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(Very) brief reflection on presumptuousness and universalism

One way that someone who merely hopes that all will be eventually saved avoids the conclusion of universalism is by adopting a certain form of epistemic agnosticism (which is seen to be a more humble stance in the face of the majesty of God’s transcendence). “Until we can see the whole reality God intends,” it is said, “we cannot know whether all will certainly be saved or be in the right position to judge whether a non-universalist image of God is worthy of worship.” But, while I am sympathetic to the project of skeptical theism when it comes to making sense of temporary evils, I cannot understand this stance when it comes to God’s ordaining or permitting infinite evils in humans (such as it would obtain in any form of eternal hell—whether one of eternal conscious torment, annihilation of the wicked, or some view in between these and universalism).

While it is strictly speaking true that we cannot presently see the whole reality that God intends in the eschaton, I think it is reasonable to believe that we have a real glimpse of the end in the glimmers of hope we occasionally observe when, for instance, an apparently irreformable person slowly reforms their life. A cynical person—posing, as they always are, as a ‘realistic’ person—might point as ‘counter-evidence’ to other examples of people dying so obviously unrepentant that it’s almost fated they would continue resisting the Good ad infinitum. But does this pessimism concerning the corruptibility of human nature really make it most reasonable to infer that it is actually possible for some persons to be finally irredeemable? And is the posture that allows for this tragic possibility really a more humble and less presumptuous one compared to the ‘dogmatic’ universalist’s? Needless to say, I think the answer to both questions is ‘no’. To the first question, I think a pessimistic posture is less than a fully Christian one; it is an example of what one could call a ‘low’ anthropology that diminishes the significance of our being created as ‘living idols’ or images of God. If creation is, as Pseudo-Dionysius would say, a theophany, a manifestation of God, it is appropriate to primarily view creatures as living logoi (words) of God in a real sense, even as it is true that we fail to recognize this because of our status as finite and hence corruptible. It is not, moreover, a pantheism to resist a sharp God/world dichotomy in this way, since a distinction between the two is still maintained when we acknowledge that no one creature can express God’s essence completely.

To the second question, and following on from this ‘high’ anthropology, I do not see how it is more presumptuous to speak for God by saying, for instance, that it is in God’s nature to create a world where hell is only ever restorative and educative, always oriented towards theosis—and it is not in God’s nature to allow any creatures to everlastingly perish—than it is to assert the opposite. It is simply an unavoidable fact, at the end of the day, that we all try to speak for God, our conscience and reason—informed by the witness of tradition—telling us what actions would befit his nature and not. Non-universalists do this too when they claim—resting on a (in my judgement) dubious confidence that scripture and tradition speak against any vain human utopian hope—that it would be fine for God to create humans knowing full well that some of them would sin and not be redeemed. In a real sense and from a certain perspective, this claim could be seen as just as—if not more—presumptuous as the vehement denial that God would create knowing that some would be finally irredeemable, insofar as it involves speaking for God in saying that it is possible for the creation of the redeemed to be worth the destruction of the unredeemed.

I am one of those who has the firm conviction that it is, in fact, presumptuous since it is dishonouring of God himself to resign oneself to this ghastly possibility—insofar it is, it seems to me, contrary to true and complete love of neighbour as oneself to do so. It is thus a false humility to imply that God’s reason can go not only beyond our reason, but potentially against it. Admittedly, it is sometimes difficult to know whether something is supra- or contra- reason (as with, say, the doctrine of the incarnation). But, on the whole, if, after deep reflection and fervent prayer, one sees a theological system to go against, not just beyond, our God-given moral grammar, I think they should stop pretending that it could even possibly be true (in this case, that God might actually turn out to be less loving than we had hoped).

A Response to Alisa Childers (with Greg Koukl) from a progressive-leaning Christian

This video—the second part to a two-part conversation whose first part has close to nil content actually relating to progressive Christianity (the exception is in the last 5 minutes where they broach the issue of atonement, yet even here they make the classic error of conflating penal substitutionary atonement with substitution per se)—could perhaps more accurately be titled “How to make progressive Christians look as stupid and emotionally-driven as we depict them to be here.” In this post, I will survey and critically examine three key moments of what I find to be superficial and, ultimately, unhelpful commentary, all of which are linked in some way or another to what is perhaps the most beloved of tools in the amateur apologist’s toolbox of “tactics”—the “self-refuting” line:

(1) We shall begin around the 19 minute mark, after Alisa says that progressive Christians like Lisa Gungor “affirm some kind of relativism” (vagueness alert). Koukl shortly after begins his predictable discussion on the amorphous threat of “relativism” with defining the term in such a contrived and oversimplified way so as to reach his desired end of employing his “suicide tactic.” (This is his term for showing that the progressive interlocutor has “committed intellectual suicide” or made a self-refuting statement.) Relativism, says Koukl, is the view that “truth depends only on what a person believes, and not on anything in the objective world.” The central problem with this definition is that it sloppily conflates the objective/subjective contrast with the absolute/relative one. They often do overlap in many contexts, but there is a key difference between the two that is crucial in seeing why the eliding of this distinction fools so many unwitting listeners: generally speaking, the objective/subjective contrast concerns human beings or, more specifically, their individual consciousness; whereas the absolute/relative contrast is one that concerns all types of relations but has a distinctively impersonal connotation. And, precisely because it has such a connotation bypassing the personal nature of discourse, it is easy to wield as a rhetorical “tactic” to make your interlocutor seem as if they are so supremely stupid that they locate truth merely in their “individual preferences.” Yet, rarely if ever does someone speaking of “relativism” mean to express, leave alone actually believe, this: most minimally intelligent persons, if you press them on it, are willing to acknowledge that truth, or some truth about a topic, could be objective in some sense (i.e. having some basis in the objective world outside them); and they can do this precisely because their concern lies, instead, in the inevitably perspectival nature of attempting to grasp some object x two parties are looking at. Koukl, however, prefers to recommend the lazy tactic, which conduces to nothing but a smug rhetorical victory (despite pretensions to “clarify”), of finding a “self-refuting statement.” He goes on to relay a story which begins with his friend saying, “You Christians are nice people but pretty soon you get judgmental”, and ends with the triumphalist note of his friend being in “stunned silence” after being “exposed” for having a double standard regarding the rightness of judgement. (Insert skepticism that the friend was actually that stupid.) However impressed Alisa is at this being such “a very clever way to invite more conversation”, I’m afraid that she seems to mistake cleverness for sophistry.

(2) From around the 33 minute mark, Alisa proceeds to focus on the alleged redefinition of words, beginning with the word ‘tolerance’. Adverting to a talk he gave titled “The Intolerance of Tolerance”—one of those classic witty anti-leftist titles that you would find on PragerU (which is, unsurprisingly, precisely where you find Koukl summarising his talk)—Koukl says that tolerance “pertains to the way we treat people, not the way we treat ideas.” The central problem here is that this a legitimate distinction which is often—and quickly—turned into an almost complete separation. So, for example, when some pro-LGBT person calls a conservative evangelical “intolerant” for their belief in the (im)morality of homosexuality, it is all too easy for the latter to marginalize the extent to which their belief might have real-life consequences for the treatment of LGBT persons by rehearsing their shopworn line that “they love the sinner but not the sin.” (For a good discussion of the shortcomings of this sentiment, see ch 6 of Eric Reitan’s The Triumph of Love: Same-Sex Marriage and the Christian Love Ethic.) It may well be useful, as Koukl says, to ask the person calling you “intolerant” to define what they mean by the word—the definition might differ—but, once again, rarely if ever does such a person think that you are being “intolerant” only because (as Koukl reductively portrays) “you think you’re right and other people are wrong.”

(3) Lastly, from around the 40 minute mark, Alisa turns to the alleged “makeover” of the word ‘love’. (I say “alleged” because someone may not necessarily begin with the conservative evangelical view from which they evolve their notion of what love demands.) Koukl augments this by posing the question, “why do you think that [some course of action] is the most loving thing?” His attempt to illustrate how to answer this question through the go-to conservative instances of moral decadence—extra-marital sex and homosexuality (which, like many homophobes, he conflates with homosexual promiscuity)—is far less interesting—if no less unhelpful—than how he attempts to provide the “biblical” definition of love. Turning to the famous thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, Koukl claims that people (presumably progressive Christians and atheists alike—of whom Alisa has, in other places, depicted as ideological bedfellows: miss the line that “love does not rejoice in unrighteousness” (v. 6). Have they really, though? I don’t so much mean, ‘have they really skipped over this line?’, but more ‘have all progressive Christians really, as Alisa goes on to lament, uncritically adopted a “really secular definition of love” without grappling with such central biblical texts which say that “love does not rejoice in injustice [probably a better translation of adikia than the characteristically Protestant translation “unrighteousness” which can implicitly sever ‘the right’ from ‘the good’] but rejoices with the truth”? On the whole, I think not. Arguably, this is symptomatic of a common pattern amidst conservative Christians which can also manifest in the way in which, for instance, the sentiment in John 1:14 that Jesus “came from the Father, full of grace and truth” is converted into an implicit dualism between grace and truth (much like your average Calvinist responds to the problem of a loving God permitting an eternal hell by retorting, “ah, but he’s a just God too!” — as if God’s love is something different from his justice). Okay, so what exactly is wrong with saying that Christians must show grace and truth? Nothing unless it is used to refer, as it often is, to a kind of middle ground between giving someone “too much grace” (AKA lenience or laxity) and whacking someone over the head with (our notion of) the capital-T God-given “Truth” (AKA mercilessness or, to use a more colloquial phrase, self-righteous assholery). What is needed, therefore, when a conservative Christian talks to a progressive Christian on what “love” means, is not a rhetorical game wherein the former contents him/herself with pointing out that the latter’s definition is “suicidal” (in Koukl’s technical sense)—or that one party is guilty of separating grace from truth, or love from justice, while the other so brilliantly strikes the balance between the two—; but, instead, a loving dialogue wherein each in turn explains how they think the two are unified and not separated in Christ. After all, while “love rejoices with [sunchairei] the truth” we also now “see through a mirror as in an enigma/dimly [dia esoptrou en ainigmati]” and only “know in part” [ek merous]. And, if this leads you to thinking that the apostle Paul’s acknowledgement of our intrinsic epistemic limitations in grasping at truth is “relativistic”, then something is surely wrong with your definition of “relativism.”

Jesus as the Coincidence of Opposites – Dale Allison

One of the most beautifully moving passages I have read on why Jesus appeals to many is from the last section of the last chapter of Dale Allison’s The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus:

“The basic sequence of Jewish eschatology appears again and again in the sayings attributed to Jesus: suffering then vindication, tribulation then blessedness, death then life:

  • “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled” (Luke 6:21; Gospel of Thomas 69)
  • “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matt. 5:4; Luke 6:21)
  • “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (Matt. 5:11-12; Luke 6:22-23)
  • “Blessed are those who humble themselves for they will be exalted” (Matt. 18:4; 23:12; Luke 14:11; 18:14)
  • “Those who lose their life will keep it” (Matt. 10:39; Mark 8:35; Luke 17:33)
  • “The last will be first” (Mark 10:31; Gospel of Thomas 4).
  • “The Son of man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again” (Mark 9:31)
  • “But in those days, after that suffering … they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (Mark 13:24-26).

Part of the reason that Jesus so fascinates and inspires is that his life incarnates the eschatological pattern. He is the coincidence of opposites, embodying in his own person the extremes of apocalyptic expectation, which means the extremes of human experience. He is the first who becomes last and the last who becomes first.

On the one hand, Jesus announces and makes real the eschatological presence of the God of Israel. Satan has fallen like lightning from heaven and the demons are being routed (Matt. 12:25-29; Mark 1:21-28; 3:23-30; 5:1-20; Luke 10:18; 11:17-22). The lame walk and the blind see (Matt. 11:5; Mark 2:1-12; 10:46-52; Luke 7:22). Lepers are cleansed and those in poverty are cheered with good news (Matt. 11:5; Mark 1:40-45; Luke 7:22). The long-awaited kingdom of God has arrived and there is no time to fast, only to make merry: the bridegroom is here (Matt. 12:28; Mark 2:18-19; Luke 11:20; 17:20). Expectant crowds naturally follow Jesus everywhere (Mark 1:32-34; 2:1, 13; 3:7; 5:21; John 12:9), and elation, gratitude, and amazement seize them by turns (Matt. 11:25; Mark 2:12; 4:41; 5:20, 42; Luke 10:17, 21; 17:16). Even death does not put an end to all the celebration, for death is swallowed up in victory, and there is reunion with forgiven friends (Matt. 28:1-20; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-53; John 20-21). The old world is ashes; the new world has come.

