Sunday, 8 January 2017

Article 200!

Wow, it certainly has been quite a journey since I began this blog in 2014. Thanks to those who have shown some interest and dropped by - the most prestigious to date is probably Science Mike!

I feel this has been a very broad platform on which to explore theological questions while hopefully remaining faithful to the relationship of faith to scripture (and scripture to faith).

It took me a long while to realise where my key focus lay. I began with some deep questions about what Christianity means when it says Christ is God when the New Testament is so loaded with Christ and God statements. For a time I was also most perplexed by the question of modalism, and declared myself something of an antimodalist, especially with regard to worship, which I have discovered to be the time of deepest spiritual formation.

At some point I became quite fascinated by the question of Greek articles - realising that they were much more significant than I had previously imagined. The kickstarter for that was to see how different the Greek looked in John 1:1 to the English (except perhaps the NET version). Reading a blog post by Larry Hurtado set me on an altogether new quest, to investigate the relevance of the article preceding kyrios, the Greek word for Lord specifically when translating the Hebrew tetragrammaton, a.k.a. Yahweh. I still feel excitement about the future relevance of this research for New Testament translations, especially to passages like 2 Corinthians 3:16-18 ("the Lord is the Spirit").

Plus a whole bunch more besides!

While I am happy with how it's gone (sorry it's not always been ultra-polished), I now recognise the need to reduce my output a bit and focus on completing the book I mentioned on the previous post.

Thanks so much for your interest, and I promise to increase output soon as the book nears completion.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Book update: Mutated Faith and the Triune Hub

Happy New Year!
May it bring more bowing of the knee to Christ to the glory of God the Father, in the power and revelation of the indwelling Spirit.

Please take a look at the following picture - it presents a pictorial representation of the proposal I will be making in my book (hopefully 2017 will see it completed):

This is a very amateurish sketch, and there is absolutely no significance about the planets being the planets of our own tiny solar system, or of Venus being circled! That said - this is the kind of idea I would like to convey on the cover. My working title keeps evolving, but I hope it won't move too far from "Trinitarian Interpretations: Mutated Faith and the Triune Hub". Cryptic, huh?

While it represents a long, sometimes painful and unfinished journey for me, it might be a slightly upsetting book for some. In fact - for those who have theological commitments, my historical analysis of first century Christianity is likely to displease most, and seems to fit into no common categories that I am currently aware of. That said, I still need to interact more with Samuel Clarke who I suspect had an early version of the Triune Hub model included in this book.

Trinitarians want to assert that - because Christianity is birthed out of monotheistic Judaism - God himself is the hub around which everything else is in orbit. He is the centre. And then the Son and the Spirit into the mix, ushering a whole host of attempted explanations frequently failing to satisfy. Me? Not just me - even within the Triune-God camp, because they all seem to disagree with one another (that's the second chapter of the book). Another group, also not monolithic, is the Unitarians. They assert strongly that Christ cannot be God, because only the Father is God, and they will also frequently assert that the Spirit is not really something that is separate from the Father. Another group of Unitarians exist - albeit only implicitly, and covers some biblically distant and popular charismatic expressions, whom Richard Rohr describes as Jesusism movements. In these you frequently see the Father and Spirit as just shadows of the One that really matters, Jesus. Believe it or not, that too is Unitarianism - it just doesn't know it.

So what does the first century have to say theologically, with respect to the Old Testament heritage? A lot. A later chapter in the book is going to outline the different contours of the "mutations" of the Jewish faith that permitted early Christianity to still be Jewish, leaning especially on doctors NT Wright and Larry Hurtado. Baptism into the "name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" is a first century diaspora Jewish historical fact. The mutation that I am basically offering is that the Trinity makes a lot more sense when we understand it as a Trinity of design and not a Trinity of essence. If we understand that it is first century Christian faith that is now articulated in Trinitarian language rather than the being of God himself, then suddenly the apparently chaotic chopping and changing between most of the Unitarian and Trinitarian readings of the texts suddenly become still and at peace with one another.

So why did that model get ditched in the fourth century, in favour of a Triune God model? This is quite a complex question. My proposal is not to replace other explanations offered, but to add another angle. Ousia (Greek) and substantia (Latin) afforded the institutionalising Greek-empire-based church the language it needed to ensure that none of the Trinity were dissociated on the most fundamental level possible, which is precisely what some of the intervening heresies would have promoted (or at least allowed for). Although the result is becoming problematic in my view, this enterprise is commendable and has stood the faith very well for centuries. It is most certainly not what Anthony Buzzard describes as "Christianity's Self-Inflicted Wound".

