OST is closed for business but its spirit survives on my blog.

Emerging Church; Euphemism for Liberal Believers?

It strikes me, having read the outlines which govern the so-called ‘Emerging Church’ that we are in danger of losing sight of the fundamentals which Jesus and the Apostles laid down in the Scriptures. There are no certainties in the approach of Emerging Church theology, a lack of acknowledgment of the overruling authority of Sacred Scripture and the corpus of Sacred Tradition. Can it really be, as I have read, that modern discipleship need not necessarily be the same as that promoted in the Bible?! Unbelievable! Jesus operated in the realm of constancy and absolutes. No deviation from the set course he laid down. Why else warn that the way to life was narrow and to be discovered by very few? All very well to speak of the metaphorical ‘glass door’ through which to view the Scriptural record, but this ‘cultural lamp’ which we are meant to shine on the Scriptures in order to see their so-called ‘real meaning’ is perilous and, in my opinion, bordering on anti-Christian. It is theological perspectives like that of Emerging Church theology which have caused the Body of Christ to entertain women priests, homosexuality etc. as acceptable before God. Get back to basics. That’s theonly way to divine blessing.

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women priests, homosexuals, the gospel and core beliefs

This post has a thematic link with posts elsewhere on the ‘core content’ of the gospel (eg Proclamation Summary). But there’s nothing new under the sun. Didn’t dispensationalism describe Jesus’s teaching in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ as an ‘interim ethic’ - it only applied to the disciples until the establishment of the kingdom? (Which has yet to come - according to this view).

Anyway, I’m not sure ‘emerging church’ is proposing that the teaching of the gospels was purely for the ‘pre-eschatological’ era (ie before the fall of Jerusalem/Rome). I was simply trying to highlight what Andrew had already said - the response to which seemed to have been a deafening silence! (Andrew also suggests that the gospels (the synoptics) could be seen as a ‘coda’ to the Old Testament, rather than part of the New - which is a natural conclusion to the line of thought he is pursuing).

To me, the lines of thought which I tried to summarise in my post (‘a pretty ambitious attempt’) take N.T.Wright’s development of the Third Quest to a logical conclusion - and come up with some illogicalities (though I don’t think Wright’s view of the atonement is quite the same as that which Andrew suggested). And somewhat perversely, I find myself forced back into a view of Jesus’s teaching which Wright calls into question - which is that it does indeed have a timeless quality, and applies to all ages (as well as having a historically particular meaning!)

Where I think we need to heed an important message of the Third Quest is that Jesus’s teaching brought him into radical conflict with ‘the powers’, and that this continued through his followers into the apostolic era. My question would be: ‘where does that conflict take place today?’ It’s easy to see it in countries where the church is persecuted, but what about ‘the free world’? Are we too comfortably allied to the agenda which the world sets here?

The debate about the atonement which Steve Chalke initiated in this country (UK) is around a view of Jesus as one who opposed ‘the powers’ and came with a gospel which was defined … by his actions in ‘the gospels’! (Alternative views of the atonement tend to separate his ‘ministry on the cross’ from his ‘earthly ministry’ - the latter becoming an almost irrelevant prelude to the cross).

To go back to the ‘glass door’ image: I’m convinced we need to take this seriously (with a couple of caveats I expressed in my post). But we also need to look critically (I don’t mean negatively, but questioningly) at some of the consequences.

I added to Andrew’s use of the glass door image another suggestion - that in his exposition it could be seen as metaphor of the ‘eschatological crisis’ (which he locates in the fall of Jerusalem/Rome) which the church had to go through. I’m beginning to think that maybe the focus suggested here is wrong: that the ‘eschatologcial crisis’ (and glass door) was the crucifixion of Jesus (and subsequent resurrection). I suspect if we focus on this, and the new landscape it leads us into, we come up with better perspectives on who we are meant to be (as emerging church and ‘post-eschatolgical’ church) than if we make the judgement on Jerusalem/Rome the pivotal defining considerations.

I’m also glad someone responded to what I thought were some highly provocative summary statements (in my post). I thought everyone had fallen asleep!

But women priests and homosexuals? In my view of the church, these are all part of the congregation, and welcome - with banners over the main entrance!

Emerging theology

Ivan, thanks for your provocative and important comments. Peter posted his response while I was writing this, but it looks like we are dealing with different sets of issues. I am more interested in the general questions that you raise about the validity of an ‘emerging theology’.

There are no certainties in the approach of Emerging Church theology, a lack of acknowledgment of the overruling authority of Sacred Scripture and the corpus of Sacred Tradition.

I wouldn’t say that there are no certainties in the emerging church. There is a lot of uncertainty, I agree, but I don’t think this is because people have gone out of their way to reject traditional teaching - I would attribute it to the fact that, rightly or wrongly, they find it very difficult to follow Christ under the old philosophical-theological system. As a result there are fewer formulated certainties than there used to be. The emerging church is driven instead by deeper, less well articulated convictions (including convictions about the truthfulness of Scripture), and by a sense that we are moving through the current chaos towards a better way of being church in the world. If and when we get there, I’m sure the certainties will look rather different, the language of faith might sound rather different, but my own view is that we will have arrived at a more, not less, authentic discipleship as a result.

Having said that, I think it’s entirely appropriate that this enterprise does not become so arrogant and reckless that it simply cuts itself off from traditional evangelicalism. The emerging church must work hard to persuade the evangelical consensus that it is not, as you suggest, a euphemism for liberalism.

Can it really be, as I have read, that modern discipleship need not necessarily be the same as that promoted in the Bible?! Unbelievable! Jesus operated in the realm of constancy and absolutes. No deviation from the set course he laid down. Why else warn that the way to life was narrow and to be discovered by very few?

This is a difficult issue. One important element in emerging theology is its greater sensitivity to the historical and eschatological context of the stories and teaching that we find in the New Testament. So for example, I would want to argue that Jesus gathered and prepared a community of disciples specifically to endure and survive the turmoil (the ‘birth pains’) that would mark the transition from the age of second temple Judaism to the age of a renewed, international, Spirit-filled people of God. I would find it very strange if the manner of discipleship required for this purpose did not differ in certain respects from the sort of discipleship required for the church to function effectively in the aftermath of this turmoil.

Emerging theology is much more aware of the narrative context in which the church was born, and narrative is not static - it is dynamic, it changes, plots develop, situations evolve. I don’t want to deny that within this there is ‘constancy and absolutes’, but the lessons we are currently learning have to do with recovering a sense of realism, authenticity, and frankly credibility, which all are related to historical contingency. So I think it is important that we ask who Jesus was talking to, what situation he was addressing, when he warned that the way to life was narrow, to be discovered by few. Until we have understood how this statement works within, and is limited by, Israel’s story, we cannot really hope to make sense of it for our own circumstances.

All very well to speak of the metaphorical ‘glass door’ through which to view the Scriptural record, but this ‘cultural lamp’ which we are meant to shine on the Scriptures in order to see their so-called ‘real meaning’ is perilous and, in my opinion, bordering on anti-Christian.

This may be correct, but the question that the emerging church is wrestling with is not whether we should shine a cultural lamp on the Scripture but which cultural lamp we are shining and how we might compensate for its distorting effect. The argument has been that modern evangelicalism is no less the product of its culture than any other formulation of Christianity.

It is theological perspectives like that of Emerging Church theology which have caused the Body of Christ to entertain women priests, homosexuality etc. as acceptable before God. Get back to basics. That’s the only way to divine blessing.

I’m just going to have to disagree with you on this one. In my view the ordination of women priests was a welcome recovery of something fundamentally biblical, though I don’t think the real issue is that we now have women ‘priests’ as such. The homosexuality issue is much more complex and I’m not sure where most ‘emerging church’ people would stand on this. I suspect that many, like me, are torn between wanting to affirm the integrity of creation (and of the new creation) and wanting to embody a genuine grace. But this is another topic.

I would also question to what extent emerging church is a ‘cause’ of these developments. It seems to me that in many respects emerging church is at least as much the effect of the collapse of Christian relevance in the West, on the one hand, and of general cultural and intellectual changes, on the other. It is an attempt (perhaps misguided - that remains to be seen) to recover purpose and vitality beyond this collapse, in this particular cultural and intellectual context.

Emerging Theology

Hi. I’m a newbie on this site and had never heard of emerging church or emerging theology until last week, so forgive me if I’m writing the wrong things in the wrong place! Expecially if I’m repeating things that have been repeated to death already, because I find the information on this site quite hard to navigate as yet.

First of all, it seems to me that the church has always had a tendency to emerge, but that that emergence has typically been swallowed up in institutional processes. For example, in the seventies I knew of at least two instances where a woman organised house meetings which led to the conversion of a group of young people. In both cases, a brethren preacher turned up who proceeded to lay down the law ( I use the word deliberately ) about the role of women. Next thing, the lady who had planted the church (is this not the real meaning of an apostle?) was sitting at the back wearing a hat and not saying anything, while the preacher was instructing the new converts in the evils of women wearing trousers.

At the risk of seeming like one of these post-evangelical angst-bearers I’ve been reading about recently, I would imagine that many will recognise my experience later in the seventies. Briefly, several young people are converted by what seems to be a spontaneous act of God; they come to a church where they are expected to wear collar and tie, not play in pub bands, etc, but instead to ‘sit under the word’. Someone they know has started up a new church which seems to be more attractive. They go along long enough to be drawn in. Then they are told that if they want to continue coming to this church they must submit to its leadership; otherwise they must stay in their existing church and submit to that minister’s leadership. Eventually they are baptised into the new church - the baptism being a symbol, not of their conversion, but of their rejection of the old denomination and acceptance of the new one. A baptism not into Christ, but into Schism.

This is probably all old hat to most on this website. The point I’m hoping to make here, however, is (1) that emerging church is not new - it’s just that it is typically nipped in the bud and replanted in a nice suburban flower pot; and (2) any emerging theology must recognise explicitly what is wrong with the theological abuses which have been used in the past to maintain the existing pattern. In my view, this is why Jesus spent so much effort criticising the Pharisees, and in such strong terms. He knew that their mistakes - so much more deceptive than the more transparent ones of the Sadduccees - were the most likely to scupper the efforts of his disciples. He was, after all, a prophet!


Same difference?

John, thanks for joining in. I’m sorry the site’s getting a bit difficult to navigate. I have the same problem and I’m not really sure what to do about it. If anyone’s got any bright ideas, I’d be happy to hear them.

There are certainly parallels between the emerging church and other renewal movements, and I suspect most of us have become aware of how quickly something that starts out as fresh, innovative and radical can be domesticated, suburbanized, commercialized, etc. But I think there is something more happening here than the age-old conflict between law and grace, between tradition and novelty, or between institution and Spirit. I think that what is really taking place is a far-reaching and much needed intellectual overhaul of evangelicalism. Other elements play into this, but at its heart is a much deeper change of thinking than we have seen in recent decades if not centuries. You see it in the attempts to shape a less rigid epistemology, in the shift away from formalized notions of truth towards narrative, in a deepening sense of the historical nature of the biblical story, in a broader understanding of what it means to be missional, in more expansive and ‘generous’ forms of spirituality, and so on. Many of the ideas, perhaps most of the ideas, are not new - consider, for example, how much N.T. Wright has learned from Schweitzer. What’s different, I think, is a new determination to fuse the theology with the serious commitment to discipleship, to being effective as the people of God, that many of us have inherited from evangelicalism.

