Loving People to Death: A Short Essay on Assisted Dying

“For the creation was subjected to futility, writes the Apostle Paul (Romans 8:20), and this frustration resonates with the current politico-moral climate that is increasingly hesitant to attribute significance to human life. Ethical thought previously concerned itself with the question of the ‘good life,’ of life lived virtuously, fruitfully, and freely. By contrast, the prevailing zeitgeist applies itself to justifying the most moral life as one that leaves the smallest ‘burden’ on the created world.[1] In fact, contemporary ethics has become so uncomfortable with the exercise of human life that it tends to discuss human existence in relation to its impact on the environment, the economy, or upon relationships rather than as something potentially fruitful and a basic good in and of itself. Such a view, certainly, is not consistent with the holistic view of human life found in the concern shown by Jesus for the restoration of physical, mental, and spiritual maladies (Luke 7:18-23; 11:14-20; cf. Isaiah 65:13-23). The Bible points us to a holistic, dynamic concept of life adamantly grounded in relationship (in covenant) with God,[2] and perhaps maximally defined in שָׁלוֹם (Jeremiah 8:15; Isaiah 53:5; cf. Luke 10:5-9; Hebrews 12:13-14; Luke 4:18). Jesus is, in no insignificant sense, the ultimate bringer and redeemer of שָׁלוֹם (or semantically, the concept is better conveyed through the Greek, σωτηρία) through His ministry.[3]

For Christians, inasmuch as death might abruptly and tragically neutralise vivacity, it itself is neutralised by the Christian hope of resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:50-58; cf. Isaiah 25:8; Hosea 13:14). In one respect, death is wholly natural (cf. Joshua 23:14; 1 Kings 2:2; Ecclesiastes 3:2); equally attached to death however, is an evil and unnatural element. God’s sobering warning to Adam, ‘When you eat of it, you will surely die’ predicates death as divine judgment on human sinfulness,[4] and so Karl Barth writes, “it is very much to be feared.” [5] Death is a reality because sin is a reality; sin begets death. Thus, although humankind at the outset of the biblical narrative is “blessed” (Genesis 5:2), endowing fruitfulness, vitality, and productivity[6], each generation is stonewalled by the statement, “and then he died” (vv. 8, 11, 14, 17, 20, 27, 31). Thus it is a “deterioration of [mankind’s] original, wonderful vitality, a deterioration corresponding to his increasing distance from his starting point at creation.”[7]

But inasmuch as death indiscriminately claims those under its thrall, the Christian faith views death as somewhat morally ambiguous. Thus, for Paul, ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Romans 6:23) but those in Christ are ‘free from the law of sin and death’ (8:23), and ultimately the Apostle “exults in the triumph Christ has won over death itself.”[8] In Christian belief, death may frustrate, certainly, but it will never thwart. Death, and its corollary, life, should never be trivialised since in Christ “there is a fundamental continuity of identity”[9] both in the present and into eternal life. Thus, as Morris notes[10], Pauline theology strongly emphasises to “ἐνδύω, put on” Christ (Romans 13:14; Galatians 3:27), the imperishable (1 Corinthians 15:52a), immortality (15:52b), our heavenly dwelling (2 Corinthians 5:2), our new selves (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10), the whole armour of God (6:1), and a myriad of other Christian virtues (cf. Colossians 3:12-14).

The (Renewed) Crisis of Euthanasia in Australian Ethical Debate

But contemporary ethical debate is presented with an enormous crisis on life and death, best reflected in Australia’s renewed interest in the euthanasia – or as it is now called, ‘assisted suicide.’

Consequentialist thought supposes that all actions undertaken must serve to produce the best possible future state.[11] Moral utilitarianism in the eyes of Christian ethic however, is deficient (cf. John 11:50; 18:1; “better that one man should die for the people”). The Socratic view (with which there are striking Christian parallels; cf. Matthew 5:39) that one would be better to suffer wrong than to commit it, cannot be conceived in consequentialist terms.[12] In fact, civil authorities that make it their position to legislate or licence the killing of innocent people loses the character and legitimacy of its authority.[13] The Christian Prophets reference in numerous instances the gravity of the crime to shed innocent blood (Isaiah 59:7; Jeremiah 22:3; Ezekiel 22:4 et paribus), and this is coupled with Judas’ conviction that he “betrayed innocent blood” (Matthew 27:4; cf. Romans 3:15). And yet, even in Christian circles, the only circumstance where the killing of innocent people seems to escape these arguments is assisted dying. It largely appears the drive is in the direction of killing people whose lives are judged as “dangerous, destructive, or just plain pointless.”[14] This judgment is readily made of people whose mental capacity is gone or much diminished,[15] and is reflected tragically in the case of Tony Bland[16] and others in similar circumstances.

Moral autonomy is the preeminent value championed by supporters of assisted dying. “The story of modernity fashions a will to die,” writes Carole Stoneking, “a means of escaping the anguish of death …we are given to imagine that we can control our destiny.”[17] It is an intellectual logic which compels people to die, and is disingenuous insofar as it possesses the inexorable effect of polluting the exercise of moral autonomy by the very ill and/or very infirm. Some take the view that, “where concern for welfare and concern for respect for wishes are incompatible with one another, concern for welfare must give way to respect for autonomy”[18]. To this, we must respond however that the argument for unfettered patient autonomy quickly leads unto reductio ad absurdum. Moreover, once a human life has begun, there is an innate and natural disposition that that life should go well, and that the investments and aspirations attached to that life represent ideals to be realised rather than frustrated.[19] This is not to advocate blindly for the preservation of a person’s last vestiges of life, but I commend highly the policy of only caring for the dying proffered by American ethicist, Paul Ramsey in “The Patient as Person.”[20] A sharp distinction ought to be made between terminal illnesses and ‘dying.’ The latter unambiguously means that nothing can be done to arrest the progress of imminent death; the former does not. A balanced Christian ethic does not call for a stubborn narrow kind of vitalism, and it is right that medical objectives[21] change from saving life to providing the best quality of care in the face of irreversible, aggressive terminal illnesses. Certainly, death itself is not the tragedy; rather, it is dying for the wrong reasons[22], or the blight of sin-marred creation. For many, death is a merciful release, the natural close to a narrative well written, and as Christians believe, the path unto glory.[23]

