Friday, 13 October 2017

Book Review: John Webster, God without Measure, Vol. I

John Webster, God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology. Volume i: God and the Works of God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016)

God without Measure i is the first of a two-volume collection of essays on Christian theology by John Webster. The essays are grouped into two parts. Part i is entitled ‘God in himself’, and here Webster examines theology proper – the life of the triune God, the importance of the Son’s eternal generation, the place of Christology in systematic theology, and an examination of the Christology of the letter to the Hebrews. In Part ii, ‘God’s Outer Works’, Webster focuses on creation, God’s relation to creation, and essential doctrines such as soteriology and ecclesiology.

Throughout, Webster is concerned to emphasise that any doctrine starting from the works of God rather than from God in se is likely to generate a host of unnecessary theological problems that only a return to theology proper can resolve. Thus Webster starts each of his doctrinal examinations first by attending to the triune God from whom all things have come, and to whom all things are ordered. In this, the influence of Thomas Aquinas on Webster’s contemplations is hard to deny, as is that of Augustine, John Calvin, and Karl Barth. But the voice pervading these essays is unmistakably Webster’s, and those already appreciative of his prior publications will likely welcome these carefully nuanced contributions.

It should be noted that most of the papers have seen print elsewhere; only the first and third chapters are original to this volume. While it is genuinely helpful to have some of Webster’s finest essays in one place, the fact remains that God without Measure i is an expensive book for an individual scholar to buy if all s/he requires are the two previously unpublished articles on the matter of Christian theology and eternal generation. Also, the nature of this volume as a collection of previously published self-contained pieces means that there is some repetition between the chapters – though the consistency of Webster’s thought soon becomes apparent. Established scholars, postgraduate students, and advanced undergraduates and ministers should all find much of value in this book.

This review was originally published in Theological Book Review 27:1 (2016), pp. 50–51

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Book Review: Lucy Peppiatt, Women and Worship at Corinth

I’ve been contributing reviews to Theological Book Review for a number of years now. Sadly, the publication shall soon cease. But I have obtained permission to reproduce my TBR book reviews, including this one (which will probably see print in 2018), on Sacred Wrightings.

Lucy Peppiatt, Women and Worship at Corinth: Paul’s Rhetorical Arguments in 1 Corinthians (Cambridge: James Clarke, 2017; originally published by Cascade Books, 2015)

The instructions on orderly worship in 1 Corinthians 11–14 contain some of the most contested passages in the New Testament. These passages relate to head coverings (1 Cor. 11:2-16), to glossolalia and prophecy (1 Cor. 14:20-25), and to women’s silence (1 Cor. 14:33b-36). Whereas many scholars resort to interpretative gymnastics to reconcile ostensibly contradictory positions in these passages, Lucy Peppiatt employs a simpler approach: these controversial texts include the Corinthians’ own stances on these issues (found in 1 Cor. 11:4-5b, 7-10, 14, and 14:21-22, 34-35), which Paul is quoting in order to refute.

Peppiatt’s argument assumes that 1 Corinthians is in fact part of a wider epistolary conversation between Paul and the Corinthian church (cf. 1 Cor. 5:9-11), and that the Corinthian leadership would recognise Paul’s citations of its own slogans. It also presumes that this leadership consists of ‘a group of spiritually gifted and highly articulate male teachers who were both overbearing and divisive’ (p. 10), and who desire to promote themselves at the expense of other members in the church community. Thus Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 11–14 are designed to encourage humility, unity, and equality for all worshippers, regardless of gender, class, or giftedness.