'Just' a thought . . .

Apropos of … I’m not really sure what, but it highlights the shifting foundations of evangelical theology. Many would say that modern, or reformation protestantism begins with Martin Luther’s ‘rediscovery’ (or re-interpretation?) of the doctrine of ‘justification by faith’. Two brief quotes from British (evangelical) theologian Alister McGrath on N.T.Wright: 1. Wright has ‘lobbed a hand-grenade into the world of traditional evangelical theology’ and 2. as regards justification by faith : ‘if Wright is correct, Martin Luther is wrong.’ (Carey Newman, ed., Jesus and the Restoration of Israel: A Critical Assessment of N.T.Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God (Downers Grove Illinois: Intervarsity, 1999, 178 & 169).

Evangelical theology seems long to have accepted it as given that ‘justification’ is a term with legal overtones. Wright seems to be taking the term away from the court room and placing it in the context of ‘righteousness’ as a non-legal concept, one which bears on God’s covenantal faithfulness as displayed in his favour to his people. In this he is building on work by Ed Sanders, who in turn is developing a tradition which includes other post 1945 biblical theologians.

Well, can someone out there correct me if I am wrong - but is this drawing into question the whole evangelical tenet of justification as a ‘forensic’ term? In which case, to take the argument further, is our understanding of ‘sin’ being redefined : and how we are pardoned and set free from sin? Did ‘forgiveness of sins’ mean something different to 1st century Jews (and Christians) from what it means to us today? What effect does this have on our understanding of the atonement? There must be somebody out there who is beginning to grapple with these questions.

BTW Is everybody happy with the foundations Andrew is laying, as I understood it and tried to represent in ‘A pretty ambitious attempt’? Is that OK then? No questions to be asked? And has anybody produced a serious critique of any of the ideas being thrown up by N.T.Wright? (The collection I mentioned above is a U.S. based attempt).

Wright and Justification

I’m reading what Wright is saying a little differently (than Peter?). I hear him saying that ‘justification’ needs to be understood in both a lawcourt AND a covenantal scheme (What Saint Paul Really Said and Commentary on Romans and Climax of the Covenant. In that reading, the ‘righteousness of god’ is both God’s faithfulness to his covenant and his faithfulness to uphold justice, be impartial and defend the defenseless. Our ‘justification’ is still the courtroom declaration that we are ‘in the right.’ For Wright, I think, the real issues of challenge are that ‘god’s righteousness’ is not some quality of his that is imputed to us and that our justification by faith is not a description of how we are saved as much as the declaration that we are/will be. The how is through Christ and by the Spirit, the result is that we believe, the mark that sets us out as belonging to god’s family is faith, not Torah.

On faith, Wright challenges the notion that it is merely an ascent to certain propositions, but is a confidence in the leader of a different way of life, resulting in an abandonment of the former, self-led way (hear Josephus saying to rebel Jews: Repent from the path of rebellion and Believe in me for a different response to Roman occupation). The faith in the lord Jesus is necessarily rooted in the belief of his resurrection, however, since if he has not been raised then he wasn’t messiah and cannot be lord. So ‘belief’ in the resurrection is a self-involving belief: no mere mental ascent, it demands a response.

I know this doesn’t actually answer any of the questions you put forward; I just wanted to indicate a different way of understanding what Wright is saying.

Just so.

That’s a really good answer.

Just a bit more

It’s a good answer. I think it needs a bit more filling out. The key ‘justification’ passages are not made by Wright to refer to how one becomes a Christian (as understood in evangelical theology), but to describe how the people of God can be identified: by the mark of faith in Jesus.

In Wright’s scheme, Luther’s starting point was the ‘justitia dei’ - which he interprets as that characteristic of God which dispensed punishment and reward. Faith in the atoning benefits of the cross brings legal ‘justification’, as enshrined in evangelical theology ever since.

Wright’s starting point is a covenant-keeping God, who through the covenant always intended to deal with sin and bring salvation to the world. This he did through the covenant-keeper, Jesus, and through his death on the cross. The words which we have separated, justice and righteousness, and their cognates (justification, justify etc), are not separated in the Greek. God’s righteousness is his faithfulness to his covenant, but determination to deal with sin.
Israel, the plaintiff before God (pleading for His vindication in the world), finds herself ‘in the dock’ with the gentiles. They are acquitted on the basis of the true Israel, Jesus, standing on their behalf.

It then becomes shockingly apparent that the language used of Jesus is the language used of God. God Himself bore the penalty for the breaking of God’s covenant by His covenant people, and the sins of those outside the covenant. This was love - not wrath against sin.
Only by faith in the covenant-keeper, Jesus, can the accused be acquitted of the accusations standing against them, and declared members of God’s people, people of God’s covenant. In that sense they can be declared righteous.

But the main planks of the reformation doctrine of ‘justification by faith’ are removed and changed completely. Alister McGrath was not exaggerating: if Wright is correct, then Luther was wrong. A hand-grenade has been lobbed into the world of traditional evangelical theology.

If this summary is correct, I also feel Andrew’s account of the atonement is wrong: it wasn’t just the means of dealing with Israel’s sin (in her post exilic unforgiven, unrestored state). Rather it was God’s way of bringing salvation to the world - as foreseen by Isaiah, and picking up the narratives of the exodus (a greater exodus) and the fall itself.

The implications of this account are huge. Protestant ‘individualism’ is replaced by covenant ‘corporatism’. Israel fulfils her destiny of being a light to the world through the very act which pointed to her condemnation. The true nature of sin is exposed through Jesus dying on the cross. The faithfulness of God, and His wisdom, are revealed. And bestriding all is not a wrathful, vengeful God (as sometimes depicted in what can become caricature expressions of ‘penal substitution), but a God whose love and supreme self-sacrifice on behalf of mankind are brought to a climax through Jesus.

true Israel

I’m not sure that this is the appropriate thread to take this up, but while NT Wright and Peter are lobbing ‘hand grenades’ of theology around and asking for interested voices to join in, I thought this represented as good a time and place as any, not necessarily expecting them to be answered herein, but giving opportunity for them to be placed into the boiling pot of questions we have about Wright. I wonder if anyone will share any / all of them with me. If they do, we can consider extracting some of them and tackling them individually on their own thread…
  1. Firstly, I have a concern over Tom Wright’s annexing of the term “true Israel.” I haven’t read all of his works, but his use of the term, applied to Jesus, doesn’t sit easily with me. Israel, in Scripture, has an almost exlusive application to refer to the ethnic people of God (Galatians 6 is not an exception to this, please…) and I’m not convinced that it can appropriately be utilised in this way.
  2. Relatedly, when Peter, referencing Wright, says, “God Himself bore the penalty for the breaking of God’s covenant by His covenant people,” and “they are aquitted” I find myself asking why the experience of Israel, AD 70 onwards and culminating in the Shoah (holocaust) still suggests to so many onlookers that they bear a far greater weight of divine imprint and judgement than any other people.

    Wright, to me, in spite of his best efforts, comes close to replacement theology, which I thought we were beginning to see the back of within the (evangelical) world. Personally, I think a theology which ignores the Shoah is severely lacking. It’s something we need to take into consideration; it’s a burning bush we need to be prepared to step aside and hear God speak from within. Perhaps this also has a bearing on some of the conversation which keeps emerging among us about other religions; I suspect we are sometimes tempted leave Judaism to one side in those considerations.

  3. Finally, Wright also bases his thesis on the idea that membership via the former covenant was with the badge of “works prescribed by Torah” whereas in the new covenant it was the “badge of faith.” This overlooks the reality that it was always faith that was required of Israel. Think Hebrews 11, Deuteronomy 30 etc. We can certainly agree that faith in Jesus is new and unique, but faith, as trust in God’s provision and grace (we might even suggest, his Messianic provision) was the requirement all the way through.

    This is something that was always overlooked by traditional protestant theology. A great deal of work in this context has been contributed to this by David Stern in his Jewish New Testament and Commentary, as well as his Messianic Jewish Manifesto. Before we move wholesale buy into Wright, these reservations are worth a look, providing a question mark to some of the moves he asks us to make.

Does anyone else recognise or share any of these concerns?

the holocaust & the covenant people

Hi, John. Thank you for articulating your concerns. Correct me if I am misunderstanding what your second point is:

i. Ethnic Israel, pre-Christ, was the covenant people of God.

ii. The post-70 AD diaspora and subsequent persecution, particularly that which culminated in the holocaust, distinguish them as an ethnic people who continue to have a unique status before YHWH.

iii. Particularly, they still seem to bear YHWH’s judgement?

I’m not sure that iii. is actually what you are saying. But I think many would challenge ii. That route seems to ignore many other tragic and evil instances of genocide among other peoples, only some of which we are aware. As for i., I think you argue against that yourself in your own point #3 when you say that covenant membership always was on the basis of faith, and not blood.

I’m not clear, either, on how you would expect us to incorporate these historical circumstances of ethnic Israel into our theological frameworks. Does the holcaust change the fact that Jesus was the messiah, and that as such he is able to represent all who follow him in his double revolution? Is the covenant with Abraham not fulfilled in the messiah? I don’t think this is what you are saying, but I was wondering if you could clarify that some. Thanks!

Israel - then and now

Thank you, Eric. You’re correct in thinking that your surmise is not what I was wanting to say, but your comments are a helpful provocation to making my own thoughts and expressions clearer on these points.

You’ve helpfully broken down your response into two points, both of which I am hoping to incorporate within this comment, with a considerable nod towards Peter’s response to me, as well:

My main point is that I’m uncomfortable with the application of the term “True Israel” to the Messiah. I think it’s probably innacurate and certainly unhelpful.

It’s not the post-diaspora history or persecution that distinguish them as an ethnic people with a unique status before the Eternal, it’s their election as an ethnic people. I rather like the way Peter has intimated this with his collection of comments in response to my original points.

I believe this to be so because the first covenant was regarding an ethnic people and YHWH dealt with them thus throughout their history. I don’t feel that the Messiah’s advent, life, ministry, atonement changed that. The first covenant dealt with a different aspect of the Lord’s eternal purpose and remains in force - Israel remains an elect people, in my view, and has not ceased to exist as such because of the coming of the Messiah. Hence, to confuse the identity of the two becomes important.

I think the term “True Israelite” is much more helpful, but I have also made the point elsewhere on the site that I don’t believe that Israel, the people, failed quite as spectacularly as is sometimes posited. Paul in Romans 11 views their failure as an outworking of God’s binding them to disobedience, precisely so that salvation, deliverance could come to the Gentile peoples. In this sense, I see them sharing, in common with the Messiah, a Rejected Servant role.

Regarding the Shoah (holocaust)

The comparison with other instances of genocide is not ignored (and I find it curious that you seem to want to extend your argument from the silence of unknown / undiscovered instances of such!). The theological import is based upon the selection of an ethnic people withn the temporal plan of God, through whom he demonstrates his many-sided wisdom, including his kindness and severity.

Of no other people was it promised:

You shall become an astonishment, a proverb, and a by-word among all nations where Jehovah shall lead you… all these curses shall come on you, and shall pursue you and overtake you, until you are destroyed, because you did not listen to the voice of Jehovah your God, to keep His commandments and His statutes which He commanded you

If we accept that what happened in AD 70 was a judgement upon Israel, the ethnic, covenant people of God, we need a very good reason for abrogating their covenantal responsibility before God. It may seem unthinkable to regard the Shoah in this way, but perhaps we need to think the unthinkable if we are to fully comprehend the nature of the Lord?

