Jesus harder, and in the process commit themselves more deeply to their demand for an answer – whatever other purpose the writing on the ground has, it forces the accusers towards seriousness.

Then he stands up to deliver his verdict.  And it isn’t quite as usually represented; by implication, he agrees with the woman’s accusers, and with the law – she is guilty, she is to be stoned.  But he doesn’t say it that way; instead he takes the guilty verdict for granted and goes straight to an instruction which challenges the accusers’ own righteousness – “Let the sinless one among you throw the first stone at her!”   I’m not sure if, having been effectively appointed judge, Jesus had a positive authority to give orders about how the execution was carried out.  It would I think be appropriate;  a stoning was meant to be solemn and orderly, not just a vicious mob throwing stones any old how;  for example, Deuteronomy 13; 9ff gives the duty to the prosecution witnesses to cast the first stone in cases where someone tempted people to idolatry in ancient Israel.

But in any case, this instruction really put them on the spot.  Having pressed Jesus so insistently for his judgement, they can’t now ignore it – that would be to defy the law they had themselves invoked, the rabbinic judgement on which they had been so insistent.  And he has given them no way of making trouble for him, as they intended, but has put them in a catch-22 of their own!  Whoever picks up that first stone to execute the judgement is claiming to be ‘without sin’.

Now with our stereotypical ideas of ‘scribes and Pharisees’ we might think that they would find it easy to claim to be without sin.  Surely they were the very people who thought themselves above ordinary ‘sinners’?  Well they were, but by that very fact they were unusually sensitive about sin.  On an everyday basis, they might be snooty about their goodness compared to others – but internally they were picky about their own standing as well, constantly watching themselves.  They would be punctilious in making sacrifices for their sins, and so would be well aware of their sinfulness.  Even the modern equivalent of Pharisees will rarely claim actual sinlessness – unless they’re insane….

Furthermore, these were ‘scribes and Pharisees’ – the experts on the scriptures.  They would have known what Paul knew, that ‘All have sinned and come short of the glory of God’.  And like the former Pharisee Paul, they could have quoted the scriptures that prove it, texts like …

They have corrupted their behaviour and made it abominable.  There is none who does right. 

The Lord looked down from heaven upon the descendants of man to see if any were acting wisely, seeking after God. 

All have turned aside; together they have become corrupt. 

There is none who does good, not even one.

(Psalm 14, repeated almost exactly in Psalm 53)

If the scripture says all are sinners, then to claim to be sinless would put them in defiance of God and his word – just like the charge they had hoped to bring against Jesus by their trap!  They could not dare make that claim.

As we saw earlier, possibly Jesus’ writing in the dust may have been a further reminder of their sins.  Whatever, they were conscience-stricken and one after another they backed off.  The text tells us the oldest backed off first.  They of course had longer experience and basically more sin.  Younger members of the group might have been more hot-headed, but they couldn’t act ahead of their elders in such a matter.  Again, the legalism of the Pharisees trapped them.  And seeing those elders conscience-stricken would have forced the younger ones to think hard – if these revered experts could not claim to be sinless, who could?

And of course, having backed off, they weren’t in any position to make trouble for Jesus – they had received their chosen rabbi’s judgement and failed to carry it out!  But what of Jesus who gave the judgement?

The Injustice of Jesus’ Forgiveness?

When they’ve all gone Jesus looks up again; he is alone with the woman.  “Where are they?  Is nobody accusing you?”  She responds, “No one, Sir”.  And Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you.  Go, and do not sin again.”

And here is actually a problem; he clearly knows she has sinned, he is the rabbi called upon to judge the matter, he has actually just given a guilty verdict and authorised a stoning – how can he now ‘not condemn’?  True, on a technicality there are now no accusers – but there is something profoundly unsatisfactory in the idea of Jesus, the arch-anti-legalist, opposer of mere verbal technicalities, and the exponent instead of serious morality, deciding such a matter on what looks very like a technicality.  Has he no respect for God’s law either?  At the time the woman is probably too grateful to even really think about that side of it – but when she reflects later, with the heightened sense of her sinfulness which this encounter must have brought, surely it’s going to occur to her that she didn’t deserve to be forgiven, and how can any rabbi legitimately do what Jesus did?  Consider this also, though of course it would not have been obvious to the people at the time – there was one person present who was not hindered by Jesus’ judgement that a person without sin should cast the first stone – Jesus himself.  He could himself have carried out the verdict that the sinless one present should throw the first stone.

We should perhaps look at her sin.  Adultery is no longer a crime in our society and is often even portrayed favourably in films and books.  Many in our culture tend to regard it as a minor infraction.  Even in Christian circles we have I think lost some understanding of how bad it can be, because it can seem to be only about a brief pleasure with no longer-term consequences.  Of course we see the element of deceit and betrayal, but also, thanks to Jesus’ generous attitude to ‘tax collectors and other sinners’ we at least understand that sexual sins are not as terrible as the spiritual pride of the Pharisees.

In biblical times it was serious at a practical level too, because there wasn’t the kind of efficient contraception now available.  The adulterer was all too likely to father a child.  Think about that – in addition to the deceiving of the husband this is also fraud, it is theft.  The adulterer who gets away with it gets his child raised at another man’s expense.  In many cases, the betrayed husband’s family inheritance could go to the adulterer’s child, and not to the husband’s true children or other blood relatives – again effectively a theft.  And the adulterous woman is an accomplice to that theft and fraud, that possible hijacking of her husband’s family property for her lover’s child.  This isn’t only about a brief pleasure or the devilish deceit; it’s also potentially a serious criminal infringement of the rights of the husband and his family.  How can Jesus let her off on a technicality?  He has escaped the trouble his enemies had planned for him – but has he done so at the expense of righteousness and justice?

In fact this raises a question other opponents of Jesus had raised; look at Mark 2, the story of the paralysed man whose friends dropped him through the roof to Jesus …

And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven.”  Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak thus?  It is blasphemy!  Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

And that is the point – Jesus is God and can forgive sins; he doesn’t just let the adulteress off on a technicality, he forgives.  Only God can forgive sins against himself, and only God can possibly forgive us when someone else we’ve offended can’t or won’t (in this case the husband), because only God is so far above us yet also so intimately involved in his world and responsible for it that He can do that justly.

So I think, as what scientists call a ‘thought-experiment’, we can rightly imagine the following;

At some time down the line this woman would hear that the strange rabbi who saved her from stoning had been crucified.  At first this may have worried her – did this mean that he’d been sinful and that now God’s judgement had shown Jesus’ judgement to be invalid?  But then she would have heard of the resurrection which vindicated him, showed him to have been right; and she would have heard that his death was a sacrifice through which sins were forgiven, and she would have realised that on that basis her sins had been paid for, and that was the basis on which Jesus had been able to speak those words of acquittal.  She hadn’t been let off on a questionable technicality; she had received, directly from God, a truly loving and costly, but also just, forgiveness ….

