Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Hard Corps - Dai Hankey

I got this because it looked fun. I was interested to see what a series of Bible studies on 2 Sam 23:8-39 would look like. It's surprisingly good - I'd say it's pretty much ideal for a group of young Christian men / teenage lads wanting to think through how living as Christians doesn't mean being less masculine. Of course, it sometimes ends up heading towards the allegorical - "Shammah drew a line and said that God's enemies could come this far but no further. How do we need to do that in our battle against sin?", but that isn't necessarily invalid, and the examples he uses are helpful ones.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Anyone / everyone / each one - Colossians 4:6

There's an important difference between "anyone", "everyone" and "each one".

When I see a shop advertising "everything £1", I sometimes think of trying to get the entire contents of the store for only £1, because that's what they are offering. Likewise, when Paul says in Colossians 4:6

Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. (NIV 1984)

what the passage clearly means is that somehow we are enabled to come up with a clever answer that will work on everyone. Except that isn't what the Greek says.

What the Greek says is literally translated as "how it is necessary for you to answer each one", and that is very different. That means that each individual is distinct, that some people will need one answer and others another and that God will equip us with wisdom as to how to answer each person well. That's what the passage really means.

The "every" is there in the Geneva and the KJV, but I don't know if it meant exactly the same there. Among modern translations, it's in the NIV (and the new NIV!), the NRSV and the Good News. The ESV, the NKJV, and the HCSB get it right though. But then, so did Wycliffe back in the 1300s!

Friday, November 23, 2012

More on Women Bishops

Three of the best articles I've read about the women bishops vote:

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

On Women Bishops and Yesterday's Synod Vote

It's worth saying right from the start – I'm not on Synod. Had I been able to vote yesterday, I would probably have voted “yes”. But I grew up in the conservative evangelical camp, and I know a good proportion of the 44 clergy who voted “no” yesterday.

I think it's important to debunk a few myths.

First, this isn't about equality. I know to outsiders it looks like it is, but it isn't. It's actually about identicality, and there's an important difference. Everyone (I hope) on synod agrees that men and women are equal in status and in the sight of God. Everyone agrees that men and women are not identical on a purely biological level. The question is to what extent men and women's differences work out as differences in the roles they play within church.

Secondly, this isn't about rights. No-one has the right to become a bishop. It isn't a “promotion”. It's a horrible job where you can't be part of a normal church fellowship and work far too many hours with far too many people who expect you to have all the answers. Jemima Thackray wrote a great piece in the Telegraph this morning where she argues that the real question should be whether women can have the opportunity to serve in this job. In some ways the even more important question is “Is God calling women to serve in this way?”. Women who say they should have the right to become bishop shouldn't have it, because they don't understand what they say they want.

Third, this isn't about traditionalists in the house of laity spoiling everyone's party. Yes, this time it was voted down because people thought it didn't cater well enough for those who would rather not have a woman bishop. Personally, I'd have voted for the motion because I think it does cater well enough for conservative evangelicals, even though conservative evangelical friends say it doesn't. But last time, 2 years ago, the archbishops proposed a motion which would have catered well enough for them. It was overwhelmingly passed in the houses of clergy and laity, but voted down by modernists in the house of clergy. If those clergy had passed it then, we'd have women bishops by now.

So what is this actually about? It's about how we handle profound disagreements. The Church of England as a whole has been rightly trying to keep people on board, and be as accommodating as possible to those who have good reasons for disagreeing with women bishops, while still trying to move ahead with them. The problem is that the Church's structures are somewhat Byzantine, and sometimes working at counter-purposes and it therefore moves very slowly indeed.

What we haven't done enough of, I think, is actually discussing the reasons for disagreement rather than stating them. For example, a lot of the opposition hinges around one paragraph in Paul's first letter to Timothy. I have listened to a fair bit of the debate, and I've only heard that paragraph discussed by those against women bishops. Now I can see several ways to argue that the paragraph doesn't apply to women bishops today, but I don't really see that argument being engaged with at a national level. Of course, all that discussion should have happened decades ago, but as far as I can tell it just hasn't been done.

The C of E will get there in the end, but in the meantime we need to be patient, we need to be loving, and we need to keep listening to each other, and not just letting it wash over us, but engaging with what the other person is saying. Then, maybe, we'll be able to move on from this and work together for God's glory.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Puritans - Their Origins and Successors by D.M. Lloyd-Jones

Puritans have a very bad name in most of the Church, apart from a small section of it where they have a very good name. That small section mostly owes its existence to some conferences started by Lloyd-Jones and J.I. Packer in the 1950s. This book brings together Lloyd-Jones's closing addresses from those conferences from 1959 to 1978, on diverse topics such as:

  • biographies of individual Puritans (Henry Jacob, Howell Harris, William Williams)
  • some figures from the Evangelical Revival (Edwards, Whitefield) and how they were influenced by the Puritans
  • Puritan views on a number of topics, especially church order, church and state and religious experience
  • in depth studies of the teaching of one Puritan in one area (e.g. Bunyan on unity)

Lloyd-Jones roughly sees the Puritans as starting with Tyndale, reaching full flowering from Knox and ending in 1662. The key to Puritanism seems to be discontent with the C of E, and of course Lloyd-Jones pushes quite strongly that the logical consequence of Puritanism is leaving the C of E. I'd love to have seen him address why the energy of the movement and so much of the good they did just vanished within just a generation of them leaving in 1662.

I don't agree with the Puritans on everything, and I'd love to see some day a sensitive treatment of how so many of them ended up so wrong on culture, etc. I don't agree with Lloyd-Jones on everything - it's telling that when he draws the distinctions between Knox and Hooper who started out very similar but diverged, I agree with Hooper and I'm pretty sure Lloyd-Jones agreed with Knox.

Having said that, I really enjoyed this book. Lots of food for thought - lots to agree with, and lots of reasons to be all the more surprised that those who most love the Puritans today in the UK tend to be strongly opposed to some elements of Puritan theology which I quite like...

People who cannot see this subjective element in Calvinism seem to me never to have understood Calvinism. Calvinism of necessity leads to an emphasis upon the action and the activity of God the Holy Spirit. The whole emphasis is upon what God does to us: not what man does but what God does to us; not our hold of Him, but 'His strong grasp of us'. So Calvinism of necessity leads to experiences, and to great emphasis upon experience; and these men, and all these older Calvinists were constantly talking about 'visitations', how the Lord had appeared to them, how the Lord had spoken to them...

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Resources for Daily Bible Reading

Here are some of the best online resources for daily Bible reading...

I don't use any of those. Personally, I find internet-enabled devices too much of a distraction when trying to read the Bible. But I know some people might find them helpful...

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Vaughan Roberts - "A Battle I Face"

Vaughan Roberts has done a superb interview with Julian Hardyman, in which he (Vaughan) speaks honestly about his struggle with same-sex attraction.

