The Art of Reading the Bible #2

The Art of Reading the Bible #2

A few months back I offered the first in what was to be a series of blogs on reading the bible, bouncing off an approach outlined by Richard Hays. Hays suggested that interpretation is a fourfold task:

  1. Descriptive: what a particular book of the bible meant to its original audience;
  2. Synthesis: how the ideas, themes, injunctions of each book/text fit within the bible as a whole;
  3. Hermeneutics: how the themes and patterns of the synthesis task speak to our lives;
  4. Pragmatic: how the conclusions of the hermeneutic stage are given effect in our lives.

I have found Hays stage 2 very helpful to remember. In the academy this step is well recognised and scholars debate the ways the texts are put together. But in popular discussion we easily forget that whenever we move from a single text or group of texts to the declaration that “the bible says…” we are assuming a particular understanding of how the texts we cite fit together with the rest of the Bible.

A good example of this is found in Matthew 19.1-12. The Pharisees question Jesus about divorce. The Law of Israel said:

Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man’s wife. Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the Lord, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession

Deuteronomy 24

The Pharisees concluded from this that God approved of a man divorcing a wife if he “found something objectionable about her”. They disagreed however on what was meant by “something objectionable.” The rabbinic traditions preserved by generations after Jesus suggest that some took the phrase to mean anything objectionable, such as the way a wife spoke to her husband or served his food, while others argued that the reference was to things far weightier, such as sexual infidelity.

Jesus’s response was that the Pharisees had not synthesised the biblical texts correctly. He gave primacy to the description of marriage in the creation accounts (Genesis 1-2) to conclude that God’s intention was that husbands would not divorce their wives but respect that God had put husband and wife together. Deuteronomy 24 should not be read as God’s approval of them severing their marriage but as a concession to their “hardness of heart”. Jesus did not elaborate, but I take it he identified Deuteronomy 24 as something akin to “harm minimisation.” In the patriarchal culture of the ancient world, wives were subject to the whims of their husband and if divorced could be batted back and forth between men. Rather than approving of this, Jesus suggests Deuteronomy 24 recognises that it happens and seeks to minimise the damage it caused. One gets a sense of just how deeply ingrained was the assumed privilege of men that Jesus’s male disciples conclude that if they were not free to divorce a wife they found objectionable that it would be better not to marry!

We like to pillory the Pharisees but they were not theological lightweights. They were dedicated to understanding the Scriptures, spent long hours discussing and debating the meaning of the Scriptures, and sought to live by them. Where they appear to have been derailed was in the way they put the texts together.

How do we avoid the same error? I’m not sure we can. My life has been a long journey of learning, unlearning and relearning. I have revisited and revised my reading of Scripture on many things and assume I will continue to do so. I have however found the following things helpful.

  1. Read myself. I try to remain aware that my reading of Scripture is socially conditioned. We have all learned to read the texts in particular ways and these tend to justify our values, beliefs, and practises. Sometimes this will not be problematic because our values, beliefs and practises are headed in the right direction. But there are also times they are misguided. I therefore need to be brutally honest with myself and interrogate my reading and conclusions.
  2. Read with others and particularly with those who read differently. I have found that while reading the text with people who think the same as me is affirming, it is reading and engaging with people who read it differently that has often helped me see things in new ways.
  3. Read as narrative. The biblical documents narrate a story that moves from creation to new creation with Jesus as the pivot. I have found that gaining a sense of the flow of the biblical story helps me make sense of how its many moments fit together.
  4. Read outcomes. For a long time I read the Bible with the goal of being right (and still do) but saw the goal of being good as the application of being right rather than part of the process of synthesising and applying the texts. I no longer think being right and being good can be so neatly separated. If my reading of Scripture is not shaping me towards being good – ie towards compassion, grace, kindness, generosity, and the other things that characterised Jesus – then it’s probably not right. Similarly, if my reading of Scripture does not promote “shalom” – ie blessing, wholeness, wellbeing – then it’s probably not right. And again, if my reading of Scripture paints God as anything other than like Jesus, it’s probably not right.
  5. Read without anxiety. God has not given us a bible that enables us to be right and certain about beliefs and ethics. We have a bible that invites discussion, disagreement, learning and unlearning. It took me a long time to be able to admit this. It no longer bothers me. Rather I find it liberating. (Jesus didn’t say that right doctrine and unswavering certainty is the sum of the law and the prophets. Rather, he claimed that the sum of the law and the prophets is to love God and love each other. Likewise, he didn’t say people would know us by our unchanging beliefs and universal agreement but by our love. The apostle Paul taught us that it is faith, not an impeccable belief and ethic that puts us right with God and that “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love”. If I am seeking to love God and love others and putting my trust in Jesus I figure I’m headed in the right direction.)

