About Me

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

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Old Testament Cosmology—Paul Seely

I recently read three excellent articles by Paul H. Seely:

1. "The Firmament and the Water Above, Part I: The Meaning of raqia' in Gen 1:6–8." The Westminster Theological Journal 53 (1991) 227–40

2. "The Firmament and the Waters Above, Part II: The Meaning of 'The Water Aove the Firmament' in Gen 1:6–8." The Westminster Theological Journal 54 (1992) 32ff. (www.thedivinecouncil.com/seelypt2.pdf)

3. "The Geographical Meaning of 'Earth' and 'Seas' in Genesis 1:10." The Westminster Theological Journal 59 (1997) 231–55.

Seely comes from a Reformed evangelical background but, in these articles, he is reacting against creation science attempts to read modern scientific cosmology from the Bible. He demonstrates convincingly that the biblical authors presupposed an ancient cosmology and not a modern one.

Seely's goal is to read the cosmology of Genesis 1 in its ancient historical context.

In the first article he argues that the "firmament" (raqia') in Gen 1:6–8 is not the atmosphere but the sky conceived of as a solid dome over the earth. He shows both from the ancient world conceptual background and from the exegesis of the text that the sky was thought of as solid. He blows alternative views out of the water. To my mind his case is a slam dunk.

In the second article, he argues that the waters above the firmament are not rain clouds but rather a vast cosmic ocean that was believed to be on the other side of the "firmament" (i.e., beyond the sun, moon, and stars). In the beginning there was one vast cosmic ocean but God divided it in half—half is what we know of as the sea (but see later) and the other half is above the firmament. Again—his case is, in my estimation, a knock down case.

The third article argues
(a) that the "earth" in Genesis 1 was thought of not as a globe but as a flat disk.
(b) that this single-continent "disc world" is surrounded by and sits upon a vast primal ocean (the other half of which is thought of as above the firmament.

Now clearly such a cosmology is scientifically incorrect. Even the most fundamentalist among us do not believe that:
- the earth is a flat disk
- the sky is solid
- there is an ocean above the solid sky (beyond the sun, moon, and stars)
- that there is a primal ocean of water under the solid land we live upon
And, if we expanded the OT cosmic geography we'd discover other things that we no longer literally believe but which OT authors did (e.g., that the dead descend into sheol literally under the ground, that heaven is literally up beyond the waters above the firmament, etc.)

All this raises issues for the notion of biblical inspiration and it is no wonder that many evangelicals try to get out of them by arguing (unsuccessfully in my view) that this biblical language is simply metaphorical or phenomenological (describing how things appear rather than how they actually are).

Now Seely's own view is that God spoke through biblical writers but accomodated himself to their worldviews. So God revealed certain truths about creation to ancient people but he did so in terms of the way in which they conceived the cosmos. For instance, God revealed to them that it was Yhwh, the one God of Israel, who made everything (not the gods of paganism). God was not interested in communicating astronomy, geology, biology, cosmology, to Israel so he simply communicated truths (which remain true) in terms of ancient science.

I think that there is much truth in this approach. However, it is in danger of reductionism. The danger is that we say that God revealed himself to Israel in spite of their faulty cosmology. Our job is to strip off the ancient science and distill the pure revelation which we still affirm.

I want to say that God did not reveal himself in spite of the ancient cosmology but through the ancient cosmology. Whilst it is impossible for us to inhabit the cosmos in the way that ancient Hebrews did (it is scientifically naive) we can still inhabit the cosmos in a way that is deeply informed by their cosmology.

Ancient cosmologies were very much to do with the meaning, purpose, and function of the cosmos. Their ways of thinking of the universe saw it as "enchanted" and meaning-full. I tentatively suggest that God is actually affirming the meanings embedded in their naive cosmology. Thus whilst we cannot affirm biblical cosmology at a scientific level we can affirm it at the level of meaning.

To take one example. Biblical writers saw the earth as literally at the centre of the cosmos. In terms of science, this is simply mistaken (although perfectly sensible as a common-sense description of the world as we actually see it). However, the mythic cosmology may still be held to be correct in affirming the centrality of earth in the divine purposes (and many of the current debates on the fine tuning of the universe are contemporary ways of affirming something similar in a post-Copernican cosmos). The biblical cosmology is not to be thrown out but is a means by which God can reshape the way that we see the cosmos. I think that there are all sorts of things like this that we can learn from biblical cosmologies even though we don't take them scientifically.

