Is there hope for unbelieving Britain?

The article that caught my eye this week in the Church Times (which I read every week) was a fascinating reflection by Philip North, the bishop of Burnley, on his visits over the summer to three different Christian ‘festivals’. He visited: the Keswick Convention, a bastion of conservative evangelical devotion, shaped by free church evangelicals more than Anglicans; New Wine, the charismatic evangelical event initially establish by St Andrew’s, Chorleywood under the leadership of David and Mary Pytches and influenced by the Vineyard movement; and the Shrine of Walsingham, Philip’s home territory at the heart of the Anglo-catholic movement in the Church of England.

The piece was customarily witty and insightful—Philip has a wonderful way with words in person and in print—but was most noticeable for its generosity and fairness in observing the strengths of each of these. You might not expect the Church Times to include honest praise of Keswick, but here it was:

At Keswick, the gospel is a serious affair. The worship leader takes us through a selection of traditional hymns and seemly worship songs without so much as dreaming of cracking a smile. Well-thumbed, leather-bound Bibles are clamped like life jackets beneath the arms of earnest Evangelicals. People come for the preaching, which is sound, gimmick-free, and grown-up, the crowd clinging to any opportunity for a polite laugh with the tenacity of Harry Potter with the snitch.

But there is a simplicity and an honesty to Keswick which makes it oddly attractive. It is a gathering that is proud of its long history, entrance is still free of charge, and there is a pleasing wholesomeness to the event. The preaching is enormously impressive in its intellectual rigour and, while it may not be to everyone’s taste, the purpose of the conference — to sit beneath and be converted by the Word — is never diluted.

His assessment of New Wine was (I think, as an attender of 23 years standing) equally fair and insightful, and pointed to an important contrast:

A New Wine, by contrast, the gospel is a very jolly thing. Everyone is happy and smiley, and, while it was my first visit, the impression that I had stepped into an alien environment dissolved three minutes in with the first hug. There is a powerful sense of the immanence of God, which means that anything could happen, and it usually does. Arms were waved, tears were shed, miracles happened, and spontaneous laughter erupted…

A significant difference is the teaching. While the preaching at Keswick is about the reinforcement of a traditional Protestant atonement theology, New Wine has a strong desire for a proclamation that is relevant to the immediate needs and aspirations of the culture. Although, at times, the scriptures appear to be more illustrative than fundamental, there is no doubting the immediacy and attractiveness of this, and it is surely a reason for the huge growth of this movement.

Not surprisingly, his comments about Walsingham (where he was the preacher) were also positive—though perhaps, for that reason, less incisive.

It would be unwise to comment on the preaching, because I was doing it, but its theme was identity as the young pilgrims explored what it means to imitate Mary in finding their true selves through relationship with her Son. The level of response and engagement was profoundly moving. If you think that sacramental and liturgical worship lacks what it takes to convert the young, you need to come to the Youth Pilgrimage.

What were we to learn from this exploration of strength-in-diversity? I hope we might learn from not just the content but the tone of what Philip wrote, marked as it was by a respectful acknowledgement of the positive virtues of traditions not our own, and a willingness to learn from them. I have a feeling that Philip wanted us to take more away than that, as suggested by his introduction:

It is an exquisite irony that black-scarf conservative Evangelicals, arm-waving Charismatics, myth-busting liberals, and incense-swinging Anglo-Catholics all claim to be faithful members of the same communion. To other denominations it is bizarre and inexplicable. To us Anglicans, despite the odd fallout and blow-up, it is a matter of delight.

But I think I took away some rather different insights. The first is that each of these three traditions sits in a slightly different relationship with the Anglican tradition. The seriousness—sometimes bordering on severity—of Keswick bears a rather striking resemblance to the ethos of the Church’s Book of Common Prayer, and you would find Anglicans who attend Keswick more than averagely fond of the BCP’s ethos as well as its theology. You might not guess it from exploring your average local C of E service, but C of E clergy still commit publicly to own this text, not as a mere historical artefact, but as the thing which defines Anglican belief.

You actually have to do rather more work to see the Charismatic Movement as inherently Anglican; even if its strengths arise from the power of experience and its cultural affinity with the importance of emotion, for me it comes through the authority of the Scriptures, and the New Testament’s depiction of the centrality of the Holy Spirit in theology, discipleship and Christian living. If Jesus and his incarnation tie us to the historical particularity of God’s revelation, the Spirit commits us to its contemporary relevance as we seek to ‘proclaim afresh in each generation’ the unchanging good news of God’s redemptive love to a broken and fallen world.

Ironically, although it has much deeper historical roots, the Anglo-catholic tradition, born out of the ritualist ‘Oxford’ movement of the nineteenth century, is arguably further from the core of historic Anglican theology than the Charismatic Movement. Disputes about ritualism go all the way back to the time of the BCP, most notably advocated by William Laud, but (though it is not Puritan) at key points the BCP defines the worship of the C of E over against Catholic theology and practice.

My second observation is rather the opposite to Philip’s overall presentation. He deliberately describes each of these traditions in isolation from the other, contrasting biblical seriousness with ecstatic expectation and colourful liturgy—but should these really stay so separated? Would not Keswick be enriched by more embodied expression of worship to counter its cerebral tendencies? Would the (at times) unpredictable emotion of New Wine find better anchor in a more disciplined use of the Scriptures? And would not Walsingham gain from engaging with Scripture as much as tradition, and engaging with contemporary culture as much as its historic heritage? Of course, at one level, the presenting differences mask many similarities; rituals are as present and embedded at Keswick and New Wine, though perhaps in a less flamboyant register, as they are at Walsingham.

But perhaps the main thing I take away from Philip’s observations is the importance of having a strong, distinctive culture to thrive as a Christian group in secular, post-Christendom Britain. This was the week when the British Social Attitudes Survey revealed no halt to the decline in nominal affiliation to Christian denominations, and the Church of England in particular.

For the first time, more than half the population say they have no religion, and the generation gap on religious affiliation is widening…Among all adults in Britain, only 15% consider themselves to be Anglican, compared with almost one in three at the turn of the century, according to BSA data. Nine percent overall identify as Catholics, 17% as “other Christian” and 6% say they belong to non-Christian religions.

It was the first statistic that grabbed most of the headlines, but the next level of statistics are the ones worth pondering. It has been generally recognised that the change to the headline figure is largely a reflection of a change in culture more than a change in actual belief: why call yourself ‘C of E’ or Christian if you never actually go to church? Ironically, this is a result that committed Christians, particularly evangelicals, have actually wished for. We would like a little more honesty, and a little less nominalism—and we now have that in spadefuls. But it is interesting to me that, in a country where being a committed Christian is now seen to be significantly out of step with prevailing cultural values, 41% still identify as ‘Christian’. Much comment was made on the figure for identification as ‘Catholic’ which has hardly changed over two decades. Why is that figure so resilient? Surely it is largely shaped by the refusal of Catholic Church leaders (rather in contrast to many Anglicans) to tailor their doctrine and teaching to contemporary mores, the most striking recent embodiment of that being the interview with Jacob Rees-Mogg on breakfast television. Do watch till the end.

I was genuinely surprised that the Archbishop of Canterbury has offered no comment on the survey; he was at the time engaging in a debate about the impact of economic strategy. But the Spectator leader offered a surprisingly upbeat response, arguing that Christian faith is not only historically important, but the direction we still turn at times of tragedy. In amongst its observations, it noted the point about growth amongst those traditions who are most distinctive:

Where congregations have increased sharply, it has tended to be among evangelical churches which, while dispensing with the smells and bells, have tended to preach a more censorious message on same-sex relationships. In the Catholic Church, meanwhile, traditionalist parishes are thriving while more liberal ones disappear.

This particularly relates to the non-religious outlook of the young. Being a Christian, in any meaningful sense, is inconvenient. It means adopting some basic disciplines of regular activity, and might make demands not only on time, but on your money and even your ambitions. If there is nothing really distinctive about it—if the values of the Church are hardly distinguishable from the values of the world around—why would you bother?

