Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Jeremiah 29:1-14 and the Church's Witness

'Seek the welfare of the city' is the phrase usually pulled out from Jeremiah's instructions to the exiles in Babylon as something to inform the church's mission. It's often used to justify material provision for non-Christians through social action, sometimes with socialistic overtones due to the resonance with 'the welfare state.' But it is my conviction that this imperative must be seen in light of Jeremiah's other instructions, which are rarely mentioned or applied in a similarly contemporary way. What follows is an attempt to do this, using the instructions as a springboard for reflection on how the church - conservative as well as liberal - needs to present a more singular witness to God's ways in the modern world.  

i. 

Firstly: 'Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.' 

It's striking that God's first instructions to the exiles are not directly ethical, but material. Despite being under the authority of the Babylonians, the Israelites are to maintain a certain level of self-sufficiency: they are to build their own houses, and are to grow at least some of their own food. The last item has obvious Edenic connotations, and perhaps served as a reminder of the agrarian nature of Israelite society even in the midst of the urban environment of Babylon.

The challenge to the church in this is, I believe, to think harder about how we can be a more self-sufficient community that minimizes reliance on a secular state, non-Christian businessmen, and non-Christian money lenders. Perhaps due to the overly 'spiritual' nature of standard gospel messages (crudely, 'Believe that Jesus died for you so you can go to heaven'), material structures and systems are not seen as having much or any effect on our Christian walk and witness. But the words of Proverbs 22:7 should be kept in mind: 'The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.' Material factors such as debt and financial dependence can shape our future plans and goals, perhaps away from God's purposes for us.

This is not to say that borrowing is necessarily sinful: Jesus does not condemn those who wish to borrow in Matthew 4:42. But what would it look like if the church truly pursued the mutual provision that Acts 2 speaks of? It would effectively have its own economy - one informed by mutual care and love rather than self-interest - and would therefore be that much more of a distinct society unto itself that is less reliant on mortgages, welfare, and products from secular institutions and states.

To return to Jeremiah: it will never be possible for God's people to be fully self-sufficient under a Godless authority. The cost and complexity of modern life makes it incredibly difficult to carry out an Acts 2 vision to the full. But the church community should seek to be self-sufficient in some way, whether in in growing some of our own food, or larger ways in how we help with each others' financial needs. Then the church's witness as a society run bon the basis of love will speak all the more powerfully in a wider society dominated by greed and ruled by those who do not seek what is truly good.

ii.  

Secondly: 'Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.'

Another strikingly material concern. The call for fertility is fairly pragmatic on one level: just as in Egypt, the need to increase in numbers and to marry within the covenant community was necessary to avoid corporate death by extinction or absorption. But such concerns do not belong only in the ancient world. The plunging birthrates of indigenous Europeans is being worried about even by secular officials. At averages of less than the 2.1 children needed to simply replace ourselves, it is clear that indigenous Europe is a dying culture - a culture of death rather than of life.

But is the church any different? Of course, through no fault of their own, some couples are not able to have children - but it remains the case that Christian family sizes are not greatly different from those of our wider culture. There are various reasons for this, but perhaps the most significant is the church's embrace of a contraceptive lifestyle, where sex and procreation are usually separated. Instead of following the creation mandate to 'be fruitful and multiply', demonstrating a right use of sexuality, we are being occasionally fruitful and subtracting. This has had dire consequences in making various forms of sexual perversion that are not procreative seem plausibly acceptable, as Alastair Roberts explores in his excellent article here.

That the church is not the witness to new life and fruitfulness it should be - that it does not accept God's full blessing - is a terrible tragedy. It is perhaps thought that the imperative to 'make disciples of all nations' detracts from or even nullifies the creation mandate. But the New Testament still speaks of the task as being a crucial part of the church's mission: 'Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control' (1 Timothy 2:15). In context, this involves being saved from Satanic deception by the woman taking on a role not meant for her: through accepting her role as a child-bearer, the married woman can avoid this danger. How sad that our culture has become one where women are often made to feel they are not accomplishing anything unless they also have a non-domestic career, or are 'oppressed' if they devote themselves to the task that God has for them.

So the question is, will the church present a different vision? Will Christians join our culture in seeing children as commodities to be delayed, planned, manufactured, and counted to fit in with our chosen lifestyles? Or will we see children as gifts from God, each one created by Him for a unique purpose, to be received with thanksgiving? Although the people of God are no longer defined by bloodline, if we 'raise [our children] up in the way they should go,' we can trust that they will not depart from it, and the church's witness and size will only be increased further.

