Ngukurr: a Special Remote Community

A long time ago I had the privilege of visiting Ngukurr a couple of times to do some Bible Studies with the translators who were working on the Kriol Bible. It is an historical place because of how it developed as a place of refuge and also because of its strategic location in relation to nearby Communities, such as Numbulwar, and the Communities on Groote Island.

A couple of recent books have added to the history of this fascinating place.

We are Aboriginal. Our 100 years: from Arnhem Land’s first mission to Ngukurr today. Published by St Matthew’s Church Ngukurr 2008. (ISBN 978 1 875126 26 2) and available from Acorn Press. This is a book by the people of Ngukurr. It is their story about their country, their people, their languages and their main modern language, Kriol. It tells their history of how the tribes came together at Ngukurr in the face of the systematic slaughter being carried out by white men. It traces the different eras in the mission times (1908 – 1940; 1940 -1968). Here is eye-witness, source document, history from the people who lived in these places and times. It also deals with the last 40 years and discusses land rights, education and the Kriol Bible. The book also contains a DVD.

It is not just a book that celebrates an anniversary. It can also be read over against the various writings that criticise the work of missions amongst Aboriginal people. This book is not a whitewash, but it does give the view of those who lived and experienced the mission (and the subsequent non-mission) eras from the inside.

By contrast is a report called Ngukurr at the Millennium: A Baseline Profile for Social Impact Planning in South-East Arnhem Land, by J. Taylor, J. Bern, and K.A. Senior, published in 2000 by CAEPR ANU as Research Monograph No. 18 (ISBN 0 7315 5102 8). Available here as a pdf. This is “a largely synchronic social statistical analysis” of the community of Ngukurr. It “comes after a generation of self management and land rights and immediately prior to the possibility of major introduced economic development based on mineral exploitation.” (p iv). It is meant as a baseline study against which later studies would be able to assess the impact of large scale mining on the community.

There are some valuable insights in the report. However it seems generally to correspond with reports of other remote communities and indicates a general level of dysfunction across most categories of social and life well-being. It thus reinforces and is consistent with the kind of discussions found in Sutton and Austin-Broos for example.

If this is too depressing, I am looking forward to reading Murray Seiffert’s book, Refuge on the Roper : The Origins of Roper River Mission, Ngukurr. Acorn Press, 2008 (ISBN: 0908284675).

He has also just published Gumbuli Of Ngukurr: Aboriginal elder in Arnhem Land, Acorn Press, 2011 (098713292X). While tracing the story of this remarkable leader, the blurbs indicate that the book also takes up the recent issues of health, education, welfare and so on. Looks like a must read.

Posted in Australian Church, Missions | Leave a comment

A Different Inequality

Diane Austin-Broos is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Anthropology at Sydney University. Her book, A Different Inequality* continues the discussion about remote Aboriginal life. The book is about cultural difference and inequality in the context of a debate that has often been ideological and inadequate.

She has two dialogue partners. One is her own group of anthropologists and the associated group she calls “humanistic social sciences’ , history and indigenous studies for example. This group she thinks has left a space in the debate due “to a failure in critical thought among anthropologists”. (p8) The other is the group of opinion writers “whose pronouncements were not always well informed.” (p8), and who have filled the space left empty by the first group.

The inequality that is described in the book “is that which began to unfold once Aboriginal Australians were encapsulated in a European-derived state and became increasingly positioned by a capitalist economy.” (p10) But the nature of that inequality and how it should be described is what is at issue.

The book has helpful chapters (‘background briefings’) on culture and ethnology, the postcolonial critique, the opposition to separate development (“remote communities had become sites of pathology and suffering” p23), and on the issues to do with land rights.

Austin-Broos argues for a new way of describing the tension between cultural difference and inequality. Has the traditional way of describing remote Aboriginal communities become a kind of abstraction, an ideal concept that does not accurately describe the reality? She sees that the remote communities debate was polarised quite early (p138). The pathology of suffering in remote communities brought some out on the side of government welfare and intervention (the ‘rights-pathology axis’). Others such as Noel Pearson maintained that the main actor in development is the individual not the government.

Austin-Broos seeks a way through these complex debates about cultural difference , marginalisation, poverty, and issues within the culture including violence and the circulation of goods through the kinship network (rather than accumulating them).