Christians however, also believe that, irrespective of what may be deemed a ‘worthwhile quality of life’, all persons remain in God’s image[24], and this theology informs the grounds for the sanctity of human life. Indeed, the primacy of human life has owed much to the Judaeo-Christian tradition (cf. Genesis 1:27; 5:1; 9:6; James 3:9).[25] Nevertheless, with or without theological underpinnings, a prohibition on killing is central to both pre-Christian[26] and post-Christian[27] Western medical ethics. Such sentiments are predicated on the assertion that human life is a basic good, the foundations for human flourishing (Genesis 1:22, 28; 8:17; 9:1). Moreover, the reason for life begins with an appreciation that the life endowed us is a gift, [28] and that Jesus came that His followers might have life abundantly (John 10:10). Christ’s assertion that it is impossible for man to “live by bread alone” (Matthew 4:4) suggests a character of life lived in relationship with God and His will.[29] For as long as God makes provision for life then, there is a prerogative upon Christians to choose life. This position is reflected foundationally in Jesus’ desires directed towards God’s will, and His committal into His Father’s hands, both in life and in death[30]: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).

Closing Thoughts on Life & Death in Biblical Perspective

Limited by brevity, I have outlined only some matters pertaining to the concerns of life and death in Christian ethical thought. There are, no doubt, many other problems attached to the question of assisted dying which I have no space to explore here. Nevertheless, I will posit one question that I believe will agitate fruitful discussion for Christian ethics: how ought Christians interpret the plea of patients or bystanders for assisted dying? I am not convinced that the plea for escape from this world is a plea for death inasmuch as it might be a plea for better palliative care, support, comfort, and love in a world so vacuous of such things. It is with this thought that I close:

“I suggest to you that it is because God loves us that He gives us the gift of suffering. Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world. You see, we are like blocks of stone out of which the Sculptor carves the forms of men. The blows of His chisel, which hurt us so much are what make us perfect.”[31]



[1] Kevin Yuill, Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case against Legalization (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) at xii.

[2] David J. Atkinson et al., New Dictionary of Christian Ethics & Pastoral Theology, eds David J. Atkinson et al. (IVP Academic, 1995) at 89.

[3] I particularly recommend David Atkinson’s excellent little tome on the concept of shalom, and of how Jesus is the Messianic incarnate shalom of God, the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). Cf. David J. Atkinson, The Church’s Healing Ministry: Pastoral and Practical Reflections (Canterbury Press Norwich, 2011).

[4] Atkinson et al., New Dictionary of Christian Ethics.

[5] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, trans. H. Knight et al. (3; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001) at 598.

[6] Dan Lioy, The Search for Ultimate Reality: Intertextuality between the Genesis and Johannine Prologues (Peter Lang, 2005) at 48.

[7] Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, trans. John Marks (Revised Edition edn., Old Testament Library; Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1973) at 69.

[8] Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: IVP Academic, 2008) at 227.

[9] Victor Paul Furnish, The Theology of the First Letter to the Corinthians (New Testament Theology: Cambridge University Press, 1999) at 116.

[10] Morris, 1 Corinthians at 229.

[11] G. E. M. Anscombe, Human Life, Action, and Ethics: Essays by G.E.M. Anscombe (St Andrews Studies in Philosophy and Public Affairs: Imprint Academic, 2006) at 274.

[12] Cf. A. Müller, ‘Radical Subjectivity: Morality Versus Utilitarianism’, Ratio, 19/2 (1977), 115-32.

[13] Anscombe, Human Life, Action, and Ethics: Essays by G.E.M. Anscombe at 269.

[14] Yuill, Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case against Legalization at xii.

[15] Anscombe, Human Life, Action, and Ethics: Essays by G.E.M. Anscombe at 272.

[16] Airedale National Health Service Trust v Bland [1993] All English Law Reporter 1 HL 821.

Airedale NHS Trust v Bland, Anonymous, ‘Airedale National Health Service Trust V Bland’, All English Law Reporter (1: House of Lords, 1993), 821.

[17] Carole Bailey Stoneking, ‘Receiving Communion: Euthanasia, Suicide, and Letting Die’, in Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells (eds.), The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics (1st edn.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006) at 379.

[18]John Harris, ‘Euthanasia and the Value of Life’, in John Keown (ed.), Euthanasia Examined: Ethical, Clinical and Legal Perspectives (Cambridge University Press, 1997). In Harris’ defence, I am only quoting a particular section of his outline on the topic of euthanasia, and this is not indicative of his complete structure. In fact, he goes on to defeat this logic later on in his chapter.

[19] Ronald Dworkin, Life’s Dominion: An Argument About Abortion, Euthanasia, and Individual Freedom (Vintage, 1994) at 215.

[20] Cf. Paul Ramsey, Margaret Farley, and Albert R. Jonsen, The Patient as Person: Exploration in Medical Ethics (The Institution for Social and Policy Studies: Yale University Press, 2002).

[21] Atkinson et al., New Dictionary of Christian Ethics at 95.

[22] Stoneking, ‘Receiving Communion: Euthanasia, Suicide, and Letting Die’, at 380.

[23] Anthony Colin Fisher, ‘Theological Aspects of Euthanasia’, in John Keown (ed.), Euthanasia Examined: Ethical, Clinical and Legal Perspectives (Cambridge University Press, 1997) at 323.

[24] Atkinson et al., New Dictionary of Christian Ethics at 88.

[25] John Keown, Euthanasia, Ethics and Public Policy: An Argument against Legislation (1st edn.: Cambridge University Press, 2002) at 40.

