Saturday, December 27, 2008

Athanasius, De Synodis

Athanasius’ “Concerning the Synods” was written circa 359 AD, after and in response to the councils that met in Ariminum and Seleucia. Some elements were probably inserted later. Athanasius gives an account of the recent councils, and cites a variety of statements and creeds produced, and is a valuable source for the period.

Athanasius begins by stating that there is no ground for these new councils, since Nicaea is sufficient, and that they are formed to promulgate Arian heresies. Their main feature is to reject the language of ‘essence’, ‘like in essence’, and so forth, as ‘unscriptural’.

In the second section Athanasius gives a brief ‘history’ of Arianism, starting from Arius, and quoting from the Thalia at length. The ‘slogans’ or Arianism are prevalent:
“created before times and before ages”, “three subsistences”, “was not before His generation, “He is not eternal or co-eternal or co-unoriginate with the Father, nor has He His being together with the Father, as some speak of relations”

Much of the value of Athanasius in this text is that he goes on to quote at full-length the material from various confessions, Sirmian, Seleucia, Antioch, and the like, each of which is generally homoean in orientation. What is fascinating about the confessions is how orthodox they read. It is only the careful ear and eye that sees what is missing, and understands the sense of terms designed to be read in (semi)-Arian fashion.

Athanasius devotes the third part of this work to defending the terms ‘of the essence’ and ‘coessential’. He argues that the shift from ‘from God’ to ‘from the essence’, must either mean ‘coessential’ in practice, otherwise they have made the Son a creature. He defends the use of ‘unscriptural’ phrases, showing how many of the Arian statements are likewise not found in scripture. He defends against the complaint that they are ‘obscure’ and difficult to understand, by saying they should have sought instruction, rather than rejection.

The finest touch of argument in the work is when Athanasius treats of the condemnation of Paul of Samosata and the 3rd council which declared the Son not coessential with the Father. Athanasius notes the different contexts and the different heresies on view, and claims that the declaration with regard to Paul of Samosata was regarding ‘coessentiality’ in a material sense, but that in regards to the post-Nicene debate, coessentiality was properly used of the immaterial, ie. the Father and Son. He likewise speaks of the terms ‘unoriginate’ with respect to what is created and what has a personal cause. So Ignatius speaks of the Son as unoriginate (in respect to being created), but originate (in respect to being personally caused).

Finally, he opposes the idea that the Son was divine by participation, as this would destroy our own participation in the Godhead. Let me wrap up with this fine quotation:

if what the Father has is by nature the Son’s, and the Son Himself is from the Father, and because of this oneness of godhead and of nature He and the Father are one, and He that hath seen the Son hath seen the Father, reasonably is He called by the Fathers ‘Coessential’.

Novatian, De Trinitate

I’m about to head off for some holidays during January, a week here and a week there, but I thought I’d fit in a couple of quick Patristic summary posts before I go off and forget what I’ve been reading. Beach reading for this week is Jenkin’s The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died, but until then here are some thoughts on Novatian.

Novatian is roughly contemporaneous with Cyprian, a good half-century later than Tertullian. Unlike Tertullian’s more polemical Against Praxeas, Novatian’s De Trinitate (On the Trinity) is a slightly more ‘systematic’ presentation of Trinitarian doctrine, though the presence of polemic is quite evident. It is dated ca. 256 AD, certainly after the appearance of Sabellianism as a serious threat.

Novatian begins by appeal to the “Rule of Truth” handed down, and begins with a credal type unpacking of the doctrine of God. He details the supremacy of God, his creator-ship, goodness, inexpressible substance (Novatian speaks strongly against understanding metaphors and anthropomorphisms as reflecting what God is in himself).

He then turns to a treatment of the Son, beginning with extensive Old Testament quotation of messianic promises. He refutes doctrines of Christ being a phantasm or appearance, and on the other hand attempts to assert that he was “only and alone man”. Novatian is quick to affirm both the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus. In defending the divinity of Jesus he reflects on how the OT ascribes certain acts and prerogatives to God, which are transferred to Jesus, especially in the NT. He turns this further into an argument against the Sabellians, that Christ is not the Father, though he is God.

Like Tertullian, Novatian understands the OT appearances of God as pre-incarnate appearances of the Son, based on the ‘invisibility’ of God, and yet the visibility that belongs to the Son therefore most apply pre-incarnation. The more I read the Father’s on this peculiar subject, the more convincing I find it (!).

A clear signal that Novatian is not only concerned with refuting heresy comes in 21. “ And indeed I could set forth the treatment of this subject by all heavenly Scriptures, and set in motion, so to speak, a perfect forest of texts concerning that manifestation of the divinity of Christ, except that I have not so much undertaken to speak against this special form of heresy, as to expound the rule of truth concerning the person of Christ”

In 23., Novatian employs the novel strategy of using the heretics to refute heresies. The logic of his rhetoric is persuasive – if even those who are so wrong get X, Y, Z right, then so-and-so are very far from the truth.

In the later section Novatian follows a clear logic in refuting Sabellianism, going over the propositions:
1.God is One
2.Christ is God
3.Christ is the Father

Like Tertullian’s arguments, he refers again and again to the Scriptures, especially John’s Gospel, tho show how nonsensical it is to suppose the Christ to be the Father, and instead to assert the functional distinctness of the Son to the Father in the economy.

He brings his arguments to a close.

The Sabellians say: God is one, Christ is God, therefore Christ is the Father.

Others argue if the Father is one, the Son another, the Father is God, Christ is God, then there are two gods. And again, following the latter, then since God is one, Christ must be a man.

Novatian says instead, we read the scriptures and hold what they teach, that God is one, that the Father and the Son are two, and that Christ is both God and Man.

Whatever else his faults (and indeed, I must side with Cyprian on the issue of the lapsed and church discipline), Novatian’s trinitarian doctrine stands as orthodox and sound, following a trajectory of Latin thought that will grow dim against the luminaries of the Greeks in the following two centuries.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Internet Filtering in Australia, Round 2

I received this week my appropriately bland response from Sen. Conroy over the proposed ISP filtering. The letter was not addressed personally, nor hand-signed by anyone. Instead, it was a 4-page blanket statement of policy. Here are some real gems from it:

As part of a $125.8 million commitment, the letter mentions “ISP-level filtering – funding to develop and implement ISP filtering, including undertaking a real world ‘live’ pilot”. This made me laugh, at the idea that funding a live-pilot of ISP filtering were something laudable and novel.

“The Government’s policy [on ISP filtering] will be developed through an informed and considered approach, including industry consultation and close examination of overseas models to assess their suitability for Australia”

As far as I can tell, Sen. Conroy seems to be ignoring the industry’s advice, appears un-informed, and continually makes ill-considered remarks and proposals.

“Filtering technologies have been adopted by ISPs in a number of countries including the United Kingdom, Sweden Norway, and Finland, predominantly to filter child pornography”

Sen. Conroy fails to mention the nature of any of these schemes, that they are not comparable to the proposed filtering in Australia, and fails to mention the two schemes that are comparable, Iran and China.

“In these countries ISP filtering has not affected internet performance to a noticeable level.”

That is because none of these ISP filtering schemes approaches in any way what is being proposed by Sen. Conroy.

In reference to the ACMA blacklist, Sen. Conroy notes that it “currently contains around 1300 URLs.” Really? That’s the number of URLs listed as prohibited after someone complained about them. Was that the black-list used in the 2005 trials? or the current ‘live’ trials? Because that list is incredibly small, and any pilot with that number is very inapplicable to the proposed filtering scheme.

“ACMA has also negotiated agreement with the UK Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) facilitating access to the IWF’s list of child abuse image URLs.”

So a UK organisation also gets to determine our ‘prohibited’ URLs. Does that raise questions of censorship for anyone?

“In consultations with ISPs, concerns have been raised that filtering a blacklist beyond 10 000 URLs may raise network performance issues, depending on the configuration of the filter. The pilot will therefore seek to also test network performance against a test list of 10 000 URLs.”

Well, at least the industry realises the scope of what Sen. Conroy is proposing. I don’t even need to do a search to suggest that there are a vast number of sites, multiples of 10 beyond 10,000, that would be considered ‘prohibited’, that the trial won’t even begin to deal with the scale of filtering that Sen. Conroy is proposing. 10,000 URLs is not a sufficient test number at all, and I suspect any test at that range will begin to show their sheer technical futility of the proposed filtering.

The best is not in the letter though, it’s at the end of this link: P2P traffic.
Here Sen. Conroy responds to comments that ISP-filtering won’t stop Peer-to-peer and Bittorrent traffic, which is where the bulk of ‘prohibited’ material is transferred. Sen. Conroy says this:

“The Government understands that ISP-level filtering is not a 'silver bullet'. We have always viewed ISP-level filtering as one part of a broader government initiative for protecting our children online.
Technology is improving all the time. Technology that filters peer-to-peer and BitTorrent traffic does exist and it is anticipated that the effectiveness of this will be tested in the live pilot trial.”

Emphasis all mine. Really, Sen. Conroy? I’m sure a lot of people would be interested in this technology. Did you whip it up on your home PC? Surely the Government wouldn’t keep a technological innovation like this secret from us all?

Sorry, Sen. Conroy. Such technology does not exist, you don’t have it, and you don’t know what you’re talking about. Your plan is full of technical holes, is morally bankrupt, and politically unsupported. If the Australian people wanted to censor their internet, they would have downloaded software to do it themselves.

Teach Yourself Ancient Greek: Recommendations

For Ancient Greek, the field of excellent material is at once broader and narrower. There is no stand-out set of materials I would unhesitatingly recommend. Nonetheless, here are a few I have experience with and would recommend.

