All posts by Michael O'Neil

About Michael O'Neil

Hi, thanks for stopping by! A couple of months ago a student gave me a cap embroidered with the words "Theology Matters." And so it does. I fervently believe that theology must not be an arcane academic pursuit reserved only for a few super-nerdy types. Rather, theology exists for the sake of the church and its mission. It exists to assist ordinary believers read and enact Scripture in authentic ways, together, and in their own locale, as a local body of faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. I love the way reading and studying Scripture and theology has deepened my faith, broadened my vision, enriched my ministry and changed my life. I hope that what you find here might help you along a similar path. A bit about me: I have been married to Monica for over thirty years now and we have served in various pastoral, teaching, missions and leadership roles for the whole of our lives together. We have three incredible adult children who with their partners, are the delight of our lives. For the last few years I have taught theology and overseen the research degrees programme at Vose Seminary in Perth, Western Australia. I also assist Monica in a new church planting endeavour in our city. In 2013 my first book was published: Church as Moral Community: Karl Barth’s Vision of Christian Life, 1915-1922 (Milton Keynes: Paternoster). I can say that without a doubt, it is the very best book I have ever written and well worth a read!

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 2:12-36

Read 1 Samuel 2:12-36

Elkanah and his family have returned home, and the focus now shifts to Shiloh, where Samuel remains, serving the Lord. But all is not well at Shiloh, as the first verse of this passage notes: ‘Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the Lord.’ The passage has four scenes: first a description of Eli’s sons’ disregard for the peoples’ offerings; second, a brief cameo of Hannah and Samuel’s interaction in succeeding years as Samuel grows; third, Eli remonstrating with his sons over their behaviour and warning them of the dire consequences that will follow; and fourth, a prophecy against Eli and his house by an unknown ‘man of God.’

Perhaps the key verse in the chapter is 30b: ‘for those who honour me I will honour, and those who despise me shall be treated with contempt.’ Associated with this is the prophetic declaration in verse 35 that God will raise up for himself a faithful priest, who shall do ‘according to what is in my heart and in my mind.’ This verse, as well as the contrast in this passage between Hophni and Phinehas on the one hand and Samuel on the other, provide some indication of what it is to honour the Lord. Further definition of this will be provided later in the book, in chapter 12. The verse provides another hermeneutical lens by which to understand the unfolding narrative.

The first scene (vv. 12-17) portrays Hophni and Phinehas’s complete disregard—indeed contempt (v. 17)—for the worship of God’s people, taking the best of their sacrifices—by force if necessary—for their own benefit. Later we hear that they are having sex with the women who serve at the tent of meeting—hopefully not by force—and that this is generally known. In the fourth scene Eli is implicated in their behaviour for he has not restrained his sons, but rather has made himself fat on the offerings of God’s people. He ‘honours’ his sons above God (v. 29). Though God holds Eli responsible for the exercise of his office, he does not diminish the responsibility of Hophni and Phinehas. They have dishonoured God and his worship, their own office and the people. They have abused their position and power, serving themselves rather than God, and mistreating the people of God. God’s judgement will be harsh—both will die on the one day. The priesthood will removed from Eli and given to the as-yet-unnamed faithful priest.

In the midst of all this Samuel ministers to the Lord as a little priest in a linen ephod made for him annually by his mother. Like Jesus (cf. Luke 2:52), Samuel grew physically and spiritually, gaining favour both with the Lord and with others. The simple devotion of Hannah and Samuel contrasts sharply with the lives of Hophni and Phinehas, the “anti-priests” who have inverted their true roles (Murphy, 24).

These episodes show the corrupt state into which the national and religious leadership has fallen. Israel remains a tribal society, though the shrine at Shiloh has become a centre of religious and political focus, with Eli “at the apex of the network of local judges and assemblies, a ‘superjudge’” (Murphy, 12). The narrative, therefore, provides the theological justification for the judgement that will fall upon Eli and his house, as well as continuing the introduction of this special child who will become the final judge in Israel prior to the emergence of the monarchy. Despite Samuel’s presentation as a “little priest,” it is unlikely that he is the faithful priest who will replace Eli and his family. Some commentators suggest that the faithful priest is actually Zadok who served as priest in David’s reign, though Christians might also view this as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ priesthood, for he is the truly faithful priest who has done according to all that is in God’s heart and mind (Evans, 37; cf. 1 Kings 2:35).