Conclusion

I'm fully aware that, were any church to pursue the sort of vision outlined above, it would soon be labelled a cult. But perhaps that would mean that it would indeed be a community that presents a genuinely alternative way of life to that which the world has to offer. Further on in Jeremiah's letter, God speaks of how, when the exiles obey him and seek Him with all their heart, he will dramatically restore their fortunes. I trust and pray that this can happen for the church - and, indeed, our wider society - when the power of the gospel demonstrably transforms all aspects of human life. 

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

A Change of Plan

Not long ago, I announced that I planned to collect several blog posts into a short book, and subsequently take down this blog.

I've changed my mind: I will collect a few key posts on theological method into a booklet, available to anyone who wants them in that format, and I will continue to blog on this site.

I thank any readers for their patience as I work out the best way forward!

The Nature of the Damned

Hell is not a pleasant place to think about. Although we are not to pronounce on anyone's final destiny, as - unknown to anyone else - Jesus may reveal himself to them in their last moments, the thought of loved ones potentially suffering in such a place is hard to bear, especially if their behaviour is generally pleasant in this life. Could such punishment really be justifiable for such people?

It's worth considering the words of Jesus in Revelation 21:8: 'But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.' These people are still marked by their identity as those who reject God and His ways: their hearts will still be against Him even beyond death. As such, I think it will become very clear to those who are in the New Jerusalem that those outside need to be kept away. With all the providential restraints and learned manners of this life gone, they will be clearly dangerous, and even animal-like, as 2 Peter 2:12 suggests: as such,  it will not be possible to pity them.

Hell remains a fearsome concept. But I trust that, when it comes to it, it will be absolutely clear that those who reject Christ really do need to be separated from God's people, for the good and safety of the New Creation.

Herem in the Old Testament

The practice of Herem by Old Testament Israel - the destruction of all men, women, children and property of enemy tribes - has long been a point of controversy for Christians and those who denigrate the Bible. How is such destruction, commanded by a supposedly loving God, to be understood?

It must be said, firstly, that imitation of such practices should not be carried out today. Apart from the fact that the Church, God's new covenant people, are instructed to 'make disciples of all nations' rather than destroy them, there is also the real risk that, if Herem were to be carried out in the mistaken belief that God had commanded it, a terrible and damnable sin would have been committed. As the Bible is the Christian's only ultimate and sure authority, the Biblical accounts of God commanding Herem are the only instances that can be known to be truly of God's right will. The possible consequences of carrying out similar acts today are too terrible to ever be confident that God has truly commanded it again.

But how are the accounts found in, for example, Joshua and 1 Samuel 18 to be explained, when little explicit justification is given within the texts themselves? Even if the commands were hyperbolic, as some suggest, they still suggest general destruction.

Some opt for utilitarian explanations: those other tribes were clearly antagonistic to Israel, and so it was a pre-emptive attack to protect Israel in future. In this view, even the children of the tribes posed a danger for the future and therefore had to be eliminated. The use of Herem was common in the Ancient Near East as a pre-emptive strike to perturb future attacks from any number of enemies through the use of such fearsome tactics - this, too, could be part of the picture for Israel's use of the same.

But despite such suggestions, which may indeed contain some truth, it may still be asked if God couldn't have found another way to defend His people without the use of such drastic measures. Which is why, ultimately, I think that the purpose of such commands has to be explained in light of their 'aesthetic impact', for want of a better phrase. This is what happens when you oppose God and His people, these stories say: it will result in the destruction of all that you hold dear, including your family and your possessions.

Such a sober picture still holds as a solemn warning for today, even if the destruction of the wicked and determinedly sinful will take a different form in this age and in the age to come.

Monday, 3 October 2016

A New Project and the Future of this Blog

Things will be quiet on this blog for a while, as I embark on a new project. Over the next few months, I plan to collect many of the posts featured on this blog into a short book, tentatively titled Theological Fragments. I'll order them into five roughly thematic sections and add a few new articles to round the whole thing out. Then I plan to make the book available for free by personal email, after which I'll take down the blog as it stands, with a new site to advertise the book to anyone interested.

My reasons for doing this largely lie in the desire to order the various things I've written into something more coherent (despite the collection's title) that can be passed around more easily. I've never been interested in becoming a well-known blogger, having written only for 'that special individual' struggling with things that I've had to wrestle with, so this approach feels like a natural extension of that purpose.

In the meantime, this blog as it stands will remain on the web, so I hope it will continue to be helpful to whoever finds it.

UPDATE - [19/10/2016] - There's been a change of plan.

Friday, 2 September 2016

The Place of the Family in British Politics and Economics

Reading about the history of rural life in Britain in tandem with Old Testament law brings up some interesting connections, largely revolving around the place of the family in two disparate cultures.

