I Believe …. A reflection of the first article of the Creed.


At the beginning, that which had always existed, moved. Energy was transformed. Creation had begun. For an instant, there was light – then matter sundered and the myriad of tiny lights began to dim. Creation was taking place.

Later – much later – the seed that was there before the beginning, took root.

Humankind was born. But the light could no longer be clearly seen.

Later – much later – one solitary human saw the light that had been there at the beginning. In seeing that light, He became light. But the light blinded and confused, because creation had never before seen such a light.

Later, basking in the memory of that light, others caught a glimpse, and themselves became light. As time passed, the light spread, and towards the end of creation, there was nowhere in which light was not. Creation was complete – and there was light.

I believe in one God ……

Before creation – before time itself began – before the beginning – there exists a perfect oneness – a perfect love – a fragrance – the source of all being.

The Father – the almighty …..

The unity – the totality – the perfect outpouring of love – and what is there to be loved? Where is the lover to be caught up in this majestic, serene outpouring? “Where is my beloved?”

Maker of all that is ….

Out of unity a voice as yet unheard. Out of perfection, that which is as yet incomplete. Creation begins – seed is planted. It is the beginning.

Seen and unseen …..

Seeing, and yet not seeing. Creation waits. Where is the creator? What is life? What has meaning? Are we chaos and darkness yet? Where is the light? And yet, deep down – far away – unseen, and yet all around, is something – someone. We become aware. We become aware, and are filled with desire for that which we once were.

Parent God – Mother Father God: unity, for a time dispersed. The child grows, and leaves its parent. The child is independent. Then, drawn by love, the child turns back. The child, now full grown, now adult, seeks love, and becomes in every way like the parent. Only the relationship has changed: no longer is the offspring a child. The parent becomes known as the friend. Love becomes fulfilled. The parent and the offspring are one once more. Has the child become the parent? Has the parent become the child? The question has no meaning. They are one. We are one. Consummatus est. Creation is complete.

Footnote – a reflection on the above ….

Although the above is the result of my own pondering, meditation and prayer, it holds a great deal of value for me. It is in harmony (broadly) with a number of post-modern theologians (see especially Ninian Smart and Catherina Halkes). In addition, it is at odds neither with science, nor with the creation myths – Christian and non-Christian alike. Equally, its movement of “Paradise Lost” – the fall story, to the instant of creation, rather than into the world of humanity, nicely parallels the now accepted psychodynamic concept of “Primal Bliss” as an intra-uterine experience of human bliss – human perfection – the memory of which we all share, both on an individual and on a human racial scale (see Lake, also Janov).

Perhaps more importantly than this, is the concept of a creator-God who is both transcendent and immanent. The matter out of which creation is formed, is both from God and of God, and the Spirit is both with, and in the matter, and is the Imago-Dei which is “becoming” in humankind. Creation takes place as God, of her own volition allows a part of herself to become the material of creation. Here, I see God in the feminine (in other circumstances, it might be easier to see God as the masculine). I see God as akin to the mother, in whom is produced the material of which the child is made, and out of whom the child (the whole cosmos) is given birth. The child then separates from the mother. To strike a parallel between God’s creative act, and male ejaculation, as has frequently been conjectured in the past seems to me to be a travesty of creation as I perceive it.

I feel that in recent years, theology has tended to dwell on the notion of “God Immanent”, to the possible exclusion of “God Transcendent” – and I feel that the overwhelming human need for a transcendent God is itself proof enough of the existence of one! Coupled with this is the idea of our growing into oneness with the creator – and this concept has parallels in many theologies, Christian and non-Christian alike. In addition, the reflection hints at a liberal, inclusivist (and possibly adoptionist) Christology – without being too specific. Personally, I feel comfortable with that picture at this moment.

“I Confess ….” A reflection on confession to God.

“Test me O Lord, and try me, examine my heart and my mind; for your love is ever before me ….”

I stand before my creator in prayer. I become aware of the all-pervading fragrance of divine love. My heart fills with praise, and for a brief instant I am exalted; I stand with God. From there, I turn around, and look at my humanness. With infinite compassion, I become aware of my hurt and my pain. I become aware of all that is empty in my heart. I become aware of my relationships with my fellows – and I begin to see those around me in a different way. I have poured out my own hurt – my pain – and I have hurt them. They too, have thrown their pain at me – pain that has torn me like a burning arrow. Pain that has been unjust, unfair. Pain that has made me scream. Pain that has broken my relationships; pain that has broken my heart. Pain that has made those around me less than the beautiful creatures that they are made to be.

Is it: “Not that we have done wrong, but that we have been wronged”?

And as I see myself and my friends from the viewpoint of such love; as my heart is filled with compassion, I forgive myself, and I allow the love to fill the emptiness that was my soul in torment. Thus forgiven, not only by the creator, who is eager and ready to forgive, but by that harshest and most cruel of judiciaries – my own self; thus forgiven, I see my fellows as hurting souls. I see their torment. “God forgive them”, I cry – because their pain has become my pain. “God forgive them – for surely, they know not what they are doing, such is their pain that blinds them to all love”.

Some further thoughts ….

As I write, this very morning my mentally sick friend poured out his heart to me. He wanted to “go high” – to become manic. When he is hypermanic, he believes he is Jesus. “I can’t spend the rest of my life being an insignificant little nobody. I am nothing. When I am high, I feel I really am somebody – I feel important”. Together with another friend, I tried hard, but in vain, to convince him that his self-image is nothing more than a phantasy. Our friend would have none of this. This poor man, this dejected, hurt soul has himself, hurt many others with his pain. And the church – the church which ought to care, and to love, has done everything in its power to reinforce his dejection. Small wonder then, that I am so deeply critical of the church’s attitude towards sin, and confession.

The meditation above is a personal one, and the experience of God’s mercy and loving kindness is, for me, a very real one. If only we were able to emphasise the forgiveness and the love ….

I am filled with anguish at the plight of my friend John. I am reminded of the heart rending vision of sin given to Mother Julian of Norwich – the vision of the Master and his servant.

She sees the Lord look at his servant “with rare love and tenderness, and quietly send him to a certain place to fulfil his purpose. Not only does the servant go, but he starts off at once, running with all speed, in his love, to do what his master wanted. And without warning, he falls into a deep ditch, and injures himself very badly. And though he groans and moans and cries and struggles he is quite unable to get up or help himself in any way. To crown all, he could get no relief of any sort: he could not even turn his head to look at the Lord who loved him, and who was so close to him. The sight of him would have been of real comfort, but he was temporarily so weak and bemused that he gave vent to his feelings as he suffered his pains.”

Some thoughts on Moltmann ……..

Moltmann says: “So in the suffering history of the world of nature and human beings, we have to discern the inexpressible sighings of the indwelling spirit and the suffering presence of God”.

Personally, I find no grounds whatsoever for disagreeing with what Moltmann says.

Suffering, most theologians tell us, is the result of sin. Asked what is the cause of that sin, most theologians would disagree with one another. But the origin of sin does seem, paradoxically, to be centred around that very aspect of our humanness that is the most divine – our “imago dei”. Made in the image and likeness of God, we are prone to seek out for ourselves godly attributes (or what we might perceive as being godly attributes) – power, and power symbols such as status, recognition and materialistic possessions figure high. Perhaps the origin of sin can be traced back to this very human (very divine?) quest. This “seeking” can be for evil, or for good, depending on whether its ultimate goal is individuation, or union (and here I am thinking of union with God transcendent). The goal of union is directly opposed to the goal of the world – which is directed towards individuation – individual achievement at the expense of the rest of creation. `Self-Actualisation’ is a trendy description of this process of power struggle – a process that is in total opposition to the process of detachment that is a part of the spiritual path in all major faiths.

It is as though we see a contrast; a contrast in which humankind is playing God on the one hand, and becoming God on the other. Can we make any sense of this: is it, as theologians and mystics alike assure us, a necessary part of creation? Certainly, if we understand God’s Kingdom as a perfect state of unity, then humankind in God’s kingdom will have intimate experience both of sin, and of the pain caused by that sin; the loneliness, the dejection, the devaluing of the divine. Playing God devalues that which is divine. Becoming God increases and ripens it beyond our wildest imagination. Perhaps humankind has to experience both sides of this question in order to become perfected. Creation is about a “becoming”. (see William Rusch – quoting Augustine – “Jesus became man, in order that we might become God.”).

And God; is God – our transcendent God – involved in this process of “becoming” in which we have our being?

Let me quote Ninian Smart:

“You could conjure up in your mind the swirls of atoms, the patterns of molecules, the growth of cells, the thunder of stars: and eventually you would see living creatures, and feel their consciousness, and in due course there would emerge humans, the creatures you would have endowed with your own consciousness, capacity for feeling and imagination. They would be in your image. It would be a wonderful ebullience to make such a cosmos. But could you bring yourself to make it when you knew that rats would bleed to death in sewers, and birds fall suffering into the undergrowth, and women drown in seas, and men burn in fires? Could you create a world in which, inevitably, there would be suffering? Would it be enough that joys would outweigh pains, and happiness distress? It would be a partly callous thing would it not, for a blissful God to bring into being swarms of suffering creatures?

But the Christian God is not a blissful God, or rather, she is not a wholly blissful God …… “

And the chapter goes on to say that it is inconceivable, impossible even, that a God could not allow such a creation – unless that God is prepared to suffer – to be part of – to take part – in that suffering creation, until it is wholly complete, and pain is no more.

If as Christians, we accept Jesus as true God, then can we in all honesty place God above suffering – can we place God above and outside of any intimate relationship with us, God’s creation? And where does a view of God, a theology which places God at such an unimaginable distance, place Humankind? The great prayer of Jesus is “That all may be one, just as I and the Father are one”. Jesus, quoting the Psalmist, said, “You are Gods, all of you, and sons of the most high”. The evidence here, and in many other places is plain: God created humanity to be at one with him – and therefore to try to distance God from us can be no more than a vain attempt to hide from our creator and from our future. Our suffering, our pain is God’s suffering, God’s pain, for it is no less than the groans, the crying out, of a creation yet to be finished. Our pain, God’s pain, is the pain of birthing, and the pain of being. It is our pain and God’s pain as we become that which is to be. Birth pangs? More than that – far greater pangs than we can imagine, because creation leads to something that is totally beyond our present experience, or even our wildest imaginations.

Perhaps it is fitting to let Jurgen Moltmann have the last word in support of my own perception of our intimate relationship with the God who suffers just as we suffer, for a time, “in this vale of tears”. Perhaps it would be more truthful to assert that we suffer, just as God has suffered, and will continue to suffer (for a time) until creation is all complete:

“A God who cannot suffer is poorer than any human. For a God who is incapable of suffering is a being who cannot be involved. Suffering and injustice do not affect him. And because he is so completely insensitive, he cannot be affected or shaken by anything. He cannot weep, for he has no tears. But the one who cannot suffer cannot love either. So he is also a loveless being.”

Perhaps a part of the process of suffering is a “becoming” also, for God. God, becoming more human, as man becomes more divine?

“The Kingdom of Heaven is Like …… “

A question from a little child.

I imagined myself being asked this question – and immediately I thought of the most original, arguably one of the most outstanding theologians that the twentieth century has produced. I thought of Anna – the Anna of “Mister God this is Anna” by Fynn. I imagined that it was Anna that was asking me the question. And I could do no more than wait patiently for her to give me the answer. After all, she was able to tell me from present experience – and with age, my memory grows seemingly more and more dull.

I think of Anna, as she realises that God is “In her middle”, and that “God is in Fynn’s middle too”. She makes the leap to realising that God is in the middle of everyone, every creature and everything that God has created. Having taken that mind-stretching leap, Anna has not finished. One day, she says to Fynn – `Where are you?’, `Here, of course’, Fynn replied. `Where’s me then?’ `There!’ `Where do you know about me?’ `Inside myself someplace.’ `Then you know my middle in your middle.’ `Yes, I suppose so.’ And Anna goes on to say `Then you know Mister God in my middle in your middle, and every person you know, you know in your middle. Every person and everything that you know has got Mister God in their middle, and so you have got their Mister God in your middle too – it’s easy.’

Is this, I wondered, a description of God’s Kingdom? If it is, then God’s Kingdom is the most wonderful state of `being in relatedness’ that we could imagine – and there’s more!

And I wonder how I can even begin to say anything about the Kingdom of God to a child like Anna – it’s almost as though if I share my picture, I’ll ruin hers.

`Do you know what it’s like to be loved – really loved?’ I say, wondering to what extent she’s ever really known love. `Yes’, she tells me. `Well’, I continue, `God’s kingdom is even better than all the love you can ever imagine. And there’s more – do you know what it’s like to be really accepted – accepted without ever having to earn it? Well, God’s kingdom is even better, because you’ll be accepted by God and by everybody – they just want you to be there, and you know they want you so much that they’re more pleased to see you than anyone has ever been before.’

As I continue in my imagination, I seem to hear a chuckle. `I know that, silly, but there’s a lot more you haven’t told me. People are happy – really happy – not just putting it on, but happy deep down inside. And God’s happy too, because we’re happy, and we’re happy because God’s happy.’ I pause. Why did she ask me in the first place? A tear comes into my eye, because I know the answer. She just wanted to see if I still remembered what God’s Kingdom is like. I must think myself into it more often – it’s obvious that she’s never left it!

Anna is aware of bliss. Anna is aware of rapture. And here I am coming close to forgetting the rapture, the bliss and the glory that is God’s and our Kingdom. Then, in my imagination, perhaps thinking of Matt 18:2, it seems as though Jesus takes Anna and shows her to me – `Unless you experience things in the way that she does, you’re going to find the Kingdom a bit of a problem’. `Sorry, Jesus’, I find myself saying, `I’ve still got a lot to unlearn, haven’t I?’.

Non ex nihilo, sed ex Deo ….. A creation metaphor?

Catherina Halkes says: “God did not create from nothing, nor did she give birth, but acted in love and creativity with what was available to her. Just as God gave the people the duty to watch carefully over the garden of life, to work in it and guard it, `he’ himself did this for the whole universe”.

In the beginning, all was without form, and void – an empty God? A God without purpose? A God who is love, and who needed to love. And who better than we, to understand this agony, this anguish, our own agony, our own – God’s own – agony and anguish as we long to create – to bring into being – and to love. In the beginning, I am. In the beginning, I am alone – I am lonely, I am in pain.

I think once more of my favourite theologian: Anna, in “Mr. God this is Anna”. `Mr. God don’t know he is good and kind and loving. Mr. God is – is – empty’, she tells Fynn, as she makes the incredible discovery. Later, she explains that she has come to this amazing paradoxical conclusion because Mr. God was not empty in the sense that there isn’t anything there, but `empty because he accepted everything, because he wanted everything’.

God is love. Anyone who lives in love lives in God. And there is no one to live – no one to love – no one to be loved. An empty God – a God who has needs? A God who needs us just as much, and in the same way, that we need God? For me personally, this view, this paradigm, that is a God with needs, is the only way I can see creation justified. If God has no need of us then we are mere toys, objects to be pitied. I am less than human, a manikin, a plaything. And I don’t feel like Pinocchio. If that were the case, how could the splendour of humankind that Psalm 8 shows us, be possible? And conversely, for us to be able to say that `We are Gods, all of us, and sons of the most high’ (Psalm 82), we must be created not only in the image of God, but intended to be God’s friends rather than mere toys.

The Idea, the Plan, the Form of creation was there already – for it was the shape of God. And what else was there, when God alone was there? Out of God there flowed Matter – at first without shape; at first empty. Then the matter took shape – and became like God. Matter became the very image of God. Matter from God became Humankind. In God’s own image, we were created – out of God’s own being. And we were not alone; and God was not alone. But the memory of the pain of aloneness was there – because it was a part of God. The need, the agony, the anguish that moved God to create was, and is, a part of our own being, made in the Image of God as we are. In our anguish, we were not able to be the companion. We needed to separate, to move away, in order to learn to love and to be loved – in order to learn how to create.

I am suggesting that it is in the very act of creation itself that we need to look to find the source of the pain that we have called `sin’. Was the original sin disobedience, or was it obedience – obedience to that divine spark that filled us with desire to `be as Gods’ (Gen 3:5)? The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11) suggests that it was this very separation, this very experience of the pain of aloneness that was God’s before it became ours, that allowed the blissful acceptance to take place later. A time of joyful reunion in which we learn to enjoy relationship with our very hearts’ desire. A reunion, not of creatures with an overlord, but of friends who have yearned and yearned to be together.

And it is for this blissful re-union that “the whole of creation waits with eager longing, and groans in travail”.

© The Revd Barry Drake MA – Theology – God and the World – May/June 1995


Fynn – “Mister God this is Anna” – Collins, 1974, Fount 1977, 1980

Halkes, Catherina J. M. – “New Creation” – SPCK 1989 In her vision – “the world was a dance; God and ourselves dancing together”. Relationships.

Hick, John – “Evil and the Love of God” – Macmillan – 1966

Hodgson, Peter C. – “Winds of the Spirit” – SCM 1994 Hodgson, Peter C. with Robert H. King – “Christian Theology” – Fortress

Janov, Arthur – “The Primal Scream” – 1973 – Abacus

McGrath, Alister – Christian Theology – 1994 – Blackwell

Moltmann, Jürgen – “Theology of Hope” – SCM – 1967

Moltmann, Jürgen – “The Crucified God” – 1974 – quoted in McGrath

Lake, Frank – “Clinical Theology” – 1966 – DLT

Rahner, Karl – “Theological Investigations” – DLT

Rusch, William – “The Trinitarian Controversy”

Smart, Ninian, with Steven Konstantine – “Christian Systematic Theology in a World Context” – Marshall Pickering – 1991


See what a slut the city has become

“See what a slut the city has become – she who was once so true, she who was just in all her ways.” And as I read those words this morning for the first time, I was more deeply moved than I have been for a long time. The translation was a new one to me. The words were penned two thousand eight hundred years ago or thereabouts. Written by the prophet Isaiah (Isa 1:21) – what relevance could these words possibly have today? Why was I so deeply affected by them?

Two thousand eight hundred years ago the wind of change blew through the whole wide world. The voice of God was heard wherever there were ears to listen. New religious movements were called into being worldwide. And in Israel, prophets heard the voice of God, and spoke His powerful message. “See what a slut the city has become” Jerusalem, the golden – God’s own city. City of justice. The Holy City herself, perverted and corrupt. The wind of change – the voice of God – God doing a new thing. But so long ago.

This England – green and pleasant land that she is. Country of our birth – winner of battles. Now in the sixtieth year after the outbreak of the “War to end all wars.” England the victor. Men fought in those far off days for Christian values, for justice, and for the rights of humankind. England was noted world wide for its laws, and its innate sense of justice. With Christianity came social justice, and England – this England – was a Christian land. A land full of faith in Almighty God. A land full of hope (as well as glory). Today, God speaks. He speaks to the whole wide world. The message He speaks is little different from the one before (and the one before that). God speaks, and where there are ears to hear, and voices to proclaim, His word is spoken. And in many countries far away, his voice is heard by the masses.

England – this England – O England, where is the fervour for your God that you once held high? Where is your faith, and your sense of justice? O England, once faithful and true, have you too become a slut, faithless and fancy-free? Do you too live for the moment, for the hour of pleasure soon to pass? “If you are willing and obedient, you shall live on the fat of the land, but if you refuse and rebel then husks will be your food”. (Isa 1:19-20) The sad fact is that in thousands upon thousands of years, humanity has not changed. Neither for the worse nor for the better. Working with the Lord, humankind is noble and beautiful; we are gods, all of us, and Sons and Daughters of the Most High. Working against God, humankind is savage, and ignoble, capable of the most vile behaviour that ……. I was going to say – “that we can imagine”; I was wrong – the potential for evil that humankind has when working against God is beyond any imagining.

Pray for our land – pray for This England. Pray that she may hear the voice of the Lord. Pray that she may listen and be brought back to the faithfulness she once knew. May God bless you all.

© Barry Drake – 2001


The divinity of Humankind

©The Revd Barry Drake M.A.


In September 2000, I wrote the following:

“It is a passionate concern of my own that the Church in all its history seems to have exalted the divinity of Jesus, while making little effort to understand his teaching that ‘we are Gods all of us and sons of the most high’. In quoting the psalmist, Jesus clearly points us towards our divine origin; we are, after all made in God’s own image and likeness. I believe that Jesus was asking us to accept this fact in a very literal manner. In pointing to our divinity as human beings, he fully accepted his own divinity. As Christians or Jews, each of us ought to be able to do exactly as he did. If we are able to recognise our own divinity, we must recognise each and every other human person as divine. In doing that, there can never again be the devaluing of individual humans at any scale – especially devaluing of the scale that we have seen in the Shoah.[1]

At the very beginning of the Hebrew bible in the creation story is the phrase that God created humankind ‘in his own image and likeness’. This phrase is emphasised and later repeated. It seems to have some considerable importance. It seems to imply that humankind is, in some way, divine. In the Christian scriptures, Jesus makes reference to the divinity of humankind, and seems to have an understanding of this aspect of humankind which is rather more literal than the church has taught. What might we understand from this? And how does the ‘divinity of humankind’ fit alongside the Christian teaching about the divinity of Jesus?

It is my view that Jesus gained an awareness of his own divinity as a sudden revelation or insight, and I would place this insight at the point of his baptism. I believe it was this awareness that led to his subsequent ministry. The reaction of Jesus as recorded in the Christian scriptures[2] suggest that this is the case, and further, that the insight that Jesus gained at this point did not in any way set him apart in his own mind from the rest of humankind. I suggest that in coming to terms with his own divinity, made as he was in God’s image, Jesus became aware of the divinity of the whole of humankind, and of the immense responsibility that this brings with it.

Since this view is based in the bible and its teaching, it will be necessary to look at the different ways in which those passages that imply the divinity of humankind have been interpreted by both Jews and Christians over the years. I intend to compare those passages, and their subsequent interpretations, with mystical insights offered by Jews and Christians in their writings in order to show the importance of the concept of ‘divinity’ to an understanding of our relationship with God. When considering the bible, (both the Tanach and the Christian books[3]) I take the traditional (Catholic) view that the books of the bible are inspired by God, and can be regarded as God’s revelation of Godself and our relationship with Him.

