David Runcorn, Love Means Love, a review.


David Runcorn is an ordained priest in the Church of England, he is a writer and a theologian, and in recent years he has been a prominent voice among those arguing for the Church of England to accept same-sex relationships as a legitimate form of Christian discipleship. He describes his new book Love Means Love – Same-sex relationships and the Bible[1] as ‘the fruit of a personal journey with the Bible offered to all who are seeking to explore our often conflicted understanding of human being and becoming.’ (p.9

I. The argument of Runcorn’s book.

His book consists of fifteen chapters. Chapter 1 is entitled ‘On opening doors: introducing the discussion.’ In this chapter Runcorn describes the challenges facing members of the Church of England as they discuss the issue of same-sex relationships. He argues that in the face of these challenges:

‘We need to open up this discussion without anxiety. We need to learn how to love without fear as we explore new patterns of relating and belonging. We have not been here before. There are still too few open, exploratory places where Bibles can be studied, difficult questions asked, understanding tested out, wounds healed and differences faced respectfully’ (p.13).

He further argues that supporting same-sex relationships does not means ‘abandoning the Bible’ because ‘supporting same-sex relationships does not involve any contradiction or denial of what the Bible teaches’ and that it does not mean ‘condoning promiscuity’ (p.14). On the latter point he comments ‘sexual infidelity and relational fragility are endemic within heterosexual communities, but no one claims that supporting heterosexual relationships means condoning promiscuity’ (p.14).

Chapter 2 is entitled ‘’That my house may be filled’: Jesus and the new community.’ In this chapter Runcorn argues that the way that Jesus welcomed ‘the poor, disabled, victimized and sick, and penitent outsiders,’ Paul’s teaching about mutual tolerance between those with different views, and the way the early Church was led to accept both Jewish and Gentile believers on the same basis, point to the need for Church to be a welcoming community and one in which those with different views of sexuality move ‘to a place that neither has been before’ (p.21).

Chapter 3 is entitled ‘The Surprise of God?  Dialogue with and beyond the word.’  In this chapter Runcorn argues that we need what he calls a ‘dialogical’ approach to Scripture in relation to issues which it ‘(1) originally addressed in more than one way and in very different contexts; (2) does not address at all; or (3) would not even recognise or understand within its own world – the issue we are faced with today’ (pp.26-27).  Runcorn holds that a dialogical approach involves the ‘unsettling process of reading, re-examining, repenting, reinterpreting and revising even long unquestioned biblical convictions under the compelling of the Spirit, and in the light of contemporary questions’ (p.26)

Chapter 4 is entitled ‘The Bible in an age of anxiety: worry, reality and trust.’  In this chapter Runcorn argues that the Church should not be anxious about the current debate about same-sex relationships. It needs instead to develop ‘ways of being present to one another and to the challenges of life and faith in non-anxious ways’ and should approach differences about same-sex relationships in a ‘non-judgemental way’(p.35).

Chapter 5 is entitled ‘Reading the Bible with Jesus: Midrash, jazz and the continued conversation.’ In this chapter Runcorn argues that Jesus’ uses of parables and the importance of the narrative elements in the Bible mean that we should adopt the sort of approach to Scripture that the Jewish tradition calls Midrash. ‘Rather than seeking certainties and unchanging truths, Midrash keeps the questions open and is not threatened by disagreements. Above all it offers a creative and imaginative way of connecting ancient Scriptures with the challenges of life and faith today. All voices are welcome. So in the process of meeting round the text we may grow in empathy  and understanding and in our relationships with one another’ (p.42). For Runcorn biblical interpretation needs to be like jazz music, a form of creative improvisation that allows ‘many possibilities’ (p.42) 

Chapter 6  is entitled ‘’Lie the lyings of a woman’ seeking the meaning of Leviticus 18:22’ In this chapter Runcorn notes that Leviticus 18:22 has been interpreted in a variety of different ways  and declares that ‘There are clear grounds for saying that we do not have enough background yet to understand this verse: ‘The social and cultural significance of this verse within its ancient context is still waiting to be uncovered’ My own view is that a reverent agnosticism rightly surrounds the interpretation of this text’ (p.50). Furthermore, ‘given this lack of certainty, there are surely no grounds for imposing the traditional view’ (p.50).

Chapter 7  is entitled ‘Romans and the wrath of God: who was Paul writing about?’ In this chapter Runcorn examines the teaching of Paul in Romans 1:18-2:1. He argues that the people Paul describes in Romans 1:26-27 are not what we would today call ‘homosexual people’ but rather ‘heterosexual people indulging in anal sex (and much else besides in that context of rampant and unrestrained promiscuity’ (p.53). It is difficult to know why Paul saw such behaviour as ‘against nature’ and in any event ‘There are huge and complex areas of insight into human development and identity in the natural world that Paul would have had no knowledge of in his time.’ (p.54). Finally, because there are godly Christians in the Church today Paul’s argument that same-sex sexual activity involves a ‘deliberate rejection of God’ is one that ‘simply does not transfer to our own church’ (p.57).

Chapter 8 is entitled ‘On giving it a name: the origin of the word ‘homosexual.’’  In this chapter Runcorn observes that the word ‘homosexual’ was invented in the nineteenth century and only used in the translation of the Bible in the twentieth. This means, he argues, that we need to exercise care when arguing that the Bible ‘teaches against homosexuality’ (p.61). ‘The word itself does not appear in the Bible at all. The texts that are assumed to teach that homosexual relationships are wrong, in every case, describe forms of sexual subjugation through rape or violence, excessive lustful behaviour, patterns of coercive male dominance, or a disregarding of acceptable norms of social and religious behaviour’ (p.61).

