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).

Monday, 28 February 2011

How to Discuss Rob Bell without Killing Each Other

As most people probably know by now, Rob Bell has a new book out next month, Love Wins, about heaven and hell. Controversially the book will defend a view that is, more or less, universalist. Already the internet is white hot with comment, some of it helpful and some of it not.

My interest here in this post is simply with the rules of engagement—How can we discuss this book without killing each other? The comments that follow are aimed at both sides of the divide.

1. Truth does matter. It is not wrong, impolite, or ungracious to defend what we believe and to critique views that we think wrong. Not all views are equally true. The Bible calls us to speak the truth. The "whatever floats your boat" attitude may sound tolerant but it is no more than the pseudo-tolerance of indifference.

2. Those with whom we disagree on this matter are fellow Christians and not merely "Christians" (as some websites have said) nor "heretics" (as others have put it). As such we owe them a duty of love. The Bible calls us to speak the truth in love.

3. As such, we should approach this at least open to the idea (an idea that I am convinced is true) that this is an inner-Christian debate and not a debate between Christians and outsiders, nor between the orthodox and heretics, nor between Liberals and evangelicals, nor between gentle-hearted progressive and aggressive, old-fashioned conservatives. (In fact, I would go as far as to defend the claim that this is a debate, in some cases, between fellow evangelicals.)

4. Related to 3, it is not helpful to set the discussion up in loaded terms. For instance, as a debate between those who accept biblical teaching (i.e., those who agree with you) and those who do not (i.e., those with whom you disagree). Quite a few comments so far take this line. The reality is that this discussion is, for the most part, a discussion between Christians who all accept the authority of Scripture. The disagreement is over the interpretation of the Bible.

5. If we claim to accept the Bible as our guide and rule in theological reflection then the least that we can do is to take seriously the claims of those with who we disagree that the Bible supports their position. In other words, we need to listen to each other and to do so carefully and respectfully. The knee-jerk reaction of some against Rob Bell is that he obviously denies the clear teaching of the Bible. Let's not be too quick to reach that conclusion. The Bible is not nearly as "clear cut" on this issue as many people seem to think.

Of course, in the end we may feel that Bell or his opponents (or both) have indeed partly misunderstood the Bible. That is fine. But even then we need to ask, is the disagreement a matter to part ways over or a difference we can accept within fellowship? I think that it is the latter.

6. As such, we need to think very carefully about how central this debate is to Christian faith. Clearly important issues are under discussion and I am not calling for the tolerance of indifference, but is this a central matter for Christianity? Is the gospel itself under threat? Is the Bible being rejected? Are the creeds in question? Is anyone actually denying God's love or justice, say. Is mission really threatened? Is the centrality of Christ being denied? Are there any core Christian non-negotiables at stake here? I suspect that, as we look at both sides carefully and seek to understand each other better we shall find that not as much is in danger as we may imagine at first.

7. None of this is to say that we cannot robustly make our cases, rebut arguments, seek to expose the problems with our interlocutors' views, and so on. Nor is it to say that those arguments may not include some serious conclusions. To illustrate: I would argue that classical Calvinism is incompatible with the claim that "God is love." That is a serious claim! But, and this is critical, I am not claiming that any Calvinists deny that God is love. My claim is that one of their views is incompatible with another of their views but that they are "saved" by the 'fact' (if fact it be) that they have not appeciated this (claimed) inconsistency. Calvinists are then free to counter my arguments. But, and here is the point, we do so with grace, with an openness to learn and to change, and with a more measured grasp of what is and is not at risk in the debate than the knee-jerk responses so far have shown.

In my opinion, the best outcome of this discussion would be a better mutual understanding and an ongoing openness to continue learning from each other. I hope that both sides can come to view each other much as Arminians and Calvinists view each other—as mistaken but as mistaken Christ-loving, gospel-believing, disciples we are honoured to count as brothers and sisters.

If we conduct this debate in such a manner that we fail to recognize one another as beloved of God then shame on us, no matter how right we may be!

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Presence in Absence: Hesitations about C4's "The Promise"

I have been watching Channel 4's fabulous drama, "The Promise." It is some of the best drama on TV for a long time.

Basically the plot concerns a young British girl who accompanies her friend to Israel as the friend does her military service in the Israeli army. The story partly follows her experiences in Israel and the Occupied Teritories. Whilst she is there, she is reading her grandfather's diary about his time in the British army in Palestine in the final years of the British Mandate. The drama moves back and forth between the 1940s to the present day.

