A Critically assessment of the meaning of the ‘signs’ of the Fourth Gospel, and their function within the theology of the Gospel as a whole

Introduction

By way of background, the Fourth Gospel differs significantly from the other gospels in terms of content and character. It is a gospel in its own right, written to a particular community, perhaps to be used as part of their liturgy, fellowship, worship, meditation, and exhortation.

Bruce (1994) divides the Fourth Gospel into the following main sections: a prologue (1:1–18), (a.) Jesus’ ministry begins (1:19- 2:12); (b.) Jesus reveals the father in the world (2:13–12:50); (c.) Jesus reveals the father to his disciples (13:1–17:26); (d.) Passion and triumph (18:1–20:31); and an epilogue (pp. 25–27).

Most scholars estimate that the Fourth Gospel is the last of the four gospels, and it was written between 70 -100 AD, a long while after the death of Christ. It is written in classical Greek, giving the notion that it was written by a highly educated person, with a good understanding of: the Old Testament, classical literature of that era, and an in-depth understanding of the Jewish tradition. This raises questions about authorship, which would be superfluous for me to delve into in this piece. However in-passing, I would like to note that there are doubts in some quarters with the traditional view of the author being John the son of Zebedee, especially if we go with the common view that he was a Galilean fisherman. Most scholars and historians agree that in that era fishermen do not write or speak in classical Greek, on the other hand, one cannot dismiss the possibility of a scribe writing on his behalf.

With regards to authorial intent, Cullmann (1959) noted that “we are not dependent upon a hypothesis in order to answer this question, for, in the following verse of the same passage, he gives us the answer himself: ‘These signs are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God…” (p. 38), alluding to John 20:31.

 

The signs, their meanings and functions within the theology of the Fourth Gospel

Most scholars agree that there are seven signs in the Fourth Gospel, which are carefully embedded within the text in Chapters 2–11, popularly referred to as the Book of Signs in Christian tradition. They include: Water into Wine; the healing of the Officer’s son; the cure of the Bethesda Cripple; the Feeding of the five Thousand; the Walking on the Water; the healing of the Man born Blind; and the raising of Lazarus.

In Chapters 1–12, we can clearly deduce that Jesus’ miracles were aimed at manifesting God’s glory (2:11), a key facet of his earthly ministry (11:40). While on this point, it is important to note that with reference to the Walking on the Water, Hunter (1968) stated that the phrase used “would naturally mean ‘walking by the sea’” (p. 66). Hunter noted further that the centre of the story could well be the recognition of Jesus by his disciples in their moment of need.

That aside, when we look at the signs linearly or sequentially, we notice that the five signs between the first and last signs are not too dissimilar from those in the earlier gospels, however the first and the last signs are unique to the Fourth Gospel. For this reason I will give greater focus to them.

For the evangelist, the term signs are used instead of miracles, giving the notion of events coded with meaning, pointing the believer or pilgrim to a direction or destination — this destination being Christ himself (John 14:6). Strengthening this argument, in Jesus’ discourse with the royal official in Capernaum whose son was gravely ill, Jesus challenged their unhealthy appetite for miracles, saying “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” (John 4:48)

Interestingly, Bakers Dictionary of Theology defines biblical signs as “a mark by which persons or things are distinguished and made known. In Scripture used generally of an address to the senses to attest the existence of super sensible and therefore divine power. Thus the plagues of Egypt were “signs” of divine displeasure against the Egyptians (Exodus 4:8; Joshua 24:17, and often); and the miracles of Jesus were “signs” to attest His unique relationship with God (Matthew 12:38; John 2:18; Acts 2:22).” On this point Hunter (1968) noted, “different also is John’s vocabulary for miracle. In the synoptic miracles are dunameis, ‘acts of power’, ‘mighty works’. In St John they are erga, ‘works’, when Jesus is speaking, and when the evangelist or others are speaking, semeia, ‘signs’, i.e. acts symbolic of spiritual truth” (p. 67).

The symbols of worship in the Old Testament such as festivals, the Temple, animals, clothing, Sabbaths, the Ark, etc., were confined to structures, locations, space and time. For example, when the exiles returned and rebuilt the temple, the Day of Atonement could not be re-instituted as a result of the absence of the Ark of the Covenant. But the signs in the Fourth Gospel are not subject to these limitations, instead, they open up a transcendental dimension, and new opportunities for theology and worship.

