The myth of the fall

I noted in my previous post some of the deficiencies of the ninth article on original sin, and postponed reflection on the problems raised by a contemporary scientific understanding of the world, together with a modern literary reading of the Genesis origin stories. Today I want to explore some different readings of those stories, in the light of our contemporary understanding of a slow evolution of living things, together with an appreciation of the mythopoeic nature of the early stories of Genesis.

At the same time, I want to hold on to what is affirmed (if that’s the right word) by the doctrine of original sin: namely that there is something more to the imperfect nature of the world and of human beings than simple concrete acts of human wrongdoing. In the bluntest language, we are not sinners because we sin, we sin because we are sinners. Estrangement both from God, and from the truest nature of what God calls us to and would have us become, is part of the fundamental theological description of human being.

First, we need to note that taking Genesis 3 as giving an account of a single historic Fall of humanity is essentially a later Christian reading, apparently generated by Paul’s comparison of Adam and Christ. Jewish readers do not take these texts in the same way, and there is good reason in the text to see it their way.

The eating of the fruit mars the way in which humans were to live in the world. Among other things they hide from God, the stewardship of the garden is replaced by the painful labour of farming, and childbearing likewise results in painful labour. (English translations rather obscure the use of the same word for the man’s toil and the woman’s pain.) The man and woman are distanced from each other and seek refuge in the cultural artefacts of clothing, and the way to the tree of life is barred.

As the story progresses, so too does a growing alienation between humans, as first Cain murders Abel, and Lamech develops a macho cult of power backed up by vengeance. Rivalries that set up a train of persistent bloody history develop in the story of Noah’s sons. This alienation will find its completion in the mangling of human language at the tower of Babel, and the dispersal of people and language groups. Throughout this time the growth of self-aggrandizing human culture continues apace.

The order of creation is itself threatened, first (and this is the nearest some Jewish traditions have come to an actual “Fall”) by the disordering of the proper relations of heaven and earth, as “the sons of God” mingle with “the daughters of men.” This prompts God to come close to unmaking creation by releasing the penned up waters, and disordering the world with the chaotic flood, yet in the end God sustains creation despite the fact that imperfections continue, and renews his blessing.

(The promise in the Apocalypse, that there will no longer be any sea, needs to be seen in this light. The present creation contains within itself the potential for being unmade. The future creation will not: fully indwelt by God, it will be un-unmakeable. There is a level of “very good”, a perfection, which present creation has never had.)

Throughout this story, the threat that eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would bring death is being worked out. As human knowledge of good and evil continues increasingly and experientially through this primaeval history, so lifespans come increasingly closer to the norm. Adam may have been 930 years old when he dies, but by the end of Genesis 11 Terah dies at 205. We are some way nearer the normal human experience of a life bounded by all sorts of limits, but especially the limit of death.

This brief summary reads the texts as an aetiology of human experience of the world. It is a story of bane and blessing, disobedience and covenant, death and life. In this story it is remarkably hard to single out one moment only of this progression and say, “that was the Fall, that was”.

So what could have led Paul to his innovative understanding of a moment when everything changed with the transgression of Adam, rather than through a series of events? The answer, I think, must be that this is indeed one of the places where Paul moves, in Sanders’ phrase, “from solution to plight.” Seeing a decisive moment of new creation in the resurrection of Christ drives Paul back to seeing a decisive moment of creation’s fall through Adam. Thus there is only either fallen humanity, or recreated humanity. Just as resurrection is not a process, so fall could not have been a process rather. Both are read as decisive events.

Paul’s insight can’t simply wipe away the other ways of reading. On the other hand, it needs taking seriously. So if we try to do that, re-read the story of human fallenness in the light of Christ, rather than Christ in the light of the earlier story, does that also offer us a way of dealing with an atemporal fall in an evolutionary universe?

One of the more interesting aspects of St John’s gospel is the way in which Christ’s work is portrayed as the work of creation. Consider these fairly well-known verses (all NRSV):

  • Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. (4:34)
  • Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” (5:16-17)
  • When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” (19:30 – completed on the sixth day of the week)
  • Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark … (20:1 – after the last sabbath of the first creation when Jesus rested from his finished work, comes the first day of the new)

In John, Jesus does not recognise the sabbath as a day of rest, because the work of creation has not been completed. It will only be finished when he dies.