There are so many good things about this drama: An engaging and moving story (or stories), a brilliant script, believable characters, fabulous acting, an authentic feel (the whole show was shot on location in the Holy Land), an education (it is based on a lot of research), an attempt not to take sides, some real nuance (including having Israeli characters that actively oppose the actions of their government and Palestinian characters that are Christian as well as Muslim), and it does bring the last days of the British Mandate, in particular, to life.

But I do have a hesitation. It is not so much with what is in the drama as with what is not. Before saying more, let me offer some caveats.

I know that the issues raised are white hot and that however they were handled people would complain.

I know that every story has to leave things out. And I also appreciate that some of the ommissions that concern me are a side-effect of the chosen foci for the narrative.

I also appreciate that the show has tried to be relatively "neutral" on the conflict.

Nevertheless, the effect of the ommissions seems increasingly to present an overall message that simplifies the conflict and people's perceptions of it.

OK—so what makes me uneasy?

The 1940s plotline is effectively about the conflict between the British and the Irgun (a Zionist paramilitary group that existed prior to 1948). That is a legimitmate topic for a drama and it seems to me to have been well done.

But, inevitably, with such a focus the impression can be given that "the Jews" in Palestine were more or less equivalent to the Irgun and that "the Jews" were the initiators of the violence in the 1940s.

I have no interest in defending the Irgun (although the drama is very fair in helping to 'understand' their perspective and why they did what they did. It is also fair in showing some of the British actions against the Jewish imigrants as inhumane). But, of course, the Jews in Palestine in the 1940s were far more diverse than the illegal Irgun, and, whilst the TV show does not deny that and shows something of it, my worry is that viewers may wrongly imagine that "the Jews" as a whole supported violence against the British. Such was not the case.

In the present-day story there does seem to be an imbalance in what is shown. Israel is presented as using its military might to hold the Palestinians down. Now, again, all that is shown in the drama are indeed aspects of the situation and there is no reason not to present them in a drama in the way that they are presented. And I have no objection to constructive critique of Israel's actions (not least in the support of illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories).

But my concern is that the cause of the Israeli security concerns is underplayed (and when it is presented it may be presented as no more than a reaction to Israeli oppression). Now, that is an important dimension of it so I have no objection to it being presented as such. However, an important part of Israel's problem is that a significant root of opposition to Israel is the ideology of radical Islam. According to that ideology, the very existence of a Jewish state on land that was once ruled by Muslims is something that can never be accepted. As such, groups like Hamas are committed in principle never to accepting peace with Israel (except as a temporary, strategic move as a step towards destroying the Jewish state and most Jews from the land). In the past, when peace agreements seemed to make progress they would send suicide bombers to kill Israeli civilians with the goal of hardening Israeli public opinion and scuppering peace negotiations. This context complicates the situation significantly and renders Israel's attempts to secure its citizens much more understandable. The threat of violence (lethal violence included) is very real.

I am not offering a defence of all that the state of Israel does—I don't know anyone who would. But my worry is that the drama presents a picture that, for all its attempts at complexity and fairness, is too simplistic. "The Jews" in the 1940s and the present day are presented as the initiators of violence (whilst the considerable—albeit understandable [NOTE: by "understandable" I certainly do not mean "justifiable"]—Arab violence in the 1940s is completely absent and in the present day the threat of Palestinian violence is underplayed and oversimplified). So the big story emerging from the drama may be this:

The Jewish people suffered an unimaginable horror in ther holocaust. We completely understand why they wanted a land where they could be Jews without living in fear of persecution. But they soon turned to violence and never turned back from it, becoming oppressors in the process.

My concern is that, for all its many virtues, this drama presents a very, very complex situation in which both sides have a real share of any blame as more straight forward than it is.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Konstan and Ramelli 6: Aiônios and aïdios in Origen (Guest post, part 6)

We conclude with a glance at Origen’s use of aiônios and aïdios (in our larger project we carry our investigation down to the time of Dionysius the Ps.-Areopagite). In Origen, there are many passages that refer to the aiônios life, in the formula characteristic of the New Testament: the emphasis seems to be not so much on eternity, that is, temporal infinity, as on the life in the next world or aiôn.

A particularly clear instance is (we believe) Philocalia, where the aiônios life is defined as that which will occur in the future aiôn. Origen affirms that God gave Scripture “body for those we existed before us [i.e., the Hebrews], soul for us, and spirit [pneuma] for those in the aiôn to come, who will obtain a life aiônios.” So too, in the Commentary on Matthew, the future life (aiônios) is contrasted with that in the present (proskairos). Again, Origen in a series of passages opposes the ephemeral sensible entities of the present time (proskaira) to the invisible and lasting objects of the world to come (aiônia).

