Friday, 31 October 2014

Email exchange....

A dear friend of mine just wrote, and he is a part of my journey (and happy for me to include this).
 Here is his email, then my response.

Hi John,
Yesterday i read your post about balance theology. I definitely find this topic very interesting (I'll try to find time to read Wax's article). This lead me to think (not sure why) about Carl's book "The Art of Not Evangelism" which focuses away from doctrines and dogmas but rather on Jesus and making him known. I remember vividly a passage where Carl says we need to point the way to Jesus and simply encourage people to get to know him personally rather than impose a set of laws they need to abide to to be "included" in our church group. This ties as well to what I touched on about Jesus being the only way to the father and by extension, his person being central to our faith (him being God himself or not). So I wanted to know how you perceive this book and its message now that your "wrestling" with the person of Jesus? Maybe that topic can be covered when we talk about how our theology impacts our testimony. R.

You are right about Medearis book, it was my favourite book last year. I do not feel like my main wrestling is with Jesus, although you or others could see it that way. It's more avout the possible gap between scripture and the creeds. I am happy to conform my thinking to the Bible! But to understand the Bible, I need to re examine the influences the creeds may have had on my interpretation. I also need to better understand why some ecumenical creeds are rejected and others accepted, and on whose authority. Luther's?

Remember, creeds are like lenses that affect deeply how we read the scriptures and ultimately how we relate to God. Maybe they do not affect our good deeds or personal testimony so much, but they might affect the ideas we try to share.

You are right bro, the jump from "balance", be that in discipleship or in theology (this is what Wax confused), is a slightly separate topic, but we can apply it here. Will I keep a balance of enquiry, i.e. Honest discipleship with submissive discipleship?  Yes I will try. You can - please do - hold me accountable to that and help me! j

Wednesday, 29 October 2014


How does passionate over-emphasis work out in theology among the people of God? Whilst researching Moltmann a bit, I came across this article by Trevin Wax at the "Gospel Coalition", which I found interesting, check it out. Note this comment left at the bottom of Wax's article by a reader, identified as James Houghton, which at my time of writing has still not yet been responded to by Wax:
People often call for balance what I find interesting is that Jesus never did.
There are two issues here: Wax's unfortunate lack of clarity on his underlying point and definition of "balance", and unclear assumptions from Houghton's short comment, which I shall also respond to.

I really enjoyed Wax's article on my first read-through. However, I now realise that there is a subtle and perhaps unhelpful shift of emphasis away from what I understand in Stott's work on balance in the life of the Christian toward theological balance, which I think is actually a different point entirely. In turn, this unfortunately makes it less clear which of these two elements of "balance" James Houghton thinks is out of sync with the testimony of Jesus, or if indeed it was simply the mention of the word "balance" that connected with some personal bee in his bonnet.

Let us talk briefly about Jesus' "balance". He could certainly be very extreme: outrageous comments and stories against the religious leaders of his time, turning the tables, the dead can bury their own dead, "you" are my family if you do God's will, willing to die for sins while none of those sins were his, pretty much the whole of the Sermon on the Mount, the list just goes on and on. But was Jesus really saying that the dead should bury the dead? Was he even saying that the spiritually dead should bury the dead? Or was Jesus greatly saddened by death? Did he first weep at Lazarus' death before powerfully raising him (textually rhetorical!)? Could we not say that Jesus was drawing on ideals similar to our modern notion of balance when he said:
Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's (Mark 12:17
A couple of other Jesus and balance examples that come to mind: As NT Wright also points out, the house where the paralytic was lowered through the roof is quite plausibly Jesus' house. He was settled. Jesus also "balanced" his time between time with his heavenly father, his disciples and the crowds. And so on.

I also have in mind a relevant comment from Bart Ehrman, which I am certain everyone can agree on. He says that we are to remember that literally billions of events occur in every human being's life, including of course, Jesus (see here for article). He mentions this to help students ask good questions of the text, and identify the different kinds of questions that we can and should ask. But the point is that the vast majority of actions and sayings that took place in Jesus' life are unknown to us, we have just a tiny fraction in four rich flavours. As a Christian theologian, I hope and believe that the fraction we have is the most significant, but it does not exclude from my mind the possibility that, in addition to some of the examples noted above, Jesus could very easily have thought and even explicitly taught that there is balance to be had in Christian life (Stott) and in theology (Wax), but that the gospel writers did not remember it or chose to exclude it. This is an indisputable possibility, despite Houghton's objection.

