‘Then I came by boat’

During Lent 2014, Tri Nguyen, a pastor of the Brunswick Baptist Church and one of my students at Whitley College, made a pilgrimage from his church in Melbourne to Parliament House in Canberra to deliver a gift to the Australian Parliament. The gift was a large model of the boat in which he and his father and sister fled Vietnam in 1982, the year they also arrived in Australia as refugees.

Now, Marleena Forward, a Melbourne-based filmmaker, has produced this short film of Tri’s inspiring, reconciling, and challenging journey – one considerably longer than that undertaken in 2014. The film won the Audience Award in the Australian Shorts section at the Human Rights Arts Film Festival. It’s called ‘Then I came by boat’:

A response to Hallowed Be Thy Name

Ben Nasmith has posted a wee ‘response’ to my book Hallowed Be Thy Name. I’m grateful to Ben for engaging with my work.

On being ecclesiastical tourists

Duane-Hansons-TouristsWhile in the mad throes of writing lectures for an upcoming course that I’ll be teaching on the church, I am grateful to be re-reading Michael Jinkins’s very fine book The Church Faces Death: Ecclesiology in a Post-Modern Context. In one little section, subtitled ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Church’, Jinkins offers a great reminder of the challenge and danger that inherently lies in teaching a course on ecclesiology. It begins:

Roland Barthes’s essay “The Blue Guide” is suggestive for those who want to learn to reflect on the speech of the church about itself. His essay considers a popular series of tourist guidebooks (called Guide Bleu in French) to various European destinations. To be precise, his essay considers the presuppositions, one might almost say the prejudices, of the guidebook, which remain unstated by the editors and reduce the particularities of a country and its inhabitants to stereotypes, cliches, and sights (or monuments) to be seen, but not observed. The complex and real “human life of a country disappears,” he writes, “to the exclusive benefit of its monuments.” And the rich diversity of human existence is boiled down to a few picture postcard images. He writes:

In Spain, for instance, the Basque is an adventurous sailor, the Levantine a lighthearted gardener, the Catalan a clever tradesman and the Cantabrian a sentimental Highlander. We find again here this disease of thinking in essences, which is at the bottom of every bourgeois mythology of man (which is why we come across it so often). The ethnic reality of Spain is thus reduced to a vast classical ballet, a nice neat commedia dell’arte, whose improbable typology serves to mask the real spectacle of conditions, classes and professions. For the Blue Guide, men exist as social entities only in trains, where they fill a “very mixed” Third Class. Apart from that, they are a mere introduction, they constitute a charming and fanciful decor, meant to surround the essential part of the country: its collection of monuments.

Is there not a corresponding danger in ecclesiology to reduce the vast diversity of church, the ambiguities of this rich human-divine reality, to a few neat (noncontradictory) patterns, types, models, paradigms, definitions, or descriptions—to notice the monumental remains and to dismiss as irrelevant (and irrelevantly messy) the actual communities of faith that shape these monuments and that move within them and make sense of them? What would it entail, what would it require of us, to notice and take seriously the particularities of church, to go beyond phenomenology to phenomengnosis, to understand the ambiguous flux of existence as itself the sign that demands to be understood in its own terms? Barthes says, later in this essay:

Generally speaking, the Blue Guide testifies to the futility of all analytical descriptions, those which reject both explanations and phenomenology: it answers in fact none of the questions which a modern traveller can ask himself while crossing a countryside which is real and which exists in time. To select only monuments suppresses at one stroke the reality of the land and that of its people, it accounts for nothing of the present, that is, nothing historical, and as a consequence, the monuments themselves become undecipherable, therefore senseless. What is seen is thus constantly in the process of vanishing, and the Guide becomes, through an operation common to all mystifications, the very opposite of what it advertises, an agent of blindness.

Banksy - Tourist InformationA tourist, perhaps on one of those packaged coach tours, can visit a foreign country only to tick off the sights (the monuments): the Eiffel Tower, Westminster Abbey, Edinburgh Castle. She envisions the people of these foreign countries she visits as stereotypes already firmly established in her head: Scot in kilt with bagpipes, Englishman with umbrella and bowler, Frenchman wearing beret, smoking cigarette, drinking wine. The tourist returns home having traveled but having only minimally encountered the countries toured and their inhabitants. The idiosyncratic, the eccentric reality of humanity, the exactness of place and time and circumstance, the life lived in ordinariness is easily ignored in the headlong rush to account for all stereotypes (thus never really knowing the people) and monuments (thus never understanding why the monuments are there or what they signify). One sees here the way in which the yearning for essence can alienate us from history; though this superficial tourist may be surrounded by “historical” monuments, she has little access to their meaning because they have been decontextualized; consequently, she is estranged from her own history of being present in that place. In the worst cases, the tourist takes her “home” on tour with her to the extent that she never enters into the foreign time and place at all—the ultimate jet lag.

The ecclesiastical tourist, likewise, can emerge from a “study of the doctrine of the Church” having never entered into church at all. While giving the impression of sailing to all the great ports of call, he may have only circumnavigated the stereotypes. What is clearly implied in such ecclesiological globetrotting is that the church is an idea, and that paying attention to the actuality of particular human communities of faith only distracts us from some divine ecclesiology, a neat analytical description that is (supposedly) forever and everywhere true.

Anabaptist Ethics and Same-Sex Marriage

The resurrectionOn the Road, the journal of the Anabaptist Association of Australia & New Zealand, have just republished a conference paper written by my dear friend Bruce Hamill. The paper, which was written in an effort to bring some constructive theology to bear upon a vexed set of questions, is titled ‘Anabaptist Ethics and Same-Sex Marriage’. Here’s how it concludes:

Marriage — that ancient institution serving the nurture of companionship and human flourishing in love — has for most of Christian history been assumed to be defined by the biological complementarity of ‘male and female’, although not necessarily by procreation. In Jesus and the apocalyptic Christian writers not only does the coming kingdom relativise the institution of marriage to this ‘time between the times’, it sets it, and all the other institutions within which we live, under the authority and judgement of Christ. In doing this it re-establishes marriage in terms of a new purpose for disciples of Christ — indeed a two-fold purpose — to bear witness to the new creation seen in the love of Christ for the church and to practise the life of that new creation in intimate acts of mutual and bodily self-donation. This ethical revolution reaches its clearest expression when Paul concludes that even creational structures like ‘male and female’ do not define life in Christ. It is thus a small step with the benefit of biological and psychological science to conclude that other creational structures such as samesex orientation might, for some, provide a more appropriate vehicle for the discipline of marriage.

You can read the entire piece online here and here, or as a single pdf here.

Church: The Quest for Christian Community

One of the units that I’ll be teaching at Whitley College (University of Divinity) this coming semester (30 July–29 October) is called Church: The Quest for Christian Community. The unit can be taken at levels 2, 3, or 9, and all are welcome to enrol.

Over 12 sessions, we will consider the following broad themes:

1. The Quest for Christian Community: Approaches, Issues, Challenges
2. The Community in Kingdom and Spirit
3. The Community as the Body of Christ
4. The Community as Priesthood and People of God
5. The Community and the Missio Dei
6. The Community under water: Baptism
7. The Community at Table: Eucharist
8. The Community of the Word
9. The Community Growing in God
10. The Community at Work
11. The Community in the World
12. The Ethical Community

And here’s a little taster of what is in store:

If you are interested in joining us, or in simply finding out more about this course and others, contact Whitley College (by email or phone 03 9340 8100) for more information.

A Review of Theng Huat Leow’s The Theodicy of Peter Taylor Forsyth

The Theodicy of Peter Taylor ForsythThe Theodicy of Peter Taylor Forsyth: A “Crucial” Justification of the Ways of God to Man, by Theng Huat Leow. (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2011), xviii + 268pp. ISBN: 9781608994359.

‘To justify God is the best and deepest way to fortify men. It provides the moral resource and stay which is the one thing at last. With open face to see the glory of God in things as they are, to blink nothing of the terror and yet to be sure of the Kingdom of God with all our heart – that is more for the courage of man than any nationalism or any patriotism when heart fails and grief benumbs’. So wrote one of the most able theological minds that Britain produced during the nineteenth century – P. T. Forsyth, in his extraordinarily astute book The Justification of God: Lectures for War-Time on a Christian Theodicy. What is, perhaps, most remarkable about such a claim is that it was published, as the subtitle indicates, at the height of the Great War, the event in which God, according to Forsyth, entered the pulpit and which brought to the surface again the ‘old dilemma’. But contra the Stoics and Gottfried Leibnitz and Joseph de Maistre, it was Forsyth’s claim that the solution of the great world juncture is at last a provision from God which both taxes all the resources that faith has, and settles faith in a certainty grounded in but finally from outwith history and its moral order – in the world’s moral crisis, in tragedy, in the great divine commedia, in Christ and his cross.

