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 1 (Cont)

Read 1 Samuel 1

As the book of 1 Samuel opens, Israel is a loose collection of tribes sometimes bitterly divided as portrayed in the book of Judges, and oppressed by the Philistines. The book charts the development of Israel from this segmentary tribal society to a centralised, monarchical state. As with the Judges, a central question of this book concerns who will represent Israel in its military struggle, who will maintain the law, who will judge Israel? “First Samuel is about the development, under God’s providence, of a tribal brotherhood into a state. It is a work of political theology” (Murphy, 2-3). Thus the story of Hannah, and of Samuel’s birth must be understood not simply in terms of the psychological aspects of Hannah’s situation and action, but primarily in terms of the divine sovereignty that leads Israel. Hannah is not simply a powerless woman whose prayer is an expression of personal catharsis, which in this case results in blessing—although all this may be true (see Evans, 26-27). Rather, as Murphy also insists,

What Hannah wants and achieves is not psychological closure but open converse with the one God. The heart of the drama in this episode is interior, within the heart that Hannah opens to God the life-giver. … In this encounter, Hannah is given the social role for which she asks from God (8).

Hannah is caught up into what God is up to, and her desire for a son, into his purpose for Israel.

Shiloh at this time is not a capital city—for Israel is not yet a centralised entity—but it has become an important religious and political centre within Israel’s life. As such, Eli, introduced as sitting on a chair (a throne?) in the temple doorway, represents both political and clerical authority, “at the apex of the network of local judges and assemblies” (Murphy, 12). Over against this institutional and hierarchical power is the silent heart-cry of a powerless woman whose prayer has the character of “making a deal” with God.

Prayer remains a mystery, even to those well-practised in the art. It would be wrong to take this passage as a pattern for prayer in the expectation that one could manipulate God and so gain what one desires. Prayer cannot be reduced to “making a deal with God.” Hannah’s prayer is novel; she is not following a liturgical formula or pattern of prayer. It is presented as a vow that she makes to God, a vow that she takes with utmost seriousness. Her prayer is answered and she gets her heart’s desire—but only to give it up again in an act of self-sacrifice that perhaps is not only reminiscent of Abraham offering Isaac, but greater: at least Abraham got to take his son home. Hannah’s act of handing little Samuel over to Eli’s care at Shiloh almost beggars belief. Her prayer is indeed heartfelt, powerful and effective—but also costly in the deepest and most personal sense. Her act is witness that we are not owners of our children however much we desire and love them, and in fact, we might learn from Hannah that an essential aspect of our parenting is learning how to entrust the lives and destinies of our children into the care of the sovereign God from whom they have come.

Prayer, then, has the character of encounter with God in which we truly pour out our hearts to God, but also find ourselves engaged in and drawn into the mystery of his providential dealings not only with ourselves, but with the broader circumstances of our people and nation. In prayer we find that not only are we actors but acted upon; we must learn to speak of prayer using the passive voice. Here, in the genuine freedom in which we pray, we are grasped by a grace greater than ourselves, co-opted into activity broader than our own lives, and made participants in what God is doing in ways that call for costly self-giving that will mark our lives forever. Prayer, then, is not for the faint-hearted or those seeking to make a (selfish) deal with God. And even as I write these words, I find I am challenged concerning why it is prayer is so superficial and sporadic in my life: do I really want to encounter this God who demands my all? Do I really dare to pray if this is what prayer is and does?

I will give Murphy the final word:

In this episode, which introduces the overall theme of Regum [i.e. the four books of Samuel and Kings], the author goes to lengths to show the priority of the personal over the political, by contrasting Hannah’s interior cries for help and Eli’s narrow-sighted public gaze. The insistence of church fathers like Clement, Origen, and Chrysostom on inward faith is rooted as much in the Old Covenant as in the New. Literally and physically, as well as spiritually, this inward root was the womb of Samuel. … Hannah is a pioneer, leading the religious spirit of her times into new territory. In the new political culture that has begun to appear by the end of the book, not only prayer but the action of God occurs silently and in a hidden manner. … A novel conception of divine guidance appears, and one that fits a political theology. From henceforth, God’s action in history is largely, though not solely, presented as providential, working in cooperation with nature and human freedom, rather than in the overt supernatural, interruptions of nature that we call the miraculous. … The Spirit is staking his ground in the privacy of the hearts of men and women (15-16).

