God

Christian Reflections on the Coronavirus: A Rebuke to Modern Illusions

Introduction

Like so many people over the past few months, I have been somewhat unnerved by the Coronavirus outbreak. Never in my lifetime have I experienced a phenomenon whose reach has been truly global, even as its effects are felt in the most intimate corners of daily existence. A lingering atmosphere of confusion brims with tales of the virus, abetted by rumour and exaggeration. Signs of its presence have been everywhere: in nations trying to wall themselves off to halt the spread of infection; in the pangs of hesitation one feels over the simplest of social interactions; or in the eerily empty streets of once bustling city centres. An unceasing stream of media reports have revealed the apparent power of the contagion to warp social reality – threatening to unravel those dense webs of habit and custom within which a safe, predictable life is made possible. That COVID-19 is a silent, spectral force only seems to add to the prevailing mood of unease.

Shattering human illusions

One thing that has struck me about this crisis is the way it has dramatically laid bare many of the illusions that beguile human beings, especially those of us who have been conditioned and shaped by the modern world. Nowhere is this more obvious than in our distorted relationship with nature.

Enslaving nature

Human beings have long sought to dominate the natural world, convinced that it would placidly submit to the hand of man. It’s a conceit to which people in the West are particularly vulnerable, something that has been true since at least the time of the Enlightenment and its immediate precursors. Whether one traces this turn to the early scientific work of Francis Bacon – who sought to expand the bounds of humanity’s imperial enslavement of nature – the Cartesian separation of the mental from the physical, or even the emerging mechanistic picture of creation (for machines can usually be manipulated at will), the Enlightenment has led inexorably to the conviction that human mastery over the natural realm is both possible and desirable.

The development of science was a key part of this attempt to exercise sovereignty. It was believed that through scientific discovery and technological progress, human beings would succeed in wresting nature’s secrets from her, enabling them to predict, channel, and control her course. Beneath this enterprise lay a thoroughly instrumental conception of nature, which held that the natural environment was valuable only insofar as it could be exploited by humanity in its relentless pursuit of advancement; as theologian Michael Northcott has eloquently observed, nature was seen merely as “malleable matter available for reconstitution in the service of human wants”. Any notion that it was a force of independent or intrinsic worth, to which human beings would sometimes have to defer, gradually receded.

Belief in the inevitability of technological progress and its unrivalled ability to tame nature has, of course, seeped into Western consciousness during the succeeding centuries. The expectation that human beings will ultimately succeed in pacifying ever-larger tracts of the natural environment is now an article of secular faith. Similarly, the idea that sufficient application of technical acumen to a particular problem will solve it is now a cherished part of the modern canon.

It is certainly true that scientific advancements have had remarkable success in allowing people to enjoy respite from nature’s onslaught. Nor can it be denied that harnessing natural forces has brought immeasurable gains to vast numbers of people. A mixture of stunned amazement and humble gratitude is often the most appropriate – indeed, the only – response. Of course, one may ask whether this alone justifies the Panglossian predictions made for human capacity. Just as relevant is the fact that as such progress emerged and took root, it inevitably changed the relationship between human beings and their environments. Humans consequently began to view themselves, not as integrated members of the natural order, but as something above and apart from it.

Trying to break out of nature’s orbit

To talk of human transcendence over nature is to highlight a second key presumption inherent in modernity. Its connection with human attempts to domesticate the natural order is one of mutual reinforcement: allegedly sitting above the system of nature in an ontologically exterior realm, humanity came to see itself as free to shape that system at will; meanwhile, the undeniable success of such efforts simply legitimised the expansion of human empire, reinforcing the exalted position they had arrogated for themselves. It is not inaccurate to say that the accomplishments of science both bred and buttressed a metaphysical and ethical position concerning the relationship between human beings and their environment. Whatever the logical defects of that move, it, too, is part of the philosophical foundation of the modern West.

Descartes’ views on the connection between the mental and the physical may help explain these shifts. The Cartesian divorce between the intellectual and material dimensions of human beings had its external analogue in the separation between humanity – the only earthly beings possessed of rationality, the sine qua non of the mental – and nature-at-large. As science writer Alex Blum has observed, Descartes’ metaphysical commitments unwittingly structured modern science so as to conceive of human being existing “outside” nature. The French philosopher himself talked of humans becoming “masters and possessors of nature”, a phrase which also reflects the highly instrumentalist character he attributed to it. Combined with the objectifying gaze of emerging scientific discourse, the transcendence of the human person over nature was now churning within the bowels of Western culture. With the establishment of this hierarchy, human beings – now metaphysically unshackled from the natural world – could act as its overlords, manipulating their environment “to suit [their] own ambitions”.

Coronavirus and the unseating of modern dogmas

The rapid emergence of COVID-19 over the past three months is a rebuke to such hubris. It is also a stern reminder that for all the confidence we place in human ingenuity, nature cannot finally be tamed. Whatever local forms of control human beings exert over their environments, they remain contingent or provisional – and, more to the point, far more vulnerable to collapse than we would care to admit. Many people in the global South are inured to nature’s caprice, of course; to the devastation it has wrought, whether through a decades-long drought or a deadly Ebola outbreak. It is citizens residing in the developed world – those who often enjoy the luxury of being able to avoid nature’s encroachments – who are now experiencing life in the shadow of something that continues to elude the most assiduous efforts to control it. That vulnerability, long concealed by a seemingly unending conveyor belt of technological marvels, is now being unmasked.

All the economic might and technical sophistication of the modern West has, in many places, failed to stave off the spread of the virus. In fact, it’s precisely those symbols of Western-inspired progress – international travel and trade, ageing societies, industrialisation, and high-density urban environments – that have amplified the threat, contributing to the spread and lethality of COVID-19. Far from conquering the natural world, people are now quite literally retreating in the face of nature’s advance: leaving their cities bereft and empty, and ensconcing themselves in their homes to evade the contagion’s grasp. And even where it has been successfully suppressed, victory has only been secured at the cost of economic ruin.

Yes, human beings have successfully shaped aspects of the natural world. Such will no doubt continue after the present crisis subsides. But the virus has jolted us into recognizing an obvious truth: that nature’s teeming complexity persistently outstrips our ability to fully comprehend – and therefore fully control – its many secrets.

The world of economic networks provides a useful analogy. Philosopher Edward Feser recently wrote about the late F.A. Hayek, arguing that the Anglo-Austrian economist believed that the “deep reason” socialism could not work in practice is that human planners simply cannot hold within their mental grip the “vast aggregate” of human needs and wants composing an economic system. Imagine, then, attempting to firmly grasp (much less dominate) the entire scheme of nature, including its near-limitless ensemble of organisms and ecological cycles. The natural world is a great, roiling cauldron, its various ingredients clashing – sometimes violently – in ways so diverse that they defy human calculation. Moreover, as anthropologist Nicholas Kawa has written (in relation to modern Amazonian farmers), our environments, far from being docile or compliant, frequently exhibit a “robust, defiant vitality” in the face of human efforts to conquer them. COVID-19 is only the latest manifestation of that defiance. What can this mean but that total sovereignty over the natural world will forever remain a vaporous dream – a “chasing after the wind” (to borrow from Ecclesiastes)?

This basic lack of control applies even to that part of nature we know best: our own bodies. Whilst there have been far deadlier pandemics in human history, the Coronavirus is probably the largest mass health event of the late-modern age – an era of rapidly ageing populations, advanced medicine, and the miracle-like defiance of death’s ravages. Although the world’s immiserated past and present have known that life is a delicate gift, modern folk are “culturally insulated…from the notion of death…”. The relentless, exhausting ubiquity of the present outbreak, uprooting and frustrating every dimension of the ordinary, or tearing at communities in highly developed nations, has forced us into a reckoning with our own mortality – the necessary sequel to our finitude and creatureliness. Human illusions have once again been exposed by the pathogen, particularly where they have taken root in cultures that simply expect inexorable progress. Rather than bending nature to the force of our collective will, we are invariably its subjects.

In similar fashion, the contagion shatters the belief that humanity occupies a position of transcendence over nature. That much should be apparent from what I have said about the virus and the human body, with our native fragility exposed in the most intimate fashion. COVID-19 forces us to recognize the sobering fact that human beings, for all their unique capabilities, remain denizens of the natural order. We are not so thoroughly different that we can claim some kind of ontological autonomy; the boundaries between humanity and the rest of the created world remain permeable. Whatever else it is, humanity is ineradicably physical, having been formed by the same material compounds that compose the environments we inhabit and the resources we consume. Not only do we depend on propitious circumstances within nature for our survival; we are also shaped by the natural world to a remarkable degree, even at the level of deep genetic change (as the field of epigenetics is rapidly discovering). Our corporeality means that we are conditioned by the natural world – whether for good or for ill – for we cannot exist as fully enfleshed human beings apart from that framework. As theologian Christopher Benson has rightly pointed out, our embodied state means that we cannot be completely “sealed off”, as it were, from the external world. We cannot avoid the truth that we are integrated members of precisely the same ecological system that produced COVID-19. All of us are bound to a system that not only sustains us, but also leaves us vulnerable to its predations.

Seeking guidance from a more ancient source

The pathogen has surely succeeded in undermining modern pretensions. But might it not also clear ground for new attitudes to take root – attitudes that are more consistent with reality as one finds it?

The Christian Scriptures and the wisdom they have inspired lay out the rudiments of an alternative approach to the natural world. For one thing, the Bible provides clear witness to nature’s untameable power. Whether one envisions the present natural world as an Augustinian corruption from a paradisal state, or as an unfinished project still wrestling with discordant elements, the fact remains that it is replete with titanic forces that frequently issue in destruction. Even a brief glance, say, at the psalms reveals word after poetic word concerning creation’s ferocity. The sea, for example, was often used as a particularly arresting image for the looming chaos that threatened God’s people (e.g., Pss 29:3-10; 69:14-15; 77:16; 104:6-9). Such was its raw, inscrutable, untamed power that it functioned as the perfect embodiment for cosmic evil. Only Yahweh himself, Israel’s covenant God, was able to tame those unruly forces, shutting up the sea and subduing the mythical beasts of Leviathan and Behemoth (Ps 104:7-9; Job 41). These elements resonated as well as they did because people intuitively understood that the natural world is a fearsome, independent power, often exceeding – and even overwhelming – humanity’s capacity to control it.

The book of Job, with its extended meditation on suffering, offers particular insights in this regard. By the end of his confrontation with God, Job himself arrives at a fresh understanding of the limits of his own vision. He recognizes anew his small and restricted place within the grand production of nature: a world that exhibits both comforting regularities and the rude shock of unexpected destruction (Job 42:3b). His sober conclusion comes after the divine speeches, in which the Creator humbles the protagonist with a battery of rhetorical questions about the nature of creation (Job 38-40). Such questions serve to underscore the relative powerlessness of human beings in the face of creation’s apparently unbounded character. The unavoidable implication is, of course, that only the sovereign Creator is capable of bringing to heel the natural world.

The appearance of COVID-19 should provoke us towards a similar change: a re-orientation of our relationship to the natural world, which reflects the sobriety of scriptural tradition. To be sure, the ancients were at the mercy of natural forces in a way that isn’t quite true for many of us today. But with the virus having undercut the modern aspiration of control over nature and her ways, the time is ripe for re-acquaintance with the biblical picture of a dynamic, sometimes unbridled creation – at once fit for human habitation and a place of lurking, unseen risk. Reflecting on the Joban experience, physicist (and practising Christian) Tim Reddish has observed that Scripture often conceives of the boundary between chaos and order in the natural world as an “unpredictable”, porous one: chaos has of course been assigned its place by a sovereign God, who corrals and even uses it. But chaos has not been eradicated.

Seen through the lens of a biblical theology of creation, the Coronavirus provides an object lesson in humility before the sometimes-dangerous freedom of nature, especially for modern people accustomed to its apparent domestication. Re-appropriating a biblical view of the natural world as something that continues to exhibit such independence may also lay the psychological and spiritual groundwork for a new preparedness, a new resilience, in the face ecological calamity. Those who can humbly acknowledge the enduring reality of an untamed creation – consistent with the truth of our own finitude and limitations – will be better equipped to withstand the maelstrom, even when it threatens to thoroughly strip everything away. This isn’t to counsel fatalism or passivity in the midst of disaster; human beings ought to do what they can to mitigate nature’s destructive power, and alleviate suffering wherever they find it. But if clinging to the narrative of complete human sovereignty over nature can lead to existential crisis when it revolts, perhaps the opposite attitude will – paradoxically – anchor us during such travails. In fact, the equanimity won through adoption of a biblical perspective undergirds precisely the kind of existential and moral strength needed if a person is to extend herself in love to others during times of disaster.

Scripture also challenges the idea that humanity somehow sits outside the natural order, bestriding it as an overlord. Of course, this claim is bound to raise some eyebrows: ever since Lynn White, Jr. argued in 1967 that the Judeo-Christian view of the natural world was at the root of the present ecological crisis, many people have assumed as much without question. It’s true that the Bible’s foundational creation stories posit both humanity’s uniqueness and its role over the rest of creation, acting as God’s steward and vice-regent to “subdue the earth” (Gen 1:28; cf. Psalm 8). At least two points, however, must be borne in mind. First, the early chapters of Genesis envision, not the despoliation of nature as a result of human arrogance, but the natural world being harnessed and shaped so that it might flourish all the more. Second, we must also contend with the fact that to tend the earth is, according to Scripture, part of what it means to be made in God’s image (cf. Gen 2:15). Loving husbandry of the natural world is a reflection of God’s own creative character. Christians, moreover, remain convinced that this key vocation is refracted through the person of Jesus, who provides for us the supreme expression of the imago dei. His own life offers the true model for the relationship between human beings and the natural world, for it reveals the posture of humble service – not ruthless exploitation – lying at the heart of authentic humanity (e.g., John 13:1-17).

In any case, whilst Scripture envisions human beings as acting on God’s behalf to bring order to that which he has fashioned, it is under no illusions concerning the place his image-bearers occupy within the natural order. Man may have the breath of life flowing through him, but he is also of the dust of the earth (Gen 2:7). We straddle the ontological “border” between the material and immaterial, but that does not change the fact that we are composed of the same physical “stuff” as the rest of creation. Indeed, humans share a certain kinship with the natural world, given our common “earthiness”. Scripture resolutely recognizes this: it acknowledges that humans remain denizens of creation, participating fully in an ecological order that sustains them (cf. Ps 103:14). As the legendary OT scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, Genesis 2:7 conceives of “the human person [as] fundamentally and elementally material in origin and composition, genuinely an ‘earth-creature’, subject to all the realities and limitations of materiality”. Or, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once reflected on the same text, “the essential point of human existence is its bond with mother earth, its being as body” (emphasis mine).

The book of Genesis sees humanity as a member of nature’s ensemble of creatures, sharing in the same qualities as non-human animals – and, of course, the same vulnerabilities to disease and death. In fact, it depicts the relationship between human beings and the rest of creation in almost covenantal terms, with a tight causal nexus existing between God’s image-bearers and the natural world. Humanity cannot escape the vagaries of that world, at least not entirely, and certainly not on this side of redemption. Theologian Terence Fretheim suggests that the cosmos is “communal” in nature; “its basic relatedness” means that “every creature will be touched by the movement of every other”. And in this present, discordant reality, those interactions include the lethal effects of a global pandemic, as a microscopic pathogen spreads decay and disorder simply by acting according to its nature. COVID-19, for all the misery it has wrought, has also exposed something important about our relationship with nature. Christian tradition brings that relationship into sharper focus – encouraging renewed respect for the natural boundaries that have been placed around us, as well as our own obligations as participating members of the natural world’s web of life.

Concluding thoughts

Several writers and commentators have termed the Coronavirus “apocalyptic”. In deploying this term, they do not mean to suggest that the end of world is at hand, or that we are soon destined for a cosmic conflagration. Rather, it has been used in its original sense, to refer to an “unveiling” or “revelation”. And so the contagion has proved, exposing many uncomfortable realities that lay just beneath the surface, and overturning previously settled narratives. The ones I have surveyed here are perhaps some of the most deeply-rooted in the modern psyche, having the benefit of centuries to consolidate themselves within Western culture. Nevertheless, a catastrophe like COVID-19, with its capacity to leave people reeling existentially, is enough to call them into question. But the dislocation many have experienced may ultimately bring some good in its wake – auguring a transformed, more wholesome, relationship between humanity and the rest of the nature, and encouraging a far more proportionate understanding of the place human beings occupy within the “robust…vitality” of the ecological system.

Moreover, the Christian tradition offers the resources needed to sustain a more humble, self-effacing engagement with the rest of the natural world, which even now acts as a check on the (illusory) idea of borderless human power. Indeed, that tradition happily acknowledges the persistent fact of humanity’s limitations – its conditioned existence, in other words – living in a pre-established order that does not always bend easily to our whims.

Christians, of course, are compelled to go further. The advent of COVID-19 may also stimulate a re-appropriation of the great fact underlying our true place within the natural world: the reality of divine sovereignty over creation. This has the effect of underscoring our own dependency as beings constituted by finite matter, who only exist as a consequence of God’s gracious sustenance. Far from being the unconditioned masters of nature, we rely, not simply on the panoply of the created order, but upon the One who sustains it. As the Apostle declared, “in him [i.e., God] we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). From a Christian perspective, the pathogen’s advent is a challenge to re-affirm, not the unrestrained attempts of human beings to exploit a passively-waiting environment, but the boundless God’s ruling hand over something that pulsates with his life and power. By deflating the modern ego, COVID-19 has, perhaps, created space for a return to a theologically-centred view of the natural world, in which human beings abide by the natural limits set for them.

Such a journey is both humbling and comforting. It is humbling for two, complementary reasons: first, it requires humans to accept their places within (and not above) a finely-balanced ecological network; but, second, it summons people to de-centre themselves, to abandon the anthropocentric proclivities of the modern age, and to focus on the Creator instead. But in that re-orientation lie the seeds of true comfort, for it encourages trust in Him whose providential control persists, even during the tumult of a global pandemic. Whether one turns to Genesis 1 to read of the Creator assigning places to the sun and the moon (which were worshiped as deities by many ancients), or Psalm 104, which extols God’s dominion over the things he has made, Scripture is unswaying in its declaration of his kingship. Whereas the story of human sovereignty over nature now lies in tatters, Christianity offers an alternative account: of the wise, loving, and ultimately redemptive power exhibited by the One who alone can rightfully claim this world for himself.

Christians, Muslims, and the Reference to God

Introduction

Do Christians and Muslims refer to the same God? Are they citing the same being? Or are the followers of Muhammed – as some Christians hold – rallying behind nothing more than an idol of their own making?

These are questions that arise (better: erupt) from time to time, often cohabiting with a raft of political issues concerning the contested place of Muslims in modern Western societies. Their intermingling means that one’s answers tend to be governed, not by considered analysis of the relevant data, but by tribal affiliation. The subservience of open enquiry doesn’t augur well for the successful pursuit of truth; as previous debates have demonstrated, such efforts are often hamstrung when pre-fabricated narratives or partisan scripts are substituted for genuine, critical reflection.

If truth exists at all in this debate, then it is likely to lie in the relatively austere domains of philosophy and theology. This doesn’t mean the questions are thereby rendered straightforward; even shorn of their inevitable political accretions, they remain far more vexing than many people recognize. Had I myself been asked these questions several years ago, I would have considered the answers absurdly self-evident: Christians and Muslims are most certainly not in contact with the same God, whether referentially or by means of (attempted) worship; above all, I would have argued that the doctrine of the Trinity presents an insuperable theological barrier to harmonisation.

The passage of time, however, has led to a certain mellowing. Whilst I hesitate to reject my earlier position entirely, I think the subject demands a response that navigates the relevant issues in a more discrete, nuanced – even tentative – manner. It is precisely this kind of approach that I shall adopt in the following post, as I engage in a somewhat recursive conversation with those who have applied themselves to the matter. Where partisan loyalties have frustrated past debates, philosophical and theological reflection can encourage precisely the kind of intellectual sobriety that is so often lacking.

One quick caveat before moving on. Throughout this essay, I will be focusing primarily on the concept of reference, as opposed to the richer, more layered activity associated with worship. I regard those as distinct (yet deeply related and overlapping) acts: simply referring to something is not necessarily the same, of course, as venerating it. Even so, worship logically requires the success of denotation, and is in fact a subset of that broader intentional category. Many people in these debates have simply jumped to the question of worship without first considering the prior question of reference. I think it important to prise them apart, in order to avoid unnecessary conflation and confusion. As such, I shall focus on the fundamental issue of reference; time permitting, I will reserve further comments on worship and veneration for a separate post.

Sense and reference

Let’s begin with a common point of discussion. In the course of past debates, people of a more philosophical bent have often reached for the semantic distinction between sense and reference as a way of understanding how Christians and Muslims might well be referring to the same God. First enunciated by the German philosopher, Gottlob Frege, it’s the idea that two or more people can refer to the same object, even if they do so in contrasting ways; the referent or entity in question may be the same, but the expressions used to “present” it linguistically may differ. A stock example is the way the planet Venus is described as “the morning star” and “the evening star”, depending on the time at which it is viewed. Or, to borrow an analogy from the world of comic books, Superman, Clark Kent, and Kal-El all refer to the same individual, despite differences in designation. Simply using contrasting expressions, therefore, doesn’t automatically entail that the subject of such expressions isn’t one and the same thing.

