On God “Herself”

Gender“No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (John 1:18)

On Twitter today, something of a kerfuffle has broken out about whether it’s right to call God using feminine pronouns – ‘her’, ‘herself’, etc. John Bingham wrote about it in the Telegraph yesterday; today Rev Kate Bottley (the Gogglebox vicar) has written about it today in the Guardian. The debate itself has been going for some time now, for example there’s an article in the Christian Today magazine from last year: “Is it wrong to refer to God in the female?”

As I understand it, the arguments for referring to God as female boil down to these:

  • Referring to God exclusively using masculine pronouns devalues women. According to the Telegraph piece above, a spokesperson from WATCH (“Women at the Church”, who campaigned for Women Bishops) said: “to continue to refer to God purely as male is just unhelpful to many people now”. Using exclusively masculine language for God reflects a patriarchal time and there is no reason for it any more.
  • Biblically, male and female are made in the image of God. Genesis 1:27 says, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” In other words, because men and women are both created in the image of God, God therefore embodies both male and female characteristics. God transcends our language of gender.
  • Following on from the point above, God is described at various points in the Bible as having feminine characteristics. For example, in Matthew 23:37 Jesus says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem … how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” So Jesus uses a femine metaphor to describe himself.

I hope I haven’t misrepresented these arguments or left anything major out – the articles I linked to above have some fuller discussion. However, I remain strongly convinced that the church should not change its liturgy on this matter, and continue to refer to God using masculine pronouns. Once again (like the question of sexuality), I think this issue really boils down to a question of the Bible, its authority and its interpretation.

The most important question for me is the one introduced by the quote I started out with from John’s Gospel. How do any of us know God? John answers that question, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” In other words, Jesus, the Son of God, has made God – the Father – known to us. And, as such, if we are Christian we have to say that the revelation that Jesus gave us of God was a true revelation.

This was significant in the church’s debates around Arianism (around 3rd-5th centuries): for example, when Jesus instructed his disciples to baptise people “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19), were those names simply terms of convenience or did they actually represent something important about God? The Arians wanted to make Jesus a created being, and in a sense actually deny that Jesus was a true Son. However, the early church ecumenical councils decided that those names did actually mean something beyond labels of convenience: the Father is a real Father; the Son is a real Son – not in the human sense, but in an eternal sense. Although it is of course true that human language lacks the capacity to describe the infinite, we are nonetheless able to apprehend something of the truth by the terms “Father” and “Son”. So Jesus’ revelation of God is a true revelation, and it reveals that God is eternally Father, Son and Spirit.

I think you can see something of the difference in approaches here by looking at Rachel Held Evans’ blog post about this issue last year (she was accused of heresy for describing God as ‘she’). Rachel says, “while God is often referred to as Father [my emphasis]”. ‘Referred to’? I think rather the traditional orthodox position would be revealed as. If you think that Jesus simply referred to God as ‘Father’ out of convenience rather than out of meaning something significant, that is moving away from a traditional understanding of the Trinity.

Following on from that, was Jesus simply using the words “Father” and “Son” due to the society being patriarchal? Could he, in another society, been born as a woman and called God “mother”? In a nutshell, would it ever be right to call God “Mother, Daughter and Holy Spirit”? I’m always a little suspicious of the patriarchy argument: it seems to be a lazy way of glossing over what the Biblical text actually says, reading back into the text modern notions of patriarchy and assuming that if the Biblical authors had been as enlightened as we are they would have written something different. Whatever you think of these texts, you have to wrestle with Genesis 2:18, 22; 1 Cor 11:3; 1 Tim 2:11-15 and so on. What Kate Bottley does in her article is emphasise the human aspect of the BIble in saying that it was written into a patriarchal context, while seemingly downplaying the divine aspect of the Bible. I believe that the Bible is ‘God-breathed’, although it was written by men it is nonetheless the Word of God. So I think to talk about ‘patriarchy’ is to downplay the fact that God might actually have something to say to us on gender in our society: it overrides anything the Bible might say with our own society’s conceptions of gender (which are not based on the Bible).

It is of course true that there are times when the Bible uses feminine metaphors to talk about God. However, a feminine metaphor is not defining. For example, I know men who have some stereotypically feminine characteristics – does that make them female? No! I simply can’t get past the fact that Scripture always calls God by masculine pronouns – even by Jesus who, as we have already seen, is the only one who ever walked this earth to be in a position to really know!

