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Posts from the ‘hermeneutics’ Category


Diving into the OT deep end with Joshua’s Conquest

Well, I feel I rather drew the short straw at ASLP on Sunday with Joshua 11-12 as my passage – but then actually, each of the sections in the series has had its moments, so I realise I wasn’t alone! But this section provides a summary of Israel’s conquest of the Land in the preceding 10 chapters, concluding with its triumphant list of 31 indigenous kings beaten and executed. Not only that, but in passing it has all kinds of profoundly difficult lines, not least Joshua 11:6 and Joshua 11:20. Read more »


Some thoughts on Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing

Having spent the last four posts talking about childhood reading in general, it seems appropriate to move onto this. Those familiar with the Jesus Storybook Bible will know (and no doubt love) the style. That is easily the best of its kind for young children. Sally Lloyd-Jones and artist Jago have followed up with Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing. It’s ostensibly for children – though it mustn’t be reserved only for children. I found it thrilling – having expected just to dip and out, I found myself reading cover to cover.

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Context is king: the perils of dislocated sentences

Not quite sure what got me hooked on this New Yorker article (sadly the full article is behind a paywall), but I was gripped. Using linguistics to help solve crimes seems pretty counter-intuitive – but the Unabomber was caught by analysing his manifesto – as was Joyce Meyer security chief Chris Coleman who was found guilty of killing his family. Read more »


The Pop-Culture Game-Changer: Ted Turnau’s Popologetics

Every now and then a book comes along which demands serious attention. Ted Turnau’s Popologetics is just such a book. I should be up front at this stage and declare that he is a friend, so perhaps some will merely assume this is a question of mutual back-scratching. I can assure you it’s not (I’ve received no commissions… as yet). But still, this is a great book. For a whole range of reasons: it is very readable and lucid; it makes its case with wit and self-deprecating humour; it is a model of how to handle disagreement (theological and otherwise) with great grace and generosity; and it demonstrates extensive appreciation of the field and offers a rich mine of treasure to any reader. Read more »


When Christians disagree… priorities, challenges and imperatives

It’s a given. Christians disagree. Like pretty much everyone else, in fact. They always have. They always will. This side of the eschaton, that is.

So the issue is not whether or not we can avoid disagreement. The issue is whether or not we can disagree badly… or disagree well… This is what lay behind the recent 3-part sermon series given by Hugh Palmer at All Souls. And it deserves a wide airing in its entirety because it confronts some vital and little-appreciated issues.

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Nothing Buttery: a Reductionism Rant

Reductio ad absurdum: one of those nice little Latin phrases that comes in handy every now and then. It has a noble pedigree and describes an age-old form of argument designed to pick one’s opponent’s claims apart. It means ‘reduction to the absurd’, or ‘to the point of absurdity’. And it is definitely worth mastering. Read more »


Not a great model, but still a witty use of Biblical texts

Today, I’m going to steal a post from the incomparable Futility Closet (an ever-present source of amusement, irrelevance and, yes, futility).

As he was visiting his parishioners one Saturday afternoon, a new pastor stopped at one house and found that no one answered the door. It was clear that someone was home, but he knocked repeatedly and no one appeared. Finally he pulled out his card, wrote “Revelation 3:20″ on the back, and left it in the door.

That Sunday he found the card in the collection basket. Below his message someone had written “Genesis 3:10.”

In case you missed the point, the texts read:

  • Revelation 3:20: Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.
  • Genesis 3:10: He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

It all rather reminds me of a calling card my grandfather used to use when he was first ordained (back in the day when one had calling cards). It contained the wonderful words:

The Curate has called and has found you out…


First things first … and last – scripture’s authority and all that

Some time back, I was asked by the guys at ELF to write a brief paper on the continued relevance of scriptural authority for these crazy days. So here it is – now available on Theology Network, where it can be downloaded as a pdf.


Donna Tartt and Douglas Coupland on why we tell stories

In recent months, I’ve been working on the novels of Douglas Coupland, (an author I return to again and again), for a talk i’m giving at the ELF next week. In particular, I’ve found Andrew Tate’s book on his work exceptionally helpful. It’s packed with great insights and help. But the very last paragraph of the whole book has been buzzing round my mind since I read it.

Donna Tartt, author of The Secret History (1992) and The Little Friend (2002), a writer who, like Coupland, emerged in the early 1990s, has argued that a good novel

‘enables non-believers to participate in a world-view that religious people take for granted: life as a vast polyphonous web of interconnections, predestined meetings, fortuitous chances and accidents, all governed by a unifying if unforeseen plan.’

For Douglas Coupland, a writer who is open about his sympathies to a theistic perspective, but who is also clear that he cannot ‘join the revival tent’, fiction has become such a space of religious possibility. The uncertainties of the postmodern world have inspired him to negotiate the possibilities of finding truth, rather than that to reject it as an obsolete quest. For Kevin Vanhoozer, ‘[p]ostmodernity has opened up breathing space once again to consider what is ‘other’ to our theories. In this case, ‘the other’ is the return of a reinvigorated and – to many raised in a secular-materialist environent – deeply troubling theological vocabulary. Indeed the moral project of Coupland’s fiction might best be described by the hope of one of his characters in Life After God:

‘You know – I’m trying to escape from ironic hell; cynicism into faith; randomness into clarity worry into devotion’.

