Reflections of a Broken Man


On the Cutting Room Floor I
October 26, 2011, 5:11 pm
Filed under: Reflections

“Where do human rights come from?”

If human rights are universal, then they must have a universal ground for them. Or do they? Why do we need to ground them? Charles Taylor, in his essay “Conditions of an Unforced Consensus on Human Rights” (Taylor, 2011: 105-123), makes an argument for an ungrounded consensus on human rights. In other words, rather than dealing with the substructure of rights, he argues that as long as the superstructure of rights (rights in practice) is uniform, this is enough. He writes,

That is, different groups, countries, religious communities, civilizations, while holding incompatible fundamental views on theology, metaphysics, human nature, etc., would come to an agreement on certain norms that ought to govern human behaviour. Each would have its own way of justifying this from out of its profound background conception. We would agree on the norms, while disagreeing on why they were the right norms (Taylor, 2011: 105).

In essence, Taylor suggests that in order to overcome the profound differences in the substructure of rights debates, we need to move past the substructures themselves and focus on how the various substructures might produce similar results in the superstructure of rights. By looking at four cases of conflicting “grounds” for human rights and/or democracy, Taylor demonstrates how the same result, the same practice of human rights, can be achieved, despite the different theological/cultural/philosophical/legal “grounds”. The consensus lies purely in practice; the grounds remain conflicting (Taylor, 2011: 122-123). But at the same time, it requires a deep commitment to sympathetically understanding the different grounds, and working through them to draw out what this practical consensus might look like (Taylor, 2011: 122-123).

The key problem with this idea is something that Taylor notes himself: that a different in substructure will lead to a difference in the superstructure. Different reasons for the practice will lead to different practice. He writes,

All this must lead to differences of practice, of the detailed schedule of rights, or at least of the priority ordering among them (Taylor, 2011: 117).

But this difference, he continues, is not insurmountable, since it simply requires the appropriate amount of compromise:

Now the demands of a world consensus will often include our squaring these differences in practical contexts, our accommodating, or coming to some compromise version that both sides can live with (Taylor, 2011: 117).

Yet he realizes that this is quite a difficult task, and so he highlights that in order to overcome such differences of opinion, there’s a need for each side to sympathetically understand the substructure of the other in order to better promote compromise:

These negotiations will be inordinately difficult, unless each side can come to some more fine-grained understanding of what moves the other (Taylor, 2011: 117).

The problem is, however, that this seems to fail in practice. Taylor begins with the kind of universal conception of human rights espoused by Jacques Maritain:

I am quite certain that my way of justifying belief in the rights of man and the ideal of liberty, equality, fraternity is the only way with a firm foundation in truth. This does not prevent me from being in agreement on these practical convictions with people who are certain that their way of justifying them, entirely different from mine or opposed to mine…, is equally the only way founded upon truth (quoted in Taylor, 2011: 103).

It is from this starting point that he begins to see if this is actually possible, and what might it look like. He defines what rights are in general, and then moves to how they are enshrined in things like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The second thing he notes is the objection, however, of someone like Lee Kwan Yew, former Prime Minister of Singapore, who suggests that such conceptions of “universal” human rights are merely western conceptions of human rights. Since the Universal Declaration has its foundations in the western tradition of rights talk, it is therefore prejudiced towards a western conception of human rights, and thus neglects other conceptions (such as those that Taylor would label “Confucian”).

But herein lies the issue: the quote with which Taylor begins from Maritain is in the context of a UNESCO symposium which would lead to the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That document effectively was the unforced consensus that Taylor is envisaging. The Declaration was drafted in 1948 by representatives of the Commission on Human Rights with members from seventeen nations. True, “western” nations are predominantly represented, with only one nation from Africa (Egypt), three from Central/South America (Chile, Panama and Uruguay) and two from Asia (China and the Philippines). The Drafting Committee of nine was still mainly western, but it too had representatives from a variety of backgrounds. As Eleanor Roosevelt, chairperson of the Committee would write,

“Dr. Chang was a pluralist and held forth in charming fashion on the proposition that there is more than one kind of ultimate reality. The Declaration, he said, should reflect more than simply Western ideas and Dr. Humphrey would have to be eclectic in his approach. His remark, though addressed to Dr. Humprhey, was really directed at Dr. Malik, from whom it drew a prompt retort as he expounded at some length the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Dr. Humphrey joined enthusiastically in the discussion, and I remember that at one point Dr. Chang suggested that the Secretariat might well spend a few months studying the fundamentals of Confucianism!” (United Nations, 2011)

The Declaration was adopted by forty-eight nations, with no votes against, and of the eight abstentions, none were from “Confucian” nations (Byelorussia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine, The USSR, Yugoslavia, South Africa and Saudi Arabia). Even though this is the kind of consensus on human rights that Taylor is envisaging, it is still subject to the critique of people like Lee Kwan Yew – a consensus at the level of the superstructure will still involve conflict because of the conflicting substructure. One might conclude that an unforced consensus on human rights has been tried, and has failed.