In this well-researched, and clearly-written exposition of Forsyth’s ‘Theodicy’, Theng Huat Leow (Lecturer in Theology at Trinity Theological College, Singapore) provides an able and constructive introduction to Forsyth’s theological oeuvre via a consideration of a subject of central concern to the Scottish Congregationalist theologian – God’s self justification in the face of evil. And because of Forsyth’s open-textured approach to theology, an approach that refuses the kind of tidiness for which most theology strives, a study like this occasions opportunity to engage with Forsyth’s thinking on a range of subjects, a prospect appropriately exploited by the author. Hence, Leow introduces Forsyth’s thinking on the relationship between evil, sin, and suffering, his appropriation of Martin Luther’s theologia crucis, his understanding of divine election, his conviction that, no matter how ‘devious’ and ‘dreadful’ the way, creation would willingly ‘go through it again at the Father’s will’ for ‘the last things shall crown the first things, and … the end will justify the means’, his ‘Christian universalism’, his constructive and cautious engagement with evolutionary theory, and the important distinction Forsyth makes between God’s primary and secondary acts of judgement, his commitment to divine passibility and to sailing along the rocks of ‘true patripassianism’, his view on the origin of evil, among other subjects. Leow notes Forsyth’s conviction that the problems of evil are ‘essentially insoluble from an intellectual or theoretical perspective’, and considers Forsyth’s approach to theodicy along ‘practical’ and ‘historic’ lines. What this means, as Leow makes plain, is that Forsyth resolves ‘to treat the existence of evil in our world as a given reality, and [to] direct his focus on God’s practical overcoming of it through his act on the Cross’ (p. 180), a move which gives to Forsyth’s theodicy ‘unity, cohesion and groundedness in the historical reality of this world’ and so renders, in Leow’s assessment, Forsyth’s justification of God to be one which ‘far surpasses’ (p. 235) corresponding attempts penned in Forsyth’s day.

Avoiding hagiography, and with judicious editorial judgement, Leow brings Forsyth’s thought into conversation not only with those with whom Forsyth himself was most interested to engage – e.g., G. W. F. Hegel, Wilhelm Windelband, Albert Schweitzer, R. J. Campbell, etc. – but also with more contemporary voices known for their engagement with the subject at hand, such as Albert Camus, Marilyn McCord Adams, David Bentley Hart, Paul Fiddes, Dorothee Sölle, J. K. Mozley, Jürgen Moltmann, and others.

Greatly to be welcomed is Leow’s taking seriously the much-too neglected and ‘subjective aspects’ of the atonement, highlighting, most obviously, the role that prayer – and especially protest prayer – plays in Forsyth’s thought: that it may be God’s will for us to resist God’s will; that to struggle with God is one way of doing God’s will, one way of saying, ‘Thy will be done’; that, as Forsyth would insist in his profound essay The Soul of Prayer, the divine will is ‘to be resisted as much as indulged’.

But a quibble and a most unfortunate miscalculation ought also be noted. Regarding the quibble, curious is Leow’s heavy reliance throughout the book on Richard Bauckham’s reading of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, a near-essential reference, it seems, in any essay on the subject of theodicy. Why then, did he not engage with Dostoyevsky’s characters directly rather than have them mediated through Bauckham’s interpretation?

If my memory serves me correctly, Forsyth’s Justification was my entrée into Forsyth’s corpus. I was a theological abecedarian, it was not an easy read, and I had no Beatrice to guide me. Dr Leow’s book is a Beatrice: but this Beatrice brings along a partner who too often distracts and detracts from the conversation, rather than enhances it, steering it away from its substantial themes and terms and, in so doing, rearranges the parameters of discussion in ways that leave Forsyth, at times, misheard and misrepresented, and with his thought systematised in ways that castrate some of its spirit. This, in my view, is the most substantive setback with Leow’s study. The most apparent candidate for this less-welcome friend is John Hick and his Evil and the Love of God. This is evident in Leow’s frequent – and very odd – description of Forsyth’s theodicy as ‘Irenaean’ (see pp. 188, 195–96, 209, 223, 227–30, passim), and, not unrelatedly, in his suggesting a view of sin that is considerably tamer than is Forsyth’s own. The Aberdonian insisted, in the strongest possible terms, that there could be no Hegelian integration of God’s antithesis into God’s final purposes for the world – ‘Die sin must or God’! To be sure, Leow is aware that for Forsyth there can be no possible compromise at this point (see, for e.g., pp. 17, 237), but, because of the distractions generated by Beatrice’s friend, the implications of that principal conviction struggle to arrive at their proper end.

However, those desiring to engage the questions that give rise to theodicies generally, or those wishing to better understand one of that project’s most daring and able theological minds, ought not allow these criticisms to dissuade them from taking up this composed and valuable study.

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In due course, a version of this review will appear in Colloquium.

David Bentley Hart on God, Creation, and Evil

This past week, the University of Notre Dame has been host to an impressive line up of minds for the Creation out of Nothing: Origins and Contemporary Significance conference. Some of those papers can be listened to here, including David Bentley Hart’s wonderful paper of ‘God, Creation, and Evil’, its concern being to highlight the obvious implications of such for a theology of apokatastasis panton.

Tasting Chris Green’s Sanctifying Interpretation – Part 3: “Scripture as Divine and Deifying Foolishness”

Sanctifying InterpretationAnd a final excerpt from Chris Green’s Sanctifying Interpretation: Vocation, Holiness, and Scripture (pp. 127–29):

By and large, evangelical models emphasize the ‘glory’ of the Scriptures: their majesty, their beauty, their power. But the Scriptures are at-one-ed with Christ as the living Word of the gospel’s God only insofar as they share in his ongoing humiliation, in his weakness and foolishness that subverts worldly power and wisdom (1 Cor. 1.18–25). God’s glory is revealed above all in God’s humility, as the events of creation, the call of Israel in Abraham, the Incarnation, Passion and Ascension, and the Eucharistic gathering of the Church testify. And the same holds for the Scriptures. They are holy just in that they are ‘low and despised’, chosen to expose the pretensions of the wise and the strong, ‘to reduce to nothing’ our assumptions about God, ourselves, and the world works (1 Cor. 1.27–28). The sacred texts, in Hamann words, are like the ‘old rags’ twisted together into ropes to draw Jeremiah from his pit.[1] Receiving them in this way, we find ourselves humbled, made that much more transparent, opened in small and odd ways toward God in our neighbor and our neighbor in God.

God against Us for Us

This reveals one of the strangest strangenesses in the Christian life: on the one hand, we cannot even begin to read the Bible as Scripture unless we have some sense of who God is and what God is like, but, on the other hand, we never read the Scripture faithfully without having our sense of what God is like in some way dramatically upended and altered. We can be sure, for example, that God is not capricious or cruel. We can know that God is not in any sense unfaithful. But the awful truth is that even in knowing God’s faithfulness we misperceive what that faithfulness means for us and requires of us at any given time. Therefore, we have to let the Spirit rescue us from readings of Scripture that distort the image of God. Reading faithfully, our idolatrous misapprehensions of God are graciously wrecked, again and again, as we are drawn toward Christlikeness.

John 5 shows that many of Jesus’ contemporaries rejected him because they believed his actions on the Sabbath violated the Scriptures. But he responds by insisting that they are in fact misreading the sacred Scriptures. ‘You pore over the scriptures’, he warns them, ‘believing that in them you can find eternal life’ (Jn 5.39a NJB). Tragically, they cannot see how these very texts witness to Christ. ‘It is these scriptures that testify to me, and yet you refuse to come to me to receive life!’ (Jn 5.39b–40 NJB). Therefore, in the End, they stand accused by the very texts they claim to understand and wield in judgment against Jesus. 

45Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope. 46If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. 47But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?

Jesus not only rebukes them for failing to keep the Law given by Moses (Jn 7.19), but also insists that they in effect have re-written the Law in their own terms. Twice he tells them, ‘In your law it is written …’ (Jn 8.17; 10.34), and in his last words to his disciples he says he has been hated without cause ‘to fulfill the word that is written in their law’ (Jn 15.25). Tellingly, at Jesus’ trial ‘the Jews’ tell Pilate, ‘We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die’ (Jn 19.7), and Pilate gives them their way: ‘Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law’ (Jn 18.31).[2]

Like those who opposed Jesus then, we can, and no doubt often do, search the Scriptures futilely, to our own and others’ hurt. We can so distort the Scriptures that we make God’s Word unfaithfully our own. We need to be saved from these unsanctified and unsanctifying readings, and that salvation takes place only as we allow the Spirit to uses texts to threaten and overthrow our (mis)readings. Scripture sanctifies us by overthrowing the unfaithful uses we have made of Scripture, by being a Word not of our own making, a Word that is for us by first being against us. It is as we struggle with texts that wreak havoc with our interpretive grid that we, like Jacob, are seized by the unnamed one who speaks the saving blessing.

