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.

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.)

Scripture’s reckoning with the tragic

Pete Cramblit, 'Cain slaying Abel'

Pete Cramblit, ‘Cain slaying Abel’

The Bible makes no effort at all to shy away from the tragic. From the story of creation’s genesis against the backdrop of primordial chaos to the seemingly-indiscriminate annihilation of life caused by a global flood, from the narratives of the primal couple’s decline into deathliness to the violent end of their son Abel, from the anamnesis of Job to Abraham’s near infanticide of Isaac, from the promise of a nation’s birth out of Sarah’s barren womb to Israel’s brutal creation from the bowels of cruel bondage in Egypt, from the violence that marked the retelling of Israel’s establishment in Canaan and their disestablishment at the time of the Babylonian exile to their life in Roman-occupied Palestine, from the murder of Israel’s prophets to the suicide of guilt-ridden Judas, from the despairing poetry of the psalmists and prophets to Herod’s most unpoetic massacre of the innocents, from the state-sanctioned murder of a blameless Christ to the cries of faithful martyrs hiding under the altar desperate for their blood to be avenged ‘on the inhabitants of the earth’ (Rev 6.10), the Bible’s narratives are inextricably and unavoidably bound up with suffering and faith and evil and death.

And its pages, rich in tragic tropes, offer no univocal attitude to suffering and evil (see, for example, the massive ­– nearly 900 pages! ­– volume edited by Antti Laato and Johannes C. de Moor, Theodicy in the World of the Bible: The Goodness of God and the Problem of Evil (Brill, 2003), nor consensus about their causes and purposes. Indeed, the various authors and redactors of its texts betray a smorgasbord of theologies and interpretations on this subject, as on most others.

While many modern believers seem to conclude that the greatest threat to life lies in sin, the Bible suggests that one of the most enduring threats to life is entirely out of our hands. It is the threat of the sea, the home of the great leviathan, and the perpetual menace of abyss that exists, as it were, on the edges of all that we can know and gain some semblance of control over. The Jews, a land-based people, were terrified by the sea, avoided travelling on it at all costs, especially if it meant sailing out of land’s sight. And they were mesmerised by the thought that anyone – let alone an unregistered rabbi with some shady character references – might be able to calm the chaos with mere speech. The promise in Revelation 21 of a new heaven and new earth bereft of sea is indeed good news for those who see in the sea abysmal and godless chaos threatening all that is good in God’s creation. I must confess, however, that being a fisherman I find the thought of a sea-less new creation to be gravely depressing, and any consideration that such a vision may represent a failure of creation’s God to bring into shalom all that God has made is to me an impasse beyond words. But then I wasn’t living on the coast of Japan on 11 March 2011 when a tsunami claimed the lives of nearly 16,000 people.

Part of the creation once described as ‘very good’ (Gen 1.31) ­– the seas and the ‘swarms of living creatures’ (Gen 1.20) in them – are, plainly, at least according to the account in Genesis, Elohim’s work. And ‘a wind (or breath or spirit) from Elohim’ (Gen 1.2) sweeps over them. Is this to hold back the mysterious threat, and to remind an ancient people that even the source of their greatest fears exists under the sovereign governance of God? Of course, God can also unleash this threat. Noah’s neighbours knew that, as did an Egyptian army in pursuit of slaves. And then there’s that extraordinary vision in Daniel 7, a passage very influential in early Christianity, a vision of ‘the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts [coming] up out of the sea’ to make war upon God’s people. Here, the sea has become again the dark, formidable, and belligerent place from which evil emerges, threatening the destruction of Yahweh’s covenant people as a tidal wave threatens those who live near the coast.

There is indeed mystery here – the ‘earth is the Lord’s’ (Ps 24.1) and ‘the whole world lies in the power of the evil one’ (1 Jn 5.19) – and responsible theology proceeds in awareness of this antithetical texture of the Bible’s witness, finding there both the revelation of good and the enduring mystery of evil, and resisting there the temptation to iron out the rough sections or to reconcile them into an easy whole free of paradox. It is that which corresponds in some way to the three-day journey of Golgotha, Holy Saturday, and Easter.

We live ‘betwixt and between’. Our experience of this world, as Scripture testifies, is one marked by ambiguity, by inconsistency, by lives lived well and lives lived poorly in what the philosopher Gillian Rose famously referred to as ‘the broken middle’. We are ‘lost’, like Dante, ‘in a dark wood’ of sin, and waiting for grace. We live, as George Steiner puts it in his remarkable book Real Presences, in ‘the longest of days’, on Holy Saturday – in the space between the memory, trauma, and despair of Good Friday, and the expectant hope of Easter. So Kevin Taylor and Giles Waller: ‘The experience is neither one of nihilism, nor one of bland optimism. It is one in which we learn the difference between optimism and hope, in which we are only able to hope for the best by confronting the worst. As [Thomas] Hardy enjoined, “Who holds that if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst” (‘In Tenebris II’)’.

[Image: Pete Cramblit, ‘Cain slaying Abel’]

Mark Brett on why Christians should be championing the cause of asylum seekers

Boat people

So why should Christians be championing the cause of asylum seekers today? In short, this issue goes to the heart of our identity and calling as the people of God.

The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Jesus started life as a refugee child, fleeing with his family to Egypt.  Even his father’s name, Joseph, reminds us that Jesus was not the first Jew to be a refugee in Egypt. All the tribal ancestors of Israel took refuge there. We read that scripture was fulfilled when Jesus went there as a child, because “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Matthew 2.15). The quote is from Hosea 11.1:  “When Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son”. That is, Matthew sees a spiritual analogy between the life of Jesus and the life of Israel: both are marked by the refugee experience.

And this experience is also embodied in the laws of Israel. So, for example, Leviticus 19.34 says:

The immigrant who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the immigrant as yourself, for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.  (cf. Exodus 22.21)

Similarly, the later prophets came to recognize the treatment of asylum seekers as a litmus test of faith (e.g., Jeremiah 7.5-7).

In the Old Testament, the ‘immigrant’, ‘alien’, ‘refugee’ or ‘sojourner’ (all possible translations of ger) is a foreigner who has left his or her country to settle elsewhere. Perhaps the most common reasons for movement are famine and war.

Some things never change: the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951), for example, arose as a response to international displacements following World War II, and since Australia is a signatory to this Convention, we recognize the legal right to seek asylum.

When people arrive in a host country, there are always complex questions about the extent of their assimilation. Not surprisingly, then, Old Testament laws sometimes set assimilating strangers apart from ‘the foreigner’ (thenokri or ben nekar) who is not given full rights of participation (e.g., Exodus 12.43 excludes such people from the Passover). This distinction is surprisingly overturned, however, in Isaiah 56.3,6 where the ‘foreigner’ (ben nekar) can offer acceptable sacrifices to God and is welcomed into the covenant community.

References to strangers in the New Testament are few but significant. Being ‘strangers’ (paroikoi) becomes a central metaphor for Christian identity in some books, building on the theological idea in Leviticus that all Israelites were in some sense ‘sojourners’ (Leviticus 25.23, cf. 1 Peter 1.1 and Ephesians 2.19).

Perhaps against our expectations, we may even find Christ present in the stranger. This is precisely the point that is made in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25: the hungry and thirsty stranger (xenos in vs. 38 and 44) may actually be the Lord, and not even the people in the parable called ‘the righteous’ have been able to discern this. In other words, no-one has the power to tell whether the needy stranger may in fact be Christ.

Ezekiel 47 is also a challenge to our political imagination: it takes us beyond random acts of kindness and demands that refugees be given a ‘fair go’ in the provision of land, that is, basic resources that provide the foundation of economic security:

So you shall divide this land among you according to the tribes of Israel. You shall allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the aliens who reside among you and have begotten children among you. They shall be to you as citizens of Israel; with you they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe aliens reside, there you shall assign them their inheritance, says the LORD God. (Ezekiel 47.21-23)

In international comparisons (taking account of national wealth and population sizes), the welcome that Australia offers to asylum seekers is not very impressive.

– Mark Brett, ‘Hospitality: A Biblical Perspective’.

Ed. This piece, written in 2011, and which cites sources which are almost prehistoric, is, of course, completely irrelevant and dated now and I only draw attention to it for the benefit of those historians who may one day be interested in researching such obscure things. It’s almost impossible today to believe that once upon a time some Christians who happen to be living in Australia thought it an act of compassion and of mature political judgement to demonise some of the most vulnerable and yet extraordinarily courageous people on the planet, and an act of freedom to disregard not only the rule of law but, more importantly, the command of God.

Leunig - Refugees

Deep Blue Kids Bible: A commendation

Deep Blue Kids BibleSome time ago here at PCaL, I mentioned my quest for a suitable children’s bible. As many parents know, it’s a tough gig to find a rightly-pitched kids bible and so I was most grateful for those readers who weighed in with some excellent suggestions and guidelines. I am also very grateful to Lil Copan at Abingdon Press who read of this father’s plight and who very kindly took it upon herself to send me a gratis copy (i.e., with no strings attached) of the Deep Blue Kids Bible. It has proved to be a fantastic choice for us. The translation (the Common English Bible) is reliable (and it handles the vexed Galatians 2.20 fantastically!), fresh and accessible, and its presentation is aesthetically attractive with helpful introductions to books, practical (and not too distracting) in-text notes, a good little dictionary for those tricky words (like ‘cistern’ and ‘nard’ and ‘ordinance’ and ‘winnow’), some short devotions, and some legible maps. Most importantly, my (now) seven-year-old loves reading it. So if you’re looking for a kid’s bible, then I reckon that the Deep Blue Kids Bible is definitely worth your consideration.

On the hunt for an old(ish) KJV Bible

A brother of mine, whom we shall call Robert, for that is his name, is on the hunt for a Bible. Not just any Bible, mind you, but a specific Bible, or at least a specific edition of the Bible, and that even older than the ones produced by Mr Murdoch. He is desperate to locate a 1885 edition of the King James Bible, the precise title and publishing details of which are:

The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and the New Testaments: translated out of The Original Tongues, and with the Former Translations Diligently Compared and Revised (New York: American Bible Society, Instituted in the year MDCCCXVI, 1885)

The edition sought has a page layout like this:


Why is he looking for a copy? He is just about to complete three months sabbatical leave during which he has been engaged with creating a digitised version of the Cook Islands Maori Bible. It is a journey he has been taking with the Uniting Bible Societies (South Pacific/NZ/Australia) and Cook Islands Christian Church in Rarotonga.

Over the past year, volunteers from NZ, Australia and Rarotonga have been manually typing the text into a Word document in preparation for transfer to the programme Paratext, and subsequent editing etc. The Cook Islands ‘Hard Copy Bible’ has reference columns inclusive. Robert has identified the KJV edition mentioned above as that which was used by the translators in producing the original Cook Islands Maori Bible and believes that availing himself of the reference information in that edition is now vital in taking his project forward. So if anyone can assist Robert in locating a copy of the KJV in question, he would be most delighted to hear from you. You can leave a comment below or email Robert directly.

A wee report from the Confoederatio Helvetica

A few weeks ago, I was in Switzerland. I was there for a meeting with the World Communion of Reformed Churches, and to attend a fascinating conference on Churches and the Rule of Law for which I was invited to be a respondent to a paper on ‘The Bible and the State’ by Jim Skillen. It was a wonderful gathering of some very impressive minds, stimulating papers and friendly souls. A number of folk have asked me for a copy of my response. It can be downloaded here. I understand that a final version will, in due course, appear in published form as part of the John Knox Series.

But the trip wasn’t all ‘business’. One – this one at least – simply doesn’t travel half way around the world and not squeeze in some extra-curricular activities! So the itinerary included time in Lausanne (whose cathedral is among the most beautiful I’ve visited anywhere in the world), Neuchâtel, Montreux, Zermatt and the Matterhorn, the Bernese Oberland and the Junfrau (think Queenstown on some serious steroids), Lucerne, Safenwil (a real highlight for me, for obvious reasons), Basel (where I continued the Barth trail), St-Ursanne, Jura & Three-Lakes, and, of course, a significant amount of time in the amazing city of Geneva where I breathed in some more reformed air. Suffice it to say that, coffee and that terrible Calvinus beer excluded, Switzerland is amazing, and I hope to return.

The great (children’s) bible hunt

Finding a suitable bible for a 6-year-old is proving more difficult than I had anticipated. Thus far, the said child and her father, both of whom love to read, have been very well served by The Jesus Storybook Bible. But they’re now both ready for the long-anticipated Stage Two, and the pickings really do appear to look rather slim and, it should be noted, depressing. At this stage, the responsible parent (no churlish comments here please; though, while we’re on the subject, you may wish to check this out) reckons that the NRSV Children’s Study Bible tops the list. The NIrV Adventure Bible for Early Readers not only sounds like a rare and exhausting disease that young readers would be better to be steered clear of at all costs but its pages are just a little too distracting (and I’m uncomfortable further lining Murdoch’s pockets!), and the ESV Seek and Find Bible has all the creepy hallmarks of a Watchtower magazine. I’d prefer something that doesn’t have the appearance of a glossy Warehouse catalogue [for US readers, think Walmart minus that hunting department so proudly sponsored by the demented Second Amendment], or isn’t filled with extraneous puzzles and ‘Christian’ propaganda, or which doesn’t reduce the words of life to a collection of sanitised McStories, each of which sponsor the impression that the Book is something other than serious stuff.

Suffice it to say that at this stage, I’m open to suggestions …

Rowan Williams on theological education

Call me theologically naïve, or ignorant, or not well enough read, but I simply do not understand some of the criticisms directed at Rowan Williams. Archbishop Williams is a person of deep faith and prayer, of contagious love for Christ, for the Scriptures and tradition which bear witness to him, and for Christ’s church, and who for decade after decade has been among the church’s finest public theologians (and poets!), producing first-rate scholarship with exemplary integrity and gospel-spirited passion, and helping a new generation of Christians to find the words and posture to understand and bear witness to the deepest realties of their faith in a rapidly changing cultural landscape. Moreover, his literary and spoken output alone – books, radio interviews, lectures (his 2011 Holy Week Lectures on Lewis’ Narnia are outstanding), reviews, articles, etc. – not to mention his gracious and steady leadership of the Anglican communion, leads me often to wonder if there are not two equally-brilliant and identical twins that Mr & Mrs Williams named ‘Rowan’ sometime last century.

Put differently, I keep an eye open to read and digest everything he writes. And why not, when it is so edifying and educative, and models a way of doing theology so worthy of emulation, if not entirely uncritically so. But there’s one lecture that I’ve missed, until now – his CEFACS lecture, given some years ago at the Centre for Anglican Communion Studies in Birmingham. So thanks Jim for pointing me to it, not least because the lecture attends to a subject in which I have some serious investment, namely theological education.

In that lecture, Williams invites us to think about theological education by way of the analogy of a musical education: ‘Just as, in relation to musical education, I might be reasonably sure of being able to identify what a musically educated person is like. I would know what sort of skills to look for and listen for in that case. Now I want to suggest that a theologically educated person is somebody who has acquired the skill of reading the world, reading and interpreting the world, in the context and framework of Christian belief and Christian worship … That means that a theologically educated person is not someone who simply knows a great deal about the Bible or history of doctrine but somebody who is able to engage in some quite risky and innovative interpretation, and who is able, if I can put it this way, to recognise holy lives. Because I think that the skill that belongs to being a theologically educated person is a very significant part – the skill of knowing what an exemplary life looks like lived in the context of doctrine and worship’.

Then, drawing upon the work of Thomas Aquinas and the example of God’s revelation to Moses, Williams proceeds to argue that ‘theology is inevitably, consistently to do with human lives, not in any sense that excludes theology having to do with God – far from it: but in recognition of the fact that because God is not an object lying around for examination, God’s impact upon and the difference God makes to human lives is where we are bound to begin. The word of God, the self communication of God is always bound up with the actual and concrete transformation of human situations – corporate and individual … From the vantage point of Christian theology that should not surprise us at all. Christian theology begins from the series of events – events of transformation’.

And later on: ‘Theology begins when something in the human world and human lives has struck at such depth that we need language more than just the conventional language of human agency and historical forces. Theology arises then when the world looks new. One of the saddest things that can be said about theology is that it has become stale; that it no longer speaks of transformation. Because the impulse to do theology arises when the world looks different from what you thought it was. The New Testament is riveting, exasperating, exhausting, inexhaustible because it is the work in progress of the people whose world is in “in the business” of being reformed, reshaped’.

And here is the point – the challenge, if you like – for those engaged in theological education: ‘Theological education is bound … to be regularly a matter of looking at the patterns of human lives. Theology has a great deal to do with biography and with history – the Bible containing many examples of both. It is out of those narratives, out of those stories and transactions that the ideas emerge and I would venture to say that a bad theological education is one which never gets you from the ideas to the narratives; and a good theological education is one that pushes you inexorably from the narratives to the ideas’. One thinks here of James Wm. McClendon Jr’s fine book, Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can remake Today’s Theology, or of the work of Ray Anderson whose entire project is an outworking of the conviction that ministry precedes theology.

And that is why, Williams reminds us, contra Nietzsche, ‘theology is inevitably a component in the business of Christian discernment’, and good theology is concerned not to ‘set out to give you a map of another world but a set of instructions for this one’. And that is why, Williams notes, ‘theology is an uncomfortable partner in the academic enterprise … An uncomfortable partner in the enterprise because universities on the whole do not set themselves the task of educating people in the discernment of holiness. Why should they? And yet there is something in the level of critical questioning which theology ought to bring to the intellectual enterprise overall that is essential to intellectual health’.

These introductory points made, Williams then turns to some of the particularities of theological education in light of the definitions he has introduced. And here he wishes to speak about bible study, doctrine and church history.

Regarding the first of these, bible study, Williams is adamant that theological education ‘is designed to produce people who are really literate in the Bible’. Why? Because ‘the Bible is the primary record of the primary difference God makes. It begins, of course, by recording the greatest difference of all – the difference between things being there and things not being there and associates that with God. And in Christian scripture that primordial difference between being and non-being is latched on with an enormously ambitious theological pun at the beginning of St John’s Gospel latched on to the life of Jesus of Nazareth as the one who makes the difference between being and non-being within the world’s history. But the narrative of Hebrew scripture, what Christians call the Old Testament, evolves in a series of upheavals. The uprooting of Abraham from his native land, the release from slavery of the people of Israel, the betrayal and exile that follows the abandonment by God’s people of God’s justice, the restoration of the people around more liturgy. And within its contours we are not allowed at any point, I think, to come too quickly to a generalised version of what all this is about and who this God is. We have to watch the story in its process. We have to attend to and be involved in the drama of the narrative’.

Williams then encourages us to adopt a particular posture when we turn to Christian scripture:

‘Be patient, don’t assume the end of the story is come. God is a God who upturns the conventions and the ideas and the images we have and he does it centrally, focally, forever, in the life and death of Jesus. We watch them again as Christian scripture evolves, we watch people in that new landscape trying to find the words for it. To say that is not in the least to say that the Bible does not tell us the truth. The way the bible tells us the truth is by showing us how God’s reality, in its freedom and majesty, impresses itself upon human life. We read the impress, we read the impact, we begin to understand who it is that we are dealing with and that is as true of the New Testament as of the Old. Frequently as I read Paul’s epistles I read the impatient, inarticulacy of someone whose vision is bigger than his language and that is what makes Paul so intensely worth reading, so inspired, so much a vehicle of God’s spirit. Watching him struggle, sometimes very impatiently, with ideas that are getting away from him is precisely to be drawn into what Paul sees and what Paul knows – to meet Paul’s God. There is an extraordinary moment when Paul realises that he has dug himself in far more deeply than he originally intended to in an argument and suddenly breaks away saying “I don’t know where this is going but …” as he does, of course, so memorably at the end of his most agonised excursions – Romans 9–11. How am I going to bring all these ideas together, Paul asks at the end of 11 when he has been wrestling with the fate of Israel and he can say only, “O the depth and mystery of God”. And it is not a short cut because you have watched him getting there. I had a friend years ago who complained about the way in which theologians would revert to talking about mystery when things were getting difficult and it is a good discipline I think for any theologian to save the language of mystery, if you like, until the very last moment. That is to say to follow through argument, definition, refinement of terms as bravely and consistently as you can and not to give up too soon. Only when you have demonstrated that you are at the end of that story can you afford to say with Paul that you don’t know where to go but God does. Now that means, I think, that a person who is educated in reading the Bible is a person who, you can say theologically, by the Grace of the Holy Spirit, has been brought into that relationship with the God of the Bible which allows them to recognise in the language of the Bible their own faith and their own narrative. And that is something rather different from quarrying the Bible for little bits that happily remind you of how you feel. That is not biblical theology. It may be a useful form of apologetical psychology but it is not particularly theological. But to find in that language, that narrative, that register of exploration, something of the faith that transforms your own life; that I think is to see what biblical understanding is … The Christian comes into the biblical world – a strange world, a world in which images and ideas and words are not always what you expect. But the education of the Christian in the biblical world is an education in the skills of analogy and connection … That means that being a biblically educated person is a great deal more than knowing the texts’.

