About Me

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Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Thursday, 31 July 2008

My Number 1 book, 2007 (and it is about Quakerism!)

The best book I read in 2007 was, without doubt, Carole Spencer's book

Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism. An Historical Analysis of the Theology of Holiness in the Quaker Tradition.
Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2007.

Sounds dull? Think again!

Quakerism had never interested me. I always thought it a somewhat off-beam religious movement that was basically all about pacifism, the inner light (as opposed to the Bible), and silent meetings. Safe to say I was not falling over myself to read this book. But once I started reading I was hooked.

Spencer's basic thesis is that the essence of Quaker spirituality, as seen in the history of the movement, is 'holiness', understood as 'the direct experience of God culminating in divine union.' This 'perfection' is the culmination of a work of divine grace and is sustained by a synergy of grace and works (i.e., loving God and neighbour, and obeying the indwelling Christ).

The Quakers desired to create contemplative communities of committed, spiritually awakened people. They built radical, monastic-like communities of disciples that adopted some subversive practices (including simplicity and pacifism).

The Quakerism she tracks through history is Christ-centred, Bible-based (honest!), Spirit-filled, discipleship-focused and very deeply inspiring. (And, for the record, there were quite a few Quaker evangelists and many Quaker meetings were not silent). In many ways it was a kind of proto-charismatic movement blended with theological ideas from the Greek Fathers and monsatic movements.

Of course, the story is much more complex and messy than that (as the book reveals) and the 20th C in particular saw some unfortunate trajectories in the tradition away from its Christian roots. However, the post-Christian kinds of Quakerism that seem so common in the UK now are, on my reading of Spencer's account, a betrayal of the Quaker tradition. They are not essentially Quaker at all but something new.

When the rubber hits the road I don't think I could be a Quaker - certainly not in the UK where liberalism rules. However, I found myself finding real and deep spiritual inspiration from this radical movement. It is a tradition that - in its classical forms at least - I am now convinced has a lot to contribute to Christian spirituality. I almost want to become a Quaker!!! And, God willing, perhaps I can still aspire to be Quaker-like.

So, "Thank you so much Carole for showing me new spiritual riches in this inspirational tradition."

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

The Burger Bites Back (Acts 15 Again!)

Given the popularity of the burger-'ban' post a couple of weeks back I thought I would revisit it. This time in light of Markus Bockmuehl's article, "James, Israel and Antioch".

It is a corker of an article. Along the way Bockmuehl argues that many Palestinian Jews in the Second Temple period conceived of the Promised Land not merely in terms of its boundaries in political reality but in ideal terms in light of biblical promises. Thus, much of Syria was thought of as part of Israel in their mental maps, even if not on political maps.

Bockmuehl also makes a pretty good case that for some first century Jews Antioch would have been seen as the gateway to the Holy Land. That was absolutely fascinating. It would never have even crossed my mind!

But how, if at all, is that relevant to the burger-debate? You will recall that we discussed Richard Bauckham's claim that the prohibitions in the Apostolic Decree in Acts 15 were based on Leviticus 17-18. There were four prohibitions placed on the Gentiles living "in the midst of Israel". In the view of Jesus' earliest followers Jewish believers in Jesus were eschatologically renewed Israel and the Gentile believers were the nations on eschatological pilgrimage. This was as the prophets of Israel had foretold. So Gentiles were granted the status of full membership of the end-time community of God's people without having to convert to Judaism. However, they still had to observe the prohibitions from Leviticus (including the ban on eating meat with blood in it).

Back to Bockmuehl. He writes:

As reported in Acts 15, this document is addressed in the first instance to Gentile believers "in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia" - areas that on the argument here presented are either part of the ideal Holy Land or at any rate immediately contiguous with it. ... It is highly significant that the stipulations of the decree are taken precisely from those passages of the Pentateuch that legislate for Gentiles living in the land of Israel. Richard Bauckham has effectively demonstrated that the prohibitions of the decree are precisely those that in Leviticus 17-18 apply to Gentiles living "in the midst of" the house of Israel.
(Jewish Law in Gentile Churches, p. 78)

Hmmmmm. So I guess it hinges on what it means for Gentiles believers in the Messiah (people like myself) to be living "in the midst of Israel".

(a) Is it a theological-symbolic status indicating our place in the universal body of Christ?
(b) is it a literal thing for any Gentile Christians living within the borders of the Holy Land?

In other words was the ban on blood in the Apostolic Decree intended to apply to all Gentile Christians or only those living in the geographical borders of idealized Israel? And what is its relevance today?

I'd love to know your thoughts.

Monday, 28 July 2008

One Political Argument that Makes Me Mad!

I know it is silly, but there is one argument strategy in political debates that is almost guaranteed to make me mad! It goes like this,

"Why are you wasting your time on this peripheral issue when there are so many more important issues that you should be dealing with instead?"

Aaaaaarrrgggghhhhhhh!!!!

Here is why it usually makes me mad - it is often pure, hypercritical rhetoric. The people who employ it normally do not think that the issue is peripheral at all. In fact, they think it is very important. The strategy in deploying the argument is simply to stigmatize their opponents as people who have lost all sense of proportion.

Example abound. For instance, in the debates in the UK about banning hunting with hounds the dastardly strategy was regularly employed by the pro-hunting lobby. Anti-hunting MPs were constantly castigated for wasting time on a side-issue when big issues such as poverty, education, and health care should be at the top of the agenda.

This was a red rag to a bull for me. Grrrrrrr!!!

Did the Pro-hunting lobby really think that this was an unimportant issue? NO WAY! In fact, the reason that so much time was being 'wasted' on the issue was precisely because the pro-hunting people kept on stretching things out, opposing the bill at every turn. If the matter really was unimportant then they should have let the bill sail through unopposed so that MPs could get on with issues that matter like health care. :-)

More annoying still, the argument strategy works by setting up a false either/or choice - either MPs spend time on issues like hunting or they spend time on issues like health care. Hold on! I have a radical idea! Let's do both! Gosh - might it really be possible for MPs to spend time on more than one issue? Yes - they can and they do. Joy! And if the pro-hunting people were genuinely worried that too much time was being spent on the issue then they should have shut up and stopped opposing the bill!