Jesus’ forgiveness is not a mere ‘letting-off’ which is indifferent to the harm resulting from sin.  It is a costly forgiveness.  Consider for the moment an example of how forgiveness works among men.  If somebody throws a brick through your window, they owe you a window; if you fully forgive them, they won’t pay for the replacement window – you will bear that cost.  God’s forgiveness of us is similarly costly – the price was the death of Christ on the cross.  God became ‘incarnate’ as a man in order to accomplish that forgiveness; though the Bible also makes clear that the price was more than just the crucifixion of one man for a few hours.  A passage in Hebrews, for example, implies that the earthly crucifixion was merely the visible ‘tip of the iceberg’ of a virtually infinite sacrifice made in a ‘heavenly Temple’ of which the earthly building in Jerusalem was but a shadow or analogy

[*  For fluency here I had relegated some aspects of the ‘Atonement’ to a ‘Part Two’ not posted here but hopefully coming later]

When Jesus said “I do not condemn you” to the woman, he basically meant “Although you won’t understand it straight away, I will pay the price of your sins.  I will suffer the equivalent of your deserved stoning, so that you can not only go free in this world but also be reconciled to God now and forever”.  And he also makes that offer to us today, calling us to repent of our own sins and trust in his sacrifice for forgiveness and reconciliation to God.  Further he calls on us, having been reconciled to God ourselves, to take that message of forgiveness to others.

But as we know, all too often that message has been preached in a way more reminiscent of those Pharisees – or of the Harry Potter character Argus-“I-want-to-see-some-punishment”-Filch.  Christians have preached about sin harshly and self-righteously, giving an impression of thinking themselves wonderful good guys condemning terrible sinners. How do we preach about sin and not be like the Pharisees?  Again, that’s in the rest of the essay, hopefully ‘coming soon….’

Rethinking Ecumenism

It was a good sermon from a guy who is a hospital chaplain, based on Acts 15.  That’s the episode now rather grandly known as the ‘Council of Jerusalem’ though it can’t in reality have been much like the later Nicaea or Vatican II; in this council the mostly Jewish early Christians tried to work out how to accommodate an influx of Gentile Christians, and decide how much Jewish customs they needed to impose on these new recruits – circumcision, kosher diet, and so forth.  I’ll leave you to read the details of the ‘Council’ for yourselves, I want to focus on the principles the preacher drew from the passage and consider their implications for the ecumenical/church unity project.

One principle was “Talk about it”.  Now I recall the ecumenism of the 1960s when everyone was really keen to resolve the differences between Christians by discussing them; but that doesn’t seem to happen much now.  Rather, we seem to have decided that where we differ, we won’t talk about it, just each denomination carry on as before and, well, just not discuss differences.  Now of course in a lot of cases the differences really don’t matter all that much and the churches can just carry on with their different customs; but the trouble is that this silence is also meaning that the important differences don’t get discussed – and one very important one in particular, the relationship of the Church to the world or the ‘Christian country’ issue.  

This issue is particularly important just now because of the difficulties the world is having with Islam.  It really matters, at a life and death/possibility of warfare level, whether Christianity is a religion which expects the kind of dominance in the state that Islam aspires to, with Sharia law to be imposed on all, or some lesser kind of privilege or favour in the state compared to other religions/faiths, or perhaps Christianity doesn’t work that way at all but the NT teaches us some other way to relate to the world around us….  We need to be talking about it, and in talking about it, other ideas from that sermon seem relevant.

Two of the points were actually almost the same thing from different angles – “Stick to basics/essentials” and “No ‘Jesus AND… some other thing’ such as the circumcision and kosher food issues of the original council”. 

The case for ‘Jesus AND circumcision’ or ‘Jesus AND kosher diet’ was plausible in a faith which had grown out of Jewish roots and Old Testament promises, but the apostles and church were able to see that these things were no longer essential in the new covenant.  It might be thought that as Israel not so much had a state church as was a state church, there would be a plausible case for the ‘Christian country’ too.  But interestingly that doesn’t seem to have been considered in the early church.  Partly because the issue wouldn’t arise anyway while the church was only just starting, but more importantly because Jesus had ruled it out.  The Church knew of his trial before Pilate and the implications of his declaration that his kingdom was not of this world, and of his rejection of the sword because those who take it up perish by it, and so on.  They knew they were trying to set up a different kind of kingdom to either the Roman Empire or the old ethnic Jewish kingdom, a kingdom of those who heard and followed Jesus rather than those who were forced by worldly power, those spiritually re-born rather than just born once. 

In line with that they positively set up, and taught as the ideal, a church which was not connected to particular nations, but was itself God’s holy nation throughout the earth, not confused with the surrounding society but called out from it as a witness to God’s ways.  In the context of that kind of thinking, ‘Jesus AND Christian states’ is really impossible, not just non-essential.

“Don’t make things difficult” was another principle our preacher highlighted.  The idea of ‘Christian countries’ makes things difficult for ecumenism and also in many other directions – indeed the other things it makes difficult are a difficulty for ecumenism too, as in how much are you willing to be united with churches that make things difficult for both non-Christians and for other Christians?

As a fairly simple example – obviously I want to be united with my fellow-Christians who are Anglicans, and informally I very much am, in fact.  Not only in religious terms either, a couple of months ago I was showing off one of my model railways at a ‘Model Railway Extravaganza’ at a local parish church, letting the visitors to the show actually drive my trains.  Again, the Baptist church I go to is currently involved with several other local churches, including the Anglicans, in setting up a ‘community café’ in the local high street.  But while the Anglican church is deeply constitutionally entangled with the state, and the head of state is its earthly ‘supreme governor’ and so on, formal union is going to be a bit difficult – union with my fellow Christians, fine; union with England as a supposed ‘Christian country’ carries a lot of real difficulties, just starting with the fact that Christian states are a Bible-defying concept anyway!  

There are also issues of warfare; even if I didn’t anyway believe the Bible teaches pacifism, what am I to make of all the past situations when Christians fought one another – for example WWI, with the Kaiser’s ‘Gott mit uns’ (“God is on our side”) set against similar slogans from the nations allied against Germany, and Christians shooting at each other not even in a properly religious cause (though I’d regard Christians fighting for their religion as worse, actually!).  The Church is God’s holy nation worldwide; are the members of that body to end up killing each other because some local churches have got themselves entangled with the world?  How can we have it that our unity as Christians can depend on the rivalries of worldly states?

How are English Anglicans and, say, Swedish Lutherans to achieve a formal unity while both are deeply embedded in the constitutions of countries which in worldly terms may have all kinds of competing interests?  I’m not even going to try and work that one out…!

Much of the concern in the Council of Jerusalem is with difficulties caused for unbelievers/other-believers/potential believers/ new converts; in a particular form then, related to the Jewish origins of our faith, in slightly different ways today.  .  These issues also have implications for our unity, because they cause confusion about the gospel, they interfere with the work of evangelism.   Remember that Jesus’ prayer for the unity of his people applies to their relations to the world!  Also the difficulties can reflect on Christians who don’t practice them as well as on those who do.  And in some cases that actually risks the lives of fellow-Christians for inappropriate reasons, especially when dealing with adherents of other state religions.

