How do we relate God’s humility with God’s power?

Jane Williams, a well-known theologian who teaches at St Mellitus, has another Lent book out, and it is written with her customary insight and clarity. The Merciful Humility of God is quite short at 30,000 words, but delivers a lot of insight, and will no doubt sell well and be read widely. (The cover picture is by Giacomo Parolini and, curiously, is not actually available online; I have taken this image from the book cover.) The overall theme arises from an observation of St Augustine, that it is ‘only the merciful humility of God that can penetrate our armoured pride’, and Augustine features again within the text. The book is quite unusual in two respects. First, the five chapters focus on five aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry: his baptism and temptation; his birth and origins; aspects of his life and ministry; his crucifixion; and his resurrection. It is quite refreshing to read a Lent book which does not just focus in on either the temptations or the passion, but takes a broader review of the gospel narratives (and, appropriately, Luke’s gospel features prominently). It is slightly odd that Jesus’ baptism comes before the discussion of the birth narratives; it didn’t grate at the time of reading, but on reflection it looks unusual, and I am not sure what the final rationale for that is.

The other striking thing about this short book is the way that the chapters themselves are structured. About the first two-thirds of each chapter offers a close reading of some selected biblical texts, one of which is then offered for further reflection, with questions, at the end of each chapter. But the last one-third changes register completely, and looks at the way a key issue from the textual study is expressed in the life of a famous Christian from history. The first is Augustine, and Williams traces his journey from competence to vulnerability; the second is Julian of Norwich, and her visions of the tender (even erotic?) love of God for his world; the third is Francis of Assisi and his embrace of poverty; the fourth is Teresa of Avila, and her insight into suffering; and the last is Jean Vanier with his radical commitment to an all-embracing practice of community. The whistle-stop tours of these significant figures will, no doubt, be of interest and enlightenment to many readers.


The textual studies are, in many ways, masterly; Williams has a knack for including a wealth of detail in quite a small space, paying careful attention to the details of the text, but at the same time including insights from wider themes in the gospel (most obviously, when she mentions the Fourth Gospel, the theme of glory which develops in its second half). And she does this with a deft turn of phrase; I think my favourite was her summary of Jesus’ teaching as recorded in the opening sections of Mark and Matthew: the proclamation that ‘the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand’ means that God is ‘too close for comfort’ and ‘decisions about the direction of our lives can be put off no longer’. But there were a number of places where I found her reading of the texts quite surprising.

In the final chapter, her reading of the parable of the sheep and the goats teaches us a lesson (through the actions of the sheep) of the ‘equal value of all human beings’ (p 138), which draws on a reading of the parable which is recent, doesn’t make sense, and dislocates the parable from its context in Matthew. In her discussion of the foot washing in John 13 (which is illustrated on the cover of the book), she wrestles with the challenge of the unmerited grace of God.

The Reformers called it ‘justification by grace through faith’ and even the faith is not ours, but Christ’s. (p 77)

This is quite a startling claim, based as it is on one answer to the complex debate about the phrase ‘faith of Christ’ (pistis Christou) which grammatically could mean either ‘our faith in Christ’ (a so-called objective genitive) or ‘Christ’s faith[fulness]’ (a subjective genitive), much as ‘the love of God’ can mean either our love for God or God’s love for us. In stating this so categorically, Williams appears to be claiming that nothing is required for us to experience the grace of God—God does it all, and there is nothing for us to do, not even by way of response or receipt.


There are pointers to this kind of position earlier on in the book as well. Just a few pages previously, she reads Jesus’ radical reinterpretation of the law as teaching us that ‘there is nothing that can make God unholy’ (p 72) and that ‘there is no reliable way of determining who is ‘in’ with God and who is ‘out” (p 73). These observations are faithful to the surprising re-drawing of boundaries evident in Jesus’ ministry—but they struggle to account for Jesus’ language of radical division all through the gospels, defined in relation to people’s response to his ministry and his teaching. Williams seems to display a discomfort with the language of power in the gospels, and this is noticeable as she draws quite often on Luke’s gospel, which has power as a major theme. She is quite right to observe that the resurrected Jesus doesn’t ‘come to his enemies and force them to admit they were wrong and and kneel before his transcendent aliveness’ (p 114), and there is some significant theological work to be done to make sense of that. But no-one appears to have informed Peter about this in his Pentecost speech of Acts 2, where he uses some uncompromising language to make just this kind of move—and is clear that the day will come when this will indeed happen. In the opening chapter on Jesus’ baptism and temptation, Williams observes the two-fold dynamic of Jesus engaging and identifying with the ‘force and reality of sin’ (p 12) and being empowered for ministry by his affirmation by God in the voice from heaven. But the thing the reader takes away from this is the unconditional affirmation (‘Start each morning of Lent by hearing God say to you “You are my beloved”‘, p 31), rather than starting each morning by saying ‘I repent of my sins’!

For me, the most startling reading of Luke’s gospel comes in the introductory chapter. Over three pages, Williams explores aspects of the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15.11–32) and consistently contrasts the life, ministry and message of Jesus with the narrative shape of the parable.

The infinite patience of God is more active than that of the father of the Prodigal, because God does more than wait; in Jesus Christ, God enters into the way of the Prodigal so that even here, while the Prodigal is still assuming that he is fine on his own, the love of the father is present…The life of Jesus means that we can turn and find God beside us, everywhere.

Now, there are some interesting questions to ask here, both about the shape of the story itself (what happened to the central turning point [pun intended] when the son ‘comes to himself’ and changes the direction of his journey?) and its location in Luke (how does the waiting of the father relate to the immediately preceding search of the shepherd for his sheep and the woman for her coin?) and these will in due course merit an article of their own. But again notice the theological and pastoral point: there is no need for repentance or turning for the love of God to be present. In this way, Williams is offering a universalising kind of reading in which faith does not seem to be necessary as an active part of receiving the love of God.


This kind of partial reading seems to be to be quite common in the way that biblical texts are handled in contemporary reading and preaching. When preachers and teachers cite the example of John 13 and the foot washing, the focus is rightly on Jesus’ service and humility, but the complementary aspects are often passed over. These are actually made very clear in the text: Jesus is free to serve because (the writer tells us up front) ‘Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father’ (John 13.1). It is Jesus’ power and authority, indeed as this gospel sets it out, his clear conviction of his own pre-existence and transcendent destiny, which frees him to serve. This is not simply an example of human humility; Jesus concludes:

“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. (John 13.13–14)

Jesus’ power and service are intimately intertwined. Similarly, in Paul’s great ‘Christ hymn’ in Phil 2, it begins and ends with Jesus exalted as part of the very nature of God, and it is this which makes his service and sacrifice so remarkable. The incarnation is not about just anyone coming to us in the flesh, but the very presence and power of God himself coming. This is not to say that Jane Williams missed this or fails to understand it, but it is interesting to note how one side of the equation gets more emphasis than the other, and that leads to the danger of misreading.


I am conscious that Williams has been influenced very much by the theology of Jurgen Moltmann, and this might explain the tendency to lean in the direction of a universal reading and one that avoids the more challenging aspects of power and judgement. This raises interesting questions about how our own theological agendas shape the way we read texts—but there are also questions here about the specific ways in which texts are presented. I had the immense privilege of attending the ordination of Emma Ineson and Sarah Clark as suffragan bishops in York Minster yesterday, and the readings for the service were Malachi 2.5–6, Matt 11.25–29, and Rev 19.1–9. These readings all have something in common; before reading any further, turn to them and see if you can spot what it is?

The answer is that each of these readings (of which some phrases are very well known) function to lift a text of blessing out of its surrounding context of texts of judgement. Malachi (‘my messenger’) offers a startling rebuke to the priests in Israel who have failed to be faithful to God’s covenant. Here is the section of Mal 2, with the reading highlighted:

“And now, you priests, this warning is for you.  If you do not listen, and if you do not resolve to honor my name,” says the LORD Almighty, “I will send a curse on you, and I will curse your blessings. Yes, I have already cursed them, because you have not resolved to honor me. 