Throughout, Peppiatt attends closely to the phrasing of the texts and the implied theology of different readings. She interacts judiciously with the more traditional interpretations in order to explain where they are lacking in coherence, and illustrates how her approach to 1 Corinthians makes sense of the theology in Paul’s other letters. Arguably, more space should have been given to the idea that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is a later interpolation and not a citation; I suspect that textual criticism plays a far more important role in understanding these texts than Peppiatt perhaps admits. But the thrust of Peppiatt’s argument is persuasive and intelligently addresses many contemporary liturgical and pastoral concerns. Women and Worship at Corinth is essential reading, especially for anyone engaged in Pauline studies and/or involved in church leadership.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

What the Woman Said

It’s sometimes pointed out that the woman/Eve embellished the Lord God’s command not to eat of the tree of good and evil (Gen. 3:3; cf. 2:17); but all’s not as it seems.

First, the Lord God issued this command to the man/Adam before Eve was created. Thus, Eve presumably heard the command from Adam. But, secondly, this does not necessarily mean that Eve misinterpreted what Adam said, or that she added to what Adam had told her. It is quite possible that Adam himself misinterpreted what the Lord God commanded. On this account, it means that what Eve says to the serpent is entirely accurate—she is faithfully reproducing what Adam had communicated. And it should be noted, thirdly, that the text of Genesis 2–3 itself doesn’t appear to condemn this one way or the other. If the narrative flow of Genesis 3 is taken seriously, then sin enters the world only once Eve and Adam have both eaten the forbidden fruit: ‘she took of its fruit and ate; . . . her husband . . . ate. Then . . .’ (Gen. 3:6-7, my emphasis)

It seems to me that the Genesis text doesn’t make any comment about the misstated command. But this suggests that mishearings, misinterpretations, differences of opinion, and so on, aren’t sinful in and of themselves. The problems arise when such misinterpretations go unchallenged (Adam’s passivity in Genesis 3:1-7, perhaps) and are given enough credence to mutate into disobedience and disorder. This is what happens in Genesis 3—but I don’t think it has anything to do with Eve’s embellishment of the Lord God’s command.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

The Men are in Control: Women and Worship at Corinth

Another Sunday for the ladies at the First Church of Corinth

I’ve just finished reading Lucy Peppiatt’s Women and Worship at Corinth, which I shall be reviewing for Theological Book Review. Towards the end of the book, in the concluding chapter, Peppiatt summarises:

Paul addresses a number of problems in the public worship [at Corinth]. The first is that women are being made to veil when praying or prophesying, and being made to do so in a coercive manner. The second is that the men that Paul is addressing are behaving selfishly and greedily at the Lord’s Supper. The third is that the Corinthians (or some of them) are exercising spiritual gifts in an unloving and unhelpful way, possibly preventing others from taking part in bringing prophetic words, hymns, and revelations to the gathering, acting independently, or ignoring some parts of the body. The fourth is that the “spiritual” tongues speakers have implemented a strange practice of babbling in tongues all at once on the grounds that this is a powerful witness to unbelievers. The fifth is that they are subjecting married women to remaining silent. We know that he thought that their meetings were doing more harm than good. The section on worship [1 Cor. 11–14] includes at its heart 1 Corinthians 12:31b—13:13, in which Paul describes the “more excellent way,” the way of love, which must underpin all Christian worship and life together lest the church become a discordant and harsh noise to those around it. It begins and ends with two passages on the treatment of women in public worship. Traditionally, these have been read as Paul endorsing some sort of repressive or constraining practices in relation to women for the sake of propriety. I contend, however, that he is saying the opposite, and freeing women from these very practices. If this is true, then, interestingly, Paul begins and ends his section on public worship by addressing the oppression of women, and coming out as strongly as possible against it.

Lucy Peppiatt, Women and Worship at Corinth: Paul’s Rhetorical Arguments in 1 Corinthians (Cambridge: James Clarke, 2017; originally published by Cascade Books, 2015), p. 135; cf. pp. 10–11

Peppiatt contends that the Corinthian church was effectively dominated by a certain type of authoritarian Alpha-male Christian leader:

[Scholars ask us] to imagine all kinds of scenarios in order to make sense of Paul’s thought, but all are predicated on the assumption that it is the women [at Corinth] who are rebellious and noncompliant. I question, however, whether it really is easier to imagine a group of wild and rebellious women who are so uncontrollable that they need the intervention of the apostle than it is to imagine the existence of a group of spiritually gifted and highly articulate male teachers who were both overbearing and divisive men. I propose that in a relentlessly patriarchal society, it is more plausible to believe the latter might be the case, that under the men’s influential leadership, certain oppressive practices had been implemented, and other destructive and selfish practices had remained unchallenged. (p. 10).