In much of the discussion, optimism or hand-wringing has been expressed in relation to the future of the Church as an institution. Stephen Cottrell was quite right in his reflection on this when he said: ‘The Church is not an institution. The Church is that community of men and women whose lives are centred on Christ. We do care about numbers, but only because we care about people.’ But I cannot help feeling he sold us short in his next comment:

But most of all, we care about that vision of justice and peace for all that is given us in Christ, and we will get on with living and sharing that vision with a few dozen people, a few thousand people, or a few million people: whoever it is that responds to the call of God in Christ.

The good news is not about justice and peace alone; it is about sin and estrangement, about the offer of a costly forgiveness and hope, and the call to repentance and change as the path to peace with God and with one another. (I am trying to think of the last time I heard an Anglican leader mention this in the media…?) When I worry about declining church numbers, I feel despair not for the Church but for our nation, in all its confusion, shallowness and frustration. ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace…’ (Luke 19.42). In response to any news of declining numbers in surveys like these, we should weep with Jesus—not for ourselves but for others who have yet to hear and accept the good news.

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74 thoughts on “Is there hope for unbelieving Britain?”

  1. I wonder if Piers Morgan etal would go for sadiq khanand or other politicians who are followers of Isalm, in the same way that they go for those politicians who profess a Christian faith. I am not saying whether I agree with JRM or not, but after Tim Farron this does look like a strong bias in the media against Christians in public life.

    Having said that JRM handled it well.

  2. ‘In response to any news of declining numbers in surveys like these, we should weep with Jesus—not for ourselves but for others who have yet to hear and accept the good news.’ Thank you Ian – that is a profound and prophetic word that moved me deeply.

    I thought the grace, perceptivity and inclusivity of Bp Philip’s Church Times review, not to mention the superb talk he gave at New Wine, showed he is a man who must be supported, prayed for and preferred.

    • “I thought the grace, perceptivity and inclusivity of Bp Philip’s Church Times review, not to mention the superb talk he gave at New Wine, showed he is a man who must be supported, prayed for and preferred.”

      – But he wasn’t ‘preferred’, he was ambushed – and Sentamu didn’t come to his rescue. Archbishops understand the ‘political’ in ‘metropolitical’.

  3. I was genuinely surprised that the Archbishop of Canterbury has offered no comment on the survey.

    I have long ceased to be very surprised when the ABC is absent when you would expect (and hope for) presence, and present when you might expect (and hope for) absence. His priorities seem to get stranger by the year. The rebuke to the faithful on jurisdictional grounds rather than to the Scottish Episcopal Church for contravening Anglican orthodoxy and the agreements of the Anglican Communion was perhaps the most egregious example so far.

    On decline in faith, you observe ‘This is a result that committed Christians, particularly evangelicals, have actually wished for.

    Foolishly and short-sightedly in my view. It reflects a lack of understanding of the difference between committed religion and cultural religion and the important symbiotic relationship the two. I think evangelicals naively think that when people are more honest about not being a believer they will be more open to the gospel. The truth is that it just closes doors as people go from having a vague sense that they should be interested, and an openness to Christian influence in public life and society, to indifference and outright hostility. Lesson: be careful what you wish for.

    • Will, living in Northern Ireland where that symbiotic relationship you describe between committed and cultural religion is very real, I still wish for a church filled with genuine believers. The culturally religious are all too ready to dig their heels in when any godly change is required – I mean the most basic of things like prayer, worship, Bible study, evangelism, biblical preaching, etc. But having worked in England I know you are quite right that when cultural religion is cast aside, people become much more hardened to the gospel. So what is the answer? Is there a way that the symbiotic relationship can be managed to have the best of both worlds? I’d welcome your thoughts – or the thoughts of Ian or anyone who comments here.

      • Hi Dave.

        I’m sure there will be a mixture. But the difference in how open and accepting of Christian presence and ministry society is when it is culturally Christian than when it is culturally, well, godless and all over the place (as we increasingly are now), is vast. Just look at how hostile it becomes as it casts off faith. I know which context I prefer for effective mission and ministry.

      • That article is titled ‘The Church is Dying and I Couldn’t Be More Excited’. Surely that should be a give away that the argument is flawed? Jesus speaks of the kingdom living and growing. We need I think to resist responding to decline with a reassuring but false remnant mentality that regards weakness as a sign of success and shrinkage as an indicator of doing things right.

        If culture is running against the gospel and turning on truth, righteousness and faith then we should mourn and hunger and thirst for God’s kingdom, not think it is all for the best.

        • I agree, I find the optimism displayed at these statistics wildly misplaced.

          The big dangers faced by the church are really found when you ask the question; “what fills the void in society when the afterglow of Christianity, and the shared cultural language that came from it, are eroded completely?”

          Nature (and human nature especially) abhors a vacuum, and as a nation we will not have ‘liberated ourselves from Christianity’, so much as we will have found a new slave master. He looks forgiving and generous from a distance, but as scripture so often points us, all idolatry leads to judgement and destruction. That way we are headed……..

          At the risk of being a broken record, the church is fighting an important, but ultimately ‘Stalingrad’ battle over SSM when the real front-lines are the moral relativism, practical/pragmatic atheism and near-total spiritual apathy of this country.

          • As do I.

            I’ve said before that equal marriage is a Stalingrad for moral conservatives: in England, it was a trap laid by a prime minister who previously couldn’t care less about gay rights, but who saw an opportunity to humiliate his conservative opponents and took it.

            English conservatives had allowed much greater issues such as no-fault divorce and the collapse of the taboo against what used to be called “living in sin” to spiral out of control, opening themselves to charges of hypocrisy and homophobia. And so it proved.

            I’m of course no conservative, but I do see the value of thoughtful conservatism as a moderating force in society, and am loathed to see opportunist libertines sucker it into easily-avoidable plays such as these.

  4. There is some truth in the jibe that the Church of England has Calvinistic Articles, an Arminian Clergy, and a Popish Liturgy. Bishop Ryle in ‘Knots Untied’ made a stalwart effort to explain that the Prayer Book statements in the Baptism Service (‘We yield thee hearty thanks, most merciful Father, that it hath pleased thee to regenerate this Infant with thy Holy Spirit…’) and in the Visitation of the Sick (‘…..I absolve thee from all thy sins…’) do not commit the Church of England to the doctrines of Baptismal Regeneration and Priestly Absolution. I have often made the point that the wording of the Declaration of Assent, taken in its straightforward meaning, does commit the person making it to believe and proclaim, from Article 9, that we are all born with a nature inclined to evil and all face from birth onwards the wrath and condemnation of God. By the same commitment to straightforward meaning I acknowledge that those making the Declaration are committed to the doctrines mentioned which Ryle tried so earnestly to explain away. (For that reason alone I could never make the Declaration). This may become an issue for GAFCON.

    I agree with Ian’s ‘The good news is not about justice and peace alone; it is about sin and estrangement, about the offer of a costly forgiveness and hope, and the call to repentance and change as the path to peace with God and with one another.’

    But I would put it more strongly. Instead of ‘estrangement’ I would say ‘facing God’s wrath and condemnation from birth onwards’. Are Keswick, New Wine and Walsingham all agreed on that? Indeed, Ian, are you agreed on that?

    Phil Almond

    • ‘all face from birth onwards the wrath and condemnation of God.’

      I must confess that I’m not sure what you mean by ‘face’, but I would agree that,:
      1. We are ‘born in sin and shapen in iniquity’ (Ps. 51:5)
      2. In accordance with Eliphaz the Temanite’s estimation of human nature: ‘“What are mortals, that they could be pure, or those born of woman, that they could be righteous? If God places no trust in his holy ones, if even the heavens are not pure in his eyes, how much less mortals, who are vile and corrupt, who drink up evil like water!’ (Job 15:14,15)
      3. We deserve divine wrath and condemnation because, as Paul explains, ‘All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.’ (Eph. 2:3)

      However, concerning divine wrath, the relevant part of Article 9 actually states: ‘Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation.