Randall Buth, runs a number of immersion courses (of which I have no experience), and produces innovative materials for Biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek. If you’re interest is particularly Hellenistic/Koine Greek, this is my number one choice. The materials are well-produced, and begin with picture-lessons with audio, before transitioning in Part 2 to a more dialogue-based and written approach. Buth uses a reconstructed Koine pronunciation, which I understand and appreciate but haven’t transitioned to (for a number of reasons). The materials are a little pricey (especially postage if you’re outside the US), but worth it if you buy the lot up-front. Buth’s materials are available from the Biblical Language Center

For those looking to ground themselves in Classical Greek, or after a more traditional approach, I have three recommendations.

The first is a very hard-to-come-by course by Günther Zuntz, a German Classical scholar with impeccable Greek. The English version of his course is “Greek: a course in classical and post-classical Greek grammar from original texts”, in two volumes (Paperback ISBN 1850757208, Hardback 1850753415). I picked up my copy from my seminary library, and have it almost permanently borrowed. It has excellent original texts, comprehensive grammatical explanations, and exercises designed to instill both verbal and written skills. Zuntz insists you use a tonal accent, and expects you to be understanding metre and memorising verse from chapter 5 onwards.

The second is far more widely available, and is the Athenaze series. It’s in its second edition, and there are 2 volumes. There are also two workbooks available (the first is definitely worth it, the second maybe not so much), and a teacher’s manual (I’m not familiar with the latter). Athenaze would best be described as an inductive-grammar approach. It involves readings, then explanations, and moves from a quaint story of a Greek boy to the broader events of the 5th century history, and selections from ancient authors.

My third recommendation is Donald J. Mastronarde’s “Introduction to Attic Greek”. It is a far more traditional grammar book, notable for its comprehensive approach. Mastronarde figures you should just learn everything, right, from the start. I picked up Mastronarde while doing some 2nd year Classical Greek at university, having stepped into the program without their first-year course (on the basis of prior Koine), and found the JACT course virtually hopeless grammar-wise (the JACT materials make great readers though, see below), and Mastronarde saved me. Subsequently I took a grammar course taught from Mastronarde. Stick with him, and you’ll learn a great deal of grammar. I still refer to Mastronarde for a learner-oriented explanation of certain grammatical features.

Lastly, once you’ve got going, devote yourself to reading. If you’re interested in the New Testament, buy a Reader’s Greek New Testament (the Zondervan one is much cheaper, if you’re short on cash), and devote yourself to reading it. Buy the JACT textbook, and the following readers, and spend time reading a little each day. Whitacre’s Patristic Greek Reader is also excellent. Read, read, read. That is the key to moving from ‘I know some grammar’ to ‘I can read and use my Greek’, avoiding the pitfall of ‘I learnt some Greek but have forgotten everything but the Present Active Indicative paradigm’.

Teach Yourself Latin: Recommendations

I semi-regularly get asked by people for recommendations for learning Latin, often by people who have done some Greek and/or Hebrew, and are looking to expand their ability to read primary texts from the Fathers or the Medieval period. Invariably I give the same recommendations. In this post I will give my personal recommendations for studying Latin, and in the next post, my thoughts on Greek learning materials. Let me put a disclaimer first - I have no vested interest and receive no monetary gain from any of these endorsements.

Lingua Latina per se Illustrata
Lingua Latina Homepage
Focus Publishing Page (US Publishers)
You will want to pick up the following (Amazon US links)
Lingua Latina: Pars I: Familia Romana (Latin Edition) (Pt. 1)
Lingua Latina Part II: Roma Aeterna (Latin Edition)
Lingua Latina: A College Companion based on Hans Orberg's Latine Disco, with Vocabulary and Grammar (by Jeanne Neumann)

Ørberg’s work is phenomenal – it’s constructed from the ground-up to be a Latin-only course, with Latin exercises. The use of illustrative pictures gives the reader the extra information needed to work out words and phrases. Pars I takes you through all the grammar you’ll need, and a develops a healthy vocabulary, Pars II contains extensive selections from original authors, moving from the adapted (the first few capitula are prose adaptations of the Aeneid) through to unadapted texts. Neumann’s excellent companion volume is designed for those learning Latin in a university context, who may well need/want formal grammar in English to accompany Ørberg’s inductive method. There is also some accompanying audio available for Ørberg, which will help you cement the pronunciation.

My second set of recommendations is a little more unusual. Evan Millner produces a wonderful and fascinating set of podcasts, Latinum, which go with a 19th century course by George Adler. While Millner’s pronunciation is a little eccentric (he utilises tonal accents, which I disagree with, but he has his reasons and arguments for doing so, so kudos to him for sticking to his convictions), but there is no substitute for the hours and hours of Latin he has made available to the world. Millner has been solidly developing a range of resources and websites to revitalise active Latin use throughout the world.

Devote yourself to Ørberg and Adler and I have no hesitation you’ll emerge a fine Latinist, and ready to read a wide range of Latin texts. If your interest is Patristics, you’re only challenge will be getting used to some changes in later Latin (late Empire, and Medieval), and some specialised vocabulary. Nevertheless, you’re far better off with a solid Classical foundation.

Sermons, Matthew 1 & 2

I've uploaded my last couple of sermons for the year, Matthew 1 & 2. I'm still missing the audio for Generosity. Latest Sermons

Monday, December 22, 2008

Some Personal Goals for 2009

I am not so much into resolutions – I’m not driven by willpower in that way. Nonetheless, I am very into planning, timetables, structures, etc., for myself. It helps my discipline a great deal. Here are 5 things I’d personally like to manage in 2009.

1. Language goals:
I have an ambitious and rigorous language study program set up. I’ve been fairly good with it in the latter part of 2008, so as long as I continue to give it a good priority it should go well in ‘09. This year I hope to read through 5-6 Greek anthologies/readers, continue reading 1-2 chapters of the NT daily, develop some speaking fluency, and develop and teach a curriculum to an apprentice in my local church. I’m planning to continue my ‘Hebrew-revitalisation’ program, combining traditional grammar with innovative approaches, and by year’s end hope to be doing a little Modern Hebrew, as well as regularly reading from my Reader’s Hebrew Bible. For Latin, I’m going to be working on some composition, prose and possibly verse, as well as reading Gildersleeve, listening to Adler, and spend some time on both classical and patristic texts. For German, I hope to get through a number of introductory reading and speaking courses, and solidify a basic-intermediate knowledge. For Gaelic, I hope to complete 3 different introductory course-books, and go on to independent learning through internet resources.

2. Fitness:
In 2008 I struggled somewhat in the first half to get into a good routine. In the second half of the year I adopted the ‘Lifetime Fitness Ladder’ (a quick google will bring up some results), with some modifications, and have worked up to level 15. My minimum expectation for ‘09 is to work up to level 30, and maintain it throughout. Optimistically, the only maximum is limited by the number of weeks in ‘09, but I think 40 would be a solid goal. Level 40 would involve numbers like 48 crunches (modified), 33 push-ups (modified), 34 chin-ups, and the like. Most of my modifications are to make things harder, not easier.

3. Church:
It’s hard to be entirely ‘results’ orientated in Christian ministry (and arguably wrong or ‘unhelpful’), but nonetheless there are a few outcomes I am keen to generate. I’d like to see a strong missional focus in my local congregation, an increasing sense and practice of community, committed prayer-triplets, a number of mentoring-relationships, and ultimately both numerical and spiritual growth.

4. Studies:
Re-assessing study progress, I think it’s increasingly unlikely that I’ll complete my MTh before 2010. My patristics studies definitely will require 1-2 more months than I’d allocated, which I’m happy to commit. That said, I’ll be aiming for a real, thorough knowledge of 4th century Trinitarian thought, and a high result on an April exam. That leaves the rest of the year for working on my Chrysostom thesis. I’d be hoping for a strong first draft by the end of 2009, and submission by mid-2010.

5. Reading & Blogging
This year I read over 60 books. I’m fairly happy with that number, and not sure I need to increase it. Next year I’ll be aiming instead to read more discerningly, attentively, and review more books. I’ll more generally be hoping to improve the trends of recent months, to consistent, thoughtful, and hopefully provocative (in a good sense) blogging.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Review: Nation, John Howard Yoder: Mennonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions

In the wake of Yoder's death in 1997, a number of books appeared in the early '00s seeking to evaluate and synthesis Yoder's numerous works. Mark Thiessen Nation's book is probably one of the more successful and accessible volumes of this type (I will write about Zimmerman and Carter in separate posts).

Nation is one of the foremost 'Yoder' scholars, if that's a category for scholars. He is responsible for producing a definitive bibliography of all Yoder's work, and has done extensive research in understanding Yoder's life, thought, and development. The admiration that Nation has for his subject is obvious, most clearly in his conclusion where he has scant criticism to make of his hero.

The success of his volume on Yoder is to be found in being neither too ambitious, too academic, or too biographical. While spending chapter 1 of 5 on a biographical sketch, the book works to place Yoder, not to explain him, and to give a sense of his historical situation, development, and impact. This heightens my appreciation for Yoder, rather than explaining away his thought and work as 'mere' products of his situation.

Nation's chapter divisions are very well chosen. They do not slice the pie up arbitrarily, but highlight and showcase several important aspects of Yoder's work, and relate them each to his historical involvement. This includes chapter 2 - Yoder's studies of historical 16th century Anabaptist, chapter 3 dealing with Yoder's ecumenical involvements and contiguous writings, chapter 4 dealing with pacifism, and the central significance (if perhaps more for others than for Yoder, of "The Politics of Jesus" in 1972), and chapter 5 answering questions of 'irresponsibility' and social (dis)engagement.

The strength of Nation's book is the way he clearly connects various aspects of Yoder's work, and shows its intrinsic interconnections - neither arbitrary nor tenuous, Yoder was a consistent, though rarely systematic, thinker. Nation also opens up and explores some of Yoder's lower profile writings, giving an 'in' to further reading.

