Book: The Biblical Revelation of the Cross

Several years ago, at a time when there was a lot of discussion, on this blog and elsewhere, of different views of the atonement, Norman McIlwain kindly sent me a free copy of his book The Biblical Revelation of the Cross. Norman, like me, was critical of the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, and was looking at other ways of understanding the biblical material about the death of Jesus. I intended to read the book and review it here, but to my regret I never did so.

The Biblical Revelation of the CrossNorman has now revised and expanded his book and published it again, but for now only online, and free of charge. The extra material is about the early church’s teaching on the atonement. This is not formatted as an e-book but as one long HTML page, here: The Biblical Revelation of the Cross. See also Norman’s main Bible study website.

I have not read most of this material and so cannot review or endorse it. I can say from what I have read that it seems well argued. His conclusions seem to me on a skim reading a little too close to saying that Jesus’ death was only as a moral example. But I appreciate the way in which he links our salvation in with the Resurrection and the ongoing Christian life:

Our atonement, therefore, is achieved for us through our being raised up in Christ, who gave Himself for us that we might know God through Him and the power of the resurrection.

This is surely a book worth looking at for anyone interested in the atonement.

Book Review: The Politics of Witness, Allan R. Bevere

The Politics of WitnessAgain I thank the publishers, Energion Publications, for sending me a review copy of The Politics of Witness by Allan R. Bevere. I have now found time to read it, and here is my review.

This is a slim book, with only 62 pages of main text. As such it can hardly claim to do full justice to the complex main issue it addresses: how, if at all, Christians should be involved in politics. Indeed it makes no such claim, but is presented as an introduction to the issues. Its North American perspective gives it some distance from my British one, but in today’s world US politics have to be the concern of us all.

In general terms this book is a useful introduction to the issue. It gives a clear presentation of how from the time of Constantine onwards the church has been compromised by its often close association with governments. It also clearly shows that, theologically speaking, it is not modern nation states but the church which is the successor of the ancient kingdom of Israel, and so material about Israel should not be used directly for modern political purposes.

Sadly, however, the book does have some serious weaknesses. One of them is related to its disconnected feel. The author is aware (p. xiii) that the book reads somewhat like a collection of rather loosely connected essays on one theme. These loose connections gloss over huge holes in Bevere’s arguments.

Most strikingly, his treatment of the biblical material in chapter 2 comes to an end in Mark 12, and so has nothing to say about the death and resurrection of Jesus or about the birth and early life of the church. There is not even a mention of the apostles’ practice and teaching relating to governors and officials. The first we hear of the church, in chapter 3, is when it is already compromising itself with the state, in the person of Constantine. It may be that in a book this size the material in the latter part of the New Testament could not be discussed in detail, but surely there would have been space for a brief mention of which passages needed further study.

As for the biblical material which is presented, I have some serious issues with Bevere’s treatment. In particular, he quotes (p. 10) Ezra’s instructions concerning the surrounding nations “never seek their peace or prosperity” (Ezra 9:12) without noting how this apparently contradicts what Jeremiah wrote to the Jews in Babylon:

seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.

Jeremiah 29:7 (NIV)

How can one resolve this apparent contradiction? One difference is that Jeremiah is writing to God’s people in exile whereas Ezra is addressing Israelites living in a restored theocracy. So if, as Bevere argues, theocratic Israel is not a model for modern nation states, Jeremiah’s instructions are surely more relevant for Christians today.

Bevere makes a similar error when he interprets Mark 10:35-45 (pp. 13-14) as relevant to politics. He claims that this passage is “more than a lesson on how the disciples should relate to one another”. But explicitly that is what it is. If principles can be found here which are applicable to how Christians relate to governments, then they can also be found in many other biblical passages which Bevere argues are relevant only to Israel and to the church.

Bevere also makes use of the rhetorical device of hyperbole to cover weak points in his arguments. For example, he writes:

For Jesus, one of the biggest failings of his people was the decision not to reject violence … Time and time again, Jesus continued to insist that God’s people could not be a light to the nations if they insisted on beating the nations over the head. On more than a few occasions, Jesus refused to be taken off and made king by the people in order to lead a revolt. (p. 13, emphasis added)

Well, the gospels present just one clear occasion when the people wanted to make Jesus king, John 6:15. It is possible, but unlikely, that his triumphal entry to Jerusalem could be interpreted in this way. But one or two occasions is not “more than a few”. I don’t remember Jesus ever addressing “beating the nations over the head”, but a few times, not “Time and time again”, he did teach his disciples to avoid violence. Bevere’s point could have been made much better by discussing these few passages rather than exaggerating their number and prominence.

