A prayer for Dementia Awareness week

dementiaDementia Awareness week begins on Sunday. Do take a look at the material on the Alzheimer’s Society site. (The picture above comes from them.)

If anyone’s still looking for resources, here’s a prayer you can use.

God of hope and resurrection,
you know us better than we know ourselves,
and draw us to peace and wholeness in your love.
We remember before you
those who are unable to remember their own lives.
Guard and treasure their lost memories for them,
and hold their past in your safe hands,
that when the death of the body comes,
you may bring them to the full life of the resurrection,
restore and heal the memories of their lives,
and give them back to themselves,
that we with them may rejoice in your love,
and find the fullness of life in your presence,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Really, what have vocations got to do with God?

This has now officially been announced as a mistake: (Christian) Vocation Advisers wanted 

It is a pretty astonishing mistake to make, for not only is the lack of a Christian commitment crystal clear in the advert, but also implicit in the role description and person specification. 

You might think that the clue is in the word “vocation”. It means a call, and in traditional church use, the identity of the primary caller was taken to be God. It was therefore a little strange already when the Archbishop’s Council announced a target of increasing ordinations by 50% by 2020 (PDF here). Who exactly is going to carry out God’s performance appraisal if he fails to meet this target?

Being charitable (and telling my inner outdated traditionalist to “shut up”), I assumed that this was primarily about developing new ways to help people (and especially younger people) see that God could be calling someone like them. This might be an invitation or challenge they would never hear unless it was presented in fresh ways, with some imaginative resourcing. It might also be the case that the church, in exercising discernment for what God was calling people to, needed to be less hidebound by traditional patterns of education, or inherited models of ministry. All of that might offer interesting and rewarding routes for exploration.

However, if the church really believes the vocation comes from God, setting targets for increases in vocations seem, shall we say, at least mildly presumptuous.

But perhaps the Church of England no longer believes vocations are from God. Perhaps it’s just a job in the church. For it has now advertised for a National Young Vocations Adviser. God is optional.

We are looking for someone who can create change by inspiring and supporting others in a wide network with a strong track record of delivery. Professional knowledge of Millennial Christianity and/or recruitment marketing would be an advantage. This role does not have an occupational requirement to be a Christian. (My emphasis)

You need knowledge of recruitment and marketing technique to encourage people to what has traditionally been presented as responding to God’s call. You have to persuade people to answer an invitation from someone you don’t have to believe is there to offer one. Who needs faith when you’ve got marketing technique?

In fact, if you look at the desirable characteristics of the role, the person will ideally have:

Knowledge of the characteristics of the Millennial generation, how they understand career-paths and/or faith (my emphasis again)

After that, I can only end in gobsmacked speechlessness.


An evening walk in Magdeburg with camera

A short pause this evening in a busy working schedule coincided with a lovely warm Spring evening. A couple of things I saw struck me.

The first was a piece of graffiti, which seemed well-fitted to multiple readings. The context is (or contexts are) that this is written on a fairly ugly concrete wall supporting a walkway. The walkway is around part of the old city wall of Magdeburg below the (Protestant) cathedral. And the site as a whole is in what was East Germany. Just the other side of the cathedral is a piece of the Berlin Wall which was given to Magdeburg in 2009 – marking the 20th anniversary of its being pulled down.

Sorry for the wall 1

Sorry for the wall 2

The second thing I found interesting were some statues beside the Elbe, on a strip of grass separating a busy dual carriageway from an almost equally busy footpath and cycle way. (There’s an awful lot of public art around the city, much of it fascinating.) The stillness of the statues in the busyness of the vehicular and foot traffic struck me as a contrast worth trying to capture in camera. So here’s an unconventional group of “still life” shots.

Still life 1

Still life 3 Still life 2

Do mention the war

Last week I was on an ecumenical pilgrimage (which means each day we walked somewhere) reflecting on war, justice and peace. This was organised by our diocese’s German partners, the Evangelische Kirche in Mitteldeutschland, and included most of their other partners from Finland, Sweden, Tanzania and the USA.