Consistent with the usage of the Septuagint and the New Testament, Origen also applies the adjective aiônios to attributes of God. In one particularly illuminating passage, Origen speaks of the eternal God (tou aiôniou theou) and of the concealment of the mystery of Jesus over aiônios stretches of time (khronois aiôniois), where the sense is plainly “from time immemorial.” So too, Origen mentions the “days of the aiôn,” and “aiônia years” (etê aiônia), that is, very long periods of time, and the phrase eis tous aiônas here signifies, “for a very long time.”

In Origen, the adjective aïdios occurs much less frequently than aiônios, and when it is used, it is almost always in reference to God or His attributes; it presumably means “eternal” in the strict sense of limitless in time or beyond time.

In On Principles 3.3.5, Origen gives a clear sign that he understands aiôn in the sense of a succession of aiônes prior to the final apocatastasis, at which point one arrives at the true eternity, that is, aïdiotês. Eternity in the strict sense pertains, according to Origen, to the apocatastasis, not to the previous sequence of ages or aiônes. So too, Origen explains that Christ “reigned without flesh prior to the ages, and reigned in the flesh in the ages” (aiôniôs, adverb). Again, the “coming aiôn” indicates the next world (epi ton mellonta aiôna), where sinners will indeed be consigned to the pur aionion, that is, the fire that pertains to the future world; it may well last for a long time, but it is not, for Origen, eternal.

In this connection, it seems particularly significant that Origen calls the fire of damnation pur aiônion, but never pur aïdion. The explanation is that he does not consider this flame to be absolutely eternal: it is aiônion because it belongs to the next world, as opposed to the fire we experience in this present world, and it lasts as long as the aiônes do, in their succession. Similarly, Origen never speaks of thanatos aïdios, or of aïdia punishments and torments and the like, although he does speak of thanatos aiônios or death in the world to come (kolaseis aiônioi), i.e., punishment in the world to come.

Origen was deeply learned in both the Bible and the classical philosophical tradition; what is more, he maintained that damnation was not eternal, but served rather to purify the wicked, who would in the end be saved in the universal apocatastasis. His careful deployment of the adjectives aiônios and aïdios reflects, we have argued, both his sensitivity to the meaning of the latter among the Greek philosophers, and the distinction that is apparently observed in the use of these terms in the Bible. For Origen, this was further evidence in Scripture for the doctrine of universal salvation.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Konstan and Ramelli 5: Aiônios and aïdios in the New Testament (Guest post, part 5)

In the New Testament, when the reference is to God, aiônios may be presumed to signify “eternal” in the sense of “perpetual.” Nevertheless, the precise sense of aiônios in the New Testament, as in the Hebrew Bible, cannot be resolved with the help of explicit definitions or statements equating it with terms such as “ungenerated” and “imperishable,” of the sort found in the philosophers and in Philo of Alexandria. Hence, the positions adopted by religious scholars in this controversy have embraced both extremes. On the one hand, William Russell Straw affirms of aiôn that, in the Septuagint, “it is never found with the meaning of ‘life,’ ‘lifetime’ . . . The majority of instances can bear only the meaning ‘eternal.’” As for aiônios, “It may be rendered ‘eternal’ or ‘everlasting’ in every occurrence.” Peder Margido Myhre, on the contrary, argues that the Platonic sense of the term as “metaphysical endlessness” is entirely absent in the New Testament. I quote: “Since, in all Greek literature, sacred and profane, aiônios is applied to finite things overwhelmingly more frequently than to things immortal, no fair critic can assert . . . that when it is qualifying the future punishment it has the stringent meaning of metaphysical endlessness . . . The idea of eternal torment introduced into these words of the Bible by a theological school that was entirely ignorant of the Greek language would make God to be a cruel tyrant.”

We turn now to the two uses of the more strictly philosophical term aïdios in the New Testament. The first (Rom 1:20) refers unproblematically to the power and divinity of God. In the second occurrence, however (Jude 6), aïdios is employed of eternal punishment—not that of human beings, however, but of evil angels, who are imprisoned in darkness “with eternal chains” (desmois aïdiois). But there is a qualification: “until the judgment of the great day.” The angels, then, will remain chained up until Judgment Day; we are not informed of what will become of them afterwards. Why aïdios of the chains, instead of aiônios, used in the next verse of the fire of which the punishments of the Sodomites is an example? Perhaps because they continue from the moment of the angels’ incarceration, at the beginning of the world, until the judgment that signals the entry into the new aiôn: thus, the term indicates the uninterrupted continuity throughout all time in this world—this could not apply to human beings, who do not live through the entire duration of the present universe; to them applies rather the sequence of aiônes or generations.

