Tag Archives: Ethics

On Hermeneutics and Ethics

reading group 2In her essay entitled “Christian Character, Biblical Community, and Human Values” Lisa Sowle Cahill includes a discussion of the pluralistic nature of the biblical text and implications for interpreters.

Many interpreters point to the pluralistic, internally dynamic structure of the biblical canon itself as a model for theological reflection, and Newsom herself is sympathetic to this approach. She advocates ‘dialogic truth and the polyphonic text,’ in which the different voices in the text are brought into intersection at the level of practical engagement and conversation among interpreters. Similarly to Newsom, Werner Jeanrond calls for a new form of interdisciplinary, reading-centered biblical theology that is both critical of ideologies in the text and resistant to any final systematization, especially one that is ‘ecclesially imposed.’ “Biblical theology encourages all nondogmatic models and paradigms of describing continuities and discontinuities in the complex development and religious challenge of biblical monotheism. It calls for an ongoing ideology critique of any systematizing attempt.” (see Brown (ed), Character & Scripture: Moral Formation, Community, and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 10-11).

Really?

That was my response as I read this paragraph. All and any perspectives are welcome, but don’t try to say that a particular biblical passage means something, or that it has a particular message. Is there really no place in biblical study for normative theological instruction and ethical admonition? Does acknowledgement of multiple voices and perspectives in Scripture mean that the drawing of conclusions is thereby somehow proscribed?

While Cahill acknowledges and appreciates the “Bible’s internal pluralism” and sees in it a model for a dialogical theology and ethics, she remains dubious about this approach to Scripture:

My own conviction is that sheer pluralism is not adequate as a Christian moral response to injustice in the world. Christian morality requires some more determinate understanding of what it means to begin to live in the reign of God, to form a community as body of Christ, or to be transformed by the Lord’s Spirit. . . . Although the celebrators of diversity eschew the . . . interest in something substantial as the working material of theology, I find it essential to Christian character ethics to define at least a few desirable characteristics (11, 13).

To that end Cahill argues that Christian morality “can and should be centered in virtues like repentance, reconciliation, love, compassion, solidarity, mercy, and forgiveness” (11).

Although overly confident specific extrapolations of biblical ethics can and have been unjust and oppressive, complete deconstruction of normative meaning is not an acceptable alternative. It is not enough to say Christian character will be formed in a number of quite disparate communities that have in common only that they have read Scripture idiosyncratically. The general virtues Christian character should exhibit are evident enough from the standpoint of even a historically oriented and critical biblical hermeneutic (14).

Sin Boldly!

luther-statueAfter his trial at Worms in April 1521, Martin Luther went into hiding for almost a year. During that time his associates at Wittenberg began implementing practical reforms in the church there. One of Luther’s closest associates, the young Philip Melanchthon, was reluctant to proceed on some matters in case the changes led to sin. Luther wrote to him on August 1, 1521 urging decisive action:

If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true and not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are in this world we have to sin. This life is not the dwelling place of righteousness but, as Peter says, we look for a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13). It is enough that by the riches of God’s glory we have come to know the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). No sin will separate us from the Lamb, even though we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day (cited in Hendrix, Martin Luther, 121-122).

We must be careful to interpret Luther’s words correctly lest we suggest he intends us to go on sinning deliberately and flagrantly after conversion. Although it is true he is pessimistic about humanity’s ability to rise above sinful behaviours, even amongst the most devout Christians, his words to Melanchthon are about his reforming activities. If Melanchthon decided to do nothing, chances are he would sin; if he decided to act, chances are he would sin. Luther was encouraging proper action even when a perfect result could not be guaranteed.

Not only does this exhortation provide a useful principle in moral deliberation, it also reveals the depth of Luther’s trust in divine grace, his realistic rather than optimistic view of the human condition, and his understanding of Christian spirituality.

To be a Christian is to be a sinner. If we pretend we are not sinners we cannot be saved because Christ gives his grace to sinners. A Christian is someone who acknowledges their sin, owning rather than hiding or denying it. When his protector, Elector John, died in August 1532 Luther refused to deliver a eulogy: “I will not now praise the Elector for his great virtues but let him remain a sinner like the rest of us” (in Hendrix, 236).

Luther said as much to his friend Spalatin, who brooded over his sins and errors:

Now join with us prodigious and hardened sinners lest you diminish Christ for us. He is not a savior of fictitious or petty sinners but of genuine ones, not only the lowly but also the big and powerful ones; indeed he is the savior of all sinners. My Staupitz consoled me this way when I was downhearted. You can be a bogus sinner and have Christ for a fictitious savior. Instead, get used to the fact that Christ is a genuine savior and that you are a real sinner (in Hendrix, 281).

