What is the Church of England’s problem with the Bible?

There were two interesting articles in the Church Times last week which illustrated well some of the challenges for the church of reading the Bible. The longer one was an interview with John Barton, former professor at the University of Oxford, following the publication earlier in the year of his book A History of the Bible.

At the launch, he explained that his thesis in the book was that “the relation of religion to book is not direct. Problems arise when this is ignored, as the history of interpretation of the Bible so often illustrates.”

This ‘indirectness’ is crucial, and the failure to recognise this is a feature of a range of ‘naive’ approaches to Scripture which treat the text as though it was written in a world like ours. In fact, the world of the human authors of the different parts of Scripture was in some regards very different to the world in which we live, and factoring this in is always an essential part of reading Scripture well. This is amply illustrated by an article a couple of pages earlier, by Ted Harrison, on ‘Divine Numerology’. Harrison points out that the 153 fish caught in John 21 would have a significance in the first century that means nothing to us:

There is one passage in the Gospels which may best be understood in this context: the story of the miraculous draught of fish, when 153 were caught. The meaning of this was immediately apparent to Pythagoreans, members of a religio-philosophic movement based on the teaching of Pythagoras that was undergoing a revival in the first century AD.

The fish were caught on the occasion of Christ’s third appearance to the disciples, known traditionally as the Twelve. If three and 12 are two sides of a right-angled triangle, Pythagoras’s theorem teaches that the hypotenuse is three squared plus twelve squared, which is 153.

Furthermore, it was pointed out by the late Church of Scotland minister and theologian the Revd Dr Gordon Strachan that the square root of 153 — the length of the hypotenuse — was thus 12.37. This is the number of lunar months in a solar year, which would have been known by Pythagoreans, and would have helped to convince them that the Jesus who had performed the miracle was one and the same as the God who created the universe.

Harrison has got his maths a bit muddled here—the length of the hypotenuse is in fact the square root of 153—but the link with Pythagoras is important for reading this as an ancient text. The number 153 has all sorts of interesting mathematical properties, and a number of these were important in the ancient world. The most significant, which Harrison does not mention, is that it is a ‘triangular’ number (think of the 15 red balls in a triangle at the start of a game of snooker), that is, it is the sum of the first 17 integers (and also the sum of the first five factorial numbers). Richard Bauckham links this with wider numerological features of John’s gospel in the final chapter of his book The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple, which not all have found persuasive—but it has the virtue of connecting something important in the world of the text with other features of the text itself, rather than being an isolated example.


But John Barton goes on to explain that the ‘indirect’ way the Bible relates to Christian theology and the church is rather more comprehensive than this.

Barton is a Church of England priest as well as a prominent academic. I ask him how he sees the relationship between the Bible and the modern Church. He explains that he sees the Bible “as a resource for the Church, but not a ‘paper Pope’ to answer all our questions. When it speaks, we must listen, but need not agree.”…

“How does the Bible inform your own faith?” I ask. His answer is unexpected: “I believe the Bible contains and imparts a great deal of wisdom, but I tend not to think of it as ‘inspired’, preferring the idea that ‘the Bible tells us what we cannot tell ourselves’, as Lutherans tend to put it — insights we would have been at least very unlikely to arrive at unaided.”

This raises some fascinating questions. The first is whether, even in this comment, Barton is being consistent. If Scripture tells us ‘what we cannot tell ourselves’ (which is in line with the fundamental understanding of Christianity from a phenomenological point of view, that it is a ‘revealed’ religion), then on what basis might we disagree with what it tells us? There is also the interesting question of how this sits with what Barton has said elsewhere; in his much earlier The People of the Book (1988) he comments along these lines:

The value of the Lord’s own sayings for understanding and recognizing his divine authority does not depend on the fact that they appear in the pages of Christian holy books, but derives from the fact that Jesus actually said them… (p 39)…The Bible matters … because it is the earliest and most compelling evidence that Jesus rose from the dead… (p 40) [The Bible is] a trusted friend, on whose impressions and interpretations of an important event or experience we place reliance… (p 45).

He does qualify this somewhat, in suggesting that we understand revelation ‘far less as the direct communication of information by God, and far more as the fruit of an encounter into which the Biblical text leads us.’ (p 72) but I don’t think many thinking readers of Scripture would disagree with this. (Thanks to Peter Thomas for these quotations).

The difficulty with Barton’s position in rejecting the idea of ‘inspiration’ is that it goes against not only what Scripture seems to claim for itself, but what mainstream Christian thinking has consistently understood. The classic biblical text on this is of course 2 Tim 3.16: ‘All scripture is God-breathed [theopneustos] and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…’ The metaphor underlying this is the speech of God carried on the breath or Spirit of God; try speaking and breathing in at the same time and you will see the force of the image! Sceptics will point out that internal claims made by a book about itself tell us nothing—but of course that ignores the fact that the canon of scripture has developed layer upon layer over time. The ‘Scripture’ that Paul is referring to here is what we now call the Old Testament; those who received and circulated this letter of Paul then recognised that God was speaking in the same way through this writing of Paul as God had spoken in the former scriptures, so added this to their collection of authoritative texts.

Barton clearly wants to avoid seeing this as implying some sort of rigid ‘verbal inspiration’ theory of the Bible, and so he includes criticism in his comments of ‘hardline biblicists’:

In this respect I wish more hardline biblicists in the Church of England would accept Luther’s principle that what is authoritative in the Bible is ‘what promotes Christ’ (was Christum treibet; quod Christum urget), which allows us to criticise, as he did, even books that are in the canon.

I am not sufficiently well versed in Luther to offer a comment here, but the idea that Luther would have constructed a picture of Jesus from the gospels and then used that to separate the wheat from the chaff in Paul and other NT writings seems scarcely credible, quite apart from the major questions this raises about the formation of the canon. Surely Augustine’s approach to the centrality of Christ in reading Scripture offers a better understanding:

Christ, our Moderator, having spoken what He judged sufficient, first by the Prophets, then by his own lips, and afterwards by the Apostles, has besides produced the scripture, which is called canonical, which has paramount authority and to which we yield assent in all matters. (City of God, XI, 3)

As is often the case, Barton reaches for Richard Hooker, ‘the nearest the Church of England has to a ‘founding’ Reformer, which he wasn’t’ (which raises the question, why not look to Cranmer…?) to protect ourselves against ‘claiming too much for Scripture’. Hooker is often brought into such debates, and the interpretation of his understanding is much disputed. But in this key quotation, he hardly appears to be qualifying the claims that Scripture makes on us:

Be it in matter of the one kind or of the other, what Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next where-unto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeth. (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity V 8.2)

There is no sense here that we are free to disagree with scripture and set aside what we do not like; rather, Scripture has primary place, and only where there is lack of clarity or uncertainty do we need to reach in turn for ‘reason’ and then ‘the voice of the Church’. I think most thinkers about interpretation would now want to reconfigure the relationship between these three, so that ‘reason’ (how we use all the information at hand to make sense of the text) and ‘tradition’ (how previous generations have made sense of the text) function as the two ‘lenses’ by which we read (hence the picture above of a pair of binoculars with a Bible).


But the language Barton uses offers quite a different picture. As a biblical scholar, he seems to describe himself as an autonomous and authoritative agent, standing above the text and to one side of the Christian tradition in making assessment as to whether this Bible is correct in the things that it claims. In this sense, he standing squarely in the tradition of Liberal Protestant thinking, based on Enlightenment assumptions about the primacy of reason, and including an understanding of the self going back to Descartes. This was the dominant mode of thinking when I first studied theology in the 1980s, and the thing I found most frustrating about this tradition was how uncritical it was about its own assumptions in taking a ‘critical’ approach to the Bible. This is illustrated in the earlier review of Barton’s book in the Church Times by Anthony Phillips, also someone standing four-square in the Liberal Protestant tradition (who happened to be the chaplain of my college in Oxford when I was an undergraduate). He welcomes all of Barton’s conclusions—that no OT writings go back beyond the 9th century BC, that the NT thought-world is ‘thoroughly Hellenistic’, that Paul’s theology ‘differs considerably from what later became Christian orthodoxy’, that we cannot really be certain about anything claimed for the gospels, ‘let alone in attributing material to Jesus’, that the formation of the canon fundamentally changed the nature of the NT documents, and that the existence of textual variants ‘rules out any appeal to the exact wording of biblical sayings’. In fact, on every one of those issues, there is much debate; the positions of Barton that Phillips mentions are highly contested, and in fact scholarship has mostly moved against these ideas in the last forty years; and I think I would disagree with every one of them.

I think it was F F Bruce who said, at the beginning of his 1983 book The Hard Sayings of Jesus, that there are sayings which are hard because they are difficult to understand or make sense of. But there are other sayings which are hard because, being easy to understand, they are difficult to accept and live out. It does seem that the major problem that the Church of England has with the Bible is of the second kind, rather than the first.


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83 thoughts on “What is the Church of England’s problem with the Bible?”

  1. The answer for you Ian, is not to read the Church Times. Lord save us from poor biblical theology and poor biblical theologians, for both equal church decline.

    • I’ve learned and am learning from Ian that it’s not all black & white. I can’t even explain how I grew to love Ian or how the spirit of Christ in dwells me. Carry on my dear boy. My regards, chaplain Ron

  2. “I think it was F F Bruce who said, at the beginning of his 1983 book The Hard Sayings of Jesus, that there are sayings which are hard because they are difficult to understand or make sense of. But there are other sayings which are hard because, being easy to understand, they are difficult to accept and live out. It does seem that the major problem that the Church of England has with the Bible is of the second kind, rather than the first.”

    Yes, that is the major problem.

    “In fact, the world of the human authors of the different parts of Scripture was in some regards very different to the world in which we live, and factoring this in is always an essential part of reading Scripture well.”