[tomorrow's post—the last in the series—will consider the use of aiônios and aïdios in Origen]

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

James K. A. Smith on Charismatic Epistemology

SVS 2011 Plenary #3: James K. A. Smith from Society of Vineyard Scholars on Vimeo.

Konstan and Ramelli 4: Aiônios and aïdios in the Septuagint (Guest post, part 4)

Given the prevalence of the term aïdios in Greek literature down through the Hellenistic period, it comes as something of a surprise that in the Septuagint, aïdios is all but absent, occurring in fact only twice, both times in late books written originally in Greek: 4 Maccabees and Wisdom. In addition, there is one instance of the abstract noun, aïdiotês, again in Wisdom.

On the other hand, aiônios occurs with impressive frequency, along with aiôn; behind both is the Hebrew 'olâm.

A few examples of its uses must suffice. In Genesis, the perpetual covenant with human beings after the flood, commemorated by the rainbow, is termed diathêkê aiônios, just as is that between God and Abraham and his descendants; in Exodus it is the compact between God and Israel sanctified by the observance of the Sabbath, which in turn is called “an eternal sign” of this covenant across the generations and ages (aiônes). Here we see the sense of aiônios relative to aiôn, understood as a time in the remote past or future.

In general, the sense of aiônios is that of something lasting over the centuries, or relating to remote antiquity, rather than absolute eternity.

Now, when the same term is employed in reference to God, e.g., theos aiônios, the question arises: does aiônios mean simply “long-lasting” in these contexts as well, or is a clear idea of God’s everlastingness present in at least some of these passages? Take, for example, Exod 3:15: “God also said to Moses, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: this is my name for ever [aiônion], and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations [geneôn geneais].” The emphasis on successive generations, past and future, suggests perhaps that aiônios here connotes repeated ages, rather than a strictly infinite period of time. Many of the other examples come from relatively late texts, but even in these it is difficult to decide which sense is intended, in the absence of the kind of precise language to be found in the philosophers but alien to the Hebrew Scriptures. In some cases, moreover, the reference may be to the next epoch or aiôn, rather than to an infinite time as such.

Of particular interest is the mention in Tobias (3:6) of the place of the afterlife as a topos aiônios, the first place in the Bible in which aiônios unequivocally refers to the world to come. In 2 Maccabees, the doctrine of resurrection is affirmed and aiônios is used with reference to life in the future world.

In sum, the Septuagint almost invariably employs aiônios, in association with the various senses of aiôn, in the sense of a remote or indefinite or very long period of time (like 'olâm), with the possible connotation of a more absolute sense of “eternal” when the term is used in reference to God—but this connotation derives from the idea of God. In certain late books, like those of Tobias and the Maccabees, there is a reference to life in the aiôn, understood in an eschatological sense as the world to come, in opposition to the present one (kosmos, kairos).

The adjective aïdios occurs only twice in the Septuagint. In Wisdom, which is saturated with the Greek philosophical lexicon, Wisdom is defined as “a reflection of the eternal [aidion] light” that is God. In 4 Maccabees, an impious tyrant is threatened with “fire aiônion” for the entire age or world to come (eis holon ton aiôna). But here we find the expression bios aïdios or “eternal life” as well, in reference to the afterlife of the martyrs; this blessed state, moreover, is opposed to the lasting destruction of their persecutor in the world to come. This contrast between the parallel but antithetical expressions olethros aiônios and bios aïdios is notable. Both adjectives refer to the afterlife, that is, a future aiôn, but whereas retribution is described with the more general and polysemous term aiônios, to life in the beyond is applied the more technical term aïdios, denoting a strictly endless condition.

[The post tomorrow shall consider aiônios and aïdios in the New Testament]

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

David Kettle on Tragic Spirituality

A book to look out for in the next few months will be David Kettle's Western Culture in Gospel Context: Towards the Conversion of the West: Theological Bearings for Mission and Spirituality (Eugene: Cascade Books, forthcoming).

It is a very wide-ranging and thought-provoking analysis of Western culture in the light of the gospel and a call to "conversion".

David is the network coordinator for "The Gospel in our Culture" (http://gospel-culture.org.uk/) and this book is the culmination of a lifetime of theological reflection.

Here is a brief section on leaving flowers at the sites of road traffic accidents.

