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Posts Tagged ‘theology’

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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?

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Read ’em and … weep? Just graduated from a year doing a Graduate Diploma in Theology at Laidlaw College in Christchurch. I thought it was a fitting time to share what I had learnt with my readers! I’ve only included the essays which I thought I did a good job at and would be interesting.

Introduction to the Old Testament: This first essay looks at the theme of kingship in the Bible, with special focus on the establishment of the monarchy in 1 Samuel. This second essay attempts to outline “sexuality” in the Pentateuch and then uses Jesus’ interpretation of the law in Matthew to meditate on how best we can appropriate it. I regret not starting with a definition of sexuality and the bibliography is quite thin because the topic is so broad!

Gospel of John: Looking at the theme of divine and human agency in John, i.e. predestination and free will, I argue that each book of the Bible needs to be approached on its own terms regarding the information it gives on this. I had to write an application section as part of the assignment. Ignore that; it’s a let down. For my exegesis I asked if I could do the opening verses, 1:1-5. 3000 words on five verses! That was too much fun.

1 Corinthians: Paul presents the most in-depth discussion of celibacy in the Bible. Naturally, I was drawn to checking out what he was talking about. Our exegetical was on the abuse of the Lord’s Supper in 1:17-34. The application is a bit weak but I think all else went well!

Biblical Interpretation: A short, sharp survey of my favourite book in the New Testament, Philippians.

God and Creation: I will not post this one but if anyone is interested let me know in the comments section. This is a theological examination of the Christchurch earthquake. I definitely think it’s better to say something rather than nothing, and I have tried my best to be sensitive, though I’m still unsure what good reading it will do!

Salvation in History and Beyond: Something which I’m still confused about, Lutheran and Catholic approaches to justification. The essay is a little thin in the bibliography, but hopefully it’s a good enough introduction to the basic concerns. I dialogue with the Finnish school on Luther which sees something like deification being a part of Luther’s thought, the Joint Declaration on Justification, which is the result of many years of ecumenical discussion between Catholics and Lutherans, and a Liberationist critique of Lutheran justification.

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There’s no way I can even hope to cover at least some of these, though one might be possible. Nonetheless you might elect to indulge on my part! (They’re all theology related).

 

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10. Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking by Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist, Daniel P. Umbel, with foreword by Stanley Hauerwas (Baker Academic: October 1, 2013)This book re-examines the popular thesis that Bonhoeffer attempted to assassinate Hitler, reviewing this in light of his writings, as well as exploring his ethics on pacifism. Check out the detailed and informed review from Roger Olson. Remember to read the comments section and this response to the review from one of the authors.

 

evan theol

9. Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction by Michael Bird (Zondervan: October 30, 2013). Michael Bird is an Australian New Testament scholar who has spent his time among Baptists, Reformed, Presbyterians, and Anglicans: “I would describe myself as an ex-Baptist postPresbyterian Anglican.” Because he’s writing from Australia, he doesn’t need to be too careful about what he says either! Some reviewers on Amazon are not too sure about his biblical studies background and think that more experience with systematic theology would do Bird well. I’m often of the opinion that more experience in biblical studies would do systematic theologians well! He’s also a bit hilarious. One reviewer cites his comments on penal substitution: “I do not wish to disparage Jesus’ death as an atoning, vicarious, substitutionary, and penal sacrifice for sin. May I be anathematized — or even worse, may I be tied to a chair, have my eyelids taped open, and be forced to watch Rob Bell Nooma clips — should I ever downplay the cruciality of Jesus’ sacrifice for sinners” (he goes on to qualify this; it’s just too long to include). Laidlaw, the Bible College I went to this year, is probably going to be adopting this 912 page introduction as the textbook for all theology courses from now on. It would be handy to have around as a reference!

 

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8. The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context by Myron Penner (Baker Academic: June 15, 2013). Not that I’ve looked into the basis for apologetics, but taking a leaf out of Kierkegaard’s book I suppose I’ve been quite ambivalent to it. It would be interesting to see how Penner attempts to reappropriate this sometimes controversial Christian inheritance.

 

journey

7. The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction by Roger Olson (IVP Academic: October 31, 2013). Olson, an establised and learned teacher of modern theology, traces the major developments over the last 300 (?) years, looking at the epistemological soup from which it emerged, Scleiermacher and liberalism, American evangelicalism, all those amazing 20th century Germans, and postmodern and postliberal theologies, plus more. At 720 pages, this probably more for reference than light reading, though the latter will most probably do you a lot of good!

