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There is a variety of stuff here, mostly formal lectures, handouts from seminars, material from Study Days and 'papers' read at one kind of gathering or another.  They are in no particular order.  Now that we have worked out how to get powerpoint presentations onto this ancient web page system there is more of this kind of stuff on the powerpoints page.




1 The Spirituality of 'Scriptural Holiness'

(A paper read to the meeting of the European Methodist Theological Commission meeting in Waiern, Austria, in June 2002, as part of its 'Scriptural Holiness' project. This was later published in the Epworth Review, vol 30, no 2, April 2003, pp.51-57, and is reproduced in that form in the articles section of this website)

The word ‘spirituality’ did not feature in John Wesley’s vocabulary and its meaning is prone to vagueness in ours. Marie McCarthy’s definition is probably as good as we can get: ‘Spirituality is a fundamental component of our human beingness, rooted in the natural desires, longings and hungers of the human heart. It is concerned with the deepest desires of the human heart for meaning, purpose and connection, with the deep life lived intentionally in reference to something larger than oneself.’ That understanding of the word, now in universal use inside and outside faith communities, is not found before the late twentieth century, but on the basis of that definition we can identify ‘Scriptural Holiness’ as Wesley’s spirituality. In this paper, therefore, I hope to examine briefly the parameters and key features of the spirituality of ‘Scriptural Holiness’ which was both Wesley’s own spirituality and that which he commended to the early Methodists.

For Wesley ‘Scriptural Holiness’ is a search, a process or, to use a common word from contemporary spirituality, a journey. It is a journey from new birth to spiritual maturity, from sinfulness to perfection, from ‘original sin’ through ‘justification by faith’ to ‘entire sanctification’. The goal of ‘holiness of heart and life’ is an integrated life filled with awareness of the love of God, marked by freedom from the guilt and power of sin, and lived in love towards others – a mature, responsible, fulfilled life. It is, for most, a journey begun and continued, rather than a destination reached or goal achieved. It is a journey undertaken in company with others, in ‘fellowship’, not one walked alone.

The starting point of this journey of Scriptural Holiness lies for Wesley, both in theory and in the realities of his own life, in the experience of dissonance. From a very early age, encouraged particularly by the religious upbringing he received from his mother, John Wesley was aware of the reality of sin and the need for faith, that there were two paths of life and that a choice had to be made between them, a choice which had eternal consequences. Whether or not as a child Wesley thought of himself as not being the person he ought to be, that he was a ‘sinner’ and that the gap between his life as it was and his life as it ought to be and could be was unbridgeable without the help of God, is open to question. The famous line from his Journal that until he was about ten years of age he had not ‘sinned away that washing of the Holy Ghost which was given [him] in baptism’ is instructive, as is what follows it. It may reflect Wesley’s childhood feelings, or the reflection of the older man. None the less, this legacy of puritan and evangelical Christianity was to shape Wesley’s search for authentic Christian faith and experience in adult life, and, once that meaning and experience were found, would provide the engine and energy for his life’s work of offering this meaning and experience to others. Alienated from God and unacceptable to him, he felt himself lost for eternity, worthy only of Hell. This was certainly the view of himself held by the 34 year old priest of the Church of England on his return from Georgia, despite the fact that later on he modified that harsh view, saying, ‘I had even then the faith of a servant, though not that of a son’.

The distinction between having the ‘faith of a servant’ and ‘the faith of a son’ is significant, and is one which Wesley came to use frequently in his preaching. If we use it for the period between Wesley at age 10 and Wesley after May 1738 we can see what an intense matter ‘the faith of a servant’ was. In this period Wesley lived his religious life with great, and to his detractors laughable, seriousness. He was committed to rigorous personal discipleship, expressed in private prayer, Bible reading and almsgiving and to regular corporate worship and shared study, spiritual exercises and charitable service in groups. There was nothing frivolous or in any way irreligious about the young Wesley. From the serious schoolboy at Charterhouse, through the studious and meticulous member of the Holy Club at Oxford, to the ordained priest who went as a missionary to America, there is a single-mindedness of purpose, a commitment to the life of faith, a generosity of social concern and the highest standard of personal morality which adds up to an almost exemplary, if very intense, life and faith.

For Wesley, however, all this was not enough. There remained a fundamental sense of dissonance, a restlessness, a missing element. So strong was Wesley’s sense of need and incompleteness that he seems to have been driven almost to despair and depression, and an unsympathetic observer might justifiably describe him in this stage of his journey as neurotic or even pathological. The change came about at 8.45pm on 24th May in 1738. In his Journal entry for that day in which he describes his new experience, the crucial phrase is ‘an assurance was given me, that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death’. It was at this point that Wesley felt, and that is a very important word for Wesley, that he was accepted, that his sins were forgiven and that he was ‘saved’. That moment and that experience did not solve all his problems or meet all his needs, but that moment of ‘assurance’ seems to have given Wesley the sense of inner peace which his driven life had hitherto lacked. Whether the traditional naming of this experience as John Wesley’s ‘Conversion’ is the best way to describe it is not my concern here, nor is the related question of whether this is the moment at which he was ‘justified by grace through faith’: but there is little doubt that the experience of ‘assurance’ received in that moment was a crucial point in Wesley’s spiritual journey.

His journey did not end there, and in terms of the practicalities of his life a whole new phase opened up from that moment which would take him externally and internally into undreamed of areas of change and personal development. He continued to be restless, to be aware of dissonance, to ‘struggle against sin’, but now largely without the huge levels of anxiety which prior to May 24th had both driven and disabled him. Thus it was that he did not rest content with his experience of ‘justification’ but went on to seek ‘sanctification’, and to make that search and the preaching of it the central plank of his mission. The faith which he then preached and professed was no longer that of a servant but of a son; the experience he offered to others was that of receiving the ‘spirit of adoption’ by which they would be able to cry ‘Abba, Father’, and in which they would know and feel that healing light had broken in on their souls freeing them from both the guilt and power of sin.

Marie McCarthy argues that the ‘restless seeking for meaning, purpose and enduring values is the primary marker of the spiritual quest’. Wesley’s driven restlessness is obvious. She also points out that every authentic spirituality – her phrase not mine – is ‘rooted in a tradition’ which supplies its vocabulary and forms. That of Wesley is the complex blend of puritan, evangelical and High Church Anglicanism of eighteenth century England in general and the rectory at Epworth in particular. She also points out that a spirituality will often embody a particular charism, a ‘particular manifestation of truth’, and on this understanding it could be argued that the charism of Wesley’s spirituality was the ‘doctrine of assurance’. McCarthy then goes on to describe six marks of ‘authentic spirituality’, and we will continue our exploration of the spirituality of ‘Scriptural Holiness’ by using her markers.

The first is contemplative awareness, a discipline which involves ‘deep listening’ marked by ‘waiting, attending and presence’, particularly nurtured in the practice of silence. From his diaries we see how Wesley kept his resolution "to devote (to retirement and private prayer) an hour morning and evening – no pretence or excuse whatsoever." In his sermon on ‘The Means of Grace’, in which he sets out the three principal ways in which spirituality is to be nurtured, the first of these is ‘prayer – whether in secret or with the great congregation’. It is of ‘absolute necessity’. The second way of ‘waiting’ is by ‘searching the Scriptures.’ The third is not, as we might have expected, meeting in fellowship or in worship generally, but ‘partaking of the Lord’s supper’ and in this section Wesley stresses the need for self-examination.

The journey of Scriptural Holiness is sustained therefore, for Wesley, by rigorous use of disciplined time in which we reflect on the state of our soul, on the one hand, and on the counsels of God on the other; being aware of self and of God and open to the moving of the Spirit in and towards us.

The second is effective action in the world, which ‘works towards the healing of the world and the wellbeing of all creation’. Wesley’s own lifestyle is instructive here; from the prison visiting of the Holy Club at Oxford, through his own generosity of ‘almsgiving’ to the letter to Wilberforce at the end, Wesley’s life was characterised by ‘doing good’. Exaggerated claims should not be made about his contribution to reform in the eighteenth century – nor about Methodism’s since – for he was neither the initiator nor the organiser of any major reform. He was, instead, ‘an instinctively benevolent ‘friend of mankind’’ for whom faith was to be demonstrated in works. His instruction to the Methodists to ‘do all the good you can, to all the people you can, in all the ways you can’ was born out of his own reading of Scripture and backed by his own example. As was his sermon on ‘The Use of Money’ with its three points of ‘Gain all you can’, ‘Save all you can’ and ‘Give all you can’.

The third is community because spirituality is not an ‘isolated, privatised, individual affair’. Wesley’s ‘Scriptural Holiness’ had been ‘social holiness’ from the days of the Holy Club onwards, and the genius of his organisation was to create and sustain groups in which the early Methodists met regularly to ‘build each other up’, to encourage each other in their spiritual lives and in their common enterprise. As ‘societies’ emerged they were grouped into the larger units of ‘circuits’ and then into a ‘connexion’, while their members were formed into the smaller groups of ‘classes’ and ‘bands.’ ‘Meeting together’ for mutual support, encouragement and accountability was an essential part of the journey as far as Wesley was concerned.

The fourth is a disposition of openness, especially an openness to the new and unexpected, an openness to a future that would be different and a willingness to risk. Many examples could be cited from the Journal of Wesley seeking guidance from the Bible or in prayer in his openness to the future and willingness to go where God would lead. Three major examples of real risk-taking openness are his venture into the new world of ‘field preaching’ in 1739, in which he ‘submitted to be more vile’ as he engaged in a task he found both theologically suspect and personally distasteful, his acceptance of lay preaching also in 1739 and the reluctant brazenness of the ordinations of 1785. His mission policy was marked by countless new initiatives along the way, illustrating a spirituality marked by a pragmatics of openness. One of his legacies to the universal Church and an important liturgical expression of this aspect of the spirituality of Scriptural Holiness is the annual Covenant Service, first borrowed and used in 1755, the essence of which is an intensely personal reflection on the past year and a total willingness to be open for the future expressed in a corporate act of public worship.

The fifth is non-dualistic thinking and acting, in which life is integrated in a capacity to hold opposites together and to form a new synthesis, of contemplation and action, of private and public, individual and social. Some of the examples already cited illustrate this aspect of spirituality in Wesley, but perhaps the best is to be found in the title of Henry Rack’s historical biography of Wesley and in the reason for Rack choosing it. Rack argues that Wesley’s life was full of paradoxes – instances of opposites held together in a new synthesis – and that ‘Reasonable Enthusiast’ captures the main one, that Wesley was neither an ‘enthusiast’ nor a ‘man of reason’ in eighteenth century dualist terms, but a synthesis of both. Methodist spirituality and history subsequently found that particular paradox difficult to maintain and the failure to do so contributed to the denominational splits of the nineteenth century. That dualistic tendency remains today, contrary to ‘Scriptural Holiness’ as envisaged and lived by Wesley though it is.

The last is discernment, and McCarthy’s paragraph can be quoted in full,

‘A final mark of authentic spiritualities is that they generally offer a set of guidelines and practices for discerning the path we are being called to follow. They invite us to put our lives in dialogue with the tradition through prayer, reflection, meditation, individual and group guidance, and other practices. They encourage attentive listening and awareness of how we are being called and where we are being led. In this sense authentic spiritualities are marked by a sense of obedience to something or someone larger than and beyond oneself. In the process of discernment one looks for certain signs such as a sense of inner and outer freedom, an awareness of the connectedness and interrelation of all creation, a rootedness in tradition coupled with openness to the new, and a sense of deep, inner peace.’

In this paper we have attempted to sketch out Wesley’s spirituality of ‘Scriptural Holiness,’ using Wesley himself as the exemplar of the spirituality he advocated. This paragraph from McCarthy demonstrates that his ‘Scriptural Holiness’ has all the marks of what she calls an ‘authentic spirituality’. It can also be used as a summary both of his spirituality and of his life and mission, to which proper Wesley scholars could add details and examples at every point.


2 The First Commandment

          engaging with a world of many faiths - some Old Testament perspectives

(A paper read to the meeting of the European Methodist Theological Commission meeting in Copenhagen in January 2006)

1 Given that the question of how to extrapolate from the Bible’s various perspectives on the ‘other faiths’ that it knew to our situation today is likely to be the 21st century’s greatest and most controversial hermeneutical challenge, we must remind ourselves at the outset of this short paper that although the Bible was written, edited and published in a ‘world of many faiths,’ it has no knowledge of any of our contemporary Major World Faiths. It also needs to be remembered and acknowledged that our interests in Other Faiths’ – whether in dialogue, confrontation or evangelism – are not those of the Old Testament or of ancient Israel.

2 In this paper I will attempt to outline the various Old Testament perspectives on the local ‘other faiths’ which it knew, begin to discuss the possible meanings of the First Commandment and offer some tentative comments on what may be contributed to our contemporary debate from that Commandment and these perspectives.

3.1 It is generally agreed that ancient Israel’s perspective(s) on ‘other faiths’ and the nature of its own God or gods developed from polytheism to monotheism via a recognizable intermediate position, but that it is impossible to plot the stages of this development and mistaken to think that this was either a co-ordinated or a smooth process.

3.2 Israel’s earliest understandings of God are lost in history, but there is no reason to doubt that these understandings were anything other than polytheistic. One possible way of describing this stage in ancient Israel’s theological development would be to say that it thought that ‘YHWH was one god among many’, and that is a perfectly reasonable way of locating Israel’s god in relation to the gods of Edom, Moab, Syria and the rest. The danger in putting it like this, however, is that it suggests that from the earliest time there was only one god worshipped in ancient Israel. That is, of course, how the story is told in the Old Testament, but it is widely held that other gods were worshipped by ancient Israelites alongside YHWH and that evidence for this is found in the Old Testament itself. There, it is suggested, the names of some of these other gods remain as alternative names for YHWH, for example ‘the God of Abraham’ etc, ‘the Fear of Isaac’ (Genesis 31:42), ‘God of Bethel’, El Elyon (‘God Most High’) and El Shaddai’ (traditionally ‘God Almighty’). It is also argued that the names and existence of others have been systematically written out of that text by a variety of stratagems, principally here Asherah, the ‘Queen of Heaven’, YHWH’s consort (Jeremiah 44). This evidence is supplemented by that from archaeology where belief in a consort for Yahweh at the Jewish temple at Elephantine on the River Nile has long been known and more recent discoveries at Kuntillet Ajrud have given another example of the same idea. We are therefore left to imagine a possible plethora of gods or manifestations of God in Israel, identified with different people and places, with such theology being by no means confined to the earliest period.

3.3 The ‘interim position’ is usually called ‘monolatry’ (the worship of only one god) or ‘henotheism’ (from the Greek terms for ‘one’ and ‘god’) – though it should be clear by now that any talk of ‘stages’ in this development is quite problematic. This approach can be understood to say that ‘YHWH is Israel’s own and only God who demands its exclusive obedience’. A classic story establishing this point is Joshua’s covenant-making ceremony at Shechem (Joshua 24). It is almost certain that the classic texts of the Shema‘ (Deuteronomy 6:4) and the First Commandment (Exodus 20:2f, Deuteronomy 5:6f) express this viewpoint. We will discuss the latter in due course. A glance at the footnotes of any reputable Bible will show the variety of translations possible for the enigmatic ‘YHWH ’elohenu YHWH ’ehad’, literally ‘YHWH our God YHWH one’ of the Shema’. Later Jewish interpretation understood this as a powerful statement of God’s oneness in himself, in contradistinction to Christian trinitarianism, but such an understanding obviously cannot be the original one. There are two suggestions for the original meaning, one which suggests that it means that YHWH is the only Lord there is, and the other which suggests that YHWH is to be the one and only Lord in Israel. The latter is more strongly supported and is reflected in the monolatrous view of NRSV’s ‘The LORD is our God, the LORD alone’. The question of who will be Israel’s God forms the story line in the Elijah cycle of narratives in 1-2 Kings. This is the reason for the prophet’s contest as YHWH’s champion against Baal and his prophets which results in a climax of sorts on the summit of Mt Carmel when the people acclaim YHWH in the words ‘YHWH indeed is God, YHWH indeed is God’ (1 Kings 18:39). More is at stake here than the purity of Israel’s worship or theology, although that might not be noticed from reading Hosea who majors on this aspect of the struggle. The question of who will be Israel’s only God has an ethical dimension, as seen clearly in the subsequent episode of Naboth’s vineyard in 1 Kings 21. If Queen Jezebel and her god, Baal, succeed here, the story goes, then Israel’s traditions of social justice and equality are finished for the ideology, world view and social system associated with Baal are alien to those of YHWH. Psalms 81:9-10 and 100:3 and Exodus 34:14 are other good examples of this view.

3.4.1 The final position is that of monotheism (there is only one God) as expressed in the ‘the LORD is God, there is no other’ of Deuteronomy 4:35-39. This final position is presented most clearly and dogmatically in Deutero-Isaiah with its repeated insistence on YHWH as the only God (Isaiah 40:25, 41:4, 42:5-9, 43:8-13, 44:6ff, 44:24, 45:5ff, 45:18f, 46:9 etc) and its scorn of all other so-called gods as idols (eg Isaiah 40:18-20, 41:6ff, 41:21-24, 44:9-20).

3.4.2 However, Deutero-Isaiah’s is not the only form of monotheism in the Old Testament. There is a less radical strand which considers YHWH to be the only True God or the Supreme God (eg Exodus 15:11, Psalms 86:8, 95:3 and 97:6-9) and which finds places for other divine beings in his Heavenly Council (Psalm 82), even if traces of Deutero-Isaiah’s scorn come into its references to them from time to time (eg Psalms 96:4-5, 97:7, 135). We cannot do more than mention the controversial and difficult Deuteronomy 32:8 here, which speaks of Israel’s God as the ‘Most High’ (El Elyon) and identifies the gods of the other nations as his underlings of some kind, at least according to NRSV. The evidence is compelling that the original Hebrew text said something like this, but the authoritative Hebrew text seems to have been censored into unintelligibility at this point, in conformity with the kind of theology found in Deutero-Isaiah. And something similar has happened at Deuteronomy 32:43 too, which in NRSV calls upon ‘all you gods’ to praise YHWH.

3.5 Regardless of historical questions, however, including the accuracy or otherwise of this perceived ‘development’, or even the difference between the various expressions of monotheism discernible in its pages, the Old Testament in its final form has a single and powerful agenda on this issue, which is to insist on Israel’s total and sole allegiance to its covenant God, YHWH, as expressed classically in the First Commandment, to which we must now turn.

4.1 The First Commandment is given identically in Exodus 20:2-3 and Deuteronomy 5:6-7

‘I am the LORD your God … you shall have no other gods before me’
(NRSV – in which a footnote gives ‘besides’ as an alternative to ‘before’)
‘I the LORD am your God … You shall have no other gods besides Me)
(NJPS/Tanakh – oddly (carelessly?) ‘besides’ in Exodus but ‘beside’ in Deuteronomy)

4.2 The first commandment proper, ‘you shall have no other gods before or besides me’, is introduced by the formula which serves also to introduce the whole Decalogue, that the one who gives this teaching is YHWH, Israel’s saviour God who in his grace has already delivered them from slavery and is leading them into freedom. The commandments, therefore, are not rules to be kept in the hope of securing God’s blessing, but good advice to be followed so that the newly given freedom can continue to be enjoyed – that is the essence of torah. YHWH’s action in freeing the slaves renews his covenants with Abraham (Genesis 15 and 17) and sets the stage for his new covenant with Israel mediated through Moses (Exodus 24). It also establishes his claim to the exclusive loyalty of Israel, that he alone will be their God and they alone will be his people (Exodus 19:4-6, 29:45f).

4.3 The commandment proper is that Israel shall have no other god. This is not a denial of the existence of other gods, but a ruling that Israel shall not worship any other god, and the second commandment follows it to say that Israel shall not worship any kind of representation of any god or even possibly of YHWH himself either. ‘Before me’ or ‘beside me’ are the variant translations of the literal ‘to my face’ (ie ‘in my presence’) and reflect two different nuances which some have seen in that phrase, understanding it to rule out the worship of any other god in preference to the worship of YHWH or alongside that worship. Whether such distinctions need to be read in the verse is an open question, and whether they are sufficiently different in meaning to merit distinction in a footnote I personally doubt. There is no doubt whatever about the plain meaning of the text, which is to exclude other gods from Israel’s spirituality. Exodus 20:5 adds a strong passionate element to this instruction as YHWH exposes himself as a ‘jealous’ God who will tolerate no rival.

4.4 Issues of the dating of the Decalogue remain unresolved, as do those of the provenance and importance of the idea of covenant in which the Decalogue is embedded. There is no question, however, about the fundamental meaning of the first commandment nor that it expresses a monolatrous rather than a strict Deutero-Isaianic monotheistic theology.

5.1 It is a matter of fact that the strict monotheism of Deutero-Isaiah won the day in Judaism and Christianity, even to the extent of censoring some Old Testament texts, as we have seen, and has become normative in the understanding of both church and synagogue. The idea of YHWH presiding over a Council of lesser gods, as in Psalm 82, reads very strangely in both religions, although it might be argued that this idea has in fact been transmuted into the much more acceptable picture of God on his Heavenly Throne surrounded by such heavenly beings as cherubim, angels and archangels. One wonders what difference it might make in our discussion of the status and nature of Other Faiths if this older understanding was to be revived and the stricter monotheism of Deutero-Isaiah, which goes far beyond such classical texts as the First Commandment and probably the Shema’, was to be demoted from its position of pre-eminence? The Heavenly Council picture is, after all, much more common in the Old Testament than the other.

5.2 In the Heavenly Court pictures, the supremacy of YHWH as ‘most high’ among the gods or as king of the gods is powerfully asserted. We noted that in the preamble to the Decalogue YHWH’s saving role is highlighted, and this is expanded as the second commandment is unpacked using ideas which are sometimes referred to as forming parts of Israel’s ‘core credo’. Perhaps the oldest formulation of this is in Exodus 34:6-7 where a raft of classic theological terms are used to describe YHWH’s nature and character, foremost among which is hesed, ‘steadfast love’. Traditional Methodists know of the centrality and power of this understanding of God when they sing Charles Wesley’s famous ‘Wrestling Jacob’ with its refrain that ‘(his) nature and (his) name is love’. If the Old Testament has anything of value to contribute to contemporary discussions, it may well be its belief in the nature of God as ‘God of Almighty Love.’

5.3 Its other major contribution could well be that expressed so powerfully in Psalm 82 where God sits in judgement on the lesser gods gathered before him. The simple basis of the Most High’s judgement against the other gods is that they have failed to uphold and deliver social justice (mishpat).

5.4 At the very least reading the Old Testament in the way we have done in this paper suggests that all gods and the religious systems which promote them might be measured against these two yardsticks: do they make it possible for their worshippers to experience the transcendent as hesed and do they encourage them to practice their humanity by doing mishpat?

6.1 The New Testament and Christianity have a radically different agenda from the Old Testament and Judaism. Ancient Israel was not, just as Judaism is not, a missionary community (Genesis 12:3b and Isaiah 49:6 notwithstanding). Israel and Judaism see themselves as God’s covenant people whose mission is to be faithful to that covenant; and see no need to engage, theologically or in mission, with any other Faith. Nearly from the outset, however, Christianity saw things differently. Although the ministry of Jesus was almost entirely confined to seeking and saving ‘the lost sheep of the House of Israel’ (Matthew 10:6, 15:24), the Gospels do speak of engagements with people of ‘other faiths’ (Matthew 8:5ff, Mark 7:24ff, 15:39, John 4) and one of them ends with the missionary Great Commission (Matthew 28:18f). Although the first mission of post-Easter Christianity was to ‘the Jews’ it soon became, controversially at first, a mission to all humanity – ‘the Jew first but also to the Greek’. Its missionary agenda was to spread the ‘good news’ that ‘Jesus is Lord’ ‘into all the world’ and in so doing to create a new humanity in him pending the consummation of God’s kingdom.

6.2 How to relate this ‘missionary agenda’ to today’s world is another way of framing the hard question posed in the opening paragraph of this paper, and different views are held with conviction, integrity and passion in today’s church. Methodism is committed to engaging with a world of many Faiths by ‘dialogue’, and the Old Testament might suggest some questions worth discussing in such dialogue.

6.3 But whether my reading of the Old Testament on this general question, or any reading of it, does have anything to contribute to the ongoing debate I leave to my colleagues on the Commission to consider.


3 John Wesley and the Bible 

(A paper read to the meeting of the European Methodist Theological Commission meeting in Waiern, Austria, in June 2002, as part of its 'Scriptural Holiness' project. This was later published in the Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society, vol 54, part 1, February 2003, pp.1-10, and is reproduced in that form in the articles section of this website)

A project exploring John Wesley’s concept of "Scriptural Holiness" should permit a short detour to explore the adjective in that phrase. Wesley is passionate about this fundamental experience of ‘holiness without which no one shall see the Lord" (Heb.12:14) and fond of adjectives to qualify the various nouns he uses for it – ‘Christian Perfection,’ ‘Entire Sanctification’ and ‘Perfect Love’ – but he has left us no comprehensive treatment of his understanding of the Bible. He did write a number of theological treatises including the Plain Account of Christian Perfection, but his preferred way of writing theology was in the published sermon. As, therefore, there is no sermon on the Bible itself, Wesley’s views on Scripture have largely to be deduced from how he uses it. I gratefully, therefore, take the use of the adjective in ‘Scriptural Holiness’ as an invitation to explore a little of Wesley’s attitude to Scripture, and then to ask if that attitude is sustainable today.

Wesley described himself as homo unius libri, a ‘man of one book’. Of both his commitment to reading and studying the Bible and his scholarly ability in so doing, there is little doubt. Any reading of the Standard Sermons, however, shows that he was not a reader of only that one book; that he was in fact widely read both in the classic literature one would expect a highly educated gentleman of his day to have read and in the literature of the Church down the ages. Nor did he tell the early Methodists that they should read only that one book, as his production of the ‘Christian Library’ shows. As he was well and widely read, so he encouraged the Methodists to be the same. He was, therefore, ‘a man of one book’ only but significantly in the sense that he accorded supreme ‘regard’ to the Bible and that for him ‘Scripture was the primary rather than the exclusive authority’.

Something of what Wesley thought of the Bible can be seen in this paragraph from the Preface to his Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament of 1754,

Concerning the Scriptures in general, it may be observed, the word of the living God, which directed the first patriarchs also, was, in the time of Moses, committed to writing. To this were added, in several succeeding generations, the inspired writings of the other prophets. Afterwards, what the Son of God preached, and the Holy Ghost spake by the apostles, the apostles and evangelists wrote. This is what we now style the Holy Scripture: this is that ‘word of God which remaineth for ever’; of which, though ‘heaven and earth pass away, one jot or tittle shall not pass away.’ The Scripture, therefore, of the Old and New Testament is a most solid and precious system of divine truth. Every part thereof is worthy of God; and all together are one entire body, wherein is no defect, no excess. It is the fountain of heavenly wisdom, which they who are able to taste prefer to all writings of men, however wise or learned or holy.

Eleven years later he produced the Explanatory Notes upon the Old Testament, in which he aimed to ‘give the direct, literal, meaning of every verse …sentence … word in the oracles of God’ so that the ordinary reader can ‘keep his eye fixed on the naked Bible’. Both Notes were adaptations of the work of others, the first of J A Bengel’s Gnomon Novi Testamenti of 1742, and the second of Matthew Henry’s famous Exposition of the Old and New Testaments of 1708-1710 and, more so, the Annotations upon the Holy Bible of Matthew Poole of 1665, with considerably more editing than he had used with Bengel. The Notes on the New Testament form part of the ‘doctrinal standards’ of British Methodism, those on the Old Testament do not.

Wesley was, of course, a prolific writer and selecting anything from his voluminous works to make any kind of point in a short paper like this is bound to be seen as tendentious. Fortunately, Scott Jones has done the spadework and those who want more detail can read there. Here I will simply cite a few details from both sets of Notes, the Sermons and, given the project of which this paper is a part, A Plain Account to illustrate the fairly obvious point that Wesley is a pre-Enlightenment reader of the Bible - a fact and not a value-judgement on him or his writings.

In the Old Testament Notes he calls Moses ‘the inspired penman in this history’ (ie Genesis), uses Archbishop Usher’s chronology and thinks of David as the author of Ps.103. He reads the Old Testament Christologically throughout. In the New Testament Notes his comment on 2 Tim.3:16 is brief and low-key, ‘All scripture is inspired by God – The Spirit of God not only once inspired those who wrote it, but continually inspires, supernaturally assists, those that read it with earnest prayer. Hence it is so profitable for …’ In a sermon, however, after quoting this verse in the form ‘All Scripture is given by inspiration of God’ he adds the heavier note – ‘consequently, all Scripture is infallibly true’ and reminds the hearers that St Paul is here speaking ‘primarily and directly’ about the Old Testament. On that other proof-text, 2 Pet.1:20-21, he interprets ‘being moved by the Holy Ghost’ as ‘Being moved – literally, carried. They (ie the Bible writers) were purely passive therein’. In these Notes Wesley offers his own translation from the Greek in which he is prepared to amend the Authorised Version and to offer alternative textual readings on the basis of the developments in textual criticism pioneered by Bengel. He also regards the Rich Man and Lazarus of Luke 16:19-31 as real people. Jones, paying particular attention to the Sermons, groups Wesley’s use of Scripture into five classes: textual – the use of texts as in preaching, explanatory – the use of Scripture to explain a doctrine or idea, definitional – ‘Scripture serves as a sort of authoritative dictionary’ settling the meaning and definition of terms, narrative – in which stories, characters and events are used as illustrations and semantic – ‘Scripture can provide the words and phrases to make a point that could easily have been made in other words without a change of meaning’ – ‘a substitution of words to take advantage of the authority associated with their source’. He also distils seven rules from him for interpreting Scripture: Speak as the oracles of God - use scriptural language wherever possible (cf the semantic use of Scripture just noticed), Use the literal sense unless it contradicts another Scripture or implies an absurdity, Interpret the text with regard to its literary context, Scripture interprets Scripture according to the Analogy of Faith and by Parallel Passages, Commandments are covered promises, Interpret literary devices appropriately and Seek the most original text and the best translation. Most of these uses and rules can be seen at work in almost any sermon you care to choose, and most are commonplace in the evangelical/Protestant tradition of Wesley’s day. On only one of these does Jones point to a special - unique is perhaps too strong a word - emphasis on Wesley’s part, and that is his particular use of ‘the analogy of faith’ which we shall examine below. Most of these features can also be seen in A Plain Account, which sets out in the form of a diary to track, defend and explain Wesley’s preaching of this theme throughout his ministry. Although he admits his debt to other books and other writers, this tract could more accurately be named ‘A Scriptural Account…’ In it he begins and ends his reasoning from the ‘Bible, as the one, the only standard of truth, and the only model of pure religion’, insists that his understanding of this doctrine is found clearly stated in ‘the oracles of God’, that it is in conformity with ‘the whole tenor of the New Testament’, and that it is provable from ‘express texts of Scripture’ and with examples from Scripture. There is no doubt of the importance which Wesley ascribed to Scripture and the facility with which he used it.

Jones examines both Wesley’s conception of the Bible and his use of it, and concludes that his use of the Bible is largely consonant with what he says about it. He demonstrates that for Wesley there are five components to religious authority, of which Scripture is hugely primary though all are interdependent. He shows that for Wesley Scripture functions authoritatively as both source and norm, the place from which basic doctrines are obtained and the court of appeal in all disputes about teaching or behaviour, and that for him there are no doubts about the sufficiency, clarity and wholeness of Scripture. The rationale for Scripture’s authority lies in the concepts of revelation, inspiration and infallibility, about which Wesley uses the commonplace arguments of the time. He points out that Wesley reads the Bible with one aim in mind, which is to find the way to heaven. And it is clearly this reading, this agenda - his own salvation and the salvation of the individual - which gives Wesley his particular interpretation of the ‘analogy of faith’ or the ‘general tenor of Scripture’ by which the whole Bible is read, through which conflicting passages are reconciled and in which the meaning and unity of the whole Bible is seen to subsist. The elements of this determining way of reading the Bible are variously listed by Wesley: but the common core element of his key interpretative device – the ‘analogy of faith’ - is threefold: original sin, justification by faith and sanctification. In effect, therefore, Wesley offers us an example of a ‘Personal-Salvationist Reading of Scripture’.

All this, of course, needs to be understood in its context; which is prior to the beginnings of Enlightenment, critical, Biblical scholarship; prior to the debate on the authority and inspiration of the Bible associated with the birth and rise of ‘Fundamentalism’ in the twentieth century and prior to current debates. It is anachronistic, therefore, for any of the protagonists in these fields today to claim Wesley as ‘their man’ or their position as ‘his’. Methodists do, however, like to say that ‘the way in which Wesley used Scripture and his understanding of the nature of its authority are foundational issues’ and official formularies of the Church imply as much. But how the methods and views of someone who inhabited a radically different world than ours can be adopted by us as ‘foundational’ is a huge question. We can, and Methodists usually do, treat Wesley with respect. We can set him in his historical context, read him as a representative of mainstream interpretative tradition, and explore and appreciate his hermeneutics in a historical study of that discipline and of our own tradition of faith. It is questionable, however, whether we can do any more.

Jones argues that Wesley is not a pre-Enlightenment figure but that living in the period of transition between pre-Enlightenment and Enlightenment ways of thinking, he offers an ‘alternative way into modernity’ and a different way of interpreting Scripture. To justify this view he cites the value Wesley places on ‘experience’ and his particular understanding and use of the ‘analogy of faith’ as his key interpretative device. Whist Jones is right in these observations of Wesley’s methodology, the conclusion he draws from his observation is much less secure. And if the arrival of Enlightenment ways of thinking in Biblical Studies is to be recognised by the birth of the, now recently deceased, Historical Critical Method, as is usually thought, then Wesley must remain a pre-Enlightenment figure because he neither employs even the rudiments of such methodology nor shows any interest in its principal concerns. He may on occasion refer to authors and their settings in life, he may amend the Authorised Version and occasionally employ new text critical insights: but these are minor features of an approach which reads the whole Bible Christologically and soteriologically. He is not interested in any kind of historical investigation, he reads Scripture for one purpose only, ‘to find the way to heaven.’ His reading strategy and agenda, which shapes what he reads and enables him to read the Bible as a whole, see a single message in it and handle contradictory passages, is that the Bible teaches the individual soul the way to heaven. That is, put simply, the ‘analogy of faith’ or ‘general tenor of Scripture’ which determines how Wesley reads the Bible, and this is not at all consonant with the Enlightenment or the ‘modern’ agenda for reading the Bible.

Wesley’s reading of Scripture has, of course, resonances with ‘post-modern’ readings of Scripture, which, among other things, encourage individual readers to read for their own benefit, according to their own experience and for their own fulfilment. And that was certainly part of Wesley’s reading strategy and agenda. But before we acclaim Wesley as a postmodern, we need to remember that post-modernity rejects any meta-narrative and every claim to authority, and Wesley would have said that both were essentials, givens, found in and possessed by Scripture.

Neither modernity nor post-modernity can provide a home for Wesley. He is a pre-Enlightenment reader of the Bible. Despite all his competencies and all that can be learned from him as a reader of Scripture in his particular setting, the hermeneutical problem remains. How can a person who reads the Bible as he does and the method he uses function as an authority for people who live in a different world?

Finally, to that modern invention which seeks to relate the Bible to other sources of authority for Wesley and for Methodism – the Quadrilateral of Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience. Wesley priviledged the Bible over all other books, and I suspect that few Methodists or Christians of any kind would disagree with doing that. Much more controversial, however, has been the debate about the true locus of authority in the Faith. This debate has been a violent one throughout the history of the Church and continues in its own little way in Methodism today in differing views of the proper relationship between these four sources of authority in the so-called Quadrilateral. Jones’ argument against geometric metaphors and for seeing one locus of authority in four aspects (five for Wesley) is sound: but debate continues nonetheless with growing use of the slogan of the ‘primacy of Scripture’. Despite its popularity, however, this slogan has little substance; not only is it ‘hermeneutically impossible,’ because in any reading whatever primacy there is lies with the reader, but it is also historically anachronistic, because the Bible came on the scene last of the four. If we must talk of any ‘primacy’ within the Quadrilateral, though that is not really a very helpful way of speaking, the only conclusion we can draw in the light of contemporary hermeneutics and of Wesley's own methodology, is that whatever primacy there is lies with the Reader. Wesley’s use of the Bible illustrates this contention beautifully. He reads Scripture out of a deep personal need – albeit a need in part created by hearing others read Scripture in that way, for hermeneutics is always circular – which provided his reading strategies and his agenda. He sought what he needed in Scripture and found it, and taught others to seek, read and find in the same way. That is how it was for Wesley, and how it inevitably is for us too, no matter how different our contexts, interests and reading strategies are from his.


4 Fundamentalism - 1

(A paper read to the meeting of the European Methodist Theological Commission meeting in Waiern, Austria, in July 2005. This was later published in the Methodist Sacramental Fellowship Bulletin, no 134, Epiphany 2007, pp.14-23, and is reproduced in that form in the articles section of this website. I also used it as the basis for the sessions on a Training Day on Fundamentalism I did in November 2009, and that fuller version appears here as lecture 13)

1.1 James Barr begins what is still regarded by many as the definitive critical study of fundamentalism with the question, ‘Is there really such a thing as fundamentalism, and what exactly is it?’ (Barr 1981:1). He then proceeds to show how it is very difficult to provide a simple answer to that apparently simple question, not least because ‘fundamentalism’ is a complex social and religious movement. Twenty-five years on from that, it is clear that the situation has got significantly more complicated as in the intervening years the term has moved out of its original location in Christian discourse and is now used much more widely.

1.2 Barr went on to describe what many or most Christians perceived of or classified as ‘fundamentalism’:

a very strong emphasis on the inerrancy of the Bible, the absence from it of any sort of error;
a strong hostility to modern theology and to the methods, results and implications of modern critical study of the Bible;
an assurance that those who do not share their religious viewpoint are not really ‘true Christians’ at all. (Barr 1981:1)

Harriet Harris adds another three characteristics when she writes about the situation in the USA in the mid-twentieth century that ‘‘Fundamentalism’ became the name-badge for those who did not engage in social action, did not attend mainstream educational institutions, and did not mix with non-fundamentalist Christians even for mission purposes’ (Partridge 2001:5). Much the same could be said of the same groups in Britain.

1.3 Barr then said that most Christians, himself included, had problems with the three points stressed by the fundamentalists, and here we encounter a major difficulty. Barr clearly writes from the perspectives of mid-twentieth century western mainstream Christianity, a broadly liberal theological position and a traditional, historical-critical location in academic Biblical scholarship. At the time of writing what he said probably would have been agreed by ‘most’ western Christians and endorsed by their churches, not least the Methodist ones, but even then there would have been a significant sub-culture which would perhaps have had more questions about Barr and his position than about the fundamentalism he was criticising. The Christian scene has changed since then in at least two important respects. First, the ‘consensus’ position represented by Barr has disintegrated into the multiplicity of approaches to Scripture, authority and scholarship opened up by ‘post-modernity’ and post-colonialism. Second, that what was in the mid-twentieth century a Christian subculture has by the beginning of the twenty-first century made a significant bid to be recognised as the norm and the mainstream, a prospect opened up by globalisation and the political and cultural dominance of the USA on the world scene.

1.4 For all that, however, the terms ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘fundamentalism’ remain pejorative terms in Christian discourse. They are used of people and a position of which the users disapprove and which they wish to denigrate. The people so named would not name themselves in this way. Their preferred self-descriptions are different and varied and ‘Bible-believing,’ ‘Conservative’, ‘Evangelical’ or ‘Born again’ would be among their preferred adjectives, never ‘Fundamentalist’, though their own preferred terms could also be contested. And the same would also be true of those in other religions, cultures, philosophies and ideologies to whom the ‘F-word’ is now widely applied in the media. They would have other preferred ways of describing themselves and designating their positions. In this respect, what Barr wrote about Christian fundamentalism in 1981 is equally true of the fundamentalisms of today,

‘ … fundamentalism is a bad word: the people to whom it is applied do not like to be so called. It is often felt to be a hostile and opprobrious term, suggesting narrowness, bigotry, obscurantism and sectarianism. The people whom others call fundamentalists would generally wish to be known by another term altogether’ (Barr 1981:2).

2.1 The words ‘Fundamentalism’ and ‘Fundamentalist’ are derived from a series of booklets called The Fundamentals, which were published in America between 1910 and 1915. These were written out of the lively and bitter controversy between ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ which had dominated north American Protestant theology, especially in the area of Biblical interpretation, in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The ‘mainline denominations’ of the northern states had adapted to the changing ideas of that century by taking on board evolution, biblical criticism and the social gospel, to name the three big areas of controversy. Conservative Protestants denounced all this as ‘liberalism’ or ‘modernism’ and attempted to turn the tide both in North American Protestantism and American culture generally, but, as Gifford writes, ‘by the mid-1920’s it was obvious that these fundamentalists … had failed on all fronts’ (Gifford 2000:255).

2.2 Britain and Europe were caught up in the same controversy, and the result was the same on this side of the Atlantic. By the 1930’s fundamentalism had failed to establish itself as a coherent theological position. As far as British Methodism is concerned, the obituary of A S Peake in The Times of 20th August 1929 has become famous,

‘Perhaps it was Dr Peake’s greatest service, not merely to his own communion but to the whole religious life of England, that he helped to save us from a fundamental controversy such as that which has devastated large sections of the Church in America. He knew the facts which modern study of the Bible has brought to light. He knew them, and he was frank and fearless in telling them, but he was also a simple and consistent believer in Jesus, and he let that be seen too, and therefore men who could not always follow him were ready to trust him, and let him go his own way. If the Free Churches of England have been able without disaster to navigate the broken waters of the last thirty years, it is largely to the wisdom and patience of trusty and trusted pilots like Arthur Samuel Peake that they owe it.’

C H Dodd writing in the Dictionary of National Biography Twentieth Century 1922-30 summarises Peake’s life and work thus:

‘his work did much to save the Free Churches of Great Britain from the baneful effects of ‘Fundamentalist’ controversies.’

The same point can be seen graphically in H Maldwyn Hughes’ introduction to Christian doctrine published by the Epworth Press in March 1927 as the official textbook for Wesleyan local preachers and candidates for the ministry published under the title, Christian Foundations. There is no reference to fundamentalism in its index, but the penultimate sentence to Note B, Theories of Inspiration, could not be clearer in its repudiation of it,

‘It is no longer claimed that the Bible is inerrant in such matters as those of science and history; indeed a passage is not necessarily inerrant even in matters of faith and morals’ (p34).

Such official pronouncements did not, of course, satisfy every local preacher or candidate for the ministry, and many church members can be described as ‘folk fundamentalists’ to this day (Dawes 2000:294). By that term I mean that they are, for whatever reason, largely oblivious to the issues raised by or the approaches taken to post-Enlightenment Biblical scholarship. ‘Ideological fundamentalism’, on the other hand, ie that fundamentalism which is aware of the options and deliberately opts for an anti-critical position, remained in the mainstream churches only as a discredited, underground and minority viewpoint.

2.3 This situation continued until the early 1970’s when, for a variety of reasons, American fundamentalists ‘re-emerged into the public arena’ (Gifford 2000:256). Since then, with growing confidence allied to considerable wealth, they have established themselves in the USA as a force to be reckoned with. The original three-point description identified by Barr remains true, and so do the second two of Harries’ three points, but contemporary American fundamentalism is marked as much by powerful social teaching, awareness and action as it is by its teaching on the Bible, indeed the ‘politicisation’ of fundamentalism in the USA in recent decades is probably its most prominent feature (Pope 2001: 183f). In this new and different world it is adept at making alliances on social issues in pursuit of its rigorist ‘Biblical’ ethic, and given the reality of globalisation this form of Christianity is both militant and triumphant at home and abroad. Attempts to suggest that the growing new churches of Africa and the Pacific Rim are not ‘fundamentalist’ according to either the earlier or the later twentieth century parameters, by arguing for example that they are pre-critical rather than anti-critical as is done by Gifford (2000:257) are, sadly, unduly optimistic and reassuring. A similar attempt is made by Harries to suggest that it is important to recognise the difference between contemporary ‘evangelicals’ and ‘fundamentalists’ both in America and in Britain. She concludes, however, that despite important caveats ‘fundamentalism exists in the evangelical world’ (Harries 2001:47). We should perhaps conclude that it might be best to think of these two as being on a spectrum with considerable shading of the one into the other.

2.4 Since the 1970’s ‘fundamentalism’ has taken on a wide usage beyond that in Christian discourse. Not only has it been extended to evangelicals who resist the label, but also to diverse groups of many different faiths, philosophies and ideologies that are in some way radically conservative. Currently its preferred usage in the media is as a synonym for ‘fanatic’ or ‘extremist’ with reference to militant activists or groups in Islam. This kind of usage can, however, also be encountered in the media treatment of politically active conservative groups in Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism as well as for political activists whose focus is on ethnicity, culture or land rather than religion. It is now more appropriate, therefore, as in the title of the important symposium edited by Partridge, to speak of ‘fundamentalisms’ rather than ‘fundamentalism’ (Pope 2001:185).

2.5 The most comprehensive study of this new phenomenon is that undertaken by the Fundamentalism Project of the University of Chicago and published in five volumes between 1991 and 1995. This project identified nine recurring characteristics of ‘fundamentalism’, demonstrating a ‘family resemblance’ among the disparate groups it identified:

Reactivity to the marginalization of religion, especially to secularisation, both in opposing it and exploiting it
Selectivity, both in selecting and shaping particular aspects of their religious tradition, and in selecting some aspects of modernity to affirm and others to oppose
Moral dualism, dividing the world into light and darkness, good and evil
Absolutism and inerrancy, affirming the absolute validity of the ‘fundamentals’ of the tradition and, in the case of Abrahamic religions and Sikhism, treating sacred texts as inerrant
Millennialism and messianism, promising victory to the believer in the culmination of history
Elect membership, viewed often as the faithful remnant
Sharp boundaries, separating the saved from the sinful
Authoritarian organisation, with a charismatic leader and no possibility of loyal opposition
Behavioural requirements, treating the member’s time, space and activity as a group resource (Partridge 2001:xvii).

2.6 Although a number of these new fundamentalisms share with the Christian variety a commitment to an ancient, authoritative, divinely inspired and sacrosanct sacred canonical text, others do not, as point 4 in the list acknowledges. It is necessary therefore to look elsewhere for what the plethora of emerging fundamentalisms might have in common and why this phenomenon is occurring as it is now. One word keeps appearing in both facets of this discussion and it is the slippery term ‘postmodernity’ (Partridge passim, but especially Lyon pp252ff). In a world in which traditional understandings of truth, absolutes and authority are being replaced by an apparently total freedom of choice in a supermarket of lifestyles, ideas and values, and in a world where established traditions of political power, social cohesion, and ethnic and community life are being undermined by the militant consumerism of globalisation, it is hardly surprising, the argument runs, that there should be a reaction and that some if not many will look for security rather than opt for the new freedoms. Fundamentalism is, the argument runs, a readily understandable reaction and alternative to postmodernity. It is the value system of postmodernity, it is argued, which is fuelling the new fundamentalisms with their

‘defensiveness on the part of a traditional culture under threat; discontent, reaction, counter-attack, perhaps even militancy; a selective appropriation of the past, a quest for authority, a flight from ambiguity or ambivalence, even the adoption of a new identity through the formation of a new community’ (Gifford 2000:257).

3.1 In this final section we must return to Christian fundamentalism and briefly revisit its hermeneutical stances and its fundamental claim, for in their own understanding those who others label as ‘fundamentalists’ see themselves as ‘Bible-believers’ and loyal ‘people of the Book’ (Boone 1989:5). For them, fundamentalism is an all-embracing hermeneutical strategy based on an authoritative revelation.

3.2 Barr argues persuasively that Christian fundamentalism is less about a commitment to the Bible than about a commitment to ways of interpreting it or to particular interpreters of it (Barr 1981:23ff, 341f). Since he wrote there has been an explosion of interest in hermeneutics, both in general and in theology, and in particular with the growth of ‘reader response’ criticism there is now a widespread recognition and celebration of the fact that all reading is interpretation, that all readers are located in particular contexts, and that all readers bring the wealth and variety of their interests and agendas to their reading of texts. Diverse readings are therefore to be welcomed as they contribute to the richness of a text. On this understanding the commitment of fundamentalists to particular reading strategies and even to particular interpreters is not to be regarded as a negative or to be ruled out on principle, as Barr was inclined to do. There will be, on this basis, the same kind of space in the academy for ‘Fundamentalist Readings’ as there is, for example, for ‘Feminist Readings’ or ‘Political Readings.’ Or rather there would be if fundamentalists chose to offer them. But they do not. Putting it like this makes it clear that in fact fundamentalism belongs to modernity rather than to post-modernity, because it will not accept that its readings of Scripture are just that, readings, to be set alongside other readings from other perspectives. For fundamentalism there is only one reading of Scripture, its own; and only one authentic reading community, itself.

3.3 There is no need to rehearse here the familiar arguments against fundamentalism’s use of Scripture. They are particularly well treated in Barr’s pastoral follow-up to his major book (Barr 1984). It is widely recognised that the key term in fundamentalist claims for Scripture is the word ‘inerrant’ and it is equally widely recognised that the Bible as it is cannot live up to the claims that fundamentalists make for it in this regard (Dawes 1996). It is also, however, equally widely recognised that it is a virtually impossible task to convince fundamentalists that their approach to Scripture does not take Scripture as it is seriously enough, but imposes an impossible theory upon it.

3.4 Which brings us to fundamentalism’s basic claim, which is to ‘portray itself as neither more nor less than the authority of God’ (Boone 1990:6). It can do this, it believes, because it alone values the Bible correctly, which is

‘to believe the Bible is to take it literally, to regard every word of it as inerrant and fully divine, to acknowledge no authority above it or equal to it’ (Boone 1990:5f)

At the heart of fundamentalism, then, is the conviction that it possesses the truth - definitively, uniquely and plainly; and at the heart of Christian fundamentalism is the conviction that it alone reads the Bible as God’s revealed, inerrant and authoritative Word.

4.1 However difficult it may be to produce a sharp definition of the term, the opening sentence on the rear cover of Partridge seems incontrovertible, that ‘the most conspicuous form of religion to emerge during the 20th century is ‘fundamentalism’.’

4.2 The latter quarter of the twentieth century saw the renewal of evangelicalism in the West, and all the mainstream churches of Europe have been and are being profoundly affected by it. Although it is frequently pointed out that ‘evangelicalism’ and ‘fundamentalism’ are not synonyms and that many evangelicals have traditionally distanced themselves from fundamentalism, that they still do and that they emphatically should (Marshall 2004:31), there seems little doubt that the influence of fundamentalism within Christianity in general and evangelicalism in particular is growing and that given the wealth of its American base such an influence is almost bound to increase.

4.3 Methodism in Europe and America rejected the claims of the first wave of fundamentalism in the early twentieth century. In Britain the repudiation was made, not least, by Peake and is summed up, significantly, in the quotation cited above from Maldwyn Hughes. The second wave of fundamentalism which began in the latter part of the twentieth century is both more sustained and more strategically resourced. It is not, however, fundamentally any different in its claims than the first – for how could it be? Having dismissed such pretentions once, Methodism should not be seduced by them in the very changed culture of the twenty-first century, however attractive fundamentalism might now appear to many to be.

Barr, James (2nd ed 1981) Fundamentalism, London: SCM
Barr, James (1984) Escaping from Fundamentalism, London: SCM
Boone, Kathleen C (1990) The Bible tells them so: the Discourse of Protestant Fundamentalism, London: SCM
Corner, Mark (1990) ‘Fundamentalism’ in Coggins R J and Houlden J L (eds) A Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, London: SCM
Dawes, Stephen B, ‘In Honesty of Preaching 3: Mind the Gap’ in The Expository Times, June 2000, vol 111 no 9, pp293-296
Dawes, Stephen B (1996) Why Bible-believing Methodists shouldn’t eat Black Pudding, Truro: Southleigh
Gifford, Paul (2000) ‘Fundamentalism’ in Hastings, Mason and Pyper (eds), The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, Oxford: OUP
Harries, Harriet (2001) ‘How helpful is the term ‘Fundamentalist’?’ in Partridge, Christopher H (ed) Fundamentalisms, Carlisle: Paternoster
Lyon, David (2001) ‘Fundamentalisms: Paradoxical Products of Post-modernity’in Partridge, Christopher H (ed) Fundamentalisms, Carlisle: Paternoster
Marshall, I Howard (2004) Beyond the Bible, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic
Partridge, Christopher H (ed) (2001) Fundamentalisms, Carlisle: Paternoster
Pope, Robert (2001) ‘Battling for God in a secular world: Politics and Fundamentalisms’ in Partridge, Christopher H (ed) Fundamentalisms, Carlisle: Paternoster


5 The Bible in the Twenty-first century - Vision or Nightmare?

(The Chaplaincy Lecture, Kingston University, October 1st, 2001)

There are times when I hanker back to the "good old days", those days when Bibles were written in Latin and were chained to pulpits, deliberately inaccessible to the man in the village street or the man on the Clapham ox-cart, and infinitely more so to the woman in either of those places. Those were the good old days when such people were told what they needed to know about the Bible, when they couldn’t read it for themselves and couldn’t go around using that fateful expression, "The Bible says". When in that mood I congratulate the one who lit the brushwood in 1536 in Antwerp and did away with William Tyndale - Bible translator – but regret that they didn’t catch him sooner. By the time of his death the hope he had expressed in an argument with a local Gloucestershire clergyman that, "if God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scriptures than thou dost" was too far advanced to be stopped. None the less, on such days I would gladly re-route the delightful Cotswold Way from ascending and pausing in veneration at his monument on the scarp above North Nibley. Why? Because a good case can be made that the Bible is a dangerous book, and that letting anyone who wants to read it is like letting them open Pandora’s box. Or to change the picture and use the title of a 90’s book on the Bible by a Scots Old Testament scholar, it can be a ‘Wolf in the sheepfold’ (R P Carroll). What, in such a mood I ask myself sometimes, has that ploughboy done to his life, his church and his neighbours because he has read and come to know the Scriptures? And the answer I have to give is: Some pretty dreadful things at times.

On the other hand - and of course there is another hand – that ploughboy’s Christian descendents see it differently. If we use another 90’s text, in the mostly excellent Rejoice and Sing, the URC hymnbook which with a bit of proper Methodist editing would have stood even higher than it does above all other recent hymnbooks, we have an official sample of how Christians today speak of the Bible in their worship. There we find nine hymns in a section headed "The Word and the Spirit". They speak of the Bible as a "sacred book" (Charles Wesley, 18th century) with "sacred page" (twice: Mary Lathbury, Victorian and R T Brooks, 20th century), "the blest volume God has writ" (Isaac Watts, 1674-1748), "the written word which is by inspiration given" to "the secret mind of God make plain" (Charles Wesley again); God’s "word (which) abideth and our footsteps guideth" (H W Baker, 19th century); even more "God’s words" which are "life and health … light and truth … and full of joy" (G Currie Martin, who died in 1937). It is the very "bread of life" (Mary Lathbury again) and here we see how a phrase which is used of Christ in the Gospel of John is not so subtly transferred to the Bible; just as in that most idolatrous of all hymns, "O Word of God incarnate", which, to its great credit, Rejoice and Sing omits. The only other 20th century hymn among them is by the Biblical scholar G B Caird, and even here the second verse waxes sentimental,

The babes in Christ your scriptures feed
with milk sufficient for their need,
the nurture of the Lord.
Beneath life’s burden and its heat
the fully grown find stronger meat
in your unfailing word (which he spells with a small w)

Fortunately the first verse quotes those famous words of John Robinson, the Pilgrim Father, that "the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his word" – which at least shows that we need to study the Bible and not simply read its texts off its pages – and its last verse quotes those words of St Paul that "our vision now is dark", even with all the help the Bible can give us!

Most of the time, I think you might be glad to know, I share the feelings of most of those hymns, but for the sake of the Bible itself I have to stop short of that adulation which borders on idolatry. So maybe before we go any further, I ought to come clean with my view on the Bible and its authority.

In 1994 the Methodist Conference instructed the Faith and Order Committee to set up a working party to look at the Authority of the Bible in and for the Methodist Church. The 1995 Conference approved the membership of that working party which included me. We finished our work in the autumn of 1996 and the report was subsequently published as ’A Lamp to my Feet and a Light to my Path’ – and a pretty tame report it is too, but that’s another story. For the first meeting of the Working Party each of us was asked to prepare a two-hundred word personal statement on our view of the authority of the Bible. For what it's worth this was mine:

The authority of the Bible lies in the fact that it is the precious collection of ancient and diverse books which the Church has treasured for centuries as a gift of God to his people. In it we read testimonies to God's will and his ways and through them glimpse his love and purposes for his world. In it we have the primary witness to the formative events in the life of the Church. In it we find expressed the great themes of the Faith. Thus it has traditionally been given a key role in worship and theology so that by taking it seriously and attending to it with the utmost respect the people of God can be built up in faith, knowledge and love as they hear and read it. The nature of the Bible as it is and the facts of how the Bibles came to us rule out belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, warn that its interpretation will be a complex matter, show the formative role of the Church in the creation of its Bibles and imply that final authority in matters of faith lies with the Church itself.

All of this shows you, I hope, why in the title of tonight’s lecture we find the question asked of the Bible and its use, "Vision or Nightmare?" Some readers of the Bible find in it a vision of justice, peace and the integrity of creation; others make of the same texts a nightmare of hard-line, world-rejecting pietism. Some individuals read it and their lives are transformed with goodness; others and their lives are transformed in a different way. Likewise Christian communities who read the same Bible can emerge looking and feeling rather different: contrast, for example, the Quakers and the Exclusive Brethren. There is no doubt about it, the Bible can be an inspiring book, but it can inspire people to some very different goals, attitudes and values. It can generate vision or nightmare – though of course it’s also the case that one person’s vision might be someone else’s nightmare – but for the purpose of this lecture I want to assume that we are not talking about the same viewpoint but about two opposed ones. I want to assume that you know the difference between a vision and a nightmare and that we share a common view on what might constitute a vision and what might constitute a nightmare. I couldn’t make that assumption with every audience, but I shall with you, and no doubt it will become obvious in the questions and discussion at the end if I have got it wrong. I must also, in this post-modern age, be quite upfront with you about my point of view, my presuppositions and my assumptions, and tell you that what you are going to get from now on is my perspective, my story, my testimony. I can make no claims to objectivity or to ‘truth’, but I can tell you how I see it.

So here are three ‘stories’, two of them from the late 20th century and the middle one is from this last summer. They are, all three, ‘churchy’ stories, for which fact I do not apologise in this lecture, for the sphere of the Church remains the one in which the Bible is most commonly used, and is the one where its potential to be nightmare or vision is arguably at its greatest. I hope you’ll forgive the 20th century stories on the grounds that if there are discernible trends towards the end of the last century the chances are that they will continue into at least the beginnings of this one.

First, a story from the Expository Times. In January 2000 I received a letter from the Editor asking me to contribute an article to a new series he wanted to run. It was to be called ‘In honesty of preaching’, that superb phrase coming from a hymn by the recently deceased Fred Pratt Green. The Editor wanted this series because of a letter he had received from Dr Mark Chapman, the New Testament tutor at Cuddesdon Theological College, Oxford. Mark had been invited to preach on Bible Sunday 1999 at Dorchester Abbey in Oxfordshire and had preached a sermon on Bishop Colenso – whose something or another anniversary it was around that time. Bishop Colenso – a Cornishman - had been a controversial bishop in South Africa who had been instrumental in the 19th century in promoting the new approaches to the Bible which blossomed in Peake’s Commentary, of which more later. The next week Dr Chapman received a letter from the Rector, telling him of the upset and disquiet his sermon about not taking the Bible literally had caused. They met, talked it through and set up a discussion group session on it which proved helpful and positive to those who came. Dr Chapman put it like this,

I prepared a short talk where I went through some of the basics of Biblical interpretation. The mood was constructive and positive, and it turned out that my ‘honesty of preaching’ had allowed almost all of the people there to voice their own doubts and to discover what was really important about the Bible. Some people turned out to have very radical opinions indeed. And it also turned out that the lady who ran the Amnesty International stall which had been set up at the back of the church, was impressed to hear a sermon with which she could agree. Faith was deepened and the Gospel was heard with integrity.

But other worshippers had been lost. Genteel, intelligent, articulate Oxfordshire Anglicans – or at least those are the sort of people I think one might expect to find in the Parish Church of a small dormitory village ten miles south of Oxford - had gone elsewhere looking for "true teaching". Saying in 1999 that you couldn’t take the Flood and Noah’s Ark literally had shaken their faith too much.

My second story comes from the correspondence columns of the Church Times over the last couple of months. On July 27th the paper reported that a pulpit ban had been imposed on Canon David Stainsby by the Bishop of Peterborough for criticising the formula "This is the Word of the Lord / Thanks be to God". Common Worship, the new authorised Anglican service book, says the reader and congregation ‘may say’ this as the ending of all Bible readings other than those from the Gospels: but as it gives no alternatives it looks as if this is one of those ‘mays’ which is only a whisker away from a ‘should’. Anyway, Canon Stainsby had obviously questioned this liturgical formula, as Mark Chapman had done in his article in the Expository Times of May 2000 and as I did in mine of June 2000. Such criticism is one I and others have made in all kinds of ways and places since this verse and response first appeared from America in the Anglican Alternative Service Book of 1980. And at this point I can’t resist telling you a story within a story.

When I taught Old Testament at the Queen’s College in Birmingham in the late 1980’s we had a delightful American nun training for the Anglican diaconate. She was sweet, quiet and gentle. One morning she found herself at Morning Prayer reading some 40 verses from one of the bloodier chapters of Judges. At the end she paused and said - I won’t attempt the accent - "This (!?) is the word of the Lord (!!???)". I thought, and so did others on the way out, that Vicky had got it exactly and precisely right. However, when we got to staff coffee that morning, we learned that the Principal had felt it necessary to call her into his study and reprimand her. When he appeared for coffee he experienced an almost unheard of thing, a Queen’s College staff united, and united in support of Vicky.

Anyway, back to the Church Times. A letter appeared in the next issue, August 3rd, supporting the canon and quoting the same disquiet expressed in 1971 by no less than Archbishop Michael Ramsey, though on balance the Archbishop thought the thing could stand as the producers of the ASB were not suggesting that the text of the Bible was the Word of God and, he seemed to imply, the average member of the C of E would be aware of the real meaning of the verse and response and would appreciate that distinction. There was another letter the week after supporting that one. In that issue, however, David Holloway, Rector of Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne, and one of the recognised leaders of the evangelicals in the Church of England, wrote pointing out that the Bishop of Peterborough in banning Canon Stainsby was only expressing the age-old position of the Church of England – that the text of the Bible was the Word of God. He added that this entirely true and trustworthy formula was not rejected in those parishes which were the only growing ones in the C of E, namely the evangelical ones. The writing was on the wall for the rest, he implied, because they no longer believed the Bible. Next week two letters took David Holloway to task for misquoting Hooker but the debate was capped by the New Testament tutor from the evangelical Anglican college at Bristol, who said simply that as Jesus put his imprimatur on the Old Testament and invested his apostles with his authority through the Holy Spirit, the Bishop of Peterborough was quite right to do as he had. So there it is, the Bible, in any and every part is ‘the word of the Lord’, even the writings of Paul when he says he’s only offering his own opinion on a particular issue because he hasn’t a word of the Lord on it (1 Cor 7:12), even those agonised cries to a seemingly deaf God from a psalmist in deep personal distress and even the erotic poetry of the Song of Songs. Sadly, now that that formula is enshrined in a service book, it cannot fail but to support the rise of fundamentalism, of which more later. And for me personally, it does not help me to worship when mindless readers of Lessons and congregations parrot nonsense, to the detriment of both common sense and the truth.

My third story is a kind of preparation for your next lecture. Most of the mainline churches in Britain had discussions about ‘Human Sexuality’ sometime in the 90’s; and most of those debates actually focused on homosexuality. "The Bible says," we were told repeatedly, that homosexual acts are wrong and forbidden. And that’s correct. It does. Some supporters and friends of the gay lobby in the church – and I would call myself one of those – argue that it doesn’t, that the texts quoted don’t mean what they seem to say: but I have to say that they are wrong, and that what they are doing is special pleading. Those who take a tough line against practising gays in the church are correct, quite correct, when they say that the Bible says that homosexual acts are wrong and forbidden. But – and I hope you were anticipating a ‘but’ – but what was rarely said or heard in response to that was that saying that actually proves or establishes nothing, because the Bible says a lot of things that most of us ignore. It forbids the remarriage of certain kinds of divorced women, for example, but Methodism has gone ahead with that since 1945. It is passionately opposed to investing capital at interest, but I don’t see Bible-believing Christians taking any more notice of that than any other kind of Christian. It would rather we didn’t swear oaths in court, and that women wore hats in church, didn’t hold office and kept their mouths shut, a recipe for closing 99% of the Methodist chapels in Cornwall if ever there was one. It also forbids the eating of Black Pudding and of any meat not killed in the kosher fashion, and makes that a very serious, priority obligation on all Christians, one which no Christian I know personally of any persuasion actually accepts.

Do you want that one spelled out? Okay. A crucial issue facing the Church in its early mission days was the question of what requirements of the old Jewish Law needed to be observed by gentiles who become Christians. The answer, agreed at the first Ecumenical Council held in Jerusalem, was that gentile Christians should refrain from idolatry and immorality – well, you’d expect that – and from ‘things strangled’ and from ‘blood’. That was all, they needn’t worry about the rest, but those four things were essential. We find the story of that Council in Acts 15, and this decision is found in verses 20 and 29. Gentiles – that’s almost everybody in the Church of course – must therefore not eat Black Pudding. Now I know many Christians who don’t eat Black Pudding because they can’t stand the thought of it, or because they are vegetarians (another entirely unbiblical idea that one, though there’s a way round it) but because of Acts 15:20 and 29? No way.

