Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Why Patristic Trinitarian Doctrine still matters

A minister friend of mine simply asked on Facebook: Is it a Trinitarian heresy to say: "God died"? which started a list of responses that is still going.

As I added a few thoughts, it started me thinking on a slight tangent. Which is this:

You can't disagree with the Patristic formulations of Trinitarian and Christological doctrine as expressed in 325, 381, 351 and the surrounding literature. At least, you can't if you want to continue to identify yourself with historic mainstream Christian orthodoxy.

Excluding for a moment (actually, it's a big discussion for another time), the Nestorian and other groups that split and flourished in the East and Africa, the bulk of identifiable Christian tradition has always confessed the creeds. In doing so, it has expressed the belief that the creeds articulate a Trinitarian orthodoxy that reflects the Scriptures.

So, appealing to the Scriptures to overturn the Creeds sounds like an attractive Protestant sola scriptura move, but it leaves one outside almost all Christian tradition and fellowship.

And yet, what is at stake in those formulations is that the Fathers argued, scripturally, to a way of understanding, so far as it went, the Trinity and the natures and persons of Christ, in a way that was faithful to scripture, while remaining coherent and logical, if at times paradoxical.

This is what so many do not grasp. It is also why the principle of partitive exegesis is both so prominent, and so enduringly important. Confronted with passages about the Son's inferiority and his equality, pro-Nicene exegetes began to distinguish the sense in which verses applied, whether they referred to the Economy of salvation, the humanity of Christ, and so forth, or to the eternal Son in his Divinity. If you don't deploy some form of partitive exegesis, which is what the non-Nicenes tended to do, you end up reading all those verses simpliciter, which is why they were forced to the conclusion that the Son is inferior in being to the Father.

But many Christians, including seminary graduates, don't realise this. Not realising it is not so much the problem, as trying to overturn it without a critical engagement. Abandoning Nicaea and the Nicene tradition is likely to land you in some half-thought-through form of Arianism (historically not a helpful label, but theologically so).

To return to the prompting question, it's not enough to say yes or no. The 4-5th solution gave us the tools to speak of the Person of the Son dying a human death in the economy of salvation, which his Divine Nature fully participated in without itself being subject to death. The death of the immortal God would be a contradiction: the death of the incarnate human-divine Son is a paradox that betrays the mysteries of redemption to us.

Stark, R, God's Battalions

I just finished reading this book on the train in today.

Stark's book is subtitled "The Case for the Crusades", and the book cover claims, "The Truth about the Christian Crusades and Muslim Jihad". That should give you a very quick ballpark for what Stark's book is going to be.

It's a fairly quick read, and the writing is quite accessible. That made it enjoyable to read. Secondly, I'm broadly sympathetic to where Stark is coming from: much historical writing about the Crusades is driven by ideology, and Stark's volume is a welcome response to attempts to glamorise Islamic civilisation of the period, demonise Christian Europe, or sideline religion as a component of this important time-period.

Nonetheless, I found Stark's book problematic on several levels. Firstly, Stark up-front admits he is not a historian of this period. Instead, he is writing a semi-popular work deriving all his research from other historians. That would be less frustrating, except for the painful combination of vague references to 'historians', endnotes instead of footnotes, and then those endnotes combined with an Author-Date referencing system to a separate bibliography. Essentially this makes following the reference trail 4-5 times more painful than it should be, and so one hardly makes the effort to check references at all.

Secondly, Stark is pro-West, pro-Christian, and 'pro-war'. I put the quotation marks around the later, because Stark doesn't reveal a position on it. I conjecture that Stark thinks the militant defence of Christians is a justifiable theological position. But his contempt for 'pacifists' is written into the pages of the text. Whatever one thinks of those issues, I think this position of Stark creates a historical weakness to his book: once he has found some justifications for the crusades, his historical analysis of reasons-for and conditions-of comes to a premature halt. More digging could have been done.

What is most welcome is Stark's contextualisation of factors like European technological superiority; religious motivations for the crusades; how, why, and where anti-Semitic violence occured; military and socio-economic reasons for the success of Crusader armies and the difficulties and failures of the Crusader states.