The severity of divine judgement promised to Eli and his house reflects the standard of holiness required of God’s ministers, and the distance that this holiness makes between itself and sin (Murphy, 25). Abuse of power, position and privilege is always despicable, even more so when it also involves sexual abuse. When those who claim to represent God engage in these kinds of abuse it is especially reprehensible. In this passage we learn that Yahweh refuses to cohabit with such sin and will hold his ministers to account. Leadership implications for ministers today are plain: God calls us to faithfulness in ministry, to honour God above all else, and to find our ministry within the compass of that who is the “true minister of the sanctuary,” the true faithful witness and high priest: Jesus Christ. Religion without faith and piety is not just hypocritical; it is dangerous.

The Sinlessness of Jesus 1: Donald Macleod

For Donald Macleod, Jesus is ontologically sinless and so incapable of sin. Jesus’ humanity is genuine in every respect, but also utterly sinless. The human nature and flesh assumed by the eternal Son in the incarnation was a sinless human nature, sinless flesh. As such, Jesus Christ was free of both actual sin and inherent sin (Macleod, The Person of Christ Contours in Christian Theology, IVP, 1998, 221).

There was no lust. There was no affinity with sin. There was no proclivity to sin. There was no possibility of temptation from within. In no respect was he fallen and in no respect was his nature corrupt (222).

Macleod develops his own position in dialogue with, and refutation of, Edward Irving’s doctrine, whom he accuses of a Nestorian separation of the human nature from the person of Christ. He rejects Irving’s idea that in the incarnation, the Son assumed a ‘fallen’ human nature on the grounds that “it is impossible to maintain a distinction between ‘fallen’ and ‘sinful.’ Fallen Adam is sinful Adam. Fallen nature is sinful nature, dominated by ‘the flesh’ and characterized by total depravity” (228). According to Macleod, it is not enough to say that Jesus did not sin; one must go further and insist that he was unable to sin.

The crucial issue is whether Christ could have willed to sin. The answer rests entirely on his identity. He was the Son of God, ‘very God of very God’. If he sinned, God sinned. At this level, the impeccability of Christ is absolute. It rests not upon his unique endowment with the Spirit nor upon the indefectibility of God’s redemptive purpose, but upon the fact that he is who he is (229-230).

This is not to say that Jesus knew and relied on his sinlessness. Indeed, faced with temptation, he utilised every resource also available to Christians generally, in order to overcome temptation: scripture, the Holy Spirit’s presence, etc. By standing against and resisting temptation, Jesus serves as an example to all believers.

Macleod’s doctrine raises certain questions. Perhaps most importantly is his view of Jesus’ temptations which he limits to what he calls “sinless human weaknesses”: although Jesus could be tempted by such things as hunger, there was nothing within his person that could issue in temptation. If it is the case, however, that Jesus “was tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15), Macleod’s proposal is too narrow, fails to do justice to the portrayal of Jesus’ temptations in scripture, and leaves us with a sense that in fact, Jesus was not really like us at all, and thus not really equipped to be the kind of faithful and sympathetic high priest that Hebrews describes.

Another concern is Macleod’s rejection of Gregory Nazianzus’s teaching that “what is not assumed is not healed.” Macleod rightly notes that this teaching arose with respect to Gregory’s rejection of Apollinarianism, but then proceeds to insist that it can have no relevance beyond that provenance. Is it actually “quite perverse to suggest that ‘the unassumed’ in this statement is ‘fallen human nature’” (224), as Macleod insists? In fact, Apollinaris’s reason for rejecting the idea that Jesus had a human mind was because the mind was “filthy,” a great source of sin.

In the end, Macleod fails to convince. In seeking to say more than what scripture says, he ends up saying less, and in so doing, diminishes the glory of the gospel and the comfort believers can gain from it.

A Prayer on Sunday

Painting by Elizabeth Polfus. See

Behold, Lord, an empty vessel that needs to be filled.
My Lord, fill it.
I am weak in the faith; strengthen me.
I am cold in love; warm me and make me fervent,
that my love may go out to my neighbour.

I do not have a strong and firm faith;
At times I doubt and am unable to trust you altogether.
O Lord, help me. Strengthen my faith and trust in you.

In you I have sealed the treasure of all I have.
I am poor; you are rich and came to be merciful to the poor.

I am a sinner; you are upright.
With me, there is an abundance of sin;
in you is the fullness of righteousness.
Therefore I will remain with you,
of whom I can receive, but to whom I may not give.


(Martin Luther)

What is Marriage? (Part 3)

Chapter three addresses the interest of the state with respect to marriage. Girgis, Anderson and George put the matter simply:

The universal social need presented by relationships that can produce new, dependent human beings explains why every society in the history of our race has regulated men and women’s sexual relationships: has recognized marriage (39).