To this end, the first sign introduces this paradigm, and the last sign crystallises or seals it. Therefore, in terms of Theology and Christology, the evangelist uses these seven signs to emphasise a pre-existent logos, not limited by race, space and time, thereby establishing an incarnational, and universal Christology for salvation. In the words of Cullmann (1959), “the divine presence is no longer bound to the Temple, but to the Person of Christ. For that reason worship is no longer geographically limited, but all worship becomes worship in the ‘Spirit’; even the Sabbath is abolished” (p. 117)

In reference to semiotics (the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation), Aichele (1997) noted that, “no signs ever actually appears that is not all or part of some message” (p. 23) For the evangelist and his audience, the meaning and functions of these signs would have been common knowledge, only to have been lost centuries after Christianity and Judaism went their separate ways. Not long after this happened, the Church reached its gentile age, and a lack of cultural intelligence led to a different reading and understanding of the Fourth Gospel. In view of this Cohen (1988) stated that “the separation of Christianity from Judaism was a process, not an event. The essential part of this process was that the church was becoming more and more gentile, and less and less Jewish, but the separation manifested itself in different ways in each local community where Jews and Christians dwelt together. In some places, the Jews expelled the Christians; in other, the Christians left of their own accord.” (p. 228)

Now to the first sign (the turning of water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee), chapter 2:1–12. This event follows two sequences of the use of the words ‘on the next day’ (1:29, 35), almost as if the author was writing a diary of Jesus’ daily activity, then he introduces this episode with the opening line: ‘On the third day’ (2:1). For Spong (2014), “one cannot be mystical in one’s approach to God and still be literal about the symbols ones uses for God (p. 63), however Bruce (1994) argues strongly against a literal interpretation, noting for instance that “attempts have been made to make her [the mother of Jesus] allegorically in this gospel — as personifying Israel or the Church for example — but their validity is very doubtful” (p. 68). With regards to the water and wine, Cullmann (1959) notes that Jesus’ “refusal was directed against the fact that the mother saw the changing of water into wine as a self-sufficient miracle, while Jesus saw in it a pointer to a far greater miracle which he would not yet fulfil, since ‘the hour for it is not yet come” (p. 67). The hour being his crucifixion which is the high point of the evangelist’s gospel. It symbolises Jesus’ vindication, and perhaps most importantly, his lifting (John 8:28). For the evangelist the cross means victory, it is the hour, it is the completion of Jesus’ work, hence the statement: “It is finished” (John 19:30).

Most scholars agree that the wine signifies the blood of Jesus, shared among the faithful during Eucharist, while some see the water as the water of purification in the Old Testament context. Therefore with regards to the new wine which tastes better than the old one, it encodes “the Christian message: the good wine has come in Jesus” (Fuller 1963:93).

On the seventh sign (John 11:1–14), we are introduced to Lazarus, who like the Beloved Disciple was dearly loved by Jesus. In fact Jesus began to weep enroute to Lazarus’ tomb (11:35). His commitment to his friends (in the wider sense) would ultimately lead to his fate on the cross (John 11:45–57). And just as he alluded in an earlier discourse with Nicodemus (John 3:14–16), this sign points readers to the pre-existence logos who would ultimately fulfil his hour on the cross, so that his friends may have life (John 15:12–13).For Fuller (1963), “the story proclaims Christ’s triumph over the powers that hold man in thrall” (p. 96).

It means that God is faithful. He came through Jesus that we might have abundant life (John 10:10). He came to lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13), like in the words of Proverbs: “some friends play at friendship but a true friend sticks closer than one’s nearest kin” (Proverbs 18:24). Spong (2014) links the evangelist’s seventh signs to Luke’s version of the story, noting that “the insight Luke had developed in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man is that ‘they will not be convinced if someone should rise from the dead’ (Luke 16:31)”, he further stressed that “their response to Lazarus was identical with their response to Jesus” (pp.157–158).

On this point, Cassidy (1992), noted that Jesus’ opponents within this text include: “the Pharisees, the chief priests, Annas, Caiaphas, the authorities, the Jews, the Council (Sanhedrin), Judas, Satan, and the world” (p. 40). Apart from Satan, these groups and individuals were referred to as ‘the Jews’ in the Fourth Gospel, linking seamlessly with verses in John 1:11–13. While on Chapter 1, we need to also note that John 1:12–13 connects with developments within Judaism and Christianity at the end of the first century. In relation to this Barrett (1975) stated that “a century of parallelism can be established. There was a mutual assimilation; there were even men for whom there were two religions, Judaism and Christianity, but only one Jewish Christianity” (p. 68).

As a seal on the signs, Jesus has this beautiful dialogue with Martha which led to the revelation, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (25–26), to this claim, Martha responded: “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” (27). So, in an era of persecution, in which martyrdom serves as the ultimate sign of worship, the assurance of resurrection is a really powerful motif. It brings to mind a lament of the prophet: “Do not rejoice over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me” (Micah 7:8). And when we link this to Luke’s Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1–8), we hear a call to the community, a call to love, patience, perseverance, persistence and steadfastness.

 

Conclusion

So, casting our minds back to John 20:30–31, we deduce that the signs recorded in the Fourth Gospel were carefully selected and woven into the fabrics of the story by the evangelist, with a view to create a tapestry rich in meaning and functionality, imaginably like those of the curtains in the Sistine Chapel.

