Oh what a lovely war?

Oh what a lovely war?

This year is the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. The general perception of this war in our culture, a perception shaped by the depiction of it in shows such as Oh What a Lovely War and Blackadder Goes Forth and the poetry of men like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, is that it was totally pointless war in which millions of men led by callous and incompetent officers died for no good cause.

A lot of the myths underlying this popular perception of the war have been exposed by military historians who have argued that in fact the vast majority of people who served were not killed or wounded, that they did not spend most of their time in the trenches and that the officers who led them do not seem, for the most part, to have been either noticeably incompetent or uncaring. The general picture that the historians are now giving us is that the generals on both sides were trying to get to grips with a new form of mass industrialised warfare that no one had experienced before and that necessarily involved large numbers of casualties and that, on the British side at least, they eventually learned how to wage this new kind of warfare effectively, which was why the German army was decisively defeated in the field in the great battles that took place in the autumn of 1918.

However, even if the myths are set aside, the fact remains that a huge number of people were either killed or suffered temporary or permanent physical or mental injury and the question that needs to be asked as a result is whether the war should have been fought at all.

From a Christian perspective the ultimate answer was that no wars (World War 1 included) should ever have been fought. This is because all wars are a fruit of sin. If Man had not fallen there would have been no wars in the history of Mankind and when God’s kingdom is fully revealed at the end of time all wars will cease. In the words of Isaiah 2:4, the nations shall ‘beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not life up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’

However, Man has fallen and God’s kingdom has not yet been fully revealed and wars are a still part of human existence, and the issue that Christian theologians have had to wrestle with is whether from a Christian perspective any of these wars can be seen to be in accordance with God’s will and therefore something in which Christians can participate.

The view which most have them have come to is that some wars can be seen to be in accordance with God’s will and therefore something in which Christians can legitimately take part. Thus St. Thomas Aquinas addresses the question ‘Whether it is always sinful to wage war?’ in Summa Theologiae 2.2.40.1 and the conclusion that he comes to is that the answer is ‘no.’ There are, he says, certain circumstances in which it is permissible to wage war. A similar view has traditionally been taken by the Church of England. Article XXXVII of the Thirty Nine Articles declares that ‘it is lawful for Christian men, at the command of the magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars.’

The theological thinking behind this statement in Article XXXVII is based on the teaching of St Paul in Romans 12:9-13:6. In this section of Romans the Apostle teaches that as far as private individuals are concerned the teaching of Deuteronomy 32:35 that vengeance belongs only to God means that they are not allowed to judge, punish, or kill, but instead must practice an ethic of love and non-retaliation towards those who do them harm (Romans 12:9-25). Those who exercise public authority on behalf of God, however, are allowed to judge and punish, and even inflict the punishment of death, precisely because they are acting not on their own behalf, but are acting as agents of the judgement of God (Romans 13:1-6).Seen in this context it is legitimate (though not mandatory) for a Christian state to inflict the death penalty and for Christians to take part in war under the authority of their rulers, because in both cases the power of the sword given to rulers by God is being duly exercised. That is to say, just as governing authorities normally take action by means of the policing and judicial systems of their countries to enact the justice of God in response to various forms of injustice, so also, on occasion, they have to resort to war for the same reason. In this view war is permissible as a means of seeking to achieve justice in response to some form of injustice that would otherwise continue.

When the Latin version of the article talks about Christians taking part in a just war, a ‘iusta bella’ it is this sort of permissible warfare that is meant. This means, of course, that not all war is legitimate. If Christians may take up arms in a just war, equally they should not take up arms in a war that is unjust, a war that has as its object for example, not the pursuit of justice, but the pursuit of military glory or territorial aggrandisement for their own sake.

Seen in this light were the British soldiers who took part in World War 1 taking part in a ‘just war’?

Firstly, it is clear that they were, in the language of Article XXXVII, acting at the command of magistrate. The British Government acting on behalf of the Crown had declared war as part of the exercise of its God given governmental authority.

Secondly, the war which the British Government declared had a legitimate purpose. It was an attempt to achieve justice in response to a form of injustice that would otherwise have continued. The cause of the First World War was the determination of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to destroy Serbia (for which the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was a pretext) and they were encouraged in this by a militaristic leadership in Germany that wanted a pre-emptive war against Russia and France in order to protect its own political dominance in Europe. The German Empire also deliberately violated the neutrality of Belgium against international law in order to facilitate an attack on France. In addition Germany, Austria-Hungary and their Turkish ally waged war in a brutal fashion that involved widespread atrocities against civilians.