Chapter 9 is entitled ‘The sin of Sodom: when names become labels.’ In this chapter Runcorn argues that the sin of Sodom was not, as has commonly been held, same same-sex relationships, but rather  a failure to show hospitality to strangers. ’The message of the ancient story of Abraham and Sodom is clear. Hospitality offered leads to blessing. Hospitality rejected leads to destruction. The irony is that this message poses a very direct challenge to the historic treatment of gay communities by the Church and society’ (p.65).

Chapter 10 is entitled ‘Male and female he created them:’ gender, partnership and becoming.’ In this chapter Runcorn notes that Christian arguments against same-sex relationdhips are increasingly rooted in God’s creation of human beings as male and female as described in Genesis 1 and 2. For Runcorn: ‘The key question at this point is whether anatomical and procreative complementarity is what the Bible writers had in mind when they appear to condemn same-sex relationships elsewhere. There is no evidence for this view’ (p.71). Paul’s apparent blanket condemnation of same-sex relationships in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 is ‘aimed specifically at coercive and abusive behaviour of various kinds’ (p.73).

According to Runcorn we may not even ‘fully know’ what it is to be a man or a woman:

‘To be a man or a woman is no one thing. There has always been a spectrum of self-understanding and expression. What we have in common is the call to authentic love, living, giving and belonging. Each of us must travel our own path and accept particular gifts and challenges on the way. The stories we hear of gender transition warn us of the danger of assuming that someone’s identity is defined solely by the physical body’ (p.74)

Chapter 11 is entitled ‘One flesh: Genesis: kinship and marriage.’ In this chapter Runcorn concedes ‘that there are no examples of same-sex marriage in the Bible. Nor is there a hint of a trajectory in that direction’ (p.81). However, he says:

‘….what we are living with in our times is so significantly new that there are limits to how much we will be helped by looking back. Rather than focussed on supposed origins, we should recognise that Christian marriage, like all discipleship, is significant for what it points towards. We have in our midst an important company of fellow Christians who simply do not recognise themselves, or their vocation to love and partnership, in those ancient texts. What, then, is the objection to opening marriage to couples of the same sex whose union will not conceive children but who have recognised each other in love and so would leave, cling and become one flesh?’ (p.81)

Chapter 12 is entitled ‘Call nothing unclean: the vision beyond the text.’ In this chapter Runcorn considers the vision for Gentile inclusion into the Church that was originally given to Peter and then endorsed by the Council of Jerusalem.  Runcorn comments:

‘This was a vision that the New Testament Church initially received as disturbing and contradictory through the converting work of the Spirit. It was a vision of a new community, based on a radically new belonging and identity in Christ. It was yet to be fully revealed and was based on no familiar divisions of race, gender or social class: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28)’ (p.87).

He further explains :

‘This story is not included here because it says anything about sexuality. It doesn’t, but it is an example, from the first Christian churches, of a vulnerable stepping out in faith, into something very new, shocking, even unthinkable. It presents the challenge of responding obediently to what feels to be the inspiration of the Spirit even though it appears to contradict the plainest traditional understandings of the given texts. For me, that illustrates something of the challenge facing the church today in relations to issues of sexuality and gay relationships’ (pp.87-88).

Chapter 13 is entitled ‘Good fruit: patience, trust and the test of time.’ In this chapter Runcorn quotes the words of Jesus about the nature of a tree being known by the quality of its fruit (Matthew 7:16-18) and argues that these words can be applied to the issue of same-sex relationships. This is because the lives of faithful gay Christians can be seen to be producing good fruit and thus show that they are good trees. As Runcorn puts It:

‘Faithful following of Christ bears good fruit. it is the fruit of faithful consecrated lives . It is marked by a quality of life and spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things’ (Galatians 5:22-23). This is not fruit a bad tree can produce (p.95).’

Chapter 14 is entitled ‘To whom it is given: sexual abstinence and celibacy.’ In this chapter Runcorn  argues on the basis of Paul’s teaching about marriage and singleness in 1 Corinthians 7 that it is not legitimate to argue that gay men and women should automatically be expected to be celibate. In Runcorn’s words:

‘When God says, it is not good that the man should be alone (Genesis 2:18) this is said of all human beings not just heterosexual ones. So much of Pauls pastoral advice on choice, abstinence and not burning speaks directly to the lives of gay men and women today. Some, like others in the Christian community, may choose singleness as a way of consecrated service in the Kingdom, but for others, including faithful but harrowed Bible believers, might Paul not say ‘if his/her passions are strong, and so it has to be, let him/her marry…it is no sin? (p.100).’ 

Finally, Chapter 15 is entitled ‘Sexuality and the sacred: joy, delight and sacrament.’ In this chapter Runcorn notes how the Song of Songs testifies to the importance of human sexuality and how sexuality and spirituality cannot be properly separated. He then goes on to comment that Christians today:

‘… are seeking a Christian vision for humanity in the midst of a society that reflects deep confusion in the area of sexuality and relationships and that has abandoned Christian moral teaching and lifestyle. Exploited carelessly for pleasure, fearfully held at a distance, or burdened with impossible expectations of fulfilment in relationships, human sexuality is the place where some of the deepest wounding and confusion in our culture are found.’ (p.104)

‘The good news’ he writes:

‘…In the midst of a society characterised by such casual, broken, misguided and destructive approaches to relationships, is that there are Christian couples who wish to make a public consecration of their love and commitment to one another before God and the world. Is this not something to celebrate? But this is precisely where the church is most deadlocked and, perversely, where it withholds the blessing of God’ (p.106).