Don't get me wrong. I am not opposed to hunting - in fact, I am think that there is a reasonable case to be made for not banning it. What I am opposed to is the regular and lazy deployment of an annoying, hypocritical argument.

Rant over!

So my plea is simply this - let's all stop wasting time deploying this peripheral argument strategy and focus on the important matters! (Oooops!)

Now I know that this is more of a scribble than a theological scribble but a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do (and if I told you that God told me to say it ... Nah!)

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Number 1 Most Influential Theological Book I've Read

The book that has had the biggest impact on my theology is without doubt N. T. Wright's magnificent book, The New Testament and the People of God.

As time goes by I find myself in disagreement with Wright on various issues (most especially with regard to his neo-supersessionist take on NT theology - on that I think that Wright is wrong). Nevertheless, this book continues to dominate my theological thinking as it has for the past sixteen years or so. It is fabulous!

So I say "Three cheers for Bishop Tom Wright! You have been a real blessing to the Church!"

I thought it might be fun if people commented on the single book that most impacted them. Comment away!

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Guest Post: George MacDonald on the Role of the Reader in Meaning-Creation

Here are some words from Fantasy author George MacDonald writing in 1893 on the art of the Fairy Tale (the whole essay will be reproduced as an appendix in the 150th anniversary edition of Phantastes published by Paternoster on October 28th). He writes in response to an imaginary interlocutor and has some interesting things to say about the place of the reader in the construction of meaning:

“How am I to assure myself that I am not reading my own meaning into it, but yours out of it?”
Why should you be so assured? It may be better that you should read your meaning into it. That may be a higher operation of your intellect than the mere reading of mine out of it: your meaning may be superior to mine ...

“Suppose my child ask me what the fairytale means, what am I to say?”
If you do not know what it means, what is easier than to say so? If you do see a meaning in it, there it is for you to give him. A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will mean ...

“But a man may then imagine in your work what he pleases, what you never meant!”
Not what he pleases, but what he can. If he be not a true man, he will draw evil out of the best; we need not mind how he treats any work of art! If he be a true man, he will imagine true things; what matter whether I meant them or not? They are there none the less that I cannot claim putting them there!
One difference between God’s work and man’s is, that, while God’s work cannot mean more than he meant, man’s must mean more than he meant. For in everything that God has made, there is layer upon layer of ascending significance; also he expresses the same thought in higher and higher kinds of that thought: it is God’s things, his embodied thoughts, which alone a man has to use, modified and adapted to his own purposes, for the expression of his thoughts; therefore he cannot help his words and figures falling into such combinations in the mind of another as he had himself not foreseen, so many are the thoughts allied to every other thought, so many are the relations involved in every figure, so many the facts hinted in every symbol. A man may well himself discover truth in what he wrote; or he was dealing all the time with things that came from thoughts beyond his own

Friday, 25 July 2008

The Theology of the Bible "in a glass, darkly"

For evangelicals the theology of the Bible is conducted with, amongst other things, all the 'in' words - 'inspiration', 'inerrancy', 'infallibility', and the like. These categories are worth having and discussing but they do confine the debate to certain well-worn channels. I think we evangelicals need to take the discussion wider, even if the 'in' words continue to play a key role.

But let's stick with the 'in' words for now. They are a blessing and a curse serving to open up and close down understanding.

Take 'inerrancy'. As a category this can only really apply to propositions. But as soon as we grasp this then immediately we see that vast amounts of the Bible are simply not candidates for being either 'inerrant' or 'errant'. For instance, was Jesus' prayer, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" errant or inerrant? It is not even a proposition so it cannot be factually true or factually false.

Consequently, to apply the term 'innerrant' to the whole Bible is to stretch its meaning. There may be some value in doing that but we need to be clear about what we are doing and what the term means when so stretched. Often discussions on 'inerrancy' amongst those evangelicals who find the notion helpful (and many evangelicals do not subscribe to innerrancy) lack such nuance.

Furthermore, once we read the Bible we immediately see that we need to add all sorts of qualifications to 'inerrancy' lest the Bible fall short of the standard and be declared 'errant'. Thus the Chicago Statement rightly adds many helpful qualifications.

That is good and wonderful but, as the term 'inerrancy' becomes more flexible, we find that it actually allows all sorts of things that those who use it typically wish to rule out. For instance, as Robert Gundry's Matthew commentary infamously demonstrated, a strong view of biblical innerrancy is fully compatible with an understanding of Matthew's gospel as Midrash and thus full of stories that are not historically accurate! Whether Gundry is right or not about Matthew as Midrash (I incline towards thinking that he is not) he is certainly correct to think that if it is then it can be inerrant whilst not being historically reliable. This 'insight' was not appreciated by some of those who use the terminology of 'inerrancy'. They say (and somtimes shout), "We don't want that kind of Bible!"
To my mind the main problem with some of those who are most keen on all the 'in' words is that the meanings of these 'in' words are decided in advance of a thorough engagement with the actual phenomena of the text that we have. The text is then made to conform to our expectations. We ask ourselves what kind of book that we would have written if we were God and then conclude that the Bible must be that kind of book.
One can see something of this divide at some of the debates at ETS in recent years. My general perception, as an observor, was that some of the theologians had far neater (and over-simplistic?) understandings of the Bible than many of the biblical scholars whose jobs require them to engage with the nitty gritty of the text day by day.

Now I am not against coming the the Bible with pre-formed categories. In fact, I think that it is inevitable so let's just be honest about it. Actually, I would go further and say that Christians should approach the text with theological preconceptions about the kind of text it is. At the most minimal level we should read it as the main text through which God addresses his people (and that really is too minimalist but I am just being tolerant for a minute). What I am against is a failure to allow our theological preconceptions about the Bible to be reshaped as we encounter the text.

I would defend a hermeneutical spiral in which we read the text in the light of certain theological beliefs about it, but then revisit those beliefs in the light of the text itself. We then go back to the text in the light of our revised beliefs about it ... and so on.