Two things, I think have struck me in particular. The first is the seriousness with which Germans in particular treat their history. Far from this being a case of “don’t mention the war”, the commitment to “never again” grows out of making sure there are monuments to the war built in to city architecture and curriculum alike. For example, they ensure that sites of atrocities are maintained and used in acts of remembrance as well as for school visits. The pictures below show a memorial to a local massacre at Gardelegen from the closing days of WWII, and the adjoining cemetery where the victims are buried. We were there on 13 April, the 61st anniversary of the atrocity.

Memorial 2 Memorial 3

Then there are the Stolpersteine. These “stumbling stones” are built into the pavement at sites where Jews were last know to live (or work, in the case below of the Mayor, Herbert Goldschmidt) before being taken to the death camps. The idea is that these stones catch people in the middle of walking around in daily life, and make them momentarily check themselves and remember. There are now 53,000+ such memorials around Europe.

Stolpersteine 1 Stolpersteine 2

Alongside this history of war, there is more recent history. Magdeburg, where we were based, is in the former DDR. The German peace movement, on both sides of the frontier, really took off in the 1980s, when Pershing missiles were brought to West Germany, and SS20s to East Germany. They protested against a divided country in which a nuclear civil war was a visible possibility on their own soil, brought about by the two superpowers which controlled their respective alliances.

This gave most of those we met from the peace movement a commitment to pacifism, rather than simply to peace. It also gave many of them, I think, a memory of the glory days when they actually made a difference, which may not be helping them look at the world as it now is.

Coming from a church which has officially embraced a just war tradition, I found their experiences and views challenging, even if I continue to disagree with them. It was less their arguments and more what they have lived through, and worked for, which made their views challenging because hard won from life’s experiences. It was peaceful means (as well, of course, severe economic pressure) which brought the wall down, engineered the collapse of the Soviet Union, and delivered reunification.

One of the things I take away from the discussion is this: it’s far too easy for us to mistake a relatively quiet and comfortable life (such as most of us Westerners currently enjoy) for peace. A quiet life at home, without justice for the world’s peoples, is only an illusion of peace. There are too many people, not least the thousands of refugees currently seeking safety, who need the real thing.

Supererogation is a very big word

Ever since I was child, I’ve loved words, and can still remember the first big word that fascinated me, thanks to the hymns at my parents’ church — consubstantial, as sung in a number of doxologies. Nicene Christianity, provider of big words to small boys. Another of those wonderful big words is provided by the fourteenth of the Church of England’s articles — supererogation. It’s not as exciting as it sounds.

XIV. Of Works of Supererogation
Voluntary Works besides, over and above, God’s Commandments, which they call Works of Supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety: for by them men do declare, that they do not only render unto God as much as they are bound to do, but that they do more for his sake, than of bounden duty is required: whereas Christ saith plainly, When ye have done all that are commanded to you, say, We are unprofitable servants.

Those who’ve read the immediately preceding posts in this series will realise that I don’t think any kind of numerical reckoning up of works to gain salvation, or indeed, any fundamental opposition between grace and works as abstract concepts, have actually got much to do with what St Paul was on about.

So the theme continues. The context within which the article is conceived is a framework from its own era, not Paul’s; despite this, the main point of the article is important. Faith in God, conformity with Christ, the life of the Spirit are aspects of relationship. Doing what is right is meant to be a pattern of life, not a question of whether to put in overtime, or knock off at the end of the day, secure in having earned one’s salary.

I don’t think Aquinas would have dissented from that at all. His discussion is more subtle. If I have understood him rightly, there are certain good works which are explicitly commanded: one’s duty is clear, and doing them has comparatively little to do with character, though it may shape virtuous character. Then there are good works which are not commanded per se, but are either encouraged as attitudes, or spring out of a virtuous character – a character shaped by the working of grace. It is these latter that are “works of supererogation.”

The fundamental distinction – if this is correct – is between the good that is specifically commanded, and the good that is not required, but is nonetheless part of the true vocation of those whom God calls. I am not well versed enough in the history of the period to know how or to what extent Aquinas’ teaching had become corrupted (or misunderstood) by Luther’s time, or to what extent Luther is actually attacking this view in order to maintain the absolute incongruity and undeserved nature of grace.