    Yes, “….in some regards very different…”. But the key issue is whether in two respects that world and this world are the same: are God and Christ the same, terrible in their holiness, righteousness, majesty, justice, sovereignty, wrath and condemnation against sinners, and honesty, and wonderful in their love, grace, mercy, patience, pity, longsuffering and are we the same, facing from birth onward the wrath and condemnation of God, with our supreme need (infinitely more important than all other needs, though many of the other needs are harrowing) to be delivered from that wrath and condemnation and brought into a new and living relationship with God by submitting to Christ in his atoning death and life-giving resurrection in repentance, faith, love, obedience and fear, as Christ by his Spirit conforms us to his image.

    “The classic biblical text on this is of course 2 Tim 2.16: ‘All scripture is God-breathed [theopneustos] and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…’”

    Yes, but all the assertions that God and Christ said, are saying, will say, and did, are doing and will do are the most important claims that the Bible makes. To fail to bow before these as true communications and deeds is to throw the whole Bible into the bin. Of course none of us are convicted to bow before them until and unless there comes the breath from heaven to breathe upon us slain that we may live. As Warfield wrote, without this supernatural salvation even the supernatural redemption and its proclamation are vain.

    Phil Almond

  3. 153 is certainly a fascinating number and there are, amazingly enough, upwards of 12 different reasonably convincing reasons why John may have had cause to treasure and prioritise it.

    However, I have never been impressed by Strachan’s emphasis on 12 and 3 sides. What is so special about the combination of 12 and 3. Far more convincing is his stress (which he derives I think from this same Pythagorean hypotenuse point) on 153’s square-root being the number of moons in a year – John assigns (for obvious reasons) great importance to all astronomical numbers as definitive of the way things are, foundational and unanswerable. As 12.37 is not a whole number, 153 its square (which ‘just so happens’ to come out as a whole number) is the easiest way we can express this principle as a whole number.

      • As far as I can see-

        (1) 12.37 is today a round number that is quoted as the approx number of moon in a year – better mathematicians than I can give figures for a year of days numbering 365, 366, 365.25, and the real average which I gather is more like 365.24?

        (2) The standard of exactitude in John’s time was lower than that.

        (3)Particularly as Jubilees and Qumran were at that time going with a 364 day year. I think there may be evidence that John was alike on this (e.g. no. of syllables in 2.1-11 is likely to be 364) – though he does equate 1260 days with 42 months, in which he is in a way correct (there are and were so many different ways of counting).

        (4) Certainly the square root of 153 is not precisely 12.37 – it is something like 12.36931687. But that is a number very close to the number of moons in a year – so close that John may have assumed it was exactly right – which it pretty much is, given the different definitions of ‘year’.

          • I’m sure that’s right – though the relevant question here is whether John (whose understanding of the annual cycle was a few degrees less precise than ours) suspected that it did/might.

          • I am finding this fascinating, as apparently there are 5 types of lunar year or ways of looking at what a lunar year ‘is’: anomalistic, sidereal, tropical, draconic, synodic. Synodic is the most basic one, and people tend to stick to that.
            153’s square root is approx 12.3693. The number of lunar months (synodic) would be calculated in the 21st century at around 12.3683 (i.e., 365.24219 days in a year divided by 29.530587981 which is the number of days in a synodic lunar-month).

            Superficially, this difference of 0.001 between the square root of 153 and the number of lunar months looks impressive. But I don’t think it is, because I think it equates to a difference of 43 minutes per month, which soon mounts up. The Babylonians and Pythagoreans (& Chinese…) were more exact than that.

            Supposing John was working with a 364-day year, i.e. 52 weeks (and the chances of his working with a whole number of days in a year are probably high) then the match-up becomes even less impressive.

            It may therefore be that John was aware of numbers important in astronomy and/or Mediterranean numerology, and/or important to the Pythagoreans, but the astronomical importance of 153 in this regard was something more urged by the Pythagoreans whereas this idea that 153 was an important number was simply inherited by John, who may have had his own take on it. (E.g., John was fond of nines, and liked the fact that only the three combinations 153, 432, 126 [in any order] are ways of making 9 from 3 different single-digit integers.)

            I’d certainly therefore stick with the idea that there are more convincing backgrounds than this among the 12 or so that each seem impressive backgrounds to the number 153. Several of these (probably the most important ones) relate to his internal logic, but one not so far mentioned is the 153.3 thousand labourers in 1 Kings 5.15-16, the same sort of context that yields the inner-biblical precedent for the number 666. A writer interested in numbers would have liked the material in 1 Kings. Also there’s the idea that if you take letters 1,5,3 of ichthuon you get I (Iesous), ON (is / Divine Name), TH (Theos): Jesus Is God. Which is the same climactic secret message we get in Rev. 19. However, it does involve combining letters 5-6 of ichthuon into one.

      • Does it really come down to decimal places?!

        Could I also ask the question – with John using numbers that appear to have ‘meaning’ at least for some 1st century readers, are you saying that, for example, there were not actually 153 fish (I accept it would have been difficult to exactly count them!), that there was just a load of fish (let’s say towards 200) and John just assigned them a very specific number to make a specific point?

        • I think there are certain things that come down to decimal places, but the majority of things that are relevant here do not come down to decimal places.

          The Strachan thing (moons) is, of the 12 or so good backgrounds for 153, among the less impressive, comparatively, IMHO. For example there is the Hebrew gematria bney ha elohim, which several see as the main point o f 153 (based on the Caiaphas episode) – and what could be more important than the gathering of the scattered children of God?

  4. My amateur eye, which I keep on new source criticism, noticed both John Barton’s book and your prompt and helpful analysis above. While I have been keeping quiet for years about the authority of that part of scripture deeply informed by verbal tradition I have been struck by a recent publication by Patrick Nunn (“The edge of memory” https://www.bloomsbury.com/au/the-edge-of-memory-9781472943262/ ) which is a quantum leap ahead of other efforts (e.g. W E Harney’s “Life Among the Aborigines” 1957) to estimate the accuracy of story transmission across illiterate generations. In short he makes an excellent case for there being very real events accurately transmitted behind much oral tradition for between 6,000 and 10,000 years. It is a fascinating attempt to draw together recent geological and climate science and correlate this with received stories within aboriginal communities.

    I do wonder of any bible critics have picked up on this and reviewed their positions in the light of the new anthropology. While efforts to reinterpret language, social norms and ethics in the era of well respected later biblical texts continues, as in all other branches of politics, it is interesting to observe some potential to upgrade the probable veracity of some older texts.

    • hi John, does he tackle the ‘flood’ in the book? I understand the current theories are a local, catastrophic flood from the Mediterranean Sea to the Black Sea a few thousand years ago, or the possibility of a comet strike somewhere in the Indian Ocean within the last 11,000 years which would have caused extremely large tsunamis and persistent rainfall over a very large area.

      Peter

      • Hi Peter

        Yes…. but (several) different floods. He cites evidence of stories correlating with ancient events in, if I remember correctly 37 cases, several of which were caused inter alia by the phenomena you mentioned.

        John

    • John thanks for this. I wonder if that connects with David Attenborough picking up on the story told by aboriginal peoples of the sea level rise which created the shallow shelf on which the rest Barrier Reef has formed. It must have happened 10,000 years ago. It feature in one of the recent series, I think Blue Planet 2.

      • Ian, Some of the stories are indeed based on events driven by the change in sea levels. These were mainly based on the 80m or so lower sea levels at the peak of the last major ice age (152,000 years ago). The subsequent rise in sea levels is what cut off Australia to any incoming wanderers from Asia and so what we can learn in Australia is often clearer than in regions like Europe subject to multiple migration events. Do read the book; it is in most libraries.
        (I wonder, do the words “global warming” occur in any ancient middle-Eastern texts? Or reports of political leaders declaring a state of emergency? Interesting; – yes. Important:- Certainly. Urgent:- unlikely)

  5. The level of generalisation one sometimes finds among liberal scholars talking about ‘Scripture’ is astonishing, given that they must know that this is a multi-genre, multi-author, multi-date, multi-culture affair.

    Whereas Michael Green can simply say that ta biblia plural is ‘not a book but a library’, the liberals often find themselves coupled with the fundamentalists in assuming that what can be said about one part of this package can be said about it all.

    I have written (probably rather naively, but from a commonsense layman’s standpoint) in What Are They Teaching The Children about literal/metaphorical as I cannot think of any topic on which more questionable things are said.

    Liberalism (i.e. pure liberalism) is in any case an ideology so should not be allowed near scholarship (sweeping statements are a chief reason why, although I am probably making one here myself…) – this applies to all ideologies.

  6. It seems to me in reflecting on Hooker that the expression, “whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason” sets an incredibly high bar. It isn’t “have a think about what the text means,” but rather “where logic properly used compels us, we can get some answers about subjects on which scripture is not clear.”

    “Necessary reason” is the kind of thing which gives us mathematics (a necessary truth is true everywhere and everywhen, it is eternally true). This is a long way from the approach of “science now tells us” which a lot of people like to use in modern ethical debates – science has told us all sorts of things down the years which turned out to be misleading. If there is one piece of ambiguous evidence (let alone contradictory!), then any claim made is not concluded “necessarily.” Significantly, I suggest, anything which is necessarily true would be equally true in a fallen or unfallen world (a necessary truth is true in all possible worlds).

    So Hooker gives us in order: 1) plain sense of scripture; 2) a very small category of “necessary truths” (which are unlikely to have much ethical application (the Earth orbits the Sun; so what?)); 3) the voice of the Church on everything (things unclear in or absent from scripture).

    And the point of all this is that all these have God as guarantor: scripture as God’s word; necessary reason as reflecting the rational element of Logos; and the Church as guided by the Holy Spirit.