Proponents of the view that Christians and Muslims refer to the same God would say that something similar obtains here. Even if the followers of Christ and Muhammed describe God differently – “God” and “Allah”, respectively – it doesn’t necessarily follow that they aren’t at least referring to the same deity. As the Superman example demonstrates, it’s possible for descriptions of an object to differ in sense, without demanding a corresponding distinction in reference. A difference in linguistic expression is, in other words, logically compatible with sameness of referent. As the yea-sayers might argue, Muslims and Christians are talking fundamentally about the same being, despite certain terminological differences; “Allah” and “God” (or “Yahweh”) are, on this view, different designations for what is the one entity.

All this is true, so far as it goes. But as the philosopher, Bill Vallicella, observes, whilst a difference in sense is logically consistent with sameness of reference, it’s also consistent with substantial difference: Cassius Clay and Muhammed Ali are the same person; Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau, by contrast, are not. Vallicella also notes, by way of his own example, that sufficiently large differences in sense can create a cumulative difference in reference. Say two people use “God” to describe their respective conceptualisations of the deity. The first person uses his chosen label to denote a transcendent, necessary being who created everything distinct from himself, and preserves the entire panoply of existent reality at every moment. The second person, by contrast, uses his preferred designation to refer to a contingent being who exists within the space-time universe, and who fashioned our world out of pre-existing matter – a kind of Platonic demiurge, as it were. As Vallicella rightly avers, a being cannot be both contingent and necessary; as such, the people in this analogy cannot be said to be referring to the same entity.

This wouldn’t, by itself, provide warrant for the sceptic (although I’m not suggesting that Vallicella is necessarily arguing in this direction). It leaves unsaid just what differences are required for a distinction in linguistic presentation to lead to a corresponding divergence of referents. In the example cited above, the differences are so great and so obvious – i.e., the respective natures of the entities in question are fundamentally incompatible – that one can be justified in saying that the two interlocutors part ways in their objects of reference. By contrast, whilst Christians and Muslims differ on some important aspects of their respective understandings of God/Allah, adherents to these religions espouse a basic monotheism that is similar in key respects (transcendence, sovereignty, eternality, immateriality, etc.). The analogy, therefore, may not have quite the same force if applied to the question at hand, precisely because the contingent-necessary/transcendent-immanent distinctions alluded to earlier do not obtain here (I’ll return to the issue of shared monotheism simpliciter, and whether it provides warrant for saying Christians and Muslims refer to the same God).

Nevertheless, I think Vallicella’s essential point is valid: the sense-reference distinction doesn’t actually get one very far. At best, it might compel someone to migrate from occupying a negative position on the question, to a form of agnosticism.

Assessing some common analogies

As the last analogy above demonstrates, it’s sometimes the case that two (or more) individuals can refer to what is putatively the same object, only to find that their respective beliefs diverge so widely that sameness of referent is simply impossible. But some argue that even where one person’s understanding conflicts with another’s, both parties may nonetheless enjoy a shared object of reference. The philosopher, Francis Beckwith, has argued in just such a fashion. He offers as an example a scenario in which two women, Lois Lane and Lana Lang, are both infatuated with Superman. Lois correctly believes Superman to be a native Kryptonian, whilst Lana erroneously thinks he is a native Kansan, born to his human parents, Martha and Jonathan Kent. Beckwith goes on to assert that even though Lois’ and Lana’s beliefs about Superman are incompatible, and even though Lana holds incorrect beliefs about the object of her affections, they nonetheless refer to one and the same individual.

A similar example (deployed by the philosopher, Edward Feser) concerns a sharply-dressed man drinking from a Martini glass at a soiree. One person, spying the man from across the room, incorrectly thinks he is drinking a Martini. A second person, however, rightly believes him to be drinking only water. However, it is still the case that both people are referring to the same gentleman, despite holding incompatible beliefs about him (i.e., the contents of his drink), and despite one person being wrong about certain of the man’s properties. Proponents go on to say that although Muslims hold what Christians regard as erroneous beliefs about God, they – like the person who thinks the dapper gent is drinking a Martini – are successfully referring to the same entity.

What to make of these analogies? Do they successfully establish the point that claimants wish to make? I have my doubts. I agree with Lydia McGrew that they are question-begging, for they assume what they are meant to prove. That is, the analogies rest on the presumption that Christians and Muslims are referring to the same God, and reason from there. Take Beckwith’s example first: without the prior supposition that Lana and Lois are both referring to the same man, the analogy loses its force. Within the context of the fictional world created by DC, both women are in touch with Superman, having become acquainted with him personally. We can therefore say that despite incompatible – and indeed, erroneous – beliefs, they are connected to the same person.  But the question as to whether Christians and Muslims are somehow in touch with the same deity is precisely what is at issue, being the axis upon which the entire debate turns.

Moreover, as readers, we occupy a privileged vantage point, which allows us to say that Lana and Lois are indeed referring to the same man. But the same does not apply in the case of God’s identity, for we are all ensconced within the epistemological limits of finite existence – such that the “bird’s-eye” view possible in Beckwith’s Superman analogy is entirely precluded here. The same kind of shared perceptual certainty doesn’t obtain in the case of Christians, Muslims, and God, largely because the ontological status of Superman (again, within the confines of the fictional narrative) is quite different from that of the transcendent Creator. As McGrew rightly notes, the analogy only shows that there are certain times when two people can have diametrically opposing views about an object, and yet still refer successfully to one and the same thing. It establishes nothing more than that.

The same problem afflicts Feser’s “dapper man” analogy. If you and I are looking at the same person at a party, then our external senses allow us to detect, or “lock onto”, a common physical object. This would be so, despite our conflicting beliefs regarding the contents of his Martini glass. Moreover, because of our shared perceptual “grasp” of the man in question, we are able to confirm that conclusion through other forms of publicly-available sense data (e.g., that he’s speaking to a woman in a red dress, that he has a white flower attached to his lapel, that he has a pencil moustache, and so on). But how, I ask, can we do this of God? He is not an object of the senses like the smartly-dressed man, just as he isn’t an object of the senses like Superman is in relation to Lois and Lana. As I observed a moment earlier, his ontological status means that he is not susceptible to perceptual detection; there are no shared sense data to which people can appeal in order to determine whether or not they are successfully referring to him. On the assumption that God exists, his nature is such that he utterly eludes our ability to perceive him with the senses. Whereas men of a certain sartorial cut are denizens of the material order, God is the very foundation of that order. Cognate with this status is his complete transcendence over physical reality, and thus his essential immateriality – qualities that explain why he is not susceptible to detection using one’s normal perceptual apparatus.

As Bill Vallicella observes, “we are not acquainted with God” (where knowledge by acquaintance is being used in a technical sense, to distinguish it from knowledge by description). In the absence of other forms of knowing – e.g., mystical experience of some kind – “we are”, he says, “thrown back upon our concepts of God”. And those concepts cannot be anchored in the same way that shared sense data can, particularly as some of the core aspects of this debate – the most prominent being God’s supposedly triune nature – are believed to be revealed truths. This isn’t to say that Muslims and Christians aren’t successfully referring to the same God; that would represent a certain hastiness in one’s logic. But it is to say that analogies like Feser’s fall short of establishing his case, precisely because of crucial disanalogies between well-dressed men and God.

Allusion to the Christian belief in God’s triunity brings me to another important difference between Feser’s analogy and the issue at hand. Whether a certain man at a party is drinking a Martini or water is of little importance where his essential nature is concerned. Feser himself would likely say that this remains an accidental property of the gentleman. As such, incompatible beliefs over the contents of his glass do not significantly impinge (if at all) on questions concerning his nature or identity. If the same man were drinking something else, or even nothing at all, he would still be the same man, and his nature – according to an Aristotelian like Feser – would be that of a rational animal.[1]

But the elements of Feser’s analogy seem to be unlike those of the current debate. For Christians, God’s triunity isn’t some kind of secondary or accidental property, like a Martini glass nursed at a party. Nor it is a metaphysical adjunct or addition to an already-existent monotheism – as if the divine nature could persist apart from its instantiation as a triunity of divine hypostases. On a Christian view, the Trinity is utterly essential to who God is, such that he does not exist separately from it. Remove his triunity (were that even possible), and you’re not simply left with a radically unitarian deity; metaphysically-speaking, you’re left instead with nothing at all.

In other words, the dispute isn’t over comparatively minor or non-essential properties; they have no bearing on who someone is (even if, under certain circumstances, they may aid identification). Rather, the question hangs on differences that go to the very heart of the divine nature. This might appear to raise the distinct possibility that Christians and Muslims aren’t merely quibbling over theological details; rather, they may well be referring to different things entirely when they use the linguistic token “God”. Of course, I am not quite saying that members of these religions certainly aren’t referring to the same God. But I am led to roughly the same conclusion that I was before: Feser’s analogy provides insufficient grounds to argue that they are.

The Trinity: an insurmountable obstacle?

I want to linger on the Trinity a little longer, for whether the doctrine prevents Muslims and Christians from referring to the same God invariably underlies competing positions. Driven by their uncompromising belief in Tawhid, or God’s unitary nature, Muslims utterly reject the idea of the Trinity as a lapse into polytheism. On the other side of the divide, a number of (usually conservative) Christian commentators are convinced that anyone who denies God’s triune being cannot legitimately be denoting the same deity as orthodox followers of Christ. Talk of sense and reference, or of analogies intended to suggest identity of denotation (despite diverging beliefs about the object in question) is ultimately irrelevant: God’s triunity, according to some, makes it obvious that Christians and Muslims are treading completely unrelated paths in their conceptions of God.

Commenting on the issue, Bruce McCormack, a theologian at Yale, sketched a possible case for why Christians and Muslims do not worship – or indeed, refer to – the same God, building that case on the bedrock of Trinitarian conceptions of God’s nature (note well that this isn’t McCormack’s personal opinion). In his essay,[2] McCormack rightly observes that on a Christian view, God is essentially triune. The concept of the Trinity cannot be arrived at simply by adding “three-ness” to a prior commitment to divine oneness. For the follower of Christ, triunity is woven into his very being. It isn’t a kind of “fourth” quality in which the members of the godhead participate (as three human beings might be said to “participate” in a common human nature distinct from any one of them). Again, the Christian God is constituted by his tri-personal nature. All of this is to say that anyone breezily claiming that Christians and Muslims do indeed refer to the same God needs to reckon with the possible implications of what Christians regard as God’s radical, thoroughgoing trinitarian character.

It might seem, then, that Muslims – who adhere to God’s absolute oneness – and Christians do not refer to the same God, given they hold antithetical doctrines about him. McCormack’s comments on what exactly it means for God to be triune appear simply to deepen that divide. Similarly, Bill Vallicella has objected that one being cannot satisfy both triunity and non-triunity – meaning that a Christian and a Muslim cannot, in his view, be directing their beliefs and intentional states towards the same entity. Whilst Vallicella may be more circumspect than others, he appears to be fairly settled in his view that Muslims fail to refer to any extralinguistic entity.

However, there are three reasons why I am not quite satisfied. In fact, they may even provide grounds for saying that Christians and Muslims, for all their key differences, ultimately do refer to the same God.

Metaphysics, logic, and God’s triunity

First, whilst God’s triune nature is for Christians an inescapable part of who he is, it’s also the case that one can make a logical (as opposed to metaphysical) distinction between this and his basic unity.[3] Indeed, the fact that many of the early Christians held to monarchical views of God suggests as much (to say nothing of contemporary Christians, who are likely to adhere to a de facto Monarchianism. Are they, too, referring to a different God?). What I mean is that despite the importance of the doctrine – and behind that, God’s essentially trinitarian being – it remains possible to logically distinguish God’s “three-ness” and his oneness. To put the point in a slightly different way, monotheism is logically prior to trinitarianism; one must first have a concept of God’s fundamental unity, uniqueness, transcendence, etc., before one can then conceive of the Trinity. If one can logically differentiate these two dimensions of God’s nature; and if his unity is the logical predicate for anything else that might be true of him; then it seems possible to be able to refer successfully to him simply by acknowledging the fundamentals of monotheism.

As such, it may be sufficient for Muslims to hold to basic monotheistic beliefs (God as a unity, transcendent, eternal, the creator of everything distinct from himself, etc.), since they alone might allow one to say that both the followers of Muhammed and Christ refer to the same deity. The former may deny the Trinity, to be sure; but because triune depictions of God are logically “contained” within broader, more general conceptions of monotheism – conceptions that are common to both religious systems – successful reference is perhaps possible, even if crucial Christian distinctives are rejected.

This is where Vallicella’s “contradiction” argument, alluded to above, perhaps falls short. Although it is true that no being can be both triune and non-triune, triunity and monotheism are not exhaustively opposed in the same way that other polarities are. A number cannot be both odd and even, for oddness logically banishes its opposite. Similarly, contingency and necessity, to which I referred earlier, are mutually exclusive. But whilst contingency excludes necessity (and visa-versa), triunity and monotheism don’t cancel each other out in the relevant way. Once again, trinitarian conceptions of God build on basic monotheism; they may be woefully incomplete on a Christian reading, but they don’t thereby preclude the possibility of additional theological constructions along trinitarian lines. On the other hand, there is simply no sense to be made of the notions that (e.g.) an odd number is built upon the basic idea of evenness, or that a being’s contingency might be grounded in necessity.

Distinguishing God in himself and our knowledge of him

The second observation bleeds into the first, having been suggested by the fact that one can logically distinguish between God’s unity (part of basic monotheism) and his trinitarian nature. Such distinctions allow a person to develop concepts regarding the former without determining the plausibility of the latter. There seems to be a logical difference, then, between God as he is and the way we might conceptualize him. Edward Feser asks us to consider a scenario whereby God is essentially triune, but never undertook any of the actions that Christians attribute to him (the election of Israel, the incarnation of Christ, the founding of the church, revealing himself as a trinity of divine persons, etc.). Feser rightly argues that all of this is metaphysically possible even though God would remain a trinity. People would only know God in a bare monotheistic sense, but the de-coupling of religious epistemology from God’s nature ad intra implies that this would not prevent them from successfully referring to him. It shows that whilst God is, of metaphysical necessity, triune (at least according to Christians), one can still conceive of him apart from that triunity; the Trinity may entail something vital about God’s being, but it does not entail that “we cannot conceptualize” him in non-trinitarian terms. To think otherwise, Feser notes, is to confuse epistemology and metaphysics.

The Jewish experience

My third and final point acts as something of a real-world proving ground for the above theoretical observations. It concerns the key question of Jewish understandings of God. As several commentators have observed, the experience of the Jewish people tends to undercut the claim that the Trinity ultimately separates Muslims and Christians in their references to God. For Jews, just as much as Muslims, deny that God is a trinity of persons. Those who are quick to say that Muslims refer to a different “God” as a result of their rejection of the doctrine are also likely to insist that this doesn’t present a barrier to successful reference in the case of Jews. But if both sets of religious believers adhere to a radically unitarian view of God, why is it only Muslims that are said to fail in their attempted references? Some have argued the “genetic” link between the Jewish religion and the sect that eventually became Christianity is enough to ensure identity of reference: because observant Jews follow Yahweh as depicted in the Old Testament, then they are referring to the God whom Christians believe revealed himself climactically in the person of Jesus Christ. Lydia McGrew makes this observation, and suggests that there is a fundamental “asymmetry” between Judaism and Islam at precisely this point: whilst the God in whom Jews believe chose the children of Abraham and established a covenant relationship with them, no such relationship exists between him and Muslims.

This is certainly true, but I’m not sure how germane it is to the debate. If it’s the case that a rejection of the Trinity means that one fails to refer to the same God as Christians, then I don’t know why Jews and Muslims ought to be considered differently – Abrahamic covenants notwithstanding. As far as I can see, either the Trinity is essential for reference, or it isn’t. If a Jewish person denies the Trinity, and acceptance of that doctrine is (as proponents hold) necessary for successful denotation, how does Yahweh’s historic pact with Abraham change such a state of affairs? Rejection of the Trinity, on this view, surely entails failure of reference, regardless of other considerations. I myself can’t help but think that the limiting principle of God’s triunity is being inconsistently applied.

Of course, McGrew does admit that in a sense, Jews and Christians “worship” (her word) different gods,[4] precisely because of differences concerning the Trinity. But she maintains that the historic link between Judaism and Christianity entails a certain commonality of reference. Now, Muslims traditionally believe that God acted in the way the Old Testament describes, just as Jews and Christians do. They also believe, of course, that God revealed himself climactically to Muhammed, which both Christians and Jews deny. McGrew says that this, along with a categorical rejection of the Trinity, is enough to sever any lingering connection they might have with the one, true God.

I am inclined to think that McGrew over-extends herself at this point. Again, if modern-day Jews can still successfully refer to God, despite denying what Christians see as his essential nature, why not Muslims? A more proportionate view of the situation might acknowledge the grave deficiencies contained in Muslim conceptions of God (in regards to both his actions and his nature), without thereby taking the further step of suggesting that followers of Muhammed fail to stand in referential relationship with the same God as Christians. Although the Trinity is, from a Christian point of view, essential to God’s being, there is still a distinction between mistaken – even “deeply mistaken” – beliefs about the one true God, and referring to another deity altogether.

Are overlapping beliefs relevant?

It’s true that some have argued that the kind of position I have just sketched inevitably leads to a diluted or “generic” form of monotheism. Bill Vallicella seems to suggest that the overlap between Christians and Muslims – something he cheerfully admits – is a mere abstraction, and doesn’t actually refer to the concrete, determinate deity in question. An analogy might help to flesh this idea out a little more. It’s possible for two people to refer to the abstract idea of the President of the United States via a description of his powers and constitutional responsibilities, all while failing to denote the same, concrete individual. There may be some generic overlap between their respective descriptions, even if the first person is actually referring to Abraham Lincoln, whilst the second person is referring to, say, Richard Nixon. In similar fashion, Christians and Muslims may well share some common assumptions regarding God’s nature, but divergences concerning his triunity (so the argument might go) entail nothing more than reference to an attenuated concept.

I don’t want to dismiss Vallicella’s objection entirely, but once again, I am drawn to the notion that the logical distinction between monotheism simpliciter and its trinitarian sub-species implies that one can successfully refer to God, even if he should fall short of a complete account of the deity. The analogy I have used draws on something of which there have been multiple instantiations, for there have been many presidents since the founding of the United States. Christians and Muslims, however, coincide in their belief that only one God exists to whom they both claim to refer.[5] In the case of American commanders-in-chief, it’s possible to distinguish between an abstracted notion of “President of the United States” and the particular men who have fulfilled that role. I don’t think the same is true here: unlike the office of the President and the distinct individuals who have occupied it, God’s “whatness” is, on a monotheistic view, identical with who he is. In fact, given the radical uniqueness Christians and Muslims (as well as Jews) ascribe to God – which means he cannot be a “member” of a genus, or an instantiation of a general type – I think it well-nigh impossible to find a comparable analogy.

Despite significant differences concerning aspects of God’s nature, Christians and Muslims still maintain a series of shared beliefs: that the deity is utterly distinct from all else; that he is the transcendent, self-sustaining creator of everything; that he is the ultimate source for all things; and so forth. Whilst for Christians, such a depiction is in need of further refinement (given our trinitarianism), it’s accurate as far as it goes. And if it’s true that there is only one deity – i.e., only one metaphysically ultimate being underlying and sustaining all else – then it’s hard to see how Muslims could refer to an abstracted concept that fails to coincide with the concrete particular represented by the appellation “God”. Vallicella writes that the “overlap” between Christ followers and Muslims “is but an abstraction insufficient to determine an identifying reference to a concrete, wholly determinate, particular”. But I would argue that in the case of God, the common ground they occupy is sufficient – precisely because of the monotheistic base to which both religions hold. As Feser has argued, “if someone affirms” the key elements of a (classically) theistic view of God, “then there is at least a strong presumption in favour of the conclusion that he is referring to…the true God”.

Some concluding thoughts

Where does all of this leave me on the question of Muslims, Christians, and the reference to God? It’s perhaps clear that I have moved, ever so tentatively, to the conclusion that adherents from both religions ultimately refer to the same God – and this, despite wide disagreement on some important aspects of his nature and being. As a Christian, I regard the Islamic rejection of the Trinity as deeply erroneous; but notwithstanding the possible significance of God’s essential triunity – a point to which I am not unsympathetic – I think the followers of Muhammed hold to a theological conception that in many crucial respects coincides with a Christian understanding. I don’t think proponents of this view have always mounted the strongest of arguments, and the most common analogies offered fall well short of demonstrating commonality of reference. But on balance, I think that the arguments I have pursued here are probably sufficient to establish the claim that Christians and Muslims are referring to one and the same deity. I would therefore largely agree with the conclusion reached by Reformed theologians, Jeroen de Ridder and Rene van Wondenberg, in their Faith and Philosophy essay:

[The question] doesn’t allow a univocal answer. On the one hand, since belief in the same God requires roughly a certain commitment to the same characterization of God, Jews, Christians, and Muslims do not believe in the same God…On the other hand…the Reformed view can be taken to entail that the word “God” as used in the three religions refers to the same God and, differences notwithstanding, there is certainly striking partial overlap in their characterization of God and his nature.

I should also say that whilst I don’t ultimately share Bill Vallicella’s conclusion on the matter, I agree with him that an obvious answer either way is extremely difficult; apart from anything else, the fact that God is not an object of sense perception means that assessing claims of shared reference are far from straightforward. Moreover, Vallicella is surely correct when he says that people who think otherwise simply haven’t engaged in the arduous process of intellectual and philosophical reflection. It is largely a matter of weighing probabilities, as opposed to tight, logical certainty; of cautiously rendering judgment, based on sincere and genuine engagement with views both consistent and discordant. All participants would do well to bear such advice in mind.