Andrew Tate, DOUGLAS COUPLAND (Contemp. American and Canadian Novelists), MUP, 2007, p157


The Shock of the Old

Was involved today at a great initiative – the EA’s BibleFresh. Krish Kandiah has done a fantastic job spearheading it – and there will be all kinds of different resources developed, gathered and hosted at the BibleFresh site. So keep an eye on it…

For any possibly interested, here is the text of my talk:

The Shock of the Old

I had 3 main points (riffing on Alvin Toffler’s concept of FutureShock):

  • Put off by Ancient Shock: the problem of ‘chronological snobbery’
  • Expecting Ancient Shock: the inevitability of a worldview clash
  • The Hermeneutic of Ancient Shock: spending time with the bible’s strangeness

Videos of this and all the other talks will be available at BibleFresh soon.


Q marks the spot – Treasure Map 17 (February 2010)

This has ended up being a bit of a bumper one too! Hey ho. Enjoy.

Sacred Treasure

Topical Treasure

Quirky Treasure


Brian Godawa’s Word Pictures – another plea to read well

Brian Godawa’s latest book Word Pictures is a stimulating read. His day-job is writing screenplays (some of which actually get made into films – no mean feat!) – which has qualified him as an insider to write the excellent (and recently revised) Hollywood Worldviews – easily the best thing I’ve read on engaging with cinema (he has an interesting blog on new film releases too).

But his commitment to the reality of the Christian gospel has inevitably brought conflicts with his professional expertise and experience – too many Christians have (inadvertently?) swallowed modernist presuppositions whole which brought a blindness to the importance of the imagination in the quest for truth – which is frustrating (to say the least) for those who work with their imaginations and creativity on a daily basis. Word Pictures is a feisty book, a right corrective in large part.

The problem with so many who engage with modernism/postmodernism is that it is easy for the traditionally orthodox to dismiss any conclusions as compromise and thus miss the points being made entirely. No doubt some will do that with this – but unlike many recent cultural engagers, he makes a pretty good fist of not throwing babies out with bathwater. He seems at pains to hold reasoned/logical/propositional truth in compatible and mutually dependent tension with imaginary/narratival/personal truth and to a large extent succeeds. That is the main aim of the book and why it is important. It is no sell-out, as far as I can tell. This interdependence of word and image is nicely summed up (in the section dealing with shepherd illustration below):

This is not to say, however, that words are merely reducible to images. For much of imagination involves words, reason and propositions as well. For example, a story about Moses includes propositions about his life or what God has said. When we talk about a painting or a movie, we use analytical discourse in our interaction with the medium. A musical composition follows an underlying rational structure of order. Words and images are not reducible to each other, they are interdependent concepts that can be distinguished but not always separated. (p194)

But I suspect for bringing the more resistant sceptics on board, where Godawa is most compelling is where he makes the case for the wonders of the human imagination having ALWAYS been integral to a true understanding the Bible. Too often, we overlook that it is packed with narrative, imagery, metaphor, rhetoric and great artistry – and crassly assume that we can treat everything as a straight systematic theology – when in fact there is no part of the bible that you can do that with. This was something that great literary critic C S Lewis clearly grasped:

C S Lewis pointed out that the technical term for God, ‘The transcendent Ground of Being” is simply not as rich or full of meaning as the scriptural metaphor “Our Father who art in heaven”. Of course, the creation of theological terms is not inherently wrong, and metaphors are not the only way in which Scripture communicates God’s attributes. But we have to be careful that our theological shorthand will not overshadow or replace biblical longhand. The very theological words themselves reflect the modernist tendency to reduce truth to scientific terminology (every word having the suffix of ‘ology’ or ‘ence’), which may ultimately depersonalize faith and cast theology as a ‘scientific’ study rather than a holistic biblical relationship with God. (p73)

Perhaps one of the reasons I like this book is that Godawa & I seem to share a passion for putting things into tables! This was a particularly helpful one on p74, illustrating precisely the point above:

Modern Theological Term Biblical Image
Omnipotence God has a strong right arm (Ps 89:13)
Omnipresence If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there (Ps 139:8)
Omniscience God counts the hairs on your head (Ps 139:9)
Transcendence People are grasshoppers to God (Is 40:2)
Immanence You have enclosed me behind and before (Ps 139:4)
Immutability God will not wear out like clothes (Ps 102:26)
Aseity I am the Alpha and Omega (Rev 22:13)
Providence We are the clay, God is our potter (Is 64:8)

Scanned from the book: the statue is representational, the word symbolic; both are images!

So this is in many ways a book about hermeneutics, about handling texts well, about reading (which regulars will know is a bit of a nagging theme of this blog)! It’s no surprise therefore to see the likes of C S Lewis, Kevin Vanhoozer and N T Wright (to whom the book is dedicated) feature prominently. All 3 are great exponents of reading well. I particularly liked Godawa’s helpful distinction between taking the Bible literally and taking it literarily. This helps to disarm a whole bunch of arguments about apocalyptic (e.g. in all the millennial debates which thankfully are less of a deal here than in the US) and about scientific aggro about Genesis):

Kevin Vanhoozer concludes “‘Error’ is… a context-dependent notion. If I do not claim scientific exactitude or technical precision, it would be unjust to accuse me of having erred.” The Bible is without scientific error because it intends to describe reality not in scientifically precise terms but in cultural or literary terms. (p47)

Another nice point was the observation of the effect of post-reformation iconoclasm:

Rather than being an elimination of visual culture, however, the iconoclasm replaced the visual culture of immanence with a visual culture of transcendence…
…This plainness of design lent a new voice to the role of minimalism and elegant simplicity in artistry, not to be confused necessarily with ugliness or lack of aesthetic. (p85)

But it’s also a book about apologetics and cultural engagement – for it is a commonplace to suggest that we now live in a visual age but that is hardly a reason for despair. The Bible (while textual) is in fact thrillingly a very visual book, told in a compelling narrative form. We’ve missed whole swathes of apologetic opportunities by not reading the Bible as it is – but it’s a great story! Which presents us with a head start for, as Tom Wright has said, “… The one who can tell the best story, in a very real sense, wins the epoch.” (p138) Therefore Godawa urges:

We need to be actively, sacredly subverting the secular stories of the culture, and restoring their fragmented narratives for Christ. (p139)

I said it was feisty – and this is obvious in the appendix where he saves up his debunking of common objections (e.g. amongst others: if images are important, then why write a rational book with words?; God left us no canonical works of art; images need words, words don’t need images; and an especially helpful bit on whether or not images are more emotionally manipulative than words; etc).