  7. You might want to correct your reference to 2Tim 2:16, which may be apt ?! – but isn’t the 2Tim 3:16 that you intended 🙂

  8. Ought the question to be : What is the Church of England’s problem with the Triune God of the Bible? Otherwise, scripture can be viewed through the wrong end of the telescope or binoculars.
    There seems to be no lack of scholarship in the CoE but a seeming lack of belief combined with a reliance on forms of liturgy, a culture. (A generalisation, I know.)
    What comes first: belief in God, a conversion, which has an outworking in belief that the whole of scripture is a revelation by God, of God , and all that is ,seen and unseen, or is something that can be studied at the academy, without any belief at all and with an anti supernatural presumption.
    Christianity, at source, is not Western, (Greek/Roman beliefs) middle class, white, middle/high minded, but Hebrew: it’s spread from that centre.
    As Ian Paul puts it Baton,
    “As a biblical scholar, he seems to describe himself as an autonomous and authoritative agent, standing above the text and to one side of the Christian tradition in making assessment as to whether this Bible is correct in the things that it claims.”
    Is this not an irony, in that Barton is arrogating to himself all that scripture claims to be? There seems to be a presumption a) that he knows all there is to know b) that his thinking and ability are not fallen, not biased, not culturally conditioned and he seems to be subscribing to the view that CSLewis described as the fallacy of “chronological snobbery.”

  9. Further thought: A W Tozer:
    “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.

    The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God. Worship is pure or base as the worshiper entertains high or low thoughts of God.

    For this reason the gravest question before the Church is always God Himself, and the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like. ”

    This is no less true of biblical scholarship.

    Questions I ‘d ask of Barton are ,
    Could your God have caused to have written 2 Tim 3:16 ? And meant it as truth?
    Could your God, as a fact, have inspired the whole of the Bible?
    Is your God infallible? What are his attributes? Could an infallible , omnipotent, omniscient God communicate God without error , in substance, to fallible human beings , down the ages?

  10. I wonder if we have 2 circular experiences here.

    If we believe that the Bible is a unique collection of developing ‘layers’ (as Ian has described it) of writings through which God reveals himself for all time to humankind, then it follows that we have here a book which speaks from one world (God’s eternal world) to another world (our physical, temporal world) in a way that cannot be deconstructed satisfactorily using only the tools of our temporal (intellectual) understanding. But of course that position can only be comprehended by someone who has received God’s revelation (him or herself) from within the Bible. There is a circularity here which no purely intellectual investigation can penetrate. It can not be proved from within but neither can it be debunked from without.

    On the other hand if, for whatever reason, someone reads through all the layers and only discerns ancient writings which happen to have overtones of deeply held myths and legends or poetic musings of people who longed for a better world or a meaning which might offer some degree of solace in hard times, then he or she faces a lifetime of study (fascination even) but few certain answers. There’s no step through into the eternal world about which the Bible claims to speak if God has not been revealed to you through what you have read.

    And what if there is a position between the two where someone is touched by a partial revelation or has at some point had their eyes fully opened but then, for whatever reason, partially or wholly loses it (they experience loss of faith)? Can there be a point where you seem to make a choice between either living your faith in your daily life or continuingly questioning (investigating) your faith as a first priority? Can a felt need for the imperative of intellectual rigour be a stumbling block to getting to know God better outside of the written word by means of the way you live your daily life with him? Can the influence of secular pressures cause you to feel the need to reassess and even reject what you once understood clearly before your faith came under attack from that source? And can it also be the case that, the more your practical earthly life is lived in faithful relationship to God, those secular influences lose their power and, when returning to scripture, it is his revelation which becomes ever more powerful? Does that point of choice always take you back or further on towards either one or the other place of circular experience?

    I’m specifically not pitting devotion here against intellectual rigour. We can be equally led astray either by the gullibility born of self indulgent emotion (desire for consumption of experience rather than growth to maturity) or an imperviousness to the message because of our intellectual captivation with the way it’s presented. Somehow or other we have to be able to balance and learn from both our heads and our hearts.

    All of which is a slight diversion from what is the Church of England’s problem with the Bible and the specifics of Ian’s piece. But it might be related?

    • Thanks Don. For me, the way to close the possible divide between intellectual rigour and devotion is offered by the discipline of ‘theological reading of Scripture’.

      This approach aims to be academically rigorous. But that rigour includes asking the question (as we would do e.g. of a car maintenance manual) ‘What is the assumed or stated aim of this writing?’ The answer is ‘Formation for spiritual maturity’, and to ignore the stated purpose of a document in its interpretation is intellectually problematic.

      This highlights one of the key problems with the ‘objective’ approach of ‘critical’ scholarship: it often fails to ask some basic questions of method in this area.

    • Thanks. I thought the stuff in the middle about numbers and ages rather speculative—and in the whole area there is the question of method (I must write to you about this in relation to a dreamed-of project on numerology!). But the connection with Ezek 47 is in fact made by Bauckham, in ‘Testimony’ pp 278–280, precisely picking up on the article by Emerton that is cited here.

    • Simon,
      Thanks for the levity in the midst of august scholarship. 153 and numerology, seems a little like the Bible Code in miniature, or inception to me.
      I learned a little from the link to the article by James Jordan, but I pleased that he didn’t go on the explain, suggest the the numerical triangulation was representative, symbolic, of the work of Trinity, post resurrection : surely that would have to be an equilateral triangle.
      I find it all far too convoluted, contorted, scripture unnecessarily, stretched out of shape , a kind of scholastic gnosticism, to be revealed only to those of a certain level of intellectual, mathematical, rigour.
      Are the number of nation in the New Creation going to be 153? Really? A definite maybe?
      And was John really influence by Pythagoras as he wrote the Gospel account? Seems fanciful, if he was soaked in the Old Testament. (Even if it is granted that John was seeking to employ “gematria” – new word for me – though new age numerology isn’t- it seems to me that this single (thin?) strand application by Jordan can not carry the weight he seeks to put on it.

      • It could be more that Pythagoras had looked into the intrinsic properties of numbers as a key to the construction of the universe, and John (who is nothing if not a big-picture, top-down thinker) is in that particular way in agreement with Pythagoras on the importance of discovering isolating key numbers (those that prove to be key within the whole mathematical system). John is massively into Scripture, and (over and above and inclusive of Scripture) is even more into reality, that *prior* entity which Scripture expresses. He is interested primarily in truth, universal and public truth, not after ‘Christianity’.

  11. Helpful as usual – thanks Ian. On the ground this is so important as people’s different views on the inspiration of scripture seem to be the underpinning cause of much disagreement and misunderstanding – whether that be the reality of the resurrection, ‘texts of terror’ or human dignity and lifestyle .

    Is there any good evidence on the a local church communities view on scripture and church growth and discipleship ?

    • Reading some Eugene Peterson recently, in memory of the man, I was struck by a comment of his that the work of a preacher is much harder nowadays compared with, say, 100 years ago, because the congregation has far less knowledge of the Bible. Last summer I reread ‘Tess of the d’Urbevilles’, and there I noticed in the discourse of very ordinary people, Hardy includes a familiarity with the Bible. That may be his invention, but maybe not.

      Tom Wright, I think in “Scripture and the Authority of God”, has complained that evangelical churches, which you might think would be keen to have the Bible well read, often feature but a single reading in a service, which serves too often to provide a springboard for the preacher. In contrast, in a traditional service of Holy Communion, you would hear an OT reading, an NT reading and a Gospel reading, and probably singing a Psalm.

  12. Thanks Ian. I too read both articles. As so often when I read the Church Times I felt that I inhabit a different universe from many of its contributors.

    But I was interested in your reference to Antony Phillips to the effect that “He welcomes all of Barton’s conclusions—that no OT writings go back beyond the 9th century BC, that the NT thought-world is ‘thoroughly Hellenistic’, that Paul’s theology ‘differs considerably from what later became Christian orthodoxy’, that we cannot really be certain about anything claimed for the gospels, ‘let alone in attributing material to Jesus’, that the formation of the canon fundamentally changed the nature of the NT documents, and that the existence of textual variants ‘rules out any appeal to the exact wording of biblical sayings’.

    Of course this is pretty common currency and I wouldn’t be surprised to read this from non-Christian and especially from atheist biblical critics. But what I can’t work out is the psychology of people who describe themselves as Christians and yet also hold these ideas. Why bother to be a Christian at all? If it is impossible to know with any certainly about anything that the Bible teaches, or what Jesus actually said and taught, what is left to believe with any certainty? In which case why not simply describe oneself as a theist or a deist (if you happen to believe in some kind of God) or a humanist or simply a philosopher. That just seems rather more intellectually honest.

    Am I missing something?

    • In which case why not simply describe oneself as a theist or a deist (if you happen to believe in some kind of God) or a humanist or simply a philosopher. That just seems rather more intellectually honest.

      I wonder the same thing. I can think of one answer: if you think that the tradition of Christianity is a Good Thing, that it has good effects (such as encouraging people to be charitable), even though you doubt its basis in fact, you might want to describe yourself as a Christian and help promote that tradition in order that it can keep doing good.

      I think to do so would be intellectually dishonest, but I would understand the motive.

      However, those who deny the reliability of the Bible are also usually those who want to junk most of the tradition too, so why cling on to a name, Christian, that they think is empty of reliable historical content and also has become (in their view) a corrupted, harmful tradition?

      I don’t think they are classical theists or deists (it the tradition of, say, Benjamin Franklin) though; that implies far too much of a connection with the objective world. They seem to be more like Quakers, worshipping only the internal subjective experiences of their own minds, or followers of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

    • I notice a pattern: that (1) the more sceptical a position is, and (2) the greater the generalisation – then the more the reviewer affirms it. (Clearly (1) is in fact a neutral matter, while (2) is something that would normally evoke adverse criticism not affirmation!) Leaves one scratching one’s head for the logic in it all. Sounds more like personal preference – though who would prefer negative conclusions, and why? Pure ideology? I hope not.