[1] Of course, not all accidental properties are so unimportant where the question of successful reference is concerned. For example, skin colour could be seen as an accidental property, in that the amount of melanin a person possesses has no bearing on his essential humanity. But imagine if we were talking about a certain individual, someone I believed was white and you believed was black. In that instance, it’s harder to see how we could be referring to the same person.

[2] Unfortunately, McCormack’s essay no longer appears to be available online. My references in this blog post are taken from handwritten notes I made before his piece vanished. You’ll have to trust me that I have faithfully rendered his views! For excerpts and a summary of McCormack’s piece, see this entry at the Faith and Theology blogsite (now defunct).

[3] Drawing such distinctions between various aspects of God’s nature is, of course, different from saying that those aspects are metaphysically distinct (and therefore theoretically separable). This means that there is no conflict between what I said before, concerning the constitutional nature of God’s triunity, and what I argue in the present paragraph.

[4] Although McGrew discusses the issue in terms of worship, her TGC essay seems to imply that Christians and Muslims do not even refer to the same deity.

[5] This is different from Michael Rea’s “one God” argument that Christians and Muslims refer to, and even worship, the same being. If I understand Rea correctly, he suggests that because Christians and Muslims both maintain that there is one God, they are logically referring to the same entity. He writes: “Christians and Muslims have very different beliefs about God; but they agree on this much: there is exactly one God. This common point of agreement is logically equivalent to thesis that all Gods are the same God. In other words, everyone who worships a God worships the same God, no matter how different their views about God might be.”

This seems to me to be incorrect. Surely there are some views about God that should make us think that two people have failed to refer to the same being. For example, how can it be that a devotee of Baruch Spinoza (who essentially held to a form of pantheism) and a conservative Muslim are referring to one and the same entity when their beliefs are so radically different? Or, to use a slightly silly example, we might imagine someone who says that there is only one God and that he is Al Pacino. How is it the case, then, that the Pacino worshiper and an orthodox Christian are in touch with the same deity? One believes that a person of flesh and blood, who is material, in time, and subject to change is God; the other, however, believes in a God who is the creator of everything distinct from himself, the unsourced cause of all there is, timeless, self-sufficient, etc. These two conceptions of deity are fundamentally at odds, yet on Rea’s view, we’d have to say that both adherents are in referential relationship with the same God. I submit that Rea’s minimalist criterion is simply insufficient for what he wants to claim – and, moreover, an example of logical haste.

By contrast, my argument rests on the understanding that because Muslims and Christians affirm key, overlapping beliefs about God, and because they also insist that this God is one, unique, etc., then it’s difficult to see how they could be referring to different instantiations of the same category (i.e., “god-ness” or divinity). This is much more specific than Rea’s rather elastic argument, resting as it does on those distinguishing convictions that Muslims and Christians share.

Worshiping the “God” of MTD: Modern Idolatry, Ancient Roots

This is a piece I wrote a couple of years ago for a certain magazine, but it was not published. So you, dear readers, may enjoy it now. 

A little over a decade ago, the sociologist of religion, Christian Smith, examined the lives of religious contemporary American teenagers, interviewing, among others, young Christians. What he discovered was very revealing.

According to Smith, most of those he spoke with held views about God and their relationship to him, which, whilst bearing a faint resemblance to the religion in which they had grown up, were, in many ways, dramatically different – owing more to contemporary cultural and spiritual norms than to ancient religious traditions. Smith argued that these beliefs formed a kind of spiritual ‘complex’, and was the de facto (and dominant) religion amongst teens in the United States. Smith christened this phenomenon, ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ (or MTD for short).

The concept of MTD needs some unpacking. Smith contended that religious teens held to several fixed points in their creed: God, generically defined, wants all people to “be good, nice and fair to each other,” with goodness here being defined in a vague sort of way; God also, governs the world at a distance, though he might not intervene all that frequently; when he does intervene, it is to help people solve problems that confront in their lives; the chief aim in life is to develop a positive self-image – something that God is supposed to guarantee; and that ‘good’ people will go to heaven. For the teens Smith interviewed, these elements were axiomatic, amounting to belief in a laissez-faire god, whose interventions are chiefly therapeutic, who asks people to practice a fairly banal kind of morality, and who guarantees – based upon adherence to that morality – a place of enjoyment in the hereafter.

What was really astounding was Smith’s discovery that most of his subjects had not developed their ideas independently; rather, they had imbibed them from the religious communities of which were a part. This led Smith to contend that they were simply reflections of a wider phenomenon, prevalent in mosques, synagogues and (importantly) churches. If that is so, then MTD encompasses many more people, not just those Smith interviewed.

* * *

Whilst the modern world – with its consumerism, deep individualism and transactional view of so much of life – is particularly conducive to the propagation of something like MTD, we should not make the mistake of thinking that some “golden age” of religion lies somewhere beyond the range of our own historical grasp. And, more to the point, neither Christians individually, nor the church corporately, has been immune to the phenomenon. I am reminded, for example, of the great popularity that the Prosperity “Gospel” has achieved in many putative Christian communities: trust in God, and all your (material) dreams will come true! A generation or two ago, families may have gone to church, not because they discerned a divine summons to be a part of a new, spiritual community, but because of cultural constraints. The real goal, it seems, was not obedience to God, the ground and centre of all that is, but cultural integration and local respectability. Similarly, when Christianity was the dominant civil religion in the West, developing contacts within a local church community could do wonders for an aspiring businessman. Again, God was seen an instrument, and religion merely functional – lacking, perhaps, truth and significance in itself, and reduced to a means towards a more fundamental (in this case, economic) end.

Such a phenomenon stretches back even further, all the way to the very dawning of Christianity. About two decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul had to wrestle with a raft of problems besetting the church in Corinth. Called to live out a life of holiness and obedience before the God that had liberated them, the Corinthian Christians had tried to fuse the Gospel with pagan ideas of religion and spirituality. Far from seeing the Gospel – and the God who stood behind it – as something to which they were called to yield, the Corinthians viewed it as something that could be used to get ahead. This is reflected, amongst other things, in what Paul says about personality cults (1 Cor 1:10-12, 3:1-9), sexual immorality (5:1-6), and self-aggrandizement through the exercise of spiritual gifts (Chs. 12-14). In all these ways, the Corinthians had fallen into the trap of treating God as secondary, as little more than an instrument that could be manipulated for other ends.

It is for these reasons that contemporary individualism can only ever function as one type of explanation for the phenomenon of MTD. Sure, it can well flourish in such an environment: a spiritual creed that emphatically places the individual at its centre certainly plays well to our present age. But if what I have said is true, then using God, or the divine, for oneself is not merely the preserve of the modern age; using God as an instrument – a kind of secondary tool – is something to which people in every age are prone. Perhaps, beneath the varied manifestations of superficial spirituality and counterfeit piety lies the primal reality of the humanity’s propensity towards idolatry – of reducing the transcendent God to a human fabrication, which can then be tamed and exploited. Paul, of course, knew this well, when he excoriated humanity for its tendency to exchange the glory of the immortal Creator for bits of his creation (Romans 1:20-23, 25). Even the Corinthians, living so soon after the events of Easter, had constructed for themselves an idol that bore only faint resemblance to the God of the Gospel that Paul preached. Whether it’s in its ancient or modern guise, idolatry succeeds in turning God – and the spirituality that flows from him – into a mere function of a person’s own psychological interests and desires.

* * *

How different this is from an authentically Christian view of God and ourselves. As I was thinking about MTD, three main differences stood out, which together have profound implications for the construction of a genuine Christian spirituality. First, MTD seems to reflect a very ego-centric view of spirituality and religion, and is to that extent well-suited to our present, individualistic age. This is seen particularly in the way it shapes a person’s ethical outlook. Whilst MTD makes room for fairness and niceties, it promotes a kind of ‘no-cost’ morality, which will only go so far as the needs and interests of the individual will allow. As Smith discovered even this system of morality was, for many of his subjects, another means of attaining subjective wellbeing: ‘do good, feel good’, in other words. Neither (divinely-mandated) goodness, nor the image-bearing objects of that goodness, are ends in themselves; on the view of MTD, they are instruments for the more self-centred goal of bolstering personal self-esteem.

Christian ethics is much more radical than that, for two main reasons. On the one hand, it is founded upon the figure of Jesus himself, who gave us a model of sacrificial service before God and others. Where MTD uses the self as the yardstick of what is right and good, for Christian spirituality, it is the character and life of Jesus that grounds all ethics. Similarly, where MTD is focused primarily upon the individual, Christianity is focused, in large part, upon others. Many of Jesus’ parables have this flavour about them. He talks, for example, of the “wise and faithful” person as characterised by a willingness, in deference to God, to serve others with what he or she has (e.g., Luke 12:42ff).

It’s hard, too, not to think of what Paul says when he writes to the church in Philippi. The believers there should adopt an attitude like that of Jesus himself, who “made himself nothing”, “taking the…nature of a servant”, and “humbling himself…to death…on a cross” on behalf of others (Philippians 2:5-8). This represents a far more comprehensive, far more sweeping, approach to the ethical – indeed, the righteous – life. It is a life that revolves, not around the needs of self, but around the needs of others, even if that means sacrificing what is cherished or treasured. True Christian spirituality asks a person to order his or her life around an enduring commitment to the needs of others. Indeed, Paul’s exhortation in Philippians points to the dramatic nature of this commitment, as the Christian seeks to emulate Christ: it must lead to an imitative willingness to put aside any claims one might have, whether those claims relate to one’s status, possessions, comforts – even, according to the passage, one’s own life.

On the other hand, the kind of ethical change that authentic Christian spirituality demands – indeed, enables – moves far beyond the essentially affirmative formula of MTD. Given that MTD rests on the individual’s moral estimations for its ethical centre, it can never be truly transformative. Jesus’ well-known exhortation that one must be “born again” in order to “see” God (John 3:3) points subtly in this direction: the present, transient world can never provide the resources for a genuinely spiritual life; one must “begin again”, as it were, with the life of the Christian representing such a break from the past that it can be described as a new birth. In this, we must remember the centrality of the figure of Christ: he functions, not only as the paradigm for authentic Christian living, but as the foundation making it possible in the first place. Christian orthodoxy calls for a complete re-ordering of a person’s life, ethically and spiritually, as a person’s old nature is left behind, and a new nature is adopted (Col 3:5, 10). And this can only come about because of the pioneering work of Jesus himself. It is, of course, through him that one may undergo that change, as one is taken from the realm of sin and death and corruption, and placed under the aegis of him who sets the pattern for true, image-bearing living. MTD, by contrast, makes no room for the fundamental renovation of a person’s nature, nor can it; it can only encourage superficial change at best.

The second main difference I discerned is deeply related to the first. The ego-centric nature of MTD implies that God is also treated as a means to an end. God is reduced to a kind of “cosmic butler” (Smith), there largely to satisfy our wants and resolve our problems. God is ‘consumed’, so to speak, providing a product – in this case, spiritual harmony and psychological peace – to people whose main concern is to derive from religion whatever they can to help them along in life. Again, it’s difficult to overstate the difference here from a genuine Christian view of God. If true religion calls for service to others as a clear demonstration of piety, then it also sees obedience to God – from which flows the call to give of oneself to one’s fellows – as the greatest good. What the Gospel does is upend our relationship to the transcendent. God is not a “cosmic butler”, but the Lord of the cosmos; Christ, as the one who uniquely reveals this God, is the master; his claim over our lives – leading inevitably to the summons to self-giving love – is total and comprehensive. Moreover, he is not some kind of instrument, or the means to a more fundamental end, precisely because he is, in himself, the ultimate end and fulfilment of all things. He is utterly transcendent — sovereign over everything — whilst also constituting the existential ground of all that is. As Paul put it, when he preached to the pagans of Athens, “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Christian spirituality remains adrift unless it is tethered to an acknowledgement of God as the One upon whom everything exists, and from whom all life flows. He is the beginning and the end, the source and the summit, of all existence. Trying to use God to reach something that one sees as the ultimate goal (as MTD implicitly does) is like a person who, having lost a torch in the middle of the day, decides to use the brilliance of the sun to search for it – hoping then they will be able to find that little source of light, and use it for the illumination they so desperately seek.

At any rate, the deism of MTD ironically undercuts whatever comfort one might seek from this kind of god. He is a distant deity: neither greatly concerned with the world’s affairs (save for wanting to guarantee psychological stability in certain people), nor driven to do anything, fundamentally, about it. He is the absentee-landlord of eighteenth-century deism, with a little bit of Oprah-inspired therapeutic wisdom thrown in for good measure. This brings me to the third main difference between the creed of MTD and authentic Christian belief. Whilst the God of Christian theology and tradition is transcendent, he is most certainly not distant. For it is in his transcendence – his freedom from all constraints, both material and metaphysical – that he is able, at the same time, to be intimately involved in the affairs of his creation. Reading through, say, John’s Gospel, shows us the twin truths of God’s supremacy and closeness, upon which a robust Christian spirituality may be built. He is, on the one hand, the Creator of all things, who through his Word has fashioned and animated this world (John 1:1-3). But he is also the heavenly Father, who condescends to those who are his, welcoming them into the intimate fellowship of the Trinitarian community (John 14:23; 17:26). What follows is an abiding, deep-rooted joy, based upon the enduring presence of the Creator himself. It is, in other words, the goal and focal point of true spirituality. With its offers of superficial succour, tied as they are to the vagaries of a person’s psychological state, the God of MTD represents a parody of what union with the divine is meant to look like.

* * *

MTD, then, is simply the latest in a litany of creeds and spiritual ‘packages’ offering the mirage of piety and religious devotion. At any rate, if we were to follow its underlying logic, we’d be left with a domesticated deity, denuded of his sovereign majesty. Any claim he might want to make upon us would be empty, since we would ultimately be at the centre of our spiritual lives. Such a relationship appears to be a far cry from what both Scripture and Christian tradition have affirmed about the Creator: he who brought the worlds into being with his command, who declared that he is the self-existent “I AM”, and who confronted Job in the storm. The temptation towards idolatry which confronts every age is something that also confronts the church as it seeks to represent God faithfully and genuinely.

The challenge for us, I suppose, is to humbly yield to the God who has created us, and upon whom we utterly depend. We must allow ourselves to be shaped by this God, who calls us – summons us – to be his. We cannot afford to fall into the trap of trying to look beyond him for whatever he can provide for us. He is, as I said, the ultimate foundation of everything else, such that there is no ‘beyond’. That way lies the false gods of human imagination, as do all efforts to ‘massage’ our image of the divine according to whatever cultural trends may presently be in vogue. The God Christians are called to follow cannot be tamed by human designs, or be made to fit into convenient packages, for the very reason that he is the One within whose plans and purposes we are called to fit. Such an acknowledgment is part of the very fabric of authentic Christian spirituality. Being a Christian, and pursuing a life of discipleship, requires the willingness to enter into a narrative that is not of one’s own making, one that has been opened up by the epochal work of Christ: a “world” that establishes the boundaries of truth and reality, morality and holiness. It can be difficult and demanding, in that we are not the ultimate legitimators of what constitutes the good. However, with that acknowledgement comes the opportunity to reflect and embody the ultimate Ground of all goodness – to live and act according to our (divinely-intended) natures.

To embody a fully-orbed life of Christian faith, we cannot fall into the trap of ‘consuming’ religion in order simply to satisfy some kind of spiritual dimension. As we approach God – as we approach the crucified and resurrected Christ – we are confronted with One who upends our assumptions about our relation to the divine, and subverts all of the idols that we may have constructed. For God is the One over every dimension, public and private, which compose the rather messy projects we call our lives. When we adopt this kind of posture, and clothe ourselves in this kind of thinking, we will find that those longings for fulfilment, transcendence, completeness and calm – all worthwhile and legitimate in themselves – are paradoxically met. It is a life of death and resurrection, of radical transformation, where one’s old existence is swallowed up by newness of life (cf. 1 Cor 15:53-54). It is something that contemporary constructions of spirituality, reflecting as they do the strictures and finitude of the present world, could never hope to emulate.

Meaning and God’s Attributes

My last few blog posts have tackled some fairly controversial issues, which have a habit of arousing very strong emotions. The intensity of those debates can tax both the mind and the soul, so every once in a while a change of pace is warranted. This brings me to the topic of the present piece, namely, the nature of God. Lately, I have been reflecting on some rather thorny questions concerning God and certain of his attributes. Some may think this a boring, irrelevant or altogether esoteric matter. However, if (as I believe) God is the very foundation and source of all there is — the ground of all being, as it were — then it’s difficult to think of anything more exciting, or important. Moreover, as a Christian, it is my duty (and indeed, a rare pleasure) to try and develop as clear a picture of the Creator as my finite mind will permit.

I don’t intend to examine the existence of God per se. Instead, I want to explore two related features of the Christian conception of God, the problems they can pose for understanding, and the means by which they might be illuminated in new and fresh ways. I am referring, on the one hand, to God’s dual nature — at once transcendent and immanent — whilst on the other, to the uniquely Christian declaration that Christ is the principle of unity within creation. These are heady concepts, to be sure; a word about each is therefore in order.

To begin, Christianity insists that God is simultaneously transcendent over creation and immanent within it. Other monotheisms — Judaism, for example — share this way of talking about God, though the way the doctrine is expressed and extrapolated in those traditions may be somewhat different. Christians consistently affirm God’s complete and utter sovereignty over the creation; creation itself relies on his conserving activity to remain in being, moment-by-moment. Given he is the metaphysical ground of all there is, God is not confined by what he has created: he is not limited by it, or susceptible to its influences (unless he deigns to be so influenced). He is radically distinct from the world he has fashioned, operating, if you like, on his own, unique plane of being. Additionally, God is neither exhausted nor fully comprehended by our conceptual categories; the frames of reference we may have devised to understand him are necessarily limited, for their “object” transcends them all. Indeed, for all their intellectual and theological value (and they can be very valuable), those categories cannot possibly capture a being — Being itself — who is by nature completely unbound by finite reality.

At the same time, God is no absentee landlord; rather, he deeply involved in this creation. The world over which God presides is filled at every point by the divine presence; God’s immanence means that he is intimately related to  it, permeating every nook and cranny so that creation brims with his essence. This dual nature is beautifully captured by Isaiah 55:9-11, which speaks of Yahweh’s purposes being higher than those of man — “as the heavens are higher than the earth” — even as he sends out his word, his wisdom, into the world to nourish his works. It is also why the Apostle Paul can declare in Ephesians 4:6 that God is not only “over all”, but “through all and in all”.*

The second attribute is, to my mind, probably more difficult to comprehend. It is the somewhat astounding theological claim that Christ, the Word and Wisdom of God, is the principle of unity within creation — that is, the One in whom “all things hold together”, as Paul declares (Col 1:17). The doctrine bears some resemblance to certain strains of Greco-Roman philosophy, even if its formulation under the aegis of apostolic and patristic thought was quite unprecedented. Like the ancient Stoics, the writers of the NT held that the phenomenal world is not simply a random, unintelligible mass: they affirmed the belief that it is an ordered place, pervaded by a principle of rationality which bequeaths to it unity and coherency. For the apostolic writers, this principle has an intrinsically personal — indeed, relational — dimension. Whether this was expressed in the Johannine concept of the incarnate Logos (John 1:1, 14), or by way of Paul’s wisdom Christology (e.g., Col 1:17), the writers of the NT declared that the world is pervaded by the cosmic Christ — God’s very word, wisdom and mind. Borrowing ideas from the OT’s wisdom tradition (e.g., Prov 8:22ff), they claimed that Christ is just that principle of rationality to which the Stoics and others referred. As the medium of God’s creative prowess, he provides the unifying structure for what would otherwise be a fragmented or chaotic realm; he draws together the various members of the created world into a harmonious whole, “sustaining” it in power (Hebrews 1:3).

It should be noted that these doctrines are deeply intertwined. Christ’s role as the principle of unity within creation presupposes a God who is both intimately involved with it, whilst remaining utterly sovereign. Indeed, if Christ, a reflection of the divine character, was not transcendent, then he could not be the sustaining, unifying cause that underlies creation; he would simply be a finite part of it, as little able to govern all things as we are. If he was not immanent, he would not — could not — be the principle of unity holding the disparate parts of creation together. He could not be the metaphysical “cement” that inheres, and adheres, all things. Conversely, God’s dual nature comes to full expression in the cosmic Christ’s powerful conserving activity, as he penetrates and upholds the created order. His immanence is not amorphous — a vague and nebulous presence — but guarantees the wise and ordered nature of the world we inhabit. Similarly, his transcendence does not entail distance, but omnipresence, so that everything is imbued with, and held together by, his own effulgence.

Intertwined, complementary…and also rather arcane**. However clear these summaries may be, they do not change the fact that we are handling some very enigmatic ideas — ones that have caused an endless parade of philosophers and theologians (not to mention laypeople at large) a great deal of intellectual angst. The fact that God is not an object of sense experience, and so is not susceptible to empirical observation, makes this task even more vexing. Trying to comprehend such stubbornly elusive concepts is like attempting to grasp the rapidly fading tendrils of an early-morning mist. For instance, I’ve tried to offer an intelligible snapshot of the doctrine of Christ as the principle of creation, but how can we understand the truth that lies behind it? In what way does the invisible and immaterial God hold material things together (that is part of the larger question of how an immaterial God interacts with materiality)? How does one actually conceive of the Christian’s claim that the apparently disparate elements of creation find coherency as they are drawn together by, and in, the divine Logos? As for God’s simultaneous transcendence and immanence, this has been a stumbling block to many people, and can appear at first glance to be inherently, embarrassingly, contradictory. As just one example among many, the atheist blogger Austin Cline has argued that at an “irresolvable tension” exists between these two poles of the divine nature. He is of the opinion that something simply cannot be transcendent and immanent simultaneously, and that any affirmation to the contrary forces one into an intellectual muddle.