I find something realistic and comforting in Luther’s approach. He did not go out looking for opportunities to sin: he did not need to. And neither do I. But nor did he shrink away from the reality of his own brokenness, but trusted more heartily in Christ—and found him truly a saviour.

A Hauerwasian Advent (3)

Stanley Hauerwas MatthewHauerwas reads the story of Matthew chapter 2 as the intersection of “apocalyptic time” with “everyday time.” That is, the eternal intersects times, enters time, and transforms time. The time of the kingdom challenges the time of Herod.

Herod is a pawn used by Rome to maintain order useful to Rome. Jesus is born in an occupied land, a small outpost, on the edge of a mighty empire. Jesus is eventually killed under Rome’s authority, and at the time his death will mean nothing to Rome. … Rome knew how to deal with enemies: you kill them or co-opt them. But how do you deal with a movement, a kingdom whose citizens refuse to believe that violence will determine the meaning of history? The movement that Jesus begins is constituted by people who believe that they have all the time in the world, made possible by God’s patience, to challenge the world’s impatient violence by cross and resurrection (37).

Too often the political significance of Jesus’ birth, a significance that Herod understood all too well, is lost because the church, particularly the church in America, reads the birth as a confirmation of the assumed position that religion has within the larger framework of politics. That is, the birth of Jesus is not seen as a threat to thrones and empires because religion concerns the private (38).

Such a privatised view of religion for Hauerwas, is anathema. That Matthew sets his story in the context of Herod indicates the public and political nature of Jesus’ life and ministry.

The gospel constructs an alternative world. It resists imperial claims. … The kingdom is not some inner sanctuary, but rather the kingdom is an alternative world, an alternative people, an alternative politics. That is what it means for Jesus to be an apocalyptic. He is, in his person and in his work, God’s embodied kingdom. The temptation for Christians in modernity is to equate the kingdom with ideals that we assume represent the best of human endeavour: freedom, equality, justice, respect for the dignity of each person. These are all worthy goals that Christians have every reason to support, but goals that are not in themselves the kingdom. To equate these ideals with the kingdom is to separate the kingdom from the one who proclaims the kingdom. …. “Jesus is Himself the established Kingdom of God” (Barth). Or in Origen’s classical phrase, Jesus is the autobasileia—the kingdom in person (38).

Thus the one born the King of the Jews is a present and enduring challenge to the existing king of the Jews—and to all worldly systems of power that dominate others and rule by fear. Over against a sentimentalised portrayal of the Christmas story, Hauerwas insists that

Jesus is born into a world in which children are killed, and continue to be killed, to protect the power of tyrants. … The Herods of this world begin by hating the child, Jesus, but as Frederick Dale Bruner observes, end up hurting and murdering children. That is the politics, the politics of murder, to which the church is called to be the alternative (41).

In earlier comments on chapter one, Hauerwas describes the politics of Jesus represented by the incarnation and set forth by Matthew:

Matthew’s gospel is about “the politics of Jesus,” which entails an alternative to the power politics of the world. … A right reading of the gospel requires…a community whose fundamental political act is the sacrifice of the altar. …A theological reading of Matthew, therefore, reaffirms that the church be an alternative politics to the politics of the world. … (29)

In more strictly theological terms, the political character of Jesus “the son of David, the son of Abraham” means that the person and work of Christ cannot be separated. That Jesus’s teachings have been separated from what some understand to be salvation reflects the accommodation of Christians to the world. The doctrine of the incarnation has unfortunately been used by an accommodated church to give itself the illusion it is faithful because it believes the right doctrine. But incarnation properly understood means that Jesus’s person and work cannot be separated because Jesus saves by making us participants in a new way of life. The name of that way of life is church (30).

An Advent Prayer

To you O Lord we bring our lives
Troubled, broken or at ease
A sacrificial offering
For you to use
Take away our selfishness
And teach us to love as you loved
Take away our sense of pride
And show us the meaning of humility
Take away our blindness
And show us the world through your eyes
Take away our greed
And teach us how to give as you gave
Show us your ways
Teach us your paths
That we might walk with you more closely
Our hand in your hand
Our feet in your footsteps
From the baby in a stable
To eternity, Amen

Read more at: http://www.faithandworship.com/prayers_Advent.htm#ixzz4S4RThRFF

Reading Karl Barth

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics IV/4:31-40, Baptism with the Holy Spirit.

Karl Barth brings his meditation on “Baptism with the Holy Spirit” to a conclusion with a summation in five points of what he means by this term, including a discussion of the form of Christian life which issues from this work of God, as is appropriate in a discussion of ‘the command of God the Reconciler.’