For this reason, I intend to set out my own understanding of biblical interpretation with reference to the current broad range of understandings of how the bible is to be understood and studied. At the present time, views on the status, or authority of the bible vary from the extreme conservative, in which the bible is regarded as the ‘Word of God’ in its entirety, ‘inerrant’ in every aspect, through to the extreme liberal position in which the bible is regarded as a useful collection of writings which owe little or nothing to God’s revelation. My own position here is similar to Catholic doctrine which regards the bible as reliable, trustworthy and inspired by God[4].

In order to consider fully the rationale behind my interpretation of the bible, I will need to look at the nature of revelation, both in and beyond the scriptural writings. It is my view that the bible is based on God’s revelation of Godself, and that subsequent revelations or mystical experiences ought to illuminate our understanding of the revelations given in the bible. I would go so far as to suggest that revelations offered through World Faiths other than Judaism and Christianity might prove worthy of study, as, if they are given by the same one true God in whom we believe, they ought not to contradict Jewish and Christian insights and revelations. I hold that the bible is ‘revealed’ or inspired by God, but that the writers have included much that reflects their own personality and point of view. Martin Buber speaks of mystical writing as being akin to an organ which in its own way ‘modifies’ or gives voice to the wind which blows it[5].

During the last few decades, protestant theology and hermeneutics have been influenced most strongly by the work of Bultmann and Barth, who in turn were greatly influenced by the rationalist school, and the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Until very recent times, Evangelical scholars have been in the minority. Poythress points out that:

‘ ….. evangelicals have been less scholarly [than liberals] by any standard. Evangelicals, because of their views on the spiritual and eternal importance of biblical knowledge, have a natural concern to produce suitable popular and semi-popular literature. In addition the triumph of the historical-critical revolution has meant that few evangelicals were allowed to be scholars in the first place.[6]

He goes on to suggest that this situation has produced something akin to anti-intellectualism in some evangelical circles.

In spite of the above, it is true that there has been considerable negative reaction to theologians of the Bultmannian school from respected scholars from time to time. Of particular note is C S Lewis, in his paper ‘On Fern Seed and Elephants’. I would also offer as an example, the archaeologist and expert on ancient papyri, Sir Frederick Kenyon. Writing in 1948, Kenyon launched an attack on the work of a liberal Christian bishop of that time, Dr. Barnes[7]. Kenyon demonstrated that Barnes had been extremely biased in his use of sources, and had neglected entirely the results of some then recent important archaeological discoveries because they did not suit Barnes’ argument. What concerns me here is that the dating evidence that Kenyon produced for the Christian Scriptures, and which has never since been challenged, is seldom if ever mentioned by scholars even today[8]. Somehow, the rationalist liberal school seem to have led the way for much of the last century[9], sometimes to the detriment of faith in a living God who acts in the world, and interacts with His creation.

This position is changing. There are now a number of respected evangelical scholars, who are not anti-intellectual and who are able to use the critical tools that we now have without compromising their position on God’s inspiration and action in the world[10]. It is this position with which I would largely align myself. As I see the situation, one extreme of biblical criticism seeks to rule out anything supernatural. This is in direct opposition to the evangelical position which holds that God not only interacted with His people in biblical times, but has done so ever since. And this includes belief in prophecy, the working of miracles and all the other supernatural events that occur in the bible.

In addition, liberal protestant scholarship has placed little credence on the accurate reporting of events during the life of Jesus, and indeed the words of Jesus as recorded in the Christian gospels. Bultmann and Barth had much to say about this aspect. It is interesting to note though, that Bultmann’s original thoughts about ‘demythologisation’ (1941) were so widely misunderstood, that he needed to offer not one but two further essays by way of explanation (1952, 1961).

Along with Kenyon and present day evangelical writers, I hold that the gospels were written temporally close enough to the events they record to allow good accuracy. I hold too that the words that Jesus is recorded as having said were so very important to early Christians that these above all would have been correctly reported, if not verbatim, then accurately reflecting the meaning of what he said. I take this view because in the main, the sayings were handed down in a largely non-literate society, and it has been shown that reporting is far more accurate in this kind of culture than in our own literate culture. It is known that the people whom Jesus had addressed and taught during his lifetime were very probably non-literate for the most part[11]. It has also been shown that in a non-literate society, the spoken word is far better remembered than it is in a literate society such as ours[12].

In this study, I aim to show that Christianity has removed the concept of ‘divinity of humankind’ from applying to the whole of humankind and has instead divinised the person of Jesus to the point at which he and he alone is the ‘divine person’ made in God’s image. In so doing, I believe that Christianity has not only done itself a disservice, but has failed to respond to the teachings of Jesus on this point. In taking this line of argument, I intend to show that humankind as a whole is ‘divine’ and that Jesus is himself divine in the same sense that humankind is divine but has a different and more significant place as well.

The Christian scriptures show that Jesus after his death reappears and is in some way different. I intend to show that this ‘post crucifixion’ Jesus is seen by those who met with him as more evidently divine than the pre-crucifixion Jesus that some of his disciples had known. In claiming this, I refer to the statement I made above that I understand the words of Jesus to have been accurately reported – however, I would add a strong caveat here. The biblical Christian writers make no distinction between the revealed words of Jesus as they experienced them after the resurrection of Jesus, and the words that he was reported to have said to his disciples before his crucifixion. As I have said, the post-crucifixion Jesus was very different and his revealed words reflect this difference – this heightened divinity – that his followers encountered in him.

I want to suggest that the post-crucifixion Jesus – the ‘risen glorified Christ’ of the Christians is identical to the ‘Son of Man’ from Daniel, with whom Jesus is often identified, but that this Son of Man is far more than Jesus alone. I will show evidence from mystics[13], from the bible[14] and from commentators that from God’s viewpoint, the whole of humankind is this mythical ‘Son of Man’ both in its origin and in its completion. That is to say, every living human being throughout the whole of time is, or can be[15], incorporated into this ‘Primal Human’, which I believe is, or will be, one with God, and thus fully divine.

The implications for interfaith dialogue are considerable. But these can only come at the expense of a re-thought Christianity, and a re-worked Christology. However, in this postmodern age, there are a number of Christian thinkers who are calling for what they would describe as a lower Christology. As Pittenger puts the question, ‘Is Jesus different in degree or kind?’

I have mentioned above that some of the impetus for this dissertation came from the realisation that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is the biggest hurdle imaginable in any interfaith dialogue.

The Christian concept of ‘the Trinity’ has never been an easy one, and has been and is a stumbling block for any interfaith dialogue. In the main, this is because other faiths understand that Christians see Jesus as being interchangeable with God the father. In fact, there is some justification for this view because this is the way in which many Christians view Jesus. In this, I will be looking at what the bible, in particular Paul, has to say about the person of Jesus. When, for example, Paul says: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death ….” (Phillipians 3:9), is he saying the same as John’s: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (1 John 3:1). Neither of these statements put Jesus in the place of some kind of superhuman in which some Christians see him. This would in any case go completely against the formal teaching of the church, which has always said clearly that Jesus is to be regarded as ‘True Man’. The question I ask here is not, ‘Is the Trinity a reasonable concept?’ but rather, ‘Where are you and I (and Jesus) within the Trinity, made in God’s image as we all are?”

Chapter 2

How are we to understand ‘Divine’ ?

Since the intention of this dissertation is to look at the concept of the divinity of humankind, I will begin by looking at what ‘divine’ and ‘divinity’ might mean. I want to suggest first and foremost that divinity has to do with the attributes[16] of God. These might be some of the attributes of God as we see them in the bible, and in Jewish and Christian tradition: Omnipotence[17]. Creativity. Loving. Keen sense of justice. Peacemaking/peacegiving.

It might seem to be obvious that humankind does not have the first of these attributes. However, what humankind does have is a need for, even a lust for, power. Freudian psychology makes much of this particular human (divine?) attribute. His follower, Jung said:

“Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other”[18].

I suggest that this aspect of human need is a result of our being made in the image of God – and it is an attribute which is the root cause of our separation from the Godhead. My intention is to look further at this aspect of human divinity in chapter 3 “The Hebrew Bible and the Christian Scriptures”.

Humans are creative. All human beings have a creative urge. It is part of our nature, and once again, I see it as a divine attribute[19].

Love is at the heart of all human relationships. Love is at the heart of the human family. Without love, there would be no future for humankind. And love is perhaps the most important attribute of the God of both Jews and Christians[20]. 1 John 4:15 tells us that ‘God is love’. Love, too is as mentioned above, something which is in tension with the human need for power. It is at the heart of our human existence, and it is right at the centre of the bible’s teaching about God[21].

Justice and peace[22] are something for which humankind has striven throughout recorded history – sometimes with considerable success. Justice and peace are also at the very heart of the Pentateuch, the prophets, and the Gospels. Perhaps the best example of this is Micah 6:8 “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

In Matthew 5:9 from the beatitudes, we have “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” This seems to sum up not only the attitude of Jesus towards peace, but also the teachings that we find in the Pentateuch[23].

If one were to take an atheistic view – that God is nothing more than a projection of our human needs, then the divine attributes I have listed above would certainly be at the top of our list of needs, and their opposites would be seen as neuroses – perhaps even psychoses – which psychiatry might see as attributes which the disturbed mind might project onto the devil. As a believer, I would say that overall, there is good evidence here to speak of the ‘divinity’ of humankind simply because of the divine attributes which we possess. And it is evident that the attributes mentioned above can be used by individuals or by groups of individuals either for the good, or the harming of our fellow human beings, simply because each of those attributes has a dark side to it.

Chapter 3

The Hebrew Bible and the Christian scriptures

The Tanach

I have stated above that I regard the Tanach and the Christian scriptures as being foundational in my understanding of both Jewish and Christian belief and that I hold it as being fully authoritative in presenting God’s revelation of Godself. For this reason, I am going to look first and foremost at what the bible says about the divinity of humankind.

“God created humankind in his own image” – Gen 1:27. This phrase implies that there is something special – something divine – about the human race. It occurs only three times in the Tanach as a direct reference to the ‘Image of God’, but the fact that it is repeated and emphasised – especially in Genesis 1:27 – suggests that this concept has great significance. Because of the importance of these passages, I quote them here in full[24].

Then God said, “Let us[25] make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Gen 1:26-27

This is the list of the descendants of Adam. When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them “Humankind” when they were created. When Adam had lived one hundred thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth. Gen 5:1-3

For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life. Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image[26] God made humankind. Gen 9:5-6

In looking at these passages, one might note that the second clearly says that Adam’s son is also made in the image and likeness of God, and the third passage makes it clear that the whole of humankind, according to the Noahide covenant, remains in God’s image and likeness. This is significant as an argument against the understanding that humankind only existed as God’s image up to the fall.

In addition to the passages above, the Septuagint carries the book of Ecclesiasticus (also known as Sirach). Ecclesiasticus 17:3 on the creation of humankind says: “He endowed them with strength like his own, and made them in his own image”.

These few references have brought a great amount of comment and speculation from Christian scholars and commentators beginning with the early church fathers and continuing through to later writers. I will look further at these in subsequent chapters. It is worth commenting that surprisingly little writing comes from Jews during the same period. In a later chapter I will offer some thoughts on the lack of Jewish material. Although the above bible passages are the only ones that refer directly to humankind being created in God’s image and likeness, there are passages in the Tanach which directly echo the concept.

Psalm 8 speaks of the dignity of humankind, and says: “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honour”. Ps 8:4-5 [27] Another Psalm which implies the divinity of humankind is Psalm 82. “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you nevertheless, you shall die like mortals ….” Ps 82:6 [28]

These then are the bible references that seem directly to point towards the divinity of humankind. Taking a broader view, it can be seen that that the entire Tanach supports the view that humankind and life itself, is sacred and is sacrosanct and could thus be said to be divine. Cairns points to the prophets[29]. Their endless call for justice claim the justice of God for the whole of humankind, and not just for Israel. The Septuagint too is full of injunctions to care for our fellow human being. It is this that leads to one of the best known Talmudic comments. I refer to R. Hillel and his statement that the whole of Torah is summed up by the saying: “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and never do to anyone else what you wouldn’t want them to do to you. The rest is commentary – now go and learn it.” [30]

The sacredness of humankind, the dignity of every single human life – I suggest the divinity of every single human being – is right at the centre of the whole of the Tanach. The thinking is this: If humankind is divine, then whatever we do to our fellow person, we are doing that to our God[31].

There is a further concept in the Tanach which deserves exploration in the connection of the divinity of humankind. This is the idea of the ‘Son of Man’.

The phrase ‘son of man’ as it appears in several places in the Tanach ought simply to mean ‘descendant of Adam’, or perhaps ‘Mortal Man’ as some bible versions have it. This is clearly the usage in, for example Numbers 23:19 “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor the son of man, that he should repent”. It is used too as a form of address by God to the prophet Ezekiel[32]. However, in Daniel, the phrase is used with a very different shade of meaning. Daniel 7:13 has:

“I was watching in the night visions, And with the clouds of the sky there was coming one like a son of man. He approached the Ancient of Days and was escorted before him. To him was given ruling authority, honour, and sovereignty. All peoples, nations, and language groups were serving him. His authority is an eternal authority which will not pass away. His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed.”

Later in this chapter we will see how this phrase is taken and used by Christianity, however it is important first of all to look at the context and at the quotation from Daniel as it was understood before the church came into being.

My understanding is that the Son of Man in Daniel’s vision is, or at least represents, the divinity of humankind as it is pointed to by the creation story. Raymond Brown cites a number of scholars who regard this view of the apocalyptic Son of Man as a later development brought about by the Christian use of the phrase. I find the argument by Borsch, who looks at Gnostic texts alongside the Christian scriptures convincing, as he finds in those texts considerable evidence for Jewish thought before the time of Jesus on the early understanding of the ‘Son of Man’ in the way I have suggested above. Fuller sees the vision of ‘one like a son of man’ as ‘a collective symbol for the elect[33]’ and this seems to me to be the direction to which mystical revelation points. I will come back to this.

Daniel is an apocalyptic[34] book. Apocalyptic is a peculiar genre which is first and foremost of a revelatory nature, and concerns what might be called the ‘eschaton’ – the Kingdom of God which is to come. In short, it is visionary, and it speaks symbolically of a heavenly world rather than the earthly world that we know. It is the stuff of the supernatural, and cannot therefore be explained by mere logic. Jewish thought before the coming of Christianity simply took apocalyptic at face value and understood it more as one might understand poetry than anything else. The language is evocative and speaks straight to the heart. The vision of Daniel is a clear allusion to the creation in which the Son of Man (mortal man, offspring of Adam), is given authority and honour in the end times. It is highly unlikely that anyone would have understood ‘The Son of Man’ as seen by Daniel as an individual. The intention was more probable that humanity as a whole was here taken symbolically and glorified, or restored to the place it had before the fall. It is possible that some Jewish thought associated it with the expected supremacy of Israel, but there is little evidence for that point of view.

The passage from Daniel, with all its mystery and symbolism has had great influence on Christianity as we will see in the following section.

The Christian books

We have seen in the previous section that the concept of humankind ‘made in the Image of God’ is central to the understanding of the Pentateuch. One of the most Jewish of the letters in the Christian books is the letter of James:

“Nobody can tame the tongue — it is a pest that will not keep still, full of deadly poison We use it to bless the Lord and Father, but we also use it to curse people who are made in God’s image …. “ James 3:8-9.

This, it would seem is the same understanding that we discovered in the Hebrew bible; “whatever we do to our fellow person, we are doing that to our God”

The Christian scriptures make a great deal of reference to the phrase ‘Son of Man’ which occurs eighty-three times in the books of the Christian scriptures. Seventy-nine of these occurrences are in the four gospels and all of these are in quoted sayings of Jesus which are understood by Christians to mean that Jesus identified himself with the Son of Man in Daniel’s vision. Before looking further at this usage, I want to discuss the idea that we can see in the books of the Christian Scriptures two distinct and different views of the person of Jesus.

It is not difficult to see in the scriptures the historic Jesus who lived with and taught his followers. In addition, we find a different Jesus. Jesus after his death – the Jesus whom Christians describe as risen, ascended and glorified. This is the Jesus of revelation – the Jesus who revealed himself to Paul, to a number of his other followers and to countless Christians through the ages even up to the present day.

Dunn is quite clear that the early church ”seems to have regarded Jesus’ resurrection as the day of his appointment to divine sonship, as the event by which he became God’s son”.[35]

When Alan Segal[36] tells us that Paul ‘almost explicitly says that he identifies the mystical Kavod, God’s Glory, with Jesus the crucified messiah …’ and in support of this quotes 2 Cor 4:6, it seems that in his view, there is a way of looking at the risen Jesus in an eternal and very Jewish light. It is fitting to remember that in the same collection of essays, Monika Hellwig speaks of the concept of deification or divinisation of the believer which runs through the Eastern Christian tradition. She goes on to say: ‘The Glory, or revelation of God is the human person fully alive’[37].

Gerald O’Collins is very clear on this post-resurrection understanding of Jesus. For him, it is the glorified risen Jesus and only him that is of importance. He writes:

“Christology properly began with what we can call the ‘post-existent’ Jesus. After his death he was experienced and worshipped by his disciples as risen to new life, exalted in glory, and existing in power and dignity on the divine level.” He goes on to write: “Jesus was ‘adopted’ and became Son of God only as a result of his resurrection. Rather the sense that believers began to experience his powerful, heavenly existence in the aftermath of his resurrection from the dead – as opposed to the way people experienced Jesus in his earthly existence when he was born from the house of King David.[38]

From the above, I argue that the revealed, post-crucifixion Jesus was a bigger influence on the writers than was the rabbi who lived and taught among the people. That there is a difference seems clear. Paul says that God: “will transform these humble bodies of ours into the likeness of his glorious body.” [39] and John tells us that: “what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that whenever it is revealed we will be like him, because we will see him just as he is.[40]” It is not completely clear from the Christian Scriptures as to whether the difference between Jesus and other human beings was one based on his glorification, or whether this difference was there in his lifetime. It was left to the later church to interpret and add to what was written in the scriptures.

If we hold to the assumption that Jesus has been accurately reported, then we can say with some assurance that Jesus did use the title ‘Son of Man’ of himself. The question here is, what did he mean? Christians have understood that he claimed for himself the entirety of the Son of Man from the vision of Daniel. The alternative would be that Jesus was aware of his divinity as a human being – the divinity promised in the creation story: the divinity in which we all share. Mark 8:38 has: “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” This particular passage suggests that Jesus is anticipating the coming of Daniel’s ‘Son of Man’ in his judgment of those who reject the words of prophets and good teachers.


This line of thought does not hold true for all the ‘Son of Man’ passages in the gospels though. It is especially the case in John’s gospel. As an example, John 5:25-27 reads: “Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live for just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself and he has given him authority to execute judgement, because he is the Son of Man”. In this, as in many other passages, it might seem that Jesus is claiming that he, as an individual, identifies with, in fact is, the Son of Man from Daniel.

However, the idea that Jesus is making a claim to be the “Son of Man” in its entirety becomes less likely when taken alongside other statements. The passage in John 17:20-23 says:

“I pray not only for these but also for those who through their teaching will come to believe in me. May they all be one, just as, Father, you are in me and I am in you, so that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me. I have given them the glory you gave to me, that they may be one as we are one. With me in them and you in me, may they be so perfected in unity that the world will recognise that it was you who sent me and that you have loved them as you have loved me.”

This suggests that Jesus is aware of a kind of unity to which the whole of humankind is called, and that does not fit well alongside any claim for Jesus and Jesus alone to be ‘The Son of Man’.

Fuller takes the view that as most of the Son of Man sayings are in the third person, they are simply recollections of Jesus’ teaching about the apocalyptic Son of Man which became mixed in with his sayings about himself[41].

In John’s gospel, Jesus quotes Psalm 82:6 when he is told: “you, though only a human being, are making yourself God”. Here, Jesus answers, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’?[42] Again, this does not fit well alongside a claim that he and he alone is the Son of Man. I suggest that to Jesus, his ‘son of man’ sayings mean that we (together) are the ‘Son of Man’ that Daniel writes of, although his claim was and still is, misunderstood as Jesus ‘making himself God’. The context here is that Jesus refers to God as ‘his father’. McGrath points out that the meaning of ‘Son of God’ in the Tanach was broad. “ … perhaps best translated as ‘belonging to God’. It was applied across a wide spectrum of categories, including the people of Israel in general[43]”.

Fuller quotes H.E. Tödt commenting on one particular ‘Son of Man’ saying (Luke 12:8-9) as follows: “The mystery of this saying lies in the relation which exists between the fellowship of the disciples with Jesus and their participation in the salvation with the son of man.” There is thus, he adds, a “soteriological continuity, though not a christological identity between Jesus and the Son of Man”.

Moses[44] makes close comparison between the ‘Son of Man’ from Daniel and the Christian Transfiguration story. The fact that in the Transfiguration story, a kind of preview of the glorified Jesus is seen alongside glorified figures of Moses and Elijah makes any comparison with the ‘Son of Man’ from Daniel point towards the composite nature of this ‘Son of Man’ figure.

James Moffatt, writing in 1912 was aware of a difference in the way Jesus is portrayed in what he believed to be the earliest parts of the gospels from what he sees in the later texts. He says that “The most casual reader can hardly miss alterations in one or both of the later synoptic gospels which were plainly due to the growing reverence for Jesus ….[45] He sees this progression reaching its peak in John’s gospel which he views as the latest of the gospels[46]. To me, this indicates the beginnings of a gradually increasing perception of Jesus which places him higher and higher as we move chronologically further away from his own lifetime. Effectively, this growing reverence, this elevated ‘christological thinking’, serves to place Jesus further and further out of reach!

A further problem is that of pre-existence. We shall see later that the thinking of Philo and others pointed to the Son of Man as seen by Daniel as a pre-existent figure being with God before creation. This attribute is given to Jesus in John’s gospel and is also seen in the letter to the Colossians.

