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?

30 August 2014

The churches and the referendum 1: What hath Holyrood to do with Canterbury?

[The first of a series of study notes I prepared for St Aidan's Clarkston church magazine]

This question was inspired by an early Christian theologian, Tertullian, who famously asked ‘What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ The point of his rhetorical question was to imply that philosophy and culture had no place in the Christian life. He also, but less famously, argued that Christians should play no role in public affairs.

How should the Church relate to the political dimensions of society?

Several competing views:
  • One influential strand of thinking (of which Tertullian was an early example) set the church against politics: We are aliens and strangers. In its extreme forms this is represented by Christian groups who turn their backs entirely on modern society. It is also widely believed in modern society: religion belongs exclusively to the private sphere of home, family and personal relationships; it has no place in the public sphere of politics and business.
  • The Christendom model: The church gave secular rulers their legitimacy; it anointed them to rule but could also excommunicate them; the church was also a major agent for maintaining the status quo.
  • After the Reformation (a): Secular rulers were seen as appointed by God to protect the church. In some cases, the church effectively became the spiritual bureaucracy of the state (e.g. many Lutheran churches). This is reflected in their passive engagement in politics (and like the Christendom model essentially maintaining the status quo).
  • After the Reformation (b): Other Christians, particularly Calvinists and latterly Roman Catholics, saw the church as having a more active role in society – that of transforming society; not merely praying for the peace of the city, but actively resisting evil and pursuing social justice (in some cases through direct engagement in politics).

What does the Bible say about Christian engagement in society?
  • The Old Testament tells the story of the rise and fall of a political entity: the nation of Israel. Look at Jeremiah 29:4–7: What does God tell the Israelites to do in exile?
  • The New Testament is written from the perspective of a subject people governed by an absolute monarchy; there was little opportunity for direct involvement in politics; but it does have various things to say about our attitude to authority (including political authority). Look at Romans 13:1–7 (cf. 1 Peter 2:13–17): Why should we submit to the powers that be? Look at Ephesians 6:5–9 (cf. Colossians 3:22–4:1; these passages are actually about master/slave relationships but are often applied to employer/employee relationship and by extension to any authority relationships): Does this passage suggest any restrictions/conditions upon submission? What does submission actually mean?
  • But the New Testament also speaks of our responsible engagement in society (e.g. Matthew 5:13–16).

11 August 2014

A sermon for Claretide

Today is the the Feast of St Clare, so I thought I’d post a sermon I gave at a Third Order Claretide Eucharist a few years ago:
At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 
‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ (Matthew 11:25–30; nrsv)
This Gospel reading seems particularly appropriate for a Franciscan gathering at which we are celebrating the life of St Clare.

It begins with Jesus responding to rejection – to the fickleness of the crowds who criticized John for one thing and Jesus for the precise opposite; and to the straightforward unbelief of many in the towns and cities he had visited. Strictly speaking it is a continuation of his response, which actually begins at verse 16. He has already addressed himself to those who have rejected him. These verses offer another dimension: he begins to praise God for what has happened. Human agency and divine agency are inextricably intertwined. It is impossible to divide up events or actions by saying humans did a, b, or c, but God did x, y, and z. God is intimately involved in every aspect of creation, even in the rejection of Jesus by these people.

What lies behind that rejection? Jesus says unequivocally that it has come about because God has hidden these things – the truth about John the Baptist and about Jesus himself – from ‘the wise and the intelligent’. Of course the other side of the coin – the human dimension – is that they have hidden the truth from themselves by their cleverness. Theirs is the intellectual pride that picks and chooses what to believe, that rejects the teachings of an itinerant rabbi because he lacks the necessary academic credentials (he’s just some carpenter’s son from Nazareth, hasn’t been to the right colleges, hasn’t been properly trained in the art of biblical exegesis) or more likely because he has touched a nerve with his ethical pronouncements (how dare he question how I choose to spend my money or express my sexuality or treat my employees).

And he contrasts the intellectually proud (the rich, the self-sufficient) with those to whom the Father has revealed these things – infants, those who have nothing, who are completely dependent on others. In order to receive the gospel, we have to become like infants. We have to cultivate intellectual humility (which, by the way, should never be confused with gullibility; though, of course, there will always be those who try to identify the two for their own purposes). This implies that, faced with the challenge of the gospel, we do not deploy the weapons of literary criticism (though I don’t deny that there is a place for those in the academic study of the Bible) but rather adopt the attitude which Eli commended to Samuel: ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’

I want to suggest, further, that intellectual humility does not stand on its own. I don’t think it is really possible to compartmentalize our existence in that way. Rather it is an aspect of humility in the broader sense, and that in turn is an aspect of evangelical poverty. If you like, humility is freely chosen poverty of status. What do I mean by evangelical poverty? Simply the joyful recognition that all I am (whether by nature or by nurture) and all I possess (whether inherited or earned) is rendered completely worthless by the overwhelming grace of God offered in Jesus.

