Totalizers and Tentative Investigators

Jesus, History, and Mount Darwin: An Academic ExcursionThe following is taken from a post by Rick Kennedy at the Biologos Forum, part 5 of his series Jesus, History, and Mount Darwin: An Academic Excursion. While it was written about college professors, I would suggest that it applies more broadly to writers, to bloggers, to preachers, and indeed to anyone who expresses their opinion:

One way to categorize college professors—an overgeneralization but a useful one—is to split them into Totalizers and Tentative Investigators. There are Darwinist and Christian professors of both types.

Totalizers use their classrooms to preach that if all people are perfectly rational they will all ultimately agree. Usually there is some sort of declaration that the progress of knowledge has one glorious end: light and magnetism will be understood, democracy and capitalism will prove to be the best systems for all situations, and natural selection will answer all questions about life. All rational people ride one train of progress together. Tentative Investigators, in comparison, are wimpy. Ask them a question and they give you at least two answers joined by “on the other hand.” The Totalizers are the more popular teachers, their books are easier to read, and the news media finds them easier to interview. Tentative Investigators are like cats. They can’t be herded and can rest easy in the midst of household chaos. Tentative Investigators don’t disagree with the notion that knowledge is progressing; however, they are pretty sure that progress is uneven, experiencing fits and starts, and that we can never be sure at any one point whether we are taking one step backward or two steps forward. Totalizers are often scared that someone—especially some religious or political authority—is going to block progress. Tentative Investigators are less worried that progress can be stopped.

Richard Dawkins is a Totalizer. Among the Greeks, Plato was a Totalizer. Plato preached a triumphal, Dawkins-style, one-size-fits-all rationalism. Socrates, Plato’s hero, in over a thousand pages of Dialogues, never finds himself to be wrong. Socrates is rational and never has to apologize. Philosophers, theologians, and scientists have a long tradition of waxing poetic about some ultimate simplicity that is supposed to exist in nature and/or God. Simplicity, especially in an aesthetic of “elegance,” is supposed to be guidepost to truths.

Me? I believe God is Truth, but my life and my Bible don’t give me any evidence of an ultimate simplicity. God, the personal God, the triune God, is Truth; however Isaiah warns: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”

I would side with this author and count myself as a Tentative Investigator, against all the Totalizers who I so often see among vocal atheists and religious believers alike. While it would be too strong to accuse all Totalizers of being fundamentalists – and indeed some Christian Totalizers have quite different doctrines from Christian fundamentalists but similar attitudes – it is this assertion of certainty that one is correct and arrogant dismissal of other opinions that underlies fundamentalisms of all kinds.

Was Jesus born into a poor family?

Rod of Alexandria writes an interesting post God Is Santa Claus: How the Prosperity Gospel Poisons the Spirit of Christmas (which he also links to at Unsettled Christianity, thereby kindling Joel’s apparent ire). I agree with most of his criticism of prosperity churches and ministries, and indeed of any churches which allow their life to “center around the wallets of the monied, and their interests”.

But I disagree with Rod on one point. He writes (corrected by me):

In Luke 2, when our Jewish Savior was presented at the temple, his family was so poor, Mary and Joseph had to give two doves or pigeons, according to the law of Moses (Luke 2:24). The author of Luke had in mind Leviticus 5:7 (NIV): “Anyone who cannot afford a lamb is to bring two doves or two young pigeons to the LORD as a penalty for their sin—one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering.” Mary and Joseph could not even afford one of the lambs that was probably in the manger with them the night Mary the Theotokos gave birth to our LORD.

First, I would correct Rod’s reference to Leviticus. The passage Luke had in mind is surely not 5:7, concerning the sin offering in general, but 12:8, which is specifically about purification after childbirth. But the wording is almost identical. Even in 12:8 one of the birds is for a sin offering, implying that there was considered to be something sinful even in Jesus’ birth.

Two turtle dovesAs Rod notes, Mary and Joseph chose to offer not a lamb and a bird, but the poor person’s alternative of two birds. Very likely what they brought was the first alternative in the Hebrew, two turtle doves – not on the second day of Christmas but on the 33rd day, according to Leviticus 12:8.

In other words, Rod is claiming that Mary and Joseph were poor. But is there in fact any evidence for this?