I am suggesting that our job as Bible readers is not to say what the apostles and prophets said (that would require us to join the flat earth society). Rather, echoing Barth, we must say what we must say in light of what the apostles and prophets said. We must not simply cast aside ther husk of biblical cosmologies but rather learn from them how to reenchant the cosmos and how to inhabit "our" cosmos biblically.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Calvinistic Cartoons

Check out this blog. Here is a pic from it

Monday, 20 December 2010

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Could a universalist believe in hell as "eternal conscious suffering"?

Disclaimer: This post is simply a thought-experiment. I do not believe that hell is eternal torment. I am simply musing on a what-if question.

It is common knowledge that if one believes that hell is eternal conscious torment (ECT) one is not a universalist. So if a universalist finds herself persuaded by the biblical and philosophical-theological arguments for hell as eternal suffering she will, at that point, drop her universalism.

Now I think that if she does so she is being a little too hasty. Why? Because it seems to me to be perfectly possible for a universalist to believe that hell is eternal suffering whilst remaining a universalist. How? Two possible ways strike me:

1. You may believe that Hell is ECT but simply believe that nobody will actually go there because God will graciously save everyone before things come to that. One propenent of this is J. A. T. Robinson who argued that hell (which is eternal) is the real fate that faces anyone who is walking in sin—the natural and deserved consequence of such a way of life. But, in Christ, God will redeem all such people and God will not allow things to reach that stage. (See my foreword to Robinson's book for a better explanation—see below). [NOTE: I doubt Robinson would be happy about the way that I explain his view in above]

2. However, I wish to float a different option here. One in which some people actually do go to a Hell of ECT ... and exit. Is such a thing possible? I do not see why not.

First, consider the following. You get a new car and pay for it with a finance deal. The arrangement is that you pay X per month for three years at which point you face a choice:
(a) You may pay off the difference between what you have paid and the value of the car and keep the car.
(b) you may hand the car back and pay nothing more.

On option (a) the money that you have paid is treated as payment towards the purchase of the car.
On option (b) the money that you have paid is treated as rent.
During those three years the payments are the same and whether they count as buying or renting may well be indeterminate. It all depends on what you decide at the end of the three years. If you choose to pay the difference then the previous payments are considered as payment towards buying the car. If you decide not to then the exact same payments are not considered as payment towards purchasing the car.

What I wish to point out is simply that we can make sense of one and the same payment as counting as either one thing or another.

I do not suggest that there would be a direct analogy with hell. However, I can imagine a view in which the sufferings of hell would be eternal for the person who continued to refuse the grace of God in Christ (ECT). But if that person turned from rebellion to God's grace offered in Christ then the very same sufferings would have served a different function (perhaps one of enlightening them as to the true nature of sin and its consequences).

Some may object that, on the analogy, they would still have to 'pay off the outstanding balance' and that is eternal punishment—so they would not receive any "get out of jail/gaol free" card. But, of course, if one believes that Christ's death on the cross is adequate to pay any debts we owe (and defenders of penal substitution would) then Christ pays that debt off on our behalf.

Some may then object that our temporary sufferings of hell would still have paid some of our debt and Christ paid the rest. This, they may say, is not right because we contribute nothing to our own salvation. But, on the imagined view I am describing, the sufferings of the person sent to hell who later repents are not counted as paying off their debt. If they never repented then those sufferings would be a part of paying off their debt (which would never be fully paid off). But if they are united to Christ then those sufferings are construed differently.

Add to this the claim that nobody will resist the offer of the gospel forever (a claim that I defend in my book The Evangelical Universalist). What we would have is a view in which universalists could believe that people are sentenced to eternal torment in hell ... and that they would get out.

Obviously, this is a very sketchy view and it would need a much more careful explication and testing. But I think that it may have some legs.

That said, I am not too fussed one way or the other whether it works or not because I do not think that the case for hell as eternal torment is that strong anyway and I explicitly reject it in TEU.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Baby Preacher

Man! Not my kind of church!

