Reading an interesting article about Chinese finance here which, on page 4, has this sentence: “The opaqueness about intentions and goals is always the issue.”

Am I the only person who finds this common resort to adding -ness onto the end of a word clumsy and lazy? Why couldn’t the word ‘opacity’ be used?

Here are some other examples where I don’t think it works:

cohesiveness instead of cohesion
conciseness instead of concision
fierceness instead of ferocity
aggressiveness instead of aggression

and one where I think it’s justifiable:
attractiveness rather than attraction (because attraction has a subtly different sense and could lead to confusion)

Is this just the difference between a UK-English ear and a US-English ear? I’d be interested to know.

I just love it

Well that has put a smile on my face. I hope he appoints Shearer as his assistant, although he’s one of the few people in the world who might be able to cope with a ‘king over the water’. Have to say, with respect to Shearer, that the whole saga is a bit like one of those soap operas where you can see that two people fancy each other rotten but just never get it together. You want to shout ‘just shag each other and get it over with!’ Sorry if that’s a bit coarse…

Lane on the Virgin Birth

Very interesting article that Byron pointed me to available here.

A handful of quotations:

…this paper will be a critical examination of the significance given to the virgin birth in recent dogmatics. This approach is valid anyway as a partner to the exegetical approach but all the more so with a subject like the virgin birth. Undisputed direct reference to the virgin birth is confined to two brief New Testament passages (Matt. 1: 18-25; Lk. 1: 34f.). It follows therefore that the relation of this doctrine to other doctrines (the task of dogmatics) is at least as important as the exegesis of these two passages.

It is essential clearly to grasp the distinction between the Incarnation and the virgin birth. The virgin birth concerns the origins of the humanity of Christ. It states that Jesus, as man, had no human father. It does not state that God was his human father. The virgin birth is not like the stories of pagan gods mating with beautiful women. The miracle of the virgin birth is that of birth without a father, not of the mating of God and Mary. The doctrine of the Incarnation, on the other hand, concerns the deity of Christ. It states that this man Jesus was in fact God himself, the Logos, the Son of God come in the flesh. Jesus was divine not because he had no human father but because he is God become man. He is the Son of God (in the Trinitarian sense) not because of his human parentage (or lack of) but because he is the eternal Son of the Father, ‘begotten from the Father before all ages’. To summarise the distinction, the Incarnation means that Jesus is the Son of God become flesh, the virgin birth means that he had no human father. It is not hard to see how the two have come to be confused. The one states that God is his Father, the other that Joseph was not. It has been fatally easy to put these two together and to conclude that God was his father instead of Joseph, because Joseph was not.

When it is stated that Jesus did not need a human father because God was his Father the two levels are being confused. Such thinking, if pursued consistently, will lead to a grossly perverted form of either the virgin birth or the Incarnation or both.

The Incarnation would have been supernatural and miraculous even if the incarnate one had had an otherwise normal birth. His preexistence and his divinity would have been supernatural even if his humanity had had a purely natural origin.

The virgin birth teaches that the origin of his humanity was also supernatural.

But many today would not simply state that the virgin birth can coexist with such error. John Robinson, for instance, goes further and argues that the virgin birth must inevitably prejudice the genuineness of Jesus’ humanity and His solidarity with us. This claim can take two forms. First, it could be argued that the very fact of a virgin birth in itself removes Jesus from the arena of humanity. This charge is well answered by R. F. Aldwinkle who argues that ‘it is not the method by which a human being comes to be such which is decisive but the end product itself, namely a human being’. There is no ground for dogmatically asserting that the product of a virgin birth could not be fully human.

[SN: I think this is very weak]

Barth argues that the virgin birth points to the Incarnation in the same way as the empty tomb points to the resurrection. In each case the sign is less than the thing signified but points to it. The relation between them is that between sign and thing signified, not between cause and effect. The virgin birth did not cause the incarnation any more than the empty tomb caused the resurrection. Thus the virgin birth is to be seen not as the cause or the means of the Incarnation but rather as a sign pointing to it. The virgin birth, as a supernatural birth, is a sign of the importance and supernatural character of the One born. It is also a sign to us of God’s initiative in the Incarnation.

[SN: my argument is that the sign now points away from the incarnation]

As the Augustinian approach became orthodoxy it was naturally impossible to conceive of Christ being the product of sexual intercourse. The virgin birth thus became necessary for his sinlessness. Such a view of sex is certainly discredited today, and not only among Protestants.