[26] cf. The Hippocratic Oath: “To please no-one will I prescribe a deadly drug, nor give advice which many cause his death. Nor will I give a woman a pessary to procure abortion.” Quoted in J. K. Mason & R. A. McCall Smith, Law and Medical Ethics (5th edn.: Butterworths, 1999), at p. 551.

[27] “I will maintain the utmost respect for human life from its beginning even under threat, and I will not use my medical knowledge contrary to the laws of humanity.” Quoted ibid. at p. 552.

[28] Stoneking, ‘Receiving Communion: Euthanasia, Suicide, and Letting Die’, at 379.

[29] Atkinson et al., New Dictionary of Christian Ethics at 88.

[30] Stoneking, ‘Receiving Communion: Euthanasia, Suicide, and Letting Die’, at 379.

[31] Attributed to C.S. Lewis; Shadowlands (Paramount Pictures, 1993), Richard Attenborough (dir.).

Theology Wednesdays: Toward A Resurrection Ethic

Of the questions that I habitually ask myself (and I would also encourage you to do likewise), there is one that never fails to kindle in me a pensive mood: “What will I say when I meet God, my Maker?” There rests upon me some great fear that I should awake one morning and look wistfully back on all the latent opportunities that God presented before me, and yet, despite His amenity, find that I had done little for His glory’s sake. Inasmuch as the Word of God calls us to be ‘content’ in God (Philippians 4:11; cf. 3:7-11; 1 Timothy 6:6-8; 2 Corinthians 9:8; Hebrews 13:5), such hortative statements are not meant to quell ambition or to asphyxiate zeal. My experience oftentimes points me to the idea that we falsely attribute the continued absence of positive outcomes conveniently to “God’s timing,” rather than acknowledging laxity and indolence where it has presented itself in our lives.

I am convinced that such misinformed morals develop from a deficient understanding of the theology of the resurrection. For all the attention we afford to Jesus’ death on the cross (and rightly so), it sometimes appears that we sell short the resurrection of Jesus Christ in whom, and through whom, we are now called to live (Galatians 2:20; Romans 6:5-11). For the most part, the theological significance (and therefore, ethical implications) of Jesus’ death comes intuitively. Put simplistically, Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world (John 1:29; 3:16; Galatians 1:4; Romans 5:8; 1 Peter 2:24) – ergo, those who accept and believe in this Gospel ought to make efforts not to sin (cf. Romans 6:1-3). Jesus’ death, and our partaking in His death, serves a prophylactic purpose encouraging us to no longer participate in our old ways of life (Ephesians 2:1-3; see esp. Colossians 1:21-22).

There does not appear to be any abstruseness with respect to what we shouldn’t do; perhaps not necessarily because we have been convinced it is in keeping with biblical principles, but because the wider culture (especially those Western nations formed upon Judeo-Christian foundations) also appeals to these values. For instance, the moral value of most of the Decalogue (Exodus 20:1-17) is unequivocal, and this is abetted by the fact that most of these imperatives appear in the negative: “You shall not have other gods … You shall not make for yourself a carved image … You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain etc.”

But enigmatically, we are divorced between the theology of the Bible and a present-time, positive Christian ethic. By way of example, if hypothetically, we asked how one might, “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” (Exodus 20:8) or “honour your father and your mother” (v. 12) we are suddenly benighted and a great blanket of bewilderment sets upon most. But for those who object to my use of an Old Testament ethic (as prominent a position as the Decalogue has been, and should be, afforded in Christian doctrine), I will use a New Testament example to illustrate. Take, for instance, the marvellous passage of Matthew 6:25-33. The negative, “do not be anxious about your life” (v. 25) is comfortable for most to understand, especially in light of the following verses. The negative, “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (v. 33) presents itself to most with a much greater measure of ethical ambiguity: “how do I seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness?”

There is merit in following the popular aphorism, “When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras.” Perhaps we find ourselves increasingly disconnected from the ideal of “alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11; 1 Corinthians 15:22; Ephesians 2:5) because we find ourselves increasingly disconnected from the theology of the resurrection, and the implications it should hold in the present and tangible realities of our lives.

Beyond A Shallow Reading of the Bible: Part Two

Thankfully, most of us have gone through a schooling system that allegedly teaches “critical thinking.” For the record, by critical thinking, I do not mean a kind of indiscriminate scepticism by which we approach everything with cynical distrust. Rather, I mean that most people are quite adept at reducing information down to its most basic assumptions, and (1) identify whether those assumptions are “reasonable,” and whether consequent arguments stemming from these assumptions make logical sense.

But a by-product of applying critical thought is that we begin to view everything axiomatically – everything is understood in terms of pithy statements that might explain reality on a general level, but achieves little when brought down to our individual lives. I think this same pattern is at work in the way that Christians read their Bibles, and to our detriment. We are not very good at asking and answering the question, “How then should I live?” But we must remember that exegesis is only the first step of the hermeneutic cycle. Reading the Word of God means exceedingly little if it does not change the way that we live.

Now of course, the Bible does not speak explicitly on a number of moral issues. Sometimes this is because there is a measure of interpretive ambiguity in passages, but usually it’s because modernity brings with it new sets of ethical problems. By way of example, we shall embark upon a short history lesson. The Church (and in particular, the Protestant Church) has invariably lagged for about fifty years behind the moral revolution that we find ourselves swept up in today. A little over fifty years ago, the Church was seen as a moral authority; by contrast, nowadays Christian values are seen as outdated, degenerate and immoral. How did it come to be? Well, we must acknowledge that although the sexual revolution of the 1970s was triggered by a number of things, one of the particularly salient features was the development of contraceptive technologies.

When I mention that Roman Catholics don’t use contraception, I am normally greeted by raised eyebrows, slightly ajar mouths, and generally, surprise. When I mention that in 1968, Pope John Paul VI released an encyclical Humanae Vitae that essentially forbade Catholic couples from using contraception, the usual response is that such instruction is antiquated and even oppressive. When I tell people that I’m actually in agreement with that position, they normally (and wrongly) assume that I’m dangerously revisiting my Catholic roots.

