Paul Fiddes

Paul Fiddes on being Baptist

This past week, Whitley College has played host to Professor Paul Fiddes who has been our guest speaker at the annual School of Ministry. He has been speaking on the theme of Baptist identity. It really has been a rich time in so many ways. For those who were unable to be there, or who might like a little summary of what it was all about, here is a precis of the various addresses:

Whitley College to host Professor Paul Fiddes

SOM 2016 Fiddes 1

Each year, Whitley College puts on this thing called ‘The School of Ministry’, three days marked by worship, some teaching (via keynote talks and workshops), and eating together. I haven’t been to a lot of these over the years because I’ve been out of the country, but the ones that I have been able to get along to have been very worthwhile. For example, it was at one of these gigs that I first heard Chris Marshall introducing his extraordinary work on restorative justice (published as Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment, a book that was followed up a decade or so later with his Compassionate Justice), and I remember hearing Richard Foster talking about patterns of prayer, and I remember hearing Paul Fiddes speaking about baptism and the creative suffering of God in ways that I didn’t know were even possible.

This year, we welcome again Professor Paul Fiddes to address the theme of Baptist identity. Paul’s is certainly one of the most outstanding theological minds of our time, and a great teacher. I can’t wait to hear him again.

More information about the program and registration can be found here.

Baptists and life in covenant

WalkingPaul Fiddes has written a nice little reflection on the nature of covenant and how it relates to Baptist ecclesiology. Here’s a section:

It is essential to realise that this covenant is not a legal contract. The ‘way’ in which covenant partners walk can only be one of mutual trust. This is where Baptists have given an insight to the universal church which is a true gift. In the local congregation, covenanted together, all the members ‘watch over’ each other, and this ‘oversight’ happens in the church meeting as they seek to find the mind and purpose of Christ for them. At the same time, Baptists have always believed that Christ calls some of these members to exercise ‘oversight’ (or a ‘watching over’) in a spiritual leadership of the congregation. Among Baptists there is no legal provision, no church law, which regulates the relation between these two forms of ‘oversight’, the one corporate and other personal. Congregations must therefore learn to live in the bonds of trust between the people and their ministers. Oversight flows to and fro freely between the whole congregation and its spiritual leaders.

In the same way, oversight flows to and fro between the local congregation and the association of churches. The single congregation lives in a covenant made by Christ, and Christ is present among them to make his purpose known. The congregation is his body, where Christ becomes visible in the world today. This is why the congregation has ‘freedom’ to make decisions about its life and mission, and cannot be coerced or imposed upon by any church authorities outside it. The congregation is not ‘autonomous’, which means ‘making laws for itself’. Christ makes its laws, and the church has the freedom and responsibility to discern his ways.  It is free because it is ruled only by Christ.

But Christ also calls local congregations together into covenant, in association. Where churches are assembled through their representatives, there too Christ is present, there he becomes visible to the world in the body of his people, there his mind can be known through the help of the Holy Spirit. Local congregations are thus ‘interdependent’, needing each other’s spiritual gifts and understanding if they are to share in God’s mission in the world.

Yet in the covenant principle there is no legal contract, only the way of trust. In their search for the mind of Christ the local church meeting must listen to what the churches say as they seek to listen to Christ together. It must take with complete seriousness the decisions made at an association level, and will need good reason not to adopt them for itself. But in the end it has freedom to order its own life as a covenant community which stands under the rule of Christ. It needs the insights of other churches to find the mind of Christ, but then it has the freedom to test whether what is claimed to have been found is truly his mind. It might feel called to make a prophetic stand on some issue, and will stand under the judgment only of Christ as it does so.

Other churches may think that this covenantal approach of mutual trust is hopelessly impracticable, and that it would be better to regulate the relation between people and clergy, between churches and diocese or province. Baptists have learned over the years to live with the risks of trust and love. Here there is plenty of opportunity for muddles, mistakes and frustrations, but also room for all to flourish.

You can read the full piece here.

Paul Fiddes: some resources from the Antipodes

SAMSUNGIn recent days, Professor Paul Fiddes has been in New Zealand where he has taught a course on the Trinity, and made three outstanding public presentations. I promised to make the latter available, so here they are, and that with apologies for the poor quality of the recordings:

  • ‘Observation and Participation: Wisdom, the World and the Triune God’. A paper delivered at the Doing Theology in Light of the Trinity conference, held at Laidlaw College, Auckland, 21 August 2014. (pdf)

  • ‘Metaphor and Mystery: Biblical Wisdom in a Late-Modern World’. A public lecture given at the University of Otago, Dunedin, 26 August 2014. (pdf)

  • ‘God and Story in the Church and in Doctrine: the relationship between systematic theology and “everyday” theology’. A seminar given at the Knox Centre for Ministry & Leadership, Dunedin, 27 August 2014. (pdf)

For more on the latter subject, see also Literature’s Promised End (video) and Finding God in Stories (video).