The writing is quite accessible (far more so than Carter), and makes a good entry point for reading and thinking about Yoder. It's also, thankfully, the kind of work that will point the reader back to reading some more Yoder, with a greater appreciation and awareness.

If there's something more Nation could have done, it would have been a little more of the same - a little more biography, a little more exploration, and certainly a little more criticism. Nonetheless, Nation has provided a fine little volume.

John Howard Yoder: Mennonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions

On the Reading and Reviewing of Books

As the year ends, and I realise I've read at least 60 books this year, I thought I might reflect a little on my own personal reading and reviewing practices.

Reading

Books which I read tend to fall into two main categories - books related to my MTh studies, and books I want to read. I no longer read a lot of fiction, so most of the later are theological, classics, language-related, books that I've heard about and thought were worth a shot. Books related to MTh studies I leave in my office, generally because I need to take extensive notes on them. Other books I leave at home for reading.

I use a handy program called "Tomboy Notes" (I'm running Ubuntu), and have a Note devoted to books I might be interested in. At the moment it tells me I'm roughly reading 6 books simultaneously, and have a queue of about 20, a number of which aren't released.

I get paid peanuts, and have no book allowance, but I do have access to quite possibly the best theological library in the southern hemisphere, so I tend to borrow all my books.

Reviewing

I started reviewing mainly as a means to focus my reading and keep some notes from books I've read. My reviews are generally not too critical. This is because I try to be discerning in the books I read (I like to read quality), and if I don't like a book I often can't be bothered reviewing it - I want to share the good things I've read! Also, if a book is unengaging, I may not finish reading it, and I tend to only review books I finish.

Usually I will sit down immediately after finishing the book, and just write out my thoughts. There's not a lot of method, so it's hardly an in-depth process. It varies from book to book. I am trying to be more self-critical of my review writing, so that my reviews are better quality, and of more use to both you and I.

Upcoming

I hope to get a couple more in before the year's out. I'm reading a couple of books about Yoder, will try and write a few more detailed posts from Yoder, and a couple more posts on the Fathers (one on Novatian, one on Athanasius).

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Review: Banks Paul’s Idea of Community

I started reading this book after somebody mentioned how influential it had been on their ideas and practice of ‘church’, and looking at my shelves to realise that it was among a small collection of books graciously donated to me at the start of my seminary studies several years ago.

Banks’ book is a refreshing read, since it deals with a mass of biblical material, primarily Pauline epistles, but in a manner very different to the usual theologising and biblical exegesis. Instead, he sets out to very deliberately examine Paul’s “idea of community”, as it emerges through his writings to various communities that he has founded or been involved with. As such, it shines a different kind of disciplinary light on the Pauline material.

It took me longer to read than I’d planned, mainly because of the other distractions of life. Nonetheless, every time I picked up the book to read another of its 18 chapters, I was either refreshed by the novelty of its vision, or challenged by its careful historico-social reading of Paul and his communities. Banks does an excellent job of contextualising Paul against Greco-Roman and Early Jewish communities, as well as various religious and philosphical groups. The portrait one gets of the Pauline communities is invigorating and attractive.

Treatment of gifts, women, authority, mission, and the like, round out the book with significant contributions.

Perhaps the greatest pay-off from reading this, was the way Banks managed to rehabilitate the Knox-Robinson ‘model’ of church for me. I’ve always been critical of Knox and Robinson for largely doing an extensive word-study of ekklesia in the NT, and saying, “Hey, presto, here’s an ecclesiology!”. Banks has roughly the same kind of conclusion, that ekklesia in the Pauline material refers to communities that actually and regularly meet, along with a ‘heavenly’ usage of the term once or twice, but never a ‘church universal’ throughout the world view; but Banks is careful not to turn it into an ecclesiology, as if it were the sum of a doctrine of Church. His exploration of Paul’s use of metaphors, such as the Body, nice complements this from a textual study, and makes Banks’ contribution both more palatable and more persuasive.

The text is neither technical nor dumbed-down, and is a fairly short and pleasant read. I’d recommend for anyone interested in rethinking “community”, or after a new (though old) slant on Paul.

Paul's Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in Their Cultural Setting, Revised Edition

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Relativisation of the Political

I find it terribly difficult to get ‘worked up’ over politics in the traditional, or better contemporary, usage of the word. I do not care greatly for this party or that, for candidate A or B, for policy X or Z. This is not because of some spiritual a-politicalness, but rather for a very radicalised conception of what ‘politics’ will look like for the follower of Jesus.

For the follower of Jesus, God’s reign in the world is primarily, fundamentally, and finally, being worked out in and through the church as the universal polis of Jesus-followers. That totally and utterly relativises the importance of earthly politics. If God is constituting a new community of eternal beings in the church, then it becomes absurd to pour the major part of one’s time, energy, emotional commitment, and efforts into the political works and structures of this age, which is now declared to be perishing and temporary.

The constant struggle is to show, point out, explain, that this relativisation is not the nullification of the worldly-political sphere. That Jesus’ Kingdom is not ‘spiritual rather than political’. It is, rather, the nature of the politics that has changed, not that politics itself has been nullified. If that isn’t grasped, then you end up with two alternatives which I think badly mischaracterise the political nature of the gospel. Either you absolutise ‘the spiritual’, and end up with Christians who care nothing for the world, and only for the church, and whose only engagement is to evangelise in a rather crude sense. Or you dichotomise, and say that ‘the political sphere’ runs differently to ‘the christian sphere’, and so end up with the kind of Lutheran political position, that a Christian can perform acts in virtue of his secular office that would be immoral as a Christian outside that same office.

Once again, my words have failed to express my thoughts as articulately as I would have liked. Nonetheless, let me try and conclude: the coming of the reign of Christ offers a real political alternative, that relativises the political realities of the world, and calls Christians to a real, consistent engagement that is neither separatist, conformist, compromising, nor dichotomising.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The most radical ethical claim in the Bible

Is it the the Great Commandments, or perhaps the New Commandment in John?

No, let me suggest that the most radical ethical claim in the Bible is, in fact, Mark 8:34 (and its parallels in Luke 9:23 and Matthew 16:24; the wording varies slightly, but in no significant details).

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

Jesus' startling statement, primarily to his disciples, but with an eye to anyone who would be a disciple, comes in all three Synoptics after the Caesarea confession of Peter, a Messianic insight granted by the Father, which represents a turning point in each of the gospels, most distinctively in Mark. Jesus, immediately following Peter's confession, initiates a new stage in his teaching, as in Mark 8:31-32. For Jesus, his messianic mission is inextricably linked to suffering, death, and resurrection. And it is this that he makes the decisive pattern for discipleship.

It is proverbial to understand 'take up one's cross' as 'accept one's lot of suffering in life', as if the cross here were metaphorical. Nothing could be further from the truth. In Jesus' context, the cross means but one thing: public execution by the ruling authorities, as a non-citizen of no account. That meaning is only confirmed by the gospel story itself.

The radical claim then, is this: to be a follower of Jesus will involve, firstly the denial of self. This is not 'to deny X to Y', as in 'to deny icecream to myself'. The Christ-follower does not live a life characterised by denial-of-things-to-self, though that too may become a part of it. No, here is a far more thorough, radical, denial-of-self. It is the denial of knowledge, of allegiance, of determination, and of self-determination. It is to say, "I deny myself", much as Peter will later deny Jesus. It is to say, "I no longer determine my self-identity", the ultimate refutation of an existentialist humanism that sees the only real meaning as self-determined meaning. It is to ultimately and utterly surrender the self to the determination of another, to the determination of the one followed, the crucified Lord.

The radical claim is followed by a radical paradigm: take up one's cross. Jesus-followers commit to a way of life that led Jesus to the cross, to rejection by the world, to social ostracisim, to political martyrdom. However often you are told that Jesus' messianic kingship was "spiritual, not political", we must be reminded that John 18:36 teaches us that Jesus' kingdom, while not of this world, is very definitely in this world, even as he was and his disciples are, as he himself prays in John 17:11. The allegiants of Jesus' kingdom, as he did, will find themselves in conflict by their very nature and allegiance with the kings of this world, the Herods, Pilates, Caesars, Ceausescus, Stalins, Hitlers. 1 Peter 2:21 lays down the same message, the same pattern, that our ethical, social, political existence is patterned on the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, Jesus of Nazareth.

Only the radical commitment to deny ourselves, to take up our crosses, to follow Jesus, gives us the new identity, the Jesus-determined identity, to trust our heavenly father, await his just judgment (1 Peter 2:23), love our enemies as they pierce our side, and witness to the truth (John 18:37).

That's why Mark 8:34 is the most radical ethical claim in the Bible

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Sunday Night Crash

Despite the fact that I think Sunday needs to be de-emphasised in our practice of church, it remains the central weekly event for myself and my local brothers and sisters. So, inevitably, there is the post-church Sunday Night Crash. Since 'church' as event is the climax of the week, the post-service time is a come-down.

How do you deal with that?

Every week is different. Some weeks I feel great; maybe I preached well, maybe there was a good vibe, maybe a lot of encouragement between people. I go home with a buzz and just unwind.

Other weeks I feel down. This week feels like that - I think my sermon was average or below. Few people there, weak vibe.

Then other weeks I just feel trashed - physically and emotionally exhausted.

And the question is, 'Is it all worth it?' or 'Have we done anything this year?', or 'Why do I bother?'

Where do you get your encouragement from?

(No smart-alec answers, thanks...)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The case against internet censorship

Australian Senator Conroy, Minister for Broadband, Communications, and the Digital Economy, has been trying to introduce a mandatory, ISP-based, filter of the Internet for Australian users.