I suggest this invites us to go back to the story of Genesis 1 and read it not as past event, but proleptically. We read it as the prologue to the whole Christian Bible, saying this is what God is about, creating order from chaos, and making human beings to live in union with God’s own self. The image of God is God’s intention for men and women, only fully realised in the incarnation, that reveals the image to us, and makes us able to share in it. For now, we participate in the chaos, as much as we are invited to join in the ordering activity of the one who breathes the spirit of life into us.

Fall, and original sin, then become a way of speaking about human existence on its way to being ordered out of chaos, and being created into the image of God. Though they describe our environment and our being negatively (though in all sorts of ways fairly accurately) their primary intent is not negative, but an invitation to a better vision, and a hope for a creation where God can pronounce at the end of the story, that it is indeed very good.

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

Sin: just how original is it?

Some time back I remember Bishop David Jenkins, who rather revelled in his reputation as the enfant terrible of the English bishops, once beginning a sermon at the (evangelical) St John’s College, Nottingham, by saying: “I don’t believe in original sin.” He paused for effect before continuing: “That’s the trouble with sin, someone’s always done it before!”

Many people would sympathize. Contemporary Christianity often seems to have problems with the doctrine, or at least some of the ways in which it is, and has been, formulated. Perhaps this is because it is unpopular to speak so negatively about humanity, or the way in which it can lead, for example, to views on the fate of dying infants that people find unacceptable.

It is problematic because we are more aware today from our Jewish friends of other ways of reading the early part of Genesis. It is problematic because as literate, scientifically knowledgeable, and well-educated readers we treat the Genesis stories as myth, and Adam as concomitantly ahistorical. And it is problematic because the foundation text of the Augustinian doctrine is not understood by most modern readers of Paul to say what the Augustinian interpretation took it to say.

Yet despite this, it is arguably the one Christian doctrine for which we are swimming in empirical evidence!

Here is the article.

IX. Of Original or Birth-sin
Original Sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh, called in the Greek, phronema sarkos, which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection some the desire, of the flesh, is not subject to the Law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized, yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.

I shall save the discussion around scientific questions about a literalist reading for a subsequent post. But here, while I am not going to engage with all the details of the article, I first want to note the fundamental affirmation of doctrine this article makes, then its fundamental deficiency, before going on to explore the problematic areas of biblical interpretation.

The fundamental affirmation is that sin is not simply to be reduced a set of individual faults, failings or wrongdoings performed in isolation by individuals, but that it is a characteristic of human existence as we know it, a disfigured social network, and an ineluctable chthonic marring of what it means to be human. It is not just deed, but matrix, not just act but the encompassing framework within which we act. Most (perhaps all) of us, baffled by our own behaviour, and a sometimes sense of helplessness in the face of our own inclinations, will recognise something of that conception of original sin, however uncomfortable we may be with some statements of it as a doctrine.

The fundamental deficiency is any prior related statement of the doctrine of creation. The reference in the first article to God as “the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible” and in this article to “original righteousness” really aren’t enough. Without a thorough grounding in the doctrine of creation, a statement such as the article makes that “man … is of his own nature inclined to evil” looks as if it is on the way to an unguarded Manichaeism. Where is original goodness, or the blessing that precedes and follows the Fall of Adam? Where is the image of God in which humankind were fashioned from the humus, the earth-creature from the earth? I don’t see how one can talk about what “corruption of nature” might mean, without speaking first of that nature. On this ground, the article is plainly lacking.

Some at least of this is due to the problematic exegetical base for original sin, derived from St Augustine, whom some suspect of never having entirely thrown off the Manichaeism he once professed.

Augustine took Paul’s phrase “ἐφ᾽ ᾧ πάντες ἥμαρτον” (Rom 5:12) following the Vulgate “in quo omnes peccaverunt” to mean “in whom [Adam] all sinned”. This became the standard Western tradition, reiterated at Trent, which repeats the appeal to this verse (Session 5, Decree Concerning Original Sin, ¶2). The ninth article stands firmly in this Augustinian tradition: sin is fundamentally hereditary, and comes down to us like spiritual DNA from Adam. This is effectively sin as a sexually transmitted disease.