Skipping over several chapters about which I have no specific comment, I come to chapter 6, “Why the Church in America Cannot Speak Truth to Power”. I accept that there is a real problem in that many Christians involved in politics, on the left as well as the right, seem more interested in power than in the kingdom of God. I realise that Christians in politics will be misunderstood (as I have been!) as supporting the Constantinian system. I understand that any system of political parties tends to corrupt those who go into them with good Christian ideals. But I don’t think these can be used as arguments that no one should even try. It is not of course an easy path for Christians. But we are not always called to do what is easy.

So I find myself in agreement with much of the “(Not So) Modest Proposal” in Bevere’s final chapter. I agree that some Christians are called into national politics. I would also fully support Bevere’s point that this call

must be confirmed by the church just as much as the call to ordained ministry. (p. 60)

Christians who go into politics and in doing so cut themselves off (as President Obama has done) from a local church are stepping into a minefield with little protection. Those who do so with the backing and prayer support (although not the public political endorsement) of a local church are far better placed to avoid wrong compromise, remain faithful to their calling, and make a difference to their nation. So I am pleased to read that Bevere does consider this to be a proper Christian calling.

I’m sorry to sound rather negative about this book. Despite the weaknesses I have pointed out it is still well worth reading. But it is by no means the last word on a subject of great interest to me. I intend to continue blogging about this, taking up some of the themes from Bevere’s book.

The Pastor Has No Clothes!

The Pastor Has No ClothesI haven’t read Jon Zens’ new book The Pastor Has No Clothes! But it comes with great recommendations from Frank Viola among others. And I liked Zens’ previous book What’s with Paul and Women?, which I read and reviewed here last year. What’s more, I love the cover picture. Here is part of the product description:

Protestantism carries on with the practice of making the “pastor” the focal point in church. In The Pastor Has No Clothes, Jon Zens demonstrates that putting all the ecclesiastical eggs in the pastor’s basket has no precedent in the New Testament.

So do what I say, but have not yet done: buy the book and read it!

Politics in the Bible, Wayne Grudem, and NIV 2011

Long term readers of Gentle Wisdom will know that I am no admirer of Wayne Grudem. I have not always been negative about him. But I have been critical of his complementarian position restricting women in ministry. I have pointed out how he has persistently made errors of fact in his biblical arguments for that position. I have rejected his doctrine of functional subordination within the Trinity. And I have had especially strong words to say, mostly elsewhere, about the intemperate and unscholarly way in which Grudem led the condemnation of the TNIV Bible.

So I am happy that Grudem has kept quiet about the NIV 2011 update. I haven’t found any mention of it by him since its publication. Very likely he shares the concerns so strongly expressed by Denny Burk, who has taken his place as the chief spokesman of CBMW on such matters. But he has not put the authority of his name and reputation behind a destructive campaign in the way that he did with TNIV. Rod Decker is wrong to suggest that he has done, while making a good point about Grudem’s hypocrisy over singular “they”. One consequence of Grudem’s silence is that very likely NIV 2011 will become widely accepted, as TNIV was not, as the successor of the 1984 NIV.

Wayne Grudem: Politics according to the BibleBut I wonder if there is something other than a change of heart behind Grudem’s reticence on NIV 2011. This could be related to his book Politics According to the Bible. As this book is published by Zondervan, and promoted on their Koinonia blog, there could be contract conditions preventing Grudem from publicly condemning NIV 2011, another Zondervan product. And Grudem would certainly be wise not to cross the lawyers for News Corporation, owners of Zondervan. Yes, Zondervan is part of Rupert Murdoch’s controversial empire, which goes to show that even the worst egg can be good in parts.

The Koinonia post is an extract from an interview with Grudem by the Acton Institute, about his book – which is actually not as new as I thought at first, as it was published in September last year. Now this is another book that I am mentioning without having read it, so please don’t take this as a review (whatever post categories this might be in). I am responding only to what is in the Acton Institute interview. But I must say I was more favourably impressed than I have been with other things I have seen from Grudem. He has a number of excellent things to say in the interview, including this:

I found that in the Bible there were many examples of God’s people influencing secular governments. I am arguing in the book that it is a spiritually good thing and it is pleasing to God when Christians can influence government for good.