[1] See John R. Betz, After Enlightenment: the Post-Secular Vision of J.G. Hamann (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), pp. 43–45.

[2] Similarly, Paul differentiates ‘the Torah of sin and death’ from ‘the Torah of the Spirit of life’ (Rom. 8.2), a difference determined by how we read—and live in response to—the Scriptures.

Tasting Chris Green’s Sanctifying Interpretation – Part 2: “Reimagining Holiness as the Possibility of Oneness”

Sanctifying Interpretation

As promised, here’s the second of three excerpts from Chris Green’s Sanctifying Interpretation: Vocation, Holiness, and Scripture (pp. 71–73):

Christian theologians commonly use ‘holiness’ to name whatever it is that makes God different from all that is not-God. Jean-Luc Marion, for example, says that ‘God is distinguished from the world and from other gods insofar as he is “majestic in holiness, terrible in glorious deeds” (Exod. 15:11)’. God reveals himself to creation in such a way that no one can enter ‘the vicinity of his holiness, which separates him from any other [tout autre] as the Wholly Other [Tout Autre]’.[1] Dumitru Staniloae offers a similarly typical account:

Holiness can be said to reveal to us all the divine qualities in a concentrated way. It is the luminous and active mystery of the divine presence. In it there is concentrated all that distinguishes God from the world.[2]

Such descriptions, true so far as they go, are finally insufficient. John Webster is right: ‘God is what God does’; therefore, ‘God’s holiness is to be defined out of God’s works’.[3] Given that Jesus is the full embodiment of all God’s works, we have to look to Jesus and his storied witness of God if we want to know what holiness means.[4] Jesus just is, in himself, ‘the event of the coming of that holiness which crosses the great divide …’[5] ‘What he does and what is done to him—his whole life history—is … the manifestation of holiness.’[6]

What do we find when we look to Jesus to see God’s holiness? Again, I agree with Webster: we find that holiness is ‘a mode of relation’.[7] It is, in fact, the mode of relation God enjoys as Father, Son, and Spirit—the very mode of relation God opens to us as creatures.[8] God’s holiness is the freedom made possible because Father, Son, and Spirit exist for, in, and with each other. Or, to put it the other way around, because God is holy and in goodness shares that holiness with all things, God is the God God is, and we are the creatures we are, in our life together with God and before God in the world.

All that to say, God is holy in that God relates (both immanently and economically) in ways that are simultaneously free and freeing, lively and life-giving, just and justifying. Because God is holy, we can experience goodness, truth, and beauty in relationship with God in ways that make us good and true and beautiful. To narrow it to a single statement: God’s holiness is the way God has of relating to us so that we can not only know God, but in knowing, become like God. Because God is holy, God can be with us, the ‘holy one in our midst’, not unmaking our humanness but perfecting it, drawing us into humanizing deification.[9] As Keen says, ‘God’s holiness is a freedom for what is far gone from holiness’.[10]

[1] Jean-Luc Marion, ‘The Invisibility of the Saint’, Critical Inquiry 35.3 (Spring 2009), pp. 703–10 (708).

[2] Dumitru Staniloae, The Experience of God Vol. 1: Revelation and Knowledge of the Triune God (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1994), pp. 222–23.

[3] John Webster, Holiness (London: SCM Press, 2003), p. 39.

[4] Michael J. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification and Theosis in Paul’s (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009), p. 113.

[5] Craig Keen, After Crucifixion: The Promise of Theology (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013), p. 94.

[6] Keen, After Crucifixion, p. 94.

[7] Webster, Holiness, p. 5.

[8] It is opened to us through the ‘communication of attributes’ in Christ. That is to say, the divine holiness, brought to bear by the Holy Spirit, holds the divine and human natures together in Christ without confusion, division, change, or mixture so that the human is healed, perfected, and transfigured by the divine. Holiness not only preserves the integrity of the two natures but also effects the deification of human nature through its ‘contact’ with the divine in Christ through the Spirit. As Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, expounding on theology of Gregory Palamas, explains in his One with God: Salvation as Deification and Justification (Collegeville, MN: Unitas, 2004), p. 28, ‘When the Logos of God took on human nature, he bestowed on it the fullness of his grace and delivered it from the bonds of corruption and death. They consequence of this hypostatic union of the two natures in Christ was the deification of the human nature’. Similarly, Douglas Harink (1 & 2 Peter [BTC; Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2009], p. 144) says that ‘our human nature is purified and taken up, through our participation in Christ’s humanity (made possible by his participation in ours), into the divine life and fulfilled in its humanity, through that participation’.

[9] See Webster, Holiness, pp. 5, 9, 43, 45.

[10] Craig Keen, ‘A Quick “Definition” of Holiness’ in Kevin W. Mannoia and Don Thorsen (eds.), The Holiness Manifesto (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008), p. 238.

Tasting Chris Green’s Sanctifying Interpretation – Part 1: “‘I Have Come To Do Your Will’: Our Share in Christ’s Calling and Passion”

Chris Green, my favourite Pentecostal theologian and no stranger to this blog, has a new book out. It’s called Sanctifying Interpretation: Vocation, Holiness, and Scripture. Over the next week or so, I will be posting three excerpts from that book as tasters. Here’s the first, from pp. 31–34:

Any account of our vocation necessarily begins with Christ and his calling. The writer of Hebrews allows us to overhear the Son praying about his vocation:

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’ (in the scroll of the book it is written of me)’. (Heb. 10.5–7)

What we might call Jesus’ vocational prayer shows that he understood his incarnational mission, his ‘coming into the world’, as the outworking, the enacting, of his eternally-decided calling. He comes into the world just to do the Father’s will—to offer his body, received as gift, back to the Father through the Spirit as the sacrifice. But what, exactly, is it that God desires for him to do? The writer of Hebrews, anticipating the question, provides the answer: ‘it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all’ (Heb. 10.10). Jesus’ vocation was nothing either more or less than this: to mediate God’s holiness to us, drawing us into the sanctifying communion he enjoys, reveals, and creates.

And that is our vocation, too. Or, better, that continues to be Christ’s vocation, which we now share. Our vocation is his vocation, just as surely as his identity is gracefully ours. Through the Spirit, we are so at-one-ed with Christ that our experience and his are intertwined. What is true of him is true of us, now and/or in the End. As we ‘look to Jesus’ (Heb. 12.2), we recognize that we are created in him to bring the beauty of God’s holiness to bear on everyone and everything. As we cooperate with him in the Spirit, bringing holiness revealingly and redemptively to bear on all creation, we are providing our neighbors and enemies—as well as all other creatures in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible—with a foretaste of the shalom purposed from the Beginning, promised at the End. In so doing, we bear witness to the promise that in the glory of God’s Kingdom all things are brought into their peculiar glories, and in mediation we ourselves are brought into our own glory (1 Cor. 2.7).

Of course, God often uses our neighbors, strangers, and enemies—including unbelievers and people of other faith traditions—to draw us into (re)new(ed) awareness of our calling. Think, for example, of Melchizedek, Rahab, Abigail—‘outsiders’ who in one way or another save ‘insiders’ from themselves. Even after proclaiming that the Spirit was promised to ‘all flesh’ at Pentecost (Acts 2.17), Peter still doubts that God in fact means to include the Gentiles in the kingdom. So, in a graceful twist, God gives him Cornelius (Acts 10), and we learn, as he did, that we need those whom we are called to serve with the gospel at least as much as they need us.

Something on the same order happens in the story of Ruth. She, a Moabite, belongs to a neighboring people typically portrayed as dangerous for Israel, a threat to Israel’s holiness. But, as the story continues, we see that in spite of the fact that Israel has been unfaithful to to her vocation, God is saving her future through the faith(fulness) of this gentile. And, astoundingly, when Boaz praises her, he speaks her as a new Abraham: ‘you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not before’ (Ruth 2.11; cf. Gen. 12.1).[1]

In his masterful Andrei Rublev (1966), Andrei Tarkovsky portrays the now-famous painter undergoing an acute spiritual crisis. Rublev has been asked to paint an icon of the Trinity, but he resists, drowning in his own sense of unworthiness.