Just as Paul noted in his letter to the Church in Corinth, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:22), and the evangelist himself in John 4:48; signs and wonders should naturally emanate from believers into the world. But these signs are means to an end, and not the end in of itself, therefore they fit firmly within the overarching framework of the gospel and it’s Theology.

Barrett (1975) noted that the evangelist combines Gnosis and anti-Gnosticism, so “salvation comes through knowing, yet salvation consists not of knowledge but love” (p. 72), that the evangelist “combines deep interest in apostolic foundation of the church with an indifference toward it as an institution dispensing salvation” (p. 74), and he “combines apocalyptic with non-apocalyptic material” (p. 73). For the evangelist “there is no historical moment which is self-explanatory — not the present moment of mystical or churchly experience, not even the historical moment of the activity of Jesus” (Barrett 1975:73).

The stories, signs, and their meaning provides the faithful with insight into the life of Christ; addresses pertinent issues they were facing at the time; provided inspiration and comfort for their spiritual journey; preserved their faith through the passing on of knowledge and wisdom as in traditions in Judaism to new converts and their offspring (Deuteronomy 11:9); expanded the kingdom through missionary efforts; and it provided a reference point for doctrinal and theological matters

 

Bibliography

Barrett, C. K. and Smith, D. M. (1975) The Gospel of John and Judaism. London: S.P.C.K

Brown, R. E. E. (1987) The Community of the Beloved Disciple. New York: Paulist Press International, U.S

Bruce, F. F. (1959) The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company

Cohen, S. J. . J. D. (1987) From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, Vol. 7. Philadelphia: Westminster/John Knox Press, U.S

Cullmann, O. and O, C. (1953) Early Christian worship / Oscar Cullman ; translated by A. Stewart Todd and James B. Torrance. London: SCM Press

Culpepper, A. R. (1983) Anatomy of the fourth gospel: A study in literary design. Philadelphia: Augsburg Fortress Publishing

Fuller, R. H. (1966) Interpreting the miracles. United Kingdom: SCM-Canterbury Press.

Spong, J. S. (2014) The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish mystic. United States: Harper Collins Publishers

Bakers Dictionary of Theology, Bible Study Tools: http://www.biblestudytools.com/ last accessed 22/1/16

 


 

Our Season of Plenty at Healingsprings fellowship

Drawing inspiration from Gen. 41: 46-52, we declare 2016: Our Season of Plenty.
With reference to these verses, Billy Graham said: 

Like Joseph storing up grain during the years of plenty to be used during the years of famine that lay ahead, may we store up the truths of God’s Word in our hearts as much as possible, so that we are prepared for whatever suffering we are called upon to endure

Join us as we harvest and store up the father’s blessings in this season of plenty.

(3:00 – 5:00)pm

Ground floor, English Room, Bexleyheath Academy, Woolwich Road, Bexleyheath DA6 7DA

(Free parking and access via Goals, just next to the Asda car park)

A critical assessment of the extent and importance of the historical issues that may arise for theology through study of the narratives of Jesus’ birth

Introduction

In carrying out a critical assessment of the extent and importance of the historical issues that may arise for theology through study of the narratives of Jesus’ birth, it is expedient that one first of all consider the concept of authorial intent or authorial intention.

In literary theory and aesthetics, authorial intent refers to an author’s intent as it is encoded in their work. In an extract from her article published in 2010, entitled: Authorial Intention, Mitchell noted that:

Arguments over authorial intention — and the relevance of this to the interpretation of a text — go back many centuries, having a notable force and currency in the discussion of religious texts. However, contemporary debates about authorial intention in the literary sphere can be quite precisely dated to the publication of a seminal article, entitled “The intentional fallacy,” by W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, which first appeared in 1946 in the Sewanee Review. In that article, Wimsatt and Beardsley, who are generally associated with the school of literary criticism known as new criticism, argue that “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a literary work of art” (1962[1946]: 92).

Staying on this topic, and using Luke’s narrative as an example, we notice the story of Samuel anointing David as king (1 Samuel 16:1–13), in his telling of the story of John the Baptist (JTB). So, JTB is the prophet that baptised Jesus, just as Samuel anointed David as king of Israel. Sander & Davies (1989) noted that, “Although scholar sometimes suggest that the genre ‘gospel’ was something new, they also admit that literature always draws on what went before, combining, transforming, dividing motifs and genres already familiar to listeners, readers and writers” (p. 252).

There are also elements of syncretism in Luke’s version of events, in the sense that there are comparisons between Jesus and JTB, so one learns about John through Jesus and vice versa. This was perhaps because JTB was seen by some as the messiah, owing to his ancestry, events leading to his birth, popularity, ministry, baptism of Christ and death by the hands of Herod. Sadly, we miss this vital point because we are reading the gospel over 2000 years after they were written. Perhaps this goes to show the quality of their literary work.