Williams turns next to the matter of Christian doctrine, rejecting the kind of doctrine-as-finished-product approach so often associated with theological education, and proposing instead a notion of doctrine as ‘the process of finding the words for a new landscape which like any such process is going to be in many ways vulnerable and rather bumpy’. ‘We can’t tell all the truth’, he says, ‘we can tell the truth consistently, we hope intelligently and then once again … come to the point when we say that is as far as we can go but we have done the work’. A ‘doctrinally educated person therefore is … somebody who can see what sort of human anxieties, aspirations, tensions, prayer, love, sin and grace led people to think it mattered to talk about Jesus in this way, to talk about God in this way, to talk about the Sacraments of the Church in this way. It was not a word game. It wasn’t a way of passing the long winter evenings’. Williams cites Barth and Bonhoeffer as examples of what it looks like to do theology in this way, i.e., in a way that takes the contemporary location seriously, in a way that seeks to profess Christ in a new and different space.

Williams then comes to the matter of education in church history, a subject with he has written very helpfully on before (see, for example, his wonderful book Why Study The Past?: The Quest for the Historical Church), and a subject which, he observes, ‘has tended sometimes to be a little bit of a Cinderella subject in theological education’. He continues:

‘When it has been done people don’t always quite see why it is done, whether there is a theological reason for doing it. It becomes another bundle of anecdotes. Facts about the past which may or may not be interesting, probably not very. Stories about people far away, speaking foreign languages with strange names with very bizarre ideas. Now I don’t think that will do as an approach to Church History because one of the things that comes out of being a biblically educated and doctrinally educated person is some sense of what it means to belong to the body of Christ. That is to be part of a community which has no spatial or temporal boundaries but in which every participant has something to give and something to receive … Those odd people in the text books are actually our brothers and sisters in Christ, and frequently you would much prefer that they weren’t. Almost as much as you would prefer that some of your contemporaries weren’t! But these are people in whom Christ is given to you’.

He argues that the difficulty with teaching church history is that the subject frequently falls apart into two equally unhelpful poles: ‘There is the kind of Church History which looks at the past as answering the questions. That is the story, that is how we got here and it all ends happily because it ended with us. And there is the kind of Church History which says we have to be deeply conscious of the absolute cultural gulf that separates us from everybody before 1550 or 1700 or 1981 or whatever. Both of those are unhelpful simply as historical method but they are totally insupportable as theological method’. And so part of the challenge, he goes on to say, ‘is being able to cope both with the continuity and with the gulf. These are people deciding to be disciples of the same Lord that I try to follow. These are people speaking of that discipleship in categories that are so strange that it will take me a lot of patience to learn what they say and listen to it effectively. Yet both those elements are true and essential in the process’. Not only is the position that nothing important happened between the NT and now (or between the first and the fifteenth centuries) ‘intellectually shabby and indefensible’ but such a view is also ‘spiritually impoverished’, for whether we like it or not, God has graced us with ‘a very, very large number of companions on the journey. Each one of whom will have something distinctive to say however well I hear it, however easily I digest it’. And here Williams returns to the question of reading the Bible, noting that ‘an educated reader of the Bible is also somebody who knows how to read the Bible in company – in company with other Christians now, in company with Christians through the ages’, in the company of the Christian community ‘and to find education and discipleship in that process’.

Finally, Williams makes the point that as alarming, pre-modern and unattractive as it sounds, one indispensable, if not largely forgotten, theological virtue is obedience. Naming Barth as ‘the greatest theologian of obedience in the 20th century’, Williams defines obedience in theology as ‘that absolutely faithful attention to the otherness of what you are dealing with, that springs you from the trap of your own preoccupations and preferences. Somewhere in all of this business of theological education we have to come to terms with that sense of an otherness, an elsewhere – not another place, another realm, another world but that which is not simply on the map of our concerns, our security, our ideas. An obedient theology is one which seeks to be formed by what is there and a holy life is one which lets itself be impacted, be impressed by the will of God. For Karl Barth, that meant of course, that an obedient theologian was someone who was free to be the most dramatic possible nuisance in church and world. Obedience to the otherness of God, such a person would be obedient to no other constraints and no tyranny that could be concocted on the face of the earth’.

‘What obedience means for us’, he continues, ‘is a far tougher, far more complex matter to work out. And yet’, he says, ‘a theology that does not somehow tackle that issue of obedience somewhere along the line as part of the education we are talking about, will fail to be theology. And that is an obedience, of course, which challenges great deal of what we often mean by the term’. Williams then provides some examples of what he is talking about, examples which underscore his claim that obedience is far from what we often associate with terms like passivity or docility: ‘Whatever obedience means there, it does not mean docility. Obedience can mean again Paul throwing down his pen with exasperation and say “I don’t know what more to say; it is too big for me to speak of” – that’s obedience. It’s St Thomas Aquinas saying at the end of his life saying, ‘all I’ve written seems like so much straw compared with what has been shown to me’. It is Luther throwing his inkpot at the devil. It is Barth wonderfully, at the end of a deeply boring and conventional parish mission, designed to make everybody feel a great deal worse, decided as he tells us to preach a sermon on little angels with harps and sheets of music. Because he felt he had been listening for a week to a mission all about how ‘I’ ought to feel and not about how God was, therefore he wanted to turn the whole thing back to praise, and that’s obedience’.

Linking this back to the subject of theological education, Williams concludes by noting that obedience properly belongs in the very DNA of any theological education worthy of its subject, for such education is about ‘passionate intention to what is there, to the extent that I am changed by that attention, and set free by it from other pressures to conformity’. And he then offers some specific words to his own Anglican Communion, words which I venture to say are pertinent to the entire body of Christ: ‘We have a very long way to go in making our Anglican church a coherent, communal, obedient, renewed family of congregations. And yet we share the reality given in Christ by our baptism, the reality of Christ’s body. The theological education we need, I believe, in the Communion is something which will make that come alive for us, which will make us literate in reading scripture and doctrine and church history, which will deepen in us those skills of discernment that we need in respect of our own calling and the calling of others, which will set us free from being simply an ecclesiastical organisation preoccupied with policing itself in various ways which will perhaps make us a more effective servant of the world into which God calls us. The world in which God invites us to recognise him, respond to him, praise, be glad in him, a world which is on the way to becoming that new creation which is really the context, the locus of any theology worth the name’.

‘Take this book back again’: the Bible and the development of a returns policy

While watching Bill Maher’s recent rant, I was reminded of, and challanged by, another, and much more impressive, ranter – Søren Kierkegaard – and the Dane’s tirade against Bible commentators:

‘The Church has long needed a prophet who in fear and trembling had the courage to forbid people to read the Bible. I am tempted, therefore, to make the following proposal. Let us collect all the Bibles and bring them out to an open place or up on a mountain and then, while we all kneel, let someone talk to God in this manner: Take this book back again. We Christians, such as we are, are not fit to involve ourselves with such a thing; it only makes us proud and unhappy. We are not ready for it. In other words, I suggest that we, like those inhabitants whose herd of pigs plunged into the water and died, beg Christ “to leave the neighborhood” (Mt. 8:34). This would at least be honest talk – something very different from the nauseating, hypocritical, scholarship that is so prevalent today.

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?

Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

I open the New Testament and read: “If you want to be perfect, then sell all your goods and give to the poor and come follow me.” Good God, if we were to actually do this, all the capitalists, the officeholders, and the entrepreneurs, the whole society in fact, would be almost beggars! We would be sunk if it were not for Christian scholarship! Praise be to everyone who works to consolidate the reputation of Christian scholarship, which helps to restrain the New Testament, this confounded book which would one, two, three, run us all down if it got loose (that is, if Christian scholarship did not restrain it)’. – Søren Kierkegaard, Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard (ed. Charles E. Moore; Maryknoll: Orbis, 2003), 201–2.

Conference on The Bible and Baptists

The Australasian Baptist Research Forum, in conjunction with Whitley College, Melbourne, is organising a conference for 27–29 June, 2011 on the theme The Bible and Baptists: Readers, Teachers and Preachers. Here’s the official lowdown:

2011 is the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Authorised Version of the Bible.  Such an anniversary provides an excellent opportunity for reflection on the place of the Bible among Baptists.  How have we and do we interact with the text of the Bible as ‘lay’ readers, professional teachers and preachers?  Papers are invited that explore this theme historically, theologically and pastorally, or provide examples of how Baptists are currently undertaking any or all of these tasks.  The audience at the Forum will hopefully include not only those engaged in theological study, teaching and ministry, but also thoughtful Christians ready to participate along side the ‘professionals’.

Keynote speakers will be Professor Sean Winter, graduate of Bristol Baptist College and Professor of New Testament at the Uniting Church Theological College, Parkville, Victoria; and Dr George Wieland lecturer in Biblical Studies, Mission and Cross-cultural Field Education at Carey Baptist Theological College, NZ.  We are also negotiating to have an academic from Asia present at the Forum.  It is proposed that a book of papers from the Forum will be published as the third ABRF publication.  Presentations at the Forum will be no more than 20 minutes long with 5 minutes question time.  Final papers should be no more than 5000 words including footnotes and written for thoughtful Christians.

A call for papers has also been issued:

Abstracts due: 15 April , 2011

Confirmation of Papers Accepted: 30 April , 2011

Final Papers Due: 3 June, 2011

For further information, or to submit abstracts, please contact Dr Graeme Chatfield (email or +61 02 92627890).


John Webster on Holy Scripture

‘… Scripture is a transcendent moment in the life of the church. Scripture is not the church’s book, something internal to the community’s discursive practices; what the church hears in Scripture is not its own voice. It is not a store of common meanings or a Christian cultural code – and if it engenders those things, it is only because Scripture is that in which Jesus Christ through the Spirit is pleased to utter the viva vox Dei. Consecrated by God for the purpose of Christ’s self-manifestation, Holy Scripture is always intrusive, in a deep sense alien, to the life of the church. All this is to say that the church assembles around the revelatory self-presence of God in Christ through the Spirit, borne to the communion of saints by the writings of the prophets and apostles. This divine revelation is “isolated” – that is, it is a self-generating and self-completing event’. – John Webster, Confessing God: Essays in Christian Dogmatics II (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2005), 189.

Reading First Things

The latest edition of First Things is now out, and includes a piece by Timothy George on ‘Reading the Bible with the Reformers’, and a provocative piece by Douglas Farrow on ‘Blurring Sexual Boundaries’, wherein Farrow (speaking to the Canadian context) argues that ‘Sex cannot serve as an effective legal marker for discrimination if its binary nature dissolves into fluid sexual subjectivities’.

There are also pieces by David Bentley Hart, a regular contributor, on ‘Golf and the Metaphysics of Morals’ and on Heidegger, ‘A Philosopher in the Twilight: Heidegger’s philosophy as a meditation on the mystery of being’, as well as Hart’s scathing and most-entertaining review of All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, ‘an oddly empty’, ‘vacuous’, simplistic, ‘twaddle, tosh, balderdash (etc.)’ and factually-skewed (according to Hart) book by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly. Hart is somewhat less enthusiastic about the book than is Charles Taylor.

Reading Genesis 1:2

A guest post by Rev. Dr John Emory McKenna. [John, a student of TF Torrance, serves as a Doctrinal Advisor to the Worldwide Church of God in California, as Professor & Vice-President at the World Mission University in Los Angeles, and as Adjunct Professor with Haggard Graduate School of Theology. He has published The Setting in Life for The Arbiter of John Philoponus, 6th Century Alexandrian Scientist and The Great AMEN of the Great I-AM: God in Covenant with His People in His Creation]

About Genesis 1:2, Karl Barth has written, “This verse has always constituted a particular crux interpretum – one of the most difficult in the whole Bible – and it is no small comfort to learn from Gunkel that it is a ‘veritable mythological treasure chamber.’”[1] After a rather thorough examination and analysis of the history of the exegesis this verse, the great Swiss theologian concluded in a fine print section of his reading, “Our only option is to consider v.2 as a portrait, deliberately taken from myth, as the world which according to His revelation was negated, rejected, ignored and left behind in His actual creation.”[2] Barth develops his understanding of ‘Das Nichtige’ (‘The Nothingness’), as belonging to the mystery of evil in the Biblical world, a world he reminds us that is very different from the one with which we are already only too familiar. The ‘chaos (תהו) and emptiness (בהו), ‘darkness’ (חשך) and ‘deep’ (תהום) of the ‘waters’ (מים) over which the Spirit of God ‘broods’ (מרחפת) in Genesis 1:2 are terms, then, that belong to the myths and idols of those views of the world that exists outside of God’s Revelation of His ‘Very Good’ Creation. Genesis 1:2 belongs to a confession, in common with the various ‘creation epics’ found among the nations of the Ancient Near East, that contradicts the perfection inherent to the Creation Week according Israel’s view of the world.[3]

In this post, I will argue that Barth’s understanding of the significance of Genesis 1:2 and his assertion that ‘Das Nichtige’ of Israel’s Creation Theory is only a partial grasp of the intent and purpose of the author of the confession of the Creation Week. I would argue that Barth’s grasp of the meaning of Genesis 1:2, achieved in the context of a general consensus accomplished by modern or post-modern methods of historical-critical methods of interpretation applied to Genesis, is only a partial understanding of the purpose of the significance of the confession. I will argue that, for suppositional reasons, the modern mind has become more comfortable with reading the creation out of chaos of v. 2 as the intent of the confession, when we tend to disregard the implication of doctrine of creatio ex nihilo found within the Judeo-Christian tradition of interpretation.[4] The willingness to divorce our understanding of chaos, emptiness, darkness, and the deep of the waters, over which the Spirit of God is said to ‘brood’, is the willingness of modern Biblical Theologians to remain separated from the meaning of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo of v. 1, a meaning with which the early fathers of the Church steadily wrestled.[5] We will argue that the preference for reading the concept of ‘creation out of something’, without a confession of the ‘creation out of nothing’ doctrine, perpetuates a fragmentation in our understanding of the meaning of ‘Day One’ in the Creation Week inherent in the confession of Israel’s Moses, the great prophet of her history among the nations. We need to recover the interpretation of the early fathers of the Church and obtain a fresh grasp of the theological wholeness of the confession in our time our theology and its relationship with science.

The confession of the Creation Week possesses, from beginning to end, a wholeness the polemical power of which is purposed to call Israel among the nations in God’s Creation away from her idols and myths about the gods and the world. It posits a background whereby the other creation epics prevalent in the Ancient Near East are denied their claims to the reality of the world, of mankind, and of God. It would transform any language into that service that is true to the intention and purpose of the Voice Moses heard in the Burning Bush and in the events of the Exodus of Israel from Egypt. ‘The Beginning’ according to Moses’ claims that no other Voice than this Voice is to heard as the Creator of the world and its mankind. Against all the idol and myth-making among the nations surrounding Israel in the ANE, Israel as the People of God must bear witness to this One, who as the Creator is the Great I-AM and Lord of the world’s redemption. In the face of Moses’ witness as the Prophet in the Ancient World, mankind is to throw away its myths and idols about the world of the gods. This One is the Redeemer-Creator who as the Great I-AM would be known as the One He truly is, the Creator of ‘the Beginning’ in the Beginning.

Genesis 1:2 may not be construed as possessing, in common with the creation epics found and read among the nations in the ANE, a language influenced in its significance by the myths and gods of the ancient peoples, but a language meant to transform their beliefs into the real service of the Revelation that drove Moses to his confession. We will claim that, just as the Exodus of Israel is something new in the history of the world, Moses’ confession of the Creator, based upon the Revelation with him of the Redeemer, is something new in the history of the race’s understanding of the Creation and the Creator. The One of this Revelation is to be known as the true Creator of the heavens and the earth. The One of this Revelation, the Redeemer of Israel among the nations in His Creation, is to be known against the myths of the gods of the ancient peoples. This One is the True Creator who possesses nothing in common with the gods of the ancient worlds, with their cosmogonies, with their interactions with our kind, with the idol-making common to the times. Rather, with this One the reality of the world as God’s Creation is to known in its nature, free from the magic and the superstitions of these peoples. This is the One who is Israel’s Lord and God, the One who redemptive acts with Israel would have His People to know their true Creator. With His acts to deliver Israel from her bondage to Egyptian gods and Egypt’s Pharaoh, wrought through the priestly and prophetic servant of God Moses was called to be, Israel is commanded to understand and to throw away all her gods, her Mesopotamian gods, her Egyptian gods, her Canaanite gods, and so forth, and know Him as the Great I-AM He is. When Moses employs, then, the terms of his confession among the nations in the ancient world, he would transform their meaning and give them a new significance never before heard in the history of the world. We do well, I believe, to hear them on his terms and not our own.

The language of Moses’ confession, then, transforms the terms that may be found in common among the peoples of the nations in the ancient world into meaning that serves the Voice of God in His Beginning of the heavens and the earth and so forth. The Voice that spoke with him from the flames of the Burning Bush at Horeb is the Voice that speaks in the Creation Week. The events of the Exodus of Israel from Egypt all belong to this Voice. This is the Voice Moses learns to confess as the Creator with His Creation. To Israel with this Voice is given the knowledge that her Redeemer is none other than the Creator of the Creation. Moses’ confession is purposed to serve this Voice with an intention that belongs to the redemption of Israel in the Exodus and the knowledge of her Lord and God, the Creator of the Beginning. This is the One Lord God Israel must hear and follow. This is the Voice of the Great I-AM the One Lord God is. This is the Creator of the holy ground on which Moses stands at Horeb and on which Israel must always stand. This is the Creator. His Beginning is the Beginning confessed against all idols and idol-making about the gods of the world. This is the Lord God of space, time, and all things that exist as created realities. The power of Moses’ polemic ought never be allowed to escape our attention. It belongs to what is universal. It belongs to what is particular. It belongs to what mankind is under the heavens and upon the earth as rooted in this Self-Revelation of the Great I-AM the Lord God is with Moses, His Servant. The confession of the formation of ‘Day One’ of the Creation Week belongs to this Revelation. It is with this Beginning that Moses knows the ‘Very Good’ orders of the Creation Week, blessed by God. It is in the light of the Great I-AM the Redeemer is with His People among the nations that Israel can confess the Creator and His Creation.[6]

Israel’s history among the nations in God’s Creation then possesses a prophetic and priestly power we need to learn to grasp. Israel is made to bear witness to her Redeemer, Her Deliverer, as the Creator, who is none other than this Great I-AM that sent Moses for His People to Egypt. This One and no other ‘one’ delivers her from her bondage to her idols among the nations. No other One than this One gave her the Torah and Tabernacle of her history. No other One than this One freed her to serve Him as His Witness among the nations. This is the One and Only One, against all idols and idol-making, Israel must serve in her time and times in the world. The whole history of the Creation, Moses affirms, belongs to the priestly and prophetic power of Israel’s witness to this Creator and this Creation. Thus, the significance of the use of the Names, Lord and God, that Israel employs in her history, is to be found with the Voice of the Great I-AM. He is the One with her in His covenanted relationship for her in the world that gives meaning to her history and her language. We need steadily to hear the polemical nature of the argument of Moses’ confession from its beginning to its vision for her future in the world. We would argue that Moses’ confession of the Beginning is to be read, against all the idols and idol-making and mythologizing with the cosmogonies of the ancient peoples recorded throughout the ANE, is made with Israel’s priestly and prophetic service against these views of the world among the nations because it is rooted in the Self-Revealing and Self-Naming of the Great I-AM this Lord and God is for Israel and her history among the nations. It is the power of this redemption and its judgment that is also the history of the Redeemer-Creator of the whole world. When we will not to understand this ‘Beginning’, created out of nothing by this Creator and no other, we will not to understand the Divine Freedom and Sovereign Authority that commanded Moses with the People of God in the
Revelation to which the whole of the Bible is witness. When we will to understand Moses’ Confession in the service of this Revelation, we will to understand the heavens and the earth as home for mankind, created in the Image of God, the space and time that belongs holily to the real ‘Beginning’ begun in the Beginning by this One and no other ‘one’.

Moses confession thus demythologizes the ancient views of gods, men, and the nature of the world. The race is to be freed from the grip the caprice of these gods and their mythical places. Men are no longer to seek to appease with magic rituals and moralizing sacrifices pantheons of these deities. The superstitions of times past are not to shape and form the civilizations of the future. God, the Lord, has judged these gods as no-gods. They are less or worse than nothing. They belong to the wastelands of time and times past in the time of world history. In the light of Israel’s Exodus from the Egyptian pantheon, then, walks with Israel, as He did once upon a time in Paradise, the Creator God, known as the Lord, who would convert all peoples from the mythologies of their gods and cults to the freedom whose truth rests in the Great I-AM He truly is for them, a new found freedom made firm in the light of the Voice of the Great I-AM with Moses, the Servant of God. He is endowed with priestly and prophetic power for Israel’s freedom from her bondage to the idols and for her Redeemer-Creator, the One Creator of the heavens and the earth and their mankind as the Creation.