Karl Barth saw in the virgin birth the expression of a wider truth that is fundamental to his theology. It shows that ‘human nature possesses no capacity for becoming the human nature of Jesus Christ, the place of divine revelation’. While it does become his nature, this is not because of any attributes that it already possesses but rather because of what it suffers and receives at the hand of God. The virgin birth, therefore, is a further denial of man’s natural capacity for God, a favourite theme with Barth.

[SN: this is the symbolic truth of the VB which I’d accept]

…‘lawless desire’ is unnecessary and [Jesus] did not submit to it but rather pointed forward to the future world where there will be no marriage. This ascetic teaching is based on the doctrine of the virgin birth. Such teaching became common in the following centuries. It is not surprising that this development occurred. The Gospel came to a world where the physical and sensual were despised and where asceticism was exalted. It was natural for such ideas to take root within the Church. It was also natural that the virgin birth should be used to support them. Here we have to acknowledge the truth of Barth’s comment that it might have been better for the Christian doctrine of marriage had there been no virgin birth. This does not mean that the virgin birth is untrue; it simply means that, like most doctrines, it is open to abuse.

Is it any more necessary for the virgin birth to have been a historical event than it is, say, for the Good Samaritan to have existed? There are two reasons why it is important for the virgin birth to be historical. The Matthaean narrative is specially inhospitable to a mythical interpretation. Matthew’s aim is apologetic ― to answer the charge of illegitimacy and to point to the fulfilment of prophecy. Neither of these concerns would be satisfied by a mythical, non-historical virgin birth. The appearance of a child before the consummation of marriage cannot be explained by a mythical sign. As Robinson argues, the alternative to the virgin birth is not conception within wedlock ‘for which there is no evidence at all’, but illegitimacy. Secondly, the role of the virgin birth as a sign goes if it did not happen…

If the virgin birth is a fitting sign rather than an absolute necessity does this mean that it is unimportant? It is true that the doctrine of the virgin birth is not as central as the Incarnation, the cross or the resurrection. It appears with these doctrines in the creeds, but it cannot be assumed that all of the doctrines of the creeds are of equal significance. The descent into hell is clearly less significant than the resurrection. That the virgin birth is less central is supported by the paucity of reference to it in the New Testament and by the fact that very little theological use is made of it there. But less central is not to be confused with unimportant. Its inclusion in the creeds clearly implies that it was felt to be important. The Church should proclaim the virgin birth because it happened, because it is scriptural and because it is a pointer to Christ and to his work.

Some closing remarks. The rigorous distinction Lane makes between VB and incarnation is helpful but he seems confused as to whether the VB indicates the humanity or divinity of Christ, and much of the article supports my wider point about the marginality of the doctrine, ie it is a stripping away of all the consequences, so that it loses the capacity to become ‘weight-bearing’. His last paragraph (above) is a non sequitur – I want to ask why did the Fathers believe it to be important, what was it that they believed, and is it possible for us to affirm the same today?

A sickness unto salvation

Well the lurgi that has been stalking me since before Christmas, and finally conquered me last week, now seems to be genuinely abating. I say that because it’s now 48 hours since I had to have a Sinusitis Lemsip Max, and whilst the symptoms haven’t completely cleared up I do now seem to be definitely heading for full functionality. I’m certainly back to writing on the blog, even if meetings and conversations are too much!

However, one of the things I’ve really been musing on is the gathering together of several threads in my life over the last few months, being: the conversation with atheism, my understanding of the faith (especially the incarnation and my understanding of Scripture), and where I’m supposed to go with it. Truth be told, I was quite rattled when Neil suggested I resign my orders, even more so when my old tutor said I was a heretic, and I felt an old temptation starting to rise again – that I should go back to academia, that I should spend more time in introspection in order to sort out what I believe and why, and that I’m not fit for working in a parish etc etc. In other words that I should hide. It took a few days of lying on my back to realise that this is fitting into a larger pattern. In particular, where I am convinced God is leading me is not backwards into the safety of the academic world but forwards into a much more dynamic engagement with the world (as described here). A much less safe situation, but Luke 17.33 applies.

In other words the sickness has allowed me to draw breath and become centred again, refreshing my relationship with God. A sickness unto salvation – thanks be to God.

The marginality of the Virgin Birth (12): Summary and conclusion

I want to bring this sequence to a close by spelling out the main planks of my argument. The spark for the series was Neil’s comment that I should resign my orders.