These themes are taken up in considerable depth and breadth on the website www.benisrael.org.

The thought being explored is that Aushwitz - different to other genocides because of it’s nature - the Jews were no threat to the security or other of Nazi Germany - and the religious background of the Jewish people - cannot be explained by earthly thinking: it requires Word from God to explain it. No lesser theologian that Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV .1.p.9, felt this important enough to write ‘to fail here, is to fail everywhere.’

All of this is simply to establish the need to regard the ongoing experience of Israel as a part of God’s global plan, alongside his plan for the Gentile ethnos. A plan which is indeed fulfilled in the bringing of both these disparate ‘nations’ or peoples into the one Messiah, that he may be all in all.

Regarding faith and ‘torah’

I think they is a good deal of confusion about the issue of ‘works’ and faith, a leftover from reformation theological battlegrounds perhaps?

My view is that the “works prescribed by torah” (Hebrew “the teaching / commandments of God”) have always been to obey God with trust (“faith”).

The New Covenant is new, but the axiomatic principle is the same: obey God by trust / faith. The two things cannot be seperated and never have been in Hebrew Scripture (New and Old T.).

In fact, I believe Stern’s reasoning (see below) that the New Covenant scripture have become ‘torah’ - the Torah of the Messiah - which are as binding upon the New Covenant People of God, as the orginal Torah was (is) upon Israel. (And if that is true, the import of the Shoah is hopefully even clearer.)

Scripture which is generally read / translated as “law” v. “grace” should more accurately be read as “legalism” - works without trust in God - v. “grace,” grace which includes the glorious light of Torah!

With these things in view, many of the more difficult passages in which Paul speaks about Israel, especially in Romans, can become much clearer. Brian McLaren’s commentary upon Romans offers some interesting support to some of these ideas, from a completely fresh vantage point, if I remember it rightly.

We have endured a Protestant translation and theology which obscures this for so long that this can be very difficult to sustain this argument from those translations. David Stern’s Jewish NT and Commentary address these things in depth, particularly with respect to Galatians and Romans etc. I believe they offer us an essential insight into the nature of torah and covenant, which is partly obscured by Wright’s assumptions (though I am wholeheartedly with NTW on his reappraisal of justification and righteousness generally and the covenantal framework etc.)

regarding “…all Israel”

As the PryMinister says, I refer you to my earlier answer!

My comments are an attempt to provide some of this insight to these forums. There is no point in going into depth, however, unless it becomes clear where the controversy is. So dive in again and pull me up in my tracks with your challenges or underguird me with your support and I’ll try to keep up and thanks again for the engagement on these issues - hugely valuabel, as well as enjoyable, to revisit them in this context. They’ve generally not been taken up before…

These are admittedly complex issues of theology, but I think they are important to bring to bear on Wright’s presentation, not to refute it, but minimally to raise questions about it’s nuances, and perhaps it’s underlying assumptions.

I hope I’ve made some things clearer, even if in so doing, I’ve raised more questions than I’ve answered. One day, I would like to set out these things in a cohesive framework, like Andrew has done with so much of his work (then you could really take me to task…!)


the True Israelite

I think what Wright says about Jesus being the true Israelite runs like this: Israel was called to be salt and light to the world. The covenant with Abraham was cut so that the sin of Adam and its consequences (which are presented in Genesis 3-11, the background to the covenant) could be undone. So, Abraham’s descendants were to be the true humanity, the New Adam. This, of course, couldn’t work, because they were themselves in Adam (we’ll leave that one alone for now). Jesus, however, was able to and did fulfill the covenant, being salt and light and properly reflecting the heart of YHWH for creation. His obedience to the father set him apart as the one who truly was what Israel was always called to be, but unable to complete. In this sense, he IS Israel. (Summary: For the sake of the world, a people were singled out (israel), for the sake of that people, a proper representative was singled out)

But in another sense, he is the true Israelite in that he was the god-appointed (read ‘anointed’) king over this people.

Paul’s argument in Galatians is exactly that Gentile believers in the Jewish messiah are God’s new covenant people, that they do not need to fulfill works of Torah to be members of God’s family. In fact, those who have confidence in their covenant membership based on works of Torah, especially circumcision and festival observances, are “in slavery” (Galatians 4), but those who are ‘born by the power of the Spirit’ are ‘children of the free woman/of promise.’ The implication is that covenant membership is through faith in the messiah, for Jew and Gentile. This is the basis for Paul’s argument in Romans where he sets out that God has been faithful to his covenant (he is righteous) through what he did in Jesus. This, I think, is how Wright perceives Jesus as the true Israelite: the only Israelite who could complete the task for which the covenant was established, faithfully representing Israel in her call to be faithful to the faithful god, undoing sin and death and bringing in the new creation, with a new, worldwide family of god.

What Saint Thomas Really Said

John - I notice you quote me, in trying to summarise Wright’s position, using the phrase ‘true Israel’ to describe Jesus. I think this is Wright’s position, though I’d have to go back (to ‘What St Paul Really Said’) to find out if this was the exact phrase Wright used. Also I did say that Israel was acquitted through Jesus - but added later that they were acquitted ‘through faith in him’. I think this too is Wright’s position. But adding ‘through faith in him’ does make a big difference. (And also points to a mixture of Christus Victor and Penal Substitution in Wright’s view of the atonement).

I also noticed that in trying to expand on Eric’s preceding contribution, I was beginning to go round in circles on ‘justification by faith’; can the phrase mean two things at once - ie the means of entry into Christian faith, and the badge of identity of Christian faith? I’m sure, following Wright, it is the latter. Yet Wright says we can have the former, but not from the passages into which the former meaning is traditionally read. So where is the law-court metaphor (as opposed to the ‘identity’ meaning) in Romans, which, Wright assures us, colours the larger picture of righteousnss in faith identity which Paul was actually painting?

On Israel’s current status before God, as seen from a New Testament perspective: I’ve been on a personal pilgrimage here (literally also - to present day Israel). From the extreme of indifference/ignorance, to another extreme (as I would now see it) of viewing Israel as part of God’s current plans in the world, and ancient prophecies being fulfilled in Israel today, to a third position, which I now hold, in which I would see ancient prophecies being fulfilled in Jesus rather than Israel.

Nevertheless, I take on board two things: i) Paul’s passion for his own people; ii) passages such as Romans 11:28 - where Israel (in the flesh) is described as enemies of the gospel, but ‘loved on account of the patriarchs’ - ‘for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable’ (v.29). So I’m neither a replacementist or a fulfilmentist - the old covenant has been superseded by the new (there are not two covenant people in the world); but God has a unique desire for the physical descendants of Abraham - that they (to use language of this website) might be reconstituted as his people around Jesus.

Of course, if we view the A.D.70 nexus of events as the end-point of bibical eschatology, we might say that this passage, and the chapter in which it is set, only holds until the destruction of the temple. Thereafter it’s a whole new ball game.

My overall view is that Romans 11 sets it out like this: the ‘hardening’ which had come on Israel at the time Paul was writing is still true today (with respect to belief in Jesus as messiah). This situation will obtain while gentiles are being ‘added in’ (to the olive tree of God’s covenant people). Then comes the key word ‘until’ (v.25). Some see this as positing a future time when Israel will be ‘unhardened’ and receive their messiah, Jesus, in large numbers. But this view is disproved by what the passage goes on to say: ‘And so all Israel will be saved’(v.26). The ‘so’ is ‘heutos’, meaning ‘in this way’; it cannot mean ‘and then’ (or ‘and so’ in the sense of ‘as a consequence’) - which would lead to the former scenario. It means that Israel as a whole will remain hardened, but individuals, even significant numbers of the nation, will believe (in Jesus the messiah), at the same time as gentiles (who will arouse them to envy), in a process going on throughout history. In this way ‘all Israel’ will be saved.

All Israel’ has a qualified meaning - and is coloured by its use in the O.T. It is believing members of God’s people through all time, both Jew and Gentile. It is not literally every single physical descendant of Abraham, nor is it a spectacular future conversion of a nation which some apocalypticists have envisioned it to be. Neither does it mean Israel is rejected. Paul believed in the messiah Jesus, and so have many others down through the ages, and many more will continue to do so.

As regards John’s 3rd point: this opens up a whole new level of discussion!

By the way, I suspect the unpacking of things described above creates a problem for Paul (Hartigan), in that while it’s not suggesting Christianity is superior to other ‘faiths’, it is clearly charting an exclusivist position - which was true of the old covenant as well as the new. It also runs somewhat counter to Andrew’s compromise of Christianity being ‘under’ other faiths - though in another sense that was suggesting an entirely different line of thought.

What Kind of Theology?

Taking up your point, Andrew, that what distinguishes the emerging church is a ‘change of thinking’, I wonder what sort of theology is appropriate? The traditional sorts of theology were Biblical and Systematic, but it always seemed to me that Jesus’s theology was systemic. That is, it was interested in caused and effects - not so much in who committed the adultery as who and what caused it to be committed; not only in the sin, but in what caused the sin. I can’t see that an emphasis on cause and effect is very postmodernist - almost Newtonian - but what use is theology if it diverges from the way Jesus thought? Did Jesus think in terms that we would call theological? And if not, do we need to re-think not only what our theology is, or even what sort of theology we need, but what we mean by theology?

John M

Biblical Justification

A few points evident about the nature of justification. The ‘penal’ view of the term is not supported by Christ’s own ministry. Where does he ever employ a courtroom image to explain forgiveness and reconciliation? On the contrary, he uses parables of familial restoration, of lost sons returning and being accpeted by distraught and ever-loving fathers. Neither can we find any support for the old reformation chestnut of justification by faith ALONE. As James pointed out, we are justified by our works also. The truism of the lifebelt works as an able metaphor here. I cannot be saved by the person who throws it to me unless I personally use it to swim to shore. Thus I am saved by my faith in the belt and my own endeavour. Unfortunately, one sorry legacy of Protestant Evangelicalism is the focus on faith without works. Even Luther boasted that so long as he was predestined he could not be damned despite any sin he might commit. But then, predestination is another story altogether, of course.

God helps those . . .

Depends what you mean by ‘my own endeavour’, doesn’t it? Is this saying ‘God helps those who help themselves’? Biblical faith is proved by its actions; actions don’t contribute towards it. This was why Luther’s reforms were so necessary in the 16th century.

Saving works

I agree, yes, that works demonstrate the reality of faith, the response which the Grace shown to us demands. Hence an act of repentance must always accompany the heart’s acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice. The point I was trying to make is that Protestant reformers took the ‘saving faith’ doctrine to its illogical extreme and more or less divorced it from ‘saving works’. Why else would Luther famously, or infamously, refer to the Letter of St James as an ‘Epistle of Straw’, if not because it contradicted his unscriptural theological viewpoint.

Seems like an identity crisis

I’m all for intelligent discussion, but boy, where IS anyone’s personal experience of Christ in all this? Seems to me the Scriptures are being analyzed to death here. Is it the intention to overcomplicate the Gospel or follow the Way to Truth and Life? So much for a little child leading anyone.