In taking a stand against the decision by Germany and Austria-Hungary to attack their neighbours, against the violation of Belgian neutrality, and against the atrocities which they and their Turkish ally committed, the British Government was undoubtedly seeking to achieve justice and was therefore waging war for a legitimate purpose. If the British Government had decided to stand aside and do nothing the result would have been that the injustice of the Central Powers in waging war against their neighbours and conducting that war in a brutal fashion would have gone unchecked and unpunished.

Furthermore, what we know of the character of the German regime and of the German war aims indicates that if Germany had emerged victorious from the war through British inactivity the result would have been, in the words of Max Hastings, that ‘European freedom, justice and democracy would have paid a dreadful forfeit.’ This too would have been an injustice which British participation in the war helped to prevent.

The First World War was, as we now know, not the ‘war to end all wars’. No war ever will be. The Bible is clear that ‘wars and rumours of wars’ (Matthew 24:6) will be a permanent feature of human existence until, as we have said, God acts at the end of time to makes ‘wars cease to the ends of the earth’ (Psalm 46:9). However, some of these wars are just and some are not. The British war which began in 1914 was, in spite of its dreadful cost, one of the just ones. It was not a ‘lovely war.’ No wars are lovely. It was however, a war fought with legitimate authority, for legitimate ends and one which it was right for the Church to support and for Christians to take part in.

There are no accidents

There are no accidents

In one of my favourite parts of the Chronicles of Narnia, The Silver Chair, the two heroes, Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole, have been sent to find the lost Crown Prince of Narnia. Aslan has told them to look for some words written on a stone in a ruined city. Eventually they find the words ‘under me’ and literally go under them to find an underground city where they encounter a mysterious knight. He mocks the idea that the words ‘under me’ had any special significance, declaring that they were left by accident from a longer inscription carved by a long dead king

‘Though under earth, and throneless now I be, yet, while I lived,
all earth was under me.’

However, Eustace and Jill’s Narnian guide Puddleglum responds by saying

‘Don’t you mind him…There are no accidents. Our guide is Aslan; and he was there
when the giant King caused the letters to be cut, and he knew already all things that
would come of them; including this.’

Puddleglum’s declaration that there are no accidents came to my mind this week in the light of the furore that has been caused by a UKIP councillor suggesting that the recent floods in this country were sent by God as a response to the Government’s legislation to allow same sex marriage. It seems to me that whatever you think about Mr Sylvester’s views on same sex marriage, if it is right to say that ‘there are no accidents’ it follows that he was right to at least ask the question about what was the deeper significance of the floods.

This of course raises the question of whether there are indeed no accidents. Most people today, if they think about the issue, would say that there are lots of things that are just accidents and that the recent floods come into this category. They were not intended by anybody for any purpose. They just were. However, orthodox Christian theology, which C S Lewis reflects through the words of Puddleglum, has insisted that there are no things in the created order that just are. Everything that exists, from human beings, to floods, to music videos, exists because God wills it to exist and for the purpose for which God wills it to exist.

As Article I of the Thirty Nine Articles tells us, Christian faith holds that God is ‘the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible.’ The fact that God is the preserver as well as the maker of all things means that he did not just set the world in motion at creation and leave it to run itself. Rather, he continues to uphold and control it in all its aspects. The Elizabethan Anglican theologian Alexander Nowell makes this point well in his Catechism.

M. Did God think it enough to have once created all things, and then to cast away all further care of things from thenceforth
S. I have already briefly touched this point. Whereas it is much more excellent to maintain and preserve things created, than to have once created them; we must certainly believe, that when he had so framed the world and all creatures, he from thenceforth hath preserved and yet preserveth them. For all things would run to ruin, and fall to nothing, unless by his virtue, and, as it were by his hand they were upholden. We also assuredly believe, that the whole order of nature and changes of things, which are falsely reputed the alterations of fortune, do hang all upon God: that God guideth the course of the heaven, upholdeth the earth, tempereth the seas, and ruleth this whole world, and that all things obey his divine power, and by his divine power all things are governed: that he is the author of fair weather and of tempest, of rain and of drought, of fruitfulness and of barrenness, of health and of sickness: that of all things that belong to the sustentation and preserving of our life, and which are desired either for necessary use or honest pleasure; finally, of all things that nature needeth, he hath ever given, and yet most largely giveth abundance and plenty with most liberal hand; to this end, verily, that we should so use them as becometh mindful and kind children.’