So this is an enjoyable read – it has a nice gimmick in that each chapter is printed in a different font – just to provoke thought about how form affects our engagement with content (the whole McLuhan medium/message malarkey); and as befitting a book that is called Word Pictures, it does contain a lot of pictures! These are dotted throughout, sometimes apparently random, sometimes illustrating points in the text, always there to provoke engagement too.

So read and be stimulated – because as he nicely observes of too many gospel communicators:

The medium is not necessarily the message, but the message often abuses the medium. (p204)


A stunning visualization of the Bible’s 63,779 cross-references

It’s weird – i could have sworn I’d posted this before as I’ve had it for ages – but clearly haven’t. So here goes…
Chris Harrison is a genius at creating novel ways to visualize data. A friend of his suggested taking the Bible as an interesting data set in itself, and this is what he came up with.

Here is his explanation:

This set of visualizations started as a collaboration between Christoph Römhild and myself. Christoph, a Lutheran Pastor, first emailed me in October of 2007. He described a data set he was putting together that defined textual cross references found in the Bible. He had already done considerable work visualizing the data before contacting me. Together, we struggled to find an elegant solution to render the data, more than 63,000 cross references in total. As work progressed, it became clear that an interactive visualization would be needed to properly explore the data, where users could zoom in and prune down the information to manageable levels. However, this was less interesting to us, as several Bible-exploration programs existed that offered similar functionality (and much more). Instead we set our sights on the other end of the spectrum –- something more beautiful than functional. At the same time, we wanted something that honored and revealed the complexity of the data at every level –- as one leans in, smaller details should become visible. This ultimately led us to the multi-colored arc diagram you see below.
The bar graph that runs along the bottom represents all of the chapters in the Bible. Books alternate in color between white and light gray. The length of each bar denotes the number of verses in the chapter. Each of the 63,779 cross references found in the Bible is depicted by a single arc – the color corresponds to the distance between the two chapters, creating a rainbow-like effect.

As well as being stunningly beautiful as an image (which is what they were aiming for), it wonderfully provides a sense of the bible’s internal integrity despite it’s palpable complexity. The 176 verses of Ps 119 stand at the centre point, as if it were a mirror creating a vast symmetry. What is especially striking is the number of lines that stretch all the way from Genesis to Revelation.

Look and wonder. I ordered the poster – it’s even more amazing close up…


St Augustine on Darwin’s ‘Origin of the Species’? Read on…

Botticelli - St AugustineAlister McGrath is at his best (IMHO) when engaging with debates of science and religion. After all, he’s a scholar of both. And he’s got a really helpful and timely piece in this month’s CT on Augustine’s Origin of the Species. Augustine was of course one of the greatest thinkers in Christian history. Full stop. And he was an African. Which endears him to me even more. And in these days of militant scientific materialism and neo-Darwinist thinking, it is refreshing at least to find that someone from the ancient past who as something to contribute to contemporary debates.

Obviously, Augustine won’t help anyone engage with the specifics of  Charles Darwin’s arguments per se but as McGrath says in his conclusion, he does open up the possibility of a freedom within the interpretative bounds of handling Genesis well.

So does Augustine’s The Literal Meaning of Genesis help us engage with the great questions raised by Darwin? Let’s be clear that Augustine does not answer these questions for us. But he does help us see that the real issue here is not the authority of the Bible, but its right interpretation. In addition, he offers us a classic way of thinking about the Creation that might illuminate some contemporary debates.

On this issue, Augustine is neither liberal nor accommodationist, but deeply biblical, both in substance and intention. While his approach hardly represents the last word, it needs to be on the table.

We need patient, generous, and gracious reflection on these big issues. Augustine of Hippo can help us get started.

What is important is the possibility Augustine gives us in how to handle Genesis 1-2 in particular, without either being enslaved to the scientific worldviews of the day, or ignoring them as inevitably irrelevant. Too many interpreters fall into one or other of these 2 traps. And in McGrath’s words, Augustine was simply concerned ‘to let Scripture speak for itself’. Can’t say fairer than that.

Image: Botticelli’s wonderful take on St Augustine


‘New Israel’ – replacement theology by the back door?

I preached a couple of weeks ago on Malachi 2:17-3:6 which is the most astonishing passage – it got me really fired up. In the course of it, I referred a number of times to the ‘New Israel’. Some friends in the church who are Messianic Jews were very concerned about this, for very understandable reasons. For they felt that I was advocating Replacement Theology. My understanding is limited on this – but from what I do get, i would certainly not be an advocate. The Jewish people have suffered intolerably at the hands of Christians, and one cause is this sort of thinking – appalling persecution has often been justified on the basis that God has wiped his hands of the Jews altogether and therefore anything goes. That is obviously terrible and utterly heretical. Although to be fair, the concerns in my friends’ minds was brought about by my use of the word ‘replace’ a couple of times in the course of the talk. So after much pondering, this is roughly how I replied. I’m conscious it’s a huge area. Thoughts or comments welcome?


A “New” Israel?