These relationships alone produce new human beings. For these new and highly dependent people, there is no path to physical, moral, and cultural maturity without a long and delicate process of ongoing care and supervision—one to which men and women typically bring different strengths, and for which they are better suited the more closely related they are to the children. Unless children do mature, they will never become healthy, upright, productive members of society; and that state of economic and social development we call “civilization” depends on healthy, upright, productive citizens. But regularly producing such citizens is nearly impossible unless men and women commit their lives to each other and any children they might have. So it is a summary, but hardly an exaggeration, to say that civilization depends on strong marriages (38).

The reason marriage is regulated by the state is therefore on account of the long-term common good of the society and culture as a whole. As such, marriage is more than a personal arrangement designed to address personal issues; it is a social institution developed to solve a social problem: the care of children that the mere desire for children and the sex that makes children possible, does not solve. Although marriage is universal in practice, however, it is also fragile and costly, requiring a strong marriage culture. Indeed, people “tend to require social pressures to get and stay married” (39).

By regulating marriage entry and exit, and by helping and sometimes requiring the government as well as individuals and civic institutions to treat certain couples as a unit, marriage law sends a strong public message about what it takes to make a marriage—what marriage is. This in turn affects people’s beliefs, and therefore their expectations and choices, about their own prospective or actual marriages (41, original emphasis).

Having argued that marriage is a social institution, the authors go on to argue that it is fitting that the state regulate marriage in order to facilitate society-wide coordination and support of this public good. This regulation of conjugal marriage, however, “need not and should not involve prohibiting any consensual relationship” (42). The aim is to support this vision of what marriage is, not restrict the liberties and relationships of those seeking other forms of relationship.

When considering the social benefits of this particular relationship, the authors suggest that “common sense and reliable evidence both attest to the facts that marriage benefits children, benefits spouses, helps create wealth, helps the poor especially, and checks state power” (42). Citing and utilising numerous research studies, they detail the evidence for each of these claims though also acknowledging that, “obviously, none of this is to suggest that any marriage is perfect or that spouses never fail to live up to their vows. We are speaking here in generalities, in light of the accumulated social-scientific evidence” (117).

The final section of the chapter addresses the criticism that “marriage is not a naturally generated institution with certain essential elements,” but has been “constructed over time” and reflects “larger social power relations” (117). Obviously the authors have already argued that marriage is a basic human good with certain distinguishing and naturally inherent characteristics. They do recognise that the specific characteristics of marriage differ between one period and another, and that other marital forms such as polygamy and arranged marriages have existed in many cultures. Such variations do not invalidate their central claims:

No moral truth of much specificity has enjoyed universal assent … It is natural rather to think that the most basic ethical principles would be most widely held; while those derived from more basic principles would meet with patchier understanding and assent. … What [the conjugal view] considers most basic to marriage—like bodily union and connection to family life—are nearly universal in marriage practice. And what it and our argument treat as grounded in these basics—permanent, exclusive commitment—is less represented (48-49, original emphasis).

For the several thousand years that we have records of philosophical and legal traditions, sexual intercourse between men and women has been regulated. Other forms of sexual intimacy have never been recognized as consummating a marriage, while other matters such as infertility or old age do not void the relationship. “The law [in western traditions over 2400 years] reflected the rational judgment that unions consummated by coitus were valuable in themselves, and different in kind from other bonds” (50).

If it is the case that marriage is simply an endlessly malleable social construction, there is no natural right to marriage that existing laws violate by being defective, and if it is considered just to extend those laws to include other forms of relation, it would be unjust not to recognize other relations such as polyamorous unions unless there were clear and heavy social costs to including them (50-51). Nevertheless, the authors suggest that most advocates on both sides of the current debates reject constructivism. “They agree that marriage has certain necessary features. They only disagree on whether sexual complementarity is one” (52).

Luther, Scripture and Conscience

Scott Hendrix’s comment on Luther’s declaration at Worms is worth repeating:

Although Luther was aware that different interpretations of scripture could be valid, he did not waver. His answer to Von der Ecken was the long version of a blunt statement he had made to Cardinal Cajetan three years earlier: “Divine truth is lord also over the pope, and I do not await human judgment when I have learned the judgment of God.” For Luther, the issue at stake in Worms was not how to interpret scripture but who could interpret scripture and discern the timely truth it contained. His “incontestable arguments” were based on what a text said and not on who offered the interpretation, that is, not on the pope’s interpretation because he was pope. And that his ‘conscience was captive to the word of God’ was not an internal moral meter that measured right or wrong, but loyalty to the highest authority on which one depended for the truth. For Luther in 1521, that authority was the gospel found in scripture.

Luther was a theology professor at an institution that did not promise freedom of speech. He had sworn allegiance both to the Roman Church and to holy scripture, which he was obligated to teach. Initially he saw no contradiction between them. The indulgence controversy, however, forced him to choose, and he confessed to Cajetan that his loyalty to scripture was higher than his loyalty to the pope. His conscience was now captive to scripture and not to papal interpretations of scripture… (106).