Instead of "consubstantial", which I see as distinctly secondary in light of this research, I therefore propose "co-central". I am also very fond of the orthodox term "co-essential", although again, with reference to the faith. There is so much more to say, and some of which will indeed be said in the book, but I thought it might interest blog readers where this key chapter will go. In light of that, let's just notice something from the picture that I think could really appeal to the Triune-God advocates - the planets orbiting these Three, have a single orbit, experience one main gravitational pull, have a single centre comprising three Stars. I can only hope this contribution will lead to fruitful discussion in the ongoing Trinitarian conversation and not fresh Star Wars ;)


Friday, 16 December 2016

The Death of Christ - part 3

There are a couple more details I'd like to set straight. When I first saw Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion, I thought that he had overdone the bloody whipping scene, which is horrendous. Flesh literally flies off Jesus' back. As it turns out, Jesus may really have suffered like this. Think for a moment - why would Jesus die so quickly on the cross? Sometimes it took people days to die once crucified, for Jesus, it only took a few hours - even Pilate was surprised. Notice how in the whipping scene there are a gruesome variety of whips that the Roman soldiers could use. It was their job to mess up the convict, but absolutely not to kill the person. Doing that removes all the benefits for the Roman regime (and in this case, the Jewish opponents as well) of the humiliating death and body disposal that awaited Jesus.

Remember as well how the evangelists were keen to point out how the soldiers were keen to grab and keep his clothes, which could be traced back prophetically in the Jewish Scriptures. This implies that Jesus was probably doing ok physically up until this point. He had clothes that were worth inheriting - so this also is a confirmation of just how brutal Jesus' beating before the cross would probably have been, placing fresh emphasis on the fact that he not only died for his people, but suffered and died.

This is not always immediately apparent. If we were to only remember the event according to Luke or John, we might think that Jesus went pretty calmly to the cross, maintaining some sense of transcendental peace and divine authority throughout (see my point about Luke 22:43-44 and the bloody sweat). Mark especially, however, does not spare us the desperateness of Jesus' situation.

Let's return to the issue of Jesus' dead body. Here is Luke 23:55:
The women who had accompanied Jesus from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it.

And Mark 15:47:
Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid.

And Matthew 27:61
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.

And John 19:42
Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they [Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus] laid Jesus there.

I have two major gripes with Bart Ehrman. The biggest one is about the inconsistent way in which he describes John's gospel's Jesus. I have tried to question him over this, although as yet to no avail. However, a close second gripe with his historical reasoning is quite how he sees Crossan's proposal for a criminal treatment of Jesus' body. Somehow, he has managed to come around to the common historical view that the women and the disciples did indeed find an empty tomb, the same empty tomb in which they knew Jesus to have been laid - without giving up his former view. I simply cannot see how he can hold on to both these views. All four evangelists demonstrate continuity of the body's location, some of them even to the point of saying that Joseph of Arimathea actually took the body down, although I have no idea how he would have done that.

For there to truly be an empty tomb, one that certainly set the scene for Jesus apparition visions, how are we to believe that Jesus' closest followers (making up a testimony of multiple witnesses) to have made it up, when they are supposedly so convinced his body had been laid there?  The tomb has a central role to play in this event and it is very difficult for me to see how it could possibly be a sheer fabrication. Christianity developed on the foundation of God raising Jesus back to life. The empty tomb does not directly bear witness to that, skeptics are indeed correct to point this out, however, it does directly set the scene for the witnessed encounters with the resurrected Christ because of the continuity of location of Christ's body from cross to tomb.

I'm quite enjoying this rare moment of apologetics, so I may continue on to do a part 4!

Thursday, 15 December 2016

The Death of Christ - part 2

In yesterday's post I demonstrated a strange archaeological lack of crucified skeletal remains: to this day only one archaeological find confirms the ancient practice of crucifixion inflicted on thousands for a period extending across multiple centuries. A key explanation for this is that the bodies were not commonly granted decent burials.