The filter will be compulsory, will attempt to filter out all material deemed "harmful and inappropriate for children", regardless of whether that material is legal and or available in other formats, will be run via ISP-based dynamic filtering, against a blacklist maintained by the ACMA (Australian Communications and Media Authority).

The proposal by the Labor party, and Senator Conroy in particular, is a disturbing, ineffectual, and wrong-headed move. Despite consistent rhetorical bluff that it will 'combat child pornography', the filter will fail miserably to do so.

Many of the threats faced by children online have very little to do with access to unwanted material, but the government's proposed filter will do nothing against identity, theft, online bullying, etc..

Labor has already made available computer-based filtering software to the public, and families have been slow to take up that offer. Surveys suggest this is not because of lack of awareness or education, but a general unwillingness to censor their own internet usage.

The AMCA blacklist currently contains material that has had a complain lodged against it. To enforce such a blacklist as the Labor policy suggests, increasing the blacklist to all prohibited material, will require a massive increase in staffing. Who will these people be, and to whom will they be accountable? The ACMA is not an organ of government, not responsible to the electorate in any way.

Material deemed unsuitable by the ACMA could include things as broad as 'adult themes', educational material on sexual health, material related to defamation, academic debate of terrorism (Note the case in May of Rizwaan Sabir, arrested in the UK for possession of terrorist materials, a Masters student writing a dissertation on terrorism). Furthermore, despite the best intentions of the government in this matter, if granted, they are laying the legal and technological foundation for vastly undemocratic suppression of civil discourse and freedom of expression. It is telling that the only comparable internet censorship, despite Senator Conroy's claims to the contrary, occurs in China and Iran.

The technical aspects of the proposal are also concerning. An ACMA report on 6 ISP-based filters showed speed impairment from 22-86%, the better filters generally performing slower. One filter even slowing speeds by 22% when not actually performing filtering. These speeds were under closed, ideal conditions. An internet filter for all Australians would likely be far worse in its impact, crippling e-commerce and the like. It will produce a number of false hits, roughly 1 in 100, and ultimately fail to deal with child pornography on the internet, since the majority of such traffic is not web-based at all, but traded in secretive and encrypted forms on peer-to-peer networks and the like. There already exist technical workarounds for the Government's proposal, and those most likely to use them for illegal purposes, will indeed do so. Furthermore, there is a high possibility, even inevitability as some have said, that the black list, which no-one will be able to access, will in fact leak, providing a ready source for those circumventing the technology to access such materials.



Finally, censorship is simply wrong policy in a democracy that claims to value freedom, of speech, discourse, religion, political persuasion, and the like. Attempts to censor the internet smack of so many past attempts to censor, choke, silence people's free and open discussion and consumption of materials. If the government is serious about dealing with the problems of internet child pornography and the like, they would pour serious money into both providing optional computer-based filtering for those who want it, and funding for federal police involved in tracking, arresting, and prosecuting child pornographers.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Power of the Media: exemplum

I work in an area of Sydney known for difficulty, and a large proportion of our area I would term the 'suburban poor'. They live in government housing, have poor prospects, and compounded social issues. We run an Emergency Relief outfit from our church, providing food vouchers, electricity coupons, etc., for those in need. For Christmas, we had a sizeable number of hampers of food and toys to give to some of our clients.

Earlier in the week some thieves broke in and stole our treasures. Yesterday channels 7, 9, 10 all ran stories on it, and in response today people responded - charity organisations restocked our hampers, others provided even more stuff, private citizens dropped in and dropped off their own donations, and the NSW Premier and the local MP both made an appearance, the Premier to donate $10,000 to our work. So, naturally, there were more cameras and more reporters, and we'll be back on the news tonight.

It's all a reminder of the power of mainstream media, and not least a reminder that God can and does work through the worst to bring the best.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A question of Bible Software

I’ve been thinking this year about investing in some bible software, and here are some thoughts as I think out loud...

My big questions are about value and money. While at seminary, I picked up Bibleworks 6, which I still use, though far from its full potential. To be honest, I mainly use it to bring up Greek/Hebrew texts and cut and paste them into word documents. Occasionally I’ll use it for some comparisons or translating.

The two alternatives are Logos, and Bibleworks Version 8.

Logos has a large number of things going for it – my wife and I intend to go overseas in 2-3 years for mission work, in a seminary-training capacity, and so access to a personal academic library is exactly the kind of thing I will need. Electronic versions of commentary series, such as BECNT, NIGTC, etc., would be of real monetary and practical value. Furthermore, things like the work on Migne’s patristic texts will be invaluable for my future research.

The downside is cost. I do not earn a great deal in my current capacity, am unlikely to gain great sums of money in the near future, and will have to fund any such purchases straight out of my own pocket. The base packages of Logos material are full of huge amounts of worthless junk (to me that is), but then to buy individual books, like single bible translations, then becomes inordinately expensive. Moreover, texts such as Migne range in the hundreds, hundreds I will find hard to find and justify.

Bibleworks has a much lower scope of usefulness, in terms of academic/personal library. I am pleased to see the inclusion of the Early Church Fathers ANF/NPNF series included in the latest version, and costwise, the upgrade from 6 to 8 would almost certainly be worth it based on the new inclusions.

In the end, I suspect I will have to go down the Logos line sooner or later. It’s just some large up-front costs to get what I do want, and a lot of packaging of things I probably don’t, and the daunting reality of funding my own academia when I’m more and more cut off from quality libraries.

Tertullian, Against Praxeas

As I spend the next 3-4 months reading the Fathers around the topic of the Trinity, I will post a number of summaries/introductions like this, introducing a particular work, its context, themes, arguments.

Tertullian: ca. 150-225 AD, one of the first, and most definitive, of the Latin Fathers. Converted with a background in rhetoric and law, he was a powerful apologist and advocate for the faith.

Against Praxeas is written, probably, before 208 AD. Praxeas can be placed theologically as a Monarchian modalist, holding that the Father and the Son are the one and the same (person).

Tertullian defends in this work the unity of substance of the Godhead, and the distinction of the Persons. He represents the ‘monarchy’ of God as sole rule, but says this is not threatened by the multiplicity of persons at all. Rather, only the doctrine of a second God (such as Marcion presented) would overthrow the monarchy of God.

His arguments focus primarily on distinguishing without dividing the persons, especially the Father and the Son. He refers to the Rule of Faith, and provides a summary of the traditional teaching. He develops analogies of the Sun and its rays, a Tree and its root, a Fountain and its river. His scriptural arguments spend significant time in Proverbs 8:22-301, involves a thorough reading of the Gospel of John, and employs clear logic to make Praxeas’ position nonsensical. Tertullian also spends some time on the visibility and invisibility of God, developing an argument that the appearances of God in the OT are to be referred to the Son, though as an image, mirror, enigma, rather than the fullness of his visibility in the incarnation. He introduces and distinguishes between the Unity of God in substance, and the diversity of the Persons in economy.Lastly, he does not neglect the Spirit, but develops his distinct Person in the same way, and he also treats the two natures of Christ.

Key quotes:
The famous line, “drove away prophecy, and he brought in heresy; he put to flight the Paraclete, and he crucifed the Father”, appears in Chapter 1, describing Praxeas, who opposed the Montanists, and his monarchianism implies Patripassianism.

Summary of position, “All are of One, by unity (that is) of substance; while the mystery of dispensation [oikonomia] is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order [dirigens] the three persons... three, however, not in condition [statu], but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect [specie]; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power.”

Concerns? Tertullian uses some language that in later Patristic discourse would be used more precisely, and so some of his phrases sound concerning, though a broader acquaintance with Tertullian’s theology will show his Trinitarian orthodoxy. He speaks of the Son proceeding from the Father, is prepared to employ the terminology of prolatio, which the Valentinians also use (Tertullian is careful to qualify his usage). Some of his analogies, of the attribute of Reason being with God in the beginning, and from this his Word coming forth, are also concerning, but must be read against his other works.

Concluding thoughts: Against Praxeas is a short work, and could easily be read with profit in a single sitting. It represents one of the earliest attempts to formulate trinitarian doctrine, and provides a significant witness to Latin thinking in Africa. Tertullian’s use of scripture is edifying, and his treatment of John shows exactly how significant that gospel was in this area of doctrine. Tertullian is also more than capable of the quick quip, and his style, even in the ANF translation, is enjoyable to read.

1 Pr 8:22-30 seems a favourite text for Patristic discussion of the pre-existent Son, and I hope to do some significant investigation of that text at a later time.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Ultimate Fighter Jesus

I’ve been thinking of writing this post for quite some time now, but have waited. Partly this has been to put my thoughts into a coherent shape. Partly it’s because I will speak strongly to criticise Christian brothers that I respect and admire.

Let me secondly preface this post by some personal context. I spent over 10 years training in Kung Fu, and a further 2 years in regular and intensive Krav Maga training. I am personally acquainted with the Martial Arts scene, and am not by nature inclined to pacifism.

The trend to portray a more masculine vision of Christian discipleship is a trend to be applauded in the Western churches, which have had an uncomfortable recent history of the feminisation of Christianity, to the point where men find it difficult to relate to churches, the faith, and Jesus himself. However, the shape that this masculine vision takes is one that is frequently under-resourced theologically, and over-resourced culturally.

‘Ultimate Fighting Jesus’ is a false and idolatrous view of Jesus.

Jesus pattern of incarnate male existence continually and consistently rejected violence as a socio-political option, as a messianic-eschatological method, and as a form of entertainment. There is little doubt that the early church for several hundred years considered pacifism to be the definitive ethical position for Christian disciples, and exercised ecclesial discipline on those involved with both military service and gladiatorial spectacles. Tertullian serves as a notable example of early and forceful opposition to the kind of spectacle the gladiatorial games provided. Thus, early church tradition accords with the biblical material.