For the difficulties posed to atheists and agnostics by the state church kind of set-up, just look at the writings of people like Richard Dawkins.  Huge areas of their objections to ‘religion’ are not about the theology/philosophy but about the antics of various state religions and the warfare, discrimination and so forth not only of the past but still continuing in places like Northern Ireland, and of course also in Islam and other non-Christian religions.  Also I often these days find myself talking to people worried by the state-religion/Sharia-law aspect of Islam and also saying that they don’t want a Christian equivalent.  The shenanigans of the Anglicans about issues like women priests and gay marriage are a major problem precisely because they remain a state church and it can appear that they are therefore the state still discriminating in those areas, and their past conduct, like it or not, has kept such issues unnecessarily heated.  For church unity the issue is whether it is really practical for the rest of us to even work with such bodies, let alone be formally and organisationally united with them, when their position about the state can needlessly hinder our mission to the assorted non-believers around us?

With other religions, the problem is often that like Islam, they are themselves national or state religions in one way or another, and have theologies about warfare which ‘free church’ Christians may find unacceptable.  This brings many issues.  Just for starters, it’s not easy to complain about other religions practising things like national Sharia law enforced on non-Muslims if Christians themselves appear to want something similar.  Unfortunately the argument that it’s all right for us because “We have the true religion” isn’t going to impress anyone else!!  That way round it’s not the difference that poses the difficulty, it’s that some Christians are agreeing with them about the religious state issue and setting a bad example when they shouldn’t!

War is another problem.  Biblically, according to the New Testament, Christians don’t have ‘Christian countries’ with armies to threaten others, we ‘turn the other cheek’ rather than defending ourselves, so we just aren’t in the warfare business – well, shouldn’t be, anyway!  Christian countries fighting wars are a fairly obvious problem to the states adhering to other religions in which the wars take place, and by reflection to adherents of those religions who live in the UK.  A great deal of the difficulty in recent wars has been, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the perception of the West as ‘Christian countries’ and therefore of our armies in the Middle East being ‘Crusading Christian armies’ rather than the liberal democratic armies we perceive.

This is bad enough for the British and other western armies who find themselves fighting a war made intractable by such perceptions and the resulting cross-purposes, and for Britons at home facing terrorism.   But it is even worse for native Christians in Muslim lands throughout the East and Africa, because they are seen as allies of those ‘crusading’ armies of those ‘Christian countries’ and are persecuted for it.  It isn’t easy at best to be a Christian in a Muslim country, there are considerable discriminations and restrictions under Sharia law, but there is supposed to be some basic tolerance.  That tolerance doesn’t work when there are ‘Christians’ at war with Islamic countries.

So there’s the thing; how great an idea is it to be united with Christians whose ambitions for a Christian state are not only unbiblical but put our fellow Christians in unnecessary mortal danger?  Christians being persecuted for being Christians, despite being peaceable, is bad enough; but being persecuted because of unbiblical worldly power and influence seeking by other Christians is surely unacceptable, and the said worldly power-seekers and their unbiblical ideas should themselves be unacceptable in turn.

Also, many of those eastern Christians derive from western missions – missions often by those state churches in their state’s colonies.  This means that they have often inherited those same ‘Christian country’ ideas from the parent churches; and that in turn adds to their problems from the Muslims (or other religions) around them.  In many former Western colonies, Christians and Muslims are effectively at war – real shooting war – because the Christian country idea legitimates that kind of conduct in the same way that the Muslim equivalent does.  You could sort of argue that such Christians ‘deserve’ their problems – but of course they’re just following what they’ve learned from the Western missions.  The whole situation is a mess.

If we take Christian unity seriously, shouldn’t we be trying – REALLY HARD – to get rid of this whole problem??  Shouldn’t we be challenging those who hold this bad idea – seeking to persuade them that it isn’t at all essential, but very much the reverse??  That a comfortable situation in a Western country bought at the price of unnecessarily persecuted brethren overseas is a disgrace, not a benefit.

Another big problem state churches bring to ecumenism is in the history; essentially, most of the things that divide mainstream denominations are things that arose not from the Bible but as traditions in the ‘Christian countries’ back to the Roman Imperial church.  For purposes of this essay I’ll take for granted the Reformation view that over the thousand years since Constantine the Roman Catholic Church had gradually become more corrupted.  As I see it, much of this corruption arose from being a state church, first as part of the wider body that included the later ‘Eastern Orthodox’, and then as the surviving authority of the old Empire in the mixed states that arose in the west from the barbarian invasions. 

Things like monarchical bishops, which had only been trends, became fixed because they suited an imperial church.  Infant baptism was another such trend – before Constantine, this had been sporadic and generally about infants not expected to survive to exercise adult faith, but obviously it suited the Imperial church that everybody was automatically ‘christened’ soon after birth.  Once Theodosius made it a rule that ‘Everybody in my Empire is a Christian or else’, the church necessarily became a mixed body with many members who were just ‘once-born’ rather than spiritually reborn, and whose approach to Christianity was really worldly, including that often people would be seeking high church office because it had become a worldly advantage, and that all kinds of pagan superstitions infiltrated the church with these rather nominal members – and so on….

Come the Reformation, a raft of traditional accretions which had been added to the simple gospel over the centuries were challenged.  Unfortunately the link between church and state wasn’t challenged in far too many places; people had just got too used to thinking of the church in such terms, or if it was raised, there was fear because the state authorities wouldn’t support an independent church and they thought such an independent church couldn’t stand up against the worldly power of the Catholics.  (In honesty they were kind of right about this; at this time Anabaptists were able to grow in a way previously almost impossible in the ‘space’ created by the rivalry of Catholic and Protestant states)  But with a secular authority to satisfy as the new Reformed churches were integrated into their states, there wasn’t freedom to be fully biblical in other areas either, so instead of full reform the state churches ‘settled out’ in various semi-reformed conditions as reformers and governments accommodated to each other.  Some went further than others, but the continued ‘Christian country’ thinking was a hindrance.

Looking at the major things that divide the mainstream churches, there is the link between church and state, there is the style of government/ ministry, and there is baptism, infants vs believers’ (‘Paedobaptism’ vs ‘Credobaptism’).  Most of the other differences are pretty insignificant.

The Church/State link is the main subject of ‘stevesfreechurchblog’ anyway, so not too much detail in this post.  Just to point out that this can range from full establishment of a church as with the Church of England  to various other ways a particular church or Christianity in general can be favoured or privileged in the state and expect the state to conform to our faith.  Ian Paisley, for example, wouldn’t want a fully established church, but he still wants a ‘Protestant country’, with the resulting ‘Troubles’.