He believes his crisis of faith, his struggle to reconcile the love of God with the evil and brutality which he has observed in the world and in his heart, disqualifies himself to paint icons, to open heaven through paint. And so Rublev fasts. He fasts from speaking. He fasts from community. And he fasts from his vocation.[2]

Rublev, wandering through the countryside, happens upon a boy, Boriska, whose father, a well-respected bell-maker, has recently died, leaving the boy with the task of casting the bell the Grand Prince has commissioned for the village church. Afraid of losing the job, Boriska claims to know his father’s mysterious secret for bell-casting. But he in fact never learned it. So, under the threat of death, he forges ahead into the seemingly impossible task, brashly insisting at every turn that he does know the secret, trusting himself to his instincts and hoping against hope that the casting somehow will work. Unbelievably, it does work, and as the bell rings, with the Prince and the priests and the villagers gathered around the bell in celebration, Boriska collapses in exhausted relief and disbelief at his own success.

Rublev, having seen it all from a distance (like Peter at Christ’s trial and crucifixion), rushes to the boy when he collapses, gathers him up in his arms, and breaks his long-held vow of silence with a promise: ‘You will cast bells. I will paint icons’. In that moment, Rublev, the believing, doubting monk, is freed anew for his vocation only through the unknowing grace of a poor, rash child.

Rublev’s breakthrough occurs when he discovers his neighbor—not God—in his vocation. Through Boriska—observing and comforting him and promising to care for him as a father—by being Christ to his neighbor, as Luther once said—Rublev receives his vocation anew. He receives it liberated of the burden to justify himself through paint before the face of God. Sitting in the mud with a broken, grieving orphan, Rublev is truly free. He is free to paint icons.[3]

Perhaps, in the end, we, like Rublev (and Abraham, David, Boaz/Israel, and Peter, among others), can truly bear our vocation only as we receive unanticipated, unwarranted grace from others, especially those others we understand as most in need of our care. Only our openness to the gifts they—knowingly or not—bear for us can instill in our bodies the wisdom needed to speak the gospel gracefully to them.

[1] See Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 2011), p. 71. See also Alain Marchadour and David Neuhaus, The Land, the Bible, and History (Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 2007), p. 36.
[2] Daniel A. Siedell, ‘You Will Make Bells and I Will Paint Icons’, Cultivare (March 12, 2012); available online: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/cultivare/2013/03/you-will-make-bells-i-will-paint-icons/; accessed: September 26, 2014.
[3] Siedell, ‘You Will Make Bells and I Will Paint Icons’, n.p.

Bruce McCormack on ‘The Passion of God Himself: the Cry of Dereliction in Barth’s Theology’

Bruce McCormack gave an outstanding lecture at this year’s Annual Karl Barth Conference. It was titled ‘The Passion of God Himself: the Cry of Dereliction in Barth’s Theology’. The lecture proper starts at around the 26-minute mark.

Psalm 23 (Aboriginal Style)

Darby Ross Tjampitjinpa, Ngapa Manu Yankirri Jukurrpa (Water and Emu Dreaming), 1989.

Darby Ross Tjampitjinpa, Ngapa Manu Yankirri Jukurrpa (Water and Emu Dreaming), 1989.

I was delighted today to happen across this rendition of Psalm 23, by the Rev Ron Williams:

My big fella boss up in the sky is like the father emu.
He will always look after me and take me to green grass,
And lead me to where the water holes are full and fresh all the time.

He leads me away from the thick scrub
and helps me keep safe from the hunters, dingoes and eagles.
At night time when I’m very lonely and sad,
I will not be afraid, for my Father covers me with His feathers like a father emu.
His spear and shield will always protect me.

My big fella boss always gives me a good feed in the middle of my enemies.
In hot times he makes me sit down in a cool shade and rest.

He gives me plenty of love and care all of my life through.
Then I will live with my big fella boss like a father emu,
that cares for his chickens in good country full of peace and safety,

Forevermore and evermore.

(It reminded me a bit of the African Creed in Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered.)

Jürgen Moltmann on ‘Predestination: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Election of Grace’

The 2015 Annual Karl Barth Conference, currently underway at Princeton Theological Seminary, has kicked off with a stirring opening lecture by Jürgen Moltmann on the topic ‘Predestination: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Election of Grace’. Professor Moltmann reminded us again why Barth was right when he wrote, in CD §32, that ‘the doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all the words that can be said or heard it is the best: that God elects humanity; that God is for humanity too the One who loves in freedom’.

For those who missed the lecture, here it is:

The main sessions are being live streamed here, and the Q&A time for this session can be watched here – great news for those of us unable to make it to Princeton for this wonderful event.

Ecology and Hope: a conference

Carey Baptist College, Auckland’s premier theological college, is hosting a one-day conference and public lecture on the theme of ecology and hope with theologian Professor Celia Deane-Drummond. Details here.

Ecology and Hope

Kevin Considine reviews my book Hallowed be Thy Name

Hallowed be thy nameThe most recent edition of the journal Horizons (42.1, June 2015) includes a review (pdf), by Kevin P. Considine (Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Calumet College of St. Joseph, Indiana), of my book Hallowed be Thy Name: The Sanctification of All in the Soteriology of P. T. Forsyth.

The book is now available in paperback at a friendlier price too.

The Kracken

KrackenI love learning. And this week I learnt about the kraken because my daughter undertook to write a school project on ‘a mythical or legendary creature’. She did a great job, and along the way we talked about leviathan and Job, about das Nichtige and Augustine and Moby Dick, about the sea-less new creation being good news for Jews and (if taken literally) bad news for me, and about Jesus doing some really cool things around boats and with wind and waves. And we discovered together the great Alfred Tennyson’s poem ‘The Kracken’.

Below the thunders of the upper deep,
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides; above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages, and will lie
Battening upon huge sea worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

And it’s only Thursday …

Whitley College School of Ministry: Peaceful People, Peaceful Church, Peaceful World

SOM 2015What does it mean to be agents of peace in a world of conflict?

Each year, my school, Whitley College, runs a School of Ministry. This year’s School – which is happening on 13–14 July – provides an opportunity to hear from two guest teachers who have worked in the area of peace making and peace building, and to reflect together on what it means ‘to become peaceful people, in peaceful churches, for a peaceful world’.

The two guests are Dr David R. Brubaker (Associate Professor of Organizational Studies, Eastern Mennonite University) and Dr Maung Maung Yin (The Vice Principal of Myanmar Institute of Theology and the inaugural Director of the Peace Studies Centre).

Program

Program

 

REGISTRATION FEE 

  • Full registration – $200 (Includes all meals and up to 2 nights accommodation* in the Residential College)
  • Non-residential registration – $135 (Includes all lunches and dinners)
  • Ordination Candidates – $85 (Includes all meals and up to 2 nights accommodation* in the Residential College)

* Monday and Tuesday night bed and breakfast accommodation

FURTHER INFORMATION

For further information, download the flyer here.

Please direct enquiries to Dorothy Morgan via email or phone 03 9340 8100

REGISTRATION

Please register before Monday, 6 July 2015.

Book online (requires credit card) or download the registration form.

Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History – now available on Kindle

Forsyth.DescendingonHumanity.90702The publishers have informed me that the Kindle edition for my edited volume Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P. T. Forsyth is now available from Amazon in the U.S., United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, France, Spain, Brazil, India, Japan, Italy, and Mexico.

It’s also available in regular paperback and in ePub formats direct from the publisher, Wipf and Stock, and from wherever good books are sold.

Theologies of marriage

arnolfini-weddingA couple of years ago, the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (the denomination in which I was serving at the time) asked the church’s Doctrine Core Group to provide the church with a discussion paper on marriage. That group decided to approach the task by inviting a select and representative number to write a brief response to the following question:

‘What do you believe lies at the heart of a Christian doctrine of marriage, and what are the key biblical and theological considerations that inform your position?’

The full discussion paper can be downloaded here. It was offered in the hope that the statements therein might provoke deeper engagement with the complex issues about marriage in church and society. The contributions – of which there are seven – were published anonymously to encourage readers to hear and judge each case on its own merits. I reproduce them here, in part because the denomination in which I currently serve, the Baptist Union of Victoria, is engaged – or at least ought to be engaged! – in some theological reflection on the questions (one assumption here, among others, is that the Church, including its Baptist tribe, might have some unique things to say about marriage, things which the State can’t say) and I hope that these contributions might assist to that end.