Even if one holds a just war theory, the glorification of violence-as-entertainment is deeply disturbing and difficult to justify.

I cannot, insofar as I am regenerate, delight in the spectacle of one man damaging the body of another, the fleshly form of the image of God in the world.

The call that this is ‘cultural engagement’ also rings hollow. It is far more ‘cultural endorsement’ than engagement. Christians engaging the porn industry, by contrast, show far more integrity and discretion, than do those glorifying fight-culture. Some tattoos, a six-pack, and a 10-0 record in the ring do not a culturally-relevant Christian make.

Those who worship the Ultimate Fighter Jesus are often guilty of a reverse-reading of the New Testament. The New Testament scriptures regularly metaphorise the language of violence, to speak of spiritual ‘warfare’. They ground the conquest and victory of Jesus in his literal defeat and suffering. They oppose the idea that Christians engage in literal conflict, and offer a powerful counter-cultural paradigm, of Christlike non-retaliation and active nonviolence. Even in that most evocative of militant texts, the Apocalypse of John, the depiction of Jesus as conquerer is consistently and systematically reoriented to his death as sacrificial Lamb, and the theme of vindication is linked to Judgment, not contest. To take the language of violence, metaphorical in the New Testament, and re-concretise it, is a gross mis-reading of the Scriptures.

To those who continue to indulge their sinful flesh in the glories of violence, I call them to repent, and I am more than willing to engage them theologically on the issue. Ultimate Fighter Jesus is yet another mirror for the narcissistic exegete.

4 things I'm excited about for 2009

1. Preaching

This year I have preached most sundays. The move from being an occasional preacher to preaching as a main part of my role has not merely been a change in intensity but a paradigm shift in my preaching. Next year I am particularly looking forward to preaching two long series on John's Gospel, and the book of Isaiah. I'm looking forward to preaching better, and investing less of my identity in doing so. Undoubtedly, the person who gets the most out of my sermons is me, so I'm looking forward to that as well.

2. Study

There is no doubt that studying for a research degree has led me to engage with theology at a high level. I've learnt a great deal academically, and spiritually, this year by my studies in the book of Revelation and the Gospel of Matthew. Over summer I am reading a great deal of Patristics, and if I work hard, I hope to have a thesis on Chrysostom completed by this time next year.

3. Community

One of the things I have been challenged about in my thinking, from books such as Total Church, and Bank's Paul's idea of community (currently reading), is that community is not about the feeling of community, but about the sharing of life together under the gospel. In 2009 I'm looking forward to living with the christians in my life, and changing our structures to reflect and enable such a view of 'church'.

4. Mission

2009 looks like being the year that a number of new opportunities take off for us in terms of reaching out to people in our local community. Due to the nature of my position here and its length, 2009 *is* the year of new beginnings, and I pray that they grow in the years to come to be long-term, relational, missional engagements with the lost.

Friday, December 05, 2008

MTh Progress

It's certainly been a busy week for me. Today I sat my second MTh exam, on Matthew's Gospel. It was a fair but tough exam. I suspect I won't see any results for several months. On Monday I will begin studies for my 3rd exam, Trinitarian thought in the 4th Century. I hope to sit that exam in late February, and finish my thesis component (30,000 words, Christology of Chrysostom's Homilies on John) by the end of 2009.

This weekend I'm off to give some talks on 1 Peter.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Short sharp thoughts on Matthew 5:3

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."


Matthew’s first beatitude forms in inclusion with the last, as seen by the dual grounding of the blessing, “Theirs is the kingdom of Heaven”. Both reflect the same reality, framed quite differently. In the first, “the poor in spirit” are best understood as those who are poor with respect to their mental and spiritual position. In this regard, Matthew’s “the poor in spirit” is by no means a spiritualisation of the Lucan parallel, “the poor”, since by this time “the poor” was virtually a short hand for pious believers who were in fact generally marginalised and thus literally poor. Thus Matthew draws attention not away from their literal poverty, but to the spiritual and associated psychological dimension of their poverty – those whose only hope is in the Lord. The radical fact of the inclusion formed with 5:10 is that the poor are persecuted, which is not surprising in itself, but in its extension in v11, persecuted on the basis of identification with Jesus. Right from the start of the Sermon on the Mount, the idea that the will of God can only be fulfilled through Jesus and allegiance to him, is being expressed.

“Theirs” is placed in an emphatic position in the second clause, and draws attention to the possession of the Kingdom. This is not so much a hidden imperative, “be poor (in spirit), and you will have the kingdom”, but a profound statement of the present realisation of eschatological promises, such as those of Isaiah 40, 42, 62. The poor now do possess the kingdom of heaven, precisely on the basis of their faithful allegiance to God, now expressed through and in Jesus. In the coming of the King, the Kingdom too has come.

The close association of the disciples with Jesus throughout Matthew’s gospel leads me to the suggestion that the sense in which the kingdom of heaven is present is precisely in the new community that is formed by Jesus and around Jesus. Those “poor in spirit” are in fact the ones living in allegiance to the King of the heavenly Kingdom, and so possessing the Kingdom. This by no means exhausts the eschatological promises to be consummated at the second coming, but does offer a powerful challenge that the reality of the Kingdom is far more present than some Christians are willing to express.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Matthew's Christology and use of the Old Testament

I haven't had much of a chance to write this last week and a half. Nonetheless, I wanted to jot down some conclusions I have come to, after spending a good portion of the last 5 months working through the topic of Matthew's use of the Old Testament, and how this contributes to his Christology. I will present them in points:

1. Matthew is probably indeed a Christian of Jewish origin.
2. Matthew's primary text of the OT is a version of the LXX. It differs in some regards from extant LXX versions, in being revised towards the Hebrew, and this explains some of the textual forms of his quotations. (see Menken)
3. Nonetheless, Matthew likely knows Hebrew as well, and makes some redactional changes to his quotations, though not major changes.
4. Subsequently, the location of Matthew may indeed by a trilingual area, such as Palestine or Syrian Antioch as has been proposed.

5. Matthew does not use a 'testimony' - a collection of OT verses atomised from their context.
6. Matthew rarely alters his traditions, but rather connects his quotations to their contexts.
7. Matthew does not use OT citations to proof-text predictive prophecy from the OT with fulfilment in the New.
8. Rather, Matthew utilises a number of hermeneutic methods, including double fulfilment (Blomberg), fulfilment, and typology.
9. Matthew's major redactional work is in selecting the length of his quotations and inserting them into their contexts.

10. In a number of cases, Matthew alters his quotation with elements from another OT passage. He does so on the basis of contemporary exegetical practice, with the purpose of drawing attention to the secondary OT passage.
11. In at least 1 case (Zech/Jer), possibly 2 (Ps/Isa) the Introductory Formula to that quotation cites the secondary source, in order to make it clear, with the assumption that the primary source would be recognised regardless.

12. Matthew's Christology centres on 'Son of God', as Kingsbury claims. This involves both divine sonship as will as a royal Messianism.
13. Son of David is an important title for Matthew, and part of his strategy is to show how the Son of God is the Son of David.
14. Matthew's contextual usage of 'Son of David' in connection with the healing ministry of Jesus is subversive of populist Davidic expectations.
15. Matthew also utilises Suffering Servant theology from Isaiah. This element is not focused on vicarious suffering and atonement, though that is located elsewhere in Matthew. Suffering Servant Christology mutually interprets Son of David and Son of God elements.

16. Son of Man is used deliberately in Matthew, in public contexts with clear division between insiders/outsiders, and in disciple-contexts to speak of death/resurrection/parousia.
17. Son of Man is not a title with built-in semantic elements. Otherwise the exchange in ch 16 would be nonsensical.
18. Nonetheless, Jesus does appear to connect Son of Man language with Daniel 7.
19. Jesus himself is the source of Son of Man traditions.
20. Jesus combines different uses of Son of Man to re-interpret the title.
21. Matthew uses Jesus' use of Son of Man to contribute to his broader Christology

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Review: D.H. Williams, Tradition, Scripture, and Interpretation

I'm not entirely sure what to do with this book. Williams says in his preface that he intended it as a companion volume to Evangelicals and Tradition. It is, basically, a collection of illustrative texts from the early church, arranged thematically, designed to complement and support Williams' arguments for a greater appreciation of tradition and the ancient church. The texts are edited by Williams, occasionally translated or altered by him. The volume comes with a short introductory essay which echoes some of his argument from the earlier volume.

Overall, I suppose this resource does make a welcome contribution, providing a usable and useful collection of texts on various themes. Nonetheless, I am still left wondering what to do with it? So, thanks, but I'm not sure what for...

Tradition, Scripture, and Interpretation: A Sourcebook of the Ancient Church (Evangelical Ressourcement: Ancient Sources for the Church's Future)

Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, v

I don't have a lot to say on this brief chapter. It's entitled "The possibility of Non-violent Resistance", and Yoder takes just a few pages to put the case that there existed in the Jewish context of Jesus the mental possibility of a non-violent resistance, not merely a violent Zealot option. He points to two incidents, one involving Roman standards brought into Jerusalem with Pilate as procurator, and the second with the attempt to set up a statue of Caligula in the temple, both of which were met with large scale Jewish dissent of a non-violent (and effective) nature.

Yoder, Discipleship as Political Responsibility, i

This slender volume contains two essays, presented as lectures, in 1957, translated from German into English. In this post and the next, I will briefly outline Yoder's arguments in each essay.

The first essay is entitled, 'The State in the New Testament', and Yoder begins by seeking to ask 1. What does the Bible say? 2. How are we to apply that?

