Kierkegaard on Christian Scholarship

I found this marvellous quote from Kierkegaard in Richard Bauckham’s monograph on James:

Christian scholarship is the human race’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the New Testament, to ensure that one can continue to be a Christian without letting the New Testament come too close.

Bauckham cites Kierkegaard, and does so at the start of each chapter of his book because the first chapter of James was the Danish philosopher’s favourite chapter. He recognises Kierkegaard’s comment as an over-reaction, as a statement of hyperbole, necessary as a corrective, but an over-reaction all the same (Bauckham, James, 8).

He identifies Kierkegaard’s real target as the isolation of biblical studies, or more particularly, the biblical scholar, from subjective engagement with the biblical text. The aim of nineteenth-century biblical interpretation by means of historical criticism was the establishment of the objective meaning of the text, independent of confessional and dogmatic presuppositions. In Bauckham’s view, biblical scholarship has failed in its attempt to reach this goal. (I might note that many evangelical scholars also aim at establishing the objective meaning of the text, though by means of a different method.)

The trouble with the quest for objectivity, as understood by Kierkegaard in his own day, is that one relates to the Bible but not to Scripture. Such scholarship faces, and often succumbs to, the temptation to substitute study for faith and obedience. One only reads Scripture as Scripture if one takes it to heart and lives it.

One reason Kierkegaard appreciated James 1 was because of James’ use of the mirror analogy. The concern Kierkegaard has with Christian scholarship is that in the quest for objectivity, scholars spend their time examining the mirror. The purpose of a mirror, however, is not to examine the mirror itself, but to look at oneself. Thus Kierkegaard warns the scholar:

If you are a scholar, remember that if you do not read God’s Word in another way, it will turn out that after a lifetime of reading God’s Word many hours every day, you nevertheless have never read—God’s Word. 

Kierkegaard suggests that this is, in fact, the intent of Christian scholarship: to keep God’s Word at bay, so that it is not heard, so that one is not confronted by its claim and its command, so that one can continue as a Christian without hearing and taking to heart its message. Christian scholarship achieves this by raising so many questions about the text, about its context, about its interpretation, so many “new lines of supposedly objective enquiry that its effect is to postpone faith and obedience to God’s word indefinitely” (Bauckham, 3).

But our world is very different to that inhabited by Kierkegaard, and so, in a stunning adjustment, Bauckham has updated Kierkegaard’s provocation for our own age:

Biblical scholarship is the human race’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the New Testament, to ensure that one can continue to be a Christian without letting the New Testament come too close, or to ensure that one can continue not to be a Christian by not letting the New Testament come too close (Bauckham, James, 2).

New Book by Carolyn Tan

Congratulations to Carolyn Tan on the publication of her book, The Spirit at the Cross.

What was the Holy Spirit doing at the cross of Jesus Christ? Jesus’ death and resurrection are central to God’s reconciliation with humanity. Does the Holy Spirit’s work pause between Gethsemane and the resurrection? What does the phrase “through the eternal Spirit” in Hebrews 9:14 mean? In this book, Carolyn Tan examines the perspectives of John Vernon Taylor, Jürgen Moltmann, and John D. Zizioulas, from whom three views of the Spirit’s role at the cross are discerned: the Spirit as the “bond of love” between the Father and the Son; the Spirit as the Son’s coworker, enabler, and power; and the Spirit as the unifier who unites humanity to the Son. In addition, Karl Barth provides the intriguing concept of the Spirit as divine Judge (along with the Father and the Son) and specifically the one who carries out God’s judgment in Jesus Christ, the Elect. Integrating these theological perspectives with an in-depth examination of the manuscript and exegetical and hermeneutical history of Hebrews 9:14, Tan offers another way of understanding the role of the Spirit at the cross: Christ as the Father’s “pneumatic crucible” in whom sinful humanity is judged, destroyed, and reborn through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Carolyn worked extraordinarily hard over many years as she researched and considered this important question. Her book is significant for several reasons. First, the question itself is theologically and biblically important; what was the Spirit doing at the cross? Second it is important because of the way that Carolyn has engaged prominent theologians from different traditions as assistants in her exploration. This gives the book a substantial and respectful ecumentical flavour. Third, the book is important because Carolyn answers her question, and provides a powerful and carefully argued answer to her primary question. The Holy Spirit was present and active at the cross in surprising, gracious and transformative ways.

