The Explanatory Memorandum from the Bishops of the Church in Wales – a response.

The Church in Wales has now published a Bill which, if passed, will allow services of blessing to take place in Welsh churches after Civil Partnership ceremony or civil partnership between two people of the same sex.[1]

The justification for this proposed development is found in the ‘Explanatory Memorandum’ from the Welsh bench of bishops which has been published alongside the Bill. The justification the bishops offer runs as follows. 

‘The Christian tradition from the early centuries received the union of one man and one woman for life as the normative and exclusive context for sexual intimacy, and received the Scriptures as enjoining this ideal, despite the fact that different patterns of polygamy are witnessed, and even seem to have tacit approval, in the pages of the Bible.

As with many aspects of human life, however, experience of human relations is rarely as straightforward as the traditional view of the ideal, and Scripture itself bears witness to a process of accommodation in relation, for example, to divorce, while differing levels of tolerance have been shown by the Christian Church down through the centuries to sexual activity in the context of betrothal and so-called “common law marriages”.  In the same way, patterns of sexual expression which seem accepted in Scripture without condemnation, such as sexual intercourse between a master and slave, or between a man and a concubine, are clearly now regarded as repugnant.

In the view of the bench, the Scriptures condemn “porneia”, unbridled lust, in which sexual activity is divorced from faithful and mutual commitment. It is true that in Scripture such faithful commitment is always portrayed as between a man and woman in covenanted union (marriage), and all other sexual activity, including references to same-sex activity, is portrayed as an expression of porneia. However, with new social, scientific and psychological understandings of sexuality in the last one and a half centuries, we believe that same-sex relationships can be understood in a radically different way, and that the teaching of Scripture should therefore be re-interrogated.

Same-sex friendships – although without any clear implication of sexual activity – are celebrated in the Bible. If Scripture is correctly read as condemning porneia, then the question can be asked whether loving and faithful long term same-sex commitments are properly categorised as the expression of “unbridled lust” (cf. Romans 1)’

What is said in this justification is wrong in multiple ways.

First, while polygamy is indeed witnessed to in Scripture (along with numerous other departures from the pattern for sexual established by God at creation) it is very rare, it is always implicitly condemned when it is described, and it is specifically ruled out by the Mosaic Law in Leviticus 18:18 and Deuteronomy 17:17.[2]

Secondly, while the Old Testament does make accommodation for divorce, divorce is never approved of and the New Testament makes it clear that divorce is only permitted in two circumstances  -where the marriage covenant has been broken by adultery (Matthew 19:3-9) and the repudiation of marriage by an unbelieving spouse (1 Corinthians 7:12-16). Rather than the Bible witnessing to a ‘process of accommodation’ in relation to divorce in which a gradually more permissive approach is taken, what we actually see in Scripture is a  process in which there is less accommodation of divorce in the New Testament than there is in the Old. 

Thirdly, following Jewish precedent, the teaching of the Church in both East and West has always been that it is not legitimate for a betrothed couple to have sexual intercourse. Sexual intercourse has always been seen as something that should only take place within marriage.

Fourthly, in so far as the Church has seen sexual intercourse in common law marriages as legitimate this is because it has seen these relationships as genuine marriages that conform to the pattern of marriage established by God in Genesis 2:18-24 even though a marriage ceremony has not taken place in church.

Fifthly, the Old Testament does not regard having sex with a concubine as acceptable, and under the terms of Exodus 21:7-11 a man is only allowed to have sex with a slave girl if she has become his wife.[3]

Sixthly, ‘porneia’ does not mean ‘unbridled lust’, it means ‘unlawful sexual intercourse’[4] which in the Bible means any form of sexual activity forbidden in the Law of Moses, which in turn means any form of sexual activity which falls outside the pattern of marriage between one man and one woman established by God in Genesis 2.

Seventhly, it is not clear (and the bishops do not explain) what the ‘new social, scientific and psychological understandings of sexuality in the last one and a half centuries’ are that mean we can now understand same sex relationships ‘in a radically different way.’ All we know now is what we have always known, which is (a) that some human beings are sexually attracted to members of their own sex, either permanently, or at some point in their lives, and (b) they are free to make the moral decision as to whether to act on this attraction (just like those attracted to members of the opposite sex).

Eighthly, it is not a question of the same sex friendships celebrated  in the Bible (such as Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan and Jesus and the beloved disciple) not having ‘any clear indication’ of sexual activity, but rather that the issue of sexual activity doesn’t even arise. There is nothing in the accounts of these friendships to suggest even the possibility of sexual activity. The mention of these same sex friendships is thus a red herring.

Finally, when Paul talks in Romans 1:27 about men ‘burning with desire’ for other men this is simply a conventional Jewish way of saying that they have been overcome by a sinful form of desire. In a similar way, Sirach 23:16, for example, talks about a fornicator being overcome with ‘hot passion that blazes like a fire’ and Philo writes in that ‘all those who are rebellious will continue to be burned by their inward lusts, which like a flame will ravage the whole life of those in whom they dwell.’ [5]

This means that for Paul even those involved in ‘loving and faithful long term same-sex commitments’ would still rightly be described as ‘burning with desire’ if they continued to engage in same-sex sexual activity. For Paul (and for the Bible as whole) the issue is not that same-sex relationships are wrong because they involve ‘one night stands’ rather than committed relationships, they are wrong because God created human beings to have sex with the opposite sex (as evidenced by the design of their bodies – the point Paul is making in  Romans 1) and ordained heterosexual marriage as the context for sexual activity to take place.

What the Welsh bishops write thus simply does not hold water and thus does not provide a theological basis for the revision of the Church in Wales’ position which they support.


[1] Details can be found on the Church in Wales website at https://www.churchinwales.org.uk/en/about- us/governing-body/meetings/

[2] For details see Richard Davidson, Flame of Yahweh – Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), ch. 5. 

[3] See Davidson pp.191-193.

[4] Walter Bauer, F W Gingrich and Frederick Danker, A Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament (Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 1979), p.693.

[5] Philo, De Decalogo 49, quoted in Thomas Schmidt, Straight & Narrow (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1995), p. 74.

Western culture and the sexual self – the contemporary challenge to the Christian view of human identity and sexual behaviour.

Introduction

The St Andrew’s Day Statement, published twenty five years ago this month by the Church of England Evangelical Council, was an attempt by a collection of British Evangelical theologians to try to sketch out what a constructive Christian engagement with the issue of same-sex relationships should look like at a time when, like today, the Church was deeply divided about the topic, following the publication of Issues in Human Sexuality in 1991 and in the run up to the Lambeth Conference of 1998. It was intended to; ‘provide some definition of the theological ground upon which the issue should be addressed and from which any fruitful discussion between those who disagree may proceed.’ [1]

The statement was welcomed by many at the time of its publication as an important statement of the Evangelical position, and it has been read, re-read and referenced constantly in the quarter century since. It has also been the foundation for a series of subsequent statements by the CEEC on the issue of same-sex relationships, the St Matthias Day Statement in 2011, Guarding the Deposit in 2017, and Gospel Church and Marriage in 2018 and for the CEEC’s contribution to the Living in Love and Faith project, Glorify God in your Body, which was also published in 2018.

The Statement is in three parts. First, there is an introduction setting out what the statement is intended to achieve. Secondly, there is an affirmation of three basic ‘credal principles’[2] concerning Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and God the Father. Thirdly, there is a threefold ‘application of these principles to the question of homosexuality as it presents itself to the church today.’ [3]

In this paper I shall explore what is said in the first paragraph of the first application about how human beings find their true identity in Christ, and then look at how developments in Western culture mean that this view of human identity is now widely seen as immoral. Lastly, I shall look at how orthodox Christians need to respond to this situation.

How Christ determines who we are.

The paragraph says concerning Jesus Christ:

‘In him’ — and in him alone — ‘we know both God and human nature as they truly are’; and so in him alone we know ourselves as we truly are. There can be no description of human reality, in general or in particular, outside the reality in Christ. We must be on guard, therefore, against constructing any other ground for our identities than the redeemed humanity given us in him. Those who understand themselves as homosexuals, no more and no less than those who do not, are liable to false understandings based on personal or family histories, emotional dispositions, social settings, and solidarities formed by common experiences or ambitions. Our sexual affections can no more define who we are than can our class, race or nationality. At the deepest ontological level, therefore, there is no such thing as ‘a’ homosexual or ‘a’ heterosexual; there are human beings, male and female, called to redeemed humanity in Christ, endowed with a complex variety of emotional potentialities and threatened by a complex variety of forms of alienation.[4]

The first point to note is that the ‘we’ mentioned in the first sentence is not just Christians, but all human beings. The reason that this is the case, says the second sentence, is because there can be ‘no description of human reality, in general or in particular, outside the reality in Christ.’

This claim leads to the obvious question, in what way is a first century male, Jewish, human being, determinative for the existence of all other human beings?

The answer is twofold. First of all, Jesus Christ was, and is, not just a human being, but rather God incarnate. This means that he was, and is, both fully human and fully divine, and that the person who united the human and divine natures was God the Son, the second person of the Trinity who, possessing the divine nature from all eternity, assumed human nature at the incarnation, thereby taking humanity into the life of God. In the words of the prologue to John’s Gospel, it was the word who was ‘with God’ and ‘was God’ who ‘became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:1 & 14).

As the second person of the Trinity, God the Son, together with the Father and Holy Spirit, created the world and humanity within it.

In the words of John: ‘He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.’ (John 1:2-3)

In the words of Paul:  ‘….in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.’ (Colossians 1:17)

In the words of the writer to the Hebrews, God the Son was the one through whom God the Father: ‘created the world’ (Hebrews 1:2)

To put it in systematic terms, what the Bible teaches is that all things have their existence from God the Father, through God the Son, in the power of God the Holy Spirit.

It follows from this that our existence as human beings rests on the fact that we, along with everything else, were created in this way. Furthermore when all things were created through God the Son we are told that God looked at what he had made ‘and it was very good’ and that God then blessed it and ‘rested from all his work which he had done in creation’ (Genesis 1:13 and 2:4). God preserves what he has made and acts to bring it to the goal he intends for it, but he does not change it or create it afresh. As Karl Barth writes: ‘It is part of the history of creation that God completed his work and confronted it as a completed totality.’ This means that there is a created order ‘which neither the terrors of chance nor the ingenuity of art can overthrow.’ [5]

What this means for our existence as human beings is that ‘the order of things is there, it is objective and mankind has a place within it.’[6] The nature of existence of human beings is therefore given. It is something that we can discover, but not something which we can create.

God has created us through Christ. We are not our own creators and are therefore unable to determine the conditions of our existence. Nor should we wish to do so. Our existence as those created by God is just as it should be. As we have seen, God has ‘blessed’ our existence and declared it to be ‘very good.’  

It is true that, since the human race was originally created, sin and death have spoiled the goodness of what God has made. We have become, in ourselves, corrupted creatures heading towards death. However, God has not abandoned us. The second reason that our existence is determined by Christ is that God became incarnate in Christ to redeem us (that is, set us free) from our corruption and the death that flows from it.

On the first Good Friday Christ died on the cross in an act of divine judgement that put to death our old corrupted natures and this took place in order that we might receive instead a wholly new life through his resurrection (Romans 6:6-11).  As John Calvin puts it:

‘…. our old man is destroyed by the death of Christ, so that His resurrection may restore our righteousness, and make us new creatures. And since Christ has been given to us for life, why should we die with Him, if not to rise to a better life? Christ, therefore, puts to death what is mortal in us in order that He may truly restore us to life.’[7]

Oliver O’ Donovan develops this point further when he writes:

‘The resurrection carries with it the promise that ‘all shall be made alive’ (1 Cor. 15:22). The raising of Christ is representative, not in the way that a symbol is representative, expressing a reality which has an independent and prior standing, but in the way that a national leader is representative when he brings about for the whole of his people whatever it is, peace or war, that he effects on their behalf. And so this central proclamation directs us back also to the message of the incarnation, by which we learn how, through the unique presence of God to his creation, the whole created order is taken up into the fate of this particular representative man at this particular moment in history, on whose one fate turns the redemption of all. And it directs us forward to the end of history when that particular and representative fate is universalized in the resurrection of mankind from the dead. Each in his  own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ’ (15:23). The sign that God has stood by his created order implies that this created order, with mankind in its proper place within it, is to be totally restored at last.’[8]

At the end of time there will be a renewed creation (‘a new heaven and a new earth’ Revelation 21:1), and within it resurrected human beings will live as the people God created them to be. We do not yet fully experience the life we will have in this new creation, but the presence of the Spirit given to us by the risen Christ is the ‘first fruits’ (Romans 8:25) of the new life that is coming and enables us to begin to live now in a way that anticipates how we shall live  then.

It is true that the conditions of our life in the new world that is coming will not be entirely the same as our existence now. We will have bodies fully empowered by the Spirit and no longer subject to decay or death (1 Corinthians 15:42-44) and if we are married in this world it will no longer be true in the same way in the world to come (Matthew 22:22-33) because our marital relationship will be caught up and transcended in the universal ‘marriage’ or eternal communion of love between God and all of his redeemed people.

However, this does not mean that we will cease to be the people we are now. We will always be that particular human being God made us to be. To quote C S Lewis:

‘… it is not humanity in the abstract that is to be saved, but you—you, the individual reader, John Stubbs or Janet Smith. Blessed and fortunate creature, your eyes shall behold Him and not another’s. All that you are, sins apart, is destined, if you will let God have His good way, to utter satisfaction.’ [9]

As the St Andrew’s Day Statement notes, because all this is potentially true of all human beings (‘potentially’ because human beings have the capacity to reject life in God’s new creation) it is true just as much for those who identify as homosexual as for those who identify as heterosexual. How someone chooses to identify themselves does not affect the issue. However they see themselves, in reality they are those who are  ‘called to redeemed humanity in Christ’, that is they are those people who have been created by God in Christ, and redeemed by God in Christ, and are summoned to live now in the light of this truth.

The shape of our created existence.

If we ask about the specific shape of our existence as those created and redeemed by Christ, the first answer is that God has created his human creatures to be either male or female.

Observation of human beings shows us that they have many things in common. All human beings have bodies and souls, and human bodies have common features such as heads, feet, hearts, and fingernails. However, alongside the things humans have in common, there are also differences which allow us to tell one human being from another.

For example, some people have red hair while others are blonde, some have blue eyes while others have brown eyes, and some people are tall while others are short. Such differences enable us to distinguish Frank, who is blonde, has blue eyes, and is tall from Bill, who has red hair, has brown eyes and is short. The most significant of these differences between human beings is that they differ in their sex.

There are various physical and psychological differences between men and women which develop from the moment of conception. All of these differences are characteristics of people who are fundamentally differentiated by the fact that their bodies are ordered towards the performance of different roles in sexual reproduction and in the nurture of children once they have been born. It is because male and female bodies are ordered in this way that the human race continues to exist. Every human being is in existence because one parent had male physical characteristics and the other had female physical characteristics.

Scripture agrees what our observation of the world tells us. It teaches us that God created humanity to exist in two sexes, male and female. ‘God created men in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.’ (Genesis 1:27)  It is because they are male and female that human beings can fulfil the command God gives them to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ through sexual intercourse (see Genesis 4:1 where ‘Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain’). Furthermore, God has also created marriage as a life-long exclusive relationship between one man and woman to be the proper setting for sexual intercourse and the begetting and raising of children (Genesis 2:18-25).

However, as we have already indicated, sex and marriage as we know them now will not continue to exist in the world that is to come. While those who are men and women in this world will continue to be men and women in the world to come, they will exist in a state of perfect, intimate, communion with God and all God’s people. This state of communion is the ultimate fulfilment of our human need for relational intimacy and, as such, it is the transcendent reality which sex and marriage in this world foreshadow.

Because all this is so, it follows that sex and marriage are not the ultimate goals of human existence. Those who are not married and do not enjoy sexual intercourse in this life will not lose out because they, just like those who are married, will be able to enjoy the reality of perfect intimacy with God and all God’s people in the world to come. In this way, they, too, will be able to experience the perfect fulfilment of their creation as male or female human beings.

Since it is not necessary for human beings to be married and have sex in order to achieve the goal for which they were created, it follows that it is not necessary for people to be married or have sex in this life. We can see this most clearly in the case of Jesus Christ. He lived a perfect human life as a male human being with the capacity for sexual desire and sexual activity, and yet he remained for the whole of his earthly life unmarried and sexually abstinent.

Both Jesus and Paul teach that God also calls other people in addition to Jesus to live as sexually abstinent single people for the whole of their lives (see Matthew 19:12, 1 Corinthians 7:25–35). Those who are called to live in this way are free to give themselves to the service of God in a radically wholehearted way, free of the responsibilities which marriage and family life bring with them. Their singleness also points forward to the life of the world to come in which, as we have said, no one will be married.

In addition to calling some people to be single for the whole of their lives, God also calls most people to be single for part of their lives. This is true for people before they marry, and it is also true for people whose marriage has come to an end and who have not re-married.

What all this means is that the second part of the Christian answer about the nature of our created existence is that from a Christian perspective, there are two ways in which God calls women and men  to live for either the whole or part of their lives – marriage and singleness. Because these are both states in which God calls his human creatures to live, neither of them is morally superior to the other. Marriage is not better than singleness, and singleness is not better than marriage. They are just different.

What is not equally good, and what is never acceptable, is to confuse the married and single states by having sexual activity outside marriage, whether this takes the form of sex between two people of the opposite sex, or two people of the same sex (who cannot be married because marriage is between a man and a woman). 

The issues we now face as a result of the development of Western culture.

The Christian understanding of human identity and the Christian sexual ethic which I have just outlined have been dominant in Western culture for most of the past two millennia. Obviously, people have not always lived in accordance with the Christian ethic, but this ethic, and the view of human identity that underlies it, have shaped the way most people in the West have viewed the world and have found expression in Western religion, law, education and art, as well as people’s day to day lives.

However, they are widely regarded today as both irrational and immoral. This can be seen in the way that Christian opposition to same-sex sexual relationships and same-sex marriage is regularly labelled as ‘homophobia’ and Christian opposition to people choosing to define their own sexual identity is regularly labelled as ‘transphobia,’ both terms carrying the implication that this opposition  is (a) irrational and (b) harmfully prejudicial to the LGBTQI+ people concerned.

If we ask how this seismic shift in attitudes took place, a persuasive account is now given in Carl Trueman’s new book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self [10]in which he draws heavily on the workof three seminal modern thinkers, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, the American sociologist and social critic Philip Rieff, and the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre.

As Trueman explains in his Introduction:

‘The origins of this book lie in my curiosity about how and why a particular statement has come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful: ‘I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.’ My grandfather died in 1994, less than thirty  years ago, and yet, had he ever heard that sentence uttered in his presence, I have little doubt that he would have burst out laughing and considered it a piece of incoherent gibberish. And yet today it is a sentence that many in our society regard as not only meaningful but so significant that to deny it or question it in some way is to reveal oneself as stupid, immoral, or subject to yet another irrational phobia.’[11]

What Trueman shows in his book is that the reason that it has come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful to say ‘I am a woman trapped in a man’s body,’ and unacceptable to deny or question this statement, is because of a number of interrelated developments that have taken place in Western society since the eighteenth century. Taken together, these developments mean that what Trueman calls the ‘social imaginary,’ the way most people understand the world and how they should behave within it,[12] has shifted radically and the acceptance of the claims about their existence made by transgender people is a result of this shift.

The developments in question are as follows:

First, the secularisation of Western society and the consequent loss of the sense of the world as God’s creation means that there has been a shift from a ‘mimetic’ to a ‘poietic’ view of the world. As Trueman explains:

‘A mimetic view regards the world as having a given order and a given meaning and thus sees human beings as required to discover that meaning and conform themselves to it. Poiesis, by way of contrast, sees the world as so much raw material out of which meaning and purpose can be created by the individual.’ [13]

Secondly, there has been the related loss of  the idea of  ‘sacred order.’  In Western culture  today most people no longer believe that there is fixed moral order which has been established by God and which all human beings need to respect in consequence.

Thirdly, as a result Western culture lacks an agreed basis for ethics, and so as MacIntyre has argued, the basis of ethical decision making has become, by default, emotivism, ethics based on personal feeling and preference.[14]

Fourthly, there has been a change in the way in which most people view the purpose of human existence, the good to which human beings should aspire. What has emerged is what Taylor calls a ‘culture of authenticity’ which he defines as follows:

‘The understanding of life which emerges with the Romantic expressivism of the late eighteenth century, that each of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or by the previous generation, or religious or political authority.’ [15]

Fifthly, there has been the development of what Rieff calls the ‘therapeutic society,’ a society in which the role of social institutions is viewed as being to foster the individual’s sense of psychological well-being as they live out their authentic existence. [16]

 Sixthly, since the work of Sigmund Freud, it has come to be widely believed that ‘humans, from infancy onward, are at core sexual beings. It is our sexual desires that are ultimately decisive for who we are.’ [17] The acceptance of Freud’s ideas has been facilitated by the huge growth in pornography and developments in modern medicine which make the results of sexual activity less serious through separating sex from childbirth and providing more effective treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.

Seventhly, the work of Neo-Marxist scholars such as Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse has led to the idea that the traditional view of the family as consisting of a married couple and their children, and the traditional sexual morality linked to this, are inherently oppressive and need to be overthrown

As Trueman argues, the result of these seven developments has been to create a social imaginary that is based on poiesis rather than mimesis, and in which the idea of being a woman trapped in a man’s body makes perfect sense. Negatively, there is no fixed order of things, and no fixed pattern for human existence or behaviour, and so no yardstick against which one can say the idea is wrong. Positively, the purpose of my existence is to live as authentically as possible in accordance with what I perceive to be my true self, and if this involves seeing myself as a woman, even though I have a man’s body, then that is what I should do.

Furthermore, society should support me in so doing because it is in this way that I will achieve psychological well-being. Conversely, thinking otherwise is immoral because it involves damaging my psychological well-being through a refusal to give recognition to who I know myself to be.

The same factors likewise create a social imaginary in which the acceptance of same-sex relationships and the claim to a gay or lesbian identity also makes sense. As before, there is no fixed order of things and no fixed pattern for human behaviour, and so no yardstick against which one can say same-sex relationships are intrinsically wrong. Positively, the purpose of my existence is to live as authentically as possible in accordance with what I perceive to be my true self, and if this involves having sex with someone of my own sex then that is what I should do. In addition, because, as Freud has taught us, sexual desire is at the core of human identity, my desire for sex with someone of my own sex defines who I am. I am gay or lesbian.

As Trueman goes on to say, within this world view:

‘…mere tolerance of homosexuality is bound to become unacceptable. The issue is not one of simply decriminalizing  behavior; that would certainly mean that homosexual acts were tolerated by society, but the acts are only part of the overall problem. The real issue is one of recognition, or recognizing the legitimacy of who the person thinks he actually is. This requires more than mere tolerance, it requires equality before the law and recognition by the law and in society. And that means that those who refuse to grant such recognition will be the ones who find themselves on the wrong side of both the law and emerging social attitudes.

The person who objects to homosexual practice is, in contemporary society, actually objecting to homosexual identity. And the refusal by any individual to recognize an identity that society at large recognizes as legitimate is a moral offense, not simply a matter of indifference.’ [18]

The point made by Trueman in this quotation means that in the eyes of contemporary culture the Christian anthropology contained in the Saint Andrew’s Day Statement and expounded at the start of this paper could well be seen as a form of ‘hate speech.’  This is because the claim that there is ‘no such thing as ‘a’ homosexual’ is an attack on the very identity of the people concerned and as such, as Trueman says, ‘a moral offense, not simply a matter of indifference.’  From this perspective, the theological approach expressed in the St Andrew’s Day Statement is as offensive as the theological arguments that were used to support slavery and apartheid.

