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I wrote a theological reflection. You are reading it.
This seems so simple!
Are there any theological reflections in Scripture?
It seems that the latter is an example of a bad theological reflection!
I like theological reflection. It is better than either (1) experience without reflection, or (2) reflection disconnected from experience. But there is such a thing as bad theological reflection. It isn’t a magic bullet.
We live in an age of ecclesiastical chaos. Never before have so many wildly different kinds of churches existed side by side in the same towns and cities. And while these churches are invariably friendly towards each other, only occasionally do they think of each other as being basically on the same page. On the contrary, they generally view each other with a bemused sense of bafflement, wondering how on earth what they do week by week can in any sense be thought of as being ‘Church’.
Into this kind of situation a book such as Models of the Church by Avery Dulles (1918-2008) is extremely helpful. He sees the Church as ultimately being a mystery, that is, a reality ‘of which we cannot speak directly’ (p. 2). As such, rather than searching for tight definitions, we have to employ images, or analogies, or types, or models. Viewed in this way, our radically different understandings of the Church might each contain some elements of truth, and might be able to complement and sharpen each other, rather than being in direct opposition.
Dulles was an American Cardinal, theologian and Jesuit. His book was first published in 1974, then extended in 1986, and then published again in 2001, with a new appendix. It is largely written in the context of Vatican II (1962-5), but, as an ignorant Protestant, I still found it fascinating and illuminating, both for my own understanding of the Church, as well as being an enlightening glimpse into Roman Catholic thinking.
The book is built around five models of the Church (with a sixth introduced in the final chapter of the 1986 edition). I’ll deal with them in a different order, to suit a more Protestant audience.
First, then, we have Dulles’ fourth model, that of the Church as herald, which ‘sees the task of the Church primarily in terms of proclamation’ (p. 69). Following Barth,
The Church is … constituted by the word being proclaimed and faithfully heard. The Church is the congregation that is gathered together by the word (pp. 69f.).
This model has many strengths, but also several weaknesses. For example, it fails to reflect the biblical view of the Church as ‘a real, visible community existing continuously in world history’ (pp. 77f.). It also ‘focuses too exclusively on witness to the neglect of action’ and is ‘too pessimistic or quietistic with regard to the possibilities of human effort to establish a better human society in this life, and the duty of Christians to take part in this common effort’ (p. 79).
Perhaps we need to draw on Dulles’ fifth model, that of the Church as servant? While this model, in isolation, could be very weak, it does contribute some helpful insights. Evaluating the models in connection with eschatology, Dulles writes,
From the fifth model, finally, I would accept the thesis that the Church has the task of introducing the values of the Kingdom into the whole of human society, and thus of preparing the world, insofar as human effort can, for the final transformation when God will establish the new heavens and the new earth (p. 113).
The word-centred kind of Church with which I am most familiar would typically stress that the proclaimed word should give rise to a loving community, which fits closely with Dulles’ second model, that of the Church as mystical communion. This reflects the biblical images of the Church as the People of God, or as the Body of Christ, both of which ‘emphasize the immediate relationship of all believers to the Holy Spirit, who directs the whole Church’ (p. 45).
But again, this mystical, invisible understanding of the Church fails to do justice to its visible elements, such as its sacraments and structures of leadership.
Dulles’ first model of the Church as institution, sounds very much like the Roman Catholic model, from the perspective of an outsider. But, interestingly, it ‘has been displaced from the center of Catholic theology since about 1940’ (p. 21), and faces sharp criticism in the book. But it does have some strengths.
It is imperative for the members of the Church to be able to find the continued presence of Christ in the Church as a visible society. The institutional model has the great merit of giving due emphasis to the Church’s ministry of perpetuating the work of Christ as Teacher, Savior, and Ruler (p. 196).
The third model, the Church as sacrament, attempts to use sacramental theology to combine the visible and invisible aspects of the Church, highlighted by the first and second models, respectively. The Church, however imperfectly, is an effective sign of Christ’s presence.
Dulles initially singled out the sacramental model as the most promising starting-point for building a well-rounded view of the Church. But in the second edition he introduced a sixth model, that of the Church as community of disciples. This image relates well to the other five: the visible community of disciples was instituted by Christ, exists as a community, symbolises and embodies Christ, proclaims the gospel, and continues his work in the world.
Dulles book ‘[does] not constitute a rounded systematic ecclesiology’ (p. 195). But the vivid images developed in the book perhaps provide a constructive way of embarking on that task. They are certainly very useful as we seek to understand and relate to other parts of the Body of Christ.
A quick post, to remind you that I’m still here, and to draw your attention to an excellent little book about evangelism and the Church, The Provocative Church, by Graham Tomlin. I’m amazed that I haven’t had this book thrust at me constantly over the past 12 years since it was first published, as it really is a gem. It’s now in its fourth edition (2014), though I’ve just read the second edition (2004).