In the first part, Yoder then outlines 2 theses statements (He says he will outline 4, but only 2 appear clearly):
1. "The divine mandate of the state consists in using evil means to keep evil from getting out of hand." (p18) Yoder is speaking of the state primarily as "the order of the sword" (p19), rather than the modern administrative complex we generally refer to. He traces the state's function in scripture as an expression of God's grace aimed at redemption by the preservation of life and existence. He notes that the most frequently appearing OT text in the NT is Ps 110:1, and that the NT understands the State as one of those 'enemies' hostile to the Messiah and triumphed over in the cross. Yoder concludes his first thesis by reaffirming that the state is 'pagan', but that God uses this nonetheless for his purposes.

2. "The divine mandate of the church consists in overcoming evil through the cross." (p21) Once you grasp Yoder's two mandates, the basis for his theology and social ethic becomes apparent, if not obvious. To follow Christ is to pattern and participate in the triumph over evil by way of the cross - sacrificial love unto death. Yoder then points to 1 Tim 2:1ff, as the text that best helps us relate the two mandates, "Saving people and bringing them to the knowledge of the truth were not achievements of the Roman Empire" (p22). The mandate of the state exists to keep evil in check, only in service to the superior mandate of hte church, to overcome evil. The state's existence serves the church (and not vice versa)

Yoder then goes on to speak of hte limits of the state, and suggests that the state is not addressed by Christian standards, but on its own terms is to be called to act justly. He goes on to identify the state as a Pagan institution through a number of considerations. By reading Rom 12:19 alongside Rom 13:4, he poses the dilemma of how one can both exact vengeance and live/proclaim the gospel of forgiveness (cf. 1 Cor 6:7). Further, he briefly compares the pattern of Holy War in the OT as Divine Deliverance with the later wars of the kings, confronted by the prophets for their idolatrous reliance on military strength. In the NT, he addresses his consideration to Jesus, and points out the reality of temptations to Jesus to wield the sword, following a Zealot-Messiah conception. Jesus rejects this mandate, and instead chooses the cross.

Two objections are then considered: a) aren't Christians handing over to 'the devil' the state? He rejoins that if the sovereignty of God is believed, then even the pagan powers are under God's ultimate control. b) Christians who do this are parasites, taking the protection but refusing the burden of the state. Yoder takes Origen's response to Celsus - that through the work of the church, Christians contribute more, not less, to the state. [I would further add that Christians are more than willing to forgo State 'protection' to be faithful to their mandate]

The second section then considers the question of application. Yoder's initial point is that the majority of thinkers claim, or at least practice, that the differences between the NT and our situation make this NT picture irrelevant. Thus, ethics takes it starting point elsewhere. Yoder says this is inadequate, and seeks to evaluate the changes that have taken place and what relevance they have.

Yoder begins by challenging the notion of 'progress', especially that Constantine and co. marked a change for the better. He notes seven changes that have taken place:
1. Instead of persecution, the church is recognised and favoured. Yoder: this does not change the church-state relation.
2. The number of Christians is a majority, so it is no longer possible to leave it in the hands of non-Christians. Yoder: this isn't actually true, but represents the shift from 'Christian' designating a believer to being an ethno-social tag. Secondly, that majorities should rule is far from obvious.
3. Political leaders have become Christians. Yoder: In what sense can the Christian act as a non-Christian in their state-office.
4. The requirement of military service (ie, conscription et sim.). Yoder: Ït does not follow that a military responsibility is a Christian responsibility" (p39-40).
5. Distinction between the welfare and totalitarian state. This is the first point at which Yoder does recognise a significant difference. His response is to articulate that Christians may be involved in 'the state' in a broader sense, but cannot be bound up in the "violence of the sword" (p40) which remains intrinsic to the state's essence.
6. The desire to have a universal ethic. Yoder responds that it makes no sense to hold non-Christians to a Christian ethic that is centered on Jesus, experienced forgiveness, and the power of the Holy Spirit.
7. Democracy as statehood. Yoder suggests that the idea that citizens are the state is not really true. "There is no absolute difference, only a relative difference, between a democracy and other forms of statehood." (p42)


In closing, Yoder provides several observations of application for thinking about the state today:
1. "The question is not whether we have a responsibility to the state, but how we fulfill our responsibility."(p43)
2. The NT remains normative concerning the state's role with respect to violence. Other parts of the state are to be evaluated in relation to that.
3. "one form of political responsibility is to refuse...to participate in the life of the state" (p44)
4. The history of states is not all history.
5. The state exists to maintain order. When it seeks a higher purpose, it tends to self-idolatry.
6. Human officials do not give up human autonomy.
7. Christian responsibility is linked to being able to step aside when asked to act non-Christianly.
8. The question is not "Is this forbidden?" but to look for the greatest opportunities of service.
9. We will not act as if everybody is a Christian.
10. There is no grounds for self-righteous withdrawal, but rather for engagement with the world.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Review: D.H. Williams, Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church

(I read this book earlier in the year, but posted a review elsewhere. I'm reposting this partly as part of my agenda on this blog, partly in preparation for an upcoming review here)

D.H. Williams' book appeals best to those who are already somewhere close to his camp, evangelicals who identify with things like paleo-orthodoxy, ancient-future, etc..

As someone somewhere over near that camp, it's a very welcome book, the first of a number of books in a series entitled Evangelical Ressourcement, aimed at bringing some of the riches of tradition to bear on the contemporary, evangelical, church.

Williams lays out a strong and extensive case for the importance and value of tradition. The book has 5 main chapters.

The first deals with "Conversion and Construction". Williams deals with how in the early church people were converted, and the body of teaching and faith they dealt with was not a nicely printed leather-bound 'bible', but a body of teachings handed-down, with limits and principles and some scriptures, in a word a 'tradition'. he explores the nature of early tradition, how it emerged and was constructed as a real entity aimed at guaranteeing the church's memory.

The second chapter deals with the early church as canonical, in which Williams makes a case that not all 'traditions' are 'Tradition', and that the apostolic and patristic eras really do function canonically - as a standard of judgment, for later developments. He lays out how that tradition interacts within itself to define orthodoxy, and how it is received in later history.

The third chapter, deals with the thorny question evangelicals always need to face down - whether tradition and scripture are separate sources of authority. Protestantism has generally defined itself on the answer that scripture alone has authority. Williams builds a strong and persuasive answer that the patristic and medieval church never thought of the two as separate streams of authority or teaching at all, but tradition as rooted in, flowing out of, and ensuring right-reading, of the scriptures. Williams warns of the dangers of hyper-individualism in approaching the scriptures, and of sola scriptura becoming nuda scriptura.

The fourth chapter deals with an equally 'evangelical'-prompted question, and explores in short-form the doctrine of justification in the fathers, and how that fits with a reformed protestant perspective.
The fifth chapter highlights a number of the types of sources of the early fathers, really as a very mini-introduction to what sort of texts they produced and why and some samples.

Overall, Williams' book is an exhortation, more than an introduction. It's aimed at persuading readers, and particularly pastors and theologians of evangelical stock, of their need to, and the value of, re-engaging with the tradition of the church, particularly the normative traditions of the early church fathers, especially if they are not to wander and drift astray in the contemporary days. It's a fine book and a good read. 3 stars

Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church (Evangelical Ressourcement: Ancient Sources for the Church's Future)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, iv

The title of his fourth chapter, 'God will fight for Us', is an excellent indication of where Yoder is going in it. It's a brief attempt not to answer, but to reframe the question, of war and the Old Testament. Yoder points out that the question is generally frame as an ethical, generalised, and legalistic question, and then brought to the OT which has its own agenda.

Instead, Yoder points out that we need to read the scriptures as a story, and that the believing Israelite would not have read the story in that way. The strand of that story that Yoder teases out is God's salvation of his people, and he traces this through the Exodus event, the wars of conquest, the wars of the kingdom, right through to the post-exilic period. Yoder's point in all this is that the focus is on the deliverance of God, sometimes without violence, sometimes through violence, but often over and against politico-military strategy and reliance. His point is further strengthened by considering the way a lot of modern-ethically-problematic material (holy wars, Abraham/Isaac, etc) is framed cultically and non-problematically in the historico-social context. We impose questions that would have made no sense back then.

What Yoder does next is slightly unexpected. He's not here interested in elaborating a study of war and peace in the OT. Instead, he makes the point that with this kind of story, that believing Israelites in Jesus' day had an expectation that God could act in these kinds of ways. That Jesus' use of "the language of liberation and revolution, announcing a restoration of 'lingdom' community and a new pattern of life, without predicting or authorizing particular violent techniques for achieving his good ends, ... he need not have seemed to his listeners to be a dreamer." (p84)

Yoder then applies this leverage against the contemporary reader of Jesus. We assume that a generalised Jubilee, or a non-violent withdrawal of an enemy force, are highly improbably, if not downright impossible. So, we conclude Jesus could hardly have been talking of those kinds of things. But that is not the hearing Jesus would have received.

Likewise we treat apocalyptic sounding claims as "off the map", but the kinds of things Jesus is talking have a theological-historical grounding in the story of Israel in the Scriptures, so that "Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom was unacceptable to most of his listeners not because they thought it could not happen but because they feared it might, and that it would bring down judgment on them" (p85 Author's emphasis).

Personal thoughts: While it would have been great for Yoder to do far more work on the OT ethical material, that's not his aim here. And I should go and read some other texts for that myself. I do think Yoder's strategy is logically and persuasively powerful. We do approach the text with those kinds of wrong questions, and so fail to hear the texts on their own terms.

The same also applies to arguments I hear from Christians against my position. They practically, if not theoretically, think in terms of realpolitik, politico-military 'necessity', and success/failure. The idea of divine deliverance, of God acting in history, and of faithfulness and martyrdom being the marks of Christian 'success', are paid lip service and swept aside in ethical thinking.

