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Ministry in Three Dimensions

Steven Croft: Ministry in Three DimensionsI’m writing this from the Bible Belt of the Netherlands: a strip running from the south west towards the east of the country, in which there are many conservative Protestant Christians. As a result of the pillarisation of Dutch society, for well over a century, there has been a whole ‘pillar’ of society shaped by Protestant or Reformed Christian thinking. Many or most Christians send their children to Christian schools, read Christian newspapers, listen to Christian radio stations, watch Christian TV stations (or don’t watch TV at all), and vote for Christian political parties. This has allowed the church to remain strong, even in an increasingly non-Christian society, and has allowed it to continue to operate largely in what Steven Croft refers to as ‘inherited mode’ in his book, Ministry in Three Dimensions: Ordination and Leadership in the Local Church.

Steven Croft was Warden of Cranmer Hall in Durham when he wrote the first edition of the book (1999). The second edition (2008) was written while he was Archbishops’ Missioner and Team Leader of Fresh Expressions. Since 2009 he has been the Bishop of Sheffield.

The ‘inherited mode’ he refers to is a legacy of Christendom. Church congregations are sustainable and largely self-perpetuating. Children are born into the church, nurtured in the faith, and remain in the church into adulthood. In the Dutch Bible Belt, or in certain towns and villages in England, the churches are large and exist comfortably as part of an existing community, in which people encounter one another outside of the church context in their day-to-day lives, and in which church involvement is an accepted part of many people’s lives. Or in many smaller, conservative churches in England, the church family forms a closely-knit alternative society to the world around, and is largely self-perpetuating in the same way. In either of these cases, the pastor or vicar can focus almost exclusively on what Croft calls the ‘presbyteral’ dimension of ministry, which is centred around the ministry of the word and sacrament.

However, in many churches, and perhaps most Church of England churches, this kind of ministry has not been sufficient. (Nor is it likely to be sufficient in many others in the years to come, except in certain ‘magnet’ churches in prominent cities.) The faithful have been growing old and dying, and the younger generations have not replaced them, either because they have fallen away, moved away, or not been born in the first place. Some churches have simply been shrinking and closing. Others have sought to reshape ordained ministry as ‘leadership’, drawing on secular models of management. Neither of those approaches is ideal, for obvious reasons.

Into this context, Croft seeks to draw on the rich biblical material on ministry and leadership. In particular, he seeks to draw on two often-neglected dimensions of ministry: diakonia (service) and episcope (oversight).

Many will be familiar with the historic threefold ordering of ordained ministry into deacons, presbyters (elders, priests) and bishops. Croft is by no means opposed to this (and sees hints of its emergence even in the New Testament), but his purpose is to see these primarily as dimensions of all ordained ministry, with the different orders reflecting a different emphasis. So, for example, the ministry of bishops will have an emphasis on episcope, but will nonetheless be shaped by diakonia, and have a strong presbyteral dimension. This reflects the New Testament usage, perhaps most strikingly in Acts 20, in which Paul speaks to the elders in Ephesus, emphasising the importance of both service (diakonia) and exercising oversight (episcope).

The book deals with each of these dimensions in turn, first diakonia, then the presbyteral dimension, then episcope. In each case, the biblical material is examined, followed by the Christian tradition, and then many practical lessons are drawn for contemporary ministry, primarily for those serving in a local church context. All of this is extraordinarily helpful. However, the final chapter, added for the second edition, hints at how the book might have taken a different shape, had a rewrite of the book been possible.

On episcope, in this final chapter, Croft now places the emphasis on the ordained ministers watching over themselves (‘Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock’, Acts 20:28). Other elements of episcope include enabling the ministry of others, and giving vision and unity to a church while helping it to navigate change. For this essential dimension of ministry, ‘There is much that the Church can learn from good practice developed over many years in the commercial world or in the public sector’ (p. 27). However, this wisdom should be appropriated without turning ordained ministry into a form of ‘leadership’ modelled on the surrounding culture.

In particular, and in contrast to models of leadership and management, all ordained ministry should retain the dimension of diakonia: Christian service. This is ‘the most important of the three dimensions if ministry and leadership are to be truly Christian and Christ-like’ (p. 45). This will include simple, hidden, practical acts of service, service to the community, competent and careful administration, listening to others, humility and integrity.

The final chapter of the book takes diakonia in an interesting direction. Croft draws on the work of John Collins, who ‘argues that the root meaning of [diakonia] in the New Testament is actually better understood not only as loving service but also mission or agency. A diakonos is primarily someone who is sent on behalf of someone else’ (p. 202). Croft links this closely with the ‘Fresh Expressions’ movement of the past decade or so, which is not so much about sustaining existing communities, as about ‘forming new communities through contextual mission’ (p. 201). Someone whose ministry is shaped by diakonia will be a pioneer, seeking to take the gospel beyond the world of the existing congregations and into new ground.