Pls Bene Wut
The face of my Protestant friends when I tell them I’m in agreement with the Catholic position.

And yet, in this instance, I am convinced that it is the evangelical church, not the Roman Catholics, who have stepped outside the historical Christian mainstream. At least theologically-ethically speaking, the Catholic Church found its rationale in the classical Christian tradition and the moral argument that Christians ought to be open to the gift of children in each and every occasion of sexual intercourse. The Catholic Church understood that once the vital link between sex and children was severed, sex would become redefined as an activity that did not have any bearing on the gift of children. The net result: commodification of both God’s good gift of sex, and the worth of human life in childbirth. The ramifications of this are clear today. By contrast, evangelicals have largely been unable to produce a coherent response, or worse, have conceded to an apparently larger and better ethic of personal autonomy.

Situations such as these have prompted some to suggest that the Bible is fallible, or that it’s morally deficient, or that the Scriptures are not in fact inspired. To a small extent, these conclusions have the outward appearance of merit, not because they are truthful claims per se, but because those who are expected to take up the counter-claims have done so in a disappointing and subpar way. Perhaps more pointedly, it is no coincidence that the decline of Christianity in the West follows the Church’s claims (or lack thereof) to moral authority in the public square. We have effectively relinquished the moral high ground.

So now with the history lesson out of the way, how do we go about developing a biblical position on essentially every ethical facet of life? This is the question that we now presently embark to answer together.

Firstly, I think it’s helpful to understand that all biblical principles fall into one of three ethical categories, which I will address in turn:

  1. Explicit, decisive commands;
  2. Commands developed from broader biblical principles;
  3. Paradigms drawn from facts of the world.

Of course, there are those who might immediately object saying, “Who can interpret the Bible correctly? And further to this, who decides what is and what isn’t the right interpretation?” To which I say a number of things:

Firstly, even though there may legitimate areas for disagreement about the meaning of the Bible, it is nevertheless possible to understand the core interpretive values behind a text. Secondly, and further to the aforementioned point, there is almost unanimous consensus regarding the main tenets of the Christian faith, as well as the proper methods for interpretation. Thirdly, the question is a red herring. The issue is not whether we are able to infallibly interpret the Bible, but that we are able to derive ethical principles that can be substantiated from a responsible use of the Bible. If there is disagreement, then we should be looking to publish arguments in opposition to what is proffered, and in this kind of health (and properly, critical) dialogue, greater clarity is afforded on issues that desperately need conversation.

Good Conversation
There are far too many Sheldon Cooper’s in this world (though might I say, in terms of that peculiar mixture of sass and genius, this might not be a bad thing).

Nonetheless, on some issues I think the overall teaching of the Bible is clear. Even those with an ounce of common sense will know for instance, that according to the Bible, murder is morally wrong (Exodus 20:13), adultery is morally wrong (v. 14), stealing is morally wrong (v. 15), and bearing “false witness against your neighbour” is morally wrong. These kinds of matters make up the first group of commands that are explicit, decisive, and unambiguous.

There is a second set of biblical ethics that can be drawn from broader principles, and it is here especially that strong hermeneutical foundations are important. It is on issues such as these that biblical ethics generally diverge into multiple streams of thought, and history reminds us that the world’s greatest evils usually come from good, but misdirected intentions. To this end, there’s this brilliant quote from the late Rabbi Wolfe Kelman: “I pretty much have my yetzer hara [evil inclinations] under control; it’s my yetzer hatov [good inclinations] that always gets me into trouble.” Good hermeneutical practice serves a prophylactic purpose against Christian moral deficiency.

Let me paint with broad brushstrokes for instance, the doctrine of creation. God created the world and humankind, and declared it was “very good” (Genesis 1:31); picturesque certainly, but not quite perfect. Sure, we weren’t plagued by disease, infirmity, or death (cf. Romans 5:12; Ecclesiastes 7:29), Certainly the Garden of Eden was idyllic because mankind was with God, but nevertheless God sets His created people to develop the world and make it useful, “to work and to keep it” (Genesis 2:15). But so the narrative goes, Adam and Eve sin, God places a curse on the entire natural world, and nature is no longer what it was created to be, but is “fallen” (cf. Genesis 3:18). Understood correctly, this broad principle of “fallenness” in the Christian worldview has enormous implications for how people ought to view and live in the created world.

One of the implications of this is that what we think of as “natural” today is not always good, and it can be morally right – even pleasing to God – to “tamper” with nature because sometimes (though not always) “tampering” with fallen nature can have better ethical and moral outcomes than not tampering with nature. In fact, such activity can be in keeping with our God-given task of subduing the earth and having dominion over it (Genesis 1:28). Of course, people can make mistakes in their attempts to fulfil this divine mandate, and there can be harmful – even catastrophic – results. But evaluating whether these attempts are “helpful” or “harmful” – and therefore “moral” or “immoral” – is another matter of assessing the resulting outcomes. By way of outline, breeding varieties of crops that are resistant to disease and pests, and produce better yields for people is morally good; developing technologies like mosquito nets and insect repellants to keep “natural” mosquitoes from biting us and spreading certain vector-borne diseases is morally good; and God Himself precursors the many measures of welfare, both moral and physical, that man’s sin make necessary when he provides for their immediate needs, “garments of skin and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21).

Another implication that tempers the previous view is that God did not completely destroy the earth, nor did He make it entirely evil and harmful. It is in this respect that Paul could say things like, “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the Word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4-5), and later goes on to say that God “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17). Although God declared that Adam and Eve’s existence on the earth would be painful and frustrating at times (“thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you”), in the same breath He also promises that we “shall eat the plants of the field” and “bring forth children.” Ergo, the divine mandate to “subdue” the earth and to “have dominion” over it is very much alive, well, and perennial (cf. Genesis 9:3; Psalm 8:4-8). But with this command, the biblical witness is to do so in a way that is not wasteful, destructive, or morally incongruous e.g. Proverbs 12:10, “Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast,” and the implication of Matthew 22:39b, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” implies a responsibility to think of the needs of others and therefore, future generations. This is what it means to draw an ethical framework from broad biblical principles, but as I mentioned in last week’s article, such an ethic can’t be derived without a relatively broad understanding of the Word of God.