What is Marriage? (Part 2)

The second chapter of What is Marriage? sets forth the authors’ rationale for their view of conjugal marriage, which they further define as “Comprehensive Union.” Comprehensive union is grounded in biological and social realities: without bodily union, a relationship cannot be considered “comprehensive” even if it includes other aspects such as companionship and common domestic life. Further, just as the organs of one’s body are coordinated for the single biological purpose of the whole that they form together, just so “for two individuals to unite organically, their bodies must coordinate toward a common biological end of the whole that they form together” (25, original emphasis).

There is one respect in which this highest kind of bodily unity is possible between two individuals, one function for which a mate really does complete us: sexual reproduction. In coitus, and there alone, a man and a woman’s bodies participate by virtue of their sexual complementarity in a coordination that has the biological purpose of reproduction—a function that neither can perform alone. … Here the whole is the couple; the single biological good, their reproduction (26, original emphasis).

The authors note that it is this coordination toward procreation which makes the union, not the achievement of procreation in itself. Comprehensive union is of value in itself, and not simply as a means to an end. Because it has a unitive as well as a procreative function, the failure to conceive a child does not invalidate the bodily coordination.

Because marriage is uniquely ordered to having and raising children, marriage calls for the wide-ranging co-operation of a shared domestic life to support that end: “the demands of marriage are shaped by those of parenting” (28). Again, the argument is not “that the relationship of marriage and the comprehensive good of rearing children always go together. It is that, like a ball and socket, they fit together: that family life specially enriches marriage; that marriage is especially apt for family life, which shapes its norms” (29, original emphasis). Procreation is the good that fulfils and extends a marriage because it fulfils and extends the act that embodies or consummates the commitment of marriage: the same act by which spouses make love also makes new life; it both seals the marriage and brings forth children (30).

The authors continue to use the biological complementarity of the male and female, and the organic analogy to argue for permanence and sexual exclusivity as norms which characterise the marital relation; comprehensive union requires comprehensive commitment. Marriage is possible only between two because no act can organically (bodily) unite three or more parties. The raising of children and establishing of family is an open-ended task calling for whole-of-life commitment and coordination which in turn requires undivided commitment. Divorce and infidelity undermine the stability conducive to this task and commitment. Because the conjugal view of marriage understands it as distinguished by bodily union and its natural fulfillment in children and family life, it is able to make sense of a pledge to sexual exclusivity, which the revisionist view finds difficult to explain (33-34).

An account of marriage must explain what makes the marital relationship different from others. In our view, the kind of union created by consent to marriage is uniquely comprehensive in how it unites persons, what it unites them with respect to, and how extensive a commitment it demands. … In short, as most people acknowledge, marriage involves a bodily as well as mental union of spouses, a special link to children and domestic life, and permanent and exclusive commitment. All three elements converge in, and go to constitute, the conjugal view (35-36, original emphasis).

Continued Soon…

What is Marriage? (Part 1)

What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (New York: Encounter, 2012) by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George, began its life as an article in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy (Vol. 34, No. 1, Winter 2010,  245-287), which was both well received and heavily contested. The book is an expansion of the original article as well as a response to the discussion which arose in the aftermath of the article. At the time of publication Girgis and Anderson were doctoral candidates at Princeton and Notre Dame Universities respectively, while George was Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School and Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University. The authors also present their argument in person at a Wheatley Institute lecture.

The book is relatively short (xiv + 133 pages) and comprises six chapters together with an introduction, conclusion, and appendix. It is very concisely and clearly argued, as well as carefully circumscribed: they explicitly state that the argument is not about homosexuality, the morality of homosexual acts or their heterosexual counterparts; they are not making a religious argument; they are not offering an historical or social-scientific argument, although these play a supporting role in their argument. They are detailing a philosophical and legal defense of what they term a “conjugal view” of marriage over against a “revisionist view.” The revisionist view informs many heterosexual approaches to marriage and is not limited simply to those advocating same-sex marriage. Nevertheless, that the question is highly conflicted in the present context provides an occasion to revisit the arguments made, and to reflect specifically on the question of same-sex marriage. Finally, I note that the book was published prior to the US Supreme Court decision of June 2015, allowing same-sex marriage, and reflects that milieu and state of play.

The authors set forth their argument in brief, in the introduction:

Our essential claims may be put succinctly. There is a distinct form of person union and corresponding way of life, historically called marriage, whose basic features do not depend on the preferences of individuals or cultures. Marriage is, of its essence, a comprehensive union: a union of will (consent) and body (by sexual union); inherently ordered to procreation and thus the broad sharing of family life; and calling for permanent and exclusive commitment, whatever the spouses’ preferences. It has long been and remains a personal and social reality, sought and prized by individuals, couples, and whole societies. But it is also a moral reality: a human good with an objective structure, which it is inherently good for us to live out.