Now the interesting thing is that when I say to one of those Christians who believe that gay sexual practices are wrong because the Bible says so that presumably they don’t eat Black Pudding or rare steaks for the same reason, they look at me sort of funny. If I’m lucky they ask me what I’m on about. And when I explain about the Council and Acts 15:20 and 29, then it gets really interesting to listen to all the reasons they give why this particular text is not to be taken literally, etc etc. The plain fact is that all of us interpret the Bible – there is no reading of the Bible (or of anything else) without interpreting – all readers do it, fundamentalists included. It’s just that non-fundamentalists are usually more upfront about it and so get the flak. It was to counteract this simplistic use of "The Bible says" – heard repeatedly in the sexuality debates in every denomination - that I wrote my Why Bible-believing Methodists shouldn’t eat Black Pudding, and although it’s now out of print it is available as a free download off the internet or there are hard copies of the download for sale with other stuff of mine over there. A very serious book, despite its silly title, written to oppose and expose a growing tendency to support arguments really based elsewhere by wheeling in "The Bible says". End of advert and end of the third story.

Three stories, and they raise one huge issue, the issue of ‘Gap’.

The 20th century began with no gap, officially, between the Bible in the Church and the Bible in the University, or in the ‘Academy’, as I shall call it from now on in line with current jargon. That is not to say that every Bible reading church member would have agreed with the accepted results of Biblical studies even had they known what they were, for many of them wouldn’t and too many of them didn’t. Nor is it to say that the Christian Herald and Sunday Companion, on the one wing, published book reviews by Professors of New Testament; or that the Roman Catholic Church, on the other, had as yet given permission for its Bible scholars to get involved in the Academy’s agenda, that would only come mid-century. But it would be true to say that the Church of England and the mainstream Free Churches, which between them had a huge monopoly on the religious life of the UK, had to all official intents and purposes taken ‘Biblical Criticism’ on board. Led by the Scots, and greatly helped by the prolific energy and entrepreneurial industry of James Hastings with his various Dictionaries and the Expository Times, ‘Biblical Criticism’ was on the official agendas and was the official line of the churches. In the Academy, biblical criticism in the UK was almost entirely the work of Christian scholars, the vast majority of them ordained ministers. It was the churches which supplied the university teachers, and in many instances the Departments of Theology (which in many cases were dominated by Biblical Studies) grew out of the local denominational theological colleges and continued to rely heavily on their staff. The jewel in this crown was Peake’s Commentary, published from Scotland in May 1919 after being delayed by the war – 61 contributors, all male, and only 8 were lay people. Its aim was simple, to present to the reading membership of the mainstream churches the up-to-date results of university, critical, Biblical scholarship – "to put before the reader in a simple form, without technicalities, the generally accepted results of Biblical Criticism, Interpretation, History and Theology" (Preface p xi). The result of that publication was, it is commonly and rightly said, to save Britain from "Fundamentalism", a very different approach to the Bible which was coming out of the USA at the same time. There might in 1919 have been the sort of gap between a minister’s pulpit and a worshipper’s pew that was evident at the end of the century in Dorchester Abbey, but there was no gap between Church and Academy.

Peake’s Commentary represented the aims and methods of most university Biblical studies until the 1970’s, and to the commitment of the Anglican and Free Churches to it was added that of the Roman Catholics in 1943 when Pope Pius XII issued the decree Divino Afflante Spiritu, in which he encouraged his Church to take those aims, methods and results on board. As far as my own denomination is concerned, the Methodist Church in the UK re-expressed its commitment to this stance in the report I mentioned a while ago, A Lamp to my Feet and a Light to my Path, in our Conferences of 1998 and 2001. At the heart of this academic approach is what is known as the ‘Historical-Critical Method’ or the ‘Traditio-Historical Criticism’ both mouthfuls to say, but at heart a very straightforward method. A Bible passage means what its original author intended it to mean and its original hearers heard it to say – that in a nutshell is what Peake’s Commentary and the ‘Historical-Critical Method’ is about. So scholars ask, Who wrote this passage? When? Where? and Why? on the way to answering the question, What does it mean? Of course, with some passages some of those questions are easier to ask than others, and with some they are almost impossible – we recognise that now in a way that Peake and company did not. We also recognise that at times this approach would write off certain passages, for example when it became apparent that the happy ending of the book of Amos was not ‘original’ then it was dismissed as only of secondary value, even if that. And how on earth do you get into an author’s mind to know what their intentions were anyway? But the attempt was to be made, and having established as far as possible what the original author intended and the original hearers understood, then and only then, could you go on to ask what this might mean in our very different circumstances. And in asking that question, your first answer provided essential control and a measure of objectivity: a passage did not mean just whatever you wanted it to mean, and you could not take a passage "out of context" and use it for different purposes. That act of interpretation too, of course, was a difficult one but there were all the scholarly conventions and checks and balances related to its ‘original meaning’.

But, sadly, all this could and did get so nit-picking, so fragmentedly detailed and just so ‘boring’ that you could hardly see the wood for the trees. The end result was that in the 1970’s a general dissatisfaction with this approach was beginning to set in to university Biblical studies worldwide. Students of literature began to tell us to move on to their new ways, to read the Bible in a literary way, to accept its final form, to read it as narrative, to ask about plot and character and point of view. Third World scholars into Liberation Theology began to remind us that the Bible is about the big issues of politics and justice and that Biblical Studies should be addressing them – who cares what sources lie behind the Exodus narratives? Read the narratives, change and change the world! Feminist scholars began to point out how the whole Bible story marginalises women, writes them out of the story and promotes patriarchy and to say that these were much bigger issues about the Bible to explore than the traditional ones. Social historians added their questions about finding out the sorts of communities which produced these texts: but that was a bit too much like a variant on the older ways and didn’t quite catch the mood. Post-moderns arrived, writing about what this passage or that meant to them, with no interest at all in what any hypothetical author might have meant, playing with images or poems or stories which enhanced their imaginations and fulfilled their lives. So from a focus on authors we have moved in thirty years or so through a focus on the text itself to the reader as the one who gives a text meaning; though hopefully there are signs of a return to some sort of common sense that authors do matter somehow too. It’s all been very exciting, as well as confusing, but the common factor in all these developments is that the ‘authority’ of the Bible has almost disappeared. It is valued as a classic text, immensely rich literature with complex associations and influence, it is a tremendously exciting playground in which to find images with which to play, or it is a dangerous and baleful text whose ideologies have largely been damaging to human good, it is a source of data for studies of ancient worlds providing you use it with considerable care. By the end of the 20th century the Bible had become many things to many scholars: but in the Academy it was no longer the or even a ‘sacred’ text, the authoritative guide to the meaning of life, the universe and everything, which it was the job of scholarship to explore and then expound. Many other things, but no longer that. All, actually, very exciting but done increasingly without much interest in what this might mean to the Churches or to the faith of individuals.

But recently, and to me worryingly, there has been a call to recognise and legitimise the perceived growing gap between the Academy and the Church; and in the Academy to study "Bible" and in the Church to study "Scripture", to make a distinction between secular and sacred approaches and methods and to clearly differentiate between these two forms of Biblical scholarship. It has come in different ways from a kind of unholy alliance; from the Academy in a powerful book by one of England’s leading Old Testament scholars [Philip R Davies, Whose Bible is it anyway? (Sheffield 1995)] and from the other end from some almost hysterical Americans [Reclaiming the Bible for the Church ed C A Braaten and R W Jenson (T and T Clark 1996)]. But that, it seems to me, is the way to nightmare. Nightmare not least for Departments of Theology and Religious Studies in many of our universities, I have to say, given that a significant number of their students are still sponsored by churches who would probably remove that sponsorship if such a break were made and find other ways of training its not inconsiderable numbers of student ministers in Biblical things. What kudos, career potential, job possibilities would remain then, I wonder, in Departments of Biblical Studies with the same level of student interest as currently shown in Departments of Ancient Near Eastern Studies or Ancient Near Eastern literature, in a university culture where the financial bottom line is what really counts? What indeed. But nightmare too, for the Churches, which would no longer have to face up to the awkward questions asked of the Bible by those with the intellectual rigour, academic discipline and freedom from ecclesiastical censure to ask them. Or which would rapidly divide into different schools each reading the Bible in the ways that suited them, accountable to none other than those who policed the boundaries of acceptable thought determined by each particular school. Or which would impose ways of reading on the Bible and give answers to the Bible’s questions determined largely outside of it. Imagine, not only having your Bible passages chosen for you – like the Lectionary already does – but also the official explanation of the passages handed down to be uncritically accepted, just like the Jehovah’s Witnesses receive their package of official teaching each week from the Leaders in the States. Opening a gap between Academy and Church would be nightmarish for both, I would argue, for without real dialogue both of those institutions and the Bible itself would inevitably be the poorer.

But what of the Bible in the Church in the 20th century? The Bible continues to be highly regarded officially by the churches, though the evangelicals in some churches, not least my own, would dispute that that is the case. Most church reports, though, seem to feel obliged to have strong sections on what the Bible has to say about the issue in question, and the launch of the Revised Common Lectionary a couple of years ago ensures that most of us are reading most of the same passages in our worship Sunday by Sunday. But if there is one word to describe how the Bible is really faring in the churches at grassroots level I suggest that that word is ‘neglect’, or so every report on Bible reading in the churches in the 90’s by the Bible Society has argued. Lip-service may be paid by and in all the churches to the importance etc of the Bible, but fewer and fewer Christians seem to be actually reading it much. The growing number of ‘fundamentalists’ – more of them in a moment – would have us believe that there are more and more ‘Bible-believing Christians’ about (that very phrase has become a badge of belonging to the party), but even there the Bible Society statistics suggest that on the ground it ain’t necessarily so. There is, statistically, much less Bible-reading around than there was, so it seems. That, however, does not prevent an increasingly vocal, if not downright noisy, use of "the Bible says" in all the churches and an increasingly commonly and loudly voiced demand that the churches should conform their internal lives and structures, their policies and strategies and their message and mission to what the Bible says.

And here we arrive at the fundamentalists, whose growth to power and respectability in the mainstream churches of the UK is one of the distinguishing features of the life of the British churches in the last quarter of the 20th century. Some of you, like me, might bemoan that fact; others of you might applaud it, but fact it is. Calling themselves by a variety of names – "Bible-believing", "Born-again", "Conservative Evangelical" or just plain "Evangelical", to name only four – the biblical Fundamentalists have arrived and have become a force to be reckoned with. And even though they do not promote the full-scale version of the parent American fundamentalism – they are British after all – they are still promoting something quite significantly different from both the Biblical stance of Peake and that of, if I may use the phrase, the traditional British churchgoer’s approach to the Bible which I would describe as that reverent acceptance of the Bible and its stories learned in Sunday School which manages never to connect with the real life of the Christian adult. Against that the fundamentalist insists that the Bible matters and must make a difference. Against Peake the fundamentalist insists that the Bible is inerrant – that’s the key word – written by men, yes, but inspired in its total accuracy by God as the supreme authority for all Christian doctrine and practice. There is, to put it bluntly, a battle going on for the soul of the 21st century Church, and Fundamentalism, mild or strong, is to my mind a very dangerous enemy. It’s message is alarming simple – stand by the truth of the Bible as it has been taught from the beginning (though of course there is nothing simple about the truth of the Bible and its message has been constantly debated and interpreted from day one). Its message is extremely seductive – come to the light, walk in the light, leave the darkness of doubts and shades of grey behind, come to the light of the truth (though that of course doesn’t stop fundamentalists disagreeing and falling out among themselves about what that truth is, there’s nothing more fissiparous than evangelical Christianity). Its message is highly attractive – in a frightening and frightened world here is firm ground, here is the truth, just believe, obey and be saved, it’s all you need (hence the current popularity and spread of fundamentalisms in every faith and every political philosophy). A victory for the fundamentalists would be nightmare: just go back to my three stories and reflect on the kind of Church and the kind of understanding which would be the result of such a victory, or reflect on the implications of such a victory for a chaplaincy such as this.

Bishop Colenso died in 1883. Peake produced his Commentary in 1919, every minister trained in almost every British Theological College or certainly every university Department of Theology since then has been taught according to the accepted canons of both Church and Academy represented by Peake. Why then did it come as such a shock to that Oxfordshire congregation when from the pulpit someone denied the literal facticity of Flood and Ark? What then can be done about this gap, between pulpit and pew, or dare I say it between the minister’s sudy desk and her pulpit? Obviously nothing much had been done to bridge the gap between where those Oxfordshire folks are and where Peake and company were a century ago? Here is, for the 21st century, a gap to be bridged. So let me urge the need for bridging that gap and give you just one example, and I confess that it is a very personal, particular and local one – but post-modernity welcomes such things, does it not?) of how it can be easily done.

Come with me to Ponsongath, a remote Methodist country chapel on the Lizard in Cornwall. It is Harvest Festival and they have invited the Chairman of the District to conduct the two services that day. I have decided to use the two creation pictures in Genesis 1-3 as the basis for the day's reflections and Genesis 1:26-27 and 2:7 as the texts for the two sermons. But how shall I introduce the readings? There are some Creationists in Cornwall, though mercifully not a lot in the Methodist churches. There are also some fundamentalists. But in my observation, there are actually two kinds of Christian fundamentalists: the new ‘Idealogical Fundamentalists’ (capital ‘f’s) – certainly few in number in the Methodist church in Cornwall and the old ‘folk fundamentalists’ (small ‘f’s) – much more numerous. There are many more who are unhappy with fundamentalists of any sort. I find that distinction between two types of fundamentalists a helpful one. By "Ideological Fundamentalists" I mean those who are aware of the questions addressed by traditional academic Biblical scholarship and who reject them. By "folk fundamentalists" I mean those who are oblivious to such questions - because of preachers who have not bridged those gaps? My observation is that most British Methodists, if not most British Christians, come from this stock. My experience with such "folk fundamentalists" is that, in the main, they respond positively - and often with relief - when they are introduced to those questions. That, you will remember, was precisely the reaction Mark Chapman had in the discussion group! Given that my congregation at Ponsongath probably contains such a mixture, and knowing that these two creation pictures in Genesis 1-3 are only two of the four different Old Testament creation pictures, how do I introduce the Bible readings? By explaining that I am going to read the two creation "Parables" with which the Bible begins. I know that neither Genesis 1-2:4a or 2:4b-3:22 is a "parable" in the strict sense of that word, but what else am I to call them? To call them creation "accounts" is even more misleading. "Stories" is a word I prefer to use for other Bible passages and "myths" is obviously out of the question, so "parables" it must be. At least my hearers know how to listen to parables. Then in the addresses I referred to them in much the same way, stressing that they were neither ‘history’ nor ‘science’ but theology. The response of several people at the door was to thank me for putting it like that. Later in the week I met a local who hadn’t been there but had heard about both services. He told me how effective the "parable" word had been and that it hadn't offended anybody, which had rather surprised him. And how do I end the readings? Not by saying, "This is the word of the Lord", though I am very well aware that the Lord has much to teach us from these ancient passages. Nor by simply saying, "Here ends the lesson" – no to that old one too, that’s not strong enough. But by saying, "Thanks be to God for this ancient Parable of Creation" and then adding, "May God help us to understand it and learn from it." Reading the Bible like that, and speaking of it in those terms, I suggest is to see a future for the Bible in the Church in the 21st century as a vision and not a nightmare.

Finally, to come back to the Bible in the Academy, is its future there vision or nightmare? Well, the Bible is still there, and looks like being so for some time yet, and that is very encouraging in itself. In fact, it’s spreading a little bit. One of the side-effects of the growing ignorance of the Bible in ordinary culture – witness listening to contestants in any TV quiz programme reveal their ignorance – is that university departments of English literature who value the Bible as a literary text and recognise its crucial role in the development of English literature generally, now have to introduce students to it. So there are now, for instance, dictionaries of Biblical quotes in works of literature to help such students find their way around [eg]. Meanwhile the Bible continues to be taught in Departments of Theology and Religious Studies, though from a very wide range of angles. There is much reading of the Bible as literature, and much reflecting on the different ways different readers create meanings for themselves in dialogue with the Bible: but, I am personally pleased to say, there is a growing recognition that what original authors intended and original hearers heard is also an important question to pursue. Without a doubt, hermeneutics, interpretation, is alive and well as a discipline in the Academy [see John Barton, ed, The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation, CUP, 1998]. Traditional questions are still pursued, of course, one of the hottest potatoes at the moment being how much of the history of ancient Israel can be reconstructed from the Bible stories about Israel: much, little or next to none? Commentaries continue to be written, and more and more interest is being taken in narratives, stories, on the one hand and the much neglected Wisdom Literature on the other. Scholars of the Supplement plug away fascinatingly at still attempting to recover the Jesus of History and explain the phenomenal growth of the early Church [N T Wright], and even Paul is staging a bit of a comeback as scholars try to get down to the real Paul hidden from us for so long under layers of Lutheran makeup. Even the subject of Biblical Theology – what the Bible can say to us about God – is making a comeback after an absence of 40 years. I think it’s fair to say that the Bible is alive and well in the Academy.

And it is that life that the Church needs for the 21st century. With it the Bible can be Vision for Church and World; without it, it will be Nightmare for both. My warning to you tonight is that this is exactly what Peake and company thought in 1919, but the 20th century, and not only in Dorchester but in many other places in the UK too, ended further away from that thinking than it had started! My vision for the Bible in the 21st century is that Peake’s agenda will be successfully renewed and that it will bridge the gaps – between Academy and Church, pulpit and pew, study and pulpit. My nightmare is that it won’t and those gaps will remain and widen.

Thank You.


6 Christianity: the Way, the Truths and the Lives?

(The Chaplaincy Lecture, Combined Universities in Cornwall, Tremough, March 6th, 2008)

1.1 First let me thank the Chaplain for the invitation to deliver this Chaplaincy Lecture, and in so doing present an introduction to Christianity to complement the introductions to Judaism and to Islam in this Chaplaincy Lecture series.

1.2 My title – Christianity: the ways, the truths and the lives? – is, as I’m sure many of you will recognise, based on that hugely troublesome and increasingly abused saying which the writer of the Fourth Gospel puts on the lips of Jesus, but instead of going into that I simply want to borrow the phrase and change it by adding three ‘s’s’ and a question mark. Why the plurals? Simply because it is misleading and virtually impossible to talk about ‘Christianity’ in the singular. Not that this is a problem only for Christianity, I would add, for I don’t think you can talk about Judaism either, only about Judaisms; nor about Islam but only about Islams and so on with almost any other world Faith or ideology you can think of. That is not to say, and we shall explore this as we go on, that there isn’t a ‘broad family resemblance’ among Christian groups or something held in common in Christianity or the others, but the place to begin is by recognising that the term ‘Christianity’ is an umbrella term that covers a huge diversity:

a diversity of practice in the sense of organisation, structure and institutional life, and practice in terms of the expression of faith in and through worship – a diversity of ‘ways’,
a diversity of belief, doctrine, understanding and theology - a diversity of ‘truths’,
a diversity of ethics and moralities, of lifestyles and attitudes and values – a diversity of ‘ways’.

Here are differences of Belonging, Believing and Behaving, and I am not talking about cosmetic or trivial differences here, but differences for which Christians have both died, and killed.

1.3 So any introduction to Christianity must recognise that you can’t avoid the sheer diversity of it. A major source of this diversity is, of course, historic. Christianity has been around for two thousand years, and things change, even though it is a particular temptation of some forms of Christianity to deny it and of most to resist it. We could see that change by looking at how Christianity has been organised in this locality down the centuries, what has been believed and how Christians have lived – but we won’t as I am not a Church Historian. Another source of the changes, of course, is cultural. Christianity is a worldwide phenomenon, and how we do our Christianities hereabouts is not how they do their Christianities in Southern Africa or South East Asia or Greece or the United States. Our diversities go downwards through history and horizontally across the contemporary world. Some might not like those s’s but anybody who wants to say that there is a single, clear, definite, always and everywhere, universal, ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic’ or ‘once and for all delivered to the saints’ Church or way of being Christian or of doing Christianity has really got an impossibly uphill task to demonstrate it. Christianity takes diverse and multiple forms, and always has. That’s my first point.

2.1 The second thing I want to do, therefore, is to look at these diversities in those three areas of Belonging, Believing and Behaving – or the ways, the truths and the lives there are in Christianity.

2.2 So, first, Christianity - the ways; the organisational and institutional ways first, then the liturgical ones. You might think this is a rather mundane and strange place to begin, but Christianity is a movement with forms and structures, buildings, financial accounts, professional bodies, policies, committees and plant – and always has been. And these things are not incidentals, matters of accident or chance, mere pragmatics necessary to achieve higher and more spiritual ends; for these things themselves have been the occasion of schisms and divisions, of martyrdoms and burnings, of high feelings and drama. Such an innocuous title as ‘bishop’ would be resisted as devilish vocabulary in some quarters; the authority structure of the Vatican and its worldwide church radically questioned by the majority of Christians worldwide today, the independent and local gathering of Christians in someone’s front room to break bread and take wine without priest or clergy as heresy and an invalid act by many mainstream denominations and so on. Are buildings central or ephemeral? Are clergy an asset or a liability? Is the church essentially local and independent, or national or international and united in clearly demarcated ways? All of these are real questions which are answered differently; and they arise because Christianity is fundamentally, as was its parent body Judaism, a corporate enterprise. It is not primarily about solitary individuals and their personal spiritualities; it is about a community of believers seeking to be the ‘people of God together’. And it’s because of that that differences of organisation and structure, which are many and varied, are freighted with both theology and aggro. Add that to the fact that at heart differences of organisation are usually to do with power, who has it, who wants it, and how it is exercised, and you can see how the many different institutional shapes of Christianity, visible across Cornwall for example, have emerged.

My second example of the diverse ways and shapes Christianity takes is the equally fraught area of diversity in worship. Most religions, Christianity being no exception, make provision for their adherents to gather together for worship. For most Christians those gatherings are weekly and scheduled for Sunday – the day to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus – though some do it on Saturdays. What goes on in worship time varies incredibly, from the gathered corporate silence of the Quaker meeting, to the bells and smells and colour and drama of a High Mass, to the rather somnolent sitting in rows, singing hymns, listening to a preacher for fourteen and a half minutes in my own Methodist chapel to the ‘hands down for coffee’, happy-clappy, powerpoint-focussed two hours of not quite as informal as it looks charismatic service. Different churches do it differently. For some the Eucharist, Holy Communion, the taking of bread and wine in a solemn service that claims to go back to the very beginning is absolutely what this worship is all about; for others this is hardly on their radar. There is usually music, though not everywhere, but the music varies, as does who sings and who doesn’t sing, but that’s all a recent invention really, hymns as we know them were only introduced into English Christianity in the 17th century. Half a dozen people gathering in a front room, that’s worship. 250 people meeting in the cathedral, that’s worship. What they do, what is allowed and encouraged or not allowed and discouraged varies considerably, as does who leads it and who is authorised to lead it and that takes you back into all that stuff about power and authority and system again.

So there is no one form of either Christian organisation or Christian worship. There is no one way of organising the church or being the church or worshipping. There just isn’t. There are, of course, quite a few people around who don’t understand that and who say that the only true way of Christian worship is doing this, this and this – but that is, if I dare say it, at heart only personal opinion and personal preference dressed up a bit. There are huge diversities in these areas now, and historically there always have been. Across different cultures, in different times and in different places you will not find any ‘as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be’, other than that of diversity. So in terms of the organisation of Christian churches and structures and the shape, form and content of Christian worship you have got to talk about ‘ways’ rather than ‘way’.

2.2 Now let’s come to the second of the great diversities - the ‘truths’.

‘Orthodoxy’ and ‘heresy’ are terms that have bugged Christianity from the beginning. The first big controversy in the early church after the death of Jesus was essentially a theological one, a question of the mission of the church and a question to do with people – could non-Jews come in? If so, on what terms? And if they did, what would that do to us and our small Jewish sect of those who called themselves ‘Christians’? Or to put it another way, was Paul and his missionary zeal a liability or an asset, a prophet or an apostate? In a way, that’s always been the biggest and most divisive question: Who belongs? And how?

And here, I think, is the place to mention ‘denominations’, which are the most visible of Christianity’s multiple diversities. The first really big split in the Christian church which gave us the two denominations called ‘Orthodoxy’ and ‘Catholicism’ – interesting to notice how each of those titles makes a claim to be the one true expression of Christianity, isn’t it? – arose for many reasons. There had been tensions between the church in the Greek East with its Patriarchate of Constantinople and the church in the Latin West with its Papacy in Rome for centuries, but it all came to a head over a Latin word which caused a theological furore which exists to this day. Do we add the word filioque in the Creed, as the Romans insisted we should, or continue to leave it out, as the Orthodox insisted we should? As a Biblical specialist I am not qualified to say what difference it makes if ‘the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son’ or just from the Father, and as someone who thinks that the Doctrine of the Trinity is a 3rd century illustration which has had its day I fail to be able to work up even a modicum of interest in the debate: but, make no mistake, the schism of 1054 on this topic is very much still with us. Any questions on filioque I will redirect to my colleagues in the Department of Theology, but that division was a theological one to do with the nature of God and was felt to represent a fundamental theological distinction.

500 years later the European Reformation was splitting the western Church, and whilst it was a potent mixture of emerging nationalisms and changing economies, to say nothing of personal agendas, the focus was often on different theologies. What does it to mean to be Christian? Is being Christian something you do - like obey the Church, take the sacraments, live a good life? Or is it something more inward – about a personal life reorientation, a transformed personal autonomy and fulfilment? Is salvation by faith or by works? was the kind of slogan that was batted around, despite the fact that the New Testament says it’s by both. But then there were the theological divisions in the emerging Protestant reformers themselves, where Luther, Calvin and Zwingli were as ready to be rude to each other as they were to the Pope and his bishops.

500 years after that came the Azusa Street Revival and the last great doctrinal division, giving rise to the fourth great bloc in Christianity, the Pentecostalists and the charismatics. And I call this a theological division because at heart it is all to do with the experience of the Holy Spirit and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

So today we have the four big denominational blocs: Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism and Pentecostalism, with three of them breaking down into sub-groups, and sometimes fiercely competitive and mutually incompatible sub-groups at that. Now throw into the pot the divisions within these blocs, at least in the west, between liberals and evangelicals, between mainstream and fundamentalist, between conservatives and modernisers – using whatever definitions of these controversial and contested terms you like – and you begin to get some idea of how difficult it would be for a great Ecumenical Council to be called in the 21st century at all, and for it to agree a Common Creed for the third Millennium if it did manage to convene.

We can’t talk about the ‘truth’ of Christianity but only about its ‘truths’, for there is no single Christian theology but a diversity of them.

2.3 And so to my third set of diversities. We have looked at the ‘ways’ - the different structures and forms of Church organisation and worship; and at the ‘truths’ – the varieties of things believed and taught. So to the third - the ‘lives’.

I could give you here a whole list of very different people whose lives have been lives of great Christian virtue and commitment, and in so doing demonstrate the diversity of styles of holiness, spirituality, and lifestyle seen in great and representative Christians down the years: but that’s not really what I mean. If I were to do that I suppose I would have to be equally fair and give you a sample of some fairly nasty Christian people too, but I won’t do that either. What I do intend to do now is to talk briefly about the different understandings within Christianity of what it means to live in a Christian way, of the different ideas of right and wrong found in the Church, of ethics and morality. And I can do that best, I think, by being quite contemporary and quite specific by looking at what’s going on in the Anglican communion worldwide at the moment, where we find that that particular multinational branch of the Church is experiencing considerable tensions on one specific ethical issue, namely human sexuality. Needless to say that issues of power are also involved – namely whether the focus of unity in the Anglican communion should be Canterbury, Nigeria or Sydney; that theological positions are also involved – liberal versus evangelical, to use the labels; and that other issues are drawn into the conflict, particularly women bishops and lay presidency at the Eucharist – but the focus of the controversy is that of human sexuality in general, and in particular what we should think about and do about homosexuality. What is the Church to do given the developments in western society around homosexuality of the last 30+ years? One set of Anglicans argue strongly for one response – homosexual genital activity is sinful; another argues that, given a committed relationship, it is not. Theological differences come in here, as do cultural ones and socio-political ones like post-colonialism too. One group argues for what they see as the traditional and Biblical position; the other argues that ‘new occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth, they must upwards still and onwards who would keep abreast of truth’, as a Victorian hymn puts it, and that in this particular ethical issue we are now able to recognise through developments in science and psychology that homosexuality is not a sin or an aberration but a perfectly normal way of being human and therefore we must make provision in the life of the church for those who are homosexual just as we make provision for those who are heterosexual. The outcome is a large and important Christian group divided on what we do about gay people.

Time prevents me saying more here, but take almost any ethical issue you like from the personal to the global and you will find a wide and contradictory range of Christian opinion on it; with no single authority being able to proclaim the Christian view, though that fact does not prevent pressure groups, parties, organisations or individuals propounding their own viewpoint as the Christian one.

2.4 In the very early days of the Sociology of Religion, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim identified six components to a religion in a classification taken up later by others: doctrine (what is believed and taught), myth (what sacred stories are told), ethics (what is taught about right and wrong), ritual (what practices are involved in its worship), experience (what it offers to its adherents) and institutions (how it is organized). I hope that I have showed that in five out of these six, Christianity is marked by diversity – and the diversities in the other one – myth – the sacred stories told – really deserves another lecture to itself anyway. There are different ways, truths and lives, or to go back to those three ‘B’s’ – different ways of Belonging, Believing and Behaving. So I hope that in our gallop through church history, ecclesiastical management, worship patterns, theology and ethics I have established the point clearly enough that we are best to talk of ‘Christianities’ rather than ‘Christianity’. There are diversities of structures, organisations, systems; there are diversities of worship styles, priorities and patterns; there are diversities of belief, doctrine, theology and there are diversities of ethical methods and conclusions. So when I hear someone speaking in the name of Christianity I often find myself muttering that they’re not speaking for me or for Church or Christianity as I know it or think of it.

3.1 What then, if anything, holds all these diversities together? Are we talking about ‘diversity in unity’ or ‘unity in diversity’, as it’s sometimes put, or just about diversity in diversity? Sometimes the diversities are so great that I think there isn’t anything much in common at all, and I remember concluding one particularly fruitless correspondence with a Methodist from Redruth who was taking me to task over something I’d said by rather bluntly saying that it was pretty obvious that he and I worshipped different gods. So, is there a unity in these diversities? That’s the question to address in the final part of this lecture.

3.2 It is, however, a question which many Christians deny, just as they deny the diversities which elicit it. There is, say such Christians, Churches and organisations, no diversity because there is only one way, one true Church, one correct set of doctrines, or one Biblical position – theirs. And anyone who thinks differently or does differently is wrong and is not ‘Christian’ at all. ‘Heresy trials’ go back a long way in the Church, and we no longer burn heretics at the stake, but there are large parts of the Church which are convinced that if we don’t burn heretics God will in due course. The benign ecumenism of the twentieth century is dissolving, replaced by new militancies claiming that there is only one Christian way and it is theirs. It seems to me that the obvious failings of that way of thinking are so clear that they need no comment, but you can see how nervous I am about it by the fact that I have spent two-thirds of this lecture making the absurdity of that view clear. My view is, as I hope I have shown, that all this diversity is there, that all of these views and positions are properly called ‘Christian’ and that they all have their place in Christianity. I wish some of them were not there, of course. I would be much more comfortable with Christianity if everyone was the same sort of Christian as I am. I do not like being embarrassed, or angered or upset or ashamed by the nonsense, sometimes dangerous nonsense, done or said in the name of my Faith – but then I am a typically intolerant liberal. So given that all that diversity is to be labelled ‘Christian’, what, if anything, holds it together?

3.3 Here it seems to me there are two things that hold this diversity together: our history and our name.

3.4 Our history begins in Galilee in the first century CE where Christianity began as another of the sects which competed for popular allegiance in the Judaism of that day. A huge change came about when a Jew of the Diaspora, Saul from Tarsus in what is now south Turkey, became involved and radicalised the sect by turning it into a missionary movement. For whatever reason (the Holy Spirit, according to the Acts of the Apostles - nourishing soup according to the historical sociologist Rodney Stark (in The Rise of Christianity)) the movement spread rapidly through the Roman Empire, and was granted official status by Constantine in the fourth century. On the back of the Empire the Church became a formidable force in the European world, just as it virtually disappeared from its first bases in the Middle East and North Africa. European trade in the 15th century and then the Missionary Movements of the 19th century took the movement into every continent and today Christianity is the world’s largest and fastest growing religion, its decline in Europe being the exception rather than the rule. Every diverse form has its place in there somewhere – its roots and its raison d’etre – no matter how much some groups would deny it.

3.5 Equally basically and equally obviously, we are held together by our name, ‘Christians’ or ‘Christianity’. That name was first given to us when we were still a small Jewish sect, given in Antioch around 45CE (Acts 11.26), and given for a reason. The message of the sect focused on its founder, Jesus, a Jewish prophet and healer from Galilee, who had been executed by the Romans in Jerusalem in probably 33CE (though 30 or 36 are also possible dates), and who, so the message went, had been raised from the dead and who had appeared to his disciples for some weeks after his death before being ‘enthroned at God’s right’, as they put it. This Jesus they identified as ‘Messiah’, God’s appointed agent for the liberation of Israel, whose imminent arrival was expected at least in some quarters in Palestinian Judaism at that time. So they began to call him ‘Jesus the Messiah’/‘Messiah Jesus’ – which became ‘Christ Jesus’/‘Jesus Christ’ when the movement spread from Aramaic–speaking Jews to those whose first language was Greek. So those who followed him were eventually called, by outsiders not by themselves, ‘Christians’. New adherents to the sect were invited to make their allegiance to Jesus by the dramatic ceremony of baptism and by naming him as ‘Lord’, a title which was both religious (the Jews called God ‘Lord’) and political (the Romans called Caesar ‘Lord’) and were expected to live by his teachings but also, primarily, to benefit by his death and resurrection. His death by crucifixion was a huge theological problem for them – no Messiah was expected to die that way – and his resurrection a huge intellectual one (and controversies over the meaning of both, but especially of the Cross, have divided Christianity to this day), but his death and resurrection were turned into good news – here was the defeat of death itself – the great enemy – and by it transformed life was available here and now with and life beyond death guaranteed. And that, really, is that. To name Jesus as ‘Lord’ and to commit to belonging to his movement with others who do the same and to commit to behaving in a Christlike way is what every Christian does – nomatter how differently they understand what they are doing or how different the forms of their belonging may take.

4.1 So let me end with personal testimony. For me, being a Christian means belonging to a Church, to a warts and all Christian community (in my case the Methodist Church). In terms of behaving, it means trying to love my neighbour as myself, a great Jewish commandment which Jesus reiterated to his followers, and to imitate Christ in my values and attitudes. In terms of believing it means thinking that Jesus is the best clue there is to the meaning of life, the universe and everything; and that in him – in his teaching, his life, his death and his resurrection - I see right into the heart of God, the God he called ‘Father’ and the God he encouraged us to call ‘Father’ as well, the God whose ‘name and nature is love’ and whose heart is ‘most wonderfully kind’, as two old hymns put it.

Or to put my believing into something more like a Creed, I believe

in life and light and love, despite the power of their opposites which we see all around us
in God as the hidden source and the sustaining power of life and light and love in all their many and varied forms
in the story of Jesus of Nazareth, where we see life and light and love lived out in a human life, death and resurrection
in God’s call to all humanity to live for life and light and love in the power of his spirit
in God’s eternal generosity towards our human failings
in the ultimate victory of life and light and love over death and darkness and hate

That, for me, says enough.


7 The Bible might say ‘No’ but we say ‘Yes’

or The Use and Abuse of the Bible in British Methodism

(A short paper read at the conference to launch ‘Unmasking Methodist Theology’ at Liverpool Hope University, September 7th, 2004)

1 This Short Paper entitled The Bible might say ‘No’ but we say ‘Yes’ and subtitled The Use and Abuse of the Bible in British Methodism is essentially a follow-up to and illustration of my chapter – ‘Revelation in Methodist Belief and Practice’ - in Unmasking Methodist Theology. In that chapter I show that however little this may be known by or however little it may be acceptable to many in British Methodism, the official position of British Methodism is that the Conference is the final arbiter in the interpretation of the Bible in and for the Methodist Church. Therefore there are issues, by the decision of the Conference, where the Bible might say ‘No’ but we say ‘Yes’ and vice versa too. In this paper I will illustrate two such issues and comment on the applicability of this to a third.

In much of Methodism as represented in such things as letters to the Recorder, speeches in Conference and Synods, discussions in Local Preachers Meetings and even sermons, a great deal of Methodism works on the assumption that the Methodist understanding of the Bible and the correct use of the Bible is expressible in the formula - The Bible says - Therefore!. Popular though that might be at many levels within Methodism, and even maybe growing in popularity, this short paper will suggest that that formula represents abuse of the Bible and misunderstanding of the Methodist position. Contrary to that, this paper will suggest that Methodist usage and understanding is properly expressed in another formula – The Bible says – So?. This is a formula which takes the Bible with the utmost seriousness but does not conclude that Methodism simply reads what it must do or not do from statements in it.

The issues which I will use as examples in this paper are those of the Ministry of Women, the Remarriage of Divorced People and Gay Sexual Ethics.

2 ‘The Bible says’ (note the speech marks) that women should not speak in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35) or have authority over men (1 Timothy 2:12): but the Methodist Church has women Local Preachers, Ministers and Deacons who preach and women Superintendents, District Chairs, Presidents of Conference and Circuit Stewards who hold positions of authority. Indeed, so strongly do we feel on this issue that we have flagged it up as one of the biggest reservations we have in our new Covenant relationship with the Church of England that their current policy of excluding women from the episcopate falls far short of what we regard as a given and a non-negotiable. So here is a very clear example of the Bible saying ‘No’ but Conference saying ‘Yes.’

If we look briefly at how this came about, the amazing thing is that in the Women and the Ministry report to the Conference of 1933 which boldly and succinctly declared that it was high time women were ordained as ministers, there is no mention of the Bible at all. Changes in society, and what we would call issues of justice, are the justifying arguments used there. Nothing came of this report, of course, and the Conference of 1948 reversed its decision. The 1961 report of the Committee on the Status of Deaconesses and the Admission of Women to the Ministry is a much longer report, beginning with 4 pages of discussion of the Ministry of Women in the New Testament, one of which is devoted to discussion of the two ‘No’ passages. The conclusion is reached that,

‘… while the authority of the New Testament is final for the Church in all ages, it is an authority which concerns the great matters of the faith rather than one which covers the detailed applications of the faith to the conditions of any particular age, since these conditions necessarily differ so widely. Here the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit to respond to every situation as it arises … we are no longer required, in other words, to regard women as subject to men, and cannot exclude women from the ordained ministry on the ground of such subjection’ (Statements of the Methodist Church on Faith and Order, 1933-1983, pp161f)

Both interpretation and Biblical statements themselves are context-specific, we might say, and ‘time makes ancient good uncouth’. The Synod responses to this were processed by the 1963 Conference, and its brief report makes no mention of any adverse comment on the Biblical interpretation offered in the original. The rest, as they say, is history – the Bible might say ‘No’ to the Ministry of Women but we say, emphatically, ‘Yes’. The Conference, on this issue, does not appear ever to have been in The Bible says – Therefore! mode, and in the 1961 report especially, clearly and carefully operated in the other one - The Bible says – So?.

3 ‘The Bible says’ (note the speech marks again) that men should not divorce their wives except on the grounds of adultery and that divorced women should not remarry (Matthew 5:32, Luke 16:18 – and these are canonical sayings of Jesus): but since 1945 we have permitted divorced people to marry again in our churches. The third section, just over a page in length, of the five-page report to the Conference of 1944 from the Committee on Divorce and Re-marriage of Divorced Persons deals with the New Testament material, but it does so under the heading ‘The Mind of our Lord’. It recognises the complexity of the divorce statements in the Gospels when it says that ‘this question (of the indissolubility of marriage) is not easily settled by an appeal to the recorded sayings of our Lord. The evidence is conflicting.’ It refers to ‘the divine ideal of marriage’ in what we would call creation-ordinance terms with reference to Mark 10:6-9 and then adds that,

‘Our Lord leaves it to the reason and conscience of His disciples, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to interpret and apply that principle to every condition and age.’

It then proposed, and I remind you that we are talking 60 years ago, that under certain conditions, divorced people might be remarried in Methodist churches. It recognised that not all ministers would be happy to do this and introduced a conscience clause. Some of the canonical words of Jesus, no less, might say ‘No’ to the remarriage of some divorced people but we say ‘Yes’. The Conference, on this issue, looks to the Bible to seek the ‘mind of our Lord’ and concludes - how shall I put it? - that even his canonically attributed words are a guide but not a chain in that search. Here again The Bible says – Therefore! mode is not in evidence, but the The Bible says – So? clearly is.

4 Here are, then, two examples of where the Bible says something but the Methodist Church thinks and does differently. It is not that the Methodist Church ignores or sidelines the Bible, because in the debates about these things the Bible is considered seriously, but it is that interpreting and using the Bible is a complex matter. Interpreting the Bible involves working out what individual texts say and what they mean (and that itself is a nightmare with the divorce texts in the Gospels because they are complex and contradictory), comparing texts with other texts on the same topic and then examining all of that in the light of the Bible as a whole. So, for Methodists, just quoting the Bible is not enough, for the Bible needs to be interpreted, and interpreters can disagree. Using the Bible then involves setting our provisional conclusions from that reading and interpreting beside what we have learned from God in the life of the Church down the years, what we are still learning as thinking human beings and what we are learning from each other and God in our own experience of God’s renewing love in Christ in our lives. We provide no guidelines for this process, and we have no approved set of interpretative principles, hermeneutical devices or exegetical techniques. As I point out in my chapter, our Methodist way is to work with that rather crude, undefined and in some ways seriously misleading quadrilateral of ‘Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience and come to a conclusion through conversation, discussion and debate ultimately settled if need be by a vote. Not for nothing is our church’s governing body called the ‘Conference’.

5 So finally, let us turn to the ongoing argument in Methodism about homosexuality, in which the The Bible says - Therefore! formula tends to feature prominently. I do not wish to get involved in the debate itself. I make no comment on the Derby Resolutions (strange though I continue to find them and incomprehensible though I think they are). Nor do I advocate any view in the so-called pilgrimage to which we are allegedly committed. Nor do I offer anything new about the Biblical passages so often cited. I take it as read that human sexuality is a huge, complex and controversial subject, that the Bible is a huge, complex and controversial book and that putting the two together is, therefore, a huge, complex and controversial task.

In the Conference treatment of both the Ministry of Women and the Remarriage of Divorced People, Bible texts are set in a wider Biblical context, so let me do a bit of that first. As far as human sexuality is concerned, in the first creation parable in Genesis 1 we are told that God made humanity in his own image, and that included making them male and female (Genesis 1:26-31). It also included giving them power and responsibility and making them religious. After that the Bible says a lot about these three gifts – sexuality, power and religion – because when these three powerful things go wrong the consequences can be catastrophic. That’s why warnings against the abuse of sexuality, power and religion feature so strongly in the Bible, especially in the preaching of the prophets. These good gifts are so easily misused and people and society as a whole suffer as a result. By contrast, in the area of human sexuality the Song of Songs celebrates the joys of sexuality as it was meant to be and Ephesians 5:25-33 almost gives us the model of a committed and sensitive ‘new man.’

The Bible assumes that the norm in human sexual relationships is a male/female bond of lifelong fidelity. It contains differing views on divorce, and the New Testament occasionally commends singleness but that overall principle is clear. This leads many Christians today (and the Derby Resolutions) to say that the Church must take a bold and counter-cultural stand for lifelong marriage, and for chastity before it and fidelity within it. Others argue that our world is so different from the Bible’s that it just isn’t as simple as that. In those days, they point out, women were property and everyone married at puberty – and these days they aren’t and we don’t. These are indeed two hugely significant differences that affect all male/female relationships today, and at the very least they do have to be considered.

Another huge difference is that homosexuality is seen in our society as a perfectly good way of being human whereas the Bible does not see it like that. There is no doubt that its few references to homosexual practices are negative (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Romans 1:26-27; 1 Timothy 1:8-11). Some pro-gay interpreters argue that these texts do not apply to modern gay relationships because these are different from the relationships and practices condemned in the Bible. That might be true of some of the texts, but the argument depends at least in part on precise definitions of Greek words which are not easily defined. Much more seriously, that kind of argument actually shares the presuppositions of the view it seeks to counter, as it too works to the The Bible says – Therefore! formula as it tries to demonstrate, with what seems to me like not a little special pleading, what the Bible really says. I submit that Methodists have a bolder and better card to play if they choose.

For us, I suggest, the real question is not what these texts meant (what sexual practices or relationships they include or exclude and so on) but what they mean (ie what value we will choose to give them). In other words, we can (if we choose) do with these texts what we do with those about women in church or divorce. We can (if we choose) say the same about gay sexual practices - that although the Bible says ‘No’, we say ‘Yes’. Some will say that we must not so choose, because the specific detailed texts are clear and because the ‘broad general principle’ of male and female sexuality is clear too. In general and in particular, they argue, the Bible opposes gay sexual practices. Others say that we can so choose, for although the Bible condemns gay sexuality, we no longer live in that world and we see things differently. The big issues, they argue, are respect for individuals and delight in all sexuality within committed relationships. My point is that there is absolutely no doubt that we have that choice, for Methodism operates by the The Bible says – So? formula and not the other one, and that choosing to say that ‘although the Bible says ‘No’ here we will say ‘Yes’’ is completely in keeping with both our hermeneutical theory and our interpretative practice.

6 The Methodist Church has been committed to ongoing engagement with the complex issues of Human Sexuality since the Derby Conference of 1992, though so far this engagement in ‘pilgrimage’ has been low key. The one-page Faith and Order Committee report on Human Sexuality in 1993 on the treatment of this question in official documents to that date points out that ‘We should be clear that the issue here is the way in which we use the Bible in making ethical decisions’ (Statements and Reports p591). I endorse that statement completely, which is why I offered this short paper to the organisers of this conference.

I hope that this paper has illustrated, and done so quite simply, that in making our ethical decisions in the two not insignificant issues of the Ministry of Women and the Remarriage of Divorced People the Methodist reading of the Bible is that of ‘Although the Bible says ‘No’ we will say ‘Yes’’.

This, I believe, has implications for other issues, not least currently that of homosexual practice. Here the Bible clearly says ‘No,’ but given our practice this in itself does not rule out the possibility of Conference deciding, after due conferring and debate, that we might say ‘Yes’ believing this conclusion to be ‘the guidance of the Holy Spirit’ in this matter as the Conference reports on the other two issues believed it to be in theirs.

I suggest that, whether it is liked or not, the Methodist position vis-a-vis the Bible is best expressed by the formula The Bible says – So? and not by the popular and frequently heard formula The Bible says – Therefore! and in Methodist terms, I further suggest, the latter constitutes abuse of the Bible and the former represents our particular, and possibly even peculiar, but certainly good, use of it.

Thank you.


8 Making Sense of the Old Testament

(This started life as a couple of Saturday morning sessions for the Totnes Deanery. It has been done in a number of places since and, of course, has changed in the doing.  This could be used in a Bible Study or Discussion Group)

1 Anyone who has ever tried to read the OT from beginning to end soon discovers that it is a very difficult ‘book’ to make sense of. Listening to snippets from it read in church on Sundays often has the same effect. There is no doubt at all that the OT is difficult to understand in more ways than one and that we need help to make sense of it.

2 But there is a problem even before we start, the problem of defining what we mean by ‘the OT’ for there are at least two different Christian versions of it, a ‘Protestant’ and a ‘Roman Catholic’ one.

The ‘Protestant’ Bible has an ‘OT’ of 39 books and the ‘Roman Catholic’ one has extra books in its OT and extra chapters in some of the same books. Roman Catholics call these ‘extra’ books the ‘Deutero-canonical’ books and Protestants call them ‘the Apocrypha’. To make life even more complicated, different Orthodox Churches have OT’s with some other books in them.

3 Then there is another sort of problem in that word – ‘old’. We tend to contrast ‘old’ unfavourably with ‘new’ and in terms of the Bible that results in a contrast between the OT and the NT in which the OT is often seen as inadequate if not downright bad, and superseded by the much better NT. But even if they don’t make that contrast, many people have real problems when they read the OT. We could list a whole A – Z of them, but we’ll just mention four:

a. A is for Anthology – the OT is a library or collection with many different kinds of books in it, each needing to be understood for what it is. And it is a very big collection; its sheer size is a problem in itself.

The OT is in fact a collection of many different books, and within many of the books themselves there are a number of different types of writing. There is poetry and prose. There are books of sermons with notes about the preachers (eg Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos). There are books of hymns (Psalms) or proverbs (Proverbs), books of rules and regulations (eg Leviticus), and ‘history books’ (eg Joshua, 1 & 2 Kings). There is a book of love poetry (Song of Songs), a theological essay on the problem of evil (Job), some novels (Ruth, Esther), an apocalyptic tract (Daniel), some philosophy (Ecclesiastes) and, very importantly, great stories of ancestors and God’s great deeds of old (Genesis, Exodus).

b. B is for Bygone – the OT is a very old book, a fact often disguised by modern translations. Much of what it talks about seems irrelevant to our world, and chunks of it are just plain boring (those genealogies and lists of obscure rules).

Its earliest parts go back to perhaps 1000 BC, its latest to around 165 BC. We can ask about authors and the dates of production of these writings. Sometimes there are answers to those questions and sometimes there are not. Sometimes the answers help us to read the passage better, sometimes they don’t.

c. Y is for ‘Yuk!’ – there is much in the OT that is morally offensive (all that violence and killing which a vengeful God seems to do or to approve) and utterly distasteful (all that sacrificing of animals). It reads at times like a very barbaric book indeed.

d. Z is for Zerubbabel – the OT is full of strange names of people and places. It comes from a foreign world where things are very different from ours, and its very strangeness is a problem.

4 Seeing the OT as a problem and being bothered by these difficulties is not new. As early as the second century AD a famous Church leader and missionary called Marcion decided that they were actually insurmountable problems and that the OT should not form part of the scriptures of the Church. In his view the OT taught about a God who was quite distinct from and definitely very inferior to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In 144 AD he was only just convicted of being a heretic, it was a close call, and he has had followers in the church ever since – even if they have never heard of him. But he was considered to be wrong, and the OT, for all its strangeness and its problems, was and is regarded by the Church as ‘sacred Scripture’ and included in the Christian Bible.

5 My suggestion is that taking these four problems seriously is in fact the best way to begin to make sense of the OT – which is to recognise at the very beginning that the OT is an anthology of ancient and alien religious literature. It is not an easy read, or a Christian read, or a contemporary read. It comes from a very different world to the one we live in. If we recognise that, we have taken a very important step.

6 There is a common shape to the OT in all Christian Bibles which gives us a useful overview of the contents of the Anthology:

a. the ‘history books’ – Genesis to Esther – 622pp
     = the Story of the People of God
b. the wisdom books – Job to the Song of Solomon – 239pp
     = the Daily Life of the People of God
c. the prophetic writings – Isaiah to Malachi – 371pp
     = the Future of the People of God

This is, incidentally, a different shape than that of the Hebrew Bible.

The ‘Hebrew Bible’ consists of the 39 books of the ‘Protestant OT’, but it puts them in a different order. It is divided into three unequal parts. The first and most important part is called Torah (Genesis – Deuteronomy). The second, less important part, is called Nevi’im – ‘Prophets’ – (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings / Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the Twelve). The third and least important part is called Ketuvim – ‘Writings’ – (the rest of the books in the ‘Protestant OT’). The Hebrew Bible is sometimes called TeNaK, from the opening letters of the three parts, though this can be spelled in a variety of different ways.

7 The ‘history books’ (note those inverted commas) tell a story, beginning with the story of Creation and then soon narrowing down to the story of Abraham and his descendents with all their ups and downs. In Genesis to Deuteronomy (the Torah) the story tells of God’s promise to Abraham of descendents, land and blessing. Eventually his descendents become slaves in Egypt, and in the exodus (‘the great escape’) God rescues them through Moses, guides them through the desert, makes a covenant with them and gives them his Teaching/Law at Mt Sinai and leads them to the edge of the Promised Land of Canaan.

The Torah is the name for the first part of the Hebrew Bible – which is a narrative

beginning with creation in Genesis 1 and taking us to the arrival of the Israelites at

the wrong side of the River Jordan at the end of Deuteronomy. We used to call this part of the Hebrew Bible The Law, but that word gives the wrong impression. We could translate it here as The Teaching, The Guidance, The Instruction or even The Gospel, but it might be best not to translate it at all. Most of the five books of the Torah are narrative – the OT does its theology by telling stories.

Just as Christians talk about ‘The Gospel’ and read the Gospels; so Jews talk about ‘Torah’ and read the Torah. Jews see Torah as God’s great gift. They celebrate Torah and rejoice over it. Torah, though it contains 613 commandments, is not a burden or a chore. Jewish faith is not legalism or legalistic. That is a serious anti-Semitic misconception. The antidote is to remember Simchat Torah, the end of the liturgical year service where they dance around the synagogue with the Torah scroll, ‘delighting’ in Torah. Another antidote is to read Ps 119 and remember that the longest psalm of all is a celebration of Torah.

The story continues through Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings to tell of their successful entry into Canaan, where they chose a king for themselves and set up a monarchy which proved to be a disaster. After Solomon’s death the nation split into two. The northern kingdom (Israel) was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BC and the southern (Judah) destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC who took many into exile in Babylon. This was an absolute catastrophe. At a stroke they lost their Promised Land, their anointed king (‘Messiah’) and their Holy City and its Temple. They were devastated, and tried to find an explanation of why this had happened. These books supply the answer – it is your own fault, you have brought it all on yourselves, because you, and especially yopur kings and leaders, have failed to walk in God’s ways. In 540 BC Babylon was defeated by the Persians under Cyrus who let the exiles who wanted to (most didn’t) go home. After that Israel was a small and poor colony of Persia and Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther tell that later story.

These ‘history books’ tell the story of the People of Israel and read like a History of the People of Israel. But there is a huge controversy about this. How does the historical narrative of the Bible relate to ‘real’ history? How does the world of or in the story relate to the world outside the story? Some historians (we call them the maximalists) argue that the OT tells the story more or less as it really was, making allowance for exaggerations and odd mistakes here and there; though they debate among themselves whether you should put the ‘Real History begins here’ marker at Abraham, Moses or at the Emergence of Israel in Canaan in the 12th century BC. Others (who we call the minimalists) argue that you can’t use the OT as data for writing a history of Israel at all, that it is very late storytelling which largely invents the past of which it speaks. Most of us come in between, and regard these stories as ‘fictionalised history’ told by a faith community as its way of doing its theology, affirming its faith, and sustaining its identity.

Some dates:

Abraham – with many question marks around this King Arthur sort of figure – around 1800 BC
Moses and the Exodus – around 1250 BC
David and the United Monarchy – around 1000 BC
Fall of Samaria (capital of the Northern Kingdom – Israel) 722 BC
Fall of Jerusalem (capital of the Southern Kgdm – Judah) 586 BC
Exile in Babylon – 586–538 BC
Maccabean Revolt – 167 BC
Death of Herod the Great – 4 BC
Jewish Revolt – 66 CE and Fall of Jerusalem – 70 AD
Bar Cochba revolt and the end – 132 AD

If people live by stories, and they do, these ‘history books’ tell the story of God and his people. Who wrote many of them, when or where, we cannot say: but eventually they were put together into the long story that we now have which tells of who we are, and how we came to be, giving lessons from the past for the present and the future. And I say ‘we’ because Christians believe that we are the descendents, by faith rather than by our genes, of Abraham – so this ‘old, old story’ is ‘our story’ too.

8 The ‘wisdom books’ in this scheme are Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs, though technically scholars only call the first, third and fourth of these ‘wisdom literature’. All of them deal with living as the people of God in one way or another.

Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes look rather different, but they are the OT’s examples of ‘Wisdom literature’ (see the three groups of people - prophets, priests and the wise – referred to in Jere 18:18). This ‘Wisdom literature’ comes from two groups: the educated ‘wise men’ of Solomon's court and the popular ‘wise people’ of the villages (eg 1 Sam 14:2, the wise woman of Tekoa). The wise look around at the world with open eyes and see what is going on and by observing nature and human affairs draw conclusions about the best way to live, to live in harmony and fullness of life. The basic conviction of this way of thinking is that wise living leads to fullness of life, whereas folly leads to death, and wise living is based on carefully reflecting on the way the world works. God is not left out of this (‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’), but his will and his ways are to be seen in the creation and the life of nature and human beings. God is ever-present as validating and ensuring the ‘order’ and ‘regularities’ of life: but neither the immediacy of prophetic religion nor the reality of his sacramental presence is prominent in Wisdom thought. Israel shared this ‘Wisdom’ approach with other nations. Two prominent literary forms in the Wisdom literature are the proverb (as in Prov 10-22:16) and the ‘Instruction’ (as in Prov 1-9). Favourite words and ideas are ‘the wise’, ‘wisdom’, ‘understanding’ and ‘the way’, and their opposites ‘folly’, ‘the fool’ and ‘the scorner’.

Job is a classic of the world's religious literature but it is also an enigma of a book. What is it about? The book is long, complex and complicated, but does it have a theme? Is it about the problem of suffering? Is it about providence and rewards and punishments? Is it about the absence of God? Is it a protest against orthodox OT teaching that righteousness is rewarded and sin is punished or is it a vindication of it? Are different parts of the book in conflict? It is probably best thought of as a long theological reflection on this set of big themes.

Psalms is the hymn book of the Second Temple, the one rebuilt in Jerusalem in 516 BC after the return from exile. It contains a whole variety of hymns, worship songs and choral anthems, ancient and modern in their day.

Song of Songs started life as a collection of love poetry, but was later understood to be celebrating the love of God for Israel.

9 The rest of the OT is made up of the prophetic writings – Isaiah to Malachi. Originally the prophets spoke to their own generations in the name of God with words of either encouragement or warning. They were especially hot on ‘social justice’. But their words often contained a threat, that if their hearers did not change their ways they would bring punishment on themselves one way or another. So these books originally taught more or less the same thing as Joshua – 2 Kings, that if people did not walk in God’s ways they would find themselves in unfortunate circumstances, ie the exile. But they also contained hints of hope, that in the end God would make it all right. That is why the OT ends with these books, because they point to a yet unknown future in which God’s kingdom will come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven, not least through a new and faithful king of David’s line (the ‘Anointed One’ or ‘Messiah’).

Who were the prophets? What was a prophet? What is prophecy? The problem in answering these questions is that ‘prophet/prophecy’ are slippery words which have been used over centuries and in different contexts, hence they have multiple meanings. Nowadays we almost invariably assume that prophecy is about predicting the future.

In the OT prophecy is only very partially about predicting the future. In OT terms a prophet was God's spokesperson, preacher, messenger, announcer; the one who spoke out in God's name. He or she declared the will of God to God's people in a particular place and time. Cf Ex 7:1 where Aaron is called ‘Moses' prophet’ = his spokesman, and the use of the verb ‘prophesy in Ezek 37:4-10. t is often said that the OT prophets were ‘forthtellers’ rather than ‘foretellers’, and that crude distinction is quite helpful.

Prophets came in all shapes and sizes. What appears to have been important in the prophets in Israel is not their existence, but the particular message they communicated and its effect on the path of the nation's history and its contribution to the national sense of identity at a particularly critical period in that history. Without Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the unknown prophet responsible for chapters 40-55 of the Book of Isaiah, it is highly unlikely that the people of Israel would have survived as a nation, that Judaism would have developed as a religion, and that we would be discussing the OT at all.

The ‘Eighth Century Prophets’ are particularly important here. They were the first prophets whose words were written down and collected into books named after them. You will still find them occasionally referred to by an old title – the ‘writing prophets’. We have stories of the deeds of the important prophets who came before them – Samuel, Nathan, Elijah, Elisha – but not collections of their words.

The following key verses of these prophets represent the distinctive kernel of each one’s approach (if I may pick and chose):

Amos 5:24 – Amos, speaking around 760 BC, is appalled at the injustices he sees in Israel and insists that above all, the LORD is a God of Justice (ie outgoing concern to make everything right for everyone, to establish Shalom) who requires that his people practice social justice.

Hosea 11:1-2 – Hosea, living a decade later, is tormented by the religious apostasy of Israel who love the wrong gods. Yet he is also convinced that the LORD’s love will not let his people go.

Micah 6:8: - Micah is the rural contemporary of Isaiah of Jerusalem, around 700 BC, with a message much like Amos.

There is no single verse of Isaiah of Jerusalem (whose words and life are covered in Isaiah 1-39) which encapsulates his many-sided message. Basic to his stance is his vision of the Holiness of God, who he calls, distinctively, ‘the Holy One of Israel’. This holiness of God is primarily a moral holiness which looks for moral holiness in God’s people.

A very useful way into the ‘prophets’ which helps to make some sense of their sayings, is to ask five questions:

1. Who said this?
2. When was it said?
3. Why was it said?
4. Where was it said?
Then 5. What does it mean?

10 I must admit that Marcion had a point. The OT is a very large anthology of ancient religious literature, some of which is pretty unreadable and some of which is unquestionably offensive, although both of these things can be said of parts of the NT too. So I can certainly understand why the OT is a largely unopened book as far as the Church today is concerned, I cannot leave it there. Although the OT is an ancient library from a strange culture, and despite the fact that it is long, complicated and at times both utterly tedious and downright repugnant, it is nevertheless worth staying with if we want to think about ‘God’ and ‘the meaning of life, the universe and everything’. Marcion had a point, but so did the mainstream church leaders of his day who decided that he was wrong.