Paul Fiddes on why we speak of God as ‘Trinity’

‘We only speak of God as Trinity, as a complex of relationships, because we find God revealed in the cross which involves a set of relationships. When we ask, “Who is God?” we are confronted by an event which we can only describe in relational terms: we speak of a son relating to a Father in suffering and love. There is a son crying out to a Father whom he has lost (“My God, why have you forsaken me?”) and so there is implied a Father who suffers the loss of a son, with a Spirit of abandonment between them. At the same time as they are most separated they are most one, for they are united in loving purpose: in love the Father gives up the Son and in love the Son gives up himself for us, and the Spirit of love is between them. In these relationships the world and human beings are necessarily included, and any other Trinity is a spinning out of hypotheses. It is for us that the Father gives up the Son to death, and so the “for us” is included in whatever is meant by the eternal begetting of the Son by the Father. There can be no self-sufficient, self-contained society of the Trinity, for God has not chosen to be in that way’. – Paul S. Fiddes, The Creative Suffering of God (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 123.

‘The bodice of my new costume caught on the handlebar …’

Paul Fiddes: Eschatology Revisited

In addition to his public lecture at the recent ANZATS Conference, Paul Fiddes, gave two further, and equally stimulating, lectures on the conference theme, ‘The Future of God’. In the first lecture, ‘Shaping a New Creation: Realized and Future Eschatology Revisited’, Professor Fiddes briefly outlined the history of biblical and theological interpretation of realised and future eschatologies in Schweitzer, Dodd, Barth, Bultmann and Cullmann, before turning to Moltmann’s notion of the future as adventus. He noted how for Moltmann, the eschaton is an event in which the future happens ‘to’ time. He drew attention to a postmodern challenge of openness to ‘the event of the other’, before turning to give some shape to his own Moltmannesque proposal – drawing along the way upon Bloch, Jüngel, Derrida, Ricœur, Hartshorne, Vanstone, Rahner, Swinburne, and others – of God and an open future. God’s future, Fiddes insisted, is elastic, allowing space for both God and the creature to shape their future together. God allows those who are loved to share in the making of the future life. In this way, space is made for genuine human response to the life of God, for genuine interaction between God and creature. Love means that creatures and God both make a contribution to their future together. He argued that it is not only the creatures who wait for this end – God does too! And God is ceaselessly calling out possibilities in the imagination of the creature towards the possibilities that God himself has for the future – a future which is genuinely open. ‘The end is open – certain but surprising’. God makes waiting worthwhile precisely because the future is open – both to God’s creative freedom and to the creature’s response. This means that we ought to be ‘expecting the unexpected’. Divine omniscience, Fiddes noted, means that God knows everything that there is to be known. God does not yet know, however, the details of the future because the future is not yet there to be known. The future, therefore, is both open and closed. Its details are uncertain and genuinely open. That the end is the reconciliation of all things unto holy love is, however as sure as God’s self. During the question time following, Fiddes stated that it is not possible to speak either of God or of the eschaton literally. Language reaches its limits here. We are driven to metaphor.

Fiddes’ final lecture at this meeting was titled ‘Patterns of Hope: Penultimate and Ultimate Eschatology Revisited’. Herein, he outlined John Hick’s pareschatology, and noted that one of the problems with Hick’s eschatology is its ‘highly individualistic’ nature. Again, Fiddes turned to Moltmann, this time outlining Moltmann’s version of millennialism and identifying some of its more unsatisfying features. Drawing this time upon Derrida, Huxley, Graham Ward, Heidegger, Kristeva, Merleau-Ponty, John Robinson, Barth, John Macquarrie, Pannenberg and Whitehead, Fiddes spoke of the way in which the notion of resurrection functions as an image of ultimate eschatology. He spoke too of the unacceptability of any ongoing simultaneity and oppressiveness, and proposed instead an eschatological vision that concerned the healing of time. Penultimate eschatology, he said, has an identity held in the triune God. There must be a penultimate eschatology if our identity is to be preserved, i.e. if God is to keep communion with who we are. When questioned from the floor about the nature of final judgement, Fiddes responded by insisting that final judgement means being confronted with the truth. This, of course, is a painful process, particularly for those who delight in living a lie.

Paul Fiddes, ‘Images of Eternity: A Literary and Theological Enquiry into the Future’

In his public lecture at the recent ANZATS Conference in Melbourne, Paul Fiddes, one of the most stimulating theologians writing today, considered three literary giants – William Shakespeare, William Blake and TS Eliot. He argued that for Blake, eternity is about the wholeness of persons under the aegis of imagination and forgiveness, and that imagination petrifies when reason casts its laws upon it. Of Eliot’s work, Professor Fiddes drew attention to the notion of eternity as the healing of time, and as that which overcomes the division between past, present and future. We were reminded, and that with eloquence typical of the speaker, that God holds and heals the past, the present and the future in the transforming presence of love, and that we never escape from time but time can bring us into a new sphere of love.