Anyway, enough from me. Here’s what it says on the back cover:
Sometimes Christians assume that people ‘out there’ are eager to listen to what the Church has to offer. But why should those we try to evangelize want to hear the gospel? Surely people will only be intrigued by Christian life and community when they see something provocative or attractive. Then they will want to know what’s going on.
The Provocative Church offers a liberating understanding of evangelism as a corporate activity, in which all the gifts needed to enact the life of the kingdom – to stir people into asking, ‘What does this mean?’ – are spread throughout the whole Church. It encourages the development of a theology of conversion that sees beyond ‘becoming a Christian’ to bring each individual life increasingly under the rule of God.
Continuing on the theme of creation/evolution-related books from around five years ago (1, 2), we now move across the pond to Wheaton College, Illinois, and to John Walton and his very influential book, The Lost World of Genesis One (2009).
Walton is professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. His main area of interest is the ancient Near East, and in how we should understand the Book of Genesis in that context. His books include a fairly substantial commentary on Genesis (2001), a more scholarly book from 2011 on the same topic as The Lost World of Genesis One (Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology), and The Lost World of Scripture (2013). I really should have read those books before writing this review. But I haven’t. Read on at your own risk!
The first thing to note about the book is that it confines its attention almost exclusively to Genesis 1 (well, 1:1-2:3). It’s important to remember that this isn’t the only relevant part of the Bible when thinking about creation and evolution. In fact, as we saw in the previous book, it is possible to build a strong case for a young-age creation position without even looking at Genesis 1, based on what the rest of the Scriptures says about Adam, about the Flood, and about death and suffering. Walton is not unaware of these considerations, of course. On Adam and Eve he writes: ‘Whatever evolutionary processes led to the development of animal life, primates and even prehuman hominids, my theological convictions lead me to posit substantive discontinuity between that process and the creation of the historical Adam and Eve’ (p.139). Likewise, he holds that ‘the disorder and brokenness of this world are the result of human sin and the Fall’ (p.148).
One of Walton’s principal observations is that Genesis 1 depicts the cosmos as a temple. This is largely based on the use of the word ‘rest’ for the seventh day, and the obvious fact (to people in that culture) that gods rest in temples. ‘Deity rests in a temple, and only in a temple’ (p.72). So, to say that God rested on the seventh day is to say that God took up residence in his temple. This moves the emphasis from what is not happening (‘rest’ as inactivity) to what is happening. ‘Rest’ means that ‘stability has been achieved’ and that ‘the normal operations of the cosmos can be undertaken’ (p.73). This is helpful for our understanding of the Sabbath, which becomes not so much a time in which we simply don’t do certain things, as a time in which we actively ‘recognize that [God] is at the controls, not us’ (p.147).
Walton seeks to read Genesis 1 as people in the ancient Near East would have read it. In reading an ancient text such as Genesis, ‘we must translate the culture as well as the language if we hope to understand the text fully’ (p.9). We need to consider the author’s purpose in writing Genesis: ‘God has communicated through human authors and through their intentions’ (p.106). So we should be cautious about imposing our modern scientific questions onto the text. It is striking that Genesis 1, or Scripture in general, makes no attempt to correct people’s wrong beliefs about the material properties of the cosmos. Whether we are considering the sky as a ‘firmament’ (a solid dome with water above it), or whether we are considering how we think and feel with our hearts and our kidneys, God consistently ‘adopted the language of the culture to communicate in terms they understood’ (p.18).
Through the entire Bible, there is not a single instance in which God revealed to Israel a science beyond their own culture. No passage offers a scientific perspective that was not common to the Old World science of antiquity (p.19).
So, if we are not to impose our modern scientific questions onto the text, does that mean Genesis 1 is just a theological treatise? Interestingly, Walton would say that it isn’t. He is (mildly) critical of the ‘framework hypothesis’ way of reading Genesis, and of any approach that see Genesis 1 as being ‘only theological,’ having ‘a literary shape that makes it poetic’ so that it ‘should not be taken as any sort of scientific record’ (p.103). Those approaches, in his view, do not go far enough, and he is sceptical that the Israelites would have ‘thought of this text in only literary/theological terms’ (p.112). I share his concerns on that point. Whether they held their beliefs about the creation week in quite the same way as they held their beliefs about the everyday world of their direct experience is a question I’m currently pondering. But to suppose, for example, that they could say, ‘For in six days the Lord made [everything],’ (Ex. 20:11) and to think of that as being a purely theological statement, with no hint about what actually happened in space and time, seems a bit tenuous.