RefTagger: Why it's good

RefTagger is basically a javascript tool that provides a link and a pop-up tool-tip for bible references, like John 1:1. I love it, because it enables you to write posts with bible references, without needing to quote material that isn't strictly pertinent to your flow of thought, but still have it present. I find it frustrating reading books where the author says, "So we see X, Y, Z (cf. Jn 1:1, 2:4, 5:16, 7:8)" (I just randomly selected those verses). Not because the author has done anything wrong, but simply because I'm about 0% likely to read those references if there not in the text, but neither do I want them in the text. Reftagger solves that problem - they're there but not there. Give it a go.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, iii

In Yoder's third chapter, he explores 'The Implications of the Jubilee', drawing strongly upon the work of André Trocmé. The major material of this chapter launches from Luke 4:18-19, and investigates the language of debt, remission, and so forth throughout the Synoptics. Yoder makes the case that Jesus was proclaiming the Jubilee year, with its provision of a fallow year, redistribution of capital, remission of debts, and liberation of slaves.

The strength of this chapter is probably best found in the detail to socio-historical setting of the gospel materials. The language of debt found in the Lord's prayer, and the reading of the parables of Jesus, seriously suggest that Jesus had specific, practical social agendas relating to the fulfilment of the law of Moses, not in the strict legalistic adherence of the Pharisees (ie, tithing spices and studiously avoiding doing good on the Sabbath), but in the truly humanitarian and 'good'-orientation of the Torah.

To some extent, this strikes me as one of the weakest of Yoder's chapters. I confess, I haven't read Trocmé's work on the subject, but I find the full-blown case for Jubilee practice overstretched. Nonetheless, it adds considerably to the thesis that Jesus has things to say about 'social ethics', and more than simply opinions - he is practicing a new social ethic and creating a new social order in his disciples.

Ethics: those who don't care and those who don't care

In recent times I have been equally struck by two different circumstances/observations that are very telling about people's attitudes towards ethics and morality.

The first is something Byron observed a little while back. On trying to tell people that he was doing a PhD on ethics, most people are a little bewildered about why he would do that. Aren't we post-ethical? I think this reveals a telling point about most people's ethics: don't murder anyone and you're free to pursue almost any kind of life you want. Morality has become almost obsolete, and so ethics is irrelevant.

The second is an observation from my wife that when you tell Christians you are a vegetarian, they almost inevitably begin to try and convince you that you should be eating meat, and feel like your moral stance is condemning them. I suspect this reveals an equally troubling point about those who have subscribed to an ethical position - they are unable to deal with alternatives.

This is true both within and without Christian spheres, and vegetarianism provides a good case study in our age (in which environmentalism is the new religion). Many people feel compelled to react to the news that you are a vegetarian by trying to persuade you how wrong it is, largely I believe because they are not comfortable with the moral difference you have introduced into the relationship, and are trying to correct it by conforming you to their position. Failing that, they may well resort to social pressure - jokes, snide comments, relentless down-putting of one's position.

Accompanying this is often the inability to accept that within an ethical system their could exist moral difference that didn't need to be resolved. This is particularly important, I feel, within Christianity. I'm fine with being a vegetarian and you not being one, because not all moral decisions are reducible to 'sin issues', let alone 'salvation issues'. If you saw the world as I did and read the scriptures as I do, I have no doubt you'd be compelled to the same conclusions, but until you do, you are entirely free to make a conscience call on vegetarianism. Why won't you let others do the same?

New Sermons

New Sermons Uploaded!

Exodus 11-13: The Passover
Exodus 13-18: Wilderness Wanderings
The Jesus of Revelation
Exodus 19-20: The Sinai Covenant
Exodus 32: The Golden Calf
Exodus 25-31, 35-40: The Tabernacle
Greed is Idolatry : Colossians 3:5
Stewardship : Luke 16:1-15

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, ii

Yoder begins his reading of Luke with the songs of Lk 1-2, noting their announcement of an "agent of radical social change" (p22). He helpfully notes that the language of the annunciation(s) cannot be interpreted as 'spiritual', as if they were mistaken in their hopes. If that were the case, Luke would have written differently, and marked the error of such expectations. He then skips forward to Luke 3:21-4:14, traditionally the baptism and temptation of Jesus (Commissioning and Testing in Yoder's work). He notes that Lk 3:22 with its allusion to Ps 2:7 and Is 42:1 merges the themes of enthronement and suffering servant. Yoder then engages in a persuasive reading of the temptation narrative in terms of the "ways of being king" (p25), laid out as feeding the masses, "the idolatrous character of political power hunger and nationalism" (p26), and a triumphant appearance of a religious messiah to refor the religio-political status quo. Jesus' rejection of these temptations leads to his paradigmatic platform in Luke 4:14ff and Isa 61:1-2. Yoder unpacks this in terms of the Jubilee Year, particularly its prophetic understanding. The second thrust of his proclamation is the new age of Gentile inclusion, which would undercut any nationalistic egocentricism in receiving the Jubilee proclamation (p32).

From Luke 6:12ff, Yoder sees Jesus responding to the backlash to his work with the organisation of a "new social reality" (p33) centered on the 12. Yoder interprets the basis of this new social reality as a reaffirmation of the platform established in Luke 4:14ff. He then focuses on the feeding in the desert, noting it as the "culmination of the popular Galilean ministry and the transition both to a ministry centered more on the disciples and to the approach to Jerusalem" (p35). Luke 9:22 heralds the alternative to the crown of the Welfare King, the cross of Jerusalem. From this point on the cross looms over the Jesus-band. Yoder interprets Luke 12-14 in terms of the cost of discipleship, highlighting the point of Luke 14:25ff as Jesus "calling into being a community of voluntary commitment, willing for the sake of its calling to take upon itself the hostility of the given society" (p37). Yoder again and again points out that Jesus does not "reprimand his disciples for expecting him to establish some new social order, as he would have had to do if the thesis of the only-spiritual kingdom were to prevail. He rather reprimands them for having misunderstood the character of that new social order which he does intent to set up" (p38). The point of distinction is not spiritual, or visibility, but the alternative lifestyle of the social alternative.

In the triumphal entry and temple-cleansing, Yoder sees Jesus at the peak of his opportunity to seize power in some kind of coup d'etat. Jesus instead withdraws to Bethany, and the moment passes. "Every pericope in the section 19:47-22:2 reflects in some way the confrontation of two social systems and Jesus' rejection of the status quo." (p44) Passing on to the Arrest of Jesus, Yoder lays down the interpretation of "Let this cup pass from me?" in real terms - what is the alternative to the cross? This is now Jesus' last opportunity to take up Satan's temptation, the option of a divine crusade and a Zealot-like kingship (p48). In dealing with the trial and crucifixion, Yoder continues to point out what should be obvious - if Jesus was some apolitical spiritual leader, why would he be such a threat in the way that he is, and crucified as "King of the Jews". Luke 24:21 "is not just one more tesitomy to the disciples' obtuse failure to get Jesus' real point; it is an eyewitness report of the way Jesus had been heard." (p51)

Yoder concludes his chapter with the point he has been making throughout - Jesus' call is "to an ethic marked by the cross, a cross identified as the punishment of a man who threatens society by creating a new kind of community leading a radically new kind of life".

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, i

I've just started re-reading (for the 4th or 5th time), John Howard Yoder's classic work, The Politics of Jesus, and I thought I would take the opportunity to blog my way through it, giving some succinct summaries for those of you unfamiliar with Yoder.

In his opening chapter, Yoder sets out the context and thesis of his work. His primary concern is to investigate whether Jesus has a social ethic, and whether that is relevant in any way. Yoder sets up his question against the backdrop of ethical approaches that tend to make Jesus irrelevant for (social) ethics. He lists six particular ways this has played out, including seeing Jesus as interested only in an 'interim' ethic because of an imminent eschatology, seeing Jesus as only interested in personal ethics (e.g. restricted to a 'village sociology'), and so forth. One of the the irrelevance-strategies is to sideline 'dogmatic Jesus' - that Jesus came to die for sins and the life he lived is almost immaterial and irrelevant alongside that.

The radical thing about Yoder is that he very perceptively notes that Jesus is not normative for mainstream ethics. Mainstream ethical approaches sideline Jesus' behaviour and teaching, and instead ground their norms in something else, whether nature, natural order, reason, a creation order, et cetera. The very ability to point out this situation immediately raises its absurdity. For a distinctly Christian ethic, shouldn't Jesus be normative?

Yoder's proposal is thus to read portions of the NT canon, and specifically Luke, "with the constantly pressing question, 'Is there here a social ethic?'" (p11), with the aim to tease out the relevance of Jesus for social ethics, and the normativity of Jesus.

Little Piece of Gold: p7-8, footnotes. Yoder is speaking about a classic work of Sheldon's and the slogan, "Do what Jesus would do" (sound familiar? WWJD anyone?), and Yoder makes the point that this becomes, "do the right at all costs", but that 'the right' is knowable apart from Jesus. Yoder's whole thesis is this: a truly Christian ethic knows what the right is by and in and through Jesus life, death, and resurrection.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Pax Christi: Luke 22:36

Luke 22:36 is often debated and used as a proof-text in arguments over pacifism. In the following post I will read it in context, and show that major traditional understandings are flawed, and that the verse is not a simple deal-breaker for a Christian pacifism.

The context of the passage is set up by the whole narrative thread, picking up from the start of the chapter: the decision of Judas to betray Jesus, the Last Supper, and the prediction of Peter's Betrayal in v31-34. In Luke 22:35 Jesus asks them:

And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?”
They said, “Nothing.”