She sees political debate focussed on two issues: the maintenance of self-sufficient communities and hybrid economies; and human rights and their restoration in the light of the NT intervention. Austin-Broos thinks these politics are limited. She argues against separatism. She says, “…I propose to add a further dimension to a politics that does support land rights, human rights and appropriate development. I refer to widespread, forceful and persistent support for mainstream primary education on remote communities.” (p159)

Austin-Broos has a nuanced approach, consistent with Sutton and Pearson, with a strong emphasis on primary education as well as giving a voice to the people in remote communities. Clearly written for the choir (in the hope that they will sing together), it is accessible to those on the outside and provides a very helpful education for those trying to make sense of the debates.

*Diane Austin-Broos, A Different Inequality: The politics of debate about remote Aboriginal Australia. Allen & Unwin. 2011. ISBN 9781742370491

Posted in Australian Church, Missions | Leave a comment

The Politics of Suffering

The Politics of Suffering

I have been catching up on my reading about Indigenous issues (starting again might be a better way to put it). I thought I should share some of it in the hope that those who know more might add their wisdom, since the church and Christians have a share in the history but may be unsure how best to contribute in the present confusing debate. Certainly I am unsure. I have lived as an adult through many of the defining moments in changes in relations between Indigenous people and the majority population. Although I voted in the 1967 referendum, many of the terrible events that have happened since then have passed me by (been ignored by me/were unknown to me).

In 2000 Peter Sutton gave a lecture in Perth that signalled a watershed in new and more realistic discussions about indigenous policy (although he credits Noel Pearson with getting the discussion going in the late 90s). It was such a momentous speech that it developed into a book*, now in its second edition.

Sutton is a linguist and anthropologist who has spent a lot of time in indigenous communities, particularly Aurukun, since the 1970s.

His book has aroused a lot of controversy, partly, he says, because of his “unqualified position that a number of the serious problems Indigenous people face in Australia today arise from a complex joining together of recent, that is post-conquest, historical factors of external impact, with a substantial number of ancient, pre-existent social and cultural factors that have continued, transformed or intact, into the lives of people living today. The main way these factors are continued is through child-rearing.” (p7)

The book represents a turning away from the simplistic idea that Indigenous disadvantage arose merely from external impacts, particularly the colonial invasion, and that it can be helped by the victims being given various kinds of support. What has brought about a change of mind is the overwhelming evidence that, in the period of massive welfare support, the key indicators of quality of life have consistently continued to decline.

Sutton gives a very helpful review of the recent history of policy debates and government action. He discusses community violence, culture, rage, the way old practices have been transformed by modern pressures, and grapples with issues of integration and separation. He puts forward many radical and controversial suggestions about a realistic way forward. He has a wonderful chapter called “Unusual Couples” in which he relates some of the impact of relationships between Indigenous and European partners, including Biraban and Lancelot Threlkeld. He has a balanced and sympathetic view of much mission work, and his comments complement and are consistent with John Harris’ One Blood.

He concludes with a chapter called “Feeling Reconciled”. Reconciliation is a relational category. It may require a retreat from legal racism, he says. Removing “race itself as a legal category of distinction in Australian Law and bureaucracy.” (p212) It will require new thinking about national oneness on the part of both Aborigines and Whitefellas. In passing he notes the very high percentage of Indigenous people marrying non-Indigenous.

It is an amazing and forthright book. Beginners like me would benefit greatly by reading it. In another blog I will comment on some other recent books in the field.

*Peter Sutton, The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the end of the liberal consensus. Melbourne University Press. 2011. ISBN 9780522858716

Posted in Australian Church, Missions, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

John Stott – some memories

John Stott taught me my first Greek phrase, “ouk engkakoumen” (“we do not lose heart” 2 Cor 4.1). He repeated it a number of times during Bible Studies at a CMS Summer School I attended when I was a teenager. It gave me an incentive to learn more of the Greek alphabet than I had already learnt in maths, so I could read the words myself.

However the great impact of the Bible studies was the clarity of the exposition. It was orderly, and it drew out what was in the text. Indeed it gently teased apart the text so that we could see the beauty and meaning of what was there. His teaching stirred me along to want to understand – and teach it – in that kind of way as well.

