14 November 2014

Thought for the day: seeing with other eyes

if we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, they would clothe everything we could see in the same aspect as the things of Earth. The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another (Marcel Proust, The Captive)
And that is precisely what the great novelists, poets, musicians, artists, photographers, etc. enable us to do.

27 October 2014

The Age of the Spirit

A review of The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy Is Shaping the Church by Phyllis Tickle with Jon M. Sweeney, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014.

The purpose of this book is to tell the story of what the (Western) Church thinks it has learned about the Holy Spirit and what this divine agency of change is doing in the lives of the churches today.

The story as told by Tickle and Sweeney is in two parts. Part I comprises a brief history of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity focusing particularly on the nature and role of the Holy Spirit. The authors breeze their way through to the Cappadocian formulation, which seems to represent the high watermark of Christian orthodoxy (and Orthodoxy) by way of such heresies as Arianism and Montanism. En route they also express serious doubts about orthodoxy with a small ‘o’ (a concern for doctrinal correctness). The section concludes with two chapters that summarize the Filioque controversy and take a clear stance against this Western creedal innovation.

Part II attempts to continue that historical journey through the second Christian millennium to the present day while at the same time moving forward our thinking about the Holy Spirit and the Trinity. They begin in chapters 9–11 by effectively revisiting topics dealt with in Part I, warning again about orthodoxy’s pathological (p. 90) concern for doctrinal correctness and reiterating their earlier critique of the addition of the Filioque clause to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. However, they also suggest that, although arising out of Western Christianity, the contemporary Emergent Church Movement aligns more easily with Eastern Orthodoxy and Judaism.

Chapter 12 is a popular exposition of Joachim of Fiore’s doctrine of three ages, which concludes by hinting that Emergent Church may be a sign that his hoped for Age of the Spirit has finally arrived. Chapter 13 proposes that we think of the Spirit as the divine agency of change, asserts that Emergent Church is the authentic form of Church for today, and tacitly assumes that the Age of the Spirit has arrived.

The final three chapters begin by stepping back to the birth of Islam (Chapter 14), which is presented very much as a monotheistic reform movement inspired in part by Muhammad’s disquiet over the Filioque controversy (which, one suspects, grossly overestimates his familiarity with Christianity). One outcome of that foray into Islam is the proposal that we need to rethink Trinitarianism in ‘less biological’ terms. We then return in chapters 15 and 16 to the roughly historical approach of Part I and fast forward from the Middle Ages to the present day via medieval mysticism, the Reformation, and Pentecostalism.

This story is framed by two chapters. In an introductory ‘Back Story’ Tickle and Sweeney explain their fundamental assumption about the way the history of Western Christianity has been shaped. They see it as having been formed by a regular series of revolutions (or paradigm shifts): the Great Transformation (around ad 1), the Great Decline and Fall (ad 500), the Great Schism (ad 1000), and the Great Reformation (ad 1500). On this basis, they predict another significant paradigm shift occurring at the present (the Great Emergence).

Now I have no problem with the idea that Christian belief and practice have over the centuries been dramatically reshaped by a number of paradigm shifts (cf. David Bosch’s magisterial treatment of missiology). However, the near mechanical regularity of the shifts discerned by Tickle and Sweeney makes me uneasy. And I am more than a little sceptical about what they have identified as the key revolutions in this history. Take, for example, the Great Decline and Fall, which they date to about ad 500 (close to the high water mark of Byzantine culture in the reign of Justinian). If I were looking for critical dates around then to symbolize the decline of Rome (Western or Eastern), I would probably opt for the fall of Rome to Alaric (410) and its impact on Augustine’s thought (with all sorts of implications for the subsequent history of Western theology and philosophy) or the sieges of Jerusalem (637) and Constantinople (674–8), which symbolize the emergence of the Sunni Caliphate as a power to rival the Byzantine Empire. Again, while it is true that the formal date of the Great Schism was 1054, this was merely the final act in a drama that had played out over the preceding four centuries. But even if we accept their assertion that Western Christianity has been marked by a series of revolutionary changes spaced at roughly 500-year intervals, the attempt to use this ‘fact’ to predict a fourth happening now strikes me as an unwarranted generalization.

Based on that underlying assumption and the story they have told in the 16 intervening chapters, they conclude with a ‘Front Story’ in which they propose the Emergent Church Movement as a qualitatively new kind of Christianity. However, given that the authors are closely associated with this movement, which they have been at pains to identify with their putative Great Emergence, one can’t help feeling that the thesis is to some extent self-serving. Certainly, Emergent Church is cast in a very positive light and presented as the way forward, while one of its leading spokespersons, Brian McLaren, is likened to Martin Luther (p. 114).