      This is consonant with Eph. 2:3. Yet, despite justly deserving condemnation, Christ clearly explained the basis upon which people remain under the prospect of condemnation: ‘Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil…Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them’ (John 3:19)

      Jesus said as much to the Pharisees: ‘Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.

      I understand that to mean that God can and does provisionally forbear and seeks to cultivate those who err in ignorance in the hope that they will eventually bear fruit (Luke 13:8)

      I would say that, all mankind, from birth and by nature, deserves the sentence of eternal destruction and that, unless we are born again, we remain under that sentence (Matt. 25:38 – 46; James 4:17)

      This is why, for those without Christ, there is fear of death (Rom. 2:16; Heb. 2:15; Heb. 9:27; 1 Cor. 15:56; 1 John 4:18)

      At the same time, in this life, we are all recipients of the ‘riches of His goodness and forbearance and longsuffering’ (Acts 14:17; Rom. 2:4) which we are warned not to despise ‘knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?’ Godly sorrow is the other God-wrought impetus of repentance (2 Cor. 7:10)

      St. Peter ‘s rhetorical questions also warn those who despise this gracious gift of reconciliation through his Son: ‘For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who disobey the gospel of God? If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?’ (1 Pet. 4:17, 18)

      So, can you further unpack what you mean when you say that ‘all face from birth onwards the wrath and condemnation of God’? Are you referring to the above-mentioned verses, or others?

      • Hi David Shepherd
        Thanks for your detailed reply. Yes, ‘deserves God’s wrath and condemnation’ is a better way of expressing my meaning. All the verses you quote support that terrible truth and the terrible truth that we are all born with a nature inclined to evil, inclined to sin. I would just add Romans 8:1 with its clear corollary that those not in Christ Jesus deserve God’s condemnation, Romans 5:12-21with its (to me clear, but much disputed) implication of the imputation of Adam’s sin to all humanity), and Paul’s references to the ‘flesh’ as in Romans 7:5.
        As I have said repeatedly, I think the disagreement about whether or not we deserve God’s wrath and condemnation and whether we are born with a nature inclined to evil is the fundamental disagreement among those who believe that Christianity is in some sense true. And this is allied to another disagreement: whether the need to be delivered from that wrath and condemnation is the paramount need of all of us, eclipsing in importance even the many important and harrowing needs which beset many in this vale of tears, such as famine, oppression, war, disability, disease; and to another disagreement: whether and how, alongside the other blessings and pictures of God’s great salvation, such as Victory, Example, Reconciliation, Redemption, Ransom, this deliverance is the paramount blessing to meet that paramount need.

        Phil Almond

        • Hi Phil,

          On the basis of your reply, I’m in broad agreement with you, especially regarding the basis of major disagreements in the church.

          However, I believe that the central disagreement is the clash between the Church’s traditional morality and culturally-affirmed diversity and ‘authenticity’, known as identity.

          To the liberals, sin is synonymous with injustice, especially as characterised by enforced conformity.

          To the conservatives, sin is synonymous with inability to conform to orthodoxy.

          In the midst of this dispute, while some refuse to give ground to revision and see it as unfaithfulness, others insist that to refuse such affirming revision in the face of historic irrational prejudice and abuse is to aid and abet ‘hate crime’ and to consign those who don’t conform to lives of concealment, shame, ostracism and even suicide.

          Nevertheless, beyond this well-nigh intractable disagreement, it would be helpful for you to explain why you believe that Romans 5:12-21 implies that Adam’s sin (or more properly, his guilt) was imputed by God to all humanity.

          Ultimately, that particular passage explains that:
          1. Sin entered the world through Adam;
          2. Death is universally experienced as part of the human condition because (even without explicit divine law) we all participate in Adam’s rebellion: ‘the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life’ (Gen.3:6; 1 John 2:16)

          However, I should note here that St. Paul appears to be simply declaring our shared guilt with Adam as an observable fact without explaining how its contagion was spread (whether, by imputation or otherwise)

          Since the time of Adam’s disobedience, we all sin. By nature, none of us deserves to possess that immortal nature, which Paul calls the life of God and the glory of God.

          Although imputation is not explicitly stated, Paul directly relates the sin of Adam to the guilt of all mankind:
          ‘many died through one man’s trespass’;
          ‘the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation’;
          ‘because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man’;
          ‘one trespass led to condemnation for all men’;
          ‘as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners’

          It’s not really a valid hermeneutic option to downplay the direct implication of these verses because they are indicative of a ‘literal’ Adam and, therefore, incompatible with what Will calls ‘a more symbolic understanding that accords more with the natural history of humankind and the Earth.’

          I believe that we also need to be clear that the outworking of both divine mercy and divine retributive justice are going on at the same time.

          As Romans 1 explains, on the one hand, God’s wrath is incurred and continuously revealed against mankind’s arrogant and treasonous ingratitude and irreverence towards His supreme goodness, eternal power and transcendence (as revealed through the natural universe – cf. Ps. 19)

          In response to mankind exchanging this revealed truth of God’s ineffable majesty for the adulation of self-conceived falsehood, God’s wrath is described in terms of the oft-repeated phrase: ‘gave up’ (paredoken).

          This most overt and immediate token of God’s wrath is not Hell, but His relinquishment reprobate souls to the inescapable custody of their sinful (but even societally sanctioned) passions. They may outwardly reform, but they do not repent.

          Such reprobates are also enslaved to ever more egregious indulgence of their darling sins (whether material advancement, sensory indulgence, self-affirming religiosity, or worldly status, take your pick)

          They also persist in impenitence: masking their behavioural inertia with passive-aggressive counter-accusations and/or overt hostility in the face of godly reproof (2 Cor. 4:3-4; Mark 4:12; Luke 4:23-27).

          Importantly, on the other hand, St. Paul also emphasises that the grace revealed in Christ through the gospel as God’s generous antidote to our estrangement from Him.

          And God’s redemption accomplished in Christ is Paul’s chief impetus for dispensing that antidote throughout the ancient world: “So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also. For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.’ (Rom. 1:15-16)

          My considered view is that there is little of this impetus driving much of what passes for mission and evangelism across the Church today. With approx. 4 hours a week devoted to ‘preaching and teaching including preparation’ (Experience of Ministry Survey 2015), the focus of ordained is on ecclesiatical administration, priestly ritual and organising a bit of social work, on the side, as a form of community engagement.

          Ultimately, the number of those added to the church daily is down to the Lord’s grace. We need to know our place as His co-workers in spreading the scriptural gospel, instead of becoming overly reliant on diligently number-crunched mission action plans, prudently managed funding innovations, leadership talent-scouting and repeatable church growth initiative templates.

          • Hi David
            “Nevertheless, beyond this well-nigh intractable disagreement, it would be helpful for you to explain why you believe that Romans 5:12 -21 implies that Adam’s sin (or more properly, his guilt) was imputed by God to all humanity.”

            To give a thorough explanation would be a long post, taking us away from the theme of this thread; because, as you probably know better than me, this passage is one of the most thoroughly scrutinised passages in the Bible, and also because my response would have to consider how this passage and Paul’s statements in other parts of Romans fit together (some commentators, I gather, are ready to say that they can’t be harmonised). I have done a spreadsheet which is my attempt at a best fit which I could send you (assuming that I couldn’t post it here) if you are happy to give me your email address.

            So I will try here just to give you the key points as I see it:

            ‘Therefore as through one man sin into the world entered, and through sin death, 2also 1so to all men death passed, inasmuch as all sinned; until for law sin was in [the] world, sin but is not reckoned not being law; but 2reigned 1death from Adam until Moses even over the [ones] not sinning on the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the [one] coming.’ (Romans 5:12-14)

            This is an exact copy of Marshalls literal translation of the Nestle text with superscripts (may not show as superscripts) on ‘also so’ giving Marshall’s view of the word order (disputed by others), and on ‘reigned death’.