Interestingly the article quotes Luke 17:10, the conclusion of a brief parable. “When ye have done all that are commanded to you, say, We are unprofitable servants”. This quotation seems to be something of a Reformation trope and occurs also in a different context in the Augsburg Confession (article 6) where it bolsters the idea that human works can’t earn justification.

In Lukan context, the quotation appears to mean something subtly different. The disciples have responded to Jesus’ teaching on the necessity for repeated forgiveness of others by asking for more faith. They see forgiveness of this magnitude as something almost impossible to ask of them. Jesus tells a parable, treating such forgiveness as a matter of routine duty. What we might see as a matter of supreme virtue, God treats as an everyday act of obedience. It is a rather different line from either Aquinas or the articles. It suggests human and divine judgement may differ significantly about whether something is a matter of great virtue. It undercuts any classifying of good deeds according to human calculus.

Intriguingly, and not entirely tangentially, the language of supererogation appears once in the Vulgate, in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan’s final words to the innkeeper are translated “quodcumque supererogaveris ego cum rediero reddam tibi – and whatever you require in addition, I will repay you when I return” (Luke 10:35). In one sense it sums up the Samaritan’s attitude: he will do more than is required. The contrast is with the expert in the law, who wants to know exactly what must be done to fulfil the command “Love your neighbour as yourself”. How is one to know when one has fulfilled this obligation? For Jesus, this is the wrong question: the parable makes clear that the right question is “Who can I be neighbour to?” And the implicit answer is “Anyone in need.”

God’s requirements are essentially limitless while the work of creation and redemption remains to be fulfilled. In their very different ways, Aquinas and the articles are not far from this basic point of our Lord’s. In the end, God’s work is not to demand a basic minimum of good deeds, but rather to turn sinful people into holy ones, the bad into good, and worthless slaves (unprofitable servants in the language of the AV) into honoured children and heirs.

(Part of a series on the 39 articles of religion)

Saying goodbye to a mean-minded God?

feedthehungryEvery now and then I wonder why I started this series. Today is another such day, because I find the thirteenth of the Church of England’s articles of faith so viscerally unattractive. (I hope that my sense of repulsion has not totally affected my judgement!)

XIII Of Works before Justification
Works done before the grace of Christ, and the Inspiration of his Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ, neither do they make men meet to receive grace, or (as the School-authors say) deserve grace of congruity: yea rather, for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but they have the nature of sin.

I have already argued in previous posts in this series that this whole discussion on faith and works is carried out on entirely the wrong basis, and neither the overarching concepts of the late mediaeval / early modern debate nor its specific formulations are historically well rooted in Paul’s writings, or indeed other parts of scripture.

Somewhere behind this article lies the fundamental assertion that one cannot earn God’s grace and love, nor bootstrap one’s way to salvation. Let’s take that as read. That assertion, although expressed differently by Jews and Christians, and indeed historically by Catholics and Protestants, seems to me to be central to the biblical vision. The overarching sweep of the scriptural story stresses God’s prior initiative and our lives as needing to be responsive: how else can a story of Creator and creature be told?

However, somewhere along the way, that positive affirmation gets lost in the wording of this article. Entangled in late mediaeval constructs, it (along with some other expressions of Reformation thought) obscures that central theme, while blaming the mediaeval schools for the obscurity. It turns God into some kind of morally deficient judge of a defective past creation, instead of the gracious sustainer of present creation, whose loving determination is to bring all created being to its redeemed consummation.

The mercy of a God who judges all human deeds abhorrent, unless they are performed by those that same mercy has brought to believe in Christ, is scarcely mercy at all. In fact, whatever the article actually says, that can’t be the totality of the Anglican reformers’ view, since they accept the salvation of the the faithful people of the Jewish covenants before Christ.

Going further, it seems to me that they have no real and practical concept of non-Christians, and neither make provision for, nor develop a theology of, God’s mission in the world. The assumption they make, living in a Christian commonwealth, is that every citizen is either believer, heretic or apostate. The root assumption is that everyone is baptised. This article probably needs to be read in that light as talking about what activates that baptismal seed within them: doing good deeds because we wish to be loved, or doing good deeds because we have discovered that we are loved.