First, let’s consider the evidence from them bringing the supposed poor person’s offering. I researched this a little a few years ago, and from what I remember there is very little evidence of what offerings were actually presented after the birth of a baby around the time that Jesus was born. (If anyone reading this knows of any evidence, please mention it in a comment.) On this basis we can only speculate. But my own guess would be that, given a free choice between offering a lamb or a second bird, and given human nature, most people would choose to give the bird. It would very likely have been only the ostentatiously wealthy and religious, such as the Pharisees, who would have offered a lamb – and made a big show of doing so. I doubt if the really poor brought even birds as offerings for each of their many children, especially if that involved a long trip to Jerusalem every time, which may be part of why the Pharisees dismissed them as ignorant of the law and cursed (John 7:49).

Anyway, even if Mary and Joseph were normally quite prosperous, their finances would surely have been seriously stretched by the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem and the stay in Judea of more than a month, probably with little chance of work for Joseph. (Here I assume a traditional understanding of the biblical nativity stories.) In these circumstances a lamb would have been a significant expense even for someone quite wealthy.

So, if we discount this evidence from the offering in Luke 2:24, what can we say about the economic status of Jesus’ family? Well, I wouldn’t claim to be an expert in this field. But it seems clear that they were not in the main class of the poor of the time, agricultural day labourers like the ones in the parable who were waiting to be hired for work in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). Joseph, by contrast, was a skilled craftsman – the Greek word tekton means not so much “carpenter” as “builder” (Matthew 13:55). Very likely he found good building work at the Romanised city of Sepphoris, near Nazareth.

More than 30 years later Jesus himself was known as a tekton (Mark 6:3). But by the time of his ministry he had apparently moved away from Nazareth to Capernaum. Very likely one reason for this was that that was the home of his relative Zebedee, whose fishing business was profitable enough to support not only his sons James and John but also hired workers (Mark 1:19-20). So, although his standard of living was surely well below what would now, in the West, be considered the poverty line, Jesus was by no means among the poor of his own time.

Yes, Jesus did become a homeless wanderer who had “no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20), but that was not because of his family background, but because he chose to follow his Father’s call into itinerant ministry.

Yes, the Apostle Paul did write about

the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

(2 Corinthians 8:9, NIV)

But the poverty that Paul had in mind here was far more than physical want. Ironically, if this verse is about Jesus’ material poverty, it must also be about his followers’ material riches, and so it must justify the prosperity gospel which Rod criticises. And the context in 2 Corinthians 8-9, a passage on a collection for the poor, requires that this verse cannot be taken purely spiritually. Nevertheless it can hardly be taken as a literal statement of Jesus’ socio-economic position.

So, what can we conclude? Jesus and his family were not rich people. But neither were they poor, by the standards of their time. It may be anachronistic to speak of a middle class, but to the extent that there was one they were in it. Jesus’ poverty and dependence on voluntary support during his ministry (Luke 8:1-3) were because he voluntarily gave up his building work for the work of building God’s kingdom. At the end, although he could have avoided it, he submitted to the ultimate poverty of being nailed naked to a cross. And this became the way to the Resurrection which brought true riches, not only to himself but also to us who follow him.

Under-Realised Eschatology vs. "Dominionism"

Brian LePortBrian LePort of Near Emmaus writes an excellent post Jesus and the Occupy Movement. There is a lot that I could say in response to this and concerning the Occupy movement. But I am still busy here in the USA, so I only have time for this quote, which is peripheral to Occupy but central to the more basic issue of Christian involvement in politics:

Another approach is an under-realized eschatology wherein all “change” in this age is not worth pursuing. There is no hope for good to prevail until Jesus establishes his Kingdom on earth. If we oppose violence we are trying to “establish” the Kingdom of God. If we oppose greed we are trying to “establish” the Kingdom of God. Often this comes from people who are quite comfortable with the current dynamics of this world. This allows them to ignore Jesus’ Kingdom activities which challenged the systems of the world and that he expected his disciples to continually reenact.

This is certainly an important insight, that those who object strongly to Christian activity in the political world have an “under-realised eschatology”, that is, they don’t understand the extent to which the work of Jesus in saving the world has already been accomplished. These people complain about so-called “dominionism”, which they see as Christians trying to take control of the world, because they fail to see that Jesus has already defeated the powers of evil and set up his kingdom.