It’s also apparent that Emerging Theology really demonstrates the current Protestant Evangelical identity crisis. It can’t quite work out what it is anymore, what it truly stands for. Hard to put the finger quite on the problem, but I perceive that it’s such uncertainty and inability to accept the simple Truth that is leading folks away from Evangelicalism and back to Rome. I know that it was for this reason that I turned my back on mainstream Evangelical theology.

'Is there no man can tell me who I am?' (King Lear/Shakespeare)

Quite a few personal experiences of Christ, Ivan, under the ‘Nothing to do with Mary at all’ post. But as this is an exploratory website, I imagine it’s not the place to come for simple certainties. But just for the record - the kinds of discussions taking place here I find immensely helpful in providing better explanations of my experience of Christ, and pointers for better practice (plus getting to know others on a similar journey). Maybe that’s what originally the reformation was all about - giving people access to the scriptures so they could work things out for themselves (rather than being told what to believe by religious authorities). Maybe the reformation has come full circle!

where is personal experience?

Hi, Ivan. You asked ‘where is anyone’s personal experience of Christ in all of this?’ That’s a valid question. We can dialogue round and round and get all sorts of knowledge and understanding, but in the end the question is do we KNOW the risen lord? I want to encourage you to look at the thread ‘nothing to do with Mary at all.’ Some of us who frequent this site have begun to share a little more personally at that place.

But I don’t think one needs to read that thread in order to get a glimpse of where our personal experience is; it is easy enough to read between the lines of what a lot of people on this site are experiencing. I know for me that this sort of endeavor is good precisely because of, and indeed is part of, my experience with Jesus. What I mean is that it is my love of the lord that motivates me to know as much about him and his story, to have my own story continually subverted to be replaced by his. Coming here challenges my preconceptions. It challenges my tradition. It forces me to look long and hard at what exactly it is I’m holding dear and discovering whether those things are worthy of holding onto or not. Alternatively, it is in some sense an act of humility, a way of submiting to each other, a way of recognizing that none of us is in this alone and that we need each other and each others perspectives to fill out our own and to live a more complete and rounded life. It is, in essence, living as if we were a body, each part requiring the others.

Outwardly, I would agree that there is an identity crisis. But I don’t think this is negative. It is, rather, a place of humbly acknowledging that we often get it wrong, but are willing to rethink. The alternative is to continue in the wrong identity, unquestioningly forging ahead into nowhere. On the other hand, it would be wrong to think that as individuals we are all in some kind of crisis. We are all on a journey with our lord, and he will be faithful to complete the work he began in us when he first called us. This is a solid identity; we just don’t always know it.

Peace and grace,


Humbly rebuked

Thanks Peter and Eric. I stand deservedly rebuked. My own journey has taken the form of seeking the Christ beyond the ink of the Bible in a deeper experimental way. I guess I was feeling a little overwhelmed by all the analysis — normally something I relish. Will share something of my own testimony on the ‘Nothing about Mary’ thread as suitable penance!

Protestant Identity Crisis

You need only look at the number of protestant denominations to note the identity crisis that protestants have been wrestling with ever since the reformation. I’ve always thought that this is, for better or for worse, our “contribution” to the church universal. It is exactly this diversity of thought, this sort of dialogue, that Luther was unable to foster in the Catholic church.

I suspect that those who want black and whites would do better in the Catholic church where the governmental structure allows such a thing as uniformity of doctrine. The simplest way to deal with grey areas is to appoint someone to draw the line for everybody.

This site is utterly protestant — perhaps too protestant? Are there Christians running back to the mother church for some stable ground to stand on? Perhaps. As far as I’m concerned the Catholics can have all those folks who hunger for certainty. They have a name — fundamentalists, and they seem to be the most unruly and dangerous among us!

Holy fishsticks!, Batman.


Hopefully I am not reading something into your post “Protestant Identity Crisis” that’s not there. If so I apologize. I read your post right after reading Ivan Latham’s two posts “Humbly rebuked” and “The Inquisitor’s Tale” one of which was an apology and the other, a personal testimony of his walk of faith and his exploration of Roman Catholicism. In this context I believe I should write a word on Ivan Latham’s behalf.

I am a protestant of the low-church, evangelical, Anglican sort. Think the late Bishop of Liverpool, J. C. Ryles and you get the idea. Bishop Ryles was not, nor am I a defender of Roman Catholic theology, doctrine or practices. I am probably a “fundamentalist” in the sense the word was first coined and used in America in the early 20th century.

Having said that, I think you have been hard on “fundamentalists” who want “black and whites”, seek “stable ground” and are hoping for “uniformity of doctrine” by labeling them “unruly” and “dangerous” and consigning them to (I’m not sure where you were aiming with this point) Roman Catholicism.

I, for one, will probably be able to sit up in a day or so and take a cup of soup. I rather enjoy the idea of me as an unruly, dangerous, fundamentalist Pirate of the Ethernet, craving certainty, seeking stability of doctrine in every portal, doomed to sail the Web in vain hoping to find a home where the Creeds, the 39 Articles and the Holy Scriptures are foundational to a community of Pirates. But I wonder if Ivan Latham (viewing your post as a response to his two latest posts) and other seekers of black and white certainty (and the odd Roman Catholic or two who might peek in for a quick read?) will think they have had a swipe taken at them personally rather than a swipe at fundamentalists in general? You can see how your post could be misunderstood?

Certainty is not altogether bad is it? Are we or are we not certain God raised Christ from the dead? Are we or are we not certain that in Christ’s death, burial and resurrection we find our adoption into the people of God?

We place a fairly high degree of faith in many things which are fairly certain and stable. When we fly we trust the laws of physics are constant and the airplane designer, builder and pilot have managed to work those laws to advantage and keep the airplane aloft. Likewise, we have a fairly high degree of certainty that fellow motorists will understand and obey the traffic signals and laws and go on green and stop on red. Isn’t it understandable that in matters of eternity people wish for similar degrees of certainty so that their faith may be placed reliably and to good use?


I suppose that last post was

I suppose that last post was a bit tongue-in-cheek. It seems that the “evangelical” church — however that is defined — has had to suffer most of the Christian extremists in recent history. What makes them extremists, as I see it, is either being unable or unwilling to allow for differences of opinion on subjects that most people would acknowledge as somewhat uncertain.

I just thought it would be humorous, or ironic, or odd, if those people started migrating back to the Catholic church because of its homogeneity of doctrine. No offense was meant to Ivan, whose posts I have found very intelligent and thought-provoking. Nor did I take offense when he suggested that the evangelical movement was unable to accept the simple truth of the gospel. Some offense was meant, I suppose, to extremists (whom I have called “fundamentalists” in the 21st century meaning of the word), whether they be Catholic or Protestant or otherwise.

You must admit that an enterprise such as this — open source theology, for crying out loud! — is inherently anti-Catholic. It is fundamentally democratic, and diametrically opposed to the way doctrine is formed in the RC church. It is protestantism taken to its limits.

Is certainty altogether bad? I don’t see why it would be, if it existed. But since it doesn’t, it seems that we would be better off as a species if we acknowledged this fact.

Are we certain that God raised Christ from the dead? If it was certain I don’t suppose anyone could make any arguments to the contrary, and many people do. I don’t suppose Christians would ever doubt their faith, but they do. If it was certain there would be no need for faith.

Hebrews 11:6 says that faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. I am certain of Christ’s resurrection because I have placed it at the center of my epistemological network. I have bet the bank on it, so to speak. If it is not true, then my whole theological/philosophical framework falls apart. So I suppose in that sense it is certain to me and must be so, because I have decided that I will go to my grave affirming it, even if it is the very thing that sends me to my grave.

We can say that it is historically defensible, but verifiable only in a very subjective sense, and certainly implausible in a statistical sense. So in another way, no it’s not certain, and in fact it is IMPOSSIBLE to believe such a thing without divine aid.

Is it certain that the earth is less than 20,000 years old? Is it certain that abortion is murder? Is it certain that the King James Bible is the best English translation? Are we certain that the bread and wine physically transforms into the flesh and blood of Jesus? When we say yes to any of these questions, when we become dogmatic about things that are not altogether clear and substantiated (pardon the pun), we become what I have labeled “fundamentalists.” Although yes, I am aware that it is an ironic perversion of the term. And yes, I do see a certain similarity between Catholic and extremist mindsets on this point — dogmatism about adiaphora. Notice I mixed some classic fundamentalist doctrine with some classic Catholic doctrine above to illustrate the similarity.

Oh, dear, am I getting myself in trouble now!

I think you understand all this, because you use phrases like “fairly high degrees of certainty.” Certainty is a sliding scale, and although it is understandable that everyone would want to “peak it out,” it may be healthier for everyone to assign degrees of certainty with thoughtfulness. I very much hope that everyone would obey traffic signals, and most of the time I assume as much. I’m safer and more in tune with reality, however, when I drive with a healthy dose of skepticism, because some will not.

Many people have such DIStrust of airplane designers/builders/pilots that they would suffer the horrors of train travel. Every time a plane crashes they add to their body of evidence, yet airplane flight is much safer than driving. So who’s right? In fact, we allow for people to hold whatever view of flying they wish. A good model for the open-source theology movement, perhaps. Require a subscription to the laws of physics. Apply healthy but not excessive skepticism to human applications of those laws. Accept the fact that degrees of skepticism will vary among individuals.

Now, if we could only determine which things were laws, and which things were applications…

Some of the best “uses” of Christian faith, by the way, came before any of these doctrinal issues were ever imagined, before the apostles’ creed was authored, before the Westminster Divines assembled, before the Councils of Trent were convened. Certainty does not need to be achieved before faith can be employed. In fact, the reverse may be more true.

Is there any evidence for the resurrection?

It seems to me that Erlenmeyer’s comments run together two uses of the word believe with confusing consequences.

The word ‘believe’ can have the sense
Do you believe that God exists?
Do you believe in God?

The English word ‘believe’ comes from the Old English belyfan ,meaning to hold dear and has common roots with the word love. This etymology is reflected in our current usage of ‘believing in’. The expression ‘believe that’, meaning opinion, is a derivative from this early meaning and (I conjecture) came about in Western Christendom as a result of the emphasis on propositional belief in credal statements drawn up by Church. The same development can be seen in the use of the word ‘creed’ which comes from Latin’cor dare’ , to give one’s heart. In its original meaning it had much the same sense as believing in.

To believe in something or someone means that you esteem or love the object of your belief; and more than that, that you will support or follow that person or concept. I believe in X is not just intellectual assent but implies a readiness for action - if I do nothing to support my belief people will say I do not really believe.

How is believing in justified? If I say I believe in Jesus Christ and somebody asks why, how do I respond? I will probably cite reasons- for example his achievement or the ethic he preached. But these reasons are not evidence.

We talk about evidence when we want to establish something is the case- when I say I believe that electrons exist or that John Smith committed the murder. And we can find this evidence more or less certain: ‘I have no doubt that Smith committed the murder’ at one end of the spectrum of certainty to, ‘well perhaps he did’ at the other.

But the reasons we advance with respect to belief in someone don’t prove anything in the sense of the preceding paragraph- they are less a justification of our faith than an explanation of it. They describe how I see that person or what I see in him: believing in depends not on evidence but on my vision or understanding of the object of my belief. Hence if we want to say you should not believe in George Bush we suggest your belief is misplaced, that you do not see clearly the kind of man he is and that if you did you would no longer believe in him. Evidence by itself will not tear you away from your belief because you can always deny its existence or its relevance. All I can do to convince you that your faith is misplaced is to say: look, see! Jesus was an expert at getting people to change their beliefs in this way.