 

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6. Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy edited by J. Merrick, Stephen M. Garrett, and Stanley N. Gundry, with contributions from R. Albert Mohler Jr. (classical inerrancy), Peter Enns (historical-critical), Michael Bird (??), Kevin Vanhoozer (Augustinian inerrancy/something to do with theological interpretation of Scripture?), and John R. Franke (??) (Zondervan: December 10, 2013). Dear reader, during the course of writing this I bought this book on Kindle and somehow did not realise I would not have it for another couple of weeks! Anyway, Peter Enns is my homeboy. When I became a Christian I underwent a significant amount of confusion as to the role of Scripture in faith. It’s important to be aware of the different approaches out there and the strengths and weaknesses of each. Here’s a short introduction:

 

spirit power

5. Spirit and Power: The Growth and Global Impact of Pentecostalism edited by Donald E. Miller, Kimon H. Sargeant, and Richard Flory  (Oxford University Press: July 24, 2013). A collection of essays on global pentecostalism, including why it’s growing, pentecostalism and politics, gender, and an appendix with figures. How can you not be excited!? I’m not 100% but pretty sure it’s not the Blue Like Jazz guy.

 

twible

4. The Twible: All the Chapters of the Bible in 140 Characters or Less . . . Now with 68% More Humor! by Jana Riess (self-published (?): October 26, 2013). What a project! Apparently it’s both funny and does not shy away from the controversy which the Bible itself presents. Psalm 17: “Shortest Ps. ALL nations have to praise G b/c of what he did for Israel. We’re talking to you, Egypt & Syria. PTL, already.” 2 Chronicles book introduction: “Like 2 Kings, but with northern kings and history removed. This is SOUTHERN history, y’all.” Genesis 9: “They’ve de-arked. G sends a rainbow to promise he’ll never again murder us by flood. Keeps earthquakes, tsunamis & hurricans in reserve.”

 

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3. The Holy Spirit: In Biblical Teaching, through the Centuries, and Today by Anthony Thiselton (Eerdmans: June 1, 2013). Thiselton has written extensively on hermeneutics, as well as penning a large and impressive Greek commentary on 1 Corinthians. He is in (mostly suspicious) dialogue with postmodernism and explores Christian responses to this. He’s in his seventies and still going strong! Again, this is another sort of reference book (579 pages), briefly laying out biblical understandings of the Holy Spirit and then tracing these through history to contemporary approaches in theology.

 

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2. Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey, with foreword from Rachel Held Evans (Howard Books: November 5, 2013). Gender is one of the most important issues that evangelicalism needs to grapple with at the moment! Jesus and Paul, among other voices in the Bible, have been variously praised and criticised/critiqued for their approaches to gender. Sarah Bessey sees that there is at least some positive potential there. It will be interesting to see where she takes it!

 

paul-and-the-faithfulness-of-god

1. Paul and the Faithfulness of God by N. T. Wright (Fortress: October 17, 2013). What else did you expect? N. T. Wright is possibly the most prolific contemporary Pauline scholar. At 1700 pages (1519 of reading material), this is a force to be reckoned with. Love him or dislike him, this is required reading for anyone who wants to seriously engage with the New Testament.

 

elements

Bonus: The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase by Mark Forsyth (Icon Books: No date… but quite recent!). I’m not all theology nerd! Forsyth is an etymologist, that is someone who looks at how words came about. In his new book he introduces his readers to the ancient discipline of rhetoric, that is, how to speak well.

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Hey friends, it’s nice returning to WordPress after being ‘away’ for a short while. In this away time I managed to have a little holiday, arrive back in Aotearoa, write a third of a novel (which is indefinitely stowed away somewhere on my personal internets for future completion), apply for bible college in March, read some more and then spend this last week playing far too many games. On a ‘more personal note’, I’m still recovering from a decisive dip in faith some readers will have picked up in the posts last year, a kind of Nietzschean ressentiment, creating truths to revenge myself against existence. Many of my thoughts still stand; I just hope now to express them with more grace and humility, not so much to tear things down, which is the easy and boring thing to do, but to focus on upbuilding, on actually say something. The purpose of this post is a kind of preparatory for my course this year. Ideally it would be beautifully referenced, demonstrating my wide reading on the subject and attempt to answer all the appropriate questions and reservations. Yet this is not so. See it as a kind of journal, something intended for self-reflection, but in this case happenchanced upon by others.

* * *

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

(1 Corinthians 1:20-25 NRSV).

Theology is the study of God. If you want to narrow that down then you can have a g/God, or the point of access to God, like good Christians will tell you that Jesus is the starting point for theology. Alternatively, you can have a specific focus, ecclesiology, the study of the Church, which is rooted in theology, etc. You could also give theology a wider application by saying something like the study metaphysics, that which is beyond the ‘physical’¹. That’s theology, or at least my sloppy definition of it. What, then, does it look like?

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“If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not with truth.” — Dostoevsky

Some time ago on a jaunt through Wikiquote I discovered this awesome statement. It raises many questions. Why would you want something other than the truth? Does a good Christian not accept Christ as truth anyway? What does Christ have above the truth? Some beautiful deception? Having not read the context in which this quote appears, the best thing I can do is to possibly misunderstand Dostoevsky by taking his word for it. So what does ‘his word’ mean to me? Here truth operates within the circle of reason and language; Christ operates in a circle beside that. Language, composed of words, structures and myriad other complex nuances, signifies reality/experience and all that is contained within it (this includes what is only contained in it as a possibility, like absolute zero).  Reason can be the manipulation of ideas expressed in language (although there also exists a pre-linguistic reason, coming to conclusions without reference to language, not even an internal one²). The problem then with reason and its position in language is that it signifies; it is not identical to the reality it expresses.