The Beginning’ of Moses’ Confession is to be understood, hand in glove then, as embracing the significance of Genesis 1:2, within the orders of the Creation established as the ‘First Day’ of the Creation Week in the life of Israel as the People of God among the nations. The whole of Week is blessed as ‘Very Good’ and a finished work with a polemical nature, then, we cannot allow to escape our attention. The gods and the myths of the nations are not ‘true’ about the Lord God of the Beginning of the World and its Mankind. The power of the ‘brooding’ (מרחפת) of God’s Spirit in v.2, interacting with ‘the Nothingness’ of the Creation in this ‘Beginning’, is to resonate with the whole of the blessed and very good Creation. Our understanding of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo with His act in this ‘Beginning’ (ברא) as the God and Lord He is must be accomplished within the orders of this wholeness. We are invited to read the ‘speaking’ of God in verse 3 in resonance with ‘the Nothingness’ of v. 2. and the ‘brooding’ in concert with verses 4 and 5 and the formation of ‘Day One’ of this Week. Genesis 1:1 is thus meant to entail all the acts of the Creator in the Creation Week. We are invited to listen in on an account of the harmony of the ‘Days’ from the Beginning to the Blessed finish of the work of Creation. Without this concert, we will miss the beauty of the Week, its polemical intention and it purpose as background for Moses’ confession about the ten generations that are told as the Book of Genesis in Moses’ service to the Great I-AM. We purpose that we are meant to hear as listeners a symphony intended to move the hearts of the People of God about what is true and beautiful about the Beginning of a world that is indeed to be seen as ‘Very Good’ with its Mankind and its fall from the One He truly is.

We need to seek to understand the wholeness of all the particular actions from the Beginning to the ‘Day One’ of verses 1–5 then. These are acts that together shape a harmony of action that makes ‘Day One’ what it actually is in the confession. They are the acts of the One who is the Redeemer-Creator of the Self-Revelation Moses experienced at the Burning Bush, at Sinai, and so forth, for Israel, as the priestly-prophet-servant of the Lord God he became for Israel among the nations in God’s Creation. It is this Revelation that stands as the origin of the power to create something new in world history, a new event in the space of the world this comes against all the idols and idol-making and myth-making that belong to mankind’s gods and its past times in the history of the world. It is the power of this Day from this Beginning to which Israel’s faith belongs in this world. It is truly something new, a beginning like no other beginning ever found on the mind of the human race in its past with its gods. It is this ‘the Beginning’ that is not any other kind of beginning. It is the Beginning not out of a war against chaos but out of nothing with a freedom then that with transcendent power transforms out of the something that chaos and emptiness is into what is the will of the Hand of God. Here is the place where God has chosen to speak into existence the orders of His light. Out of nothing and out of this something the First Day of the Creation Week, from the Beginning is given existence. When we read Genesis 1 with a sense of this wholeness, I believe we may and we must interpret v.2 in a resonance with the whole of in the ‘Very Good’ Creation, the blessed and finished work of the God who is the true Creator of the world (Genesis 2:1–3) against all other views about Him.

Barth found among scholars both ready support and opposition to his position on v. 2. We may survey their interpretations in Bernard W. Anderson’s collection of essays about God’s Creation from eight Old Testament scholars.[7] Hermann Gunkel thought that the chaos and so forth of v.2 ‘belongs to mythology and cannot be viewed as the invention of an author, least of all the person of P’.[8] Gerhard von Rad believed[9] that the Creation, as read in conjunction with texts in the Old Testament other than Genesis 1, was written under the influence of Egyptian Wisdom, when Israel is dependent upon such Wisdom for her grasp of the skills for success in life.[10] Then the Jesuit Father, Dennis McCarthy, suggests that we ask the wrong question when we think to contend that Genesis 1 means to teach us the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo.[11] The text is concerned with what German scholars have named Chaoskampf, a ‘war on chaos’. The Creator is thought to be a warrior at war with the ‘chaos’ and ‘emptiness’ that belongs to the ‘dark depths of the primeval ‘waters’, thus easily compared to what we read across the mythologies about the Creation among the nations. Westermann argues that Genesis 1:1–2:4a reflects a composition whose long history shows us a steady struggle and evolution of understanding of the myths and legends about the world. The lasting value of the texts in time and times are a result of this long evolution in our understanding of the nature of the world. In this sense, we may interpret the developments in the history of the cosmologies of the Western World, the Ptolemaic Cosmology of the Middles Age, the Newtonian ‘System of the World of the Age of the Enlightenment, and even Einstein’s Universe of Light as all related to the concerns of the confession Genesis 1 is.[12] Reminding his readers that the confession must possess in this way some eschatological significance, H.H. Schmidt believes that the ‘righteousness’ of the Creator must be implied in the significance of Creation texts. Moral law and natural law must possess similar values, even though they are difficult to heard as one law.[13] Working with the assumptions made by both Zimmerli and von Rad about the relationship between redemptions and creation, H.J. Hermission is yet unable to understand that the chaos and emptiness and so forth of Genesis 1:2 can be a part of what Creation is. Creation is still conceived as something done perfectly from ‘the Beginning’, without any chaos or emptiness and so forth belonging to its nature.[14] All of these scholars affirm with Anderson that the Chaoskampf , the war in this ‘Beginning’ is against the chaos and emptiness of v.2. The consensus is that Genesis 1:2 signifies some condition of pre-creation that is contrary to the Creation, when the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo does not obtain in the confession of the Week.[15]

Only Walter Eichrodt[16] and G.M. Landes[17] wanted to argue for the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo as obtaining in our exegesis of Genesis 1:1–3. Landes wrote concerning v.2 that ‘At the beginning of its creation, the earth is empty, enclosed by waters in total darkness. But when God’s Spirit moved over the waters to separate them, the earth can be born, so to speak, i.e. it can emerge from its primordial darkness into the light of time, its surrounding waters filled with plants, animals, and humanity.’[18] But with all of this interpretation of ‘Day One’, we find the study of R.C. Clements, investigating the covenant relationship from Abraham to David in Israel’s long history among the nations, without mention of Genesis 1. The Pentateuch is thus read without a grasp of the wholeness between Creation and Redemption, between Creator and Redeemer, as Israel’s covenanted witness to the Lord God of the Revelation in the histories of the nations in the world. The Witness of the Bible to this Revelation with Moses may become lost upon our understanding of its relations with us.[19] It is little wonder that Karl Barth, with his rejection of ‘natural theology’, can conceive that no antecedent conceptual system may provide a framework for interpreting the texts and he must be free to exegete them from any particular cosmological development we might experience from the history of science in our civilization. His opposition to the German Church’s association with Hitler and the Nazi Socialism at the heart of World War II could certainly provide the need for his argument against the spell of the consensus on v.2 on modern understanding of the confession of the Beginning according to Moses in the light of the Incarnation.[20]

After observing the various possible interpretations of v.2 in his time, Barth read with Augustine and Luther, and decided with Zimmerli on the ‘rudiments’ of the verse. He concludes that it possesses no positive connection with v.1.[21] He then contends for the position that v.2 belongs to a past that was never the will of God, a time the Creator never intended to fashion. The tohu and bhohu, ‘chaos and emptiness or the ‘unformed and unsubstantiated’, mean to point as a whole the reader to the ‘rudimentary’condition of the Creation that existed outside of the will of the Spirit of God, when the Spirit ‘…is not known in His reality and therefore hovers and broods over it impotently or wordlessly.’[22] The ‘speaking’ of the Word of God against this primeval condition does what the Spirit could not do. It posits an order of time and times of the ‘light’ that belongs to the ‘speaking’ of God. The argument then follows the views of the ‘Priestly Writer’, in some relationship with the ‘Yahwist’, and the prophets of Israel who contend for the creation of ‘things’ as perfectly good, over which the Spirit of God once brooded so impotently. Genesis 1:2 are the ‘old things’, ‘the things that have passed away’, and according to 2 Corinthians 5:17, ‘the things’ that must vanish in created time and times. Such ‘rudimentary things’ belong to a past that has been superseded, when evil has been rooted out of the Creation, by the time of light in the world’s order.[23] Therefore, Genesis 1:2 posits that which can only be found outside of God’s will for His Creation, even from ‘the Beginning’.[24]

With this position, Barth has thus embraced a very common rendering of the exegesis of the v. 2. In contrast, Brevard Childs, while addressing these same problems, concludes that there was and must be a real connection between v.1 and v.2 and that the ‘brooding’ of the Spirit of God in v.2, the power of God in v.1, and the speaking of God in v.3 must be heard to resonate with one another in some way for any full appreciation of what ‘Day One’ means in the confession. In this way, a full chord of action is struck in ‘the Beginning’ that must be heard with the divine intention and authoritative purpose of a wisdom with which the confession has to do. It is because of this Will and Wisdom that the confession’s polemic against the mythologies of the idol makers of the ancient world may be understood with its prophetic thrust. It is the resonance of this chord that allows the exegete to hear the uniqueness of Moses’ contentions. It is this resonance that allows the interpreter to hear the prophetic power of Moses’ affirmation of the times with Israel. It is this resonance that allows the Great I-AM who is the Lord God of the Revelation in the Exodus of Israel from Egypt to be understood as the Creator of ‘the Beginning’ and the Only One that Israel is commanded to love with all of her heart and strength and might (Deuteronomy 6:4). The One who is the Lord of Israel’s redemption in time and times is none other than the Creator of all the time and times that is ‘the heavens and the earth.[25] The emphatic use of the verb ‘to be’ in v.2, rather than signifying a disconnect with v.1, affirms concretely that the whole of the Creation is, with its particular orders experienced upon ‘the earth’, belong to a universal created and sustained according to the power of the Spirit of God’s embrace with this ‘Beginning’. The primordial condition of the world’s particulars are thus made to wait on the ‘Speaking’ of God and His ‘light’.[26] It is this world, before the time when ‘light’ was spoken into existence, that the clause intends to signify, this world of time past in the formation of the First Day. The verse thus signifies the condition of the earth under the heavens in a span of time that belongs to a duration before the speaking of God occurred and before the purpose of light gave the order of this time upon the earth in God’s Creation. The emphatic use of the verb ‘to be’ signifies the dynamical nature of the relationship between God, His Spirit, and His Speaking in the Beginning, when the divine actions of creating, brooding, and speaking all, each in their own ways, shape the cause of a world that is meant to be a home for mankind.

The ‘dark’ continues to exposit, then, this signification of the ‘chaos and emptiness’. Childs can consider its meaning as closely related to what death is, opposed to the ‘light’ and the life of the world. But for Childs, the ‘deep’ (תהום) belongs to the primordial waters in relationship to the Spirit of God possesses both negative and positive power (Deuteronomy 32:11). This is no ‘wind’ of God but real power that, when resonated with the meaning of ‘create’ (‘bara’, ברא), removes the confession from comparative into polemical relations with the myths of the gods and the cosmogonies of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and so forth. For Childs, the confession is to be read as the kind of transformed language I have already discussed. The ‘theogonies’ of the polytheism of the ancient peoples found in the history of the Ancient Near East world are to be transformed into serves of the Revelation and Prophecy of the Lord God with Israel among them.

Yet Childs embraces the notion that a ‘Priestly Writer’ from the post-exilic period in Israel’s history, as the compiler of the Genesis 1, and the ‘Yahwist’ of the Monarchial period are correlated to form two accounts of the Creation far after the time and times of Moses, with all the questions about their intentions and purposes with us to this day. Childs can finally write about the two accounts: Both accounts (P= 1:1–2:4a, J=2:4b–25) begin according to an ancient convention by describing the effects of creation in contrast to a condition which prevailed previously (1:2, 2:5–6),[27] leaving ambiguous any resolution to the problems of myth, reality, and Israel’s confession of the Creation.[28]

Among the more conservative exegetes of v.2 we continue to read a level of understanding that does not reach into the real significance of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. While not identifying v.2 with the mythologies found among the polytheists of the Ancient Near East and while understanding the terms of the verse to speak of the actual Creation in ‘the Beginning’ as not in contradiction with v.1, Bruce Waltke, a conservative scholar about the methods of the historical-critical schools of interpretation, makes no mention of ‘creation out of nothing’ as significant to the confession and the stories of its generations.[29] The Jerusalem Bible can still translate v.2: ‘And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was on the surface of the deep. And a wind of God moved over the surface of the waters.’ We remain, left and right, a long way from taking seriously the Judeo-Christian tradition of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo in ‘the Beginning’, according to the divine words of Moses’ priestly-prophetic-polemical confession of Israel’s past and present and future among the nations of the Creation that is the work of the Great I-AM the Lord God is His People in the world.

Yet when we read some older exegetes on v.2, we find no sense of the influence of mythologies upon the intent and purpose to be read as ‘Day One’ of the Creation Week. The days and nights of the first light and the first darkness belong to God’s ‘Good’ Creation, to the space and time that is the Creation before the Fall of Adam. Unlike most modern or post-modern exegetes, we find the willingness to argue for the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo.[30] When we go back even further to John Calvin, we can read the Reformer’s belief that v.2 intends to signify the ‘confused’ place of the Creation, the status of which is sustained for the purpose of the speaking into existence of the ‘light’ and its orders as the heavens and the earth. We also read that the wholeness of this created reality is a result of the dynamical actions of God, the Spirit of God, and the Speaking of God in ‘the Beginning’ of ‘the heavens and the earth’. v.2 may then be read rightly as a part of the prophetic power of Moses’ confession, far from any embrace of the mythologies of the Ancient Near Eastern peoples.[31] If we go even further back to the early fathers of the Church, we find an even greater grasp of the polemical nature of Moses’ confession and the prophet’s power to grasp conceptually the wholeness of the meaning of the doctrine of ‘creation out of nothing’, creation that is sustained out of the nothing as well as out of the something that is described in v.2, something that waits as ‘cherished’ the ‘Speaking’ of God and the existence of light in its midst.[32] When we read as a whole in this way the existence of the heavens and the earth, with all the appropriate differentiations in the dynamics of this active chord of integration dependent upon the Freedom of God, the Spirit of God, and the Speaking God as the Creator of the Creation, then I believe we are getting in touch with Moses’ confession of ‘the Beginning’ of Israel’s history in the history of the Creation.[33]

What may we make of the intention and purpose of the confession in a positive way for us today? I have argued against the consensus in our day about its meaning and significance, and that Genesis 1:2 is better interpreted by attending to the earlier exegetes of the Genesis 1. Modern critical-historical scholarship may possess sensitivities unknown to the early fathers of the Church, who may seem quite quaint as some level to us today, but I would argue that, for all our technical progress, we are in danger in our time of the loss of the conceptual tools once developed in our history, tools the power of which were meant to be used to integrate the transcendent and the phenomenal levels of realities implicit and explicit in the confession the passage is. The ‘Very Good’ Creation of God, the Creator, blessed as His ‘finished’ (שבת) work, needs to be understood as a wholeness the particulars of which are to be dynamically integrated beautifully and truthfully with the ‘Good’ God has created in the Beginning. The whole with its parts belong to the Hand and Spirit and Speaking of God, the One who from ‘the Beginning’ with His Seeing and Differentiating (v. 4) and His Naming of things (v. 5), caused ‘Day One’ to be what it is in the Creation Week.[34] What has been revealed to the Moses of Israel’s Exodus and his confession of the Great I-AM the Lord God is in the history of His People and in the history of His Creation belongs to an action the acts of which are to be heard resonating together as one and many in an harmony that belongs to the symphony between the transcendent and the phenomenal inherent in the meaning of the confession.[35] It is with this purpose that Moses becomes the enemy of all idol and myth-making among the peoples in his time. It is with this intention that the priestly-prophet can general Israel from Egypt towards the Promise Land, when Israel’s time past and time present and time future belong to a created time that is marked with God’s time for His People in His Creation. It is in this way that we may read the confession of the orders of light and time that belong to the Beginning that marks Israel’s history with the Providence, Presence, and Prophecy of her Redeemer-Creator. There is nothing then in Genesis 1 that is to be confessed as ‘evil’. Nothing is to be understood here in opposition to or in contradiction to God’s Divine Freedom and Sovereign Authority and Power to will to act with wisdom as the Lord God of all space and time and so forth, as their Redeemer and Creator. When we say that He ‘created out of nothing’ the world that is the world that is this one and no other, against all idols, we mean a ‘nothingness’ that belongs, if as the past of His Creation, to His ‘Very Good’ Creation, blessed as His Finished Work and to be celebrated as the origin of all that Sabbath must mean to His People.

Genesis 1:2 ought to be understood, then, as laying down a condition that is cherished by the Spirit of God, and into which the God who is free to speak does speak and did speak the orders of light into the time and space of v.2, moving it to become a home for Mankind as that created reality made both out of nothing and out of something into the ‘Very Good’ and ‘Finished’ work it is of Him, the Great I-AM of Moses’ confession. In this way, human experience is confessed as bound up, under the heavens and upon the earth, with the evenings and mornings of the time and times the world of light is. As ‘day’ and ‘night’ then, the first ‘evening and morning’ of ‘Day One’ belong both phenomenally and transcendently to what Man is at home under the heavens on the earth. The created reality of the heavens and the created reality of the earth with the created reality of Mankind, male and female, are given their form and content in this place as the Image of God. The rational unity and objectivity of the Creation is this whole with these parts and no other. Even today, we may not allow the phenomenal-empirical realities of Moses’ confession to become divorced from the invisible and non-observable dimensions in the dynamical reality of the contingent wholeness of these created orders, given by the Hand and Spirit and Word of God to be what they are, according to Moses’ confession. This is, I believe, Moses’ confession of the Beginning of a world that is the background, primordial, primeval, and ancestral of Israel’s witness with her history among the nations in God’s Creation. We do well in our time, I believe, as best we can and as far as we may to spend our time seeking to penetrate as deeply and profoundly as we can into the significance of its intent and purpose and significance from the Beginning even with us on the moon and in space today. I would like to see our schools recover an attention to this Beginning and spend whole semesters on it as foundation to our theologies and sciences in our time.