11 Some useful Books

John Holdsworth Prophets and Loss: exploring the OT, Church Times study guide

John Holdsworth The Old Testament, SCM Studyguide

Robert Davidson A Beginner’s Guide to the OT, St Andrew Press

John Drane Introducing the OT, Lion

John Barton & Julia Bowden The Original Story, Darton, Longman & Todd

Stephen Dawes Let us bless the Lord: rediscovering the OT through Ps 103, Epworth: Inspire and Why Bible-believing Methodists shouldn’t eat Black Pudding, Southleigh both now in the books section of this website


9 The Purpose Driven Life

(A talk to the Truro Methodist Circuit Local Preachers Meeting, 4th October 2004, on Rick Warren – The Purpose Driven Life)

1 First, thank you for the invitation to share something with you in your LP Fellowship here tonight. As I wondered what to do with you today, three possibilities ran through my mind. One was to repeat with you one of the workshops I had done in the national Methodist conference on the Bible – The Word at Whitby – last spring. I had that material to hand, it had been very well received, it was practical. That was a very attractive possibility for tonight. The second was to talk about and promote a book – Unmasking Methodist Theology – an important book, as this bit from the back cover blurb indicates …. In so doing I would have to declare an interest, that I have written chapter 10 in part 2, ‘Revelation in Methodist Practice and Belief’. It is an important book that ministers and preachers need to read. The third was to do something with Rick Warren’s – The Purpose Driven Life. I had not read the book, and only vaguely heard of it, before I had begun to hear conflicting views about it in and around this circuit in which I live but do not belong. A friend showed me the frontspiece, which appalled me. Another friend stood up in the Good News Spot at Synod and said that it was great good news that the Truro circuit was about to use this book in a programmatic way. I was confused, but then I get confused quite easily and I could simply pass by on the other side - the Truro circuit is nothing to do with me nor I with it, and I have more than enough to do and worry over with my responsibilities to SWMTC, the University of Exeter, the St Austell Circuit, the connexional Faith and Order Committee and the District Probationers Committee. On the other hand the Truro circuit LP Meeting had invited me to speak to them at this Fellowship, and I have reached the point in life where either I talk about important things if I’m invited to speak at meetings, or I don’t go at all. So I thought that before I made my mind up about what to do tonight I’d at least read The PDL – which I have done. Having read it, I can see where both of my friends are coming from. Like the one, I can see material in this book that is appalling – or at least seriously open to real question: like the other, I can see material in this book that is appealing – or at least seriously open to real potential. In the end I decided to dare to be a Daniel and to spend this time with you looking at the book and asking what issues there are for British Methodist Local Preachers and Ministers in using this particular book in 2004 in an official capacity

2 So let me begin with four general observations about The PDL

a. The first is a description. What sort of book is The PDL? What category of theological book is it? Where does it fit on the bookshelf of the theological library? The answer to that basic question is that The PDL is a book of spiritual direction from an American conservative evangelical perspective. Let me unpack those terms. ‘Spiritual direction’ is not a term we use much in Methodism, though Wesley was a ‘Spiritual Director’ and the early class and band meetings were exercises in corporate spiritual direction. ‘Spiritual direction’ in classical Christian understanding is the guidance given by a teacher to a learner in the practice of the spiritual life, given to enable the learner to ‘grow up in every way …into Christ’ (Eph 4:15), and traditional styles of spiritual direction vary from the totally directive to the journeying alongside. And it is probably because Wesley did it in the totally directive style that subsequent Methodism has shied away from any kind of interest in spiritual direction at all. Today, the idea and practice has spread from the Catholic tradition into most areas of the Church, and The PDL is an example of it in and from another Christian tradition. Rick Warren is, though he might not call himself that, a Spiritual Director and what he offers in The PDL is spiritual direction. He is an American Conservative Evangelical and he offers his spiritual direction from that position: American, that is his culture and background, that’s where many of his illustrations are from and that’s his style; and Conservative Evangelical in that he clearly subscribes to the classic Conservative Evangelical statement of faith and operates comfortably with the assumptions and presuppositions of that position. I have nothing against Americans or American Conservative Evangelicals, but I do need to point out first that the UK is not America, despite globalisation and America’s intellectual colonialisation of the rest of the world, and second that the British Methodist Church does not subscribe to the classic Conservative Evangelical statement of faith – we are not a member church of the Evangelical Alliance

b. More briefly, despite frequent disclaimers The PDL is clearly influenced by therapeutic ‘step-programmes’. Without doubt these programmes work for certain kinds of people, with certain psychological profiles and certain learning styles, but equally without doubt, they don’t work for others. And more trivially, if you are as irritated by ‘numberisms’ (the 5 great benefits of living a purpose-driven life – p30, the 3 Biblical metaphors which teach us God’s view of life – p42, the 3 barriers that block our total surrender to God – p78, the kind of worship that pleases God has 4 characteristics – p100, Jesus’ 3-step process of conflict resolution – p165, the 4-step process of temptation – p203, the 5 factors of your SHAPE – p235, the 5 ways God has shaped you for service – p248, the 6 characteristics of real servants – p264, your life-message has 4 parts to it – p289, the 3 basic issues in life – p312, life’s 5 greatest questions – p314) as I am, this book will irritate you considerably

c. Although The PDL makes the huge claim that after the 40-day spiritual journey it offers its readers they will know God’s purpose for creating them and so their stress will be reduced, their energy focused, their decisions simplified, their lives be given meaning and themselves prepared for eternity, the book does not offer ‘cheap grace’ nor does it offer any kind of modern ‘prosperity gospel’ nor any simplistic ‘come to Jesus and all will be well’ message. It is more realistic and hard-headed than that, fully aware of the difficulties of living the Faith in the world as it is

d. My general feeling about The PDL as a whole, is that its message, ie its advice, or instruction, or spiritual direction, or exhortation – call it what you like – is not as bad as part of me had feared it was going to be. I can find plenty of bits with which to quibble, sometimes seriously quibble, but that is true of most books for most of us I expect: but there is plenty in this book which is valid, urgent and relevant. I pick only three examples, pretty much at random. On p103 we read that ‘There is no one-size-fits-all approach to worship and friendship with God,’ and that is something all of us could ponder with great profit, especially if we are a preacher who is convinced that our size of worship is exactly the size our congregation really needs! On the top of p220 we read this sound commonsense wisdom – quote. Or this from p276 - quote. That having been said, however, I have to say that this book is not for me. Partly this is because of its style – and you have already seen some of its ways of putting things which are counter-productive as far as its purpose of edifying me is concerned, but mainly this is because of its basic theology, for I am not a conservative evangelical. I never have been one and I have no intention of becoming one. That particular approach to friendship with God, to pick up the phrase I quoted a minute ago from the book, just doesn’t fit me. And if it doesn’t fit me then there will be quite a number of other, traditional and middle-of-the road Methodists whom it won’t fit either; and therefore you as preachers need to think very carefully about how you promote this very particular way of thinking about faith and discipleship in a Methodist circuit which contains a much wider range of theological understandings and faith positions than the one in the book

3 Now let us go on from that crucial point, to two other meaty issues, which anyone and everyone who engages seriously with this book, either in reading it or in preaching from it, will need to address: the question of ‘Determinism’ and the question of ‘Literalism’

a. First, the question of Determinism. I said earlier that when I read the frontspiece I was appalled. The sentences that appalled me were these – ‘Before you were born, God planned this moment (and Pastor Warren has italicised those two words) in your life. It is no accident that you are holding this book’. What appalled me was the suggestion that God plans things in detail like that for us. When I read on my disquiet grew, as I read on p17 that ‘You were born by his purpose and for his purpose’, with by and for in italics this time, and I was nearly stopped altogether by the bit on p21 which says ‘His purpose for your life predates your conception. He planned it before you existed …’ But then I breathed a sigh of relief when I realised that this meant that God had planned my purpose, not that he had planned my conception. Somewhat relieved that this was not determinist after all, I turned to Day Two, and discovered that my sigh of relief was premature, for this chapter is highly determinist (read the quotes on pp22-23). In this theology God decided how and when Serena Benzie would die of cancer and leave Rob behind with the two little children, or how Gerald Burt would first lose Margaret and then develop lung cancer himself – not that God knew all that, I have no problem with God knowing these things, that is orthodox Christian theology – but that he decided them, determined them, arranged them. This is what this chapter seems to be saying, and these are the urgent pastoral questions that any reader of this chapter or listener to a sermon on it is bound to ask. Is God really like that? Is life really plotted and planned like that? Those are the questions raised by this approach. If this really is what the chapter is saying, then you must be prepared to face the inevitable and unanswerable challenge - If that is the case then God is a monster, planning the terror, violence and pain that rapes and destroys so many lives every day! And if that is the case, then it is a way of understanding providence and the work of God which is simply unacceptable in that it flies in the face of any orthodox Christian doctrine of providence and human free will

However, in the rest of the book (apart from pp235 and 259 that is) this determinism is qualified. After all, why write a book to try to persuade people to change their lives if the shape of their lives, changed or unchanged, is predetermined by God anyway? The very existence of The PDL assumes our freedom to choose. Then we read quite frequently, not that God determines the nasty things that happen in life but that he ‘allows’ them (pp194, 218, 246f, 273), that there are such things as ‘uncontrollable circumstances’ (p272) and that Satan has a responsibility in all this evil. The book makes much use of the idea that God is able to use whatever happens to achieve his purposes within us, and saying that God is able to use the events of our lives is not the same as saying that he determines what those events will be. Romans 8:28-29 comes in here, as we would expect it to, and though it is a difficult passage with a significant textual variant, Rick Warren’s use of it falls within what I would call orthodox parameters, even when he uses the phrase ‘God is pulling the strings’ on p195. In fact pp194-5 are quite crucial here and are quite orthodox (quote the four passages)

So I am left with a huge problem here: just what theology of providence is the book working with? I think it is basically working with an orthodox theology of providence (notice I say ‘an’ orthodox theology of providence – there are in fact several orthodox theologies of providence and this particular one might not suit all of us) – that God wills good for each of us and for all creation, that bad things happen in God’s world which are outside his control but which he permits to happen, and that God is at work in his world to bring good out of even them. You might or might not find that an acceptable doctrine of providence, but it is an orthodox one, and I think it is the one with which Rick Warren is actually working. But if that is the case he should not have written what he has written on Day 2, for what he has written on that day crosses the line into determinism and expresses an understanding of providence which is outside the boundary of orthodox Christian theology. And the problem with Day 2 is that coming where it does, it makes a huge impression. Your task as preachers and teachers is therefore to correct that impression, and undo the damage that chapter 2 does to God and our picture of God. I put it as strongly as that

b. Second, much more briefly, but as far as I am concerned in the end even more dangerously, the question of ‘Literalism’

Reading The PDL we are left in no doubt that Pastor Warren believes that when the Bible tells the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain, Noah, Job, Jonah, Daniel and the Three Young Men it is telling factually true stories about the real lives of real people. He likewise believes that Solomon wrote Proverbs and that David wrote the Psalms. Neither of these beliefs have featured in Methodist Local Preachers textbooks or in Methodist ministerial training for generations. The oldest LP OT textbook on my shelf is Horace Cleaver’s An Approach to the OT of 1955 and it takes for granted the approach to these things established by Peake in his Commentary of 1919. These views of Pastor Warren might be widely shared in the southern states of the USA, and might still be believed in pockets over here, but they have no credibility at all and Methodism teaches quite something quite different about these ancient and important stories and characters. The taking of these things literally in The PDL ties Christianity into a way of understanding and using the Bible that is simply not true, and which therefore risks bringing both the Christian Faith and the Bible into disrepute. The book could have made all its points equally effectively without misusing the Bible in this way, but given that it does use the Bible in the way it does the book becomes, for me, virtually unusable, because it is expecting its readers to believe things about the Bible that I individually and Methodism in its training textbooks and courses just do not accept to be the case. For me, this is no minor, trivial or incidental point, but a highly crucial one because I take the Bible too seriously to see it being abused in this literalist way. If The PDL is to be used, it seems to me, preachers need to say both loudly and clearly that the Methodist Church just does not understand the Bible in the same way that the book does

4 So what can I say in conclusion? I make no comment on the policy decision that your Circuit has taken in deciding to use and promote this book – it is not my place to do so: but I do say two things to all of you in this Preachers Fellowship this evening – and it is my place to say these as your invited guest speaker who is also a fellow Methodist preacher:

First, that you all by virtue of the public and representative offices you hold as Methodist Local Preachers or Methodist ministers have preaching, teaching and pastoral responsibility to handle this book with considerable care, to subject it to rigorous theological critique and, at least with regard to its confused teaching around determinism and its Biblical literalism, to correct it

And second, that you all by virtue of the public and representative offices you hold as Methodist Local Preachers or Methodist ministers need to remember and to acknowledge whenever you use it, that The PDL offers one perspective on the Christian Faith and the meaning and nature of the Christian life, but only one, and that this perspective is that of a very particular theological point of view whose one size will certainly not fit all of the Methodist people

10 Assisted Dying - a speech in support

(This is my speech in support of the motion that ‘This House believes in Assisted Dying’ at Truro Theological Society on Thursday November 13th 2008, plus some supporting background notes.  The motion was opposed by Revd Dr John Searle.  The outcome was a draw.  This could be used in a Discussion Group)

Thank you Chair, 

Before we get very far into this debate it is important to agree our terms.  I am proposing that ‘This house believes in Assisted Dying’  I do not mean that there should be a readily available end-your-life-painlessly-and-quickly pill available over the counter at Boots; or expect to see adverts inviting us to drop into your local End-of-Life clinic any afternoon between 2 and 4, no appointment necessary.  That would be ‘Assisted Suicide’ and neither John nor myself are going to say anything about that.  In other words, we are talking about Debbie Purdy, the 45-year old with MS who has been to the High Court to attempt to clarify just how far her husband can legally help her when she goes to Switzerland to be helped to die when her condition becomes unbearable, and not about the young rugby player, Daniel James, whose death was in no sense imminent.  There might be a debate on that, but that is not the debate in which we are engaged tonight.  Our debate is on Assisted Dying, and by ‘Assisted Dying’ we mean assisting the dying process which has clearly and irreversibly begun.  We are talking about assisting someone who is in the process of dying to die in peace, without pain, and with dignity; and allowing that person to be in control of that process.  This might be done either by providing the dying person with the means by which they may administer themselves a lethal dose of drugs (that is, they are given the medicine which they take and swallow) or that such a means is provided and administered by a third party, usually a doctor or other health specialist (that is, a doctor injects a lethal dose of drugs into the person), when the person is physically unable to take the drugs themselves by mouth.  Such assistance in dying might be given to someone who would otherwise die within hours or days, or it may be a longer timescale of weeks or months, or possibly in some circumstances even years; but we are talking about assisting the dying process, not about bringing death into the midst of an otherwise safely ongoing life.  Neither of us are talking about Assisted Suicide.  Our debate is about Assisted Dying and that distinction is, we ask you to recognise, an important and significant one, even though the terms can be much more loosely used in the wider debate.  I am proposing, I repeat, and John is opposing, the motion that ‘This House believes in Assisted Dying’.

In May 2006 Lord Joffe introduced a bill in the House of Lords modelled on the Death With Dignity Act of the US state of Oregon, where physician-assisted dying has been legal for 10 years.  It was supported by people, including Christians, acting out of genuine, focussed compassion, who argued that Assisted Dying expresses commitment to the ultimate values of human life, human flourishing and human dignity.  The Bill was defeated.  This Tuesday, the Lib Dem MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, a medic, Evan Harris, introduced a Westminster Hall Debate, calling for a parliamentary review of the whole situation, and the hour long debate rehearsed the main arguments on each side. 

Let me begin by observing that human reason comes in many forms, from the arguments of the erudite scholar to the acute observation of the proverb, earthed in common sense and human experience.  And when it comes to Assisted Dying, we have probably all heard someone say, ‘They wouldn’t let a dog suffer like that, would they?’  That is folk-wisdom rather than book-wisdom, and it’s a powerful statement which expresses deep commitment to the value of human life.  Prolonging the agony of death, or failing adequately to relieve it, denies the very sanctity of human life, this common saying argues, and argues well.  Why, it asks with puzzlement, do we let something happen to our own species, which we do not let happen to our pets?

Many of the arguments in the Lord’s debate were more sophisticated than this, but essentially most were along the same lines.  So Assisted Dying, my argument begins, takes human dignity and human well-being as one of the highest goods.  I do not like the language of human ‘rights’, which some others use here, but I share the view that personal well-being is essential for the flourishing not only of the individual but for all human community.  I, and every other I, am diminished if my neighbour suffers.  Of course death is natural, all the arguments recognise that.  It will happen to all of us, though we all smile at that Woody Allen quip that we’d rather not be there when it does.  So because human life matters and people have intrinsic worth in all their individuality, death ought to be as painless and dignified as possible.  The sanctity of human life demands the utmost care for each of us, and when it comes to our death that means that every attempt possible must be made for us to die with dignity.  I take all that to be self-evident.  I see nothing good in making suffering into a virtue, or expecting people to ‘endure to the end’.  That, I suggest, does not help the individual concerned nor enhance the dignity of human life in general.

Secularists add their own spin to these reasonable observations.  Human beings are, they argue, autonomous - our lives are in our own  hands.  Not so, Christians would argue.  We are not autonomous.  There is a God, and a God whose will and purpose for the world and its creatures is to be respected, we believe, and believe as a reasonable and rational proposition.  So what does our Christian reasoning and experience add?  It gives us, quite simply at this point, a response to those other Christians who object to Assisted Dying on the grounds that only God can determine the time of death, that the Lord gives and only the Lord must take away, and that we must simply accept the fact that God is in control.  The reality, of course, is that few Christians believe any such thing.  The Roman Catholic Church officially believes that the gift of life is God’s alone, but a spate of articles and letters in the Tablet this summer marking the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae make it clear that few British Catholics practice what Pope Paul Vl preached on birth control.  As to the other end of life: how many of you over-60s are trying to put off the arrival of death by having a flu jab?  Are you not, then, just as guilty of thwarting God’s alleged time allocation for you as are any of those people who want to bring their deaths forward by going to the Dignitas clinic in Zurich?  As today’s Christians we do these things, of which our forebears might well have disapproved, because we believe in a God who gives us freedom to choose and expects us to behave responsibly in the ever changing contexts of human life. 

If we can help someone to die with dignity and without fear, compassion demands that we should.  That is the reason and experience argument in a nutshell.  Forcing people to endure to the end is not compassionate, nor does it enhance the innate worth and sanctity of human life in general.  Is it not, in fact, unbelievably cruel to force someone to continue in terrible suffering if their life could be ended peacefully and they want it so ended?   Those who believe that ‘God is Love’, need very good grounds indeed to deny and dismiss that imperative of compassion; and those who believe that God is ‘the Lord of Life and Conqueror of Death’ have no reason at all to oppose the statement that ‘sometimes, just sometimes, death is the least bad option’ (Johann Hari, The Independent, 12.11.04). 

Opponents of Assisted Dying reply that these arguments are misconceived, because today no one has to ‘endure to the end’ or to suffer in extremis.  Now I am no medic, and I have immense regard for the Hospice movement, but I have listened to too many stories of death and dying as a minister to be convinced by that.  My observation is that we are not always able to prevent the lives of terminally ill people getting to the unendurable stage, and that it remains a sad fact that some terminally ill people in some places (and some might prefer me to change that to ‘many’ rather than ‘some’) do suffer terribly, both mentally and physically.  And in fact both the BMA and the Government recognise that ‘such services are inadequately resourced and unevenly spread’.  It is not for nothing, is it, that Debbie Purdy is thinking of that Zurich clinic?  Life can reach that point where it is not worth the living, where existence is cruel, inhuman and utterly degrading.  Common human reason as well as Christian thinking suggests to me that before that stage is reached the humane, compassionate and responsible thing is to offer a way out for those who wish to go that way.

You might have noticed that I have already used a phrase more frequently used by those opposed to Assisted Dying, ‘the sanctity of human life’, a phrase which has an important and honourable place in the Church’s long tradition of ethical teaching.  It goes back to Bible imperatives of care for the marginalised, the rejected and the outcast, and Rodney Stark, the Social Anthropologist of Early Christianity, argues that it was practical commitment to this principle which accounts for the growth of the Church in the first century (in The Rise of Christianity).  But we all know that how an ideal is expressed in one culture or at one time is not necessarily how it should be expressed in all.  When the world’s population is tiny and communities need as many hands as they can get to till the soil and defend the tribe a verse like ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1.28) has a lot going for it: but today when the greatest threat our world faces arises from the sheer numbers of people on it, such a verse needs to be treated rather differently, as we heard in the Benson Lecture here last week.  The principle remains the same (that every effort must be made to enable sustainable life to be lived) but the form expressing it changes.  And this is fine, for ‘Tradition’ is no dead belonging to do what you’ve always done in the way you’ve always done it because you’ve always done it that way, but rather it is being faithful in the present to what has been given in the past for the enrichment of the future.  Assisted Dying is therefore, I suggest, an appropriate contemporary expression of the ancient Tradition of the Church expressed in that phrase ‘the sanctity of human life’.

What then of that other great guide for Christians, the Bible?  Here I have three points.

First, the Sixth Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ (Exodus 20.13), a text not unheard in the Assisted Dying debate, is really no help at all.  ‘Thou shalt not kill’ obviously does not mean ‘thou shalt not kill’ because ancient Israelites killed their enemies in war and their moral deviants in capital punishment with full Biblical support.  So most recent translations render this as ‘You shall not murder’ (NRSV, NIV, REB, GNB, NJPS – but not NJB or RSV).  But that still leaves the question open: What constitutes murder?  If you google ‘Lord Dawson of Penn’ – to mention a name which keeps cropping up in this debate - some websites simply say that he murdered King George V, but the British justice system didn’t see it that way and neither did he.  We’ll come back to him.  So if you have a commandment which says ‘You shall not kill illegally’, which is what this one really means, then decisions have to be made about what constitutes legal killing and what constitutes illegal killing, and quoting that commandment in the ensuing discussion just takes you round in a circle. 

Second, Jesus and the Gospels.  Nothing specific here, as there so often isn’t, but Jesus and ethics is worth a look.  The biggest ethical issue in Jesus’ day was Sabbath: how should we observe the Fifth Commandment?  It was a burning issue, not least in Galilee.  You don’t get this impression from the Gospels but  Galilee was multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-faith.  Ten miles from Nazareth was the huge gentile city of Sepphoris, and much of the economy of Galilee was dependent on Sepphoris.  So should good Galilean Jewish plumbers, carpenters and fishermen take a day off every week when their gentile competitors for the lucrative Sepphoris business didn’t?  Every Rabbi was expected to have a take on it and it was inevitable that Jesus would be asked where he stood.  His answer, and this is one of those verses where virtually every scholar agrees that we have the authentic voice of Jesus, was that ‘Sabbath was made for humanity; not humanity for Sabbath’ (Mark 2.27).  You will not find, I submit, a more radical take on practical ethics than that.  Sabbath, Jesus said, was intended for human wellbeing, and Sabbath principles were means to promote that end.  They should not be turned into ends themselves at a cost to human flourishing.  I think that attitude undergirds Jesus’ life and ministry.  Because of this he acted counter-culturally with women, the sick, and outcasts, got a bad reputation as a ‘glutton and wine-bibber’ and was executed as a dangerous moral subversive.  Why?  Because he believed that principles existed for people, and so people come before principles.  There are implications for our debate here; not least that the principle of the sanctity of human life is designed to promote human well-being, and not to be a stick with which to beat the terminally ill.  So when it comes to practicalities we see in Jesus an overriding ethic of compassion, understanding and humanity.  

And finally to Genesis.  You can’t listen to this debate for long before you hear someone saying that Assisted Dying is ‘playing God’.  To ‘play God’ is a bad thing, it is overstepping the mark, transgressing proper boundaries and usurping God’s authority; we mustn’t do it.  I simply challenge that and say that as far as that great first parable of Creation in Genesis 1 is concerned, playing God is precisely what human beings were created to do.  Made ‘in the image of God’ (Genesis 1.26-27) that means that God has given us a share in his own creativity and a responsibility for shaping the ongoing life of creation as his agents or stewards, taking responsibility for the future of creation.  It is our human vocation is to ‘play God’, or better, to do ‘God-like’ things.  Obviously God is taking a huge risk, and Bible stories of human failure, disappointment and mess-making far outnumber those of human success, achievement and creativity.  So Bible readers are fully aware of the dangers in the message of Genesis 1, but so were those who produced the Bibles we have, and they still insisted on introducing the human story this way.  Despite the risk, to ‘play God’ or to act like God is exactly what we are created to be and to do. 

I submit, therefore, that Reason, Experience, Tradition and the Bible – those classic tools of Christian moral reasoning - all have something positive to say in favour of Assisted Dying. 

But let’s come back to the House of Lords debate.  Three Methodist ministers took part in the debate (two voted against the Bill and one in favour).  One reason why Leslie Griffiths voted against the Bill was that he was against the Bill which would come next.  Lord Joffe’s limited Bill, Leslie thought, would be followed by something much bigger, and he saw us standing at the top of a slippery slope from Assisted Dying under certain carefully controlled conditions to Assisted Suicide on demand.  Others saw other practical problems.  Would people be pressured into Assisted Dying as a way of saving the NHS money or granny’s life savings?  Would palliative medicine and hospices cease to be available in the face of this cheaper alternative?  How could you guarantee that Assisted Dying was a genuinely free choice and responsible decision on the part of the patient?  Was it right to expect medics who are committed to life to administer death?  How could this work in a way which did not send out dangerous signals to vulnerable groups?  Would it not, above all, cheapen human life itself and threaten the very thing that supporters of the bill cherished most, namely the ultimate dignity and value of human life and well-being?  Is this whole issue, at base, not one of autonomy and compassion, but of public safety, and the protection of the vulnerable?  These are all important questions, and careful consideration of practical issues and of consequences and effects are an essential part of any ethical reasoning.  But in response to these very real concerns I just ask two questions:

First, is there any evidence that human life is valued less now, and the public less safe, in Switzerland or in Oregon because Assisted Dying is available there?

Second, one would expect Switzerland to get the practicalities right (their trains run on time and there is no litter on their streets), but if Oregon can do it so well as to be known as ‘the best place to die in the US’, with excellent palliative care and hospice facilities as well as an Assisted Dying service, then why do we think we can’t?

And finally, is this really anything new?  I suspect that Assisted Dying was done in extremis fairly frequently until in fact very recently.  I also suspect that the reason why this issue has become so big recently is because what used to be done is not now not done, and not done now because of changes in law and medical practice post Harold Shipman.  Before Shipman many a doctor would ‘help a dying patient on their way’, sometimes by not doing anything, sometimes by doing something, like administering morphine over and above what was necessary for the relief of pain, as Lord Dawson of Penn did to King George V.  The compassionate assisting of the dying to die is not, I think, such a dangerous new departure in British medicine as its opponents claim. 

Thus, I submit, Assisted Dying, done responsibly with proper safeguards, is an act of compassion to those whose life has become unendurable and is an expression of human responsibility authorised by a compassionate God.  So I propose the motion that ‘This House believes in Assisted Dying’.



On the night of January 20 1936, the royal physician, Lord Dawson of Penn was summoned to Sandringham by Queen Mary. King George V was dying from heart failure. The following morning, The Times carried the first news that the King was dead. The assumption was that he had died naturally in his sleep. What actually happened was only made public 48 years later with the publication of Dawson’s diaries. Of the evening of January 20 1936 he had written:

‘at about eleven o’clock it was evident that the last stage might endure for many hours, unknown to the patient, but little comporting with the dignity and the serenity which he (the King) so richly merited and which demanded a brief final scene. Hours of waiting just for the mechanical end when all that is really life has departed only exhausts the onlookers and keeps them so strained that they cannot avail themselves of the solace of thought, communion and prayer. I therefore decided to determine the end.’

Dawson then gave the King intravenously a lethal dose of morphine and cocaine and he died. A timely public announcement in the appropriate newspaper was assured and Dawson was able to return to London by the morning to his private practice. Dawson’s brief entry encapsulates all the main arguments in favour of euthanasia:

the patient was terminally ill,
his dignity was assured,
his suffering was relieved,
the relatives were spared a long bedside vigil.


7 hour debate on Friday May 11th 2006.  3 Methodist ministers in Lords: 2 (Leslie Griffiths & Roger Roberts) voted against and 1 (Kathleen Richardson).  A limited bill which would:

Give docs right to prescribe drugs for terminally-ill patient to use to end own life
Only for people with less than 6 months to live
Patients must first sign form to say they wanted to die,
Must be of sound mind and not depressed
Must be suffering unbearably

The Bill was defeated by 148 votes to 100

Quote from Lord Joffe, “Patients should not have to endure unbearable pain ‘for the good of society as a whole’”

3 THE SIXTH COMMANDMENT  ‘Thou shalt not kill’ (Ex 20.13, Deut 5.17)

‘Thou shalt not kill’ is obviously not a blanket ban on killing because ancient Israelites killed their enemies in war and their moral deviants in capital punishment with full Biblical support (and the Christian Church endorsed such practices for centuries)

So most recent translations following LXX (and NT) translate the commandment as ‘You shall not murder’ (NRSV, NIV, REB, GNB, NJPS, TNIV – but not NJB or RSV), which sounds more helpful 

[LXX  phoneuw – to kill/murder (principally in LXX for RaTSaCH).  When this is quoted in the NT (Mt 5.21, Mk 10.19, Lk 18.20, Rm 13.9, Jas 2.11) it is vb phoneuw.  Noun phoneus - a murderer. Heb vb in both places is RaTSaCH (vb elsewhere at Deut 4.42, Num 35.27, 1 Kg 21.19, Ho 4.2; root 46x in OT) - one of 7 Heb verbs used for killing human beings. (NIDOTTE 3.1188 – ‘the taking of life outside the parameters laid down by God’; TDOT 13.632 – ‘culpable killing by the use of force’) ie ‘illegal killing’ and OT gives egs, of which murder is the principal one, tho accidental killing is also included]

This, of course, leaves the question open - Does Assisted Dying come in the Biblical category of ‘illegal killing’ as prohibited in the Sixth Commandment which says ‘You shall not kill illegally’?  And so this is yet another of those many examples of ethical issues which come outside the Bible’s purview, about which we have to try to think biblically, as both John and I are trying to do in this debate

4 HOW TO DIE THE OREGON WAY   Katharine Whitehorn  The Guardian  13.10.08

Holland has an excellent assisted suicide plan and was the first country to adopt one.  Less liberal ones exist in Belgium, Switzerland and Germany

Oregon passed legislation in 1994 – finally implemented in 1997 – to make physician-assisted suicide legal.  There were all manner of dire predictions: the old and tiresome, the poor and marginalized, would be wiped out; people from other states would flock in, Portland would become the death city of America; no one would bother with palliative care any more.  None of this has happened 

Safeguards: request has to be made twice, 2 weeks apart; signature has to be witnessed by 2 people, only one of whom may be a relative; doctor has to certify that patient has not long to live and is of sound mind, which includes not being clinically depressed; doctor writes the prescription, but patient or someone chosen by patient must get it from pharmacist, and any pharmacist who has moral objections can refuse to supply.  Rules have prevented flood of suicidal incomers 

Since the introduction of the Death with Dignity Act in 1997 remarkably few people have ‘gone the Oregon way’ – only 431 (one death in 1000).  And only one in 10 who ask for a prescription actually end up using it – they feel secure knowing they have it as a last resort 

The last time a euthanasia bill came before our parliament, much was made by Baronesses Knight and Finlay of the fact that allowing any form of assisted death had impacted badly on palliative care in Oregon. This was firmly refuted by the Oregon Hospice Association's then chief executive, Ann Jackson, who pointed out that hospice care in the state had doubled since the Act, that Oregon was rated the second best state in the US for it, and that the only measure on which they did not score highly was palliative care in hospitals - not surprising, since hospice care in Oregon follows the patient and 95% of it is done at home, where people prefer to die. They see their work as a British invention, revere the memory of Cicely Saunders and use "hospice" as a synonym for palliative care, not just for a care home

There is still virulent opposition

So, is it all dead easy in Oregon? Not really. Oregon at least shows the way forward for dealing with the problem that is not brought about by too little health care, but almost by too much - by our ability to keep people alive long after they would once have served their term. The Oregon way of dealing with death is principled, comforting and a model of how things might be, once we face up to rethinking the end of life as we have rethought the beginning

5 THE GRAVELY ILL DESERVE BETTER THAN OLD NAZI SCARE STORIES  Baroness Jay  The Independent on Sunday  14.5.06

The proposed Bill was deliberately limited.  We wanted to avoid accusations of introducing euthanasia by the back door, although this didn’t stop opponents, especially from the churches, questioning Lord Joffe’s motives with abusive personal attacks

So why did the Bill fail?  Primarily, because of an extraordinary campaign by the churches.  There were more bishops present in the lords last Friday than at any time since the Sunday trading reform of the mid-1990s

In the House, the religious leaders argued their case with reason.  But their supporters have been scare-mongering.  Last month the Catholic Times accompanied a negative piece on the Bill with a picture of children killed in Nazi medical experiments.  These tactics worked

But this is a short-term victory.  We live in a mainly secular society.  Every reputable opinion survey shows 80% of the public support change, and more and more people like Anne Turner* are making their voices heard.  They are determined to control their end-of-life options, to maintain autonomy and dignity until the end.  None of the religious bodies or palliative-care specialists offer them an answer, and work will go on to give them the choice they want

* Anne Turner, a retired GP, died in the Dignitas clinic in Zurich on January 24th 2006, having taken a medically prescribed lethal cocktail of drugs.  She had a progressive and incurable degenerative disease called supranuclear palsy


The BMA:

(i) believes that the ongoing improvement in palliative care allows patients to die with dignity;
(ii) insists that physician-assisted suicide should not be made legal in the UK;
(iii) insists that voluntary euthanasia should not be made legal in the UK;
(iv) insists that non-voluntary euthanasia should not be made legal in the UK; and,
(v) insists that if euthanasia were legalised, there should be a clear demarcation between those doctors who would be involved in it and those who would not

In 2006 the BMA dropped its neutral stance and decided to oppose all forms of assisted dying

The BMA’s policy is that assisting patients to die prematurely is not part of the moral ethos or the primary goal of medicine and, if allowed, could impact detrimentally on how doctors relate to their own role and to their patients

Arguments for legislation of assisted dying are generally based on arguments about competent individuals’ rights to choose the manner of their demise or about cases where medicine is unable to control distressing terminal symptoms. Although the BMA respects the concept of individual autonomy, it argues that there are limits to what patients can choose if their choice will inevitably impact on other people. Also, as the BMA’s policy implies, access to the best quality palliative care is vital if terminal suffering is to be properly managed

Arguments against legalisation focus on practical and moral points. If assisted dying were an option, there would be pressure for all seriously ill people to consider it even if they would not otherwise entertain such an idea. Health professionals explaining options for the management of terminal illness would have to include assisted dying. Patients might feel obliged to choose it for the wrong reasons, such as if they were worried about being a burden or concerned about the financial implications of a long terminal illness

The concept of assisted dying risks undermining patients’ ability to trust their doctors and the health care system. In particular, it could generate immense anxiety for vulnerable, elderly, disabled or very ill patients. It could also weaken society’s prohibition on intentional killing and undermine safeguards against non-voluntary euthanasia of people who are both seriously ill and mentally impaired. For such reasons, the BMA opposes it

Palliative care  If public anxiety about the management of terminal conditions is to be addressed, an urgent and continuing matter of concern remains the uneven availability of good quality palliative care for patients who want it … Such services (are) inadequately resourced and unevenly spread … the Government (has) acknowledged that additional investment is needed to improve end-of-life care … For many patients with terminal conditions and for their families, this is an issue of increasing urgency … Good effective palliative care must be more widely available throughout the UK


1  Letter  ‘Name and Address supplied’  The Guardian  31.10.08: Recent debates on physician-assisted death miss the point. The current system is physician-assisted living death. I write as someone whose wife is in an excellent Macmillan unit suffering metastatic breast cancer, which, short of a miracle, will kill her and makes her life miserably stunted and suffering. Sharing her bay is a woman who is blind and doubly incontinent. I asked her on Wednesday night how she was feeling and she said: "It's terrible. No one who hasn't had it knows how bad it is." And this from someone who always has a joke with the nurses. Why deny people the chance to say: "I've had enough. All that is left is pointless suffering. Please, help me to go."?

2  The conclusion of Katherine Whitehorn’s article in The Guardian of 13.10.08: Some families have warm and precious memories of such a death. I spoke to Julie Macurchie, whose mother, Margaret Sutherland, chose to die this way at the age of 68. Sutherland was a feisty woman; divorced after 40 years, she made a life of her own. She discovered new friends, joined boards and became a volunteer in a local hospice. In 1985 she was diagnosed with lung cancer, having smoked for years. It appeared to be cured, but returned in 2000 and by September of that year her condition was diagnosed as terminal

"There was no pretending," her daughter remembers. "She was practical and pragmatic, as she had taught us to be. She was not weepy or depressed, and did as much as she could, but in December she woke up and couldn't get out of bed for pain." For three weeks they tried to get it under control in hospital and she had a morphine pump, but she still couldn't get out of bed. "We brought her home and she said, 'I'm going to use Oregon's law'"

There was the 15-day waiting period; her daughter got the medication. "The morning she died there were five of us there; she was in her lovely big bed by the window, looking out on the river. She wanted a poem by Anne Dillard, and the 23rd psalm. We weren't a religious family but we found a Bible and began to read, then she said, 'No, not that version - I want the King James version' and we managed to find that

"She drank the medication with us all around her. She might have died alone in the dark but she was looking at all her children. It was the most peaceful loving moment of my life. I feel so lucky and fulfilled that I was able to do that for her. In five minutes she was unconscious and in 15 minutes she'd gone"


Dignity in Dying is the leading campaigning organisation promoting patient choice at the end of life  … a major information source on end-of-life issues.  We were set up as the Voluntary Euthanasia Society (VES) in 1935 by a group of doctors, lawyers and clergy. Dignity in Dying was the new name overwhelmingly endorsed by members at their annual meeting in 2005.  Vision:

Our vision is for everyone to be guaranteed choice and dignity at the end of their life. Palliative care and medical treatment should be patient-led and include a legal right to effective pain relief to help ease suffering

We want end-of-life decision making to be open and honest, and firmly under the control of the patient

We want a full range of choices to be available to terminally ill people including medically assisted dying within strict legal safeguards. Such legal safeguards would also protect the vulnerable and remove the conditions that give rise to unchecked euthanasia and "mercy killings"


From the speech of Chris McCafferty MP (Labour, Calder Valley) in the Westminster Hall Debate on Tuesday November 11th 2008 initiated by Evan Harris MP (Lib Dem Oxford West and Abingdon):

Suicide is not a crime (since 1961): but assisting a suicide is (with a max 14 yr sentence.  [Justice Minister Maria Eagle MP confirmed in the debate that no one has suffered imprisonment or been given a suspended sentence for it.  Crispin Blunt MP (Con Reigate) pointed out that there have been prosecutions, with all the anxiety that involves, and that in the Debbie Purdy case the judges acknowledged that the law is very widely drawn, and that it was the responsibility of parliament to address the issues raised]

The status quo has a terrible cost (16 travel to Dignitas each year, 4 cases of mercy killing a year, a number of often violent suicides and botched suicides, and 900 explicit requests to doctors for assistance in dying)

‘Those figures indicate that the current status quo has an extremely negative impact on a sizeable proportion of terminally ill people’


Baroness Warnock recently provoked an outcry by suggesting that those with dementia should be allowed to end their lives for the greater good, ‘… if you’re demented, you’re wasting people’s lives – your family’s lives – and you’re wasting the resources of the NHS’

That was the fragment of an admittedly trenchant and unsentimental argument which made the headlines and caused the furore.  But in its context (The Times October 4th 2008) it reads rather differently

“I’m fully in agreement with the argument that if pain is insufferable, then someone should be given help to die, but I feel there’s a wider argument that if somebody desperately wants to die because they’re a burden to their family, or the State, then I think they, too, should be allowed to die.  People talk about it as if the only respectable motive for wanting to die is for your own sake. But it seems to me just as respectable to want to die partly for the sake of others, and for the sake of society”

Lady Warnock insisted that she was not suggesting that severely disabled people should be encouraged to end their lives. “There are dozens of [disabled] people I know who do contribute an enormous amount, and enjoy life. . . Of course, these people should not be put in any way of risk. It is entirely dependent on quality of life”

Take, for example, she said, someone in the later stages of dementia “who has no pleasure in their lives”. “If society has an obligation to look after them, I really want to know what for? For whose benefit? It’s not for the benefit of society, as the person is not in a position to contribute, and it’s not for the benefit of the person, so it must be something abstract about our being unable to bear saying ‘We can’t do this any longer’”

“If I were in a state of acute misery or pain, or an insufferable degree of dependency, I don’t see why I should feel an obligation to others to let them keep on changing my nappies

“It sounds very callous, but most people I know dread being kept alive in a state of mental incapacity, more than cancer or anything else. If so, then I don’t see why society should force them to go through with something they fear the most

“People often argue that if it becomes legally permissible to end one’s own life, or to be helped to end one’s own life, then people will begin to feel that not only should they be allowed, they ought to. Then they argue these people are under coercion

“But I don’t follow that argument, because the kind of people who are most likely to not want to be a burden to the NHS are the kind of people who have never wanted to be a burden or dependent on the community. So the decision will be just a culmination of the way they have lived their lives”

Asked if this might be an invitation for inheritance-hungry relatives to bully the vulnerable into seeking an early death, Lady Warnock conceded: “There may be people who are bullied into asking for death because they have been persuaded it is their duty.” However, she said: “Anything can be abused. The fact that something might be abused is not an argument or else we would never develop certain drugs, we would never get anywhere . . . One has got to have some trust in the motivations of people”

However, as a safeguard she proposed independent arbiters to question the motives of anyone wanting to end their lives

“This is why any advance decision to seek assisted death when the time comes needs to be formalised, a statement witnessed and, if necessary, the patient questioned by an impartial nonfamily member, perhaps a psychiatrist, to determine whether he or she is acting under undue pressure”

She also recommended that dementia sufferers make living wills, or advance directives, appointing a trustworthy third party, such as a relative or medical professional, to decide exactly when their time should come as their condition deteriorates

11 ONCE TO EVERY MAN AND NATION  (Methodist Hymn Book 898)

Once to every man and nation,
comes the moment to decide,
in the strife of truth with falsehood,
for the good or evil side;
some great cause, God’s new Messiah,
offering each the bloom or blight,
and the choice goes by forever,
'twixt that darkness and that light.

Then to side with truth is noble,
when we share her wretched crust,
ere her cause bring fame and profit,
and 'tis prosperous to be just;
then it is the brave man chooses
while the coward stands aside,
till the multitude make virtue
of the faith they had denied.

By the light of burning martyrs,
Christ, thy bleeding feet we track,
toiling up new Calvaries ever
with the cross that turns not back;
new occasions teach new duties,
time makes ancient good uncouth,
they must upward still and onward,
who would keep abreast of truth.

Though the cause of evil prosper,
yet ‘tis truth alone is strong;
though her portion be the scaffold,
and upon the throne be wrong;
yet that scaffold sways the future,
and behind the dim unknown,
standeth God within the shadow,
keeping watch above his own.

James Russell Lowell, 1819-1891


It seems to me that the Church ought to be a little bit more humble than it sometimes has been when it comes to making ethical pronouncements, that it needs to be a bit more careful about assuming that its position represents the moral high ground, and that it should be slightly more reticent about asserting that its voice is the voice of God 

For after all, if we could remind ourselves of this - just a couple of years after we have been celebrating the bi-centenary of the abolition of the slave trade - one of the loudest voices in opposition to William Wilberforce was that of the Church of his day, who regarded him as a pinko-liberal who was going against the created order of things and the revealed will of God in the Bible…

And that in 1961 when the Suicide Bill was passed which decriminalised suicide, there was opposition from the Church which had traditionally, of course, refused to allow suicides to be buried in consecrated ground…

And then, if we take the contemporary issue of the place and role of women within the Church, loud voices are still claiming (and this, of course is an advert for the next meeting of the Society on January 26th) that their role is not equal to that of men…

In the summer of 2006 the papers had pictures of packed rows of bishops in the House of Lords for the debate on Lord Joffe’s bill, and headlines about the Church being at the forefront of opposition to it.  The gathered bishops spoke as one and insisted that the Church was automatically and totally opposed to this bill, and the Press repeated their assertion.  I suspect that the Church is not of that undivided and unanimous position, far from it – and our vote in a moment will show the feelings in this room.  And I suspect that Assisted Dying may well be another one of those issues where future generations of Christians will look back on such bold claims with embarrassment

In this life, whether it is doctrine or ethics, we ‘see through a glass darkly’- all our thinking is provisional, open to question and to revision, and Assisted Dying no less than the rest.  It seems to me, though, that the claims of compassion which I hear expressed in the debate, and which resonate in my mind with the lived-out compassion of God which I see in Jesus Christ, offers me no alternative but to ask this House, aware of all the dangers and the need for all kinds of safeguards, to take that step of faith, and say that we do, indeed, ‘believe in Assisted Dying’


11 Come back, Moses, we need you!

(A lecture at the national Methodist residential conference called ‘The Word at Whitby’ on Sunday May 2nd, 2004.  From the Conference blurb – ‘This session aims, first, to alert participants to the growing silence of the Old Testament in the Church; then to consider the distortions to which a Christianity which does not read the Old Testament is likely to be prey and, finally and most importantly, to put the case that Christians and Christian Theology would benefit greatly from reading the New Testament in the light of the Old, rather than the other way around.  Ps 103 will be used to supply a key example.  Participants will be invited to sit and think, to buzz and share, and to answer back’)

The Conference blurb about this presentation states that

This session aims, first, to alert participants to the growing silence of the Old Testament in the Church; then to consider the distortions to which a Christianity which does not read the Old Testament is likely to be prey and, finally and most importantly, to put the case that Christians and Christian Theology would benefit greatly from reading the New Testament in the light of the Old, rather than the other way around.  Ps 103 will be used to supply a key example.  Participants will be invited to sit and think, to buzz and share, and to answer back 

So let’s do it:

1  The growing silence of the OT in the Church

This heading is indebted to the title of a book from 1970 by J Smart called The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church, and also to a recurrent theme of Bible Society surveys about Bible reading patterns in the churches - that there isn’t actually too much of it going on.  But I want to focus, within the growing silence of the Bible in the Church, on the growing silence of the OT among us.  Marcion, though excommunicated as a heretic in the second century, has always lived on as a shadowy presence in the Church, whispering insidiously about the nasty God of the OT and the Nice One of the New, with the result that that perception is a real part of our corporate and cultural psyche.  I simply acknowledge that and take it, sadly, as read.  I do not actually deny much of what Marcion claimed, for there are many parts of the OT which are utterly distasteful, morally and theologically, but what else would you expect in such a large, complex, ancient and alien text as the OT – whichever canon of it you select?  And more than that, I agree that Marcion was quite right in the other thing he did, which was to radically prune his NT on the same grounds, for that too is an ancient and alien text, though much smaller, tighter and ecclesiastically domestic in its compass. 

That having been said, what about a growing silence of the OT in the Church?  Here I turn to the Lectionary, of which, I must confess, I am not a great fan.  As a young preacher in the ‘60’s I lived through the revolution which changed our way of doing things and introduced the concept of a lectionary to Methodist worship, and since then I have done my share of writing preaching notes on the Lectionary, and indeed of preaching from the Lectionary, so I know the arguments which support it.  On balance I think I regard it as a plus, but serious reservations remain about which I will be silent here.  I will speak, however, of what I see as a Marcionite tendency in the Revised Common Lectionary.  If we go back to the now reviled lectionary in the Methodist Service Book with its themed Sundays and controlling lessons, the OT supplied the controlling lessons for the main service on the nine Sundays before Christmas, the Gospels for the twenty-four from Christmas to Pentecost and the Epistles for the twenty-four from then to the end of the process (I know that adds up to more than fifty-two Sundays, but take that up with the MSB!).  In the Revised Common Lectionary used in the Methodist Worship Book, controlling lessons have disappeared and so even the meagre insistence that the OT should be read in Advent is gone; and on six of the eight Sundays from Easter to Pentecost there is no OT lesson for the main service at all, while on the other two (Easter Day and Pentecost) it is second option to a second reading from an Epistle.  Point made, I think.

If we look at what lessons are actually read these days, the signs are equally worrying.  I conducted an email mini-survey of the Methodist ministers in the Cornwall District, the clergy of the Diocese of Truro and my former Methodist students across the connexion, and I got the current 42 students on SWMTC to fill in a questionnaire about their home churches.  This is therefore a very iffy statistical survey – but I did get 138 replies to 159 requests, an 86% response rate!  46 respondents use all three lectionary readings, 92 use only two.  Of those who use only two, the Gospel is almost invariably used, with 46 normally reading the OT with it, 22 normally reading the Epistle, and 24 doing it about half and half.   Denominationally, the OT does slightly better in Methodism than the Church of England: but make of those stats what you will, the old Methodist practice of having an OT reading in each service is no more. 

2  So what about the distortions to which a Christianity which does not read the OT is likely to be prey?

I must bear two things in mind here.  First I must avoid the temptation to get up close and personal, lest particular Christians and actual churches known to me become identifiable in what I say and lest what I say becomes something of a rant against them.  And secondly I must remember the other extreme, much less common though still findable, of those churches and individuals who do not seem to have taken much notice of the NT.  So with those caveats I would unpack what I mean here like this.  Failure to read the OT can result in a privatised and personalised piety, preoccupied with one’s personal relationship with God and primarily intent on one’s own spiritual well-being.  Much traditional evangelism has focused itself here, of course, and some of the contemporary spirituality industry could be accused of the same as the narcissism of our New Age culture works its sinister enchantments.  Church, in this form of Christianity, is where and how my needs are met, my spiritual experiences renewed and my life enhanced.  God, here, is active and powerful in the life of his people, the new creation gathered together in worship and praise, introduced to him out of this evil world, and promised new life here and now which will be fulfilled in his heavenly kingdom. 

Christianities like this can be found across the theological, ecclesiological and liturgical spectrums.  English evangelical Christianity recognised the danger of this style of faith among its constituency in the epoch-making Keele Conference of 1978; the Roman Catholic church regularly issues powerful statements of its social teachings; and in the Methodist Church the Public Life and Social Justice secretariat is the latest in a line of units promoting citizenship and social responsibility.  Why?  Because there’s a lot of this other sort of Christianity about which needs to be countered by something more Biblical.  I cannot demonstrate that these Christianities have come about because the wonderfully world-affirming and life-affirming teaching of Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 has been eclipsed by too much attention to Romans 3:23; or that our liberation from ‘the Law’ has led us to overlook God’s concern in Leviticus and Numbers with fair weights and measures, the welfare of animals or public health; or that in our misreading of the prophets as predictors of the future we have not noticed their strident comments on politics and economics and their urgent demands for justice and social inclusion.  All I do know is that when we run our SWMTC course weekend on ‘Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation’ – courtesy of the URC – all the Bible material comes from the OT, with the sole exception of the Parable of the Sheep and Goats. 

And finally here, I must just point out that at a more academic level, and in this very conference, the presentations of both Professors Dunn and Lieu also contain examples of how Christian theology and practice have been distorted when its Jewish roots have been misunderstood. 

3  And so to my main point, that Christians and Christian Theology would benefit greatly from reading the NT in the light of the Old, rather than the other way around. 

Here I want to do some theology around what I have called elsewhere the ‘three prime examples of theological misinterpretation of the OT in Christianity’, namely torah, atonement theology and the meaning of terms in the semantic field of ‘judge’, ‘justice’, ‘judgement’ and ‘to judge’.  And I invite you to consider the question: What would happen to Christian doctrine, spirituality and evangelism if we took the OT seriously?  Or to put it another way, what if we actually began from where the OT is, rather than from somewhere else?  Or to put it yet another way, what if we looked at the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus in the light of the OT rather than the other way round?  This is a big issue, and some will find it provocative, but it is an issue that my reading of the OT compels me to address, and to help us address it I have chosen a text - Ps 103:6-14 – which I invite you to read from the handout.

Now when someone says ‘The Bible says …’ my suspicious mind supplies a translation which goes like this, ‘Here is a text I have chosen because at this point it suits my purpose to claim Biblical authority for what I am trying to say and I have picked out this particular bit of the Bible because it will help me to make the point I want to make’.  So let me respond to your healthily suspicious minds straight away and say why I have selected this tiny portion of the OT as the point around which to focus this presentation.  It is because I find it a delightfully, encouragingly and wonderfully affirmative text, but also one which I find unavoidably compelling in my ongoing struggle with theology and spirituality.  I could say more about my readerly relationship with this text, and also about what it yields to a literary reading, or even, though it is unfashionable in some quarters these days, about what can be gained from a historical-critical reading of it: but there is no need.  Partly because you could simply buy the book (Let us bless the LORD – a study of OT Theology in Ps 103 Southleigh, 2000, 110pp, £3 – [it’s the pink one in the books section of this website]).  And partly because for the purpose of this session all I need to do at this point is to remind you that this text is what it is, an OT text, and to invite you to notice what it affirms about God and the human condition.  So, reading it, I come back to my fundamental question that if God is like this, do we actually need some of the stuff which Christianity has introduced into theology, spirituality and evangelism?  Or, if we really started from here, what new and better places for theology, spirituality and evangelism might we find ourselves journeying towards?  And in all of this, where does Jesus fit? 

As we look at what this psalm says about ‘the LORD,’ we will not actually consider the first of my three examples, that of the damage done to our understanding of the OT, Judaism, God and Christianity itself by the persistent translation of the positive term torah by the negative term ‘law’ and the consistent contrasting in much Christian theology thereafter of ‘law’ and ‘grace’.  There is no need for the ‘new perspective on Paul’ in general and Professor Dunn’s presentation in this conference have done it admirably, though there is still a long way to go in communicating this and in working through its implications.  So I will concentrate on the other two examples, the semantic field of ‘justice’, to which I will also add ‘righteousness’, and atonement theology.  And here I am building on the presentation by Professor Lieu on ‘The Gospels – Jewish or Christian,’ and singing off her hymn sheet, though maybe occasionally to a different arrangement of the melody.

a/. The righteousness and justice of God, about which we will consider one verse of our psalm: v6 - ‘The LORD works vindication / and justice for all who are oppressed’

We can cut through the translation issues surrounding the two important OT theological terms here with, ‘The LORD puts things right, giving justice to the oppressed’ (Harry Mowvley).  The terms are tsedaqah and mishpat and the problem is that in Christian usage both these terms have taken on different meanings than they have in the OT.  The ‘new perspective on Paul’ would argue that much Christian theology has misunderstood the meaning of the first of these two terms in Paul as well, whose usage is very much in line with that of the OT, and I would not dissent from that.  Righteousness is the usual English translation for tsedaqah – though its connotations in English are drastically different; and although justice will do quite satisfactorily for mishpat, the problem here is that OT justice and English justice are not the same thing. 

‘The LORD puts things right’ is a positive place from which to explore the meaning of tsedaqah, which is all to do with being right or putting right.  Weights and measures need to be right.  Human beings need to be right - to function properly their health needs to be right, their attitude needs to be right, and so do their morals.  Examples of people who are not right would be the sick, selfish, victimised, anti-social, exploited, immoral, sinful or neglected.  Some of these are not right because they have un-righted themselves, others because they have been wronged.  Personal relationships need to be right; society needs to right; the nation needs to be right, and in order to promote, sustain and re-establish this rightness when it is lost, God provides laws, statutes and ordinances.  When everything and everybody is right, living in harmony and prosperity as God intended, that is shalom. 

The facts of life are, of course, that the world and its people are not always right like this, and the OT is well aware of sin, iniquity and evil, as is this psalmist (v3).  God is concerned to keep things right when they are right and to put things right when they have gone wrong.  In v3 the psalmist thanks God for putting him right when he had been wrong, restoring him to health and forgiving his sin; and that is, according to the OT, what God is concerned to do for both society and individuals.  This is what it means when it says that God is righteous. To say that God is righteous is to talk about his great concern and his untiring effort to put things right and keep them right, and so Mowvley's translation is simple and exact, ‘The LORD puts things right’.  Imagine the joy and celebration with which those words would be sung! 

Righteous and righteousness do not, however, convey much of that to us; and not simply because they are dated words.  When we hear that ‘God is righteous’ we get a rather different impression, for this language does not speak to us about God's loving and generous kindness or his benevolence which leads him to act to save anything.  The psalmist knew that at times this ‘saving’ would mean that God would have to correct individuals or nations, just as a loving parent has to discipline a misbehaving child.  He also knew that this ‘saving’ involved rules and boundaries, just as caring parents make clear the rules and boundaries for life in a family.  He understood the need to curb human selfishness and sin, and for laws for ‘the restraining of wickedness and vice’.  But he saw all that as something positive, necessary to make life as full and rich as possible for all.  But for us righteous and righteousness are cold and hard words, and whatever we make of the ‘new perspective’ we can see that righteous was getting a bad name even by the time Paul wrote,

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person - though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.  But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8)

Paul knows that people feel differently about a ‘good’ person and a ‘righteous’ one.  Someone might just sacrifice their life to save a good person, but for a ‘righteous’ person – no way!  So even by Paul's time righteous was developing pejorative overtones, and that increased hugely in Christian theological usage.  So when we read that ‘God is righteous’ the impression we form is that he is hard and cold, demanding and judgmental, a far cry from the meanings of that phrase in the OT.

We make a similar mistake with mishpat - justice, which obviously belongs to the legal language of the OT where it can refer to a particular legal ruling or justice in the abstract.  It is paralleled with righteousness here, as it often is.  Other psalms picture God as a king who ‘judges the world with righteousness’ seen (9:8) or unseen (96:13, 97:2, 98:8), using the royal ideology of the Davidic king, who needs God's justice and righteousness to help him promote the welfare of the people and protect the poor (Ps 72:1-2).  Today ‘justice’ is one of the Church’s in-words and we nod approval at a God of justice: but we react rather differently to a God of judgement.  That image conjures up pictures of the Last Judgement, heaven and hell, and punishment meted out by the angry God of ‘hell-fire preachers’ who are, sadly, still around.  For us judgment and justice are not the same: but for the OT they are precisely the same, and the OT connotations of ‘judge’, ‘judgement’, ‘just’ and ‘justice’ are much more like the positive sense we give to justice than the negative one we give to judgement.

There is another problem with these words.  In the British legal world, with its Roman roots, justice is an abstract, impartial norm.  The judge must ‘impartially and indifferently minister justice,’ not allow personal feelings to intrude, treat everyone equally under the law and ensure that the scales of justice are evenly balanced.  If the accused is found guilty, the punishment must fit the crime, so that the balance of justice is restored.  If we think of God as that sort of judge, the resulting image is not an endearing one, and it is a long way from the image created on the basis of what the OT means when it talks about judges and justice.  For that, we can take our cue from the title of the book of Judges.  The ‘Judges’ after which that book is named were not impartial courtroom administrators or lawyers, though some of them did preside over village courts and make rulings (eg Deborah, Judges 4:4-5).  They were freedom fighters raised up by God to deliver his people in times of oppression, ‘Deliverers’ or ‘Saviours’ who saved God's people from their enemies and restored that shalom which was God's will for them.  That, in a nutshell is what the OT means by justice: the restoration and then the maintenance of harmony, well-being, righteousness.  To say that God is just, or to picture him as judge, is to say that he is a saving God, active in seeking, restoring and promoting the well-being of his people.  He is the one who puts his people right.  

In v6, the psalmist celebrates that the LORD is Israel's great examplar of putting things right and doing justice; that the LORD acts to put things right, that he ‘judges the world with righteousness’ (Ps 9:8).  I have dwelt at length on these two terms, not simply because they are big theological terms in the OT, and not only because we tend to get them wrong and then condemn the OT on the basis of our misunderstanding, but also because if we were to get them right we would need to do some serious rethinking of some of our inherited ways of understanding the NT, as, in fact, has begun to happen in the ‘new perspective on Paul’.

b/. Atonement theology, about which we will consider three verses:

i v8 - ‘The LORD is merciful and gracious / slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love’

This is sometimes called a ‘confessional formula’, and is something of a mini-creed, cropping up eleven times in various strands of the OT (Exodus 34:6, Numbers 14:18, 2 Chronicles 30:9, Nehemiah 9:7, Pss 86:15, 111:4 & 145:8, Joel 2:13, Jonah 4:2, Nahum 1:3) and again at Qumran.  Its oldest form is probably Exodus 34:6-7 which Walter Brueggemann calls ‘a credo of adjectives’ (I was sure he calls this verse ‘Israel’s core credo’, but I can’t find where). 

Steadfast love – hesed - is another great OT word, and it occurs four times in Ps 103 (vv 4, 8, 11, 17).  The wealth of meaning in this warm and richly evocative word can be seen in its variety of translations: loving-kindness, steadfast love, covenant devotion, loyalty, mercy, tenderness, faithful love, constant love, or just that overworked but basic, ‘love’.  NRSV’s ‘steadfast love’ captures an important aspect of God's love in the OT, where it is seen in terms of his covenant reliability, keeping his promises and honouring his covenant (cf NEB ‘constant love’ and NJB ‘faithful love’).  The psalmist wants to ‘bless the LORD’ because he has experienced for himself the same continually faithful and loyal kindness, care and love which God has consistently shown towards  Israel (v4).  He testifies that God's attitude towards us is both lovingly warm and consistently reliable: though, as much of the OT so frequently complains, ours towards him are often neither.

hannun (‘gracious’) is another technical term from the theological vocabulary of the OT, but the other word used in v8 (also in v4 and twice in v13) - rahum (‘merciful’) - is not technical at all.  It is a word for the love of parents towards children, for family love or love between friends, an everyday word for kindness or compassion, for affection and tenderness.  In v13 it is used of a father’s love for his children.  It speaks of the warmth of affection in which God holds his people, and which the psalmist has known.  The translations give a variety of choices and the ‘amazing grace’ of God shines all through v8, just as it does in each occurrence of this mini-creed.

But when we read on in Exodus 34:6 this idea is soon eclipsed, as it might be in Ps 103 where v8 is followed by v9.  A God who ‘visits the iniquity of the parents on the children and the children's children down to the third and fourth generation’ is not a God we warm to, and Marcion’s stereotype of a nasty God of the OT comes into play, even though this old saying puts God's ‘anger’ in perspective - his punishment might last for three or four generations, but his blessing lasts for a thousand generations!  The same point is made in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:5-6) and in a slightly different way in Ps 30:5,

‘For his anger is but for a moment: his favour is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning’.

Both Testaments, however, agree that God exhibits anger and that this anger is directed against evil and at human sin.  The psalmist is aware of the shadow side of human life, and the OT is fully aware of how damaging ‘iniquity’, ‘sin’ and ‘wickedness’ can be.  It is not something to be treated lightly or dismissed easily.  Sin, in all its chameleon colours, makes God angry because it fouls up his creation and spoils life for its victims.  And, surely, in the face of this it would be a poor God who did not get angry?  The God of the Bible gets angry when he sees what has happened to his creation, for ‘he has made nothing in vain and loves all that he has made’.  Only a heartless and unloving God would not.

God's anger, then, is a sign of his love.  The psalmist believes in the reality of God's anger, and is deeply grateful that the LORD is ‘slow to anger’ and that his anger has limits.  He is grateful that God will not go on accusing or being angry if we turn from those wicked ways which made him angry in the first place.  He knows this both from his own experience of God's forgiveness (v3) and what he has seen in Israel's history.  The parental imagery of v13 suggests that God feels anger, just as we do, with its potent mixture of rage, grief, frustration, hurt and fear, and more than hints that with God as with us anger and love are closely related.

ii v10 - ‘He does not deal with us according to our sins / nor repay us according to our iniquities’

This verse continues the theme of God's attitude to sin, and illustrates the psalmist's belief in how the generosity of God deals with the sin of those who ‘fear him’, ie worship him; and here we have the plainest of plain statements about the forgiveness of sins.  v12 expresses it equally plainly.  The psalmist does not explain how God forgives sins, but simply gives thanks that it is so.  v10 is a bold and sweeping statement of fact which expresses succinctly and simply what the OT teaches everywhere.  Ps 130:3-4 puts it like this,

‘If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, Lord who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered (‘feared’ ie worshiped).’

If we were to press these psalmists on how God forgives sin they would probably talk about repentance, restitution and sacrifices and they might quote Leviticus 4:1- 6:7 and 7:1-10.  The rules refer to two liturgies - a ‘sin-offering’ (hattath) and a ‘guilt-offering’ (‘asham) - but don’t explain the differences or differentiate the rituals (Leviticus 7:7).  A guilty person must also make restitution according to a tariff.  There is also the Day of Atonement, with a state liturgy of penance - ‘.... on this day atonement shall be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the LORD’ (Leviticus 16:30).

Atonement or ‘expiation’ (REB) is the ‘covering up’ of sin, its removal and disarming.  It is God's will that the contamination of sin should be removed and people be set free from the burden of their own wrongdoing, and so he gives these liturgies as the opportunity for people to confess their sin and to know that their sin has been taken away and their guilt removed.  The OT sees these liturgies as gifts of God’s love.  God saved his people from Egypt through Moses, and gave them these sacraments as part of his Torah - his Teaching and Guidance rather than his Law - so that they can continue to enjoy their new freedom and peace.  The rubrics, such as they are, set out what should be done, but they do not say how these acts bring about forgiveness.  What they do say is that the person who does these things is forgiven (Leviticus 4:20, 26, 31, 35 etc), and that through the Day of Atonement the nation is ‘cleansed.’  Basic to these liturgies is the presupposition that the worshippers are ‘repentant’, and providing that they have also made restitution they make their confession as they lay their hands on the head of their offering.  They hear ‘the word of grace and the assurance of pardon’ in the blood ‘sprinkled’ (AV, NIV) or ‘dashed’ (NRSV, NJPS) on the altar (not on themselves according to what few OT references there are; nor in Hebrews 9 either).  Their sins are forgiven and they can go in peace, because that is what God wants for them.

It is often, and rightly, said that the whole notion of sacrifice and sacrificial systems is impossible for modern westerners to understand, and that sacrifice in the OT is part of an ancient and alien world foreign to our ways of thinking.  Even the OT itself is not entirely clear on what was to be done, and certainly does not go into detailed explanations of why.  There was a belief that blood was somehow sacred, and was therefore on the one hand not to be eaten, and on the other was powerful in making atonement (eg Leviticus 17:11) but beyond that it is impossible to penetrate.  But what is quite clear from that verse is the belief that God has given the blood and the liturgy of sacrifices for sin as a means of putting everything right and dealing with sin and guilt, as, to use a good old Christian expression, a ‘means of grace’.  In the OT sacrifices are, of course, the normal way of offering any worship and sacrifices for sin are only a small group in the total range of sacrifices available, but the sacrifices for sin are not rituals devised by us to attempt to win God's favour or change his mind, but liturgies given by him to help us back to fullness of life, as put beautifully in this quotation from Akiba, a rabbi of the generation after Jesus, 

‘Rabbi Akiba said, "Blessed are ye, O Israel.  Before whom are ye made clean and who makes you clean?  Your Father in heaven."’  (Mishnah, Yoma 8:9)

So if we pressed the psalmist for an answer to the question of how God forgives and why, he would perhaps comment tartly at the silliness of the question.  God forgives because he is God.  He forgives his Israelite children just like any normal parent forgives their children.  God is like that.  Love is like that.  When his children come to him seriously sorry for their wrongdoing, ready to learn from their mistakes, promising not to do those things again, and having done what they can to put things right for those they have wronged, then God forgives them like any parent would (v13).  Fathers love because they are fathers, it goes with the role.  God loves because he is God, it goes with the role.  God loves and forgives, it goes with the role.

Given that, why then do we promote the heresy and blasphemy, of 

There was no other good enough / to pay the price of sin;
He only could unlock the gate / of heaven and let us in?

Or encourage the kind of popular evangelism which says that God's character is like a coin with two sides - justice and love - that God’s justice condemns us, for sin must be punished, but his love makes him long for us to become his friends again, so on the cross his justice and his love meet in that God in his love sent his Son to die in our place, bearing the death penalty our sins deserved and so the debt of our sin was paid?  That Jesus came to rescue us from God’s anger, by taking on what we deserve, swapping places with us, deliberately taking on God’s anger at us, so that we can be forgiven? 

Do we need this I ask?  Not if we have read the OT, we don’t!  The obvious and fatal flaw in this way of thinking is that its understandings of God are inferior to Ps 103.  This God is not the holy and caring Father of Ps 103 or of Rabbi Akiba and Judaism, who indeed hates sin but deals with it by calling his children to repent.  This god is the cold and hard ‘judge’ of the Roman world in which there is no such thing as forgiveness because crimes have to be paid for, or the feudal tyrant whose honour has to be ‘satisfied’.  Bible texts and Biblical words might be quoted in these theologies but, I suggest, they are misread and misunderstood and the result is a very poor likeness of the God to which Old and New Testaments alike bear witness.

iii v14 - ‘For he knows how we were made / he remembers that we are dust’

Suddenly and metaphorically the psalm comes down to earth, saying that God loves us ‘because he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust’, an allusion to the creation story in Genesis 2:4b-3:24 and 2:7 in particular.  In that second creation story (distinct from the first in Genesis and the other two found elsewhere in the OT) God ‘forms’ a male human being out of ‘dust’, and those two words are used here - ‘because he knows how we were formed; he remembers that we are dust’.  The psalmist is also aware of the beauty, wonder and greatness of human life, for in v4 he says that God has treated us like kings and queens, an allusion to the creation psalm, Ps 8.  But this does not prevent him writing that we are ‘dust’, that dust is what we are made of (v14a) and dust is what we are (v14b).  This does not mean that we are ‘dirty’ – however popular that idea has been in vernacular Christian anthropology - but that we are frail and insubstantial (cf Ps 78:39) - ‘frail children of dust, and feeble as frail’.  There is nothing to us.  The dust on the ground is so light that the wind blows it everywhere.  Dust can lie on a pair of scales and make not the slightest difference to their accuracy (Isaiah 40:15).  We are as weighty as that!  Our bodies are made of the commonest thing there is, dust, and when we die that is where they return, ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ (cf Genesis 3:19).  

