Posts Tagged ‘public theology’

Nearly five years ago, in the midst of a lot of argument over the public implications of Christian theology — about the demise of the Religious Right, the rise of Islamist terrorism, Christian signaling (often confused and distorted) by Republican politicians — I set myself a task: to write a series of essays on several New Testament passages that address how one goes about being a Christian in public. The purpose of the series would be to set forth the often startling angles from which the New Testament authors regarded political power, angles that would present some surprises for everyone.

After setting forth the idea, alas, two things happened. First, the arguments, provocations, and occasional atrocities piled up. Second, I became too busy following them, and occasionally responding to them on their own terms. After stating that serious Christian engagement with the world requires “reading, marking, and inwardly digesting” Holy Scripture, the troubles of the world distracted me from that very work. The results were frankly terrible for my soul.

The lesson I learned the hard way, of which I am now more persuaded than ever, is simple: deep reflection on the Bible is the key to remaining sane and hopeful in our decidedly interesting times. Not that following the events is unimportant. St. Luke (to take only one example) is a model of how to think with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. But ten minutes of perusing the Acts of the Apostles discloses that St. Luke didn’t forget Scripture for the news. And for that reason he neither drifted with his times nor overreacted to them. He could approach issues of his time from surprising angles, and regard them with critical hope.

Moving, then, from introduction to the first essay proper, we leave the pages of St. Luke and the apostolic age and rewind to a small-town scandal preceding Jesus’s birth, as recorded in first pages of St. Matthew:

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

S Matthew 1:18-21 (ESV).

One of the questions this brief passage raises is “in what did St. Joseph of Nazareth’s justice consist — that he had cause to divorce Mary, or the quiet manner in which he resolved to divorce her?”

The question actually presents a false dichotomy. Joseph’s righteousness consisted in both. For, in his time as in ours, there was no shortage of men willing to divorce their wives on the flimsiest of grounds: to seize upon trivial “causes” to justify themselves when their real motive may have been to marry a richer, more sexually attractive, or more complying wife. In Joseph’s time that was called “any cause” divorce; the contemporary equivalent (now practiced by both sexes) is “no-fault.” Joseph did not practice “any cause” divorce. His cause — Mary’s apparent fornication — was unquestionable. It was a ground for divorce recognized even by the strict disciples of Shammai, and by Jesus himself.

st joseph and gabrielThat said, in describing the nature of Joseph’s righteousness St. Matthew’s accent is on the quiet manner in which Joseph resolved to divorce Mary. He was “unwilling to put her to shame.” In legal terms, what that means is that while Joseph had the right to a for-cause divorce — involving a public trial and whatever shame followed for Mary — he would pursue only the remedy prescribed for “any cause” divorce: privately to procure and deliver a certificate of divorce. That would have meant also that Joseph waived his claim for any monetary compensation for Mary’s infidelity, and any recovery of the bride-price he had paid her family.

I start this series here because in the pages of the New Testament St. Joseph’s kind of forbearance — from pressing claims of righteousness, shame and honor — is not an isolated curiosity. It occurs so frequently as to mark a kind of paradigm shift between the Old Covenant and the New: that while the definitions of moral rights and offenses continued, the approach to remedies — penalties to wrongdoers, compensation to the wronged — changed substantially. The didactic passage most obviously on point here is St. Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians that it’s better to suffer wrong than to have lawsuits among church members (1 Cor. 6:1-8). But this little pinch of leaven leavens the whole of the New Testament, the whole of the Kingdom of God. And in its unemphatic way, this ethic stands as a quiet but powerful witness against the excesses of our rights culture, and the cultural, political, and legal brinkmanship to which those excesses so often lead.

Joseph needed no trumpet, no public assertion of his right, no open vindication. His justice, manifest in the remedies he would and would not pursue, was as regular and quiet as the intake of breath. Like alms given with the right hand and kept secret from the left, Joseph’s resolve is a paradigm of true righteousness. It creates, at the very beginning of the New Testament, a striking new atmosphere, in which we can form the kind of character that alone can sustain faithful Christian public engagement.


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Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:

Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:

But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:

And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:

That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;

And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:3-11 (AV).

Once upon a time I set out to publish a series of biblical meditations on public theology. I hadn’t gotten past that first post. Until today.