It's a really good read - I've got a huge amount of respect for Vaughan anyway, and that just went up another notch or two. Someone needed to say what he has said, and I'm glad it was him.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Did Jesus Have a Wife?

There's a lot of chatter going round the internet about a bit of ancient paper which mentions Jesus having a wife. Most if it is the usual bad journalism - here's a proper scholar's take on it.

And a nice article here points us back to the fact that Jesus might not have a wife, but he is engaged - to us.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Prayer, Praise and Prophecy - A Theology of the Psalms

I bought this book on the basis on one quote on the cover. It says this

"...a marvellous handbook to the Psalms. If I were teaching a course on the Psalms, this would be my textbook." Dale Ralph Davis

As so often, I find that I agree with Davis. At theological college, I read quite a few books on the Psalms; this has better scholarship than any of them. He mentions the trendy theological theories, but stands back and evaluates them sensibly. He mentions form criticism (for example), shows some of the value of it, and critiques it too. It's the best treatment I've read of the academic issues, including Psalm ordering and the formation of the Psalter.

But it's also written as a Christian who doesn't feel he has to tick the boxes of the non-Christian academic world. He writes things like "To understand the Psalms Biblically is, of course, ultimately to understand them in terms of Christ." (p.280) There are whole chapters on Christological and Christocentric interpretation of the Psalms, which was somewhat taboo (and wrongly so) at theological college.

There were a couple of omissions - I don't recall any discussion of the history of composite Psalms (e.g. 89), and the Proc Trust hermenteutic of Jesus as the perfect singer of Psalms only got a small look-in, but they're only fairly minor.

Overall - brilliant. Pastorally warm, encouraging, academic but not dry, well-informed but not in thrall to scholarship.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Virtue Reborn - Tom Wright

It seems that Tom Wright had three purposes in mind in writing this book. It is a book about how Christians should seek to act in the light of their faith. It is also a book showing how the ancient philosophical idea of virtue is reinterpreted in the New Testament, and again it seeks to show how many of the alternative models of Christian living (e.g. legalism) are flawed.

The UK title is a characteristic Wright pun. It is about the rebirth of virtue as an idea in modern ethics, about the fact that virtue as classically understood is not enough – we need to be reborn, and about how the fruits of that rebirth can be well explained using the language of virtue. In the US, it's called "After you believe". I don't know if that's because SPCK think Americans are stupid.

There are a lot of good things about this book. It's the first time I've seen Wright rebuff one of the common misinterpretations of his work – the idea that “Christian living in the present consists of anticipating the final kingdom-on-earth by working and campaigning for justice, peace, and the alleviation of poverty and distress.” Instead, Wright's basic scheme is this:

1. The goal is the new heaven and new earth, with human beings raised from the dead to be the renewed world's rulers and priests.
2. This goal is achieved through the kingdom-establishing work of Jesus and the Spirit, which we grasp by faith, participate in by baptism, and live out in love.
3. Christian living in the present consists of anticipating this ultimate reality through the Spirit-led, habit-forming, truly human practice of faith, hope, and love, sustaining Christians in their calling to worship God and reflect his glory into the world. (p.59-60)

Virtue Reborn is just about the best book I have ever read on how difficult obedience leads to habits, which leads to formation of character, which leads to transformed desires. It is brilliant on the importance of thinking through actions and views in the light of the gospel.

The more genuinely spiritual you are,... the more clearly and accurately and carefully you will think, particularly about what the completed goal of your Christian journey will be, and hence what steps you should be taking, what habits you should be acquiring, as part of the journey toward that goal, right now. (p.137)

There is a popular view that when we believe in Jesus, God transforms our hearts so dramatically by his Spirit that afterwards we just need to do “whatever comes naturally”. Wright commendably takes a very strong stand against this. However, as often with Wright, there is a real danger that he throws the baby out with the bathwater. So he asserts that Luther held that view (p.52) and does not even mention the idea of “sanctification” in Reformed theology – it is as if evangelicalism has uniformly taught that view since the Reformation, and therefore the choice is either Wright's understanding or an easy-believism. In his bibliography (p.246), he does recognise that his depiction view on Luther is not wholly “balanced and rounded”, but he doesn't even mention the long and faithful heritage of those Protestants who taught and believed that we need to work out our salvation.

The other danger Wright faces in opposing easy-believism is that he downplays the work of the Spirit. He does not mention the possibility, for example, that the Spirit transforms our hearts and minds apart from the slow work of Christian obedience or that he creates in us new desires to do what pleases God. In reality, of course, it is both/and. We should work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, because it is God who works in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phil 2:12-13).

Overall then, a good book, a helpful and important book. But Wright again seems to make his characteristic error of over-reacting against those whom he disagrees with.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Same-Sex Marriage

Here's my response to the government consultation on same-sex marriage:

The essence of marriage is that it is two different people committing themselves to be together for life. The experience of having to live with, and committing yourself to love, someone who is fundamentally different from yourself, is one of the key drivers for personal growth. It is within the context of two people committed to love the other "for better for worse" that children are best raised, because the couple have learned to accept each other. That is the best societal basis for tolerance.

The most fundamental distinction between people is gender, as recognised on passports and just about everywhere else. Marriage unites two people of opposite gender, who are thus very different and so as they learn to accept each other, so they learn to accept people who are fundamentally different from themselves. The same is not true of "same-sex marriage". It would be a union of two people who are the same at the fundamental level of gender (and of orientation). It therefore is a very different thing from marriage, and hence a different word should be used. It does not provide the same basis for transformation, or for growth in tolerance and acceptance of the other.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Jim Collins - Great By Choice (3) - Things to Learn

The Four Behaviours

As mentioned above, Collins identifies four features of how “great” organisations are led which enables them to thrive in times of great uncertainty. They are:

  • fanatical discipline – “20 mile marching”.
  • empirical creativity – “fire bullets then cannonballs”.
  • productive paranoia - “leading above the death line”.
  • SMaC recipes – a well-defined set of specific, measurable and consistent practices.

A little explanation of each will help.

Fanatical discipline is the idea that companies should aim to achieve the same level of progress regardless of the outside environment. That both prevents them from overstretching themselves when times are good and from giving up or cutting core services when times are bad. The classic example he cites is that of Intel, whose corporate strategy was focused on upholding Moore's Law – doubling the complexity of components per integrated circuit every 18-24 months. This meant that they continued to invest in R&D, even through recessions. Perhaps the best example of this, though is from the Scott & Amundsen example. Scott's team would push hard on a day with good weather, but stay in their tents on a day with bad weather. Amundsen aimed to do 15-20 miles per day, regardless of the weather, refusing to do more even when the South Pole was within reach. As a result, they did not tire as much in good weather and stayed more motivated in bad, as well as having a higher average overall speed.

