Dissenting is dangerous.

In 1534, Henry VIII of England famously separated the English church from Rome.  As I learned this originally, there were two main reasons: firstly, he wanted an annulment of his marriage (in order to remarry and hopefully have a suitable heir) in circumstances where the Pope wouldn’t allow him one, and secondly he saw the money and land the church held and thought it would be better in his hands than those of the church. Neither of these is, in and of itself, a particularly laudable objective, though the dissolution of the monasteries was significantly more justifiable than might meet the eye, as very many of them suffered from the same kind of faults as Martin Luther had earlier complained of in the Catholic church in Germany. There was, however, another important reason, which was that England was becoming increasingly oriented towards the ideas of the Reformation. Without that, Henry would doubtless not have felt able to take this step, nor would he have been likely to succeed.

The result was, of course, the Anglican Church. Britain has since that time had an “established church”, a national church, but one which as a result of missionary and colonial activities is now a lot more than just a national church, although in England it is still exactly that, and Elizabeth II is its titular head.

That said, it is necessary for some of my readers to underline the fact that this was not a takeover of the nation by a religion (i.e. a theocracy), it was a takeover of the national religion by the government. It’s not quite an unique occurrence – Hitler, for instance, effectively took over the German churches as a national protestant church (which they already de facto were), although in fairness Hitler didn’t declare himself the head of his new national church, so Henry is as far as I’m aware unique in that respect, at least in the last thousand years or so.

The Nazi takeover resulted in a fair amount of opposition – the Confessing Church, of which Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a prominent member, is an example. The same was not immediately the case in England, for a number of reasons. Firstly, England was fairly insular with respect to continental Europe by this time, and the Pope’s refusal was (in part rightly) seen as being for reasons of international politics – he wanted to keep the Holy Roman Emperor happy. Secondly, reformation ideas were growing in strength in England, largely at this point within the church, and separation from Rome was not seen as all that bad an idea. Thirdly, Henry very sensibly kept the outward appearance of things virtually exactly the same, so the impact on “the man in the pew” was minimal.

I should here stress that in effect every nation in Europe at the time had a national church. In France and the south of Europe this was the Catholic Church, in northern Europe it was one of the Protestant churches (largely Lutheran, some Calvinist) which were by and large specifically national churches. There was no thought in Henry’s mind of detaching the state from religion, in this case specifically Christian religion. There was, however, plenty of thought of detaching himself from the awkward position of having a national church of whom the head was a foreigner, and a foreigner with a state of his own (the Papal States in Italy) and with interests which were distinctly different from those of England. In theory, therefore, the Pope could command the Catholic faithful not to obey the government of England (i.e. at the time largely Henry, as parliament did not then as yet have much effective power) and be obeyed. In fact, the Pope did just that, and was by and large not obeyed.

The situation changed under Henry’s successors. Henry was succeded by his son Edward, who was significantly influenced by advisors who were impressed by Luther and Calvin, and there started to be major changes which “the man in the pew” could see. Duffy’s “The Stripping of the Altars” is a magnificent, if somewhat lengthy and slightly Catholic-biased account of this process. Now there started to be serious unrest, with significant support from Catholic interests outside England, of course at the instigation of the Pope. There started to be significant persecution of those who opposed these changes.

Edward was succeded by Mary, who was Catholic, and sought to return the English Church to obedience to Rome. Now there was unrest in the opposite direction, and significantly more persecution. Mary married Philip of Spain, the premier Catholic monarch, and there was substantial resulting interference in England by foreign Catholic interests. Her sister Elizabeth I succeeded her, and reversed the process. One result was an attempted invasion by Spain at the instigation of the Pope (the Spanish Armada), foiled in part by English seapower and in part by the weather.