On the other hand, that is only half of the story. Paradoxically, the joyful Jesus is familiar with sorrows and acquainted with grief. He has nowhere to lay his head (Matt. 8:20; Luke 9:58). People abuse him with insults (Matt. 11:19; Mark 2:16; 3:30; Luke 7:34). Respected leaders assail his teachings and behavior (Mark 2:1-12, 23-28). Others turn a deaf ear to his appeals (Matt. 11:20-24; Mark 6:1-6; Luke 10:13-15). John the Baptist, a man he hails as more than a prophet, is arrested, imprisoned, and beheaded (Mark 6:17-29). Ever since then, the kingdom of God suffers violence (Matt. 11:12). His own companions misunderstand (Mark 7:18; 8:14-21, 31- 33; 9:32; 10:13-16). Eventually, one of them – “one of the twelve, as Mark says several times – betrays him to his enemies (Mark 14:1-2, 17-21, 43- 53). The others, in his hour of desperation, confusedly run away, leaving him alone – except for Peter, who spinelessly follows from a distance and then denies ever knowing him (Mark 14:66-72; John 18:15-18, 25-27). Pagan soldiers whip Jesus, mock him, and nail him to an instrument of torture (Mark 15:15, 24). Unfeeling crowds file by and stare, hurling ridicule (Mark 15:29-31). Finally, he dies un-Socratically, seemingly disillusioned, feeling as though God – the good Father who is kind to all, the good Father who opens the door to those who knock, the good Father who takes care of the lilies and the ravens and should all the more take care of the saints (Luke 6:35; Matt. 7:7-11 = Luke 11:9-13; Matt. 6:25-34 = Luke 12:22-31) – has forsaken him (Mark 15:34). His end is physical torment and mental anguish, loss of life and loss of meaning.

So the tradition gives us a Jesus who knows how to laugh loudly and to wail miserably, a Jesus who knows the presence of God and the absence of God, a Jesus who experiences what some of us find long before we die: both heaven and hell.

That Jesus is big enough to take in the extremes of human experience makes him both sympathetic and convincing. Any credible interpretation of human existence must come to terms with the acute polarities that characterize most of our lives. Even in the midst of our relative prosperity, anxiety and anger by turns grip us; malevolence and foolishness greet us daily; sin and guilt never leave us. Physical pain and mental pain haunt our lives, and we are ever the victims of the senseless sport of circumstance: something is always going wrong, when not for us then for others we love. And over it all is spread the eternal shroud of death. We blossom and flourish and wither and perish. Our cruel fate is to close our eyes and become short-term memories.

And yet, in the midst of such universal misfortune and heartbreak, an inscrutable Providence allows us sometimes to behold the good, the true, and the beautiful, enables us to happen upon friendship and love, laughter and delight, knowledge and wisdom; and those of us with religious faith may further believe that, through some enigmatic grace, we have sometimes encountered the ineffable presence of a loving God. So human experience in general and religious experience in particular offer intense paradoxes. Maybe this is what Pascal was getting at when he wrote, “It is incomprehensible that God exists, and it is incomprehensible that he does not exist.”

Jesus’ words and life give fitting expression to all this. The extremes of human experience are such that they are effectively represented by the extremes of eschatological expectation and by a life of celebration and crucifixion. If Jesus had pretended to know only the blessings of the future age, we should turn our backs on him, for we would know his faith to be a hopeless flight from the pain and dread of living. And if he had harped only on deaths doom and the tribulation of the latter days, we would have to judge his hope too small, the distance between him and God too great. But it was otherwise. By announcing not only tribulation present and coming but also salvation present and coming and then by living into both, Jesus commends himself to us. 

One last thought. Although Jesus may be the coincidence of opposites, he does not reconcile or unify them. For him, death and life are not like summer and winter, the one always coming after the other, in an eternal return, without victor. He may believe in the devil, but he believes far more in God. Jesus’ dualism is relative, not absolute. There can be no tie, for evil is bound to lose. The divine love and goodness must triumph over all else. So the opposites are not complementary but antagonistic, not equal but sequential: in the end, the good undoes the bad. And in this, as in so much else, Jesus’ life instantiates his teaching. For the resurrection does not balance crucifixion and the grave. It defeats them.


Some thoughts on hell and God’s love: or, how an eternal hell is incompatible with God’s nature (and unbiblical)

The content of this somewhat ad hoc and briefer (for my standards) post arises out of a few conversations I’ve had with fellow Christiansin real life and on Facebook—about the (in)compatibility of the traditional idea of an eternal hell with God’s nature (as classically understood). But it especially derives from one on the FB post of a certain fundamentalist Christian (who is best left anonymous, even though he isn’t FB friends with me) that exhorted Christians, in the wake of the horrific Christchurch mosque attacks which claimed at least 50 Muslim lives, to preach (among other things) (1) the essential justice of a post-mortem eternal punishment (for the shooter and those not “true Christians”—i.e. the Muslims who died), and, perhaps even worse, (2) that, actually, God does not love everybody.

The second point probably needs a little more qualification (especially for those not acquainted with the nuances of Calvinism as a theological system), but I shall hope to hint in this post along the way at why such a qualification—that there is a meaningful distinction between God’s providential love for all and his special love for the elect (those “in Christ”), and that the latter is what really counts in the end for escaping an eternal hell—is practically meaningless as it doesn’t solve, but rather exacerbates the magnitude of, the main issues I will raise. One final note before proceeding about my sources (since I’m lazy to meticulously footnote right now): much of my exegetical and historical ideas below can be found and justified at length in the esteemed patristics scholar Ilaria Ramelli’s lengthy tome The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena (Brill, 2013); meanwhile the more philosophical ideas can be found in, e.g., Thomas Talbott’s The Inescapable Love of God (Wipf and Stock, 2014, 2nd ed.).

Probably the most important first point to make on this topic is that I do not object in principle to the idea of hell—only the idea that it has to be eternalMy reasoning is, firstly, linguistic. The Greek usually translated as ‘eternal’ [aiōnios] in, e.g., the phrase usually translated as ‘eternal punishment’ [kolasin aiōnios] at the end of Matthew 25 does not necessarily or even primarily mean ‘eternal’ nor (as usually assumed) a kind of retributive ‘punishment’. The Greek word that does refer unqualifiedly to eternality is aidios. But aiōnios punishment (or the counterpart aiōnios life) literally just means a punishment ‘of the age’ (whence English word ‘aeon’). Furthermore, assuming the sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels are indeed faithful transpositions of his words into Greek equivalents, there can be no doubt that the words aiōn and aiōnios correspond to various forms and uses of the Hebrew olam or the Aramaic alma, both of which most literally mean something at an immense distance, on the far horizon, hidden from view, and which are usually used to mean “age,” or “period of long duration,” or a time hidden in the depths of the far past or far future; but it can also mean simply an extended period, and not necessarily a particularly long one, with a natural term. (In any case, the age to which such uses of both aiōn and aiōnios refer is clearly the olam ha-ba, “the Age to come”: the age or world of God that is coming to this earth, the Age of the Kingdom or of that reality now hidden in God.) There really is no word in Hebrew that naturally means “eternity,” either temporal or atemporal, or any word that naturally means “forever”; the claim occasionally made by champions of the received view—that both aiōn and olam in scripture mean “eternal” typically rather than defectively—is not merely logically impossible to verify, but simply false. Nevertheless, the misleading translation of aiōnios became influential from the fourth century throughout the rest of Western Christianity, most notably when Augustine, who didn’t really know Greek (although his command of Latin was exquisite), made the catastrophic mistake—only too happily taken on for the next 1000 or so years by the educated minority elite to motivate the illiterate masses to behave out of the fear of eternal hellfire—to (mis)translate aiōnios as the Latin aeternum (from which we get the English ‘eternal’).

As with aiōnios, so with the word the Bible uses to describe the punishment of the age to come: kolasis. The nuance of the choice of this Greek word is often lost in English to suggest some vile idea of an eternal conscious torment of hell. Aristotle distinguished kolasis from timoria, the latter referring to punishment “inflicted in the interest of him who inflicts it, that he may obtain satisfaction” (as he said in his Rhetoric). On the other hand, kolasis refers to correction; it “is inflicted in the interest of the sufferer” (ibid.). Thus Plato can affirm (in his Gorgias dialogue) that it is good to undergo kolasis, because in this way a person is made better. This distinction survived even past the time of the writing of the New Testament, since Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD) affirms that God does not timoreitai, punish for retribution, but he does kolazei, correct sinners.

There is much more linguistic evidence and interpretations of examples from the New Testament I could mount from Ramelli’s book The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis to further the case that the doctrine of apokatastasis—the Greek word for a final restoration, reintegration, reconstitution of all creation to their former and proper place in fellowship with God—was likely a tradition antedating Clement (and his disciple Origen of Alexandria) rooted in passages such as Acts 3:21 and 1 Corinthians 15:22-28 and followed by the following long list of first millenium Christian writers: Bardaisan, Clement, Origen, Didymus, St Anthony, St Pamphilus Martyr, Methodius, St Macrina, St Gregory of Nyssa (and probably the two other Cappadocians), St Evagrius Ponticus, Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, St John of Jerusalem, Rufinus, St Jerome and even Augustine himself (in his earlier years), Cassian, St Isaac of Nineveh, St John of Dalyatha, Ps. Dionysius the Areopagite, probably St Maximus the Confessor, up to John Scottus Eriugena, and many others. But let’s now move on, secondly, to my theological and moral reasons for objecting to the traditional view of eternal conscious torment (or, for that matter, annihilationism, but I’ll focus on ECT for now). Now, it may be the case that punishment for such finite sins may well be meted out in some finite purgatorial way, but nevertheless I think this idea of punitive justice assumed by traditional proponents of ECT is far too reductionistic, ignoring the far grander New Testament vision of restorative justice, of all things (ta panta) being reconciled to God through Christ (apokatastasis), as, e.g., Colossians 1:20 proclaims: “…and through him to reconcile all things [ta panta] making peace through the blood of his cross [through him] whether the things upon the earth or the things in the heavens [eite ta epi tes ges eite ta en tois ouranois]”. That is to say, I do not believe that a punishment meted out in mere retribution, without any intent or hope for exacting compensation and reconciliation, can be justly called a “just punishment.”

To emphasise the sheer injustice of an ECT hell is also to anticipate the counter-response that often manifests itself in Christians so naively parroting the following assertion (as if, by merely asserting it, the idea of an eternal hell is thereby vindicated): “God is not only merciful; he is also just.” Where is the biblical warrant, I would ask in return, for thinking that divine justice requires something that divine mercy does not, or that divine mercy permits something that divine justice does not? Where is the biblical warrant for thinking that mercy and justice are separate and distinct attributes of God? At this point, I fear, many Christians read their own ideas (and their own philosophical misconceptions) into the Bible. We think that mercy is one attribute and justice another, so we read this into the Bible; we think that God’s love is an attitude of one kind and his wrath an attitude of an opposite kind, so we also read this into the Bible; we think that God punishes for one kind of a reason and forgives for another, and we tend to picture God as a schizophrenic whose justice pushes him in one direction and whose love pushes him in another; so we again read all of this into the Bible.

But when one actually turns to Paul’s letters in context, however, one finds that he challenges this whole way of thinking. According to Paul, as I read him, God is always and everywhere merciful, but we sometimes experience his mercy (or purifying love) as severity, judgement, punishment. (This also explains the image, e.g. in Romans 1:18ff, of God’s wrath against sin (i.e. not against his creatures per se who fail to live up to the good image he created them to be teleologically oriented towards)—the image of wrath really just being a somewhat childish human expression of sin being a privation of the Good rather than wrath corresponding to any objective reality in God himself, which the classical doctrine of God’s intrinsic apatheia makes incoherent.) I think this is illustrated nicely in the flow of thought from Romans 9-11—which is sadly so often quoted out of context to make a statement like (I am quoting an actual person I dialogued with) “if there are any whom [God] wants to harden for his justice to be displayed, then they will be hardened, and his wrath would be directed towards their sin [forever].” But reading and following his whole line of thought across the three chapters, one can see that it culminates in 11:32: “For God shut up everyone [pantas] in obstinacy in so that he might show mercy to everyone [pantas].” This verse is the conclusion to the question of 9:14, which prompts the long, difficult series of reflections that end here, and which is posed in its most troubling conditional form at 9:22 (what if those who have erred or stumbled are merely vessels of wrath, whose only function is to provide a contrast to vessels of mercy?). At 11:11, however, Paul affirms that those not elected for service on the basis of divine foreknowledge, though they have stumbled, nevertheless will never fall; and at 11:12 and 25 he affirms that the estrangement of the elect and “those who stumble” is a temporary providential arrangement that allows the “full totality” [pleroma] of Jews and Gentiles alike to enter in; and here, finally, he affirms that there is then no actual distinction of vessels of wrath from vessels of mercy: rather, all are bound in sin and all will receive mercy. When we live a life of obedience, we experience his mercy as kindness; when we live a life of disobedience, we experience it as severity (see 11:22). Paul himself calls this a mystery (11:25) and admits that God’s ways are, in just this respect, “inscrutable” and “unsearchable” (11:33), but nothing could be clearer than his own glorious summation of the whole thing in 11:32.