Empirical creativity was an idea that surprised Collins and Hansen. They expected that in an uncertain environment, it would be the more innovative companies that thrived. But instead they found that there seemed to be a minimum threshold for innovation – if companies did not innovate a certain amount, they declined and died. But above that limit, it was not the companies who innovated most who prospered, but the ones who tested their innovations before rolling them out on a large scale or even who just saw what was working elsewhere, and followed that. Hence the idea of firing bullets then cannonballs – one fires a large number of “bullets” to find out what works, and then follows the ones that work well up with a “cannonball”, which costs more and involves a greater commitment.

Productive Paranoia was another surprising idea. They had been expecting to find a sense of confidence, and quick decision making among the leaders of these “great” companies. Instead, they found that the leaders kept far larger cash reserves than in the comparison companies – 3 to 10x as much – that they kept a close watch out for things that could damage their position, and worked hard at finding solutions. Surprisingly, they also found that they took fewer risks than their competitors, especially “death line” risks, which could destroy the company, and “asymmetric risks”, where the potential loss was much greater than the potential profit. They also managed “time based risks” well – when a decision was urgent, they took as much of the time they had available as they could before the risk increased to make the best decision they could.

SMaC Recipes are a set of corporate practices which are specific, measurable and consistent. The “great” companies examined made sure theirs worked and were clear, concrete and replicable, and then held to them rigidly, only changing them rarely and when conditions needed it and only in accordance with productive paranoia or empirical creativity. That enables dramatic change and strong consistency at the same time. One example is Intel's policy, which Collins & Hansen list as 10 points. In 1985, Intel decided to change the entire focus of their business from memory chips to microprocessors because of strong and cheap mass-produced competition. But in doing so they only changed one point in their “SMaC recipe”, and they already had a thriving microprocessor arm as a side business. That enabled them to in some ways reinvent themselves without changing their corporate culture. What especially distinguished the “great” companies from their competitors was that the “great” companies stuck to their policies with greater discipline, and changed them less. They even found one example of two companies with nearidentical recipes, which were similarly successful until one decided to try to change to copy a bigger rival and went into decline. One example of a SMaC principle was Southwest Airways' decision only to fly Boeing 737s, because that meant that any pilot could fly any plane, any engineer could fix any plane and logistics for spares was much easier.

Theological Evaluation of the Four Behaviours

These behaviours, taken as advice for how to cope with turbulent situations, do not seem to suffer from the same kind of problems that Collins' ideas of “greatness” and “choice” do. This is possibly because they are based on research rather than worldly assumptions or hubristic misuse of data.

Indeed, some limited theological parallels could be drawn. For example, the idea of 20 mile marching could be compared to the business environment of Old Testament Israel, where due to the prohibition on interest, it was much harder for individuals to overextend their businesses in good times. The notion of empiricism also stems from a Christian worldview, specifically the doctrine of original sin and the way it has corrupted our understanding so that we do not always make accurate decisions about the world without testing it.

Of course, that does not make them Christian. There is nothing there about the importance of trusting God and finding him to be your Rock. There is nothing there about the need to go deeper into God to find your roots more securely in the work of Jesus on the cross. There is nothing there about prayer or the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They are clearly not sufficient as advice for Christian leaders. But it is possible to take them as potentially wise advice for leading a church through turbulent times.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Jim Collins - Great by Choice (2) - Two Big Problems


The first potentially problematic area of Jim Collins' work is the idea of “greatness”. It is his major focus across his whole canon of work – Built to Last was about the features of a company which lead to enduring greatness, Good to Great about how a company can change from being good to being great, How the Mighty Fall about how a company can cease to be great and Great by Choice about the role of luck in greatness, and how to lead well in turbulent times.

Collins' research methodology is generally to find sets of two comparison companies, one of which did better than the other from similar starting points, and to study what makes the “great” company different from the other one, then identifying common themes between all of his examples. In Great by Choice, Collins chooses “great” companies to study based on the following criteria:

  • They need to have out-performed their industry average on the stock market by a factor of 10x over a period of 15+ years.
  • They achieved those results in a particularly turbulent environment, with lots of potential for disaster.
  • They began their rise to greatness from a position of vulnerability, being young or small at the start of the study.

Probably the most famous corporate example he takes is Microsoft v Apple prior to 2000, and then examining Apple's resurgence under Steve Jobs. He also uses the recurring example of Scott v Amundsen in the race for the South Pole, observing that most of the same principles apply there as well.

This rather raises the question “Should we as Christian leaders seek greatness as understood by Collins for our churches?” In Good to Great and the Social Sectors, Collins discusses what greatness means for a non-profit organisation.

A great organisation is one that delivers superior performance and makes a distinctive impact over a long period of time. For a business, financial returns are a perfectly legitimate measure of performance. For a social sector organisation, however, performance must be assessed relative to mission, not financial returns. In the social sectors, the critical question is not “How much money do we make per dollar of invested capital?” but “How effectively do we deliver on our mission and make a distinctive impact, relative to our resources?”

He goes on to break down his definition into three factors – superior performance, distinctive impact, lasting endurance, and then to show that many of the principles he advocated in Good to Great still apply, albeit with slight modifications.

I think it is important to draw a distinction here between the calling of God's Church, the calling of the congregations we serve, and our calling as individuals. We are called neither to greatness nor to seek greatness – we are called to seek God and serve faithfully. The congregations we are called to serve may be called to greatness, but they may not. It is far too easy as pastors for our egos to become entangled with the health of the congregations we serve. But superior performance, distinctive impact and lasting endurance are most certainly features of the Kingdom of God, far beyond what any company or organisation could achieve. And that is because it is led by the perfect leader – Jesus Christ. True greatness is to be found in following him, and his kingdom is truly great, whether by Jim Collins' definition or any other.

“Great by Choice”

An even more troubling theme of Collins' work is the idea of choice. Collins' basic thesis in the book is that there is a set of 4 behaviours which, taken together, ensure that one thrives in difficult and unpredictable situations. He examines the role of luck, and finds that the successful companies did not have better luck than their unsuccessful counterparts, but their behaviour during the period ensured that they made the most of their good luck and did not suffer as much from the effects of bad luck – these behaviours ensure a better “return on luck”.

There are several major problems with this from a Christian (and a logical) point of view.

  • Firstly, just because those behaviours might lead to a better “return on luck” does not mean that they can be chosen. We are not always free to act in the way that we might want to. Indeed, in Good to Great, he speculates as to how level 5 leaders come about and isn't sure beyond pointing to possible causative factors such as near-death experiences or conversion to Christianity.
  • Secondly, he largely ignores the role of catastrophically bad, unavoidable events – events which would ensure that the company closes down no matter how they had behaved beforehand, or which could not have been forseen. He might respond to this by pointing out that such events are by definition unavoidable and hence do not change the fact that one set of behaviours has a better return on luck. However, that misses the point that such events show that it is not merely a “choice” to become great - there are still plenty of factors beyond our control.
  • Third, luck does not really exist – it is a matter of the providence of God - The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD. (Proverbs 16:33, NIV)
  • Finally, as a result of these, Collins' suggestion that one could become “Great by Choice” is hubristic. It doesn't allow for the fact that it is God who gives the ability to become great. It doesn't allow for the fact that God could easily stop them from becoming great via either changing their character or bringing along an unavoidable catastrophic event, in the way that he did in Daniel 4.