In today’s world, however, that Christendom assumption is plainly nonsense, and so the wording of the article seems even more nonsensical, if not simply appalling. If we truly have a vision of God’s creative and redemptive work (two different perspectives on the same gracious and loving purpose of God) focused and known in and through the sacrificial love of the Son of God who shares our humanity, then no person lives, speaks and acts without the grace of God sustaining their being, or themselves ever being less than the determined object of God’s love.

How one comes to recognise that grace, and the ways in which people respond to that grace, are different questions for which the Church continues to need to work on its theology of mission — understood as embracing creation and redemption as its methods, and the perfection of new creation as its goal.

It seems to me, for example, that some atheists have been very palpable gifts of God’s grace to me, some by their friendship, and the goodness I have found in them, others by their protest against distorted pictures of God the church has wittingly or unwittingly perpetrated, others again by their pursuit of truth in the light of their reason and courage, in the face of a church that has not liked the challenge of uncomfortable truths.

I am not prepared to say that these are not good deeds pleasing to God. And I am certainly not prepared to say that these are anything other than the working of God’s grace (however much my atheist friends may dislike that assertion). I hope and pray that they might (somehow, somewhere, somewhen) come to know how to name the God of that grace with gratitude, but ultimately that is God’s business and theirs. In the meantime, mine is to bear witness to the God who makes himself known in Jesus of Nazareth, exploring ways to name him in word and deed which others may find both comprehensible and compelling.

In the light of my experience, some of the more generous reflections of our tradition, and above all a more hopeful reading of scripture, I have rather more sense of God as the one in whom we all live and move and have our being, who will not be so easily frustrated in his creative purposes, and who above all delights far more in his diverse creation than the wording of this article suggests.

(Part of a series on the 39 articles of religion)

Works: what are they good for?

The twelfth Anglican article is one of several dealing with that hot topic of the Reformation, the relationship of faith and works. In the previous two posts I’ve noted my view that Paul is not, in fact, talking about the same things as the Reformers, and that view inevitably forms the backdrop to my comments.

XII . Of Good Works
Albeit that Good Works, which are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s judgement; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith; insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.

It seems that the Anglican Reformers are worried that if people accept the idea that nothing we do can earn God’s favour (outlined in the preceding articles), then they may feel there’s not much point in trying to do good. Because they have collapsed Paul’s very specific “works of the Law” into generic “good works” they were able to find a similar view opposed in their reading of Paul:

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? (Romans 6:1-2 NRSV)

For Paul this is largely a rhetorical strategy; for the Reformers it seems to be a real fear. Once you’ve stressed, as they did (articles XII and XIII are really the wrong way round) that good works can’t earn God’s favour, and in fact, aren’t really good at all, it can be difficult to assert the place of them in Christian life. Insisting on their uselessness before conversion, they have a harder task to make them useful after conversion – and, we have to remember, that conversion is largely theoretical. Their experience is framed by a Christian commonwealth in which most works accomplished by most people come after (infant) baptism.

However, we may be grateful the Anglican reformers avoided the error of, for example, the statement of the Westminster Confession, that “Good works are only such as God has commanded in His holy Word”. Instead they allow more attention to be paid to the art of moral discernment and judgement as itself a gift of the Spirit, and the work of the biblically informed mind. The Anglican Reformers did not believe that for a thing to be good or right it had to be commanded in Scripture.

Despite the apparent wording of the article, it is far less the case in scripture that good works come naturally to those who have faith. It is rather more the case that, living by the gracious love of the covenant God, the people of God seek to live lives of loving faithfulness in return. Practices of prayer, acts of love and spiritual disciplines are about how a person cultivates their life so that what Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit might grow.

Paul, at least as I read him, believes that faith implies and encompasses faithfulness, and that the Spirit engenders and empowers virtuous character and good deeds. We can be thankful that the article affirms that right faith and righteous living are meant to go hand in hand, even if the means by which it gets there, and the way it expresses it, are rather strange. The mystery is that anyone ever thought (or more likely were thought to think) otherwise.

(Part of a series on the 39 articles of religion)

The ironic language of #Brexit: is it just me?

I have been puzzled by the way the Leave campaign have been using the English language. They seem to have coined, and regularly repeat, two phrases in their argument: “Parliamentary sovereignty” and “democratic deficit.”