[T]he placing of memorials at the site of road traffic accidents is now not uncommon. Here, once again, elements of continuity with traditional Christian mourning are found in such things as flowers and candles but there are highly significant discontinuities in meaning. On the one hand, these gestures assert the worth of what has been lost. On the other hand, they defer to the tragic event as the brute setting of this assertion rather than any traditional religious memorial setting. Lying in sharp disjunction from their bleak public setting, roadside tributes at the scene of accidents speak of tragic violence done to a “private” life. Unlike the traditional grave clustered among others around the building where a faithful God is worshipped, such tokens tend to intimate—in a certain gesture of impossible defiance—that violation has had the last word. Where memorabilia are made into a permanent shrine, they linger as marks of a tragedy never to be forgotten, rather than of a life lived and now remembered as a gift from God. Gifts of teddy bears in memory of a lost child are enactments of futile giving, intimating unresolved feelings of powerlessness in face of tragedy. The gestures over the death of the Princess of Wales testified to a tragedy claiming the last word upon one already seen as a tragic victim.

Konstan and Ramelli 3: Aiônios and aïdios in Classical Greek Texts (Guest post, part 3)

To begin with aiônios in the presocratics, Ps.-Plutarch ascribes to Anaximander the idea that corruption and genesis occur in cycles “from an infinite aiôn,” but these are surely not Anaximander’s own words. Similarly, Hippolytus Ref. explains that Heraclitus “calls the eternal fire ‘Thunderbolt.’” Similar usages are ascribed to the Pythagoreans, but these again are clearly later inventions.

In contrast to aiônios, the adjective aïdios is attested in the sense of “eternal” or “perpetual” as early as the Homeric Hymn to Hestia and the Hesiodic Shield of Heracles, but in neither case does the expression imply a technical sense of “eternal.”

With the Presocratics, however, the term aïdios in the sense of “eternal” seems to come into its own, in a series of testimonies beginning with Anaximander and continuing on down to Melissus and beyond, although here again one must be careful to distinguish between paraphrases and original terminology. For Anaximander, any of the attributed sentences would, taken alone, be of doubtful authority; taken together, the several passages perhaps suggest that Anaximander himself may have applied the adjective aïdios to motion. For Xenophanes we have attestations of his use of aïdios in the sense not only of “indestructible” or “immortal” but also that of agenêtos, “uncreated. Again, the convergence of the various accounts suggests that Xenophanes may in fact have employed the adjective aïdios in reference to god or the universe. Two testimonies concerning Heraclitus cite aïdios as referring to the perpetual movement of things that are eternal and to the cyclical fire, which is god. Heraclitus’ use of the term aïdios in connection with cyclical phenomena is particularly noteworthy, for in later texts recurring or periodic events tend to be described rather by the word aiônios.

With Empedocles, we have the use of the term aïdios in his Katharmoi, guaranteed by the meter: “there is a thing of Necessity, an ancient decree of the gods, eternal.” Among the Eleatics, Parmenides is said to have described the “all” as aïdios, in that it is ungenerated and imperishable. As for Melissus, Simplicius provides what appears to be a direct quotation affirming that “nothing that has a beginning and end is either eternal [aïdion] or infinite.” It is worth noting that nowhere is the term aiônios ever attributed to the Eleatics. Finally, Democritus too argued that time was aïdios, on the grounds that it was ungenerated, and that the whole of things too was eternal (aïdion to pan).

It would appear, in sum, that the term of art for eternal things—all that is ungenerated and imperishable—among cosmological thinkers in the period prior to Plato was aïdios, never aiônios. In addition, aïdios is the standard adjective meaning “eternal” in non-philosophical discourse of the fifth century as well.

When we come to Plato, we find uses of both adjectives, aiônios and aïdios, in the sense of “eternal.” It is in the Timaeus that Plato enters most fully into the question of eternity, and here we find aïdios six times, aiôn four times, and aiônios twice.

Plato introduces the concept in reference to the model that the demiurge followed in creating the sensible universe by looking “to the eternal” (pros to aïdion, bis). Then, in a crucial passage, Plato remarks that the created universe was seen to be moving and living, an image of the eternal gods (tôn aïdiôn theôn, 37C6), and adds that it was itself an “eternal living thing” (zoion aïdion). Plato goes on to say that it was the nature of the living thing to be aiônios but that this quality could not be attached to something that was begotten (gennêton). The creator therefore decided to make “a kind of moving image of eternity” (eikô d’epenoei kinêton tina aiônos), and so as he arranged the universe he made “an eternal image moving according to number of the eternity which remains in one” (menontos aiônos en heni kat’arithmon iousan aiônion eikona), and this he called “time.”