This is a sensitive subject! I think that it is nonetheless involved, and inevitably the Bible presents a more complex picture than one passage alone might suggest. Romans 9-11 is of huge importance to this question, but it is by no means the only one. So let me touch on a few points which I think are pertinent, and then perhaps these can feed further discussion. I don’t pretend for a moment that this will answer everything, nor that it will necessary do justice to your concerns. But here goes!

As far as the sermon itself is concerned, this is more or less what i said (although it usually comes out a little different in the heat of the moment!):

So the Judah of Jesus’ day wasn’t vastly different from the Judah of Malachi’s day. The Temple was still a mess. And when Jesus came, he effectively replaced the entire Jewish leadership structure in God’s people – the old Israel would be replaced with the new Israel.

  • Why else did he replace the twelve tribes of Israel with 12 disciples?
  • Why else did he echo God’s revelation on Sinai Mountain by preaching his radical application of the law in his own sermon on the mountain?
  • Why else did feed a crowd of 5000+ in the desert, if not to echo what God had done by feeding Israel in the wilderness?

All in all, to use another of Jesus’ images, he is throwing out the old wineskins, the structures of old Israel, and pouring the new wine of the kingdom covenant into new wineskins. His new Israel; the Church. And for most of us here from a Gentile background, we have the privilege of being ingrafted into that – to be welcomed in through Jesus. And because of what Jesus would do in his people, well all can make offerings that would at last be acceptable. And what are our sacrifices and offerings? well, the apostle Paul makes it clear that while we don’t need a temple any more, we respond to Christ’s love through offering our whole lives as holy sacrifices.

Now I do fully acknowledge that the word ‘replacement’ is provocative. And I concede that I was not nearly as careful or sensitive with it as I should have been. i certainly do not agree with the primary strands of so-called ‘replacement theology’ (as far as I understand them). I do NOT think that the old covenant is dead, nor that the church has simply expunged the Jewish people as if they were no longer relevant. Far from it – why else would Paul go to the Jews first, Gentiles second (Rom 1:16-17)? The question, as I see it, is how the Abrahamic covenant in particular is fulfilled (hence its importance in Romans & Galatians). But to read the prophets onwards, it is clear that there are distinctions within the physical nation of Israel. One of the tricky and sometimes painful issues is what we are to make of the modern nation of Israel. A flat application of Biblical passages here is fraught – for even within the OT, the word Israel has a number of meanings.At the very least:  

  • it can refer to the whole of the people descended from Abraham
  • it can refer to the northern kingdom with capital Samaria
  • then it can even be Judah after the destruction of the northern kingdom
  • and then you have the issue of those who are nationals, but not members of the ‘remnant’ – 

So even the existence of these 4 different (though clearly related) connotations is enough to cause us to pause when reading Isaiah, for example.

What, if anything, gets replaced?

Perhaps the issue then is exactly what, if anything, gets replaced. And this gets to the heart of the question. The point I think I was trying to make was that Jesus was fulfilling Malachi’s prophecy of what God would have to do in his covenant people if his covenant promises were to be fulfilled. Ostensibly, by appointing 12 disciples, Jesus was rejecting the leadership of the Israel of his day, essentially because they had rejected him. He replaces them with his 12, and of course they are all (Jesus and the disciples) STILL JEWISH! This is one of a number of pointers to both the radical continuity AND radical discontinuity that exists within the new covenant. I entirely agree that the Bible never uses the phrase ‘new Israel’ as such – but does that necessarily mean there is nothing new within the new covenant? 

So here are few random thoughts on some relevant verses and questions – this is i know probably very muddled – but any discussion needs to touch on these…      

  1. Jeremiah 31:31-34 – What’s old: covenant with the house of Israel/Judah (interesting because Israel n. kingdom no longer existed at this point). The Same LORD is making the promise, with the same purpose: I will be their God and they will be my people. What’s new: (v32) NOT like old covenant because they broke it…. So instead law written in hearts – and everyone will know LORD (a hint at the removal of the priesthood). And at last sins will be finally and irrevocably dealt with (v34).
  2. Where does the theology of the remnant fit? Clearly the prophets constantly draw a distinction between the faithful and the unfaithful within the covenant people. It is the existence of the remnant that enables God to claim covenant faithfulness – something that would have been hard to defend after the Babylonian Exile. Hence the promises are kept only because of a remnant (e.g. Isaiah 10-11).
  3. It strikes me that those who are meant to be the shepherds of God’s people (cf. Ezekiel 34) get replaced because they were the ones who caused the exile itself by leading the people away from God. And they get replaced by God the shepherd himself – Ezek 34:10, 11 AND surprisingly by David the shepherd – Ezek 34:23-24. Obviously, here we are building up the picture of who Jesus will be: BOTH YHWH the shepherd AND David the shepherd – the God-Man king.

To cut a long story, this points to the sense that Jesus is the fulfilment both of the true Israel and the shepherds of the people Israel:

  • he is one greater than Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon (e.g. throughout Gospels)
  • and what’s more he is the true people: why else does Matthew play on Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15 if not to say that he is now the personification of Israel?

What of the Nation of Israel?