The expositions also “landed” as he would say in his later book on preaching. You heard how the text might apply to the present. You were helped to practise, not just admire.

John Stott laid a foundation for biblical exposition that has had a great impact in the ministries of later preachers. He has helped many not to lose heart.

Posted in Church Leadership, News & Events | 2 Comments

What kind of eulogy?

A month ago I delivered the eulogy at my father’s funeral. I don’t like the term eulogy, although it has a good ancestry (Paul uses it in 2 Cor 1, and Ephesians 1 and so does Peter in 1 Peter 1). It sometimes sounds like whitewashing, especially at funerals. Sometimes they are just opportunities to talk about ourselves (I have heard some terrible ones).

But most of us want to say something about a friend or father who has died. Of course there are far too many things that could be said, and many that probably should not be said. Many are anecdotes, memories, recollections, views from different angles. In the same family people have different memories and views – sometimes radically different.

So what to say? And who to say it to? No use talking to the coffin as some do. We talk to ourselves. We say out loud what we may have never put into words. Or perhaps what we often said out loud. We consolidate our group or family memory. We speak a little song of praise, we say something good, we bless (the meanings eulogy derives from).

We also speak to God if we are believers. Because we know that the things we remember are also blessings received from him by his grace (Paul and Peter knew that). God the father richly blessed my father. Not only in the era and location in which he lived, and the genes he was given, but by his Spirit, through his Word and in his church.

What sort of things do we want to say about a Christian who has died? What kind of speech do I want people to make at my funeral? What is it that distinguishes a Christian life from that of unbelievers?
Paul said that David served God’s purpose in his own generation (Acts 13.36). Hebrews says that “Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant.” (Heb3.5). “… those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.”, according to Paul (1 Cor 4.2).

These are wonderful testimonies to be said about a person both during and after their life on earth. The Lord may or may not have accomplished wonderful deeds through us. But to be remembered for being a faithful servant who served the interests of Christ Jesus, and not one’s own (Phil 2.21) is a blessing devoutly to be desired.

Posted in Australian Church | Leave a comment

Teaching the Bible in State Schools and a Significant Anniversary

 

 

 

Teaching the Bible in State Schools and a significant anniversary –2011 is the four hundredth anniversary of a key influence on English, Australian and American culture.

By Peter Corney

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible (KJB), sometimes referred to as the Authorized Version. Its influence on the development of the English language, our values, imagination and culture has been profound. It’s phrases still echo in common speech – an eye for an eye, like a lamb to the slaughter, as old as the hills, sour grapes, love thy neighbor, am I my brothers keeper, be sure your sins will find you out, pride goes before a fall, the salt of the earth, the sign of the times, the laborer is worthy of his hire, all things to all men, etc. The largest section in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations is the KJB section (28 pages).

 

But its influence goes beyond language into our art, music, literature and film. It ranges from the explicit text in Handel’s Messiah to U2, Bono and Nick Cave where the phrases and illusions abound. From William Blake’s poetry and Steinbeck’s East of Eden to a recent work, Atonement by the novelist Ian McEwan, and the film that followed, the influence continues. To fully appreciate the poetry of John Milton or T S Elliot requires an understanding of the Bible. It is also hard to read the words of the Prophet Micah (6:8) or Mary’s song (Luke 1:46-55 ) or Jesus’ manifesto of his ministry (Luke4:16-21 ) without being inspired about justice, fairness and equality!

 

Even an aggressive atheist like Richard Dawkins has said You can’t appreciate English literature unless you are steeped to some extent in the King James Bible… not to know (it) is to be, in some small way, barbarian. (1) Andrew Motion, former British Poet Laureate, and self confessed non believer, in an interview in The Guardian, laments the widespread ignorance of the Bible today. He made the point that Bible stories are an essential part of our cultural luggage. He recommended that all children should be taught the Bible in school, since without it they can not hope to understand history and literature. (2)  Melvyn Bragg in his recent “The Book of Books – the radical influence of the King James Bible” outlines its deep positive influence on English speaking culture, society and politics, it has, he says, driven the making of that world over the last 400years.(3)

This is an important observation in the light of the current push from a vocal minority for the dismantling of state legislation that provides for religious education in public state schools in Australia.