Martin Luther, Visionary Reformer (3)

Luther’s Reformation never settled during his lifetime; his vision was never realised. In the 1530s the movement faced questions and opposition on three sides, from the Anabaptists, the Catholics, and the Zwinglians. Of these, a rapprochement was possible only with the third, and this was the work of the princes in the formation of the Smalcald League, which sought to unify Protestants and Protestant territories. Indeed, as he aged, Luther remained or even grew more polemical, especially toward the papacy, but also toward Anabaptists and Jews. His hope that the true church would emerge and thrive at the preaching of the gospel was not to be. Even Wittenberg was “home to no more true Christians than any other place” (282).

For himself, however, Luther did not doubt. On the evening of his death he was asked by one of his associates whether he was ready to die trusting in Christ and standing by what he had taught. “A distinct ‘yes’ emerged from his mouth before Luther turned on his right side and went to sleep.” He died later that night without priest, confession of sins, or anointing with oil (284).

No doubt Luther never imagined some of the results which would spring from his activity. He gave the Germans a Bible in their own language, and many read it in their own way, some “enslaving themselves verse by verse to a paper pope” (228). His emphasis on Christian freedom was taken by some in antinomian directions, while others insisted on obedience to the law.

Separating religion from moralism was Luther’s revolutionary innovation and simultaneously the reason why he was often misunderstood and rejected. It defied the age-old purpose of religion: to gain access to the divine and then to please the gods in order to obtain their blessing and reward. … Christianity had mostly fit that template and Luther’s attempt to alter it was bound to meet enormous resistance, even though he was able to sum up his view in one sentence: “True religion demands the heart and the soul, not deeds and other externals, although these follow if you have the right heart. For where the heart is, everything else is also there” (233-234).

True religion is not and cannot be grounded in law and works: in accord with his vision of the gospel, it is faith that frees. True religion is not morality. Faith, and the life that issues from it, is all the work of the Holy Spirit. This did not mean, however, that Luther had no place for the law. Against his long-time associate and friend John Agricola who argued that the law should not be preached or taught lest people think that faith is insufficient for salvation, Luther said, “I myself, as old and as learned as I am, recite the commandments daily word for word like a child” (257). Hendrix notes that being Luther’s friend could be a precarious relation. His rejections of Karlstadt and Agricola suggested that Luther tied collegial friendships to like-mindedness and deference.

Since 1521, Luther believed he was subject only to the Lord himself, who had shown him the genuine gospel and entrusted him with its propagation. Feeling the weight of that divine sanction, Luther would do almost anything to ensure that the reformation prospered, and that included adapting the evangelical message to a shifting audience. Agricola could not accept the adaptation, and Luther’s heartless behavior drove Agricola away. … For Luther, the “adversary” was any person or group who would not cooperate with his mission to restore a purified Christianity to Germany (258, 264).

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). The true church is never the institution but the gathering of believers to hear, believe and keep the “pure” Word of God.

True Christendom, like true religion, consisted only of people who conveyed to one another the word of God, believed it, and kept it with all the freedom, charity, crosses, and shortfalls that it brought. Religious institutions served only as facilitators of that true religion (262).

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:

History is always a reconstruction of the past that reflects the bias and the unavoidable short-sightedness of those who write it. And when religion is the subject, there is no way to verify what was true or false. One person’s true religion was the other person’s heresy or fanaticism. Religious colloquies did not succeed in reconciling Catholics and Lutherans—not to mention other Protestants, Muslims, and Jews—because hidden beneath the differences about what was true and what was false were the stakes identified by Luther: mercy and life, or wrath and death. Tradition, customs, injustices, and ethnic loyalties also played their parts, as they still do in the choice and exercise of religion. In sixteenth-century Europe, however, religious conflicts were so bitter and conciliation so rare because, for most people involved, including Martin Luther, everything was at stake (269).