Be careful not to misunderstand me. This is not traditional apophatic theology: our corrupted reason cannot express or think God (although I accept this in another time and place). Nor is this philosophy’s equivalent: How do we know that what we know is true? This is only to assign reason and language to their proper places within experience. It is a redistribution of wealth. As Heidegger says of Descartes, the doubting subject is not the centre of epistemology (method of knowledge), yet it is not absent from it. The doubting subject is not the source of epistemology but only a mode of it. We are thrown into the world before we make sense of it. This is the next point: although language is not identical to that which it expresses, it still expresses it. There is definitely some identificating going on. This, then, is the correct place of language and reason: A part of the whole, one site in reality where the rest of experience can be conveniently bottlenecked.

Note that this applies also to my description of language and reason. A mutiny is occurring at this moment. I cannot assume some metalanguage with which I deal with language, etc. What I can do though is to point somewhere with this contradiction in an attempt to distract the reader. Imagine a politician speaking to a large crowd and attempting to convince them of a certain ideology. Just when the speaker is reaching the crux of their argument, the crowd, as one, suddenly turns and leaves. There is no one left. The speaker may continue but their words will not be received. Or consider rehearsing words in your head for an upcoming job interview, but a Taylor Swift song comes on the radio and you can’t ignore it. The rehearsal sinks out of sight. This is the critique of reason, not with reason itself, but a force from the outside. I will acknowledge that my examples full short because they only exist in the language I am using here rather as actualities. This gap will always be present when speaking of such examples. All I can say is that if you want to take me up on this one I can just disable commenting on the post.

Language is one mode of epistemology. There are infinite others³, such as joy. I ‘know’ something about reality through the extent, variety, etc of joy I experience. Joy as a mode and the knowledge gained from it both exist pre-linguistically. If I am joyful semi-regularly then I experience the world with joy before I can translate that it into words and ideas. Maybe my experience is accompanied by words and ideas. This does not negate pre-linguistic joy as a mode of knowing but only shows it occurs beside our most linguistically recognisable mode, language.

If you’ve still energy after that little excursion then follow me back to the issue at hand, Jesus, who is theology. Jesus is intermodal. I want to avoid saying he is a particular mode because he appears in many modes (you could possibly say the same about joy and language). He is not confined to reason and therefore cannot be ‘reached’ through reason alone. He could possibly be reached without reason, but this would require a strict definition of reason and exceptional circumstances which I have no mind to express. Saying this is akin to saying it’ useless waiting for snow in the middle of Australia but it is possible we could still reach snow if we were somewhere else. Enter Dostoevsky’s Christ. This is the elusive ‘If’ with which Dostoevsky introduces the statement. Now reason is not an end, nor a meaningful end to an end. Reason can only be contributory, the ‘If not’. If Christ is not outside truth then I can reasonably say that this blog post can contribute to myself and others ‘reaching’ Jesus (or, as a good Christian would say, contribute to a medium for Jesus reaching us). As Peter Rollins writes,

a person may “believe” that they are utterly safe in a roller coaster and yet be too terrified to ever step onto one. The point is that the conscious claim (I am rational and know that this is safe) is a mere story that covers over the operative belief (I will not be safe). — Still my favourite, accessed here.

Jesus appears in our beliefs only if they have operative value. A person who practises prayer but often doubts its value believes in it more than a person who merely affirms it intellectually. Or Kierkegaard, “Even if one were able to render the whole content of faith into conceptual form, it would not follow that one had grasped faith”. That appears on banner of my blog. For me it sums up not only Kierkegaard but theology. A cute argument is not the site of God. Jesus exists not in saying “The watch must have a watchmaker”. He was a carpenter. Sound theology will always exist not in the abstract, the beautiful sermon or the journal article of intellectual depth alone, but in the lives of those who practise it. If I am to do theology it be in the open air, rather than in a vacuum. Theology encompasses more than the use of reason and language. A true theologian conforms to the character of Christ and takes part in the Kingdom of God4.

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sisterin need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

(1John 3:16-18 NRSV).

* * *

¹Physical literally meaning soul-like. Is the irony intended? That metaphysics is defined as that beyond the metaphysical? Maybe metamaterial (metasomatic?) would be better, but perhaps I’m missing the history involved in this coinage.

²This, of course, is a very lazy definition of reason. Linguistic and pre-linguistic reason are only relatively, not absolutely, distinct: The latter will make use of some non-linguistic signification as it needs to signify reality in some way in order to operate within, which therefore makes it linguistic, as language signifies. Linguistic signification must also depend on the non-linguistic for it to make sense to the subject, ie. we are distinct from the language we use. Therefore when I speak of two kinds of reason, I speak as a good relativist, of two different poles.