This, at the very least, therefore indicates to me that you can’t draw a straight line from ‘Israel’ the people of God in the OT all the way through to the modern nation state of Israel. Incidentally, my position is that i think there are profound legal, moral and geopolitical reasons for the nation of Israel to exist – but i don’t quite see how it is the exact fulfilment of prophetic promise or expectation. There are a number of pointers in my mind to this, littered through the NT:

  1. Why else does Mark imply that the Babylonian exile hasn’t begun to end until John the Baptist preaches in preparation of Jesus – Mark 1:1-3? Quoting Isaiah 40 clearly puts us into the framework of Babylon (Isaiah 39 ends with a prophecy of the exile’s start, while Is 40 opens with a prophecy of its end). By coupling that with Malachi 3, Mark implies that the physical return from Babylon after Cyrus’ decree wasn’t entirely the big picture. Something more was required (presumably that is why those who could remember the former temple wept when the restored temple was rebuilt in Ezra 3:10-13). And remember, Malachi is preaching into this post-Exile situation.
  2. Why else does Jesus say his kingdom is not of this world (in John 18:33-39) unless he sees his new kingdom as something not so much other-worldly as extending from and far beyond the world? No longer is it in any sense restricted to the promised land per se, or even any particular land.
  3. Why else are we told in Hebrews that Abraham was looking forward to a heavenly city of Jerusalem, not an earthly one (Heb 11:9-10)? The writer seems to be downplaying the significance of the land throughout this section, implying that it is just a passing stage in God’s purposes en route to the new heavenly city (the city which will come down (!) to the new heavens and earth in Rev 21).

So it seems to me that the concept of the nation of Israel itself is radicalised and revolutionised in the New Covenant.

What of the Covenant Promises?

Romans 9-11 is rightly seen as an integral passage and any discussion of this needs to do justice to what Paul is saying in these tricky verses. Indeed, I would argue that the whole of Romans is a discussion of the relationship between Jewish Christian believers and Gentile Christian believers, presumably because the church in Rome was suffering divisions and problems over the issue (not unlike the Galatians churches, which is why there is some significant overlap and dovetailing between Romans & Galatians).

I do think, though, that we have to take great care in Romans over how to understand different words. This is not being tricksy for the sake of it – it is well understood amongst commentators that Paul uses the Greek word ‘nomos’ (law) in a number of different ways even within this one letter (interestingly, Paul’s varied usages correspond a bit to the way English uses the word ‘law’ as well – we can talk about a law of physics (a statement of fact based on observation), the judicial law (rules with sanctions), the divine law or Torah (an authoritative command with a relationship context) or even the laws of society (i.e. the customs of that society)).

The same can be said for Paul’s use Romans of the word ‘Israel’ itself.

  • Take for instance the appearance of a contradiction between Rom 9:6 and 11:26 – that in itself sends up warning signs about what is being referred to.
  • Even more radical is how he defines a Jew – cf. Rom 2:28-29 – I’m pretty sure that many of his former Pharisee colleagues would have balked at that!
  • Faith in Christ is the key – which is why he then makes the argument about Abraham in Rom 4. And he’s saying that effectively it has always been like that. When all Israel will be saved, it is presumably all the remnant that will be saved – not all those who are genetically Israelite – because Paul has been at great pains in Rom 1-3 to say that both Jew and Gentile face a guilty verdict for sin – and both Jew and Gentile alike are saved by faith in God which then leads (like Abraham) to being credited with righteousness. Membership of Israel is now defined by faith in Christ, who himself is the true Israel. And that is what we are seeing, as you rightly say, in this generation where Jewish people are trusting in their Messiah like never before.

What of the Church?

What then is the church? Well, I think i would argue that it is the remnant Israel, into which Gentiles are ingrafted – that seems to be the implication of Romans 11. And that is the ground on which Paul can insist that there is huge continuity with and faithfulness to the old covenants – but also radical discontinuity. There are senses in which you could say that it is even new. Isn’t that presumably why Jesus uses the language of ‘new’ wineskins – they are needed to hold the new wine of the kingdom because the old wineskins (of the structures and hierarchies of the nation Israel) are no longer able to hold the wine. Luke 5:37-38 (cf. Mk 2:22 & Mt 9:17).

  1. 1 Peter 2:4-12 is an incredible passage, esp vv9-10 – for here Peter explicitly and clearly applies Exodus/Israel language to the church in the most provocative and daring way. In fact, he argues that the experience of the enslaved Jews being freed by God and then constituted into a new nation at Sinai is exactly mirrored by the creation of the church – in even more widespread and applicable ways. For what else do we all have in common except the Lord Jesus Christ? cf. Exodus 19:6 and Deut 7:6 & 10:15. Surely Peter wants us now to see the church as the rightful inheritors of these promises and privileges – a church which of course is Jewish and into which Gentiles are ingrafted. 
  2. Now I suspect one of the problems behind this debate is that replacement theology proponents imply that the church is a Gentile community that has replaced a Jewish community. That is nonsense and Paul clearly contradicts it, both theologically and in the practice of his ministry. But if the church is the Israel remnant fulfilment, that would perhaps make more sense? And that is why you find the ex-Pharisee and true Hebrew of Hebrews (Phil3) saying now that in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female for you are all one in Christ. If you belong to Christ then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise. Galatians 3:28-29. That is a staggering statement – in no sense should it diminish or demean our differences (for becoming Christian doesn’t stop one being either male nor female); we can rejoice in our cultural diversity, whether Jew or Gentile, European, African or Asian or anything else (which is one of the wonderful things about All Souls, is it not?!). But it surely means that our national, genetic, cultural or social identity is now less significant than our identity in Christ.