The couples he is referring to are, of course, same-sex couples who are seeking to be married.

II. What are we to make of Runcorn’s argument?

1. Contrary to what Runcorn argues in chapters 1 and 4, the current discussions about same-sex  relationships are something about which we should be anxious. Just as Paul was anxious that the Christians in Galatians would be misled by those ‘who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ’ (Galatians 1:8), so also we should be anxious about individuals, and the Church of England as a whole, being misled by those who wrongly teach that same-sex relationships, and even same-sex marriages, are in accordance with the will of God.

2. Runcorn is correct to say in chapter 4 that differences over the issue of same-sex  relationships should handled in a ‘non-judgemental way’ if he means by this that people who do not approve of same-sex relationships should not regard themselves as somehow being better people than those who do. This is because none of us should ever regard ourselves as better than anyone else, but should simply say ‘God, be  merciful to me a sinner’ (Luke 18:13). However, this does not mean that we should not make a moral judgement that same-sex relationships are a form of behaviour that is contrary to God’s will. The one does not follow from the other.

3. Runcorn is right to say in chapter 1 that ‘There are still too few open, exploratory places where Bibles can be studied, difficult questions asked, understandings tested out, wounds healed and differences faced respectfully.’  There does need to be more open discussion in the Church about the issue of same-sex relationships. However, the starting point for this discussion needs to be the clear and unequivocal teaching of the Bible and the Christian tradition that sexual intercourse should only take place between one man and one woman in the context of marriage.

A good analogy would be the way in which in our cultural context there needs to be opportunity for open discussion about who Jesus was and is, but the starting point for this discussion should not be agnosticism about Jesus’s true identity, but the teaching of the Bible and the Christian tradition that Jesus is one person who is both human and divine.

4. Runcorn is also right to say in chapter 1 that supporting same-sex relationships does not in itself mean ‘condoning promiscuity.’ There are indeed people who support same-sex relationships and who do not condone promiscuity. However, supporting same-sex relationships does mean condoning what the New Testament calls porneia, that is, a form of sexual activity that is contrary to God’s will and that renders those who engage in it unclean in God’s sight (Matthew 15:19, Mark 7:21). 

5. Runcorn is again right to say in chapter 2 that Jesus and the early Church welcomed everyone regardless of their race, sex, social standing, or previous conduct. However, what he fails to note is that Jesus and the early Church also insisted that those who became part of God’s new covenant community had to turn from their sins and seek to live God’s way hereafter. Because this is the case it makes perfect sense to say that the Church must welcome those with same-sex attraction and those in same-sex relationships, but that it must also make clear that they should not engage in same-sex sexual activity.

6. Runcorn is mistaken when he says in chapter 3 that we need to engage in a ‘dialogical’ approach to Scripture in relation to the issue of same-sex relationships because this is an issue which the Bible does not ‘recognize or understand.’ The Bible does recognise the existence of both gay and lesbian same-sex relationships,  and in the first century context this would have involved recognizing the existence of long-term committed same-sex relationships. The Bible also understands same-sex relationships theologically, consistently viewing  them as contrary to God’s will and so off limits for God’s people.

7. Runcorn is right to suggest in chapter 5 that applying Scripture to our lives today involves a degree of ‘creative improvisation.’ This is what the Christian tradition has called ‘casuistry’ the exercise of applying biblical teaching to particular circumstances which the Bible may not specifically address. However, this does not mean adopting an approach to the Bible which permanently ‘keeps the questions open’. The purpose of asking questions is to find answers and once the answers are known the questions should cease and appropriate action should be taken. In the case of same-sex relationships the question is ‘Are these relationships acceptable to God?’ The answer is ‘No’ and the appropriate action is for people not to engage in them.

8. Runcorn is mistaken when he suggests in chapter 6 that we do not yet understand the prohibition of same-sex activity in Leviticus 18:22. The background to the prohibition of same-sex sexual relationships both in this verse and in Leviticus 20:13  is the existence of such relationships among the Egyptians and the Canaanites (Leviticus 18:3), these verses contain a general prohibition of same-sex relationships per se without any qualifications (and cover lesbian relationships as well), and the rationale behind this prohibition is a wider prohibition of all forms of sexual activity outside marriage as being contrary to the order laid down by God in creation. [2]  

9. Contrary to what Runcorn argues, it is clear what Paul means in Romans 1;26-27 when he says that gay and lesbian relationships are ‘against nature.’ Paul’s argument in Romans 1 that just as idolatry involves the rejection of the witness to God borne by the created order, so also both gay and lesbian same-sex relationships involve a rejection of God’s intention that human beings should engage in heterosexual sex, an intention to which the complementary sexual biology of men and women (‘nature’) bears witness. In the words of Richard Hays, according to Paul: ‘When human beings engage in homosexual activity, they enact an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual reality: the rejection of the Creator’s design.’[3]

Furthermore, contrary to what Runcorn also writes in chapter 7, there are no ‘huge and complex areas of insight into human development and identity in the natural world’ that have emerged since Paul’s time and which negate his argument, and the existence of Christians in same-sex relationships does not negate his argument either. The continuing presence and power of sin in the lives of believers means that all Christians engage in various forms of sin (see the General Confession in The Book of Common Prayer) and these forms of sin remain sin even though devout Christians engage in them. Saying that same-sex relationships should not be regarded as sinful because Christians engage in them is thus simply foolish. The Christians involved may not subjectively think that they are rejecting the creator’s design, but nevertheless, objectively, that is precisely what they are doing. 