³’Language’ is a convenient way of naming a mode but in reality it will be composed of infinite infinitesimal parts which are also modes, the same going for any other examples I give.

4I must also anticipate here any Pentecostal ‘amen’. Reason, thinking, theology as mental education, writing books for Jesus, etc — these are not bad. They just need to be situated in their appropriate context.

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“I am here to tell you that in time, the mutator gene will activate in every living human being on this planet. Perhaps even your children, Senator” — Jean Grey

“I can assure you, there is no such creature in my genes” — Senator Kelly, X-men (2000)

* * *

People love progress. Progress is widely accessible in pop culture, for example X-men where certain mutant genes have allowed some people to develop superhuman abilities. Eighties movies like Terminator (1984) and Blade Runner (1982) imagine a future where we advance so far technologically that technology becomes independent and takes advancement into its own hands. Progress is found in the scientific world (which I know little about), in evolution where animals ‘progress’ from single-celled organisms to not-so-single-celled organisms and then they learn to live on land and they grow legs and some get wings and then finally some lucky guys and girls start finding out that they can access abstract thinking or whatever it is that separates the peoples from the animals. It is after crossing this point of separation that we can imagine the future possibility of the likes of invisibility or even, recently, immortality, and movies like Gattaca (1997) can imagine a society where only the best genes are passed onto the next generation through some technological interpolation.

But does a materialist perspective in any way allow for such a notion of progress? Is it possible to say that Homo sapiens is more evolved than Homo erectus? Is it possible to say that a domestic cat is more evolved than a bacterium? Is it even possible to say there is something which separates humans from the animals?¹ No to all the above. There is no point in evolutionary history where humanity steps outside its animal bounds. Technology does not provide humanity with an abiological means to a post-biological or post-evolutionary ends. If it did, then at what point did we transcend our biology? Use of tools/technology is contained within our biology so technology escapes ostracisation as abiological.

What is more, progress assumes an invisible universal measuring stick. All organisms can be measured against this to determine who is the most ‘advanced’. But the evolutionary measuring stick is not located in the universal but the particular, the environment. Species adapt not according to what is universally awesome, but specifically to what allows them to survive and pass on their genes in a particular environment. Thus X-men, which takes advantage of the relatively random process of mutation, falls prey to the same concept of universality. Mutants in X-men may have problems controlling their powers, and then there are far-reaching social consequences of their genes, but according to the universal measuring stick they have progressed not because they are adapted to their environment in such a way that secures survival and positive reproductive ends but they receive the possibility of mastery over the universal environment. Thus in the third movie, Xavier can refer to Jean Grey as a ‘level five mutant’. To this we can say with Senator Kelly, “There is no such creature in my genes”.

* * *

There are various ways in looking at progress in theology. Kierkegaard famously introduces his Fear and Trembling with a comparison between faith and philosophy:

In our time nobody is content to stop with faith but wants to go further. It would perhaps be rash to ask where these people are going, but it is surely a sign of breeding and culture for me to assume that everybody has faith, for otherwise it would be queer for them to be . . . going further. In those old days it was different, then faith was a task for a whole lifetime, because it was assumed that dexterity in faith is not acquired in a few days or weeks. When the tried oldster drew near to his last hour, having fought the good fight and kept the faith, his heart was still young enough not to have forgotten that fear and trembling which chastened the youth, which the man indeed held in check, but which no man quite outgrows. . . except as he might succeed at the earliest opportunity in going further. Where these revered figures arrived, that is the point where everybody in our day begins to go further.

(Retrieved online here).

Fighting the good fight

Kierkegaard is attacking the idea that we can start where others have left off. But we are in reality not a part of some external framework where this is possible. Yes we can learn and build on the discoveries and theories of those who have gone before us, we can consider ovens and then make microwaves, but these are external to what it means to be human. There is an a-temporal core to human existence. Thus Nietzsche can address his work within his work at the end of Beyond Good and Evil, “You have already taken off your novelty and some of you, I fear, are on the point of becoming truths: they already look so immortal, so pathetically righteous, so boring!” (Penguin Classics, 2003, p.221). Whereas he experienced and lived his philosophy, now it was overtaking him to exist in the external world of truth, the world where philosophical progress supposedly exists. Faith on the other hand, or Nietzsche’s existential struggles, exists between the subject and God, or existence. The subject, though a part of space and time, ignores any progressive meaning contained in the spatio-temporal to interact with the infinite/eternal, etc which transcends it.

* * *

¹If no, then you could probably also say that this inevitably leads to monism or, more familiarly, a kind of pantheism, where unity precedes difference. If there is nothing which separates a person from being a jellyfish from being a fungus from being the Loch Ness Monster (I swear she exists) because we are all contained under the category of ‘living’, then further there must be nothing to separate the animate from the inanimate, unless life is to be accorded some transcendental value.

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“What good is it that an everlasting hope has been promised to us, but we have miserably failed?”

(2Esdras 7:120 NRSV).

