The Gospel According to Moses & Jesus (Whymanity Research and Training,Maidstone 2021-22) Crispin Fletcher-Louis: Pre-course questions.

Before this course starts, attendees are invited to think about these questions: [and consider whether your answers are based on some text or theological truth found in the Old Testament.]
Here are my considerations, presented as ‘thinking out loud’ for your encouragement and as a prompt to your own thinking.

“We have a duty to look after ourselves.” Is this true? Explain!

Parking his theological tanks on the terrace, CFL drives the heavy armour onto Conservative territory (if you agree), or Labour (if you don’t). Then again, what assumptions are we being caught in? Is talk of ‘duty’ an OT and biblical thing, and if so, how close to our modern and largely secular understanding? If I simply concede that ‘duty’ is a fair approximation to biblical and OT values, then the truth must surely be closer to a double-handed (binary) truth. Yes, I have a responsibility to myself and yet also to others, and thus a duty to care for me and them. Such is Jesus charge that we love neighbour as we love ourselves. That’s theologically challenging: where else is it acknowledged that self love is a valid thing? That’s the kind of talk that tends to get evangelists shouting at their listeners to repent. Love of self is what got us into such a mess. Of course Jesus agrees. His instruction is much more subtle. He takes for granted the grounding of responsible self care, following the things our mothers bring us up in as we are children, not adding any further emphasis to that, and radically extends that same kind of taken for granted thinking to those around us- ALL those around us. “Love your neighbour as yourself!” The extension is the kicker. We get that Jesus hearer’s were surprised. Should Jews have been surprised? Did they miss something in their scriptures (as CFL prompts us) that should have alerted them to this ‘radical’ truth? I suspect that Genesis 12 is a good place to go: Abraham is charged and gifted to be a blessing to all nations. Whatever the nature of a holy community ought to be, it must not exclude loving- caring for- the Other, those outside.

An appeal to God’s mission through Abraham could be thought decisive. Might there also be a valid No to CFL’s question? I suspect so. We must respect that in the providence and grace of God, we are not responsible for ourselves in rather a lot of ways. My very being here is the result of God’s sovereign creation. He has determined the times and places in which we live, says Paul to the Athenians. Perhaps I might have been a Māori fighting off Dutch explorer Abel Tasman who sailed into ‘Golden Bay’, ‘New Zealand’ on 13 December 1642, or a Viking fisher woman eeking out a simple existence in a wooden hut in ‘Newfoundland’ in 1021AD. Instead, I’m sitting here, rather comfortably, idly viewing social media posts of an old friend in New Zealand writing irreverent songs about the pandemic, while eating fish caught by some factory ship in the North Atlantic and ferried efficiently to one of my many local supermarkets. I used to read Genesis rather more ‘literally’ in regard to human origins, but now I realise that there is more than a grain of scientific truth in the notion that God can raise up sons for Abraham even from stones.

“And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.”

Mt 3:9 ESV

Here’s what John Gill (d.1771) has to say about this passage:

Some by “the stones” understand the Gentiles, comparable to stones, both for the hardness of their hearts, and their idolatry in worshipping stocks and stones; of and among whom God was able to raise, and has raised up, a spiritual seed to Abraham; who are of the same faith with him, who walk in his steps, and whose father he is: but then it must be supposed, according to this sense, that there were some Gentiles present, since John calls them “these” stones, pointing to some persons or things, that were before him; wherefore I rather think that this phrase is to be taken literally, and that John pointed to some certain stones that were near him, within sight, and which lay upon the banks of Jordan, where he was baptizing; for what is it that the omnipotent God cannot do? He could as easily of stones make men, as make Adam out of the dust of the earth, and then make these men, in a spiritual sense, children of Abraham; that is, believers in Christ, and partakers of his “grace; for if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise”, ( Galatians 3:29 ) . So that God stood in no need of these persons, nor had they any reason to boast of their natural descent from Abraham; since this in spiritual matters, and in things relating to the Gospel dispensation, would stand them in no stead, or be of any advantage to them.

There is absolutely no way in which we are responsible for the ‘care’ with which God endowed His creation with the capacity to ‘make things make themselves’ and I daresay we now share a great deal of ignorance regarding His effective Providence in preserving each of us from disaster and premature death, be that from disease, our own splendid stupidity, or our frequent indulgence of motorised transport. God is doubtless continuing to care for each of us more securely than we could possibly know. But all that can be quite reasonably be taken as given. It is in the common grace of God to human beings. Beyond this, we are most certainly responsible to rescue animals from wells on the Sabbath, seemingly against religious regulations, and even more so, to cover the well with a secure lid so neither our neighbour or our own child falls in during the night. I saw too many open wells in Africa.