      • This from the review seems interesting:

        ‘Barton spells out his importance, and then traces the evolution of biblical criticism to the present, which confirms his thesis of the Bible’s lack of fit with the traditional understanding of Christianity’

        Okay; so assume this. The Bible does not fit with the traditional understanding of Christianity.

        So, should we abandon the traditional understanding of Christianity and try to go back to what is in the Bible? But that’s the Reformation position which is laid into earlier on. so presumably the answer is, not that.

        In that case should we abandon the Bible and just stick with the traditional understanding of Christianity, on the grounds that even if it’s based on an error the tradition itself might be valuable? But the traditional understanding of Christianity is not very liberal so presumably no, not that either.

        So what then are we supposed to do, if the Bible is unreliable and also doesn’t fit with the traditional understanding of Christianity, but we want to junk both? What is left?

  13. “He does qualify this somewhat, in suggesting that we understand revelation ‘far less as the direct communication of information by God, and far more as the fruit of an encounter into which the Biblical text leads us.’

    …. Isn’t this Rowan Williams approach or near it?

  14. I have asked this question on other threads and maybe there’s no point in doing so again (dogs returning to vomit and all that…) but here goes anyway:

    Do those who are committed to the authority of scripture and opposed to a ‘make it up to suit yourself’ religion have to believe that, albeit in certain carefully restricted circumstances, God ordered the mass slaughter of men, women, and children – indeed, of infants?

    I realise we have been round this course before, but at the risk of being boring: if being a Christian does require such belief, I can’t be one. And surely, you really shouldn’t be either.

    • Do those who are committed to the authority of scripture and opposed to a ‘make it up to suit yourself’ religion have to believe that, albeit in certain carefully restricted circumstances, God ordered the mass slaughter of men, women, and children – indeed, of infants?

      Yes, I think so.

      Also I think one has to accept the story of the flood, which obviously also involves ‘the mass slaughter of men, women, and children – indeed, of infants’ is a true image of God’s response to sin (though I’m not convinced one has to believe in an actual rise of global sea levels and a family in an ark).

      There’s Ananias and Sapphira, too, though they were not infants.

      if being a Christian does require such belief, I can’t be one. And surely, you really shouldn’t be either.

      You’re going to have to justify that. All life, and most specifically all human life, comes from and belongs to God, and the span of each individual life is entirely at His discretion. If God wants to end that life, that is up to Him. In a prosaic sense, everyone who dies does so at the particular time they do because God at least tacitly allows it.

      If you’re a Christian, then you believe that God is sovereign over life and death. So all deaths are, in that sense, on God’s hands. Makes no difference whether God ordered someone else to do the deed, or just allowed septicaemia to take hold. Either way God is just as responsible.

      Of course in another sense the fact that anyone dies at all is not God’s intention, but is because we live in a fallen world. So in a sense it’s our fault.

      But then again, God allowed the world to fall. He gave us the freedom we used to bring death into existence, and He didn’t protect us from the just and rightful consequences of our sin. So we’re back to the blood being on God’s hands.

      It’s a knotty question, indeed. But you’re going to have to explain, if that’s your reason why I shouldn’t be a Christian, why God ordering the slaughter of the Canaanites is a total no-no when you’re fine with God killing by flood, striking liars dead on the spot, or even merely allowing people to die by the actions of bacteria, earthquakes, cancers or suicide bombers.

      • S… I wasn’t sure where in what you have said to link (and what you said is helpful)

        I think it was CS Lewis who said that “War doesn’t increase death”. Everybody dies, events are only about timing.

        • C S Lewis’s saying is a good one.

          (1) Life is a total gift, so even one second of it is more than we could reasonably expect. Job.

          (2) Life is in any case short, whether we die in war or not.

          (3) It is precisely the people with big horizons who see this most easily, and with smaller horizons who find it the most difficult – but it is intrinsically better and more mature to have larger horizons not smaller.

          (4) Appreciation of the reality of death, and of the inevitablility of death, and of the lack of guarantees re the dating of our death-day, and the shortness of life, and the fact that we have just one earthly life, are the best first five steps to making the best of our life.

          • Christopher, I am not sure if your post here was directed to my question about God commanding mass slaughter – if it was, I am not quite sure I see the relevance. I appreciate the spiritual value of recognising one’s frailty and mortality. But I am a little worried by point 3 about ‘big horizons’. Did you mean that if people have a proper sense of scale – God’s eternity, our smallness, the future hope – that questions such as the one I raised are relativised in their importance? I sort of see this, but am very anxious about anything that seems to make slaughtering babies anything other than of huge moral and spiritual consequence – for God, as for us. I don’t think it is immature to fixate on that, as could be the implication of your ‘bigger horizons’ remark. Why should spiritual maturity dull the edge of moral protest?

          • Hi Peter

            No, I wasn’t thinking of your comment(s) when I wrote.

            I am in general very wary of the perspective ‘What sort of God should I believe in?’ Answer; ‘One that I like, or would be to my own specification.’.

            There is only one reason for believing anything, and that is evidence. There is no chance at all that any real (eternal) God will be even close to our specification, which is a twentieth-century culturally-specific specification. Moreover, that is obvious.

            As to your horror and revulsion at unspeakable tragedies, it is universally shared.

          • Christopher … how can you really share my revulsion at unspeakable tragedy when – if I’ve understood you correctly – you think that in certain circumstances such tragedy is ordered by God, and therefore that the people doing the killing are acting in faithful obedience to him?

          • Then you don’t understand me correctly. The assertion that God has done X is obviously not going to be proof or (necessarily) even evidence that God has in fact done X. My point is a different one – it is that any real God will be highly unlikely to be framed by our specifications or our highly specific and time-bound culture. Plus, to hold God to the standards of our specific culture forgets that cultures and historical eras have a wide variety of standards, presuppositions and norms, and therefore it is impossible to be praiseworthy according to the standards of every culture simultaneously.

      • Thanks for the clear response, S.

        I do think there is quite an important distinction between God allowing things to happen, and God actually wanting/ordering them to happen.

        But I quite agree that my problem is not only with texts like 1 Sam 15, but the story of the Flood, the Passover, the drowning of Pharoah’s army, Ananias and Sapphira. All of these pose serious problems I think.

        At one level, I entirely get the logic of your position that if God wants to kill babies, then that’s entirely up to Him. He is, after all, God. (Though there is then an interesting debate about in what precise sense we are going to use words like ‘good’ and ‘loving’ of God, when they now seem to mean something utterly different than in every other context.)

        But even if you could win that philosophical debate about the nature of religious language, you would not win the more important one. If I believed in the God you described, I would have to tell him to get stuffed. He is not worthy of worship.

        Think of the recent Christchurch massacre – or indeed Sri Lanka. It seems to me that your position means that such behaviour is not always wrong. It could be right, if God required it. And indeed we know (by your lights) that on several occasions that God has. So there is nothing intrinsically wrong about what those killers did. They did something that in itself could have been OK if they had had the proper authority – indeed, could have been virtuous! Is that your position?

        • Think of the recent Christchurch massacre – or indeed Sri Lanka.

          I am. And in both of those cases, God could have stopped those things from happening, couldn’t He? And I don’t mean using miraculous means like armies of angels protecting the victims; I mean through pefectly natual methods, like He could have caused the shooter’s guns to jam, or the explosives to fizzle, or to go off prematurely. He could have mudged the attention of an investigator so the plot was discovered before it could be put into action.

          Imagine a doctor when a child is brought in suffering from septicaemia. the doctor says to the mother, ‘Yes, I could save your child with an antibiotic injection; but I am not going to. I will make your child as comfortable as I can — I’m not a monster! — but I won’t save her, though I could.’

          How is God not in the same position as the passive doctor when it comes to the events you mention? After all God could have stopped them. But He didn’t.

          So my question to you is: why is a God who allows the slaughter of innocents at Christchurch and in Sri Lanka ‘worthy of worship’?

          You say there is ‘quite an important distinction between God allowing things to happen, and God actually wanting/ordering them to happen’.

          So, what is that distinction?

          (I also note there’s a bit of equivocation there: you write ‘wanting/ordering’ as if they are the same thing. But they are not at all. God may have ordered the slaughter of the Cannanites, but that doesn’t mean He ‘wanted’ to do so. The slaughter of the Caananites may have been a necessary part of God’s redemption plan, just as, say, the bombings of French towns were a necessary part of sftenign up the German defences before the Normandy landings. Those who ordered those bombings knew that they would inevitably lead to the deaths of innocent French civilians, but they still ordered the attacks — even thoguh none of them wanted those French civilians killed. Similarly the fact god ordered the Caananites killed does not at all mean that God wanted to have been put in a position where He had to give that order.)

          • Actually (and I realise this makes the conversation even bigger, and me even more doctrinally adrift in your eyes) I am not sure God *could* have stopped the massacres. I don’t believe in the kind of God who jams trigger mechanisms, or chooses not to.

            God creates a world to bring about beings like you and me: free beings. That implies his surrender of power to control things – not just our wills, but trigger mechanisms and the flight of bullets too. Creating a free world involves that renunciation of control.

            To the extent that he renounces the ability to intervene, all evil is God’s responsibility – but this is very different from commissioning the evil Himself. God bears what human beings do: He is never the one that launches the evil act.

            He is worthy of worship because through the Cross and Resurrection of his Son he enters into his so badly-gone-wrong world in a such a way as to mean that the evil men do to each other need never be finally destructive … by which I mean that both the killer and the victim and the whole world are offered the chance of renewed relationship with God. Despite all that we have done to each other, God can bring the whole story to joy – or as Paul put it rather more pithily, Jesus is Lord!

