Creation not debt repayment: John and the Cross

One of the inevitabilties of Holy Week and Easter, it seems, is a sermon, meditation or blog post on the Greek of Jesus final word from the cross in John’s gospel: “It is finished.” (No links: I’m not getting at any one specific person or instance) And nothing wrong with that; after all, when would be a more appropriate time?

But I do find myself bristling at the easy assumption that in this saying Jesus himself gives us the final interpretation of his sacrifice as a penal substitutionary atonement. “Tetelestai”, the preacher says (rolling the word round his tongue and emphasising the apparent veracity of the interpretation with a rare excursion into Greek) Jesus said: “Paid in full.” and from that he (it usually is a he!) segues into the whole penal substitution thing.

I shall lay to one side any questioning of the historical naïveté which assumes John is simply recording what happened. I shan’t even comment on the obvious problem that John’s story is in Greek, and yet it is highly unlikely even on the most historicist reading of the gospel that a first century Palestinian Jew made his dying declaration in a foreign language, and with our preacher’s modern Erasmian pronunciation to boot.

No. I shall content myself with arguing that this was not what John intended as the primary meaning of his text. I grant you that John often seems deliberately to have opened his text to multiple meanings and plural readings, and it is not impossible that his choice of words does carry the added ambiguity of payment. But I think there are cogent reasons for saying his primary meaning is different.

First, it has to be said that the attestation of “tetelestai” – τετέλεσται as a word prefixing receipts referred to by Moulton and Milligan’s classic lexicon is largely 2nd century (and Egyptian).But that simply urges caution.

Next comes John’s language of sin. He consistently, and without variation of style, uses the language of hamartia (ἁμαρτία) / hamartanō (ἁμαρτάνω) / hamartōlos (ἁμαρτωλός). This is the metaphor for “missing the mark”, or erring. The language of debt is missing as a metaphor for sin in John.

But then there is a more positive, but not exact pointer. Although John only uses the verb “to finish – τελέω” at the cross, he does make use elsewhere in the gospel of the very closely related verb “to complete – τελειόω” here and elsewhere.

Here, it is “that the scripture might be completed” that Jesus says “It is finished.” (19:28,30). Elsewhere in the gospel John appears to use the word complete much as the word finish. So:

  • My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete (τελειώσω) his work. (4:34)
  • The works that the Father has given me to complete (τελειώσω), the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me. (5:36)
  • I glorified you on earth by finishing (τελειώσας) the work that you gave me to do. (17:4)

In this context the second of those is particularly interesting. The context is the debate about Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath. As part of the debate which follows, Jesus justifies working on the sabbath (including this work of healing) as follows: “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” God has not yet reached his sabbath rest, the end of his work, and so Jesus sees no need to keep it.

If we place that understanding into the narrative of the gospel, then Jesus says “It is finished” to complete the scripture, at the end of Friday afternoon. Jesus rests in the tomb on the seventh day having finished his and the Father’s work, and then on the first day of the week, while it is still dark … and we’re back, more allusively to that “In the beginning …” by which John signalled all along he was telling the story of creation in which what came to being in Jesus was life, and the light of all people, the light that shines in the darkness.

The language, and the narrative logic, seem to me to work together to suggest that what is finished on the cross, as far as John is concerned, is first and foremost the work of (new) creation. I wouldn’t care to rule out other meanings entirely, but I think that any interpretation which makes debt primary is listening more to a particular tradition than the text John wrote.

Historical Jesus criteria and the words from the Cross

I started this train of thought while keeping my lips tight shut as many colleagues (with a theologically misplaced enthusiasm) were singing Stuart Townend’s lines “the Father turns his face away / as wounds which mar the Chosen One
 / bring many sons to glory”. The power of a good tune to make people sing things (i hope) they’d never say is quite astonishing.

But I went from pondering that and what biblical texts it could possibly have in mind, to the way in which (it seems to me) there’s a general privileging of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” as the most important and (as I think they are implicitly portrayed) the most historically plausible of the words from the cross.

The theological privileging owes a great deal to Moltmann, and has at least these drivers: the human Jesus is more contemporary than the divine Christ, the problem of theodicy is more pressing than any theology of salvation, and divine impassibility has become part of a presumed Greek contamination of a supposedly “biblical” and Hebrew gospel. (The dismissal of impassibility is one of the key areas this outmoded and ahistorical contrast lives on.)