One final blast! Luke 18-20 is a fascinating sequence, describing some of the last days of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem – and like the other gospel writers, Luke weaves profound theology through the narrative. There is so much here, in terms of thematic development and theological application that we could go on for days – but here are a few pertinent moments in it:

  • 18:9-14 – Pharisee is not the righteous one but the tax collector IS – all because of his falling on God’s mercy
  • 18:18-30 – rich ruler – again the one you would expect to be righteous goes away sad – he has broken the 1st commandment by idolising his wealth. Interesting reaction from disciples who realise no one is safe – but again the key is trusting God to do the impossible – for which there are great compensations…
  • 18:35-43 – a blind man sees… that Jesus is the true king of Israel (shouting out Son of David)
  • 19:1-10 – Zacchaeus – another tax collector! He has a Jewish name – but is a collaborator with the enemy, Rome. But notice in v10 how salvation comes to his house, because Jesus has come – and that is what enables Jesus to say that he too is a Son of Abraham. There is a profound link between who is truly Jewish (picking up a key prophetic theology of the remnant) and who comes to Jesus.
  • 19:11-27 – Parable of Ten Minas – king is presumably meant to be God – his servants are told to be good stewards. Those who aren’t lose out. But notice how the king responds to his ‘enemies’ in v27. They are rejected.
  • 19:29ff – Jesus enters Jerusalem – which since Luke 9:27 has been Jesus’ supreme goal as it is the locus of the Temple (NB what Malachi 3 said would happen when God appeared) – but it is also the centre for opposition to him – so that throughout Luke’s gospel it is a very double-edged connotations. And the opposition really hots up as he enters the lion’s den.
  • 20:1-8 – Jesus is quizzed on his authority by the Jewish leaders. He is their true Davidic king but they don’t/won’t accept that. The key is that Jesus DOES actually answer their questions in the next parable.
  • 20:9-19 – Parable of Tenants – this is clearly a parable of Israel – and Jesus deliberately picks up Isaiah 5. That is the interpretative key to what Jesus is doing, and he is clearly updating Isaiah’s imagery and applying it to himself. The prophets are obviously the servants the owner sent, and he is the son. Jesus’ crowd is drawn into the story. But notice their reaction in 20:16-19. He is the rejected capstone – and by rights and justice, we would expect the tenants to be thrown out. How could they not? And you would think it fair for the owner to find new tenants. v16 when the owner says he will give the vineyard “to others”, the crowd is shocked and appalled. and Luke tells us that this is because the Pharisees knew they were in Jesus’ sights – 20:19. To my mind, that does look like a replacement of sorts.

So there it is. Lots of random, and jumbly incoherent thoughts. Any contributions…?


Vintage Lewis on Symbolism & Hope

It’s a classic and packed with treasure. But I just came across this little gem today in Lewis’ great Mere Christianity, having never picked up on it before. Trenchant but constructive, direct but hilarious. Fantastic.

There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of ‘Heaven’ ridiculous by saying they do not want ‘to spend eternity playing harps’. The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them. All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course, a merely symbolic attempt to express the inexpressible. Musical instruments are mentioned because for many people (not all) music is the thing known in the present life which most strongly suggests ecstasy and infinity. Crowns are mentioned to suggest the fact that those who are united with God in eternity share His splendour and power and joy. Gold is mentioned to suggest the timelessness of Heaven (gold does not rust) and the preciousness of it. People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs.

Mere Christianity (Fount 1994 edition) p119


The genius & gleanings of Bombaugh

I’ve no idea who Charles Carroll Bombaugh was but he was clearly some sort of literary genius. Thanks to a wonderfully pointless blog that I’ve recently come across (called Futility Closet), a number of his moments of brilliance have been granted a new lease of life (having previously been buried in his epic 1870 tome, Gleanings for the Curious from the Harvest-Fields of Literature). I’ve now ordered a recent edition book so hopefully will be able to share more. But for now, here are one or two tasters.

Death and Life

Of course, by itself, this looks like a string of meaningless letters. But as recent studies of the brain have shown, we find ourselves filling in the gaps immediately in the attempt to make sense of it all.

But context is king – and if you add just a few other letters, very different messages emerge, while leaving the original texts intact. Pretty cool, huh?

Now wrap your brain folds around this next one:

Got That?

Now, that is a word that may often be joined,
For that that may be doubled is clear to the mind;
And that that that is right, is as plain to the view,
As that that that that we use, is rightly used, too,
And that that that that that line has in it, is right–
In accordance with grammar — is plain in our sight.

OK – so that’s got that clear then. Finally, here’s a quiz

The Missing Vowel

In an old church in Westchester county, New York, the following consonants are written under the Ten Commandments. Supplying one vowel will bring sense. Can you work out the sensible advice being offered here?


You might get a crunchie bar if I’m very nice and can work it out.


When words mean nothing… even to the Chinese…

The horrors of China’s earthquake are rightly dominating the news – and what with the disaster in Burma, it has been a gruesome few days. For those who have been bereaved, their lives will never of course be the same. But what of the wider societies in which these disasters have occurred? When the dust has settled, and the semblances of normality return, what of the regimes that have desperately clung to respectability and authority during these disasters? Well, the Olympics are certainly placing the Chinese government under the microscope. Which brings me to a unique exhibition I visited over the weekend.

I hadn’t really appreciated the fact before, but once it was pointed out to me, it made sense. For in the history of Chinese art, calligraphy has played a hugely important role. The reason is simple: the Chinese language doesn’t have an alphabet as such, but is of course made up of hundreds of symbols or characters (their origins having often derived from pictograms or images taken everyday life). The resulting creative dynamic between Chinese characters and imagery (even abstract imagery) is then not hard to understand.

I had a few hours spare on my own on Saturday (a VERY unusual experience!) and so pottered just down the road to Asia House, where there is currently an exhibition of Khoan and Michael Sullivan’s private collection of Modern Chinese Art. She was herself Chinese and thus gave Michael access to an amazing range of artists over the second half of the 20th Century, and together they built up a staggering collection (despite, for example, the horrors and traumas of Mao’s cultural revolution). He subsequently became an internationally respected Chinese Art historian. It was a small exhibition – but fascinating.