As to my own conclusion, on this issue of balance in Christian discipleship, I have to respond that Stott's model seems very appealing, I agree with it and can identify with it. With regards to the church's theological balance through some degree of passionate extremes, which is a different point entirely, I think Wax (following Motlmann as he makes very clear) makes a very interesting point. It brings us back to the "unity in diversity" values we often hear, although Wax is clearly going further: if the church benefits through these sometimes extreme views, then we could even point to longer-term stability through some theological boat-rocking!

I do, however, want to throw a diplomatic line to Wax, and suggest, after all, an overarching idea that does gather in his discipleship balance point at the start of his article, and does also I think faithfully reflect the position of Jesus:

There is a rather paradoxical balance: a balance between balance and passionate extremes, or over-emphases. (The clue was in Wax's title: a DEGREE). This post is already too long, but it would be wonderful to explore more fully what this kind of balance could look like for me.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Strange teaching

May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?

You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.

These words from the Acts of the Apostles seem peculiarly relevant to the quest in hand.

Friday, 24 October 2014

I and the Father are ONE and a bit more on the unitarian vs trinitarian debate

"I and the Father are One": John Chapters 10 and 17

This has been a difficult choice for me - to exclude or not to exclude the John 10 instance of I and the father are one, cited by trinitarians as excellent textual support for Christ's full divinity [blue category]. To exclude it, that is, from my New Testament study seeking to statistically review evidence cited in favour of Christ's Nicene status or that discounts the strength of the Nicene claim: Jesus is "Very God" [this category I call the green category]. In this study, I hope it is clear from the many other references that I have included in the blue category that I am consciously being as neutral as I can be. I am not attempting to demonstrate textual credibility for the doctrinal conclusions any more than I am attempting to discredit these conclusions, simply to examine the ways in which the various texts seem to lean and how they collectively add up - if indeed they do or must do. For me, the lack of clarity so far and the ongoing debate, with evidence pointing in different directions, could open the way to either or both of the following projects:

  1. Legitimising a change in where we lay down our limits of divine and christological comprehensibility.
  2. Proceed in a more cautious way in response to what I am defining as “canonical pressure”, in opposition to Stephen Holmes’ and others' “exegetical pressure”.

So why exclude “I and the Father are one”, if I am as open-minded as I claim and strive to be? Why exclude any passages from the study? Because some passages can be described as compatible with both positions, or even in some instances are considered actively supporting both positions, as one day we shall see in the historical battles over John 5:19 and other instances also.

If we had John 10 alone, then it would have to be blue, for sure. Not because it provides overwhelming evidence for Jesus' deity - Jesus neither accepts nor denies the allegations that he is calling himself God (unitarians will take the OT quote further in their own defence) - but because the statement could be and consistently has been labelled as solid support for the claim. The point of this post is to say that this seems to me a clear case of REVERSE ENGINEERING (a wonderful expression a theologising friend and companion taught me today - a pretty solid trinitarian as it happens).

However, we do not have just John 10 - we also have John 17, which provides us with greater context for this expression and what John understands Jesus meant in this statement.

Before I proceed, we should be clear that we are working on the assumption that between John 10 and John 17 we have the same author whose views and language are consistent, who views that Jesus' views are consistent, and who when he uses the same words in a different context does not mean something radically different than what he understood Jesus to mean in the first context. That sounds like a big assumption, but I do not think it actually is (although I should probably find a good example to back this up). I also note that the contexts are actually not so different: Jesus is referring to his beloved believers in both cases.

My point is this: John 17 gives us good reason to reject intended reference here to common divine identity of Jesus' saying "I and the Father one", i.e. one divine personality or one divine essence, because of how this same wording, used twice more in John 17, is applicable in the same way to humans. Perhaps I am being too subjective here (I do not think I am), but a natural reading of this phrase is that of a unity of purpose, a total lack of disagreement, total agreement, common vision, alignment of wills, etc. Here again are those verses, with my emphases (v11 and v20-23) :

"I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one...

"I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one - I in them and you in me - so that they may be brought to complete unity."