First, Barth reiterates that the beginning of Christian life is the ‘direct self-attestation and self-impartation of the living Jesus Christ’ in the work of the Holy Spirit. He alone is the author and finisher of Christian faith. Jesus Christ himself is the divine change which occurs in a person’s life and by which they become a Christian. Barth’s emphasis here is to preclude the idea that the Christian life results on account of the mediation of the Christian community, or even the Scripture. Jesus Christ may use these means as an instrument of his Word, but his call to a person is direct and immediate. This is a person’s Baptism with the Holy Spirit, whereby Jesus Christ imparts ‘Himself as at once the Guarantor of God’s faithfulness to him and of his own faithfulness to God’ (33).

Second, this divine work whereby Jesus Christ gives himself to specific persons in the work of the Holy is the form of grace in which God actually reconciles the world to himself. ‘Baptism with the Holy Spirit is effective, causative, even creative action on man and in man. It is, indeed, divinely effective, divinely causative, divinely creative’ (34). That is, it is not the human response or the ecclesial work of water baptism which is the means of this grace, but the direct work of Jesus Christ as he baptises with the Holy Spirit. By this grace a person is changed ‘truly and totally,’ and is liberated for their own decision of faithfulness in correspondence to the faithfulness shown them by God. This divine change is so transformative the person can and will never forget it (35).

Third, this ‘omnipotently penetrating and endowing’ grace demands the response of gratitude, for this grace not only liberates the person for a new obedience but claims them for this obedience to their new Lord and Master whom they have now acquired. The grace that forgives and frees also commands (35).

The problem of ethics is thus raised for him, or more exactly, the problem of the ethos corresponding to it, of the response of his own being, action and conduct. … He has to take up a position in relation to this, the only position in relation to this, the only position which can be taken, but a position taken in freedom. It is not that God’s act on and in man makes of him a cog set in motion thereby. The free God does not act thus with man. On the contrary, what the free God in His omnipotence wills and fashions in Jesus Christ in the work of the Holy Ghost is the free man who determines himself under this pre-determination by God, the obedience of his heart and conscience and will and independent action. Here man is taken seriously and finds that he is taken seriously, as the creature which is different from God, which is for all its dependence autonomous before Him, which is of age. Here he is empowered for his own act, and invited, commanded and encouraged to perform it (35).

The human person is set in an immediacy of relation with their God from whose direct command they cannot escape. They have been snatched from the power of sin and death, liberated from their own impotence, and freed from their assumed autonomy whereby they were supposedly ‘free’ alongside God; God has ‘beset them behind and before’ (cf. Psalm 139:5).

Fourth, the beginning of Christian life is the beginning of a person’s life in a distinctive ‘fellow-humanity.’ That is, the Baptism with the Holy Spirit sets a person in the Christian community where they become the companion and fellow of others who themselves are likewise bound to God and so to one another. ‘He ceases to be a self-enclosed man, and there is actualised his relationship to all those to whom Jesus Christ has also attested and imparted himself as Lord and Brother. … He is redeemed from all isolation and also from all contingent or transient attachments to others, and incorporated in the communion of saints (37). The Baptism with the Holy Spirit is not identical with a person’s entry and reception into the Christian community, but it will lead to this. Further, in this community the person will receive their own special spiritual power and their own special task in the total life and ministry of the community (38). These spiritual gifts can never be rigidly defined or limited to institutional offices:

The criterion of the authenticity of the discharge of all institutional office in the Church is always and everywhere the question whether the one who serves in this or that office is a recipient and bearer of the charisma indispensable to his work, and first and finally whether he is a recipient and bearer of the love which is above all spiritual gifts. At no time, then, in the life and ministry of the community, in the fulfilment of Christian fellow-humanity, can one dispense with the petition: Veni Creator Spiritus. Always and everywhere this must be prayed afresh.

Finally, the Baptism with the Holy Spirit is only the beginning of the Christian life, a beginning which must be ever-renewed in its always fresh continuation. Just as the seasons are always renewed, so the fruit-bearing Christian life is ever renewed, and so requires ever-new sowing and reaping, cultivation and pruning, a daily penitence and striving for those new possibilities which lie ahead (39). The whole of the Christian life is one long Advent-season, a life of ‘waiting and hastening’ (2 Peter 3:12) toward the ultimate kingdom, in prayer and eucharist, caught up in the movement of God: ‘the power of the life to come is the power of his life in this world’ (40).

A Sermon Revisited – and Young Earth Creationism

michelangelo_-_creation_of_adam-29p8ptc

On Sunday morning I had opportunity to preach at Lesmurdie Baptist Church, and it was a delight, as ever, to join the folk there in worship. I have wonderful memories and many friends from my time there as pastor.

I was a little nervous with the prospect of preaching my message, being quite aware that I was taking the role of a theological provocateur. The focus of my ministry has always been to build faith and congregations, yet I was aware that my message on Sunday could be disruptive to the faith of some of the people there, and perhaps disruptive in the life of the church generally. Still, I think the topic was important enough to risk this disruption, though I hope, for the sake of the people and the pastoral leadership, that the overall result is positive for the church.

