Monday, 21 September 2009

The importance of normal church

An excellent and greatly encouraging article by Carl Trueman, especially for those of us in normal, small, unimpressive churches. Well worth the read. One great line (and there are plenty)...
if I wanted a pretentious and incomprehensibly abstract theology with an impeccable record of emptying churches, I'd convert to Barthianism, wouldn't I?
Read the rest of it here.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Origin of the Specious

Following on from the last post on atheism, here is a new review by David Hart on yet another book arguing that if you can show some form of evolution of thought concerning God within a religion, you have proven its natural origin.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009


David Bentley Hart has recently come out with a book Atheist Delusions where he engages with people like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchins etc. as well as providing a positive account for the impact of Christianity on civilisation. It looks very interesting.

This is the blurb from Amazon:

Currently it is fashionable to be devoutly undevout. Religion's most passionate antagonists - Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and others - have publishers competing eagerly to market their various denunciations of religion, monotheism, Christianity, and Roman Catholicism. But contemporary anti-religious polemics are based not only upon profound conceptual confusions but upon facile simplifications of history or even outright historical ignorance: so contends David Bentley Hart in this bold correction of the distortions. One of the most brilliant scholars of religion of our time, Hart provides a powerful antidote to the New Atheists' misrepresentations of the Christian past, bringing into focus the truth about the most radical revolution in Western history. Hart outlines how Christianity transformed the ancient world in ways we may have forgotten: bringing liberation from fatalism, conferring great dignity on human beings, subverting the cruelest aspects of pagan society, and elevating charity above all virtues. He then argues that what we term the 'Age of Reason' was in fact the beginning of the eclipse of reason's authority as a cultural value. Hart closes the book in the present, delineating the ominous consequences of the decline of Christendom in a culture that is built upon its moral and spiritual values.

To get a feel for it, here is an excerpt from an earlier article on-line where he review Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

I would hesitate to say that Breaking the Spell is, in this sense, entirely absurd, as I doubt that it is tightly reasoned enough to merit the description. What does seem clear, however, is that, in its general form, the book's argument is one that strives (not always successfully) to preserve the shape of reason, logic, and method, even though that shape has been largely evacuated of all rational, logical, or empirical content. To put the matter bluntly, no one could mistake it for a genuinely substantial argument who was not firmly intent on doing so before ever reading the book. Viewed impartially, Dennett's project leads nowhere, and its diffuse and flimsy methods are altogether unequal to the task of capturing the complex, bewildering, endlessly diverse thing they are designed to subdue.

Monday, 14 September 2009


A great illustration on the importance of correct translation!

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Douglas Campbell

Some very quick (and undeveloped!) thoughts on Douglas' Campbell's Quest for Paul's Gospel. One thing I found very striking is his treatment of Paul's ethics. He argues that some aspects of Paul's ethics flow from his soteriology (basically the idea of union with Christ), while other aspects seem to be more 'static' and 'rooted in a particular conception of creation'. So, in Galatians 3:28 he affirms the unity of Jew and Greek; male and female etc. This, argues Campbell, is consistent with his view of salvation. However, in other places (e.g. 1 Cor 11:2-16; Romans 1) he affirms 'gender codes', and that homosexuality is 'unnatural'. These affirmations are tied to creation not salvation making his ethics inconsistent according to Campbell

What to do with this inconsistency? Campbell is clear:
'If Paul was inconsistent at this point, as seems likely, failing to prosecute his soteriology (and who of us can cast the first stone here?!), then I suggest that, having detected this, we should simply overrule those inconsistencies in the name of his central convictions. Paul’s soteriological centre, along with its consistent ethical corollaries, should trump his inconsistent ethical admonitions; his position on redemption should overrule his inconsistent statements about creation’ (p127).

I have to confess that I stopped reading the book at this point. Calling Paul inconsistent is just seems the easy way to write off the parts of his teaching you don’t like and shows that you have not understood how his theology fits together. Campbell does say (I did read on a bit!) that he doesn’t ‘suggest this lightly, but only after careful consideration. Neither do I do so because of some external agenda; it is Paul’s own position on redemption that forces us to call his creation-based ethics into question. (So here I act on in accordance with the important principle that scripture should interpret scripture.)[…] And this decision allows us to leave behind the series of theological and social problems associated with those commitments, which is surely a good thing.

An interpreter of Scripture once made the observation that our tendency is to trust ourselves and to suspect Scripture (of being inconsistent etc.) whereas the Scripture suggests that we should trust it and suspect ourselves (of having sub-conscious agendas etc.). That position will not convince anyone in the guild who takes a fundamentally critical stance towards Scripture, but to honour it as God's Word it is surely the right way to approach it.

As I say there are other problems with The Quest for Paul’s Gospel (like how he sets justification and participation in polar opposition to each other) but this one is particularly striking and revealing.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Stibbs on Church

The church is a somewhat vexed issues in parts of Anglicanism. Some say others claim too much for church - the others might reply that the 'some' have no doctrine of church at all! I have a sneaking suspicion that much of our thinking is far more influenced by the 1830s then any other period of Anglican history, but that's for another day.