Quoting the Bible in Public. What our engagement with slavery should have taught  us.

Quoting the Bible in Public. What our engagement with slavery should have taught us.

For much of the history of the church the practise of slavery went unchallenged. It’s not difficult to see why. Slavery was a longstanding feature of human society that was rarely questioned by those who were free. In the sixth century BC the philosopher Aristotle argued that slavery was a dictate of nature, that some human beings were by nature given to be ruled while others were by nature given to rule (Politics 1.1).

The Hebrew bible read by Christians and Jews celebrated the liberation of Israel from slavery in Egypt, but did not conclude that slavery was an evil from which all people should be liberated. It was assumed that Israelite households would include slaves (eg Exodus 20:10,17; Deuteronomy 12:12,18;  16:11) and, while no Israelite was to be subjected to slavery,  the Israelites were permitted to take slaves from among the foreigners living in their land and from other nations (Leviticus 25:39-46). Alongside the declaration that

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be their slaves no more; I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect.

Leviticus 26:11

came this

As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property. These you may treat as slaves, but as for your fellow Israelites, no one shall rule over the other with harshness.

Leviticus 25:44-46

Slaves taken from foreign nations were considered the property of their owner and could be bought and sold. They were incorporated into the covenant with God as members of their master’s household, and so were to eat the fruit of the land, enjoy rest on the sabbath, and participate in Israel’s festivals (eg Exodus 20:8-11,17; 21:1-27) but they never ceased to be the property of another. 

The New Testament letters recognised that slave and free were included in Christ (Galatians 3:26-28). For Paul this enabled a slave to reframe his/her thinking, to see that whatever his/her status in Greco-Roman society, his/her status in Christ was very different (1 Corinthians 7:17-24). Slaves should gain freedom if the opportunity arose (1 Corinthians 7:17-24), yet there was no expectation that Christian masters would free their slaves. Paul sent the runaway slave Onesimus back to his master Philemon (Philemon ) and in a number of NT letters the proper relationship between slave and master – in which slaves were obedient and masters kind – appears as a staple of instruction to households (eg Ephesians 5:21-6:9; Colossians 3:18-25), to which slaves were to remain true even when treated badly (1 Peter 2:18-24).

It is not surprising then that throughout the church’s history there was little objection to slavery. Prior to the US Civil war evangelicals in both the North and South routinely defended slavery (Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological  Crisis, University of North Carolina Press, 2006). This did not mean they supported every expression of slavery. Some US evangelicals opposed the international slave trade, in which free people were kidnapped, transported to another country and sold as slaves, yet passionately defended the American system of trading people who were already slaves and their children. It was common to argue that America’s slaves were the descendants of Noah’s son Ham, who were cursed with slavery in Genesis 9. 

In addition to the “biblical mandate”, Christians argued that slavery could be seen as a benefit to slaves (the Editors, “Why did so many Christians support slavery?”, Christian History, Issue 33, 2002). Slaves, it was argued, were provided with far greater security of access to food, shelter and community than they would be if they joined the ranks of poorly paid labourers with insecure employment. And slaves were exposed to the Christian gospel and the opportunity to find eternal salvation. 

