Eucharist: when Fundamentalists fail to read Scripture literally


I love old hymns. They are so often full of such deep theology.  I love the eucharist, I need the grace that this sacrament transmits. A couple of us had a stimulating Facebook conversation about the riches of those old hymns. For me “old” here means before the invention of printing, not the 18th and 19th centuries ;)  I said in passing that two of my all-time favourites are Thomas Aquinas’ “Pange Lingua” and Fortunatus’ hymn of the same name – perhaps it is no accident that they start with the same exhortation Aquinas seems to have shared my delight in Fortunatus’ fine hymn. My liking for Aquinas hymn, though, shocked my interlocutor, unused (as they were) to high-church Baptists.

Actually I am more shocked by all those low-church Baptists, who persist in praying lengthily over the bread and wine carefully informing God, and through him the assembled people, that whatever Jesus may have meant by the simple words “this is my body given for you” he did not mean them to be taken seriously, let alone literally.

It’s funny how these words, so important in our regular celebration of the story of Jesus (I’d say “worship” but today worship means singing I’m told), are read paradoxically differently by “Fundamentalists” and Catholics. Catholics read the Bible (at least these words) over-literally. For it seems quite clear to me that, whatever Jesus meant, he did not intend to be understood literally. Just imagine his disciples’ reactions: “But the law forbids us to consume blood!” (Lev 17:14) On the other hand for my Fundamentalist friends, not only did Jesus not mean these words literally (however keen they would be to read other words – like the “days” in Gen 1 – literally), he hardly meant them at all! (Though for such low Baptists Jesus words about remembering seem for some reason to be less overlooked. Perhaps because they hold to the doctrine of the real absence of the risen Christ they are keen that communion should remember Jesus’ death.)

“This is my body, broken for you.” surely means, in some sense (though not a literal one), that the bread of the eucharist is the broken body of the Son of God who died for us. If we can believe in two-a-penny miracles, like healings and gems or gold teeth from heaven, what is so hard about the promise of the real presence of Jesus in the bread of the Lord’s Supper?

New blog well worth adding to your lists

While I have been away fromn home, and so busier than usual, Brian Harris has started a blog. Since Brian is a clear, creative thinker with a sense of humour his blog is well worth following. I have not read all his posts – I’m sure I could find something to disagree with if I did/when I do, I’ve read enough to know it’s an exciting addition to the blogsphere, with already lots of solid content.

Another must-read


41mJsqaskSL._SX318_BO1,204,203,200_Yesterday I was given two books, both of which I really want to read (neither biblical or theological). Today I read Scott McKnight’s review of Brian Harris’ new book The Big Picture: Building Blocks of a Christian World View (Paternoster, 2015). Brian is a lovely person, an effective pastor, but I have not yet got a copy of his book, Scott McK’s glowing review adds it to my growing list of must-read serious non-fiction that does not relate to biblical studies. He wrote:.

One of the least known and most insightful theologians and Christian leaders I have met is Brian Harris, at Vose Theological Seminary in Perth, Western Australia. He’s not only a delightful person and Christian, not only a President of a seminary, but he established a flourishing church that encompasses far more than the typical come-to-our-church kind of ministry. In short, when Brian speaks, I listen.

41JItDqo5xL._SX279_BO1,204,203,200_517TWMZEEBL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_PS Those who know me will know I mean no disrespect, indeed the opposite by mentioning Brian’s book alongside Pooh and the Philosophers, recognising my affection for the “Great Bear”, Rendering unto Caesar, described by Amazon as “An intimate look into the private and public lives of 50 years of Sri Lankan presidents and prime ministers is provided in this memoir by a long time advisor to Sri Lanka’s highest government officials.” which as well as it’s content is recommended to me by reviewers who praise its self-effacing wit, feeling and concern for people.


Deeper and more urgent than the fights over “gay marriage”

Discussion among Christians (especially Christians who found their faith on Scripture) of “gay marriage” have been bitter and acrimonious. This issue cuts deep. There are of course for some participants personal reasons why this issue is emotional. Yet it cuts so deep not only for that reason, I think, but also because it reveals a lack of coherent practical theology of marriage and sex. Thus in discussing this issue too often Christians have to fall back on tradition, or traditional understandings of Scripture.

Colleagues to whom over the years I have lamented our lack of such a practical theology of marriage and sex have often responded by denying that there is a lack. They seem to believe that the traditional standards are still being upheld. Yet, the acceptance of no fault divorce, uncertainty about what advice (except avoidance of full intercourse before marriage) to give to young people, the less than clear role of single adults in most churches… are just a few symptoms of the absence of such a theology of sex.