Like the church reflected in Ephesians 4, we need our pastors and teachers (the focus of presbyteral ministry) but also our evangelists (the focus of diaconal ministry) (p. 208).

The book’s final paragraph provides a good summary:

Like the apostle [Paul in Ephesus], we too are called to these different ministries within one body of Christ: to sustain existing communities through the ministries of word and sacrament; to pioneer new communities to connect with those who are right outside the churches and to exercise oversight over the whole church, connecting the different parts together and enabling the church to be built up and God’s kingdom extended. The calling of all of the ordained is to ministry in three dimensions (p. 210).

Do you feel called by God?

Michael Bennett: Do you feel called by God?You don’t need to!

That’s the main point of Michael Bennett’s 2012 book, Do you feel called by God? (Matthias Media). From the back cover:

When Michael Bennett took the first steps towards full-time, ordained Christian ministry, he dreaded being asked whether he ‘felt called’. Because in all honesty, he didn’t.

Many years later, and after extensive biblical research, he came to the conclusion that the common idea of needing to feel a subjective call from God before entering the ministry is misguided and unbiblical.

It’s a readable, short and engaging book. The substantial part is an examination of the biblical material. He notes that, in the Old and New Testaments, people do indeed find themselves being called by God, such as Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Mary, the Twelve Apostles, Paul and Jesus himself. But the call these people receive may be described as follows:

The word of God comes directly and personally to one of God’s people, specifically directing that individual to assume a defined role or task as God’s chosen leader, representative or spokesperson (pp. 37, 48).

As such, this kind of ‘call’ is clear, undeniable, and external or objective. It hardly needs to be said that elders (presbyters) in the New Testament are not appointed on the basis that they have received a ‘call’ of this nature. Nor is their appointment described using the language of ‘call’. And, crucially, nowhere in Scripture, Old or New Testament, is there any concept of feeling called.

You do not find Isaiah, for instance, saying later that he experienced an inward spiritual impression that he should take up the prophetic role (p. 40).

So if a deep, subjective, inner sense of call is not the decisive factor, then what are the qualifications that should be required of an ordained minister?

The helpful answer comes under two headings:

  1. He must be rightly motivated for ministry (p. 122), and
  2. He must be rightly tested for ministry (p. 125).

The less helpful answer verges on denying that there is such a thing as ordained ministry.

After pointing out that all Christians are called into ministry (compare the different translations of Ephesians 4:11-13), Bennett seeks to find appropriate words to describe the kind of ministry done by pastors. It isn’t ‘full-time’ ministry, ‘as all believers are in “full-time” ministry from the moment of conversion’ (p. 115). After some struggle, the best way he can find to describe this kind of ministry is ‘career ministry’ (p. 115).

By ‘career minister’, then, we mean a person who sets aside normal means of secular employment for the sake of being more fully devoted to gospel work, and who usually is supported financially in this work by other believers (p. 116).

I’m not sure this is entirely satisfactory. Admittedly, it is a small book, and this isn’t a major part of it, so I shouldn’t dwell on this. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood? But I do think some comments are in order. First, ‘career ministry’ unhelpfully excludes those ‘amateurs’ and ‘part-timers’ who have a secular career but labour away at pastoral ministry in their free time. (The Apostle Paul springs to mind: see 2 Corinthians.) Second, it makes no distinction between those who are legitimately authorised for their ‘career ministry’ by a church and those who are not. There are plenty of self-appointed charlatans who exploit the generosity of other believers in order to support their ‘career ministries’. And, third, it does seem that pastors (elders, presbyters) in the New Testament are nouns as well as verbs. For comparison, Jane believes that God wants her to spend today teaching, not only because she is good at teaching, but because she is a teacher. Jim believes that God wants him to spend today practising nursing, not only because he is good at nursing, but because he is a nurse. In the same way, John believes that God wants him to spend today exercising pastoral ministry, not only because he is good at doing that kind of thing, but because he is a pastor. There is a sense in which someone is objectively appointed to pastoral ministry, beyond simply being resourced to do the work.

So what should you say if asked, for example, ‘to articulate a sense of vocation to the ordained ministry’? I suppose you could simply speak about why you want to be an ordained minister. Why does the prospect excite you? There is (or should be) no need to gaze deep into your navel, searching for some illusive inner sense of ‘feeling called’.

God with us (in the lab)

There’s a post of mine on the Faith in Scholarship blog this morning. It begins as follows…

It’s hard to predict how I will feel at the end of the Christmas break. Will I be refreshed and eager to get back to work? Or will the thought fill me with dread? Or both?