Perhaps a short survey of the work of John Philoponus, the great theologian and physicist of the Museum at Alexandria, will suffice to draw out some of the content such a course could take, against great consensus we have developed among our scholars today. Even with the ‘Grammarian’ beginning to obtain today some of the credit he deserves as forerunner in the ancient world to the science of Galileo and so forth,[36] much of our appreciation of him does not yet shake itself loose from his condemnation by the Byzantium East and the Sixth Ecumenical Council of the Church in AD 680.[37] No one has championed Philoponus, not just as a commentator in his time on the works of Aristotle, but as the theologian in the early Church whose thought sought most profoundly to penetrate into the nature of the relationship between the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer-Creator of the world, and the conceptual foundations necessary for the development of a real empirical science, than Professor Thomas F. Torrance.[38] Philoponus needs to be given credit, not only for his contributions to the developments we have experienced with Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and even Einstein,[39] but for the success of his ‘thought experiments’ and the conceptual tools he was able to develop to penetrate into the real ‘nature’ of physics and cosmology of the world and argue against Aristotle and the Neo-Platonists of his day. We find the secret to his ‘thought-experiments’ lies with the fecundity of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo the Alexandrian believed was bound up the Incarnation of the Word, pre-incarnate in the Old Testament’s witness, become flesh in the New Testament’s witness to the Great I-AM the Lord God is. The revolutionary aspects of his success is found in the way he allowed the Incarnation and Creation ‘out of nothing’ to resonate together to inform a dynamical view of the nature of the Cosmos. His development of a ‘light theory’ and his ‘impetus theory’ together appear compellingly as a field physics of a dynamical nature that cannot, a priori, be grasped in all of its depths. He finds by integrating the wholeness of things with the particulars of things in a open-structured effort to grasp the nature of the world with the transcendent reality of the Great I-AM revealed in the Jesus Christ, the Word come as a man in the Cosmos, the power to disclose the actual laws by which things are experienced in this nature. Thus, he lays the ground for the theoretical-experiential science whose laws we still seek to understand today, when a new window onto the ‘glorious beauty of the fundamental laws’[40] of the ‘nature’ of the world belongs on our horizons. The dynamical reciprocities of his categories of thought, entailing both the uncreated and created realities of God and the world, may very well serve to give us that poise allowing us to make real progress in science in our times. We need with the same freedom he knew to be able to deal with an objectivity the Universe is as God’s Creation, especially now that we possess a sense of a Big Bang Beginning to the space/time of the world today.[41] Integration of theory and experiment is just as vital for us now as it was for the thought of Philoponus. Because of his belief, he was able to articulate theories of the Cosmos, against the Master Aristotle and the Eternity of the World, whose roots in the ground, the holy ground, belong to the Divine Power of the Incarnate Logos as the Redeemer-Creator of this world as our home. The beauty and truth of this kind, argued the Alexandrian, opposes all the gods and the mythologies the Greeks knew well with a science grounded in a belief seeking real understanding of the contingent rationality and unity of the heavens and the earth as they have come from the Hand and Spirit and Speaking of the Creator, as they have come from the transcendent One and truly free God, with a wholeness that takes us quite beyond the dualistic splits we read in Aristotle’s physics. There exists no logical necessity between God and the heavens in this poise. There is no arbitrariness in this poise. All dualistic splits that would cut in two the chord of the symphony of the Redeemer-Creator the Great I-AM truly is are to be overcome. Perhaps we may say that what Moses was to the gods of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Canaan, Philoponus was to the gods of the Greeks and the Pagans.[42]

The polemical nature of the Grammarian’s theological science and scientific theology was met with more than fierce opposition both within and without the Church. Debates raged throughout Justinian’s Empire, East and West, and John Philoponus found himself in the midst of them. In those times, the relationship between theology and science could indeed pit Athens against Jerusalem, the Philosopher or Scientist against Christian Dogma.[43] We would argue with Philoponus and the fathers of the early Church whose thought he inherited, though against much modern or post-modern critical-analytical trends in our efforts to interpret the ‘logic’ of Genesis 1:2, have real and definite contribution to make to our struggles to understand in our own times. Not the way that the ANE mythologies and cosmogonies viewed the world, but the way of Moses’ confession ‘In the Beginning’ will be the way we make real progress in our futures. The Self-Revelation of the Self-Naming and Self-Defining Lord God who spoke with Moses as the Great I-AM in the Burning Bush, with us now as the Incarnate Lord God, is still as vital to our civilization as ever.[44] The fulfillment of the purpose of this Great I-AM in the ‘fullness of times’ needs more than ever no symbolic or subjective appreciation today. We need to be able to teach the confession with that power and authority that drove it into existence in the Beginning. We need to be in touch with the Hand and Spirit and Word whose logic would deliver us from our idols and free us for our destinies with Him. If we are to read Moses’ confession as the priestly-prophecy it is in Israel’s history among the nations within the real history of the space/time of the real heavens and the real earth in this way, we will certainly do well. I believe that it is Philoponus’ theory of the dynamical nature of ‘created’ time in correspondence with ‘uncreated’ time, categories such as these, that will help us throw more light upon the order of light and time in our times. His dynamic and kinetic contemplations of both the transcendent and empirical dimensions of the Creation, invisible and visible, with his ‘thought-experiments’ disciplined by the reality of the Redeemer-Creator relationship with His Creation can help us, even as it helped the Grammarian to become what we now recognize as the forerunner in the ancient world to the science of Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, and Einstein, to find that new window onto the world we need to discover in our times. This ‘Lover of Work’ liked to reflect upon created things (time and light) as possessing both invisible and visible dimensions of realities, the invisibility of which reached into the power of the Word of God Himself and His Divine Freedom to be who He is for us, in us, and with us. In this way, he could conceive of the dynamic participation of the wholeness of things interacting with the particularities of the same, where both, ultimately dependent upon the wholeness of the Divine One for being what they were, defined what actually is against any and all illusions about them. The whole existed in the parts and the parts existed in the whole, each in their own ways, yet all of which are bound up through the power of God as His Word with us. This is the One who is free to relate Himself to what has been given existence and what subsists in existence, without confusing the truly transcendent with the empirical or created experience with the transcendent power of the Almighty. In this way, the Alexandrian thought of created and uncreated realities as ‘composite things’, in analogy with the way we are taught to think about the Word of God become the flesh, the man that Jesus Christ is as God in space and time.[45] When read with real resonance 1:1 and 1:3–5, Genesis 1:2 is heard as affirmed by both the transcendent and phenomenal dimensions of the work of God in the Beginning of His Creation, when creation out of nothing and out of chaos and so forth as the place where the Creator spoke light into existence and gave the orders of time that make up what we mean when we read ‘Day One’ of the Creation Week. Rooted ‘in the Beginning’ of this Redeemer-Creator, the Whole that is finished on Day Seven of this Week, we are given to believe that the Redeemer-Creator of Israel is the One whose power and authority is, against all the idols and mythologies in the world, what even the angels have seen and what mankind experiences as the lights of the heavens, the sun, the moon, and the stars, world that comes from the Hand and Mouth of only Wise God with His intention and purpose for it. [46]

Much of Philoponus’ commentary on v.2 argues against any astrological speculations about super-natural creatures that might be thought to govern the created realities that Mankind experiences under the heavens and on the earth.[47] Genesis 1:2 ought to be read in relationships with both 1:1 and 1:3–5 in the light of the freedom and authority that is possessed alone by the Redeemer-Creator and His Freedom to act as the God He is with His Providence, His Presence, and His Prophecy in the relationship.[48] We cannot understand the text without grasping its connection with ‘the Beginning’ of which we read in 1:1 and the Speaking of God of which we read in 1:3, when the light is named day and the darkness named night and we experience the establishment of the ‘evening’ and ‘morning’ (a 24 hour period of time) as Day One of the Creator’s Creation. Obviously, the dynamical nature of such resonance demands both concrete differentiation of things, in the naming of them, as well as a profound integration at their boundaries for them, so that the wholeness of their existence is rightly grasped in all of their depths as the mystery of the Creation the world is. It is this resonant action, seeing ‘In the Beginning’ of the work of Creation, the naming of things in the Creation, that knows the whole of Day One as ‘good’ (1:4–5). On this Day, Day One, there exists no evil. It is impossible to oppose God at this level of reality.

It is true that Genesis 1:1 may be read as a subordinate clause: ‘When in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and the earth was formless and emptiness and darkness was upon the faces of the deep and the Spirit of God brooded over the faces of the waters, then God said…’ Vs. 1 and 2 are both governed then by v. 3, the first independent clause of the confession (And God said, Let there be light!), so that the Beginning possesses a first act that is the speaking of ‘light’ into the existence of the Creation, where the ‘nothingness’ or the ‘chaos and so forth’ of v.2 is in subordinate relationship with ‘And God said’.[49] I do not think it matters much whether we read v.1 ‘In the Beginning’ in the absolute or the conjunctive sense, the sympathy of the action with its acts goes on either way. If v.1 is read as the first independent clause, however, it seems to me that the punctiliar and continuous nature of the acts in the better entail the implication and explication of the meaning of the texts, when the Transcendence and the Sabbath Blessing of God are given their due in our understanding of them. ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’ entails a view of the whole of the Creation whose horizon is the ‘finished’ work and blessed activity of the creating of God, both the point of it and the continuity of it as One Creation. No grammar or syntax or morphology thus determines for the reader then what is to be heard ‘In the Beginning’. We find ourselves free to choose the way we shall interpret even these very first words of Bible, a very significant freedom indeed.[50]

I do not like to translate the Hebrew bara’ (ברא) with English ‘create’ (The Alexndrian Jews of the Greek Septuagint did no better with the Greek’s έποίησεν!). Among English speaking peoples the verb ‘create’ can have as its subject all kinds of persons, places, and things. I teach among Koreans, and I understand from them that the Korean Bible translates with a term that has for its subject only ever God, like the Hebrew texts. Only God acts in order to cause the existence of the heavens and the earth and so forth. In this way, we understand that they are established as a reality that is not Himself, a reality whose nature is quite independent of His Being and Nature. We understand that, established in its independence of Him, it is yet as absolutely dependent upon Him for being what it is in its existence. The real objective intelligibility of the rationality of the world is what it is not in dependence upon itself for its being but in its dependence upon its Creator. It is bound up in its independence with the Hand and Spirit and Word and so forth of God from the Beginning that is this Beginning and not another one. With His Divine Freedom and Sovereign Will this God has chosen to become the Creator and to bara’ the Creation into its existence and being. The significance of the term bara’ must be able to bear the transcendent in its significance as well as the empirical dimension that are given meaning as the evenings and mornings of the ‘Day One’ of the Creation Week. The phenomena of the 24 hour periods experienced by Mankind under the heavens and upon the earth are understood as bound up ‘freely’ with the ‘acts’ of this ‘action’ of God, the Creator, in the Beginning. The verb ברא as a ‘telic’ action with His acts in the formation of ‘Day One’ this signifies in freedom and dependence a point that is sustained continually according to the Nature and Being of the Great I-AM He actually is, and not any other. Only God can be this God and act in this way to cause out of nothing the something that is the order of light in a world that is His Creation.

Thus, His ‘cherishing’ in this Beginning, His ‘speaking’ with this Beginning, His ‘seeing’ and ‘differentiating’ and ‘naming’ of this Beginning are modes or acts of one action, with both instance and continuity of freedom and order that shapes the confession of the Creation Week against all the idols of the peoples of the ANE. This is a point whose subsistence is vital to grasp both on its empirical and transcendental levels of reality, both on the observable and non-observable levels of its reality. When we fail to understand this, the symphony becomes lost upon us and we are left like orphans without the Father, Almighty Maker, of the heavens and the earth. The whole in which ‘Day One’ is a part is lost upon us. Abstraction and reductionism sets into our conclusions. We lose the ontology of the Revelation in the Creation. The unique and the general become confused among us. The real meaning of the act that is the bara’ that only the Creator can do is never grasped, and the consequences of this fall from grace is felt quite commonly in our times even down to our own days. However difficult it is for us, we need to recover are ability to grasp the contingent nature of the world as its come from God for us in a freedom that is definitely bound up with who He truly is.

God’s Creation is thus His Unique Universal Creation. Out of all that might have been and could have been, out of the nothingness of the something-ness of the world the Creator has chosen with His Freedom to act with Himself and to make in this ‘Beginning’. The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, as it is known in Latin, is to be understood as rooted in a created and creative ground that is the Lord God and Great I-AM of Moses’ confession and no other. The Great I-AM speaking with Moses from the Burning Bush is the Creator speaking for him with His Creation. The purpose of Israel’s Exodus from the Egyptian and its pantheon of gods intends that Israel shall know Him as this One and not anothyer. Because only He ‘creates’, bara’, we may understand the teaching of creatio ex nihilo as fundamentally in resonance with the theology and the experience of the world inherent in Moses’ confession of the Redeemer-Creator. The Deliverer is the Creator. The Creator is the Deliverer. The priestly-prophetic power of the Servant of God as Israel’s great leader would ever cause His People to throw away their idols and to embrace Him as the One He truly is, the Creation of the Creation Week. Redemption brings understanding of the Creation. The Redeemer brings understanding of the Creator. Genesis 1 is thus a confession to be read as Israel’s witness in the world, times past, times present, times future, as experience of freedom and order that is bound up with His Beginning. The first verse of the first chapter of Moses’ confession of Israel’s primordial and primeval and ancestral generations belongs to the Lord who is the God of the whole of Creation, even as all time and times are bound up with His Eternal Time for Mankind and His Creation. God did not create (bara’) nothing and something out of Himself, but as a particular and universal created thing out of nothing so that the whole of it existence and being, outside and independent of Him, would know Him in it as the One He is. Only this Lord as this God and only this God as the Lord can bara’ the Beginning of the heavens and the earth, according to Moses’ confession, when all other gods and all other myths about the world shall not obtain. Other than this ‘Beginning’ there are only myths about time and time’s Eternity.[51]

Common to the Judeo-Christian tradition, the doctrine of creation out of nothing and the rational unity of the order and freedom of the contingency of the world would assert that human freedom with the Divine Freedom of the Almighty is fundamental to the Revelation of the Great I-AM the Lord and God is with Moses’ confession.[52] This concept of the contingency of the world has not enjoyed easy going in the Western world across the centuries of the development of its thought, theologically or scientifically.[53] Against all necessity and any arbitrariness, the world’s unity and rationality as contingent reality rests upon this Revelation. In the light of its revealing, we may hear His Word as belonging inherently to the Acts of His Being the One He is. The Freedom of God thus creates creatively the ground upon which all human freedom stand and understand what it is and is meant to be in the space/time of the world. For this reason, and for no other, the Judeo-Christian tradition has had to seek to struggle to distinguish its way of carving up the reality of the world from any and all dualistic manners of relating the One God is to the one the Creation is. The tradition would remain faithful to the Uniqueness of this One as the Universal Father of the All that is Creation. Attempts to marry this One with other ‘one’s result inevitably in a reduction of the significance of Moses’ confession. The One that the Lord God is in His Unique Universality not the ‘one’ we read in the doctrines of Plato or Aristotle or any of the Neo-platonic efforts that came after the confession. With the Incarnation of the Word, Being, and Act of this One as the Person of Jesus Christ, the Christian tradition would understand the nature of the world and its relationship with God in a wholeness that belongs to the Wholeness of God with His Revelation. The integration of the transcendent and the immortal with the immanence and the phenomenal of mortal experience of the human race upon the earth and under the heavens belongs to a unity and rationality that is God’s Creation and to no other.[54] Stanley Jaki, thus, has written: “The contingency of the universe obviates any a priori discourse about it, while its rationality makes it accessible to the mind through only an a posteriori manner”.[55] Even the laws of the nature of the Universe belong to this kind of dynamical nature. By implication and explication, the concept of creatio ex nihilo and its affirmation with the Incarnation of the Lord God ‘in the Beginning’ affirms a freedom with which the human imagination is redeemed from its idols and myths, an imagination that must have to do with the real space and time and places of matter and motion that John Philoponus was able to turn into his physics of a Cosmos that is God’s Creation.[56] We do not have room here for a more thorough discussion of Philoponus’ concepts here. But we would claim that his arguments against Aristotle’s ‘Eternity of the World’ and for the impetus and light given the Beginning as implicated with what Genesis 1:1 makes explicit as the creatio ex nihilo doctrine is cogent even for our own times.[57] The particular beginning that is the Beginning needs to be heard daily and nightly now just as it was needed with Moses and the Exodus of Israel from Egypt.

We want to argue, then, that the relationship of Genesis 1:2 to 1:1 possesses a conjunctive and appositive connection, the assertion of which compels our understanding of ‘the heavens and the earth’ as a whole the parts of which is the object, in differentiation and integration, who has for cause God and His Freedom to ‘create’ without contradiction what the world is with its Mankind. The Divine Freedom and Sovereign Power of the Great I-AM the Lord God is, according to ‘the Beginning’ of Moses’ priestly and prophetic confession of Israel among the nations in the Creation, the origin of all things created, great and small. It is this freedom with its wisdom and power that gives the confession the authority and order over and against all the mythologies of the ancient peoples of the nations. In becoming this Creator and in revealing this Redeemer, this I-AM that sent Moses and sends as Lord and God even the People of God today, His Revelation will not be denied. It is His Self-Revelation and He gives in this freedom and wisdom and power the knowledge of His Being as this Creator in interaction upon the earth and under the heavens with Mankind. The emphatic use of the verb ‘to be’ in 1:2 means to signify that, as a part of the whole of this Creation, the earth as ‘formless and void’ (ובהו תהו) when it was ‘darkness over the depths (תהום על פני חשך) and with the primordial waters (מים), was being cherished (מרחפת ) by the Spirit of God,[58] like an eagle with her eaglets in their nest (Deuteronomy 32: 11). The whole of this created nature is subject to the Will and Freedom and Authority of this Creator. The primeval condition from ‘the Beginning’, established out of nothing, exist in accordance with the transcendent Wisdom of the Uncreated Nature of His Will of this Creator as a reflection of who He truly is with the heavens and the earth. This is the Creator who is the One that revealed Himself to Moses and gave Israel among the nations in His Creation the knowledge that He is who He is. The formlessness and emptiness, along with the darkness of the depths of these primeval waters, are that which the Spirit of God cherishes from ‘the Beginning’ with divine intent and purpose, where and when as such they form the created times before the Speaking of the Word of God in interaction with the world. They participate in the ‘Very Good’ Creation of the Beginning. The bara’ and the amar of this God as this Redeemer-Creator calls things what they really are, in belonging to what ‘Day One’ is in His Creation Week. Genesis 1:2 signifies what the created reality of the earth under the heavens was life before the time when light had been spoken by God into existence. Thus, God filled the primordial chaos and emptiness with the times of the orders of created ‘light’, when they became the way to the future of the ‘Very Good’ Creation from the Beginning to the Sabbath Blessing. The time and space of the Creation before light filled its place and moment in the world’s times is as such as real as any other created time the world is. Genesis 1:2 cannot be divorced from the time and times of the orders of light that marks the heavens and the earth with the Will and Wisdom of the Redeemer-Creator God is in the Beginning.[59] Time and time past of this Creation are thus real for Moses in the Revelation, in whose light all time and times are made to resonate together with one another in the light of this Lord God who is the Great I-AM of Moses’ confession. It is the power this confession that stood and stands still today against all myth-making and idol-making to which the human imagination is prone. I am sure this is the reason that the man who walked on the moon in our time read from Moses and no other.

In this freedom, we understand that the action (bara’) the Creator takes to accomplish the Beginning of ‘the heavens and the earth’ (a merism) is sustained, cherished, (merechephat) to provide the space and time where and when light (אור). was spoken (אמר) into existence, so that what God sees (ראה) He differentiates (בדל) and names (קרא) as the reality of the objective intelligibility that ‘Day One’ is at the beginning of the Creation Week. We are to hear a created whole with its parts and created parts in the created whole the ‘Day’ is. I would suggest that exists a kind of hypostatic union of the whole and the parts that belong to a symphony of differentiation and integration we may learn to hear as the logic of the Wisdom, Hand, Spirit, and Word of God with Himself in His Beginning of His Creation. His Holy Love and Divine Wisdom, the Uncreated Light of His Being and Nature, are free to make ‘Day One’ what it is in this Blessed Week. It is the Nature of this Being that we should come to know the One who sustains what He has caused to exist out of nothing, out of chaos and emptiness, out of the darkness of the depths, out of the faces of the primordial waters, kept in being by His Spirit, for the intent and purpose of His Word in the Beginning. This is the ground that is intended as home for Mankind, created male and the female in His Image, after His Likeness, among all things great and small that abound in His Creation. Genesis 1:3 reads: ‘And God said, “Let there be light!” and there was light.’ Into the primordial stuff of the ‘nothingness’ of the world is established the orders of light and time in which we exist even today. Out of the formlessness and the emptiness and the darkness and the depths of these existences comes the light that makes the world a home of our being the men and women in time and space the world is meant to be. The ‘light’ of the Speaking God, who as the Uncreated Source of Light of the World has made created light to reflect who He is as this Creator has become, we believe, the ‘Light of the World’ in this symphony. The Redeemer has kept the faith as the Creator He is in the form of Jesus Christ. It is this Divine Freedom of the Great I-AM we come to know as the Voice that Moses experienced coming from the flames of the unconsumed Burning Bush and the events of the Exodus of Israel from Egypt and the Egyptian gods of the Pharaoh. It is this Divine Freedom we experience, out of nothing, out of chaos and emptiness, and so forth, that belongs to the Mighty Hand and the Cherishing Spirit who Speaks in time and times as the Holy One even today. This is the Voice that sustains His People and His Creation. This is the Voice Moses could not avoid and we may not avoid even today.[60] This the Voice of the laws and the freedom of the heavens and the earth in our time. This is the Voice of Mankind in our time. This is the Voice, among all the voices in all the rooms where we may exist, that matters most and seeks our attention even today. This is the Voice of the Great I-AM the Lord God is even as the Person of Jesus Christ in His Time for our time and times.

It is under the impact of the power of the Voice of this Word in His Divine Freedom and Sovereign Authority that we are to learn to read what the making of ‘Day One’ means: ‘And God differentiated between the light and the dark, and God called the light ‘day’ and the dark He called ‘night’ and there was evening and morning – Day One.’ The ‘calling’ of this Voice is the First Day of a Creation Week that Moses confesses under the compelling power of the Voice that commanded him at Sinai. The Providence, Presence, and Prophecy of the Voice of this Great I-AM as the Lord God of Israel’s witness among the nations never sounds with the vanity of man or world. It is the Voice of Truth against all the idols of the human race.

Colin Gunton is worth quoting here: ‘The latter (Barth) tends to minimize the part played by the Holy Spirit in the act of creation, refusing an explicitly pneumatological reading of Genesis 1:2 because of his concern to see in the verse the promise of the eschatological defeat of das Nichtige (3/1, pp. 108–10). Surely we can agree with Barth’s Word of God as that Voice which will have nothing to do with sin and evil. Yes, He did not and does not and will not create sin and evil in His World. But surely we must agree with Gunton that the identity of sin and evil directly with the ‘chaos and emptiness’ and so forth of Genesis 1:2 is a mistake.[61] Evil and sin come into the ‘Very Good’ Creation out of nothing of God in Genesis 3, when the lie is given about God and His Creation to Adam. Surely, we must agree with Professor Torrance’s argument about the contingency of the creation, out of nothing, confirmed and affirmed with the Incarnation of the Word speaking in the ‘fullness of times’ as the Redeemer-Creator, the Lord God, who is the Great I-AM with Moses and Israel and as Christ with His Church, the One without sin and evil and the One who makes the ‘chaos and emptiness’ and so forth to serve the Creator He is as the Man He has become for us in His Creation, in whom we can hear and see what we need to see and hear about these things, about the foundation of the heavens and the earth and our mankind.[62] It is the I-AM that this One actually is, whose Spirit has been sent to work in our times for us, in us, and with us, that we need to hear in Genesis 1:2.