On the one hand, aïdios and aiônios appear to be virtually interchangeable: the model for the universe is “an eternal living thing” (zôion aïdion) and its nature is eternal (tou zôou phusis ousa aiônios). And yet, Plato seems to have found in the term aiôn a special designation for his notion of eternity as timeless; and with this new sense of aiôn, aiônios too seems to have come into its own as a signifier for what is beyond time.

It was Plato who first articulated this idea of eternity, and he would appear to have created a terminology to give it expression. Plato’s conception of a timeless eternity remained specific to Platonism and closely related schools in antiquity.
Aristotle, as we have said, seems never to use the term aiônios, though there are nearly 300 instances of aïdios, which is Aristotle’s preferred word to designate things eternal. It is clear that Aristotle was not moved to adopt Plato’s novel terminology, whether because he perceived some difference between his own concept of eternity and that of his teacher, or because he felt that aiônios was an unnecessary addition to the philosophical vocabulary, given the respectability of aïdios as the appropriate technical term.

In the Stoics, aïdios occurs over thirty times in the sense of that which endures forever. It is applied to bodies and matter, the onta or realities that truly exist according to Stoic materialism, and above all to god or Zeus. To the extent that the Stoics employed aiônios and aiôn, however, there is either a connection with their specific view of cosmic cycles, as opposed to strictly infinite duration, or else the noun occurs in phrases indicating a long period of time.

The Epicureans, in turn, regularly employ aïdios to designate the eternity of such imperishable constituents of the universe as atoms and void. Epicurus uses aiônios in reference to the future life that non-Epicureans expect, with its dreadful punishments: that is, to an afterlife in which Epicureans do not believe, and which does not deserve the name “eternal” (aïdios), properly reserved for truly perpetual elements.

[The post tomorrow shall consider the use of aiônios and aïdios in the LXX]

Monday, 21 February 2011

Discussing aiônios: From here to "eternity"

If any readers of this blog would be interested in discussing the issues raised by the work of David Konstan and Iliria Ramelli then please allow me to redirect you "from here" to "eternity" (i.e., the "Evangelical Universalist" forum).


They shall be posting the same article and opening it for general discussion. They may even have some input from Professor Konstan himself (though I cannot promise that).

Konstan and Ramelli 2: Preliminary Comments on "Eternity" (Guest post, part 2)

The notion of “eternity” is not simple, in part because “eternity” has multiple senses, in part too because some of these significances involve a high level of philosophical abstraction.

On the one hand, terms for “eternal” may bear the loose sense of “a very long time,” as in the English “always,” without implying a rigorous notion of infinitely extended time. Even at this level, the Greek adverb aiei, like the English “always,” has at least two distinct connotations, referring both to an indefinitely prolonged stretch of time, equivalent to the English “forever” (“I will always love you”), and to an action that is regularly repeated (“he always comes late to class”). Again, there are intermediate uses, for example, “the house has always been on that street,” meaning that, as long as the house has existed, it has been in the same place, without any implication of unlimited duration.

On the other hand, “eternal” may signify a strictly boundless extent of time, that is, greater than any numerical measure one can assign. This latter description is itself imprecise, of course. It may mean nothing more than “countless,” that is, too large to grasp, or grasp easily. But eternal time is more commonly understood to be strictly endless, with no termination at all.

Even on this more rigorous conception, there are two senses in which time may be said to be eternal. It may have a beginning but no end; or it may have neither a beginning nor an end, but extend infinitely into the past and the future. What is more, in addition to all these varieties of “eternal,” the adjective has been appropriated also to denote something like “timelessness,” a changeless state that has no duration and hence is not subject to time at all.

[part 3 will consider the use of aiônios and aïdios in classical Greek literature]

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Konstan and Ramelli 1: Introduction (Guest post, part 1)

David Konstan has kindly given permission for me to post a short paper that he and Ilaria Ramelli offered at the SBL International in 2006. The paper (which I shall post in six parts) summarizes their conclusions on the Greek words aiônios and aïdios.

The full research is set out in their book Terms for Eternity: aiônios and aïdios in Classical and Christian Texts. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2007.

Terms for Eternity: Aiônios and aïdios in Classical and Christian Texts

In the brief time we have today, we offer a summary of the research we are undertaking into the uses of two ancient Greek terms that are commonly translated as “eternal.” The terms are aiônios and aïdios. Neither word is to be found in the Homeric epics or in the major poems of Hesiod, although the noun aiôn, from which aiônios derives, is very common, mainly in the sense of a “life” or “lifetime.” Aïdios enters into Greek sooner, whereas aiônios first occurs, surprisingly enough, in Plato. Plato’s introduction of the term is philosophically significant, as is the fact that Aristotle eschewed it completely in his own copious writings.

