The Reading and the News

There was a disturbing juxtaposition last week between the Old Testament reading set for Morning Prayer on Tuesday and what was being reported on the news.

The news last week was full of expressions of outrage against the actions of the Sunni militants belonging to the Islamic State in Iraq who have been busily engaged in killing Yazidis, Christians, Shiite Muslims and anyone else whom they do not like. There were innumerable Christian voices in the press and on social media sites saying that what these militants were doing was simply wrong and that action needed to be taken to stop it.

In the light of this last Tuesday’s Old Testament reading was particularly uncomfortable because it was 1 Samuel 15:1-23, which is the story of how God deposed Saul from being king over Israel because he was insufficiently thorough in his slaughter of the Amalekites.

At the start of this reading God gives Saul a direct and unequivocal command through the prophet Samuel: ‘Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.’ (1 Samuel 15:3)

The reason Saul proves himself to be unworthy to be King of Israel is because he and the people with him do not fully obey this command. In 1 Samuel 15:9 we are told:

‘Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them; all that was despised and worthless they utterly destroyed.’

When Samuel finds out about this failure of obedience he declares in verses 22-23:

‘Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king.’

These verses are quite frequently quoted as proof text to show the superiority of moral obedience over cultic ritual, but in their original context what they are saying is that when God says ‘kill them all’ he really means it and expects to be obeyed.

The reason that this reading is disturbing when read alongside last week’s news about what was going on Iraq, is that it seems to suggest that the Old Testament supports the kind of violence being meted out by the fighters of the Islamic State. There are two issues here: (1) Why does God command the complete destruction of the Amalekites and their livestock? (2) Doesn’t this story give sanction to people engaging in this sort of slaughter today?

To begin to address the first issue we have to understand who the Amalekites were. Amalek was the grandson of Esau (Genesis 36:12 & 16) and the Amalekites were his descendants. In spite of this kinship with the people of Israel, the Amalekites continually attack the people of Israel and try to destroy them. This happens for the first time just after the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 17:-16), happens again at the time of Israel’s first abortive attempt to enter the Promised Land (Numbers 14:45) and happens twice more during the period of the Judges (Judges 3:13 and Judges 6-7). Centuries later, it was also a descendent of the Amalekites, Haman the Agagite, who made one last attempt to wipe out the people of Israel during the period of the Persian Empire (Esther 3:1-6).

This means that as far as Israel was concerned the Amalekites were extremely bad news. As the Australian writer John Allister puts it:

‘The Amalekites weren’t just any old people. They were the nation who more than any other tried to destroy Israel. They had been trying to eradicate and plunder Israel from the very birth of Israel, 200-400 years before the command in in 1 Samuel 15, and they would continue for another 600 years.’

Furthermore, by trying to eradicate Israel to Amalekites were seeking to derail God’s cosmic plan.

As Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God himself is three Persons who are united with each other in love and he desires to share that loving unity first of all with his Church (John 17:20-23) and then ultimately, through Christ, with the whole of the creation. As Kallistos Ware puts it in his book The Orthodox Way

‘To love means to share, as the doctrine of the Trinity has so clearly shown us: God is not just one but one-in-three, because he is a communion of persons who share in love with one another. The circle of divine love, however, has not remained closed. God’s love is, in the literal sense of the word, ‘ecstatic’ – a love that causes God to go out from himself and to create things other than himself. By voluntary choice God created the world in ‘ecstatic’ love, so that there might be besides himself other beings to participate in the life and the love that are his.’

God’s purpose in creation is thus that of love. God wills to share with his creation that eternal relationship of love in which He Himself exists by uniting all things in heaven and on earth to himself through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:10). However we should not be misled by sentimental human ideas of love into thinking that because God’s purpose is one of love this means that God will not insist on having things his way and will allow his purpose to be frustrated.

On the contrary, as Paul says in Ephesians 1:11, God: ‘accomplishes all things according to the council of his will’. God’s love is the ultimate ‘tough love’. It is a love that will brook no obstacle in achieving the goal which it intends. And, indeed, as the 19th century Scottish theologian George MacDonald maintains, it is in the very nature of love, properly understood, that it has this inexorable quality.

‘Nothing is inexorable but love. Love which will yield to prayer is imperfect and poor. Nor is it then the love that yields, but its alloy…For love loves unto purity. Love has ever in view the absolute loveliness of that which it beholds. Where loveliness is incomplete, and love cannot love its fill of loving, it spends itself to make more lovely, that it may love more; it strives for perfection, even that itself may be perfected – not in itself, but in the object…Therefore all that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes between and is not of love’s kind, must be destroyed. And our God is a consuming fire.’