At this point many Christians would probably resort to a freewill defense of hell: “ah, but someone, even if faced with God’s mercy, could still choose to reject God for eternity”…which leads me to give my third and final reason why I have to come reject any idea of an eternal hell as harmful and false. Not many realise how incoherent this idea (often cited with an approbatory gesture towards CS Lewis’ The Great Divorce) really is on classical theism. Indeed, upon only a little philosophical reflection, the supposition that a human will can prevent an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good (etc.) God’s will, especially when any of the Good (e.g. through living a selfless life) that a person who (for whatever reason) rejected or didn’t hear of Jesus in this life might seek would naturally (if unconsciously in their minds) be identical to the Good that is God, makes about as much logical sense as a square circle. If God is defined as he has been classically—the non-contingent source for our existence and persistence in being who is infinite Goodness, Truth, Beauty in essence—I do not see how it is metaphysically possible for one to be finally separated from God (by eternal conscious torment or a final annihilation)…even if one argues that God gives us freewill (which I agree he does)—for true freedom is not (as most modern people assume) spontaneous choice to do whatever but to live according to the Good which our natures are created to be teleologically oriented towards. This is why the Arminian objection that God saving all in the end would be coercive is nonsense. As a quick analogy, if a deranged man chooses to slash himself with a knife or set fire to himself, would you be interfering with his “freedom” by preventing him from doing so? No, you would be rescuing him from his slavery to madness.

Incidentally, this is why I think those who, instead, liken God to a parent who bereaves that their child would choose freely to reject him, even after persistent pleas to accept him and turn away from their evil ways, reduce God to a nonsensical anthropomorphization that basically renders the word God meaningless. I have yet to hear of a coherent philosophical account that makes it plausible, much less compelling, that anyone who knew enough about hell to make a reasoned and responsible choice would actually choose hell: these views require either that God callously accepts the impaired decision of an impaired will, or that He designed some of us to have wills that, even if let out of their chains long enough to make a free decision, would point in the polar opposite direction from Himself. This is truly a limited God, and so not, I argue, the maximally great being he classically has been seen to be.

So how do we solve this dilemma? I propose reminding ourselves of the doctrine of imago dei—which is so often ignored or marginalised in these reactive defenses of received theological traditions (however incoherent and tenuously supported they are)—i.e. we are all created to reflect God’s infinitely good nature (analogically). Yes, we “rebelled” (as represented in the mythological account—by which I don’t necessarily mean ahistorical—of the ‘fall’) and so became in bondage to our sinful will. But it is important to emphasise that whatever fallenness all flesh is heir to is a corruption rather than a default orientation intended by our Creator. As Augustine so beautifully put it in his Meditations, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.” But, if that is true, as I said to my Christian fundamentalist interlocutor—i.e. that God crafted the human soul to be oriented even in its fallenness toward home with Himself—one has to satisfactorily answer the question why certain souls would never ultimately find their way home…including, yes, the mosque shooter, Hitler etc. Although the idea of an eternal hell for such murderous, deluded persons “sounds sweet to the victims’ ears” (as my interlocutor also put it), we cannot (at least as Christians) allow the idea of retributive justice overtake the undoubtedly more Christ-like idea of restorative justice. As difficult as it is and as counter-intuitive it seems to the rest of the world who only sees an irredeemable monster, we should, as Jesus did in the story with the woman caught in adultery, empathise with the perpetrator of any crime (however atrocious), because we all, I think, have the potential within our own hearts to do similar evils if given sufficient opportunities (as much as we’d resist admitting it).

Thus I end with a final question to my fellow Christian brothers and sisters: why would a God who, while we are still sinners, loves us all (how could he not since he created us?) by dying for us (Romans 5:8) make some of us in such a way that we would not be attracted to His goodness, preferring a destiny where we’d waste away, all to His own bereavement? This is obviously not perfectly loving, nor is it—for those who like to retort “but God is also just!”—perfectly just. And remember, lastly, that it is Death, not the wayward will of one of His children, that is truly His enemy; He intends to put Death under His feet once and for all, swallowing it up in Life that He may be all in all (1 Cor 15:28); that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue confess (freely, as Origen and Gregory of Nyssa would add, not out of compulsion) that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10-11).


On picking and choosing in the Bible: marginalisation of women and enemy genocide

Fundamentalists and conservative Christians often accuse moderates (and liberals) of ‘picking and choosing’ certain biblical texts over others to suit their agendas – like a cafeteria, they say. The truth is we all do this, whether consciously or not; the question is whether one person’s ‘picking and choosing’ is more justified than another person’s. Jesus and Paul ‘picked and chose’ verses to suit their eschatological agenda that the kingdom of God, and hence the end of the world as they knew it, would come very soon (in their generation, they believed).[1] They read their Bible very differently to how we moderns do — they presupposed that the past texts must be talking about the present generation, whereas, apart from the fundamentalist Zionist types, we generally are taught to draw the meaning out of the text (technical term is exegesis), not read meanings into it (in contrast called eisegesis). Early church fathers in the first five centuries such as Clement and Origen of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, John Cassian, even the celebrated Augustine, departed from the “literal sense” and read parts of Exodus and Deuteronomy allegorically when, e.g., they couldn’t stomach Yahweh commanding Israel to engage in the wholesale slaughter of the inhabitants of the land of Canaan: they transformed dead Canaanite children into conquered vices such as lust and greed.[2] Thom Stark, in a book I’m currently reading of his called The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals when it gets God wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide it), calls these instances hermeneutics of convenience. Such hermeneutics of convenience abound even today as much in nominal Christians as in serious-minded conservative Christians – both assume a priori that the Bible is a rulebook or inerrant, or at least contains truth in some timeless sense, and so when data contradicts that overriding presupposition they conveniently marginalise it to conform to their dogma (or at least unquestioned presuppositions).

Through honestly wrestling with the texts and their issues of interpretation, I have increasingly developed a view, in opposition to the a priori view, that may well be seen as ‘convenient’ in some ways too. I call it the experiential or existential view which says that the Bible is authoritative only in those parts that are existentially engaging and compelling – that give grounding and meaning to existence. This avowal can be made only after and in the light of one’s own interpretation, which, as a history student, I ground in the historical-critical method first and foremost, although the Christian tradition and community play an important part in my interpretation too. The role of experience – or, as I like to call it, where we are, when we are and who we are – in determining interpretation seems obvious, but it is frequently downplayed by many conservative Christians in service of a dogmatic and static, rather than dynamic, interpretation of what is deemed to be literally the unchanging words of an unchanging God. I am not necessarily denying that God is unchanging, nor am I saying that the biblical texts can mean whatever the heck we want them to mean – I do not believe, as do some postmodernists, that a text has an infinite number of valid interpretations; to the contrary, I believe there is a limited number of valid interpretations bound by historical-critical, literary and theological methodologies.

In his cogently argued book The Human Faces of God, Thom Stark focuses on eight issues that are only a sampling of the problems that exist within the Judeo-Christian scriptures: what he calls biblical bickering (e.g. nationalism vs universalism); how, in light of earlier ancient Jewish, patristic and medieval interpretations, inerrantists inconsistently apply their method of the “historical-grammatical” sense; how inerrancy stunts your growth and other fundamentalist health hazards; how prior to the exile the earlier Israelites were probably polytheists rather than, after that time, monotheists; Yahweh’s genocides and their justifications (by both the biblical authors and contemporary apologists); government propaganda, e.g. the famous fairy-tale-like story of the shepherd-boy David taking on the giant Goliath [1 Samuel 17]; and, lastly, how Jesus expected the parousia (Greek for “appearance” or “coming” to denote his Second Coming) within their lifetimes – and was wrong.

In this post I will focus on some points from the first, second and fifth of Stark’s issues (keyed by his eight chapters) in order to briefly examine two broader issues that make the Bible in our contemporary society look morally dubious at best and immorally atrocious at worst: the marginalization of women and Yahweh’s call for Canaanite genocide.

For conservative Christians who tout the “biblical values” of “biblical manhood and womanhood”, among others, the marginalization of women makes many queasy when discussing with those who have done this most basic research about ancient near eastern and Greco-Roman society: that women in the ancient world were seen as property – valuable property, but property nonetheless. In fact, when biblical scholar Christopher Rollston wrote a Huffington Post article on this very topic – a very evenhanded summary of key biblical texts, mind you – it grated such Christians’ sensibilities so much that he got fired from Emmanuel Christian Seminary! (How’s that for academic freedom (what’s more at a Christian academic institution)?!) The following points are a summary of his article[3]:

  • In Ben Sira (a now deuterocanonical text that was nonetheless viewed as Scripture by the early Christians), the author writes, revealing his misogyny and his patriarchal society, that “the birth of a daughter is a loss” (22:3) and “better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good” (42:14)
  • The Decalogue says “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male slave, his female slave, his ox, his donkey or anything which belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21). Because the Ten Commandments are so well-known, it’s quite easy to miss the assumptions in them about gender. But the marginalization of women is clear. The wife is classified as her husband’s property, and so she’s listed with the slaves and work-animals.
  • The readership of the book of Proverbs is warned to beware of the evil seductress (e.g., Proverbs 5), but the reverse doesn’t occur: never does the book warn women to beware of a male seducer.
  • True, there’s the famous “noble wife” (Proverbs 31:10-31), who is wise, benevolent, hard-working, an entrepreneur, and loved by her sons and husband (daughters are not mentioned). Readers are encouraged to find such a wife. But there is a subtle problem: there is no counterpart to the “noble wife” text, nothing in the book that encourages young women to find a noble husband. After all, men were the intended readers
  • Perhaps the harshest of texts is 1 Timothy 2. The author is discussing worship and begins by stating that “men should pray” and then says “women should dress themselves modestly and decently,” which is quite a contrast in itself. But there’s more: “Let a woman learn in silence and full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to be silent.” The author’s rationale: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve, and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (1 Timothy 2:8-14). So, according to this text, women were to be silent in worship because they were created second and sinned first. And the final blow is this: a woman “will be saved through childbirth, if she remains in faith and love and sanctification with modesty” (1 Timothy 2:15). Similar to with a saying from the later apocryphal Gospel of Thomas (114) that says women can be saved once they become males, for the author of 1 Timothy eternal salvation comes obstetrically.
  • There are other examples of men willing to surrender women to horrendous violence in Genesis (Lot’s delivery of his daughters [Genesis 19:7-8]) and Judges (the Levite’s surrender of his concubine to a gang of rapists [Judges 19:10-30]). Also, the law in Deuteronomy 22:28-29 commands an unmarried women to marry her rapist. (Even the patriarch Jacob [Genesis 34], even before this law came to be, was comfortable giving his daughter to her rapist in matrimony.)
  • Polygyny (a man having multiple wives) was morally acceptable [Genesis 4:19-24; Deuteronomy 21:15; 2 Samuel 3:2-5] (and, conversely, polyandry unheard of)
  • To be sure, there are Job’s three daughters, who, unlike his seven sons, are named – a reversal of standard practice – and “received an inheritance along with their brothers” – furthermore, subverting the standard legal practice of not giving daughters a share of the family land (Job 42) – as well as the prophets Deborah (Judges 4-5) and Huldah (2 Kings 22:14-20), the fidelity and love between Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth, and, in the New Testament, Paul’s view of Phoebe (a “deacon”) and Junia (“preeminent among the apostles”) which was quite progressive for his time. But, as Rollston rightly notes, “these voices were the exception, not the rule.”