“Because of you I will rebuke your descendants; I will smear on your faces the dung from your festival sacrifices, and you will be carried off with it.  And you will know that I have sent you this warning so that my covenant with Levi may continue,” says the LORD Almighty.  “My covenant was with him, a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him; this called for reverence and he revered me and stood in awe of my name.  True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin. 

“For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, because he is the messenger of the LORD Almighty and people seek instruction from his mouth.  But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble; you have violated the covenant with Levi,” says the LORD Almighty.  “So I have caused you to be despised and humiliated before all the people, because you have not followed my ways but have shown partiality in matters of the law.” 

(It is also worth noting that, when the highlighted verses are lifted out of context, it is not clear who is the person with whom the covenant was made; many readers will assume it is a messianic figure, but in fact it is with Levi.) Similarly, Jesus has just rebuked the villages who did not receive his teaching, comparing them unfavourably with Sodom and Gomorrah; and the heavenly praise of Rev 19 is rejoicing in the justice of God displayed in the destruction of ‘Babylon’, which links to the coming of the Rider on the White Horse.

Detaching these texts of blessing from the darker ground of the context of judgement not only makes them shine less brightly; it also distorts their meaning, as when the gracious invitation of God is detached from the call to repent.


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40 thoughts on “How do we relate God’s humility with God’s power?”

  1. Ian,

    I agree that repentance and judgment are an integral part of life with God. Unless we get to a point of surrender, and self-recognition of the ways we harden our hearts to the love of God, we are in a way locking the doors on the grace and love that God longs to show more and more in our relationship and our active lives.

    That said, I share the view that God’s grace and fidelity to us *always* precedes our repentance and opening to God. I think there are sound models for that in the scriptural narratives.

    Take for example the flight of the ‘children of Israel’ from Egypt. In that story, what we see there is a prior intervention of God, regardless of the spiritual state of the individuals. It is pretty much without doubt that the Israelites who God rescued were a mixed bunch of the good, the bad, the kind, the cruel, the intelligent, the stupid, the faithful, the profane. And yet the act of salvation *first* sees God intervene with grace (and power).

    Yes, 40 years are said to follow, where many fall by the wayside in the wilderness. Yes, you get the impression of a chastened people crossing the Jordan to ‘enter the inheritance that is promised’. But God’s grace, all the way, comes first. God’s love comes first. God’s fidelity and intervention come first.

    I think it is really important that we recognise that our calling is primarily dependent on God’s faithfulness to us, rather than our faithfulness to God. It’s such an obvious spiritual point. Yes, of course, God wants us to open our hearts in submission and faith, and repentance is an integral part of that process. Yes, we need to confront our own hardness and selfishness, if we want God to open our hearts to more of God’s presence and love. But I believe that God loves every single human being, every single soul, and long before any personal relationship may occur on our part, and in our awareness, God is deeply aware of us and loves us.

    I will always be deeply grateful for an hour I was graciously afforded by Dick Lucas, at a time in my life when I’d probably describe myself as a ‘fundamentalist’ and felt that faith only starts when we repent, and that we should be baptised only when we are adults, based on our own faith.

    And modelling his belief in infant baptism on the passing through the Red Sea – which is a pretty standard model for baptism – he pointed out, as I have above, that at that point the people themselves had not gained their delivery through their own faith, but through the priority of the faithfulness of God that precedes any change of heart.

    Long before we enter this passing world, God knows us and loves us. And long before our souls may grow aware of the humility, givenness, and grace of God, God is already faithful to us, and pouring grace on us in all kinds of (mostly unseen) ways.

    And I believe that is going on, all over the world, in the lives of every single human being. God is so faithful. God’s love is so strong and tender. In many ways, grace is the gentleness that comes from strength. Grace enables us to engage in judgment of our own selfish lives and repent (repeatedly). God’s power may indeed be seen more in this humble-hearted fidelity and grace, than in judgment.

    When my eldest daughter was still young, there would of course be times when I was unhappy with her behaviour and needed to convey that to her. However, I am completely opposed to hitting children, and she had no fear of that. But if she felt my disappointment it could be enough to send her sobbing to her bedroom. Because, although I had powers of judgment and rule as a parent, it was the my love and tenderness and fidelity towards her, that touched and broke open her heart at times like those. (I hasten to add, children become young adults, and then grown ups, and the process can also be reversed!)

    What I’m trying to say is that I really think we should as Christians be a little less ‘big-headed’ about our own faith. Everything hinges on God’s own fidelity and givenness, that never turns back, and that is always deeply and profoundly motivated by love for us… “while we were still far off”.

    And of course, as we set off to reflect upon the journey Jesus made towards Jerusalem and the Cross, we see just that. The Church was not yet empowered, and Jesus’s followers were a mixture of good and bad, foolish and wise, rich and poor, kind and selfish… and yet Jesus said “I have a baptism to undergo.”

    That baptism was the primary act of fidelity by God, long before any fidelity on the part of other people. A love, and givenness, to the point of no turning back. A demonstration of the fidelity, and givenness, and covenant love of God.

    And yes, there is implicit repentance in the lives we are called to live, as we follow the Way of Jesus. “You will be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with” by which he meant his death and resurrection. And day by day, in every encounter, we are challenged by God’s Spirit to be baptised in spiritual terms, in the surrender of selfishness to the flow of God’s love, in our dealings with the people we meet.

    In my own little life, I have experienced repentance and a judgment of God that seems overwhelming and unavoidable as a great fire. I don’t ignore the dimension of God’s judgment, and our own need to repent, again and again, and to soften and open our hearts to God’s love.

    But it is God’s grace and love that ultimately touches us, heals us, turns us towards God, and leads us to trust and have faith: not ‘faith that God exists’ (even the Devil is supposed to have that) but faith in who God is, and God’s reliability and fidelity, and God’s gentle tender love for us, God’s knowing of us and treasuring of us.

    So I tend to agree that grace and God’s fidelity is the foundation of our salvation, not anything we do, which would be a kind of “works”. Everything is opened – even our own turning to God – by God’s own fidelity as a tender-hearted parent.

    Penny, a few days ago here, made a reference to ‘God’s Prodigal Love’, and it made a fine point. That while we were still sinners, God – the Prodigal Parent – comes looking for us, searching for us, with a lavish and abundant love and tenderness.

    Indeed, though dwelling in a high and holy place, and with all the power of the universe, God was so humble-hearted, and came and dwelt among us like a servant. God’s love is almost ludicrous in its givenness to us. And it comes first. It always comes first. And we depend on that fidelity, not our own.

    • Susannah
      I hope you don’t mind, but to try to clarify these debates, I would like to ask you the question which I am asking Penelope Doe on another thread: What in your view are the results of the Fall of Man on all of us – nature, spirit, physical. In particular do you agree or disagree that we all from birth onwards, because of Adam’s sin and our own sins, face the wrath and condemnation of God and are born with a nature inclined to evil?
      Phil Almond

      • Hello Phil,

        I don’t mind at all. I think we’ve talked on other forums.

        1. The ‘Fall’ of man is a mythical event and a theological construct, to try to explain why we die, why we suffer, why we are selfish. Our human nature is formed in the image of God, so I believe we have original beauty as well as the sin and selfishness, which in part is driven by evolutionary instincts to survive, but is also moral selfishness and egocentric in unnecessary ways. Spiritually, it is plain that God has placed us in a situation of distance, in some ways, but in other ways God longs to draw close. God also dwells within our souls, right in the innermost places of our souls. Physically, I do not believe that most sicknesses like cancer (for example) have anything to do with this theological ‘Fall’. Children with cancer are not ill because they or anyone else has sinned. They are ill because we are creatures, and we get sick, and we all die.

        I don’t think ‘Adam’ sinned, because I don’t think Adam existed at all. That is a myth, a theological construct. Everyone sins, is selfish, sometimes hateful, or insufficiently loving. We all are, even as Christians. I agree we are selfish from birth – if only from a survival point of view – but that is not the whole of who we are, which is why God absolutely delights in us and treasures us (to the point of pouring out life blood), so yes, I believe in judgment (moral responsibility and facing the holiness and fire of the love of God), but God’s desire is not primarily to condemn but to draw us into relationship. The concept of the ‘wrath’ of God needs to be kept in that perspective I think.

        I don’t think people are always inclined to evil. They are also inclined to good, to kindness, to sacrifice for others. There is so much beauty, love and grace in the world – including in people who are not Christians at all.