Incidentally, I do find it interesting that those who advocate for calling God by feminine names (e.g. WATCH, who campaigned vigorously for women bishops) do so on the basis of the differences between men and women. It seems like much of the campaign for women bishops rested on minimising if not erasing differences between men and women (such as the constant misuse of Galatians 3:28). Although I am aware that many did not campaign in this way, the idea that there could be any actual God-ordained differences between men and women was often downplayed. So I think there is a tension there, although I won’t go into that now.

Anyway, in summary, I don’t think changing our liturgy to include God ‘herself’ would be a good thing!

The Bible: “That’s just your interpretation”

A BibleOver the past few weeks on Facebook, I’ve been in a group discussing (what else?) sexuality and the church. One of the themes that comes up again and again is the issue of interpretation: we all interpret the Bible differently on this, and there is no way of judging between different interpretations, so we may as well just give up and agree to disagree now. Now this is a topic I’ve blogged on before, but I’d like to return to the issue because of the way it comes up so frequently in discussion.

I’d like to offer a few thoughts and observations having participated in these kind of discussions for a while now. It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me to see that I don’t believe there can be many valid interpretations of Scripture on this issue (as well as many other issues).

1) What are the logical consequences of “that’s just your interpretation”? Can we say, for example, “but that’s just your interpretation” about any interpretation of the Bible? Does that mean that every statement in the Nicene Creed is simply an interpretation, and that other interpretations are available? Does that mean the Jehovah’s Witnesses should be thought of as an orthodox Christian church – after all, they simply follow a different interpretation of Scripture?

Additionally – where does “that’s just your interpretation” actually end? Are we free to hold an atheistic interpretation, for example? Who draws the lines? It seems that the “that’s just your interpretation” argument can be deployed anywhere against anyone, for an alternative interpretation can always be found – irrespective of whether it’s a good or bad interpretation.

With respect to the specific issue of sexuality – the traditional view of the Bible is that marriage is a lifelong union of a man and a woman, to the exclusion of all others. If the traditional interpretation can be challenged one one area (man and woman), could it not also be challenged in other areas (e.g. could marriage be between two or more people, or could faithfulness be redefined?) I think claiming “that’s your interpretation” is actually shooting yourself in the foot: as soon as you do that, you open the door to someone else saying the same to you for whichever cherished beliefs you hold about marriage. There’s no rejoinder, because “that’s just your interpretation”.

Once you reduce the Bible to being a matter of someone’s opinion about interpretation, it seems to me that it’s open season on Biblical interpretation and you can simply interpret the Bible any way you like to suit you.

2) What does “that’s just your interpretation” say about God? Following on from the last point – what we think of God will determine what we think of the Bible and the way it speaks to us. I believe that God, as the one who created us, is able to communicate with us in a way which we will understand. I believe that God is able to speak clearly into our situation, even our situation today. How could God’s statutes be trustworthy and “make wise the simple” (Ps. 19:7) if it was impossible for us to agree on their interpretation?

One of the things which irks me most about the “that’s just your interpretation” argument is that it essentially seems to deny the fact that God might want to say something to us. God’s authority becomes simply human authority (you think God says that, but I think God says something different). Surely this negates God’s authority: if everything that He says is open to interpretation, in what sense can He be said to communicate with us? God’s voice becomes dependent on the interpretation of the one listening to it.

3) The strategy of the “that’s just your interpretation” group. I apologise for using the word ‘strategy’, which implies that this is something done purposefully. What I mean is that often those who advocate for “that’s just your interpretation” often use a particular line of thinking, even if they don’t do so intentionally.

So, rather than trying to advocate for another interpretation, they simply point the finger to a range of interpretations and say “there! there are a lot of options, take your pick. Clearly the traditional interpretation is not the only one on the market.” You can see this happening on Vicky Beeching’s “What does the Bible say?” blog post, to name one example. She doesn’t outline one particular interpretation which she thinks is most plausible: she simply points out a number of books which outline different interpretations. This essentially shuts down discussion (it’s not making an argument, it’s just referring to other people who have made arguments as if their arguments are conclusive).

To use an analogy, this would be like me saying that Jesus Christ was not eternally begotten of the Father and referring to works by Arius of Alexandria, the Watchtower Organisation and so on in order to prove my case. “Oh, there are lots of arguments for Jesus not being the eternal Son of God. Take your pick”. This would be bordering on dishonesty because it hides the fact that those arguments have been refuted for a long time by people such as Athanasius, Augustine and countless other theologians. Despite the number of people who argued against the eternal Sonship of Christ on the grounds of Scriptural interpretation – the church has simply not found their arguments to be persuasive (rightly, in my opinion).