According to Peppiatt’s argument, the sections in 1 Corinthians 11–14 that appear to sanction the silencing of women and other liturgical oddities (11:4-5b, 7-10, 14; 14:21-22, 34-35) are in fact Paul’s quotations from the Corinthian church’s male leaders, reproduced in order to be refuted. I find Peppiatt’s claims more than feasible.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

The Struggle: Twice-Shy Christlikeness

Facebook has revealed I posted this eight years ago today (i.e., in 2009). I don’t think I’m currently in whatever place I was in when I wrote this, but I think there’s some redeemable stuff in here all the same.

To both of my regular readers, I apologise for not posting much recently. I think acedia has taken hold.

Anyway, as someone who is still trying to work through issues of anger, I found Angela’s post on anger and forgiveness interesting. And I found especially interesting her inference that having to forgive someone something heinous places an intolerable burden on the one who forgives, thus making that person ‘a victim twice over’.

Christians are ‘supposed to’ forgive, I’m sure... but it’s not easy. When forgiveness is offered, there is always the possibility that the forgiveness will be rejected (‘Why are you forgiving me? What have I done?’). But forgetting what has been done, as in ‘forgiving and forgetting’ - well, this is near impossible, especially for those of us who are ‘once bitten, twice shy’. As Angela intimates, is the victim really ‘supposed’ to subject him- or herself to yet another punishment?

The trouble is, is forgiveness something that we as members who supposedly live as a community, the community of the local church, really understand? Or are we too bogged down trying to live ‘Christian’ lives that we forget that living a ‘Christian’ life is pointless when ‘Christian’ is merely equated with ‘being nice’. I don’t want to live a ‘Christian’ life, because that would mean nothing more than tutting and moaning about the state of the nation, sort of like the way The Daily Mail does. Instead, I want to live a Christlike life; but I’m struggling.

And so my struggles with anger, resentment, fear, and all those kinds of negative emotions that Christians aren’t ‘supposed’ to have are irrelevant to those who think the Christian life is a matter of technique; that the Christian life is not a life of discipline, but of mastery and control. Legalism thus rears its beautiful head: You have been sinned against, but you must forgive, lest God will not forgive you. Great. Where’s the grace that accepts I’m struggling? Where’s the love that will not judge me while I work through my various issues?

It’s easy to talk about love, and I know I struggle to love my fellow Christians a lot of the time. But sometimes it really does feel that I’m the only one who struggles: to forgive, to keep calm, to love, to live a life worthy of my calling.

Reading through this post to this point makes me think that I’m whinging - something that I am prone to do. But there’s something a bit more pointed here, too: What’s our ecclesiology? How do we truly understand the community of the local church? And what is the place of the negative within that, even as each member strives to embody Christ in his or her life under the guidance of the Holy Spirit? How do we embody forgiveness when smouldering, when struggling? These are questions to which I don’t have the answer. And I suspect there is no answer.

Friday, 8 September 2017

On Stabbing Elephants from Underneath

It gladdens the heart that the Church of England permits the reading of the Apocrypha ‘for example of life and instruction of manners’ (Article VI of The Thirty-nine Articles), otherwise this powerful passage from 1 Maccabees would go unruminated:

Eleazar, called Avaran, saw that one of the animals [elephants] was taller than all the others and was equipped with royal armour. He figured that the king must be on it. . . . He ran courageously into the midst of a group of soldiers to reach it, killing men right and left so that they had to give way to him on both sides. He got under the elephant and stabbed it from underneath. He killed it, but it fell to the ground on top of him, and he died there. (1 Maccabees 6:43, 45-46).

