Saturday, 29 March 2014

The Mysterious Judgement of God

The second of three Lenten lectures in Chipping Barnet (see previous post for the first) focused on the way God uses human agents to execute his purposes. The end of Nineveh came at the hand of the Babylonians in alliance with others. 
We explored the way in which in the book of Jeremiah things said of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar echo what is said about God and vice versa (see, e.g., 21:2,5, 6-7 and cf. 21:7 with 13:14).  Nebuchadnezzar is God’s instrument (see 27:8).  God worked through Nebuchadnezzar and takes responsibility for the actions of the Babylonian king.
Is this the same with us? The famous saying (wrongly?) attributed to St Teresa of Avila is meant to encourage us: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours … yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now.”  But what if I use my hand to strike someone?  Did Christ strike?
In some ways the answer may have to be “yes”.  Being God’s image means that humanity represents God on earth.  As a member of the body of Christ what I do Christ does.  This means, of course, that God is often badly represented and that Christ is often dishonoured.  We often bear false witness to who God is.
Nebuchadnezzar also bore false witness. More generally, Zechariah 1:15 testifies, “I am extremely angry with the nations that are at ease; for while I was only a little angry, they made the disaster worse.”  This maybe makes all divine judgement somewhat mysterious.  Vis-à-vis the victim God accepts responsibility for what happens through his agents but his rogue agents are held to account and their deeds do not in fact truly and fully represent God.
Habakkuk complains about injustice and violence to God because he believes God to be ultimately responsible for the havoc caused by Babylonian oppression.  His complaint in chapter 1 includes in verses 5-11 a flashback, frequently but wrongly designated God’s first reply to Habakkuk’s first complaint.  The flashback is based on an earlier prophecy in which God announced that the rise of the Babylonians (Chaldeans) is his work, cf. Jeremiah 5:15-17 (and see 4:11, 13, 18 which are echoed in Habakkuk).  The prophecy likely re-appears here in an ironic form which already hints at the wrong brought about by this divine deed.
Habakkuk positions himself at the beginning of chapter 2 to get an answer from God.  The answer comes in form of a command to document on tablets a revelation which in its received form talks about the oppressor and the victim.  The fate of the oppressor is at first only hinted at in Habakkuk 2:4 – a swollen appetite which is not judicious is unhealthy but this is not spelled out.  The second half affirms that the righteous will live, if only they remain loyal.  Verse 5 then offers more detail.  The more-ish wine will be the drunkard’s downfall and someone who is as greedy as death itself may well be "death" in due course.
What do we learn about the cross?  We remember that the fact that it was humanity that condemned Jesus and put him on the cross does not mean that God can wash his hands off what happened any more than Pilate.  It would of course be disastrous for our faith if God had not been involved in some way on the cross.  But he was.  “God put [Christ Jesus] forward as a sacrifice of atonement.” (Romans 3:25). “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” (Romans 8:3).  This does not mean that we can easily read off God’s purposes from these events because the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate were rogue agents of God just like Nebuchadnezzar and we often are.
The third lecture explored further what we must say and what we must not say about God’s involvement on the cross.  We must say that far from being uninvolved God is implicated in the death of Jesus and that Jesus suffered God’s condemnation of evil.  But we must not say that the cross shows God’s condemnation of Jesus.  It would be simplistically wrong to say that God punished Jesus for our sins but we can and must say that Jesus suffered God's punishment for our sins.
Furthermore, the cross does not balance God’s justice with his love.  God’s justice is an expression of his love.  “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)