But furthermore, as we will see below, different substructures belie a different “moral ontology” (what I have hitherto called the substructure) and therefore lead to different answers to moral problems. As O’Donovan helpfully explains,

[Both O’Donovan and Wolterstorff agree] that a lot depends on moral ontology. It shapes the way we conceive moral questions; how we conceive moral questions shapes the way we describe practical problems; how we describe practical problems shapes the way we deliberate to resolve them… Certainly, those who have ontological disagreements may see eye to eye on a range of practical questions, but there is no guarantee they will always do so. The moment will come when their different readings of the world cash out in different practical determinations. (O’Donovan, 2009: 203).

If this is the case, then a universal substructure must be found.



On Daniel – A Political Thought Experiment
August 28, 2011, 1:32 am
Filed under: Reflections

The experiment

The Book of Daniel is one of my favourite books. As a kid, I loved (and still do) the stories of Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. But last year, as I studied the book a bit more in depth, I realised that there’s quite a bit of political content there. Daniel and his friends are very much actors in the political sphere of Babylonian and Persian politics, and Daniel’s visions in 7-12 are not merely about world history, but since they deal with kings, kingdoms and international relations, they are very much political. What might we understand about politics if we did a political reading of Daniel (read Daniel and look specifically for the political transactions that are taking place)?

Some preliminaries

First, to what extent can Daniel be a model for political action today? We must take into account the fact that we live this side of the cross. Jesus, in the cross, has “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 1:15). He “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him” (1 Pet. 1:22). So whereas Daniel looked forward to the subjection of political authority under one “like a Son of Man” (c.f. Dan. 7:13-14), we know that this has been accomplished by Christ (although this subjection won’t be fully complete until the day he returns). What was a shadow to Daniel, we have the details now in Christ. So this is the first point to remember.

Second, some people take Daniel, not as historical fact, but rather a story (like an extended parable). I disagree, but even if this were the case, I don’t think it would affect the way that we read the political actions in Daniel – Jesus referred to him (and the author of the Hebrews too in an oblique manner) in a way where his words can be taken as having meaning today.

Daniel 1

In Daniel 1, Daniel and his friends are brought into the court of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. They are to be trained to be leaders, and since they will be in the court of the king, they must look presentable. The king has ordered that they eat the choicest food – from his own table. And yet, to do so, they would break the Law of the Jews – they would eat food that is unclean. In short, Daniel 1 is about the pressure to conform in the face of political action.

The response of Daniel and his friends is notable: rather than obeying the letter of the law (which would cause them to break their own Law), they choose to not eat the food. But they see the problem of breaking the law – they will look unpresentable in court, and bring dishonour to the king. So, since they know that God is in control (three times in Dan. 1, God is mentioned giving, and thus being in control of the whole situation), they trust that God will provide for them. In the end, they look more presentable than those who are following the letter of the law by eating the king’s food.

Here, we see that Daniel and friends act, not according to the letter of the intended law, but to the spirit of the law, and do so in a way that does not compromise their Jewish identity. They remain distinctly Jewish, and in doing so, show a better way to achieve the spirit of the law – looking presentable. They embody the Jewish way of life, and in doing so, they subvert their surrounding culture.

Daniel 2

In Daniel 2, the King has a dream, which no-one can interpret for him. Enter Daniel, who after praying to God, is able to interpret its meaning. OK, there may be something there, in Daniel speaking to authority. Maybe. But I actually think the main political action happens in the vision itself. In short, Daniel is able to show the king that what political manoeuvrings will happen in the future. Kingdoms will rise and fall. In other words, earthly political power is fleeting. In this vision we begin to understand the limits of human politics, and God’s sovereignty over it.

The vision is of four kingdoms, which are destroyed by a tiny kingdom that grows to eclipse the size and power of its predecessors. Here, we see that God through Daniel is able to declare to the king what will happen to the subsequent kingdoms. How is this possible? Only because God is in control of political happenings – God is the one orchestrating the rise and fall of these kingdoms. It is especially important to note that the final kingdom – the tiny kingdom the destroys and eclipses the other four – is God’s own kingdom. Thus, Daniel is highlighting to the king that earthly political authority is limited – it will eventually be replaced by God’s kingdom.

Here in Daniel 2, we see Daniel speaking to the king, reminding him of the place of politics in God’s created order. Daniel speaks to authority, and places it in the correct, godly, context. Daniel shows that politics is not under the king’s control but under God’s, and the king’s rule is limited since it will one day be replaced by God’s rule. In other words, Daniel exposes the correct political order, and advocates to restore it.

Daniel 3

Daniel 3 is the story of a law, to which Daniel’s three friends are passively resistant. Daniel’s friends are told that by law, they must bow down to an idol, which for a Jew is a definite no-no. As a result, they are condemned to death by burning squad. I think the political action here speaks for itself. Rather than acquiescing to the pressure to conform, they quite simply refuse. They don’t rebel. They don’t hold a coup. They simply say no and leave it at that. I doff my cap in tremendous respect:

3:16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. 17 If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

In short, they remind the king why they can’t obey the law, and are willing to live with the consequences. They expose the law for its injustice, and embody the right way to live.