God knows this, I read in this psalm, and sees our transgression, iniquity and sin as a sign of our weakness and frailty.  There is something of the inevitable about it.  God knows how easy it is for us to sin and he accepts that.  He recognises that part of our human nature is that we fail and he understands that.  ‘He knows our frame’ as older translations put it; ‘he remembers that we are dust’, he acknowledges our human weakness; just as a father does that of his youngsters.  God understands failure.

This verse helps me keep our sin in perspective, whereas so much Christianity, I feel, especially in our tradition, has been in danger of paying too much attention to it.  God knows that we are weak and frail and prone to sin, and accepts that as a fact of our life.  He doesn't make a song and dance about it, for it is part of what we are.  It is not the most important part of what we are, nor is it the least important part.  We are ‘dust’ and sin is an inevitable part of our weakness.  God deals with it by forgiving and putting it away from us, as the psalm has already noted (vv8-13) and by giving us guidelines and help in overcoming it, as the psalmist will explain in vv15-18 but which we have not time to consider.

I am sorry if I have laboured this point, and I certainly did not intend a rerun of my little letter to the Local Preachers magazine of a few years back where I pointed this kind of thing out: but as the ‘penal substitution’ theory of the atonement has been given such huge publicity in the Alpha Course, and as it is key in the dreadful theology of the Diocese of Sydney which is increasingly bidding to replace Canterbury in the leadership of the Anglican Communion, with dire repercussions for the Church of England with which we are now covenanted, I felt that this must be said, again, and again, if needs be.

4  So to come back to the questions I raised at the start and which have cropped up in different ways throughout this presentation: 

What would happen to Christian doctrine, spirituality and evangelism if we took the OT seriously?  What if we actually began from where the OT is, rather than from somewhere else?  What if we looked at the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus in the light of the OT rather than the other way round?  If God is like Ps 103 says he is, do we actually need some of the stuff which Christianity has introduced into theology, spirituality and evangelism?  If we really started from Ps 103, what new and better places for theology, spirituality and evangelism might we find ourselves journeying towards?  In all of this, where does Jesus fit?  What does Jesus and Christianity add to this picture of a generous and forgiving God whose name and nature is love which we read so clearly in Ps 103?   

To those questions, or this single issue – for that is what it really is - my response is that given that the NT is primarily concerned with soteriology - from Matthew’s ‘you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’ (1:21), through the mission agenda in Acts that ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’ (2:21) to the ‘new heaven and the new earth’ of Revelation (21:1) - and given that soteriology is historically basic to our Methodist tradition – taking the OT seriously would at the very least liberate us from seriously misleading and theologically damaging, though currently much in vogue,  atonement theologies.  It would then force us to think harder about the ‘extra’ that Jesus adds to the Good News which the OT already provides, about the ways in which he ‘fulfils’ the OT (and ‘fulfil’ is one of the NT’s main words for describing the impact of Jesus) and the ways in which the NT supplements the Old (and ‘The Supplement’ is one of titles I sometimes use for the NT, and not entirely mischievously).  

The resulting journey, for me at least, involves seeing Jesus as an authentically Jewish figure – the charismatic Galilean prophet and teacher with healing gifts outlined by Vermes - who teaches nothing particularly new, but who lives out an acutely focused challenge to the People of God to fully live their vocation and to do so sanely and humanely, who dies because he puts himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, but in whose death and resurrection we see his vindication by God.  A Christology from below and a soteriology which focuses on Easter Day rather than Good Friday.  Both the Christian Church and the NT, as I see it, begin here with this new empowering of the People of God and the inauguration of a worldwide mission.  

Such was the impact of this man and these events, that post Easter his disciples ransacked their theological resources to find ways of expressing the significance he had for them, and so in the NT we see OT texts, metaphors and images used dramatically, imaginatively and boldly.  But in none of this do they lose their OT integrity and rootedness.  When, however, these NT usages are read without awareness of their OT meanings, the result is the kind of distortion and misunderstanding, especially of the nature and purpose of God and of the meaning and place of the death of Christ, which I have identified in this presentation.  No doubt there are other examples which we could have explored, say to do with Christology, and more dimensions too to the ones we have looked at that we could explore, again to do with Christology – for if Christ did not ‘have to die’ for our forgiveness, then why did he die and how should we preach Christ crucified? - but I have concentrated on these two particular ones to make the point that we should read the NT and do our theology in the light of the OT rather than the other way round, and to promote that I say, urgently and passionately, ‘Come back, Moses, we need you’.


12 The Bible in Church and Worship

(Script notes from the Diocese of Truro and the Cornwall District of the Methodist Church Continuing Ministerial Education Day, Thursday February 16th 2006)

Session 1  ‘Reading the Bible in church’

1 Thanks and introduction.  This is a day on the Bible, because ‘the Bible is what I do’ but we've called it ‘The Bible in Church and Worship’ because I am equally passionate that the Bible is the Church’s book which, most of the time, the Church doesn’t read and use as well as it might.  So I want to approach today’s topic in these two sessions in a very practical way.  Before lunch I want to look, quite practically really, at the issue of how we can make sure that the Bible is heard in church, so I’m calling this session, very unadventurously, ‘Reading the Bible in church’.  After lunch I want to deal with some wider questions about its use in preaching and teaching, and I will do that under the heading of that marvellous phrase of Pratt Green’s, ‘in honesty of preaching’, though we will be looking much wider than preaching.

2 So, in this session - ‘Reading the Bible in church’, I want to ask and answer this simple question: How can we best read the Bible in church?  I want to suggest that how we introduce and conclude the Bible readings we use in worship is of crucial importance.  And I want to work on the principle that Bible readings in worship are theologically, liturgically, educationally and spiritually important and need to be done much better than they generally are.  So in this session I want to focus on ways of improving these Bible readings and on a formula to be avoided at all cost. 

3 So down to hearing the Bible in church, and the first thing I want to say is that Scripture readings need to be introduced.  Traditionally Bible readings have been introduced in worship only by a statement of where the reading is from (ie book, chapter and verse) to which the page number has been added in recent years in churches where pew Bibles are in use, and in the case of the Gospel reading, one liturgical introduction or another.  Fine, no problems there, I want to take those two types of introduction for granted. 

But it seems to me, for one very simple reason, that those two kinds of introduction are not enough any more because it is now almost meaningless to introduce a reading by using only the book, chapter and verse method.  This very simple reason is the huge ignorance of the Bible in our congregations.  I do not propose to prove that ignorance as any preacher or minister who listens to congregations discussing the Bible, or watches them trying to find their places in it, or listens to how Bible readings can be introduced will be able to supply their own examples – and any theological tutor will be able to do the same on the basis of their observation of ordinands – but if it is proof you want then just consult the surveys done periodically by the Bible Society.  There are some glorious exceptions, of course, but the majority experience is uniformly worrying.  In the last year I have heard preachers, worship leaders and appointed Bible readers using the book, chapter and verse method refer to readings from ‘the Letter of Amos’, ‘the Book of Corinthians’, ‘the Letter of Timothy’ and ‘the Gospel of Romans’.

The result of this ignorance is that congregations need help to know what this snippet of the Bible they are hearing read is and how they are to handle it.  They need to know where this snippet fits into the bigger story, who the characters are and what the thing is about, just as they need to know the genre of the passage being read.  If genre and context are essential to reading – as we recognise they are – then that context and genre need to be identified so that meaning can be discerned

So let’s try it out with the three lectionary readings for the principal service for next Sunday – which is if I can find my way round the lectionary aright, the 2nd Sunday before Lent in Year B: which gives us 2 Kings 2:1-12, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 and Mark 9:2-9 plus, for those who still use them, Ps 50:1-6.  Comment on each one – this proves my case!

4 Now let's pause to do something for my own benefit please: a mini-survey on what Bible readings are used in your churches (so some tellers please) - and I know this is complicated because you will have to show once for each of your churches – but also make sure that only one show is counted for each church – you are getting more and more like the Methodists!) 

Straw Poll: Diocese of Truro/Cornwall Methodist District  February 16th 2006

1  How many churches represented here?  159
2  How many of them only have one service?  95
3  In the principal service:
How many read Gosp, Ep and OT?  94
How many read, usually, Gosp and OT?  15
How many read, usually, Gosp and Ep?  32
How many read Gosp and one another but very flexibly?  12
How many use the Ps?  41

Very interesting and very helpful.  Thank you.

5 Back to my main theme, and the second thing I want to say about reading the Bible in church is that Bible readings need to be concluded.   I suppose the way that Bible readings have traditionally been concluded in worship in the CofE has been with ‘Here ends the lesson’, or in the case of the Gospel with a richer liturgical affirmation.  Recently, ASB and post-ASB, the ‘This is the Word of the Lord/Thanks be to God’ verse and response has, in my observation, become standard, and here is where I do want to raise some questions.  I take great exception to this phrase, and regard it as a deplorable American interloper which should be evicted on sight.  Why?

What worries me about this formula, is that it is misleading when used with some Bible readings and decidedly unhelpful when used with others.  It suggests that the Bible, in any and every part is ‘the word of the Lord’ and I wonder about that from the contents of the Bible itself.  Can we use that formula, I want to ask, about those parts of the writings of St Paul when he says he’s only offering his own opinion on a particular issue because he hasn’t a word of the Lord on it (1 Cor 7:12)?  Or about those agonised cries to a seemingly deaf God from a psalmist in deep personal distress which constitute a significant portion of the Psalter?  Then there are those passages where the use of the formula seems to condone totally unacceptable values, as in the bloodier parts of Judges or the nastier bits of Jude.  Are readers and preachers who parrot that formula, I wonder, unaware of just how strange it sounds after such a passage?  It can only be said, surely, if the speaker’s mind is out of gear?  (For a brilliant example see Black Pudding in the books section, chapter 12, section 4). 

When this formula is used, given the power of words which are fixed in the liturgy, it dangerously reinforces the near fundamentalist understanding of the Bible latent in most Christians.  The formula suggests, quite simply, that the passage read is God’s spoken and written word, and that that is how it is to be taken.  And suggesting that short circuits the whole complex process of interpretation and grossly simplifies the huge complexity of the Bible itself – which we will come on to after lunch.

In my youth in Methodism the preachers often used an old prayer after a reading - ‘May God bless to us this reading from his Word’.  This, and others like it, at least suggested that there was a gap between what we had heard read and our understanding of it which we needed the help of God to bridge.  It was a prayer that we might hear the ‘word of God’ in what we had just heard read from the Bible.  It recognized that the Bible’s way of speaking in the reading read might not be all that plain and that our hearing was not always very acute.  It looked for God’s help in both hearing and understanding.  By contrast this new formula suggests that there is no gap to be bridged, that what we have heard is clear and to the point and that every reader can hear every passage as itself the word of God and thank God for it.  The formula is dangerously simplistic. 

It can also be seriously manipulative.  After all, what has been read is a snippet of scripture chosen by the lectioneers.  It frequently, in the lectionary, omits certain verses from a longer passage or joins selected verses together according to the agenda, point of view or intention of the lectioneers.  ‘This is the word of the lectionary’ might therefore be more honest.  If the passage is the one the preacher has chosen to use in the sermon, the manipulative power of the formula is even greater.  The preacher has a sermon to preach, a message to give, and the reading supports that message.  It gives the sermon, the preacher’s opinions and the preacher’s point of view a head start if the congregation have already heard those opinions and that point of view ascribed to the Lord himself at the end of the reading, does it not?  Here is another variant on that old preacher’s favourite phrase, ‘The Bible says…’  What they should really say, of course, is ‘The verse of the Bible which I have chosen to prove my point says’, but that would give the game away. 

‘Honesty of preaching’ and honesty of worship would be better served, I suggest, if this seriously misleading phrase was not used at all.  I have no alternative to suggest, my own practice is usually along the lines of ‘Thanks be to God for these ancient words of Amos/these difficult words of Paul/ or whatever’ followed by ‘May he help us to understand what they have to say to us, Amen’.

6 And finally, on reading the Bible in church, there is the need for time to take it in, and that means proper silence.  Here I commend taking the two or three readings together with the use of silence between each one and after them all.  Experience shows that it is appreciated by congregations.  And it is simply done; all it needs to avoid embarrassment is that the congregation is told in the introduction to the readings that it is going to happen; that the readers are briefed and that the minister directs the timing.  My experience is that doing this increases the quality of the worship experience as a whole beyond anything you might expect.  I noted that in the service in the Cathedral on Sunday, a one minute silence after each reading appeared in the order of service.  I noted too that they had, for that service at least, dropped their ‘This is the word of the Lord’ practice.  Long may it stay dropped.  Refer to Appraisal exercise.

Session 2  ‘In honesty of preaching’

1 In this session I want to deal with some wider questions about our use of the Bible in the Church, and I want to do it that under the heading of that marvellous phrase of Pratt Green’s, ‘in honesty of preaching’, though we will be looking much wider than preaching.  Before I get to that I need to define ‘honesty’ here.  By ‘using the Bible in the Church honesty’ I mean that we should treat the Bible in church with the full rigour with which it is treated academically.  I don’t mean ‘academically’ in the sense of long words and unreadable books – academics who do it that way are bad academics.  And I don’t mean ‘academically’ in the sense of negative, destructive and insensitive attacks on faith – for that is not ‘academic study’ either, it’s polemics and propaganda.  I mean the sort of academic honesty rooted in our British tradition and exemplified in Peake’s Commentary (the classic mainstream British Commentary edited by the Methodist A. S. Peake in 1919) and in the industry of James Hastings (late 19th century Scottish Presbyterian scholar who was committed to making biblical scholarship accessible to the people via the pulpit, eg Hastings Dictionary of the Bible, The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, the Expository Times etc).

2 That ‘honesty of preaching’ means recognising what the Bible is and how it came to us – ‘Black Pudding’ – a divine and human book etc etc, and being open about all the issues to do with its origins, contents, difficulties and delights.  And Mark Chapman’s experience shows the urgent need for it very clearly (He is the Oxford lecturer who got into hot water by saying simple stuff about the Bible when preaching at an Oxfordshire village church, and which led to the series of articles in the Expository Times, of which my 'mind the Gap' was number 3 - see the articles page).  The ensuing Expository Times series shows the difficulty of and the need for such honesty in preaching from and working with the Bible.

3 In a sense I have been engaged with this issue for all of my ministry, and the constant conversation partner has been what we might describe as innate English biblicism, that view of the Bible that takes most of it at face value.  In more recent years the experience has changed from a conversation between friends to something like a confrontation between enemies, and I put that down to globalisation, to the export to the UK of the militant fundamentalism which has been resurgent in the USA since the 1970s.  In addition, a third stance has appeared, this time within the university, in the form of an equally militant tendency who are trying to split what Hastings and Peake held together from the other side, and to say that proper Bible study belongs to the university, because all faith-based readings of the Bible deform it – let us do Bible, they say, and let the Church do Scripture.  And some Christian scholars say, yes please.  Which makes my enterprise – which I would call mainstream in both Church and University – even more difficult.  I am already batting on a sticky wicket and now half my team are trying to pull the rug from under my feet – excuse the mixing of metaphors, but I can’t think of a cricketing metaphor which worked. 

4 Before we get down to some practicalities, let me spell these two developments out a little more.  First, the resurgence of fundamentalism.  In 1981 James Barr wrote what is still regarded by many as the definitive critical study of fundamentalism, and in it he showed how it is very difficult to provide a simple answer to the apparently simple question of ‘What is fundamentalism?’  Twenty-five years on from that, it is clear that the situation has got significantly more complicated as in the intervening years the term has moved out of its original location in Christian discourse and is now used much more widely.  At the very least, Christian ‘fundamentalism’ is characterised by:

a very strong emphasis on the inerrancy of the Bible, the absence from it of any sort of error;
a strong hostility to modern theology and to the methods, results and implications of modern critical study of the Bible;
an assurance that those who do not share their religious viewpoint are not really ‘true Christians’ at all.  (Barr 1981:1)

Britain and Europe were caught up in controversy which began in the USA in the early years of the 20th century, but by the 1930’s fundamentalism had failed to establish itself here or there as a coherent theological position.  As far as British Methodism is concerned, the obituary of A S Peake in The Times of 20th August 1929 has become famous, 

‘Perhaps it was Dr Peake’s greatest service, not merely to his own communion but to the whole religious life of England, that he helped to save us from a fundamental controversy such as that which has devastated large sections of the Church in America.  He knew the facts which modern study of the Bible has brought to light.  He knew them, and he was frank and fearless in telling them, but he was also a simple and consistent believer in Jesus, and he let that be seen too, and therefore men who could not always follow him were ready to trust him, and let him go his own way.  If the Free Churches of England have been able without disaster to navigate the broken waters of the last thirty years, it is largely to the wisdom and patience of trusty and trusted pilots like Arthur Samuel Peake that they owe it.’

C H Dodd writing in the Dictionary of National Biography Twentieth Century 1922-30 summarises Peake’s life and work thus:

‘his work did much to save the Free Churches of Great Britain from the baneful effects of ‘Fundamentalist’ controversies.’

Such official pronouncements did not, of course, satisfy every Methodist local preacher or candidate for the ministry, and many church members can be described as ‘folk fundamentalists’ to this day.  By that term I mean that they are, for whatever reason, largely oblivious to the issues raised by or the approaches taken to post-Enlightenment Biblical scholarship, and that is what I mean by ‘innate British biblicism’.  ‘Ideological fundamentalism’, on the other hand, ie that fundamentalism which is aware of the options and deliberately opts for an anti-critical position, remained in the mainstream churches only as a discredited, underground and minority viewpoint.  That situation continued until the early 1970s when, for a variety of reasons, American fundamentalists ‘re-emerged into the public arena’ (Gifford 2000:256).  Since then, with growing confidence allied to considerable wealth, they have established themselves in the USA as a force to be reckoned with.  Theirs is conviction Christianity, and the conviction is that they possesses the truth - definitively, uniquely and plainly; and that they alone read the Bible properly, as God’s revealed, inerrant and authoritative Word.

The latter quarter of the twentieth century saw the renewal of evangelicalism in the West, and all the mainstream churches of Europe have been and are being profoundly affected by it.  Although it is frequently pointed out that ‘evangelicalism’ and ‘fundamentalism’ are not synonyms and that many evangelicals have traditionally distanced themselves from fundamentalism, that they still do and that they emphatically should (Marshall 2004:31), there seems little doubt that the influence of fundamentalism within Christianity in general and evangelicalism in particular is growing and that given the wealth of its American base such an influence is almost bound to increase. 

5 If we turn to the other scene, that within the academic world of Biblical study, there have been significant changes too, and I don’t mean the huge new sets of tools open to those who want to explore the Bible, they need another session or three.  What I mean is the powerful view trenchantly expressed by Phillip Davies of the University of Sheffield in 1995 in a book called, Whose Bible is it anyway?  He argued that the gap between the use of the Bible in the university and the use of the Bible in the church was not to be deplored – as I deplore it – but that it should be legitimated and universities engage in the secular study of Bible (the really important and proper way of studying the Bible) while theological colleges engage in the sacred study of Scripture (which is not proper Bible scholarship at all).  Other voices are now frequently heard in support.  Much the same thing – though reversing the prejudice – was said from the Church’s side, prominently by Francis Watson; and now there is the important Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar, a consortium of Biblical scholars sponsored by the University of Gloucester and the Bible Society promoting what we might confessional, committed and church-friendly Biblical study in a big way.  At heart the Seminar argues, though this way of putting it is mine, that the ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ which has ruled in academic Biblical studies since the 1970s should itself be treated suspiciously, and that the time has come to read the Bible also with a ‘hermeneutic of trust’ or of ‘humility’. 

6 Peake and Hastings, and not a few of their modern day disciples, despair at this bifurcation, and I am among them.  My contribution to the Expository Times series which followed Mark Chapman’s experience was headed ‘Mind the Gap’ and in it I shared my conviction, the conviction behind this session, that there is an urgent task to be done in the church at every level, to bridge this gap; to ensure that the Bible is used honestly in the church and in the churches.  I believe that the task is both urgent and necessary partly because I believe that this is the only way to treat the Bible, and partly because I am scared of the insidious growth of fundamentalism.  The question then is, how do we use the Bible in our church life with the proper integrity that both traditional mainstream Biblical scholarship and traditional Church hermeneutics have shared in common?

6 So let me now get practical.  In an ideal world, of course, every member of every Sunday congregation would go to a house group in the week and part of that house group would be some decent Bible study: but we know that doesn’t happen, which throws the problem back into Sunday worship – hence my concern about introducing and concluding Bible readings this morning, and my aversion to ‘This is the Word of the Lord/Thanks be to God’.  I am not advocating that sermons or Bible readings should ‘teach’ – I don’t think that the purpose of a sermon is primarily didactic and I’m not sure that that is the purpose of a Bible reading either, even though BCP refers to them as ‘lessons’ - but I recognise that sermons and Bible readings do teach, often unconsciously on the part of the preacher and subconsciously on the part of the listener.  So I want to suggest that we do our best to make sure that such teaching tends to closing the gap, rather than to perpetuating it or widening it further still.  So let me give some examples:

a.  Come with me to Ponsongath – spelling out the genre (village church on the Lizard, Harvest Festival, I read the 2 creation stories in Gen 1-3 and called them 'Parables'.  Very well received)
b.  But spelling out my working-out put the cat among the pigeons at Rising Brook (Methodist Church in Stafford which had an annual Good Friday United Service with the nearby Baptist Church.  One year I preached on the 'mythology' Matthew uses in Mt 27.45-56.  It went down well with the Methodists, but I had a deputation of Baptist deacons complaining the week after.  They liked the message, but were upset by the 'working out' I had used, ie that Mt did not expect anyone to take any of that passage literally.  See the quote below. See sermon 9, 'Living with Dragons' on the sermons page for a later sermon along the same lines)  
c.  The ‘real history’ question (Where does 'real history' begin in the OT?  At best Abraham is a king Arthur sort of figure, and Moses, and, some say, David...)
d.  The Christmas collage (How we blend Mt and Lk in the Nativity Play and omit the bits that don't fit - see my Who is this Jesus who was born of Mary? book)
e.  From my sermon at my installation as Canon Theologian (ie did Jesus really say all that stuff he says in John, not least in the Farewell Discourses, for the full sermon see sermon 12 'We aren't there yet' on the sermons page), 

Well, now it’s time for a text, even though most of my sermons don’t have texts, and on this Pentecost Sunday my text is Jesus’ promise from the Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John that ‘when the Spirit of Truth comes he will guide you into all the truth’ (John 16:12). 

I once got into trouble for saying something about the Bible – nothing new in that some of you will think - at a united Good Friday service in the church in Stafford of which I and before me Ian Haile had been a minister.  It was a united service with the local Baptist church, and after I got back from my Easter holiday I was greeted by a deputation of Deacons from that church objecting to my sermon.  They were not, they said, objecting to my main points, but to the way I had exposed my working out.  Now it seems to me that sometimes honesty of preaching and of teaching requires that we expose our working out, and this is one of those occasions and one of those texts; and it also seems to me that honesty of preaching is high on the list of what is expected from a Canon Theologian. 

So, John 16:12 - ‘when the Spirit of Truth comes he will guide you into all the truth,’ words from the Gospel of John, created by the anonymous John who wrote that Gospel.  I do not believe that Jesus spent twenty minutes after the Last Supper saying those things we find written in the Farewell Discourse in chapters 14-17 of John’s gospel.  I believe that those words, like most of that Gospel itself are an aged theologian’s reflections after a long life of faithfulness on what Jesus means to him.  ‘I am the light of the world’, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’, ‘I am the good shepherd’ and all of those things are John’s way of saying what Jesus meant to him and his churches rather than the words that Jesus actually spoke.  And so it is with the words of this text, which John puts on the lips of Jesus, that ‘when the Spirit of truth comes he will guide you into all truth’.  What John is doing when he creates this speech of Jesus is expressing there his and his church’s experience of the way in which in their theological reflecting, in their agonising about what it meant to be Christian, in their working out of what as Christians they ought to think and do, they had not been left alone to grapple with those issues unaided and in the dark: but they had experienced the living presence of God in their community - helping them, prompting them, guiding them, encouraging them in their search for the truth as it was for them in their context and at that point of time.  They had known and experienced God’s spirit, the Spirit of Truth, leading, guiding and helping them in their search for truth, for the truth they had seen in Jesus.  So that’s my working out, and I say thanks be to God for John’s testimony to us that we can expect to find God’s Spirit guiding us into the truth in our day and age in just the same way that he and his church had experienced in his.

So let’s move on to the text itself…

f.  There will be some people in this room, though not a lot, who believe that Gen 1-3 are both science and history: but there will be many more, I suggest, whose congregations think that they think that, and therefore that they too should think that if they are Christians – although few of them do or want to.  Hence the relief I see in lots of church folk when they are told by someone official in the Church that its ok not to think that Gen 1-3 are science and history. 

g.  There will be lots of people in this room who believe that the Fourth Gospel is far more historically reliable than I gave it credit for in that sermon, and there’s room at a CME session for a good look at that question sometime because the argument is not at all cut and dried: but there will be few in this room, I suggest, whose congregations are even aware that there is a question here.  Hence the way some students coming to the university classes are upset and disturbed when they learn, and not from me, that there is a question here, which all of you have known about since your first sessions in NT studies.

7 Bridging the gap is a huge, complex and difficult issue – but in my view working at it is an essential mission task.


13 Fundamentalism - 2

(A Study Day in the Continuing Ministerial Education programme of the Diocese of Truro and the Cornwall Methodist District, 26.1.09.  The four sessions on that day were accompanied by powerpoint slides – which are mentioned in situ in the text below – and the presentation can be found at no.2 on the powerpoint page of this website)

Session 1  ‘Fundamentalism’ - the evolution of a word
Session 2  Christian Fundamentalism - the growth of a movement
Session 3  Fundamentalism and the Bible          
Session 4  The Threat of Fundamentalism

The blurb for the day:  We can hardly hear a news broadcast these days without some ‘Fundamentalist’ group or another being mentioned, but what does the label mean?  Stephen will take us through the development of the term in the 20th century and then look at the claims that modern Christian Fundamentalism makes about the Bible and the threat it poses, not least to traditional British Christianity. 

[slide 1]

Session 1  ‘Fundamentalism’ - the evolution of a word  [slide 2]

1  Once upon a time, up to about the 1970s, ‘Fundamentalism’ and ‘Fundamentalists’ were words found and used in Christian discourse, and in a rather narrow and confined part of that discourse at that.  Nowadays they are words found in public discourse, and in fact are found very frequently.  In this session I simply want to trace the evolution of this ‘F-word’.   James Barr [slide 3] begins what is still regarded by many as the definitive critical study of Christian Fundamentalism with the question, ‘Is there really such a thing as Fundamentalism, and what exactly is it?’ (Barr 1981:1).  He then proceeds to show how it is very difficult to provide a simple answer to that apparently simple question, not least because ‘Fundamentalism’ is a complex social and religious movement.  Thirty years on from that, it is clear that the situation has got significantly more complicated as in the intervening years the term has moved out of its original location in Christian discourse and is now used much more widely.  The back cover of one of many important books appearing on Fundamentalism sums up the current situation like this,

The most conspicuous form of religion to emerge during the 20th century is ‘fundamentalism’.  Any account of the modern world that ignores the impact of the forces of fundamentalism will be significantly deficient.  Whether one considers debates within faith communities concerning the correct interpretation of sacred writings, or opposition to western secular values, or religiously inspired political activism, or indeed some forms of international terrorism, fundamentalism seems to be a perennial and ubiquitous religious tendency (Partridge: back cover).    

2  The words ‘Fundamentalism’ and ‘Fundamentalist’ are derived [slide 4] from a series of booklets called The Fundamentals, which were published in America between 1910 and 1915.  These were written out of the lively and bitter controversy between ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ which had dominated north American Protestant theology, especially in the area of Biblical interpretation, in the latter half of the nineteenth century.  The ‘mainline denominations’ of the northern states had adapted to the changing ideas of that century by taking on board evolution, biblical criticism and the social gospel, to name the three big areas of controversy.  Conservative Protestants denounced all this as ‘liberalism’ or ‘modernism’ and attempted to turn the tide both in North American Protestantism and American culture generally, but, as Gifford writes, ‘by the mid-1920s it was obvious that these fundamentalists … had failed on all fronts’ (Gifford 2000:255).  We will come back to these beginnings in session 2.

3  Britain and Europe were caught up in the same controversy, and the result was the same on this side of the Atlantic.  By the 1930s Fundamentalism had failed to establish itself as a coherent theological position.  As far as British Methodism [slide 5] is concerned, for example, the obituary of A S Peake in The Times of 20th August 1929 has become famous, 

Perhaps it was Dr Peake’s greatest service, not merely to his own communion but to the whole religious life of England, that he helped to save us from a fundamental controversy such as that which has devastated large sections of the Church in America.  He knew the facts which modern study of the Bible has brought to light.  He knew them, and he was frank and fearless in telling them, but he was also a simple and consistent believer in Jesus, and he let that be seen too, and therefore men who could not always follow him were ready to trust him, and let him go his own way.  If the Free Churches of England have been able without disaster to navigate the broken waters of the last thirty years, it is largely to the wisdom and patience of trusty and trusted pilots like Arthur Samuel Peake that they owe it.

C H Dodd writing in the Dictionary of National Biography Twentieth Century 1922-30 summarises Peake’s life and work thus:

his work did much to save the Free Churches of Great Britain from the baneful effects of ‘Fundamentalist’ controversies.’

The same point can be seen graphically, again in the Methodist context, in H Maldwyn Hughes’ introduction to Christian doctrine published by the Epworth Press in March 1927 as the official textbook for Wesleyan local preachers and candidates for the ministry published under the title, Christian Foundations.  There is no reference to Fundamentalism in its index, but the penultimate sentence to Note B, Theories of Inspiration, could not be clearer in its repudiation of it,  

It is no longer claimed that the Bible is inerrant in such matters as those of science and history; indeed a passage is not necessarily inerrant even in matters of faith and morals (Hughes:34).

Such official pronouncements did not, of course, satisfy every local preacher or candidate for the ministry, and many church members can be described as ‘folk fundamentalists’ to this day (Dawes 2000:294).  By that term I mean that they are, for whatever reason, largely oblivious to the issues raised by or the approaches taken to post-Enlightenment Biblical scholarship.  ‘Ideological Fundamentalism’, on the other hand, ie that Fundamentalism which is aware of the options and deliberately opts for an anti-critical position, remained in the mainstream churches only as a discredited, underground and minority viewpoint.

4  At this point we need to stop and ask what we are really talking about.  What was this ‘Fundamentalism’ that Peake defeated in Britain and which continued to exist on the Christian scene in the USA only as a small, discredited and obscurantist minority viewpoint?  Here I simply want to refer to James Barr’s very important definition, which we will come back to later.  In Fundamentalism he described what many or most Christians perceived of or classified as ‘Fundamentalism’ [slide 6]:

a very strong emphasis on the inerrancy of the Bible, the absence from it of any sort of error;
a strong hostility to modern theology and to the methods, results and implications of modern critical study of the Bible;
an assurance that those who do not share their religious viewpoint are not really ‘true Christians’ at all.  (Barr 1981:1)

Harriet Harris adds [slide 7] another three characteristics when she writes about the situation in the USA in the mid-twentieth century, saying that Fundamentalism’ became the name-badge for those who

did not engage in social action,
did not attend mainstream educational institutions, and
did not mix with non-fundamentalist Christians even for mission purposes (Partridge 2001:5)

and much the same could be said of the same groups in Britain.

5  This situation continued in western Christianity until the early 1970s when, for a variety of reasons, American fundamentalists ‘re-emerged into the public arena’ (Gifford 2000:256).  Since then, with growing confidence allied to considerable wealth, they have established themselves in the USA as the force to be reckoned with [slide 8].  The original three-point description identified by Barr remains true, and so do the second two of Harries’ three points, but contemporary American Fundamentalism is marked as much by powerful social teaching, awareness and action as it is by its teaching on the Bible, indeed the ‘politicisation’ of Fundamentalism in the USA in recent decades is probably its most prominent feature (Pope 2001: 183f).  In this new and different world it is adept at making alliances on social issues in pursuit of its rigorist ‘Biblical’ ethic, and given the reality of globalisation this form of Christianity is both militant and triumphant at home and abroad.  Attempts to suggest that the growing new churches of Africa and the Pacific Rim are not ‘fundamentalist’ according to either the earlier or the later twentieth century parameters, by arguing for example that they are pre-critical rather than anti-critical as is done by Gifford (2000:257) are, sadly, unduly optimistic and reassuring.  Harries reminds us that it is important to recognise the difference between contemporary ‘evangelicals’ and ‘fundamentalists’ both in America and in Britain, but she concludes that despite important caveats ‘Fundamentalism exists in the evangelical world’ (Harries 2001:47).  We must return to this question this afternoon.

6  Since the 1970s, however, ‘Fundamentalism’ has taken on a wide usage beyond that in Christian discourse.  Not only has it been extended to evangelicals who resist the label, but also to diverse groups of many different faiths, philosophies and ideologies that are in some way radically conservative [slide 9].  Currently its preferred usage in the media is as a synonym for ‘fanatic’ or ‘extremist’ with reference to militant activists or groups in Islam.  This kind of usage can, however, also be seen in the media treatment of politically active conservative groups in Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism as well as for political activists whose focus is on ethnicity, culture or land rather than religion.  And more recently still, [slide 10] some Christians have come to refer to Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and their chums as ‘secular-fundamentalists’.  It is now more appropriate, therefore, as in the title of the important symposium edited by Partridge, to speak of ‘Fundamentalisms’ rather than ‘Fundamentalism’ (Pope 2001:185).

7  The most comprehensive study of this new phenomenon is that undertaken by the Fundamentalism Project of the University of Chicago and published in five volumes between 1991 and 1995.  This project [slide 11] identified nine recurring characteristics of ‘Fundamentalism’, demonstrating a ‘family resemblance’ among the disparate groups it identified [slide 12]:

Reactivity to the marginalization of religion, especially to secularisation, both in opposing it and exploiting it
Selectivity, both in selecting and shaping particular aspects of their religious tradition, and in selecting some aspects of modernity to affirm and others to oppose
Moral dualism, dividing the world into light and darkness, good and evil
Absolutism and inerrancy, affirming the absolute validity of the ‘fundamentals’ of the tradition and, in the case of Abrahamic religions and Sikhism, treating sacred texts as inerrant
Millennialism and messianism, promising victory to the believer in the culmination of history
Elect membership, viewed often as the faithful remnant
Sharp boundaries, separating the saved from the sinful
Authoritarian organisation, with a charismatic leader and no possibility of loyal opposition
Behavioural requirements, treating the member’s time, space and activity as a group resource (Partridge 2001:xvii).

8  Although a number of these new Fundamentalisms share with the Christian variety a commitment to an ancient, authoritative, divinely inspired and sacrosanct sacred canonical text, others do not.  It is necessary therefore to look elsewhere for what the plethora of emerging Fundamentalisms might have in common and why this phenomenon is occurring as it is now.  One word keeps appearing in both facets of this discussion and it is the slippery term ‘postmodernity’ (Partridge passim, but especially Lyon pp252ff), though its predecessor ‘modernity’ appears regularly too, as does its sister ‘globalisation’.  In a world in which traditional understandings of truth, absolutes and authority are being replaced by an apparently total freedom of choice in a supermarket of lifestyles, ideas and values, and in a world where established traditions of political power, social cohesion, and ethnic and community life are being undermined by the militant consumerism of globalisation, it is hardly surprising, the argument runs, that there should be a reaction and that some if not many will look for security rather than opt for the new freedoms.  Fundamentalism is, the argument runs, a readily understandable reaction and alternative to modernity, postmodernity and globalisation.  It is the value system of this worldview, it is argued, which is fuelling the new Fundamentalisms with their defensiveness on the part of a traditional culture under threat; discontent, reaction, counter-attack, perhaps even militancy; a selective appropriation of the past, a quest for authority, a flight from ambiguity or ambivalence, even the adoption of a new identity through the formation of a new community (Gifford 2000:257).

Malise Ruthven in his Fundamentalism: A Very Short Introduction, puts it like this,

Put at its broadest, (Fundamentalism) may be described as a religious way of being that manifests itself in a strategy by which beleaguered believers attempt to preserve their distinctive identities as individuals or groups in the face of modernity and secularization (Ruthven:5-6).

Finally, in terms of definitions, the same ideas are used by Peter Herriot (Religious Fundamentalism: Global, Local and Personal) when he says that social scientists can identify five common features of contemporary religious movements which, taken together, enable them to be identified as ‘fundamentalist movements.  His five features [slide 13] are that:

a. Fundamentalist movements are reactive; that is, that they believe that their religion is under mortal threat from the secularism of the modern world, and therefore they must resist and fight back;

b. Fundamentalists are dualists: that is, that they conceive of the world in terms of binary opposites - God and the Devil, good and evil, truth and falsehood etc – and operate with a strong in-group/out-group distinction;

c. Fundamentalists believe that their holy book is supremely authoritative in its writing about what to believe and how to act;

d. Fundamentalists also work, however, by using a selective interpretation of their holy book, one which enables their movement to adapt and change in response to changing circumstances in their conflict with their opponents;

e. Fundamentalists hold an eschatological position, expecting God to act decisively in history, and see their struggle as part of achieving God’s victory (Herriot:2).

9  But before we come to the conclusion of this session on the evolution of a word, we must remember [slide 14] that ‘Fundamentalism’ and ‘Fundamentalists’ are not words which people use about themselves, their ideas or their religious group; they are words used about people, ideas and groups by those who oppose them.  As James Barr put it, back in 1981,

 … Fundamentalism is a bad word: the people to whom it is applied do not like to be so called.  It is often felt to be a hostile and opprobrious term, suggesting narrowness, bigotry, obscurantism and sectarianism.  The people whom others call fundamentalists would generally wish to be known by another term altogether (Barr 1981:2). 

10  And that brings us to the end.  Today [slide 15] ‘Fundamentalism’ and ‘Fundamentalist’ are words in common use; but no longer does in refer simply to Christians who believe certain things about the Bible.  It also refers to Islamists who engage in terror, and to obscure ultra-orthodox Jews, to name only two more of its applications.  As a recent Christian encyclopedia puts it, [slide 16],

Nowadays, the word fundamentalist is just as likely to conjure up the image of a Muslim suicide bomber or a member of an ultra-orthodox Jewish group in Jerusalem as a conservative Christian from the American mid-West who insists on the literal truth of the Bible  (Bowden:481).

Session 2  Christian Fundamentalism – the growth of a movement [slide 18] 

1  I’m one of those people for whom the best explanation of anything is to trace it historically.  For example, that allegedly most central and most beautiful of all Christian doctrines, the Doctrine of the Trinity, is for me best approached along historical lines: why did the early Church go down that road?   By what steps and for what reasons?  Asking, and answering, those kinds of questions, leads me, at any rate, to the position of having some sort of sense of what the doctrine is about.  This historical method is not everyone’s way of doing theology, though it is in fact a traditional one, but it’s the one that works best for me.  So if we do that here, follow the steps by which Fundamentalism emerged, we should be in a position to understand it better.  So let’s build on the brief outline I gave in session 1.

2  The place to start is in the USA in the decades following the Civil War of 1861-1865.  In that period so-called liberal theology [slide 19] made substantial inroads into the American Protestant seminaries and universities.  The primary feature of this liberalism was an acceptance of and reliance on scientific methods for the discovery of truth.  This way of looking at things contrasted sharply with the older Christian commitment to revealed truth, especially as the Bible was supposed to contain it.  So instead of looking to the Scriptures to determine the truth of something, liberals often held biblical texts up for comparison with scientific theories, such as Darwinian evolution, and when they found disagreements between the Bible and science, they went with science.  At the same time they were applying this evidence-based, search-for-truth method of enquiry to the Bible itself, a method of looking at the Bible which had its origins in the German universities.  By the turn of the 20th century this form of biblical scholarship had taken root in most major American seminaries and divinity schools, just as it had in Britain.  But there was a difference.  In Britain the churches largely welcomed these developments, whereas in the USA many conservative Protestants did not.  For them the Bible was the source of literal truths about the world, and they resisted anything which challenged that view.  So in the last decades of the nineteenth century many Protestant denominations in the US conducted heresy trials against well-known professors who were thought to have gone too far in accepting the ‘modernist’ ideas of the liberals.  That happened occasionally in the UK too, but to nowhere near the same extent – the most famous case in Britain [slide 20] was the dismissal of the OT scholar William Robertson Smith from his post at the Free College of Aberdeen University by the Free Church of Scotland in 1881.  In the States Conservatives maintained a firm hold on some of the nation's most illustrious divinity schools, especially Princeton, the bastion of conservative Presbyterianism, but neither side was able to claim victory and by 1900 it had become apparent that an real split had opened up in American Protestantism.  To the liberals, the conservatives were dinosaurs whose inflexibility threatened to cause massive defections from the faith as more and more people, clergy and lay people alike, came to accept the truth of scientific knowledge.  The conservatives, on the other hand, saw the liberals as nothing short of heretics whose theological innovation seemed designed to destroy the faith itself from within.  The result was that in the first two decades of the twentieth century, an uneasy truce developed between the two sides.  Each tended to keep themselves to themselves, while firing occasionally shots at the other: but this was only the calm before a great storm.  During it the groundwork was being laid, especially on the conservative side, for the massive fundamentalist versus modernist controversy of the opening decades of the new century (although the term Fundamentalism was not officially coined for the conservative movement until 1920). 

3  It all came to a head in August 1909 when Union Oil magnate Lyman Stewart heard Amzi Dixon, pastor of Dwight L. Moody's church in Chicago, preach a sermon in which he lambasted ‘one of those infidel professors’ at the University of Chicago Divinity School, the strong-hold of liberalism in the early twentieth century.  Stewart realized that he had found in Dixon a man who could help him to fulfill his aim of publishing sophisticated Christian apologetic literature, works designed to provide ‘warning and testimony’ to anyone who might be seduced by modernist ideas.  Stewart and his brother, Milton, offered to put up $250,000 to finance a series of volumes to be edited by Dixon and a committee of his choosing.  Dixon agreed and with two co-editors solicited articles from leading scholars of American and British conservative theology, gathering all the contributions into that 12-volume series [slide 21], The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth.  The first volume appeared in February 1910, and others followed periodically until 1915.  The Stewarts distributed three million copies of these volumes free of charge to pastors, professors, missionaries, YMCA and YWCA officials, and other religious professionals.  Many of the articles consisted of personal testimonies of religious experience, and some contained pieces attacking a series of ‘isms’ - Russellism (Jehovah's Witnesses), Mormonism, Eddyism (Christian Science), Spiritualism, and Romanism (Roman Catholicism).  But a full third of The Fundamentals was devoted to defending scriptural truth and attacking modern forms of biblical scholarship.  The issues were painted in ever-simpler terms: you either accepted the Bible or you did not.  While much of The Fundamentals is moderate in tone, especially when compared to later fundamentalist statements, its publication clearly helped erode whatever middle ground remained between liberal and conservative theologians.  The forward to vol. 2 puts it like this,

The Committee, to whom the two Christian laymen entrusted the editing and publishing of this series of books, have been greatly encouraged by the more than 10,000 letters of appreciation, which have come from all parts of the world; and the adverse criticisms have been almost equally encouraging, because they indicate that the books have been read by some who need the truth they contain, and their criticism will attract the attention of others.  All we desire is that the truth shall be known, and we believe that the God of Truth will bless it.

This volume goes to about 250,000 pastors, evangelists, missionaries, theological professors, theological students, YMCA secretaries, YWCA secretaries, college professors, Sunday School superintendents, and religious editors in the English speaking world; and we earnestly request all whose faith is in the God who answers prayer, to pray daily that the truth may ‘run and be glorified’ (www.encyclopedia.com/doc/Fundamentalism)

From that point on the rules of engagement for the ‘culture war’ between Fundamentalists and Liberals/Modernists in the USA were set.  The issues which had generated the conflict were, as we saw in session 1, the acceptance of Evolution, the post-enlightenment study of the Bible, and the ‘Social Gospel’ in many parts of the mainstream American churches.  Tied in was a difference of opinion over eschatology: the Fundamentalists looked for the imminent return of Christ, in a strongly millennialist way, the Liberals/Modernists did not.  But the real battleground was the Bible, and the key issue there was ‘inerrancy’.  The Fundamentalists used the word at every opportunity – the Bible is without error – the Liberals/Modernists replied that when you actually read it, you couldn’t say that.  Then the 1914-1918 War arrived, and added its fuel to the fire.  It convinced the Fundamentalists that the world was on the verge of moral collapse and the signs were clear that the End was near.  It also fuelled their arguments that Liberal/Modernist heresy leads to the collapse of Christianity and civilisation, after all, did it not all stem from German Biblical scholarship, and look at the depths of depravity to which Germany has now sunk?  World War I, liberal and conservative Protestants seemed to agree, was being fought to preserve civilization itself: but while the Liberals spoke of civilization in terms of democratic values and freedom from tyranny, the conservatives identified those same traits as the cause of the trouble.  And the modern parallels in fundamentalist Islam on that score are enormous, of course.

4  That’s how it began, but what happened next?  What happened next in the States was that the movement failed to take over the Northern Baptists and the  Presbyterian Churches, its obvious targets.  The Methodist churches were never targeted in the same way, and neither was the small and marginal Anglican church there.  Then came [slide 22] a major cultural disaster for the Fundamentalists – the Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’ in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925.  There was a Tennessee state law forbidding the teaching of evolution in schools movement, and Ruthven describes what went on as a deliberate, put-up job and carefully engineered media trial (Ruthven: 12-14).  A young teacher, John Stopes, was put up to admitting teaching evolution by the American Civil Liberties Union who wanted to challenge that law.  It was a huge media event and the fundamentalist defenders of the state law won.  Stopes’ conviction was, however, quashed on appeal, which disappointed the ACLU who really wanted the case to go even more national through a higher federal court.  But their victory proved fatal for the Fundamentalists, because ‘they attracted so much public ridicule’ (Gifford: 255) and were ‘exposed as rural ignoramuses, rural hillbillies out of touch with modern thought’ (Ruthven:15).  This trial, as Ruthven puts it,

precipitated what might be called the ‘withdrawal phase’ of American fundamentalism – a retreat into the enclaves of churches and private educational institutions, such as Bob Jones University in South Carolina.  In the mainstream academies, seminaries and denominations, liberal theology, which accepted evolution as God’s way of doing things, swept the board (Ruthven:15).

5   Unfortunately, however, that withdrawal phase was only temporary, not least because this defeat merely confirmed to the Fundamentalists that they were right all along on the old ‘opposition indicates that we must be right, and the stronger the opposition the more right we must be’ principle.  After that, and here I quote again from Ruthven,

the trend towards withdrawal did not mean that American fundamentalism remained static.  Despite its exclusion from the mainstream, the half century from 1930 to 1980 saw a steady institutional growth, with numerous (mainly Baptist) churches seceding from national denominations in order to create an impressive national infrastructure of pastoral networks, parachurch organizations and superchurches, schools and colleges, book and magazine publishing industries, radio, television and direct-mail operations that built on older institutions created during the 19th-century revivals, such as the famous Moody Bible Institut in Chicago.  Whilst mainstream America, abetted by an increasingly centralized media, remained unaware of what Jerry Falwell would call the ‘sleeping giant’ in its midst, the giant itself became increasingly alarmed and annoyed at the encroachments of permissiveness and the growing assertiveness of mainstream secular culture (Ruthven:16).

And since 1970 the giant has woken up.  Paul Gifford produces a long list of the factors which led it its resurgence:  the strength of its institutions, the rising wealth of its members, cultural changes in the USA including the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the Vietnam War and Watergate, the Supreme Court decision in 1963 against prayer in schools and the 1973 ruling to legalize abortion.  He points to encouragement from political fixers in the Republican Party and the lists the way Fundamentalists were mobilized in organizations like Christian Voice, the Religious Roundtable, the American Coalition for Traditional Values, and, the most high-profile of all, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority [slide 23] which between them targeted abortion, gay rights, the equal rights amendment, ‘welfare’, the teaching of evolution in schools, New Age movements, and more generally the ‘secular humanism’ of the Supreme Court, the media, and the educational system.  Overseas, they denounced communism and supported Israel.  Through these groups, he argues, Fundamentalism made its presence inescapable, especially as it began to monopolize Christian radio and television (Gifford:256).  So he writes this,  

In the 1960s and 1970s the South was being transformed.  Its religious homogeneity crumbled in the face of desegregation, industrialization, urbanization, and immigration from the North.  No longer taken for granted, Southern conservative Christianity aggressively turned itself into Southern fundamentalism.  Now the intra-denominational struggles, unsuccessful in the North half a century before, became possible here; and here the fundamentalists had more success.  They took control of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, in the mid-1970s, and after a long struggle controlled the Southern Baptist Convention by the mid-1980s (Gifford:256),

concluding that ‘This ‘Sunbelt Fundamentalism’ is now for many the primary expression of the movement’ (Gifford:256). 

6  And that’s where we now are.  Ruthven opens his Very Short Introduction with a 1920s quote from a journalist that,

Heave an egg out of a Pullman window and you will hit a Fundamentalist almost anywhere in the US today’ (Ruthven:1),

The blurb to Sam Harris’s 2007 [slide 24] best-seller, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York Times, 2007) updates it,

44% of the American population is convinced that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead sometime in the next 50 years … Imagine the consequences if any significant component of the US government actually believed that the world was going to end and that its end would be glorious.  The fact that nearly half of the American population apparently believes this, purely on the basis of religious dogma, should be considered a moral and intellectual emergency.

Not all of that 44% will consist of what are properly called ‘Fundamentalists’, some will be Evangelicals, and we shall consider the distinction later, but Harris’ point simply illustrates that the position in the USA now is that the Fundamentalists are in the Christian driving seat.  They are the ones who increasingly define what is and is not ‘Christian’.  And even more worryingly, they are accepted as such by secularists like Hawkins and increasingly by the media, a fact which should be a cause of real anxiety to the rest of us.

7  At this point I just want to widen my comments, from Christian Fundamentalism to Fundamentalism in general.  If we ask why this phenomenon is occurring as it is now, two words keep appearing, one of which is ‘modernity’ or ‘modernism’ which we saw in session 1 in the emergence of the original Christian Fundamentalism.  The other, which we also mentioned in session 1, is ‘postmodernity’ (Partridge passim, but especially Lyon pp252ff).  Just as Christian Fundamentalism emerged early in the 20th century as a reaction to modernity and modernism in its late-19th century forms, so today’s Fundamentalisms have emerged in reaction to late-20th century forms of modernity or postmodernity, especially secularisation and secularism.  In a world in which traditional understandings of truth, absolutes and authority are being replaced by an apparently total freedom of choice in a supermarket of lifestyles, ideas and values, and in a world where established traditions of political power, social cohesion, and ethnic and community life are being undermined by the militant consumerism of globalisation, it is hardly surprising, the argument runs, that there should be a reaction and that some if not many will look for security rather than opt for the new freedoms.  So just as Christian Fundamentalism began as a reaction to modernity, so contemporary Fundamentalism is, the argument runs, a readily understandable reaction and alternative to postmodernity.  It is the value system of postmodernity, it is argued, which is fuelling the new fundamentalisms with their defensiveness on the part of a traditional culture under threat; discontent, reaction, counter-attack, perhaps even militancy; a selective appropriation of the past, a quest for authority, a flight from ambiguity or ambivalence, even the adoption of a new identity through the formation of a new community (Gifford 2000:257).

8  We have spent a lot of time looking at history, and for me that is important, and we’ll finish the history lesson with something slightly different, or the same but put differently, from Karen Armstrong [slide 25].  In her latest book, The Case for God, she says that in plain history-of-ideas historical fact, and to the mutual embarrassment of both, Fundamentalism and Modern Atheism come from the same place, the rationalized interpretation of religion in the late 19th century.  They are both, in other words, products of modernity.  What happened in the Enlightenment, she argues, is that the ancient distinction between logos and mythos was abolished.  Logos was all about what and how: What is this?  How does it work?  Mythos, much the more important throughout the ancient world, was all about who and why: Who are we?  Why are we here?  The Enlightenment turned the values upside down, and modernity prioritized logos and dismissed mythos.  What happened next, and this is Stephen Dawes’ way of putting it rather than Karen Armstrong’s, is that Liberal Christianity took that modernism on board, demythologized the Bible and stepped boldly into the 20th century, in which it gradually realized that it had thrown the baby out with the bathwater.  Fundamentalism, though totally objecting to ‘modernism’, actually took it on board as well, but it did so by insisting that the Bible was all logos, and that what everyone else in Church and Synagogue down the centuries had seen as its mythoi were not in fact mythoi at all, but logoi, not Who? and Why? stories at all, but What? and How? ones.  So, back to Karen Armstrong, who writes,

This rationalised interpretation of religion has resulted in two distinctively modern phenomena: fundamentalism and atheism.  The two are related.  The defensive piety popularly known as ‘fundamentalism’ erupted in almost every major faith during the twentieth century.  In their desire to produce a wholly rational, scientific faith that abolished mythos in favour of logos, Christian fundamentalists have interpreted scripture with a literalism that is unparalleled in the history of religion.  In the United States, Protestant fundamentalists have evolved an ideology known as ‘creation science’, which regards the mythoi of the Bible as scientifically accurate.  They have, therefore, campaigned against the teaching of evolution in the public schools, because it contradicts the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis (Armstrong 2009:7).

9  And with that mention of ‘Creation Science’ waiting for us after lunch, I think this is the place to end what I want to say here, and this superb quote also from Karen Armstrong is the quote with which to end it [slide 26],

… fundamentalism is in fact a defiantly unorthodox form of faith that frequently misrepresents the tradition it is trying to defend (Armstrong 2009:7).

Session 3  Fundamentalism and the Bible [slide 28]

1  I imagine that for most of us ‘Fundamentalism and the Bible’ seems an obvious heading for a session in that it focuses on what we all usually think is really at the heart of Fundamentalism, ie the Bible.  We have to make allowance, of course, for the fact that for Fundamentalists in Islam we would need to talk about ‘Fundamentalism and the Koran’ and for Fundamentalists in Judaism our title would be ‘Fundamentalism and the Torah’ and so on, but for us we’ll do ‘Fundamentalism and the Bible’ [slide 29].  However, before we go any further, James Barr makes a very telling point that Christian Fundamentalism is not quite as much about the Bible, or about what the Bible teaches, as Fundamentalists insist that it is.  He suggests that it is more about what Fundamentalist Bible Teachers teach that the Bible is about, which is, of course, not quite the same thing at all; and this is a point to which we must return.

2  If we go back to those distinguishing features of Fundamentalism the key word in what Christian Fundamentalists assert about the Bible is the word ‘inerrant’.  Other words are important, such as ‘authority’ and ‘inspiration’, but it is the ‘inerrancy of the Bible’ which is the keystone [slide 30].  ‘Inerrancy’ was not a new word in the 19th century discussions about the Bible, and it had been given prominence in the anti-liberal, anti-modern biblical studies movement by two important American scholars at Princeton, which was in those days the leading Presbyterian theological institution, Archibald A Hodge (1823-1886) and Benjamin B Warfield (1851-1921).  They argued that the original manuscripts of the Bible were ‘absolutely errorless’ because of their divine origin, although both conceded that as we actually have the Bible some

… apparent inconsistencies and collisions with other sources of information are to be expected in imperfect copies of ancient writings … (Edwards:377).

Like most religious ideas Fundamentalism is a spectrum rather than a point; and like all religious movements Fundamentalism is not monochrome; not every Fundamentalist agrees on every point with every other Fundamentalist.  Within Fundamentalism there is strong and forthright internal debate; within that ‘broad heading’ there are, to use the lovely phrase of Charles Wesley, ‘names and sects and parties’.  So some of the later Fundamentalists would not be so sure about this loose talk of ‘inconsistencies’, however qualified by that adjective, ‘apparent’, and David Zeidan cites and quotes from the website of a contemporary Fundamentalist writer that

Verbal inspiration means that God inspired not just the ideas, but the very words of scripture.  The Bible is therefore (and he quotes the writer’s actual words here) ‘pure, perfect, inerrant and infallible’ (end of quote – Zeidan continues).  God providentially prepared the biblical authors for their task, guiding and controlling them, so that all they wrote was God’s pure and perfect word.  The Bible is true from beginning to end, all its parts are fully and equally inspired… (quoting the writer’s words again) ‘The Bible does not contain the Word of God, it is the Word of God’ (end of quote – Zeidan continues)… In addition, God has preserved the Bible over the centuries… (quoting again) ‘the God who wrote the Bible has kept it’ (end of quote, and Zeidan concludes).  Inspiration and preservation are both essential truths, and the Bible thus rests on the twin foundations of inspiration and preservation (Zeidan: 225f) 

We are not talking here about a crude ‘dictation’ theory of divine inspiration but about God’s ‘providential guiding and controlling’ and the effect of the ‘doctrine of plenary inspiration’ is, to quote the words of J Gresham Machen (one of the original leading Fundamentalists who left the still-too-liberal Princeton to found the Westminster Theological Seminary) ‘(to) deny the presence of error in the Bible’ because, as Zeidan puts it, ‘The Holy Spirit kept the writers free from the errors that mar all other human books’ (1923, quoted in Zeidan:226).  So the very influential 20th century Fundamentalist writer [slide 31], Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984), can write,

… the Bible is true and without error in all it speaks, including where it touches on history and the cosmos – it gives propositional truths all the way back to the first chapter of Genesis (quoted in Zeidan:226).

Zeidan sums it up like this,

For Christian fundamentalists the doctrine of the divine inspiration and inerrancy of scripture as well as its subsequent divine preservation, is the touchstone of true belief from which all other distinctives of the true faith flow.  It is the absolute standard of truth and the sole guide for beliefs and conduct (Zeidan:225)

3  The Bible passage upon which all this weight of doctrine is largely based is, of course 2 Tim 3.16-17, and so we’ll spend a moment there [slide 32].  It is, incidentally, the only place in the Bible where the word ‘inspiration’ is used about scripture,

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work (NRSV).

There is actually a slight problem with this text straight away, because there are two ways of translating the first line which gives two rather different meanings.  The NRSV gives the other possible translation in a footnote, ‘Every scripture inspired by God is also...’  I propose to leave that little problem on one side even though the second way of translating the line changes the meaning of the verse a lot.  In what follows I shall use the first version, which is the one usually quoted by all those who use it to support their views on the special authority and inspiration of the Bible.  The translation in the new NRSV is much the same as that of the old AV, which was, ‘All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is...’  ‘Inspired by God’ translates a single word found only here in the whole of the Bible (theopneustos).  NIV translates it literally, ‘God-breathed’.  The scriptures which Timothy has known from childhood are ‘God-breathed’, ‘inspired’.  A small problem with this is that because this word is only used here in the whole of the Bible we cannot be absolutely certain what it means, but its general sense is plain enough.  These scriptures come, one way or another from God.  It is his life which flows through them.  It is his breath that gives them voice.  So far so good. 

It can also be argued on the basis of this word that the scriptures have a special and powerful authority because they are ‘God-breathed’ in a way that no other book or collection of books is ‘God-breathed’.  Some Christians might disagree and say that this goes beyond what the text actually says, but most Christians would be happy to say that one way or another the Bible is one of God's special gifts to us.  So far so good also.

But at this point those who use this verse to back up their belief in the inerrancy of the Bible usually take a giant leap forward, and go way beyond what this word means or this text says.  This leap is to argue that because the scriptures are ‘God-breathed’ they must therefore be without error.  They are inspired, therefore they are infallible.  So a doctrine of the infallibility or the inerrancy of scripture is established without any argument, and with only the simple assumption that if God is breathing into these books they must be without error.  That is a huge leap into a dangerous doctrine.  It is a leap without any evidence or support from the word ‘God-breathed’ or from the verse where this word is found.  Those who want to say that because the Bible is God-breathed it is without error are making an assumption, nothing more nor less than an assumption.  What they ought to do next is to show from the Bible itself that it is a valid assumption and a true doctrine, but this simply cannot be done once you actually open and read the Bible, because ‘errors’ and ‘inconsistencies’ abound (if you want a little list see chapter 5 of Black Pudding).

2 Tim 3.16 is the key text used by those who believe that the Bible has a special authority because of its divine inspiration, and this verse is the only place in the Bible where the word ‘inspiration’ is used about the Bible.  The verse does talk about the importance and the value of the scriptures, and I for one would not want to deny either of those things, but all that it says is that scripture is ‘useful’.  This famous text says nothing about the historical accuracy or reliability of the Bible.  It makes no claims that the Bible is ‘without error’.  It does not even claim that the Bible is the supreme authority in the Christian Faith.  And it is not even talking about any of the Bibles we actually use, for none of them existed in the forms we have them when these words were written.  2 Tim 3.16 is the key text about the authority and inspiration of the Bible, yet the claim it makes is only a very modest one which will not bear the weight of theory put on it by Fundamentalists, and by some others too, it must be said.

4  And this is where I want to return to James Barr [slide 33].  He was a Scot and therefore a Presbyterian, born in 1924 and died in 2006, and he worked as a professor of Hebrew at a number of prestigious universities.  He had a number of particular interests, one of which was in the h-word, ‘hermeneutics’, ie how the Bible is read, interpreted and understood, and that’s what was particularly interesting to him about Fundamentalism – how did this powerful movement read, interpret and understand the Bible.  That’s what led to his big book.  He was also, however, a minister and never lost his pastoral concern, and that led him to his second book on Fundamentalism, the pastorally-focused, Escaping from Fundamentalism.  But it’s his observations on how the idea of inerrancy functions in Fundamentalism which concerns us here.  Let me quote,

In fundamentalism the truth of the Bible, its inerrancy, understood principally as correspondence with external reality and events, is fed into the interpretative process at its very beginning.  That is to say, one does not first interpret the passage on the basis of linguistic and literary structure, and then raise the question whether this is true as a matter of correspondence to external reality or to historical events.  On the contrary, though linguistic and literary structure are respected as guides, and indeed conservative literature contains a good deal of boasting about the command of these disciplines by conservative interpreters, the principle of the inerrancy of scripture has an overriding function.  It dominates the interpretative process entirely.  The questions:  Might the linguistic and literary form suggest that the passage is a myth or legend?  Might it be mistaken in matters of historical fact?  Might it be something generated not by external events which occurred in this sequence, but by problems in the inner experience of the early church? – such questions are therefore eliminated from the interpretative process from the beginning.  The fundamentalist interpreter may consider them, but only in so far as they are forced upon him by the arguments of critical scholars.  They do not form part of his own interpretative procedure at all.  This means, however, that though linguistic and literary form are respected as guides, they operate as guides only under the overriding control of the principle of inerrancy  (Barr 1981:51).

To sum all that up in a soundbite: if you are a Fundamentalist you begin reading your Bible with the understanding that what it says is without error, and everything you read must be read as being without error.  This [slide 34] cartoon sums it up brilliantly if you change the heading in the left-hand frame to ‘the post-Enlightenment Method’ and the one on the right to ‘the Fundamentalist Method’,

5  And the cartoon brings us straight to the clearest example of the contemporary Fundamentalist use of the Bible in its theory of Creationism or Creation-Science or, in its rebranded form, ‘Intelligent Design’.  This is not the place for anything like a proper discussion of this iniquitous nonsense, so I might at this point simply draw your attention to my next CME Day on Creation Stories for Today on 4th February.  Again, there are detail differences among the Fundamentalists on this one but the common core is that there is a Bible science of Creation, which is found in Genesis, and that there is a common enemy, which is the idea of Evolution.  On this basis there are some 7-day creationists who support Archbishop Ussher’s creation date of 4004 BC, while others understand the ‘days’ of Gen 1 to refer to different time periods than our 24-hour days and by the commonly used and very useful ‘Gap Theory’ can put the time frame of it all considerably further back.  If you’ve not come across the ‘Gap Theory’ let me treat you to two brief examples:

In the AV the opening of Gen 1 consists of two sentences, verse 1 (‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth’) is one sentence, and verse 2 another (‘And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep … and so on’).  Gap Theory says that there is a time gap between these verses, with ample time for the created universe to take the shape it now has, for the earth to cool and all of that; or, in the version in the Schofield Reference Bible (which is the Bible for real Fundamentalists) for the original creation, with its dinosaurs etc, to go so badly wrong that God destroyed it, before starting again with the creation of the world as we know in the 6-day creation programme of Gen 1.3ff.  As Schofield says, ‘The first creative act refers to the dateless past, and gives scope for all the geologic ages’ (Barr, 1991:45).  The Hebrew grammar of the verses makes this kind of reading impossible, to say nothing of what we might call the ‘common-sense’ reading or the ‘plain’ meaning of the text: but that’s the Gap Theory.

Another example is the genealogy in Gen 5, which Archbishop Ussher took literally.  Not so, say the Gap Theorists.  For them the genealogy certainly gives connections and dates from Adam to Abraham, highlighting particular individuals, but it doesn’t give every generation or name every descendent in the line.  It contains many gaps.

6  So, if we’re giving credit where credit is due, some Fundamentalists deserve an A-star for ingenuity: but it is also at this point that they are exposed for failing to take the Bible as it is seriously.  They claim to take it with absolute seriousness and accuse the rest of us for failing to do so, but in reality a number of things are happening here: one is that they are failing to read the Bible as it is, one is that they are reading it wrong, and another is that they are imposing their interpretations upon it, and we’ll just look at them before we take a break.

How are they failing to read the Bible as it is?  Simply by insisting, against all the evidence, that the Bible is without error, and the amount of ingenuity which must go in to reconciling, for example, the three different time references to when Jesus cleansed the Temple must be phenomenal. 

