E115 – June 2006
Turning the Other Cheek – Responding to Injustice
Turning the other cheek is referred to in that section of the Sermon on the Mount, Mat 5: 38-42, in which Jesus teaches his disciples how they should respond to evil and injustice. He gives four examples presented down from the greater evil to the lesser one: they involve a violent encounter, a court trial, conscription and responding to requests for gifts and loans. All of them involve in some way the expression of hostility through social and legal gestures of one sort or another and they are all often understood as merely counselling us to respond with love and kindness to others who abuse us and perhaps to simply accept and walk away from such humiliation. But is that all there is to it?
Jesus is certainly telling us that in some sense we should not resist evil. But did Jesus himself resist evil? We only have to ask the question to realize that of course he did. Were not his temptations in the wilderness, recounted for us in Mat 4, examples of how he behaved in this regard, resisting evil in several forms? His action in the temple, referred to in all 4 Gospels (Mat 21:12-17; Mk 11:15-19; Lk 19:45-48; John 2:13-22) showed equally a firm response to what he regarded as evil. Didn’t he also say: ‘I have not come to bring peace but a sword’ (Mat 10:34), and, ‘I have come to kindle a fire’ (Lk 12:49). If Jesus’ reaction to evil involved such positive and deliberate responses, what might ‘not resisting evil’ mean for us then?
James tells us to ‘resist the devil and he will flee from you’ (4:7), and, in 1 Pet 5:8-9, we are told to ‘be firm in your faith and resist him [the devil].’ We certainly then have to resist some things in some way. But what of the not resisting that Jesus speaks of, is it simply a matter of non-resistance, non-retaliation, or should it in any sense be more than that?
Jesus starts this section with reference to the ‘eye for an eye’ rule of the OT. The Lex Talionis, the Law of Talion, is presented as a law of retribution, (Ex 21:23,4,5; Lev 24:19,(20); Deut 19:21) indicating that anyone causing an injury should suffer loss that matched the injury both in degree and in kind. But was it ever applied literally? Certainly not in the time of Jesus but probably not in OT times either.
There is no doubt that in the ancient world the Law of Moses was by far the most humane of legal systems. The ‘eye for an eye’ principle is known to have been part of the Code of Hammurabi (1792-50BC), before the Mosaic Law which took the principle over as its own standard of justice. It was intended to establish a limit to retaliation, it being understood that no more than an eye was to be taken for an eye. Essentially, this law is restrictive rather than permissive.
There is evidence in the Bible itself that, prior to that, revenge was taken mercilessly, often to a far greater extent than ‘an eye for an eye’. In Gen 4:23-4, Lamech brags of killing a young man because he had been struck by him and goes on to say that 77 lives would be taken if anyone dared to kill him, whereas only 7 lives were to be taken for killing Cain. Where else in the Bible is there reference to a number something like 77? Many commentators believe that in Mat 18:22 Jesus had Gen 4 in mind when he commended forgiving 70×7 times to his disciples (GNB note has ‘or 77’). Jesus is surely making it clear that retaliation in kind, not only of the Lamech variety, but also of the much more restrained Mosaic variety, was not what he wanted of his disciples. Jesus was saying that even restrained retaliation, rather than uncontrolled vengeance, would be unlikely to solve the problem of evil.
But does this mean that we are simply to allow evil to have its way without any form of challenge? Doesn’t Jesus’ demand confront the world with the question of whether it will let itself be changed for the better through an increase in compliance and non-violence? Surely the whole of Jesus’ ministry was devoted to encouraging his hearers to change, and he didn’t do that by servile acceptance of all that evil threw at him. When appropriate, he acted and responded to evil in ways that challenged others to change. The non-resistance that Jesus is commending to his disciples certainly does involve not striking back at evil in kind, not resorting to violence, but should it also involve a positive response of some kind?
Paul, in Rom 12:17-21 (NB Rom 12:20 = Prov 25:24) recommends that we should ‘conquer evil with good’. Surely this involves more than mere non-resistance, more than mere non-retaliation. It does not mean just negatively doing nothing in response to evil. That is perhaps what King James 1st would have wanted people to understand when he hired scholars to translate the scriptures and they gave us the KJV translation of Mat 5:39 as ‘… resist not evil.’ That no doubt would encourage most to think that there was no way they should challenge his kingly authority even when he treated his subjects with disdain.
I am given to understand that the word translated ‘resist’ here means something like ‘rise up against’. In other words probably Jesus was intending to say ‘Don’t rise up against evil’ in the sense of ‘Don’t strike back in kind’, ‘Don’t retaliate against violence with violence.’ But above all, he was not saying don’t react at all. But how then should we react? Let us examine more closely Jesus’ four examples.
First let us consider the incident involving at least a measured amount of physical violence. Mat 5:39 refers to someone being struck on the cheek. Although Luke (in 6:29) does not specify which cheek, Matthew certainly does, the right one. When someone is close enough to you to strike you on the cheek then you are in a face-to-face encounter, maybe involving a dispute of some kind. I understand that fisticuffs was generally only resorted to between those of equal rank in society, in which case the blow to the right cheek could well have been a left-handed punch. Otherwise, the blow would have had to be a backhanded slap with the right hand. Hitting with the left hand was generally avoided as the left hand was reserved for unclean duties. The whole context here would suggest that Jesus is describing cases of abuse of one kind or another where a superior is dealing with someone regarded as inferior to themselves. It was the regular practice in those days for superiors to deliver backhanded slaps to their inferiors: master to slave, husband to wife, father to child etc. Invariably the slap was intended as an insult, to put the person concerned in their place as it were, to put them in the wrong vis-à-vis the person delivering the slap, to make the slapped person recognise and acknowledge the superiority of the one delivering the slap.
There are three possible reactions to such situations: flight, fight or thirdly, as Walter Wink proposes, perhaps to use the situation to make a challenge to the underlying injustice of the system. Flight was the generally expected reaction, the slapped person retreating suitably humbled. As for fighting, the superior person no doubt expected the slapped person to cower, accepting his/her own inferiority. For an inferior to risk fisticuffs with a superior was likely to be fatal: the slave attacking his master would be likely to receive a heavy flogging if not execution. The third alternative is in some way to stand your ground, stand firm, and risk challenging the inherent injustice of the system by taking the initiative from the superior person and wrong-footing him, i.e. making a statement as we would say.
If what I have been saying is anywhere near the truth, then turning the other cheek is not just meekly asking for more, carrying submission to extremes, but it is putting the other on the spot. How is he going to deliver another insulting blow to your right cheek when you have turned your left cheek to face him? The right-handed, backhand slap would then land right on your nose with a totally different effect! Faced with your left cheek, your superior, filled with indignation, but unable to maintain his dignity and express his indignation in the usual manner, would be wrong-footed and made to stop and consider whether what he was doing was right. Turning the other cheek stops the other in his tracks and hopefully makes him realize that he is dealing with another human being just like himself and not simply an inferior to be disposed of as he pleases. Here then is the third option, to do something non-violent which takes the other by surprise and makes them reconsider the injustice of their own violent action.
I suppose we could ask whether Jesus intended his ’turn the other cheek’ literally. Was he replacing one literalism, ‘an eye for an eye’, with another? In Acts 23:2, Paul is before the Council in Jerusalem and claims to have a perfectly clear conscience when the High Priest orders him to be slapped. It is not too clear why the slap was given but it was perhaps because the High Priest saw Paul as an heretic and insisted that he be treated to the backhanded heretics slap. Perhaps Jesus expected many of his disciples to be treated in this way and so suggested what they might do in those circumstances. There is however no evidence that Paul literally turned the other cheek on this occasion.
Also Jesus, when undergoing his own inquisition before the High Priest, as recorded in John 18:19-24, was struck on the face (was it the mouth or a cheek?) by one of the officials, but instead of turning the other cheek literally he spoke up in his own defence and pointed out the injustice of the slap. He said: ‘If I said something wrong testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?’ He does not respond with violence but neither does he accept the slap meekly and cower. He responds with words appropriate to the situation and which challenge the inherent injustice.
The second illustration, in Mat 5:40 (cf Luke 6:29), appears to refer to a court case concerning the Jewish practice of giving the outer garment as collateral for a loan. In this connection it is Luke who has got it right, the outer garment being given up. It was clearly the poor who were more likely to find themselves in such situations, needing some quick cash to feed the family perhaps. With only one set of clothes, having to give up their outer garment was bad enough but taking off their undergarment would just about leave them naked. Now, in Jewish society, nakedness shamed the observer and perhaps that’s why Jesus suggested what he did, so that the person demanding their rights might be shamed into thinking again by the sight of the victim nearly naked. Giving up the undergarment was not a kindness in such circumstances but a powerful way of saying ‘You’ll be wanting me next!’, making a statement about the underlying injustice.
The third example, in Mat 5:41, concerns a form of conscription. Mat 27:32. tells of Simon of Cyrene being forced to carry Jesus’ cross, presumably an example of a similar kind. As far as carrying loads for soldiers is concerned, the one mile regulation was intended to put a limit on the conscription – no more than a mile, just like ‘an eye for an eye’ meant ‘no more than an eye’. The soldier who tried to force his conscript to go further could be reported to his superiors and would be in trouble, or so I am told.
That being the case, imagine the soldiers reaction when his conscript insists on doing a second mile! Volunteering to do a second mile is just not what the soldier would have been expecting. He might have thought: ‘What is this Jew up to, trying to make trouble for me with my superiors?’ He is wrong-footed and made to think about the injustice of the system. Can you see him pleading with the Jew to give him his bag back and leave him in peace! No doubt Jesus’ hearers would have seen the funny side of the advice. Offering to go the second mile was not especially showing kindness but making a statement about the injustice of the situation.
Jesus finishes his illustrations in Mat 5:42 with an exhortation to respond positively to requests for gifts and loans, expecting his disciples to learn to be generous, presumably even with repeated pesterers, who could be thought of as at least a nuisance and at worst an abuser of one’s patience and generosity. Getting into debt was fairly commonplace but the Jew had to be prepared to lend without interest (Ex 22:25) and when the Law allowed him to take a coat as a pledge he had to have the grace not to barge into the borrower’s house to grab the coat but to wait for the debtor to bring it to him (Deut 24:10-13) and then had to remember to return it at nightfall (Ex 22:26,27). No doubt this was all to avoid humiliating the borrower any further.