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers– all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together”[47].

In John’s Gospel, we have:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God all things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being[48]”.

I will discuss the concept of ‘The Word’ further on in this chapter.

I conclude here that both of these examples come from personal experiences of the glorified Jesus, rather than from knowledge of him during his lifetime. Those who have met him in this revelatory manner claim to have seen him in his divinity, as ‘One like a Son of Man’, but as one like whom we are destined to become when we enjoy the fullness of our own divinity[49]. In addition, they see him as identical with the ‘Primal Man’ – the Adam from before the fall, who, according to Philo, existed before the creation – an identity which is not solely for Jesus as an individual, but for us as humankind. For this reason, I believe that every one of the above examples from the Christian Scriptures point not to the divinity of Jesus alone, but to the corporate divinity of humankind which is yet to be fully realised. I also conclude that the later writings within the Christian corpus, and the interpretations that the church began to put upon them were influenced by the ever-increasing insistence on the deity of Jesus over and against the divinity of humankind.

At the same time, it is true that the church as a whole has been very insistent that Jesus is to be regarded as ‘true man’. Since apostolic times there has existed a tension between those who would strive to put him ‘up there, out of reach’, so to speak, and those who would want to bring him down to their own level. I will go on to cite mystical and revelatory insights during the time following the bible to show that understanding of the Christian (and Jewish) truths concerning the place of humankind is, as yet incomplete. As Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13:12; “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

Something of the apostolic attitude may be seen in Paul’s letter to the Philippians in which he tells us that Jesus “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped at”. Philippians 2:5 “In the form of God” is, as we have seen in the Hebrew bible an attribute of humankind “made in God’s image and likeness”. To ‘grasp at’ equality with God is something we recognise only too well in the world[50]! Paul is saying specifically that Jesus did not do, or attempt to do any such thing.

John, Paul and Philo

The use of ‘εν αρχη’ as the first two words of John’s gospel suggests that he is writing his gospel in the form of a midrash on Genesis[51]. Borgen points out that Jewish thinkers in the period of the second temple were teaching about something significant prior to the actual creation. He suggests that it is this pre-creation ‘moment’ (one could hardly call it a ‘time’) that John wishes us to consider as ‘The Beginning’. And it is in this ‘Beginning’ that John places his ‘Word’. It is this ‘Word’ that we see in John’s gospel as wholly and entirely identified with the person of Jesus in verse 14 of John’s prologue in which the ‘Word’ becomes human. There seems to be general agreement among commentators that this ‘Word’ – the ‘λογος’

’ – of John’s prologue is based on the Greek concept of the divine spirit that is found in Stoic and Platonic philosophical thought. Philo of Alexandria is perhaps the most likely source for John’s concept of λογος [52].

There is a big difference between John’s personification and identification of the λογος with Jesus, and Philo’s thought. Philo makes it clear that God’s creative ‘Word’ is there, pre-existent at the very beginning. It is an idea, or a plan that God holds, and right at the centre of this plan is humankind ‘created in God’s own image and likeness’ (Gen. 1:26). And there is no doubt that in Philo’s understanding this means that humankind is Godlike in its divinity[53]. At the same time, Philo is clear that humankind has yet to reach fulfilment. He says:

“And even if there be not as yet any one who is worthy to be called a son of God, nevertheless let him labour earnestly to be adorned according to his first-born word, the eldest of his angels, as the great archangel of many names; for he is called, the authority, and the name of God, and the Word, and man according to God’s image, and he who sees Israel[54]

It seems likely that John has this in mind when he offers the identification between the λογος of contemporary philosophical thought, and Jesus.

We have seen above that John identifies the λογος so completely with Jesus that at first sight, he seems to leave little room for consideration of the divinity of the rest of humankind. Paul, however seems to have a broader view of what Philo is proposing. As is the case with John, it seems clear that Paul takes the view of the pre-existence of a divine plan before creation begins. Philippians 2:6 makes a similar identification between Jesus, and what John referred to as the λογος. However, he puts the concept somewhat differently elsewhere – in his first letter to the Corinthians, he says: “It is written, moreover, that: ‘The first man Adam became a living being” – here referring to Gen. 2:7, and he goes on to say:

“So the last Adam is a life-giving Spirit. But we should notice that the order is ‘natural’ first and then ‘spiritual’. The first man came out of the earth, a material creature. The second man came from Heaven and was the Lord himself. For the life of this world men are made like the material man; but for the life that is to come they are made like the one from Heaven. So that just as we have been made like the material pattern, so we shall be made like the heavenly pattern”.[55]

Also in Romans 8:18-29 Paul seems to be making a similar statement about the place of humankind from the viewpoint of its divinity.

I want to suggest that there is a special consideration here that one ought to take into account. We can be fairly certain that neither John[56] nor Paul met with Jesus prior to his death. Both of them, however, claim to have met him in some kind of religious experience at a later time. In each case, they believe that they are speaking of a person they feel they have met and known personally, but at the same time a person who, though still human has been in some way changed and perfected in his divinity. Paul goes on to say in verse 51 of the same passage from 1st Corinthians that:

“We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet call. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed”.

Similarly, in verse 18 of 2nd Corinthians, he speaks of all of us being transformed into God’s image. He clearly believes that this pre-existent divinity that Philo calls the logoV is not only a pattern or a plan for all of humankind, but a reality which all can expect to attain at the end of the age. Paul sees Jesus not as unique, but as ‘firstborn’ into the divinity which is an attribute of humankind.

For these reasons, I am convinced that ‘The Word’ (λογος) and the pre-existent ‘Divine Man” from Philo, and the apocalyptic ‘Son of Man’ from Daniel are interchangeable.

While not suggesting common authorship of the first letter of John and of John’s gospel, I do suggest that John’s first letter comes out of the Johanine tradition. At the very least this suggests that the early Christian community was beginning to understand the divinity of Jesus alongside the divinity of humankind. In 1 John 3:1, we read: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is”. Whatever the later Christian church may have made of Jesus, and however highly it exalted him, there was – and is – an understanding of the divinity of humankind not as being an exclusive attribute of Jesus, but as something to be shared among the whole of humankind. An attribute which is here in and among us, though not fully perfected in us, as yet.

What I am saying here is that there is a vast difference between the Jesus of the synoptic gospels which attempt to tell the handed down stories of the historical Jesus, and Jesus as he is seen through the eyes of Paul and John – and perhaps also the letters of John. This difference is even more evident in the Jesus presented by the writer of the book of Revelation. Bultmann was convinced that many of the sayings of Jesus in the gospels are actually later prophetic writings. He wrote:

“The Church drew no distinction between such utterances by Christian prophets (ascribed to the ascended Christ) and the sayings of Jesus in the tradition for the reason that even the dominical sayings in the tradition were not the pronouncement of past authority, but sayings of the risen Lord, who is always a contemporary for the Church.[57]“.

In this, though, one needs to be aware of the conclusion reached by Bultmann, that from his point of view, it was the ‘Kerygma’ or core of the teachings of the church that mattered, rather than what was said by the man, Jesus, or even if it was said. Nevertheless, revealed prophetic teaching is and always has been as important to the Christian tradition as have been the actual teachings of the human Jesus. Jesus was known to Paul and to many others by revelation. It is very likely that words given prophetically – revealed – to the writers of the books of the Christian Scriptures were included as the words of Jesus[58]. A specific example is that of all the sayings of Jesus in the book of revelation. The nature of some of the sayings[59] in John’s gospel lead me to suspect that John is writing sayings revealed to him rather than reporting handed down words.

To summarise my position here, I am saying that there are two versions of Jesus present in the Christian scriptures and tradition – Jesus the man, Jesus the Jew, a rabbi who worked and taught in first century Israel, and who died there – and Jesus the divine being who has appeared to and who continues to be experienced by Christians ever since the death of Jesus the man. This should not present a problem for the Christian, but needs to be recognised and handled with great sensitivity in dialogue with Judaism and other faiths.

In a later chapter, I want to look further at the notion of truths revealed through religious experience compared with historical ‘facts’. I believe that this is important as part of an understanding of faith in the climate of modernism. The entire bible[60] is full of revealed truths, and whether or not we choose to refer to this collection of revealed truth as ‘myth’ it is central and foundational both to the Christian and the Jewish faith. In this context, it is important to be aware of the meaning of the word myth. When Bultmann was forced to re-visit his work on demythologisation, it was largely because of popular (and scholastic) misunderstanding of the word ‘myth’. Myth is popularly understood to mean ‘untruth’. Bultmann defines his use of the word thus: “Myth is the report of an occurrence or an event in which supernatural, superhuman forces or persons are at work”[61]. In my view, there are limitations in the application of human language to supernatural events. These events ‘stretch’ language beyond its normal bounds and lead to writing which contains ‘word pictures’ to try to convey a writer’s mystical experience which is beyond mere words.

Alongside all of this is consideration of the development of the way in which Jesus is seen in the early years of Christianity. James Moffatt held the view that there was a growing ‘tendency to magnify the person of Jesus Christ’ which reaches its highest level in John’s gospel as I have mentioned above. If this tendency can be seen so clearly in the Christian scriptures, which span relatively few years, how much further might this ‘growing reverence for Jesus as the Christ’ be taken in the years following the writing of those scriptures?

Chapter 4

The Early Church Fathers and the Talmudic Rabbis

In the very early days of the church, this new Christian faith was exciting. In part the new Christians wanted to throw off the chains of tradition, which itself caused the problem that we call the ‘Council of Jerusalem’ (Acts 15). The church did, however feel a freedom to experiment, and at the same time, it felt less and less the need to listen to the wisdom of its elder brother. The faith that Jesus and his disciples had held dear began to be seen as dry and useless by Christians. At the same time, Judaism, in the desperate times that followed the destruction of the temple in 70 CE was undergoing a period of renewal and reformation. It too had become exciting!

During the first hundred years or so of the church’s existence, there was considerable dialogue and cross-fertilisation between church and synagogue. There were many who were happy to regard Christianity as a Jewish movement[62]. As attitudes on both sides hardened, dialogue was exchanged for polemic. This is clearly seen in Ignatius of Antioch’s Epistles[63] to the Ephesians to the Magnesians and to the Romans (some time before 107 CE). By this time, a Christian view of Jesus had developed which was totally unacceptable to Jews. To the Ephesians, he writes:

“There is one only physician, of flesh and of spirit, generate and ingenerate, God in man, true Life in death, Son of Mary and Son of God, first passible and then impassible, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

He goes on to give Jesus the title Son of Man and Son of God. In the epistle to the Magnesians, he wrote of the pre-existence of Jesus: “who was with the Father before the worlds and appeared at the end of time”. In the epistle to the Romans, he takes the exaltation of Jesus a stage further, and refers to “Jesus Christ, our God”.

Just a few years on, perhaps the middle of the second century, we find a continuation – we might say a progression – in the continued deification of Jesus. Clement of Alexandria, for example, takes a very high view of the divinity of Jesus[64]. The Shepherd of Hermas (139 to 155 CE), a near contender for Christian scriptural canonicity[65], speaks of Jesus as “The Holy pre-existent spirit which created the whole creation, God made to dwell in flesh that He desired”. The Shepherd also identifies the Son of God with the Holy Spirit. It continues with: “The Son of God is older that all His creation, so that he became the Father’s advisor in His creation.”

By the time of Justin martyr (100-165 CE) the Christian attitude was becoming plain. It was beyond doubt antisemitic. A hundred years later, Cyprian’s treatise ‘Against the Jews’[66] showed a very well developed anti-Jewish theology[67]. Central to the deepening division between Christian and Jew was the vexed question of the nature of Jesus. Was he human or divine? And if he were divine, what form did his divinity take? Cyprian himself actually refers to ‘Christ our God’ at one point. Parallel to this question was the Christian concept of the pre-existence of Jesus[68] springing from the identification of Jesus with the apocalyptic ‘Son of Man’ which we looked at earlier.

The question of the nature of Jesus caused a great deal of argument among Christians as well as making any dialogue between Christian and Jew well nigh impossible. The basis of the argument came out of scripture – both Christian and Hebrew, but scripture is subject to interpretation. There was thus a broad span of opinion. The leaders of the church took it upon themselves to resolve the differences and impose upon the church a complete answer. It seems likely when one looks at Cyprian that the church was teaching that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine from some time during the third century. The point here is that if Jesus were fully divine and there is only one God, then Jesus must also be God! This, of course avoids completely the question of the divinity of humankind. Because of this, I suggest that it was at quite an early point in Christian history that Jesus had become so high exalted above the rest of humankind that the church began to lose sight of the place of humankind in God’s plan.

The nature of Jesus was formulated and applied in a succession of credal statements. Athanasius (c. 296 – 373 CE) was responsible for much of the development of Christian thought on the nature of Jesus. The creed of the first council of Nicaea was set down in 325 CE [69]. The work of Athenasius was completed by the work of the Cappadocian fathers. Up to the time of Athanasius, there had been two dissimilar views expressed by different people at different times. One view, which had been around since the first century, denied the divinity of Jesus, while the other saw him as God masquerading as a man – thus denying his humanity[70]. At the time of Athenasius, the followers of Arius saw Jesus as something neither human nor divine – certainly not in any way the same as God. The creeds formulated in the fourth and early fifth centuries offered a Christology which is still held by most of the church today – and this says nothing about the divinity of humankind nor where humankind stands in relation to God and to Jesus[71].

This is not to say that the early church fathers said nothing of the ‘Image of God’ in humankind. Irenaeus (c. 130 – 200) declared that God had created humankind in his image, after his likeness – but that this ‘image’ had in some way been lost or damaged in the ‘Fall’[72]. We have already seen that Genesis 9:5-6 suggests that this is not the case. Nonetheless, the view of Irenaeus was popularly held, and has continued to be held by the Christian church for the most part up to the present time. The present day conservative scholar Hoekma takes this same rigid view.

Professor Hopkins examines the various non-canonical writings of the early church – especially the so-called Gnostic texts. He sees these to be meeting a need for intermediaries less exalted than Jesus. In his examination of the Acts of Thomas, he sees Thomas, the twin brother of Jesus as such an intermediary[73]. Hopkins is clear that the Jesus of history has, by the fourth century become exalted out of reach of ‘mere humanity’.

Augustine (354 – 430 CE) was one of the greatest of the early Christian theologians. His extensive work has had a profound influence on western Christianity right up to the modern era. Augustine was strongly influenced by a number of concepts out of Greek philosophy. One of these was the neo-Platonic idea that humankind is trapped in a kind of bondage to the material world, and the human soul can and should rise above the degradation which matter was seen to be. It is not surprising then, the Augustine writes of the ‘Image of God’ as being applied to the human soul only and not to the entire human being. Augustine writes extensively about the ‘Image of God’, both in his ‘City of God[74]’ and in his ‘ of theTrinity[75]’. He sees in the ‘Image’ a kind of reflection of the Trinity – and in particular, refers to God ‘breathing’ the Holy Spirit into Adam. This ‘breathing’ of God’s Spirit into humankind, Augustine sees as his furnishing humankind with its soul, which he sees as the only divine attribute of humanity. The Holy Spirit is, to Augustine, the Spirit of Jesus as much as it is the Spirit of God, and it is on this reasoning that he sees humankind as a reflection not of God but of the Trinity. Jesus, for Augustine is completely identified with God.

It seems fairly clear from the above, that a process which began within a few years after the death of Jesus resulted firstly in the teaching that Jesus was God, and secondly in the identification with Jesus as the sole contender for the divinity of humankind. Further than this: the whole concept of human divinity – of humankind created in the image of God – became overshadowed by Christian obsession with ‘The Fall’ which somehow destroyed the divine image!

During this formative period in Christian history, the Jewish Rabbis – the Talmudic Rabbis – were re-evaluating, one might almost say re-inventing, Judaism. What did it mean to be a Jew in exile from the land of Israel, with no Temple in existence? Christianity was growing rapidly – both in numbers and in political power. The Rabbis were very observant and well informed as to its teachings. The church was in the process of re-interpreting the scripture of the Septuagint in its own terms. Many passages of scripture came to have a very different meaning to Christians from the understanding of traditional Jewish interpretation[76]. This is a process which began in the Christian scriptures themselves, and continued through the times of the Church Fathers and beyond. Of particular relevance to this paper, we can see that every piece of scripture telling of the divinity of humankind, and of the apocalyptic ‘Son of Man’ was applied by Christians not to humankind as a whole, but to Jesus and to him alone.

I suspect that it is for this reason that the Talmud has comparatively little to say about the whole question of humankind made in the image of God[77]. In Talmudic thought, the emphasis seems to be on the great value to be ascribed to each and every human life because humankind is made in the image of God. Cohen says[78]:

“That the human being was created in the image of God lies at the root of the Rabbinic teaching concerning man. In that respect he is pre-eminent above all other creatures and represents the culminating point in the work of Creation. ‘Beloved is man for he was created in the image of God; but it was by a special love that it was made known to him that he was created in the image of God; as it is said, “For in the image of God made He man” (Gen. ix. 6)’ (Aboth iii. 18).

This fact gives the human being his supreme importance in the economy of the Universe. ‘One man is equal to the whole of Creation’ (ARN xxxi). ‘Man was first created a single individual to teach the lesson that whoever destroys one life, [79] Scripture ascribes it to him as though he had destroyed a whole world; and who­ever saves one life, Scripture ascribes it to him as though he had saved a whole world’ (Sanh. iv. 5).

Moreover, since men are formed in the divine semblance, they must keep that knowledge always in mind in their relationship with one another. An affront to man is ipso facto an affront to God. R. Akiba declared the text, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’ (Lev. xix. 18), to be an important basic principle of the Torah, and deduced from it the doctrine: ‘You should not say that inasmuch as I am despised let my fellow-man be despised with me: inasmuch as I am cursed, let my fellow-man be cursed with me. L Tanchuma said, If you act in this manner, know who it is you despise, for “in the image of God made He man”’ (Gen. R. xxiv)”

In addition, Urbach quotes Hillel as saying that the human race – in its entirety – is ‘The Image of God in the world’[80]. He refers here to the whole of humankind together, which is very reminiscent of Philo’s concept of the logoV. Urbach makes it clear that this is an idea which was held by the later sages. It leads to the understanding that that killing destroys or somehow diminishes God. It leads too to the view that failure of humankind to procreate is also an offence!

In summary, then, during this formative period, Christianity placed so much emphasis on the divinity of Jesus, that it began to lose sight of the divinity of humankind – and therefore of the innate value – the sacrosanct nature – of every single human life! Judaism has never lost sight of this most important principle.

Chapter 5

Growing tensions between the mystical and the doctrinal

During the middle ages, Christianity became more and more concerned with temporal power, perhaps more so than with its message. By the beginning of the middle ages, usually reckoned from the fifth century, Christianity had firmly established it’s key doctrines, in particular the doctrine of the Trinity, and was largely unanimous in stating precisely what one could and could not believe. By this time, Christianity held a very high Christology – one which put Jesus well out of reach – and although the official teaching was that Jesus is fully human, his divinity made him co-equal and co-eternal with God – he had become divinised to the point at which he was superhuman. From the church’s point of view, it was something to be encouraged. If Jesus were completely out of reach, it would need some kind of mediator to allow the ordinary Christian to relate to him. The church through its hierarchical priesthood took on this function. Attempts were made to make Jesus more human. These were stamped out as being heretical. An early example is the Acacian schism which took place between 484 and 519 CE[81].

It was during the medieval period that one of the greatest Christian thinkers, Thomas Aquinas, took his place among the church fathers. In his massive Summa Theologiae he attempted to give the church a complete systematic theology.

His view of the image of God in man is that this is ‘imperfect’, and that Jesus alone bears perfectly and completely the Image of God. Something of his thinking is seen in the following extract from the Summa.

“Reply to Objection 2. The First-Born of creatures is the perfect Image of God, reflecting perfectly that of which He is the Image, and so He is said to be the ‘Image,’ and never ‘to the image.’ But man is said to be both ‘image’ by reason of the likeness; and ‘to the image’ by reason of the imperfect likeness. And since the perfect likeness to God cannot be except in an identical nature, the Image of God exists in His first-born Son; as the image of the king is in his son, who is of the same nature as himself: whereas it exists in man as in an alien nature, as the image of the king is in a silver coin, as Augustine says explains in De decem Chordis (Serm. ix, al, xcvi, De Tempore).” Summa – Part 1:93[82]

Aquinas apart, there is little new thought relating to the divinity of humankind during the whole of the period between Augustine and the reformation, which brings in the beginnings of the modern era.

There were, however a number of significant writings from Christian mystics. One in particular, Mother Julian of Norwich, offers us a striking picture of humankind. In chapter 51 of her revelations of divine love[83], she offers a vision of a Lord, and a servant. The Lord asks the servant to go on an errand for him, and the servant eagerly runs to do the Lord’s will, but falls into a ditch and can no longer move. Mother Julian sees this as ‘all of humankind’ – in her explanation of the vision, she says:

“The Lord that sat stately in rest and in peace, I understood that He is God. The Servant that stood afore the Lord, I understood that it was shewed for Adam: that is to say, one man was shewed, that time, and his falling, to make it thereby understood how God beholdeth All-Man and his falling. For in the sight of God all man is one man, and one man is all man.”

There is great similarity between this mystical picture, and the picture of the ‘Son of Man’ in Daniel, restored to his former glory.

She goes on to say later in the same chapter:“When Adam fell, God’s Son fell: because of the rightful oneing which had been made in heaven, God’s Son might not [be disparted] from Adam. (For by Adam I understand All-Man.)”

Mother Julian, it seems sees all of humankind from God’s viewpoint, not as individuals, but as a composite ‘Son of Man’, who waits to be restored (healed) in God’s own good time.

It seems at this point in time, that Christian theologians are producing an increasingly higher Christology in which humankind is lowly and does not share in the divinity which they ascribe to Jesus, while mystics – Mother Julian at least – are seeing a different picture of the divinity of humankind.