So, if Genesis 1 is not concerned with modern scientific questions, but if it is still describing something that actually happened, then what is the conclusion? Remarkably, Walton is led to the conclusion that the world was actually created in six ordinary 24-hour days. I say ‘remarkably’, because Walton is very much open to the standard evolutionary understanding of the history of life. In other words, Walton is a six-day creationist who also believes (or is at least open to the belief) that the cosmos is billions of years old, and that life arose by evolutionary processes over millions of years.
How does he manage to square that circle?
He does so by suggesting that the ancient readers would have read Genesis 1 as an account of functional origins, not as an account of material origins. As such, there is no conflict between our science and the Bible: evolution is about material origins, and the Bible is about functional origins. ‘As an account of functional origins, [Genesis 1] offers no clear information about material origins’ (p.163).
Walton suggests that ‘our culture views existence, and therefore meaning, in material terms’ (p.24), but that ‘people in the ancient world believed that something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system’ (p.26, emphasis in original). What then would it mean to create something? ‘In a functional ontology, to bring something into existence would require giving it a function or a role in an ordered system, rather than giving it material properties’ (p.26). So he can describe the cosmos as having had a ‘material phase’: a period in which it may have contained ‘dinosaurs and fossil “homo” specimens’ but in which it was ‘prefunctional’ (p.169). The ‘seven days of creation’ are then seen as ‘literal twenty-four-hour days associated with the inauguration of the cosmic temple — its actual creation, accomplished by proclaiming its functions, installing its functionaries, and, most importantly, becoming the place of God’s residence’ (p.93). A helpful parallel for this is the creation of the temple in Jerusalem. It had a material phase, during which the building was erected, but it only became the temple — it was only created — when it was inaugurated, and when the various material components were given their function.
What are we to make of this?
Walton is clearly right to point to a functional emphasis in Genesis 1. There is clearly a greater interest in the roles that various created things play than in what they are made of. He also makes a plausible case that Genesis 1 assumes that there was some kind of (functionless) material already present before the start of the seven days. Writing about verse 2, he notes that ‘here at the beginning of the creation process, there is already material in existence — the waters of the deep’ (p.49).
But beyond that, I find the sharp distinction between material origins and functional original deeply problematic, for biblical, conceptual and practical reasons.
First, there are biblical problems. Genesis 1 doesn’t simply say, ‘Let X do Y’ (giving a function to something that already exists materially). Rather, it says, ‘Let there be X, and let X do Y.’ I can’t see what ‘Let there be X’ means in purely functional terms. It seems to be saying that something wasn’t there at all (either materially or functionally), then God spoke, and then it came into being.
Second, there are conceptual problems. Is it possible to think about the cosmos being made into an ‘ordered system’ without its material properties being affected? And can a world full of living creatures (or ‘precreatures’!) really be described as having no function at all? Walton gives examples of computer software, colleges and curricula, in which the existence of the thing is not purely material. But can that same distinction be applied universally? And is non-material existence the same as functional existence? Is the non-material existence of computer software the same a it having a role in an ordered system? If the software is never used, does it have a functional existence? If the curriculum is never followed, does it have a functional existence?
Third, there are practical problems. These become evident when you ask ‘the question of what actually happens in the seven days’ (p.97). Walton answers as follows:
The main elements lacking in the “before” picture are … humanity in God’s image and God’s presence in his cosmic temple. Without these two ingredients the cosmos would be considered nonfunctional and therefore nonexistent. The material phase nonetheless could have been under development for long eras and could in that case correspond with the descriptions of the prehistoric ages as science has uncovered them for us. There would be no reason to think that the sun had not been shining, plants had not been growing, or animals had not been present. These were like the rehearsals leading up to a performance of a play. The rehearsals are preparatory and necessary, but they are not the play. They find their meaning only when the audience is present. It is then that the play exists, and it is for them that the play exists (p.97f).
But are there not seven days in the creation week? What happened during the first five? In what sense did anything exist (functionally) at the end of the fifth day, if there were no people present at that stage?
[F]unctionality cannot exist without people in the picture. In Genesis people are not put in place until day six, but functionality is established with their needs and situation in mind (p.51).
So God established the functionality on days 1-5, but the functionality didn’t exist until day 6? Perhaps the idea is that God announced on each day what the functions of the different parts of his creation would be, come the sixth day? But that doesn’t fit with the text of Genesis 1, which repeatedly says, ‘and it was so’, and, ‘it was good’, which Walton proposes refers to ‘functioning properly’ (p.51). So it must be the case that the cosmos was able to function, albeit imperfectly and partially, before people were created on the sixth day.
But if that is the case, then what actually happened on the first five days? Walton doesn’t read the text as saying that nothing actually happened. Something didn’t have a function, then it was given a function, then it functioned according to its newly-assigned function. But what does that mean in practice? Were the sea creatures assigned the function of filling the waters of the seas after they had filled the waters of the seas? Were the sun and moon assigned the function of giving light on the earth when they had already been doing precisely that for millions of years?
