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Christianity is unmistakably anthropocentric. Right from the start it is humanity, not the animals, who is made in the image of God (Gen 1:27). It is they who are to “fill the earth and subdue it,” exercising dominion over the animals and being given the plants to eat (vv.28-29). Although the narrative attributes it to the fall, knowledge of good and evil becomes a distinctive of humanity through eating the fruit (Gen 3:1-7). And it may be rhetorical but Jesus places more value on human than animal life (Matt 6:26; 10:31; 12:12). Moreover God came to earth as a human, not an animal (John 1:14). Just as the first Adam sinned with consequences for all humanity, Jesus’ work of righteousness had universal human significance (Rom 5:18). The incarnation in itself had atoning value, and it was necessary that Jesus was fully human or we would not be fully saved. As Gregory Nazianzus famously argued, “That which was not assumed is not healed; but that which is united to God is saved.” Gregory’s statement is in polemical context, addressing Apollinarianism, yet it is still indicative of the anthropocentric climate of Christian theology.

Despite humanity’s centrality to the biblical story, Christian theology does not ignore the place of animals. God is creator of all. Not only Noah’s human family but all the animals are to be saved from the flood (Gen 6:19-20). It is only after the flood that God allows humans to eat the animals, possibly as a result of human violence (Gen 9:3). Whereas the other prophets imagine universal peace and worship of God for humanity, Isaiah’s eschatological vision includes animals: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (Isa 11:6). This is in part fulfilled in Jesus’ coming. The gospel was not only for humanity but the whole of creation (Mark 16:5). Paul looks forward to a time when “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:21), and acknowledges the universal significance of the gospel (Eph 1:7-10; Col 1:16-20; cf. Acts 3:19-21).

The problem then is not so much that Christian theology has no place for creation other than humanity, nor that this theology unanimously sanctions violence against the non-human. The problem is that humanity’s being accorded a central place in creation, revelation, and new creation implicitly maintains an anthropocentrism, even if there are resources for beginning to move beyond that. In creation it is humanity that is to represent God to the animals, and, through Jesus, again this gospel of universal significance is revealed first to humanity who are to represent God to the animals.

What role does humanity play in the salvation history of the animals?

Has God spoken to the animals apart from us?

How do the animals view us, God, and their place in the world?

What resources do evolution and pre-human existence provide for understanding revelation and salvation to the animals?

How much is biblical anthropocentrism a product of human dominion over the earth and are there alternative ways of viewing the biblical story?

On being articulate

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The Spirit of the Lord has annoyed me to bring good news to the poor.

Jesus ate sinners and tax-collectors.

Without faith it is impossible to appease God.

Love is patient, love is, kinda.

The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a random for many.

Be fooled with the Spirit.

The Probable Son.

I can do all things through him who gives me steps.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still single, Christ died for us.

My power is made perfect in your weekends.

Un/qualifying inerrancy

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If you don’t know about inerrancy you should read the Chicago Statement from 1978, which, for a text of its size has had quite a disproportionate effect on American evangelicalism, ripples of which I have definitely encountered here in New Zealand! Anyway, although it’s a little decontextualised without reading the whole statement, I’m just going to cite this clause here as the meat of it: “Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.”

I will say straight up that I have a lot of problems with the (whole) statement, not least this specific which I’m sure has had an adverse effect on the evangelicals and evolution discussion: “We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.” The statement not only presents a general principle for inerrancy but gives quite a specific example of what this might mean, unfortunately cutting off much-needed dialogue with disciplines outside the church.

A qualified inerrantist might note that this approach is problematic for a number of reasons such as introducing an a priori understanding of truth to Scripture or treating Scripture as a set of propositions rather than narrative or whatever genre. Anyway a qualified inerrantist who would want to hold onto the idea that the Bible is without error yet put more weight on understanding the nature of the text might say that when we understand what the authors were saying then we can say that they were inerrant according to the criteria of their socio-historico-literario-etceteral standpoint. So the writers of the Creation accounts in Genesis, although providing an unscientific account of Creation in today’s terms were true to the scientific knowledge of their time as well as inerrant in their representation of who God is. Or we might say that the gospel writers wrote historically though with a different set of conventions and expectations so, for example, they weren’t expected to write chronological accounts and they had freedom to shape the gist of Jesus’ message to speak to the audiences for which they wrote, so that if we understand the means they used to represent truth then we can say that they wrote truthfully.