            I argue:

            From Romans 2:14-15, all men have the work of the law written in their hearts
            ‘sin but is not reckoned’: who is doing the reckoning? Must be God.
            ‘but (alla)’ according to Strong a ‘typically a strong adversative conjunction’
            ‘not sinning on the likeness of the transgression of Adam’ either means ‘they did not eat the forbidden fruit’ or ‘they did not disobey a specific command which they had been told and they did not deliberately disobey their conscience’. My view works with either of these possibilities.

            So, until the law (from Adam to Moses) sin was in the world, but God chose not to reckon sin before the law. But (nevertheless) death reigned from Adam to Moses even over those not sinning on the likeness of the transgression of Adam (including young babies). Given that death is the punishment for sin, why did those not sinning on the likeness of the transgression of Adam die? It cannot be for their own sins because God has chosen not to reckon them before the law. It must be for Adam’s sin, and that means that ‘inasmuch as all sinned’ (5:12) means ‘all sinned’ in Adam. That is why they died.

            A mystery indeed, but confirmed by the following verses where condemnation and death are the consequence of the one man’s disobedience, and summarised by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15: ‘For as in Adam all die’. I point out that this view is not dependant on Augustine’s exegesis of these verses, deemed by most commentators to be flawed. It is quite possible that the view I have set out above is also flawed but I can’t see a flaw at the moment. If anyone can see a flaw, please point it out.

            Phil Almond

          • Hi. I think however we interpret Genesis 3 and Romans 5 we are going to want it to accord as closely as we can with what we know about the natural history of humanity, or at least if we can find a faithful interpretation which is not made problematic by natural history we are surely in a better position intellectually.

            All the evidence is that humanity appeared about 130,000 years ago having evolved from lower life forms, most recently hominids. The initial population has been estimated to be a few hundred or thousand. Death has been a constant feature of the development of life.

            In this context, a historical Adam with a historical sin which causes a corrupting of human nature and human death is not completely impossible. But if we had another interpretation which didn’t require it we would clearly be on much stronger ground intellectually.

            I suggest that Paul’s underlying point in Romans 5 is about how one man dying and rising can save everyone and he points out that it is the counterpart of one man sinning and bringing a curse on everyone. If Adam is understood as the original or form of humanity in the mind of God, and Christ as the form of renewed and redeemed humanity, then perhaps we can see how Adam and his sin can be understood in primordial terms as relating to how God designed humankind and human nature given his foreknowledge of our sinful use of freedom.

            In any case, interpretations of Romans 5 need to contend with the fact that Adam did not commit the first sin. Eve did. (Similarly notice that their firstborn Cain built a city – that requires a lot of people. Also Cain was a farmer, but farming wasn’t invented until 120,000 years after the emergence of man.) There may be other ways of resolving these issues. But one is to understand Genesis 3 and Romans 5 as not about a historical sin but as about Adam as primeval form of humanity, a form which has been corrupted since the very first humans and which needs renewing in Christ.

            In any case l think we’d be on intellectually stronger ground with understandings which don’t require rewriting natural history.

          • Hi Will

            Before I respond to your Will Jones September 13, 2017 at 9:44 pm post I would like to clarify something. In my March 7, 2017 at 4:43 pm post where I tried to make the case that Christ did bear the wrath and condemnation of God in his death, I stated what I thought was common ground between you, Oliver and myself. This assumed common ground included ‘We all personally face God’s holy anger and just condemnation from birth onwards’. I thought you had explicitly agreed that this is common ground, although you disagreed with the case I was trying to make about penal substitutionary atonement, but I can’t find the post agreeing common ground. Before we go any further could I just ask, please, is it common ground?
            Phil Almond

          • Hi Will
            Thanks for a quick reply. I am glad we agree on that. On your view, why are we all personally faced from birth onwards with the holy anger and just condemnation of God?
            Phil Almond

          • Phil, I don’t see how that is relevant to my point that our interpretation of the Bible will be intellectually stronger if it is compatible with our best understanding of natural history and not in tension with it. To answer that you would need either to argue how your position is not in tension with it or why you think it is not a problem that it is.

            As it happens I think that we are by nature objects of wrath because we have a sinful human nature which inclines us to evil, and we are along with all humankind subject to God’s judgement – what Augustine called original sin. We share in the sin of our kind, that is, in Adam’s sin. But if you just critique my personal view here you will be missing the point, since you need to respond to the above criticisms of your own view, not get sidetracked finding the faults in my speculative outline of an alternative possibility (though those will be interesting).

          • Hi Will,

            I do wonder why it’s that important for the interpretation of scripture to have greater intellectual strength.

            After all, if you’re proclaiming the gospel which includes the glaring ‘whole camel’ of the resurrection, it’s almost straining at a gnat to ensure our interpretation of Genesis squares with our ‘best understanding of natural history’.

            Here, I’m not arguing that belief in Young Earth creationism is essential to the Christian faith, but I can’t see how rejecting that and a literal Adam can reduce incredulity in response to our gospel which declares that God’s Messiah rose from the dead.

          • Hi David.

            Human destiny and human origins involve different kinds of belief.

            Human origins is an object of historical and scientific research and what these discover we need to consider ourselves under some obligation to accept – otherwise we are undermining the claims of reason which we ourselves rely on in our hermeneutical and theological endeavours. The past consists of facts and we are trying to ascertain what they are.

            Human destiny is not a matter of scientific or historical investigation in the same way. The future is not like the past in consisting of facts to be explored. Yes, the resurrection as a historical event can be investigated as such, and the plausibility of claims to be a prophet of God can be examined, and from this a picture of human destiny built up. But that is quite a different enterprise to the investigation of historical facts about origins and natural history.

          • Hi Will,

            I’d generally agree, but the challenge that we face, as Christians, is that certain past events are the basis of Christian beliefs about human destiny.

            Beyond just the resurrection and the plausibility of Jesus, I’m not sure why the plausibility of Genesis (as contradicted by the modern understanding of anthropology) wouldn’t be a part of that ‘picture of human destiny’ enterprise.

          • Hi David.

            I don’t think what you’ve said affects my point that it would be intellectually stronger to have available a faithful/plausible interpretation which doesn’t require us to stand against what science tells us about human origins and natural history.

            If it is true that we can only hold to a biblical anthropology and soteriology by renouncing what science tells us about human origins then that hardly places us on a firm footing in presenting the Christian faith to a sceptical, science-minded world. We’re obviously on firmer ground if we don’t have to concede that Christianity and science are in conflict and you have to choose between them.

          • Hi Will,

            Stronger intellectual credibility might indeed be achieved with respect to agreement on what science has to say about human origins, but:
            1. It’s easier said than done to develop a ‘faithful/plausible’ interpretation of Genesis without undermining its description of the world before the Fall to represent divinely established goodness and virtue.

            For instance, the key issue underlying most debates here between liberals and conseervatives hinges on what kind/level of divergences from Church tradition, reasoned literally from Genesis archetypes of sex, gender and marriage, should be understood as natural diversity vs. immoral dis-order.

            2. Biblical anthropology has teleological implications about returning to our God-given purpose in this world to conform to what God intended from the beginning. As I explained, this goes beyond just questions of human origin.

            3. I should re-iterate that I’m not suggesting that belief in a literal Adam is essential to Christian faith. However, it is essential tenet to believe in Christ’s victory over the physical death that he endured: that He laid down His life and took it up again.

            4. Even if you gain intellectual credibility by eliminating belief in a literal Adam as incompatible with science, a sceptical science-minded world will laugh us to scorn at the declaration that Christ rose from the dead.

            My point is that achieving a faithful reading of biblical anthropology which is plausible to science has very limited efficacy in making the case for faith in Christ, which requires that sceptical science-minded world to accept His resurrection from the dead.

            Better to follow Paul’s example and preach the gospel, not using persuasive words of men’s wisdom but in ‘demonstration of the Spirit and in power’.