The historical privileging is no doubt related because it is so congenial to the theological account. However, and this is where I finally get to my point, it seems to me that this is one of those cases where the traditional criteria for the historical Jesus quest live on. It is plausible enough in context that a first-century Jew should quote a psalm, and sufficiently embarrassing on the lips of Jesus that the early church would not have invented it (but not embarrassing, it would seem to Mark or Matthew!). Indeed, Luke and John both get rid of it, and if it has left its mark anywhere else in the New Testament, it might be in the alternative (and in my view correct) reading of Hebrews 2:9, “apart from God – χωρὶς θεοῦ” which scribal orthodoxy (and embarrassment?) has made “by the grace of God ῏χἀριτι θεοῦ”.

On the other hand, in Luke’s gospel, it is just as possible that a pious Jewish martyr, not least one who seems to have expected if not embraced his death, could just as plausibly pray what became a model for many Christians: “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Psalm 31:5)

Yes, it is congenial to Luke’s theology as far as most people read him, and is echoed in the story of Stephen, and is judged more acceptable for most modern reconstructions of the early church. On the other hand, Mark’s solitary and ambiguous cry is highly congenial to his gospel, and to his misunderstood Jesus being a lonely hero at very turn. Jesus’ cry in Mark is no less of a pattern with the author’s theological and literary concerns than that of his Lukan counterpart.

And so I ask: is there any good historical ground for the theological privileging of Mark’s solitary word from the cross over those narrated in Luke and John? Or is it just another case of a misapplication of dubious criteria from a past age of questing?

The Nigel Evans case: media hysteria and not-guilty verdicts

I have no wish to pour any cold water on Nigel Evans’ relief and delight at his acquittal today. It must have been awful for him, as an innocent man to go through the ordeal of such a public trial on such personal matters.

However, I think we should all be a little bit worried at another example of what looks a bit like a trend following high profile verdicts of “not guilty”. Today, as in the recent cases of Andrew Lancel, Michael Le Vell and William Roache (what is it about the law and Corrie?) there are people queuing up to ask why the charges were brought in the first place.

So, here’s former shadow Home Secretary (who might be expected to know something about the system!) David Davis:

This case has highlighted serious concerns over how the police and the Crown Prosecution Service bring sexual offence cases to court.
In particular we must now review the process whereby the police and the Crown Prosecution Service put together a large number of lesser, subsidiary cases in order to reinforce one serious case when prosecuting sexual offences.
It is clear from the way that this case proceeded that there is a risk of a serious injustice being done to an innocent man, and I would call on the attorney general to urgently review this issue.

They may well be questions to be asked which could I think, pretty broadly come under the heading of “The Savile Effect”.

It appears that once you’re dead, you’re automatically guilty of every allegation, but if you’re still alive questions must be asked about why police think a pattern of serious allegations is sufficient evidence to bring a case to court.

But surely the point is that courts, and juries, exist to test the strength of the case. It is not for the CPS or the police to settle questions of “reasonable doubt”.

There could be little more damaging for our court system than for the public generally to believe that the CPS and police only brought cases against guilty people. Every time it turns out that a case has been brought against an innocent man or woman, it is a sign that the system is robust enough not to collude in either a police state, or a salacious, ravening and hysterical media.

Yes, there are questions to be asked. But they are as much about media freedom and restriction, and about the post-Yewtree culture of hysteria around sexual allegations as they are about anything else.

But the last thing we want is politicians colluding with the media in reinforcing any expectation that only the guilty will ever be charged. That kind of “no smoke without fire” attitude to the courts is the surest way to guarantee future miscarriages of justice.

Today, above all, is a sign that the jury system remains our best safeguard against prosecutorial zeal and trial by media. Nigel Evans has won today, but so has society.

The strange absence of the empty tomb


The historian Philip Jenkins offers a very good summary of the odd imbalance about the resurrection in the New Testament. The empty tomb is central to the gospel narratives. There is no explicit evidence of it anywhere else.

The question he poses is expressed in two ways. First

All the New Testament writings believe in Christ’s survival beyond death, in some kind of Resurrection. To the best of my knowledge, though, other than the gospels, none refers to that empty tomb story. That does not necessarily mean that they do not know the story, or do not believe it, but they do not use it anything like a modern apologist would. Why not?

And in conclusion:

Suppose I face an atheist critic, who makes the following argument. Yes, he says, early Christians believed that they encountered the risen Jesus, that they had visions, but these visions had no objective reality. They just arose from the hopes and expectations of superstitious disciples. Even then, Christians saw that Resurrection in spiritual, pneumatic, terms. Only after a lengthy period, some forty years in fact, did the church invent stories to give a material, bodily basis to that phenomenon, and the empty tomb was the best known example.

That is, of course, a question that many have asked, although often without the nuance. Many quite liberal believers would also want to aver a vision-based experience eventually being superseded by literal (and fictional) narratives. The Jewish category of midrash is regularly abused in this context.