Stark's book leaves much to be desired, but it's still necessary reading. 3 stars.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Employ an assistant minister for a year?

Now that we're back (from Mongolia), let me give you a full glimpse of our situation. When I finished off seminary study in 2007 our plan was 3 years in a church, while finishing off the MTh, before heading overseas somewhere. Come the end of 2009 and the GFC, the church I was working in was financially unable to continue to employ all our staff, and I was out of a job.

The problem then, as now, is that we are much further down the track: we now know we want to go to Mongolia, are in the process of making all that happen, and have a rough timetable for getting there. It's one thing to say, "I'll come and work for you for 3 years, and then be heading off for overseas mission work", another to say, "I've got 18 months". We also decided it would be good for my wife to do some theological training, so suddenly we're looking for full-time work.

We approached a couple of churches, but for various reasons they said no. The time factor was not insignificant. Of course, we recognise it's better for a church worker to come and commit for longer. The longer, generally, the better.

But now we are heading towards crunch time. Ideally, my wife will start studying in July. I'll try and finish my studies by June. So now it's not 18 months to offer, it's a year. God-willing, a job of some sort will turn up. We're actually prepared to up and move to all sorts of places, though having an evangelical college for my wife to study at is kind of a limiting factor.

Plan B, so far as it goes, is to take whatever work I can manage. Secular; part-time; piecemeal; online; so long as it pays some bills and keeps a roof over our head and some food in our bellies. There's a few options floating around, but not many.

That's where we're at. I commend us to your prayers.

Here is a slightly truncated version of my CV, in case you were going to offer me a job.

Friday, March 26, 2010

How to fail, part 586: Referencing

Step 1: Use Endnotes, rather than Footnotes. This forces the reader to either hopelessly try to remember references when later reading those Endnotes, or put fingers in the text and the Endnotes and flick between them.

Step 2: Use the Author-Date referencing system, and provide a separate bibliography. So when the poor reader flicks to the Endnotes, they read an incomprehensible reference to an author, and must then consult the bibliography to find out what book is being referred to.

Well done, you have saved but a small amount of ink, and hardly any readability, by transferring all reference work onto your reader, thus multiplying their work by about a factor of 50, and ensuring they will never bother to follow any of your references!

This method is fail.

Special mention to R. Stark's "God's Battalions", where I first encountered this travesty of referencing.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

There goes my thesis idea

Following on from my MTh, I have a PhD planned, probably starting in 2011. Sadly, Ayres has (unsurprisingly) rendered the bulk of my idea null and void, as you can see if you go to his profile at Durham, and look at his publications, including the forthcoming volume including a translation of Didymus the Blind's "On the Holy Spirit".

What I need is a good untranslated work or works by a 4th century theologian to work on....

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Theft, Piracy, and Copyright Infringement

The Content Holders have woken up and realised that calling copyright infringement "piracy" is a policy that seems to have backfired.

Seems a good time to remind people that copyright infringement and theft are equally disparate terms. Theft as Wikipedia helpfully points out, with some apt quotations from statutory law, is a property crime that involves deprivation of property from one person to another.

Copying, by definition, cannot be theft. Copying involves the replication of something, tangible or intangible. It isn't the deprivation of a limited good, it's the multiplication of a good. Our whole computerised civilisation is built on the copying of data. The internet's very method of existence is copying.

When people talk about copyright infringement as theft, they are engaging in the same rhetorical trick as 'piracy'. It's an emotionally laden term meant to draw attention to the loss of producers. But it also muddies the waters. Few people are "pro-theft", but copyright infringement isn't theft. To have intelligent debate and meaningful dialogue on what copyright laws should and shouldn't be, requires us to jettison false equivalences like copyright infringement = theft.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Ten, that's all you need.

While waiting for some students to turn up for some English Conversation practice today, I was reading my way through Patrick Lai's excellent book, "Tentmaking: Business as Missions", and I was struck by this quote (well, paraphrase, since I didn't bring the book home and thus don't have it to hand):

It takes only ten employed believers tithing to support a pastor.