It follows that you cannot criticise my belief in (say) God on grounds of a lack of evidence but only on grounds of inadequacy of vision of what is good- for example, you could say, how can you believe in a God who would permit the holocaust? In other words how could you regard a God who would permit such a thing as good?

Coming back to Erlenmeyer’s post, he asks
‘Are we certain that God raised Christ from the dead? We can say that it is historically defensible, but verifiable only in a very subjective sense, and certainly implausible in a statistical sense. So in another way, no it’s not certain, and in fact it is IMPOSSIBLE to believe such a thing without divine aid.’

In the light of the above I would suggest that Erlenmeyer here runs together the two senses of believe.

If he is saying that he believes that the resurrection took place, then the issue of evidence is entirely relevant as is the claim to certainty. But in that case you would have to say that the evidence is extremely thin, to the point of non existence; and any certainty you could express would be extremely guarded.

But It is clear from what Erlenmeyer says that he believes in the resurrection
‘I am certain of Christ’s resurrection ….. I have decided that I will go to my grave affirming it, even if it is the very thing that sends me to my grave’
If I ask Erlenmeyer why he believes in the resurrection he is not going to respond with details of eyewitness accounts, DNA testing, photographic evidence or the other data that would be the bare minimum of evidence for such an extraordinary claim.

His reply will be (I hypothesise) more along the lines of
My redeemer liveth

It's entirely possible

that I have muddled my terms. Perhaps it would be clearer to say that the argument for Jesus’ resurrection generally tips toward certainty only after a strong subjective experience.

The two are tied together, however. I would not “believe in” the resurrection if I could not “believe that” the resurrection occurred. And it’s difficult for me to understand how anyone could “believe that” without “believing in” although I’m sure there are some out there. However, it was not based on an objective, scientific inquiry that I came to my conclusions. It was based primarily on a personal experience that made me more comfortable “betting against the odds.” If there was absolutely no rational justification for believing that it did occur, however, I don’t know that I could believe in it very strongly. Certainly there is evidence, but evidence of ancient history is always slim, ever decreasing, and open to a variety of interpretations. It took more than historical evidence to push the resurrection into the center of my belief system.

It’s an interesting exercise to list out all your religious beliefs and number them, 1-10, degree of certainty.

Take, for instance, infant baptism. I’m a presbyterian, I believe it’s the proper thing to do for babies born to Christian parents. However, some denominations disagree. The biblical evidence is slim. Maybe I give that a 4. Authorship of the book of Hebrews, 1. I don’t have a clue, and it doesn’t really matter to me. Jesus’ resurrection I give a 10. The fact that I had fried chicken for dinner I give a 9.9. It’s probably more scientifically verifiable that I had fried chicken for dinner, yet because of my religious commitments I would bet my life sooner on the former than the latter.

Too many 10s and you get a fractured church. Not enough 10s and you get a neutered church. Unfortunately I think we have a tendency to assume that the more spiritually mature one gets, the higher these numbers go. In my life I have found that the opposite is true.

Luther was wrong on one issue: “truth at all costs, unity if possible.” It just so happens that unity within the body of Christ is one of the truths we are to uphold. And I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to humble myself, admit my penchant for intellectual and spiritual error, and ratchet some of these numbers down. It’s made me much easier to get along with, especially if you happen to disagree with me!

Luther's truth v. unity

Erlenmeyer, in light of your latest comment about Luther and truth anc keeping unity, I think you would like to read Wright’s comments at the Primates’ meeting: http://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/docs/2005/200502wright.cfm


Thanks for the link

I was unfamiliar with the Windsor report, and Wright’s article didn’t really clear it up for me, but another article on that site (by Pemberton) was not only enlightening but quite masterful.

It is, I would say, a symptom of a great sickness when our first reaction to this or that theological chasm is to leave or split a denomination. I, for instance, do not see scriptural justification for a homosexual lifestyle. Does this mean I should not attend a church that does? Does it mean I cannot learn anything of spiritual value from a homosexual? Does it mean that God will refuse to work through that person to bless me? Could I even — gasp — be wrong? As long as we are all pursuing, with as pure a motive as we can muster, to abide in the truth of God’s revealed will, why should we draw lines between us?

I very much appreciated Pemberton’s treatment of Ephesians 4, showing that holiness does not consist in righteous indignation or moral superiority, but in patience, humility, gentleness and forbearance. I appreciate the Episcopal effort to maintain their unity in light of these theological divisions.

It may be unbridled optimism, but I think I can sense a movement toward unity among Christians. I have predicted that there will be fewer denominations at the end of this century than there were when it began. Yes indeed, denominational mergers! Why does that term sound so shocking?

I couldn’t help but chuckle, however, at the repeated references to the Primates. It sounds like a Darwin convention! :)

Primates at the Synod

I relate to your chuckle. My wife told me, after I had read the article to her, that she kept imagining something like the British Parlaiment with apes throwing things at each other. We are American, and our political meetings don’t generally look like what I’ve seen of parlaiment from C-span … except for the embarassing ‘boooing’ from Democrats during the last State of the Union address when Bush talked about Social Security.

Connection between belief in and belief that

There seems to be a connection between belief in and belief that but it is far from straightforward.

For example, people believe in God before they have any grounds that would stand up in the scientific or philosphical sense. And there is a respectable argument that it is impossible to prove that God exists- which if valid means belief in God could never depend on belief that God exists.

Also it is possible to believe in something that does not exist. For example people believed in democracy before there were any democracies.

These points are not negligible. Rationalists for example standardly criticiise religious belief on the grounds that it does not have any evidence to support it- to which which there are two responses.
1. belief in cannot be criticised in terms of evidence (at least not in any straightforward manner)
2. rationalism itself is an instance of believing in (ie believing in the idea that the only intellectually respectable belief statements are those that can be justified by evidence. Paradoxically, rationalism itself fails this test).

Pascal's Wager

I’m reminded of Pascal’s Wager in this discussion.

If you’re not familiar with it I’ll paraphrase:

If I am a Christian, when I die…
If I am right, I gain eternal life.
If I am wrong, I lose a finite life.

If I’m an atheist, when I die…
If I am right, I lose a finite life.
If I am wrong, I lose eternal life.

Therefore I choose to be a Christian based on risk/reward scenarios.

I guess I was reminded of it simply because it is an argument which is rigorously logical, and at the same time almost completely divorces ‘belief in’ from ‘belief that.’ It doesn’t matter for Pascal how certain God existence is, only that it’s a possibility.

To fold this into the present discussion — it’s not just the facts that ‘decide for us’ what we believe, it’s also the significance of the belief. However, there do have to be facts. If God’s existence is certainly false, for instance, Pascal’s wager is no longer persuasive.

If Christ did not offer eternal life in paradise, but instead offered 50 extra years of life in Pittsburgh, you can bet there would be far fewer Christians even though the evidence for his resurrection hasn’t changed. I’ll buy a lottery ticket with a million-to-1 odds if the jackpot is $50 million, but not if it’s $50. When the reward is great enough, the certainty requirements go down.

I think this is what drives many non-religious people crazy. They see us religious folk placing great faith in something such as the resurrection on modest evidence, and very little faith in something as well attested as evolution (and no, I’m not saying the two beliefs are mutually exclusive — it just makes for a good comparison). But it makes perfect sense to me. If evolution is true, so what? I’m not a biologist, it makes no difference to me personally. Even if I were a biologist, the ramifications of evolutionary theory on my life don’t hold a candle to the ramifications of Christianity. Bottom line, Christianity doesn’t have to meet the same criteria as theories of “lesser magnitude” in order to justify belief.

Therefore, back to my sliding-scale, I give scores of 10 to those things which enjoy either overwhelming proof and moderate significance, or overwhelming significance and moderate proof.

That sounds perfectly common-sensical and heretical at the same time!

Very like a whale

So this is Pascal’s wager. Does it have anything to do with the self-abandonment that lies at the heart of being a believer in Jesus? Sounds more like a self-centred attempt at getting the best of all worlds. But I’m sure it would swing it in certain conversations with intellectual types hovering on the brink of Christian commitment.

On the subject of Christian belief and evidence - I found my eyes watering and popping until I got the hang of this thread. Popular Christian apologists have done a good job at providing a basis in evidence for the resurrection. So much so, that I have come to regard it (evidence for the resurrection) as virtually watertight - as far as any historical event can be regarded as attestable in evidence. A 10 on erlenmeyer’s scale indeed. But if this were the case, why does the resurrection (for example) not attract more attention, and why is Christianity (and the resurrection on which its claims are based) not more widely accepted and ‘believed’?

Possible answers: 1. We haven’t communicated the resurrection very well (large proportion of Anglican clergy don’t believe in a physical resurrection, for instance); 2. Prior prejudice in non-believers on the basis of distorted perceptions of the Christian faith; 3. Prior commitment of non-believers not to be confronted with the challenges which the resurrection poses to their lives; 4. Non-believers only begin to ‘believe that’ something is ‘true’ when they are already beginning to ‘believe in’ its occurrence as a faith possibility. I think this is what W.S.Polanyi called a ‘fiduciary commitment’ as he redefined the way ‘scientific’ knowledge works.

In my own experience - I was drawn to ‘believing in’ Christ before I thought seriously about ‘believing that’ the resurrection took place. I ‘believed in’ Christ because he seemed to be alive in the experience of Christian believers that I knew. But in turn, I only began to take the evidence of their lives seriously when I was personally inclined to do so, as opposed to seeing it, but avoiding letting it have any impact on my own life (which I successfully managed to do for 3 years - to my own detriment).

However, in the world of practical experience and communication, I’m on as firm ground as I can be with the ‘objective’ occurrence of the resurrection - and would tend to go with the popular apologists. But I’m sure I wouldn’t be in that position unless I ‘believed in’ Christ as a prior faith commitment.

I have a feeling there is a key to post modern communication in this somewhere - if it could be found. Which I suspect is something along the lines of people not caring how much we know until they know how much we care. People will not be inclined to believe until we have already won them with something of the love of God in their (and our) experience. Hmmmm.



read about Last Day and the general issue, you will find the signs of resurrication.

besides, Quran says there is a Afterlifeç

note:this is not about reencaration or karma philosophy


I’m on a roll - it’s the passwords that people use on the website. Forgive me, but reading your comments and associating them with your name brings to mind secret societies on the one hand - communicating messages in encryptment to avoid detection by the CIA, and my daughter’s hamsters on the other. (She’s always looking for new names for her hamsters, and without further explanation, mertfaruk seems so appropriate). This really isn’t intended to cause offence: I’d just like to know who you are, where you send from. (A middle-east casbah? Thick with the scent of oriental spices, and smoke from the hookah?) I do read the sites which you direct us to - and generally enjoy them, though I’m surprised that if Islam, Judaism and Christianity are really so much the same thing somebody doesn’t announce this more openly. It would save a great deal of conflict and heartache in the world.

Bare facts

I am reminded of a quote I read, and I don’t remember where: apologetics is for the Christian, not the pagan. It fortifies our faith, but is not the basis of it. I’m wondering if that’s even true, or if apologetics simply lets us hold onto our faith without having to abandon our old friend rationalism/empiricism.