The oneness between Jesus and the Father is the same as that which can be shared by humans, or hoped and prayed to be shared. The hope here is never that the believers become one self - indeed the beauty of the oneness is that it is achieved by distinct persons, in a way that can remind us of a how a husband and wife become "one". I need to be careful here not to appear to argue this text from a unitarian position (this is why I deliberately write "persons" and not "beings"). That is not at all the purpose of this post! The point therefore is to stress inter-person oneness for a purpose: unity. Both unitarians and Trinitarians should be happy with that conclusion, as this text should be compatible with both positions:

Unitarian: the oneness is compatible with our view that as invested with authority as Jesus is by God (Matt 11:27, all things have been given to me by the Father), he is not God himself because the same oneness is plainly requested by the Messiah for humans, so there is nothing here that demonstrates that Jesus is God any more than I am my wife or even I am my couple. Taken out of context like in John 10, then we might think that. We can also ask, as does Apolytus, what does “is” mean? the Father and I are (plural) one, rather than the Father and I am one. 

Trinitarian: although this kind of unity-bond is of the same kind that two or more like-minded humans can share, we would expect nothing less from a triune God so it is compatible for us trinitarians too. We should also remember: Tertullian and Hypolytus' understanding of the “Divine Economy” as a way of organising relationships. Three distinct beings but perfectly unified in will and purpose.

So we have compatibility in both directions, but no specific support from these passages for either position (even though I sense that there is more natural flow on the unitarian side on this one). Since we are looking for verses that support one position rather than are simply "compatible", then these passages become less useful to this task.

Thus, my reasoning provides a rather surprising exhortation: unitarians and trinitarians - you can be relatively united over this text! Pick your fights elsewhere please.

NB: I also wonder if the "being that they may be brought to complete unity", could be an indication of how Jesus seeks that those who believe in him take their momentary or partial oneness to a total and permanent state of unity. Note that the pressure of this conclusion is toward beautiful harmony of persons who do not lose their separate states of consciousness, being, etc. To resume the marriage example, therefore, we could see the oneness cemented in "wedlock", a state of permanent and desired unity.

- I see I mentioned Tertullian there, and another quote I have found of his demonstrates his interpretation of this passage, which I sense is already in discord with John's meanings, or at least seems to require John to apply his language of unity inconsistently. Here's the interpretation he gives:

... Qui tres unum sunt, non unus, quomodo dictum est, Ego et Pater unum sumus, .... ("Thus the connection of the Father in the Son, and of the Son in the Paraclete, produces three coherent Persons, who are yet distinct One from Another. These three are one [thing], not one [Person], as it is said, 'I and my Father are One,' in respect of unity of substance not singularity of number.")

Tertullian seems so caught up in a debate over "unity of substance" and "singularity of number", and there is true occasion to his writings, notably the patristic passion heresy. This means that he might not see other options. For instance, as described above, a unity of purpose and vision. There is no need for "substance" here, at least in my view, and this seems to be backed by a lot of modern social Trinitarian writers.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Couple of links

Gosh there are some amazing blogs out there, wish I could write and present like that! Please check out Wallace's balanced review of Blomberg's book, Can we still believe the Biblehere, definitely seems like adding to my book list.

Also see an entertaining debate between Bart Ehrman and Daniel Wallace here. I may blog about that debate at some point soon. It concerns our access to the original texts of the New Testament.

Luke 1:35 - learning to live within the confines of ones own convictions

35 The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born[a] will be holy; he will be called Son of God. [NRSV]

  1. Luke 1:35 Other ancient authorities add of you

Sometimes this blog might seem to be deeply questioning the scriptural validity of the creeds. But it does not stop there. Luke 1:35 sheds light on how all of us read Scriptures, whatever our persuasion. Luke 1:35 is an absolute favourite it would seem of many Biblical unitarians and antitrinitarians, but through it, I am learning to question their assumptions too. The reason why they get so excited about it, I am fairly sure, is they want to demonstrate Biblically that Jesus is not eternal. No matter how highly God has exalted him since he was miraculously conceived, we must know that the Bible says he had a beginning in time, and that is written black on white in Luke 1:35. 