While the church was theologising and increasing in political power and wealth, in the Jewish community during the middle ages, there was much scholarship and learned writing which was to become foundational to modern-day Judaism. The medieval period saw a great flowering of Torah study, and rabbinical wisdom. Among the many great names from this era are Rashi, (R. Shlomo ben Isaac 1040 – 1105), The Rambam (R. Moshe ben Maimon – better known as Maimomedes 1135 – 1204), and the Ramban (R. Moshe ben Nachman 1194 – 1270). The difference between Christian Theology and the Jewish wisdom of this period could not be greater. The Rabbis, far from producing theological doctrines were looking at the teaching of the Torah and of the earlier Rabbis to build practical interpretations and guides for the person who wishes to do God’s will.

Rashi is quoted as saying “Man came forth below just as God had depicted him in his own mind”[84]. This seems to be in agreement with the pre-existent ‘Adam Kadmon’ of the Kabbalists (see Scholem below), or the logoV which we have seen in chapter 3 above in the section on John, Paul and Philo.

In his ‘Guide for the perplexed’, Maimonides does talk at length about the image of God in humankind[85]. This he sees as relating to the human intellect alone. Maimonides seems here only to be giving some kind of guidance on the nature of the ‘image’ and ‘likeness’. He explains the meaning of the Hebrew words, and makes comments on the choice of these particular words. There is no suggestion that he wishes to lessen the place of humankind, or its importance in creation. This seems to be a Christian trait. For Maimonides, humankind is created in God’s image, and is thus precious and every human person must be treated with the respect we give to God.

As in the Christian tradition, there is a great deal of work during this period from the Jewish mystical tradition – the Kabbalists. Isaac Luria (1534 – 1572) is of particular note in the context of the divinity of humankind. He offers us the concept known as Tsimtsum, which means withdrawal or contraction. God made an empty space – God ‘withdrew’ so that there was a space, as it were, for creation to be placed in. This is coupled with the idea that we are then left with the task of Tikkun Olam – the repair, or the ‘making whole’ of the world. When God withdrew[86], he left behind ‘divine sparks’, and it is these that are found in the whole of creation. When all of these are brought together by us from within us, then Tikkun Olam has been completed – creation is complete. Gershon Scholem, a present day authority on Kaballah and the Kaballists, has the following:

“The intrinsic extramundane process of Tikkun [is] symbolically described as ‘the birth of God’s personality’ ….. The historical process and its innermost soul, the religious act of the Jew, prepare the way for the final restitution of all the scattered and exiled lights and sparks[87]

Scholem goes on to say that this process of Tikkun is the restoration of the Divine Light which flowed into the ‘Divine Adam’. In his later work ‘Kabbalah’, Scholem enlarges on this idea. After Tsimtsum, there exists ‘Adam Kadmon’, or primordial man[88]. This is the residue of ‘Ein Sof’, the infinite.

This process of ‘Tikkun’ is remarkably similar to the concept that Christian mystics call ‘mystical union[89]’ – and the ‘Adam Kadmon’ is much the same as the ‘Adam’ which Mother Julian made reference to (above). A similar concept to mystical union is to be found in many world faiths. For this reason, I take Athenasius’ saying that: “The Son of God became man so that we might become God.[90]” in a somewhat broader sense than that of incarnation in Jesus. Since I have shown that the ‘son of God’ and the ‘Adam Kadmon’ and ‘the Word’ are one and the same, the saying of Athenasius describes exactly how mystics from more than one World Faith have experienced incarnation as the creative process which is even now taking place.

Chapter 6

Growing tensions between the rationalist and the experiential

The beginning of the eighteenth century saw the rise – or should I say ‘elevation’ of reason, around the time of the enlightenment. This led to some large changes in the way theology was done, and brought about different emphases within theology. If anything did not stand up to ‘reason’ and scientific method it began ultimately to present a problem. For Christianity, beginning perhaps with John Locke in 1695, Christianity came into painful contact – one might say conflict – with the ‘modern’ world. John Locke’s work ‘The reasonableness of Christianity[91]’ could almost be said to represent the beginning of the end for the church. To satisfy the thinker of those days, one had to ‘prove’ scientifically all that one believed, and generally speaking anything we might regard as ‘supernatural’ could not be treated in this way. The supernatural was out, and the rational was all that could be relied upon. This concept was famously taken up later by David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion[92].

A major effect of this kind of thinking is that it sidelines the Transcendent God, and emphasizes God Immanent, and whilst this might be seen as making us look once more at the divinity of humankind, in fact, without the Transcendent aspect, God Immanent is reduced simply to the better side of human nature, with no supernatural power or glory. It is a very small step from that position to atheism.

The problem here is that God is not ‘Irrational’, but neither is God ‘Rational’. I would want to use words like ‘Supra-Rational[93], or maybe ‘Trans-Rational’. God – if there is a God – is simply above and beyond the limitations of human reason.

In short, the result of modern thinking, and thus, modern theology was to try to explain away anything that goes beyond our limited reason. Miracles had to go, and so ultimately did revelation. This has been of great concern to some commentators and theologians. Moffatt, in “An approach to the New Testament” sees a grave danger in taking the historical critical method of exegesis to its limit. He shows that it simply doesn’t have the mechanism for dealing with the supernatural and would therefore seek to rule it out altogether.. I cite especially C S Lewis, whom I have mentioned in the introduction. In ‘Fern seed and elephants’, speaking of the liberal theologians of his time he says: ‘ …. I find in these theologians a constant use of the principle that the miraculous did not occur …. ‘ (p113). He goes on to link this with complete non-acceptance of revealed truth and prophecy. He places this as the end result of thinking by enlightenment philosophers.[94]. Whilst there have been many strands of thinking which differ right through the modern period, the effect that this rejection of God’s intervention in any form has had on Christianity seems little to have been influenced by those strands. If it were not for the inexplicable revival movements that broke out from time to time throughout this period, I doubt there would be any trace of Christianity left today.

Here, I see the big problem as being this: the bible full of ‘revealed truth’ – truth revealed by God to human persons. The bible contains revelations of God, by God through mystics down through the ages. The question here has to be: can a theologian who is not a mystic as well as a thinker actually ‘do’ theology? The Eastern Orthodox churches would probably say no to this. Gerald O’Collins writes:

“Theologians should have deeply experienced Christ in faith and been led by his Spirit before attempting a Christology. ……. In Christology holiness is a decisive factor that deep ‘knowing’ or experience of Jesus which St. Paul insisted on (Phil 3:8,10)[95]”.

Among Jews, a process which was not dissimilar was taking place. The enlightenment in Jewish terms is known as Haskalah. The key figure in Haskalah was Moses Mendelssohn (1729 – 1786). Unlike Christian thinkers, Mendelssohn was not prepared to have the place of God, or of divine intervention, undermined. Mendelssohn conceived of God as a perfect Being and had faith in God’s wisdom, righteousness, mercy and goodness. He argued that, “the world results from a creative act through which the divine will seeks to realize the highest good.” He accepted the existence of miracles and revelation as long as belief in God did not depend on them. He also believed that revelation could not contradict reason. Like the deists, he claimed that reason could discover the reality of God, divine providence and immortality of the soul[96].” Mendelssohn took the view that for humankind, being made in the image of God meant that we are ‘faced with the choice between good and evil’[97].

It was Haskalah which let ultimately to the Liberal movement in Judaism. But once again, liberal Judaism was and is very careful not to undermine God, or the principle of divine revelation. Claude Montefiore, writing in 1912 makes this principle very clear. He is anxious that modern scholarship – especially bible criticism in its various forms should be taken on board by Jews just as it had been by Christians – but that is as far as he will go. Among Jews, then, we do not meet with the serious problem that modernism brought to Christians. This entry under ‘Man, the nature of’ from the 1978 printing of the Encyclopaedia Judaica sums up the modern view of the Image of God: “God is served in the righteousness of human relationships – in love between man and man, which reflects God’s image – as well as in divine worship. When the “Image” is wronged, religious service becomes an abomination[98]”.

Gillian Rose, in “Judaism and Modernity” states firmly that rationalism has had comparatively little effect on Judaism quite unlike the impact it had on Christianity. Samuel Sandmel enlarges on this thinking when he writes:

“You Christians have had to handle the problem of how to maintain your traditional supernatural beliefs in the light of the emergence of an age which has so largely repudiated supernaturalism”.

He goes on to say that this is simply not a problem for the Jew.

“We, on the other hand, have had very little difficulty in such matters (for even the traditional among us have not been bound to the literal wording of the scriptures as most of you protestants have been).[99]

I have shown above that the Christian attitude towards revelation that follows the enlightenment as being a big problem – and I have also shown that this is less true of Judaism, although there is more than one progressive strand within Judaism, overall the movement seems far less extreme than within Christianity. Let us digress for a moment and look at the nature of revelation and revealed truth.

Religious experience and revelation

I want to begin this section with an illustration which is not part of either Christian or Jewish tradition. Towards the end of the fifteenth century, the first of the Sikh Gurus, Guru Nanak, went missing for three days. When he came back, his life had been changed by what had happened to him, and as a result, he went on to found the Sikh religion. He spoke of his experience as being a meeting with God[100]. It is clear that it was a profound religious experience.

I offer this example because it took place in comparatively recent times, and is well documented. I offer it because in many ways it shows similarity to ‘experiences’ of God that are described in the tanach. The experience of Jacob in Genesis 22:32-30 is one of many such meetings with God – or with His angel. It is notable here that the person with whom Jacob wrestles is first of all described as a man, and then Jacob says that he has seen ‘a divine being’ in the JPS version or ‘God’ in most other translations. Here, it is the human form which the object of the encounter takes that is of interest: a divine being – or the Divine Being in human form. In a more controversial thought, both the encounter of Guru Nanak either with God or with a divine being, and the encounter of Jacob with such a being, bear some similarity with the many post-crucifixion encounters with Jesus. In every case, these encounters have been life changing for the recipient of the experience. I would want further to illustrate this kind of ‘encounter’ by looking at Genesis 18:16ff. In this passage, God says ‘I must go down and see …. ‘. God’s representatives – two men – (or are they angels?) – ‘go down to see’. In this case, it is God’s representatives – his sons – who ‘are’ God as far as the people of Sodom are concerned.

McGrath sees a considerable tension between those who reject the ‘experimental’ approach towards God and theology as ‘mere feelings’ and those who build their theological thinking on religious experience, both their own and that of others[101].

In 1941. Rudolf Bultmann published an essay ‘New Testament and Mythology[102]’ which was to have a profound effect upon modern theology and theologians. Bultmann himself said that he was not really expounding any new thoughts: ‘everything that has been said up to this point, or something like it, could have been said thirty or forty years ago …[103].’ There had been a move since the beginning of the enlightenment to question the signs and symbols of religion and to bring in a ‘scientific’ understanding of all of these. Bultmann is aware that an understanding of the bible is needed which makes sense to a ‘modern’ audience – but at the same time he sees the need to dialogue with truths about the supernatural which have their basis in religious experience. If we were to disregard every supernatural event in the bible, we would lose entirely the core truths of Jewish and Christian faith. As Bultmann sees it: ‘demythologising undertaken by the critical theology of the nineteenth century was carried out in an inappropriate way – namely in such a way that with the elimination of the mythology, the kerygma itself was also eliminated.[104]’ There is a profound problem here which Bultmann was grappling with. At the very centre of this problem is the divinity of humankind. He explores a tension between human beings as ‘Cosmic Beings’ and the human ability for self-determination and thus failure.

In Bultmann’s own view, he is attempting to re-interpret the spiritual truths of the bible into a modern age. This is, or ought to be, an ongoing and continuous process. It is, after all no more nor less that we have already seen Philo, John and Paul doing at the very beginning of the Common Era. It is the same kind of re-interpretation that the sages needed to carry out in order to give us post-temple Judaism. But it is what resulted from Bultmann’s writing that caused what is in my view a serious problem. In the first place, the word ‘myth’ had altered its meaning from the original. The word ‘myth’, far from having the meaning which Bultmann has to spell out in a later essay, “…. is the report of an occurrence or an event in which supernatural, superhuman forces or persons are at work’, but ‘myth’ had in common usage come to mean ‘untruth’. It was not long before Bultmann’s essay was understood as a kind of permission to understand every embarrassing supernatural event or occurrence in the bible to be an untruth. I use the word ‘embarrassing’ because in the first half of the twentieth century science – and especially ‘scientific humanism’ – was levelling harsh criticism towards theistic religion as being nothing more than outdated, outmoded superstition.

Ultimately, disregarding and discounting the supernatural must lead to the denial of God. Bultmann was aware of this, and needed to re-visit the subject of demythologisation. In his essay ‘On the problem of demythologising[105]’ – 1952 – in which the above definition of myth appears, Bultmann is eager to point out that although the world of science is ‘closed against the intervention of non-worldly powers’, science itself is ‘open’ in the sense that it does not have all the answers. He re-iterates his earlier point – that his intention in demythologising is to understand and interpret the truth into his world – to ‘bring out the real intention of the myth’. John Robinson admits to being deeply influenced by Bultmann when he wrote ‘Honest to God’ in 1963 for a popular readership. Perhaps Robinson was misunderstood[106] – but from that time on, a gap began to appear between modern ‘liberal’ Christians, and ‘conservative’ Christians. Liberalism reached its zenith in the ‘Sea of Faith[107]’ movement, and conservatism reached its zenith in ‘Conservative Evangelicalism’ of an extreme degree. At the one extreme lies a ‘faith’ which denies the existence of God and becomes nothing more than a rather pale set of moralistic rules, and at the other extreme lies a fundamentalist-literalist view of the bible which defies – even contradicts – intelligent thought.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer gives careful consideration to this process in his letter of May 5th 1944 in ‘Letters and Papers from Prison’. Speaking of the ‘religionless Christianity’ earlier proposed by Karl Barth, he states that Bultmann has not gone nearly far enough in his process of demythologising. ‘You cannot, as Bultmann imagines, separate God and miracles …..’. Bonhoeffer is a prophetic voice. He is a contemplative and he is a mystic. His personal theology relies on the reality of religious experience – his own and that of many others. For this reason, Bonhoeffer is saying categorically that you can’t keep God and throw out the rest of the supernatural. The true liberal will inevitably need ultimately to throw out God as well as all the rest!

Where is this leading? What we are seeing here is a process – a process of understanding – a process of re-interpretation and learning which we call Theology. As we have seen, this is a process that began ‘in the beginning’ – that is to say with the divine revelation which was the start and centre of every theistic faith. It is a process of interpreting into every age the timeless truths to which those religious experences point us – and essential to those truths is the concept of the place of humankind in relationship to its God – a God who is sufficiently real and alive that He is perceived and encountered by people of many faiths. Jews and Christians alike have scripture which implies that humankind is divine, made in the image and likeness of its God. Christians have a scripture – a serious of scriptures even – which imply that in the post-crucifixion appearances of Jesus, we have seen and met with humankind in all its perfected glory. In this section, we have seen that we can go only two ways with our argument. We can choose to believe that there is nothing supernatural at all – no God, and presumably therefore no after-life – or we can attempt to follow the guidance that scripture seems to be giving us and continue on a spiritual path seeking our own divinity for ourselves through our religious teachings and practices, and through further divine revelation. There seem to be no other options for the progress of theology into the future.

As we move from the ‘modern’ to the ‘Post Modern’ era, we no longer need be troubled by such thoughts as:

‘we cannot use electric lights and radios, and in the event of illness avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means, and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the new testament[108]‘.

Certainly the need is, as always to re-interpret, but alongside that consideration, perhaps even above that consideration, is the need to re-mythologise – to learn once more to own, and to live our myth. In the present day mindset, this is becoming once more a possibility. Diogenes Allen writes a great deal in argument against the modernist and rationalist devaluation of revelation, and concludes that it is going to be very profitable for Christians to take note and compare the revelations received not only by Christians, but also by other World Faiths. This, Allen feels, is something that we may do with complete integrity.

I end this section with a quotation from the sermon given by the Archbishop of Canterbury on the occasion of his enthronement:

“Once we recognise God’s great secret, that we are all made to be God’s sons and daughters, we can’t avoid the call to see one another differently. No-one can be written off; no group, no nation, no minority can just be a scapegoat to resolve our fears and uncertainties. We cannot assume that any human face we see has no divine secret to disclose: those who are culturally or religiously strange to us; those who so often don’t count in the world’s terms (the old, the unborn, the disabled) [109]”.

This gives me hope. If a church leader is willing to admit publicly to the divinity of humankind, there is a call once again to Christianity to teach the love for justice and peace that is the very core of the Bible.

In the present day, theologians are beginning to revisit and re-examine the Christian idea of revelation and the ‘Trinity’ in a way that takes into account insights given to other World faiths than Christianity.

Chapter 8

The deification of Jesus – a high Christology leading to a diminished humankind

Today, we enjoy a very different climate in theology and faith issues. It is no longer fashionable to try to force theologians into a rationalist position. This means that we are free once more to take revelation seriously and accept it as a basis not only for Jewish and Christian belief, but also as some kind of basis for all the world-faiths that we encounter. In addition, the very frequent encounters between many world faiths that we see today bring a need for the development of interfaith dialogue, and this leads to considerable theological reflection. We have seen in earlier sections how the nature of Jesus moved from being human to a general acceptance that Jesus was God. This ran counter to the teachings of the church, which tried to insist that although divine, Jesus was and is fully human in every way. Today’s theologians are working hard on this aspect of Christian teaching. They see the high Christology that has developed over the centuries as a problem – especially in interfaith dialogue.

James Parkes deplores what he calls ‘the extreme christocentricity of the church’ in his ‘Prelude to Dialogue’. He says “It is surely time that the church faced the fact that a christocentric gospel has not only led them into deplorable beliefs and attitudes, but has failed of itself to meet the whole of human need[110]”. In his ‘Foundations’ he reminds us that “For him [Paul] Jesus was never the equal of God; whatever of divinity has to be ascribed to him has to be so ascribed because God had willed and planned it thus[111]”, and he points out that “Paul was not a Trinitarian ….. [112]

John Hick, from his pluralist viewpoint expresses deep concern about the deification of Jesus. If what he calls ‘the Christian Myth’ is taken to its extreme, then Christianity and only Christianity would be the faith of God. It is that kind of thinking, he points out, that led to untold abominations committed by Christians in the name of their religion. Those abominations include, of course, the Shoah.

Norman Pittenger speaks of the modern high Christology in these terms:

“The first disciples and the early Christian Church would not have put their experience of companionship with the historic Jesus and the risen Lord in such terms [such as were used by Cardinal Newman] ..…… Jesus did not think of himself as God; nor did those who were his companions in his earthly ministry entertain any such ideas about the one with whom they associated themselves in response to his call to discipleship[113]”.

Pittenger is concerned that the divinity of humankind is devalued by an over exalted Christology. He asks the question ‘Is Jesus different in degree or kind?’ Was Jesus

“the one in whom God actualised in a living human personality the potential God-man relationship which is the divinely intended truth about every man[114]

I see Pittenger’s last suggestion as being true of the ‘Son of Man’ which is for me, the same as Mother Julian’s ‘Adam’ and Luria’s ‘Adam Kadmon’

Hans Küng[115] is deeply concerned about the way Christology has developed. He speaks strongly against the tendency to make God and Jesus equal. Jesus is ‘not simply God’ he declares, and he tells us that it is necessary to ‘defend the humanity of Jesus’. He also affirms that the gospels were written in the light of the exalted Jesus.

I want to look a little closer at this aspect by taking something with a mystical flavour to it. In a poem called ‘Well?’, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy – “Woodbine Willy” of First World War fame – wrote the following poem about judgement day. It is the tale of a young soldier’s dream. He sees the faces of all the people he has wronged during his life in the face of a man whom he assumes is Jesus.

‘Twere all men’s face yet no man’s face,

And a face no man can see,

And it seemed to say in silent speech,

“Ye did ‘em all to Me ……

For all their souls were Mine.”


All eyes was in ‘Is eyes — All eyes;

My wife’s and a million more;

And once I thought as those two eyes

Were the eyes of the London whore[116].

It seems to me that Kennedy is offering us something from his own religious experience here. And he is agreeing with my personal view of what the ‘Son of Man’ is – how the ‘Son of Man’ might be regarded – perhaps envisioned would be better – because we are looking at the language of revelation – of revealed truths – and when we encounter these we often run out of language.

One might be tempted to think that the more conservative wings of Christianity would be lagging behind the liberal component in attempts to re-think our position. This would not be true. A recent flyer from CAIRS – Churches agency for interfaith relations in Scotland quotes the Pentecostalist theologian, Amos Yong. He has three axioms on which he builds his conversation with people of other faiths:

God is universally present and active in the Spirit

God’s Spirit is the life-breath of the Image of God in every human being and is the basis of all human relationships and communities

The religions of the world, like everything else that exists, are providentially sustained by the Spirit of God for divine purposes.[117]

Yong, and his Catholic opposite number to whom Yong refers in his writings, D. Gelpi, are looking at a pneumatological approach to common ground in interfaith dialogue. They feel that experience of God in all world faiths can be possible through the work of the Spirit of God which can be perceived and understood as one and the same Spirit of God in which Christians believe. This may useful – very helpful even – but it does avoid the problem brought about by the extreme deification of Jesus that we have seen to take place from apostolic times onward. Once again, I feel that we need to listen hard to what our mystics are saying, and be led by their experience of aspects of God as they see them. And in an interfaith climate, should we not be listening to mystics from all World Faiths, and comparing their experiences? One might consider in this context, the Hindu tale of the blind men and the elephant[118]. Our perception and our putting into words of our religious experiences are determined by our cultural background and our point of view. It is at this point that we need to be exceptionally sensitive in our listening to the many voices around us.

In the Christian tradition, we can perceive the popular point of view best from our modern worship songs. The majority of Christian hymns and worship songs concentrate on God as Father and Jesus as saviour, and there is a distinction. Some however do not – as an example I would give ‘His name is higher than any other’. This contains the line ‘His name is prince of peace, the mighty God’, and clearly refers to Jesus. Hymns and songs such as this obviously reflect a very high Christology in which Jesus is seen not just as being in God, or equal to the Father, but as interchangeable with the Father. It would clearly be impossible to work effectively in interfaith dialogue at any level if this were an entrenched viewpoint.