That Augustinian interpretation of Paul’s “ἐφ᾽ ᾧ πάντες ἥμαρτον” as meaning “in whom all sinned” makes that επι (ἐφ᾽) the most disastrous preposition in history. All modern translations agree that its proper meaning is “because.” The hereditary idea of “naturally … engendered of the offspring of Adam” is poorly rooted in this text, once the text is more appropriately translated.

The article then moves on to another Pauline idea: “so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit”, which appears to allude to Galatians 5:17. What Paul sets out as two spheres of being (even if precise interpretations are disputed, this much is largely agreed) Cranmer seems to take as two components of human nature, setting up an internal dualism.

He then compounds this by conflating a reference to Romans 8:6-7 with the argument of Romans 7. He takes from the first the phrase phronema sarkos (τὸ γὰρ φρόνημα τῆς σαρκὸς θάνατος – the mindset of the flesh is death) and translates “the lust of the flesh” despite the lack of any word indicating desire (as in Gal 5:16. Then he argues that this is “is not subject to the Law of God” (i.e. cannot obey it) apparently paraphrasing from Romans 7:7. All of these might mildly be described as tendentious exegeses (although Romans 7 does rather lend itself to tendentious exegesis)!

Quite simply, original sin, in the way the article expounds it, is a textual and exegetical mess. That leaves quite a bit of work to do in rescuing its fundamental affirmation. The weight of scripture, tradition and our own honestly reflected on experience all point to a doctrine that has to say more than “all people just happen to do wrong”. Whatever else original sin might mean, it seems to me to suggest an understanding that our skewedness from God’s purposes is endemic to the human situation. And I would go so far as to claim that anything less doesn’t do justice to reality or our experience of it.

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

Praying with the Prodigal Son



The below is a suitably Lenten preface for Eucharistic prayers that takes up the story of the prodigal son / indulgent father as its basic narrative of forgiveness and celebration. (The illustration above is a painting from 1872 by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.

This preface may be particularly suitable for Lent 4, when that provides the gospel story in churches following the Roman Catholic / Revised Common Lectionary.

It is indeed right, our duty and our joy,
at all times and in all places to give you thanks and praise,
most gracious and long-suffering God,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

From the time you brought humanity into being,
you have always patiently attended to us,
yet we, unwilling to accept your gifts of love,
sought our own way and wandered far from you.

In Jesus Christ you have come to meet us,
to bring us to our selves, that we might return to you,
and know you as our Father once again.

In these forty days you call us to prepare our hearts and minds,
that we may know the joy of being your children,
and delight in the feast which you have prepared
for all who come to the table of your kingdom.

And so we bless you for your mercy,
and join with saints and angels,
for ever praising you and singing (saying):

(And here’s a reminder that – like most of the rest of this blog – this preface is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Licence, so you can use it freely in your liturgy and worship)

Mark this ambiguous Jesus

There have been a whole raft of posts around the interwebs in recent days about Mark’s understanding of Jesus in his gospel.

A flavour of the debate can be had from these posts, which also have further links:

Today Mike Bird returned to the fray to argue that:

I think Mark’s Christology is ambiguous because Mark knows of no other Christology than that embroiled in paradox of Jesus as the human Messiah, the coming Son of Man, and exalted Son of God, who shares in Yahweh’s throne.

I’m somewhat more inclined to think Mark’s ambiguity is more intentional than simply reflecting a paradoxical understanding of Jesus.

Notoriously Mark offers a strange rationale for parables:

And Jesus said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’ (Mk 4:11-12)

One way of taking these difficult verses is to say that, for Mark, a response to Jesus depends on God creating that response in the heart of the hearer.  Parable creates space for God to reveal truth, and those who are not open to God’s revelation will simply be left baffled by the parables and unable to understand them.

His riddling and ambiguous Jesus is of a piece with this understanding. Only those whose eyes God opens will be able to see who Jesus is. Mark will not give his reader a straight answer; he will only create a situation through his story which will enable (or not enable) someone to receive God’s revelation of who Jesus is.