Lastly, there is the ethic of appealing to facts of what is good and what is bad, which, for the record, should inform a worldview of biblical ethics least of all the three categories. Let’s take the example of economics, which hopefully will not result in your death by boredom.

Wu tR u tLkin Bout
The Bible and economics?

Let me begin by saying that, for the sake of transparency, I stand politically on the side of classical liberalism, which has very strong intellectual traditions in capitalist thought. And I reiterate, I come to such positions because I believe that the principles outlined can be substantiated by a responsible use of the Bible.

Let me begin by saying that the Bible regularly assumes and reinforces a system in which property belongs to individuals, neither to government nor to society as a whole. This is implied for instance in the Eighth Commandment, “You shall not steal,” (Exodus 20:15) which assumes that human beings will own property that belongs to them individually and not to other people. Such a principle is buttressed by the final commandment of Exodus 20:17, “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house … your neighbour’s wife … his male servant … his female servant … his ox … his donkey … or anything that is your neighbour’s.” The Bible also contains many laws concerning the punishments for stealing, as well as commensurate restitution for damages incurred against another person’s property (e.g. Exodus 21:28-36; 22:1-15; Deuteronomy 22:1-4; 23:24-25), and also makes specific mention that property boundaries ought to be respected and protected: “You shall not move your neighbour’s landmark, which the men of old have set, in the inheritance that you will hold in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess” (Deuteronomy 19:14; cf. Proverbs 22:28; 23:10).

In fact, private property jurisprudence in the West cannot be understood without acknowledging the Christian worldviews of great philosophers like John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, or Adam Smith who, in particular, had incredibly lucid theological influences in his works on classical liberalism. Now, why do I mention private property? Namely because from this principle flow two enormous implications that are not really mentioned explicitly in the Bible: human liberty, and economic prosperity.

On the topic of human liberty, when people lose control over their private property, liberty to be free to choose how to obey God or disobey Him in our roles as stewards of what He has entrusted to us is forfeited. In our stewardship of our own possessions, we have opportunities to imitate God’s wisdom, His creativity, His love for other people, His justice and fairness, His mercy, His knowledge, and many other attributes. Private ownership provides us the opportunity to really test what is in our hearts and gives us opportunities to give thanks to God for what He has provided to us (Colossians 3:15; 1 Timothy 6:17). I am not convinced that there is as great an opportunity to do the aforementioned with food stamps and welfare cheques.

In terms of economic prosperity, we can acknowledge that economic growth is, in itself, a moral good and part of what God intended in putting humankind on His world. Developing and producing more and better goods from the earth cannot be simply dismissed as a result of sin, or greed, or wrongful “materialism” (though it can become these things), but it is an essential part of how he created us to function. Moreover, material abundance has characteristically been viewed as a blessing from God to those who trust and obey Him (e.g. Deuteronomy 8:7-10; cf. 11:10-17; 28:1-14; Matthew 5:5; 6:25-33), and in some places the prophets foretell a time of even greater productivity (cf. Isaiah 35:1-2; Joel 3:18). Material wealth is good because it grants us greater opportunity to help those who are comparatively disadvantaged to us (cf. Galatians 2:10; 1 John 3:17), and we should be encouraging productivity because it enables people to support themselves and so obey New Testament commandments (e.g. 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12).

I reiterate that all views I offer here are simply my labours of trying to understand what is best for the world as I see directed to the best of my ability to apply biblical principles. But like I have shared with you, I am certain that such positions can be substantiated from a responsible use of the Bible. I do not presumptuously make claims that I have all the answers, and perhaps not even the right ones, but I am trying to shed some clarity on issues that desperately need to be made sense of from a biblical perspective.


Well, to conclude, let me repeat the basic skeleton of content covered:

Exegesis is the first step of hermeneutics, and simply means to develop good interpretations about the Bible.

Reading is an intellectual activity, and therefore, so is exegesis. It requires patience, mental endurance, and strong intentions.

For good exegesis to take place, there are a couple of things that are important:

  1. Ask questions;
  2. Find a reliable text;
  3. Understand propositions;
  4. Relate propositions to one another;
  5. Appreciate the beauty of the Bible;
  6. Ask: “How then should I live?”

Interpretation of the Bible will have significant implications on the world in which we live, for better or for worse. The worst thing that we can do however, is to be silent, and forego application of biblical principles to issues altogether.

There are broadly three categories for biblical ethics:

  1. Explicit, decisive ethics;
  2. Ethics developed from broader principles;
  3. Ethics developed from appeals to facts of the world.

Who can interpret the Bible correctly?

  1. It is not impossible to understand the Bible correctly.
  2. There is strong consensus regarding the main teachings of the Christian faith, and methods for proper interpretation;
  3. This question is why we need dialogue to begin with. It would be irresponsible for us to discount the argument altogether.

Explicit, decisive commands are unambiguous, and failing to practice these ethical standards would stand contrary to the Christian faith.

Biblical ethics drawn from broader principles are the most important category for good hermeneutic practice. Usually however, there is consensus on ethical problems such as these, but deviant ethics can have serious consequences.

Lastly, we can develop ethics based upon facts of the world, but these should not be binding paradigms upon Christians, and we should always be open to debate. Nevertheless, it would be morally irresponsible for us to not have a position altogether.

Bridging the Gap: The Rubbish of “Doing What You Love”

“Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” has become something of a cheap aphorism for vocational decisions. In particular, my demographic of 18 to 25 year-olds has become particularly susceptible to such convenient one-liners. For many, simply doing what you want has become the categorical litmus test for how to live life. Any repudiation to the philosophy of this base egocentrism is enough to warrant trepidations in the hearts of my contemporaries, and even greater palpitations in their minds.