Many of the critics of religious education not only seem to have developed a form of cultural amnesia, they also seem ignorant of the very critical role the Bible has played in English culture in the forming of the very liberal freedoms they espouse so loudly.

 

 

 

 

 

In fact the translation of the Bible into vernacular English was deeply influential in the development of democratic ideas in England and America. The availability of the bible to ordinary people inspired many egalitarian and radical movements in 16th and 17th C England. It was strongly influential in maintaining the importance of the elected Parliament over the powers of the King in the Commonwealth period. Other examples are the push for equality of access to land by groups like The Diggers and Levellers (17th C) and the demand for freedom of association and the right to organize their own labor in the early 19th C by  farm laborers like The Tolepuddle Martyrs , forerunners of the modern Union Movement. These democratic movements were long before the advent of Marxism and were inspired by Biblical ideas of justice, fairness and equality.

 

To remove the study of the Bible from schools is like a form of book burning by the misguided secularists who either have no cultural memory or are simply ignorant of the forces that have formed our culture and its values, including those they cherish. Values are like water in a storage dam they leak away if they are not replenished from their source.

 

The KJB was commissioned by James I in 1604 and completed in 1611.Its forerunners were Wycliffe’s translation from the Latin in the 14th C and Tyndale’s translation from original Greek in 1526. It is interesting in the light of what we said above about the Bible’s influence on the development of democratic ideas, that James’ reasons for the project were partly political. When James ascended the throne of England the most widely read Bible was the Geneva Bible. This was produced by Protestants who had fled to Switzerland during the persecutions under Queen Mary. It contained marginal notes, or commentary on the text, some of which was critical of the absolute power and authority of monarchs. James’ plan for a single official Bible gave him the opportunity to displace the Geneva Bible and its notes!

 

The aims of Wycliffe and Tyndale were to put the Word of God into the hands and language of ordinary people so they could read and interpret it for themselves without the controlling filter of priest, prelate or ruler. They also believed that the key to the reformation and renewal of the church was a true understanding of scripture and a restoration of its authority in the church.

When Luther was faced with the criticism that putting the Bible into the hands of every plowboy would create controversy and confusion he replied that he would prefer the hurricane of controversy to the pestilence of an authoritative error, a not so veiled reference to Papal authority and ex cathedra pronouncements!

Once again in these comments we see the desire for freedom of thought and expression that the Reformation and the accessibility of the Bible to everyone promoted. It is ironic that the secular beneficiaries’ of this legacy now want to exclude its study from our schools.

 

In a time when multiculturalism is being challenged and there is anxiety about the divisive role of religion in the world, the story of “The Commonwealth” is worth reflecting on. It is not perfect but it is one of the more successful political unifiers’ in our troubled world. As well as a commitment to democratic government, part of the glue that has held The Commonwealth together is the English language and also the place and influence of the Bible in its educational systems. This has been far more significant than people often realize, particularly through the schools established in the colonies by Christian Missions in the 19th and 20th C’s. Many of the first nationalist leaders of post colonial governments were educated in these schools such as Julius Nyerere the first president of Tanzania. Nelson Mandela the first black president of South Africa is another outstanding example.

 

The words of Paul in the NT have had an impact, that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:27-28) In spite of its faults the Christian Church is one of the most powerful examples of multicultural unity in our world.

 

(1)I am indebted to the excellent article by Antony Billington in the March 2011 edition of EG the magazine of The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

(2) The Guardian 17th Feb 2009

(3) Melvyn Bragg, “The Book of Books- The Radical Impact of the King James Bible 1611-2011”, Published by Hodder 2011.

Peter Corney (Vicar emeritus St. Hilary’s Anglican Church Kew)

Posted in Australian Church, Missions, News & Events | Leave a comment

Aussie Evangelical Anglican Preaching Online

There are many online sources of great preaching, however it might be easy to overlook Aussie Anglican Evangelicals.

Apart from local church websites, there is a wealth of great material from two of our theological colleges:

Ridley Melbourne Mission and Ministry College: Sermons and Seminars (and also recent chapel sermons)

Moore Theological College: Audio Sermons and Talks (spans three decades of material!)

Don’t forget to pray regularly for the preaching ministry of your own minister – maybe give them a copy of a new Australian book on preaching?

 

Posted in Church Leadership, News & Events | 2 Comments

Is apologetics any use?