As I have said already, it comes back to somewhat individual experience of God – and of Jesus. Many Christians would claim to have experienced Jesus, and I would include myself among that number[119]. These experiences will naturally vary from person to person. But it is safe to say that the vast majority would feel that what they have experienced is not the man Jesus with whom the disciples met and whom they knew, but the ‘risen exalted’ one that some might describe as ‘the Jesus of faith’. From our earthly viewpoint, there would seem to be little difference between the ‘Son of Man’ which Daniel saw, and to whom the book of Revelation alludes, and God the Father. Martin Buber speaks of two kinds of mystical experience in which some kind of mystical union is felt to be attained:

“But what of mysticism? Does it not inform us how unity without duality is experienced? May we dispute the truth of its account?

-I know not of a single but of two kinds of happening in which duality is no longer experienced. These are at times confused in mystical utterances – I too once confused them.

The one is the soul’s becoming a unity. That is something that takes place not between man and God, but in man. Power is concentrated, everything that tries

to divert it is drawn into the orbit of its mastery, the being is alone in itself and rejoices, as Paracelsus says, in its exaltation. This is the decisive moment for a man.

Without it he is unfit for the work of the spirit; with it, he decides, in his innermost being, if this means a breathing-space, or the sufficient end of his way. Concentrated in unity, he can go out to the meeting, to which he has only now drawn quite close, with the mystery, with salvation. But he can also enjoy to the full this blessed concentration of his being, and without entering on the supreme duty fall back into dissipation of being. -Everything on our way involves decision, purposive, dimly seen, wholly mysterious: this in the innermost being is the primal mysterious decision, carrying the mightiest consequences for our destiny.

The other happening lies in the unfathomable nature of the relational act itself, in which two, it is imagined, become one: “one and one united, bareness shines there into bareness.” I and Thou are absorbed, humanity, which just before confronted the godhead, is merged in it-glorification, deification, and singleness of being have appeared. But when the man, illuminated and exhausted, falls back into the cares of earthly affairs, and with knowledge in his heart think of the two situations, is he not bound to find that his being is split asunder and one part given to perdition? What does it help my soul that it can be withdrawn anew from this world here into unity, when this world itself has of necessity no part in the unity-what does all “enjoyment of God” profit a life that is rent in two?[120]

Martin Buber is one of the most loved and most frequently quoted writers in what I would call the post-modern era[121]. Would Buber have preferred to be known as a philosopher or a mystic? He certainly seems to have the attributes of each.

In his best loved work, ‘Ich und Du’, originally translated somewhat controversially as ‘I and Thou’, Buber concentrates on the intimate relationship between one person and another, and incidentally on the intimate relationship between a person and God. Buber sees that for every one of us, at our birth, we are ‘separated’ from a kind of oneness that we spend the whole of our lives searching for.

“Yet this connection has such a cosmic quality that the mythical saying of the Jews, ‘in the mother’s body man knows the universe, in birth he forgets it,’ reads like the imperfect decipherment of an inscription from earliest times. And it remains indeed in man as a secret image of desire. Not as though his yearning meant a longing to return, as those suppose who see in the spirit – confusing it with their intellect – a parasite of nature, when it is rather (though exposed to diverse illnesses) nature’s best flower. But the yearning is for the cosmic connection, with its true Thou, of life that has burst forth into spirit[122].”

And he goes on to speak of this deep need:

“The doctrines of absorption appeal to the great sayings of identification, the one above all to the Johannine ‘I and the Father are one,’ the other to the teaching of Sandilya: ‘The all-embracing, this is my Self in my very heart.[123]

Buber, from his own mystical experience seems to have no problem with the Johanine sayings of Jesus, realising that they are just like his own experiences of God – and come directly from the writer’s own experience. John’s gospel is a mystical gospel and needs to be understood as such. It is, in Buber’s words, a gospel of relation.

“Here is a truer verse than the familiar mystical verse: ‘I am Thou and Thou art I.’ The Father and the Son, like in being-we may even say God and Man, like in being-are the indissolubly real pair, the two bearers of the primal relation, which from God to man is termed mission and command, from man to God looking and hearing, and between both is termed knowledge and love. In this relation the Son, though the Father dwells and works in him, bows down before the ‘greater’ and prays to him. All modern attempts to interpret this primal reality of dialogue as a relation of the I to the Self, or the like-as an event that is contained within the self-sufficient interior life of man-are futile: they take their place in the abysmal history of destruction of reality[124].”

Whilst the work of Buber came to be treasured by theologians and mystics alike, it was also taken seriously by Frank Lake, the psychiatrist who in the 1960’s founded the then ‘Clinical Theology Association’[125]. It was Lake who later published ‘Tight Corners in Pastoral Counselling’ which contains a concept that he called ‘Blastocystic Bliss’. In regressing patients back to the womb, initially under the influence of LSD and later using ‘Phantasy Journey’ techniques, Lake came to the conclusion that we all have an experience of utter bliss when we are nothing more than a fertilised ovum, before implantation into our mother’s womb, at which point we exist as a blastocyst[126]. If one may say with Buber, “… ‘I am Thou and Thou art I.’ The Father and the Son, like in being – we may even say God and Man, like in being – are the indissolubly real pair”. Then we have a mystical view of the relationship with the whole of humankind together – the ‘Adam Kadmon’ of Luria, and it represents – indeed is – a view of God, Father and Son which is arguably the same as the Christian Trinity, provided that the ‘Adam Kadmon’, the Son of Man, the Exalted Jesus, and the Adam of Mother Julian’s perception are one and the same as I believe and experience them to be. Pinchas Lapide admits that there is a Jewish mystical tradition which sees in God more that one aspect – the Kaballah, he tells us, speaks of up to ten distinct aspects of God. God is one – but it the ‘Adam Kadmon’ is seen by us from our limited point of view as at the very least, an aspect of God, and if, as Christians believe, Jesus – that is the glorified Jesus – is part of the ‘Son of Man’, then it seems to me that there is rather more convergence between our mystical traditions than there is between our somewhat inflexible intellectual understandings. Fred Moy puts the concept very succinctly:

“can it be seen that Mohammed and Jesus and Krishna and Bah’a’llah are one with God? And God is one[127]”.

I have suggested that we ought to listen more than we do to our mystics – with an eye on the mystical traditions of all the World Faiths. In March 2004, there was an interfaith conference in Edinburgh. Most of the keynote speakers were mystics of different faiths. One of them, Dr. Neil Douglas Klotz, wants to take us back to the beginning – to creation. There, all faiths meet. Time and progress, he tells us are a modern Western concept. We need to look at our stories, creation in particular, and see it as a ‘moving past’, a living creation, a moving ‘caravan of life’, in which everything is moving including God. We have switched our beginnings for our endings. “I believe”, says Klotz, separates us. “In the beginning” unites us. He sees the perfection in the Garden of Eden at Creation as something which is to come.

In one of his books, ‘The Genesis Meditations’, he enlarges on that theme by looking at the ‘Primal Human’ as seen through various faith traditions including Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Klotz sees it as the idea of a primordial light filled human being – which is called the Muhammedan light in the Ismaeli and Sufi traditions.

It is mystics such as Klotz with whom I feel the future – both of Christianity and of interfaith relations – lies. And I feel that a re-think of the nature of the ‘Son of Man’, and of the post-crucifixion Jesus, though difficult for many Christians, would be possible in the light of their meditations.

Chapter 9

Conclusion – back to the beginning

It would be irresponsible not to come to the conclusion that Christianity has failed itself and caused a major problem by allowing the development of a Christology which allows Jesus and God to become almost interchangeable. In this, it is essential that we give thought to the divinity of the whole of humankind, and welcome into our experience the views and opinions of the mystics, not only from the Christian tradition, but from the entire faith community. This view is now a commonly held one, and is challenging today’s church. It is a view that is more and more being driven by work on interfaith dialogue and it is to be welcomed.

This of course may offer a problem to the conservative Christian. How should one ‘understand’ the place and nature of Jesus? If we are able to accept the experience of the ‘Son of Man’ that I have shown above, then we can conceive a way forward. The ‘Son of Man’ is pre-existent. The ‘Son of Man’ is ‘The Word’. The ‘Son of Man’ is the coalescence of the whole of humankind, and Jesus is [in] the ‘Son of Man’, as, I expect are the great heroes of many World Faiths. But suppose that the person who is speaking in John’s gospel is more than Jesus alone? Suppose that this person is the ‘Son of Man’ in the entirety we have seen above? How much more sense does this make when we hear the words ‘No-one can come to the Father except through [incorporation into] the Son of Man’?

Earlier, I spoke of ‘attributes of God’, and in particular of power and love. Much has been said in the field of psychotherapy about the abuse of just these two attributes. Love, for example can be used – abused – when it becomes demanding on the one hand, or overwhelming ‘smother-love’ on the other. In the same way, the lust for power may be perverted to become overpowering and controlling, or demanding and manipulative in its helplessness and false humility (as Uriah Heep). In creation, God ‘cut the strings’ so that we would not be puppets – God gave us freedom out of his love[128].

Early Christians held the view the ‘God became man the man might become God[129]’. As I see it, we have two opposite options for our divinity. We can ‘play God’; one might want to look at modern examples such as Hitler or Saddam Hussein, or one can ‘become God’ by allowing our ‘divine spark’ to coalesce with other ‘divine sparks’ as we grow closer to Divine Union. We might want to see this quality in the saints of the modern era – Ghandhi, perhaps, or Martin Luther King ….

[1] Theology rising out of the Holocaust – September 2000 – Some thoughts on Franklin Littell’s assertion that “Christians need the Jewish people as a “model” of peoplehood in God’s work in history, and they need the living interaction with the people of the Torah” Franklin Littell on the Holocaust

[2] The synoptic gospels speak of Jesus going into the desert to be tempted by Satan. The key phrase here is: “If you are the son of God ….. “ which precedes each of the temptations. This statement suggests that Jesus had grave doubts about his own ‘religious experience’ at the time of his baptism in the river Jordan. In addition his attitude towards the question of his divinity (and possibly that of his fellows) may be seen in John 10:33-34 to which I will refer later.

[3] I have referred to that part of the Christian bible that Christians call the ‘New Testament’ as the Christian scriptures since for me the term ‘New Testament’ suggests supersession. For the same reason, I have used the Jewish term ‘tanach’ to refer to the books that Christians call ‘Old Testament’.

[4] See the Catholic Encyclopaedia: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02543a.htm (March 2005) which offers the following: “It was declared by the Vatican Council (Sess. III, c. ii) that the sacred and canonical character of Scripture would not be sufficiently explained by saying that the books were composed by human diligence and then approved by the Church, or that they contained revelation without error. They are sacred and canonical “because, having been written by inspiration of the Holy Ghost, that have God for their author, and as such have been handed down to the Church”. The inerrancy of the Bible follows as a consequence of this Divine authorship. Wherever the sacred writer makes a statement as his own, that statement is the word of God and infallibly true, whatever be the subject matter of the statement”.

[5] “I and Thou” Kaufmann tr, p166

[6] Vern S Poythress writing in Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation (Silva) p468

[7] Kenyon, The Bible and Modern Scholarship.

[8] Kenyon mentions the Chester-Beatty papyri and the Rylands papyrus. His dates for these appear to be confirmed by the Chester-Beatty web-site and such other evidence, as I have been able to find. However, this information does not so far appear in bible commentaries etc. These seem for example to place John’s gospel at a far later date than the Rylands fragment would suggest. I take this as evidence of the kind of biased scholarship that Kenyon is concerned about.

[9] Moises Silva, in his work “has the church misread the bible?” expresses concern that the WCC rreport on biblical authority was heavily influenced by Barth, and was, therefore “reluctant to base the authority of scripture on the notion of inspiration”. (Silva – p42) He states that the historical-critical method which has been widely accepted, actually rejects any question of divine intervention, and is therefore seriously to be questioned by evangelical Christian believers. For this reason, he is able to say that theological scholarship has largely excluded evangelicals until recent years.

[10] Here, I would cite Moises Silva, John Goldingay, Tremper Longman iii, Richard Muller, and V Phillips Long as well as the aforementioned Vern Poythress.

[11] Hopkins states that less than two percent of the apostolic Roman world could read and write.

[12] Alex Haley’s “Roots” gave a good example of this ability to record information accurately. It is a talent that is lost in a literate society.

[13] Mother Julian of Norwich had a mystical experience in which she describes God’s view of the whole of humankind. I will offer more on that in chapter 5 below.

[14] The creation story, in comparison with Daniel’s vision and the vision in Revelation will be examined in and alongside the things that Jesus is reported to have said about the Son of Man.

[15] There could be a lengthy discussion on the question of those who are to be excluded or damned. It is not appropriate to pursue this line of thought here. Suffice it to say that I trust in God’s mercy and that alone to make, in Mother Julian’s words, ‘all manner of things well’.

[16] The New Dictionary of Christian Theology points out that there was a great deal of argument in the middle ages as to whether or not God may be said to have attributes. Key players in this debate were Maimonides and Aquinas. The argument against God having attributes is that this might undermine the one-ness of God.

[17] MacQuarrie (p189) point out that “the notion of God’s ‘omnipotence’ has caused a lot of trouble ….” He considers that some theologians have focussed on this attribute of God to the point at which God becomes a ‘capricious despot’. McGrath and Ninian Smart also clearly see this as an ‘attribute’ of God. McGrath (p222ff) sees God as omnipotent, but self-limiting for the good of creation.

[18] This oft quoted phrase is a little hard to pin down. http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Carl_Jung (March 2005) gives it as coming from: “The Psychology of the Unconscious (1943)”. I learned it many years ago while training for pastoral counselling with the Clinical Theology Association, as at that time, Jung’s ideas about power and love were widely used in a psychodynamic model called the ‘Power-Love compass’. There is little doubt that the roots of most if not all human neurosis and even psychosis lie in deep rooted feelings of powerlessness and lack of love.

[19] McGrath (p233ff) offers a lengthy discourse on God’s creativity, beginning with reference to the creation stories in Genesis. He refers to a number of different theological understandings of God as creator, but places centrally the fact that God created humankind in ‘the image of God’.

[20] McGrath (p244) reminds us that Augustine sees the Holy Spirit as the bond of love. He regards the Spirit as a bond of unity between Father and Son on the one hand, and between God and believers on the other. Ninian Smart devotes an entire chapter to love, in which he links it with the attribute of justice and peace, below.

[21] MacQuarrie (p192) talks of the attributes of ‘love’ and ‘mercy’. ‘… of all the attributes’, he says, ‘love has a supreme place’.

[22] In pointing out the extent to which love effects behaviour, Ninian Smart shows the ways in which Christian ethics lead to justice for the poor, and the under-privileged. This emphasis comes directly from the Pentateuch and its teachings.

[23] MacQuarrie (p193) talks of ‘love’ and ‘mercy’, which, he tells us, ‘are not really different from righteousness and justice’.

[24] Using the New Revised Standard version.

[25] There is a lengthy discussion on the uses of the plural form here to be found at: http://www.bible.org/netbible/index.htm in the notes to the NET bible.

[26] The NET bible translator’s note for this passage tells us of the two different terms in the Hebrew, which are generally translated ‘image’ and ‘likeness’. The note says: “In the Book of Genesis the two terms describe human beings who in some way reflect the form and the function of the creator.” http://www.bible.org/netbible/index.htm (March 2005)

[27] In this verse, the LXX translates God (here the Hebrew is ‘Elohim’), as ‘Angels’ and several bible versions follow this concept of Elohim (plural) signifying ‘divine beings’. The old JPS Tanach follows this practice, although the NJPS moves to ‘what is man that You have been mindful of him, mortal man that You have taken note of him that You have made him little less than divine …….”

[28] We shall see later that this psalm is quoted in the Christian scriptures as being cited by Jesus. For this reason, its use here brings big questions of how to interpret this passage.

[29] David Cairns – The Image of God in Man”

[30] Babylonian Talmud, “Shabbat”, 31a. tells of a man who came to Hillel asking to be taught the entire Torah during the time he could stand on one foot. He was told, “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellowman. This is the entire Torah. All the rest is commentary — now go and study.”

[31] The Encyclopaedia Judaica under the heading “man, the nature of” says “God is served in the righteousness of human relationships – in love between man and man which reflects God’s image – as well as in divine worship. When the “Image” is wronged, religious service becomes an abomination”. See below for more on this aspect.

[32] Beginning in Ezekiel 2:1, God uses this form of address in speaking to Ezekiel. The Net translator’s notes say: “The phrase son of man occurs ninety-three times in the book of Ezekiel. It simply means “human one,” and distinguishes the prophet from the nonhuman beings that are present in the world of his vision”. http://www.bible.org/netbible/index.htm March 2005

[33] Fuller, R. H. – The foundations of New Testament Christology p35

[34] The New Jerome commentary puts the case this way: “The [Apocalyptic genre] employed in chapters 7-12 consists in a certain mysterious ”revelation” received in fantastic visions or transmitted by angels, both about the past and present history, and about the eschatological establishment of God’s messianic kingdom”.

[35] Dunn p36

[36] Segal writing in Jews and Christians speak of Jesus (ed Zannoni), p132

[37] Hellwig writing in Jews and Christians speak of Jesus (ed Zannoni), p144-146

[38] O’Collins p14-15

[39] Philippians 3:21

[40] 1 John 3:1

[41] Fuller – p199 ff

[42] John 10:33-34

[43] Christian Theology – p277. Cf Exodus 4:22 ‘Israel is my firstborn son.’

[44] A. D. A. Moses – chapter 4

[45] The Gospels and their Theology, p25

[46] I have some sympathy with JAT Robinson’s “The Priority of John” on this issue!

[47] Col 1:14-16

[48] John 1:1

[49] In a later chapter, I will be looking at the rôle of revelation in our faith understanding.

[50] See my thoughts on attributes of God in chapter 2 above.

[51] Borgen is very clear in his thought on this – although he goes back directly to the Hebrew text of Genesis and argues for John’s choice of words being based on the Hebrew text. The fact that the LXX also begins Genesis with the words ‘en arch ’ may suggest that John, writing as he was to Christians living in contact with Diaspora Jews, would expect them to have knowledge of the LXX and to relate his commentary to this Greek text.

[52] Philo – questions and answers on Genesis, part I “This man was created as perceptible to the senses, and in the similitude of a Being appreciable only by the intellect; but he who in respect of his form is intellectual and incorporeal, is the similitude of the archetypal model as to appearance, and he is the form of the principal character; but this is the word of God, the first beginning of all things, the original species or the archetypal idea, the first measure of the universe”. http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/yonge/book41.html March 2005

[53] “This is Moses’ doctrine, not mine. Indeed, in the next passage, recording the beginning of man, he confesses that (the human) was modelled after the image of God. Now if the part is the image of an image, it is clear that the whole is too. But if the entire sensible world — which is greater than the human — is a copy of the divine image, it is clear also that the archetypal seal which we say is the world of the mind is the very Word [logos] of God”.

— Philo, Creation 25 http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/yonge/ March 2005

[54]Philo – Confusion 146. http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/yonge/ March 2005

[55] 1 Cor. 15:45-49

[56] There is the traditional view that John was ‘the beloved disciple’ referred to in his gospel. The more usual view is that he became a follower after the death of Jesus.

[57] Bultmann – History of the Synoptic Tradition, p. 127.

[58] Raymond Brown writes: “I think the sayings and deeds of Jesus reported in the gospels have been influenced by hindsight after the resurrection”. P24 Here, I understand Brown to be thinking more of reflection and redaction than the divine inspiration that I believe to have taken place.

[59] I am considering particularly the ‘I am’ sayings in John 14

[60] I am referring to the Christian use of the word ‘bible’, but the statement is especially applicable to the Tanach.

[61] 1952 essay, Bultmann “on the problem of demythologising” from ’New Testament and Mythology’.

[62] Frend, in ‘Saints and Sinners in the Early Church’ holds that this was the case during much of the first three hundred years of the church.

[63] http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/ignatius.html March 2005

[64] “This is the New Song, the manifestation of the Word that was in the beginning, and before the beginning. The Saviour, who existed before, has in recent days appeared. He, who is in Him that truly is, has appeared; for the Word, who “was with God,” and by whom all things were created, has appeared as our Teacher. The Word, who in the beginning bestowed on us life as Creator when He formed us, taught us to live well when He appeared as our Teacher; that as God He might afterwards conduct us to the life which never ends”. http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/clement-exhortation.html March 2005 Clement of Alexandria, “Exhortation to the Heathen”.

[65] In the first three centuries of Christianity, the church found a variety of books and letters useful. Some of these were the subject of debate, and in the year 367 CE the word ‘Canon’ was first used by Christians to denote the writings that they considered ‘inspired’. The other works, which include the Shepherd and several others, were regarded as useful, though not to be held to have the same authority.

[66] All the writings of Cyprian are to be found at: http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/ANF-05/TOC.htm (March 2005)

[67] In his first book of ‘Against the Jews’, his opening chapter headings are: “1. That the Jews have fallen under the heavy wrath of God, because they have departed from the Lord, and have followed idols.

  1. Also because they did not believe the prophets, and put them to death. 3. That it was previously foretold that they would neither know the Lord, nor understand nor receive Him. 4. That the Jews would not understand the Holy Scriptures, but that they would be intelligible in the last times, after Christ had come. 5. That the Jews could understand nothing of the Scriptures unless they first believed on Christ.
  2. That they would lose Jerusalem, and leave the land which they had received. 7. That they would also lose the Light of the Lord.


[68] Valentinus, the gnostic Christian and heretic of the second century CE had an interesting angle on the pre-existence question. He held that at his baptism, Jesus became united with the pre-existent ‘Christ’ – which in his thinking seems to be identical with the apocalyptic ‘Son of Man’. http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/valentinus.html March 2005

[69] We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance of the Father, God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of the same substance with the Father, through whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth; who for us men and our salvation descended, was incarnate, and was made man, suffered and rose again the third day, ascended into heaven and cometh to judge the living and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost. Those who say: There was a time when He was not, and He was not before He was begotten; and that He was made our of nothing; or who maintain that He is of another hypostasis or another substance [than the Father], or that the Son of God is created, or mutable, or subject to change, [them] the Catholic Church anathematizes.