Marriages have always been the main and most effective means of rearing healthy, happy, and will-integrated children. The health and order of society depend on the rearing of healthy, happy, and well-integrated children. That is why law, though it may take no notice of ordinary friendships, should recognize and support marriages.

There can thus be no right for nonmarital relationships to be recognized as marriages. There can indeed be much harm, if recognizing them would obscure the shape, and so weaken the special norms, of an institution on which social order depends. So it is not the conferral of benefits on same-sex relationships itself but redefining marriage in the public mind that bodes ill for the common good. Indeed, societies mindful of this fact need deprive no same-sex-attracted people of practical goods, social equality, or personal fulfillment.

Here, then, is the heart of our argument against redefinition. If the law defines marriage to include same-sex partners, many will come to misunderstand marriage. They will not see it as essentially comprehensive, or thus (among other things) as ordered to procreation and family life—but as essentially an emotional union. … to the extent that marriage is misunderstood, it will be harder to see the point of its norms, to live by them, and to urge them on others. And this, besides making any remaining restrictions on marriage arbitrary, will damage the many cultural and political goods that get the state involved in marriage in the first place (6-7, original emphasis).

The introduction also provides a sense of the terms “conjugal” and “revisionist,” that the authors use to describe two visions of marriage. The conjugal view sees marriage as a comprehensive union, joining spouses in body and mind, begun by consent and sealed in sexual intercourse. It is “especially apt for and deepened by procreation,” which then calls for broad sharing of domestic and family life. Uniting spouses in an all-encompassing way, it “objectively calls for all-encompassing commitment: permanent and exclusive.” Such comprehensive union is inherently good, though “its link to children’s welfare makes marriage a public good that the state should recognize and support” (3). The revisionist view which has informed marriage policy now for half a century or so, sees marriage “as a loving emotional bond, one distinguished by intensity—a bond that needn’t point beyond the partners, in which fidelity is ultimately subject to one’s own desires. In marriage, so understood, partners seek emotional fulfillment, and remain as long as they find it” (1-2). The view of marriage as an intense emotional bond was ratified by the US Supreme Court judgement.

The first chapter, entitled “Challenges to Revisionists,” begins by claiming that marriage, as traditionally understood, is a basic human good. It is not, of course, the only human good, nor the only means to a good life. To redefine marriage, then, is not simply to change a legal artefact or title, but to misunderstand a basic human good, and so to diminish the possibility of living out the real thing (14). The chapter argues that the revisionist view fails on its own terms, for it cannot coherently account for the three points common to both sides of the debate: that the state has an interest in regulating certain relationships; that interest exists only if the relationships are sexual; and it exists only if they are monogamous (15).

If you insist as a matter of principle that we should recognize same-sex relationships as marriages, the same principle will require you to accept (and favor legally recognizing) polyamorous—and, as we saw above, nonsexual—relationships as marriages. In other words, on the best accounts on which two men or two women can marry, marriage consists of emotional union and domestic life. But as pleasing and valuable as emotional union can be, there’s nothing about marriage so understood that also requires it to be dyadic, sexually closed, or even sexual at all. Yet bonds that lack these features just aren’t marriages. So the best theories by which any two men or women can marry are mistaken: they get other, less disputed aspects of marriage wrong. … As we deprive marriage policy of definite shape, we deprive it of public purpose. Rigorously pursued, the logic of rejecting the conjugal conception of marriage thus leads, by way of formlessness, toward pointlessness: it proposes a policy for which it can hardly explain the benefit (20-21, original emphasis).

Continued tomorrow…

Hendrix, Martin Luther, Visionary Reformer (Review)

Hendrix, Scott H., Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015). Xxiv + 341pp. ISBN: 978-0-300-16669-9

Scott Hendrix, Emeritus Professor of Reformation History at Princeton Theological Seminary, has written an articulate, detailed, and highly readable story of the remarkable life of Martin Luther. The book is divided into two parts. Part one, “Pathways to Reform,” covers the period 1483–1521, while part two, “Pursuit of a Vision” treats 1522–1546. The first part consists of eight chapters that introduce Luther and set him firmly in the context of late medieval Germany. Hendrix’s Luther is very much a normal (sixteenth-century) man, “neither a hero nor a villain, but a human being with both merits and faults” (xi). Drawing on a lifetime of learning, and extensively referencing German, Latin, and English-language sources, Hendrix rejects the “popular version” of the “cliché” or “myth of Luther the hero” (33, 39). Luther did join the monastery against his father’s wishes but whether solely as a result of the storm is doubtful. Although we know he posted his ninety-five theses to Archbishop Albert of Mainz, we cannot be quite as certain that he posted them on the doors of Castle Church. He was not a solitary or isolated figure, but embedded in communities and friendships which functioned as networks of support during the Reformation. Although he did struggle with his conscience, his psychological state must not be over-emphasised. His theological breakthrough was not simply the result of a monk’s desperate search for a gracious God, but also of many years of intellectual and academic development, accompanied with pastoral reflection.