The common factor between all these monarchs was, of course, that supporters of whichever was for the time being not the national religion were seen not just as followers of a different faith, but insurrectionists and traitors in the pay of a foreign power (the foreign power in the case of Mary being the German protestant princes). Under Elizabeth, the Act of Uniformity was passed in 1558, imposing significant penalties for non-attendance at Church of England services; the general direction taken by Elizabeth was to have the Church of England steer a middle path between the Catholics and the more liturgically minded Anglicans and the Lutheran, Calvinist and Anabaptist influenced individuals and groups who wanted to have a far more puritan aspect (as had to some extent been seeming the likely movement under Edward). This was felt oppressive by the puritans, some of whom left for the liberal state of the Netherlands. Of course, as history shows, Holland was far too permissive for their taste, resulting in the voyage of the Pilgrim Fathers and the foundation of the Plymouth colony.

It is, of course, ironic when set against the common myth of foundation of the USA that they were fleeing not repression in England, but a liberal state in the Netherlands, and that they did it with the aid of a land grant from England (which stipulated that they do not make their dissenting type of religion that of the colony, which they of course proceeded to do). In addition, although they were not exactly “persona grata” religiously (full toleration of nonconformists would only happen in 1828), the extent of actual persecution was minimal by the time they crossed the Atlantic, although the penalties for non-attendance at church were not formally relaxed until 1662.

James I (formerly James VI of Scotland) followed without too much disturbance, but he was succeeded by his son Charles I, who was a distinct Catholic sympathiser if not actually Catholic (he had married a Catholic). That is not the only reason why the English Civil War broke out, but it is a more serious contributing factor than is commonly accepted, as most histories concentrate on Charles’ fights with parliament and the issue of who was paramount, king or parliament. Among the factors leading to Charles’ attitude was the concept of “divine right of kings”, which had grown up in the Catholic monarchies, which were very autocratic compared with the parliamentary monarchy even pre-Civil War. A Catholic monarch, it seemed, was absolute.

The result was the Interregnum, which lasted for 11 years from 1649, mostly in the form of the Commonwealth (not to be confused with the current British Commonwealth of Nations). During this period, religious radicals had significant sway, the Church was forced into an even more radical mould than during the reign of Edward, and among other things public music and dancing was forbidden and the theatres closed for a time, following the puritan ethos. On the whole, England wasn’t much in favour of this, and on the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the church was reestablished as well, in pretty much its former configuration.

Over subsequent years, the Church of England became increasingly a broad tent, much as Elizabeth had envisaged, under the requirement to be a church for the nation, the nation being disparate. Nonconformists became progressively less disadvantaged until they were largely the equals of Anglicans; it took rather longer for the animus against Catholics to subside (after all, the Armada had attempted invasion, and a Catholic plot had attempted to blow up parliament and the king). As late as 1780, there were riots in London at the concept of relieving some of the constraints on Catholics, and even in 1829 (the Catholic Emancipation Act) not every restriction vanished – it would take until the closing years of the century for that to be the case. Even then, for me, growing up in a Nonconformist household, there was some suspicion of Catholics even in the 1950s and 60s.

Let me underline a few salient points from this piece of religious history of England. First, whatever else the monarchs (or parliament) did, there had to be a state religion, and that had to be some species of Christianity. This was the case everywhere in Europe, and had been from about the sixth century (earlier in the areas which formed part of the Roman Empire). It was the case even in the religiously very liberal Holland of the 16th century onward. This was a relic from the days of Constantine, who adopted Christianity as the religion of Empire. England was perhaps unusual in that it had a monarch at the head of its church, who would hire and fire bishops (thus avoiding the more or less perennial conflicts between rulers and their national churches which bedeviled a large amount of Europe through the first 1500 years or so after Christianity took root). However, from a dispassionate point of view, this was fairly close to what Constantine had effected. The former non-violent and radical church of the oppressed and marginalised became the church of empire and domination, developed a theory of “just war” and had its symbol, the cross, carried in front of armies from Constantine onwards. Some of those armies had the specific purpose of attacking other religions or other branches of Christianity – this happened in England during the Civil War and on a few occasions after that, but the nadir was no doubt the Crusades, with special mention for the Fourth Crusade (which ended up sacking Constantinople, the centre of the Orthodox Church) and the Albigensian Crusade, which more or less wiped out the Cathars, considered an heretical sect, and with them the tolerant and vibrant culture of Southern France (Languedoc). However, all of the crusades had the overt intention of killing Muslims, and if a few Jews were killed as well on the way (as they usually were), that was by no means contrary to the objectives.