My only question is: Is this a recommendation or a warning?

Monday, 4 September 2017

Hunting for Heresy in All the Wrong Places

The Revd Orson Portendorfer
The Old Rectory
Rectory Road
Smedley Netherwick
SP87 9TH

Dear Mr Portendorfer

My family and I very much enjoyed worshipping with you at St Corpulent’s this past Sunday while visiting incarcerated relatives in the area. We were especially heartened and welcomed by your churchwarden, Algernon, who ensured our pew was wiped clean of bat droppings and cobwebs. And I am grateful you did not scold my teenage son too harshly for his sniggering while you preached on Ezekiel 23. I suspect I am not alone in wondering why you decided to include PowerPoint slides for this particular sermon, but I do not feel the need to question you on this matter.
However, I do feel the need to question you on another matter, namely, the bread chosen for the Eucharist. I regard myself as a connoisseur when it comes to bread—I have been recognised by the industry for my discerning palate—and I could not help but notice that the bread used in the Eucharist was Kingsmill 50/50 (or perhaps Hovis Best of Both; my palate is not that discerning). I do not need to make explicit the Christological deficiencies that such a decision promulgates and trust that you will ensure that the ‘yeast’ of this particular heresy will not give rise to others.

Yours in Him,

Mr Noel Dankworth
Bandley Danoff

Monday, 28 August 2017

Job’s Three Friends, Ethical Issues, and our Guiding Metaphors for God

Here’s a quotation from David Atkinson about Job’s three friends, taken from a wider passage that I thought very interesting:

All [of Job’s friends] have begun with their conception of God, and all have moved on to the practical implications of their view of God for this pastoral need [i.e., Job’s plight]. And they are different. That seems to be of very significant pastoral importance. The picture we have of God, and the metaphors that guide our understanding of him are crucially important in the way we frame the moral and pastoral questions which confront us. If with Eliphaz we think of God primarily as holy, we will approach the pastoral situation in one way. If with Bildad we begin with God’s justice, we will approach it another way. If, with Zophar, God’s omniscience is the major theme, our approach will be different yet again. . . .
Our guiding metaphors for God dictate the ways our moral and pastoral questions are framed. If we begin with God as Creator and law-giver we may find ourselves talking mostly about obedience to divine commands, about sin and the need for repentance. If our starting-point is the compassion of God the Redeemer, we may see moral issues in terms of falling short of divine ideals and the journey of faith. If our starting-point is the love of God, we may primarily stress a personalistic ethic and the need for mutual acceptance and understanding. Many participants in various debates about personal morality, for example, never really engage with one another because their starting-points are different, and they are facing in different directions. The moral and pastoral conclusions we come to will depend to a very large degree on the guiding metaphors for God with which we start.

David Atkinson, The Message of Job: Suffering and Grace. The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: IVP, 1991), pp. 61–62

This is stating the obvious, I know, but the various ethical quandaries currently being debated in the Church of England and other denominations are unlikely to be resolved until the various parties involved are able to reflect on their guiding metaphors for God and how these affect their various interpretations of human experience and biblical texts. Where are the forums for these sorts of discussions?

Monday, 14 August 2017

Authority, Belief, and Confidence: A Sermon on Mark 9:2-50

Our church is going through Mark’s Gospel at the moment using, in hindsight, overly long passages. This is my latest contribution to the preaching series.

Mark 9:2-50

What sort of Christian are you? Perhaps you’re the sort of Christian who gets up at five o’clock in the morning to pray and meditate for a couple of hours, the sort who is a bastion of Christlike calm and serenity in a world of chaos, and who radiates the love of Jesus to everyone you encounter. Or perhaps you’re the sort of Christian in whom the Spirit’s fire blazes, the sort who shares the gospel message with everyone you meet, and before whom thousands—nay, hundreds of thousands, even millions—repent in sackcloth and ashes because of your sharp critiques of the bankruptcy and moral failure of contemporary society. Or perhaps you’re the sort of Christian who . . . well, I needn’t go on. I’m sure we’re all aware of the sort of Christian we are.