The existence of the people of Israel was an integral part of the achievement of God’s loving purposes. It was through Israel that ‘all the nations of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 12:3) because it was through Israel that the knowledge of the true God would be maintained in a fallen world and because it was as an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, that Jesus would be born as a human baby to be the promised saviour of the world.

What follows from all this is that the destruction of the Amalekites was a necessary part of God’s inexorable loving purposes. To quote John Allister again:

‘The situation in I Samuel 15 is that God knew the Amalekites. He knew they were a nation that had rejected a part in God’s plan to bless the world. He knew that their actions for hundreds of years had been set on destroying and stopping God’s plan to bless the world. He knew that if they weren’t destroyed, they would continue to try to stop his plan. And in fact, they weren’t destroyed and they did continue to try to thwart God’s plan, so he was proved right by that.

It’s an issue of protection. If the Amalekite army had been defeated once in battle and left to retreat, they would have come back eventually. It would have been limited protection for a limited time. But what God wants is total protection for his plan to bless the world, forever. Without total destruction of the Amalekites, they were going to keep on coming back, and God’s plan would not be safe.’

It also needs to be noted that, like Rahab and her family at the time of the fall of Jericho (Joshua 2:1-21 and 6:22-25), individual Amalekites had the opportunity to renounce their Amalekite identity and align themselves with God’s purposes. They had the opportunity to save themselves and their families if they chose to do. In addition the destruction of Amalekite livestock was to make it clear that the destruction of the Amalekites was a holy action designed to protect Israel and not an opportunity for the Israelites to enrich themselves by getting hold of other people’s possessions.

As John Goldingay writes, God’s command to Saul in 1 Samuel 15:3 is therefore precise and limited: ‘If anyone – man, woman, child or whoever – doesn’t take the chance to give up their identity as Amalekites and therefore also their opposition to Israel, then kill them. And make sure that you don’t profit from doing it.’

Paradoxical though it may seem, God’s command to destroy the Amalekites is thus an act of merciful love designed to further God’s saving purposes, purposes with which individual Amalekites were free to align themselves. God commands the destruction of the Amalekites not because he is not loving, but precisely because he is. The story in I Samuel 15 is thus one more biblical witness to the love of God and also an awful warning to those who choose to reject God’s love of the destruction that they are bringing upon themselves both in this world and the world to come. Like Agag they should not kid themselves that they can escape God’s judgment (1 Samuel 15:32-33).

An objection might be made at this point that the Amalekites are being used by God as the means to an end. God sacrifices the Amalekites in order to achieve his loving purposes for the world as a whole. However, this objection does not take into account the fact that God’s purposes are to make eternal salvation possible through the death of Christ for every human being that there has ever been or ever will be, ‘One has died for all’ (2 Cor 5:14). This means that the destruction of the Amalekites was for the benefit of the Amalekites themselves because it made eternal salvation possible for any of them who were saveable.  The Amalekites were therefore the end as well as the means. They too were part of the world that God loved and Christ dies to save.

Because this is the theological meaning of the story of the destruction of the Amalekites it follows that it does not provide a warrant for acts of killing today.  This is because the group that did the killing would have to have the same place in God’s purposes of salvation as the people of Israel in the Old Testament and would also need a direct command from God that authorized them to take such action and there is no contemporary situation where both these conditions can be met. There is nothing in the New Testament that authorizes God’s people to exercise God’s on any group of people the same sort of judgment that Saul was called to exercise on the Amalekites.

In the case of the killings currently being undertaken by Islamic State there is a further issue. The goal for which these killings are being undertaken, the creation of renewed Islamic Caliphate, is itself contrary to God’s purposes because it is rooted in desire to propagate a theology which explicitly rejects belief in Jesus Christ as the saviour of the world. Islamic State’s activities are thus doubly wrong. They not only lack a mandate from God, but they are actually fundamentally opposed to God’s loving purposes.

Martin Davie’s commentary on the Thirty Nine Articles, Our Inheritance of Faith, is available from Gilead Books at

Why disagreement is not good – Part 2

In this blog I shall respond to some of the interesting issues raised by my former Oak Hill colleague Dr Thomas Renz in response to what I wrote last week.

The first question he raises is whether our inability to grasp ‘a comprehensive knowledge of the truth on which we all agree’ is a result of sin or simply an inevitable result of how God has made human beings.