Bishop Stephen Elliott for example, warned that critics of slavery were

“checking and impeding a work which is manifestly Providential. For nearly a hundred years the English and American Churches have been striving to civilize and Christianize Western Africa, and with what result? Around Sierra Leone, and in the neighborhood of Cape Palmas, a few natives have been made Christians, and some nations have been partially civilized; but what a small number in comparison with the thousands, nay, I may say millions, who have learned the way to Heaven and who have been made to know their Savior through the means of African slavery! At this very moment there are from three to four millions of Africans, educating for earth and for Heaven in the so vilified Southern States—learning the very best lessons for a semi-barbarous people—lessons of self-control, of obedience, of perseverance, of adaptation of means to ends; learning, above all, where their weakness lies, and how they may acquire strength for the battle of life. These considerations satisfy me with their condition, and assure me that it is the best relation they can, for the present, be made to occupy.

quoted in Noel Rae,  The Great Stain: Witnessing American Slavery,  The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc. 2018

Members of the Abolitionist movement argued that slavery was fundamentally incompatible with the overarching themes of Scripture – God’s concern for justice, the dignity and worth of all human beings as created in God’s image and the call to love our neighbour as ourselves. Some offered a more nuanced argument that it was the practises of American slavery that were incompatible with the overarching themes of Scripture. (Noll, The Civil War as a Theological  Crisis). For traditionalists this was a step too far. They accused abolitionists of turning the Bible against itself, denying the simple, plain and clear reading of the texts, and calling evil something God had permitted and authorised. Abolitionists were deemed guilty of one of the gravest sins of evangelicalism: questioning the authority of the Bible (Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis). 

Yet despite this, the abolitionist argument won the day. It did not do so because it could demonstrate superior exegetical argument, but because the growing recognition of individual civil and human rights was becoming a fundamental assumption of western civilisation. Once it was accepted that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” it was only a matter of time until “all men” came to be seen not only as white men, but all men and women, and that this would make readings of the Bible that subordinated one group of people to another untenable.

In the century prior to the US civil war evangelicalism had spread as growing literacy and cheap forms of printing allowed people to own a bible and read it for themselves. They were encouraged to accept “the plain and simple” reading, which was soon equated with what “common sense” told the farmer sitting at his table with the Bible open before him. For some time that meant embracing the simple affirmation of slavery over against clever sophists who appealed to the grand themes of Scripture.

Historically however, the notion of a “simple and plain” reading was developed as a counter to allegorical readings, in which the text of Scripture could be assigned almost any meaning. It was never intended to mean an ahistorical reading nor a simplistic reading. It was never intended to mean that every text was to be taken as a direct word from God to the believer with the Bible open on the kitchen table and who would read a verse, assume it was God’s word to them and dismiss objections with the pious declaration that “God says it. I believe it. That’s good enough for me”.

The engagement with slavery taught us that biblical texts are historically conditioned, that practical guidance issued to ancient Israel and the early churches on how to manage their households and other dimensions of their lives should not be read as universal principles to be applied across space and time, but were part of working out how to live with grace, love, kindness, compassion and generosity in the midst of the messy circumstances of their time and place. 

To hear God’s word to us we need to do precisely as the abolitionists did, to listen for the grand themes of Scripture, and allow these to shape the direction of our ethics, recognising that at times this will mean championing things that contradict some of the time bound guidance offered in the biblical documents.  This does not represent a step away from the Scriptures but a faithful and thoughtful engagement with them.

This message is particularly resonant in view of the saga surrounding Israel Folau and his freedom to quote the bible in public. Sure, Israel should be free to say whatever he feels is a faithful expression of his faith, but this should not be mistaken with the assumption that by quoting bible texts in public we are articulating the word of the Lord.

When you’ve nothing left to do but watch binge TV

When you’ve nothing left to do but watch binge TV

In a recent post I shared the unexpected and stunning turnaround in my health that I experienced in February. The last 6 months of 2018 had seen a severe decline in my mobility to the point that on any given day I had no idea how long my body would be in a state of tremoring and muscle rigidity before flipping into severe dyskensia and somewhere inbetween those states giving me broken periods of mobility. Some days were good and others were bad.

As awful as this was, it was also a period in which I discovered a new layer of spirituality. My faith has long been framed around the imperative to participate in God’s work of redeeming creation. In the faith of my childhood this meant seeking to share a gospel of salvation of sinners from the wrath of God. As I got older it meant greater appreciation for recognising God’s grace, joy, love and generosity in all creation along with the human capacity to surrender these to greed, violence, injustice and fear. It meant participating in God’s work of helping us recover our humanity, our communities and our world through the revelation, grace, healing, forgiveness, and hope opened up by the crucified and risen Christ. It meant giving myself to the life of my church and to working with others across our nation in advocacy for justice.