This is also why LGBTQI+ campaigners object so strongly to the idea that those Christians who object to same-sex sexual relationships can ‘hate the sin but love the sinner.’  In a Post-Freudian world view sexual identity and sexual behaviour cannot be separated. Hence to hate the sin is necessarily also  to hate the sinner.

Lastly, this is why LGBTQI+ campaigners will not be content with anything less than the transformation of the Church of England into a body that fully and unreservedly affirms lesbian and gay relationships and all forms of transgender activity. Anything less is an attack on the fundamental identity of the people concerned and as such morally unacceptable. Viewed from this perspective, the hope of the powers that be in the Church of England that we can simply learn to live with difference is naïve.

What all this means for orthodox Christians in the Church of England.

For orthodox Christians in the Church of England, that is, those Christians who still hold to the anthropology and sexual ethics taught in the Bible and by the subsequent mainstream tradition of the Christian Church, the first thing this all means is that they need to ‘wake up and smell the coffee.’

More specifically, it means that they need to accept that the opposition to traditional Christian anthropology and ethics is not going away any time soon. Even if the orthodox hold the line in the Church of England in the immediate aftermath of Living in Love and Faith, the campaign to change the theology and practice of the Church of England will simply continue for the reasons set out above.   

In addition, orthodox Christians need to realise that being faithful to their beliefs will mean being willing to live as a member of morally suspect minority in our society. Fortunately, protections to religious liberty are sufficiently well entrenched in our society that Christians do not need to fear the sort of persecution for their beliefs that Christians face in other parts of the world.  However, they will face what Rod Dreher has called assaults from ‘soft totalitarianism’[19] in that they may well face moral opprobrium from their friends, colleagues and family because of what they believe, they may face harassment from official institutions, they may find it difficult to find employment or to advance in their careers, and they may be denied access to the either the mainstream or to social media. All these things are already happening, and they are likely to get worse.

The second thing orthodox Christians need to do is to develop a strategy to survive this particular time of trial.

This strategy, based on the experience of Christians in other times of persecution, will need to involve four elements

1.Christians will need to understand the issues at stake. The immediate issues of sexual behaviour and identity facing the Church are, as we have seen, merely the expression of a clash between a mimetic and poietic world view, and hence between a world view based on the Christian revelation, and a world view based on its rejection. This in turn means that no compromise is possible.

2. Christians will need to be active in teaching and in catechesis. If Christians are to be faithful to the Christian world view, they will need first to understand it. Hence teaching about the Christian world view and the anthropology and sexual ethics that flow from it need to be central to the Church’s life. In addition, priority will need to be given to the instruction of children and young people in these matters since they are the ones who are most exposed to the culture’s rejection of traditional Christian belief through the media and through education. 

3. Christians will need to be active in apologetics. They need to be active in explaining to those outside the Church why the Christian world view makes better sense than the world view that has developed in the West since the Enlightenment. In particular they need to understand and highlight the shortcomings of the arguments in favour of the modern Western world view and the known damage that the sexual revolution stemming from has caused in Western society, particularly to the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of society.

4. Finally, the Church needs to be a community that, in Lesslie Newbigin’s words, acts as the ‘hermeneutic of the Gospel.’[20] In a society in which, for better or worse, lived experience is viewed as the guide to truth, then it is only as people experience the transforming love of God embodied in a loving and supportive Christian community that they will become open to explore the truth of that Church’s teaching and to accepting that Church’s ethics. That is why Ed Shaw was right to give his book on ‘the church and same-sex attraction’ the title The Plausiblity Problem.[21]  The problem orthodox Christians have to address is how can our community life make our worldview plausible?

M B Davie  26.11.2020


[1] The St Andrew’s Day Statement, Introduction, in Timothy Bradshaw (ed), The Way Forward? 2ed (London: SCM Press, 2003), p.5.

[2] The St Andrew’s Day Statement, Introduction, in Bradshaw, p.6. 

[3] The St Andrew’s Day Statement, Introduction, in Bradshaw, p.6. 

[4] The St Andrew’s Day Statement, Introduction, in Bradshaw, p.7.

[5] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (London & New York: T&T Clark, 204), p.222.

[6] Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order (Leicester: Apollos, 1984), p. 61.

[7] John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and to the Thessalonians (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press: 1961), pp.122-123.

[8] O’Donovan, p.15.

[9] C S Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (Glasgow: Fount, 1978), p. 135.

[10] Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020).

[11] Trueman p.19.

[12] Trueman pp.36-37.

[13] Trueman p.39.

[14] This is the argument put forward by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue (London: Duckworth, 1983).

[15] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age ( Cambridge Ma and London: Belknapp Press, 2007), p.475.

[16] See Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1966).

[17] Trueman, p.27.

[18] Trueman, pp.68-69.

[19] See Rod Dreher, Live not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents (New York: Random House, 2020).

[20] Lesslie Newbiggin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (London: SPCK, 1989), Ch.18.

[21] Ed Shaw, The Plausibility Problem (Nottingham: IVP, 2015). 

David Runcorn, Love Means Love, a review.

Introduction

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.

Justice and the need to speak about Jesus.

The argument over the summer about Ofqual’s ill-fated use of an algorithm to help determine this year’s A level results is interesting, among other reasons, because of what it tells about our society’s commitment to justice.

If we ask what the argument was about, the answer is that that the issue as stake was how best to ensure that those who had taken A levels got the grades they deserved for the effort they had put into their studies.

The reason that Ofqual decided to use an algorithm was to try to ensure that in, the absence of A level exams as a result of the Covid 19 pandemic, reliance on the A level grades predicted by teachers did not result in higher than normal grades being awarded to pupils taking their A levels this year. This, it was argued, would be unjust because it would give these pupils an unfair advantage in relation to other pupils who took their A levels in the past, or who would take their A levels in the future. The algorithm  was designed to prevent this unjust outcome by adjusting pupils’ predicted grades so that the grades awarded to pupils from a particular school or college were in line with those achieved by pupils from that school or college in previous years.

By contrast, the reason why there were protests against the A level results was the conviction that the use of the algorithm meant that those pupils who had legitimately outperformed pupils from previous years were not being awarded the grades their efforts deserved. They were being given lower grades than they deserved because of  the historic performance of their school or college and this was regarded as unjust because in did not take the efforts of particular individuals into account.

Regardless of which side of the argument was correct, what is clear is that both sides were motivated by the belief that justice ought to be done. The argument was not about whether justice should be done, but about how justice might best be achieved in this particular case.

What this fact illustrates is that our society still believes that justice ought to be done and that it views justice in terms of ‘giving to each their due’ as the Roman writer Ulpian famously put it. Thus, A level pupils ought to be given the grades they deserve, workers ought to be given a just reward for the work they have put in, and criminals ought to be punished for the crimes they have committed.

What our society is much less clear about, however, is the justification for the belief that justice ought to be done. Most people take the correctness of this belief for granted, but its correctness is not in fact obvious. If it is the case, as the opinion formers in our society have increasingly argued for the last hundred and fifty years or so, that the material world (‘nature’) is all that there is then there is no adequate reason for thinking that we have an obligation to do justice. Nature, after all, is not in the slightest bit interested in whether we do justice or not.

The only rational basis for our belief that we should do what is just is if there is a perfectly wise and perfectly good power outside of nature who in his perfect wisdom and goodness intentionally created us to behave in a just way. Only if this is the case does our ineradicable belief that we ought to behave justly make sense. We have an obligation to behave justly because this is the way we were created to behave.

Over the centuries the Christian faith has consistently testified that this supernatural power (which it calls God) does exist. What it is has also said, however, is that God’s existence is something that should make us very afraid. The reason this is the case is because at the end of time God will ensure that justice is done to us by passing judgement on how we have behaved during the course of our lives.

The belief that God will pass final judgement on his human creatures necessarily follows once we grant that our sense of justice comes from God. If our sense that people should get what they deserve is correct, because God given, it follows that God also holds that people should get what they deserve and will therefore take action to ensure that they do. The Christian language about the last judgement simply says that God will take that action.

The reason why the prospect of the last judgement should make us very afraid is that what we all deserve to receive at the last judgement is condemnation. If God is perfectly wise he will see past the lies we tell others and ourselves and see us as we really are, and what he will see is that, in the words of the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, ‘We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.’  As a result, if he is truly just, it appears that God must condemn us for our lack of justice. Our multiple failures to behave as we ought mean that we have not fulfilled our moral obligations either to other human beings, or to God, and if God’s final verdict on us is to be a just one it must surely reflect this fact.

In the words of C S Lewis:

‘…if there does exist an absolute goodness it must hate most of what we do . This is the terrible fix we are in . If the universe is not governed by an absolute goodness, then all our efforts are in the long run hopeless. But if it is, then we are making ourselves enemies to that goodness every day, and are not in the least likely to do any better tomorrow, and so our case is hopeless again . We cannot do without it, and we cannot do with it. God is the only comfort, He is also the supreme terror: the thing we must need and the thing we most want to hide from. He is our only possible ally, and we have made ourselves His enemies.’[1]

The question that then arises is whether there is any way out of this ‘terrible fix.’ The answer that the Christian faith gives is that there is. In the words of the apostle Paul, it tells us that God ‘is a just God and that He justifies every Man who has faith in Jesus Christ’[2]  What Paul is saying is that God himself is just, and that he also declares that everyone who has faith in Jesus is likewise just (which is what the word ‘justifies’ means).

At first sight this statement by Paul seems to make no sense. How can God be just and yet also declare that those who have faith in Jesus are just, when in reality they, like everyone else, are necessarily unjust for the reasons we have noted above?  Isn’t Paul in fact saying that God acts unjustly?

However, God can in fact be just and also declare that those who are united to Jesus Christ are likewise just because, as Paul also wrote: ‘God caused Christ, Who himself knew nothing of sin, actually to be sin for our sakes, so that in Christ we might be made good with the goodness of God.’[3] In other words, an exchange has taken place in which Christ took upon himself the sinfulness which is the result of our injustice, and we obtained God’s own goodness in its place. Through faith we participate in this exchange.

As Martin Luther explains in his treatise The Freedom of a Christian, the reason why this is the case is because faith ‘unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom’ with the result that ‘everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil.’[4] It follows, writes Luther, that:

‘The believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own, and whatever the soul has Christ claims as his own. Let us compare these and we shall see inestimable benefits. Christ is full of grace, life, and Salvation. The soul is full of sins, death, and damnation. Now let faith come between them and sins, death, and damnation will be Christ’s, while grace, life and salvation will be the soul’s; for if Christ is a bridegroom, he must take upon himself the things which are his brides and bestow upon her the things that are his. If he gives her his body and very self, how shall he not give her all that is his? And if he takes the body of the bride, how should he not take all that is hers?’[5]

According to Luther, this understanding of the relationship between Christ and the believer gives us:  

‘…. a most pleasing vision not only of communion but of a blessed struggle and victory and salvation and redemption. Christ is God and man in one person. He has neither sinned nor died, and is not condemned, and he cannot sin, die, or be condemned; his righteousness, life, and salvation are unconquerable, eternal, omnipotent. By the wedding ring of faith he shares in the sins, death, and pains of hell which are his bride’s . As a matter of fact, he makes them his own and acts as if they were his own and as if he himself had sinned; he suffered, died, and descended into hell that he might overcome them all. Now since it was such a one who did all this, and death and hell could not swallow him up, these were necessarily swallowed up by him in a mighty duel; for his righteousness is greater than the sins of all men, his life is stronger than death, his salvation more invincible than hell. Thus the believing soul by means of the pledge of his faith is free in Christ, its bridegroom, free from all sins, secure against death and hell, and is endowed with the eternal righteousness, life, and salvation of Christ its bridegroom.’ [6]

All this being the case, the believer can view the prospect of the final judgement in hope, not because of what they are like, or what they have done, but because of what Jesus Christ has done for them. They can be confident that because they possess through faith the eternal righteousness of Christ they need not feat that God will reject them on the last day. To quote Paul again:

‘If God is for who can be against us? He that did not hesitate to spare his own Son but gave Him up for us all – can we not trust such a God to give us, with Him, everything else we can need?

Who dares accuse us now? The Judge Himself has declared us free from sin. Who is in a position to condemn?’[7]

The challenge for the contemporary Church is to make the truth about the justice God has made available for us through the work of Jesus Christ better known in a society that has forgotten about it, or has never heard of it.  The Church today is strong when it comes to emphasising the need for social, economic, political and, particularly today, racial justice, and it is right that it should stress the importance of these matters. Where it less strong, however, is in warning people about where they stand before God, and their need to put their faith in Jesus Christ in order to share in his justice and so avoid condemnation by God at the last judgement.

What the Church needs to understand is that the greatest obligation anyone has towards others is the obligation to tell them about their need for Jesus and the salvation he offers. We need to speak up about matters of temporal justice, but we need to speak up about Jesus even more. The supreme justice we owe others is to enable them to attain the right relationship with God for which they were created and they can only attain this relationship if we tell them about Jesus.

M B Davie  14.9.2020


[1] C S Lewis, Mere Christianity (Glasgow: Fontana, 1984), p.37.

[2] Romans 3:26 in J B Phillips, Letters to Young Churches (Glasgow: Fontana, 1968), p.27.

[3] 2 Corinthians 5:21 in Phillips, p.100.

[4] Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian in Three Treatises (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), p. 286.

[5] Luther, p.286.

[6] Luther, pp.286-287.

[7] Romans 8:31-33 in Phillips, p. 38.

What do Anglicans Believe? – A review.

  1. What are the purpose and contents of  What do Anglicans Believe?

What do Anglicans believe? [1] is a study guide to Christian doctrine which has been produced by:

‘… members of the Inter Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order (IASCUFO) working in partnership with the Anglican Communion’s department of Theological Education in the Anglican Communion (TEAC)’ (p.5)

According to its Introduction, it is intended to provide:

‘… a concise and well-grounded introduction to Christian doctrine….for use in home groups, study programmes, seminaries and theological colleges across the Anglican Communion.’  (p.5)

The guide is based on the statements about doctrine which have been agreed between Anglican churches and churches of other traditions in recent years and which ‘create a broad and rich map of the Christian faith as it has been received and handed on by these churches.’ (p.5).

Following the Introduction, the guide consists of three chapters

Chapter one, ‘What is doctrine?’  ‘looks at the nature of doctrine in general, introducing its place within discipleship and mission as a whole’ (p.5)

Chapter two,  ‘What is the Doctrine of the Creeds?’  looks at the Nicene Creed ‘using a recent and widely welcomed ecumenical text that unpacks and applies its meaning for today.’ (p.5)

Finally, chapter three, ‘What is the Church?’  looks at the doctrine of the Church:

‘…drawing on a rich selection of Anglican and ecumenical ecclesiological statements, to approach this topical and important subject from a number of directions, also touching on the nature of the sacraments.’ (p.6)

To help its readers to not only understand the material in the guide, but also to think how it applies in their own contexts, the guide adopts what it calls a ‘See-Judge-Act’ (p.6)  approach to learning.

This three step approach begins by seeing ‘the situation in which we find ourselves’ (p.6) . In relation to doctrine this means asking about ‘the current role of doctrine (or specific doctrines) in the life of our church (whether local or regional), who is involved in that role, and what effects does it have.’ (p.6)

The second step (judging) involves:

 ‘… learning from authorities such as scripture, church teaching and scholarship, and comparing and contrasting what is currently the cases in our context with what could and should be he case.’ (p.6)  

In relation to doctrine this means:

‘… reading and learning from authoritative ecumenical and Anglican statements, on the meaning and place of doctrine and specific doctrines in the life of the Church, and then reflecting on how the situation uncovered by the first step is positively critiqued by this.’ (pp.6-7)

The third step (acting) is about ‘deciding how in practice we are going to bridge the gap between what is happening and what should be happening.’ (p.7) In relation to doctrine this means:

‘deciding how doctrine general, and specific doctrines, should play a more contextually authentic and inspiring role in our worship, mission and discipleship, and then resolving to make these changes.’ (p.7)

Chapter one of the guide locates doctrine in the context of Christian discipleship, declaring that doctrine enables Christians ‘to grow in understanding and ownership of their faith’ (p.10) so that they can ‘communicate it in inspiring ways to others.’ (p.10)

It goes on to argue that doctrine emerged from the theological differences that existed in the Early Church. These differences led to the calling of the ‘Ecumenical Councils’ and the ‘conclusions of the first four of these councils’ on matters such as the humanity and divinity of Christ and the Trinitarian nature of God ‘are held to be authoritative doctrine by most historic churches’ (p.11).

Doctrines came to be seen as authoritative through a ‘two way process of offering and receiving’ which eventually resulted in the existence of a corpus of ‘authoritative teaching’ (p.12)  

In recent years the ecumenical movement, and particularly the Faith and Order movement ‘has re-invigorated the process of churches exploring doctrine together ‘ (p.12). This has taken place through both bilateral and multilateral ecumenical dialogues. Such dialogue is helpful because it helps churches ‘to sharpen and clarify what they believe, and to find how best to express this, together learning and growing in the life to which God calls us.’ (p.14)

Ecumenical agreements about doctrine such as the Joint Declaration of Justification have been helpful in setting out the different approaches taken by different churches and in ‘overcoming misunderstandings and disagreements of the past’ by clarifying where churches ‘have used different language to express matters on which they agree in substance’ (p.15)

Finally, the chapter notes that different periods of history ‘require new ways of understanding and expressing the faith.’ (p.16)

In the chapter all the points noted above are supported by quotations from ecumenical documents. For example, the last point is supported by quotations from the Anglican-Reformed statement God’s reign and our unity  and the Roman Catholic-WCC joint report Notions of hierarchy of Truth – An Ecumenical Interpretation.

Each section of the chapter is followed by questions for group discussion. For example, the section on the importance of news ways of understanding and expressing the faith is followed by the questions   ‘In your experience have encounters with other churches made you change your understanding of certain doctrines? Has this been enriching? How could it be encouraged?’ (p.17)

Chapter two recommends studying the doctrines of the Christian faith by looking at the WCC text  Confessing the One Faith: An Ecumenical Explication of the Apostolic Faith as it is Confessed in the Nicene-Constantinoplian Creed (381). It suggests a ten session study of this text employing the seeing, judging, and acting approach set out in the introduction.

Chapter three looks in turn at the calling of the Church and at the four credal marks of the Church (its unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity). It then looks at the place of the sacraments on the life of the Church and at what is involved in communion between churches. Finally it commends sections 1.1 -1.2 of the Anglican Communion Covenant of 2009 and  the Porvoo Common Statement of 1993 as helpful summaries of what Anglican’s believe about the Church and of what it means to be a church ‘living in the light of the Gospel.’  (p.41)

As in chapter one, each of the points made in the chapter are supported by quotations from ecumenical documents and each section of the chapter is followed by questions for group discussion.

The guide ends with recommendations for  further reading on the topics of the Church and the nature of the Anglican Communion and a list of the ecumenical statements referred to by the guide.

  2.What are the strengths and weaknesses of What do Anglicans Believe?

There are three positive aspects of the approach taken by What do Anglicans Believe?

  • It is useful to try to get Anglicans to take doctrine more seriously.
  • It is useful to introduce Anglicans to the texts produced as a result of ecumenical dialogue since these texts contain much helpful material.
  • It is good to encourage people to not only understand doctrines better, but to think how this better understanding ought to lead to changes in both personal discipleship and in the Church’s worship and mission.

Unfortunately,  alongside these  three positive aspects of its approach the text also has a number of major weaknesses.

First, in spite of its title, this is not a guide that explains at all adequately what Anglicans believe

The guide only concentrates on one specific area of doctrine, namely ecclesiology, and says literally nothing about other key doctrinal topics such as the doctrines of God, creation, anthropology, salvation and eschatology. The reader will learn absolutely nothing about what Anglicans believe about these topics.  

Most of the material to which the guide refers is ecumenical rather than specifically Anglican in nature and the guide makes almost no attempt to expound the historic Anglican formularies (The Thirty Nine Articles, the Book of Common Prayer and the 1662 Ordinal) and to show how these have been the basis for a specifically Anglican approach to Christian doctrine. No one who used this guide would be able to tell you about the historic Anglican approach to doctrine as a result of having read it.

It is true that most of the material in the guide is derived from ecumenical dialogues between Anglicans and Christians of other traditions. However, the statements produced by such dialogues and quoted in this guide are  consensus statements of what Anglicans and Christians of other traditions feel able to say together rather than explanations of what the Anglican tradition in particular stands for. If you want to produce a guide to what Anglicans believe then statements from ecumenical dialogues are not a good place to start.

Secondly, it is a guide that fails to explain adequately the basis of doctrine.  It never explains to its readers that in the words of the great American scholar Jaroslav Pelikan, Christian doctrine is ‘What the Church of Jesus Christ believes, teaches and confesses on the basis of the Word of God’ [2]

The starting point for doctrine is not, as the guide seems to suggest, ‘scripture, church teaching and scholarship’ as if these three carried equal weight. The starting point for doctrine is God’s own testimony to who he is and what he has done given to us in the words of the writers of the sixty six book of the Bible, words which God himself inspired through his Spirit and which together constitute his Word to us.

What this means is that doctrine is never self-referential. It has no authority of its own, but is only authoritative in so far as it bears faithful witness to what God has said in his word. The guide never explains this point.

Thirdly, in a related error, the guide gives a misleading explanation of the emergence of doctrine in the Early Church. It is true that the context in which doctrine developed was, partly, the doctrinal divisions within the Church. However, that was not the basis for the development of doctrine. The basis for the development of doctrine was the continuing attempts of the theologians of the Early Church to understand more deeply, and proclaim more faithfully, God’s self-revelation in Scripture. Thus the Trinitarian debates in the fourth century were debates about the best way to understand and bear witness to what the Bible has to say about who God is.

The reason why the decisions of the first four ecumenical councils have historically been regarded as doctrinally authoritative is because they have been seen as having understood the biblical witness correctly and to have borne faithful witness to it.   

Fourthly, the guide fails to note that the reason churches should engage in dialogue about doctrine should be to help each other to grow in their understanding of and witness to what the Bible teaches. It is true that churches should help each other to ‘sharpen and clarify what they believe,’  but this is only so what they believe can become ever more in line with the Biblical witness.

Fifthly, the guide similarly fails to acknowledge that ‘new ways of understanding and expressing the faith’ are only justified in so far as they enable people to make better sense of the unchanging biblical witness in a changed context. What the Bible says about who God is and what he has done remains ever the same, but new contexts demand fresh explanation of this unchanging truth in the light of the experiences and questions of every new generation in which the Bible is taught.

Sixthly, while what is said about the doctrine of the Church in chapter three is  for the most part unexceptionable and contains some helpful quotations, the material is too dense and lacks sufficient explanation. Those who have studied ecclesiology and the doctrine of the sacraments will understand the points that are being made, but students approaching this material as an introduction to ecclesiology are likely to need a lot of help  to make sense of it.

What would be better would be to have fewer quotations and more explanation of the ones that remain, showing how what they say is rooted in a particular way of understanding the biblical witness that has developed in the course of the history of the Church and challenging the reader to think whether or not this is a helpful way of expressing the biblical teaching today.  

Seventhly, the discussion of the sacraments fails to alert its readers to the historic debate about the number of the sacraments, to explain the specific nature of the grace given through the two sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, or to note the fact that the sacraments require a response of repentance and faith to be spiritually beneficial. The discussion also says nothing about the debates  concerning whether it is right to baptise infants or admit children to Communion.