[70] This is very much a simplification of the many variations in christological thinking – especially among Gnostic Christians.

[71] It is outside the scope of this paper to look at the development and meaning of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Suffice it to say that this teaching has been a problem for many Christians throughout church history. It is a problem that will not go away: see Pittenger for further thought on this.

[72] Irenaeus ‘Against Heresies’. http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/irenaeus.html March 2005. See also Hoekema and Cairns.

[73] Hopkins p158

[74] http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf102.iv.I_1.i.html March 2005

[75] http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf103.iv.i.iii.i.html March 2005

[76] An example of this is to be found in Acts 2:34-36: “For David himself never went up to heaven, but yet he said: ‘The Lord declared to my Lord, take your seat at my right hand till I have made your enemies your footstool’ – for this reason the whole House of Israel can be certain that the Lord and Christ whom God has made is this Jesus whom you crucified.”

[77] Hershon refers to only one talmudic comment on the image of God: “Rav Yehuda said ….. When the Holy One, blessed be He! wished to create man, He first called into existence a set of ministering angels, and said to them: Is it your pleasure that we should make man in our own image?”

[78] Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud. P67ff

[79] (Cohen’s footnote) This is the original wording. There is a later interpolation, one soul of Israel‘ which destroys the universal character of the teaching.

[80] Urbach p277

[81] This schism began with argument over ‘Monophysitism’, the teaching that Jesus had one nature only. This was expressed in at least three complex formulae, all different. In the end though, it could be argued that the question revolved arouind power and power struggle rather than christology.

[82] The Summa can be found in an English translation at: http://www.ccel.org/a/aquinas/summa/home.html March 2005

[83] The complete text of Revelations can be found at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/julian/revelations.toc.html, and the chapter referenced is as p109 at: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/julian/revelations.xvi.viii.html (March 2005)

[84] Arthur Green p186

[85] Maimonides, book 1 chapter 1 discusses at length the two Hebrew words which are translated into the English word ‘image’ (or form) and ‘likeness’ p13ff, and in the following chapter he expands on this, coming to the conclusion that it is only in the matter of our intellect that we are in any way like God.

[86] I have included a reflection of my own as appendix 2. This was written before I had heard of Tsimtsum, and describes the way in which I felt God was revealing Godself to me.

[87] Pp 273-274 Major trends in Jewish mysticism

[88] A new dictionary of Christian theology refers under the heading ‘Gnosticism’ to the idea of primal man, and the ‘divine spark’ as being around before New Testament times. The article says that this concept was taken up by Gnostic Christian groups, especially by the Manichees.

[89] A tender and poetic description of mystical union (Moy refers to it as Divine Union) is to be found in Fred Moy – The Exiles. “ ….. a total giving of self to the Divine Union. This union in not only a union in intellect, but the actual fusion of the total individual identity into the Absolute Source. The giving is complete as a stream loses its identity in the ocean or the light from a lamp is lost in the brilliance of the sun, or a spark falls into the Divine Fire.

[90]St. Athanasius, Of the incarnation 54, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/athanasius/incarnation.ix.html (Aqpril 2005)

[91] http://www3.baylor.edu/~Scott_Moore/essays/reasonableness.html

[92] http://www.anselm.edu/homepage/dbanach/dnr.htm

[93] MacQuarrie uses the term ‘suprarational’ in his description of the tension that exists in a rational approach to an ‘understanding’ of God

[94] Tremper Longman offers an entire book in which he comes to this same conclusion.

[95] Collins preface; p xi

[96] Shira Shoenberg – a brief biography of Moses Mendelssohn found on the internet at http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/Mendelssohn.html March 2005.

[97] David Sorkin – ‘Moses Mendelssohn and the religious enlightenment’

[98] This entry shows the considerable influence of Martin Buber on modern Judaism. See below for more about Buber.

[99] Sandmel in his chapter headed ‘The responses to modernism’.

[100] http://www.sikhs.org/guru1.htm

[101] McGrath cites Feuerbach and Schleiermacher as holding opposed positions on this issue.

[102] The first essay in the collection referred to under Bultmann in the bibliography.

[103] Bultmann – p11

[104] Bultmann, Mythology p11. It is of these earlier attempts to demythologise that James P Mackey says, particularly of D F Strauss, of the Hegelian school of philosophy, that he takes: ‘a too narrow view of ‘scientific’ reason, a closed view of human nature and human faith, a restrictive philosophical preconception, which makes him demythologise in the name of history and thus ruin the history of the origins of Christianity’. – Mackey p34.

[105] All the essays referred to appear in the collection referred to in Bultmann’s Mythology work in the bibliography. ‘On the problem …’ begins on p 95

[106] See also ‘The Honest to God Debate’.

[107] This takes its name from the book and the TV series by Don Cupitt in the late 1980’s. The ethos is summed up by the ‘Sea of Faith’ network’s statement that ‘Religious faith is a purely human creation’.

[108] Bultmann – Mythology, p4

[109] Rowan Williams at his enthronement, 27th Feb 2003

[110] Parkes – Prelude p209-210

[111] Parkes – Foundations p220

[112] Parkes – Foundations p219

[113] Pittenger p7

[114] Pittenger p114

[115] Küng – On Being a Christian

[116] Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy – “Woodbine Willy” From “The Unutterable Beauty” 1927). The Collected Poetry of GSK – complete version of ‘Well?’ in appendix 1.

[117] Flyer for ‘The Wind blows where It Wills’ – An Exploration of God’s Spirit in a world of many faiths – conference in Scotland. Yong is quoted from his work ‘Beyond the Impasse: Toward a Pneumatological Theology of Religions’. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003. ISBN 0801026121]

[118] In its simplest form, there are three blind men (some versions have more men) who wish to ‘see’ an elephant. They are led to the elephant. One of them leans against its side. ‘It’s like a wall’, he says. Another takes hold of its tail. ‘It’s like a snake’. The third one puts his arms around a leg and declares that it’s like a tree. The point is that all of them are correct in what they describe, but there is a bigger picture. I can say with confidence that this is even more true of the God in whom I believe!

[119] Unusually, the Jesus with whom I had a mystical encounter some years ago was not the Jesus of faith. I felt that my encounter was with the Jesus of the temptations in the desert, immediately after his baptism. This was a very human Jesus who was, quite simply, staggered by what was happening to him – staggered by the enormity of the call which he had received, and needed to be by himself to reflect and to pray! This religious experience is reflected in my own attitude towards Christology and the nature of Jesus.

[120] p86 1959 Clark edition

[121] One might argue that Buber’s time was before the advent of the postmodern world. Perhaps his mystical reflection is timeless – certainly it fits well into the postmodern scene.

[122] p25 1959 Clark edition

[123] p84 1959 Clark edition

[124] p85 1959 Clark edition

[125] It was Lake’s work ‘Clinical Theology that caused a stir in 1967 when it was published, and which led to what has since been called ‘Primal Therapy’.

[126] While training as an assistant tutor with the CTA, I was encouraged to make one of these ‘Primal Journeys’. The experience of ‘bliss’ was for me being one with the universe or one with God – or perhaps one with the Son of Man who is part of God …. How does one put into words an experience such as this?

[127] Moy p61

[128] See Jonathan Magonet – the chapter ‘Did they fall or were they pushed?’ in ‘A Rabbi’s Bible.

[129] [129] From Athanasius – see above.

Mysticism and faith

Four voices

All world faiths have mystical experience at their root, and at least in their beginnings, at their heart. Mysticism ……. [definitions – explanations etc] ……

….. [Insert – Prophecy/Mysticism – dependency one to the other?] ……

Christianity along with all mature faiths recognises the need to discern. There are many claims from ‘prophets’ who are ‘saying what God is telling them’. The Christian scriptures recognise well the need to ‘test the spirits’ – 1 John 4:1 is one example of this. And Paul speaks of ‘discernment of spirits’ (1 Cor 12:10). In 1 Corinthians 14:29, he suggests that two or three members (of a meeting) should decide on the nature of a message that the speaker is claiming to be ‘of God’.

Controversy over what God is saying is right at the heart of all the disputes from the early days of Christianity, and one might say that there are still elements of this problem around in the church today. The church has long held that tradition needs to be taken into account alongside scripture and prophecy. Unhappily, the church as a whole cannot agree on what is and what is not valid tradition. It is this disagreement that has allowed, even encouraged, schism into the many traditions that claim to be a part of the ‘one holy catholic church’. The Eastern Orthodox traditions claim that all views on the authority of scripture must be tested against the teachings not only of the church, but especially of the early church fathers. Canon 19 of the Quinisext Ecumenical Synod is specific about this1. Vassilios Bakoyannis speaks also of three ‘interpreters’ [of scripture]. He names them as: The Devil, Our Passions, and the Holy Fathers. It is in a similar vein to this that I want to suggest that when the mystic ‘listens’ to God, he or she may in fact ‘hear’ four voices. These are: The Devil, His or Her Passions, His or Her Intellect, and Almighty God. Indeed, perhaps it is true to say that all ‘Words from God’ begin as a mixture of all four ‘voices’ with one or other being the dominant factor. Many years ago, I met a very humble and very holy Franciscan Catholic Friar. He was very much a part of the charismatic movement, and often felt moved to give a word of prophecy for discernment by the assembled church. He said with great humility that the first thousand or so words of prophecy that he had given were ‘probably 99% me, and 1% God’2.

Recently I read the first volume of Conversations with God, by Neale Donald Walsch. This, and his two subsequent volumes became best sellers, and I believe rightly so. I found reading them to be a very moving experience which led me to a great deal of reflection and a great deal of though including listening to God’s voice in my own heart. It is out of that reflection that I begin to write now.

I have no wish to critique Walsch’s work. That is for others. I would certainly advise that it be widely read – I would also suggest that it needs to be read prayerfully and with discernment of the spirits (the Four Voices?) always in mind.

With the spread of the charismatic movement through the church in almost all of its denominations, the majority of Christians recognise that the gift of Prophecy is working in the church today along with other gifts of the Holy Spirit. These same Christians recognise that discernment of spirits is required alongside the gift of Prophecy, and that this is the task of the church; however, the definition of ‘church’ may vary from denomination to denomination. I imagine that the majority of Christians who accept ‘words of Prophecy’ would agree that testing against scripture must be a criterion for the validity of the ‘word’. Some would also want to test against the traditions of their denomination, and many would be happy to take into account the methods of scriptural interpretation laid down by the early church and the early church fathers. For the most part, this will lead to the majority of Christians being in agreement most of the time as to the validity of the ‘word of prophecy’.

1 One Lord, One Faith, p 23. (Archimandrite Vassilios Bakoyannis).

2 1982 Ratcliffe College Charismatic conference, Fr. Joseph di Mauro …..

Who are the people of God?

Who are the people of God?

A discussion with reference to Isaiah 54 and Romans 9-11

Back to Index

© The Revd Barry Drake M.A. May 2000


The phrase “The People of God” can have many meanings. Taken at the beginning of the biblical creation story, the “People of God” means all the people – God created them, “…. and saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31). The meaning might become less clear in the Cain and Abel story, but in spite of his having killed his brother, God does not seem to reject Cain. Cain and his descendants are still among the people of God. In the story of Noah, we do appear to have people who are no longer the “People of God” because they have turned away from Him. We see here that Noah was a “righteous man” and found favour in God’s sight. At this point, Noah and his family alone are the people of God.

Before Israel, then, perhaps we could say that “The Righteous” are the “People of God”, and that the wicked are not His people – not that He has rejected them, but that they have rejected Him in their wickedness. Later, God’s covenant with Abraham is made, and from that time on, the bible speaks of the people of Israel as the people of God, living always among pagan nations who worship other gods. The distinction here is easy: Israel has accepted The Lord as God – the only God – and therefore Israel is the people of God. The nations have rejected God and turned aside to other gods. By that act, they have made themselves no longer His people.

With the coming of Christianity, a definition of “The People of God” becomes far more difficult. Neither Christians nor Jews were of one mind as to who the People of God were, and even in early Christian times, Christians were becoming divided on the same issue. By the present day, the notion of the “People of God” varies from Christian to Christian, and from one Jew to another according to their tradition and background. In this essay, we are looking at two brief passages: one from Isaiah in the Hebrew bible, and the other from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Both of these have been interpreted and re-interpreted many times, and have been used – perhaps even abused – in support of greatly differing views about who the people of God might be.

Today, definitions of “The People of God” would vary from “Those who love the Lord, or who would like to[i].” Through to narrow definitions stating categorically that “the only salvation is through Jesus Christ[ii].” In between these extremes there are a number of other possibilities[iii].

In this essay, I intend to look at Isaiah 54, and Romans 9 – 11, to discover as far as possible the people to whom they were written, and the circumstances that they address. It is my view that both passages have been read by Christians in a manner far from the writers’ original intentions. In my investigation, I will look at writings of the early church, as well as commentaries and exegetical texts from various periods in Christian history. I intend to look closely at a particular Christian viewpoint that sees the Church as having superseded The Jews as “The people of God”, and which is associated strongly with the passages concerned.

Isaiah’s People of God

The passage in chapter 54 of Isaiah deserves to be clear in the way in which it sees the people of God: it very clearly refers to Israel as a people, God’s people. It is written as a word of hope to a people in exile. It is written to the people of God, and if more evidence is required, the following chapter, Isaiah 55, speaks of the gentiles; the nations, and says that God will one day call them to be His people too. The entire chapter is full of comfort, encouragement and promise, and it reminds Israel of the promise from God that its “descendants will possess the nations” (54:3) and calls them “the servants of the Lord”, saying that their vindication will come from God. (54:17). Although the passage does not use the words “people of God”, it is perfectly clear to whom the passage is addressed, and it would be difficult to read anything into the passage as it stands, either in or out of context to suggest that the “People of God” might be understood as anything other than the scattered and downtrodden people of Israel.

It is commonly accepted[iv] that chapters 40 to 55 of Isaiah were written during the Babylonian exile – this would place its authorship in the sixth century BCE. A date between 520 – 516 BCE has been suggested. At that time, the Jews had been exiled from Jerusalem, firstly the nobles and the leading citizens in 597 BCE, and then the ordinary people in 586 BCE apart from some peasants. (See 2 Kings 24:14-16;25:11). The anguish of the exiled Jews is illustrated in Psalm 137. It is into this situation that the words of comfort – and hope – are written.

Chapter 54 begins by comparing Israel (here called “Jerusalem”) to a barren woman. There are echoes here of the sterility of Sarah (Gen 15:2) and of God’s promise fulfilled in Isaac. The promise to His people will be remembered and fulfilled; the Lord, who for a time seems to have abandoned his people, has not forgotten them. The now barren Jerusalem will be rebuilt and repopulated. Verse 6 uses tones reminiscent of the earlier prophet Hosea, when it speaks of Israel as a young wife deserted by her husband – “cast off” by him. Then God speaks – “for a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you” (54:7). In verse 9, the comparison is made with the Lord’s anger in the time of Noah, but as in the time of Noah, the promise is made, and will be kept.

The second half of the chapter speaks of the city of Jerusalem rebuilt – and rebuilt in far greater splendour than ever before. It ends with the promise that the Lord Himself will be Jerusalem’s protector and vindicator. The whole chapter is a prophetic statement that the promises, which God made to the fathers, are still valid: God keeps His promises, and will continue to do so. The election of Israel as the people of God is a reality, and is permanent. The prophet uses overtones of God’s earlier promises to His covenant-people to affirm, and to guarantee the everlasting covenant that is His promise to Israel – forever.

Most present day whole-bible Christian commentators seem to agree with the above analysis. How then, could there be any possibility of a different interpretation of this chapter, especially one that might show a different understanding of the “people of God”?

Potential problems for Jewish-Christian relations begin to show when the references to Isaiah 54 in Paul’s letter to the Galatians and in John’s Gospel are considered. John (6:45) has Jesus quoting Isaiah 54:13 “All your sons will be taught by the Lord” in a way that seems to mean that everyone who has listened to the Lord will come to Jesus. This in itself provides some difficulty, but Paul’s letter to the Galatians quotes Isaiah 54:1, and uses this reference to suggest that Israel (here called Jerusalem) is in slavery, and that Christians “are children of the promise”, “born according to the Spirit”, “not children of the slave, but of the free woman”. Whatever Paul actually meant by this, and we will look more closely at Paul and his thinking later on, that quotation, and others from the same letter have been used by Christians in anti-Jewish polemic through the ages.

Having stated that most present day commentators make no mention of specifically Christian interpretations for Isaiah 54, the same is not true of earlier scholars. The passage follows immediately after the “Servant Songs” which are well referenced both in the Gospels and the church fathers, who understand the Servant to be a “type” of Jesus, and they continue to follow the same typology in chapter 54, the passage in question. John Wesley, in his “Notes”[v] makes the following statement commenting on Isaiah 54:

“The prophet having largely discoursed of the sufferings of Christ, and of the blessed fruits thereof, and here foreseeing that glorious state of the church, he breaks forth into this song of triumph. And as the foregoing chapter literally speaks of Christ, so doth this of the church of Christ. This church, consisting at first of the Jews, and afterwards of the Gentiles, had been barren, ’till the coming of Christ. The desolate – The church of the Gentiles, which in the times of the Old Testament was desolate, does now bring forth to God a more numerous posterity than that of the Jews.”

Wesley goes on to say, referring to verse 10 of Isaiah 54:

“God will not cast off his Christian church, as he cast off the church of the Jews, the New Covenant is established upon better and surer promises than the Old.”

The understanding here is clearly one of supersession. That is to say, the Jews were the People of God only until the death of Jesus, after which the Christians have superseded the Jews. Christians are then seen as the “New People of God”. Only in commentaries of this century do we begin to find a different attitude taken towards Isaiah, and towards this passage, and it is only in some of the most recent commentaries that the People of Israel, to whom Isaiah is clearly speaking, are allowed to own this passage once more!

Having said that, the purpose of most modern general commentaries is to offer explanation rather than interpretation. It is simply not within the remit of these commentaries to offer the kind of comment that Wesley offered. The situation is not the same in up-to-date specialised commentaries on Isaiah. On the one hand, we see commentators such as Paul Hanson[vi] who are anxious to show both Jewish and Christian interpretative viewpoints. On the other hand, there is a school of commentators such as Alec Motyer[vii], who continue the traditional Christian treatment of the Bible in which the Jews are superseded by the new “People of God” – the church. In his introduction to Isa 54, Motyer says:

“The picture is that of the normative state of the community of the redeemed, the people of God, the church. They have been brought into being by supernatural birth, designed for growth and are secure in the loving care of the Lord.”

There is a view within both Jewish and Christian traditions that prophecy is a living thing: that is to say it has the same relevance in later situations that it had when first given. This view states that all prophecy is spoken by God, through the lips of the prophet, and is therefore a ‘word’ that stands outside time. Whatever their position with regard to the Jews, all Christians identify themselves as a part of the people of God. Taking the view that all prophecy is for the people of God for all time, then it follows that Isaiah 54 might be said to include Christians and modern-day Jews alongside the Jews to whom it was originally written.

It seems, then, that the answer to the question “Who are the people of God with reference to Isaiah 54?” is not a simple one. It depends entirely upon whom you ask!

Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 9-11

In the passages in question, Paul seems to be in the midst of a difficult personal struggle. Verse 2 of chapter 9 is explicit about this. Paul reminds the reader that he himself is a Jew. His letter tells us that he is writing to Jewish Christians as well as to Gentiles. Scholars vary in their opinions as to the background, but perhaps the most widely held opinion[viii] is that the church in Rome was originally composed of Jewish and Gentile Christians. In 49 CE, Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome. When they were allowed to return in 54 CE, it was to a church that had moved a long way from its previous tradition which was closer to that of the Palestinian Jews. The suggestion here is that Paul is aware that Paul, writing around 57 or 58 CE, is aware that he is addressing a church torn apart by the resulting tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians.

Whatever the situation, and whatever subsequent commentators have made of Paul’s writings[ix], Paul is quite clear as to who the people of God are. At the beginning of Chapter 11, he says, speaking of the people of Israel: “Has God rejected His people“, and he goes on to declare that God has not rejected them. The people of Israel remain for Paul, the people of God. What then of the Gentiles? It is in this connection that Paul presents a well-developed view of how he sees Jew and Gentile together as God’s people.

Let us now turn back to Paul’s struggle at the beginning of Romans 9 in which he speaks of his great sorrow and anguish of heart. Paul’s anguish is about his own people, the Jews. It seems clear that Paul would far rather have the Jews accept Jesus as the Messiah than endure the situation in which he finds himself: effectively cut off from his own people who are rejecting Paul’s claim that Jesus is “The Messiah”. We can be sure that by this time, Paul is truly immersed in tension between Jews and Christians to the extent that he is aware of his own imminent rejection by the Jews. He could almost wish that the situation were reversed, and that he were “cut off from Christ” in order to remain at one with his own people (Rom 9:3). Paul then presents a great deal of difficult argument, and at times it is far from clear just what he is saying. This lack of clarity in some of Paul’s writing has been well noted from the very early days of the church. In the second letter of Peter, the writer seems to imply that Paul’s letters are not easy, and that his words were being used in some kind of undesirable polemic even at that time. The passage referred to says: “So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures”. (2 Peter 3:15-16[x])


Paul uses the example of Isaac’s birth, reminding the reader that his birth came about only as the result of a promise from God. He uses this idea of Isaac as a gift from God to say that the children of Isaac, that is, “The children of Israel”, are children of grace, children of a promise, gifts from God, rather than natural children born of a purely human series of relationships. As James Dunn writes:

“That which he [Paul] describes as the covenanted status of the descendants of Abraham is their status before God. It is a status which the natural descendants of Abraham cannot assume for themselves by virtue of being the natural descendants of Abraham. The ground of filial relationship to God is not simply filial relationship to Abraham.[xi]

Paul continues his argument to attempt to show that God can call whomsoever He wishes to be “children of the promise” in whatever way He wills. The end of the argument states that God has called his people “not from the Jews only, but also from the Gentiles”. (Rom 9:24)

Paul’s argument in Romans 9 and 10 is difficult, tortuous and full of bible references with which the reader is expected to be familiar. Perhaps because it lacks clarity, and is therefore easy to “twist”, and perhaps also because of growing hostility between many Jews, especially Palestinian Jews, and the early church, we find Paul’s words referenced a great deal in anti-Jewish polemic. Much has been written about the tension that existed within the Judaism of Paul’s day between Jews from the land that we now call Israel, and Jews of the Diaspora, the Greek-speaking Jews. There was considerable pressure among the Hellenistic Jews for a more progressive form of Judaism, and many of the Levitical prohibitions were being brought into question. Rosemary Ruether[xii] holds that this tension – between the Greek Jew: the Jew of the diaspora, and the Palestinian Jew – plays a large part in the tensions between early church and synagogue. Whatever the cause of the use, or abuse of Paul’s words in polemical texts, it seems clear from the text itself that Paul holds the Gentile Christians to be part of the people of God, together with the Jews, whom God has not rejected.