* * *

After a short recess due to some unexpected lack of inspirations, I’m returning with a follow-up post on grace after It’s not easy being evilWhereas the former focussed on the necessity of entering grace through law, this will focus on some difficulties in law persisting after grace. I apologise ahead for the lack of footnotes and overuse of brackets. WordPress is not ideal for essay-like writings.

What makes grace possible? Certain passages in the bible that stress God’s omnipotence point out how nothing we do can ultimately sway his plan; because of God’s complete sovereignty, all redemption that a fallen world requires originates in him. For example, take the classic sermon attributed to Paul in Acts:

The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.

(17:24-27 NRSV)

A photo of John Milton on Instagram.

If God is God then he has no need for us to contribute to the success of his plans. He’s got it sorted. In one of my favourite Milton poems (ie. in one of my favourite poems), Milton explores his now relative inability to serve God after becoming blind:

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed[¹]
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

He complains that as he grows closer to God in his old age, his body prevents him from serving the Lord more fully. Yet his conclusion is akin to the description of God in Acts: The Lord is able to fulfill his will without the great works of Milton (cf. Paradise Lost, which is a great work, above that of Paradise Regained, ironically and quite tellingly making the Fall more central to being human than Christ’s redemption), only now requiring that Milton wait faithfully.

Isn’t this omnipotence partly what enables God to forgive sins? If freedom allows us to do otherwise than God intends (ie. sin) then the Lord’s omnipotence allows him to allow for that freedom independently of the fulfillment of his will. Paul expresses this asymmetry in a popular verse:

God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8 NRSV).

* * *

This alone makes me cynical of Zizek and Rollins’ atheistic enthusiasm towards the Christian legacy. God or the infinite, the Beyond, etc does not exist; he died on the cross. All we have now is the material Christian community, and the agapeic love thereof, which accepts us unconditionally (love the sinner, hate the sin). How then is this grace possible? The immutable alternative to sin and death, God’s ultimate and unchanging plan which exists in the infinite, has been shown to be wishful thinking, an illusion. Grace always was, and now knowingly, expressed in finitude, through imperfect believers.

I’m no scholar but humour me here. Say what Paul is saying in Romans is that it is impossible to fulfill the law through obedience to it, for various reasons, one being the universal sin of humanity (Romans 3:9ff), made known through the law (3:20), even taking the opportunity given by this knowledge to further assert itself (7:7-8). I think this can be possibly erroneously supplemented (in a good way) by some passages from the Messiah himself, and some good, commonsense examples. The Sermon on the Mount is a helpful place to start:

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire[…]

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

(Matthew 5:17-23, 27-30 NRSV).

Jesus cannot be seen here as just creating other absolute categories. The problem with law here is that its requirements are never absolute. Jesus points this out by relativising them. A lot of people could boast that they never committed adultery or murdered anyone. But how many could say they never indulged feelings of lust or hate for anyone? The temptation of people approaching this passage is to miss the point of what Jesus is saying by creating new absolute categories: No longer is it just wrong to sleep with the newlywed next door, it’s wrong also to think about doing so. I cannot dismiss that Jesus’ words righfully challenge smug law-abiders who think they’ve ticked all the boxes, yet in reality they missed the point of the law. Yes, taken. But we need to take our hermeneutics one step further. But what can also be taken from this passage is that Jesus is asking of us something impossible. It’s now wrong to think about committing adultery. What if it’s wrong also to want to think about doing so? This is all to easily dismissed as an untouchable depth of the depraved heart, which is not equal to ‘willful sins’ simply because we wake up with it in the same way we wake up hungry. Anger and lust are part and parcel with our humanity. Jesus asks us to not be something which cannot not be.

Perhaps this is why Paul cites ‘covetousness’ as an example of failure to live up to the law (Romans 7:8). With the possible exceptions of worshipping Yahweh alone and honouring your father and mother, covetousness is the law in the Decalogue most immediately obvious as an internal sin. As is already evident in the Torah, and then in later Rabbinic literature, case law and a whole range of imaginative possibilities were devised to determine what was and what wasn’t transgression in externally measurable circumstances: “If men get into a fight with one another, and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals, you shall cut off her hand; show no pity” (Deuteronomy 25:11-12 NRSV). Coveting occurs internally where things like husbands, genitals and hands don’t exist. It is not entered into with externally measurable circumstances but lurks in the infinite subconsciousness and coexists with the desires to drink water, yawn when you’re tired and scratch an itch. Of course, you don’t need to respond to those desires, but to be told not to desire in the first place, this is difficult.

Coming back to Jesus’ sermon, what is worrying (although I tend to always feel not somehow worried but inspired when I read this passage) is that he calls us to live so highly, to “be perfect” (v.48), as a part of adhering to the law, to the extent that if we neglect to live up to this perfection then we “will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (v.20). Jesus presents a potential disciple with a similar conclusion, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21 NRSV). The same language of perfection is used here. Although this “someone” had kept all the commandments (v.20), Jesus required yet more of him. The same/a similar theme appears elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel (12:1-14; 15:1-20; 23:1ff).