By saying that greatness is a result of choice, Collins commits a logical fallacy. Many companies may have chosen the same course as the “great” companies, but failed. All winners of the men's Olympic 100m final for the past 20 years have been Afro-Caribbean, but that does not mean that ++Sentamu is a good sprinter.

He also undermines some of his own past work by creating the danger of letting the “will” aspect of the level 5 leader undermine the “humility” aspect. He notes that level 5 leaders tend to credit others for their success – how then would they respond to reading his work and learning that becoming great was their choice? How would someone who knew that they had chosen to become great attain the level of humility required for level 5 leadership? The counterpart of being able to choose greatness is that if an organisation lacks greatness, it is the fault of their leader for not choosing it. In some cases, doubtless, that is true. But in others it isn't. Was Jeremiah less than great? Situations and providence play a far greater role than Collins allows them.

Having criticised both the notion of greatness and the idea of choice, it might seem that there is little hope for Great by Choice. However, that isn't necessarily true. What Collins has done is present four behaviours which help people and organisations to thrive in uncertain conditions, even if he has framed it in ways which we might not find helpful. We can still potentially learn from treating those behaviours as examples of research-based wisdom...

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Jim Collins - Great by Choice (1)

Who is Jim Collins?

In my experience, Jim Collins is the secular leadership thinker who is most often cited by Christians. Ideas such as the level 5 leader (from Good to Great) and the BHAG (from Built to Last) are common currency in open and charismatic evangelical leadership. He used to be a lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Business, but is now an independent management consultant who runs his own “management laboratory” and spends most of his time speaking and doing research. He has spoken at the GLS four times, more than anyone else except Hybels.

In 2005, he professed to be surprised by how popular Good to Great had been among nonprofit organisations - between a third and a half of all readers32, and therefore decided to write a supplement to the book which discussed some of the differences between business and non-business and applied his work more broadly.

One of the most striking features of Collins' work, and one which explains why it is so popular amongst Christians, is the idea of the Level 5 Leader, introduced in Good to Great and recurring in all his subsequent books. He found that companies that become great and stay great have a particular type of leader to start with. In Collins' own words: Level 5 leaders embody a paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will. They are ambitious, to be sure, but ambitious first and foremost for the company, not themselves.

Level 5 leaders, notes Collins, are so important because they enable others to become great too. As Lawrence and others have pointed out, this ties in strongly with the Bible's picture of leadership because it reflects the character of Christ who surely is the perfect embodiment of the combination of humility and will. It is also encouraging for Christians when we find ourselves under pressure not to be humble. Can we then learn more about what the combination of humility and will looks like from the examples Collins cites?

As part of my curacy, I wrote an essay evaluating the whole trend of secular leadership thinking in the church, with particular reference to Jim Collins' book Great by Choice.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Welcome to my blog!

Welcome to my blog, particularly for people who are new here! Or rather, welcome to my older blog. Most of the stuff on here goes back many years; there's a decent fraction of it I really don't agree with - notably I've changed my mind on issues of charismatic gifts and experience and women in ministry. The main emphasis here is on church politics and theology, and I don't update it very often - my newer, shinier, more relevant-to-me blog is here.

Friday, April 27, 2012

On Women in Ministry...

I've got lots of friends on all sides of the current debates in the Church of England about women in ministry. As usual, I'm not towing any party line in particular, but here are a few questions I don't think I've seen good answers to.

Questions for Supporters of Women Bishops

  • Men and women are blatantly different, and the differences aren't just in terms of genitalia. No-one in this debate is arguing that women are inferior. The evangelical end of the debate is about whether biological, psychological, theological and ontological differences between men and women mean that they should have different ministries in the light of Scripture. And yet so often it seems like you rule out that possibility before even beginning to engage in debate. Why?
  • As it currently stands, a significant minority of the C of E take the view that the majority of the church has for the majority of its history, that the Bible teaches that certain roles within the church should be restricted to men only. Many of them believe that not because they uncritically accept tradition, but because they have thought and prayed about the issue and in good conscience come to the conclusion that the restriction still stands. Given that, even if they are wrong, what is the most Christian way to treat them?
  • If the objectors to the Consecration of Women are wrong, surely they classify as "weaker brethren" a la Romans 14. Why then aren't we acting towards them as such?

Questions for Opponents of Women Bishops

  • There are many requirements in Scripture for overseers / bishops. Why is the requirement that bishops be male any more important than that the bishops be able to teach, or that they be of good repute in the community (for example)? Personally, I can think of women I'd much rather have as my bishop than several men I know of who are bishops!
  • It might be wrong for the C of E to allow women to become bishops - I'm sure they way they are going about it is wrong - but if the C of E does allow it, don't those women then become an authority set over us a la Romans 13, and so isn't the right response to submit to them?
  • Why is 1 Corinthians 11 sometimes used in the debate? If it teaches that men are ontologically the heads of women (which is the only way it is relevant to this debate), it means that I am head over the Queen. Isn't it much more likely about marriage?
  • Are you all right with Deborah acting as she did in Judges? Why / why not?

And finally, a question for both sides

  • Why do both sides in the debate seem so sure on what 1 Tim 2:11-12 means when one of the key words is a hapax legomenon and when no-one has an entirely coherent account of what Eve is doing being saved through childbearing just two verses later? That suggests to me that we don't properly understand the context, so there is therefore scope for our interpretation, whatever it is, to be wrong.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Unhypocritical Love

Unhypocritical Love - Hating the evil, clinging to the good.

To loving one another as family - devoted
For each other's honour - leading the way
In eagerness - not lazy
From the Spirit - bubbling over
To the Lord - serving as a slave
In hope - rejoicing
Through suffering - holding on
In prayer - pushing forwards
For the needs of the saints - sharing
To love strangers - seeking.

That's my attempt at a translation of Romans 12:9-13. Most English translations make it a string of imperatives, but there aren't any in the Greek. Of course the Greek doesn't use a different preposition every time...

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Discarded Cloaks

This morning, I preached on Mark 10:46-11:11. There are two stories there, which most commentaries put on either side of a major division in the book, but I'm sure should go together - they probably happen on the same day, at either end of the same road, and Bartimaeus uses the kingly title "Son of David". Titles of Jesus matter in Mark, and all the other mentions of David are in Passion Week.