It is notable that some of the crimes most severely punished in ancient Israel were those that attacked the stability of families: adultery received the death penalty, while various incestuous and other sexually perverse relationships required banishment at the least. This is indicative of how important the integrity of the family is to God, that transgressors of the basic divinely-ordained social structure would receive the most drastic punishment.

But the family also played a key role in the economy - not just in being a particular group which an individual might want to leave an inheritance to, but in being a decisive shaper of Israel's economy. The year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25 is often used as a justification for socialism, but a closer reading reveals that part of its concern was to return tribally-inherited property and land to those who had lost it or lent it. The interests of private families were therefore placed above the interests of both individual capitalists and any State plans for general redistribution.

The tragedy of Britain is that such an outlook never took definitive root. Although land and property were closely associated with familial ties, the feudal system ensured that many had no land of their own, but were in perpetual servitude to those who did. This concentration of land in the hands of a wealthy elite was only exacerbated in succeeding centuries as various acts of enclosure worked in individual capitalists' favour, culminating in late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as many were driven from their lands and into the cities to provide manpower for the new urban industries.

I have no wish to present pre-19th century rural life as a lost golden age of innocence. Life was harsh: poverty meant literal starvation, rather than lack of luxuries as it does now. But much of that suffering was caused by the increasing ownership of land in the hands of wealthy elites who could treat their tenants as they wished.

For land to be exclusively family-owned is to greatly increase the chances of society being formed and run through the bonds of familial love, rather than capitalistic self-interest or socialistic engineering and control. Indeed, the major fault of both free-market capitalism and socialism is that neither are decisively shaped by the natural family: it is the self-interested individual consumer/producer/capitalist in the first arrangement that is the fundamental unit of society, and the mechanistic State as the true family of all in the second.

The loss of subsistence farming and family trades only exacerbates the problem, as families become evermore dependant on secular bureaucracies and corporations that therefore have increasing power over their lives. The social-welfare funded 'benefits class' have little incentive to work, as with low-level or no qualifications they would much earn less for themselves and their families than if they remained on welfare. More broadly, work in the form of a family trade or on family land is no longer naturally 'there' for them anymore - modern man has been so estranged from the land under his feet that almost all people must rent it off others, or take out a mortgage that places them further under the power of the banks until they pay it off. The Year of Jubilee has obvious applications here, too, but the gleaning law of Leviticus 23:22, which provided work for the poor, not just resources, needs to be referred to as well.

The dangers of such a society are clear, not only in the dubious processes at work in the supply of mass-produced food. More significantly, if the state deems a family's way of life to be a threat to official ideology, the father's work or welfare could be terminated and his children taken away. Such has already happened to some degree in the West, and it's not hard to believe it could be carried further in future.

Creating a family-based economy will not transform a nation by itself. Only a society where most people have accepted the heart-changing power of the gospel would be able to resist the corruption of such an approach, or resist turning the family into an idol. But I believe such a vision is what Christians should hope for the nation, even if it lies only on the other side of mass catastrophe, disruption, and rebuilding. In the meantime, we can seek to live out such a vision in however greatly limited a way in our own family life, confident that our witness to what is good matters to God even in the midst of an overwhelmingly Babylonian age.

God: Beyond Human Good and Evil

It's a classic conundrum: if God is the ultimate source of all that is, in what way can He be said to be good? By what standard of goodness do we judge Him to be so, and where does that standard come from? The potential for idolatry is obvious: when some say that 'God is good,' they have a particular idea of goodness in mind that they seek to conform God to. They can then subsequently struggle to reconcile certain portrayals of God in Scripture with their idea of what a good God should look like.

The solution, I think, is to see that God, as the arbiter of all values, is above and beyond human good and evil: He is justified in doing whatever He wishes since He is the creator of any moral value in the first place. There is no standard by which we may judge Him to be doing wrong, other than a standard He may set for Himself. In this way, He may even predestine evil acts for His good purposes without thereby having done an evil thing, since the moral values He has declared for humanity do not necessarily apply to Himself. What He does is always 'good', 'right', or 'correct', simply because there's no external authority by which to judge differently.

To some, this raises difficulties: could God have decided that acts He now declares to be evil were in fact 'good' for mankind to do - and vice versa? To be consistent with God's sovereignty over all things, we must affirm this. But God was only ever, after all, going to make single decisions about the nature of human good and evil, His goodness and rightness being simultaneous with those decisions. Simply put,  He never going to decide any differently.

Beyond saying this, the exact nature of God's will and motivations remains a deep mystery, and I don't think it possible - or humble - to pry any further.