        Hope that helps!

        • Susannah
          Thanks for your candid reply. I wonder if you agree that what you have said means that you do not believe that the Fall was a historical event, which really happened, and that it is the reason why we are like what we are, spiritually, naturally and physically, and you do not believe that any will be faced with the wrath and condemnation of God in eternity, after the Day of Judgment. I wonder also whether you can agree that this difference is fundamental and underlies our other disagreements?
          Phil Almond

          • Susannah
            I had to suddenly go out before completing my last text. This is the rest of it:
            It is a terrible truth revealed in the Bible (‘a dreadful fact that stares us full in the face’ Warfield calls it) that all those, and only those, will be saved from wrath whom God has chosen to salvation before the foundation of the world. It is also a wonderful truth revealed in the Bible that God and Christ sincerely and genuinely invite, exhort, command all men to repent and embrace the freely offered salvation by submitting to Christ in his atoning death and life-giving resurrection. Both these truths are equally true. How they can both be true is beyond our understanding. I read in God-Centered Evangelism that in discussing Ezekiel 18:23 Calvin says, among other things:’…Besides, it is not surprising that our eyes should be blinded by intense light, so that we cannot certainly judge how God wishes all to be saved, and yet has devoted the reprobate to eternal destruction, and wishes them to perish. While we look now through a glass darkly, we should be content with the measure of our intelligence’. Whatever else Calvin got wrong (and he did get some things wrong) my view is that he got this right.
            Philip Almond

          • Thank you for your comment Philip,

            I assure you I very deeply believe in judgment, and I believe, Christian or not, we each stand before God dressed in rags.

            As to who will be saved from whatever Hell is supposed to be, I decline to rule out anything with God.

            Meanwhile, in trust in God’s goodness, I am content to affirm Julian of Norwich’s words: ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’.

            But no, I don’t believe ‘The Fall’ was an historical event. It is a theological construct to try to explain things. That doesn’t mean we’re squeaky clean!

        • Ah, that old derogatory saw: myth.
          It is true myth in the words of CSLewis. It really happened, a real Fall.
          CS Lewis wrote much about myth, such as:
          “…Lewis gives perhaps his clearest exposition on myth in his essay entitled “Myth Became Fact“. Lewis begins this essay with the idea that he is going to refute his friend Corineus and his assertion that no one who calls themselves a Christian is actually a Christian in any meaningful sense. To Corineus, Christianity is something horrible that no modern man could accept in its totality, and thus those who confess Christianity are really confessing modernism using Christian jargon. Lewis seeks to dispel the idea that Christianity is a “system of names, rituals, formulae, and metaphors which persist although the thoughts behind it have changed” (Myth Became Fact, 138). Lewis asks Corineus, and those like him, “Why, on his view, do all these educated and enlightened pseudo-Christians insist on expressing their deepest thoughts in terms of an archaic mythology which must hamper and embarrass them at every turn?” (Myth, 138) This concern addresses Christians to this day, especially as academic Christians are still asked why they profess belief in such an outdated religion as Christianity. Lewis counters this claim by stating that “Even assuming… that the doctrines of historic Christianity are merely mythical, it is the myth which is the vital and nourishing element in the whole concern” (Myth, 139). The Myth is itself part of the draw for the Christian faith. While Corineus postulates man should move with the times, Lewis responds that times move on without us, but that in religion we find something that does not pass away, something that abides even as the world shifts: Myth. A quick glance at history proves Lewis correct; He cites examples of Julian the Apostate, the Gnostics, Voltaire, and the Victorians –all who professed ideas that found wide acceptance in their time, but have passed to the wayside even as the myth of Christianity has expanded. Furthermore, Lewis argues that “those elements even in modernist Christianity which Corineus regards as vestigial are the substance: what he takes for the ‘real modern belief’ is the shadow” (Myth, 140). To substantiate this, one must look closer at the idea of myth. Lewis delves into the difference between contemplation and enjoyment of an experience. “Human intellect is incurably abstract” (Myth 140) he says, but the reality we experience is concrete. Thus in experience, we are faced with a dilemma, “either to taste and not to know or to know and not to taste… You cannot study Pleasure in the moment of nuptial embrace… nor analyze humor while roaring with laughter” (Myth, 140). We are incapable of both enjoying an experience and contemplating it at the same time; we may do one or the other, but not both. This perplexity presents us with a dilemma: How do we know real pain or pleasure? If we’re unable to conceptualize ideas concerning an experience until after the fact, do we not lose much of the integrity of our argument?

          To this difficulty Lewis presents the solution of myth: “In the enjoyment of a great myth we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction” (Myth, 140). But this is often not what one looks for in a myth; frequently one reads a myth for the experience of ‘tasting’, not knowing a principle, “but what you were tasting turns out to be a universal principle. The moment that we state this principle, we are admittedly back in the world of abstraction. It is only while receiving the myth as a story that you experience the principle concretely” (Myth, 141). While we cannot truly experience both contemplation and enjoyment at the same time, the event which brings us closest to that experience is myth. Furthermore, our acquaintance with myth brings us closer to the truth of reality. Lewis writes that myth is “the mountain whence all the different streams arise which become truths down here in the valley” (Myth, 141). Myth transcends human thought; it is something that is so wonderful and deep that it at once provides a sense of joy and conveys upon us some great truth. Additionally, “as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth” (Myth, 141). The myth of God coming to earth actually happened, without ceasing to be myth and transcend human thought.

          “By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle” (Myth, 141); to Lewis, it is belief in this miracle that makes Christianity exceptional. “To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact thought it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other” (Myth, 141). Christian faith then is both holding to the facts of Christianity as well as the mythical aspects, those things which are perhaps too great to comprehend cognitively but are incredible, joyful experiences. Lewis is encouraging the Christian faith to neither rely wholly upon ‘scientific and explainable’ fact nor solely upon the puzzle and experience of myth. Lewis indicates that the mystery of faith is perhaps more important than the facts in saying, “A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it” (Myth, 141). This should not be viewed as a defense of those who disbelieve that facts of Christianity but accept the myth, but as a challenge to contemplate and experience both the facts and the myth of the Christian faith.

          cross-silhouette1Lewis concludes his essay with a reminder to not forget that, “What became fact was a myth, that it carries with it into the world of fact all of the properties of myth” (Myth, 142). As Christians, we can assent to the facts of Christianity, but we must never minimize the myth and mystery behind our faith. “We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about ‘parallels’ and ‘Pagan Christs’: they ought to be there –it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t” (Myth, 142). As Christians, we should be glad for the way in which God speaks to man through myth. For in this way God reveals Himself to all men that they may find Him; proof of His love is evident in the parallels and similarities in morality and myth across the world. To Lewis then, the myth of Christianity is of the utmost importance. This myth allows us to experience and enjoy truth in reality while simultaneously conveying upon us principles of truth. Myth is the way God communicates with man, the medium by which truth is given to mankind. Myth speaks to man where he is, allowing him to enjoy and be fed, speaking as no other form of communication can. The Myth that Became Fact, the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Christ for the redemption of those who believe in Him, is the unsurpassable myth which gives life to all men who believe. This fact embodied in the truth of myth allows all men to come to God. “For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher” (Myth, 142).”
          (Abstracted from a longer article here:Lewis gives perhaps his clearest exposition on myth in his essay entitled “Myth Became Fact“. Lewis begins this essay with the idea that he is going to refute his friend Corineus and his assertion that no one who calls themselves a Christian is actually a Christian in any meaningful sense. To Corineus, Christianity is something horrible that no modern man could accept in its totality, and thus those who confess Christianity are really confessing modernism using Christian jargon. Lewis seeks to dispel the idea that Christianity is a “system of names, rituals, formulae, and metaphors which persist although the thoughts behind it have changed” (Myth Became Fact, 138). Lewis asks Corineus, and those like him, “Why, on his view, do all these educated and enlightened pseudo-Christians insist on expressing their deepest thoughts in terms of an archaic mythology which must hamper and embarrass them at every turn?” (Myth, 138) This concern addresses Christians to this day, especially as academic Christians are still asked why they profess belief in such an outdated religion as Christianity. Lewis counters this claim by stating that “Even assuming… that the doctrines of historic Christianity are merely mythical, it is the myth which is the vital and nourishing element in the whole concern” (Myth, 139). The Myth is itself part of the draw for the Christian faith. While Corineus postulates man should move with the times, Lewis responds that times move on without us, but that in religion we find something that does not pass away, something that abides even as the world shifts: Myth. A quick glance at history proves Lewis correct; He cites examples of Julian the Apostate, the Gnostics, Voltaire, and the Victorians –all who professed ideas that found wide acceptance in their time, but have passed to the wayside even as the myth of Christianity has expanded. Furthermore, Lewis argues that “those elements even in modernist Christianity which Corineus regards as vestigial are the substance: what he takes for the ‘real modern belief’ is the shadow” (Myth, 140). To substantiate this, one must look closer at the idea of myth. Lewis delves into the difference between contemplation and enjoyment of an experience. “Human intellect is incurably abstract” (Myth 140) he says, but the reality we experience is concrete. Thus in experience, we are faced with a dilemma, “either to taste and not to know or to know and not to taste… You cannot study Pleasure in the moment of nuptial embrace… nor analyze humor while roaring with laughter” (Myth, 140). We are incapable of both enjoying an experience and contemplating it at the same time; we may do one or the other, but not both. This perplexity presents us with a dilemma: How do we know real pain or pleasure? If we’re unable to conceptualize ideas concerning an experience until after the fact, do we not lose much of the integrity of our argument?