They clearly hope that the Emergence perspective will bring with it an openness to new metaphors (such as fire), which may move us beyond the use of biological language in Trinitarian theology (by which they mean talk of ‘Persons’) towards a more theological account of the Trinity (e.g. p. 152). However, their repeated criticism of the language of ‘Persons’ as biological and their insistence that we need to move beyond such language if we are to achieve a properly theological account of the Trinity makes me profoundly uneasy. How are the three aspects of the Trinity to be understood if not as ‘Persons’? (NB the initial capital and scare quotes: theologians have always understood this language to be metaphorical, speaking of relationships of an ‘I–Thou’ rather ‘I–It’ kind, rather than literally biological.) Surely they don’t want us to see the different manifestations of God merely as the elements of a threefold impersonal force?

In conclusion, this book is interesting and well written. However, I can’t recommend it as a reliable guide to either the doctrine of the Trinity or the history of the Spirit’s dealings with the churches.

14 October 2014

Basil of Caesarea

A review of Basil of Caesarea by Stephen M. Hildebrand (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014)

Basil of Caesarea was one of the key theologians of the early Church. As such, he is well known to contemporary students of theology, but often only in a fragmentary way and often only as a theologian. In this detailed and lucid introduction to Basil’s life and thought, Stephen Hildebrand has integrated those fragments to give us a rounded picture of the man and his thought. More importantly, the book clearly relates his theology to his life and his radical spirituality.

After an introductory chapter outlining Basil’s theological and spiritual context, Hildebrand begins his study of Basil’s theology with anthropology. There are some strikingly modern notes in this chapter. Apparently Basil held that, at the heart of our identity, we are both readers and interpreters. He also argued in favour of the equality of men and women. But Hildebrand also offers interesting and useful excurses into Plotinus and Origen on the body and puts Basil firmly in his historical Origenist context while making clear his more positive view of the body.

One reason for starting with anthropology is that it forms a natural jumping off point for dealing with creation and Scripture in the next chapter. Central to this chapter is Basil’s description of creation as a book that declares the glory of God. Thus there are two books – creation and Scripture – in which God is revealed. The impression left by the chapter was that Basil held an instrumentalist view of creation: its raison d’ĂȘtre is revelation. I must admit I was surprised by this: Was Basil’s view of creation really so different from that of his friend Gregory of Nazianzus?

From revelation, Hildebrand moves in chapters 4 and 5 to its subject: the triune God who accomplishes our salvation. In Chapter 4 he examines Basil’s credal and catechetical treatments of the Trinity followed by his better-known controversial works in Chapter 5.

Chapters 6 to 8 were for me the most interesting part of the book. They deal in turn with Basil’s understanding of Christian discipleship, the importance to him of Christian community, and the relationship between his theology and his spirituality.

I was particularly struck by the extent to which Basil’s approach to discipleship foreshadowed the Franciscan emphasis on evangelical poverty. It is a salutary reminder that Francis’s rejection of private property was no medieval innovation but rather a rediscovery of something that is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition. Perhaps with one eye on his potential audience (American, evangelical, and capitalist), Hildebrand is careful to stress that Basil’s rejection of private property had more to do with living in anticipation of the eschaton than with any this-worldly concern for social justice or equality.

The emphasis of living in the light of the eschaton is also a feature of Basil’s view of Christian community. And he expects this of all Christians: he makes no distinction between lay and religious lives. All Christians are called to participate in a communal renunciation of this world. Ultimately his spirituality is about the movement of human community towards God.

The portrait of Basil painted by Hildebrand is that of a reformer and innovator rather than a traditionalist. Yes, he turned to tradition to help him understand Scripture. But he was not afraid to use fresh insights from that understanding to modify and correct the received tradition.

In conclusion, Hildebrand’s book is a valuable introduction to the life of this key figure. It will be of particular value to undergraduate and graduate theologians and historians of early Church seeking a reliable overview of Basil’s life and work.

30 September 2014

Brush up your New Testament Greek

I recently decided that I needed to brush up my New Testament Greek and, largely because I haven’t studied 1 John for some considerable time, I decided to work my way slowly through 1 John in Greek. Imagine my delight when I discovered that Robert Plummer of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has just begun a series of short videos translating a verse of 1 John from Greek to English every day. If you fancy brushing up your Greek in this way, you can sign up for daily email reminders here.