Perhaps we are not used to thinking the impossible with our thoughts. The One who in ‘the Beginning’ and in the New Beginning, who is both the Uncreated Light that God is and the created light the Lord is in the fullness of time and times and of space with us, would give us to hear with the symphony of His Word in the world the ‘beginningless-beginning’ of His Being and Nature which, according to Moses’ confession, would deliver us into the very Kingdom of God Himself. We are not used to thinking about the Transcendence of this One, who once gave Israel deliverance from Egypt and who gives the whole of the human race deliverance from sin and evil in our time and times, as this One He is as the Great I-AM of our redemption even from the times of chaos and emptiness into the time when light filled them with the orders that will justify the Beginning. In Him, we are given to hear His Sabbath Blessing of all time and times, times past, times present, times future, with the atoning work of the holy love of the Redeemer working as the Creator to give us knowledge of who He truly is for us, in us, and with us. It is with Moses’ Israel that we may learn to hear His Beginnings, His Apocalypse of time and times, and what created destiny is in the fullness of times. ‘Day One’ of Moses’ Creation Week is meant to serve the Day of the Lord, the King of the Universe, Israel’s Son of David, the Son of God, the Son of Man, the Sage even of the physical laws of the world. It is this Creator that we may know as the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God for all space and time, of whom Moses was the priestly-prophet and general of Israel road to the Promised Land.

We need to hear in Genesis 1:2 that time past that is ‘Very Good’ in the light of the ‘Light of the World.’ We need to untwist the lies about the Beginning that would not give us to hear the Redeemer-Creator in His Way and Truth with us in the world. We need to know the One who cherishes what we might think has vanished from us. We need to hear again as it was then that out of the nothingness the world is comes the light of His Speaking for us, making the world our home, giving us to know that we are loved and not alone, embraced by the freedom and power only the Great I-AM possesses in our times. This is what we mean when we would name Him the Almighty Maker of the heavens and the earth. It may not be the common hearing of common sense among many in our time, but even so it is no myth.

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III.1, p. 102. By 1946 in American scholarship, Jack Finnegan could compare Genesis 1 to Babylon’s Enumah Elish and refer the terms of Genesis 1:2 to the Tiamat of that mythology, while recognizing that differences ought to be considered more important than similarities (Light From The Ancient Past, Princeton University Press, p. 53.) Thus, the difficulties are introduced into the interpretation of the verse. An opposite interpretation is proposed by Paul L. Seely in his article ‘The First Days of Genesis in Concordist Theory and in Biblical Context’, PSCF, Vol. 49, Num. 2, June 1997, pp. 85–95. My article in the same publication on ‘Natural Theology’, pp. 96–104, represents my earlier understanding of Barth and the relationship of science to Genesis One.

[2] CD, pp. 102–110. Along with most modern critical Old Testament scholars, Barth comes to believe that the ‘rudimentary’ conditions laid down in v.2 posit that which the will of the Creator opposes. He must contradict its contradiction of Him.

[3] The great Swiss theologian in his exegesis of Genesis 1 took seriously in his time the supposition that it was in the light of the Incarnation we might read rightly the Creation Week. With it, he could then argue that the ‘Nothingness’ of the Creation could be identified with the evil that opposed the created orders of the Creator, without attempting to relate his findings to the scientific developments of Special and General Relativity Theories and the cosmologies come out of Einstein’s great legacy.

[4] See, for instance, John Goldingay’s Genesis for Everyone (John Knox Press, 2010), pp. 5–9. The author claims there is no ‘absolute beginning’ in mind, no philosophy in mind, and that the author is interested in the ‘transformation’ of ‘empty wastes’ into ‘formed cosmos’, creation out of chaos, than in the doctrine of ‘Creation out of Nothing’ a doctrine, that was common in interpretation of the early Church. It is my observation that the significance of this doctrine is quite lost upon us today.

[5] There is a long tradition among the fathers of the early Church, but I have in mind the way the doctrine can be understood in its fullest form with the work of John Philoponus, who attempts to take the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo most seriously even for the physics of the cosmos in his time. Professor Torrance has written of the Grammarian: “Never in all the history of science has Christian theology had such a transforming impact on science as through John Philoponus of Alexandria in the sixth century. His was a bibilical and Christocentric theology in which he sought to give an adequate account of its contingent rational order.” (in Theology and Natural Science, Wipf & Stock, 2002, p. 107). Philoponus thus became in the ancient world with his ‘impetus theory’ and a ‘light theory’ forerunner to the developments we experienced through Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, and even down to the Einstein and our modern theories for the cosmology of the world.

[6] I have attempted to argue for this exegesis of the Five Books of Moses in my book, The Great Amen of the Great I-AM (Wipf & Stock, Eugene, Oregon, 2008). See especially chapters 2 and 3. The wholeness of the Pentateuch’s argument is polemical from beginning to end. The reality of the relationship between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 as Creation and Redemption of the Creator-Redeemer needs to be evaluated in this light.

[7] B.W. Anderson, Creation in the Old Testament (Fortress Press and SPCK, 1984). He is aware of the chasm created between science and theology in our times created by these Biblical scholars.

[8] Ibid, pp. 26–52.

[9] G. von Rad, Genesis, Westminster Press, 1972, pp. 46–52. The critical assumptions lead the great scholar to read v. 2 as a contradiction to the creatio ex nihilo of v. 1, but a necessary one and to an understanding P’s theology of ‘Day One’ as the unit Genesis 1:1–5. Thus, creation out of nothing, creation out of chaos, and creation of the light of the Word of God is discussed. But P’s theology is not Moses’ I-AM.

[10] Ibid, pp. 62–63, when Yahweh as the Creator absorbs Egypt’s ancient mythologies and enters in this way into the confession of the Elohim of Genesis 1.

[11] Ibid, p.75

[12] Ibid, pp. 90–101.

[13] Ibid, pp. 102–117.

[14] Ibid, p.130. ‘The world well ordered, chaos excluded, the world therefore comprehensible within limits: this fits in very well with the concept of wisdom.’ Thus, he exegetes the text with Barth.

[15] Ibid, p.18.

[16] Ibid, pp. 65–73. But with no comment on v.2.

[17] Ibid, pp.135–151, where Landes rightly connects the whole movement up with freedom.

[18] Ibid, p. 138

[19] R.C. Clements, Abraham and David (Studies in Biblical Theology: SCM Press,1967.)

[20] See the account of T.F. Torrance’s meeting with Barth over this point in his Space, Time, and Resurrection, (Eerdmans, 1976), pp. ix–xiii. Torrance would argue that it is ‘a sovereign freedom and lordly authority’ that judges all the beginnings made by the Lord God with His Self-Revelation in the space and time a world that is indeed His Creation.

[21] Ibid p. 103–4. “The decisive objection against this exposition (Luther’s contention that the verse explained the primal condition of God’s Creation in the Beginning before its light was spoken into existence), which Zimmerli rightly calls a ‘desperate expedient,’ is as follows.” Barth goes on to explain that, with the connection between v.1 and v.2 as inadmissible, we must face the fact that God did not will the ‘things’ of v.2. He quotes Isaiah 45:14 as evidence the world was meant to be inhabited right from the beginning and never meant to be chaos and void, dark and deep, with waters the Spirit of God must control against the will of the Creator to create a heavens and an earth of light.

[22] CD, Ibid, p.108. The Silence of God is not necessarily the Time of Judgment.

[23] CD, Ibid, p. 110. As if the future will possess no chaos and so forth.

[24] Perhaps Barth is not able to shake himself free from Greek ‘essentialism’ and ‘perfection’ and ‘order’, after all.

[25] B.S. Childs, Myth and Reality in the Old Testament (SCM Press, London, 1960), pp. 30–42. “It will be the purpose of this chapter to show the problem which was caused within the Biblical tradition when mythical material entered.” He focuses his argument on the relationship between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. He suggests three choices for interpretive speculation: 1) There was a time when ‘chaos and emptiness’ and so forth was the heavens and the earth. 2) Darkness exposits death and the deep belongs to that over which the Spirit broods for life. 3) There is a real resonance between this ‘rudimentary’ stuff that transforms any use of the terms found in the ancient mythologies into service of Moses confession, or P’s, of ‘the Beginning’. Thus, we need to come to a new understanding of their meaning in real time and not in mythical time.

[26] I believe that the Beginning of Genesis 1:1 is to be thought out as rooted in the ground of the ‘beginningless-beginning’ of the Living Being of God who transcendently holds the whole of the Beginning in all of particulars in real relationship with Himself. Created realities, though independent of the Nature of God, are dependent upon Him for their nature and being and existence. The hypostatic union of these cannot be reduced up or down into any philosophical sense away from His Freedom and Transcendence and Will for ‘order’ and ‘goodness’. Neither necessary nor arbitrary connections may grasp the real relations between the Creator and His Creation as the Lord of all space and time and so forth.

[27] B.S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Fortress Press, 1993), p. 107. It seems evident to me that these scholars are more at home with the evolution of things more than they are with things as created out of nothing, creatio ex nihilo, when the chord between transcendence and the phenomenal in our experience of the world is cut in two. The implicit and explicit dynamics of the orders in the nature of the Creation become lost upon us, when even subsistence and processes are not understood in relationship with the uncreated Eternity of the Lord God.

[28] See A.J. Bellinzoni, The Old Testament (Prometheus Books, 2009) for a recent, decent, presentation of the so-called scientific historical-critical analysis of the formation of the Biblical texts. The critics have become quite sure that the Creation accounts are myths redacted together by post-Exilic Israel. If the Bible is composed by men, it cannot be the Revelation of God, only the stories told by Man in the Universe.

[29] B.K. Waltke, Genesis (Zondervan, 2001), p.p. 58–60. He simply refers to ברא (create) as a ‘telic verb’, encompassing the ‘All’ that is the Creation, without further explanation. The implication is, of course, that time possesses times as times are possessed of time even before the time of light.

[30] See C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, Volume I, The Pentateuch (Eerdmans, 1973 reprint), pp. 46–52. The verb ‘create’ signifies that which is ‘divine creation’. The terms of v.2 mean the condition of the creation before the time ‘light’ was spoken into existence. The author is aware that others seek to rid interpretation of the doctrine of ‘creation out of nothing’ (p. 46).

[31] John Calvin, Genesis (The Banner of Truth Trust, 1554, 1975), pp. 69–78. Calvin is the only theologian I have found willing to understand the ‘brooding’ of the Spirit of God as that ‘cherishing’ necessary to ‘sustain’ the world before ‘light’ was given existence in it (p. 74). The ‘confusion’ here is not evil.

[32] I am grateful to Leslie S.B. MacCoull for providing me with her translation of De Opificio Mundi, and the comments of John Philoponus on Moses’ Genesis. See F. Christiani, JOHANNES PHILOPONOS, DE OPIFICIO MUNDI, Herder, 1887, for its translation into German.

[33] I have in mind an exegetical line of thought that we may trace from Athanasius (in works from AD 325–381), through Basil of Caesarea (in works from AD 329–379), and others to the works of John Philoponus in Alexandria (AD 517–560), with whom the doctrine of ‘creation out of nothing’ is steadily championed. It is through the actuality of the Incarnate Word that we are given to understand the Word or Speaking of God in the Beginning and His relationship to ‘light’ in the Creation. Thus, the Trinity of the Father, Son, and Spirit throws light upon the I-AM the Lord God is as God, the Spirit of God, and Speaking of God for the formation of the First Day of the Creation Week and the Sabbath Blessing.

[34] See T.F. Torrance’s ‘The Transfinite Significance of Beauty in Science and Theology’ in L’Art, La Science et la Metaphysique, Studies offered to Andre Mercier, Peter Lang, 1993, pp. 393–418, for a wonderful account of what beauty is in the creatio ex nihilo of Genesis 1.

[35] Torrance would turn our attention to Barth’s appreciation of Mozart’s music to speak of this symphonic significance between Redemption and Creation in theology and science, Ibid, pp. 407–418.

[36] See R. Sorabji, ed., Philoponus and the Rejection of Aristotelian Science (Cornell University Press, 1987), followed by a number of translations of Philoponus’ works by a team of translators under Sorabji’s supervision.

[37] See my The Setting in Life of ‘The Arbiter’ by John Philoponus (Wipf and Stock, 1999), where I argued that his Anathema was a mistake of tragic proportions and consequences for the history of the relationship between Christian Theology and the development of our scientific culture. S.L. Jaki, The Road of Science and the Ways to God, (University of Chicago, 1978) p. 39, reminds us that Aquinas knew Philoponus only for his heretical monophysitism and not for his critic of Aristotle and his contributions to Western science

[38] Among his many references in his books to Philoponus, see especially T.F. Torrance, Theological and Natural Science (Wipf & Stock, 2002), especially chapters 4–7. Torrance echoes Shmuel Sambursky’s, The Physical World of Late Antiquity (Basic Books, 1962, p. 158) with the contention that Philoponus possessed ‘…the reasoning of a man carried away by his revolutionary zeal and the momentum of a new and irresistible conception.’ The fecundity of this revolution is still to be appreciated.

[39] See Shmuel Sambursky, PHYSICAL THOUGHT From the Presocratics to the Quantum Physicists (Pica Press, NY; 1974) pp. 115–119. The ‘lover of labor’ established doctrines on 1) the Dynamical Nature of the Relationship between the Whole and the Parts in science 2) an impetus theory for the Beginning and for the light of the cosmos 3) a theory of the motion of the elements in vacuum 4) the unity of the heavens and the earth according to nature and the 3–dimensional extension with matter/motions 5) the role of Infinity in our knowing of the nature of the world 6) the Generations of God and the power of the really Infinite.

[40] The phrase belongs to Kip Thorne, Black Hoes & Time Warps, W.W. Norton, 1995, p. 19.

[41] In Transformations & Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge, Eerdmans: 1984, p. 79, T.F. Torrance argues with Einstein that such categories belong to ‘freely invented’ concepts bound up with the actual nature of the world.

[42] Philoponus inherited from his successors in Alexandria, Athanasius and Cyril, the struggle of the fathers against both Gnostic and Ebionite views of Man in God’s World, the Person of Christ as Redeemer-Creator of the All.

[43]As a contemporary of Philoponus, a man called Simplicius could consider the Grammarian as doing less than his duty in the common effort made to harmonize Plato and Aristotle as the Masters in the field of human thought. Simplicius wrote: ‘But one of our contemporaries, i.e. the Grammarian, a hunter of fame, as it seems, who has passed off some of Xenarchus’ objections as his own and collected other, similar ones, has sprung up to criticize Aristotle, aiming at the objective, as he says, of proving the whole world perishable, as if he would receive a big reward from the Creator if he proved him <to be> a creator of perishable things only, but not of imperishable.’ See C. Wildberg, Philoponus, Against Aristotle on the Eternity of the World, (Cornell University Press, 1987), p. 39. The whole of the debate was about the nature of the Beginning and the matter and motion of time filled with the light that had been confessed by Moses.

[44] Henry Chadwick records as editor of Alexandrian Christianity (Westminster Press, 1954), pp. 17–24) that it was often claimed that the Greeks had stolen from Moses what they thought they knew about the Cosmos.

[45] I owe this insight to L.S. B. MacCoull, who in her translation of De Opificia Mundi by John Philoponus, understands that Christology informed the cosmological considerations of the Grammarian. The ‘hypostasis’ of created time existed as a whole entailing the ‘hypostases’ of times past, present, and future, all of which belonged as one created reality to the power of the freedom of God to be the Redeemer-Creator He actually is with us. Thus, the empirical and the theoretical are integrated substantially in all of his speculations about the physics and cosmology of the Creation (private correspondence).

[46] I believe that Professor T.F. Torrance’s assessment of Barth’s opposition to ‘natural theology’ as an antecedent conceptual system of thought and argument for a concept of ‘nature’ as a contingent reality belonging to the actual relationship establishe by the Revelation between God and the world is vitally important here. See, Transformation & Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge, Christian Journals, 1984, pp. 285–301 for full discussion of the problem and the power of the argument for a ‘natural theology’ that is inherent or co-inherent in the nature of the Revelation in history.

[47] Philoponus has a long section on angels with reference then to Genesis 1:2, yet for the sake of making the point that the ‘hypostases’ with which we have to do in the physical world are contingently related to the power of the free God whose wisdom only is the source of their existence. It is in this discussion that the Grammarian can refer to other views of the Creation read in the Scriptures, Job, Ecclesiastes, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and so forth.

[48] I like to think of this kind of reading as an affirmation of the ‘primordial healing’ that is restorative of our race after the Fall and from the Beginning.

[49] von Rad has shown that this reading does not obtain with the intent of the author, op. cit. p. 49.

[50] It is good to remember that freedom without order and order without freedom is impossible in the way of God with His the contingent rationality and unity of His Creation. The nature of the world is such that both freedom and order of a contingent kind as bound up with non-contingent Being of God in His Freedom and Wisdom, however difficult for us to hear, must be heard. I like to think that the Revelation of the Great I-AM is ultimately to be followed in Christ then.

[51] I like to think that, even though the contemplation of the Big Bang Beginning of modern cosmologies may be more friendly to Moses’ confession that cosmologies of the past, we remain able to distinguish the nihilo of Christian Doctrine from the Quantum Vacuum contemplated by modern scientists.

[52] See T.F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith (T&T Clark, 1988), pp. 98–109, for a succinct account of the vital character of freedom, contingent and divine, for understanding the God, Man, and the World of the confession.

[53] See T.F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order (Oxford University Press, 1981) for a fully developed argument on the cogency and fecundity of the concept in both science and theology.

[54] See S.L. Jaki, Genesis 1 (Thomas More Press, 1992)) for an account that argues for the reality of this chapter in time and times across the centuries, against all the mythologies posited from time to times and so forth. Moses is successful with his confession against the idols of the nations among the peoples of God’s Creation because of its veracity with space and time.

[55] Again S.L. Jaki, The Road of Science and the Ways to God, Ibid, p. 39. An historian of science, the Benedictine scholar knows, for instance, the concept of the contingency of the creation may become lost upon Aquinas and the Middles Ages and the arguments for the existence of God mere sophistry.

[56] See my The Setting in Life of ‘The Arbiter’ by John Philoponus (Wipf & Stock, 1999), especially chapter three, for my account of the contingent rationality, unity, and freedom of the Creation against Aristotle’s physics and cosmology in the science of the Alexandrian. See, C. Wildberg, Philoponus, Against Aristotle on the Eternity of the World, Cornell University Press, 1987, pp. 81–91, for the Grammarian on the ‘nothingness’ and the ‘perishable nature’ of the Creation and the freedom of God to interact with them.

[57] Ibid, pp. 143–146, for a few cogent remarks about motion in the Ptolemaic Cosmos of the Grammarian’s times.

[58] I have found the translation of merachephat (‘brooding’) read by Syriac speaking Christians, found still today in Iran and Iraq, rendered as ‘cherished’, even as a wave offering (P. Smith, Syriac English Dictionary, Oxford, 1902) p. 538) Evidently, the power of the Spirit of God in the Beginning embraced with Love and Wisdom and Divine Freedom what had been the object of His action (bara’) in His Beginning, not out of Himself but out of nothing with a will He alone can exercise.

[59] The Grammarian assumed the ‘hypostasis’ and ‘hypostases’ of time and times as the uncreated time that belongs creatively to God’s Eternity. It was this kind of relational thinking that we read everywhere with the development of the thought of John Philoponus.

[60] Philoponus believed that, whatever Plato or Aristotle got right about God and the Cosmos, they got it from Moses. The Grammarian wrote at the beginning of his treatise on the Creation of the World: ‘That Plato too, in his treatise on the coming into being of the cosmos, imitated Moses.’ This Moses wanted to implant knowledge of God with his confession of the Great I-AM the Lord God is with Israel, a confession not about science but about the world the race experiences as a phenomenal reality whose explanation must be found with its Creator. It was this Judeo-Christian tradition that laid down the foundation for the empirical science we exercise today, and not Greek philosophy.

[61] C.E. Gunton, The Triune Creator (Eerdmans, 1998), p. 160. Again, see T.F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order for the challenge this argument is for both scientist and theologian in our times.

[62] For a recent discussion of the problem modern scientific ‘chaos theory’ and its relationship to our theology of Creation Out of Nothing, see John Jefferson Davis, ‘Theological Reflections on Chaos Theory’, PSCF, Vol. 49, Num. 2, June 1997, pp. 75–84. I like to think we will take seriously the need for ‘free invention’, ‘intuition’, and ‘creativity’ in both science and theology not in necessary of arbitrary relational logic but in atoning relations of real redemptive work of the Holy One in the history of the world.