In view of his position on women’s rights in the church and family, this is somewhat ironic:

Christian influence led to granting property rights and other protections to women at various times through history.

But Christian political activity needs to be put in the right context:

My book seeks to warn Christians away from the temptation of thinking if we just elect the right leaders and pass the right laws, we will have a good nation. That fails to understand that a genuine transformation of a nation will not come about unless peoples’ hearts are changed so that they have a desire to do what is right and live in obedience to good laws.

I am somewhat ambivalent on what Grudem says about unemployment benefit, but he is asking the right questions:

… we are to care for the poor and those in need, and the Bible frequently talks about the need to care for the poor. I think government has a legitimate role in providing a safety net for those who are in genuine need of food, clothing and shelter.

There is also a strong strand of biblical teaching that emphasizes the importance of work to earn a living. … The longer that unemployment benefits are continued, the more we contribute to the idea that some people should not have to work in order to earn a living, but we should just continue to have government support them. That creates a culture of dependency, which is unhealthy for the nation and unhealthy for the people who are dependent, year after year, on government handouts.

Indeed. But this needs to be balanced by a realisation that, within our modern economic system, there are many people who genuinely want to earn their own living but are unable to do so, for personal reasons or because no work is available. In our society these are the poor that the Bible calls us to support, for the long term at least in the case of needy widows (1 Timothy 5:9). There is no place in Christian teaching for benefits being cut off after a fixed period.

Grudem finishes as follows:

It is important for Christians to settle in their hearts that God is in control over history, and His purposes will be accomplished.

The last chapter of my book has to do with combining work to bring good influence to government, coupled with faith in God and prayer that God’s good purposes will reign in earthly governments. I think we have to do both things, because God hears prayers, and He also works through the efforts and actions of human beings who are seeking to influence government for good.


Unseen Realities: forget Bultmann and the 19th century

Unseen Realities: Heaven, Hell, Angels and DemonsJoel has been sent a review copy of R.C. Sproul’s recent book Unseen Realities: Heaven, Hell, Angels and Demons, and he has commented on it without yet reading very much of it. Scott apparently hasn’t even seen the book, but that hasn’t stopped him not only commenting on its title and product description but also setting up Sproul for a battle with Bultmann. All this reminds me of another recent book which was widely condemned by people who hadn’t read it.

I haven’t read Sproul’s book either, so I will make no comment on it. But I would like to comment on the half-baked philosophical objections to what they think Sproul is saying which Joel hints at and Scott makes explicit. Of course it may well be that Sproul has answered these points in his book, and if so probably far better than I can.

Scott gives a long quote from Rudolf Bultmann’s 1941 lecture New Testament and Mythology. The quote starts and ends as follows:

Man’s knowledge and mastery of the world have advanced to such an extent through science and technology that it is no longer possible for anyone seriously to hold the New Testament view of the world …

It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time believe in the New Testament world of daemons and spirits.

How 19th century! This sounds like the understanding of science which the young Bultmann would have learned in around 1900 at his Gymnasium in Oldenburg, Germany, when electric light and “wireless” were the latest cutting edge technology. This was the era when physicists were confident that within a few years they would be able to explain everything in the universe in a purely materialistic way, according to rigid and deterministic laws of nature. This is what is now known as classical physics.

Within the next five years that scientific optimism had been swept away by new discoveries. It became clear that radioactivity, discovered in 1896, could not be explained by classical physics. Planck’s 1901 paper on black body radiation laid the foundations of quantum physics. Einstein’s four “Annus Mirabilis” papers of 1905 clarified the reality of quanta and introduced special relativity, destroying the Newtonian framework of classical physics and showing that matter and energy are equivalent. And Russell’s paradox, discovered in 1901, demonstrated the weakness of the mathematical foundation of classical physics.

Rudolf BultmannBut Bultmann would have followed little of this, or of the revolution in physics which it led to, because by now he was studying theology. So, as his 1941 lecture demonstrates, his understanding of science remained stuck in the 19th century. Sadly many theologians of the later 20th century also ignored contemporary science and preferred to accept Bultmann and his contemporaries as authorities on these matters.