To take just one simple issue: consider the vast range of literary genres in the Bible. Then consider the theological categories of 'inspiration' and 'authority'. We may come to the Bible with neat and simple understandings of an inspired and authoritative Bible but once we encounter the text we must surely start asking questions like the following:

"What does it mean for a prayer to be authoritative?"

"What does it mean for a story to be authoritative?"

"Is a law authoritative in a different way from a poem?"

"Is 'authority' the most appropriate category with which to think about this particular part of the text?"

"Can texts function authoritatively differently in different contexts?"

"Is the mode of 'inspiration' of a prophet and the writer of a proverb different and, if so, what are the implications of this?"

Immediately our concepts of inspiration and authority are made more nuanced and complicated.

So my theology of the Bible has never quite settled down and I am not expecting it to in the near future. I have a "high view of Scripture" and I can gesture in the direction of what I do and do not mean by that, but I could not specify exactly. My theology of the Bible is theology seen "in a glass, darkly."

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

A Case for Horror Stories

When I became a Christian it was made very clear that horror books and films were, by definition, unChristian and should be avoided. So I avoided them.

But must a horror story be unChristian? Granted that many are, I don't see why they must be.

The Bible tells terrible stories of sin, violence, murder, suffering, evil, ghosts (I'm thinking of Samuel), demons, possession, and the devil. In so doing, it creates space for a certain kind of horror story - a story that does not use horrors to titilate, like the so-called 'torture-porn' movies of recent years, but to expose the utter repulsiveness of evil and to oppose it. Stories that bring readers to reject darkness and embrace light may use the portrayal of horror to that end. They may even employ mythical creatures to that end.

Take Dracula by Bram Stoker. It is a great novel (and, for the record, I do not believe that Vampires exist :-)). In the novel we have a powerful, demonic character (the Count) who brings suffering and death to those within his orbit. The Count is not set up as a model for wannabe Vampires to emulate, but as an anti-model to be spurned. He is the bad guy and the book tells the story of his defeat. In this case it is a defeat at the hands of those, such as Van Helsing, who see themselves as opposing him in the name of Christ. They may not be conventional Christians (at least in the evangelical sense) but I have long seen Dracula as verging on being a specifically Christian horror story.

It is a long time since I have seen The Exorcist (and I confess to finding it rather dull) but from memory it certain seemed like a Christian movie - Priest defeats demon in an act of Christ-like sacrifical love. And I seem to recall reading an interview with the Producer who certainly saw it in those terms. So why were so many Christians up in arms about it? Ironically I think that I read some evidence to the effect that Church attendance increased slightly as a direct result of people viewing The Exorcist. If that is so, then I can certainly see why.

So perhaps we can even imagine a day when local churches arrange a trip to the movies to see a horror film. Indeed, if memory serves me right, I can recall a certain Mel Gibson slasher movie that elicited precisely such a response. Perhaps the future is here!

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

"Not Gnostic?!" DeConnick on the Gospel of Thomas

Whilst I have read the enigmatic, so-called 'Gospel' of Thomas I have not read many books about it. It is most certainly a topic WAY out of my zone of knowledge. But one of the books that I did read I found to be absolutely exhilarating. It was April D. DeConnick's Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas: A History of the Gospel and its Growth (T&T CLark, 2005).

I love the sheer iconoclasm of her work. Almost everyone seems to think that Thomas was an early, non-eschatological document from a proto-Gnostic Christian group that saw Jesus in the mode of a philosophical Sage. But DeConnick says, in brief, "Rubbish! It is rooted in the mission of the early Jerusalem Church and, in its earliest versions, it was thoroughly eschatological!"

Her thesis is that Thomas was an oral 'text' that was developed and expanded in oral reperformance even after written versions were scribed. She thinks that we can tentatively delineate the contours of a kernal Thomas - the first attempt to capture in writing material from the oral pool. As the community faced various crises it developed new 'prophetic' material and Thomas was expanded and expanded. So for DeConnick this 'gospel' is not a collection of Jesus-sayings written down at one moment in history but an aggregate text.

DeConnick's radical thesis is that the earliest material from Thomas is conservative Jewish-Christian material from the mission of the Jerusalem Church with a strong apocalyptic and eschatological tone (not a mere collection of Jesus' 'wisdom' sayings as the current fashion has things). She thinks it likely to date from 30-50 AD making the hypothesized kernal a very early witnesses to the words of the historical Jesus.

But, thinks DeConnick, Jesus did not return as the community had expected so they began to reinterpret the material in less eschatological and more mystical directions (a mysticism inherent in its original apocalyptic impetus). Between 80 and 120 AD the community came to advocate a fully present kingdom - a new Eden - created in the midst of the utopian community. This later oral material, incorporated into Thomas, reinterprets the eschatological teaching in non-eschatological ways creating the mysitcal gospel known and loved by all modern day Gnostics (and the Jesus Seminar).

For DeConnick the scholarly consensus that Thomas is an early Christian non-apocalyptic gospel preserving the message of Jesus-the-Sage is mistaken. She locates Thomas within early orthodoxy rather than outside it - the voice of eastern Syriac Christianity in its earliest form with roots back to the founding Church in Jerusalem. She even suggests that the roots of eastern Orthodox spirituality are found in it.

Is she right? I have no idea. To my mind she made a pretty strong case for her position. I love the idea that kernal Thomas was eschatological and may have roots in Jerusalem.

However, I must confess though that I find the sayings in Thomas very hard to confidently make much sense of. It is so flipping ambiguous! Reading DeConnick's commentary on Thomas (The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation. T&T Clark) I keep finding myself thinking, "Yes ... maybe."

From an orthodox Christian theological perspective I find that parts of Thomas to be theologically helpful (if I have understood them right - which I may not have), but I find the theology of the finished text to be in need of
(a) supplementing, and
(b) pruning (there is material in it which orthodox Christians will not agree with)
'Handle with Care' rather than 'avoid at all costs' is the theological health warning.

Give me Matthew, Mark, Luke and John any day! But perhaps Thomas can now come to the picnic and bring some paper hats for us to wear.