In summary, all these situations were more likely to be experienced by the poor, the downtrodden, the inferiors in society, all likely to be taken advantage of by the rich and powerful. They are all ways in which demands are made of us involving some element of injustice or abuse. Jesus’ disciples were forewarned that they too would be likely to be mistreated by the authorities and had to be prepared at least to receive the heretics slap at the hands of the religious authorities. Jesus may well have been implying that in such circumstances you should try to take the initiative and make your point without being violent. Active enmity is to be answered, not with vengeance in kind, but with active love. As he said, in what has become known as the Golden Rule (Lk 6:31 Mat 7:12), ‘Do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.’
The cross is at the heart of Jesus’ response to evil. He identified himself with the victims of oppression, usually the poor and the dispossessed. He was not a failed insurrectionist or zealot, but he preferred to suffer injustice and violence rather than cause injustice and violence. However, by his words and his actions, without engaging in violence, he nevertheless made every effort to make the oppressors see the folly of their ways. Shouldn’t we do the same? That may be risky, but the cross, when followed by resurrection, means that death is not the greatest evil one can suffer. That fact frees us to act faithfully without undue regard for the outcome. God can bring out of voluntarily assumed suffering the precious seeds of a new reality. We cannot really be open to the call of God in a situation of oppression if the one thing we have excluded as an option is our own suffering and death.
The reign of God is already in the process of arriving when we choose means that are consistent with its arrival. It takes much courage to walk into a situation voluntarily, knowing that suffering is inevitable, choosing to draw the poison of that violence with one’s own body rather than perpetuate the downward spiral of violence. Don’t we celebrate this at every breaking of bread?
Prayer by Bishop John Taylor of Lincoln
Lord Jesus Christ, alive and at large in the world, help me to follow and find you there in the places where I work, meet people, spend money, and make plans. Take me as a disciple of your Kingdom, to see through your eyes, and hear the questions you are asking, to welcome people with your trust and truth, and to change the things that contradict God’s love, by the power of the cross and the freedom of your spirit. Amen
This, now, is a transitional period.
Something is on the way out and
something else is painfully being born.
This world is crumbling, decaying,
exhausting itself, yet another thing
of which we catch only glimmers is
arising through the rubble.
Can it be that an amalgam of cultures is taking place?
The more we learn of the universe and of ourselves
we understand our own lives less and less.
We are not here alone, nor for ourselves alone.
We are an integral part of a higher, mysterious entity against whom
it is not advisable to blaspheme.
We are rooted in the earth, but at the same time also in the cosmos.
Transcendence is the only real alternative to extinction.
Only a God can save us now….
*With acknowledgements to Vaclav Havel
Rosalind Lomas January 2006
Vaclav Havel was born in Prague in 1936. He became a prominent writer, playwright and poet. In 1993 he was elected as President of the Czech Republic. On July 4, 1994 he gave a speech in Independence Hall, Philadelphia entitled The Need for Transcendence in the Postmodern World. The speech can be accessed via Google and Transcendence. It maintained that in this postmodern world, cultural conflicts were becoming more dangerous than any time in history and that a new model of coexistence was needed based on man’s transcending himself.
Rosalind Lomas found the speech on the web, underlined some of the phrases used by Havel and lo! a poem was born!
Time and again translators use one word when Scripture is describing faithless rebellious Israel ‘stubborn’. For instance:
‘They did not listen or obey. Everyone continues to be as stubborn as ever…’ ‘They are more stubborn and rebellious than their ancestors…’
‘They stubbornly go their own way, rigid as iron and unyielding as bronze’.
The word ‘stubborn’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘stybb’ meaning ‘something hard and immovable, a stone embedded in the ground, a hard stump in the path on which you stub your toe – even trip over and fall’. The long-awaited Messiah proved to be a ‘stybb’ to the Jews:
‘. . .a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence . . .’ (Rom 9:33)
‘. . . a stone that caused them to stumble and a rock that made them fall.’
(1 Pet 2:8)
To be stubborn is to be obstinate. Obstinate means to stand, to stand firm. Just as there are times, places and situations when it is wrong to be obstinate there will be a time, a place or a situation when it will be right to stand and stand firm. For instance:
‘Stand fast in the faith . . .’ (1 Cor 16:13)
‘Be not moved away from the hope of the gospel . . .’ (Col 1:23,)
‘Take unto you the whole armour of God that you may be able to withstand in the evil day and having done all to stand. Stand therefore . . . girt about with truth, having on the breastplate of righteousness, feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; taking the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit.’ (Eph 6:13)
Be obstinate! Be stubborn! Stand firm!
To be stubborn is to be persistent. To be persistent is to continue steadfast, to persevere. Here again there will be a time, place and situation when to persist will not be a vice but a virtue as in:
‘Be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord’
(1 Cor 15:58)
‘They continued steadfastly in the apostle’s doctrine and fellowship and in breaking of bread and prayers.’ (Acts 2:42)
‘We are made partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast unto the end.’ (Heb 3:14)
Be persistent! Continue steadfast! Persevere!
To be stubborn is to stand in someone’s way.
1. When it was wrong to do so.
Jesus denounced the Pharisees for shutting the door of the Kingdom of God in men’s faces. ‘You, yourselves, do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to’ (Matt 23:13). Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, ‘We made every effort to see you. For we wanted to come to you – but Satan (the Jews) stopped us’ (1 Thess 2:18).
2. When it was right to do so.
When Balaam saddled his donkey and set off to go and curse Israel he soon discovered how stubborn Israel’s God can be! ‘God’s anger was kindled because he went. And the angel of the Lord stood in the road to bar his way.’ Balaam tried to go on. ‘Then the angel stood where the road narrowed between two vineyards and had a stone wall on either side.’ Balaam tried once more. ‘Then the angel moved ahead and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to pass on either side… and said, ‘I have come to bar your way, because you should not be making this journey’. (Num 22: 21-26)
If I had a donkey wot wouldn’t go,
D’ye think I’d wallop him?
No, no no!
Lord, You have said, ‘Be not like the mule.’
But when it comes to going Your way — make me stubborn!
Teach me to persist and persevere,
to stand and stand firm for my Saviour
and all that He stood for and stands for.
Placed as I am in a world that is passing away,
help me to hold fast to the things which endure for ever.
The Da Vinci Code is currently a best-selling novel written by American author Dan Brown in 2003. Sales have reached record breaking levels, 40 million copies having been printed and translated into 53 languages. A major Hollywood film is being made of the novel, due to be released in May 2006. Because of this popularity, and also because of its disturbing effects on some ‘Christians’, readers may find it helpful to have some information about the book. I know that some brothers and sisters have already been asked by friends to explain its contents and implications.
The Da Vinci Code is merely a fictitious thriller. It is presented as an historical novel, combining a mixture of detective, thriller and conspiracy theory genres. The book is part two of a trilogy that started with Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons in 2000.
The Da Vinci Code claims that for the past 2000 years the true story of Jesus has been covered up. It claims that Jesus and Mary Magdalene created a bloodline, the documentary evidence of which has purposely been hidden away by Church authorities. The storyline of the novel is the search for this documentary evidence, which it claims can only be achieved by finding and solving a series of codes. The ‘Da Vinci’ in the book’s title refers to the painter Leonardo Da Vinci (1452—1519).
In effect, The Da Vinci Code turns out to be nothing less than a thinly disguised attack on the very foundations of historical Christianity. Spread over the course of the book, the following extraordinary claims are made:
1. It claims Jesus was a mere mortal, not the Son of God. He did not overcome sin and death by his sinless life and sacrifice on the cross, but was a mortal prophet whose gnostic mission was to provide men and women with the ‘knowledge’ to overcome ignorance and so liberate themselves from this evil world.
2. It claims that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and they had several children together.
3. It claims that Mary Magdalene was the first and greatest apostle. She was of the royal blood and of the house of Benjamin. By marrying, Jesus and Mary established themselves as heirs to Solomon’s kingship.
4. It claims that the so-called Holy Grail is not a legendary inanimate chalice, but is Mary Magdalene herself. The legendary quest for the Holy Grail is to seek the resting place of Mary Magdalene.
5. It claims that throughout history the church authorities have conspired to suppress all these secrets, including the documentary evidence of the legacy of Jesus and Mary’s children.
6. Further, it claims that ‘the church’ has also suppressed the concept of the ‘sacred feminine’, along with the original prominent role of the female (honour given to the goddess etc.).
7. It claims that the painter Leonardo da Vinci was aware of these secrets, and he revealed them by means of a secret code in two of his most famous paintings viz. The Virgin of the Rocks and The Last Supper.
It quickly becomes apparent that the novel, besides being an attempt to undermine the whole of historical Christianity, is also a specific and ‘personal’ attack on the Catholic Church, which is accused of flagrantly suppressing the ‘truth’ of Jesus and Mary Magdalene in order to retain its authority and keep itself in power. The Eastern Orthodox Churches are not mentioned in the novel, neither are the Protestant Churches.
Several Catholic books have been written in response, one of which is The Da Vinci Hoax  whose joint authors are Carl Olsen and Sandra Miesel. Carl Olsen is an established author and editor of a national magazine and Sandra Miesel is an experienced writer and holds a master’s degree in Medieval History from Illinois University. The Da Vinci Hoax appears to be well researched and referenced, and although it does not have an official Nihil Obstat or an Imprimatur, it does contain a foreword by Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago, who warmly recommends it as a necessary book and ‘the definitive debunking’.
Dan Brown prefaces his The Da Vinci Code by stating that ‘All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.’ Simply seeing these words in print seems to have convinced many readers that the book is an accurately researched and authentic piece of history. In fact, as The Da Vinci Hoax points out, Dan Brown is not only a biased researcher, but also, on the strength of this novel, he is a poor historian. He has drawn on two existing books for most of his information: The Templar Revelation: Secret Guardians of the True Identity of Christ  and Holy Blood, Holy Grail. 
According to The Da Vinci Hoax, these books embrace Gnostic teachings, just as do the Gnostic Gospels which Dan Brown also relies upon, including the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip and the Acts of John, none of which are included in the Canon of the New Testament.
In contrast, the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John seem to have been overlooked by the author. These Gospels are, of course, the only human witness and historic knowledge of Jesus Christ available to us. They had all been written before AD 100, and by AD 150 had been ‘earmarked’ for inclusion in the eventual Canon of the New Testament, to be formulated over the following two centuries.
In contrast, the Gnostic Gospels were written later, at a time when false practices and injurious doctrines were causing much trouble to the early church. None of the Gnostic Gospels were written before AD 150, and most Gnostic writings were composed in the second and third centuries. Several modern ‘religions’ have embraced Gnostic thought, such as New Age, occultists, radical feminists, neo-pagans and Wiccans.