4) Not all interpretations are equal. By that, I mean that not all interpretations of Scripture are correct. For example, Jesus himself refuted, corrected and relied upon interpretations of Scripture (Matt. 22:29-32; Mark 12:35-37; John 10:34-39 for example). It seems that there are better and worse interpretations of Scripture. Following on from the point above, it’s impossible to talk about different interpretations without actually dealing in the specifics. Some interpretations of Scripture are better than others – i.e. some are more faithful, explain the Biblical evidence better, fit in with the context, and so on. It’s hard work, but I believe that it is possible to compare different interpretations and come to a reasoned, defensible and persuasive decision on which one is best. We are not without tools to help us in this task.

In conclusion, my big issue with “that’s just your interpretation” as an argument is that it closes down discussion. It seems to essentially validate “my” interpretation while invalidating “your” interpretation (in the sense that you’re not allowed to hold that an interpretation of Scripture should be binding) – all done without actually looking at the specific interpretations and attempting to judge between them.

If I were to be cynical, I would suggest that the arguments about Biblical interpretation were more to do with people trying to cling onto Biblical authority: the only other option is admitting that the Bible got it wrong, which is a bridge too far for many people – even if there are some who go down that road. Walter Wink, for example, says: “Where the Bible mentions homosexual behavior at all, it clearly condemns it. I freely grant that. The issue is precisely whether that Biblical judgment is correct.” (‘Homosexuality and the Bible’).

Does social media stifle debate?

Social MediaHas it really come to this in our society? Has it really come to the point where we seem utterly unable to believe that someone can hold another opinion on a difficult issue without believing that they are a moral monster?

It started out two or three years ago with same-sex marriage. The media loved to portray everyone who disagreed with the redefinition of marriage as a bigot, pure and simple. Real debate was stifled, because any argument for traditional marriage had to be ruled out a priori – because, you know, it’s bigoted.

Then, more recently, a debate on abortion at Oxford University was shut down because a rather militant group of people (via Facebook) decided that they were going to cause trouble if the debate went ahead.

And then we came to the general election. One of the things which has really got to me over the last few weeks is the way that the Tories have been constantly vilified and accused of more or less being morally bankrupt. Not just that, but if you believe most of what is put on Twitter, the only person who would vote for the Tories is someone who cares nothing for the poor, someone who essentially has no moral compass and deserves nothing but contempt by any right thinking person.

Many people have spilled ink writing about the rights and wrongs of this – for example this article – so I will try not to rehash old ground.

Instead, I think it is worth reflecting on just what it is that is making our society so hostile to opposing views. How has it suddenly become normal in our society, a society which prides itself on free speech, to demonise whole sections of people and even make them scared of speaking out? (Witness the phenomenon of the ‘shy Tory’). Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about politics, and as I’ve been considering I’ve been coming more and more round to the conservative way of thinking (material for a future blog post, perhaps). The thing is, I would actually genuinely hesitate before expressing that particular view on Twitter or Facebook, mainly because of the amount of hatred and bile spewed at the conservative party by what seems like the vast majority of Twitter (certainly I don’t recall seeing many pro-Tory posts – although perhaps that’s to do with the people I follow).

It seems to me that social media, rather than encouraging debate, is actually stifling it. I’m not sure as to why that is, but I think there might be a few reasons:

  • I think Twitter and Facebook enable ‘herd mentality’ to kick in. It’s very hard to express a dissenting opinion when everyone around you is expressing a particular view. Especially when that view is portrayed as being crazy, immoral, ridiculous, and so on.
  • Twitter and (to a lesser extent) Facebook also make it very easy to find like minded people. The problem is, what you end up with is basically conversing with people who agree with you. You don’t have to converse with anyone you disagree with apart from the purposes of shouting abuse at them. OK, this is a caricature, but is it that far removed from the truth? I don’t really see much actual engagement on Twitter between those of different political persuasions, it’s simply people who already agree with each other slapping each other on the back. Rather than trying to understand where the ‘other side’ are coming from, it is simply assumed that they are wrong and acting out of selfish / immoral / absurd motives (etc). This is quite probably because of the following point.
  • The 140 character limit of Twitter makes it very hard to express much more than a soundbite. This is very unfortunate, because it seems that what spreads well in soundbites is usually a watered down version of the truth (i.e. one side of an argument) without any nuance or a chance for qualification.
  • Following on from this – I think misinformation spreads very quickly on Twitter. Over the past few months, I’ve seen graphs and statistics that say all sorts of different things about our country and economy. Some of them say that things have improved,  some of them say that things haven’t. Some of them portray the Tories in a positive light, some of them  don’t. I think a big part of the problem is the way you cut the data – the way you interpret it. (The old adage about lies, damned lies and statistics comes to mind). But what I think tends to happen is that the statistics / graphs which support the prevailing notion (i.e. that the Tories are evil) tend to get retweeted a lot, whereas the statistics and graphs which might show something different don’t get shared as much.