Secondly, as soon as you have a state church, other religions or sects become a threat not just to the religion but also to the state, as thousands of Catholics and Protestants in an England which swung between the two over 100 years or so could testify (or in Northern Europe more generally during the wars of religion). They become not just heretics of unbelievers, they become traitors.

The chief sufferers from this in Europe throughout the fifth to the twentieth century were however the Jews. Although this culminated in the Shoah (or Holocaust) in Nazi controlled Europe between 1939 and 1945, persecution of the Jews was endemic throughout Europe during the whole period. Judaism was, of course, a religion without a home after the Romans sacked the Temple in 70 CE (and particularly so after they banned Jews from Judaea after the Second Jewish rising of 135 CE), but it had been under foreign domination for most of its history even in Palestine, whether Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek or Roman. Indeed, during the “Babylonian captivity” it subsisted principally in the large proportion of inhabitants of Judah forcibly transported to Babylonia.

Now, I must stress that in my analysis following, I do not in the slightest condone the treatment of the Jews by any of these imperial powers, especially by Christianity. While the Shoah was carried out by a government which was not particularly Christian (arguably it was anti-religious and merely used religion as a tool towards a purely political end), it was the culmination of sixteen centuries of persecution of Jews by Christians within nations which had some form of Christianity as their national religion. Without that history of persecution, it would probably not have occurred. In addition, the vast majority of those actually carrying out the orders were at least nominally Christians.

That said, the way in which Judaism survived as a religion (and the Jews as a people) was to preserve and accentuate their difference from the nations into which they were scattered (or earlier in which they were imprisoned, or which had included them in their empires). It has been a remarkable achievement, against forces of assimilation (sometimes forced assimilation) and coercion, frequently involving massacres, of which the Shoah was merely the largest and near to the last.

This strategy, however, brought on itself the inevitability of Jews being easily distinguishable as “different” from the people around them, and those who are different have long been targets for others. As we have seen above, being of a different religion where there is a national religion brings with it the additional charge of treason, and so it was in the growing nationalism of Europe over that period. That said, it was a charge leveled also by the Romans.

Early Christianity was similarly persecuted by the Romans on exactly the same basis, that they were traitors; they did not admit Caesar as being Lord (as they confessed “Jesus is Lord”). They trod there the same path as had the Jews under the Seleucid Greeks and under the Romans, and initially the Romans found difficulty telling the difference. However, as we know, Christianity flourished and spread despite the persecution and eventually became the religion of Empire – at which point it promptly became the persecutor.

It is deeply unfortunate that Christianity had in its scriptures from the beginning relics of the initial struggles between Christianity as a sect of Judaism and the remainder of Judaism, resulting in, for instance, the “blood libel” in Matthew and the persistent use of “judaeoi” in the Fourth Gospel. It is also unfortunate that it has in the scriptures adopted from Judaism, notably Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges and Chronicles, the history of the relation of the Israelites (and Judaeans) with people of other religions. Seeing themselves as inheritors of the tradition of Israel, very many of the Christian persecutors have laid into those they regard as heretical, or Jews, or members of other religions with a cry of “smite the Amalekites”.  Sadly, Israel carries within its scripture a history of persecution when Judaism (or at least its forerunner) was a national religion of an independent state.

Now, of course, Israel is once again a nation state with Judaism as its religion, and sadly exhibits much of the same attitude as did their predecessors and their Christian successors; the Palestinians, whether Muslim or Christian, will bear witness to that. But then, Islam, after some promising beginnings giving a somewhat protected status to its predecessor “religions of the book”, now appears to take the same line everywhere where it is the state religion; in relation to its own successors (the Sufis and the Baha’i religion) it has always been the persecutor. Further afield, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism are by no mean innocent either.

My conclusion is that history has proved that national religions are so prone to oppression and atrocity, not to mention the other sins of being in a position of power, that it would be best if none were ever in that position. Although it does seem to me that the Church of England may have reached a position of toleration (after persecuting Catholics and Dissenters for many years) where it is no longer a real threat to dissenting voices, possibly in part due to its control by political forces through Parliament, even there I have misgivings. Should Charles ever actually become King, I note with favour that he intends to style himself “Defender of Faiths” rather than the traditional “Defender of the Faith” (a title given to Henry VIII by the Pope before their disagreement).