Ironically only yesterday I reacted in a comment to the opposite error. Phil Whittall, in his review of When Heaven Invades Earth by Bill Johnson, questioned “why God has to invade His own earth and infiltrate governments that He presides over”, suggesting an over-realised eschatology in which God is already in complete control of the world and so Christian activity to take this control is unnecessary. I pointed out how this contradicts 1 John 5:19; it also goes against what we see in our nations today.

In contrast to both of these positions, I would take a middle line, that God’s kingdom has been inaugurated on earth and is already breaking into the world system controlled by the evil one. On this basis the Christian responsibility is to seek to extend this kingdom, not so that the church can take control of the world but so that God can, so that Jesus can truly reign as King.

Of course this raises all kinds of questions about how the kingdom should be extended in practice. Certainly some of the ways that have been suggested, such as the Reconstructionist agenda of imposing Old Testament law on modern society, are sub-Christian and quite wrong. But we must resist the under-realised eschatology which leads to passive acceptance of the wrongs of this world – especially when this is used as an excuse by comfortable and prosperous Christians to refuse to do anything about the evil and the suffering which they see around the world and very often even in their own neighbourhoods.

Cross or Resurrection 8: Finding the Balance

With this post I conclude this series. Perhaps “Cross and Resurrection” was not the best title for it, as it has in fact ranged much wider than these two events. Here are the previous posts:

In each of the preceding posts, apart from the opening one, I warned against the dangers of taking one aspect of the faith, and of the New Testament narrative, as the central focus of Christianity and as determinative for the Christian life. In each case I named a particular stream within the church which sometimes strays too far in focusing on one aspect to the neglect of the others.

The key to the Christian life is to find the right balance between these matters. Each of them is important and indeed necessary for a proper Christian life. Tightrope walker Ramon Kelvink Jr.But no one of them is important enough to be the central focus, or to cause the others to be neglected. The Christian life must begin with repentance and forgiveness, made possible through the Cross, and continue with the new life inaugurated by the Resurrection and empowered by the Holy Spirit – always taking Jesus’ life on earth as an example but remembering that he is now reigning in heaven and will come again at the end. If anything here is missed out, there is a serious imbalance which needs to be corrected. But if we keep the right balance, the Christian walk is a straightforward, if not always easy, one.

Cross or Resurrection 7: Jesus is Coming Soon

I have just one more brief part to add to my series on what is determinative for the Christian life, before drawing my conclusions. I have looked at John the Baptist, at the life and teachingthe death on the Cross, and the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, and at Pentecost. Finally I want to look at the expected Second Coming of Jesus, and at those Christians who seem to centre their faith on looking ahead to that coming – to the Rapture, to the Millennium, or to the final Day of Judgment.

Harold CampingThis year’s most notorious preacher of the End Times has of course been Harold Camping, whose prophecies of the Rapture on 21st May and Judgment Day on 21st October attracted widespread ridicule, especially when nothing unusual happened on either day. Camping’s clearest error was to ignore the clear biblical teaching that the exact dates of the end have not been revealed to human beings, as Jesus taught:

But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

Mark 13:32 (NIV)

It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.

Acts 1:7 (NIV)

But Camping’s error was deeper than that, and its depths are shared by many more Christians, especially those of a more Fundamentalist persuasion. Their fundamental mistake is to focus more on what is coming than on what needs to be done in the present. Yes, Jesus warned us to be ready for his coming, but also that we need to be working faithfully until he does. Paul had no time for those who gave up work to wait for Jesus to come.

We mustn’t forget that Jesus is coming. But we can’t expect to know when. As Jesus told us, wars and earthquakes are not signs that the Day is imminent (Mark 13:7-8). So we shouldn’t make this the centre of our Christian life.

Concluded in Cross or Resurrection 8: Finding the Balance.

Cross or Resurrection 6: New Life After Pentecost

Pentecost, by El Greco (1600)In this series on what is determinative for the Christian life I will move on past John the Baptist and past the life and teachingthe death on the Cross, and the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, to look at the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and at how some Christians put an unbalanced emphasis on this.