If, as I think, Mark’s gospel does end at 16.8, then that coheres with this view. Mark will not describe an appearance of the risen Jesus. The risen Jesus can’t be narrated, he can only be encountered. The climax of the gospel comes in the personal experience that seals the revelation. Mark can only sow the seed, and ambiguity is his plough to furrow the heart and mind of his hearer.

Scripture and Tradition: a balancing act

In this series on the Anglican articles we’ve just looked at six on the canon, and seven on the place of the Old Testament. These two articles about scripture are followed by a short one on the creeds.

VIII. Of the Three Creeds
The Three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius’s Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles’ Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.

This article contains, strictly speaking, two misnomers. The Nicene Creed is in fact the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, being the Council of Constantinople’s revision (381 AD) of the creed of Nicaea (325 AD). And the so-called Athanasian Creed, or Quicunque vult, is not really a creed at all, though it deals with fundamental credal material.

In choosing these three statements of faith, the article looks back to a relatively primitive rule of faith (the Apostles’ Creed is probably based on the old Roman baptismal creed of the early third century), to the major formulation of the church’s Trinitarian faith in the face of the Arian controversy in the fourth century (the Nicene Creed), and to a major Western statement that reflects the fifth century Chalcedonian definition on the incarnation (the Athanasian Creed).

The Anglican Reformers place themselves fairly firmly in the tradition of what some have liked to call the Undivided Church (a statement of doctrine rather than simple history). In fact, both the Apostles’ Creed and the Athanasian Creed are fundamentally Western, and Anglicanism like the rest of the churches of the Reformation, belongs in the western Christian tradition. Until recent decades it existed largely in ignorance of the eastern tradition.

The articles are unusual among the Reformation statements in saying something specific about the creeds, and in their accompanying liturgy, mandating their use. The Apostles’ Creed was to be used daily (twice a day) in the Daily Office, and the Nicene Creed at every Eucharist. The rootedness of Anglicanism not only in the Scriptures, but also in the fundamental credal tradition of the Church cannot be avoided by anyone who pays attention to its classical liturgy.

There is, though, in these first eight articles a certain circularity. The overt and clear statement is that Scripture is sufficient and the basis of doctrine. Indeed, the creeds are to be accepted because they can be proved to fit the scriptural pattern. The tradition hangs on scripture. Yet the implicit statement in the ordering of the articles is that the Church’s traditional Trinitarian doctrine is the rule of faith and framework of belief through which the Scriptures are to be approached, and the Creeds act as an authoritative statement of what the Church has read in Scripture. Without this tradition, one will not read Scripture rightly, and if one reads Scripture in a way that departs from the traditional creeds, one has read Scripture wrongly.

While the articles will go on to more mixed use – both affirmation and denial – of varying traditions, these first eight, while formally according Scripture the place of primacy, actually practice a sort of symbiosis of Scripture and Tradition. Tradition becomes the work of, and guide to, reading Scripture rightly. Scripture stands as the guardian and judge of the Tradition’s readings. The articles’ position may be prima scriptura (Scripture first), but it isn’t, by any means, sola scriptura (Scripture alone).

Part of a series on the 39 articles of religion)

Christians reading the Old Testament

torah-scrollIf the sixth of the 39 articles attempted to clarify the contents of the Bible, the seventh moves on to explore how the two main collections of Scripture relate. The term Old Testament now refers normally to the books of the Hebrew Bible only, in a departure from Christian tradition. Like the rest of the Reformers, however, the article places the Hebrew (Jewish) books in their Greek (Christian) order. In this order the prophets close the OT canon, and segue into the fulfilment story of the prophesied one in the New Testament.

The article introduces some basic interpretative principles.

VII. Of the Old Testament
The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard, which feign that the old Fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.

First, the article affirms the unity of the two Testaments, and identifies the unifying factor as Christ’s offer of eternal life to humanity. I am not sufficiently aware of some of the more obscure Reformation debates to know whether some of the more radical groups denied the validity of the Old Testament. Certainly, from early times, with Marcion, some Christian groups have sought to do so, and opposed the God of the OT to the God revealed by Jesus.

The idea of a vengeful OT God and a loving NT one is still, unfortunately, encountered in popular misconceptions today, by people who have no idea how anti-Semitic, how strange to the mainstream Christian tradition, and how alien to the writers of the New Testament such an idea actually is. The article is quite clear in ruling this out of court.