In chapter 9, Paul refers to the Torah, here called the Law (Gk Nomos). “Israel, who pursued the righteousness which is based on the Law did not succeed in fulfilling that Law”. (Rom 9-31). James Dunn, in his “Theology of Paul[xiii]” is clear that Paul does not see Torah as an impossible burden – “Israel’s pursuit (of righteousness) …. Has failed not because the Law was the wrong goal but because they had pursued it in the wrong way”. Dunn sees the main thrust of Paul’s argument in chapters 9-11 as being to the effect that God can accept Gentiles as well as Jews. Dunn argues that Paul is seeking to claim a place for the Gentiles, alongside the Jews by faith, rather than the works of Torah. It is as though for the Gentiles, Torah is being “replaced” by faith in Jesus Christ, but it is also a question of election – of God’s choice. God can choose whomsoever He wishes – as illustrated by His choice of Jacob over Esau. Dunn tells us that Paul is calling on Israel to recognise the place of faith apart from, or alongside Torah. Paul believes the Jews to be wrong in their rejection of his message – but does not see them as being outside God’s plan because of this. He really longs for his people to be with him, accepting the Christian way as the new Judaism. He has realised though, that this is not happening, and in part is trying to understand the situation himself. It is Paul’s conclusion here that God must have His purpose, otherwise the Jews would hear the message, and would follow it. One part of the answer he finds by quoting Deuteronomy “I will provoke you to jealousy by a nation that is not a nation; by a nation of fools I will make my people angry.” Deut 32:21), suggesting that it is by Israel becoming jealous of the success of Christianity that it will itself turn to the teachings which he is offering. The second part of the answer, Paul sees as being the need to allow the Gentiles to become the people of God through the gospel. Here Dunn comments:

“As we might say, Israel’s early election had given historic Israel such an advantage in the pursuit of righteousness (9:30) that, had Israel smoothly taken to the new phase of the pursuit (through faith in Christ), Gentiles might have been wholly put off, and missed out”.

In other words, Paul sees God to be allowing His “stubborn” people to stay as they are – the people of Israel, the people of God, until the full number of the nations are given the opportunity to hear the gospel that Paul is preaching.

In chapter 11, Paul develops his argument further. He offers a vivid illustration. He compares Israel to a cultivated olive tree, and the Gentiles to a wild olive. He suggests that some of the branches of the cultivated olive have been broken off because of their unbelief. Paul suggests that God has allowed a branch of the wild olive to be “grafted in” to the cultivated olive in order that the Gentiles may share the same root. Of particular note for later consideration is the fact that Paul never suggests that all of the branches have been broken off, but only some. Paul goes on to challenge any pride that Gentile Christians might have in the “breaking off” of Jewish branches to make way for them. He assures them that they can just as easily be “broken off” themselves, and if God so wills, the Jewish branches grafted back in to the root that is Israel. The Gentiles are there by faith and by God’s mercy alone – but in a sense, so are the Jews.

Paul implies that his Messianic claim for Jesus has become a “Stumbling block” for the Jews (Rom 9:32-33), but in chapter 11, he goes on to assert that the “Stumbling” of the Jews has brought salvation to the Gentiles (Rom 11:11). An important point here is that the Jews only “stumble”, they do not fall. Once again, it is God’s providence that allows this to happen, in order to give the nations a fighting chance. The final point that Paul makes towards the end of chapter 11 clarifies his position a great deal, both with regard to the Jews and the Gentiles:

“So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, “Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.” “And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.” As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable”. (Rom 11:25-29)

This last passage seems to make it quite clear that the Jews are still the people of God because of God’s promise. God has “hardened their hearts” for a while[xiv], once again for the sake of the nations. Dunn points us to a fresh interpretation -a linguistic technicality – here. He says that the “hardening” should be correctly understood as a partial hardening, or blindness, rather than the accepted translation that suggests only “part of Israel” is hardened.

Beker makes three important points concerning Rom 11:25-28. They are:

“1) There will be no final eschatological deliverance for the world without the salvation of all of Israel. (Rom 11:25-26)

2) The church of the gentiles has no authenticity or identity unless it realises that it is “grafted contrary to nature onto a cultivated olive tree” ie into Israel, “beloved for the sake of the forefathers” (Rom 11:24,28

3) The promises of God for the Gentiles become null and void unless God’s promises to all Israel become realised.[xv]

Whether the Jews have, or have not rejected the Christian gospel, God has not rejected them, simply blinded them to the truth as Paul sees it.

Overall, it is clear that Paul was writing to a divided church, and was attempting to show a kind of middle way. Dunn sees him as walking a tightrope, and refusing an easy solution that would allow the two opposite errors that he sees the church (and the Jews) falling into. Precisely what each party to the argument was saying cannot now be seen clearly. Most scholars suggest that on the one hand, Gentile Christians are arguing that the church has superseded Israel as the people of God, and on the other hand, Jews and Jewish Christians are claiming that they alone are the true people of God – perhaps allowing that “Righteous Gentiles” may be included[xvi]. For this reason, Paul is attempting to show that God makes “no distinction between Jew and Greek” (Rom 10:12).

The above understanding of Romans 9-11 is well supported by the text itself, and by some of the modern commentators[xvii] and theologians. Krister Stendahl, for example, argues with great sensitivity that Paul never sees himself as being converted to Christianity, but rather obeys a call from God to preach the Christian message as a Jew, and to the Jews. When the majority of Jews reject his teaching, he continues his work among the gentiles, and is finally rejected by the Jews. Stendahl asserts that Paul never rejects his own Judaism[xviii], and continues to regard the Jews as being the people of God alongside Christians. He adds that: “The central issue claiming Paul’s attention is that of the inclusion both of Gentiles and Jews[xix].” Stendahl feels strongly that the text itself is not read today as it ought to be. There is a great deal of “handed down” interpretation – much of which he sees as being wrong. He says: “What has happened to Christianity is that instead of having free access to the original, we have lived in a sort of chain reaction – Augustine touching up Paul, and with Pelagius discussing and turning these things around, the medievalists pushing one way or another, and then further reactions, moving away from the original”

The view outlined above is not the only view that is held however. When looking at the Isaiah text earlier, we saw that there was a strongly held view that the Church had superseded the Jews as “the people of God”. In taking this view, John Wesley was among the orthodox of his day, and was reflecting a view that had existed since the church fathers. This view that the church has superseded Israel has been supported by texts from Paul – particularly from Galatians and Romans. How, then, has Romans 9-11 been understood?

In Romans 9:6, Paul says, “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel”, and in 11:5, he speaks of the “faithful remnant” of Israel. The view has been taken that only Jews who convert to Christianity are part of this “remnant”. The rest of Israel is then understood to be outside the new people of God, which is the church, until the end times, when the full number of Gentiles have become Christian. After that, there will be a sudden conversion, in which all the Jews will become Christian. The old standard, “Ellicott’s Commentary” says: “The reconversion of the Jews will be a signal to inaugurate that reign of eternal life which will be ushered in by the resurrection of the dead.” This understanding of Paul seems to be a very common one within Christianity

Taken out of context, and with scant reference to Romans 11:25-29, the texts at 9:6-7 and 11:4-10 could be read as references to Jews who converted to Christianity. Is this what Paul intended? Paul is speaking as a Pharisee. At the time he is writing, the Pharisees were deeply concerned that most of Israel had lost its commitment to the Torah. The more extreme sects among the Jews were claiming, according to Ruether, that: “the Judaism of the temple and of ordinary believers was to be ranked with the “nations” and counted among the hosts of Belial”[xx]. It is most likely that Paul the Pharisee is referring to lack of faith, lack of Torah observance, and general spiritual malaise among Jews when he declares that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel”, and speaks of the faithful remnant of Israel that remains true in its observance, and its faith in God.

The kind of exegesis which claims to prove that the Church has superseded the Jews does not end there. It uses Paul’s illustration of the olive tree (Rom11:17) as though it is saying that all the branches had been broken off. It takes Paul’s statements about lack of faith among Jews to include all the Jews who have not converted to Christianity. Paul’s illustrations are regarded as absolutes that the text simply does not support. The one statement in Rom 11 – the one earlier referred to as making it quite clear that the Jews are still the people of God because of God’s promise, that is 11:28, ought to present a severe problem to the supersessionist. It is abundantly clear from the text that the Jews still remain the people of God because of election (the promise) and that they are still beloved by God. The text bears no other interpretation. The Greek is unambiguous – the phrase “κατα δε την εκλογην αγαπητοι δια τους πατερας

[xxi]” literally, “but concerning the election, they are loved through (or on account of) the fathers”, cannot be understood to mean anything other than that the Jews are still God’s chosen people because of God’s promise to the Patriarchs. In spite of this, Wesley, who, as we have seen was a convinced supersessionist, offers the following: “They are now enemies – To the gospel, to God, and to themselves, which God permits. For your sake: but as for the election – That part of them who believe, they are beloved”. It is clear from the context that by “that part of them who believe”, Wesley means only those who have become Christian. This is hardly justified by the text itself. Many of the older commentaries

[xxii] follow a similar method, by reading into the text such an unsupported comment.

It is not only the older commentators and theologians who offer supersessionist doctrines. A number of modern writers also take the traditional view. “The New Jerome Commentary” of 1989 follows this approach, and presents it as the current Catholic teaching of the time. “New Jerome” seems to take the traditional view that we have just seen concerning the place of Israel, even though Karl Barth, whose views do not entirely support supersessionism, is cited. Jerome’s stance seems surprising in the light of the Vatican declaration “Nostra Aetate” – 1965. This document offers the following:

“Although the Church is the new People of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. Consequently, all must take care, lest in catechising or in preaching the Word of God, they teach anything which is not in accord with the truth of the Gospel message or the spirit of Christ”.

In contrast to the way in which the writer in Jerome understands him, Barth seems to be struggling with the question of the Jews. He sees the “faithful remnant” in Romans 11:15 as Jewish Christians, but softens the implication of this by seeing the rest of Israel somehow as “secret Christians”. He says: “There is always – there was then and there is now – the Church from and in Israel too, and all Israel secretly lives – lived then and lives now – in her. The remnant of Israel, kept by the election of grace, however large or small it may be, is in God’s sight all Israel.

[xxiii]” Writers in the Tübingen school – represented here by Käsemann generally follow a supersessionist understanding. Commenting on Romans 11:28

[xxiv] he cites Schrank:

“Israel is simultaneously loved and rejected because it received a promise and did not accept the gospel. But it has the possibility of conversion so long as the word goes out to it”.

Surprisingly, Rosemary Ruether, who presents a great deal of information concerning Paul’s background, and a clear picture of the Judaism of his day, comes down heavily on the side of Paul being anti-Torah, and anti-Jew

[xxv]. In essence than, supersessionists are clear that Christians are seen as part of a new covenant, and that unconverted Jews are no longer the people of God, but remain in some sort of limbo until the parousia, whereupon they will all convert to Christianity by an act of God.

As we have already seen when considering Isaiah 54, the answer to the question “Who are the people of God?” is not a simple one. This is true also of in Paul’s letter to the Romans. The answer depends once again upon whom you ask.

Looking at the Problem

A major problem for Jewish-Christian relations is a brand of supersessionism that gives no place among the people of God to the Jews. This has been highlighted in the study of Isaiah 54, and Romans 9-11 above. Jacob Neusner

[xxvi] sees supersessionism as the major stumbling block in Jewish Christian relations today. The problem seems to begin in the very early church. We have seen already that it was precisely this kind of attitude that Paul sought to avoid in his letter to the Romans. Within a few years of Paul’s letter to the Romans, the church fathers were writing strongly supersessionist anti-Jewish polemic, and referring to the Jews as Christ Killers

[xxvii]. Dunn, when looking at this problem, states categorically that Paul’s attempt (to re-define Israel as “the called of God”, both Jew and Christian) has failed

[xxviii]. The idea that Jews are no longer the people of God strengthened during the first three or four centuries of Christianity and beyond. Neusner sees the problem as having intensified and taken on an even more serious character at the hands of the Christian reformers and today it represents not only the view of some modern theologians, but for the most part, the popular understanding among ordinary Christians. Following a recent trip to Israel, I sent a questionnaire to my fellow participants to obtain a list of their favourite and least favourite places. One response, to the question “Which site did you find the most moving?” reads as follows: “The Wailing Wall on the Jewish Sabbath. Praying and weeping …… for the Peace of Jerusalem that Jews and Gentiles will acknowledge Jesus Christ as their Messiah

[xxix]“. From what has been said to me by Christians from time to time I feel sure that this attitude – that Jews need to be “saved” by becoming Christians – is the majority Christian response.

I would like to extend this messianic notion just a little. Paul quotes Isaiah 59:20-21 in Romans 11:26. “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”. Perhaps the most central area of common ground for both Jew and Christian is the expectation that the Messiah will come, and will usher in the eternal kingdom of God. Dunn suggests that Paul’s lack of identification in 11:26 of the Messiah with Jesus is a deliberate one. If Paul makes the identification in his own mind, in his writing, he leaves the question open, allowing both Christian and Jew to continue to expect Messiah’s coming each in his own way. We have much to learn from that simple point made by Paul, in Jewish Christian relations today.


In summary, it seems that not only has Christianity effectively hijacked large sections of the Hebrew Bible and claimed them as though they are Christian texts, but it has also abused some of them beyond reasonable bounds. The idea that the Church is the new Jerusalem, and that the Jews have been rejected is something that has permeated Christian teaching since the beginning, and as we have seen, this is contrary to the teaching of the Apostle Paul. The answer to the original question ought to be a simple one: in Isaiah 54, we ought to be able to say clearly that the people of God as seen in that passage are the people of Israel, and that by adoption, the prophecy may later be applied to Christians. In a similar way, referring to the passages from Paul, we ought to be able to say categorically that Paul sees the people of God as Jews and Christians together, and that this applies whether or not the Jews have become Christians. We can see from the above study that this is not the case. The waters have become very muddy indeed.

The conclusions reached in the above essay suggest that there is a great deal of work to be done. If Paul’s intention in his letter to the Romans has been correctly understood by Dunn, Stendahl and others, then the church has lived with a malignant error – one might say a heresy – since its earliest days

[xxx]. Rabbi Jonathan Magonet illustrates the fact that the way any of us reads the Bible is influenced strongly, often mindlessly, by the baggage that each of us brings to our reading of it

[xxxi]. This baggage is educational, cultural and religious, and the stark reality of it begins to be seen in the light of joint study by Jews and Christians together. Jews and Christians working together are each able to challenge, and sometimes to correct the other.

Dr. Edward Kessler sees one answer to problems in Jewish-Christian dialogue as an intense programme of education

[xxxii] – for both Christians and Jews. His assertion that the teaching must be made to filter right down through all levels is an evident, but challenging one; any misconception that has been supported and reinforced for two millennia, as has the ‘doctrine’ of supersession, will be a hard one to overturn. The work is urgent – and vitally important. Where is the witness to the rest of the world if God’s own people can’t be seen to live and work in harmony with one another? The sins of our forebears may be handed down through the generations – but there comes a time when, with the help of God, and end must be made. I fancy that this will be a glorious end indeed.


Barth, Karl – Shorter Commentary on Romans – SCM – 1959

Bettenson, Henry – Documents of the Christian Church – OUP – 1943 to 1954

Beker, J. Christiaan – The New Testament View of Judaism – an essay in “Jews and Christians”, edited by J. H. Charlesworth – Crossroads NY – 1990

Bultmann, Rudolf – Theology of the New Testament – SCM – 1952

Dunn, James D. G. – The Theology of Paul the Apostle – Clark (under license from Eerdmans) – 1998

Dunn, James D. G. – 38B Word Biblical Commentary – Word publishing – 1991

Dunn, James D. G. – The Parting of the Ways – SCM 1991

Ellicott, Chas. J. (Ed.) – A Bible Commentary for English readers – Cassell – Undated Ca. 1910

Hanson, Paul D – Interpretation – Isaiah 40-66 – John Knox press – 1995

Hunter, A. M. – The Epistle to the Romans (Torch series) – SCM – 1955

Käsemann, Ernst – Commentary on Romans – SCM 1973, 1980

Magonet, Jonathan – “A Rabbi’s Bible” – SCM – 1991

Motyer, Alec – The Prophecy of Isaiah – IVP – 1993

Moule, H. C. G – The Epistle to the Romans – Pickering and Inglis – 1928, 1975

Neusner, Jacob – Jews and Christians – The Myth of a Common Tradition – SCM – 1991

Roetzel, Calvin J. – The Letters of Paul – SCM – 1975, 1982

Ruether, Rosemary R. – Faith and Fratricide – Seabury (NY) – 1974

Stendahl, Krister – Paul among Jews and Gentiles – Fortress (Pa) – 1976 to 1979

General Commentaries and references:

Encyclopaedia Judaica

Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church – OUP

Peake’s Commentary on the Bible – Thomas Nelson – 1962

The Interpreter’s one volume Commentary on the Bible – Abingdon 1971,1992

The New Jerome Biblical Commentary – Geoffrey Chapman – 1989


Online Bible Deluxe Edition – published by Online Bible, Canada 1999 Use made of the Jamieson Fawcett Brown commentary

Wesleyan Heritage Library – published by Wesleyan Heritage, USA – 1997

Use made of John Wesley’s Sermons, and Notes on the Bible (Ca. 1740?)

From the internet:

Early Church Fathers – edition by Philip Schlaff downloaded from http://ccel.org/fathers2/

Nostra Aetate – downloaded from the Vatican web site

Kessler, Edward – Jewish Christian Relations – the next generation – downloaded from the CJCR web site

[i] A broad definition used to my knowledge by some of the more liberal members of the United Reformed Church, including myself. It may well be a definition worth pursuing in dialogue between Jews and Christians.

[ii] There are many Conservative Evangelical Christians today who insist that the only salvation is through Jesus Christ, and would take that to mean that the only people of God are those who have become Christians.

[iii] One possibility would include only those who have been through some kind of ritual initiation – some Cristians would cite baptism, others baptism by immersion, as believers. Perhaps there are Jews who would cite circumcision.

[iv] An increasing number of conservative Christian scholars assert that the whole of Isaiah dates from the eight century BCE. This is not the place to discuss that particular issue, but the dating will not, in any case affect my argument.

[v] Wesley, John – Notes on the Bible – Ca. 1740? (Computer edition, Wesleyan Heritage Publications 1998 – CD ROM)

[vi] Paul Hanson – Interpretation Isaiah 40-66

[vii] Alec Motyer – The prophecy of Isaiah

[viii] A number of the most recent commentators take this view, including Roetzel and the Pauline contributor to the New Jerome commentary.

[ix] Passages from Paul’s writings in the letter to the Romans are quoted as proof texts in early Christian anti-Jewish polemic. We can see some of this in the many references to Paul in ‘adversos Judaeos’ passages in the church fathers.

[x] This passage may be referring to Galatians. Certainly the writer seems to imply not only that Paul is difficult to understand, but also that there is already controversial teaching in the church, possibly anti-Jewish, that “twists Paul’s words”.

[xi] “38B Word Biblical Commentary” – JDG Dunn

[xii] She makes reference to this situation in “Faith and Fratricide”, and regards it as formative in the Jewish-Christian split.

[xiii] J D G Dunn – The theology of Paul the Apostle

[xiv] A comparison is used here from Exodus: God hardened the heart of the Pharaoh so that Israel might be saved.

[xv] Beker’s essay “The new testament view of Judaism” in “Jews and Christians”

[xvi] Rosemary Ruether writes: “The doctrine of the Noachian laws gave Judaism a rationale for accepting the “righteous pagan” as a child of God who had a place in the promised Kingdom”. She says that this was an accepted teaching among Hellenistic Jews well before the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. “Faith and Fratricide”

[xvii] James Dunn is one of several commentators who are clear that Paul sees non-Christian Jews as a part of the people of God.

[xviii] In this, James Dunn agrees with Stendahl. Writing in “The Partings of the Ways”, Dunn states “Paul would by no means have regarded himself as outside Israel looking in. Outside Judaism perhaps; but Judaism as defined by his Pharisaic contemporaries; Paul an Israelite still”.

[xix] In his third chapter, “Justification rather than forgiveness”, Stendahl takes a refreshing look at Paul and his background and point of view. Krister Stendahl -“Paul among Jews and Gentiles”

[xx] Ruether produces much evidence to show that the Judaism of Paul’s day was degenerate, most of the people had lost faith in God, and especially among the Hellenistic Jews, the people were becoming more and more secular in their outlook. “Faith and Fratricide” – R. Ruether – 1974

[xxi] Technical note: I have transliterated the Greek here, as “kata de thn ekloghn agaphtoi dia touV pateraV” (Romans 11:28) may not transmit electronically to resemble the original. Greek computer fonts seem a bit variable in the way they work.