10. Runcorn is right to say in chapter 8 that the term ‘homosexual’ is a comparatively recent invention. However, this does not mean that the biblical writers did not know of the reality to which the word refers, namely men and women who desire, or engage in, same-sex sexual activity. Furthermore, contrary to what Runcorn claims, the biblical writers do not simply reject certain specific forms of same-sex relationships. They reject all forms of same-sex sexual activity as contrary to the creator’s design.

11. Contrary to what Runcorn maintains in chapter 9, the story of God’s judgment on Sodom in Genesis 19 is about sexual sin rather than inhospitality. That this is so is indicated by the following factors:

  • The juxtaposition of the use of the Hebrew verb yada (‘know’) in verses 5 and 8 indicates that the verb has the same meaning in both cases and since the meaning in verse 8 is clearly sexual, ‘Behold, I have two daughters who have not known man,’ it follows that the meaning in the request in verse 5 ‘that we may know them’ must be the same. The men of Sodom want to have sex with Lot’s visitors.
  • This reading of the text is reinforced by the fact that in Judges 19:22-26, a text which scholars generally agree is based on the Sodom story (and which is thus the first commentary on it), the verb yada is also used with a consistently sexual meaning.
  • This reading of the text is further supported by the nature of Lot’s counter offer to the men of Sodom, have sex with my two daughters instead of my two visitors, and by the double use of the specific term ‘male’ (anse) in 19:4 (itself an intertextual echo of the use of the term ‘male’ in the reference to the wickedness of Sodom in Genesis 13:13). Those who are proposing to act wickedly in Sodom are the male inhabitants of the city and the nature of their proposed wickedness is sex with Lot’s (supposedly) male visitors.
  • Finally, this reading of the text is supported by the fact noted by James De Young that in the literary structure of Genesis the story of Sodom forms part of a trio of stories that sit between the promise of the birth of Isaac in Genesis 18:9-15 and its fulfilment in Genesis 21:1-7, the other two being the story of the incest of Lot and his daughters (Genesis 19:30-38) and the story of Abraham, Sarah and Abimelech (Genesis 20:1-18). As De Young explains ‘each episode relates sexual sin and its punishment…The literary structure of the text demands a homosexual meaning for the sin of Sodom. Illicit sexual enjoyment or opportunism links all three episodes.’[4]
  • Ezekiel 16:49-50 in the Old Testament and Jude7 and 2 Peter 1:6-8 in the New Testament understand the sin of Sodom as being sexual in nature.

12. Contrary to what Runcorn writes in chapter 10,  the ‘anatomical and procreative complementarity’ of human beings is what is in the background of all the biblical texts that condemn same-sex relationships.  The basis for such  condemnation is God’s creation of human beings as male and female creatures who are anatomically  complementary and therefore capable of fulfilling God’s command to ‘be fruitful and multiply.’ From a biblical perspective the basic problem with same-sex relationships is they do not respect the fact that God has created human beings in this way and has also ordained marriage between a man and a woman as the proper context for sexual activity and procreation.

Runcorn is also wrong when he writes in the same chapter that Paul’s condemnation of same-sex relationships in Corinthians 6:9-10 is ‘‘aimed specifically at coercive and abusive behaviour of various kinds.’  The Greek words arsenokoitai and malakoi  used in these verses are terms which describe the active and passive partners in male same-sex activity respectively. They carry no connotation of coercive or abusive behaviour, nor is this suggested anywhere else in the verses concerned. [5]

13. Runcorn is right when he declares ‘we may not even ‘fully know’ what it is to be a man or a woman.’ None of us will ‘fully know’ who we are until the life of the world to come when we shall know ourselves as we are now known by God (1 Corinthians 13:12). However, we can and do know on the basis of our biology that we are male or female.[6]

It is also true that there is a spectrum of what it means to be male or female. That is why men are different from other men and women are different from other women. Nevertheless we can say that woman are different from, and physically and psychologically complementary to, men and vice versa. Furthermore, while it is true, as Runcorn says, that we are not defined solely by our bodies, since we are a compound of a material body and a immaterial soul,[7] nevertheless our bodies are integral to who we are and we are male if we have male bodies and female if we have female ones. Gender transition cannot alter this fact. Through hormones or surgery some of the physical characteristics of a body can be altered, but that body will remain fundamentally male or female right down to the cellular level and the person whose body it is will therefore remain either male or female. Our basic, God given, sex is immutable.

14. Runcorn is correct when he notes in chapter 11 ‘that there are no examples of same-sex marriage in the Bible. Nor is there a hint of a trajectory in that direction’  Where he is incorrect is saying that the situation we now face with regard to marriage is ‘significantly new.’ Nothing significant has in fact changed. The fact that same-sex marriages have been introduced in this country does not change the fact that God ordained marriage to be a relationship  between two people of the opposite sex (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:4-5).  Nothing the government has done, or can do, will alter this fact.

This being the case, the answer to Runcorn’s question: ‘What, then, is the objection to opening marriage to couples of the same sex whose union will not conceive children but who have recognised each other in love and so would leave, cling and become one flesh?’ is straightforward. We do not have the authority to change the character of marriage established by God at creation and the government was guilty of a massive act of hubris when it thought otherwise. Two people of the same sex can enter into a permanent, exclusive, sexual relationship with each other if they wish, but this will not be a marriage and will not be approved of  by God.