It will be no surprise that here I am referring to Pentecostals, and to their successors in the Charismatic Movement. For many centuries the practical implications of the coming of the Holy Spirit, and especially the supernatural gifts which he gives, had been neglected in churches. These gifts were put back into use by the Pentecostals in the early 20th century, and in the second half of that century started to be practised in established denominations, as well as in numerous independent charismatic churches which would not label themselves as Pentecostal.

Whatever one might think of the more spectacular charismatic gifts, I hope my readers would agree with me that it is wrong to focus on them as the centre of the Christian life, especially if that leads to a neglect of Jesus Christ. In the past some Pentecostals have made speaking in tongues the determinative mark of a good Christian, but I am happy that that is no longer typical. Others in the charismatic movement have been accused of putting too much emphasis on healing, even though in most cases they see this at least in principle as glorifying Jesus and bringing people to him.

Less controversially, it is largely but not only in the Charismatic Movement that a new emphasis has been found on ordinary Christians living the Resurrection life. This is a biblical emphasis:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Colossians 3:1-4 (NIV)

The implication here is that Christians should move on from focusing on the sinful old life which they have died to, and instead live the new life for which they have been born again. But the danger comes when people presume that they have already reached the perfection of Resurrection life, that they are already reigning with Christ in his perfect kingdom. This view was widespread in the Corinthian church, and Paul responded to it with cutting irony:

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign—and that without us! How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you! 9 For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. … 13 … We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment.

1 Corinthians 4:8-13 (NIV)

Clearly the Corinthians had gone too far in claiming to “reign”. Paul brings them back to reality by calling himself “the garbage of the world”, a point not about his sinfulness but about how people treated him. His life was not always the victorious one which some were claiming to live; he was often “hungry and thirsty”, and even “brutally treated” (v.11). He wanted to teach the Corinthians that the Christian life, following God’s call, would often be like this.

Yes, as Christians we have been raised with Christ. But we are still living in an in-between world. The kingdom of God is breaking through into it but is not yet fully established. And it is only within that kingdom that we can reign with Christ. To the extent that we are not surrounded by that kingdom, but are in a world that is under the control of the evil one (1 John 5:19), we can expect to struggle and suffer. If we retreat from that world into a Christian bubble, we are insulated in part from that struggle. But while there may be seasons for such retreat, the Christian calling at least for most people is to take the kingdom of God out into the world, and to risk the suffering which may come as we do, while expecting in the long term to see Jesus Christ bring the victory.

Continued in Cross or Resurrection 7: Jesus is Coming Soon.

Cross or Resurrection 4: The Centrality of the Cross?

I continue this series on what is determinative for the Christian life by looking at the Cross. I have already looked at the life and baptism of John and at the life and teaching of Jesus as possible focal examples for our own life, and have concluded that the former is sub-Christian and the latter is inadequate apart from what follows. Now I want to move on to consider what very many Christians consider to be the very centre of their faith, the Cross, or more precisely the death of Jesus on it.

Dali, Christ of St John of the CrossFirst I want to make it very clear that for me this Crucifixion is absolutely vital for the Christian faith. The atoning death of the Son of God, however one might understand it and formulate it doctrinally, is the only basis for the forgiveness of sins and the reconciliation of sinners to the holy Trinity. Its significance goes beyond this into the cosmic realm, as it effected the reconciliation to God not just of humanity but of all things (Colossians 1:20, Romans 8:21).

However, for many Christians, especially those in the Reformed tradition, the Cross is treated as more than just one of the central aspects of their faith. For them it is THE centre, the one focal point of Christianity, relative to which everything else is secondary. Their presentations of the Gospel tend to begin and end at the Cross: Jesus died for the audience’s sins, and nothing more need be said.

These Christians of course accept that Jesus was the Son of God, and was born and lived as a man among us. After all, apart from that his death had no special meaning. For the most part they also accept that he rose again and ascended to heaven. But these parts of the story rarely if ever figure in their preaching, either as part of the narrative or for their theological significance. In part 1 of my review of Adrian Warnock’s book Raised with Christ I noted how, for example, people could be assured that they had become Christians without even learning that Jesus had risen again – and I expressed my amazement that it took a voice from God to prompt Adrian to preach on the Resurrection on Easter Sunday.

This focus on the cross alone has its effect also on what these people understand the Christian life to be about. I started this series by linking to a post by Daniel Kirk (no relation) Resonate: Matthew (Ch. 11), in which he writes:

life in the kingdom is not about seeing fortune and glory here and now. It is as much or more about crucifixion. But resurrection awaits for those who are faithful to the end.