The Militant Goodness of God

I delivered three lectures  in three churches over three weeks following Ash Wednesday as part of the programme of ChurchesTogether for Chipping Barnet.
The first lecture explored the exquisite but disturbing poetry of Nahum.  Its content may be unsuitable for anyone under the age of 15 as it contains frequent strong violence, including brief scenes of depicting sexual violence.
Nahum is a pronouncement against Nineveh, the seat of the Assyrian Empire in the seventh century BC.  The empire is renowned for its cruelty, not least because of its own propaganda, much of which is now visible in the British Museum.  But the document is above all a revelation of who God is, a God whose severity in dealing with evil is a comfort to those who suffer.  “Good is YHWH – as a stronghold – in the day of distress.”
What does it mean for God to be good? Nahum takes up verses from Exodus 34 in which God, having revealed his name – YHWH, “I am who I am” – further discloses his character.  Nahum gives this verses a twist in a carefully organised poem which stresses that while God is indeed slow to (act on his) anger, he is nevertheless consistently and fiercely opposed to evil.  In fact, he is constantly angry when faced with evil or, to put it differently, he is constant in his anger.  Unlike us, God does not flare up in anger, overcome by passions.  His anger is calm and measured but in due course fully effective.
Hating evil is the counterpart of loving good.  Defeating enemies is the counterpart to protecting those who take refuge in him.  It is good news that God’s goodness is militant.  God does not tolerate evil – ever.  God does not accommodate himself to evil – ever. God does not give in to evil – ever.
This is why the cross is necessary.  God forgives evildoers without tolerating evil.  Forgiveness costs something because it is not a matter of saying “it doesn’t matter” or “it was no big deal” or “let’s just forget about it”.  Forgiving is not the same as ignoring wrongdoing.  It is acknowledging that wrong has been done without letting this destroy a relationship. 
On the cross God shows his opposition to wrongdoing.  He crosses out evil, forgiving evildoers while at the same time demonstrating his fierce opposition to evil.
We explored four images used in Nahum to break the hold Nineveh had on the imagination of God’s people, four images designed to take away the fear.
(1) Nineveh, the beautiful garden city which may well have hosted the real “Babylonian” Hanging Gardens will a pool whose water runs away.  Pools and canals were a symbol of order just as the sea was a symbol of chaos.  The draining of Nineveh’s pools envisages the erasure of Assyrian order in line with the claim represented by the structure of the opening poem that God’s order, while hidden and in some ways compromised, will prevail.
(2) Assyrian chariots were a symbol of their power.  The picture of such chariots going up in smoke is meant to reassure the people of God that Assyrian power will not prevail.
(3) The Assyrian king portrayed himself as the lion-hunter par excellence. No-one else was allowed to kill lions.  Finishing off a lion was royal business and demonstrated sovereignty.  In Nahum’s poetry the Assyrian king becomes a lion who is unable to hold on to his prey and provide for his own.  YHWH is the true king because he is the one who will bring about this state of affairs.
(4) Nineveh is also portrayed as a prostitute who will be publicly humiliated so that its falsehood will be fully exposed.
We usually belittle only those we consider “beneath” us but in so far as belittling can ever have a positive effect it must be a belittling that helps us keep things in perspective, making the frightful things that hover over us smaller.  Nahum suggests that this is best done by magnifying God.  Keeping God’s sovereignty and power, his majesty and ability to keep order high on our minds can ensure that other things do not become too big for us.

Friday, 28 March 2014

The Ethics of Contraception

The Anglican position on the use of contraception changed dramatically in the twentieth century and, argues Dennis P. Hollinger, without much theological reflection. Much of the Protestant world followed suit, in contrast to the Roman Catholic Church which dug their heels in.

The December 2013 issue of JETS carries an essay by Dennis Hollinger which seeks to provide the theological rationale for the use of contraceptions and it is available as a pdf file here.

UPDATE: W. Ross Blackburn offers "Sex and Fullness: A Rejoinder to Dennis Hollinger on Contraception," in the March 2015 issue of JETS which is available as a pdf file here.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

The Bible, Law and Ethics Today

Notes from the Inaugural Lecture by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks as Professor of Law, Ethics and the Bible at King’s College, London, on The Relevance of the Bible for Law and Ethics in Society Today

The historian Niall Ferguson quotes the verdict of a member of the Chinese Academy of the Social Sciences, tasked with finding an explanation for why the West overtook China in the sixteenth century and went on to industrial and scientific greatness. At first, he said, we thought it was because you had better guns than we had. Then we thought it was your political system. Next we thought it was your economic system. But for the past twenty years we have had no doubt: it was your religion.

What was it about the Judeo-Christian ethic that led the West to develop market economics, democratic politics, human rights and the free society? The lecture will look at seven aspects of biblical ethics, each of which played a part in this development: human dignity, freedom and responsibility; an ethic of guilt rather than shame; the family as the matrix of virtue, love as the basis of ethics and covenant as the basis of society. It will argue that all seven are currently under threat, and that the Bible remains an important voice in the public conversation about ethics and law.

Seven key distinctive of the Judeo-Christian tradition
  1. the dignity of all human persons (not just royalty being in the image of God)
  2. the emphasis on human freedom and choice (and responsibility)
  3. the sanctity of human life
  4. (observed by American anthropologist Ruth Benedict) a culture of righteousness and guilt (linked with hearing) more than a culture of honour and shame (related to seeing): distinction between sinner and sin -- what is wrong is the act, not the person; hence the possibility of repentance and forgiveness
  5. the significance of marriage as the matrix for society: fundamental connection between monotheism and monogamy, fidelity to spouse and religious fidelity
  6. the covenantal basis of society: first, we are collectively responsible; secondly, a free society is a moral not just political achievement, thirdly, fate of society is dependent on how it treats its most vulnerable members
  7. all human power, all political authority, is subject to the transcending authority of the Divine: there are moral limits to power, right is sovereign over might
"Those are the seven features that I think make Biblical ethics different from any other ethical system. It is the only ethical system in which love and forgiveness are at the heart of the moral life. It seems to me that all seven of those beliefs are currently at risk."