Monday, 21 July 2008

"All Mirrors are Magic Mirrors" - Making the World Phantastic

"All mirrors are magic mirrors" wrote George MacDonald in his adult fairy tale, Phantastes (1858). And in so writing he smashed through the hard and fast barriers dividing our world from the fantastic world in the novel. All mirrors are magic mirrors - not just the ones in the story. Nick Page comments on the imagery of reflection in the novel:

One of the key images in Phantastes is the mirror. Mirrors occur with bewildering frequency. And even where there are not physical mirrors, there are events which mirror each other ... Phantastes is very carefully structured, but it is structured around repetition and reflection. The ‘main’ story of Anodos [a character on a journey into Fairy Land] contains many events which repeat, rework or reflect one another. And his story is mirrored in the poems, ballads and stories embedded within the text ... ‘All mirrors are magic mirrors,’ wrote MacDonald. ‘The commonest room is a room in a poem when I turn to the glass.’ Phantastes itself is a kind of magic mirror, through which we see life – our life – in a different way.

(Nick Page in the "Introduction" to Phantastes: Annotated Edition, Paternoster, 2008 forthcoming)

MacDonald lays bare the power of fantasy literature to open our eyes to deeper depths and realities in the mundane worlds we think we live in.

In doing this he's not so very different from the prophets of Israel or the author of the book of Revelation. "The way that the world appears to be", they say to us, "is not necessarily the way that it is. Look again! See beneath the surface! Gaze with fresh eyes! That which seems beautiful may be demonic; that which you think ordinary may be filled with dazzling glory; and that which appears insignificant may be the most world transforming thing of all."

Reading MacDonald has reminded me that "all mirrors are magic mirrors." Yes, even the ones in my house!

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Did Noah's Flood Happen? Theological Reflections, part 2 (Genesis in ancient context)

So is the Bible mistaken? That might be the wrong way to think about things.

First, the flood was global from the perspective of the biblical author. The Genesis author is not remotely interested in places much outside of the Near East – indeed, he would have known little, if anything, of their existence. He would have no clue, for instance, of the existence of the Americas. His whole world was the ancient Near East so what would be to him a worldwide flood is not one that we would consider worldwide. The author is not lying. From his perspective this was a global flood even if from ours it may not have been.

The animals were all species from the perspective of the biblical author. The animals that Noah was keen to preserve would have been all the local species but to the author (and to Noah) this simply was all the species. They knew nothing of most of the animals species that we now know about. There were no Koala bears, kangaroos, dinosaurs or polar bears on the ark. Realizing this immediately mitigates some of the logistical problems we discussed earlier.

We need to beware of our tendency to judge the ancient biblical texts by modern standards of what reliable historical narrative ought to look like. We often expect far more literal accuracy from ancient histories than ancient conventions required. It was not considered dishonest to shape and craft stories in such a way as to bring out certain points. They were not so concerned about getting everything in a strictly historical order, or preserving the exact words spoken. They were quite happy to invent speeches for characters so long as those speeches were what we might call 'plausible' (i.e., explained the known facts and were consistent with what we know). It was not considered inappropriate to use some imagination to fill in the gaps in out knowledge. They were also happy to engage in hyperbole for effect. For instance, the plagues inflicted on the Egyptians in Moses’ day are depicted in ways that suggest an impact on everyone in Egypt. This is surely hyperbolic!

We also need to bear in mind that even on a best case scenario, this story was only written down in the form we have it over 1,500 years after the flood. In fact, we are more likely looking at 2,500-3,000 years after. Now oral traditions in ancient oral societies were far more reliable and stable than they are in our non-oral, modern societies. The passing on of tradition was not like Chinese whispers. Nevertheless, it does suggest that it is very unreasonable of us to expect the same kind of historical accuracy that we would expect from a modern history text.

Now you might be thinking, “Ah, but the Bible is inspired so God would make sure that the text did get all the facts straight.” The problem here is that you are presuming that you know what kind of book the Bible would have to be to count as ‘inspired’ – one that conforms to our requirements for total factual accuracy. Because this is the kind of book we think that God ought to have given us we decide that the Bible simply has to be that kind of a book.

But what if we started the other way around? What if we asked what kind of book the Bible we have is and allow that to shape our understanding of ‘inspiration’? The Bible is inspired by God but perhaps God’s concerns in inspiring it do not conform exactly to our modern ones. Perhaps the total number of days that the flood lasted are not literally correct but serve instead to shape the story in such a way that it has literary and artistic balance (see Wenham's Genesis 1-15 WBC commentary) and allows the story to be told in a pallistrophic form. Perhaps the language about the waters being 20 foot higher than the highest mountains is simply hyperbole to communicate the idea of a reversal of Genesis 1 (after all – how on earth would Noah have discovered this fact unless God told him. But in the story God’s communications with Noah seem to be confined to more pressing matters than trivial details on water depth).

I maintain that the theology of the flood story can be affirmed even if the flood was not global. Imagine the following scenario: Several thousand years ago there is a catastrophic flood the likes of which people have never before seen or imagined possible. This was not a typical annual flood or even a big occasional flood. This is a vast, destructive flood that wipes out populations centres across the world known to those people. It is the end of their world. There are some survivors in a boat and after the flood civilization can begin again.

Their story is told down the generations and takes various shapes in different ancient Near Eastern cultures. The closest parallels to the biblical story come from ancient Mesopotamia. The fullest version is found in tablet 11 of the Gilgamesh epic. That flood story is older than the one in the Bible and was probably based on an even earlier flood story found in the old Babylonian Atrahasis story. We cannot tell whether the author of Genesis knew of these versions of the story or not. In some ways they are pretty similar but in others they are very different.

Similarities include:
A divine decision to destroy humanity, a warning to the flood hero, a command to build the ark, the hero’s obedience, the command to enter the ark, entry, closing the door, a description of the flood, the destruction of life, the end of the rain, the ark grounding on a mountain, the hero opening a window, bird reconnaissance, exit, sacrifice, livine smelling of the sacrifice, and the blessing of the flood hero. One fascinating similarity is the way that in the old Atrahasis version of the story the flood is part of a longer story covering the creation of humanity, the long-lived antediluvians and the universal flood. Genesis 1-9 also places the flood story in just such a grand narrative.