Theologians and philosophers of a theistic bent have tried to offer solutions to these problems over the centuries. For example, Thomas Aquinas wrote that God’s transcendence actually entails his immanence. Far from being irreconcilable or contradictory, Aquinas argued that they are, in fact, complementary attributes. Because he is the sustaining cause of all that exists (and as such, transcends all things), God must be present — that is, immanent — in order to uphold the entire cosmic production. Moreover, because being is, according to Aquinas, a thing’s fundamental quality, then God must be present “in all things innermostly”. I, for one, think this is quite persuasive. I am also persuaded that, however difficult it may be to think of the world as pervaded by a kind of cosmic rationality (understood in personal terms by Christians), it seems likelier than the atomistic, mechanistic picture favoured by many moderns. At the same time, I also recognize that formulations like Aquinas’ are bound to strike some as recondite as the (apparent) conundrums they are designed to unravel. Is there any way of making these doctrines a little more intelligible? A “real-world” analogy, perhaps, that concretizes what might otherwise appear to be abstract and vaporous? I think there is.

Meaning as an Aid to Understanding

The concept of meaning can act as an aid to understanding as we grapple with the aspects of God’s being (as conceived by Christians) that I have outlined. It can shed light on how God can be simultaneously transcendent and immanent, whilst illuminating the view that there exists a (personal) principle of order and rationality that permeates the phenomenal world. But what do I…er…mean by “meaning”? Simply this: meaning could be described as the “aboutness” of something, be it a sentence, a picture, or a facial expression. For something like a sentence, meaning is the message “encoded” in the combination of words the author or speaker has chosen to use. It is the information that the user (broadly defined) intends to convey in his or her message. My writing this blog post is designed to communicate certain propositions, thoughts, etc., which are reflected in the words I have chosen to deploy.

The above will suffice as a good, working definition of meaning. Let’s see, firstly, how it can help us understand God’s dual nature. Take the following sentence: “The boy threw the ball to the girl”. If you’re a competent user of English, you’re likely to recognize the scenario the sentence is about — that is, the event to which it points. It will inevitably conjure a particular image, consisting of a male child using a casting action to convey a spherical object (often of recreational value) to a female child. The marks that compose the sentence will be readily understood as constituting an intelligible message. Indeed, the message is immanent within the sentence, in that the latter is “invested” with the former. Meaning is also immanent within individual words. By means of physical markings, “boy” means, points to, or represents a male child (usually under 18). Going back to the level of syntax and sentence structure, it would seem that not only does a message somehow “infuse” the physical marks one might use to communicate it; as theologian Kevin Vanhoozer, author of the stimulating book, Is There A Meaning in This Text?, has argued, meaning “cannot grasped apart from them [i.e., those marks]”. As he goes on to say, the intangibility of meaning is known through the tangibility of written characters (or, alternatively, audible sounds).

And yet, meaning is not confined to a particular collection of markings. It’s not “shut in”, as it were, but transcends any one set of words. “It is more than vocabulary and syntax”, as Vanhoozer observes. It may pervade those markings, but is neither restricted nor reducible to them. Indeed, the meaning of a sentence is more than the sum of its constituent parts. We might think about it this way: whilst I can write “the boy threw the ball to the girl”, and successfully convey my intended meaning, this in no way precludes others from simultaneously doing the same thing. Conversely, their writing the same sentence does not evacuate meaning from my own scribblings. We can all successfully “point to” the objects that are represented by the words we are using, even if the sentences we write are identical. If meaning were to be tied to words in a non-transcendent way, this would be impossible. As it is, whilst meaning and words are intimately related — such that it could be called a relation of “immanence” — it does not exclude the former’s capacity to outstrip the limits of the latter. In fact, being able to convey the same information, using the same words as other language users, presupposes it.

Like God, then, meaning bears a dual nature: transcendent on the one hand, immanent on the other. As we have seen, these qualities are not contradictory; rather, they are complimentary, and necessarily so. If something as mundane as the meaning of words and sentences can be understood in this manner, then whatever other difficulties attach themselves to grasping the divine nature, the simultaneity of his transcendence and immanence should not be one of them.

So much for that conundrum. What about the idea that, for Christians, there exists a principle of order or rationality within creation, one that is identified with Christ, the very wisdom of God (cf. John 1:1-4)? Again, meaning provides a model for comprehension. As we have seen, the meaning of words invests them with intelligibility, whilst the principles of language supply shape and coherency to an otherwise random assemblage of markings. Of course, this is not the whole story. As Vanhoozer (among others) has noted, meaning is as much a verb (something that results from human action) as it is a noun (something that is “embedded” in words). The principle of unity is ultimately sourced in the intentions of the speaker/writer. Nevertheless, meaning acts as the proximate principle of unity, order and rationality for a chain of words a language user may string together. We may use our stock example once more: “The boy threw the ball to the girl”. Each word is imbued with its own meaning, such that the marks are no longer unintelligible etchings, but vehicles of representation that can be understood by other language users. Similarly, the sentence as a whole is ordered by those same principles of intelligibility: the words that compose it are rationally related, in that they are arranged in a given sequence to communicate a particular message. Meaning, though immaterial, is a substantial reality, and is mediated through the variety of linguistic combinations (“deeds and events”, as one literary theorist put it) to which it bequeaths order.

Hopefully, you can see where I am going with all this. Christ, the divine Word, permeates the created world, supplying it with a kind of order that resembles meaning’s relationship to words and sentences (incidentally, the example I am using also offers us very rough analogy as to how something immaterial [meaning] can exert some kind of influence over something material [written or spoken words]). Like meaning’s role in structuring the sounds and signs of which a  certain message is composed, the divine wisdom structures this world in a way that ensures its rational intelligibility. It is a world of reasoned cause-and-effect, of patterned beauty, which is (in principle, anyway) susceptible to rational, scientific explanation. Both meaning and divine wisdom act as adhering agents, cementing the various constituents of their respective worlds — one linguistic, the other phenomenal — in a comprehensible way.

Conclusion

My aim in this essay has been to show that certain Christian doctrines, whilst apparently guilty of incomprehensibility, can in fact be readily understood. If I am right, there is no need for special pleading here: the common example of meaning’s relationship to words — something of which we are all intuitively aware — suggests that superficial contradictions regarding God’s nature, or allegedly esoteric claims about cosmic principles of rationality, have analogues in the world of everyday material things.

*Yes, I am aware that some scholars dispute Pauline authorship of Ephesians. I myself think that Paul wrote the letter, but I acknowledge that not everybody sees it that way.

**Of course, this is not the same as saying they are untrue.

 

Resurrection and the Restoration of God’s People

This is the next instalment of a series of articles I have written on the multi-layered significance of the resurrection of Jesus (a series I began some years ago). Fair warning: this one is long. Very, very long! Hopefully, though, your persistence will be rewarded.

Introduction

John 20 contains a rather intriguing moment. Having discovered that Jesus’ tomb was empty, Mary Magdalene remains outside the holy sepulchre, weeping (v.11). Jesus then appears to her – although she mistakes him for the gardener, and pleads with him to tell her where the Lord’s corpse might be. But once Mary realizes who it is, she cries out in recognition, and tries desperately to cling to him (v.16). Jesus then responds, but in so fleeting a manner that one could be forgiven for overlooking what he says. Nevertheless, it is of seminal, even revolutionary, import. I’m not referring to the fact that Jesus bade Mary to let go of him; it’s what he says next – commanding her to convey the good news of his coming ascension to the disciples – that is worthy of attention.

What is it about Jesus’ directive that is so noteworthy? Notice what he says: “Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (v.17). This is a remarkably significant moment – particularly given the way the Johannine Jesus uses familial language in the rest of the narrative. Throughout the Fourth Gospel, Jesus speaks exclusively of his close filial relationship with the Father. Consistently referring to God as “my Father” (5:17, 43; 6:32, 40; 8:19, 49, 54), Jesus deliberately distinguishes the relationship he enjoys with the Almighty from that of his contemporaries. Up until this point, he nowhere said that God was anyone else’s father, expect in an oblique, ironic sense (John 10:34-36). But now, he includes the disciples in the pattern of sonship he alone had enjoyed. They, too, have the privilege of relating to God in a relationship of filial love, and to Jesus in the context of a fraternal partnership.

But why the sudden change? Why does Jesus now broaden God’s spiritual paternity, having earlier marked out his own unique sonship? Why can the disciples count themselves as his brothers? According to John, it is Jesus’ resurrection that has led to this shift, this epochal expansion. Brief though this moment may be, John 20:17 offers us a window, a glimpse, into the deep theological and eschatological connections between resurrection and the re-establishment of the covenant community, or a divinely-authored family (to borrow John’s language). The crucial role the raising of Jesus played in the restoration of God’s people is, therefore, the focus of this article.

Getting a Sense of the Eschatological Terrain

The task of unpacking the above connections will occupy us soon. But first, it is worth sketching the backdrop against which the drama of Jesus’ ministry – culminating in the events of Easter – took place. The man from Nazareth appeared at a time of great tumult, marked by (among other things) the intensification of eschatological expectations. For many years, Jews had grappled with what appeared to be their ongoing exile, centuries after the Babylonian captivity. Despite their return to the land that had been given them, God’s people still experienced the hardships associated with that catastrophic expulsion. Theologian N.T. Wright has argued that whilst the Jews’ geographical exile had ceased, their theological exile persisted. Riven now by conflict and factionalism, they were not the holy people God had summoned them to be. He himself appeared to be absent, having apparently abandoned his treasured possession. Moreover, the land was not under Jewish control; by the time of Jesus’ advent, most of his co-religionists were chafing under the weight of Roman occupation. Where there existed some superficial autonomy, it was invested in local client rulers: vain men, who gloried in their venality and corruption.

These depressing realities provoked a diverse array of responses, running the gamut from collaborationist to outright – and violent – opposition. Despite the multiplicity of views and attitudes that prevailed, however, an enduring current of hope ran through a great swathe of first-century Judaism. This hope centred upon the promise of the eventual restoration of the Jewish nation, in a decisive unveiling of Yahweh’s reign. It was a longing that God would do for Israel what he had repeatedly vowed through the prophets – namely, that he would cleanse and redeem his people, bringing the long, dark night of exile to an end. OT texts such as Isaiah 40-66, Jeremiah 30-31, Ezekiel 36-37, and even Amos 9:11-15, buoyed the faith of many first-century Jews, fuelling their expectation that God would eventually manifest his saving sovereignty. The late NT scholar, C.H. Dodd, offered an apt summation when he wrote that “behind all the programmes [current within first-century Judaism] there remained the august idea of God himself coming to reign as sovereign, the living God, present and powerful”. The biblical touchstone for such anticipation was, of course, the exodus itself. It was thought to provide the paradigm which all later acts of divine liberation were to recapitulate.

As an associated idea, it was common (though not universal) for first-century Jews to conceive of liberation in terms of a militarized victory over the pagan enemies of God. Such a victory would, it was thought, be won through the agency of a specially anointed individual – the Messiah, in other words. Certain OT texts envisaged a royal, Davidic figure acting decisively as God’s man, defeating the nation’s oppressors on its behalf. Indeed, texts such as 2 Sam 7:14, Psalm 2, or Ezekiel 37, were cited to help sustain the hope that a Davidic descendant would reveal himself in messianic glory to rescue God’s people from those who’d tyrannized them. By the early decades of the first century, this belief was being refracted through the experiences of the Jewish nation, subject as it was to Roman dominion. Consequently, the violent overthrow of the nation’s pagan rulers was, in many quarters, anticipated – and, in the case of a few, actively sought.

This eschatological expectation was at a fever pitch when Jesus appeared, and forms the necessary background to his ministry. At this point, it’s worth concentrating on two, basic features of Jesus’ mission. These features tapped into a common yearning for Israel’s deliverance, even as Jesus radically re-configured such expectations. On the one hand, Jesus headed a kingdom of God movement. Such a declaration, at least in outline, was not unusual: he was preaching the coming of God’s sovereign rule, the converse of which was liberation for his people (Matt 4:17; Mark 1:14-15). This, as we have seen, was common coin in first-century Judaism, forming the eschatological bedrock of Jewish hopes for the future. One key difference, however, was that Jesus claimed the kingdom was in some sense already present in his own person and ministry; the end of exile was now apparent in and through his work. For the authors of the Gospels, Jesus not only pointed to the work of Israel’s king: he somehow embodied Yahweh’s royal glory. Through his healings and miracles, for instance, Jesus enacted the liberating power of God’s sovereign rule. The deliverance of a crippled woman on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-17) was a microcosmic fulfilment of the hope of restoration for which so many Jews ached. Jesus acted as if God’s rule was actually becoming a reality in him; that the return of Israel’s king was at last occurring, presaging the inauguration of his saving reign.

On the other hand, Jesus led what might be called a renewal movement, inviting people to pledge allegiance to the kingdom programme he was announcing. Of course, the kingdom Jesus preached was quite unlike that of conventional expectation. Although he claimed a certain royal mantle, he did not envisage himself as the leader of a violent uprising or rebellion. Nor did he interpret his mission as one of anti-imperial revolution – though it was revolutionary nonetheless. Jesus was calling God’s people to renewal and moral-spiritual reformation, much as the prophets envisaged (e.g., Jer 31:33-34; Mal 4:5-6; cf. Luke 1:16-17). He was summoning his co-religionists to be a different kind of Israel, enjoining them to practice a fresh – and indeed, more faithful – way of living out the divine mandate. Not the Israel of violent, anti-pagan revolt, nor the Israel of arrogant religious nationalism, nor even the quiescent Israel of collaborationist design – but the true Israel of OT prophetic vision. It was the call to be a people marked by righteousness and peace, fulfilling its raison d’etre to act as the channel through which God’s redemptive purposes would embrace the entire world. All told, it was the call to be a people properly prepared for the Lord’s decisive coming (cf. Luke 1:16-17).

Jesus condemned as idolatrous prevailing approaches that other Jews took, even going so far as to warn of God’s imminent wrath if the nation did not abandon its present, sinful path (e.g., Luke 19:41-44). Both he and John the Baptist before him emphatically rejected the notion that Jews could look forward to vindication and redemption, simply by virtue of their ethnic heritage. Again, the words of C.H. Dodd are appropriate: according to Jesus, “hereditary membership of the chosen people is no passport to membership of the true people of God”. What his ministry pointed to was the need for a fresh work of divinely-wrought restoration; a new beginning for the people of God, necessitating his creative action. In tandem with his pronouncements of judgment upon God’s people, Jesus called them to repentance. He was not only promising the end of exile; as part of that redemptive package, he was also commanding the comprehensive reformation of the community itself. The Gospels show Jesus building a new people, a new family of God – one that did not revolve around the symbols of Temple, ethnicity, intensified Torah-observance, or land, but around himself. In language reminiscent of John 20, Jesus at one point declares that those who do God’s will are part of the new, re-defined family he is creating (e.g., Mark 3:31-35). Jesus’ mission entailed nothing less than the reconstitution of “Israel”, in fulfilment of ancient prophecy, with him at its heart.

Approaching the Resurrection: The Re-constitution of God’s People

Having provided some context, we’re now in a position to draw some more explicit links between the resurrection of Jesus and the establishment of a new people of God. Every feature of Jesus’ ministry we have touched on – his announcement of the kingdom’s arrival, his call for renewal, his creation of an alternative community, and his promise of the restoration of Israel – found its appropriate climax in the events of Easter. In particular, the resurrection, being the divine seal of vindication upon Jesus’ claims, guaranteed the ultimate success of his mission. Along with his crucifixion, the raising of Jesus was both the capstone to his ministry and the first step in the establishment of God’s renewed people. But behind the proximate culmination of his vocational aims lay the fulfilment of Israel’s enduring hope (found repeatedly in the prophets) for liberation and restoration.

Quite simply, Jesus’ resurrection meant restoration: the re-formation, by an act of divine sovereignty, of a covenant community dedicated to God’s purposes. Jesus’ efforts to call into being a new people of God required his resurrection, for the very reason that such a reality could only be secured by a fresh and epochal act of divine re-creation. It marked out God’s salvific reign through the victory of his anointed agent, whose triumph saw the emergence of this new community, delivered from the judgment that had been pronounced upon the nation. Dodd wrote that the raising of Jesus saw not only the irrevocable transformation of that first band of followers, but also “the rising of Israel from the dead.” The coming wrath, about which Jesus had preached, finally fell on his shoulders. His resurrection, however, signalled vindication – not only for himself, as the one who had ostensibly died an accursed death, but also for those who aligned themselves with his kingdom programme. Surprisingly, he was revealed to be Israel’s Messiah, who acted to usher in the divine kingdom.  It was the divine imprimatur upon a ministry which had been viewed as a betrayal of Israel’s ancestral traditions by many of Jesus’ contemporaries.  Equally surprising was the fact that with the resurrection, the long, dark night of exile had ceased. The “death” of God’s people had now been reversed, their sins expunged. This was the true deliverance awaiting them, running far deeper than any merely political liberation: the creation of a new Israel; a holy remnant, emerging out of the ruins of the old, freed from the enervating blight of corruption, and restored to its place as an object of divine affection.

Of course, equating death with exile, and restoration with resurrection, was no innovation, even if the application was unprecedented; though fleeting, there are hints in the OT that Israel’s return and reconstitution was seen as a kind of new birth, a fresh creation. Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones (Ezek 37:1-14) is particularly germane. As many commentators have correctly noted, it is set amidst a series of prophetic oracles which promise the return of God’s people to their land, and his determination to care for – and tend to – his “flock”. Having suffered the consequences of Yahweh’s judicial wrath – wrath which manifested itself as eviction from the promised land – Israel, according to Ezekiel, could now look forward to a divinely-authored act of re-gathering. Ezekiel 37:1-14 fits snugly within this broader context, providing a vivid metaphor for what God was going to do. The story itself is well-known: Ezekiel is brought to a valley by God’s Spirit, and is commanded to prophesy life into scattered bones. Having witnessed the sheathing of these bones in muscle and sinew, the prophet listens as God explains the meaning of this “resurrection”: Israel, which had experienced the “semi-death” of exile, was going to experience restoration as her king led her back to the land of promise. In fact, verses 11-14 make the connection explicit, even going so far as to use the image of the dead being liberated from the grave to describe the process (v.12). What Ezekiel envisaged as the re-animation of lifeless human remains denoted nothing less than the re-constitution of the redeemed community, the re-affirmation of the covenant, the cleansing and ingathering of God’s scattered people, and the end of divine-human estrangement.

The connection between Ezekiel 37 and Jesus’ resurrection, then, ought to be clear. What was treated as metaphor by the exilic prophet became a concrete reality in the raising of one man. The restoration for which many Jews longed – pictured here as the divine inspiration of dry bones – had been achieved, astonishingly, in Jesus’ triumph over death. In seed form, his resurrection concretized the primary referent of Ezekiel’s prophetic vision — inaugurating the end of exile and the re-constitution of God’s holy community. To be sure, the relationship between Jews and the land of promise continued to be marked by ambiguity, even after the events of Easter. I’ll have more to say about that apparent “failure” below. But the shifting of the eons, and the implications for the rising of God’s people, should not be missed. In the mind of a first-century Jew, resurrection from the dead meant restoration of the covenant community’s fortunes – the re-establishment of the divine family, now cleansed of its sin. Returning to John 20:17, we might now have the chance to see an otherwise enigmatic statement in a new light. With the raising of Jesus, his first followers had passed into a fresh phase of salvation history, which saw them bequeathed the fundamentally new status of “sons”. They could now count the God whom Jesus addressed as “Father” in the same manner, for his triumph meant their entry into the new family (i.e., the new covenant community) that he had launched. They were indeed his children, having been drawn into an entirely new relationship on the basis of what Jesus did (cf. John 1:13). Where John uses familial language – referring as he often does to sonship and divine fatherhood – others employ the language of nation, body or community. Nevertheless, though these terms may capture different dimensions, their basic referent remains the same: namely, the “reanimated” people of God, whose restoration was not of the kind that could be won by military prowess, but one which only divine re-creation could secure.

Excursus: Jesus’ Resurrection and The Enigma of Israel’s “Unrequited” Hope

The NT is emphatic that with the raising of Jesus, God’s rule had been unveiled; his saving sovereignty had become manifest; a powerful victory had been won over his enemies; and, of course, the renewal and vindication of his people – commenced with Christ’s pre-resurrection ministry – had been achieved. But how could this be? The kingdom had not arrived in the way most Jews imagined: the Temple remained incomplete, and was eventually destroyed by the Romans in AD70; Israel was still under the thumb of pagan rulers; and liberation – at least physical-political liberation, of the kind that might entail the (violent) overthrow of Israel’s enemies – seemed a forlorn hope. Granting the vision of corporate restoration in Ezekiel 37 was fulfilled in the individual resurrection of what appeared to be a Galilean peasant, how could the raising of a single individual possibly signal the deliverance of a community – particularly when it was clear that the form this deliverance was expected to take had so obviously failed to materialize? How could the resurrection function as the means by which God rescued his people if the conditions of their enslavement apparently persisted?