I am also reminded of a conversation I had with an atheist friend of mine, to whom I presented all the apologetic arguments for the resurrection of the Christ. He relented, “Fine, Jesus probably came back from death. So what?”

Part of what I understand as postmodern philosophy is that there are no bare facts. Every fact carries with it a “so what?”

This guy attached a very different significance to the “fact” of the resurrection. So a guy was in a very deep coma. Or so he had one of those ‘near-death’ experiences. So it was unusually long. So some people came around 20 years later and started saying that Jesus called it in advance. So what?

The gospel writers could be charlatans. Jesus could have made a lucky guess. Or Jesus could be the charlatan. No, I don’t think any of these explanations are the most plausible, but who am I to say what is most plausible to someone? Frankly, the idea that God became a man and then let himself be tortured and mocked and dishonored, that’s pretty implausible. Common sense, historical evidence and logic are not going to get you to commit your life to Jesus, unless you account for a different kind of evidence — the kind of evidence Paul talks about in 2 Cor 3. A testimony not of human origin, but instilled by the Spirit in your heart. And if you try selling that to someone withouth the Spirit, I guarantee they won’t be buying it.

I’m convinced that the Church has become WAY too preoccupied with making the gospel intellectually respectable. The new testament authors were totally uninterested in that. Paul would proclaim it as foolishness. Jesus claimed that many people don’t have the faculties to hear it. The trinity, the incarnation, the problem of evil — I believe these are INSURMOUNTABLE logical obstacles (and there are plenty more that are quite daunting), and only a miracle of God can get anyone past them. And to anyone on the outside, this “miracle” is going to resemble a psychotic break or a total lapse of reason.

One of the things that we are afraid to bury with Christ is our need for respectability. And believe me, I am very attached to being respected, so I’m not on a soapbox here. We all need to revel a little more in the shock value of the gospel, in how strange and literally unbelievable it is. “Rationalizing” it seems to be going in the wrong direction.

Peter hints at this being postmodern, and I think he’s right on. Relevance is no longer attached to how much logical sense your ideas make. Relevance is now measured by how much difference it has made in your life, how much goodness has resulted from it, how much love it produces. Defining goodness, love… well that’s another matter, and probably nobody’s going to let you nail it down. This will require more from us as Christians. We don’t get to hide behind arguments anymore. Our lives are the arguments.

Some people worry that this means any crackpot theory, convincingly displayed, will carry the same weight as Christianity. You bet it will. Have you not been paying attention to the people wearing healing crystals around their necks? And now you can’t dismiss those people because they have no facts. They have powerful testimony, and powerful testimony has become, well, powerful again. How powerful is our testimony? Who cares what the lab tech says, I want to know what my neighbor says. Who cares what my MD says, I want to know what the shaman says. It’s refreshingly and terrifyingly different. Probably no better or worse.

We won’t go all the way back to premodern superstition, but we’re going to wander for awhile in that direction.

Pascal's wager and the evils of gambling

I do not think Erlenmeyer has taken on board my argument about the difference between belief in and belief that.

The argument becomes clearer if we substitute faith for “belief in” and opinion for “belief that”

I suggest that it is a logical solecism to treat faith as if it were based on (empirical) evidence or (logical) argument. By evidence I mean the kind of reasons that might be advanced in support of the theory of relativity, or the existence of a moon orbiting Pluto; or the information that might be presented to show that OJ Simpson murdered his wife. By argument, I mean the kinds of consideration advanced in Aquinas’s proofs for the existence of God.

What we believe in (our faith or trust) is what makes sense of our lives. For some people and cultures, the notions of honour and glory, and the role of warrior, give ultimate meaning to life. For others, family and work and temporal success are what makes living worthwhile. In the last couple of centuries in the West, belief in self expression, particularly as an artist, has become very important. But for most people in most cultures and times of human history, it has been God which has been seen as giving ultimate sense to life because God is (by definition) the perfect good.

This means if someone asks why do you believe (have faith) in X I am required to bring forward reasons- but the reasons are different in kind to those required to establish an assertion of fact or a logical inference. That is, if someone asks why I have faith in God, my answer will be in terms of the way in which God invests my life with meaning. It will not draw on arguments for God’s existence.

Pascal’s wager subtly conflates these two kinds of reason and it is this which gives it the smell of sophistry. Is it an argument for believing that God exists or an argument for believing in God? It cannot be the former because its hidden premise is that there is insufficient evidence or reasons for asserting that God exists. It cannot be the latter because its rationale is not love of God but the self advantage of the person who adopts it.

Coming back now to erlenmeyer’s post, he seems to be suggesting that any belief statement has two dimensions: its personal meaning to whoever utters it and the evidentiary base and consequent certainty that attaches to it.

I suggest that that is completely wrong and runs together two logically different families of expressions in a way that leads to all sorts of confusions.

When I say that I believe (am of the opinion, think) that X is the case and am asked why, the only relevant thing is the evidence or arguments that I can bring forward (which is not to say that the assertion I make has no personal meaning for me- only that it is irrelevant).

When I say that I believe (have faith, trust) in X and am asked why, the only relevant thing is how my faith, belief or trust make sense of my life (which is not to say that facts and arguments do not bear on my faith, belief or trust only that they are not relevant to an explanation of my faith-at least not directly). If somebody, such as Jesus, wants to change what I believe in, they do so by getting me to look at the facts in a different way and a way that speaks to my condition eg by telling the parable of the prodigal son

Is all this mere logic chopping? I don’t think so. In fact, quite important.

Perhaps I just haven't grasped the profundity of the distinction

You seem to be defining “believing in” almost in the sense of “inspired by.” I may believe in democracy as an ideal even though it may not exist, or never exist, in the same way I envision it. What does that mean? I put my trust in democracy? No, that doesn’t seem to get at it. I will act and sacrifice to promote the concept of democracy? My best stab at it is as mentioned — I am inspired by the concept of democracy. I find the concept of democracy to be right and good and beautiful. Belief in Jesus, as you stated, might be based on the beauty of his ethics, the sense of purpose He gives you. In this sense, Jesus inspires you. Jesus is an embodiment of goodness, rightness. It is an aesthetic judgment.

If I am closing in on your point, then I would have to take issue with it. As has been mentioned in other places on this site, Christianity is a religion that is, at its heart, based on a historical event. It has lofty ideals and transcendent principles, certainly. But the teachings are not the essence of the faith. The event is the essence of the faith. Jesus IS ALIVE. He is reigning as King, and he is subduing all things to himself. It is a fact, an ongoing present reality. That is an inspiring thought, surely. But if it is an inspiring thought that does not accurately depict the actual state of things, then it is entirely worthless. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless, you are still in your sins, we are to be pitied above all men.” (1 Cor 15) Not, “If we do not believe in Christ’s resurrection…” but “If Christ has not been raised.” Belief in, as strong and as certain as it may be, absolutely must be connected to a physical reality to have any value.

I think you are trying to draw a distinct line between opinion and affection. Between what your mind is persuaded to affirm and what your heart is persuaded to adore. Although it might be meaningful and instructive to distinguish between the two at times, I am not at all convinced that they are separate or even separable.

A simplistic and somewhat forced example: I may choose to be very rational about the woman I choose to marry. I may decide that there are certain characteristics that must be present in order to promote a healthy relationship. There may be women that meet my requirements and yet there is no romance, no affection. Still, if I find a woman who does not meet the requirements I have decided upon, I can consciously decide not to foster that affection. So belief that affects belief in. Likewise I might meet a woman whom I fall deeply in love with, and be entirely blinded to certain of her character flaws. Belief in affects belief that. They are distinct, but not separable.

I suspect your response will indicate that I have once again missed your point, and that may well be true. Unfortunately I’m not sure that another swipe will help to clarify my muddled brain. I’ll then abandon my efforts and allow someone else to engage this topic with you so that it might bear more fruit.

I agree with you that affections will be a much more relevant testimony to a postmodern world than will opinions.

What does God believe in?

This thread seems to be drifting some way off topic, or is it?

Ivan Latham’s original post challenged the contributers to this site to ‘get back to basics’. I like the nitty gritty of a good fundamental philisophical debate, particularly in a theological context. Is Ivan suggesting that the early post reformation church, or the Roman Catholic church is the most reliable source of these ‘basics’?

Considering the very fact of the reformation and the bitter centuries-old debate that led to it, how can he be certain where the basics lie?
The pre-first council church was right-royally split in the basics of its theology and the attempted Vatican cover up of the ‘knowledge’ later re-discovered at Nag Hamadi are examples of basic controversy going back well beyond any ‘sacred scripture’ we now rely upon. It is not much of a ‘corpus of Sacred Tradition’, especially when despite its history of genecide and torture it has failed to inspire the majority of the world’s population.

The very fact that scholars are able to continue to earn a living debating and publishing every aspect of the historical veracity of the very existence of Jesus, never mind the resurrection or meaning of it, is proof enough that there is no ‘overruling authority of Sacred Scripture’. If there was there would be no money in it!

In recent times the Vatican was forced to publicly apologise for centuries of slandering Mary Magdalene, long after much of the Christian mind set had firmly associated gospel passages with this received lack of wisdom.

I wonder a great deal about the nature of belief and the personal investment people make in it. How often has history shown examples of how a belief, faith or heart-felt certainty has led to apalling miscarriages of justice or much much worse? How many in court have been certain (and sworn on a bible) in their belief as witnesses to events, which have later been proved beyond doubt to have wrongly led to an execution?

It is always remarkable how much we rely on our faith and beliefs to the utter condemnation of the beliefs (equally felt and certain) of others. This is the paradox that proves any form of belief, no matter how well established and organised in a group dynamic, is only ever a personal experience. I have no way of proving that my personal experience of spirit is any more reliable that anybody else’s, no matter how they came by it, and no matter what name they give to God, and no matter whether they wear a cross or a crystal round their necks.

Which belief system that God is felt to be present in does God want to rule the world/s?

Mad, bad or God

Albannach makes a slight pitch for non-belief as a better alternative to belief - in view of the track record of intolerance etc associated with religious belief systems. But as the canny initiates and adepts on this website will recognise, non-belief is a belief system in itself. The better belief system is that which has checks and balances built in - which is accountable to others, and open to further development in the light of better and more complete information and correction.

Even this enlightened position rests on a belief - that there is that within us which seeks after, recognises and can correspond to ‘truth’ when we are presented with it (though that may arise through a process of debate). How horribly that can be perverted is evident throughout history. But the remedy for abuse is always not non-use, but correct use.

When ‘truth’ came to us as a person, it provided the unique, perfect fit between ‘truth’ which is ‘out there somewhere’, and that which corresponds to and can be found in human experience. The claim that ‘truth’ made for himself is so staggering, that he is ‘truly’ either mad, bad or God. On the one hand, this seems to go right against the grain of our open-ended, inconclusive, committed to non-commitment mind-set. But on the other hand, it is ‘truth’ in the form of the genuine, reliable, ‘real thing’ - which is exactly what our relational, intimacy, let’s-hear-each-other’s-stories seeking world is seeking.