I’ve expressed my own view in the comments to Jenkins’ post, which is that I still think Paul was aware of an empty tomb tradition, though I must admit it is an argument by inference: first inference from his language of body, secondly inference from how belief in the resurrection of Jesus does and doesn’t modify his apocalyptic framework.

As I said there:

I think the nearest that Paul comes is in his convoluted discussion of bodies in 1 Cor 15. It is the body, which is transformed, no longer being animated by “soul” but by “spirit”. Clearly the language of body steers Paul away from any more obviously Platonic models of psyche / soul. Whether that language is sufficient to make a Pauline belief in an empty tomb probable is open to discussion, but I’m inclined to think that given the range of options open to him, it does.

I would be inclined to adduce one further general pattern in support of this. As far as we can tell, Jesus’ resurrection is interpreted in the earliest texts as a foretaste of a cosmic transformation of the material world. It may modify the Pharasaic and more general apocalyptic understanding of resurrection by applying that language to an individual rather than a universal and corporate aspect, but it doesn’t seem to modify the understanding of it as what we call a “physical” and “social” transformation. Again, to my mind that implies an understanding which seems more congruent with a belief in a change happening to Jesus’ material body.

It is, however, the case that the New Testament data raise the question more sharply than simple conservative apologetics ever admits. Jenkins makes a particularly effective statement of the problem.

Biblical Publicity? reviewing “God’s Agents”

God's Agents.jpgGod’s Agents: Biblical Publicity in Contemporary England. The title certainly worked to catch my eye! It’s an ethnographic exploration of the work of the Bible Society, by Matthew Engelke, and anthropologist currently working at the LSE.

A preface sets out the terms of his study, based on participant observation over a three and a half year period, with roughly 15 months of that being given to full time engagement with the Bible Society’s work. This is followed by a lengthy introduction in which he sets the scene with a short historical note and a more detailed present description of the society, focussing particularly on its “Bible advocacy” work.

It is this advocacy that he means by “biblical publicity”. It is about how the Bible Society seek to gain a hearing for the message of the scriptures in a culture that no longer knows it. It is about seeking ways of presenting the Bible as a “credible” text for 21st century English people. And it is about public religion: the place of faith in the public square. One of the running themes of the book is how this work is a response to an attitude usefully expressed in Alastair Campbell’s soundbite on behalf of Tony Blair: “We don’t do God”.

The first chapter describes and reflects on a Christmas decorations project the Bible Society engaged in in their home town (well the town where their offices are) of Swindon, together with some other activities. The project – having some socially designed angel-kites in a key central area, being in constant motion because of the wind. Engelke reflects on the use of signs which are ambiguous – intentionally undetermined to invite people to engage.

He also reflects on the Lyfe project, where Bible study groups were encouraged to do their Bible study in a public place, coffee house or pub. In this, Bible study is seen as a natural activity for Christians, and coffee ships and pubs as natural places to meet. He brings these themes together by suggesting there is a task here of creating ambience: God as part of the normal background noise of contemporary life.

His second chapter looks at a relatively early Bible advocacy approach of their three “Campaigns to Culture” where they tried to find ways of placing the Bible in public as a contemporary book. The largest of these involved a series of events in Manchester including a significant advertising campaign, which sought to riddle rather than preach. He explores what the Bible Society means by “culture” and how it tries to find culturally acceptable ways of drawing attention and provoking thought within it. One of the issues that emerges from this is just how much they run into a brick wall: many people simply think the Bible is too old to be interesting.

In chapter three he spends time with the Society’s Parliamentary Officer. In most respects, this is the most traditionally evangelical piece of work described here, with a piece of networking, relationship building work developed especially through the (nowadays reshaped in the manner of an evangelical Christian Union) group Christians in Parliament. It does offer some opportunity to reflect on how (if at all) Christian MPs can articulate their faith as informing their positions, and in what arenas. In that sense it begins to introduce the idea that will dominate the last three chapters of the book: public reason.

This final half of the book covers the work of what is 9n my view the Bible Society’s most interesting project, the sponsoring of the semi-independent (or at least semi-detached) think-tank Theos. Chapter 4 covers its launch and early projects, Chapter 5 covers how it seeks to use the media, which is the arena in which a think tank lives of dies, and especially reflects on how it engages in media conflict with atheist organisations over the issues of the day.