As Rollston ended with the following provocative line – “So, the next time someone refers to “biblical values,” it’s worth mentioning to them that the Bible often marginalized women and that’s not something anyone should value” – I began to see what probably riled up “the authorities” to, without explanation, dismiss this brilliant ancient near east scholar (who was even a Christian): undermining “traditional biblical values and authority.”

At the same time, however, I couldn’t help make a comparison to one of the heroes of such conservative evangelicals whose character has been whitewashed too many times and for far too long by particularly Calvinists: the sixteenth-century reformer John Calvin (1509-64). It is not just modern scholars but, in fact, a close friend of Calvin’s – Sebastian Castellio (1513-63) – who during his lifetime described his actions in Geneva as despotic: “Can we imagine Christ ordering a man to be burned alive for advocating adult baptism? The Mosaic laws calling for the death of a heretic were superceded by the law of Christ, which is one of mercy not of despotism and terror.” Urging him to repent of his intolerance, Castellio continued: “If Christ himself came to Geneva, he would be crucified. For Geneva is not a place of Christian liberty. It is ruled by a new pope [John Calvin], but one who burns men alive while the pope at Rome strangles them first.” Calvin has been most infamous for the fact that he was not only responsible for but also relished in the execution of Michael Servetus, a Christian theologian who did not accept the doctrine of the Trinity and who taught against the baptism of infants. But although seen as an extreme response by Calvinists, this is really nothing new: the mainstream of church history believed it was appropriate to punish or even to execute those with dissenting views.

The relevance of mentioning Calvin to the modern instantiation of the firing of Rollston is that Calvin did a similar thing to Castellio earlier in his life. In the 1540s, Castellio claimed that clergy should stop persecuting those who disagree with them on matters of biblical interpretation; in response, charging Castellio with the offense of “undermining the prestige of the clergy”, Calvin forced him to not only resign from his position of Rector but to also to be dismissed from being a preacher in Vandoeuvre (in Geneva, Switzerland). We see a similar phenomena of intolerance and restriction of freedom of thought today in conservative seminaries on account of the controlling dogma of biblical inerrancy, even if no murder takes place: Peter Enns is another modern example, who upon publishing his Incarnation and Inspiration: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament was dismissed from Westminster Theological seminary in Pennsylvania.[4] This is why I now believe that the assumption of biblical inerrancy does far more harm than good – spiritually, morally, and intellectually – and wish that Christian scholars abandoned it pronto: inerrancy, however defined,[5] does not describe what the Bible does. The same dogmatic mindset of inerrancy also, I believe, contributed to the savagery of the presentation of Israel’s god Yahweh commanding the complete extermination of the Canaanite peoples in Joshua and Deuteronomy.

Here’s a consideration often lost in the discussions of Yahweh’s call for Canaanite genocide (and the call itself is fairly unequivocal; see, e.g., Deuteronomy 20:16-18): God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites; the Israelites believed that God told them to kill the Canaanites.[6] The view that “the Canaanites got exactly what they deserved because they were utterly morally corrupt” is common among some Christians, but once you start picking at it, it comes apart pretty quickly.

For one thing, giving Canaanites first prize in the “worst sinners ever” contest is a caricature, and a bit of propaganda. Were they really so bad that they and they alone deserved to be annihilated – old to young, male and female, even animals? Take one of the Canaanites’ gross sins, child sacrifice. The Canaanites hadn’t cornered the market on the idea. Child sacrifice was common. A prominent example comes from the Bible, in 2 Kings 3:4-27, where King Mesha of Moab, right across the Jordan River, is losing a battle against a coalition of forces led by Israelites. Backed into his own end zone, he calls an audible and throws a desperation pass the length of the field – he sacrifices his own son on the city walls to appease his god Kemosh in order to gain victory. (It worked, by the way. The forces had to withdraw and Mesha was saved.) So other people back then sacrificed children, not just Canaanites, and they weren’t wiped off the face of the earth.

We even have some rather disturbing examples from the Bible where child sacrifice seems to be something God is perfectly fine with. God himself tells Abraham to kill his son Isaac as a sacrifice (Genesis 22). At the last second God puts a stop to it, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t serious. God was testing Abraham, as the story tells us, to see how obedient he was – and it wouldn’t have been a real test if there wasn’t a real chance that Abraham could have gone through with it. Then we have Jephthah, one of Israel’s last judges, who pledges to sacrifice to God whatever walked out of the door of his house if God gave him victory in battle (Judges 11). Sure enough, out comes his daughter (was he expecting a cow or something?) and after a mourning period God gets his sacrifice.

Eventually we must confront the truth. However immoral the Canaanites were, the real problem isn’t what they did, but where they did it. They were contaminating the land that God set aside for the Israelites since the days of Abraham and so had to be exterminated. Take any other people group and put them in the land of Canaan, and they would be the ones tasting Israelite steel, and their immorality would be described as the worst ever. Take the Canaanites and put them somewhere else, and we’d never hear about them. The Canaanites’ main sin was their street address. That is why they had to be eliminated.[7]

How does this ethnically exclusive, xenophobic attitude fit with the rest of the biblical materials? Not very well at all. Compare Deuteronomy 20:16-19, the earlier mentioned text, which mentions slaughtering all the Canaanites but preserving the trees – to the humorous and revealing conclusion to the fictional short story of Jonah – where Yahweh chastises Jonah for being so concerned about the life of a bush and yet so indifferent to the lives of more than 120,000 human beings and the countless animals in the great city of Nineveh (Jonah 4:10-11). The contrast in perspective is clear: Yahweh according to the Deuteronomist cares more about trees than he does about human beings; whereas Yahweh according to the author of Jonah cares more about human beings than he does about trees.

If this self-assured nationalism contradicts more universalist authors within the Old Testament such as the author of Jonah (Amos is another example), how much more does it seemingly go against Jesus’s own words in Matthew’s gospel on his “Sermon on the Mount.” Here, the author of Matthew, writing to a Jewish Christian community, emphasizes Jesus’ ethnic inclusiveness and nonviolence. I have summarized in a few bullet points below how biblical scholar Kenton Sparks summarises the way this theme plays out throughout his gospel:[8]

  • Rather than beginning with Adam as in Luke, Matthew begins with Abraham – who was to be a blessing to “all nations” (Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:18) – and then mentions 5 women – Bathsheba, Tamar, Ruth and Rahab, then lastly Mary – the first four of Gentile or dubious origin, while Mary suspiciously conceived out of wedlock;
  • The mention of the (non-Jewish) magi in the infancy narrative and the contrast in their response to that of the Jewish nation’s;
  • The faith of the Gentile centurion (8:5-13; cf. Luke 7:4-5) as contrasted with the unbelief of the Jews;
  • The faithful “Canaanite” woman (15:21-28), whom Jesus eventually healed after calling her a “dog”;
  • In the so-called Great Commission, “all the nations” (panta ta ethne) (28:19) which Jesus commands his disciples to preach to refers to the Gentiles. There are two clear phases of Jesus’ ministry in Matthew: first for the Jews (but also for the Gentiles), and then for the Gentiles (but also for the Jews);
  • Just as Jesus used his “authority” (exousia) in his first mountain sermon (7:29) to supersede the commands of Moses, so did he, as the new Moses who possessed “all authority” (pasa exousia), supersede the command to kill “all the nations” (panta ta ethne; see LXX Deut 11:23; Josh 23:4; 24:18) by instead charging his disciples to make disciples of “all the nations” (panta ta ethne).

The story of the faithful “Canaanite” woman is particularly noteworthy in Matthew’s gospel because, on the surface it appears and it has traditionally been seen as another example of Jewish exclusivism; but it may not be in the context of Matthew’s purpose. According to Matthew’s Marcan source (cf. Mark 7:24-30), and even according to his own narrative context (in Tyre and Sidon), the woman in this story should be of Syrophoenician descent. Yet Matthew describes her as “Canaanite” rather than “Syrophoenician,” this being the only use of “Canaanite” in the entire New Testament. I highly doubt this change in wording from Mark’s gospel was accidental; it would have served only one purpose: to show that Jesus embraced the faith not only of foreigners but even of Israel’s traditional hated enemies.

If it is another example of Matthew’s ethnic inclusiveness (as I believe it is), I believe I have exegetical, theological and moral warrant[9] to ‘pick and choose’ this text as more existentially engaging and compelling than the earlier ones in Joshua and Deuteronomy, both of which say unequivocally: “As for the cities that Yahweh your God is giving you for your inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall devote them to utter destruction…just as Yahweh your God has commanded” (Deuteronomy 20:16–17). Apologists such as Christopher Wright and Paul Copan have gone to great lengths arguing that the command to kill “all that breathes” is a mere rhetorical exaggeration, and that we should not therefore take the text to indicate that the Israelite warriors slaughtered noncombatants, women, or children.[10] This tack is a pure red herring, however. Even if we were to concede that the Conquest narratives are to be read hyperbolically, this argument cannot exonerate Yahweh from the charge of child-killing or lady-killing, since Numbers 31:17 gives explicit instructions to kill every male child of the Midianites, and all of their non-virgin females, instructions which can in nowise be taken hyperbolically.

Christopher Wright may be partly right in one sense though: the conquest narratives do reflect broader “literary conventions of writing about warfare.” Beyond mere literary conventions, in fact, the biblical conquest narratives fit within a genre of ancient Near Eastern literature that may be identified as national origin myth. As Stark explains, this “literature reflects the attempt of rising empires to express their hegemony through origin stories that crystalize their present-day claims to power. These origin myths present the young nation as an unstoppable force, specially empowered by their deity whose strength far outstrips that of the other tribal deities. The myths serve to crystalize and legitimize the nation’s rise to power.” Stark continues: “a large number of critical scholars believe it is likely many of these accounts were written during the reign of King Josiah [7th century BCE], whose unprecedented (and extremely violent[11]) reforms consolidated religious and political power within Jerusalem. Joshua, the ideal leader, would thus have been read as a type of Josiah. The narrative functions as propaganda, helping to legitimize Josiah’s consolidation of power in the name of national unity and faithfulness to Yahweh” (emphasis is mine).

The key point for now is that this “othering” of national enemies is such a ubiquitous feature in national origin myths, and that neither is a text that purports to be the “word of God” by the Christian church (and Jewish synagogue) exempt from these imperialistic pretensions. As Stark concludes, “This kind of history-making is found wherever there is power, and especially where there is militaristic power with imperialistic pretensions. The evidence suggests that much of the history writing in our scriptures falls under this category of ideologically-motivated invented tradition as well.” For those anxiously wondering how much I agree with Stark’s assessment – how much of the Bible I think is fictional or semi-fictional – in an upcoming post I shall begin to slowly reveal my research by starting to talk about the more obviously mythological[12] parts of the Bible: the two creation accounts in Genesis.

[1] Stark discusses Jesus and the early Christians’ belief in the Parousia in his final chapter (ch 8), provocatively titled “Jesus was wrong or, It’s the End of the World as We Know It and I Feel Fine.” I will discuss this issue in a later blog post.

[2] I even recall a contemporary sermon in Wellington that did this with a section from the book of Joshua (conveniently, before the first attack on the Canaanite cities): specifically 5:13-15, when the commander of the army of Yahweh tells Joshua to remove his sandals from his feet, deliberately recalling Moses’ similar experience during his call at the burning bush (Exod ch 3).


[4] Christian New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado laments on this “scandal of the evangelical mind” (a phrase from Mark Noll’s eponymous book) here:

[5] Even with all the qualifications of a Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy…

[6] Enns, The Bible Tells Me So, p. 54.

[7] Ibid., pp. 50-51.

[8] Kenton Sparks, “Gospel as Conquest: Mosaic Typology in Matthew 28:16–20,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68 (2006): 651-63.

[9] In fact, even archaeological warrant too, which indicates Ai, Jericho, and other genocidal battles probably never occurred in the period described – 13th century BCE. (Hazor may be an exception).

[10] Wright, The God I Don’t Understand, 88. Paul Copan also makes the “rhetorical exaggeration” argument in Copan, “Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites,” 3.

[11] See for example 2 Kgs 23:30: “He [Josiah] slaughtered on the altars all the priests of the high places who were there, and burned human bones on them.”

[12] As I will show, by “mythology” I don’t mean “a false story/account”; it’s a technical term to denote a particular form of ancient near eastern literature that focused more on self-identity than history.