An overview and comments on Christology in Dialogue with Muslims. A Critical Analysis of Christian Presentations of Christ for Muslims from the Ninth and Twentieth Centuries, by Mark Beaumont. Carlisle, Paternoster, 2005. ISBN 1-84227-123-7.

Mark Beaumont’s PhD thesis is a careful and detailed study of three Christian apologists from the ninth century, three from the twentieth century plus a twentieth century harmonisation of the gospels in Arabic using Qur’anic language, and the way they dialogue with Muslims of their era.

Theodore Abu Qurra (c.755-c.829) was one time bishop of Harran in Syria before being deposed by the Patriarch of Antioch. He was a defender of the Chalcedonian definition against other Christians, Jews and Muslims. He defends the incarnation to Muslims by identifying common ideas about God limiting himself to one place (his throne) but also being everywhere – so why not limit himself to a human body while still ruling the universe. He also “questions the Islamic belief that God’s forgiveness can be obtained directly without the help of an intermediary.” (p39). Only the death of Christ on the cross allows for forgiveness of sins. Others had tried to argue for the death of Christ by using various Qur’anic texts. Abu Qurra’s approach here might be termed polemical rather than apologetic according to Beaumont. He says, “Abu Qurra’s aim is to show the necessity of the sacrificial death of Christ by spelling out the conditions laid down in the Bible. So the truth of Christ’s sacrificial death for sin is based on the premise that God must judge sin rather than overlook it. … Whether Muslims would be impressed with such an argument is doubtful given the denials of the crucifixion of Christ and human ransom for sin in the Qur’an. His unwillingness to tackle these Qur’anic beliefs, even in an indirect manner, means that his argument for the death of Christ as an atonement for sin would most probably fail to convince a Muslim.” (p41). More about this later.

Habib ibn Khidma Abu Ra’ita as a Jacobite theologian upheld the miaphysite theology of the Council of Ephesus and opposed the Chalcedonian definition (not one hypostasis and two natures but one hypostasis and one nature which was the same as the hypostasis of the Word). Abu Ra’ita debated with Melkites (the Chalcedonian’s), including Abu Qurra, as well as Muslims, but approached the two groups differently. He explains to Muslims that the human and divine in Jesus are two attributes of Jesus. As for Mary’s role, it was not that God took to himself a son, but rather that “the Word took flesh from Mary, so the eternal Word is the actor, not the product.” (p65). He appeals to various Qur’anic ideas to support his argument. In general Abu Ra’ita “attempts an encyclopaedic survey of all the issues Muslims raise on the topic.” (p66). His is a model approach of taking seriously the questions Muslims have, according to Beaumont.

`Ammar al-Basri represents the Nestorian church. He attempts a broad explanation, in terms he hopes the Muslim will accept, of both the incarnation and the death of Christ. In terms of the latter, it is the glory given by God after his suffering that mitigates the humiliation; the distinction between divine attributes related to Christ’s human nature and others that are not part of his humanity helps explain that “there is a temporary loss of these divine attributes between the time of death and the resurrection of Christ in God’s power and authority” (p91), and the resurrection is the guarantee that death can be overcome.

Beaumont’s evaluation of these approaches is to note that Abu Qurra and Abu Ra’ita tried to argue for the incarnation on Islamic grounds. Ammar tried to present arguments based on Islamic ideas, from within an Islamic thought-world, but neither he nor Abu Qurra wanted to use Islamic terminology. However his analysis of Muslim responses was that arguments based on Islamic foundations were regarded as weak at the time, but a century later Muslims were still taking issue with their arguments which started with the gospels’ portrayal of the incarnation and an explanation that tried to distinguish between God’s transcendence and his immanence. In the process the apologists themselves were pressed to refine and develop their ways of presenting the faith.

Kenneth Cragg is perhaps the best known twentieth century apologist. He begins with what Muslims know about Christ from the Qur’an and focuses his understanding of Christ on the synoptic gospels. Unlike the ninth century apologists he avoids creeds and Johannine Christology and argues ‘from below’, “away from the Incarnation of the eternal Son, to the human Jesus who is recognised as being in a unique relationship with God.” (p150). He attempts to “read new Christian meanings into the text of the Qur’an to encourage Muslims to see Christ in a fresh way …” (p151). He has a lot to say about forgiveness through the cross and little to say about the union of the divine and human in the person of Christ. He wants to proclaim Christ to the Muslim because only through faith in Christ can a Muslim find peace with God.