Daniel 4 and 5

Daniel 4 is a bit of a strange chapter – it breaks with the narrative flow since it is a letter from the king to the kingdom highlight a strange event. The king, in calling himself a god, is punished by God by going mad and living in the wilderness like an animal.

Similarly, Daniel 5 is another story of God acting to visibly punish kings who dishonour him. King Belshazzar has a feast, and mockingly uses the ceremonial tableware from God’s Temple. He sees the literal writing on the wall (side note: for those who think that the Bible has no relevance today, I say – BAM! You’re using the Bible every time you use this phrase!) and calls in Daniel to reveal its meaning. The king’s days are numbered and he is murdered that very night (OK, so by numbered, I mean one).

I think these two chapters show that God is active in politics, even today. ‘The Most High rules over the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will’ (4:25). Kings, the most powerful of men, are held accountable by God, and even they come under his judgement.

Daniel’s role is again that of reminding the king of the political order of things. The king forgets his place, and Daniel is there as the wise one who speaks prophetically to the king, holding the king accountable. In short, Daniel exposes the king’s misdeeds, and advocates a restoration of the correct political order by highlighting God’s judgement on the king.

Daniel 6

Daniel 6 is quite similar to Daniel 3, and so not much comment will be given here. However, I think it’s worth noting that Daniel’s office here is political, and he is such a good politician, that his enemies have to construct an elaborate plan just to be able to accuse him.

Daniel’s political conduct, and at the same time his religious conduct, is above reproach – the epitome of integrity.

So often, politics includes the pressure to be corrupt. But Daniel (again) highlights his refusal to compromise his ethics, and places his trust in God in order to escape the situation (certain death).

Daniel 7

Daniel 7, similar to Daniel 2, zooms back out to see the flow of history, and again highlight the sovereignty of God – even over politics. Here, we see the eschatological end of earthly politics as one like the Son of Man comes and is given eternal political power.

13 I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. 14 And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.

Daniel’s vision therefore is an act of exposure – showing that earthly political power is limited, since there will come a time when this Son of Man character will come and end earthly politics. At the same time, it is an act of restoration since it speaks to authority and calls it to remember its place.

Daniel 8

Daniel 8 is another vision. Of particular note in this passage is the way that one of the future kings (well… now past king – Antiochus IV Epiphanes to be exact I think…) persecutes God’s people by perverting their religious practices, and by killing the Jews. But by virtue of it being a vision, we see that even this is part of God’s plan: we should not be surprised to see anti-Christian laws, and yet, even this is under God’s control.

Daniel 9

Daniel 9 is Daniel’s reflection on the exile. He prays, regarding the 70 years punishment mentioned in Jeremiah (Jer. 25:12), and wonders what God is going to do. He receives the reply that it will be seventy weeks (or rather, seventy “weeks” of years, so in other words, 490 years) until the Exile is finished proper.

Here, I think it is possible to see that even when injustice happens, or even great evil, God is in control. Importantly, God will use earthly politics to achieve His purposes. It was his will that Israel/Judah be punished for disobeying him. God uses the political manoeuvrings of the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Persians to achieve this purpose. Earthly politics may be the way that God chooses to bring about his plans and purposes.

Daniel 10-12

In the final section of Daniel, there is a long description of the rise and fall of kingdoms and kings again. Here, however, we have a specific note to those who are suffering: persevere. In the face of suffering and persecution, God’s people are called to patiently persevere. Why? Why not rebel? Why not violently resist? Because political vindication will come with the resurrection.

12:1 And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. 2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. 3 And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. 4 But you, Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the end.

Some Final Thoughts

Reading through Daniel, there seem to be a few political strategies in the face of non-Christian politics.

  1. Subverting: By this, I mean that Christians deliberately pick out counter-cultural values that subvert the political culture around them
  2. Exposing: Christians speak to authority, highlighting where politics has overstepped the mark, and has forgotten its place
  3. Embodying: Christians live out the counter-cultural politics.
  4. Restoring: Seeking to guide political rulers back to the God-created political order.

EBHG



On the Love of God (Preliminary draft ii)
May 5, 2011, 11:12 pm
Filed under: Reflections

The issue of neighbour-love is one of the more interesting, and deeply practical, ethical issues in the Christian life. More than simply “who is my neighbour?”, the issue of neighbour-love causes me to ask “how do I love my neighbour?”. There are many points in the Bible where the answer is simply, love as you have been loved. As Christ has loved you, so you should also love others. In other words, God’s love for us is presented as a model for our love of our neighbour. And this, the topic for this morning, is a deeply theological issue. How has God loved us, and to what extent does that love become a paradigm for our love?

I begin in the ethical realm, since this is where we are today. Our ethics, “what should I do?”, flow out of our theology, “who is God, and what has he done?”. In other words, We are presented with an ethical dilemma – namely, how should we love – and provided with a biblical model by Jesus – love as I have loved. So after firstly looking at two contrasting ethical answers to this problem, I turn secondly to our theological issue – how has God loved us. Thirdly, I discuss the ability for us to love as God has loved. Finally, I’ll propose a model for our love of neighbour that flows out of God’s love for us.