What of the history of Judaism, of Huguenots in France, Hussites in Germany, Catholics in England, all vigorously persecuted in part for being potential traitors, among other things? I have to say that I consider them entirely justified in their refusal to conform, but that in a very small measure their persecutors were correct. They had a loyalty greater than loyalty to the state in which they lived could ever be, and that is dangerous to any nation state.

For me, God is king, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland must take second place.

But I refuse to kill or oppress in the name of either of them, because Jesus is Lord.

Choosing a bible

Here’s an interesting offer of a free ebook comparing 21 versions, for those who don’t already have a favorite or are thinking of getting another one.

Emerging minds

I got into a philosophical discussion last night, thanks to Catherine (from this time’s Alpha, which ended yesterday), and was probably horribly overmatched. No, strike the “probably”; I was definitely carrying a sword to a gunfight there.

However, it was hugely interesting and stimulating, and I hope such conversations continue outside Alpha.
One topic which came up was as to whether there was something more than the material, the physical. Now, I am at least 99% scientific-rationalist-materialist, and was saying that we had no effective way of demonstrating that there was. Catherine, it seems, is a fan of Plato. There were bound to be fireworks! Where we didn’t finish was on an illustration of being put in a room with a set of instructions. Into the room came sets of chinese characters (and it is determined, rightly, that I don’t know Chinese); you then follow the instructions and send a different set of chinese characters out to the person outside – and, lo and behold, it looks to the person outside as if you are speaking Chinese.

The question is, are you? You have no comprehension of the individual characters. Can it be said that you “speak chinese”? (my brain throws up a side note – could the Apostles at pentecost be said to be speaking in other languages, on this analysis?).

This is obviously a derivation of a Turing test machine, slotting you into the mechanism.

I was attempting to work via the concept of emergence. It seemed to me that the mechanism was too simple; I used the analogy of simultaneous translators, who frequently have no idea what they’ve just translated as the translation process seems not to occur in the stream of conscious thought (and I can testify that for me, it’s a lot easier to speak in French if I think in French in the first place. Translation is much more difficult for me, and simultaneous translation impossible – I know, I’ve been asked to do it in the past). I suggested that with a few feedback loops (and it does seem to me that consciousness operates a bit like one or several feedback loops) things might be different – though I suspect, having had time to sleep on it, that however many feedback loops were contained in the room, myself as the operator would still be serenely unaware of what was actually happening unless one of them happened to include a Chinese-English dictionary).

But I definitely buy in to the emergence concept, where chemistry is an emergent property of physics, biology is an emergent property of chemistry, psychology is an emergent property of biology (perhaps with neurology slotted in between). And possibly God is an emergent property of psychology. I at least entertain the concept, although I have no idea how you would go about demonstrating that it was correct (I suspect it’s impossible, being a higher order emergent property than our consciousnesses) and it doesn’t work for me as a working theory – panentheism still does that job better than anything else I can come up with.

Our ideas of God are certainly something which emerges from our psychology, and perhaps that is the clue here. I tend to criticise Plato as reifying intangibles, thinking of derivative concepts (such as good, truth and beauty) as being more real than the things which exemplify those qualities, whereas from where I stand they are derived concepts without any external reality, in much the same way as you don’t get the psychology without first having the neurology, the biology, the chemistry and the physics. These things only have reality inasmuch as they are embodied.

Or, as the case may be, incarnated…


A while ago, there was a bit of an upset in the blogosphere when Tony Jones criticised Marcus Borg for an answer he was pressed to give on whether he accepted a physical resurrection; Marcus answered that he did not – and blogs all over the place erupted for and against the concept. Now, I’ve written before on the question of a physical resurrection, in particular in a series “And God saw that it was good” of which the first is here.