Differences include:
The name of the flood hero (Ziusudra in Sumeria, Atrahasis in the old Babylonian story, Utnapishtim in Akkadian Gilgamesh, Noah in the Hebrew Bible, Deucalion in Greek mythology). The biblical name, Noah, means ‘restful’/’soothing’ and is related to the ‘soothing’ sacrifice to God that he makes in 8:21. It is a symbolic name and need not have been the actual name of the historical figure.

The Hebrew version is monotheistic, the others are polytheistic.

The motive for the flood was that the council of gods decided that humans had multiplied too much and made too much noise. The biblical story has a far more positive attitude to human fertility and sees the flood as rooted in moral reasons and not trivial ones.

Thus the decision to flood the earth is not unanimous amongst the gods in other ANE versions and the rebel gods tip off the flood hero to the plan. Enlil, the god who sent the flood, was surprised to find any survivors afterwards. These gods do not act in concord, are not all powerful or all knowing.

Once the flood comes, in the polytheistic versions the gods cannot control it and cowered like dogs before it in fear. Not so Yhwh in the Bible version.

In ANE versions the gods need the humans to feed them so when the flood hero offers the sacrifice they crowd around jostling for a place at the BBQ. The Bible version is not like that.

The pagan flood heroes are raised up much more than Noah. Noah is a 2-dimensional character on purpose. He never speaks. His only role in the story is that of one who obeys God. That is the all that matters about him, as far as the biblical version goes.

Now we do have evidence for ancient flooding in Mesopotamia. Whilst we cannot say with certainty that such and such a flood deposit layer at any particular excavation is the flood, it is not unreasonable to take such evidence, along with the ancient flood legends from across Mesopotamia, as evidence of a cataclysmic, civilization disrupting flood. Some think that what evidence we have could suggest a rough date for the flood as about 3000BC.

Anyway, back to my ‘let’s suppose’ story. God wants to communicate certain things to his people Israel and, by the Spirit, shapes the way that they tell the flood story in order to do so. The things that God wishes to communicate are true but it does not follow from that that every detail in the flood story must be believed literally (or even all of the broader points). Let’s suppose that God wished to communicate the following kinds of things?

The ‘world-destroying’ flood that is remembered by many was not the result of capricious deities annoyed by the noise of humans but by the act of a righteous God punishing sin.

Sin is destructive and will be destroyed.

Obedience to God is a virtue to be prized and cultivated.

God rules over the creation and works through the channels within the world (floodgates of the deep and rain) to bring about his purposes.

God created the world and God has the power and the right to un-create it. The flood symbolized an act of almost total uncreation.

God is merciful and chooses to preserve creation – both human and animal. It was not a rival deity who opposed the flood that warned the hero to build the boat. It was God in his mercy.

The flood hero symbolized hope for the world – a new start beyond destruction.

God is then saying – there really was a flood and this is what it means. Is it a violation of the biblical text to suppose that the biblical flood account uses a major Mesopotamian event in order to make vital theological points concerning human depravity, faith, obedience, and divine judgment, grace and mercy?

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Did Noah's Flood Happen? Theological Reflections, pt 1

Theological Reflections. Where Do We Go From Here?
Here is my claim: Christian theology does not need a global flood. No Christian doctrine depends on there having been a historical global flood. If it turns out that the flood was not global this has no implications for

the doctrine of God: the Trinity, Christology, Pneumatology, divine attributes
the theology of creation
the doctrine of humanity – in God’s image, in sin
the doctrines of redemption
the theology of the last things

So in one important sense it makes little difference. But some might object that the Genesis writer and the NT authors believed in a global flood so, if we are to trust the Bible, it matters.

Before we focus on that question directly (which will mostly be tomorrow) let me step aside for a moment and look at some of the theological themes arising from the Noah story.

The flood narrative is a carefully crafted piece of narrative art. It has been shaped in such a way as to accentuate the feel of the rise of the waters and their fall (see G'J. Wenham's Genesis 1-15 WBC commentary). The centre of the story is 8:1, “And God remembered Noah…” The first half of the story leads up to the flood waters covering the earth and the second half leads away from it. The author balances elements of each half to correspond to each other.

Several important theological themes come out of the flood story

Sin and Obedience
The violence and wickedness of humanity contrasted with Noah’s obedience. “The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain” (Gen 6:5-7). Noah, by contrast, “was blameless among his contemporaries” (Gen 6:9).

Divine Judgment
“So the LORD said, ‘I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth.’” (Gen 6:7). Then later, “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. God said to Noah, ‘I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth’” (Gen 6:11-13).

Divine Mercy
Just when we are thinking that humanity is doomed we read, “But Noah found favour in the eyes of the LORD” (Gen 6:8). The flood story tells of God’s commitment to preserving humanity and all the animals through the judgment and starting again. God elects against total destruction in favour of mercy. And after the flood God covenants never to flood the whole earth again.

Decreation and Recreation
The flood story is told in such a way as to indicate to readers that the creation story of Genesis 1 has been put into reverse. In Genesis 1 God separated the waters above from the waters below (Day 2) and he separated the water and the land (Day 3). Animals and humans are created (Days 5 and 6). In the flood the waters above come down to meet the waters below (7:11) (reversing Day 2) and the waters cover the land again (reversing Day 3). All the animals and humans are wiped out (reversing Days 5 and 6). Apart from the ark, creation is set back to Day 1 – a watery chaos. But then, as the waters abate, God re-sculpts the world separating the waters again, separating the water from the land again and using the animals and people on the ark to repopulate the world.

Noah as a new Adam
Once we grasp the decreation and recreation symbolism in the flood story it becomes obvious that Noah and his wife come to play the role of the new Adam and Eve – the human pair that would populate the earth. Hence the theme of the animals being fruitful and multiplying (8:17) as in Genesis 1 and of Noah being told to “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth” (9:1, cf. 9:7). Noah is the new Adam.