Author Dan Brown seems to have tapped into a modern key concept of Gnosticism so beloved by modern feminists, that of the ‘wholeness’ provided by an androgynous God and hindered only by the unfair suppression of the ‘sacred feminine’. Gnostics believed that those enlightened by gnosis were essentially in pairs – male and female – forming a perfect whole, or syzygy. Thus, Jesus would require a female counterpart to make him complete or ‘whole’. In Gnostic writings that ‘consort’ was Mary Magdalene.
The Italian Renaissance painter Leonardo da Vinci features largely in The Da Vinci Code, which makes the outlandish claim that he knew about the blood succession from Jesus and Mary Magdalene. He was said to have revealed this secret by means of codes in at least two of his paintings, and principally in The Last Supper. However, reputable art historians and critics have not supported this idea of hidden codes, and they have provided very satisfactory interpretations for the religious concepts in Leonardo’s paintings.
Undoubtedly, the public has an insatiable appetite for conspiracy theories, especially those of the religious kind. I have heard from one sister who, when travelling on the London underground, noted that everyone near her who was reading was in fact reading The Da Vinci Code!
Christadelphians generally do not engage in public debate. Nevertheless brethren and sisters are sure to be appalled at the absurd falsehoods in The Da Vinci Code, presented as they are in the guise of an ‘historical’ novel. For those already inclined to be critical of scriptural teaching, this is a dangerous, superficial and easy-access type of modern fiction that is quick to read and makes readers feel they are discovering for themselves new and historically reliable knowledge. It is, of course, anathema to those whose faith rests on solid Bible truth.
It is to be hoped that other Christian-minded people will also object to the damaging inaccuracies in the novel, and that they will be moved to examine more closely the Scriptures, and experience for themselves the liberating Truth to be found In them.
1. The Da Vinci Hoax by Carl Olsen & Sandra Miesel 2004 Ignatius Press, San Francisco.
2. The Templar Revelation: Secret Guardians of the True Identity of Christ by Lynn Picknet & Clive Prince (1997; New York: Simon and Schuster 1998)
3. Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln (1982; New York: Dell, 1983)
The Jubilee Debt Campaign held its annual conference on 8th April. The theme was Debt and Power: challenging debt not only as a creator of extreme poverty, but also as a tool of control. About 200 people attended to hear Susan George (author of many books including A Fate Worse than Debt and The Debt Boomerang) and Lidy Nacpil (Co-ordinator of Jubilee South). The speakers explained that many debts are illegitimate and also effect a wide range of damage. They reminded everyone that countries with extreme poverty are having to spend vast sums on debt servicing – sometimes more than on health or education – and that the promise of debt relief is used to impose harmful economic policies on them. The last year has seen substantial progress in debt cancellation – but still only about a tenth of what is needed. More countries need to be helped; more debts need to be addressed; harmful and undemocratic economic policy conditions of debt relief must be removed.
July 15-17 – G8 Summit, St Petersburg, Russia
September 14, London. Christian Aid and partners are inviting thousands of campaigners to drum the trade justice message home in 2006. Remind the Government to keep its promise to stop forcing poor countries to liberalise their economies before Gordon Brown and Hilary Benn jet off to the IMF and World Bank autumn meetings.
There will be a rally with speakers and musicians and a march to the Treasury. For the latest information, visit www.pressureworks.org/dosomething.
September 16 – October 17 White Band Month of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty
September 19-20 Annual meetings of the World Bank and IMF, Singapore.
Two volumes by Ruth McHaffie.
The following are some comments arising from a reading of the above books, comments which are also inevitably coloured by my own experience of the Christadelphian body.
1a) I regard the whole project of interpreting prophecy as ill-conceived. The unhealthy Christadelphian fixation with prophecy presupposes a very literal understanding of the Bible and makes unwarranted assumptions about relevance, meaning, applicability (and, of course, complete acceptance of inspirational validity).
b) This fixation perhaps arises from an ethos which regards ‘knowledge’ (‘The Truth’) as the most critical attribute of a Christian.
c) The weight of attention given to it, and its perceived importance, would seem to have replaced awareness of what Christianity is actually about.
d) Perhaps prophecy appeals to certain kinds of mind, and its ‘interpretation’ functions to replace the essential uncertainty of human life with a contrived ‘certainty’.
e) It seems to me that the literal focus on prophecy has often led to attitudes which are unethical and antichristian. E.g. the bloodthirsty idea that so-called ‘saints’ will slaughter a big proportion of humanity when the time comes! A corollary of this is a conception of a god who is also unethical, a kind of god I don’t want to know.
2. The repeated references to ‘Sudden destruction / Peace and safety’ in the community’s literature fail to realize that such cries are alternately good for most eventualities and are therefore of little predictive value.
3. The idea that God has arranged history (i.e. controls events) has its problems. Presumably it means that he ‘arranged’ the Holocaust etc. etc. ad infinitum! As Ruth writes, where then is free will? Implicated here of course are broader questions of meaning and purpose and a conception of how God interacts with creation.
4. The idea that force will be used to coerce the Jews to accept Christ at his return is equally problematic. No way can anyone force anyone else to become Christian. So advocates of this idea are simply talking politics.
5. Christadelphians ‘stand back from’, play no part in, ‘worldly’ things – politics etc. They attempt to keep themselves pure in the style of ‘touch not, taste not, handle not’ etc. This is a cop-out and, again, results in antichristian attitudes. By contrast, Jesus was totally involved with humanity.
6. Focus on the future (return of Jesus) downplays the present which becomes simply a means of attaining a ‘future’ instead of being a vital experience of the only reality we can presently know. What is ‘salvation’ anyway? If love is realised in actual experience now, what CONTENT is involved in looking ahead? (This raises broader concerns!)
7. Returning to 1b, the emphasis on ‘correct’ knowledge (Statement of Faith) is again based on a fundamentalist, literal understanding of the Bible. In fact, in a broader context, what can and do human beings know anyway? Very, very little! Seeing this so-called ‘knowledge’ as the essential aspect of being Christian is a travesty – certainly of any attitudes which I would consider to be Christian.
8. It is very good that Ruth exposes the absurdity of much which purports to be understanding of prophecy and rather points to elements of Christianity which are much more important. Can one hope that any ‘traditional’ Christadelphians will take notice? Also, and very importantly, she exposes something of the censoring that goes on within the community.
9. My overall picture of the Christadelphian body is that it originated in a particular historical context with particular concerns (e.g. prophecy) which were not essentially Christian and it has never outgrown these limitations. I regard it as a body whose ethos is primarily political and not Christian, material and not spiritual. Where, for example, is there any awareness in its literature of beauty, of natural religion? (This does not mean that I do not value the material.)
Christadelphians would of course reply that they are essentially concerned with Christ. I see it that the actual concern is with Jesus as a political figure of the future and not with his message of love applicable to the here and now. I suspect that the God of traditional Christadelphians is a thing called ‘The Statement of Faith’ whose high priest was a doctor!
Perhaps other readers might care to comment on some of the author’s concerns in the next issue.
Is it possible to be a Christian and an artist without compromising one or the other? The Christian with artistic gifts will likely face this difficult question if he or she wishes to use those talents to glorify God. There was a time when this would not have been an issue. Before the Enlightenment the Church was a great supporter of the arts, and much of the best art was religious in nature. Yet now the art world seems to be permeated with Humanism and Christian artists are often in an uncomfortable minority. For this and other reasons many Christians are hostile to artistic expression, and ask whether a Christian can or should be an artist.
When seeking guidance on these matters from other Christians, the answers are sometimes superficial. The musician is told to write hymns, the poet is told to write spiritual ‘poetry’ for publication in religious magazines, the pictorial artist, well, if he must paint, then he can paint the backdrops for the Sunday School play. An aspiring Christian artist is made to feel that if he or she doesn’t produce ‘Christian art’ with directly Christian uses then this is not an appropriate use of one’s talents.
A Christian artist who is struggling with these questions would probably benefit by looking at how other Christian artists have expressed their faith through their art. There are a variety of approaches. Some have been content to create explicitly Christian art. But for others their faith is something which is less overtly present in their work, yet there nonetheless. J.R.R.Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is an example of the latter. This article will take a look at Tolkien and his work, with the aim of presenting some thoughts to help the Christian artist think about their faith and their artistic gifts and how the two might work together.
J.R.R.Tolkien was born in South Africa in 1892 to English parents. From an early age he demonstrated a talent for language and enjoyed creating imaginary languages. His father died when he was 4 and his mother moved the family back to England. He grew up in the area surrounding Birmingham, and attended private schools where he received an excellent education in linguistics. In 1925 he became a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, where he was to stay until 1959.
During his childhood he invented an imaginary elvish language called Quenya. After childhood he continued to work on Quenya, devising words and grammar rules for it. He started to create an imaginary world, called Middle-Earth, to be inhabited by the speakers of Quenya. Tolkien was to work on filling in the details of the languages, history, literature, geography and cultures of Middle-Earth for the rest of his life. In 1935 he published The Hobbit, a children’s story set in Middle-Earth. This told the ‘there and back again’ tale of Bilbo, the hobbit of the title. Hobbits are one of the races of beings who inhabit Middle-Earth. They are similar to humans, but about half their size. They are a pastoral race, preferring a simple agricultural life and are fond of food, drink and smoking. Hobbits are not, as a rule, an adventurous people, but Bilbo journeys to a dragon’s lair with a group of dwarves who want to reclaim their inheritance. In the tale Bilbo finds a magic ring, helps get rid of a dragon, prevents a war and returns home wiser and wealthier.
The Hobbit was a huge success, and fans and publishers begged for more. Almost 20 years were to pass while Tolkien worked on the next ‘hobbit’ book. The Lord of the Rings was published in 1954. It is a much longer, much more serious book and tells the epic tale of Bilbo’s nephew Frodo, who inherited the ring that Bilbo found. The Ring turns out to be a potent and evil magical artifact. It was created by Sauron, a fallen divinity of terrible power and malice, who lost it and seeks to regain it to use it to conquer the Free Peoples. The Lord of the Rings recounts how the Ring is destroyed and the events in the War of the Ring. The tale follows the ‘Fellowship of the Ring’, a group of men, elves, dwarves and hobbits who accompany Frodo on his journey to throw the Ring into the fires of Mount Doom, the only place where it can be destroyed. The fellowship is broken while under attack and the paths of the characters diverge and rejoin. The characters move in a world which has similarities with our own, but with its own history, cultures and geography. It is an intricately detailed world, and Tolkien’s passion for his creation is clear.