How are they reading it wrong?  At the beginning of all reading is the moment that John Barton, one of Britain’s best contemporary Old Testament scholars, calls ‘genre-recognition’.  To use my usual illustrations: [slide 35] if I pick up a scrap of paper that says, ‘Take 2oz fl ...’ I know at a glance what I am reading.  I am reading a recipe, because I can see in those few words all that I need to tell me that the scrap of paper is a recipe.  If someone tells me, ‘There was a Scotsman, a Welshman and an Englishman’ I know what is coming because I know this genre; or if someone says, ‘Once upon a time’ I know what kind of story is coming.  I can’t remember when I learned the codes and markers of recipes, jokes and fairy tales, I suppose it was all part of learning to read, but I recognize them instantly, just as I recognize the genre of most types of literature that I meet [slides 36 & 37] but just occasionally, though, I don’t, and that makes reading itself difficult – and to give you an example, I had that problem [slide 38] with The Shack – am I reading biography here, a story about something that happened to its central character, or is this some sort of fictional story morphing into theology?  Whichever it was, I didn’t enjoy it.  But recognizing genre is the key to making sense of what we read, and so these reading codes and conventions matter.  If someone asked us to point out Mordor or the Shire on a map, for example, or talked about booking a train tour to Hogwarts School [slide 39] or tickets for the next World Quidditch Championship, we’d think they’d got Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter a bit wrong, wouldn’t we?  But that, I suggest, is exactly what Fundamentalism does: it imposes the genre of ‘propositional truth’, to use Schaeffer’s phrase, on the Bible from Genesis onwards; and so Gen 1 is read as ‘creation science’ and not as ‘creation theology’.  This is the current big example: Fundamentalism reads Gen 1 as if it belonged to the genre of science.  They are not alone in this, some evangelicals do as well, and we’ll come back to them after the break, and it must be admitted straight away that recognizing the varied genres present in the biblical material is not as straightforward as it might be, but in reading Gen 1 as science Fundamentalism is quite simply reading it wrong.

How are they imposing their own interpretations upon it?  Quite simply, just like we all do.  Every reader does, none of us read the Bible without mental spectacles, and the whole business of Reader Response Theory has done much to help us see that over the last 20 years.  But the difference between the Fundamentalists and the rest of us, is that we admit it, recognize it and even, in moments of lucidity, recognize that our interpretations might be wrong, might be getting in the way and so might need changing.  Not so, say the Fundamentalists: ‘you read God’s Word in your way (to paraphrase the joke) but we read it in His’. 

7  It is a fact of life that it is a virtually impossible task to convince Fundamentalists that their approach to Scripture does not take Scripture as it is seriously enough but imposes an impossible theory upon it.  It and it alone, it insists, and maintains this insistence despite all its internal squabbles, believes the Bible correctly, which is

to take it literally, to regard every word of it as inerrant and fully divine, to acknowledge no authority above it or equal to it (Boone 1990:5f) [slide 40] 

At the heart of Christian Fundamentalism lies the conviction that it possesses the truth - definitively, uniquely and plainly; and that it alone reads the Bible as God’s revealed, inerrant and authoritative Word. 

What that does to the rest of us, and what we can do about it, is for after the break

Session 4  The Threat of Fundamentalism  [slide 42]

1  First let me say that I do not apologise [slide 43] for the title of this session, for I am convinced

a. that the global phenomenon of Fundamentalism does pose a threat to the shalom which God intends for all the human communities on this planet.  This may not be the cataclysmic threat to world peace sensationalised in some parts of the media, but I think it should be recognised that militant Fundamentalisms, and as we have seen many Fundamentalisms are never far away from militancy, can do considerable damage to human wellbeing. 

b. that the phenomenon of Christian Fundamentalism does pose a considerable threat to the attitudes, values, norms of behaviour, theology and understanding of the Bible in what I would describe as British mainstream Christianity.

2  So before [slide 44] we go further here is another definition and description of Fundamentalists,

Fundamentalists are passionate oppositional ideologists with a dualistic world-view based on a selective reading of a holy text and working for a millennial kingdom of God (Herriot:112).

3  Threat 1 

[slide 45]  The physical threat of Fundamentalist militancy is real
[slide 46]  American/Islamic      Gush Emunim/Hindu Fundamentalists

4  Threat 2

[slide 47]  Fundamentalist v Fundamentalist ‘crusades’

5  Threat 3

[slide 48]  The threat of the demonization of all religions - ‘Spirituality good/Religion bad’ 
[slide 49]  Religious people are freaks/fanatics

6  Threat 4  The threat to mainstream Christianity

[slide 50]  Growing churches
[slide 51]  ‘Black and white’ ethics 

7  Threat 5  The threat to Evangelical Christianity

[slide 52]  The pic is of Revd Prof I Howard Marshall, a Methodist minister who has recently retired as Prof of New Testament in the University of Aberdeen, a scholar of international repute and an evangelical. 

The latter half of the 20th century saw the renewal of evangelicalism in the West, and all the mainstream churches of Europe have been and are being profoundly affected by it.  Although it is frequently pointed out that ‘evangelicalism’ and ‘fundamentalism’ are not synonyms and that many evangelicals have traditionally distanced themselves from fundamentalism, that they still do and that they emphatically should (see Marshall 2004:31), there seems little doubt that the influence of fundamentalism within Christianity in general and evangelicalism in particular is growing and that given the wealth of its American base such an influence is almost bound to increase. 

[slide 53]  And arguably there is a sign of that in the 2005 revision of the Evangelical Alliance’s ‘Basis of Faith’, as illustrated here in slide 54: 

2005 Revision: 3 The divine inspiration and supreme authority of the Old and New Testament Scriptures, which are the written Word of God—fully trustworthy for faith and conduct.

1970 Statement: 4 The divine inspiration of the holy Scripture and its consequent entire trustworthiness and supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.

8  Threat 6  The threat to the Bible and those who read it

[slide 54]  Schofield/NRSV       
[slide 55]  ‘Teaching’/Learning
[slide 56]  Misrepresenting the Bible 

9  Threat 7  [slide 57]   Christian Fundamentalism is the religious dimension of USA-driven globalisation.

10  So what can we do about it?

[slide 58]  Confront it?  No.  Fundamentalism thrives on its ‘oppositionality’ so confrontation simply reinforces Fundamentalists in their conviction that they are right
[slide 59]  Dialogue with it?  No.  ‘There’s none as deaf as those who don’t want to hear’ especially when they are convinced of their absolute rightness anyway.
[slide 60]  Take the threat seriously by naming, identify and recognising it, because Fundamentalism is proselytising, entry-ist and on a mission.
[slide 61]  Do our own stuff better – ie the Peake method.

11  By this I mean:

a. do the A S Peake mainstream biblical teaching thing carefully, honestly and well!  This is crucial. 

b. recognise and help the ‘Folk Fundamentalists’ in our churches.  The new ‘Idealogical Fundamentalists’ (those who are aware of the questions addressed by traditional academic Biblical scholarship and who reject them) are best left alone – and there are not too many of them in the mainstream churches – yet.  There are, however, quite a few ‘Folk Fundamentalists’, ie those who are oblivious to such questions - because of preachers who have not bridged those gaps? – who assume that they are supposed to ‘believe the Bible’ and often do so in a way little changed from their days in Sunday School.  My observation is that most British Methodists, if not most British Christians, come from this stock.  My experience with such ‘Folk fundamentalists’ is that, in the main, they respond positively - and often with relief - when they are introduced to those questions and are given permission not to believe in a 6-day creation, Noah’s Ark and things of that ilk.  Opening up these questions also reassures those in our churches who are unhappy with Fundamentalists of any sort.

12  To conclude:

[slide 62]  Fundamentalism is bad news (for God, the world, the Church and the Bible) and the only antidote for bad news is better news!


Armstrong, Karen (2007) The Bible: the Biography, London: Atlantic Books
Armstrong, Karen (2009) The Case for God, London: The Bodley Head
Barr, James (2nd ed 1981) Fundamentalism, London: SCM
Barr, James (1984) Escaping from Fundamentalism, London: SCM
Boone, Kathleen C (1990) The Bible tells them so: the Discourse of Protestant Fundamentalism, London: SCM
Bowden, John ‘Fundamentalism’ in Bowden, J. (ed) (2005) Christianity: the Complete Guide, London: Concilium
Corner, Mark ‘Fundamentalism’ in Coggins R J and Houlden J L (eds) (1990) A Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, London: SCM
Dawes, Stephen B, ‘In Honesty of Preaching 3: Mind the Gap’ in The Expository Times, June 2000, vol 111 no 9, pp293-296 on the articles page of this site
Dawes, Stephen B (1996) Why Bible-believing Methodists shouldn’t eat Black Pudding, Truro: on the books page of this site
Edwards, Linda (2001) A Brief Guide to Beliefs, Louisville: WJK, pp.374-379
Gifford, Paul ‘Fundamentalism’ in Hastings, Mason and Pyper (eds) (2000) The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, Oxford: OUP
Harries, Harriet ‘How helpful is the term ‘Fundamentalist’?’ in Partridge, Fundamentalisms
Hebert, Gabriel (1957) Fundamentalism and the Church of God, London: SCM
Herriot, Peter (2009) Religious Fundamentalism: Global, Local and Personal, London: Routledge
Hughes, Maldwyn (1927) Christian Foundations, London: Epworth
Kung, Hans & Moltmann, Jurgen (1992) Fundamentalism as an Ecumenical Challenge, London: SCM (a Concilium Special)
Lyon, David ‘Fundamentalisms: Paradoxical Products of Post-modernity’ in Partridge, Fundamentalisms
Marshall, I Howard (2004) Beyond the Bible, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic
Packer, James I (1958) ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God, London: IVF
Partridge, Christopher H (ed) (2001) Fundamentalisms, Carlisle: Paternoster
Pope, Robert ‘Battling for God in a secular world: Politics and Fundamentalisms’ in Partridge, Fundamentalisms
Ruthven, Malise (2007) Fundamentalism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: OUP
Zeidan, David ‘Scripture as God’s Revealed Standard and Law’ in Partridge, Fundamentalisms


14 Creation Stories for Today

(Truro Diocese and the Cornwall Methodist District, Continuing Ministerial Education Day, 4.2.10)

The blurb for the day:  We have heard a lot about Darwin this year (well it was ‘this year’ when I wrote this – it’s ‘last year’ now) and much of it has contrasted Darwin’s thinking with ‘the Bible’s picture of creation’.  In this Study Day we will see that there are five creation stories, pictures or parables in the Bible and not just one (four in the OT and a fifth in the NT).  We will ask whether any of them are scientific hypotheses about the origin of fife and the universe.  And we will consider, if they are not scientific hypotheses of that kind, just what contribution they make to Christian thinking, believing and living in the 21st century.

Introduction:  The New Testament has relatively little to say about ‘creation’ or about God as creator, simply because it can take the Old Testament as read on this issue, as it can on a variety of others.  We look at its distinctive contribution in session 5 – logos and prototokos.  Elsewhere in the New Testament the idea of God as creator is simply taken as read (for example Mark 13.19, Romans 1.25, Ephesians 3.9, 1 Peter 4.19, Revelation 4.11 and 10.6).  The Old Testament treats the topic in much greater depth and does so by using four quite different Creation pictures, parables or threads, and all of those terms are preferable to the word ‘account’ or ‘accounts’, as we shall see after we have looked at them.  Here, as in all reading everywhere, ‘genre’ is the key!

1.  Designer World (ie Gen 1.1-2:4a: the so-called ‘P’ account, the familiar picture following an ordered 7-day plan, with a possible liturgical origin).

Read the passage with different voices: narrator, God and chorus.

This is the familiar story with which the Bible opens.  God speaks the universe into being a day at a time.  ‘Let there be’, he commands, and it is so.  In six days it is done, and the verdict day by day is that it is ‘good’, and at the end that it is ‘very good’ indeed.  The climax of it all is not, as is sometimes said, the creation of humanity as the ‘crown of creation’ on the Friday afternoon, but the creation of the Sabbath, the day of rest for God and his great blessing to his creation.  This is a dramatic and powerful picture.  From the chaotic raw materials of wind, water and darkness God produces order, with everything in its place and everything good.  The universe is indeed designed by the greatest Designer of all.

Key points:

creatio ex nihilo (1.1-2)?
imago dei (1.26-28) – subdue/dominion – stewardship?
‘It was good’ then finally ‘very good’ (1.10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31)
God’s work of creation (2.2,3)

2.  Gardeners’ World (ie Gen 2.4b-3.24: a horticultural/agricultural picture, showing the ambiguities and alienations of life in the real world).

Read the passage with different voices: narrator, God, the man, the snake, the woman.

This second picture follows on from the first, but is nowhere near as neat and tidy.  It contains loose ends and strange features which defy explanation.  The overall story line, however, is clear.  Here the scene changes and the focus is not on the world and all its life, with humanity sharing with God in its ongoing creating and shaping, but on a Garden in the East and its first and then second human occupant.  The man, Adam, has an easy life looking after the garden, a few roses to be dead-headed now and again but no digging nor anything like that.  It’s not quite the ideal life, though, for he’s lonely and, if you read the story carefully, he can’t cope very well.  So Eve appears to help him cope.  But there is no happy ending.  Things go wrong, they blame each other, and at the end they are evicted from the Garden.  And here the story speaks of the real world as we know it: men and women at odds with each other, humanity at odds with nature, humanity at odds with God.  It’s all gone wrong.  Now it’s back-breaking digging and fighting against the weeds.

Key points:

The creation of the man – a ‘living soul’ (2.7)
Stewardship (2.15) – ‘to till it and keep it’
The creation of the woman as a complementary partner (2.18 and 2.24)
The threefold alienation (chapter 3)
Eviction into known realities (3.23) 

3.  Chaoskampf (ie Pss 74.12-17 and 89.5-18, Isa 51.9-11 - see also Job 7.12, 26.12, 38.8-11: The King of Creation's battle with the monster of chaos).

Read these three main passages.

This creation story is much less well-known and much older.  It is widespread in the ancient Near East but only preserved in fragments in the Old Testament.  It is a very odd picture of God doing battle with Chaos Monsters.  He defeats them, and reigns as King of Creation.  It is actually a very powerful picture, as we see if we put our own names on these Monsters and call them ‘Darkness’, ‘Evil’ and ‘Death’.  These forces of chaos are still around.  They attack and destroy life even now, just as they always have.  People still need defending from them, and cry out for help against them.  The picture points to a reality that we can identify, the ongoing battle between Light and Dark, Good and Evil, Life and Death.  It also contains the good news that God wins, and that the last word lies with Light, Good and Life.

Key points:

The real experience of dissonance expressed in metaphor (even possibly in liturgical drama)
Binary opposites: light/dark, good/evil, life/death with the last word with God
Isa 51.10 the blending of creation and history: the ‘primordial waters’ become the Red Sea, and Rahab the dragon becomes Egypt (cf Ps 87.4)
Hope (and its later appearance in Apocalyptic and contemporary fantasy literature)
4.  Wisdom’s Playground (ie Prov 3.19, 8.22-31 - cf Job 28.20-28 and chapters 38-41.  See also Sirach 1.1-10, 24.1-7, Wisdom 7.21-8.1, 9.1-4.  This is a ‘Wisdom’ picture of human and natural observed realities).

Read the whole of Prov 8, then Wisdom 7.21-8.1.

This fourth Old Testament story of creation is also fragmentary.  It comes from the ‘Wisdom’ traditions of ancient Israel and speaks of ‘Wisdom’ personalised as God’s helper.  Creation is to be enjoyed and celebrated, provided that life is lived wisely and well – live foolishly and you’ll find all sorts of things going wrong.  There’s wisdom, purpose and plan at the heart of things, and what matters most is to tune in to it, for that will lead to fulfilment, satisfaction and life!  This picture is found also in the Apocrypha and lies behind the logos idea in John 1.1-4 and the prototokos idea in Colossians 1.15-19.

Key points:

the Wisdom literature and the observable order in creation (ma-at?)
Prov 8.30 ‘master-worker’??
Wisdom 7.22-24
Wisdom 9.1-3 which includes a ref to Gen 1

5.  Logos and Prototokos (ie John 1.1-18 and Col 1.15-20).

Both of these passages are profound Christological statements, and as such are talking primarily about the person and significance of Christ.  Their teaching about creation is secondary to that.  The Prologue to the Gospel of John speaks of the divine Energy or Idea or Reason which brought the universe into being and which continues to sustain it, though most English translations obscure that by persisting in translating the key Greek word as ‘Word’.  The startling teaching, which would have jerked the original hearers wide awake, comes in John 1.14 where the writer claims that this Divine Reason which energises the universe ‘became flesh’ in Jesus Christ.  Sadly traditional English translations have lost their hearers or readers long before then.  The Letter to the Colossians makes a similar and equally bold claim that all things were created in and through Jesus, the image (eikon) of the invisible God, the firstborn (prototokos) of all creation and God’s master craftsman (1.15-17).  Elsewhere in the New Testament the idea of God as creator is simply taken as read (for example Mark 13.19, Rom 1.25, Eph 3.9, 1 Peter 4.19, Rev 4.11 and 10.6).

Key points:

John 1.4-5: creation is life-full and light-full, darkness is an aberration though a reality 
Col 1.15 – ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’ (v3 and note how far we have already come from ‘Jesus the Messiah’) is ‘imago dei’ (eikon = LXX word in Gen 1.26).  Lightfoot: eikon = ‘represents’ and ‘manifests’
Col 1.15 - ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’ is prototokos (cf Heb 1.6) which is related to but subtly different from the ‘firstborn from the dead’ of Col 1.18, Rom 8.29, Heb 12.23 and Rev 1.5.  The imagery is probably taken from Pss. 2.7 and 89.27 where it is Davidic/messianic.  Lightfoot: prototokos = ‘priority over all creation’ (= pre-existence of the Son) and ‘sovereignty over all creation’
‘through him and for him’ (cf Rom 11.36, also Rev 22.13, also 1 Cor 8.6)
the thrust here is Christological rather than to do with creation and the realities of living in it, but at the very least it strongly suggests that our living in the world should be ‘Christ-like’ 


1  If you want a little exercise look at Psalm 104, which is a Creation Hymn, and see if you can find all the four Old Testament creation stories, pictures, parables or threads woven in there.

2  You can find this Creation theology in other parts of the Old Testament too: in the Wisdom literature generally (note the reference to ‘Creator’ in Ecclesiastes 12.1); very clearly in Isaiah of Babylon (especially Isaiah 40.12-26 and the word ‘Creator’ at 40.28 and 43.15), frequently in the Psalms (eg 8, 19, 24, 29, 33, 93, 95, 96, 98, 136 and 148) and in the ancient hymn quoted by Amos in 4.13, 5.8-9 and 9.5-6.  By the time of the Apocrypha, ‘God the Creator’ becomes a more common appellation eg Judith 9.12; Wisdom 13.5; Sir 4.6 and 24.8; 2 Mac 1.24, 7.23, 13.14; 3 Mac 2.3; 2 Esd 5.44; 4 Mac 5.25 and 11.5 and the Greek word for ‘creation’ features too (whereas there is no such Hebrew noun in the Hebrew Bible – though this particular linguistic fact may not be of any significance whatsoever).

3  We have seen the richness, variety and diversity in the Bible’s thinking about creation and the life of the world.  It is principally because of this variety that we have used words like ‘picture’ or ‘story’ to name the genre of this material.  We have deliberately avoided the word ‘account’ or ‘accounts’ as these sound too ‘scientific’ and can encourage that completely unnecessary debate in this area between ‘Science’ and ‘Religion’.

4  The four Old Testament pictures are not compatible.  I don’t just mean that they don’t fit together, for it has long been recognized that when you look at the first two pictures which sit side by side at the beginning of Genesis the details don’t tally, and it is obvious that there is no sign of a Chaos Monster in three of the four.  What I mean is that they paint rather different pictures of what the world we live in is actually like.  The Designer World and Wisdom’s Playground pictures are both sunny and optimistic; the world is a fundamentally good place, life is good, thank God for it.  The Battle with the Chaos Monster picture is quite different; here the world we live in is the scene of a life and death struggle between Good and Evil; here is a world where pain, fear and distress are terrifyingly real.  The Gardener’s World picture is equally, though less dramatically, pessimistic or realistic, if you prefer.  The world is not a wholly good place.  It is not as God intended it.  For whatever reason it is ‘fallen’, to use the word Christians have traditionally applied to that story.  Life is full of ambiguity and struggle, pleasure and pain, hope and fear.  Each of these four pictures looks at the world from a different angle, as it were, and each has a perspective worth noting.  Each has something to show us of the world in which we live and of how we should live in it.  The distinctive New Testament creation story which gives Christ a crucial role in creation has obvious links to the Wisdom’s Playground picture, but adds a new dimension.

5  My scientist friends tell me that ‘Creationism’ is bad science.  There is no doubt that it is also deplorably bad Bible!  It makes a fundamental genre-error and brings the Bible into disrepute.

6  The focus of all five stories is not on the creation of the world as an in-the-past event, but on life’s present realities.  To talk about creation is, in theology, to talk about life as it is to be lived in the world as it is now.   


15 The Eucharist in the Methodist Church

(This is a paper read to the Joint Courses on the Eucharist between the Queen's College, Birmingham, and the Roman Catholic Seminary at Oscott in 1988 and 1989.  It is a sort of composite lecture from the pens, typewriters and then computers of three Methodist ministers who had delivered these lectures beginning in the early 1980s - Rev Dr Gordon Wakefield, Rev David Butler and finally me; and the form which follows is the version I delivered.  I then passed on the notes to my successor, Rev Dr Christina Le Moignan, who produced her own equally distinctive contribution from them, as I had done from the material passed down to me.)

In a sense the very title of this paper is misleading, for the word ‘Eucharist’ itself is one that Methodists would not normally use.  What we at Queen’s are accustomed to call ‘The Eucharist’ most Methodists would call ‘Communion’ or ‘Holy Communion’, though there are still many in the older generations who would simply call it, ‘The Sacrament’ or even simply, ‘Sacrament’.  ‘The Lord’s Supper’ is a title that appears in our official formulations, but is not that common in ordinary usage.

We at Queen’s are accustomed to a daily eucharist, but in most Methodist churches Holy Communion is celebrated only once a quarter.  Bigger churches who maybe have their own minister all to themselves or only share him or her with one or two other churches may have communion once a month on a Sunday morning.  You might even find a few places that have discovered ways of having a more frequent celebration, but these are few and far between.  So you will hear Methodists asking, “Is it Communion today?”, or saying, “It’s Sacrament next Sunday”.  This means that one of the difficulties we create for our Methodist students at Queen’s is that we give them a vocabulary which none of the rest of Methodism understands, and also, perhaps, a pattern of worship and corporate devotion which it is virtually impossible to sustain in Methodism outside the college.  Or to put it another way, the Queen’s agenda which devotes over a term to the Eucharist in the Liturgy course, and then another month here in the Joint Course, gives the Eucharist a place which it simply wouldn’t have, and some like myself would say shouldn’t have, in a Methodist agenda of ministerial training.

So in Methodism the ‘Eucharist’, ‘Holy Communion’ or whatever else you call it, clearly does not occupy the place that it does in the worship of the Roman Catholic or Anglican churches.  We cannot say that the Eucharist is at all central in the Methodist Church.  It would be equally wrong to say that it is peripheral, but it would be giving a wrong impression to say that it is central.

There are of course individual Methodists for whom it does occupy the central place in their devotional lives, and there are individual Methodist ministers for whom the Eucharist is central to their theology and ministry.  There is one ‘pressure group’, the Methodist Sacramental Fellowship, which is trying hard to make it central, and our governing body, the Methodist Conference, has tried in recent years to suggest that maybe the Methodist people ought to consider the Eucharist as more central: but it remains true to say that the Eucharist does not occupy a central place in the life and theology of the Methodist Church.

Our normal weekly worship is the Preaching Service.  There are some, particularly in the ordained ministry, who would like to see a change here, and no doubt there has been a considerable change in our general appreciation of the Eucharist in the Methodist Church over the last twenty years: but it remains true that in practice it is virtually impossible for a Methodist morning congregation to receive communion any more frequently than once a month, and I suspect that even if it were possible, it might not be welcomed wholeheartedly.  It is impossible because we have far more services and churches than we have ministers, and so depend absolutely on Local Preachers to conduct two out of every three Methodist Sunday services, and our constitution allows Local Preachers to administer Holy Communion only in the most exceptional of circumstances.  And frequent communion might be possibly unwelcome, not because Methodist people do not value the Sacrament of Holy Communion, but rather the reverse, that for many it is a special service, and there is at times a fear that more frequent Communions would lead to a loss of that ‘specialness’, an argument in fact that was put to me in my last Circuit when we introduced a weekly midweek Communion in my main church in Bodmin.

But do not be misled.  Neither the fact that we do not use the word, nor the fact that the Eucharist is not central in our Methodist tradition, should be interpreted to mean that Methodism has no eucharistic theology.  In the rest of this paper I hope to set out what our eucharistic theology is, or better, what our eucharistic theologies are.

By and large the Methodist Church is not given to defining its theological position, be that on the Eucharist or anything else.  As a Methodist minister I am not obliged to declare my loyalty to any set of theological definitions, for we do not have in Methodism any kind of real equivalent to the 39 Articles of the Church of England or the Westminster Confession of the Reformed Churches.  If I can quote from Section 2 of our Deed of Union, which is about the nearest we get to a ‘Theological Constitution’, (C.P.D. [1991] vol.2, pp.212f), our general position is stated as follows:

‘The Methodist Church claims and cherishes its place in the Holy Catholic Church which is the Body of Christ.  It rejoices in the inheritance of the Apostolic Faith, and loyally accepts the fundamental principles of the historic creeds and of the Protestant Reformation.’

On the subject of the Eucharist the statement is brief indeed:

‘The Methodist Church recognises two sacraments namely Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as of Divine Appointment and of perpetual obligation of which it is the privilege and duty of Members of the Methodist Church to avail themselves.’

(cf Churches respond to BEM, vol 2, p.217 which is section 3.0 in British Methodism’s response, which puts this neatly).

From time to time Methodism does make doctrinal pronouncements, and between 1933, the year after Methodist Union, and 1983 there were 10 pronouncements on the Eucharist: but none of them on any kind of central issue.  7 were on the question of who should preside at Holy Communion, a very political question largely a legacy from the different traditions of the three pre-union Methodist groups, and the other 3 on the question of Children at Holy Communion, and since 1983 there has been another statement on that.  Since then there have also been other pronouncements in responses to various ecumenical questions which are therefore enshrined in other reports and documents, the response to BEM being one such.  In the main, you could almost say that we take our eucharistic theology as read, and in the main that lack of precise definition and articulation is quite characteristic of our Methodist way of doing all our theology.

The Methodist Church owes its existence, under God, to the ministry of the reverend John Wesley, who was, to use neutral language, a somewhat eccentric and highly motivated High Church and Tory Anglican clergyman of the eighteenth century.  In respect of the Eucharist as in respect of so many things, he was a person well ahead of his time, especially of his ecclesiastical time.  In the Anglicanism of his day the Eucharist was not regularly celebrated or particularly highly thought-of.  There may well have been political reasons for this, for we are talking about the early eighteenth century with its political uncertainty and fear of anything that could be labelled ‘Jacobite’, and in addition there were ideological ones.  This was ‘The Age of Reason’, when the Sacrament of The Lord’s Supper, and all that it implied, was disparaged as another vestige of the supernatural.

In his father’s parish at Epworth in Lincolnshire Wesley had experienced a monthly Communion, or possibly even one more frequently than that, compared with the quarterly one which was the norm, and from the age of 22 he had taken the opportunity to communicate weekly.  At Oxford the members of the ‘Holy Club’ were not only nicknamed ‘Methodists’ for their serious and methodical approach to their faith, but also ‘Sacramentarians’, for their insistence on taking communion as often as possible.  From early on in his own ministry Wesley encouraged others to make a weekly Communion.  Between 1739 and 1742 the early Methodist groups were threatened by a kind of pietism coming from the Moravians which, among other things, greatly played down the importance of Communion as well as other offices of the church.  In sermon 12 of his Standard Sermons we read Wesley’s response to this in a powerful sermon on ‘The Means of Grace’.  For him Communion comes with prayer and the searching of the Scriptures, at the top of the list of the divinely appointed Means of Grace.  The Lord’s Supper, he preaches, is commanded both to sinners seeking salvation and to those who have already found it (section111:11).  To quote a few lines:

‘Is not the eating of that bread, and the drinking of that cup, the outward, visible means whereby God conveys into our souls all that spiritual grace, that righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, which were purchased by the body of Christ once broken, and the blood of Christ once shed for us?  Let all, therefore, who truly desire the grace of God, eat of that bread, and drink of that cup’.

We should note there a strongly subjective and devotional note that the Lord’s Supper is of prime importance in terms of the living relationship between us and God.  Albert Outler says of Wesley in this regard, 

‘It goes with Wesley’s role in the Revival that he had scant interest in the speculative issues of sacramental doctrine and that he produced nothing distinctive in this domain of doctrine’.

(A.  Outler, John Wesley, Oxford 1964, p332)

What did concern him, passionately, was that people should use this vital Means of Grace and find it to be a converting and sustaining ordinance which united them with Christ.  That emphasis is seen most clearly in another sermon, not in the Standard Sermons, entitled, ‘The Duty of Constant Communion’.  As ever John Wesley was a practical, rather than a speculative theologian.

In his contribution on this topic in previous years, Gordon Wakefield commented that in many ways Methodism was a Sacramental Revival, and produced crowded communions such as at Manchester on April 1st 1781 with ‘eleven or twelve hundred Communicants at once’ or Macclesfield on 29th March 1782 with ‘about thirteen hundred persons’.  At first these Communions were held in parish churches and were conducted by either incumbents who were sympathetic to the Methodist movement, or by those Methodist preachers who like Wesley himself were ordained clergymen of the Church of England.

In 1743 Wesley took over West Street chapel in London which had been consecrated for use by the Huguenots, and from 1774 Communions were celebrated in unconsecrated Methodist chapels, though always with ordained Anglicans officiating.  From 1789 he permitted his own ordained preachers to officiate.  Not until after Wesley’s death was the curious and chaotic situation vis-à-vis the Church of England resolved, when with the Plan of Pacification of 1795 Methodism effectively became a separate denomination, and any Methodist preacher ‘in full connexion’ was allowed to officiate in any Methodist building, subject to the approval of the local officials.

Wesley saw the Communion in the light of Christ’s meals with sinners, and in light of the fact that the disciples in the Upper Room had not yet been converted, as a ‘Converting Ordinance’, to which sinners were welcome, as well as a ‘Comforting Ordinance’ for the already converted.  Thus Methodism originally practised something akin to our present ‘open table’ policy, and this could be said to have continued even after the introduction of the Membership Ticket in the 1740’s.  These tickets were introduced for financial reasons but the wording of them was such that ‘All those seeking salvation’, as well as those who had already found it, were admitted into the membership of the Methodist Society.  When the possession of such a ticket was necessary to receive Holy Communion, as it still is today in some parts of the world, we have a development which is arguably a wrong one, but which has supporters in British Methodism too.  In the main, though, the practice here is to invite, ‘All who love the Lord Jesus’ to receive communion, though there are some who object to this, and John Wesley would not have used this sort of wording.  I believe that this particular wording goes back to some Congregational notable in London in the early 20th century, but I can’t give chapter and verse.

It was John’s brother Charles who supplied the ‘speculative theology’, and it was his particular genius to do so through that most powerful medium, the hymn.  It says something about the place and theology of the Eucharist in Methodism today that Charles Wesley’s strongly realistic eucharistic hymns are found in greatest number in our new hymnbook ‘Hymns and Psalms’, which not only has more of his eucharistic hymns in than previous hymnbooks, but also reintroduces verses which they had omitted.

Remembering the importance of hymnody in doctrinal terms in Methodism (see Wesley’s preface to the hymn book of 1779, reproduced as a preface to the 1933 Methodist Hymn Book, and also the preface to Hymns and Psalms) the following statistics may be noted.  In them we can see the numbers of eucharistic hymns in the various Methodist hymnbooks, and the contribution of Charles Wesley to that number:

1780 - no separate Communion section,
1875 - 11 out of 11,
1904 - 6 out of 13,
1933 - 6 out of 17,
1984 - 8(10) out of 37(39).

One, significant, example of changes made in Hymns and Psalms is to the excellent, ‘Jesus, we thus obey / thy last and kindest word’ (MHB 761, HP 614).  This has had the last verse in MHB removed and replaced by two more, one of which is far too realistic for some Methodists, including me.  The last verse in MHB was

‘Now let our souls be fed / with manna from above;
And over us thy banner spread / of everlasting love’.

The first replacement verse in HP says:

‘He bids us drink and eat / imperishable food;
He gives his flesh to be our meat / and bids us drink his blood’.

And the new last verse is equally insistent:

‘Whate’er the Almighty can / to pardoned sinners give,
The fullness of our God made man / We here with Christ receive’.

Two other hymns can be quoted, by courtesy of Gordon Wakefield, which illustrate Wesley’s eucharistic views:

‘O the depth of love Divine,
The unfathomable grace!
Who shall say how Bread and Wine
God into man conveys,
How the Bread His Flesh imparts
How the Wine transmits His Blood,
Fills His faithful people’s hearts
With all the life of God’.

Or again,

‘This is the richest legacy
Thou hast on man bestowed;
Here chiefly, Lord, we feed on Thee,
And drink Thy precious blood’.

Now that is very strong stuff indeed:  but note the refusal to ask how communion ‘works’, and the stress on the reality of Christ’s presence in it all.

In general terms the nineteenth century saw a falling away throughout Methodism from Wesley’s insistence on a regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  The Wesleyan Methodist Church stayed closest to his ideal, and you would have found in many Wesleyan chapels a service of Holy Communion little different from that of the Book of Common Prayer celebrated monthly either in whole or in part.  Often this service was held after the main service and would begin at the injunction, ‘Dearly Beloved in the Lord, ye that purpose to come to the holy communion of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ …’  That practice of tacking the service of Holy Communion on to the end of a normal preaching service, a practice which Methodism shared with evangelicals in the Church of England I gather, has in fact only ceased in recent years, and can still be found in odd corners of British Methodism.

In the rest of nineteenth century Methodism very different eucharistic traditions developed: for example in Primitive Methodism it was the custom for laypeople as well as ministers to conduct the service, the wording of the 1860 Minutes of Conference being, ‘Such persons as the Quarterly Boards shall appoint’.  Often in this tradition it was the custom for the elements to be brought around to the congregation in their seats, a practice which still continues today in a number of Methodist churches.  In this more non-conformist wing of Methodism set liturgies were abhorred, and much was left to the freedom of the Preacher concerned to administer communion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  In practice this would mean much extempore prayer, with maybe the Words of Institution read from 1 Corinthians 11.  ‘It is not the form or the words used which matter, but the presence of Christ experienced among us’, that would have been the approach from this wing of nineteenth century Methodism, an approach which is, unfortunately in my view, little more than an echo in much of British Methodism today.

Staying with history for a moment, I think it is fair to say that the experience of the Twentieth century in Methodism is, “Wesleyanism Rules OK?”  In the fifty-plus years since the three major Methodist groups came together in 1932 it is the Wesleyan ethos which has dominated, and there is little of the Primitive or United Methodist approach evident in modern Methodism, in whatever area of church life or theology you want to consider.  The approach of this modern Wesleyanism can be seen clearest of all in the Methodist Service Book, introduced in 1975, which in addition to providing new services for such offices as Baptism and Communion, also attempted to provide a form for ordinary Sunday services, and encouraged Methodists to use the Lectionary.  The form for the Sunday Service has not caught on, and is unlikely to, but the use of the Lectionary has become far more common than might have been expected.  There is much that is good in the Methodist Service Book, but the near extinction of the Primitive and United ethos within Methodism is amply testified to in that that book was accepted without any real opposition, and nobody cried out that real Methodists don’s use service books! 

So now let us look at the Eucharist in Methodism today by looking at the Methodist Service Book and seeing what happens at a Methodist Service of Holy Communion conducted according to that book.

You would know that the service you have come to was a Communion Service the minute you came into the Church, because the Communion Table, usually at the front of the church, would be laid with a fair white linen cloth, covering the plates of bread and the trays of individual communion glasses.  Note my Methodist vocabulary here:  ‘Communion table’, never ‘altar’.  The bread and the wine would have been prepared beforehand by the Communion Stewards.  The wine would be non-alcoholic, mandatory since 1935, reflecting the effect of the Temperance movement on Methodism in that the presence of alcoholic beverages on Methodist property has been strictly forbidden, (and only in the last ten years has that restriction been lifted from manses).  The wine would be in individual communion glasses.  Iain Torrance drew our attention to some remarks by A. D. Martin, a Congregational minister writing about his own denomination, quoted in volume 4 of Horton Davies’ Worship and Theology in England, (p.85).  He condemns,

‘the substitution for the old and beautiful chalices of a ‘trivial and almost grotesque apparatus, an apparatus, too, which is symbolically quite wrong’.’

He continues,

‘Thus by the combined efforts of the temperance enthusiasts and the hygienic purists have many Free Churches come ‘to the unbeautiful stacks of trays with minute cups, suggestive of the laboratory of a chemistry class, or … a doll’s tea party’.’

The most grievous objection however, is this:

‘To partake of a common cup is to symbolise community; to partake of individual cups is to symbolise individualism’.’

But just before you laugh, may I remind you about people in glass houses not throwing stones, and about pots remarking on the sootiness of kettles.  The individual communion glass is no more or no less individualistic than the individual communion wafer in common use in other denominations.  Thus will you find the Communion Table laid.

In general outline and form the 1975 service follows thoroughly the principles of the Liturgical Movement.  The bread and the wine are uncovered by the presiding minister after the third hymn, and the congregation stands for the Thanksgiving, at least the rubric says they should.  Some congregations do, some don’t.  After lifting up our hearts, we listen to the minister reading the Thanksgiving to God in salvation-history terms, before we join the company of heaven in the unending hymn of praise.  Then follows the reminder of the institution of the sacrament before we proclaim the mystery of faith, though we don’t call it that.  Then the minister prays as follows:

‘Therefore, Father, as he has commanded us, we do this in remembrance of him, and we ask you to accept our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.
Grant that by the power of the Holy Spirit we who receive your gifts of bread and wine may share in the body and blood of Christ.
Make us one body with him.
Accept us as we offer ourselves to be a living sacrifice, and bring us with the whole creation to your heavenly kingdom.
We ask this through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.’

At this point the whole congregation joins in, ‘Through him, with him, in him etc’, at least that is the form given in the Service Book, but in this prayer as elsewhere you might find individual ministers exercising their freedom to omit parts of the prayer or to add to it.  Then the bread is broken, and there may or may not be a gesture.  The Prayer of Humble Access may then be said, or omitted, and if said it can be either by the minister alone or by everyone, and which of these is done is often a guide to the churchmanship of the presiding minister, then the congregation is invited to receive after the presiding minister and any assistants have themselves received, though some ministers like myself give to the congregation first and themselves receive last.

Laypeople often share in the actual distribution, and in other parts of the service too and local customs vary.  The 1990 Conference ruled on the question of what actually constitutes presidency at the Eucharist, and said, inter alia, that the president alone should recite the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, a reaction against inviting the assisting laypeople to say one or other of its main sections.

The invitation to receive communion which follows is worded:

‘Draw near with faith.  Receive the body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for you, and his blood which was shed for you; and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving’,

though in practice you are likely to hear all kinds of variations.

The elements are distributed either with a simple ‘The body of Christ given for you’ said to each communicant, or ‘The body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for you, keep you in life eternal.  Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your heart by faith with thanksgiving’, said as the minister moves along the row.  Needless to say here too you hear numerous variations, probably the most common being ‘us’ instead of ‘you’.  Each table-row of communicants is dismissed with an appropriate phrase, the commonest being, ‘Go in peace, for the God of Peace goes with you’.

After all have received the elements are again covered with the white cloth and left on the table, before the short prayer of thanks, final hymn and benediction.  What happens to the elements after that is a question I, and most of Methodism, had never thought of asking until the Service Book came out in 1975.  In this service book a rubric appeared, ‘At the end of the service, what remains of the elements should be disposed of reverently’.  The minister who consumed them would be regarded as slightly odd by the average Methodist Communion Steward.  The standard practice seems to be to tip the wine down the sink, or to pour it back into the bottle for next time, and that is to be avoided because most non-alcoholic wines go off when exposed to the air, and if you tip it back you can have the whole bottle turning very nasty by the next time you want it.  The bread is more often than not thrown out for the birds.  I am sorry if any of you find that offensive, but that is the way it is.

So that is how the Eucharist would be celebrated in the Methodist Church according to the Service Book.  Even within that framework you will find local or individual variations, and you will, and I hope that I have made this clear, also find many Methodist churches who do not use the Service Book at all.  My own experience, just for example, is that in the eight years that I have spent in circuit since the Service Book was introduced I have taken 264 services of Holy Communion, of which 168 used the MSB, 20 used the old order and 76 used no book at all.  It is of the utmost importance that ministers be very sensitive to local usages, for it is the Church Council which is responsible for the worship policy of a church.  Ministers must not simply impose their own preferred forms, though many do, to everyone’s pain.

So what is it that Methodists think they are doing when they come to Holy Communion?

Our older service encouraged a deeply serious experience, a solemn and intensely moving opportunity of communion with the Lord Jesus, hence, I think, one of our reasons for preferring to call the sacrament, ‘Holy Communion’.  To call that service ‘penitential’ would give the wrong impression, but it was certainly solemn and deeply moving.  Our new service has something of a note of joyful celebration running through it, but still our people come to the receiving of the bread and the wine with a solemnity and a depth of emotion, because there they experience a level or depth of communion with the Risen Lord which is special. That, I think, is how I would answer the question about what Methodists are doing in the service.  Certainly they are remembering the death, once for all, of Christ on Calvary’s tree, and his glorious resurrection and ascension, and mindful of that offering ‘a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving’.  Certainly they are deeply aware of the ‘real presence’ of Christ, maybe more deeply aware here than in any other of our services, but a presence of Christ no more real than at any other time when ‘two or three are gathered together in his name’ (Mt.18:20).  Anyone who suggested that the real presence of Christ was somehow in, with, under, at, by or through the bread and wine themselves would need to be very careful about how that was phrased.

When Methodists come for Holy Communion, it is to celebrate with others in the fellowship of the church, the life, death and resurrection of Christ, by meditating on his complete giving of himself for us, sharing in the joy and hope of eternal life, and experiencing the forgiving and renewing presence of Christ.  Different parts of the service will speak differently to different people at different times, and there is no doubt that kneeling and receiving the elements is a particularly solemn moment.  I think it is worth emphasising and pointing out that this is the only time most Methodists ever kneel, and it is a precious moment.  This is one reason why some Methodists don’t like going to Anglican eucharists where the ‘conveyor-belt system’ operates, and they don’t have time to spend kneeling at the rail and waiting for a dismissal while the rest of the ‘table’ receives too.

After receiving we give thanks that God has ‘fed us in this sacrament, united us with Christ, and given us a foretaste of the heavenly banquet prepared for all people’.  That general thanksgiving does not specify how we have been fed, nor how we have been united with Christ, nor what the foretaste of the heavenly banquet has been; but it certainly refers to more than simply the receiving of the elements.  There is a mystery here, and maybe we should be content with Wesley’s phrase, that the Holy Communion is a ‘means of grace’ whereby the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts.

What can I say in conclusion?  Perhaps two things:

First, how does what I have written compare with British Methodism’s response to the Lima document, ‘Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry’?  Our response was made by the Conference of 1985, and in both the Preamble, and the three pages devoted to the Eucharist (Churches respond to BEM, vol.2, pp.210-229, preamble pp.210-2, Eucharist pp.222-4) there is nothing which suggests that anything I have said needs to be deleted, and even some suggestion that the odd paragraph should be strengthened.  I think therefore that I can claim that what I have written here would be given an imprimatur if Methodist were to do such things.

Secondly, in many ways our hymnbook is as good a guide as anything to our Methodist theology, and as I have already said our new hymn book brings back some of the ‘stronger’ eucharistic hymns or verses of the Wesleys, and has 38 hymns in the section entitled, ‘The Lord’s Supper’, compared with 17 in the old book.  It is to me rather a disturbing feature of the book, and one which maybe accurately reflects the way that ‘official’ Methodism is moving sacramentally, that the hymn of Thomas Cotterill, 1779-1823, which was number 762 in the old book has disappeared.  In many ways I would suggest that this popular communion hymn summed up, and still sums up, the majority grassroots eucharistic theology of Methodism.  It reads:

‘In memory of the Saviour’s love,
  We keep the sacred feast,
Where every humble, contrite heart
  Is made a welcome guest.
By faith we take the bread of life,
  With which our souls are fed,
The cup in token of his blood
  That was for sinners shed.
Under his banner thus we sing
  The wonders of his love,
And thus anticipate by faith
  The heavenly feast above.’

But let the last word rest with our response to BEM, in which it says that, ‘Methodism, like most other churches and perhaps more than some, has made great gains in both experience and understanding of the holy communion in the last two or three decades’ (p.222), especially through the influence of the liturgical movement.  Few in Methodism, I think, would want to put the clock back, but that there is a distinctive sound to the ticking of the Methodist eucharistic clock cannot be denied, and in any kind of ecumenical setting that needs to be heard and appreciated as sensitively as any other eucharistic traditions, for Methodism does indeed value the Eucharist as a Means of Grace given by Christ to his people.


16 Philip Pullman The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

We have just started a reading group for retired Methodist Ministers in central and east/north Cornwall (Supernumeraries with Soul?) and this is my introduction to Philip Pullman's, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (Canongate, 2010, 245pp, £14.99) which we discussed on Thursday February 24th, 2011.

1          Philip Pullman is famous for the His Dark Materials trilogy (Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass – the first of which is now a film) and he is member of the Militant Atheists Club.  Some literary theorists will argue for the autonomy of each work of literature and the irrelevance of its authorship – I don’t buy that – authors (and publishers) have agendas!  They also have social locations, lifestyles and morals and these things also must be, for me, included alongside the author’s and publisher’s agenda(s) in any responsible (ie suspicious and alert) reading.

2          All reading begins with recognising the genre of what we are reading.  I take that to be both an obvious and a crucial point - get the genre wrong and all sorts of other wrongs follow: eg

·         trying to book a ticket for the Hogwarts Express or the World Quidditch Championship,
·         reading Gen 1 as science, Reve as prediction or John as the ipsissima verba of Jesus.

So the first and most important point to note is that this book claims to be a story – a point made clearly on the back cover – ‘This is a STORY’.  So as a story, one might properly think, this book will be making no claims to ‘historicity’ – whatever that elusive word might mean, or anything like that.  Its subject matter is Jesus, but there’s a whiff of intriguing Da Vinci code-esque conspiracy with the mention of ‘the scoundrel Christ’ to entice us to pick up the book and get into the story.

But then you read the inside of the cover, to find this,

‘In this ingenious and spellbinding retelling of the life of Jesus, PP revisits the most influential story ever told.  Charged with mystery, compassion and enormous power, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ throws fresh light on who Jesus was and asks the reader questions that will continue to resonate long after the final page is turned.  Above all, this book is about how stories become stories.’

You don’t need a PhD in the hermeneutics of suspicion to recognise that a pause for a deep breath is called for at this point, or rather for three:

·         So it’s not ‘just a story’ after all then, is it?  There’s an agenda here.  As a ‘retelling’, the inside cover clearly suggests that this story is on a par with the original ‘story’, or rather, that the original story is on a par with this one – it too is a ‘story’.
·         So this story intends to ‘throw fresh light on who Jesus was’ does it?  Well, if that isn’t a claim to be dealing in ‘historicity’ then I don’t know what is.  So looking at the title of the book in the light of that claim, my mind goes immediately to the Jesus of History/Christ of Faith debate, and while I must confess not to be entirely up to speed in its latest twists and turns I do think I can see what this book is about in that context.  Ah, I think to myself, here’s another attack on the Church and Christianity which has created a nastily authoritarian Christ/God figure out of a loving and caring Jesus of Nazareth Jewish rabbi, a thesis with which I have a lot of sympathy.  It’s also a thesis which is not that far away from the picture in the His Dark Materials trilogy where the ultimate villain is the aged and decrepit autocrat Yahweh who is kept alive by the Vatican Curia.
·         But there’s still more, and we haven’t opened the book yet: it is ‘above all’ – a very telling phrase – ‘a book about how stories become stories’.  I wonder what that means, I asked myself as I read this blurb, and I wonder how it’s going to do it?  There is no doubt that there is an agenda here, and the publisher has been kind enough to spell it out for those who have eyes to see.  

3          How many of you have read the book?  Well, as a taster for those who haven’t and a refresher for those who have, let’s read the first chapter, Mary and Joseph 

That’s a good introduction to Pullman’s style: short sentences, vivid description, easy reading, Biblical imagery – a childless old couple, a flowering rod, menstrual blood is polluting, an angel, the anger of the Lord used as a threat.  And our attention is grabbed by the twist in the opening para, 

‘This is the story of Jesus and his brother Christ, of how they were born, of how they lived, and of how one of them died.’ 

4          The story follows much of the familiar plot from a birth in a stable to a cross and an empty tomb outside Jerusalem, with familiar stories, incidents, characters and teaching en route.  Sometimes the story-telling is identical with that of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John; and sometimes it isn’t.  Some of the changes are amusing, some are clever, some are very plausible.  But there are two key differences to the story as we know it, and we have already encountered the first of them - in our Gospels there is a single baby born in that stable, and in Pullman’s story there is a pair of twins.  We don’t come across the second major difference until page 57, when the third major character appears, the ‘Stranger’.  And, in my reading at least, the Stranger is the key character in the book and it is the Stranger’s views which the book exists to express and to expose.  The first key character, Jesus, is the hero – naïve, innocent, idealistic, honest, good.  The second key character, Christ, is foil to the hero, there to point up the hero’s virtues by way of contrast with his own views and shadowy doings.  But the villain, because any good story must have one, is the Stranger, the one who leads Christ along, hooks him, plays him and reels him in.  He is the one who is responsible for the book’s unhappy ending, namely but not named, Christianity and the Church.

5          Well?  What did you make of it when you read the book?

6          My reaction:

I enjoyed this little book’s tweaking of familiar stories

·         The 12-year olds in the Temple pp27-30 where Jesus has been caught writing graffiti on the wall, and is rescued from the Temple authorities by his brother’s impressive quoting of Scripture.
·         The ‘temptation dialogue’ pp39-41 where the dialogue is not between Jesus and Satan, but between the two brothers.
·         Mary and Martha pp131-132 because I always thought that Martha was the one who got it right!
·         The wise and foolish girls pp141-142.  

I thought some of the ‘demythologising’ (to use a very 60s word) of the miraculous was actually very plausible (pp52-53, 61, 90)

I was impressed by its excellent, readable-in-church summary of part of the Sermon on the Mount (pp77-85), and of the Parables of the Two Sons (pp111-113) and the Good Samaritan (pp128-130)

I chuckled at the intertextuality in Joseph Greets his Son (pp47-49) and how this story reappeared in its familiar form as a parable later on (pp111-113)

I think there is real substance in its pro/con dialogues about the church (pp42-44, 144, 170-174, 226-227, 241-242, 244)

I was moved by Jesus’ soliloquy in the Garden of Gethsemane (Jesus in the Garden at Gethsemane (pp191-201) which would be worth a study session on its own 

And by the end I was puzzled by the use of the adjective ‘scoundrel’ for Christ

7          Two sets of questions:

·         Is the book subversive – part of the contemporary Militant Atheist agenda, a wolf in sheep’s clothing?  Or is it a genuine inquiry after truth, a search for the Jesus of History, because his genuine values really are worth promoting despite their twisting by the church?  In other words, do I read this book with the hermeneutic of suspicion or the hermeneutic of trust?  Or both?  Or neither?  Does the author’s intention/agenda matter?
·         The issue that crops up each time the unidentifiable (or am I missing something?) Stranger appears is the question about the nature of ‘story’ and the place of ‘truth’ and ‘history’ in stories.  See the quote from p74 in the synopsis and the ‘what should have been (is more useful than) what was’ of p99.  It’s summed up in the last lines of the book where Christ agonises over it, ‘The stranger would have called it letting truth into history.  Jesus would have just called it lying … But this is the tragedy: without the story there will be no church, and without the church Jesus will be forgotten…’ (pp244-245).    

8          Would I recommend this as a good read?  Yes, I think I would.

9          Synopsis of the book.  The italics here are the 53 chapter headings.

Mary is the child of her rich, elderly and pious parents’ old age, dedicated to God, offered to the temple and placed in the care of the High Priest Zacharias.  When she is twelve, for obvious reasons, she needs to be placed elsewhere, and by angelic guidance and the miracle of a flowering rod she is entrusted to a reluctant old widower, Joseph, who spends most of his time away, leaving the pure and virginal, simple and good, Mary at home (Mary and Joseph).  The story moves from young Mary to The Birth of John to Elizabeth and the aged High Priest, Zacharias, the first of Pullman’s biblical deviations, for the aged Zechariah of our Gospel stories is anything but the High Priest.  At the same time a seductive angel doesn’t seduce the 16-year-old virgin Mary – or does he? – and poor old Joseph finds his young wife and ward pregnant when he comes back from working away (The Conception of Jesus).  There is no room in the inn for The Birth of Jesus, and the Coming of the Shepherds but Mary safely gives birth to twins, the first strong and healthy, the second small, weak and sickly, so Mary lovingly suckles him first.  The shepherds come and recount the angels’ message about the Messiah in a feeding trough, and there he is, the small, weak and sickly twin.  Mary remembers the angel’s words, and she’s pleased that it’s sort of one baby each, the strong twin for Joseph and the weak one for her.  The Astrologers arrive, give gifts to Mary’s twin and depart.  Tricked, Herod kills all the Bethlehem boys, but Elizabeth has spirited little John off to the mountains, and he survives, but not his father, who Herod kills instead (The Death of Zacharias).

The Childhood of Jesus was fun, he was a typical boisterous boy, in and out of scrapes, popular and gregarious; his younger brother, ‘Christ’ as Mary called him, was pious, clingy, a bit of a tell-tale and always Mary’s favourite as other brothers and sisters came along.  But he had miraculous powers, and used them on occasion to get Jesus out of the bother that he had got himself into.  Adults admired him, though, and he was modest and thoughtful.  ‘But the children of the town preferred Jesus’ (p25).  When the boys are twelve they go on The Visit to Jerusalem but Jesus gets left behind, caught writing graffiti on the Temple wall, and is about to face severe punishment when the family arrive and young Christ, by deft quoting of Scripture, convinces the priests that his brother meant no harm. 

Jesus grows up and learns his father’s trade, Christ spends a lot of time in the synagogue school, then John appears doing his baptising stuff (The Coming of John).  The brothers go to the Jordan, but separately, and Christ is astonished to see John first refuse to baptise Jesus but then do it.  Was that dove flying above them and settling in that tree an omen, he wonders (The Baptism of Jesus)?  Then we have a long chapter of 8½ pages - The Temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness.  Christ shares this Jordan moment with his mother, but changes it; the dove flew over him.  But it is Jesus who gives up his carpentry and goes off into the wilderness to see if, like John, he too can hear God speaking.  He can’t.  After 40 days his brother arrives, and Jesus isn’t exactly communicative.  Christ tells him that he saw him being baptised, and that he heard a voice from heaven saying ‘This is my beloved son’.  Jesus says he was mistaken and tells him to go away.  Christ says that you’re tired and hungry, so why not turn stones to bread?  Jesus replies by calling him a scoundrel, quoting Scripture, telling him he’d have been more use had he bought a loaf, and throwing a stone at him.  Undeterred Christ explains how much good Jesus could do by a miracle or two, backing up his argument with some biblical examples.  Jesus says that’s not ‘the real meaning of things’ at all (p42).  Christ asks him what is, and Jesus replies, ‘God loves us like a father, and his Kingdom is coming soon’ (p42).  Exactly, says Christ, and between us we can use miracles and help to bring it about, and he shares his vision.  Jesus is appalled – ‘not that way at all’, he says.  They part.  Eventually Jesus returns home and his aged father, having first mistaken Christ for him, orders a feast to celebrate his return from the dead – but the younger son is not amused (Joseph Greets his Son).

Then Jesus Begins his Ministry, a teaching ministry much like John’s: he calls disciples, attracts attention and rumours begin about miraculous powers, which Jesus doesn’t have and fervently denies having, but even in the synagogue in Nazareth they won’t believe him, and there’s a big kerfuffle.  Christ sees what is happening, more and more convinced that Jesus is going about it all wrong.  Then a stranger comes to Christ and speaks to him privately, telling him that he knows the stable story, and the others too, and wants to make sure that he, Christ, gets his rightful reward.  After all, Jesus is only a man, he says, but you are ‘the word of God’, a phrase which puzzles Christ, who is then even more puzzled by the stranger’s enigmatic explanation of the phrase (The Stranger).  After the Nazareth incident more rumours about Jesus grow (Jesus and the Wine), Jesus Scandalises the Scribes and Jesus Preaches on the Mountain that God’s kingdom is coming.  Christ is there taking notes, but he’s mistaken for a Roman spy and Christ is Saved by the Stranger, who tells him,

‘(Taking notes) is an excellent thing to do … Sometimes there is a danger that people might misinterpret the words of a popular speaker.  The statements need to be edited, the meanings clarified, the complexities unravelled for the simple-of-understanding.  In fact, I want you to continue.  Keep a record of what your brother says, and I shall collect your reports from time to time, so that we can begin the work of interpretation’ (p74)

Then the stranger slips away, leaving Christ to speculate on who he might be.  Jesus Continues his Sermon on the Mount (and what a splendid version of it this chapter is!).  Next we get The Death of John.  Then Christ goes on to record Jesus’ barclay-esque Feeding the Crowd as another miracle.  But he can’t follow Jesus, so he persuades a middle-order disciple to keep him informed, and he does (The Informant, and the Canaanite Woman and The Woman with the Ointment).  Next The Stranger Talks of Truth and History, and Christ is thrilled to be taken into his confidence, though his identity is still not disclosed – was he a Greek and a philosopher? -  to be included among the ‘we who know’ whose aim is to shape the future, knowing that for that purpose ‘what should have been ‘ is more useful than ‘what was’ (!! p99).

All the while Jesus is becoming more well-known, so much so that Jesus himself retreats to Caesarea Philippi and asks the disciples about the rumours.  So the disciple informant reports the Who Do You Say I Am? question and Jesus’ reply, but after much heart-searching Christ writes an extra paragraph for the stranger about Peter’s reply and Jesus commending Peter as the leader of the new organisation – after all, thinks Christ, this is not dishonest, it’s letting truth from beyond time into history to shape the future, just like the stranger had said we should be doing.  So Christ continues to write it all down, increasingly difficult though he finds it at times: controversies with Pharisees and Sadducees, Jesus and the Family, and there in one parable he was sure he saw that banquet when Jesus came back from the wilderness, and other increasingly Difficult Stories which seemed to be castigating virtue, just like Jesus’ strange friendships did.  He hopes the stranger can explain what it all means.  And that process soon starts to happen when the stranger meets him and takes him up a hill, in the dazzling sunshine, and they talk: ‘He is Jesus’, says the stranger, ‘and you are Christ; and soon the world will know both your names like it knows the names of Moses and Elijah.  He is the history, and you are the truth, and you have to be wise and courageous enough to share the vision in the challenging days ahead’ (The Stranger Transfigured, A Coming Crisis).  The light is beginning to dawn for Christ, his stranger is no member of the Sanhedrin, no Greek philosopher, he is an angel, no less.

He continues to write down what his informant tells him, memorable encounters and parables (Jesus Debates with a Lawyer; The Good Samaritan), though when it came to the incident of the burned bread he knew that this was one of those which would be more memorable as truth than as history (Mary and Martha), and then more stories that he improves (The Wise and Foolish Girls).  In between there’s another long chapter, Christ and the Prostitute, in which we see, or perhaps don’t see, some of the younger brother’s confusion about his twin, and the ambiguities of his relationship with him.

And now, nearing Passover and outside a privy in Jericho The Stranger Talks of Abraham and Isaac and Christ sees the sacrifice that might be asked of him.  Jesus Rides into Jerusalem.  The Priests test Jesus.  Jesus Becomes Angry with the Pharisees.  ‘King Jesus’ begins to appear on walls everywhere.  Jesus and the Money-changers is the last straw and The Priests Discuss What to Do about Jesus.  Christ and his Informant talk all this through, and The Stranger Tells Christ What Part He Must Play – not the part of Isaac, as he had thought it might be his destiny to fulfil in bringing in the kingdom, but that of Abraham, though this time there will be no ram caught in a thicket, no coming back from death, and no kingdom either.  No kingdom, but an image of it, a church.  Can he do it?  Can he betray his twin?  Without it, implies the stranger, who will reach out to comfort the orphan, the sick and the dying?  With it, there will be kindly hands and sweet voices, truth enough ‘to cancel out all the evil in the world’ (p174) says the angel stranger.  ‘Even if it never happened’ responds a growingly suspicious Christ, and the angel makes no response.  Think about it, the stranger says, and when you’re ready come to Caiaphas’ house.  He goes outside to think and finds himself talking to the cripples by the Pool of Bethsaida about healing, life and love, can he kiss the one who pleads for just that little sign of affection?  Yes, but it’s all too much, and he staggers away, humiliated, only to find they’d nicked his purse.  He sets out for the house of Caiaphas (Christ at the Pool of Bethsaida).  He meets the angel at the door, Caiaphas shares the dilemma of his office, the deed is planned, the money will replace the stolen purse (Caiaphas).

Meanwhile in a poignant and powerful 10½ pages Jesus in the Garden at Gethsemane talks to God in a silence without response.  Christ appears with soldiers, and it happens - The Arrest of Jesus, Jesus before the Council, Peter in the courtyard, Jesus and Pilate, The Crucifixion, The Burial.  Then the Stranger in the Garden talks to Christ, talks about how people need what has just happened and how they need what will happen next, talks as the body is removed from the tomb, talks about disciples energised by the Spirit, talks about Christ’s role in writing truth, the ‘truth that is different from history’ as Christ sarcastically now names it (p224); but in the end Christ says he’ll be there, on the Sunday morning, and he’ll do what needs to be done.  And he does, when he meets Mary from Magdala at the Tomb.  And he does the same that afternoon on The Road to Emmaus.  And he sees what happens to the disciples, and he sees the story grow and change, from the story of Jesus, to Jesus the Messiah, to Jesus Christ, the twins’ names joined.

Years later the stranger comes to Christ, now The Net-Maker with another name, when he and his wife Martha are having supper; and Christ doesn’t welcome him.  The memories are too painful, the memories of his betrayal of his brother, and his own betrayal too by this too-smooth a stranger who, whoever he is, is no angel.  The stranger joins them for their supper of bread and wine, commenting on the irony of how well that little touch of Christ’s at Emmaus had caught on.  He brings a carpet-bag with all Christ’s old reports on his brother.  He talks about the church.  Christ is torn.  He knows the good this church will do, but he also guesses what it might become, exactly what Jesus had rejected in their wilderness conversation.  But if there’s no church, then the memory of Jesus goes too.  So he’s torn and he’s tempted - how he’s tempted - when he looks at those reports he’s already thinking of tweaks here, a new scene there.  ‘Letting truth into history’ the stranger had called it.  Jesus would have just called it lying.  ‘Martha, Martha, what shall I do?’  ‘You should eat your supper’.  ‘But when they turned back to the table the bread was all gone and the wine-jar was empty’ (p245).

10        PS       Two books to recommend highly for this Year of the Bible:

Campbell, Gordon (2010) Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611-2011, Oxford: OUP (354pp, £16.99)

Wansborough, Henry (2006) The Story of the Bible: How it came to us, London: DLT (140pp, £10.95


17 Marcion – heretic or hero?  Can a Christian really read the Old Testament?

Lincoln Theological Society.  Tuesday May 24th 2011.  Some of this got abbreviated on the night.  The numbers in the square brackets refer to the, sometimes copious, notes which follow the lecture itself. 

Good evening everyone, and thank you for the invitation to be with you tonight.  May I start by wishing you at Lincoln Theological Society every good wish for your new venture from Truro Theological Society, now in our 16th year of doing what we do.  I wish you the same kind of success that we have experienced, which continues to encourages us to believe that theology is not yet dead in either church or society.


So to my theme - Marcion – heretic or hero? - with its subtitle, Can a Christian really read the Old Testament?  I must say straight away that this lecture is really about the subtitle and not too much about Marcion himself.  Marcion is an important name in the discussion, and we’ll soon see why, but this is not a lecture about him [1].  If anyone has come for a lecture like that, I’m sure the treasurer of LTS will refund your admission on your way out.  So our focus tonight is on the question of whether or not a Christian can really read the OT.  The lecture is in three parts:

first, we’ll look at ancient and modern objections to reading the OT at all – can we really read a thing like that?,

second, we’ll look at why Christians need to read the OT – why we really do need to read it!, 

and third, we’ll discuss the difficulties Christians have in really reading the OT – that is, reading it ‘properly’ – and in the process look at a theological issue which would look different and better if we succeeded.

I might as well get the adverts out of the way now, though.  So on the mauve sheet is a list of my books available as free downloads on my website or Kindle, as well as the new SCM Studyguide: The Psalms which you can only get from proper bookshops or Amazon and the like.  At the back are the last few copies in print of Let us Bless the Lord: rediscovering the Old Testament through Ps 103 which is very much on the theme of this lecture and is yours at a discount rate of £2 each (Methodist Publishing House bankrupt stock) and Who is this Jesus who was born of Mary? on the Birth Stories in Matthew and Luke and the Prologue in John at a discount rate of £4.  You can even have both of them for a special offer of a fiver.  So now, down to business.