It was in light of this that I was recently directed to an essay on the church by Alan Stibbs in his recently published 'Such a Great Salvation'. Stibbs was an evangelical in the mid twentieth century - not a strong period of history for evangelicals in the Anglican church.

The essay 'New Testament Teaching Concerning the Church', biblically grounds our language of church in two places. First, and most importantly, church is the 'universal and eternal company of all believers, past, present and future' (231-2). It is those who have been brought into a living and loving relationship with God through Christ by the Spirit. Significantly, 'it does not exist in the natural visible order of this world but only in the unseen spiritual order, the order of the world to come' (233). Matthew 16:18 is Stibbs starting text here, although he quickly moves into Paul's letters to expound what this church is theologically. Secondly, church is the local congregation - 2-3 gathered in Christ's name and Christ gathered with them (Matthew 18:17).

Stibbs concern is to show that this local gathering is the church; not just a part of it. In a very helpful illustration he draws our attention to the moon. When we see a crescent in the sky 'one says not "there is part of the moon" but, "there is the moon". For the part that is visible is genuine moon; and, what is more, it is actually, though to us invisibly, united with all the rest of the moon'. (234). This is not to say that the visible church is the pure church - he is all too aware that visible meetings are mixed meetings. Not all who are part of visible churches are part of God's eternal church. He is also at pains to point out that these two loci of church preclude a third, worldwide visible church - a church militant as Griffith-Thomas called it (see Principles of Theology on article 19). It was also of interest to note that date of Stibbs' publication - 1950. Stibbs is not rehashing the work of DB Knox (which was aired mainly in the 70s and 80s), he is articulating the New Testament Teaching Concerning the Church.

Friday, 11 September 2009

New Book on Paul

Douglas Campbell's new book on Paul The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul has recently been released. I had a quick look at a friend's copy yesterday. A couple of the blurbs on the back describe the book as 'massive'. It certainly is - 1376 pages!

If it is anything like his earlier Quest for Paul's Gospel, I think there are going to be some 'massive' problems with this book - and not just its length! The treatment of the Pauline ethics in the former volume was very poor. (I might try and post on that later...).

Interestingly, the Amazon re-publication picture has the cover with a foreword by NT Wright while the published edition only has a little blurb by him on the back.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

German Translation II

I thought I would give the two translation sites I mentioned in the last post a sterner test. I scanned in the following paragraph of text:

Hier wird dogmatisch argumentiert, ein Sieg über den Tod könne nur durch die leibliche Auferstehung Jesu errungen worden sein. Damit wird Paulus dogmatisch vorgeschrieben, wie er zu denken hat. Setzen wir einmal einen Augenblick voraus, das sei wirklich die Meinung des Paulus, dann ergäben sich unlösbare Fragen. Z.B.: Wieso bedeutet die leibliche Auferstehung Jesu die Überwindung des Todes überhaupt, zumal wenn man zugleich betont, es handele sich be idem Leib des Auferstandenen um denselben Leib, den auch der Gekreuzigte gehabt habe? Wieso unterscheidet sich diese Wiederbelebung eines Leibes prinzipiell von den Totenauferweckungen in den Evangelien?

Here is what Yahoo Babelfish came up with:

Here dogmatisch one argues, a victory over death can have been achieved only by physical resurrection Jesu. Thus Paulus is dogmatisch prescribed, how he has to think. If we presuppose once one instant, that are really the opinion of the Paulus, then unsolvable questions would result. E.G.: Why does physical resurrection Jesu mean the overcoming of death at all, particularly since if one stresses at the same time, it concerns fuel element idem body of the Auferstandenen the same body, which also the Gekreuzigte had? Why does this revival of a body differ in principle from the dead on arousing in the gospels?

Not only is this pretty meaningless, there are a number of words left untranslated.

Here is what Google Translate came up with:

Here is dogmatically argued that a victory over death could have been achieved only through the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Here Paul is dogmatically imposed, as he thought. Let's us assume for a moment that was really the opinion of Paul, then there would be unsolvable issues. For example: Why does the bodily resurrection of Jesus overcoming death at all, especially if one also insists that it is where prizes constituted body of the resurrected by the same body which had the even had the Crucified? Why is this different in principle from the revival of a bodily resurrection of the dead in the Gospels?

Not perfect by any means (though it does help to have the context - as it stands it seems a pretty random paragraph) but a lot lot better than Babelfish. It gets all the vocab and reads much more like an English paragraph.

German Translation

One of the joys (!) of doing a PhD in NT is learning German. Thankfully in this Internet age there are a number of helps available. The danger, of course, is that you can rely too much on on-line dictionaries. However, they do make life a lot easier.