One of the common features between the stories which I picked up on is the discarded cloaks. When Jesus calls him, Bartimaeus throws his cloak away. And as Jesus enter Jerusalem, people throw their cloaks on the road in front of his donkey.

Now cloaks matter. In Jesus' day, a cloak was a valuable possession. It was probably your only piece of warm clothing - poor people certainly wouldn't have a spare. You wore it almost all the time, and used it as a blanket at night. People weren't allowed to take your cloak in security for a loan, because it was expensive and too important for your survival. "Sell your cloak and buy one" was used in the same way that "sell your granny and buy one" is today.

But following Jesus sometimes means giving up your cloak. In Bartimaeus's case, that was because going to speak to Jesus was so urgent, and with the disciples it was a matter of worshipping him, even if that meant their security being trampled and covered in donkey poo. Following Jesus isn't always safe. Sometimes he leads us into places we'd rather not go and where no-one has a right to ask us to go. Except him. But he's always trustworthy - always with us. He is our king (as both passages point out), and he cares about us.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Review - Gunning for God by John Lennox

I recently finished reading Gunning for God - why the new atheists are missing the target by John Lennox. Lennox has already written quite a bit on the scientific arguments against Christianity - notably in God's Undertaker. So in Gunning for God, Lennox tackles the non-scientific arguments - "Is Religion Poisonous?", "Can we be Good Without God?" and so on.

John Lennox spends a lot of time thinking about and working on these questions, and it really comes across. He understands the arguments in detail, how they fit into the wider context of Western history and philosophy and so on. He's got the depth of knowledge and reading that a non-expert just couldn't develop without a lot of work.

I don't necessarily agree with him on everything though. For example, when discussing morality, he points out that atheists do not have a consistent basis for absolute morality, and hence they cannot claim that Christianity is immoral. However, I don't think that's quite true. It is still possible to claim that Christianity is internally inconsistent by judging it by its own morality even if one struggles with the problem of morality oneself. The counter to that argument is partly to demonstrate the internal consistency of the Christian worldview and partly to point out that there isn't any consistent alternative morality proposed, but I don't think the argument is quite as strong as Lennox tries to make it. That aside, it's still a very good handling of a difficult question.

Lennox isn't just reactive though - he spends a while thinking about related questions such as "Is Atheism Poisonous?" and "Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?" I've read quite a few books dealing with the arguments for and against God, and this is one of the best. I'd recommend it to anyone wanting to understand the area in more detail, whether they are a committed Christian looking to explain their faith more clearly or a non-Christian wanting to find out the truth.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Review - OT Ethics for the People of God by Chris Wright

I used to dream of one day writing a book about how Christians should understand the Old Testament Law. It wouldn't make the mistake of saying the OT Law was a covenant of works rather than grace, nor would it make the mistake of assuming either that we should obey the OT Law or that we could ignore it. Instead, it would see what it meant for the OT Law to be Israel's response to God saving them by grace, and then apply it to us today. Only I'm not going to bother now, because I've discovered that Chris Wright did it years ago and did it much better than I could ever do.

Wright goes beyond the usual bounds of thinking about OT ethics. He stresses the importance of understanding the society and community as a whole (rather than just the rather Western individualism) and of understanding the ethics not just from the statute law but also from the more theological and narrative sections.

The distinctiveness of Old Testament ethics is ... the distinctiveness of a whole community's ethical response to unique historical events in which they saw the hand of their God.

Wright is superb on so many topics - the politics and economics of OT Israel, the role of family life, the implications for fellowship in the Church, attitudes to slavery, etc.

If I were to criticise the book, I would say that it is too short at (only!) 500-odd pages. He doesn't have space to think about how the New Testament handles the OT Law, or to go into much detail in areas like sexual ethics, feminist critiques of Israel, the implications of the OT village elders for church eldership, ... Having established his principles, he only has the space to pick a few examples and apply them. But given all that, this is a magnificent place to start to think on a deeper level about the ethical implications of the Old Testament for the church, and to engage with more academic scholarship on the issue.

The most fun (and encouragement, and challenge, and encounter with God) I've had reading an academic book for years!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Pablo Martinez - Praying with the Grain

I've read quite a few books on prayer, and this is one of the most unusual. It has five chapters and a Q&A section, and maybe it's best to comment on them individually.

Chapter 1 - Different Prayers for Different People. Martinez looks at basic Jungian typology - thinking, feeling, sensation, intuition, and then applies it to what styles and types of prayer suit each. He takes care to say that we should work on the areas we aren't so good on as well as enjoying the areas that we are more comfortable with. Pretty good.

Chapter 2 - Overcoming Difficulties. He goes through a list of common reasons people find it difficult to pray - "God feels so distant" and so on, and deals with them with a lot of pastoral wisdom coming from his decades as a counsellor and psychiatrist. Stunningly good.

Chapter 3 - The Therapeutic Value of Prayer. The focus here is on how prayer can be key for dealing with various psychiatric difficulties (guilt, depression, etc) and for good mental health. Very good.

Q&A on Prayer - Some questions he's obviously been asked - answers are good and psychologically insightful.

Chapter 4 - Prayer: Psychological Illusion? This is the best treatment I've read of the apologetics question as to whether prayer is a psychological illusion. The answer is no...

Chapter 5 - Are All Prayers Alike? Martinez discusses the question of the relationship between Christian prayer, Christian meditation, Eastern meditation, Platonic ecstasy and magic. Helpful.

I guess the unifying theme between all these chapters is something like "Things Dr Martinez has learnt about prayer in many years of being a Christian, a counsellor and a psychiatrist." An odd collection, but one well worth reading, if only for chapter 2. Definitely worth keeping on the shelf to refer to in the future.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Abortion v Infanticide

An interesting article here.

My conclusion: Ethics fail.

Their logical conclusion "killing babies no different from abortion" is quite possibly valid, but not new - Peter Singer has been arguing it for years, and it was basically the Roman position thousands of years ago. However, their ethical implications are deeply skewed.

Having demonstrated that abortion and infanticide are morally equivalent, they have three options:

  • They could try asserting that ethics are societally defined and conclude "isn't that interesting?" but maintain that one can be wrong and the other right.
  • They could use the widespread revulsion against infanticide to say that abortion is therefore not just an issue of women's rights and is (at least in most cases) wrong.
  • They could use the widespread acceptance of abortion as a product of women's rights to say that infanticide must be correct too.

Of course, I'd take the second option. We think infanticide is wrong because it is - that's what our consciences tell us. I strongly suspect that the reason that the proponents of abortion are so shrill and so irrational in their defence of it is that deep down they know it to be wrong as well.