But this gives no excuse for us who live in the 21st century, who have now had more than a century to reflect on the scientific revolution of 1901 to 1905. It has long been known that quantum physics implies that the universe is not deterministic in the way assumed in the 19th century. The Free Will Theorem, which I wrote about yesterday, suggests that randomness is not the best way to describe even the behaviour of sub-atomic particles. Eric McLellan, whose post I linked to, shows how this leaves room for God and for the human mind to work within the laws of nature. By the same argument, there is room for angels and demons to work in our universe.

It is also worth noting how far Bultmann’s position depends on a perspective from the intellectual elite in the West. In other cultures, and even within popular western culture, there has always been room for the “supernatural”. It is no longer possible, as it was in Bultmann’s time, to reject non-western beliefs as primitive and so not worthy of serious attention.

Now Scott is correct to write that

we may not be able to materially test metaphysical or supernatural entities such as demons, but if they have any tangible effect in the real world then those could be subjected to real world examinations. In other words, while hypothetically the testing of the cause is impossible, the testing of the proposed effect of any supernatural being in the real world is entirely possible.

The problem with applying tests of this kind is that we are (at least as the hypothesis) dealing with sentient beings who are under no obligation to cooperate with us. Just as experiments on the behaviour of individual humans cannot succeed without their consent, so we cannot hope to experiment on the behaviour of individual demons or angels who are unlikely to consent. The best we can do is observe their typical behaviour using the kinds of techniques used in anthropology. And that is likely to be unpredictable, especially when they are being observed, just as with humans. In quantum physics, even sub-atomic particles behave differently when they are being observed!

Nevertheless there is a significant body of reports of the activities of angels and demons in our world. But scholars refuse to take these reports seriously because they cannot be reproduced in a laboratory. If they applied the same standards to astronomical observations, often of unique occurrences, then we would be allowed to know a lot less about our universe than we are supposed to know.

Now I am certainly not claiming to agree with Sproul in everything in his book, not least because I haven’t read it. But, on the basis of what I have argued here, I can fully endorse what Scott has quoted from Sproul’s publicity material:

There is an uncompromised supernaturalism at the heart of the Christian worldview, and we must not let the world’s skepticism with regard to these things affect our belief systems. We must trust and affirm that there is much more to reality than meets the eye.

Never Say Never, says Justin Bieber

Justin Bieber: Never Say NeverI would normally have said “never” to Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. It’s certainly not a film I would have gone to the cinema to see, not least because I would have hated being surrounded by screaming teenage girls. But on a long-haul flight last week (the trip is why posting has been slow recently) I had the chance to watch this documentary about the Jesus-tattooed teen idol. And I was pleasantly surprised – not by the music and dance, which is not my style, and not by the shots of and interviews with Justin’s teen fans, but by the positive Christian message I found in the film.

It seems this was not accidental. Huffington Post reported a few months ago on how Bieber was being deliberately marketed as a “Christian icon for the tween set”. The article notes how in the film

several scenes show Bieber praying before concerts, and [his mother] Mallette discusses how God brought stability to her life as a single teenage mother.

Well, if the film gives millions of young people worldwide a positive view of the Christian faith, that is something wonderful. But I see something more in the movie, a spiritual lesson about what we can accomplish by faith if we “Never Say Never”. In the words of the film’s tagline, as Christians we need to

Find Out What’s Possible If You Never Give Up.

The basic story is a simple one (spoiler alert if you really don’t know how it ends, so far). Small town kid shows talent on the drums and singing. His mother films him and puts the results on YouTube. (These 2007 videos are on his old YouTube channel – his recent releases are on a newer channel which has now had a staggering 1.7 BILLION views.) A talent manager stumbles across his videos and is impressed enough to sign him up. He sings his way round lots of small venues to get publicity for his first album. The album goes platinum and suddenly Justin is one of the hottest properties in the world. He has a dream to fill the 20,000 seat Madison Square Garden in New York for a concert. People tell him it is impossible. But his manager goes ahead with the booking – and, as reported by Wikipedia as well as in the film, he becomes

The youngest person to ever sell out the garden. … It took 22 minutes for Justin Bieber to sell out the Garden.

Justin refused to give up and achieved his supposedly impossible dream. The film encourages us all to do the same.