But maybe I was concerned unnecessarily? The response of the people during and after the message was very heartening. Many in the congregation work or have worked in science-related fields and appreciated a forthright attempt to affirm the value of science and seek to build a positive bridge of dialogue between theology and science. At the end of the sermon the pastor facilitated a brief Q&A session, with two very thoughtful questions put to me.

The first question was, “How can there be death prior to sin?” This question puts its finger on perhaps the key theological issue to be faced when discussing human origins and the possibilities of evolution, progressive creation, etc. I reiterated the point made in the message itself, that perhaps we must think of the nexus of sin and death only in relation to the spiritual relationship given to humanity by God as modern humanity emerged in accordance with God’s purpose and activity. But there is a cost here: the acceptance of death as a normal part of earthly or physical existence. The fossil record argues for this reality with the death of creatures prior to the advent of modern humanity.

The second question was a ‘doozy:’ “if God calls humanity to join his creative activity, his ongoing project of creation, might this ‘play’ include practices of genetic modification, particularly with reference to designing babies, selecting gender, striving to eliminate diseases and so on?” I answered this question as best I could given the very limited time and my own limited competence in medical or bioethics. I tried to show that the use of technology  and the practise of science are not neutral, but instead are value-laden activities which might be directed to life-affirming and beneficial ends, or life-destroying and manipulative ends. I suggested that great care and much ethical reflection is required as we think through the manner in which we apply the results of scientific research. This, of course, is one way in which theology might speak to science, by calling science away from philosophical naturalism toward a higher and grander vision of existence and reality.

As I was answering the first question I became starkly aware of a tangential but important point: young earth creationism cannot maintain a positive and open dialogue toward the world of science, but can entrench only a divisive and oppositional stance between faith and science. It will lead only to the ghettoising of Christian faith. It wants to speak to science but cannot allow science to speak to it. In an age in which a fulsome dialogue between faith and science is desperately needed – not simply for defending the credibility of faith, but also for enhancing the human vision and practise of science – this form of Christian withdrawal from the dialogue would be and is a disaster.

This sermon task challenged me in quite a number of ways. It has been the most demanding sermon I have faced in quite some time. Thank you, Lesmurdie, for forcing me to push my own boundaries!

Christian Moral Reflection

Ethics on a NapkinA week or so ago I was invited to give a brief (15 minutes!) introduction to Christian Moral Reflection to a Baptist congregation who gathered to meet on a rainy Friday evening. I rejoiced that the church leaders cared to instruct their congregation with respect to serious moral issues, and provide forums for discussion and deliberation on these matters. I shared the agenda with Scott Higgins who was speaking about asylum seekers and Christian responsibility in face of an upcoming election. Other speakers addressed topics such as responding to homelessness in the local area, ethical shopping, etc. My short address was first on the agenda and hopefully helped set a framework for how Christian congregations might engage in moral reflection. Certainly the discussion in the forum group afterwards was lively, engaged and heartening.

I started the lecture with an account of about a dozen moral issues I had confronted in my own life in the past two weeks, including everything from reflecting on euthanasia, care for elderly parents, whether I can buy Levis since I need new jeans, how many books do I actually need, whether I should watch Game of Thrones, if it is okay to work in certain industries (e.g. military, banking, etc.), why I work such long hours, how we should use our money now that we receive more of it than we have in the past, and so on…

*****

So many issues! So many feelings, decisions and responsibilities! So many different areas of my life: family, relationships, work, church, faith, money, character, words, leisure, sexuality, marriage, promises, habits, clothing, possessions, animals, food, emotions, thoughts, values, priorities—it never ends! From the most personal to the most public aspects of existence, my life and choices are put to question. It seems all too much! And yet, all of it is important. What am I to do? What am I responsible for? How do I even make all these decisions? Should I even try? Or just kick back and lose myself in Netflix?

To be human is to be confronted with ethics. Even those who reject most of the ethical positions society insists on usually have a code of ethics that binds them together. Honour among thieves.

What is (Christian) Ethics?
Ethics has to do with right and wrong, good and evil, better and best, beauty and value. What makes a beautiful life, a good life, a life that is characterised by truth? Ethics is concerned with issues and decisions, proper conduct and good character. What Must I Do?

Christian ethics asks the same question and is concerned with the same issues, but from a distinctively Christian point of view. Now that I am a Christian, how should I think about all these things? Does being a Christian make any difference? Yes, actually. Right from the start, being a Christian meant living differently to those around us.

Given the utter complexity of modern life and the plurality of issues with which we are faced how can we live ethically? What resources do we have?