I receive Anthony Buzzard's somewhat crudely-argued monthly publication, Focus on the Kingdom, (some of which is enlightening, but there is never any uncertainty, sense of evidence-weighing, etc., which I find quite unsatisfying) and I am certain that this Luke reference comes up in pretty much every issue. But is it so clearly stating that Jesus' life begins at this point of history? Let us read the verse again:

35 The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you;

All I am sensing so far is that Mary is going to be made pregnant by God, future tense. So far totally in line with the trinitarian view that God became human at a point in time.

therefore. As a result of it being the Holy Spirit of the one true God making Mary pregnant, we can prophecy certain things of this child:

the child to be born [of you]. Still nothing strange here.

will be holy. A clear link to the Holy Spirit, the child coming directly from the Holy God. It's all future tense here, which linguistically makes sense in the context of this prophecy.

he will be called Son of God. This is the only part I can see where some debate can be made, because of the lack of the definite article, "the". In fact, we can see quite clearly if we look up Strongs 5207, υἱός, that the term here is not "the son", so the resulting indefinite article of "a son" needs some explanation. Attention is drawn away from this problem, if it is a problem, by translations like the NRSV simply dropping the article altogether.

How might a trinitarian respond? Firstly, I think, they must remind the unitarian that actually most of the verse makes a lot of sense, while they should admit that it might have been more convenient for them doctrinally for the Greek to say  υἱοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ like elsewhere in the New Testament canon. Doctrinally, it is completely possible to say that Jesus is A son of God, even if it is not at all the wording that the 4th Century fathers would have wanted to use. I think a final defence would lie in remembering just how overwhelmed and afraid Mary was. She has only so much capability of understanding, she was young, vulnerable and about to be impregnated by God, so this was quite enough information!

Conclusion: some unitarians weaken their position by over-relying on this passage, Buzzard in particular. Lacking the "the", however, and being an important text for biblical unitarians, I am including this passage in my main study as a "dissuasive" text, more suggestive (but by no means determinative) of a non-Nicene position

Monday, 20 October 2014

Two wills

Hi and welcome to Monday's blog-entry, the goal of 3/week remains thus far upheld, so why not publically state it and keep going? So Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, rock on.

Ever since viewing Holmes' talk on Inseparable operations at Fuller, and a small email exchange with this fascinating scholar (big privilege for me), I cannot stop the questions gushing.

If Nicea 325 (Trinity, with a capital T) leads to Chalcedon 451 (two-natures of Christ, his "hypostatic union"), then Chalcedon leads to the third Council of Constantinople, in which monothelitism and monoenergism are designated heretical, i.e. that Christ cannot have only one will, for the same reason that God cannot be divided or have more than one will. For me, this makes sense

This rather epic doctrinal voyage needs to be seen - in my view - as necessary. That is to say, with hindsight, that these three ports-of-call were always going to be necessary once having docked at the first. It is not a simple affair, as I might previously have thought, to follow the Reformed and Lutheran traditions, who object to such a prescribed itinerary, since they only recognise the first four ecumenical councils (or parts of). This means that they accept Nicea I and II (Trinity), Ephesus (?!) and Chalcedon (hypostatic union of Christ), but from the sixth ecumenical council (the one in question), they are out of the game, no doubt put off by the debate around Mary's title (although note my "?!" around the third ecumenical council in Ephesus which is already condemning the title Christokos.)

Right, onto the questions, and assuming that the doctrinal itinerary relative to Christ - rather than his Mum - is necessary (that obviously needs to be explored in greater depth at another time to see quite how the Lutherans can consider "bowing out" of the doctrinal journey as a legitimate option):

Firstly, declaring that Christ has two natures, is one thing, but to declare that he has two wills, or “centres of volition”, and that this is foundational to orthodox Christian faith, does this not mean that we as Christians accept that Christ has more wills than God?

Secondly, do we uphold that the hypostatic union once forged and in maintaining these two wills, remains eternally so within an eternal hypostatic union? If Jesus at times wills, does and says certain things that are not His divine will, divine actions and divine words, then where does that leave the cross and the resurrection? Is there a fourth port of call? That God died on the cross, that Christ only died in respect to his humanity, or do we finally have to defer to mystery at this point? In my main scriptural overview, the question of God raising Jesus is the third largest and most consistent distinctive placed between "God" and "Jesus" in the New Testament, only behind "God and Jesus" passages and "Son of God" passages. So with no less than 12 (although possibly more, I have yet to finish the first run-through) occurrences of this sort (within which, 2 Corinthians fits but refers to God with His pronoun), I think we need to take the following very seriously in questioning the great doctrinal voyage:

1 Pet 1:21
Col 2:12
Heb 13:20
Acts 10:40

Ephesians 1:20

God[a] put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places

Ephesians 2:6

But God [...] raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places

Romans 8:11

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ[a] from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through[b] his Spirit that dwells in you

Romans 10:9

if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

1 Corinthians 15:15

We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised.