1  Can Christians really read the OT?

There’s a strong sense in this question that this is one of those questions which expects an answer ‘No’.  Can we really read a thing like that?  So in the first part of this lecture we’ll look at some ancient and modern objections to the OT, but before we come to the negatives we must note that there is, of course, another answer to the question about whether Christians can read the OT.  ‘Of course they can’ is an obvious retort; not least in this 400th anniversary celebration year of the King James Bible, when we are celebrating official royal patronage of them doing just that from 1611 onwards.  Before then it’s quite clear that British Christians could and did ‘read’ the OT with gusto in the mystery plays and in the pictures on church walls, as well as in the preaching of the friars and others.  That tradition continues today in the likes of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and the continued fascination with Noah and his Ark in many primary schools.  But as a teacher-trainer friend of mine used to point out – don’t we need to pause here and ask what message Noah and his Ark is giving to six-year olds, or maybe more importantly, to their teachers?  It is that God drowns people.  Can we really read such stories?

But leaving that aside for another moment, it’s also clear that not only can Christians read the OT in a multitude of modern and contemporary translations and formats and with a considerable range of study and application aids, but that the Church insists that they should read it.  If most of them don’t read it (or the NT) at home, as Bible Society surveys increasingly show, lectionaries insist that they should at least hear it read in church, though even there, as we will see, OT lessons are no longer universal.

So, of course Christians can read the OT, and the Church insists that they should: the OT is part of Holy Scripture, it is in the Bible, which is ‘appointed to be read in churches’, and it is (if the increasingly common and utterly dreadful way of ending Bible readings in Church is to be believed) ‘the Word of the Lord’ for which we give thanks to God.

Therefore let’s turn to Marcion, who knew all that and disagreed.  Okay, they didn’t in his time have a Bible as we know it (neither the traditional Catholic and Orthodox one with its bigger OT nor the abbreviated Protestant one now in more common use in the UK).  Nor did they end their Scripture readings with that dubious American import.  Nor were levels of literacy what they are now.  Nor was access to Scripture as easy as it is now.  But all that notwithstanding, Marcion lived in a world where Christians could read the OT and where the Church insisted they should.  And he objected.  So who was he?  Why did he object?  And why does his name keep cropping up whenever tonight’s question about the OT is asked?

Marcion was born sometime around 85 AD and died around 160.  He was possibly the son of a bishop.  He was a native of Sinope on the Black Sea coast of Turkey, and seems to have been a wealthy ship-owner.  Unfortunately, nothing of his writing survives, and all we know about his views comes from arguments against them in the writings of various Church Fathers [2].  He arrived in Rome around 140 AD by which time he had been for many years a very active Christian missionary.  At Rome he sharpened his theology and developed his mission strategies, as we might say, but he was challenged as a heretic and in 144 he was formally excommunicated.  From then on, like all good evangelists disapproved of by their established churches, his movement spread and prospered.  It is a little too early tonight to pause in good Methodist fashion on this Methodist red-letter day and read from Wesley’s Journal of his defining religious experience at a quarter before nine on 24th May in 1738: but at least as far as enthusiasm and organising skill are concerned Marcion and Wesley were equals.  Marcionite churches appeared across the Roman Empire and lasted at least until the end of the third century, presenting a very significant challenge to emerging orthodoxy, as we can see in the efforts of generations of Church Fathers to point out the errors of this rival movement.  But it’s not Marcion the Evangelist, or Marcion the Theologian who has passed into ecclesiastical folk memory, it is Marcion the opponent of the OT.

For Marcion, Jesus Christ was Saviour and Lord, the great Teacher and Exemplar of the Love of God; and his gospel was entirely a Gospel of Love and Liberation, as we might say.  It was bright, new and shiny – the love of God free to all.  This New Covenant was, in Marcion’s view, in complete contrast to the Old; it was Good News about Love contrasted with Bad News about Law.  And it was arguably from that basic experience of liberating love that Marcion developed his strong views about the OT and its god, that the OT was a testament of Law, and its Jewish God was a thoroughly nasty piece of work.  The OT should not be Christian Scripture at all, he argued, because its god is not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  The OT god – and Marcion used the gnostic term ‘Demiurge’ (‘Craftsman’) here - was fickle, capricious, ignorant, despotic and cruel.  His book was out-dated and barbaric.  Its nasty god was quite different from the Nice God made known to the world by Jesus Christ.  Its faith centred in Law in contrast to the faith of the Church which centred in ‘spirit’.  As part of his missionary and teaching work Marcion produced a ‘Bible’ for his churches: it contained no OT at all, only one Gospel (an edited version of Luke) and ten letters of Paul which excluded the Pastorals.  Everything else that would emerge later in our NT he dismissed as being too heavily influenced by Judaism and the OT.

The problem is that although Marcion and his followers were excommunicated as heretics in 144, his views were very popular even in the orthodox churches of his day and his legacy remains with us.  He lives on as a shadowy presence in the Church whispering insidiously about the Nasty God of the OT and the Nice One of the New, with the result that that way of thinking about the OT and its god is widely, even if unofficially, held in the Church today.  Ordinands in my classes over the years, for example, have confessed to their dislike of the OT but, thank goodness, they have also written in those endless end of module reviews that are required these days of their surprise in finding something in it after all after ten sessions of OT introduction with me or a semester on Psalms.  In the various straw polls I have conducted in the diocese of Truro and the Cornwall Methodist District over the past 15 years or so, the results show a consistent move away from reading the OT in church.  Given the choice a significant minority of churches read only 2 of the 3 set lessons, and of that significant minority the majority choose Gospel plus Epistle and do not read the OT regularly at all.  With the large-scale disappearance of Matins and Evensong, psalms are increasingly rarely used either.  Two lessons have always been the norm in Methodism, and there too it is now common to find those two readings to be Gospel and Epistle.  So inside the mainstream Church contemporary reception of the OT is hardly enthusiastic.

Outside the Church, Marcion’s view is commonplace.  Here, for example, is a famous contemporary quote,

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

The author of that?  Yes, it’s Richard Dawkins – eminent biologist and amateur theologian – in The God Delusion and all over the internet.  But this idea is widespread and commonplace.  One of my favourite tv channels is ITV 3, with its endless repeats of Morse, Wycliffe, Poirot and so on; and the other week we got Barnaby going on about ‘Old Testament religion’ in one of the Midsomer Murders.  Then on holiday after Easter I was reading the first volume of John Simpson’s autobiography (Strange Places, Questionable People) from a charity shop and found him referring to ‘the OT roarings’ of Alexander Solzhenitsyn in contrast to the quieter and more ‘gentle’ approach of the other 1980s Soviet dissident, Andrei Sakharov.  Just two examples I have come across recently of contemporary Marcionism.

This lecture works on the assumption that Marcion was wrong and that his modern followers are wrong too, and so before we go any further I want to deal with Marcion’s two biggest points.

First, I think we simply need to accept that Marcion’s moral objections to the OT and to its God are valid.  I could argue that, verse for verse, the NT is at least as bad if not actually worse, but that would be a digression.  So let’s admit straight away that the OT contains some very unpleasant material and that Marcion’s objections to it and Richard Dawkins’ rantings about it have substance, and that if we want to illustrate the savagery of the OT and its God then we can make quite a list, though we haven’t time to do it here [3].  The notorious Ps 137.9 always gets a mention in lists like this, of course, but here’s another one from Psalms which as Alistair Hunter says, for sheer imaginative nastiness is hard to beat (An Introduction to the Psalms p6), 

O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord!
7 Let them vanish like water that runs away;
like grass let them be trodden down
* and wither.
8 Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime;
like the untimely birth that never sees the sun (
Ps 58.6-8)

We could all make quite a list and the only fair conclusion is yes: Marcion and Dawkins have a point [4].

It is, however, a point which can be countered simply by admitting that the OT is a very large anthology of ancient religious literature.  So if some of it is pretty unreadable and if some of it is unquestionably morally offensive, then what else do we expect?  The OT is an ancient anthology from a strange and alien culture whose attitudes, values, morality, aesthetics, spirituality, theology and religious sensibilities are not the same as ours.  It is, after all, the ‘Old’ Testament we are talking about.  Now I don’t want to claim any moral high ground for 21st century western culture and morality - after the ‘bloody twentieth century’, as Hobsbawm called it, how dare I? – but I do want to say that it is right and proper to recognise that we have a different moral awareness here which needs to be taken seriously.  And I can justify that in a number of ways:

first, that the Church has from early days used the adjectives ‘Old’ and ‘New’ both for itself and for its Scriptures (‘Old/New Covenant’ and OT/NT),

second, that Jesus himself recognised that what had gone before was not the last word in those famous antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount (‘You have heard that it was said … but I say’ in Mt 5.21-48 which, interestingly, follows the bit about not ‘abolishing’ the Law and the Prophets in 5.17-20),

third, that the author of the Fourth Gospel invites this approach when he puts those words about the Holy Spirit ‘leading (us) into all the truth’ on the lips of Jesus (Jn 16.12),

and last, that we can all look back at our own religious traditions and wince at some of the things that were said and done in them in the past.  And that’s nowhere better put than in in the Victorian hymn with its lines which ought to be engraved on every ecclesiastics’ soul,

New occasions teach new duties;
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward
Who would keep abreast of truth.  [5]

So, yes, the OT is huge, complicated and at times both utterly tedious and downright repugnant, but what else do you expect in a large ancient anthology of diverse material written in a bygone world between 3000 and 2200 years ago?  The OT comes from the past, that ‘foreign country where they do things differently’ [6].  Acknowledging that and taking it seriously then becomes, in fact, the way of opening the book, respecting it and appreciating it.  Acknowledging that as a given, we can then begin to read the OT on its own terms and within its own frames of reference, which is the starting point for that practice of biblical ‘interpretation’ which has been seen as essential since day one [7].  To my mind, condemning the OT because it doesn’t conform to our moral standards is simply a demonstration of ignorance of its provenance as well as a display of cultural arrogance and chauvinism.

Much more briefly, let’s move on to Marcion’s second point that the OT is about ‘Law’ and the ‘letter’ whereas Christianity is about grace and love and the ‘spirit’.  We can hear echoes of Marcion’s hero Paul here, though whether Paul himself would have agreed with Marcion’s use of some of his terms and themes is highly doubtful [8].  In this respect Marcion is a sort of proto-Luther.  Just as Luther works up a ‘Law’ versus ‘Gospel’ contrast because he wants to demonstrate the superiority of Protestant ‘justification by faith’ over Catholic ‘salvation by works’, so Marcion works up a similar ‘Law’ versus ‘Spirit’ contrast to demonstrate first a new Christian superiority over old Judaism, and then a Marcionite-spirituality superiority over the emerging-orthodoxy one – though before you ask, that last bit is nothing more than conjecture based on long experience of reading between the ecclesiastical lines!  Marcion’s and Luther’s understanding of ‘Law’ in relation to the OT and Judaism is simply wrong, but that hasn’t stopped it being mainstream in Christian theology for centuries, not least when it’s read back and assumed to be Paul’s understanding too.  So we point to the Pharisees as examples of legalism, who teach that you get to heaven by keeping the law, by building up sufficient merit marks for observing the 613 commandments that God agrees to number them among the saved, and who in the process get judgemental about those who aren’t in their points league.  That’s what we still hear about the Pharisees and what we still hear about ‘Law’ in the OT.  The fact that Judaism doesn’t see it that way; that in the OT story God gives the ‘Law’ to Moses after he has ‘saved’ his people from Egypt so that they can stay ‘saved’ rather than before so that he can decide if they have earned their salvation yet (Ex 20.1); and despite the fact that the English word ‘law’ with its negative connotations in Christian theology is not the best translation of that great, warm and cuddly Hebrew word Torah anyway, is all ignored by Marcion and contemporary Marcionites [9].  We’ll come back to that in a few minutes’ time.

So let’s leave Marcion now, recognising that he had a point about the moral offensiveness of the OT and its God, and that on the subject of ‘Law’ he just got it plain wrong.  The Church Fathers dismissed him as a heretic and in so doing insisted that Christians should read the OT [10].

2  And let’s move to our second question, that if the OT is an ancient and alien anthology, with all the considerable downsides that that implies, why do Christians really need to read it?

Here I simply want to note material which the OT supplies to Christian theology and faith which would be seriously missed if the OT were to be jettisoned.  Or, to rephrase that, material which the Supplement – aka the NT - takes as read and so does not repeat [11].  Here’s a little list of three:

First, there’s the ‘Green’ stuff.  The NT has virtually nothing to say about creation, nothing on the place and role of humanity in the created order nor anything to contribute to discussions of eco-theology or eco-justice.  For anything Biblical on this hugely important contemporary issue we need to turn to the OT, which has at least four Creation pictures which contribute to these debates [12].  In fact William P. Brown in an important recent book finds seven and although the book is entitled The Seven Pillars of Creation – The Bible, Science and the Ecology of Wonder (Oxford University Press, 2010, 334pp) in fact the NT hardly appears in the book at all.  For the Bible part of his engagement between Science, Wonder and the Bible, Brown is totally dependent on the OT.  For the idea that God is ‘creator’, for the universe as a ‘creation’, for the sense of life as gift, for humanity’s relation to and responsibility in the natural world – for all that it is to the OT that we must turn.  And despite the openings some of these OT texts give to the nonsense of Creationism and Creationists few responsible Christians would suggest that Christianity can do without what we might call ‘OT greenery’.

Second, there’s the world of politics, economics and ‘social responsibility’, which I’m bundling into one package for the sake of convenience.  Look in the NT for these issues and you will find something, but it’s very little and very narrowly focused.  On politics, it’s how a persecuted or minority Faith is to respond to secular authority with one very juicy saying of Jesus thrown into the measure.  If you don’t read the OT you interpret ‘render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s (Mk 12.17)’ in, if I may dare call it that, the ‘old Church of England/Tory Party at prayer’ kind of way which says you must leave religion out of politics.  Read the OT and you interpret that enigmatic saying in the famous Desmond Tutu way that ‘those who say that politics and religion should not mix do not read the same Bible as I do’.  On economics it’s whether to buy meat sacrificed to idols when you go shopping.  On social responsibility it’s how to set a good example to your pagan neighbours plus the God-sent Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Mt 25.31f) about the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner which good preachers can usually manage to widen from its apparently original confinement to individual charitable good deeds or care of destitute fellow-Christians.  But for the big picture you have to turn to the OT, for example to the great core paradigm of the Exodus with its liberation message that God cares for the marginalised and ‘saves’ the needy, and to the teaching of those great social commentators and preachers of ‘social righteousness’ the eighth-century prophets – Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Micah.  Not for nothing did 20th century Liberation Theology read the Exodus as its key text, or 19th century British social reformers read Amos.

Third, there’s the personal morality stuff.  Of course there’s plenty in the NT about how Christians should behave, more on morality, I suspect, than some Christians would like there to be: but again it is usually quite focused on observable good moral behavior.  That commitment is rooted in the OT and seen in Moses coming down the mountain with a radical new idea that Belief and Behaviour go together.  This isn’t the place to debate the historicity of Moses, I’m just using that image as an illustration of the fact that the OT does something new in the history of ancient near-eastern religion: it insists that Belief and Behaviour go together.  Many Israelites subsequently did their best to ignore the new formula, as have generations of Christians but the essence of the teaching of that much maligned and misunderstood ‘Torah’ or ‘Law’ is precisely this: that Belief and Behaviour go together, that faith is 24/7, that how you pay your bills is as important as how you say your prayers, that God is concerned about every dimension of life.  That’s what such odd commands as ‘You shall not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk’ (Ex 23.19, 34.26) are about.  That’s why the Pharisees, a lay movement committed to ‘Scriptural Holiness’ (first century Methodists really – good guys – though when they go wrong they can end up as absolutely smug self-righteous hypocrites), aimed to make the kitchen as holy as the altar.  One of my favourite hymns is ‘Fill Thou my life, O Lord my God, in every part with praise’ – and in passing I want to note the importance of hymnody to theology in the Christian tradition, a fact not always appreciated in those places where organists are allowed to choose the hymns, and a significant point for contemporary discussions about the merits of worship songs and so on.  ‘Fill Thou my life’ was written by the 19th century Scots Presbyterian, Horatius Bonar, but it could have been written by a Pharisee to sum up the Torah [13].  The NT assumes the principle behind all that kitchen/office/farm and Monday to Saturday ethics, but the ethical conclusions at the end of Paul’s letters, for example, tend to focus more narrowly on how Christians behave towards each other.  That’s fine and according to the Fourth Gospel Jesus recognized the particular need for a commandment to say that by adding the ‘new commandment that his disciples should ‘love one another’ (Jn 13.34): but that new one is, quite clearly, supplementary to the other two which Jesus recognizes as primary, the Torah commands to love God and neighbor (Mk 12.28-31 and parallels).

In two of these three areas we are absolutely dependent on the OT for a crucial dimension to theology and the life of faith, and in the third we have a fundamental religious and ethical principle that can so easily be lost.  So three cheers for the OT there, and three reasons why Christians should read it. 

But there is, of course, more.  Briefly, the OT, or at least as much of it as was by then canonical – a bit of an issue in itself - was the theological dictionary, basic theological reference book and resource for Jesus, Paul and all the other NT contributors; and in the same way it is, to use a loaded word in a totally non-theological way, ‘foundational’ to the NT.  Without the OT, who is this God who Jesus teaches about and what is his ‘kingdom’?  What is a ‘messiah’ or a ‘commandment’ or a sacrifice?  Who are these illustrations: Adam, Abraham, Moses?  What is a Jew and what is so important about Jerusalem?  What does this theological vocabulary mean: love, faith, righteousness, grace?  Why is death by crucifixion so critical and what are resurrection, life after death, hell and heaven?  What is a psalm, a prophet and a covenant?  The NT presupposes that its readers know what all these things mean, and without the OT we don’t.  The NT also presupposes that because its readers know what all these things mean they can follow its arguments, discussions, sermons and teaching which utilize them, criticize them or develop them.  Without the OT the NT might be simply incomprehensible, and without doubt it is liable to misunderstanding and distortion.

3  So Christians can and indeed should read the OT: but thirdly we must discuss the difficulties Christians have in really reading the OT – that is, reading it ‘properly’ - and here we can look at a particular example of a theological issue which would look different and better if we succeeded.

First, let me defend my use of the word ‘properly’ here by using a non-biblical illustration.  You know the saying that the moon is made of green cheese.  It is quite possible that there are people who take that story literally and believe it.  It is even possible that in America as we speak there is a website devoted to discussing what sort of cheese it is.  But if you were appointing a lecturer in astronomy at the University of Lincoln, you probably would not shortlist a candidate who expressed the view that the moon was made of gorgonzola.  Thinking like that is not reading the saying properly, is it?  I know about the weaknesses of historical-criticism, and I know about literary criticism and reader-response approaches, and I’m sufficiently happy with ‘postmodernism’ to accept that there are few grand narratives or absolute truths and to agree that most of our thinking is provisional [14].  But I still wouldn’t shortlist an applicant for an astronomy lectureship who believed that the moon was made of green cheese.  So, yes, I am claiming here that some ways of reading a Bible passage are good and some are bad, and I do it without apology: Creationist readings of Genesis 1 are bad readings, Zionist readings of Genesis 12 and Deuteronomy 7 are bad readings, Fundamentalist readings of 2 Tim 3.16 are bad readings, Exclusivist readings of John 14.6 are bad readings, Jehovah Witness readings of the Book of Revelation are bad readings and the Harold Camping reading of biblical eschatology is a particularly bad reading – and I could defend each of those assertions, as well as coming up with explanations of why those readings are believed by those who believe them, because that’s important too: but not now.  All I want to establish here is that there are good and bad ways to read a Bible passage, and that good ways are better than bad ways.

So, let’s move on.  Whatever the theory, the practice is that Christians always tend to read the OT in the light of the New rather than the logical way, which is the other way round.  Historically, the NT builds on the Old, presupposes the Old, and, to use a key word from the opening NT Gospel, even ‘fulfils’ the Old.  And that is the plain sense of the opening verse of Hebrews, ‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…’.  But in practice the OT always comes out second in interpretation.  Let me give three little examples:

one, the Lectionary.  It  is possible to choose continuous reading of the OT for about 20 Sundays of the year if you wish, though even there you don’t have to, but for the Festivals and big days and in fact for the majority of Sundays overall OT readings are given in the Revised Common Lectionary not for their own integrity but to complement the NT lessons;

two, if you listen to the introductions to the OT lessons in a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols you will hear that the Virgin and Emmanuel passage in Isaiah 7 ‘predicts’ the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary, or words to that effect.  In fact it does nothing of the kind, and neither does Matthew’s Gospel suggest that it does, its use of that passage is much more profound and subtle than that, but much simplistic Christianity has reduced the OT to a book of predictions of Christianity;

and three, listen to students explaining the ‘us’ of Gen 1.26 (‘Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image …’’) and you will hear them saying that this is a reference to the Trinity, and back that up by quoting translations which have God’s ‘Spirit’ with a capital ‘S’ in Genesis 1.2 suggesting God’s ‘Holy Spirit’ familiar to us from the NT (AV, RSV, NIV, TNIV, GNB).  And if Bible translators who ought to know better do it, then who can blame students?

So the Lectionary co-opts the OT for its NT agenda, Christians have rewritten the dictionary definition of ‘prophecy’ and students read NT meanings into OT words and passages.  That’s what I mean by saying that Christians have difficulty in really reading the OT, because the NT gets in the way and with Christian specs on they find it difficult to read the OT on its own terms.  And for me, reading something on its own terms is an important part of reading it ‘properly’.

So let’s look at a worked example of Christians reading the OT wrongly where reading it properly would make a helpful difference to Christian theology.  We could do this with lots of individual OT passages, for example the Creation parables or the Exodus story; or by looking at important OT topics like the meaning of prophets and prophecy or the meaning of sacrifice (two areas particularly misunderstood in Christian theology) – but I want us to do it with a crucial theological cluster, a bundle of words and ideas including Love, Justice, Righteousness and Forgiveness.  If Christians ‘got’ the OT sense of this cluster, and understood these words in the NT in their OT dictionary-definition sense, then at least one of our big contemporary theological problems would disappear and God would emerge looking a lot better than he sometimes does.

Let’s start with a parable,

‘There were once two congregations and two preachers.  On the Lord’s Day, the Christian preacher addressed her congregation thus - ‘You sinners will all stand before the judgement seat of God!’  The congregation listened and were afraid and cried out for mercy, which is just what the preacher intended.  On the Sabbath Day, the Rabbi addressed his congregation thus – ‘You sinners will all stand before the judgement seat of God!’  The congregation listened and smiled and sang a psalm of praise, which is just what the Rabbi intended.  If you have ears to hear, then hear’.

This parable illustrates two different understandings of the image of God as Judge and what it means to stand before a Just God on the Day of Judgement.  For Christians a just God is to be feared and so preachers can use this image to threaten; for Jews a Just God is to be applauded and so preachers can use this image to encourage.  The difference is that Christians fill these ‘judge/just/justice/judgement’ words with Roman justice meanings from our English legal system in which a judge is to impartially administer justice and make the punishment fit the crime.  For Jews these words retain their ancient Hebrew meaning in which a judge is to put things right and make everything good again for everyone concerned.  That’s what the ‘Judges’ do in the Book of Judges, and that’s what the OT means by another of those cluster words, ‘righteousness’ – putting things right and being right.  To put things right a judge in ancient Israel got involved, encouraged repentance, expected restitution, used punishment if necessary, and declared forgiveness and absolution which was the desired end of the putting everything right again process.  The judge acted in love to restore the status quo of shalom.  No wonder then, when those are the connotations of the words, that the Rabbi’s congregation smiles with relief at the thought of God the Judge finally putting everything right.  This is a Judge whose love,

‘greets us, new every morning… a love which takes our sins and our mistakes and all the sad and sorry failures of our lives and puts them behind us… a love which will not let us go… a love which seeks us out with generosity and embraces us with kindness…’

in words from a prayer I often use.  There is here no contrast between God’s love and his justice – they are one and the same activity.  Turn to Christianity, however, and we have divided them.  This is clear at the popular level in Alpha course atonement theology: God loves us but can’t simply forgive us because his Justice has to be satisfied – with talk of these two as attributes which need to be balanced.  Christ has to die to satisfy God’s justice, then forgiveness is possible.  That kind of forensic transaction or plea-bargaining is entirely foreign to the OT, in which it is simply unnecessary because the OT is working from different and much more wholesome definitions and a better atonement theology.  We see the same idea in the current controversy over the line ‘the wrath of God is satisfied’ in Stuart Townend’s popular hymn ‘In Christ alone’, a line which for me and others makes the hymn unusable [15].  This love/justice contrast is commonplace in theology, for example I heard John Millbank of the Dept of Theology at Nottingham using it in a discussion of Pelagius, one of my great heroes, on Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time a month or so back.  And it’s biblically just plain wrong and unnecessary [16].  In the OT, God’s love is his justice; his justice is his love.  His love is his commitment to blessing, restoring and making whole.  His justice is his action to put things right.  No need to juxtapose the two at all.  They are not two different sides of the same coin, but the same side of the same coin.  Both sets of vocabulary need to be nuanced, of course they do, and so I find the American idea of ‘tough love’ a useful corrective to sentimentalism, and sometimes the putting right of a situation can be very hard indeed on the perpetrators of evil (as in the prophets’ response to human failure!): but to the OT God is one in intent, and that intention is the redeeming of his people.  Admittedly he sometimes has, to us, an odd way of showing it: but that edge has nothing to do with his justice juxtaposed or opposed to his love.  Enough of this, but I hope I’ve said enough to show that here Christian theology, atonement theory and a popular modern worship song hymn would be much better if we read the OT first!  And it would also mean that that dreadful Good Friday hymn ‘There is a green hill’ would disappear from our hymn books, another bonus [17].  Get this right and God looks so much nicer, freed from that imposed legalistic prison to forgive just because he’s like that, because his ‘name and his nature is love’.  Get that right and the idea of atonement and ‘the sacrifice of Christ’ – hugely misunderstood in so much Christian theology - looks quite different, and so much simpler too.  It’s all in the book (Let us bless the Lord: rediscovering the OT through Ps 103) – chapters 3 and 4.

So to a conclusion.

Marcion – heretic or hero?  Can Christians really read the Old Testament?  Yes, can and should, unless they want to throw out the baby with the bathwater.  Of course it can be hard going, but ‘nothing great is easy’ as my old Primary School motto said; and of course the OT needs to be read critically and interpreted carefully, but so do the NT, the Creeds, Wesley’s Sermons, Rowan Williams, Nicky Gumbel, Pope Benedict and every other bit of theology we might read.

Marcion had a point, but in the end he was both found to be wrong and deserved to be so found.  So let me end by looking briefly at one OT passage and pointing to another.  The first of these is sometimes called the OT’s ‘core creed’ [18] and in Judaism it is known as the ‘Thirteen Middoth’ or the ‘Thirteen Attributes of Mercy’ [19].  We find it at Ex 34.6-7

The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed,
‘The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
7 keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,*
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
and the children’s children,
to the third and the fourth generation.’

Here we find a glorious cluster of terms which speak of God as ‘merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love’, core terms and phrases which crop up in different combinations in every genre of OT literature and in material of very different ages.  Here we also find that bit about God ‘visiting the iniquity of the parents on the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation’ which crops up again in the Ten Commandments.  It’s the last bit, of course, which Marcion and contemporary Marcionites focus on – there you are, they say, there’s that nasty stuff, it gets everywhere.  Jewish readings of this core text don’t see it like that: they see a contrast between a thousand generations of God’s mercy and a mere three or four of his anger.  They see God’s anger as a sign of his love, that he really cares for us and gets deeply hurt when we go wrong and fail to meet our potential – like all good and loving parents do.  They see the plain truth that acts have consequences which affect far more than the actor.  And that is, in my view, a much better reading of this key passage.  You can see how Marcionites can get support from a passage like this, but another look and some more thought shows that in fact their reading of it is superficial and simplistic.

But the last word goes to my ‘desert-island psalm’, Ps 103.  If I was allowed only one chapter from the OT on my desert island, then this would be it.  If I was allowed only two chapters from the whole Bible, then Ps 103 would be one of them (the other would be the last part of Romans 8).  This ancient hymn is an excellent summary of everything that is best in the whole Bible, not just the OT.  Almost everything that needs to be said about God is there, and the only bit that needs to be added is to say that everything said in that psalm about God is subsequently repeated, re-emphasised and lived out in the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth.  It includes terms from the ‘core creed’ and puts them beautifully,

The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9 He will not always accuse,
nor will he keep his anger for ever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love towards those who honour him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.
13 As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who honour him.
14 For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust (Ps 103.14-18).

That is simple and it is sublime.  Taking that seriously undercuts so much nonsense in atonement theories and says so much about that God whose nature and name is love.  If you want one place to see just how wrong Marcion was about the OT and its God, why the OT as a whole really is worth staying with, and why Christians both can and should read it, then I suggest Ps 103.

And if this is a rather preachy, or ‘devotional’ or even passionate tone with which to end a lecture at a Theological Society, then I simply say that theology which doesn’t do passion, stir the heart and move the soul isn’t worthy of the name.


NOTES etc for LTS

1  For recent work on Marcion see the reprint and translation into English of Adolf Harnack’s book of 1921 with the title, The Gospel of the Alien God translated by J E Steely and L D Bierma, Wipf and Stock, 2007; J B Tyson, Marcion and Luke-Acts: A Defining Struggle (University of South Carolina Press, 2006 and S P Moll The Arch-heretic Marcion (Wissenschaftliche Untersuchen Zum Neum Testamentum 250), Mohr Siebeck 2010.

2  Eg Dionysius of Corinth (c170), Irenaeus (c130-200), Theophilus of Antioch (later 2nd century), Tertullian (c160-220) and Hippolytus (c170-236). 

3  Eg there that flood story in Gen 6-8 which is a terrifying story about a God who drowns people and animals just because humans get it wrong.  Sodom and Gomorrah get zapped too, and poor old Lot’s wife gets turned into a pillar of salt just because she’s inquisitive (Gen 19).  Look at what poor old Abraham and Isaac get put through until that poor ram gets caught in that thicket on Mt Moriah instead (Gen 22).  A couple of chapters on it’s no fun for Pharaoh, the Egyptian firstborn or the Egyptian army either, and Pharaoh doesn’t even have chance to do anything else anyway because God is pulling all his strings (Ex 4.21 etc).  Moses gets physically attacked by God and is only saved when his wife touched his genitals with his son’s circumcised foreskin (Ex 4.24-26) – not a reading that comes up in the lectionary that.  The Levites get medals for going through the camp killing their brothers, their friends and their neighbours just because Moses told them to (Ex 32) and the ground opens up and swallows the Korahites just because they had the temerity to question Moses’s judgement (Num 16.31-35); though I suppose we should be grateful that all Miriam his sister got for doing the same was a dose of leprosy (Num 12).  There’s all that ethnic cleansing under Joshua (Deut 20.16-17 and then as not quite fully carried out at Jericho in Josh 6, cf 7.16) and details like Achan’s punishment for keeping a bit of loot (Josh 7), the killing of the innocent young daughter of Jephthah because her father made a stupid vow (Jdg 11) and the gory fanaticism of Samuel hewing Agag in pieces before the LORD (1 Sam 15.33), a passion for meting out terrible punishment which is but a pale reflection of his God’s, about which the prophets relentlessly preach.  And while we’re on for the sheer destructive anger of God at his own people there’s Lam 2, of which verse 2 is typical,

The Lord has destroyed without mercy
all the dwellings of Jacob;
in his wrath he has broken down
the strongholds of daughter Judah;
he has brought down to the ground in dishonour
the kingdom and its rulers.

Add to that barbaric worship customs which made temples into not very glorified abattoirs, purity rules which promoted spurious ethnic purity and more than a smattering of racial and spiritual elitism and so on.

4  You might want to add distasteful English words, such as the OT’s frequent insistence that the LORD is a ‘jealous God’ (קנא qanna’ which is traditionally translated as ‘jealous’ but NJPS better translates as ‘impassioned’); and by association with that word you might remember that in the Ten Commandments God is said to ‘punish children for the iniquity of their parents, to the third and fourth generation’ (Ex 20.5, Deut 5.9), an idea repeated even in that splendid passage which is often called the OT’s ‘core creed’, the one in Exodus about the LORD, ‘a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’ (Ex 34.6).  No matter how carefully I explain that that doesn’t mean what it sounds like it means, audiences are often unconvinced.  Just as Gandhi was famously unimpressed by the suggestion that ‘an eye for an eye’ was an improvement on what went on before, quipping that ‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind’. 

5  Verse 3b from the hymn ‘Once to every man and nation’ by the American James Russell Lowell, 1819-1891, which began its life as part of his poem, ‘The Present Crisis’.  MHB 898.  The whole hymn is quite splendid, in a Victorian kind of way. 

Once to every man and nation / comes the moment to decide / in the strife of truth with falsehood / for the good or evil side / some great cause, God’s new Messiah / offering each the bloom or blight / and the choice goes by forever / 'twixt that darkness and that light.

Then to side with truth is noble / when we share her wretched crust / ere her cause bring fame and profit / and 'tis prosperous to be just / then it is the brave man chooses / while the coward stands aside / till the multitude make virtue / of the faith they had denied.

By the light of burning martyrs / Christ, thy bleeding feet we track / toiling up new Calvaries ever / with the cross that turns not back / new occasions teach new duties / time makes ancient good uncouth / they must upward still and onward / who would keep abreast of truth.

Though the cause of evil prosper / yet the truth alone is strong / though her portion be the scaffold / and upon the throne be wrong / yet that scaffold sways the future / and behind the dim unknown / standeth God within the shadow / keeping watch above his own.

‘Time makes ancient good uncouth’ – which is what JRL wrote – gets changed to ‘ancient values test our youth’ (which seems a bit meaningless to me) in some versions of the hymn.  

6  ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’.  Wikipedia tells me that this opening sentence of  L P Hartley’s novel, The Go-Between, has become almost proverbial.  

7  The need for ‘interpretation’ because of the gap between text and reader has been recognised from the very beginnings of ‘Scripture’ as a canonical set of holy writings as we see, for example, in Neh 8 and at Qumran.

8  Or at least the advocates of the ‘new perspective on Paul’ would see it as highly doubtful. The literature on the ‘New Perspective’ is extensive. For a succinct introduction see F. Thielman, ‘Law’ in Hawthorne, Martin and Reid (eds.) (1993), Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, pp. 529–542, especially pp. 529–532, and the extensive bibliography given on p. 542. Paul’s own view on ‘the Law’ is, however, far from agreed. For useful introductions see Zeisler, J. (revd. ed. 1990), Pauline Christianity (Oxford: OUP) chapter 6; Horrell, D. (2000), An Introduction to the Study of Paul (London: Continuum) chapter 6 and Harris, G. (2009), SCM Core Text Paul (London: SCM). 

9  The following is material on Torah from my SCM Studyguide: The Psalms pp143-147.

Psalm 119 is almost invariably called a ‘Torah-psalm’. It is never called a ‘Law-psalm’ even in books which speak of ‘the Law, the Prophets and the Writings’. This simple observation prompts this extended comment on ‘torah’, because it exposes the negative sense that ‘Law’ has in much Christian discourse, which leads to serious misunderstandings of both the Old Testament and Judaism, and invites reconsideration of this important Old Testament term.  

The most obvious translation of the noun tôrâ is with words like ‘teaching’, ‘guidance’ or ‘instruction’. The related verb is most naturally translated by ‘teach’, ‘guide’ or ‘instruct’. Moses tells the Israelites that the skilled craftsmen Bezalel and Oholiab have also been inspired by God to ‘teach’ (Ex. 35.34). The speaker in the Instruction in Proverbs 1—9 tells his ‘son’ what his father had ‘taught’ him (Prov. 4.4). Job’s friends, frustrated that he will not listen to them, tell him to ask the animals, birds, plants and fish to ‘teach’ him (Job 12.7–8). God tells Aaron to ‘teach’ the people everything Moses has told them (Lev. 10.11), and Moses reminds the people to observe carefully what the levitical priests have ‘taught’ them (Deut. 24.8). Ezekiel reminds the same priests about their ‘teaching’ role (Ezek. 44.23). 

We saw that in Psalm 119 the noun is used for the sum total of God’s instructions and as such is synonymous with his ‘word’ in making known God’s ‘ways’. In that psalm NRSV and most others translate tôrâ by ‘law’ (NJB as ‘Law’) but NJPS and Alter have ‘teaching’. In the same way it is synonymous with the word ‘covenant’ in Psalm 78.10 and Hosea 8.1. Torah is also used in a general sense for parental ‘teaching’ (Prov. 1.8, 3.1, 4.2, 6.20, 7.2), the teaching of the wise (Prov. 13.14, 28.4, 7 – ‘law’ NRSV) and the ‘kind teaching’ of a capable wife (Prov. 31.26). A psalmist requests a hearing for his ‘teaching’ (Ps. 78.1). Seers and prophets give God’s teaching (Isa. 30.9, ‘instruction’ NRSV) or falsify it (Jere. 8.9). Isaiah uses the word for his own teaching and for the teaching that people receive when they consult ‘ghosts and spirits’ (Isa. 8.16, 20). Some passages see it as teaching particularly associated with priests (Jere. 2.8, 18.18; Ezek. 7.26; Mal. 2.6–9). It is teaching that some have appropriated (Pss. 37.31, 40.8; Isa. 51.7) while others have not (Isa. 5.24, 42.24; Jere. 6.19, 16.11; Hos. 4.6; Hab. 1.4 and in the plural at Dan. 9.10). It is the teaching people will seek and find in ‘the days to come’ (Isa. 2.4, 42.4, 51.4; Jere. 31.33). In the large majority of verses where God’s torah in this general sense is intended, though not elsewhere, NRSV translates the word by ‘law’ and NJPS usually ‘teaching’ or ‘instruction(s)’ but never ‘law’.  

The noun is also used for specific directions or instructions, especially those given by priests (Deut. 17.11; Hag. 2.11). Each ritual has its own torah (Lev. 7.1, 7, 11, 37 and frequently in Lev. and Num.). RSV translates the word here by ‘law’, NIV/TNIV by ‘regulations’ and NRSV, NJB and NJPS by ‘rituals’. All the usages of the word so far have (with the exception of Dan. 9.10) been in the singular. In the plural it is used for all the ḥuqqîm and tôrôt which Moses has to explain to those whose disputes he is trying to settle (Ex. 18.16, 20 – NRSV ‘statutes and instructions’, NJPS ‘laws and teachings’). Ditto in Psalm 105.45. Other examples of this plural use are Genesis 26.5, Exodus 16.28, Leviticus 26.46, Nehemiah 9.13 and Isaiah 24.5. Ezekiel 43.11–12 uses the word three times, first in the plural for all the particular regulations of the new Temple about which Ezekiel is being told, then twice in the singular, probably to stress that the regulation which really matters is that the Temple Mount is holy! 

Another distinguishable and frequent use of the word, particularly with the definite article or in the expressions ‘book of the law’ (NRSV: Deut. 30.10, 31.26; Josh. 1.8, 8.34; NJPS ‘Book of the Teaching’) and ‘law of Moses’ (NRSV: 2 Chron. 23.18, 30.16; Ezra 3.2, 7.6 etc.; NJPS ‘Teaching of Moses’) is for the collection of ‘statutes and ordinances’ given by God to Moses. It is this torah which Moses expounds in Deuteronomy (1.5, 4.8, 4.44 etc.) and a version of it which Hilkiah claims to have found ‘in the house of the LORD’ (2 Kings 22.8).  

The best known use of ‘torah’, however, is not a biblical one. This is its use as the name of the first and most important of the three parts of the Hebrew Bible: Torah, Nevi’im and Kethuvim (as they are given in NJPS) or traditionally, The Law, The Prophets and The Writings. The earliest example of this use is in the Greek expression translated as ‘the Law and the Prophets’ in the Prologue to Ecclesiasticus, where the Greek term is nomos. This use is well established by the time of the New Testament (e.g. Matt. 5.17, 22.40; Luke 16.16; Acts 13.15), as is the expression ‘the Law of Moses’ (Luke 2.22, 24.44; John 7.23; Acts 13.39, 15.5). Judaism can refer to this as the ‘Written Torah’ to which it adds the ‘Oral Torah’, the rabbinic reflections, discussions, commentary and interpretations of it written down in the third century AD by Rabbi Judah haNasi in what we now know as the Mishnah.

From this data we can see that the word tôrâ has a number of meanings. ‘The’ Torah is the name of a five-part and hugely important ‘book’. A ‘torah’ is an individual piece of teaching or instruction, which might be as specific as a regulation or a commandment. ‘Torah’ is a general term for teaching or instruction, and by extension for the content of what has been taught. And it is at this point that the question of what the term connotes comes in. There is no indication anywhere in the Old Testament that torah in any of its meanings or uses is perceived as anything other than a good thing. And that is the problem when it is translated as ‘Law’, especially with the capital letter, because in much influential Christian use ‘Law’ has a bad name. It is not going too far to say that in Judaism ‘Torah’ stands for the good news of God which is concentrated in the Torah book, and for which the English term ‘gospel’ would not be an inappropriate translation. This is why, presumably, Goldingay entitles volume 1 of his three-part Old Testament Theology, ‘Israel’s Gospel’. Christian discourse, on the other hand, habitually contrasts ‘Law’ and ‘Gospel’ with sinister results.  

It is, of course, true that the Torah contains tôrôt; that the Teaching contains instructions, 613 of them in the traditional count: the decrees, precepts, statutes, commandments and ordinances mentioned so frequently in Psalm 119. And this raises the question of what these are and how they fit in. In the traditional Christian caricature of Judaism, and the traditional Protestant caricature of Roman Catholicism, the thinking is simple. These commandments or ‘works’ are exercises which earn merit-marks by which people can gain salvation. Keep them, or enough of them, and you will be okay. Fail to keep them and you won’t. This legalistic religion of ‘salvation by works’ is in marked contrast, the argument goes, with the true evangelical message that salvation is by grace through faith, God’s gift which we can never earn or merit. That this way of thinking is fundamentally mistaken can be seen in the introduction to the Ten Commandments, the Big Ten of the 613, in Exodus 20.1–2 (and Deut. 5.6),

Then God spoke all these words: I am YHWH your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you…’

The point is clear. God has already ‘saved’ his people from Egypt. These commandments are instructions about how to live their lives now that they are ‘saved’. They are not about what must be done if God is to ‘save’ the doers.

It is also true that to many modern readers, Jew and Christian, the 613 tôrôt seem an odd mixture. Some are to do with how God is to be worshipped: what festivals are to be observed, when sacrifices are to be offered and how, or who are to be priests and what they have to do. Others are to do with crimes, not only with criminal acts like theft or murder, but with such things as slander or negligence. Others are rules to regulate social and economic practices like divorce, banking or slavery. There are rules to do with diet and cooking, what sort of animals can be eaten, and how they are to be prepared. The purpose of some of these is obvious, any civilised society needs laws about murder, and any religion needs rules about worship: but the Torah makes no distinction between criminal law, ritual rules, civil law or morals. God has given all the commandments, and they are all to be kept. God's covenant people are to be marked by the way they live and what they do, and in that living and doing the Torah does not distinguish between religion and the rest of life. The tôrôt cover all of life. Belief and behaviour go together. Faithfulness to God is to be seen just as much in the kitchen as in the Temple. 

The implications of this understanding of torah for reading the New Testament (not least for appreciating Jesus’ attitude to ‘the Law’ and Paul’s wrestling with the question of gentiles and ‘the Law’) are considerable, as the work of E. P. Sanders and the ‘New Perspective on Paul’ show. Jesus and Paul were, after all, first century Jews, not sixteenth-century Protestants. 

10  The paradox here, though, is that that the mainstream church leaders who decided that he was wrong in dismissing the OT by and large shared his mistaken views on Judaism and ‘the Law’. 

11  If time permitted, I could claim here that failure to read the OT results in a distorted Christianity which is reduced to a kind of personalised spirituality, often preoccupied with one’s personal relationship with God and primarily intent on one’s own spiritual well-being, set within the context of a gathered congregation of equally preoccupied and equally self-focused individuals.  That is, of course, a caricature: but given a week to explore the area I bet I could find any number of working examples of it.  Of course there are glorious exceptions, both exceptional individuals and exceptional groups within and without those kinds of congregations, and of course there are exceptional congregations but there are a lot of the others around.  I am not saying that this phenomenon is solely the result of the demise of the OT in the contemporary Church, of course, but I am willing to argue that the increasing failure to read the OT today exacerbates the trend.

12  The following is material on the four creation pics in the OT from my SCM Studyguide: The Psalms pp77-78.

Contrary to much popular misunderstanding there are neither two, nor one, but four Creation ‘pictures’, ‘parables’ or threads in the Old Testament:  

1. Designer World: Gen. 1.1—2.4a. This, the so-called ‘P’ account, is the majestic and familiar picture in which God speaks creation into being in an ordered seven-day plan. 

2. Gardeners’ World: Gen. 2.4b—3.24. This equally familiar, horticultural, picture focuses on the ambiguities and alienations of life in the real world.

3. Chaoskampf  (‘Conflict/War with Chaos’): Pss. 74.12–17; 89.5–18 and Isa. 51.9–11 (see also Job 7.12; 26.12; 38.8–11). Here are snippets of that older and wider ancient Near Eastern creation myth of the King of Creation's battle with the Chaos Monster.

4. Wisdom’s Playground: Prov. 8.22–31 and Job 28.20–28 (see also chapters 38—41). This picture shows the role of ‘Wisdom’ in creation, and includes careful observation of the realities of nature and human experience. 

All these feature in one way or another in the creation hymn, Ps. 104.

These creation threads can also be seen elsewhere in the Old Testament:

in the Wisdom literature generally. Note the reference to ‘Creator’ in Eccles. 12.1.
in Isaiah of Babylon, especially Isa. 40.12–26 and the word ‘Creator’ at 40.28 and 43.15.
in Psalms, e.g. Pss. 8, 19, 24, 29, 33, 93, 95, 96, 98, 136 and 148.
in the ancient hymn quoted by Amos in 4.13, 5.8–9 and 9.5–6. 

13  Here it is in full in the version at MHB no 604: 

Fill Thou my life, O Lord my God / in every part with praise / That my whole being may proclaim / Thy being and Thy ways.
Not for the lip of praise alone / Nor e'en the praising heart / I ask, but for a life made up / Of praise in every part:
Praise in the common things of life / Its goings out and in / Praise in each duty and each deed / However small and mean.
Fill every part of me with praise / Let all my being speak / Of Thee and of Thy love, O Lord / Poor though I be and weak.
So shalt Thou, Lord, from me, e'en me / Receive the glory due / And so shall I begin on earth / The song for ever new.
So shall no part of day or night / From sacredness be free / But all my life, in every step / Be fellowship with Thee.

14  The last 30 years have seen radical new ways of reading the Bible ‘academically’, for want of a better word.  Until the 1980s the traditional ‘Historical-critical’ method held unchallenged sway – a Bible passage meant what its author intended it to mean and what its original hearers or readers would have understood it to mean.  Then someone called a halt by pointing out that for many OT books we don’t actually know what their author intended, the authors are dead, and all we possess is what they wrote: and reading the pieces of literature in front of us is the only way to get at what they ‘mean’ – so a new Literary Criticism was born.  Then someone else noticed that women readers find texts saying things that men readers hadn’t noticed, and black readers see things that white ones haven’t seen, and poor readers grasp truths overlooked by rich ones - and so the heady of  ‘reader-response criticism’ was born.  Then scholars argued for their preferences and fought for their favourites, such is academic objectivity.  Recently, there are signs of growing recognition that each of these ways of reading the Bible has its own validity, that each is a tool for a particular purpose, and that’s fine by me.  

Here is something I wrote on this in my SCM Studyguide: The Psalms pp14-16.

It is sometimes said that ‘academic’ reading of the Bible is an alien and destructive reading which denies the Bible its real authority. Some academic reading may be like that and some will certainly have a negative side-effect on certain kinds of religious faith. For many academics, however, reading the Bible seriously (which is a better word than the usual ‘critically’ and means exactly the same) is about ‘faith seeking understanding’, to use the well-known phrase of Anselm, and always has been even if some religious communities and a few academics have not always seen it like that. Academic reading of the Old Testament itself, however, is now much more varied than it was:

The older ‘historical-critical’ method still has a place, and its convictions that the meaning of a Bible passage lies in what the original author intended and what the original readers or hearers would have understood is to be respected, even if we can’t be as confident as we used to be that we can know what that actually was (Note 6). We need to recognize, this method insists, that Psalms is an ancient book of ancient texts, coming from a real time and place, and its historical base, context and features are an important part of what it is. There is a world ‘behind’ this text, the world which produced it and which it addressed, which needs to be taken into account. 

‘Literary-criticism’ is a term with a bit of a history in biblical studies, but the modern version from the 1970s on has opened up new ways of reading texts which recognize that they are ‘literature’. Psalms is a book of poetry, in which each poem exists in its final form and is accessible to us as it is. It can therefore be read as any poetry can be read and appreciated for what it is without enquiring into its origins, checking for signs of editing or drafting, or asking about the biography of the poet. There is a world ‘of’ or ‘in’ the text itself, the world of its words, shapes, constructions, images, styles and forms, in front of us as we open the book and read.

Then we come to you and me, readers of Psalms. Contemporary academic study now recognizes that we exist and that the reader is the third and very active participant in the reading process. As readers we bring our contexts to our reading, our interests, passions, enthusiasms and questions. There is a world ‘in front of’ the text, the world of the reader who engages with the text and makes meaning out of what they read.

There have always been ‘schools of thought’ in academic Bible study, with competing or complementary ideas and methods, and today is no exception. Broadly speaking today’s scene invites us to recognize these worlds ‘behind’, ‘of/in’ and ‘in front of’ the text, and to recognize the complementarity of Author, Text and Reader (the ‘Diagram of Biblical Interpretation’ at the end of Soulen is the neatest summary of all this that I know). There are still some squabbles about which of these is ‘proper’ academic study, which is cutting-edge and which is old-hat, and there are also different sub-sets within these three ‘methods’, but in the main we seem to be moving to a place which recognizes that each of these approaches is legitimate, that each has its place, that each is a good tool for doing what it does and that each is doing a different job (Barton 1996, pp. 237–246 and 2007, pp. 187–190). So, 

Psalms has a history. It is an ancient anthology of ancient texts from an ancient culture. Historical criticism recognizes that and explores it. 

Psalms is a work of literature. Its poetry is open before us, crafted, rich in images. Literary criticism enjoys that and explores it. 

Without readers Psalms, just like the Bible or any other book, remains closed and silent. ‘Reader response’ criticism recognizes that and invites readers to read in a committed and involved way. 

In this Studyguide we will encounter these interests and approaches, but before we go further honesty demands that in these postmodern days I declare my interest as its writer. I am a white, ordained, married, sixty-ish, English Christian of the Methodist variety who climbs mountains, rides a big motor scooter and lives in Cornwall. I value Psalms as an anthology of ancient religious literature, despite the dud bits, which addresses God in voices from exuberant praise to angry complaint, testifies to God’s goodness and reliability and deplores his absence and silence. I read Psalms as a window into the fascinating world of ancient Israelite faith to which I, as a Christian, am heavily indebted. I do not read Psalms or the Old Testament, and I must stress this, as a book which ‘points to Christ’ (and here the contrast between this Studyguide and Bullock’s introduction could not be greater). My view is that the New Testament must be read in the light of the Old, rather than vice versa, and that later Christian readings are precisely that, later Christian readings. As such they have a place (see chapter 9 on the reception-history of Psalms) but to me a secondary one. Above all, I appreciate Psalms as a compendium of Old Testament theology where the big questions about God, faith and life are explored with passion and commitment. I therefore read Psalms as an ‘insider’: but I do not read it uncritically. Although I read it ‘with the grain’ I am not blind to its knots. Although I read it with a ‘hermeneutic of trust’ I also recognize the need for a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’. And so I believe that this text of ‘Holy Scripture’, like all of the Bible, must be read with full academic rigour, that there are serious consequences for faith communities when it isn’t, and that those who, from either side, are currently trying to drive a wedge between ‘the Church’ and ‘the Academy’ are fundamentally misguided. Now you know where I am coming from. 

15  Here it is in full

In Christ alone my hope is found / He is my light, my strength, my song / This Cornerstone, this solid ground / Firm through the fiercest drought and storm

What heights of love, what depths of peace / When fears are stilled, when strivings cease / My Comforter, my All in All / Here in the love of Christ I stand

In Christ alone, who took on flesh / Fullness of God in helpless Babe / This gift of love and righteousness / Scorned by the ones He came to save

Till on that cross as Jesus died / The wrath of God was satisfied / For every sin on Him was laid / Here in the death of Christ I live, I live

There in the ground His body lay / Light of the world by darkness slain / Then bursting forth in glorious Day / Up from the grave He rose again

16  I learned this first when in my first year as an ordinand at Handsworth Methodist Theological College I read N H Snaith’s The Distinctive Ideas of the OT, which is actually quite a tedious and detailed word-study.  But there I discovered above all else that ‘righteous’ (tsedeq) and its related words, especially ‘justice’ (mishpat) are warm and lovely grace-filled words in the OT, without the connotations that ‘righteousness’ etc developed later.  I learned there that in Hebrew the ‘love’ vocabulary applied to God (principally aheb and especially hesed) is not in contrast with the justice vocab (principally mishpat and tsedeq) but that both connote the generous redeeming activity of God.  

17  Written in 1848 by Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander.  1823-1895.

There is a green hill far away / outside a city wall / where our dear Lord was crucified / who died to save us all.

We may not know, we cannot tell / what pains he had to bear / but we believe it was for us / he hung and suffered there.

He died that we might be forgiven / he died to make us good / that we might go at last to heaven / saved by his precious blood.

There was no other good enough / to pay the price of sin / he only could unlock the gate / of heaven and let us in.

O dearly, dearly has he loved / And we must love him too / and trust in his redeeming blood / and try his works to do.

18  From my SCM Studyguide: The Psalms, pp161-2.  Israel’s ‘core creed’?   

The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation (or ‘for thousands’) forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation’ (Ex. 34.6–7, NRSV).

Brueggemann cites this snippet as Israel’s credo of adjectives and as God’s ‘self-disclosure’ which is fundamental to Israel’s ‘daring vocabulary’ in the Psalms (Brueggemann, 1997, pp. 215–218; 1995, pp. 45–49). Other commentators call these verses a ‘formula’ or ‘confessional formula’ and Hunter refers to it as ‘… the famous benediction enunciated most fully in Ex. 34.6–7’ (Hunter, 2008, p.121). In Judaism this passage is called ‘Thirteen Middot (attributes) of God’ and is used in synagogue worship on special holy days. Its age and origin are contested but it does appear to be something of a mini-creed which crops up in various places in the Old Testament and which echoes in many more. The wording varies and Ex. 34.6–7 is the fullest. The others are Num. 14.18; Pss. 86.15, 103.8, 111.4 and 145.8; Joel 2.13; Jonah 4.2; Nahum 1.3; Neh. 9.17 (cf. verse 31) and 2 Chron. 30.9. It also appears in a psalm from Qumran,

I know, O Lord, that Thou art merciful and compassionate, long-suffering and rich in grace and truth, pardoning transgression and sin. Thou repentest of evil against them that love Thee, and keep Thy commandments, that return to thee with faith and wholeness of heart (1QH8 lines 16f.).

At Ex. 34 this formula is set in the Exodus stories, and in most of the other eleven occurrences there is a reference to the exodus nearby. This formula, therefore, seems to be very near to the heart of what the editors of the Old Testament understood about their God. Apart from its rather obscure introduction (who is doing the proclaiming and to whom?) the only translation issue is whether God’s ḥesed is kept ‘for thousands’, which is the literal translation, or ‘for/to the thousandth generation’, which is the traditional Jewish interpretation followed by NRSV and NJPS (Note 6). This ‘core creed’ notes that God is ‘slow to anger’ and Ps. 103.8 that ‘he will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger for ever’, understanding that God's anger is a sign that he takes sin and evil seriously, hating their devastating effects on human life and the life of the world. It is not however, in the psalm or the ‘core creed’ his last or greatest word, for that lies with his committed, powerful, ‘saving’ and restoring ‘love’.

19  The Thirteen Middot

From the Jewish Encyclopedia at www.jewishencyclopedia.com: The thirteen forms of mercy, enumerated in Ex. xxxiv. 6-7, whereby God rules the world. According to the explanation of Maimonides ("Moreh Nebukim," i. 52), which is confirmed by the Sifre (Deut. 49 [ed. Friedmann, p. 85]), these middot must not be regarded as qualities inherent in God, but merely as so many at tributes of His activity, by which the divine governance appears to the human observer to be controlled. In the Sifre, however, these attributes are not called "middot," which may mean "quality" as well as "rule" and "measure" (comp.Ab.v. 10-15), but "derakim" (ways), since they are the ways of God which Moses prayed to know (Ex. xxxiii. 13), and which God, according to the traditional explanation of Ex. xxxiv. 6-7, proclaimed to him. The number thirteen is adopted from the Talmudic and rabbinic tradition, while the Karaites count only nine, ten, or eleven middot (comp. Aaron b. Elijah, "Keter Torah," ad loc., Eupatoria, 1866). The rabbinical school indeed agrees that the middot number thirteen and that they are contained in Ex. xxxiv. 6-7, but with which word they begin and with which they conclude are moot questions. According to Tobiah ben Eliezer, Midrash Leḳaḥ Ṭob ad loc., ed. Buber, Wilna, 1884; R. Jacob Tam, in Tos. R. H. 17b, catchword "Shelosh-'Esreh Middot"; Abraham ibn Ezra in his commentary, ad loc.; Asher b. Jehiel; and Kalonymus, "Meshoret Mosheh," ed. Goldenthal, p. 14, Leipsic, 1845, the thirteen middot begin with the first "Adonai," in verse 6, and end with the word "we-naḳeh" in verse 7. The single attributes are contained in the verses as follows:(1) "Adonai," compassion before man sins; (2) "Adonai," compassion after man has sinned (comp. R. H. 17b); (3) "El," mighty in compassion to give all creatures according to their need; (4) "Raḥum," merciful, that mankind may not be distressed; (5) "Ḥanun," gracious if mankind is already in distress; (6) "Erek appayim," slow to anger; (7) "Rab ḥesed," plenteous in mercy; (8) "Emet," truth; (9) "Noẓer ḥesed laalaflm," keeping mercy unto thousands (comp. the explanation of Samuel b. Meir in "Da'at Zeḳenim," ad loc.); (10) "Nose 'awon," forgiving iniquity; (11) "Nose pesha'," forgiving transgression; (12) "Nose ḥaṭa'ah," forgiving sin; (13) "Wenaḳeh," and pardoning.According to R. Nissim (quoted in Tos. R. H., l.c.), Isaac Alfasi, and others, the thirteen middot begin only with the second "Adonai," since the first one is the subject of "wa-yiḳra" (and he proclaimed). To secure the number thirteen, some count "noẓer ḥesed la-alafim" as two (Nissim in Tos. l.c.), while others divide "erek appayim" into two, since forbearance is shown both to the good and to the wicked (comp. the gloss on Tosafot, l.c. and Ibn Ezra, l.c.), and still others end the thirteenth middah with "lo yenaḳeh" (he does not pardon; Maimonides, "Pe'er ha-Dor," p. 19b), Lemberg, 1859), this being considered a good quality, since through punishment man is moved to repentance, after which he is pardoned and pure (comp. Yoma 86a; Aaron b. Elijah, l.c.; and "'Ez ha-Ḥayyim," ch. xcii.). Others term "we-naḳeh lo yenaḳeh" a single middah, the thirteenth being, in their opinion, "poḳed 'awon abot 'al-banim" (visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children), "this being regarded as compassionate since the transgressor is not punished immediately" (Maimonides, l.c.; Aaron b. Ḥayyim, l.c.; comp. also "Da'at Zeḳenim").

From Wikipedia:  The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy or Shelosh-'Esreh Middot enumerated in Exodus 34:6-7 are the attributes with which, according to Jewish tradition, God governs the world. According to the explanation of Maimonides these attributes must not be regarded as qualities inherent in God, but merely as the method of His activity, by which the divine governance appears to the human observer to be controlled. In the Sifre, however, these attributes are not called "middot," which may mean "quality" as well as "rule" and "measure", but "derakim" (ways), since they are the ways of God which Moses prayed to know and which God proclaimed to him.

Division: The number thirteen is adopted from Talmudic and rabbinic tradition. There are divergent opinions as to which word they begin and with which they conclude. According to some the thirteen attributes begin with the first "Adonai," in verse 6, and end with the word "ve-nakeh" in verse 7. The single attributes are contained in the verses as follows:

Adonai - compassion before man sins; Adonai - compassion after man has sinned; El  - mighty in compassion to give all creatures according to their need; Rachum - merciful, that mankind may not be distressed; Chanun - gracious if mankind is already in distress; Erech appayim - slow to anger; Rav chesed - plenteous in mercy; Emet - truth; Notzer chesed laalafim - keeping mercy unto thousands; Noseh avon - forgiving iniquity; Noseh peshah - forgiving transgression; Noseh chatah - forgiving sin; Venakeh - and pardoning. 

According to others the thirteen attributes begin only with the second "Adonai," since the first one is the subject of "va-yikra" (and He proclaimed). To secure the number thirteen, some count "noẓer ḥesed la-alafim" as two while others divide "erek appayim" into two, since forbearance is shown both to the good and to the wicked and still others end the thirteenth middah with "lo yenaḳeh" (he does not pardon; this being considered a good quality, since through punishment man is moved to repentance, after which he is pardoned and pure. Others term "we-naḳeh lo yenaḳeh" a single middah, the thirteenth being, in their opinion, "poḳed 'awon abot 'al-banim" (visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children), "this being regarded as compassionate since the transgressor is not punished immediately".

Liturgical usage: The general usage is that the various recitations of the thirteen middot begin with the first "Adonai" and conclude with "ve-nakeh."

They must not be recited by only one person in prayer, but by an entire congregation, which must consist of at least ten persons, a minyan. 

They are recited on every holy day, except on Shabbat, when the Torah scroll is taken from the Ark. 

It is also customary that on the fast-days on which Ex. xxxii. 11-14 and xxxiv. 1-10 are read, the reader stops at the word "Vayikra" in order that the congregation may recite the thirteen attributes, after which he continues his reading. The thirteen attributes are very frequently recited in penitential prayers as in the case in the seliḥah of the eve of the New Year, which is repeated at the morning service on the Day of Atonement, and which begins with the words "Shelosh 'esreh middot," and in the pizmon of Amittai b. Shephatiah for the fifth day of repentance, which is recited also at the evening service on the Day of Atonement, and in which the attribute of compassion is particularly invoked. 

On fast-days as well as during the week before the New Year (the so-called seliḥot days), and on the days between the New Year and the Day of Atonement, called the days of repentance, many penitential prayers are recited in addition to the usual daily prayers. After every such petition the thirteen middot are recited with their introductory prayer, the well-known El Melech yoshev, which runs as follows: 

"Almighty King, who sittest on the throne of mercy, showing forth Thy compassion, and forgiving the sins of Thy people by ever taking away their former guilt, ofttimes granting pardon unto sinners and forgiveness to the transgressors, making manifest Thy goodness both to body and to soul, nor punishing them according to their iniquity; Almighty One, as Thou hast taught us to recite the thirteen [middot], so remember now the thirteenfold covenant, as Thou didst in former days proclaim it to the modest one [Moses], even as it is written . . ." (then follow the verses Ex. xxxiv. 5-7a and 9b). 


18 Reading Psalms - At Sarum College

I was invited to lead a 4-day course on Reading Psalms at Sarum College from Monday Feb 6th 2012 until Thursday.  We began with a powerpoint introduction which is available on the Powerpoint page.  The lectures were not as formal as these pages, but these pages are the handouts given out.  The hospitality of the College was excellent and the members of the course were a delight to be with. 

Sarum session 2          Monday 3.30-5pm     Reading Ps 24

1          Ps 24     A possible liturgical reconstruction?

Inside the Temple

Worship Leader:                   The earth is the LORD’S and all that is in it
Temple Choir:                        the world, and those who live in it
Worship Leader:                   for he has founded it on the seas
Temple Choir:                        and established it on the rivers
At the foot of the Temple mount
Procession Leader:             Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?
Procession Choir:                 And who shall stand in his holy place?
Procession Leader:              Those who have clean hands and pure hearts
Procession Choir:                 Who do not lift up their souls to what is false
                                             and do not swear deceitfully
Procession Leader:             They will receive blessing from the LORD
Procession Choir:                 and vindication from the God of their salvation
Procession Leader:              Such is the company of those who seek him
Procession Choir:                 who seek the face of the God of Jacob
The procession moves to the Temple gate and the Procession Leader strikes the gate with his rod
Procession Leader:                         Lift up your heads, O Gates!
Procession Choir:                             And be lifted up, O ancient doors!
Procession Leader and Choir:        that the King of glory may come in
Doorkeeper (from inside):               Who is the King of glory?
Procession Leader:                         The LORD, strong and mighty
Procession Choir:                             the LORD, mighty in battle
The Procession Leader strikes the door for a second time
Procession Leader:                         Lift up your heads, O Gates!
Procession Choir:                             And be lifted up, O ancient doors!
Procession Leader and Choir:        that the King of glory may come in
Doorkeeper (from inside):               Who is the King of glory?
Procession Leader and Choir:        The LORD of hosts
Doorkeeper, opening the doors:     He is the king of glory.

The doors are opened and the procession enters the Temple, preceded by a group of liturgical dancers with banners, and everyone sings,

‘We will enter his gates with thanksgiving in our hearts,
we will enter his courts with praise …’ 

The Dramatised Bible (1997, Marshall Pickering) is more sober and gives the psalm a cast of three solo voices (Leader, Enquirer and Director) and a chorus of ‘All’.

2          Opening windows

There is no doubt that Ps 24 opens a window onto some kind of liturgy involving a procession. The problem is, however, that although this psalm is clearly one giving ‘words for worship’ it comes without any rubrics. There is nothing to tell us

·                    the occasion on which this psalm is to be used; 
·                    which actions are to accompany it or which it is to accompany; 
·                    how ‘the King of glory’ is represented in this liturgy
·                    how many and whose voices are involved. 

