I’m putting together a podcast called Politics at the Cross+Roads. As the name suggests, the podcast sits at the intersection or the crossroads of Christian faith and political conviction. In Politics at the Cross+Roads, I interview interesting Christians in the public square about where they are politically and how their faith helped them get there.
This a new series which features conversations with prominent public figures who are Christians and who also openly discuss their political convictions.
So, in the weeks and months to come, join me as I speak with well-known, thinking Christians from across the political spectrum,looking at why they’ve come to the positions they have and how their faith has helped them get there.
Together, we’ll explore such questions as, how do your political convictions and your faith interact? When has your Christianity come into conflict with your politics? And what does the Christian faith have to say to the political tradition you inhabitand what does the political tradition you inhabit have to say to your faith?
So keep an eye out on the blog (www.thesaeculum.com) under the Politics at the Cross+Roads section, as well as the blog’s YouTube channel and on iTunes for audio and video conversations with well-known guests over the next few months.
A plea for biblical scholars to recognise the scriptural nature of the texts they study and for preachers to take the history behind the text more seriously.
In this piece, I want to make the case for biblical scholars to be more theological in their scholarship and preachers more historical in their homiletics.
Biblical Scholars Should be More Theological
The term theological can be used so broadly as to mean anything: about God, about systematic theology or, even more broadly, with an eye to the Church. If by theological we include this last and broadest sense (writing for the church), then we could list any number of biblical scholars, including foremost among them, NT Wright, who has done more than most to communicate the message of New Testament texts and the Christian faith to a lay audience. Writing for the Church is absolutely vital to biblical studies. It is the lifeblood of biblical work. It is not simply that the Church needs theology. Theology needs the Church. Markus Bockmuehl, when once asked about what made him excited about the future of biblical studies, answered quite rightly, “the existence of over 2 billion Christians worldwide”.
But I mean something slightly more specific when I write that biblical scholars should operate in a theological mode. I mean that they should engage with the historic doctrines of the church, its tradition and the creeds. For biblical scholars to be theological means for them to allow the doctrines, tradition and creeds of the Church dialogue with, shape, chasten and enlighten their readings of the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible.
January 25th marks in our church calendars the traditional date for the “Conversion of St Paul”. The evangelist Luke relates the dramatic account of Paul’s conversion twice, in his follow-up volume to his Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 9:1-9; 22:6-21; cf. 26:12-18).
But was Paul converted?
I’m reading through Acts in preparation for an Intro the New Testament course and I’ve been re-thinking the “Paul was converted” argument, mainly thanks to this 2019 blog post from the late Larry Hurtado here. Hurtado argues for the following couple of points:
if by religion we mean changing from one religion to another, then we cannot speak of conversion in Paul’s own experience, since the earliest Jesus followers did not form a new religion but a new sect within Judaism
Nevertheless, we can still speak of conversion in Paul’s thinking, if we strictly apply this to Gentiles who Paul urged to turn or convert from their idols to worship the one true God (1 Thess 1:9-10). But in his own experience as Jewish follower of Jesus, Paul speaks of coming to a new revelation and a new calling (Gal 1.11-17), in a way that strikingly mirrors the experience of OT Prophets.
So Paul was called, not converted. That’s not to say that Paul wasn’t interested in conversion, however. Rather, he had in mind a “twin track” approach that dealt differently with Jews and Gentiles: Gentiles “converted” from pagan religions to the worship of the one true God (see 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10) but for Jews, like Paul, turning to Jesus entailed coming to a right understanding of the purposes of the One God of Israel for his people, and for the nations (Galatians 1:11-17).
This reading of Paul’s calling has very important implications for a number of areas of Christian life. In the remainder of this post, I will focus on just three: (1) Jewish-Christian relations, (2) the importance of the Old Testament and (3) Christology and Theology.
In a previous post, I mentioned that I am teaching an Intro to the New Testament course this year and that the first lecture is on hermeneutics. There, I mentioned three benefits to thinking about hermeneutics, or how to read the bible. I want to now suggest how we can develop an integrated framework for reading the scriptures.
I’m looking forward to leading an Introduction to the New Testament Course this year for lay folk in the Church of England. The first lecture is on hermeneutics, or how we read the bible*. Hermeneutics is a bewildering subject and yet one that has rich pay-off both for growing as readers but also as disciples and followers of Christ.
Here are three benefits that I have identified as I have engaged with hermeneutics. No doubt there are others, but these seem to be the most pertinent to discipleship.
First, wisdom: thinking about how we interpret the bible will help us to grow in wisdom as Christians. As think about how to handle the scriptures wisely, through the help of God’s spirit, we will become aware of where we might be in error, or where others might be leading us astray. Conversely, if we fail to consider what it is that we are doing when we interpret the New Testament, or scripture, more generally, we might be in danger of doing what we have always done—in other words, we might be stunting our growth in wisdom as disciples of Christ.