Is it only I who find it strange that we are defending “Parliamentary Sovereignty” by giving power to a plebiscite. How can you defend the power of our Parliament, while at the same time insisting that it should be impotent to make the most vital long term decisions affecting our country?

And how many of those campaigners are heard in other contexts (especially on the subject of bishops in the Lords) defending a “separation of powers”? I’m sure I’ve heard Farage and others sounding that American, yet it’s an idea associated with a constitution that divides sovereignty between contending institutions.

Then again, in what respect does Parliamentary sovereignty really work? It has notably failed in recent decades to exercise much control over the legislative programme of an overweeningly arrogant executive, and when it does function (as in the rather less democratic but independent Lords defeating the whipped poodles of the Commons) howls of outrage are heard from Downing Street and its lackeys, whose knee-jerk reaction is frustration with the “sovereignty” of a system that bridles their executive power.

I find it equally ironic that so many Brexiters are talking about a “democratic deficit”. It is those who have resisted European federalism who have done most to ensure the European Parliament is weak. The “deficit” is forced on the EU by those who do not want a strong democratic institution at the heart of Europe, lest it challenge national governments for legitimacy.

Moreover, it is the anti-European politicians like Farage who have treated the Parliament as a useful source of funds while refusing to carry out a properly representative role for their constituents. Those who have often done their best to stop it functioning are more responsible than most for its lack of democratic accountability. It seems strange their should complain about their “greatest” achievement.

And all the while in the UK, for our parliamentary elections, we insist on maintaining an electoral system that means the majority of the population live in constituencies where their vote doesn’t count. I’ve spent the most of the last decade living in a one party state! It seems to me that addressing a “democratic deficit” needs to begin at home. And with something better than the party list PR system that is so problematic for the European elections.

Is it just me, or are we living through a campaign dripping in unnoticed linguistic ironies?

Older doctrine and the not so new perspective on Paul

The previous post on Anglican Article 11: Of the Justification of Man (back in the 16th and 17th centuries a gender inclusive noun), was simply getting too long. This is part 2 of the same argument.

The context for a reappraisal of Paul (and Jesus) within Judaism was to a great extent created by the Holocaust. All sorts of people became increasingly aware of the ways in which so much of the Reformation picture of Paul was implicated in Christian anti-Semitism. At the same time, as ecumenism spread in the wake of Vatican II, many Protestants became aware that Roman Catholics were Christians too. Neither of these contextual shifts in themselves brought about a new reading of Paul, but they did mean that when one came along, it would find a more receptive audience than previous attempts at re-reading his work.

The first plank in building a new reading of Paul came from a seminal essay by Krister Stendahl in 1963 (‘Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West’). He argued persuasively that Paul simply didn’t share Luther’s concerns about finding salvation. Paul, as a good observant Jew was far from wondering how he could be free from sin and be saved. He was, rather, confident that he was one of God’s saved people. (See for example Phil 3:4-7)

It was more than a decade later that the decisive foundation for a new reading of Paul was laid, by Ed Sanders. In Paul and Palestinian Judaism he argued from detailed examination of texts that the idea of a Judaism that sought to achieve salvation through doing the works of the Law was almost entirely alien to the Judaism Paul knew and was a Lutheran construction imposed wrongly on Second Temple Judaism. Jews, like Christians, knew that they were saved by God’s grace, and performed the works of the Law as a response to that grace.

While some critiques of Sanders have challenged this, I don’t think they have succeeded in overthrowing it, but have perhaps shown where it needs to be nuanced. (It is also fair to say there is something like a consensus that Sanders is better on Judaism than he is on Paul in this book.) So if there were no (or few) salvation-by-merit earning Jews around, whom and what was Paul arguing against, and what did he mean by justification by faith? There are several variations of this under the banner of the “new perspective”: what follows is only a brief sketch.

In the final judgement, when God vindicated or justified his people, it would become clear to everyone that the people of the Law, the Jewish people, were indeed God’s chosen and righteous people, and their God was indeed the just creator God of all the earth. In the present time, God’s people could be recognized by their observance of the Law, demonstrating their acceptance of his call and salvation, and their faithful worship of the one true God, while they waited his future vindication. So, when the Church started to accept pagans into fellowship, many assumed that they too should start observing the Law.