The Lord of the Rings was a modest success at first, but became very popular in the 1960’s, when it resonated with the anti-technological zeitgeist of the period. Since that time it has steadily grown in popularity, being translated into many languages, spawning much fan activity and many literary imitators. The recent success of a series of movies based on the book has brought it to an even larger audience, including many who might find the book itself rather daunting, with its huge size, great detail and slightly archaic language.
There is no question that Tolkien’s religious beliefs heavily informed The Lord of the Rings. He wrote in a letter to a friend that The Lord of the Rings was a ‘fundamentally religious and Christian work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.’ Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic, and included among his close friends C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. Tolkien in fact played a large role in C.S.Lewis’s conversion to Christianity.
From the beginning fans and scholars have noted that there are many Christian elements in the book, despite the fact that God is never mentioned in it, and references to religion are rare. The Christian influence is subtle, and has more to do with themes and ideas in the novel than specific overt details or obvious attempts to proselytize. Perhaps the most important Christian theme in it is Providence. Throughout the difficulties the characters face they understand that there is a higher power at work, guiding and helping. The wizard Gandalf tells Frodo when they are discussing the finding of the Ring by Bilbo:
Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker [Sauron]. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought. (The Lord of the Rings I 54-55)
Beyond the malice of Sauron is a higher power, who works things out to the good. Difficult and dark times lie ahead for Frodo and his companions, but they never lose the sense that there are other forces at work that are more powerful even than Sauron, the ‘Lord of the Ring’.
Another Christian theme found throughout the book in various ways is the importance of humility. The Ring corrupts the one who bears it. The proud and ambitious are particularly vulnerable to its promise of great power. Frodo, the Ring-Bearer is particularly suited to carrying the ring and resisting its corruption precisely because he comes from a humble, unambitious race. His companion Sam, who is also a hobbit, bears the ring for a short period of time, and resists its temptation to turn him into a great ruler and warrior:
Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land…at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be.
In that hour of trial it was the love of his master that helped most to hold him firm; but also deep down in him lived still unconquered his plain hobbit-sense;…The one small garden of a free gardener was his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.
This reminds one of the passage in Philipians 2:6-9 (NIV) that speaks of Jesus:
Who, being in the form of God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death–
even death on a cross!
Much more could have and has been said about other Christian themes in the book such as hope, fellowship, courage and perseverance. (A short bibliography follows this article for those who are interested in exploring further the Christian elements in LotR.) Many fans have found the book inspiring and spiritually helpful. One fan writes:
I find, when I read Tolkien, a longing in my heart to be true and brave and honourable. Not all things in this world call forth such a longing within me…mostly being so/so is good enough. Middle Earth is a place I visit when I need to be prodded to live beyond the so/so, to expect more of myself than I seem capable of. (Paula Spur, in a post to the Christian Tolkien Discussion list)
The Lord of the Rings is read and reread by millions of fans and has grown far beyond what Tolkien ever thought it would be. His God-given gifts of language and imagination have resulted in a work of art which has benefitted many spiritually, showing forth elements of Christianity in a positive way, helping others to see the goodness and power of God. It would not be excessive to state that Tolkien has glorified God through his stories of Middle-Earth.
Tolkien may serve as an example of how a Christian can express their faith through their art. Tolkien never set out to create an explicitly Christian novel. His strong Christian faith informs the world he created, and the stories he told. Middle-Earth was his life’s work, and he poured much of himself into it. It is a reflection of him and thus it is no surprise that it is saturated with the Christian ideas and themes that were important to Tolkien. But these elements are always a natural part of the story, and may perhaps not be noticed consciously at first. Close reading and rumination on the text often reveal more in the depths. At the same time, there is never the feeling that he was ‘sneaking things in’, hoping to get them past the intellectual defenses of unbelievers. Tolkien simply intended to create a great story. Some readers appreciate it on that level, others seek to understand it on a deeper level, uncovering the Christian content. But readers tend to agree that it is an artistic work of some brilliance. From this we see the first of the principles for Christian art, that it need not be overtly Christian for it to be effective as good art. It can refuse to be preachy, allegorical or obvious and still glorify God.
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings reveal a relatively small part of the entire work of imagination which Tolkien laboured over for most of life. Thousands of pages of material on Middle-Earth were found in various stages of completion after he died. Some of it was published as Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion, and later a 12 volume History of Middle-Earth series. Tolkien was a perfectionist and a ruthless reviser. While reading his biography and letters one gets the sense that Middle-Earth was always on his mind. If he had a free moment, he would find himself thinking about this Elvish word, or that bit of history. Middle-earth was a passion for him, it was play rather than work. A second principle of art in general, and Christian art specifically is that at its best, it has to come from play and passion, rather than duty. It will be serious at times, but ultimately it has to be something done freely and joyfully, out of love and passion, rather than duty. Sometimes Christian artists are reminded by their fellow Christians of their duty to use their talent responsibly and are lectured on what is and isn’t appropriate. The non-religious artistic world also has its expectations of what is appropriate. The Christian artist has to get past all this, and get on with playing and expressing their passion. If he or she is true to their faith and true to their gifts, then what they create will be Christian art.
Tolkien was a lover of languages, particularly dead languages. He was enormously gifted linguistically, and loved literature, again, usually the literature of dead languages. He spent most of his professional career teaching a dead language (Anglo-Saxon) and the literature thereof. ‘More responsible’ types might have condemned him for choosing what seemed to be a useless profession and for wasting time inventing a fantasy world. One could argue that he might have better used his linguistic gifts in the mission field or some other endeavour that would appear to be more immediately useful. But this would have been enormously shortsighted. God often uses the most ‘useless’ and surprising things to work out his plan. Someone once said that ‘nothing is more useless than a baby’.
However, babies grow up and sometimes do useful things. Tolkien’s gift and passion for language and literature may have seemed at first to be put to little use for ‘for the Lord’s work’. But in the end his creative efforts resulted in a work of art that has positively affected many people spiritually. It was precisely by being himself, by following his interests and passions, no matter how useless they seemed at the time, that his greatest work for the Lord was created. A third principle of Christian art can be discerned here. As a Christian and an artist you have been given talents, passions and interests which may seem to be leading you somewhere. It may seem useless to follow that path, if looked at from a strictly utilitarian viewpoint. And others may be discouraging you from ‘wasting your life’. But consider the example of Tolkien and consider that what you are doing may have a benefit which in your limited vision you can not foresee. We have no way of knowing the ways in which God might put our seemingly useless efforts to work. Open-minded prayer may help us to understand that God can use whatever we create in faith.
All of this is pointing in a direction which can be very freeing to someone who is an artist and Christian at the same time, and who wonders how Christianity and art can coexist. Whatever your passion is, follow it! No matter how useless it may seem at the time, or whether it doesn’t seem ‘Christian enough’. You have no idea what may come of your work, you have no idea who will be influenced by it for the good, you can’t be everywhere your art may travel. Be the best artist you can, and the best Christian you can, and everything will ‘work out for the good of those who love the Lord’.
Bruner, Kurt and Jim Ware Finding God in the Lord of the Rings Tyndale House Publishers, 2001
Shippey, Tom J.R.R.Tolkien Author of the Century Houghton Mifflin, 2002
Tolkien, J.R.R. On Fairy Tales in The Tolkien Reader Del Rey, 1986
Wood, Ralph C. The Gospel According to Tolkien Westminster John Knox Press, 2003
The Epistle to the Hebrews was written, we may assume, to a group of believers who had been converted from Judaism. In that letter they are forcefully reminded that Christ has taken them beyond the Law of Moses and the rituals of the Temple, all of which were no more than the foundations upon which a greater edifice could be built. The Law was the shadow, Christ was the reality. He was higher than any high priest, he offered a more effective sacrifice than any temple offering and in him the perfect pattern of heavenly things was made visible upon earth.
However, it was more than an academic interest in the Old Testament that prompted the author of this letter to describe the superiority of Christ over the types and shadows of the Old Covenant. There was a more practical reason also. The message of Hebrews can be given an added dimension if we can look behind the theology of the epistle and reconstruct from odd hints in the text the situation of its recipients. Although we are told almost nothing directly about them, yet scattered throughout the letter we are given clues as to their circumstances. The close-knit arguments concerning the superiority of Christ over the Law are interspersed with exhortations of a more practical nature. From these we can build up a picture, albeit fragmentary and speculative, of this community and of the pressures and trials that confronted it.
Who wrote this letter we have no way of knowing. Within our own community many writers attribute the letter to the Apostle Paul, although there are so many contrasts in style, in terminology and in emphasis, that this seems unlikely. Paul was chosen to be the Apostle to the Gentiles, and this letter was clearly written to Jews. In Galatians 1:12 he says of the gospel that he preached that it is not man’s gospel, for ‘I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ’ (ESV). In contrast, the author of Hebrews refers in 2:3 to the ‘great salvation’ which was spoken by the Lord and then ‘attested to us by those who heard’, which would suggest a second generation teacher. Since there is little more to go on than that, it is futile to speculate further.
A clue to the destination of the letter is given in 13:24: ‘Those who come from Italy send you greetings’. This could be a greeting sent from people presently living in Italy. But the more natural understanding is that these are the words of expatriates from Italy sending greetings back home. The recipients of this letter, we may therefore assume, are in Italy, most likely in Rome. They are a community who have accepted Christ, but are now in danger of turning away from him. It is clear that they were being tempted to revert to the Judaism from which they had once been called. They were not converted Gentiles, because there is no mention of circumcision, the authority of the law in relation to Gentiles or the antithesis of faith and works. These issues would not have been important to a group of believers who had been brought up as Jews, and had no Gentiles in their midst. They may have been a minority group within the Roman Ecclesia similar to the ‘Hebrew’ faction at Jerusalem.
Repeatedly their author pleads with them not to let go now, not to buckle under pressure and not to revert to something inferior. He reminds them of the dire consequences in the next life of turning their back on Christ for the sake of short term benefit in this life. To the author, faith means not only believing that something is true, seeing that which is invisible, but holding fast to it despite the most determined opposition.
What was driving them back to Judaism? It seems that their motive was not only a natural love for the traditions of their nation, but outside pressure also; the threat of persecution, the loss of livelihood and public humiliation. The Jews enjoyed the protection and security offered by the Roman government, the Religio Licita. In contrast, Christians faced the contempt and hostility of Jew and Roman alike because of their confession of Jesus as Messiah. That was the temptation that faced them. If they were to rejoin the synagogue, then they could avoid the ostracism of their fellow citizens.