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Gregory MacDonald—Foreword to Robinson, "In the End, God..."

Here is the foreword I wrote for John A. T. Robinson's In the End, God ... (special edition). It will be available in the UK from James Clarke (the original publisher in 1950) and in the USA from Cascade Books.

When I became a Christian back in 1984 I soon discovered that there were “sound” theologians and “unsound” theologians. J. A. T. Robinson was very definitely on the list of those I was told were “unsound.” Now I ought to add that we evangelicals loved his 1976 work on Redating the New Testament because it was very conservative. But this was in part because we could say, “Look! Even such a wooly-minded liberal as John Robinson argued for the historicity of such and such, and clearly he—being an apostate—had no axe to grind!” ☺

For the most part, our dislike of Robinson was grounded on his 1963 book, Honest to God—an attempt to reconceptualize the very notion of “God” in ways that Robinson thought connected better with the modern world—but those of us who were aware of Robinson’s earlier explorations into universalism had extra reason to regard him as persona non grata. In our view Robinson was always a “bad egg” and over time he got increasingly “smelly”!

By the time Robinson wrote Honest to God his thinking had moved on from where he was at in 1949 and 1950 when he wrote his first book, In the End, God . . . Indeed, in the second edition of In the End, God . . . (New York: Harper and Row, 1968) Robinson included two new chapters (not included in this edition) which reframed the old book in the light of subsequent changes in western culture and theology. He wrote: “I wondered, as I read [the original edition] after an interval in which so much water had passed under the bridge, how much of it I could make my own today. I was surprised. In one sense, I could never write it now. In another I found I wanted to alter remarkably little. I did not wish to withdraw anything of substance I had said. Yet I could not begin to say it like that now.”

When I first decided to read Robinson’s exploration into universalism (during the period that I was rethinking my own beliefs on the issue) I had quite a lot of trouble chasing down a copy. In the end a visit to the library at Spurgeon’s College in London enabled me to read it, and a shrewd purchase at a second hand bookshop in Salisbury placed a copy of the original edition in my hands. So I read Robinson without having his ideas mediated through the filter of his later Honest to God thinking. And I think that this is indeed the best way to read In the End, God . . . — in the first instance, at least.

Rereading the book for this special edition was a fascinating experience. On one hand, it feels very dated. The social, ecclesial, and theological context in which he wrote has changed significantly (indeed, he himself was acutely aware of the changes in context between the publication of the first edition in 1950 and the second edition in 1968). Scholarship — both biblical and theological—has very definitely moved on, and eschatology is no longer thought of as an ugly duckling or the “optional extra” for those who want to add a little quirkiness to life. And yet, on the other hand, I was struck by how insightful — indeed ahead of its time — Robinson’s book was, and how helpful it remains. I wanted to offer a few thoughts about that.

The theological interpretation of the Bible is very fashionable these days—and rightly so. What struck me on rereading In the End, God . . . was what a deeply and profoundly theological interpreter of Scripture Robinson was. At the very heart of this book lies a profound insight: that eschatology is not a road map for the future (in the sense that fundamentalists think that it is) but is, rather, a function of our doctrine of God. A distinctive biblical understanding of Yahweh, the God of Israel, is that Yahweh is the Lord of history and that, as a consequence, history has a telos. Thus Christian eschatology can never abandon this space-time universe but must embrace it within the end time, redemptive purposes of God. As Robinson says, eschatology is “the explication of what must be true of the end, both of history and of the individual, if God is to be the God of biblical faith.” Any eschatology that does not comport with the biblical God — the loving Lord of history — fails to be an integrally Christian eschatology. The words “loving Lord of history,” though not used by Robinson, capture the heart of his view of eschatology. This God is “Lord” and will bring about his purposes. He is Lord of “history” so those purposes concern this cosmos. He is “loving” and so those purposes will be kind and good. Bad eschatology is derived from an inadequate doctrine of God. Everything else in the book flows from that core insight and it is an inspirational insight.

Robinson’s grasp of the fundamental importance of eschatology for perceiving the significance of life in the present is also very helpful. His insights into the way in which all present events must be seen in the light of the end and from the perspective of the end are spot on! And his appreciation of the fundamental unity of the first and second advents—that the second coming is, in part, a way of bringing out the eschatological character of the first—reflect a theologically sensitive reading of New Testament texts.