Contribution 1

We believe the Presbyterian Church’s approach to marriage must faithfully reflect the teachings of Jesus and the Scriptures, regardless of whatever society or the State may do. The Church is not at liberty to put aside the teachings of its Head. As a denomination derived from the Reformation, we are meant to be subject not to human ideas but to Scripture. Constitutionally, the Presbyterian Church recognises the Word of God in the Scriptures as the ‘supreme rule of faith and life’. We need to take that seriously. We shouldn’t try to reinterpret the teachings of Jesus and Scripture to make them mean something else.

The 2012 General Assembly of our Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand strongly declared “that it upholds the historic Christian understanding of marriage as the loving, faithful union of a man and a woman (reflecting the complementarity of male and female created in God’s image), which is grounded in nature and in Scripture, is supremely revealed in Jesus’ teaching about marriage, and is given by God for the well-being of human society…”. General Assembly also resolved that it “does not support same-sex ‘marriage’”.

We believe the 2012 General Assembly got it right. Christian understanding of marriage reflects the profound truth that God made us both male and female in God’s own image (Genesis 1:27) – with both genders necessary to reflect the image of God. Marriage is grounded in God-given nature, in basic male-female physiology. Marriage is the good and purposeful gift of God (Genesis 2:18, 24). In marriage, God intends that male and female come together in love and mutuality, trust and faithfulness, and the two became one – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. No other type of contractual, covenantal or legal sexual relationship – no matter how loving, stable or sincere – can ever be regarded by the Christian Church as marriage in the true biblical sense.

Out of that unique male-female union, God brings new life (Genesis 1:28). We are to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”. Male-female complementarity is therefore foundational – not only to bearing the image of God, but to human flourishing. It is at the heart of what it means to be human. Right across the biblical narrative, marriage is endorsed – and is central to human life.

Jesus’ teaching on marriage reinforces the indispensable core of the Bible’s understanding of marriage: “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh” (Matthew 19:4–5). Jesus also rejects sexual immorality (Mark 7:21–22) and lust (Matthew 5:28).

Some claim there is no one model of marriage in the Scriptures. In the Old Testament, for instance, we see many examples of polygamy, a defective form of marriage which was common in Ancient Near Eastern culture. But while polygamy is tolerated in the Old Testament, it is never endorsed by God or by Scripture, and it plays no part in the teaching of Jesus or the New Testament.

The reality of marriage, in Scripture and in human experience generally, includes not only blessing but also an inevitable falling short of what God intended – sometimes in major ways such as cruelty, adultery, neglect or divorce. In our sinfulness, we all need God’s forgiveness and grace.

Some argue that marriage is just a human arrangement, a largely secular matter. Certainly, marriage is a “civil contract”, but it is also much more than that. For followers of Christ, prayerfully entering into a marital covenant and making solemn promises before God, marriage is also sacred. The sexual union of a husband and wife in marriage is more than just physical, and can also have something of a “sacramental” character.

The idea of recognising homosexual relationships as “marriage” is completely foreign to Scripture. While some disagree with what the Bible teaches, there can be no question that the Bible consistently forbids the practice of homosexuality (eg Romans 1:22–28, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10, Jude 7). Like all other sexual immorality, homosexuality reflects humanity’s fallenness.

Same-sex “marriage” finds no place in the historic Christian doctrine of marriage, or in the teaching of our Subordinate Standards. The Church’s classic Reformed standard, the Westminster Confession, devotes a whole chapter to marriage. This begins: “Marriage is to be between one man and one woman …for the mutual help of husband and wife [and] for the increase of mankind.” The Presbyterian Church’s Directory of Worship (1995) states that Christian marriage is “a commitment for life made by a woman and a man to each other, publicly witnessed before God and acknowledged by the community of faith”.

We must be guided by the resolutions of General Assembly that “God’s intention for sexual relationships, as affirmed by Jesus Christ, is loving, mutual and faithful marriage between a man and a woman, and that intimate sexual expressions outside of that context fall short of God’s standard” (1991), and that marriage is “the loving, faithful union of a man and a woman” (2012).

The Bible’s teaching on marriage is not the absolute core of the Gospel, like the Cross and Resurrection, but it is still very important. It is not optional. Three of the Ten Commandments, for instance, are related to marriage.

The Word of God is the “supreme rule” of both “faith and life”. Some argue that the Church should just proclaim salvation in Christ, and allow freedom (diversity) in all other matters of belief and life – including matters relating to marriage and morality. But such a view is a distortion of New Testament teaching. Christ is both Saviour and Lord. The gospel is not just about salvation. It is also about following Christ, and about transformation. Having received salvation by grace, we should then honour God in how we live (eg Matthew 7:17–23, Romans 6:13, 1 Corinthians 6:19–20, Ephesians 4:1, Colossians 1:10). Grace does not abrogate truth, or the call to holiness.

The Church is not able to dictate the beliefs and laws of society at large. But we must also insist that the Church cannot be dictated to by society. In all matters, including marriage, we believe the Holy Spirit calls the Church to remain authentically faithful to the teachings of Jesus and Scripture.

Contribution 2

Whatever else marriage may be, it is at its most fundamental level a relationship between two parties. It is a relationship established in virtue of God’s pronouncement that it is not good that man should be alone (Genesis 2:18). We human beings have need of companionship. According to the Genesis account (Genesis 2:18–25), marriage is a divinely instituted provision for that need. While the Genesis text indicates a complementarity in the companionship of male and female, it becomes clear as the biblical story unfolds that the need for companionship may also be met by other means, above all in the fellowship of the Body of Christ. The Church, in fact, is set forth in the New Testament as the paramount form of community in which all should expect to find, whether married or not, the unconditional love, forgiveness, and companionship to which the marriage relationship also aspires.

A secondary feature of marriage occurring between a man and a woman is the procreation of children. Genesis 1:28 and 3:16 are commonly taken as biblical warrant for this procreative function of marriage. The Old Testament, however, records numerous instances in which the fathering of children is thought to be more important than the maintenance of a monogamous relationship (eg Genesis 16:1–2, Deuteronomy 25:5–6). A husband may take additional wives or engage the childbearing services of a slave in the household in order to secure progeny. Adultery, however, is condemned (Exodus 20:14, Deuteronomy 22:22). Whether or not the arrangements seen in the Old Testament for the procreation of children outside of marriage should be approved of, they do suggest that procreation is a secondary good associated with marriage rather than its primary purpose. In accordance with the view that procreation does not belong to the essence of marriage, the absence of offspring does not undermine the good of marriage and so provides no justification for divorce (Matthew 5:32, Mark 10:6–9).

What then does constitute the good of marriage? In formulating a response to this question, it is helpful to attend to the fact that the language of marital relationships is often used in the Bible to speak of the relationship that God has established, first with Israel (eg Ezekiel 16: 8–14, Jeremiah 2:2, 31:32, Isaiah 54:5), and then with the Church (eg John 3:29, Matthew 9:15, 2 Corinthians 11:2, Revelation 19:7–9). Although it is commonly supposed that the term “marriage” applies primarily to the covenant commitment made between a man and a woman and only secondarily, by way of analogy, to the relationship God establishes with Israel and the Church, we may learn better about the essence of marriage by attending first to the marriage God establishes with his people, before then considering what this may imply for our understanding of human marriage.

The first thing to notice about the relationship between God and Israel, and between Christ and the Church is that it is a covenant not a contract. Talk of marriage as a covenant rather than a contract is derived from this divine precedent. A covenant is “a promise binding two people or two parties to love one another unconditionally.” This accounts for the steadfastness of God’s commitment to Israel in spite of Israel’s unfaithfulness (Leviticus 26:44). We observe, secondly, that the covenant God makes is grounded in love. Again, we learn best what love is by attending to the divine love, especially as it is revealed to us in and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because the true nature of love is revealed in Christ, Paul enjoins husbands to love their wives “just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). It is in this context too, that Paul speaks of a man and his wife becoming one flesh just as Christ unites the Church in his body and tenderly nourishes and cares for it (Ephesians 5:28–32).

Further explanation of what love consists of is found 1 Corinthians 13. A third characteristic of the divine covenant is that it operates according to grace rather on the basis of deserts. God loves Israel and Christ loves the Church, not because they deserve to be loved, but simply because it is love’s way to embrace the other in spite of the other’s weakness and imperfection — even in spite of the other’s sin. Marriage is an act of gracious hospitality, of unconditional openness to the other, and of self-giving. The operations of divine grace in the marriage God establishes with his people should discourage us, I think, from conceiving the marriage relationship in terms of rights. Marriage is established in virtue of the unconditional gift of oneself to the other, not on the basis of rights held over against one another.

These theological observations suggest that marriage is a covenant relationship that is motivated by love and operates according to grace. It is, furthermore, a form of human relationship that mirrors, however imperfectly, the relationship that God desires to have with us.