I dare say the same was true of the first disciples, the Twelve: Peter, James, John, and the others. We have seen in earlier chapters of Mark’s Gospel that Jesus called the Twelve to be with him and to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. And we have seen that the Twelve did just this: they preached a message of repentance, carried out a number of exorcisms, and even healed sick people by anointing them with oil. Whatever sort of Christians they were—and let’s not forget that at this point, they weren’t really ‘Christians’ as such—whatever sort of Christians they were, they were proving to be fairly successful.

But not now. Now nine of them had come across a boy, a boy with symptoms, perhaps, of epilepsy but which were caused, it seems, not by misfiring electrical activity in the brain, but, in this case, by an evil spirit. And they couldn’t do anything about it. Whatever or whoever was behind the success of their earlier exorcisms and healings—well, that power had gone, or they weren’t doing it right. Perhaps they hadn’t mastered the technique as well as they thought they had. Or perhaps it’s because they weren’t good enough—after all, there must have been a reason why Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him up a mountain . . . and not them.

And what of Peter, James, and John? Just a week or so before, Peter spoke on behalf of them all and confessed that Jesus is the Messiah. And now he, along with James and John, were on a mountain with Jesus, watching Jesus shimmer and shine with the divine light, and listening to God himself confirm Peter’s belief: ‘This man Jesus is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!’

So what sort of Christians were the Twelve? Well, three of them were Jesus’s favourites; the other nine were also-rans, the runners-up, the sidekicks.

What were the group dynamics at play here, I wonder? Three of them had seen Jesus in his glory, speaking with Elijah and Moses—as well as confusion, did Peter, James, and John also feel a swell of pride on the way down from the mountain: ‘Jesus picked me to see this’? Did they feel that somehow the other nine disciples were not quite so deserving of such a vision? Had their attitudes and behaviour and abilities somehow persuaded Jesus that some of them were simply better than others? And of the nine who remained in the nearby villages—did they resent Jesus’s favourable treatment of Peter, James, and John? Did Andrew feel hard done by as his brother, Peter, climbed the ranks as well as the mountain? And did the others simply feel ignored and left out and not a little fed up as they found themselves having to deal with yet another demon-possessed person while the Big Three went on a camping trip with Jesus? It’s hard to say, of course, and I admit to a little speculation here on my part. But detecting attitudes like this would help to explain what Jesus goes on to say in today’s passage from Mark.

First of all, let’s remind ourselves that Jesus had commissioned the Twelve to preach and to cast out demons—not the Three, not the Nine, but the Twelve. And the authority the Twelve had was not their own authority but the authority of Jesus. The things they did, their message of repentance, their powers of healing and exorcisms—all these things could happen simply because Jesus had first given them the authority to do so.

But having authority isn’t enough, it seems. The story of the demon-possessed boy suggests that the disciples perhaps understood their authority in terms of magic or superhuman abilities. They’d had no problem driving out demons from people in the past; but for whatever reason now, the disciples couldn’t cast out this demon from this boy. What were they doing wrong? They couldn’t understand it—and neither, it seems, could the crowd or, indeed, the boy’s father. This is why the boy’s father sounds so weary when he speaks to Jesus: ‘If you can do anything, . . . help us.’

And what is Jesus’s response? ‘Everything—not anything, but everything—is possible for one who believes.’ And this is because the power to do miracles lies not in ourselves; the power does not lie in our ability to master a technique or to follow a step-by-step programme or to perform a sleight of hand; the power to heal, to cast out demons, to preach, to do anything for the kingdom of God, stems from the authority and power of the God in whom we trust. And so Jesus drives the demon from the boy . . .