With this in mind this essay will focus on the virgin birth and dates as mentioned in the birth narrative.


 

Dates in the birth narrative

Matthew and Luke tell a different story. Matthew’s lenses are on events unfolding in Bethlehem, while Luke starts from Nazareth. The dates in both narratives do not synchronise either, so even though they highlight the reign of Herod the Great, a Roman King; the differences between their dates amount to up to 10years in some calculations.

Luke gives us a snippet into Jesus’ life when he was twelve (Luke 2:41–52), and then mentions that Jesus was around thirty years old when he started preaching, which would take his birth year back to 1 BCE. But according to recent calculations, it seems more likely that Luke slightly miscalculated the death of Herod, as such Jesus would have been born around 4 BCE, approximately bout 2,019 years ago.

Also in Luke’s account, the dates in chapter 3 with regards to the public ministry of John and Jesus was noted as to be in the era of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate and Herod. However Sanders and Davies (1989) noted that, “The high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas (see also Acts 4:6) causes some historically difficulty because Annas became high priest in CE 6 but was deposed in CE 15, whereas Caiaphas from CE 18–36” (p.277). Sanders and Davies (1989) also noted that the dates in Luke 1:5 and Luke 2:1–5, are irreconcilable historically, and that the idea of everyone having to go to their ancestral cities to be counted would have caused much chaos and thereby counterproductive for the Romans (p.277).

But Stanton (1993) argues that, “even though the ancient biographers did not trace character development and rarely summed up their subject’s character in their own words, they were interested in the character of a person and knew how to portray it by using an indirect method of characterization” (p.18).


 

The virgin birth in the birth narrative

The Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke are the only accounts of Jesus’ birth in the New Testament. Both Matthew (1:18) and Luke (1:35) attribute the birth to the creative power of the Holy Spirit (Ladd, 1994, p.323). And they make no link to the virgin birth with Jesus’ ministry as the story progresses.

It is also important to note that there were other miraculous births in the Bible, for example in the Old Testament, we have the accounts of Samson and Samuel, while in Greek mythology, Heracles, and Alexander the Great as told by Plutarch.

On this point, it is vitally important to note that some theologians argue that verses in Jesus’ conversation with the authorities in John 8, highlight the fact that there were disputes over Jesus’ origins: “You are indeed doing what your father does.” They said to him, “We are not illegitimate children [born out of fornication]; we have one father, God himself.” (8:19, 41). For example, Tabor (2006) argue that Tiberius Iulius Abdes Pantera (c. 22 BC — AD 40), a Roman soldier whose tombstone was found in Bingerbrück, Germany, in 1859, was the father of Jesus. He based his arguments on the accounts of a Greek philosopher named Celsus, who attested that some Jews claimed Jesus was the result of an affair between his Mary and Tiberius Pantera who was serving in the region at the time of Jesus’s conception, stating that she was “convicted of adultery and had a child by a certain soldier named Panthera” (The Jesus Dynasty, pp. 64–72).

Matthew models the story of Moses in his telling of Jesus’ birth, emphasising to his readers that Jesus fulfils Moses’ prophecy in Deuteronomy 18:15: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet”; especially at a time when they were seeking deliverance from the scourge of Roman occupation. This style of writing is known as mimesis, which can be defined as the imitative representation of the real world in art and literature. Matthew focuses on the big picture: history, big figures — Herod, Caesar etc., while Mary and Joseph have a very small part to play in the grand scheme of the narrative. God is sovereign, while Jesus plays the role of the nation Israel as he fulfils prophecies.

According to Stanton (1993), “Matthew’s Prologue falls into two parts: the infancy narratives in chapters 1 and 2 (which do not have parallels elsewhere), and the accounts of preaching of John the Baptist and the temptations of Jesus in 3:1–4:11 (which are taken from Mark and from Q)” (p. 65). Matthew also recognises Jesus as the Son of David (2 Sam 7:12–15), and Son of God in reference to royalty as in Psalm 2.2. In fact Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1:1–16 is built around David, with three sets of fourteen generations at the centre is David. The first set — Abraham to David, second set — the exile, the third — the birth of the messiah (Matthew 1:17). On the issue of the Virgin Birth, I believe it is also noteworthy to emphasise the presence of gentile women such as Bathsheba, Rahab, and Ruth, with scandalous past, in a strange contrast to Mary the virgin mother of Jesus. In fact the first worshippers (the wise men from the East) as recorded in Matthew 2:1–12 were also gentiles.