One answer to that question is immediately apparent for Christians: God has given us the Scriptures! Yes, absolutely! The Bible is the supreme, unique and irreplaceable guide for Christian life, including Christian ethics. Yet, Scripture is not clear on many issues and silent on many more. Even those topics addressed by Scripture in some degree are open to different interpretation and different application by godly, sincere believers. How, then, can we become a Christian, and more importantly, a Christian community, shaped by Scripture? How might we think? How should we behave?

Christian Moral Reflection
In his brief essay on Christian moral reflection Oliver O’Donovan states that,

Christian moral reasoning involves the exercise of two kinds of thought together: 1. reflection; and 2. deliberation. Reflection is thought about something; when we reflect, we ask, ‘What is the truth?’ Deliberation is thought toward action; when we deliberate, we ask ‘What are we to do?’ (O’Donovan, “Christian Moral Reflection” in Atkinson (ed), New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology).

To reflect is to think about things in general. Christians reflect on the revelation of God given in Christ, digging deeply into the words of God, seeking to understand his ways and his will. The words of Scripture—the laws, the songs, the narratives and stories, the proverbs and parables, the teachings, the letters, the promises, commands and warnings, the visions, the prophets and even all the weird bits: all these help us grasp a little of God’s will for our lives. They begin to shape a Christian imagination that can envision the kingdom, that can imagine a way of being Christian in the world. Christians ponder the ways of God in his interaction with the world, and what it means to be the people of God in the midst of the world.

Christians also explore the world itself, God’s creation and the ways of the world, its patterns and purposes, all in the light of revelation. They contemplate the experience of life in the world in the light of revelation to gain further insight into God’s purposes for human life. All the stuff of life is food for thought. Anything and everything becomes an object of reflection. We talk about this stuff in our churches and home groups, thinking about the whole of life in the light of God’s revelation in Scripture and in Christ.

This kind of theological and practical reflection provides the context for deliberation, which is thought towards action. Christians deliberate when they must consider how they will respond and act in specific cases and situations. What does it mean to deliberate? Judges, doctors and politicians all deliberate. It means to assemble all the facts of the case at hand and consider them carefully in light of the relevant frameworks we have developed in our reflections. To deliberate is to propose and examine various options and approaches to the issue at hand, to give and hear reasons for each approach, and to weigh them up. Deliberation as ‘thought toward action’ considers how one is to respond and act in specific cases and situations. However, as O’Donovan goes on to say,

There must be a corresponding form of deliberation, so that we think how to shape the way we live, not only how to shape the next thing we do. We can frame policies for the conduct of our lives. … We deliberate on our attitudes to specific areas of practical concern. … To form that attitude rightly is part of the obedience we each owe God. … We must form a policy about the right and wrong of sexual self-disposal, for example, quite apart from any particular occasion of sexual opportunity; we must have attitudes to the possession and use of wealth before we inherit an estate. We need to approach concrete decisions with moral policies already formed.

Moral reflection, then, is a form of what is called practical reason, the development of frameworks within which to think about moral action, and then the exercise of deliberation in particular cases in order to discern what response is most fitting in the circumstance. Allen Verhey speaks about becoming a community of discourse, deliberation and discernment where such conversations are the normal pattern of life in the church. All three phases are necessary for Christian moral reflection just as they are for a doctor’s professional practice. There may be multiple possible responses to the situation we face. Which is best? Which is most fitting in light of the gospel? Which response has best chance of bringing forth good fruit? There may be multiple possible responses, but not all are equally worthy.

Conclusion

In this short piece I have not tried to say what Christians must think and do. Nor have I had time to reflect as a Christian on any particular issue. What I have tried to do is to show the way in which Christian moral reflection may be undertaken so that you may practise this in your Christian community and by so doing, become a community of moral discourse, deliberation and discernment, and more importantly, further the purposes of God in the world through the witness of your loving lives. This Christian ethics: to live as the people of God in the world, as a community of worship, Word and witness.

Scripture on Sunday – Psalm 15

Light through CloudsRead Psalm 15

I am writing these words in the guest room of our Melbourne friends who, over the years, have time and again shown us great kindness and hospitality, welcoming us into their home, and taking an interest in our lives, work, and family. What a privilege to be a guest in someone’s home, to find a place of welcome and acceptance, kindness, warmth and blessing. Thank you Gordon and Maggie!

And so it is with Psalm 15: “O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” I might re-phrase it differently: “God, who can be a guest in your home? Who will you invite to live with you in your tent?”

It is important to begin, perhaps, with an acknowledgement that this psalm does not sit easily with Protestant convictions concerning grace, justification and acceptance with God. Must one work in order to find acceptance with God and entry into God’s house? Or is one freely welcomed on account of grace with no entry requirements whatsoever? It is equally important to recognise that this way of setting up the question, this either-or dichotomy, misrepresents not only Scripture, but Protestantism as well. As this psalm so clearly testifies, it has ever been the case that the call to be welcomed as God’s people includes within that call a responsibility, a concurrent call to holiness in the presence of the holy God. “Be holy, as I am holy!” (Leviticus 19:2; cf. 1 Peter 1:15-16).

