Jonathan Edwards, the Holy Spirit and the Incarnation

Jonathan EdwardsI was fascinated to read today’s guest post on Peter Enns’ blog Jonathan Edwards, The Holy Spirit, and Evolution: Part 1, by Brandon G. Withrow. In fact this Part 1 is not at all about evolution, so I am waiting to read about that in subsequent parts. But it was interesting to read about what Jonathan Edwards, the 18th century hero of today’s conservative evangelicals, had to say about the Holy Spirit, and especially of his role in the Incarnation, i.e. the coming of Jesus Christ as both God and man. It is not at all what I would have expected from a strict Calvinist. The first part is not so controversial, perhaps:

The Spirit, according to Edwards, unites the human nature of Christ to the divine nature and actively maintains the integrity of both, all the while not becoming an addition of a divine being to the person of Christ.

In doing this, the Spirit can ensure that the limitations of the human mind of Christ are maintained, otherwise, if the divine attributes were allowed to mix or rewrite the human nature, he would lose his genuine humanity, since the finite cannot contain the infinite.

Well, that certainly makes sense, and offers a good explanation of why the incarnate Jesus did not appear to be omniscient. It also accords with what I wrote here a few years ago in a post Jesus is Our Fully Human Example, that Jesus had some supernatural knowledge and could perform miracles not because he was divine but because the Holy Spirit was working through him.

The main point I was making in that post is that if this was true of Jesus, it is also true today of us Christians, filled with the Holy Spirit. And Jonathan Edwards seems to have made the same connection, and taken it somewhat further than I did, as Withrow writes with a quote from Edwards:

As the Spirit unites Christ’s humanity to the divine, so also the Spirit unites the human Christian (like Edwards) to God through Christ.

All…communion of the creatures with God or with one another in God, seems to be by the Holy Ghost. ’Tis by this that believers have communion with Christ, and I suppose ’tis by this that the man Christ Jesus has communion with the eternal Logos. The Spirit of God is the bond of perfectness by which God, Jesus Christ, and the church are united together (WJE 13:529).

Christ’s human nature is united to his divine nature thanks to the Spirit’s work. Likewise, the same Spirit unites Christians to the divine.

The implication of this seems to be that, for Edwards, the union between Christians and the divine through the Holy Spirit is of the same nature as the union between Jesus Christ and the divine. This opens up the question of the uniqueness of Jesus as the Son of God. If, as the New Testament clearly teaches, every Christian is a son or daughter of God and partakes of the divine nature, was Jesus really unique, or was he just the firstborn of many brothers and sisters? At first sight, both answers can be found in the New Testament, and in different strands of Christian theology. But the doctrine of the Trinity seems threatened by any idea that the second Person, God the Son, was not unique – or is every Christian an incarnation of the one second Person?

I am not familiar enough with the theology of Jonathan Edwards to know how far he took the implications of the teaching which Withrow describes here. Very likely Withrow explains it further in his book Becoming Divine: Jonathan Edwards’s Incarnational Spirituality Within the Christian Tradition (affiliate link – see also this description), which I have not read. But it seems clear that Edwards by no means followed what has become the traditional evangelical line on such matters, with a rigid distinction between the divine as well as human Son of God and his human and utterly sinful people. And I would suggest that Edwards was the more correct here.

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.

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.

Not Driscoll's Jesus, nor Jim West's, but the Bible's

Jim WestJim West offers a rather double-edged endorsement of Gentle Wisdom, to which I replied in a comment, which he has not (yet?) approved, starting with these words:

Thanks for the wonderful endorsement! But don’t make it too obvious that you are trying to revitalise a fading blog by getting link love from a rising star.

Jim writes about me:

He’s a bit too fluffy for me. I imagine his image of Jesus is something of a Jesus who carries a bunny, and a flower, and never says a cross word to anyone.

Well, Jim certainly has an active imagination. I have no idea where he gets this image from. True, I rejected what might be Mark Driscoll’s Jesus, because this is not at all the biblical picture. But on exactly the same basis I reject any image of “a Jesus who carries a bunny, and a flower, and never says a cross word to anyone”, because this clearly contradicts the biblical picture of our Saviour. As Jim correctly states as he continues,

the actual Jesus we know from the Gospels … called people hypocrites, was quite unfriendly to Temple businessmen, and regularly mocked the religious leaders of his day.

Indeed I could have used Jesus’ example to defend calling Driscoll a bully: Jesus called the scribes and Pharisees much worse things. This confrontational aspect of Jesus has been important to my faith since the 1970s, when I read John Stott’s book Christ the Controversialist, which helped me to see the inadequacy of the image from my childhood of Jesus who “never says a cross word to anyone”.