A brief look at Christian humanism and why it is (still) relevant today

Lectio transit in mores (‘reading shapes moral character’). This adage in Latin by the Christian humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) neatly summarises the historical legacy that the values that have formed Western educational ideals are an amalgam of mostly Christianly transformed Greek and Roman virtues. The twentieth-century historian and Christian humanist Henri Irénée Marrou once called Greek culture a ‘civilization of paideia [Greek for ‘education’]’, that is, ‘an educational effort, pursued beyond the years of schooling and lasting throughout the whole of life, to realize ever more perfectly the human ideal’.[1] That the focus of ancient Greek paideia came to be identified with literature itself greatly influenced early Christian church fathers to translate Greek paideia into Christian paideia by placing biblical literature at the centre of moral-forming education. Thus, as Renaissance humanism was about books, by the 15th century, Erasmus, like a lot of other humanists of his day, focused on the book that was the ‘Book of Books’; that was called, literally, ‘the Book’ – the Bible. As a biblical scholar who promoted the study of the original languages Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, he supported the humanistic slogan Ad fontes, a return ‘to the sources.’ Indeed, Erasmus used the phrase in a 1511 manifesto on humanist learning titled “Upon the Right Method of Instruction”: “Above all, one must hasten to the sources [ad fontes] themselves, that is, to the Greeks and ancients.”Although thus a vanguard of modern philology and history, Erasmus’s pioneering edition of the Greek New Testament (1516) is emblematic of his conviction that the Greco-Roman sources were not an end in themselves, but rather a means to the end of returning to the living waters of the Scriptures in its originals.

This is why the modern opposition of secular to religious humanism, which is in turn an outgrowth of the false dichotomy made by modern-day secularists between faith and reason, would have not only been foreign to Renaissance humanists, but illogical. Secular humanism, too, would be a contradiction in terms for them: rationality, the distinctive quality of humans in contradistinction to other creatures, was never divorced from the ultimate source of human reason – the divine Logos (Word of God) who became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). To be fully human, for Renaissance Christian humanists, meant to be not only made in the image of God (imago Dei), but to strive to be conformed to the image of Christ, the perfect human who was also identified with Israel’s god Yahweh as the embodiment of the Logos. Recognising the importance of deification or theosis enables us to provide a healthy corrective to the false dichotomy, made as much by secularists as Christian apologists, between Christian theocentrism and pagan and later secular forms of anthropocentrism. Perhaps a theo-anthropocentrism, which mirrors ‘Christian humanism’ — with the ‘theo-’ and ‘Christian’, respectively, modifying the type of humanism involved — is a better way forward past this false dichotomy.

To quote philosopher, theologian and contemporary Christian humanist Jens Zimmermann, “The incarnation at the heart of Christian anthropology made possible the correlation of faith and reason that gave birth to the universities and, more generally, to an openness towards all sources of truth…the best cultural achievements of other cultures were taken as God-given insights. The recurring trope of Israel’s plundering the treasures of Egypt captures this basic humanist attitude. Thus, […] ideally (if not always in practice), in the conviction that God is at work in everything true and noble, Christian humanists have always drawn freely on every available learning in their pursuit of human flourishing.”[2]

You may not be a Christian humanist like myself, but you might just have to admit, as atheist historian, philosopher, and statesman Benedetto Croce (1866-1952) did, that “in our moral life and thought we feel ourselves literally the children of Christianity.” For “Christian humanism laid the groundwork for many modern ideas we now take for granted. Humanistic ideals of a common humanity, universal reason, freedom, personhood, human rights, human emancipation and progress, and indeed the very notion of secularity (describing the present saeculum preserved by God until Christ’s return) are literally unthinkable without their Christian humanistic roots.”[3]

But, granted that Christian humanism plays a foundational role in the formation of Western cultures, why should one reflect on this legacy now in the twenty-first century? My initial answer is by way of quoting Martin Heidegger: “Whatever and however we are trying to think, we think within the context of tradition. Tradition does its work when it frees us from mere reflection on the past towards a future-oriented thinking that is no longer planning. Only when we turn thoughtfully (thinkingly) towards what has already been thought will we be used for what remains to be thought.”[4] My more succinctly stated answer is to return to Erasmus’s adage with a slight alteration, incorporating Heidegger’s words: reading about our traditions (“the past”) will give us the self-awareness, individually and collectively, that will lead us to (“future-oriented”) seeking the humanistic ideal of the formation of the human person towards a higher end (telos).

If this won’t give us a utopian heaven-on-earth, at the least it should avert the potential dystopian hell-on-earth that results from religious and anti-religious fundamentalisms; the loss of identity that is the natural corollary of either clinging to tradition or too readily abandoning it. For it is necessary to have a principle of order at work in the flux of events which introduces coherence and harmony into the stream. Set apart from the flux, and yet also in it, it is a power which orders life to a purpose: the Logos, the incarnate Word that necessarily mediates goodness, truth, beauty, meaning through humans, for neither pure reason nor pure revelation is given to human beings.

[1] Henry Irénée Marrou, A History of Education in Antiquity, trans. George Lamb (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1956), p. 98.

[2] ‘Introduction’, in Jens Zimmermann (ed.), Re-envisioning Christian Humanism: Education and the Restoration of Humanity (Oxford: Oxford Scholarship Online, 2016), p. 6

[3] Zimmermann, pp. 6-7.

[4] Heidegger, Identität und Differenz, p. 30

Intro to looking at the human faces of God

I begin with quoting the words from the blog post of James Woodword (quoting Peter Rollins) which summarise some of my (not-so-frequently articulated, developing) views on the nature of the Bible (adding my additions in square brackets): “The Bible itself is a dynamic text full of poetry, prose, history, law and myth all clashing together in a cacophony of voices. We are presented with a warrior God [e.g. in Joshua’s “conquest narrative” (more an ideological manifesto than history)] and a peacemaker [e.g. in Jesus’ “sermon on the mount” (probably a secondary compilation by the evangelist who gathered into his discourses oral tradition that at one time was scattered)]; a God of territorial allegiance and a God who transcends all territorial divides; an unchanging God [e.g. Malachi 3:6: “I Yahweh do not change“] and a God who can be redirected [e.g. Exodus 32:14: “And Yahweh changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people”)]; a God of peace and a God of war; a God who is always watching the world and a God who fails to notice the oppression against Israel in Egypt.

In the Bible we find a vast array of competing stories concerning the character of God that are closely connected to the concrete circumstances of those who inhabit the narrative. Just as personality tests offer us an unrealistic image of ourselves as a single whole, overlooking the fact that we are not only many different things in many different situations but also changing over time, so Western theology has all too often reduced the beauti­fully varied and complex descriptions of God found in the Bible to a singular reading that does violence to its vibrant nature.

The result is not an account that is hopelessly ideological, but rather a text that shows the extent to which no one ideology or group of ideologies can lay hold of the divine. The text is not only full of fractures, tensions and contradictions but informs us that fractures, tensions and contradictions [are expected and perhaps inevitable on this earth].”

If some of these “problem texts” resulting from dictatorial conceptions of Yahweh (e.g. as a tribal warrior god) are more mirror images of our worst selves (rather than an accurate portrayal of the divine nature), is there a way to conceive of God that, while rejecting it all being the literal words of God in an authoritarian fashion, still in some sense sees the Bible as authoritative (i.e. as able to be trusted as transmitting truth even through error)? I think so. I think that there’s a “still more excellent way”; namely, a conception of the divine as difference in harmony (“harmony” defined as not forcing agreement but being united, and seeing the individual value of those ‘others’ to our ‘self’, despite disagreements), representing an ontology – an divine reality – that calls upon humanity to better ourselves and to strive to become the mirror image of the sacred reality. (For those well-read in church history who might accuse me of being semi-Pelagian here, don’t be too quick to judge by appearances as I will deal with this issue in a later post.)

I think that this conception of the divine, you’ll be unsurprised to learn if you know me well enough, is best found in Jesus – a humble, unprivileged Jewish rabbi from the insignificant town of Nazareth who believed that he was Israel’s Messiah that would rescue his people from the oppression of the Roman empire…except he completely subverted what the anthropologist James C. Scott has called the “public transcript” which endorsed the Pax Romana (“peace” of Rome) and its imperial order and operated within its hierarchical, dominating assumptions, while at the same time making allusions to an offstage “hidden transcript,” discernible by the dominated classes. This hidden transcript criticized Rome for failing to live up to the official transcript but also spoke of Rome’s impending doom at the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God. Most importantly, this hidden transcript spoke, shockingly and scandalously, of this kingdom being ushered through this Jewish rabbi’s crucifixion as well as, three days later (it was believed by several eyewitnesses who saw an empty tomb), his resurrection from the dead. When, after this paradigm-shifting event, Jesus’ disciples over a span of 35-65 years wrote (ancient) biographies on this significance of this man’s works and deeds, what did they portray Jesus’ kingdom as looking like?

As Jesus spoke to the “subjects” of his kingdom in the aforementioned “Sermon on the Mount”, he began with the following message: “How blissful the destitute, abject in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom…how blissful those who mourn, for they shall be aided. How blissful the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. How blissful those who hunger and thirst for what is right, for they shall feast. How blissful the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. How blissful the pure in heart, for they shall see God. How blissful the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt 5:3-8; my translation). In his typical paradoxical statements of reversal, this rabbi also proclaimed that those in his kingdom would reign by serving (see, e.g., the parabolic-like story of Jesus enacting the meaning of the eucharist through washing his disciples’ feet [John 13:1-20]); that “those who exalt themselves are humbled and those who humble themselves are exalted” [Luke 14:11, recalling Ezekiel’s criticism of the religious leaders of his time, Ezek 21:26].

Do these ethical teachings – which we commend nowadays almost intuitively even if we don’t identify as Christian – just make Jesus an enlightened rabbi? Or was he more than that – was he, as the latest Gospel John (c. 90 AD) explicitly states in numerous places (e.g. John 1:1; 10:30; 20:28) and as the earliest Christians just over a decade after his death believed (see, e.g. a likely hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 that extols Jesus as Kurios [Greek for YHWH]), Israel’s god Yahweh embodied? As annoying as it might be to some, I shall not presently be answering this question (though posing it is important to remember in the back of one’s mind), deferring it till later, not least because I don’t want to be accused of cooking the evidence in advance in favour of my Christian bias. Thus, I shall begin, as I think all honest research should, with situating Jesus as a human being in a Second Temple Jewish context in the first century AD; for Jesus might have been be more than human, but he most definitely was not less than human.

I have briefly alluded to the fact that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet announcing the “kingdom of God” in terms of subverting Roman imperial ideology, as well as mentioned, and quoted from, the ancient biographies of Jesus written by (seemingly anonymous) early Christians, from which we gain four different, though broadly similar, portraits of the significance of this rabbi-prophet. But what are we to make of the genre of these biographies (later in the 2nd century called Gospels)? That Jesus is depicted in these “Gospels” as a 1st century Jew in an identifiable period of Second Temple Judaism, acting in ways that are often dissimilar to the way the post-Easter early church spoke of him and early Judaism (respectively), goes some way, for most NT scholars, in demonstrating that we probably do have a substantial amount of primitive tradition that goes to Jesus himself (rather than the early church’s concoctions). EP Sanders offers the following list of statements about Jesus that are almost beyond dispute:

“Jesus was born c. 4 BCE, near the time of the death of Herod the Great; he spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village; he was baptized by John the Baptist; he called disciples; he taught in the towns, villages and countryside of Galilee (apparently not the cities); he preached ‘the kingdom of God’; about the year 30 he went to Jerusalem for Passover; he created a disturbance in the Temple area; he had a final meal with the disciples; he was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities, specifically the high priest; he was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate; his disciples at first fled; they saw him (in what sense is not certain) after his death; as a consequence, they believed that he would return to found the kingdom; they formed a community to await his return and sought to win others to faith in him as God’s Messiah.”

In later posts, I will make the case for the authenticity of much more ‘Jesus traditions’ (specific stories or sayings), but for introductory purposes of briefly probing at the nature of the Christian Bible here I will note the main source which substantially – indeed inextricably – shaped the presentation of these historical traditions, which is also, according to scholars, a potential source of newly created material: the Jewish scriptures (which became the Christian ‘Old Testament’ after Christians decided that some of their literature was also scripture, which they called the ‘New Testament’). Christians thought that Hebrew prophets had spoken about Jesus, and that he fulfilled prophetic expectations. They could therefore read the prophets and find things that Jesus must have done. Although we must thus be open to the possibility that some material was created (the infancy narratives are probably the most likely candidates, if any), most scholars think it nevertheless likely that Jesus really was a prophet in the style of, say, Jeremiah. Notwithstanding the many alterations or additions, by which an authorized tradent sought to explain or adapt the teaching when the post-Easter situation seemed to require it, the plausibility of many of Jesus’ words and actions can be readily demonstrated, as can be shown with one example now to illustrate.