Some quick preliminaries. While I prefer this definition of love (“Love: It’s like a thousand ninjas attacking your brain”), I will be working with the O’Donovanian definition of love as “being attentive to”. Love is attentiveness. Furthermore, God’s love flows out of his being – the perichoretic Trinity requires other-person love, or as Thistleton writes,

The basis of this self-giving, interactive, inter-personal love [can be described] as characterising the very nature of God himself as Trinity. A solitary being cannot “give” or “love” unless “another” enters the scene to receive and to be loved.

We begin with two ethical accounts of neighbour-love. Paul Ramsey, in his book Basic Christian Ethics, proposes that Christian ethics are founded upon “Christian love”, agape. He writes that the source of this Christian love is found primarily in God’s love. Specifically, Christian ethics flows out of the way that Jesus Christ acted, or in other words, Christian ethics are Christocentric. God’s love for man is prototypical – the way that Jesus loved is the way that we should love. We return to this point later. But secondly, and most importantly for this morning, Ramsey argues that our love must be disinterested. Ramsey writes,

[We use] the expression “love for neighbour for his own sake”… Such disinterested regard for another person is one the primary meanings of “Christian love””

In other words, Ramsey’s argument is that if we love our neighbours in the same way that God loves us, then we will do so “disinterestedly”. We love people in and of themselves, for their own sake and not for any other reason.

In contrast, in a section on “communication”, Oliver O’Donovan in almost a throw-away comment suggests that there is no such thing as “disinterested” love. Commenting that the idea of “bestowal” as a community action is the idea behind agape, he writes,

The idea of absolute and unmotivated bestowal has been held in high admiration in some Christian circles, and has often been said to be the true meaning of Christian love, agape. This moral misunderstanding is due to two theological misunderstandings…

We’ll return to O’Donovan’s critique later. However, considering that O’Donovan was Ramsey’s student, he must have been conscious of the way that Ramsey used the word agape and Christian love,as he was writing this.Thus, our ethical descriptions of how we should love present us with a dilemma: when we are called to love our neighbour, are we to love disinterestedly or not?

Our first step in answering this question is looking to the bible to see what it has to say on the topic. While it is understood that in order to gain a full appreciation of the link between our love and God’s love, we would need to do a thorough systematic study of the way that God’s love has manifested itself throughout the whole of the Bible, due to the size and scope of this paper, and in the interest of brevity of research, I’ve chosen to pick just one passage which I hope, due to its explicit relation to our topic, will provide an appropriate link between our love for others, and God’s love for us. This passage is 1 John 4:7-12, though I understand that passages like John 13:12-17 and Romans 15:5-7 are equally helpful. My hypothesis is that Christian love for neighbour is modelled on God’s love for us.

1 John 4:7-12

The apostle John gives us a direct causal link between God loving us and our loving our neighbour. As I. Howard Marshall writes, “[John] could not understand how a person could experience divine love and remain unmoved by the obligation to love other people in the same way as God had loved him”. Importantly, it’s a command, an obligation. It is something we should do, based on something that is. Furthermore, the context is love for fellow Christians, yet since God loves sinners, our love cannot be restricted to just brothers and sisters. It must be for the world.

From these three passages, it appears to me that there is a strong link between God’s love for us, and our love for others. In each of these passages, the motivation to love others is founded upon Christ’s love for us. The model and motivation for us to love people is that Christ has loved us. We are to do so in the same way. As Ramsey suggested, God’s love is prototypical for the way that we are to love. But does God love disinterestedly?

We thus need to move onto the second part of our discussion – how has God loved us?

The passage in 1 John that we just looked at gives us a direction to answer that question. 1 John 4:9-10.

In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

The apostle John makes a direct link between Jesus’ death on the cross and God’s love for us. God’s love for us is Jesus on the cross. We see, though, that it was not because of us, i.e. it was not because of something intrinsic within us or something we have done to earn God’s favour like loving him. Rather, simply, he loved us, and so sent his Son to the cross. We see this elsewhere in Scripture (e.g. Acts 15, Eph. 2, 2 Tim. 1), where we are reminded that the cross is an act grace – an undeserved gift – which shows that we are loved.

Two conclusions can be drawn:

First, God loved us self-sacrificially. In the cross, we see God dying in the place of man to save man. God’s love for us is costly, as Bonhoeffer reminds us, since it cost him his Son.

Second, God loved us for our benefit. In the cross, we see God acting to bring us into relationship with himself, and thus giving us eternal life.

This is the key and contentious point – did God love us, for our benefit? Or to frame in the language of our topic this morning, did God love us disinterestedly? In the Trinitarian Faith, Torrance highlights that this point is what Athanasius stresses, namely that The Saviour came, not for his own sake, but for our sake and for our salvation, picking up the language of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The incarnation is soteriological – God’s act of love in Jesus on the cross, is for our salvation. God’s love is for our benefit.

And yet, Scripture continuously highlights that God acts for his glory (Ex. 14, Is. 48, ). Of particular note in this regard is Ezekiel 36:22, 32, where God reminds the Israelites that despite their sinfulness, he acts to save them, not for their sake, but for the sake of his name which is profaned among the nations. God’s saving act here in Ezekiel seems to not be disinterested. It seems to be for his own benefit, for his own sake. However, it can be argued that this is a statement, not so much a description of why God does actually love them, but merely a reminder that merit plays no part in God’s decision to love them.