In making Christ’s offer of eternal life the unitary subject matter of the whole Bible, the article does something interestingly different to two of the more common ways of developing its unity. One is prophetic (and typological), namely that the OT points its promises and hopes towards the NT where they are fulfilled by Christ. This is fundamental to how, for example, Luke saw the scriptures:

Then [Jesus] said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. (Luke 24:25-27 NRSV)

If that is perhaps the main ancient way in which Christians read the OT, then the more modern way is in terms of an overarching narrative, in which Jesus is the pivotal plot element, to which the OT story was leading, and whose words and actions give the definitive shape to the final denouement. This is a view particularly and robustly articulated by, for example, Tom Wright (e.g. New Testament and the People of God chapter 5).

Either view would be largely acceptable to the framers of the articles, but by speaking about the same offer of everlasting life in both Testaments, they effectively place more emphasis on the OT in its own right as well. The words of Genesis, Leviticus, Job and Lamentations, to take some random examples, are themselves potentially  life-giving words. One of the problems of both the prophetic and narrative approaches taken in isolation is that they can iron out the specifics of the texts as texts for their own time, and with their own value. Yet these texts stand in their own right as historical, literary and spiritual products of their speakers, authors, editors and collators.

In one sense, what the article gives with one hand, it appears to take away with the other. By affirming the life-giving nature of the texts as they are, they affirm the real faith of “the old [Israelite / Jewish] Fathers” and open up some possibilities engaging positively with Jewish readings of the texts. By affirming that the offer of life is made by Christ (ironically used apparently as a proper name rather than Jewish acclamation), they seem to take such opportunities for dialogical reading away. Yet there may be another way of seeing this. They locate their affirmation in a restatement of the doctrine of the incarnation as the essence of what makes Christ the one who stands between God and humanity.

In other words, the essential Christian affirmation is that God is able to speak words of life into the lives of human beings at any time and in any place, because God enters human existence in the one time and place of this one man. But that affirmation made, the full scope of human existence into which God speaks, and the wide experiences of the human authors by whom he speaks, become themselves of immense value to understanding more fully the mystery of God.

There is every reason here for a careful valuing of the texts as they are, for what they are, and for how they have been read. The breadth of the OT is not simply to be funnelled into the narrower but vital concerns of the NT, but to be heard in its own right, as part of the God-man’s offer of life, enabled ultimately by his death. Conversation about scripture with Jewish brothers and sisters cannot ignore that affirmation about Christ, but it can enter into a much fuller conversation around texts when those texts are acknowledged as life-giving in their own person (as it were).

That then, of course, makes the final part of the article even more of a problem, with its division of Torah into laws touching ceremonies and rites, civil precepts, and “commandments called moral.” This imposes late and alien categories on Torah, and rends the seamless robe of its vision of obedient life. And in practice it doesn’t work very well.

We may be better looking to the idea of a whole community that is bounded by its call to obedience. Then perhaps we can work out, as Christians, how Christ the end of the Law (τέλος, purpose, goal, termination – Rom 10:4: choose your resolution of the ambiguity with care) determines the continuing interpretation of the law. We follow not so much a code of practice, but rather a living example of faithfulness.* We share the same call as Judaism to respond to God’s faithfulness by our faithfulness.

So rather than parse laws differently, as the article appears to hint, perhaps we should focus more on shaping the Church, so that faith is seen by Christians as more than a disposition, or a belief. Instead, we need to see Christ’s pattern of faithfulness much as Torah is seen by Jews. And that pattern of faithfulness is one for a whole-life, loving response of obedience to God’s faithful love.

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

*I’m aware the argument here begs quite a few questions about the so-called New Perspective on Paul (it’s around 40 years old now), and a never-ending debate about the meaning of Paul’s phrase πίστις Χριστοῦ (the faith of Christ).

St Augustine’s Hymn

There are a limited number of hymns suitable for Lent. The other day I posted a metrical version of Psalm 51. Some months back I reposted an earlier hymn, based on the temptation narratives, with a link to Kathryn Rose’s fine new tune written especially for it.