These are the main points that I would want to make:
1. The accounts of the VB are marginal in Scriptural terms.
2. The VB is marginal in doctrinal terms.
3. The nature of what is believed in accepting the VB has changed since the accounts were written, and that applies to both those who retain an acceptance of the Scriptural accounts in a literal sense, and those who reject it.
4. What the doctrine actually achieves in practice today is to undermine more important doctrines like the incarnation, and hence salvation. That is, the doctrine serves to prevent people coming to Christ, and the insistence upon a literal belief in it (in order to be saved) is a contemporary equivalent of tithing mint and dill and cumin.

I would want to emphasise that my rejection of the VB is not because I reject all miracles as impossible (I don’t), nor does it mean that I reject the resurrection (I accept it), nor does it mean I reject Scripture as a whole (I see it as God-breathed).

Several other things have become clearer to me in the course of writing this sequence:
– I really don’t take the birth narratives as literally true! I have avoided looking at the area too closely for quite some time, but I can’t avoid the conclusion;
– I remain persuadable that I’m wrong, but the persuasion needs to deal with my own objections, not generic ones (like Wright’s chapter does);
– my root problem is that I see no way to render an acceptance of the literal truth of the birth accounts compatible with an acceptance of the humanity of Christ (I think this was possible before) – and therefore, if the VB has to be believed in a literal sense, then I don’t belong where I am. Fortunately such a commitment is not required of Anglican clergy (what is required – and what I wholeheartedly affirm – is here);
– the contrast is between what is given more authority: Scripture or doctrine? I see the doctrinal effect (which I see as seriously negative) as carrying more weight than the negative consequences of abandoning a literal interpretation, not least because I don’t see it as either intellectually or theologically coherent to affirm something like inerrancy. However, it’s perfectly possible to judge these things differently without being an inerrantist. Wright, for example, a) gives more importance to the literal account, and b) sees no difficulty in reconciling the account with doctrinal truth. In this he is completely in tune with orthodox tradition, and I am not – which means I’m probably wrong;
– I am more convinced than before of what I originally wrote here: “My problem remains how to reconcile Jesus’ humanity with his special creation; or, put differently, I don’t see why God’s creative activity _has_to_ conflict with the normal processes of reproduction. Incarnation isn’t dependent on it; indeed, I suspect that the story was developed in order to support the doctrine of the incarnation and now works to accomplish the precise opposite. Either way it’s an extremely marginal belief and not essential to faith.”

The marginality of the Virgin Birth (11): Tom Wright

The first thing to say about Tom Wright’s perspective (taken from his book with Borg) is that he agrees with me (and the Pope) that the VB is marginal, beginning his chapter by saying “Jesus’ birth usually gets far more attention than its role in the New Testament warrants”, and ending it by saying “If the first two chapters of Matthew and the first two chapters of Luke had never existed, I do not suppose that my own Christian faith, or that of the church to which I belong, would have been very different”. Quite so.

He goes on to point out that attitudes to the VB function as litmus tests for orthodoxy as a whole, especially attitudes to the Bible and miracles (a point I’ll come back to in my concluding post) and admits that their historicity is suspect, saying “as a historian I cannot use the births stories within an argument about the rest of the gospel narratives.”

His more substantial point, however, on which the remainder of his chapter is based, seems to be a) you’ll only disallow miracles if you’re corrupted by Modernist attitudes [I agree, but this is one of Wright’s principal targets in the essay and my position is unaffected by it], b) this is how God chose to do it, c) who are we to disagree? concluding by saying “Nor will the high moral horse do any better, insisting that God ought not to do things like this, because they send the wrong message about sexuality or because divine parentage gave Jesus an unfair start over the rest of us. Such positions produce a cartoon picture: the mouse draws itself up to its full height, puts its paws on its hips, and gives the elephant a good dressing down.”

I think Wright is confused here, and the confusion runs through the whole chapter. The weight of his point depends upon the truth of b); in other words, is the elephant God, or is the elephant a fallible human being? It is the attitude to Scripture which is the fundamental plank of Wright’s case, ie these narratives must be understood to be literally true, which drives him to the conclusions he reaches in this chapter. However, it’s possible to show that, even on these terms, Wright is inconsistent (see below).

After a quick appraisal of the theological emphases in each account, which Wright ascribes in traditional terms to the differences between Joseph and Mary’s recollections, Wright gets to what, for me, is the heart of the matter. He writes “It will not do to say that we know the laws of nature and that Joseph, Mary, the early church and the evangelists did not”. This misses the point, however (my point, at least). It is not that these people didn’t understand the link between sexuality and procreation (which seems to be the burden of Wright’s point), it is that they understood the ‘humanity’ to come through being ‘born of woman’, not, in material terms, in equal parts from both father and mother.