          To this difficulty Lewis presents the solution of myth: “In the enjoyment of a great myth we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction” (Myth, 140). But this is often not what one looks for in a myth; frequently one reads a myth for the experience of ‘tasting’, not knowing a principle, “but what you were tasting turns out to be a universal principle. The moment that we state this principle, we are admittedly back in the world of abstraction. It is only while receiving the myth as a story that you experience the principle concretely” (Myth, 141). While we cannot truly experience both contemplation and enjoyment at the same time, the event which brings us closest to that experience is myth. Furthermore, our acquaintance with myth brings us closer to the truth of reality. Lewis writes that myth is “the mountain whence all the different streams arise which become truths down here in the valley” (Myth, 141). Myth transcends human thought; it is something that is so wonderful and deep that it at once provides a sense of joy and conveys upon us some great truth. Additionally, “as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth” (Myth, 141). The myth of God coming to earth actually happened, without ceasing to be myth and transcend human thought.

          “By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle” (Myth, 141); to Lewis, it is belief in this miracle that makes Christianity exceptional. “To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact thought it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other” (Myth, 141). Christian faith then is both holding to the facts of Christianity as well as the mythical aspects, those things which are perhaps too great to comprehend cognitively but are incredible, joyful experiences. Lewis is encouraging the Christian faith to neither rely wholly upon ‘scientific and explainable’ fact nor solely upon the puzzle and experience of myth. Lewis indicates that the mystery of faith is perhaps more important than the facts in saying, “A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it” (Myth, 141). This should not be viewed as a defense of those who disbelieve that facts of Christianity but accept the myth, but as a challenge to contemplate and experience both the facts and the myth of the Christian faith.

          cross-silhouette1Lewis concludes his essay with a reminder to not forget that, “What became fact was a myth, that it carries with it into the world of fact all of the properties of myth” (Myth, 142). As Christians, we can assent to the facts of Christianity, but we must never minimize the myth and mystery behind our faith. “We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about ‘parallels’ and ‘Pagan Christs’: they ought to be there –it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t” (Myth, 142). As Christians, we should be glad for the way in which God speaks to man through myth. For in this way God reveals Himself to all men that they may find Him; proof of His love is evident in the parallels and similarities in morality and myth across the world. To Lewis then, the myth of Christianity is of the utmost importance. This myth allows us to experience and enjoy truth in reality while simultaneously conveying upon us principles of truth. Myth is the way God communicates with man, the medium by which truth is given to mankind. Myth speaks to man where he is, allowing him to enjoy and be fed, speaking as no other form of communication can. The Myth that Became Fact, the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Christ for the redemption of those who believe in Him, is the unsurpassable myth which gives life to all men who believe. This fact embodied in the truth of myth allows all men to come to God. “For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher” (Myth, 142).
          (Abstracted from a longer article here: Lewis gives perhaps his clearest exposition on myth in his essay entitled “Myth Became Fact“. Lewis begins this essay with the idea that he is going to refute his friend Corineus and his assertion that no one who calls themselves a Christian is actually a Christian in any meaningful sense. To Corineus, Christianity is something horrible that no modern man could accept in its totality, and thus those who confess Christianity are really confessing modernism using Christian jargon. Lewis seeks to dispel the idea that Christianity is a “system of names, rituals, formulae, and metaphors which persist although the thoughts behind it have changed” (Myth Became Fact, 138). Lewis asks Corineus, and those like him, “Why, on his view, do all these educated and enlightened pseudo-Christians insist on expressing their deepest thoughts in terms of an archaic mythology which must hamper and embarrass them at every turn?” (Myth, 138) This concern addresses Christians to this day, especially as academic Christians are still asked why they profess belief in such an outdated religion as Christianity. Lewis counters this claim by stating that “Even assuming… that the doctrines of historic Christianity are merely mythical, it is the myth which is the vital and nourishing element in the whole concern” (Myth, 139). The Myth is itself part of the draw for the Christian faith. While Corineus postulates man should move with the times, Lewis responds that times move on without us, but that in religion we find something that does not pass away, something that abides even as the world shifts: Myth. A quick glance at history proves Lewis correct; He cites examples of Julian the Apostate, the Gnostics, Voltaire, and the Victorians –all who professed ideas that found wide acceptance in their time, but have passed to the wayside even as the myth of Christianity has expanded. Furthermore, Lewis argues that “those elements even in modernist Christianity which Corineus regards as vestigial are the substance: what he takes for the ‘real modern belief’ is the shadow” (Myth, 140). To substantiate this, one must look closer at the idea of myth. Lewis delves into the difference between contemplation and enjoyment of an experience. “Human intellect is incurably abstract” (Myth 140) he says, but the reality we experience is concrete. Thus in experience, we are faced with a dilemma, “either to taste and not to know or to know and not to taste… You cannot study Pleasure in the moment of nuptial embrace… nor analyze humor while roaring with laughter” (Myth, 140). We are incapable of both enjoying an experience and contemplating it at the same time; we may do one or the other, but not both. This perplexity presents us with a dilemma: How do we know real pain or pleasure? If we’re unable to conceptualize ideas concerning an experience until after the fact, do we not lose much of the integrity of our argument?

          To this difficulty Lewis presents the solution of myth: “In the enjoyment of a great myth we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction” (Myth, 140). But this is often not what one looks for in a myth; frequently one reads a myth for the experience of ‘tasting’, not knowing a principle, “but what you were tasting turns out to be a universal principle. The moment that we state this principle, we are admittedly back in the world of abstraction. It is only while receiving the myth as a story that you experience the principle concretely” (Myth, 141). While we cannot truly experience both contemplation and enjoyment at the same time, the event which brings us closest to that experience is myth. Furthermore, our acquaintance with myth brings us closer to the truth of reality. Lewis writes that myth is “the mountain whence all the different streams arise which become truths down here in the valley” (Myth, 141). Myth transcends human thought; it is something that is so wonderful and deep that it at once provides a sense of joy and conveys upon us some great truth. Additionally, “as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth” (Myth, 141). The myth of God coming to earth actually happened, without ceasing to be myth and transcend human thought.