On this point, the question of merit, we see that God’s love for us is despite our response. Obviously, the question of who did Jesus die for is raised here. I don’t think that there is space here to explore that issue, suffice it to say that my own interpretation is not for definite atonement, but rather understanding that Christ died for the sins of the world, while at the same time, dying for elect. I think that it is important to remember Carson’s caution that God’s love can have many senses, at least five he counts, which we must keep distinct and avoid collapsing all into one or two. He differentiates between God’s love for the world and God’s particular love for his elect. We would do well to follow his caution.

When it comes to the cross, as far as I can tell, there is no indication of God sending his Son to the cross, for his own glory. John 17 is the closest association the cross and God’s gloryI can find. Here, Jesus prays that the Son might be glorified, so that the Father will be glorified. Yet, even at this point, the glorification of God seems to be more associated with Jesus’ obedience to the Father, rather than an explicit statement of God sending his Son to the cross for his own glory.

How does God love?

It would seem that Ramsey’s disinterested model has borne out. We must now return O’Donovan’s critique.

O’Donovan firstly suggests that the “bestowal” model of communication presupposes a deist conception of God – that God simply gives, and then withdraws, not expecting a response. While this is the logically extreme of disinterest, I don’t think we need to go so far. We need to be nuanced – God loves us despite our response. Yet at the same time, we understand that God being God, knows our response. He loves us accordingly (not reactively, but appropriately). God loves disinterestedly, not on the basis of our response, or what benefit he can gain, but on the basis of who we are and for our sake. In this sense God love is interested, but as DB Hart writes in Beauty of the Infinite,

it is a love always of recognition and delight, desiring all and giving all at once, giving to receive and receiving to give, generous not in thoughtlessly squandering itself, but in truly wanting the other.

The second critique is that “bestowal” implies the removal of desire. In other words, I love disinterestedly because I desire nothing at all. O’Donovan rightly critiques this, saying that selfless giving without desire is not what Jesus taught, but rather selfless giving requires desiring one thing, namely the eschatological community of the kingdom of heaven. My desire in loving someone must ultimately be the promotion of the relationships of the kingdom, which in many respects, overlaps with the benefit of the person I am loving. However, again, we need to make sure we nuance this. My love for a brother or sister in Christ will be different to my love for a non-Christian. I love my brother or sister in a way that encourages them in their faith – it is ultimately edifying. However, my love for my non-Christian friend/colleague/whatever is not edifying in the same way; it is evangelistic. Both are community promoting, and yet, in different ways. On this point, it is different to Ramsey’s conception of disinterested neighbour-love. Ramsey argues that for it to be thoroughly disinterested, I must love everyone as if I am loving an enemy – expecting nothing but rejection and cost. While the point here is that I am to love the person despite their response (and love of enemy is the clearest example of this), it fails to take into account the different ways that I can love people.

To what extent can we imitate this model of loving – self-sacrificial, other-person-centred, or using Ramsey’s word, disinterested love? Obviously, we cannot love in exactly the same way as Christ: we cannot die on a cross for the salvation of humanity. However, there are principles that we can imitate. One cautionary note – I’m not advocating a simple Imitatio Christi here. I understand the complexity of Christian ethics, the poles of the joined up life and so on and so forth. Taking those considerations into mind, my question is more along the lines of what are the limits to imitating God’s love for us. Jesus quite clearly has no problem in establishing the model for us, and Paul likewise has no hesitation in suggesting that we imitate him, as he imitates Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). And yet, we understand that we cannot imitate exactly. So to what extent can we imitate?

At this point, we reach another hurdle – the question of impassability. This is obviously a project-sized question, and so we can only deal with it briefly. The following remarks follow Carson’s analysis of God’s love in The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. The doctrine of God’s impassability is a statement concerning whether God changes according to his emotions. The Westminster Confession suggests that God is without passions, and yet to say that God is without emotion is thoroughly unbiblical. We see that God does not change – the idea of immutability – but as Carson writes, God is “not immutable in every possible way or domain”. Carson concludes, in a section called “A Rightly Constrained Impassibility”, that,

we will successfully guard against the evils that impassibility combats if we recognise that God’s “passions”, unlike ours, do not flare up out of control… God’s passions, like everything else in God, are displayed in conjunction with the fullness of all his other perfections… This means that in certain respects, God’s love does not function exactly like ours… God’s love emanates from an infinite Being who’s perfections are immutable

We cannot love in the same way that God loves, because God’s love is perfect. So we would argue that God’s love is therefore perfectly disinterested in the sense that it is purely and perfectly for the sake of the other. God’s love, being connected to all of God’s other perfections or attributes, is perfect – God knows what is in a person’s best interests, and God has the ability to love accordingly. Furthermore, God knows perfectly a person’s response, and loves the person accordingly. God knows before the creation of the world who is the elect, and who is the world, and loves each accordingly. God’s love is perfect.

And yet, at the same time, Carson holds that God’s love is real, and “of the same genus” as ours.

Our final question, therefore, is how then should we love our neighbour?

Understanding that our love cannot be perfect, we are still called by Jesus to imitate his love. In one respect, God’s abiding in us and his love perfected in us as we love one points to more than simple imitation, but rather participation as 1 John 4:12 suggests.

What then is our model?

First, our love for our neighbour should be self-sacrificial. We must be willing to love the other, even should it be at our cost. In the same way that Jesus willingly went to the cross as an act of love, so too must we be willing to sacrifice ourselves in the act of love. Love of neighbour can never be only when it is in my interest.

Second, our love should be for the benefit for the other. Our desire in loving the other must be their welfare, their good. We must love because we are attentive to the needs/desires of the other. My goal must be their well being.

Third, our love must be despite the response, though we may desire a positive one. As Volf notes well, though an embrace may be offered, there is no guarantee of that the response will be the desired one, and if not, it may carry with it considerable risk. To love an enemy holding a sword, writes Volf, requires the sword to be dropped or removed. But if not, the sword may inflict damage. So too our love for an enemy, as mentioned above, may be costly for us.



On the Love of God (Issues Presentation – Preliminary Draft)
May 5, 2011, 11:56 am
Filed under: Reflections

The issue of neighbour-love is one of the more interesting, and deeply practical, ethical issues in the Christian life. More than simply “who is my neighbour?”, the issue of neighbour-love causes me to ask “how do I love my neighbour?”. There are many points in the Bible where the answer is simply, love as you have been loved. As Christ has loved you, so you should also love others. In other words, God’s love for us is presented as a model for our love of our neighbour. And this, the topic for this morning, is a deeply theological issue. How has God loved us, and to what extent does that love become a paradigm for our love?

I begin in the ethical realm, since this is where we are today. Our ethics, “what should I do?”, flow out of our theology, “who is God, and what has he done?”. In other words, We are presented with an ethical dilemma – namely, how should we love – and provided with a biblical model by Jesus – love as I have loved. So after first looking at two contrasting ethical answers to this problem, I turn to our theological issue – how has God loved us. Thirdly, I discuss the ability for us to love as God has loved. Finally, I’ll propose a model for our love of neighbour that flows out of God’s love for us.

Some quick preliminaries. While I prefer this definition of love (“Love: It’s like a thousand ninjas attacking your brain”), I will be working with the O’Donovanian definition of love as “being attentive to”.

We begin with two ethical accounts of neighbour-love. Paul Ramsey, in his book Basic Christian Ethics, proposes that Christian ethics are founded upon “Christian love”, agape. He writes that the source of this Christian love is found primarily in God’s love. Specifically, Christian ethics flows out of the way that Jesus Christ acted, or in other words, Christian ethics are Christocentric. God’s love for man is prototypical – the way that Jesus loved is the way that we should love. We return to this point later. But secondly, and most importantly for this morning, Ramsey argues that our love must be disinterested. Ramsey writes,

[We use] the expression “love for neighbour for his own sake”… Such disinterested regard for another person is one the primary meanings of “Christian love””

In other words, Ramsey’s argument is that if we love our neighbours in the same way that God loves us, then we will do so “disinterestedly”. We love people in and of themselves, for their own sake and not for any other reason.

In contrast, in a section on “communication”, Oliver O’Donovan in almost a throw-away comment suggests that there is no such thing as “disinterested” love. Commenting that the idea of “bestowal” as a community action is the idea behind agape, he writes,

The idea of absolute and unmotivated bestowal has been held in high admiration in some Christian circles, and has often been said to be the true meaning of Christian love, agape. This moral misunderstanding is due to two theological misunderstandings…

We’ll return to O’Donovan’s critique later. However, considering that O’Donovan was Ramsey’s student, he must have been conscious of the way that Ramsey used the word agape and Christian love,as he was writing this.Thus, our ethical descriptions of how we should love present us with a dilemma: when we are called to love our neighbour, are we to love disinterestedly or not?

Our first step in answering this question is looking to the bible to see what it has to say on the topic. While it is understood that in order to gain a full appreciation of the link between our love and God’s love, we would need to do a thorough systematic study of the way that God’s love has manifested itself throughout the whole of the Bible, due to the size and scope of this paper, and in the interest of brevity of research, I’ve chosen to pick just one passage which I hope, due to its explicit relation to our topic, will provide an appropriate link between our love for others, and God’s love for us. This passage is 1 John 4:7-12, though I understand that passages like John 13:12-17 and Romans 15:5-7 are equally helpful. My hypothesis is that Christian love for neighbour is modelled on God’s love for us.

1 John 4:7-12

The apostle John gives us a direct causal link between God loving us and our loving our neighbour. As I. Howard Marshall writes, “[John] could not understand how a person could experience divine love and remain unmoved by the obligation to love other people in the same way as God had loved him”. Importantly, it’s a command, an obligation. It is something we should do, based on something that is. Furthermore, the context is love for fellow Christians, yet since God loves sinners, our love cannot be restricted to just brothers and sisters. It must be for the world.