And this, I think, is the vision of poverty that motivated Francis and (possibly to an even greater extent) Clare. This I think is the poverty Clare speaks of in her first letter to Agnes of Prague:
I am sure that you know that the kingdom of heaven is promised and given by the Lord only to the poor, because as long as something temporal is the object of love, the fruit of charity is lost. You know, too, that one cannot serve God and material wealth, since either the one is loved and the other hated, or a person will serve one and despise the other. You also know that a person wearing clothing cannot fight with another who is naked, because the one who has something that might be grasped is more quickly thrown to the ground. You know, too, that it is not possible for a person to remain glorious in the world and to reign with Christ in heaven; and that a camel will be able to pass through the eye of a needle before a rich person ascends into the kingdom of heaven. These are the reasons why you disposed of your clothing, I mean your worldly wealth, so that you might have the strength not to succumb completely to the one struggling against you, so that you may enter the kingdom of heaven by the narrow road and constricted gate.
So, I can imagine Clare nodding her head in vigorous agreement with this passage from Matthew. How should you approach the gospel? As an infant – as one who is humble, who is poor, who is naked.

Then Matthew adds these words: ‘All things have been handed over to me by the Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’ If you like, this is the Matthean equivalent of Jesus’ saying in John’s Gospel, ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, no one comes to the Father but by me.’ If you want to see what God is like; if you want to begin to understand the mind of God, the heart of God, the nature of God; if you want an inkling into God’s attitude to humankind, follow me, he says. Only through him can we see what God is like – which may sound terribly exclusive – but perhaps that is just pride speaking; perhaps if like Clare we approach it with the poverty of an infant, we would see it in a different light – the free offer of God and with him all things to all people regardless of race, social status or gender if only we would accept it with humility.

And, as if to underline that, the Gospel reading ends with Jesus making this direct offer: ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

All the commentaries I have looked at seem to agree that Jesus is speaking metaphorically here about life under the Jewish law as burdensome. He is addressing people who have been driven to despair, who have exhausted themselves by trying to make themselves acceptable to God on their own terms. And doubtless that is part of the meaning. But I can’t help feeling that the offer is more than that. Jesus is offering freedom not just from the self-imposed burden of keeping the Jewish or any other law, but from any oppressive situation.

And that immediately makes me think of Clare again. By all accounts she was a pious young woman. When she was just twelve she sent some money to Francis and the brothers while they were repairing the Porziuncula. It is fairly clear that from an early age she had a vision of emulating Francis’s radical way of living out the gospel. But she was also the eldest daughter of Favarone di Offreduccio, of the family of the counts of Sasso Rosso. So she was a member of the minor nobility and her life was most certainly not her own. She was trapped, burdened by the ill-fitting yoke of impending marriage. As the eldest daughter of the family she did not even have the option of escaping into normal conventual life. All she could reasonably expect was to be used as a bargaining chip in the great game of dynastic alliance: married off to strengthen the family’s ties with a wealthier or more powerful family.

In Clare’s case it was not law-keeping that was burdensome. Rather the burden that weighed her down was her social status, her wealth and the prospect of marriage. She knew in her heart of hearts that she did not fit in to this life; or, it did not fit who she really was. The crisis came on Palm Sunday in 1212. Accept what her family and society in general expected of her, even though it chafed. Or throw everything away for the sake of her Franciscan vision of radical poverty. I don’t know whether this gospel promise played any part in her thinking that day, but it might well have done since it encapsulated the choice that was before her. That night she left her parents’ home through the door of the dead, slipped out of the city by the Porta Moiana, and ran down the hill through the olive groves to meet Francis and the brothers at the Porziuncula.

Just a couple of final thoughts about the yoke that Jesus promises. Anyone who doubts that Jesus has a sense of humour has not read this passage. ‘My yoke is easy’ – chrestos – literally, my yoke fits well. I imagine him saying this with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, after all those close to him would know that he was a carpenter’s son. How many well-fitting yokes had he made over the years? But there is a more serious point to be made about this. The freedom that Jesus promises, whether it is freedom from self-imposed legalism or freedom from the oppressive expectations of our family, friends, employer, society at large, political leaders, etc. is not freedom in the abstract; it is not freedom from all limits. No, what Jesus promises is a well-fitting yoke, a burden that we can carry without over-exerting ourselves. We will still be surrounded by limits, because we are finite creatures and because we are social creatures.

Think of Clare again. She abandoned the ill-fitting constraints of married life in a medieval culture for the much better fitting constraints of Franciscan radical poverty. The limits Jesus places on us are suited to our nature; they are limits that allow us room to grow into whatever he has called us to be.


In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.