John Hick and Hans Kung are two others discussed by Beaumont. Hick’s Christology has changed over the years and seems to have abandoned all traditional beliefs in favour of living in harmony with others, but Muslims realise that he also does not accept their claims to revelation and are not happy with a reductionist attempt to see Islam and Christianity as essentially the same. Hans Kung starts with the Qur’anic portrayal of Jesus and wants to improve on it. But Muslims see the Qur’an as the complete and authoritative Word of God. Nevertheless Kung favours leaving aside the creedal statements and trying to move from Qur’an to gospels. However his later writings suggest he may allow more than way for people to be saved (p170).

Beaumont sees that the three twentieth century apologists have not developed their Christology in relation to Islam but have presented a Christology they held prior to the dialogue. What they have done is to try to make connections between Christian and Muslim understandings of Christ.

Beaumont also reviews an attempt to produce a harmonisation of the four gospels in Arabic using the terminology of the Qur’an in 30 chapters. Sira al-Masih was published in 1987. It uses the Qur’anic name Isa for Jesus for example. Beaumont thinks it should be seen more as an exercise in indigenous theology for Arab Christians from a Muslim background (p175). Sira downplays references to sonship, and the Johannine idea of being ‘one with the Father’ (a unity of thought or will), but makes clear the importance of crucifixion.

Overall Beaumont concludes that the “response by the Muslim dialogue partners shows that any insistence on aspects of Christology that contradict the Qur’anic account of Christ fails to convince.” (p198). But there is an appreciation when Christians reinterpret Christ in human terms. This may be a way forward according to Beaumont.

Beaumont offers a number of reflections on prospects for dialogue between Christians and Muslims. These will depend on how Qur’anic denials of sonship, incarnation and crucifixion are handled. Some suggest ethics may be way to go, thus avoiding the big issues. But ethics involves listening to the teaching of Christ, which raises issues of his authority to teach and thus leads back to Christology.

This is a fine study. It provides many perceptive insights and clarifies lots of issues in the dialogue between Christians and Muslims. In the end, however, it seems from this study that little progress is likely in the face of a determined, principled and unmoving commitment on the part of Muslims to the absolute truth and completeness of the Qur’anic testimony.

Beaumont’s evaluation of Abu Qurra’s approach “that his argument for the death of Christ as an atonement for sin would most probably fail to convince a Muslim.” (p41), reminds one of Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 1 that when Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom he preaches Christ crucified – a stumbling block and foolishness maybe, but God’s power to save nevertheless.

Answering questions of those who want to know is very important. But trying to explain the truth about Christ on terms that deny its truth seems quite difficult. There is a difference between answering those who really desire to understand, and responding to objections from those who seem just to be opposed. Of course it is not always possible to see the difference at first. Questions and objections can have the effect of controlling and diverting the conversation away from the main topic. And although we want to respect those who question, there is a kind of respect that ends up not respecting the Lord Jesus and his proclamation.

In the case of dialogue with Muslims, as perhaps in a different way with modern Australians, part of the task is first to understand the language and thought-world of those we are talking with and then to attempt to express the message of Jesus in ways that could be understood in that world. The tension arises when we want the message to be accepted as well as understood. “Understood” and “accepted” are different ideas. I suppose apologetics always struggles with the tension.

Posted in Australian Church, Church Leadership, Missions | Leave a comment

A Universalist Theodicy?

Whatever Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Church Michigan, America, intended with the publication of his book Love Wins, the resulting controversy highlights an issue that has been flickering on the edge of Evangelicalism for awhile. Robin Parry the author of The Evangelical Universalist and editor of All Shall be Well made the case recently at Spurgeon’s College, London for ‘Evangelical Universalism’. Parry’s argument is that everyone will eventually come to a saving faith in Jesus.

Essentially the argument for Universalism is that God’s primary characteristic of love means that he ultimately vanquishes sin, death and evil. All the parts of Scripture, the parables and teachings of Jesus, the flow of Biblical history and the all the various doctrines of Soteriology and Christology are understood in the light of this over arching idea, at the end of the cosmos, God is utterly victorious, in the end there is no sin or evil.