In response to this question I am happy to agree that as human beings we necessarily lack the fully comprehensive knowledge that belongs only to God. As finite creatures who exist at a particular point in space and time and who acquire knowledge by degrees over our lifetime we necessarily lack the absolute knowledge of the truth about all things that God possesses. It is not, and (in this world at least) never will be, true that any human being ‘sees to the ends of the earth and sees everything under heaven’ (Job 28:34) and this is a result of the way that God has made us rather than a result of the Fall.

Even Jesus, in his incarnate state, was limited in his knowledge. We are told in the Gospels that as he grew up he ‘increased in wisdom’ (Luke 2:52) and we are also told that there were things that he did not know, such as the time of the second coming (Mark 13:32). However, as John Wenham argues in his book Christ and the Bible, what the Gospels do not tell us is that Jesus was ever in error. As he puts it: ‘this is the testimony of the Gospels: God yet man; infallible yet limited in knowledge.’

The distinction between being limited in knowledge and being fallible is an important one for our purposes. Being limited in knowledge is simply part of being human. The same is not true of being in error. As I argued last week, being in error is a consequence of the Fall that will be corrected in the world to come. What precise degree of knowledge we will then have is something which we do not yet know. What we do know, however, is that whatever we do know we shall know as fully and truly as God currently knows us (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Dr Renz’s second question, building on the work of James Smith, is whether ‘the ineluctable plurality of interpretation, both of texts and of the world’ belongs ‘to creation in its goodness and not (merely) to the Fall.’ Here I would want to draw attention to the distinction that I made last week between ‘diversity’ and ‘disagreement.’ A diversity of different perspectives can be a very useful way of helping us to increase our knowledge of the truth. That is why, for instance, God gave us four Gospels rather than one. Our knowledge about Jesus is greater because we have four different accounts of who he was, and what he did and said, than would be the case if Matthew’s Gospel was the only one we had.

However, the Gospels only help us to know the truth about Jesus because they exhibit diversity rather than disagreement. If one or more of the Gospels disagreed with each other this could only mean that one or more of them was wrong and therefore did not assist us to know the truth about him.

What I take from this example is that plurality of interpretation is not always a good thing. It is a good thing when it is a result of people seeing and declaring different aspects of the truth. It is, however, a bad thing when it is a result of one or more people being in error. Where there is genuine disagreement, rather than simply diversity, it is the latter rather than the former that we are talking about.

For this reason I am happy to talk about ‘good diversity’, but I still don’t think that we can properly talk about ‘good disagreement.’

His third question is how what I have said about the need to focus on the proclamation of the truth and the refutation of error relates to the divisions that exist between and within churches.

Do we need to hold back from ‘resolute truth telling’ in order to work to overcome the divisions within the body of Christ and do we need to tolerate error as that price that has to be paid in order to benefit from a plurality of perspectives within and between the churches?

As I see it, the answer in both cases is ‘no’.

Jesus’ prayer for his disciples as recorded in John 17 is not only that ‘they may all be one’ (John 17:21) but ‘that they may be one even as we are one’ (John 17:22). In John’s Gospel the oneness that exists between Jesus and His Father involves complete agreement in the truth between them that means that everything that Jesus says and does is in agreement with His Father’s will. That is why He can say ‘I am the truth’ (John 14:6). It is that kind of unity in truth which Jesus prays for his disciples as the fruit of His coming death (John 17:19 ‘and for their sake I consecrate myself that they also may be consecrated in truth’).

It follows from this that overcoming the current divisions of the Church needs to go hand in hand with enabling the Church to be a community where the truth is known, accepted, celebrated and lived out. That is why the ecumenical movement at its best has insisted that the quest for institutional unity between the churches has to go hand in hand with faith and order work which seeks to overcome disagreements between the churches by enabling Christians to grow in their common understanding of the truth of the Gospel and how this should be manifested in the life of the Church. It is only as this happens that we can move forward towards the vision of unity set out, for example, in the seminal New Dehli Statement of the World Council of Churches of 1961:

‘We believe that the unity which is both God’s will and his gift to his Church is being made visible as all in each place who are baptized into Jesus Christ and confess him as Lord and Saviour are brought by the Holy Spirit into one fully committed fellowship, holding the one apostolic faith, preaching the one Gospel, breaking the one bread, joining in common prayer, and having a corporate life reaching out in witness and service to all and who at the same time are united with the whole Christian fellowship in all places and all ages in such wise that ministry and members are accepted by all, and that all can act and speak together as occasion requires for the tasks to which God calls his people.’