What would the observer have seen in these seven days of Genesis 1? At one level this could simply be dismissed as the wrong question. It continues to focus on the eyewitness account of material acts (p.99).
But if, in asking this question, we fail completely to come up with any plausible scenario for what actually happened, then maybe we need to question whether this distinction between material and functional origins is the right approach in the first place.
So where does that leave us? Walton hasn’t argued against the young-earth creation position as such. It is perfectly coherent to think that God could have chosen to create things (materially and functionally) in seven days so that it would be clear that the cosmos is a temple, and hence that ‘this world is a place for God’s presence’ (p.85).
But that still leaves us with the problem of the firmament. ‘We cannot think that we can interpret the word “expanse/firmament” as simply the sky or the atmosphere if that is not what the author meant by it when he used it and not what the audience would have understood by the word’ (p.57). Walton notes that if Genesis 1 is an account of material origins, and if there is actually no solid firmament, then ‘we then find ourselves with the problem of trying to explain the material creation of something that does not exist’ (p.94). But nor is it easy to explain the functional creation of something that has no material existence, given that ‘something must have physical properties before it can be given its function’ (p.27).
Perhaps it’s worth reflecting on why ancient people made any attempt at all to describe things that were so far from their everyday experience. If no one had seen the foundations of the earth, then why speak of its pillars? If no one had touched the sky, then why describe it as a solid dome? If no one had been beyond the sky, then why speak of the waters which were above it? If no one had seen someone’s kidneys having emotions, or their heart thinking, then why speak as though that were the case? And if no one watched the earth or the sun or the first animals come into existence, then why speak of how it happened at all?
Those beliefs had a function in their lives. They needed to think and speak about who they were, where they had come from, and the world in which they lived. It’s impossible to do that without using language. And they did so in appropriate ways. Appropriate for what? Not for modern science: they were not going to apply for a research grant to find out what the earth’s pillars were made of! But, for pretty much any other purpose, it is entirely appropriate to describe the earth as resting on pillars, or the sky as being a solid dome. And it is entirely appropriate to speak of God making the ‘firmament’, if you want to reflect on God as being in control of the weather system. As Walton says, ‘The cosmic waters posed a continual threat, and the “firmament” had been created as a means of establishing cosmic order’ (p.57).
Or, to put it simply, following Walton, perhaps we should try again to hear Genesis as the original hearers would have heard it? Whatever effect the text would have had on them — however it would have shaped their beliefs and their lives — we should allow the text to have those same effects on our lives. And if all of those effects lead us in the ways of goodness and beauty and truth, then, in that sense, Genesis 1 provides an entirely good and beautiful and true account of the origins of the heavens and the earth.
I first heard Alan Storkey give a talk about the arms trade in 2010, at a WYSOCS event, and it had a deep effect on me. He made me realise something that should have been obvious: that sales of weapons are not only an extremely good way of making money, but also an extremely good way of building up tension between nations, and ultimately of causing wars. ‘Weapons cause wars,’ as he puts it.
Alan spoke recently at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC) on the causes of the First World War. The video is embedded below, and there is a related website: Why World War One? The long Failure of Western Arms. His basic point is that an arms race, stimulated by various arms manufacturers, was largely responsible for the outbreak of war. This is clearly expressed in the following quote by Sir Edward Grey, who was British Foreign Secretary from 1905 to 1916 (18 minutes into the video):
The enormous growth of armaments in Europe, the sense of insecurity and fear caused by them — it was these that made war inevitable. This, it seems to me, is the truest reading of history, and the lesson that the present should be learning from the past in the interests of future peace, the warning to be handed on to those who come after us.
The tragedy of the Second World War is that they didn’t learn that lesson. And the tragedy of today is that we still haven’t learned that lesson. Apparently, in Iraq, ISIS is ‘fighting with hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. military equipment seized from the Iraqi Army who abandoned it’ (also see here).
‘Those who take the sword will perish by the sword,’ as Jesus said.
Does this bother you? I hope it does. If so, can I urge you to sign Alan’s petition calling for world multilateral disarmament?
Arms still cause wars and the time has come to close down the biggest failed experiment in modern history — the idea that arms make us safe. It is disarming that makes us safe and we should start it soon.
There’s a post of mine on the Faith in Scholarship blog this morning. It begins as follows…
One of the motivations for Faith in Scholarship is the conviction that Christian faith makes a difference to all areas of life. It’s not just the ‘religious’ areas of our lives that are affected, but, in the famous words of Abraham Kuyper, ‘There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!’
But what does that mean for my own discipline: astronomy?