Robinson argues that the form in which eschatology is embodied is myth. Myth is a notoriously slippery word but, if used with caution and clarity, it can be helpful. I find myself in agreement with much of what he writes but, I confess, I am unable to go as far as he goes. My main concern regards what seems to me to be too sharp a disjunction between what Robinson calls kairos time (time as measured by significance and purpose) and what he calls chronos time (chronological clock-time). Now the distinction is helpful and does highlight important dimensions of eschatological time. But, whilst kairos and chronos can be distinguished with profit — and Robinson has some really helpful things to say on the basis of the distinction — they cannot be pulled apart without causing theological mischief. And sometimes Robinson seems to pull them apart too far. On occasion he appears to suggest that Christian eschatology projects certain futures as no more than a way to speak of the theological significance of the present. Thus he writes that, “the Christian has no more knowledge of or interest in the final state of this planet than he has in its first . . . Of course, the Christian cannot say that the ‘events’ of the end will not literally take place . . . He can only declare that, as a Christian, he has no interest in these matters.” But surely that is just wrong. If the cosmos will never actually be “resurrected” at some future time then the very thing that invests the present with eschatological significance is voided and the myth becomes no more that wishful thinking—a false myth. How could a Christian be indifferent about such a thing? However, at other times Robinson seems conscious that the world really must come to a temporal destination (perhaps a better word than “end”) something like that presented in the vision of the new creation if the claims embodied in the eschatological “myths” are to be true. Thus he writes, “The temporal end . . . will certainly reflect and embody the moment of ultimate significance (as the last move in chess match translates into finality the move that really won).” Absolutely! Perhaps the balance required is best found when he says, “the meaning of history must be vindicated within history and yet . . . the complete purpose of God must transcend history.”

Robinson’s chapter on Paul’s theology of the “body” (soma) is both a nice summary of some of the insights of his book The Body — a book that still warrants serious consideration — and represents a great example of the theological interpreter at work. The discussion is nuanced and enlightening. It offers a view of humanity as fundamentally embodied and as corporate. It is not the body that individuates the person—the boundaries of bodies are porous—but the call of God. Fascinating stuff! And the corporate solidarity expressed by the body allows Robinson to observe, almost in passing, that “not till all have found themselves in [the body of Christ], and everything is finally summed up in Christ, will this salvation be complete for any.” This idea — that the full salvation of any requires the final salvation of all — is one that warrants a fuller theological exposition.

As a universalist what most fascinates me about this book is the way in which Robinson tries to take with equal seriousness the biblical teaching on universal salvation and the biblical teaching on hell. It fascinates me because it is so original and so thought provoking. Traditionally universalists try to find ways to hold the two strands in the biblical texts together by arguing that they are, contrary to appearances, not inconsistent. So the texts about hell need not refer to a place of eternal torment but can be thought to refer to a temporary punishment. This universalist strategy—albeit worked out in different ways—runs through from Clement of Alexandria to the current day. In fact, for the record, it is my own strategy. Yet, surprisingly for a universalist, Robinson did not even dialogue this view, except to dismiss it in passing. For him it was clear that the hell texts meant exactly what the mainstream tradition maintains — eternal separation from God. But, equally, the universal salvation texts — contrary to the claims of the mainstream tradition — really do teach universal salvation. So to hold the traditional view of hell would be, in Robinson’s estimation, to reject a significant dimension of the biblical witness.

How does one hold together two contradictory sets of witness? One option is to say, as many “hopeful universalists” do, that each set represents a possible future — which possible future is actualized is, in the end, down to human free choices. (In this book the article by Thomas F. Torrance in Appendix 2 represents this perspective although Torrance does not refer to it as “hopeful universalism.”) Robinson will have none of that! The Bible does not say that God may be all in all, but that God will be all in all!