So how is this a Christian message? I understand how some people might say that this is secular motivational teaching with a Christian veneer. But then a lot of secular motivational teaching is Christian preaching purged of its overtly religious material. The Christian message here is a simple one: if God has given you a dream, even one which looks impossible, and has called you to make it a reality, then step out in faith, expect his help and blessing, and don’t give up until the dream comes true.

While I have not seen this made explicit, it seems to me that Justin and his mother see his career as some kind of mission from and for God, which they are pursuing by faith. I don’t know if they know the Seven Mountains Mandate teaching which I discussed in a recent post. But Justin has shown in practice how, with the right dream and a lot of hard work, and with what some might see as luck but others as God’s blessing, it is possible even for a young outsider to get right to the peak of the arts and entertainment mountain, to use the position as a powerful Christian witness, and to bring the kingdom of God to that peak.

In the film Justin says

There’s gonna be times where people tell you that you can’t live your dreams. This is what I tell them: Never say never.

If the dreams are from God, then: Amen!

Please browse my new online store

Please have a browse through my online store, which has just gone live. I hope this will be a convenient way for you, my readers, to buy books and other items reviewed, mentioned or quoted at Gentle Wisdom. I have listed both print and Kindle editions of books, where available, in two different store categories. There is a separate category for Bibles, and one for a few other Amazon products relevant to this blog.

The store is an aStore. This means that it is most accessible to my UK readers, although products can be shipped worldwide. I will be working on a parallel store with for my North American readers. logoTo set up this store I first joined the Amazon Associates Programme. So I am now required to add the following to this site:

Gentle Wisdom is a participant in the Amazon Europe S.à r.l. Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising programme designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to

I was surprised how many books and other products I found mentioned here at Gentle Wisdom. I am not endorsing all of these books, not least because I have read only a few of them. Indeed I have included a few books which I fundamentally disagree with.

I have also edited many of the mentions of these books in my past posts to include direct purchase links from If you hover over the links, you should see more details about the product and its availability.

Entering the Kingdom like Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette (2006)Enough of the banter about the Rapture, now for something more serious. Yes, really. This post started out as a section of my post The Rapture: will we be clothed or naked? But there is a serious point here which I didn’t want to be lost in that not so serious post.

There is a scene in the 2006 film Marie Antoinette where the young Austrian princess leaves her home territory to enter France. The year is 1770. Before entering her new kingdom, and meeting her bridegroom who will be king, she has to leave behind all her clothes and personal possessions, even her Austrian pet dog. A French lady in waiting tells her she can have as many French dogs as she likes. But nothing Austrian is allowed in France, at least for the bride of the Dauphin who must become completely French.

Similarly, when we as Christians enter the kingdom of heaven as the bride of Christ, we have to leave everything of this world behind us, to receive new things fit for the kingdom of God. This is not so much literally about clothes, although it might include them, as about spiritual encumbrances. We can send treasure on in advance (Matthew 6:20), but we cannot take it with us.

The problem with this rather simplistic picture is that, despite what Harold Camping and other advocates of the Rapture might think, Christians do not move in one simple step, or flight, from this world into a kingdom of God in the sky. Instead, when we become followers of Jesus we start to live in two kingdoms at the same time, the old worldly kingdom over which Satan still claims to be the the prince (John 16:11), and the new kingdom of God which has been breaking into this world ever since the resurrection of Jesus.

So we have time to put aside the worldly things gradually and pick up the things of heaven. There will be no embarrassing intermediate step of nakedness. This is what is traditionally known as “sanctification”, the process by which a Christian gradually lives a more and more holy life. While we can aim to complete this process in this life, unlike John Wesley I don’t believe we will become perfectly sanctified this side of the grave, that is if we reach it before the return of Jesus.

It is only when Jesus does return that we will become perfectly holy. We will then have to put aside every last remnant of our old life. The old kingdom of the world will be destroyed and only the kingdom of God will remain. And we will be clothed again in our holy heavenly garments, our white wedding dress, as the bride of the Lamb.

Review: What's with Paul and Women?

Jon Zens kindly sent me for review a copy of his book What’s With Paul & Women? Unlocking the Cultural Background to 1 Tim 2 (Ekklesia Press, 2010).

Zens starts his book with a quotation dated 1709 from a vicar of Dedham in Essex, UK, teaching (in fact quoting KJV) that women should learn in silence. So it is fitting that I write from Essex to examine Zens’ argument against that position as traditionally understood.

