About Me

My photo
Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Friday, 29 August 2014

In defence of the Creed, part 2 (from "Deep Church Rising"

Yesterday, I offered an extract from my new book, Deep Church Rising (coauthored with Andrew G. Walker), in defence of the Creed. Here is part two of that extract. Four further thoughts in support of the Creed.

5. The Creed does define boundaries for orthodox Christian faith, but those boundaries are surprisingly wide. They are not attempts to micromanage what Christians must think but are more akin to the fence along a national border. Within the boundaries of a country there are a lot of places one can go. The fences say, “whatever you do in here you are doing within this country but if you cross that border then you have crossed outside the bounds of the country.” For instance, it is core for Christian faith that Jesus died for our sins. To deny that is to move outside the boundaries of authentic Christian beliefs. However, there are multiple different ways of trying to understand the claim that Jesus died for our sins and all of that diversity is permitted within the bounds of orthodoxy. The same goes for all sorts of different areas of theology.  
6. Orthodoxy may be a large tent but it is not infinitely large. Boundaries do need to be drawn and this, we maintain, is a good thing. If Christianity can be anything at all then it is nothing at all. The Creed protects the shape of the faith across time and space, maintaining its continuity with the apostolic message. It does not freeze the message in time because it must be understood afresh in each generation and each fresh context. The Creed contains a surplus of meaning that can speak a good word to the church in any time or place. But it cannot mean just anything and everything. All fresh interpretations have to be firmly grounded in the tradition of interpretations in the church so far. If they break free from that then they lose the claim to be authentic Christian interpretations.  
7. The ecumenical Creed serves a unifying purpose because all the main groupings within the Christian church—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant—affirm it. This is not insignificant. Christians disagree about an awful lot of things—praying to saints, who may be baptized, who may administer the Eucharist, the details of Christ’s return, and so on—but the centrality of the Creed means that in spite of all this disagreement there is unity on the central issues. Those Protestants that have tried to sideline the Creed have actually harmed ecumenical relations in so doing. The Orthodox, for instance, are quite clear that there can be no Christian unity at the cost of central gospel truths.  
8. Many point out that the Creed has “holes” in it that a robust Christian theology needs to fill. For instance, it leaps from creation to the virgin birth, making no mention of God’s way with Israel. Similarly, it leaps from Jesus’ birth to his death and makes no mention of his kingdom ministry, which occupies most of the space in the Gospels. There are three things we would say in reply. 
First, of course the Creed could say more. It is not seeking to say everything that Christians have to say; it is, rather, laying out the fundamental contours of the Christian belief in the triune God revealed in Jesus. It is not the final word about Christian beliefs and practices but it is an essential dogmatic statement about the Godness of the Spirit and the Son with the Father and of the humanity of Jesus. 
Second, what the Creed does say is intended to provide the normative theological framework within which everything else should be understood. As such it provides us with the context within which we understand the story of Israel or the ministry of Jesus or the doctrine of sin or the theology of humanity or whatever else we care to consider. 
Finally, the Creed is the tip of a theological iceberg with implicit links to all sorts of theological themes not overtly discussed. Take the missing story of Israel. The Creed does allude to it. Consider first an oblique reference to the central prayer of Israel, the shema, in the following words: “We believe in one God . . . maker of heaven and earth. ... We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom all things were made.” Behind this part of the Creed lie Paul’s words in 1 Cor 8:6, “for us there is one God ... from whom all things come ... and one Lord, Jesus Christ through whom all things exist.” And 1 Cor 8:6, as numerous NT scholars have pointed out, is an interpretation of the shema: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, YHWH is one” (Deut 6:4). For Paul, Jesus is included within the identity of the one God of Israel, hence his radical take on the shema. The Creed preserves this Pauline interpretation of Israel’s prayer thereby implying the bigger story of Israel. That bigger story can also be seen in the words “Lord Jesus Christ,” for the title Christ (Heb. Messiah) refers to the promised ruler of Israel and the world spoken of by Israel’s prophets.  To unpack this title requires that bigger story. Again, little phrases such as “he rose again, according to the Scriptures” refer to the holy texts of ancient Israel (what Christians call the Old Testament) and thereby gesture at the story of Israel contained in those texts and also at the christological interpretation of them taught to the church by Jesus (Luke 24:25–27). Our point is that the Creed does not explicitly tell the story of Israel but it does gesture to it and require its telling. Thus the church does indeed need to give a good account of God’s way with Israel and we should not mistake the lack of that account in the Creed as indicating otherwise. 
9. To say that those who transgress aspects of the Creed have moved beyond the bounds of authentic Christian beliefs is not to say that such a person will not be saved nor even that they are not real Christians. There is an important distinction to be made between holding heretical opinions — opinions that the church has excluded as being outside the bounds of orthodoxy — and being a heretic. Error is (in part) a matter of the intellect whereas heresy is a matter of the will. Many Christians hold heretical opinions without even realizing it. They are not heretics. The heretic is a professed Christian who knows what the orthodox Christian view is and nevertheless sets his or her will against it. Gary Thorne writes, “The church must be inclusive of all those baptized who hold heretical opinions and views on their way to embrace the fuller truth of the gospel as found in the church. But the church cannot be inclusive of heretics.”  This is because the heretic “by definition deliberately sets his will over against that of the church. Heretics want the body of Christ on their own terms, and to offer Eucharistic hospitality to such persons is for the church to be complicit in the harm that will come to one who refuses to discern the Lord’s body.”  The church can be a very broad and inclusive body but it cannot be limitlessly broad without losing its gospel-grounded identity. 