(I will come back to these theological themes tomorrow - there was a point to them, honest)

Back to the question of the inspiration of the Bible. I'll begin by problematising the issue.

We need to be clear - Genesis does present the flood as global. It is clear that it is presented as the destruction of all life on earth apart from those in the ark (Gen 6:7). And the water rises to such a height that all the high mountain tops under the entire heavens were covered by over 20 foot of water (Gen 7:18-20). Whilst some people rightly point out that the Hebrew word for ‘earth’ is the same word used for ‘land’ and can refer to something far more local it is very hard to read the flood story as if it was intended to picture a merely local flood. Any flood that would cover the highest mountain tops in the ancient Near East would have been global.

So I am controversially saying that the actual flood was not global but that the Bible does present it as a flood of the whole world. So is the Bible mistaken? Tune in tomorrow to find out.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Did Noah's Flood Happen? The Evidence says 'No'

There are tensions between the flood narrative and contemporary science. This post is simply a very compressed version of Mark Isaak's "Problems with a Global Flood" (http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-noahs-ark.html)

Contemporary science does not seem to be compatible with a strictly literal interpretation of the flood story. Among the numerous problems raised are the following:

Logistical Problems
Fitting the Animals Aboard. An ark of the size specified in the Bible would not be large enough to carry a cargo of animals and food sufficient to repopulate the earth, especially if animals that are now extinct were required to be aboard.

Special diets. How did Noah determine and provide for all those special diets?

Fresh foods. Many animals require their food to be fresh. How did Noah keep all these food supplies fresh?

Sanitation. How did such a small crew dispose of so much waste?

Exercise/Animal handling. How were several thousand diverse kinds of animals exercised regularly?

The Water Problem
Where did that much water come from? Where did it go? Whilst one could appeal to miracles (God can do anything, after all) the Genesis story itself presents the flood as the result of God acting through natural processes – the bursting of the fountains of the deep and the opening of the floodgates of the sky.

Lack of Evidence for a Global Flood Where we Would Expect it.
A global flood would have produce evidence contrary to the evidence we see.

Why is there no evidence of a flood in ice core series? Ice cores from Greenland have been dated back more than 40,000 years by counting annual layers. Why doesn't evidence for the flood show up?

Why did the Flood not leave traces on the sea floors? A year long flood should be recognizable in sea bottom cores. Why do none of these show up?

Why is there no evidence of a flood in tree ring dating? Tree ring records go back more than 10,000 years, with no evidence of a catastrophe during that time.

How are the polar ice caps even possible? Such a mass of water as the Flood would have provided sufficient buoyancy to float the polar caps off their beds and break them up. They wouldn't regrow quickly.

Evidence supports the uninterrupted human occupation of the Americas (over 12,000 years) and Australasia (about 30,000-40,000 years) from long before the time that the flood could have happened.

Survival Problems
How did all the modern plant species survive?
- Many plants (seeds and all) would be killed by being submerged for a few months. This is especially true if they were soaked in salt water.
- Most seeds would have been buried under many feet (even miles) of sediment. This is deep enough to prevent spouting.

How did all the fish survive? Some require cool clear water, some need brackish water, some need ocean water, some need water even saltier. A flood would have destroyed at least some of these habitats.

How did short-lived species survive? Adult mayflies on the ark would have died in a few days, and the larvae of many mayflies require shallow fresh running water. Many other insects would face similar problems.

How could more than a handful of species survive in a devastated habitat? The Flood would have destroyed the food and shelter which most species need to survive. (As an aside it is interesting that after the flood we see that the topsoil has not been washed away and that vegetations still grows. This would suggest that the flood was not as severe as the story depicts it).

How did predators survive? How could more than a handful of the predator species on the ark have survived, with only two individuals of their prey to eat?

How did animals get to their present ranges? How did koalas get from Ararat to Australia, polar bears to the Arctic, etc., when the kinds of environment they require to live does not exist between the two points. How did so many unique species get to remote islands?

Why are so many animals found only in limited ranges? Why are so many marsupials limited to Australia; why are there no wallabies in western Indonesia? Why are lemurs limited to Madagascar?

Evidence that Fossil-Bearing Rock Strata Were Not Laid Down in a Single Event
Most people who believe in a global flood also believe that the flood was responsible for creating all fossil-bearing strata. However, there is a great deal of contrary evidence.

How was the fossil record sorted in an order convenient for evolution if they were laid down in the turmoil of a single flood?

How do surface features appear far from the surface? Deep in the geologic column there are formations which could have originated only on the surface, such as: Rain drops, river channels, wind-blown dunes, beaches, in-place trees, soil and footprints.

How could a flood deposit layered fossil forests? Stratigraphic sections showing a dozen or more mature forests layered atop each other (all with upright trunks, in-place roots, and well-developed soil) appear in many locations. How could these have appeared in the midst of a catastrophic flood? They are evidence of a slow deposition in environmentally sensitive conditions incompatible with a catastrophic deluge.

How were mountains and valleys formed? Many very tall mountains are composed of sedimentary rocks. If these were formed during the Flood, how did they reach their present height, and when were the valleys between them eroded away? Keep in mind that many valleys were clearly carved by glacial erosion, which is a slow process.

Historical Problems
How did the human population rebound so fast? Genealogies in Genesis put the Tower of Babel about 110 to 150 years after the Flood (Gen 10:25; 11:10-19). How did the world population regrow so fast to make its construction (and the city around it) possible? Similarly, there would have been very few people around to build Stonehenge and the Pyramids, rebuild the Sumerian and Indus Valley civilizations, populate the Americas, etc.

Also the table of nations in Genesis 10 makes no reference to Negroid or Mongoloid races which may lead us to conclude that such races were not included in the flood.

So my first point is that we have to be honest about the scientific evidence. We would do well to listen to St Augustine comment on Christians talking about the natural order:

Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian,
presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these
topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing
situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to
scorn.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Did Noah's Flood Happen? An Historical Overview

As part of my concerted campaign to lose all my friends, welcome to part 1 of my mini-series on Noah's flood. In brief my argument will be
- Was there a global flood? No.
- Does it matter? No.
If you're satisfied with that stop reading now.