            I am conscious of trying to put huge things into small sentences late at night, in a medium which is never the best for this kind of exchange. Maybe there is not much point in continuing?

          • I don’t believe in the kind of God who jams trigger mechanisms, or chooses not to.

            Okay. Interesting. But you believe in a God who multiplies loaves and fishes? Who quells storms? Who raises human beings from the dead?

            What sort of a God can do those things, but cannot cause a shell to misfire and jam a mechanism?

            What limits do you think God has in interacting with the world? Either absolute or self-imposed.

            God creates a world to bring about beings like you and me: free beings.

            Yep yep yep.

            That implies his surrender of power to control things – not just our wills, but trigger mechanisms and the flight of bullets too. Creating a free world involves that renunciation of control.

            Hm. Does it? Does it always? Think about what you’re saying here. You’re basically saying that God never answers prayer. You’re saying that if we pray to God to give good weather so that our forces can land on the beaches of Normandy, He won’t. You’re saying that if we pray to God to protect the Christians of Sri Lanka from those who wish to kill them, we are wasting our breath and God is deaf to us.

            Is that really a God you find worthy of worship?

            My point here, in case you haven’t worked it out, is to point out that if you insist on setting yourself up as arbiter of God’s worthiness of worship, using your human standards of ethics, then your problem is not with (certain bits of) the Bible: it’s with the universe.

            If you expect God to conform to how you think He should act so as to gain your moral approval and be judged worthy in your eyes, then you have more recent problems than Caanan.

            Maybe there is not much point in continuing?

            I am willing to continue as long as you are. As long as you never again try to claim that no one has answered your question.

          • Hello again S.

            I wasn’t claiming that people hadn’t answered my question (or, if I did say that somewhere, then I shouldn’t have done – sorry!). But why I come back to it again is because I find the very clear answer you give chilling and shocking. I understand that there are all sorts of difficult questions which arise if you start going down the lines I have (and I don’t claim to have resolved them all) – but in my view they are as nothing to the trouble which comes from going down yours.

            Moving on – you ask whether my idea that God renounces the ability to interfere/intervene involves “basically saying that God never answers prayer. You’re saying that if we pray to God to give good weather so that our forces can land on the beaches of Normandy, He won’t. You’re saying that if we pray to God to protect the Christians of Sri Lanka from those who wish to kill them, we are wasting our breath and God is deaf to us.”

            Well…. sort of, although the phrasing is yours. I don’t believe God organised the weather to be fine for the Normandy landings (I have heard this claim made on the Prayer Course, I think, in relation to the Dunkirk evacuations). Because if God is in the habit of that kind of intervention, it becomes baffling to the point of madness as to why he didn’t use his powers to stop the Holocaust and so many other things. My take on fine weather for the Normandy landings is that it has precisely nothing to do with prayer. Stuff of that sort just happens, or doesn’t.

            (Having written that stark sentence, I reflect that still I do pray for healing for people – and if they are healed, give thanks. Which is one of the loose ends and troubles in my thought and practice, I know. Although I think it is easier to see how healing might join up with the kind of account of prayer I’m about to give in the next paragraph than changing weather conditions or altering the flight of bullets).

            Prayer is not useless, but we need to be very careful about what use we think it is. I would of course want to say a great deal more about prayer than possible here, but fundamentally I think that the point of intercessory prayer is to expose ourselves to and connect with the grace that God-in-Christ has placed in every single human situation. That is, whatever the situation, there is always the possibility of me and others choosing to work with God’s desperate desire to heal and save. In prayer, I immerse myself in that desire and hold others in it too. That might bring about healing of all sorts and repentance in them – and so have a truly radical impact on the world – but it doesn’t involve God ‘interfering’ with the laws of physics or weather systems etc.

            You ask about loaves turning into fishes etc, which these ideas about divine action don’t seem to leave much scope for. Once again, I don’t have a wholly worked out view, but I think there is something special about the Incarnation. Stuff happens around Jesus that normally doesn’t happen, because He is the Creator incarnate. But these extraordinary signs of his presence belong with his bodily presence – in general I don’t look for miracles (of the interfering with physics sort) beyond the earthly ministry of Jesus.

          • I wasn’t claiming that people hadn’t answered my question (or, if I did say that somewhere, then I shouldn’t have done – sorry!).

            That was my interpretation of ‘I have asked this question on other threads and maybe there’s no point in doing so again (dogs returning to vomit and all that…)’; I offer my apology if I misunderstood.

            But why I come back to it again is because I find the very clear answer you give chilling and shocking.

            That’s fine, it’s a reasonable response. I find your answer logically incoherent.

            Well…. sort of, although the phrasing is yours. I don’t believe God organised the weather to be fine for the Normandy landings (I have heard this claim made on the Prayer Course, I think, in relation to the Dunkirk evacuations). Because if God is in the habit of that kind of intervention, it becomes baffling to the point of madness as to why he didn’t use his powers to stop the Holocaust and so many other things.

            Hence the incoherence.

            My take on fine weather for the Normandy landings is that it has precisely nothing to do with prayer. Stuff of that sort just happens, or doesn’t.

            So, if a relative of yours was caught up in events such as those in Sri Lanka, you wouldn’t pray to God to keep them safe? If someone else suggested praying for them, you’d say, ‘No, don’t do that, God doesn’t interfere in matters of this sort: either they’ll survive or they won’t, it’s nothing to do with God’?

            I mean, maybe you do. That would be logically consistent with your position. But it would be rather out of keeping with traditional Christian practice.

            (Having written that stark sentence, I reflect that still I do pray for healing for people – and if they are healed, give thanks. Which is one of the loose ends and troubles in my thought and practice, I know.

            Rather more than a ‘loose end’, I would think, it totally undermines it logically. If God can change the DNA of cancerous cells to heal someone, you’re saying He can’t cause a bit of dust to drift into a gunman’s eye to cause a shot to go wide of its target?

            This is a very odd sort of God you’re proposing, who can do one of those things but not the other. What exactly are His limits? What can he and can He not do, and would could He do but chooses not to?

            Prayer is not useless, but we need to be very careful about what use we think it is. I would of course want to say a great deal more about prayer than possible here, but fundamentally I think that the point of intercessory prayer is to expose ourselves to and connect with the grace that God-in-Christ has placed in every single human situation. That is, whatever the situation, there is always the possibility of me and others choosing to work with God’s desperate desire to heal and save.

            So wait: you’re saying that God has a ‘desperate desire to heal’ but… doesn’t? That all intercessionary prayer does is ‘expose us to […] grace’ — it doesn’t actually have any, you know, effect?

            So are you really saying that God wants desperately to heal but is unable to do so directly? Why? What stops Him? And if He is unable to heal directly, why did He tell us to ask Him to do something He is unable to do? Is this some sort of mind-game on God’s part, telling us to ask Him to do something He can’t in order to to get us thinking the right way?

            In prayer, I immerse myself in that desire and hold others in it too. That might bring about healing of all sorts and repentance in them – and so have a truly radical impact on the world – but it doesn’t involve God ‘interfering’ with the laws of physics or weather systems etc.

            Nothing of what I’ve suggested involves God ‘interfering’ with the laws of physics. Drifting dust, weather patterns, corrupted DNA — these things are all within the laws of physics, and well within the capabilities of a God who, after all, set the laws of physics and their initial conditions up in the first place, to fine-tune.

            But regardless: do you think God can heal? If not, why ask Him to? If so, then what on Earth stops Him from having other effects on the world?

            You ask about loaves turning into fishes etc, which these ideas about divine action don’t seem to leave much scope for. Once again, I don’t have a wholly worked out view, but I think there is something special about the Incarnation. Stuff happens around Jesus that normally doesn’t happen, because He is the Creator incarnate. But these extraordinary signs of his presence belong with his bodily presence – in general I don’t look for miracles (of the interfering with physics sort) beyond the earthly ministry of Jesus.

            Certainly there does seem to be something special about the incarnate presence of Jesus which increases the density of miracles, some of the sort which do ‘interfere’ with the laws of physics (multiplying food, raising the dead, water becoming wine — though given your stealing of a C. S. Lewis quotation you should recognise that none of those go against nature, so much as simply speeding up the natural processes) and others of which are more natural miracles (storms dying away at the right moment).

            But the miracles don’t start when Jesus arrives and stop when He leaves, do they? Even after Jesus has gone God causes earthquakes to spring his followers from prison, and we’ve already mentioned Ananias and Sapphira.

            More to the point though you seem to be positing a part-time Deist god, who stands apart from the universe, observing but unable / refusing to get involved, except for one short period ‘on duty’ of about thirty years in one small corner of the Middle East. That may be the god you believe in, but you do recognise it’s not the orthodox Christian God, is it?

          • S, thank you for this exchange. It is good to have to think this through. I hope this contribution appears in a sensible place on the feed!

            You ask if I’d pray for relatives caught up in something like the Sri Lanka attacks. I think that instinctively I would. But I would find it very difficult to justify that intellectually to myself. I don’t think God responds to prayer in the kind of way envisaged – and if my relative survived, I would consider that as a matter of luck. Not least because I would then have to give an account, at least to myself, of why other people’s relatives were not spared.

            I still think, however, that prayer has a huge effect – because it exposes us to grace. Nothing is more powerful than grace. It is life-transforming. It is healing in every sense, which is why I don’t rule out the possibility of bodily healing. (Although – and this is possibly a matter for another thread – I’m conscious that the most serious illness in my family at the moment is a case of Alzheimers. I don’t, instinctively, pray for that to be healed … and my impression is that not many Christians, even of the most charismatic persuasion, would do so. Why is that, do you think?)