A common assumption, particularly amongst Christians who try to divorce Jesus from his ancient Jewish context in service of their own contemporary ideologies, is that Jesus abrogated all laws having to do with food, Sabbath and purity. But this is probably historically inaccurate, as is suggested by, e.g., Mark 1:44, which testifies that Jesus respected the law in not being rebellious against the Jerusalem priesthood. The saying in Mark 7:15-19 about what defiles a person is often cited as proof that Jesus abolished the food laws. Most scholars argue, persuasively in my judgement, that the comment that Jesus “declared all foods clean” (7:19) is Mark’s editorial comment on his received tradition. It is more likely instead that Jesus intended a hyperbolic contrast (like elsewhere in his teaching; see, e.g. Matt 5:29-30): what counts most is not what goes into a person but what comes out. Thus, Mark’s comment reflects his purpose for writing—specifically, to make sure later Gentile followers of Jesus understand they didn’t need to keep those laws.[1]

One other feature that makes it plausible that Jesus believed himself to be a prophet is that he emphasised the inverted priorities of the Pharisees and the scribes in the manner of the earlier teachings of Israel’s prophets (Hos 6:6; cf. Matt 9:3; 12:7): he said, for instance, that the Pharisees tithe, as they should according to the law, but neglect “the weightier matters of the law”: justice, mercy, faithfulness and love of God (Matt 23:23; Luke 11:42; cf. Hos 12:6; Amos 5:15; Mic 6:8).

I will have much more to say later about how, although Old Testament theology must be approached independently in its own context(s) before imposing a “Christian reading” of it, New Testament theology cannot properly be done in isolation from Old Testament theology (as shown in these brief examples); thus I will provide a summary for now, which will provide a tentative framework for later posts, of what I consider the main characteristics of the Bible to be in descriptive (rather than prescriptive) terms.

What we Christians call homogeneously the one, canonical “Bible” (in the singular) can be described as: an ancient and diverse collection of selected historical traditions for a theological didactic purpose, which is ultimately to reveal God’s intention to dwell among his people and to be in relationship with them.

  • Ancient – which might seem like a point that doesn’t need to be made, but it does. It’s very easy to forget – or maybe push aside – how old this book (really, collection of books, as will be shown below) really is. The vast distance/barrier in chronology, language, geography and culture – which can be characterized more broadly as the ancient cognitive environment – reminds us that the biblical texts were not written to us, even if we appropriate them by reading them as if they are written for us. (Thus, when Paul believes that Deuteronomy 25:4 was “written for our sake” in his letter to the Corinthians [1 Cor 9:10], or, more broadly, remarks in his letter to the Romans that whatever was written in the past was written “for our instruction” [Romans 15:4], we mustn’t necessarily, as he did, conflate the distinction between original context and application in the present (which didn’t seem to exist in antiquity, as will later be shown in the Qumran community who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls).
  • Diverse collection – it’s just as easy to flatten out the divergent voices within what we homogeneously call the Bible. The Greek underlying the English word Bible, biblia (which is plural), reflects the fact that its various writers lived at different times, in different places, and under different circumstances – and as a result talked about God and the life of faith differently. Indeed, very often writers across time seem to have spoken in monologues, as well as disagreeing dialogues, which produced, in the forming of a canon, as often as much, if not more, cacophony as euphony! Contrast Proverbs and Deuteronomy (obey Torah; if not YHWH will punish you for your sins/you will spiritually die) with Job and Ecclesiastes (there seems to be no order or justice, rhyme or reason, in this world!). Or compare the prophet Nahum’s rejoicing at the destruction of the dreaded Assyrians and their capital Nineveh in 612 BCE, with the prophet Jonah, the author probably writing generations later after the return from exile, who speaks of God’s desire that the Ninevites repent and be saved. Or the large amount of texts that anthropomorphise God as hardly omniscient or omnipresent compared to the few, later in Jewish tradition, that do. Or the evolution, mirroring the shift from a tribalistic society to a centralized monarchy, from a polytheistic understanding of Yahweh as the son of El Elyon (the Most High god over the lesser gods) [see the Dead Sea Scrolls likely original wording of Deuteronomy 32:8 which the Greek Septuagint and later Hebrew Masoretic text excised/altered; the NRSV honestly shows this as opposed to the ideologically distorted NIV and, to a lesser extent, ESV which covers it up] to a monotheistic understanding of Yahweh as the only true and real God [e.g. Isaiah 45:5; 47:8 etc.]. I will give many more examples of the divergent theological emphases of biblical books in later posts.
  • Selection of historical traditions – every historical narrative involves selection, including modern ones, thus revealing their “bias”; the Bible’s is
  • For a teaching purpose that could be called, albeit admittedly cumbersomely, theo-anthropocentric – focusing on different humans “wrestling” with their experiences with/of God (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Israel in Hebrew denotes “wrestling with God”). This is especially important in avoiding unfruitful debates that draw sharp, false dichotomies such as ‘is this history or myth?’ In his recent Old Testament Theology for Christians, Old Testament scholar John Walton astutely speaks on this (I say astutely because many conservative Christian scholars like him are unfortunately more focused on apologetics than operating within the more public (but not unbiased of course!) domain of critical scholarship): since historical reconstruction of events employing the historical-critical method is difficult and limited, the theological point in a text, Walton says, is often more important than its historical reconstruction and the former is valid even if the latter is uncertain. In other words – and here’s where I think Walton hits the nail on the head for pragmatic common sense – the interpretation of the event is more important than the fact of the event (though an event still serves as the referent).[2] Thus, lastly, the words in the Bible can still in some sense be regarded as
  • Revelatory, revealing as much about ourselves – our limitations, prejudices, hopes, fears and sins – as about God’s intention to “be with us”, culminating in Christ who is called, typologically, Immanuel (Matt 1:23), which means “God with us.”

Following biblical scholar Peter Enns, in the following posts I will make much of the importance of the last point – of the incarnation. For me the incarnation – the Word becoming flesh and tabernacling among us (John 1:14) – is the overarching, most significant theme for Christian theology; every other theme, including the over-stressed theme of “salvation history” and the under-stressed (sub-)theme of covenant, flows from it. An incarnational theology, which traces the trajectory of this important theme that runs right through the Bible of God’s intention to dwell among and be in relationship with his people until its climax in Immanuel, seems to me to be the best model for interpreting Scripture too: as Jesus was fully divine and fully human, the scriptures are also a thoroughly human and (yet somehow also) divine product. The word of God – better, the words from ancient Israelites about their God – is a means to the end of the Word of God (Jesus) to which the former bears witness to the latter. Thus, as shocking as it might sound to many Christians, the Bible is not actually the centre of the Christian faith. If we are listening and observing the way it speaks and acts, the word of God decenters itself so that it points to the central focus of the Word of God who became flesh and dwelt among us.

Thus I will follow Enns in speaking of a Christotelic, as opposed to Christocentric (seeing Christ in every OT passage), hermeneutic. I will quote Enns at length here because he summarises the points, which I will elaborate upon later, well: “Telos is a Greek word meaning “end” or “goal.” The Old Testament does not so much flow easily into the New Testament, nor do the Old Testament writers “predict” Jesus of Nazareth in any conventional sense of the word “predict.” Rather, after the resurrection, New Testament writers read their scripture (the Christian Old Testament) in light of—in taking into account—the surprise ending of a crucified and risen Messiah. The faith of the New Testament writers is that Christ is deeply connected to Israel’s story while at the same time grappling with this surprise, counterintuitive development of the gospel. This led the NT writers (especially Paul and the Gospel writers) to cite the OT well over 300 times (connecting the gospel to Israel’s story) and in doing so significantly re-read, i.e., transpose, Israel’s story to account for the surprise ending. This tendency toward “creative” (i.e., midrashic) readings of scripture in Judaism in general at the time is the proper hermeneutical backdrop for understanding this “Christotelic” hermeneutic. This is why—as many Bible readers know—NT writers, when quoting the OT, typically “take it out of context,” meaning the context of the original utterance. The gospel requires creative re-framing of Israel’s story.”[3]

One final, though crucial, brief note with regard to the methodology I will employ, in general, in wading through the biblical texts in later posts. Following NT Wright’s “critical realism”, I will employ a principle of critical trust (PCT) in my historical work, a dialectic of trust and critical assessment which, I think, is proper and necessary in order to avoid the extremes of unmitigated skepticism and uncritical trust. If I was to pick agnosticism over uncritical trust on some passage, however, I would easily opt the former – especially in the unfortunate anti-intellectual atmosphere that resides in many Christian circles, uncritical trust or blind faith is much more dangerous in my opinion than saying ‘I don’t know’, and so it is to be absolutely avoided, because it is not conducive to intellectual or spiritual growth.

[1] Furthermore, in the book of Acts (reflecting a situation about ten years or so after Jesus’ resurrection), early followers of Jesus deal with the topic of food laws for what seems like the first time rather than simply referring back to something Jesus explicitly taught. Paul also, in his later letter (late 50s) to the Romans, for instance, makes much about dietary laws (Rom 14:20), never hinting that he is following Jesus’s lead.

[2] John Walton, Old Testament Theology for Christians, 6-7.


The Scripturalisation underlying “Good Friday”

The first of the last few days of our Easter holiday that have just elapsed, which began the remembrance for Christians of the substantive meaning of Easter, is what Christians call, somewhat paradoxically, “Good Friday.” What’s “good” about a Jewish itinerant preacher dying on a cross? Of course, as many Christians will quickly respond, he wasn’t just any old preacher; he was (somehow) the embodiment of Israel’s god YHWH.[1] But what are we to make of these claims from a historical point of view – can they even be, at any level, subjected to historical inquiry? This is indeed one of the main questions I have asked myself – and still ask myself – as a history student and a Christian as I self-critically evaluate why I believe what I believe, the presuppositions I bring to interpreting the historical documents that comprise the Christian bible.[2] I will begin with exploring the historical dimensions to this bold claim – and the limitations the historical method presents in this – which will lead into the arguably more fruitful realm of situating the Gospels and Paul in their ancient context of Second Temple Judaism (so as to at least understand the early Christians’ thoughts and beliefs).

On the one hand, historians will (rightly) say that since their discipline restricts them from answering philosophical questions of a metaphysical nature (e.g. the existence and intentions of a supernatural being), it is necessary for them to bracket such assumptions. I agree with this in general that it is necessary, just as much for the atheist as the theist, to bracket such metaphysical presuppositions, lest one’s biases skew the conclusions of their research; but I think it is ultimately more crucial, and indeed more fruitful for interacting with those who have different ones, for one to be aware of theirs in a self-critical manner. On the question of Jesus claiming deity, his miracles and resurrection, it is not uncommon for a NT scholar’s antisupernatural presuppositions to influence their assessment of their historicity, and for them to not question why they aren’t at least open to miracles occuring: the conclusions are already made; the data just needs to be manipulated to justify such conclusions. Those who are out to defend the faith at all costs are just as immune to this phenomenon as those with an anti-Christianity agenda – Martin Hengel has called both of these groups “radical fundamentalists.” There is a third type of biblical scholar, however, according to Dan Wallace: those who are truly liberal in the best sense of the word; that is, they examine the data and pursue truth, regardless of where it leads; they are even-handed, and motivated by a desire to know, even if the results are not what they expected or hoped for.[3] Though only a history student at this stage, I will try to adopt this latter approach in this post, and later posts forthcoming on this blog, for I believe with the twelfth-century theologian Peter Abelard that “by doubting we are led to question, and by questioning we arrive at the truth.”

And indeed, since the Gospels are propagandistic[4] and apologetic in nature (i.e. to confirm Christian faith, Luke 1:4; John 20:31), we have good reason to have a healthy skepticism of the historical value of the Gospel accounts – one that neither naively accepts everything as fact nor rejects everything as being reducible to ‘pious, fictional forgeries.’ Avoiding these two extremes (in no small part one of the chief aims of this blog), I will begin with noting the judgement of the majority of NT scholars on the substantive historical claims regarding Jesus: Jesus was almost certainly a miracle worker (hostile Jewish and pagan sources, the Talmud and Josephus, corroborate this), he probably claimed to be the Messiah, the early Christians almost certainly claimed that they received post-mortem appearances of the risen Jesus[5], and, partly as a result, they believed he was identified with Israel’s god YHWH (as the Greek equivalent for YHWH, Kyrios, was ascribed to him by Paul[6]) and thus worshipped him as such. Conspicuously absent from this ‘consensus’ is that Jesus himself claimed to be Kyrios (Lord).