The subsequent history of these terms, and the dance in which they engage with each other throughout Greek literature and philosophy, is fascinating in itself, but the real pay-off is in the way they are employed in the Septuagint and the New Testament, and thereafter in Christian writers who are usually equally familiar with their connotations both in the pagan tradition and in Scripture. What is more, a great deal proves to be at stake in how these two terms are interpreted: in fact, nothing less than the prospect of the eternal damnation of sinners versus the universal salvation of all. Thus, what may seem to be a dry investigation of subtle terminological distinctions proves to be a key to understanding ancient philosophical and religious thought.

Monday, 14 February 2011

"Eternal Punishment"—the punishment of the age to come

I have just had the following monograph pointed out to me:

Ilaria Ramelli, David Konstan, Terms for Eternity: aiônios and aïdios in Classical and Christian Texts. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2007.

Ilaria Ramelli is Assistant Professor of Ancient Philosophy at the Catholic University of Milan. David Konstan is the John Rowe Workman Distinguished Professor of Classics and the Humanistic Tradition, and Professor of Comparative Literature, at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

The book examines the use of two Greek terms in classical Greek literature, LXX, NT, and early Christian literature.

I have not yet read it but I have read a few online overviews and reviews. I was encouraged to see that they argue that:

"Apart from the Platonic philosophical vocabulary, which is specific to few authors, aiónios does not mean 'eternal'; it acquires this meaning only when it refers to God, and only because the notion of eternity was included in the conception of God: for the rest, it has a wide range of meanings and its possible renderings are multiple, but it does not mean 'eternal.' In particular when it is associated with life or punishment, in the Bible and in Christian authors who keep themselves close to the biblical usage, it denotes their belonging to the world to come” (p. 238).

That is exactly in line with what I argued (very briefly) in The Evangelical Universalist. There I proposed that "eternal" life and "eternal" punishment made no reference to the duration of the life or punishment but only that the life and punishment are the life and punishment that belong to (i.e., occur during and are appropriate to) the age to come. So I am encouraged to find such a thorough academic study coming to the same conclusion.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Joke (not remotely theological)

President Barack Obama visits a Glasgow hospital …………..

He enters a ward full of patients with no obvious sign of injury or illness,

He greets one.

The patient replies:

Fair fa your honest sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin race,
Aboon them a ye take yer place,
Painch, tripe or thairm,
As langs my airm.

Obama is confused, so he just grins and moves on to the next patient.

The next patient responds:

Some hae meat an canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat an we can eat,
So let the Lord be thankit.

Even more confused, and his grin now rictus-like, the President moves onto the next patient, who immediately begins to chant:

Wee sleekit, cowerin, timorous beasty,
O the panic in thy breasty,
Thou needna start awa sae hastie,
Wi bickering brattle

Now seriously troubled, Obama turns to the accompanying doctor and asks, 'Is this a psychiatric ward?'
‘No’ replies the doctor, ‘this is the serious Burns unit ‘

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Forthcoming book on "Exorcism and Deliverance" (Kay and Parry)

William K. Kay and I have edited a collection of academic articles on exorcism (due out in June from Paternoster). It offers multi-disciplinary perspectives on exorcism. For those of you who may be interested, here is the contents:

Introduction. Exorcism: Multidisciplinary Perspectives
Robin Parry

1. The Presence of Evil and Exorcism in the Old Testament
Wonsuk Ma

2. Deliverance and Exorcism in the New Testament
Graham Twelftree

3. Deliverance and Exorcism in the Early Church
Andrew Daunton-Fear

4. Deliverance and Exorcism in the Twentieth Century
James Collins

5. Deliverance and Exorcism in Majority World Pentecostalism
Allan Anderson

6. Deliverance and Exorcism in Anthropological Perspective
Peter Versteeg

7. Deliverance and Exorcism in Psychological Perspective
William K. Kay

8. Deliverance and Exorcism in Philosophical Perspective
Phillip H. Wiebe

9. Deliverance and Exorcism in Pop Culture
Lucy Huskinson

10. Deliverance and Exorcism in Theological Perspective 1: Is there any substance to evil?
Nigel G. Wright

11. Deliverance and Exorcism in Theological Perspective 2: Possession and Exorcism as New Testament Evidence for a Theology of Christ’s Supremacy
Kabiro Wa Gatumu