So how does Robinson navigate the contradiction? By appeal to his theological claim that eschatology is actually about what must be the case in the light of the present encounter with God-in-Christ. Given that God encounters us in this way and, in Christ, reveals himself to be this God then we must speak of the future in this way. Once that move is made then Robinson has a way to handle the hell texts. They describe the real destiny of any who reject God-in-Christ. Such an existential stance towards God alienates one from eternal life and, if that route is plotted into the future, the only consequence can be eternal hell. The person confronted by the gospel faces two real paths with two real destinies associated with them—life or death! New creation or hell! But from God’s perspective it is absolutely impossible that any will fail to embrace salvation-in-Christ in the end. Universalism is the only possible end. Now, I have admitted that this is not my own way of holding the two sets of texts together but I have to confess that I often find myself returning to Robinson’s route and pondering it afresh. I do find it fascinating and, in many ways, deeply attractive. And, who knows, perhaps one day I will own it as my own. But for now I am very happy to commend it for the reflection of readers.

It should be clear that there are aspects of the book that I feel uncomfortable with. To those already mentioned I could add Robinson’s discussion of theology as “science” and his depreciation of chronos time in apocalyptic literature. Nevertheless, I have found myself impressed afresh at the enduing relevance and value of this little work and I really do hope it find a new and enthusiastic readership in the twenty-first century.

Gregory MacDonald,
Author of The Evangelical Universalist (Cascade, 2006/SPCK, 2010) and editor of “All Shall Be Well”: Explorations in Universal Salvation and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann (Cascade, 2010).

September, 2010.

Chris Tilling—He like it!

Here is what Chris Tilling has written as an endorsement for the special edition (60th anniversary) of John A. T. Robinson's classic, "In the end, God . . ."

“I am excited to see this new edition of Bishop John Robinson's In the End, God . . . Many evangelicals will benefit from Robinson as he grapples with questions about appropriate foundations and the role of scripture, as well as his concern to both take the reality of hell seriously and to contest sentimental understandings of God's love. Those of us who remain undecided about Universalism or who prefer to simply hope the universalists are right, will also be challenged by his insistence to put together a theological system that is a 'best fit' to the facts of revelation and Christ's accomplished work. Contemporary scholars engaged in 'theological exegesis' will also find much worthy of consideration given Robinson's intelligent and theological alert handling of scripture. While some details of his argument are dated, and other aspects remain highly debatable, it is arguably with the benefit of hindsight that the best of Robinson's arguments can be appreciated. This new edition also has a number of added features, such as Trevor Hart's insightful introduction, new subheadings, and three appendices.”
—Chris Tilling
New Testament Tutor
St Mellitus College & St Paul's Theological Centre

Saturday, 11 December 2010

"For I will consider my cat, Jeffry" (18th C Christian cat poem)

Jubilate Agno (Latin, "Rejoice in the Lamb") is a religious poem by Christopher Smart, and was written between 1759 and 1763, during Smart's confinement for insanity in St. Luke's Hospital, Bethnal Green, London. The text of Jubilate Agno is the source for Rejoice in the Lamb, a festival cantata composed by Benjamin Britten in 1943 for four soloists, a Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass choir, and organ.

I love cats and this poem is the (mad) equivalent of "Let everything that has breath praise the LORD!" Fabulous!

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider'd God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he's a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
For the dexterity of his defence is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord's poor and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually--Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can set up with gravity which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master's bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is afraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Ichneumon-rat very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God's light about him both wax and fire.
For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

God and Government (SPCK)

I am currently reading an excellent book:

Nick Spencer and Jonathan Chaplain (eds), God and Government. London: SPCK, 2009.

It is a superb collection of essays on Christianity and politics. Here is the contents page.

Introduction — Nick Spencer
1. Government as an ambiguous power — Nigel Wright
2. The nature and role of government in the Bible — Julian Rivers
3. Neither anarchy nor tyranny: government and the New Testament — Tom Wright
4. The role of government in classical Christian political thought — David McIlroy
5. Government and social infrastructure — Nicholas Townsend
6. Government, solidarity and subsidiarity — Philip Booth
7. Government and the common good — Clifford Longley
8. Government and equality — Andrew Bradstock
9. Conclusion: Christian political wisdom — Jonathan Chaplain

So far I have read through to the end of ch. 7 and the book has not dropped a stitch yet. The contributors and the topics are well chosen and the material is stimulating and thought-provoking.


Friday, 3 December 2010