Like the case of Yehohanon ben Hagkol, for Jesus to be buried in a tomb would have required very special circumstances, without which his body also would have been subjected to the same humiliating and inhumane conclusion : animal scavenging by dogs,  birds etc. That would provide ample motivation for Joseph of Arimathea to request a much more suitable solution for Jesus' body. So yes,  for Jesus to be buried in a tomb following public execution absolutely necessitated Joseph's intervention.

In fact, one interesting question to ponder would be quite what Jesus expected to happen to his body. The evangelists retelling the Jesus stories are keen to remind readers (and listeners) that Jesus would have been in no way surprised at his resurrection, but nowhere does he seem to assume that this resurrection would take place in the confines of a tomb - all he is alleged to have specified was that he would arise "on the third day". Indeed he would have been well aware of the brutal treatment of such renegades. If he really did to and fro from Jerusalem as John recounts then he may well have seen others crucified and their usual body-dump zone.

The fact that special extenuating circumstances would have been necessary in no way diminishes the possibility of Jesus receiving a decent burial.  I have not yet had the courage to wrestle with Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (that day may never come - some of what I have heard of his history-writing appears to be nothing short of contrived speculation), but it would be a typical Bauckham argument to speculate that since Joseph of Arimathea was a follower of Jesus, that they might have discussed this arrangement prior to his execution. For my part, I would be quite skeptical of any such proposal, which would imply that Jesus was a bit hazy on the details in his own mind about quite where he would resurrect from, but we could reasonably imagine that he envisaged being raised from around other rotting corpses rather than from a quiet respectable tomb.

There are a couple of other details I still want to hash out, so there will probably be a Part 3 to this mini-series on the death of Christ.

Alternatively,  you can check out Part 1 to this mini series here.  

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

The Death of Christ

As Christians, we are very excited about the resurrection of our Lord. Sometimes we are in a bit of a hurry to imagine the empty tomb of the first Easter Sunday - perhaps not unlike the resistance of many to talk of Jesus as fully man without quickly rushing on to reassure themselves and their listeners that Jesus is also "fully God".

We need to stop sometimes, and not rush.

It is important to take note of what some scholars have been saying about the death of Jesus in their attempts to reconstruct what really happened that day. It is good not to be in the dark about this because if well known, liberal or simply atheist scholars are allowed to expand credibility of alternative theories, then the faith is undermined. Before I continue, I want to make it plain: I take Jesus' insistance on truth very seriously. Any faith founded on sand not only will be shaken, but should be shaken - the sooner the better. But here - after hearing again Bart Ehrman (atheist scholar) citing John Dominic Crossan (liberal scholar, whose book I am currently reading on the birth of Christianity), I feel a responsibility to respond.

Ehrman cites research - including that of Crossan - which indicates that enemies of the state were not granted decent burials. One of the whole points of crucifixion was that it was as painful and as public as possible - sending the strongest message possible to anyone else thinking they might have it in them to rebel against Roman rule. One argument that is particularly striking (although these two don't seem to make too much of it), is our near-total lack of skeletal evidence for crucifixion in the ancient world: the following image depicts the only known example, whose name is given as Yehohanon ben Hagkol:

It remains, however, something of a mystery as to why we do not have more, given the thousands of people that were crucified for centuries, even if we account for most bodies being left for scavenging animals and dumping in shared graves. Returning to Jesus, however, it is important to account for this evidence. In the Biblical accounts, a certain Joseph of Arimathea requested the dead body of Jesus in order to give it a decent burial. The evidence provided above does not discount this story - it simply provides interesting context for this story repeated in all four of the gospel narratives...

*** part 2 tomorrow! ***

Monday, 12 December 2016


I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.

These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation

Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah

This morning I woke up much too early because of congestion. My stuffy nose had meant that my breathing had been entirely through my mouth, completely drying it out. However, it got me pondering about the neurological authorities involved in the incredible breathing apparatus with which we are all endowed. Think about it for a moment. You can take total control of your breathing. Speed it up, slow it down, make it shallow, make it deep, breathe through your mouth, breathe through your nose (or even do both) or even stop it entirely to consume food and drink or take a plunge underwater; most importantly, while exhaling, manage your breath past your vocal chords in such a way as to make distinct sounds that we call "talking". And yet: 99% of the time (my made-up statistic), we are totally unaware of our own breathing and it is operated from an unconscious neurological location in a similar way to the beating of our hearts - to which we have no access whatsoever. In sum, not only is breathing amazing, but its authority distribution is seamless.