At this point, we ought to examine further the ways in which the course of Jesus’ life (including his death and, especially, his resurrection) led to the re-configuration of central Jewish beliefs. We go firstly to the question of how the early Christians (including the four evangelists) distinguished between the present age and the age to come. Jews who believed in resurrection were largely convinced that the raising of the righteous would occur at the end of history – that is, at the end of the present, corrupt age – when God would come to rescue those who were his, fully unveil his kingdom, bring about the consummation, and usher in the new age of peace, justice, harmony and renewal. The idea of an individual being raised from the dead in history, however, was unheard of. But the startling sight of the empty tomb, along with the disciples’ encounters with the risen Jesus, signalled precisely that. It represented the beginning of the new epoch within the old. In contradistinction to prevailing eschatological convictions – i.e., that the age to come would dawn only with the passing of the current one – Jesus’ resurrection was a preview of the future, now bursting into the present; its end had already begun, at least in an anticipatory sense. Indeed, and to pre-empt the central topic of a later blog article, it “[was] the beginning of the ontological renewal of creation that will come to completion” when God fully realizes his redemptive aims (J.C. Beker). Within the promise of this wider renewal sat the redemption of the divine commonwealth.

If you read John’s Gospel, you’ll notice that the Fourth Evangelist assiduously foregrounds the idea of the proleptic nature of Jesus’ vocation, to the extent that some have suggested he operates with a thoroughly realized eschatology. Leaving aside the merits of that argument, it’s true the John portrays the ministry of Christ – and indeed, his resurrection – as the overlapping presence of the new age with, and upon, the old. When Martha professes conventional belief in the resurrection of the righteous at the end of time, Jesus declares himself to be the “resurrection and the life” now, in whose very person the in-breaking of God’s saving sovereignty is being actualised. And with that, of course, would come the advance restoration of his people (John 11:24-26). The deep-rooted longing for renewal, for cleansing, and for deliverance, were fulfilled in the prototypical raising of God’s anointed. This wasn’t simply a case of individual re-embodiment (though it certainly was that). Again, if Ezekiel 37 is to be believed, then resurrection denoted the re-invigoration of the covenant community. What happened to Jesus three days after his death marked the beginning, the decisive inauguration, of that redemptive process, one that was to be consummated later. Despite the ongoing reality of Israel’s subjection to pagan rulership, the resurrection secured present justification (and eventual glorification) for those who yielded to him (cf. Rom 4:25): not to the old symbols of Temple or ethnic identity – the function of which had been reduced to the talismanic – but to the One who forged a path through death and out the other side into new life, experiencing both judgment (via the cross) and deliverance (through his resurrection) on behalf of his people.

This brings me, secondly, to Jesus’ representative status. The notion that Jesus was in some sense the “first fruits” (cf. 1 Cor 15:23) of the vindication and restoration of God’s people is deeply related to his portrayal in the Gospels as the Messiah. Messianic fervour was certainly endemic within first-century Palestine, as I have noted. The evangelists, it seems, were quite innovative in their use of this concept, fusing messianic currents with the Isaianic picture of the suffering servant (e.g., Isa 52:12-53:12) in their portrayal of Jesus. He undertook the representative functions of God’s anointed, embodying those who were his. Establishing the divine kingdom in the epochal events of Easter, he acted on behalf of God’s people, as they longed for an end to their suffering. Of course, he also re-configured those hopes, and subverted conventional expectations as to what the liberation and renewal of the covenant community would look like. Still, the Gospel writers are united in their conviction that Jesus’ resurrection was an indissoluble part – nay, the validating climax – of his messianic vocation. The “split-nature” of Christian eschatology is tied to Jesus’ status as a divinely-anointed pioneer (cf. Heb 12:2). Through his death and resurrection, he broke out of the confines of the old age, ushered God’s new world into the present era, and acted as forerunner for those whose allegiance lay with him.

A helpful way of describing the representative dimensions of Jesus’ messianic status, particularly as it pertains to the present topic, is via the term “incorporative Messiahship”. There is some evidence that OT kingship could be seen in just this way (recalling that the Messiah was invariably viewed as a royal, Davidic figure), such that the destiny of the king’s subjects was somehow bound up with his own. In the NT, Paul uses the phrase “in Christ” to denote the fact that those who have yielded themselves to Jesus are somehow “incorporated” into his death and resurrection – thereby experiencing the same vindication that Jesus himself did when God raised him from the dead. Those who have placed their faith in Jesus “participate” in his achievement, such that they can experience the benefits of Easter. He summed up in himself Israel’s story, undergoing both the pain of death (read: exile), and the joy of resurrection (read: restoration). As biblical scholar Crispin Fletcher-Louis has noted, “[Jesus] incorporates the people in such a way that in him, their representative leader, the people find the fulfilment of their own destiny; they get to be the people they were created and called to be”. Or, to quote Wright again, “Jesus had somehow borne Israel’s destiny by himself, was somehow its representative”. Jesus functioned as a corporate figure, the messianic head of a new people who would share in his fate. His resurrection, then, entailed their own; as Michael Bird has written, what was true of Jesus would be true of them.

When we combine these two elements – a staged eschatology, on the one hand, and Jesus’ incorporative Messiahship, on the other – what are we left with? Jesus’ resurrection marked the proleptic invasion of the new age into the old one. Whilst it’s true that Israel’s material situation was left apparently unchanged, the framework of inaugurated eschatology allows us to see in the events of Easter the emergence of God’s final purposes – where every force arrayed against his people would eventually be defeated – in the present. Those events represented an epochal moment in salvation history, where God’s plan took a decisively new turn (appearances notwithstanding). The representative vindication of Jesus through his resurrection provided concrete evidence that God’s people had and would experience the same vindication, in both its present and future dimensions. Because Jesus was raised as a summative figure – encapsulating the fate of God’s people in his own person – members of the redeemed community could, by virtue of their corporate solidarity with him, also enjoy the present “down-payment” of complete, eschatological renewal.

Resurrection and the Composition of God’s Restored People

It remains now to say something about the complexion of God’s restored people, and the manner in which Jesus’ resurrection formed the basis for both its re-definition and (paradoxically, perhaps) its fulfilment.

The raising of Jesus had profound implications for the composition and identity of God’s restored people. In the first century (as we have seen), many Jews took it for granted that Abraham’s descendants – aside from apostates and the incorrigibly wicked – would enter the covenant community when God came to restore it, simply as a consequence of their ethnic and ancestral heritage. They clung to the aforementioned symbols of Temple, ethnicity, etc., as key markers of their distinct – indeed, unique – identity as Abrahamic children, chosen by God. But whilst Jesus’ resurrection meant the re-constitution of God’s people, it would be a mistake to think that this merely entailed a re-affirmation of national Israel.

John 2:12-22 provides a telling example. When confronted by the ruling elite of Jerusalem, who demand to know by what authority he claimed to cleanse the Temple, Jesus enigmatically says that if the great building is destroyed, he “will raise it again in three days” (v.19). The Fourth Evangelist, in an editorial aside, informs us that Jesus was actually referring to his own body – which means that the “raising” of which he spoke likely denoted his own resurrection (v.21). For many Jews in Jesus’ day, the Temple was, “…the sacred precinct…located at the cosmic centre of the universe, at the place where heaven and earth converge and thus from where God’s control over the universe is effected” (Carol Meyers). It was the central symbol in Israel’s national life, representing in stone and wood Yahweh’s decision to dwell specially with his people. The Temple was, in other words, the key identifying marker for the great swathe of first-century Jews – a sign, in other words, of Israel’s unique relationship with the creator God.

And yet here was Jesus prophesying the Temple’s destruction (see John 11:48; cf. Mark 11:12-21; Luke 19:41-44). In his riddling reply to the Jewish elite, he was claiming that the era of the Temple was coming to a (disastrous) end; all that it stood for, all that it symbolised, was now going to be fulfilled in his resurrection body. Its inevitable dissolution was also the prelude to the formation of a new, superior, “house of God”. For John, the raising of Jesus signalled the epochal “transfer” of the functions of the Temple to him. He would be the site of God’s special indwelling presence (cf. John 1:14); he would function as the unique meeting place between God and his people, and the convergence between heaven and earth (cf. John 1:51). No longer would Israel be defined by its relationship to the Jerusalem Temple, for God’s people would now be defined by its relationship to Jesus. This is of a piece with John’s Temple theology, which he has woven into segments of Jesus’ farewell discourse. His references to Father and Son making their home in the believer (14:23), and the mutually indwelling relationships that his followers will enjoy with the Godhead (17:23, 26) suggest that the redeemed community would operate (in a derivative manner) as the new dwelling site of God’s glory – glory that had been supremely revealed in the resurrected Jesus. This corresponds closely to what Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthian church. NT scholar, James Dunn, comments that it is “striking” the way Paul likens the church to God’s house, which is founded upon Jesus himself (1 Cor 3:16-17). No longer a structure composed of stone and wood, the true Temple is formed out of the mass of those men and women who are “in” Christ, having willingly submitted themselves to him.

What does all this mean? What does it entail for the identity of God’s people? As John 2:12-22 suggests, Jesus’ resurrection signified the fundamental transformation of Israel, and as a result, the re-definition of membership within the covenant community. We witness this in seed form in the Gospels (cf. Luke 15:1ff). They are replete with references to Jesus gathering a motely crew of people around himself, many of whom were viewed as “unclean” or “sinful” by the religious establishment. His advent introduced a radically new metric of covenant membership. Devotion to the symbols of the Jewish nation – chief among them the Temple, but also including land and Torah – no longer mattered. What mattered was one’s relationship to Jesus (cf. John 14:6).

This not only meant the creation of an alternative community, composed of the so-called dregs of first-century Jewish society; the same logic of Christo-centric membership demanded the eventual inclusion of those outside historic Israel, in fulfilment of ancient prophecy. With entry into the kingdom now grounded in one’s  fealty to Jesus, the way to divine sonship (or daughtership) was thus open to all, whether or not one’s lineage could be traced back to Israel’s patriarchal ancestors. This is at least part of the meaning of a verse like John 1:13. The Fourth Evangelist doesn’t spell out the full implications of this momentous shift, but as Acts amply demonstrates, the early church came to realize – aided by God’s revelatory activity – that with the resurrection of the Lord, the prophetic promise of liberation for the nations was now coming to pass (see also Matt 28:19). Indeed, as Paul notes in his letter to the Romans, the gospel he preached was for all, Jew and Gentile, who could win for themselves salvation by the same means: faith in the Messiah, Jesus (cf. Rom 3:29-30). Gentiles were to be welcomed into the divine community, but not as converted Jews; they were accorded membership within the reconstituted family of God because of that faith.

Of course, the in-grafting of Gentiles qua Gentiles into the people of God was bound to ignite controversy within first-century Israel, steeped as it was in nationalist fervour. But the NT is adamant. The Gospels contain hints that the inclusion of the Gentiles was all along the intended goal of Jesus’ ministry – in fulfilment of the prophetic vision (e.g., Luke 4:25-27). However, I think we can go further than this in drawing out the link between resurrection and the re-configuration of God’s people. Take Paul, for instance, who seems to touch upon these themes in Romans 4. For him, the death and resurrection of Jesus meant (among other things) the death of “fleshly” Israel and the raising of a newly-created community of justified individuals, centred upon the Messiah (Wright). Such individuals were no longer united through blood, location or ethnic identity, but again, through common faith in the resurrected Lord. Paul’s exposition in this chapter positions Abraham as the father of all who believe in the God who “gives life to the dead” (Rom 4:17). Of course, this characteristic act of divine power found its highest – nay, its paradigmatic – expression in the raising of Jesus, and it is something to which Paul refers at the end of that chapter as he draws a causal connection between the Messiah’s triumph and the justification of those who are his (v.25).

What Romans 4:25 also implies, when seen in its wider salvation-historical context, is that entry into God’s community no longer rests on identification with physical Israel (with all its key identity markers), but upon the vindicated Christ. On this view, those tokens of Jewish covenantalism – upon which many a first-century Jew relied (cf. Luke 3:8) – are irrelevant. A person’s justification and the restoration of Israel as a community of Jew-plus-Gentile are indelibly linked: the righteous standing of the believer is secured by faith in the resurrected Jesus, whose own acquittal forms the pattern for his followers. The saving significance of the raising of the Messiah, therefore, operates on both the individual and the corporate plane. What I have already said about the incorporative nature of Jesus’ messianic vocation is relevant here. Those who have been justified because of that faith participate in his representative triumph. As Paul seems to imply in Romans 4, it is not Israel according to the flesh (i.e., national Israel) that will be saved; since Jesus summed up the fate of God’s people in himself, what is of ultimate concern is trust in him and participation in his body. Dodd’s earlier reference to the “rising of Israel” find clear application in the creation of a new holy “nation”, membership of which is grounded entirely in one’s relationship to the Messiah. The “resurrection” of the covenant community thus entails the fulfilment of the prophetic vision – namely, the expansion of the circle of redemption to embrace people from every tribe and nation and culture and tongue. As Dunn notes in his study of Paul’s ecclesiology, the identity of the Christian assembly is no longer restricted by geography, or race (or social status or gender, for that matter), but by common allegiance to the Christ whom God raised from the dead.

Christian Theology and Democratic Politics: Part Two

My investigation of the links between Christian theology and democratic politics continues. It follows my exploration into the Bible’s emphasis upon the rule of law, and the contribution this emphasis has made to modern legal concepts in democratic states.

The law’s normative status over a community of people is one strand which links democratic political cultures and the Judeo-Christian ethic which has shaped them. But in exploring this link, I have also anticipated another crucial connection – namely, the idea that leaders are the servants of those they lead. The conclusions adduced in the first essay of this series suggest that within a biblical frame of reference, even pre-eminence in human rulership was relativised. Indeed, even if ancient Israel was no democracy (a point that was true of all its neighbours), we should not be distracted from this fundamental point.

The rule of law and the notion of leaders as servants are linked in a consequential way. The law’s supremacy is intended, in part, to constrain the power of any one individual or group. In this context, any such governor is still subservient to legal strictures maintaining an independent normativity. Even if he has amassed a great deal of power, he is nonetheless charged with the responsibility of upholding the law and maintaining the order and integrity of the community he rules. That represents a kind of minimalist version of the concept of the leader-as-servant. A fully-fledged account of democratic government would hold that leaders’ authority is grounded in the consent of a particular people. Of course, how that is parsed is often a matter of debate, but for modern liberal democracies, the usual mechanism is universal suffrage and regular elections.

This represents a unique arrangement in the history of human cultural and political evolution. For most of that period, the relationship between the governed and governors was one of utter asymmetry, with the former living in subjection to the latter. What democratic states seem to do is dramatically upend the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed. On this view, governors do not “lord” it over citizens; nor is their authority grounded in themselves. It is not intrinsic, but extrinsic. As an ideal, they are there to labour on behalf of the citizenry – for its betterment and security, and at its behest – and it is upon this that the legitimacy of governors rests. Democratic leaders are, in theory, restrained and relativized. On the one hand, they are restrained, because they are bound by the legal framework within which they operate. They cannot act with untrammelled power, because they are servants of both the people who have given their consent to be so governed, and because they themselves are susceptible to legal sanctions if they overstep the boundaries of their authority. On the other hand, leaders in a democracy are relativized, because they are not the ultimate ground of that authority. Again, the citizenry and the rule of law (which provides for consensual government) together ensure that this is the case.

As noted, those who steer the ship of state, at least in a democratic setting, are charged with the responsibility of providing for the betterment of others – not as an adjunct to their role as governors, but as the very essence of what they do. Indeed, the reason elected officials exist is so that (in the absence of radically participatory politics) the interests and wishes of the people may be carried out on their behalf. It is what one might idealistically designate other-regarding, as opposed to self-regarding, power. Democratic leaders are by definition servants of those they lead; they are agents and instruments of the public will. This partly explains the notion of accountable government: if those who lead are meant to do so for the benefit of the citizens of a particular political community, it is but a short step to argue that they ought to be answerable to the ones in whose name they claim to govern. Again, none of this springs forth spontaneously; equally, it cannot be sustained by the intrinsic virtue or good will of its practitioners. A whole web of checks and balances ensures that orientation towards service of the citizenry, and the fundamental conception of democratic governance, are upheld. By contrast, in many traditional dictatorships, leaders exercise power, and are free to do so, largely for their own benefit (regardless of the nature of that benefit). To be sure, they may pay lip service to the idea that the needs and interests of the citizens need to be attended to – if only to make the accumulation and preservation of power that much easier. According to democratic principles (if not democratic reality), ministers and elected officials exist chiefly for the sake of those who have chosen them; they are meant to serve.

Of course, these are ideal types; actual leaders invariably fail to neatly conform to them. Moreover, the reality frequently fails to match such lofty ideals: modern, Western politicians sometimes appear to be just as susceptible to venality and corruption as authoritarian ones; and democratic politicians can be very adept at using “pork-barrel politics” to cling to power, in a manner that is reminiscent of the crudest kind of populist strongman. Still, this should not distract us from the larger point, or the fundamental principles we use to judge such failings in the first place.

Servant Leadership in the Old Testament

One may discern the seed of such an idea in (amongst other places) the OT. If the (divine) law was “king”, then any human ruler, no matter how powerful, was obliged to defer to something greater than himself. He was, in some sense, a servant. He was not called to live for his own aggrandizement; rather, he was selected for the sake of the community, providing a focal point of obedience and devotion to Torah. At the same time, the king was appointed to his position by God. An OT theology of kingship presents Yahweh as the ultimate sovereign, from whose authority any Israelite ruler derived his own. Of course, one might assert that this simply upholds a theory of the divine right of kings. But, aside from the fact that arguing for royal absolutism on the basis of divine providence appears to be a medieval development, the counter-argument does not reckon with the way both Testaments portray rulership generally. In tandem with its insistence regarding the supremacy of law, the OT contains a germinal understanding of the leader-as-servant. We have seen how royal disobedience led to the activation of divine curses, narrated particularly in Kings and Chronicles – clear demonstration of the king’s relative, and indeed relativised, status. This is complemented by the fact that he was not viewed as the final ground of his own position of pre-eminence. The book of 1 Samuel presents this clearly: Saul, who had been chosen as king, becomes a “stench” to Yahweh due to his recalcitrant disobedience, whilst David’s parallel rise – and ultimate acclamation – as Yahweh’s true representative is depicted as the unfolding, not of human machinations, but of the sovereign designs of Israel’s god. On one level, the narrative presents David as the unique recipient of divine favour. However, on another level, it represents a subtle reminder that the king himself stood on authority that was in the hands of another. He was a leader, yes; but he was, in the final analysis, an instrument, used by Yahweh with the intention of mediating his just and wise order – inscripturated in Torah – to the community.

The New Testament and the Flowering of an Idea

Having been germinated in the soil of the OT, the idea of servant leadership blossoms in the NT. The basic resources for a democratic understanding of governance – one which reverses the relationship between those in power, and those over whom power is exercised – are to be found there. We may begin with one of the clearest “political” texts in the NT, Romans 13:1-7. It is a notorious passage. Commentators over the centuries have often interpreted Paul’s statements here in purely reverential terms: having traversed other topics in Romans 1-12, they aver, he now deals explicitly with questions of the believer’s relationship to governing authorities, and does so by counselling quietism and acquiescence. Countless interpreters, not to mention politicians, have dragooned this passage into service, as they have sought to substantiate the untrammelled, unquestioned power of the state. In more recent times (and in an example of religion frustrating the advance of emancipation and egalitarianism), the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa deployed Romans 13:1ff to argue for acquiescence towards the political structures sustaining that country’s apartheid system.

All this, however, fundamentally misunderstands Paul’s point. True, a prima facie reading supports a so-called “conservative” interpretation, such that the apostle is heard to be saying that it would simply be better for a basically oppressive system of government to remain in place, than for Christians to be seen as subversive. Indeed, he seems to simply enjoin submission, with nary a word (apparently) on whether or not the authorities to which one ought to submit are legitimate. However, probing its contents more deeply yields a very different conclusion. To this end, a few points may be considered. Whilst it encourages some degree of deference to the governing authorities, Romans 13:1ff is quite deliberate in the language its uses to describe them. This is particularly clear if we gather up vv.1-2, 4-6, which speak of the nature (as opposed to the activity) of governing authorities. In those passages, Paul quite clearly states that (1) those who govern have been instituted by God, and (2) they are God’s “servants”. What this means is that although the apostle encourages the Roman believers to eschew rebellion and subversion, he nonetheless betrays a relativized view of government and human political institutions, consistent with a Jewish view of God as the world’s sole sovereign. Caesar, according to imperial ideology, owed allegiance to no one, save perhaps for the pantheon of Greco-Roman gods (who could probably expect nothing more than superficial reverence). The emperor stood at the apex of a totalising system, which acknowledged no other authority, no other rival who might qualify or check his untrammelled power. Paul, on the other hand, argues that every governing authority, from Caesar on down, has been instituted by God (v.1b-c). The power and legitimacy they bore was rooted in an external authority. For all their pomp, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, et. al., were but instruments, whose positions, according to Paul, depended entirely on the largesse of the world’s true King. If not for him, we might hear the apostle saying, they would be nothing. The apostle exhorts submission to governors, certainly; but lying behind this counsel is the basic assumption that they in turn were subject to God. Underlying – indeed, overshadowing – their authority was an authority transcendent and unmatched (metaphysically speaking). Far from re-enforcing a totalitarian system, Paul significantly qualifies it.

That qualification is reflected in the apostle’s conviction that governors are “servants” of God (vv. 5-6), charged with the responsibility of bringing order to the political community. Not only have they been bequeathed authority (such that it is derived and relativized); neither the emperor, nor his legion of proconsuls, magistrates and provincial governors, were to wield power for its own sake. For Paul, they were merely agential figures, whose positions were only legitimate to the extent they discharged their duties as guarantors of justice and order (v.4b). The apostle is quite emphatic on this point, though it would be easy to miss, given popular (and facile) readings of the overall tenor of the passage. Twice he labels the governing authorities “servants”; once, he calls them “agents” – language that most certainly undermines pretensions towards universal sovereignty, particularly as that comes to expression in the figure of the emperor. On this view, power is circumscribed, for those holding it do so as instruments of the final sovereign. In Paul’s mind, governors occupy a demoted (though nonetheless important) position, such that their raisons d’etre rest on service to a purpose higher than the accumulation of power for its own sake.