A few months  ago I thought about the dark side of social media when it came to the Top Gear Patagonia Special. And the longer time goes on, I see more of this kind of thing going on. I’m wondering whether social media might actually be having a detrimental effect on our society in general.

I don’t think that social media itself is a bad thing, but I do feel that the way it is set up – especially Twitter – makes it very easy to ignore other opinions and simply to convince oneself that one’s opinion is correct with all the accompanying self-righteousness. Although all this was and is possible without the help of social media, it simply exacerbates the issue.

So if this is a problem, how do we solve it? I think one of the biggest problems with the stifling of debate is the lack of understanding and empathy for opposing views. It seems to me that social media would be a lot better if people took some time to seriously understand the view they were criticising before criticising it. If it could be understood that on some issues different views can be held with complete integrity, and those should be respected. Perhaps this is a simply unrealistic dream in this day and age – but I think as we see the effects of this stifling of debate play out more and more in society, perhaps people will realise that actually we need understanding rather than polarisation and demonisation.

The Road to Emmaus: thoughts on seeing Jesus

Source: Wikimedia
Source: Wikimedia

“How do I see Jesus?” Not a question people ask very often, but nonetheless it has a lot of answers. Do I see Jesus by trying to be a good person? Do I see Jesus by praying a lot? Do I see Jesus by looking deep inside myself to try to find out what God is saying to me?

I think the story of the Road to Emmaus might help us to answer those questions. On Easter Sunday I preached on this wonderful passage from Luke 24. It’s a poignant and moving story, and there’s a huge amount you could say about it. What I was particularly struck by this time was how the story is like a metaphor for meeting and following Jesus for every Christian.

The story starts with two men, who had been followers of Jesus, dejectedly walking back home while talking about the events of the past few days (the crucifixion). As they were walking along on their journey, the risen Jesus comes alongside them – but they were kept from recognising him. It turns out that the Jesus they followed was not the Jesus who rose: they believed in a Jesus who they “had hoped … was going to redeem Israel” (v21): in other words, they believed in a Messiah who was going to be some kind of military conqueror, someone who was going to overthrow the Roman oppressors and lead an earthly kingdom. Although they did believe in Jesus, they believed in a false Jesus.

However, Jesus didn’t let them continue in this dejected state: he opens the Scriptures to them, and shows how all that has happened was a fulfilment of prophecy, and how all the Scriptures testify to himself. Before those two disciples could see him, Jesus had to open their eyes to the Scriptures. Finally, they invite Jesus in, and he comes in and eats with them – they share fellowship. As Jesus breaks the bread, then their eyes are opened and they see Jesus, and they return to the other disciples only to find that Jesus has appeared to them too.

What does this say to us about discipleship today? I’d like to suggest a few things:

  • Everyone is following a ‘Jesus’ – everyone believes in some kind of saviour. That saviour may not be a person (for example some people trust in politics, or reason, or money, etc). But each of us follows some kind of a saviour, some kind of a ‘fake Jesus’. Like those two disciples on the Emmaus road – the fake Jesus we follow will let us down, the fake Jesus will lead to despondency.
  • But, the good news is, the real Jesus – the risen Lord, the one who is alive and reigns with the Father – comes alongside us, even in the midst of our despair. Because Jesus is alive, he can come alongside us wherever our journey may take us and open our eyes to him.
  • Jesus doesn’t immediately reveal himself to them – he opens their eyes to the Scriptures. This is one of the key things about following Jesus: coming to know Jesus is coming to know God’s plan of redemption. It means understanding who we are as sinners, who God is as a holy judge, who am as someone in need of forgiveness. In other words, we don’t see Jesus in isolation – understanding Jesus requires understanding the bigger picture of God’s plan.
  • Only after Jesus opens their eyes to the Scriptures and they share fellowship together do they finally see Him. Jesus is the one who takes the initiative, he is the one who comes alongside them and opens their eyes.
  • Yet – once they see Jesus, he disappears from their eyes. They ‘see’ him with eyes of faith now – they do not need him to be physically present. Once their eyes were opened to the Scriptures, once he came and shared fellowship with them, they had by faith what they had previously only had by sight.