“Traditionally” Christians have held that marriage is a lifelong exclusive faithful sexual relationship between two people whose goal is to procreate and bring up the next generation. Yet little or none of that seems reflected in the ways churches behave today around marriage. Social changes like no fault divorce and contraception have altered our practice hugely, yet they are poorly integrated into our theology. In much of our talk about marriage companionship has replaced talk of procreation and child rearing. We have accepted our society’s definition of humans as sexual beings to such an extent that we have little or no place and certainly no clearly understood roles for single adults in church (except as in New Testament times “widows”).

Although (with the exception of the “wedding at Cana”, which contains no teaching about marriage)  there is little said in the Bible about marriage. Yet we are not left without resources, Genesis 1 and 2 provide two quite different and complementary possible starting places. Yet most conversations start with one or the other, seldom both. The core biblical virtue of faithfulness is clearly important, but how is it to be outworked today? In a traditional view sex outside marriage is wrong because it risked children outside marriage, how does widespread and usually effective contraception affect this? On what basis do we today advocate sexual exclusivity?

I have linked to it before, but Richard Beck’s post “The Icons of God in Marriage: Nature and Election” is a helpful thought starter, providing as he does at least a useful and deeply theological way of framing the questions.

The Tri-une God and Motherhood

I have not yet pointed to the series of posts on The Tri-une God and Motherhood by kbonikowsky at The Happy Surprise, I should. They are very good, offering a careful, gentle presentation of the topic. .One of the things I like is that she approaches the theology simply, yet insists on a Trinitarian understanding. So many people thinking about emotive topics, like gender or like God, let alone when we mix echoes of our relationships with parents into the mix, seem swiftly to lose  their sense of proportion and theological “niceities” get thrown to the winds. I saw this years ago when I briefly explored Catholic theologians treatment of Mary when preparing my thesis. Catholic dogma concerning Mary is careful (to a lifelong Protestant it is odd, but it is careful), yet once these otherwise sensible theologians started to write about Mary the mother they seemed to lose all the restrictions their tradition had put in place to ensure that Mary did not seem to enter the Godhead. kbonikowsky avoids such emotion-driven excess in her talk of the Tri-une God and Motherhood, so far it is good stuff!


Scripture and the “gay marriage” debate

Photo by Dennis Bratland

I had an unexpected visit from a friend this evening. Among the wide-ranging and inspiring (as well as depressing since we talked of the plight of the Rohingya) topics we addressed was the question facing the Baptist Churches of NZ of what to do faced with many churches who believe that to perform the marriage of a gay couple would deny the truths taught in Scripture and other churches convinced that to refuse to perform such marriages would in itself be a denial of truths taught clearly in Scripture.

I do not want to address this issue directly, but rather the similar issue of divorce – also a question of sexual ethics that can be addressed from Scripture fairly directly.

The Bible seems to me to speak with only two voices on divorce.

Deuteronomy 24:1 “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house…” which allows divorce. The translation of the grounds is open to some debate (for an idea of the range cf. NIV and NRSV) but but in Jesus day the issue resolved into a debate between “conservatives” who only allowed unfaithfulness, desertion or abuse, and the “liberals” who allowed divorce for “any reason” (pretty much the position the laws of most Western countries take today.

Jesus seems (Matt 5:31; 19:7; Mark 10:4) to take a hard line. Arguing that divorce contravenes God’s intention expressed in Gen 2 and concluding: Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” (Mark 10:9)1

I am ignoring Mal 2:16 as this passage (in which God says “I hate divorce”) may not be speaking of literal divorce but rather Israel’s unfaithfulness to her covenant partner, God.

In terms of a Christian position on this issue I can see no justification for setting aside Jesus words and returning to the law of the Old Testament. One common approach to the “problem” of OT law for Christians is to argue the opposite, that only what is affirmed in the NT applies to us. I believe that position to be wrong, but still cannot accept setting aside a saying of Jesus (repeated three times)  in favour of a difficult to translate OT law.

Yet somehow almost all churches today in NZ accept divorce certificates issued by the NZ state as a result of a “no fault” process. They then remarry these divorced people.

I would be grateful for someone who can explain to me how the hermeneutics that allows this flagrant breach of Jesus’ clear and strong teaching applies to “gay marriage”!

[This is a genuine question, I am still unsure where I stand on the question of churches performing “gay marriages”, but I am quite clear on the biblical teaching on divorce. I do not understand how one can allow churches that practice the remarriage of “no fault” divorced people to remain in communion yet argue that churches that practice “gay marriage” should be excluded.]

  1. There is a case to be made that Jesus’ position is not as stark as it seems but that he was siding with the “conservatives” and only allowing divorce for unfaithfulness, desertion or abuse. []

Sex as “Sacrament” – Making Babies and Making Love


Paul bases his teaching about sex and marriage on Genesis. As usual, he is in some ways less of a dreamer and more down to earth than Jesus. His argument does that if sex makes two “one flesh”, then sex outside marriage would make you one flesh with the “prostitute” (1 Cor 6:15-20).