Not only are the requirements of the law infinite for internal things like lusting and coveting, both of which cannot be measured empirically (this is why psychology is a soft science; real scientists make conclusions about gravity and the structure of atoms, etc), but there is no way to way to live up to external requirements either. The Sabbath is for resting but that doesn’t mean you can neglect your bone-brokened donkey. If you’re walking along and see a piece of rubbish on the ground, you can put it in the bin nearby, but then you might see another, and then another. Is it right to spend the rest of your life cleaning up the streets or is it right to pick up one piece, ignore the others, and move on? Using violence to solve problems goes against who Jesus is, but what about in self-defense? It’s not needed. I can forgo the protection of my body to maintain my peaceful ideals. What, then, about defending vulnerable individuals? How do you intervene between an adult smacking up some kid? When do your actions become no longer defense on the part of another but unneeded violence? What we need now is a bunch of Rabbis to take Jesus as the new Torah, and then to meditate on the infinite extensions of “turn the other cheek”, producing a two volume commentary on Christian non-violence and every conceivable situation where the moral responsibility of the subject would be called into question. Peter Rollins’ parable, The third mile is useful here:

* * *

Back into the big picture, Jesus is pointing out the hypocrisy of the religious elite who hold a privileged place in society, along with access to the interpretations of the law, and therefore access to God. Paul takes the same kind of idea and shows how not just the religious elite but wider Israel had an exclusive status through the law that barred the Gentiles access to God (I’m here indebted to N T Wright for his gloss on Romans 2 — not hearers of the law (Jews) but doers (some Jews and Gentiles) will be justified at the judgement). What Paul and Jesus have in common here is that they are both criticising groups who bar others from access to God, which is not just an abstract, between-me-and-God spiritual superiority but a social superiority with far-reaching material consequences (eg. Matthew 15:5-6; John 4:9, 8:1ff; Acts 6:1; Galatians 2:12). It’s easy to get off topic when discussing the proper context of the passages. But Paul and Jesus’ presentation of an alternative to the law (while, of course, upholding the law) needs to be understood with what that offers, universal access to God and the material reality that comes with that.

Can Paul’s universality of sin and Jesus’ infinite requirements of the law then be removed from this context? I’m not qualified to give a proper answer. But, I can’t see, after first acknowledging the bigger picture, why not. Universal sin and impossible obedience are just that, universal. Paul sees this and presents an alternative, namely trusting/believing/having faith in God (Romans 3:21ff, 4:16ff; cf. Galatians 3:5) and living life in the Spirit (Romans 8; cf. Galatians 5:16-26). As Kierkegaard notes, in Christianity the definition of sin has shifted, “This is one of the most crucial definitions for the whole of Christianity; that the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith” (making reference to Romans 14:23, where Paul has now put his theology into a practical context).

Faith, after Abraham and the passages cited above, appears to me to be believing that God will fulfill his word(s). I tread carefully in giving a definition of life in the Spirit because of my Pentecostal background, which focusses on the response of the individual to the internal leading of the Holy Spirit, immediately connecting both faith and Spirit, although I will mention that this individualism² is not without biblical support (eg. Romans 14:5-12; Exodus 25:2; 1Corinthians 12:4-11). I am also aware of the emphases of Calvinist pneumatology, which hold some stakes in this definition, that is, that because of our total depravity (I actually get some sort of sick kick out of ascribing that to humanity, which no doubt some will cite as itself evidence of the doctrine) we cannot do good, let alone accept the message of the Gospel in faith, so that it is the Holy Spirit who works in our hearts and enables us to believe, also connecting two of Paul’s qualifiers for life in Christ. What appeals to me here is not our absolute dependence on God even for faith (which I disagree with, because it leads to determinism) but the framing of the Holy Spirit as God’s initiative, the topping up of what is incomplete in faith.

This brings us back to where we started, which is to acknowledge that Paul’s sermon in Acts continues with the words, “While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (17:30 NRSV). And this is to acknowledge that while Milton could not serve God as he previously could with his sight, the Lord asks him now to “stand and wait”. These are expressions of faith, universal access to God through simply believing what he says. But faith in itself is art for art’s sake. It falls to the same fate as our flawed obedience to the law. This then is the Holy Spirit, who works with us through faith to overcome the infinite requirement, “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13 NRSV). God is pleased with what we do. Under law we were incited to sin, yet under faith the Lord uses us through his Spirit to “uphold the law” (Romans 3:31 NRSV), even, as with Paul, become a necessary part in his plan by sharing the Gospel (Romans 10:14-15). Now the asymmetry of the omnipotent Creator and the finitesimal created is topped up and mediated through Holy Spirit in faith.

Under the new dichotomy of faith/sin against the old of virtue/sin (better, obedience-to-the-law/sin; Kierkegaard was dismantling Socratic, not Judaic understandings of sin), we are protected from the accusations of the law because by our faith God declares us righteous. This is not simply being acquitted from the responsibility to uphold the law, especially justice, but that through faith we now enter, with the Holy Spirit, into a new expression of law (Romans 8:2; 1Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 6:2). We uphold the law. Yet we fail in obedience to the law, as cited before:

If, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! (2:17 NRSV).