I’ve just revisited one of the responses, out of Homebrewed Christianity, with Tripp Fuller in conversation with Jonnie Russell (scroll down to “Marcus Borg, Tony Jones and the Resurrection, and in the podcast itself you can skip the first 20 minutes) talking about the pros and cons of believing in a physical (rather than a spiritual or metaphorical) resurrection. I have a lot of time for Tripp Fuller – he knows a lot of stuff. A LOT of stuff (and I say this having been introduced around my church on occasion as someone who “knows a lot of stuff” – I know very little compared with Tripp, and am not nearly so adept at juggling competing theologies and philosophies – particularly philosophies).  Incidentally, there are a load of really interesting podcasts available in their Homebrewed Christianity, Theology Nerd Throwdown and other series, and most of them can be downloaded free.

Now, I very much liked what Tripp had to say about what is essentially an operational view of the Jones versus the Borg view, commenting that absent the theoretical distinction, both of them would affirm that resurrection was fundamental to Christianity and a real and present force. I would affirm that myself. In addition, having accepted that, Jones and Borg would both engage in very much the same actions in the world, as I would myself. Operational definitions in psychology reduce situations to things which can be measured, or in other words what behaviours result from thought processes (rather than what is said about them). The operational definitions of these two viewpoints are therefore pretty much identical. And as Tripp remarked (paraphrasing), every Christian believes in the resurrection, they just believe in differing ways.

They do throw up some differences, however. First is outlined by Jonnie, and it is that there is a need among evangelicals to assert that in Jesus God was doing something new and unique, or in other words that the incarnation was the “fulcrum of history”.

Now, I’m not sure that I think this myself. On the plus side, we can now look back at history and observe that the Jesus event sparked a really major change in world history; history would have been radically different had Christianity not flowed from that event (and it’s worth pointing out that Islam flows in part from the existence of Christianity – the second largest world religion may not have existed or may have been radically different). We can look at the past lives of some billions of Christians which have been changed as a result (and the lives of perhaps similar numbers of non-Christians which have also been changed, not necessarily in a positive way – though those of some Christians have also been negatively impacted). But there are implications which I don’t necessarily go along with.

The main one is that this was an unique intervention by God, a deliberate act of God to change human history in its tracks. As might be gathered from my “no tricks” post which I link to above, I’m sceptical that the God of my understanding would intervene in quite this way, even if no individual miracles were involved. I know that God can and does intervene in individual human lives on occasion (he intervened in mine – there is no way I can see a causal link between anything about me or my environment prior to my first ecstatic experience and that experience absent something entirely non-physical) but this posits an intervention which God knew would have major repercussions, and which (inter alia) will have limited the free will of billions of people since the event.

But I’m even more sceptical that this intervention was unique to Jesus, or even the first time such an intervention had occurred, much less the first and only time. I can. for instance, trace the same kind of mystical consciousness as I see in Jesus in Buddhism, four or more centuries earlier, and in Vedantic Hinduism, probably at least six centuries earlier. I grant that Christianity is unique in its scope and development (although Islam had a more rapid early spread), but in the case of Christianity I can identify at least two and probably four other significant mystics during the first century (Paul and the author or inspiration for the Fourth Gospel definitely, Thomas and tentatively the author of “Matthew”) and one of these was also a seriously charismatic church planter.

That being said, those who follow my blog will know that I see God’s creation of the world (and universe) being the original act of kenosis and incarnation, pouring himself out into creation and thus abrogating the power to control it. In terms of humanity, that becomes particularly strong once humanity gains self-awareness, as I talked about in “The Fall and Rise of Original Sin” and follow up posts. However, it represents an initial act of self-limitation. Seeing things this way results from the fact that the only God-concept which at the moment really makes sense to me given my mystical bent is a panentheistic one, in which God is radically immanent in all things.

I would then argue that even in giving individual existence to (say) the original atoms formed shortly after the “Big Bang”, God limited his power over them; they became independent even if they were incapable of being aware of this, and in effect possess a form of free will, even if it is not “will” at all.

It is therefore unique that in Christ we see in sharp individual focus such an act of kenosis and incarnation, and one which subjects God to the vagaries of human existence. It is a microcosmic expression of the original and far greater subjection of God to creation. I think, though I cannot prove, that Jesus was uniquely aware of his status as part of God’s incarnation. We then see him as resurrected, as of course he has to be (God, with whom Jesus has identity, being incapable of being truly and absolutely dead short of the end of the universe, and probably all universes). In this sense, therefore, he was unique.