 

 

Sanders and Davies (1989) notes that Matthew’s writing “imitates parts of that in 1 Chronicles 1–3” (p. 259). In reference to the virgin birth, Matthew quotes Is. 7:14 in Matthew 1:23, using the Septuagint (Greek translation) which for some unknown reason translated the word young woman in Hebrew to mean a virgin, while Luke records his version in Luke 1:26–38. However John’s gospel which perhaps has the highest Christology apart from Paul’s writing, has no record of a virgin birth. Even though Jesus refers to God as his father over a hundred times, and Joseph only twice. Instead John uses the word logos, as he introduces a pre-existence Christology (John 1:1–5), and in 1 John 3:5 he uses the word revealed.

With regards to Luke’s narrative, Brown (1994) noted that “Jesus’ identity as God’s Son is proclaimed by an angel at his conception, by Jesus himself the first time he speaks (2:49), by God at the baptism (3:22), and by Paul after the resurrection (Acts 13:32–33)” (p. 131). For Luke the highpoint of the birth narrative is captured in the preceding verses after his prologue in Luke 1:1–4. He sets the stage with an old priest burning incense in the temple, while the people were praying outside. And Yahweh in his sovereignty answers both prayers through JTB and Jesus Christ. In doing this, he takes away the reproach of Zechariah and Elizabeth, but perhaps most importantly, the reproach of the nation of Israel (Luke 1:5–24).

For Peter, the focus is on Jesus’ revelation (birth) and glory (resurrection) in 1 Peter 1:11, 20. In similar vein, Paul writes in Hebrews 2:14, 9:26 — just using the word appeared. Furthermore Paul referred to Jesus as being born of a woman (Gal. 4.4), and Phil. 2:5–11 (which many believe to be a familiar hymn in the first century church) has no mention of a virgin birth, just Jesus’ incarnation. Mark went straight into John’s ministry at the river Jordan, before delving into Jesus’ baptism, temptation and ministry. James also makes no mention of a virgin birth (1:1), in like manner to Peter and Paul, focussing on his glory (2:1).

And even though some scholars cite Romans 5:12, 17, and 19 as Paul’s endorsement of a virgin birth, these references are quite weak. If anything they strengthen the argument for a focus on Jesus’ death and the justification of believers. And if the virgin birth was so significant, then Paul should have recorded it within the verses of Romans 5.

For Bultmann (1968) “the verses which contain the reference to the Virgin Birth are a Christian addition and derive from the same Hellenistic sphere as Matt. 1:18–25” (p. 296). Furthermore he noted, “admittedly this could not have then contained the motif unheard of in a Jewish environment, a virgin birth. It was first added in the transformation in Hellenism, where the idea of the generation of a king as a hero from a virgin by the godhead was widespread” (pp. 291–292)


 

Conclusion

First and foremost, it is important to note that in Matthew and Luke’s account of the birth narrative, their gospels, and other writing as with the book of Acts for Luke; Jesus never used the virgin birth to justify or validate his origins or being.

It is also important to note that history cannot be recaptured in essence because it is impossible to recover every millisecond as events unfold. In Heraclitus’ vision of change, in relation to time he uses an epigram of the river of flux, and noted, “we both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not” (B49a).

Even when history is captured, we still need to validate accounts for objectivity, biases and idiosyncrasies. On this point Stanton (1993) argues that “while Christian faith does not depend on the accuracy of every detail in the gospels, Christians do need to know whether or not the evangelists’ differing portraits are misleading (p. 151).

So, very much like poetry, the authorial intent of a writing can sometimes be difficult to fully grasp. They are often polyvalent (having many different functions, forms, or facets), just as with Jesus’ parables. But contrary to the views of some scholars, I hasten to qualify that this does not mean that these stories were just fabricated by the evangelists. In fact in Luke’s prologue he makes mention of eyewitnesses who were interviewed, albeit informally, in the process of his writing. In reference to this Ladd (1994) cited Cadbury (1923) who noted that “by the use the word parekolouthekoti (“having investigated”) in verse 3 Luke means to say that he has participated in the events he is to relate” (p. 349), which thus “shows, however, no more than that an historian is only as good as his sources, judicious good sense and skill in presentation” (Sanders & Davies, 1989, p.277).

So in optimism I am reminded of Wright (2015): “I regard the continuing historical quest for Jesus as a necessary part of ongoing Christian discipleship. I doubt very much if, in the present age, we shall ever get to the point where we know all there is to know, and understand all there is to understand, about Jesus himself” (p. 3).


 

Bibliography

Brown, R. E. (1994) An introduction to new testament Christology. London: Geoffrey Chapman.

Bultmann, R. (1968), The history of the Synoptic traditions. Blackwell, Oxford

Davies, M. and Sanders, E. P. (1989) Studying the Synoptic Gospels. 5th edn. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International.

Ladd, G. E. (1993) A theology of the New Testament. Edited by Donald A. Hagner. Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Mitchell, K R. (2010), Authorial Intention. In Blackwell Encyclopedia of Literary Theory, ed. Robert Eaglestone, Blackwell. eScholarID: 3b2968

Stanton, G. N. (1989) The Gospels and Jesus. Oxford University Press.