Yet as my body grew increasingly recalcitrant my activist oriented faith became increasingly remote. My spirit was willing but my flesh was weak! Somehow, in the midst of this God met me in a new way, in a spirituality that found its meaning in the simple knowledge that God was with me, and that my days were lived in the presence of a God whose grace, love, generosity, joy and hope were trained upon me. It was a season to simply be in the presence of God.

This did not mean I entered a contemplative life of silent meditation. Apart from the fact that it is difficult to calm your spirit when your muscles are tremoring at breakneck speed or you’re swaying madly like someone completely inebriated, I am by nature extroverted and 30 minutes of silent contemplation still sounds like a form of torture to me. No, it was in the soaring wail of Clapton’s guitar, the resonant lyric of a Dylan classic, the contagious rhythms of Aussie pub rock that I found points of joy, grief, celebration, hope and grace. It was in the sheer joy of a schmalzy romance, the unrestrained laughter gifted by a good comic, the laying bare of injustice in a well researched doco, the emotional engagement with the characters of a well scripted and acted drama, or the outrageous hope of sci-fi that I connected with love, hope, pain, grief. It was in the prayers of my friends, the expressions of care of my church, the grief and hope that were shared with others, and the tender compassion and generosity of Sandy, Ash, Jess and Lachy that I found myself moved time and again to tears and astonishment at the presence and power of grace.

These have long been part of my encounter with the Divine, but they had now become the centre of it. All these and more connected me to the overarching narrative of my faith and the story of Jesus and were means by which I found myself simply resting in Grace, Joy, Love, Hope, and Grief. Nothing else to do. No deadline to meet. No project to complete. Just being. Resting. Receiving.

Reflecting on this I wrote a song echoing what I believe God was saying to Sandy and I during this period. The lyrics are repeated below. And now that my health has turned around, I hope that I will retain this capacity to rest in God’s grace, draw ever deeper into God’s love and get myself lost in God’s embrace.

Come rest yourself in my grace
Fall ever deeper into my love
Get yourself lost in my embrace
I am yours
You are mine
You are my child.
My child you thrill me

I have set my heart on you
My love for you will never fade
I will see you through it all
Through the fire,
Through the storm
Til you reach safe shore
My child I’ve got you

If you find yourself grown weary.
And your heart is overwhelmed
I will carry you in my arms
And hold you until all is new

Lord, I put my trust in you
It’s all that I can do
As I fade away.
I’ll seek for you my friend
In that place we’ve always met,
In the haze of grace.

Why empathy matters. Reading the Bible to hear the word of God #1

Why empathy matters. Reading the Bible to hear the word of God #1

I was revisiting Richard Hays’s The Moral Vision of the New Testament recently and was reminded of his very helpful description of how we can discern God’s word to us through the Scriptures. He speaks of a fourfold task:

  1. Descriptive Task: Reading the Text Carefully. This seeks to identify the messages of the various texts/books of the Bible “without prematurely harmonising them”. It is to make sense of a text on its own terms, within its historical context;
  2. Synthetic Task: Placing the Text in Canonical Context. How do the various texts fit together to contribute to a whole-of-bible ethical perspective? Hayes suggests that the themes of community, cross and new creation provide an interpretive framework we can employ to identify this;
  3. Hermeneutical task: Relating the Text to Our Situation. How do we bridge the “temporal and cultural distance between ourselves and the text…to appropriate the New Testament’s message as a word addressed to us?”
  4. The Pragmatic Task: Living the Text. How are the biblical imperatives embodied in the life of the Christian community? Hayes argues that “The value of our exegesis and hermeneutics will be tested by their capacity to produce persons and communities whose character is commensurate with Jesus Christ and thereby pleasing to God”.

I plan to write a few posts that use this fourfold task to reflect on what I have discovered about reading the Scriptures and being shaped by them. For now I want to suggest a fifth task to add to Hays’s list. This is “the empathetic task”.

For many years I saw the first three of Hayes’ four tasks as something I could achieve within the confines of my study. Close attention to the text in its original languages, appreciation of the genres of the Bible, and critical reading of the commentaries of scholars would be the keys to success.