It’s also true to say that many people seem to rely on the promise of their own physical resurrection. Personally I don’t see this; I don’t see the eternal preservation of a physical body as necessary, as feasible or even as desirable. I can appreciate that some may feel differently – after all, a significant proportion of Second Temple Judaism did not consider that soul and body were separable; to have one you had to have the other. In addition, if (as may well be the case) consciousness is an emergent property of life, which is an emergent property of matter, those first century Jews may well have had the right idea. They are welcome to think that way, but I cannot, and would prefer not to feel excluded because of that inability. I have, after all, a rather light grasp on the self. The mystical consciousness assures me that I am part of a larger whole which is as immortal as immortal can get, and I think Paul refers to this when he talks of “not I, but Christ in me” living. If I am in Christ and Christ is in me, the “I” of me is not me but Christ, and Christ lives, then I live. I need nothing more than that.

Sadly, after the good things Tripp says earlier in the podcast, he then starts explaining (at about 40 min) why he is no longer a “Borgian”, i.e. follows Marcus Borg’s understanding of the resurrection. The argument runs (paraphrasing) “Jesus is the example of a perfect human life to follow; however Jesus was a poor homeless Jew who got axed by the Romans and didn’t really resurrect – is that what you put forward as ‘perfect’? Is that what we should aspire to?”.

As Jonnie comments “That will preach”. Unfortunately.

Now, in fact, Tripp then comes back from there to the “operational definition” kind of approach, and observes that although the difference in view is what actually drives Marcus’ or Tony’s theology, the practical effects are the same. I have confidence in Tripp – although the guy can preach, and he can preach viewpoints he doesn’t agree with completely with huge persuasiveness (perhaps there’s a great trial lawyer in there who’s missed a vocation, may the Lord be praised), he generally comes back to something with which I am comfortable.

But really, I think we probably should be preaching that you should follow Jesus irrespective of the fact that it may lead to poverty, homelessness and even death. As Paul remarked, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles. In fact, during the period of Christianity’s greatest expansion (to the early fourth century) following him frequently did lead to poverty, homelessness and death, as Christians were persecuted throughout the Roman Empire. Quite rightly persecuted, as well, from the point of view of the Empire, as “Jesus is Lord” excluded “Caesar is Lord”, and they were attempting to live the Kingdom of God within the Empire of Caesar. I would argue that they were doing that quite successfully. Quite rightly, too, as in fact after some 300 years, Christianity took over the Empire, and empires resist being taken over. (I grant that in some important ways, the Empire then took over Christianity, but that’s for another post!).

I’m not convinced that in today’s world, “take up your cross and follow me” preaches. I’m even less certain it preaches without the fallback of “and then you’ll be physically resurrected later on”.

But perhaps it should.




Non solum sed insuper

On Sunday, I congratulated the preacher after the service, and he commented that he enjoyed my facial expressions during his sermons. He singled out two items, firstly any time he mentions Lewis’ trilemma, secondly any time he mentions “the word of God”. Apparently I’m unable to prevent myself wincing. OK, frankly, I don’t try to prevent myself wincing at any mention of Lewis or any occasion when “the word of God” is accompanies by waving a bible in the air, and it was the second of those which had attracted his attention.

In the interests of full disclosure, previous winces during the same sermon included when a graphic appeared behind him in which the word “ressurection” appeared. Yes, that is how it was spelled – and despite the fact that it was correctly spelled “resurrection” further down the same graphic, but sadly in a less prominent position and typography. Clearly, blessed are they who do not proofread as part of their occupation! There were also a few winces associated with the four repetitions of the words “and finally” spread over some ten minutes.

However, my biggest wince was definitely the transition to waving the Bible and proclaiming it as “the word of God”, exacerbated by the fact that this had no sensible connection with the rest of the sermon and therefore engaging my inner editor.