In praise of Rene Descartes

I make no such pitch, Peter. I am merely trying to point out the madness of the nature of belief.
I have never experienced an argument in defense of any belief (including non-belief) that is not arrogantly or psychotically held. It does not seem possible for the human condition to understand that belief/faith/certainty is a state of mind. The influence of spirit on that state of mind is a personal experience objectively indistinguishable from the same state of mind occupied by anybody else. The power of complex emotional self-conditioning and habit is absolute, and as we all know ‘cogito, ergo sum’ is the only true certainty. None of us can be certain of the existence of anything outside our own thoughts. It is only a kind of madness that causes us to believe in the physical world and everything in it. Equally, we must abandon sanity to believe in a metaphysical presence with a passionate certainty, to the utter denial and exclusion of all other possibilities. This is especially true when in our madness we accept the existence of other people and yet deny the validity of their beliefs for no reason other than they contradict our own, however persuasive the human created body of evidence is. I consider my own beliefs to be based on a complex emotional rationalisation of my weak human mind’s inadequate experience of God, and that I am probably wrong.
Despite that, I find myself rarely influenced or persuaded by the arguments of others, who have very convincing alternative experiences of God. Critically, my experience of the loving singular cause of creation in me does not require me to persuade anyone of anything.
I seek to reconcile the madness of the predominant sadness, anger and fear in me so that I can reach a state of happiness, which is the only real sane state. I suspect in that state death and its consequences will become utterly irrelevant, along with all the religions and cults that have such a massive investment and reliance in our collective fear of death.

Descartes? Or echoes of Transylvania?

I found your post very personal, very moving, Albannach. I felt it contained a great deal of belief - very strongly held.

You mention your experience of ‘the loving singular cause of creation’ - which means that there is something outside of yourself of which you seem convinced. What is the nature of this experience which you refer to?

The discussions on this website are skewed towards the rational end of the spectrum. Occasionally somebody intervenes, throwing a non-rational spanner into the works. We splutter over our cappuccinos, and reach for the keyboard to lob a few well chosen words at these intrusions into our logical world, but probably missing the point.

I’d like to know more about you personally. Is it possible for you to jot something about yourself on the ‘Nothing to do with Mary’ forum? Including some explanation of your password - about which I frequently ponder: Alban (St Alban? Albany? Albania?); ‘nach’ (German/Austrian/Romanian ‘volksdeutsch’?); Albannach (a place name in the Romanian ‘Siebenburgen’?) Or none of these. Please put me out of my misery.


I do bang on a bit on the same themes. I have always felt that in any argument that it is best to start off ‘believing’ the other case to be more worthy than mine. From that position I keep a better perspective.

Here I don’t generally have the impression that the site is too skewed towards the rational. Frequently there is too much emotion expressed for this to be the case.

I bang on about the nature of belief because it seems to me that there is no need for argument over such an amazing story:

The creator of all things became physical in order to die so that for all eternity we are saved. Mind blowing!

Passed down by word of mouth and never written down, never mis-translated, never exageterated or distorted in any other way, it is an astonishing message.

The religious circus that has come in its wake is what disturbs me most, and it is so at odds with too many other points of view for those points of view to be considered less valid.?

Having said all that, I don’t actually believe it happened quite as it is written so I will put something on the ‘Nothing to do with Mary’ forum soon. In the meantime to put you out of your misery try this:


How mundane was that?


Of course - how could I have missed it? Albannach is to Scotland as Sassenach is to England. The clue is in the Gaelic ending - (-ic, English -ish : whereby a noun is converted into an adjective).

My new screen saver.


Like Peter, I found your post “In Praise of Rene Descartes” passionate and moving. I should have read your earlier posts with a more critical eye. Had I done so I’d have recognized something strangely familiar.

I married a McInnis girl. Chesterton could have been writing of my wife and not the Irish when he wrote,”…the people God made mad, for all their wars are merry and all their songs are sad.”

I am rewriting my screen saver scroll. It is now, and I quote, “The creator of all things became physical in order to die so that for all eternity we are saved. Mind blowing!”

Democratic Theology: Is it worth fighting for?


Forgive this belated response. Demands at work and time for reflection of your post are responsible.

Let me answer your questions first.
1. I don’t know if the earth is older than 20,000 years or not.
2. I believe the KJV is a good English translation and I am certain it is my favorite translation.
3. Abortion, with the rare exceptions (such as a tubal pregnancy) required to save the life of the child’s mother, is the premeditated taking of a human life and therefore murder.
4. I do not believe the Roman Catholic position respecting the physical transormation of the bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ is true.
5. It was touch and go, but I did manage to notice your mixing of fundamentalist and Roman Catholic doctrine to make a point.

It was instructive to read in your earlier post that, possibly, “some” offense was meant toward extremist/fundamentalists whether protestant, Roman Catholic or other. One could reason from that, though you perceive OST as democratic and protestantism taken to its limits, that sense of democracy and the tolerance that is inherent in it does not extend to those who place things, uncertain to you, at a higher place on the sliding scale of certainty than you place them. If this is so, it is unfortunate because it may thwart dialogue between parties who may have important things to say to and learn from each other.

[Just an aside here: It seems to me that if we looked hard we would find a fairly large body of what I would call dogmatic adiophora. In this body of current un-doctrine I would include some things Ivan Latham mentioned in an earlier post such as women priests and homosexuals (by which I assumed he meant active, unrepentant homosexuals) in the Church. I would also include topics such as the virgin birth of Jesus, murder, marriage and sexual activity referred to in the scriptures as fornication and/or adultery. There are obviously other things we could add to it. Why is it we are so willing to accept uncertainty and are so tentative about embracing certainty? Are we only willing to stress scriptural obligations of love, respect, stewardship and justice and downplay or ignore scriptural obligations regarding sexual purity or church structure or discipline? The scriptures speak to many of these issues and in some instances clearly. Is it just easier to leave hard issues alone and not bother with them? Is this why we seem to want to treat the scriptures like a luncheon buffet? A little fruit and desert but no spinach or brocoli please.]

I don’t want to rely on paradox and tricks, but, excuse me for pointing out that for someone who seems so uncertain about certainty, you seem quite certain about uncertainty.

I ask is certainty a bad thing and you respond that you don’t see why it should be if it existed and then state (with certainty) that it does not exist. Are you certain? You state (with certainty) it is impossible to believe in the resurrection without divine help. I can infer from that you are equally certain such a divine being exists. Are you certain?

I ask is it certain that God raised Jesus from the dead and you seem to respond that, because you have bet the bank and placed it at the center of your epistimology, for that reason, for you, it is certain. (I am not altogether clear whether that is what you meant there, but it did read that way-again, apologies if I misread you)

Are you certain that God raised Jesus from the dead or not? If so, what are the grounds of your certainty? Perhaps you have answered this in subsequent postings, but I am interested in the foundation for your faith.

I read in the scriptures the testimony of writers who tell me they are writing about things which they have seen, touched and heard. They tell me they are telling me the truth. I believe them. The testimony of the scriptures are the grounds of my faith in Jesus Christ and all that it encompasses.

This may be an extremist/fundamentalist position, but I believe the scriptures teach what purport to be facts, among them are Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of Israel, Immanuel, was born according to scripture, was crucified and died according to scripture, was buried according to scripture and was raised from the dead according to scripture and is now seated at the right hand of God and will return again.



It is oh so tricky to talk about such subjects. Is it an inherent contradiction to believe in relativism absolutely? Is certainty a subjective or objective term? I realize that when I am musing about things such as this I will be misunderstood because it would take many pages to define all my terms satisfactorily. But let me respond as best I can to you, because I think these are important issues for a faith community.

Four adiaphora and offense to extremists: Everyone on the board has an opinion as to those 4 examples I listed. I’m ‘certain’ we are not all of one mind on them. And I would wager that we are not all in agreement that they are adiaphora — some would pick one or another of these issues as a requirement for orthodoxy. This is the sticky part of any faith community — at some point we have to draw the line and say, “Here is a list of doctrines that are non-negotiable” to use as a foundation for our theological system, to foster a sense of unity, and to provide some semblance of a starting point for discussion. Every faith community has them, and they define the group’s personality.

Some groups have a long list of them; I have referred to these people as “fundamentalists,” which seems to be the popular thing to call them. They define their communities narrowly and have great certainty about things that I don’t. I don’t have a problem with their decisions to nail down their positions on such subjects, or requiring subscription to them in order to become a member of the group. However, if the goal is dialogue and the fostering of unity among diverse groups (and I’ve assumed as much about this group), fundamentalism is not your friend. Since I place great value on such a goal, I suppose fundamentalism is not my friend either.

Take two people who hold opposing beliefs on any particular issue and who are ‘certain’ about these beliefs. There will not be any fruitful discussion on that subject. If someone wants to dialogue with me about the resurrection of Jesus — did it really happen — and they are fully convinced it did not, then that conversation is not going to go anywhere, because I can assure you I am not going to budge on that. I will try to be polite and sympathetic with their thought processes, but frankly I will not give their ideas any consideration.

What I’m trying to say is, in a community such as this one, dogmatism is a stifling element. It will be necessary to a degree, or we will have no identity and no direction. But I think it will need to be minimized in order to have meaningful and valuable dialogue.

I think, by the way, this is a very important point concerning the church’s relationship to the world. I get the sense that society feels like the church has plenty to say, but we aren’t really willing to listen. We’re so sure of ourselves that we don’t need to consider the world’s objections, they just need to listen to our answers and change their minds. The church is performing a monologue, not a dialogue. But I digress…

I will try to say a few more words about certainty, because I know that I have not been as lucid as I wish to be. I suppose I use the word certainty in two senses. Certainty, in one sense, results from an overwhelming body of objective proof. I am certain that, if I jump up in the air, I will come back down to the ground very shortly (without having traversed a great distance, unfortunately). It would be exceedingly difficult to argue with that prediction. It would be exceedingly difficult to find anyone who would take issue with my belief.

I am also certain that Jesus Christ is going to return to earth and collect me as one of many brothers and sisters who will spend eternity in his paradisical kingdom. This is a very different kind of certainty, I think.

One could argue that it is the same kind of certainty, with a different kind of evidence, and I might be willing to agree. I don’t think I have to belabor the point, however, that much more contrary evidence exists in this case than in the former. One has to go no further than to my own life — my lukewarmness of faith, my inaction in the face of humanity’s suffering, my persistent disregard for God’s commandments, all are evidences AGAINST my being a citizen of such a kingdom. I could give some evidences on my behalf as well, but you get the point.

On the other hand, I could take issue with the idea that Jesus is alive and reigning. I could argue against the resurrection on a number of different fronts. I could argue against the idea of a sovereign God at many points. I would be remiss to say that my belief in God’s future kingdom, and my place in it, enjoys the same kind of irrefutable certainty as the laws of gravity.

Someone now will be tempted to wax eloquent on theoretical physics, how gravity is actually very mysterious and not at all well understood. Granted, yet I would not think they would be willing to bet against my jumping experiment.

So what does it mean to be certain of something? I humbly suggest that it means “to occupy a central place in one’s system of beliefs.” Or perhaps, “to become entirely unwilling to compromise one’s belief in.” It seems that there are two ways that a belief can be elevated to such status. One, by brute force. Gravity occupies this place in my worldview because there seems to be no room for doubt. It would not devastate me if it were somehow disproven, but I just can’t conceive of that happening in my wildest imagination.

The second way a belief comes to enjoy certainty status is by its significance. People embrace a particular belief to the point that denying it would be a wholesale abandonment of their identity. Religion occupies this place in many peoples’ lives.