Some modern commentators view Psalm 15 as an ‘entry liturgy’ in the worship of ancient Israel. As the pilgrims and worshippers assembled at the Jerusalem temple for one of the great annual festivals, the priests instruct them concerning the requirements which dictate entry into God’s presence (see also Psalm 24:3-6 and Isaiah 33:14-17). While it may well be that such liturgies occurred in ancient Israel, it is likely that the psalm should be understood in a more general sense than ‘entry’ requirements. It speaks of those who would not simply seek entry to God’s house, but who would abide and dwell in his presence. Thus it is concerned with the kind of life appropriate for those who would identify as God’s people, of those who would be guests in his house—and more than guests—children!

If verse one poses the essential question, the rest of the psalm supplies the answer. Craigie, notes that the psalm provides ten exhortations as the answer to the opening question, and that this structure indicates the function of the psalm:

This tenfold structure of conditions is analogous to the Decalogue in principle and with respect to the sense of wholeness, though there are no precise inner correspondences between the conditions and the Commandments. Rather, the tenfold structure suggests once again the didactic context of the wisdom school; young persons were being instructed to tick off, as it were, on their ten fingers the moral conditions prerequisite to participation in worship. Thus the conditions for admission to worship are apparently presented here in the curriculum of moral instruction and symbolically represent morality in its entirety, rather than covering every facet of the moral life in detail (Craigie, Psalms 1-50, 150-151).

Despite the evident attractions of Craigie’s view (and its equally evident applicability to pastoral work and parenting), I prefer to think of the second verse as the answer to the question, with vv. 3-5b providing illustrations and amplifications of the answer given in verse two. The second verse lists three overarching criteria for those who would ‘dwell’ in God’s presence: they are those who walk with integrity, who work righteousness, and who speak truth in their own hearts. I find in this characterisation a certain correspondence with Micah 6:8:

With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? …
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

To ‘walk with integrity’ suggests congruence between one’s private and public self: ‘what you see is what you get.’ The word itself (tāmîm) refers to wholeness or completeness, to be ‘perfect’ in the sense of blameless; thus it speaks of wholehearted devotion and consecration to the Lord (Vangemeren (ed.), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, vol. 4, 307). To ‘work righteousness’ speaks of active goodness, especially in relationship toward others, and so corresponds to Micah’s “to do justice and to love kindness.” To ‘speak truth in [one’s] heart’ rules out the kind of self-deception whereby we are wont to rationalise bad behaviour and impure motives (Charry, Psalms 1-50, 71). It refers to an inner honesty with oneself and before God, an acknowledgement of the truth about ourselves, including our own brokenness and sin. Such confession orients us humbly toward God, and prepares us for genuine worship.

Verses 3-5b then unpack these positive characteristics with reference especially to the way in which we speak, relate with others, and use our money. This in itself is significant: true righteousness has more to do with character and relationships than it does with ‘religious’ acts and activities. God is concerned with relational and social holiness and not simply with personal morality, although that, too, is important. The righteousness which is to characterise the people of God consists in truthful speech, generous use of our resources, and care of our neighbour.

It is of interest that the psalm uses both positive and negative descriptions to describe the character of the righteous, since righteousness consists not only in active goodness but also in the absence of evil (Craigie, 151). The righteousness person does not slander, does not take bribes, etc. What is proscribed protects the neighbour and acts as a brake or restraint on our own tendencies. It may be that the positive descriptors set forth the path of righteousness that we are to walk, while the proscriptions act as fences to keep us from wandering from the path.

Inner dispositions, self-regulation, and habitual practices come together for the formation of virtue. This is a life that pleases God and is fitted for worship. But who could possibly meet these exacting standards? Here, once more, Craigie’s pastoral wisdom is evident:

In the history of Christian and Jewish worship, there have emerged two extremes toward which the worshipper may be tempted to move. On the one hand, there have been times when the holiness of God has been stressed so powerfully, that the ordinary mortal has felt it impossible to approach God in worship or prayer. On the other hand, the open access to God in prayer has sometimes been so stressed that admission to God’s presence becomes a thoughtless and casual matter. Between these two poles, there is a proper median: there is indeed access to the Holy God in worship and prayer, but it must be employed carefully, not casually, with appropriate preparation and reverence. … One the one hand, we must live in such a way that we may prepare for worship with integrity, without hypocrisy; on the other hand, the introspection involved, prior to worship, clarifies beyond any doubt the need for forgiveness (152-153).