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 1

Read 1 Samuel 1
The story of 1 Samuel opens with the story of Samuel’s birth and family, and especially of Hannah who is introduced as one of two wives of Elkanah, a devout and rather wealthy man from Ephraim. That Elkanah has two wives is unexceptional in the text and suggests that the practice of polygamy was not uncommon in ancient Israel, though it was probably only practiced by those sufficiently wealthy to support two wives.

But all is not happy in Elkanah’s household—a regular note in biblical portrayals of polygamist households (cf. Abraham and Sarah, Rachel and Leah), and echoed to some extent in the recent HBO series Big Love. While polygamy may not have been uncommon, it seems the biblical portrayals of the practice present it in a manner that indicates it is less than what God intended. Hannah is first mentioned of the wives which suggests she may have been the first of Elkanah’s wives. But Hannah is also childless. Peninnah, the second wife, has multiple children, both sons and daughters, and provokes and torments Hannah on this basis. Neither woman is enviable; both have reason to be unhappy: Hannah on account of her childlessness, and Peninnah on account of Elkanah’s apparent preference for Hannah. Hannah’s heartache in the story is palpable, Elkanah’s love notwithstanding. Indeed, female commentators on the book note Elkanah’s patronising attitude toward Hannah, and his seeming blindness to her distress.

1 Samuel 1:8
And Elkanah, her husband, said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”

Elkanah is viewing Hannah’s distress through only his own eyes, aware only of his own situation and desires. Sons were evidently more important to him than he is willing to admit, for if Hannah were in fact his first wife, the lack of sons led him to marry Peninnah. The daily presence of her rival was testimony to Hannah that in fact, she was not loved simply in and as herself, but also—or worse, simply—on account of her function as child bearer. In tribal and clan-based societies, a woman’s fertility is her primary gift, for children, and especially sons, are the future of the family and of the society generally. For Hannah, her childlessness is not simply a tragic personal disappointment, but a marital and social failure.

Verse five provides the reason for Hannah’s failure to conceive: “the Lord had closed her womb.” It is likely that this is more than a pious accounting for the situation, a referring of all outcomes to the hand of God. Rather, in an agrarian environment where even the people of God participated in the worship of fertility deities, the text immediately regards Yahweh as lord over all matters of fertility. It is Yahweh who has closed her womb; it is only Yahweh who can open it (Francesca Aran Murphy, 1 Samuel BTCB, 8). Thus in her desperation and grief, Hannah pours out her heart to God, and makes a deal with him: if God will grant her a son, she will devote him to the Lord for the whole of his life.

The chapter also introduces Eli and his two sons as priests at Shiloh which had become the centre of Israel’s worship. Although in this chapter we learn nothing of Hophni and Phineas, Eli reproves Hannah and is critical of her. It is easier to criticise an unknown woman than to reprove his own sons—as we shall learn in chapter two. He, too, is insensitive of her heartache and the depth of her anguish. Hannah, it seems, is utterly alone in her grief, with only Yahweh as her hope and comfort.

Hannah’s prayer was desperate, focussed and prolonged. She came to God in her misery, praying at the place of prayer, and despite initial misunderstanding during which she defended herself against accusation, received a blessing from the high priest. Old-time Pentecostals used to speak of “praying through.” Hannah “prayed through” to peace and to blessing. Her prayer was a cry for recognition, offered in the context of worship and sacrifice—“and the Lord remembered her” (v. 19). Just as God “remembered” Noah stranded in his ark (Gen 8:1), and his people when they cried out to him in the bondage of slavery (Ex. 2:24), so now he has remembered Hannah and opened her womb to conceive a son—one who would become leader and judge of God’s people.

A Vision for Dogmatics

In their preface to the series New Studies in Dogmatics Michael Allen and Scott Swain present a brief of their vision for Christian Dogmatics:

Dogmatic theology…is a conceptual representation of scriptural teaching about God and all things in relation to God. The source of dogmatics is Holy Scripture; its scope is the summing up of all things in Jesus Christ; its setting is the communion of saints; and its end is the conversion, consolation, and instruction of creaturely wayfarers in the knowledge and love of the triune God until that knowledge and love is consummated in the beatific vision (“Series Preface” in Holmes, C.R.J., The Holy Spirit, 15).