Although by 1517 Luther was “pushing reform on two fronts: academic theology and popular piety” (68), he was not yet the “visionary Reformer” he later became. Only in 1520 did he “turn a corner,” believing that the time had come to “speak out” (89). The decisive change occurred while holed up in the Wartburg. Cast out of the church, released from his monastic vows, officially an outlaw, and in hiding for his life, Luther faced, to put it mildly, an uncertain future which neither he nor his friends nor his protector could fathom (112-113). It was in this liminal space, suggests Hendrix, that Luther became then a man possessed of a new identity, vision and purpose, based on a vision of what Christianity could become – a vision he was now intent on pursuing (115).

In the second part of the book the pace slows a little as Hendrix explores the developments of the Reformation’s progress, and Luther’s role and responses in them. Chapters nine and ten treat the early reforms at Wittenberg, initially without Luther, and later stabilised by his presence. Luther’s reforming movement is presented as a “massive campaign of reeducation” (138), equipping the laity with sufficient theological and devotional frameworks, and knowledge so that their consciences and consequent religious practice were formed and reformed. He was concerned also for marriage as one of the goods of creation given by God, and for the education of children and well-run schools. Thus Luther’s vision included cultural as well as spiritual and ecclesial renewal. It was for these reasons that Luther resisted what he considered false initiatives and directions taken by some of his own associates such Karlstadt and Müntzer. According to Hendrix, the tragedy of the Peasant’s War arose because “Müntzer had his own vision of what Christianity should be” (151)—a radical, politicised and apocalyptic vision of the kingdom of God realised in a purified Christian state. Luther believed the movement stirred by Müntzer was threatening to undo not just the Reformation but the whole social order.

Hendrix identifies 1525 as a pivotal year during which the profile of the German Reformation began to change from a populist movement driven from the bottom up, to a more formal institutional movement of renewal with momentum coming from the top down. That is, after 1525 the civil authorities began to bring the reforming energies under control. “As a rule, historians have lamented the shift from populist movement to government-authorized reforms, but for the most part Luther did not” (173): the Reformation required the support and protection of the civil authorities if it were not to be put down by its powerful opponents.

Luther wanted release from hierarchical control and false beliefs, but not from worship, order, faith, sacraments, and word. Evangelical worship would be “informal and spontaneous,” arising from the communal experience itself and not imposed from above. Religion would not be confined to churchgoing but would spill over into daily life. Hendrix acknowledges that Luther’s vision resembled the ideal of monastic life stripped of celibacy and the demand for perfection: “Luther never completely abandoned the monastic ideal. The man left the monastery, but the monastery never left the man” (176).

Luther, of course, did not pursue his vision alone. Without Staupitz, Philip of Hesse, his many associates and those who took up the cause in other towns and regions, his Reformation would not have succeeded. In particular, Hendrix notes the crucial role played by Melanchthon—even in Luther’s mind:

For this I was born: to fight and take the field against mobs and devils. Therefore many of my books are stormy and war-like. I must pull out the stumps and roots, hack away at thorns and thistles, drain the swamps [!]. I am the coarse woodsman who must blaze a new trail. But Master Philip comes neatly and quietly behind me, cultivates and plants, sows and waters with joy, according to the gifts that God has richly given him (215).

“Luther was the bushwhacker willing to reject and condemn everything contrary to the gospel and let God take care of the consequences. Melanchthon was the gardener willing to cultivate an agreement between opposing sides so long as it did not silence the gospel” (219). In the end, both were needed and both played their part.

The issue that dominated Luther’s thought in the final years of his life concerned the identity of the true church. In Luther’s view, the rise of Protestantism was not a split from the Roman Catholic Church, but the preservation of the true church which had always existed. It was the Roman hierarchy which had betrayed true Christianity and as such had become a false church (268). In reality, however, Hendrix argues that it was practical issues—the lived spirituality—of the different groups that hindered reconciliation, rather than the politics or theology of the day. Even when some rapprochement appeared possible, neither Catholics nor Protestants were “willing to budge on the same practical issues that had divided them since the ninety-five theses of 1517: indulgences, celibacy of priests, enumerating sins at private confession, private masses, and so forth” (262). “Doctrines were discussable because they were concepts that mattered mainly to theologians; but religious practices were not negotiable because they gave access to the presence and power of the divine, and that access was the reason religion existed” (221). Where the divine is concerned, where everything is at stake, compromise becomes impossible.