Overall, therefore, while the study guide is to be commended for wanting to encourage Anglicans to engage with doctrine and with the  documents produced as a result of ecumenical dialogue the end result is not at all satisfactory.

[1] Theological Education in the Anglican Communion, What do Anglican Believe? available at https://www.anglicancommunion.org/media/417436/2020-08-what-do-anglicans-believe_en.pdf

[2] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (Chicago and London: The university of Chicago Press, 1971, p.1.

On not leaving the car in pieces on the garage floor – a review of John Barton’s A History of the Bible

Introduction – the purpose of this review.

John Barton is an Anglican Priest who was Oriel & Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford and is currently Senior Research Fellow at Campion Hall, Oxford. He is one of Britain’s leading academic biblical scholars and the author of numerous books and articles on the Bible and its interpretation.

His book A History of the Bible, which was first published in hardback by Allen Lane in 2019 and then in paperback by Penguin in 2020 builds on what he has written in his previous books and articles to give an overall account of how the Bible ‘came into being, developed and was used and interpreted down the years, in both Christianity and Judaism’ (p.13).

The book has been extremely well received. There has been a host of positive reviews from both academic, and non-academic, religious, and secular reviewers. The five reviews quoted on the back cover of the Penguin edition provide a good reflection of the praise that has been given to the book.

‘Where does one go to learn what the Bible actually means, where it comes from, and how it has been read, both by Jews and Christians? Barton gives a superb overview of the answers’ (Bart D Ehrman, Daily Telegraph).

‘Scholarship and cerebral entertainment of the highest class’ (Dominic Sandbrook, Sunday Times, Books of the Year).

‘Phenomenal… a book from which believers and non-believers can both learn’ (Colin Burrow, Guardian).

‘An extraordinary tour de force… open minded, lucid, it floods with light a subject too often regarded as a closed book… Barton unlocks this sleeping giant of our culture. In the process, he has produced a masterpiece’ (Peter Stanford, Sunday Times).

‘A wise and eminently sane book about a book which has inspired both insanity and wisdom’ (Diarmaid MacCulloch).

The chorus of praise that A History of the Bible has received, together with the academic prestige of  its author, means that it is likely to become a standard text to which those who want to know about the Bible and its interpretation will be automatically referred, in the same way that students of the Reformation are now referred to the works of Diarmaid MacCulloch.

I regard this as worrying because, although there is indeed much that one can learn from this book, it is in my view a seriously flawed account of the nature of the Bible and its significance for today. The purpose of this review is to explain why I think this is the case.

  1. The contents of A History of the Bible.

A History of the Bible is divided into four main parts and a concluding chapter.

Part one is entitled ‘The Old Testament.’ It consists of five chapters which look at the history and language of ancient Israel, and the six main literary genres contained in the Old Testament, narrative, law, wisdom, prophecy, poetry and psalmody.

Part two is entitled ‘The New Testament.’ It consists of an account of the historical context out of which the New Testament emerged followed by an introduction to the New Testament letters and the four Gospels.

Part three is entitled ‘The Bible and Its Texts.’ It consists of explanation of how and when the Old and New Testament Canons came to be formed and defined, why certain books were excluded from the New Testament, and the manuscript tradition that underlies the biblical text as we know it today.

Part four is entitled ‘The Meaning of the Bible.’  It consists of a review of how Jewish and Christian scholars have interpreted the Old and New Testaments  from the second century to the present day and how the Bible has been translated from the time of the Septuagint onwards.

The concluding chapter, ‘The Bible and the Faith’ considers the relationship between the Bible and the faith of the Christian and Jewish communities.

  1. The argument put forward in A History of the Bible.

 A. Concerning the Old Testament

According to Barton, the material which we call the Old Testament ‘probably came into existence between the ninth and second centuries BCE’ (p.33).

The books of the Old Testament are made up of fragments of originally separate material that have been brought together in the Old Testament books that we now have in ways that are confusing, incoherent and self-contradictory.

The stories in the early chapters of Genesis such as the stories of Noah and the Tower of Babel are ‘mythical or legendary’ (p.33). The stories concerning Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, and the early kings such as Saul, David and Solomon are also ‘essentially legends, even though people bearing those names may well have existed’ (p.33). Even the accounts of the stories of the life of the Jewish people during the Persian period, such as the story of Esther, may also be fictional.

The historical books

What are known as the  ‘historical books’ of the Old Testament (Genesis to 2 Kings, I and 2 Chronicles, Ezra Nehemiah and Esther) are in fact historically unreliable texts which ‘often contribute to our understanding of the history of the nation through the insight they give into how events and social movements were understood at the time they were written, rather than by providing reliable information about the history of the time they purport to describe’ (p.58).

The law codes

The traditional idea that the law codes in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy go back to Moses, and the time of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness, is unsustainable in view of the fact that the laws they contain reflect the life of a settled agrarian society rather than the life of ‘a group of nomads living in tents’ (p.76).  The Ten Commandments were probably compiled later than the other law codes in the Pentateuch (the five books from Genesis -Deuteronomy). They are ‘an amalgam of elements of a different date’ (p.78) and the differences between Jewish and Christian traditions about how to number the commandments show that the list is ‘not totally coherent’ as a list of ten items. The Pentateuch as a whole probably achieved canonical status in the post-exilic period.

The commandments in the Old Testament law codes are intended as a statement of ‘general legal principles’ rather than as a set of  binding commandments. As Barton sees it, they ‘invite the reader to enter into a moral discussion rather than close off the debate from the start. Certainly there are some absolute commandments, but for the most part the literature is pragmatic and based on a consideration of individual cases’ (p.84).

The wisdom literature

For Barton, the Old Testament wisdom literature (by which he means Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes):

‘…invites the reader into a dialogue about human life and its patterns, rather than laying down the law. It tends to be open-ended rather than dogmatic: if it offers insight into the world and its ways, it is by proposing proverbs and wise sayings to ponder, not rigid diktats to be accepted and adhered to’ (p.69).

As Barton sees it, neither the wisdom literature nor the Old Testament laws gives us:

‘…a timeless code; both are firmly rooted in the institutional life of ancient Israel. This is not to deny that both exemplify moral principles that can often be seen in modern discussions of ethics, and that were shared with other peoples of the Ancient Near East. It does, however, make any direct application of biblical teachings difficult, and argues for a more oblique relationship between the Bible and modern Christian or Jewish faith.’ (p.88)

Barton also argues that the use of the description of the figure of Wisdom in Proverbs 8:22 as a reference to Christ in the Patristic debates about the Trinity was a mistake, which was due to the fact that ‘It did not occur to anyone that the text might not refer to Christ at all, or that they were arguing on the basis of the Greek translation rather than the Hebrew original’ (p.72).

The prophetic books

The prophetic books in the Old Testament are the result of the original short and pithy sayings (‘oracles’) given by the prophets themselves being gathered together by either the prophets themselves  or (more likely) their disciples and then turned into the books we now have by later scribes with the words of later speakers or writers also being added.  The scribes ‘did not always know just when in the course of the prophet’s life given oracles had been delivered, and they assembled them in what they thought was the correct chronological order, but sometimes thematically or on the basis of catchwords’ (p.91) (as in the case of Isaiah 1:9 and 10 where two originally unrelated oracles are put together because they both refer to Sodom and Gomorrah).

The idea that the prophets were heralds of good tidings, ‘which is the image most Christians probably have of them,’ is in reality ‘a post-exilic development that has been read back into earlier prophecy’ (p.95). In reality, the prophets were people who:

‘… became convinced through a kind of second sight that trouble was coming – or even simply saw that it was, because they were politically better informed than most – and then explained this trouble as a result of national sin’ (p.95).

What also emerged in post-exilic times were the oracles in the prophets about a future king. However this king is not a ‘messiah’ in the later Jewish or Christian sense of ‘a future saviour who would rule in the name of God not just over a restored Israel but over the whole world’ (p.97). In the Old Testament itself ‘the ‘new David’ is a literal king of a liberated but limited Israelite or Judahite kingdom back within its old (or somewhat extended) borders’ (p.97).

In Barton’s view:

‘The prophetic books, like the pieces of which they are composed, are for the most part subversive entities, undercutting the foundations of established religion, especially the state religious cults of the Hebrew kingdoms in pre-exilic times, and the political machinations of the times just before the exile’ (p.111).

The Psalms

The Book of Psalms (which ‘can scarcely have come into existence before about 300 BCE’ (p.127)) is an anthology of Psalms ‘from diverse periods’ and with ‘differing theological standpoints’ with the result that it is impossible ‘to corral them into some kind of single coherent whole’ (p.129).

According to Barton, the Book of Psalms is a ‘microcosm’ of the Old Testament as a whole:

‘The Psalms, like the contents of the Old Testament as whole, share many theological ideas, just as they share the conventions of the Hebrew verse system: they speak of the kingship of God, of the righteous and the wicked, and of God’s creative and redemptive providence. But they do not tell a wholly consistent story. Nor does the Old Testament as a whole, it is full of loose ends and surprising turns. This is one reason why it is so hard to treat it as a unitary Holy Scripture’ (p.129).

B. Concerning the New Testament

The three stage emergence of the New Testament

In Barton’s view we can distinguish three stages in the emergence of the books that now make up the New Testament.

The earliest stage consists of the genuine letters of Paul, which are 1 Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, Philippians and  Philemon, which were written in the 50s and 60s of the first century.

The second stage consists of the Gospels. The earliest Gospel was Mark, which may  have been written before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. The Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John were written after 70 with John ‘conceivably at the beginning of the second century’ (p.61).

The third stage consists of Acts (which may not necessarily be by the same author as Luke), Revelation, letters attributed to Paul but not by him (2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), letters attributed to followers of Jesus, but not written by them (1 and 2 Peter, James, 1, 2 and 3 John and Jude) and the letter to the Hebrews which is anonymous. According to Barton, 2 Peter was ‘the latest of the New Testament books to be written, early in the second century’ (p.162).

Paul and his teaching.

On the topics of the resurrection and Jesus’ status of the Son of God ‘Paul differs considerably from what later became Christian orthodoxy; and this sets up a difficulty in treating the Pauline letters as a source for Christian doctrine’ (p.167).

In relation to the resurrection Barton makes two points. First, concerning the nature of the resurrection Paul ‘…seems to differentiate it from physical resuscitation, emphasizing that ‘flesh and blood’ cannot inherit the kingdom of God’  (1 Corinthians 15:50)  and that what any resurrected person possesses is a ‘spiritual body’, which sounds like a deliberate contradiction in terms, attempting to grasp a new reality that cannot be readily captured in words’ (p.168). Secondly: ‘Attempts to ground faith in the resurrection by emphasizing the empty tomb, or the appearance of the risen Lord to the women, cannot appeal to Paul for support: he seems to have quite different concerns’ (p.168).

In relation to Jesus’ status as Son of God, Barton declares that verses such as 1 Corinthians 1:3, Galatians 1:3, Philippians 1:2 and 2 Corinthians 13:13 show that ‘Paul does not make the explicit equation Jesus = God but he speaks of Jesus in elevated terms, and thinks that Christians ought to give him honour very little different from the honour they pay to God’ (p.169).

However, he also declares that 1 Corinthians 15:28 indicates that:

‘Paul is what would come to be called subordinationist; he regards Jesus, though in some sense divine, as subordinate to God the Father… this would in later times have seemed slightly heretical, but for Paul apparently, it is natural to think that Jesus Christ, though highly exalted, has a lower rank than God himself. Jesus is the Son, very much with a capital S, but not the Father,’ (p.172).

Barton goes on to argue that Paul ‘simply does not discuss’ (p.173) issues that we would like to know about, something that ‘applies particularly to the way the churches he founded were ordered and organised.’  We do not know what the leadership titles found in Paul’s letters mean and there is ‘no telling’ what the activities of church leaders involved (p.173). Paul does not tells us ‘whether the leaders of the churches were in charge of their liturgical life’ and ‘provides virtually no information’ about the contents of early Christian worship (p.173).

Turning to the Acts of the Apostles, Barton follows the work of the American scholar John Knox in arguing that Acts should be regarded as secondary historical source that is at odds with what we know about Paul from his authentic letters. First, the chronology of Acts and the letters are incompatible and secondly ‘the Paul of the letters is not the same as the Paul of Acts’ (p.176).

According to Barton: ‘In Acts Paul operates under the authority of the church leaders in Jerusalem and is always careful to make sure he is in concord with them.’ This is shown by the account in Acts 15 of Paul’s participation in the Council of Jerusalem.

The Paul of the letters, however, is:

‘…a much more independent, wilder figure than Acts has made him, less concerned with maintaining harmony in the nascent Church, and convinced of his own rightness, especially over the Gentile issue. He claims to be an apostle in the fullest sense, defined as one who has seen the risen Jesus, and does not cede primacy in this to those who had been Jesus’ disciples in his lifetime. This is a rather extraordinary claim, and the author of Acts does not seem to recognize it: he nowhere calls Paul an apostle, and in chapter 13 he actually has the community in Antioch laying hands on Paul and Barnabas to authenticate their mission to Jerusalem, something we may suspect Paul would have scorned’ (p.177).

On the subject of Paul’s teaching on justification by faith, Barton states that the New Perspective associated with Ed Sanders, James Dunn and N T Wright has been important:

‘in resituating Paul in his own context and refusing to make him answer our questions. For Christians there continues to be a discussion about how people are saved, but it can no longer proceed as though Paul had provided us with a timeless answer in terms of faith as a substitute for ethics. Paul was focused on the needs and the status of his Gentile churches and staunchly defended their standing before God against those (including perhaps Peter) who wanted to insist that Gentiles must become Jews before they could be Christians. If there are lessons to learn from this for the modern Church, they will be about inclusion and exclusion rather than about the relation of faith and works’ (p.181).

Barton goes on to say that although Paul:

‘…decries the works of the law as a basis for Salvation for Gentile Christians, he never repudiates the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, which he sees as coming to fruition in Christ. Yet the Gentiles’ relationship to it is bound to be ambiguous. It is a true revelation of the one God who is both the God of Israel and the Father of Jesus Christ; but it is also surpassed by what has been seen of God in Christ, and Gentiles at least do not need to observe its mandates scrupulously. Christ is the end [Greek: telos] of the law (Romans 10:4) meaning both its abolition and also its consummation or goal’ (p.182).

In trying to hold a middle position between abrogating the theology of the Old Testament and treating it ‘as in all respects as binding as the new’ (p.182) Paul moved to a position that Romans 9-11 shows was ‘highly complex and not very consistent’ due to the fact that Paul was ‘struggling with equally strong arguments that pull in opposite directions’ (p.182). This means that:

‘If we are to treat Paul as authoritative in in some sense, it must involve trying to think through this issue with which he himself wrestled, rather than treating his words in the same way as his opponents did the Old Testament – as totally binding and required for salvation’  (p.182).

The pseudonymous letters

The letters that are attributed to Paul but are not by him can be shown to be pseudonymous both because they are stylistically different from Paul’s genuine letters and because the church structures which they describe ‘resemble much more those of the second century rather than those of Paul’s day’ (p.183).

With the exception of Hebrews, which is anonymous, all the other letters in the New Testament have to be seen as pseudonymous because they reflect ‘a situation much later than that of the apostles’ (p.184) and because they are written in Greek, which it is something that Jesus’ original disciples were unlikely to be able to do.

For Barton the pseudonymous letters are forgeries and ‘fraudulent’ (p.186). On the question of whether they can be still be ‘religiously authoritative’ Barton writes:

‘A lot depends on how we define the authority of biblical books. Are Paul’s letters authoritative because they are by Paul? If so, then establishing that one of them is in fact pseudonymous presumably reduces or even annuls its authority. Or are the authoritative because they are in the Bible? If so, the question of who wrote them might be regarded as irrelevant.’ (p.187)

The Gospels

According to Barton, the Gospels are not eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus: ‘only two of them (Matthew and John) are even ascribed to members of the twelve apostles, and even here the attribution is much later than the Gospels themselves’ (p.189).

The Gospels fall into two groups, the ‘synoptic’ Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke and the Gospel of John. There is ‘near unanimity’ among New Testament specialists that John was written at the end of the first and the beginning of the second century and even the synoptic Gospels  ‘are products at the earliest of the second generation of Christians’ (p.190).

There are differences between the synoptic Gospels and John over the content and order of Jesus’ ministry. The synoptic Gospels also each order their material differently and there are discrepancies between them over matters such as the accounts of the birth of Jesus in Matthew and Luke, the accounts of the lowering of the paralytic through the roof (Mark 2:3-4, Luke 5:18-19) and the accounts of Jesus’ response to being called ‘good teacher’ (Mark 10:17-18. Mathew 19:16-17).

The literary relationships between the synoptic Gospels are complex. It is generally accepted that Matthew and Luke both used Mark. In addition, they may have used a common source known as ‘Q’ and may also have had their own special sources (‘M’ and ‘L’) or created their own additional material (Barton suggests that Luke’s parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) may be an example of this).

Mark and Luke may originally have existed in earlier editions in which there was no birth narrative in Luke and it is possible that Luke was originally totally separate from Acts with a later editor adding their prologues to join them together.

The references to the fall of Jerusalem in the synoptic Gospels date them to either slightly before (in the case of Mark) or after (in the case of Matthew and Luke) that event.  Luke and Acts could have been written in the second century.

Matthew and Luke were intended as replacements for Mark. This means, writes Barton, that when we ’continue to read Mark, we are in a way contradicting what Matthew and Luke intended: they wanted us to read only their version of the Gospel, and to leave Mark behind’ (p.202).

John’s Gospel may have been written by a ‘school or group’ (p.205) over a period of time.  This would help to explain ‘dislocations in its narrative’ (p.205) such as the words ‘Rise let us be on our way’ (John 14:31) in the midst of the continuous block of teaching in John 14-17. John is not:

‘… a new version of Mark, as Matthew and Luke are, but a wholly different conception of a Gospel, bringing out the inner meaning of Jesus’ life and teaching; ‘a spiritual Gospel,’ as Clement of Alexandria put it’ (p.205).

As Barton sees it, our familiarity with the existence of four Gospels prevents us from noticing ‘just how odd it is that they stand alongside each other, offering an alternative picture of Jesus and his life and work’ (p.209). The issue is not only: ‘that John differs from the Synoptics, but that the Synoptics differ radically among themselves’ (p.210). Barton suggests that:

‘Long familiarity with the Gospels prevents people from noticing just how strange it is to have four divergent official versions of the life and sayings of the founder of Christianity, and even atheist critics of the faith seldom batten onto this problem. Historically the divergence is what we should expect, given the stories and sayings in the Gospels circulated orally over a long period before being written down; but it is remarkable that the Church decided to canonize all four versions and not attempt to reconcile them’ (p.210).

C. Concerning the Biblical Canon

The Old Testament Canon

According to Barton all the evidence we have:

‘…points to the existence of a canon or collection, containing the very same books that now appear in printed Hebrew Bibles, by the middle of the first century CE at the latest. And – assuming that Yadaim 3:5 is concerned with physical scrolls – there is no evidence of any disagreement about any of these books at any time. The books had assembled themselves without debates or rulings being necessary. The New Testament writers, like the rabbis who put together the Mishnah, took them for granted as holy texts. No one ever canonised them, in the sense of taking a positive decision that they should be regarded as authoritative, still less insisted on this against opposition. They were simply accepted’ (p.221).

The distinction that eventually emerged between Christianity and Judaism over the status of the books of the Apocrypha (with Christians generally accepting them as part of Scripture and Jews not doing so) reflects the fact that in the first century there was a ‘core of books that were regarded as centrally important by both groups, and these included most or indeed all of what we now think of as the Old Testament’ (p.229). However, there was also:

‘…a range of works that were held in respect but not used or quoted nearly as much as the core, and here Jews and Christians came to diverge: Jews tended to move them to the ‘outside’ category, while Christians often embraced them, though still without promoting them to the core. The ‘core’ however, was not a canon in the sense of a fixed and determinate list, but simply a list of much-used books’ (p.229).

A further difference between Christianity and Judaism is that whereas in Judaism the Torah (the five books of the Pentateuch) had special status in Christianity:

‘… there never seems to have been much difference in status among the different books of the Old Testament. In the New Testament the commonest designation for what we call the Hebrew Bible is ‘the law and the prophets’, with just one three-fold description, ‘the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms’ in Luke 24:44. This shows that there was an awareness that the ‘law’ – the Pentateuch or Torah – had some kind of pre-eminence among the holy books. But nothing is made of this: we do not find any reflection on the difference of status, or passages from the Torah privileged in any way above those from elsewhere’ (p.230).

In addition, Christian lists place the prophetic books at the end of the canon. In Barton’s view this in line with the fact that: ‘Christianity in general stressed the prophetic side of the Old Testament’ (p.234).  It is, he says, ‘probably consistent with this to arrange the biblical books so that they climax with the prophetic texts.’ (p.234).

For Barton the presence at Qumran of books such as the Temple Scroll which may have been intended to replace the books in our Old Testament canon, reminds us that in the first century the idea of a Bible containing a fixed set of books is an anachronism  ‘the Qumran community, and Jewish groups in general, had a variety of books, but no unified Bible’ (p.237).

Furthermore, Jewish communities may not have had access to all the books that make up our Old Testament:

The synagogue at Nazareth, for example, may not have owned a full set of what are now called the Hebrew Scriptures, and Jesus quoted mainly from what I have called the basic core (Pentateuch, Psalms, Isaiah). Perhaps for him there was as yet no ‘canon’ – and perhaps that should make Christians sit more lightly to the Bible, or at least be willing to prioritize among its books’ (p.238).

The New Testament Canon

In Barton’s view, what we call the New Testament ‘did not begin life as a collection of sacred writings at all, but as occasional literature – highly important, but not sacrosanct’ (p.239) . For example, in the second century Irenaeus and Justin Martyr regarded the four Gospels not as Scripture but as ‘historical sources for the life and teaching of Jesus’ (p.241). A further example is the fact that the New Testaments writings were written and copied in the form of codices (what we think of as books) rather than in the scroll format used for the Jewish Scriptures and other important works of literature in the ancient world.  

However, in the second century the books that make up the New Testament ‘began to be seen not as informal documents but as  scriptural texts’ (p.240). Barton suggests that there were ‘three steps in the process by which the New Testament books morphed from highly important sources into Scriptures in a sense similar to that in which the Hebrew Bible is Scripture in Judaism and which both Testaments are Scripture in modern Christianity’ (p.252).  First, in the first century Jesus was seen as the ‘the fulfilment of the Scriptures of the Old Testament’ (p.252). This meant that the divine authority of the Old Testament text ‘spills over into the early Christian message of salvation through Jesus’ (p.253).

Secondly, in the second century the argument from prophecy reversed direction and the Christian argument became that ‘the Jewish Scriptures were important and ought not to be abandoned because they were about the God who had been revealed in Jesus’ (p.253). This argument was significant because ‘books are Scripture if they function as Scripture, and the New Testament books clearly did so once the argument from prophecy was reversed into an argument from Christ’ (p.255).

Thirdly, by the time of Origen at the end of the second century a state of ‘equilibrium’ was reached in which the argument from prophecy became ‘an invitation to consider the divine plan in which important events were foretold and came to be. The providence of God is revealed through the matching of prophecy and fulfilment’ (p.255). According to Barton, ‘when we find such a perspective we can talk of the existence of the Bible as we now know it’ (p.255).