Not to say that we should only have pastors for every ten persons.
Not to say that tithing is the biblical benchmark for giving.

But, it's blindingly, obviously true. Ten employed believers tithing regularly can support a full-time Christian worker.

What does that say about our giving?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Towards cogency on Genesis, Evolution, Science and Theology

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about the topics mentioned in the title. It seems to me that many who occupy pulpits or the like in the Sydney-associated region have a mindset (that I have shared) that goes likes this: Genesis 1-3 isn't about science, it's about theology. So I can just teach the theology, and ignore the other issues. There's some truth to that, and it's fine as far as it goes, but I think we need something more robust.

1. This approach utterly fails to help people deal with historical scientific investigations of the development and origin of the world.
2. This approach utterly fails to help people deal with the literary forms of Genesis in any significant way.
3. This approach overlays theology and history in early Genesis, without giving us any grasp for how we might disentangle them

The way I see it, one needs to do the hard work to reach a certain position. This hard work should include:

1. Understanding the basic elements of the current Scientific Consensus on the Theory of Evolution. You don't need to master the intricacies of it, you do need to understand what Evolution actually is.

2. If you can do (1), then you also need to manage (2): an understanding of the principle of methodological naturalism that undergird science as a method. Methodological naturalism is foundational for science. Of course, methodological naturalism paves the way for philosophical naturalism, which is why atheism is so quick to ally itself with science. That is to be expected. Christians need to be able to articulate a counter-claim for why methodological naturalism does not guarantee, in fact cannot guarantee, philosophical naturalism.

3. Read up on Abiogenesis. Because Evolution has nothing to do with the origin of life, only the development of life forms. Far too many people collapse the two, and articulating the difference is worth it. Abiogenesis is an open scientific question.

4. Grapple with Genesis 1-11. It's not enough to embrace the literary framework method. One needs to read up on it, apply it, and be able to articulate one's position. This needs to include the ability to distinguish between what Genesis is saying (its real theological affirmations) and the form in which it is saying it.

5 Significant problems. At this point, I am fairly agnostic on questions of how God created the world. Genesis doesn't answer those, and I'm still working through these issues. I'm also not a scientist. But it's too glib for Christians to go “oh, evolution and Christianity have no real contradictions, I see no problem”. That's true, as far as it goes, but you will still need to come to terms with significant issues: suffering and death in the natural world pre-Fall (the problem of natural evil); the inefficiency of evolution as a design-method; the historicity of Adam (which seems difficult to avoid given the theological function his historical existence plays in later scripture), etc..

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Femicide, etc.

John Hobbins gets it dead right reflecting on the recent Economist article on Gendercide.

I had the fortune to attend a book launch by Xinran in Sydney shortly before our departure, in which she spoke about her new book, "Message from an unknown Chinese Mother", in which she tells some of the gut-wrenching realities of China's women. Xinran shared one story that reduced her to tears, herself being unable to save one girl in particular.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Hauerwas on realism, just war, and the American way

It took me a real long time to get around to reading this essay by Hauerwas, "Why War is a Moral Necessity for America or How Realistic Is Realism?". I don't always agree with where Stanley is coming from, but his insights and breadth of learning are always appreciated. Take the time, go and read it now.

H/T to Destroy: Ideas

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Categorising violence, the atonement, and pacifism

A brief guide to violence in the Scriptures

Of course, it has been some time since I was working systematically through the Scriptures on the topic of violence. I will return to it sometime. But perhaps it will give you some food for thought if I overview my schema for understanding violence in the Scriptures. This is still a thought-in-process.

The Lord gives life and the Lord takes it away. There is an absolute sovereignty that belongs to God as Creator, over all creation, which alters the moral dimension between God and creatures. In one sense, God is the one who kills everybody. If you don't believe that, then every death in the world is immoral, and God is to blame.

If you do believe it, then the OT becomes a lot easier to grapple with. The second piece of the puzzle is to recognise that death in the OT, as far as humanity is concerned, is paradigmatically given as judgement, as seen in Genesis 2-4. So every human death is God's responsibility and is an act of judgement towards sin.