In his Martin Luther’s Theology Bernhard Lohse remarks that attempts to characterise Luther typically reflect the theology and values of the interpreter as much as those of Luther himself (3, 6). Hendrix locates the centre of Luther’s theology and reforming vision in the idea of freedom. “Freedom for Luther meant living bound to Christ, and that freedom made him much more than a protester against indulgences or a critic of the pope. Now he was a man with a larger vision of what religion could be and a mission to realize that vision by making other people free” (115). While other interpreters might locate this centre elsewhere, Hendrix’s proposal at least has substantial warrant from Luther’s own works and words. This is an excellent biography that not only introduces Luther the reformer but also humanises Luther the man. It is likely that all interested persons, from Luther scholars to laity, will find here much to consider, inform, and inspire.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 2:1-11

Read 1 Samuel 2:1-11

Hannah’s song provides the theological introduction and orientation to the books of Samuel as a whole, just as David’s song provides a similar perspective as the work ends (2 Samuel 22). These bookends suggest the work of the final editors of this collection. Scholars suggest that the provenance of the psalm is from a later period, especially given the references to the king and the Lord’s anointed in verse ten which do not quite fit the pre-monarchical period. Perhaps it was included here because of the contrast of the barren and fruitful women in verse five which links the psalm to the story so far. It is not impossible, however, that the psalm originated with Hannah. Miriam in Exodus 15 and Deborah in Judges 5 are also portrayed as women psalmists who celebrate and reflect theologically on God’s works in song.

Whatever its origin, “the fact remains,” says Evans, “that the privilege of providing the main theological introduction to the whole account of the history of the Israelite monarchy is given to Hannah. That fact is probably not irrelevant” (30). Hannah did not abdicate her responsibility for theological reflection, and did not leave it up to the experts (i.e. Eli)—which perhaps was just as well. The story which follows includes many tales of the human quest for power, often with immense brutality, intrigues, and murder. The psalm insists that God is the only true sovereign, one who elects and disposes, who chooses and rejects, who upends and overturns human standards and expectations, and who will ultimately subject all human activity to judgement. Hannah’s song, coming from one who although somewhat wealthy, was poor and powerless in other ways, resonates with hope that God’s judgement will prevail, and that human arrogance and abuse of power will be brought to an end.

The psalm begins with her own exaltation and rejoicing, but quickly shifts to a meditation on the character and works of the God who has heard and answered her prayer. God alone is holy; there is none beside him (v.2). This is a full-throated rejection of religious syncretism in an environment where Israel continued to worship not only Yahweh but put their trust in the fertility gods as well. Yet only Yahweh is a rock providing security and salvation. He is the creator who set the world on its pillars (v.8; note the ancient cosmology), and he continues to rule his world with sovereign authority.

The major part of the psalm is a warning to the powerful and arrogant (v.3a): God will defend his “faithful ones” and “cut off” the wicked (v.9), he will “judge the ends of the world” (v.10). Human power will not prevail against the sovereign authority of Yahweh. The salvation that Yahweh brings is portrayed in images of historical rather than eschatological reversal. Thus, the weapons of the mighty are broken while the feeble are strengthened; the sated go hungry as the hungry are filled; the barren give birth while the mother of many is left forlorn. The agent of these reversals is the Lord. Historical developments are not accidental but subject to his providential control.

Yahweh kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
Yahweh makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.

The idea that Yahweh kills and makes alive is frightening, predicating a sovereignty to Yahweh we wish to deny. Yet it is precisely this activity that is highlighted in the following narrative which speaks of Yahweh’s intent to kill Eli’s sons in divine judgement for their wickedness (vv. 25, 34). The question of divine violence is one we shall encounter again in this study of Samuel. Here, the psalmist operates with a sense of comprehensive divine sovereignty.

Nor is the exercise of this sovereignty arbitrary. It is the high and mighty, the rich and powerful who are brought low and made poor, while it is the poor and humble, feeble and barren who are exalted and made rich. These acts of divine reversal reveal the way of Yahweh, and his divine care for those on the underside of human power and greed. As such, the song provides the framework by which the rest of the ensuing narrative (and its characters) must be understood.

Approaching 1 Samuel (1): The “Author”

Francesca Aran Murphy

When I began reading through the books of Samuel a month or so ago, I knew I had no commentaries on these biblical books on my shelves. I set out immediately to rectify this long-standing and obvious lacuna, and, although the bookshop did not have much to offer, I did find two to help my initial engagement with these texts. Both written by women—an added bonus, considering the somewhat marginal-though-critical role women play in these books—neither would be recognised as “real” commentaries by some scholars.