If it is appropriate to read ‘duty’ as equivalent to ‘calling,’ ‘mandated,’ or ‘mission,’ and I think it can be all of those things, then this enquiry can be properly taken as a worldview question. Reading elsewhere in this blog will show that my position on the biblical worldview, based consistently on both OT and NT, is an holistic one. God has created and is sustaining a tripartite cosmos: God’s relationship with God’s created cosmos is at once transcendent and immanent, and it is the nature of God’s relationships with God’s cosmos that are of primary significance, over against a reductionist approach that stops with the questions, Who/What is God, and What creation is. (This second ontological question tends to slide away into a conversation in the realm of science, and then fall into opposition with the first- ‘We have no need of that hypothesis’ (allegedly said by Pierre Simon Laplace to Napoleon when asked of the place of God in his cosmology).) 

So it is all at once the duty of humankind to properly attend to all three directions of relationship: firstly with God, secondly with our fellow (potential) worshippers, other human beings, be they believers or not, and also with all else that God has made and makes possible; the rest of creation, on which we are belatedly realise we so crucially depend. Ecclesiastes and Micah put these in an opposite fashion to one another, as if to bracket everything together in God, whom we call the Alpha and Omega. Ecclesiastes starts with God;

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.

Eccl 12:13 ESV

While Micah draws all our being and doing together into God;

And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Micah 6:8

I note that both statements are prefaced with a formalised or legal formula, which CFL’s phraseology of ‘duty’ is resonant with. We easily miss in both these summaries that while God is recognised in a distinct clause, the ‘duty’ of human beings to neighbours and environment is not separated under distinct headings. It is perhaps better this way, as the matter of whether my actions toward my neighbour with regard to water rights, their access to clothing or bread, or to land or a fair rate of pay cannot finally be separated from our collective use or misuse of water, land or the other resources that the earth affords to us- even the quality of the air we breathe and which we are pushing to climactic extremes.

The Westminster Catechism puts it succinctly, but commentators understood that there must be many facets of expression in contiguous organic combination to do justice to our living ‘in the image and likeness’ of God:

Once again and finally to CFL’s question: Do we have a duty to look after ourselves? You would think this was the normality, and a statement on which there is uncontroversial agreement. Absolutely, yes, because looking after Number One is what its all about! Is there a different view in the church? There ought to be. Take up your cross, says the Master. Follow someone Else. Christian duty points Elsewhere. Then again, once the call to service and self-sacrifice is understood and acted on, there remains a kernel of soundness in the suggestion. Too many believers suffer a different malaise, that of over-reliance on their leaders. In regard of spiritual disciplines and personal growth to maturity, there are the words of Paul: by now you should be off milk, and on to solid food, which is for the mature.

My graphics for the ‘Biblical worldview’ which combine God, God’s creation and ourselves in an active dialogic relationship. The two different versions allow a depiction of God’s immanence within God’s cosmos (Left) and transcendence over it (Right).
“Every believer is designed to hear from God for others.” Do you agree?

Designed, in terms of the basic ability or capacity? Maybe so. I have just been arguing that God intends for us to hear Him with more discernment for our neighbours than for ourselves. But that we are so called to do? As a basic principle of life, this suggestion is questionable: Jer 31:34a And no longer shall each one teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD.

Yet in witness and evangelism this is perhaps exactly the gift of God; that God speaks of tangible things in the life of the Other to whom He would have me speak. The specific gift of prophecy that was bestowed on a few in the OT remains in focus in the Church Age, where the common gift of the Spirit opens such insightfulness to all the saints. We are intended to learn lessons from the accounts of the prophets like Elisha, who goes to the king (2 Kings 8) to answer the secret hubris of the nation’s monarch; to be the corrective and enlightening voice of God even to the head of state. While in 2 Ki 3:13 Elisha comforts the kings of Judah and Edom with God’s assurance that a confluence of natural phenomena, human manipulation of environment and the providence of God will bring them to deliverance. Hearing God for others should therefore be a common and continuous part of our human experience as the people of God, where we exercise responsibility for our neighbours and ourselves, from richly creative lives that exercise ‘spiritual’ and ‘natural’ gifts in seamless combination. Since our hearts are formed in God to know Godself, Who is a Community in unity, this phenomenon should be no surprise.

Meditating on this matter in the light of Jer 31 leads me to the conclusion that this is another example of the dispensational now and not yet nature of revelation and God’s partnership with God’s people in history. Before Jeremiah, there was a succession of particular prophets and anointed leaders who acted as go-betweens joining God and His human creatures. But in these words of Jeremiah, we see that God’s intention is to exceed even the double portion anointing on Elijah, not just for the privileged spiritual leader, but for all believers. What was ‘not yet’ for in the time of Elisha and then Jeremiah is now for us in the age of the Spirit in the Church. And yet this is not the final fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophecy. The richest understanding of the biblical message is to be found in a full canonical reading of scripture.