            So, yes, I do pray for healing of body, mind and spirit. I don’t think the first of these happens very often in response to prayer, but I continue to pray in hope and I rejoice when it appears to come right. But I would rule out the possibility of God sending dust in a gunman’s eye, or altering the course of a bullet. I’m not sure that’s as inconsistent as you think. Sickness is a spiritual as well as a physical reality, because the human person is a physical-spiritual reality. The spiritual power of grace deals with that whole reality. Bullets and dust, on the other hand, are mere matter. Grace doesn’t work with mere matter. I’ve put that clumsily, but I’m sure there’s a valid distinction in there somewhere.

            Lastly on Deism… no, I don’t think that’s an accurate description of what I’m saying. The Deist sees God as remote, detached, uninterested. I see God in Christ as having poured Himself into every conceivable human situation, so that every moment is pregnant with grace, waiting for human beings to collaborate with it. Actually I think it is your position which is more easily construed as Deist – because it seems as if you imagine God as standing outside the situation, weighing up whether or not to intervene, sometimes doing so, sometimes not, for reasons we do not yet understand. In my way of thinking, on the Cross God so immerses himself into the world that thinking of them separately isn’t really possible any more. (And before someone shouts ‘pantheism’ – it’s more complicated than that. A married couple are in one sense ‘one’ and in another sense very much distinct – something analogous happened between God and the world in the Incarnation).

            Perhaps you are right that all this is not orthodox (perhaps – I’m not conceding that too quickly). But although it would worry me to be radically outside orthodoxy – I’m not generally a rebellious type, and I value tradition – it is not my chief concern. To come back to my dog’s vomit: if being orthodox involved believing in a God who commanded mass slaughter, I would accept the badge of heretic cheerfully. I believe in the infallibility of the Church even less than the infallibility of Scripture!

          • S, thank you for this exchange. It is good to have to think this through. I hope this contribution appears in a sensible place on the feed!

            Always a tricky bit the get right on this web-site, but I think you have managed it, this time. I hope my fingers don’t slip either.

            You ask if I’d pray for relatives caught up in something like the Sri Lanka attacks. I think that instinctively I would. But I would find it very difficult to justify that intellectually to myself. I don’t think God responds to prayer in the kind of way envisaged – and if my relative survived, I would consider that as a matter of luck. Not least because I would then have to give an account, at least to myself, of why other people’s relatives were not spared.

            That is, at least, logically consistent. But, again, I don’t think there can have been many churches these past few weeks which didn’t hear prayers for the safety of those in Sri Lanka, and Christians who are under threat in the rest of the world. How do you justify this practice? Or do you think it is wrong?

            I still think, however, that prayer has a huge effect – because it exposes us to grace. Nothing is more powerful than grace. It is life-transforming. It is healing in every sense, which is why I don’t rule out the possibility of bodily healing.

            I don’t understand. How can ‘grace’ alter the spread of an infection, or change the replication of strands of DNA?

            (Although – and this is possibly a matter for another thread – I’m conscious that the most serious illness in my family at the moment is a case of Alzheimers. I don’t, instinctively, pray for that to be healed … and my impression is that not many Christians, even of the most charismatic persuasion, would do so. Why is that, do you think?)

            My prayer in such circumstances is, ‘Lord, if it is your will, please heal this person, but if it is not your will that they be healed, please be with them in their struggle.’ I don’t know if that’s what anyone else would say. Perhaps I should re-read Lewis on petitionary prayer.

            So, yes, I do pray for healing of body, mind and spirit. I don’t think the first of these happens very often in response to prayer, but I continue to pray in hope and I rejoice when it appears to come right. But I would rule out the possibility of God sending dust in a gunman’s eye, or altering the course of a bullet. I’m not sure that’s as inconsistent as you think. Sickness is a spiritual as well as a physical reality, because the human person is a physical-spiritual reality. The spiritual power of grace deals with that whole reality. Bullets and dust, on the other hand, are mere matter. Grace doesn’t work with mere matter. I’ve put that clumsily, but I’m sure there’s a valid distinction in there somewhere.

            Why do you think God cannot affect ‘mere matter’? God created all mere matter, didn’t He? And He wrote the rules by which all mere matter interacts. Why do you think it is beyond God’s power to affect ‘mere matter’?

            It seems to me it should be the easiest thing int he world for God to affect ‘mere matter’ — as easy as a writer changing some punctuation in their work, or a painter correcting a stroke — but perhaps you have some reason to think this wouldn’t be so?

            Perhaps you are right that all this is not orthodox (perhaps – I’m not conceding that too quickly). But although it would worry me to be radically outside orthodoxy – I’m not generally a rebellious type, and I value tradition – it is not my chief concern. To come back to my dog’s vomit: if being orthodox involved believing in a God who commanded mass slaughter, I would accept the badge of heretic cheerfully. I believe in the infallibility of the Church even less than the infallibility of Scripture!

            Does God scare you?

          • Hello again S. Thanks for bearing with me. It has been a long working day and I have not had time to respond properly to your last post till now.

            You ask about prayers for Christians to be kept safe in a situation like Sri Lanka. When I am thinking in a disciplined way, I wouldn’t pray that prayer. I don’t expect it to be answered. I absolutely pray for them to be courageous, to be hopeful, to be loving in the face of their enemies … but I don’t pray for them to be kept safe.

            On the whole question of how God acts, about why I think he might heal cancer but not be able to alter the flight of a bullet:

            What I’m trying to say is something like this. I imagine grace, in part, as God seeking out a response in every created situation – divine love calling out human love in response. It is through the enabling and creation of such response that grace changes things – in other words grace calls out my love and strengthens it and therefore there is more love in the world. I forgive where I would not have done before, I visit the lonely who I would have neglected etc.

            Mere matter – the bullet – cannot respond to grace. It has no love to respond with. Bullets don’t love. So I don’t think one can expect bullets to alter their flight in response to prayer. The cancerous cell is a more complicated case, because that isn’t ‘mere matter’. The cancerous cell is one element in the mysterious physical/spiritual reality that is a human person. It is quite possible that as the whole person responds to God’s love, the physical dimension is affected too.

            So whilst I would never expect grace to alter the flight of a bullet, I wouldn’t rule out that it might alter the growth of a cell.

            And lastly your biggest question: Does God scare you?

            Did the Father scare the Prodigal Son – at any rate, once that son had returned? I think probably not – although he no doubt had a profound reverence for his father.

            There are times when I am downright mean and selfish, when I damage other people for my own advantage. If I was all like that, if that became my fixed character, I fear I could be eternally lost. But I hope and believe that through grace I am changing, and that on the whole I am not like that – that I am growing towards God. And because I trust in His great love and mercy, made flesh in Jesus who went into the depths of Hell for people like me, I am confident that in the end He will bring me to glory.

            I certainly don’t think He will damn me because I think the wrong way about him … or even if I cause others to think the wrong way about him. Unless, that is, my false teaching was wrapped up with mean-ness, selfishness, the desire to exploit others (put it this way: at the risk of playing the part of the Pharisee in the Temple, I think the worst sort of TV evangelists have got a great deal to be worried about). I do think, as I said to Phil in another comment, that if a human being was utterly curved in on themselves, closed to grace, bereft of all humility, then that person would be in serious spiritual peril. And they should indeed be scared. But I hope, I trust, that that is not me … I pray ‘Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’ That’s all any of us can do, isn’t it?

            So … no, I’m not scared.

          • You ask about prayers for Christians to be kept safe in a situation like Sri Lanka. When I am thinking in a disciplined way, I wouldn’t pray that prayer. I don’t expect it to be answered. I absolutely pray for them to be courageous, to be hopeful, to be loving in the face of their enemies … but I don’t pray for them to be kept safe.

            Okay. That is rather unorthodox, though, isn’t it? Praying for God to keep threatened Christians safe is pretty standard, I would have thought. If you attend a church regularly, do you never hear such prayers?

            Mere matter – the bullet – cannot respond to grace. It has no love to respond with. Bullets don’t love.

            So what? Why does God need something to ‘love’ before He can affect it?

            Your ‘god’ seems to be based on Patrick Swayze in Ghost: able to communicate, to hug, but utterly powerless to lift so much as a piece of paper.

            But how could the force which created all matter, and sustains all matter in its existence, without whose continued creative input all matter would instantly blink out of existence, not be able to affect matter?

            How could the God who set up the laws of physics at the beginning of the universe, who guided the big bang through its first millimetres of expansion, not have been able to set things up such that a piece of dust would be in exactly the right place, billions of years later?

            No, matter cannot respond to love. So what? Is God so limited in His interaction with the world that He can only work through love? That hardly seems plausible.

            So again: why do you think that God cannot affect ‘mere matter’?

            So … no, I’m not scared.

            Interesting. I assume then that — though you paraphrase Lewis to make points — you think he was wrong to make Aslan a terrifying lion, and wrong to make a point of saying that although he was good, he was definitely not safe?

            You reckon God is in fact safe, and therefore Lewis should have portrayed him as some other, less dangerous animal?

          • 1.58am, S? I hope you then got some sleep!

            I do attend church regularly and do indeed hear prayers for, e.g, protecting Christians in Sri Lanka. I hear prayers for all sorts of things! That lots of Christians do something doesn’t mean its necessarily right, though it does mean it needs to be seriously thought about.
            On divine action and providence, you asked again why I think God can’t deal with ‘mere matter’ and asked:

            How could the God who set up the laws of physics at the beginning of the universe, who guided the big bang through its first millimetres of expansion, not have been able to set things up such that a piece of dust would be in exactly the right place, billions of years later?
            No, matter cannot respond to love. So what? Is God so limited in His interaction with the world that He can only work through love? That hardly seems plausible. So again: why do you think that God cannot affect ‘mere matter’?

            Well, I’ve tried to state why that is – something do with mere matter not having the capacity to respond to the divine coaxing/beseeching which is grace. I get that you think that unduly limits God. (I’m not sure though that the idea that God can only work through love should ‘hardly seem plausible’. I realise that Wesley is not an infallible guide to doctrine, and indeed that he almost certainly would have agreed with you more than me, but what if we radically pursued his thought – Paul’s thought? – that God in Christ “emptied himself of all but love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race.”)