          “By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle” (Myth, 141); to Lewis, it is belief in this miracle that makes Christianity exceptional. “To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact thought it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other” (Myth, 141). Christian faith then is both holding to the facts of Christianity as well as the mythical aspects, those things which are perhaps too great to comprehend cognitively but are incredible, joyful experiences. Lewis is encouraging the Christian faith to neither rely wholly upon ‘scientific and explainable’ fact nor solely upon the puzzle and experience of myth. Lewis indicates that the mystery of faith is perhaps more important than the facts in saying, “A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it” (Myth, 141). This should not be viewed as a defense of those who disbelieve that facts of Christianity but accept the myth, but as a challenge to contemplate and experience both the facts and the myth of the Christian faith.

          cross-silhouette1Lewis concludes his essay with a reminder to not forget that, “What became fact was a myth, that it carries with it into the world of fact all of the properties of myth” (Myth, 142). As Christians, we can assent to the facts of Christianity, but we must never minimize the myth and mystery behind our faith. “We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about ‘parallels’ and ‘Pagan Christs’: they ought to be there –it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t” (Myth, 142). As Christians, we should be glad for the way in which God speaks to man through myth. For in this way God reveals Himself to all men that they may find Him; proof of His love is evident in the parallels and similarities in morality and myth across the world. To Lewis then, the myth of Christianity is of the utmost importance. This myth allows us to experience and enjoy truth in reality while simultaneously conveying upon us principles of truth. Myth is the way God communicates with man, the medium by which truth is given to mankind. Myth speaks to man where he is, allowing him to enjoy and be fed, speaking as no other form of communication can. The Myth that Became Fact, the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Christ for the redemption of those who believe in Him, is the unsurpassable myth which gives life to all men who believe. This fact embodied in the truth of myth allows all men to come to God. “For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher” (Myth, 142).
          Lewis gives perhaps his clearest exposition on myth in his essay entitled “Myth Became Fact“. Lewis begins this essay with the idea that he is going to refute his friend Corineus and his assertion that no one who calls themselves a Christian is actually a Christian in any meaningful sense. To Corineus, Christianity is something horrible that no modern man could accept in its totality, and thus those who confess Christianity are really confessing modernism using Christian jargon. Lewis seeks to dispel the idea that Christianity is a “system of names, rituals, formulae, and metaphors which persist although the thoughts behind it have changed” (Myth Became Fact, 138). Lewis asks Corineus, and those like him, “Why, on his view, do all these educated and enlightened pseudo-Christians insist on expressing their deepest thoughts in terms of an archaic mythology which must hamper and embarrass them at every turn?” (Myth, 138) This concern addresses Christians to this day, especially as academic Christians are still asked why they profess belief in such an outdated religion as Christianity. Lewis counters this claim by stating that “Even assuming… that the doctrines of historic Christianity are merely mythical, it is the myth which is the vital and nourishing element in the whole concern” (Myth, 139). The Myth is itself part of the draw for the Christian faith. While Corineus postulates man should move with the times, Lewis responds that times move on without us, but that in religion we find something that does not pass away, something that abides even as the world shifts: Myth. A quick glance at history proves Lewis correct; He cites examples of Julian the Apostate, the Gnostics, Voltaire, and the Victorians –all who professed ideas that found wide acceptance in their time, but have passed to the wayside even as the myth of Christianity has expanded. Furthermore, Lewis argues that “those elements even in modernist Christianity which Corineus regards as vestigial are the substance: what he takes for the ‘real modern belief’ is the shadow” (Myth, 140). To substantiate this, one must look closer at the idea of myth. Lewis delves into the difference between contemplation and enjoyment of an experience. “Human intellect is incurably abstract” (Myth 140) he says, but the reality we experience is concrete. Thus in experience, we are faced with a dilemma, “either to taste and not to know or to know and not to taste… You cannot study Pleasure in the moment of nuptial embrace… nor analyze humor while roaring with laughter” (Myth, 140). We are incapable of both enjoying an experience and contemplating it at the same time; we may do one or the other, but not both. This perplexity presents us with a dilemma: How do we know real pain or pleasure? If we’re unable to conceptualize ideas concerning an experience until after the fact, do we not lose much of the integrity of our argument?

          To this difficulty Lewis presents the solution of myth: “In the enjoyment of a great myth we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction” (Myth, 140). But this is often not what one looks for in a myth; frequently one reads a myth for the experience of ‘tasting’, not knowing a principle, “but what you were tasting turns out to be a universal principle. The moment that we state this principle, we are admittedly back in the world of abstraction. It is only while receiving the myth as a story that you experience the principle concretely” (Myth, 141). While we cannot truly experience both contemplation and enjoyment at the same time, the event which brings us closest to that experience is myth. Furthermore, our acquaintance with myth brings us closer to the truth of reality. Lewis writes that myth is “the mountain whence all the different streams arise which become truths down here in the valley” (Myth, 141). Myth transcends human thought; it is something that is so wonderful and deep that it at once provides a sense of joy and conveys upon us some great truth. Additionally, “as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth” (Myth, 141). The myth of God coming to earth actually happened, without ceasing to be myth and transcend human thought.

          “By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle” (Myth, 141); to Lewis, it is belief in this miracle that makes Christianity exceptional. “To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact thought it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other” (Myth, 141). Christian faith then is both holding to the facts of Christianity as well as the mythical aspects, those things which are perhaps too great to comprehend cognitively but are incredible, joyful experiences. Lewis is encouraging the Christian faith to neither rely wholly upon ‘scientific and explainable’ fact nor solely upon the puzzle and experience of myth. Lewis indicates that the mystery of faith is perhaps more important than the facts in saying, “A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it” (Myth, 141). This should not be viewed as a defense of those who disbelieve that facts of Christianity but accept the myth, but as a challenge to contemplate and experience both the facts and the myth of the Christian faith.

          cross-silhouette1Lewis concludes his essay with a reminder to not forget that, “What became fact was a myth, that it carries with it into the world of fact all of the properties of myth” (Myth, 142). As Christians, we can assent to the facts of Christianity, but we must never minimize the myth and mystery behind our faith. “We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about ‘parallels’ and ‘Pagan Christs’: they ought to be there –it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t” (Myth, 142). As Christians, we should be glad for the way in which God speaks to man through myth. For in this way God reveals Himself to all men that they may find Him; proof of His love is evident in the parallels and similarities in morality and myth across the world. To Lewis then, the myth of Christianity is of the utmost importance. This myth allows us to experience and enjoy truth in reality while simultaneously conveying upon us principles of truth. Myth is the way God communicates with man, the medium by which truth is given to mankind. Myth speaks to man where he is, allowing him to enjoy and be fed, speaking as no other form of communication can. The Myth that Became Fact, the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Christ for the redemption of those who believe in Him, is the unsurpassable myth which gives life to all men who believe. This fact embodied in the truth of myth allows all men to come to God. “For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher” (Myth, 142).
          (Abstracted from this longer article: https://pursuingveritas.com/2014/05/07/c-s-lewis-myth-and-fact/)

          • I assure you that I wasn’t trying to be ‘derogatory’ about myth, Geoff. I think myth can be wonderful and powerful, and I think the creation myths in the bible are. The Noah story is superb: I can’t think of deeper spiritual power in a narrative until we get to the life and death of Jesus, which, of course, the Noah narrative (unknowingly on the part of the narrator) pre-figures.

            What saddens me is when some Christians, in significant numbers in the USA, diminish the power of narratives of myth by trying to literalise them. That strips them of power, and makes the message smaller rather than larger (as I’ve mentioned before, like looking down the wrong end of a telescope).

        • “Spiritually, it is plain that God has placed us in a situation of distance, in some ways”

          What’s curious here is that, contrary to the parable in which the Prodigal Son initiated a demand for independence, which placed him in a situation of distance from his father, your own phrasing here (whether intentional or not) states that God has done this.

          Even if you don’t believe that the ‘Fall’ of man in a mythical event, does it not absolve mankind (contrary to Is. 53:6 and Acts 27:17) to state that “God has placed us in a situation of distance”?

          Or do you not think that we are both personally and collectively responsible for placing ourselves in “a situation of distance” from God?

          • David,

            I was born in a situation of distance from God. What did I do wrong?

            Another aspect of distance from God is that they suffer pain and death, often through no cause of their own. That whole regime of a world that suffers pain, sickness, death is a world we are born in to. We don’t choose it. It exists.

            The child who is born with cancer – is that child in any way to blame?

            Now you may attribute that to some mythical or symbolic ‘Fall’ – that because we sin, therefore we get sick, we die.

            I don’t see that the infant can be blamed for that. And besides, that sickness and that dying has been going on from BEFORE humanity was even a distinct species. It’s part of animal life, of which we are a part. We don’t die because of our essential sinfulness. We die because animals always die. Death didn’t come into the world because of the ‘Fall’. It was going on millions of years before humans existed, and continued to go on after we evolved.