Monday, February 27, 2012

On Poverty - Part 1

Imagine two countries. In country 1, 55% of the households are "working households", and have an income after tax of around £100,000. The other 45% of the households don't need to do paid work - they are variously looking after children, retired, volunteering for charities and so on. Due to generous welfare, they have an income after tax of £40,000, which is still plenty to live on. They could get jobs if they want to, but have decided not to for this part of their life. Life expectancy in country 1 is in the mid-80s. Crime is negligible.

Country 2 is ruled by a small, fabulously rich elite, who plunder the natural resources of the country and exploit the workers. They earn in the region of £1M each or more. The other 98% of the country are living around the bread line. The government are "fair" in their oppression though, so none of the workers is much better or worse off than any other. Life expectancy among the workers is 35 years, because they have to work down mines from the age of 6. Most adults are malnourished; most teenagers are orphans.

Which of those countries has more poverty? Well, according to the definition used by the British government, country 1 has 45% poverty, and country 2 has 0%. That is because they use the stupid Marxist definition of poverty that someone is poor if their household has less than 60% of the national median income.

Why does this matter? Because we should care far more about the problem of poverty in country 2 than in country 1. Because I am concerned for those who are genuinely poor, but not for those who are only "poor" because of bad definitions. By the government's definition, I've been poor, but I haven't had to go without food, water or shelter. Our efforts for relieving poverty shouldn't go towards redressing the shape of the income distribution, but towards helping those who need it. And what that looks like might be the subject of another post.

Saturday, February 18, 2012


I've just noticed that the file I linked to last time might have been the original version rather than the cleaned up one! Oops and sorry. I've now changed the links in that post

Cleaned up version. short link.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Sermon on Habakkuk 1:12-17

I've cleaned up the audio from this sermon, which I preached a few weeks ago. The results are here. Sorry it's not great quality, but it's better than it was. short link.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Devotional Commentaries

One of the ways of studying the Bible that I find really helpful is using a devotional commentary. They're often books of sermons (or lightly modified sermons) working through a book of the Bible. Sometimes they are popular-level applied versions of heavy academic work. At their best, they combine high level scholarship with the heart of a preacher.

As a teenager, I found reading John Stott's devotional commentaries on Acts, Romans and Ephesians a real spur to spiritual growth. And as a minister, I don't often get to hear other people preach through a book of the Bible, so they are really useful for keeping me fed as a Christian.

The best list I've found of them is at the Good Book Company. They pick one (or occasionally two) for each book of the Bible. When I know the book, I guess I agree with the GBC list about 80% of the time. When there's a book I've not read any good devotional commentaries on, I'll now try the one they suggest first. But for what it's worth, here are a few where I'd pick something else:

Deuteronomy: CJW Wright (NIBC)
Ruth & Esther: I Duguid (REC)
Nehemiah: R Brown (BST)
Jonah: RT Kendall
Habakkuk: J Lamb (Keswick)
Zechariah: B Webb (BST)

Monday, January 30, 2012

Free to Be Guilty?

I don't know if you've been following the story of the Costa Concordia disaster off the coast of Italy. It's one of those stories that has a kind of morbid fascination for many. At the heart of it is the captain, Francesco Schettino. It seems that he told the coastguard he would be the last person to leave the ship, but that he left 4 hours before some of the other survivors, then claimed that he had “tripped and fallen into a lifeboat” and refused to go back onto the ship.

Perhaps what is most striking about Schettino are his pathetic attempts at self-justification. It seems fairly clear that it is his fault the ship was too close to the island, his fault that they were so slow to start the evacuation of the ship, and his fault that he left the ship before that evacuation was complete. And yet he keeps trying to find excuses and shift the blame. Or maybe that's just the way the media presents it...

We criticise Schettino for his behaviour, and rightly so, but it seems that so often we do the same things. We say “I'm sorry I'm late – I got stuck behind a really slow driver” or “The food's burnt because you distracted me while I was meant to be cooking.” We shift the blame because we don't like the reality that we are guilty, and we'd rather make it sound like someone else's fault. Or is that just me?

The Gospel, however, paints a very different picture. Jesus died for us so that we could be forgiven. Or, to put it another way: We as individuals are so guilty that the only way we can be forgiven is for the Son of God himself to die for us. I am so guilty that I needed Jesus to die for me, and you are just as guilty as I am. There is no room for self-justification; there is nowhere left to hide.

What does self-justification say about us? It actually says that we don't like the gospel. We don't want to admit that we are so guilty that Jesus had to die so we could be forgiven. We would rather try to cling to the dirty rags of our own self-righteousness than accept the new clothes that Jesus offers us.

The gospel is good news. It is the news that God loved us so much that he gave his only son to die and be raised again so that we can be forgiven; that we can have a righteousness that is from God by grace through faith because our own self-righteousness can be never be good enough; that we can know God and need never be ashamed because he offers us a new life.

So let's feel free to be guilty! When we mess up, which we do and will go on doing, let's be honest about it. Let's not try to find any more pathetic excuses, but be honest with one another, repent genuinely and forgive one another from the heart. Let's trust that we are righteous because of God's righteousness given to us rather than because of our own attempts to be good. If we rely on our own goodness, we will fail. But if we rely on God's goodness to us in accepting us, forgiving us and transforming us, then he can never fail.

Then maybe we will learn not to look a fool like Captain Schettino, and will have more of the open, honest and forgiving community that God calls us to be.

(first published in church magazine)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Managing God's Money - Randy Alcorn

This is the best book I have ever read on how Christians should relate to money.

As you'd expect, there's plenty on giving, and it avoids the dangers of legalism and ignoring tithing - I love his picture of tithing as being how God trains people to give. But there's also plenty on when saving is good (and when it isn't), the dangers of legacies, training children to have a good attitude to money, dealing with debt, and so on. But practice is always rooted in good theology.

If I were going to come up with one criticism, it's that his section entitled "Is it right for Christians to have material possessions and enjoy them?" gives the right answer but underplays it. There is a real danger in some cases of people feeling guilty for enjoying anything when they feel they should give more. Admittedly, the danger for far more people is that they assume that they should be comfortable and only give God what is left over.

Oh, and it doesn't mention Fairtrade stuff either.

Great book. Highly recommended. If you know of better money-related books, I'd love to know!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Jesus and Canaanite Genocide - Part 4

4. How can the God of Joshua be the God of Jesus?

And so we get back to the key question – how can the God of Joshua also be the God of Jesus? A few thoughts.

