Friday, July 18, 2008

The Fathers and pacifism

There is an excellent article in Vol 33, Issue 1 of Themelios, in which Kirk MacGregor outlines the evidence from the ante-Nicene Fathers on their stance regarding Christians, violence, and soldiers. He outlines three facts in particular:
1. That until 174 AD, no Christians served in the military or assumed government office
2. From 174 to the Edict of Milan (313), the church treated Christians in such roles, or who had left such roles, with "great suspicion"
3. That the position of the church in this period was derived from a theory of nonviolence based on the preaching of Jesus.

Makes for a good read.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Introduction to Pax Christi series

In this series I will be producing an exegetical study of scriptural material dealing with the issues of violence and pacifism. My hope is to provide a thorough-going exegetical basis for pacifism as the dominant theological paradigm of Christian ethics. Each section will consider a passage of scripture, and explore the exegetical issues that relate directly to our question. I will begin with the Gospels and work through the New Testament corpus, before engaging specific Old Testament issues.

In doing so, I will lay out some theological prolegomena. I take it that, with a Chalcedonian Christology, Jesus the incarnate Son of God is paradigmatic for all Christian ethics. He is the image of God, par excellence, and insomuch as we were originally created in imagine Dei we are likewise called imitationi Christi. At few, and decisive, points our human life differs from the life of Jesus. I will highlight the importance of these in advance, and explore them in depth during our textual forays. Firstly, although we are explicitly called to follow Christ even if that means death, our deaths are divergent specifically in regards to the Atonement. This does not change the ethics of such sacrificial deaths, only the theological significance of Christ’s unique death, which is related both to his perfectly righteous human life, and his divine nature. Secondly, I will argue that there is a dimension of Christ’s eschatological judgment that relates specifically to his divine nature in a way that is not permitted to his human followers.

We will commence with the Gospels, in which I will treat parallel passages under one occurrence. I expect to exclude explicitly treating the Book of Revelation, which I consider the most powerful and persuasive text for a pacifist ethic, instead addressing such issues as the occur in my extended exegetical treatment of that book in its own series.

In this approach, I consider the New Testament to be determinative for a Christian ethic. In relating the New to the Old we can never be Marcionites, but nor can we adopt a merely harmonistic approach, especially if we seek to temper clear New Testament teachings by ‘balancing’ them with Old Testament theology. Rather, I will seek to outline the Old Testament’s theology of violence in a way both faithful to the Old Testament, and which allows us to see what the New Testament does with that theological tradition.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Secularist State

This is a response to the article, "In God's name" by Keith Austin, which appeared in the News Review section of the Sydney Morning Herald, 5th July 2008.

In this article Austin makes a case for a secular state, and canvases a number of contemporary issues. His thinking at various points seems confused, and deserves critical comment, which is where I begin this post. Austin begins by contemplating how Australia can 'make any significant progress as a multicultural and multi-religious soceity', and that this situation required us to get 'serious about the separation fo church and state and move[d] towards becoming a secular 21st century society.

Austin makes the point that being a secular society 'doesn't mean an anti-religious one, or a society without values'. He correctly asserts that secularism means a non-privileging of religious positions, and is distinct from atheism. He rightfully criticises those who collapse the idea of a secular society with an anti-religious society.

However, Austin fails to articulate the fact that a society will always have values, and those values will reflect the beliefs of its constituents. The values, or ethics, or a secular society are still grounded in a view about the world, just as a Christian ethic is grounded in a broader Christian understanding of the nature of things. I will return to this point later.

Austin quotes with approval Tom Frame, saying that '[a] truly pluralist, secular society...will..."avoid creating the conditions that can be exploited by those who misread the sacred texts of their religion and confuse persuasion with coercion, and faith with fear...."'. It seems to me here that this lack of clarity begins to become apparent: how does a secularist society determine that groups are misreading their sacred texts? What of faiths that faithfully read their sacred texts and conclude that coercion is consistent with their beliefs? Secularism of this kind runs the risk of depending on a relativist assumption - that all faiths can be assessed on some objective external criteria that is superior to the perspective of those faiths.