We should take note, however, that spousal relationships are listed in Luke 14:26 among various forms of kinship that take second place to the disciples’ relationships with Christ. Marriage between one human being and another is good, but it is not the ultimate good. The ultimate good is the fellowship with God and neighbour that is being perfected by the Spirit in the Body of Christ. Marriage, and, by extension, the life of the family, is an important and divinely instituted means by which people may be formed for the kind of relationship that is ultimately to be perfected in the communion that Christ establishes with his people. Despite their many failings, and despite the tragic dysfunction that sometimes afflicts them, marriage and family relationships remain the place, subordinate only to the Church, where we are most likely to learn the gestures of unconditional love, of forgiveness, and of grace that, under divine command and enabling, are to be extended to all.

With respect to the question of whether marriage may be entered into by partners of the same gender, it seems to me that the precedent of God’s relationship to Israel and of Christ to the Church yields insight into the nature of marriage that does not preclude such a relationship being established between partners of the same gender. It remains an open question however, whether the complementarity of male and female indicated in Genesis, should be taken as normative for the marriage relationship between two human partners. That is the question that is now before the Church.

Contribution 3

In the following paper I offer my reflections on what I believe lies at the heart of a doctrine of Christian marriage. As a woman in her mid-fifties who recently married for the first time, I have found myself engaging with this question on a very personal level. Marriage, as revealed in both Scripture and Jesus’ teaching, is initiated by God as an expression of love in community. Sacred and permanent, it offers protection and exclusivity for the expression of fidelity and conjugal love between a man and a woman. It is fundamental to my understanding of Christian marriage that it be a union between a man and a woman, as both are made in God’s image, therefore it is their complementary, but different natures, that reflect most authentically the mystery of the divine nature.

The divine nature is presented in the Scriptures as both feminine and masculine. God speaks of her conception, nurture, and birth in the continuing story of Israel. Yet God is also warrior, king, and father. God’s nature transcends gender, but by creating both male and female and joining them together as one God’s nature is “captured”, so to speak. Therefore when man and woman become one, it is their union (their becoming one) that reflects the complete/divine nature.

The physical/biological differences of men and women are obvious, but there is also a spiritual/emotional difference between them that is well attested in our churches, marriages, and relationships in general.

The “complete” nature of God, as expressed by both man and woman becoming one, finds its roots in the Genesis account of creation: Man (Adam) was created in the image of God, but finding him incomplete in/by himself, God created a specific helper/companion (ezer; Eve). Out of the one species, but creating a separate, distinctive and complementary being, God created the ideal reflection of the divine nature. Creativity, procreation, and abiding companionship all find their expression on the two beings becoming one. My reading of the creation account is that humanity was the pinnacle of creation. When the two complementary beings become one, their unity creates and perpetuates the image of the divine. I believe that it was God’s desire for the creative, spiritual and physical cycle of creation to continue through the mystery and sanctity of marriage.

Jesus also affirmed marriage as a divine institution laid down by God at the very beginning of creation. United by God two (man and woman) become one, and remain so until death (Mark 10.6–7, 9; Genesis 1.27; 2.24). The mystery of this sacred union between man and woman is that it offers a reflection of the image of God in community; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. By this I mean that God is more than one, yet the same essence. The three persons of the trinity are separate, yet one. Each person of the trinity has a different expression, but they are the same! For me that means that in the Genesis account of creation the trinity was already present, and reflected in the creation of man and woman. Therefore marriage, at its heart, is an expression of God’s love/nature lived out in action for creation to be witness to, and benefit from.

The starting point for my position on a Christian doctrine of marriage is the concept of covenant. Biblically the marriage relationship was used as a distinctive metaphor for the covenantal relationship God had with Israel (Ezekiel 16.8). Permanence, faithfulness and self-sacrificing love are the pillars of God’s covenant relationship. Marriage, as a covenant relationship between two complementary natures made in God’s image, reflects the ideal of God’s relationship of love and fidelity with his/her people.

Pauline material develops this tradition by proclaiming that the sacred and permanent status of marriage is an analogy for the relationship between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5.32). Marriage, in New Testament terms, is portrayed as the perfect example of covenantal oneness; a union created between a man and a woman by the unifying power of love.

The commitment to love unconditionally, as Christ loved the Church, implies self-sacrifice. Christ’s love led him to the cross, so biblically marriage becomes a vehicle for living out Christ’s self-sacrificing love. For me the concepts of obedience and discipleship are fundamental to my understanding of Christian marriage. God’s covenant love and Christ’s self-sacrificing love fit within a context of relationship. Marriage cannot be removed from this setting; it finds its expression only in relationship with God’s revelation (Jesus and Scripture).

The biblical vision for marriage, as a reflection of God’s love and unbreakable faithfulness, lies at the heart of my understanding of Christian marriage. Creator God created two complementary beings in his/her image to become one flesh. The purpose for such a union is, I believe, not only to offer human companionship, or produce children, but also to reveal the divine nature and character of an unseen God. Love by its very nature can only be authentically expressed in community, therefore marriage becomes the most complete expression of divine love.

Contribution 4

Being both Māori and Christian my starting point on any subject is always my beloved wharenui, Te Maungarongo. On the taraiti side of the whare is our cultural side that captures our histories, genealogies, stories, songs, proverbs and everything that constitutes being Māori. On the opposite tarawhanui side of the whare are the biblical equivalents of those same stories. The backbone of the whare is the tahuhu where both culture and Scripture come together under watchful eye of God. Neither side of the whare can be separated as they interpret and inform each other. To separate the two would divide the whare and result in cultural and biblical amnesia.

The second pair of poupou in Te Maungarongo depict Rangi and Papatuanuku the primodial parents. Opposite is the biblical equivalent of Adam and Eve. This theme of cultural and biblical equivalents facing each other is consistent throughout the whare. The tenth poupou depicts the celebrated love story of Tutanekai and Hinemoa. The Biblical equivalent opposite is the Book of Psalms as the story focuses at this level upon the sweet music of the Putourino that encouraged Hinemoa to swim Lake Rotorua to Tutanekai upon Mokoia Island. At other levels the story deals with issues of politically arranged marriage, social status, tribal responsibility of procreation and of male affection and relationship towards another male. These are real stories that we still encounter today and are not simple fables or myths.

The back and front walls of the whare tell the story of the early church. At the apex of the exterior of the whare is the ancestor, in this case Jesus, holding the cross inviting you to take up the cross. On the interior of the inside back wall is the cross of Calvary. Both crosses challenge us to view those same stories through the cross of Christ and gain a new understanding of how things are done consistent with how they are lived in the Kingdom of God.

The hermeneutical question is not which side of the whare we start from, but how do both sides of Te Maungarongo come together in us, the living embodiment of those stories. The hermeneutical starting point is me, the mokopuna. Whakapapa works backwards. It starts with me and what I bring to this story.

Marriage was a stumbling block to Māori being baptised by the early Presbyterian Māori missions with their doctrine of one man and one woman in marriage. Iwi practised polgamy and this was non-negotiable to the missionaries. The pressures of government and Church eventually saw the demise of polygamy. Today polygamy has been replaced with defacto relationships and solo-parenting that has lead to a fatherless generation of children. These people are unfairly sterotyped as beneficiaries who spend their benefit on alcohol, smokes and drugs and substitute their income with illegal activities. Yet for the majority this is totally untrue. The Bible gives the imperative to look after the least in society and names them as the widow, the orphan and the unemployed. In my context that is about 80 percent of my whanau.

The context above is the taraiti side of the whare which is brought into conversation with the biblical that has many similar stories of political arranged marriages, marriage and social status, affairs, liasons, incest, rape, unemployment, poverty, adoption and single parenting. This conversation gives me a further reference point, and what new insights I may have are lifted up to be viewed through the cross of Jesus at Calvary. Jesus dealt with similar issues of human existence and gives new understandings and insights into how things are lived in the Kingdom of God. This is Te Maungarongo that moves me in the direction of the cross where I am given a new blueprint for the future.

No story is complete without the architects of my Presbyterian whare: Rua Kenana, prophet of Maungapohatu; Tu Rakuraku of Waimana; the Rt Rev Eru Tumutara; Bishop of the Ringatu Church; and the Presbyterian missionary the Very Rev J G Laughton CMG or Hoani. These architects of Te Maungarongo provide the overarching hermeneutical princple with their covenanted relationships with Hoani providing a safe and sound Christian future for their children and grandchildren.

Rua Kenana said to Hoani: “There is your Church, the children. You have the children, leave the old people to me.”