The final main chapter looks at a major project to use the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth (and 150th anniversary of The Origin of the Species). This project sought to put across a consistent message that science and Bible can be friends. In the process it staged a major public debate in Westminster Abbey (site of Darwin’s memorial) between atheists and believers on the relationship between faith and science. It also commissioned some research that perhaps could have been made more of, on trying to understand creationists. (Theos, as Engelke describes it, wasn’t really interested in understanding them: it wanted to combat them just as much as it wanted to combat the aggressive atheists like Dawkins.)

The conclusion adds only a little to the substance of the main chapters. It might have been more helpful to give a little more time to the sections which located it among the long-standing anabaptist think tank Ekklesia, and the newer in the ring (political but with theological commitments related to Radical Orthodoxy) ResPublica.

Let me add a few short reflections to this description. First, and most importantly, this is by and large a very readable book, both in its language and the story and character driven way it has of describing the work it covers. The first chapter (unfortunately) is the one with the most jargon, although most of the time (until its conclusion really) it’s not too inaccessible. But “fractally recursive conception of publicity” or “sensory semiotics” (both p63) are not helpful to the average reader drawn in by the story, especially since they are not well explained.

I think the way Engelke develops the concept of ambience is helpful, and offers some ways to reflect on future practice, and how the church, with its members and organisations, seeks to use public media. It’s worth pondering the idea of finding ways of making or keeping aspects of faith, mentions of God, a feature of cultural ambience not just in the “high culture” of classical art and architecture, choral music, and literary allusion, but within “popular culture”. (That’s a rather pre-postmodern distinction, if useful in this context.)

He also has some useful, if underdeveloped reflections on some of the odd ways in which the team use the word “culture”. Not least he notes that “The very idea of a Church-Culture split is indicative of the ways in which the logic of secularism has shaped this strand of Christian social action in contemporary England.” (p231). It might have been helpful to see rather more teasing out of this: surely the division between the two may mask the ways in which the church exists within and is shaped by culture. And how do we distinguish a sub-culture from a counter-culture, a harbinger of future change, a movement of resistance, or a nostalgic after-image?

Finally, I note an area where I wish he had been more critically reflective. It seems to me that the various projects he describes reify the BIble in ways I’m not entirely sure work. It is talked about as if it is a thing in itself, and that everybody knows what we’re talking about. Yet Engelke describes, for example, one bit of the Bible Society (Theos) going into fairly full-blooded combat with creationists while other staff are creationists (p223).

The book (or at least the texts) for actual BIbles are rather replaced with iPads, phones and printouts, is situated n communities of interpretation. Talk about “the Bible” may disguise the necessity of interpretation, never mind hide the complexity of which books are included. I deduce from some of the ways he comments on and describes things that Engelke himself is an evangelical Christian. If that has made him choose an interesting subject, and then using his professional skills to write an enjoyable, readable and thought-provoking book, all to the good. But I wonder if it has prevented him from seeing a very pertinent issue: how the focus on “the Bible” being a voice in contemporary culture is itself something that needs reflecting on.

Scripture, prophecy and Inspiration in error?

For those celebrating the festival of the Annunciation today, the first two readings at mass share something unusual in common.

The first reading is the most famous, and includes the sign Ahaz didn’t want still being given him:

the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14)

The second is the letter to the Hebrews

when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; (Hebrews 10:5)

In the case of the first, the Greek translation famously narrows the semantic range of the Hebrew ‘almah (young woman) by translating it with the Greek word for “virgin” – parthenos. It is this incompetent, if not mistaken, Greek translation that certainly Matthew, and probably Luke, and most of the church after the first century acclaim as an inspired prophecy of the virginal conception of Jesus.

In the second instance, the author of Hebrews places the words of Psalm 39:7 in the Greek translation he knew on the lips of Christ. But the words uttered in the Hebrew version (Psalm 40:6 – Psalm numbering between the Hebrew and its Greek translation is usually one number out!) say something different: “you have given me an open ear” is the NRSV’s take on the Hebrew.

Speculating how the translator got from the Hebrew original to his Greek version is a matter of some dispute but no certainty. Either he has somehow misread the word “ears” as “body”, or he has made a creative interpretative decision, perhaps taking “my ears you have made (or restored)” as a metonym for making the whole body. Is there possibly a hint of the clay man of Genesis 2, and the ears finished as the last detail? Either way, it is in the end generally seen as another example of incompetent translation.

And so we have two OT verses which are read as prophetic of the incarnation, and treated as inspired by those who quote them in the NT. Yet it is only in a poor, if not erroneous translation, that they become regarded as God’s prophetic word.

That ought to be enough to complicate any theology of scripture.

Quaintly old-fashioned liturgy

burse_and_veil.jpgSince I started my new job in November, I’ve been getting used to saying Mass in other people’s churches with other people’s prepared booklets for the liturgy.