Thursday, 28 August 2014

In Defence of the Creed, part 1 (from "Deep Church Rising")

The following two-part-series in defence of the Creed is an extract from my new book, Deep Church Rising, co-authored with Andrew Walker.

Creeds often take a fair amount of flack. In the minds of many people they are lifeless sets of “things to believe” that substitute for authentic heart-felt faith; they epitomize outward “religion” obsessed with form and ritual, as opposed to inward devotion. For some they are seen to foster a propositional approach to faith that focuses on the primacy of assent to certain claimed facts. Others see them as a source of oppression, the top-down imposition by powerful ecclesiastical hierarchies of what Christians are compelled to affirm. Framed in those terms creeds do not resonate with the modern world, with its focus on the individual’s authority to determine what she or he chooses to believe.
We wish to present creeds differently. The great ecumenical Creed of Nicea is, we suggest, an instrument of the Holy Spirit to help keep the church focused on key aspects of the gospel message. A few points of orientation are in order. 
1. The Creed is indeed concerned with certain critical assertions about God and salvation history—assertions that Christians have historically maintained as central—but it is orientated towards the primacy of existentially committed belief: “we believe in one God ...” It is in no way a charter for a dead, intellectualized faith. Remember that in the life of the church historically and still today the Creed is embedded within the wider context of acts of spiritual devotion and worship. 
2. The Creed does not point towards itself but beyond itself, like a sign. It is not valued for its own sake but for that sake of that to which it testifies.

3. The Creed does indeed contain propositions — that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, that he was buried, and so on — but they are misunderstood if they are thought to be simple lists of items to believe. On the contrary, they are in fact narrative summaries pointing to the grand story of the triune God’s activity in creation; in the ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ; in the church; and in the future with the return of Christ and the new creation. The Creed is, of course, not narrative in form nor does it intend to substitute for the biblical narrative that it points to. Rather it serves as an interpretative summary of the core aspects of the story. The Creed, in other words, is not offered as a simple list of doctrinal beliefs for Christians to tick off and feel smug about. It is a testimony to the primacy of the biblical narrative, pointing Christians back to the Bible and offering markers for its Christian interpretation. The Creed was never a substitute for Scripture nor intended to add anything to Scripture. Rather, it was created to encapsulate the core of the apostolic understanding of Scripture’s central message. 
4. The Creed is not an attempt to reduce God to a set of sentences, nor an attempt to explain God. The Fathers were well aware that the God to whom the Creed bears testimony is the transcendent Creator “who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see” (1 Tim 6:16). But the Creed does not dispel mystery; if anything, it preserves it. Take the incarnation — the claim that the divine Logos “became flesh.” That is a mind-bending claim, pushing reason over the edge. There are various ways to soften the rational offence — to claim that Jesus was not really human (Docetism) or not fully human (Apollinarianism); to claim that Jesus was not divine (Ebionism, Adoptionism, Arianism); to claim that Jesus was actually two persons, the human Jesus and the divine Word, in one body (Nestorianism). All these suggestions were sensible proposals offered in sincerity. However, the church rejected all of them because although they may remove the logical problems they also (unintentionally) undermine critical aspects of the biblical witness and the theo-logic of the gospel itself. It is essential that Jesus is fully divine and fully human; that he is one person—not two, but that his (fully) human nature and his (fully) divine nature are not confused and blended into some hybrid. But how is that possible? It is so crazy! We don’t know and the Creed never tries to explain it. Our point here is simply that it is precisely a refusal to remove mystery at the expense of central gospel affirmations that motivates the Creed.