  • Jesus is the one who takes the punishment that we deserve so that we don't suffer the same fate as the Canaanites. He is the solution to the problem of how there can be any hope for those who commit treason against the rightful and righteous rule of God. And he solves it by being God and bearing God's own righteous anger against our sin.
  • Some people say that God could not order the destruction of the Canaanites. But if that is so, why did Jesus need to die? If the punishment that we all deserve for our sin was any less than death, God need not have paid that price for us. But he did.
  • What happened with the Canaanites shows us where the natural trajectory of our lives leads. Jesus offers us transformation that leads away from cosmic treason and judgement and into following the Prince of Peace.
  • Jesus is the one who will ultimately judge the world. He will return in glory to judge the living and dead, as the Creed says. Longman points out that those who have a problem with the Canaanite genocide are likely to have far more of a problem with the Last Judgement. But as the last judgement is something carried out by Jesus, the problem is not in reconciling the God of Joshua with the God of Jesus, but reconciling Christ as Saviour and Christ as Judge.
  • Christ can be Judge precisely because he is also Saviour. He has offered us salvation; he has paid the immense price for that salvation. And so if we reject that salvation, we have offended him. The God most of the Canaanites rejected is the same God who died to redeem the few who turned to him, and is the same God who judged them for their rejection of his offer of salvation.
[intro | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Jesus and Canaanite Genocide - Part 3

3. How do we know we aren't going to be called to something like that today?

The key point in answering this question is made in the book by Gard. He points out that the God's people today – the church – are a theological entity, not a political one. There isn't a country now that is “God's country” more than another, so wars like the one in Joshua can't happen today.

This means, among other things, that fighting for God isn't physical fighting any more. Longman points to Ephesians 6.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.
(Ephesians 6:10-20, NIV)

Christian warfare is fought by praying, with weapons like truth, faith, righteousness and God's Word. It isn't about physical political battles any more, because God's people are a spiritual unity rather than a political one and our enemies are spiritual rather than physical.

And though there are battles in the book of Revelation, God's people don't fight them. When they win, they do so by speaking about Jesus, and not running away from death (Rev 12:11). The description of the great final battle is of a huge army coming against God's people to fight against them, “but fire came down from heaven and devoured them.” (Rev 20:9). God's people don't have to fight.

There's a different debate here about whether it's appropriate for Christians to serve in the armed forces. That's not the question here – the point is that “holy war” is no longer fought with the weapons of this world, because God's kingdom is not of this world.

[intro | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Jesus and Canaanite Genocide - Part 2

2. Why Isn't It Really Genocide?

The so-called “Canannite Genocide” mostly takes place in the book of Joshua. I'd like to look at three short stories from the book of Joshua to show that not everything is as we might expect.

a) The Story of Rahab

Rahab is a Canaanite prostitute, who starts out living in Jericho. Right at the start of the conquest, before anyone dies, Joshua sends some spies out to investigate the land. They comes to Jericho, and meet Rahab, but are spotted. In one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the Bible, Rahab then lies to her own people to protect the Israelite spies, then says this:

“I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that, as I have dealt kindly with you, you also will deal kindly with my father's house, and give me a sure sign that you will save alive my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.” (Joshua 2:9-13, ESV)

The spies escape; Jericho is destroyed; Rahab and her family are saved.

There are several remarkable things about this as we consider the Canaanite genocide.

  • Rahab was a Canaanite, but she decided to side with the Israelites.
  • She is spared. No-one even questions whether it was wrong to make an agreement with her or whether they should go back on it (both arguments are used later with the Gibeonites).
  • God approves of her being spared. As we will see in the second story, God punishes all of Israel because Achan kept some of the plunder from Jericho, but he does not mention Rahab and her family being spared as a problem at all.
  • Rahab is not subsequently treated as a Canaanite. According to Matthew 1:5, she is the mother of Boaz and hence an ancestor of both David and Jesus. None of the laws against intermarriage apply to her (e.g. Deut 7:3); none of the laws against her descendants being allowed into the temple apply to her. The same is true of her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth. Why not? I suggest it is because her profession of faith in the God of the Israelites means that she is no longer treated as a foreigner but as one of God's people.

What can we therefore learn about the “Canaanite Genocide”? Simply this – it's about punishment and idolatry. If people repent and decide to worship the true God, they can be spared. It might mean treason against their own people – it does for Rahab - but it means loyalty to the higher and more legitimate authority of God.

b) The Story of Achan

Achan stands in stark contrast to Rahab. She was the Canaanite who became part of God's people; he was the Israelite who was excluded from God's people and suffered the same fate as the Canaanites. We read about him in Joshua 7.

When Jericho was destroyed, the Israelites were not allowed to take any of the plunder for themselves – it was all to be destroyed or put into God's treasury. But Achan stole some and hid it under his tent. As a result, God was angry with Israel and they lost their next battle. Achan's actions come to light, and he is treated the same way as Jericho was (Josh 7:15 c.f. Josh 6:24).

What do we learn from this?

  • The division between those whom God destroys and those whom God spares is not ethnic. It is to do with whether or not they serve him. So rebellious Israelites are put outside, and obedient Canaanites are included. Echoes of Romans 11...

c) The Story of the Gibeonites

After the next battle, at Ai, Joshua has some more visitors. These visitors have a confession of faith that sounds like Rahab's, and they claim not to be Canaanites.

From a very distant country your servants have come, because of the name of the LORD your God. For we have heard a report of him, and all that he did in Egypt, and all that he did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon the king of Heshbon, and to Og king of Bashan, who lived in Ashtaroth. (Joshua 9:9-10, ESV)

Joshua doesn't check it out with God, but makes peace with them. Of course, it turns out that they are actually from a nearby city. Squabbling ensues, but the Gibeonites join the list of Canaanites who are safe.

On the rare occasions when this passage is preached, it is usually applied by pointing out Joshua's foolishness in not asking God before signing the treaty. And that is there, but what is more striking to me is the Gibeonites' cunning in wanting to be part of God's people. It's a great illustration of Matthew 11:12. This is thrown into even clearer focus a couple of chapters later when the prophetic author of Joshua comments on the other Canaanites.

There was not a city that made peace with the people of Israel except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon. They took them all in battle. For it was the LORD's doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed, just as the LORD commanded Moses. (Joshua 11:19-20, ESV)

In the Bible, when God hardens people's hearts, it always describes the same process as them hardening their own hearts against him. The Canaanites harden their own hearts, but God is sovereign over it and uses their hard-hearted rejection of him to bring them to destruction.

But the crucial implication of that passage is that God approved of the Gibeonites trying to avoid destruction. It was the right thing for them to do, and stemmed from hearts that hadn't been hardened. Despite their lies, it seems that they really believed what they said about God. When Joshua confronts them with their lies, they reply:

“Because it was told to your servants for a certainty that the LORD your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you all the land and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you--so we feared greatly for our lives because of you and did this thing. And now, behold, we are in your hand. Whatever seems good and right in your sight to do to us, do it.”

So he did this to them and delivered them out of the hand of the people of Israel, and they did not kill them. But Joshua made them that day cutters of wood and drawers of water for the congregation and for the altar of the LORD, to this day, in the place that he should choose.

(Joshua 9:24-27, ESV)

What can we learn from the Gibeonites?