03 September 2014

The churches and the referendum 4: Better together?

Christian basis for unity

In the previous set of notes I suggested that Christianity lends support to cultural diversity and thus indirectly to nationalism. But, at the same time, it proclaims the fundamental unity of all human beings. This is evident from the creation stories of Genesis 1–11, which present all human races as descended from the family of Noah and behind that from Adam and Eve.

This fundamental unity is reiterated by the New Testament with its insistence that Christ has broken down the barriers between Jews and Gentiles. Look particularly at Acts 10; Galatians 3:27–28; and Ephesians 2:11–22. In light of these passages, how would you assess the relative importance of human unity and national identity?

Living with multiple identities

Christianity emerged and thrived in an era of large centralized multi-ethnic empires (e.g. Roman Empire; Neo-Persian Empire; Chinese Empire). Being a member of the dominant race of one of these empires was often socially advantageous. However, the other member races were still fully part of the empire: the different races retained their distinctive traditions and even languages, but also saw themselves as citizens of the empire (in the case of Rome, this was aided by the Roman tendency to assimilate local religions into the Roman pantheon).

The Jewish nation was exceptional in that its monotheistic religion was extremely resistant to assimilation. At the time of Christ, Judea was a hotbed of unrest because of this resistance. It was widely expected that God’s Messiah would be a supernatural general who would overthrow Roman power and inaugurate a divine kingdom based on ethnic identity.

Some of Jesus’ disciples shared this expectation (e.g. Simon the Zealot) and even after his resurrection, some still saw the kingdom in nationalistic terms (Acts 1:6). However, that expectation was contradicted by both Jesus’ ministry and the subsequent development of Christianity within the Empire.

The example of Paul (Acts 16:36–39; 22:25–29) is instructive. He is clearly happy to exploit advantages afforded by his Roman citizenship. Elsewhere he plays on his Jewish heritage (2 Corinthians 11:22; Philippians 3:4–6) and commends identification with the local culture for the sake of promoting the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:19–23). In view of these passages, how do you think Paul understood the relationship between his Jewish ethnicity and his Roman citizenship? And how does he relate both of these to his identity as a Christian?

Union as the status quo position

Scotland has been a more or less willing member of the UK for three centuries. This is the status quo position. It follows that it is up to the ‘Yes’ campaign to make the case for independence. As indicated earlier, from a Christian perspective, such a case can’t simply be about material well-being. Among the things they might do to be persuasive to Christians is present clear evidence that:

  • the current relationship is exploitative 
  • continuing the Union will implicate us in immoral or illegal behaviour (e.g. unsustainable environmental practices or abrogation of international human rights legislation) 
But, in addition, they would need to argue that the democratic process in the UK is not strong enough to bring about significant change in the above.

Responsible Christian engagement with referendum

We must recognize how the referendum differs from a general election:
  • It is an irreversible, long-term decision. Another independence referendum is unlikely for many years. 
  • It is not party political. Therefore, we should not make our decision simply based on our usual political loyalty. 
  • A ‘yes’ vote implies major changes in the cultural, social and political life of Britain (not just Scotland). 
  • A ‘no’ vote implies acceptance of the political status quo and current long-term political trends. 
  • Either way, it is the most important political decision we are likely to make in our lifetimes. 
Therefore
  • We must think and pray very seriously about the issues. 
  • We have a duty to read the news headlines and the partisan propaganda of the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns critically. 
  • We must set aside our own self-interest. 
  • Having assessed the arguments on both sides, we must ask which option is more likely to create a society that better approximates Christian virtues. 
  • And we must vote one way or the other on 18th September. 

02 September 2014

The churches and the referendum 3: Can anything good come out of nationalism?

What does nationalism mean to you?

Nationalism has not had a good press in the past century or so. Examples include Zionism vs Palestinian nationalism; Ukrainian vs Russian nationalism. What other examples can you think of? What characteristics do these examples suggest? 


Most of the examples that come easily to mind involve ethnic differences. Most of the nationalisms of the past century have been forms of ethnic nationalism and have been at best divisive, at worst xenophobic and militaristic. Can nationalism exist without defining itself against an Other?

Perhaps the most obvious example of a nationalism that is not rooted in ethnic difference is the civic nationalism of the USA. (And it is this form of nationalism that the ‘Yes’ campaign claims to espouse.)