Putting together odd clues in the text, we find that at some point in the not too distant past they had endured a time of hardship and persecution, and in which they had displayed generosity and patience. Some of their number had suffered for their faith, for they are urged in 10:32 to ‘recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated’. Even their author was imprisoned and they had compassion on him in his bonds (10:34, AV). Fortunately, none of them had lost their lives, for we later read: ‘In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood’ (12:4). The community had not yet had its martyrs. This would rule out Jerusalem as their location, because that was the first ecclesia to have martyrs in Stephen and James. Nor could these words be a reference to the persecution of Nero in the late 60s, when large numbers did suffer ‘unto blood’, as the AV puts it.
The author’s reiterated emphasis upon the 40 years of Israel’s probation in the wilderness gives a clue to the approximate date of the letter. It was written at a time when the fortieth anniversary of the dawning of salvation in Jesus was at hand. Jesus died, we may assume, in the late twenties, 40 years after that was the late sixties. We can be sure that it was not written after AD 70 when the Temple was destroyed. The Temple must still have been standing, for he speaks in 10:1-3 of the sacrifices ‘that are continually offered every year’ and then adds: ‘Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered?’ This would be a strange thing to say if in fact the Temple of Jerusalem had already been destroyed. The termination of Temple worship would have decisively proved the author’s point.
We know from the Roman historian Suetonius that in AD 49, there had been a surge of anti-Semitism in the capital: ‘Because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from the city’ (The Twelve Caesars; Claudius 25:4). This is presumably a riot caused by the preaching of Christ (‘Chrestus’). Luke also mentions this expulsion in Acts 18:2. Christian members of the Roman synagogues would surely have been singled out as the prime instigators of the unrest. It may well be that this expulsion was the incident which the author of Hebrews calls the ‘former days’, when they had endured ‘a hard struggle with sufferings’. Their property had been plundered, they had been driven out, but they had suffered no loss of life. The letter was therefore written after AD 49, but before the persecution of Nero, when many of them did suffer death. During that time, conditions had changed. The tide of public suspicion was starting to turn not against Jews, but specifically against Christians. A new and more terrible crisis was approaching, under which those who professed the name of Christ had to reckon with the real possibility of violent death. Rumours about them were spreading which later found expression in Nero’s accusation that the Christians were the enemies of Rome.
These reminders of what they had previously endured with such courage are part of an exhortation not to let go now. They are reminded also of their solidarity with those who were already in prison: ‘Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those are mistreated, since you also are in the body’ (13:3). The point of this reminder seems to be that they were already beginning to lose heart, ‘forsaking the assembling of yourselves together’ and need to be reminded to ‘consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together’ (10:24,25). Having thus reminded them of their former steadfastness, he now exhorts them: ‘Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised’ (v.35). And in verse 39 he reminds them that ‘we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls’ (10:39).
They were indeed shrinking back, not into unbelief, but to the safety of Judaism. This is what lies behind the constant reminders of the superiority of Christ over the Old Covenant. Nor is it likely that they would have been permitted simply to drift back unnoticed into the local synagogue. Rather, we can be sure they would have had to stand up and make a public denial of Christ, and admit that the death penalty passed upon him was just and fair. Perhaps they would have had to denounce their brethren at the same time. Hence those terrible words about ‘crucifying once more the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt’ (6:6).
There are hints that they were men of wealth, who have to be reminded in 13:5: ‘Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have’. Their author feels the need to remind them also to ‘do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifice are pleasing to God’ (13:16). John AT Robinson makes the interesting observation that even the metaphors which the author employs seem chosen to fit this situation. (Redating the New Testament, p.212). Unlike Jesus, who drew upon agriculture and country life, or Paul, who drew upon city life; the author of Hebrews draws his metaphors and illustrations from the world of property, commerce and accountancy. The language is calculated to appeal to those who naturally thought in terms of profit and loss. And so, God is a ‘wage-payer’ to those who diligently seek Him (11:6), and this word occurs four times in this epistle and nowhere else. Thus Moses had his eyes fixed upon the ‘reward’, when he reckoned, the reproach of Christ, was greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt’ (11:26). And in the passage already quoted, his readers are urged to make the same calculation: ‘Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised’ (10:35). Continually we read of ‘heirs’ who receive or enter an ‘inheritance’. In chapter 13 they are urged to ‘obey your leaders and submit to them … as those who will have to give an account … with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage (profit) to you’ (v.17).
All this suggests a Jewish community which, like many Jewish communities since then, had done well in business and accumulated considerable wealth. They faced the temptation to allow economic considerations to outweigh their commitment to Christ. It was fitting that they should be reminded of Esau, who ‘sold his birthright for a single meal’, and who, ‘when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected’ (12:16,17).
If this letter was indeed written to Rome on the eve of the terrible persecution of Nero, then we can understand in chapter 11 and elsewhere, the terms in which the men and women of faith from the past are described; the trials, self-sacrifice and heroism which they displayed. These examples of faith and endurance were chosen because their experiences were shortly to have their counterpart in the experience of the Roman Christians.
Given the situation of the readers, it was appropriate that Moses should be commended to them (11:24-27), who turned his back on the pleasures and the wealth of Egypt, who rejected a privileged and secure position in the Egyptian court and chose instead to suffer affliction with the people of God, ‘esteeming the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt: for he was looking to the reward’. The ‘reproach of Christ’ in this verse means that Moses was the Christ-figure of his own day, a prototype of the future Messiah. He fulfilled the role of leader of God’s people and as such faced the rejection, the disobedience and the slander that would one day confront the true Christ. And no doubt, the author chose those aspects of the experience of Moses because they were echoed in the life of Jewish disciples living in Rome and who were tempted to find protection under the Religio licita. If we substitute the name Caesar for Pharaoh and Rome for Egypt, then we can see more clearly the point the writer is making.
The author describes all these examples of faithful men and women in terms that fit the situation of his readers. In chapter 6 we are told that Abraham was true to his faith when he abandoned his home and country for an as yet invisible inheritance in the future. Yet until the day of his death he wandered through the present world as a homeless nomad in an alien environment, yet continued to look forward in faith to the city of God’s foundation and ‘having patiently waited, obtained the promise’ (6:15).
Several of the faithful men and women of the past are commended for actions which, in the eyes of the world were either foolish or criminal. The man who built a ship in the midst of dry land, the man who was willing to sacrifice his own son, the prostitute who betrayed her own country to the enemy. All these actions would be ridiculed or condemned in any society. And the point of holding them up for commendation was not that his readers should indulge in criminal acts, but that they too must go against the grain of public opinion in their service to Christ. They must be prepared to be treated as fools and criminals, and face hostility, ridicule or even martyrdom for their faith. And the point is also made, that those men and women of faith were finally vindicated for their actions.
Thus, reading between the lines of this letter we are given hints as to the circumstances that gave rise to its composition. It is more than an exposition of Old Testament types and shadows in the light of their fulfillment, but a call to its readers to hold fast to Christ and not to avoid the approaching the storm of persecution by abandoning him for the false security of the synagogue.
A short while later that persecution did indeed fall upon the Christians of Rome, when the Emperor Nero made them scapegoats for the fire that swept through the city in 64 AD and when he used them as human torches to illuminate his palace gardens (Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, 15:44). We have no way of knowing, this side of the resurrection, how many of the first readers of this epistle did hold fast to Christ and suffered the ultimate penalty. Nor can we know how we would react if persecution were directed against us for our allegiance to Christ. Would we be tempted to ‘forsake the assembling of ourselves together’ and turn back to the false security of the world? Only the quality of our faith now will prepare for such a time should it come upon us.
Like those who first read this letter, we too are called upon to ‘run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of God’ (12:1,2).
At Christmas time we sing the carol
O Come all ye Faithful …
O come let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.
Just what does our adoration of the Lord mean? Do we give him his rightful place in our worship?
There is no doubt about the way the Scriptures speak of Him. He was loved of God before the foundation of the world. He was not an ‘afterthought’ or a ‘make do and mend’; He had a glory with the Father before the world began. We can see the greatness of the Lord Jesus in prophecy, from His birth to His crucifixion and from His resurrection to infinity.
The Lord Jesus in prophecy To Him give ALL the prophets witness.
He is woven into the fabric of God’s purpose right from the very beginning and all God’s people, from Adam to John the Baptist, would have been comforted to know that God was at work. There was a living hope to combat the evil of this life, in all its forms, and there was to be salvation, joy, gladness and true freedom from oppression through this Great One spoken of by God, from the promises that the seed of Adam and Eve would slay the serpent, to the Sun of Righteousness, with healing in his wings.
The Lord Jesus in the Psalms
The Psalms speak so eloquently of this Great One. God said to Him: You are My Son, today I have become your Father. Ask and I will give you all the nations; the whole earth will be yours’ (Psalm 2:7,8 GNB; 72:8-11; 89: 27). He was not only to be a king and ruler but also a Saviour. Open to me the gates of righteousness: I will go into them and I will praise the Lord: this gate of the Lord into which the righteous shall enter (Psalm 118:19-20; 24:7-10). There is little doubt as to whom the Psalmist is referring; that is why we call these Psalms ‘Messianic’. The New Testament also refers to them as speaking of the Lord; the gospels speak of what the Lord said and did while the ‘fifth gospel’ (the Psalms) tells us what He thought.
The ‘Mighty One’ in the writings of the prophets
What of the other prophets? The picture given by Isaiah of the coming Mighty One is vivid, impressive, distinct and well-defined: For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given and the government shall be upon His shoulder: and His Name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace (9:6). No wonder he could say the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. (9:2) and the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord (11:2-5).
He was formed from the womb to be God’s servant, to bring Jacob again to Him. Though he failed in that task, (Isaiah 49:4-5; Matthew 23:37-38) it was not through an inadequate effort but because of their refusal. Yet He triumphed in bringing to God a great multitude which no man could number out of every nation and tribes and tongues.
Daniel speaks of Him as one like unto the Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven who came to the Ancient of days and they brought Him near before Him. And there was given Him dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all people, nations and languages should serve Him: His dominion is an everlasting dominion which shall not pass away and His kingdom that which shall not be destroyed for it is not of this world. He is the stone cut out from the mountain ‘without hands’, of divine origin; Nebuchadnezzar would appreciate that. Micah spoke of the One that is to be ruler in Israel, the one of whom Zechariah said behold thy King cometh unto thee, the one who was just and having salvation. He shall speak peace unto the nations: and His dominion shall be from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth. Could anyone hope or yearn for a Greater than He?
The Life of the Lord Jesus
Again the Scripture emphasises His Greatness. The angel assured Mary that the Son she was to bear was to be Great and was to be called the Son of the Most High and of His kingdom there shall be no end. This confirmed what had already been spoken by Daniel.
Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, was amazed that the mother of her Lord should come unto her. Was she remembering the words of the Psalm the Lord said unto my Lord … The angel soothed the fears of the shepherds Be not afraid for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy (literally, I announce to you a great joy) which shall be to all people for the one to be born would be a Saviour, even Christ the Lord. So momentous was the announcement, that the angel was joined by a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those with whom He is pleased. Here was God’s salvation to all that humanity was crying out for. Simeon, too, was satisfied that at last he had seen God’s salvation, a divine provision.
In the same spirit, the Lord Jesus performed His first miracle, as he also did in the abundant provision for the feeding of the five thousand and seven thousand with baskets full of what was left over. Could there have been greater evidence that here was one who could provide all that was needed – and more? The disciples and the people were often amazed at the wonderful things which the Lord did. Was it possible for mere man to still the raging sea and howling wind? Surely this was possible only to God (Psalm 107:30). Who then is this that even the wind and the sea obey Him? He was Immanuel – God with us! He manifested His glory in so many ways. He too could send His word and heal (Psalm 107:20), as in the case of the centurion’s servant, the nobleman’s son and the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman.
Nicodemus confessed that no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. This strengthened his belief that the Lord Jesus was indeed a teacher come from God. There was no ill of man that He could not cure. It was the evidence sent back to John the Baptist that He was the One to come: The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up and the poor have the Gospel preached unto them. And blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in me. Many recognized the greatness of the Lord and humbly worshipped Him. The Magi, through what they had heard, could, when they saw Him, fall down and worship Him, for was He not born a King?
Referring to the incident of the Lord giving sight to the man ‘born blind’ (as we all are) Brother Roberts wrote:
Some people do at once see and surrender to the claims of the Truth. Most people have reservations and endless dimness. They say, ‘I cannot see that’ and it is true. This man was of the lucid order of mind which sees with the clearness and accepts with the docility of childhood ‘Lord, I believe. And he worshipped Him.’ Worshipped Him! Yes, why not? It is written Let all the angels of God worship Him and John beheld them in vision comply. He heard the voice of many angels round about the throne, saying with a loud voice ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.’ Shall we, with the puny frost-bitten Unitarian ideas of this present century of darkness, refuse to bend the knee where angels spend themselves in celestial raptures? Nay, verily to Him every knee shall bow and every tongue confess to the glory of God, the Father. (Nazareth Revisited p. 353)
The Lord Jesus never restrained those who worshipped Him; it was, and is, His right to receive such homage. Truly did John the Baptist declare that the one who comes from the realm above is set over all things (GNB). John the Apostle could write we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace (undeserved favour) and truth. While we were yet sinners He could die for us who surrendered his life for our sakes to free us from our sins.
The Glory after His Resurrection
When the disciples went into Galilee to meet Him, as appointed, they worshipped Him but ‘some doubted’. He then told them that all authority (power, right) hath been given unto me in heaven and on earth. This was before His ascension. As the Apostle Peter wrote: Jesus Christ, who having entered heaven is now at the right hand (the hand of power) of God (Psalm 110:1) all the angelic authorities and powers having declared their submission to Him (1 Pet 3:22). The superlative way in which the Epistles especially speak of Him now, can hardly be grasped; such words should leave us in no doubt of the status the Lord Jesus now enjoys. However, He stressed the fact that He was not equal to the Father.
During His ministry, the Lord Jesus emphasised the position he held in the estimation of the Father. What the Father does, the Son also does … just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, in the same way the Son gives life to those He wants to. Nor does the Father Himself judge any one. He has given His Son the full right to judge, so that all will honour the Son in the same way as they honour the Father. Whoever does not honour the Son (in the same way?) does not honour the Father who sent Him (John 5:19-23 GNB). And I will do whatever you ask for in My Name, so that the Father’s glory will be shown through the Son. If you ask anything in My Name, I will do it.
This should make us very conscious of making sure we honour the Lord Jesus as He should be honoured. The Apostle Paul, when speaking of Israel, says to them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all blessed for ever (Romans 9:5 ESV). Commenting on this verse, Bro John Carter said: ‘The text of both the Authorized and Revised versions make the word ‘God’ refer to Christ; the alternatives in the margin of the RV are evidently an endorsement to escape from that application and to make the word refer to the Father.’ (Epistle to the Romans p. 90-92) In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. I am come in my Father’s Name. Indeed, it is the God who said Let light shine out of darkness who has shined into our hearts for the spreading abroad of the light, sent forth by the revelation of God’s glory. This glory is seen on the face of Christ for he who has seen me has seen the Father.
Thomas surely knew what he was saying when he said My Lord and My God. The Apostle Paul spoke of looking for the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ (Titus 2:13). The Apostle Peter also spoke of them that have obtained a like precious faith with us in the righteousness of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ (II Peter 1:1 RV). Moulton (Prologue p. 84) shows, from papyri writings of the early Christian era, that among Greek-speaking Christians this was ‘a current formula’ as applied to Christ.
The Lord Jesus said if you truly love me, you would rejoice that I am on my way to the Father for the Father is greater than I am (John 14:28 GNB). For the Scripture says God put all things under his (the Lord Jesus’) feet (Psalm 8:6). It is clear, of course, that the words ‘all things’ do not include God Himself, who put all things under Christ. But when all things have been put under Christ’s rule, then He Himself, the Son, will place Himself under God who placed all things under Him and God will rule completely over all (I Corinthians 15:27-28 GNB).
In his Epistle to the Colossians, the Apostle said: He is the visible representation of the invisible God. He it is who takes precedence over everything created, since it is in Him that all created things took their being, things in Heaven and things upon earth, not only visible ones but invisible orders as well, such as thrones, dominions, rulers, and authorities. All things were created through Him and for Him. He has the primacy of them all, and in Him all subsist. Furthermore, He is the Head set over what is His body, the Church. It is in Him that she has her origin. He was the firstborn from the dead, in order that He might take first place in everything since it was God’s pleasure that divinity in all its fullness was to reside in Him, and it was to be through Him that He would reconcile all things to Himself, things on earth and things in heaven, peace being established by virtue of Christ’s blood shed on the Cross (Colossians 1:15-20 GNB).
In view of such passages as Philippians 2:9-11, I Peter 2:17, James 2:1, Hebrews 1:1-14, Ephesians 1:10, I Corinthians 4:6 and John 14:9, why have we dumbed down the Glory of the Lord Jesus? As a community we have tended to give the wrong impression of our belief in the divinity of the Lord Jesus, probably through fear of being labelled as Trinitarians. So, as is characteristic of human nature, we have swung to the opposite extreme. How often do you hear a brother pray to the Lord Jesus? As one brother said at a Fraternal ‘to preach the divinity of the Lord Jesus has an un-Christadelphian ring about it.’ Do we really know what the Gospel of John is all about? Once we used to sing ‘then take, O God, thy power and reign`; it is now ‘take, O Lord, thy power, and reign.’ We also used to ‘sing to Jesus’; now we ‘sing of Jesus’. What would be the reaction if we concluded our prayers ‘in the Name of the Lord Jesus, our Lord and our God?’
Then I saw a Lamb standing in the centre of the Throne, surrounded by the four living creatures and the elders … the Lamb went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who sits on the Throne. As He did so, the four living creatures and the twenty-four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each had a harp and gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. They sang a new song:
You are worthy to take the scroll and to break open its seals. For you were killed and by Your sacrificial death You bought for God people from every tribe, language, nation and race. You have made them a Kingdom of priests to serve our God, and they shall rule on earth.
Again, I looked and I heard angels, thousands and millions of them. They stood round the throne, the four living creatures and the elders and sang in a loud voice:
The Lamb who was killed is worthy to receive power, wealth, wisdom and strength, honour, glory and praise.
And I heard every creature in heaven, on earth, in the world below and in the sea – all living beings in the universe – they were singing:
To Him who sits on the Throne AND TO THE LAMB be praise and honour, glory and might, for ever and ever.
The four living creatures answered AMEN. And the elders fell down and worshipped (Rev 6).
O Come, let us adore Him, O Come, let us adore Him,
O Come, let us adore Him,
CHRIST THE LORD!
The discussion recently (January) on BBC 2 concerning the debate between the so-called theory of Intelligent Design against Evolution, raised once more the long dispute between science and religion. The whole issue is essentially a question of interpreting the Biblical account of creation. Is Genesis 1 meant to be a scientific statement or is it not rather an expression of religious truth? Science explains and examines ‘what’ and ‘how’ but religion explains ‘why’!
The first chapter is written in the form of poetry with structure, rhythm, repetition and refrain. It expresses seven phases of God’s manifestation in the world, nature and man – a paean of praise to the Almighty as the architect and creator of the world, structured after the pattern of the week and the Sabbath, the basis of Israel’s religious life.
It could be considered a Psalm, designed to be sung! Do we hesitate to believe that ‘the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth his handiwork’?
There is religious, poetic and spiritual truth as well as scientific.
F. M. Cross, D.W. Parry, R.J. Saley and E. Ulrich,
Qumran Cave 4, XII, 1-2 Samue1 (Discoveries in the Judaean Desert XVII), Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2005, £65.
Things have changed. The Dead Sea Scrolls were once hot news, even getting front-page newspaper headlines, but now, half a century later, the appearance of this volume, the most important for the text of the Bible, passes unnoticed. It has, admittedly, been too long delayed, and is in fact the final volume of the series Discoveries in the Judaean Desert to appear. It is also a fact that much of its content has been used in dozens of books and articles by previous writers who had access in some form to this material, but full critical use requires the present, final portly volume. The delay in publication has at least contributed to the fine quality of the scholarly work embodied here.
Remains of three scrolls of Samuel were in fact found in what is called Cave 4 in September 1952. First the local Bedouin dug out most of the fragments and passed them via a middleman to the authorities, a process only ending in 1958! Then, still in September 1952, western archaeologists dug out the remainder. As they came from the ground they were black and virtually illegible. The leather had of course suffered from being crushed, urinated on by animals and buried, and needed careful professional treatment before study. In terms of quantity the results were negligible: hardly 15% of the best preserved scroll (4QSama), and not even one half column fully preserved. There are hundreds of fragments, many less than half an inch at any angle across, and the placing of 184 still not known. It is a testimony to the skill and patience of the editors that so many have been identified and put in their right places on the plates of photographs.
Of the scroll known as 4QSamb less is preserved, only 22 fragments, though one is larger and better preserved than any single fragment of 4QSama. Of the scroll known as 4QSamc, only 13 fragments have been identified, but a nice piece of one column is preserved. The dates of writing of these three scrolls can only be fixed by the style of writing. Studies based on dated documents have now yielded significant results, which, though not one hundred percent guaranteed, are serious and convincing. From this material scroll a dates to circa 50-25 BC, scroll b to c. 250 BC and scroll c to c. 100-75 BC. The scribes of the first two copies were very poor, but the scribe of c was poor.