So once you get to all those passages about God using people to destroy nations and commit genocide, there is a sense in which there is nothing problematic going on for God: He is Creator and He is Judge, and he is executing judgement on sinners. In fact, it is only the cultural developments from the NT onward that make us uneasy – I would suggest that in the cultural setting of the ANE and the OT period, these kinds of actions by people were not considered utterly outrageous.

And yet there is something unique about them. The theocratic uniqueness of Israel, and the time and place in redemption-history, and the relationship of God to his people then and there, is not repeated throughout the Scriptures.

This is why it is vitally important to get both the Atonement and the Ethics of Jesus correct. In the death of Jesus, the Son dies for our sins, he receives the punishment of death we deserve, having lived the life we ought. There is real sacrificial substitutionary atonement taking place. Because of Jesus' death, the grace of mercy, the grace of sins forgiven, is possible, and is extended to the world.

And God's desire is to save sinners through Jesus' death and resurrection. His preference is to save, not to judge. That's the whole basis of the gospel proclamation: that God desires to save sinners through faith in that atoning death.

The second thing we need to grasp is that the NT does a number of important things ethically and theologically. Firstly, it spiritualises a lot of OT themes. In the OT material wealth is seen as a sign of God's blessing, but the NT overturns this view of things, and talks about heavenly riches in Christ. In the OT the land is the physical environment of Israel, but the promised land of the NT is eschatological. In the OT, the ultimate punishment of the believing community is the death penalty. In the NT, I would argue, it is excommunication: spiritual exile and spiritual death. So, too, when you read through passages talking about violence in the NT (Ephesians 5, for example), the realm of conflict is spiritual, not physical.

Secondly, it constitutes a different relationship between God and his people. Following on from my point about the death penalty and excommunication: the death penalty remains in the NT, but it remains for the state. I take it that this is a part of what Romans 13 means with the “sword”. There is a difference, a marked difference, between the Church in the NT, and the governing authorities of nations. This has a number of results, but the primary one in view here is that the Church does not wield physical force to defend itself, to enforce its internal judicial affairs, or to execute judgement.

Thirdly, the point of imitation is precisely in Jesus' death-resurrection pattern. I think Tim Chester's “The Ordinary Hero” does a great job of drawing this out. Our life as Christians is modelled on Christ, who went to the cross. The paradigm of victory in the NT is the suffering death of Jesus. Christ is only Victor because he is Victim. We are called to take up our cross, to suffer innocently as Jesus' suffered (1 Peter). I would contend that it is very hard to read the NT and conclude that Christians are to use physical violence. Even Just-War proponents should admit this: Just-War doctrine emerges from a philosophical contemplation of the problems of lesser evils, and application of abstracted principles from the Scriptures. It lacks a thorough grounding in the person and work of Jesus.

The net effect of these is that the effecting of judgement is taken out of the hands of God's people. Violence is proscribed. Even for self-defence. Forgiveness, not vengeance, is the priority. And the safeguard of justice is two-edged: the death of Jesus on the cross, and the Eschatological Justice of the coming Judge. This moves us into the third movement of the symphony: judgement in the end. Christ will return, and he will come as judge of the living and the dead. And yet, the whole book of Revelation is profoundly not about Jesus coming to conquer, it is about the Lamb who was slain who has already conquered. The great moment of victory already happened: it was the cross. Revelation is profoundly anti-militant, and Jesus comes to execute judgement by his word.

This is why a biblical pacifism is rooted in both judgement and atonement. Without judgement, evil reigns and God is permissive. Without judgement, we are continually compelled by the argument that “pacifism doesn't work”. But with a robust doctrine of judgement, we trust in the faithfulness of a sovereign God who hates evil and will bring evil to an end, moreso He loves humanity and sent Jesus to atone for evil and conquer it through his death.

Therefore, we don't need to win justice for ourselves and exact it on our enemies: God is Judge. We don't need to be continually behold to the realpolitik of “what works” - God is Sovereign. We do need to pattern our lives after the suffering Messiah: and our present suffering is not to be compared with the glory that will be revealed.