15. Contrary to what Runcorn claims in chapter 12, the story of the inclusion of the Gentiles into the Church in Acts 10-15 is not an example of Christians being led by the Spirit to act in way that went beyond the teaching of Scripture. The words of James in Acts 15:15 explicitly declare that the inclusion of the Gentiles into the Church was in line with what God had declared would happen in Amos 9:11-12 and Jeremiah 12:15 and the instructions given to Gentile believers in Acts 15:20 correspond to the laws laid down for resident aliens in Israel in Leviticus 17-18. [8]

Furthermore, these instructions include abstaining from porneia (which would include same-sex relationships), which makes it even more inappropriate to cite the inclusion of the Gentiles as a model for the acceptance of same-sex relationships by the Church.

16. It is true, as Runcorn notes in chapter 13, that Christians who are in same-sex relationships do exhibit the qualities of ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’ that Paul lists as the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). However, from a biblical perspective their same-sex relationships are examples of the sexual immorality which Paul identifies as the ‘works of the flesh’ (in Galatians 5:18) and according to Paul ‘those who do those things shall not inherit the kingdom of God’ (Galatians 5:21). Runcorn cannot have it both ways. Either he accepts the authority of Paul’s teaching in Galatians 5, in which case he has to accept that same-sex relationships have the capacity to bar people from God’s kingdom, or he rejects it, in which case his own appeal to Galatians 5:22-23 ceases to carry weight.

17. It is illegitimate for Runcorn to appeal in chapter 14 to Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 to support Christians entering into same-sex relationships. The reason that Paul thinks that Christians who have not been received a call to celibacy may marry is because he knows that marriage is a legitimate form of life for God’s people and consequently ‘it is no sin’ to marry (1 Corinthians 7:26). However, we know from elsewhere in his writings that Paul does believe that same-sex relationships are sinful and so the same argument would not apply to Christians who are thinking of entering same-sex relationships. To them he would say what he says to Christians who think it is OK to have sex with prostitutes – ‘shun immorality’ (1 Corinthians 6:18). [9]

18. While Runcorn is right to note the current sexual brokenness and confusion of our society in chapter 15, he is wrong to suggest that in this context a Christian’s desire to enter into a same-sex marriage is something to celebrate. How can we celebrate a Christian wanting to reject the nature of marriage established by God himself at creation and proposing to adopt a way of life which, unless repented of, has the capacity to exclude them from God’s kingdom?

For these eighteen reasons, while  Runcorn’s book is worth reading as a clear introduction to the arguments for the acceptance of same-sex relationships, it fails to make out a persuasive case for the Church of England abandoning its traditional view of sex and marriage.

M B Davie 27.10.2020

[1] David Runcorn, Love Means Love -Same-sex relationships and the Bible (London: SPCK, 2020).

[2] For these points see the detailed discussion in Richard Davidson, Flame of Yahweh – Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), pp. 149-159. 

[3] Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), p. 386.

[4] James De Young, Homosexuality: Contemporary Claims Examined in Light of the Bible and Other Ancient  Literature and Law (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2000), pp.39-40.

[5] For this point see Eugene Rice, ‘Paul, St.’, GLBTQ Encyclopedia, 2015 at http://www.glbtqarchive.com/ssh/paul_S.pdf.

[6] The only exception to this rule is the tiny number of genuinely intersex people who possess both male and female elements in their biology. 

[7] See J P Moreland, The Soul -How we know it’s real and why it matters (Chicago: Moody, 2014).

[8] See Richard Bauckham, ‘James and the Gentiles (Acts 15: 13-21) in Ben Witherington III (ed.) History, Literature and Society in the Book of Acts (Cambridge: CUP, 1996), pp.154-184.   

[9] ‘Immorality’ here is a translation of porneia, a term which, as we have seen,  includes same-sex relationships.

The thing that matters most.

‘It’s the economy stupid’ is a well-known American political catchphrase that had its origins in the 1992 presidential campaign in which Bill Clinton was running against the incumbent president George W H Bush.

A man called James Carville , who was a political strategist on the Clinton campaign team, originally came up with the catchphrase. In order to keep those involved in the campaign on message, Carville hung up a sign in Clinton’s campaign headquarters in Little Rock that listed the three key messages that campaign workers needed  to get across to the voters. It read:

‘Change vs. more of the same.

The economy, stupid

Don’t forget health care.’

The second item on the list, in the form ‘It’s the economy stupid’ used by Carville in a television appearance, took on a life of its own and became the de facto campaign slogan for the whole of the successful Clinton campaign. In 1992 America was in recession and ‘It’s the economy stupid’ successfully communicated the message that the key issue in the election was the US economy, and that Clinton would do a better job of handling the economy than Bush.

What this piece of American political history reminds us is that any successful communications strategy has to have a clear focus. Those seeking to communicate need to decide what really matters in terms of the message they are trying to convey, and then work out how to get this across in the clearest and most memorable fashion possible.

What prompted me to think about this issue is the fact that in the past week the comments by Church leaders that have been reported in the media have been of a political nature. Earlier in the week the five British and Irish Anglican archbishops warned of the dangers, as they saw it, of the Government’s Internal Market Bill,[1] and yesterday there was an article in the Yorkshire Post by the Archbishop of York and the Bishops of Manchester and Leeds highlighting the disproportionate effect of Covd-19  restrictions on poor people in the North of England and calling for a ‘collective, nationwide response’ involving ‘further injections of money to support poorer communities.’[2]

Church leaders commenting on political issues is not a problem. Indeed, Church leaders have an obligation to do so. The temporal well-being of human beings, i.e. their well-being in this life, matters, and so Church leaders need to warn against political policies which seem likely to cause people temporal harm.