Yet when I look back to those occasions my understanding of biblical ethics have most profoundly changed, the catalyst was not what happened in my study, but hearing the stories of those whose lives were most impacted by the church’s ethics. It was hearing the stories of people who had been divorced and subsequently marginalised in their churches that drove changes in how I read, synthesised and applied the relevant biblical texts. It was meeting women who had been wounded by the sexist attitudes that prevailed in our churches when I was a young man (and sadly in many ways continue to do so) that led to a revision of my reading of the Biblical texts on men and women. More recently it has been the voices of gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, transgender and intersex Christians that have caused me to revisit a biblical ethic of sexuality and gender.

I am not saying that hearing the voices of others should replace robust work across Hays’s four tasks, but that it indelibly shapes that work. So much so that I am convinced that it is near impossible to hear God’s word to us without hearing the voices of those who are marginalised, wounded and offended by our ethics.

There are, I think, at least two reasons for this. The first is that we all approach the text with assumptions, values, and biases that don’t simply impact on how we apply the text (Hays’s steps 3 and 4) but what we see in the texts (Hayes’s steps 1 and 2). This is true even for the greatest of biblical scholars. I have sufficient confidence in the capacity of human beings to communicate that I don’t buy into those theories that suggest reading the Bible is never an act of understanding another but only ever an act of self-expression. But I also accept that every reading of Scripture is an act of interpretation in which the interpreter is an active agent whose perspectives, assumptions, values, biases, etc shape their reading across all four of Hayes’s interpretive tasks. I think this is why hearing the voices of those who are marginalised and disempowered has been so powerful in my reading of Scripture. They see things I don’t and force me to recognise ways that the dominant readings of my particular church tradition may reflect the interests of power rather than the voice of the Spirit.

Second, history suggests that it is in the protest and pain of the marginalised rather than the intricacies of biblical interpretation, that new movements of the Spirit of God often emerge. Indeed robust biblical interpretation often lags behind the intuitions of the Spirit. It was the voices of slaves and the recounting of their cruel and indecent treatment that pricked the conscience and fired the compassion that drove the abolitionist movement. Mark Noll shows in his book on the US Civil War as a Theological Crisis, that the early abolitionist movement was driven by an intuitive sense that something was wrong rather than robust and defensible readings of Scripture. The theologies of the early abolitionists were weak and their “biblical ” arguments easily refuted. It would take some years for a robust biblical defence of abolition to emerge. Those who sat in their studies and didn’t take the time to listen to the voices of the marginalised and oppressed missed the early signals of a movement of God’s Spirit.

This is why I now find my desire to hear God’s voice on social and ethical issues takes me out of my study and into conversation with those most impacted. In their experiences of pain and struggle, of dissonance between their experience of God and the dominant theologies of the church, in the gap between their present treatment by their fellow human beings and their hope, and in their questions and their alternate readings of Scripture, is often found the whispering of God that allows us to go back into the study and together seek the mind of Christ.

Everywhere and always God’s graceful presence. Letting go of a God of fear and fury for the God of Jesus

Everywhere and always God’s graceful presence. Letting go of a God of fear and fury for the God of Jesus

  Grab a cuppa and give yourself some time. This is a longer than usual piece

When I was a teenager I remember being both excited and fearful when one of my non-Christian school friends came to church. I was excited because they were expressing an interest in faith. I was fearful lest they take communion, for it had been drummed into me that “anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup unworthily, eats and drinks damnation on himself”. Looking back on it now it seems so odd. How could it be that the very ritual that signified grace and love could simultaneously be an object of fear and terror?

The answer was centuries in the making. The fourth century theologian, Augustine, gave us the doctrine of “original sin”, which held that not only do human beings sin, but that they possess a sinful nature that makes it impossible for them not to sin and renders them unable to do anything truly good. Although Augustine recognised the doctrine could not be demonstrated from Scripture it became the orthodoxy of the Church for centuries to come. For example, I was encouraged to take up this view as a teenager when I read Holiness, a book first published in 1877, written by Anglican bishop, JC Ryle, and considered a classic. Reflecting the theology of original sin Ryle says

I ask my readers to observe what deep reasons we all have for humiliation and self- abasement. Let us sit down before the picture of sin displayed to us in the Bible, and consider what guilty, vile, corrupt creatures we all are in the sight of God.

Even babies were afflicted with this despised nature.