One big lesson from all of this is to do with seeing Jesus, as we started out thinking about. If you want to see Jesus, look no further than a Bible. Pray to God that he would open your eyes to see Jesus, and open the pages of Scripture. And the risen Lord comes alongside us and opens our eyes.

Is doubt a good thing? Faith and doubt in the Bible

Source: Flickr
Source: Flickr

In my previous post I asked whether doubt in the Christian life is a good thing. In Greg Boyd’s book, “Benefit of the Doubt”, he answers – essentially – yes, doubt is a good thing. However, I questioned the care with which Boyd had come up with a definition of faith and doubt, and said that I would write another post looking at how I understood the Bible to talk about faith and doubt. This is that post.

At various points in this post I will point out where I disagree with Boyd, however I hope that this post will stand on its own and be readable without reading the book or my review of it.

First things first: What is faith?

I don’t want to focus on faith too much because I think the real meat of what I want to say is in looking at doubt. However, I think it would be helpful to start out by briefly thinking about faith. Continue reading

Review: Benefit of the Doubt

Benefit of the Doubt by Greg BoydIs doubt a good thing when it comes to the Christian life? Doubt seems to be in vogue in certain circles these days – uncertainty about doctrine, uncertainty about the Bible, uncertainty about all sorts of things. It’s become deeply unfashionable to be certain about anything to do with the Christian faith (well, nearly anything … in my experience of such circles a belief such as the validity of women being priests/bishops/etc is often held with as much certainty as anything I’ve ever seen).

Anyway, I’ve been wanting to blog about this subject for a while but just haven’t quite had the right opportunity. However, back in January, fellow blogger The Alethiophile asked “What to read in 2015?” and suggested a sort of exchange – if you suggested a book for him to read, he would suggest one for you to read. I suggested to him “Taking God at his Word” by Kevin DeYoung, and he suggested to me “Benefit of the Doubt” by Greg Boyd. Well, I’ve just finished reading it, and it provides the ideal opportunity to talk about doubt!

The book is subtitled “Breaking the idol of certainty”, and – as you can imagine – his contention is that doubt is actually a good and healthy thing for the Christian. What I’m going to do in this post is to review the book itself, and then follow up in the near future with a blog post about faith and doubt. [I was going to do all of this in one post, but the review went on a bit. Sorry.]

Continue reading

Review: The Plausibility Problem

The Plausibility Problem by Ed ShawI’ve just finished reading The Plausibility Problem by Ed Shaw. The book is subtitled “The Church and Same-Sex Attraction”, and I can understand why that might immediately put people off: surely, we don’t need yet another book on the church’s view of sex? And this is exactly the reason I wanted to write this brief review: in my view this is one of the most important books to have been written on the subject – it is not what you think it is!

The real strength of the book for me is the fact that it doesn’t deal with traditional / revisionist Biblical arguments (although they are treated in two appendices), but rather seeks to outline how evangelical churches have made the church’s traditional teaching on sexuality implausible by a number of ‘missteps’ in the past few years. In other words, the problem which traditional Biblical churches face is not what they believe about sexuality – it’s how that teaching can be plausible in today’s society. Too often in today’s churches, the orthodox Biblical view of sexuality is seen as implausible because the church has lost focus on a number of other important teachings. These are what Ed Shaw labels ‘missteps’.

These missteps are:

  1. Your identity is your sexuality;
  2. A family is Mum, Dad and 2.4 children;
  3. If you’re born gay, it can’t be wrong to be gay;
  4. If it makes you happy, it must be right!
  5. Sex is where true intimacy is found;
  6. Men and women are equal and interchangeable;
  7. Godliness is heterosexuality;
  8. Celibacy is bad for you;
  9. Suffering is to be avoided.

In all these areas, Shaw demonstrates how evangelical churches have often bought into cultural assumptions or perhaps not taught the full Biblical picture in a certain area. For example, I found his chapter on being “born gay” helpful: he argues that evangelical churches who argue that being gay is simply a ‘lifestyle choice’ are detrimental to the cause – it is in fact irrelevant whether same-sex attraction is chosen or not, and arguing that it is chosen will do nothing but alienate those for whom it is not a choice (or is experienced that way).

In my opinion, the area of sex and sexuality is shaping up to be the biggest area of contention between the church and the world and what Shaw outlines in this book is absolutely vital to enable people to make the move from the world to the church. It is no longer enough to simply teach what the Bible says about sex and sexuality – our church must regain its hold of teachings which have perhaps been under-emphasized in recent years.

I heartily commend this book to anyone who has an interest in the church – especially to anyone involved in church leadership in any capacity (including things like PCCs and so on). It is sorely needed, a real word in season for the church of today.