In addition, from the time of Paul onwards and into the second century we find Christian writers viewing the Old Testament as an entirely Christian book in the sense that the Old Testament text itself carries a directly Christian meaning. However, this changed during the second century when Christian writers began to see the Old Testament ‘as the document of a pre-Christian time, containing some things that continue to be in force but others that have been superseded or else fulfilled in Christ’ (p.258). At this stage it came to  be seen that ‘the teachings of the Gospels and of Paul represent a fresh stage in revelation, and thus that Christians need to think in terms of an Old and New Testament’ (p.259).

Two further indications that it was in the second century that the New Testament writing came to be regarded as Scripture are that at the end of the century Origen wrote commentaries on the Gospels as separate works rather than feeling free to combine them together as Tatian did in the Diatessaron earlier in the century and that Christian scribes began to mark out the New Testament writings as sacred by using nomina sacra (contractions of holy names and words such as ‘Jesus’ or ‘cross’) when they copied them.

On the question of at what point the canon of the New Testament was defined, Barton argues that the Muratorian Fragment, which contains a fixed list of canonical books very similar to the ones that are in our New Testament, probably dates from the fourth century. On this basis he argues that we cannot say that ‘Christians became interested in defining the exact contents of the New Testament already in the second century’ (p.269). For Barton the New Testament writings were ‘only restricted – codified or canonized’ (p.269) in the fourth century.  Until then there was a core of generally accepted books with fuzzy edges.

His overall summary of how the New Testament canon developed is as follows:

‘…by the end of the second century the core was immensely stable, and Christian writers were quite prepared to reject some documents as unacceptable; while even as late as the fourth century there was still not complete clarity over the status of a few books, such as the shorter letters and even Revelation. It is not as though the New Testament first grew freely, with no attention to issues of authority and authenticity, and then was absolutely delimited without remainder, in a neat two stage process. Already within the New Testament there is a warning against spurious letters (2 Thessalonians 2:2 – itself possibly spurious) and even as late as the fourth century people are still encouraged to read such works as The Shepherd, even though by then it was defined as not part of the New Testament. The growth of scripture and its delimitation overlapped just as with the Hebrew Bible’ (pp. 269-270).

Two of the criteria used for the acceptance of books into the New Testament canon were possession of apostolic authority and orthodoxy of content. According to Barton ‘these two criteria tended to prop each other up’ in that ‘Apostolic works could be assumed to be orthodox’ and ‘orthodox works could be assumed to be apostolic unless there was evidence to the contrary’ (p.271).  For Barton, however, ‘the major issue in accepting the canonicity of texts was continuity of use in the Church’  including ‘the reading of a text in the liturgy, which was an attestation of its sanctity and normative character’ (p.271).

Overall, and contrary to the conspiracy theory that the canonical books were deliberately imposed on the Church by those in power in the fourth century, Barton argues that Charles Hill is correct to suggest that no one chose the books of the New Testament. ‘The justifications for accepting them are all retrospective: books are canonical if apostolic, but also are apostolic if canonical. They were accepted because they had always been accepted’ (p.271).

Having reviewed the books that were excluded from the New Testament canon he argues that we should not make too firm a distinction between the contents of the canonical and apocryphal Gospels. He declares:

‘If the apocryphal infancy and resurrection narratives contain legendary or invented material, then so, probably, do the canonical versions, which are also in that sense forgeries – written by people who must have known they were recording unevidenced details. We simply do not know whether they intended readers to believe literally the stories they, or some predecessor, had created. From a religious perspective, the two easy options  are either to believe that the stories are historically true, or to deny that they are making actual historical claims and meant symbolically….But what if the truth is that they were intended to persuade the reader of something that the writer knew had not actually happened? In that case their canonicity is surely no answer, however much the Church Fathers affirmed it, as we have seen they did’ (p.283).

D. Concerning textual Criticism

After looking at what we know about the transmission of the texts of the Old and New Testaments, Barton concludes that ‘Even in the New Testament, where the textual variation is much wider that in the Old, there are whole passages where the general drift of the passage is not in serious doubt’ (p.306). He then states, however, that:

‘What the existence of textual variation rules out, it seems to me, is an appeal to the exact wording of biblical sayings as if they were legal rulings, since for that a precise text would be essential. We have seen that this has significant consequences when it comes, for example, to Jesus’ sayings on remarriage and divorce’ (p.306).

Furthermore, ‘Study of biblical manuscripts can never get us back reliably to the original author, only to the earliest point in the transmission of the text that can be reconstructed, which will always fall short of the original’(p.307).

E. Concerning the Theme of the Bible

On the topic of the theme of the Bible Barton states that:

‘…understanding …the Old Testament as a story of disaster calling out for rescue goes back to Paul, for whom the Scriptures (meaning of course the Old Testament) are teleological, running from Adam to Christ and then on to the Second Coming’ (p.313).

This reading of the Old Testament is implied in 1 Thessalonians and I Corinthians and then spelt out implicitly in Romans 5:12, 15 & 19.

He goes on to say that: ‘To most Christians from second century CE onwards  this has seemed an obvious and rather beautiful way of reading the Bible: The New Testament completes the story told in the Old by showing how God rescued the human race from the disaster into which it had fallen , and to which the Old Testament bears witness. Old Testament characters are often a foreshadowing of people and events in the New Testament and in Christian history. Of course, The Old Testament had other kinds of importance too, for example as providing a basic moral code; but as a narrative it was taken to be about the human lapse into sin, sin’s continuation through the history of disobedience in the life of Israel, and the restoration of the human race through the death and resurrection of Christ, who will then come again for the final judgement of the world’ (p.314).

By contrast, argues Barton, in Judaism ‘as it has developed to modern times’ (p.314) the main character is not Adam but Abraham:

‘…and the biblical story is that of how his descendants lived in the land that God gave them, were expelled from it when they sinned, but afterwards allowed back and given an ongoing existence. There is no emphasis on ‘salvation,’ at least not in the otherworldly and individual sense that Christians have often given that word, but rather on divine leadership and guidance of the people as a corporate entity through the winding paths of history. The prophets are there, but they are seen as guides for the path, and the predictions of the Messiah, though there are a few, are not in any way central or very important – they are a minority interest’ (p.314).

Barton acknowledges that the Christian reading of the Old Testament with regard to the Fall and its consequence and the importance of messianic prophecy reflects elements of post-exilic Jewish thought, but Judaism itself later moved away from them.

According to Barton, it is foolish to ask which way of reading the Old Testament is preferable. As he sees it:

‘Ultimately there is no one correct way of reading the Old Testament/ Hebrew Bible: it is a huge, heterogeneous collection of material that can only be given a unity by imposing some interpretive scheme on it. Jews and Christians have done this in different ways, but neither takes account of everything contained in the books, and it is not easy to see how any scheme could do so given the variety within the collection. Both faiths have at times insisted on the Old Testament telling the story they wanted to tell anyway. Such insistence pretends that the Bible determines what we believe, when really the belief system in both faiths is to some degree independent of the Scriptures, which it reads according to its core tenets. Scripture is for both a resource, but it is not determinative of either as it has in fact developed’ (p.326).

In similar fashion, claims Barton, the Christian tradition has developed a way of reading the New Testament that does not really fit what the New Testament itself says. He writes:

‘Christians necessarily had to establish a hermeneutic, that is, a framework of understanding within which the Bible is to be interpreted; it came up with the rule of faith, which captures those aspects of the biblical texts that early Christians saw as a central, and downplays others. For a modern Christian the selection is less obvious. Why, for example, was the bodily ascension of Jesus – which is mentioned only twice in the New Testament at the end of Luke in the beginning of Acts (Luke 24:51 in some manuscripts  – and Acts 1:9) seen as important enough to get into the rule, while his teaching and healings are not mentioned , even though they take up a huge portion of the gospels and are emphasised in the speeches in Acts? Why did Trinitarian language become so central to the rule’s structure when the New Testament hardly knows it? The answer is that these were all issues for the second-century Church, which therefore read the New Testament in their light. The New Testament becomes an answer to questions that are not exactly those its authors originally raised’ (p.330).

F. Concerning the history of Biblical interpretation

In his survey of Jewish and Christian interpretation from the second century onwards, Barton argues that the history of Jewish and Christian interpretation of the Bible exemplifies the basic point made in the last two quotations. That is to say, Jewish and Christian scholars have read the Bible in ways that make it agree with their own religious traditions rather than reading it on its own terms.

For example, he declares that the Church’s rule of faith provided the framework within which the Church Fathers read the Bible. While this had the good effect of constraining ‘even their most baroque flights of fancy in reading the detail of the text’ (pp.356-357) it also means that:

‘…they inevitably sometimes interpret individual parts of the Bible in forced ways, just as the rabbis do. It is part of the price which both Judaism and Christianity pay for having such a long, complex and internally inconsistent set of Scriptures’ (p.357).

For another example, he comments that:

‘Christian and Jewish readers in the Middle Ages might arrive at different, sometimes even opposite, conclusions from their study of Scripture; but what drove them was essentially the same aim: to get the Bible to support their own system of thought and practice. Their problem was that the Bible only partly overlaps with Judaism, just as it only partly overlaps with Christianity, as these two religions have developed. If one insists that the overlap is to be seen as total, then necessarily rather ingenious techniques of interpretation will have to be devised; and this happened in both religions, in similar though not identical forms’ (p.384).

From Barton’s viewpoint, the significant advance made by the Protestant Reformers in the sixteenth century was that:

‘…they introduced a new idea into the interpretation of the Bible; the possibility of criticizing the Church’s teachings in the light of what the Bible appeared to be saying – and in Luther’s case, even of criticizing parts of the Bible itself in the light of what he took to be its overall drift. This was a revolutionary idea, which would feed into the premium on independent thought that would come to characterize the European Enlightenment. For the first time it opened a gap between the Bible and the faith which hermeneutical ingenuity could not bridge’ (p.408).

This gap grew wider as result of the critical study of the Bible from the seventeenth century onwards and, according to Barton the result has been that it is now clear that the Bible does not support traditional Christian doctrine or traditional patterns of Church order.

In his words:

‘What all these critics made clear, above all, was that the New Testament does not unequivocally support traditional Christian doctrines such as the doctrine of the Trinity or the divinity of Christ, any more than the Old Testament, studied critically, supports a traditional picture of the Mosaic origins of Israel’ (p.424)

Thus he also writes that the New Testament evidence does not support the idea of a God-given three fold form of ordained ministry consisting of bishops, priest and deacons. For Barton , if we look at the New Testament evidence ‘coolly and dispassionately’ we shall:

‘….almost certainly arrive at a position some of the Reformers (including Luther and Hooker) reached, namely that the New Testament does not prescribe any determinate system for ministry because it speaks with so many different voices’ (p.417).

In addition to biblical criticism, scientific discoveries also:

‘… made Readers see that the Bible contained myths and legends , which might be full of wisdom and insight of many kinds but which did not provide any scientific information or historical account of human origins’ (p.428)

Furthermore, the effect of scientific discovery:

‘… was not limited to the claims made in the Old Testament. When Paul affirms that death entered the world because of sin (the sin of Adam: Romans 5 : 12 ), this too is rendered clearly untrue through the observation that human beings, and their homonid predecessors, have always been mortal, as are all other organisms. Incidentally, this challenges  a major plank in the Christian story ….the story of God’s rescue mission….in which Adam’s sin plays a central role. This too, and not just Genesis, has to be understood in a non-literal way or relinquished’ (p.428).

Today, declares Barton, ‘Biblical studies has entered a highly pluralistic stage’ (p.435) in which the ‘traditional critical styles’ which emerged in the nineteenth century sits alongside a variety of ‘post critical’ approaches which concentrate on the final form of the biblical text informed by theological commitment or ‘political, social-scientific and postmodernist insights’ (p.434).

G. Concerning the Bible and Faith

In his closing chapter on ‘The Bible and Faith’ Barton questions argues that the concept of inspiration is not much found in Scripture and creates problems because it seems to imply that the words of the Bible are dictated by God, because the Bible says things which we now know to be wrong, and because the text of the Bible is uncertain. He suggests that the Catholic modernist notion that inspiration means that God has providentially given us a biblical text that it is imperfect, but yet still  efficacious in ‘faith and morals’ is  ‘an intelligible attempt’ to maintain the idea of inspiration without embracing divine dictation, but also suggests that inspiration may be a term ‘that causes more problems than it solves’ (p.479).

However, in spite of his hesitations about the concept of inspiration, Barton  insists that the Bible remains indispensable to both Judaism and Christianity because: ‘Without Scripture, either religion turns into simply what Christians or Jews happen to believe or do at the moment, and there is no criterion against which to measure their beliefs’ (p.485).

As he sees it, the Bible has two important functions within Judaism and Christianity:

One the one hand:

‘The Bible can exercise a control and check on the religions that claim it as their own. Christians for example, need to beware of claims about Jesus or the church that are clearly incompatible with the evidence of the New Testament. The Reformation call to go back to the evidence of the ‘primitive’ church as reflected in the pages of the New Testament was flawed because the reformers often lacked relevant historical knowledge, but it was justified in principle’ (p.485).

On the other hand:  ‘The Bible can also nourish religious faith by its very different from what Jews or Christians instinctively believe or do: it can surprise, constructively as well as challengingly’ (p.486).

The value of the Bible, writes Barton, is that it tells us:

‘… As Lutherans sometimes put it, ‘things we cannot tell ourselves,’ In other words there are ideas and lines of thought in the Bible that it would be surprising for unaided human reflection to have arrived at. The extreme diversity of the material In the Bible is not to be reduced by extracting essential principles, but embraced as a celebration of variety. This undermines much traditional interpretive practice, (which as we have seen)  is often designed to make sure the Bible delivers an ‘orthodox’ message. Freeing the Bible from the control of religious authorities is of the essence of critical study, and it results in a free counterpoint between scripture and doctrinal faith’ (p.486).

Barton suggests that we should view the relationship between the Bible and the Christian faith in terms of two intersecting circles.

In the biblical circle:

‘There are matters … that scarcely bear on Christian faith at all, and which make trouble if Christians assume they must do so: the curses in the Psalms, Joshua’s battles with the Canaanites, Paul’s more intemperate outbursts against his converts and against Judaism as he knew it , the vindictive prophecies in Revelation, many of the laws in Leviticus’ (p. 486).

Likewise, in the circle of Christian faith:

‘…. there are matters …. that are only very faintly, or even not at all, represented in the Bible: the doctrines of the Trinity, the way the Church is to be organized, the creation of the world out of nothing, the meaning of Christ’s death, the idea that after his death he descended to the underworld. Only forced interpretation will find these laid down definitely in the Bible‘ (p.486).

However, there is ‘a large area of overlap, where the contents of the Bible and of the Christian faith do coincide, or at least are congruent’ (p.487). In line with his reading of the statement in Article 6 of the Thirty Nine Articles that ‘the Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation,’ Barton suggests that matters which fall into  this area of overlap ‘are not negotiable’[1] because they belong to the ‘essentials’ of Christianity, ‘what C S Lewis famously called ‘mere Christianity’’ (p.487).

Those matters in the Bible and in Christian belief and practice which do fall into this area of overlap are what, during the Reformation, were called adiaphora, ‘things indifferent’ (p.487). Regarding such matters:

‘… reasonable people, even when properly informed by the Bible, may reasonably differ, yet on which some decision may be needed, and so must be taken in good faith – not knowing whether it is the right decision, or even if there is a single right decision’ (p.487).

  1. Why is A History of the Bible a book that people should read?

Barton’s book is a well-written, comprehensive, and detailed[2] account of what the creation and subsequent interpretation of the Bible look like from the perspective of mainstream historical critical scholarship. If you want to know what the history of the Bible looks like when viewed from this perspective, then Barton’s book is now the best place to go in order to find out.

Barton’s book is not simply a historical account, however. Like other surveys of the history of biblical interpretation such as Albert Schweitzer’s  The Quest of the historical Jesus[3] or Brevard Childs’ Biblical Theology in Crisis,[4] Barton’s work is also a manifesto for a particular theological position.

In his manifesto Barton makes four main points:

  • That the best approach to understanding the Bible is the historical critical approach rather than a confessional approach based on Christian (or Jewish) theological tradition, or a ‘final form’ approach which ignores the history of the text in favour of reading it from a political, social scientific, or post-modern perspective;
  • That readers of the Bible need to understand that the Bible is a complex and internally inconsistent corpus of writings that does not have a single overall theme or message. Consequently, all attempts to read it as if it did, involve imposing an interpretative scheme on the biblical material, an interpretative scheme that will never properly correspond to what the Bible itself says;
  • That although the Bible is theologically indispensable to both Christianity and Judaism, neither religion directly reflects what the Bible teaches in either its faith or its practice. To use Barton’s image, there is an overlap between the circle of Jewish or Christian belief and practice and the circle consisting of what is in the Bible, but the overlap is only ever a partial one;
  • That Christians in particular need to understand that even key elements of the Christian tradition, such as the doctrine of the Trinity or the traditional three-fold pattern of ordained ministry, cannot be found within the Bible itself. In Barton’s view Christians should regard those things which are not directly taught in Scripture as adiaphora, things that are ‘indifferent’ and upon which reasonable people may rightly differ.

To put the matter at its most simple, Barton wants people to be realistic about what the Bible is actually like and to stop suggesting that it has a greater degree of clarity, cohesion and consistency than it actually does.

At the beginning and end of his book Barton quotes the words of Richard Hooker:

…as incredible praises given unto men do often abate and impair the credit of their deserved commendations, so we must likewise take great heed, lest, in attributing unto Scripture more than it can have, the incredibility of that do cause even those things which indeed it hath most abundantly, to be less reverently esteemed’ (pp.13 and 489).[5]

Barton’s aim is to stop people from making this mistake and, as he sees it, the way to avoid  ‘attributing unto Scripture more than it can have’ is to accept the approach to Scripture which he sets out.

Barton’s approach to the Bible is one that has been put forward, in outline if not in detail, by a succession of liberal Anglican theologians since the middle of the nineteenth century. What his manifesto does is give a scholarly and up to date apologia for this tradition of Anglican thought. It follows that anyone who wants to know what the argument for a liberal Anglican approach to the Bible looks like today should likewise read his book. Until you have engaged with this book you have not engaged with this approach in what is currently its most persuasive form.

  1. The two basic theological problems with the book.

What Barton says in A History of the Bible raises two basic problems for Christian theology.

The first problem is the issue of the authority of the Bible.

In Article XX of the Thirty Nine Articles that the Church may not ‘so expound one place of scripture, that it may be repugnant to another.’

As Oliver O’Donovan explains in his commentary on the Articles, this clause in Article XX shows that the English Reformers:

‘….had sufficient experience of diversifying expositions of Scripture to know that they had negative implications for the question of authority. They knew that it was not enough to assert the authority of the sacred text and simply leave the hermeneutical question wide open. They had met polemical arguments which accommodated comfortably enough the formal claim for scripture, but which made such great play with the diversities and contradictions as to rob that formal claim of all its substance. The ordinary reader, it was suggested, could only be bewildered by the biblical text, and so, for all practical purposes, must resign himself to the teaching authority of the church. In response to such disingenuous arguments, the Reformers were prepared to insist, if not on the good sense of the ordinary reader of Scripture, at least upon the ordinary readability of Scripture, without which the attribution of authority to Scripture would be a mere pro forma gesture. Yet if Scripture is ordinarily readable there must be a unity and coherence to it. The readability of the whole is not established merely from the readability of its various constituent books and texts. Unless we can think that Scripture is readable as a whole, that it communicates a unified outlook and perspective, we cannot attribute doctrinal authority to it, but only to some part of it at the cost of some other part. The authority of Scripture then, presupposes the possibility of a harmonious reading; correspondingly, a church which presumes to offer an unharmonious or diversifying reading may be supposed to have in mind an indirect challenge to the authority of Scripture itself.’ [6]

Barton’s approach to the Bible leaves us with precisely the problem identified in this quotation. As we have seen, Barton argues (correctly) that Christianity and Judaism still need the Bible because ‘Without Scripture, either religion turns into simply what Christians or Jews happen to believe or do at the moment, and there is no criterion against which to measure their beliefs.’

However, if what Barton writes in A History of the Bible is correct, the Bible as a whole cannot act as this criterion because it is not a whole, merely a collection of disparate material that has no unified message or meaning. This means that either Christians and Jews have to ignore what the Bible is really like and impose their own unified meaning upon it (in which case the their reading of the Bible merely reflects their own existing ideas or convictions), or they have to accept the authority of some bits and not others (and they likewise have no grounds for such a choice except their existing beliefs and convictions since the Bible itself does not tell you which bits of its material are authoritative and which are not).

The Bible thus becomes theologically redundant because the nature of the Bible, as understood in  the light of the historical critical approach which Barton outlines in his book, means that it simply cannot perform the role for which Barton says it is needed.

The second problem relates to the content of the Christian faith as a whole

As we have just noted, Barton’s approach to the Bible undermines the traditional  Christian belief that the Bible is able to act as an authoritative basis for Christian belief and practice. Furthermore, his approach to the Bible also calls into question a whole range of other traditional Christian beliefs.

In summary form we can say that Barton claims that:

  1. The Old and New Testament Canons arose by accident.
  2. The variations that exist between the copies of the biblical texts means that we cannot rely on the wording of the Bible.
  3. The idea of the Bible being inspired by God is marginal in the Bible and may well create more problems than it solves.
  4. The Bible does not teach that God created the world out of nothing.
  5. The accounts of the creation and the Fall are mythical or legendary.
  6. Much of the rest of the Old Testament is also legendary, including what is said about the Patriarchs, Moses, the Exodus and the conquest under Joshua, and the reigns of Saul, David and Solomon.
  7. The Old Testament laws were not given to Moses by God in the wilderness and are in any event not really laws but general legal principles for people to consider.
  8. The Old Testament prophets were people who saw that imminent national disaster was coming and interpreted this as being the result of national sin. However, they did not predict that God would act to save his people after the Exile. or predict the coming of Jesus.
  9. The concept of the Messiah is marginal in the Old Testament and in any event only refers to someone who will rule as an earthly king over a restored Jewish kingdom.
  10. The Gospels were not written by people who knew Jesus personally and the Gospel accounts are contradictory and were originally intended to replace each other.
  11. The accounts of Jesus’ birth and resurrection in the Gospels are as legendary as the stories about these events in the apocryphal gospels and may have been deliberate acts of  forgery by their authors.
  12. What is said about Paul in the Acts of the Apostles is historically unreliable.
  13. Most of the New Testament letters are forgeries
  14. In the earliest account of the resurrection Paul did not teach that Jesus rose bodily from the dead.
  15. Paul’s teaching about justification was not about salvation through faith rather than works, but about the inclusion of Gentiles into the Church.
  16. What Paul writes in Romans 9-11 is complex and inconsistent and should be regarded as an invitation to undertake our own thinking rather than as authoritative teaching necessary for salvation.
  17. The view of the Bible which sees it as continuous story of rescue from disaster running from Adam, through Christ, to the second coming, is an interpretive scheme that Christians have imposed on the biblical text.
  18. The Bible gives a subordinationist account of the relationship between Jesus and God that is at odds with traditional Christian teaching about the Trinity and the divinity of Christ.
  19. The Bible does not give clear teaching about the meaning of the death of Christ, or his descent to the dead.
  20. The Bible does not give a blueprint for the form of the Church’s ministry.

If we were to accept all these points the Christian faith in its traditional form would be impossible to maintain. As we have seen, Barton maintains those elements of the Christian faith which are also in the Bible constitute the ‘mere Christianity’ referred to by C S Lewis. However, what Lewis means by ‘mere Christianity’ is the  ‘common doctrines of Christianity’ as these have been held over the centuries by Christians of the various different Christian traditions.[7] If we were to take on board the twenty points proposed by Barton, what we would be left with would certainly not be ‘mere Christianity’ in this sense. Christianity as it has been known and believed down the centuries would have ceased to exist.