The argument of this book deserves a wide and careful reading, and I highly recommend it. You can purchase the book from Wipf and Stock.

Scripture on Sunday – 2 Corinthians 5:14

In the opening chapters of 2 Corinthians Paul is defending himself against some at Corinth who are questioning his motives and ministry, and perhaps accusing him to others in the church, evidently seeking to ingratiate themselves to the Corinthians in Paul’s place. Paul’s previous visit to the Corinthians had been a painful affair, and his last letter to them—almost certainly not 1 Corinthians but another letter (2:3, 9)—had been an endeavour to sort through the difficulties experienced in the visit; it does not appear to have worked.

One issue surfacing several times in these chapters is a concern that Paul is “commending himself” to the Corinthians (see 3:1 – Are we beginning to commend ourselves again?; 5:12 – We are not again commending ourselves to you…; cf. 4:5 – For we do not preach ourselves). Paul insists that he needs no “letters of commendation” for the Corinthians themselves are his “letter of commendation,” the work of the Spirit as the fruit of his ministry (3:2-3). Yet Paul does want to commend himself to the Corinthians’ consciences (4:2; 5:11). He wants to give the Corinthians an opportunity to be proud of him and his associates, and to have answers that they can give to those who might question them about Paul, or accuse him to them (5:12).

Part of the issue, clear from 1 Corinthians 1-4, is the manner of Paul’s ministry in the way of the cross. There is nothing “impressive” about Paul in terms of his personal bearing, rhetorical ability, and so on. He doesn’t even have anyone to commend him! His opponents on the other hand, seem to be very impressive in their ministries, to have such commendations, and argue that they are superior to Paul and therefore worthy of the Corinthians’ allegiance. Paul, however, suggests that they take “pride in appearance and not in heart” (5:12).

Paul’s entire argument in these opening chapters of the letter is a sustained response to these kinds of concerns and accusations. Something particularly notable are the theological underpinnings of his argument. Paul lives and ministers as he does as an application of theological convictions concerning the distinctiveness of the new covenant in Jesus Christ and by the Spirit in contrast to the “ministry of condemnation”—his characterisation of Moses’ ministry of the law, and of those in his own day who would seek to follow Moses rather than Christ. The old covenant was a “ministry of death,” a “letter that kills,” whereas Paul’s ministry is a “ministry of righteousness,” “of the Spirit” in place of the letter, a ministry of life, liberation, and transformation in Christ and by the Spirit (ch. 3).

Further, his ministry takes place in the way of the cross—a way of ministry conformed to the way of Jesus Christ in the world, a cruciform life in which his “weakness” and suffering, his afflictions and brokenness are the means by which the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” shines in his “earthen vessel.” In spite of all these afflictions, however, he is sustained in his ministry so that although the “death of Jesus” is evident in his life, the life of Jesus is manifested in and for the Corinthians (ch. 4).

Paul is sustained in the cruciform life by the eschatological hope with which he is possessed. His sufferings now are “working” an eternal weight of glory for him. He is convinced that just as Jesus was raised from the dead, so believers have awaiting them, a new body in the heavens. Paul is no Platonist; he is not seeking to be “unburdened” of the body (although he does “groan” due to its present affliction), but to be “clothed” anew with the new body of the resurrection. Given this living hope he endures all things for the Corinthians, and for their faith (4:15).

Is Paul mad? If they think so, then he is mad due to his faith in and obedience to God. Is he of “sound mind”? Then the Corinthians should know and recognise that all that he does and suffers is for them (5:13). Note that one can only think of Paul as being of “sound mind” if one accepts the theological presuppositions that he sets forth: the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the definitive revelation of God by which salvation for all has become a reality.

This is a gospel-shaped vision, a gospel-shaped life, and a gospel-shaped way of ministry.

“For the love of Christ controls us…” Here we hit the bedrock of Paul’s ministry ethos, and that which distinguishes him from those that question or accuse him. Ministry, for Paul, is a participation in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, a cruciform life in his steps, one taken captive by him and following in his train (2:14-18). Just as Jesus Christ gave himself for us and for all, just as Jesus Christ offered himself to God for us and for all, and just as Jesus Christ went to his death so that others might live, so Paul would give himself even unto death so that others might hear and know the message of Christ. His life and ministry would become an echo of the love of the Christ who gave himself for us. Paul would do this—could do this—because of the living hope of the resurrection from the dead. As he shares the sufferings of Christ, so he will share in the glory of his resurrection.