Nowell’s conviction that all things are sustained and governed by God reflects the teaching of Scripture which affirms God’s active universal government of all things explicitly in passages such as Job 38-39, Psalm 104, Psalm 147:8-9, Matthew 6:25-33 and Luke 12:4-7 and implicitly throughout the whole biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation, which tells the story of how everything that occurs from creation onwards takes place in order to fulfil God’s good purposes of bring all things in heaven and earth into unity in Christ (Ephesians 1:10).

This strong belief in God’s providence is often challenged today because it is seen to contradict what we know about the operation of the laws of nature and because it seems to leave no space for human freedom. However, the idea that the laws of nature rule out the action of God is foolish. What we call the laws of nature are simply the observed regularities through which God carries out his purposes. As David Broughton Knox writes, ‘God works through the laws of nature, His sovereignty is not in the slightest degree affected by them.’

Furthermore, the Bible affirms both that human beings make free decisions and also that these decisions fall within the scope of God’s providential purposes. A classic example of this is Genesis 50:20 where Joseph tells his brothers that their free decision to sell him to a band of Midianite slave traders fell within the purposes of God, ‘As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.’ The God who knows all things from the beginning is quite capable of including the free decisions of human beings in the working out of his plans.

Most of the time the precise reasons why God exercises his control over nature and human history in the way that he does are unknown to us. Thus I have no idea why God sent floods over much of Britain in the last few weeks and I am not sure anyone else knows either. However, what I am sure about, and what I think every Christian should be sure about, is that because ‘there are no accidents’ those floods had significance. They were sent by God for a good purpose, even though they were inconvenient to many, caused severe hardship to those whose properties were flooded and grief to those who knew people who died. We may not know what that purpose was, but we can be confident that there was a purpose. It is not the case that the floods ‘just were.’

The belief that ‘there are no accidents’  is a liberating belief. It liberates us from the belief that we are the subjects of blind fate, of forces that neither know not care what happens to us. Whatever happens to us, we are in the hands of God and those are hands of love. Knowing that we are in the hands of God does not necessarily ease the pain when bad things happen to us, but it does give us the confidence that the pain will not have the last word.

As St. Paul declared on the basis of his belief in divine providence ‘If God is for us, who is against us?… I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
(Romans 8:31, 37-38).

Facing up to the final examination

Many people dislike examinations. I am one of them. Even as a fifty year old adult with a doctorate I still have a recurrent nightmare that I am back at school and facing a maths or German exam which I have either not prepared for or cannot do. Nevertheless, no matter how much we may dislike examinations, they are an inescapable part of life.

From SATS tests for primary school children, through GCSEs and A Levels, to university examinations, driving tests and examinations for professional qualifications, examinations are something we simply cannot avoid and what most sensible people do is accept that they have to face them and ensure that they are as well prepared as possible for the particular examination they have to take. However, there is one examination which most people neither think about nor prepare for, even though it is one that everyone without exception will have to face. This examination is the judgement by Jesus that everyone will have to face at the end of time.

The fact that there will be such a judgement is a central part of traditional Anglican belief. The three Creeds affirmed by Anglicans, the Apostles, the Nicene and the Athanasian all declare that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead. Article IV of the Thirty Nine Articles tells us that Jesus will ‘return to judge all Men at the last day’ and the Collect for the first Sunday in Advent in the Book of Common Prayer asks God to ‘give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal.’

The reason why it is a central part of traditional Anglican belief is that it is a central part of biblical teaching. The Old Testament teaches that God is the ‘judge of all the earth’ (Genesis 18:25) and promises that He ‘will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth’ (Psalm 96:13) and in the New Testament passages such as Matthew 25:31-46, John 5:25-29, Acts 10:42, Acts 17:31, 2 Corinthians 5:10, 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10 and Revelation 20:11-15 all make it clear that this Old Testament promise will receive its fulfilment at the end of time when Jesus comes to judge the living and the dead. In the words of St Augustine, this clear biblical witness means that ‘there is no one therefore who denies or doubts that the last judgement, as it is foretold in holy Scripture, is to be executed by Jesus Christ, unless it is someone who, with an unbelievable kind of animosity or blindness, does not believe in these sacred writings, which by now have demonstrated their truth to the whole world.’