John Webster on T.F. Torrance on Scripture [updated]

In his recent lecture on ‘T.F. Torrance on Scripture’ (presented in Montreal, 6 November 2009, at the Annual Meeting of the T.F. Torrance Theological Fellowship), Professor John Webster argued that Torrance’s most sustained writing on Scripture lay not in extended cursive exegesis but rather in ‘epistemological and hermeneutical questions – in giving a theological account of the nature of the biblical writings and of the several divine and human acts which compose the economy of revelation’ (p. 1). Such an account requires the theologian to both develop an anatomy of modern reason, in order to expose a ‘damaging breach in the ontological bearing of our minds upon reality’ (Reality & Evangelical Theology, 10), and to make an attempt at ‘repairing the ontological relation of the mind to reality, so that a structural kinship arises between human knowing and what is known’ (ibid., 10). Webster contends that Torrance’s writings on these matters constitute ‘one of the most promising bodies of material on a Christian theology of the Bible and its interpretation from a Protestant divine of the last five or six decades – rivalled but not surpassed’, Webster suggests, ‘by Berkouwer’s magisterial study Holy Scripture’ (p. 1).

Webster devotes the bulk of his paper to three related areas of Torrance’s thought on Scripture: namely, that (i) Scripture must be ordered from a trinitarian theology of revelation; (ii) that the biblical writings are complex textual acts of reference to the Word of God; and (iii) that the Bible directs its readers to ‘a hermeneutics of repentance and faith’ (p. 4).

On this first point, Webster notes that ‘a theological account of the nature of Scripture and its interpretation takes its rise … not in observations of the immanent religious and literary processes, as if the texts could be understood as self-articulations on the part of believing communities, but in the doctrine of the self-revealing triune God. Torrance is unhesitatingly and unrelentingly a positive dogmatician at this point, in a couple of senses. First, and most generally, he takes revelation as a given condition for the exercise of theological intelligence, not as a matter about which intelligence is competent to entertain possibilities or deliver a judgment … Second, more specifically, Torrance’s positivity concerns the way in which knowledge of God, including knowledge of God through Holy Scripture – arises from the specific modes in which God deals with rational creatures’ (pp. 4–5). In support of this claim, Webster cites from (among other sources) Torrance’s Divine Meaning:

‘The source of all our knowledge of God is his revelation of himself. We do not know God against his will, or behind his back, as it were, but in accordance with the way in which he as elected to disclose himself and communicate his truth in the historical theological context of the worshipping people of God, the Church of the Old and New Covenants. That is the immediate empirical fact with which the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New testaments are bound up’ (Divine Meaning, 5).

Such a move, Webster recalls, enables Torrance to develop an account of revelation in which the relation of divine communication to the biblical texts is not fundamentally problematic, but rather is one in which ‘creaturely media can fittingly perform a service in relation to the intelligible speech of God’ (p. 6). He continues:

‘It was this, perhaps more than any other factor, which led to his estrangement from mainstream British theological culture, preoccupied as it was both in biblical and doctrinal work with the supposedly self -ontained realities of Christian texts, beliefs and morals, struggling to move beyond historical immanence, and weakened by a largely inoperative theology of the incarnation. Torrance was able to overcome the inhibitions of his contemporaries by letting a theology of the divine economy instruct him in the way in which God acts in the temporal and intelligible domain of the creature’. (p. 6)

Webster proceeds to note that the ultimate ground of Torrance’s claim that only God speaks of God is the Word’s assumption of flesh, an event which ‘carries with it the election and sanctification of creaturely form’ (p. 7). He concludes the section by underscoring Torrance’s refusal to be ‘trapped either by the kind of revelatory supernaturalism in which the Bible is unproblematically identical with the divine Word, and so effectively replaces the hypostatic union, or the kind of naturalism in which the Bible mediates nothing because it has been secularised as without residue a product or bearer of immanent religious culture’ (p. 8).

In the next section, Webster recalls how for Torrance the relation between the divine Word and the human words of Scripture is a positive one: ‘there is no crisis about the possibility of human text acts serving in God’s personal activity of self-presentation to intelligent creatures’ (p. 9). At this point the doctrine of Scripture exhibits similar formal features as does that of the hypostatic union. And Webster goes on to identify three ways in which Torrance amplifies this basic proposal: (1) Scripture as an accommodated divine Word (a theme that betrays Torrance’s indebtment to Calvin); (2) Scripture as sacrament; (3) Scripture’s expressive or referential relation to the divine Word. On the first, divine accommodation, Webster writes:

‘A theology of accommodation is a way of overcoming the potential agnosticism or scepticism which can lurk within strong teaching about the ineffable majesty of God. Doctrines of divine transcendence can paralyse theological speech, severing the connection between theologia in se and theologia nostra, and cause theology either to retreat into silence or to resign itself to the referential incapacity of secular human words. If, however, we think of divine revelation actively accommodating itself to creaturely forms, we make use of language about divine action, but without the assumption that divine action can only be efficacious an trustworthy if it is direct and immediate, uncontaminated by any created element. We retain, that is, a measure of trust that divine communicative activity is uninhibited by creaturely media, which it can take into its service and shape into fitting (though never wholly adequate) instruments. In terms of the doctrine of Holy Scripture, this means that, although we do not receive the Word of God directly but only ‘in the limitation and imperfection, the ambiguities and contradictions of our fallen ways of thought and speech’ (Divine Meaning, 8), nevertheless we do have the divine Word. Creaturely limitation, imperfection, ambiguity and contradiction do not constitute an unsurpassable barrier to the Word as it makes itself present to created intelligence … Divine appropriation, moreover, brings with it the transformation of creaturely speech, its transposition into a new field of operation and its being accorded a new set of semantic functions’ (pp. 11, 13).

In the next section, Webster turns to the question of biblical interpretation, where he allows the agenda to be set by Torrance’s own questions; namely, What is biblical interpretation’s most characteristic posture before the divine Word? What is the general tenor of its activity? From whence does it come, and to what end does it move? How does it come to learn to dispose itself fittingly in the domain of the divine Word? Webster recalls that for Torrance, the governing rule for the interpretation of Scripture is that the Scriptures ‘are to be interpreted in terms of the intrinsic intelligibility given them by divine revelation, and within the field of God’s objective self-communication in Jesus Christ’ (The Christian Doctrine of God, 43). He later cites from Torrance’s brilliant Reality & Evangelical Theology, noting that for Torrance theological interpretation is, therefore, a matter of ‘subjecting the language used to the realities it signifies and attend[ing] to the bearing of its coherent patterns upon the self-revelation of God which it manifestly intends’ (Reality & Evangelical Theology, 117). Webster concludes that ‘because of this, hermeneutics is not a poetic activity. The interpreter is not a co-creator of meaning by the work which he or she undertakes with the text. And so, in biblical hermeneutics the interpreter’s task is more than anything to receive with the right kind of pliability the gift of meaning which the divine Word extends through the text’s service. It is this all-important alertness to the text’s relation to the reality which it signifies which constitutes the scientific character of biblical hermeneutics … If the all-important property of the Bible is the semantic relation between divine Word and created text, the all-important hermeneutical activity is that of probing behind or beneath literary phenomena in order to have dealings with that which the phenomena indicate. The “depth – surface” language, that is, goes hand in hand with what has already been said of Scripture as sign or sacrament: the movement of which the Bible is part does not terminate in itself, and the interpreter must not be arrested by the merely phenomenal, but instead press through the text to the Word of which it is the ambassador’ (p. 16, 17).

A gravely important point. Webster does not, unfortunately, unpack the claim about poetic activity, nor does he proceed to relate this directly to preaching, and to what sense (if any) preaching – and, indeed, the Church’s entire liturgical witness – entails poetic action, that divine speech in Scripture calls not only for ‘crucifixion and repentance’ (Divine Meaning, 8) but also for a rigorous affirmation of the imagination, not as, to be sure, a ‘co-creator of meaning’ or where readers and hearers might be said to ‘make’ meaning, but as part of the Word’s faithful and sanctifying unveiling. Is imagination somehow not included in the claim, made earlier, that the Word’s assumption of flesh ‘carries with it the election and sanctification of creaturely form’ (p. 7)? I think here of Brueggemann’s Finally Comes The Poet, of Nicholas Lash’s Holiness, Speech and Silence (see, for example, pp. 3–4), and, indeed, of Torrance’s own The Mediation of Christ. Unless I have misunderstood Webster here, surely this is a matter of both/and. So Trevor Hart:

‘We must insist, to be sure, that God’s self-revealing initiative (in Scripture, in his own self-imaging in his Son, and in his personal indwelling of the church in his Spirit) be taken absolutely seriously and accounted for adequately in Christian discipleship and theological construction. Yet we must also acknowledge the vital roles played by imagination in laying hold of the reality of this same God and in enabling our response to God’s engagement with us. For faith, as evangelicals above all know very well, is a relationship with God that transforms and transfigures. It is a relationship in which the Father’s approach in Word and Spirit calls forth from us ever and again imaginative responses as we seek to interpret, to “make sense” of, and to correspond appropriately with what we hear God saying to us. It is not a matter of having a divine image impressed on us like tablets of wax but of having our imagination taken captive and being drawn into a divine drama, playing out the role that the Father grants us in the power of the Spirit, whom he pours out on the entire group of players’. – Trevor A. Hart, ‘Imagining Evangelical Theology’, in Evangelical Futures: A Conversation on Theological Method (ed. J. G. Stackhouse, Jr.; Grand Rapids/Leicester/Vancouver: Baker Books/Inter-Varsity Press/Regent College Publishing, 2000), 197–8.

Professor Hart, who has, I think, engaged with these questions more deeply and more satisfactorily than most in recent centuries, has argued elsewhere that imagination remains a key category for any discourse about themes eschatological, that in order to make sense of the kind of hopeful living towards God’s future that Scripture bears witness to demands that we take the imagination seriously. ‘One of the key functions of imagination is the presentation of the otherwise absent. In other words, we have the capacity through imagination to call to mind objects, persons or states of affairs which are other than those which appear to confront us in what, for want of a better designation, we might call our “present actuality” (i.e. that which we are currently experiencing). I do not say “reality” precisely because the real itself may well prove to be other than what appears to be actual’. He continues: ‘Another key role of imagination in human life is as the source of the capacity to interpret, to locate things within wider patterns or networks of relationships which are not given, but which we appeal to tacitly in making sense of things. We see things as particular sorts of things, and this is, in substantial part, an imaginative activity. And, since more than one way of seeing or taking things is often possible, what appears to be the case may actually change with an imaginative shift of perspective, rendering a quite distinct picture of the real’. – Trevor Hart, ‘Imagination for the Kingdom of God? Hope, Promise, and the Transformative Power of an Imagined Future’ in God Will Be All In All: The Eschatology of Jürgen Moltmann (ed. Richard Bauckham; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 54. In other words, the present, Hart insists, does not contain its full meaning within itself, but only in its relation to what is yet to come.

It is precisely imagination, the capacity which is able to take the known and to modify it in striking and unexpected ways, which offers us the opportunity to think beyond the limits of the given, to explore states of affairs which, while they are radical and surprising modifications of the known, are so striking and surprising as to transcend the latent possibilities and potentialities of the known. If, therefore, the promise of God is the source of hope, it may be that we must pursue the suggestion that it is the imagination of men and women to which that promise appeals, which it seizes and expands, and which is the primary locus of God’s sanctifying activity in human life. (Hart, ‘Imagination’, 76)

Returning back to Torrance (and to Webster), it seems to me that the graced value of the imagination is not necessarily excluded from Torrance’s own rigorous scientific method, though, as Tony Clark has argued in a 2006 paper given at St Mary’s College, St Andrews, Torrance does have a tendency to see the scientific nature of theology as an exclusive paradigm for theological knowledge and in this the Scottish Presbyterian ‘discounts or marginalises other approaches to theology which ought properly to complement the “scientific model”’. [BTW: I heartily commend the published version of Clark’s PhD thesis, Divine Revelation and Human Practice: Responsive and Imaginative Participation]. If Webster’s point that hermeneutics is not a poetic activity is simply to underscore the basic unilateral givenness of the text then I can have no problem with his statement, but if by this claim he means to suggest that ‘the scientific character of biblical hermeneutic’ takes place apart from human imagination, then I would want to suggest otherwise.

To be sure, Webster touches on something of this in the final section of his lecture wherein he alludes to ‘a theology of the Word’s majestic freedom and condescension in appropriating and adapting created speech to revelation’ (p. 24), but he leaves this point undeveloped, electing instead to focus on Torrance’s trumpeting of ‘a genealogy of exegetical and interpretative reason … not only to give a pathology of hermeneutical defect but also to retrieve a set of useable dogmatic, metaphysical and spiritual principles by which to direct the interpretative exercise’ (p. 25).

My relatively-small reservation aside, Professor Webster’s paper is a superb introduction to Torrance on Scripture, and betrays his own longlasting engagement with questions of Scripture and hermeneutics, most obviously in Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch but also in other places. It certainly rekindled my appetite for Webster’s own forthcoming commentary on Ephesians (as part of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series). Many thanks to the TF Torrance Theological Fellowship for making Professor Webster’s paper widely available.

Some more weekly wanderings

And here he is with Jan Garbarek & Manu Katche:

On the dynamic of Holy Scripture

path‘In order to have vision we must have memory. Indeed forgetfulness or amnesia is precisely what strips us of vision – without the past there can be no future. So our contemporary improvisation must be informed and directed by both a profound indwelling of the biblical vision of life and a discerning attentiveness to the postbiblical scenes that have already been acted out in the history of the church.

There is a certain dynamic in this approach to biblical authority that could be described as a dance between innovation and consistency. Our serious reading of Scripture must be characterized by fidelity to the thrust of the narrative and thus provide our life with a consistency and stability, a rootedness. At the same time, however, the Bible as an unfinished drama gives us freedom for historical innovation and thus a creative and imaginative flexibility in our historical responses. It is only by maintaining the essential relationship between stability and flexibility that we “may avoid the hazards” of both a rigid fossilization of our faith and “a deeper relativizing which gives up everything for a moment of [contemporary] relevance” [Walter Brueggemann, The Creative Word. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982, 7].

As we read through the biblical story, it is clear that the Israelites themselves retold their stories with such fidelity and innovation. As the ancient Israelites encountered new situations, they remembered and interpreted their traditions in such a way that they engaged contemporary problems and concerns. Indeed without such dynamic interpretation, the texts and traditions contained within them were seen to be incomplete. There is therefore a dynamic of “inner-biblical exegesis” wherein various biblical traditions are creatively reworked in Israel’s Scriptures. As the biblical story unfolds, the received traditions were “adapted, transformed, or reinterpreted” …

Stability and flexibility, fidelity and creativity, consistency and innovation – these are key if a narrative text is to have any current authority in our lives’.  – Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 2004) , 134-5)

[Image taken stolen from deepchurch]

Robert Jenson: Burns Lecture 6 – Genesis 1:1 and Luke 1:26–38

jenson-2For his grand finale Robert Jenson offered a practical demonstration of what had been argued for in the first five lectures, namely, a creedal critical exegesis of Scripture. Due to time limitations Jenson took as his text Genesis 1:1-3 only. The joy of hearing him on this text was that it touched on many of the key themes of Jenson’s thought and gave us a kind of overview of his doctrine of creation and time.

His starting point was the observation that, although the two well-known translations of Genesis 1:1 are both grammatically possible, the shift in the NRSV to the temporal subordinate clause (‘when God created the heavens and the earth’) is a move from the most straightforward and default translation to something that more closely reflects the religiosity of ancient paganism. (There is no reason, Jenson contends, to abandon the LXX and KJV here) It is a departure from radical Judaism to a view of the universe in which chaos is antecedent to and coeval with God’s creating. Jenson noted that if in the beginning there is both God and chaos then both God and chaos are involved – at least at one level – in our creation. Creedal criticism, where the creed provides the lens for our suspicion of appearances, makes us immediately alert to this reading which assimilates YHWH to the anthropomorphic gods of religion. Even if it is only chaos it is a foothold outside God – a point of independence – something other than the absolute beginning of the Christian faith. It challenges our faith in the world’s ‘self-founded timeless being’. It is, says Jenson, Scripture’s scandalous ‘metaphysical put-down’ that we try and avoid. Interestingly, Jenson notes this same impulse in the cosmologist’s attempt to avoid creatio ex nihilo by means of positing multiple universes – a totally untestable and therefore unscientific hypothesis, which has nothing other than the conviction of ‘no absolute beginning’ as its basis.

With an eye on the creed Jenson continues: ‘Who is this God who tolerates no antecedents of his work?’ Creedal criticism assumes it to be obvious that it is the Father of the Son, Jesus Christ. It thus justifies the gloss ‘In the beginning the Father of Jesus created the heavens and the earth’. Thus we may conclude that ‘the contingency of the world is founded on the contingency of the life of Jesus’.

Jenson cites Westermann to claim that Genesis 1:1 is a caption summary for the whole story that follows. This then leads on to 1:2, which is where the creation narrative properly begins. Jenson claims that the best scholarship locates this verse in the post-exilic editing of a priestly savant in the second temple and then poses the question of whether this scholar was (a) thinking paganly or (b) using pagan language of Near Eastern mythology to serve the purposes of 1:1. Under the guidance of the creed, Jenson choses to read it the second way. His account of 1:2 is something like this. Given the unavoidable sequentiality of the narration of events, the writer wields the language of subsistent nothingness as a place-marker to indicate an absence. There can be no question about before. In Jenson’s phraseology, ‘To ask what was God doing before he created the world is a dumb question.

Again in verse 3 Jenson’s creedally-suspicious mind spots ideology at work in the NRSV’s translation of ‘a wind from God’ where in every other instance of the phrase ruach elohim is translated ‘Spirit of/from God’. What’s more, because Genesis 1:3 is a late text the tradent knew this title. Jenson’s creedal reading thus concludes ‘The Holy Spirit agitated the empty possibility posited when God begins to create and there is nothing’. What’s more, this suggests that there is an ‘inner liveliness in God’ which is directed towards making something when there is nothing.

At this point Jenson offered asides on the Nicene concept of the Holy Spirit as ‘enlivener’ and the folly of continuing to insist on the filoque which was after all an illegal addition.

From here the story of creation begins: (a) God said let there be light; (b) God saw that the light was good; (c) God separated the light from the darkness. The world simply is an affirmative response to God’s command: ‘That’s all there is to it’! And this explosion of energy (light) is good (for something). Here Jenson explores all the non-creedal and non-trinitarian puzzlements surrounding this text. A monotheistic/Unitarian/Aristotelian God cannot speak. For such a god eternity is necessarily silent.  At best, if a god like Aristotle’s did speak it would be an act of condescension. Moreover, for such a god to speak presupposes a polytheistic pantheon. However the creedal critic knows that not only can the Triune God speak, but God can be conceived as a conversation. ‘God is a conversation’. Only the Triune God who is a conversation can issue a command to creation before creation existed because the second person of the Trinity is himself a creature – Jesus of Nazareth. At this point Jenson talked of a conversation in which the Son, as the creature Jesus Christ, hears and speaks. ‘In what language does God speak?’, Jenson provocatively asks. In the language of Spirit – that universally self-translating language heard by the prophets, and which at Pentecost all the nations heard as their own.

And God saw that the light was good. Was it good because he saw it so, or did he discover it to be good? Jenson responds that there is ‘no humanly ascertainable difference’. However the key question Jenson moves quickly on to is, ‘Good for what?’ And here he refers us to the second and third articles of the creed – that is, that creation is the good stage for the drama of Jesus Christ. Moreover, this 78-year old ‘unreliable’ Lutheran affirms with Barth that creation is the ‘outer basis’ or ground for the covenant and its events, and that covenant is the inner ground of creation.

What about darkness? Does God create a non-good. Jenson accepts Augustine’s reading of darkness as absence, where light runs out. Evil is the ‘running out’ of being in its finitude. Thus like the dimming of light an apparent necessity (or at least an actuality) of created finitude. The creation of life includes within it ‘death on an enormous scale.’

The story moves from the creation of life (‘energy’ in (post-)modern parlance) to its endless differentiation. Jenson comments: ‘Never rest too much on agreement between science and theology’ precisely because science is constantly changing and it is inherent in its claim to be science that it is open to such change. So Jenson argues, our priestly savant used the best science of his day to tell of God’s creation of the world – ‘what other science was there?’ We ought to emulate his courage?

Question time followed. The first question in the gladiatorial fray went to the heart of Jenson’s theology asking whether the creatureliness of the Son (no logos asarkos) implied the eternity of creation (pantheism?). Jenson, clearly familiar with the need to defend this ‘novelty’ in his thought, was surprisingly brief in his response. It was two-fold: (a) his Ockham’s razor saw no need for a pre-incarnate logos (begging some prima facie questions posed by John’s prologue, of the Word’s becoming) and (b) a pre-incarnate logos becoming flesh presupposes a common timeline in divine and human history. This doesn’t correspond to Jenson’s view of the relation between time and eternity, and is a nonsense. However, he didn’t feel the need to defend this claim here. No doubt time did not permit.

Further questions focused on theodicy. In different ways, Jenson’s succinct conclusion was that ‘we can’t get God off the hook for evil. We can’t do it, but we have confidence that God can do it!’ Jenson mentioned in passing the open theist theodicy which diminishes the notion of omnipotence so that God is not morally responsible for all that happens. Jenson is not personally happy with this, but was not completely dismissive either.