In his Preface to The Truth of God Incarnate Michael Green asks:

‘How much can you remove from a car, and still possess what is properly called a car?  Lights may be a luxury; you can do without bodywork in warm weather; brakes may be dispensed with, at all events on the level; but if you  remove the engine or the chassis it is questionable whether we are still talking about a car at all.’ [8]

This question was raised for Green by the abandonment of traditional Christological orthodoxy by the authors of The Myth of God Incarnate,[9] but it is raised in an even more acute form by Barton’s work. His work requires such a wholesale abandonment of  traditional Christian orthodoxy that there would be absolutely no car remaining at all. All you would have left  would be a disconnected pile of different fragments of the Bible lying on the garage floor.

Barton might protest that there are still things that are left, such as ‘absolute allegiance to Christ’ and the belief that ‘God was in Christ,’ but it is difficult to know how you could affirm either in a traditional Christian sense once you have abolished the biblical and theological framework within which they have historically been understood.

The very term ‘Christ,’ for instance, refers to the belief that Jesus was the supernatural messiah predicted by the prophets in the Old Testament, a belief which, according to Barton, we can no longer hold. Jesus would be the predicted messiah whom no one had predicted. The only way the use of the term ‘Christ’ could be salvaged would therefore be to give it a new meaning, different from that which Christians have traditionally attached to it. You might still say that Jesus is ‘the Christ,’ but you would not mean what Christians in New Testament times or since have meant by the term.

At this point, it might be argued by Barton, or someone sympathetic to his approach, that both of these problems exist, but that they are problems that we simply have to learn to live with since they are the inevitable result of serious critical study of the biblical material.

In the remainder of this review I shall suggest that this argument does not stand up to scrutiny since a serious critical study of the Bible does not in fact lead to the radical conclusions put forward by Barton.

5. An alternative approach

A. Jesus and the authority of the Old Testament

To begin with, I want to argue that Barton has come at the Bible from the wrong starting point. In his book Barton never reflects on the issue of right starting point from which to study the Bible, but in practice his starting point seems to be the general consensus among historical critical scholars. It is what historical critical scholarship has said since the Enlightenment, and what it is saying today, that determines his view of the Bible.

For a Christian believer, who gives his or her ‘absolute allegiance to Christ’, there is, however, a more appropriate starting point, which is what Jesus taught about how we should view Scripture. A Christian is a disciple (Matthew 27:57, Luke 14:26, John 18:15, Acts 9:36) , someone who looks to Jesus as their authoritative teacher, and it makes no sense at all to say in general terms that we accept his teaching authority, but not then accept the authority of what he teaches about the Bible.

It is true that what Jesus taught is it itself disputed by biblical scholars, but as John Wenham argues in his classic study Christ and the Bible, even if we only accept the Gospels as a generally reliable account of Jesus’ teaching, the approach that he took to what we call the Old Testament is clear. In the words of Wenham:

‘The evidence is clear:

To Christ the Old Testament was true authoritative, inspired.

To him the God of the Old Testament was the living God, and the teaching of the Old Testament was the teaching of the living God.

To him, what Scripture said, God said.’[10]

As John Stott further notes, ‘The Gospels tell us that Jesus not only taught the authority of the Old Testament but ‘submitted to its authority himself.’[11] He gives three examples of this.

First, he writes:

‘….Jesus submitted to the Old Testament in His personal conduct. Thus, He countered each of the temptations of the devil by an apt Biblical quotation. It is sometimes said that He quoted Scripture ‘at the devil.’ This is not so. It would be more accurate to say that He quoted scripture at Himself in the presence of the devil. For when the devil offered Him the Kingdom of the world if He would fall down and worship him, Jesus replied:

‘Be gone, Satan! ‘For it is written, you shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’’ [Matthew 4:10]

Jesus was not applying this text to Satan but to Himself. He knew from scripture that worship was due to God alone. Therefore He would obey. As man He would worship God, not Satan. The simple word gegraptai  (‘it stands written’ was enough) for Him. There was no need to question, discuss, argue or negotiate. The matter had already been settled by Scripture.’ [12]

Secondly:

‘Jesus submitted to the Old Testament in the fulfilment of His mission . He seems to have come to an understanding of His messianic role from a study of Old Testament scripture. He knew Himself to be both Isaiah’s suffering servant and Daniel’s son of man. So He accepted that He could enter into His glory only by the road of suffering and death. This explains the sense of necessity, of compulsion,which constrained him:

‘The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected… and be killed, and after three days rise again.’ [Mark 8:31]

Why must?  Because the Scripture said so. Voluntarily and deliberately He put Himself under the authority of what stood written, and He determined to fulfil it , in His mission as in His conduct. So when Peter tried to avert His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, he told Peter to sheathe his sword.  He had no need of human defence. Could He not appeal to His father for legions of defending angels? Then why did He not do so? Here is the reason He gave:

‘How then should the Scriptures be fulfilled , that it must be so? [Matthew 26:54]

He was of the same opinion after the resurrection, and confirmed it both to the two Emmaus disciples and the wider group of His followers:

‘Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into His glory? These are my words which I spoke to you, when I was still with you, that everything written about me the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.’’ [Luke 24: 26, 44.][13]

Thirdly:

‘Jesus submitted to the Old Testament in His controversies. He found himself engaged in continuous debate with the religious leaders of His day, and whenever there was a difference of opinion between them, he regarded Scripture as the only court of appeal. ‘What is written in the law?’ He would ask. ‘How do you read?’ [Luke 10:26] Again, ‘Have you not read this Scripture …?’ [Mark 12:10] One of His chief criticisms of His contemporaries concerned their disrespect for Scripture. The  Pharisees added to it and the Sadducees subtracted from it. So to the Pharisees He said:

‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God, in order to keep your tradition! …. making void the word of God through your tradition which you hand on’  [Mark 7:9,13].

And to the Sadducees:

‘Is not this why you are wrong, that you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?’ [John 10:35]

It is beyond question then, that Jesus Christ was Himself personally submissive to Scripture. In His own ethical standards, in His understanding of His mission, and in debate with the Jewish leaders, what the Scripture said was decisive for Him.’ [14]

Stott goes on to note that two proposals have been made in response to the witness of the Gospels to Jesus’ view of the authority of Scripture.

The first proposal  is that as a consequence of the incarnation Jesus acquired:

‘… the limited mentality of the first-century Jew. Of course He accepted the authority of Scripture, for this is what the Jews of His day believed. But that is no reason why we should. Their view and His are outmoded.’ [15]

However, the evidence of the Gospels tells against this proposal. It tells us that:

‘He certainly emptied Himself of His glory when He took the form of a servant. But He did not empty Himself of His deity in becoming Man. And although as a man He seems to have been ignorant of certain matters (He said He did not know the day of His return [Mark 13:32] ), the remarkable fact is that He was not ignorant of His ignorance. He knew the limits of His knowledge. Consequently in His instruction He never strayed beyond these limits. On the contrary, He insisted that He taught only what the Father gave Him to teach [e.g. John 7:14-17, 12:49, 17:8]. Therefore we claim that He was inerrant, that all His teaching was true, including His endorsement of the authority of Scripture.’[16]

The second proposal is that:

‘Jesus knew perfectly well that Scripture was not entirely the word of God and reliable. Yet because His contemporaries all believed that it was, he accommodated Himself to their position. There is no need for us to do so.’[17]

As Stott observes, this proposal:

‘…  is quite intolerable. It is derogatory to Christ, and incompatible with His claim to be the truth, and teach the truth. Besides, He never hesitated to disagree with his contemporaries on other matters, so why should he have done so on this? Further this reconstruction attributes to Jesus the very thing he detested most – religious pretense, or hypocrisy.’[18]

If we reject both these proposals, what we are left with is the conclusion that:

‘Jesus knew what He was talking about, and that He meant it. He taught knowledgeably, deliberately and with entire sincerity. He declared the divine origin of all Scripture for the straightforward reason that He believed it. And what he believed and taught is true.’[19]

One of the surprising features of Barton’s book is that he says almost nothing concerning the issue of what Jesus thought and taught about the Old Testament. It is a key piece of the historical evidence concerning the origins of the Christian view of the Bible and yet Barton almost entirely ignores it.

I say ‘almost entirely’ because, as we have noted, Barton does suggest that for Jesus there may have been ‘as yet no ‘canon.’’  If this was true it would mean that we cannot say that Jesus taught the authority of the Old Testament as we know it since for him it would not yet have existed.

He gives two arguments in support of this suggestion. First, he contends that the synagogue at Nazareth ‘may not have owned a full set of what are now called the Hebrew Scriptures’ and secondly he notes that Jesus quotes most frequently from the Pentateuch, Isaiah and the Psalms.

There is absolutely no evidence to support the first contention. We have  no evidence concerning what scrolls  were possessed by the Nazareth synagogue, so it may or may not have had a full set.

Furthermore, even if it was the case that the synagogue at Nazareth did not have a full set of the Hebrew Scriptures, this would not mean that for Jesus a canon of Scripture did not exist. The latter does not follow from the former.

It is true that according to the Gospels Jesus quoted most often from the Pentateuch, Isaiah and the Psalms. However there is nothing in the Gospels to suggest that these were the only books he regarded as authoritative, or that he saw them as core books that were more authoritative than the other books of the Old Testament from which he also quoted.

The evidence that we have tells us that, contrary to Barton’s argument,  the Jewish canon of Scripture was fixed by the first century. There wasn’t  a canonical core with fuzzy edges, but a fixed canon of twenty-four books  divided into three sections.[20]  This canon was arranged as follows:

The Law; Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy,

The Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, The Twelve Prophets [Hosea to Malachi]

The Writings:  Ruth, Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles.

The books in this list correspond exactly to the thirty-nine book Protestant Old Testament Canon, except that the books are in a different order and the minor prophets are combined together as one book.

If we look at the evidence from the Gospels we find that Jesus quotes from, or alludes to, fifteen out of the twenty four books of the Jewish canon and that these books come from all three sections of the Canon (the books are  Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Samuel, Kings,  Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, The Twelve,  Psalms, Proverbs, Daniel and Chronicles).[21]

If considered on its own this evidence could suggest that Jesus had an idiosyncratic fifteen book Canon, but there is other evidence that needs to be taken into account.

First, in Matthew 23:5 and Luke 11:51 we have two warnings by Jesus of imminent judgement that refer to the shedding of ‘righteous blood’ from Abel to Zechariah. Abel comes at start of the Jewish Canon(Genesis 4:8) and Zechariah comes at the end of it (2 Chronicles 24:21). As Beckwith comments:

‘What he [Jesus] is evidently saying is that all the martyred prophets from one end of the Bible to the other will be avenged on his generation. He is thus confirming that the traditional order of books, which began with Genesis and ended with Chronicles, goes back in all essentials to the first century. Nor is he the inventor of this order. His allusive way of indicating the whole canon would be intelligible only if the order were already widely received.[22]

To put it simply, Jesus regards the twenty-four book Jewish canon of Scripture, in its received order, as a given which he shares with his hearers, otherwise his warning of coming judgement makes no sense.

Secondly, at the end of Luke’s Gospel we have two references to the canon of Scripture.

In Luke 24:27 we read ‘And beginning with Moses and all the prophets he [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself’.

Then in Luke 24:44-47 we read:

‘ Then he said to them, ‘These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’’

In these two passages ‘the scriptures’ are the books comprising the canon and these are summarised as ‘Moses and all the prophets’ and ‘the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms.’  In both cases it is the twenty—four book canon that is meant.  In the second passage ‘psalms’ is a way of referring to the third section of the Canon (‘the writings’) that reflects the fact that Psalms is the largest book in this section.[23]

As we saw previously, Jesus believed that his mission had been laid down in advance by God in the Scriptures and these passages make it clear that for him the Scriptures meant the books of the twenty-four book Canon (the writings that make up our Old Testament) .

In addition, the fact that Luke feels no need, either here or anywhere else, to spell out the meaning of the terms he uses when referring to the Scriptures indicates that those to whom his Gospel is addressed knew what the terms meant. For them the contents of the canon were clear, and they were clear because Jesus had made them clear to his first followers who had then passed on Jesus’ view of the matter to the early Church. [24]

Thirdly, the whole shape of the Gospel of Matthew bears witness to the Jewish Canon. As Peter  Leithhart points out in his commentary on the Gospel, Matthew tells the story of Jesus:

‘….as a recapitulation of the story of Israel. Jesus does it right; he keeps the covenant; he is the obedient Adam reversing the scene of the first Adam, the obedient Israel undoing the failure of the first Israel. He goes to the wilderness and resists temptation. He conquers the land with words of healing and power. He is faithful in the face of the attacks of the people and of Herod.  In his death and resurrection, Jesus relives Israel’s exile and return. Jesus is Israel, living through the history of Israel in order to undo that sinful tragedy.’ [25]

Furthermore, the story of Jesus is the recapitulation of the story of Israel as this is laid down in the Jewish Canon. We can see this from the beginning and end of the Gospel.

The Gospel opens with the words Βίβλος γενέσεως Ἰησοῦ χριστοῦ. Following Dale Allison, Leithart suggests that these words should be translated ‘The book of the Genesis of Jesus Christ.’[26]  What Matthew is saying is that the coming of Jesus into the world is Genesis 2.0, a new start for Israel and the world, and for our purposes the point to note is that Matthew’s story of Jesus starts where the Jewish canon starts, with Genesis.

The Gospel closes with the Great Commission in Matthew 28: 18-20, a commission which deliberately echoes the words of the decree of Cyrus the Great in 2 Chronicles 36:23 with which the Jewish canon ends. In Leithart’s words:

‘In both Matthew 28:18-20 and 2 Chronicles 36:23 we have the following sequence:

Statement regarding universal authority

Statement regarding the source of authority

Commission to ‘go.’

Jesus is greater than Cyrus, having received authority in heaven as well as earth from His Father, and in the light of that authority he commissions his disciples to ‘go’ (πορευθέντες) . Matthew’s gospel begins like Genesis and ends like Chronicles, and thus encompasses the entirety of the Hebrew canon.’ [27]

Where Matthew begins and ends his Gospel shows us that for him, as for Luke, the Canon of Scripture is the accepted Jewish Canon, the twenty-four books starting with Genesis and end with Chronicles. Furthermore, he would have expected his readers to get the point and so their Canon must have been the same as his. As in the case of Luke, the best explanation for this is that he and they held a common view of the Canon going back to Jesus himself.

This means we can expand Wenham’s statement quoted earlier as follows:

‘The evidence is clear:

To Christ the Old Testament, consisting of the twenty- four books of the Jewish Canon, was true authoritative, inspired.

To him the God of the Old Testament was the living God, and the teaching of the Old Testament was the teaching of the living God.

To him, what Scripture said, God said.

B. Divine communication and the proper approach to reading the Old Testament

When we say that what Scripture says God says we are using metaphorical language.

If we say, as people sometimes do, that what JRR Tolkien says in the Lord of the Rings is X  we do not mean that Tolkien is literally speaking. Tolkien died in 1973 and so is no longer capable of physical speech. We are using the language of speech metaphorically to say that as the author of the Lord of the Rings  Tolkien used the words contained in the text to communicate something to his readers. The use of the metaphor of speech highlights the truth that writing is an act of personal communication by an author in the same way that speaking is.

In similar fashion when we say that God speaks through the written words of Scripture what we are saying is that God is involved in an  act of personal communication with the readers of Scripture through these words so that they might be in a right relationship with him. [28]  To put it another way, the text of Scripture is a message to us from God.

I have used the word ‘text’ twice in this section and it worth pausing at this point to consider what the word means since this will help us to understand the form that God’s communication to us through the Old Testament takes.

When people use the word ‘text’ they often mean a physical object which contains words, such as a book, an article in a magazine, or a notice stuck up on a wall. This is perfectly legitimate use of the word, but it does not get to the heart of what a text is. This is because fundamentally a text is a web of words intended to convey meaning and a physical object is only one of the forms this web of words can take.[29]

If we think of a book, for example, the text first exists as a web of words in the mind of the author and this web of words can then exist in many different forms. For example, it can exist as a text hand -written in pen by the author, or as a traditional printed text, or as an e version, or in an audio version. What remains constant is not the form of the text but its meaning.

The description of a text as a ‘web’ of words makes the point that in a text meaning is  communicated through a group of words that are placed in association with each other.  To go back to The Lord of the Rings, the opening paragraph of the first chapter,  of the second book,  of the first part, runs as follows:

‘Frodo woke and found himself lying in bed. At first he thought that he had slept late, after a long unpleasant dream that still hovered on the edge of memory. Or perhaps he had been ill? But the ceiling looked strange; it was flat, and it had dark beams richly carved. He lay a little while longer looking at patches of sunlight on the wall and listening to the sound of a waterfall.’ [30]

The words in this paragraph convey the meaning intended by Tolkien through being placed together in this paragraph. For example, in the fourth sentence we know in what way the ceiling looked ‘strange’ because of the words in the two clauses that follow.

On one level the meaning of this paragraph is clear in itself. We know what Frodo experienced when he woke up. However, to appreciate its full meaning by, for instance, to understand who Frodo is, or why it is significant that he is lying in bed in a particular place at a particular time, we have to see how the words in the paragraph form part of larger web of meaning (a larger ‘text’) constituted by the book to which it belongs and by the Lord of the Rings trilogy as a whole.

If we apply a similar analysis to the Old Testament we find, first of all, that the individual smaller texts of which the Old Testament canon is made up do not exist on their own, but exist as part of books. Furthermore, careful study by scholars such Robert Alter,[31] Brevard Childs[32] and David Dorsey[33] has shown that these books are not simply, as Barton repeatedly suggests, collections of texts that have been randomly stuck together. Instead, they are careful literary constructs that use a whole variety of sophisticated literary techniques to link the smaller texts they contain within a single, coherent web of theological meaning constituted by the book as whole.

What this means is that if we want to read the Old Testament properly, the primary texts to which we need to pay attention are the books which it contains. The tradition of historical criticism represented by Barton has focussed on trying to reconstruct the original forms of the texts which underly the biblical books we now have  (such as the J E D P sources in the Pentateuch, or the oracles underlying the prophetic books) and then trying to re-construct the history of Israelite religion on the basis of these reconstructed original forms. The problem is that (a) these original forms have proved very difficult to reconstruct, with huge scholarly disagreement about the matter and a tendency to produce more and more hypothetical sources (so not just J but J1-3 and not just first, second and third Isaiah, but numerous sources within each)  and (b) this approach ignores the truth that what God has given to us in the Old Testament is not these sources (if indeed they existed), but the biblical books that we now have. These books are the texts through which he has chosen to communicate to us.

This means that a proper approach to reading the Old Testament involves a ‘final form’ reading of the biblical books, an approach to which Barton refers, but of which he does not appear to make use. In the case of the Book of Genesis, for instance, the proper way to read it is to discern how the texts which it contains (the various narratives concerning God’s creation of the world and the ancestors of the people of Israel) fit together to form a single overarching text which describes how the promise of deliverance made by God in Genesis 3:15 in the aftermath of the Fall begins to become true in the history of the descendants of Abraham, who God starts to form into a people through whom the all the nations of the world will be blessed (Genesis 12:3). Each of the individual stories in Genesis needs to be understood in the light of this one overarching story.

For example, the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38:1-30 is not just a fragment of tradition which has been randomly introduced into the cycle of stories about Joseph. Instead it is there for a specific, identifiable, purpose. In literary terms it heightens the tension in the Joseph narrative by pausing the story of Joseph after he has been sold into slavery in Egypt in Genesis 37: 36. In this time of waiting in the larger Joseph narrative, the smaller story of Judah and Tamar also serves to introduce the key theme of the larger narrative (how God acts in unexpected ways in the face of human evil to preserve the posterity of Abraham and achieve blessing for the world – Genesis 50:20)  by describing how the heroic determination  of Tamar keeps the line of Judah alive after the deaths of  Judah’s two sons, Er and Onan, and the refusal of Judah to marry her to his third son Shelah). Moreover the fact that the item which identifies Judah as the father of Tamar’s children in his staff provides a linguistic link between this story and the prophecy made by Jacob in Genesis 49:10 that there will be ‘a descendant from Judah whose dominion will encompass the world.’[34]

If we want to read the Old Testament books properly we also need to read them in the light of the whole Old Testament canon. Just as each of the three books of The Lord of the Rings trilogy needs to be read in the light of the trilogy as a whole,  so also each of the books in the Old Testament needs to be read in the light of the Old Testament as whole. It is the whole Old Testament canon that constitutes the big text, the big web of meaning through which God has chosen to communicate with us.

This truth is signified by the way that early Jewish descriptions of the Old Testament canon refer to it using descriptions such as ‘the Holy Word’, ‘the Divine Word’ and ‘The Prophetic Word.’[35] The point these descriptions are making is that, pace Barton, for all its textual variety the Old Testament constitutes a unified and coherent message, a ‘word’ from God.

C. Understanding the Old Testament as Canon

If we look at how the Old Testament canon is structured in the original order known by Jesus, we find that it starts off in the Pentateuch and the former prophets (Genesis – Kings) by telling a single continuous story which starts with creation and runs to the exile in Babylon. Because there is one story, each book in the sequence needs to be read in the light of the rest. Thus Judges cannot be understood except in the light of the story of the Exodus and Conquest that precedes it or the story of Israelite kingship that follows it (Judges 2:6-15 and 21:25 make this point). This story is then picked up and continued in relation to what happens during and after the exile in the books of Daniel, Esther and Ezra-Nehemiah, and it is finally re-capitulated as a whole in Chronicles.

The law codes contained in the books from Exodus to Numbers are not just, as Barton suggests, a set of general legal principles which readers are invited to consider. Within the biblical story they are the stipulations attached to the covenant between God and the people of Israel that the people of Israel are expected to obey in their entirety. It is the failure of the people of Israel to obey these stipulations that eventually results in the exile, which is the punishment for violating the covenant set out in Deuteronomy 28-30.

The latter prophets, Jeremiah-The Twelve Prophets, and the writings from Ruth-Lamentations, serve as a commentary on the story. The prophetic books explain why the exile In Babylon took place and describe how God will in due time fulfil his good purposes for Israel and the world through his further activity both during the exile and into the indefinite future.

The writings provide additional commentary on the story. Thus Ruth reminds its readers that God kept the Davidic line alive when it was apparently about to be extinguished in exile, the Song of Songs declares that in spite of the exile God loves Israel his bride with an unbreakable love,  and the Psalms cover the whole of the experience of the people of Israel and declare that the story of Israel will end with everything in creation praising its creator for what he has done.

The writings also give instruction on how to live in the time before God fulfils his purposes. Thus Job and Ecclesiastes remind their readers that they will never be able to fully fathom God’s ways, or the reasons for the apparent triumph of evil, and that wisdom lies in accepting this fact and continuing to nonetheless fear God and keep  his commandments, and Proverbs teaches that wisdom lies in fearing God by observing the moral law embedded in the created order, even though the created order is marred by the continuing presence of sin.

The end of the Old Testament canon in Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles leaves the story of God’s dealing with his people unfinished. In the words of Leithart :

‘…we come to the end of the history of the Old Testament Israel, and things still don’t look the way the prophets said they would look. The house of the Lord has been rebuilt, but the temple mountain hasn’t risen to become chief of the mountains. Israel is back in the land, but the land doesn’t quite look like the garden of Eden. Yahweh has renewed his covenant with His people, but the law doesn’t seem to be written on their hearts. Nations have confessed the God of Israel, but the knowledge of God does not cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.’ [36]

Given the emphasis in the Old Testament canon on the fact that God always keeps his promises, the only way to make theological sense of where the Old Testament history ends up is to believe that in the future there will be a further act of God through which God’s promises will find their complete fulfilment. Contrary to what is said by Barton, this means that when Christians have read the Old Testament as a text that points beyond itself to a new and greater act of God still to come they have not imposed an alien meaning upon the text, but correctly understood what the text itself is saying.