I’d like to attempt to answer that question by putting astronomy under the microscope (or the telescope!), looking at it from various angles. I’m drawing on a set of fifteen different ways of thinking about the whole of reality, known as ‘aspects’ or ‘modalities’, which were developed by the 20th-century Christian philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd (see Andrew Basden’s Dooyeweerd Pages for an excellent introduction). I hope this approach might be helpful to you in thinking about your own disciplines.
Debating Darwin (Paternoster, 2009) is a multi-author book, seeking to debate Darwinism first on theological grounds, and then on scientific grounds. Each half of the book has four chapters: two setting out the case for and against, and two responses. It has some strong points, but the choice of two very different authors to oppose Darwinism, along with the theological approach of the pro-Darwinism authors, combine to make the book into something that is likely to weaken the faith of the average evangelical Christian. This is probably not what the authors (or the strikingly invisible editor) intended.
First the good parts. Stephen Lloyd is the theological opponent to Darwinism, and his chapters are extremely cogent and very refreshing. (I know Stephen personally, but I would hold the same opinion even if I did not.) A strong case could be made against Darwinism (or Neo-Darwinism) based on what the Bible says in various different places. But Lloyd’s approach is much more powerful, as he focuses on the big storyline of the Bible. His claim is that “Accommodating Neo-Darwinism” to Christianity “leaves the biblical story, centred on the resurrection, incoherent”, and he expands on that by examining the doctrines of Adam, the global flood, and the goodness of the original creation (“no agony before Adam”). This is essentially the same case that Lloyd made in a debate I organised in Brighton in 2010 (see my write-up of the debate and listen to it on bethinking.org), and also in a talk from 2009.
The first pro-Darwinism chapter, by Graeme Finlay and Stephen Pattermore, is largely about issues of literary genre, and also attempts to drive a wedge between physical death and spiritual death. As with Denis Alexander’s book, I didn’t find this convincing. Their second chapter, in response to Lloyd, essentially amounts to an all-out attack on the creation-fall-redemption-restoration framework for understanding the big storyline of the Bible. They portray this storyline as being cyclic, rather than linear, making the (quite unfair) assumption that the restoration envisaged is simply a return to the original state of things. In its place, they put forward a purely evolutionary and progressive understanding of the biblical narrative. This is unfortunate, as it puts them at odds with much mainstream evangelicalism. It is also revealing, as they seem to concede Lloyd’s main point: that the Neo-Darwinian narrative cannot be reconciled with the narrative of creation-fall-redemption-restoration.
The scientific opponent to Darwinism, David Swift, couldn’t be more different to Lloyd in his views. Unlike Lloyd, Swift has no theological objection to evolution, and is quite comfortable in principle with the idea of common descent (even if he is not sure it is true). His main objection to Neo-Darwinism is that he doesn’t think the mechanism is capable of producing new genes, and he puts forward a strong case to that effect. His view seems to be that God somehow injected new genetic information at various points during the course of earth history, leading to the sudden introduction of new forms of living creature (birds, mammals, etc).
The scientific pro-Darwinism chapter, by Graeme Finlay, sets out a strong case for common ancestry, based on shared “mistakes” in the genome (ERVs, jumping genes, etc). The discussion is quite technical, particularly for a book aimed at “ordinary” readers. This case isn’t answered particularly strongly, as Swift doesn’t really have any objections to common ancestry, in principle. So the reader is left with the impression that common ancestry is pretty well established by the genetic evidence.
What is the combined effect of all of these chapters? First, your average evangelical would get the impression that their understanding of the biblical storyline, as creation-fall-redemption-restoration, conflicts with the storyline of (Neo-)Darwinism, with its account of the common ancestry of people and all other living things. So either Christianity (thus construed) is true, or common ancestry is true. That is the impression given by the first half of the book. The impression given by the second half of the book is that common ancestry is (probably) true. Put these together, and the conclusion is obvious: scientific evidence suggests that the Christian faith, as most evangelicals understand it, is false.
I can’t imagine that any of the authors intended the book to give this impression. It seems to be a consequence of poor editorial judgment. The book would have been much better if it had a stronger editor. As it stands, no editor is even named. Whoever it is didn’t seem to understand that there are many different kinds of objection to Darwinism, and that you can’t just put two very different opponents to Darwinism together and expect the book to have a coherent storyline. There is no introduction to the book, explaining the parameters of the debate, and no attempt to bring things together at the end. In fact, the editorial process seems to have been calculated to minimise the actual engagement between the authors. In an ordinary debate, each speaker would have at least three opportunities to speak, and each speech would follow on from the previous one, so that the second speaker would modify their opening speech based on the opening speech of the first speaker, and so on. But in this book, the opening chapters were submitted independently, and then the responding chapters were submitted independently, with no opportunity for any other engagement. There is no hint that the opposing speakers have ever met each other, or knew anything about each other prior to writing their chapters, so they end up talking past each other much of the time.