            Rather, what I was trying to say was that we find ourselves born into a world that exists at some distance from the eternal (although the eternal is also immanently close). And as I believe in God, and believe it is God who has control over our arrival into the world, and the eternal safekeeping of our souls, it seems evident to me that when I am aware of distance between me and God in prayer, or in this earthly realm we live in, we have been placed here in this situation.

            Yes, we have responsibility for the lives we live. Yes God yearns for us to open up, and draw close, and journey deeper and deeper into relationship.

            But to attribute all aspects of our distance to our sinfulness as a species seems to me to be quite tricky when aspects like death (and children with cancer) are NOT caused by people. Death has always existed in animals species, and in due course in humans. Because of sin? No. Because we are born, and find ourselves placed in that situation.

            We focussed on the parable of the Prodigal Son in our church today as well. I wholeheartedly agree that individual sin and independence from God leads to distance from God. But there is a distance (as well as a closeness) in our whole situation on earth. We are riven by sickness. We are cut short by death. We are swept away by floods. We are buried in earthquakes. Terrible things happen in this dimension we’ve been placed in. Even to the most innocent little children.

            SOME aspects of distance from God can be brought about by our own life choices or simply day to day selfishness and sin. BUT there are also aspects of distance from the wholeness of God’s eternity that we seem to be distanced from for no other reason that we know about except we find ourselves in this world, in these situations, and there is so much about ‘why we are here?’ and God’s purposes in that, that we don’t really understand for sure.

            Which I guess is where trust comes in.

            I’m not trying to absolve individuals for specific sins and attitudes that contribute to distance in relationship. But equally I’m not absolving God from responsibilities as well. And that’s not the same as criticising God for giving us the gift of life. Just that we don’t have all the answers, and I think the Fall is not wholly adequate as a theological assertion, but I do think we have a ‘best available answer’ that God has chosen to give us: which is the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

            God has placed each one of us on a journey – a difficult journey – into relationship, into grace, into trust… and I think it’s a journey homeward.

            May I ask *you* one question, David: if death came into the world because of human sin and ‘the Fall’, why do you think death has always been part of animal life, even hundreds of millions of years before humans even existed? In that wider context, why should only human death be, somehow, attributable to the sin of ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’?

            As animals we were going to die anyway. And we do. It seems like the construct of the ‘Fall’ is built upon inadequate scientific knowledge, because these days we know very well that death is not to do with sin, but to do with physical animal processes we simply inherited from earlier species.

          • Hi Susannah,

            You wrote: “Now you may attribute that to some mythical or symbolic ‘Fall’ – that because we sin, therefore we get sick, we die.”

            Well, that’s a fairly one-dimensional cliche of the orthodox understanding of human fallenness. It’s one thing to concur with Paul that “the sting of death is sin” (1 Cor. 15:56), but that’s very different from implying that the orthodox position is that the “sting of sin is death.”

            In fact, for those who, through Christ, have peace with God, death is a respite from worldly toil: “The righteous man perishes, and no man takes it to heart; And devout men are taken away, while no one understands. For the righteous man is taken away from evil, He enters into peace; They rest in their beds, Each one who walked in his upright way.” (Is. 57:1-2)

            And inn Revelation, the proclamation goes forth: “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.” (Rev. 14:13)

            Given Christ’s own suffering and death, there is no reason why suffering and death should incur a “situation of difference” from God. Even in the oldest book of the Bible, Job testifies: “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25-27)

            Such faith, reliant as it is upon the unquenchable faithfulness of God Himself, transcends all circumstances, including what you describe as our “situation of difference”.

            My concern is that you wrote Spiritually, it is plain that God has placed us in a situation of distance. I’ve nowhere suggested (and it’s certainly not the doctrine of the Fall) that any and every aspect of human pain and suffering is attributable to spiritual distance from God.

            However, if we are spiritually distant from God, then that is not attributable to God, but, instead, to human fallibility in some case and. in others, to our wayward stubbornness.

    • Dick Lucas was only making the standard Reformed point that if we have faith in God, it is because of His gracious election (‘I chose you, you did choose me and I appointed you to bear much fruit’). Baptism without repentance or only a formal faith without the fruits of repentance and good works is merely an external rite and not the inward reality.

        • I figured you didn’t. But that’s the teaching of the Bible and the Church of England of which I am a priest. That many people don’t believe the Bible is something I have known all my life. That many liberal have a smorgasbord approach and pick and choose the parts they care to believe is also clear to me. But I cannot make myself the arbiter of revelation and neither can any other mortal. Read what Jesus Christ says about hell, for example. He has more to say on this than anyone else in the Bible. The Jesus of liberals is a fiction. Such a person never existed. As for the meaning of baptism without faith and repentance, read 1 Corinthians 10.5 on those who “were baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea”: “Nevertheless with most of them God was not pleased; for they were overthrown in the wilderness.” The Letter to the Hebrews makes the same point repeatedly in extensor: ‘They shall not enter my rest.’

          • Good morning Brian,

            I don’t believe your statement because I am catholic, not because I am liberal.

          • Having read your blog, I don’t think you are ‘catholic’. I was raised as a Roman Catholic and I have friends who are Eastern Orthodox and I don’t see how your beliefs about the mythology of the Bible and your ideas about sexuality and gender are remotely like Catholicism, which is a doctrinal set of convictions, not mood music about the world or a taste for incense. Catholicism is a dogma, not a feeling.

          • Hi Brian. Re ‘hell’ I have changed my mind on that. I no longer believe it represents eternal conscious suffering, the traditional view, but rather the final destruction of mind, body & soul of the human being after judgement, a view held by John Stott etc. I can understand why people hold the traditional view given some of the images presented in the NT, particularly by Jesus Himself, but I think such a view primarily comes from a misunderstanding of that imagery and language, similar to the misunderstanding of apocalyptic imagery and language in Revelation, which leads many to think literally.

            If you are interested in this question, Id recommend the ‘Rethinking Hell’ website – I think they present convincing arguments for the annihilationist view.

            Peter

          • I’ll identify the way I understand myself and my beliefs. I certainly don’t subscribe to everything the Roman Catholic church asserts, but I believe in transubstantiation, and I believe in new birth beginning at baptism through the grace involved in the sacrament. And while I am Anglican, not Roman Catholic, I choose to identify as catholic with a small ‘c’ and identify a lot with some Catholic tradition: the intercession of saints and especially the Virgin; and the whole Carmelite spiritual tradition. That is central to my spirituality and daily practice.

            So I use the term catholic as a ‘locus’ that works for me. What works for you is, of course, your business Geoff.

            But I’ll take a different tack if it helps:

            I believe in infant baptism as a sacrament, which itself possesses grace, by which the child is drawn into the household of God. From that point the child is a Christian.

            Now if the child chooses to renege on the vows made on her behalf, she has free will to go her own way.

            But God will always watch over that person, all the days of their life.

            Of course, at any stage a person may find – through faith – a deeper and more personal relationship with God.

            But the baptism of a child is itself efficacious. Deeply so.

          • Susannah – Hello again – Thanks for your last comment on the other thread – been meaning to reply but poleaxed fluey and ran out of steam. I intend to email you from your web if I may.

            Now – infant baptism and implied baptismal regeneration…
            “But God will always watch over that person, all the days of their life.”
            ” the baptism of a child is itself efficacious. Deeply so.”

            It is worth noting that many of the leading Nazis were Catholic – by baptism and nurture if not adult observance: Hitler, Himmler; Goebbels Goering; Streicher leading Nazi propagandist; Heydrich the architect of Holocaust; Rudolf Hoess Auschwitz commandant. Oh, and so was Joseph Stalin. These men are responsible for the deaths of ….millions…watched over by God? Their baptism efficacious? What can that possibly mean?

          • I will be honest, Simon, and I say this tremulously because this is such a desperately wounded and heart-breakingly terrible backdrop… but I believe I may meet Adolf in the household of God.

            I emphasise the ‘may’ because it is obviously God’s remit, not mine. But it is the kind of God I believe in.