Church government; basically most of the state churches have a ‘top-down’ government of some kind and elaborate bureaucracies – the kind of thing you’d expect of a state religion.  The Anglicans and some others have preserved the episcopalian structure of the former Catholic Church, and many would believe in some kind of ‘apostolic succession’ in which clergy appoint clergy and ordination is considered quasi-magical rather than any democratic appointment.  While the NT is arguably fairly free about church government, some of these systems are unhelpful and certainly are ‘non-essentials’.

It is fairly simple fact that when people start from the NT and do ministry as that suggests they all tend to produce very similar patterns, while so many of the other patterns are clearly ‘hangovers’ from the age of state churches.  So again the state church poses a seemingly unnecessary difficulty for unity among Christians.

Baptism; obviously all churches practice believer’s baptism for converts old enough to do their own believing (which can be surprisingly young, though I’d hesitate to follow Spurgeon who I think once baptised an 8-year-old).  Baptising babies is a very different thing and needs some dubious biblical interpretation to justify it.  I think the practice originally arose from two factors, the baptism of children not expected to survive and an understanding of baptism as a quasi-magical washing away of sin rather than a response of faith to God.  But again, the state church with the desire to ‘christen’ everybody for social conformity, and the social ‘rite of passage’ angle (in state not just the church) distorts the argument.

On these ‘big’ differences and also other smaller differences which have arisen in and from the Christendom era, the need is to recognise them as such later developments and to apply to them the tests implied by the Council of Jerusalem and the sermon that triggered this blog – tests of how essential/basic are they, and of the difficulties they may make and whether those are inherent difficulties of the faith or unnecessary difficulties arising from illegitimate traditions. 

At five pages this is about enough.  Our preacher’s message about not making difficulties in the church or with potential converts and so on applies very much to this situation.  This whole Christian country is no part of ‘Mere Christianity’, of the real basics, the real essentials.  Over the centuries it has caused massive distress and mayhem in the name of Christ, and it still does.

LET’S START THINKING OF CHRISTIAN UNITY IN TERMS OF GETTING RID OF IT.

Then we can be united God’s way….

“Don’t Spoil the Story!”

If you go back in the blog archive to January 30th 2013 You’ll find an item about the Nativity story, explaining how the traditional story of ‘no room at the inn’ is a misunderstanding based on a mistranslation of a word which primarily means a ‘guest-chamber’.   Recently I was discussing this and got a rather unexpected reaction – as my heading has it, “Don’t spoil the story!”

OK, I’m sympathetic, that image of the pregnant Mary turned away from the inn to give birth in a stable is dramatically powerful.  I’ve been trying to rewrite the story as the Bible actually tells it, and it ain’t easy to make it so exciting.  BUT….

For me, the problem has to do with the other group who don’t want us to ‘spoil the story’ in this way – the atheists.  They don’t want us to tell the story the biblical way, they want us to carry on telling the story the traditional way; not because they’re bothered about the drama, but because that version of the story plays into their hands and provides them an opportunity to mock and deride our faith.

In early days – 1500 years or so ago – it probably seemed just a ‘strange foreign thing’ that census officials in the east would send a man back to his ancestral home to register, even though he might have no current connection with the place.  Modern interpreters are not so … er … racist … about other people’s customs, and have largely fully realised that the situation is actually absurd.  Yes, people went back to their home city; though few would need to go far, few people would have left their birthplace and family lands to begin with.  They didn’t go back because of a far off ancestral link, but because that was still the current family home, even if they were among those few who had been taken elsewhere by business and similar reasons.  Having made this point, the atheists will then say that the absurd story is only being told because Jesus ‘had to be’ born in Bethlehem to fulfil prophecy – it’s been made up for that reason.  At the same time all too many Christians haven’t caught up yet and go on thoughtlessly repeating the absurd story, and the essentially wrong nativity plays go on perpetuating it.

After you’ve read this, just have a look on the web and see how many atheists are using the absurd ‘no room at the inn’ story to mock the nativity in general.  It may seem sad to spoil the drama for the five-year-old; but what when that child grows up and as perhaps a thirteen-year-old is faced by atheists and agnostics all to ready to explain the absurdity and mock him for still believing it, and the mockery is not just from school-friends   but from prominent figures like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry?  If then he finds no better attitude from adult Christians than “Don’t spoil the story!” – well far less than that has turned people aside from the faith in the past, and if he never realises that the inn story is wrong, and the actual biblical story perfectly sensible at that point, he is all too likely to continue to regard the faith as discredited and not worth further investigation.

The basic answer to this one is very simple;  Jesus is “The Way, the Truth and the Life” and his people should be telling the truth about His birth, not risking people’s souls for the sake of ‘not spoiling the (untrue version of) the story’.  

“God Doesn’t Believe in Hell ….”??

I was a bit tired in church that morning, but when that came up in the dramatic sketch I definitely paid attention, and to the follow-up comment which implied that if there was a hell God would be some kind of sadistic torturer.  Did the pastor really believe that?   And if so, had he really thought it through?

Now look, ‘Hell’ is a pretty emotive subject – and easy to make fun of.  Please understand that in defending the idea of Hell I’m not defending any and every version or representation of the concept.  To start with, I’m only concerned with the version in the Christian Bible.  I’m not going to defend the beliefs of other religions; that’s up to their adherents. 

Nor do I necessarily defend every version of Hell that purports to be Christian or derived from Christian beliefs.  Hollywood and comic-book Hells may be great fun – or sadly just excuses for porn and sadism – but need not be taken seriously.  The same applies to many of the great paintings of Hell – even by masters like Michelangelo or Bosch.  At a more literary level, Dante’s Inferno is a brilliant flight of fantasy, but is perhaps more a satire of Florentine politics than a useful guide to infernal geography.  I’m a great admirer of CS Lewis, but his portrayal of Hell in the opening of ‘The Great Divorce’, though an original one that will give you serious food for thought, is merely a literary device or extended metaphor and Lewis himself didn’t pretend otherwise.  

I certainly reject any idea of Hell which portrays it as needless torture for the sake of it, or of God sadistically enjoying such torture.  I don’t believe God either causes or allows needless suffering;  if God tells us there is a hell, then I trust him that it is fair and just and necessary that it is so, and that when all is clear to us in the next life we will understand it as perhaps we can’t from our present perspective. 

Furthermore, we should always remember that both Heaven and Hell are outside our everyday experience, so accounts of them in human language are likely to be metaphors, similes or analogies based on our everyday experience.  For Heaven we get images of banquets, of pleasant fertile lands – and the infamous harps could quite properly be translated into modern terms as “Heaven is like the best ever rock festival”! 

Such images if taken too literally can seem contradictory.  Hell, for example, can’t be literally both everlasting flames of fire and outer darkness.  We need to think about the images a bit and take the main point without being too distracted by the details from this world. (Images can even differ with culture; in another context we Mancunians can find it difficult to understand how the Bible treats rain as a blessing – but then Manchester isn’t exactly an arid land as Israel can be!  And while I said I wouldn’t bother much with other faiths, it’s interesting to note that in the Germanic mythology which gave us the English word ‘Hell’, Hell was always thought of as frozen over!  But make the cultural adjustment and you get the same underlying point made.) 