However, there are limitations to the debate format, even in the best of circumstances. There is a strong temptation for the contributors to try to “win” the debate, and to err on the side of overstating their case. Debates also perpetuate the idea that there are two sides to the issue, with the correct response being to simply choose one side or the other. I’m not sure that is the way forward: is it not worth exploring novel approaches to the issue, rather than regurgitating the same old polarised views again and again?
A couple of final comments in response to the impression given by the book. First, I’m quite confident that many or most evangelical proponents of theistic evolution, or evolutionary creationism, do indeed embrace at least some version of the creation-fall-redemption-restoration framework for understanding the biblical narrative. So it would not be fair to assume that all proponents of Darwinism see things in the same way that Finlay and Pattermore do. Second, the argument for common ancestry based on shared mistakes in the genome falls down as soon as those “mistakes” are shown to have a function. Finlay shoots himself in the foot on this point in the end of his chapter, when he draws attention to the function of several ERVs or jumping genes, and Swift briefly makes this same point. I don’t consider myself qualified to adjudicate on this issue, but it has been suggested that the functional ERVs in our DNA might have been part of God’s original created design, rather than relics of our evolutionary past.
Live in harmony with one another. … If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone (Romans 12:16,18).
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).
[M]ake my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind (Philippians 2:2).
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God (2 Corinthians 6:14-16, all quotations from the NIV).
“Good disagreement” is becoming one of Archbishop Justin Welby’s catchphrases. And it’s a wonderful idea. The Church is full of bad disagreement. My previous blog post was about creation and evolution, and that is certainly an example. We simply do not make the effort to understand each other, let alone to love one another. Surely the first step we need to take on the road towards full agreement is to turn our bad disagreements into good disagreements.
Welby was interviewed on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday (13 July 2014), and the topic of “good disagreement” came up twice.
First (just after 30:30), speaking about the prospect of a schism in the Anglican Communion, Welby commented:
As Christians we believe that we are part of one family, we’re joined inextricably not by our own choice but by the choice of God, by our common faith in Christ. Schism is awful. If it happens, it happens. But our calling is to love one another and to find ways of good disagreement in a world that is completely incapable of good disagreement.
This is surely the way forward. We have so much in common as Christians, and once we learn to recognise one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, then it will be much easier to work through our disagreements about lesser issues. Hopefully this will be the case with the issue of women bishops too. Speaking at the General Synod debate earlier this week, Welby said,
Today we can start on a challenging and adventur[ou]s journey to embrace a radical new way of being the church: good and loving disagreement amidst the seeking of truth in all our fallibility; a potential gift to a world driven by overconfident certainties into bitter and divisive conflict.
But the idea of “good disagreement” has a certain ambiguity to it.
Later in the interview with Andrew Marr (just after 33:45), Welby described some conversations he had had with Muslim leader Ibrahim Mogra:
there was absolutely no sense of conflict there — we disagreed. [AM: it was a proper conversation.] It was a proper, good disagreement.
The ambiguity is this: on the one hand, there is “good disagreement” between people who share the same fundamental convictions, but on the other hand, there is “good disagreement” between people who do not share the same fundamental convictions. So which kind of good disagreement are we aiming for in the Church?
Within in the Church, if we are to be recognizably the “temple of God”, and recognizably a body of believers, rather than a mixed body of believers and unbelievers, then we must aim not for “good disagreement” about our fundamental convictions, but for complete unity on those matters. We must aim to be “like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind”, and we must aim for nothing less. Of course, there will be differences, but those will be differences within the context of agreement about the essential elements of our faith.
But what if our “bad disagreements”, even when they have become “good disagreements”, turn out to be disagreements about the core aspects of our beliefs? What should we do then as a Church?
In those cases, “good disagreement” must become the kind of “good disagreement” that Justin Welby was able to have with Ibrahim Mogra. In our dealings with Muslims, we recognize — publicly — that we have fundamentally different understandings of God, Jesus and the world. We don’t pretend that we are basically the same — though, of course, we will often work together on issues of common concern. But we follow Paul’s exhortation to “live at peace with everyone”, as far as it is possible to do so.
And that must be the way forward for us as a Church, if our disagreements, once we have explored them carefully, prove to be fundamental differences in how we understand God, Jesus and the world. We must — for the sake of the Church and for the sake of the world — try to go our separate ways — to live at peace with each other, but not to pretend, either to ourselves or to the world around, that we are basically the same. The Church shouldn’t seek to model “good disagreement” in the sense of getting along in peace even though we disagree as much as it is humanly possible to disagree! We should model that kind of “good disagreement” in our dealings with those outside the Church. Inside the Church, we should be marked not by the quality of our disagreement, but by the quality of our agreement.