Mary J. Evans, former academic dean at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology, and vice-principal of London School of Theology, wrote The Message of Samuel in the Bible Speaks Today series (2004). This work is self-consciously not a commentary in the traditional sense of the word, but an “exposition” that seeks accurately to expound the biblical text with a view to contemporary insight and application (9). Evans writes, however, “with the conviction that the books of Samuel are a vital part of God’s Word” (10), and so takes them “seriously as the word of God” (15). Like a commentary, her exposition pays close attention to details of the text, the narrative structure and flow, the historical context, etc. This is a useful and accessible introduction that would benefit any Christian reader of the books of Samuel.

I have really been taken, however, by Francesca Aran Murphy’s 1 Samuel in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series (2011). Murphy, professor of systematic theology at the University of Notre Dame, has written—if the first chapter covering 1 Samuel 1–3 is any indication—a remarkable exposition of this biblical book. The Brazos series “enlists leading theologians to read and interpret scripture creedally for the twenty-first century, just as the church fathers, the Reformers, and other orthodox Christians did for their times and places” (blurb, emphasis added). Thus the work differs from more typical commentaries which analyse historical, linguistic, semantic, and thematic matters associated with the text, or explore and utilise particular hermeneutical lenses in their reading.

Of course Murphy employs the fruits of research into such matters, and has her own hermeneutical lenses. In her introduction we gain a sense of her approach to 1 Samuel when she reflects on what constitutes an author—particularly the author of 1 Samuel, and so also on the nature and function of this biblical text. She appears to reject the idea of the book as the product of editors working with collections of ancient documents. But she also rejects the “heroic sole author” of romanticism. Both these images, she suggests, derive from seventeenth-century British and European culture. Rather, her view includes the figure of a prophet whose immediacy to the divine grounds their religious authority. However the shift from oral to written tradition (or, revelation), is not merely the work of the prophet alone. The prophet provides the moral vision of the work, but this work is also carried out communally. Murphy analogises: perhaps there are similarities to modern script-writing for television drama series; “the best television series have as their executive director a mastermind…[who] gives the series an overall moral vision” which is then worked out collectively by a group who crafts the vision (xviii-xix).

Murphy utilises this image again, in the structure of her commentary which is divided into seven “series” (we might say, “seasons”). Each series (“season”) is composed of a number of episodes. Thus “season one” is “Grace and Nature”; season two is “The Carnival of the Ark”, and so on until season seven, “The Death of the Brother.” Season one has six episodes: Two Wives (1 Sam. 1:1-10); The Political and the Personal (1 Sam. 1:11-20); Samuel Handed Over (1 Sam. 1:21-28); Hannah’s Song (1 Sam. 2:1-11); Worthless Men (1 Sam. 2:12-36); The Call of Samuel (1 Sam. 3). This structure certainly resonates with me: I can “see” each episode as though on television.

For Murphy, then, “we will term the anonymous script writer of 1 Samuel its “author” because the term retains the shadow of the prophet and his mantle. This is important for Murphy because it provides insight into the function of the text—for both ancient and contemporary readers—and so also provides an orientation to the text itself.

The author of 1 Samuel was not only an independent historian, but also a writer who put his historical gifts at the service of the church. Independent but not autonomous, he wrote as one responsible for a religious community. His task was more like that of a bishop writing a pastoral letter or like that of a prophet, than that of a scholarly historian. For an individual scholar, history is a piece of the past about which he writes, perhaps imposing a philosophy of history upon it. For a people, on the other hand, “history is the remembered past,” the past as it belongs to us. One over-dramatizes the contrast if one says that the author of 1 Regum was a liturgist not a historian: and yet, there is something in it, since our “prophet” was sowing the seeds of a communal memory (xx, citing Lukacs, Historical Conciousness: or, The Remembered Past new edition (1985), 152).

Over the years I have read commentaries that approach the biblical text simply as “history” – or ideology or legend, etc., and some which certainly impose their own philosophy onto the text. Some will argue, and correctly to an extent, that it is impossible to do otherwise; we cannot help but bring ourselves and our own experiences and philosophical perspectives to the text. And it is often the case that these readings illumine and inform us in fresh ways.

But Murphy’s approach tends to viewing 1 Samuel not merely as “history” but as scripture, and so as a word that continues to speak. Its function is not simply an etiological account of the Israelite monarchy, but has religious, liturgical and prophetic functions, and to be read most fruitfully, must be read in account with its nature as such, its prophetic dimension continuing to inform the contemporary reader open to listening to it as such.

I will give some indications of how this plays out in Murphy’s exposition in a follow-up post.