But the problem I have with such a qualified inerrancy is that if taken to its logical end then there is no inerrancy at all. So the writers of the historical books had ideological commitments in portraying Judah in a favourable light against the other tribes of Israel. If this is true, (warning! liberal!) which is where I lean, then a qualified inerrancy would have to say that it is inerrant according to the requirements of writing propaganda. A text is true because that text does what that text does. It is self-validating, fulfilling its own criteria for truth according to its genre, purpose, etc.

This is not in any way a smackdown on inerrancy. There is obvious room for a mediating position that posits the terms of truth neither completely external nor internal to the text but terms that arise out of dialogue between interpreter and text. The reason I write this though is to reinforce how trying to understand biblical texts as inerrant can discourage critical dialogue with biblical texts, which should be increasingly important, though not without difficulty in incorporating it into popular evangelicalism. A critical approach would help us ask questions, for example, and as I’m sure many have asked before, why even if we read Paul correctly and realise his letters do not bar women from church leadership (the majority view in evangelical biblical scholarship), his writing is still peppered with understandings of gender which have contributed to marginalisation of women throughout church history. Or we might ask why there are some pretty awful laws in the Torah, without first seeking to justify them by saying they were progressive for their time or necessary according to the milieu.

God did not give us an exhaustive guide to life and everything in it but a collection of texts which arose between the Holy Spirit and broken humanity, pointing to Jesus as our co-sufferer and Savior. As Paul writes, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12).

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So, I totally found out a week ago today that I was supposed to start a dissertation already this semester (I had thought I was starting next semester, which seems silly now that I think of it, producing 17,000 words alongside another course in less than half a year!). In a flurry of flux I flicked together a proposal for the flesis: [Something like:] Divine freedom in the Trinitarian theologies of Barth and Moltmann. Hey, I have to start somewhere and I thought this would give me a somewhat introduction to important topics like the Trinity, divine freedom, Barth, and Moltmann!

In logically-consequential news, I enjoyed the company of Robert Letham’s The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship on a six hour bus ride today. You know you’re onto something good when that Oxford comma graces the subtitle. Letham approaches the history of Trinitarian theology from a Reformed perspective before addressing “Critical Issues”: Incarnation, worship and prayer, creation and missions, and persons. I made some notes of Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Augustine, and Barth regarding the Trinity. Yay! Hopefully that’s a helpful place to start. Anyway, I think my favourite was Gregory Nazianzen (along with the Apostle John, the only writer in the Eastern church to be honoured with the title “the Theologian”). This is beautiful:

No sooner do I conceive of the one than I am illumined by the splendour of the three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the one. When I think of any one of the three I think of him as the whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of that one so as to attribute a greater greatness to the rest. When I contemplate the three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the undivided light.

(Orations 40.41; cited in Letham, 164).

It reminds me of a quote by Thomas Jefferson, in a kind of I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I way: “The metaphysical insanities of Athanasius, of Loyola, and of Calvin, are to my understanding, mere relapses into polytheism, differing in paganism only by being more unintelligible” (source).

Lateral thinking

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In reading any text of theological significance, I am ever trying to keep in mind certain questions to engage with, test, and expand the text. (It’s kind of a modification of the Wesleyan Quadri-/Pentalateral). Note that the questions are critical and not appropriate in all contexts. Perhaps the first question should be, When and how should we ask such questions? Onwards:

Trinity:

Does the writer focus on any one person of the Trinity? If so, for what reason? How can this writer’s understandings of God be expanded with reference to other Trinitarian persons? Is the participation of all Trinitarian persons explored so that the persons are not presented as acting individually? How are the Trinitarian persons related to each other? Does the writer present God in light of who Jesus is? Does the writer present Jesus as divine and human and what implications of this are present in the text? Does the writer take into account the work of the Spirit in Christian communities at present and throughout history? Is the writer careful or overly confident in making statements about God?

Bible:

Is the writer biblically literate? Do they give due emphasis to tensions within Scripture or assume that it speaks with one voice on all matters? How does the writer include contributions from biblical studies, such as recent commentaries and journal articles, as well as awareness of the socio-historical worlds in which the texts are situated? Does the writer focus on one part of the biblical story to the exclusion of others? What hermeneutics are implicit in the writer’s interpretation of biblical texts? What presuppositions do they bring to the texts? Does the writer cover an appropriate selection of texts for the points they are making?

Church and Kingdom (or, on the Pentalateral, tradition, experience, reason, creation):

What church traditions does the writer operate within? Is their intended audience the individual Christian, the community of God, both? What implications does this text have beyond the academy, and is any room given to exploring those implications? What missiological context is the writer situated in, or how are they related to Christian praxis?