Mark Driscoll is right to regret that

increasingly, the least likely person to be found in church is a twenty-or-thirty-something single male.

Among the reasons for this may well be that the image of Jesus which Jim attributes to me is so widespread. So Driscoll is right to try to present a different image. But the image he should be presenting is not of someone who might advise: “ridicule those who disagree with you, despise people of other orientations, denigrate women, and above all be arrogant and rude!” Instead he should find and preach the true Jesus as presented in the gospels.

N.T. Wright: Jesus in 3D

Brian LePort has an interesting post N.T. Wright on the Chalcedonian Definition. For those who don’t know, the Chalcedonian Definition was the climax of the early church’s quest to define the nature of Jesus as both God and man,

perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; … in all things like unto us, without sin; … in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved …

This definition was and still is accepted by the church of Rome and the Eastern Orthodox churches, and most Protestants also consider it a touchstone of Trinitarian orthodoxy. But it was and still is rejected by some Oriental churches as well as by non-Trinitarians.

N.T. WrightWright, as quoted by LePort, writes:

the Chalcedonian Definition looks suspiciously like an attempt to say the right thing but in two dimensions (divinity and humanity as reimagined within a partly de-Judaized world of thought) rather than in three dimensions. What the Gospel offer is the personal story of Jesus himself, understood in terms of his simultaneously (1) embodying Israel’s God, coming to rule the world as he had always promised, and (2) summing up Israel itself, as its Messiah, offering to Israel’s God the obedience to which Israel’s whole canonical tradition had pointed but which nobody, up to this point, had been able to provide. The flattening out of Christian debates about Jesus into the language of divinity and humanity represents, I believe, a serious de-Judaizing of the Gospels, ignoring the fact that the Gospels know nothing of divinity in the abstract and plenty about the God of Israel coming to establish his kingdom on earth as in heaven, that they know nothing of humanity in the abstract, but plenty about Israel as God’s true people, and Jesus as summing that people up in himself. The Council of Chalcedon might be seen as the de-Israelitization of the canonical picture of YHWH and Israel into the abstract categories of ‘divinity’ and ‘humanity.’ I continue to affirm Chalcedon in the same way that I will agree that a sphere is also a circle or a cube also a square, while noting that this truth is not the whole truth.

In other words, the true Jesus is a three-dimensional person in a Jewish real world context, living the life of a real man and doing the works of a real God. But the Byzantine theologians took him out of that context and flattened him into a two-dimensional abstraction derived from Greek philosophical concepts of divinity and humanity. They were not wrong, but they gave us only a small part of the picture.

Sadly most of the church today sees Jesus in the same way. He is worshipped as a static two-dimensional image, even when portrayed in three-dimensional statues, and honoured for the important things he did 2000 years ago. He is not understood as the living God. Nor is he taken as our fully human example, as I posted about him being nearly five years ago.

The world has recently rediscovered 3D cinema. In a few days from now the BBC will offer 3D television for the first time, for the Wimbledon finals. It is time for the church to rediscover the real 3D Jesus, and broadcast him to the world.

A new take on the Nativity

So much has been written about the Christmas story, as told in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, that it seems surprising that someone should find new insights about them, not from abstruse research but from reading the stories in context. But that is what seems to have happened for Tony Jordan, who is “one of Britain’s top TV writers” – according to an interview in idea, the magazine of the UK Evangelical Alliance (November/December 2010, p.30), about a BBC show The Nativity to be broadcast this coming Christmas. Jordan replies to the interviewer about how he approached the gospel nativity narratives:

… I talked to as many religious people as I could, but there were still things that didn’t make sense to me. For example, if Joseph had to go back to Bethlehem, the place of his birth, for a census, he must have had family there. Just one cousin. But he went to the pub. …

So I was sitting there at 2am, a Bible that’s all stained up, a hundred post-it notes, and suddenly it came to me in this wonderful, night-time stillness. I knew that I would just tell this beautiful story properly, because by doing that I can answer those nagging doubts. So they’re not taken in by their family because Joseph has with him this woman who’s pregnant and it’s not his. They disown him. And everything else fits. …

Now maybe Jordan’s insight is not really original. But this idea that Joseph’s relatives disown him is not one I remember seeing anywhere else. Yet it really does make sense of an oddity in Luke’s narrative.

There is more to this article, which is perhaps more important. Jordan continues:

The real truth of the story is not in small historical accuracies … As I wrote this script I cried on every page. Before I wrote this I had a lot of niggling doubts, but now I have no doubts.

I hope and pray this will also be the experience of many who watch this show – four parts to be shown between 18th and 31st December on BBC One.

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.