          • Sorry, David, but I don’t buy the argument that if we believe in the resurrection then we might as well believe anything despite what science tells us. Science can’t disprove the resurrection as the resurrection is a manifestation of the new creation and science only studies this creation. But origins falls squarely within this creation and science’s purview. We may want to criticise certain scientific findings and claims, but we can’t just disregard scientific truth.

          • Excuse me for butting in, but I’d like to offer a thought on this:

            ‘4. Even if you gain intellectual credibility by eliminating belief in a literal Adam as incompatible with science, a sceptical science-minded world will laugh us to scorn at the declaration that Christ rose from the dead.’

            I’m always a bit saddened that some Christians seem to take it as an article of faith that you have to deny science in order fully to believe the Bible (I’m not suggesting that you are saying this). Because that is almost to infer that God has placed a massive body of misleading scientific information in our physical world to make us choose between that and the very few verses in the Bible which, if read literally, might appear to be in conflict with what we have learned from science. But what we have learned from science is thrilling in its vastness and complexity which, if you are a Christian, makes it ever more amazing that the God whose creative power could conceive of this should also love human beings to the point of letting Christ die on a cross for us. For me, resolving those few ‘conflicts’ are about understanding the purpose of the narrative, which is far different from querying the coherence or authority of scripture. I would hope most objective scientists might understand this point whether or not they are Christians. And surely it is important not to place unnecessary obstacles to faith in the way of scientific minds.

            On the other hand the resurrection might just possibly be explained away in scientific terms (as some try to do) but the Bible leaves no doubt that it is historic fact (not allegorical or mythical) and the result of divine intervention with a source and significance far beyond the limits of physical creation. This is the point beyond which the scientist’s observations and measurements are not able to pass; he or she will either scoff or believe (as is true for all of us).

            ‘Intellectual credibility’, as you put it, does not have the power of the Holy Spirit to convict and convert the sinner.

          • ‘I don’t buy the argument that if we believe in the resurrection then we might as well believe anything despite what science tells us’

            Good, ‘Cos I didn’t try to sell that argument and I even reiterated that belief in a literal Adam is not essential to Christian faith.

            I did highlight the implications of seeking to develop a faithful interpretation of Geneis which our sceptical, science-minded Western society (so much for any other civilisation) also finds plausible.

            You could have attempted to address those implications in my points 1 and 2, but, instead, your counter-argument that I was attempting to persuade you that ‘if we believe in the resurrection then we might as well believe anything’ was just an insulting ‘straw-man’. Frankly, I expected better.

            You wrote: ‘science can’t disprove the resurrection as the resurrection is a manifestation of the new creation’.

            Unfortunately, in a post-modern, secular society, the burden of proof is not on the scientific world to disprove the resurrection. And how does science’s inability to disprove the testimony of the apostles, who saw Jesus alive, advance the cause of the gospel in a science-minded world?

            Could a Christian apologetic approach, which relies on the argument that the resurrection is in falsifiable, ever persuade our science-minded society?

            Well, in comparison with the implausibility of an unfalsifiable event of the resurrection, which is so central to the gospel of Christ, the implausibility of a literal Adam is relatively ‘small beer’.

          • Hi David.

            I’m glad you reiterate that a belief in a literal Adam is not essential to Christian faith. The thing that confused me was that the rest of your comment seemed to be an argument about how problematic it is if it’s missing. I think you’re asking me to defend an alternative interpretation against your objections? I hope you don’t mind if l don’t get into that as it would be speculative and beyond the scope of this comment thread! But you don’t need to have a ready alternative to hand to recognise the point that such would be helpful/necessary to harmonise better the ‘two books’ of scripture and nature as studied by science.

            Again, l just don’t see why belief in the resurrection, a clearly supernatural event, has any relevance to questions of natural origins, which lie within natural history and the sciences which study it.

            I do think that rational investigation can help establish the plausibility of belief in the resurrection, as per Christian apologetics. But that is a singular event of an expected kind whereas evolution and biological life are general phenomena studied by the sciences.

          • ‘Again, l just don’t see why belief in the resurrection, a clearly supernatural event, has any relevance to questions of natural origins, which lie within natural history and the sciences which study it.’

            The resurrection is not relevant to questions of natural origins, but both the apostolic witness to the resurrection and the Genesis narrative are directly relevant to the plausibility of Scripture.

            As I wrote above: ‘biblical anthropology has teleological implications about returning to our God-given purpose in the world to conform to what God intended from the beginning.

            So, it would be great if you could explain how opting for an interpretation of Genesis which is more plausible to science can also remain faithful to those teleological implications.

            For instance, why isn’t the creation of Eve after Adam to be his ‘help meet’ just part of a myth aimed at perpetuating patriarchal stereotypes in ancient Israel?

            Concerning Christ’s resurrection, although it is supernatural, but it was realised through natural phenomena. In confirming Christ’s bodily resurrection, John records Jesus’ answer to Thomas’ unbelief: ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’

            As anyone here should know, I’m a fan of well-argued Christian apologetics. However, I’d agree with James Byron that historical research is simply not equipped to assess or provide deductive proof of miracle claims.

            Overcoming hardened scepticism was never the purpose of the written apostolic witness. If that does occur, then, as in Paul’s case, that’s the work of the Holy Spirit.

          • As, 1 Co. 15:22, in Adam all die; so here, in him all have sinned; for it is agreeable to the law of all nations that the acts of a public person be accounted theirs whom they represent; and what a whole body does every member of the same body may be said to do. Now Adam acted thus as a public person, by the sovereign ordination and appointment of God, and yet that founded upon a natural necessity; for God, as the author of nature, had made this the law of nature, that man should beget in his own likeness, and so the other creatures. In Adam therefore, as in a common receptacle, the whole nature of man was reposited, from him to flow down in a channel to his posterity; for all mankind are made of one blood (Acts 17:26), so that according as this nature proves through his standing or falling, before he puts it out of his hands, accordingly it is propagated from him. Adam therefore sinning and falling, the nature became guilty and corrupt, and is so derived. Thus in him all have sinned. Matthew Henry.

      • And the relevance of my question to this post is to probe how far the Church should go in interpreting the witness of prophets and apostles in a manner that’s more compatible science and the prevailing views of the wider society.

        At what point should the Church decide that to go any further would result in implications which are unfaithful to its prophetic and apostolic roots.

        • Hi David

          You say ‘At what point should the Church decide that to go any further would result in implications which are unfaithful to its prophetic and apostolic roots.’

          But you accept that biblical theology does not require a literal/historical Adam. So I don’t see what your concern is? It’s just a matter of finding sound alternative interpretations which answer questions like the ones you raise above.

          Personally l think the fact that Cain finds a wife and builds a city shows that even the narrative itself does not regard itself as strict history.

          Other questions involve working out why the spiritual truths don’t require a literal/historical interpretation in order to retain their validity. E.g the creation of Eve after Adam as help meet may reflect the fact that woman is the weaker sex and the natural propensity in the male to leadership/take charge – observable population level characteristics of the sexes (explicable through e.g. differing testosterone levels.)

          • Hi Will, David, Don, Simon et al

            I have tried to trace the course of this thread’s discussion on, ‘Literal, Non-Literal Adam and Science and Scripture’. As I see it, it was started by my Philip Almond September 11, 2017 at 8:32 pm post, which ended by asking the question
            “But I would put it more strongly. Instead of ‘estrangement’ I would say ‘facing God’s wrath and condemnation from birth onwards’. Are Keswick, New Wine and Walsingham all agreed on that? Indeed, Ian, are you agreed on that?”.

            Following this post there has been a sequence of posts from David Shepherd, Will Jones, Simon Ponsonby Don Benson and me up to Will’s Will Jones September 16, 2017 at 6:23 pm post.