Second, humility. Thinking about how we interpret the scriptures will also help us to grow in humility. We come to see that we are part of a larger body of Christ and that we depend on others—as we have reflected on when we thought about who we first learned about the New Testament from. So…we can gain insight into other people’s ways of reading the Bible. This can help us both not to assume that someone else’s understanding of the Bible is wrong when it’s different from ours, and to see the richness and value in their understanding. Conversely, if we fail to understand the hermeneutic of our brother and sister in Christ, or even worse to mock it, we are in danger of tearing apart the body of Christ. This not to say that we disagree and debate—we absolutely do. But it is to remember that we are part of a family and we represent Christ to the world, as we do so.
3. Third, conviction. Doing hermeneutics will help us to become more convinced disciples of Christ. This might seem to run against the previous point. How can we be both convinced and humble? Christ, as always, is our pattern here—he was the most convinced human that ever lived and yet was also the most humble, being very God and yet taking the form of a slave. We of course remain humble as we interpret and come to an exegesis of the text. But that does not mean that we never come to a conclusion about how to interpret the New Testament. When we do hermeneutics, we’re not saying that we’ll never arrive at conclusions; rather, to do hermeneutics is to grow in conviction and confidence about those conclusions, precisely by thinking through how we have come to those conclusions. All the while, we remember that those conclusions are only ever provisional. We remember that we are human, all too human, and that the nature of our conclusions is only ever provisional. We see, as St Paul puts it, through a glass dimly, not into a clear mirror. One day, we will see in full…but now, in part. But in the meantime, we can still come to conclusions about how best we might read the scriptures both individually and corporately.
*I find Jens Zimmerman’s definition helpful: “Hermeneutics is the effort to understand verbal or written communication and establish rules for their interpretation”. I tend to distinguish between exegesis as the act of interpreting and hermeneutics which is the process of stepping back and reflecting on what I and others are doing when they interpret.
Human systems of government fail because they mistake means for ends, or subsidiary ends for ultimate ones. The problem, for the Christian, is not simply that these philosophies are materialist, in the sense of having a concern for one’s material state of affairs (money, property, means etc.). Though, of course, these philosophies are materialist as well, and deeply so. Capitalism seeks to alter the material state of the individual and communism that of the collective via the proletariat. It is a problem when material change becomes the ultimate end. But their concern with matter is not the heart of their failure. For Christianity, after all, is also interested in the material and in man’s material means. Yet it does not seek to alter the material as a chief and ultimate end. If Christianity does alter a person’s material status, then this is always indirect. It is always sublimated to a higher end—that of the conversion of her soul, her character, her heart, her very self.
The problem is not simply that human systems of government and politics are too “material”, then, but that they are fleshly. That is, they leave man in a state that is unconverted and self-centred, apart from God. St Paul often uses flesh in the sense of “human nature” apart from God and left to its own devices. Our human systems are fleshly in the sense that they would make us materially wealthy or transformed (through whatever means), but leave our very selves languishing in a prison of despair, our souls shackled to the flesh which, left to its own devices, will only do us damage. These philosophies and systems of thought would leave us free to our own devices which is precisely the problem. Free to our own devices, we are free to destroy ourselves.
Christ comes to put the flesh to death, by his own death, and to convert the soul. If the material means of a person are changed, then this is a side-effect, an important side-effect, but a side-effect nonetheless.
It’s fair to say that the driving motivator of the UK government’s response to the coronavirus has been fear. Fear of widespread cases and fatalities and fear of an overwhelmed health service. Fear, by and large, leads to, and is undergirded by, concerns with safety.
And there was much to fear when the virus appeared on the scene in early 2020. The virus was a kind of unknown; we did not know how it would operate. Indeed, it seemed to affect different populations, and different parts of a given population, differently. Fear seemed a natural response to the unknown. It seemed right to prioritise safety above all else. So, here in the UK, we went into a series of national lockdowns—two, in fact, as well as other measures that came pretty close to the life-altering existence that lockdowns represent.
But what if the government had appealed to alternative motivators for tackling this pandemic? Specifically, what if it had appealed to the courage of its citizenry?
“we ought not to want to live ahead of the appointed time”
Near the beginning of the fifth century, the great ecclesiastical writer St Augustine addresses a Christian politician weary with his civic duties and the terrible tumult of his times (plus ça change!). We sadly do not have the surviving letter from Boniface to Augustine and so we have to infer Boniface’s attitudes and thoughts from Augustine’s prose. When we do, what we notice is a figure anxious about reconciling his allegiance to God with serving in the government of the time. Among other things, Boniface is particularly keen to know whether he should lead military campaigns as a Christian. Augustine cautions Boniface against abandoning the position he finds himself in and from running away from the gifts God had bestowed on him to fulfil his tasks for the common good.
While we might not follow Augustine in all of his conclusions (we may well raise an eyebrow at Augustine’s justification of Christian involvement in battle, for instance), his words have peculiar relevance and resonance for the Season we now find ourselves in— the Season of Advent. I want to draw our attention, in particular, to Augustine’s short and suggestive supplication: “we ought not to want to live ahead of the appointed time”.
James KA Smith’s address to Christians in Parliament from 2018 is a must listen for the week between Christ the King Sunday (a relative newcomer to the Liturgical Calendar) and Advent. Check it out below: