Restorative Justice

Historically in the church forgiveness has generally been connected with individual practice, while the significance of forgiveness in the public arena has largely been eclipsed by emphases on more retributive understandings of justice. Yet interest in forgiveness is increasing in a number of spheres, encompassing both the personal and the public.

Forgiveness is a journey. Today you can forgive and tomorrow you can feel the pain all over again.

Anne Gallagher, Forgiveness Project

I know Bishop Semantu, amongst others, have been very vocal in supporting the development of the principles of restorative justice, but…

Is the Church missing a trick by not getting behind these kinds of projects with more energy?

Surely we have so much wisdom to offer in this area. If you’re reading this and have a view – please do leave a comment 🙂

Should the historical-critical method be laid to rest? An Essay

biblical interpretation

Historical-criticism has been the dominant approach in biblical interpretation since the mid-nineteenth century until the 1970s. It has long been taken for granted as “the only scientifically respectable way to study the Bible,”1 in the English speaking world at least, but “is now under a cloud.”2 In contemporary biblical studies the number of approaches to interpretation are legion, and with so many of them seeking to consciously reject the historical-critical approach we must look carefully at the role it has played, and continues to play, asking whether it has not “been falsely demonised in the process.”3 This essay will evaluate key aspects of the philosophical, methodological and theological outcomes of historical-criticism and argue that it continues to provide invaluable interpretive tools when handled carefully and intelligently. It is very difficult to do justice to the fact that there is no such animal as the historical-critical method. Some have tried to categorise the multifaceted nature of it. For example, Plantinga distinguishes at least three distinct types of historical-criticism: ‘Troeltschian’, ‘Duhemian’ and ‘Spinozistic’.4 In the interests of brevity, however, it is simply worth noting that to use the term ‘historical-critical method’ is in itself “something of a misnomer to describe a complex set of attitudes and assumptions.”5 As Barton rightly points out, the prospects for and role of historical-criticism will depend largely on what definition we prefer to attach to it6 and that it is an approach that is far more nuanced than many of its critics will admit.

In the last thirty years the philosophical underpinnings of the historical-critical method and the historian’s ability to reconstruct the past have been seriously brought into question. The historical-critical approach emphasises the discovery of the historical context(s) in which a text was written and subsequently added to. It claims that to discover the meaning of a text it is first necessary to identify the authorial intent, which can be determined only by closely aligning oneself with the historical background behind the text. Often presented as “the correct method for getting at the meaning of the text,” it also risks taking the scriptures out of the hands of the non-specialists.7 This is perhaps ironic considering that historical-criticism arose, in part, as a response to the church’s dogmatic authority only to replace it with a dogmatism of its own.

Dobbs-Allsopp rightly discusses the need to rethink and retheorise the objectivist and foundationalist assumptions that have informed and motivated the historical-critical practices of the past.8 Historical-criticism, in its quest for the ‘original meaning’, values what Barton describes as “disinterested scholarship.”9 This quest for ‘what really happened’ assumes that the historian can have unbridled access to the facts without tarnishing it from their personal views, interests or wider Weltanschauung. Yet thinkers such as Martin Heidegger, for example, have forced us to take seriously the role that preunderstanding plays in the process of interpretation.10 As readers, we do not approach texts as a blank canvass, but rather our existing understanding is adjusted to integrate new ideas and perspectives. None of us read in a vacuum; “everyone has an axe to grind”11 and our ability to ‘know what happened in the past’ is to some degree at least socially and culturally determined.

If our critique of this objectivist thinking extends to rejecting the possibility that “a literary piece itself [has] an existence quite independent of its author”12 then objectivity and the search for the ‘original’ meaning becomes in itself meaningless. We cannot, or should not, shed our presuppositions precisely because it is they that mediate understanding. Yet for Barton these presuppositions are the very things that risk blocking our ability to understand. In defence of the positivist motivation to free the text to speak for itself through dispassionate scientific enquiry, he then argues that “the cure is more criticism, not less,” recognising that “it has usually been far too influenced by commitments lying solely outside scholarly detachment.”13 He gives evidence for his argument by citing that “biblical critics did not begin by deciding that [for instance] the Pentateuch must be composed from several sources” but that “the conclusion forced itself upon them, in some cases much against their will.”14 Yet, we must ask, how did these conclusions ‘force themselves’ upon these critics? We are encouraged to the conclusion that it was inevitable rather than a conclusion shaped – in some degree at least – by the cultural horizon(s) of the critic.15

On the contemporary scene, deconstructive readings that have chosen to view texts consciously through a particular lens (post-Holocaust, ethnic, post-colonial and so forth) help us to recognise how texts can be heard, regardless of their intended meaning, and can also jolt us “out of comfortable half-truths to see something which is really there in the text and to which we had not previously paid attention.”16 Miller, for example, helpfully points to the androcentric nature of much of the ancient cultures (and indeed the biblical archaeology that uncovers them) that feminist perspectives have revealed and brought into the contemporary consciousness.17 This is useful in discouraging any approach that claims to be value-neutral but may actually be, as one critic has described, enabling the theologian to smuggle their “commitments under cover of dark.”18 As Long has observed, “we will be able to be more objective only if we learn to conceal our subjectivity less”19 and learn to see our interpretive role in dialogical, rather than objectivist, terms.

Another criticism of the historical-critical approach centres on its methodology, specifically its focus on genetic questions. Many of the tools most closely allied to historical-criticism, such as text-, form-, redaction-, and source-criticism (amongst many others) are analytical rather than synthetic. In other words, historical-critical analysis of texts often involved fragmenting texts to understand their history and pre-history. Theologians deployed sophisticated philological and linguistic study methods to obscure texts to discover what the author could have meant within his own period. Deuteronomist Robert Polzin rightly notes, however, that theologians in this tradition have often not been as skilled at “putting the parts back together again in a significant and meaningful way.”20

This predilection for the atomisation of texts finds its epistemological roots in the spirit and legacy of Enlightenment rationalism, with a Kantian tendency to separate knowledge into ‘aesthetic’ and ‘useful’ categories whereby religious language, often metaphorical rather than scientific in nature, thereby becomes suspect. Alter even speaks of the ‘hidden imperative’ that “the more atomistic, the more scientific”21 which in turn devalues the ‘final’ canonical text. There is undoubtedly some truth to the caricature that, for historical-critics, “often the finished product seems to be of less interest than the underlying sources”22 and that they are “frequently ill-equipped to appreciate the ‘literariness’ of the texts.”23 Whilst by no means exclusively the case, the historical-critical approach’s primary methodological tools are at times in danger of elevating the diachronic over the synchronic biblical text. Any hermeneutical method that cannot strike a balance in this area will always be self-limiting in its usefulness.

Whilst the foundational assumptions on which this trend within historical-criticism can be questioned, however, Sternberg points us towards the fact that “the task of decomposition calls for the most sensitive response to the art of composition.”24 These analytical tools, appropriately used, can lead us to eminently useful questions and tentative conclusions about the ‘final’ text as we have it. Whilst studies of these kinds have undoubtedly led some to question the unity of the Bible, this in itself is no reason to debunk the historical enterprise as unhelpful and unnecessarily ‘academic’. What it does do is challenge us to rethink and reformulate what it means to describe the scriptures as a unity.

This strand of thinking regarding the reformulation of texts raises a wider point, and common criticism, of the historical-critical method – namely, its appreciation of the Bible as Holy Scripture and its ability to formulate a theological meaning to texts. If the historical-critical method does not, primarily, appreciate the fundamental nature of the Bible as scripture then one can rightly question whether it should have ever held the ‘dominating position within biblical interpretation’ it once did. Seitz argues that historical-critical study “plays no positive theological role whatsoever,” but merely plays “a necessary preliminary [and] preparatory function.”25 Goldingay rehearses this argument by pointing to the fact that historical-critical interests centre on topics on which the text does not overtly focus. Therefore, it “misfocuses the interpretive task [and] cannot directly help exegesis,”26 thereby leading to a reductionist approach to the scriptures. Where theological concerns jostle with interesting historical, textual, grammatical and literary issues, it is often at the cost of the theological.

These claims are at least partially true. Polzin rightly alerts us to the danger of making the primary object of study the pre-text rather than the text, through the desire to “excavate behind it to its hypothetical earlier forms.”27 Establishing the historical events that lie behind the story does not “in itself establish the story’s meaning… [and thereby] fails to realise the text’s own aim.”28 The biblical narrative and the meaning within it rest on far more than its historical facticity. German New Testament scholar Stuhlmacher took the view that historical-critical exegesis is not “in and of itself [a] theological interpretation of scripture”29 but can be when approach with a ‘hermeneutic of consent’ to biblical texts which is marked by “a willingness to open ourselves anew to the claim of tradition, of the present, and of transcendence.”30 To downgrade historical-criticism to Seitz’s ‘preparatory function’ is to assume that a theological hermeneutic is a ‘stage’ within a larger process rather than something that must inform the interpretive process throughout.31 Stuhlmacher’s ‘hermeneutic of consent’ usefully emphasizes the role of the interpreter’s conscious use of the tools within this process, flagging the need for them to be aware that the way in which they use hermeneutical tools is of high import.

Historical-critical methods can therefore play an important role in determining the theological or spiritual meaning(s) of texts. One would be uncomfortable with any attempt to detach the ‘timeless message’ of scripture from its original world and context. A key implication of its ‘timelessness’ is not only that it can speak beyond the context in which it was written, but also that it is not ‘timeless’ in the sense of being “without historical rootedness.”32 The fact that scripture is a collection of historical works, written by human authors, invites us to approach them historically. This author has sympathy with those who claim it is also a misunderstanding of historical-criticism to assume it originally ever intended to stop at the level of historical enquiry. Dobbs-Allsopp, for example, claims that historical-criticism was “initially intended to inform us about the literary text itself and only secondarily about the history and religion revealed in that text.”33 Historical-criticism is concerned with more than just historical facticity – it arose in the period of rationality to deepen the roots of spiritual life. Thoughtfully applied, therefore, it can also be seen as a literary, as well as historical, method of biblical interpretation.

Arising in the period of rationality, an undeniable achievement of the historical-critical method has been to make us aware of the historical and cultural location of the biblical texts,34 shedding new light and fresh perspectives on scripture as well as bringing into focus what Soulen describes as the humanity of the scriptures. It has deepened our conception of the historical context of the biblical narrative by attuning us to the multi-contextual nature of the religious, economic, political and ideological concerns across centuries of Israelite history. It also has served to make us sensitive to the “genre, setting and audience that separate different stages and elements of biblical literature.”35 At times it has provided a framework to question traditional beliefs or understandings that were unjustified. For example, it has been a tool that has enabled us to question, with good grounds, whether Moses wrote Genesis; Paul wrote Hebrews; or whether Isaiah is the author of the whole book of Isaiah.36 In this regard it has the capacity to enable us to “respond to scripture itself by being critical of received theories regarding the origin, nature, and meaning”37 of scripture. In other words, partially at least, it has helped us pull back the veil of our previous assumptions and enables us to listen to the text itself.

In the modern arena, Möller identifies that historical-criticism is either “taken for granted, rejected or, somewhat grudgingly, accepted only to be relativised by being augmented… [by other readings which are] what really matters.”38 If we brand objectivity as an illusion, or merely beyond our reach, then we must tread carefully around postmodern, ahistorical strategies of reading that give the reader “pride of place in the interpretive process” as if the text risks becoming “a playing field in which we can romp to our heart’s desire.”39 I therefore concur with Collins that “the inevitability of presuppositions should not be taken as an invitation to excel in bias.”40 If we, as readers, take over the interpretive task and use the text for our own purposes, then there is a real danger that scripture will become, to use C S Lewis’ words, “only a reflection of our silly faces.”41

History happened. A radical historicist branding of history as an illusion cannot take account of the historically real. Language and perspective can point, albeit imperfectly through our culturally conditioned lenses, to a reality independent of the reader. This author would concur with Wright, a ‘critical realist,’42 that in history there is something to be known “other than the knower (realism), but that knowledge occurs only along the spiralling path of dialogue… between the knower and the thing to be known.”43 Any modern appreciation of the historical-critical method should therefore take into account that whilst there is something to be known, the act of knowing or understanding is subjective. To use the language of Thiselton, it requires us to see God’s word as operating within a particular cultural ‘horizon’ that must meet the readers own ‘horizon’ of worldview, experience, linguistic and cultural environment through which we understand and appropriate meaning.44

In conclusion, we must take the historical rootedness of the biblical text seriously whilst also alert to the danger of letting the detail of historical minutiae sidetrack us from the central task of exegeting the text. If we are to explore the Bible’s historical context we simply cannot reject the historical-critical enterprise entirely. In the light of the criticisms of the method identified here and elsewhere, however, we must be careful not to assign the method “a primary and foundational role.”45 As interpreters, we must know ourselves well – our worldview and presuppositions – so that we can deploy historical-critical insights intelligently alongside the wider corpus of modern interpretive tools.

Books worth reading on the subject

  • Barton, J., (2006) ‘Historical-critical approaches’ in Barton, J., (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
  • –––––– (1996) Reading the Old Testament: Method in Biblical Study, (London: Darton, Longman & Todd)
  • Bray, G., (Ed.), (1996) Biblical Interpretation Past and Present, (Illinois: Intervarsity Press)
  • Dobbs-Allsopp, F., W., (1999) ‘Rethinking Historical Criticism’, Biblical Interpretation 7, p. 235 – 271
  • Goldingay, J., (2004) Models for Interpretation of Scripture, (Toronto: Clements Publishing)
  • Miller, J., M., (1999) ‘Reading the Bible Historically: The Historian’s approach’ in McKenzie, S., L. and Haynes, S., R., (Eds.), To Each its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and Their Application, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press), pp. 17 – 34
  • Möller, K., (2000) ‘Renewing Historical Criticism’ in Bartholemew, C., Greene, C., Möller, K., (Eds.), Renewing Biblical Interpretation, (Carlisle: Paternoster)
  • Moritz, T., (2000) ‘Reflecting on NT Wright’s Tools for the Task’ in Bartholemew, C., Greene, C., Möller, K., (Eds.), Renewing Biblical Interpretation, (Carlisle: Paternoster)
  • Silva, M., (1996) ‘Has the church misread the Bible?’, in Silva, M., (Ed.), Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan)
  • Soulen, R., K., (2003) ‘The Believer and the Historian: Theological Interpretation and Historical Investigation’ in Interpretation (April 2003), pp. 175 – 186
  • Stuhlmacher, P., (1977) Historical Criticism and Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Towards a Hermeneutics of Consent, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press)
  • Thiselton, A., C., (1980) The Two Horizons, (Exeter: Paternoster)
  • Wright, N., T., (1995) Scripture and the Authority of God, (London: SPCK)

  1. Bray (1996), p. 461  ↩

  2. Barton (2006), p. 2  ↩

  3. Barton (2006), p. 2  ↩

  4. Möller (2000), p. 150  ↩

  5. Barton (2006), p. 2  ↩

  6. Barton (2006), p. 18  ↩

  7. Möller (2000), p. 158  ↩

  8. Dobbs-Allsopp (1999), p. 240  ↩

  9. Barton (2006), p. 12  ↩

  10. Silva (1996), p. 19  ↩

  11. Barton (2006), p. 13  ↩

  12. Silva (1996), p. 21  ↩

  13. Barton (2006), p. 15–17  ↩

  14. Barton (1996), p. 22  ↩

  15. Möller (2000), p. 154  ↩

  16. Wright (1995), p. 72  ↩

  17. Miller (1999), p. 32  ↩

  18. Barton (2006), p. 13  ↩

  19. Möller (2000), p. 157  ↩

  20. Möller (2000), p. 155  ↩

  21. Möller (2000), p. 155  ↩

  22. Barton (2006), p. 9  ↩

  23. Möller (2000), p. 156  ↩

  24. Möller (2000), p. 155  ↩

  25. Möller (2000), p. 146  ↩

  26. Goldingay (2004), p. 20  ↩

  27. Goldingay (2004), p. 20  ↩

  28. Goldingay (2004), p. 20  ↩

  29. Stuhlmacher (1977), p. 90  ↩

  30. Stuhlmacher (1977), p. 85  ↩

  31. Möller (2000), p. 163  ↩

  32. Goldingay (2004), p. 167  ↩

  33. Dobbs-Allsopp (1999), p. 236  ↩

  34. Möller (2000), p. 163  ↩

  35. Soulen (2003), p. 179 – 180  ↩

  36. Goldingay (2004), p. 174  ↩

  37. Goldingay (2004), p. 174  ↩

  38. Möller (2000), p. 149 – 150  ↩

  39. Möller (2000), p. 163  ↩

  40. Möller (2000), p. 167  ↩

  41. Möller (2000), p. 165  ↩

  42. Critical realism is one of several contemporary approaches that argues for a new synthesis of
    modern hermeneutical tools with a recovery of a historical reading of texts.  ↩

  43. Moritz (2000), p. 179  ↩

  44. Thiselton (1980), p. 95 – 99  ↩

  45. Soulen (2003), p. 181  ↩

Can preaching a dud sermon be the godly thing to do?

I want my preaching to be faithful, clear, passionate and provocative… But I’m also aware that I want people to think highly of me. I’m tempted to run after their praise. And because of that I’m inclined to be a perfectionist.


Mike Kendall on idolatry in the preacher’s study

I recognise this tension in me a lot. Anything I do, I want to do well. I want to serve people well in my preaching, yet this seems inextricably bound to the desire for others to think highly of me.


Reflections on the Temptation of Jesus

Temptation of Jesus

I have been reading the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness as told by Matthew 4v1–11 today, and have been finding Tom Wright’s discussion of the passage1 really helpful.

The whispering voice of Satan in this passage comes hot off the heals of God’s acclamation that “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17). It strikes me that this was for Satan the number 1 opportunity to scupper the plans of God by causing Jesus to stumble. Spiritual warfare doesn’t get any more intense than this… So what does Satan throw at him? Ouiji Boards? Wiccan Witches? Demons? A Harry Potter novel? No. Jesus’ battle was to submit even his most basic needs (like hunger) before his Father as an offering. Satan tempted him with success and significance, survival and safety. "These suggestions are all ways of distorting [Jesus’] true vocation: the vocation to be a truly human being, to be God’s person, to be a servant to the world and to other people.”2

The big question for Jesus, then, was what kind of Son of God would he be? His answer is clear: he would be the kind of Son who did the will of his Father; The kind of Son who laid all that he was to the service of the Father; The kind of Son that would only do what his Father was doing; He would be the kind of Son that that would make himself vulnerable enough to trust his Father completely, even with his very basic of needs. To quote Tom Wright:3

He is committed to loving and serving God alone. The flesh may scream for satisfaction; the world may beckon seductively; the devil himself may offer undreamed-of power; but Israel’s loving God, the one Jesus knew as father, offered the reality of what it meant to be human, to be a true Israelite, to be the Messiah.

This wouldn’t be the last time Jesus would face the tempter in various guises: protesting to him, through his closest associate, that he should change his mind about going to the cross (Matt 16:23); mocking him, through the priests and bystanders, as he hung on the cross (Matt 27:39–43, again with the words ‘if you are God’s son’).4 The parallels between our passage and the taunts hurled at Jesus on the cross are no linguistic fluke. "When Jesus refused to go the way of the tempter he was embracing the way of the cross.”5

So what about me? When I fast, I am faced with some very base choices and temptations. Voices whisper in my head that this is all silly, a meaningless exercise, a needless experiment in self-deprivation. Yet in choosing to deny these whispers, I am choosing to remind myself of how often I give in to the other whispers in my life. They are intended to distract me from my calling and vocation to be a servant of God. I choose as I fast to let my body echo my true desire (albeit often well hidden) to win the battle against Satan that wages in my mind over the subtler temptations I give into daily. For in choosing to give into these, I know that I am allowing my true vocation to be distorted, to allow myself to get distracted, turning aside from the path of servanthood to which I am commissioned.

Yet this commissioning is often a simpler process than I like to imagine. I recognise that my own reliance on God is often more about big picture stuff rather than a daily reliance on him. I have a tendency to always be looking at the ‘big picture’ of where God is taking me in life and what God is doing, at the expense of what he is asking me to do right now. It takes a lot of my spiritual energy. As I fast, I am being painfully taught the need for a daily reliance on God. Focussing on what God wants me to do today – not tomorrow, next year or in a decade – today.

I recognise more and more that the trajectory of my life, expressed in the daily conscious and unconscious decisions that I make, is in need of continual realignment to the plans and purposes of God.

God has a costly but wonderfully glorious vocation for each of us. The enemy will do everything possible to distract us and thwart God’s purpose.6

What kind of child of God am I? Am I the kind of child that trusts God to meet my needs? The kind of child that trusts that when the Father says he’ll give me good gifts, that he’ll give me just that, and not a scorpion or a rock?

What I do know, is that I’m trying to step towards God’s purposes. One day at a time.

  1. Wright, T., (2002) Matthew for Everyone, Part 1 Chapters 1 – 15, (SPCK: London)  ↩

  2. Wright (2002), p. 25  ↩

  3. Wright (2002), p. 25  ↩

  4. Wright (2002), p. 26  ↩

  5. Wright (2002), p. 26  ↩

  6. Wright (2002), p. 26  ↩

A Phoney War?

… I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway…

Hitler warning

… I have discovered this principle of life – that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin.

Romans 7:19-25 NLT

In September 1939 Britain found itself at war with Germany, yet neither side had committed to launching a significant attack, and there was relatively little fighting on the ground. We were really at war, but the reality of war in all its horror hadn’t hit home yet. This was the situation right up until the Battle of France in May 1940, and was called ‘the phoney war’.

Yet this is not my situation, and it is not the situation the world finds itself in today. I am often challenged by how little the wars that are taking place in the world impact on me. If I think about the wars we as a nation are currently engaged in (Iraq, Afghanistan) they have very little impact on my day-to-day existence because I don’t have any close relationships with any of its participants. Gaza is an equally shocking world situation at the moment – I watch the news and am moved with compassion by what is taking place there – yet this ‘compassion’ seems only to move me to weak and feeble prayers. It doesn’t seem to intersect with my life in any concrete way. The reality is that there are significant attacks taking place, but if you looked at my life you’d be forgiven for thinking that the wars being waged by my countrymen are ‘phoney’.

Within me, I am aware that there is a war being waged between my flesh and my true, Christ-like self. Yet very often I continue my life as if it doesn’t really impact on me at all. I am spiritually numb – to the extent that I can continue with my life relatively unaffected by this battle that rages within me.

The war that rages within my soul is not a phoney war. The devastation it causes in my life though, when I allow the enemy to get the upper hand, is often that of apathy and a spiritual bluntness. If I allow this to continue for any period of time, it can deaden me to the things of God and decrease my capacity for God. When I fast from food as a sign to God that I want my physical hunger to become for me a spiritual hunger, I find that I get headaches. Often this is the side of fasting that I find most difficult to cope with. They get in the way of my ability to pray with any coherence, or read with any clarity of thought. They rob me of my ability to focus on the task in hand. Yet these headaches serve as a physical reminder of the war being waged within me. What my true self wants, my flesh is determined to frustrate. I usually don’t need headaches to distract me from God – other things do the job with far less strain – the internet, computer games, reading…. The list could go on and on. I don’t usually suffer from headaches. Yet when I am fasting, these headaches bring to the forefront a war that I am often only aware of at the very edges of my consciousness. The headaches help me to see my life for what it truly is, to see myself for what I truly am.


If I am living day-to-day in blissful ignorance of this war then my discipleship to Jesus needs realignment. I need to get closer to Him, close enough to get covered in the dust of my rabbi. I want my heart to be broken for what breaks His heart – for that is the true fast that He requires (Isaiah 58:6-8).

Henri Nouwen on Loneliness


Does the following ring true with your experience? Have you experienced deep loneliness even in the midst of a genuinely loving, caring Christian community?

We live in a society in which loneliness has become one of the most painful human wounds. The growing competition and rivalry which pervade our lives from birth have created in us an acute awareness of our isolation. This awareness has in turn left many with a heightened anxiety and an intense search for the experience of unity and community. It has also led people to ask anew how love, friendship, brotherhood and sisterhood can free them from isolation and offer them a sense of intimacy and belonging. All around us we see the many ways by which the people of the western world are trying to escape this loneliness….

But the more I think about loneliness, the more I think that the wound of loneliness is like the Grand Canyon – a deep incision in the surface of our existence which has become an inexhaustible source of beauty and self-understanding.. The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects and cherishes it as a precious gift. Sometimes it seems as if we do everything possible to avoid the painful confrontation with our basic human loneliness, and allow ourselves to be trapped by false gods promising immediate satisfaction and quick relief. But perhaps the painful awareness of loneliness is an invitation to transcend our limitations and look beyond the boundaries of our existence. The awareness of loneliness might be a gift we must protect and guard, because our loneliness reveals to us an inner emptiness that can be destructive when misunderstood, but filled with promise for him who can tolerate its sweet pain… We easily relate to our human world with devastating expectations. We ignore what we already know… that no love or friendship, no intimate embrace or tender kiss, no community, commune or collective, no man or woman, will ever be able to satisfy our desire to be released from our lonely condition. This truth is so disconcerting and painful that we are more prone to play games with our fantasies than to face the truth of our existence.

(Henri Nouwen in ‘The Wounded Healer’)

Quote Of The Day: Anna Rice

“I am a baby Christian when it comes to loving. I am just learning. So far were my daily thoughts from loving people that I have a lifelong vocation now before me in learning how to find Christ in every single person whom I meet. Again and again, I fail because of temper and pride. I fail because it is so easy to judge someone else rather than love that person. And I fail because I cannot execute the simplest operations — answering an angry e-mail, for instance — in pure love”

Flash My Brain for the iPhone: A Review

UPDATE: April 2013 – The developer appears to have given up on this app and ithas gone a long time without updates. Despite having a lot of promise, I would no longer recommend this app ;-(

Whilst I’m on a Greek and an iPhone App roll, I thought I’d introduce you to another iPhone App that I have been using recently that has enhanced my Greek study no end.

As soon as the App store became available I was aware of the possibility of using my iPhone to aid my Greek study. I held off, thinking that written memory cards suited me just fine. Eventually I caved in however, and have been happily using ‘Flash My Brain’ for several months now. There are now an impressive array of flashcard apps available for the iPhone – but in my view, this one beats them hands down for biblical Greek study.

I have uploaded all of the 600 vocabulary words used in Jeremy Duff’s ‘Elements of New Testament Greek’, including one version that includes audio helps for each of the words. Hopefully the somewhat poorly shot embedded video demonstrates something of the feel of the App…!

Many of its reviews on the App Store are all over the place, with mixed reviews elsewhere too. By and large I feel this is a little unfair. I’ve therefore decided to give my reason’s for using it below:

Things I like:

  • I have found that the Leitner memorisation system and customisable shuffling incorporated as options have made my learning more systematic and works really very well for me.

  • The online card view system makes it really easy for you, if you wish, to make your flashcard sets available for other users to access. Last time I checked, there were 243 different cardsets just for Greek vocab and grammar that people had uploaded and made available through the online server – with many hundreds more in everything from taxes to Tibetan to time tables! Whilst I guess most people have specific and individual requirements when it comes to their flashcard content, there is so much good stuff available on there that it does deserve a mention.
  • You can take photos with the iPhone’s camera, or add photos from your saved albums on both the iPhone and iPod Touch – you can even then slice them up and use bits from the front and back of your cards. I have added sound recordings to my flash cards that can be set to automatically play or play on my command (see embedded video for an example of this). This I find really useful as I have both the visual reminder of the word with an audio pronunciation right there to reinforce it. However, the editing process through the iPhone editor can prove to be a little time consuming. If you’re prepared to shell out for the desktop version, you’ll find that it seamlessly integrates with you iPhone and makes the process of creating cards SO much easier! Having created over 600 now, I don’t think I would have managed just using the built in iPhone editor, even though it is very good.
  • It’s always on you! (well, always on me anyway). Whether I’m on the train, walking out and about or lying in bed, I can always reach for my phone and have my vocab easy to hand. Fantastic!

Things I would like to see:

  • A cheaper price! ‘Flash my Brain’ for the PC or Mac weighs in at $29.95, with the iPhone App setting you back $5.99 currently. Whilst these apps are the best in their market imo, they are still a little pricey.
  • The font used to display Greek text on the iPhone is readable, but ugly. To be fair, I guess this is the fault of the current iPhone software for not supporting more attractive fonts for biblical Greek study so this may change in the future.
  • I’d like there to be some kind of free uploader available so that users can easily upload their own cards without being reliant on either using the iPhone editor (laborious) owning the PC / Mac version (expensive).

Check it out:

Flash My Brain

for the iPhone.

Paul’s Collection for the Saints in Jerusalem: An Essay

The collection has been described as occupying a “central place in [Paul’s] work among gentile churches… [becoming] a defining emblem of his apostolate.”1 It was certainly “one of Paul’s most ambitious hands-on projects,” looming large within the Corinthian and Roman letters, “both theologically and practically.”2 The collection for the saints of Jerusalem does beg an important question: just what was it about the collection that meant that Paul was willing to sacrifice his very life to accomplish it? 3 Why did he devote such time and energy to the project? It is clear that meeting the concrete economic needs of the Christ-followers in Jerusalem must form part of our answer to this, but this essay shall demonstrate that we must not only ask what it means to say that economic factors were not foreign to Paul’s mission, but also go on to question specifically what it was about meeting these economic needs through the collection that meant Paul was prepared to devote years of his ministry to it.We find in Paul’s letter to the Galatians what, most scholars agree, is likely to be the oldest text about the collection.4 Here Paul writes a polemical narrative of the Jerusalem Council (Galatians 2:1–10), adding that the council had asked him to do one more thing: remember the poor. We know from 1 Corinthians 16:1–4 that Paul had instructed Galatian converts to set aside money on the first day of each week for the collection.5 The prominent position given to this phrase “only the poor” (μόνον τῶν πτωχῶν ἵνα μνημονεύωμεν) draws the phrase to the attention of the reader. Interestingly, however, the rest of Paul’s letter to Galatians remains silent on this subject. 6 As there seems to be little to no mention of “the poor” in this letter one could conclude, with Sze-Kar Wan, that Paul’s willingness to emphasise it is evidence that he took the charge to ‘remember the poor’ seriously as an “integral part of his apostolic mission”7 without need for further explanation in the rest of the letter.

Scholars are widely in agreement that at least sections of the Jerusalem church in the first century experienced “chronic poverty.”8 We have little evidence as to why the saints in Jerusalem had so many poor among them, whom they themselves could not help, nor are we given a direct reason as to why Paul was eager to help them.9 Whilst the reference to the ‘poor’ in Galatians 2:10 is notoriously difficult to pin down, meaning perhaps either the economically poor or the eschatologically poor,10 further references to the “poor among the saints of Jerusalem” in 2 Corinthians 9:12 and Romans 15:26 do seem to make it clear that there was at least some part of the Jerusalem church that was poor in the economic sense. Whilst economic hardship may have precipitated the request for funds, the length of time Paul took to complete the collection (most likely around a year and a half11) might well indicate that it was intended to relieve not one specific crisis but rather a more chronic need amongst the Jerusalem church. Yet many also question whether the collection was “merely charity to relieve the economic hardship of the Jerusalem church”12 or whether there were broader factors at work. It is difficult, for example, to account for the rich vocabulary of 2 Corinthians 8–9 only through a concern for the economic plight of the Christians in Judea.13 We must also recognise the possibility that the saints in Jerusalem chose, by way of self-definition, to describe themselves as the humble poor, waiting for eschatological deliverance, as well as a descriptor of their financial position.

open quotesThe collection was one of Paul’s most ambitious hands-on projectsclose quotes

The economic benefit of the collection for the Jerusalem church may well not have been of primary importance. Whilst we cannot confidently determine the monetary results of Paul’s collection, there are several factors at play that may indicate that the “actual sum of money was not extraordinarily large.”14 The contributing region of Macedonia, for example, was itself suffering under “severe poverty, aggravated by the persecution to which the Christians there were being subjected.”15 It is also likely that Corinth, the chief city in Achaia, probably gave a “meagre contribution”16 – Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians 16:3 that he was arriving in only a short time to organise the delivery trip to Jerusalem, giving little time for substantial contributions to be organised. Despite the significant delay in Paul’s plans, evident in his needing to mention it again some time later in 2 Corinthians, it does seem unlikely that large amounts of money would have been able to be organised.

It is immediately striking, when reading the longest discourse on the collection (2 Corinthians 8–9), once again how little the “supposedly dire situation of the poor in Jerusalem is used in the appeal.”17 This may well have been because the plight of the Jerusalem church was well known to the Corinthians and could thus be omitted, but the decision not to draw especial attention to their economic needs would seem extraordinary when Paul seems so eager for the Corinthians to participate. One reason for this may well be to do with Paul’s desire to “decouple the Corinthians’ contribution from the patronal expectation that the Jerusalem church could become obligated to them as a result of the gift.”18 Decades of research have shown that Roman patronage was a highly influential factor in the Corinthian congregation.19 In the light of Paul’s insistence on the priority of the Jewish people in Romans, Paul goes to some length in Corinthians to avoid any suggestion that gifts to the Jerusalem church would imply any level of submission by Jerusalem to the gentile churches. In reiterating to the Corinthians that all generosity and wealth come from God, and that in providing for the needs of the ‘holy’ they are ultimately rendering thanks to God, Paul is presenting a theological argument that undermines any temptation on the part of the Corinthians to view their gifts to Jerusalem along Roman patronal lines.20 It can therefore be seen that in Corinthians, Paul “consciously disengages the Jerusalem church from the gentile churches, so that the former would not be placed in a direct obligatory relationship to the latter.”21

We might therefore conclude that in the Corinthian correspondence the economic hardship of the Jerusalem church features in the background, not in the foreground, of Paul’s argument in his letter precisely to uphold his vision of κοινωνία and ἀγάπη amongst the Jewish and gentile churches, rather than allow this to be jeopardised by alternative patron-client systems of social relations amongst the churches. Paul refers to this work as a ‘ministry’ (διακονία)22 and as one that evidences the grace at work amongst them overflowing in a generosity towards others in response to the generosity of God to them in salvation. It is expressly not, therefore, that the economic needs were merely a convenient vehicle with which to promote ecumenical unity between Jewish and Gentile converts as some seem to infer,23 but rather came from a desire to ensure that the gift was made in a way that reinforced his vision of inter-racial Christian κοινωνία. Paul also shows a sensitivity to the Corinthians’ own financial resources (8:12–15) and to the “suspicions always likely to hang around such financial transactions (8:19–21; 9:5).”24

open quotesan intensely practical expression of ἀγάπηclose quotes

Paul employs the noun κοινωνία three times25 with reference to the collection, and the verb κοινωνἐω once.(Rom 15:27) This was one of Paul’s “preferred phrases for speaking of the life of the Christian community.”26 Paul’s frequent use of the term in connection with Christian community, and especially connects it with the supplying of needs whether spiritual27 or material.28 Nickle argues that in applying the term to his collection Paul was “clearly emphasising that it was a direct expression of Christian fellowship that his churches were contributing relief funds to Jerusalem.”29 The use of the collection as an expression of unity is unpacked most fully in Paul’s letter to the Romans, to which we must now turn.