But the disciples know they’re not the only ones performing exorcisms in the name of Jesus. John in particular seems especially bothered that there are others doing what they should be doing—and possibly doing it better. ‘Teacher,’ he says, ‘we told him to stop, because he wasn’t one of us.’ What insecurities is John showing here? He has gone from seeing the glory of Jesus on the mountain to seeing the failure of his colleagues in the villages in a short period of time. Is he now seeing that he and the others aren’t quite as good or as special as perhaps they thought they were, that they don’t have as much a claim on Jesus as they’d presumed? And is this why the Twelve as a whole have been arguing about who’s the greatest? Jesus’s teachings in this part of today’s Gospel reading imply as much:

You won’t be the greatest if you want to be the greatest. Be like a child—there’s nothing they can do to improve their status. If you treat each other as your equals, you’ll be doing well. And so don’t try to stop other groups or people who claim me as their Messiah from doing what they’re doing, because they can’t do or say anything against me if they really are for me—they are your equals. If you do try to stop them, you might cause them to lose whatever faith in me is beginning to blossom in them. Be more concerned about yourself: What makes you stumble? Where do you struggle? What will make you give up and abandon your faith in me? And what are you doing about it? Focus on your own areas of weakness and where you can be more like me. If you’re going to be my disciples, you need to make sure you act and think and speak like my disciples, in the same way you can tell something is salt because it’s salty. But you’re not going to do any of this if all you’re doing is arguing among yourselves and being outraged by what others are doing. It won’t be easy, but do what you can to aim for peace.

If this is the heart of what Jesus is saying here, then I think this is very challenging. I know from ongoing experience that low self-esteem and an uncertainty about one’s purpose in life leads us to form groups and cliques that help us feel good about ourselves while at the same time putting down others who see things differently. That’s what life’s like in a fallen world; that’s what life’s like in a sinful church. But in our Gospel reading today, Jesus gives us hope and strength to rise above this and to seek good, Christlike relations with one another. How so?

First, we have Jesus’s authority. In the same way that Jesus conferred his authority on the Twelve to preach and to cast out demons, so, too, each of us has the authority of Jesus to do whatever God calls us to do. God in Christ is the one who sends us; in this respect, we don’t need to answer to anyone for being the sort of Christian we are.

Secondly, we must always have belief—or, to put it another way, we must always trust God, or we must always have faith in God. Being a Christian isn’t like joining the Magic Circle or about developing superhuman powers. If Jesus has given each of us authority to act and speak in his name, then he must also give each of us the faith we need to stay true to God, even when things aren’t working out in the ways we want them to. Notice, too, the connection Jesus seems to make in verses 23 and 29 between belief or faith and prayer. Having faith in God isn’t an ability; it is a daily commitment to follow the Holy Spirit as the Spirit leads us to the Father as we pray in the name of Jesus. Thus to believe is to pray; to pray is to believe; and when we pray, we recognise our dependence on God and admit that however much we believe and trust in God, we must continually need God’s help for us to overcome our persistent unbelief.

And finally, because we have Jesus’s authority, and because our faith is in God, we can have confidence in God, and confidence that God will use us. God in Christ has given gifts to each and every one of us so that we can work out the kingdom in our lives, in our neighbourhoods, at work, and in school. And by remaining faithful to God as we pray for the needs of the world, we might find we don’t need to be too bothered about what God is doing through other Christians in other places. We should have no delusions: God will use other people to further the kingdom, including Christians we disagree with, and Christians we perceive to be better than us. But have confidence: God will use you and me to further the kingdom as well. The real challenge is for all of us to walk the self-denying way of the cross as we all follow Jesus.

As we come to the table, as we eat Christ’s body and drink his blood, let’s remember that each and every one of us, in all of our uniqueness and difference, is called to be a follower of Christ: a Christian. And what sort of Christian? One with the authority of Christ, one whose belief is in the God who created all things and who raised Jesus from the dead, and one whose confidence lies in knowing that the Holy Spirit can and will act in and through us, using our strengths, in spite of our weaknesses.