The fairest babe that has entered life this year, and become the sunbeam of a family, is not, as its mother perhaps fondly calls it, a little “angel,” or a little “innocent,” but a little “sinner.” Alas! as it lies smiling and crowing in its cradle, that little creature carries in its heart the seeds of every kind of wickedness! Only watch it carefully, as it grows in stature and its mind developes, and you will soon detect in it an incessant tendency to that which is bad, and a backwardness to that which is good. You will see in it the buds and germs of deceit, evil temper, selfishness, self-will, obstinacy, greediness, envy, jealousy, passion – which, if indulged and let alone, will shoot up with painful rapidity.

JC Ryle, Holiness

According to this narrative the essential truth about us was that we are vile and loathsome creatures. So why would we expect God to do anything other than reinforce this notion?   And so theologians declared God  is actively seeking to bring us to a place of brokenness where we see who we are. Take, for example, the famous Puritan Thomas Hooker:

The Puritan minister and Connecticut founder Thomas Hooker frequently compared the relationship between God and human beings to a king who has discovered traitors plotting against him. What would the king do? He would torture them. The traitor would be “brought upon the rack, and then one joynt is broken, and then he roares by reason of the extremity of the payne.” Perhaps then the accused would confess to some wrongdoing, but the king would not be satisfied. Instead, he would be “hoysed uponteh rack the second time, and then another joynt is broken, and then he roares againe.” The king would keep at it until he “discovered and layed open the whole reason.” God tortured the human soul so that men and women would cry and roar and eventually mourn for their sins.


John Turner, Thomas Hooker & the Terror of God

This teaching continues to find a place in the Church today,  albeit in less violent forms.  The website of an evangelical church near where I live describes the “good news” that “we are more flawed and rebellious against God than we ever  realised, yet in Jesus are more loved and forgiven than we ever thought possible” (Maitland Evangelical Church).

The wretchedness of humanity  may have been an unwelcome “truth”,  but it was made a terrifying concept when coupled with the notion of God’s holiness as an offence against God’s honour.   To disobey the will of a human king was serious enough. To disobey the will of the heavenly King was infinitely more serious.  God was thought to be so pristine, pure and good that evil and sin could not survive in God’s presence.  God would break out against evil, and in the fury of his wrath  strike it dead. Jonathan Edwards’s famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God”  is a frightening example of this type of thinking. He sermon includes this piece

The God that holds you over the pit of Hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince…


Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

To the wretchedness of humankind due to original sin and the nature of sin as an offence against  an infinitely holy God, theologians added the assertion that God seeks his glory. In  a disturbing piece of writing on hell,  British Evangelist John Blanchard reflected this tradition when he wrote

In his eternal punishment of the wicked God is not aiming at their good but at his glory. The time for correction and discipline will be over. What matters then, is that God’s justice is satisfied, his majesty vindicated


John Blanchard, Whatever Happened to Hell (Evangelical Press, 1993) p147


Who wouldn’t be terrified of such a God?  The genius of the Reformation was that it took these twisted notions of God and humankind and crafted them into a theology of atonement that  reconciled  them with claim that God is love and provided  relief from the emotional breakdown  anyone who took the teaching seriously would be liable to suffer.  Martin Luther  spoke of the  anxiety and despair he felt when recognising that God was filled with wrath and anger against him that was entirely justified, but which he could do nothing  to evade.  Although he was a monk who dedicated himself to worship of God, Martin Luther found himself hating God and despairing of a future  in a hell torment. In the throes of his crisis he had an aha moment that would change the world: that the just shall live by faith. Our works might condemn us but our faith in Christ saves us.

The Reformers went on to expound a new way of understanding the death of Jesus  by placing their own novel twist on the theory of satisfaction first reported by Anselm in the 13th century.  At the cross God poured out his wrath upon Jesus,  which met the demand for justice and  satisfied God’s offended honour.  Because God-in-Christ bore the penalty for sin, the righteous  standing of Jesus  could now be credited to the wretched sinner.  God could now look upon sinners who embraced faith  as though they were Jesus.

And so for the last 400 years the heart of gospel proclamation in the evangelical, reformed at Pentecostal churches has followed the pattern set by the Reformers.