Well, it is good that Daniel does not ignore the Resurrection, but he seems to see it as relevant only in the distant future. For now, it seems, we should only take up our cross and expect to suffer with Jesus.

Now I certainly don’t deny that this is one aspect of the Christian life. Yes, Jesus did say

Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.

Luke 9:23 (NIV)

But immediately before that he said

The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

Luke 9:22 (NIV)

For Jesus there was no Cross without the Resurrection to follow. Similarly those who follow him should take up their cross only in the hope of resurrection. And this is not just something for the distant future. Jesus also said

no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God 30 will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.

Luke 18:29-30 (NIV)

Yes, giving up all that is dear to us for the sake of the kingdom will be painful. At times it will feel like being crucified, and for some it may even literally mean that, or its equivalent. But Jesus promises us far greater rewards, not only in the age to come but also in this life. The apostle Paul fills out some of the details which Jesus left unclear, for example in this favourite verse of those who focus on the Cross:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Galatians 2:20 (NIV)

What is sometimes missed in this verse is that the Christ who lives in the believer is not a person who is dead from crucifixion, but the One who rose again from the dead. So Paul’s teaching is that Christians are living the Resurrection life of Jesus, in the body here and now. He makes this explicit elsewhere:

because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus …

Ephesians 2:4-6 (NIV)

The consequence of this is that our salvation depends not only on the Cross but also on the Resurrection, as Paul also made very clear:

if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.

1 Corinthians 15:17 (NIV)

What this means is that a Christian faith centred around the Cross, with the Resurrection considered as a secondary matter, is seriously unbalanced.

Continued in Cross or Resurrection 5: Risen and Ascended Lord.


Cross or Resurrection 3: What about Jesus' life?

Tim ChestertonI want to start by thanking my blogging friend Tim Chesterton for naming Gentle Wisdom as the first of his ten favourite Christian blogs. His own blog Faith, Folk and Charity is one of my favourites, when he finds time to post in his busy life. It is hard to believe that it is more than four years since I met Tim, when he was on sabbatical here in England. I regret that much of the excellent material from his former blog An Anabaptist Anglican was lost when that blog was closed after his sabbatical.*

I also want to thank Tim for a comment on my post on the central message of the Bible, in which he pointed out an issue with how I have set up the series of which this post is the third part. I started the series by posing a binary question: which is determinative, the Cross or the Resurrection? But in fact there are other choices which could be made on the basis of the New Testament. The one which I dismissed in part 2 of this series, that the example of John the Baptist is normative, is hardly a Christian one. But, as Tim reminded me, it is a Christian position to take the life and teaching of Jesus Christ as the basis for Christian living. This is in some ways a third alternative to focusing on the Cross or on the Resurrection. It is one especially associated with the Anabaptist movement, as well as with the strand of Catholic spirituality associated with the classic book The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. So in this post I will look at that alternative focus.

I want to affirm strongly that the life of Jesus is a good and important example for Christian living today. This has been a consistent theme on this blog. Five years ago I wrote that Jesus is Our Fully Human Example. Three years ago I suggested, rather controversially perhaps, that the faith of Jesus Christ should be a model for our Christian faith. I would also affirm, against some dispensationalists, that the teaching of Jesus is directly relevant for Christians today. We are even expected to live according to the Sermon on the Mount – although there is grace for us when we fail.

"The Sermon On the Mount" by Carl BlochBut this mention of grace illustrates the inadequacy of making the life of Jesus the centre of Christianity. Can we really be expected only to follow the teachings of the Great Teacher and to live as he lived? It is for good reason that many have concluded that the Sermon on the Mount was intended as an impossible standard to live by. It is indeed impossible if we try to live by it in our own strength, treating it as a new law to replace the one given through Moses. But the Sermon is surely intended as more than an unattainable standard given to force us to repentance.

While some might just be able to live for a time in obedience to Jesus’ teaching, there are clearly ways in which no one can hope to do as he did in their own strength. Jesus was best known in his own time, and perhaps in ours, for the healings and other miracles which he performed. As I have argued before, he was able to do such things not because he was God but because after his baptism he was filled with the Holy Spirit. And he expected his followers to do not just similar works but also greater ones (John 14:12). That is clearly impossible for ordinary human beings without the power of God.