            Let’s not sidetracked into Wesley though. I think your position has at least an equally large problem as mine. If God could set things up so that a piece of dust would be in exactly the right place thousands of years later, then you have to ask why on earth he didn’t do so – again, and again, and again. Why wasn’t the iceberg that sank Titanic a few hundred yards away from where it was? Why was Hitler only wounded in WW1 and not killed? Why… etc, etc.

            It seems to me that in your view the answer has to be something like: ‘We don’t know. God could have done all this if He’d wanted to, but for reasons beyond our comprehension He did not, and we do not blame Him. He has, however, done other things, again for reasons we don’t know, and so we praise Him.’ To put it at the crass-est (and though I recognise you haven’t, and perhaps wouldn’t, make this particular claim I have heard plenty of Christians do so) – for reasons we cannot know, God arranges things so that I can find a parking space but chooses not to stop trains running to Auschwitz.

            I think my position is simpler – morally and intellectually, for all the difficulty it no doubt has.

            As for whether God is safe … your response is not really a fair reflection of my comments re. fear. Clearly, God is not safe if one is consumed by mean-ness, selfishness, closed to grace, etc. as I said. There is such a thing as terrifying judgement. But I set out the reasons why personally I am not scared of it – fundamentally because I place my trust in Christ.

            As for C.S. Lewis: if when he said Aslan was not a safe lion, he meant that he was the sort that might, for reasons of his own which we can’t comprehend, suddenly start devouring all around him (all – babies!) … well, I’m not sure that he could then sensibly use the word ‘good’ of him as well. Does Lewis deal with ‘the texts of terror’ anywhere? I’m not sure I’ve read it if he does.

          • I think your position has at least an equally large problem as mine. If God could set things up so that a piece of dust would be in exactly the right place thousands of years later, then you have to ask why on earth he didn’t do so – again, and again, and again. Why wasn’t the iceberg that sank Titanic a few hundred yards away from where it was? Why was Hitler only wounded in WW1 and not killed? Why… etc, etc.

            I don’t see how that is a problem for my position. Your position seems to be that God cannot affect ‘mere matter’, which idea seems preposterous — how can the creator of the universe be unable to do the things I have outlined? You still haven’t given any reason to justify this assertion beyond that if it were true then you would have to think things about God that you don’t want to think.

            Well, I’m afraid, ‘if this were true then the universe would not be as I wish it to be, so it can’t be true’ is not a very good argument.

            So, again: what possible reason could there be for God being unable to affect ‘mere matter’?

            It seems to me that in your view the answer has to be something like

            I think my position is simpler – morally and intellectually, for all the difficulty it no doubt has.

            You position is not simple, it is nonsensical. You posit a God who created the universe, created and sustains all matter, who wrote the laws of physics, who is aware of every living being, every molecule, every atom in all the vastness of space — and yet who cannot, not choose not to but actually cannot, lift a pencil?

            That doesn’t make any sense at all. The God of my idea may not be the one you would like to exist. But the god of your idea is logically incoherent, impossible, and so cannot exist.

            I mean, you believe in the incarnation, right? But how could the powerless god you believe in have possibly affected the universe enoguh to become incarnate? Inconsistent, incoherent. You believe that God was able to set up the actions of interacting air currents, physical laws, and weather patterns, so that a storm would still at just the right moment while Jesus was alive, but is incapable of doing the same thing in 1944? How does that make any sense? If He could do it in 30AD, why can’t He do it in 1944? Incoherent, inconsistent.

            And you still haven’t dealt with the ways God affected the material world after Jesus had left it: the earthquake that released Paul and Silas. The deaths of Ananias and Sapphira. If those happened, and were God’s doing, then that shows He can act on the physical world even outside the space of Jesus’s presence inside it, doesn’t it?

            You may not like the idea that God sometimes doesn’t act as you think He should. That He does things you disagree with, and fails to do things you would like Him to. But just because you don’t like an idea doesn’t mean that it’s true, and in this case, it is true because the alternatives you give are simply nonsense. If God were as powerless to affect the universe as you think, then God couldn’t have created the universe, could He? In which case none of us would even be here. So the very fact we are here shows that God must be able to create, and creation is a type of affecting, so He must be able to affect, ‘mere matter’.

          • Hi S,

            I think we’re close to the end of useful road in this particular exchange. Maybe we shall return to it again, you have certainly given me stuff to think about it.

            In directing fire against my arguments, I notice you didn’t actually say whether the words I put in your mouth were fair ones. This was the relevant paragraph:

            It seems to me that in your view the answer has to be something like: ‘We don’t know. God could have done all this if He’d wanted to, but for reasons beyond our comprehension He did not, and we do not blame Him. He has, however, done other things, again for reasons we don’t know, and so we praise Him.’ To put it at the crass-est (and though I recognise you haven’t, and perhaps wouldn’t, make this particular claim I have heard plenty of Christians do so) – for reasons we cannot know, God arranges things so that I can find a parking space but chooses not to stop trains running to Auschwitz.

            Is that a fair paraphrase of your position, and what you think orthodoxy is?

          • In directing fire against my arguments, I notice you didn’t actually say whether the words I put in your mouth were fair ones.

            I didn’t, no, because it didn’t seem relevant to the issue of whether God is capable of affecting matter, which I think is what this whole area hinges on. this is the first principle on which we have to agree before we can move on to other, dependant, matters.

            So can you explain how you think it is possible that a God who created all matter, who wrote the laws by which that matter interacts, and who constantly sustains both matter and laws in existence, could be unable to do the, rather minor, tasks I have outlined, such as determining weather patterns or moving dust? Tasks which are well within the capability of the God of the Bible, who causes the air currents that will quell a storm (while Jesus in incarnate) and the movement of magma and rock that frees Paul and Silas (after Jesus has ascended)?

            Once you agree that God must be capable of such affecting of matter, then it becomes relevant to talk about why God intervenes in some cases and not in others, and so then we can talk about that.

    • Peter, thanks for asking the question…which is always worth holding before us.

      There is an outline of a response given above, some of which I think it helpful. In the context of this discussion I wonder if I can note a couple of things.

      First, to believe that Scripture is God’s word for us is not the same as thinking that every sentence of Scripture is God’s word *to* us. The thing I find slightly odd about the position of many like John Barton (though I am not saying this of Barton himself; I don’t know him well enough) is the assumption that believing in the Bible means believing in a wooden literalism about how to read it. Anthony Thiselton would hardly qualify as such, neither would any evangelical who takes the whole discipline of hermeneutics seriously.

      Secondly, to believe that Scripture gives us a reliable picture of who God is, is not the same as suggesting that every verse of the Bible tells us everything about who God is. So these texts must be read in the context of others, not least the story of Jesus, if we are to understand who God is.

  15. It is possible (just as well in my case) that a different paradigm to the theologian’s may be relevant. The world of science (the professional, peer reviewed kind) is perfectly familiar with the struggle over the authority / accuracy/ completeness of scripture you refer to above (“Secondly, to believe that Scripture gives us a reliable picture of who God is, is not the same as suggesting that every verse of the Bible tells us everything about who God is.”)
    While in good compliance with Popper’s description of scientific methodology, all published science is treated with a kind scepticism, almost all sciences start from the premise that what has already been published, criticised and survived with its credibility intact, is to be trusted. Future work moves on, building on that knowledge. In fact this is what Einstein called “standing on the shoulders of giants”.

    In my 40 years working in and with science I have encountered several amazing but erroneous claims, all disproved. (I have just re-read an account of the much loved and respected Fred Hoyle defending the steady state view of the universe against the big-bang theory.) Scientists seem very happy to cautiously trust the tested ides and to respect the author until the proposition is comprehensively and reliably disproved. I observe that while scientists suffer the same human weaknesses as the rest of us, they are often more respectful of previous scholarship, and certainly more polite and less abusive than many theological commentators on biblical authority.
    This may shed little light on John’s love affairs but I hope you find it interesting.

  16. Thanks for this Ian – although one way of reading what you have said in this comment would be as paving the way to letting the ‘bigger picture’ of God in Christ correct the flawed / partial /downright false perspectives of the texts of terror. I don’t think that is your view – but I’m left wondering how if it isn’t, you can avoid in the end having to give S’s rather simpler answer – ‘Yes’ – to my question about God commanding mass slaughter?

    • letting the ‘bigger picture’ of God in Christ correct the flawed / partial /downright false perspectives of the texts of terror

      Is this not Marcionism?

      • The idea that anything harsh is false is Marcionism; also, Marcionism itself is a combination of projection and wishful thinking.

        • No, it’s not Marcionism – although sometimes in our eagerness to avoid the charge of Marcionism, we commit the opposite error of implying that all elements of the Old and New Testaments are of equal inspiration and importance: that 1 Sam 15 (say) is as true a revelation of God as the Cross of Jesus.

          Marcionism wholly rejects the Old Testament (and swathes of the New) as the work of a lying, subordinate ‘god’. It is the denial that there is such a thing as one overarching biblical story, in which the same God is revealed. I believe in that one story, as an ongoing conversation / conflict in which God’s revelation and our apprehension are mixed up together. Its climax is the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, and in the light of that climax we learn how to read anew the earlier stages. You might not like this approach to Scripture, but it isn’t Marcionism.

          And incidentally, Christopher, I don’t think that ‘anything harsh is false.’ I think there is every possibility of eternal damnation!

          • Okay, so it’s not what you might call proper Marconionism, which posits two gods, the bad god of the Old Testament and the good god of Christ.

            But it is a sort of… epistemic Marcionism, isn’t it? One which posits that the Old Testament got God wrong, and Christ got God right. Not two gods, but two ideas of God, the ‘bad’ version of God, which is untrue, and the ‘good’ version which is true.