The church held, almost unanimously, to a universal flood until the mid-seventeenth century. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, a very large segment of the church no longer viewed a universal deluge as credible. Why?

The standard attitude throughout Christian history has been one of respecting what we can learn from Scripture but also from external sources. Evidence from outside the Bible has almost always been considered relevant and helpful when thinking about biblical matters. This has certainly been the case with the story of the great flood. Christian commentators would regularly appeal to extra-biblical sources. Things like stories of people who had found pieces of wood from the ark, various diverse traditions about the landing site of the ark, data on how the ark was capable of handling the species of animals known at the time, and, by the fifth century, fossils were being linked with animals killed in the flood. Belief in a universal flood was sustainable for centuries because it was not inconsistent with the knowledge we had from these other sources.

The problems began as evidence began to grow that was not consistent with a universal flood. Explorations of the new world in the 15th and 16th C increased our understanding of the size of the earth and the number of animal species in it. The result of this was that people began to see that far more water was needed to flood the earth than seemed to be available and that there were more animals than seemed capable of fitting in the ark. There was also the problem of how Noah’s descendents had got to such remote places and set up what appeared to be ancient civilizations.

From the 16th C the fossils began to become not so much a support for a global flood as a puzzle – their locations seemed hard to account for on the flood model (e.g., buried in layers of rock at great heights in the mountains rather than near the surface). This conviction grew as study of fossils intensified over the years. By the 19th C the number of now-extinct species discovered as fossils further intensified the problem of the capacity of the ark – we now have to fit mammoths and dinosaurs into it whilst wondering if it was worth the effort given that they then went and became extinct. It was also becoming clear that fossiliferous rocks could not have been deposited in a single flood event.

Usually Christians did not dismiss any of this external evidence as irrelevant but sought to see how it could be accounted for in terms of a universal flood. But as more and more evidence came to light this became harder and harder. The development of geology in 18th and 19th Cs compounded problems by

(a) a failure to find evidence of a global flood,
(b) more plausible explanations of geological features that had been seen as evidence for a universal flood,
(c) evidence hard to reconcile with a global flood.
It ought to be mentioned at this point that most of the scientists working on this evidence were orthodox Christians and not atheists seeking to disprove the Bible.

It was in the 17th C that some began to suggest that the flood may have not been universal but perhaps more local (an idea first floated in the 5th C by Pseudo-Justin). The idea was not mainstream then but as evidence against the flood piled up people began to ask whether they had read the story correctly and new attempts to interpret the Bible arose in an attempt to hold biblical and scientific evidence together. By the early part of the 20th C few biblical scholars any longer endorsed the notion of a universal world flood. Non-traditional interpretations of the flood were common and nobody was over-fussed.

This changed in the early 20th C as the fundamentalist-modernist controversies kicked off in the USA. A literal global flood became one important issue for the fundamentalist camp. This line was defended by either
(a) ignoring the external evidence, or
(b) developing what is now known as creation science with the goal of arguing that the evidence really does support a universal flood. The father of modern flood geology was George McCready Price (1870-1963) but the most influential book was John Whitcomb and Henry Morris’ text The Genesis Flood (1961). That book is still in print and has been foundational in the creation-science research project.

To their credit the flood-geologists did not see empirical evidence as irrelevant and worked hard with empirical data to try and show that it supported a global flood. But it has to be said that their attempts to do so have largely been seen by mainstream science as a pseudo-science, accused of only considering selected pieces of evidence that confirm a pre-decided conclusion. It is also accused of defending highly implausible interpretations of empirical evidence. Few flood geologists can lay claim to significant expertise in geology, paleontology, anthropology, or biogeography. Geologist Davis Young comments that the “views of earth history offered by [the flood-geologists] are simply and obviously incorrect.”

Saturday, 12 July 2008

1 Enoch and Christian Theology: sticking up for the little guy

1 Enoch is, to modern western minds, a very odd, ancient, Jewish apocalyptic text. Here is my question of the day:

What role should/could 1 Enoch play in contemporary Christian reflection and devotion?

Let's be clear, unless you are Coptic Christian the book never has been, and never will be, part of Christian Scripture. So it has no canonical status in the way that another ancient Jewish apocalypse such as Daniel does (Give it up for Daniel!).

And yet it is clearly referred to by 1 and 2 Peter and Jude (and perhaps Paul ... and possibly Matthew) and Jude even quotes from it. They seem to treat the text as genuinely inspired by God in some way (Jude introduced his quotation with the words, "Enoch prophesied"). We know that in the 2nd C it was a very popular book within the Churches (read, for instance, what it says about the Son of Man in 1 Enoch 48-49 and you may have some idea why it appealed) and Tertullian even argued from Jude's citation of it that it should be considered as Scripture. The Church decided otherwise and yet the book continued to inform and inspire until it fell out of use and into obscurity.

What about us? Well, obviously NT scholars need to read it to set some backgroud to certain NT texts but I had something more fun in mind.

First - might it play a role in our devotional lives? I have tried praying through some of the texts and I found it very helpful. The theological vision, whilst fanciful in places, is also rather inspiring. I do not judge it a theologically and spiritually corrupting text (so long as one does not feel too tightly bound to it).

Second - might it play a role in our own theological reflections? Why not? Of course, it has no authoritative status. We don't have to believe that it really is what Enoch saw in his heavenly trip (it most certainly was not written by Enoch!), nor its story of the fall of the watchers, nor its understanding of the demonic (demons are the ghosts of the human-divine hybrids called Nephilim from Gen 6), nor its theology of astral bodies, nor its rather graphic accounts of the everlasting torment of the damned. (Indeed, I am not even convinced that we even need to literally believe the parts that NT texts affirm - e.g., the imprisonment of the watchers until the Day of Judgement. I'd be interested to know what people think about that.)