A Sermon on Sunday – James 2

If in James 1 we hear of the good and generous God, then James 2 could be understood as speaking of the good and generous church—those who are the people and children of this good and generous God; those who are the recipients of his good and generous grace of salvation.

James 2 has two major sections, each beginning with a hypothetical story and rhetorical question. In both stories the focus is on the response of the congregation to someone who is poor, which James then uses to teach his listeners about the true nature of the Christian life. In many ways, this whole chapter can be read as an exposition of the “true religion” that James mentions at the end of chapter one. True religion involves a life of faith—and works, of love—understood in terms of mercy.

A Problem in the Church

James 2:1-7   (NRSV)
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

Although this is a hypothetical story, it is likely that it represents attitudes and actions that are actually occurring in the congregations that James is writing to. Notice verse 6: “But you have dishonoured the poor!” These, whom God has chosen! These, who are the special objects of his favour, grace and blessing!

Does God play favourites?
Is God a respecter of persons?
Does God have a “preferential option for the poor”?

God chose Israel—the smallest, weakest, most inconsequential of nations (Deut. 7:6-9). God chooses the weak things of the world to confound the mighty, the foolish, base and insignificant things… Certainly the poor are to be rich in faith, and to love God. James is drawing on a rich seam of the Old Testament here, the idea of the Anawim, those poor who having no hope in this world, cry out to God and put their hope and trust in him. James is also echoing the Jesus of the Lukan beatitudes who pronounces blessings on the poor and woes upon the rich (Luke 6:20-26).

Nevertheless, favouritism like this is incompatible with faith in Jesus Christ, because Jesus himself became poor, identified with the poor, proclaimed good news to the poor, and identified with them. Those who show this kind of favouritism, who reflect the dominant values of the world rather than those of the kingdom of God, have become evil judges with evil thoughts.

The Royal Law

What, then, does God want in the church? We see in verse 8:

James 2:8-9
You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

The “royal” (basilikon) law is the law of the kingdom (basiliea). In verse 13 James refers to it as mercy, and repeats, though negatively, Jesus’ beatitude about mercy.

Matthew 5:6
Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.

James 2:12-13
So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgement.

What is mercy but love-in-action, love with its sleeves rolled up? We get an indication of what James means in the second half of the chapter: mercy is active, mercy works, mercy is moved by the needs of another, mercy presses beyond words to works. Mercy gets involved. Mercy visits the orphan and the widow in their affliction (1:27). Mercy is personal, relational, involved, and active.

The good and generous church is a community of care imaging, reflecting, representing and proclaiming the good and generous God. We are called to be God’s good and generous community because God is good and generous, and because we have been the recipient of his good and generous grace.

We accept others as he has accepted us. We extend to others the generous goodness he has extended to us. We watch out for and care for others the way he watches out for and cares for us. We are his heart, his hands, his lovingkindness and mercy here and now, in our place and in our time. We are a kingdom community, a good and generous church because we are, already, the people of the good and generous God.

Karl Barth Study Group 2017

The Karl Barth Study Group met at ANZATS for the third time, this year in Adelaide. We chose a theme for the papers this year: “Reading Romans with Barth,” in view of the upcoming centenary of the first edition of Barth’s commentary on Paul’s epistle. Although four papers were scheduled, one presenter had to withdraw due to family medical concerns. However, the remaining papers were each interesting and well received, and good interaction and discussion followed the presentations.

The first paper given by Chris Swann, a doctoral candidate at St Mark’s Theological Centre, addressed the topic “Discipleship beyond Taste & Taboo: Barth on Food & Freedom in Romans 14:1 – 15:7.” When I was doing my own work on these chapters in the second edition of Barth’s commentary I was disappointed, feeling that Barth had missed an opportunity to develop a strong theological description of relations in the Christian community. But Chris did a better job than I had with respect to Barth’s position. He recognises that Barth follows Paul by calling for the strong to sacrifice their liberty, and as such, insists that the divine krisis falls on weak and strong alike. Barth rejects all liberty as well as rigorism: all human positions are impure before God. But Chris showed that Barth’s position does indeed open into a thick description of a truly generous community ethic as we recognise and honour the One in the other.