[part 2. tomorrow]

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Snake handling in Mark 16 (a thought from Nick Lunn)

I am currently editing a SUPERB book on the long ending of Mark's Gospel (Mark 16:9–20). The author, Nicholas Lunn, argues that the long ending was not a later addition to the Gospel but was the original ending written by Mark. In this he is going against the majority view, but I can say that his case is not simply reasonable — it is knock-down brilliant! He demonstrates that the case for the long ending being original is highly probable. (Seriously — I am as surprised as you may be.) I think that after the publication of this book anyone who still wants to argue for the exclusion of 16:9–20 from the Gospel has an uphill struggle.

Be that as it may, I just wanted to post a short comment he makes here about snake handling. It forms part of a discussion on new exodus imagery in Mark in general, and in 16:9–20 in particular. The comment on snake handling was interesting. I had never made the exodus connection before.
Within this same context of belief both passages give a prominent place to “signs.” Moses is granted certain signs (σημεῖα, vv. 9, 17, 28, 30) to perform as a confirmation of his message. Jesus speaks of signs (Mark 16:17, σημεῖα) that will accompany those who believe, so “confirming the word” (v. 20).

One of the signs given to Moses involved his staff turning into a snake (Exod 4:2–3), which he was then commanded to pick up (v. 4a). So Moses “stretched out his hand and took hold of it” (v. 4b), at which it reverted to a staff. Among the signs mentioned by Jesus an unusual one is that “they will pick up snakes” (Mark 16:18). At this point commentators typically direct their readers to the passage in Acts 28:3 where the apostle Paul was putting sticks on a fire and “a viper came out because of the heat, and fastened on his hand.” Yet it is evident that the Mosaic text forms a much closer parallel. Firstly, Paul does not actually pick up the snake, but rather it attaches itself to him. Secondly, the Greek word in Acts is ἔχιδνα (“viper”), whereas both Exodus 4:3 and Mark 16:18 contain the more general term ὄφις. Additionally, if the Markan variant “and with their hands” (καὶ ἐν ταῖς χερσὶν) is genuine, then the allusion to Exodus 4:4 (τὴν χεῖρα and ἐν τῇ χειρὶ) is even closer. Since Exodus 4 is the only other passage in scripture which expressly speaks of picking up a snake it is reasonable to suppose that the verse in Mark is alluding to this context, especially considering the similar subject matter of appearances, commissioning, belief, and signs.
Nicholas Lunn, The Original Ending of Mark: A New Case for the Authenticity of Mark 16:9–20 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, forthcoming 2014)

Friday, 15 August 2014

First TV interview with Vicky Beeching about coming out as gay

Here is Vicky Beeching, a big name in contemporary Christian worship (and a theologian), speaking about her coming out as a lesbian. Her story went public yesterday in The Independent newspaper. Here is the article. In the TV interview she is in discussion with an American fundamentalist bloke.

She remains a very devout evangelical charismatic Christian with a heart to walk God's way.

This raises the interesting question of the role that experience should play in Christian theology. Now all Christians give a role to experience in their theological reflections and in their interpretations of Scripture (even those who think that they do not). But often that role is unacknowledged or little thought has gone into how it should be integrated with other sources, in particular, Scripture, tradition, and reason.

So what is the proper role of experience in biblical interpretation and theological reflection? How can it help us better understand the gospel? How may it mislead us?

This is a tricky and perennial matter. Any thoughts would be welcome.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Inspirational meditation from The Liturgists

This is well worth listening to and pondering!

Thanks to The Liturgists.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Wonder-full: The Liturgists

This is simply wonder-full.

From "The Liturgists"—check out their website