The lecture was a powerful presentation of Christian reading/exegesis which depends on the premises of his previous lectures (see I, IIIIIIV and V). One might reasonably be not entirely convinced by Jenson’s radically post-modern/pre-modern scepticism with respect to objective meaning in texts (see Lecture 5) and therefore have some doubts about the pathway Jenson takes to a theological interpretation. Are authorial intentions really as private as Jenson suggests (and Vanhoozer, for example, denies)? A comment Jenson made to post-graduates at a seminar on Wednesday morning about the infinite malleability of texts makes one wonder about the distinction between reading a text and projecting onto the text – if this distinction is lost the proposal of a creedal exegesis seems to have a certain kind of arbitrariness. However, even if Jenson is wrong about hermeneutics, it does not follow that his theological reflections on the text of Genesis 1 are wrong, just that its relation to something one might call ‘the meaning of Genesis 1’ is different from how he conceives it.

One might also think that Jenson’s suggestion that the contingent creaturely life of Jesus is part of the eternal life and conversation which is the Triune God requires considerably more unpacking than Jenson is want to do. Might Jenson’s formulation suggest that this creature who is also creator might be in fact self-creating? Might Ockham be cutting himself shaving?

A final thought: however one arrives, one never leaves a Jenson lecture unchanged. Whether he is lecturing on theology proper, on eschatology, on the Trinity, on culture, on anthropology, on ecumenism or on the relationship between Holy Scripture and the Church’s Creeds, Jenson is undoubtedly one of the most original and erudite theologians of our time. Certainly, as one commentator noted, ‘Jenson’s mind makes stimulating company’. One comes away from this series of Burns Lectures with a renewed love for Scripture, with a new appreciation of the abiding witness and value of the Church’s Creeds, and with a lively sense of doxological fervour for the Triune God. At the end of the day, isn’t that what all theology exists to be about?


Past Lectures:

1. Creed, Scripture, and Their Modern Alienation

2. The Tanakh as Christian Scripture

3. The New Testament and the Regula Fidei

4. The Apostles’ Creed

5. The Creed as Critical Theory of Scripture


Notes by Bruce Hamill and Jason Goroncy

Robert Jenson: Burns Lecture 5 – The Creed as Critical Theory of Scripture

Robert Jenson‘Texts by themselves do not automatically flaunt the meaning they harbour’. From this postulation Professor Jenson proceeded – in this his fifth Burns Lecture (for earlier lectures see I, II, III, IV) – to challenge Modernist attempts to discern what the text is ‘really saying’. He warned of the limited value of efforts to understand ‘who is up to what’ with any particular writing (authorial intent), but also that the Church cannot simply opt out of Modernity’s critical agendas. The question becomes then which critical theory to adopt.

Jenson advanced that the Church is the body which must interpret the biblical texts, and to do so in light of the regula fidei, the Apostle’s Creed, and with the Triune God who is ‘up to something’ in these texts. ‘Acknowledging God’, he said, is a necessity for every interpretation except of that of the nihilist. The Triune God is a Person, and as such is the metaphysical bond between reality and discourse about reality. The alternative, Jenson contends, is that texts float free in a void of indifference. Reality and language meet only in God. This relates not only to Scriptural texts but to any texts. The Church has confidence to do hermeneutics only because the Church knows God personally, because the Church lives in a shared history with God.

From here, Jenson posed and proceeded to answer the question ‘What is creedal-critical exegesis?’ His answer: it is ‘christological common sense’, by which Jenson meant that Christ is God’s agenda in Scripture, not as allegory or figure, but ‘plainly’ (except when the genre of the text demands an allegorical or figurative reading). So, for example, Jenson contended that when Israel went into exile, the Shekhinah (who is Jesus of Nazareth) when went them. One implication of this is that when Israel is redeemed the Shekhinah will be redeemed with them. Jenson was completely unapologetic in his insistence that Old Testament references to ‘the angel of the Lord’ and ‘son of God’ are references to the second triune identity – Jesus of Nazareth. He proffered that to read the OT like this is to take seriously its ‘plain meaning’, and also that a legitimate rendering of John 1 might be, ‘In the beginning was the Shekhinah, and the Shekhinah was with God …’ etc. This, at least to my mind, was not the clearest section of the lecture series.

Jenson concluded his lecture by suggesting that the historical-critical exegetes are not critical enough (particularly of their own agenda), and reminding us that the Church’s theological tradition is always an ongoing conversation rather than the passing on of a fully-defined body of knowledge. In light of the latter, he suggested that if Paul, James and Peter were not involved in genuine dispute with one another then they can be of little use to us.

One of the questions that Jenson responded to during the question time that followed concerned the notion of God as a God of war. This had come up in previous lectures too. Again, Jenson was nothing if not clear in outlining his basic position: If we don’t want God involved in the violence of history then this equates, Jenson contends, to the confession that we don’t want God involved with us. The implications of this position – the questions it raises – would undoubtedly require a second series of lectures, or at least a few more nights at the pub with friends, to unpack.


Past Lectures:

1. Creed, Scripture, and Their Modern Alienation

2. The Tanakh as Christian Scripture

3. The New Testament and the Regula Fidei

4. The Apostles’ Creed

Next Lecture:

6. Genesis 1:1 and Luke 1:26-38


Notes by Bruce Hamill and Jason Goroncy

NT Wright’s Lambeth Lecture: ‘The Bible and Tomorrow’s World’

NT Wright’s lecture from the 2008 Lambeth Conference (Wednesday, July 30) is available. The topic: ‘The Bible and Tomorrow’s World’. I thought it was a good piece and was worth reposting here:


My theme today has obviously been designed to go with today’s Indaba group work on our use of the Bible. This is an opportune time, as our Conference quickens its pace, to reflect on how we use scripture, not least how we Bishops use scripture as part of our vocation, as in the main theme of this Conference, to be ‘bishops in mission.’

Let me draw your attention to a book of mine which is foundational for what I’m going to say. Scripture and the Authority of God grew directly out of my work on both the Lambeth Commission and the International Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission. It was published in America under the strange title The Last Word – strange, because it certainly wasn’t the last word on the subject, and also because if I was going to write a book called The Last Word I think it ought to be about Jesus Christ, not about the Bible. But such are the ways of publishers.

The puzzle about the book’s title, though, points forward to the first thing I want to say this afternoon, which is about the nature of biblical authority and the place of the Bible within the larger edifice of Christian theology and particularly missiology. I turn to my first main section.

1. Scripture and the Authority of God

a. Scripture as the vehicle of God’s authority

Debates about the authority of scripture have tended to get off on the wrong foot and to turn into an unproductive shouting-match. This is partly because here, as in matters of political theology, in the words of Jim Wallis ‘the Right gets it wrong and the Left doesn’t get it’. And sometimes the other way round as well. We have allowed our debates to be polarized within the false either/or of post-enlightenment categories, so that we either see the Bible as a holy book, almost a magic book, in which we can simply look up detached answers to troubling questions, or see it within its historical context and therefore claim the right to relativize anything and everything we don’t immediately like about it. These categories are themselves mistaken; the Bible itself helps us to challenge them; and when we probe deeper into the question, ‘what does it mean to say that the Bible is authoritative’, we discover a new and richer framework which simultaneously enables us to be deeply faithful to scripture and energizes and shapes us, corporately and individually, for our urgent mission into tomorrow’s world.

Consider: How does what we call ‘the authority of the Bible’ relate to the authority of God himself – and the authority of Jesus himself? When the risen Jesus commissions his followers for their worldwide mission, he does not say ‘all authority in heaven and earth is given to – the books you people are going to go and write.’ He says that all authority is given to him. When we say the closing words of the Lord’s prayer, we don’t say that the kingdom, the power and the glory belong to the Bible, but to God himself. And when Jesus commissions the disciples for mission in John 20, he doesn’t say ‘receive this book’ but ‘receive the Holy Spirit’. Authority, then, has a trinitarian shape and content. If we want to say, as I certainly want to say in line with our entire Anglican tradition, that the Bible is in some sense our authority, the Bible itself insists that that sentence must be read as a shorthand way of saying something a bit more complicated, something that will enable us to get some critical distance on the traditional shouting-match. From very early on in the church, it became clear that those entrusted with God’s mission included some who were called to write – to write letters on the one hand, and to collect, edit and write up the stories about Jesus, and the story of Jesus, on the other hand. The composition-criticism of the last few decades has moved us on a long way from the old half-truth that the biblical authors ‘didn’t think they were writing scripture’. Paul certainly believed that God had entrusted him with an authoritative mission, and that his letter-writing formed part of that Spirit-given, Christ-shaped, kingdom-bringing activity. And the gospel writers, in their different ways, write in such a manner as to say, with quite a rich artistry: here is the continuation and culmination of the great story you know from Israel’s scriptures, and this is how, through its central character, it is now transformed into the narrative of God’s dealings not just with Israel but with the whole world. Any first-century Jew who has the nerve to begin a book with ‘In the beginning’, weaving the themes of Genesis and Exodus, of Isaiah and the Psalms, into the story of Israel’s Messiah, and doing so in such a way as to provide a framework around and energy for the mission and life of the followers of this Messiah – anyone who does something like this is either astonishingly un-self-aware or is making the definite claim to be writing something that corresponds, in a new mode, to the scriptural narrative of ancient Israel.

From very early on the first Christians discovered that the church was to be shaped, and its mission and life taken forward, by the work of people who were called to write about Jesus, and about what it meant to follow him in his kingdom-mission. The new dispensation, the Messianic age, did not mean the abandonment of the notion of being shaped by a God-given book, but rather its transformation into something new, new genres and themes developing out of the old. But this already indicates that the Bible was not something detached, an entity apart from the church, simply standing over against it. The Bible as we know it, Old and New Testaments, was, from the first, part of the life of God’s people, and remained so as it was read in worship, studied in controversy, and made the basis for mission. But this did not mean then, and does not mean now, that the Bible can be twisted into whichever shape the church wants at a particular time. You can’t say, as some have tried to say, ‘the church wrote the Bible, so the church can rewrite the Bible’. Paul would have had sharp words to say about that, as would the author of Revelation. From very early on, all the more powerful for being implicit and not yet much thought through, we find the first Christians living under scripture, that is, believing that this book is its peculiar gift from its Lord, through the work of his Spirit, designed to enable the church to be the church, which is of course as we have been thinking throughout this Conference not a static thing but to be the church in mission, to be sent into the world with the good news of God’s kingdom through the death and resurrection of his Son and in the power of that same Spirit.

b. God’s Authority and God’s Kingdom

When we say ‘the authority of scripture’, then, we mean – if we know our business – God’s authority, Christ’s authority, somehow exercised through the Bible. But what is ‘God’s authority’ all about? To look again at scripture itself, it is clear that one of the most common models assumed by many in today’s world simply won’t do. We have lived for too long in the shadow of an older Deism in which God is imagined as a celestial C. E. O., sitting upstairs and handing down instructions from a great height. The Bible is then made to fit into the ontological and epistemological gap between God and ourselves; and, if it is the Deist God you are thinking of, that gap has a particular shape and implication. The Bible is then bound to become merely a source-book for true doctrines and right ethics. That is better than nothing, but it is always vulnerable to the charge, made frequently these days, that it is after all only an old book and that we’ve learnt a lot since then. The Left doesn’t get it, and often all the Right can do is to respond with an ever more shrill repetition of ‘the Bible, the Bible the Bible’. As the late great Phil Ochs sang during Vietnam,

And they argue through the night,

Black is black and white is white,

And walk away both knowing they are right;

And nobody’s buying flowers from the flower lady.

I know that quoting a Vietnam protest song dates me, but I guess that I’m not the only one in this room radically shaped by the events of the late 1960s . . .

The real problem with the Deism that infected so much of the western world in the eighteenth century and dominates it still – thank God for our brothers and sisters from elsewhere who didn’t have that problem! – is that it lives by serious reaction against the whole notion of God’s kingdom coming ‘on earth as in heaven’. (Actually, much Protestant theology couldn’t really cope with this idea either, perhaps in reaction against the perceived worldly kingdom of mediaeval Catholicism, which is why it privileged a particular reading of St Paul over against the gospels, a problem still with us in the guise of the Bultmannian legacy.) But when we re-read the gospels and the kingdom-announcement we find there into the centre of our own life and thought, we discover that God is not a distant faceless bureaucrat handing down ‘to do’ lists, our ‘commands for the day’. The God of scripture is with us in the world, his world, the world in which he lived and died and rose again in the person of his Son, in which he breathes new life through the person of his Spirit. Scripture is the vehicle of the kingdom-bringing ‘authority’, in that sense, of this God. That is why the Left, which prefers a detached Deism so it can get on and do its own thing, disregarding instructions that seem to come from a distant God or a distant past, gets it wrong, and why the Right, which wants an authoritarian command from on high, doesn’t get it.

There is a particular problem here, because our Anglican formularies speak of scripture and its authority in terms of ‘things which are to be believed for eternal salvation’. Living as they did within the late mediaeval western view, our Anglican fathers rightly saw scripture as the norm which guided you towards God’s promised salvation through faith in Jesus Christ; but, like everyone else at the time, they saw that salvation less in terms of God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven and more in terms of being rescued from this earth for a ‘salvation’ somewhere else. We can’t go into this in any detail, but I just want to note that part of the exciting work today of re-integrating gospels and epistles and rethinking the whole notion of the kingdom and particularly new creation and resurrection is not without its effect on the place and role of scripture in the whole process. Basically, I believe that scripture is the book through which the church is enabled to be the church, to be the people of God anticipating his sovereign rule on earth as in heaven, and that this fleshes out what our formularies say in a three-dimensional and energetic fashion. I have said more about all this in the relevant section of Surprised by Hope. And to say more about it I move to my third sub-section.

c. Scripture and the Story of God’s Mission

So how does the Bible function in the way I have described? Answer: by being itself; and ‘being itself’ means, primarily, being itself as story. I do not mean by this what some have seen as ‘mere story’, that is, a cheerfully fictive account to be relegated to the world of ‘myth’. The Christian Bible we know is a quite astonishingly complete story, from Chaos to Order, from first creation to new creation, from the Garden to the City, from covenant to renewed covenant, and all fitting together in a way that none of the authors can have seen but which we, standing back from the finished product, can only marvel at. Speaking as a student of ancient literature, I am continually astonished by the shape of scripture, which can’t simply be explained away as the product of some clever decisions by a third- or fourth-century Council. Of course scripture contains many sub-plots, and many parts which are not in themselves ‘narrative’ at all – poems, meditations, wisdom sayings, and so on. But the narrative shape continues to stand out, and indeed to stand over against all attempts to flatten scripture out either into a puzzle-book of secret gnostic wisdom, which deconstructs the stories, or into a book of true answers to dogmatic and ethical questions, which also deconstructs the stories but from a different angle.

And this raises the question, how can a narrative be authoritative? This is the right question to ask, and it raises some exciting possibilities. As I have set out at length elsewhere, scripture offers precisely the unfinished narrative of God’s heaven-and-earth project, God’s great design, as Paul puts it, echoing the Law and the Prophets, to join everything in heaven and earth into one in Christ. And the unfinished narrative functions like an unfinished play, in which those who belong to Jesus Christ are now called to be the actors, taking forward the drama towards its intended conclusion. This is actually a far stronger, and more robust, version of ‘authority’ than the one which simply imagines the Bible as a source-book for true dogmatic and ethical propositions. Of course such propositions are to be found in it, and they matter; but they matter as the tips of a much, much larger iceberg, which is the entire drama. And it is by soaking ourselves in that whole drama that we, God’s people in Christ Jesus, are to live with and under scripture’s authority, not simply by knowing which bits to look up on which topics, but by becoming people of this story, people formed and shaped in our imaginations and intuitions by the overall narrative, so that we come to know by second nature not only what scripture says on particular topics but why it says those things. And living under scriptural authority, contrary to what has been said by liberalism ever since the eighteenth century, does not then mean being kept in an infantile state, shut up to merely parrotting an ancient text, but rather coming alive, growing up, taking responsibility for seeing how the narrative has gone forward and where it must go next. We are, in short, to be improvisers, which as any musician knows doesn’t mean playing out of tune or out of time but rather discerning what is appropriate in terms of the story so far and the story’s intended conclusion.

This, I submit, has a strong claim to be an intrinsically Anglican way of thinking about scripture, insofar as there can be said to be such a thing. I am always intrinsically suspicious of claims to discover a specifically or intrinsically Anglican approach to anything, not just because of the myriad of local variations but because of the characteristic Anglican claim that Anglicans have no specific doctrine of their own – it’s just that if something is true, Anglicans believe it. The truth behind that old joke is that we have tried over the years, when it comes to scripture at least, to nourish a tradition of careful scholarship, rooted in philology, history and the early Fathers, hand in hand with a readiness to let the Bible resonate in new ways in new situations. As an example of this I cherish Brooke Fosse Westcott, Bishop of Durham a hundred and ten years ago, who is buried close to J. B. Lightfoot in the great chapel at Auckland Castle. Westcott is known, of course, for his meticulous textual criticism, and his magisterial commentaries on John and Hebrews. But in Durham he is also remembered for being the Bishop who, before the days of trade unions, settled a long and damaging miners’ strike by negotiating so hard with the mine owners that eventually they met the workers’ demands. For Westcott, careful biblical scholarship and hard street-level work for God’s kingdom were two parts of the same whole, and we should be proud when Anglicanism reflects similar combinations.

All this is of course nurtured by the straightforward but deeply powerful tradition of the daily offices, with the great narratives of scripture read through day by day, preferably on a lectio continua basis, so that ‘living prayerfully within the story’ is the most formative thing, next to the Eucharist itself, which Anglicans do. Classic mattins and evensong, in fact, are basically showcases for scripture, and the point of reading Old and New Testaments like that is not so much to ‘remind ourselves of that bit of the Bible’, as to use that small selection as a window through which we can see, with the eyes of mind and heart, the entire sweep of the whole Bible, so that our ‘telling of the story’ is not actually aimed primarily at informing or reminding one another but rather at praising God for his mighty acts, and acquiring the habit of living within the story of them as we do so. That, I suggest, is the heart of Anglican Bible study.

Seeing the Bible in terms of its great story enables us, in particular, to develop a layered and nuanced hermeneutic which retains the full authority of the whole Bible while enabling us to understand why it is, for instance, that some parts of the Old Testament are still directly relevant to us while others are not, and how this is not arbitrary but rooted in serious theological and exegetical principle. In the book I have developed the model of the five-act play, with Creation and Fall as the first two acts, then Israel, then Jesus himself, and then the act in which we ourselves are still living, whose final scene we know from passages like Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15 and Revelation 21 and 22. The point of this model is partly to explain the notion of ‘improvising’ I mentioned earlier – when living within the fifth act, we are required to improvise our way to the necessary conclusion while remaining completely faithful to the narrative, and the characterisations, of the earlier acts and indeed to the opening scenes of our own present act, i.e. Easter and Pentecost. But it is also partly to provide a way of understanding how it is that though, for instance, the book of Leviticus is part of our story, a non-negotiable part of that story, it is not the part where we presently live. When you live in Act 5, you cannot repeat, except for very special effect, a speech which was made in Act 3. Thus we do not offer animal sacrifice; the Letter to the Hebrews makes that abundantly clear. A similar argument is mounted by Paul in Galatians about God’s gift of the Mosaic law: it was good and God-given, but those of its prescriptions which separate out Jews from Gentiles are no longer appropriate, since we are not any longer in Act 3 but in Act 5, and with that eschatological moment the old distinctions are done away. This could be pursued at much greater length, but let me just make one particular and important point. There are of course a good many features of the Pentateuch which are not only retained but enhanced in the New Testament; one cannot assume that because some features of Mosaic law are abolished that all are equally redundant, just as it would be a bad mistake to suppose that the reason some parts have become redundant is simply because they’re old or because we now ‘know better’. Things are not that shallow. In fact, it gradually becomes clear that the OT is continually calling Israel to a way of life which is about discovering a genuinely human existence, and that, granted the achievement of Jesus the Messiah in Act 4, a good many features of the Mosaic law are not only retained but enhanced. This holds true for the Decalogue itself, with the sole exception of the sabbath law, and it certainly holds for the codes of sexual conduct, as a great wealth of scholarship has shown again and again. In the whole Bible, what men and women do sexually resonates with larger cosmic issues, and particular commands and prohibitions are not arbitrary, detached rules, but tip-of-the-iceberg features revealing a deep and structured worldview underneath. I commend the five-act model to you as a creative and fresh way of understanding and using the Bible for all it’s worth.