In a similar fashion, Tu Rakuraku said to Hoani: “Leave the old world to us, you have the children so they may have a better life than what we have experienced”.

The Rt Rev Eru Tumutara said to Hoani: “Teach my children the wisdom of the world but most importantly teach them the wisdom of God.”

These covenants are translated as Ōhākī, a gift that arises from within you and is binding on all future generations and can never be broken. All three gentlemen had experienced at a personal level the poverty of the New Zealand Wars, but they saw in the Presbyterian Church an opportunity for their children to have a better life, safe from what they witnessed.

In conclusion, the hermeutical process begins with me, the mokopuna, the blueprint of the future. The hermeneutical reference points are a conversation between the pillars of Te Maungarongo, cultural, context, Scripture and Christian tradition. These are held up to the apex of the whare where I view them through the cross of Jesus Christ. The overarching principle in the hermeneutical process is Te Ōhākī, the gift that is my salvation in the new world free from anything that separates me from the love of God.

Contribution 5

Theological Method

The question of marriage, as with any theological reflection, does not come to the Church in a vacuum. Society now understands marriage as a relationship between two people, committed to each other, irrespective of sex, sexual orientation or gender identity. Marriage is seen as an intimate and yet public commitment between two adults that is recognised in law. The theological issue has arisen because on the one hand we have Assembly decisions that restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples and, on the other hand, ministers and congregations who wish to be able to celebrate marriage in the full, inclusive sense in which it is now understood.

From an ethical perspective, an evolving theology of marriage must include the voices of same-sex couples and transgendered people who wish to marry, because it is the lives of these people who will be directly affected by
the Church’s decision-making. Christian same-sex couples speak about their desire to express their love and commitment to one another in the context of their faith community. They want to belong to each other in love and to their congregations in ministry. Like couples who access civil marriage, they value the social recognition and support that comes with marriage. They also acknowledge the spiritual aspect of marriage to which law and secular society pay little attention. They are “claiming the blessing” that the Church has come to understand that marriage can be, a blessing of communion and community. And they wish to teach their children about the social and spiritual value of deep commitment to a life partner in a loving and just relationship.

Children of gay and lesbian parents are expressing the hope that their parents could marry. Approximately 24 percent of same-sex couples are raising children. Social research has overwhelmingly established that these children have outcomes that are as good or better than children raised by opposite-sex couples. The one thing that makes their lives difficult is discrimination against their families. In changing the marriage law, society has removed one source of discrimination, but the Church continues to perpetuate it.

The Bible

The Bible on its own cannot provide the answers to the question of whether the Church should allow ministers to marry same sex couples because it is simply not a question that the Bible addresses. The Biblical writers had no knowledge of the continuum of human sexual orientation. Throughout the biblical record, different kinds of unions are accepted in different places and times, evolving and changing with culture and circumstance.

New Testament teachings about marriage are included with other teachings which are generally accepted as being time and culture bound. For example prohibitions against women teaching, or braiding their hair, are found alongside the imperative that a church leader should be “the husband of one wife”. (1 Timothy 2:9 – 3:2).

Biblical marriage includes polygamy, marriage within the family, reproduction with a deceased husband’s closest relative and prohibitions against marriage with people of other faiths or ethnicities. At times these patterns were normative and at other times they were considered less relevant.

The Genesis story of Adam and Eve is often cited as evidence that marriage can only be heterosexual because Jesus cited it in Mark 10:1–12. Context is crucial. Jesus was asked a question about the lawfulness of divorce. He responded by referencing the Genesis story and saying that “what God has joined together, let no one separate”. He concluded unequivocally that remarriage after divorce is adultery. It is disingenuous to extrapolate this teaching addressed to heterosexual couples to exclude same-sex marriage. Especially when the Church has significantly reinterpreted Jesus’s clear teaching on divorce.

The History of Marriage

It is impossible to give adequate consideration here to the way marriage has evolved over the past two millennia except to note that it has changed dramatically. Until the modern period, marriage was primarily based on political alliances for the elite and economic survival for the masses. Women were regarded as property transferred from father to husband, thus connecting families for political or economic benefits.

The diverse forms of familial relationships that many people think are unprecedented changes in family life, are mostly not new at all. Human beings have been creatively constructing families for a very long time. There have been times in the past when it was more common for children to be born out of wedlock than it is now. Step-families were very common in the past because of the high rates of death and remarriage. And even same-sex marriage, though relatively rare, has been sanctioned in some cultures.

Similarly, arrangements that are presented as “traditional marriage” in popular culture have a relatively recent history. The involvement of Church or state in marriage is a more recent “tradition” in human history. For centuries of Christian tradition, a couple were considered married when privately they said to each other the words of intent: “I take you to be my husband or wife”. Neither judge nor clergy were involved.

Marriage, shaped by political or economic considerations, began to change in the 18th century, five thousand years after it first took shape in the ancient tribes and kingdoms of the Middle East. Only then did love begin to dominate marriage discourse. Marriage began to be seen as a private relationship between two people rather than as part of a system of political or economic alliances. While there have always been loving marriages, the purpose of marriage for much of human history was more mundane.

Relational Ethics

What marks us as humans is our capacity for intelligent moral judgement. We cannot base our decisions about marriage solely on appeals to Scripture, tradition/history or on an unexamined understanding of biological or psychological complementarity of the sexes. The idea of male and female duality is frequently an unexamined assumption in theological conversation about marriage. It must be considered in light of contemporary science and social theory.

The freedom given to us in Christ includes the freedom to discern God’s will and the ways that God continues to speak to us through the Spirit. In limiting human sexual expression to heterosexual marriage, the Church has lost its place in the human community of ethical discernment. The public has heard us say that heterosexual intercourse within marriage is the requirement for God’s blessing. They have not heard us say that relationships that are mutual, equal, loving, committed and grounded, are relationships that reflect God’s faithfulness and grace. Moving beyond requiring humans to choose between heterosexual marriage and celibacy would create a space for the Church to talk about what makes a relationship good and therefore to invite people into the spiritual depth and commitment that good marriage can provide.

Contribution 6

It has taken some time to canvas the views of members of the Pacific community that I am involved with, however I present a view that is shared in common by every person that has contributed to the question: “What is the Pacific Christian’s perspective of the doctrine of marriage?”

Primarily, we strongly believe that marriage is the bond between a man and a woman as blessed by Jesus Christ the head of the Church. The general belief is a call for the Presbyterian Church to hold strictly to biblical teachings about Christian marriage as a necessary step to the formation and beginning of a family.

I would like to also include extracts from the Vatican’s International Theological Commission entitled Statements on the Doctrine of Marriage which reflect the thinking of the Pacific community I am representing in this statement.

Marriage in Christ

As is easily shown in the New Testament, Jesus confirmed this institution which existed “from the very beginning”, and cured it of its previous defects (Mark 10:2–9, 10–12) by restoring all its dignity and its original requirements. He sanctified this state of life (Gaudium et Spes 48, 2) by including it within the mystery of love, which unites him as Redeemer to his Church. This is the reason why the task of regulating Christian marriage (1 Corinthians 7:10) has been entrusted to the Church.

The Apostles

The Epistles of the New Testament say that marriage should be honoured in every way (Hebrews 13:4) and, in response to certain attacks, they present it as a good work of the Creator (1 Timothy 4:1–5). Rather, they exalt matrimony among the faithful because it is included in the mystery of Covenant and love that unites Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:22–23; Gaudium et Spes 48, 2).

They ask, therefore, that marriage be contracted “in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39) and that matrimonial life be lived in accordance with the dignity of a new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17), “in Christ” (Ephesians 5:21–33), putting Christians on guard against the pagans’ habits (1 Corinthians 6:12–20; 6:9–10).

On the basis of a “right deriving from faith” and in their desire to assure its permanence, the Churches of apostolic times formulated certain moral orientations (Colossians 3:18; Titus 2:3–5; 1 Peter 3:1–7) and juridical dispositions that would help people live matrimony “according to the faith” in different human situations and conditions.

Real Symbol and Sacramental Sign

Jesus Christ disclosed in a prophetic way the reality of matrimony as it was intended by God at man’s beginnings (Genesis 1:27; 2:24; Mark 10:6, 7–8; Matthew 19:4, 5) and restored it through his death and Resurrection. For this reason Christian marriage is lived “in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39) and is also determined by elements of the saving action performed by Christ.

Already in the Old Testament the matrimonial union was a figure of the Covenant between God and the people of Israel (Hosea 2; Jeremiah 3:6–13; Ezekiel 16 and 23; Isaiah 54). In the New Testament, Christian marriage rises to a new dignity as a representation of the mystery that unites Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:21–33). Theological interpretation illuminates this analogy more profoundly: the supreme love and gift of the Lord who shed his blood and the faithful and irrevocable attachment of his Spouse the Church, become models and examples for Christian matrimony.