From these three passages, it appears to me that there is a strong link between God’s love for us, and our love for others. In each of these passages, the motivation to love others is founded upon Christ’s love for us. The model and motivation for us to love people is that Christ has loved us. We are to do so in the same way. As Ramsey suggested, God’s love is prototypical for the way that we are to love. But does God love disinterestedly?

We thus need to move onto the second part of our discussion – how has God loved us?

The passage in 1 John that we just looked at gives us a direction to answer that question. 1 John 4:9-10.

In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

The apostle John makes a direct link between Jesus’ death on the cross and God’s love for us. God’s love for us is Jesus on the cross. We see, though, that it was not because of us, i.e. it was not because of something intrinsic within us or something we have done to earn God’s favour like loving him. Rather, simply, he loved us, and so sent his Son to the cross. We see this elsewhere in Scripture (e.g. Acts 15, Eph. 2, 2 Tim. 1), where we are reminded that the cross is an act grace – an undeserved gift – which shows that we are loved.

Two conclusions can be drawn:

First, God loved us self-sacrificially. In the cross, we see God dying in the place of man to save man. God’s love for us is costly, as Bonhoeffer reminds us, since it cost him his Son.

Second, God loved us for our benefit. In the cross, we see God acting to bring us into relationship with himself, and thus giving us eternal life.

This is the key and contentious point – did God love us, for our benefit? Or to frame in the language of our topic this morning, did God love us disinterestedly? In the Trinitarian Faith, Torrance highlights that this point is what Athanasius stresses, namely that The Saviour came, not for his own sake, but for our sake and for our salvation, picking up the language of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The incarnation is soteriological – God’s act of love in Jesus on the cross, is for our salvation. God’s love is for our benefit.

And yet, Scripture continuously highlights that God acts for his glory (Ex. 14, Is. 48, ). Of particular note in this regard is Ezekiel 36:22, 32, where God reminds the Israelites that despite their sinfulness, he acts to save them, not for their sake, but for the sake of his name which is profaned among the nations. God’s saving act here in Ezekiel seems to not be disinterested. It seems to be for his own benefit, for his own sake. However, it can be argued that this is a statement, not so much a description of why God does actually love them, but merely a reminder that merit plays no part in God’s decision to love them.

On this point, the question of merit, we see that God’s love for us is despite our response. Obviously, the question of who did Jesus die for is raised here. I don’t think that there is space here to explore that issue, suffice it to say that my own interpretation is not for definite atonement, but rather understanding that Christ died for the sins of the world, while at the same time, dying for elect. I think that it is important to remember Carson’s caution that God’s love can have many senses, at least five he counts, which we must keep distinct and avoid collapsing all into one or two. He differentiates between God’s love for the world and God’s particular love for his elect. We would do well to follow his caution.

When it comes to the cross, as far as I can tell, there is no indication of God sending his Son to the cross, for his own glory. John 17 is the closest association the cross and God’s gloryI can find. Here, Jesus prays that the Son might be glorified, so that the Father will be glorified. Yet, even at this point, the glorification of God seems to be more associated with Jesus’ obedience to the Father, rather than an explicit statement of God sending his Son to the cross for his own glory.

How does God love? It would seem that Ramsey’s disinterested model has borne out. We must now return O’Donovan’s critique. O’Donovan firstly suggests that the “bestowal” model of communication presupposes a deist conception of God – that God simply gives, and then withdraws, not expecting a response. While this is the logically extreme of disinterest, I don’t think we need to go so far. We need to be nuanced – God loves us despite our response, but God does not love not expecting a response. God loves disinterestedly, but the does not mean that God does not expect a response. There is always a response – acceptance or rejection. Despite that response, God still loves.
The second critique is that “bestowal” implies the removal of desire. In other words, I love disinterestedly because I desire nothing at all. O’Donovan rightly critiques this, saying that selfless giving without desire is not what Jesus taught, but rather selfless giving requires desiring one thing, namely the eschatological community of the kingdom of heaven. My desire in loving someone must ultimately be the promotion of the relationships of the kingdom, which in many respects, overlaps with the benefit of the person I am loving. However, again, we need to make sure we nuance this. My love for a brother or sister in Christ will be different to my love for a non-Christian. I love my brother or sister in a way that encourages them in their faith – it is ultimately edifying. However, my love for my non-Christian friend/colleague/whatever is not edifying in the same way; it is evangelistic. Both are community promoting, and yet, in different ways. On this point, it is different to Ramsey’s conception of disinterested neighbour-love. Ramsey argues that for it to be thoroughly disinterested, I must love everyone as if I am loving an enemy – expecting nothing but rejection and cost. While the point here is that I am to love the person despite their response (and love of enemy is the clearest example of this), it fails to take into account the different ways that I can love people.

To what extent can we imitate this model of loving – self-sacrificial, other-person-centred, or using Ramsey’s word, disinterested love? Obviously, we cannot love in exactly the same way as Christ: we cannot die on a cross for humanity. However, there are principles that we can imitate. One cautionary note – I’m not advocating a simple Imitatio Christi here. I understand the complexity of Christian ethics, the poles of the joined up life and so on and so forth. Taking those considerations into mind, my question is more along the lines of what are the limits to imitating God’s love for us. Jesus quite clearly has no problem in establishing the model for us, and Paul likewise has no hesitation in suggesting that we imitate him, as he imitates Christ (1 Cor. 4:16ff). And yet, we understand that we cannot imitate exactly. So to what extent can we imitate?