Paul’s ministry motive is the love of Christ. Therefore he will not “peddle” the word of God, nor use manipulation or deception, nor harbour hidden agendas or impure motives, nor seek his own advantage, prominence, or fame. He ministers not for his own benefit but for the glory of God and for the sake of those who would hear. He will proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and himself as their servant. He will aim to make the truth of God plain, and commend himself to their consciences.

Paul’s own life has become part of the message: the way of Christ and the love of Christ are embodied in him, visible in him, and so congruent with the message that he proclaims.

“The love of Christ controls us . . . And we have this treasure in earthen vessels so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God, and not of ourselves.”

The Christian’s Political Duty (10 Theses)

Last week I posted on Barth’s “conversation” at the Zofingia Student Association meeting on June 3, 1959. At this meeting Barth addressed the questions put to him, What are the role and duties of the Christian as a political citizen? Does Christianity commit the citizen to a certain political stance? He responded with 10 theses as follows:

  1. The Christian is witness to the kingdom of God (= basileia) that has come in Jesus Christ and is still to be revealed in him.
  2. As a witness of the kingdom of God, the Christian is first and foremost a citizen of this kingdom.
  3. The Christian lives in each particular time and situation also as a citizen of a state in one of its different and changing forms.
  4. The Christian acknowledges the kingdom of God in the provisional order of God for the establishment and preservation of relative justice, relative freedom, and relative peace in his state.
  5. The Christian does not mistake the state, in any of its many forms, for the kingdom of God.
  6. The Christian does not fear or deny the state in any of its many forms, because each state contains something divine.
  7. In view of the kingdom of God, the Christian distinguishes between forms of the state insofar as they more or less correspond to the divine appointment.
  8. The Christian, as a citizen of the state, bears witness to the kingdom of God, insofar as he decides in each case for the more appropriate form of the state, meaning the more righteous form.
  9. The Christian decides about the preferable form of the state as well as about the form of his support for it, with a new, free orientation toward the kingdom of God in each particular time and situation.
  10. The Christian is always obligated to assume the particular political stance and action that correspond to his reflection on the kingdom of God (“Conversation in the Zofingia 1 (1959)” in Busch ed. Barth in Conversation Vol. 1, 1959-1962, 2-5).

The first three theses are uncontroversial. The wording of the fourth is a little obscure, but is simply declaring that the state is a divinely ordained institution for the establishment of (a relative) justice, freedom, and peace in human society. This, too, is uncontroversial as is thesis five. The sixth thesis is controversial, especially Barth’s assertion that every form of the state contains “something divine.” One immediately thinks of his own repudiation of Nazism in the 1930s. In his comment on this thesis Barth argued:

Ancient Christianity existed even in Nero’s empire. There is no anti-Christian state, and there is no civitas diaboli. The Christian is therefore protected against political scepticism or political despair. A Christian will affirm the state in each form. He distinguishes [certainly between better and worse forms of the state, but he does so] while never pronouncing an absolute yes or no. Therefore [since “each state contains something divine,”] he [the Christian] is not forced [or justified] to take a stance of neutrality [toward the state]. [Rather] he distinguishes between states of lesser or greater justice (4).

It may be that the “something divine” is nothing more than its institution as a state. It seems, though, that despite Barth obviously making a comment about the nature of every state—and about divine sovereignty, his intent is to describe the Christian’s posture toward the state; there is no room for scepticism, despair, or neutrality. A state cannot be proclaimed absolutely evil or just, but must be distinguished according to its relative degree of justice, and according to thesis seven, the canon for this assessment is the kingdom of God.

Theses eight and nine form a pair, with the Christian deciding in each case for the more appropriate form of the state and the nature of their support for that more appropriate form. They are not bound to traditions, conventions, concepts of natural law, or other approaches of response to the state. They may, of course, resort to such ways of response, but are free in each situation to evaluate the state in the light of the kingdom of God, and respond appropriately. Nor is the Christian required by God, theology, the church, or Scripture to support only this kind of state, or that. Nor is the Christian’s posture toward the state always critical: “it is possible for him to work actively within a dictatorship: for example, by enduring, by waiting in the quiet hope that the trees will not grow sky-high, or even by cooperating (more or less)” (4). This liberty—Barth’s refusal to prescribe a Christian posture or mode of action—is also the theme of the final thesis. The Christian must always take a stance; the Christian must always act, but they are free to do so in accordance with their own reflection on the kingdom of God. In this, “the Christian has . . . no choice, but rather only one possibility: the stance that he has been commanded to take” (5).