Referring back to Luke 9:3. In that former context, Jesus sent them out on a missionary journey to Israelites, with the expectation that those who received them would show due hospitality, so that there was no need for provisioning. There is no mention of a sword in the Luke 9:1-5 context. The response of the disciples here points to the provision of God, and Jesus' question functions didactically to remind them of a previously learnt lesson. We then come to the difficult verse, Luke 22:36:

He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.

Jesus echoes his former instruction, but reverses its direction. Now there will be a need for provisioning. Why is that? I suggest that the need for provisions here is the consequence of the change in hospitality that is about to ensue - no longer will their missionary activity be received by faithful Israelites awaiting a Messiah. The disciples from this point on will experience a hostility patterned on Jesus' own experience.

In this context, the command concerning the sword (it is framed as a 3rd person imperative, which to some extent distances it from the immediate context), has been read in a number of ways. Some have seen it as an instruction to arm themselves for future self-defence, a sword being a standard protection from robbers. Others have read it metaphorically, as spiritual armament for 'battle'. Neither of these is adequate to the ongoing context. While it is true that most of the NT, especially the Pauline material, uses military language metaphorically, it is difficult to read the sword here as metaphorical, given the literal nature of the rest of the command. Luke 22:37-38:

For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me:
‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’
For what is written about me has its fulfillment.”
38And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.”
And he said to them, “It is enough.”

Jesus continues his instructions with an explicit reference to Isa 53:12. The disciples do not respond to this, but instead reply to his very practical statement in v36, with "Here are two swords". The clear implication is that the disciples are already in possession of two swords, and probably have been for some time. Now, everything about this passage so far turns on how we read Jesus' reply, "It is enough."

Enough for what? To go back to our comments on v35, it is very difficult to see how two swords will be sufficient for anything - it isn't sufficient in the arrest scene to ward off that band. It's hardly sufficient for traveling bands of apostolic missionaries (especially if they followed a Luke 9 two by two pattern), to ward off robbers. The sufficiency of two swords is ironic, and must be read against two other texts. Firstly, the immediate context of v37 provides the sufficiency of which Jesus speaks. Two swords are enough to fulfil the scripture, "with the lawless he was reckoned" (my translation; lawless is a plural substantive). When you read Luke 22:52, and Jesus asks if they have come out as against a robber, the implied answer is 'Yes', because that is how the band of temple-officers and their chiefs is portrayed, and the armament of Jesus' companions, and their violence in Lk 22:49-51 fulfils this very scripture.

Secondly, Jesus' words "It is enough" function as a summary rebuke, as "Enough!" might in English. The disciples haven't got the import of what Jesus has said, though ironically they will fulfil that scripture, and Jesus' wording alludes to Dt 3:26 LXX, where God angrily breaks off from speaking to Moses.

The flow of the narrative from this point on continues to reinforce this understanding. Jesus offers no resistance, though he of anyone is supremely qualified to legitimate self-defence. His disciple does not wait for the answer of Lk 22:49, "shall we strike?", but strikes immediately. Jesus' response is again a summary rebuke, "No more of this!" (Lk 22:51), and heals the high-priest's slave's ear, reversing the violence done.

Why don't the disciples act differently? I surmise, that as with most of Jesus' teachings, the disciples fail to grasp the implications of Jesus' words until post-resurrection. It is only then they understand the shape of Jesus' life as cross-directed, and will begin to understand that to follow Jesus is likewise to surrender self-determination and take up one's cross. That will include an entire re-evaluation of the meaning of death, and thus the sufficiency of the sword.

There is a further line of interpretation that I have not explored here. Yoder picks it up marvellously in The Politics of Jesus. That is that the real temptation and choice of "Remove this cup from me" (Lk 22:42), is the choice between atoning sacrifice and forgiveness, against messianic violence and the consummation of the Kingdom with divine judgment. The choice of the disciples to engage in armed insurrection literalises that choice in historical reality, but it is the very choice that Jesus rejects.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Martyrdom and Discipleship

The initial impetus for this post comes from listening to Tim Chester speak on "Making Disciples for Missional Church", available from Total Church Conference 2008

The one who follows Jesus is one who has made a choice to follow Jesus in 'the way of the cross'. This does not mean, and has never meant, self-denial or asceticism, but has always meant quite specifically that choosing to follow Jesus commits one to a life that embraces and makes potential a particular kind of death, that is the death of the martyr.

One problem of (western) Christians is a tendency to convert by stages. A person believes in Jesus, and then slowly gets convinced that this will mean certain consequences, a certain christian lifestyle, and held up as some kind of heroic end-stage, they might possibly attain to the faith of a martyr, as if martyrs were special super-heroes of Christian faith. This is, in fact, partly a function of the non-persecution of Christians. For those converted in the context of persecution and hostility, the choice to convert is made with the threat and real possibility of martyrdom, so that the choice to live for Jesus is already the choice to die for Jesus. Once the choice to die for Jesus is made, much of the rest easily falls into line. For every Christian, the choice to embrace Jesus is the choice to die for Jesus.

In contemporary usage, 'martyr' tends to denote those who die for a cause. I want to suggest that such an understanding is inadequate for the shape of contemporary understandings of the word, as well as for its historical usage. Cinema provides a ready example. Considers films that end with the death of the protagonist. Those that end with a death that effects a purposeful outcome, we consider examples of heroic martyrdom. The martyr dies and their death achieves their goal. Thus, we correlate the sacrifice of the self as the means of the outcome. The question is never, or at least rarely, raised - could the outcome have been achieved by other means? Nonetheless, the heroic dimension only exists because of the efficacy of the action. Conversely, films that end with the death of the protagonist which either aims for no purpose and thus has no efficacy, or falls short of the purposed goal, are real tragedies. The person who dies for their cause inefficaciously, might be called a 'martyr', but the real evaluation of their death is that it was pointless, vain, futile, meaningless. The politeness of martyr-rhetoric, not to mention speaking-ill of the dead, might prohibit us from saying so, but that is the cold, hard truth.

Come then to Jesus. Jesus neatly embraces both the standard and the historical usage of 'martyr', in that he both dies for a cause (or better, 'a purpose'), and he dies as a witness. The New Testament neatly preserves the usage of 'martyr' as witness, and in Jesus' case it is particularly apt. John's Gospel contains a long motif of trial, witness, and truth through chapters 1-12, and John 8:40 neatly connects the desire to put him to death with his claim to speak the truth. Likewise, Jesus before Pilate is questioned about being a King, replies that he has come into the world to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37). Jesus witnesses to the truth, and ultimately is crucified for his witness.

Yet, the death of a witness is not an efficacious death. If Jesus is who so many make him out to be, a rather inoffensive teacher of morality, or free-love, or humanism, the cause of his death is difficult to locate, but its purpose becomes totally obscured. If Jesus dies and fails, he is not a martyr, he is a tragedy. At best one might assert that his willingness to die for his beliefs witnesses to the depths of his convictions. Yet if those convictions include the certainty of his resurrection (Mark 8:31), and his Messianic significance, then this too would be in vain, since his convictions are false.

This is why the Atonement stands at the heart of understanding 'the way of the cross'. 1 John 4:10 speaks of the Father sending the Son for this very purpose, atonement. The efficacy of Jesus' death, and the cause for which he is martyred, is to reconcile sinners to God by the atoning sacrifice of himself for our sins. In achieving his purpose, Jesus' death is transformed from tragedy to heroic martyrdom; it is only in this sense that Jesus can truly be heralded as a martyr.

The whole pattern of Christian life is modeled on this centre. The imitation of Jesus means that Christians are sent, as he was sent, to witness to the truth and to reconcile sinners to God. I emphasise the latter, because this is precisely the point at which come Cross-centered thinking goes astray. There is no value in self-denial, asceticism, suffering, and the like, in and of themselves , because it cannot effect what Jesus' suffering effected, the once for all atonement for sin. Instead, Christians proclaim the same message as Jesus, with pronouns modified - Jesus calls sinners to repent and follow himself, we call sinners to repent and follow him too.

In this way Christian discipleship is severed from the compulsive need to be efficacious. Indeed, if we grasp the implications of the Sovereignty of God, we realise that whenever we do die, it is because God is pleased to call us home and give us rest from our cruciform lives. Into this scenario, the martyrdom of Christians is characterised by a peculiarly dual-nature. Rev 12:11 reads

And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony,
for they loved not their lives even unto death

The whole theme of conquering in the book is closely tied to the death of the Lamb, so that the reader is left in no doubt that Christ's atoning sacrifice is also his glorious victory. In this sense, the death of Christian martyrs has no efficacy - they conquer 'by the blood of the Lamb'. Yet, John is quick to link this with 'and by the word of their testimony (witness)', signifying that it is their confession, their repentance and lived-out cruciform discipleship, that has united them with the efficacious victory of the Lamb, Christ's atoning death. This is borne-out by the final clause in this verse 'and they did not love their lives even unto death', which links their death as the persecuted, like to Jesus, with their witness to and of Jesus, with Jesus' own witness-bearing atoning death.

It is in this sense that martyrdom as death is truly a baptism of blood, as some of the Fathers described it, since in martyrdom the Christian makes a final confession, a final clinging to the truth that Jesus died for them, and demonstrates in word and deed that they have repented and believed. This corresponds to the public witness of repentance and faith and the symbolic death of the baptismal rite, and in the case of a catechumen like Perpetua, truly is their baptism, a graphic and literal fulfillment of the symbolism of Rev 7:14.

One of the great failings of western evangelicalism is a failure to make explicit and live explicitly the truth that the choice to 'trust in Jesus' is, at one and at once, the embrace of 'the way of the cross', which may end in martyrdom. Death, of course, is not the end that Christians aim for, but the very real expectation that it is a regular and expected consequence of a Jesus-like life, shapes that choice right from the start. In this light, taking up one's cross to follow Jesus is to accept martyrdom, even embrace martyrdom, and to make the whole of one's life cross-shaped.