The question thus arises, How is it that such fragmentary scrolls have so great an importance for the text of the Old Testament? The background against which this question has to be answered is the following. Before the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls the earliest complete or nearly complete copies of the Hebrew Bible were of 10th century AD date, though fragments of earlier date existed. But most of these fragments were not more than a couple of centuries earlier at the most. It could be shown from translations of the Hebrew into other languages and from quotations in dated works that this text had been copied very carefully from at least the first centnry AD, but earlier evidence raised doubts whether the same care had existed before the first century AD. The Samaritans had their own Hebrew text of the Pentateuch which differed in many small points from the traditional Jewish text, for example in Gen. 4:8, where what Cain said had dropped out of the traditional Jewish text, but is preserved in the Samaritan Pentateuch, from which some modern Englisn versions, the NIV and REB for example, have restored it. The dropped phrase is also in the Greek LXX translation, which was made c. 250 BC. This date, however, refers to the Pentateuch only, the other books followed over the next 100 years, so that, save for a few small books, the whole of what to us is the Old Testament (including of course Samuel) was rendered into Greek and in due course became the Bible used by much of the early church. The five books of the Pentateuch in the LXX have a certain uniformity as though translated at the same time by the same people, but the other books vary considerably in style of translation and in other matters. And this Greek version has come down through a long copying tradition known from a variety of copies of differing dates during which it was often revised frequently to make it conform to the traditional Hebrew. In some books the LXX offers a text differing substantially from the traditional Hebrew. In Isaiah the LXX differs only in some details from the traditional Hebrew, and the famous Dead Sea (nearly complete) Isaiah scroll is similarly very little different. But in Jeremiah the LXX is about 1/8th shorter than the Hebrew, and a piece of a Dead Sea scroll proves that the short version also existed in Hebrew. Samuel is another case where the LXX differs in parts substantially from the traditional Hebrew and different explanations have been offered. Some scholars have argued that the translator took liberties, others that a different Hebrew text was used by the translators. The plain result from study of the three Dead Sea scrolls, but especially from the first two, is that the variations from the traditional Hebrew in the LXX mostly go back to a different Hebrew text, and were not the results of liberties taken by the translators. Further, quite a few of the differences offer a better Hebrew text than the traditional one, from which future study of Samuel and future translations will benefit. Also the new scrolls offer readings not previously known from any MS or version, some of which are clearly original and fully convincing. A complete list of these would take up a small book to print out, so only a few examples will be offered here.
I Samuel 11 gives an account of the proposed campaign of Nahash the Ammonite against Jabesh Gilead. It has long been suspected that the last two words of ch. 10 in the traditional Hebrew text, due to the confusion of two very similar Hebrew letters, have been misconstrued. and in fact are the beginning of chapter 11: ‘Now it happened after about a month that Nahash, king of the Ammonites, . . . ,’ see E113 p 26. The Dead Sea scroll Samuel a confirms this by leaving half a line blank after ‘… did not bring him a present,’ and beginning our ch. 11 on a new line, but as follows:
[Now] Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had oppressed the children of Gad and the children of Reuben with might, and had blinded all of them in the right eye. No saviour appeared for Israel, nor was there left a man of the Israelites beyond [the Jordan] who had not been blinded in the right eye by Nahash, king of the Ammonites. Now seven thousand men [had escaped from] the Ammonites and went to Jabesh Gilead. After about a month Nahash the Ammonite went up and camped against Jabesh Gilead . . .
This offers a big addition to the traditional Hebrew and Greek texts, and one that makes sense. It is easier to accept this as the original text, than as something which a scribe deliberately invented and inserted. But it occurs in no other preserved Hebrew or Greek MS. However, the Bible used by Josephus had this long text:
. . . neither did they bring presents nor did they take pains nor consideration to ingratiate themselves with Saul.
A month later he began to gain the respect of all by the war against Naas, king of the Ammonites. The latter brought many evils on the Jews living beyond the river Jordan, having marched through their territory with a large and aggressive army, subjecting their cities to slavery, both subduing them by might and force at that time, but also weakening them by a clever trick so that they could not in the future rebel and escape from his slavery. He blinded in the right eye all who swore allegiance to him or who had been taken as prisoners of war. He did this so that with their left eyes obscured by their shields they would be totally useless (as soldiers). When the king of the Ammonites had so done to the people beyond the Jordan, he campaigned against the people called Galadenes (Gileadites) and pitched camp close to his enemies’ capital Jabish . . . Jewish Antiquities VI v 1
As usual, not everything is simple. Josephus, here as elsewhere, paraphrases the Biblical account in his own words, and it is generally held that he employed Greek hacks to help in the production of stylistically better Greek than he could manage. He would certainly have been able to use Hebrew MSS of Samuel, though he certainly knew and could use the LXX. But the hacks may well have been ignorant of Hebrew and so were restricted to the LXX. The phrase ‘about a month later’ is rendered in Josephus at the beginning of the account about Nahash, while in the scroll Samuel a it occurs to introduce Nahash’s second campaign: to defeat the 5000 who escaped from his first onslaught. Thus Josephus places the phrase immediately after his statement that some Israelites did not respect Saul as king, where it also appears in the traditional Hebrew MSS and the LXX MSS. However this matter is explained, it remains certain that Josephus knew and used a text with the extra material.
Another similar case occurs in the story of Hannah and the child Samuel. In the traditional Hebrew text and all LXX MSS she promises to hand over the boy to Eli at the temple in Shiloh so that ‘he will live there for ever’ (I Sam. 1:22). Scroll a adds, ‘and I will make him a Nazirite for ever, all the days of [his life].’ Josephus similarly: ‘the woman, remembering her vow regarding the child, handed him over to Eli, dedicating him to be a prophet of God, his hair never being cut, and drinking only water.’ (Jewish Antiquities V iii 1). The traditional Hebrew in v. 11 refers to the prohibition of cutting the hair or shaving, but the specific mention of a Nazirite status occurs only in Scroll a. The lack in the other sources is easily explained: the scribe’s eye slipped from the first ‘for ever’ to the following occurrence of the same phrase, causing him to omit the intervening words.
A smaller item: how tall was Goliath? The traditional Hebrew MSS of I Sam. 17:4 say ‘six cubits and a span,’ while the best LXX MSS and Josephus (Jewish Antiquities VI ix 1) say four cubits and a span.’ By good luck a small fragment of Dead Sea scroll a preserves ‘four’ at the right place. A cubit was the length of the forearm, about 50 cm or 20 inches, a span was half a cubit. Thus by either reading Goliath was abnormally tall. But it is easier to suppose that some one increased the height rather than diminished it. The bigger the giant, the greater the glory of the shepherd boy who vanquished him.
One disappointment with the three Samuel scrolls is that only a has anything at all of chs. 17—18, and a, after 17:8 has only two very small scraps before 20:37. The best LXX MSS in this section have very substantial omissions as compared with the traditional Hebrew. But one can conclude that the LXX translator is not to be accused of making these omissions: no doubt they go back to a Hebrew edition.
This publication of the Dead Sea Samuel material is a work of precise and careful scholarship, but it offers what is called a ‘diplomatic’ edition of the new texts: it presents them as they are and deals with related sources and problems in the notes. But no translation of the scrolls is given. For those familiar with the Hebrew text of Samuel, this is no problem. Readers are on their own in this respect.
TELOS Publications, NZ, 2004, £3
Paperback: 75pp ISBN 0-476-00651-1
The current vehement argument going on between some Christians and some scientists, who consider their respective concepts of biblical creation and evolution to be mutually exclusive, is seen by Dr Finlay as a ‘pervasive and tragic fallacy’. His booklet ‘sets out to demonstrate that the scientific understanding of evolution is based on overwhelming evidence and that the evolutionary history that science has discovered is part of the creative work of God’.
This aim takes up seven well-written chapters, each discussing a different aspect of the subject. Right at the start the writer makes clear just where he stands in relation to Christianity. He tells us that in his writing: ‘The basis of the historic Christian faith … is presupposed … everything that follows in this article is based on the conviction that God has made himself known as a human person, Jesus of Nazareth. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God was reconciling the world to himself.’
Knowledge of natural science, and the Bible’s testimony to God’s mission to rescue humanity, are different categories of knowledge. Science cannot address questions about God. Neither will Genesis explain to us our detailed biological origins ‘for the simple reason that the author was writing a theological treatise. The book of Genesis is concerned with the God who has willed the whole of creation – including its evolutionary history – into existence. … It is about knowing our Creator, and living in right relationship to him … and to the rest of creation. It is inappropriate and anachronistic to suggest that the first few chapters of Genesis were written with biological intentions. Scientific biological literature did not emerge until thousands of years later.’
Many Christians are suspicious of science; they view research into the progressive development of the world as being at odds with biblical creation. This does the Christian cause no good. Science is the tried and true method for deriving valid information about the constituents and processes of the physical world. One reason why modern science arose and flourished mainly in Europe was the influence of the Bible on European thinking; it emerged from the biblical world-view and required the overthrow of the Greek one.
‘To be faithful to our Christian calling, we must follow wherever science leads. Our response to God’s revelation both in nature and in Christ is based on what is actually the case in the empirical world. The early scientists often stressed that they, like the eye-witnesses of Christ’s resurrection, were dealing with what they had seen and heard, and their hands had touched’. The justification for offering this further contribution to the dialogue about Christian theology and evolution is that: ‘recent advance (from the 1990s) in molecular genetics has moved certain issues in evolutionary biology from the category of what is contentious and possible (or probable) to what is now certain. We now know for certain that humans have evolved’
Truth is extremely important in Christian proclamation – if Christians are known to believe fantasies about the world around us, who will give them credibility in spiritual matters? The church had no clear voice on these matters. A true doctrine of creation has given way to ‘an arid preoccupation with opposing evolution’. ‘This created world matters because it belongs to a holy and loving God, who is always at work in it, who has great plans for it, and who will transform it. He calls us to be his co-workers.’ God holds in being every part of the universe by his creativity: ‘Stars can form, evolution can occur, and embryos can develop, only because God ordains at every moment that creation should exist, and that mechanisms should operate consistently. If we deny that God could be the ruler of process (such as evolution), we are thereby affirming the autonomy of process. God becomes redundant. The religious assault on “evolution” is effectively a denial of Gods’ rule over the processes and history of the physical world’.