This is due in no small part to the greater amount of doubt exercised towards the last Gospel (c. 90-95 AD), attributed to John[7]: although in it Jesus seemingly makes very explicit claims to be God – e.g. “I and the Father are one” (10:30) – his style is very different from the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), and you often find John’s voice and vocabulary (as in the Prologue, 1:1-18) strikingly indistinguishable from Jesus’ own. For this reason, and others, there isn’t much doubt amongst Johannine scholars that John is paraphrasing and has developed Jesus’ speech in his characteristically longer speeches. For this reason, too, it has become common for NT scholars (particularly Christian ones) to say that whereas in the Synoptics Jesus makes implicit claims to deity, John makes these explicit in his theological reflections and elaborations. I think one can make a reasonable case – albeit admittedly a rather modest one that is not as “strong” as some Christians claim it is in “proving” his claims to deity – for the authenticity of, e.g., the sayings of Jesus in the Synoptics which implicitly claim deity[8]; but it suffices to state for our purposes here that the historical-critical method[9] has its limits in separating history from theology. Indeed, the repeated claim of my blog will be that history and theology are so inextricably tied together that it becomes impossible and thus futile to separate the two in a neat manner: the New Testament (and the Bible in general too) itself always grounds theology historically, and interprets history within the realm of theology.

I suggest that a useful point of departure in understanding matters of Jesus’ self-understanding, mission and work, going also back to my initial question of “Good Friday,” is to examine the Greek word underlying our English word ‘gospel’, not least because it is indeed euangelion, which means simply ‘good news’, that makes the remembrance of this fateful Friday acquire its “goodness.” NT Wright’s succinct definition of euangelion captures the Jewish context best: the gospel, says Wright, is the royal announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again according to the Scriptures, is the Messiah [Christos] of Israel and therefore has been enthroned as the true Lord [Kyrios] of the world. Every single phrase in Wright’s statement is significant, starting with ‘royal announcement’, which had two principal meanings for first-century Jews. First, with roots in Isaiah, it meant the news of YHWH’s long-awaited victory over evil and rescue of his people. Second, it was used in the Roman world of the accession, or birthday, of the emperor. Since for Jesus and Paul the announcement of God’s inbreaking kingdom was both the fulfillment of prophecy and a challenge to the world’s present rulers, ‘gospel’ became an important shorthand for both the message of Jesus himself, and the apostolic message about him. Paul saw this message as itself the vehicle of God’s saving power (Romans 1:16, 1 Thessalonians 2:13).[10]

It is often wrongly assumed that the Gospels declare that there is an angry, malevolent God (“the Old Testament God”) trying to punish people but that Jesus represents love instead. But remember the oft-repeated verse, John 3:16, that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son,” not “God so hated the world, that he killed his only Son.”[11] The means by which God demonstrated his love to humanity may have resulted in a cruel, utterly shameful public death by arguably the vilest method – of crucifixion – but it does not follow that we are right in thinking – due to our modern intuitions and emotions, which lead us to misunderstand the Jewish context and misrepresent its categories of thought – that God hated the world.

If only we would consider, first, the depths of the NT portrait of the Father’s giving and the Son’s voluntary emptying of his divine prerogatives in his “not considering equality with God something to be exploited to his advantage” and “taking the form of a doulos [literally, slave]” (Philippians 2:5ff.) – if only we would consider the meaning of “God show[ing] his love for us” in this way, in the Messiah [Christos] dying for us “while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8), then we would, first, properly understand the context in which the early Christians comprehended the meaning of their Rabbi’s “scandalous” death. For indeed, if he claimed to be Israel’s Messiah (the promised Davidic King who would rescue Israel from its bondage to the evil powers), a crucified Messiah was, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:22, nothing but a skandalon [stumbling block] to Jews – a contradiction in terms, like hot ice. And to Gentiles (everyone else, a Hellene [a Greek]), Paul says, it appears to be a “foolish” message to proclaim – wasn’t crucifixion (as all Romans knew) for the lowest of the low, slaves without any social worth, so how could such a man, who died such a humiliating death, be a conquering King, much less the embodied of Israel’s good YHWH? Similarly, we might ask in our modern (supposedly less superstitious) age, how could one man – what’s more – two thousand years ago, die for the sins of the whole world? “Move on with our scientifically progressive world in abandoning such superstitious myths and ideologies, Samuel,” I hear whenever I make the rash mistake of making a Facebook comment on a post that maligns the Christian message of Jesus’ death and resurrection. How about, firstly, showing a bit of historical awareness and respect for an ancient culture’s thought categories, and not imposing modern categories on them?

When we begin with appreciating, indeed empathizing with, why the early Christian message might be truly ‘good news’ to those in the Greco-Roman world, it becomes easier, second, to understand the meaning of the work the crucified and risen Messiah achieved for Christians: ‘who died for our sins and rose again according to the Scriptures.” This latter phrase actually comes from a pre-Pauline creed dating to within several years of Jesus crucifixion (1 Cor 15:3-8): “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me…” Almost no scholar doubts that Paul wrote this letter or that he was telling the truth when he ‘delivered’ to the Corinthians the list of witnesses of the resurrection in verses 3-7 as he had ‘received’ from Christians who preceded him. The Greek words for ‘deliver’ (paradidomi) and ‘receive’ (paralambanomai) in this context are often used as fairly technical terms for the transmission of tradition. Almost certainly such information would have been related to Paul by the disciples in Damascus (c. 33 AD) or in Jerusalem during his first visit there after becoming a Christian (c. 35 AD). The implications of the extremely early date of this creed are worth considering in demonstrating, e.g., that belief in resurrection is probably too early to show signs of legendary development; but I’m more concerned here with trying to understand the thought processes of the early church, even though the time involved for such thinking may have been very short, in what they thought at the earliest stage about the significance of his death and resurrection, and how this might share some connection with what Jesus himself said.

Did Jesus himself believe that he was dying for the sins of many (cf. Mark 10:45) and that he would rise again according to the Scriptures (cf. Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:32)? It seems he did, if we focus just on Mark for now, in which Jesus’ very predictions of it are conceived in narrative terms.[12] But let’s look a step later first at the evangelists’ beliefs in how Jesus ‘fulfilled the Scriptures’, before looking at the plausibility of Jesus’ predicting his death and resurrection. As will be shown later below, citing Mike Licona’s essay, it is much more difficult to make the claim, as is sometimes made, that Jesus himself had no idea of the meaning of his death and certainly didn’t anticipate it (much less predict it, much less his resurrection too, for supernatural knowledge is beyond the purview of historians).[13]

It is relatively easier to claim historically (thus it is often done) that Jesus’ disciples actually didn’t have much idea of the meaning of his death during his public ministry (see, e.g., Luke 9:45; 18:34; cf. 24:45-47)[14], but that it was only after his death and (what they claimed was) his bodily resurrection they searched through their Scriptures to make sense of this harrowing yet paradigm-shifting event – so that alleged prophecies relating to him, which may or may not have been seen as referring to the Messiah earlier, were what many would call (usually derogatorily) after-the-fact. One NT scholar, John Dominic Crossan has taken this view to an extreme and proposed that the Gospels are “prophecy historicized” rather than “history remembered.”[15] For Crossan, the former – that the Hebrew Scriptures themselves provided the very sources for the details of the story – is more plausible than the latter – that memory could have so imbued the text with these Scriptural resonances. But I think with NT scholar Mark Goodacre that “scripturalization” is a better model to describe the phenomenon from our earliest Gospel, Mark (c. 65-70 AD).[16] For it is indeed a false dichotomy, I have concluded, to maintain the Gospels are either prophecy or history – did it happen or is it fictional?[17] (It seems that only the most ardent fundamentalists would go for the view that the Passion narratives were simply made up of “history remembered.”[18]) Goodacre believes it makes much more sense for the tradition which the Gospel writers received to be “scripturalised”: as he says, “The traditions generated Scriptural reflection, which in turn influenced the way the traditions were recast.”[19]

Indeed, if the Scriptures were the perfect expression of the will of God, there is no better or more powerful way of explaining that the horrific event of crucifixion was in God’s perfect plan than to narrate the very story of crucifixion using the language of Scripture.[20] Thus, as Jesus prays that what God wants will come to pass, “Not my will, but yours” (Mark 14:36,39), and in answer to this prayer there is silence (in contrast to key moments earlier (1:11; 9:7) where we hear God’s voice), God’s will, which seems to involve Jesus’ shame and abandonment, is established by what already stands written in the Scriptures. Jesus knows this as he says, as his fate is sealed by his arrest: “Let the Scriptures be fulfilled” (14:49). The Scripture in this immediate context is presumably Zechariah 13:7, “Strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered”, which Jesus quotes in Mark 14:27 in prediction of the falling away of the disciples; then, in 14:50-52, all forsake Jesus and flee, first the general statement (14.50, “All forsook him and fled”) and then the specific example (14:51-2, “…and he left the linen cloth and fled from them naked”). But Jesus’ chilling pronouncement of letting the Scriptures being fulfilled echoes throughout the rest of the narrative.

Likewise, perhaps the most poignant of Scriptural quotations of all is Jesus’ cry of dereliction (15:34), where Jesus utters a cry that is straight from the opening verse of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[21] It has become a cliché of historical Jesus scholarship to use this as an example of satisfying the criterion of embarrassment – it is unlikely to be inventions of the early Church given the embarrassing nature of these comments of despair, which contrast with many of the Jewish martyrs that proclaim they would never forsake God or his Law.[22] But, like in other Scriptural quotations, it seems that, far from “embarrassing”, this cry is the perfect means of expressing plausibly the horror of crucifixion at the same time as reaffirming, by quoting the Psalms, that it is in God’s will.[23] On the former point, it is somewhat expected that in rendering his narrative plausible Mark would depict a crucified victim as uttering a few carefully selected words as opposed to an extensive conversation.[24] On the latter point, Mark’s desire to scripturalize the tradition subverts the readers’ expectations in saying that, somehow, honour, glory, and vindication is found in such a shameful death.

Could Jesus have predicted his resurrection/vindication though? Licona notes he could have, given his Jewish beliefs, even without requiring supernatural power (if his predictive powers are unallowable within historical investigation). If his prediction that he would be raised precisely after ‘three days’ or ‘on the third day’ is interpreted, as it is by many, to mean ‘soon’, he could have believed that the general resurrection was imminent.[25] Licona, however, notes another, weightier objection: why did Jesus’ followers fail to anticipate his resurrection if he had actually predicted his violent death and imminent resurrection by God? He notes in turn what he considers the most probable solution: “it was probably difficult for them to grasp his passion and resurrection predictions given their beliefs about what the Messiah would do in terms of setting up an earthly kingdom when he came…In favour of this option are numerous references to the weak faith of the disciples (Mt. 6.30; 8.26; 14.31; 16.8; 17.20; Mk 4.40; Lk. 8.25; 12.28; 17.6; 24.11, 25; Jn 4.48; 6.64; 14.8-11, 28-30.”[26]

While it is thus clear that both Passion and Resurrection were held to have happened according to the Scriptures (1 Cor 15:3), why, for example, are references to the Old Testament so thick on the ground in the Passion narratives but so scant when it comes to the neighbouring resurrection stories? Was resurrection really so foreign and unexpected in Jewish thought? These questions, and related ones of general resurrection in Jewish thought in the 1st century, will occupy a later post…

[1] I have purposely, following NT Wright, not capitalized ‘god’, not out of irreverence; rather the opposite: because I am aware that not ‘all users of the word are monotheists and, within that, that all monotheists believe in the same god’ (xiv, The New Testament and the People of God). As I progress through exploring the New Testament, however, I will justify my eventual capitalization rather than presupposing it at the outset (even though I already am presupposing it, I’m endeavouring to be self-critical of my presuppositions, as I have said).

[2] I have also purposely not capitalized ‘bible’ because, as I will explain in a later post, the homogeneous label of a single canonical ‘Bible’ is arguably more a prescriptive rather than descriptive label. That is, the once separate biblia (the Greek is plural) written by individual (human) authors became, with the early Christian’s imposing of an interpretative framework that reinterpreted Old Testament passages as prefigurations or prophecies of Christ, one biblia by one (divine) author.