Thus both the teaching and the miracles of Jesus point us beyond his life on earth. It is only through his death on the Cross that men and women can receive forgiveness, without which even a perfectly amended life is pointless as it cannot atone for past sins. It is only through his Resurrection that people can receive a new life with the ability to overcome evil and live according to Jesus’ teaching, even in the Sermon on the Mount. And it is only through Pentecost which followed them that anyone can receive the power of the Holy Spirit to perform the even greater works which God has prepared in advance for them to do (Ephesians 2:10).

So we have to conclude that, important as the life and teaching of Jesus are for the Christian life, they are not its central focus. True Christians need to look beyond following his example and his instructions to what follows, which alone is able to effect achievements with eternal consequences.

Continued in Cross or Resurrection 4: The Centrality of the Cross?

* UPDATE: Tim tells me that all the significant posts from Anabaptist Anglican have been transferred to his main blog Faith, Folk and Charity, where they can be found in the April, May, June, and July 2007 archives.

Who can forgive sins but God alone?

Jesus and the paralysed manWhen Jesus declared that a paralysed man’s sins were forgiven (Mark 2:5), some people were not happy:

Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, 7 “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

Mark 2:6-7 (NIV)

Their final question was of course intended as rhetorical: on their understanding, only God can forgive sins, and anyone else who claims to do so is blaspheming. But I want to look at it as a real question, one which came up while I was working on my post Cross or Resurrection 2: Greater than John the Baptist.

So what was Jesus’ response to the Jewish legal experts’ criticism? Well, he healed the paralysed man, but first he said that by doing so he would demonstrate, not that he was God, but that

the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.

Mark 2:10 (NIV)

Now as orthodox Christians we believe that Jesus was not only the Son of Man, the representative Human One, but also the Son of God, himself God and the third person of the Trinity. But it is interesting that Jesus did not suggest that this was why he was able to forgive sins.

The point is clarified in Jesus’ teaching after the Resurrection, when he breathed on his disciples and said to them:

Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.

John 20:22-23 (NIV)

In other words, the authority which Jesus already had to forgive sins has now been passed on to those who believe in him, to his continuing body on earth.

Similarly James wrote that as believers we should confess our sins to each other, not as a weekly ritual but when we have something specific to confess, and expect to be “healed” which surely includes being forgiven (James 5:16).

In churches within the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, including Anglican churches, only ordained priests can pronounce the absolution, which is generally presented and understood as the priest not forgiving sins but declaring that God has forgiven them. But in the biblical material it is the believer, not God, who forgives the sins, and there is no hint of a restriction to a special priestly caste.

So the answer to the question is not “Nobody except for the three persons of the Trinity”, but “Anyone to whom God has given authority to do so”. And he has given this authority not just to Jesus, and not just to a few selected priests, but to his whole new “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9) consisting of all Christian people.

No, Mr C, that's not the central message of the Bible

As the Guardian reports, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, has contributed to the People’s Bible project, a copy of the King James Version handwritten by celebrities and ordinary people. Thanks for the link to David Keen on Twitter.

David Cameron at his home in OxfordshireApparently the PM ignored his office’s suggestions and chose his own verses to write. And this was his choice:

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. 9Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.

Philippians 4:8-9 (KJV)

Now these are good sentiments for a top politician, who should hopefully not just “think on these things” but also put them into practice. But I am concerned by the following words, a spokesman’s explanation of Cameron’s choices:

The reason he chose those verses is because he’s always liked them.

They contain the central message of the Bible about leading good lives and helping each other as best we can. There is no hidden meaning and I wouldn’t read between the lines.

No, Mr Cameron, that is not the central message of the Bible. So if this is really the whole reason why you chose these verses, then you clearly don’t have much understanding of the Scriptures.

This morning I read this on Google+:

To most Christians, the bible is like a software license. Nobody actually reads it. They just scroll to the bottom and click “I agree.”

It seems as if, apart from a few favourite verses, that is what the Bible is to David Cameron. Without a firm scriptural foundation it is no wonder that his Christian faith, in his own words, “sort of comes and goes”.

But if Bible believing Christians keep out of politics, from fear of “dominionism” or compromise, then of course we can’t expect any better of those do who find their way into high office.