For example, the image of Hell as ‘outer darkness’ is generally in contrast to the banquet image of Heaven – all bright lights and feasting and celebration inside, while outside are people who have been excluded (and through their own stupid fault at that, not because anyone else wanted to be nasty to them) who can only look on from the ‘outer darkness’.  

The ‘Fire’ images for Hell come from various sources.  One is the usual Jewish word of the time for Hell, ‘Gehenna’ in Greek, in Aramaic/ Hebrew ‘Ge Hinnom’ the Valley of the Hinnom Brook.  Having become ritually defiled in the past by human sacrifices, in New Testament times Gehenna was basically the Jerusalem rubbish tip, an eco-disaster of bonfires and maggots ‘where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched’.  I’d suggest that as an image or analogy of Hell, the fire bit is secondary to the notion of disposing of rubbish in an appropriate place, where the fire is about cleansing rather than torture.  Probably the best known of other fire images is the ‘lake of fire’ in Revelation;  best guess is that this refers to some volcanic phenomenon which John came across in his exile;  again, John’s actual use of the image is about destructive cleansing rather than torment.  Other fire references bear similar interpretations. 

But there is another point to make; just because something is portrayed by figure of speech and analogy doesn’t mean that it can be disregarded as trivial.  The point of an analogy is that in important ways it is like the thing it describes.  If a concert is described as a ‘musical banquet’, you’d be unhappy to get just one brief tune on a penny whistle for your money!  The fire and maggots of Gehenna may not be literal descriptions of Hell; but anyone who uses such imagery should be describing a reality at least that awful, not something just trivial.  And we aren’t talking about just anyone here; this is the Word of God. 

So OK, I’m not defending the pictures of hell as literal; but I am saying the pictures are nevertheless meaningful and serious.  Whatever dishonest games humans may get up to[i], surely God doesn’t do the equivalent of warning us with images of a ravenous tiger if in reality what he ‘believes in’ is more like a fluffy toy bunny! 

I’ll come back to ideas about Hell later;  but first I want to make a slightly different point, following from that last paragraph,  In effect, if God ‘doesn’t believe in Hell’, why does he tell us so much about it in the Bible?  Also, contrary to what many people think, the Bible doesn’t present a ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ who wouldn’t even mention Hell, preaching a gentle message later distorted by disciples.  What we actually get is a Jesus who uses the words for Hell more than anyone else. Of the two words Hades and Gehenna, nearly half the uses of Hades in the NT, and almost all the uses of Gehenna, come from the mouth of Jesus.  And it is also Jesus who uses many of the other images which we would use in relation to Hell, images of loss of the soul, outer darkness, exclusion from God and payment of debt. If language means anything at all, Jesus certainly ‘believes in Hell’! 

So what do we make of this?  If God the Father doesn’t believe in Hell, how could God the Son, who was with the Father even before the creation of the world, manage to miss this crucial information?  Or is it that God the Son, Jesus, also doesn’t believe in Hell, but chose to threaten us with it as a kind of ‘bogeyman’ even though he knew this would be lying?  Did God the Father actually tell the Son to lie in this way?  Or are we perhaps actually saying that we don’t believe Jesus is God anyway and that he was just making a human error on so important a matter (on which we lesser beings somehow know better???!!)?  The first few of those options are nonsensical enough; the fourth basically destroys the whole gospel, because atonement through Jesus’ sacrificial death just doesn’t make sense except in terms of a divine Jesus.  A God who forgives us not at his own expense but at the expense of an innocent and uninvolved third party is a total travesty.  All of these options are destructive of the credibility of the Christian faith because they depict a God unworthy of faith and trust. 

The trouble is that this crosses the line that really must not be crossed; not a merely academic line or a trivial human ‘party line’, but the line beyond which everything unravels despite the best intentions.  On one side of that line is the simple proposition of taking the Bible seriously; on the other side of that line, the Bible is not taken seriously and instead people substitute their own opinions, what they prefer to believe.  

You’ll note I say taking the Bible ‘seriously’ rather than ‘literally’; that’s deliberate, because in the wake of modern hyper-fundamentalism[ii] the word ‘literal’ is open to misunderstanding.  What I mean by ‘seriously’ is something like the following quote from William Tyndale, which shows pretty clearly what the Reformers meant by the technical term ‘in the literal sense’, which was a long way from dumb wooden stupid literalism. Quoting it from Tyndale also shows how it is a traditional view – it can’t, for example, be accused of being a modern interpretation devised to get round Darwin!   Anyway, here is Tyndale …. 

“Thou shalt understand, therefore, that the scripture hath but one sense, which is the literal sense. And that literal sense is the root and ground of all, and the anchor that never faileth, whereunto if thou cleave, thou canst never err or go out of the way.  And if thou leave the literal sense, thou canst not but go out of the way.  Nevertheless the scripture uses proverbs, similitudes, riddles or allegories, as all other speeches do; but that which the proverb, similitude, riddle or allegory signifieth, is ever the literal sense, which thou must seek out diligently.”  (my boldening … SL

What Tyndale is getting at is that the Bible isn’t just a flat boring statement of the truth; rather it is ‘truth in 3-D’ stated dynamically through historical events and through figures of speech and other literary devices, enhanced by divine (and human) artistry.  And as he says, in that phrase ‘as all other speeches do’, this isn’t something unusual – in our own small way, we humans (‘sub-creators’ as Tolkien would say) do the same thing in our merely human words, enriching them with metaphor, poetry, etc.  This is what human language is about.  We generally don’t have great problems in working out such figures of speech etc. in human works – it’s the same with God’s Word.  OK, as with human works in other languages, of different cultures, of long ago times, we here and now need to be a bit cautious in interpreting the Bible; but we can still work out the key underlying ideas with considerable confidence.  

The trouble is, sometimes we don’t like what the Bible tells us – the plain ‘literal sense’ in Tyndale’s terms that remains even when we have unpacked the metaphors and so on.  There is then the temptation to substitute something we find ‘more reasonable’ – or just more comfortable, more congenial to our selfish wishes.  At that point, we have stopped taking the Bible seriously, and we are letting our opinions govern the Bible rather than the other way round.  

I have no real problem with the guy who aims to take the Bible seriously; he may be more literal in interpretation than me, or less, but we’re both concerned with serving the word and the God who gave it.  I have considerable problems with anything that amounts to “We know better than God” – and in light of the biblical evidence for what God does believe (or rather, know), and how strongly he warns us of the danger we are in, saying that “God doesn’t believe in Hell” is a serious case of (supposedly) “knowing better than God”. 

The trouble is, if we don’t take the Bible seriously when dealing with issues about Hell, the cure is worse than the disease.  At first it seems great, it’s certainly cosy and comfortable and the kind of answer people prefer.  But in the end, it just destroys Christianity itself.  

What the Bible actually teaches….