By contrast, Paul argued that Christ had first of all demonstrated complete obedience to the Law and fulfilled it, yet at the same time the Law had condemned Jesus. Where the Law had declared Jesus a failed Messiah, even cursed, God in the resurrection had declared Jesus vindicated, his true Messiah. This showed that the Law no longer was able to truly declare whom God would vindicate, because when God vindicated and justified Jesus he effectively over-ruled the Law. Accordingly, a new pattern of true obedience is shown in Christ, and those who have faith in Christ are those who are truly God’s people. Faith in Christ means something like, accepting him as the one who reveals what obedience and true faithfulness to God look like, and as the one who has received the vindicating verdict of God.

Therefore (Paul argues) pagans who join the people of God do not have to keep the Law to demonstrate their obedience, they have instead to follow Christ. Faith in Jesus as the truly faithful one (not the observance of the Law) is what marks out those whom God is calling and will vindicate. So, on this reading, justification is not primarily about how an individual finds salvation, but about how the Church embraces people of every type, class and race on the same basis: not the the basis of the Law given to one nation, but on the basis Christ the faithful one, the truly human one, representative not just of Israel but all humanity, sent, anointed and vindicated by God.

Nothing in this reading contradicts the central affirmations of article 11. The work of salvation is by God’s grace, and it is God’s work in and through Christ, reconciling us to God’s own self. At the same time, it profoundly alters the individualist stress of that and other earlier readings, and becomes most profoundly a teaching to challenge our divisions. Those who accept Christ as the locus of God’s saving power, the revelation of his vindicating justice, and the pattern of human obedience, must themselves accept all others who, however fallibly, also accept this same Christ. God’s generosity to us ultimately obligates us to be generous with one another. If God’s grace governs our relationship with God, then it must also govern our relationship with God’s people.

For some, this new challenge to older readings has been wholly unwelcome. Realistically, it is still relatively early days for testing this theory out in the realm of doctrine rather than exegesis. In theory, at least, the churches of the reformation remain committed to being always reformed in the light of scripture. In practice, when new readings of scripture are generated that challenge deep-seated and long-cherished understandings, that commitment is harder to maintain. Often denying tradition, some evangelicals are hard put to deal with the recognition that their reading of scripture is a tradition. But when there are seriously contested readings of scripture clashing with each other as older and newer perspectives clash, one will not go away just because it is unwanted.

Those of us who are persuaded that something more-or-less along the lines of the new perspective on Paul is a more satisfying and historically plausible understanding of Paul’s meaning need to work out how to engage more thoroughly with the doctrinal tradition. Nonetheless, if we take Paul’s commitment to justification and grace seriously, the tradition will be that of the whole Church, all those who accept Christ as the central and defining focus of God’s involvement with creation, and not just our own narrower and more partisan histories.

(Part of a series on the 39 articles of religion)

Justification: on rightly aligning St Paul

Outside a relatively narrow theological circle, talk of justification is more likely to be about text alignment –a question about an entirely different sort of font! Within the church, and most especially within evangelical churches (except when reading Paul it is more often absent outside them), it refers to particular understandings of salvation: namely that, as the article has it:

XI. Of the justification of Man
We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.

One of the problems in discussing Reformation debates such as that entered into by the eleventh of the 39 articles, is that modern biblical studies is engaged in ever more complex disputes about what Paul – the primary user of the language of justification in the Bible – means by such a phrase. For every evangelical Christian to whom the language is a vital component of the gospel, there are non-evangelical Christians who are barely aware of it, and for those outside the church it is even more abstruse. I shall get to an explanation shortly for those who need it.

Every week I preach justification by faith to my people, because every week they forget it. - Martin Luther
Until the late 70s, there was an (often unexamined) assumption that Paul meant something like the Reformers. The disputes were more about how central this idea was to his theology. Since the late 70s, however, a so-called new perspective (in fact a range of perspective with a family resemblance) has challenged that identification, and in my view, challenged it decisively enough to refute it, without establishing agreement over what replaces it.