Here’s another (appropriate to, but not just for Lent) which I once published on another blog. It’s based on a famous prayer section from St Augustine’s Confessions (X.xxvii). The  tune I had in mind when writing was Gerontius.

Late have I loved you, O my Lord,
before whom beauty pales,
whose glory shines in Christ the Word,
whose splendour never fails.

I searched for you in all you made,
in all my eye discerned.
I failed to look within, afraid
to know what passion burned.

You walked with me unseen, unloved,
I trod as one alone,
I seized your gifts, though my use proved
the Giver was unknown.

Yet still you called, to me you spoke
your powerful words of love,
and my long-practiced deafness broke
by thunder from above.

Your flashing lightning cleared my sight,
your storm winds conquered me,
and now I see love shining bright,
I breathe air pure and free.

Your love, your life, is now my meat,
I hunger still for more;
your breath of life is true and sweet,
your touch of peace is sure.

Late though I loved you, O my Lord,
beauty both new and old,
now my heart welcomes Christ the Word,
my priceless pearl, my gold.

Creative Commons License(This hymn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Licence, so you can use it freely in your liturgy and worship)

Apocrypha: Anglicans reading a fuzzy-edged Bible

In my previous post on the sixth of the 39 Articles, I said I would come to the question of the Apocrypha or Deuterocanon. The article says this about the books, clearly feeling a need to root such a departure from tradition in a traditional teacher of the church.

And the other Books (as Hierome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine; such are these following:
The Third Book of Esdras, The Fourth Book of Esdras, The Book of Tobias, The Book of Judith, The rest of the Book of Esther, The Book of Wisdom, Jesus the Son of Sirach, Baruch the Prophet, The Song of the Three Children, The Story of Susanna, Of Bel and the Dragon, The Prayer of Manasses, The First Book of Maccabees, The Second Book of Maccabees

KJV-Contents-PageThe first two of these are universally regarded as apocrypha in the Western Church, the rest had been (and in the Roman Catholic Church still are) received as Scripture. Most seem to have been Greek texts, although Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) has an extant Hebrew original. Greek Esther is less a set of additions to the Hebrew book (as the article has it) and more a second edition which writes God into the story. The Song of the Three, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon are additions to the book of Daniel.

The arguments for omitting them were and are, in my view, weak. They owe something to the classical Renaissance tradition of ad fontes – back to the sources – than they do to any overtly theological argument. I suspect, as well, that it was a way of removing (some) scriptural support for prayer for the dead – get rid of 2 Maccabees, for example, and you lose a significant prop for that.

But it is interesting to reflect on what sense, exactly, the Anglican Reformation does get rid of these books. Compare, for example, the wording of the article with the wording of the Westminster Confession:

The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of the Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.

By contrast, we need to understand that Anglican “the Church doth read” in context. Down the centuries the articles were regularly published as part of the Prayer Book, and therefore together with the lectionary setting out the pattern of readings through the year. Even when they were separately published, the lectionary was in any case prescribed by law to be followed in every church.

Reading the whole of Scripture according to the lectionary at Morning and Evening prayer was the legally enforceable discipline of the Church for its clergy (and encouraged for the laity). These readings were to be followed in every cathedral and parish church, every day of the year. And the lectionary includes virtually all of the apocryphal / deuterocanonical material as the first reading, towards the end of the year, following on in course from the undisputed books of the Old Testament. In terms of the liturgy, clergy and congregations were required to read and hear these books in prayer and worship indistinguishably from the ways in which they read and heard those of “whose authority [there] was never any doubt in the Church”.

Lectionaries of the last century, under evangelical pressure, coming from inter-evangelical and inter-denominational co-operation, alliances and shared Bible publishing ventures, have slowly departed from this pattern, until now all the apocryphal readings are optional, and given Hebrew Bible alternatives. Historically, this is an undoubted departure from the position of the Anglican Reformers (and in my view a serious mistake), and whenever conservative evangelicals today (as some do) claim that they and not catholics or liberals represent the true historic faith of the Church of England, they should be more aware that on this particular point of practice, it is they who have seriously departed from their heritage (however good they think their reasons may be).