            I have a number of comments on the debate so far:

            1. I do agree that if a person has two convictions:
            Conviction1. That what I choose to call the Generally Accepted Understanding (GAU) of the geological column, fossil record, and chronology of life on earth, including the appearance of Man – is as certain a fact, as certain a truth as the circulation of the blood in the human body (for instance). ( I am not including in GAU the agnostic/atheistic philosophical views that many who believe GAU is true hold).
            Conviction 2. That the Bible is wholly trustworthy.
            Then – those two convictions are in great tension. Anyone who holds these two precious convictions and acknowledges this great tension wants to find a faithful way of showing that both convictions are true. I have never explored the evidence for Conviction 1 in great detail to see how convincing or unconvincing it is but I am aware of how compelling the case for its truth can appear. I am convinced that Conviction 2 is true. Is it possible that both Conviction 1 and Conviction 2 could be true? More on this below.

            2. One or two of the posts imply that the scientific evidence for GAU and the scientific evidence for, say, the human circulation of the blood are the same kinds of evidence. I am not at all putting forward this point as in any way conclusive, but I hope it would be agreed that there is a difference in kind, which is worth bearing in mind. The truth, the fact, of the circulation of the blood can be proved by repeatable, observable experiments. I submit that GAU cannot be proved by repeatable, observable experiments. The observable facts are there: fossil record etc. But the explanation of those facts need not be solely random mutations and natural selection under the providential sovereignty of God. If God also intervened by acts of special creation, that (as I think Will might be implying in one of his posts) would make a ‘literal Adam’ possible. In fact, though, my view is that the two big Biblical challenges to ‘naturalistic’ GAU bear with equal weight against ‘Special Creation’ GAU over a long period: namely animal predation before the Fall and the ‘discontinuity’ stated in Romans 8 (Who, when and why subjected the ktisis (sub-human creation) to the slavery of corruption).

            3. In his Will Jones September 14, 2017 at 10:36 pm Will did not see the relevance of the question I asked in Philip Almond September 14, 2017 at 8:36 pm (‘Phil, I don’t see how that is relevant to my point that our interpretation of the Bible will be intellectually stronger if it is compatible with our best understanding of natural history and not in tension with it. To answer that you would need either to argue how your position is not in tension with it or why you think it is not a problem that it is’).

            Well, I do think my question is relevant. I have acknowledged above that I agree there is great tension between Conviction 1 and Conviction 2 and I agree that if a faithful way could be found to show that the two convictions are not in tension, that would be very helpful to those like Will who believe that both convictions are true and would remove the problem that perhaps keeps many who believe that Conviction 1 is true from accepting Conviction 2 as also true.

            The question I asked is part of an approach to this issue which I will now try to explain, repeating points already made by David Shepherd.

            All those who believe that the Christianity is in some sense true have a ‘circle’. This circle contains ‘things’ (keeping it general) like true doctrines, experiences etc. which are essential to the truth of Christianity, without which Christianity ceases to be true, and ‘things’ which are ruled out if Christianity is true. I could repeat the above sentence replacing ‘Christianity’ by ‘Bible’ on the assumption that the truth or untruth of Christianity is closely tied to the truth or untruth of the Bible.
            I will now set out what ‘things’ are in my own personal circle which are particularly relevant to what we are debating here:

            Firstly, things that are essential to the truth of the Bible:
            3.1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth….and God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.
            3.2 Leaving open for the moment the question of how God made the heavens and the earth, whether by evolution alone, both evolution and special creation, special creation alone, and leaving open for the moment whether there were two individuals or several/many and leaving open for the moment how long it was before mankind appeared, at some point mankind was endowed with the image of God, and at some point mankind was in fellowship with God.
            3.3 At some point in history that situation changed. There was a sin, leaving open for the moment whether that was a sin committed by two individuals, a man and a woman, or some kind of collective sin by the several/many. This sin broke the fellowship between the two or the several/many and God and resulted in all the descendants of the two or the several/many being born personally facing God’s holy anger and just condemnation from birth onwards and dying spiritually and physically

            Secondly things which are ruled out if the Bible is true:
            3.4 That God created mankind already with a nature inclined to evil and deserving his holy anger and just condemnation

            So, as I see it, any attempt to harmonise Convictions 1 and 2 which does not include 3.1 to 3.4 in the ‘circle’ cannot be right.

            Scrutinising Will’s posts, although he has explicitly agreed that ‘We all personally face God’s holy anger and just condemnation from birth onwards’, I don’t see anything corresponding to 3.2 and 3.3. What does will say about 3.4

            Am I missing something Will?

            Phil Almond

          • Hi Will,

            You wrote: ‘But you accept that biblical theology does not require a literal/historical Adam. So I don’t see what your concern is?’

            I actually wrote that ‘belief in a literal Adam is not essential to Christian faith’. In other words, I don’t think that expressing disbelief in a literal Adam makes you any less a Christian.

            That said, those who do not believe in a literal Adam cannot simply dismiss the theological and teleological implications of doing so,

            In the above post, Ian Paul encapsulated my concern when he wrote: ‘I hope we might learn from not just the content but the tone of what Philip wrote, marked as it was by a respectful acknowledgement of the positive virtues of traditions not our own, and a willingness to learn from them.’

            The Church will struggle to achieve that ‘strength in diversity’ until we are able to muster ‘a respectful acknowledgement of the positive virtues of traditions not our own, and a willingness to learn from them.’

          • Also, you wrote: ‘the creation of Eve after Adam as help meet may reflect the fact that woman is the weaker sex and the natural propensity in the male to leadership/take charge – observable population level characteristics of the sexes (explicable through e.g. differing testosterone levels.)’

            In the absence of a literal Adam, is that really your alternative explanation of the theological precedence which scripture accords to men?

          • Hi Phil,

            Exactly. You’re presenting the theological implications, instead of just declining to address them head on.

          • Hi Phil

            Even if you can preserve a historical prelapsarian humanity, sinless and free from original sin and the curse and death, you can’t short of YEC preserve a prelapsarian nature without death, decay or predation. So either way unless you throw out scientific natural history entirely you have a problem for a literal/historical prelapsarian creation. How would humans avoid disease and death in a world filled with it and governed by the second law of thermodynamics?

            But l grant that it would be desirable to be able to preserve a historical prelapsarian humanity at least. One of the most challenging theological consequences of the modern science of natural history is the loss of a pre-fall creation, and especially a pre-fall man.

            I don’t think this is easily resolved. But I do think it needs addressing more carefully than it often has been. I don’t have any well thought out answers. Very speculatively I can repeat what I hinted at above about the prelapsarian creation and man possibly being a form in the mind of God, like Plato’s form of the good, which can have a metaphysical existence in eternity without needing to be ever fully actualised in the material world. This could connect with Christian theology since the successor to Plato’s idea in Stoic philosophy was the logos, the underlying rational principle of the cosmos which ultimately defines what is true and good. This is the logos concept which John is referring to when he says that the Logos became flesh in Jesus Christ.

            But as I say this is all pretty speculative.

          • Hi Will,

            You wrote: ‘I hinted at above about the prelapsarian creation and man possibly being a form in the mind of God, like Plato’s form of the good’

            However, this is problematic because, as you’re fully aware, it is the basis for Gnostic dualism, which treats the physical world per se as inferior to the metaphysical.

            I would suggest that in Romans 1:20 – 23, St. Paul provides far more than a dramatic sketch of the descent of his Gentile contemporaries into idolatry, sexual license and complete depravity. Instead, he is describing the Fall, but without reference to a literal Adam:

            ‘Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man…“Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.”

            If this passage does refer to the Fall, then it drives home the guilt of our earliest human ancestry, which is shared by Gentiles and Jews alike. In so doing, St. Paul is challenging Jews to look further back beyond those divinely favoured forbears who made them feel superior to Gentiles.

            It is certainly plausible that the charge in Rom. 2:1,2 is based on the fact that, according to scripture, Jews share with Gentiles the same shameful legacy of the Fall, as evidenced by the actual sinfulness of both: ‘“Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things.”