A handful of artists stood out – one was Xu Bing. Xu Bing was born in 1955 and grew up in Beijing. When he was 20 he was ‘relocated’ to the countryside during the cultural revolution. 2 years later he returned and enrolled in an art college. He now works in New York and has become well known in various circles, especially because of his wood engraving. And he seems deliberately to play on the relationship between Chinese language characters and imagery. The top left picture is one of a series of his – called LANDSCRIPT. Its significance is lost on most of us – for the picture is made up of words (inspired from a trip into the Nepalese Himalayas), the words for the features which they form (like forest, wood, river, mountain etc). So not only does it depict features of a landscape – it tells you what you are seeing, at the same time!

But the scale of Xu Bing’s most extraordinary work could only be hinted at in the Asia House exhibition – with photographs and a few sample pages under perspex. For over a period of 4 years, he created The Book From the Sky. He painstakingly created wooden blocks for the characters (above right) – and then printed them by hand on sheet after sheet of parchment (above left) – hundreds in fact. And the original intention was for the pages to be then draped from a gallery ceiling and spread across a floor (as in the image below taken from the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa).

Book from the Sky - Xu Bing

It looks stunning. But again, despite the aesthetic beauty of a photograph like this, its significance will be completely lost on those of us who can’t read Chinese. Because, you know what? It is all MEANINGLESS. None of the characters means anything at all, because each one was invented by Xu Bing. All 4000 of them. So not even a fluent Chinese reader will be able to make head or tail of it. It is therefore making a profound political and philosophical statement.

It has the air of a religious document, an ancient holy book. The awed hush its display inspires would certainly befit that. As a westerner, you can only look at it and imagine the centuries of wisdom compiled and preserved – if only you could read it… But it is inaccessible – not even its author understands it. And when you do discover the point it is making, it makes you question every other text. Sure we can understand the ‘meaning’ of the words – but what do they signify? Anything? In a country which has suffered at the hands of harsh ideological government, can you take anything they say seriously? For a man who experienced 2 years ‘relocation’ it would be hard to, don’t you think?

There was a tragic moment on the news the other night when Hu Jintao was doing the post-earthquake rounds of the dislocated, dispossessed and distressed. There was the pathetic sight of a young girl in tears, utterly distraught and disorientated. Her home was gone… what of her family? The Premier could only say, ‘Don’t worry, everything will be OK; the government will build you a new home’. The classic response of the state machine. (Though in the capitalist west, we would expect nothing less than the same – e.g. federal aid (such as it was) after Hurricane Katrina.) But can you trust it? Or was that just spin for the western media? Will we ever know if that girl finds a home? A house, perhaps. But a home?

Spin is pervasive. But has it ever been different? Haven’t words always been just a game, truth claims just power claims (as Foucault chillingly rammed home)? We’re groomed now to be suspicious of anything anyone says, not just when it comes from politicians. So even if the Book from the Sky had been made up of intelligible Chinese characters, would it have represented, or been, a guide into reality? Many would doubt it.

Which is why I keep coming back in my mind to a profound sense of gratitude and relief that our ultimate benchmark of reality, truth and the world is not actually the written word (shock horror). It is not a matter of words strung together – but THE Word strung up on a Cross. For one of the Word’s most impressive characteristics is his integrity. Many tried in vain to dig around and expose his flaws. But his renunciation of spin, manipulation and power trips was absolute – the cross proved that once and for all. The cross not only gives him credibility in a suffering and anchor-less world, but also provides us all with access to a reliable reality. And so Xu Bing has a profound point – as does Foucault – if human words are all we are left with. We do need to be suspicious of human intentions – but the Bible has always known that. It has a special word for it – sin. Which is why the message of the Sinless Word brings such revolutionary joy.


Mean what you say and say what you mean

I had a physics teacher at school who always used to say that. I remember finding it infuriating and pedantic at the time. But I since realise that I’ve become rather infuriating and pedantic myself. He must be chuckling (my old physics teacher that is). But words matter – and they reveal far more than merely momentary thoughts. As does tone of voice. Together, they can unwittingly expose one’s entire worldview… as stunningly captured by this guy – a genius by the name of Taylor Mali (HT to Gavin McGrath for posting the clip first).

Like all the best humour, it’s true!

But in a weird convergence today (spooky, huh?), I went from watching that brilliant parody of the verbal tics of the inarticulate, to reading this totally reasonable rant against the impenetrability of the articulate (thanks to the African theological educators’ journal, Mwalimu, edited by Keith Ferdinando of AIM). Both extremes completely fail to communicate (either by trying to be too cool or too clever by half). It is taken from a review of the theological tomes of Wolfhart Pannenberg by Donald Macleod (who is himself no mean theologian). What he thinks of the man’s theology is not at stake here; instead, let it speak for itself:

Pannenberg is heavy-going. Indeed, it is hard to avoid the impression that he glories in it. This raises four specific questions:

  • First, is it not the responsibility of theologians to be elucidatory and expository? If so, then they should be more lucid and accessible than what they are trying to expound. Otherwise they are useless. What is the point of our Protestant doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture if our expositions of it are impenetrable?
  • Secondly, is it not the duty of the theologian, as of any other author, to be interesting? If not, why should we expect people to read us?
  • Thirdly, is it not the duty of Christian theology to be ministerial: and in being ministerial to serve not merely one’s fellow academics but the whole Christian community? It is hard to see how such work as Pannenberg’s falls within the perspective of equipping the saints for ministry (Eph. 4:12).
  • Finally, is the theologian the one Christian functionary who is not bound by Jesus’ example? He was the teacher par excellence. Sometimes, beyond a doubt, he uttered hard sayings. More often, his utterances aimed to tease the imagination and to fill the mind with ideas which no propositions could exhaust. But always, the concern was with people, with life and with practical wisdom.

It is a curious irony that modern theology, so critical of scholasticism, now finds itself prisoner of its own schools.