[4] I intend ‘propagandistic’ to be used in the most neutral sense, of ‘spreading a cause.’

[5] On the post-mortem appearances see the mention of the pre-Pauline creed below.

[6] See, e.g., Philippians 2:5-11, where Paul exhorts the Philippians to have the mindset of Christ, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be exploited; but rather emptied himself, by taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord [Kyrios Iesous Christos], to the glory of God the Father.”

[7] The question of authorship of the four Gospels, which I will deal with in more detail in a later post, is assumed to be, again (not uncritically, of course), what the majority of NT scholars claim: they are, strictly speaking, anonymous accounts which probably received their traditional attributions, amidst canonical debate against gnostic heresies, in the mid to late 2nd century AD, a century after their original composition from c. 65-95 AD.

[8] E.g. the “Son of Man” sayings (e.g. Mark 14:62), which cryptically (to Jesus’ hearers, including his disciples, though unmistakeably to later readers), allude to Daniel 7:13 where a divinely authoritative Son of Man is given glory and everlasting dominion over all nations by God.

[9] By historical-critical method, I mean merely that which aims to establish the original, contextual meaning of biblical texts and of assessing their historical accuracy.

[10] From the Glossary in Wright’s For Everyone series.

[11] Yes, it is most likely John’s words, not Jesus’s, but the point remains that it expresses the early Christian theology in a beautiful way that, arguably, has roots in Jesus’ own message of the ‘good news of God’s kingdom’ (Luke 8:1; cf. Mark 1:14-15) ushering in God’s justice, peace, and, ultimately, renewal of creation.

[12] This is particularly clear in the third Passion prediction, 10.34, which has a seven point narrative sequence: (1) going to Jerusalem, (2) handing over to the religious authorities, (3) condemning to death, (4) handing over to the Gentiles, (5) mockery, (6) death, (7) resurrection.

[13] Mike R. Licona, “Did Jesus Predict his Death and Vindication/Resurrection?” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 8 (2010), 47-66.

[14] According to Luke 9:45, the meaning of Jesus’ death remained “concealed from them” (cf. 18:34) until the risen Jesus opens their eyes (24:45-47). As David Pao notes in his notes on Luke’s gospel in the NIV Zondervan Study Bible (p. 2094): “Both God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are emphasised here: because a consistent pattern of the disciples’ failure to comprehend Jesus and his mission, God has kept this from their understanding.” It is usually claimed that there is a discernible development in theology from the earlier Mark to the later Luke (c. 80s), so that

[15] See John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1998).

[16] Mark Goodacre, “Scripturalization in Mark’s Crucifixion Narrative” in Geert van Oyen and Tom Shepherd (eds.), The Trial and Death of Jesus: Essays on the Passion Narrative in Mark (Leuven: Peeters, 2006): 33-47.

[17] Goodacre, 39.

[18] In this I side with the tenor of Raymond Brown’s work; see his The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave: A Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels (2 vols.; Anchor Bible Reference Library; New York: Doubleday, 1994).

[19] Goodacre, 40. Goodacre illustrates this (pp. 40-41) through Crossan’s treatment of Mark 15:40-41, where, right at the end of that crucifixion narrative, there is a note about named women watching the crucifixion from a distance. Crossan sees the inclusion of women observing the burial and visiting the tomb in Mark 15:47-16:8 as “Markan redaction”, but the inclusion of the women watching the crucifixion as “received tradition…because the male disciples had fled; if the women had not been watching, we would not know even the brute fact of crucifixion” (Birth of Christianity, 559). But Goodacre notes that the phrasing of women “watching from a distance” (apo makrothen) echoes the wording of Psalm 38.11 LXX, “My friends and companions stand aloof from my affliction, and my relatives stand afar off (apo makrothen).” And yet, Goodacre says, “it is unlikely, and, indeed, it is rarely argued, that Mark has invented this verse on the basis of Psalm 38.11, which does not refer solely to women, let alone to those particular named women. Rather, the traditional element gets retold in the light of the Scriptural passage that was thought to be fulfilled. In other words, in this verse we see the exact opposite of the process of ―prophecy historicized.”

Goodacre notes (p. 42) a more fundamental problem with Crossan’s logic by criticizing his inconsistency: he makes the case that the disciples fled and so could not have provided anyone with details of the crucifixion, while the Scripture associated with this event (Zechariah 13:7, “Strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered”), quoted by Jesus in Mark 14:27, where Jesus predicts the falling away of the disciples, according to Crossan’s model would demand that this too is “prophecy historicized”.

[20] Goodacre, 37-38.

[21] Goodacre, 46.

[22] See Licona, “Did Jesus Predict his Death and Vindication/Resurrection?”, 53.

[23] As Rikk Watts says in his notes on Mark’s gospel in the NIV Zondervan Study Bible (p. 2057), “Ps 22…proceeds from David’s certainty of God’s faithfulness to hear and vindicate his own (Ps 22:19). Jesus thus sees his death as the Messianic fulfilment of David’s deepest experience of divine abandonment (Ps 22:1-18)—in a way that no human could ever understand—but his death will just as surely result in glorious vindication and subsequent universal worship of God (Ps 22:19-31)…”

[24] Whether Jesus actually uttered these words or not – both sides to the argument are plausible in their own right and their likelihood subject to one’s weighting of eyewitness testimony in the accounts and the Aramaism – I do not know; in any case, it is hardly determinative as to whether he felt abandoned or not (he probably did in all likelihood, even if these words weren’t exactly what he uttered).

[25] That the three-day motif related to the time of Jesus’ resurrection was a figure of speech meaning a short period of time is suggested by Matthew and Luke synonymously employing phrases that are contradictory when taken in a literal sense. For example, Matthew describes Jesus’ resurrection as coming “on the third day” (Matt 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; 27:64), “after three days” (Matt 27:63) and after “three days and three nights” (Matt 12:40). Luke similarly employs “on the third day” (Luke 9:22; 24:7,46; Acts 10:40) and “after three days” (Luke 2:46; Acts 28:17).

[26] Licona, “Did Jesus Predict his Death and Vindication/Resurrection?”, 62.

Aims/goals for this blog

Briefly, an explanation of the title: this blog will be an attempt to rationally balance dualisms (or two apparently contradictory ideas/fields), while realising that some may not be able to be rationalised (e.g. the Word becoming flesh/Jesus being the God-man) and thus must be taken on faith. (By the way, there will necessarily be a whole blog post on what faith is and the nature of it in both a religious and non-religious sense, and whether the two can be reconciled or find any common ground or not). Most notably, I will argue, it shouldn’t be history versus theology; it should be history and theology (which is what the title of my blog, Historia kai Theologia, translates from Greek as).

In many ways my programmes of study aims to achieve this balance: I study history and theology (although within that, being a Christian, I’m particularly interested in Christian history and Christian theology). Why study both? Because the study of Christian origins (“history”) cannot be divorced from the question of God (“theology”), as the title of NT Wright’s 4-volume series (“Christian Origins and the Question of God”) aims to show. The New Testament in general and the Gospels in particular are not objective historical accounts (if there ever is such a thing), nor are they purely subjective (to the extent of being a “pious forgery”), ahistorical, timeless theological treatises. Instead of being engaged in what we would consider modern history writing, the biblical writers concern was with the didactic use of selected historical traditions for a theological purpose. The challenge for our generation of Christians, I think, is to realign our convictions to reflect how the Bible actually “behaves” in this sense instead of how we feel it should behave.

In practice, this means getting past e.g. the creation vs evolution, faith vs science, old-earth vs young-earth dualisms. What if the Bible is not concerned with recording history for its own sake, nor with scientific information about the age of the earth and other modern scientific questions? As New Testament scholar Mike Licona questions, “Would it be possible for God to ensure that certain messages He regarded as having great importance were preserved accurately while He allowed the biblical authors freedom to write in their own words and style, even tolerating a lapse of memory on their part, their need to fill in the blanks, or even a deliberate altering of data for theological reasons resulting in a portrayal of events in ways not reflective of what we would have seen had we been there?” As Licona in his comment is attempting to read the gospels as they were intended (within the context of ancient Greco-Roman biography), I aim to read the Bible (actually, a collection of disparate books, as the plural Greek biblia reveals; the singular is misleading) as the authors intended for them to be read (within its multifaceted ancient contexts). And, by the way, I do so because I respect/revere the Bible as in some sense God’s word, not in spite of believing in faith that the Bible is God’s word.

Thus, the main aims of this blog can be stated plainly: I hope to stimulate both my fellow Christians and nonbelievers to think critically and theologically about the Bible; in other words, I don’t just want to be “preaching to the choir,” so to speak, to Christians in order to reaffirm their “confirmation bias”, nor do I want to provide purely intellectual arguments to skeptics in order to give them the false idea that (the truth of) Christianity can be boiled down to a set of arguments. I want to rectify the imbalance on both sides: for Christians to think more critically (because they often see critical thinking as somehow destructive, when I think this stance is more destructive), and for nonbelievers to think more theologically (because they often wrongly assume that theology is only for believers; the truth is everyone has a view or presuppositions about God, his nature etc.). This is not to say that Christians don’t think critically and nonbelievers don’t think theologically, nor is it to imply — by placing this emphasis on one side — that I am encouraging Christians to not think theologically and nonbelievers to not think critically. It is to say that both sides must avoid dualistic thinking and to question their presuppositions (which often cause them to lean towards one side of the spectrum or the other). And the only way to avoid this false dichotomising is through constructive dialogue.

My struggle

It may seem like an unoriginal title (especially with Germanic precedents, e.g. Mein Kampf), but it seems like the best (in truth, the simplest) word to capture what I’ve been going through for the last several months. My struggle is both physical and psychological. Without boring you with the details (partly because it’s largely undiagnosed thus far), I’ll just say my symptoms have presented themselves as unexplained nerve and muscle pain. It started in my hands – so suspected overuse injury from piano – but it gradually spread to other parts of my body. I thought, back in late April, that it would heal after resting a few weeks and I would return to my studies as a piano major. But when it came, a month or so later, to having to unenrol out of studying piano, I knew I had to follow a new path (or would at least, for now, I had to take a detour, I hoped – still do). Having to face and accept the cards I was dealt, I hurriedly decided to supplant my performance paper for a church history and politics paper (two subjects that apparently don’t make a good mix, but which I’ve found to have striking parallels actually). But ever since, life has never been the same as my suffering and pain persisted, intensely trying my patience. My spirits have soared high and sunk low.

Often I look back to the day I received the exhilarating news that I’d been accepted to study piano performance at the New Zealand School of music. I gloated for weeks about this prestigious opportunity to further my musical experience and ultimately to live the dream of ‘living and breathing music’. And as my first day to starting this journey came closer and closer, I became increasingly optimistic yet admittedly a little daunted at the amount of hard work I was to put in (“four hours practice daily,” I was told). Now too, regarding the future, there are times I have been intensely optimistic and ambitious about my potential for great things – and have indulged in this ‘glory’ of overcoming obstacles. But possessing this mindset has become more of a struggle; and so naturally I’ve painted for myself – with relatively more ease – a depressing reality with no hope. Indeed, it is much easier to dwell on my limitations than focus on what I can do in this trial that’ll make me retrospectively not regret the ‘refining’ value of it.

Today, life is still painful – physically and psychologically – and it has helped no less by my (still) busy uni schedule, but I’m beginning to see the silver lining in these clouds that surround my life. My inhibiting limitations have made me take pleasure in, and be grateful for, the little things I can still do, which are either taken for granted or cursorily dismissed in my fast-paced study life. Yet I still often recourse to becoming depressed over the extent to which my limitations preclude me from realising the full potential of my courses of study and performing to the best of my ability. For someone who has always endeavoured to reaping the full benefits of my study, and sought to maximise the efficiency of achieving this, it has become pitiful to pare back my work efforts to accommodate for my circumstances. It’s not all pitiful though, I’ve realised: I’m still able to learn, although not in my best condition to; I’m still able to come to lectures, although taking notes is painful; and I still wake up each morning in the comfort of my bed, although my mind and body feel horribly stagnant, and to the loving care of my family, although I am not looking forward to the day unfolding with all its unpredictable pains and accompanying anxieties.

There is also, of course, the hope I will become better. But, in any case, I am content. Enormously grateful. More than blessed. I still have the simplest yet greatest gift: life, and life abundantly (John 10:10).

(PS in case you were wondering how I typed all this, it’s thanks to the help of dictation software.)