Of course, it would be folly to suggest that in the wider Greco-Roman world, governors lacked any sense of what it meant to provide for those they governed, or that they had no obligations towards citizens and subjects (though this obviously excludes the massive population of slaves within the Roman Empire). What I think is distinctive about the NT portrait of leadership and power is the way it drastically re-draws the vocation – the benefits of which are so completely externalised that true authority is defined as, and manifested in, service to others. This is particularly so as it is embodied in the NT’s portrayal of the ministry and life of Jesus himself. Even in the absence of direct historical links, it is still possible to discern certain parallels between, and echoes of, a Christological ethos and later principles associated with democratic governance. Some of the key texts in this regard are Mark 10:40-45; John 13:1-5; and Philippians 2:5-11.

Mark 10:40-45: Of the three passages I have selected, Mark 10:40-45 draws perhaps the clearest distinction between worldly, secular expressions of power, and the kind of power Jesus counselled and exemplified. In that passage, James and John approach Jesus, and ask him to give them high places of honour on either side “in [his] glory” (v.37). Clearly, they want to be exalted alongside Jesus, to attain positions of primacy and acclamation. But the other disciples are little better, becoming indignant with the brothers’ request – not because they believe it to be wrong, but because they are angry their own opportunity for honour has apparently been robbed (v.41). Verses 42-45, however, form the crux of Jesus’ statement on power and authority. He explicitly contrasts the way in which earthly rulers wield their power, “lording” it as they do over their subjects, and the model he presents (cf. v.45). Indeed, he is categorical and his disavowal of secular convention, calling upon the disciples to eschew the haughtiness of secular rulers in favour of a servant’s approach to leadership. More than that, he states that if any of them aspire to such positions, they must adopt the posture of a slave (v.44).

Slavery in the Roman Empire was a mixed bag; some slaves were able to do quite well for themselves, accumulating property and even acquiring slaves of their own. Others, however, were treated shamefully, stripped of everything, and utterly dehumanised by the reigning economic system. For Jesus, the significance of this kind of language lies in its basic connotations: whether a slave enjoyed a relatively comfortable existence, or suffered under the crushing weight of constant oppression, his life was ultimately not his own; it was limited, corralled – inextricably bound to the expectations and whims of his owner. The slave was not his own person; he was, in many respects, an appendage of the paterfamilias. And yet, remarkably, it was this very image Jesus chose to use when describing the nature of true leadership. For him, the authentic expression of power could be summed up as a kind of servitude, as those who followed his example were enjoined to give up all rights as they sought to lead. He commanded them to yield everything in service to others, thereby upending conventional notions of power, and subverting long-established hierarchies between the governed and those who govern them. Jesus used himself as the exemplar of this attitude, offering up his own crucifixion as its climactic embodiment. Mark 10:45 has long been seen as a classic expression of the significance of the atonement. It is certainly that, of course, but as Anglican New Testament scholar N.T. Wright has said, this passage houses a political theology inside its atonement theology – namely, a critique of the shape and nature of contemporaneous articulations of authority via Jesus’ own explication of the meaning of his death. In place of worldly analogues, Jesus substituted a picture of leadership that was deeply, radically, centred upon the welfare of others (“…give his life as a ransom…”). On this view, the leader’s life was, in effect, “enslaved” – bound to the duty he had to the community he oversaw. The accumulation of power was not for the purposes of self-aggrandizement, but for self-emptying.

John 13:1-5: The Marcan Jesus’ presentation of himself as the epitome of servant leadership leads naturally into John 13:1-5. That episode is justly famous for featuring his rather surprising act of foot-washing in the upper room, only hours before his arrest, trial and execution. In John’s hands, Jesus’ determination to wash the feet of his disciples proleptically symbolizes the cross. Now, for the Fourth Evangelist, Jesus’ crucifixion is, amongst other things, an act of service, issuing in great benefit for others. We may deduce this from the deliberate link he makes between Jesus’ foot-washing and his later death. Christ’s references to cleansing plainly function on more than one level, where the concrete reality of feet being washed with water points to the greater reality of cleansing from sin by virtue of Jesus’ self-oblation. But of course, the responsibility for foot-washing lay with servants, who waited on the guests of a feast. Such a menial task would not have been conducted by the guests themselves, for it was utterly beneath them. However, what Jesus commanded didactically in Mark 10, he here offers up in visual, parabolic form. Moreover, he pairs his example with an exhortation to the disciples to do likewise (13:14-15), thus setting out the importance of his own life as an ethical paradigm for those who would claim to follow him.

What is important for our purposes, however, are the specific links between the passage and the notion of servant leadership. These have already been clearly intimated by the very fact of Jesus’ adoption of a servant’s posture. But the prelude to the act is a revealing comment from the author himself, which provides both a theologically rich portrait of Jesus’ identity, and a startling reinforcement of the radically unconventional expression of power and authority attributed to him. Verse 3 has the evangelist tell us that Jesus “knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God, and was returning to God”. This is crucial; the very next verse continues by saying, “so he [Jesus] got up…” in order to wash the disciples’ feet. The seemingly insignificant word “so” signals the consequential relationship between Jesus’ knowledge of his complete sovereignty (delegated, to be sure), and the subsequent act of humble service which he performed. For the Fourth Evangelist, the foot-washing was not an obstacle to Jesus’ comprehensive authority; it was a clear, if paradoxical, expression of that theological truth. Similarly, Jesus did not stoop to the level of a servant despite being the incarnation of the Father’s very wisdom (cf. John 1:1-2); rather, he did so precisely because of it. The message seems clear: true power is not expressed through tyrannical coercion, but through the complete abnegation of self and status. Via his surprising act, the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel taught the disciples that leadership in the redeemed community could not wielded in the same manner as earthly expressions, for it meant the complete reversal of expectations and convention.

Philippians 2:5-11: Philippians 2:5-11 seems to point in much the same direction as the foot-washing episode in John 13. As such, the passage also has important implications for a NT understanding of authority and power. In this chapter, Paul exhorts the church at Philippi to adopt the same mind and attitude as that of Christ Jesus (v.5). He then launches into a wonderful soliloquy about the various stages of Christ’s humiliation (completed with his exaltation): first, in taking on human flesh; and second, by walking the road to Calvary, and suffering a shameful execution in the manner of a criminal (vv.6-8). Verses 6-7 are particularly important, for they offer the reader a window into Paul’s paradoxical view of the identity and revelation of the world’s true sovereign. To be sure, there has been much debate as to how this pair of verses should be construed: did Jesus “make himself nothing” despite enjoying “equality with God”; or did he, rather, condescend because he participated in the divine identity? In other words, was Christ’s (two-stage) sacrifice a move away from the proper expression of divinity, or the culmination thereof?    

In his stimulating work, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, Michael J. Gorman argues that both interpretations are valid, and for that reason, proposes a synthetic treatment of the passage. He contends that they are really two sides of the same coin, and that Paul is working with both a “counterintuitive” stream and a “cruciform” stream as he rehearses the revelation God in the downward trajectory of Christ’s life. The apostle implicitly points to the paradoxical character of Christ’s incarnation, jarring as it did with conventional understandings of power and divine identity. For a king, emperor or god to stoop to the level of servanthood in this way – not to mention submitting to the dishonour of so humiliating an execution – was almost completely unthinkable. It was a category mistake of the highest order. The novelty of Paul’s depiction of godhood was to say that, contrary to expectation, the kind of self-abnegation seen in Christ’s humiliation was in fact a key moment in the disclosure of the identity of the divine. In sharp contradistinction to the prevailing norms of Greco-Roman culture, what the tenor and conclusion Jesus’ earthly life showed was not a tragic negation of power, but its true expression. We see here the present passage’s conceptual and theological connections with Mark 10 and John 13: the paradoxical – even polemical – depiction of what genuine authority actually looks like. Jesus’ descent into slavery was, according to Paul, the strange, yet climactic, unveiling of God’s character.

Moreover, as Gorman and others have plausibly argued, Philippians 2:6-11 contains a number of cultural echoes that strongly suggest a critique of imperial power, and all the pomp and arrogance associated with it. By implicitly pitting Caesar against Jesus, Paul is arguing that the “form of God” – which Augustus and others arrogated for themselves through military prowess and claims of universal lordship – was actually made visible in the voluntary servanthood of the man from Galilee. In that act, Paul seems to be saying, God in Christ turned imperial notions of power and leadership on their heads. The ethical import of the passage is properly contextualized by the opening verses of chapter 2, where Paul exhorts the Philippians to look out for the “interests of others”, and to tend to each other from positions of humility and deference. Philippians 2:6-11 caps the apostle’s exhortation by providing the church with the paradigm of humble, self-effacing service, of power wielded on behalf of, and for the benefit of, others.

Together, these three passages offer the reader a relatively clear picture of one key aspect of Christology. More to the point, they help crystallize the NT’s conception of leadership. In fundamental ways – seen implicitly in Philippians 2:6-11 and rather explicitly in Mark 10:40-45 – the resultant picture of Jesus constitutes a categorical rejection of the prevailing expressions and examples of power. It not only functions as a critique of empire and imperial arrogance, but also undermines all self-regarding and self-aggrandizing claims to power. The passages I have surveyed here all promote the idea – radical at the time – of servant leadership, where the hierarchy between governed and governor, leader and led, is dramatically blunted. That the subject of these passages is also seen as the very embodiment of God – the world’s true creator and sovereign – only adds to the significance of their complementary portraits of power. What they capture is the notion that leadership functions primarily as a form of service to the community over which one governs. On this view, positions of power do not exist for the ones who possess them; rather, a NT theology (and Christology) of leadership requires the bearers of such status to toil, labour – indeed, expend themselves – for the betterment of those they lead.

How does all this translate into the way power and leadership is conceived in modern democratic states? The relationship, like that between a biblical commitment to the law’s transcendence and evolving principles concerning the rule of law, is certainly not a direct one. And I don’t want to overplay my hand: Jesus was, according to the NT, the agent of God’s coming kingdom. He himself is depicted as God’s vice-regent, who rules the cosmos. This, of course, is not very “democratic”, if by that we mean a Lincolnian government “of the people” or “by the people”.

On the other hand, what I have examined is consistent with government “for the people”, the third leg in Lincoln’s democratic triumvirate. The idea of power and authority which came to expression in the figure of Jesus resonates at a deeper level with principles governing the exercise of political power in modern Western democracies. Moreover, given the deep cultural and philosophical shafts Judeo-Christian ethics have sunk into the bedrock of those communities, we should expect various features within those countries to bear traces – however faint – of that legacy. I think the example and ethos of Jesus is one such legacy. His embodiment of servant leadership upended the conventional and assumed power structures that prevailed in the Greco-Roman world. Similarly, Jesus articulated a new definition of power, one characterised by self-abnegation and self-expenditure in an effort to meet the needs of others. It’s difficult to overstate the massive, indeed tectonic, shift in the relationship between the governed and their governors that was generated by the singular influence of Jesus. Later developments concerning accountable government (which I have already touched on) are genetically related to the idea – exemplified so crisply in Jesus’ example – that power and authority are corralled by service, and ought to be measured against that standard.

None of this occurred in isolation, of course; other intellectual streams were powerfully important in the evolution of democratic leadership. Moreover, the mere example of Jesus could not become an influential source for the later flourishing of democratic culture apart from its preservation, transmission and adaptation in later Christian communities. It was here that the ethic of Jesus was “practised”, and where its social and communal utility could be tested. The early church, as seen in Acts, is seen as a radically egalitarian society (e.g., Acts 2:42-46; 4:32, 34-37), and the legitimate heir to the message and teachings of Christ. Later Christian history provides examples of participatory and communal living, presaging (by some centuries, to be sure) subsequent values associated with, and undergirding, democratic politics.

For instance, theologian and anti-apartheid activist John de Grucy has noted that fourth-century monasticism provides strong evidence for the presence of a proto-democratic culture in some streams of early Christianity. Monastic figures such as Basil of Caesarea (and later, Benedict of Nursia) formed equalitarian communities that sought to counter the highly-stratified worlds in which they existed. Class distinctions between aristocracy and the poor were erased (or at least dramatically muted), whilst members of the clergy from wealthier families, deliberately invoking the figure of Jesus, would take vows of poverty – the better to serve and identify with those they led. Political philosopher, Larry Siedentop, says this development heralded a remarkable transformation in the was authority was conceived. Under the aegis of people like Basil, monastic leaders were obliged to act humbly, meekly. Siedentop argues that this version of authority — existing as it did in a culture awash with hubristic notions of power — was “unprecedented”. The early centuries of the church witness to a formative matrix, which provided key cultural and structural resources for the development of democratic politics, and which can be traced back to the example and teachings of its founder. That matrix was to prove decisive for both later Christian communities and the societies in which they existed. As but one example, we may note the way sections of the Radical Reformation self-consciously sought to emulate the social egalitarianism that Jesus espoused and practised.

All this lies in the future, and I shall return to some of these points in later essays. For now, it is important to consider the historically and culturally mediated connections between crucial biblical themes related to leadership and government, especially as they are crystallized in the NT’s portrait of Christ, and the conceptualisation of leadership in contemporary democratic states.

Postcards from the Marriage Wars – Part Three

The last time I examined the issue of same-sex marriage, it was by way of a response to the (predictable) views of a Fairfax journalist. However, it is one thing to hear from commentators on this issue; quite another to listen to those directly embroiled in the matter. Perhaps they have a unique insight that mere pundits lack. Roger Munson, a Uniting Church minister who conducted a wedding ceremony between two men during the ACT’s brief interregnum on SSM, is one such individual. Here he is in his own words, explaining his reasons for supporting such a momentous shift:

“Jesus never said anything against people who are homosexual…Jesus always welcomed people, had compassion and never judged people…These people should be allowed to marry because they want to express their love for each other through a public right as anyone else does.”

Leave aside the fact that Jesus’ personal opinion of homosexual individuals hardly settles the public policy debate regarding the nature of marriage; Mr Munson’s views are nevertheless likely to appeal to those of a more liberal persuasion (by the by, it’s interesting that one Christian can be feted for holding views that the Left has already embraced, whilst another Christian can be howled down and accused of illegitimately trying to inject religion into a public debate if he so much as breathes a conservative sentiment). I have already talked about the possible pitfalls of trying to ground marriage in the subjective and transient (if intense) emotions that exist between two people, so I won’t cover old ground. Suffice it to say, it seems that Mr Munson assumes precisely this: people who wish to marry should be able to “…because they want to express their love for each other.” Note the consequential word, “because”: marriage should in effect be afforded to those who declare their love for each other, based precisely on this quality. According to Mr Munson (if his stated view is any indication), the only thing required for a marriage to be codified is the presence of such feelings. On its face, this view is compelling, generous, open and seductive. It reflects the mores and norms of a permissive, liberal age, and is likely to be celebrated with increasing enthusiasm. There’s just one, small problem: it’s wrong. And it’s wrong on several counts, not least of which is Mr Munson’s analysis and application of Jesus’ alleged views. It is upon this particular dimension of Mr Munson’s argument that I wish to focus.

Now, Mr Munson is absolutely correct that Jesus never said anything explicitly about homosexuality – or at least it’s true that the evangelists never mention Jesus saying anything about it. We simply have no record of Jesus’ utterances on the matter. But that’s the first problem; suggesting that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality as a way of legitimising SSM is an argument from silence. Arguments from silence, I should point out, are notoriously feeble. Because the gospels – the only records we have of Jesus’ putative teachings – are so brief, we simply have no way of knowing whether Jesus did have anything to say about the matter. So basing one’s support for homosexual relationships upon the apparent silence of the founder of Christianity is fraught with difficulty. The most we could say is that if Jesus said anything bearing upon homosexuality specifically, the evangelists – for reasons known only to themselves – decided to omit it from their writings. Moreover, I am sure many people can think of other instances of (purported) moral impropriety – behaviour that might well attract near-universal criticism – about which Jesus was absolutely silent. A few examples come to mind; whilst attracting widespread opprobrium today, they are things on which we have no (expressed) opinion from Jesus. Ought we tale his silence on those matters as synonymous with approval? My point is that arguments from silence trade in ignorance – in this case, ignorance about what Jesus actually thought when it came to the question of homosexual acts.

But Mr Munson’s citation of Jesus’ (apparent) silence regarding homosexuality runs into another difficulty – namely, that it seems to reflect a fairly simplistic view of theological ethics. Let me explain. To ground (at least in part) the legitimacy of an act in Jesus’ silence on a particular matter is to give credence to the idea that ethical truths – in this case, prohibitions – are to be found only in explicit commands. But this is false, both in terms of ethics generally, and biblical ethics specifically. Surely Mr Munson knows that, when it comes to a biblically-informed ethical worldview, narrative substructure and underlying perspective are just as important as any explicit endorsement or proscription. This is germane, for once one introduces Scripture’s underlying narrative or ethical worldview, things take on a decidedly different complexion (as we shall see). Ironically, Mr Munson’s view seems to represent the worst kind of “reverse” proof-texting – the obverse of the sort of superficial ethical reasoning for which fundamentalist Christians are regularly (and often rightly) castigated. But of course, when such thinking is pressed into service to shore up presently accepted norms and mores, people are willing to overlook its demonstrable woolly-headedness.

* * *

These are just preliminary remarks, of course. But they point to intrinsic weaknesses in Mr Munson’s position. Moreover, and contrary to what Mr Munson seems to think, I believe that it’s possible to suggest – at least with some justification – what Jesus might have thought about the vexed question of homosexuality. I cannot argue that this case is “air-tight”, for the argument from silence can be a double-edged sword: that Jesus didn’t say anything about homosexuality means that we cannot be certain – at least from the biblical evidence before us – that he condemned it outright. Still, by examining what Jesus did say about sexuality generally, as well as clear-headed reflection upon the religious-ethical matrix within which he and his primary interlocutors operated, I think we can reasonably suggest that Jesus held to what would now be seen as a “conservative” position on matters sexual.

To begin, Jesus’ comments on sexuality do reveal his views fairly clearly – and, by implication, his views on homosexuality. Take, for example, his debate with a contingent of Pharisees on the question of divorce in Matthew 19. His opponents come to him in order to test his devotion to the Law of Moses (v.3). There are interesting contextual roots to this discussion, pertaining to the differing interpretations of the relevant OT material. Two schools of thought, congregating around the rabbis Hillel and Shammai, debated the meaning and scope of passages such as Deuteronomy 24:1. The former was more liberal in his interpretation of the verse, particularly its references to “displeasing” and “indecent”, whilst the latter adopted a more restricted understanding of legitimate grounds for divorce.

Jesus’ reply to his interlocutors, however, seems to bypass this internecine debate entirely. Indeed, he seems to point to the central meaning of the marriage covenant. Over and against this kind of rabbinic minutia, Jesus holds fast to the underlying ideal of marriage, as outlined in Genesis 1:27 and 2:24, by stating in vv.4-6 that marriage was always meant to be the lifelong, one-flesh union between a man and a woman. If one were to say that Jesus didn’t explicitly rule out other kinds of couplings, it would appear that, implicitly at least, he did. Note verse 4, where Jesus quotes specifically from Gen 1:27 – humanity was created male and female. NT scholar Craig Blomberg, in commenting on this passage, has said that the Genesis text set the paradigm, by which “heterosexual, monogamous marriage” was established “as the most intimate of interpersonal relationships and as the only relationship in which sexual union was appropriate” (emphasis mine). The creational ideal, it would seem, meant the distinction between male and female – or sexual complementarity, if one wants to use contemporary language – as the underlying basis for the one-flesh union. The Genesis texts, which the Matthean Jesus took to be foundational and authoritative, offer us a picture of marriage marked by two, intrinsic features: sexual distinction; and fleshy union (i.e., sexual intercourse). It encompasses these complimentary dimensions as structural elements of its own reality. To say, then, that this is the ideal (as Jesus seems to have done), is to implicitly screen out other sexual combinations and permutations, whether they occur within, or beyond, the constraints of some kind of formalised commitment. This includes SSM; however much Mr Munson might like to believe that Jesus would have no problem with two men or two women marrying each other (assuming that such an event is ontologically possible in the first place), it seems that the data contained in the gospels present a rather different picture.

Mr Munson, and those who have trod this path before, might want to argue that even if Jesus presented marriage in these terms as the divine ideal, his silence on homosexuality specifically might reflect a lack of interest in the subject. But this represents a failure to take into account the context within which Jesus and his opponents operated, and the influence it likely had on the shape and complexion of the debates that took place. Let’s take Jesus first. His reliance upon the OT’s premier text as a way of cutting through the debate over divorce suggests that, whatever else might be said, he saw the Hebrew Scriptures as authoritative. Indeed, Jesus’ reliance upon the Genesis texts to make his case functions as a window through which we may glimpse his embrace of the OT’s normativity – particularly as it pertains, in this case, to sexual relations. Take Matt 5:17-20, for example, where Jesus spoke of his relationship to the Hebrew Scriptures, and the implications his coming had for its authority. Certainly, the advent of Christ meant (to some extent) the radical redefinition of the Torah and its place in the life of the people of God. But his words in this passage do not indicate that it was thereby abolished. Quite the contrary, in fact. Jesus declared the ongoing legitimacy of the “Law and the Prophets”, even as he fulfilled them. And this would have included everything pertaining to sexuality generally, and homosexuality in particular. Far from abolishing the law, or diluting its force, Jesus actually intensified it.

