The truth: the holy truth, and nothing like the truth – post-truth society and the church

The truth: the holy truth, and nothing like the truth – post-truth society and the church

The following article is a guest post by Rev’d Dr Helen Paynter, a Research Fellow and Coordinator of Community Learning at Bristol Baptist College, as well as part-time minister at Victoria Park Baptist Church in Bristol, and it is published here with my thanks to her friendship and ministry.

The paper was originally published in the Baptist Ministers’ Journal in January 2017.  Dr Paynter has also published a book called ‘Reduced Laughter – Seriocomic Features and their Functions in the Book of Kingsreviewed on this blog, and –ahem- reputable offerings elsewhere, drawing on the work of Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin.

It is of no small significance that the great Anthony Thiselton, writing the preface to his 20th Anniversary Edition of New Horizons in Hermeneutics writes, “The two thinkers to whom I would now give serious space if I were writing the book today are probably Hans Robert Jauss and Mikhail Bakhtin” (p.xxi) – emphasis totally mine!

 

To the truth…..

The truth: the holy truth, and nothing like the truth – post-truth society and the church.

Helen Paynter

Bristol Baptist College May 2017

 

 

The post-truth phenomenon and why it matters

Truth is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us – Hannah Arendt

The art of political ‘spin’ is millennia-old. But in recent years, the will to deceive for political purposes has intensified to a new level – or so it seems. In the light of the now-notorious ‘£350m/week for the NHS’ claim, and the election of US President Trump, we in the UK and liberal West are now, apparently, in the age of ‘post-truth’ politics.

The phrase ‘post-truth’ was designated ‘Word of the Year 2016’ by the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. In bald terms, it means that the factuality (I hesitate to use the word ‘truth’ here, for reasons which will become clear later) of claimed facts is becoming an irrelevant commodity in public, or at least political, discourse. As The Economist put it recently, ‘Truth is not falsified, or contested, but of secondary importance’.

An important – and disturbing – cultural phenomenon is arising, and the church needs to understand and address it. This paper will briefly consider some of the causes of our current predicament, and suggest some ways that the church might respond. First, I suggest five reasons why it matters.

  1. As shown by a Mori poll published in December 2016, lack of public confidence in the political process is at an all-time low. Ironically, this begets a vicious cycle: ‘When lies make the political system dysfunctional, its poor results can feed the alienation and lack of trust in institutions that make the post-truth play possible in the first place.’[1]
  2. History has repeatedly shown that lies are the tools of political oppression. As Hannah Arendt put it, ‘[Truth] is hated by tyrants, who rightly fear the competition of a coercive force they cannot control.’[2]
  3. Psychological studies have proven that false memories persist, even when they are publically retracted.[3] In light of the commandment not to bear false witness (Exodus 20:16), this should disturb all who take biblical ethics seriously.
  4. A recent Demos report showed that on-line disinformation, a major source of untruth, is disproportionately seen and believed by children and young people.[4]
  5. Contrary to the logic of ‘post-truth’, facts matter – in politics as elsewhere. How I ‘feel’ about Europe or the NHS may or may not be important; whether one of these institutions is receiving £350 million a week certainly is.

How have we arrived at the stage where untruth is regarded as acceptable – or at least, unsurprising – within the common consciousness?

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Transformative Bible Reading

This post is not a cheap shot at the “please read your Bible more” brigade, but an exploration into the truly transformative effects the Bible brings to bear on an individual or community.  Furthermore, this is not about bibliolatry either!  When Thiselton, from whom much of what follows is derived, talks of Transformative Bible Reading, he is referring to the work of God in Christ by the Spirit at work via a proper hermeneutical use of the Bible.

P. T. Forsyth lamented, 110 years ago, about the “…the decay among our churches of the personal use of the Bible.”PeterTForsyth

And there is good reason for this.

Anthony Thiselton rightly talks of the “transforming effects of the Bible”:

“The Bible does not spoon feed us as if we were babies, but provokes us to do some adult thinking of our own.”  And this is why the Scriptures lead to transformation after God’s purposes.

And this is precisely why I think the Bible is a mere dusty heirloom in many homes, including some Christian homes.  I think we kind of intuitively know why, Martin Luther certainly did, “The Bible confronts us as our adversary, demanding response and transformation.”

So we know it is generationally neglected.  We know it is powerful and transformative.  We know it is God’s written Word-in-the-words-of-men to us.  Yet we are beguiled into taming it so that it accords with our own prior wishes, concerns and expectations.  And I am not alone in thinking a tamed Bible makes tame Christians.