Biblical basis for cultural diversity

Genesis offers an explanation of the origin of cultural diversity in the form of the myth of Babel (Genesis 11:1–9). In this myth, God’s imposition of a multitude of languages is presented as a judgement on the arrogance of the tower builders.

However, the New Testament sees cultural diversity in a different light. Look at the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19–20) and particularly the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1–11). Taken together, do these passages suggest that one culture/language is superior to another? Or do they suggest that all cultures are equally good? In light of these passages, how should we view different cultures?

Christianity at the roots of nationalism?

In contrast to many other religions (notably Judaism, Islam and Hinduism), Christianity can be translated from one culture to another. Being a Christian does not require us to adopt a particular culture. On the contrary, every culture can be a vehicle for the gospel.

The collapse of medieval society saw the translation of the Bible into local languages (e.g. Luther’s Bible in Germany). Arguably, this strengthened the sense of national identity in the language groups affected. A similar process has been discerned as one of the factors that drove African nationalisms in the early twentieth century.

In Britain, King James VI/I harnessed this power by commissioning the KJV: a vernacular Bible one of whose purposes was to shape a united British identity for the subjects of his two realms of England and Scotland.

Since the Reformation, churches have played a role in shaping national identity in spite of other aspects of the gospel. Think of the national Lutheran churches in Scandinavia and the Baltic States or the Orthodox churches in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. In the British Isles, the persistence of very different church traditions in spite of King James’s efforts to unite them has been a significant factor in maintaining distinct English and Scottish identities.

What should independence be about from a Christian perspective?

  • Material well-being? But this should not be a priority for Christians.
  • Ethnic identity? But being Christian relativizes all other identities. Christianity is opposed to any political ideology based on separation or exclusion. 
  • Self-determination? Recent Christian social teaching has emphasized that decision-making should be as close to the people affected by the decisions as possible.
  • Opportunity to reform Scotland? This is the promise of the ‘Yes’ campaign (with regard to equality, compassion, hospitality, environment, being nuclear free); it sounds at least superficially good from a Christian perspective. But is the UK currently incapable of reform in these ways?

01 September 2014

The churches and the referendum 2: A godly commonwealth?

Inspired by Calvin’s Geneva, the Church of Scotland’s vision for our nation was the creation of a godly commonwealth. In Scotland, the church became the conscience of the nation. Working in parallel with government, it was the main agent of education, the main provider of social welfare, and it policed the morals of the nation (sometimes heavy-handedly). The same vision lay behind Cromwell’s Commonwealth, the only fully-fledged British example of a political system dominated by a Christian agenda.
Also inspired by Calvinism (and latterly by Catholic social teaching), the various European Christian Democratic parties successfully wedded the vision of a godly commonwealth to democratic politics. Today most of these parties tend to be Christian in name rather than by conviction, but their founders’ legacy is seen in their social conservatism and economic progressivism.

Biblical visions of society

  • Look at Acts 2:44–48. The earliest Christians respond to Pentecost by beginning to model a new kind of society, one in which all possessions were held in common. 
  • Look at Revelation 21:9–22:5. The Bible’s concluding vision is of a city. In what ways does this city differ from today’s cities? 

Responsible Christian citizenship
  • Look again at Jeremiah 29:4–7. What do you understand by ‘seeking the welfare of the city’? 
  • Look at Matthew 5:13–16. What is meant by being salt of the earth and light of the world? [Think of the cleansing properties of salt and the role of light in revealing/uncovering truth (cf. John 1:4–5, 9).] 
A note on ‘peace’ 

The Old Testament (and hence the New Testament) view of peace is much broader than the modern negative sense of ‘absence of war/violence’. Its root meaning is wholeness – for individuals, society and the entire world. So the peace we are called to pray and work for involves social and ecological justice, harmony and well-being throughout society.

How have Christians worked this out in practice? 

The period since the foundation of the church is littered with examples of Christians actively influencing society around them in a positive way. For example, from its earliest days the church has been involved in famine relief and caring for the poor; by the fourth century it was setting up hospitals; in the Middle Ages it was the sole provider of education. What other examples can you think of?

In light of the above considerations is there any place for a distinctive Christian voice in party politics?

Responsible Christian engagement in society:
  • Making the best of the political situation we find ourselves in 
  • Seeking/praying for the peace of the city 
  • Being salt and light: Where we can influence society for good, we should do so by voting, participating, good works, activism (political or otherwise). 
  • What about deliberate disobedience of unjust authority?