These are themes with have much occupied Fiddes’ thought in recent years (see, for example, The Creative Suffering of God, The Promised End: Eschatology in Theology and Literature and Freedom and Limit: A Dialogue Between Literature and Christian Doctrine), and around which he is due to lecture further this year. He will be a keynote speaker at ‘The Power of the Word: Poetry, Theology and Life’, a conference held jointly between Heythrop College and the Institute of English Studies, and at the 2010 Biennial Conference of the International Society for Religion, Literature and Culture, to be held at St Catherine’s College, Oxford, between 23–26 September 2010 around the theme ‘Attending to the Other: Critical Theory and Spiritual Practice’.

On Penal Substitution

That Christ died for our sins is foundational for Christian faith and theology. Faithful witness to this fact is, therefore, of the most crucial order.

To speak about the cross in a way that is faithful to the biblical witness requires harnessing a broad range of metaphors that the Bible and the best of the tradition employs to bear witness to the reality of what God has done in Christ. One such metaphor and an indispensable metaphor at that is that of penal substitution. Clearly, the Scriptures teach that there is a penal element within Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice. Equally clear, however, is that penal substitution is not the sum of what the atonement is about. Consequently, when taken alone (or given over-amplified voice) in describing the action of the cross, there is a danger of distorting the witness to that action, of painting appalling illustrations of the Father-Son relationship, and of positing an unbiblical shift in the divine-human relation from one primarily filial and ethical to one predominantly legal. If the story of penal substitution has been told shockingly and distortedly in the past and it sometimes has, pitting an angry Father against an innocent Son, for example, or positing that ‘Jesus came to save us from God’, then rather than abandon the story we need to find ways of telling it better, that is, ways that are more faithful to the whole of the Scripture’s story and which also account for the fact that this story needs to be told alongside others.

There are a number of things I would want to affirm in the context of any discussion on penal substitution. These include: (i) that the notion plays an indispensable role in the New Testament’s witness about the cross; (ii) we must maintain the distinction between penalty and punishment. While the Crucified Christ bore sins’ penalty, there is no sense in which he was being punished by God. The Father was never anything but ‘well-pleased’ with his beloved Son; (iii) to be sure, the chastisement of our peace was certainly upon him who entered the orb of our penalty, but the whole of Christian experience ought tell us that we ought not infer from this that there is no chastisement left for us when we are in him, a chastisement with finds the truest, deepest, and bitterest repentance throughout the course of the Christian life; (iv) there was nothing arbitrary about the penalty meted out on sin as if God was concerned with mere clamant justice or abstract wrath; (v) a biblically-faithful atonement theology must adequately account for the forward-looking aspects of the atonement as well as the backward ones. Hence the need for additional models or metaphors of atonement other than only penal ones. Paul Fiddes’ contribution in Past Event and Present Salvation is a valuable study here.

The message of penal substitution remains an important and relevant one to teach us about the nature of God’s love, about the costliness of forgiveness, and about justice for both victims and perpetrators. Penal substitutionary accounts of the atonement instruct us that justice matters, that justice cannot and will not ever be set aside.

That a stream within British evangelicalism has chosen the issue of penal substitution as its defining marker is particularly disturbing for at least four reasons:

1. It represents that some evangelicals are failing to hear and receive the Bible’s own rich account of, and commentary on, God’s action in the cross, an action that all the doctrines in the world (let alone one) could not contain nor bear full witness to.

2. The new enemies of evangelicalism are now fellow evangelicals. It is a very disturbing day when people like Colin Gunton and Steve Holmes (see my review of Steve’s book The Wondrous Cross: Atonement and Penal Substituion in the Bible and History) are targeted by evangelicals as ‘the enemy’.

3. If Holmes is right that the first full account of the doctrine of penal substitution comes with Calvin, then British evangelicals are again in danger of cutting themselves off from the large majority of the Church and its history. Of course, the evangelical community has its own long tradition of being constantly in search of shibboleths by which to define itself.

4. Not only does it represent a shift in British thinking towards a more North-American way of defining Christian community (rarely a particularly helpful thing in itself), but it fails to recognise that evangelicalism is as much (if not more) a sociologically-defined reality as it is a doctrinally-defined one. Even when some issues seem to move to the fore (as, for example, in some particularly tight definitions concerning the authority of Scripture), it remains that largely cultural phenomenon have traditionally defined how evangelicals have seen themselves (and each other) and others.