Austin then goes on to criticise Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, reported as saying he would listen with greater respect to parliamentarians whom he knew studies the Bible. Austin makes a bifurcation between Rudd's permission to follow his faith as a personal issue, and his right to allow that to influence his public role. Yet, I ask, isn't it equally likely that Rudd will listen with respect to a number of people, and listen less attentively to others? Surely we listen to people we consider to have integrity with greater attention, than to those we know to be hypocrits, corrupt, etc.. Faith is not the only criteria we apply in discriminating those 'worthy of a hearing', though those criteria, inevitably, are related back to a personal ethics and personal beliefs. The question shouldn't be whether a Christian PM will listen with greater attentiveness to those he respects, but whether he will give a hearing to those he disagrees with.

Continuing, Austin criticises elected leaders talking about Christian values, and correctly asserts what atheists and Christians agree on, "to be a Christian is to believe that all other faiths are mistaken, and profoundly so" (quoting Sam Harris). Yet, to be honest, isn't this also the position of the majority of adherents of other faiths? To be a Muslim is to believe that other faiths are wrong. To be an atheist is to deny the truth of all faiths that assert there is a god. It's a mark of those belief systems, and one that shouldn't need to be apologised for. The secularist issue is not whether people can hold those positions, but how that will impact civil society. Austin writes, "Political leaders are elected to represent the people - and that's all of them, not just the Reverent Fred Nile's chosen few". This is not a fair and accurate representation of the reality of the Australian political system. At best, our elections allow groups of people to chose a person to represent them, a person who is elected by a preferential-voting system, and so may actually be the first choice of a minority. Furthermore, their conduct in office is not beholden to their election or representation, so it is more accurate to describe them as elected leaders than elected representatives. Our system is set up so that people will elect a person, and by and large expect that elected leader to act in accord with how they have portrayed themselves, not as some kind of 'electorate barometer'.

The next section of Austin's article deals with education, in which he goes on the attack against faith-based schools receiving funding. Here is where I think Austin exhibits some confused thinking. Thinking on education has shifted from being considered, for a long time, a privilege, to now being considered a (human) right. With that has come the peculiar Australian concept of rights as obligations - education is not only a right, it's mandatory. Austin suggests that faith-based schools shouldn't be funded by a secular state. If he checks his history, he'll see that religious schools in NSW threatened to close for their lack of funding, and the state responded by providing funding because it knew it couldn't cope with the influx. Simply put, education is not a value-neutral 'product'. Parents, I would argue, retain the right to raise their children as they see fit, including determining their education. The kind of 'blank-slate' idea that some secularists advocate - raise kids agnostically, teach them objectively about all religions, and then let them decide - is really to default to a relativist ethic without acknowledging it.

Austin quotes Jefferson, "To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical". To insist that parents who desire the children to go to faith-based schools pay the whole sum is to ask them to do the same - fund secularist, agnostic education systems through taxation as well as pay for the education of their own children. If a secularist state is going to continue a dual right/obligation of education, is it really wrong for that state to fund religious schools, provided it consider all such applications for such schools with impartiality?

Blocking money to religious schools is the issue Austin ends on, an issue I think he's wrong about. But the deeper issue is this - what is the worldview that underwrites secularism, and what ethics is it going to uphold? As a christian, I also advocate a secularist state, but the secularism I advocate emerges from the Christian worldview, a faith that does believe faith must be non-coercive, persuasive not persecutionary. A faith that is subjectively held, but believes in objective truth.

Austin and secularists of his ilk need to own up to their own presuppositions. How will such a secularist society determine its laws? If one's faith-community thinks domestic violence, child abuse, coercion, and the like are consistent and coherent with its belief systems and not illegal, from what perspective will a multi-faith and multi-cultural society legislate against it? Austin likes to quote Jefferson, but Jefferson too is a product of his time and his beliefs, is he right, and how will we judge that?

