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.
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?
Following the announcement of a second national lockdown in the UK starting this coming Thursday, the thoughts of church leaders, and religious leaders more broadly, have turned to how this will affect the live worship of their congregations. The published government guidance is not entirely clear on this point, though it seems to point to the end of gathered worship and its replacement by services broadcast by priests from church buildings (the guidance is also clear that buildings remain open for private prayer).
I believe that churches, and other places of worship, should stay open throughout the second lockdown.
Some might be surprised to hear me say this.
After all, in two previous blog posts on the subject (here and here), I took a more optimistic view of church closures. I was prepared, at that point, to give the Church of England’s leadership the benefit of the doubt given the novelty of the virus and, as I explored, the theological reasons for home worship (I did, however, register my frustration at the prohibition of clergy entering church buildings to film worship).
I am no longer convinced that my reasons hold in the current situation. I want to explain why I think this, why I have changed my mind.
The observant reader will notice that the strapline of this blog contains the phrase, “refreshingly realistic”. As I explain here, this is my attempt to pay homage to realism, which I describe as a way of sailing between the extremes of utopianism and cynicism. I argue that for realism to work, it must be thoroughly Christian in nature. That is, it must be shaped by the church’s teaching on who we are and the times we are living in.
Another way of saying this is that realism must be shaped by the Christian conceptions of lament and hope.
The British public has perhaps been never more politically engaged, and yet never more politically disillusioned.
As the Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement for 2018 and 2019 show, opinions of the governing systems are are their lowest point in 15 years, even as the appetite for political change and engagement has grown.
On the one hand, the number of elections post-2014, including of the most significance of these, the Referendum on EU Membership, has generated an unprecedented level of active political activism among the British population. The Hansard Society refers to the increase in electoral events as an “‘electric shock therapy’ for political engagement”.
On the other hand, there is a general weariness and dissatisfaction just now with political parties and candidates. In particular, there’s a suspicion that the options on offer appear to propagate the interests of the financial and cultural establishment. In the US, this is largely made up of different types of big business, as American academic and commentator Bret Weinstein explains. Disillusioned with the candidates on the ticket, various individuals have formed the Unity 2020 campaign, a movement for a third party candidate, and alternative form of politics. Closer to home, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) has sought to transcend the traditional divides between capital and labour, nation and world and even private and public sector (see their New Declaration from 2018, one of the more powerful pieces of political writing in recent years).
Hazony’s piece offers a description of Neo-marxism, its power and pitfalls and its take-over of institutions in the English-speaking world. He is careful to note that he is not using the term Marxist as an ad hominem smear, but instead to describe a genuine attempt to rewrite the history and re-shape the culture of the West. The fatal flaws of Marxism he describes include:
the simplistic assumption “that wherever one discovers a relationship between a more powerful group and a weaker one, that relation will be one of oppressor and oppressed”. This ignores the real state of affairs in which mixed relationships more often are the norm with powerful and weaker groups mutually benefiting one another in civil life. It is possible for the more powerful interest groups to seek to “balance the benefits and the burdens of the existing order so as to avoid actual oppression”.
the assumption “that every society is so exploitative that it must be heading toward the overthrow of the dominant class or group”. But if Hazony is right, and weaker groups favour the general preservation of the current order (surely with some reform), then there would be a preference not for the overthrow of current institutions but for an order that seeks to address the challenges of inevitable inequalities, with the help of custom and all with a view to improving, rather than tearing up, the social fabric.
the lack of consideration given to what the revolting class would construct once the revolution has been completed. Hazony goes on to suggest that the overthrow of an oppressive class by the revolters can, and indeed will, breed more oppression (assuming that Marx was right about relationships of power being the norm for human existence).
To his credit, Hazony also notes aspects missing in Enlightenment liberalism that Marxism helpfully fills in: it’s awareness of class and the formation of cohesive groups within society (which liberalism ignores because of its obsessive focus on the individual) and its aliveness to abuses of power in liberal Western societies (which liberals erroneously tend to think exist only in totalitarian societies “over there”).
However, on the question of the relationship between the three political philosophies, the article contains two points that stand out for me:
I’ve come back to many passages of the book. But there’s one I come back to the most:
I won’t pretend there isn’t something scandalous about his advice. Augustine will unapologetically suggest that you were made for God—that home is found beyond yourself, that Jesus is the way, the the cross is a raft in the storm-tossed sea we call “the world”. But what I hope you’ll hear in this is not a solution or an answer, not merely a dogmatic claim or demand. For Augustine, this was a hard-fought epiphany that emerged after trying everything else, after a long time on the road, at the end of his rope. The Christian gospel, for Augustine, wasn’t just the answer to an intellectual question (though it was that); it was more like a shelter in a storm, a port for a wayward soul, nourishment for a prodigal who was famished, whose own heart had become, he said, ‘a famished land’. It was, he would later testify, like someone had finally shown him his home country, even though he’d never been there before. It was the Father he’d spent a lifetime looking for, saying to him, ‘Welcome home’.