It is clear that in the final theses Barth applies his theology of the divine command to the Christian as citizen. Also clear, is that he is thinking as much about the believers in the communist east as he was in the democratic west. His answer to the two key questions asked: What are the role and duties of the Christian as a political citizen? Does Christianity commit the citizen to a certain political stance? are that (a) the Christian is to witness to the kingdom of God within each particular form of the state, including the support of justice, freedom, and peace in human society as an analogue of that kingdom; and (b) no, the Christian is not committed to a pre-determined political stance, but are always to act in accordance with their (no doubt theologically-informed) understanding of the kingdom of God.

The 2019 Annual Vose Lecture

On August 2, 2019 Ben Witherington III delivered the Annual Vose Lecture on the theme, “A Singular Jesus in a Pluralistic Culture.” In essence, the lecture was an applied New Testament apologetics within a Wesleyan Evangelical framework of thought. Witherington explored Jesus’ self-understanding as reported in the gospels, assessing the historical worth of this portrayal, and arguing that an incarnational understanding of Jesus is a necessary deduction from the New Testament data, and the foundation of Christian witness in a pluralistic context.

Witherington began by identifying two well-known key phrases in the ministry of the historical Jesus: his use of the title “Son of Man,” and his use of the imagery and language of “the kingdom of God.” He argued that these two concepts appear together in only one Old Testament text: Daniel 7:13-14, with the additional note that in vv. 25-27 the kingdom is given to the saints. Witherington argued that Jesus believed that he was both divine and human, and that he used the Son of Man title to indicate this. The title encompasses the fullness of Jesus’ person. As many other scholars have also argued, Jesus selected this relatively obscure title to set himself forth on his own terms, and in so doing, avoided other terms loaded with contemporary pre-conceptions and significance which were antithetical to the message he sought to communicate.

Turning to the issue of pluralism, Witherington insists that the Christian claim of Jesus’ uniqueness and supremacy is not about the wisdom or value of other cultures or their beliefs, but about the central question and reality of salvation. Jesus’ claim was unique, as was his death and resurrection, and his relationship with the Father. He was also sinless although Witherington, applying his Wesleyan framework to Christology, argues that Jesus could have sinned but did not. Jesus’ incarnation was a genuine embrace of a fully human life with all its limitations and possibilities. He was certainly tempted to use his divine powers (e.g. to turn stones into bread) but did not, for he did not access the inherent divinity of his person. His life was one of divine self-limitation without any aspect of loss of the divine being.

This was much more a popular than an academic lecture and much appreciated, especially by the ordinary church-goers who made up a sizable chunk of the audience. Witherington presented a thoroughly Evangelical account of apologetics grounded in substantial New Testament theology. The lecture both supported and called for a robust confidence in the gospel on the part of everyday believers as they encounter the challenge to faith in Jesus Christ in a culture that espouses the equivalence of just about any and all worldviews, spiritualities, and perspectives.

On Saturday morning following the public lecture, Ben Witherington addressed a second more academic lecture to another audience on the theme of “Paul, Covenantal Theology, and the Law.” In this thoughtful and thought-provoking lecture Witherington insisted that the Law must be understood within its Old Testament / Ancient Near Eastern context, that the Mosaic covenant was a covenant of both grace and law—and indeed all the biblical covenants had this feature. The New Covenant was not a renewal of the Old Covenant, i.e. as one covenant with diverse administrations, but was an entirely new covenant.

Witherington explored in some detail key New Testament texts such as 2 Corinthians 3, Galatians 4:1-8, Philippians 3: 4-8, before turning his attention especially to Romans (something we asked him to do). There he explored Paul’s thought in Romans 10; 7:7-25; and 8:1-4. He argues that Paul considered that the Law was a temporary arrangement for Israel (the paidagōgos or “child-minder”) until they should come “to maturity.” The believer has been set free from sin and death, and so also from the Law. Thus they are not under the Law of Moses, but under the Law of Christ.