I use on-line dictionaries all the time, probably in this order:

Up until recently I had been skeptical about on-line translation sites, mainly because I had only used Yahoo's Babelfish. However, recently I have been using Google Translate and have been very impressed. As a comparison, here is a German phrase I was looking at this morning: 'Setzen wir einmal einen Augenblick voraus'. Babelfish renders it: 'We presuppose once one instant' which is a word for word rendering and is next to useless. However, Google produces: 'Let's assume for a moment'. Bingo! Google gets the idiom and provides a good translation. Now, it is not always so good but I am finding that often it is.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Obscene Speech in Paul III

Hultin’s thesis turns on the reference to salt in Colossians (commanded) and the word eutrapelia in Ephesians (condemned) refer to the same thing - witty speech.

A few very quick reflections:

First, and obviously, they are different words and so there is not an absolute contradiction.

Secondly, though salt had a usual first century meaning (humour) - it also has a strong Biblical usage that does not mean humour (e.g. the OT reference to the covenant; Matthew 5:13 - You are the salt of the earth). Hultin may deal with this in his book, but I think this is a potential problem for his thesis.

In the question time following his paper, a couple of other interesting suggestions were made:
a. The context can affect the meaning of a word - not to change it totally but still significantly. So, the word eutrapelia follows some fairly negative words - filthiness, foolish talk. There is no real indication that the third word in the series is any different.

b. It could be (and I think this might be the most likely) that when Paul says
verse 3 ‘But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you’ and then continues in verse 4 ‘Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor eutrapelia, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving’ we are to connect the two. That is, these evil things (sexual immorality, impurity, covetousness) should not appear in our speech - even through the otherwise good speech-form of wit. In other words it is not wit per se that he is condemning but what we might describe as double-entendre. I think that is possible in the Greek and fits the context.

That would mean, of course, that the ESV (‘crude joking’) is a fairly good translation! Our humour - in and of itself a good / neutral thing - must not be used in an inappropriate manner.

Obscene Speech in Paul II

i. If Hultin is right why would the author of Ephesians [i.e. Paul!] have forbidden something that was universally have been understood positively?
ii. Does this not create a contradiction between Colossians and Ephesians - with one commending witty speech and one condemning it?

Hultin argues that Ephesians has a concept of ‘sacred speech’ similar to the OT. So, like the camp or the temple in the OT were holy and so, for example, the latrine had to be kept outside the camp. In a similar way, Hultin argues, believers are themselves a sacred space and so their speech had to be above reproach. At one point he says: ‘What better than the mouth […] to inculcate a sense of omni-presence of God and the connection to the holy body of Christ’.

In other words, according to Hultin, Colossians commends charming, witty speech to win the outsider while Ephesians commends totally different, holy speech that will convict outsiders of their sin. We might say that Col commends evangelism while Eph commends the testimony of a holy life.

Obviously there is a tension here between the two letters - which is not a problem for Hultin who holds them to be written by different people. Do we then have to believe that Paul contradicts himself? I don’t think so!

Obscene Speech in Paul I

Last weekend I attended the British New Testament Society Conference in Aberdeen. This is an annual meeting for people researching, teaching or studying the New Testament at university level.
There were a mixture of plenary sessions and seminars. Some of the papers, if I am honest, were a little on the obscure side! However, some were excellent including one by Dr Jeremy Hultin of Yale entitled ‘Watch Your Mouth: What the prohibitions of foul language tell us about Colossians and Ephesians’.

Colossians and Ephesians both have verses concerning language. However, there are interesting differences between the two letters. Below are some quick recollections from his talk. If you want to investigate further you could check out his book The Ethics of Obscene Speech in Early Christianity and its Environment. [Please note though that he is coming from a more critical position i.e. he does not hold that Paul wrote Colossians or Ephesians and would not hold to an evangelical view of Scripture].

Colossians 3:8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. […] 4:6 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.

Hultin made some interesting points here. He argued that the word translated by the ESV as ‘obscene talk’ (aischrologian) does not have any kind of sexual reference (as many swear words in English have) but should be understood as abusive, unkind speech. Secondly, he argued that the references in 4:6 to grace and salt would have been understood by first century readers as a reference to charming (the reference to grace) and witty (the reference to salt) speech. ‘Salt’, Hultin shows, is often used in 1st C texts as a synonym for ‘humour’ or wit.

Ephesians 5:3-4 But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. 4 Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.

The word translated ‘crude joking’ in the ESV (eutrapelia) is often rendered in this negative way by English Bibles. However, Hultin argues (convincingly) that this word would actually have been understood positively in the first century. So, doctors were urged to speak in this way to their patients to make them feel at ease; similarly lawyers with their clients and generals with their troops. Hultin argues that the word should be rendered ‘wit’. It is an ease of speech that was neutral or positive.

Now, there are two issues here:
i. If Hultin is right, why would the author of Ephesians [i.e. Paul!] have forbidden something that was universally have been understood positively?
ii. Does this not create a contradiction between Colossians and Ephesians - with one commending witty speech and one condemning it?

I think there are good answers to both and will post on them shortly.