Galatians 1:1

Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—

1 Thessalonians 1:9-10

For the people of those regions[b]report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus

2 Corinthians 4:14

we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence.

1 Peter 1:21

Through him you now trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory

Colossians 2:12

Having been buried with him in baptism, you also have been raised with him through your faith in the power of God who raised him from the dead.

Hebrews 13:20

may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep

It seems like a lot of doctrinal work had to be done to navigate through contrasting wills, the greatness of the Father exceeding the s/Son’s, but what is the catholic view around the divine Son's death at the cross?

Your thoughts please.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Time-locked language (Part 2)








b. From doctrinal to Scriptural usage: a leap of faith

The Holy Scriptures agree about the time-rootedness of these words. Even in the closest we get to anything like a present tense, which I think might be Psalm 7:2 and its quotation (and validation?!) in Hebrews 1:5, we are still utterly time-bound. Today, yes, but: "I have begotten you". If that information is to be comprehended by a language-speaking educated human, then they are no longer at a conception stage or age, they are at an adoptive age. I am not saying that Jesus was adopted as Son of God here, in either a human way or even an ungraspable divine way, although some think this was one of the earliest christologies that may have existed (and by no means a bad thing either, check out Ehrman on the superiority in the Roman mind at least, of being adopted over a natural child). Whatever our later doctrinal take or attempt at expanding the past-tense of begotten - I just love the KJV's begat, I don't know why! - Scripturally we find ourselves more at home temporally and conceptually.

But if I am to nurture the concept of a big God, I need to get more comfortable with his surpassing my human limitations, right? Much is said and now written about "mystery" arguments of doctrine. What I retain is that to believe something you have to understand it and find it reasonable at least to some degree in order to believe in its truthfulness. Of course some of these "mysteries" are directly in the authoritative texts themselves (I am sure not all of those would seem mysterious to the original beneficiaries of the writings). But the greatest mysteries are not located there, they are unashamedly standing at the heart of the Nicean 4th Century Trinitarian declarations (i.e. not Tertullian, or other Logos theologians), the 5th Century's hypostatic union of Christ and perhaps finally in the two-willed Christ dyothelite (culminating as Holmes wholeheartedly reaffirms, in agreement of it not being the son of God praying in Gethsemane, for there is but one divine will).

So why does the doctrinal language attempt this language-leap? Why not just come up with their own jargon?
Well they do come up with a lot of jargon actually, as some of the previous paragraph should show. But not all. The leap in tense of beget, which is a scriptural word, is to do with this development of son of god to God the Son, son of God the Father (Nicea), while hanging on to the authority of scripture's key idea of begetting - although I might one day have more experience to debate the successfulness of that "hanging on" (not yet). Begetting usually means causing, and is at least close in meaning. But it is very difficult to hold out that both Jesus is eternal and that in the past at some point he was caused, was begotten, etc., even if that is what the Bible says (another less-known one, although this is more anecdotal really, is that Jesus is always said to have loved us, i.e. love through action at the cross). The way around this of course is to choose a "more suitable" tense that connects us better - although in good and right recognition of God's ineffability, not perfectly - to the deeper connections within the "Godhead" that unlock us slightly from time. Assumption: the Scriptures are perfect, holy, infallible but a bit too time-locked.

A trinitarian conclusion: perhaps we can humanly make progress to comprehending a triune God's timeless begetting, being begotten, sending and proceeding, when we think in terms of non-specific effect. So in this line of thinking, we might just possibly be able to conceive of the effect of fathership and sonship... (and spiritship!) to be mutually, permanently and effectively caused. "Sustained" still seems closer to me, though.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Time-locked language (Part 1)








In today's post, I am going to somewhat vaguely, air something of a theological frustration of mine. This frustration is more felt against theologians than God, and more aimed at ancient theologians than recent ones, which should be a big clue to me to go and do some more homework. The frustration is based on:

a. the way causing works in most (if not all) instances in human languages - I argue it is semantically time-locked, or if not completely time-locked, limited to general non-specific effects, and effects which are inherently about change.
b. the way in which the tenses shift from scripture to doctrine (i.e. Jesus was begotten by the Father in scripture, and the Father begets [eternally generates] the Son, in doctrinal parlance).

