Tolkien as a Theologian Videos

One of my old lecturers at Nottingham University, Alison Milbank (an anglo-catholic associate professor of theology and literature), has produced the following short youtube videos on how JRR Tolkien’s theology connects to his literature.  Check them out.  (The first one is a fair bit shorter than the second.)

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Women Bishops debate and our view of God

When I started this blog, it was deliberately with the idea that I would avoid talking about what side I would take on ordinary “controversial issues” about Christian ethics etc, precisely because I think that talking about them too much takes the focus off talking and thinking about God.  For that reason, I don’t want to actually discuss my own view of the women bishops vote yesterday in this post, and I doubt a reader can work it out from this post.

If you want comment on the debate itself, I’ve seen quite a few good posts on this that I recommend – in particular, I’ve been most impessed by some egalitatian women who have shown wisdom and grace in their defeat.  One was by Jemima Thackray in the torygraph, asking the question “Women bishops: Did feminism undermine the campaign?” – arguing that the arguments used in favour of women bishops on this occasion were not sufficiently Christian.  Another was by Tanya Marlow, “On Women Bishops”, which acknowledges the deep pain she (and other women) feel at being discriminated against, while balancing that with a real grace towards those that diagree with her.  Honourable mention also goes to Krish Kandiah, an egalitarian man who gives helpful Christian thoughts about dealing with those we passionately disagree with in “Grace, Truth and Synod”.

What I do want to comment on myself, though, are the whole terms on which the debate has taken place.  It’s been assumed throughout that to be a bishop is an honour – and therefore, that to deny that honour to women is to disrespect them. Women’s groups in the church have therefore been up in arms about the  fact that they are being disrespected by not being made bishops.  On the contrary, in any Christian debate, we ought to .  So shouldn’t the men be leading the argument for women’s bishops?

Well, no, I don’t actually think this, because I don’t think we should think of being a bishop as an honour at all.  A few days ago, an interviewer on the today programme expressed incredulity at a statement by a complementarian woman that Christians didn’t think of the archbishop of canterbury as more important than any other christian.  On the contrary, the Bible states of the apostles (of whom bishops are supposed to be successors) as being:

For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men.  We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute.   To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless,  and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.
(1 Corinthians 4:9-13)

To be a bishop (or, indeed, any Christian leader) should not be seen as some special honour, but rather an insult which one endures for the love of God and His people.  Therefore, perhaps in an ideal world perhaps it would be the women’s groups leading the charge for women’s ministry, precisely for the sake of the men who shouldn’t have to bear the burden alone.

Of course, in the church today this simply is not true – while bishops might pretend they don’t want to be appointed, we all know it’s seen as an honour to serve.  We can therefore see that in today’s church, lacking equal places in leadership is a lacking of equal places of honour.  But that’s a problem – it shows that we don’t understand what leadership should be like, but that itself is rooted in a bigger problem.

We don’t understand who the Christ is who the leader should be representing – a Christ:

who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
(Philippians 2:6-8)

The women bishops debate will tear apart Christians in the church of England for the next few years, and there’s no way around that.  However, terms and method on which the debate is conducted are a symptom of something much bigger – our wrong view of God.

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Who Would Jesus Vote For?

As I write this, it is polling day for the 2012 US election.  Within a few hours, we’ll know whether the most powerful man in the world for the next four years will be Mitt Romney or Barack Obama.  Polling indicates that, while Obama has a lead in the swing states that are needed to win, that lead is very small and, frankly, the election is on a knife edge.

In the US, most evangelicals support Romney – and a notable US blog, for example, proclaims “I would hope that all who love the Scriptures would agree that we should not vote for President Obama”.  However, in the UK (and I suspect the rest of the non-US world) most evangelicals support Obama – and many would doubt that any sane Christian could vote for Romney.

What I want to look at in this post is the theology behind voting.  I want to argue that, while Christianity should affect all aspects of our life (including our politics), there cannot be a “correct” candidate for a Christian to vote for.  I will argue for this on the basis of the doctrine of sola scriptura, which evangelicals – like all protestant Christians – adhere to (in theory, at least).

Sola scriptura teaches that the only theological source and ultimate authority over a Christian is the Bible (governments and other authorities exist, but are only authoritative insofar as the Bible teaches that one should obey them – their authority is derived from the Bible, rather than ultimate.)  Everything that we need to know to live a godly life is there in the Bible.

Of course, most decisions in life – personal as well as political – aren’t covered by the Bible.  For example, when I was deciding whether to study for my current degree, the Bible never told me “thou shalt study for an MSt if thou getteth the chance”.  Instead, I had to use “wisdom” – that is, to reflect on the details of my situation and options in the light of biblical principles.  My decision was based on the Bible, but on the Bible in context.