There is a collossal baggage associated with the proclamation that the waved tome is the word of God (and I should probably capitalise “word” in order to show the stress). Mostly, it involves inerrantism (there can be no error of any kind in “the word of God”, quite clearly) and literalism (the term is far too solemn no admit of there being fictional stories, poetics, exaggerations and metaphor in there), but also the concept that you can proof-text, lifting any text out of context and having it function independently of the rest. After all, if the text is perfect, it must be perfect in every particular, no?

Well, no.I reject all of those pieces of baggage.

The text isn’t perfect, for a start. There are a host of textual variations, and while most of them are fairly subtle, some of them make a considerable difference when the words are taken in small doses as being propositional theology. We read in translation, unless we have the facility to read Koine Greek and Hebrew, and translation can make a huge difference. Textual analysis has revealed that most of the contents have been revised, extended, chopped about and thus moved in unknowable directions from whatever the original texts said – and we have no original manuscripts of any biblical text. We read those texts which a combination of popularity within the early Christian community and authoritative decisions by major church figures, often based on spurious claims as to the origin of the texts, has left us – and this has varied between different Christian communities and still does – the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, for instance, has quite a few more books in the New Testament than do we in the Protestant descendants of the Western Church, and the Catholics have the apocrypha, including ten additional books and additions to two others. Which of these is “the word of God”, we may reasonably ask?

No church currently includes the Gospel of Thomas within its scripture, nor the Didache, though both of these are accepted by a massive swathe of biblical scholars as among the earliest texts we have (the Ethiopian Church does have the Didascalia, which incorporates a substantial amount of the Didache, much amended, however). 1 Clement, similarly early, is now only accepted by the Coptic and Ethiopic churches, despite having clearly been canonical in many other places as late as the fifth century. There are many other works which might potentially have been included, but are not, and some of them we now know only by mention in other writers, as no copy of the full texts is now known to exist (though Biblical scholars continue to live in hope!).

In addition, if I stoop to proof-texting for a moment, John 1 does contain a definition of “the Word” (of God): “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God” and “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”. Jesus was and is “the Word of God”, and forgive me for this, but Jesus is not a collection of old books. Jesus is not something you can wave in the air during a sermon.

What at least the gospels in the New Testament are is a written understanding of what Jesus said and did during and shortly after his lifetime; most of the remainder of the New Testament as we know it records the understandings of various followers of Jesus (mostly Paul or attributed to Paul) written sometime after his death. The generality of biblical scholarship does not think that any of these books were written by someone who witnessed the events of Jesus’ life (the attributions to Matthew, Mark and John are traditional, but the probable dating of them and their contents do not admit of them having been written by direct followers, and Luke is admittedly a secondary source; Paul’s authority rests on post-crucifixion ecstatic experience). What they are is therefore in part tradition, in part early rationalising of the impact of Jesus.

That leads me on to the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” of scripture, tradition, reason and experience. A very interesting article by John Cobb discusses this in the context of process theology, and I agree his tentative privileging of experience. Let’s face it, tradition is experience, it’s the accumulated experience of other people, and as such extremely valuable to guide us and let us see where we may be mistaken or on which we can build the better to understand our experience (and, if current psychological thinking is correct, which I strongly believe it is, the better to be able to have experience). As I think I’ve shown, scripture is also tradition, albeit very early tradition (plus some reason), and is thus also experience.

I need here to counteract any impression that in stating the limits of scripture, I am seeking to negate its importance. It is the nearest we can come to the actual teaching of Jesus and our earliest tradition of experience of the risen Christ; the Hebrew scriptures form the basis for the New Testament writings and give a large amount of the context for those (as, incidentally, do at least ten of those books which are not now part of our canon, what we call “scripture”). It is therefore extremely important and very authoritative, just not of ultimate importance or authority (although the social gospel of Jesus comes very close to that status in my thinking).