Wright, N. T. (2015) The Challenge of Jesus. United Kingdom: SPCK Publishing

 

 

 

Activities over the festive season!

Over the festive season we will be meeting on the following days to offer worship and thanksgiving to our Lord and saviour, Jesus Christ.

  • Friday, 18th Dec 2015. Home Group Meeting: (7pm – 8pm)
  • Sunday, 20th Dec 2015. Sunday service: (12pm – 1:30pm)

  • Sunday, 27th Dec 2015. Sunday service: (3pm – 4:30pm)

  • Thursday, 31st Dec 2015. NYE’s service: (11pm – 12:30pm)

Oh come all ye faithful!

A merry Christmas, and a happy new year!
God bless.

Leadership: And of You. (Ex. 32:10)

Simply put, ministry is the out working of our regeneration (new birth) to humanity, in other words our vocation. With this in mind, our vision is our unique contribution to humanity, in light of our personality, natural gifts, and spiritual gifts. 

To this end, people (this includes workers) are beneficiaries and shapers (in the sense that they help align and realign our impact) of our ministry, and God remains the inspiration (the breathe or life) behind our vision. 
This wisdom is particularly important for leaders who suffer from what I call ‘people dependency syndrome’, especially in a church setting.

So back to our scripture focus. God said to Moses after the people had created and worshipped a golden calf, not long after he delivered them with his mighty hands from Egypt:

Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation. – (Exodus 32:10)

And of You, glory to God!

You, and no one else. You are on His majesty’s mission. You are God’s emissary, his agent, his delegate. 
You matter dear friend, and your ministry and vision matters. 

Stay focused,
Pastor Clem

A Critical Review of Martin Buber’s I and Thou, in light of Christian theology and Capitalism

According to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, Philosophy of Religion can be defined as “the philosophical examination of the central themes and concepts involved in religious traditions.”

With this definition in mind, in Judaeo-Christian traditions we are introduced to the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1–9. This particular story is pertinent to Buber’s I and Thou as it involves language oriented communication which Buber’s work is centred around. In this story, we see a rare moment in human history when humanity had one language, and we embarked on a global project to build a house that reaches the heavens. This venture was however sabotaged by God, by confusing the language of the builders, thereby leading to an abrupt end of this global undertaking.

That aside, driven by capitalist ideologies, biologists argue that our mental and emotional being are controlled by a complex system of neurons, synapses, and other biochemical substances by millions of year of evolution, as such our moods and emotions can be altered and enhanced with the right chemistry. The barriers of consciousness are being pushed with robotics and artificial intelligence, with scientists predicting that before the end of this century, we will see bespoke interventions to alter DNAs, and biomechanics that can enhance our current capabilities beyond our wildest dreams. In some ways fulfilling the dream of the mid-19th century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who mentioned in his piece God is dead that “all beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the Overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment” (Gay Science Collection).

So, I write a critical review of Martin Buber’s I and Thou, through the prism of human relation in Christian theology and Capitalism.

Martin Buber, I and Thou

Buber is influenced by a wide range of philosophical traditions and sources, including Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Hermann Lotze, Coleridge’s Essay on Faith, Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity and Kierkegaard’s Single One.

In Coleridge’s Essay on Faith, Coleridge builds upon German philosophical tradition of I am being the last word. This theory argues for the unity of nature to be necessarily and only grounded in the Self of man. But according to Coleridge, that Self itself is to be necessarily grounded in another Self, in his words: “I am, precisely because I can say “Thou art!” — for it is just the power and will to say so which makes me an “I”.’ Interestingly Martin Buber developed his dialogical existentialism piece under the title: I and Thou.

For Buber our relationships as humans works on the premise of existence as encounters. He articulated this by using the word pairs: I -Thou and I-It, describing both as encounters through which an individual engages with other individuals, inanimate objects, and all reality, including consciousness, modes of interaction, and being. In light of this Buber mentioned that “the primary word I-Thou can only be spoken with the whole being. The primary word I-It can never be spoken with the whole being” (p.3). This recurring theme is used to describe the dual modes of being: dialogue as in I-Thou, and monologue as in I — It. As such, communication, particularly language-oriented, is used in describing dialogue or monologue through symbols and expression of the relational nature of human existence.

In line with the word pairs, Buber mentions three distinct complex sphere of relationships, namely: our life with nature, our life with men, and our life with intelligible (spiritual) forms. Buber noted that in the first sphere “this relationship sways in gloom, beneath the level of speech. Creatures live and move over against us, but cannot come to us, and when we address them as Thou, our words cling to the threshold of speech” (p .6); in the second sphere “the relationship is open and in the form of speech. We can give and accept the Thou” (p. 6); while in the third sphere, the “relationship is clouded, yet it discloses itself; it does not use speech, yet begets it” (p. 6).