Most Millenials.gif
Most millennials when you tell them there’s a world outside their bubble.

It is, however, brilliant rhetoric: it inspires, kindles reflection, and prompts a response. It is the kind of emotive language that is desperately lacking in better arguments that I have read, both in Christian and secular circles. But it is a specious, intellectually vacuous ethic whose hedonistic principles eventually turn in on itself and are more prohibitive rather than profitable. So John Calvin once wrote, “Zeal without knowledge is like a sword in the hands of a madman” (cf. Proverbs 19:2). True liberty only comes by understanding that (to quote wise, old Uncle Ben Parker) with great power comes great responsibility (cf. Matthew 20:28; 22:36-38; John 13:34). For Christians, this means that if all people are lovingly, mindfully created in God’s image, then the axiomatic conclusion is that all people are equal in worth, yet different in purpose.

I am not surprised however, that such thought is quite prevalent even among the Church (and in particular, my fellow millennial Christians). For the past fifty years, we been embroiled in a moral revolution that the Church has invariably lagged behind in developing a response. Actually, a better description would be that we have been swept up and along this revolution – sometimes without even knowing it! For fear of being perceived unloving, some Christians have presented themselves unfaithful to the Gospel. Whereas the Christian witness of our predecessors were primed and polished by engaging with culture, others have, in the wake of this moral revolution, conceded and relinquished the moral high ground. It is no small coincidence that Christianity’s decline in the West follows the Church’s moral authority in the public square. The question of vocational decisions is no exception to this paradigm.

So then, why is “do what you love” and “pursue your passions” such rubbish counsel? Here are seven reasons:

  • Your passions are fickle and temporary.
    Normally, anecdotes and personal experiences come part and parcel with these articles, but I can probably go without in this instance because I am certain that we all have rather fond memories of jumping headlong into passions that we ceased to be “passionate” about in the due course of time.

    Think of these instances as a kind of moral education: both ‘wrong’ decisions (generally characterised by a lack of prudence, discretion, and caution) and ‘right’ decisions (generally characterised by shrewdness and foresight) bear with them proportionate consequences. There are greater or lesser punishments for greater or less errors, and greater or lesser benefits for greater or lesser for correct decisions. This is the kind of basic message that the likes of Proverbs 21:5 and 2 Timothy 2:22 are trying to convey. Doing what you love may quickly degenerate to doing what you loathe, particularly if it doesn’t match exactly with what we expect.
  • It staves off responsibility and promotes laxity.
    Colossians 3:23-24 is a brilliant passage, but the first three words probably don’t receive as much recognition as they’re due. I am certainly liable of viewing the Protestant work ethic of post-World War II through rose-coloured lenses, but in those (good ol’) days, all work and all pursuits of education were not only vital, but virtuous. By contrast today, unless you have impracticable levels of enthusiasm for a particular pursuit, it’s entirely commonplace to fail subjects at university, to “pull a sickie” at work for the hell of it, or to mindlessly scroll through social media during ministry meetings.

    So millennial Christians are left with one of two options: (a) relentlessly pursue “good feelings” in the hopes that passion will carry us through the task ahead; or (b) shove off the task ahead altogether since it doesn’t conform to our self-centred work culture. Colossians 3:23-24 is intrinsically linked with that of v. 17: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” The Christian response is not to approach each task as drudgery or inconsequential (or worse still, to neglect doing it altogether), but to “give thanks to God the Father” since “all things were created through Him and for Him” (Colossians 1:16) and therefore, principally redeemed through Christ also. Ralph Martin writes on this verse, “Christians can do all that they do, whether it be manual work, political activity, raising a family, writing a book, playing tennis, or whatever, in his name and gratitude.” And should our conduct be in all things – big or small, important or unimportant, passion or no passion.
Yaaaaaas, Good Feelings.gif
Yaaaaaaas, good feelings.
  • Doing what you love can’t prepare you for latent failure and quells satisfaction.
    There is also a sizeable lacuna afforded by this kind of brassy vocational thinking in terms of how we deal with failure. One of the pertinent results of The Fall is that our work is frustrated by “thorns and thistles” (Genesis 3:18) – the perennial threat of various circumstances effectively scotching all our hard work and long-prepared plans. Too often however, do we attribute these abortive attempts to external factors: unsympathetic, ignorant management; broken systems; self-serving, double-dealing colleagues; terrible educators; and the list goes on and on. But the narrative of Genesis 3 also points us to our inherent nature to deflect responsibility and attribute our failures to others – even when we are unambiguously participants in our own failures (Genesis 3:12-13).

    In similar fashion, when our vocations become more about self-expression and self-actualisation rather than faithfulness to God, searching for “the perfect job” becomes a convenient replacement for perseverance, qualification, and character. When Abraham and Lot separate ways in Genesis 13, from the very outset the biblical narrator makes a point: “Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold” (v. 2). To boot, Abram had a wife not only “beautiful in appearance” to him (Genesis 12:11b), but even the Egyptians saw that Sarai was “very beautiful” (v. 14b); sufficiently beautiful for her to be lauded to the Egyptian Pharaoh (v. 15). By modern standards, Abram was living the good life; as for God’s purposes for him however – they were unfinished. But Abram proved wiser than his nephew who failed, Lot, seeing a worthy future in the promises of God for a land, a people, and a blessing of His own, thereby receiving his due reward and satisfaction (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:25; 1 Corinthians 15, esp. v. 58).
  • Working purposefully is more valuable than doing purposeful work.
    Righteous and ethical living is infinitely better realised when the consequences of actions are rationally and experientially understood, than when they are simply believed. As the maxim goes, “Good theology leads to much doxology” and doxology is shambolic and incomplete at best if it is not practiced (Romans 6:13; 12:1).