This resemblance is a relationship of real sharing in the Covenant of love between Christ and the Church. From its own standpoint, Christian marriage, as a real symbol and sacramental sign, represents the Church of Christ concretely in the world and, especially under its family aspect, it is called rightly the “domestic Church” (Lumen Gentium 11).

Sacrament in a Real Sense

In such a way matrimony takes on the likeness of the mystery of the union between Jesus Christ and his Church. This inclusion of Christian marriage in the economy of salvation is enough to justify the title “sacrament” in a broad sense.

But it is also at once the concrete condensation and the real actualization of this primordial sacrament. It follows from this that Christian marriage is in itself a real and true sign of salvation, which confers the grace of God. For this reason the Catholic Church numbers it among the seven sacraments (Denzinger-A Schönmetzer, 1327, 1801).

A unique bond exists between the indissolubility of marriage and its sacramentality, that is, a reciprocal, constitutive relationship. Indissolubility makes one’s grasp of the sacramental nature of Christian matrimony easier, and from the theological point of view, its sacramental nature constitutes the final grounds, although not the only grounds, for its indissolubility.

Conclusion

It is fair to say that all of the above points of view resonate with the thinking of Pacific Christians in the Presbyterian Church. However the question that is in the news items lately has been the same-sex marriage question. There is a strong “No” from the Pacific community that have responded to me on this point.

I pass on the blessings from those I represent to the doctrine committee for this important task you are charged with.

Contribution 7

I. Foundation. “For … all things have been created through him and for him” (Colossians 1.16). Jesus Christ is the one Word of God in, by and for whom humanity is constituted. He alone reveals God’s will for human life and flourishing. Consequently, marriage ought primarily to be understood christologically. The Church therefore rejects as false all efforts to ground its doctrine and ethics in sources apart from and besides this one Word of God. Such efforts threaten to turn an institution or relationship into an idol, an anti-Christ.

II. Eschatology. “ ‘… and the two will become one flesh’. This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5.31–32). Like every gift from God, marriage is good and fitting – not only for individual persons and families, but also for the flourishing of human society. But its goodness is closely associated with its provisionality – with its being bound to the creation which is passing away (eg. Luke 18.29; Matthew 19.12; 22.30) – and with it, as with celibacy, bearing prophetic witness to the coming new creation. Its ultimate meaning is eschatological and so it is called to be characterised by the transforming of old markers and the reconstituting of human relationality in the light of God’s coming. The Church therefore rejects efforts to explain the mystery of marriage solely in terms of the old creation. Furthermore, because Holy Scripture speaks of marriage in terms of Christ’s relation to the Church unbound by gender, we reject the claim that marriage’s signalling of Christ’s relationship with his bride must be gender specific.

III. Discipleship. “Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me’” (Luke 9.23). Jesus Christ calls and the Holy Spirit empowers persons to leave behind all that has the appearance of certainty, and to become his disciples. This call precedes and exists uncompetitively with all other claims that may be made. God’s provision (marriage is a “gift” rather than a “right”) of marriage during this time-between-the-times is a particular vocation given to some so that they might be trained in the way of discipleship; learn how to recognise the otherness of the other (i.e., as a being not under their power); be taught love of neighbour; celebrate the mystery of friendship; be schooled in embodied witness, repentance and virtue; practice the meaning of sacrifice, the risk of hospitality and the formation of community and be ready to accept the challenges of new life which love creates – the disciplines of denial and restraint that liberate human persons for sanctification. The Church therefore rejects as false all efforts to understand marriage (and all other human relationships) independently of the call to discipleship.

IV. Desire. “This is my body, which is given for you” (Luke 22.19). Marriage occasions a social context to commit oneself to being where one’s body is, to make one’s body available for the other – “for better, for worse … for as long as you live” (Book of Common Order) – and for desire to mean more than meeting emotional and physical needs. While it is beyond the creature’s power to make sex spiritually or sacramentally significant (indeed, all such attempts are idolatrous), it is entirely commensurate with God’s character to do so; ie. to make good on the promise that human beings are more than material. “The moral question, at this point, ought to be how much we want our sexual activity to communicate, how much we want it to display a breadth of human possibility and a sense of the body’s capacity to heal and enlarge the life of other subjects,” says Rowan Williams. The Church therefore rejects as illegitimate all expressions of desire for other persons unbridled and undirected by commitment to the relationship in which the blessing of the other is not a foremost concern.

V. Election and covenant. “How can I give you up, Ephraim?” (Hosea 11.8). Marriage serves as an analogue to, and a reflection of the electing love of God (however imperfect). Marriage exists because God loves Israel, in whom God also makes space for gentiles. This is God’s counter word to the fear many couples experience; namely, the threat to the security of their own marriages from the “other”. The Word of God brings persons into covenant communion with God and with each other, the character of which is holy, loving, and unbreakable. The Church therefore rejects all theological justification for divorce. That said, lest we turn God’s gracious provision into an ideology, the Church equally rejects all notions of indissolubility which smuggle in a metaphysic whereby divorce and remarriage are made authentic impossibilities. “Indeed, if one purpose of marriage is to serve as a sign of God’s love in the world … how can we reject the possibility that a second marriage after a divorce could serve as a sign of grace and redemption from the sin and brokenness of the past?” (Richard Hays).

VI. Responsible freedom. “You were called to freedom; do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another” (Galatians 5.13). Marriage is an expression of the freedom granted to God’s human creatures and to the societies they form. So, “It is lawful for all sorts of people to marry, who are able with judgement to give their consent” (The Westminster Confession of Faith). Marriage, in other words, is created not by a ceremony per se but by an act of responsible freedom. Where possible, a public ceremony – wherein the “I do” confessed by the couple and heard by a public serves as both creative and performative utterance – might also represent such an act and so ought to be the norm. Still, “there are many marriages, true though incomplete, which the Church has never blessed or the State ratified” (James K. Baxter). If a couple “cannot or will not have one another in this freedom, it is far better for them not to want to have one another at all” (Karl Barth). The Church therefore rejects all pre-determined images (whether understood in terms of roles, or contractual obligations, or any other matters decided in advance) of what any particular marriage might look like as being fundamentally at odds with the loving promise of covenant freedom in God. “Gratuitous, beyond our fathom, both binding and freeing, this love re-invades us, shifts the boundaries of our being” (Micheal O’Siadhail).

‘Aitch-Two-Double O': A poem by Geoffrey Bingham

Peroxide

In July 1994, I invited my father to hear someone who I considered to be one of Australia’s greatest theologians and preachers, Geoffrey Bingham. My father is someone who is always seeking redemption via the ‘new’ (like every human being, my father is ‘a believer'; he attends faithfully to the altars of the Enlightenment), and in 1994 the panacea of the day was hydrogen peroxide – the blessed H2O2! My father, with all of the enthusiasm of a new convert, shared this alternative ‘good news’ with Geoffrey who then went away and wrote this delightful little poem for him:

‘Oxygenate or perish!’ was his cry,
And I who heard it didn’t care to die;
I listened to his song of therapy
And thought, ‘Maybe he sings this all for me.’

We huff, we puff, we make intake
Of breath – our lungs enlarge to make
Sufficient air or wind or breeze
To give full life to arteries.

‘Alas!’ he said, ‘that air is not enough
To depollute the toxic stuff
That lies along our various veins
Infecting flesh and heart and brains.

‘You need to oxify the lot
To purify each tittle, and each jot
And all the flowing bright red stream
Until it’s fresh and new and clean.’

‘Enough!’ I cried, ‘Dear expert tell
How I can save me from this hell
Of inner sludge and darkest stains
And thus renew my hopeless veins

‘And purify my flesh and mind
Until my blood perfection find,
And I can breathe the wholesome air
When blood is pure and life is fair?’

‘Aitch two double O,’ he said,
‘Will like as raise you from the dead,
Its name is easy – “per-ox-ide”
That cleanses all your blood inside.

‘You put it in your drinks or food,
Or take in tablets – they are good –
Whatever means you use you gain
Fresh flow in artery or vein,

‘So oxygen will purify
And you will live until you die
And folk will cry ‘Until he died
His life was wholly per-ox-ide.’

Ah, blessed gas! Ah glorious mix
Of elements that quickly fix
The sluggish flow and give a wealth
Of glorious life and glowing health,
That we who might so soon have died
Live on through packaged per-ox-ide!

My father, who has a good sense of humour, seemed to appreciate the poem at the time. I hope he still does.