Donald Macleod, The Christology of Wolfhart Pannenberg, Themelios 25.2 (Feb 2000), 40-41

It seems to me that many of us have much to learn. Is it too much to ask:

  • for more academics (in all fields) to heed Donald Macleod?
  • for more ‘trip and hendy’ preachers to take note of Taylor Mali?

Sir Elton, Hillary & the ‘Misogynists’ – the despair of Bulverism

It’s an emotive word. After all, who would ever be happy to be called a misogynist? And so at one level, it is a clever, albeit rather desperate, strategy. Because this week, Elton John did a big fundraiser for Hillary Clinton in Manhattan (apparently bagging her as much as $2.5 million in the process!!). Having said that there was no one more qualified to lead America, he went on to say:

I never cease to be amazed at the misogynistic attitude of some people in this country. And I say to hell with them.

The reason I’m here tonight is to play music, but more importantly as someone who comes from abroad, and is in America quite a lot of the time (and) is extremely interested in the political process because it effects the whole world.

Many would agree with that last point – the world is waiting with bated breath for the result of November’s presidential – it can’t come soon enough. But misogyny? It’s an easy slur and hard to refute. But it is in fact futile and ultimately an insult of despair. For while misogynists abound in all walks of life, is it really the case that it is the main reason many people won’t vote for Hillary? Could it possibly have something to do with her policies, or her track record, or even her agendas (whatever they might be)? You see, this goes far beyond the American election. It illustrates an aspect of what is going on all around us.

The Hermeneutic of Suspicion

And that is what some rather pompously term the hermeneutic of suspicion – but while the description sounds rather esoteric, the phenomenon is far from it. It is happening all the time and all around us., from street level to academia. Hermeneutics is the business of interpretation (whether of texts, statements or reality) – but it is a contemporary obsession to be suspicious of every such statement. As such, it implies the absence (or perhaps merely the unattainability) of truth because it suggests the impossibility or irrelevance of a convincing argument. Instead, every claim to truth is merely a claim to power. The flip side of this is the assumption that any rejection of someone else’s view is motivated by some deep-seated prejudice or even ‘hatred’. Hence the hermeneutic of suspicion.

The Flaws and Dangers

This is all very serious – but the flaws in this approach abound and it is vital to expose them. To fail to do so is to have .

  • For one thing, it is pretty arrogant because it subtly lays claim to an almost divine insight into others’ minds and hearts – as if Sir Elton had a unique mass telepathic ability.
  • Furthermore, it tries to have its cake and eat it – you defend the people you support by attacking opponents as misogynists; and accuse them of just seeking after power. But at the same time, make claims of competence, integrity and sound policies as if their own motivations were whiter than snow. Hence Hillary is the best person to lead the country…
  • And most scarily, the knock-on effect of all this is a total disintegration of tolerance (see previous post). What people say has become irrelevant – and free speech no longer needs protection. Rather, we need protection from the spouters of such speech; we need protection from the ‘hateful’ and the prejudiced. We no longer need to tolerate these people – in fact, we should not tolerate these people – not because of their intolerable views but because of their intolerable prejudices. Lock ’em up – they are a danger to society!

But this is, of course, ultimately self-defeating. Think of where this ends up. For the US Election:

  • Anyone who fails to vote for Barack Obama is racist.
  • Anyone who fails to vote for John McCain is ageist.

For the up and coming London Mayoral elections next month:

  • Anyone who fails to vote for Ken Livingstone is a snob
  • Anyone who fails to vote for Boris Johnson is an inverted snob
  • Anyone who fails to vote for Brian Paddick is homophobic

And so it goes on. It gets you nowhere. Surely we should avoid such language altogether – and start considering the usual – and important – things like ability, policies, integrity etc.

The problem is that this trend invades all walks of life – including the church. When you are told that you hold or reject a particular theological position because of your Myers-Briggs score… or education… or upbringing… surely this is pretty much the same thing? Isn’t it? It is an easy and convenient put-down – and buys you some time perhaps. But in the end it merely buries you deeper into the pit of nebulous truth claims and counter claims.

C S Lewis & Bulverism

C S Lewis spotted this years ago – and he even gave it a name: Bulverism. This is what he wrote in an essay by that name, published in his essay collection, God in the Dock.

You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.

In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism”. Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father — who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than a third — “Oh you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment”, E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

I find the fruits of his discovery almost everywhere. Thus I see my religion dismissed on the grounds that “the comfortable parson had every reason for assuring the nineteenth century worker that poverty would be rewarded in another world.” Well, no doubt he had. On the assumption that Christianity is an error, I can see clearly enough that some people would still have a motive for inculcating it. I see it so easily that I can, of course, play the game the other way round, by saying that “the modern man has every reason for trying to convince himself that there are no eternal sanctions behind the morality he is rejecting.” For Bulverism is a truly democratic game in the sense that all can play it all day long, and that it give no unfair advantage to the small and offensive minority who reason. But of course it gets us not one inch nearer to deciding whether, as a matter of fact, the Christian religion is true or false. That question remains to be discussed on quite different grounds – a matter of philosophical and historical argument. However it were decided, the improper motives of some people, both for believing it and for disbelieving it, would remain just as they are.

I see Bulverism at work in every political argument. The capitalists must be bad economists because we know why they want capitalism, and equally Communists must be bad economists because we know why they want Communism. Thus, the Bulverists on both sides. In reality, of course, either the doctrines of the capitalists are false, or the doctrines of the Communists, or both; but you can only find out the rights and wrongs by reasoning – never by being rude about your opponent’s psychology

Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs.

Lewis at his brilliant best. Let’s banish Bulver forever. His approach has no place in a truly tolerant and sane society!