Sean Winter, New Testament scholar at Pilgrim College in Melbourne, examined Romans 11:33-36, which is the climax of the first long section of Paul’s letter. Sean noted the utter forcefulness of Barth’s rhetoric in this section—a forcefulness attenuated in Hoskyns’ translation.

Direct knowledge of God? Nein! Cooperation with his dec isions? Nein! The possibility of holding him, or binding him, or obligating him, or ente3ring into a reciprocal relationship with him? Nein! No Federal theology. He is God, he himself, he alone. That is the ‘Ja’ of Romans.

God is known only in his inscrutability, clearly seen in his invisibility. God does not give himself over to us in his revelation but remains the utterly sovereign and hidden God.

My own paper examined Barth’s commentary in the first edition on Romans 5:12-14 where Barth addresses the question of Adam. In particular, I examined the curious translation of typos as Gegenbild, or ‘antitype.’ Is Barth playing fast and loose with the biblical text? Can we see in this translation an early indication of the theology which would come to expression later as a result of his doctrine of election in which Christ precedes Adam? I argued that the answer on both counts was No, and that in fact, Barth’s exegetical approach treated the biblical text very seriously and carefully, although also in accordance with his own hermeneutical stance which I picture as Barth standing alongside Paul looking at that to which Paul is pointing, seeking to see—in his own twentieth century context—what Paul could see, and to hear—in his own twentieth century context—what Paul could hear.

This year’s meeting of the Study Group fulfilled the purpose for which I started it three years ago. It was an encouraging and stimulating experience to meet with other scholars and explore something of Barth’s legacy. Perhaps we may even be able to do it again, next year!

Sex Before Marriage

The other day I came across an intensely personal and yet ambivalent reflection on the realities of sex before, and in, marriage. Katherine Willis Pershey recalls her own experience in an evangelical subculture, as well as her inability to fulfil its strictures:

Although I once was the proud wearer of a purity ring—a silver band acquired in junior high school that advertised my intention to remain a virgin until my wedding night—at some point along the way, I misplaced the ring and, some years later, the virginity (“Fully Naked, Fully Known” in Christian Century, September 28, 2016, 22-25).

Pershey remains critical of such Christian attempts to control and shame adolescent sexuality, is grateful that couples living together are no longer the objects of abuse and shame as they once were, acknowledges the true beauty of love and commitment that can exist in the lives of many de facto couples, and wonders how she could possibly exhort her own children to abstain when she herself did not.

“And yet,” she says. Despite her misgivings, and almost in spite of herself and her deeply held convictions, Pershey finds herself drawn to accounts of marriage by conservatives such as Timothy Keller. Her experiences seem to have led her to a position she can hardly imagine holding: “I suspect I might actually believe that sex is for married people. … The contrast between unmarried and married sex is significant. The covenant of marriage—the vows to love now and forever—changes everything. It just does.”

Pershey provides some indication of how that might actually happen through the account of her own experiences both before marriage, and as a beloved wife. The final words of her article address the question of how, as a minister and a mother, she could possibly encourage others to consider saving certain intimacies for the wedding night without descending into the destructive shaming that so harmed her own life.

So perhaps I hold up my pain: all that fooling around before marriage ever did was give me a world of hurt. But I can’t hold up my pain without also lifting high my joy: all that fooling around within marriage ever did was give me a world of healing.

*****

This article is available online at Christian Century (pay wall), or here.

An Enduring Voice

There is still an hour or two before the day ends: enough time to recall with gratitude, the life and legacy of Jane Austen – who died two hundred years ago on this date. Not that I can say much more than to what extent I appreciate her work. I am a fan and an admirer, not an expert.

Austen died on July 18 1817 at just forty-one years of age, after a year or more during which her health had been deteriorating. Her books, published anonymously during her lifetime, became amongst the most loved in English literature, and have enjoyed continual publication from the time they were first presented to the reading public until the present. They have also stimulated a raft of film adaptations, as well as a whole genre of Austen-knock-offs.

