The Ascension of Jesus: A Biblical Sketch

Thursday past marked the Feast of the Ascension. At the Ascension, Christians celebrate the taking up of Christ to heaven as the Exalted One. The Ascension must be one of the most neglected and least understood doctrines in the Christian tradition, particularly in the West. Is this partly down to the fact that it is usually celebrated during the Week (on a Thursday) rather than having a Sunday devoted to it? Might its neglect also be partly the result of the relative neglect of Hebrews in Christian teaching and preaching? In this post, I provide a brief biblical sketch of the Ascension (adapted from Bird’s EvTh). The significance of the Ascension for other Christian doctrines and the whole of Christian life shines through.

Continue reading “The Ascension of Jesus: A Biblical Sketch”

The Noetic and Ontological Role of the Spirit in John’s Gospel

Throughout the ages, John has been often been referred to as “the spiritual gospel”. Some have used this moniker to describe John’s interest in deeper, theological truths (and on some occasions, the erroneous corollary was drawn that John was disinterested in historical matters). But another way that we can think of John’s gospel as a spiritual gospel is its many references to the spirit, and its emphasis on the coming of the Holy Spirit. In this post, I want to draw out two aspects of the Spirit in John’s Gospel that have struck me as I’ve read and listened to the Fourth Gospel, and examine how John’s account of the Spirit has informed, and can continue to inform the Church’s pneumatology. These two aspects are the noetic role of the Spirit, in reminding Jesus’s disciples of who he is, and the ontological role of the Spirit as the agent that unites us to the Son and unites the Son to us.

Continue reading “The Noetic and Ontological Role of the Spirit in John’s Gospel”

History and Theology in The Church and Academy

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.

Continue reading “History and Theology in The Church and Academy”

The Calling of St Paul?

A Stained Glass window depicting the Conversion of St Paul, St Paul’s Church, Cambridge

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.

Continue reading “The Calling of St Paul?”

An Integrated Approach to Reading the Bible: Centring the Church

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.

Continue reading “An Integrated Approach to Reading the Bible: Centring the Church”

Three Benefits of Hermeneutics: Wisdom, Humility and Conviction

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.

Image Credit: Priscilla du Preez (Unsplash)

The Heart of the Matter: Christ and the Fleshly Politics of Our Age

“The flesh desires against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh…” Galatians 5:17

“My kingdom is not of this world…” John 18:36

The Fleshliness of Contemporary Politics

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.

***

Continue reading “The Heart of the Matter: Christ and the Fleshly Politics of Our Age”

On Not Living Ahead of Time: The Hopeful Realism of Advent

St Bene’t’s, Cambridge, where I worship, are putting together a series of Advent reflections, with one for each day. I post mine below.

***

The subject of my reflection is Augustine’s Letter to Boniface (Letter 189) and is inspired by the thoughts of Canadian philosopher James KA Smith on the letter which you can listen to here:

“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”.

Continue reading “On Not Living Ahead of Time: The Hopeful Realism of Advent”

Christian Life is Lived Between Christ the King Sunday and Advent

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:

Two New ResPublica Seminars on Post-Liberalism

With a Summer and Autumn of cultural upheaval in the Anglosphere (as a result of Covid, fiery protests of various sorts, Brexit debates and, now, an ongoing US election that will perpetuate the liberal order, whether economically with Trump or socially and economically with Biden), there’s certainly appetite for considering fresh ideas that might take us forward with the crucial task of re-constructing community and society.

It’s just as well, then, that the UK think-tank ResPublica have recently produced two instructive seminars on post-liberalism, that political philosophy which, in broad terms, advocates moving to the left on the economy, to the right on culture and identity and to the local and particular in governance. Identifying the overarching assumption of liberalism as unmitigated autonomy—the human person unmoored form ties to person or place—post-liberals seek to offer a positive vision that prioritises relationships, community and belonging in our cultural, economic and social life.

Continue reading “Two New ResPublica Seminars on Post-Liberalism”