Both lectures were followed by a lively Question & Answer session, and by ongoing conversation after the formalities were concluded. It was a privilege to have such an accomplished New Testament exegete and commentator visit Vose Seminary and bring the wealth of his learning to our community. Further, Ben Witherington’s Wesleyan commitments also brought a fresh flavour to the lectures; it is not that often that this perspective has been so competently and enthusiastically presented and defended (in my experience at least) in Perth in recent years. Despite his great learning, massive literary output, and global stature, Ben wore his learning lightly. I am sure that those who attended the lectures were certainly enriched by what he presented. This was the third Annual Vose Lecture, and a very fine addition to this growing heritage.

Scripture on Sunday – Of Hairdos and Hierarchies (1 Corinthians 11:2-16)

Read 1 Corinthians 11:2-16
One of the more difficult and obscure passages in the New Testament is 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, which seems so distant from the modern world in setting and argument. I read this passage during the week, and flummoxed (again!), I turned to Richard Hays’ commentary on the book for help.

In terms of the presenting issue: It appears that some of the Corinthian women were praying and prophesying with “uncovered heads,” bringing a degree of shame upon the congregation as a whole, and particularly upon either their husbands, or the men in the congregation in general. The shame was particularly in the eyes of those outside the community.

Paul’s argument begins in verse 3 with a proposition in which he presents a hierarchy of being, as it were: the man is the head of the woman, Christ is the head of man, and God is the head of Christ. Verses 4-6 then present the first argument: a woman should have her head “covered” when she prays or prophesies so that she does not “dishonour” her head. If she will not be appropriately covered she should have her head shaved. But if it is shameful for her to have her head shaved, she should be “covered.”

Verses 7-9 develop the next argument, which asserts the priority of the male as both created first and created in the image of God, and so is a reflector of the divine glory. The woman, created second and “for the man” reflects his glory. Verse 10 is cryptic, a third argument that women should have “authority on” their head “because of the angels”—whatever that means, for no one really knows. Perhaps the best guess is that Paul thought that angels were present in Christians’ worship, honoured supernatural dignitaries whose presence should be honoured with good order.

Verses 11-12 then present a different form of argument, almost a counter-argument: women and men are actually inter-dependent “in the Lord,” with both “coming from God.” This argument counters, to some degree, the argument of verses 3, 7-9, which present an ontological hierarchical structure of being. In verses 13-15 Paul appeals to the testimony of nature, a philosophical form of argument usually avoided by Paul, but used here perhaps to chide that Corinthians that in this instance they are not listening to the philosophers they so eagerly embrace elsewhere! Finally, verse 16 anticipates that not everyone will accept Paul’s arguments here, and so he calls for the Corinthians to retain unity with all the churches: this is the prevailing custom in them all.

Hays makes many important observations about the passage, including these:

  1. We have only one side of the story and we are presupposing what the Corinthians are saying and doing, and why. And we are also unable to fathom the meaning of some of the details of the argument.
  2. The social context of the ancient Mediterranean is crucial: contemporary views of a hierarchical social arrangement lie in the background of this text, as do presuppositions and cultural conventions concerning gender distinctions, male and female relationships and roles, and cultural mores about clothing and hair, etc.
  3. Hays notes that the word “veil” or “veiled” (or something equivalent)—used in many English translations—does not appear in the Greek text, and he opts for a translation of “bound” or tied-up hair, in contrast to unbound or loose hair. Unbound hair was worn by “sexually available” women, perhaps including younger unmarried women, but more likely referring to prostitutes. That is, it had a particular cultural meaning that carried some freight of shame in respectable circles.
  4. Paul’s appeal to Genesis is clumsy and inaccurate, especially in the light of Genesis 1:27 in which both women and men are created in the image of God. Nevertheless he does bring patriarchal convictions to the situation and these must be faced and interpreted honestly.
  5. Yet Paul’s counter-point in vv. 10-12 is also at odds with the earlier propositions, and indicates a different situation pertaining “in the Lord.”
  6. Hays interprets v.10 as saying a woman should have (i.e. exercise) authority “over” her head; that is, a woman’s “bound hair becomes a symbol of the self-control and orderliness that Paul desires for the community as a whole” (188).
  7. That gender distinctions are inescapable features of contingent human life and an overly-realised eschatological outlook compromises this fundamental creational and time-space reality.