            Except… if that is really the case and the Old Testament idea of God is wildly inaccurate while Christ is the true God…

            … why then didn’t Christ ever say that?

            I mean, you’d think, if people had been getting the wrong idea about God for centuries, thinking he was all wrathful and slaughter-happy when really he wasn’t like that at all, he was just a great cuddly granddad up in the sky who wants everybody to come to Him and be happy, then when God finally came into the world and had the chance to talk directly to people the first thing He would have done would be to set the record straight. Or even, you know, just drop some hints that maybe people might want to reassess their ideas.

            But… He didn’t. When given any chance to disavow the wrong ideas of the Old Testament, he didn’t; quite the reverse, he doubled down on them. Not destroying the law, but fulfilling it. Not anywhere a hint of repudiation of the scriptures — the scriptures He read from, on many occasions, without ever questioning them (because if he had questioned them, it would for sure have been recorded).

            Does that not strike you as odd behaviour? That God, who had been (you reckon) so misrepresented, to the point of outright slander, should not even mention it when He had the chance to put all the records straight?

            How does that square with your ‘an ongoing conversation / conflict’ reading?

          • Yes, then we are on the same page. So often one finds things framed as ‘If you project a psychologically healthy god then you are psychologically healthy, if not not.’ – when the whole point about God is that any real God would not be a projection and would be free and independent, while any unreal ‘god’ would be an odd topic to devote your thoughts to. It is the end game of the designer-world mentality.

      • Hi S

        You say that in Jesus’ ministry we see: “Not anywhere a hint of repudiation of the scriptures — the scriptures He read from, on many occasions, without ever questioning them (because if he had questioned them, it would for sure have been recorded).”

        Is that right? “You have heard that Moses said…. but I say unto you” – Jesus claims a radical freedom in relation to the Law (not, it must be said, always in a pleasingly liberalising direction!!). There is also the declaration of all foods as clean, and the refusal to sanction the death penalty for the woman taken in adultery… to be honest, I have always been puzzled by that Matthean verse about ‘not one jot, not one tittle’ because it seems quite clear that in fact Jesus *did* undermine/ abrogate quite a lot of the Law.

        I still reject the charge of Marcionism. I don’t draw a simple dichotomy between Old and New Testament. I see the Old Testament as containing supreme wisdom, and in some places and in some respects it seems to me wiser than some elements of the New! As I said before, it all belongs together as one ongoing conversation with lots of different voices. All the different strands converge on Christ, and in the light of Christ we can – carefully – judge the relative value of what comes both before and after Him.

        It isn’t Marcionite to affirm that in the light of Christ, we see that some Scriptures are more God-breathed than others.

    • Peter,
      Your questions cover a range of topics such as the the nature and attributes of God,creation, humanity and in particular the relation of God to humanity and vice versa, the meaning of life (human in particular), the history of redemption.
      But in particular you do not seem to have taken into account the Fall of all humanity, sin and its universal, every-person, nature, and God’s judgement on sin- all in all it covers much of systematic theology and some philosophy -such as the nature of evil.
      And a question not many seem to ask, but has been by John Piper “Are there two wills in God?”
      An inkling into the reason for the flood and Noah is in Genesis 6 as you will know:

      “5 The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.

      Noah and the Flood
      9 These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. 10 And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

      11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12 And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth. 13 And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh,[c] for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth. 14 Make yourself an ark of gopher wood.[d] Make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. 15 This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark 300 cubits,[e] its breadth 50 cubits, and its height 30 cubits. 16 Make a roof[f] for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above, and set the door of the ark in its side. Make it with lower, second, and third decks. 17 For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die. 18 But I will establish my covenant with you,…”
      Perhaps , you don’t seem to accept what is written. But it is clear.
      (As an aside I recall hearing 5-6 years ago that from the beginning of human life on earth until now, it was estimated that 80% of the cumulative total was alive at present, so how many would died may be well short of your/our imaginings.
      Some theologians describe the flood as “de-creation” by God as a consequence of the sin of all humanity – a precursor to God’s Final Judgement. Terrifying indeed without the grace of the cross of Christ and His bodily resurrection
      As a slight aside, as you mention moral issues:what about the slaughter of humans in the womb (an all time high in 2017 at 185,824) and the idea, suggestion, in USA that there could, should be “post birth abortion” to rename and legitimise what amounts to criminal infanticide.
      I repeat: all in all this merits, perhaps, a series of blog posts which may be outwith Ian Paul’s blog

      • Geoff, I’m not quite sure what you are driving at with the extended Genesis quotations…. but just to quickly say, since you raise the abortion question, that I fully sympathise with your views on that question. I wouldn’t bother saying so, except sometimes it seems to me that we tend to assume things about where others are coming from … ‘oh, he’s got a non-conservative approach on this aspect of biblical theology, I bet that means he’s in favour of abortion’ and I am sure ‘liberals’ often do the same sort of assuming re. conservatives.

  17. A question to Ian Paul:

    In his Peter Waddell May 1, 2019 at 4:05 pm post Peter asked ‘….but I’m left wondering how if it isn’t, you can avoid in the end having to give S’s rather simpler answer – ‘Yes’ – to my question about God commanding mass slaughter?’

    Since you initiated this debate by your original post, and this, as you have said, is a key question, it would be helpful if you could reply. Do you give S’s answer, or not?

    A question to Peter Waddell:

    In your Peter Waddell May 1, 2019 at 11:00 pm post you say “And incidentally, Christopher, I don’t think that ‘anything harsh is false.’ I think there is every possibility of eternal damnation!”

    In the light of your earlier posts on this thread it would be helpful if you could enlarge on that statement: on what grounds would God eternally damn anyone?

    Phil Almond

    • Hi Phil – It seems to me (and thank God I am not the judge) that if there was such a thing as an utterly unrepentant human being – someone who had utterly closed themselves to grace, who denied that there was anything about them that needed forgiveness and healing, who utterly turns away from God- then in the end God will respect that person’s freedom and (as Tom Wright puts it) finally say “very well, YOUR will be done.” He will leave them alone, which is Hell.

      However… who knows whether there actually is such a person? And who knows the depths of the divine determination to save each and every one of his creatures, and the lengths to which He will not go to retrieve them from their misery? So while I am clear that damnation is a real possibility, I dare to hope that “as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive.” (I am aware Paul was not a universalist btw – although I do think that is the easiest way of reading that particular text. Who knows, perhaps Paul wasn’t always consistent).

      • then in the end God will respect that person’s freedom and (as Tom Wright puts it) finally say “very well, YOUR will be done.” He will leave them alone, which is Hell.

        Credit where it’s due: that’s C.S. Lewis, from The Great Divorce.

        Professor Lewis who, I note, would not have been at all impressed with your attempt to tame God.

      • Peter
        But ‘eternal damnation’ means ‘eternal condemnation’. The greek ‘katakrima’ (Romans 5:16, Romans 5:18 and Romans 8:1) is defined by Strong as
        katakrima: penalty
        Original Word: κατάκριμα, ατος, τό
        Part of Speech: Noun, Neuter
        Transliteration: katakrima
        Phonetic Spelling: (kat-ak’-ree-mah)
        Definition: penalty
        Usage: punishment following condemnation, penal servitude, penalty.

        When I asked you my question to enlarge on ‘eternal damnation’ I was assuming that by ‘damnation’ you meant ‘condemnation’ with its inevitable implications of law-court, judgment, guilt, verdict, penalty, deserved punishment. Your reply suggests (correct me if I am wrong) that you did not mean that by ‘damnation’.

        As I have pointed out on other threads, Romans 8:1 has a converse: those not in Christ Jesus are facing condemnation. And what Paul says in Romans 5:16 and 5:18 tells us that we all face that condemnation from birth onwards because of the Fall.

        Phil Almond

        • Phil,

          I am puzzled by your reference to katakrima. In Romans 5, it refers to the condemnation that resulted, in the past, from “one man’s trespass.” Romans 8 speaks of the removal of that condemnation. These are the only uses of the word in the NT, and they do not seem to refer to some future condemnation. Or are you suggesting that the treatment of the Canaanites was some enactment of this condemnation above and beyond, as it were?

  18. Hi David

    When Peter Waddell wrote ‘I think there is every possibility of eternal damnation!’ I assumed that by that phrase he was referring to the Last Judgment, the final condemnation and punishment by God of those who have not been delivered from the condemnation we all face from birth onwards by (by God’s grace) repenting of their sins and submitting to Christ in his atoning death and life-giving resurrection. If Peter did mean that it seemed to me to be quite inconsistent with his earlier posts, because he would be accepting ‘every possibility of eternal damnation’ (eternal punishment, in my understanding of the phrase) while denying that God commanded the total slaughter of the Amalekites. But it seemed to me that Peter’s May 2, 2019 at 1:41 pm post indicated that in writing ‘eternal condemnation’ he was not using those words to include active punishment from God. My last post was an attempt to invite Peter to clarify his meaning. If Peter confirms that his ‘eternal damnation’ does not include active punishment from God, I will have further observations to make about some of the words attributed to Christ in the New Testament. So it might save time if I here ask Peter the question I often ask in this debate: what is Peter’s view of all the words attributed in the New Testament to Christ. Which does he accept that Christ did say – all, some (examples please of those he said and those he did not say), none?

    Phil Almond

    • Sorry Phil, I only have enough time and mental bandwidth for one serious engagement at the moment and that is with S. I don’t intend to get into this one too. But to answer your question, I have no particular view on which recorded words of Jesus were actually spoken by him. I believe that the evangelists were generally faithful witnesses and interpreters. Offhand I cannot think of any Jesus sayings I think do not come from him.

      But that’s it from me on this particular line of the argument, I’m afraid.

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