As the 17th century Anglican bishop and theologian John Pearson explains in his commentary on the Apostles Creed, the reality which is affirmed by the Anglican tradition and taught by Scripture is that:

‘…the eternal Son of God, in that human nature in which he died and rose again, and ascended into heaven, shall certainly come from the same heaven into which he ascended, and at his coming shall gather together all those which shall then be alive, and all which ever lived and shall be before that day dead, when causing them all to stand before his judgement-seat, he shall judge them all according to their works done in the flesh, and passing the sentence of condemnation on the reprobates, shall deliver them to be tormented with the devil and his angels, and pronouncing the sentence of absolution upon all the elect, shall translate them into his glorious kingdom, of which there shall be no end.’

If this is the reality then it is certainly something which all people ought to think about and prepare for. What will happen at the end of time will be a final examination by Jesus of everything that we have ever thought, or said, or done. There will be no way of escaping this examination (even the dead will be summoned to appear) and no way that the judgement that will be passed on us will be wrong. As C S Lewis writes ‘it will be an infallible judgement. If it is favourable we shall have no fear, if unfavourable, no hope that it is wrong, We shall not only believe, we shall know, beyond doubt in every fibre of our appalled or delighted being, that as the judge has said, so we are: neither more nor less nor other.’

Given that the judgement will be inescapable, infallible and final, this is an examination that everyone deserves the chance to prepare for, so they will receive a favourable verdict and enjoy eternal life with God for ever. Nothing, absolutely nothing at all, in life is more important to prepare for than this. However, rich, famous and well regarded we may have been in this life will count for nothing if we are found wanting by Jesus Christ at the last judgement. As the old Authorised Version translation of Matthew 16:26 puts it ‘For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’

In a rational world therefore the Church would be proclaiming as clearly and loudly as possible that the judgement is coming and that people should, while there is still time, avail themselves of the means that God has given to escape condemnation; namely receiving the forgiveness and new start that God offers in Jesus through faith and baptism and seeking with the assistance of the Holy Spirit to live holy lives in line with the teaching of the Bible.

Furthermore, in a rational world not only would the Church be doing this, but the state would be supporting the Church in doing it. The state insists that all children in this country should be educated and that their education should tell them everything that they need to know in order to give them a chance to make a success of their lives. The state also runs public information campaigns warning people about things that will harm them and telling them what they need to do about them (the long standing anti-smoking campaign is a good example). This being the case, and the last judgement being a reality, what the state ought to be doing is supporting the Church by ensuring that teaching about the last judgement and how we should prepare for it was a central part of the education system and using the means that it has at its disposal to ensure that people are constantly reminded of their need to be ready to face Jesus at the last day.

We have become so used to living in a society in which the state does not ‘do God’ that the idea that the state might act in the way that I have just described may seem utterly fantastic. However, historically, the state in this country did support the Church in this way. In historical terms it is only comparatively recently that the state came to think it had no responsibilities in this area. Furthermore, the fact the state currently thinks the last judgement is not its concern does not mean that it should think this. A state that really cared for its citizens would seek to ensure their eternal wellbeing as well as well as their happiness in this world and would therefore see the last judgement as very much its concern. A child can be happy for eternity knowing absolutely nothing about quadratic equations. He or she cannot be happy for eternity without a right relationship with God. Why therefore is the state concerned with what is less important while ignoring what is more important?

Nevertheless, for the foreseeable future it does not look likely that the state will act in the way I have described. There is, however, no reason why the same should be true of the Church of England. There is no reason why the Church of England should not make it a priority to proclaim clearly the final judgement and every reason why it should. People deserve the chance to pass their final examination and so Christian charity means that the Church of England should be telling people that the judgement is coming and what they need to do to be ready for it. This is what the Apostles did, what our ancestors did and what we need to do as well.

What makes a ‘good vicar’?

The recent comment by the Archbishop of Canterbury on the Today programme ‘where you have a good vicar, you will find growing churches’ raises the question what do we mean by a ‘good’ vicar?

If we turn to the service for the ‘ordering of priests’ in the 1662 Ordinal, which is still the Church of England’s doctrinal bench mark on the matter, we find that there are seven characteristics of the ministry of a faithful priest which are set out in the questions that the bishop asks the candidate for ordination.