Buber maintains that a person is at all times engaged with the world in one of these two modes, employing these word pairs in articulating a multifaceted idea about modes of being, predominantly, how a person exists and actualises such existence.

Christian Theology and I and Thou

Buber held a personalist view. Keith E. Yandell’s Encyclopaedia of Philosophy defined personalism as “the thesis that only persons (self-conscious agents) and their states and characteristics exist, and that reality consists of a society of interacting persons. Typically, a personalist will hold that finite persons depend for their existence and continuance on God, who is the Supreme Person, having intelligence and volition.”

Buber noted that an I‑Thou relation is a mutual and holistic existence between two authentic individual beings. He describes it as a concrete encounter, arguing that “when Thou is spoken, the speaker has not thing of his object. For where there is a thing there is another thing. Every It is bounded by others; It exists only through bounded others.” (p. 4). The two beings meet one another in their authentic existence, without any qualification or objectification of one another, even their ideas and imagination are active in this relation. Strengthening his idea, Buber emphasises that although I-Thou is not an event, it is still perceivable and real. In his words, “when Thou is spoken, the speaker has not thing; he has indeed nothing. But he takes his stand in relation” (p. 4).

In this mode, we are fully engaged, completely present, mutuality, reciprocity, recognising and affirming the other persons full humanity, we are present in the present, it happens in the here and now — rather than in the there and then. In his view, this I-Thou experience is the most precious part of our human experience and part of our birth right. It is at the very core of all genuine transcendence, creativity and spirituality. As such, he argues that we don’t grow as human beings all on our own in any deep way, but all genuine growing and becoming requires a Thou. In other words, growing and becoming only occurs between people, rather than within or outside of people.

In Ephesians 2:13–22 for instance, Paul uses similar ideas, “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (v. 14), in bridging historic division between the Jews and the Gentiles within the early church. In like manner Buber noted, “Spirit in its manifestation is a response of man to his Thou. Man speaks with many tongues, tongues of language, of art, of action; but the spirit is one, the response to the Thou which appears and addresses him out of mystery. Spirit is the word.” (p. 39).

With regards to God, Buber presents a pantheistic logic of the omnipresence of God, in line Hassidism (a strand of Judaism) tradition which he was a follower. Buber asserts that this relationship is the foundation of any possible interaction with God, and that an I-Thou relationship with anything or anyone connects in some way with the eternal relation to God. Therefore every I-Thou relations makes at least an indirect reference to God, consequently even self-proclaimed atheist who experience the I-thou in their lives are living in relation to God, much more so that self-proclaimed theists who experience little or no I-Thou experiences. Buber asserts that “the man who experiences has no part in the world. For it is ‘In Him’ and not between him and the world that the experience arises” (p. 5). This ties in with the concept of redemption, as seen in an excerpt from one of John’s letters, “those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:20).

According to Buber, to create this I–Thou relationship with the Eternal Thou (God), even though we are meant to be actively pursuing it (as in the case of Paul’s Damascus experience in Acts 9:1–19), we should be open to the idea of such a relationship in the first place (being a Jew, the concept of a messiah was known to Paul, in fact most Jews in that era were expecting the messiah). For Buber, pursuit of such a relation creates qualities associated with the tensions of It-ness, thereby hindering an I-Thou relation, reducing it to I-It.

In Christian theology, this idea undermines the profound spiritual experience of, for example, Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:22–38), who were clearly actively seeking God in the person of the Messiah. In Buber’s view, God responds to our openness to an I–Thou relation through grace, furthermore, because God is void of qualities, this I–Thou relation is unique and dependent on us. But it can also diminish when we treat it as an I-It relationship.

In light of this, Buber alludes that our spiritual lives are not so much about what we proclaim, but how we live in relation. So even though prayer is the most important way of addressing God directly, it can be reduced to an I-It when it takes the form of objectifying God. For example when our prayers and devotion is centred on getting God to produce good things, while withholding bad things from us, for example in the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6:9–13), Psalm 23, or Jabez’s prayer in 1 Chronicles 4:10.

For Buber, this is a form of objectification and manipulation, and a typical example of how we address God as an It, rather than standing in relation to God as the Eternal Thou. Buber noted, “how would man exist if God did not need him, and how would you exist? You need God in order to be, and God needs you — for that which is the meaning of your life.” (p. 130).

Capitalism and I and Thou

Humankind long for an era of peace, cooperation and wealth. On the political front we have alliances like: the Arab League, European Union, United Nations, Organisation of African Unity, Economic Community of West African States, National Atlantic Treaty Organisation etc., however these pursuits remain illusions. Sectarianism, nationalism, civil wars, racism, inequalities, genocides, neo-colonialism, anti-Semitism, islamophobia, unfair trade, social inequality, gender discrimination, terrorism, environmental pollution, and far right ideologies remain rife.