  • Where the Canaanites were not hard-hearted towards God, it was quite possible for them to remain in the land and escape destruction. All that they needed to do was strive for it and be willing to serve God rather than their idols.

Three short stories set during the conquest of Canaan, and each of them radically changes our perspective on what happened.

[intro | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]

Friday, January 20, 2012

Jesus and Canaanite Genocide - Part 1

Continuing a series which I started yesterday...

1. How Can God's Instructions About the Canaanites Possibly Be Justified?

God commanded Israel:

But in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the LORD your God has commanded. (Deut 20:16-17, ESV)

The Bible itself gives several justifications for this command:

  • The picture the Bible paints of God is of an all-powerful sovereign. He owns the whole world, including the land of Canaan, and chose to give the land to Israel. He is therefore perfectly within his rights to expel squatters. Strikingly, that's almost exactly the language used in Joshua 3:10 – God is “driving out” the Canaanites from the land. Only the ones who stay and fight get killed.
  • God originally promised the land to Abram, 400 years earlier. But he does not give the land to Abram immediately. Instead he says “[your descendants] shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” (Gen 15:16). In other words, there is a strong element of punishment in what happened to the Canaanites. God is removing them from the land in punishment for their sin.
  • One aspect of the Canaanites' sin which was particularly heinous was their idolatry, which God wanted eradicated. “The carved images of their gods you shall burn with fire. You shall not covet the silver or the gold that is on them or take it for yourselves, lest you be ensnared by it, for it is an abomination to the LORD your God.” (Deut 7:25) There are strong indications elsewhere in the Bible that Canaanite idolatry included child sacrifice.
  • Linked to this is the idea that the Israelites needed to be protected from idolatry. After the verses quoted above, Deuteronomy 20 continues “... that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the LORD your God.” God wanted his people to be free from any of the evil influences of Canaanite religion, therefore he required that it be completely eradicated, which meant eradicating all of its adherents. Of course, what eventually happens is that the Israelites don't wipe the Canaanites out, they do end up copying the Canaanite religion, and so they do end up rejecting God. So God's concern at this stage turns out to be completely justified.
  • This is all a part of the big picture of God's mission. The overarching storyline in this part of the Bible is that God has promised that he will bless all nations, and do so through establishing Israel as a nation which serves and honours him, and then shines as a light to the world. That requires them to be a nation, in a land, and living faithfully to him. All of which requires the removal of the Canaanites.

It's easy to kick against the idea that sin deserves death. We live in a culture which so often refuses to face up to reality in this area.

Most countries seem to agree that the most serious crime is treason. It was certainly one of the last crimes to carry the death penalty in the UK (abolished 1998). Treason is essentially an act of war against one's own country, particularly plotting to kill the rightful ruler. And it seems fairly clear that the better the ruler is, the worse the treason is. So Claus von Stauffenberg plotted to kill Hitler but is widely regarded as a hero, whereas William Joyce (aka Lord Haw-Haw) collaborated with the Germans during WW2 and is viewed as a villain, though both were convicted of treason. The better the ruler, the worse the crime.

What we seem to miss is that we are all guilty of treason against the best, the wisest and the most rightly sovereign ruler of all – God. We take all the good things that he has given us and try to declare our unilateral independence from him. And even while he continues to sustain us and bless us, we use our abilities to sing the praise of other gods, who are no gods at all. The Canaanites sacrificed their children, whom God had given them, to his rivals who were nothing more than statues.

They were all traitors, and all therefore rightly deserved death. Longman writes:

In conclusion, we must point out that the Bible does not understand the destruction of the men, women and children of these cities as a slaughter of innocents. Not even the children are considered innocent. They are all part of an inherently wicked culture that, if allowed to live, would morally and theologically pollute the people of Israel. (p.201)

But so are we, and that should be the real surprise of the Canaanite genocide. It was only the Canaanites who got destroyed, and not us too. We all deserve it – but they were the only ones to get what they deserved.

The important question is not so much why certain nations were destroyed but rather why all nations, including Israel, were not. By YHWH's standards of holiness, not even the most righteous of humanity could remain alive. (Gard, p.103)

Longman cites Meredith Kline's helpful idea of intrusion ethics – that what we see at the Canaanite genocide is God's final judgement on the Canaanites, but brought forwards from the end of time to the time of Joshua. What happened to the Canaanites is what should and will happen to all of us by rights. So it's just as well there's a way out...

[intro | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Jesus and Canaanite Genocide - Introduction

I recently finished reading Show Them No Mercy – Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide in the excellent Counterpoints series (Zondervan, 2003). For anyone not familiar with the series, they find a controversial topic – in this case the Canaanite genocide partially carried out in the book of Joshua – and ask 4±1 scholars to write an essay on it. The scholars are selected because of the fact they hold differing views on the topic, and they get a chance to write responses to each others' essays as well. The result is a book that does a good job of presenting the different points of view on a difficult topic, which can be very useful as a starting point either for understanding the debate or for formulating one's own views.

Show Them No Mercy is a slightly unusual volume in the series because three of the four scholars end up in substantial agreement with each other, with only C.S. Cowles dissenting. Cowles kicks off the book with an essay where he argues that “love as it is revealed by God in Christ [should be] our criterion for interpreting Scripture”1. The difficult question is then this “Given that God has revealed himself supremely in the person of Jesus Christ, what does it mean for Scripture to record him commanding genocide in the case of the Canaanites?” Having raised the issue well, Cowles doesn't answer it anywhere near as convincingly. He tries a fusion of Origenistic allegorical interpretation and arguing that the Biblical authors' understanding of the nature of God develops with time, essentially saying “God didn't command it; God wouldn't command it; but Moses, Joshua and so on thought that he did because they didn't know God as well as we do now.”

Cowles' problem is that his understanding of Scripture doesn't hold together. He keeps appealing to Jesus, but ignores Jesus' understanding of the Old Testament passages as literal, and especially his claim that they are fundamentally about him (e.g. Luke 24:27). He ends up ignoring large swathes of the Bible (including Revelation and most of the OT) because they don't fit with his picture of what God is like. The three other authors rightly take him to task for this, and go on to make some very good and important points about how God could permit and even command the Canaanite genocide. And Cowles keeps coming back, saying “What about Jesus? Isn't Christianity meant to be centred on the cross?” He never really gets to grips with his own understanding of Scripture but I don't think the others ever really get to grips with his main point either. How can the God of Joshua be the God of Jesus?

Over the next few days, I'm going to try to post some of my thoughts about God and the Canaanite genocide. They lean massively on the authors of Show Them No Mercy, especially Tremper Longman III, but I'm adding some bits of my own thought too. I'm aiming to answer the following questions:

  1. How can God's instructions about the Canaanites possibly be justified?
  2. Why isn't it really genocide?
  3. How do we know we aren't going to be called to something like that today?
  4. How can the God of Joshua be the God of Jesus?
[intro | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]