These questions are as follows:

  • Are you persuaded that the holy Scriptures contain sufficiently all doctrine required of necessity for eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ? And are you determined out of the said Scriptures to instruct the people committed to your charge, and to teach nothing (as required of necessity for eternal salvation) but that which you shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved by Scripture?
  • Will you then give your faithful diligence always so to minister the doctrine and sacraments, and the discipline of Christ, as the Lord hath commanded, and as this Church and Realm hath received the same, according to the commandments of God; so that you may teach the people committed to your cure and charge with all diligence to keep and observe the same?
  • Will you be ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God’s Word; and to use both publick or private monitions and exhortations, as well to the sick as to the whole, as need shall require, and occasions shall be given?
  • Will you be diligent in prayers, and in reading of the holy Scriptures, and in such studies as help to the knowledge of the same, laying aside the study of the world and the flesh?
  • Will you be diligent to frame and fashion yourselves, and your families, according to the doctrine of Christ; and to make yourselves and them, as much as in you lieth, wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ?
  • Will you maintain and set forwards, as much as lieth in you, quietness, peace and love, among all Christian people, and specially among them that are or shall be committed to your charge?
  • Will you reverently obey your Ordinary, and other chief Ministers, unto whom is committed the charge and government over you; following with a glad mind and will their godly admonitions, and submitting yourself to their godly judgements?

Someone whose life and ministry provide a positive answer to these questions is by definition a ‘good vicar.’ They are doing what the Church of England thinks that Priests should do. However, this does not mean that he or she will see his or her church grow. Neither experience nor Scripture lead us to think that this will be the case.

Experience tells us that that there ‘good vicars’ who do all that the Ordinal requires of them and still do not see their church grow. Scripture teaches that when the word of God is proclaimed then there will be a mixed reaction with not everyone responding positively either temporarily or permanently (Mark 4:1-20).  The Gospels tell us that even in the case of Jesus himself there were times when there was a hugely positive response to his ministry (Mark 1:32-45) and other times when it was met with widespread rejection (Mark 6:1-6).

The doctrine of election, affirmed by the Church of England in Article 17, tells us that there will always be people whom God will draw to himself through the work of his ministers so that there will be ‘a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb’’ (Revelation 7:9-10) What we have no guarantee about is that this activity of God in drawing people to himself will mean that there will be a large number of people starting to come to church at any given place or time.

It is true that there needs to be ‘intentional evangelism’ in the sense that ministers and the Church as a whole should seek to be obedient to the Great Commission by seeking to ‘make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:19-20). What they cannot determine is what the outcome of this evangelism will be.

The idea, associated with the 19th century American evangelist Charles Finney, that the application of the right ‘measures’ will bring about revival and church growth is misleading. We cannot force God’s hand and make revival come about. As an older tradition of thinking about the matter insisted, our job is to do what we are called to do and pray earnestly to God to bring souls into his kingdom and then leave the rest to him.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer declared in a sermon in 1933 ‘…it is not we who build. He wills to build the church. No one builds the church but Christ alone. Whoever is minded to build the church is surely well on his way to destroying it; for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it. We must confess – he builds. We must proclaim – he builds. We must pray to him – he builds. We do not know his plan. We cannot see whether he is building or pulling down. It maybe that the times which by human standards are times of collapse are for him the great times of building. It may be that the times which from a human point of view are great times for the church are when it is pulled down. It is a great comfort which Christ gives to his Church: you confess, preach, bear witness to me, and I alone will build where it pleases me. Do not meddle in what is my province. Church, do what is given to you to do well and you have done enough.’

What all this means is that trying to identify ‘good vicars’ by asking if their churches are growing is a profound mistake. Vicars, like everyone else, should be judged according to their success in doing what they are meant to do and doing what only God can do is not part of this.

Reflections of an Anglican Theologian

Reflections of an Anglican Theologian

My name is Martin Davie. I am a lay Anglican theologian and I have taught at universities and theological colleges and  worked at Church House, London for the Church of England’s House of Bishops and Council for Christian Unity.

I have represented the Church of England in a number of conversations with other churches and written or contributed to numerous books and articles on systematic theology, church history and ecclesiology. My most recent book is Transgender Liturgies – Should the Church of England  develop liturgical materials to mark gender transition? (Latimer Trust  2017).

I am currently a freelance theological consultant. I do work for the Church of England Evangelical Council, Latimer Trust and the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life and I am Associate Tutor in Doctrine at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.

I am married to Alyson, who is a parish priest and we have a son who has a degree in journalism .

This blog will be a  reflection on matters theological from an Anglican viewpoint, with a particular emphasis on current developments in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion.