Archive for the ‘theology’ Category

In his chapter ‘Refashioning the Clay’ Samuel Wells acknowledges the huge contribution the Big Bang and evolutionary theory have made to science, but cautions against turning them into theology, for “you get a single word answer: survival. The whole dynamic of history mutates into survival; and adaptation that enables survival is called progress. Conflict is at the heart of every encounter, and survival is the reward for those who win the battle.

“But Christianity has a very different answer.

“Christians believe the logic – the logos, or word – at the heart of the universe is not about survival. It’s about death and resurrection. The ultimate future doesn’t belong to those who have fought and prevailed, it belongs to those who have laid down their lives for others.

Samuel Wells, in Learning to Dream Again


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The First Testament Story never talks about God having a plan for the world or a plan of salvation or a plan for people’s individual lives, and the story it tells does not look like one that resulted from a plan. God certainly had an aim, a vision, some goals, and sometimes formulates a plan for a particular context, but works out a purpose in the world in interaction with the human beings who are designed to be key to the fulfilling of those goals. God is not a micromanager who seeks to make every decision for the company, but the wiser kind of executive who formulates clear goals but involves the work force in determining how to implement them, and also recognizes that the failure of members of the work force will require an ongoing flexibility in pursuing these goals. The story does not give the impression that from the beginning God had planned the flood, or the summons of Abraham, or the exodus, or the introduction of the monarchy, or the building of the temple, or the exile, or the sending of a messiah. It portrays these as responses to concrete situations, while all are outworkings of God’s purpose and character. Our security lies not in the world’s actual story being the outworking of God’s plan (that would be scary) but in its unfolding within the control of an executive who will go to any lengths to see that the vision gets fulfilled – even dying for it. In this sense the lamb of God was slain before the world’s foundation. God has always been that kind of God.

John Goldingay, ‘God Began’ in Old Testament Theology, Volume One: Israel’s Gospel (IVP: 2003), p.60

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“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. – CS Lewis, 1942, ‘The Weight of Glory’

“…that was not the real Narnia. That has a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and always will be here … And of course it is different, as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream.” – Lord Digory, The Last Battle, p.159-60

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Interesting to find support for my ‘Where on Earth Does God Dwell?’ study paper thesis from John Polkinghorne in this interview. I hadn’t thought about the possibility of describing the future in terms of panentheism (not the same as pantheism!), though I guess that’s what I am essentially describing in my paper.

I believe that God created this world, this creation, to be other than God’s self and that it is allowed to be itself. However, as the Eastern churches have always maintained, through Christ creation is intended eventually to share in the life of God, the life of divine nature. Even now, this world contains sacraments, inklings of God’s new creation, the redemption of this world beyond its death. I believe that the new creation will be a totally sacramental world, totally suffused with God’s presence. That means, of course, that the world could then properly be described as panentheistic. So I see panentheism as an eschatological destiny rather than as a present reality.

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Old Testament Scholar and conservative evangelical John Walton presents the clearest and most coherent explanation of Genesis 1 that I have come across. In this talk he makes the case for reading the text of Genesis 1 in the way it was intended – and does so in a highly lucid and entertaining manner. Very readable!

…the text has no interest in the physical, material cosmos. That’s just not what it’s talking about. That doesn’t mean that God didn’t also create the physical material cosmos, but that’s not what the ancient mindset is concerned about. That gets back to us wanting the text on our terms. We want to know about about the physical cosmos because that’s our ontology, that’s our world, that’s our concepts. That’s what we want to know about. We can’t indulge ourselves in that way with the Genesis account. Again, there’s no question that God did those things, but that’s not what this text is about. God makes it work.

From Minor Thoughts: Why Didn’t God Call the Light, Light?, a paraphrase of a talk by John Walton (Minor Thoughts also offers the MP3 file). John Walton is Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College and author of the NIV Application Commentary on Genesis.

I’ve been looking at his ideas for my study project on the temple metanarrative, and I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on his book ‘The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate’ (read reviews at Amazon.com).

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Genesis 1 really does contain the most marvellous poetry.

I’ve been studying it again recently as part of the Radical Network course (after two terms studying the hermeneutics of Genesis 1-3 last year!), and finding that there’s always more to discover…

Genesis 1 is a fine example of Hebrew poetry, full of patterns and structure. For example, many people will already be aware of the ‘forming and filling’ framework, but for those who aren’t:

The first three days are days of ‘forming’ or separating. They introduce the structure and divisions of creation: light from darkness – day / night (1), waters below from waters above – earth / heavens (2), and dry land from the sea (also plants on the land). The second three days correspond with the first three, but are days of ‘filling’: sun, moon and stars (4), birds in the air and fish in the sea (5), animals on the earth and, finally, humans (6).

This pattern is introduced in verse 2, which states that the earth was tohu vabohu (‘formless and empty’).

It has been suggested that the two sets of three verses also correspond to ‘dominions’ and their ‘rulers’, or ‘creation kingdoms’ and ‘creature kings’, for which there is some evidence.

However, on recent re-reading what jumps out at me is the way in which the poetry builds up to the creation of humanity, with the function and blessings given to the creatures paralleling not so much each other, but the specific roles given to humanity. It seems so obvious once you’ve seen it!  The lights of day 4 and the birds and fish of day 5 are clearly setting out the pattern for humanity’s role of ruling and multiplying (or even, again, forming and filling):

Day 4: God made the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, and the lesser light to govern the night… to govern the day and the night”

Day 5: “Let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth in the open expanse of the heavens.” God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.”

Day 6: “Let Us make man in Our image … and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God blessed them; and God said to them, ” Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

The rule of humanity over the created world is paralleled by the rule of the lights over the day and night, and God’s blessing of fruitfulness and his command to fill the earth is set up on day 5 with the fish and birds.  Notice also that humanity if given dominion not just over the land creatures, but over the fish and birds as well (deliberately subverting the pattern).  Interestingly, humanity is not specifically said to rule over the sun and moon, but in giving the lights the role of ‘signs’ (v.14) , they are clearly intended to serve humanity.

Verses 26-30 are clearly the climax of the passage. It might even be seen that the whole creation account is designed to parallel the creation of humanity and man’s God-given role of ruling / separating and multiplying / filling. This is perhaps hinted at in God’s intention to create humanity in his own image (too frequently have we tended to interpret this idea outside of the context of Genesis 1).  In the same way as God we are here to bring order and fruitfulness where there was previously chaos and emptiness.

And I’m confident there’s more to find…

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What are the ‘heavenly things’ of Hebrews 9.23, of which the earthly sanctuary and vessels of worship are merely copies? What are these things that must be purified by a ‘better sacrifice’ (that is the blood of Jesus, the High Priest, himself, not the ineffectual blood of goats and bulls, 10.4)?

On the Day of Atonement, which is being referenced here, the High Priest offered a bull as a sin offering for himself and his household (Lev 16.6,11). He then offered two goats, with one being sacrificed and the other sent away bearing the sins of the people (the ‘scapegoat’).

The first goat is offered to the Lord “as a sin offering” (Lev 16.9) for the people (Lev 16.15) and its blood is sprinkled on and in front of the mercy seat (LXX, ‘hilasterion’, c.f. Rom 3.25). Interestingly, this sacrifice is to make atonement for three specific things: the holy place (16.16), the tent of meeting (16.16) and the altar (16.18). See also the summary in verse 20. The necessity of this atonement is explained in verse 16: “He shall make atonement for the holy place, because of the impurities of the sons of Israel and because of their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and thus he shall do for the tent of meeting which abides with them in the midst of their impurities.

Thus, this goat is offered up to make atonement not for the people directly, but for the sanctuary (and its parts), that is, to reconcile it in some way to God. Clearly, it is this sacrifice, offered year after year, which makes it possible for the sanctuary to be kept holy and acceptable to God. But the question remains, what are the heavenly (‘true’) equivalents requiring purification in Hebrews 9? We know that Christ has entered the “greater and more perfect tabernacle… [that is] not of this creation” (9.11), and it is this tabernacle which he purifies with his blood.

So, where is this perfect tabernacle, this true sanctuary? Can this be God’s heavenly dwelling place – or his future dwelling place with his people? Heb 9.24 says that Christ did not enter a holy place made of hands (a mere copy of the true one) but entered heaven itself. So what does it mean for the heavenly temple itself to be cleansed (9.23) by the blood of Jesus?

It is worth noting that according to Heb 10.19 it is not God who required the blood of Jesus in order to find a way into this ‘greater’ sanctuary, but the people of God (cf. Eph 2.13-18). Both the heavenly things and our own consciences are mentioned as being cleansed by his blood (9.23, 10.22. See also 1 Peter 1.2). Can this mean that the heavenly tabernacle in view is the people of God themselves, the living temple of Eph 2.21 (“a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit”)?

Or is it simply that a way has been made for us into that sanctuary, now cleansed by the blood of Jesus, where, as Paul says, we are able to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God (Rom 12.1)?

Comments and ideas welcome!

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