The psalm climaxes with a wonderful promise: “Those who do these things will never be moved.” Surely this refers back to the opening question: never moved from God’s presence and grace, regardless of circumstances that arise on earth.

Scripture on Sunday – Psalm 12

Psalm 12Read Psalm 12

The first two words of this psalm—Help, Lord!—identify it as a cry for help, and yet it is also a declaration of confidence in God’s promise and goodness. When human speech becomes empty or evil, deliverance from its power is found not in retaliation whereby we return evil for evil, but in hearing, receiving and trusting the speech of God, especially God’s promise.

In verse one, the psalmist calls out to the Lord for help in the face of the disappearance of the faithful. As in Psalm 11, the focus is on society as a whole and the psalmist laments the evil and unfaithfulness which rises on every side. When one has companions it is perhaps easier to practise godliness and remain faithful while all around falls into decay. With the loss of any companions, however, the psalmist can but cry to the Lord.

Verses two to four characterise the unfaithful in terms of evil speech rather than evil deeds. Ellen Charry remarks that “the picture is of a contemptuous community in which each one takes him- or herself to be his or her own master or mistress, beholden to no one” (Charry, Psalms 1-50, 61).

The words of the wicked are empty, ‘smooth,’ and boastful; they use their words as weapons to prevail over others (vv. 2, 4). Falsehood and flattery issue from a deceptive, ‘double’ heart. While they speak with flattering words to gain the trust and allegiance of their hearers, in their hearts they are seeking their own rule and lordship. Their true intent is warfare, not welfare. So distressed is the psalmist that he cries that God would shut their mouths and cut off their flattery and boastful speech (v. 3). In effect, this is a prayer that God would overcome those who boast that no one can master them. Their claim to self-lordship is seen as a challenge and as an affront to the one true Lord.

Verse five marks a decisive change in the psalm as the voice of the Lord now speaks: “Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now arise,” says the Lord. “I will set him in the safety for which he longs.” How this prophetic word is delivered is not known. Did it come to the psalmist in answer to his prayer? Does he in hope put the words in God’s mouth? Is it a liturgical word spoken in the midst of temple worship? However the prophetic word comes, it is the answer to the cry found four times in the psalms thus far: “Arise, O Lord!” (Psalms 3:7; 7:6; 9:19; 10:12).

Craigie translates the last phrase of verse five as “I will set him in safety. I will shine forth for him” (Craigie, Psalms 1-50, 136). Although he acknowledges that his translation is by no means certain, the image of God shining forth speaks of the revelation of his faithfulness in answer to the opening cry for help from the psalmist.

Thus, over against the empty, deceitful and boastful words of the wicked stand the promises of the Lord, which are characterised in verse six as ‘pure.’ God’s words are pure as silver is pure:

The word of the Lord is by its very nature valuable (as are silver and gold), but through refinement and purification, in the language of the metaphor, there is no dross in it. By implication, the speech of wicked persons is all dross, devoid of silver and gold! That of God is pure silver, pure gold! It is devoid of the dross of flattery, vanity, and lies, and can therefore be relied upon (Craigie, 138).

Encouraged by the divine promise the psalmist cries out in trust that the Lord will guard and protect his people, even in the midst of a hostile and faithless generation. Because God’s word is true and to be trusted, he can be confident. This confidence is based not in a change of circumstances but in the reliability of God’s word: the wicked will not triumph over the godly for the Lord will preserve them.

The wry observation of verse eight makes this clear: the battle continues. This verse might be seen as an amplification of verse one: the godly and faithful have disappeared from the social environment, while that which is ‘vile’ has been exalted and celebrated. Here the NASB is preferred to the NRSV: the wicked do not so much ‘prowl’ (as though in darkness), but ‘strut about’—openly and boldly in the broad light of day, and on every side. The psalmist’s observation, then, highlights the social implications of God’s ‘pure’ words. As Derek Kidner has pointedly noted, “The battle of words is no side-issue: a weakness here, and the enemy is in” (Kidner, Psalms 1-72 TNTC, 76).

At issue is what it means to be a faithful and godly community. Which words will shape the life of the community—empty and deceptive words, or the pure words which come from God? The people of God are to hear, reflect on and trust the words of God, choosing, declaring and embodying his words, even in a social context.