But is that even conceivable for the Church of England?
On the left we have England, and on the right we have the Church of England (not to scale).
You will notice that England is divided in two. The colours are not significant (I won’t tell you which is which!), but it it supposed to represent Christians and non-Christians.
Now, where should we place the black circle?
Currently, I think the black circle is bang in the middle. What I mean is that, however you construe “Christian”, there are lots of people in the Church of England who would, under that definition, be non-Christians.
So, from one perspective, Jesus came to rescue us from the punishment our sins deserved by dying in our place on the cross. A Christian is someone who receives Jesus’ gift of eternal life, and a non-Christian is someone who doesn’t think they need Jesus to rescue them.
But, from another perspective, Jesus came to show us the kind of love that breaks down all the petty divisions that permeate human society, and to teach us to accept each other as we are. Jesus came to rescue us from our hatred and to affirm us in who we are. Christians are people who have embraced Jesus’ message of inclusivity, and non-Christians are people who think we need some kind of radical change before we are acceptable to God.
Both of those perspectives are represented within the Church of England. (I won’t pretend to know the relative proportions. Honestly, I have no idea about that. The popular impression is that people are either “pro-gay” and “pro-women” or “anti-gay” and “anti-women”. But there are plenty of people who are in favour of women bishops but hold to a traditional view on same-sex relationships, so the popular impression is extremely misleading.)
So, what are the options?
First, following from what I said above, we could aim for fundamental agreement within the Church as to what Jesus is all about. Then we would end up with one of the following:
In one case (pick a colour), this would mean a fundamental agreement that Jesus came to rescue us from the punishment that our sins deserved. It would make the Church very unpopular with the establishment. It would mean that the “liberals” in the Church would (voluntarily or otherwise) all leave, en masse.
In the other case (pick a colour), it would mean a fundamental agreement that Jesus came to show us true inclusivity. It would make the Church very popular with the establishment. It would mean that the “traditionalists” in the Church would (voluntarily or otherwise) all leave, en masse.
I find it very hard to imagine either of these possibilities happening. I can’t see the central powers of the Church deliberately making it intolerable for either group to remain in the Church. First, there isn’t the level of agreement necessary among the bishops or within the General Synod to allow this to happen. And second, the central powers are acutely aware of practical, financial considerations, and it would be almost suicidal (unassisted!) to take any steps that would send lots of bums off pews. And no local church really wants to leave the Church of England, not least because they would have to leave their buildings! As long as each local church can carry on pretty much as it pleases, and is able to basically ignore what goes on elsewhere, they are likely to be happy to stay. But it’s not inconceivable that things could begin to tip in one direction or the other; indeed, I sincerely pray that they will — in the right direction!
Another option is for the Church to split in two:
No, it’s not the face of a very colourful insect.
In this case, the two irreconcilable perspectives in the Church of England agree amicably to go their separate ways. This, I think, is what “good disagreement” about fundamental issues ought to look like in practice. No one is suggesting a merger between the Church of England and the Muslim Council of Britain. It is better that we remain as separate organisations, and seek to engage with each other and live peacefully side by side.
The trouble is that I can’t see it happening. The whole institutional structure of the Church of England assumes that it is one institution for the whole country. The country is divided into two provinces, and 43 dioceses, each of which has one diocesan bishop, and each diocese is divided up into parishes, with every square inch of the country falling into one parish.
If the Church of England split in two (which would make Scottish independence look like a piece of cake, with tea, at the vicarage), then there is no conceivable way that either church would have a convincing claim to be a church for the whole country.
The final option is for things to remain pretty much as they are:
In this case, the Church of England as an institution would need to degenerate into a bland institutional husk, within which a diversity of fundamentally different perspectives are enabled to flourish.
Is this what “good disagreement” and “flourishing” will look like in practice?
I hope not. But I suspect it might be, though it does seem to be one of the features of Anglicanism, with its organic structure and its bishops, that this kind of breadth never feels even remotely comfortable.
Yes, let’s turn our “bad disagreements” into “good disagreements”. But let’s not allow the process to stop there.
Lord of the church, we long for our uniting,
true to one calling, by one vision stirred;
one cross proclaiming and one creed reciting,
one in the truth of Jesus and his word.
So lead us on; till toil and trouble ended,
one church triumphant one new song shall sing,
to praise his glory, risen and ascended,
Christ over all, the everlasting King!
It is with some reluctance that I turn to the topic of creation and evolution. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot in years gone by, but I’ve tried to avoid it more recently. The whole debate is so polarised, and shows little sign of coming any nearer to a resolution, so I’ve allowed my interests to roam in different directions. But I’m preparing some talks on the early chapters of Genesis, so I feel I ought to make myself a bit more familiar with the way things currently stand.