Well, an outline anyway!  I’ve already hinted at quite a bit of this in the explanations given above of biblical imagery, and we should be prepared to use that flexibility in explaining the teaching.  Not only is this better interpretation to begin with, it will make us think harder about the meaning and honour God’s Word more.   We will also care more about our hearers, and that includes demonstrating that care.  All too often our preaching of Hell can indeed sound sadistic, with the crabby viciousness of Harry Potter’s Argus-“I-want-to-see-some-punishment”-Filch, as if we were gloating about people frying for their sins; we need to know and do better than that.  There is a reason why ‘hellfire preaching’ has a bad reputation…. 

One of the first things we need to do is to teach people in the church; explain the old meanings, the contexts from which the original imagery came.  Put ‘hellfire’ in its proper place for church people to understand before we do too much preaching to the general public.  That will include widening our scope; we should not only deal with the passages that actually mention Hades or Gehenna, or the well-known images of fire and darkness, we must take in other passages about the consequences of sin and give them full weight

In seeking what we might call a positive image of Hell there are three ideas we will keep coming back to – love, justice, and choice.  

The key issue about Hell is not the fire, but the justice; 

CHOICE

In Paradise Lost, Milton depicts Hell as a place with locks on its gates; but the locks are not locks placed there by God to keep the devils and sinners in, they are locks and bars applied by the devils to keep God out.  OK, it’s really a hopeless attempt – if God wanted to break into Hell, could the devils really stop him?  But it makes the point that there is a tradition in which Hell is chosen by sinners, they actually prefer Hell.  CS Lewis also hints at such ideas in various places in his writings; even points out that for the unrepentant sinner, Heaven would effectively be Hell – the very things that make Heaven enjoyable are distasteful to the sinner.   Is there scriptural backing for such a notion?  

Yes, there is; we find the idea in John’s Gospel.  As is often the case in John, it’s not absolutely clear whether these are the words of Jesus himself, or John’s meditations upon the meaning of Jesus.  In chapter 1, John talks of Jesus as the Light, the true Light coming into the World – and of course Jesus said of himself “I am the Light of the World”.  But then in John chapter 3, look what follows one of the best-loved verses in all of scripture

For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.  For God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world but to have the world saved through him. 

He who believes in him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is already condemned, because he has disbelieved the only-begotten Son of God.  And this is the sentence, that the Light has come into the world, and people have loved the darkness more than the Light: because their deeds were wicked.  For everyone who practices evil hates the light and keeps away from the light; else his activities would be exposed; while one who practices the truth, wants light on it, so that it will be perfectly clear that he is working in union with God. 

Though the word is not used, this is as much a passage about Hell as any dealing with Hades, Gehenna, or fire and brimstone.  God is light; Jesus is light:  if a person rejects the light, what is left for them?  The whole Creation is God’s; Jesus is the Word through whom it was created; every purpose and meaning of the world goes back to God, all the value of the world is from Him.  What is there if a person attempts to live without God, against the grain of the whole creation?  Well, whatever there is, darkness would seem to be a good image for it, if perhaps a bit too positive, with a bit too much actual somethingness about it….  Existence in that darkness cannot be good or happy; just preferable, from the sinner’s self-centred viewpoint, to giving up rebellion and admitting the truth of God. 

It is a terrible Hell of ultimate deprivation; but note that it is not at all an issue of divine sadism or similar.  This Hell is self-inflicted and not at all what God wants for people.  But how is this Hell to be avoided if, in effect, God can only offer light and light is the one thing the sinner cannot stand, cannot accept, and indeed absolutely runs from?  How can it be unjust if, in effect, God gives the sinner what he so insistently wants?  Those who cavil against God are inconsistent here; they complain at being ‘cast into Hell’, yet they also complain at any idea that they should be forced to change, that they should be refused their selfish will; the will, ironically, to run from and reject Heaven, the will to choose the darkness and deprivation which is hell.  They do their best to put God in a no-win situation, but in the process they condemn themselves.  They are like drowning men who fight against the only rescuer. 

LOVE

Love – well, ‘love’ is what people plead against hell; how can a loving God ‘send sinners to hell’?  But those who use that argument are often conceiving of ‘love’ as a vague sentimentality.  The Bible doesn’t say that God is gushing fuzzy sloppy sentiment – it says in Greek that “God is agape” which is certainly the ultimate in unselfish and undeserved love – but it is also the ultimate in caring love; GOD CARES!  A God who doesn’t care would be a real problem. 

JUSTICE 

From the mid-1800s, as humanity seemed to be in a state of inevitable progress, it could seem harsh that God should punish sin.  Hell became unpopular, ‘enlightened’ people dismissed the idea.  But after a century that has seen two World Wars, the Holocaust, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the Moors Murders and other serial killers, and recent terrorism and wars, I’m detecting a change, a hardening.  This isn’t old-style fundamentalists wanting to bring back old-style hell; this is ordinary people expressing a concern for justice, with a mix of motives – not always ideal, but I think ultimately well-founded.  

Perhaps the clearest current issue arises from the ‘Moors Murders’; in these crimes one Ian Brady and his lover Myra Hindley abducted, mistreated, and killed several children, burying the bodies up on Saddleworth Moor in Lancashire; sadly one boy’s body remains unfound, and is now likely to remain so, since time has changed things so that Brady, who concealed the body, can no longer identify the site.  

Later Lord Longford took an interest in Hindley, who could be regarded as less guilty than Brady because she was clearly under his influence and arguably led astray by him.  Eventually Longford claimed that Hindley had repented of her crimes and converted to Christianity.  He campaigned to have her released; and as might be expected, failed – there was little likelihood of a person so notorious being released precisely because of the notoriety (sadly less deserving but less notorious people may well have been released since.  Also if released she would clearly have been in danger of murder by vigilantes; and giving her a protected identity could have put others at risk of being attacked due to mistaken identity).  What is interesting to us is the public reaction …. 

The unwillingness to see her released is I think understandable; and there were reasons for it besides questions of forgiveness.  But I meet a lot of people who can’t believe that God himself could forgive Hindley; and believe that any ‘conversion’ was just a pretence in hopes of release.  On that latter point they may of course be right; Hindley wouldn’t be the first to put on finding religion to try to fool a parole board.  But could it be real?  Could Hindley be truly converted and could God forgive her despite her crimes?  I have to say yes, that truly is possible.  The hymn sums it up well – “The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives”.  Jesus himself said that all sins can be forgiven except ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’, and the context shows that sin to be a sin of the self-righteous religious such as the Pharisees, a sin where the guilty wouldn’t even want to be forgiven because they don’t think it is a sin; very different matter to even the worst murders of more earthly motivation.  Hindley could certainly potentially be forgiven; and we can’t easily judge if that forgiveness actually occurred.  