However, a problem occurs when the messages coming from Church leaders focus primarily or exclusively on temporal matters. This is because Christian theology tells us is that what matters most for human beings is not what happens in this life, but what will happen in the life to come.

In the final clause of the Apostles Creed, Christians affirm their belief in ‘the life everlasting.’  If we ask what this affirmation means, a very helpful explanation  is provided by the seventeen century Anglican theologian John Pearson in his commentary on the Creed. Person writes that the affirmation means:

‘I do fully and freely assent unto this as unto a most necessary and infallible truth, that the unjust after their resurrection and condemnation shall be tormented for their sins in hell, and shall so be continued in torments forever, so as neither the justice of God shall ever cease to inflict them, nor the persons of the wicked cease to subsist and suffer them; and that the  just after their resurrection and absolution shall as the blessed of the Father obtain the inheritance, and as the servants of God enter into their master’s joy, freed from all possibility of death, sin and sorrow, filled with all conceivable and inconceivable fullness of happiness, confirmed in absolute security of an eternal enjoyment and so they shall continue with God and with the Lamb for evermore.’ [3]

The converging witness of Scripture, tradition and reason testifies to the truth of this affirmation, [4]and if it is true then it radically relativises the importance of all temporal concerns.  Jesus makes this point in Matthew 16:26 when he asks: ‘For what will it profit a  man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?’  By the word ‘life’ Jesus means the life in relationship with God which will be enjoyed forever in the world to come, and the point he is making is that compared with the possession of this life even having the whole world as one’s possession is not a benefit.

 If we have to choose between possession of this world and everything in it and life with God forever, then life with God forever is the only rational choice to make. Our enjoyment of the things of this world will only ever be temporary and, as Pearson so starkly reminds us, if we do not have a right relationship with God then what awaits us in the world to come is an eternity of misery. As J I Packer further notes, such misery is not the result of an arbitrary infliction of pain. It is instead:

 ‘… a conscious growing into the state in which one has chosen to be. The unbeliever has preferred to be by himself, without God, defying God, having God against him, and he shall have his choice.’ [5]

In his justice God gives the lost precisely what they have chosen for themselves.

What the Christian faith also tells us, however, is that this does not have to be our fate. We can instead choose to  put our faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God who died and rose for us that we might enjoy life with God forever. In the words of Jesus in John 3:16:  ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.’

Because all this is so, it follows that the core message that the Church is called to proclaim is, to misquote Carville, ‘It’s eternity, stupid.’ In other words, what the Church really needs to tell people, because no one else will, is that this life is not all there is, that in the life to come they will experience either an eternity of unutterable misery or an eternity of unutterable joy, and that if they want to experience the latter then they need to put their trust in Jesus Christ and what he has done for them. 

To sum up, it is appropriate for Church leaders to comment on temporal matters as Anglican archbishops and bishops have done this week. However, it is even more important that they talk about eternity. When all is said and done, the Church’s core business is saving souls, and the only way that souls will be saved is if people come to realise that this life is not all there is, and that they need to put their trust in Jesus in order to avoid an eternity of damnation and enjoy an eternity of blessedness instead.  The Church’s calling is be God’s instrument to bring people to this realisation, and for this to happen the leaders of the Church need to switch the focus of their message to the thing that matters most, the life of the world to come.

It’s eternity, stupid.

[1] ‘Brexit, Anglican leaders issue Internal Market Bill warning,’ BBC News, 19 October 2020.

[2] ‘Exclusive: Bishops fear ‘unrest’ in North over virus unless Boris Johnson acts,’ Yorkshire Post, 24 October, 2020.

[3] John Pearson, An Exposition of the Creed (London: George Bell, 1902), pp.600-601. 

[4] See for example, E B Pusey , What is of faith as to Everlasting Punishment? (Oxford: James Parker 1881) and Jerry Walls, Hell – The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992).

[5] J I Packer, Knowing God (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1975), p.170.

God’s relation to creation and ours.

A video and a clarification

Last week, the Bishop of Reading, Olivia Graham, posted a video on behalf of Oxford diocese in which she looked at the theological basis for Christian care for the environment. In the course of this video she suggested that a reason that Christians should care for the environment is that God is ‘incarnate,’ not only in the person of Jesus Christ, but in creation as a whole, and has been ever since the Big Bang.[1]

What she said provoked much criticism on the grounds that it undermined the basic Christian claim that God was, and is, uniquely present in the person of Christ. In the light of this criticism Bishop Graham posted a clarification on the Oxford Diocese website in which she conceded that her use of the term ’incarnation’  had been unhelpful, and explained that what she meant was that ‘the Divine pervades every part of the universe, while clearly being above, beyond and greater than the universe.’[2]

Bishop Graham’s original video and her subsequent clarification leave us with three questions that I shall consider in the remained of this post.

First, what does it mean to say that God ‘pervades every part of the universe’?

Secondly, what is the basis for our care for creation if it is not the case that the creation is the incarnation of God?

Thirdly, what form does our care for creation need to take?

God’s relation to creation.

Saying that God pervades every part of the universe is a way of expressing what Christian theology has mean when It has said that God is ‘omnipresent.’( i.e. simultaneously present in all places).