The authority of the undisputed books seems to belong to the doctrinal arguments and theological debates of scholars and learned people. The spiritual, ethical and formational reading of scripture in devotional and liturgical contexts makes equal use of both the undisputed books of the Hebrew Canon and the disputed books of the Greek canon.

What this effectively does is create a fuzzy edge to the Anglican Bible. There is a category of books whose character and authority is sufficiently doubtful that no doctrinal argument should rest on those books. Yet the character and authority of these books are sufficiently hallowed by traditional and liturgical use that they should continue to be read in public (and private) prayer, and can used by God (and presumably the preacher) to shape the character and life of the worshipper.

There is probably no better illustration of Anglicanism as a via media than this fuzzy-edged canon of Scripture.

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

On (not) having Dunn Q

Dunn-QI’m currently reading James D G Dunn’s Neither Jew nor Greek. Like the first two volumes of his Christianity in the Making project, it’s a careful and broadly conservative account of early Christian history, with this volume taking us into the second century, with Irenaeus as a kind of horizon, but the biblical books as a primary focus. (By conservative I mean both in many of his conclusions (e.g. the broad trustworthiness of Acts) but also his attachment to a traditional behind-the-text historical approach to the texts as sources.

But this morning I imagined Mark Goodacre spluttering over his cornflakes as I read this sentence:

“[T]here are no persuasive indications either that Matthew knew Luke’s Gospel or that Luke knew Matthew’s Gospel.” (p.246)

There is an unstated protasis which this sentence desperately needs: “If you are convinced of the existence of Q, then …”

Broadly speaking, there are exactly the same indications, exactly the same evidence that a) Matthew and Luke used Q, b) Luke used Matthew and c) Matthew used Luke. The difference is not in the evidence itself, but in the framework used to interpret the evidence. Only a Q-shaped framework allows Dunn to say what he says.

Now it so happens I largely agree with the heart of Dunn’s position: there is a literary source Matthew and Luke share, but there are also other oral sources, some of which they share and some of which they don’t. It may also be that there are occasions when either one of Matthew or Luke make use of their shared literary source while the other doesn’t. If there is (as I think) some sort of Q, we can have no certain knowledge of its upper or lower limits.

However, I hold this theory not because of any persuasive character of any individual piece of evidence, but because it seems to me that an untidy theory such as this makes better sense of the variegated nature of the evidence as a whole. The theories which try to produce a single explanatory model, whether an over-confident Q, the Farrer-Goulder-Goodacre theory, or a version of Matthean posteriority, all seem to me too tidy for the nature of the evidence, even if I can sometimes feel the force (almost thou dost persuade me) of say, Goodacre’s Case Against Q, or Alan Garrow’s brilliant series of video presentations of the Matthew Conflator Hypothesis.

It just seems to me more than pedantry to keep a sense of what belongs to the theory that makes sense of the evidence, and what is a property of the evidence itself. The evidence is only evidence of some kind of interrelationship. But which interrelationship it is belongs to the theory. And that in the end is a judgement about what makes greatest amount of sense of the greatest amount of the evidence.

It’s like all the best detective stories, really. And it wasn’t Luke in the library with the scissors and paste.

Have mercy, Lord: a psalm for Ash Wednesday

I thought I would offer this metrical version of Psalm 51, both as a meditation for the day, and for those who want to use it in Lent. I had in mind the Passion Chorale as the tune, when writing it. No doubt I shall continue to develop this draft further, but I think it’s usable as is.

Have mercy, Lord, have mercy,
in your abundant love,
and from my sin now cleanse me,
my trespasses remove.
My shame is overpowering,
it will not let me go:
great wrath above is towering,
your sentence to bestow.

From birth have I offended,
and long been mired in sin,
yet you my heart have tended,
and sought a way within.
O cleanse my inner being,
and wash away my shame,
that I no longer fleeing
may glorify your name.

Look not on my transgression,
but take away my sin,
acknowledge my confession,
and give me life within.
Create in me a clean heart,
your spirit now renew,
your saving joy be my part,
my life be one with you.

Contrition my oblation,
and tears my sacrifice,
no ritual immolation,
for love has paid the price.
O God of my salvation,
open my lips and raise
the song of new creation,
restored in grace for praise.

Creative Commons License(This psalm is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Licence, so you can use it freely in your liturgy and worship)