          • Hi David

            The fact that something is a basis for one philosophy doesn’t mean it cannot be the basis for another. Augustine was a Platonist and the idea of the form of the good as divine ideas is perfectly respectable in Christian theology. It doesn’t have to insist the material world is evil, just fallen i.e. dysfunctional and partial.

            Many cultures e.g. Rome and Egypt have stories of a pure monotheism being corrupted into paganism. Not necessarily primal, but the idea that gentile cultures have exchanged the truth of God for a lie has some historical echoes. There have also been prophets of monotheism e.g. Zoroaster.

            You seem very fixed on trying to rule out any kind of non-literal/historical interpretation despite the apparent need presented to us by science. But they are surely worth exploring seriously as the advantages for intellectual integrity and credibility are considerable.

          • Hi Philip

            Thanks for your thoughts. I’m not sure how much further all this can get us, but I’ll offer one more observation.

            Wouldn’t we all like a sure and certain answer which enlightens us as to exactly how eternity and our physical world were combined over the creation period (however long or short!) and how the fall fits in with it. And we’d particularly like to know how a perfect creation came about without the inbuilt pain and suffering inherent in a scientific understanding of biological development through the mechanism of evolution. None of us doubts the process of evolution – it’s daily evidenced in the fight against bacteria – but can it definitely account for everything about the biological world and especially our human existence? Aren’t there still untested assumptions and unwarranted certainties with evolutionary theory? And why the geological upheavals and climatic instability which contribute to make life so chancy for innocent and guilty alike?

            And why would God give mankind freedom of choice while knowing, as He would know, that the tempter could come along and deceive her and him into making a disastrous choice? And it’s because of that choice (loss of innocence) that we are tormented our whole lives long into seeking the answers to that which we cannot fully understand this side of eternity. It all bugs me as much as anyone, but I wonder if there’s a good case for a bit of spiritual pragmatism here.

            Because there’s one more choice still open to us, and we can still get this one right: we can resolve to spend our time in the most useful way for the God whom we serve, rather than devote large chunks, or all of it, pondering and debating that which we can never fully resolve. I’m not suggesting a moratorium on theology or head-in-the-sand ignorance of scientific discovery, or the type of fundamentalism that pushes reasonable people away from the Gospel (we have to be able to give a reasoned response to reasonable questions). But there’s practical Christian living and loving and telling to be done, and Jesus left little doubt that he expects that of us first and foremost.

            And it is in the ‘telling’ that we should not be content to offer implausible answers; that may sometimes mean we have to say, ‘I don’t know’ – which is a much better answer than the kind of speculation that leaves us tied up in embarrassing knots later down the line. And it is right that some people are indeed called to make thinking and discovering and teaching their lifelong work for God, which is why simple folk like I am owe so much to those who do this on our behalf. But every one of us knows there are answers that lie beyond our earthly comprehension (1 Corinthians 13:8-12 obviously!) and that we will be judged on how we have lived rather than the sum of our knowledge.

        • Hi Will,

          As you admiitted earlier about this theory, ‘it’s all pretty speculative’.

          If so, you now appear be defending it as though it’s a robustly developed hypothesis.

          Concerning this theory of ideas, you wrote’ It doesn’t have to insist the material world is evil, just fallen i.e. dysfunctional and partial.’

          However, even if it doesn’t have to insist that the material world is evil, such a theory would imply that the material world (and our created physical embodiment in it) has never been other than fallen.

          That would mean that our perfect God did ultimately endow our humanity and all creation with a physical embodiment which, from the outset, has always been inherently imperfect, mortal and dysfunctional. And that God, through scripture, prophetically blamed us for it.

          No, I’m not fixed on trying to rule out any kind of non-literal/historical interpretation. but I won’t shy away from the importance of it being also a faithful interpretation.

          Romans 1:19 – 23 offers the basis for a more historical description of the Fall which is also faithful.

    • I’m confused. You seem to be saying that you couldn’t sign the Declaration of Assent (whatever that is – an Anglican document I presume – please forgive the ignorance of a Scottish Baptist) because it commits to the belief in a nature inclined to evil. And yet at the end you express a view on God’s wrath which implies the same belief more strongly. Am I missing something?

      • Hi Dave Summers
        Thanks for your post which has made me realise that I expressed myself badly and have confused you. Sorry about that. The reason I would not make the Declaration (CofE Canon C15 on the CofE website) is that, as I see it (others would strongly disagree), because of the Prayer Book extracts I quoted, it commits to belief in Priestly Absolution and Baptismal Regeneration. (I realise that the debate/disagreement about the right understanding of John 20, Matthew 16 and 18, 1 Peter 3:21 has been going on since the Reformation). I am happy to assent to the core truths of Article 9, although in my view the wording needs improving and the ground on which it bases our condemnation (i.e. our corrupt nature) is open to dispute/clarification (it does not mention the imputation of Adam’s sin, which I see as an unavoidable implication of Romans 5:12-21).
        Phil Almond

        • The problem with including a literal imputation of Adam’s sin is that it commits you to a literal Adam and a literal sin, rather than a more symbolic understanding that accords more with the natural history of humankind and the Earth.

          • Will
            The question you raise about a ‘literal’ Adam is important. But I am not going to comment on that. As I see it the critical question is whether what Paul wrote in Romans 5:12-21 is true. If it is true then whether ‘one man’ is a ‘literal’ Adam or not, Paul is saying that at some point in human history a sin was committed and that sin has brought God’s condemnation on all men.

            Phil Almond

          • This is precisely why the language of ‘literal-[anything]’ is so difficult.

            Declaring something literal does not mean you are declaring it to be true. Declaring something to be true does not mean it is, by default, literal, though, of course, both statements can be the case….

            This was my complaint in the Nashville Statement commentary last week; the statement presupposes the truth of the Fall, but that is not the same things as to say it is/isn’t literal, and neither of those are the same as saying it is/isn’t historical!

            I think you are both arguing the same point, and tripping over the semantics.


  5. I read somewhere tonight that on Christmas Day 1800 only six people went to Holy Communion at St Paul’s Cathedral London. I have no idea whether this is true or not, but if it is true then it reminds us that church attendance statistics are not necessarily a guide to the future. Nevertheless the point remains, as noted above, that much depends re the cycle of growth and decline of the church on the wider cultural climate. That is indeed different in 2017 to 1800.

  6. I attend and am involved with both the largest conservative evangelical and liberal/societal churches in central London.I see tremendous and attractive virtues in each, but I reject the idea that the more liberal church is unable to offer a distinctive message or challenge.

    In my view liberal churches are not inherently doomed to failure- but they have done less well for quite complicated reasons. Some of these include an under-emphasis on personal devotion and on living a distinctively christian life in terms of personal relationships and the way we treat others. But why should this have to be the case? At the church I attend people see themselves as part of a distinctive community in which compassion, welcome, hospitality, generosity and kindness are vital, essential, mandatory. They measure themselves against how they do in living up to these values. in all encounters These are values rooted in the gospel- and yes, sin and estrangement are there- though not in penal substitutionary terms. The fact that they accept same-sex relationships does not make their commitment any less distinctive. You go there- you think ‘wow- this is a Christian community’. Properly incorporated, the social justice agenda enriches and completes this kind of personal holiness- it doesn’t turn it into a secular Guardian-readers club.

    Regular, detailed bible study benefits hugely from the intellectual rigor and openness of a more liberal atmosphere- providing the work is done to make bible study a central and regular activity, and that we don’t slide into a Sea of Faith/postmodernist situation.

    Liberal churches have done badly at these things, perhaps because they fill up with all comers- who aren’t necessarily ready or willing to commit in the ways I describe above. This makes it very hard. And perhaps because the emphasis on choice and personal freedom does create a temptation to atomisation and lack of commitment/accountability. But these are issues to be wrestled with by the leadership and committed members, not fundamental problems.