The reason that God is omnipresent is because as God he is infinite rather than finite. All things in creation are finite. This means that however big they are they have a limited and local existence. Thus, we can say of the biggest galaxy or the largest black hole that they are here and not there. However, as Matthew Barrett notes in his helpful book None Greater – The Undomesticated Attributes of God this limitation does not apply to God:

‘God, as the Creator, escapes this creaturely limitation, nor is it even possible  For him, as one who is infinite, to be limited in this way. As one who has an ‘infinite essence,’  so must he also have an ‘infinite presence.’ The latter follows from the former, for if God is infinite in his essence, then it’s impossible for him to be demarcated by or contained within a finite space. While finite creatures like you and me are bounded by space, the same cannot be said of an infinite being.’[3]

In the words of the Puritan theologian Stephen Charnock:

‘God, because infinite, fills all, yet so as not to be contained by them. He is from the height of the heavens to the bottom of the deeps, in every point of the world, and in the whole circle of it, yet not limited by it, but beyond it.’[4]

It is because this is the case that the Psalmist writes:

‘Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?
    Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend to heaven, thou art there!
    If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!
If I take the wings of the morning
    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there thy hand shall lead me,
    and thy right hand shall hold me. ‘ (Psalm 139:7-10)

It is also important to note that God’s simplicity, the fact that God is  simply, and solely, and entirely  God (‘I am who I am’ Exodus 3:14), means that God’s universal presence throughout creation does not mean that he is any way mixed with the created order. To quote Barrett again:

‘Yes, he is everywhere present, but we should not go so far as to think that he becomes everything in the process. Such a presence would spell disaster, dividing God’s being as if he were meshed by the creation, absorbed by the creature, dissolving the Creator-creature distinction. God may be present with the world, but he does not become one with the world. ‘The finite and infinite cannot be joined.’ Consider the way the sun produces light. The light illumines a room, but that does not mean the light becomes the air. The two remain distinct. Likewise with the Creator and his creation.’ [5]

This distinction between God and his creation remains in place even in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. As the Christological debates of the fifth century established, Jesus Christ is one person with two natures, one divine and one human. His humanity is truly human and does not possess the attributes of God, but the attributes of a first century, Jewish, male, human creature.  If this was not the case he could not be the ‘second Adam’ the progenitor of a renewed human race  (Romans 5:12-21, 1 Corinthians 15:42-49). To be the second Adam he has to be human, and to be human he has to have a human nature, which means a nature distinct from the nature of God.

Our relation to creation

What all this means is that it would not be correct to say that we as human beings should care for the rest of creation because God is present in creation in a way that means that we could point to a tree, a rabbit, or a mollusc, and say ‘that is God.’ As we have seen, God and creation are distinct and they should never be identified (which is the reason for the prohibition in Exodus 1:4-5 of worshipping any idol made to represent ‘anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth’).

The reason we should care for creation is instead laid out for us in the first two chapters of the book of Genesis, chapters which set the stage for the rest of the biblical account of what it means to live rightly before God.

These chapters tell us that our vocation as male and female human beings is to show what God is like (this is what it means by being God’s image bearers, Genesis 1:26-27) and fulfilling this vocation involves expressing our love for God by taking responsibility for the world that he has created. The created order as a whole, and not just the human part of it, has value in God’s sight[6] and human beings are called to share in God’s care for it. 

In Genesis 1:28 God tells the first human beings:

Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.

This command gives human beings authority over rest of the created order and it also involves the right to use the resources provided by the natural world. As God goes on to say in the next verse ‘I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.’

In our day, many people have come to see this command in Genesis as lying at the root of the environmental problems that we face.[7] This is because it can be (and has been) viewed as giving human beings the right to treat the rest of creation in any way they see fit. However, to view our God-given calling to exercise ‘dominion’ over creation as giving us a right to engage in unlimited exploitation of it for our own benefit is fundamentally to misrepresent what Genesis is saying.

God’s rule over creation is for the benefit of creation as a whole. ‘The Lord is good to all and his compassion is over all that he has made’ (Psalm 145:9). The same is meant to be true of the human vice-regency over creation exercised by human beings on his behalf. 

As the second creation account in Genesis 2:15 tells us, human beings have the vocation to ‘till and keep’, that is to say to ‘serve and preserve,’ the created order in the same way that someone might be given the task of taking care of a garden or a park and the animals living in it in order to enable them to flourish. This in turn means that while human beings have the right to make use of the rest of the created order in order to live, this should be done with appropriate restraint, in a way that recognises that the non-human creation has its own intrinsic value in the sight of God. That is why, for example, the Old Testament law sets limits to the way in which the people of Israel can use the natural order (see  Exodus 20:10, Leviticus 25:7, Deuteronomy 25:4).

Because human beings are part of creation, God’s mandate to care for creation also involves care for other human beings.  We are called to express the reality of our love for God not simply by caring for the non-human creation, but also by showing love to other people (see 1 John 4:20-21).

This is where the command to love our neighbour (Leviticus 19:18) comes into the picture. God gives himself to be loved by us in the shape of other people and, as Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) explains, our neighbour is that particular individual in whom God gives himself to be loved by us at any given moment. Furthermore, true love for our neighbour will be shaped by our awareness that our neighbour’s highest good will be served by helping them to live in a way that is in accordance with God’s will for them.

The twin commands to love God and love our neighbour (Mark 12:28-34) thus go together.  We express love for God as we show love to our neighbour and we show love for our neighbour as we act towards them in a way that enables them to fulfil God’s good purposes for them. Loving someone means wanting what is best for them and what is best for all human beings is that they should flourish in the manner for which God created them.