Where necessary, who makes up the writer’s dialogue partners and implied audience: Do they engage with global Christian voices? Do they engage with historical Christian voices? Do they engage with critical voices, feminist, queer, colonised, poor, disabled? Does the writer acknowledge their own ideological commitments? Do they engage with voices outside of the visible Church, contemporary science, sociology, philosophy, literature and arts, politics, economics, other religions? Are any important voices excluded from the conversation?

What questions might you ask?

Frames of mindlessness

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Recently I finished Peter Enns’s commentary on Ecclesiastes. It’s in the Two Horizons series, which is a reasonably accessible series that gives you the exegetical basics of the text before ripping into its theology and context in a wider biblical theology. Having never read a commentary cover to cover, I learnt quite a bit. I was surprised at how all the popular passages from Ecclesiastes are either flanked with poisonous levels of cynicism or just read by us badly. Take for example, 3:11,”He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (NIV):

Qohelet does not mean that everything is “beautiful” (a common translation of yāpeh). This is hardly the place for an aesthetic comment, which would be wholly out of accord with the persistent point Qohelet is making here. Rather, God has made everything “appropriate” … In other words, Qohelet is simply reiterating the note of despondency we have seen beginning at 3:1: God ordains the times and seasons, and humanity pretty much goes along for the ride… As if to frustrate humanity further, God has also set ōlām into their hearts (v. 11). We must resist reading foreign notions of “eternity” into ōlām (see 1:4, 10; 2:16). Qohelet is not saying that, despite this sorry state of affairs, God reminds us that there is an afterlife awaiting us, where all these questions will be answered. Rather, God has put in our hearts, that is, made us aware of, the expanse of time, both backward and forward. We, as human beings, are unfortunately conscious of the passage of time, and we can extrapolate on and on, both back in time and forward in time. This is precisely what Qohelet is doing, for example, in 1:9-10. He is able to say that, regardless of outward appearances, there really is nothing new – ever.

(locations 763-771).

Another particularly interesting point had to do with structure. Enns points out that there is a “frame narrator” who introduces the main voice, Qohelet (1:1-11 in the third person) and concludes the book (12:8-14). Now, I’ve previously had a problem with the conclusion, as it seems to hastily shepherd the reader into fearing God and keeping the commandments despite a significant chunk of the text spent decrying the absurdities and injustices of life. Yet the frame narrator is surprisingly affirmative of Qohelet’s words. He acknowledges him for his wisdom and teaching (12:9) and notes the truthfulness of his words (12:10). However, the reader is not to go beyond Qohelet’s words (12:11-12). Qohelet has doubted sufficiently, we hear him and doubt with him, and yet we continue in our faithfulness to God (12:13-14).

The Book of Job makes a similar move. In the prose prologue and epilogue, Job remains faithful despite his suffering (1:21; 2:10; 42:1-6). This contrasts pointedly with his lamented dis/engagement with God and his friends throughout most of the text. The only possible exception which comes to mind is Psalm 88, the only lament psalm which doesn’t resolve. Yet if we look at it in its canonical context, Psalm 1 affirms that the righteous will prosper where the wicked will perish, and Psalm 150 only has very nice things to say about God. Maybe the same can be said about Jesus’ birth and resurrection straddling his crucifixion, and even of creation and new creation straddling the Fall?

How do you think these frames contribute to our experience of suffering? Do they in any way undermine the present experience of suffering? Are there legitimate alternative ways of reading these texts?

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The biblical Deborah drove a tent peg through an enemy commander’s head. Rebekah was the wife of Isaac who helped her favourite son deceive his father and win the deathbed blessing usually given to the eldest. Sarah laughed when God told her she would conceive in her old age, and she was more than awful to her handmaid, Hagar. These, along with many others, Rachel, Hannah, Sarah, Esther, remain semi/popular girls’ names today.

If you don’t count the ‘bad’ ones, there are plenty of other righteous women that have been almost completely neglected when it comes to baby names. Out of the four mentioned women in Jesus’ genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew — Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba — only Ruth is at least a common name. After Tamar was twice widowed, her father-in-law, Judah, promised he would give her a husband when his next son was a little older. He didn’t. She dressed as a prostitute and he slept with her. The line of Judah continued. Rahab was already in business as a prostitute when Israelite spies turned up to scout out her town. When her people came looking for the spies, she lied to them to protect them. The author of Hebrews names her for her faith. Finally, the married Bathsheba was enjoying some naked times on the roof when she caught the king’s eye and somehow things escalated. She later became the mother of the wise Solomon, carrying on the Davidic line which gave birth to Jesus.

Is it just possible that Christendom covered its eyes when its sacred texts named particular women as both sexual and righteous?

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