I was grateful to Philip North for offering a response to my critique of his views on mission in relation to the incarnation, published in the Church Times. There is nothing quite like hearing someone’s point of view in their own words, and it has been immensely valuable to have this exchange. I offer here some final reflections, since I am not sure that Philip’s response actually addressed the questions I raised, and it highlighted some further issues.
Although Philip centres his discussion on the incarnation, it is striking that the eschatological parable of the sheep and the goats takes centre stage for him:
The heart of the difference is the way we read Matthew 25.31–46 (the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats) and more specifically who we consider the recipients of compassion to be in that parable.
I can see why Philip connects this parable with the incarnation, in the sense that the king in the story judges people on their response to their (unwitting) encounter with him in the person of those in need. But eschatology is much more central; as with the other material in this part of Matthew, the key reality is the certainty of eschatological judgement. And it turns out that eschatology is central to almost everything that the New Testament says about mission. When Jesus strides into Galilee, he proclaims that the longed-for kingdom of God is at hand, an event which, in first-century Jewish minds, was associated with the vindication of the righteous and the judgement of the wicked. It is therefore not surprising that the first response that Jesus invites of his hearers is that they should ‘repent’. And the practice of the early church follows this example: all the proclamations of the good news of Jesus involve mention of the coming judgement, and the need to be ready for it. Even the much vaunted example of Paul in Athens, held up as a model of ‘contextualisation’ of the gospel message in another culture, ends with this appeal:
In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17.30–31)
It would be easy to parody this approach in the form of street-corner Bible-bashers, crying out that ‘The end of the world is nigh!’ But a more serious question is to ask what has happened to the place of eschatology in our understanding of evangelism? As Paul demonstrates, judgement is not actually an alien concept to other cultures; our culture loves the reality of judgement, whether in light-hearted entertainment or the deadly serious business of calling for justice for those who have abused others.
In that context, I think we need to do better in our reading of Matt 25.31–46. Philip claims:
According to Ian, the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger and the imprisoned are followers of Jesus rather than any human being in need. In other words, those who show mercy to others are serving Christ only if those they serve are consciously his followers.
It is patently obvious that the second point does not follow from the first; there are numerous injunctions in the gospels and the rest of the New Testament to care for those in need, and that we are serving Christ whenever we follow his example. I really don’t understand why my reading of this passage implies any kind of restriction. The question is not whether we should care for those in need; the question is whether that is what this parable is about.
A helpful article on the Patheos blog collective identifies the three main interpretive options: the universalist interpretive model (which Philip is following); the classical interpretive model (in which this is a parable about Christians helping other Christians); and the exclusivist interpretive model, in which it is about how the ‘nations’ respond to Jesus’ followers. (The author also notes the recent Dispensational reading, which we don’t need to consider here.) Of the universalist reading, the writer comments:
This interpretive model sees the call to serve one’s neighbor as universal. All people in all places are called to serve their neighbor. Anyone who is hungry, thirsty, imprisoned, or naked can be a vessel through whom Christ can be encountered and served.
This interpretation has been taken up in various forms by not only scholars and church fathers, but has been the interpretive model in a number of works of literature. Luz calls this vision of Christianity as “nondogmatic and practical,” and highlights a story by Tolstoy that communicates this interpretation in literature…
The rationale behind this theory has been summarized by Luz. He gives the following reasons for it: 1. Jesus’ model of life and teaching reflect this ethic of love 2. There is a less dogmatic focus on the identity of God and less exclusivity for salvation 3. There is focus on love which is seen by universalist interpreters as the fundamental test by which interpretations should be weighed.
This interpretation has been used throughout the history of the church, but was a rarer interpretation up until the 19th century.
In an important article in Theological Studies in 1986, John Donahue notes the reason for the adoption of this reading:
In terms of the broader history of interpretation of this passage, Denny Burk summarises the research on this by Sherman Gray:
Gray argues that commentators over the centuries have interpreted “the least of these” in one of three ways: (1) a narrow reference to Christians, (2) a general reference to the poor, or (3) an unspecific identification of “the least of these.” Here’s a closer look at each historical period:
In the Patristic Period, you can find the narrow interpretation in Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Chrysostom, Jerome, Ambrose, the Venerable Bede, and (most notably) Augustine. Augustine’s towering influence is well-known. He refers to “the least” 44 times in his writings, and “nowhere does Augustine specifically state that ‘the least’ are the poor in general… it is obvious that the Christian poor are meant” (p. 69). Whereas some of the patristics are inconsistent in their references to “the least,” Augustine is consistent in identifying “the least” as Christians. Thus, “Augustine comes down clearly on the side of those who hold a restrictive viewpoint” (p. 71).
In the Medieval Period, the narrow interpretation is found in Anselm of Laon, who says that “the least” are not the poor in general, “but only those who are poor in spirit who, having put aside their own will, do the will of the heavenly Father” (p. 168). It is also in Bonaventure, who “clearly identifies ‘the least’ as Christians” (p. 175). The most influential theologian of this period is obviously Aquinas, and he also comes down clearly identifiying “the least” as Christ’s disciples (p. 180).