If I were to, for example, talk with a church leader in that context, it wouldn’t be appropriate for them to tell me what to do.  It might be if it was a situation where the consequence of a Biblical principle was easy to derive.  For example, if I’d gone to them asking whether it was OK to marry a dog.

In that context, to tell me no would be legitimate.  The reason it would be legitimate is because we can tell from the Bible that bestiality is wrong.  Ultimately, it wouldn’t be the church leader teaching me not to marry a dog, it would be the Bible.

However, most life decisions the Bible doesn’t address in this way.  In choosing to do my course, I had to consider any number of factors.  The Bible never told me what to do, or what not to do.  But there were any number of biblical principles to consider – e.g. being a good steward of money, it being good to learn about God, etc etc etc.  It would be legitimate for my church leader to teach me to get my ideas about the principles in order – but it would be my responsibility to make the decision itself.

That’s true even when there are things about the Bible which are hard to interpret.  It’s OK for a church leader to teach his or her congregation how to think about bits of the Bible where there are multiple interpretations of what the Bible teaches (although it is important that they themselves are open to challenge).

What isn’t good is for the church leader to say how that applies to the decisions of everyday life which are more complex.  Our decisions are impacted not just by bible knowledge but also by the knowledge and understanding that we have about our own situation.  There’s two sides to that, only one of which is in the domain of the preacher.

If the Bible teaches something – even in a less than clear way – there is an authoritative teaching we should listen to.  However, that doesn’t mean that any application of that principle into the complexity of everyday life is necessarily true, unless the Bible has a specific teaching about something.

Now, when it comes to politics, and our decisions about who to vote about, there’s almost nothing that political parties debate about that any principle of the Bible can clearly say “yes” or “no” about.  The Bible does tell us that we should care about people unable to support their families as a result of the recession; it doesn’t tell us whether Romney or Obama have a better economic policy to deal with the issues.  We might think that one or the other are clearly right or wrong – and we might think that the other side are stupid for disagreeing with us – but we can’t claim biblical authority for that opinion.

Some people might point to specific issues (e.g. of religious conscience or whatever) as being issues where the Bible tells us what to do.  But these issues are such a small part of the good or evil that a politician might be able to do.  (Furthermore, I think that Christians often overestimate how clear the application of the Bible is to these issues.)

In the whole complexity of political decisions, it is frankly bizarre to me that people think they can say that the correct Christian opinion is to vote for Obama or Romney.  If you’re an evangelical, you can call the other political side incompetent.  You can call them stupid.  But you can’t call them unchristian.

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Love and Wrath 3 – Forgiveness

This is the third part of a three part series that was interrupted by the extreme craziness of the last two months.  In part one (available here) we saw why a God of love must be angry against sinners. In part two (available here) we saw that this makes God’s forgiveness of us greater, because the cross shows God swallowing his own anger – taking it upon himself, being separated from himself.

In this third part, we will see how it can help us to forgive.  People sometimes say that if you believe God is a God of anger, you will become an angry person.  On the contrary, I believe that divine wrath can make it much easier to forgive.

Think about what it feels like to be angry – really, truly, angry – with someone.  If someone truly harms you badly, it is a very challenging emotion to overcome.  If they harm someone you love, it can be even harder.

A few years ago, someone I know did something that seriously harmed both me and one of my closest friends.  The details probably aren’t appropriate in a public blog, but he (the perpetrator) was fairly clearly in the wrong, but didn’t admit to it.  I found it incredibly hard to let go of anger.

Why couldn’t I let go of anger?  Well, to stop being angry would be a damage to myself.  It would make me feel like the perpetrator was getting off scot free – as if I was saying that the harm suffered by myself and my friend wasn’t real, or that the perpetrator wasn’t really that bad.  My heart cried out for justice – for myself and my friend.  I wanted to harm the perpetrator – because they deserved it, and because justice required it.  I wanted justice to declare clearly that they were in the wrong.

The moment I became able to forgive was the moment I realised that God’s anger covered the situation.  God loved me and my friend, and hated wrongdoing against us.  God’s anger was therefore directed against the wrongdoing.  Me forgiving them therefore didn’t involve them getting off scot free – it meant me acknowledging that it isn’t my role to judge, and what’s more that I don’t need to, because justice is someone elses role.  And if you truly believe that, it becomes much easier to forgive.