Under faith/sin, sin is redefined as unbelief. Christians remain believing, being justified through faith, yet remain sinners naturally in accordance with the Mosaic criteria (when we remove Jesus and faith and all that and judge ourselves again from the start). We remain disobedient, as does everyone, yet we are declared righteous; there is an absolute, finite requirement, one that can be met with: Faith.

* * *

The transcendent God then does just what atheist criticisms accuse him of doing, making meaningful something truly meaningless and securing hope in something truly hopeless.  Who is on their side? Who adheres to this incompleteness of grace, the absence of redemption, which originates in some fantasy non-material world? One unlikely place to look would be Israel’s prophets. The truth of a finite expression of grace can be understood like this: What we do matters. Material actions matter. Although God will ultimately judge the world, our sins still affect those around us. It was not enough for Israel to be called by God apart from the nations to know him and be loved by him; Israel was also to serve him. Thus Ezekiel can say, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49 NRSV). Amos, speaking also of the neglect to provide for the poor and needy, writes of the Lord:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

(Amos 5:21-24 NRSV; it is worth reading the whole chapter (or the whole of Amos) to get a better idea of where exactly Israel had screwed up)

The offense of Israel’s actions is that they assumed their election overwrote social responsibility. Are there any similarities between Israel’s complacency under election and ours under faith? Yes. As with faith/sin, you could almost apply an election/sin to Israel, as to which Paul and Jesus also make reference (Galatians 2:15; Matthew 3:9; Romans 2:3). When faith or election fulfills the law then obedience becomes secondary. Although, with the Holy Spirit, we are led into obedience, disobedience maintains its consequences (Romans 2:8; Galatians 5:21). The absolute finite requirement of faith has become relativised and infinite, like its predecessor, the law. Thus Paul can say that he has not yet fully attained to the goal of his faith (Philippians 3:12). This verse can easily be read in the sense that Paul hasn’t died yet (cf. 1:21), as he’s speaking of the resurrection, but he’s also speaking of faith, righteousness before God, sharing in Christ’s sufferings, being found in him and knowing him (3:7-11), all of which are in the process of being attained in the present (this relationship of present incompleteness moving towards a complete future is elsewhere in, for example, Philippians 1:6 and 2:13-14, present salvation anticipating future). Elsewhere Paul can speak of his weaknesses, not just from suffering as a Christian, but facing responsibility (2Corinthians 11:28-29³).

Faith is now doubly incomplete. Firstly it privileges trust over obedience. Secondly, in the same way Paul cites scriptures to say there is “no one who is righteous” (Romans 3:10), he rightfully can say that there is no one who believes. What is more, if we embrace death of God theology to its end then there is no Holy Spirit, no perfect-ultimate will to top up our mistakes and bring cosmic redemption. We are left to our own devices where material action is both necessary and impossible. Yet even with God, material action is both necessary and impossible (improbable, without determinism or complete ‘sovereignty’, etc).

* * *

“What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1).

As with most things in life, this ends in despair. People looking for happier times should return to the days of Mario Kart, picnics and puppy love. Although the conclusion is decidedly un-Christian, I’m not yet ready to take some pat answers. Something about denial being the first sign of guilt. Antinomianism is the heresy where grace is like a license to do whatever you want, and you want to sin. Ironically, it comes from the Greek word nomos, meaning law. When grace allows you to do whatever you want, you’re operating under the heresy that literally means to be without the law:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

(James 2:14-17 NRSV).

We will always fall short of our material responsibilities at the same time as faith’s ultimate inability to hide us from them. The obvious answer is that at least you can try. Try to be obedient. Strive towards perfection. And whether you’re a theistic Christian and your failures are contrasted to the work of the Holy Spirit and the absolute condition of your heart, or you’re an atheistic Christian and Jesus’ challenge to live always beyond the law impels you to a radical life of helping others, note this: Striving is not being. Trying is a form of failure. This is the truth of human depravity: We have miserably failed.

* * *

¹”speed” here is a verb. I always tripped up on this until I realised that.

²When I say individualism I don’t mean it in the existential sense of the individual making meaning for their self out of their personal relationship with God/existence, nor do I mean it in the consumerist/prosperity gospel sense of serving God for the benefits he provides you as an individual, but I mean it in the sense of the community with emphasis upon the individual: We are individuals, separate people, and our individual actions contribute, for good or for bad, to the Kingdom of God.

³The NRSV translates the Greek pyroumai as ‘I am indignant’, which ignores Paul’s use of it in 1Corinthians 7:9, denoting the fire of lust. I’m no translator, but the NRSV doesn’t even provide a footnote with an alternative translation, where it is possible, and, I think, important.