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Revelation: an Introduction

In this post I will outline some of the preliminary matters that will guide my investigation of the book of Revelation over the coming months.

Date: The date of the composition of Revelation is a contentious issue. The two primary contenders have been during the reign of Nero and during the reign of Domitian. In light of some material in Revelation, notably some apparent references to the legend of Nero's return, apparent social pressure, and the likelihood that John's stay on Patmos is a form of exile, I favour a late date, circa 95AD, though I do not consider this necessarily important for our interpretation.

Authorship: About all we can say with certainty is that Revelation was written by a person called John. There is no reason to suppose that the work is pseudonymous, since it makes no claims to distinct authorship with authority. The evidence of linguistic difference between Rev. and the Gospel of John is a significant barrier to common apostolic authorship of both documents, though not a decisive one. I do not believe that we need to assert apostolic authorship, since Revelation itself does not assert so, though it remains possible. I consider the question open.

Situation: John composes Revelation in response to a visionary experience on the island of Patmos, originally occurring in the context of a Sunday worship meeting; he is likely on Patmos as a form of exile. The churches in Asia Minor are facing significant opposition and pressure, though not formalised or state-directed persecution. There are also significant elements within the churches that are, to John's eyes, betraying the christian faith through compromise and conformity with pagan- and Caesar- cults.

Genre: Revelation is best seen as a combination of epistle, prophecy, and apocalypse. The epistolary framework, including the prologue and epilogue, hold the book together as a work to be sent to the churches. John self-consciously considers himself a prophet, frames his commissioning as a prophet in line with the OT prophets, and makes extensive use of OT prophetic material. The primary genre identification remains 'apocalyptic'. I refer to the classic definition of apocalyptic literature by J.J. Collins as the product of the SBL working group:

An apocalypse is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial, insofar as it involves another, supernatural world

Revelation broadly conforms to this genre, though it has significant differences to other apocalypses that survive. The genre identification is particularly useful in considering Revelation's structure, purpose, and conventions, but far less useful in identifying background, meaning, and content, as John draws those materials primarily from OT precedents.

Interpretation: Largely agreeing with Beale, I consider that there are four levels at which Revelation needs to be read:
Linguistic - the text as it presents.
Visionary - the vision(s) John experienced.
Symbolic - the meaning and connotations of the visionary material he presents.
Referential - the (historical) referents of the symbolism used.

In following a modified-idealism, I consider Revelation to be a work that immediately addresses John's 1st century audience, that the symbols are multivalent and have multiple referents, that they have primary referents identifiable in John's own temporal context, but that these referents do not exhaust the meaning of his symbols, since they are trans-temporal (though not a-historical), and that identifying primary referents allows for mutual interpretation, as the connotations of symbols restructure our understanding of those referents, and our understanding of those referents adds further connotations to our interpretation of those symbols. Revelation is not primarily concerned with the prediction of specific future events or chronology, though it is eschatological in orientation, and portrays specific future realities in symbolic and theological form.

Next: Revelation: Structure

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Road Map: Posts to Come

I make no promises, but I've been thinking about how I can use blogging to more sharply put down my thoughts and bring them into written form. So, starting next week I'm going to try writing some regular entries, possibly 3-5 a week. These will include:

- finishing up a few posts on A Kingdom of Priests
- I will begin a long exegetical series entitled Pax Christi, in which I will work through the biblical data on violence and pacifism. We'll begin with the gospels, expand through the NT, and then work through the OT. My hope is to build a long-term exegetical case for a biblical theology of pacifism.

Interestingly, much as I appreciate both of them this post brings into sharp relief a difference between Piper and Driscoll. Piper (and his family I would think) have a faith committed to martyrdom, Driscoll has a theology that seems to demand killing, not dying, for his family.

- Possibly, I will write an exegetical series through Revelation, commentary style.
- Probably, I will write a series of posts examining Matthew's Christology in relation to his use of the Old Testament (this forms my second MTh subject)
- A series of poetry-analyses, 'The poetics of punk', in which I will critically analyse lyrics to punk songs.