In what follows, I’d like to focus on three exhibits, only one of which seems actually to be constructive in taking the church nearer to unity and maturity on the issue.
Exhibit A is Denis Alexander’s 2008 book, Creation or evolution: do we have to choose?. I read this not too long after it came out. It’s well written and covers a lot of ground. The basic thrust of the book is that it is possible to be an evangelical Christian, believing the Bible to be the word of God, and still to accept the findings of modern science when it comes to the evolution of life, particularly human life (this position is known as theistic evolution or evolutionary creationism). A large chunk of the book is devoted to the scientific evidence, and the book provides a fascinating primer in the relatively young field of genomics: the study of DNA and the genome. The rest of the book is an attempt to reconcile biblical Christianity with the evolutionary narrative.
Alexander gives it a good shot, but I have to say that his synthesis is far from persuasive. It hinges largely on a sharp distinction being drawn between physical death and spiritual death, so that billions of years of physical death can give rise to life as we know it, after which God sends spiritual death into his very good creation as a punishment for human sin. The trouble is that the Bible simply doesn’t make this distinction, and it leaves us puzzling over why Jesus’ physical death should have anything to do with the problem of sin. The book also makes it clear that it is far from easy to reconcile the biblical account of Adam and Eve with the prevailing secular account of human origins.
However, my main problem with the book, at least in the context of this particular post, is its unwillingness to engage in constructive discussion on the issue. Where does Alexander direct me to find a good defence of the opposite point of view? Which creationist works does Alexander engage with? You will search in vain for any attempt to answer those questions — except for two brief mentions of Henry Morris. Not a single living creationist is named in the book. Alexander would clearly not deign to condescend to their level. ‘Christians who make it their mission to attack evolution, in the mistaken assumption that it is anti-God, are embarrassing and bring the gospel into disrepute’ (p. 352). (But, lo, is that a revised and enlarged second edition I see coming out in September? Perhaps there is room to be optimistic?)
So we move swiftly to Exhibit B, the 2009 book, Should Christians embrace evolution?, edited by Norman Nevin. I bought this book not long after it came out, but it suffered the fate of most of my books, and lingered on the bookshelf (well, various successive bookshelves) until last week. The book is a multi-author response to the biblical and scientific issues dealt with by Alexander. Highlights are an excellent chapter by Michael Reeves on the importance of believing in a historical Adam who fathered the whole human race (also available here), a wide-ranging (if slightly unstructured) chapter on the theological problems with the theistic evolution position by David Anderson (who has published other responses to Alexander’s book, both shorter and longer, available here), and an illuminating chapter on genomics by Geoff Barnard (you can watch him speaking on the topic here).
But, apart from a few highlights, to be honest, I wish the book had lingered on the shelf for longer. It comes across as a hastily cobbled together response to Alexander’s book. The chapters are mainly either off topic, or badly written, or both. But this is beside the point: the book doesn’t give the impression that it was actually intended to be read at all. Rather, its mere existence is the point. Here is a book, published by respected evangelical publisher IVP, with multiple authors, some of whom you will have heard of, with four pages of glowing commendations, and with a foreword by none other than Wayne Grudem, one of the biggest names in Bible-centred evangelicalism. It’s even got a shiny website. Clearly, without even needing to read a word, you should be able to glean that many prominent evangelicals say a big resounding ‘No!’ to Denis Alexander and his ilk.
Genesis 4 takes us from bad to worse, as Cain murders his brother and as Lamech boasts of his acts of vengeance. But there is a glimmer of hope in the final verse, as ‘At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord’ (ESV). Is there a glimmer of hope in this debate?
I end this post with Exhibit C. This is an ongoing series of discussions between prominent evolutionary creationist Darrel Falk and prominent young-age creationist Todd Wood. Most of these conversations, facilitated by the Colossian Forum, have been taken taking place in private. But they went public a few months ago, in an event that you can listen to here (hat tip: Biblical Creation Ministries). It really is an excellent example of people of widely different perspectives coming together as brothers in Christ and seeking to understand each other.
Creation or evolution: do we have to keep getting nowhere? In keeping with the book titles mentioned above, my question also anticipates a negative answer. No, we don’t have to keep getting nowhere. There is hope, and I am optimistic, that one day, before too long, it will not be so much a ‘debate’ about creation and evolution, with people taking ‘sides’, but a serious attempt by brothers and sisters in Christ to grapple together with these big questions, ‘until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’ (Ephesians 4:13, ESV).
From the Book of Common Prayer:
O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom: Defend us thy humble servants in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defence, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
O Lord, our heavenly Father, Almighty and everlasting God, who hast safely brought us to the beginning of this day: Defend us in the same with thy mighty power; and grant that this day we fall into no sin, neither run into any kind of danger; but that all our doings may be ordered by thy governance, to do always that is righteous in thy sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.