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The other day I fell asleep in the library. Those locking up must’ve somehow overlooked the cranny I had squeezed myself into, as they left me in the dark. There I slept alone among the vain and voluminous endeavours of human knowledge. Being, of course, in the theology section, I awoke in the early hours of the morning to a soft and bright iridescence before me. A reasonably bored looking angel stood there and reflected on my fruitless mis-attempts to come to any useful conclusions. “Come on”, he said, “I’m just on my break. I’ll take you ‘upstairs’, give you a taste for what things are really like”. “Yeah,” I said, “Ok, that’s cool”.

If you ever ate chocolate with those crackly bits in it that pop in your mouth, going to heaven is kind of like that, only that you’re eating the chocolate and you are the chocolate at the same time.

My first impressions were, “Why are there so many white people here?” which I incidentally spoke aloud, as private thinking is more so a thing of the earth. My angel (‘Milhouse’, as his friends called him, in jesting reference to that popular show, ‘The Simpsons’) noted that we were in the white part of heaven, and it probably wasn’t such a good idea to go any of the ‘ethnic minority’ parts at this time of night.

As we walked on, Milhouse told me how he was going to take me to see the ‘apostles’, to give me some ‘real theology lessons’. For almost two millenia, these first century men of God had met together every Tuesday night in heaven to play poker. James the Just was notoriously good at it. And it didn’t take long to get there either. Apparently you can go anywhere in heaven in just about twenty minutes walk at the most.

When John opened the door he welcomed me with an affectionate hand shake, which pulled me into an embrace. “Good to see you boy! Where you from?”. I was a little offset by his enthusiasm. “I’m from Christchurch… the one in New Zealand… it’s like quite a wee way from, uh, Palest-, um, Israel”. “Christ Church? Well I’ll be!” he beamed, “welcome home, son!” And he pulled me into another hug.

From left Peter, John, Thomas (with back facing us), James the Just, Luke (passing the card), Paul (with the pipe), Matthew.

The men of God had just finished their game, and James had wiped the floor with them all again. I took a chair next to Matthew the Evangelist (on counting there were actually about nineteen people in the room), who had struck up a conversation with Paul, the one whom I was most eager to talk to. Matthew was deeply serious, “I’m telling the truth. I just really hate the taste of bacon. Like, really, I see nothing wrong with it at all, but bacon, pork, ham, etcetera, whatever cut of pig it is just cannot convince my tastebuds”.

After some awkward introductions, the saints addressed me, “So I hear you’ve been studying a bit of theology. You must have some questions then! Just don’t you cite us in any of your ‘essays’. They prefer you to put your own ‘spin’ on things down there!” They all laughed. Paul was a crack-up. “Well,” I started, “I always wondered who wrote Hebrews”. The air suddenly grew thicker. I was regretting what I had just asked. Clearly it made everyone uncomfortable. Seeing the need to take some leadership here, Paul solemnly addressed me. “Anastasios was a good friend of ours. But he didn’t quite make it here”.

The ‘spotlight’ was still on me so I attempted to change the subject. “In Acts, Paul, Luke portrays your theology quite contrarily to how it appears in your own letters. How much of it is in line with what you actually believe, or believed at the time?” John looked at me affirmingly and with a nod said, “That’s a very clever question, you!” Paul chuckled. “Luke and I always ‘had each other on’ a lot. One time I ‘put’ some worms ‘in’ his bedding!” Everyone laughed again. This was obviously part and parcel of some eternal prank exchange that the boys delighted to recall. “So then this one time Luke ‘sends’ me a copy of his new ‘work’, The acts of the apostles. On first reading it I was unsettled by how he ‘portrayed’ our ministry, but then I realised the pun in the word ‘acts’. It was a ‘hilarious’ bit of ‘weekend’ reading! He’s got a really ‘ironic’ sense of humour”.

I was intrigued. “Hey, and what about Peter’s sermon at Pentecost then? Did he actually say those things or is Luke having another laugh? It always seemed to me like he takes Psalm 16 out of context”. A new face emerged from a shadowy corner of the room. Paul stood up. “Come on Pete-” “No! I’m just sick of people making fun of me!” a determined, hurt and irritated Peter attempted to wrestle through the crowd before humphing and stomping out the door. John got up concernedly and followed after him. “Look, I’m sorry about that,” Paul looked at me. “But if you ever ‘get’ to heaven, then you realise there’s just a lot that you can’t ‘talk’ about. Poor old Pete was just ‘new’ to the whole ‘preaching’ thing back then. He’s very sensitive about it”.

Milhouse looked at his watch. “Righty-ho! I’ve got to get you back, otherwise I’ll be late for work!” I gave a few rushed “Pleased to meet you”s and “Thanks for your hospitality”s (they offered me an otherworldly selection of ‘fruit juices’) before racing out the door to head back to the library. My ten minutes or so in heaven had been an ‘eye-opening’ experience. But I had one more question.

“What about the girls, Milhouse? Are they in a different part of heaven too?” I was eager to know. The angel laughed. “Are you for real?” He paused to double-check if I was ‘for real’. “Take a look at your ‘body’. That’s what happens when you get to heaven”.

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