[xxii] The text is unavoidable here, but some commentators who are insisting on the supersession of the church get around the problem by suggesting that the Jews are still loved by God, even though being excluded from His people. From Jamieson Fawcett Brown commentary – Rom 11:28. As concerning the Gospel they are enemies for your sakes–that is, they are regarded and treated as enemies (in a state of exclusion through unbelief, from the family of God) for the benefit of you Gentiles; in the sense of #Ro 11:11,15. but as touching, the election–of Abraham and his seed — they are beloved–even in their state of exclusion for the fathers’ sakes.

[xxiii] Karl Barth’s Shorter Commentary on Romans. This book is especially interesting as Barth gave the work originally as a series of lectures during the Second World War. This work was not published until 1956, and I find it surprising that Barth did not feel a need to add some later thoughts from a post war situation – in the light of the destruction of six million Jews.

[xxiv] Käsemann’s “Commentary on Romans”

[xxv] Ruether is demonstrating that anti-Semitism has deeply Christian roots. Maybe she feels that this view of Paul strengthens her argument. I feel strongly that the text itself does not support her argument here. . “Faith and Fratricide” – R. Ruether – 1974

[xxvi] Neusner – “Jews and Christians, the Myth of a Common Tradition”

[xxvii] One of the earliest of the fathers to write in this manner is St. Ignatius. By that time (late first century) it has become clear that the church, or at least part of the church, is strongly anti-Jew, classing Jews along with ‘the heathen’.

[xxviii] Chapter 6 of “The Theology of Paul the Apostle”

[xxix] I am sure that many people, Jew and Christian alike, are moved to pray at the Western Wall that the Messiah will come. It is the implication here that the Jews have been rejected by God and need to accept the Christian Messiah, Jesus, before he can come again as Messiah that I find problematical.

[xxx] One might also wonder as to what other errors are lurking, yet to be discovered, in our handed down theologies.

[xxxi] “How a donkey reads the Bible” – a chapter in “A Rabbi’s Bible”.

[xxxii] Hugo Gryn Memorial Lecture: “Jewish-Christian Relations – the next generation”.

Creation evolution and intelligent design – a satirical view

An imagined conversation between Richard Dawkins and his maker.

God:  Richard, my dear friend.  It really is a pleasure to welcome you here.

Dawkins:  I don’t understand.  I’ve spent all my life building evidence that proves conclusively that you don’t exist.  If I were you, I’d be furious.

God:  But I created you just as you are, and I love you.  It is a pleasure to have you here, and I am really proud of the way in which you have used the intellect I gave you.

Dawkins:  Even though I clearly made a huge mistake?

God:  You never made a mistake.  You simply reached a conclusion from the evidence that you chose to chose to research.

Dawkins:  I never found a scrap of evidence to suggest that you might exist.

God:  Your scientific methods have been exemplary.  It was not your fault that you never looked at thousands of years of evidence for my existence.  It never was part of your field of research.

Dawkins:  I don’t understand.  What evidence had you in mind?

God:  The mystical experience of thousands upon thousands of your fellow humans over many thousands of years.  And often in complete isolation from other mystics.  Your learned colleague Carl Gustav Jung offered a very elegant theory to explain away the mystical evidence – it was obvious to him that there had to be some kind of explanation for such a large body of experience of this nature.  Like you, Jung did not want to accept the most obvious explanation for it.  He came up with the ‘Collective Unconscious’ concept.  It was so complex a theory that most of his colleagues misunderstood.  I find the simple answer is often the best.  In this case, I am the simple answer!  But as I have said, psychology was never your field.

Dawkins:  I understand.  But the work I have done in the field of evolution, and the connections that I have made with our growing understanding of DNA and genetics obviously pointed me towards humankind as part of a random process.  Where does this put the understanding of creation?

God:  First, answer me this: Is the human understanding of DNA and the genetic process complete?

Dawkins:  No, it is not.  I have wondered whether a complete understanding will ever be reached.

God:  Well, neither is my creation complete.  When I set the process in motion, I was in full control, and still am.  There is much that I want to show you.  You have spoken of genetic mutation as a random process.  You considered it to be some kind of mistake that happened from time to time.  It is my method of creation.  Whenever I introduce a mutation, it is to fulfill my purpose and to achieve the perfection which every human knows inwardly at the heart of their being.  Some see it more clearly than others.

Dawkins:  But there have been mistakes.  What about the unsuccessful creatures?  The dinosaurs died out, didn’t they?

God:  I have never made a mistake.  You mention the dinosaurs.  Your knowledge of the genetic process that I use has shown you that there is in every human a large trace of all that has gone before, and that includes the dinosaurs that I created.  All of past creation is represented in the crowning glory of my creation – and that, Richard, is you.

Dawkins:  Me?

God:  Yes Richard.  Humankind is the highest point in the process.  The mystics were right when they wrote that I made humankind in my own image and likeness.  This is why you spent your whole life pursuing such a wonderfully creative path towards greater human knowledge.  I am proud of you and of your work.  You spent your whole life praising the elegance of my creative process – in so doing, you were praising me!

Dawkins:  But I have clearly failed you.  I have made every attempt to convince others that you don’t exist.  What about those children I taught?  I proved to them that science and religion cannot exist together.  I have done great harm.

God:  You have not.  I made sure that each one of them sees evidence to the contrary.  All of them have the same freedom I gave you.  You have done no harm at all.  One of those children began to reflect on what you had said, and from that point went on to become a firm believer!  And you have added a great deal to the collective experience of humankind.  Come with me now, and let me show you the perfection at the end of my creative process …..
© 2008 – The Revd Barry Drake MA.


The traditions of the church

The traditions of the church

To suggest that the church can be divided into three main strands is, perhaps a little simplistic. Most churches will include members who would identify with more than one of these strands. It is easy to find churches that belong to the catholic strand which are also moderately liberal in their belief and practice. Similarly it is not hard to find evangelical churches that are moderately liberal or moderately catholic in some of their thought.

I am going to suggest that there may be substantial benefits for any one of these three strands when it is exposed to, and in dialogue with the other two. Before looking at this, I have taken a look at each of the three strands or traditions, and also at the pentecostal or charismatic as a movement which encounters all three traditions.

The Bible – “Evangelical” tradition

GENERAL (objective) view[1]

Karl Barth, a German theologian whose theological writings literally take up several feet on the library shelves was known to summarise everything he had wanted to say in his lifetime of study by quoting the children’s song:

Jesus loves me, this I know,

For the Bible tells me so.

People who emphasise the bible in their relationship with God over and above intellect, tradition, and current inspiration may be described as ‘evangelical’. Worship in this tradition is often dominated by the sermon and readings from the bible.


Bible literalist (sometimes called fundamentalist). At the extreme end of this position are six-day creationists who reject scientific advance completely, and refuse to take into account any of the useful tools for bible interpretation provided by archaeology and up-to-date scholarship, even when this throws new light on the bible itself. Bible inerrancy is a term sometimes used by members of this group.


Lack of respect shown to tradition and history mean that old heresies can and do recur unchecked. Lack of respect given to intellectual challenge can result in failure to accommodate the intellectual, social and practical needs of the world as it constantly changes. The evangelical wing of the church is noted for its missionary zeal far more than its concern for social change. At their worst, evangelical Christians can be seen to be narrow and moralising, sanctimonious, harsh and judgemental. In such cases, the old saying ‘ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est’ (where compassion and love are found, God Himself is there’) comes to mind (1 John 4:7). A tendency to use ‘proof texts’ to ‘prove’ a particular spin on their teaching can result in imbalance in their teaching. This often leads to a ‘gospel’ being preached which simply does not stand up when tested against the whole of the bible, against the example of Jesus Himself, and against tradition, love and compassion, and intellect. It is not difficult to find this extreme among American Southern Baptists.


Its high regard for the inspired nature of the bible means that it takes very seriously the bible as the church’s main guide to the Christian faith. Taken alongside intellectual testing, and scrutiny of history and tradition to ensure that the old traps are not revisited, the evangelical tradition can, and does, revitalise and challenge moribund areas of the church.


Jesus clearly takes a very high view of scripture, and uses it to settle and to refute arguments. On a number of occasions (the temptations, the argument about healing on the Sabbath etc.), Jesus uses scripture over against ‘proof texts’ to show that God has to be listened to in the whole bible, and not just in a few choice tracts. The evangelical wing of the church frequently falls into the trap of proof texting.

Jesus also reproves the bible scholars of his day for failing to listen to the prophets. The prophets, both then and now, always cry out for justice, mercy and peace. If a rigid interpretation of scripture is militating against justice, freedom or peace (or all of these), then it has to be challenged. Jesus sits lightly to the bible when he tells us that the Sabbath is made for man, and not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). In that instance, he uses intellect to make sense of what God wants. In the case of the woman taken in adultery (John 8:3-11), he lets compassion motivate him into going against scripture by not advocating that both the woman and her lover be stoned to death! (Deut 22:22 & Lev 20:10)

History and doctrine – “Catholic” tradition

GENERAL (objective) view

In the catholic understanding, it is the continuity of God’s leading of the church down through the centuries that is important along with all the accumulated teaching (Christian doctrine) that has developed over that time. The Creeds and the Liturgy are essential to the catholic tradition and its belief is expressed in worship or liturgy especially in the context of the Eucharist or Mass.


Attachment to tradition to the exclusion of intellectual analysis and biblical testing and interpretation can lead to a very bigoted position which defies argument both from scriptural and intellectual viewpoints.


Possibility of harmful doctrines creeping in and being left unchallenged because they are an agreed part of ‘our Catholic tradition’. At its worst extreme, catholic worship can degenerate into just ‘going through the motions’ (2 Tim 3:5) – following the outward form of religion- …).


Awareness of tradition means that, alongside proper balance from intellectual and biblical challenges, the catholic tradition can offer a high degree of stability, with freedom from extremes in worship, practice and belief.


Jesus attacks the traditionalists when their interpretation of the bible leads either to the favouring of one person or group of persons against another, or when it goes against love and compassion (Mark 7:9-13). He is prepared to sit lightly both to tradition and to the bible in certain instances, when intellect or compassion show the need..

Human reason – “Liberal” tradition.

GENERAL (objective) view

Particularly through the last two hundred or so years the liberal church tradition has evolved. This emphasises the need to submit our faith and practice to the critique of human reason (which is nevertheless God-given). This often leads to openness to other ways of thinking as well as scientific theories and methods and the light they throw on the Christian faith (biology, psychology and sociology are all therefore important, to give just three examples) as also is the light that they throw on the bible. The agenda of the world (the poor, the place of women etc.) or the local context is often important in the liberal approach.


The Sea of Faith movement (after Don Cupitt) represents the far extreme of the liberal tradition. It is widely misunderstood to be nothing more than atheistic humanism which represents Christianity as a moral framework rather than a theistic faith.


Liberal Christians have, in the past been very sceptical about religious experiences, miracles, the supernatural, and the emotional dimension of the Christian faith. For this reason, liberals have often been written off as unspiritual by those who have not taken the time and effort to engage in dialogue with them. During the late nineteenth and twentieth century, much of the then accepted theological scholarship was in the hands of liberal scholars. Without the necessary checks and balances against bible and tradition (and, indeed, prophecy), it is hardly surprising that twentieth century theological texts reach some extremes which are already proving to be an embarrassment to large sections of God’s people – including a great many who would be happy otherwise to be designated ‘liberals’.

Rationalism resulted in many liberal Christians neglecting both scripture and tradition during the nineteenth and twentieth century to the extent that a substantial part of the protestant church turned towards Unitarianism. There are still Unitarian churches in existence today, and it is significant that some of them describe themselves as the ‘thinking person’s church’. It is of interest to note that the Jehovah’s Witnesses came out of one of the nineteenth century Unitarian sects – a group which called itself the ‘Bible Students’, which perhaps says much about the JW’s approach to Christianity.


Strong awareness of the emphasis in the bible and the teachings of Jesus about social justice, equality, human rights and peace. Liberals tend to be at the forefront of Christian pressure towards social change. They will involve themselves in politics, and will be unafraid to endure persecution for speaking out on behalf of those whom they see as being oppressed – even when that oppression is being carried out in the name of the church.

It is worthy of note that much of the social change brought about by Christians in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries has been brought about by liberal Christians. One might especially consider members of the Quaker Christians in this context.

Today, as in the past, liberal Christians challenge us to re-interpret scripture into a changing and challenging world. This was the case when slavery was abolished. Conservative evangelical Christians could ‘prove’ the case for slavery from scripture and could not for the most part, support abolition. The motivation for this change came not from scripture, but from reason, alongside compassion.


Jesus was regarded by some as being at the liberal extreme, but not by others. (See supplementary comments for the position of Jews at that time.) His cries for justice and peace at the expense of slavish adherence to entrenched positions with regard both to scripture and to tradition are deeply reminiscent of the passion of the liberal Christian of today.

There are many examples of liberal behaviour in the life of Jesus, but one might care to consider the full implications of the meeting with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4:5-29) from the viewpoint of a Jew of any persuasion to understand his liberal position.

Charismatic (pentecostal) Experience

The charismatic or pentecostal movement is not strictly a fourth tradition, but rather, a movement that is found in all three of the traditions identified above. It began in the evangelical wing of Christianity, and is currently strongest in that wing. It is strong within the catholic tradition, but currently at its weakest within the liberal wing. As liberals encounter the charismatic movement, they may need to analyse and understand before accepting it. Less intellectually inclined Christians tend to jump in and think later (perhaps reminiscent of the apostle Peter?).

GENERAL (objective) view

In the charismatic movement appeal is made to the believer’s direct experience of God which can manifest itself in various ways. Charismatic worship is often characterised by allowing times for the believers to experience the presence of God through say, worship including praying or singing in tongues, and to hear what the Holy Spirit might be saying or doing through prophecy. The gifts of the Spirit as described by Paul in (1 Cor 12:4-10) are expected to be in operation. The ministry of healing is perhaps the best-known gift.

The pentecostal movement teaches that all the gifts of the Holy Spirit as described by Paul, are given by God to the church today, and should be accepted and manifested within the whole body of Christ.


Since pentecostalism is a movement rather than a tradition of its own, its weaknesses tend to show as emphases in the weaknesses of the tradition in which Charismatic Christians find themselves. As an example, in the evangelical wing, Charismatic Christians who do not have the checks and balances of reason and tradition firmly in mind can over-spiritualise their faith and become ‘too heavenly minded to be any earthly use’.


The Spirit challenges and enlightens. The gifts of the Holy Spirit (see 1 Cor 12:4-10.) are there for the building up of the body of Christ and will enlighten and enliven the church wherever they are in operation. In the catholic tradition, the spirit will challenge the church to look again at its understanding of tradition. In the same way, it will challenge evangelicals to re-visit scripture and to see new things in it (Matt 13:52). For the liberal Christian there will be challenges to look beyond rationalism and see the bigger picture: God’s picture.

The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost brought a new dynamic to the first Christians. Before, they believed. Afterwards, they knew: firsthand and with unshakeable conviction. They went out to teach: not from scripture; although they quoted from scripture, neither did they did they teach from tradition: although they quoted the traditions of their forefathers. The first disciples taught directly from what the Spirit had written on their hearts. Thus it was that Paul, a traditionalist, suddenly began to teach what was, by his own former standards, extreme liberal teaching. Similarly, Peter, who had until that time always been ruled by scripture, took an extreme liberal position with regard to the food laws, and with respect to contact with gentiles (Acts 11:5ff). The bible-Christians of his day were horrified, and Peter soon afterwards went back on what God had commanded (Acts 15:1-32 and Galatians) This led to the council of Jerusalem – the first of many deep and painful divisions in the church over issues of belief.

Philip put what would have seemed a bizarre interpretation on the words of Isaiah when he encountered the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8-27-39). Also, he completely ignored the scripture (Lev 21:20), which tells us that a eunuch is beyond salvation. He did this because that is what the Spirit led him to do.

The phrase in Acts ‘it seemed good to the Spirit and to us’ is a telling one. Receive the inspiration, but first test it out with other Christians (of all traditions?). If there is dissent, then one has to question the nature of the ‘inspiration’.


Jesus used all the gifts of the Spirit described by Paul. Not only that, but he encouraged His followers to do so.


At the time of Jesus, there is strong evidence of all the strands of belief that we have seen above.

The scribes and the Pharisees were the orthodox of their day. They followed two main schools, those of Hillell and Shammai. Although both were tied strictly into belief in the authority of scripture, the school of Shammai was closer to what Christians would perceive as evangelical, whilst the school of Hilell was more akin to the traditionalist (catholic) Christian approach, but with liberal tendencies. The words of Jesus align him more closely with the teachings of Hilell than with those of Shammai. It is perhaps to the Sadducee party that we should look to find the extremes of liberalism. The Zealots too had something of a liberal outlook, although in their case, they allowed their drive towards social action to move them into a terrorist position. One might make comparisons here with Christian Crusaders and with the inquisition.


The situation in the church (‘on the ground’) is not quite as distinct as the above might suggest. As an example, I would cite the Cristadelphian Ekklesia [2]. Christadelphians teach that the bible is exact and true in every possible way. This includes the way in which the world was created (Gen 1 & 2), and the way in which the world will end (Rev). The bible is treated by Christadelphians as a kind of scientific textbook. (bible inerrancy). However, Christadelphians are also very intellectual, so many of the liberal teachings are within their remit. It is maybe because of this that Christadalphians are Unitarian; the trinity is a ‘man made doctrine’, and is not scriptural.

The extremes of all three of the positions that I have identified above are viewed by the mainstream of Christianity as being on the fringe of, if not completely outside, the realm of orthodoxy. I asked a Christadelphian friend about salvation. He believes that Christadelphians are the only ones who will be saved. However, he said that there might just be salvation for those who read the bible, and understand it. My feeling about this is that my friend was implying that ‘through the bible alone comes salvation’. To me, this is remarkably similar to a pre-Vatican-two Roman Catholic understanding, (taken from Augustine [3]) that outside the (Roman Catholic) church, there is no salvation. A catholic friend spoke to me some time before Vatican two about salvation being possible ‘for those who cling to the outside of the ark of salvation’. For him, the ark of salvation was the Roman Catholic Church.   Mainstream Christians might want to reflect on the idea that ‘by grace alone’ is the only way to salvation (Eph 2:8).

The conclusion that I draw is that all who are at the extremes of the various Christian traditions believe absolutely that they are right, and that they, and only they, can be saved. I feel that among mainstream Christians, that those who are at any of these extremes are often closer to being part of a cult than they are to being part of Christian orthodoxy.

It is likely that most Christians belong to a particular tradition for one of two reasons. Some will have been introduced to a church by family or friends, and will never have been made aware of the existence of anything outside that tradition. In earlier, times, that was perhaps the most common experience. The other reason, which is becoming increasingly common, is that of people searching around or ‘church tasting’, until a church is found which suits that person emotionally or intellectually.

Increased choice is good. One problem that is seen to arise because of this is an increase in the number of churches that attract like-minded people. It is always comfortable to spend time with those whose views we share. This kind of mutually supportive group can soon become exclusive if it has no external challenge, as those who argue against some of the more extreme thinking and ways find themselves forced to leave that church.

Many of what one might describe as the ‘new churches’ are focused on a small aspect of the gospel message. If that focus becomes really extreme, the church has frequently been known to split; two new churches result. One is extreme and the other more moderate.

The motive for forming a ‘new church’ has often been the paralysing effect of too great an adherence to tradition. The opposite of that is for the church to ignore tradition altogether, and when that is the case, as some of the new churches discover to their cost, history begins to repeat itself.

Some years ago, I had the painful duty of listening to the evidence regarding one of the local churches that was at that time part of the URC tradition. Under the leadership of a strong personality who had a somewhat paranoid side to him, the church had deliberately and methodically rejected all of those members who had opposed the resulting extremism. The justification was always made using phrases such as ‘you are possessed by an evil spirit’, and ‘God says you are wrong’. It was the painful decision of the URC to expel that particular church (and minister) from membership of the URC. The evidence put forward has made me very aware of the danger of such a process of change towards any extreme.

My own conclusion is that without a healthy balance between all three of the major traditions that we have reviewed above, along with the ongoing enlightenment that the Holy Spirit brings through the charismatic movement, the church can be neither whole nor healthy.


Scrip refs – Jesus, scripture and tradition

Matt 9:13 – mercy not sacrifice

Matt 9:14 – fasting

Matt 12:1-8 – Jesus lord of the sabbath

Matt 12:10-14 – healing on the sabbath

Matt 15:1-10 – denial of God’s word by their tradition

Matt 19 – the rich man – who can be saved? What is impossible for mere man is possible for God.

Matt 21:23-26 – By whose authority do you do these things?

Matt 23 – the Woes – esp. vv13 et seq.

Mark 12:1-12 – The question of authority – and the tenants in the vineyard.

Luke 7:29-30 – Scribes, Pharisees and John the Baptist

Luke 7:39 – Pharisees and the anointing of Jesus

Luke 10:10 – The Kingdom is near wherever the followers of Jesus are welcomed

Luke 11:42-end – The teachers neglect justice, peace – kill prophets – burden people (the      woes)

John 8:3 – the woman caught in adultery- see Lev 20:10 & Deut 22:22

[1] The sections headed ‘General’ for each tradition are taken from Module 1 of the Southwell Diocese Certificate in Christian Discipleship with minor alterations.

[2] Dr. John Thomas was a founder member of the Churches of Christ along with Thomas and Alexander Campbell in the mid nineteenth century. Dr. Thomas was an intellectual, and studied the bible from an academic viewpoint having little regard for tradition – in his view tradition was nothing more than ‘man made doctrine’. He came to the view that the Trinity was unscriptural, and a purely man-made teaching. Over this issue, he finally left the Churches of Christ and founded the Christadelphians.

[3] Saint Augustine (died A.D. 430): “No man can find salvation except in the Catholic Church. Outside the Catholic Church one can have everything except salvation. One can have honour, one can have the sacraments, one can sing alleluia, one can answer amen, one can have faith in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and preach it too, but never can one find salvation except in the Catholic Church.” (Sermo ad Caesariensis Ecclesia plebem)

© The Revd Barry Drake 2016