In Romans Paul imbues the collection with theological meaning that suggests that in the light of the fact that the Gentiles have received a share in the Jews’ spiritual privileges, they should now also share their own material benefits. Paul’s vision of the collection, in Romans, is that it is a massive symbol and prophetic sign “blazoned across half a continent, trumpeting the fact that the people of God redefined around Jesus the Messiah is a single family.”30 Now that they are a single family in Christ, they must live as such and live by the principle of practical ἀγάπη. Paul seems to be more than aware that this gift, a sign of the unity redefined around the Messiah, might be rejected by the Jerusalem church for the very reason that it had originated from Paul’s uncircumcised churches and thereby “reckoned to be tainted, to have the smell of idolatry still upon it.”31 There may also be a very practical awareness by Paul that if he advocated separation from the Jewish synagogues he might draw attention to the early church in a way that might risk it losing the privileged status granted to Jews under Roman rule.32 In Romans 11:17–24 Paul uses the analogy of an olive tree to allow both for the “commonality and diversity that then existed in the Christ communities at Rome”33 whilst also being used to oppose any gentile movement that might pride itself on its independence from Israel. Paul, therefore, is consciously seeking to avoid “escalating [any] process of self-definition [that might precipitate] the final separation between the synagogues and the house churches”34 and seems eager to maintain unity across racial boundaries.

We must be wary of treating Paul’s Jewish heritage statically as if his ethnicity was merely an interesting cultural artefact. Indeed in Romans particularly he seems willing to emphasise, in Becker’s words, “the salvation-historical priority of Israel and Jewish Christianity over the Gentiles.”35 Yet the voluntary nature of the gift must surely negate the view held by some, such as Karl Holl, that the collection was a “shameful imposition, which revealed [Paul’s] subservience to Jerusalem.”36 It does seem likely that agreement over the collection at the Jerusalem Council was hammered out “in the context of an intense wrangling over ethnicity”37 with at least two opposing views on the incorporation of the Gentile believers. On the one side was the maintenance of traditional Jewish ethnic boundaries based around the outward signs of circumcision and dietary restrictions to fulfil the Torah. On the other was Paul’s concern with “redefining Jewish group boundaries to include gentile converts,”38 through a faith-centered reading of the Abrahanic covenant with the “new law of Christ – to love each other – replacing the centrality of the Torah.”39 For Paul, ἀγάπη was the basic modus operandi for the new Jew plus Gentile movement with Christ as its head.

The collection was an intensely practical expression of ἀγάπη bringing the Jewish and gentile congregations together and symbolizing an “emerging universalizing society” operating “along Jewish lines which in effect brought all Gentiles into the metanarrative of Israel.”40 Whilst upholding the Jewish salvation story, Paul rejected any hint of cultural chauvinism in criticizing both “those who would close the door on the Gentiles or insist that Gentiles adapt to Jewish norms before they would be included.”41 Sze-Kar Wan therefore sees the collection as both a statement against Jewish ethnic exclusiveness as well as a symbol of resistance towards and criticism of any system, including the Roman imperial order, which might stand against allegiance to Christ the Jewish Messiah. Seen through these eyes, the collection is part of a wider vision for Paul of Jewish and Gentile congregations together “daring… to reorder economic life together along unabashedly transcendent, universalizing principles.”42 This analysis does make some sense of a Paul who, as a Roman citizen and an ethnic Jew in a subaltern community under Roman rule, worked hard to set up communities of people who were citizens of a new and different sort of empire in which Jesus was lord and Caesar was not.43

Many scholars have been quick to point out that Paul’s collection reflected several aspects of contemporary Judaism, particularly in its organisation from the Jewish Temple tax. Nickle emphasises its similarities in both the external elements as well as in its symbolic significance. He argues that it was precisely because the “symbolism of the Temple tax corresponded so precisely with the hopes for the unity of the Church with which Paul had invested his project” that he was led to borrow and use so many other aspects of that tax.44 He maintains that Paul deliberately arranged his collection for the Jerusalem community as a parallel to the collection for the Temple, and in particular asserts that Paul probably made advantageous use of the protection provided under the special concessions granted to Judaism by the Roman government. If Paul had publicly differentiated between his collection and the other usual contributions sent to Jerusalem, his collection would probably have been judged illegal by the Roman authorities.45

Tellbe usefully points to the Temple tax as a Jewish identity marker that had an important social meaning in that it served an important reminder for the Diaspora Jews of their primary affiliation and so became a “concrete expression of first-hand loyalty to the Jewish nation and its religious leadership.”46 In other words, it was a way of declaring yourself a Jew and to be reckoned to be one by your neighbours. We must ensure that we keep at the forefront of our minds that Paul’s collection was a voluntary collection. However, through the lens of Tellbe’s analysis we could view the collection as an expression of Christian identity: an identity as a community formed around Christ to express in practical ways the rule of ἀγάπη. Tellbe’s analysis does overstep the mark, however, when expounding Paul’s argument in Romans 13:1–10. Here he points out that Paul does not mention anything about the Temple tax when addressing the obligation to pay taxes. Tellbe implies through this that “Paul in practice implicitly affirms the autonomous religious identity of the Roman Christians vis-à-vis the Roman Jews.”47 He seems to be suggesting that because Paul does not mention the Temple tax within Romans 13, a passage that explicitly addresses the Christian relations with the Roman authorities (rather than Temple authorities), Paul is therefore hinting that the Roman Christians had an identity entirely separate to Roman Judaism. We should rightly heed the warning of Campbell that this is an argument from silence and may say as much about the Jewish-Gentile mix in the Roman church as it might do about Paul’s attitude towards the Temple tax.48

open quotesThe collection, therefore, was an important attempt to bolster the unity amongst the churches to help it withstand future testingclose quotes

The significance of the collection for Paul is further emphasised if we accept Wright’s assessment of Paul’s attitude towards Jerusalem. Wright argues that Paul had a “clear awareness that the days of Jerusalem, as he knew it, were strictly numbered.”49 We must be careful not to automatically assume that this, for Paul, meant that he was envisaging this as the ‘Parousia’, the end of the space-time order to take place within his lifetime, but that there was an imminent judgment due on the Jewish world, and by extension Jerusalem, that gave Paul’s mission such urgency.50 In the fallout from this, he argues, Jewish non-Christians, and not a few Jewish Christians, may well lay the blame at the feet of this early Christ movement for undermining Torah obedience though mixing with pagan idolaters. In return, gentile believers may well celebrate the demise of a nation that could have been perceived to have been opposed the true gospel. Wright contends that Paul was aware that such an event would split the church down the middle “along the very seam which Paul spent most of his time stitching up.”51 The collection, therefore, was an important attempt to bolster the unity amongst the churches to help it withstand future testing.

In conclusion, it is clear that the collection “was not just an example of poor-relief,”52 but it is certainly not less than an example poor-relief. Provision for the poor saints of Jerusalem was a clear demonstration that economic factors featured prominently in Paul’s strategy to demonstrate, in immensely practical ways, the rule of ἀγάπη and the unity of Christian κοινωνία amongst the early Christ movement. The economic needs of the first Christians therefore lay close to the heart of his apostolic mission. To expend the time and effort that his collection must have required, it must have been intended to be far more than a token gesture. In the words of Wright, he must have seen it as “a major element in his practical strategy for creating and sustaining the one family of God redefined around the Messiah and in the Spirit.”53 Paul was eager, though, to avoid any sense in which meeting the economic needs of these first Christians might promote ethnic superiority or precipitate expectations of patronal subservience. As an ethnic Jew, Paul may well have constructed the collection to closely mirror the Temple tax, but in doing so re-orientated his gift to the Jewish Christians not around the temple itself but around his vision of a multi-ethnic Christ-movement that could withstand all pressure because of its unity in Jesus the Messiah.

Websites worth reading

Some books worth reading on the subject

  • Campbell, W., S., (2008) Paul and the creation of Christian identity, (London: T & T Clark International)
  • Bruce, F., F., (1993) ‘Paul in Acts and letters’, in Hawthorne, G., F., Martin, R., P., Reid, D., C., (Eds.), Dictionary of Paul and his letters, (Downers Grove, ILL: Intervarsity Press), pp. 679 – 92
  • Dunn, J., D., G., (1998) ‘The Collection’ in Dunn, J., D., G., Dunn, The theology of Paul the Apostle, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans)
  • Munck, J., (1959) Paul and the salvation of mankind, (London: SCM)
  • Nickle, K., F., (1966) The Collection: A study in Paul’s strategy, (London: SCM)
  • Sze-Kar Wan, (2000) ‘Collection for the saints as anticolonial act’, in Horsley, R., A., (Ed.), Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation, (Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International)
  • Taylor, N., (1992) Paul, Antioch and Jerusalem, (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press)
  • Tellbe, M., (2001) Paul between Synagogue and State, (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International)
  • Wedderburn, A., J., M., (1988) The Reasons for Romans, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark International)
  • Wright, N., T., (2005) Paul: Fresh Perspectives, (London: SPCK)
  • Wright, N., T., (1994, 2nd edn.) ‘Jerusalem in the New Testament’ in P. W. L. Walker, (Ed.), Jerusalem Past and Present in the Purposes of God, (Carlisle: Paternoster), pp. 53–77

  1. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 194  ↩

  2. Wright (2005), p. 167. Paul makes reference to the collection in every one of his major letters (see Rom 15:25–28, 1 Cor 16:1–4, 2 Cor 8–9, Gal 2:10)  ↩

  3. Romans 15:31  ↩

  4. Munck (1966), p. 291  ↩

  5. “The term used here, λογεία (vv. 1,2), was commonly used for money collected for religious or cultic purposes, which is clearly the meaning here as well.” Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 193–4  ↩

  6. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 193  ↩

  7. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 193  ↩

  8. Bruce, F., F. (1993), p. 686  ↩

  9. See Galatians 2:10. Munck (1959), p. 287  ↩

  10. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 195  ↩

  11. “Accordingly to 8:10, the Corinthians had pledged to contribute to the collection a year earlier, an indication that the project had been delayed for at least that long.” Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 194. If we include the events that resulted in the launching of this project, the time involved in the collection “spanned the entire period of his known public missionary activity from Antioch to Rome.” Nickle (1966), p. 100  ↩

  12. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 195  ↩

  13. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 195  ↩

  14. Nickle (1966), p. 129–130  ↩

  15. Nickle (1966), p. 129–130  ↩

  16. Nickle (1966), p. 129–130  ↩

  17. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 210 – 211  ↩

  18. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 210 – 211  ↩

  19. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 214  ↩

  20. See 2 Cor 9:12 and Taylor (1992), p. 203  ↩

  21. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 212 – 213  ↩

  22. 2 Cor 9:1; Rom 15:25  ↩

  23. See comments by Karl Holl as quoted in Nickle (1966), p. 100–101  ↩

  24. Dunn (1998), p. 711  ↩

  25. Rom 15:26; 2 Cor 8:4; 9:13; cf. Rom 12:13; Gal 6:6; Phil 1:5; 4:15  ↩

  26. Nickle (1966), p. 105  ↩

  27. Rom 15:27; cf. 1 Cor 9:11ff, 23; 2 Cor 1:5ff; Phil 1:7  ↩

  28. Rom 12:13; Gal 6:6; Phil 1:5; 4:14f.  ↩

  29. Nickle (1966), p.106  ↩

  30. Wright (2005), p. 167  ↩

  31. Wright (2005), p. 167  ↩

  32. Thoughts adapted from Campbell (2008), p. 77  ↩

  33. Campbell (2008), p. 79  ↩

  34. Campbell (2008), p. 79  ↩

  35. Beck quoted in Wedderburn (1988), p. 74  ↩

  36. Such as Karl Holl quoted in Nickle (1966), p. 100–101  ↩

  37. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 200  ↩

  38. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 192  ↩

  39. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 203 – 204  ↩

  40. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 196  ↩

  41. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 196  ↩

  42. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 196  ↩

  43. These thoughts are adapted from Philippians 3:20 and Wright (2005), p. 170  ↩

  44. Nickle (1966), p. 99  ↩

  45. Nickle (1966), p. 87–89  ↩

  46. Tellbe (2001), p. 184  ↩

  47. Tellbe (2001), p. 188  ↩

  48. Campbell (2008), p. 78  ↩

  49. Wright (1994), p. 61  ↩

  50. Wright (1994), p. 61  ↩

  51. Wright (2005), p. 169 – 170  ↩

  52. Wright (1994), p. 61  ↩

  53. Wright (2005), p. 167  ↩