A reason why the Bible is marginalized and attacked is suggested by Professor Anthony Thiselton, “The Bible can transform and enlarge our vision, so that we are no longer trapped within our own narcissistic selfhood or within our own limited tradition or limited community.”  In other words, God uses the Bible to shatter our illusions about pretty much everything, which explains in part why it is attacked, marginalised and mocked.  We human beings simply don’t like having our illusion bubble burst, but the Bible is the pin that pops it.  In Flowers that Never Bend, Paul Simon sings,

“Through the corridors of sleep past the shadows dark and deep

my mind dances and leaps in confusion.

I don’t know what is real, I can’t touch what I feel

and hide behind the shield of my illusion;

So I continue to continue to pretend

that my life will never end

and the flowers never bend with the rainfall.

In other words:  God will not allow us to “continue to pretend” forever!  The Bible forces us beyond ourselves/communities into a truer vision of reality:  GOD.  Thiselton again, “The social reality of our everyday life is structured in terms of relevancies.  Yet the truth of Romans 5:5 and God’s love being poured into our hearts “will constitute a new set of motives that redefine criteria of relevance for the believer.”

In other words:  God’s loves changes us by changing what we think is relevant in our everyday life.  Thiselton continues“The goal of transformation into the image of Christ is to see the world through the eyes and interests of God’s purposes for the world.”

God’s love poured out does not give us personal fuzzy feelings of religious vagueness, but rather it turns kittens into lions, and babies into adults, and people, like David, after God’s own heart – a dangerous thing indeed!

So no wonder we struggle with it.  We’re fallen, fallible and finite.  And within church should be the exact place where we hear this challenge.

We need to man-up and woman-up so that our kids grow-up truly transformatively Bible-savvy.

Lest we join those in Mark 7:13 who “…nullify the word of God…”

We nullify the Bible in so many ways.  Ludwig Wittgenstein says this is why struggle and judgment include “a battle against bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”ludwig

And it is this “language” of the text that, according to Thiselton, “delivers us from self-preoccupation or self-centeredness, as we open ourselves to what is “Other”, “beyond”, or to the voice of God.”  For when we are not “open” we prove our own “bewitchment of intelligence.” Another way to say we actually allow the bliss of ignorance to facilitate the theological-cognitive dissonance that maintains the social relevancy of our oh-so-busy everyday lives.

Yet the Bible is not an encyclopedia of information on all subjects, but “a source of transformation that then shapes readers in accord with God’s purposes for them”, for if it was merely an encyclopedia of information, devoid of a relational “I-Thou” reading, then the text becomes “merely a mirror of the self, which bounces back what the reader desires or expects to hear, [thus] it will hardly transform the reader” (Thiselton).  For me, this chimes with Forsyth who wrote in his outstanding 1907 book Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, the Bible is “…so much more than literature, because it is not merely powerful, it is power.  It is action, history; it is not mere narrative, comment, embellishment or dilution.  It makes history more than it is made by history….It is news to the world from foreign parts.”

post01-bonhoeffer-centuryBonhoeffer offers a superb analysis of how our nature interacts with relating with God through the Bible, “Either I determine the place in which I will find God, or I allow God to determine the place where he will be found.  If it is I who says where God will be, I will always find there a God who in some way corresponds to me, is agreeable to me, fits in with my nature.  But if it is God who says where he will be, then that will truly be a place which at first is not agreeable to me at all, which does not fit so well with me.  That place is the Cross of Christ.  And whoever will find God there must draw near to the Cross in the manner which the Sermon on the Mount requires.  This does not correspond to our nature at all.”

We are constantly in danger of reading the Bible as though prescribing medicines “in accordance with the patients whims” and this is to be first noticed or observed; then named and finally and decisively tackled in a deliberate intention towards what Bonhoeffer called “the cost of discipleship” which includes transformative Bible reading as a central aspect.  Forsyth again, “The theology of the Bible is but the moral adequacy and virility of the word of the Cross, and the thews of a powerful Gospel.”

It is the Divine promise that shapes both the nature of reality and how the present is to be understood.  T. S. Elliot may be right that “humankind cannot bear very much reality”, and this may explain the reason behind Forsyth’s lament that opened this post, and it also explains why the Bible is often maginalised within and attacked without the Church.  But if Thiselton, Bonhoeffer, Wittgenstein and Forsyth are right (and they are), God somehow uses faithful interpretive reading-in-relationship of Scripture so as to transform, save and renew.  It is dangerous; it is necessary and it is so very vital.