But of course such forgiveness would not be just a glib ‘letting-off’; God’s forgiveness comes only with true repentance and faith, and therefore a true change in the person forgiven.  The Hindley who we hope we may meet in heaven will not be the evil woman who committed the crimes, or the weak woman overborne by her infatuation with Brady.  She will be a changed person who has truly faced up to what she did, is truly sorry for it, and truly wants to be a different person, and with God’s help will have changed day after day following her conversion into that different person.  Further, she will appreciate the cost of her forgiveness; she will know that this is no simple let off, but a costly sacrifice…. 

I have seen Richard Dawkins a few times now on television, and read in his books, asking the question “Why can’t God just forgive?  Why did it need the death of Jesus?”  And the short answer, of course, is that there is no such thing as ‘just forgiving’, and to speak of it that way devalues both human and divine forgiveness.  

The essential of forgiveness is simple – if someone does harm, then in justice he should bear the cost of righting that wrong.  If instead the wronged person chooses to forgive, then the person who did the harm will not pay that cost, the cost will be borne by the wronged person.  Put it in more concrete terms –suppose some yob chucks a brick through your window.  That yob should pay for the harm he has done, not only the price of the glass but also the cost of all the inconvenience he will have caused.  If you choose to forgive him, he won’t foot that bill – you will!  And as you contemplate the bill, you won’t be regarding it as ‘just forgiving’ in the glib way that Dawkins suggests.  For you, forgiving will be costly.  That is the need of the death of Jesus – that it is, essentially, God forgiving at His own cost, and revealing it to us in our history. 

If God has forgiven Myra Hindley, it has cost the sacrifice of Jesus; and in turn, that sacrifice will not have been made for a Hindley who remains evil afterwards.  But the converse is true; for the person who refuses to repent of their sin, justice means they should pay the price of their deeds.  It can’t be just that anyone else should pay while the sinner remains determinedly sinful.  The sinner’s choice of the dark is also a choice to pay the price of sin. 

[And with this now just over five pages long, I’m calling a halt and posting it; I hope to come back to this issue and complete some of the thoughts involved.  Feedback welcome on ‘as far as it goes’, but also remember it’s incomplete….]

[i] In model railway exhibitions we sometimes avoid the stern ‘Do not touch’ by using humorous notices like ‘Danger 12,000 Millivolts’ – which sounds drastic but of course is simply another way to express the perfectly safe “12 Volts”.  In such a hobby context, this is fine; but I seriously doubt if descriptions of Hell in the Word of God should be regarded as similar triviality!

[ii] In case this description seems confusing, I should point out that I have actually read quite a few of the original ‘Fundamentals’ – I even have one of the volumes on my own bookshelves.  They are mostly not dumb wooden literalism but serious scholarship taking a view similar to that of Tyndale below.  The kind of people we think of as ‘Fundamentalists’ would actually find much of ‘The Fundamentals’ to be too liberal for them!

Phe-nomenal!!

This one is about use of language in the Bible – or one particular use, anyway.  It’s a follow-on from ‘A Brief Word on Biblical Interpretation’, one of my earliest posts.  In that I established that the Reformation idea of interpreting the Bible ‘after the literal sense’ didn’t mean dumb wooden literalism, but making full allowance for the Bible to use all kinds of figures of speech, literary conventions, etc.  Not special biblical stuff, but actually everyday use of language.  One such is what is called ‘phenomenal’ language. 

One example of ‘phenomenal language’ we use pretty much every day – and the Bible uses it quite often as well.  Consider this…

“Dear Television Company

I’m writing to you about your weather-persons.  I’m appalled that you employ people so out-of-date and unscientific.  Every day they give us the times of sunrise and sunset, as if it were the sun that moved around the earth, rather than the earth’s rotation on its axis that produces the movement of the sun across the sky!   Have these ignoramuses never heard of Copernicus??  Have them fired immediately and get us proper scientific weather-persons…”

If I actually sent such a letter, I don’t think the TV Company would pay much attention apart from laughing at my stupid pedantry.  But of course I am right – the sun doesn’t rise or set, it really is the earth’s own rotation that causes the effect – why do we continue using words that we all know are unscientific?  The basic answer is simply that, from before Copernicus worked out his theory, we humans have described the movements of the sun by how they appear from our perspective.  In the past, they actually believed the sun moved, now we don’t – but the words are still there as the everyday word.  This kind of language, describing how it looks regardless of the scientific theory about it, is called ‘phenomenal’ language – fitting the ‘phenomenon’.  Sometimes we do change our language when we learn better; sometimes we find it more convenient to carry on using the original words – that’s how language is.

Furthermore, there is some point to using such language.  It does describe exactly how things look.  Therefore for everyday purposes, it is useful.  I can tell a child who hasn’t yet learned about Copernicus that we’ll do something ‘at sunset’ and he’ll know what I mean without having to have a science lesson first!  Likewise (less often nowadays, of course) I can use such language with a primitive native up the Amazon, again without having to give that science lesson; and as most languages use words meaning literally sunrise and sunset, I don’t bother finding a special word to make things scientifically accurate, I just use their everyday word.  Only when it really matters do we bother being scientifically exact about this (and when we do, we find out how much more complex and unwieldy the more exact language can be).  Also in passing please note that the ‘phenomenal’ language usefully remains true even when theories are in flux; it could have been very confusing if people had kept having to come up with new words every time the theory changed while scientists were still arguing about exactly how the solar system worked.

The Bible, of course, constantly uses the language of sunrise and sunset and of the moving sun generally.  Indeed I couldn’t find a contrary example.  Does this mean that the Bible ‘teaches’ a geocentric solar system in which the sun moves round the earth, and that therefore a person who believes the Bible must reject Copernicus?  Or does it just mean that in giving his Word to people who didn’t have modern astronomy, God used their own everyday language and didn’t confuse things by telling them a state of affairs they couldn’t have checked and would have found incredible? 

A slightly more complex example is found in Calvin’s Commentary on Genesis.  In around 1500 he actually hadn’t quite got round to agreeing with Copernicus, though the principles he stated suggest that with adequate proof (not achieved till later) he would have accepted it.  But have a look how he deals with the passage in the Creation account about the heavenly bodies.  He rejects the idea of those bodies being intelligent beings, the ‘gods and demons’ of paganism, and emphasises that God portrays them as just ‘lights’, for our use.  That of course is a major point which in due course allowed scientific investigation and at least began to free people from superstitions about the stars.  But Calvin also makes an interesting point about interpretation.

Genesis refers to the Sun and Moon as the ‘two great luminaries’ (as the Berkeley version translates it).  By Calvin’s day, astronomy had sufficiently advanced that it was known that, in absolute terms, Saturn, despite appearing the smallest of the known ‘planets’, was actually larger than the Moon, just further away.  Is the Bible therefore wrong?  No, says Calvin, because ‘to the sight it appears differently.  Moses therefore adapts his discourse to common usage’ .  That is, in the terms of this essay, Moses uses phenomenal language.  He ‘wrote in a popular style things which, without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand’.  OK, he also did so because he, Moses, didn’t personally know the astronomy we now do.  But the basic point is still sound.  God isn’t confusing the issue by giving Moses and the Israelites details they’d no way of checking, and which might even possibly have led them to reject the account as untrue.  God says, in effect, these are lights which are my gift to you, rather than the gods and demons which the pagans believe and are slavishly ruled by; there are two lights which, to your viewpoint on your world[i], are big lights – one giving you the brightness of day, the other bright enough to see by at night.  Their absolute size doesn’t matter in this account, what is in view is their usefulness.  Astronomers in their university ivory towers will eventually discover the sun to be small on the cosmic scale, and the moon to be small in the solar system – but that doesn’t change the everyday fact that on earth, they are the great luminaries.