The book is a brief one – barely 60 pages of large print in its eleven chapters, and another 40 or so (of pages without numbers!) in three appendices (which I have not yet read). It is largely concerned with just two verses in the Bible, 1 Timothy 2:11-12.

In chapter 1 Zens shows how the New Testament as a whole views women. He notes how Jesus went completely against his culture by allowing women to travel with him, and put no restrictions on what they could do. He describes how women like Phoebe, Priscilla and Junia were church leaders. He makes a good point that “Jezebel” in Revelation 2:20 is not condemned for being a women teacher, but for being a false teacher. Thus, Zens writes,

The general flow of the New Testament reveals no need for females to walk on eggshells because of any alleged “restrictions” put upon them by the Lord. (p.32)

In the very brief chapter 2 Zens explains the purpose of the letter:

1 Timothy is not a universal church manual for a pastor. It is a mandate for an apostolic assistant to deal with serious issues involving false teaching in Ephesus. (p.34)

In chapter 3 Zens discusses the background to his passage in 1 Timothy 2. He notes how the same Greek word hesuchia is used in verse 2 as well as in verses 11 and 12 and so cannot mean “silence”. (Actually in verse 2 the Greek word is the adjective hesuchios, but the underlying meaning is surely the same.) Thus Zens sees the thrust of the chapter as teaching to avoid the kind of disorder that was common in Ephesus.

In chapter 4 Zens brings in the cultural background of Ephesus, with the strong influence of the Temple of Artemis. He claims that the women of Ephesus sought favour from Artemis “by donning and presenting expensive attire and ornate hair” (p.40, quoting Frank Ames). He sees Paul’s instructions to Timothy in verse 9 as in deliberate contrast.

In chapter 5 Zens shows in more detail that hesuchia in 2:11,12 does not mean silence, despite the KJV rendering. It is somewhat ironic that he quotes Leland Ryken in support of his point that some people wrongly assume that their preferred Bible translation is “completely accurate and trustworthy”. Zens then looks at the word “submission” in 2:11, and notes that this is not a requirement only for women, as elsewhere in the New Testament all Christians are taught to submit to one another. Then he notes that women are told to learn – a surprising point in the cultural context. Unfortunately he compromises his logical argument in this chapter by twice digressing into polemics.

Chapter 6 is also something of a digression from the main discussion as Zens describes “Post-Apostolic Mistreatment of Women”. His approach is summarised in his first sentence:

The retrogression that occurred with reference to women in the post-apostolic age can be compared to what happened in other doctrinal and practical areas. (p.53)

Zens suggests that Paul’s words about men as the “head” were misunderstood in terms of the mind-body dualism of classical Greek philosophy. Thus he distinguishes the apostle’s teaching from that of the church fathers, and indeed from that of much of the church through the ages up to today.

In chapter 7 Zens returns to the exegesis of 1 Timothy 2:12. He argues that Paul’s words which he renders “I am not now permitting…” are to be understood not as a command but as a shift in strategy in response to false teaching. He then moves on to the double infinitive construction, and cites Philip Payne in support of an understanding that

Paul in this Ephesian situation where some women were propagating error does not want them to teach with the purpose or goal of getting their way with [or dominating] a man. (pp.65-66, parenthesis as in Zens’ text)

Concerning the infamous infinite authentein Zens, citing Linda Belleville, writes that the word

simply does not have the meaning “exercise authority over.” (p.68)

He then looks at Jesus’ teaching on authority, and concludes from it that

we must rid ourselves of the traditional idea that some kind of inherent authority resides in the position of “teacher” [or, in our day, “preacher”]. (p.69, parenthesis as in Zens’ text)

This of course completely undermines the understanding of 2:12 as teaching that women must not be in such positions of authority.

In chapter 8 Zens moves on to verse 13 of 1 Timothy 2, and sees Paul’s teaching that Adam came first as polemic against the teaching of the Artemis cult that the female came first. In chapter 9 Zens discusses verse 14 and notes close parallels with Revelation 2:20-24, suggesting that this verse is Paul’s teaching against a specific woman false teacher.

In chapter 10 Zens attempts to meet the objection that he is not upholding this passage as “timeless gospel truth”. He points out that all the New Testament letters are in response to specific local issues, and that they all have to be interpreted in the light of their cultural contexts.