Another good example of this common puzzle of words without rubrics in the Book of Psalms is those psalms in which there is a sudden change of tone. For example, if you read Ps 69.22-33 it is clear that something happens between vv29 and 30. But what? Was there a big liturgical moment, like a sacrifice? Did someone preach a sermon? Did a prophet give an oracle? Did someone offer a testimony of some kind? Did a priest pronounce a blessing? Was there a piece of liturgical drama? Was there a musical interlude? Was there a time of prayer? Sadly, we can only speculate.

3          Literary issues

In my NRSV I can see a number of literary features: 

·                    it has a title, printed in italics; 
·                    a Hebrew word appears twice in italics; 
·                    it is divided into three sections (vv1-2, 3-6, 7-10); 
·                    it is in English, and so a translation from the original;
·                    in some verses the second line almost repeats the first. 

Reading it opens windows

·                    onto issues of tradition (the title), 
·                    onto issues of translation (the untranslated Hebrew word - selah - and the odd 
            ‘heads’ of the gates)  
·                    onto Hebrew poetry (the divisions and the repetitions). 
·                    there is also the question of the relationship between the first section (vv1-2) 
            and the other two, for there seems to be no obvious one. 

4          Theological issues  

Ps 24 speaks about God: 

·                    naming him as YHWH 
·                    giving four other names or titles: ‘the God of (their) salvation’, which we could
translate as ‘the Saviour God’; ‘the God of Jacob’; ‘the King of glory’, which 
we could translate as ‘the Glorious King’, and ‘YHWH of hosts’. 
·                    teaching that this God ‘created the world’ (with hints of Chaoskampf) and
blesses people; 
·                    that he has ‘saved’ a particular group of people and will ‘come in’ to their 
·                    that he is ‘holy’ as well as ‘glorious’ and a great warrior. 

It also teaches what this God expects of his worshippers:

·                    they should have ‘clean hands’
·                    they should have ‘pure hearts’ 
·                    they should not ‘lift up their hands to what is false’
·                    they should not ‘swear deceitfully’
·                    they should ‘seek’ him.

5          Conclusion

In Ps 24 we glimpse something of

·                    what was believed and taught in the Second Temple period in Temple circles, 
·                    what sacred stories were told by Temple preachers, 
·                    what was thought about right and wrong by Temple prophets, and 
·                    what ‘religious experiences’ were offered by Temple worship and Temple 

That, however, is not all, because the inclusion of this psalm in the canon of the Hebrew Bible gives all this an official status. Because Psalms is an ‘authorised’ or ‘canonical’ text its anonymous voices raised in praise or protest in Temple songs, liturgies or prayers now speak in the name of the community; its images and metaphors now receive official sanction; its religious, moral and theological understandings are now ‘torah’, ie teaching, guidance and instruction, to be learned and lived, as the introduction to this official anthology (Ps 1) makes clear. 

Reading psalms requires that we are alert to all of these possibilities. 


Sarum session 3          Tuesday 9.30-11am

Voicing Praise – and exegesis of Ps 9

1          The Book of Praises

In the Hebrew Bible Psalms is called ‘The Book of Praises’ (sēper tĕhillîm). The singular form of the title word for Psalms, tĕhillîm (‘Praises’), is found at Pss 33.1, 40.3, 65.1, 119.171 and 147.1. Ps 145 is headed ‘a song of praise’, with the same Hebrew word opening the last of its verses. Psalms ends with hallĕlû – yāh, ‘Praise the LORD’, and that whole psalm is a call to praise God. The preceding four psalms, Pss 146-149, similarly begin and end with hallĕlû – yāh, and counting backwards so do Pss 135, 117 (hallĕlû ͗et YHWH), 113 and 106; with Pss 115 and 116 ending with that exclamation and Pss 111 and 112 beginning with it. Pss 113-118 are known as the ‘Egyptian Hallel’ and Pss 120-136 as the ‘Great Hallel’. While the voice of praise is not silent in Books 1-4 (counting forwards it is found for example in Pss 8, 9, 18, 19, 21, 30 etc.) it is widely observed that while there are other voices in the psalms in Book 5 the voice of praise predominates there in a way that it does not in the other Books, and that it is that voice which brings Psalms to its powerful and positive close. 

2          ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Hosanna’

Before we go much further we need a note on ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Hosanna’. ‘Hallelujah’ (hallĕlû – yāh) is a shout of praise which is usually and correctly translated by ‘Praise the LORD’. The first Christians used it (as we see in the heavenly hymn in Rev 19.1–8) and it has featured in Jewish and Christian liturgies down the centuries. In Christianity it has often been replaced by its anaemic Greek nephew, ‘Alleluia’. ‘Hosanna’ is, in the OT, something quite different. It is a combination of the strong form of the imperative of the verb ‘to save’ plus the word for ‘please’ and in this form occurs only at Ps 118.25 where NRSV translates it as ‘Save us, we beseech you, O LORD’. Without the ‘please’ it is simply a cry for help: to the king at 2 Sam 14.4 and 2 Kings 6.26, to God at Pss 12.1 and 28.9, and for God to save the king at Ps 20.9 and the speaker at Pss 60.5 and 108.6. The expression appears in the ‘Triumphal Entry’ scene in the Gospels where, however, it is usually understood as a shout of praise (Mt 21.1-17; Mk 11.1-10; Lk 19.28-38; cf Jn 12.12-18). Vincent Taylor, in his classic commentary on Mark, writes that Torrey’s rendering of the expressions as ‘God save him’ (Mk 11.9) and ‘God in heaven save him’ (Mk 11.10) ‘probably correctly interprets the sense of the original’ (Taylor: 456). Pope, in a full and technical explanation, suggests that the three sayings should be translated as ‘Save us please’, ‘Save us please, O Son of David’ and ‘Save us please, O Highest’ respectively (Pope: 290-291). This is not, however, how the Church has understood it and this original meaning has been lost. ‘Hosanna’ has become a shout of praise and despite their original differences ‘Hosanna’ and ‘Hallelujah’ have become conjoined twins and complete synonyms in Christian tradition, so that GNB can simply translate the Palm Sunday cries of the crowd as ‘Praise God’.

3          Praise

Calling the anthology of a varied set of psalms ‘Praises’ is making a bold statement about the collection as a whole, not least because of the powerful ways in which that anthology also expresses ‘lament’, the opposite voice to praise. And so is shaping the anthology to end so powerfully on the note of praise. There was much in their experience which forced a ‘No’ from the psalmists, whose poems gave congregations words by which to challenge God and express their anger at the way things were. But as we have it in Psalms, both in its title and its ending, it is a ‘Yes’ which predominates. In his important Praise and Lament in the Psalms, Westermann, one of the towering figures in Psalms study in the twentieth century, writes that, ‘Praise of God gives voice to the joy of existence’ (Westermann: 11) even ‘out of the depths’ (Westermann: 5). 

Liturgists see nothing surprising in ‘Praise’ as an overall title for Psalms, for they see ‘praise’ as the default mode of worship and ‘central to the Christian tradition of prayer and worship’ if not to the ‘Judaeo-Christian tradition as a whole’ (Allchin: 554). Selby sums it up,

(Praise is) the outward expression of the believer’s worship and adoration of God in words, music and ceremonial. The focus of praise is not only on God himself, as in adoration, but above all on his mighty acts in nature and history. Hymns and acts of praise are a common feature of all liturgy, and frequently the distinction between it and adoration on the one hand, and thanksgiving on the other is not clear cut (Davies: 442).

Note in this paragraph that while Selby accepts that there are differences between ‘adoration’, ‘praise’ and ‘thanksgiving’, he concludes that ‘praise’ is a good broad-brush term with a clear enough meaning. The priority or centrality of praise in Psalms should not therefore surprise us.

Since Gunkel (another of the towering figures) psalms of praise have been divided into two categories: psalms of thanksgiving and hymns. The ‘psalms of thanksgiving’ are also commonly subdivided into those of the individual and those of the community, and sub-groups appear among the ‘hymns’ such as ‘Songs of Zion’ and the celebrations of YHWH’s kingship. Westermann offered a new way of describing or defining these psalms which has become widely used, suggesting ‘Declarative psalms of praise’ for what had been called ‘psalms of thanksgiving’ and ‘Descriptive psalms of praise’ for the ‘hymns’ (Westermann: book one, part one), 

Since the essential occurrence in both of these groups of Psalms is the praise of God, I propose to call them both Psalms of praise. The difference between the two groups lies in the fact that the so-called hymn praises God for his actions and his being as a whole (descriptive praise), while the so-called song of thanks praises God for a specific deed, which the one who has been delivered recounts or reports in his song (declarative praise; it could also be called confessional praise) (Westermann: 31).

Declarative psalms of praise (‘psalms of thanksgiving’) are psalms in which the singers ‘declare’ how God has helped them in a crisis. They praise God in direct speech (‘you’) for what he has done, and give that testimony in public. Most use the first person singular, ‘I’, though there are some corporate ones (eg Ps 124). They are often specific and focused. They may originally have been used to tell the worshipper’s story at a ‘Thank Offering’, and the verb they often use is hôdāh, which translates into English normally as ‘thank’. The core of these psalms is the account of the crisis out of which God has saved the singer. The usual list is Pss 9-10, 18, 32, 34, 67, 92, 116, 118, 124, 129 and 138. The Song of Moses (Ex 15) and Jonah’s psalm (Jon 2) are also ‘declarative’ praise songs.

Descriptive psalms of praise (‘hymns’) are psalms in which the singers praise God in more general terms for who he is and what he has done, for his greatness demonstrated in creation and nature and in history and his ‘mighty deeds’. These psalms speak about God, rather than to him, and normally use the third-person. They use the verb hālal which we have already encountered and which normally translates into English as ‘praise’. The core of these psalms is often a statement of why God is to be praised. The usual list is Pss 8, 19, 29, 33, 68, 100, 103, 104, 105, 111, 135, 136, 145-150. The Song of Hannah (1 Sam 2) is a ‘descriptive’ praise song. Pss 48, 76, 84, 87 and 122 form the ‘Songs of Zion’ subgroup and Pss 47, 93 and 96-99 which celebrate YHWH as King constitute the ‘Enthronement Psalms’ subgroup.

Two words of caution:

  • If you look through the psalms in the two lists you will notice that things are not as neat as the textbooks suggest. These psalms might divide into two roughly recognisable groups, but few of them are ‘pure examples’ of their group which contain every feature we named. 
  • Three English verbs feature prominently in these praise psalms: ‘praise’, ‘thank’ and ‘bless’, translating three Hebrew ones: hālal, hôdāh and bārak. They are often found in combination or parallel and obviously belong to the same semantic field, but whether they are as interchangeable as some English translations suggest is open to question. We’ll come to ‘bless the LORD’ in the exegesis of Ps 103 later in the course.

4          Brueggemann’s take on ‘Praise’

In 1988 Walter Brueggemann (another of the towering figures) published Israel’s Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology, and a subsequent essay appeared with the title, ‘Praise and the Psalms: A Politics of Glad Abandonment’ (Brueggemann 1995: 112-132). As always, the colon and what comes after it are important in Brueggemann. He accepts the standard definitions, descriptions and conclusions of OT study but then with passion and conviction introduces other questions. His fundamental conviction is that the Bible creates a new world and that readers can be remade in the vision of that new world by the renewing of their ‘imagination’. He rarely quotes Rom 12.2 but Paul’s appeal for ‘transformation by the renewing of our minds’ is at the heart of his agenda. So Patrick Miller who edits that collection of essays writes, 

Anyone familiar with his work will not be surprized to hear him speak about ‘doxological, polemical, political, subversive, evangelical faith’ (in this essay). These are all catchwords in Brueggemann’s theology. What this chapter uncovers is how, quite precisely, such faith is enacted in the church’s praise (Brueggemann 1995: xv).

In the essay Brueggemann propounds 11 theses on the nature of praise, arguing that praise is 

  • a liturgical act which helps us, as all liturgy should, to embrace an alternative image of reality,
  • a poetic act which opens us, as all poetry should, to wider visions of reality which make new visions possible,
  • an audacious act, not only because it is loud and boisterous, but because in doing it we are adding something to God, giving him something he doesn’t yet have,
  • an act of ‘basic trust’ which can be made because the singer has found God to be utterly reliable,
  • a knowing act, one which is possible because God has been challenged and forced to act in a way that has demonstrated his reliability,
  • a doxological act, in which God is blessed and praised in ‘self-abandonment’ and without restraint,
  • a polemical act which is prepared to offer praise only and solely to YHWH, 
  • a political act of social protest, social criticism and social delegitimation, which dethrones all other sources of authority and power, 
  • a subversive act which destabilizes all oppressive systems, 
  • an evangelical act which enacts the good news of God’s rule, 
  • a useless act (by this he doesn’t mean a pointless one) of ‘communion’ with God (Brueggemann 1995: 113-123).

So he concludes,

Notice in saying this, however, what a deep claim is made. To say that our quintessential human act is not production of anything but is only extravagant communion, is to define our character and purpose in a most eccentric way, a way that breaks with the production-consumption ideology all around us. To focus on this extravagant communion as the purpose of life is to assert an outrageous destiny of repentance and reconciliation in which we enact a radical vision of true self, true communion, true world, true creation; not escapism, but an arrival, for the length of the song, at true destiny. (Brueggemann 1995: 122).

The essay goes on to examine Pss 145, 146, 149 and 150, which he calls the extreme case of ‘inutility’ (the word behind the ‘useless’ of thesis 11) in the light of these theses and to conclude with a powerful ‘application’. This list gives a flavour of Brueggemann’s approach and style. You will either love it or hate it. It is not easy to grasp, and Brueggemann often does himself no favours with some of his language, as in the last of those eleven theses, for example. The strength of his approach, however, is that it is not detached. It has neither the alleged detachment of some academic scholarly analysis, nor the otherworldly detachment of some worship and prayer. It is about life and the living of it in engagement with, against and for God, which is, to my mind at least, exactly what Psalms is about. Chronologically Brueggemann is the last of my four ‘towering figures’ in twentieth century Psalms study. You will find the other three (Gunkel, Mowinckel, Westermann) discussed in any and every academic book on Psalms for their specific contributions to Psalms study, but Brueggemann’s contribution (and to OT study in general) is both less specific and more controversial.

5          Exegesis – a simple template

An ‘exegesis’ is simply an explanation of a Bible passage. 

It will normally consist of 5 or 6 parts: 

1. An introductory sentence (or at most two or three short sentences) which describes the passage and sets it in its literary and, if necessary, historical contexts (eg ‘Ps 65.9-13 is …’). 

2. A sentence which summarizes or explains the passage (eg ‘It …’ or ‘In it …’).

3. If your exegesis is of a whole psalm or a complex passage you might need a sentence on its structure, and you might do the following two parts on a section by section basis.

4. The main part of an exegesis is the explanation of any difficult words, phrases or ideas it contains. If there are few or none of these, take that as an indication that the passage has been chosen because of the following.

5. An explanation of the key themes or ideas it contains. How much space you devote to this depends on how much was taken in doing part 4.

6. A short concluding paragraph which points out the place of the passage and its ideas in the Old Testament. 

A good way to go about it is:

1. Look up the passage in NRSV and as many other translations as possible and compare their readings.

2. Make your own notes on the 5 (or 6) points above.

3. Only then turn to the commentaries, Bible dictionaries and handbooks to see what they say about the key words, phrases or ideas which you have already identified and tried to puzzle out for yourself. 

4. Write up your notes.

5. Add a Bibliography at the end which includes the Bible translations you have used as well as the commentaries and any dictionary or handbook entries.


Allchin A M ‘Praise’ in Hastings A, Mason A & Pyper H (2000) The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, Oxford: OUP, p554
Brueggemann W (1988) Israel’s Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology, Philadelphia: Fortress 
Brueggemann W (1995) The Psalms and the Life of Faith (ed P D Miller, Minneapolis: Fortress 
Davies J G (ed) (1986) A New Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship, London: SCM
Dawes S B (2010) SCM Studyguide to the Psalms, London: SCM
Pope M H ‘Hosanna’ in Freedman N F (ed) (1992) The Anchor Bible Dictionary, New York: Doubleday, 6 vols, vol 3 pp290-291
Taylor V (2nd ed 1966), The Gospel According to St. Mark, London: Macmillan
Westermann C (1981), Praise and Lament in the Psalms, Edinburgh: T&T Clark

Sarum session 4          Tuesday 11.30-12.45

Voicing Shalom – and exegesis of Ps 144

Although the word shalom is not used in Ps 23, the picture painted in that best-known of all psalms is one of the OT’s clearest pictures of shalom as personal wellbeing, not least wellbeing which has known times of the opposite. What the good times, the shalom times, looked like in wider terms is seen in Mic 4.4 

they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid. 

and in 1 Kings 4.25 which looks back to the reign of Solomon and says,

During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beer-sheba, all of them under their own vines and fig-trees.

Shalom, inadequately translated as ‘peace’, is one of the great themes and dreams of the OT, though human beings being what they are the consistent story-line is of how shalom is so often spoiled and the vision but a distant dream, as we see in the verses preceding Mic 4.4 and which are also found in Isa 2.2–4,

In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it,2 and many nations shall come and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from  Jerusalem. 3He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; 4but they shall all sit under their own vines …  

Everyone sitting under their own vines and fig trees with no one to make them afraid is rather different from the refrain in Judges that ‘everyone does what is right in their own eyes’ with disorder and chaos as the result (Judg 17.6; 21.25). Shalom is when everyone can live to a ripe old age and die ‘full of years’, surrounded by their family's love; where children are born and reared in security and hope; where vulnerable ones like orphans and widows are cared for; when the strong help the weak and the rich help the poor; when justice for all and kindness reign; where there is harmony and happiness for all; where the earth yields its increase and where the struggles against and within a hostile world are over; and where ‘nation does not lift up sword against nation’. This is shalom. Such peace was frequently far off, and it took faith to cling to the vision that, in another picture, one day the wolf would lie down with the lamb in a ‘peaceable kingdom’ (Isa 11.1-9). This is the sense of wellbeing reflected in Brueggemann’s ‘psalms of orientation’,

Human life consists in satisfied seasons of well-being (his italics) that evoke gratitude for the consistency of blessing. Matching this (are the) ‘psalms of orientation’ which in a variety of ways articulate the joy, delight, goodness, coherence, and reliability of God, God’s creation, God’s governing law (Brueggemann 1984: 19). 

Shalom is blessedness, the full flourishing of creation of humanity. The way to it, of course, is by living according to torah, as set out in Ps 1, which supplies its own vivid metaphors of shalom in v3, as of its opposite in v4. If Ps 1 was, as many think, deliberately written as the introduction to the Psalter, its vision of shalom and how to achieve it and maintain points to the centrality of shalom as individual and corporate flourishing in Israel’s understanding of life, faith and God. 


Brueggemann W (1984) The Message of the Psalms, Minneapolis: Augsburg
Dawes S B (2010) SCM Studyguide to the Psalms, London: SCM


Sarum session 5          Tuesday 2-3pm

Voicing Dissonance – and exegesis of Ps 79

1          Lament

In Gunkel’s classification, ‘Lament’ is the great contrast to ‘Praise’ and it is commonly said that these laments are unique to the Psalms and the OT. Indeed, you’ll go a long way to find any equivalent in Christian hymn books, though there are signs that this might be changing. 

In English a lament is a mourning song, such as David sang when he heard of the deaths of Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam 1.17) or the famous ‘Flowers of the Forest’ which laments the fallen Scots dead at Flodden in 1513. About a third of the psalms are usually put in the lament category but none of them is a mourning song in this sense. Some express individual pain and suffering but none voice the grief and loss of personal bereavement. Others express the nation’s grief at invasion, defeat and calamity, exactly as Lamentations does over the Fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC. In Psalms study the technical term ‘lament’ refers to a style of urgent prayer to God which often accuses God of neglect and almost invariably demands God’s help in trouble. Many of them, though not all, contain some move towards praise or hope at some point, but even that does not really tone down their sense of urgency and their anger at God. 

2          Dissonance

So what do I mean by ‘Dissonance’? It is not easy for twenty-first century westerners to imagine life in ancient Israel, but it is none the less probably true to say that the wars, famines, brutality, poverty, genocide, terror and sheer slow grinding misery that make up life for so much of the world’s population today was a reality for many people in many places in the ancient Near East then. Likewise, it is also true to say that the crises, bereavements, illnesses, anxieties and traumas that hit us all from time to time now, also hit people from time to time then. Equally, however, there would have been the good times, the shalom times. The shalom vision of how things ought to be, and indeed of how sometimes things actually were, forms the background to the phenomenon of ‘lament’. At the heart of lamentation is the experience of dissonance, that things are not as they ought to be. The world is not as it ought to be. Society is not as it ought to be. Human life is not as it ought to be. Laments shout that ‘It shouldn’t be like this!’ This powerful feature of ancient Israel’s spirituality and worship, arises out of the experience of dissonance, and that experience has two components. One is the hurt and pain which is experienced when things are not as they ought to be. The second is theological, the confusion and anger directed at God’s failure to put this right and his perceived absence when he is needed most. I use the word ‘dissonance’ aware of Brueggemann’s ‘disorientation’ and Philip Johnston’s strong case for ‘distress’ (Johnston and Firth, chap 3) but for me, ‘disorientation’ risks understating the sheer physicality of suffering and ‘distress’ risks underplaying the theological dimension, hence my preference for ‘dissonance’ which encompasses both elements. This dissonance is felt so strongly because fundamental to the OT is the conviction that YHWH is an active and powerful God of blessing who intends shalom for his people and his creation. 

3          Destroying and restoring shalom

The OT accepts that it is a fact of life that shalom can be and is easily and often destroyed. It can be damaged 

  • by the weakness and failure, individually or corporately, of God’s chosen people, 
  • by the sin, wickedness and evil-doing, individually or corporately, of God’s chosen people, 
  • by the action of foreign enemies and their gods, 
  • by evil spirits or lesser divinities, 
  • by the evil power of resurgent chaos, and
  • by Israel’s own God in punishment, testing or caprice. 

At the beginning of his discussion of lament in his important Praise and Lament in the Psalms, Westermann points out that biblical ‘laments of distress’ such as we find in psalms and in the ‘laments of Moses, Samson, Elijah, Jeremiah and Job’ are quite different from the common ancient Near Eastern ‘laments for the dead’ (Westermann: 67-168). These complaints, which are central to Psalms, involve three subjects: God, the one who laments, and the ‘enemy’, and so each lament has a ‘history’, it arises in and out of a situation (Westermann: 170). As such laments work on the assumption that bad things are happening to good people. They are written, said, sung or used by people who, quite properly, think that they are innocent victims. They are not psalms of ‘confession’. There are penitential psalms in Psalms, but ‘confession’ is quite a different sub-genre to ‘lament’. Laments are sung by ‘the righteous’ who are suffering because of ‘the wicked’. Those two terms are not employed in every lament, eg they are absent in the great lament of Ps 74, but this is a crucial distinction to grasp in Psalms. 

The OT recognizes that shalom may be restored in these cases, respectively

  • by the expression of repentance and the receipt of forgiveness in the liturgies of sacrifice for sin plus appropriate restitution, 
  • by the punishment and extermination of those doing evil or, possibly, by their expression of repentance,
  • by God fighting back on behalf of his people,
  • by God demonstrating his power over the spirit world and the lesser gods,
  • by God defeating resurgent chaos, and
  • by God’s decision that sufficient punishment has been inflicted or testing done, possibly in response to his people’s pleas for mercy.   

It was a fact of Israelite life, however, that shalom was not always restored and it is at that point that dissonance is experienced at its most acute. The theology of lamentation in the psalms is built on the conviction that YHWH is a God who acts, saves and blesses, restores and puts right; and that when that does not happen he can be and should be called to account. As Abraham argued with God over Sodom - ‘Shall not the judge of all the earth do justice?’ (Gen 18.25) - so, even more strongly at times, did Abraham’s descendants. This experience of dissonance, the key feature in Brueggemann’s ‘psalms of disorientation’, leads straight into the question of theodicy. 

4          Davidson’s classic

There are a number of ‘theodices’ in the OT, but it is probably fair to say that lamentation is the one which best characterizes the OT approach as a whole. Not only is lament found in the psalms of lament, but it is also the style and theme of Habakkuk, Lamentations and Job. It is equally clear from any reading of Job that the OT puts forward no conclusive and final answer to this universal question. The psalms of lament, however, insist on sharply raising the issue, and directing the questions straight at God. Robert Davidson’s, The Courage to Doubt, is a classic on the OT’s approach to dissonance. He does not use the term much if at all, but the book faces squarely up to the experience as we have named it. Writing of Ps 74 he says, 

It is important to grasp the tensions within this psalm: the tension between what the past affirms to be true and what the present seems to deny; the tension between believing that the key to God’s nature is to be found in the idea of love and facing a situation in which there are no evident signs of such love. If you have been brought up to affirm that God is a powerful, active, living God and live through an experience which seems to speak only of the triumph of ruthless and arrogant evil, how do you explain it? Is God asleep? 

Such community laments … are never content merely to note the meaninglessness of the present crisis, nor do they show any passive acceptance of it. They are characterized by protest and they have nowhere to take their protest except to God. The harsh reality of life has forced the community to ask probing questions about its faith – and to these questions there are not immediate or easy answers’ (Davidson: 6-8).

The psalms of lament do not react to dissonance with a resigned, ‘The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away, blessed be the name of the LORD’ (Job 1.21), if indeed that verse is to be read in a resigned and accepting kind of way, as it traditionally has been in Christian circles. It sounds rather different if you read it as a piece of sharp sarcasm! They respond to dissonance with pointed questions directed at God.

5          Vengeance and all that

There is, however, another kind of reaction in the laments which we find particularly difficult. Ps 74 demands that God should take vengeance on his enemy and the enemy of his Chosen People, though it does not go into detail. Other laments are not so reticent. The sharpest example is Ps 137.9, ‘Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!’ This lament almost certainly had its origin in response to real crisis and trauma, in the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC and the exiling of Judah’s leading citizens to Babylon. Given the horror of that, the feelings this psalm vents about the Babylonians and their Edomite allies are at the very least understandable. This cursing psalm, however, and others like it (sometimes called ‘Imprecatory Psalms’ in older textbooks) is not simply a historical text, of its time and place, understandable in its original context and possibly interesting as an ancient text from a long dead culture. Its place in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures also makes it a contemporary text, and one which carries the approval of those Faiths as part of their ‘Holy Scripture’ read in synagogue and church and used in private prayer. Should you be unfortunate enough, you could even find yourself surrounded by people saying ‘Thanks be to God’ after someone had concluded the reading of this psalm in church with the words, ‘This is the Word of the Lord’.

One response to verses of this kind is simply to reject them, to censor them as Holladay puts it (chapter 16), to be upfront about doing this and to say that Ps 137.9 and verses like it are absolutely dreadful and should be edited out of any edition of Psalms for public use. So out also would go Ps 58.6-8, which Hunter says takes some beating for ‘sheer imaginative nastiness’ (Hunter: 6). This response was heard in some Parochial Church Councils in the early 80s, when the Church of England produced its Alternative Service Book which put psalm verses of this kind in square brackets and let local churches decide whether they would say or sing such verses. Other versions of psalms for use in worship give congregations no choice and simply edit out such offensive verses which wish real vengeance, violence and viciousness on equally real people. For many readers these kinds of verses render the psalms in which they are found, or Psalms itself, or even the whole OT, unusable, dangerous and best avoided. Officially, however, that option is not open to churches or synagogues. 

There are, sad to say, those who see no problem in such verses at all in either historical or contemporary terms, though they are probably unlikely to be reading this book. Those who see the problem but wish to retain these verses use, broadly-speaking, two different but often intertwining and mutually-reinforcing approaches: 

‘Psychological’ approaches begin by accepting that the feelings these verses express are real, and that real people have them, including people of faith today. When people are threatened, hurt, humiliated or distressed, particularly in a situation of powerlessness, they can and do respond with anger. At the very least, the argument runs, there is a human honesty about these sharp verses. In addition, as C S Lewis suggested in Reflections on the Psalms, letting that feeling out is healthier than keeping it in and verbalising your violence is better than actualising it (Lewis; 23-33, Hunter: 116). And any psychologist will confirm that verbalising our anger is better than denying that we feel it. Denying what we feel will do us no good. Speaking what we feel may be healing. H N Wallace sums it up like this,

If we are honest with ourselves, there are times when we feel angry, threatened, vulnerable, or anxious, and we might want to utter words as dark as in these psalms … In such situations the psalms offer us words to express our feelings. We may feel as though our prayers are not the place for such words or feelings. But the psalms suggest otherwise … Prayer is the place where those experiences are voiced … in conversation with God … about our ‘enemies’ and our feelings of oppression, anxiety, anger and even hatred (Wallace: 46). 

‘Justice’ approaches. David Firth’s discussion in Surrendering Retribution focuses on the laments as a whole rather than the specific cursing psalms and argues that the laments ‘reject all forms of human violence’ and teach that ‘only the violence that may be enacted by Yahweh is acceptable’ (Firth: 3). He suggests, therefore, that the laments recognize that the desire for vengeance is real, and deal with it by providing a mechanism whereby this desire is handed over to Yahweh in the knowledge that vengeance is indeed his and that he will definitely repay (Rom 12.19). 

Brueggemann is probably the best-known advocate of justice approaches, however. He starts from the fact that laments deal with real life, do so honestly, and do so in dialogue with God. He acknowledges that voicing lament is therapeutic, both for individuals and communities, in that it enables them to move ‘from hurt to joy, from death to life’ (Brueggemann: chapter 3). It does this, not least, by giving a form, in prayer and liturgy, for ‘grief’ (Brueggemann: chapter 4). He then argues that if we take away the lament, faith becomes skewed into a docile submissiveness which will include submission to ‘the politico-economic monopoly of the status quo’ as well as submission to God (Brueggemann: 102),

In the absence of lament, we may be engaged in uncritical history-stifling praise. Both psychological inauthenticity and social immobility may be derived from the loss of these texts. If we care about authenticity and justice, the recovery of these texts is urgent (Brueggemann: 111 – original italics).

These vengeful texts keep real justice for real people in the real world on the agenda, and do so in the name of God!

Erich Zenger shares Brueggemann’s concern for social justice in the real world but takes in some ways an even more robust approach to these texts. He acknowledges that there is a major discussion about ‘enemy images’ in anthropology and social analysis (Zenger: viii) and that the ‘psalms of enmity’ arise out of a basic model of human life as one of ‘daily, ongoing, struggle’ (Zenger: 9) which produces ‘much shrieking for violence and the hope that there is a God of retaliation, vengeance and destruction’ (Zenger: 11). For him these psalms speak of God’s vengeance which is thoroughly deserved. In the real world full of violence, terror, injustice and anguish those who perpetrate such things need to know that there is an accounting by the God of justice (Zenger: 69). This is not vigilante vengeance or retribution, but the restoration of true law and order for the sake of the victims of injustice. The cry for vengeance in these psalms is a cry for justice, and it will not go unheard. Victims need to hear that and take heart! Oppressors need to hear it and stop!


Brueggemann W (1995) The Psalms and the Life of Faith (ed P D Miller, Minneapolis: Fortress  
Davidson R (1983) The Courage to Doubt, London: SCM
Dawes S B (2010) SCM Studyguide to the Psalms, London: SCM
Firth D G (2005) Surrendering Retribution in the Psalms, Milton Keynes: Paternoster
Holladay W L (1993) The Psalms through Three Thousand Years, Minneapolis: Fortress
Hunter A G (2008) An Introduction to the Psalms, London: T & T Clark, Continuum
Johnston P S ‘The Psalms and Distress’ in Johnston P S & Firth D G (eds) (2005) Interpreting the Psalms: Issues and Approaches, Leicester: Apollos, chapter 3
Lewis C S (1961) Reflections on the Psalms, London: Collins (Fontana)
Wallace H N (2005) Words to God, Word from God, Aldershot: Ashgate 
Westermann C (1981), Praise and Lament in the Psalms, Edinburgh: T&T Clark
Zenger E (1996) A God of Vengeance? Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath, Louisville: Westminster John Knox 


Sarum session 6          Tuesday 3.30-5pm

Voicing Penitence – and exegesis of Ps 32

1          Penitential Psalms

The designation of Pss 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143 as the ‘Seven Penitential Psalms’ is an ancient one in Christian circles, going back at least to Augustine (Gillingham, 2008, p113). There is, however, nothing penitential about three of them (Pss 6, 102 and 143) which are properly identified as ‘laments’ and as such contain no sense that the person making the lament is anything other than an innocent victim. Of the seven, Ps 51 is the best known. As usual, we know nothing of its author or date of composition. The editor of Psalms, however, puts it on the lips of David ‘when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba’. For that sordid episode which began with rape and ended with murder see 2 Sam 11.1-12.13. It is a genuinely penitential psalm which voices a direct appeal to a compassionate God for ‘mercy’ (v1) and its I-form makes it available for both personal and communal use.

2          Two stories

‘David and Bathsheba’ is a sordid story of rape and murder, the opening chapter in a tragedy that lasts for centuries. Another of its legacies, in Christianity at least, is to make a connection between sin and sex which has had profound consequences for individual well-being as well as for Church and theology, and however much we might resist it, St Augustine’s pathology here is still powerful. But there is more, in the OT, to sin than sex. ‘Naboth’s vineyard’ is another, quite different, sin story. Naboth's vineyard is next door to King Ahab's palace in Samaria. The king wants to extend the royal gardens. Naboth refuses to give up his ancestral inheritance. Calling her husband a weak fool, Queen Jezebel arranges for Naboth to be accused of blasphemy and treason and has him stoned. Ahab, knowing nothing of his wife's plans until it is all over, takes possession of the vacant vineyard. The issues are injustice, oppression and the rights of the poor in relation to the state. Here too the consequences are more than at first appear. 

In both of these stories we see the terrifying power of wickedness to destroy and mar. This failure is more than David's scheming lust or Ahab's greed. It is woven into the fabric of society and life itself, and in one sense David and Ahab are just two more victims. These two stories give specific examples of failure; and failure forms a key part of the story line of the OT as a whole. God creates the world, and it is good. He creates men and women and entrusts them with power and responsibility (Gen 1). Soon they are estranged from each other, from God, and from the natural world (Gen 2-3). The original shalom is gone. Things get worse and violence spirals (Gen 4-6). God regrets what he has done, wipes almost everything out and tries to start again, but no sooner has the floodwater subsided than things start going wrong again (Gen 9-11). This time God takes a different line and decides on a long-term attempt to put matters right through one man and his descendants (Gen 12). But the sorry story of failure repeats itself in Abraham's descendants: arrogant Joseph and his brothers who try to get rid of him (Gen 29-50), their numerous descendants freed from Egypt by God who complain against Moses and turn to other gods (Ex and Num), the tribes settling in Canaan and deserting the God who has given them their new land (Josh and Judg), and then all through the history of the united kingdom and the divided states until first the one and then the other is destroyed and its people exiled (Sam and Kings). Why? According to the storyteller, it was because the kings ‘did what was evil in the sight of the LORD’ (eg 2 Kings 23.37). The long story points out that this is how it was from beginning to end, from creation to exile, a story of failure on the part of those who ought to have known better. 

3          ‘Sin’

The English word used most in religious circles for this failure is, of course, ‘sin’ and the list of English words associated with it in a thesaurus includes: wickedness, evil, wrong-doing, transgression, iniquity, error, vice, trespass and offence. Closely related are words like guilt, crime, immorality and impurity. Hebrew has a similarly wide range of terms for this condition, and the prominent ones are ‘transgression’ (pĕšāʿ), ‘iniquity’ (‘awōn) and ‘sin’ (ḥēṭ). It is common to distinguish between these three synonyms by understanding transgression as ‘rebellion against God’, iniquity as ‘going astray’ and sin as ‘missing the mark’: but this might be a touch too neat. These suggestions come from considering the derivation and etymology of the Hebrew words, but how much of their derivation and etymology words retain in any language in their ordinary usage is a big question. English and Hebrew can also make long lists of actions or attitudes it calls ‘sins’. A word of caution is needed here, however. At this point Christians are only a step away from quoting Rom 3.23 that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ and Christian preachers down the ages have been adept at illustrating how badly their hearers have sinned: but as we saw, psalmists do not often consider themselves or their congregations to be ‘sinners’. According to the OT sin, however it is defined, is a real part of the human story but despite that the words ‘sin’ and ‘sinner’ are not allowed to define the human condition in the OT in the way they have done in much Christian discourse. 

In the OT it is the prophets who come nearest to doing that. Whether the canonical prophets are ‘announcers of doom’ insisting that people will soon reap what they have sown or whether they are offering a last chance to those hearers to ‘turn and live’, there is a powerful severity about much of their message. Sin is to be punished. This prophetic attitude is seen especially clearly in Amos, despite the ‘happy-ending’ that the editors added and in the almost identical Pss 14 and 53. These psalms look as if they are the perfect Old Testament match for Rom 3.23, but that looks less certain if they are read alongside Elijah’s despairing, but mistaken, cry in 1 Kings 19.10. The prophetic attitude to failure 

  • is essentially Deuteronomic and works with a set of opposites: good and evil, life and death, righteousness and sin, blessing and curse. Humanity faces a simple choice (eg Deut 30.15-20),  
  • is strongly negative in tone and depicts human failure, identified particularly in the rich and powerful, in terms of ‘evil’ (raʿ), ‘wickedness’ (rešaʿ) and ‘sin’ (ḥaṭṭāʾt/ḥēṭʾ),    
  • offers no remedy other than the destruction of ‘sinners’ and their replacement with the ‘righteous’.

Another model, which we might call the ‘pastoral’ one, operates alongside this one. It undergirds the liturgical provisions for dealing with human failure in Leviticus and is perhaps seen at its clearest in Ps 103.8-14. This model 

  • operates with the image of a parentally forgiving God, 
  • is much more generous and much less stringent than the prophetic one,
  • depicts human failure in terms of ‘weakness, frailty and need’, and
  • offers a remedy for failure through various liturgies of confession and absolution.

These two models are, however, not as different as they might look. The pastoral model makes provision for sin to be dealt with provided it is named and acknowledged. There is no remedy for those who sin ‘high-handedly’ other than the destruction of which the prophets speak (Num 15.27-31). For those who are prepared to name and so acknowledge their failure, there is both practical and liturgical provision for handling it and restoring the individual to their normal and proper place among the ‘righteous’. The practical provision is that offenders make restitution wherever appropriate (Lev 6.1-5; Num 5.5-8). The liturgical provision is the sacrifices for sin.

4          Sacrifices for Sin

Squeamish modern westerners should not try to imagine the scene in the Temple, especially at a major celebration. It would have been noisy, smelly and gruesome. For this reason alone it is difficult to enter the mindset of ancient Israel and understand the rich and complex theology involved. Add to that the complexities of the sacrificial system itself and of its development, the immense difficulties in reconstructing it from the texts about it, and our own tendencies to read our own presuppositions and assumptions into it all, and the task becomes almost impossible. But there are two simple points which can be grasped: first, that sacrifice was the normal way of worship in the Temple, all Temple worship of whatever kind, for whatever purpose and on whatever occasion was done by sacrifice; second, that the sacrificial system was seen as part of God’s gift of the Tabernacle to Moses in the desert and part of his blessing of Torah (Ex 25-30), it was not a ‘human’ system designed to influence, persuade, flatter or appease God. 

The details of the different sacrifices are not recoverable from the descriptions of sacrifice or the instructions for them given mainly in Leviticus, and the fact that different Bible translations give them different titles makes a complex situation even more confusing. What is important is to recognize that there were different sacrifices, each serving a different purpose. The Sacrifice of Well-being was quite distinct from the Burnt Offering and neither these nor any of their variations had anything to do with the two sacrifices which were specifically designed to deal with sin, the Sin Offering (the ḥaṭṭāʾt, Lev 4.27-31) and the Guilt Offering (the ʾāšām, Lev 7.1-10). Whatever the precise differences between those two, they form the Temple’s liturgical provision for confession and absolution. In addition, with a national focus and the purpose of ‘cleansing’ the Temple and nation, there were the rituals which made up Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (Lev 16). Atonement, or ‘expiation’ (REB) is the ‘covering up’ (the literal sense of the Hebrew verb kippēr) of sin, its removal and disarming. The gift of liturgies for that purpose suggests that it is God's will that the scourge or contamination of sin should be removed. The instructions spell out what should be done, but they do not say how these actions bring about forgiveness. What they do say is that the person who does these things is forgiven (Lev 4.20, 26, 31, 35 etc.), and that through the Day of Atonement services the nation is ‘cleansed’ from its sin (Lev 16.30). These liturgies of forgiveness presuppose that the worshippers are ‘repentant’ (Lev 26.40-41). So for the people who know that they have done wrong and fallen short of what God expects of them, God provides a liturgy in which to express their repentance, receive forgiveness and be restored to the community of the righteous.


Dawes S B (Kindle or www.stephendawes.com) Let us bless the Lord: rediscovering the OT through Ps 103, chapter 3, ‘A God of Forgiveness’
Dawes S B (2010) SCM Studyguide to the Psalms, London: SCM
Gillingham S E (2008) Psalms through the Centuries, Oxford: Blackwell, vol 1


Sarum session 7          Wednesday 9.30-11am

Voicing Hope – and exegesis of Ps 98

1          ‘Royal Psalms’

Introductions to Psalms always include material on the ‘Royal Psalms’ and related matters. What is included in this category will vary. The long lists of such psalms and their characteristics found in Eaton’s commentaries were always hypothetical and have become increasingly suspect, as have the attempts which go back to Mowinckel to reconstruct a New Year Festival in Jerusalem in which the king was alleged to play a major role. There is no doubt, however, that some psalms can be called ‘royal psalms’ insofar as they concern the person and role of the Davidic king, and that some psalms belong to royal rituals of one kind or another: but the preoccupation with recovering ancient royal rituals and seeing the role of the king as crucial to much of Psalms is now dated. But an obvious question remains. Given that there was no monarchy after the Exile and that Psalms is almost certainly a Second Temple collection, why were such psalms included in a Temple book when there were no longer any kings and no longer any royal liturgies? One answer is that these psalms developed an afterlife as expressions of hope, that they came to be seen as ‘messianic’ in the new and developing sense of that old word. They became, in effect, a way of voicing hope. So here we will look at the theology of the Davidic monarchy as found in the ‘royal psalms’ and, after that at the related theme of the ‘kingship of YHWH’ and those psalms which celebrate it, for that is the way that Psalms voices ‘hope’.

The OT story of monarchy in ancient Israel can be quickly told. Saul was appointed, after some opposition from the prophet Samuel, to deal with the threat of the Philistines against which the old loose federation of the Tribes of Israel was helpless (1 Sam 8-11), and if you read that story you can ‘see the joins’ where two different points of view are woven together. His successor, David, neither the first, nor the holiest, nor the most powerful of the kings, was the one who made the lasting impact. His dynasty lasted for 400 years in Judah, and later, when some expressed their hopes for a better future they did so by saying that God would raise up a new king like David (Zech 6.9-14; 9.9-10; Hag 2.21-23; 2 Esdras 12.32). After the division of the kingdom on the death of Solomon, the story is downhill all the way to the Fall of Samaria and the end of Israel in 722 BC and that of Jerusalem and Judah in 586. The Deuteronomic Historian blames both on the failure of their kings to honour God (2 Kings 17.7-18 and 24.9). Indeed, Deut 17.14-20 is perhaps the text on which the whole Deuteronomic History is the sermon. How this rich theological narrative relates to the ‘real history’ of Jerusalem and Judah, Samaria and Israel and the ‘kings’ of both ‘kingdoms’ is one of the most controversial areas of current OT scholarship. 

2          Gunkel details

Gunkel designated 11 psalms in whole or in part as ‘royal’ and a brief survey of these will identify the main features of the theology of the Davidic monarchy:

Ps 2 appears to have been composed for a coronation on Mt Zion. In it YHWH’s ‘anointed one’ gives testimony and warning to his watching enemies that YHWH has decreed that he is his ‘son’, ‘begotten’ in this liturgy. 

Ps 18 contains the kind of vivid, exaggerated, language which is common in psalms which voice praise for deliverance and help received. It is only in v43 that there is anything to suggest that the ‘I’ who speaks is the king, giving testimony to ‘his rock’ and ‘the God of his salvation’ for delivering him from enemies in battle.

Ps 20 is a prayer for such help for the king.

Ps 21 is a testimony to how God has blessed the king and a warning to his enemies. 

Ps 45 is a royal wedding psalm. V6 possibly addresses the king as ‘God’ but other ways of translating the verse are possible. V7 speaks of God’s special anointing of the king.

Ps 72 is a prayer for the king, but one of those prayers which preaches as much as prays. It is a powerful statement of the king’s responsibility towards the vulnerable and marginalised. 

Ps 89 is a lament which asks why God has reneged on his covenant with ‘David’. 

Ps 101 contains none of the markers of a ‘royal psalm’. It reads well as a declaration of royal intent to rule according to Torah (eg against the background of the requirements listed in Deut 17.14-20) but that is as much as can be said.

Ps 110 possibly formed part of the coronation rituals, but it is a mystery from beginning to end, with significant translation problems in vv 3 and 7.

Ps 132 is a celebration of YHWH’s choice of Zion and David, containing a promise of an eternal dynasty if David’s sons keep his covenant (v12).

Ps 144 is a king’s prayer. 

3          Theology of Kingship

From all this we can identify a ‘theology of kingship’. The king, as YHWH’s ‘anointed’ one and unique ‘son’, is privileged, blessed and assured of God’s special care and protection (though Ps 89 does rather indicate that this is not 100% guaranteed). With this status and blessing come responsibilities, to live by Torah, to defend his people, to ensure justice, to witness and give testimony to God’s grace and to care for the marginalised. Whether there were any liturgical responsibilities is now widely questioned. Above all, perhaps, is the symbolic importance of the king. Just as Jerusalem and its Temple are important symbols of the special relationship between YHWH and his people, so is ‘David’. 

4          Afterlife of a hope? 

What happens, then, when there is no longer any monarchy and these psalms are in the public domain? Do they become available to be used by or about any speaker, celebrating the ‘special relationship’ of blessing and support available to every member of God’s covenant people as well as reminding them of the principle that blessings bring responsibilities? The principle early afterlife of the royal psalms, however, lies in their messianic interpretation in the newer sense of that word and seen clearly in the use of the psalms in the NT, though we must heed Wright’s warning that ‘messianism’ is a many-faceted, complex and much smaller movement than is usually thought (Wright: 307-8). When they had one, the king was a sign of this hope. When they didn’t, the old psalms continued to be used. Some saw in them a hope for a new king, others ‘democratised’ them and saw the old ‘special relationship’ as now available to all. Either way these old psalms continued to voice hope. 

Mowinckel, Johnson and Eaton made large claims for a ‘royal theology’ celebrated and promoted in the Jerusalem Temple, central to which was the ‘Annual New Year Festival’. Eaton described this festival as the most prominent of the three main festivals and saw it as an extended holy season including New Year, the Day of Atonement and the week-long Feast of Tabernacles (Booths, Sukkot) at the start of the new agricultural cycle after the summer drought. Part of its purpose was to renew the covenant with YHWH and seek his gift of rain, and so of life. The festival was therefore a celebration of YHWH as King of Creation, ‘victor, the most high God, the Creator-King’ (Eaton: 23). Eaton went further and imagined ceremonies depicting YHWH’s defeat of his chaos enemies and triumphant processions involving the king, maybe even a ‘drama of atonement won for many by the suffering of a royal figure’ which could have ‘fed into the great prophetic vision of Isaiah 52-53’ (Eaton: 24). This would also be a time of making personal vows, of people coming to the Temple for asylum, and of national thanksgivings and laments, quite conceivably spoken by the king as figurehead (Eaton: 34-5). Much of this is now seen to be hypothetical and suspect, but the fact that there was a strong theology of YHWH as king associated with the Temple and seen in Psalms is uncontested. 

5          YHWH is King!

‘YHWH is king’ or ‘YHWH has become king’ is the opening acclamation of Pss 93, 97 and 99 and God is pictured as king in Pss 95, 96 and 98, giving rise to the title ‘Enthronement Psalms’ for this group of psalms. Whatever liturgy they might or might not have been used in, these psalms are powerful in their imagery of God as a king. These psalms celebrate YHWH as King of Creation, King of the gods and of the nations and King of Israel; the king who defeats the forces of chaos and death, pictured as mighty floods and surging ‘waters’ (Ps 93.3-4). YHWH has imposed his rule on this chaos so the earth has been made firm and secure so that ‘it shall never be moved’ (Ps 96.10). He is God of the whole earth, even to the farthest coastlands (Ps 97.1), and of all the nations (Ps 96.10). He is king over all the gods (Pss 95.3, 97.9). ‘All the earth’ is called to worship him (Pss 96.1, 97.1, 98.4). His throne is set in heaven, surrounded by clouds, thick darkness, fire and lightning (Ps 97.2-5). His royal will is to be obeyed (Ps 93.5), and past disobedience is cited as a warning (Ps 95.8-9). Like a true king he has been the saviour and helper of his people in the past (Pss 98.1-3, 99.4-9) and the psalmists rejoice because he is coming again ‘to judge’ (ie to save!) the earth and its people (Pss 96.10-13, 97.10-12, 98.7-9). Behind these images lies that old Chaoskampf creation story and in celebrating YHWH as king these psalms give voice to hope, the sure and certain hope of the fulfilment of YHWH’s purposes, the establishment of his ‘kingdom’ or rule, and the victory of Life over Death.


Dawes S B (2010) SCM Studyguide to the Psalms, London: SCM, p129
Eaton J H (2003) The Psalms: A Historical and Spiritual Commentary, London: T & T Clark International: Continuum
Wright N T (1993) The New Testament and the People of God, London: SPCK


Sarum session 8          Wednesday 11.30-12.45

Voicing Spirituality – and exegesis of Ps 119.1-16

1          Spirituality

‘Spirituality’ is a slippery modern term, used widely in a variety of contexts and sometimes seeming to mean whatever its users want it to mean (try looking it up in Wikipedia!). Books on ‘spirituality’ will be found on the ‘Mind, Body and Spirit’ shelves in bookshops rather than the ‘Religion’ ones, and this reflects a distinction commonly made between ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’, some going further and saying ‘Spirituality good, Religion bad’. By any definition Psalms is a religious book, the product of a particular religion, with its psalms produced for religious purposes (public worship, private prayer, teaching etc.) and voicing feelings and emotions at high and low points of religious experience, individual and corporate. Definitions of ‘spirituality’ vary and in Spirituality for Dummies, Sharon Janis devotes 16pp to ‘Defining Spirituality’ and gives us, 

Spirituality is a personal approach to connecting with the divine and experiencing the realms that exist beyond the sensory world.

Spirituality is the wellspring of divinity that pulsates, dances, and flows as the source and essence of every soul. Spirituality relates mainly to (our) personal search and connection with the divine, as (we) look beyond outer appearances to find deeper significance and meaning (Janis: 26 and 29). 

On that basis, Psalms offers its readers, hearers and users a spirituality. Marie McCarthy supplies this definition widely used in theology, 

Spirituality is a fundamental component of our human beingness, rooted in the natural desires, longings and hungers of the human heart. It is concerned with the deepest desires of the human heart for meaning, purpose and connection, with the deep life lived intentionally in reference to something larger than oneself (McCarthy: 196). 

In this sense all psalms ‘voice spirituality’ in that they are ‘concerned with the deepest desires of the human heart for meaning, purpose and connection’ even if in the case of some of them we might wonder what contribution they can possibly make to satisfying such desires. Psalms which voice praise or shalom celebrate that their users have discovered the meaning and purpose of their lives and feel connected with their real selves, their environment and their God. Psalms which voice dissonance or penitence enable felt disconnections to be expressed and addressed. When it comes, however, to ‘the deep life lived intentionally in reference to something larger than oneself’, some psalms are clearly more focused than others. All are making, or attempting to make, connections with God. All are concerned with issues of faith and life, in one way or another, in a religion which knows no distinction between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ and in which all of life is lived under God. But there are some psalms which focus on that living of life under God intentionally and specifically, and it is these psalms which are the concern of this chapter. Some name these psalms as ‘Torah-’, ‘Wisdom-’ and ‘Prophetic Psalms’. Others, in my view rightly, query over-identifying psalms like this. Without assuming any specific categories of psalms here we will, presently, discuss four psalms as examples of those which ‘voice spirituality’ in the sense of informing, enabling, encouraging and sustaining the ‘living of the whole of life towards God’. 

2          Brueggemann - again

The clearest contemporary presentation available on ‘spirituality in the psalms’ is Brueggemann’s threesome of psalms of orientation, disorientation and new orientation. I have taken the following from Brueggemann 2002: 8-12 and added his samples from the fuller version in Brueggemann, 1984 (which was itself a rewrite of a 1980 article in which he called the second set ‘psalms of dislocation’) in the order in which he discusses them there, 

1. Human life consists in satisfied seasons of well-being that evoke gratitude for the constancy of blessing. Psalms of orientation (eg Pss 145, 104, 33, 8, 1, 119, 15, 4, 37, 14, 112, 133, 131) articulate the joy, delight, goodness, coherence, and reliability of God in such seasons.

2. Human life consists in anguished seasons of hurt, alienation, suffering and death which evoke rage, resentment, self-pity and hatred. Psalms of disorientation (eg Pss 13, 86, 35, 74, 79, 137, 88, 109, 50, 32, 51, 143, 130, 49, 90, 73) with their extravagance, hyperbole and abrasiveness give the words needed for this season in its ragged, painful disarray. 

3. Human life consists in turns of surprize when we are overwhelmed with new gifts of God, when joy and light break through despair and darkness. Psalms of new orientation (eg Pss 30, 40, 138, 34, 65, 66, 124, 114, 29, 96, 93, 97, 98, 99, 47, 27, 23, 91, 117, 135, 103, 113, 146, 147, 148, 100, 149, 150) speak boldly about this new gift which makes all things new.

4. Human life is not static and the life of faith involves two decisive moves which are always underway ‘by which we are regularly surprized and which we regularly resist’ (Brueggemann 2002: 9). 

5. One move is a dismantling move, which might be sudden or gradual and which may be brought about by a number of factors, out of a settled orientation into a season of disorientation. 

6. The other move is the astonishing one from a context of disorientation to a new orientation, a new coherence when we thought all was lost.

7. Western society is committed to continuity and success and to the avoidance of pain, hurt and loss. It is also resistant to genuine newness and real surprise. Worship communities which practice either of these two moves are engaged in counter-cultural and genuinely transformational acts. 

Some readers will identify immediately with the realities of these two ‘moves’ of personal and communal faith experience of which Brueggemann writes. Others, no less faithful and equally ‘inside’ Jewish or Christian faith communities, will not find themselves relating to this language of ‘moves’ much if at all. William James, the father of the psychology of religion at the dawn of the twentieth century, called his major book The Varieties of Religious Experience and his plural is a useful reminder that when it comes to spirituality one size, shape, form, vocabulary or experience does not fit all. 

3          ‘Torah psalms’

In Johnston’s list of psalm classifications Pss 1, 19 and 119 are called ‘Torah psalms’ by one or more of the commentators cited.  Whatever the merits of this as a sub-classification of psalm types and whatever the particular issues of Ps 1 (what category is it and how does it relate to the rest of the Psalter?) and of Ps 19 (what category is it and is it one psalm or two?), there is no doubt that torah is the main theme of Ps 119.  Its sub-genre (if we may use that word) is not quite so plain, however: Is it praise, lament or confession? 

4          Psalm 119

Psalm 119 is, obviously, the longest of the canonical psalms – a fact which may or may not be significant.  It is also repetitive.  In structure it is an acrostic with a vengeance.  It consists of 22 stanzas/strophes of 8 line units, each beginning with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  It is not easy to place within any of the traditional ‘forms’.  Note that ‘paths’ – ‘ways’ – ‘walking’ – occur in every stanza except 7, 10 and 18-20, though it is not immediately obvious in 11 and 12 either; and that ‘steadfast’ love (hesed) occurs in vv41, 64, 76, 77, 88, 124, 149, 159.  Note the synonyms for ‘law’ in stanza 1 (vv1-8) and repeated passim:

law (torah) v1
decrees (’eduth) v2
ways (derakim) v3                                          These are the NRSV translations
precepts (piqqudim) v4                                   but this is complicated by the fact
statute(s) (huqqim) vv5 and 8             that different English versions 
commandments (mitswoth) v6                        use different English terms 
ordinances (mishpatim) v7
word (dabar as in v9 or ‘imrah as in v11)

5          Torah

Torah is a word of many meanings:

The Torah’ – nb the use of the definitive article in English here - is the name given to the Five Books in the first and definitive part of the Hebrew Bible, traditionally translated as ‘The Law’.  These books (or this book?) contain a variety of material, principally narrative and instruction.  The Hebrew words for these two different kinds of material found within The Torah are halakah (‘walking’ = rules for living in God's way, pl halakoth) and haggadah (‘story’ = inspiration for living in God's way, pl haggadoth).

Torah - without the definite article in English - has two senses, a general and a specific one.  The general sense is that of the ‘Old, Old Story’ which is God’s teaching or revelation and which is told in and by the Torah.  The specific one refers to individual words of instruction or guidance, such as the 613 contained in the Torah (the ‘statutes and ordinances’ (NRSV) or ‘laws and rules’ (NJPS) (huqqim and mishpatim) so beloved of Deuteronomy, and also to the directions for specific rituals in Leviticus), but also to any instruction given by a teacher (eg Prov 1.8, 6.20). 

Torah, in most of its senses, is traditionally translated as ‘law’, and that is an appropriate translation at times, but it is perhaps better translated more often as ‘teaching’ or ‘guidance’ or even, in the case of the Five Books or the general sense as ‘revelation’ or ‘gospel’ (in fact, whatever Christians can do with that word - eg ‘Gospel, gospel, The Gospel’ – Judaism can do with torah).  In Judaism and the OT the word is entirely warm and wholesome: God has made himself known as the Saviour of Israel, and the Torah tells that story.  The story includes the 613 toroth, commandments which Israel is to keep, but these are God's guidelines in how to stay ‘saved’ and not his list of exercises and merit-marks by which people might earn his salvation, see Ex 20.1.  The life of faithfulness thus consists in walking in God’s ways and thereby continuing to receiving God’s blessings (exactly as it does in Christianity).

Torah occurs 36x in the Psalter: 1.2 (x2), 19.8, 37.31, 40.9, 78.1,5,10, 89.31, 94.12, 105.45 and 25x in 119.  NB Ps 78 - ‘my teaching’ in v1, ‘a law’ in v5 and ‘his law’ in v10 (NRSV)  

The fundamental image of God here is therefore that of Teacher, and you may like to reflect on how different that sounds to ‘Lawgiver’. The implications of this understanding of torah for reading the NT are considerable, as the writings of E P Sanders and the ‘new perspective on Paul’ show. The ‘Ten Commandments’ (the Decalogue) and all the rest of the laws or commandments or statutes or ordinances are therefore grace rather than works in the Lutheran sense, which is why the longest psalm in the Psalter expresses delight in Torah! The same delight is seen in the annual festival of Simchat Torah. So you can see the problem when it is translated as ‘Law’, especially with the capital letter, because in much influential Christian use ‘Law’ has a bad name. It is not going too far to say that in Judaism ‘Torah’ stands for the good news of God which is concentrated in the Torah book, and for which the English term ‘gospel’ would not be an inappropriate translation. This is why, presumably, Goldingay entitles vol 1 of his three-part Old Testament Theology, ‘Israel’s Gospel’. Christian discourse, on the other hand, habitually contrasts ‘Law’ and ‘Gospel’ with sinister results.

6          Simchat Torah (‘Rejoicing for the Torah’)

In the course of a year the Torah is read from beginning to end, and each Sabbath takes its name from its appointed reading. The cycle ends and immediately begins again in the autumn, at the festival of Simhat Torah or ‘Rejoicing for the Torah’. This popular festival marks the end of a period of festivals whose dominant mood is solemn and earnest, and as if by way of relief after such solemnity the mood of Simhat Torah is one of unconfined joy. The scrolls are processed round the synagogue, at first with some semblance of dignity, but then with ever increasing joyfulness as they are passed from hand to hand amid songs and dances, while the children wave specially prepared flags. In some places it is still the custom to extend the procession out of the synagogue and into the streets (de Lange: 53).


Brueggemann W ‘Psalms and the Life of Faith: a suggested typology of function’, JSOT 17 (1980) pp3-32 reproduced in Clines, D J A (ed) (1997), The Poetical Books: a Sheffield Reader, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, pp35-66 
Brueggemann W (1984) The Message of the Psalms, Minneapolis: Augsburg
Brueggemann W (2002), Spirituality of the Psalms, Minneapolis: Fortress is an abridged version of The Message of the Psalms and focuses the content of that important book well. It makes an excellent introduction to Brueggemann 
Goldingay J (2003) Old Testament Theology vol 1: Israel’s Gospel, Downers Grove: IVP International
Janis S (2nd ed 2008) Spirituality for Dummies, Hoboken: Wiley Publishing
Johnston P S & Firth D G (2005) Interpreting the Psalms, Leicester: Apollos,
de Lange N (1986) Judaism, Oxford: OUP
McCarthy M ‘Spirituality in a Postmodern Era’ in Woodward J & Pattison S (eds) (2000) The Blackwell Reader in Pastoral and Practical Theology, Oxford: Blackwell

Sarum session 9          Wednesday 2-3

Can we read Psalms as one book?

1          A new area of Psalms study

This session looks at one of the two new areas of Psalms study which have emerged in recent years. 

When I have suggested reading Psalms from chapter 1 to chapter 150 to classes of students, the common reaction has been for them to ask why. In other classes they were prepared to do that with Genesis or Amos, if I pushed them beyond the snippetising of the Bible which is encouraged by Church lectionaries and Bible-reading Notes, but the idea of doing that with Psalms seemed strange. The reason it feels counter-intuitive, I suggest, is that we have all taken for granted that psalms are hymns or prayers, and no-one reads a hymn book or an anthology of prayers from beginning to end. If we sing hymns we might, or might not, be aware of the structure of our hymn book, and if we have one we might, or might not, have noticed how our favourite anthology of prayers is organized, but in both cases our focus is normally on the hymns we sing and the prayers we pray and not on the ‘shape’ of the book in which they are found. And that is the way it was in Psalms study until the 1980s.

2          Before the 1980s

Prior to the 1980s it was commonly observed that, 

  • there are doublets in Psalms: Ps 14 = Ps 53; Ps 40.13–17 = Ps  70.1–5; Ps 108 = Ps 57.7–11 + Ps 60.5–12,  
  • Psalms is divided into 5 ‘Books’ (1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106 and 107-150), the first four of which conclude with a doxology. At this point there would often be the quotation from Midrash on Psalms 1.2 that ‘As Moses gave five books of laws to Israel, so David gave five books of Psalms to Israel’, suggesting a complementarity between Psalms and the Torah, 
  • in Book 2 the use of the Hebrew word for God (ʾĕlôhîm) vastly outnumbers the use of the divine name, YHWH, whereas in the other four books it is the other way round, hence Book 2 is often called the ‘Elohistic Psalter’,
  • after the benediction at the end of Book 2 there is a note that ‘The prayers of David son of Jesse are ended’, even though ‘David psalms’ are found in the following three books and one is specifically titled a ‘prayer of David’ (Ps 86), 
  • Psalms contains identifiable named ‘collections’ of psalms: the ‘Korah psalms’, the ‘Asaph Psalms’ and the ‘Songs of Ascents’ plus two blocks of ‘David Psalms’ (Pss 3-41, assuming 9 and 10 to be one psalm and considering 33 as a possible insertion as it has no title, and Pss 51-71). At this point attempts were frequently made or noted to explore who the Korahites and Asaphites might have been, what their particular interests were, and so on,
  • some psalms are grouped by other specific headings, eg Pss 52-55 are all Maskils of David and Pss 56-60 are all Miktams of David,
  • some psalms seem to be linked by catchwords or similar phraseology, eg Pss 1 and 2 are conjoined by the inclusio, ‘Happy …’, the final words of Ps 32 and the first of Ps 33 are very close, and Pss 103 and 104 have the same opening lines (looking for links of this kind is sometimes called the ‘microtextual approach’),   
  • in addition to the ‘Songs of Ascents’, Pss 113-118 is another group of psalms which later came to be recognized as a liturgical set (the ‘Hallel’ or ‘Egyptian Hallel’), 
  • there are identifiable groups of psalms linked by their themes: the ‘YHWH is king’ psalms (Pss 93-99), the ‘Hallelujah psalms’ (Pss 146-150) and possibly another set of ‘Hallelujah psalms’ in Pss 111-117,
  • there are bunches of psalms with the same ‘voice’, especially laments in the ‘I’ form, eg Pss 3-7, 25-28, 54-57, 69-71 and 140-143, and finally, 
  • that there may be a change of mood through Psalms, in the movement from the ‘laments’ which predominate in the first half of the book to the ‘praises’ with which it ends (though this should not be overemphasized, given that block of four laments in Pss 140-143).  

From observations like these it was clear that Psalms is a composite book and that there must have been a process by which its various component parts were put together, but it was widely held that little could be said about the process. Anderson’s three and a bit pages in his excellent 2-vol commentary of 1972 headed ‘Compilation and Formation of the Psalter’ (Psalms vol 1: 24-28) outline what could be said, but he begins with the frank admission that,

The formation of the Psalter must have undergone a complicated process which can no longer be reconstructed with any certainty (p25).

The same conclusion is spelled out at slightly greater length by Westermann (Westermann: 250-258). As to the shape of the book as a whole, Anderson’s 1972 commentary is silent.