Having made the definite claim of certainty, the writer proceeds to consider ‘the way in which discoveries in molecular genetics have proven our evolutionary origins as a biological species.’ This is a 15½ page, highly technical section complete with a number of diagrams and charts. The writer suggests that if this is felt to be excessively technical, then it may be skipped, and the discussion rejoined at section 4. Nevertheless, it should be borne in mind that it ‘reviews recent genetic evidence firmly establishing – proving – the route of our biological evolution’. (The present reviewer confesses to having taken the ‘skipping’ option, preferring as a layman to take the science on trust at this stage – as, of course many of us are obliged to do with so many scientific matters).
The comments of a number of theologians are considered, all of whom found no problem in accepting evolutionary science, or the idea of an evolving creation. One example: Derek Kidner, reflecting on the place of Adam in a world preceded by thousands of years of pre-human hominid expansion, concludes:-
Various converging lines point to an Adam much nearer our own time than the early tool-makers and artists, let alone their remote forebears, … If, as the text of Genesis would by no means disallow, God initially shaped man by a process of evolution, it would follow that a considerable stock of near-humans preceded the first true man, and it would be arbitrary to picture these as mindless brutes.
‘Kidner argues that the creature upon which God conferred the divine image could well have belonged to a species long prepared to receive this character, and which already possessed practical intelligence, artistic sensibility, and the capacity for awe and reflection’.
A chapter on ‘Genesis and Creation’ discusses aspects of our approach to, and interpretation of the book of Genesis. When the book was penned, the important issues were the uniqueness and authority of Israel’s God, as distinct from the numerous ‘savage deities’ of the surrounding peoples, and Israel’s faithfulness to him. ‘A responsible approach to the early chapters of Genesis must therefore be to presuppose that they highlight the nature of the Creator, not the nature of the creation. They are about the “Who?” of creation, not the “How?” ’
So what of the Genesis description of creatures being created ‘after their kinds’? Does the word ‘kind’ imply that organisms exist in unchangeable forms? The book of Genesis was given to pre-scientific people; the writer himself had little botanical or biological knowledge. ‘There are no implications for biological classification or population genetics here’. As the Wycliffe Bible Commentary warns:-
If a student expects to find in Genesis a scientific account of how the world came into existence … he will be disappointed. Genesis is not an attempt to … answer such technical questions. It deals with matters far beyond the realm of science. The author seeks to bring us in touch with the eternal God…
Under the heading ‘A Theology of Creation’ the writer’s own deep faith in, and vision of the Creator’s ongoing creativity in this world, and the close connection between God’s creative and redemptive works – all focused in his Son – is clear. He says: ‘The doctrine of creation refers to the total dependence of the world on God at every instant, and into the future.’ He quotes: ‘“All things in heaven and on earth” (NIV), “all creation” (GNB) must be brought together with Christ as head. Creation is groaning to receive its consummation.’
On the question of whether evolution is compatible with the nature of God, Finlay sees many striking parallels between biological evolution and the biblical story of God. He lists and discusses eight such features common to both. One of these is the important matter of ‘suffering’ – often a problem for Christians. He says:
When Christians fail to perceive God as the author of a suffering creation, they reject a counter-intuitive, surprising, specifically Judeo-Christian, and deeply explanatory insight into the nature of reality. The God who has revealed himself through the Old Testament prophets and through Jesus of Nazareth is a suffering God.
Many scripture references are alluded to on this subject of suffering, including:-
Hosea: the lamentations concerning Israel’s unfaithfulness and ingratitude – causing God pain;
Isaiah: the depiction of the ‘Suffering Servant’ – pierced for our transgressions;
Paul: his hope that by sharing the sufferings of Christ he would also share in his glory.
Also, here is an apposite quotation from Rolston:-
Since the beginning, the myriad creatures have been giving up their lives as a ransom for many. Jesus is not the exception to the natural order, but a chief exemplification of it.
The cruciform creation is, in the end, deiform, godly.
Finlay comments that perhaps the wonder is not merely that God shares in the sufferings of creation, but that the creation shares in the suffering of God.
But, finally, ‘God moves history to a magnificent climax’. Though our origins may go back to more primitive creatures, yet today we are more than merely animal. A quotation from Bishop Holloway in this closing section seems so very apt after having read the overall message of the book:
[with apologies for transposing the bishop’s thoughts from prose to verse – .]
I am dust and ashes, frail and wayward,
A set of predetermined behavioural responses,
Programmed by my genetic inheritance, and by social context,
Riddled with fears, beset with needs …
Dust I may be, but troubled dust, dust that dreams,
Dust that has strange premonitions of transfiguration,
Of a glory in store, a destiny prepared,
An inheritance that will one day be my own.
A list of contacts is provided, giving websites for organisations aiming to clarify the relationship between science and Christian theology, and finally the book’s references and notes.
This book can be thoroughly recommended. Christadelphians will probably not completely agree with the author’s views on the nature of Christ, but his acceptance of the world as he sees it to be, coupled with his overarching faith in the purposes of God – a truly integrated vision – is an exhortation in itself. He has provided a great deal to think about for those undecided about evolution. It is refreshing to get away from the ‘either or’ scenario which automatically sees creation and evolution as completely incompatible. If you have this problem, please read the book – perhaps Dr Finlay will convince you that Redemption and Evolution are, under God, moving together towards their shared goal.
The booklet reviewed above is one of four booklets in the Science and Faith Series published in NZ by Telos Publications. The other three are:
A seamless web: science and faith. Graeme Finlay. (ed) 59pp £4
Evolving Creation Graeme Finlay 46pp £3
God created the Heavens and the Earth Don Nield 75pp £3
All four booklets can be obtained from the Publications Secretary of
Christians in Science:
John Bausor, 16 Walter Road, Wokingham, RG41 3JA, UK
Telephone +44 (0) 118 978 2902.
Post and Packing: one booklet £0.45; all four booklets £1.50.
John C. Bilello
Christadelphian Tidings Publications, 2005. Agent: Malcolm G Cross
Soft cover £9. Hard cover £14
John Bilello is Professor Emeritus of Materials Science and Engineering at Michigan, USA and has an impressive professional scientific and academic record.
Bilello accepts that the earth may be as old as scientists claim and rejects the view that the earth was created in six literal days some 6000 years ago. He also views the Noahic Deluge as being of limited extent. God cannot have created the earth with ‘an appearance of age’ because that would mean that God deliberately deceives us. On the contrary, we can learn of his existence by looking at the natural world.
It is good to read that nature and the Bible are both the handiwork of God; science and religion must be taken together if we seek to understand the universe and our place in it. Five different views that seek to reconcile the scriptural record of Genesis chapter one with the scientific evidence are reviewed; no preference is given and the author states that he would happily fellowship with anyone espousing any of these five models (p 183). This is good, for some writers insist that their view is the only acceptable one. Humility and tolerance of differing viewpoints are too often lacking from Christian writings on this subject.
Theistic evolution is dismissed on the ground that it excludes God from any role in the working out of his universe over all ages past once the universe was up and running (p 167). No source is given for this statement which is a pity because theistic evolution usually means that evolution was God’s method in creation – that evolution occurred with God’s guidance. On this view creation and evolution are not incompatible, as the author assumes.
The book deals with data from a wide range of scientific disciplines, from cosmology and quantum theory to genetics and palaeontology and also highlights relevant scripture. Unfortunately, it contains much flawed reasoning.
The book begins (p 2) with the observation that science deals with the ‘How?’ of existence while the Bible deals with the ‘Why?’ The point is valid, but to illustrate it mention is made of the equations of Newton and of Einstein (the ‘How?’). One is led to think that the Bible explains why these equations take the form they do. This is not what the author means and he goes on to explain that the Bible tells us why we are here – the answer to a very different question.
A male holly bush, we read, does not grow properly in the absence of a female companion, analogous to a man’s need for female company (p 161)! What is true is that each holly bush carries only either male or female flowers. To get berries male and female plants must be grown together. In other respects they grow normally. Reproduction, not companionship, is what is involved.
There is a careful account of quantum mechanics, but it is accompanied by a fallacious illustration – to get to the other side of a high mountain we only have to wait (a very long time) till our statistically determined moment arrives, when we will be transported there (pp 63-5). This is nonsense. Quantum tunnelling applies on the atomic and subatomic scales only. It is an idea that Bilello himself dismisses (in respect of throwing a ball into the air) on p 98. On the macro scale these things are not merely statistically improbable; they can never happen. Jesus’ passage through a locked door was a miracle, not an event with high statistical improbability.
The above three instances may represent poor explanation rather than wrong information, but the effect is the same. The next two evidence failure to grasp the opposition’s case.
It is repeatedly suggested that biological evolution violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics (pp 99, 100, 155, 223) because the Law requires that disorder must always increase. However, the laws of thermodynamics apply to physicochemical processes occurring in a closed system such as a flask or test tube. When energy is transferred from outside the system (such as when an animal feeds) biochemical or genetic changes do not violate these laws. Strangely, the author dismisses thermodynamics when discussing the postulated eventual heat death of the universe (p 57).
The fact that the geological record shows that some species have remained unchanged for considerable periods of time is claimed as a problem for the evolutionist (p 105). Not so. A species that is well adapted to its ecological niche and has sufficient food and few competitors or predators is likely to survive well, irrespective of what is going on elsewhere at the same time.
There are some surprising uses of scripture that do not always support the author’s case. For example, Isaiah 40:22 is quoted as a view of the earth that can only be seen from space (‘He sits above the circle of the earth and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers’) – evidence of divine inspiration (p 87). However, the verse continues ‘Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain and spreads them out like a tent to dwell in’ – evidence of a very ancient, unscientific, view of the universe.
Genesis 1:6 is quoted as evidence of a knowledge by the inspired writer of plate tectonics – that there was once a giant landmass that later broke up to form the continents (pp 82-3). However, only two verses later the ‘firmament in the midst of the waters’ is stated to be ‘heaven’ – an extraordinary oversight on the part of the author. Curiously, the same passage is later used in a discussion of cloud formation where ‘firmament’ is explained as ‘an expanse called sky’ (pp 118-9).
There are a number of spelling, punctuation and verbal errors that could have been eliminated by careful proof reading (American English aside). Among others centripetal is confused with centrifugal (p 11) and we are told that elohim is a Greek word (p 109)! There are substantial and detailed footnotes but there is no index or bibliography.
Regrettably, it has to be said, with a book such as this there is a very real danger of bringing Christianity into disrepute and ridicule by its incompetent attempts to combat atheist philosophy. It cannot be recommended.