Why am I certain of the resurrection? Not because I am unaware of any arguments that can be made to the contrary, but because it is the foundation upon which so much of my understanding of myself, and of my world, rests. To compromise on my position would throw almost everything I know, and everything I have done, and everything I am, into question. I have consciously placed this particular belief in this particular position. You will not convince me otherwise. I would sooner give up on gravity.

I do not think that this is an entirely blind leap of faith. As I stated before, I don’t think I could have been comfortable assigning such primacy to it if there were not some evidences for it. And, as ancient history goes, the resurrection is probably as well attested as anything that has ever happened ‘under the radar’ of the great empires of the world. Still, it is not by brute force that the resurrection established itself as the lynchpin of my philosophical system. Unless…

Unless you consider supernatural evidences. The scriptures attest that our wills are inherently opposed to such ideas, and that it takes a divinely-initiated “change of heart” in order to warm up to them. When a person experiences this, it is a powerful proof. In this sense, as I stated before, it might be proper to say that it IS the same kind of certainty as I have with gravity, but a very different kind of evidence. A kind of evidence that does not, and cannot, hold water unless you have personally experienced it. A kind of proof that is inherently a-rational and a-logical. It does not arrive at the end of a syllogism. Perhaps there is some evidence for it in the changed life of a believer, but that kind of evidence can always be explained by other means than divine intervention.

In short, it is not at all likely that God came to earth in human form, suffered every form of humiliation known to mankind, all for the sake of a race of people that couldn’t have cared less. I would have to assert that this is the highest of highly unlikely scenarios. And yet you won’t be able to pry it out of my cold, dead hands. So, in a way that I still don’t know if I can communicate, I can agree with the atheist that it is a fanciful story, and at the same time be absolutely certain of it. I suspect this is what Paul was doing when he called the gospel foolishness, and himself a fool. I am not entirely unlike those who spent New Year’s Eve 1999 in Jerusalem looking up at the sky. None of us are. We place our entire hope in a terribly unlikely event that we are nevertheless convinced is true. And if this makes us foolish, or delusional, or psychopathic, or schizophrenic in the eyes of the world, so be it. It is where we’ve placed our faith, it is what we’ve ‘bet the bank on,’ it is what we’ve chosen to build our entire lives around.

Ironically, it’s unlikelihood becomes an argument for it. It’s just too crazy for someone to have made up!

Hopefully that gives you some insight as to the foundation of my faith. As to its relevance to this community, I suspect that if there were no consensus that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead, and the focus of the group becomes a debate over that issue, I would quickly lose interest. I am unwilling to dialogue about that, in the sense that I simply will not concede anything to anyone. Also, if this group is comprised entirely of people who are equally convinced of a host of doctrinal issues that I would like to discuss the merits of, then I will also quickly lose interest because I will realize that I’m the only one trying to dialogue, and everyone else is unwilling to concede anything to me.

That’s the tricky balance. A site entitled Oper Source Theology should, one would think, tend to be on the “less-dogmatic” side — open to discussion about lots of things. I am here to convince and be convinced, to contribute and to consider others’ contributions, on a wide variety of religious and spiritual issues. I hope everyone else is, too. At the same time, I assume we all have a bit of common ground to stand on. As the group evolves, I suspect that the line between the two will emerge, and that’s part of the experiment. Where will the distinction between ‘fundamentals’ and adiaphora fall in a friendly kind of anarchy like this one? What will happen if that line fails to include the literal bodily resurrection of Christ? What will happen if it includes all sorts of things that I don’t agree with? How can we continue to be a thriving community, a happy family? On which issues can we, and should we, “agree to disagree” and on which issues must we take our leave? Profound questions.

Can I be certain that nothing is certain? Nope. But uncertainty seems to me to be the fix we’re in when we put our finite minds and our incomplete set of data to the task of describing the eternity and immensity of the divine. I mean, if we don’t even really understand gravity… But neither can we leave everything up in the air. One has to grab onto something and run with it. And I guess that something — whatever it winds up being — becomes my God, my certainty, my object of worship, my source of hope and comfort.

Did I choose wisely? I guess we’ll all find out eventually. Certainty may not be our present reality, but it is our destiny. For now we see as through a glass, darkly…

And like you, Alario, I have sorely neglected my responsibilities carrying on this conversation, so I will end here.

Much clearer, thanks.


Sorry to push so hard for an answer but your posts have a tenacity that is engaging and rather refreshing. I was digging to get at the core of what you believe and why. We may agree on far more than you might imagine.

For me, a divine intervention, “warmed me up”, as you phrased it, to a lively faith in God. That very personal experience has been, at times, the only anchor I had to keep from flying off into the void. As you suggest, it is a very powerful evidence of the truth and realities underpinning our faith.

At the risk of seeming stubborn and argumentative, I am compelled to say that same divine intervention also warmed me up to-I have no other way to put it- my certainty in the veracity of scripture. That is why as a new Christian the scriptures were instrumental in explaining-in a way that engaged my mind, soul and spirit-who and what I had put at the center of my beliefs. They continue to function so and, for me, are foundational in determining what is true and what is false; what is right and what is wrong; what is dogma and what is adiophora.

I am afraid because of this (high view of scripture) I fall into the category of what one writer on this site referred to as a “textual idolater”. I don’t believe I am, but I understand the accusation. I am apparently also a “cyber Inquisitor” but that is another tale for another day.

If I still disagree with you a bit, it is on the chilling effect of fundamentalist input on this site. I see your point, and in general I agree. However, I think there are people out there who are intelligent, reasonable and hold fairly “conservative” orthodox views that would be valuable as a counterbalance to what at times seem to me
(I stress the ‘to me’ aspect) pretty outlandish ideas. Maybe orthodox is a better word to use to describe the people I am thinking of.

Under the circumstances, it was kind of you to share what was on your mind. I sincerely appreciate it.

Is certainty the blue litmus test of belief?

Erlenmeyer’s comment seems to assume that the blue litmus test of belief is certainty- the stronger my certainty, the stronger my belief. On the other hand he also seem to be suggesting that an elaborately articulated faith with lots of beliefs held strongly (= dogmatism?) is stifling, at least in a forum such as this one.

On the first point, is certainty the blue litmus test of belief (faith)?

Suppose Fidel believes in the brotherhood of man- how do I test whether he is really committed to his belief? Well, I look and see whether he acts generously whenever he has the chance, vigorously opposes discrimination, works for fair and benevolent institutions, opposes war. What I don’t do is ask, “Are you really certain about your belief in the brotherhood of man by comparison with, say, the law of gravity?”

The same point applies to belief in God. The strength of my belief in God is to be seen in what I do. My belief is very weak if I spend all my energy on the pursuit of money or career; strong if I pray often and see God’s hand in all that happens. “Certainty”, if by that is meant statements based on evidence or argument, hardly seems to be relevant. Indeed I may believe that it is impossible to prove God’s existence by evidence or argument and yet have a strong belief in God.

On the second point, what I take to be Erlenmeyer’s definition of dogmatism, I don’t think elaborately articulated faith is the problem, or at least the main problem. Consider Erlenmeyer’s own belief in the resurrection. To make sense, this cannot be considered as an isolated event- it only has its power as the centre of his belief because he also believes many other things about Jesus.

Rather, I would define dogmatism as faith held mainly on tribal grounds or grounds of self interest, and which is impervious to any other world-view. This was the problem Jesus encountered with Israel and which we all repeat

Certainty and belief

PaulHartigan is certainly correct to observe that there is a difference (and in some cases a wide chasm) between what I say I believe, and what I believe. Examining a person’s actions can reveal much in the way of their true decision-making framework.

Also correct is the assertion that there are no isolated beliefs. Holding firmly to Jesus’ resurrection has repercussions on my whole belief system. Yet there are certain doctrines that are more intimately related, and less intimately related, to that one. Psalms vs. contemporary music in worship, I would argue, is several steps removed from the resurrection of Jesus, and should be weighted accordingly low on the certainty scale.

My purpose in this thread has not necessarily been to define faith, but to propose a few concepts that I deem necessary to a healthy exchange of ideas among a diverse group of people — in other words, how to foster unity among believers without requiring uniformity of belief.

I’m sure many of you on this site will find ME to be the dogmatic one. My views are generally on the conservative end, and like Alario I am very committed to scripture as the only infallible rule of faith and practice. However, I am also committed to honoring my brothers and sisters in the faith and honoring the Spirit within them, who is guiding them into all truth just as surely as He is guiding me. This requires me to loosen my grip on some of my favorite doctrines in order that God might teach me something new through one of you.

My posts have simply been an exploration into the idea that spiritual maturity might not be a process of defining our theological positions ever more precisely, but rather acknowledging the variety of opinions within the community of faith and creating wiggle room for them all. So no, I would not want certainty to be the litmus test for faith.

I have been on many sites which were nothing more than heated arguments and ranting from people who had no desire to learn, only to teach. I would like to posture myself, and encourage us all to posture ourselves, as someone who hopes just as eagerly to receive wisdom as to give it.

And as for those fundamentalists… :) Apparently I have some issues to work out. I shouldn’t pick on them, because they’re not the only group of people who are clinically inflexible. There are just as many liberals who consider any idea that runs contrary to their own as a threat rather than an opportunity. These are the people I refer to as dialogue-killers. I’ve really only seen one example so far on this site:


I had a couple of Jehovah’s witnesses stop by the other day and we had a very nice conversation, and I invited them to stop by again next time they were in the neighborhood. They are very conservative in some areas. Yet we had a wonderful chat. They asked me questions and listened to my responses at least as much as they spoke. Their agenda was not so much to make sure I heard what they had to say, but simply to dialogue. Anyone who’s interested in having a respectful conversation rather than a one-sided soapbox sermon or a shouting match will be welcomed by me.

Love: absolute and constant

Get back to basics indeed- the basic deeds: seek peace, love mercy, walk humbly with your Lord, shelter the sojourn, feed the hungry, heal the sick, encourage the imprisoned, liberate the oppressed, confront the abusers, and abandon all hope in this world’s promises of prestige, profit, success, comfort, and power.

This is the realm that Jesus operated in, and it is a realm full of crosses: and servile submission to the over-ruling authority of sacred scipture and sacred tradition will not make your cross any more or less accomodating. As though the love of God requires yet another zealot to defend textual idolatry and traditional servility.

The Body of Christ needs one thing only: Love. THAT is the absolute and constant and one thing acceptable to God; as well as the absolutely constant blessing given freely by God.

In agreement with a slight exception.

Your passion, Dissident Heart, as well as your words carry the truth unvarnished and undiluted to the page. And I, for one agree with it.

Having said that, I must say the actions you advocate with such passion are the very things the “sacred scriptures” call for us to do. In other words your call for action is firmly and, to my mind, accurately grounded in the “sacred scriptures”.

I probably don’t need to point out to you that, despite abuses by, failings of, and, dare I use the word, the sins of two millenia of Christians does not diminish the fact that many of the people you refer to as slaves to tradition and textual idolaters have done the very things you call for, finding their call to do so, not in your rather scathing remonstrance, but rather in the texts and traditions you seem to diminish. Many have done so, if I may be so bold to remind you, at the cost of their lives.

So, if someone wants to defend the texts that support your call for love in action or the traditions of their denomination that likewise support that call, it’s no great sin they’ve committed. They just need to remember what it all points to as you suggest.

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