    There will be countless instances in life where doing what is right may not necessarily be doing what we love – in fact, they may be diametrically opposed to one another because we our passions are often maligned and ultimately not glorifying to God (Jeremiah 17:9). God’s emphasis is not necessarily on those who are ‘passionate’, but on those who are ‘good,’‘faithful,’ and ‘wise.’ The parables that Jesus teaches on the unexpected parousia of the Son of Man are particularly illustrative of this (cf. Matthew 24:45; 25: 2-4, 21-23), and I will focus here especially on the failure of the ‘wicked and slothful servant’ of Matthew 25:24-28. Even with the servant’s travesty of the master as a kind of avaricious capitalist (for the record, “Enter into the joy of your master” (v. 22, 23) is hardly commercial language), the servant’s undertakings are irresponsible at best: a kind of cheap, safe-side stewardship that achieves nothing, and so is worthless.

    We are called to be good stewards of our faith, not good enthusiasts, and the counsel of Proverbs 16:3 is to just do something and allow God to work through us as He wills.
Do Something!.gif
The face you pull when someone actually tells you that you just need to do something about your life.
  • God’s priority is not in our happiness, but in our greatest good.
    Philippians 2:1-11 is arguably one of the most beautiful passages (another solid contender is the doxology in Jude 24-25, which is simply marvellous) in the New Testament, synthesising doxology and exhortation together in one brilliant sweep. This hymn to Christ particularly focuses on His obedience, and this is the theme that is picked up in Philippians 2:12-13 as if Paul were to say, “just as Christ obeyed, so should you.” This is not a kind of cold, impassive encouragement, but one in line with the promises of God that “for those who love God all things together for our good” (Romans 8:28a) … “for those who are called according to His purpose” (v. 28b) – not only called to embrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but also to renew our wills not to labour for vainglorious self, but for the glory of God in the highest. There is no mention of God’s securing our happiness (though the important element of joy in the Lord is certainly not lost).

This is the kind of mentality shift that the Psalter is all about:

“Let your work be shown to your servants,
And your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the LORD our God be upon us,
And establish the work of our hands upon us;
Yes, establish the work of our hands!”
Psalm 90:16-17

It is not only the glory of God’s creative and redemptive work that will abide, but even the labours of a transient people in a transient world will leave a lasting legacy through God’s blessing. The message is not of securing our happiness in the perfect vocation, but in a perfect God, and striving for His perennially good purposes for His world and His people.

In the next article on “Bridging the Gap” we will flesh out some biblical paradigms for understanding our work in the light of the Gospel, and establish some practical guidelines for Christians to engage with questions of vocation.

Theology Wednesdays: The Book of Chronicles

Although I lament the seeming absence of Old Testament preaching from pulpits today, whole sections of the Bible (forget for a moment even individual books!) seem to be either unappreciated or categorically ignored. The Book of Chronicles, certainly, occupies a position somewhere at the top of the list of unrecognised biblical literature.

In many ways, the Book of Chronicles has unfairly been characterised as the locum tenens – the “substitute teacher” if you will – to the lacuna of Joshua through to 2 Kings. This legacy is traced back even to antiquity, where the Greek translators to the Hebrew Bible unceremoniously titled the Book of Chronicles as “Παραλειπομένων, concerning things omitted.” I have my suspicions that such identification comes almost intuitively because Chronicles draws heavily upon other biblical material. To this end, Chronicles becomes a kind of “supplement” – reiterating and legitimising especially the other historical books of the Bible, and this has sadly been the view that some scholars have made (cf. e.g. Wellhausen, Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels, Nabu Press, 2010).

Chronicles is Chuck Norris
The Book of Chronicles is Chuck Norris. You better chuck yourself before you wruck yourself (geddit?).

Yes, it is true that Chronicles draws extensively upon the Books of Samuel and Kings which serve as a primary source of material. But the Book of Chronicles, at the very least, colours and shapes the history of Israel through a vastly different lens. Samuel-Kings sought to provide closure and solace to the exiles in the aftermath of the fall of Jerusalem and its temple, and the end of Davidic reign; Chronicles by contrast, addresses the post-exilic community who are returning to worship in the restored Jerusalem temple. Further to this, Chronicles is an attempt to reconcile Israel’s otherwise fragmented identity: certainly, the exile was no accident but the direct consequence of unfaithfulness (cf. 1 Chronicles 2:7; 5:25; 10:13, 25; 2 Chronicles 36:14), and the pressing question for Israel has now become, “Are we still the people of God?”

In the Hebrew canon, the Book of Chronicles follows Ezra-Nehemiah in the third and final section – in many respects, it is the capstone theological statement to the expectation of Israel, and in this sense the concluding invitation is poignant: Whoever is among you of all his people, may the LORD his God be with him! Let him go up!” (2 Chronicles 36:22-23). So, Chronicles functions as a kind of culmination and development of all that preceded it – worship in the Temple, the priests, and the restoration and reformation of the Priestly Code are all brought together in Chronicles, coagulating worship to YHWH as the religious glue of an otherwise broken and disenfranchised post-exilic “all Israel” (1 Chronicles 9:1; cf. 2:1; 11:1; et passim).

To this end, the question, “Are we still the people of God?” is intrinsically linked with the question, “What do God’s promises to David and Solomon mean for us?” and so the united monarchy of David and Solomon simply dominates much of Chronicles’ theological position. God has promised David the establishment of his throne forever (cf. 1 Chronicles 17:3-14), and God has furthermore promised that should His people humble themselves, repent and seek after Him that they will be forgiven (2 Chronicles 7:12-22). Thus, Hezekiah in the final pericope of 2 Chronicles 29-36 is presented as a type of David and Solomon – a Davidic king under whose rule Israel will worship in solidarity at the Temple in Jerusalem, and thereby restore Israel to a position of blessing and favour under YHWH once more. It is these themes that well and truly undergird the theological profundity that the Book of Chronicles affords, and it is both my hope and expectation that our reading of it will pay greater dividends on account of it.

All well and good, but what does the theology of Chronicles mean for us practically? In keeping with the broad thematic brushstrokes previously outlined, there are a number of ethical implications.