Because a. took me longer to write than I initially thought, I will post b. separately.

A Time-locked causation

When we try, sometimes I get the impression of "try desperately", to make the doctrinal ideas fit Scripture and the Scripture the doctrinal ideas (Church fathers), or indeed to make the Scriptures agree with one another within the model of the doctrine (Holmes), we forget, or we forgot, something that is very basic indeed. The above words (cause, generate, beget, etc.) cannot be used, or only very rarely used, in describing the eternal or permanent. In my two languages of English and French, these words are inseparable from the notions of time and movement. Of course, that may not be the case in Greek, I need to check, but needless to say, I anticipate issues there also for the simple reason that we have chosen these words as apt and suited for translation purposes. This is why my questions to a fictive, English-speaking, 4th-century pro-Nicene theologian might be: "what does it mean to cause something that has always existed?" "What is there left in the word 'cause' once you remove time from its very essence?" 
And finally: "Please, would you stop misreading (Holmes' word, not mine) Isaiah 53:8?!"

As Christians, we do not believe that any human language is divine, in the sense, for example, that Muslims believe the Arabic language comes directly from Allah. Greek is just Greek, and so on, developed necessarily by humans to express and comprehend their needs and lives. When rain falls and the sun shines and the seeds are sown, and the gods smile, the crops grow. They were not, and now they are. Causation. There is little in causing-vocabulary that lends itself to describing an eternal or permanent action.

This said, I would first like to take a moment to try very hard and disprove my own objection to be sure. Look at two natural examples with me that may seem to create "mind space" for this kind of perpetual causation, examples that would be valid for people back then as they area now: first the moon, then the sun.

1. The moon's gravitational effect

We cannot be sure what people presumed about the phenomena of tides, but for the sake of this article let us assume that some kind of causal connection was made between the location of the moon the tide. Does the moon perpetually cause tides? Yes I think for the sake of this counter-argument, we could say it does. But let us be clear here, we are not saying that one huge lump of water is produced or removed over and over, all we can say is that this phenomenon is perpetually caused by the position of the moon. A permanent effect. So the moon's gravity on our oceans helps us provide a little leg-room on the perpetual side, while still absolutely being locked into movement.

2. Heat from the sun

Let's keep it astral. So does the sun's steady warmth (leaving aside seasons, weather fluctuations, day and night and everything else) provide us with more linguistic head space? Unlike the moon's gravitational effects on the ocean's movements, the heat we sense does not change, and yet this warmth is caused continuously, without it, we would freeze to death in an instant.
Here we certainly can discount 1st or 4th century notions of vibrating molecules, and their movement, besides that would just be getting a bit too theoretical! Well, what is warmth? Warmth is a sensation I feel after I have been feeling cold. So while there is change and time-lockedness there, we could move on to simply say the warmth of the sun is essential to life. The warmth of the sun (in combination with other factors), causes life. Continuously.

So having identified some room for this notion of perpetual causation from natural phenomena, we should note the following key points: 1) permanent causation examples seem fewer and are theoretical, i.e. no two actual tides are identical even in the same location, 2) the only permanent cause examples seem to be phenomenal change-inducing effects, i.e. the warmth of the sun helps cause the crops to grow. There is no specific thing or creature or person that is perpetually begotten or caused in our human languages.

So, as mentioned in the intro, I argue that causing is semantically time-locked, and where not completely time-locked, limited to general non-specific effects, and effects which represent change.

Update: Note that Zizioulas (Holmes, QFT, p13) strongly emphasises the Father's causing of the Trinity. Holmes qualifies this causation as something "free and personal, not something mechanical and fixed." The question and challenge raised for this article on time-locked language, is now to find something that is "free and personal" that can be caused in a non-time-dependant way. Can you think of anything?

I think I finally see a way through here in looking back at the Greek word, αἰτία, an old theological principle to which Zizioulas wants to remain loyal. In Strong's Greek NT 156 we have indeed something less mechanical. Here we speak of "guilt", responsibility, accusation, fault, grounds, reason. I cannot deny that this opens a quite different discussion in terms of NT authors' perspective around causation, however, it really must not be forgotten that this word is not used prior to the patristic period, that is hundreds of years AFTER the scriptures were written (it would seem particularly around the debates surrounding the Filioque clause, St Maximus the Confessor, and the 15th Century Council of Florence).