For instance, we recently witnessed France’s biggest attack in peace times, with the attackers (most of them EU citizens) claiming to act in the name of Allah against infidels (their fellow citizens). On the other front, and perhaps even more concerning, some Christians blame the victims for the attacks, citing secularisation, abortion statistics, and that those at the Bataclan were singing songs to the devil.

As well as religion, the socio-economic undertones of these issues cannot be ignored either. Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, argued that the human desire to increase private profit is the basis for collective wealth, in a nutshell, egoism (I-It) is altruism. As a result the world and its vast resources can be seen as an It to be exploited and not enjoyed. But capitalism works for the greater good when business owners perceive wealth as capital to be reinvested. This mode of thinking promotes fairer trade, human capital development, environmentally friendly invention and innovation, creation of gainful employment opportunities and payment of fairer wages. However a key dogma of capitalism is individualism, which is also a pillar of neo-liberalisation. Starting from the 1980s, neoliberal agenda in the UK and USA especially, led to dramatic cultural shifts in attitudes towards wealth creation, community relation, and wealth distribution.

Evidently capitalism has brought some gains to humanity, but sometimes I worry if its woes outweigh these gains. For instance in present times in Europe, those at the fringes of society are literally falling off the cliff, as we see the rise of food banks, stagnation in social mobility, youth unemployment, right wing activism, drug and alcohol abuse, terrorism, and poverty of aspiration. According to the BBC, forty-seven percent of jobs as we know them today in the US are likely to be lost through recent development in technology. So Buber argues that in our modern and technological life, I-It is more dominant than I-Thou.

Buber’s view is perhaps more pertinent now with the internet of all things and social media playing a big role in human communication — in fact in many ways replacing genuine encounters. Buber mentions a culture of capriciousness, as he put it, “the capricious man does not believe in encounter, he does not know association, he only knows the world out there and his desire to use it.” (p.109).

For Buber, by operating in an I-It mode our relationship is objectified, through either manipulation or a means-end mentality. Buber asserts that Using is an externalised way of addressing the world, while Experiencing is an internalised way of addressing the world. Therefore, I-It is not with our whole being, but rather through habits, experience, and patterns of interaction. In this mode we manipulate others through fear, guilt, hype, moralism, from our past experiences, in much the same way we use our objects. In this mode there is no acknowledgement of the other person’s humanity.

Conclusion

We are evidently, more comfortable, but less happy or fulfilled. It seems that our greatest enemy is our individualistic or self-centred worldview, which cuts across humanity, regardless of religious persuasion or none; hence the need for redemption.

When Jesus was asked the fate of people that encountered similar plights to those in the massacre in Paris, he responded with these words:

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them — do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? (Luke 13:1–5).

In these verses, Jesus highlights the universal need for all to be redeemed (unless you repent) from the corruption of this world, and in Buber, the concept of redemption seems to be a crosscutting theme. I hasten to qualify that redemption here means a process of recovery, which among other key themes reverses the judgement on humanity in the aforementioned passage in Gen. 11:1–9.

In optimism Buber talks about the return. However for the return to happen, we need to call the incubus of the world of I-It by its true name. According to Buber Incubus fetters opportunities to experience real relation, transcendence, and spirituality. Buber asserts that the return requires the sacrifice our little will which is unfree and ruled by things and our ego, to our great will which is free from these forces.

Bubers work is timeless. A book everyone should take time to read. However, my study of Buber leaves the following questions unanswered: how do we practically identify incubus and call it by its name? How can I-Thou prevail against the establishment and powers structures? With developments in artificial intelligence and robotics, should a robot be considered an It or a Thou?

 

Bibliography

Friedrich Nietzsche, Gay Science Collection, (1882)

Keith E. Yandell, Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, Routledge: https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/personalism, last accessed 27/11/15

Martin Buber, I and Thou, translated by Ronald Gregor Smith (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958)

Rachel Nuwer, Will Machines Eventually Take on Every Jobs?  (6 August 2015): http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150805-will-machines-eventually-take-on-every-job, last accessed: 27/11/15

 

Love your neighbour as yourself

Definition of Islamophobia: Dislike of or prejudice against Islam or Muslims, especially as a political force.
“you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” – (Mark 12:30-31)
In the same way that Nigerians are not all criminals; Albanians are not all drug dealers, prostitutes, or thieves; white people are not all racist; and I can go on till infinity on this list. So also not all Muslims condone violence. 

With that in mind, as Christians, especially people of colour that have suffered from racism, prejudice, and any other forms of cultural, economic or social biases, we should be more discerning.

Muslims are human beings created in God’s image and likeness as we are, therefore there is no place for Islamophobia in Christianity.

We should be advocates of this truth, not the propaganda machine of the Establishment.
I could quote countless scriptures to strengthen this argument, but I feel led to leave it as this.
God bless:

Pastor Clem