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)

God, goodness and morality

Sometimes I find myself tempted to heresy by the way some people express their orthodoxy. The tenth of the Church of England’s articles leaves me feeling just so tempted. There are a great many people who hear or mishear such expressions of doctrine as this, and are repelled by what can all too easily look like smugness.

X. Of Free Will
The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith, and calling upon God: Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.

First, let me clear up a couple of potential linguistic confusions. In talking about “free will” the debate does not seem to be the one later associated with that term: the article is not talking about freedom and determinism as a philosophical problem, but about the freedom or ability to perform moral acts. Secondly, that word “preventing” is an archaism for “going before.”

In a nutshell, we might paraphrase the main sense of this article as saying not simply: “You can’t pull yourself up to heaven by your own bootstraps” but more precisely: “You can’t do anything that makes you more acceptable to God.” It is, however, all too easy also to paraphrase it as saying “you can’t do anything good without God” which is heard (and sometimes intended to be heard) as an insulting dismissal of non-believers.

Positively, and in line with the mainstream of Christian tradition, the article affirms the absolute priority of God’s initiative in creating and sustaining the world. Negatively, it can easily be read (perhaps misread)  to suggest either that we are not ourselves capable moral agents, whose works can be good in themselves, or that there are categories of good works that aren’t pleasant and acceptable to God.

I have a double problem. First, I interpret the Fall as mythological and ahistorical, so that I have to speak about the human condition in ways somewhat different from the article. Secondly, I think that we have to talk about moral acts as free acts, and so that however we speak about grace it can’t be something that coerces specific acts, or makes them any less our acts. In fact, I have problems with the way in which we speak about grace as some kind of reified substance, rather than a fundamental attitude in, or attribute of, God’s own being.

I want to affirm that we are in the process of becoming human, and the world on its way to becoming good creation, and that this is initiated, sustained and will be completed by God’s acting graciously. That gracious activity of God is focussed, revealed and given shape in created existence by the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus. God created (creates) and re-creates the world in such a way that he might enter into its estranged otherness, in order to bring it to completion. In that sense, our very existence, never mind our individual acts, depend on the prior gracious initiative of God, and his desire for our good.

Learning to become moral actors depends on being tuned in to that loving activity of God, which frees us from being constrained only to act in accord with nature, seeking our own benefit, or that of our immediate people group, according to the “morality” (to anthropomorphize) of evolution. If, in Richard Dawkins’ most successful anthropomorphism, genes are selfish, becoming human is learning a morality other than that of the genes. It is to respond to the workings of creative grace, rather than being left to the survivalist instincts directed by the evolutionary drive of our constituent parts.

In that fairly carefully delineated sense, it is only with the grace of God that we can act morally at all. But naming it as the grace of God comes from being able to see and experience that grace more fully in knowing oneself in relationship to God. The affirmation that we can do no good act without God’s gracious loving involvement is an affirmation only possible to the one who has come to believe. It is only once we have come to see ourselves as existing because of, and in fulfilment of, an underlying and all-encompassing love that we can understand the frame that creates the possibility of moral action.

What the article affirms is probably useless, if not repugnant, when taken as a statement to hit others over the head with in debate, especially in evangelistic debate. But if we see it as a way in which we are invited to tell our story, and see our lives in relationship with the one “in whom we live and move and have our being,” then it becomes a celebration of our calling into true moral capacity and God’s enabling power to lead us into a life of love.

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