When I thought about this, I found it much easier to let go of the anger I felt.  I didn’t need to provide justice – God already had, at the cross.  If the cross is sufficient for God to forgive, it is sufficient for me to forgive.  Therefore, I was able to show the man (who wronged me and my friend) mercy, kindness, and love – because it was not my responsibility to judge them, it was God’s.

The Bible speaks about God’s justice as being the grounds of Christian forgiveness.  For example, the apostle Paul writes:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Romans 12:19-20

Thanks to God’s wrath, we can trust that God’s justice will be enacted against the sin – either at the cross, or in hell.  He loved every wrongdoer enough to take the judgement upon Himself – and we can know that it is named as wrong forever.  If it is sufficient to cover our sins, it is enough to cover other people’s.  We can trust God’s wrath – and let go of our own.

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The Cross Alone is our Theology

(This blog has been gone for a little bit while I’ve had rather a lot too much on – moved city and university, broke my ankle, handed in an MA dissertation, and had quite a bit of man-flu.  It should be back fairly steadily from now on.)

Martin Luther said that “the cross alone is our theology”, and it seems clear that it belongs at the absolute center of our understanding of God (and thus the whole realm of creation). One cannot understand anything without understanding who God is; God reveals himself primarily through Jesus, and the key to understanding Jesus is to understand his death on the cross – that’s what the New Testament keeps on talking about all the time.  That’s why Paul “resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).  The cross should be at the centre of all true Christianity.

A lot of Christian organisations tend to have the culture that the cross is for non-Christians, even if they wouldn’t say that. That’s wrong, and very damaging… but I wonder whether it’s partly a reaction against an oversimplistic approach to teaching the cross in some churches.

My feeling is that some churches is that they simply try to get across the bare fact that “God the Son loved us enough to take God’s wrath on the cross” again and again, rather than apply more deeply the cross in the way the New Testament does. Instead of just repeating that fact (though I do think it’s so important we need to remember it and the wonder of the grace revealed there all the time), I think we ought to regularly preach how the cross fits into the Christian life and the world – “Jesus died out of love  – that shows us how much God loves us, and completely deals with our sin and makes us worthy of God by God’s grace, which should be the source of our self esteem” or “Jesus died to propitiate God’s wrath against sin – this should help us realise how terrible sin is and help us see it as being as unattractive as it is” or “Jesus died to remake humanity, and restore the whole creation to it’s pre-fall state and indeed a greater state – therefore we should work to help the natural environment.”

There’s a few examples of how that kind of teaching might work in practise. It obviously was limited by the single sentence nature.  It didn’t offer me much chance to work through how our theology of the cross might be more complex and deep than a single sentence (or that thought about other stuff might be more complex) but you probably get the general idea. We should make the cross central by connecting it to the whole of life.  This will make our ideas about the cross bigger, not smaller, and help us to understand ever increasingly large parts of it.

It’s much harder for people to take seriously constant cross-preaching when it doesn’t make connections with the whole of reality.  Perhaps at least part of the solution to people dis-emphasising the cross is simply to talk more about the cross in a better way.

In fact, this seems to me to be how the Bible emphasises the cross.  For example, Paul uses the cross as an illustration for all sorts of topics in his teaching (e.g. Romans 6 uses the cross to explain why christians should not continue to sin; Philippians 2 uses the cross to explain humility).

The reason it is hard to preach the cross day after day is never because the world is too big for it, but only because our view of the cross is too small.

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Trinity 5: Trinity Schminity

Well, this isn’t actual theology, but I figured it might fit into my Trinity series because I find it amusing.  Here is the family band, “Winterband”, singing their song “Trinity Schminity.”  Chorus “Trinity Schminity, don’t believe the lie.”  I find it fairly amusing.

(In case you need to guess, the theology of this song is not correct.)

An actual post on what I think about different approaches to the Trinity will be forthcoming in the future…

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Glory in Love – Reeves on Jonathan Edwards

My life, at the minute, consists largely of sitting in the library reading books on my own trying to get my head around difficult, but exciting, subjects to do with the fundamental nature of God.  I find it thoroughly exciting – I’m getting to understand God better and know him more.  At the same time, it is also very frustrating that there aren’t many (heck, any) people who I can really share what I’m learning with.

Fortunately, there are real discoveries that I’m making.  I’ve been increasingly making headway in understanding how God’s glory-seeking – his valuing of himself – connects to his love.  A lot of this I’ve been learning from the eighteenth century theologian, Jonathan Edwards.  I don’t think he’s right on everything (what theologian is?), but I’ve learnt some helpful things from him.