This in turn means that just as love of God and love of neighbour necessarily belong together, so also do love of God, love of neighbour and care for the rest of creation. This is so for two reasons.

First, as we are coming increasingly to realise, human beings are dependent on the natural world for their existence and so when the creation is not cared for human beings are unable to flourish in the way that God intends. For example, if we poison the seas or the air this necessarily does harm to our neighbours since the inter-connectedness of the created order means that their well-being is dependent on the cleanliness of the oceans and the air which they breathe.

Secondly as has already been noted, love for neighbour means acting in a way that enables them to fulfil God’s good purposes for them. Therefore, our dealings with them will need to reflect the fact that, like us, they too are people who are called by God to exercise responsible care for the whole of the world that God has created. We are called by God to remind our neighbours that they too have a God given responsibility for creation as a whole.

Being modest about our role.

We need to be modest about our responsibility to the rest of creation. Contrary to what is sometimes suggested, our job is not to ‘save the planet’ in any ultimate sense. The overall future of the planet is not our hands. It is the hands of God.

As the Christian faith has always acknowledged, the world in which we live is finite, riven by conflict even in the non-human creation (‘nature red in tooth and claw’) and ultimately heading towards death. Left to itself, and even without human intervention, all life in this world will come to an end and the world itself will cease to be.

However, the good news is that this world has not been left to itself. In accordance with God’s covenant commitment to the human race and the rest of life in this world recorded in the Book of Genesis (Genesis 9:8-17), God has kept both the planet and ourselves in existence and will continue to do so. Furthermore, as Paul tells us, the action that God took in Jesus to save the human race also saved the rest of creation as well (Romans 8:18-25). Because of what Jesus has done we can look forward to the day when the threat of death lying over all creation is lifted and we and the rest of creation will exist for ever in God’s peaceable kingdom in which, to quote Isaiah:

‘The wolf shall live with the lamb,

   the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

   and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze,

   their young shall lie down together;

   and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,

   and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy

   on all my holy mountain;

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD

   as the waters cover the sea.  (Isaiah 11:6-9)’

Human beings now have the capacity to do very serious environmental damage to the planet and its capacity to sustain life. However, if we are Christians then we have no need to despair because we can trust that God will be faithful to his promises. In spite of human folly and wickedness, he will eventually enable creation to flourish perfectly in the life of his coming kingdom in the way that he has intended all along.

The guarantee of this future is the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit, which are the first fruits (1 Corinthians 15:23, Romans 8:23 ) that show that the renewal of creation as a whole will follow in due time. As St. Paul writes in Romans 8:22-23, the whole creation ‘groans’ in distress as it awaits the liberation from its bondage to futility and decay which God has promised, and Christians groan with it. However, this groaning is also like the groaning of childbirth, it is a sign that that a new birth is happening, that the new creation is coming in.

What this all means is that instead of being called to ‘save the planet’ human beings have the more modest task of so behaving in relation to the rest of the creation that we provide for our own legitimate needs while respecting the limits imposed upon us by the need to respect the rest of creation and to enable it to flourish. In this way we begin to manifest the values of God’s peaceable kingdom even in the midst of the world as it now exists.

Being realistic about what we are called to do.

Finally, we have to be realistic about the fact that we do have to provide for our own legitimate needs. As human beings we will inevitably have an impact upon the planet. There is no way in which we can exist as human beings and provide all those things needed for us to live rightly before God without having an impact upon the rest of creation, an impact that will necessarily in some ways be destructive. For example, using timber means cutting down a tree and providing clean water involves building dams that block rivers and drown valleys and their eco-systems.

The issue about the human relationship to the rest of creation therefore has to be one of balance How can we balance the need to provide for ourselves and our neighbours by using the resources of the planet, while having the minimum negative impact on the rest of creation?

Furthermore, how can this balance be sustained beyond the short term? We do not know how long it will be before God brings in the kingdom in all its fullness and we have a responsibility for future generations of human beings (who are also our neighbours in the sense of being those for whom God calls us to care) and for the future of the rest of creation. Therefore, we are challenged to think about how to act in the present in a way that does not simply create further problems for the future. As we have seen, according to Genesis 2, the human vocation is like looking after a park or a garden and that is a long-term business.

Caring for a park or garden involves having to think not just about what will happen this week, or this month, or even this year, but in the years ahead, years that the gardener or park keeper may never live to see. In a similar fashion in caring for God’s garden we have to learn to think long term, thinking not just about what is good for now, but for the whole future until Jesus comes in glory.

[1] The video can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nKTGeq99Lkk&feature=youtu.be

[2] The clarification can be found at https://www.oxford.anglican.org/care-for-creation-film-a-clarification/.

[3] Matthew Barrett, None Greater (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2020), Kindle edition p. 165.

[4] Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, 1:368, in Barrett, p.162.

[5] Barrett, p.167.

[6] That is why Genesis 1:3-25 repeatedly tells us that the non-human creation is ‘good’ in God’s sight and why inGenesis 9:9-17 the covenant made by God after the flood is not just with Noah and his descendants but with all the other living creatures as well

[7] The key text in this regard is Lynne White, ‘The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis,’ Science. 155 (1967), pp 1203-1207. For a helpful response to the argument put forward by White see Richard Bauckham, ‘Human authority in creation’ in Richard Bauckham, God and the crisis of freedom (Louisville: Westminster John Knox  Press, 2002), pp. 128-177.