Dodman Cross

 

 

Pt 4: Response to C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain”

Guest post by theologian Dr Rob Knowles on The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis:

Part 4:  Chapter 8 – Hell

In his chapter on hell, Lewis takes the three notions of “destruction”, “eternal torment”, and “privation” and then works them into a systematic unity. This leads to two difficulties. First, Thiselton points out: (a) that the Bible has three traditions in it about hell that seem to contradict one-another: (i) hell is eternal torment; (ii) hell is eternal destruction, or annihilation; (iii) all are saved; (b) that all three traditions have been considered to be “orthodox” in the history of the church, even though “eternal torment” has been the dominant view in orthodoxy; (c) that it would be hermeneutically-premature, given where scholarship has reached, to press these three contradictory traditions into a unity in favour of any one of the traditions, which seems to militate against Lewis’s conclusions.

Second, if Thiselton is correct, then Lewis entirely dismisses one biblical tradition – that of universal salvation. Even if it were right to press all the traditions into a unity then Lewis would still have to press (i) “hell is eternal torment”; (ii) “hell is eternal destruction, or annihilation”; and (iii) “all are saved”, into a unity – along with his emphasis on “privation”.

Some, for example D.A. Carson, are adamant that eternal torment is the nature of hell, and that all who do not believe in Christ go there. Lewis, on balance, seems to favour a kind of qualified annihilationism whilst still holding onto a perspective-dependent notion of eternal torment. Others, such as G. MacDonald (alias R. Parry), reconcile the biblical traditions in favour of “all are saved, but in some cases only after prolonged periods of punishment in hell”.

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Gunton (via Thiselton) on Atonement

In chapter nine of Thiselton’s 2015 Systematic Theology, he asks the question, ‘Why Consider Historical Theologies of the Atonement?’  The section he covers on Colin Gunton’s 1988 work ‘The Actuality of the Atonement: A Study in Metaphor, Rationality, and the Christian Tradition’  is not only astonishingly concise but well worth popping into this blog:

ACT

Colin Gunton (1941-2003).  Gunton also contributed a classic modern study in his Actuality of the Atonement…He had two aims.  One was to show that interpretations of, and approaches to, atonement were complimentary, not alternatives.  The other was to exhibit the value and power of metaphors among images of atonement.  He regarded Kant, Schleiermacher, and Hegel as indirectly responsible for the “intellectual and cultural poverty” that characterizes much of our age.  He singled out especially Hegel’s devaluation of “images” (Vorstellungen) in religion, as against the critical “concept” (Begriff) in philosophy.  Metaphor, Gunton argued, was “an indispensable means for the advance of cognitive knowledge and understanding” (17).  Janet Martin Soskice and Paul Avis also argued this convincingly.  Metaphor and discovery occur together “with metaphor serving as the vehicle of discovery” (31).  He appealed for this explicitly to Paul Ricoeur, Eberhard Jungel, and Janet Martin Soskice, as well as to Coleridge.

actuality-of-atonementIn the course of more detailed theological argument, Gunton challenged the comprehensiveness of [Gustav] Aulen’s [Christus Victor) approach, and showed concern that he advocated “too triumphalist a view of the atonement” (58).  He valued the victory motif as a metaphor, rather than the “laws for a theory of the atonement” (61).  This approach also tended too readily to personify the devil, which seems to happen in Gregory of Nyssa.  “Evil powers” may includes “political, social, economic, and religious structures of power,” as George Caird, Oscar Cullmann, and others have maintained (65).

In his chapter 4 Gunton considered the justice of God, and corrected misunderstandings of Anselm.  God governs the universe in a way analogous to the duty of the feudal ruler “to maintain the order of rights and obligations without which society would collapse” (89).  He affirmed the grace and love of God, but insisted on “some objective righting of the balance” in the governance of the universe (91).  Here he appealed to P. T. Forsyth, Balthasar, and Barth, as well as to Anselm and Luther.  This governance is “the central metaphor” (112).

In chapter 5 Gunton sought to rescue the concept of “sacrifice” from being regarded as an outworn, “dead” metaphor.  He carefully examined sacrifice in the OT, together with the work by Mary Douglas and Francis Young.  In this respect, he argued, Calvin was faithful to priesthood and sacrifice in Hebrews, and to the passage about “correct exchange” that we noted in the early Epistle to Diognetus.  He concluded, “There are in Calvin elements of a substitutionary understanding of the atonement; indeed it seems unlikely that any conception that remains true to the Bible can avoid it” (130).  The two final chapters return to Gunton’s regular theme of the Holy Trinity, and the need to reconcile the various approaches to the atonement.  He concluded:  Jesus is “our substitute because he does for us what we cannot do for ourselves” (165, italics mine).

Among Gunton’s eighteen or so books, this book is a masterpiece.  It seems to address a central nerve in the [atonement] debate, and should not be underestimated. “

Dodman Cross

 Dodman’s Point, Cornwall

Prophecy: “Ad hoc cries of an expressive, diagnostic, or tactical nature, delivered as ‘spontaneous’ mini-messages” it is not!