Wright goes on to outline his substantial position, in three stages:
1. Acceptance of incarnation and resurrection opens up the possibility of something like the Virgin Birth. I agree with this point in principle.
2. “There is no pre-Christian Jewish tradition suggesting that the Messiah would be born of a virgin. No one used Isaiah 7.14 this way before Matthew did… Why, for the sake of an exalted metaphor, would they take this risk – unless they at least believed them to be literally true?” I think this is an interesting and a strong point, but one which isn’t conclusive; that is, it depends upon other factors being more or less probable relative to the unlikelihood of Luke and Matthew inventing the stories.
3. The previously existing models for a VB are all pagan in nature, and it is unlikely that a Jewish mentality would have told the story of a VB for Jesus unless it was true. Wright argues “This theory asks us to believe in intellectual parthenogenesis: the birth of an idea without visible parentage.” I’m not convinced by this, although I can see the logic of Wright’s argument. Two thoughts occur to me. One is that the influence from the Hellenic world had already had a few centuries to shape Jewish thought, and so the Jewish world-view was not so virginally pure as Wright needs to suppose (consider what language the stories are written in, after all). The second is that, despite a very well written and witty defence of his historical credentials, Wright by no means has the unanimous support of his peers on this point. It is a matter of weighting the probabilities and it seems to me that on this point Wright is letting his desire to retain a conservative account of Scripture condition his historical judgement.

Which seems a harsh point, and one I am not qualified to render, but for one thing – the argument that Wright makes with regard to apocalyptic language, which is a point I fully agree with and one which seems to have a very large role in his overall historical reconstruction of Christ’s life and mission. Wright says (in the first of his major books) “Within the mainline Jewish writings of this period, covering a wide range of styles, genres, political persuasions and theological perspectives, there is virtually no evidence that Jews were expecting the end of the space-time universe. There is abundant evidence that they knew a good metaphor when they saw one, and used cosmic imagery to bring out the full theological significance of cataclysmic socio-political events. There is almost nothing to suggest that they followed the Stoics into the belief that the world itself would come to an end; and there is almost everything to suggest that they did not.” In other words the writers of the time were perfectly able to use language creatively to make a theological point. Why then are Luke and Matthew not able to do something similar when writing their birth narratives? Where I think Wright is confused is that he seems to be applying different criteria in these two areas, and the reason for applying different criteria appears to be his desire to preserve a traditional understanding of the VB. Yet he hasn’t made that case; it may well be possible to do so, but, at least to my understanding, he hasn’t achieved it here.

One more post…

The marginality of the Virgin Birth (10): Marcus Borg

This is a quick summary of Borg’s points to do with historical plausibility in the book he wrote with Tom Wright. To begin he writes “I do not think the virginal conception is historical… they are not history remembered but rather metaphorical narratives using ancient religious imagery to express central truths about Jesus’ significance”.

Borg has three main grounds for doubting the historicity of the narratives:
1. The narratives are late, only being mentioned in two places. It’s clearly possible to write a gospel without it, so either the other authors “didn’t know about it or didn’t consider it important enough to include. Or the tradition didn’t develop until quite late and the reason most New Testament authors do not mention it is because the stories did not yet exist”.
2. Reinforcing the first point are 5 principal distinctions between Luke and Matthew:
– significantly different genealogies (Matthew emphasises Jewish Kingship and traces the lineage from Abraham through Solomon; Luke emphasises outreach to the gentiles and traces the genealogy from Adam through the prophet Nathan);
– different homes for Mary and Joseph (Nazareth in Luke, with trip to Bethlehem; Bethlehem alone in Matthew);
– different birth visitors (wise men in Matthew, shepherds and angels in Luke);
– Herod’s plot (in Matthew, with accompanying flight to Egypt, but absent from Luke);
– use of the Hebrew Bible (Matthew uses prediction-fulfilment formulae five times; Luke echoes the language without treating it as the fulfilment of a prophecy).
In Borg’s words “these are enough to make the point that we have two very different stories”.
3. “The stories look like they have been composed to be overtures to each gospel”. In other words they exemplify the themes which each evangelist wishes to emphasise, ‘King of the Jews’ for Matthew, mystical prophet reaching to the world for Luke. “In short, the stories look like the literary creation of each author.”

I don’t want to say much about Borg as I basically agree with him. I’ll say more about Wright’s chapter in the next post.


Q: If you don’t accept Greek metaphysics, eg the viability of applying ‘ousia’ to God, what is the purpose of the creed?
A: In the language of the time, it was ruling out mistakes. We need to keep an eye on the mistakes, not necessarily preserve the language used to eliminate the mistakes.