One of the annoying things about Edwards is that he never writes in a remotely heart-warming way – he’s too technical and, frankly, boring.  Fortunately, in my spare time I’ve happened to read a book by Mike Reeves where come across the following quote which summarises some of the most helpful aspects of his theology, in a much better and more compelling way than Edwards ever manages:

The eighteenth-century New England theologian, Jonathan Edwards, put it strikingly.  God’s aim in creating the world, he said, was himself.  But because this God’s very self is so different from that of any others, that means something utterly different from what it would mean with other gods.  This God’s very self is found in giving, not taking,  This God is like a fountain of goodness, and so, he said, ‘seeking himself’ means seeking ‘himself diffused and expressed’  – in other words, seeking to have himself, his life and his goodness shared.  His very nature is about going out and sharing of his own fullness, and so that is what he is all about.  In contrast to all other gods, the exuberant nature of this God means that his pleasure ‘is rather a pleasure in diffusing and communicating to the creature, than in receiving from the creature’.
Michael Reeves, The Good God (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2012), pg. 29.

No doubt I’ll post more on Edwards’ approach to glory-seeking and love…

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Love and Wrath 2: Love, Anger and the Cross

In part one (which is available here) of this three-part series, we saw why a God of love must be angry against sinners.  But isn’t Christianity supposed to be a religion of forgiveness?  If love requires anger, woudn’t that mean that forgiveness is bad?  Should we therefore just hold grudges forever?  More importantly, does God still hold everything we’ve done against us.

Well, I doubt you’ll be surprised to hear that the answer is no.  Human beings should forgive, and God does forgive.

We saw last time that God’s anger – his hatred for sin, and his wrath against sinners – is an outworking of love.  It is a necessary consequence of loving us.  He could not stop being wrathful without removing an aspect of his love.  But at the same time he wanted to have mercy on us.

Plenty of people will be able to tell you how that mystery is resolved.  Jesus died to bear the penalty for our sins.  God turned his wrath against Jesus, so that we could walk free.  He could therefore be loving, and therefore merciful, while at the same time being loving, and therefore wrathful.

However, any reader will see an obvious problem with this.  Isn’t that unjust as well as being unloving?  How dare God punish an innocent for the sins of someone else?

Well, there are a few things we can say to this.  One is the important point that Jesus chose this path – God didn’t pick someone at random and decide to condemn them, he had a volunteer.

Another important point is the Trinity.  God and Jesus are not separate – Jesus is himself  God.  At the cross, God isn’t punishing a third party, he is bearing the burden himself.

But a third point is perhaps most helpful.  One of the things Christians believe is the doctrine of “union with Christ”.  This teaches that we (Christians) are spiritually united with Jesus.  As a result, Jesus was able to take our sin into himself, making them his own.

This means that at the cross, God could justly judge your and my sins in the person of his Son.  We were united there – we died with him.

But it also means that at the cross, God loved us so much that he was even willing to direct his own wrath against himself.  He could have got out of it by not being angry – but he loved us too much.  He could have got out of it by choosing not to be merciful – but he loved us too much.  Rather than loving us less, he was willing not only to suffer and die, but to swallow his own wrath.  To be wrathful against himself.  He hates sin, and he became what he hated.  He was alienated from himself.

At the cross, God shows us that he loves us enough to be angry – and that he loves us enough to take that very anger upon himself.

God’s wrath therefore shows us something about how powerful, how intense, God’s love is – and how great and how costly his forgiveness has been.

Thanks be to God.

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Love and Wrath 1: A Love So Intense that it Burns

One of the things that Christianity most fundamentally teaches is that God is loving.  We all find divine love attractive.  So we should – if we regard God’s love as anything other than overwhelmingly beautiful, we misunderstand it.

However, we’re also aware that the Bible contains a lot about God’s anger and wrath.  This seems rather less attractive – in fact, it seems rather repulsive.  Liberal theologians often try to ignore it, saying that the Bible simply tells us untruths about God.  However, even if it were legitimate to treat parts of the Bible in this way,  it would be hard to do that with wrath  – there’s just so much of it in there!

Other theologians point out that divine wrath can easily be seen as a part of his love.  For example, the theologian Miroslav Volf writes:

I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God.  Isn’t God love?  Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath?  God is love, and God loves every person and every creature.  That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them.  My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come.  According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced.  My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry.  Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days!  How did God react to the carnage?  By doting on the perpetrators in a grandparently fashion?  By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness?  Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them?  Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil.  God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love.  God is wrathful because God is love.