It can be especially difficult when your day-to-day work is somewhat mind numbing. Every PhD has these phases. (If yours doesn’t, I want to know your secret!) How can you go from pondering the birth of Jesus Christ one week, to spend the next week wrestling with your data, poring over arcane ancient texts, fighting with test tubes, dredging through reams of articles, or debugging your spaghetti-like code?

It all depends on how we approach Christmas. …

Read more…

On women bishops

This week (in case you missed it) the Church of England announced its first ever female bishop: Libby Lane, to serve as the (suffragan) Bishop of Stockport, in my own diocese, the Diocese of Chester.

How are we to respond to this?

On a personal level, we should certainly pray for Libby Lane, that her ministry as Bishop of Stockport will be fruitful, and that God will use her to build up his church.

But we have to face the question of whether it is right for the Church of England to have women bishops at all.

I’m not sure that it is. And by ‘not sure’, I mean precisely that: not sure! On the one hand, there do seem to be significant differences between men and women, and those differences do seem to be reflected in how God’s people have been governed, for example, with male priests in the Old Testament, with the twelve apostles all being men, and with (it seems) male elders being appointed and given a specific teaching ministry in the New Testament church. (Can all this be explained purely in terms of the cultural context?) But, on the other hand, women do seem to be given a much more prominent role in the New Testament church, and there are hints of women being among the apostles, serving as deacons, and being recognized as elders (or eldresses, at least).

For what it’s worth, some articles I am pondering at the moment are:

However, despite my uncertainty on the issue, there is one thing I am convinced about: that that Church of England ought to be broad enough to embrace that huge constituency of the worldwide church that believes either that women cannot or should not be ordained as presbyters or consecrated as bishops.

First, there are those who believe that women cannot be ordained. Can they remain in the Church of England?

Forward in Faith, as part of a commentary on the Church of England’s five guiding principles on the issue of women bishops, make an interesting distinction between the office of bishop and the order of bishop:

If the Rector of Barchester is a woman, we don’t say that the office of rector is vacant. She is the true and lawful holder of that office. She is the rector, but we cannot say that she is a priest. There is in in fact much precedent for church offices that were originally held by clergy being held by people who are not priests: there have been lay rectors — and, in cathedrals, lay canons and lay vicars.

Similarly, if the Bishop of Barchester is female, she will be the true and lawful holder of the office of diocesan bishop. We cannot say that she is a bishop in the sacramental sense (order), but as ‘holder of the office of diocesan bishop’ she will be a bishop in the other sense (office).

Second, there are those who believe that women should not be ordained. Can they remain in the Church of England?

In this case, it ought to be possible to say that, even though a certain woman is your bishop, she shouldn’t be your bishop. This is not dissimilar to having a male heretic as your bishop: he is your bishop, but he shouldn’t be. And churches have muddled through in those cases where they have found themselves with a bishop who shouldn’t be a bishop on the grounds of his theology or teaching. Shouldn’t it be similarly possible to muddle through if you believe your bishop shouldn’t be a bishop on the grounds of her being a woman?

The fourth of the five guiding principles mentioned above reads as follows:

Since those within the Church of England who, on grounds of theological conviction, are unable to receive the ministry of women bishops or priests continue to be within the spectrum of teaching and tradition of the Anglican Communion, the Church of England remains committed to enabling them to flourish within its life and structures.

I sincerely hope that this will prove to be the case. I would love to see the Church of England being a church in which all who sincerely love the Lord Jesus can continue to find a home.

Theological reflection: a theological reflection

1. Experience

I wrote a theological reflection. You are reading it.

2. Exploration

This seems so simple!

3. Reflection

Are there any theological reflections in Scripture?

  • Psalm 73 (NIV).
    • Experience: “I envied the arrogant” (1-3).
    • Exploration: “They have no struggles” (4-15).
    • Reflection: “I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny” (16-20).
    • Response: “I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds” (21-28).
  • 1 Samuel 28 (NIV).
    • Experience and exploration: “When Saul saw the Philistine army, he was afraid” (3-5).
    • Reflection: “He enquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer him” (6).
    • Response: “Saul then said to his attendants, ‘Find me a woman who is a medium, so that I may go and enquire of her.’” (7).

It seems that the latter is an example of a bad theological reflection!

4. Response

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.

Models of the Church

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’.

Avery Dulles: Models of the 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.

The Provocative Church

Graham Tomlin: The Provocative ChurchA 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.

The Lost World of Genesis One

John Walton: The Lost World of Genesis OneContinuing 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.

Weapons cause wars: Alan Storkey on the First World War

Alan StorkeyI 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.

Astronomy through a Christian telescope

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.

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