Zens sums up his argument in chapter 11, and concludes that

to use 1 Timothy 2:11-15 as a basis to completely silence the sisters in Christian assemblies is hardly an accurate way to handle Scripture. It uses one context to cancel out the revelation of many others. … those who persist in using 1 Timothy 2:11-15 as a means of subordinating women in the body of Christ may be guilty of continuing in and perpetuating a false teaching. (pp.89-90)

Strong words! Has Zens justified them? He makes no claim to have done original research for this book. Rather, he writes of his own method that

in most cases I am just calling attention to some foundational points others have unearthed through diligent research. (p.43)

The book comes across as based on a clear but not very detailed exegetical discussion of the verses, based on a variety of sources. This was then expanded to be thick enough for a kind of book by adding some extraneous polemics, and matter from church history, also the appendices. Although the subtitle is “Unlocking the Cultural Background…” this background is in fact only a minor theme.

The arguments made in this book and good and thorough for a popular presentation, although not rigorous enough to convince scholars. I also doubt if it would convince those initially opposed to Zens’ conclusions, not least because the polemics in chapter 5 would alienate them. But this book will be helpful to those who are unsure of their own opinions, and for those who tend to share Zens’ position but want good material to back it up in argument with others.

I don’t think I would go quite as far as Zens in using the provocative words “false teaching”. But he is right to conclude that this passage in 1 Timothy cannot properly be used to stop otherwise well qualified people from active service in the church just because they are women.

Pullman's Good Man Jesus, or the Church's Scoundrel Christ?

Bishop Alan Wilson has an interesting review of Philip Pullman’s new book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, which sounds like bad history but interesting fiction. The author is of course a well known atheist.

I haven’t read the book, so I am relying here on the bishop’s review. As far as I can tell from that, Pullman has taken the 19th century speculation about the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith and turned them into two separate people, brothers but very different. Indeed there seem to be elements of the Prodigal Son story mixed in. But it seems that Pullman’s good man Jesus represents the real original man from Nazareth, and his scoundrel Christ is a caricature of what the church has turned Jesus into.

Bishop Alan quotes at length Pullman’s version of Jesus’ prayer in the garden:

Lord, if I thought you were listening, I’d pray for this above all: that any church set up in your name should remain poor, and powerless, and modest. That it should weild no authority except that of love. That it should never cast anyone out. That it should own no property and make no laws. That it should not condemn but only forgive. That it should not be like a palace, with marble walls and polished floors, and guards standing at the door, but like a tree with its roots deep in the soil, that shelters every kind of bird and beast and gives blossom in the spring and shade in the hot sun and fruit in the season, and in time gives up its good sound wood to the carpenter, but that sheds many thousands of seeds so that new trees can grow in its place. Does the tree say to the sparrow “Get out, you don’t belong here?” Does the tree say to the hungry man, “That fruit is not for you?” Does the tree test the loyalty of the beasts before it allows them into the shade?’

So far, so good. But I was disappointed at the Anglican bishop’s response to this:

Amen! This is a rather C of E ecclesology; The Church is anything but perfect, but always in need of necessary reformation. This comes from its interaction with the society it serves, not some infallible magisterium. …

No, Bishop Alan, Pullman’s Jesus is not commending the Church of England. It may not have an “infallible magisterium”. It may have become relatively poor, recently, but not by renouncing riches or giving generously, only by being inept at holding on to its wealth. But it still owns huge amounts of property, and makes its own laws or gets the government to do so for it. Many of its buildings are precisely “like a palace, with marble walls and polished floors”. Its bishops (not Bishop Alan, at least yet) still wield secular authority in the House of Lords. And if its official leaders are no longer quick to condemn, that lack is more than made up for by the pronouncements of some of its clergy and lay people.

If the church wants to show the love of the real Jesus to atheists like Pullman, it won’t do it by boasting that it is not as bad as those Roman Catholics with their “infallible magisterium”, but by doing something about the points which Pullman actually puts on the lips of Jesus. May the church indeed become

like a tree with its roots deep in the soil, that shelters every kind of bird and beast and gives blossom in the spring and shade in the hot sun and fruit in the season, and in time gives up its good sound wood to the carpenter, but that sheds many thousands of seeds so that new trees can grow in its place.