This means that one of the key planks of the Reformation, justification by faith alone, as articulated in the article under discussion, can no longer be presented as a simple reading of scripture. The debate about whether justification is central to Paul continues: what is new is a discussion of what it means. What follows is a brief over-simplification, before coming back to the article.

In the late medieval period, among other things, the church, or at least some theologians, seemed to develop an unhealthy concentration on the question: “How may I be saved / inherit eternal life.” I say unhealthy, because it seems to me that an obsession with our own souls is something that Jesus discouraged, in favour of a broader concern for God’s work with others. The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is the clearest example of that: those who are obsessed with their own safety and salvation, the priest and the Levite, are those who are most like the lawyer who poses two questions, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and “Who is my neighbour?” (The latter question is equivalent to: “How much must I do to keep the law and gain eternal life?) The one who is careless of his own safety and salvation is the Samaritan, who knew the same Law concerning ritual purity, and the same dangers of bandits, yet still stopped to put another first. The parable is an effective expansion of Jesus’ saying: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:24 – the word for life is the same as the word for soul!)

This obsession led to complicated theories involving a treasury of merits: the sense that God treated all his people as one family, and that there was an accounting of good works and bad. In theory Christ’s good work was central, but it was supplemented by the good deeds of the saints especially, as his faithful followers. As happens in a family or community with scarce resources, good deeds could be shared by those who needed their merit most. In this case those were repentant sinners only too aware of their bad deeds, and especially those souls caught up in purgatory, not good enough to have made it straight to heaven, but baptized into the same family of the Church and penitent enough not to deserve final condemnation. In the best theology, Christ was still the fountain spring of all goodness, and the one who brought people that grace by which they could do good works in the first place. But in common practice and thinking Christ could be woefully obscured.

Against this the Reformers weighed in: they never actually abolish the idea of merit, but simply insist that Christ’s merit is infinite, and in no need of supplementing. There is no good deed that is independent of his merit, and which carries its own discrete merit. His merits suffice for all, and underwrite all other apparent merit. So equally, there is no laborious process of accounting through purgatory. Those who are Christ’s, who put their trust in him and his merits, have more than sufficient for their salvation. Christ was put into centre place again, but in the process the Reformers opened a wider space for the roots for individualism to gain ground. The question was now even more about me and my soul, and becoming divorced from the community of faith.

In the process of working through these questions, a fresh reading of Paul took centre stage. Luther, followed by other Reformers, appropriated Paul for the cause: his challenge to accepted teaching. Wherever he came across the phrase “works of the Law” he universalized it to “good works.” Then he equated the Judaisers and Jewish opponents of Paul to his “catholic” (at this point they were all, Luther included, Catholic) opponents. Finally (still in accounting terms) he read the whole of Paul’s language about justification as discussing that late mediaeval question: “How can I be saved from death and sin?” In doing so, he argued essentially that good works could not make us righteous and so acceptable to God: they could not change our sinful nature and status. But Christ’s sacrificial death was of such infinite goodness and merit, that it was sufficient to more than outweigh every human sin in the accounting scales. Therefore, if we put our faith in Christ as the one whose merit was sufficient, and as God’s gift to us, God would account us righteous even when we were not. This, he believed, was what Paul meant by justification. (Although in many respects the Reformers follow Anselm’s idea of satisfaction, by transposing it from its feudal setting to a law-court judgement of deeds, they lost the relational framework in favour of a juridical one).

That view, so baldly (and no doubt badly) summarized here, became, among the churches of the Reformation, and so also in the rising field of Biblical scholarship, the default reading of Paul. Jews were dependent on seeking to please God by doing good deeds, Pelagians before Pelagius, and bad, merit-seeking, mediaeval Catholics to the last person. Christians were evangelicals: those who depended on God for salvation, and received God’s favour through grace, entirely derived from Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice alone, and Protestantism was Pauline Christianity. There were, more recently, in non-evangelical circles, debates about whether Paul’s concept of justification by faith was the centre of his thought, or a more (very?) peripheral aspect of it. But no-one seriously questioned that what Luther said about justification was what Paul had said.

To be continued!

(Part of a series on the 39 articles of religion)