‘Those are the seven features that I think make Biblical ethics different from any other ethical system. It is the only ethical system in which love and forgiveness are at the heart of the moral life. It seems to me that all seven of those beliefs are currently at risk.’ - See more at:

now at risk in our society
  1. evolutionary biologists argue that there is nothing distinctive about humanity
  2. scientific accounts cannot make space for freedom
  3. already lost in abortion, and will see it again lost in assisted dying
  4. we have already moved to shame culture: trial by public shaming (“thou shalt not be found out”). "It is very difficult to create space for confession, repentance, forgiveness, rehabilitation. Once you have been shamed, that is the end of you."
  5. half of children born outside marriage, half of all marriages end in divorce; effects already evident, e.g. child poverty
  6. hard to sustain, now: society as a hotel where each can do what they like in their own room as long as they pay (taxes) and don’t disturb the neighbours
  7. all too easy today to move from saying "I have a right to do x" to "I am right to do x": whatever is not forbidden by law is morally permissible and therefore morally reasonable

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Marriage, Sex and the Government

Christopher C. Roberts on Wendell Berry's Marriage Reversal:
Consider: If marriage is grounded in the procreative potential of sexual difference, then it is grounded in something prior to the human will, and therefore prior to positive law. If marriage is the way we humanize and acculturate mammalian mating, then marriage has a rationale with which government interacts but which government does not invent.
By contrast, if marriage is grounded merely in legislative fiat”if government invents rather than recognizes marriage”then all marriages, heterosexual and otherwise, are premised on political largesse. When a government purports that the form of marriage is something it legislates rather than discerns or inherits, then that government is in everybody’s bedroom. In such a society, you are married only if Leviathan says you are.
Is this a correct observation? The new legal definition of marriage not only makes the connection with mating and biology optional but also seems to affirm that, as far as the government is concerned, any link between marriage and sex is incidental. This argues against the conclusion "that government is in everybody's bedroom." 

Nevertheless Christopher C. Roberts may be right to wonder why a quasi-libertarian like Wendell Berry should welcome government involvement in the making of marriages now that this has become quite unnecessary. 

The rightful allocation of children to responsible adults can happen via birth certificates and children's identity cards (parent 1, parent 2, maybe parent 3 - not all places need to be taken). There would be no need to specify the relationship the adults have with each other or the child, thus guarding against prejudice in favour of mixed-sex or committed relationships.

Couples can enter into open-ended (until further notice) committed partnerships with legal and financial implications which the state can recognise and regulate by way of civil partnerships which could be same-sex or mixed-sex and need not discriminate against siblings and other close relatives.

There is no need on this scheme for the government to have any interest in bedrooms, maybe except for taxing empty ones. The state could limit its interest in sex to enforcing the two rules on which most people agree: sex must be consensual and must not involve children.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Bronze Serpent in Numbers 21

NB: The correct translation is uncertain. The serpent may have been of unalloyed copper like the one found in Timna.

Excerpts from David L. Stubbs, Numbers (SCM Theological Commentary; London: SCM Press, 2009):

serpent imagery elsewhere in the Bible leads one to see the serpent as a symbol associated with evil and sin. Thus the sending of the serpents and the lifting up of the bronze serpent become revelations or symbols of Israel’s sin. This basic meaning opens up the episode in a  different way, ultimately showing that God’s healing occurs in conjunction with the people’s confession and repentance of their sinful ways. (166)

Elsewhere in the Pentateuch, serpents appear in two other crucial passages, both of which give the serpent a more-than-physical sense. In the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh (Exod. 4:3; 7:9, 10, 15), the serpent likely symbolized Egypt and its gods. In that episode, the power of God triumphs over the power of the gods of Egypt. In our passage, then, perhaps snakes represented God’s punishment of Israel by a symbol of their object of desires – life back in Egypt under the rule of the snake, Pharaoh, and the gods of Egypt. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt?” is part of the people’s complaint. They seem to prefer life under the power of Egypt, the serpent rather than life under YHWH. (167)

The other key reference in the Pentateuch is to “the serpent [who] was more crafty than any other wild animal,” who tempts Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden (Gen. 3:1,2,4,13,14). God’s judgment and punishment of Adam and Eve is a result of their failure to resist the temptation of the serpent. The punishment of Israel by God in Numbers might also reveal that they have succumbed to the poisonous lies of the deceiver, who tempts them to both doubt that God’s provision and ordering are really for their good (as seen in this passage) and creates envy in them for the power of God to morally order the world (as evidenced in the other rebellions.) … In sum, the serpents can be seen to be a judgment upon Israel that reveals and symbolizes their sin. (168)

The bronze serpent represents to the people all that the fiery serpents represent. In it they can see the sufferings of their journey. But in it they can also see the judgment of God about them. Like the raising of a battle standard, this action ironically represents who the people are truly following: the serpent, rather than God…It is a fitting symbol for all the rebellions of the people.
     But the raised serpent is more than a sign of judgment. It is also a sign of God’s victory over the serpent. Like the head of an enemy placed on the tip of a spear and shown to the people, the serpent lifted up shows that God is more powerful than the serpent. God is able to cure the physical effects of the serpents’ poison. By offering to the people this symbol of victory over the serpent, it also becomes a symbol of God’s compassion and desire to heal them and do them good. It is a symbol that God did not send Moses to his people in Egypt to condemn them, but to save them and bring them to life…The bronze serpent lifted up suggests that, for those bitten by the serpent in the wilderness, the way to the promised land is one of confession, repentance, faith, and recommitment to God’s difficult yet healing ways. (169)