Some thoughts……

On Prophecy

Broadly speaking, my view is that prophecy is either an anointing of the Spirit or a gift of the Spirit, depending on which form of prophecy is in view.

I believe that the biblical prophets had a unique anointing that nobody else has had since the closing of the canon.

The canon of Scripture is slightly disputed in that 1 Enoch is part of the Ethiopian canon. It is interesting that 1 Enoch correctly predicts the ambiguity surrounding its future reception!  Beyond disputes about the extent of the canon (there is no canonical statement about the limits of the canon!), I am a cessationist when it comes to the anointing of the biblical prophets.

I am not a cessationist when it comes to the gifts of the Spirit, since such a view seems absurd given Paul’s and Peter’s view of the church as a body that grows out of each part doing its work and administering God’s grace in its various forms.

To distinguish between more and less “spectacular” gifts in this respect seems arbitrary, since each part of a body remains important. To say that any gift has ceased is to say that a part of the body has become unnecessary, which is precisely what Paul warns against.

To distinguish between the inaugural and the continuative has some validity: the Scriptures constitute a once-for-all inaugural revelation; but the Holy Spirit relates the Scriptures to us ever-freshly in a continuing manner. However, when it comes to the gifts of the Spirit, the inaugural vs. continuative distinction becomes invalid as stated above, and it is better to speak in terms of anointing (inaugural) vs. gifts (continuative).

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What the prophet does and why the lambs bleat

What is your notion of a prophet?
I suspect the Western Protestant Church has made a right hash of this ministry.

Reducing it to mere predictions.

Either doom or glory, or vague hope & polite niceness.

Reducing it to clichéd slogans that mean anything and everything ….and nothing.
Reducing it the “wacky fringe of the church”:
The bigger the beard the greater the prophet!

Reducing it to spontaneous mini-messages of bespoke theological preference!
Reducing it to magic, on a par with ancient and modern gnosticism:
God’s weird little secrets made known to the special weird few!

No.

pie

False Prophesy is Pie in the Sky!

We need less (zero) ‘Personal Idiosyncratic Eschatology’ (or P.I.E. for short – I made that up all on my own); and more of what Eugene Peterson in his brilliant book Run with the Horses refers to as the true nature of the Prophet:

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1. A prophet lets people know who God is and what he is like, what he says and what he is doing.

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2. A prophet wakes us up from our sleepy complacency so that we see the great and stunning drama that is our existence, and then pushes us onto the stage playing our parts whether we think we are ready or not.

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3. A prophet angers us by rejecting our euphemisms and ripping off our disguises, then dragging our heartless attitudes and selfish motives out into the open where everyone sees them for what they are!

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Against Self-Sufficiency

ACTI have finally laid my mitts on a veritable gold mine – A. C. Thiselton’s Systematic Theology.  There will likely be many snippets from this surprisingly little book in the future, so here’s the first one, concerning ‘Theological Principles Relating to Ministry’:

“The most profound of a number of principles concerns the mutuality or reciprocity of the church and the ministry, as against self-sufficient individualism and autonomy.  We have already identified this as a key principle in relation to the church.  Whatever the seductions of post-Enlightenment secularism about a self-contained, self-sufficient individual, no Christian individual possesses all the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  For a healthy Christian life we depend on others, especially the teaching and guidance of Christian ministers, as Paul stressed in 1 Corinthians, and Calvin in his Institutes….

…The qualities expected . . . . are enumerated in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 . . . . These include at least the following seven:

  1. being skilled in teaching (Gk. didaktikos);
  2. being level-headed or avoiding extremes (nephalios);
  3. disliking conflict (and so constituting a focus on unity, amachos), or, in other words, managing conflict resolution;
  4. being self-disciplined, or prudent (sophron);
  5. being gracious, tolerant, and courteous (epieikes);
  6. being able to win people’s approval or being dignified, in the sense of having gravitas or weight (kosmios);
  7. having ability to manage (proistanai), whether a household or a church.

Other passages also suggest:

8. being a leader in mission (Matt. 28:19), and;

9. having a pastoral heart (John 21:15-17).

To be a “shepherd” implies not only “feeding” but also protecting the flock against enemies and marauders. . . . .

. . . . .Everything rests on mutual dependency and lack of self-sufficiency.  In 1 Corinthians 3 Paul explains to the church in Corinth that either by rejecting specific ministers or by limiting themselves to the ministry of choice favourites, they are depriving themselves of what God wills to give them.  Paul writes, “Do not deceive yourselves. . . .All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas. . . . all belong to you” (1 Cor. 3:18, 21-22)”

p. 321-325

yellow flower opening

I think this photo – © me – would also make a better cover than the one on the book!