Since I’m posting this on the day of a major national election in my home country, I should say two things right at the top of this post. One is a reassurance, and one is an exhortation. First, the reassurance: I have not chosen a national election day to publish a bit of special pleading about why you should vote for a particular candidate, or the candidates of a particular party. If you fear that, read on without fear. Second, the exhortation: If you are registered to vote, and you haven’t yet voted, go vote. Christians are charged always to pray for civil authorities so that, as St Paul says, “we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (1 Tim 2:2). Today, in addition to praying thus for those in civil authority, we get to love our neighbors by voting for those candidates who, in our best judgment, would best allow everyone to lead quiet and peaceable lives, in godliness and honesty.

With that as prologue, I move on to the political implications of the passage above. St Paul wrote the words to the church at Philippi some nineteen and a half centuries ago, but they’re every bit as timely today as they were then.

Paul exhorts his readers to humility, to esteem others as more important than themselves, and to mind the needs of their neighbors before their own needs. Paul does this, not by twisting their arms or appealing to their sense of guilt, but by pointing to the Lord Jesus. In so doing, he makes two startling political declarations. Taking these in reverse order:

  • Paul proclaims, in the strongest possible terms, the absolute Lordship of Jesus over every created being (vv. 10-11); and
  • Paul sets forth the means by which the man Jesus of Nazareth attained that Lordship — by emptying Himself of His divine prerogatives at His incarnation, and then by humbling Himself to submit to death on a cross (vv. 6-8).

I. King Jesus, rightful heir of a royal, global theocracy

If you read the Old Testament, you’ll see that Moses, the Psalms, and the prophets repeatedly emphasize a few basic characteristics to mark the God who had covenanted with them as utterly unique and absolutely supreme. Most importantly, He created all things; and, nearly as important, He is sovereign over all things. He may have covenanted with a tribe, but He was never a tribal deity.

So of the lordship of Israel’s God over all the world, the prophet Isaiah records:

I have sworn by myself, the word is gone out of my mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, That unto me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.

The passage is one of the most triumphal declarations of the kingship of God over the world and all its creatures, and one of the clearest declarations of high monotheism in a very high monotheistic book. So it is remarkable that St Paul chooses this passage to describe the kingship of Jesus. Jesus, says Paul, bears the authority of God; He is the word that goes out of the mouth of God in righteousness; His name is the divine name that every tongue shall confess, and at which every knee will bend. Jesus is not only a King, He is a divine King; and His divinity is of the same order as that of the God who created the world and covenanted with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And, since there is only one God, Jesus is the human embodiment, the incarnation, of the one God, and holds all the power and authority that that identity implies. The government will be on His shoulder, and of the increase of His theocracy and of peace there shall be no end.

II. The character of the theos in the theocracy

You may have noticed that I just used a word, theocracy, that makes a lot of people nervous. Concentrated authority — especially in a divine being — conjures images of abuses. I use theocracy anyway, to raise an important question: are those worrisome images of abuses justified? The answer to that question depends crucially on the nature and character of the theos in the theocracy.

In the Christian theocracy, the Lord Jesus comes into His kingdom by way of the mystery of His holy Incarnation, His agony and bloody sweat, His Cross and Passion, His precious Death and burial (1). In short, though prior to His Incarnation He existed “in the form of God,” He did not, as He could have done, simply lord it over His people. Rather, He emptied Himself for them, became their servant, and died for them. And St Paul says (v. 9) that it was precisely for that reason that He was made King. The Gentile kings lord it over their subjects, either because they have no god above them, or because their idols do the same. In Jesus, we see that God is not too proud to accept a thorny crown, or the indignity of being exalted by way of a Roman cross.

III. So what?

Having followed St Paul’s hymn to Christ from end to beginning, I now conclude where St Paul started: on the question of application. If it is true (and it is) that in the present age God rules the world by means of delegated authorities — ecclesiastical and civil — how ought those authorities exercise the authority they’re given?

Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.

After following Paul’s train of thought to its end and then back to its beginning, we see that this is not mainly an exhortation to servants and subjects to obey masters. It is an exhortation to those in authority — who ought already to have received their authority in this way — now to exercise authority in this way, and not in the usual way.

By now our nation is well on the way to deciding who is going to bear the sundry measures of authority that God delegates, respectively, to our various civil authorities. However those who questions are decided (and this is no denial that those questions have importance), we are to keep calm and carry on in humility, esteeming our neighbors more important than ourselves, looking out for them in love. For a crown of thorns sits at the top of the “keep calm and carry on” banner of King Jesus.

(1) Adapted from the Litany. See the Book of Common Prayer 55 (1928). The Litany here follows Philippians 2:6-8 quite closely.

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