If Hays is correct, Paul is concerned that the public reputation of the church is being compromised. Further, he sees the sexual differentiation of male and female as an enduring and valid aspect of the created order, and not to be blurred or eliminated. Paul’s defence of the ontological priority of the male, however, is unfortunately clumsy, poorly justified, and not necessarily valid, especially in the new situation created in Christ. The more inter-dependent model “in the Lord” is preferred, so long as the gender distinctions so deeply embedded in creation, but also of fundamental cultural sensitivity, are maintained.

His comment on Paul’s aim is well-repeated: “The aim of Paul’s letters is to reshape his churches into cultural patterns that he takes to be consistent with the gospel” (190). In this “gospel-shaped culture” gender distinctions are maintained though without functional limits being applied to the role and ministry of women in the congregation. They may still pray and prophesy, exercising speaking ministries within the church, but are to do so with dignity, avoiding any behaviour that might distract from the message, or scandal that would bring shame on the congregation. It goes without saying that Paul expected the same of the men in the congregation, as so much else in the letter to the Corinthians makes clear.

A Christianity that “Deserves to Perish”

On June 3, 1959 Karl Barth was a guest at the Basel chapter of the Swiss Student Association Zofingia, a fraternity established 200 years ago in 1819, and of which Barth himself had been a member in his student days. The photo shows him at a function in about 1906 (seated RHS). Now a famous theologian, Barth had been invited by the association to address the question: What are the role and duties of the Christian as a political citizen? Does Christianity commit the citizen to a certain political stance?

Barth responded by writing ten brief theses on the topic, delivering his short address and then took questions. It is clear that the primary issue concerning his audience was communism, especially Russian communism. One interlocutor insisted it was a Christian duty to resist it. Barth responded:

Reaction against Communism [is] only necessary when the Russians are at Lake Constance. We have not yet passed the test [that would then have to be passed]. What we have done up to now is stupid chatter and has not freed anyone from Russian subjugation. To join in, sounding the same note and writing condemning articles, is not necessary since virtually everyone is agreed about Communism. It was different at the time of National Socialism. An acute danger was manifest. Whether out of fascination or fear of attack, numerous people all over Europe began to yield and proposed accommodations. 

To this, one Dr Gerwig answered: “Communism is a great danger for Christianity. We must fight before it reaches Lake Constance.” And then came Barth’s marvellous riposte:

A Christianity that is in danger of Communism deserves to perish. The best and surest weapon against Communism is that one become a good Christian.

Barth was often criticised because he did not condemn Communism in the 1950s the way he had condemned the National Socialists in the 1930s. He argued that they were two completely different systems and so not comparable. This does not mean he supported Communism; he did not. But I love his comment. It is rhetorical, to be sure, but he is speaking of a form of Christianity rather than the lives of individuals confronting a brutal empire. Nonetheless, a “good Christian” is one who understands and lives in accordance with reality of the world-reconciliation accomplished in Jesus Christ, and so is bound to him as the “one Word of God which we have to hear  and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death” (Barmen Declaration, thesis 1). Bound to Jesus Christ, the Christian is liberated from every lesser allegiance and claim, and find their life and hope solely in him and the promise given to humanity in him.

Further, Jesus Christ is God’s mighty claim upon the Christian’s life, and thus “through him befalls us a joyful deliverance from the godless fetters of this world for a free, grateful service to his creatures” (Barmen Declaration, thesis 2). The church is “solely his property, and it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his direction in the expectation of his appearance” (Barmen Declaration, thesis 3).

This kind of Christianity has a role to play within the culture but is neither over-awed nor overwhelmed by it. In word and deed it bears witness to the coming kingdom, even if the result of this witness is suffering and shame. It holds fast to its confession in the midst of a sinful world “with its faith as with its obedience” (thesis 3).

This is a Christianity that knows whose it is, a Christianity for whom Mark’s gospel and the letter to the Hebrews (not to say, the Book of Revelation) are not alien, but well-known, lived. They know First Peter and walk in the path of its author, as he walked in the path of the Master.

My guess is that Barth would say the same today to those Christians concerned at the increasing secularity of Western culture: “A Christianity that is threatened by secularism deserves to perish.”

A Prayer for Sunday

I found this little prayer in a book of prayers given to me recently by dear friends at church. Every line is meaningful. Primarily it is a prayer of wonder and implicit thanksgiving, with the sole line of petition occurring in the second-last verse.