12. Demonology and Deliverance: A Practical-Theological Case Study
Mark Cartledge

"With this volume, exorcism no longer remains the outcast beyond the margins of the theological academy. This multidisciplinary exploration will be challenging for theologians in terms of modeling how contemporary theology should be undertaken, even while also providing multiple correctives for ecclesial practices from the variety of models that are presented. The editors and authors are to be commended."
Amos Yong, J. Rodman Williams Professor of Theology,
Regent University School of Divinity, Virginia Beach

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Greg Boyd on "Toppling the House of Cards"

This sermon from Greg Boyd is spot on! Really helpful and a good antidote to fundamentalism. Thanks to Drew Smith for putting me on to it.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Very provocative thought of the day: Hell and the "God behind the back of Jesus Christ."

Warning: the following post is me in my slightly more assertive and provocative mode. I hold those who take different views from me (i.e., almost every other Christian theologian in the world) in high esteem. So the following comments are intended as constructive and not critical in any hurtful way. I fully appreciate why those who differ from me hold the view that they do.

I have a theological worry about the idea that the end of the story for some/many human beings will be eternal destruction, whether that be annihilation or eternal conscious torment.

Setting the Scene
As Christians Jesus Christ is the starting point and the ending point for our theological reflections. He is the definitive revelation of God and of God's kingdom purposes. And thus all our eschatological reflections and speculations must be utterly reconfigured around Jesus.

Christ, as Second Adam, represents all of humanity before God. He is the eschaton made flesh. The "Last Things"—the coming of final judgement and resurrection—have erupted into the present in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

So eschatological speculations on the final state of humanity must take Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, as definitive. In his risen body the destiny of humanity is revealed.

My Worry
My theological worry is simply this: to me, the suggestion that some (indeed, many or even most) people will never experience salvation sounds very much like the claim that something other than Jesus Christ is definitive for the shape of the future.

The suggestion that God's final victory will involve the irreversible destruction of many/most people sounds to me like something other than the resurrection of Christ is being allowed to govern our understanding of "God's triumph." The idea that God can "reconcile" some creatures by forcing them to acknowledge that he is the boss and then destroying them is, to me ear, a call to allow the understanding of "reconciliation" to wander free from its anchoring in the gospel.

The proposal that we need to allow God the "freedom" to decide the "end of the story" and that universalism is a presumptuous attempt to snatch such freedom from God sounds to me like an exhortation that we find another God "behind the back" of Jesus Christ. God has already shown his hand in the story of Jesus. He has already chosen, in his freedom, to "be our God." (And what kind of "freedom" are we being asked to allow God here? The freedom to damn people he could just as easily redeem? To me, this sounds like the "freedom" for God to be someone other than God. Such a "freedom" is, to my mind, an imperfection and unworthy of God).

As an aside, and with all due respect to all my friends who are "hopeful universalists," I will now explain my theological problem with "hopeful universalism."

Whilst I can appreciate that hopeful universalists seek to be humble before God and before mystery (and I am very much in favour of humility and mystery), I do think that such hesitancy is problematic. To say, "My hope is that God will save all but I cannot say with certainty that he will" sounds to me like the following:
"I hope that God will utterly triumph in the end but I cannot be sure that he will";
"I hope that God will be all in all—it is a live possibility—but we cannot be dogmatic."
To me such "hopeful" universalism sounds like the worry that perhaps God's reconciling action in Christ will, in the end, fall short for some reason.

Eschatological universalism is nothing more than a claim that the end of the story cannot be anything other than an empty tomb. Anything less is not a divine triumph but a divine failure because on any other scenario the future of the world is being shaped, not by the redeeming action of God in Christ but by sin; not by the Second Adam but by the First.

If we wish to know the future of humanity we look to the risen Lord. End of story.

Friday, 4 February 2011

What is "a Good Christian"?

In the book of Matthew, where the Judgment Day is depicted for us in the imagery of One seated upon a throne and dividing the sheep from the goats, the test of a man then is not, “How have I believed?” but “How have I loved?” . . . Sins of commission in that awful indictment are not even referred to. By what we have not done, by sins of omission, we are judged. It could not be otherwise. For the withholding of love is the negation of the Spirit of Christ, the proof that we never knew him, that for us he lived in vain. It meant that he suggested nothing in all our thoughts, that he inspired nothing in all our lives, that we were not once near enough to him to be seized with the fervency of his compassion for the world.
Henry Drummond (1851–97), The Greatest Thing in the World, 57–58.

Now that is what I call challenging. A holy person is not merely someone who avoids doing evil—it is someone who does good.