Something however does not seem right. For one thing, it never made much sense to me to say that sin could be transferred to Christ and his righteousness transferred to me. It  might be a neat legal manoeuvre,  and it may be profoundly  moving to say that God  took our punishment upon Godself, but it is hardly justice for God to punish the innocent and acquit the guilty.  Moreover I remained a sinful human being. God knew it. I knew it . We all knew it.  I love the thought that Christ’s righteousness is credited to me, but I struggle to escape the conclusion that it is God getting us off the hook of punishment on the basis of a legal technicality that in any other context would be decried as a travesty of justice. And even if we accept it as true,  it didn’t change the fact that I was a filthy, rotten sinner. There may no longer be a penalty to pay but surely God was still perpetually furious with me.

But it seems to me that by far the strongest objection to the  Reformation narrative  is that it just bears no resemblance to the life and ministry of Jesus. If Jesus was God incarnate among us (and I think he was), then he didn’t behave anything like the God of my theology. Sinners didn’t combust when they came into his holy presence. Jesus didn’t resile from contact with them, nor did he express feelings of disgust and abhorrence at being plunged into this great  heaving cesspool of sin.

Far from abhorrence, repulsion and disgust, Jesus is described as filled with compassion for humankind, went out of his way to touch lepers and shared meals with prostitutes. He didn’t applaud the righteous instincts of a crowd ready to enact the demand of God’s law that an adulteress be executed, but intervened to heap shame on her would-be accusers and deliver her from them. He got angry, but it wasn’t an indiscriminate  outrage against “sin” but was targeted at those who spiritually and financially oppressed the vulnerable.

So I’m wondering if the problem is that the Reformation didn’t go far enough.  The Reformers took on board the assumptions of that time about original sin and the nature of God’s holiness,  and crafted a powerful narrative from that.   With the benefit of hindsight I think we can argue that they should have questioned the assumptions about sin and holiness that they held.

The doctrine of original sin,  which even Augustine recognised could not be found in the Bible,  ironically falls short of  what the Bible has to say about human beings. Yes, human beings have a propensity to greed, violence, selfishness, pride and the like,  but we also have the glory and beauty of being those were created in the  image and likeness of God and are capable of extraordinary acts of generosity, kindness, compassion and justice. Standing on its own, the construction of human sinfulness that was held in the church for so long tells us that we are worthless.  In my youth we would often say that God loves the unlovely and God values the unworthy.  Yet we are not unlovely and we are not unworthy.  The Bible directly ascribes worth to us because created in God’s image (eg Genesis 9, Psalm 8).  It seems that in order to magnify the glory of God, theologians and preachers past felt it necessary to  reduce human beings to worthless abhorrent creatures.  I don’t accept this is true to the biblical teaching on human beings, true to the way Jesus treated human beings, or true to our own experience life.

Alongside the disaster that the doctrine of original sin has proven to be, I wonder if we have not badly misconstrued the nature of God’s holiness. Yes,  God is fiercely opposed to sin, but  we have falsely located the origin of that opposition in the notion that our sin offends God both objectively (ie it violates God’s will) and subjectively (ie it arouses God’s anger, revulsion and abhorrence).

In my experience two Biblical passages above all are cited to support this: Psalm 51 and Habbakuk 1. Reputedly composed by King David after his sexual assault of Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah, Psalm 51 contains David’s heartfelt but misguided prayer that “Against you , you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” Ah…no. As the prophet Nathan made clear when he confronted David, David had sinned against Uriah, and I would add against Bathsheba. If Psalm 51 was a prayer of repentance after the sorry episode with Bathsheba and Uriah (and it’s only tradition that says it is) then we must conclude that like many of the psalms, David’s prayer does note represent textbook theology but the cry of a broken human being, and in this case, the hubris of a king.

Likewise, when read in context, the prophet Habakkuk’s statement that “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing”  does not mean that God is literally not able to gaze upon evil,  but that God opposes evil.