What this means is not that all we should ever talk about with Christians from other traditions is where we think they are wrong. It does mean that our engagement with them must include a serious joint search for truth. We cannot simply ‘agree to disagree.’

What is more, we do not have to tolerate error in order to benefit from the existence of a diversity of different perspectives within our churches. Unless it is ultimately impossible to separate truth from error we do not need to tolerate error in order to benefit from truth. If we were to weed out error we would still benefit from having a variety of truthful perspectives.

However, this having been said I would argue that we need to be cautious about seeking to purge the Church from error. As St. Augustine warns us, we must avoid trying to prematurely separate the wheat from the tares (Matthew 13:24-30). This is for two reasons.

First, because we are fallible it may be that we ourselves are in error and those who we initially think are in error who are teaching and living out the truth. The Church can only be perpetually reformed by God as it needs to be if we are open to correction from unexpected sources. In addition, because we are fallible we may simply have misunderstood someone else’s words or actions and so there may be no real cause for concern.

Secondly, the Church is meant to be like a hospital. It is meant to be a place where sin-sick people can be made better and if we exclude people who are in error we prevent this from happening in their case.

Nevertheless, the faithful do need to be protected from error and to this end, and particularly if an error is so serious that it can put people’s souls at risk (by, for example, teaching people to rely on anything other than Christ for their salvation, encouraging them to worship other gods alongside the one true God, or teaching them that they can be saved regardless of their sexual conduct) the leaders of the Church cannot simply disagree with it. They have to seek to counter it, using church discipline as a last resort where necessary (see 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, Galatians and Jude).

As Bonhoeffer explains, the purpose of such discipline:

‘…is not to establish a community of the perfect, but a community of men who really live under the forgiving mercy of God. Discipline in a congregation is a servant of the precious grace of God. If a member of the Church falls into sin, he must be admonished and punished, lest he forfeit his own salvation and the gospel be discredited.’

For all these reasons I remain unconvinced that the concept of ‘good disagreement’ has anything to commend it and continue to believe that it would be better if Archbishop Welby and the House of Bishops emphasised instead the need for the Church of England to be a community that knows the truth and lives by it.

Why disagreement is not good

In the new edition of his biography of Archbishop Justin Welby, Andrew Atherstone draws the following contrast between the approaches of Archbishop Welby and his predecessor:

‘Rowan Williams spent most of his archepiscopate seeking areas of core theological agreement around which Anglicans could coalesce, most notably in the failed Anglican Covenant. Welby’s project is different: not the pursuit of theological agreement but learning to live with theological disagreement.’

In this quotation Atherstone has put his finger on the heart of Archbishop Welby’s approach to the challenges facing the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion. Rather than trying to get everyone to agree on issues such as women bishops or same-sex relationships the Archbishop is concerned instead with getting people to disagree well with each other, what he has called ‘good disagreement.’

The phrase ‘good disagreement’ is one that the Archbishop has used on several occasions and it has also been used by the Church of England’s House of Bishops, most recently in a statement about the facilitated conversations on issues of human sexuality that are due to take place across the Church of England in the next couple of years. This statement said that one of the objectives of these conversations is ‘to clarify the implications of what it means for the Church of England to live with what the Archbishop of Canterbury has called ‘good disagreement’ on these issues.’

Unfortunately, neither the Archbishop of Canterbury, nor the House of Bishops, nor anyone else, has produced a clear definition of what is meant by ‘good disagreement’ and no understanding of the term has ever been agreed by the Church of England. This is a problem because you cannot begin to think about whether good disagreement is a sensible idea unless and until you know what this term means. In this blog post I want to suggest that whole idea of ‘good disagreement’ is radically misconceived and that what we should be talking about instead is how to handle disagreement, which is in itself necessarily a bad thing, in the best way possible as part of our calling as Christians to be a community of truth.

To begin to think about this topic the first thing we have to be clear about is that ‘disagreement’ is not the same as ‘diversity’. To disagree is to have different convictions about how things are or should be. Thus there is a disagreement between those who think that unaccompanied psalmody is the only permissible form of music in church and those who think that other forms of hymnody can be equally legitimate. Diversity, on the other hand, just means difference. Thus there could be a church that had total agreement that there should be a variety of different styles of music in use in its services. That would be diversity but not disagreement.