It then occurred to me that there could be some theological mileage in this as a helpful way to understand God's kingdom. The book of Revelation, right at the back of our Bibles, paints the clearest picture of all the New Testament of this coregency dynamic at work. God's kingdom has been entrusted to his Messiah, to whom he has given full authority for actual rule. This is not me trying to twist an interpretation into today's post, it is simply me trying to give good credence to the above passages. Coregency is what allows both regents to graciously assert that it is their kingdom. Some people today, including in the world of Christian apologetics, would like to temporarily suspend the possibility of concepts like co-ownership and coregency, before continuing with their lives in which such power-sharing practices continue to shape the fabric of our societies.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Fuzzy science Mike

One of the podcasts that I really enjoy listening to is Ask science Mike. At the moment he is doing a speaking tour in the United States, to promote his new book Finding God in the Waves - which I like by the way.

In his most recent podcast he is as interesting,  witty, thought-provoking and yet fuzzy as ever as he does a live show from Portland, Oregon.

Atheist question, would God exist if we didn't? He "thinks" no. He hopes, comtemplatively and mystically, "yes". The reason for this apparent dissonance is because there are ways of understanding and experiencing and expression that cannot be explained by empiricism. I have a feeling that Mike might need to de-fuzzy a bit what he describes as "existence". At one point in the Portland show, he clearly states that Superman and Batman don't exist. Not "don't exist in the real world", they simply: "don't exist". What about his psychosocial models? Do they exist? What about the inexpressible mystical experiences? Do they exist? Does his memory of what happened to him on the beach exist? Does my idea of Batman exist (in my mind and in millions of minds)? Surely the answer is "yes" to all these examples? The problem then is that there are things that exist - most things in fact - that exist about which no-one has any idea, like each individual blade of grass in the field or photon of light that goes anywhere except towards our tiny planet. God, according to Mike's confessed pantheistic definition of God, cannot exist without the universe he sustains.

Funnily enough, and I would be surprised if he knew it yet as he probably is not as insanely interested by the Trinity as me, this role reversal has been attempted in theology quite a bit already. In recent times, various theologians have attempted ways of understanding the Trinity or the cross of Christ in such a way as to make God dependant on his creation and its failure - even on man's sin. People have asked the question: is God essentially a saviour, or did he incidentally become one when his creation got itself into a pickle? There is then a popular current that says yes, voluntarily so, God has submitted himself in a sense to a state of dependence on what he has made. Science Mike's conclusions are remarkably in sync with that Trinitarian movement.

He speaks with surprise at his popularity among Calvinists. He really is not a consistent Trinitarian though, so I'm not sure what he is criticising when he says that "God who sends his son to be murdered as a sacrifice to himself, and that sacrifice is himself to himself", when the alternative of incarnational love sounds like a pure, no-distinctions modalism! A couple of times in the past, he has attempted an answer to his audience about the Trinity which does not come close to satisfying me that he is really engaging with it - except that it is mysterious, and mystery is good. For instance, in this episode he states (4'20" approx.) that "God is a [one] being" (my emphasis), yet when discussing the Trinity elsewhere, I have heard him go to a completely different extreme and say that God is three beings. To be honest, I don't think he knows what he really thinks about the Trinity, which to be fair, is probably the position of most folk.

Answering a question about Otherness: I didn't like the way he dealt with this. Followers of this blog know that I love distinction, the ultimate one of which is that between the Father and the Son. If there is no space between those two, then there is no room for love between them. It is love that binds persons distinct in their personhood together. But all too quickly, because of our experience of conflict through difference and intolerance of difference, Mike wants to immediately go for pure unity. He cites research done on even the most introverted of folk, who must have contact with others, as we are social animals. This research is only half the story, however. We are also made for distinction. Fusional relationships have been shown in the social sciences to be harmful in child-parent relationships to the child's sense of autonomy and responsibility.

Finally a hilarious moment in this episode that made me laugh out loud: Science Mike prayed as a kid Satan would accept Jesus into his heart. Solved problem of evil! Actually, that reminds me of when I was a kid and my parents taught me about the existence of the invisible Satan character, and I threw him a punch! Great how as kids we already want to kick evil in the teeth.