To quote Cobb:- “The second pole is the Bible. The Christian tradition as a whole judges itself in light of the normative account of its origins. Although it prizes the Hebrew scriptures along with the New Testament, it reads the Bible as a whole in light of Jesus’ message,actions, death, and resurrection and of the early church’s interpretation of this. That there are four different accounts of Jesus blocks the attempt to absolutize any single picture of him. The fact that the epistles interpret the Jesus event diversely inhibits any claim to finality of doctrine about him. Thus there is no fixed reference for the tradition. From the beginning it was multifold and developed through interaction among various communities that sought to live from this event. To be a Christian, therefore, is to live in a fluid context, seeking to be faithful to God as one has come to know the God of Israel in the Christi event, informed by the many achievements of the tradition, but critical of every attempt to treat any of these as fixed or final”

This very much illustrates the resulting attitude. There are no simple pat answers. There is a tradition, but that tradition continues to develop, expand and accommodate new developments in thought and fresh experience; it is not a fixed and inviolate answer to everything, but it is part of the route towards better answers. This is entirely in keeping with my view of science; science does not give us truth, it gives us new approximations to truth which are a little closer to accurately and fully describing what is happening and what is out there. I do not expect theology and bible study to be able to do more than can science – indeed, in a sense, it is itself a scientific process, using much the same rational principles to move forward. Granted, it is perhaps short on the experimental, but I would not expect it to be short on the experiential.

In fact, without the experiential, there is no point in any of this endeavour. I would not be thinking about these subjects and writing about them now had I not had personal experience, personal convicting experience. For me, therefore, experience comes first. I then apply reason, and then call in aid scripture and tradition in order better to understand and explain the experience, and in order better to have future experience. My four legged stool, my quadrilateral, is therefore experience, reason, scripture and tradition.


(The title can be translated “Not only but also”, but refers mostly to doctrines such as “sola scriptura” “sola gratia” and “sola fide”)

The pornography of consumerism.

A friend recently shared this video of Susan Boyle performing at Lakewood Church. SuBo as usual delivers a moving performance, although I think she is better in a venue constructed on a human scale. I’ve also recently viewed this video of Dr. James K.A. Smith speaking about liturgy.

What do the two have to do with each other, apart from the fact that they’re both shot in churches, the second being a more reasonable sized one?

Well, watching Susan’s performance impressed me with the sheer scary scale of Lakewood, and my wife and myself decided to watch some of a sermon recorded there from Joel Osteen. We lasted about three minutes, and the last two involved distinctly gritted teeth. I’m not linking to that; I wouldn’t want to impose the experience on any friends.

Dr. Smith was talking about how liturgy, repeated constantly, forms us psychologically, and focuses our attentions (hopefully, and if we’ve been paying attention – or possibly even if we haven’t, subliminally) in a Christian mindset. He contrasts this with the experience of visiting a mall, which focuses our minds in the direction of consumerism, and describes that as an alternative liturgy. He doesn’t actually channel Walter Wink and label consumerism as one of the “Powers that Be” to be battled as if Satanic, if not an actual manifestation of Satan’s work in the world (for those who accept a personal immaterial force of evil approaching the status of a second god), but the tendency is definitely there.

I look at Lakewood and I don’t see Christian liturgy or the ways of Christian formation, I see consumerist liturgy, a machine developed to deliver a mass-market product. I hear Joel Osteen talk (preach?) and I hear positive encouragement towards consumerism, towards the wish to accumulate more and more stuff.

Me, I’m with Jesus when he speaks in Matt. 19:16-20. This is the parable of the rich young man who asked Jesus what he needed to do to get eternal life (which, frankly, was the wrong question in the first place) and which ended with him going away sadly as he was unable to contemplate selling everything he had and giving it away to the poor. I know few things, if any, so destructive to following the way of Jesus as accumulating riches, accumulating stuff, and I say this as someone who has huge problems with the concept of abandoning the security of having possessions and money; the nearest I get to this is expending a lot of time and rather less money in the service of the Kingdom from a position of reasonable financial security. I have been close to having nothing – at one point, six years ago,  I had debts far exceeding my possessions – and I found this remarkably freeing in some ways. Some of that freedom stays with me, despite the fact that I am now moderately comfortable.

What I see at Lakewood leads determinedly away from that way, to a kind of pornography of consumerism. To be honest, it makes me feel slightly sick.

Henry Fielding said “If you make money your god, it will plague you like the devil”. I worry about where Lakewood is pointing people.

Reconstructing prophecy