Monday, 13 October 2014

Swinburne in the Tuggy hot-seat: there is no "it" when it comes even to mainstream ideas on the trinity.

Please listen here.

"The father doesn't choose to bring about the son, the father would not exist if he did not bring about the son, and so they are both necessary beings..."

"We are a voluntary act. We not exist necessarily."

One of Swinburne's most well-known arguments is that God should necessarily be three.

"...because it's not necessary for the realisation of perfect love to have a fourth being, of course it might be a good thing, but that fourth being does not necessarily exist but as a voluntary act... any fourth being like this that had that divine characteristics wouldn't be created necessarily with the essence of God the Father, and anything that is created voluntarily is not God."

Swinburne's ideas on God's oneness appear to evolve around them being totally cooperative, everything being backed by all three of them, that seems enough...

" that big word with a capital "G", you can use it as a synonym for divines persons, but more naturally as a collective, one power which makes the world. So there is a central oneness. The paradoxical nature of this view is often accentuated by the translations of the Greek creeds into the English language, the Greek word Theos, can be used in 2 divine senses, a divine being, and also the ultimate God, the One and Only.
When we say the creed: I believe in one God. Collective.
"God from God". Theos has these 2 meanings in Greek. Less paradoxical in Greek than it is in English, where in English we suppose that this idea that one meaning to denote a single object. The paradox is because there is not the flexibility of use as there is in Greek."

Let us respond.

Swinburne follows closely some of the logic put out by the early theologians (I have too dappy a memory at this point to name them) who point out that for the Son to have been created at a certain point of time, be that at Christmas, just after creation or just before creation, whenever, then to talk about a time when the son was not is also to state that there is a time when God was not Father, and therefore God fundamentally changed in his nature, something that God can most certainly not do.

Jesus, or rather the Divine Son of God [the Father], was (and is?) necessarily caused by the father; together they necessarily spirate the Spirit. Being three was and is not an optional state of affairs because God is fundamentally good and loving. Being "just" one, is incompatible, in Swinburne's view, with a life of generous love: he uses the emotive word, "solitude". Being two would never have been a possible state of affairs either because, if we were to take the picture of a human couple, their love must benefit another, otherwise it is selfish love, ultimately benefiting oneself. So the third is necessary, and hence the trinity of divine selves.

Tuggy does not want a long debate in his interviews and always moves on quickly, but were he to have poked deeper, he would have no doubt asked some of the same questions he puts out in the episode commenting Ravi Zachariah's talks (some committed, middle-of-the-road trinitarians, have confessed to me that Tuggy totally blew Ravi Zachariah out of the water on this episode, and it remains perhaps one of the strongest ones to date - check it out). His question about the necessity of being three to be a perfectly loving being is very simply: why? He argues convincingly that God would not necessarily have to be three in order to be perfectly loving. But where I find Swinburne decidedly unconvincing here is what seems to be a very human appeal to understanding God in terms of the human family. Is it truly loving to have one and only one child? If you were to ask a social worker, teacher, family counsellor, etc., what they thought about that model, leaving to one side for a moment countless millions of Chinese parents, they might not so happily tick that box.

To sum up, Swinburne's three-self view actually seems to me to be quite extreme in the three-self trinitarian camp (or sub-camp!). It seems that his comments of "three gods" as misleading is mainly based on the way that would have been misconstrued in a context that saw many gods in a competing and uncoordinated way. But basically, besides these misunderstandings, he appears to be very comfortable with the idea of three perfectly harmonious gods.

Most curiously, and even slightly alarmingly for such an acclaimed theologian as Swinburne, he also seems to think that his social trinity perspective is not a recent development from the original creedal positions, but simply restating what they were already saying in a language that has a lot less flexibility than the Greek the creeds were written in. After having drenching myself in Holmes' thought on this, it seems a problematic claim in the face of their insistence on divine simplicity.

Finally to conclude then, it is indeed extraordinary, isn't it?, that we can have two such radically differing views within this creedal heritage we share. We really should think again when we hear ourselves or others referring to THE doctrine of the trinity, or "it". There is no "it" when it comes even to mainstream ideas on the trinity.