3          That was then, this is now

That, however, was then, and things are rather different now. David Howard writes about the changes which have come about like this,

a shift has taken place, and the prevailing interest in Psalms studies has to do with questions about the composition, editorial unity and overall message of the Psalter as a book, a literary and canonical entity that coheres with respect to its structure and message. Regardless of the authorship and provenance of individual psalms, or the prehistory of various collections within the Psalter, these were eventually grouped into a canonical book in the post-exilic period. Studies now abound that consider the overall structure of the book, the contours of its disparate parts and how they fit together, or the ‘story-line’ that runs from Ps 1 to Ps 150 (Howard: 24).

This change is usually credited to Brevard Childs’ agenda of reading the Old Testament ‘canonically’, by which he meant taking the final form of all its books seriously and then reading the book in its setting in the Bible as a whole (Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 1979; for his treatment of Psalms see pp504-525). Not everyone has welcomed his agenda, and it is not without its flaws. For example, which ‘canonical’ shape and setting are we to consider, given that the Hebrew Bible’s canonical shape and setting is different from that of both the ‘Protestant’ and ‘Roman Catholic/Orthodox’ Christian Bibles? The variety of canons on offer reminds us that any talk about ‘the Bible’ or any assertion that ‘The Bible says’ should immediately provoke the reader or listener to ask the simple but penetrating question, ‘Which Bible?’. Nevertheless, Childs has left two legacies in Psalms study. The first, not new to Childs but one which he boosted and secured, is the recognition that the placing of Ps 1 at the beginning of Psalms is a deliberate and highly significant editorial decision which defines Psalms as a Torah book for meditation and study, a decision then reinforced in Ps 19 and principally in Ps 119. The second is that there is now considerable interest in reading Psalms as one book, or in adopting a ‘macrostructural approach’ as it is sometimes called. Most credit, though a few scholars might call it blame, for taking these two suggestions seriously and giving shape to the debate must be given to Gerald Wilson. 

4          Gerald Wilson

Wilson’s The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter appeared in 1985. In it he argued that there is a recognizable shape in Psalms. He began by considering collections of hymns from the ancient Near East and then applied insights from that study to Psalms, beginning there by taking its division into five books seriously. He argued that the presence of ‘royal’ psalms at what he called the ‘seams’ in the first three books was significant (Ps 2 at the beginning of Book 1, Ps 72 at the end of Book 2 and Ps 89 at the end of Book 3, also suggesting that Ps 41 at the end of Book 1 could be considered to be a ‘royal’ psalm). He claimed that this was the clue to the structure of the whole book: Books 1 and 2 celebrate YHWH’s covenant with David but by the end of Book 3 the failure of that covenant, from the human side, has become apparent; thus Book 4 forms the editorial centre of the Psalter in its proclamation that YHWH is king and Book 5 sets out the ways in which Israel can celebrate that and trust in his sovereignty. Other contributions followed in which he developed his ideas. Recognising the weakness of considering Ps 41 as a royal psalm he concluded that Books 1 and 2 were already combined into a single Davidic collection (marked by that ‘prayers of David are ended’ note at the end of Ps 72) which then gave two blocks of material (Pss 2-72 and 73-89) which are marked at their seams by ‘royal’ psalms. He then developed his argument and suggested that it was possible to see two ‘frames’ in Psalms, the ‘Royal Covenant Frame’ (consisting of Pss 2, 72, 89 and 144) and a ‘Final Wisdom Frame’ (consisting of Pss 1, 73, 90, 107 and 145, which he considered to be the first psalms in Books 1, 3, 4 and 5, and the final psalm in Book 5 proper). His conclusion was that in the final form of the book the Wisdom frame takes precedence over the Royal, thus making Psalms a ‘wisdom’ book, a book of teaching about how to live as a faithful subject of YHWH. Among his last publications before his sudden death in 2005 is the essay in Johnston and Firth summarising the debate (pp229-246). It concludes with a section on the theological implications of this shape, that 

  • ‘all psalms can be adopted as models of individual prayer’, 
  • ‘the shape of the Psalter encourages an individual approach of meditation and study of the Psalter as a whole’, 
  • ‘in this careful shaping and arrangement of psalms and Psalter … these very human words to God have made the shift to become God’s word to us’,
  • the shift from dominant lament to praise and thanksgiving indicates that while we are ‘called to live in a real world of undeniable suffering and pain’, God’s final word is not lament but praise, 
  • ‘the shift from individual lament to corporate praise/thanksgiving that takes place within the Psalter when read from beginning to end’ points up the importance of the community of faith, and 
  • ‘the emphasis of the final form is that Yahweh is king’. 

5          Reactions to Wilson

Some early reactions to Wilson were sceptical. Day, writing the SOTS  student guide on Psalms in 1990, politely reflected that it was difficult to avoid the impression that this overarching message had been imposed on Psalms (Day: 111). Whybray was trenchant in his dismissal of the notion that kingship has any place in the shaping of Psalms, suggesting instead that the book is shaped by ‘Wisdom’ themes (Whybray), to which others reacted by pointing out that these are not as easy to find as he thinks they are. A more recent and more gently critical voice is that of Curtis, who concludes that ‘attempts to demonstrate an overarching scheme have not generally been found to be conclusive’ (Curtis: xxiv). In contrast, however, David Mitchell (who disagrees significantly with Wilson’s theological conclusions, as we shall see) can cite an impressive list of scholars in a long footnote and conclude, 

Thanks to Wilson’s work, there arose a scholarly consensus that the Psalms were redacted around a purposefully developing sequence of ideas. Instead of a jumble of unrelated lyrics, they became instead an oratorio, forming together a literary context for their mutual interpretation. And so Wilson became, in Isaac Newton’s celebrated phrase, one of the giants upon whose shoulders we all stood (Mitchell: 526).

McCann offers a neat and accessible summary of Wilson’s basic suggestion in his introduction to Psalms in The New Interpreter’s Bible (‘The Editorial Purpose of the Psalter’ pp659-664). He recognizes that links between individual psalms should not be forced, but ‘follows Wilson’s lead’, as he puts it, in drawing the reader’s attention to those ‘patterns that seem too striking to be coincidental’ (McCann: 659). On pp664–5, however, commenting on Pss 1 and 2 as an introduction to the Psalter, he moves into a contested area of Wilson’s thought.

6          David Mitchell

Wilson’s position, sustained to the end despite some tweaks in response to David Mitchell, is that the shape and theology of Psalms teaches that the Davidic kingship is to be regarded as a failure which has now been replaced by the kingship of YHWH, and so the life of faith in YHWH is to be lived fully in the present moment in the way of Torah wisdom. A number of scholars, but principally Mitchell, regard this as an inadequate reading of Psalms. Mitchell begins from the common understanding that Pss 1 and 2 together form the introduction to Psalms, joined as they are by that ‘Happy’ inclusio, and that the message of Psalms is set by the twin themes of Torah (Ps 1) and Messiah (Ps 2). He also accepts Wilson’s identification of the ‘royal’ psalms at the ‘seams’ of the Psalter, but draws a different conclusion from it. He accepts that they do indeed indicate that the Davidic monarchy has been a failure, but argues that that failure does not write-off the ‘messianic’ motif, as Wilson thinks it does, but reinterprets it and introduces a clearly eschatological theme. After all, a detail of the argument goes, are not the final eight psalms in the Psalter proper before its concluding and climactic Hallelujahs in Pss 146-150, David psalms? Mitchell’s argument is worked out in detail in The Message of the Psalter, and its thesis is set out in the subtitle, ‘An Eschatological Programme in the Book of Psalms’. He uses the eschatological programme of Zech 9-14 as an interpretative key and makes much of the ‘messianic hopes’ of post-exilic Judaism. The key point is that unlike Wilson who sees the kingship of YHWH as something which makes the Davidic kingship redundant, Mitchell sees the kingship of YHWH as the ground for the renewal of the Davidic kingship in the form of a new ‘anointed one’. Hence, for him, Psalms is ‘prophetic’ literature, pointing forwards to a new messiah, rather than didactic or wisdom literature as suggested by Wilson. So in his 2006 article he writes,

between us we indicated the way to two quite different understandings of the redactional agenda of the Psalms: I, eschatologico-messianic, pointing to a coming son of David; he, historico-didactic and non-messianic, pointing Israel to a future without the house of David’ (Mitchell 2006: 527).

Mitchell’s thesis follows the agenda set by Childs. In that reading the royal psalms are treasured in the Psalter ‘as a witness to the messianic hope which look(s) for the consummation of God’s kingdom through his Anointed One’ (Childs: 517). Its conclusion is that ‘the final form of the Psalter is highly eschatological in nature; it looks forward to the future and passionately yearns for its arrival’ (Childs: 518).

In his later survey of recent Psalms study Howard observes that ‘Wilson’s recent work seems to allow more room for an eschatological (re)reading of the royal psalms’ but also that ‘he maintains the thrust of his original arguments in favour of a dominant wisdom framework’ and calls that, rather questionably, ‘a rapprochement of sorts’ (Howard: 27). Wilson’s own essay in that book acknowledges the points made by Mitchell but holds to his fundamental ‘wisdom’ and Torah stance. This debate is set to continue. 

7          Brueggemann – yet again

Brueggemann’s name crops up in this discussion too. We have already used his ‘typology of function’ which sees a movement from Psalms of Orientation through Psalms of Disorientation to Psalms of Reorientation, but this is not a theory about the shape of Psalms in its final form. His contribution to that debate is found in an article entitled, ‘Bounded by Obedience and Praise: the Psalms as Canon’. Writing in 1991 near the beginning of the debate he acknowledged that Childs had ‘legitimated the question concerning the literary shape and theological intentionality of the book of psalms as a whole’ (p189). So he set out to explore ‘how one gets from one end of the Psalter to the other’ (p190) and that exploration gave him the title of the article because Psalms begins in Ps 1 with ‘obedience’ and ends in Ps 150 with ‘praise’. The movement is from ‘duty’ to ‘delight’ (p193). It is not, however, a simple and delightful journey because the way is marked by ‘candour about suffering’ (here he focuses on Ps 25) and ‘gratitude about hope’ (here his focus is on Ps 103), through experiences which raise urgent questions about God’s ḥesed (pp196-199). So he identifies Ps 73 as the pivotal psalm in the theological structure of Psalms. 

8          Other approaches

A quite different sort of attempt to explain the order and shape of Psalms has been made on the basis of its alleged ancient use in a triennial cycle of Torah readings in the synagogue. The thesis was that there were 150 weekly portions of Torah, each of which had its own accompanying psalm. The consensus view, however, is that there is no evidence to support the various theories which have attempted to make this case (Day: 110 and Wilson 1986: 85). 

There have also been developments since Anderson’s 1972 commentary on what might be called the ‘logistic’ rather than the ‘theological’ aspects of this question, and these centre on Qumran. Qumran has supplied what look like different ‘collections’ of the canonical psalms. The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible notes that there are ‘five different arrangements evident in the Psalms scrolls’ at Qumran: the 150 psalm arrangement known to us, that of 11QPsa and three ‘smaller’ ones (Abegg etc: 507-508). From this it appears that Books 1-3 of Psalms were ‘all present and correct’ at Qumran in their present canonical order, but the same cannot be said of Books 4 and 5. And the very existence of these different arrangements at Qumran adds further data and further complexity to the attempt to establish the processes by which the collection as we have it reached its final form.

9          A gently sceptical conclusion

The activity of reading Psalms as one book is alive and well and the discussions this rather counter-intuitive practice has generated have been lively and promise to continue to be so. It is very much a work in progress. It seems to me, however, that there is room for three cautionary notes:

  • because human beings are inveterate makers of meaning it is possible, with imagination, to find patterns in any disparate collection of texts,
  • it is not always clear that this debate is sufficiently alert to the distinction between what readers read, what is present in the text and what writers or editors intend. Are the ‘structural facts’ on which so much of this debate hangs, from the presence of ‘royal’ psalms at the ‘seams’ to verbal details, really those of the text itself and/or its editors or are they the ‘readings of readers’?  
  • fully aware of the debate, Goldingay baldly states that ‘The Psalter does not work like Genesis or Isaiah’ (Psalms  vol 1: 37), and while that may be putting it too dogmatically, his quotes from the Midrash on Psalms on Ps 3 give food for thought,

As to the exact order of David’s Psalms, Scripture says elsewhere: Man knoweth not the order thereof (Job 28.13). R. Eleazar taught: The sections of Scripture are not arranged in their proper order. For if they were arranged in their proper order, and any man so read them, he would be able to resurrect the dead and perform other miracles. For this reason the proper order of the sections of Scripture is hidden from mortals and is known only to the Holy One, blessed be He, who said: ‘Who, as I, can read and declare it, and set it in order’ (Isa. 44.7).

When R. Joshua ben Levi sought to arrange the Psalms in their proper order, a heavenly voice came forth and commanded: ‘Do not rouse that which slumbers’. 


Abegg M, Flint P & Ulrich E (1999) The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco
Anderson A A (1972) Psalms, London: Oliphants – New Century Bible (2 vols)
Childs B S (1979) Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, London: SCM
Curtis A (2004) Psalms, Peterborough: Epworth 
Dawes S B (2010) SCM Studyguide to the Psalms, London: SCM
Day J (1990) Psalms: Old Testament Guides, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press 
Goldingay J (2006) Psalms, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 3 vols
Howard D ‘The Psalms and Current Study’ in Johnston P S & Firth D G (eds) (2005) Interpreting the Psalms: Issues and Approaches, Leicester: Apollos, pp23-40
McCann J C ‘The Book of Psalms’ in The New Interpreters Bible (1993-2002, various editors, Nashville: Abingdon), vol 4, pp641-1280
Mitchell D C (1997) The Message of the Psalter: An Eschatological Programme in the Book of Psalms, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press
Mitchell D C (2006) ‘Lord, remember David: G H Wilson and the Message of the Psalter’ in Vetus Testamentum vol LVI, no 4, pp526-548
Westermann C (1981) Praise and Lament in the Psalms, Edinburgh: T & T Clark
Whybray N (1996) Reading the Psalms as a Book, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press
Wilson G H (1985) The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter, Chico: Scholars Press
Wilson G H ‘The Structure of the Psalter’ in Johnston P S & Firth D G (eds) (2005) Interpreting the Psalms: Issues and Approaches, Leicester: Apollos, pp229-246


Sarum session 10          Wednesday 3.30-5

Voicing Justice – and exegesis of Ps 72

Justice, Judge, Judgement etc

When we read, especially in the OT, that God is ‘just’ or our ‘judge’ etc, the impression we can have is that he is hard and cold, demanding and judgmental.  This is a far cry from the meanings of these words in the OT.  The usual Hebrew root for ‘judge/justice’ belongs to the legal language of the OT.  Its singular noun form is used for a particular law or for a legal ruling, a judgement given by a judge, and so can be translated as ‘ordinance’ or ‘judgement’ in many places.  It can also be used to mean ‘justice’ in the abstract.  It is often closely linked with ‘righteousness’ (eg in Isa 5:7 and Amos 5:24) which is another great and warm OT word which is seriously misunderstood in later Christianity.  God is pictured as the king, who ‘judges the world with righteousness’ seen (Pss 9.8, 96.13, 97.2, 98.9).  The king in Jerusalem is God's anointed son, who needs God's justice and righteousness in order to promote the welfare of the people and protect the poor (Ps 72.1-2).

These days we hear a lot of talk about justice.  It is one of the ‘in’ words of the church and very often we hear statements about the church needing to be on the side of justice or work for justice.  Most of us would nod our approval if someone was saying that God is a God of justice.  But if someone was to say that God is a God of judgement, then our feelings might be different.  If God is a God of judgement, or if he is judge, we might begin to see pictures of the Last Judgement, of heaven and hell, of punishment meted out by an angry God.  So for us ‘justice’ and ‘judgement’ have quite different connotations, one good, one bad, but for the OT they are the same, and the OT meaning is much more like the positive meaning we give to ‘justice’ than the negative one we give to ‘judgement’.

What then is justice?  There is an ambiguity about words like ‘justice’ and ‘judge’.  If we think of the law and the courtroom, justice is an abstract, impartial norm.  In the courtroom the judge must ‘impartially and indifferently minister justice’ in the quaint phraseology of BCP.  The judge does not allow personal feelings to intrude, everyone has to be treated equally under the law and it is the judge's job to ensure that the scales of justice are evenly balanced.  If the accused is found guilty, the punishment must fit the crime, so that the balance of justice is restored.  When we apply that idea to God, as we are accustomed to do from all the images in the Bible of the Last Judgement and so on, we see a stern and forbidding figure carefully reckoning up our deeds and our misdeeds.  The NT makes the picture even worse by talking about Jesus as the one who ‘intercedes’ for us, pleading for clemency and trying to convince the judge that there are mitigating circumstances.  And then therew’s the way that contemporary Christian atonement theory puts justice and mercy as opposites – God’s justice has to be satisfied before his mercy can operate – ‘two sides of the same coin’ – whereas in the OT they are not opposites at all but simply different words for the same side of the coin!  The Bible does talk about God as judge and about Jesus interceding for us, but the picture I have just sketched out is not what the Bible means when it talks about judges and justice.  We picture it in this way from our western view of justice, which comes ultimately from Roman law, and apply those foreign ideas to God.  The OT does not at all understand justice in this way.

The best way to understand what the OT means by justice, whether it is the justice of God or the justice expected to be seen in personal and social life, is to take the cue from the Book of Judges.  Who or what were the ‘Judges’ after which that book is named?  They were certainly not impartial courtroom administrators or lawyers, though some of them did sometimes preside over village courts and make rulings (eg Deborah, Judges 4.4-5).  Rather they were freedom fighters raised up and empowered by God's spirit to deliver his people in times of oppression and crisis, the prophetess Deborah no less than the others.  In fact a better title for the book which talks about them would be ‘The Book of the Deliverers/Liberators/Saviours’.  These mighty men, and in one case a mighty woman, were those who saved and delivered God's people from their enemies, restoring the shalom which was God's will for his people.  In a nutshell that is what the OT means by justice: the restoration and then the maintenance of harmony and well-being, of righteousness, of shalom.  Therefore to say that God is ‘just’ or to picture him as ‘judge’ is to say that he is a saving God, active in seeking, restoring and promoting the total well-being of his people.  He is the one who puts his people right.  That is ‘justice’ in its wider sense.

In ancient Israel, as with us, justice has a narrower sense as well.  The narrower sense is the legal one, in that justice is a term from the legal vocabulary and refers to the ideals for which the whole legal system exists.  The courts exist to promote the health of society, restoring its equilibrium by punishing wrongdoing, and providing the opportunity for individuals to have their rights restored when they had been somehow or another violated.  In Israel there were simple family ‘courts’, in that the head of the family or clan was held to be responsible for the behaviour of his family, and had to arbitrate in family disputes.  There were local courts, ‘in the gate’, which was their equivalent to our town squares or village greens, where the elders of the town or village met to set things to rights.  There were courts of appeal in the presence of the local prophet or priest, like Deborah, and if the worse came to the worst before the king himself, where disputants who could not otherwise agree submitted to an independent arbitration.  We know from frequent references that all of this was easily abused and open to corruption.  Their rules of evidence were very different from ours, and so were their sanctions.  There was no real prison system: for there seems to have been the unwritten but accurate assumption that prison usually helps neither offender, victim nor society.  For justice to be done the victims were to be compensated for their losses or injuries, the offenders were to be made to see the errors of their ways and to mend them, paying compensation to their victims, and society was to have its harmony restored so that everyone could play their proper useful role.  The system was designed to restore right relationships all round, and the word ‘justice’ even in the narrower setting of the legal system means the restoring of right relationships.

What this adds up to is that in the OT, ‘justice, ‘judge’ and their cognates are warm words about the active care and redeeming grace of God.  If a Rabbi leans over her pulpit and wags her finger at the congregation, telling them that God will judge them, those in the pews relax and say, ‘Thank goodness for that’.  That is not the response Christian hell-fire preachers want or expect when they do it!  So let’s listen to the rabbi who knows her Hebrew Bible.


Borg M J (2011) Speaking Christian, London: SPCK, chapter 12
Dawes S B Let us bless the Lord: rediscovering the OT through Ps 103 (Kindle or www.stephendawes.com), chapter 3


Sarum session 11          Thursday 9.30-11

‘Reception History’ – especially Psalms in the NT

1          ‘Reception History’

The latest addition to Psalms study is ‘Reception History’ (or Recepzionsgeschichte or Wirkungsgeschichte). This quote from the Series Editors’ Preface to the newly appearing Blackwell Bible Commentaries, ‘the first series to be devoted primarily to the reception history of the Bible’, justifies the series and Reception History itself like this,

how people have interpreted, and been influenced by, a sacred text like the Bible is often as interesting and historically important as what it originally meant (Gillingham: xi). 

A Reception History of Psalms, therefore, looks at how Psalms has been read and used over the millennia and explores its 

influence on literature, art, music and film, its role in the evolution of religious beliefs and practices, and its impact on social and political developments (Gillingham:  xi).

The titles of two other books are also helpful in explaining this new area of study: The Psalms through Three Thousand Years (William Holladay, 1993) and Psalms in Community: Jewish and Christian Textual, Liturgical and Artistic Traditions (Attridge and Fassler, 2003). In something completely different (The Bible for Dummies) Geoghegan and Homan set out the scope of this investigation in the titles of their two chapters in Part V, ‘That was Then, This is Now: Discovering the Bible’s Enduring Influence’, which are ‘The Bible in the Abrahamic Faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam’ and ‘Michelangelo, Milton and Movies: Art, Literature, Life and the Bible’. Finally, the publisher’s blurb for the new multi-volume Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception (‘EBR’) puts it like this and promises much,

EBR also documents the history of the Bible’s reception in the Christian churches and the Jewish Diaspora; in literature, art, music, and film; in Islam, as well as in other religious traditions and current religious movements, Western and non-Western alike. 

The scope of this new project is obviously enormous, and in welcoming it, it would be wrong to suggest that no one took any academic notice of the use of Psalms or psalms over the centuries before Reception History arrived on the scene. There were Church Historians who took an interest in different aspects of the production, translation, promotion, interpretation and use of the Bible, as evidenced in the variety of chapters and concerns in the three volumes of The Cambridge History of the Bible (published in 1970, 1963 and 1969 respectively). There was also interest shown in university Departments of English Literature, as can be seen in the index of the 2009 Blackwell Companion to the Bible in English Literature, or by historians of music or art, as in Leveen’s The Hebrew Bible in Art (1944): but few OT scholars would have gone there, except possibly as a hobby. A book which both Hunter and Gillingham identify as a lonely forerunner of this new interest rather proves the point. Rowland Prothero’s 1903, The Psalms in Human Life, which illustrates how psalms are ‘inextricably mingled’ with national and private life, and celebrates their place in the spiritual life of people from the infancy of Christianity to the Boer War, was not written by a professional biblical scholar but by a ‘learned Victorian’. It leaves an important impression, but soon becomes something of a tedious read lightened only by the occasional gem. 

2          Sue Gillingham’s Blackwell Commentary

An outline of Gillingham’s approach will help us to see the parameters and possibilities of this young discipline. In volume 1 of the two volumes on Psalms in the new Blackwell series, she approaches the task by looking generally at how Psalms has been used in different periods. In volume 2 she promises a look at the reception history of each psalm. At the outset she regrets that her commentary has the drawback of being a ‘word-centred’ survey and one which inevitably illustrates her own ‘particularity’ (Gillingham: 1). It is also, it must be said, a commentary which is almost entirely confined to the reception history of Psalms in Judaism and Christianity. Volume 1 divides its survey into six periods, with a chapter on each:

  • the eleventh century BCE to the fifth century CE,
  • the fifth to the eleventh centuries,
  • the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries,
  • the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries,
  • the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and
  • the twentieth to twenty-first centuries.

Gillingham notes that each of these different periods will ‘suggest different changes of emphasis in the reception of psalmody in both Jewish and Christian traditions’ (Gillingham: 2), and so she lists five different ‘types of reception history’:

  • reception through exposition, which focuses on how psalms are explained in commentaries and their like,
  • reception through instruction, which looks at how the moral and spiritual teaching of psalms is applied in sermons or devotional literature,
  • reception through liturgy, which considers how psalms feature in public worship and private prayer,
  • reception through translation, which explores what happens to psalms in translations ancient and modern,
  • reception through aesthetic representation, which discusses the use of psalms in literature, music, architecture and art.

Given that the possibilities of this area are almost literally boundless, we will look at one of the earliest examples of ‘reception by exposition’ and a brief look at contemporary reception.

3          Psalms in the NT

Christianity began its life as a ‘messianic Jewish sect’ and in its preaching, teaching and writing used the conventions for interpreting ‘Scripture’ already in use in such movements, such as can be seen in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Gillingham explains and summarizes this approach by calling it ‘prophetic’ (Gillingham: 14-23). In this way of reading old texts, readers in a new context move beyond the original sense of the passage and reapply it to their new situation. The classic OT prophets, for example, are transformed in this rereading from preachers and spokespeople who announce God’s will to their contemporaries, often with a warning or threat about what will happen pretty soon if those contemporaries don’t mend their ways, or a promise that better days are about to dawn because God has listened to their cries for help, into predictors of a much further-away future, namely, the time in which the interpreter is living. The principle of interpretation at work is that old texts mean more than might have been understood by their first speakers or authors and by their original readers or hearers, as we see in the Habakkuk commentary from Qumran. You can hardly open the NT before you see Matthew using old texts in this way, and the practice is endemic in the NT where Psalms and Isaiah are the OT books most extensively mined for new, messianic, meanings and applications. About one-third of the OT quotations in the NT are from Psalms, and among them Pss 2, 22, 69, 110 and 118 are ‘particularly important’ (Day: 137). Steve Moyise, The Old Testament in the New, offers access to this area in an opening chapter headed ‘Text and Interpretation in the First Century’ followed by chapters headed, ‘The Old Testament in Mark’ and ‘Paul’ and so on. The Psalms in the New Testament, edited by Moyise and M J J Menken, begins with an introductory chapter on ‘The Psalms in Early Jewish Literature in the Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls’ (by G J Brooke) before detailed chapters looking at ‘The Psalms in Mark’s Gospel’ and so on. The New Testament expounds Psalms as a book of future promises now in the process of being fulfilled and of texts about the Messiah. Its psalms are interpreted ‘christologically’ and it is read as a book which points to Jesus Christ, using the reading strategies and methods of interpreting ‘Scripture’ already in use at Qumran. 

4          Some details

Quotes from Psalms are used in NT to establish many things, but among them the messianic status and qualifications of Jesus are prominent. Let’s use Mark (Watts: 25-45):

·         the use of Ps 2.7 at Mk 1.11 and 9.7
·         the use of Ps 118.  Mk 11.9-10 cites v26 and 12.10-11cites vv22-23
·         the use of Ps 110.1 in 12.36 and the allusion to it in 14.62 
·         the pervasive presence of Ps 22 in the Mk 15.24-34: v1 cited in 15.34; v6 alluded to in 15.32; v7 cited in 15.29; v8 alluded to in 15.30-32 and v18 cited in 15.24.   

And here’s something else.  If we look at Mk 12.36-37 or its parallels we see that Jesus says that David wrote Ps 110, which very few academics accept. So what are we to make of this? If Jesus said that David wrote those psalms, does it mean that David wrote those psalms? And, while we’re on, what about the views of Luke and Paul on this topic? Acts 1.16-20 refers to the Holy Spirit speaking through David in Pss 69 and 109, Acts 2.25 to David writing Ps 16 and Acts 4.25 to him writing Ps 2 (which has no Davidic title in the Hebrew Bible, and is the second half of Ps 1 in the Septuagint which has no Davidic heading either). For Paul, reference can be made to Rom 4.6 citing David as author of Ps 32 and 11.9 about Ps 69. And finally, Heb 4.7 follows the Septuagint and cites David as the author of Ps 95 which is unattributed in the Hebrew Bible. Just how tied are we to these ancient, authoritative, although wrong, ideas? 

5          Psalms today?

Finally, what of today? Gillingham’s last chapter mentions the four big names we have met throughout this course (Gunkel, Mowinckel, Westermann and Brueggemann) together with many more, including Alter, Berlin, Eaton and Wilson. The academic ‘reception’ of Psalms, in its many forms, is an important facet of the whole. It is, however, far from the only one. 

One of the biggest revolutions in Biblical study in the last thirty years, or as we might put it in the context of this chapter, one of the most interesting new areas of the reception of the Bible in this period, has been in the way in which the Bible has been read and used by people at the margin. The first ‘voices from the margin’, to use the title of Sugirtharajah’s important book, Voices from the Margin:Interpreting the Bible in the Third World, were those of Liberation Theology and of the Feminist writers. In Liberation Theology it was the Exodus narratives which attracted the attention of the poor Christians in the favellas of Rio or Sao Paolo who read them as their story about their God and their freedom. 

Feminist readers of the OT began to discover the hidden women of that patriarchal text and read them back into the narratives from which they had been excluded. After that has come a whole range of ‘interested’ readings, that is, readings of the OT from particular perspectives which consciously and deliberately read with those interests in mind: political readings, green readings, womanist readings, third-world readings, multi-cultural readings, post-colonial readings and queer readings, to name only a few, and there is no sign of the development slowing down. In something of a reaction books are now even advertised as ‘Christian readings’ or ‘theological readings’, prompting one reviewer to comment wryly that after reading one such ‘theological reading’ he felt like that fictional character who suddenly realized that he had been speaking prose all his life. Traditional ‘devotional’ readings continue to be written too, of course. Another contemporary feature is that dialogue between different Faith communities is opening up new possibilities of sharing insights on the Bible from different Faith perspectives. 

Gillingham’s conclusion, however, that ‘feminist studies of psalmody are very much in their infancy’ (Gillingham: 284) applies much more widely, for readings of Psalms feature relatively little so far in this rich variety of ‘interested readings’, with the exception, as one would expect, of those ‘spiritual’ or ‘devotional’ readings. The entries on Psalms in the Women’s Bible Commentary (by Kathleen Farmer), The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary (by Gwyneth Raikes) and the Global Bible Commentary (by David Tuesday Adamo) are good ways into two of these ‘interested’ readings, and all three will alert white western Christian ‘male’ readers (who are not, of course, all men) to the very different messages and meanings that are obtainable from Psalms when that book is read from another place. Adamo’s ‘therapeutic’ reading from his African context, which demonstrates the use of the ‘potent words’ of the psalms to effect cures, is one of the most radically different ‘receptions’ of Psalms that I have encountered and it is very different from what he calls the ‘Eurocentric’ readings of both academia and the colonial Church, among which, without doubt, he would include the feminist readings of Farmer and Raikes. 

6          Concluding reflection

This area is very much a work in progress:

  • Its archaeological aspect, unearthing ancient usages of psalms, especially esoteric ones in exotic places, will always fascinate. 
  • Updating Prothero’s agenda of seeing how psalms have been used in the ‘devotional lives’ of the great and good, and of the not-so-great but often better, will also be of value to those who are interested in how spirituality and religion affect human lives, either for good or ill. 
  • Observing how psalms are read in different cultures and contexts will always be of interest to those who want to understand the worlds in which other people live and learn lessons from them. 
  • Moving the study of psalms beyond words into the areas of music, art, dance, liturgy or drama will have real appeal to many.
  • But this new development in Psalms study has a sharp edge to it. It is not simply an interesting exercise in historical research or cultural studies for those who like that sort of thing. Its historical observations and its recognition of the modern ‘democratization’ of Psalms with its plethora of readings, alert us to those big ‘hermeneutical’ questions which diversities of readings inevitable raise. Are we condemned by our observation of how Psalms has been read over the centuries to conclude that all readings, including those we label ‘academic’ and ‘critical’, are provisional, constrained by culture, circumstance and interest, and condemned to be seen as such by those who come later? If so, is this a bad thing, or a good one? Or neither, just the way it is? 


Adamo D T ‘Psalms’ in Patte D (ed) (2004), Global Bible Commentary, Nashville: Abingdon, pp151-162
Attridge H W & Fassler M E (eds) (2003) Psalms in Community: Jewish and Christian Textual, Liturgical and Artistic Traditions, Leiden: Brill 
Dawes S B (2010) SCM Studyguide to the Psalms, London: SCM
Day J (1990) Psalms: OT Guides, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press
Farmer K A ‘Psalms’ in Newsom C A & Ringe S H (eds) (1992/8) Women’s Bible Commentary, Louisville: WJK, pp145-152
Geoghegan J & Homan M (2002) The Bible for Dummies, New York: Wiley
Gillingham S E (2008) Psalms through the Centuries, Oxford: Blackwell (2 vols)
Holladay W L (1993) The Psalms through Three Thousand Years, Minneapolis: Fortress
Moyise S (2001) The Old Testament in the New, London: Continuum
Moyise S & Menken M J J (2004) The Psalms in the New Testament, London: Continuum
Prothero R E (1903) The Psalms in Human Life, London: Thomas Nelson (various editions since)
Raikes G ‘Psalms’ in Kroeger C C & Evans M J (eds) (2001) The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary, Leicester: IVP
Sugirtharajah R S (ed) (new ed 1995) Voices from the Margin, New York: Orbis and London: SPCK
Watts R ‘The Psalms in Mark’s Gospel’ in Moyise S & Menken M J J (2004) The Psalms in the New Testament, London: Continuum


Sarum session 12          Thursday 1.30-12.45

The heart of it all? – and exegesis of Ps 103

The OT and its God has had (Marcion) and does have (Dawkins) an image problem, and with some justification.

Against all its savagery (understandable in its context, of course, it is an ancient and alien text), however, should be placed its sublimity, as in its ‘Core Creed’, 

The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation (or ‘for thousands’) forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation’ (Ex 34.6-7, NRSV).

Brueggemann cites this snippet as Israel’s credo of adjectives and as God’s ‘self-disclosure’ which is fundamental to Israel’s ‘daring vocabulary’ in the Psalms (Brueggemann 1997: 215-218; 1995: 45-49). Other commentators call these verses a ‘formula’ or ‘confessional formula’ and Hunter refers to it as ‘… the famous benediction enunciated most fully in Ex 34.6-7’ (Hunter: 121). In Judaism this passage is called ‘Thirteen Middot (attributes) of God’ and is used in synagogue worship on special holy days. Its age and origin are contested but it does appear to be something of a mini-creed which crops up in various places in the Old Testament and which echoes in many more. The wording varies and Ex 34.6-7 is the fullest. The others are Num 14.18; Pss 86.15, 103.8, 111.4 and 145.8; Joel 2.13; Jonah 4.2; Nahum 1.3; Neh 9.17 (cf verse 31) and 2 Chron 30.9. It also appears in a psalm from Qumran,

I know, O Lord, that Thou art merciful and compassionate, long-suffering and rich in grace and truth, pardoning transgression and sin. Thou repentest of evil against them that love Thee, and keep Thy commandments, that return to thee with faith and wholeness of heart (1QH8 lines 16f).

At Ex 34 this formula is set in the Exodus stories, and in most of the other eleven occurrences there is a reference to the exodus nearby. This formula, therefore, seems to be very near to the heart of what the editors of the Old Testament understood about their God. Apart from its rather obscure introduction (who is doing the proclaiming and to whom?) the only translation issue is whether God’s ḥesed is kept ‘for thousands’, which is the literal translation, or ‘for/to the thousandth generation’, which is the traditional Jewish interpretation followed by NRSV and NJPS. This ‘core creed’ notes that God is ‘slow to anger’ and Ps 103.8 that ‘he will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger for ever’, understanding that God's anger is a sign that he takes sin and evil seriously, hating their devastating effects on human life and the life of the world. It is not however, in the psalm or the ‘core creed’ his last or greatest word, for that lies with his committed, powerful, ‘saving’ and restoring ‘love’. 

See my ‘Let us Bless the Lord: rediscovering the OT through Ps 103’ from my website or Kindle.


Brueggemann W (1995) The Psalms and the Life of Faith, ed P D Miller, Minneapolis: Fortress  
Brueggemann W (1997) Theology of the Old Testament, Minneapolis: Fortress
Dawes S B (Kindle or www.stephendawes.com) Let us bless the Lord: rediscovering the OT through Ps 103, chapter 3, ‘A God of Forgiveness’
Dawes S B (2010) SCM Studyguide to the Psalms, London: SCM
Hunter A G (2008) An Introduction to the Psalms, London: T & T Clark, Continuum


19 Reading Deutero-Isaiah

These are the notes I supplied to and used for the second year of an invited 'graduate Bible Study group' which met monthly during the winter of 2011-2012.

Session 1  Introduction and Focus text Isa 40

Session 2  Isa 40.12-31  The Incomparable God - ‘To whom then will you compare me?’ (40.25)  cf 42.5-9, 44.6-28, 45.5-8, 46.1-13

Session 3 Isa 45.1-4 & 42.10-25 ‘Strong Deliverer’ - The LORD goes forth like a soldier’ (42.13) cf 41.1-16, 47.1-15, 51.9-11

Session 4 Isa 43.1-7 & 41.17-20  ‘Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven’ - ‘The Holy One of Israel – your Saviour’ (43.3) cf 44.1-5,     49.7-26, 51.1-8, 51.12-16

Session 5 Isa 43.8-28 Blind, deaf and disputatious! - ‘Accuse me, let us go to trial’ (43.26) cf 41.21-29, 45.9-25, 48.1-22, 50.1-3

Session 6 Isa 52.13-53.12 The Servant of the LORD cf 42.1-4, 49.1-6, 50.4-9

Session 7 Isa 55.1-13 The New Jerusalem cf 51.17-52.12, 54.1-17


Web resources:

There are huge net resources available via www.textweek.com .  Go there and click on ‘Index by Scripture’ which then opens up a page where you click on ‘Isaiah’ (or James or Amos or whatever), then when that opens click on   ‘general resources’ just under the book heading and it opens pages with piles of stuff on the book you want to explore.  Use the resources with discretion, of course, but this site is a gem

The OT equivalent to the usually excellent www.ntgateway.com (www.otgateway.com) is not particularly good

Commentaries etc:

Brueggemann W (1986) Hopeful Imagination – Prophetic Voices in Exile, London: SCM part 3
Brueggemann W (1998) Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: WJK, Westminster Bible Companion series, as good as you would expect
Childs B S (2001) Isaiah, Louisville: Fortress, Old Testament Library Commentary is a major, solid, ‘final-form’ commentary with hints of Childs’ ‘canonical-critical’ agenda
Coggins R W, ‘Isaiah’ in Barton J & Muddiman J (eds) (2001) The Oxford Bible Commentary, Oxford: OUP, pp464-478 – the introductory section on pp464f is important
Conrad E W (1991) Reading Isaiah, Minneapolis: Fortress is another one of the early attempts to read Isaiah 1-66 as a single book
Goldingay J (2009) Isaiah, Peabody: Hendrickson/Carlisle: Paternoster, New International Biblical Commentary
Hanson P D (1995) Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, Interpretation – a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching series
Jones D R ‘Isaiah ll and lll’ in Black M & Rowley H H (eds) (1962) Peake’s Commentary on the Bible, London: Nelson pp516-529
Knight G A F (1984) Isaiah 40-55 – Servant Theology, Edinburgh: Handsel, International Theological Commentary is a traditional commentary from a conservative scholar
North C R (1964) The Second Isaiah, Oxford: Clarendon is a classic commentary from the old Historical-Critical method
Oswalt J N (1998) The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, New International Commentary on the Old Testament
Quinn-Mascall P D (2001) Reading Isaiah – Poetry and Vision, Louisville: WJK is one of the later ones and focuses especially on its poetry and vision, as the subtitle indicates
Sawyer J F A (1984) Isaiah, Edinburgh: St Andrew Press, The Daily Study Bible, 2 vols, one of the earliest readings of Isaiah as a single book
Sawyer J F A (1996) The Fifth Gospel – Isaiah in the History of Christianity, Cambridge: CUP is an important book
Sommer B D, ‘Isaiah’ in Berlin A & Brettler M Z (eds) (2004) The Jewish Study Bible, Oxford: OUP pp780-916
Watts J D W (1987) Isaiah 34-66, Waco: Word Books, Word Biblical Commentary no 25: solid, traditional, conservative and important
Whybray R N (1975) Isaiah 40-66, various publishers in the New Century Bible series.  One of the best of the historical-critical commentaries
Whybray R N (1983) The Second Isaiah – OT Guide, Sheffield: JSOT Press.  This important series sponsored by SOTS is now being updated

1                 Session 1 Introduction and 40.1-31

1          Introduction

·         The ‘assured results’ of the Historical-Critical Method vis-à-vis ‘Deutero-Isaiah’ are no longer ‘assured’ and scholarship has moved on
·         The 3 (or possibly only 2) books/prophets/contexts in Isaiah which had become standard and commonplace by the beginning of the 20th century is no longer the broadly-accepted scholarly view
·         Since the 1980s and the arrival of ‘final-form’ and a renewed literary approach towards OT books, it has become usual to recognise that Isaiah can profitably be read as a single book
·         This does NOT mean, however, that scholarship now regards all of Isaiah as the work of one author, eg ‘Isaiah of Jerusalem’.  Rather, we now recognise that the book is composite, that the ‘archaeology’ of its text is complex (and not very important unless you are one of those people particularly interested in such things) and that the final-form of the book is a coherent read
·         At the same time, we recognise that it is possible to divide the book into meaningful sections, one of which is Isa 40-55 (or possibly two of which are Isa 40-49 and 49-57).  The introductions by Coggins in OCB headed (Chs 40-55) on pp464f and (Chs 49-55) on p473 are excellent here
·         Chapters 40-48 present ‘good news’ (Heb verb basar) and the prophet acts as an evangelist announcing it.  The good news is, in the first instance, that of the end of exile and the return to Judah: but in the wider context it is good news about God – what he is like and what he does.  (‘It is buoyant literature of hope exquisitely expressed’ Brueggemann 1986:90).  Chapters 49-55 (or 49-57) are more polemical.  The return has taken place but faithful living in it is not to everyone’s taste and the prophet’s words change from encouragement to challenge
·         With the exception of 44.9-20 and 52.3-6, Isa 40-55 is written in poetic form with all the usual poetic features of parallelism, terseness and rich imagery

2          Isa 40 follows Isa 39 - a fact frequently overlooked when we used to concentrate on Isa 40-55 (or 66) as a stand-alone book.  Isa 39 is almost verbatim 2 Kings 20.12-19.  The effect (editorial intention?) is to move the book of Isaiah on from the 8th century context of Hezekiah and the deliverance of Jerusalem to the 6th century context of the city’s destruction.  The dramatic, rich and memorable poetry of Isa 40 follows the prose of Isa 39

3          Isa 40 contains all the main themes of chapters 40-48, and in it we hear a variety of voices:

vv1-2              God addresses either the members of the Heavenly Council or of the Assembly of Prophets – note that the four imperatives (NRSV ‘comfort’ (x2), ‘speak’ and ‘cry’ are all plural)

vv3-5              In response to the instruction given in vv1-2, a first voice makes an announcement about getting ready to receive God’s arrival

v6a                  A second voice commands the prophet who will be the speaker/author of the book to ‘cry out’ (‘proclaim’)

v6b                  Said prophet asks what he is to proclaim

vv6c-11          The second voice replies and tells him what he is to proclaim.  The meaning of the message is clear enough and the only tricky translation issue concerns Zion/Jerusalem in v9:

·         NRSV (+ RSV, NKJV, GNB) personifies the prophet as Z/J, maybe metaphorically as the authentic Z/J (‘O Z/J’)
·         NJPS (+ NIV, TNIV, REB + LXX + Targum + Vulgate) interprets Z/J as the addressee of the prophet’s proclamation (‘herald of joy to Z/J’)
·         NJB offers another possibility which is a variant of this (‘messenger of Z/J’)

[The problem is that the verb here (‘announcing good news’) is the feminine form of the participle.  The previous imperatives are all in the masculine form and the only grammatically feminine words hereabouts are the two cities.  Therefore NRSV etc argue that they must be the grammatical subject of the participle forms.  Elsewhere, however, the good news is announced to Zion (41.27, 52.7) and the other translation (which makes the most sense in the context of 40.9 anyway) assumes that here regardless of the grammatical issue]

vv12-24          The prophet speaks about the incomparable God and satirizes his competitor idols

v25                  Another voice sums up and repeats the challenge, speaking  in the name of God in the first person

vv26-31          The prophet continues his challenge and offers encouragement


2                 Session 2     40.12-31    The Incomparable God - ‘To whom then will you compare me?’ (40.25) cf 42.5-9, 44.6-28, 45.5-8, 46.1-13

1  DI is noted for two things and they are both obvious in 40.12-31:

·         DI is the high-point of the OT’s teaching about the uniqueness and incomparability of God – it contains the OT’s boldest and clearest statement of monotheism
·         DI also contains some of the OT’s cheapest attacks on other theisms (both polytheism and henotheism) – caricaturing them in the crudest of ways as ‘idols’ and idolatry

2  Isa 40.12-31 exposition

a.         40.12-17.  YHWH is the incomparable God:

·         supreme in the cosmos (v12)

OT cosmology – the three-tier universe encircled by the waters


While there might be links between the imagery in 40.12 and the first two OT creation pictures in Gen 1 & 2 (waters, heaven(s), dust) DI omits (strangely in the light of 40.8 and 55.11?) any idea of Gen 1’s ‘creation by God’s powerful word’ and instead uses metaphors taken from craftsmanship (measure, mark out, enclose, weigh)

·         unequalled in wisdom (vv13-14)

There are possible links here with the 4th OT creation picture, creation as ‘Wisdom’s Playground’ (Prov 8.22-31, Job 28.20-28 & Job 28-31).  Behind this verse too lies the combative motto of the OT Wisdom literature that ‘the fear of the LORD is the beginning of Wisdom’, ie Wisdom is no autonomous agent equal to or alongside God.  Note also the correct lower-case ‘s’ on ‘spirit’ in NRSV, NJB & REB (but not AV, RSV & NIV/TNIV) and the rather unusual association of spirit and wisdom here – which might be why NJPS translates ruah here as ‘mind’ (f/n in NIV/TNIV).  It is ‘mind’ in LXX but NJPS does not usually prefer LXX translations to the usual Hebrew ones

·         unequalled in power (vv15, 17)

‘The nations’ here can be taken literally, so DI is deliberately snubbing Israel’s Babylonian captors as well as hinting that the rising star of Cyrus and Persia are not in control of world events but servants of YHWH who is the only one who controls such things.  There is also another meaning here, however, which is the monotheistic one - that the older idea that each nation has its own national god(s) and that YHWH is Israel’s national god (cf Deut 32.8) is wrong: YHWH is the only God there is.  It is not simply that the other nations are ‘less than nothing and emptiness’ but that their alleged gods are too!

·         liturgically  insatiable (if you’re daft enough to think that gods can be bought that way – as idolaters do, of course!) (v16)

This is the first example of DI’s crude caricaturing of other gods and the theology of other nations (see 3 below)

b.         40.18-20        Idols are a complete nonsense – opening gambit

We have already seen that asking challenging questions beginning ‘Who …’ is a feature of DI’s style (40.12, 13, 14) and we’ll come across it often.  v18 is a recurring rhetorical question in DI (see 40.25, 41.4, 44.7, 45.21, 46.5).  In addition to introducing the first of DI’s scornful attacks on idols, it can also stand as the key theological statement in the book – that God (ie YWWH) is incomparable

Compared with what comes later the satire in vv19-20 is mild, but following v12 it is powerful.  God is the craftsman who crafted the world (which includes, though they are so small as not even to be mentioned here, human beings) and human craftsmen craft idols (out of the natural resources provided by the true God, of course) – QED idols are created by created people – and how much less significant can you get than that?

c.         40.21-31        YHWH is the incomparable God (again)

·         v21  another direct and pointed question
·         v22  the cosmological argument again
·         vv23-24  the ‘unequalled in power’ argument again, this time the point is about God’s control of the political processes
·         v25 that key rhetorical question again
·         v26 back to the cosmological argument
·         v27 gives us one of the key reasons for the book.  The Exile had raised acute questions about Israel’s God and had produced vocal equivalents to our Richard Dawkins.  In the popular theology of the time, the destruction of Jerusalem etc had called into question YHWH’s sovereignty and his power, showing him to be, at best, inferior to the gods of Babylon.  In this opening chapter DI challenges that view and boldly reasserts the supremacy of YHWH.  This in turn leads the people to ask another question (v27b) – Why then are we still here?  If YHWH is incomparable in power, why has he not done anything for us, his people?  Why is he ignoring us?
·         vv28-31 the good-news message of DI in a nutshell

3  For the crudeness of the juxtaposition of the sublime and the scurrilous in DI see:

Images of God                                                          Polemic against idols

40.12-17                                                                    40.18-20

God is the maker of all / idols are made with hands

40.25-26 + 41.2-4 + 41.17-20                                 41.6-7 + 41.21-24

God knows the future / idols know nothing

44.1-8                                                                         44.9-20

God is potent / idols are impotent

45.1-9                                                                         45.20-46:7

God carries humanity / idols are carried by humanity

This contrast – which functions to point up YHWH as the only God – to whom no other god compares (hence the refrain of 40.18, 40.25, 44.7, 46.5) dominates Isa 40-47.  It is not, however, found in 48-55 which focuses on YHWH as Israel’s ‘redeemer.’  This rhetoric or polemic of contrast has an important role in the book in making the case that though idols are expensive to produce, maintain and service, they have no cash value, they cannot deliver a product, they cannot ‘save’.  On the other hand, YHWH not only ‘saves’ but does so for free (55.1-2)

4  A brief history of ideas about God in Israel looks like this (extracted from ‘Changing ideas about God’ in my SCM Studyguide: The Psalms pp165-170)

‘Who is like YHWH our God? (Ps 113.5)

‘I am YHWH your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before (or ‘besides’) me’ (Ex 20.2–3; Deut 5.6–7)

‘Ancient Israel’ lived in a world of many Faiths, local and international. It is also true that its own understandings of them and of its own god or gods developed over the centuries. Among those who are prepared to admit this, it is generally agreed that ancient Israel’s perspectives on ‘other Faiths’ and on the nature of its own god or gods developed from polytheism to monotheism via a recognizable intermediate position. It is also agreed that it is mistaken to think that this was either a co-ordinated or a smooth process

Israel’s earliest understandings of God are lost in history, but there is little reason to think that they were anything other than polytheistic; that Israel worshipped a variety of gods and saw their gods as some among many. That is not, of course, how the story is told in the OT, but it is now widely held that other gods were worshipped by ancient Israelites alongside YHWH and that evidence for this is found in the OT itself. It is suggested that the names of some of these other gods remain as alternative names for YHWH, eg ‘the God of Abraham’ (Ex 3.16), ‘the Fear of Isaac’ (Gen 31.42), ‘God of Bethel’, ’el ’elyon (‘God Most High’) and ’el šaddai‘. But there is also something else

The Bible was, to put it crudely but none the less accurately, written, edited and published by the ‘winners’, in this case the Deuteronomists, the preachers and teachers of Yahwism. Theirs are the views which constitute the orthodox theology of the OT and which are portrayed in it as the Faith and Theology of Ancient Israel. It is natural and inevitable, therefore, to find views of God held by ancient Israelites which did not conform to their views described as heresy or apostasy. For them YHWH is ‘The One’, one in himself and one alone, the only, unique and ‘jealous’ God who will share his divine status with no other. The classic statement of this is in the Shema (Deut 6.4) and the chapters of DI fill it out, poetically and polemically

Even the OT itself, however, admits that this classic position was not arrived at without a struggle. A constant thread in its narrative and a frequent feature in the preaching of its prophets is that the Israelites were greatly attracted by and to the gods and culture of their neighbours. The royal heroes in this struggle, according to the Deuteronomic Historians cum Storytellers, were the reforming kings Hezekiah and Josiah who around 720 BC (see 2 Kings 18.1-8) and 620 BC (see 2 Kings 22-23) respectively purged the nation and the national shrines of the gods and liturgical paraphernalia of what they saw as this alien culture. Hosea is particularly useful in enabling us to see more of this alternative religion and theology with its condemnation of the worship of Baal (‘Lord’, especially the Lord of Storm, Rain and, therefore, of the Harvest: hence the strong polemic in Hos 2.8) in the Northern Kingdom in the mid-8th century BC. Archaeological discoveries have helped us see more of what was happening. Discoveries at Elephantine, a fourth century BC military fort on the Nile at  Aswan garrisoned by Jewish mercenaries and equipped with its own Jewish temple, reveal that a goddess (Anat-Yaho or Anat-Bethel) was worshipped there alongside YHWH. Discoveries at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud in the Sinai and Khirbet el-Qom near Hebron have found references to ‘Yahweh and his Asherah’. Discoveries of ‘Asherah (or Astarte) figurines’ have been made at a number of Israelite sites. The conclusion appears to be that a number of gods identified with different people and places in Israel were worshipped in ancient Israel, some of whom were indigenous to Israel rather than foreign imports, and one of whom was YHWH

The ‘interim position’ is usually called ‘monolatry’ (the worship of only one god) or ‘henotheism’ (from the Greek terms for ‘one’ and ‘god’), though it should be clear by now that any talk of ‘stages’ in this development is problematic. This position asserts that ‘YHWH is Israel’s own and only God who demands its exclusive obedience’ (just as Chemosh of the Moabite Stone was the God of Moab etc). A good story making this point is Joshua’s covenant-making ceremony at Shechem (Josh 24), and the Shema and the First Commandment (Ex 20.2-3; Deut 5:6-7) both express this viewpoint. The question of who will be Israel’s God forms the story line in the Elijah narratives. Deciding that is the purpose of the contest between Elijah as YHWH’s champion and the prophets of Baal which results in a climax of sorts on the summit of Mt. Carmel when the people acclaim YHWH in the words ‘YHWH indeed is God, YHWH indeed is God’ (1 Kings 18.39). More is at stake here than the purity of Israel’s worship or theology. The question of who will be Israel’s only God has an ethical dimension, as seen in the story of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21). If Queen Jezebel and her god succeed here, the story goes, then Israel’s traditions of social justice and equality are finished for the ideology, world view and social system associated with Baal are alien to those of YHWH (cf Ps 81.9-10).  Deut 32.8 fits in here.  In English Bibles which follow the Massoretic text at this point (eg NJPS, AV, RV) there is no hint of the existence of other gods – they talk about the ‘people of Israel’ which translates the Hebrew phrase ‘sons of Israel’.  In NIV/TNIV the possibility appears in a footnote.  But in NRSV, RSV, NJB, REB, NEB GNB and The Message these other gods are there in the text itself (NRSV ‘gods’, REB ‘sons of God’ and NJB somewhat ambiguously ‘children of God’).  GNB puts it like this – ‘He assigned to each nation a heavenly being’ and The Message, ‘He put each of the peoples within boundaries under the care of divine guardians’.  There is no trace of or reason for the ‘gods’ reading in the Hebrew text, so where does it come from?  It is obviously an ancient reading because it is found in LXX (‘the angels of God’ which is LXX’s translation of ‘sons of God’ in Job 1) and in the Dead Sea scroll 4QDeut j (the ‘children (sons) of God’).  Most scholars conclude (which is why it is translated as it is in NRSV etc) that ‘sons of God’ was the original reading, but that this was too much for the Massoretes who produced the final text of the Hebrew Bible in the 7th/8th centuries AD, and so they changed the text from ‘sons of God’ to ‘sons of Israel’.

The final position is that of monotheism, ‘the LORD is God, there is no other’ (Deut. 4.3539). This position is presented most clearly and dogmatically in DI with its repeated insistence on YHWH as the only God (Isa 40.25, 41.4, 42.5-9, 43.8-13, 44.6ff, 44.24, 45.5ff, 45.18f, 46.9 etc) and its scorn of all other so-called gods as idols (eg Isa 40.18-20, 41.6ff, 41.21-24, 44.9-20 cf Ps 135.15-18). This is not, however, the only form of monotheism in the OT because there is that less radical strand which considers YHWH to be the only True God or the Supreme God (eg Ex 15.11; Pss 84.7, 86.8, 95.3 and 97.6-9) which finds places for other divine beings in his Heavenly Council (Ps 82 etc), even if traces of DI’s scorn come into its references to them from time to time (eg Pss 96.4-5, 97.7, 135).  NB this is the ‘official position’ as expressed in the in the canonical and authoritative Scriptures – but that does not mean, of course, that there were not other ideas and practices at local or personal levels of which the synagogue authorities would most certainly have disapproved … 

5  The other passages on this theme (42.5-9, 44.6-28, 45.5-8, 46.1-13)

42.5-9 might or might not be a continuation of the ‘Servant Song’ in 42.1-4.  It continues the ‘incomparable God’ theme by adding the ‘covenant story’ and the promise of return to the cosmological argument.  Not the old/new and former things/new things argument which features significantly in DI

44.6-28 utilises the cosmological argument and develops the promise of return by emphasising that it is God who is in control of history and that he is doing so at the moment through Cyrus.  Note the anti-idol polemic in the middle which is in prose, as if to emphasise the ineffectiveness of the subject of the tirade

45.5-8 more cosmology and another ‘salvation-oracle’ in v8.  45.7 is a much discussed and much used verse in theology, especially re the origin of evil and theodicy.  Does it mean that God is the ultimate creator of both good and evil?  (In my view no).  Or that God brings both good things and bad things to pass, that he can both bless and curse, that he can both bring benefits and punish (the exile being the prime example of the latter).  In my view this is what this verse is talking about

46.1-13 is more of the same, but note the ending in vv12-13 which addresses this specifically to the sceptics of the day


3                 Session 3     45.1-4 & 42.10-25    'Strong Deliverer' - 'The LORD goes forth like a soldier’ (42.13) cf 41.1-16, 47.1-15, 51.9-11

1  Let’s start with the image of YHWH as victorious and avenging soldier in Isa 63.1 (which is, of course, Trito-Isaiah rather than Deutero-Isaiah but it is still Isaianic)

In 63.1, as in 34.5-7, Edom and its capital Bozrah are singled out as Israel’s and so YHWH’s particular enemies.  For this cf Ps 137.7, Ob and Jer 49.7-22 with their outrage at the role Edom played in collaborating with Babylon in the destruction of Jerusalem in 586.  As a result of that Edom ‘became a symbol of Israel’s enemies in postexilic literature’ (W T Pitard Oxford Companion to the Bible p179)

There is also a double play on words in 63.1 because in Hebrew the word ‘Edom’ is similar to that of ‘red’ (‘adom) and Bozrah to the verb for gathering grapes (batsar).  Hence the ‘tramping out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored’ imagery of the Battle Hymn of the Republic

In the oracles against the nations in Amos 1.11-12, the ‘crime against humanity’ of which Edom is accused is that of ‘pursuing his brother’ and extreme violence against him, which is usually taken to be breach of tribal affinity or covenant obligations.  The ‘brother’ in question is not named, and this may reflect a general view of the deceitfulness and unreliability of Edom as a neighbour.  There is some doubt about the authenticity of the oracles against Tyre, Edom and Judah in that list – but if it is not from the C.8th it is another example of later attitudes towards Edom.  The ancestry stories in Genesis make Israel and Edom ‘brothers’ as the Edomites are the descendants of hairy Esau while the Israelites are descended from his trickier younger brother (Gen 25.21-26, 36.9 and for the full story see Gen 25-36)

For an older (possibly from the most ancient bit of the OT) image of YHWH the warrior from the south see Judges 5.4-5 (though there he has not come from slaughtering Edomites but he’s on his way from there to do battle with someone else) and also Deut 33.1-2

This is definitely the ‘Lord of battles, God of armies’ image taken up in Bishop Christopher Wordsworth’s hymn ‘See the Conqueror mounts in triumph’ and is found in the Song of Moses at Ex 15.3.  See also the odd unit at Josh 5.13-15.  One of the two possible meanings of the divine name/title YHWH Sebaoth – LORD of Hosts – is that of ‘Lord of the Armies (of Israel’) as in the Wesley hymn, ‘Captain of Israel’s host’ – cf 1 Sam 17.45.  See also the battle-cry when the ark is hoisted to march in Num 10.35.  This God fights, of course, for his people (eg Zech 14.1ff) but the twist in the tail of this common ANE motif for God and gods in the OT is that YHWH can and does fight against Israel too, eg Lam 2.5 and Isa 42.24-25

2  Isa 45.1-4 utilises standard Divine Warrior imagery in vv2-3, but the passage contains a remarkable twist, which is its naming of Cyrus as ‘the Lord’s Anointed’ = ‘Messiah’. The traditional ‘I surname you’ (AV, RSV, NRSV) in v4 is not very good, and NJPS ‘I hail you by title’ (cf NIV, NJB, REB) is better.

Note also the dynamic of ‘knowing’ and ‘not knowing’ in this passage.  God calls and equips Cyrus, though Cyrus does not know him (vv5,6) but as a result of what that calling and equipping brings about both Cyrus (v3) and the whole world (v6) will know him

3  Isa 42.10-25.

a.    42.10-13 reads very much like a Psalm of Praise (of the ‘Descriptive’ variety) with v10 echoing Pss 96.11 and 98.7.  Kedar is an Arab tribe operating to the south east of Judah and Sela is another name for Petra, one of the other capitals of Edom.  Given the powerful warrior imagery in v13, and what we have already seen in 63.1, the call for Edom to ‘give glory to YHWH’ here must be ironic/sarcastic

b.    42.14-19 are words of YHWH in the first-person.  Two verbal pictures of uncontrollable force (vv14b-15 which use a very unexpected image) and pastoral care (v16) are followed by one of rejection.  Here are key words which are already becoming familiar: ‘mountains’, ‘the blind’ and ‘images’.  The section ends with references to YHWH’s ‘servant’ – a rich image to be fully explored in session 5 – and here the reference is to God’s chosen people, Israel who are the ‘you’ addressed in v18      

c.    In 42.20-25 the prophet addresses the audience in his own words.  At the beginning and end of his address he uses ‘he/him’ language following on the singular ‘servant of the LORD’ address in the previous verses, but in the middle he addresses them directly – ‘you’.  Israel is blind and deaf – and can neither see nor hear what is right in front of them, namely YHWH’s torah (v21).  They have always been like this, which is why YHWH went to war against them and why they have ended up in Babylon! (vv23-25)

4  ‘The God who acts’ was the ‘motto’ of the post-war ‘Biblical Theology’ movement, who saw this idea of God acting in history as the distinctive feature of the Bible (as in the Exodus in the OT and the life of Jesus in the NT).  G Ernest Wright ‘s God who acts – Biblical Theology as Recital (SCM 1956) was almost a definitive textbook and the motto (if I remember right) even got as far as being incorporated in the WCC logo and ‘mission statement’ at one time.  Until, in his Bampton Lecture of 1986, ‘God’s Action in the World’, the theologian Maurice Wiles challenged it and exposed its serious weaknesses: eg ‘how does he act?’ and ‘how do you identify a particular event etc as God in action?’  There are obvious implications for prayer here, some of which are discussed in my Prayer: Thinking Things Through (10) (Epworth 2003), especially in ch 17, available on my website (www.stephendawes.com)

5  The ‘Divine Warrior’ image itself is, of course, one which many find offensive.  Like all language, metaphors are not neutral.  They have been chosen by speakers or writers to perform a task, which is to make hearers and readers think, believe or do something or another.  Therefore they have a ‘rhetoric’ (a way of performing that task) and an ‘ideology’ (a position or point of view to promote).  Both of these invite analysis, and so ‘rhetorical analysis’ of a metaphor asks how it works and ‘ideological analysis’ asks what its agenda is.  So

·         How does the ‘Divine Warrior’ metaphor ‘work’?
·         And what is its agenda?

And following that

·         What is the ‘performative value’ of this metaphor? 

Or if you prefer it

·         What might a SWOT analysis (Strengths? Weaknesses? Opportunities? Threats?) of this Divine Warrior metaphor produce?

6  Isa 41.1-16 is a rich mix of Divine Warrior themes – God’s acts which can be seen and advertised (vv1, 5), God is the power behind the changing world empires and the rise of Cyrus (vv2-4), the incomparability of this Warrior God (v4), who is Israel’s ‘redeemer’ (v14), encouragement to suffering Israel (vv8-13), rebuke of fearful and unbelieving Israel (v14) and Israel’s role as God’s army (vv15-16)

7  Isa 47.1-15 describes Babylon’s defeat and shaming in words which some commentators call ‘prophetic pornography’, ie the use of images which emphasise the degrading and abuse of women.  Note v4 and its ‘Redeemer’ theme - a constant motif in DI (43.14; 44.6, 24; 47.4; 48.17; 49.7, 26; 54.5, 8)  

8  Isa 51.9-11 is a snippet of the Chaoskampf  (‘Conflict/War with Chaos’) creation picture (cf Pss 74.1217; 89.518; see also Job 7.12; 26.12; 38.811), an old and wide ancient Near Eastern creation myth of the King of Creation's battle with the Chaos Monster.  Its Light v Darkness, Good v Evil, Life v Death dualism is a perennial recurring theme in many religions and, in my view, has much to commend it, not least in preaching through the Easter season 

9  Hence Cwm Rhondda and its appeal?

Guide me, O thou great Jehovah/Redeemer,
 Pilgrim though this barren land;
I am weak, but thou art mighty;
 Hold me with thy powerful hand;
Bread of heaven,
Feed me now and evermore.

Open thou the crystal fountain,
 Whence the healing stream doth flow;
Let the fiery cloudy pillar
 Lead me all my journey through;
Strong Deliverer,
Be thou still my Strength and Shield.

When I tread the verge of Jordan,
 Bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of death and hell’s destruction
(Bear me through the swelling current),
 Land me safe on Canaan's side;
Songs of praises,
I will ever give to thee.


4                 Session 4     43.1-7 & 41.17-20 'Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven' - ‘The Holy One of Israel – your Saviour’ (43.3) cf 44.1-5, 49.7-26, 51.1-8, 51.12-16

1  Isa 43.1-7

·         Note the dramatic introductory ‘But’

·         An oracle with one of the standard introductions, ‘thus says the LORD’ and specifically a classic ‘salvation oracle’

·         A single oracle framed by the inclusio of ‘created’/’formed’ in vv1 and 7

·         Note the repetition of ‘Do not fear’ plus a reason (‘for’) in vv1b and