The same is also true when Christians have read the text in the terms of a rescue from disaster and as pointing to the coming of a Davidic messiah who will rule the nations. Once again contrary to Barton, in neither case have they imposed a meaning on the text that is not there.

In terms of the first, the Old Testament storyline is clear. Death and sin entered into the world through Adam, and Israel, which was meant to be part of the solution, ‘a central move in putting the world to rights,’[37] becomes instead part of the problem (which is why there is a parallel between the exile to Babylon and the earlier exile from Eden). The new act of God to which the Old Testament points forward therefore has to be, and is described as, an act in which God rescues Israel and humanity from this situation.

In terms of the second, what we find as the Old Testament story develops is that the text’s focus  narrows down from the universal to the particular and then opens out again, and that God’s choice of the Davidic line is central to this contracting and expanding focus.

‘….humanity is called to be the image of God, fails in its task and is replaced by Israel, who is regarded as God’s son. A tribe is singled out within Israel, a family within the tribe, and an individual – David – becomes the focus. And yet David, his sons and their failures, point forwards to a just Davidic king who will bring the benefits of the rule [of God] not only to Israel but to all of humanity.’[38]

Furthermore, texts such as Isaiah 11:1-9 and 65:17-25 declare that when this king comes there will be a renewed creation (a ‘new heavens and a new earth’ Isa 65:17) in which humanity and nature as a whole will live in peace.

This coming Davidic king, who, contra Barton, is not seen simply as the earthly ruler of a reconstituted Israelite kingdom like the one that existed prior to the exile, never arrives in the Old Testament itself and so, as Christians have always insisted,  the promises of his coming have to be seen in terms of a fulfilment that is going to take place at some point in the future.

D. The Old Testament Canon and Jewish and Christian traditions of biblical interpretation

As we have seen, Barton contends that the Jewish and Christian traditions of biblical interpretation are both equally flawed attempts to impose a unified meaning onto the Old Testament text. What we have noted in the last section of this review indicates that this contention is mistaken.

Whatever the strengths of mainstream Jewish biblical interpretation (and it has many, such as a dedication to a close reading of the biblical text and a tradition of noting the inter-textual links between different  biblical passages), its emphasis on reading the Old Testament primarily as a guide to living faithfully before God in the here and now misses out the forward looking and messianic aspects of the text. For this reason, it does not give an adequate account of the message of the Old Testament canon considered as a whole.

By contrast, whatever the weaknesses of Christian biblical interpretation in terms of its exegesis of particular biblical passages, the Christian interpretative tradition has been right to see the Old Testament not just as a guide to holy living, but as an unfinished story, a text full of promises made by God, but not yet fulfilled by him. In this key respect its understanding of the Old Testament canon has been better than the one offered by mainstream Jewish tradition because it gives a more comprehensive account of the Old Testament material and Barton is wrong not to acknowledge this fact.

It is thus simply not the case that both traditions have been equally mistaken in their reading of the Old Testament.

E. The alleged contradictions in the Old Testament

As we have also seen, Barton further contends that the Old Testament cannot be read as a unified text by either Jews or Christians because the way it has been put together has made it self-contradictory. However, the examples he gives do not support this claim, as the following three examples show.

First, in relation to Exodus 24:1-18 Barton argues that the present text consists of ‘three entirely simple stories, each with a different emphasis and even a different idea of God and his relation to the people to whom he reveals himself’ (p.54) which have been subsequently muddled together into one incoherent account. Barton cites four pieces of evidence for this claim: (1) an inconsistency in the number of times Moses is said to have gone up Mt. Sinai, (2) an inconsistency about whether Moses alone went up the mountain to receive the law, (3) an inconsistency about whether Moses is said to have received the law from God before he went up the mountain, or afterwards and (4) the use of the two different divine titles ‘God’ and ‘the Lord.’

With regard to (1) the answer is that Moses went up twice, once with Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and the seventy elders to behold God (v.9) and once with Joshua to receive the tablets of stone with the law and the commandments written on them (v.12). With regard to (2)  the answer is that Moses alone is mentioned as having gone up the mountain in verse 18 because he alone receives the law from God, but as Exodus 32:17 makes clear, Joshua accompanied him. With regard to (3) the answer is that in verse 3 Moses has already received the law orally from God, but in verse 12 he goes up the mountain to receive it in written form. Finally, with regard to (4) the terms ‘Lord’ and ‘God’ are used in a complementary way. The ‘Lord’ is the covenant name of ‘the God of Israel’ (v.10).

Secondly, in relation to Isaiah 1:9-10 Barton argues that there are ‘two seemingly unrelated sayings that have been placed next to each other because they both happen to contain references to Sodom and Gomorrah’ (p.91). However, as Alec Motyer argues in his commentary on Isaiah, the repetition of a reference to Sodom and Gomorrah in verse 10 in fact forms a deliberate link between the two discourses in verses 2-9 and 10-20. The repetition ‘magnifies God’s mercy’ by underlining the point that because of the wickedness of Israel referred to in verses 10-20 she would have been utterly destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrah had God not decided to be merciful.[39]

Thirdly, in relation to Proverbs Barton notes that it ‘sets up two opposing points of view without telling the reader how to choose between them’ (p.64). Thus, he says bribery is condemned in Proverbs 15:27 and 17:23, but seen as necessary in Proverbs 18:16 and 21:14. However, as Ernest Lucas observes, when reading Proverbs it is important to note that its saying are sometimes ‘simply observations on the way things are’ and not statements about ‘how they should be.’ This means that it ‘is important to put these kinds of proverbs alongside those which do make an explicit evaluation of a certain pattern of behaviour.’ If we apply this principle we see that the sayings about bribery in Proverbs, when taken together ‘recognise that bribery sometimes succeeds, but brand the practice as wicked.’[40]

What these examples show is that Barton’s claim that the Old Testament is self-contradictory does not hold water. When looked at carefully, the passages he appeals to in order to support this argument do not in fact support it.

F. The allegedly unhistorical nature of the Old Testament

Another claim made by Barton is that the Old Testament is historically unreliable. If true, this claim would undermine the theological message of the Old Testament completely. This is because the Old Testament consistently declares that God has made himself known in the things that he has done (‘ I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage’ (Exodus 20:2). If these things never happened, then God has not made himself known, and the basis for Old Testament theology and ethics, and for its future hope, disappears.

However, there is no reason to hold that they did not happen. As the distinguished Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen insists, the sceptical attitude to the history of Israel evidenced by Barton and other contemporary Old Testament scholars emerged in the nineteenth century at a time when our understanding of the Ancient Near East was in its infancy. When read against the background of what we now know about Ancient Near Eastern literature and history, the Old Testament has to be judged an historically reliable text. Kitchen summarises the evidence we have as follows: :

‘The periods most in the glare of contemporary documents – the divided monarchy and the exile and return – show a very high level of direct correlation (where adequate data exist) and of reliability. That fact should be graciously accepted by all, regardless of personal starting point, and with the firm exclusion of alien, hence irrelevant, modern ‘agendas.’ When we go back (before ca.1000) two periods when inscriptional mentions of a then-obscure tribal community and its antecedent families (and founding family) simply cannot be expected a priori, then chronologically typological comparisons of the biblical and external phenomena show clearly that the Hebrew founders bear the marks of reality and of a definite period. The same applies to the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt and appearance in Canaan, with one clear mention of course (Israel on the stela of Merenptah). The Sinai covenant (all three versions, Deuteronomy included) has to have originated within a close-set period (1400-1200) – likewise other features. The phenomena of the united monarchy fit well into what we know of the period and of ancient Royal usages. The primaeval protohistory embodies early popular tradition going very far back ,and is set in an early format. Thus we have a consistent level of good, fact based correlations right through from circa 2000 BC with earlier roots down to 400 BC. In terms of general reliability – and much more could be have been instanced than there was room for here – the Old Testament comes out remarkably well, so long as its writings and writers are treated fairly and even handedly, in line with independent data, open to all.[41]

When he describes Genesis 1-11 as ‘proto history’ Kitchen is making the point that Israel, like other peoples of their day, knew that the world was very old and sought to find ways of describing the history of the world in those periods which went back beyond memory or written records. What this means is that Genesis 1-11 is meant to be history (i.e a record of real events), but not a record that describes these events with the same kind of historical detail you find from Genesis 12 onwards.

In theological terms this means that the author of Genesis 1-11 certainly did believe that God had created the world and that there had been a historical Fall, but that the way these events are described may well be symbolic rather than literal. To say this is not to reject a literal reading of the Bible, as Barton seems to suggest when he says that a literal reading of Genesis must involve belief in creation in six twenty four hour days (p.482). What it does meant is that in regard to these early chapters of the Bible the literal meaning may be a symbolic reading, as it is in Psalm 23 and numerous other places in the Old Testament.

Barton also declares, as we have seen, that science now means that we cannot believe that death came upon humanity as a result of the Fall. However, as C S Lewis writes ‘Science… has nothing to say for or against the doctrine of the Fall.’[42] All that science can tell us is what we already knew, namely that all humans are subject to death. What it cannot prove or disprove is the biblical claim that this would not have been the case had the first parents of the human race not rebelled against God (which is the claim made in Genesis 3 and then re-echoed by Paul in Romans 5).

Let us suppose that archaeologists found the bodies of Adam and Eve with, as G K Chesterton once put it, a half-eaten apple inside Eve and slightly faded fig leaf still attached to Adam. This would still neither prove nor disprove that their broken relationship with God rendered them subject to death. Forensic scientists might be able to determine the physical cause of their death, but this would still not rule out the theological claim that this physical cause only resulted in death because sin had previously rendered them no longer immortal.

Science has nothing it can say on the matter. Like Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 we are left to either believe or disbelieve what God has said, in our case through the witness of the Old Testament text.

Barton’s argument that the Old Testament laws cannot be historical because they are unsuitable for a people living in a wilderness ignores the obvious point that they are described as having been given to a people who are soon going to leave the wilderness and establish a settled agricultural community in the land which God has promised to them.

G. Creation ex-nihilo

A final claim by Barton about the Old Testament that we need to consider is his claim that there is not clear biblical support for the traditional Jewish and Christian belief that God created the created order ex nihilo (out of nothing).

The key text here is Genesis 1:1-2. The traditional reading of the text has separated the two verses. Thus, the RSV reads:

‘1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.’

However, it has been argued that verses 1 and 2 could also be translated

‘When God began to create the heavens and the earth the earth was without form and void (or ‘a formless mass’)’

If we adopt the first translation, creation is creation ex nihilo. There is God and nothing else and then God causes all things to come into being.  If we adopt the second translation, however, God’s act of creation consists of giving order to an already existing formless mass of stuff (like a potter making a pot out of a mass of clay).

How should we decide between these two understanding of Genesis 1:1-2?  The answer is that the most grammatically plausible reading of the Hebrew (which is supported by the early translations of Genesis 1:1) is that verse 1 is an independent sentence which asserts God’s creation of everything there is (‘heaven and earth’ meaning ‘the entire universe’). Verse 1 is a general statement of the creation of the entire universe by God and what is then described in verses 2-25 is what God does with the earth, namely turn it into a habitable place for human beings to live in in preparation for the creation of humanity in verses 26-31.

If this is correct, then against Barton, we have to say that Creation ex nihilo is taught in the Old Testament and that in fact it is the basic truth that underlies the entire Old Testament story. [43]

H. Jesus and the emergence of the New Testament

We have already noted that a major weakness of Barton’s approach to the Old Testament is that he leaves Jesus out of the picture. The same major weakness is also present in his approach to the issue of how and why the New Testament came into being.

Barton totally ignores the issue of whether Jesus made provision for his followers to continue to bear witness to him and to instruct people about his teaching once he had ascended into heaven. This is a very serious omission because it is only once we have understood that Jesus did make such provision that we can properly understand how and why the writings of the New Testament came into being.

According to the witness of Luke, Acts, and Matthew, Jesus commanded the apostles (the inner circle of his followers) to bear witness to his fulfilment of the Old Testament and to teach people to obey everything he had commanded (Luke 24:45-48, Acts 1:8, Matthew 28:20). In Luke, Acts and John we read that he also promised that he would send the Holy Spirit upon them to equip them for this task (Luke 24:49, Acts 1:8 , John 16:4-15).

The people to whom these commands and promises were given were the apostles (the remaining eleven disciples plus Matthias who was chosen by lot to replace Judas Iscariot – Acts 1:15-26). Acts tells us that after they had received the Spirit on the day of Pentecost the apostles began to fulfil the commission given to them by Jesus, and that the ranks of the apostles were expanded due to Jesus’ appointment of Paul by the risen Jesus as ‘a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel’ (Acts 9:15).

As Acts makes clear, the apostles first delivered their witness orally. However, as Michael Kruger notes:  ‘…it very soon began to be preserved and passed along in written form.’[44]  There are two causes that explain this development.

First, the apostles:

‘…functioned within the backdrop of Old Testament covenantal patterns that suggested that the inauguration of a new covenant would be accompanied by new written covenantal documents …. Given that they understood the redemptive work of Jesus as the inauguration of the new covenant (Luke 22:20) and viewed themselves as ‘ministers of a new covenant’ (2 Cor. 3:6), it would have been quite natural to pass on the apostolic message through the medium of the written word.’ [45]

Secondly, the movement towards using written texts:

‘…would have been driven by the very function of the apostolic office as the foundation for the ongoing ministry of the church (Eph.2:20). As the church continued to spread throughout the world into further geographic regions, it would have become evident that the apostolic tradition could only be effectively communicated and accurately maintained in written form. Obviously, the apostles were not able to provide personal attention to every church within the ever-expanding range of missionary influence. Moreover, their limited life spans made it clear that they could never bring the apostolic message to the ends of the earth, but would need a way to preserve it for future generations. Thus the role of the apostles as foundation layers for church would have led them to make sure their message was preserved in a more permanent form, making its inscripturation a virtual inevitability.’ [46]

Furthermore, the evidence we have tells us that the apostles used others as well to spread the apostolic message, both orally and in writing, providing they had the skills and gifts needed to do this. Because apostolicity was thus not tied to the personal speaking or writing of an apostle, this in turn meant that:

‘…even if a document was not written directly by an apostle, there would have been good reasons to think it bore authoritative apostolic tradition if (1) it was written during the apostolic age (and thus was composed at a time when the apostles were overseeing the transmission of their tradition and (2) it was written by someone who got his information from an apostle.’ [47]

This latter point explain why the Gospels of Mark and Luke and Hebrews, James and Jude, which were not written by apostles, came to be accepted as having apostolic authority and were thus eventually included in the New Testament canon.

If we ask when books that were apostolic in the senses discussed above began to be recognised as forming a canon of authoritative texts alongside the Old Testament, it appears that the answer is that the process appears to have been well under way by the end of the first century. As Andreas Kostenberger and Michael Kruger comment, the evidence we have tells us that:

‘…the concept of canon not only existed before the middle of the second century, but that a number of New Testament books were already received and being used as authoritative documents in the life of the church. Given the fact that such a trend is evident in a broad number of early texts – 2 Peter, 1 Timothy, 1 Clement, the Didache, Ignatius, Polycarp, Barnabas and Papias – we have good historical reasons to think that the concept of a New Testament canon was relatively well established and perhaps even a widespread reality by the turn of the century. Although the borders of the canon were not yet solidified by this time, there is no doubt that the early church understood that God had given a new set of authoritative covenant documents that testified to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ and that those documents were the beginning of the New Testament canon.’ [48]

The fact that the documents that became the New Testament were preserved in codices rather than on scrolls does not mean that they were not regarded as holy books with same level of authority as the writings of the Old Testament.  The use of codices may have been simply a matter of practicality, or, as Barton suggests it may have been a way of distinguishing Christian writings from Jewish, Greek or Roman writings as ‘having a new and special character’ (p.249). The fact is we do not actually know why the early Christians used the codex format, but what we do know is that from very early times they accorded books written this format as having the status of  Scripture.

If, against Barton, we accept that the Muratorian Fragment was written in the second half of the second century rather than the fourth[49] this suggests that a canon consisting of the four Gospels. Acts, thirteen Pauline Epistles,  Jude, 1 and 2 John, and Revelation had become accepted by that date. The Fragment also indicates that the determining factor in the acceptance of books as canonical was their apostolic provenance. The books that were accepted were either by apostles or by those in the apostolic circle such as Luke.[50]

Furthermore, In the early third century Origen gives a list of canonical books in one of his homilies that lists the twenty-seven books of our current New Testament canon without appearing to see his list as in anyway controversial.[51]

Although it is often said that it was  Athanasius who for the first time set out the list of canonical New Testament books exactly as we now have it in his Festal Letter at Easter 367, this was thus not the case. What his list indicates is that by his day the doubts expressed by some regarding Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter and 3 John had been settled in favour of their acceptance as canonical. And if we ask why these books had become accepted the answer is that they had come to be seen as genuinely apostolic. This is demonstrated by the way that Hebrews is (wrongly) listed as Pauline. It was known to be from the circle of the apostles and therefore it was assigned to Paul even though earlier writers such as Origen had questioned such an attribution.

What all this means is that we can draw a straight historical line between the commission given by Jesus to the apostles and the eventual acceptance of our twenty-seven book canon. The canon did not just emerge by historical accident.  It was not simply a matter, as Barton seems to suggest, of the Church retrospectively deciding to accept as orthodox and apostolic those books which were read in public worship. There were books, such as the Shepherd of Hermas which were read in church and yet were not accepted as canonical, and this is impossible to explain if reading was the determinative factor.

Rather, the Church believed that it had reliable historical information about which works had been produced by the apostles and those in their circle and the debates were around whether in the light of this information a small number of books which most accepted, but some doubted, really were apostolic in that sense and therefore could be read as Scripture in church.

A final point about Jesus and the New Testament canon is that if we accept that Jesus had divine teaching authority and that he gave that authority to his disciples through the Spirit so that, as Acts 1:1 suggests, the ministry of the apostles was the continuation of Jesus’ own ministry in a new form, it follows that, just like Old Testament, the New Testament carries God’s own authority. As before, Wenham makes the point well:

‘To Christ his own teaching and the teaching of his Spirit-taught apostles was true, authoritative inspired.

To him, what he and they said under the direction of the Spirit, God said.

To him the God of the New Testament was the living God, and in principle the teaching of the New Testament was the teaching of the living God.’ [52]

To put it another way, just like the Old Testament, the New Testament is a God given text, the written form of God’s self-communication. Furthermore, if we look at it carefully, we find that, like the Old Testament, this new God-given text has a distinctive canonical shape.

As Dempster comments:

‘…The New Testament is structured similarly to the Tanakh [the Hebrew Bible]; story (Gospels, Acts), commentary (Letters), story (Revelation). Although the last book is not strictly narrative, it brings to conclusion the story line begun in the Gospels.’ [53]

What is more,  as the Christian interpretative  tradition has always insisted, the message told through these texts finishes the unfinished story told in the Old Testament. God’s promises are kept, the messiah comes, sin and death are defeated, and a new world is born.

Furthermore, because there is one continuous story which begins in the Old Testament and is finished in the New Testament it makes perfect sense to talk not just about an Old Testament canon and a New Testament canon, but about one overarching biblical canon. Just as one can coherently say that the three parts of The Lord of the Rings make up one single book, so we can also coherently say that the books of the Old and New Testaments make up one single canon of Scripture, what the Christian tradition has come to call the Bible.

I. Did the right books get into the New Testament?

For Barton an obvious rejoinder to the view of the New Testament canon outlined above would be the argument that critical historical study shows that if the criterion for inclusion in the New Testament is apostolicity then many of the books that are currently in the New Testament canon should not be in there.

As we have seen, Barton contends that we cannot be sure who wrote the Gospels, but what we do know is that they came from the second generation of Christians rather than from the immediate eyewitnesses of the life of Christ. He also holds that with exception of 1 Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, Philippians and  Philemon, which are by Paul, and Hebrews, which is anonymous, all the other epistles in the New Testament were not written by apostles or those in the apostolic circle but are deliberate forgeries.

If this contention was true, then the grounds for the canonicity of most of the New Testament would disappear. However, it does not seem necessary to believe that the contention is true.

There is no good reason to reject the traditional attribution of the Gospels to the apostles Matthew and John, to Mark who was a co-worker of Paul and then Peter, and to Luke who was a co-worker of Paul, an attribution which in all probability reflects the titles given to the Gospels at the time when they were written.[54] No one has satisfactorily explained why this traditional attribution, which was unanimously accepted in the early church, developed unless it was true. The evidence we have is that the Christians in the second century were well-aware of what had happened in the first century and yet no one preserved any alternative tradition about the authorship of the Gospels.

There is also no good reason to accept the argument that the disputed New Testament letters are forgeries. In each case scholars have shown that the argument that language and style of the letters are incompatible with their traditional authorship are unconvincing, as are the arguments that they are doctrinally incompatible with the letters known to be authentic, or that they reflect conditions in the second century rather than the first.[55]

In addition, no one has convincingly identified a literary genre of pseudonymous writing into which these letters fit, no one has explained the reason (s) why these letters were produced in a pseudonymous form by orthodox Christians when all the evidence we have tells us that pseudonymity was not regarded as acceptable in the early church, and no one has explained why all memory of when the letters were actually written and who wrote them was completely lost. [56]

J. The nature of the Gospels

If we accept the traditional authorship of the Gospels, it follows that Barton’s argument that the Gospels are not eyewitness accounts has to be seriously qualified. Matthew and John were eyewitnesses, Mark embodies the eyewitness testimony of Peter and Luke, as we know from his preface (Luke 1:1-4)  also based on his gospel on the direct testimony of eyewitnesses.

We have no external evidence that John’s Gospel was the product of a group of writers and John 14:31, which Barton sees as evidence of dislocation in the farewell discourse in chapters  14-17, can be satisfactorily explained if we:

‘suppose that after these words were spoken the Lord, with the eleven, at once finally left the house and went on the way which finally led to Gethsemane; and consequently that the discourses that follow, XV-XVII, were spoken after he had gone from the upper room and before he crossed the Kidron (XVIII.1).’[57]

The fact that the Gospels were the result of eyewitness testimony is supported by the fact that, in contrast with the apocryphal Gospels produced in the second century, the writers of the canonical Gospels reflect correctly the geography, botany, customs and linguistic usage of first century Palestine in the years before the first Jewish revolt. They get the details right, whereas later writers do not. This indicates that either the Gospel writers were personally present at the events they describe or that they were drawing on the accurate eyewitness testimony of the people who were.[58]

It is true, as Barton says, that there are differences in content and order between John and the first three Gospels, but the theological understanding of Jesus found in John is entirely in line with that found in the other three Gospels, and the chronology of Jesus’ ministry in John actually help us to make sense of the data which we find in those Gospels. Thus, as Carson notes ‘John’s report of an extensive Judaean ministry is needed to explain several features in the Synoptics, which record a fairly brief Galilean ministry (about a year) and only a few days in Jerusalem prior to Jesus’ death’ [59]

The alleged discrepancies between the first three Gospels to which Barton refers are also less significant than he supposes. The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke can be perfectly satisfactorily  harmonised as two separate but complementary accounts of what took place.[60] The accounts of the lowering of the paralytic through the roof (Mark 2:3-4, Luke 5:18-19) are compatible if we assume that Luke correctly describes the tiles being taken of the roof of a Greco-Roman style house while Mark simply says in more general terms that they ‘unroofed the roof’ (Mark 2:4). The accounts of Jesus’ response to being called ‘good teacher’ (Mark 10:17-18. Mathew 19:16-17) can likewise be reconciled if we assume that the rich young ruler originally said ‘Good teacher what good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?’ and that for their own theological purposes Mark and Matthew record Jesus’ responses to the words ‘good teacher’  and ‘good thing’ respectively.