    My conservative church has an easier time encouraging personal devotion and does it very well. There is a great sense that the way we live matters and that we should be accountable to each other. People feel they are there for a distinctive reason with less work and can understand more readily what this is. But there is a cost to this- intellectual standards are not as high as they should be, dissent is harder, and engagement with culture is often more difficult- there is an uneasiness about inviting speakers who may say the wrong thing and talks on social or political issues tend to be some way short of current academic debate and standards.

    So my feeling is that conservative and evangelical churches have a natural advantage when it comes to retention and growth- the all important ‘why am I here?’ is just more straightforward. This is no bad thing. Their weak points show up later- in quality of thought, engagement with culture and a failure to be sufficiently troubled by societal and economic problems. So I don’t accept that liberal churches need to fail- they have a harder time but if the leadership gets it right they can be a success and have crucial advantages over more conformist, hierarchical and secluded conservative churches. Such conservative churches have many strong points but would benefit from opening up a bit.

    • Excellent comment, and really good to hear. I don’t quite agree with everything, but it seems pretty accurate from my experience of both types of church and/or conferences too. It’s more about what each church emphasises, than what it does/doesn’t believe.

      I feel your thoughts are actually articulated better than Phillip North’s: the problems (if they even are ‘problems’) won’t be solved by either making liberal churches more conservative, or conservative churches more liberal, but by combining the best of both.

      That is the ground the CofE should be occupying; traditional yet diverse in expression, timeless yet relevant, outward-looking yet a family. So on and so forth.

      • Mat
        Of course what a church does/doesn’t believe needs unpicking. Rarely if ever will all the members of any church have exactly the same set of convictions about what the truths of Christianity are. And as I have said before, their are 3 distinct but closely related questions: Who are the Christians – known to God to be Christians? What do the known-to-God Christians believe? What are the truths of Christianity?. Because known-to-God Christians can be astray or go astray in what they believe as they can go astray morally, it is possible for known-to-God Christians to deny some essential truth of Christianity and/or believe something that is ruled out by the truths of Christianity. Conversely it is possible for someone to intellectually believe all the truths of Christianity and not be a known-to-God Christian. But what the majority of a church’s members believe and teach and preach is very important. I think the flaw in your view is that it assumes that conservative and liberal churches, taking their membership in general, agree on what the essential truths of Christianity are. Am I right? For instance, as I say again and again, (I know I can’t prove it!) I think that only a minority of ordained persons in the Church of England believe that we are all born with a nature inclined to evil and we all deserve from birth onwards the wrath and condemnation of God and it is clear from what the Bible says that Warfield was right when he wrote ‘The dreadful fact stares us full in the face that God has thought well to leave some men eternally without the Spirit of holiness’. In other words, God has not predestined all human beings to eternal life but left some to face eternal punishment because of their sins. And yet these terrible truths are spelled out in the 39 Articles. Are you saying that these fundamental disagreements about God do not matter?

        Phil Almond

        • I don’t want to unpack in too much detail, but broadly yes, I agree with you.

          Critically for this discussion though, I am not saying that doctrine is unimportant. Rather, I am saying that the focus of people’s commentary on this research, and the decline in nominalism, could be more positive, focusing on the shared commission to preach the good news and disciple each other, rather than listing or over – analysing the causes of our divisions.

          I might post a more detailed response later, if time permits.

  7. ‘Their [Evangelical churches] weak points show up later – in quality of thought, engagement with culture and a failure to be sufficiently troubled by societal and economic problems.’ Evidence????

    • “Because the Tyndale Fellowship, KLICE, Tear Fund etc etc show that evangelicals have nothing to say on theology, ethics, poverty … er, I’ll get my cope.”

      • Evangelicals are of course responsible for many wonderful relief and social justice projects. I don’t know what I mean, maybe I should retract that point. But I’m less convinced on the scholarship side of things.

        • Actually, quite a few evangelicals incubated in the Tyndale Fellowship have ended up as Professors of OT, NT and Moral Theology in British universities and abroad – not that all of them have stayed strictly ‘inerrantist’ in their view of the Bible, but they are very far from the kind of scepticism and radicalism that was common in the 1970s and 1980s.

          Williamson, Bauckham, Wright and O’Donovan are at the top of their disciplines in the world.

          There has also been a renaissance of Christian philosophy in higher education, maybe chiefly in philosophy of religion than in other branches.

        • James, list for me some full-length critical university-level biblical commentaries by liberals and I will give ten times that number by evangelicals and double the liberal number written by Catholics.

          • In fact I will go further. The typical liberal output is either a 120-page semi-popular paperback with minimal footnotes or a piece of speculative culturally relevant theology i.e. ideology.

            The ability to produce a critical commentary on a foreign text from a distant culture is however a gold standard, because of the need to master so many sub-disciplines.

        • LOL – after 20 years in Oxford with countless world leading academics part of our church: professors and tutors as well as DPhils or post docs across the academic fields, your comment about evangelicals not being scholars was simply untrue. The same can be said of St Ebbes and St Andrews and St Clements Church. Dominus Illuminatio Mea.

  8. “Surely [Catholicism’s numerical resilience] is largely shaped by the refusal of Catholic Church leaders (rather in contrast to many Anglicans) to tailor their doctrine and teaching to contemporary mores …”

    Except that Catholic laity famously observe the ban on contraception in the breach rather than the observance, and two-thirds of Catholics now support equal marriage. Does it matter what doctrine says when Western Catholics simply ignore it?

    Alternatively, the Catholic Church is a strong community, whereas the Church of England is a Balkanized collection of factions. Its successes — charismatic evangelicalism in particular — are strong, accessible communities, communities that, even when conservative, often downplay it (such as HTB’s slick avoidance of controversy around sexuality).

    As I’ve noted before, if conservatism were key, we’d expect the most popular churches to be exclusive Brethren. Community, not doctrine, is key: doctrine may aid it; but it’s only one part, and not the strongest part.

    • It is the Catholics who are *less* Catholic by any measure (attendance, belief) who are disproportionately the ones who ignore it. This is simply a truism (but none the less true for that): the less Catholic they are, the more they will ignore it, and the more Catholic they are, the more they will observe it. Not a change in Catholicism itself, then.

      Your observation boils down to: people conform to their surrounding culture. There was no point observing that, since no-one can be produced who was not well aware of it already.

  9. Yes James, Catholics may sit light to the more stringent demands of their faith but what unites them it seems to me is the Mass. It may be done in different ways but observing Catholics in many counties on several continents I think they largely share a liturgical and sacramental spirituality undergirded by a broadly similar cult pattern. Members of the C of E don’t and i would say in my life time..being a cradle anglican of 68..the Church has become extraordinary diverse in its worship and parochial practice and the clergy more tribal.

  10. I’m just a lay person who cannot keep up with this very educated thread, but I felt that it was very interesting, in reading the comparisons of Keswick Convention and New Wine especially, to recall the prophecy (given to him 40 odd years ago) that RT Kendal shared at New Wine week 1, that when the word and the spirit come together, then revival will come to our land. If we Christians in Britain could come together, celebrate our differences, consolidate our basic biblical theology, and leave the judging to the Almighty LORD, and pray that His Spirit would move in us, and His Word would be absorbed and acted upon, and shared with those around us, who knows that those of hardened hearts may turn and He would heal them.

  11. Helen

    ‘celebrate our differences, consolidate our basic biblical theology’
    Unfortunately our differences are about basic biblical theology. But let us pray that God would rebuke, reform and revive us all into agreement on what the basic, essential truths of Christianity are, and bear witness to those terrible and wonderful truths and send his breath from heaven to breathe upon these slain that they may live.

    Phil Almond

  12. “Is there hope for unbelieving Britain?” Yes, but only if the anti-Christian elements have their volume turned down. Rees-Mogg ably demonstrates the lack of a) understanding; b) sympathy; c) subtlety of mind and d) nature of Christianity of his interviewers.

    Separating the law of the land from religious beliefs, is, as he suggests, the same challenge faced by St Thomas More, St John Fisher, and countless others.


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