“The better a business serves its customers, the more healthy and profitable it will be.” Do you agree? If you agree, can you think of biblical or theological reasons why this is true?

My main response to this question is to put the purpose of business, and of any particular business, under spiritual examination. The outcome of business, as formulated in this question, appears to be profit and the ability to be profitable even more than it is about serving its customers. And while a business exists within and inseparable from community, the customers are only a subset of that community, and this could be a bias with moral implications- perhaps negative ones. Better to begin on a different basis: that any business – an enterprise that facilitates societal thriving and may also make profit, if compatible with such societal thriving- serves the health and growth of society, which is now to be considered in the context of the global village. This reframing demands a new economics, not least one that is eco-nomic, and that includes criteria of social justice and equity as well as environmental sustainability. Doing good for people- whether customers directly, or broader society, must be calculated to be in step with doing good in the world, for the planet as a going concern into the far future.
All this is informed by the continuing creation mandate of Gen 2:15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. Work is from ’tilling’ as in the agricultural working of the soil, extended to all human doings. Keeping is from watching, (shomer) which implies a profound responsiveness and thus respect for God’s creation. To work with watchfulness is to ensure that our doings are compatible with the order of God’s wider creation. Our ability to watch at all levels of discernment, from the subatomic to the cosmic, suggests that with such ability comes concomitant responsibility. So in sum, I answer Crispin’s question with a bias toward the negative, in the sense that I understand modern business to be antipathetic to holistic considerations of society and planetary health. Yet I would concede, aside from such concern, that a small enterprise that sought to exercise a ‘neighbourly’ attitude to its customers and wider society could reasonably expect such reward. What is at issue is the matter of how much consideration must be given to human sinfulness and community fallenness. If the prevailing context for a business plan is that the fallen state of society makes such neighbourly service questionable, then I give a negative response. Some business plans could be thought of with more optimism, and so the outlook is more favourable.

“Practising justice is only for some believers.” Do you agree and why?

What an extraordinary question! I am at a loss to imagine why CFL thinks it important to pose this question- a reverse instance of the NT wondering aloud, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ How could one possible agree with this suggestion? I have a hunch this is a catch out challenge, like Nathan the prophet popping in to ask King David about sheep. The point of the Genesis 2-4 scenario is to rebut the rival view that the King is the only one with divine calling, position or significant authority. Rather, we all are. All in the demut and tselem of God, all called to do what He would do from our place on earth. So too with Cain: his brother’s blood cries out to heaven, and its cry is heard. [I am reading brother as equivalent to neighbour.] The doing of justice and mercy is everyone’s duty and privilege, as the image of God on earth, doing justice in the earth, to all possible one anothers, and by one’s self. For this is the Divine disposition, and we are here in His place. So I am provoked to muse why this is even a question for CFL. Does he perceive a common malaise in the church that many defer to the few in this sort of leadership, as the realisation of the priesthood of all believers has still not dawned upon all. Is CFLs intent to scrutinise the integrity of my position? Viz, that I am very happy to affirm that it is the business of all believers to do justice as we walk with God- but that it is truly the case that I and too few others who so affirm do much less than we should to act on that stated conviction. I might have got the message that work is worship, but do I still put limits on the scope of my concern for justice in the world God places me in on His behalf? Doing justice is also worship.

Is it possible to draw together these four questions under the rubric of duty? Our duty to God for ourselves and for neighbours; the duty of one believer to speak on God’s behalf to into another believer’s life; the duty of business creators to customers and society; the duty of the Church to address matters of justice at all levels of community and society. How best to consider whether and to what extent these proposals are valid formulations for advancing the Kingdom of God? Is it that the conceptuality of duty emerges from the confluence of the character of God, which sets a high bar for the behaviour of God’s holy community, and God’s determination of human becoming in freedom. There cannot be meaningful justice or business or relationships that are determined by the likes of OT law or NT principle. God does not operate in such a manner: each day’s work was followed by another in Genesis, and Jesus made plain that His Father is not done working. Such continuing work is surely not the product of a legalistic formula, though there may be formulae that are helpful in our early schooling in the walk of faith.

(c) 2021 Stephen Thompson

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Published by Stephen Thompson

Thinking inside the box is to be recommended for many reasons. I am creating this blog in May 2020 as we are encouraged to stay inside our boxes as far as possible, though we are allowed out- encouraged out, indeed- for exercise. By blogging, our thinking can also be allowed out for public exercise. Right now we need new thinking, new exercising of our mental faculties, and collective application of our thinking to the big idea of a healthy collective future. I am trialling my thinking in constructive theology, science and leadership in the light of my experience as a science teacher, theological student and as a representative of the Christian community in the county of Kent, in the UK. I welcome your partnership!

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