But it is of course particularly designed to explain how the great story of the Bible is designed to point us to our mission and to equip us precisely for that mission. The story begins with the creation of heaven and earth, and it ends with their eventual marriage, their coming together in fulfilling, God-ordained union. The biblical story reaches its climax of course in Jesus Christ, where this union of heaven and earth was inaugurated, modelled and accomplished – against all the powers that would keep them apart – through his death and resurrection. And the mission of the church in the power of the Spirit is to implement the achievement of Jesus and so to anticipate the eventual goal. Mission, in other words, takes place within the overall narrative of scripture, and is reinforced and kept in place by the reading and studying of the text that speaks this way, drawing together all features of wider culture that point in this direction and standing over against all features of wider culture which point elsewhere. It is only by living within this overall narrative that we, as bishops committed to leading the church in mission, can keep our bearings when so many elements of our own culture and our various traditions would threaten to sidetrack us this way or that. As I have written elsewhere, the larger biblical narrative offers us a framework for developing and taking forward a wholistic mission which refuses to split apart full-on evangelism, telling people about Jesus with a view to bringing them to faith, and full-on kingdom-of-God work, labouring alongside anyone and everyone with a heart for the Common Good so that God’s sovereign and saving rule may be glimpsed on earth as in heaven. Anglicanism has tended to oscillate between these two, between a primary reading of the epistles as being about private and personal salvation and a primary reading of the gospels as being about ‘social justice’. The two need one another, and in the best Anglican traditions they join up, like all the other complementarities in God’s world. So my point at this stage is this: a serious Anglican reading of scripture can and should generate a five-act hermeneutic in which our goals in mission are greatly clarified and our energy and sense of direction for that mission reinforced, as the Spirit uses our telling and retelling of the story to shape the habits of our hearts, minds and wills. And to say that is of course to say that, at the very heart of it all, the point of scripture is to root, form and shape our spirituality as a people and as individuals. We are to be a scripture-shaped praying people, which of course means a Jesus-shaped praying people, which of course includes being a scripture-shaped and Jesus-shaped eucharistic people. It is out of that scripturally formed well of personal and corporate spirituality, continually confronting, transforming and directing us, that we draw water to be refreshed as we find our way forward in the service of God, his gospel and his kingdom. But all this points us on to our present culture and the challenges it presents. How can scripture form us for mission in tomorrow’s world?

2. Scripture and the Task of the Church

a. Foundation: Bible and Culture

The confrontation between Christian faith and contemporary culture, between (if you like) Jerusalem and Athens, is as old as the gospel itself. It is rooted in turn in the confrontation between the Old Testament people of God and the surrounding cultures of Egypt, Canaan, Assyrian, Babylon and then, later, Persia, Greece, Syria and eventually Rome. Indeed, cultural confrontation and the complex negotiations it generated are woven into the very fabric of scripture itself. Jonathan Sacks, who we so revelled in listening to last night, wrote an article the other day about the way in which languages without vowels, such as Hebrew, tend to go from right to left, driven by right-brain intuition, whereas languages with vowels, such as Greek, tend to go from left to right, as the left-brain passion for getting things worked out accurately drives from that side. I asked him at dinner whether he’d had any feedback on the article, and he said rather disappointedly that he hadn’t; but he drew the moral, which I now develop, that part of the power of the early Christian faith was to take a right-brain religion such as Judaism and express it within a left-brain language like Greek. (Of course, you could argue that the Rabbis made up for lost left-brain time with the Mishnah and Talmud, but that would be another story.) From the very beginning Christianity was engaged with its many surrounding cultures, and no one model – Niebuhr, you recall, explored five in his classic book Christ and Culture – will catch all the nuances we might wish. Even in a short address such as Paul’s on the Areopagus we can see all kinds of different things going on. Paul is in head-on collision with the great temples all around him, and the endless stream of sacrifices being offered at them, yet he can begin from the Altar to the Unknown God and work up from there, quoting Greek poets on the way. And, reading between the lines, we can see how the message he brought could say both Yes and No to the Stoic, the Epicurean and the Academic. The Stoic supposes that all is predetermined, that divinity is simply suffused within the world and working its purpose out. Well, says Paul, you are right that God is not far from any of us, but wrong to suppose that God and the world are the same thing. The Epicurean supposes that God, or the gods, are a long way away, and that the best thing to do is make such shift as we can in this world. Well, says Paul, you are right that God and the world are not the same thing, but you are wrong to suppose that God is not interested in the world, and us human creatures. The Academic sits on the fence: there isn’t really enough evidence to be sure about the gods, so it’s best to keep the old state religion going just in case (a position not unfamiliar, alas, to some Anglicans).Well, says Paul, you are right that there hasn’t really been quite enough evidence to be sure of anything; but now all that has changed, because there is a man called Jesus whom God raised from the dead, and he is going to sort everything out from top to bottom.

Now of course the point of all that is not simply an interesting set of skirmishes about different ideas. The point is that these ideas had legs, and went about in the ancient world making things happen. They altered the way you saw things, the way you did things, the goals you set yourself and the ways you ordered your world and society. From the beginning no serious Christian has been able to say ‘this is my culture, so I must adapt the gospel to fit within it’, just as no serious Christian has been able to say ‘this is my surrounding culture, so I must oppose it tooth and nail’. Christians are neither chameleons, changing colour to suit their surroundings, nor rhinoceroses, ready to charge at anything in sight. There is no straightforward transference between any item of ordinary culture and the gospel, since all has been distorted by evil; but likewise there is nothing so twisted that it cannot be redeemed, and nothing evil in itself. The Christian is thus committed, precisely as a careful reader of scripture, to a nuanced reading of culture and a nuanced understanding of the response of the gospel to different elements of culture. You can see this in Philippians, where Paul is clear that as a Christian you must live your public life in a manner worthy of the gospel, and that whatever is pure, lovely and of good report must be celebrated – but also that Jesus is Lord while Caesar isn’t, and that we are commanded to shine like lights in a dark world. There are no short cuts here, no easy answers. Prayer, scripture and complex negotiation are the order of the day.

There is of course a very particular Anglican spin to some of this. Many parts of the older Anglican world, not least here in England itself, have become very used to going with the flow of the culture, on the older assumption that basically England was a Christian country so that the Church would not be compromised if it reflected the local social and cultural mores. That strand of Anglicanism has always been in danger of simply acting as Chaplain to whatever happened to be going on at the time, whether it was blessing bombs and bullets in the first world war or going to tea at Buckingham Palace. Within that world, the Bible has often been quietly truncated. We don’t like the bits about judgment, so we miss them out. We are embarrassed by the bits about sex, so we miss them out too – and then we wonder why, in a world full of hell and sex, people imagine the Bible is irrelevant! The Bible is a kind of spiritual Rorschach test: if you find you’re cutting bits out, or adding bits in, it may be a sign that you’re capitulating to cultural pressure. Equally, of course, there are many parts of the Anglican world where nothing but confrontation has been possible for a long time, and there people may have to learn the difficult lesson that actually the world is still charged with the grandeur of God, and that the biblical Christian must learn to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, no matter who they are, what they believe or how they behave. It is crucial to our vocation, and to our particular vocation granted our particular histories, that we rediscover the art, which itself is rooted in scripture, of discriminating (as Paul says) between things that differ, and of affirming what can and must be affirmed and opposing what can and must be opposed. Those of us who are involved in the business of politics and government know that this is a difficult and often thankless task, but it must be undertaken.

b. The Bible and Gnosticism

All this brings us to three particular features of tomorrow’s world which stand out particularly and call for a biblical engagement as we take forward our God-given mission. I am here summarizing the Noble Lectures I was privileged to give at Harvard University two years ago, which are yet to be published. The three features are gnosticism, empire and postmodernity, which fit together in fascinating ways and which provide a grid of cultural and personal worldviews within which a great many of our contemporaries live today. I speak particularly of the western world, and I regret that I am not qualified to do more of a ‘world tour’. But I remind all of us that, whether we like it or not, when the West sneezes everyone else catches a cold, so that cultural trends in Europe and North America will affect the whole world. (I notice that, though the current American election will affect everybody on the face of the earth for good or ill, only Americans get to vote. This strikes me as odd, though of course we British were in the same position for long enough and didn’t seem to mind at the time.)

Addressing these three issues could sound like an abstract intellectual exercise, but believe me it isn’t. This is the real world where people struggle and sin and suffer, and it is fatally easy for the church to be pulled down into the cultural assumptions of the day and so have no gospel, nothing to offer, no basis for mission or content to it either.

The first of the three makes this point graphically. When I was in college we studied Gnosticism as a strange ancient phenomenon, little imagining that it was already alive and well in western culture and that it would sweep through our world dramatically, not only in obvious thing like The Da Vinci Code but in the subtext of half the Hollywood movies and, more sadly, half the would-be theological thinking in our church. Two features stand out. First, a radical dualism in which the created order is irrelevant because we, the enlightened ones, are just passing through it and can use or ignore it as we please. At this point the Gnosticism of the right says, We can do what we like with our planet, because it’s all going to be destroyed soon and we’ll be snatched away to a distant heaven. And the Gnosticism of the left says, We can do what we like with our bodies, because they are irrelevant to the reality within us. And both are held in place by the larger Gnosticism of the western Enlightenment itself which has said, for the last two hundred years, We westerners are the enlightened ones, with our modern science and technology; we can make up the rules, we can saunter around the world exploiting its resources and its people, we can drop bombs on people to make whole countries do what we want, and it doesn’t matter much because we, the enlightened ones, are the natural possessors of justice, freedom and peace so those other people don’t matter as much as we do.

Along with the radical dualism goes Gnosticism as a religion, not of redemption, but of self-discovery. This is the real ‘false gospel’ at the heart of a good many contemporary debates. The Gnostic does not want to be rescued; he or she wants to discover ‘who they really are’, the inner spark of divine life. There is even a danger that we Anglicans spend time discussing ‘who we really are’, as though there were some inner thing, the Anglican spark, and if only we could identify that then we’d be all right. And in some of our most crucial ethical debates people have assumed for a long time that ‘being true to myself’ was all that really mattered (at this point the existentialism and romanticism of the last two hundred years reinforce the underlying gnosticism). This is a religion of pride rather than of faith, of self-assertion rather than of hope, of a self-love which is a parody of the genuinely biblical self-love which is regard for oneself, body and all, as reflecting the image of the creator.

And this false religion, though it often uses the language of Christianity, makes it impossible for people to have real Christian faith, or for that matter real Jewish faith; because in the Bible you discover ‘who you really are’ only when the living God, the creator, is rescuing you and giving you a new identity, a new status, a new name. The Bible is itself the story of, and the energy to bring about, the redemption of creation, ourselves included, not the discovery within ourselves of a spark which just needs to express itself. Gnosticism hates resurrection, because resurrection speaks of God doing a new thing within and for the material world, putting it right at last, rather than God throwing the material world away and allowing the divine spark to float off free. And it is resurrection – the resurrection of Jesus in the past, and of ourselves in the future – which is the ground of all Christian ethical life in the present. Christian ethics is not a matter of ‘discovering who you truly are’ and then being true to that. It is a matter, as Jesus and Paul insist, of dying to self and coming alive to God, of taking up the cross, of inaugurated eschatology, of becoming in oneself not ‘what one really is’ already but ‘what one is in Christ’, a new creation, a small, walking, breathing anticipation of the promised time when the earth shall be filled with God’s glory as the waters cover the sea. A biblically-based mission must learn from the great narrative of scripture to set its face against all Gnosticism, because it cuts the nerve of the mission both to the world of politics and society and to the life of every man, woman and child.

c. The Bible and Empire

Second, Empire. We British had an empire on which the sun never set, and we have spent the last hundred years puzzling over what went wrong and counting the cost. As I have said often enough, I hope and pray my beloved American friends don’t have to do the same. Let’s be clear: there is nothing absolutely wrong with empire in itself; empires come and go, they always have done, and the point is not ‘wouldn’t it be a better world without empires at all’ but ‘how can empires be called to account, be reminded that God is God and that they are not?’ All empires declare that they possess justice, freedom and peace; Greece did it, Rome did it, the British did it a century ago, the Americans do it now. Who will be next, and are we ready for that with a biblical narrative of empire that will say, with Colossians 1, that all the powers in heaven and on earth were created in and through and for Jesus Christ and were redeemed by the blood of his cross? Are we ready, in our biblically-shaped mission, to transcend the futile rhetoric of left and right – a very recent invention, in fact itself an invention of the Enlightenment – and to understand power the way the Bible understands it, as given by God to bring order to his creation on the one hand and, on the other, to anticipate in the present that final putting-to-rights of all things which we are promised? If we are thinking biblically we have a narrative which encodes a mission, the mission of God both to the rulers of this age and to those whose lives are either enhanced by them or crushed by them, or quite often simply confused by them in the middle. We in the West need to learn from our brothers and sisters who live under regimes which are deeply hostile to the church and would prefer that it disappeared altogether. And, dare I say, we need to learn these lessons quite quickly, because people are already talking about the next great superpower, and whether it is India or China we can be sure that, unless something truly extraordinary happens, the world will be dominated for the first time since ancient Rome by a superpower that does not stand within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and which will see that tradition as a threat. If we don’t prepare ourselves now for the future reality, and if we don’t learn the biblical lessons here and now of what Christian mission looks like under empire, we will fail not only the world of our own day but also the world of our children’s and grandchildren’s day.

Notice how empire and Gnosticism go together. Gnosticism arises under empire, because when you are powerless to change anything about your world you are tempted to turn inwards and suppose that a spiritual, inner reality is all that matters. Carl Jung put it nicely if chillingly: who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakens. Welcome to the world of navel-gazing. That’s why second-century gnosticism arose when it did, following the collapse of the final Jewish revolt in 135 AD. And the empires of the world are delighted when people embrace gnosticism. Again in the second century the people who were reading the Gospel of Thomas and other books of the same sort were not burnt at the stake or thrown to the lions. That was reserved for the people who were reading Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the rest. There is a massive lie out there at the moment, which is that the canon of scripture colludes with imperial power while the gnostic literature subverts it. That is the exact opposite of the truth. Caesar couldn’t care less if someone wants to pursue a private spirituality. But if they go around saying that all authority in heaven and on earth is given to the crucified and risen Jesus, Caesar shivers in his shoes. And going around saying that is at the heart of Christian mission, which is sustained and energised by scripture itself, the book that will keep not only individual Christians but whole churches steadfast and cheerful in that mission when everything seems bent on blowing them off course.

c. Postmodernity

Whenever I mention postmodernity my wife either groans or yawns. Sadly she’s not here today to demonstrate the point, but before you have those same reactions let me say what I mean. We live in a world – the western world, but increasingly the global community – where truth is at a discount. Relativism is everywhere; there is only ‘your truth’ and ‘my truth’. Facts don’t matter, spin is all that counts. Likewise, and deeply worrying for the church, because we easily get sucked into this, argument and reason are set aside, and instead of debate we have the shrill swapping of hurt emotions. ‘I am a victim; you are prejudiced; end of conversation’. Or, in one of those worrying irregular verbs, ‘I am speaking from the heart, you are prejudiced, he or she is a bigot.’ My friends, this entire way of thinking – a world where the only apparent moral argument is the volume of the victim’s scream – is an affront to the biblical world, to the Anglican world, to the world of scripture, tradition and reason. Reason is not the same as emotion or indeed experience. Genuine screams of genuine victims matter enormously, of course, and are all taken up into the cry of dereliction from the cross. But they are to be addressed, not with more screams, still less competing ones, but with healing, biblical wisdom. The reaction against scripture within postmodern Christianity is no worse than the reaction against reason itself. And ‘experience’, which for John Wesley when he elevated it alongside scripture, tradition and reason meant ‘the experience of God the Spirit at work transforming my life’, has come to mean ‘whatever I feel’ – which is no more a safe guide to anything than a glance at the English sky in the morning is a safe guide to the weather later in the day.

Of course, postmodernity doesn’t stop with the deconstruction of truth. It deconstructs the self as well. At this point the Gnostic would do well to hide, because in postmodernity there is no such thing as the inner spark, the true inward reality. That’s why, for instance, in today’s debates among the gay community, the essentialist position (‘this is who I am’) is increasingly discounted by the constructivists (‘this is what I choose to be today’) – though you wouldn’t know that from the way the church still talks about the matter. But the greatest deconstruction of all is of course that of the overarching narrative, the great stories. Big stories, like truth-claims, declares the postmodernist, are claims to power. Live within the modernist story and the modernists will end up running the show. That’s how the world has worked for long enough.

And of course that presents quite a challenge to the Christian; because the Bible, as I have stressed, is precisely a great narrative, the huge, sprawling story of creation and new creation, of covenant and new covenant, with Jesus in the middle of it. That is why many Christians today shrink their mission to the mere attempt to give some people, here and there, a spiritual life and a hope out beyond, rather than taking the mission where it needs to go, into every corner of God’s world and its systems and structures. But please note: the deconstruction of power-stories is itself a claim to power. Pontius Pilate asked Jesus ‘what is truth’, because for him the only truth was what came out of the scabbard of a sword. Indeed, the conversation between Jesus and Pilate in John 18 and 19 stands near the heart of a biblical theology of mission, though sadly I’m not sure if that will come out in our Bible Studies in the next few days. In other words, though the postmodernist sneers at empire and its grandiose dreams, in the final analysis it colludes with it. It can scoff, but it cannot subvert. All those years of Jacques Derrida, and we still got George Bush. And Tony Blair.

So what does the Bible itself have to say on the matter? How can the great story I’ve been speaking of respond to the postmodern challenge – because make no mistake, if it doesn’t, our mission will shrink into a sad little parody of its true self. The answer is that the story of scripture is not a story of power, but a story of love – genuine love, overflowing love for the world God made. Note carefully what happens at this point.

I said postmodernity had one moral value only, the scream of the victim. That isn’t quite true. It has one other: the duty to, as is often said ‘embrace the Other’. This has come from various sources and it’s sometimes joined up, though I have to say with minimal justification, with some elements of the work of Jesus. This is at the heart of the appeal that we ‘live with difference’, and so on. I have spoken about that elsewhere; it all depends on a decision as to which differences you can and should live with and which you shouldn’t and can’t. There is an enormous amount of begging the question currently on this matter. But when we consider the biblical narrative we discover that here again postmodernity has produced a parody of the reality. In scripture, God makes a world that is other than himself, and that is full of complementarities: heaven and earth, night and day, sea and land, vegetation and animals, and ultimately humans, with the complementarity of male and female growing more evident within that world until it is finally affirmed, producing a picture of a world of radical differences with the differences made for one another. Within the biblical narrative, of course, this reaches its great conclusion when heaven and earth finally come together, with the new Jerusalem as the bride of Christ. This is the biblical story of love: the love of God for his world, the love within that world for that which is radically different from me, from us, the love which really does ‘embrace the other’, not in a casual and floppy sense of ‘anyone who’s a bit different from me’, but in the deep ontological sense of a love which goes out into a different country altogether to affirm the goodness of God’s creation there and to discover, in that affirmation, the greatest delight which mirrors the delight of God the creator, the delight of Christ the lover.

What we desperately need, if we are to pursue a biblical, Christian and indeed Anglican mission in the postmodern world, is the Spirit of Truth. There is no time to develop this further, but it is vital to say this one thing. We have got so used to the postmodern sneer that any truth-claim is instantly suspect. And at that point many Christians have lurched back to the apparent safety of a modernist claim: conservative modernists claim that they can simply look up truth in the Bible, without realising what sort of book it is, while radical modernists claim they find truth in today’s science, without realising what sort of a thing that is either. But we cannot go back; we have to go on; and the Spirit of Truth, often invoked in favour of any and every innovation in the church, is actually at work when we live within the great story, the love story, God’s love-story, and become in turn agents, missional agents, of that story in the world. Truth is not something we possess and put in our pockets, because truth is grounded in the goodness of creation, the promise of redemption for that creation, and the vocation of human beings to speak God’s word both of naming the original creation and of working for new creation – the word, in other words, of mission. The Spirit of Truth is given so that, living within the great biblical story, we can engage in those tasks.


There is much more to say, as Jesus himself said in the Farewell Discourses, but you cannot bear it now. I hope I have said enough to spark off some discussion and open up some topics of more than a little relevance to who we are as bishops in the Anglican Communion and what we should be about in our mission in tomorrow’s world. I have tried to offer a robust account of the way in which the Bible is designed to be the vehicle of God’s authority, not in an abstract sense but in the dynamic sense of the story through which God’s mission in the world goes forward in the power of the Spirit. And within that larger picture, the small details slot into place, not as isolated fragments of disjointed moral or theological musings, but, as I said before, as tips of the iceberg which show what is there all along just under the surface. There are other questions I haven’t addressed, not least the way in which the Bible demands to be read both individually and corporately in each generation, so that each generation can grow up intellectually, morally, culturally and Christianly. We will never get to the point where scholarship has said all that needs to be said and subsequent generations will just have to look up the right answers. Thank God it isn’t like that. But, as we in turn give ourselves to the tasks of being bishops-in-mission, of being biblical-bishops-in-mission, we must always remind ourselves that the Bible is most truly itself when it is being, through the work of God’s praying people and not least their wise shepherds, the vehicle of God’s saving, new-creational love going out, not to tell the world it is more or less all right as it is, but to do for the whole creation, and every man, woman and child within it, what God did for the children of Israel in Egypt, and what God did for the world in the death and resurrection of Jesus: to say ‘I have heard your crying, and I have come to the rescue.’