Once we accept the appropriateness of God’s wrath, condemnation, and judgement, there is no way of keeping it out there, reserved for others.  We have to bring it home as well.  I originally resisted the notion of a wrathful God because I dreaded being that wrath’s target; I still do.   knew I couldn’t just direct God’s wrath against others, as if it were a weapon I could aim at targets I particularly detested.  It’s God’s wrath, not mine, the wrath of the one and impartial God, lover of all humanity.  If I want it to fall on evildoers, I must let it fall on myself – when I deserve it.

Also, once we affirm that God’s condemnation of wrongdoing is appropriate, we cannot reserve God’s condemnation for heinous crimes.  Where would the line be drawn?  On what grounds could it be drawn?  Everything that deserves to be condemned should be condemned in proportion to its weight as an offense – from a single slight to a murder, from indolence to idolatry, from lust to rape.  To condemn heinous offences but not light ones would be manifestly unfair.  An offense is an offense and deserves condemnation.
– Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge (Zondervan, 2005), p. 138-139.

If a God of love is faced with human sinfulness, he cannot do anything but be angry.  Indeed, anger is an embodiment of love – it shows what love does when it faces that which stands against it.  It may not be something which we are comfortable thinking about, but the very intensity of wrath is itself a display of the intensity of the love that underlies it.

I’ll shortly post a couple of follow-ups looking at how this ties in with the fundamental Christian teaching of forgiveness.

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Love and Glory-Seeking According to Jonathan Edwards

In a recent post, we’ve looked at the problem of glory-seeking and love – why, if God is so infinitely loving and other-centred, does he seek his own glory?  We’ve seen that part of the answer is the love within the Trinity – but that this doesn’t explan how God’s love fits in.

In this post, I want to look at a theory put forward by the theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758).  Edwards wrote the book The End for Which God Created the World in order to argue that God created the universe for his own glory, and that this is his ultimate aim in everything he does.  However, he also insists that this isn’t the same thing as saying that love is only a dependent, subordinate goal to a more fundamental motivation.  By contrast, he writes:

The work of redemption wrought out by Jesus Christ is spoken of in such a manner as, being from the grace and love of God to men, does not well consist with his seeking a communication of good to them, only subordinately.  Such expressions as that in John 3:16 carry another idea.  “God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him, shoulod not perish, bt have everlasting life.”  [He then gives a couple more examples of similar things the scriptures say.]  But if indeed this was only from a regard to a further end, entirely diverse from our good, then all the love is truly terminated in that, its ultimate object, and therein is his love manifested, strictly and properly speaking, and not in that he loved us or exercised such high regard towards us.

God can’t be said to love us in order to do something else; that would be like a man marrying a woman for her money – not true love.  (Anyone who interprets Edwards as teaching that God’s love for us is merely a subordinate goal, a side effect of something done in order to accomplish something else, is quite simply wrong.)

However, Edwards does want to insist that God’s glory is his ultimate goal in everything he accomplishes – so glory and love are both his ultimate goal in his works.  How does that work?  Well, Edwards says that loving us and seeking his glory aren’t just two goals that happen to be achieved in the same way, nor are they two goals – one subservient on the other.  Instead, they’re actually the same goal.

Edwards argues this on the basis of what glory means.  It means God’s internal attributes – his knowledge of himself, and his love and joy in that knowledge.  (Edwards interprets this in terms of the Trinity, using a form of the psychological analogy.  The persons love each other, and have joy in their relationship.)

In creation, God emanates this glory out to us – his external glory.  We sharein God’s knowlege of himself, his love for himself, and his joy in himself.  That’s the greatest possible thing that there could be for us – knowing, loving, and having joy in God is the most valuable thing in existence.  And it is loving to make us all that we can be.  But it is also God valuing his own glory supremely – if he thought something other than his glory was supremely valuable, he would give us something other than this to manifest.

However, this doesn’t completely satisfy Edwards.  He wants to insist that everything God does for us is ultimately God-centred in an ultimate way.  However, his theory seems to indicate that God also has respect to human beings as well as God.

Well, Edwards responds to this in a fairly complicated way, involving a particular view of infinity.  He argues that we will, over time, continually grow in attributes of knowledge/love/joy of God.  In other words, our knowledge/love/joy will over time become infinitely greater.  As I posess each of them, I become gradually closer to God.  After an infinite amount of time, I will therefore be one with God.  Of course, this will never actually happen at a specific moment (infinity will never be reached, but we will aways be heading in that direction), but because God can see into the infinite future, he treats us on the basis of what we will be after infinity.

I have various questions about this, and find quite a few bits of this reconciliation unconvincing, but I’m curious as to what my readers think.  Do you find it satisfying?

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