This talk of infidelity (un-chesed) is the basis of Paul’s teaching about sex and marriage. Sex unites, making love – makes two into one. Already this idea is foreign to the Western world with its “serial polygamy”1  and frequent divorce. Another of Paul’s conclusions is even less comfortable for modern thought:

The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does” – a shocking thought (which confirms some people’s bad opinion of Paul?), except that, for Paul, the reciprocal is equally true “the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” (1 Cor 7:4)

You see sex is like a sacrament. One consequence of making love is making babies. With God’s blessing, sex makes a new being, in His image, see Gen 4:1; 5:1-3. But (as many infertile couples know) this is not what makes sex sacramental. Making love cements two beings together in partnership. It both celebrates and produces chesed – a covenant relationship.

While the marriage ceremony marks the beginning of this process – of itself it does not create the partnership. Sex and the ongoing co-operation of daily living are the effective agent that builds union. Rather like the relationship between Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism affirms our desire to be covenant partners of Jesus. Communion continually seals this as we drink the “covenant cup” declaring our continued desire to be faithful, as he is.

  1. As my African colleagues used to call the all too common Western experience of marriage plus divorce plus re-marriage. []

Beastly with Two Backs

The Gleaners, Jean-François Millet, 1857

God created us as sexual beings, and the Bible accepts our sexuality, but sex is not an end in itself. The Bible rejects sex for its own sake – the separation of sexual pleasure-seeking from partnership and marriage. Genesis Two describes the creator’s purpose quite clearly. As partners who complement each other, the two “become one” (Gen 2:24). Both Jesus and Paul base their understanding of sex and marriage on this passage and especially this verse. (Mark 10:2 compare Mt 19:3ff. & 1 Cor 6:16)

Jesus feels so strongly about infidelity that tears apart what God has joined that he calls “just looking”, adultery of the will1 (Matt 5:28). One sin, surely, that few healthy humans escape!

In the story of Ruth, however, the Bible holds up an example of chesed “loving-loyalty” that, though sexy, goes beyond sex. Ruth, the wife of Bethlehem boy, Mahlon, is a foreigner – a gentile. When Mahlon tragically dies, the young widow meets and marries Boaz. The narrator hints at the mutual respect and desire of Ruth and Boaz. Yet even more strongly we see how, in finding love, Ruth displays her faithfulness to the family she had joined when she married Mahlon.

The Bible is also full of stories where sex goes wrong, from the Sodomites seeking to make sex into a symbol of dominance, through unfaithfulness and abuse of power for sexual ends… but this abuse of God’s gift of sexuality is not the whole story, as we are shown another way in Ruth, the Song of Songs, and by implication in the laments and harsh judgements over infidelity.

Ideally (and the Bible is nothing if not real, and so tells of many cases where the ideal is not realised) such partnership “makes love” and produces babies. The possibility of pregnancy is not a sine qua non of good sex in the Bible, but it is a desired and desirable culmination. As the passion and faithfulness of two people is widened to include others.

  1. The “heart” in the Bible is seat of the will not of the emotions – emotions live in the “belly” or “guts” of a person.  []

Is the Bible Anti-sex?

Albert Joseph Moore, The Shunamite relating the Glories of King Solomon to her Maidens, 1894.

Christianity (as an “organised religion”) has often been against sex. Celibacy has been seen (following especially some hints in Paul’s letters) as better than marriage, which has been seen as a way to make sex all right because, and insofar as, it is aimed at producing children. Does this devaluing of sex reflect the full witness of Scripture, or is it yet another issue where by overstressing a few (often difficult to understand, or at best complex) passages the Bible is misrepresented?

Is the Bible as a whole anti-sex? Hardly. One whole book is full of erotic love poems. The Song of Songs may well represent – though only by analogy – the loving relationship of the soul and God, or Christ and the Church. Generations of celibate priests and religious were not wrong to read it this way, but this analogy is built on the frankly expressed love and desire of king and Shulammite.

To illustrate this it is worth quoting a short portion, 5:2-5, from the KJV:

I sleep, but my heart waketh: 
  the voice of my beloved that knocketh, 
Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: 
  for my head is filled with dew, my locks with the drops of the night.
I have put off my coat; 
  how shall I put it on? 
I have washed my feet; 
  how shall I defile them? 
My beloved put in his hand by the hole, 
  and my bowels were moved for him. 
I rose up to open to my beloved; 
  and my hands dropped myrrh, 
  and my fingers sweet smelling myrrh, 
    upon the handles of the lock.

A library containing such a book hardly rejects the creator’s design of humans as sexual creatures.