More Hugh Mackay

Hugh MackayOn Tuesday I gave a brief review of Hugh Mackay’s Infidelity. Here are a few more insights from the book, asides from Mackay the psychologist, which sparked an interest as I read. The first comes as Tom is discussing Sarah’s past with her mother, Elizabeth, and has relevance for the kinds of spirituality we nurture in the church, and especially in our youth and young adults groups. Elizabeth says of Sarah:

She went wild over religion, too. There was more than a bit of overlap, in fact. I think a lot of adolescents confuse spirituality and sexuality – don’t you, Tom? Or is it just that churchgoing covers all that steaminess in a cloak of respectability? (276)

The second finds Tom reflecting on the nature of intimate relationships, salient as a warning for all couples, and more broadly, for any kind of relationship:

I had heard plenty of clients describe the frightening lunge from ‘I love you’ to ‘I hate you.’ It had always struck me as being a bit like a passion hangover – when the stimulants were withdrawn, their toxic effects took over. The swing from devotion to indifference was more common, though, and more familiar to me. When the love switch is turned to ‘off,’ for any one of a thousand reasons, or none, the current simply stops flowing. You don’t have to hate someone to destroy a relationship – you just have to lose interest. (298)

The final thought comes from the final chapter of the book, and here Mackay’s agnosticism comes to the fore:

The hardest thing, finally, is to accept our insignificance in the scheme of things – or perhaps to accept that there is no ‘scheme of things.’ There are no inevitabilities. No embedded meanings, either – only those we choose to attach to what happens. And often, when we most ardently desire them, no answers.  Life surges on, mostly out of control, rarely giving us respite… (310)

There is both wisdom and pathos in this statement. In the end, though, it seems that life, for Mackay, has only the meaning we ascribe to it. That we do ascribe meaning to life is part of what it means to be human. That we ascribe meaning to life, though natural, is also somewhat arbitrary and threatens to undermine the kind of ethics that Mackay wants to commend. This approach inevitably leads us back to ourselves as the moral centre in a manner reminiscent of the biblical book of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25) – and the results were less than ideal. Stanley Grenz recognises this problem and argues that “justification of moral claims requires a foundational principle that in the end is religious” (The Moral Quest: Foundations of Christian Ethics, 58).

The message of the gospel is not that there are no inevitabilities, or that every question will be answered, or that life can be fully controlled. In these respects, Mackay is quite correct. Yet the gospel assures each person that their lives, choices and deeds can and do have enduring significance. Further, it testifies to a transcendent meaning embedded in the orders of creation and redemption that tells the truth of our existence and so provides an orientation to the good life. The moral life is not simply the assertion of power in this direction or that, but response to a transcendent reality which in the Christian tradition is understood in terms of the triune God of infinite goodness, holiness and love.

Jesus as Political Activist?

politics of JesusIn a class today exploring the ministry of Jesus and his kingdom-practice, I called upon R. T. France to say that Jesus was not a political activist, and that his kingdom is not an earthly-political system. The statement understandably raised questions. France characterises the kingdom of God as ‘divine government,’ and suggests that the coming of Jesus is tantamount to declaring, “The revolution is here!” Yet it is a peculiar kind of revolution:

God’s kingship will involve the overthrow of many aspects of the status quo, but it is remarkable that among those powers and values which it will challenge Jesus seems to have little interest in that aspect of the current situation which for many of his hearers was primary, the fact of Roman imperial government.[1]

More fundamental than political revolution is the spiritual revolution Jesus instituted as the ‘stronger man’ who overthrows the kingdom of Satan. In this view salvation is exorcism, the liberation of men and women from oppressive and dehumanising spiritual powers.

So a revolution against the rule of Satan is going to involve a revolution in the thinking of those who wish to come instead under God’s kingship. Their minds need to be liberated from Satan’s control. … And it is that sort of revolution, the overturning of accepted human attitudes and values, which Mark’s Gospel is designed to promote. … To follow Jesus demanded a complete reorientation.[2]

To say this, however, is not at all to suggest that Jesus’ message is apolitical in its implications. To the contrary, his message of the kingdom of God is deeply subversive with respect to the present ordering of life in the world. The community of God’s people would live in ways which challenge the false values and false gods of the surrounding culture. This, though, is different to direct political action. It is no doubt true that some are called to participate in direct political activity, especially in a liberal democracy. It is likewise true that genuine care for the vulnerable members of society may necessitate at times, direct intercession on their behalf to those who hold positions of power. It may even call for costly opposition to those in power because we choose to stand with the vulnerable.

Jesus, though, neither taught nor modelled direct political action. He did, however, call his followers to a primary allegiance which trumps all other allegiances. He did, however, model redemptive engagement with those who suffer, were outsiders, lowly or despised. He did command that we love our neighbour as ourselves. He did exemplify and commend the ways of peace. He did command that we neither value or pursue those things so highly valued in the world. Not so among you!

The temptation to have and exercise power is ever with us, for it seems that those who hold the levers of power are able to accomplish so much in the world. Nevertheless, it also seems that whenever the church has gained political power it has not gone well. Might it be that whenever we become enamoured with gaining, holding and exercising political power we betray our loss of confidence in the spirit and power of the gospel?

[1] R. T. France, Divine Government: God’s Kingship in the Gospel of Mark (Homebush West: Lanzer, 1990), 46.

[2] Ibid., 48.