I could produce other examples; but I’ve already got one friend who tells me my blog posts are TLTR – too long to read!!  So I’ll just leave it there as food for thought….


[i] Terminology changes; in pre-Copernican days ‘planets’ were ‘wandering stars’ compared to the other ‘fixed stars’, so far away that it takes centuries to see them move significantly.  In those days the Sun and Moon as they ‘moved’ were also considered ‘planets’.  I originally wrote ‘on your planet’ but realised that of course the ancient Israelites didn’t consider the Earth a planet!

Ian Paisley is a Catholic….

…though obviously not a papist!  Anyone expecting me to reveal that Dr Paisley has been secretly attending Masses and/or negotiating with the Pope for a cardinal’s red hat, buzz off and wait for some tabloid to discover/hack/invent that story.  This item is a serious discussion of how the word ‘catholic’ is to be interpreted.

The word ‘catholic’ is derived from the Greek phrase ‘kata holos’, meaning something like ‘according to the whole’, as in the New Age buzz words ‘holistic/holism/etc.’  (The ‘holic’ bit is nothing to do with ‘alcoholic/ workaholic/ chocoholic/etc’ which are derived from the Arabic ‘al cohol’ meaning, well, alcohol)  ‘Catholic’ can fairly be translated as ‘universal’.

Way back, the word ‘catholic’ is used in early creeds like the Apostle’s Creed to describe the Church – ‘We believe in the holy catholic Church….’  At that time of course the Church was not entangled with the state but had voluntary membership, so ‘kata holos’ meant on the one hand that as God’s Church it was universal as God himself is, but with voluntary membership meant more like ‘for everybody’, ‘applicable to everybody’, or ‘open to everybody’ without distinction – ‘As many of you as have been baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  No Jew or Greek there, no slave or freeman, no male or female, because you are all one in Christ Jesus’  In that kind of sense I’ve no objection to saying the word ‘catholic’ in the creed myself, though I admit I prefer, to avoid unhelpful associations, the English translation ‘universal’.

Things changed after Constantine, and even more so after his successor who made Christianity compulsory in the Roman Empire.  With everybody in ‘Christendom’ assumed to be ‘Christian’ following their infant baptism (apart from Jews whose status was grudged and under threat), ‘catholic’ ended up meaning something a great deal more like our word ‘totalitarian’, similar to Nazism and Stalinism, and ended up with the biblically dubious practices of Inquisitions and Crusades to enforce the faith.  With the splitting of the Roman Empire ‘Christendom’ was divided between ‘Eastern Orthodox’ and western ‘Roman Catholic’, but the state church principle remained, and both sides of the split were ‘Catholic’ in the totalitarian sense.  The Eastern Orthodox can still be pretty totalitarian – see ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Serbia and attitudes too often seen in Russian Orthodoxy.

At the Reformation the western church split between Catholic and Protestant, but both continued the practice of being totalitarian state churches; Protestants vary between the established national Anglican and Lutheran Churches and some Presbyterian/Reformed churches with varying degrees of connection with the state.  Even Cromwell, an ‘Independent’ in church government terms, nevertheless believed that the state should be ‘Christian’ in some sense.  The ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ might have sought freedom from Anglican tyranny  this side of the Atlantic, but the Puritan state they initially set up in the New World was – let’s say it wasn’t so free if you weren’t a Puritan…!

In the modern world few churches are as intolerant as used to be the case; a non-Catholic won’t have the Inquisition set on him if he goes on holiday to a Catholic country.  But the idea of a ‘Christian state’ in which the Christianity is generally privileged and assumed to be the norm still exists, and with different versions of Christianity so, sadly, does the idea that ‘our’ version be privileged and others ‘second-class citizens’ still exist.  And this, essentially, is the post-Constantine version of the ‘catholic’ idea still running and still causing damage.

I recall seeing Ian Paisley giving a speech somewhere circa 1970 and he said “This is a Protestant country!”  It is this belief in a Christian country that makes him ‘Catholic’ in the bad sense of the word; and it is that kind of Catholicism on both sides there which leads to the fighting and terrorism and the current marches, riots and protests.  As I’ve said before on this blog, it is not the theological disagreements but ironically the point the two sides are agreed about which causes the trouble. 

In contrast were the Anabaptists.  They realised that Christianity required a voluntary spiritual new birth that couldn’t be imposed by worldly legislation, and so any state including Christians must be pluralist, consisting of the born again and the still unconverted.  They realised too that therefore church and state should be separate – it wasn’t the church’s job to ‘Christianise’ worldly states, but to spread the gospel and bring people into the kingdom of God.  That kingdom consists of those who follow Jesus because they hear and believe him (i.e., not merely because some earthly ruler passes a law declaring his people to be Christian), and so instead of existing in this world as a regular geographical state, or as an ethnic entity like the Kurds or the Basques, Jesus’ kingdom exists as a worldwide body of ‘resident aliens’ – citizens of the kingdom of heaven living as ‘expats’.  

For Anabaptists and anyone else who accepts that basic idea, ‘catholic’ means what it meant in the first centuries of Christianity; universal in a sense of suitable for everyone, freely offered to everyone, open to all regardless of race, gender, or nationality in this world[i].  Such a church does not need a conventional worldly state based on worldly physical power and so does not need worldly warfare such as we see in Northern Ireland. 

It is ironic that this central value of Ian Paisley is also the key value of the Roman and Orthodox Churches; it is not the Bible teaching that Protestantism is supposed to stand for, but an unbiblical tradition going back only to nearly 400 years after Jesus, and actually actively contradicting the Bible itself.  But note that although the two sides in Ulster have slightly different formulations of the ‘Christian state’ idea, they still have that idea in common, and the resulting implication that they can engage in warfare for their version of a Christian state and so against each other.  Both sides need to do some serious thinking about this, including that Catholics need to recognise that their ‘totalitarian’ past, until such time as they disavow it, gives some valid reason for Protestant opposition. 


[i] Because Anabaptists rejected the ‘totalitarian’ interpretation of ‘catholic’, apparently many of them would refuse to use that word or its German/Dutch equivalent ‘gemeinde’ when saying the creed; the Inquisition would use that to identify Anabaptists.  The Anabaptists would not reject the word in its original sense, but probably didn’t realise in those days that the meaning had changed over the years.  Likewise the Inquisition; for them also the ‘Catholic Church’ meant their totalitarian body.