            And as Christians, we should rejoice if that ever turned out to be the outcome… it would be miraculous and wonderful… and none of that makes it alright about the terrible things he was responsible for.

            But in terms of Adolf’s soul, I will pray for peace and ultimate confrontation and responsibility, and the possibility… even at this point in the narratives of our world and God’s eternity… that God may somehow redeem him.

            As for those whose families were riven apart by his hatred and insanity, they have a far greater right to a voice on such matters in this man’s case, but not the final say. God has the final say.

            If God does, in the end, redeem far more people than we thought could possibly be eligible, then at some stage – in submission to God – we still need to be brought to the point of forgiveness for those who do terrible things. And in such a case, the ball would then be in our court, not Adolf Hitler’s.

            I repeat, I have no knowing of such a possibility, but if it turns out that God’s fidelity and covenant love extends even as far as such a man, and even extends to the resurrection, where we encounter the burning love and judgment of God face to face… then personally, and I admit with more detachment than others may feel in this case, I would rejoice.

            I don’t think it helps to cite the villains of history in a discussion like this, and say ‘Well, THEY were baptised.’ I was baptised as well, so was my agnostic father, so were many people who sacrificed much.

            But in the end, we all come before God stripped of all our self-claims to our own sufficiency. We all come before God in rags. And that gulf between us and God is absolute, whether we think we have lived relatively good lives or committed the foulest atrocities in history.

            As the sacrament of baptism demonstrates, we are dependent in the end on God’s fidelity, not our own (which would otherwise become a kind of ‘good works’ of its own). The question is, can we open up to God and respond and enter into relationship, and I don’t know how much of that – in the end – will be the work of God as well. Do we do that by intellectual calculation, or is it the work of Grace?

            And does God’s grace ever end? And does God ever give up? I don’t know. I presume not to know the size and extent of God’s mercy. But I do know the extent that God has gone to in love, in dear Jesus Christ.

          • Hi Susannah

            Do you distinguish between ‘the kind of God I believe in’ and ‘the kind of God I would like’?

            The importance of doing so can be imagined when we consider that the concepts ‘believe in’ and ‘like’ are not close to each other, scarcely connected at all.

            Since they are not close to each other this weakness in reasoning is seen to be a large weakness rather than a small one.

            In addition, one wonders at the honesty of its motivation. What is the difference between such a position and saying that God must be the way we want him to be? And what is the difference between *that* and the ‘God’ we speak of being a projection of our own wishes?

            All one needs to do is to ask the question – out of all God’s attributes and deeds, are there any at all (within that vast number) that I or my specific culture or my specific philosophy might not agree with? if the answer is no, then we are speaking not of God but of a projection.

            it is an awesome thing to pronounce on the way that God is. I never cease to be amazed at the glibness with which people do that.

            This brings us back to the original point about the very large distinction between ‘believe in’ and ‘want’. 2 points:
            (1) Evidence is the only criterion for belief. Liking certain qualities is obviously not evidence for those qualities existing in (or being displayed by) God.

            (2) It is children who centre their way of looking at things around what they ‘want’. When people go on to study, they centre it around what may be believed, degrees of evidence.

            (3) The fact that this point needs so repeatedly to be made – and such an obvious point – suggests that a period of reflection is required. It belongs to a list of points that seem obvious and yet seem not to be heard no matter how often they are made. Belief is not want, far from it. All Christians believe in and affirm all loving relationships. Love is not sex. It is secularists who have made that equation and Christians who have resisted it. God is not bound by one small specific culture. And so on.

          • So, let’s consider Judas Iscariot. Jesus Himself prayed to the Father: “While I was with them in the world, I kept them in thy name: those that thou gavest me I have kept, and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition; that the scripture might be fulfilled.” (John 17:12)

            In fact, the Son of God’s estimation of Judas’ destiny was “But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” (Matt. 26:24)

            While you’re correct in stating: “we all come before God stripped of all our self-claims to our own sufficiency. We all come before God in rags”, it makes no sense to state that “we are dependent in the end on God’s fidelity”, only to entertain the possibility (despite His revelation through Christ that there is no forgiveness for what He described as “sin against the Holy Spirit”) that, in this regard, His faithfulness to this revelation is uncertain.

            “God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?” (Num. 23:19)

            To believe in the possibility of God reneging on His prophetic promises (whether of deliverance, or of judgment) introduces a divine capriciousness which more resembles the arbitrariness of pagan gods than immutability of the God of Israel.

            And it’s completely oxymorous (rather than an inscrutable paradox) to believe that the potential volte-face, which you’ve described, somehow extends “God’s fidelity and covenant love”.

          • “Do you distinguish between ‘the kind of God I believe in’ and ‘the kind of God I would like’?”

            Yes I do.

            The God I would ‘like’ wouldn’t let infants die of cancer, and wouldn’t let old people suffer terrible dementia.

            But the God I ‘believe’ in is worthy of my trust.

            You pre-suppose that the God I have attempted to express is simply a ‘god’ of my own liking.

            But I think that is a bit patronising and condescending.

            It is an assumption, that seems to originate in differences between my expressions of God and your own.

            I’m not upset by that. I am used to it. I wish you well.

            But it doesn’t change the nature of my relationship with God, and my relationship with God does not stop you from encountering God, and understanding God, as well.

            To suggest that difference of opinion should be written off as facile wish-fulfilment is a rather subjective line of argument, leaning on ad hominem a bit, for someone who seems to champion logical thought!

            You have very little idea about my relationship with God. I have very little idea about your relationship with God. That doesn’t mean my understanding of God is ‘wish-fulfilment’ and yours isn’t. Or vice-versa.

            I don’t fabricate and choose an invented ‘god’ out of the kind of God I would like.

            I have a relationship with a God I have grown to trust, to share with, to journey with, who has initiated encounters with me, who offers grace, and who knows my own unique soul and character, just as God knows yours as well.

            We are not all the same. God presents differently to different people with different temperaments.

            Furthermore, the journey that leads to knowing, in my Carmelite tradition, is often preceded by ‘not knowing’.

            And I think if we are all honest, there is a huge amount of ‘not knowing’ in our human experience. In a way, that recognition is the tiniest beginning of receptivity, and the end of human cerebral control, as people fight and argue about ‘who God is’.

            I believe in a deeply numinous God, a God of mystery and trembling love. The love of God, deep as a mantra, flowing like a stream, pulsing like sap in trees, waiting in the secret garden in our souls.

            You can call that ‘liking’ and not ‘belief’. Why should that trouble me? You’re not there.

            On the other hand I sincerely wish you tender and devoted relationship with God.

          • Susannah, I didn’t call your entire view/experience of God liking and not belief – and you know I didn’t. I wondered whether your words on Hitler were based on liking and not belief.

            More fundamentally, none of us can or should waste ink on ‘the kind of God I believe in’. Unless, that is, there is evidence. Evidence is good evidence if its different strands point in the same direction. The different strands include:
            cosmology
            logic and noncontradiction
            the experience not of one person but of many independent people
            history
            adjustment for ideological bias.

          • “…that, in this regard, His faithfulness to this revelation is uncertain…”

            God’s faithfulness is not uncertain, but our understanding may be.

            I am not proposing universalism (it’s not my place to know anything about that).

            However, I do believe the extent of God’s love and grace may be underestimated, and I also believe that we tend to anthropomorphise the ‘wrath of God.’

            I believe mercy is even stronger than wrath, and I believe many may be saved and made whole who we might never have imagined or expected.

            And if so, it will demonstrate God’s fidelity to covenant amazingly, and why should we not believe God may love the people we hate and demonise, right to the very end?

            I hope Adolf is saved, even though it seems very unlikely to the human mind.

            I hope everyone is saved.

            However, I do not know and I leave everything to God, and believe all will be well, in whatever way God in tender mercy chooses.

            Meanwhile, we are called to open our hearts to the love of God, and share that love with people we meet, day by day.

            The rest is far beyond our little daily lives. God is so deep and lovely and unknown. But we know God in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit.

            While we can indeed draw on the Bible, in the end, it’s not proof or certainty I seek on all these things. It’s trust – in God. As God grows greater, we grow less. We realise more and more that we actually know so little of God. Certainty can sometimes be a trap. Paradox is real in all our lives, and in our relationships with God I think, if we are being honest and open-hearted. Learning to live with paradox, and yet trusting: I believe that is a way a person can grow in relationship.