Oh, Lord my God,
You called me from the sleep of nothingness
merely because in your tremendous love
you want to make good and beautiful beings.
You have called me by my name in my mother’s womb.
You have given me breath and light and movement
and walked with me every moment of my existence.
I am amazed, Lord God of the universe,
that you attend to me and, more, cherish me.

Create in me the faithfulness that moves you,
and I will trust you and yearn for you all my days.
Amen.

Joseph Tetlow, SJ

“Slow Conversion”

A brief article I wrote has been published in the Western Australian Churches of Christ journal On Mission Journal. My article is on the idea of Slow Conversion, based on the Patristic practice of the catechumenate, and is a ‘practical’ adaption of my longer recent article on baptism in the Pacific Journal of Theological Research.

I am also happy to report that at least three other articles in the issue are written by Vose Seminary graduates or students, Amit Khaira, Molly Lewin and Terry Nightingale.

An Ethos of Pastoral Care – Gerard Manley Hopkins

In a class on pastoral care yesterday, we read and discussed Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “In the Valley of the Elwy.” Hopkins was a Jesuit priest in nineteenth-century England seized with a deep sense of missionary vocation, and, after his early death, regarded as an outstanding poet. Porter and Porter note that Hopkins later confessed that this poem was “not about the Elwy at all, but about the Watsons of Shooter’s Hill.”

The linking of two separate things—a place he loved and a home that had been hospitable—gives the poem a universality that is intentional, rather than it being a record of a single unique time and place (Porter & Porter, ‘Over the Bent World’: Poems and Images from Gerard Manley Hopkins, 78).

I used the poem not so much to highlight Hopkins’ missionary concern, but to help us reflect on the ethos of pastoral care. The poem has the form of a classical sonnet, and so we used the first stanza to explore Hopkins’ experience as a way into thinking about what pastoral care might look like, and the second stanza to reflect on the fundamental impulse or ethos of pastoral care.

I remember a house where all were good
To me, God knows, deserving no such thing:
Comforting smell breathed at very entering,
Fetched fresh, as I suppose, off some sweet wood.
That cordial air made those kind people a hood
All over, as a bevy of eggs the mothering wing
Will, or mild nights the new morsels of Spring:
Why, it seemed of course; seemed of right it should.

Lovely the woods, waters, meadows, combes, vales,
All the air things wear that build this world of Wales;
Only the inmate does not correspond:
God, lover of souls, swaying considerate scales,
Complete thy creature dear O where it fails,
Being mighty a master, being a father and fond.

“I remember a house…” Here Hopkins experienced a welcoming hospitality, filled with warmth and nurturing shelter, a safe and comforting place where fragile new shoots might take root and grow, or new life burst forth under the ‘mothering wing.’ The good air of the place made as it were a ‘hood’ for the people under which he too could find a place, though in fact he recognised that he deserved none of their kindness.

The Welsh countryside, lovely in every respect, is the recipient of this same ‘air’ which, in fact, builds the world of Wales. Yet…

And here Hopkins slips in a different note: “Only the inmate does not correspond.” The class discussed whether the term ‘inmate’ should be read generally as inhabitant, or whether it might carry the sense it does today of one confined, perhaps imprisoned. We did not really reach a conclusion. Perhaps Hopkins was using it in a similar way as we do today with a hint that humanity generally is confined with sickness, imprisoned in all kinds of fears and vice. The class also discussed whether Hopkins was here referring to himself or to the people of Wales more generally. He lived in Wales for three years and was gripped with a concern for the spiritual well-being of the country he loved. Perhaps the more general sense is best.

The people of this ‘cordial air’ are somehow out of step with the beauty and goodness of the natural order, and of the One who is over all. And so in the final three verses Hopkins prays, to a God with ‘considerate scales,’ and pleads with this ‘lover of souls’ to “Complete thy creature dear – O where it fails.” It is a prayer for restoration, for rebuilding from this God who is not merely a mighty master, but a ‘father and fond.’ He prays that the father might with a mothering wing shelter and nurture these wayward souls, perhaps in hope that they too might be a world built in the beauty and goodness intended for them.

There is much to consider here with respect to pastoral care: the welcome and warmth, the nurturing shelter, the primacy of divine love with scales tipped toward considerateness, the place of prayer, the ideals of beauty and goodness, of corresponding to the creational order, and probably more besides. It is a beautiful poem celebrating the beauty of God and the beauty of his creation, and not least, the beauty of all the ‘souls’ – the real people needy and broken – that he loves.