Where the traditional  narrative sees history as the outworking of the great tension between God’s holiness and God’s love,  it is a narrative that is strikingly absent absent from the teaching of Jesus.  Jesus rather seems to reframe the notion of holiness  within a framework of love. “Be holy as I am holy”  is cast in Luke’s gospel as “be merciful as I am merciful”.  Jesus  did not tell parables of a God who can’t abide the presence of sinners, but of a God who loves people and  goes out searching for those who are particularly wayward –  God is the shepherd seeking a lost sheep, a woman seeking a lost coin, a father seeking a lost son,  a king who forgives a great debt,  a rich man who gives his workers more than they deserve.  Over against the Pharisees who had a spirituality grounded in purity, Jesus had a spirituality grounded in love for others. For him the demands of the law were summed up in two commands: love God and love your neighbour. His followers would have a righteousness greater than that of the Pharisees, not by outdoing them at their own game, but by expressing holiness in an entirely different manner – loving  others.  Where the Pharisees  identified God’s people by their maintenance of purity standards, Jesus said that they would be identified by their love for one another and those around them (eg Matthew 25  parable of sheep and goats).   Holiness in Jesus’s teaching seems to be the unwavering commitment of God to proactively seek the good of all creation.

It makes sense then to see  God’s abhorrence of sin deriving not from some impugning of his honour ( as if human beings could do that!) but from the damage it does to people and to the planet.  Could it be that the dismay of God is not the pique  of an  offended noble, but the broken heart of a creator  who witnesses the very people he loves and values destroying themselves, each other, and the planet on which he placed them. This brokenheartedness  can issue in anger at the damage we do to one another, compassion for the ways we have been damaged by others, and wisdom to prevent us damaging ourselves.

And by the same token, God can rejoice in the love we show each other, the justice we enact and the care we show for creation.

Moreover, if love is at the heart of God’s holiness and God’s opposition to sin,  we are relieved of the  idea that God’s highest good is to seek God’s own glory.  The gospel defines love for us as laying down one’s life for the other and putting the interests of the other above oneself.  We know this is what love is because this is how God has loved us. The suggestion that a day will come when God will cease to love people or subordinates their best interests to pursue  self glorification,  overturns the very centre of the gospel message.

Is it not time to lay aside  the blemishes and distortions of the Reformation narrative  and share with our world the glorious truth that there is a Creator who values us more deeply than we can imagine;  who longs for our flourishing;  who is filled with empathy at our brokenness;  who is deeply angered by the damage we inflict upon others and the planet;   who grieves the damage  others have done to us;  who has wisdom to share that will lead us down the  often counterintuitive path of flourishing;   who is working to bring peace where there is conflict, love where there is hate,  hope where there is despair; who is willing to forgive and to restore;  who  was revealed to us in Jesus;  who laid down his life in order to win us back; and who raised Jesus from the dead to bring humankind and creation to the place where healing and peace will be complete.


Farewell Billy Graham.

Farewell Billy Graham.

I just heard the news that Billy Graham died. Perhaps the greatest evangelist of history, I was one of millions who were profoundly influenced by his ministry. My mother was on the organising committee for the 1979 “Billy Graham Crusade”, held at Randwick racecourse. This meant that our household was swept up in the fervour of those crusades. I was 14 years old. I can’t remember whether I attended every night of the crusade or not, but I can recall the surging emotions; the energy of a large crowd; the tension rising within me as Billy Graham led us to a sense of moment in which we perceived we stood face to face with the God who created the Universe at a point of decision that would reverberate into eternity; the delirious joy and sense of holy moment as thousands of people responded to the invitation to signal their embrace of Christ by leaving their seat and walking to the stage.

My faith has changed much since those crusades,  but today is not the day to critique but to remember that they were part of an era that imparted to me the breathtaking news that the God who called the universe into being is filled with a love for creation, and for me as part of that creation, that is wider, deeper and stronger than I can imagine.

And I remain inspired by the humble integrity of Billy Graham. As one might expect, everybody wanted a piece of Billy Graham. The expectations of the Christian world were laid upon his shoulders. There were some who thought he should have aligned himself more intentionally with the great civil movements for justice that marked the last half of the twentieth century; there were some who thought his embrace of groups outside the confines of conservative evangelicalism were unacceptably compromised. Yet whatever one might make of these things, Billy Graham spent half a century as a high profile world Christian leader without scandal. He did not take advantage of his position to amass obscene amounts of wealth; to solicit sexual favours; or to play power politics. He dies at 99 a man who is widely respected as a decent human being of deep personal faith and exemplary character.

Rest in peace, good and faithful servant.


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