However at this point Blocher’s insightful monograph about theodicy, Evil and the Cross is very useful. In it he surveys a number of non-Christian responses and their Christian corollaries before offering a biblical solution. The Universalism as espoused by Bell and Parry, problematically teeters between “solution by universal order” and the “the solution by autonomous freedom”. Falling dangerously in other words between the idea that sin and evil are simply part of God’s larger plan or that sin and evil are the cost of our freedom.

The solution by universal order

The solution by universal order comes from the “optimism”, of the Stoics. Blocher writes: “[Stoics] like the slave Epictetus who was capable of smiling even while his cruel master deliberately broke his leg.” They see, says Blocher, the bigger picture of a universe striving towards “beauty” (page 14). The Christian variations come from Leibniz, the Continental mathematician, who asserted that God was sovereign and that evil was an imperfection that simply reflected a thing’s distance from God. Later Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit paleontologist, saw evil as a by product of evolution, part of God’s creation process.

The solution by autonomous freedom

The solution by autonomous freedom, sees the difficulty in aligning evil too closely with God and so makes it a necessary cost of human freedom. Blocher writes: “According to his ‘consequent’ nature at least, God is limited, emergent, advancing with the universe, and can influence the agents of historical change only by persuasion.” (page 41) John Hick’s famous “vale of soul-making” (page 53) is an expression says Blocher of this solution. In Hick’s words “Man can be truly for God only if he is morally independent of Him, and he can be thus independent only by being first against Him.” In other words sin (and evil) are a “prerequisite of love” (page 54).

An ‘iron triangle’

As Blocher points out in his closing chapters the biblical solution is an ‘iron triangle’ of sorts, made up of three sides that when broken introduce non-biblical ideas.  They are according to Blocher the three ideas of a Scriptural theodicy: God is sovereign, evil is evil and God is good. Universalism of a more deterministic variation errs in making evil part of God’s ultimate plan, while the more freedom focused variation errs in either reducing God’s sovereignty to make space for human freedom or errs by granting evil a place in order to allow for human freedom.

It seems Parry and Bell in their eagerness to emphasize one of God’s primary characteristics, love, have overlooked the theological consequences. Evil cannot be simply subsumed into God’s love and neither can it be counted, in some sort of divine-cost-benefit analysis, for freedom.  Hell is an expression of God’s defeat of sin and evil, but also God’s moral and ontological separation from sin and evil.   I suspect as evangelical universalism is placed under closer scrutiny, it’s theodicy will not bear the weight and it will continue to be a regarded as a heresy.

Posted in Theology | 1 Comment

Burning Korans

A strange idea. I knew a man once who burnt all his Heavy Metal CDs – and his guitar – when he turned to Christ, because he saw them as part of a demonic dark period in his life from which he wanted to be free.  But they were his CDs.

But where would you go to find out about burning other people’s Korans? The Old Testament gives some suggestions about smashing and burning idol images, but that is for idols that find their way into God’s land. It is not as though there was a general world-wide mandate given to the Israelites to search out and destroy all idols world-wide.

The problem was that they polluted the land God had set aside for his people. Or perhaps more importantly lots of Israelites seemed to like them and tended to adopt them as their gods.

It is true that, at different times, various groups of Christians have taken iconoclasm seriously on the basis of some of these texts, but the practice hasn’t gained a widespread following.

Maybe Paul might help. There was that girl with a divining spirit at Philippi who kept on telling who he was. She was very annoying and eventually Paul got rid of the spirit (though not the girl). It is an interesting contrast to some kinds of Prayer Warfare that would have cleaned out all the spirits before Paul started work in Philippi. Paul didn’t know about that method – or perhaps he had a better way.

Paul had plenty of scope if he wanted to look for religious beliefs and practices that were abhorrent to him. The world he lived in was full of them. He did get into a few arguments and fights but not because he was looking for a fight. He had a much simpler approach.

He told people about Jesus. He thought that his message about the resurrection of the crucified Jewish Messiah was the way to change people’s religious beliefs and behaviours.

It is still the best method even though we may have to explain and defend ourselves as a result. But more about that another day.

Dale Appleby

Posted in News & Events, Theology | Leave a comment