However, its vision of God's glory is WOW and AMEN! Its hope for the vindication of those who stick with God (the Lord of the Spirits) through thick and thin is inspiring; its opposition to the corrupt and powerful rulers is what oppressed people today need to hear! God will call the oppressors to account and the mighty will fall. It's call to counter-cultural living is contemporary; the theology of the amazing Son of Man (whose origins are from before creation, who lives forever, and through whom the righteous are saved) is, when read with Christian goggles, heart-warming. I confess that I have a soft spot for 1 Enoch.

In the big scheme of things 1 Enoch only has a small role to play in constructive Christian theology but I'm sticking up for the little guy. He may only be the triangle in the orchestra but he has his role to play and for now I'm pricking up my ears to hear him strike his note! Ting!

The Charismatic Curse of Happiness

I am a charismatic and I am unembarrased to say that I think that the charismatic movement has contributed a lot to global Christianity. But charismatic cultures do have their problems and one of those is the inability to handle sorrow in the presence of God.

Just take a look at the many volumes of charismatic worship songs (bearing in mind that in charismatic worship the songs play a far more significant role in giving shape and direction to the communal encounter with God than they do in more traditional churches). How many of those songs address issues of pain, sorrow, grief, and darkness? The answer is that hardly any do (although the number is, happily, growing). Now consider how many reflect joy, happiness, celebration and the like. The answer is, quite literally hundreds - probably thousands.

The songs reflect something of the wider culture of worship within charismatic churches and they indicate a congenital inability to know how to handle anything that is not full of glee. This is what I call 'the charismatic curse of happiness'. Wonderful in what it affirms but dreadful in what it denies.

We do not know how to think theologically about sorrow, we do not know how to make space for it in communal worship, we lack the doxological vocabulary to bring the whole of our human experiences before God and so instead we simply bury them.

We call our congregations to count their blessings, to stop thinking about the afflictions they face and to think about God instead because - 'the things of this world grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.' We sing happy in the hope that we might feel happy.

Do we lack the faith and courage of Old Testament saints to lament? To refuse to keep any dimension of our human experience from God but to come before him as we are - in our joy and our pain? Can we contemplate songs that are something other than celebrations and triumph? Can we imagine a liturgy for loss? May it even be possible that our lament could be Spirit-led? That the Spirit of God might groan simultaneously in sorrow and hope through our groaning?

So the challenge is this - how can we widen and deepen charismatic worship so that we can take it beyond green pastures and still waters into the valley of the shadow of death?

Should Christians Eat Beef Burgers? (Acts 15)

My first ever blog post! What shall I discuss? Hmmmm. Some really big theological issue sounds like just the thing. I know! Beef burgers! OK - perhaps not up there with Christology but still worth a comment perhaps. And this time I am not thinking about the ethics of burgers. I'm thinking about the blood.

Here is my controversial claim: Christians should not eat meat with blood in it. Thus, if a burger has blood in it then a Christian should not eat it (except perhaps in special circumstances).

Here is my argument: Leviticus 17:10-12 tells us not to.

OK, before you think that I have lost my marbles and reply that Christians are not under the Law of Moses consider this (based on Richard Bauckham's article "James and the Gentiles (Acts 15:13-21)" - read that if you want the details):

In Acts 15 at the Jerusalem Council it was decreed that all Gentile Christians should abstain from blood.

15:29 "... that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality."

This was an authoritative ruling for all Gentile Christians (and, in case you are wondering, it was accepted without question by Paul). To understand this odd decree read on ...

The big debate in the earliest church was whether Gentiles could have full status as members of the community of Israel, God's people. Judaism allowed Gentiles to have a guest status within the community as God fearers and it also allowed Gentiles to fully convert to Judaism (marked by circumcision) as prosylites. So on the normal Jewish view Gentiles could only have full membership status within Israel if they converted to Judaism (see the work of Mark Nanos for all the details on this).

However, there was an expectation in some strands of Judaism (as witnessed in OT prophetic texts) that when Israel was renewed in the end-times then the Gentile nations would come to Jerusalem and join Israel in the worship of Yhwh. They would not need to convert to Judaism.

The early Jewish believers in Jesus considered themselves to be a microcosm of end-time, restored Israel. Consequently they came to see the Gentiles believers in Jesus as the nations making the end-time pilgrimage to Jerusalem. That is basically the theological reason why Paul and the Jerusalem Church headed up by Jesus' brother James came to the decision that Gentile Chrisians did not have to convert to Judaism to have full community membership status. To require Gentiles to get circumcised and submit themselves to the whole Jewish Law would be to deny that Christ had inaugurated the new age foretold by the prophets. (As an aside, note that the debate was about whether Gentiles needed to obey the whole Torah. It was taken for granted that Jewish believers in Jesus would.)

So why insist on the four prohibitions? Many Christians argue that these were simply pragmatic rulings that were made to enable Jewish and Gentile Christians to share table fellowship together. On that interpretation eating blood is actually OK for Gentiles so long as no Jewish Christ-believers are offended.

Richard Bauckham has made a persuasive argument that (a) the standard interpretation is wrong and (b) that the 4-fold prohibition was a principled one and not a pragmatic one.

Very briefly, the four prohibitions are based on the rules Lev 18-19 placed on those Gentiles "living in the midst" of Israel. These are the only four laws in the Torah that the alien living "in your midst" is told to obey. They occur in the same order in Lev 17-18 as they do in the apostolic decree.
  • abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, (Lev 17:8-9)
  • and from blood, (Lev 17:10-12)
  • and from what has been strangled, (Lev 17:13 - a strangled animal is one that has not had its blood drained)
  • and from sexual immorality. (Lev 18:6-23)

The logic behind the decree is that the Jewish believers are a microcosm of end-time Israel and the Gentile believers are a microcosm of the end-time nations joining them in worship. Gentile Christians are the eschatological equivalent of the Gentiles "living in the midst of Israel" spoken of in Lev-17-18. That is why the early Church insisted on these rules. And Gentile Christians followed the blood ban well into the third century.

So here is my question - on what grounds do we feel that we can disregard the apostolic decree that bound all the early Gentile Christians?

I hope that I have not spoiled your lunch. :-)