As noted, there are debates over what place the OT plays in the life of the church today, and how it is to be applied. Furthermore, Christological fulfilment meant, in some case, the rescinding of certain laws (think food laws). But it cannot be said that Jesus dismissed the authority of the OT as a result of his ministry, or implied that its ethical strictures – including those related to sexual relations – were thereby null and void. The Sermon on the Mount clearly illustrates the point; there, in talking about matters such as murder and adultery, Jesus deepened the righteous requirements to which disciples were beholden (Matt 5:21-30). He certainly contrasted his teachings with those found in the OT. However, he did not present a new, liberalised application of Torah, but rather something that went beyond the outward acts proscribed by the Hebrew Scriptures. The point is that on the evidence, it seems unlikely that Jesus would have held anything less than an orthodox understanding of the authority and interpretation of the OT. This has important implications for his views on sexuality. Even though the evangelists did not record anything Jesus might have said about homosexuality, his general attitude towards the OT suggests that he would not have endorsed it.

As a good Jew, Jesus would not have been unusual in this understanding; many, if not most, of his co-religionists and ethnic kin believed the same. This brings me to the other side of the historical-contextual coin: the beliefs and attitudes of Jesus’ interlocutors (whether hostile or otherwise) towards sexuality and sexual relationships. Far from being a strange omission, Jesus’ apparent silence on the matter of homosexuality is easily comprehensible – perhaps doubly so, when one takes into account his own (likely) attitudes – in light of the social, religious and cultural matrix within which the bulk of his ministry occurred. The main recipients of his mission, it would seem, were fellow Jews. To be sure, Jesus made occasional forays into Gentile territory, and spoke with non-Jews. Moreover, his ministry seemed to provide the guiding resources – and indeed, the theological legitimacy – for later missionary activity within largely Gentile areas. That said, it seems reasonably clear to me that Jesus directed most of his vocational energy towards his fellow Jews – urging them to be the Israel of God they had been called to be, and to turn with penitence towards their true sovereign. From the perspective of the evangelists, first-century Israel had many problems, but acceptance of homosexual practices was not one of them. Similarly, and despite its pluriform character, first-century Judaism was unanimous in its rejection of same-sex acts. If Jesus’ ministry took place largely within this context, it is hardly surprising that he should not mention anything on this topic. Arguing that Jesus’ silence in this regard is morally significant is like claiming that an archbishop’s silence on the question of papal authority amongst a gathering of priests has any bearing on whether the Pope is the acknowledged and infallible head of the Catholic Church. For first-century Jews, the moral propriety of homosexuality was uncontroversial, precisely because of it near-universal rejection. It was simply a given – part of the assumed “plausibility structures” of the Jewish worldview, in other words. As such, if Jesus was silent on the issue, we do not have to wander terribly far to discover why.

* * *

Mr Munson’s views are neither new nor revolutionary. Rather, they simply reflect the dominant cultural and sexual narrative in today’s West. His Christological invocation, besides being simplistic and naïve, is little more than a veneer, masking a position that has been formed on quite different grounds. The “givenness” of sexual differentiation, as reflected in the biblical narrative (and which seems especially clear at key points) has given way to an individualised conception of marital relations – one that is largely based upon the pattern of desires and attractions of the participating individuals (whoever they may be). To be sure, Mr Munson is free to disagree with a biblical theology of marriage and the underlying significance of sexual difference. But one thing he is not free to do (logically speaking, anyway) is to pretend that a view owing much to late-modern Western constructions of sexuality and individual choice is, in fact, deeply and authentically Christian. Apart from anything else, I have tried to show that any such pretensions founder on the rocks of biblical and theological reality.

The Johannine Jesus and the “I am”

Introduction

The Jesus of the Fourth Gospel is an enigmatic figure, making tantalizing claims about his ultimate identity. His so-called “I am” statements, sprinkled throughout John, are no exception. Allusive and oblique, they are nonetheless freighted with cosmic significance. This essay will argue that the “I am” statements of John’s Gospel constitute an implicit, yet definite, claim to deity, and that this can be substantiated via an exploration of Old Testament ideas latent within the formula. Unfolding in three stages, it will first survey the two main ‘types’ of “I am” statements Jesus employs, demonstrating the formula’s verbal reliance upon key OT texts, and arguing for their fundamental reference to God’s unique covenantal character. The essay will then build upon those preliminary conclusions, offering a broader theological and salvation-historical account of Jesus’ claim, and highlighting several interlocking thematic links between the Johannine Jesus and previous instances of God’s redemptive-revelatory activity. Finally, it will attempt to properly nuance the “I am” formula, sketching out the distinctiveness of Jesus’ divine identification – particularly in light of its relationship to John’s overall Christological-theological presentation.

“I am” in Context

John’s Gospel uses “I am” on several occasions. Some are conventional forms of self-identification (e.g. 1:20). Others, however, carry weightier significance. I will identify two such categories of “I am” statements: those where Jesus used the “I am” formula absolutely; and those where he combined it with a predicate, or vivid image. One shouldn’t force the distinction: a common bed of theological meaning underlies any apparent division. Moreover, the latter unfurls what is latent in the former.

The Johannine Jesus uses the absolute “I am” statements in the Fourth Gospel without any qualifying predicate. John 8:58 is the classic example. In a steadily escalating debate over his identity and origin, Jesus boldly asserts that “before Abraham was born, I am!” His interlocutors understand this seemingly truncated turn of phrase: immediately, they attempt to kill him (v.59). Their hostility indicates an implicit interpretation of blasphemy. Jesus’ opponents, it seems, invested his pronouncement with the kind of meaning that would have led them to conclude he was, remarkably, claiming deity. John 8:24, 28 are also pertinent, as is 18:5-6. The latter passage, where Jesus confronts a detachment of arresting soldiers, is further indication of claimed deity. The party’s prostrating response – after the evangelist emphasises Jesus’ distinctive reply – certainly implies a theophanic experience.

These are inferences, of course. But why did Jesus’ statements arouse such reactions? What kinds of associations would his contemporaries have made? Here, overtones become echoes – deliberate allusions to a rich stream of OT thought, capturing foundational disclosures of God’s utter uniqueness and covenantal faithfulness. Jesus’ judicial and religious opponents, it seems (particularly in 8:58-9), understood this connection. Indeed, abundant evidence for antecedent OT usage exists, which reveals the burgeoning development of “I am” as a divine name.

Of the various OT texts that might be surveyed in this regard, Isaiah 40-55 is especially important, employing self-referential statements linguistically similar to Jesus’ “I am” formula. In the second major section of Isaiah, repeated promises of divine redemption and covenantal faithfulness appear amidst doubts about Yahweh’s willingness, or ability, to rescue his people (aroused by the calamity of exile, and the apparent triumph of pagan “gods” over Israel’s sovereign). The term, “I am [he],” and its cognates, are used to reveal, among other things, Yahweh’s absolute uniqueness – Israel’s sole guarantor of salvation. Isaiah 41:4 and 43:10-13 are prime examples in this regard. Chapters 44-46 are also apposite, where the “I am” formula is employed several times in a similar context, with similar import (cf. 44:6; 45:5-6, 18: 46:4, 9). In addition, Jesus’ “I am” utterances arguably rely upon Exodus 3:14, where Yahweh disclosed his character to Moses with the appellation, “I am who I am.” Like Isaiah 40-55, Exodus 3:14 is set within a larger, covenantal-redemptive context (which the Fourth Gospel echoes). Divine self-disclosure points again to Yahweh’s matchlessness and loyalty. Jesus’ “I am” statements reverberate with sounds of Yahweh’s titular declarations in Isaiah and Exodus. Recalling such expressions, Jesus deliberately appropriated the divine name, perpetuating a historical pattern characterised by Yahweh’s repeated self-revelation (cf. Jn. 17:11). Jesus’ opponents rightly interpreted these “I am” statements as references to a sacred-divine unveiling.

This OT verbal background applies equally well to the seven instances of the predicated “I am,” fleshing out the absolute form, and underpinning various facets of Jesus’ salvific relationship to humanity. For instance, Jesus claimed to be the “resurrection and the life,” prefacing that declaration with “I am” (Jn. 11:25). In so doing, he appropriated something that, ordinarily, belonged to God alone – and in the process, implicitly presented himself as the locus of resurrection life. Sometimes, Jesus clearly drew from OT images and threads. He claimed to be the “bread of life” (6:35), plainly alluding to the feeding of the Israelites after their flight from Egypt (Exodus 16) – and the source, the enfleshment, of true life. His declaration to be “light” (8:12), it seems, echoed the OT’s use of light as a metaphor, not just for illumination, but for salvation (e.g. Isa. 42:6, 49:6). Similarly, as the “true vine” (15:1), Jesus claimed to be the divine reality to which OT Israel – frequently depicted in these terms (e.g. Ps. 80:8-11; Isa. 5:7) – pointed.

John 10:1-21 is a particularly good example of these realities. By declaring, “I am the good shepherd” (vv.11, 14), Jesus consciously alluded to Ezekiel 34 (cf. 37:24-28), boldly contrasting himself with Israel’s false leaders. In that passage, Israel’s “shepherds” are castigated for their predatory ways (vv.2-10); Yahweh vows that he himself will come and shepherd his people, whilst paradoxically promising the advent of a Davidic figure to reign over the nation (vv.11-24). Jesus re-applied Ezekiel’s promise to himself, asserting that he was that “shepherd,” and that he would provide security and comfort for God’s afflicted (albeit leaving the relationship between the Davidic ruler and Yahweh ambiguous). In so using the “I am” formula, Jesus identified himself with past instances of revelatory activity. Moreover, he frequently combined them with known scriptural images to substantiate his claim to be the consummating distillation of the salvific promises to which he alluded.

“I am” – Thematic Resonances

As the foregoing analysis implies, the “I am” statements signalled more than appropriation of the divine self-appellation. Indeed, they went beyond an abstract, metaphysical assertion. The “I am” formula’s OT grounding suggests that Jesus situated himself within a salvation-historical narrative, identifying (climactically) with a particular god, via particular acts – Yahweh, whose past revelations provided the boundaries for his own self-disclosure. The formula is pregnant with several interlocking theological themes and motifs, once more linking Isaiah 40-55 and Exodus to the Johannine Jesus. Three in particular stand out: the cosmic lawsuit; the revelatory-redemptive nexus; and the seminal significance of the image of exodus itself. They form a triadic relationship, having been woven together to inform a deeper understanding of the significance of the “I am” formula.

To begin, Jesus’ “I am” utterances are part of a scriptural-historical pattern of judicial contests between Yahweh and his adversaries. Both Isaiah 40-55 and Exodus feature what could be called the cosmic lawsuit motif, pitting God and false claimants to deity against each other in a supra-natural trial. Indeed, the question of knowledge of God’s identity hangs over both these portions of the OT. In Isaiah, Yahweh repeatedly reveals himself against a panoply of lifeless idols; in Exodus, he’s unveiled as the authentic Lord, over and against Pharaoh and his pantheon. The key link is the polemical unveiling of the true God in a judicial conflict, where his acts yield knowledge of his character (Exod. 6:2, 6-7, etc.). “I am [he]”, whether in Exodus 3:14, or Isaiah 40-55, hooks into this divine self-identification, and is achieved amidst controversy over who the true, universal sovereign is (cf. Exod. 5:2).

This trenchant disclosure does not, however, stand in isolation. As noted, these passages are part of a broader covenantal framework. In God’s effort to redeem Israel from slavery, or draw it out of exile, the cosmic lawsuit gives way to a deeper redemptive thrust. Yahweh’s exposure of false deities and his own, contrasting claims – by virtue of the evocative “I am” – are in the service of his desire to faithfully save his people. Thus, divine knowledge and divine redemption merge, and are twin components of the logic of Exodus and Isaiah 40-55. Finally, the exodus itself constitutes a seminal link: its founding reality becomes paradigmatic for future liberation by the time of Isaiah 40-55. Indeed, the references to the exodus in Isaiah are particularly vivid, establishing continuity between God’s salvation-historical acts.

The Johannine Jesus, by way of his “I am” pronouncements, relied upon this scriptural edifice, even as he presented himself as its capstone. “I am” is an allusion to a multi-faceted, redemptive narrative. The Fourth Gospel’s cosmic lawsuit, for example, is a well-known motif, reaching a crescendo in Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. Adversarial-legal passages, such as Jn. 5:16-47 or 8:12-59, offer glimpses, as do the frequency of words such as “testimony” and “witness,” references to judgment and divine verdicts (e.g. 3:19ff; 5:22, 28-30; 11:31; 16:8-11), and the Holy Spirit’s depiction as counsellor or advocate.

The Johannine concept of truth takes on a decidedly judicial “hue” in this context, seen most clearly in the repeated disclosures of authentic deity. Jesus’ “I am” pronouncement in 8:58 (and 8:24, 28) is rooted in this environment, and is a particularly clear reflection of the wider cosmic contest, built into the Fourth Gospel’s narrative, between the true God and his opponents (cf. 1:4-5; cf. 19:15c). Controversy over Yahweh’s rightful status as universal Lord is transmuted into a trial over Jesus’ kingly identity (e.g. 19:15). Echoing those crucial portions of Exodus and Isaiah, Jesus offered himself, polemically, as true deity – Yahweh’s unique representative. The “I am” formula, so allusive in its brevity, encapsulates this fundamental (and exclusively authentic) unveiling (8:28). But, also like those OT passages under examination, such revelation was indissolubly linked with salvation: Jesus adopted the “exclusive soteriological function” claimed of Yahweh, where acknowledgement of the “I am” meant life (8:24, 51, 58; esp. 11:25-26; cf. 17:3). Conceiving of truth as revelation, John’s Gospel uses the “I am” statements to encapsulate the authentic character of God, as revealed in Jesus. It is in this regard that John’s frequent use of glory as a metaphor for divine light/truth, explicating Jesus’ identity as its ultimate channel, is relevant: “I am” reflects an understanding of redemptive enlightenment – the already-surveyed conjunction of divine knowledge, communion and salvation. The culmination of that nexus, of course, occurred at Calvary, the paradoxical site of Jesus’ ultimate unveiling as Israel’s true saviour-king (8:28). “I am,” as used by Jesus, is the functional, verbal equivalent of the image of Yahweh’s radiance.

The Fourth Gospel also employs the key motif of exodus as an overarching framework, using its seminal influence to flesh out the nature of Jesus’ salvific ministry. Features include: echoes of the tabernacle’s establishment, a key plank in Yahweh’s salvific-covenantal project (1:14); the corresponding use of divine glory to communicate a key dimension of Jesus person and ministry (e.g. 1:14; cf. 40:34-38); various Mosaic comparisons (1:15; 3:14); the wider import of Isaiah 40:1-3 in John 1:23 (trading, as the former passage does, on exodus imagery); allusive references to the paschal lamb (1:29); imagistic overtones of the exodus in Jesus’ “born again” declaration (esp. 3:5); typological use of the Israelites’ feeding in the wilderness (John 6); salvation as freedom from slavery (8:31, 34); Jesus’ crucifixion at Passover, consummating that event’s anticipatory significance; and, of course, the “I am” formula itself (given its already-noted provenance). Passing the exodus through an Isaianic prism, Jesus obliquely claimed to be the same “I am” who had already achieved redemption for his people, and vowed to do so again. He deployed the formula to identify himself intimately with the God of the exodus – signalling the inauguration of a new exodus, as promised in the Isaianic literature. Isaiah 40-55 and Exodus 3:14, then, should be combined as part of a layered backdrop to Jesus’ own claim – which his “I am” statements reflect – to be the salvific God’s climactic self-revelation.

“I am” God?

One shouldn’t conclude from the above account that Jesus was baldly claiming to be Yahweh/God, without remainder. His pronouncements were, it must be said, far more subtle. Whilst he appropriated uniquely divine prerogatives (bestowal of life, judgment, etc.), and implied unity with God (10:30), Jesus paradoxically distinguished himself from the Father, explicitly referring to this difference at several points (e.g. 4:34; 5:19). It’s important, in this final section, to nuance his solemn assertion of deity found in the “I am” formula.

Importantly, Jesus’ “I am” statements can be viewed in light of John’s unique Christological-theological presentation, particularly as it is found in the prologue (1:1-18). The notion of the divine logos (or Word/wisdom/mind) is pertinent, underpinning the distinctiveness of Jesus’ “I am” utterances. John 8:12 (bookending Chapter 8 with v.58) recalls the prologue’s characterisation of the Word as light, and coheres with allusive references to Jesus-as-Temple, the “site” of Yahweh’s resplendence (= glory, above p.5; see 1:14; 2:12-25; cf. Exod. 40:34-38). Tapping into a rich vein of Jewish theology about the transcendent God’s simultaneous immanence, John’s Gospel depicts Jesus as God’s embodied wisdom, identified with his nature, yet distinct (cf. Isa. 55:11; Prov. 8:22ff). The “I am” statements link Jesus with Yahweh’s activity and being, echoing the prologue’s portrayal of the divine Word as supervening agent in creation. Yahweh’s kingship, to which this essay has already referred, is of a piece with the Johannine picture of God’s presiding over creation: he is the universal sovereign, to which authorship of creation attests. Furthermore, this identity is “concretized,” so to speak, in Jesus and his “I am” claims. John 8:58 is especially apposite, strongly implying Jesus’ pre-existence, and contrasting it with creation’s contingency and finitude (represented, in this case, by Abraham’s qualified existence [cf. 1:1-3]). Functions attributed to Jesus are attributed to the logos, and these connections reflect the Gospel’s conviction regarding his co-inherence, his ontological identification, with Israel’s – and the world’s – God (14:10). Jesus is seen as, and declared himself to be, God’s mediating presence in the creation (1:9-10), witnessing to humanity as the climactic bearer of the divine name (cf. Heb. 1:1-3).

As can be seen, then, this isn’t merely a matter of later theologizing. In the aforementioned use of Ezekiel 34, Jesus himself fused the paradoxical combination of a divine-human shepherd in his own person. John 14:6, where Jesus claims, “I am the way…”, touches upon the enigma of his twin-status as the supreme revelation of Yahweh and the distinct channel, mediator – even enfleshment – of divine truth; indeed, to know Jesus is to know the Father (Jn. 14:9-10), and Yahweh’s singular reality is “devolved,” in a sense, to his uniquely qualified representative. “I am” functions as a subtle reference to Jesus’ divine status, whilst discouraging facile attempts to baldly equate him with Yahweh. Therefore, although he claimed deity, Jesus did so in a way that didn’t exhaust the Godhead. “I am” isn’t a totalizing declaration of godhood, but points to Jesus’ status as God’s true “image” – the incarnation of Yahweh’s wisdom. The Johannine picture of God’s manifold nature calibrates the import of Jesus’ statements, holding in tension his dual identity as Yahweh’s manifest presence and a discrete personage. “I am,” in this environment, successfully preserves the Son’s essential deity, but without collapsing it into the being of the Father.

Conclusion

It is apparent that the Johannine Jesus, according to his “I am” statements, sought to (obliquely) claim divinity. The formula bears clear linguistic parallels with OT instances of God’s self-identification – found, above all, in places such as Isaiah and Exodus – encompassing his uniqueness and covenantal loyalty. Moreover, Jesus’ declarations captured a complex web of fundamental salvation-historical themes and motifs, building upon those striking verbal similarities. The cosmic lawsuit, the coalescence of revelation and salvation, and the use of exodus as a defining image for that process, form a coherent backdrop to Jesus’ “I am” statements. More than an inert, metaphysical assertion, his declaration signalled the climax of God/Yahweh’s redemptive-revelatory activity, to which the surveyed background pointed. Past acts of self-disclosure converged in Jesus, crystallized – in abbreviated form – in the “I am” formula. Importantly, Jesus remained within the confines of monotheism, utilising Jewish categories to explicate his own, distinctive claims to deity. Rather than offering up an exhaustive declaration of godhood, the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel presented himself as God’s supreme self-expression: participating eternally in divine life, embodying divine truth, but retaining a distinct identity. Properly contextualised, Jesus’ “I am” statements buttress this paradoxical portrayal.

Ephesians 2 and the “Problem” of the Law

I was in a Bible study group a number of weeks ago, delving in Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church. The group camped at Ephesians 2:11-22 for a little while, discussing Paul’s reflections on how Christ’s death has accomplished unity between Jew and Gentile. As Paul himself puts it, the death of Christ “is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (v.14). He goes on to declare that the law was “abolish[ed]” in Christ’s flesh, with the creation of “one new man” the result (v.15). I think everyone agreed that this was something to be cherished.

What struck the group as strange, however, was Paul’s blunt statement about Christ “abolishing…the law with its commandments and regulations” (Eph. 2:15a). As one member seemed to suggest, a de-contextualised reading might imply that Jesus’ death had simply done away with the law. Apart from appearing to be inconsistent with what Jesus himself said (cf. Matt. 5:17-20), this particular group member further suggested that it could lead to overly liberal interpretations regarding the ethical demands placed upon Christians – a salient point, particularly in a society that seems to hold traditional Christian sexual ethics in some disregard.

No firm conclusions were reached, and there was some confusion over what, precisely, Paul meant. What was his main point? Was he saying, point-blank, that the law had truly been abolished? Was it completely obsolete? Was Paul offering justification for some kind of antinomianism? Here, I hope to provide some (general) pointers for interpreting the great Apostle, looking at what he meant in speaking of the law as he did, before sketching out the wider implications of the main thrust of the passage.

Firstly, it should be noted that to read Ephesians 2:15 in isolation is to fail to “read” it at all. That is, one has indeed de-contextualised the verse, neutering its true significance. Shorn of all context, and wrenched from its literary environment, a verse of Scripture can be harnessed by anyone, to substantiate all kinds of agendas. This verse is no different. It’s important, then, that one takes account of the passage in its entirety, which means reaching back to Ephesians 2:11.