If we accept that the traditional accounts of the authorship of the Gospels are correct this also has implications for their dating.  First, it rules out the second century  date for Luke Acts suggested by Barton. Secondly, the best explanation as to why Acts finishes with Paul’s arrival at Rome rather than the result of his subsequent travel is that Luke finished the story at the point it had reached when he wrote. This would mean that Acts needs to be dated in 62. The Gospel needs to dated earlier,  and a possible reference to Luke’s Gospel in 2 Corinthians 8:18 means that it has to be dated before 55. Given that the linguistic evidence suggests that Luke made use of Matthew and Mark this means that they in turn would need to be dated in the 40s.[61]   Barton’s preferred dates of just before the fall of Jerusalem for Mark and sometime after it for Matthew and Luke thus date the Gospels several decades too late.

There is nothing in either later tradition, or the contents of Matthew and Luke, to suggest that they were intended as replacements for Mark. The Augustinian tradition that Matthew preceded Mark is still is a viable reading of the evidence, but even if Matthew did make use Mark this does not mean that he wanted people to stop reading Mark and read only his Gospel instead. Similarly Luke’s words in the prologue to his Gospel ‘It seemed good to me also’ (Luke 1:13) indicate that he was seeking to supplement the earlier testimonies to Jesus mentioned in verses 1 and 2 rather than to replace them. Matthew and Luke are intended to be read on their own terms and not as ‘not Mark.’

Barton’s insistence that each of the Gospels offer us ‘an alternative picture of Jesus and his life and work’ is a misreading of the Gospels. We do not have to choose between them because in fact each Gospel offers us eyewitness testimony to Jesus that supplements rather than contradicts what is in the other three, both in terms of the events it describes and the theological accounts of Jesus that it offers.

Richard Hays offers a much better model for understanding the relationship between the Gospels when he writes that we should:

‘….hear their testimonies as four distinct voices singing in polyphony. If that is correct, the art of reading the Gospels is like the art of listening to choral singing. Each section in a choir must learn to hear and sing its own part. The choir director does not want everyone gravitating to sing the melody in unison; if that happens, the polyphony and the harmonic texture will be lost. So it is with the fourfold Gospel witness of the NT canon.’ [62]

Under the guidance of the Spirit, the Church canonised the four Gospels because it discerned that the text, the message, it had been given from God by the apostles included this polyphonic witness.

Furthermore, the Church believed that the polyphonic witness borne by the four Gospels, unlike the content of the later apocryphal Gospels, was historically accurate. Barton, as we have seen, challenges this conclusion, suggesting that the accounts of the virgin birth and the resurrection at least should be seen as legendary. However, there is no need to accept this suggestion.

As we have seen, there is good evidence that the Gospels contain early eyewitness testimony and  that they give an accurate account of events in Palestine prior to the first Jewish revolt. They are historical records and they stand up well as historical records. The accounts of the virgin birth and the resurrection are an integral part of these historical records and in literary terms provide exactly the  same kind of testimony as all the other narratives which the Gospels contain. There is no evidence at all that in the birth and resurrection narratives the Gospel writers decided to abandon history and depart for fantasy land.

If we accept the general historical veracity of the Gospels, we should accept the historicity of the virgin birth and the resurrection. We should accept the historical veracity of the Gospels – therefore we should accept the historicity of the virgin birth and the resurrection.

K. Barton’s account of Paul and his teaching

Barton’s insistence on contrasting the picture of Paul found in Act from that found in Paul’s letters is misleading.

First, the chronology found in Paul’s letter and that found in Acts can be harmonised in a satisfactory fashion as has been shown, for example, by N T Wright in his recent biography of Paul which utilises both the evidence from Paul and the evidence from the letters.’[63] A similar approach is also taken by the distinguished German scholar Martin Hengel in his books Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity and Paul Between Damascus and Antioch. [64]

Secondly, Acts does call Paul an apostle (Acts 14:4 and 14), it also uses the apostello root twice when describing the ministry to the Gentiles which God has given Paul (Acts 22:21, 26:17) and it has three accounts of Paul’s apostolic commissioning by the risen Christ (Acts 9:1-19, 22:1-[21, 26:2-23). The laying on of hands which Paul receives in 13:1-3 is not the point at which Acts thinks Paul becomes as apostle. It is his commissioning for a particular missionary task.

Thirdly, in both Acts and his letters Paul acknowledges, and works with, the other apostles, but in neither is he said to be subject to them.[65]

Moving on to what Barton says about Paul’s teaching, we find that this also is problematic for the following reasons.

First, Barton has seriously misunderstood Paul’s account of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.

When Paul says ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God’  (1 Corinthians 15:50) this does not mean that Paul is ruling out bodily resurrection. What it does mean is that kingdom cannot be inherited by ‘the present physical humanity (as opposed to the future one), which is subject to  sin and death.’[66]  When Paul talks about receiving a ‘spiritual body’  (1 Corinthians 15:44) he is not denying that we will have a real, resurrected physical body. What he is saying is that ‘the body we shall be given in the resurrection is to be animated by God’s own spirit.’[67]  Finally, what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:3-11 is, contra Barton,  entirely about the evidence for Jesus’ bodily resurrection as recorded in the Gospels. To quote Wright:

‘The fact that the empty tomb, so prominent in the gospel accounts, does not appear to be specifically mentioned in this passage is not significant; the mention here of ‘buried then raised’ no more needs to be amplified in that way than one would need to amplify the statement ‘I walked down the street’ with the qualification ‘on my feet.’ [68]

The reason the women are not mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15 as they are in the Gospels is because in the Church’s formal teaching to outsiders and new converts (which Paul is summarising) their testimony was omitted because the culture of the day would have seen it as unreliable.

Moving on to what Barton says about Paul’s teaching concerning the person of Christ, we find that he is wrong in two respects.

First, when he says that in 1 Corinthians 1:3, Galatians 1:3, Philippians 1:2 and 2 Corinthians 13:14 ‘Paul does not make the explicit equation Jesus = God’ he has actually misread the import of these passages. It is true that he does not explicitly call Jesus ‘God’ (though he does do so  in Romans 9:5, and Titus 2:13). However,  as 1 Corinthians 8:6 and Philippians 2:11 make clear, the use of the term ‘Lord’ which appears in all the passages that Barton cites explicitly identifies Jesus with YHWH, the Lord God of Israel. [69]  Therefore, in these passages Jesus=God.

Secondly, in saying on the basis of 1 Corinthians 15:28 that Paul has a ‘subordinationist’ Christology Barton fails to clarify what he means by this ambiguous term. If he means that Paul was ontologically subordinationist in the sense that he believed that Jesus was less than fully and truly God then the evidence we have just seen rules this out. For Paul there is one God and Jesus shares his identity. If he means that Paul was functionally subordinationist in the sense that he believed that Jesus as God the Son was subject to, and submitted to, the will of his heavenly Father, then this is correct. However,  it does not, as Barton thinks, distinguish Paul from later Trinitarian orthodoxy since the most zealous supporters of Nicene orthodoxy explicitly taught this as well.[70]

If we take seriously the fact that in Paul as in the other New Testament writings Jesus = Lord = God we are brought straight to the doctrine of the Trinity. This is because it is clear that while Jesus is God, so also is the one he called ‘Father,’ and so also is the Holy Spirit by whom he was conceived and anointed and which he poured out on his followers from the Father on the day of Pentecost. Furthermore, we cannot simply say that these are simply different names for the same God so that Jesus = Father = Holy Spirit without making nonsense of the intra-divine divine relationships which the Bible describes.

We have to say that Jesus is God, that the Father, is God, and that the Spirit is God and yet if we are to be true to biblical monotheism (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) we have to say there is only one God. The doctrine of the Trinity, one God existing as three divine persons is the only way to properly express this.

Augustine makes the point brilliantly:

‘O Lord our God, we believe in Thee, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. For the Truth would not say, Go, baptise all nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, unless thou wast a Trinity. Nor wouldest thou, O Lord God, bid us to be baptized in the name of Him who is not the Lord God. Nor would the divine voice have said, Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is one God, unless thou wert so a Trinity as to be one Lord God. And if thou, O God, wert thyself the Father, and wert thyself the Son, Thy Word Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit your gift, we should not read in the book of truth, ‘God sent his Son;’ nor wouldst Thou, O Only-begotten, say of the Holy Spirit, ‘Whom the Father will send in my name;’ and ‘Whom I will send to you from the Father.’’ [71]

Unfortunately, Barton doesn’t appear to get the point.

It is also worth noting that Barton is mistaken in his criticism of the interpretation of Proverbs 8:22 by the writers of the Patristic period. Writers such as Athanasius were correct in seeing this verse as referring to Jesus because the identity between God’s wisdom and Jesus is made clear in the New Testament both by Jesus being directly described as God’s wisdom in  Luke 11:49, 1 Corinthians 1:24, and Colossians 1 and by the way in which Jesus is God’s  agent in bringing the created order into being (John 1:2, 1 Corinthians 8:6, Colossians 1:16, Hebrews 2:10) in the same way that wisdom is God’s agent in creation in Proverbs 8. Furthermore, while Barton sees the Patristic debate about whether wisdom is described as created in Proverbs 8:22 as only making sense in terms of the Greek translation of the text rather than the Hebrew original, in fact the same issue is raised by  the Hebrew. The Hebrew verb qanah used in Proverbs 8:22 can mean either ‘created’ or ‘possessed,’ with the latter making more sense theologically since it is difficult to think coherently about God creating his own wisdom whereas it does make sense to think of wisdom as something eternally  possessed by God. In saying that Christ was the wisdom of God eternally begotten by the Father Patristic writers were thus building on rather than distorting the meaning of the original Hebrew text in Proverbs 8:22.[72]

If we go to look at what Barton says about Paul’s teaching about justification, we find that he has misunderstood what the New Perspective on Paul has to say about the matter.

What the New Perspective has stressed is that for Paul  justification was about the inclusion of Gentiles into the Church. However, it was also about the salvation of individuals from sin and death through faith in Christ. The two go together. Thus, in his commentary on  Romans James Dunn insists that Paul’s concern was indeed about the inclusion of Gentiles into the Church alongside, and on an equal basis with, Jews. However, he also comments as follows on Paul’s statement in Romans 3:26 that God is just and justifies those who have faith in Christ:

‘God’s justice can be celebrated, presumably because in dealing with sin, to punish, destroy and root it out, he displays his commitment against all that disfigures and corrupts his creation. The sacrificial system and what it expressed embodied that justice. But it also manifested God’s commitment to redeem and uphold those who trusted in him – not simply to be just, but to justify. It is this commitment of God, manifested in creation, in the choice of Israel, and in Israel’s sacrificial system, which Paul now sees as expressed most fully in Christ and in those who trust in Jesus.’ [73]

This cannot, as Barton appears to suggest, be reduced to the idea that Paul’s teaching is simply about ‘inclusion and exclusion.’ This simply does  not do justice to what either Dunn (or Paul) is saying,

Barton also fails to deal adequately with Paul’s teaching in Romans 9-11. Contrary to what Barton says, Paul’s position is these chapters is very consistent. What Paul gives us in these chapters is an extended exposition of a series of key Old Testament passages which together explain the otherwise baffling fact that God’s covenant people had rejected the promised messiah. In a very tightly integrated argument Paul argues that three truths go together (a) that God is sovereign, (b) that in his sovereignty he has grafted the Gentiles into his people and that (c) he remains faithful to his covenant with the Jewish people and that in spite of their current unbelief he will use the inclusion of the Gentiles to bring salvation to the Jews as well.

Barton’s idea that we cannot take Paul’s teaching in these chapters as authoritative but that we need ‘to think through this issue with which he himself wrestled’ is simply baffling. On what basis does Barton think that we can come to a better understanding of the matter than Paul did? What do we know that the apostle Paul did not?

Finally, in relation to Paul’s teaching on worship and ministerial  order, it is true that Paul does not give us detailed instructions about the conduct of liturgy, but this does not mean that in passages such as 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 he does not give us principles concerning the conduct of worship that we can understand and that we should obey.

On ministerial order we need to take into account the witness of all the Pauline epistles, plus Acts, plus the witness of the early church. and when we do this we find that  a coherent picture emerges in which God equips his people with a variety of spiritual gifts and forms of ministerial service  (1 Corinthians 12:4-11 , Ephesians 4:1-16), but in which there is also a basic  twofold ministerial structure of elders/bishops and deacons (Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:1-16, 5:17-22, Titus 2:5-9) which operates under the authority of the apostles and of apostolic delegates such as Timothy in Ephesus and Titus in Crete who were what the later church called bishops.

Barton’s claim that Paul ‘simply does not discuss’ these matters is simply wrong, as his claim that Hooker and Luther both held that the New Testament does not ‘prescribe any determinate system for ministry.’ Both of them in fact held that it did and that it was incumbent upon the later Church to order itself in the light of this fact.[74]

L. The Bible and the meaning of Jesus’ death

One of Barton’s further claims is that the New Testament does not give us definite teaching about  the  meaning of Jesus’ death . This also is wrong.

It is true that there are range of images that are used in the Bible to describe the significance of Jesus’  death such as redemption, justification, sacrifice, victory, reconciliation and so forth. Nevertheless, it can be argued that underlying all these images there is the simple basic truth expressed by Peter in 1 Peter 2:24: ‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.’  The ‘tree’ here is the  cross understood in the light of Deuteronomy 21:23 as the place where God’s curse upon sin is enacted and what Peter is saying is that on the cross Jesus took our place, bore our sins and died our death just as the prophet Isaiah had said he would (Isaiah 52:3). The reason he did this was that by dying for us he might bring an end to our sinful existence (‘For he who has died is freed from sin’ Romans 6:7) so that we might enter into the new life of righteousness made possible for us by his resurrection.

The images of redemption (being set free from sin and death), justification (being declared righteous in the sight of God), sacrifice (an action being taken to make reparation for our sin), victory (overcoming the spiritual powers that hold us in bondage) and reconciliation (having our relationship with God restored)  are all ways of expressing the nature or the consequence of the saving action of Jesus Christ which Peter describes.

We can thus know from the Bible what Jesus did for us. In the great words of Karl Barth:

‘In the death of Jesus Christ, God took man’s place in order to suffer in his place the destruction of sinful man and, at the same time, to realise the existence of the new sinful man. The way is therefore open to restore the lost right of men , his right to live as the creature of God. The grace of God against which man sins triumphs in Jesus Christ.’[75]

M. Jesus’ descent to the dead

A final element of traditional Christian faith which Barton thinks lacks biblical support is the affirmation in the creed that after his death Jesus ‘descended to the dead.’  However, contrary to Barton this is explicitly taught in three New Testament passages (Ephesians 4:9-10, 1 Peter 3;18-19, 1 Peter 4:6) and is also implicit in the New Testament message as a whole. This is because if Christ was truly human, and if he truly died then his soul must have separated from his body and gone to the place of the dead while his body remained in the tomb. [76] There is perhaps room for legitimate debate about what Jesus achieved while in the place of the dead, but it does seem necessary to believe that he went there.

N. The reliability of the biblical text

Barton’s last reason for doubt about the Bible concerns the reliability of the biblical text.

As we have noted Barton thinks that (a) we need to acknowledge the fact that we can never reliably know the precise words originally written by the biblical authors and therefore (b) we can never rightly appeal to ‘the exact wording of the biblical text’ since we will always be unsure about this.

What Barton does not seem to have appreciated is that taken to its logical conclusion his approach means that we can never have any confidence in the Bible at all.

This is because even if we want to appeal not to the ‘exact wording’ of the Bible but to its general sense we are still in difficulties. If we ask what the ‘general sense’ of the Bible is, the answer is that it is the overall  impression of its sense given from a study of the individual texts of which it is made up.  If, however, these individual texts are all potentially unreliable then it follows that the general sense of what the Bible says that we derive from them will also potentially be unreliable, and to exactly the same degree.

To put it simply, if we cannot trust the wording of the individual texts then we cannot trust the wording of the larger text that they make up.

Should we therefore give up in despair?  Not at all.

The first point to note is the fact that we have not got the autograph copies of any of the Biblical writings is irrelevant to the issue. As I have already noted, a text is web of words conveying meaning that can exist in any format. Therefore, a later copy that is as reliable as the autograph is essentially the same text. I do not have access to the autographs of The Lord of the Rings, but this does not lead me to believe that I cannot know what Tolkien intended to say. The copy I have on my shelves, being an accurate copy, gives me the ability to know this. What matters is not Tolkien’s autograph but what he intended to say and I do have access to this.

In the case of the Bible we are likewise not looking for the lost autographs but for the divine text, the meaning intended by God and committed by him to a biblical writer for future preservation in written form. Because in a fallen world errors creep in when written texts are transmitted, we cannot be sure that any given text is free from such error. Textual criticism therefore consists in comparing the texts we currently have available to us and by a process of comparison working out where particular texts have fallen into error. By this process we work towards creating a more reliable text, i.e. a text which is as close as we can make it to the wording originally given by God to the first human author.

If we ask where this process has got to with regard to the Old Testament the answer is that by work on copies of the Hebrew Masoretic text, on copies from other Hebrew textual traditions such as the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Dead Sea Scrolls and on copies of early translations of the Old Testament in Syriac, Greek, Latin and other ancient languages we now have a very reliable Old Testament text. As Walter Kaiser writes:

‘….it is possible to say with Bruce Waltke that over 90 percent of the Old Testament is textually sound and uniformly witnessed to us by major exemplars. Of the remaining 10 percent that exhibits any type of variation, extremely few are of such significance that they would involve any major issues.’ [77]

Furthermore, because  we know where the remaining areas of uncertainty are and what these involve, we are in a position to make informed decisions about them. In addition we can be confident that we now have representative examples of the textual tradition so it is not likely that future discoveries will change the current situation in any major way.

What all this means is that can have a very high degree of confidence that we can know the message which God wanted to convey through the Old Testament text. A final point worth noting in this regard is that in the words of Wenham ‘…Our Lord himself (in the case of the Old testament) has set us an example by taking his own medicine.[78] Jesus trusted the text of the  Old Testament as the vehicle of God’s communication and so therefore should we.

Textual criticism of the New Testament runs along the same lines as its Old Testament counterpart, using various different families of Greek texts and early versions in other languages to try to establish the most reliable form of the text. As Kostenberger and Kruger note, we can make four key points about the results of this critical work:

  • ‘We have good reasons to think the original text is preserved (somewhere) in the overall textual tradition.
  • The vast majority of scribal changes are minor and insignificant.
  • Of the small proportion of variations that are significant, our text-critical methodology can determine, with a reasonable degree of certainty, which is the original text.
  • The remaining number of truly unresolved variants is very few and not material to the story/ teaching of the New Testament.’[79]

As they go onto say:

‘When we recognize not only how few unresolved variants exist but also how little they impact the overall story of the New Testament, then we can have confidence that the message of the New Testament has been sufficiently preserved for the church. All the teaching of the New Testament – whether regarding the person of Jesus (divinity and humanity), the  work of Jesus (his life, death and resurrection), the application of his work to the believer (justification, sanctification, glorification), or other doctrines – are left unaffected by the remaining textual variants … the manuscript tradition is more than adequate. It is so very close to the originals that there is no material difference between what, say, Paul or John wrote and what we possess today.’ [80]

What all this means is that Barton’s doubts about the reliability of the text are unfounded. We can trust the particulars of the biblical text and therefore trust the text’s overall message.

  1. Why the car is still intact

What, then, can we say about the Bible?

First, we have an extremely reliable biblical text. In both the Old and New Testaments we can know with a very high degree of confidence what the text originally said.

Secondly, what we learn by looking at Jesus’ teaching and practice and the history of the early church is that that the Old and New Testament canons accepted by Protestant churches (including the Church of England) since the Reformation contain the books God intended to be canonical

Thirdly, what we learn by looking at Jesus’ teaching and practice is that the these, books individually and together, carry God’s own authority. What these texts say, God says. The doctrine of the verbal inspiration is thus not something marginal, but  central to a proper estimation of the Bible.

Fourthly, as Christian interpreters have always said, what we find in these texts is a massive story arc running from Genesis to Revelation which tells how God acted in Jesus Christ to fulfil God’s promise to rescue humanity and the whole created order from the ravages of sin and death.

Fifthly, the doctrine of the Trinity arises necessarily out of the biblical text as an accurate description of the identity of the God who reveals himself in this story arc.

Sixthly, because these texts are intended to fit together by God as a whole, an ultimately unharmonious reading of the biblical text is a bad reading of the text. Just as you know you are not  doing a jigsaw right if a piece doesn’t fit in with the other pieces, so you are not reading the Bible right if you are not reading it in such a way that all the pieces fit together.[81]

Seventhly, what the text says theologically, and what we know from other fields of study, both lead us to believe in the historical accuracy of the biblical material. The Bible is not a coherent but fictional text like The Lord of the Rings. It is a coherent text that declares what really took place, even if this is sometimes depicted in symbolic fashion.

Eighthly, a good way of seeing the Bible is as a script for a drama.  Some acts have already been performed and we know what the overall ending will be, but we as individuals and collectively as the Church of God have to improvise our parts in the light of the earlier acts and under the  guidance of the Spirit as our director.[82] We don’t always do this well (which is the element of truth in Barton’s claim that the circles of the Bible and the Church’s teaching and practice are not identical), but we are called to always try to do better so that the circles overlap more and more.

In summary, to re- use Green’s image, the car is still intact. What the Church has always believed about the Bible and its meaning can still be said to be correct. Barton has not proved his case to the contrary. The challenge we face is to use the car to go in the direction God wants

M B Davie  7.7.2020

[1] For him ‘absolute allegiance to Christ’ and the belief that ‘God was in Christ’ are examples of matters that are non-negotiable (p.488).

[2] There are, for example, forty one pages of notes and eighteen pages of bibliography.

[3] Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (London: SCM, 1996)

[4] Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis  (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970).

[5] The quotation is from The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, 2:8.

[6] Oliver O’Donovan, On the Thirty Nine Articles, (Exeter: Paternoster: 1986), p.56.

[7] See the Preface to C S Lewis, Mere Christianity (Glasgow: Fount, 1984) and his Introduction to The Incarnation of the Word of God (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1944).

[8] Michael Green (ed), The Truth of God Incarnate (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1977).

[9] John Hick (ed), The Myth of God Incarnate (London: SCM, 1977).

[10] John Wenham, Christ and the Bible (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1979), p.37. For the detailed evidence behind this claim see Wenham, Ch.1 and R T France, Jesus and the Old Testament (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2000).

[11] John Stott, Understanding the Bible (London: Scripture Union, 1973), p. 191.

[12] Stott, p.191.

[13] Stott, pp.191-192.

[14] Stott, pp.192-193.

[15] Stott, p.200.

[16] Stott, pp.200-201.

[17] Stott, p.201.

[18] Stott, p.201. For a more detailed consideration of these points see Wenham, chapters 2-3.

[19] Stott, p.201.

[20] For details see Roger Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church (London: SPCK,

1984). Beckwith explains that the non-Canonical texts found at Qumran were not additional books of Scripture but interpretations of the books found in the existing Jewish Canon (pp.358-366).