The second thing I think we need to be clear about is that disagreement is a result of our fallen condition. God knows the truth about all things. This is what is meant when Job 28:24 tells us that God ‘looks to the ends of the earth and sees everything under heaven’ and Hebrews 4:13 declares ‘before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do.’ As creatures made in God’s image human beings are also created to know the truth. We can see this in the account of creation in Genesis in which we are told that ‘the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name’ (Genesis 2:19). What is described here is an act of truthful discernment. Adam is not just arbitrarily assigning names to the birds and the animals, he is discerning truthfully what they are. Like God he knows the true nature, ‘the name,’ of things.

If all human beings engaged in this kind of truthful discernment all of the time then there would never be any disagreement between them. We would all know the truth and we would all agree about the truth. Tragically, however, the result of the big lie told by the devil and accepted by the first human beings (Genesis 3) is that we have lost the ability to always see things as they really are and to always be honest about what we do see. It is for that reason that human beings disagree.

Fortunately, God has provided a remedy for this situation. Jesus is truth incarnate (John 14:6 ‘I am the truth’) and he has come to restore our ability to know the truth. In John 8:31-32 Jesus declares ‘if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ This comes about through the work of the Holy Spirit who is sent by Jesus to ‘guide you into all the truth’ (John 16:13). Like the whole of our re-creation through Jesus, our ability to discern the truth is a work in progress. At the moment ‘our knowledge is imperfect’ (1 Corinthians 13:9) but in heaven we shall understand fully in the same way that we ourselves are fully understood by God (1 Corinthians 13:12). As C S Lewis puts it in his book The Great Divorce, human beings are created with an innate desire for truth and this desire will one day be satisfied. God will bring us to a place where we can taste truth ‘like honey and be embraced by it like a bridegroom. Your thirst shall be quenched’

What all this means is that the term ‘good disagreement’ is an oxymoron like ‘virtuous sin’. Disagreement can never in itself be good. We disagree because in our fallen condition we either don’t know the truth, or are unwilling to accept it when it is presented to us. The vocation of the Church is therefore not to practice ‘good disagreement.’ The vocation of the Church is to be a community where as far as possible disagreement does not exist because truth is known, accepted and celebrated.

The saints in glory presumably already fully practice this vocation. However, as already noted, those of us who are still on earth remain imperfect in knowledge and therefore don’t have a full knowledge of the truth. We are also still sinful and therefore unwilling to accept the truth when it challenges what we want to believe, makes us look bad, or involves having to admit we were wrong. For these reasons the potential for disagreement will always be present in the Church and we have to think about how to handle it in the best way possible. This means that while we can never sensibly talk about ‘good disagreement’ it does make sense to talk about better and worse ways of handling disagreement.

We have to begin by recognizing that our own knowledge of the truth and willingness to accept is limited. We therefore always need to be willing to accept correction from those with whom we disagree and change what we think or do providing that we that our reason for change is a greater perception of truth and not just a desire to please someone else or achieve some advantage for ourselves.

We also have to recognize that those with whom we disagree are people. This means that the prohibitions in the sixth and ninth commandments (Exodus 20: 13 and 16) apply. As the paraphrase of the commandments in the Prayer Book Catechism tells us, these commandments tell us that we are ‘to hurt nobody by word nor deed’, ‘to bear no malice in my heart’ and to keep our tongue ‘from evil-speaking, lying and slandering.’ However strongly we disagree with people, and however much this may lead us to want to attack them in word or deed, the commandments still apply and so we may not do so. We may legitimately criticize their beliefs or actions, but we may not attack them as people, but should instead pray that God will deliver them from error.

Finally we need to understand that the command to ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18/Matthew 19:19) means that as far as we can we are called to lead people into truth and protect them from error. If we know that someone is in error, particularly when that error is about something serious, and especially when it has to do with their obedience to God, we cannot simply shrug our shoulders and say ‘Ok, go your own way then.’ That would be failure of love. Human beings are made not to live in error, but to live in the truth, and if we can help this to happen then we have an inescapable obligation to do so.

Equally, in so far as we able to do so we have an obligation to protect people from error. That is to say, when there are people who know the truth, but may potentially be tempted to depart from it we must do our best to prevent this happening. This is a particularly important part of the vocation of church leaders. That is what St Paul was getting at when he told the Ephesian elders at Miletus

‘Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.’ (Acts 20:28)

Caring for the flock means seeking to prevent the sheep being led astray.

In the light of all this I suggest that Archbishop Welby and the House of Bishops should expunge the term ‘good disagreement’ from their vocabulary. They should talk instead about the importance of the Church of England being a truthful community, a community which aims at agreement in the truth and in which those with leadership roles take seriously their responsibility to encourage this search for truth and, as far as possible, to protect the faithful from error.