At this point, we reach another hurdle – the question of impassability. This is obviously a project-sized question, and so we can only deal with it briefly.

<insert impassability here>

Our final question, therefore, is how does this affect neighbour love?

<insert conclusion here>



On Hebrews (i)
March 15, 2011, 12:29 pm
Filed under: Reflections

**currently listening to Death Cab for Cutie – random playlist… most recent purchase is Deftones – White Pony: has some really good tracks, but also some really average ones too…**

So it seems that I have to preach this year, three times in fact… once for mission, once for chapel, and once for church. And probably involving three different passages too. Mission is on John 1:1-18, Chapel is on Hebrews 3, and anything I want at church.

While mission is first, I thought I might write down my thoughts on the Heb. 3 passage (others to come later).

The Book of Hebrews really captured my attention this year with four talks on beach mission from Hebrews called “Jesus is Better”. Every time I read through passages here, the phrase “Jesus is Better” keeps ringing in my head.

We live in a world where religion is everywhere. Churches and temples abound. In Sydney, for those who don’t have church, they have their own “church”, the pub, the nightclub, the office, the stadium, the Apple Store(!). Even for those who profess no religion, in a sense they adhere to the religion of non-belief, and worship in their own non-worship way. We live in a world of nearly infinite choices, a multitude of options, and a variety of alternatives. How can we as Christians even enter into this world? How can we reach those who seem overwhelmed by choice, that the only choice really becomes stay with what you have?

Our usual response has been the negative – These things never satisfy. Alcohol, parties, work, family, sport and possessions, they don’t satisfy. True… in a way. For many people in Sydney, these things do satisfy. We get lost in the moment of the things we have right now, we are stuck in the now, that the rebuke “this doesn’t satisfy” seems nonsensical. “Of course they satisfy! Look at how much fun I’m having, look at how productive I am, look at how loving I am, etc.” “This doesn’t satisfy” is something that doesn’t make sense in Sydney, when we have so much that does satisfy.

The author of the Book of Hebrews faces a similar problem. He writes to people who have great choice. Sure, they’ve heard of Jesus, and probably even believe in who he is and what he has done. But when faced with the multitude of options that are out there, they choose other things as more important. Jesus may be the Son of God. True. Given. But can he really be better than… <insert here>? Can Jesus really be better than the variety of “spiritual experiences” that are out there, is Jesus really better than the great teachers of history (ch. 1-2)?

The answer:
Jesus is Better.

By chapter 3, the question is “Is Jesus really better than the other religious options that are out there?” In the context of First Century Israel, the greatest religious figure in history was Moses, the great leader of the Jewish people. Moses was hardcore. He was politician and priest. He was the worker of miracles. He was Justice Moses, and General Moses. He was the guy who spoke to God… FACE TO FACE! Moses was the man who forged a nation that would change history in possibly the most profound way. Surely Jesus, the man who died like a common criminal on a cross, surely he couldn’t be greater that Moses!

Answer:
Jesus is Better.

Exegesis of 3:1-7 to come next post.

EBHG



On the Definition of an Anglican
November 10, 2010, 10:58 pm
Filed under: Reflections

**Currently listening to Soul Meets Body – Death Cab for Cutie**

What is an Anglican?

One who is:
a) passionate about the Gospel in the evangelical tradition, and
b) seeks to support the training others in this Gospel, in the face of liberal (amongst others) resistance.

An interesting thought… Where does the historical background to Anglicanism fit in? Thoughts?

EBHG



On Reconciliation (i)
November 10, 2010, 3:56 pm
Filed under: Reflections

**Currently listening to Innocent Bystanders United – Norma Jean**

It has occurred to me recently, that living at college has put me in contact with some of the finest theologians around. More specifically, it has blessed me with the chance to build friendships with some really Godly Christians – men and women who love Jesus dearly. There’s one in particular who lives nearby, who regularly comes for a coffee and a chat, who is a blessing that I constantly take for granted.

That ends (hopefully) now, as I try to reflect on some of the things that he has taught me. The aim is to write down at least one thing as the result of our conversation, so that I don’t forget, and perhaps to share with you the blessing that God has showered on me.

Reconciliation is a topic that is dear to his heart at the moment – hence the title of the series – and today we chatted about 2 Cor 5:16-20

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

Reconciliation – the process of being two warring parties together in peace – is something that God does for us. It has a vertical dimension: the fixing of the relationship between God and I. But it also has a horizontal dimension: in reconciling us to himself, God demands that we be reconciled to one another. As Christ’s ambassadors, we hold out both dimensions to those we meet. It is thus hypocritical to be reconciled to God and not be reconciled to those around me who I have wronged, or who have wronged me.

So, in a similar way to God’s reconciling action towards me (which cost him), so too will my reconciling actions towards those around me be a cost to me. But that is what we are called to – as ambassadors, we call for reconciliation, first to God, then to men.

EBHG