[21] A helpful list of quotes and allusions can be found at ‘Parallel passages in New Testament quoted from OldTestament’ at  https://www.blueletterbible.org/study/misc/quotes.cfm .

[22] Beckwith, p.220.

[23] Beckith pp.112-115.

[24] A comparison with Josephus, Contra Apionem 1:8 is illuminating here. Josephus feels he has to explain to his non-Jewish audience the contents and rationale of the Jewish Canon of Scripture, whereas Luke feels that no such explanation is necessary.

[25] Peter Leithhart, The Gospel of Matthew Through New Eyes Volume One: Jesus as Israel (Monroe: Athanasius Press, 2017), Kindle edition, Loc. 588.

[26] Leithart, Loc.548.

[27] Leithart, Loc. 175.

[28] For this point see Timothy Ward, Words of Life (Nottingham: IVP, 2009).

[29] I owe this point to Peter Williams in his  lecture ‘Can we know the exact words of God?’ which can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dTGJRIeFzPc.

[30] J R R Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (London: Book Club Associates, 1980), p.235.

[31] Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1981) and The Art of Biblical  Poetry (New York, Basic Books, 2011).

[32] Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (London: SCM 1979).

[33] David Dorsey,  The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis-Malachi (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004).

[34] Stephen Demptster, Dominion and Dynasty – A theology of the Old Testament (Nottingham & Downers Grove: Apollos/Inter Varsity Press, 2003) p, 91. This point is also picked up by Matthew when he includes Tamar in Jesus’ genealogy  in Matthew 1:3.

[35] Beckwith, p.105.

[36] Peter Leithart, A House for My Name – A survey of the Old Testament, (Moscow: Canon Press, 2018) Kindle edition, Loc. 3993.

[37] N T Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God (London: SPCK, 2005), p.26.

[38] Dempster, p.231.

[39] Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah  (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993), p.46.

[40] Ernest Lucas, Proverbs (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), p211.

[41] Kenneth Kitchen, On the reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), pp.499-500.

[42] C S Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Glasgow: Fontana, 1978), p.62.

[43] For this point see William Lane Craig, ‘Doctrine of Creation (Part 1)’ at https://www.reasonablefaith.org/podcasts/defenders-podcast-series-2/s2-doctrine-of-creation/doctrine-of-creation-part-1/  and in more detail Claus Westerman, Genesis 1-11 (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1990) pp.74-173, and Paul Copan and William Lane Craig , Creation Out of Nothing (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004).

[44] Michael Kruger, Canon Revisited (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2012) Kindle edition,  Loc. 4859.

[45] Kruger, Loc.4859.

[46] Kruger, Loc. 4859.

[47] Kruger, Loc.4908.

[48] Andreas Kostenberger, and Michael Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy (Nottingham: Apollos, 2010), p.249.

[49] C E Hill, ‘The debate over the Muratorian Fragment and the Development of the Canon,’  Westminster Theological Journal 57:2 (Fall 1995), pp, 437-452.

[50] A translation of the Muratorian Fragment can be found at  http://www.bible-researcher.com/muratorian.html

[51] Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament  (Oxford: OUP, 1997), pp.135-141.

[52] Wenham p.123.

[53] Dempster, p.232.

[54] See for example  John Wenham, Redating, Matthew, Mark and Luke (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1991, Don Carson, The Gospel According to John (Leicester and Grand Rapids: Apollos/Eerdmans, 1991), Brant Pitre The case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Jesus Christ (New York: Image, 2016) and Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006)

[55] As Stanley Porter has argued, there is good reason to think that Jesus not only talked in Greek, but even taught in Greek (‘Did Jesus ever teach in Greek?,’ Tyndale Bulletin, 44.2, 1993, pp. 199-235). If this was the case, there is no reason to think that people like Peter, James and Jude could not have written letters in Greek, particularly if they had the help of Greek speaking scribes.

[56] Helpful discussions of the matter can be found in Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (Downers Grove Inter Varsity Press, 1990), Don Carson and Douglas Moo, An Introduction  to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005) and Andreas Kostenberger, L. Scott Kellum and Charles Quarles. The Cradle, the Cross and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009).

[57] B F Westcott, The Gospel According to John (London: John Murray, 1924), p.210.

[58] For this point see Peter Williams, Can we Trust the Gospels? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), Ch.3.

[59] Carson, p. 52.

[60] See for example J Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ (London: James Clarke, 1958), Ch. VIII.

[61] Wenham, Redating, Matthew, Mark and Luke, Ch. 12.

[62] Richard Hays, Reading Backwards – Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (London: SPCK , 2015), p. 95.

[63] Tom Wright, Paul – A Biography  (London: SPCK, 2020).

[64] Martin Hengel, Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2003) and Paul between Damascus and Antioch (London: SCM, 2012).

[65] For a good overview of the issue of the depiction of Paul in Acts and in his letters see F F Bruce ‘Is the Paul of Acts the Real Paul?,’ Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 58, 1976, pp. 282-305.

[66] N T Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (London: SPCK, 2003), p.359.

[67] Tom Wright, Paul for everyone, I Corinthians (London: SPCK, 2003), p.221.

[68] Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, p.321.

[69] See Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2008), pp.100-102 and 197-210.

[70] For the evidence for this assertion see Michael Ovey, Your Wiil Be Done (London: Latimer Trust, 2016).

[71] Augustine, On the Trinity  XV:28 in  The Nicene & Post Nicene Fathers Vol III (Edinburgh and Grand Rapids: T&T Clark/ Eerdmans 1998), p.227.

[72] For the Patristic interpretation of Proverbs 8 see Matthew Emerson ‘The Role of Proverbs 8: Eternal Generation and Hermeneutics Ancient and Modern’ in Fred Sanders and Scott Swain, eds., Retrieving Eternal Generation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2017), pp.44-66.

[73] James Dunn, Romans (Oxford: BRF, 2001), p. 49.

[74] For Hooker see The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity Bk VII, and for Luther see Dorothea Wendebourg, ‘The Reformation in Germany and the Episcopal Office’ in  Visible Unity and the Ministry of Oversight (London: Church House Publishing, 1997), pp. 49-78.

[75] Karl Barth, Learning Jesus Christ Through the Heidelberg Catechism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), pp.72-73.

[76] For a helpful discussion of the evidence on this point see E Harold Browne, An Exposition of the Thirty Nine Articles (London: John Parker 1860), pp. 78-97.

[77] Walter Kaiser, The Old Testament Documents, Are they Reliable & Relevant? (Downers Grove and Leicester: Inter Varsity Press, 2001), p. 49.

[78] Wenham, Christ and the Bible, p,.186.

[79] Kostenberger and Kruger, p. 205.

[80] Kostenberger and Kruger, p.228.

[81] Just like with a jigsaw puzzle you also have to make all the pieces fit together. Even if there are things in the Bible, like the destruction of the Canaanites, or the more lurid bits of Revelation, that we might feel tempted  to leave out of the picture, God has put them into the picture for a reason and we have to make canonical sense of them. Barton’s idea that there are things in the Bible that do not (or should not matter to us) is thus a non- starter.

[82] See Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine (Westminster: John Knox press, 2005).

A basic Christian primer on sex, marriage and family life. Article 13 – Birth control and infertility treatment.

God’s command to have children

As we have noted repeatedly in the course of this series of articles, for human beings to live rightly means for them to live in the light of the fact that they have been created by God as men and women, in his image, and after his likeness (Genesis 1:26-27). In the final article in this series we shall look at what this means in relation to the two issues of birth control and infertility treatment.

Having declared that human beings have been created by God in his image and likeness, the Book of Genesis immediately goes on to say that, as those who have created in this way, human beings are called by God to reproduce. In the words of Genesis 1:28:

‘And God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; 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.’’

As the second half of this verse indicates, for human beings to live as God’s image bearers involves them acting as God’s stewards, ruling over the rest of creation on God’s behalf, and in order for this to happen each successive generation of human beings is called to beget more human beings to fulfil this calling (hence the command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’).

What Genesis also goes to say, is that God created marriage between one man and one woman to be the context in which the command to be fruitful and multiply is to be fulfilled. That is how it was with the first humans, Adam and Eve (Genesis 4:1-2, 4:25, 5:1-3) and that is how it is mean to be ever thereafter.

Birth control

Given that human beings have been commanded by God to beget children within marriage the questions that then arise are  (a) whether it is ever right for a husband and wife to deliberately restrict the number of children they have and (b) if they may do this, what means they may legitimately use to achieve such a restriction.

The answer to (a) is that there may be morally good reasons for a married couple to restrict the number of children they have, because of the particular circumstances of their lives, or the particular vocations to which God has called them. Examples of such reasons would be the health of the mother, the well-being of existing children, or a call to a form of ministry or service that could not be satisfactorily combined with parenthood.

The answer to (b) is that there are number of means for restricting the number of children that do not raise any moral problems. This is true of what is known as ‘natural family planning’ based on sexual abstinence and the natural cycle of female fertility. It is also true of ‘barrier’ methods such as the use of condoms, diaphragms, cervical caps or spermicidal sponges that prevent the fertilisation of an egg by a sperm, and of male or female sterilisation in situations where there are morally justifiable reasons for preventing pregnancy altogether. 

However, there are moral problems with methods of birth control such as the abortion pill (RU 146) which is specifically designed to abort an existing embryo and with the use of hormonal contraceptives such as the birth control pill, intrauterine devices (IUDs) using copper, and emergency contraception  (the so-called ‘morning after’ pill), which may have the effect causing embryos to perish by lessening the chance of an embryo implanting successfully in the lining of the womb.

The reason such methods of birth control are morally problematic is because it seems clear that God has so designed the human race that human life begins at the point where a woman’s egg is fertilised by a man’s sperm. To quote Sean Doherty:

‘Fertilisation is when a new human life begins physically. A fertilised egg is not a part of the father or the mother in the way that the sperm or the egg  were—something new has begun. No new beginning takes place after this: all that ensues is the natural development of the new life that has already begun.’[1]

If human life begins at fertilisation, then the deliberate destruction of the embryo through the use of the abortion pill is certainly morally unacceptable, and the use of methods of birth control that may prevent implantation of the embryo also raises serious moral questions. Is the risk of preventing the implantation of an embryo, even if it is very small, a risk worth taking given that the destruction of a human life would be involved and that other methods of birth control are available? [2]

Treatments for infertility

As well as couples who wish to restrict the number of children that they will have, there are also couples who would like to obey God’s command to ‘be fruitful and multiply, but who, like Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 15-21) , Elkanah and Hannah  (1 Samuel 1) and Zechariah and Elizabeth (and Luke 1-2),  have problems with conceiving any children at all.

In this situation there are no moral objections to medical intervention which is designed to allow a married couple to conceive through sexual intercourse. This would include surgery to clear a blockage in a man’s testicles, or a woman’s fallopian tubes, the use of drugs to aid or stimulate ovulation, or even a womb transplant. In all these cases the aim is to try to counteract a disorder resulting from the Fall so that conception may then place as normal.

There also seems to be no moral objection in principle to forms of fertility treatment in which a husband’s sperm and a wife’s egg are artificially brought together before being implanted into the wife so that pregnancy and birth may then follow. This is still a form of sexual conception involving a husband and wife even though the circumstances of the conception are abnormal.

However, there are three forms of infertility treatment that are morally problematic.

The first is conception using sperm or eggs from someone other than the husband or wife. The problem with this is that it severs the link intended by God between the sexual relationship of a husband and a wife and the birth of children. In the words of Oliver O’Donovan: ‘This is a knot tied by God, which men should not untie.’ [3]

The second is those forms of artificial conception that result in a surplus of embryos which are either destroyed or frozen. If, as we saw above, life begins at fertilization,  this is deeply troubling because it means that human beings are being deliberately destroyed  or left indefinitely in freezers.

The third is the use of a surrogate mother to carry, and give birth to, an artificially conceived child. This is morally problematic because:

  • Surrogacy very often involves the commercial exploitation of vulnerable women: [4]
  • Even when this is not the case, surrogacy breaks the God designed nexus between marriage, conception, pregnancy and birth. As before this is a knot tied by God which we should not untie.
  • Surrogacy can very often result in deep emotional distress to the birth mother due to her having to give up the baby she has carried and to which she has given birth and with whom she has formed a strong emotional bond. [5]

In conclusion

What all this means in practice is that however valid our reasons for wishing to restrict or avoid pregnancy and however deep our wish to have children we have to take into account the moral issues relating to birth control and infertility treatment sketched out in this article.

As human beings we cannot simply do what we want and what is now technologically possible. We can only rightly do that which accords with God’s will by respecting God’s general call to his human creatures to ‘be fruitful and multiply,’ the God given dignity of all human life from the moment it comes into existence, and the God given link between procreation and the sexual union between a husband and wife in marriage.


[1] Sean Doherty,  The Only Way is Ethics, Part 2: Life and Death (Milton Keynes, Authentic Media, 2016), p.13. 

[2] It is also worth noting that even if one is not entirely certain when human life begins, if the point of fertilisation is a possibility, then one would have an obligation n to act as if it did begin at that point (in the same way that one would have to act on the possibility that someone was trapped in a burning building).360 The same moral issues relating to birth control would therefore apply

[3] Oliver O’Donovan, Begotten or Made? (Oxford: OUP. 1984), p.17.

[4] See Kathleen Sloan,  ‘Trading on the Female Body: Surrogacy, Exploitation, and Collusion by the US Government,’  Public Discourse, 25 April, 2017 at https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2017/04/19109/

[5] Where there is both conception outside of the married relationship between husband and wife and surrogacy, as in the case of Adam and Ian on the Archers, this is doubly problematic.

Wayne Grudem’s new proposal on divorce – a response.

In my previous article on divorce and re-marriage I argued that 1 Corinthians 7:15 allows for divorce only in the specific circumstance of a divorce initiated by an unbelieving spouse. This traditional reading of the text has recently been challenged by the veteran American Evangelical scholar Wayne Grudem. In this paper I respond to this challenge.

In his paper ‘Grounds for Divorce: Why I Now Believe There Are More Than Two – An Argument for Including Abuse in the Phrase “In Such Cases” in 1 Corinthians 7:15,’ which was first delivered at the meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in November 2019,  Grudem suggests that 1 Corinthians 7:15 shows that spousal abuse should be regarded as an additional legitimate ground for divorce alongside adultery and divorce by an unbelieving spouse.[1]

Grudem’s proposal

His proposal is that divorce on the grounds of spousal abuse should be regarded as morally permissible:

‘… in situations where one spouse is repeatedly inflicting substantial harm on the other spouse, such that the abused spouse must leave the home for self-protection, and also in other situations that are similarly destructive to a marriage.’

He further states that: ‘This ‘substantial harm’ could be physical or mental/emotional (from verbal and relational cruelty).’

The basis on which he makes this proposal is the argument that in 1 Corinthians 7:15b the Greek phrase ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις , translated ‘in such a case’ in the RSV, ‘in such circumstances’ in the NIV and ‘in such cases’ in the ESV, should be translated as ‘in this and other similarly destructive cases.’ According to Grudem, if we translate 1 Corinthians 15b in this way, the particular case of the desertion of a Christian by an unbelieving spouse which Paul discusses in 1 Corinthians 7:12-15a becomes merely one among a range of cases in which a spouse’s action destroys a marriage and divorce is then legitimate, and spousal abuse should be regarded as such a case.

He offers three reasons for reading 1 Corinthians 7:15 in this way.

First, there are many examples from extra-biblical Greek literature in which the phrase ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις refers to a range of cases illustrated by one example.

Secondly, the writers of the New Testament use phrases such as  τὸν τοιοῦτον, ὁ τοιοῦτος, or ἐν τούτῳ,  when they are referring to only one specific example and therefore Paul’s use of  ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις in 1 Corinthians 7:15 must therefore refer to a range of examples as is the case in the extra-biblical literature previously mentioned.

Thirdly, the range of cases illustrated by the case of desertion by an unbelieving spouse must be cases in which a spouse takes action destructive of a marriage, since this what the illustration refers to. Spousal abuse would count as such a case because it too is destructive of a marriage.

Why Grudem’s proposal is implausible

What are we to make of this argument?

  • Grudem is right to say that spousal abuse is something which Christians need to take with the utmost seriousness.
  • Grudem is correct in what he says about the use of ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις in the extra-biblical literature he quotes[2] and about the phrases the New Testament writers use to refer to a single person or thing.
  • Nevertheless, Grudem is wrong to say that in 1 Corinthians 7:15 the phrase ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις in refers to a range of cases beyond desertion by an unbelieving spouse.

In order to understand why Grudem is wrong at point (c ) we need to note, first of all, that in the extra-biblical texts quoted by Grudem which use the phrase ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις the reason a range of cases wider than the one specifically referred to in the text needs to be inferred is that this is necessary in order to make sense of what the text is saying.

We can see this, for example, if we look at the first two these texts, which Grudem cites as follows:

‘1. PHILO JUDAEUS Phil. De vita Mosis 1.38, line 1 (lib. i-ii) {0018.022} (1 B.C.-A.D. 1)

[When the Egyptians discovered that their all their firstborn sons and firstborn cattle had been killed:] And, as so often happens in such circumstances (ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις), they thought that their present condition was but the beginning of greater evils, and were filled with fear of the destruction of those who still lived.

Specific example:  10th plague on Egypt and death of the firstborn sons.

“in such cases”: any kind of sudden tragic event. (clearly broader than the specific example named)

2. EURIPIDES Trag. Troiades [The Trojan Women] {0006.011} Line 303   c. 480-c. 406 BC

What are they doing? Are they firing the chambers, [300] because they must leave this land and be carried away to Argos? Are they setting themselves aflame in their longing for death? Truly the free bear their troubles in cases like this (ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις), with a stiff neck.

Specific example:  captured people who are about to be carried into exile

“in such cases”: any case where someone faces a sudden loss of freedom or even loss of life.’

In both these texts, the clue that a wider range of cases has to be inferred is that one example is cited, but the  phrase ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις, which contains two plural pronouns,[3] is then used. What has to be explained is why plural pronouns are used to refer to a single case, and the most sensible explanation is that this is because the single case is an example of a whole range of other, similar, cases.

In the text from Philo the one example is the discovery by the Egyptians of the death of the first-born sons and cattle, and the plural pronouns only make sense if they refer to circumstances which include, but are not limited to, this example.  In the text from Euripides the one example is the actions of the Trojan women at the fall of Troy and again the plural pronouns only make sense if they refer to circumstances which include, but are not limited to this, example.

A similar pattern can be found in the other six texts Grudem cites.

By contrast, in 1 Corinthians 7:15b the plural pronouns are used to refer to the two specific situations which Paul has set out in 1 Corinthians 7:12-15a. The reason the pronouns are plural is because the situations are plural.

We can see this if we look at 1 Corinthians 7:12-15 as a whole. In the ESV these verses run as follows:

‘12 To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called youto peace.’

In these verses, situation one (v 12) is when a male Christian has an unbelieving wife and situation two (v 13) is when a female Christian has an unbelieving husband. In these two situations, says Paul, for the reasons set out in v 14, the Christian husband or wife should not initiate divorce if the spouse consents to live with them. However, should the unbelieving spouse separate (i.e. divorce them) then these two  situations change (v 15a) and ‘in such cases’ (ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις,) they are free to re-marry (v 15vb) .[4]

Because the plural pronouns and the two situations previously mentioned  (what grammarians  call the ‘antecedent’) match up there are no grounds for the suggestion that Paul has other grounds for divorce in mind. The antecedent is what Paul has in mind.

In the words of Ed Dingess in his revuew of Grudem’s paper:

‘The antecedent of ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις is τὶς [‘any’] up in v.12. Paul says if any brother or sister has an unbelieving spouse who is content to dwell with them, they must NOT put that person away. This indefinite pronoun is inherently plural. It refers to a category of people: believers with unbelieving spouses. The indefinite pronoun is clearly implied in 7:15 where the category is now believing spouses who are being divorced by unbelieving spouses. This category is also plural: there is more than one case where a believing spouse is being divorced by an unbelieving spouse. This is the best explanation  for why Paul employs ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις rather than ἐν τούτῳ.’[5]

The other use of the demonstrative pronoun τοιούτος in 1 Corinthians 7 supports this reading of 1 Corinthians 7:15. In the first half of 1 Corinthians 7:28 Paul declares that a man who marries does not sin and if a woman marries she does not sin either. However, he then goes on to say that ‘those people’ (τοιούτοι) who marry will have worldly troubles from which Paul wishes to spare them.  The nominative plural pronoun  τοιούτοι in the second half of the verse matches the two types of people  referred to in the first half of the verse, and so translators rightly conclude that Paul has the same set of people in mind. That is why the RSV, NIV and ESV all translate τοιούτοι as ‘those who marry.’  Here again we see the principle that the match between the pronoun and the antecedent shows what Paul meant.

A similar usage occurs in 1 Corinthians 16:16 where the plural pronouns τοῖς τοιούτοις (this time without the preceding  ἐν)  refer to the plural antecedents in the previous verse, the members of the household of Stephanas and is translated as ‘such people’ in the RSV and NIV and ‘such as these’ in the ESV.

The reason  why in 1 Corinthians 7:15b Paul does not use the phrases typically used in the New Testament to refer to a single person or thing is simple. He is not referring to a single thing, but to two things, the two situations previously mentioned.

For these reasons Grudem’s proposed reading of 1 Corinthians 7:15 is implausible.

Furthermore, even if we were to accept that 1 Corinthians 7:15b , refers to grounds for divorce other than those specified in 1 Corinthians 7:15a, this would not prove that one of the grounds that Paul had in mind was spousal abuse. The (correct)  judgement that spousal abuse is a truly dreadful thing does not prove that it is what Paul had in mind. There would need to be other evidence to show this and such evidence does not exist. Nowhere in the New Testament, either in the writings of Paul or elsewhere, is abuse specified as legitimate ground for divorce.

It follows that divorce on the grounds on spousal abuse cannot be plausibly argued on the basis of 1 Corinthians 7:15.

M B Davie 18.5.2020


[1] His paper can be found at http://www.waynegrudem.com/grounds-for-divorce-why-i-now-believe-there-are-more-than-two/.

[2] It should be noted that Grudem explains that he has sampled 52 examples out of 617 potentially relevant texts in the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae and only quotes eight of these. This does raise questions about how representative his sample was and how representative of this sample his quotations are. Nevertheless, the texts he quotes say what he says they say.

[3] As Marg Mowczko explains, the grammatical construction of ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις is as follows:

‘En (ἐν) is a common preposition that often means “in.” It occurs over 2700 times in the New Testament and always takes nouns, etc, in the dative case.) Tois (τοῖς) is a dative plural neuter pronoun and is translated as“cases” in 1 Cor. 7:15. The dictionary form of τοῖς is ὁ. This pronoun in its various declensions occurs over 20,000 times in the NT Toioutois (τοιούτοις) is a dative plural neuter correlative adjective, sometimes called a demonstrative pronoun, meaning “such.” ‘  (Marg Mowczko  ‘A Critique of Wayne Grudem’s “Grounds for Divorce”’  at https://margmowczko.com/wayne-grudem-abuse-is-grounds-for-divorce/#_ftn6)

[4] Verse 14 is a parenthetical clause that explains the reasons what has been said in verse 12-13. The main argument runs from 12 & 13-15. Wives should not divorce their husbands, or husbands their wives, but the situation changes when an unbelieving husband or wife initiates a divorce, In such cases etc…

[5] Ed Digness, ‘A Response to Wayne Grudem’s Shifting Doctrinal Stance on Marriage and Divorce’  at https://reformationcharlotte.org/2019/12/09/a-response-to-wayne-grudems-shifting-doctrinal-stance-on-marriage-and-divorce/