This is difficult for my inner control-freak, to say nothing for my inner anally-retentive liturgist!

But one thing that has definitely surprised me is how widely popular the burse and veil are. Even in at least one definitely evangelical church.

This paraphernalia really belongs to the old eastward facing tradition, and to my mind clutters up the altar, as well as being quite fussy. All the stuff should be on the side table until needed at the offertory. And in an ideal world that’s where it should all be returned to afterwards for the washing-up. After all, who washes up on their dining-room table?

After all, if God had meant us to use burse and veil he wouldn’t have given us credence tables.

(Image from YJudes)

Fixing WordPress (Pt 2)


I’m very grateful to David Wilson for his detailed explanation, in response to my previous post, of what had gone wrong with my language code pages.

I’ve now gone through all previous posts. Those I had in my desktop blogging software I have been able to repair. Some older ones, and some composed directly online, I have not. Indeed, the very act of trying to repair them caused the content to vanish, leaving me no option but to delete the remaining header and placeholder.

This blog is now lighter, but hopefully not meaner.

From this point on, I trust that normal service will be resumed.

Any WordPress genius out there?

OK. I was having real problems with attempts to quote the Bible. Any Greek turned up as a series of question marks. I googled and found a tip (which I now can’t find again). This had me comment out a couple of lines of wp-config.

/** Database Charset to use in creating database tables. define('DB_CHARSET', 'utf8'); */ /** The Database Collate type. Don't change this if in doubt. define('DB_COLLATE', ''); */

I confess to being confused about this as I thought I wanted UTF8 as my character set, but wondered if there was a conflict going on. I thought I would try it and see.

I did a test post, and (as you can see) I got the Greek working again: ματαιότης ματαιοτήτων, εἶπεν ὁ Ἐκκλησιαστής, τὰ πάντα ματαιότης.

But now I’ve noticed that I have weird black question marks where I used to have apostrophes. And worse, I went in to change a post by hand in the WP editor and it vanished.

If anyone has a clue about this, I’d be really grateful. Otherwise all my past posts are stuck with question marks, and I’ve still got no idea what I’m doing wrong.

Incidentally the only difference initially between the installation of WordPress for this blog and ones I’ve done in the past is that I was lazy and used Fantastico to install it. I never had this problem when I did it by hand.

The gradgrind of a creationist mind

witch-head-nebula.jpg I was surprised the other day (preparing a sermon on the first creation narrative) to be asked: “What’s the Church of England’s official position on how to read Genesis 1?”

Of course, this is not the sort of thing (indeed most things are not the sort of thing) that the Church of England has an official position on. But I did venture to say (not entirely sure what lay behind the question) that if it ever did have one, it ought to be, “Don’™t ever treat this story as being like a scientific or historical description.” This seemed a satisfactory answer.

Elizabeth.jpgI once got a different insight into the literalist mindset that seemed to be worrying my questioner. A group of us had been watching Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth. One of the things that struck several of the group about the film was what seemed to us the emphasis on how Elizabeth appropriated the iconography of Mary, now Virgin Mother to her people. The image of the Queen of Heaven served the Queen of England well in transferring past theo-pollitical loyalties in her still fragile Protestant nation, while also combatting questions about her gender and dynastic succession.

One of our number, however, was unable to join in this discussion. It was not, I think, because he wasn’t quite sure who the Queen of Heaven was, though as a conservative Protestant he certainly wasn’t on speaking terms with her. No, it was because the film, in its imaginative retelling of the story, had played fast and loose with the facts. This was an unforgivable offence. It failed to accord with what he had been taught at school, and at our next meeting he produced his quarter-of a-century old school exercise books to prove the film was WRONG.

It is this narrow, unimaginative approach to truth which seems to me to underpin both creationist fundamentalisms and aggressive new atheisms. Neither like a literary, imaginative, poetic approach to truth. Between them they have created an unholy alliance of tedious gradgrinds which serves the cause of truth very badly indeed.

The mythopoeic genius of Genesis serves to describe the universe as rational and intelligible, being the intentional, ordered work of an undergirding and authoring mind. In doing so it clearly provides a basis for asserting that investigating the meaning of the universe will disclose something of its deeper and true reality. Without some such vision one must surely assert that its apparent rationality is ultimately illusory, for it is rooted in irrational and random happenings. But the Genesis narratives also say more than that. Their genres affirm truth is also poetic, literary and storied. Their stories affirm truth and reality are also relational.

For me, the idea that truth is only factual is so much an impoverishment of this richer picture that it is quite astonishing anyone would find it attractive. Though if you really must saw off the branch you’re sitting on …

ventures in christian humanism

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