After waxing lyrical about the manifold blessings that God has prepared for believers, and proclaiming the gift of divine salvation in the midst of transgression and death, Paul focuses his analysis upon the Gentile congregants and their union with Christ. He speaks of their past – denied citizenship in Israel, far from God, and lacking knowledge of either his law or his truth. “But now,” Paul says, the Gentile believers have been “brought near” through Christ. Prompted by the import of this divinely-wrought act, Paul spends some verses speaking about its implications. However, he is also alert to the pressures encountered by the church in Ephesus (to which vv.11-18 seem to allude), and his letter is, at this point, motivated by those issues. Paul briefly refers to Jews, who were sometimes called (and called themselves) “the circumcision” (v.11). In some churches, demands were made that Gentile Christians undergo the rites and obey the laws of Judaism. Their derision of these individuals as “uncircumcised” had the effect of creating two “classes” of Christian within the body of Christ. Whether that was happening in the Ephesian church is less clear – one certainly doesn’t encounter the “live” issue of Jew-Gentile relations here as in Galatians. At any rate, Paul is making a general, expansive point about the new unity that exists between Jew and Gentile as a result of what Christ has achieved.

Jews (and even many Jewish Christians) put great stock in their ethno-national identity as Jews: God’s chosen people, members of Israel and participants in the covenants. The Jewish people had long used circumcision, along with such strictures as food laws and Sabbath-keeping, as particularly obvious identity markers to guarantee the integrity and purity of the religious community. And although many Jews, along with Gentiles, had been saved into the newly forged household of God, they were still intent on cleaving to those symbols of covenantal uniqueness. The law was viewed as an indispensable identity marker of God’s people. But Paul wants to focus upon the epochal work of Jesus Christ, whose death has, in fact, assured non-Jews of salvation.

Thus, it is not the case that verse 15, where Paul speaks of Christ abolishing the law in his flesh, is meant to be interpreted in some kind of abstract, de-historicised fashion. Paul is not suggesting that the law, as a general moral code, is no longer relevant. Indeed, in Ephesians 2:10, which is situated just before the passage in question, the Apostle speaks of believers as God’s “workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (italics mine). Paul is no antinomian, committed as he is elsewhere to a high standard of (Christ-centred) ethics (see, for example, Rom. 12:9-21; 13:8-14).

Clearly, then, Paul was not embarking on a way of life bereft of moral behaviour, and his words regarding the status of the law should not be construed as such. The problem was not with the law per se. Rather, Paul speaks of the abrogation of the law, narrowly defined as the means of establishing membership of the people of God. For it was not the law, in its role as the substantiating force behind a particular ethno-religious identity, that was to be the foundation of one’s status as God’s elect. Paul is quite emphatic: it is Christ Jesus, who provides the final guarantee of one’s entry into God’s house by abolishing the divisive role to which the law (or at least elements of it) had been put. In him (i.e. Christ), Paul says, has a new people been created – forged out of the patchwork of sinful humanity, and drawn together under the unifying auspices of Jesus himself.

This is the main thrust of Paul’s proclamation in 2:13-18. He acknowledges that at one stage, Gentiles were far from God. However, he goes on to declare that peace has come through Christ and his sacrifice, reconciling Gentile sinners to God – not through the law, but through him in whom sin was condemned, once-and-for-all (cf. Rom. 8:3). Paul is not thinking of an inner tranquillity when he speaks of peace. Instead, he refers to the objective peace between God and the reconciled sinner, having been brought about by the death of the Messiah. He becomes the basis for one’s status as a member of God’s house; it is upon faith in Christ, and not the law, that a person is declared to be saved. In Christ, we find the fulfilment of the law, whose life and death satisfied the requirements of the law on behalf of those who trust in him. As such, there was no need for the Gentile believers at Ephesus to become culturally (if not ethnically) Jewish, for whatever merit circumcision had (not to mention other such markers), it could no longer operate as the determining factor in laying down the boundaries of the redeemed community. The law, to the extent that it was relevant, could not be used to prop up the unique privilege of being counted as member of the divine family.

Moreover, it is precisely because of Christ’s death that Jew and Gentile can come together in newly fashioned unity. Since the law cannot act as the “backbone” of covenantal identity, it cannot be said to divide. Christ has come to tear down that “dividing wall of hostility” – in other words, to bring to an end the law’s use as boundary marker between Jews and Gentiles – so that “one new man” may be fashioned out of the old (vv.14-15). At this point, we should be alert to the evocative use of that image, “dividing wall of hostility,” which likely refers to the structures of the Jerusalem temple that prevented non-Jews from going beyond a certain point. Those structures have been torn down; Jesus is the final, consummating basis for entry into, and ongoing membership in, God’s kingdom. As Paul explicitly says, this was his (i.e. God’s) express “purpose”; God intended it from the beginning, such that all racial, ethnic and national differences – even those conceived within the context of a religious-covenantal identity – would be utterly transcended.

As such, the vertical peace that exists between God and sinners as a consequence of the death of Jesus is matched by the horizontal peace that exists between Jews and non-Jews (cf. v.16). According to Paul, a kind of triadic unity has been created: not simply the reconciliation of ethnic groups; nor merely the end of enmity between God and individual sinners; but a comprehensive reunion between these three “parties” via the cross. Ethno-religious identity has ceased to be relevant, for the One to whom the law points has superseded it. This is no new theme, or theological novelty, that Paul has introduced. Elsewhere, in making much the same point, he declares that there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, because an overarching oneness has been achieved in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28).

Thus, we see that for Paul, the death of Jesus has erased division, boasting, religious chauvinism – indeed, that sense of spiritual and covenantal superiority – which existed to hamper the Gentiles as they sought to receive the mercy of God. Gentiles qua Gentiles can access that mercy, having been brought near by the same Christ who saves Jews, too. This is also an important point, for Paul is careful to say that not only has Christ’s death granted non-Jews access to God; Jews need to appropriate the benefits of Calvary as well. In verse 14, he states that Christ “is our peace,” thereby including Jews. In verse 16, he writes that both Jews and Gentiles have been reconciled to God “through the cross,” strongly implying that both groups – contrary to what some may have thought – needed just that.  And in verse 18, he explicitly says that “we both have access to the Father by the one Sprit.” Christ’s death has made a way, and it is by God’s Spirit that one acknowledges, receives and responds effectively to that salvific work. Paul could not have been plainer in subverting the seemingly insurmountable power of the law as the guarantor of covenantal identity. Nor could he have been clearer in challenging the “false confidence of the Jews, who…boasted that they were the holy people, and chosen inheritance, of God,” (Calvin). If one is to boast, it can only be in what Christ has done.

***

From what we have seen in this (admittedly) wide-ranging survey, it is not the case that Paul sought to tear down the law-as-ethical-statement in order to replace it, say, with some version of antinomianism. Far from it; Paul’s point in Ephesians 2:11-22 is quite different, and it is a point worth celebrating. Paul demonstrates the double triumph of Jesus’ death: having the effect, not only of bringing individual sinners into relationship with God, but of drawing those same sinners – divided, perhaps, by a raft of ethnic and cultural differences – into relationship with one other. Due to the epoch-making work of Christ, the law’s role as the basis for one’s covenantal status has been rescinded. Paul did not seek to abrogate the law in some kind of abstract, ethical sense. To be sure, we are not called upon to obey the law in exactly the same way, or with exactly the same goal in mind, as the ancient Israelites. It is still deeply relevant, but only in so far as its teachings and strictures are taken up into Christ’s own, and only to the extent that they can be passed through a Christological prism – (re)interpreted in the light of Jesus’ life, ministry, teachings, death and resurrrection. In any case, Paul was thinking of the law in a very specific way when he spoke of Jesus’ death “abolishing” it.

Moreover, it is precisely Paul’s statements on this matter – found in Ephesians 2 and elsewhere – that should give us pause. Nothing can possibly supersede the achievement of Christ; his death and resurrection, and the Spirit-impelled trust one puts in them, is all that is required for someone to be counted a member of God’s household (cf. Eph. 2:19b). However, it is equally true that many who have, across the ages, declared this to be so have also added to that exclusive truth the accoutrements of their own culture, undermining the kind of radical, Christo-centric unity eulogised by Ephesians 2:11ff. Colonial expansion may have brought the gospel, but its proclamation was distorted by, amongst other things, the demand that Christianisation entail Westernisation. More recently, it could be said of many churches – even those that echo the Reformation cry of justification by faith (in Jesus) – unconsciously try and fuse the radically liberating message of Christ with the time-bound norms of post-war, middle class culture. Even today, we who would say “yes and Amen” to Paul’s words in Ephesians 2 may be guilty of offering up a new set of identity markers that take their place alongside the inimitable accomplishments of Christ. All such practices have the effect of diminishing those accomplishments – of saying, in effect, that they were not enough. Similarly, they frustrate the universal scope of the gospel, which is meant to encompass people from every tribe and language and nation and tongue under the unifying grace of the triune God. The result is division within the company of Christ, something that is completely at odds with the basic thrust of Paul’s Ephesian missive.

Many, of course, would baulk at such suggestion; their doctrine, they might argue, is robust and pure, whilst they are deeply committed to the transcendent and reconciling power of the Gospel. But it is imperative, if our doctrine is to remain an embodied reality, that we all resist the temptation mask the universality of God’s grace with the particularities of our own cultures.

God’s Omnipotence and Free Will

Quite a while ago, I wrote a post on the claimed compatibility of belief in a good, all-powerful God, and the presence of evil in the world. It was massively simplified, and probably didn’t do justice to the complexities involved. Nor did it really try to engage with any counter-arguments. The following is a small step towards rectifying that situation. It concerns the counter-claim that God, being all-powerful, should be able to create people who are truly free, but who always choose to do good. The issue turns on the definition of divine omnipotence, with critics of the free will defence arguing that such a definition would have to include the ability to create what is contradictory – including free people who always choose to do the “right thing”. Written in the style of an informal essay-cum-letter to a fictional interlocutor, the piece attempts to grapple with these rejoinders. 

Dear Jim,

You’ve raised an interesting issue in regards to the apparent clash between God’s omnipotence and the notion that there cannot exist people who always freely choose to pursue the Good – chief of which is, I suppose, confession of God’s lordship. You seem to be suggesting that an omnipotent God should be able to create such a reality – i.e. people who always freely choose him, and goodness in general (however defined). What might be characterised as “forced free choice” is sometimes used to argue that God should be able to create the sorts of people who will simply choose him – always and indubitably, without exception. You seem to suggest that anything less presents us with a contradictory picture of God: able, on the one hand, to create things out of nothing, unconstrained by the limits of his creation; and, on the other, “limited” by the fact that he apparently cannot create individuals who are both free and incapable of rejecting him or goodness. There are several reasons why I do not think this argument works.

To begin, I do not think that you quite realize the gravity of what you’re suggesting. One might call it illogical. I, however, think it’s much worse than that: an utter nonsense might be the best way to characterise your suggestion (please know that I am not trying to be derogatory in using the word “nonsense”). Forced free choice, just like a round square or a married bachelor, is an incoherent concept. It’s not so much that God cannot break some rule that would otherwise allow him to create such a state of affairs; it’s that such a state is completely bereft of meaning, and to that extent, cannot exist. There can be no rule to break, precisely because incoherent states are devoid of the intelligibility required to make any such rule meaningful in the first place. They are characterised by a fundamental privation of meaning. Indeed, they are completely void of sense. Speaking metaphorically, incoherent states are to reality what black holes are to light: absolute negation.

It will not do to suggest that an omnipotent God should simply be able to perform such feats. I think you’re trading on a very simplistic definition of the term, in any case. Omnipotence does not simply mean doing whatever one wants. A better starting place would be to suggest that God, being the source of all there is, is also the foundation for all acts of power (or potency) we observe in our world. We witness all sorts of expressions of power, even on a daily basis: the power of thought; the power to walk; the power to create fire; the power to melt a substance, changing it from a solid to a liquid; and so forth. Underlying all these contingent instances of potency is God. He is the ultimate ground, and guarantor, of whatever power is exhibited in this world. Hence, we employ the word “omnipotent” (omni = all + potent = power). Now, I’m not saying that God’s power doesn’t go beyond what we observe in this world; it certainly would, and is therefore absolute and maximal. It is not as if God is powerful only in relation to “this” material world.[1] As the ultimate form of existence, his power is unsurpassable. All I am saying is that omnipotence primarily deals with divine potency in relation to our world, given that it’s our primary reference point (we can speculate on the creation of other worlds, but that remains a vague project). Added to this is God’s unbounded nature, or the fact that he faces none of the constraints that both his sentient and non-sentient creations – bound as they are by the material realm in which they live – face. As a result, whilst the power/potency of material things is derived (for example, a man can plant a tree in the garden, but that power rests upon the functionality of his muscles, his internal constitution, the absence of disease, the integrity of his atomic structure, the presence of gravity and other fundamental forces that maintain that integrity, the presence of raw materials conducive to his intended goal), God’s is inherent and completely within himself. There is no lag between his decision to do something and its being done; nor does he require effort to bring something into being. It is immediate and self-caused, underlying all other manifestations of power we experience and see within the material realm.

Incidentally, I would suggest that the Bible comes fairly close to certain elements of this understanding of omnipotence. Actually, it’s probably true to say that the biblical authors, not being terribly interested in abstract philosophizing about the divine nature, were content to conclude from the works of nature that God was simply “all-powerful”. To put it another way, God is seen in Scripture as “almighty”, or maximally powerful, with the created world functioning as Exhibit “A” for that claim. The Bible simply doesn’t spend a lot of time reflecting upon what God’s power might mean in an abstract sense. And, despite claims that it doesn’t place limits on God’s abilities (depending on how one thinks of “limits”), the truth is actually the opposite. Hebrews 6:18, for instance, states quite clearly that it is impossible for God to lie. Or what about James 1:13, which says that God “cannot be tempted”? According to your conception of omnipotence, these would count as substantive constraints upon divine power. But what would it mean to say that God “could” commit wrong? What would it mean to say that God is “capable” of lying? Mendacity, in particular, is a neat example of why it is God is “unable” to do certain things. The act of deception, false testimony, and the like, is, in many respects, the opposite of truth. Classical understandings of God conceive of him, not merely as eminently truthful, or as the repository of all truth (though these things are so), but as the paradigm of truth. It is what he is in himself. As such, God could not do anything that contradicts his own, essential truthfulness, any more than a truthful statement could be false. In any case, the aforementioned states are hardly befitting the perfect nature of the Deity. However, my point here is to suggest that the Bible, contrary to the assertions of some, does in fact place “boundaries” (if they can be called that) around God’s nature. It simply will not do to maintain the notion that the Bible offers up some unconstrained conceptualisation of God’s power – even to the point of implicitly endorsing incoherence.

Back, then, to what I said about self-contradictory states of affairs and positive attributes in my first substantive paragraph. It is quite wrong-headed to suggest that God’s claimed omnipotence is inconsistent if he cannot create such states. Because they are negative states (precisely because they are characterised by lack – i.e. of meaning and coherency), it is not correct to say that God lacks power if he “cannot” bring them into being. There is no such thing as an inability to do something that has no – can have no – positive meaning; as such, God is not hitting his head on some kind of metaphysical “ceiling”, beyond which he cannot go. To take a similar, though not identical, example: blindness. Now, blindness, unlike some of the self-contradictory examples I have given, is a perfectly intelligible state. I mean, there are people who lack the power of sight. But where there is a connection between these two examples is precisely this concept of “lack”. Blindness is characterised by a lack of sight, whilst an incoherent state is characterised by a lack of meaning. Both are, in a sense, parasitic upon what we would take as foundational, positive states (in that blindness, for example, isn’t really intelligible apart from a certain knowledge of what it means to see). Now, I have no problem suggesting that God’s omnipotence is not impugned simply because he lacks the “power” of blindness, because it is not really a power at all. Similarly, and for this reason, I do not think that the “inability” to make real an incoherency – whether a blind person who can see, a bachelor who has a wife, or a free person who only has one course of action open to him – casts doubt on God’s supreme power.[2]

I would go further and suggest that any such ability, even if it were possible, would represent some degree of incoherency within the very nature of God himself – meaning, of course, that such a concept (as with every other example of incoherency) collapses in on itself. How so? Well, for an incoherent state to be possible, it has to be extant somewhere, with its grounding in something else. In other words, it cannot possess existence independently of God, if indeed God is considered as ultimate. Its potential reality, then, must “reside”, if you like, in the divine mind, for it is the divine mind that guarantees and grounds the possible existence of anything at all. Moreover, the idea of an incoherency is closely related to the “framework” of reality; to that extent, it is intimately related to the character of God. Unlike, say, a blade of grass, a car, or even something conceptual like love (which are mere features of reality), talk of incoherencies, etc. concerns the very structures which give rise to such features in the first place. To argue for the existence of a married bachelor is actually to make a comment on what reality, at its most fundamental, should, or could, be like – and the fundamentals of reality bring us fairly close to their Author (at least, more so than the various phenomena that rely upon them). However, if reality itself can be incoherent, we may ask whether there is, in fact, some kind of incoherency within the divine nature. This appears to be untenable. We have to ask ourselves, then, whether those states render God utterly nonsensical. Is it possible for self-contradictions to exist within such a being? Moreover, what are we to make of the idea that God, possessing the kind of omnipotence for which you have argued, should be able transform his own nature into something that is self-contradictory? The problem, at this point, becomes particularly sharp. Should God be able to render himself both existent and non-existent at the same time? Should he be able to erase his memory? Should he be able to create a world in which he is powerless? There is no reason to think that your rather eccentric definition of omnipotence, should it be true, cannot be applied to God himself; it has to, if such a definition is to be upheld consistently. If it is true, though, I’m afraid that we move into the realm of the absurd.

Furthermore, if your original suggestion holds, then it would also be possible to argue that God is both limited and unlimited; that he is both omnipotent and constrained in his power. It negates the very point you are attempting to make, since on your account of things, two mutually contradictory states can exist simultaneously in the one space. So in undermining God’s omnipotence, you’re actually upholding it. Arguing in this manner means that God can both fail and satisfy your semantic demands. Similarly, if incoherent states are possible – or that God, if he truly is omnipotent, should be able to create them – it would be correspondingly possible to argue for God’s existence, even if atheists have demonstrated conclusively that it is not the case. For if self-contradictions are possible, then we could have no problem with God’s simultaneous existence and demonstrated non-existence. Thus, the non-believer’s case is actually wounded.

But I digress. Let us assume for a moment that such states are possible, and that it does not threaten the integrity of the divine nature. Why would God create incoherent states within this realm? If reality could ever be self-contradictory, what does that mean for our actions, for our pursuits? What would it mean for our quest for knowledge, if reality did not possess a fundamental coherency that was open to investigation? What would it mean for all our moral efforts, if an action could simultaneously be classed as moral and immoral? Why should we trust anything we seem to observe or experience if reality possesses such inherent ambiguity? Imagine, for example, that rape can be both righteous and wicked at the same time. What would it mean for us to make any kind of judgment upon it, if there are no stable reference points to anchor such judgments? Coming to any conclusions regarding any action, according to any criteria, and developing a coherent account of the world around us, would be rendered impossible. This is true, not only for moral truths, but for physical truths also. The possibility of incoherent states (to say nothing of their actuality; there’s no reason to think that God might not have created them in other realms, aside from the notion of “forced free choice” upon which your argument hangs) would make it impossible to draw any conclusions about, say, physical reality. The scientific project would, in principle, be a non-starter. Even your current efforts to critique the notion of an omnipotent God implicitly rely on an acceptance of coherency. Making an argument, forming chains of reasoning – indeed, discovering the richness of the external world, and developing systems of thought and behaviour based on those discoveries – cannot proceed without it. I would argue, then, that even if God were “able” to do the things you suggest, there are important moral reasons for him not doing so.

It seems to me that the concept of “forced free will” (or however one might choose to characterise it) is something that not even an omnipotent God could do. Due to the aforementioned reasons, I do not believe that your argument has been successful in pointing out a flaw in the characterisation of God as all-powerful. And, even if God were capable, and the ability to create incoherent states were an inescapable part of the divine nature, I’m not sure that we would do well to argue for them.

Thank you for your enquiries. I do not claim to be especially gifted in this area, but I have tried to deal honestly with the issues involved. Even if I haven’t convinced you, I hope you can at least understand that my failure was a sincere one.

Regards,

Scott.


[1] When I speak of “world”, I am using it in a very broad sense to denote the reality within which we exist.

[2] I suppose it could be suggested that if blindness, even if it is characterised by “lack”, can exist, then there is no reason why incoherent states (also distinguished by what they lack) should also be able to exist. If God can cause blindness (which the Bible indicates) why, then, can he not create a married bachelor or a free person who is imprisoned? There are a couple of things that I would say to this. First, the relationship between God’s agency and blindness is not as direct as one might assume. It is true that he is able to cause it, but I think it better to conceive of this process in a more layered manner. For example, God might create a flash of light, so bright that someone is blinded by it. Or he might introduce a virus into a person’s system that eats away at that individual’s retina, thus having the same effect (remember, this is just a hypothetical example). Thus, his actions might lead, inexorably, to blindness in a person, but he himself does not create blindness in the same sense that he might create other things that possess a positive existence. Blindness is not a part of God in the same way that, say, life is, and so whatever relationship there is between God and such a state, it should be seen as indirect. Second, even though blindness and incoherent states might share the same “quality” (if I can call it that) of lack, they are very different beasts. I say more about that in the next paragraph.