This week's trinities podcast has prodded me into doing a post some time soon on the whole project of using words like "cause", "beget", "generate", etc. to describe the life and dependencies in the "godhead". But it would be good to separate that from this response to Richard Swinburne.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Definite article and the Google Car

Does "the" mean "one" and when can it differ?

I just listened to a rather anecdotal news item on france24 about the Google Car, now in camel form, as Google's street view concept is developed still further into the UAE desert! What stuck me in this story is how a very finite and countable noun-object, a car, can be taken up a level. It is a shame I cannot remember the exact wording, but it ran, very naturally, something like:

"the Google Car has been capturing street images in streets and through countryside in many countries across the world, but now Google are turning to the novel concept of strapping the equipement to a CAMEL!"

Now of course there may have been at one point one single and initial car, that became known as the Google Car, but at some point this concept became so common as to be applied to not just one car but any car used by Google for this purpose.

So in what sense is "the" the definite article here?

It is accurate as a concept. There are not multiple google car concepts in this sentence, and not only that, the design of the google car is such that the fleet provide an integrated, single and incredible result: google street view.

However, if we were to apply this language in a rigid noun-object sense, then we would be in difficulty, because clearly, for one single physical Google car to photograph significant portions of the world's inhabited areas would not be strategic!


Is the same true of Greek?

It would seem to me possible. When "the anointed one" is referred to a single-referring term, there is no confusion in the 1st century religious mind about the awaited Messiah figure not being in some kind of re-incarnated sense another, previously anointed one of God, such as Cyrus (Is 45.1) or David. In the same way that "the Google car" applied in a conceptual sense does not have us considering one single physical car tearing around the streets of the world.

Another very important area in which this kind of thinking needs to be applied is the area of our own origins and son/daughter-ship. From John chapter 1:

12Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God--

13children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God.

I believe that this kind of thinking may have been helpful in the recent revisions (NIV, NRSV) around Hebrews 2 which looks radically different to me than the translations were giving us ten years ago.


You made him a little lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor
and put everything under his feet." In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him.
But we do see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might tasted death for everyone.

2014 [NIV]:

7You made them a little lower than the angels; you crowned them with glory and honor

8and put everything under their feet." In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them.

9But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

Son of God, Messiah, Jewish Religious Establishment's expectation on national salvation

Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’

62‘I am,’ said Jesus. 

This quote is from Mark chapter 14. The key point of this quote for me, as with my other post about Mark 12's present tense descriptions of the Messiah, is that we are able to access a 1st century jewish worldview here, because we can consider that we are accessing (for the moment, see the obvious assumption below) what a Jewish LEADER is thinking, teaching and upholding at the time of Jesus' ministry. That is a pretty cool peace of research if we can claim it.
For this high priest, we could say that he is aiming for total unambiguity here. Because he does not want any confusion to surround the "blasphemous" claims of Jesus, he makes it totally plain to us that for Jews at this time, there is a truly great Messiah to be expected, and who is also defined as the Son of God. The priest takes his vocation very seriously here of course and refers, like Matthew frequently does, to a synonym for God, "Blessed One". So for the Jewish establishment, represented here by the high priest, we can see that


The assumption we must recognise of course is that the report we are reading through a follower of Jesus, Mark, has accurately reported the words of the high priest. I am very happy with this assumption, especially as we generally see a less stylised and earlier account through this gospel.

I would like to think that while the Jewish establishment were theologically favourable toward resurrection, that we do not have as much solid evidence that they were expecting a triune God to show up in his second hypostasis taking on flesh in Jesus in a hypostatic union (!). For the Jewish establishment, what is blasphemous here IS NOT that God would have a son, that was a given, but the issue of blasphemy here is that JESUS WOULD CLAIM HE WAS GOD'S ANOINTED ONE WHEN HE WAS NOT (or so it was presumed). It is difficult for us to imagine what is going through the High Priest's mind at this stage. The outrage. The fury. This man is trying to shake up and down his life, responsibilities, doctrine...

We have not even looked at the centurion's reaction as Jesus "breathed his last", but the implications of this mini-study on Jewish establishment perception on Messiahship and son of God, while less far-reaching perhaps on the unitarian vs trinitarian debate, can perhaps help us (certainly me) in dialogue with other faiths that do consider being "son of God" to be a blasphemous statement on totally different premises.