In the period of the Renaissance and Reformation, you can find this interpretation in a number of figures including Erasmus, Zwingli, Luther, and Calvin. Of course, the latter two are the towering figures of the Reformation, and so it is significant that both Luther and Calvin are clear that “the least” are Christians (pp. 203-206, 208).
The amount of evidence that Gray covers is vast and can hardly be reproduced in a single blog post. But we can summarize his findings with respect to the narrow view of “the least of these.” He concludes that if one sets aside references to the “least of these” that are unspecified, “then it is clear that the narrow interpretation of ‘the least’ is the predominant viewpoint throughout the centuries” (p. 349). The narrow view is held 68% of the time in Middle Ages and 74% of the time in the Renaissance/Reformation (pp. 349-50).
So the reading that I am offering is hardly new or novel, but is in fact the dominant way that this passage has been read. And there are good reasons for this in the text. In Matthew, Jesus is quite clear that the language of his ‘brothers and sisters’ refers to those who ‘do the will of my Father in heaven’ (Matt 12.50). In the discourse about mission in Matt 10, Jesus makes almost exactly the same point as is made in the eschatological parable, that how people respond to his followers defines their response to him: ‘Anyone who receives you receives me, and anyone who receives me receives the Father who sent me’ (Matt 10.40).
Philip’s next criticism is that the power relationship remains one-sided, since those bringing the gospel have ‘exclusive access to the Christian truth of the Incarnation’. I think that is an odd criticism for two reasons. First, this reading of Matt 25 accords very closely with Jesus’ descriptions of mission in Matt 10, Luke 9 and Luke 10—and it is a description of intense vulnerability on the part of those who have been sent. All they have is the news of the gospel, but that is indeed a treasure that they carry. Second, Philip appears to be suggesting that we should think of ourselves as having nothing of value to take to areas which have not yet heard about or responded to the gospel—and in this post-Christendom culture that we live in, the most common reality is that the majority of the population knows nothing of the basic facts of Christian belief, let alone understanding the implications and possibilities for their lives.
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (Rom 10.14)
Again, this is easy to parody—but how can we set aside or diminish the ‘proclamation’ element of mission, when Jesus’ last command to his disciples was to ‘teach them to obey everything I have taught you’ (Matt 28.20)? Of course, this must be in the context of careful listening and respectful understanding—but in order to communicate well, not because we don’t have something vital to say.
Philip wants to dissolve a radical distinction between the sacred and the secular, because he sees that as being damagingly destruction to the environment and to our view of culture. But this is surely only the case if we let go of a robust theology of creation, and all humanity created in the image of God. It seems odd to me that Philip does not mention creation more. Scripture consistently says two things about the world—that it is made by God and loved by him, but also that the world has gone wrong and people have turned from God, and so we will one day face his judgement. Athanasius, in his exposition of the incarnation, does not hold back from the reality of this:
Repentance cannot remedy fallen nature: we are corrupted and need to be restored to the grace of God’s image, and no one can renew but he who created. He alone could recreate all, suffer for all, represent all before the Father. Once transgression had got a head-start, human nature ended up completely corrupted and deprived of the grace which we once had from being in the image of God. Our repentance was no longer enough to restore this grace and give us the new beginning that we needed. What was needed then? The Word of God, who at the beginning made all out of nothing. Only he could restore the corruptible to incorruption, while maintaining the justice of the Father towards us. He alone, being the Word of the Father and above all, was able to recreate everything, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be ambassador for all to the Father.
Athanasius knows how far we have fallen—and it is that which makes the incarnation both wonderful and necessary. And for Athanasius, it does not automatically redeem the world or transform it—but it makes that redemption and transformation a possibility. For Paul, the ‘now’ in Rom 8.22 when the world’s subjection to futility comes to an end is not the possibility offered by the incarnation, but the realisation of that possibility when we confess Christ as Lord (Rom 10.9) and the Spirit pours God’s love into our hearts (Rom 5.5).
Philip’s final objection is to the evangelistic image of colonialism.
To turn up with a large gang of people who believe they have a monopoly on the truth and who import a culturally alien message using language and concepts local people do not understand is not evangelism. It is colonialism. Our approach needs to echo the incarnational principle.
Once again, we find here an unhelpful parody. We do need to ‘echo the incarnational principle’, as Paul does when he seeks to be ‘all things to all people, that I might win some’ (1 Cor 9.22), but of course only Jesus is ‘incarnate’ as only he makes the journey from divinity to humanity.
But there is a wonderful irony in Philip’s example of the DIY SOS project that he took part in.
Where is Jesus in that scenario? Is his presence really restricted to those who happen to attend that small church? Or is he present in the incredible love and compassion of those, Christian or not, who gave so freely of their times and gifts to transform the lives of some of the nation’s most vulnerable people?
In this we are claiming that Jesus is present in the Muslim, in the Hindu, in the Sikh and in the atheist who is participating in this practical project. I think many of them would reject this idea, and see it as the worst form of spiritual colonialism as we claim for our faith something that they would rather keep for their own.
Such a universalist understanding of the incarnation and of Matt 25 is not warranted, and it is not needed.
Philip’s ministry is a gift to the Church, and I hope and pray that the work of the Estates Evangelism Task Group will bear fruit. But I also hope that it thinks through the theology of creation, fall and eschatology alongside the theology of incarnation and inculturation so that we can work together across all traditions in this vital ministry.
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