In some respects, Jane Austen has been viewed as writing simple romances, stories that tell a happy tale that ends with the heroine securing her husband and living happily ever after. More recent scholarship, however, insists that Austen’s novels

… are strategic critical analyses of the moral values and modes of behaviour through which a section of the ruling class was redefining itself … She writes, therefore, about femininity and about class: about forms of identity and about marriage as a political institution which reproduces – symbolically as well as literally – the social order. … So the power to motivate and reward change, both personal and social, lies with the woman. (See my post on Austen’s Pride and Prejudice)

Austen is very aware of the social, cultural and political factors at work in her world, as well as the hopes and sorrows, triumphs and pains, that attend daily affairs. She too, like her sister Cassandra, knew what it was to love and be loved, though neither ever married. Cassandra’s fiancé died in the West Indies when she was twenty-four. Her family said that Jane loved a young clergyman who also had died.

A couple of months ago I read Persuasion in part to recall this author whose legacy we honour. Toward the end of the book there is a spirited discussion between Anne Elliott and Captain Harville about whether men or women have the deeper feelings, more constant and faithful:

“Well, Miss Elliott, as I was saying, we shall never agree I suppose upon this point. No man and woman would, probably. But let me observe that all histories are against you, all stories, prose and verse. If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”

“Perhaps I shall.—Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands…”

This telling line provides a little window, perhaps, into what Jane Austen was about, when she took up the pen. And we are immeasurably the richer for it.

A Book for Baptists: Contesting Catholicity

I picked up one new book at the ANZATS Conference this year, which is something of a record (to buy only one…)! The book by Curtis Freeman is entitled, Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists. Freeman is Research Professor of Theology and Director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School. The term “other Baptists” comes from a list of Baptist statistics, in which various Baptist denominations were named. The final category in the statistical list was “Other Baptist.” As he reflected on the list, he realised that he belonged to that category of “Other Baptists,” which he defines as neither conservative nor liberal. Here is a paragraph from the Preface of the volume:

This book offers a theology for other Other Baptists. It is part diagnostic and part therapeutic. The diagnosis is that many Baptists and other Free Church Christians are suffering from a condition that if left untreated results in death. This sickness did not happen all at once. It was gradual. Nor are the signs of its pathology obvious. They are silent and often unnoticed. Yet the result is deadly. The remedy for this sickness unto death (John 11:4) is the life that is really life (1 Tim 6:19). This life is not the product of human creativity. It is God’s own life, and its curative power is realized by participating in the fellowship of the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, with the saints. [What a great line; just sayin’…] This is the life of the world. In a word the cure lies in the rediscovery of catholicity. Baptist Christians are more familiar with dissent than catholicity, but, as I show, the way of recovery comes by embracing a mode of being in which contestation and catholicity are not opposites but are instead complementary and necessary for the church to be the church.

Freeman wants to chart a course between the Scylla of conservatism and the Charybdis of liberalism, “toward a generous orthodoxy,” along the way of postliberalism—Duke is not far from Yale after all, and Hauerwas is also at Duke! The chapter titles show the outline of his theology, especially in Part II. He deals with matters of the triune God, the priesthood of all believers, the gathering of the believers in Jesus’ name, light from Scripture, evangelical sacramentalism, and a final chapter entitled, “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism.” His ultimate aim to be remain a Baptist Christian, but a Baptist within the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” I don’t know when I will have time to read this, but I am looking forward to doing so, and will blog it as I do.

A Prayer of Confession

I came across this prayer in Ray Anderson’s On Being Human. Then I prayed it as part of the congregation at Evensong in Adelaide last Sunday. It is the last line of the first stanza that grabs me: and there is no health in us. The prayer is from the Book of Common Prayer (1928), “Morning Prayer.”

ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father;          
We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.          
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.    
We have offended against thy holy laws.        
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done;
And we have done those things which we ought not to have done;
And there is no health in us.

But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.          
Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults.      
Restore thou those who are penitent, according to thy promises
declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord.         
And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake
that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life,          
To the glory of thy holy Name.           
Amen.