            Instead of pinning everything down on the ‘proof texts’ of other peoples’ narratives… surrendering to trust and love… and discovering through ‘not knowing’ rather than ‘knowing’… through the deepening of relationship that this trust involves.

            We don’t know who God will save. But we do know God can save… that God is humble hearted (to refer back to the topic of the article). And we can share that amazing truth with others, with words if necessary, but at least through love and kindness.

            David I believe and trust in your love of God and your faithful desire for others to know God too. I suspect we are talking along paradigms that converge in places and in other places diverge. I think – to a degree – we have different methodologies. We probably need to walk our walks with God and keep seeking grace to open more and more to God who dwells within us and without us.

          • Folks, as with the similar thread on another page, this discussion seems to have become a debate about some stuff which I had hoped we might take as read as part of orthodox Christian belief, such as whether or not God has revealed himself.

            I am not quite seeing the value in discussions like this, which have quickly moved away from the actual subject of the post.

          • Correction accepted, Ian, with apologies.

            To avoid further de-rail here I will withdraw from further comment.

  2. Many today seem to understand the Matthew passage of the sheep and goats as referring to people’s treatment of others in general. But Ive never thought so. Rather it refers specifically to the treatment of followers of Jesus (‘my brothers’), which reflects on one’s own position regarding Jesus. Nevertheless it does remind us of the command to love your neighbour as yourself.

    ‘The Reformers called it ‘justification by grace through faith’ and even the faith is not ours, but Christ’s.’

    – quite a few today would hold that any faith we have is from God as well as His grace. I suspect grammatically that is not correct, but I wonder if from experience it is? For me when I was ‘becoming’ a Christian, I genuinely felt I could not say ‘no’ to Him. I have heard others speak of a similar experience. That also plays into the idea of predestination, but let’s not go there!

    • It is obvious to anyone who reads Matt 25 in conjunction to Matt 10 that Jesus is talking about the world’s response to his disciples (‘the least of these my brethren’) and more specifically to messengers of the Gospel, whether it receives them or mistreats them. I discovered this myself by close comparison of the tests before finding this was the same conclusion in the weightier commentaries. Old RE textbooks in schools still peddle the line that there is some kind of ‘salvation by works’ here, as a reflection of the old moralism that passed for religion in British education.
      It is regrettable if Jane Williams has committed the same fallacy of ripping texts out of context – the first sin in responsible exegesis that I’m sure she would condemn, however gently, in others. But if her thinking is shaped by Moltmann, maybe that’s not surprising. I find his soft Marxist, semi-Hegelian exegesis dreadful and saw too much of it among contemporaries at theological college when Moltmann when was the flavour of the month.

  3. There is far more to this article for it to be reduced to one of the parables the parable of lostness. or as may be categorised (thanks to Sinclair Ferguson’s, “The Whole Christ”)as 1)”The parable of the Free Grace Saviour” or 2) “the parable of the en-graced antinomian” or 3)”the parable of the dis-graced legalist.”
    The returning (repenting) son still didn’t “get” the Father, even while acknowledging his sin, and unworthiness , confession of errors of past life, with his pre-planned script, to be treated as a hired hand. To him, his father represented God whose favour had to be earned, whereas the Father freely lavished life transforming gifts of true sonship on him, after leaving his former life behind.
    Ferguson, as perhaps anticipated from a reformed theologian, doesn’t go anywhere near the points Williams seeks to draw from the parable, while his book considers a theme of “order of salvation” and as David Wells says, “shows us the way out of our contemporary muddle” (of how grace and works relate to each other in our salvation.
    The book considers whether repentance precedes or follows faith. Faith and repentance can not be divided chronologically, but can be distinguished by presenting the fullness of Christ’s person and work leading to a life of repentance as fruit.
    Neither does Tim Keller, even though the title of his book, may be suggestive that he does: “The Prodigal God – recovering the heart of Christian faith. ”
    “Pistis” much has been written about this, but is seems that Williams comes down on one side to support what Ian Paul describes as:
    “Williams appears to be claiming that nothing is required for us to experience the grace of God—God does it all, and there is nothing for us to do, not even by way of response or receipt.”
    I’m not aware of any (though clearly I stand to be corrected) who may subscribe to “monergism” who would say that there is no need for a subjective, personal response or receipt. Without that there could be universal salvation through ignorance or even outright opposition.
    I’d suggest that to truly “experience the grace of God” (though without details I’m not sure what is meant by experiencing grace, unless the historical characters are given as examples) in salvation (rather than common grace) there is a turning away from and turning to. And like PC1 (Peter) above when his goodness and kindness, his first love for us in Christ Jesus it leads to repentance, a gift of faith.

  4. Must we insist that God always does one thing, and the same thing, for all?
    He makes people of every kind, and every heart has its own way in. Sometimes, as Lewis said, “the long way round is the quickest way home.”

      • That every human is made by God, and no one is like any other. “God loves each of us as though we were the only one made”, and his love for each is as unique as we are. He will go on knocking at the door, whether front, back, or basement: He never gives up and goes away as people do when they find their “key” to some person they want a friendship or relationship with doesn’t work.
        What we do about it is our very own choice, not someone else’s: and as to who is going to heaven or hell, or what will happen to them there, I think that’s not for me to speculate. St Monica kept up 30 years of stubborn prayer before her son (the source of that quote above) finished his journey round the various belief-systems of his time and made it “home” to become one of the greatest of all Saints himself. Never write anybody off as “lost”.
        People may remember what we’ve said or done years after we have gone – I’m content to keep on trying to “do my bit” in accordance with His commands, and leave it to the Lord to work how he wants and wait to see how the currently paradoxical statements in Scripture are finally resolved.

        • Thanks Karen – I can broadly agree with all you write above – but earlier you seemed to say, excuse me if I was wrong, that people can come to God any which way they choose? Is that what you were saying? Whilst they can approach from living their own way, surely there is only one way to God, through Jesus – faith in Jesus, and receiving Jesus – John1v12, Jn3v16, 14v6 etc

          • Then you must answer for the souls of all those who never had the chance to hear the good news, or receive it – and be prepared for a judgement at His hands for our failure to have enabled them to. Paul (Romans 2) and our Lord himself (John 10) are not so rigorous.
            That God *may* save anyone He chooses I acknowledge as part of His almighty power: that He *wants* to, Scripture freely attests: that He *will*, is more than one can say from what He has told us – He knows how weak our efforts would be if we thought He would do it anyway whatever we did.
            I simply dare not say that He will save everyone, and certainly He will not do it through their own efforts: but how far the Saving Blood will stretch is for Him to determine, not me. It is our duty and our joy to preach and work as if we believed, with that great missionary Saint Francis Xavier, that anyone not actually physically baptised would be utterly damned without mercy. We simply dare not presume, as if He owed us something, that they will not.
            God speed the work, and the harvest +

          • Hello Karen,
            Many points are raised in your reply to Simon 02/03 2:15pm, (far too many to be covered in any comments section, as they are distinct but within a whole counsel of God , biblical system of theology and merit their own essays – books even) such as the Fall, Sovereignty of God, justice of God, love of God, the will of God (are there two “wills” of God?) and election.
            At the risk of offending Ian Paul as this is his blog and resource, there is a huge on-line resource from Dr Sam Storms, who is a reformed charismatic Baptist. In it, he covers that ground and more, such as mental capacity and infancy that have exercised our minds.
            https://www.samstorms.com/articles-page#

  5. Simon,
    Really? How many words? It may take on a mythical dimension in the in the field of comments! Hope not. Didn’t realise its length until I looked at the comments section on my phone
    There is a tendency in some of the comments section in a variety of articles by Ian to categorise the OT, incarnation, death , bodily resurrection, as myth. The word is often used as a superior intellectual dismissive , by liberals and atheists alike and I recalled some of CS Lewis expertise and writings on myth and his differentiation of myth and scripture, which doesn’t read at all like myths.
    But it is a myth that I wrote it. (see the linked full article) And it is a myth that scripture is a mere human construct.
    And don’t worry Simon, if you are lost: you are more found than you realise!

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