Firstly, the conception of “all Israel” and the constant emphasis upon it in Chronicles has two progressions: (a) there is a strong sense of solidarity in worship that repudiates the belief that faith can be confined to a kind of privative individualism; and (b) our identity is inextricably linked with God’s purposes for us, His people, and His world. It is no offhand remark that Adam is mentioned from the very outset (1 Chronicles 1:1), and the murder of Zechariah in the Jerusalem Temple likewise spells the loss of Israel’s identity: “because you have forsaken the LORD, He has also forsaken you” (2 Chronicles 24:20-22).

Secondly, although there is an element in which the people of Israel are incorrigibly resolved to turn away from YHWH, there is nevertheless an important sense in which this faithlessness is catalysed and expedited (if not initiated altogether) by poor leadership. The consequences of poor leadership are profound: no explanation is given as to why 70,000 Israelites were punished for David’s sin (cf. 1 Chronicles 21:17), but paradigmatically we see this in everyday happenings: businesses capsize on account of the faux pas of their leaders, political parties implode internally through leadership spills and motions of no confidence, and churches hinge upon the removal of their pastors.

By contrast, good biblical leadership is encompassed in the person of Elisha, who occupies not only a prophetic role, but plays an essential civic duty that transforms the ethical culture around him, enhancing not only the spiritual welfare of Israel, but also the material. Above all, Elisha’s example is a proof that faithfulness to God’s commands ultimately allows a society to flourish on economic, social, and moral scales.

Even Rihanna Might Have A Better Understanding of Work Than Us
The travesty is that even Rihanna might have a stronger emphasis on the importance of work than some Christians.

To this end, there is not only a need to pray for more Christian leaders in all corners of life, but to willingly endeavour towards these positions. In one important respect, the Church today (or at least the circles I’m familiar with) lives parallel to post-exilic Israel, typically insulated in their own congregations, but very much under the rule of a post-Christian, post-(post?) modernist culture. But instead of engaging culture, it appears that we have for the most part, conceded ground and for the foreseeable future are happy to do so. The Christian work ethic of the Industrial Revolution (which some have even argued ushered in the capitalist zeitgeist), and the liberty afforded by various Christian movements seem to be all but lost for many content (but otherwise very devout) brothers and sisters in the faith.

Beyond A Shallow Reading of the Bible: Part One

For most of us, exegesis seems too lofty a term for us to seriously consider, and it certainly sounds far removed from the lives of ordinary Christians. This isn’t helped by the fact that we constantly supplant unnecessarily long words when short words will do (I for one am terribly guilty of this).

Put simply however, good exegesis means to read well, and to read well means to interpret well. So then, if good exegesis is good interpretation, then exegesis of the Bible is really only the first step to what is the science of interpretation: hermeneutics. This is why Mortimer Adler’s excellent book on interpretation (or hermeneutics) is aptly titled, How To Read a Book, and this little tome is well worth investment regardless of your disciplinary sphere, and especially for the purposes of biblical interpretation.

How to Read a Book - Mortimer Adler
Wow, j00cy.

But let me state rather flatly what seems to be the problem for the majority of people: most people most of the time want to read the Bible better; but most people most of the time just simply aren’t reading. Now this is particularly a problem when it comes to reading the Bible if only for the following reason: biblical interpretation is something like a spider’s web of meaning in which the threads of each and every verse are interwoven with one another, and often developed together. Any attempt then, to tease out a single feature is practically impossible, and usually compromises the strength of the interpretive web altogether. The basic point that I am trying to illustrate is that you cannot expect to be an expert in biblical exegesis with a limited knowledge of the Bible – this is casuistry at its finest. Albert Einstein may have said, “Any fool can know. The point is to understand,” but it is equally true that proper understanding is an illusory objective apart from the hard yards of acquiring and retaining information. So, we must read.

Now whether you like it or not, good reading is an intensely intellectual activity, and by transitivity of equality, so too is exegesis. I mean, most of us can read, say, a newspaper article, or a block of narrative, or John Smith and Jane Doe embroiled in a vicious argument over Facebook, slamming away with all battle-hardened vigour on their keyboards. Sadly however, disciplined and deliberate reading has become an almost distant memory, overthrown by the likes of fidget spinners, Netflix, and InstaSnapBook. But these are the basic requirements of good exegesis (and therefore, the bare minimum I will expect of my readers): patience, mental endurance, and deliberate intent.

Determined Reading Kitty
If this cat has the determination to read to wipe out humankind, you my friend, must have equal determination to redeem humankind.


“But oh,” you say, “I’m not cut out to study the Bible in that kind of depth. I can’t commit myself to that level of cognition.” Shame on you.

Very well, but let me mention this: God didn’t just condescend to us when He took on human form; He equally condescended in the inspiration of the Scriptures. The cross certainly wasn’t glamorous or attractive (even though we Western evangelicals tend to characterise Jesus as a chiselled, well-proportioned man; see below), and neither is grammar, syntax, clauses and phrases. But that’s how God chose to communicate Himself to us. In Jesus Christ we affirm the second person of God; in the Bible we acknowledge the Word of God. To glory in the human nature of God the Son, but to disdain the linguistic nature of Holy Scripture reserves a special place, I think, somewhere between the ludicrous and the irreverence.

According to Korean Gospel tradition, when the crowd mocked Jesus to “come down from the cross” (Matthew 27:40), they did it while chuckling weakly and staring at his shredded biceps.

Now that that conviction has settled upon your hearts, let’s address the fundamental steps for good exegesis to take place. From the outset, I will say that I will not speak largely on the topic of theology, the reason for which is that because the Bible is essentially a theological text, all exegesis will make theological claims. But here are some basic principles:

  1. Ask questions. I include this first not because it is the initiating step to a long list of sequences per se, but to indicate its primacy in reading well. There certainly are very few ‘silly’ questions when it comes to the Bible, but this is not to say that all questions are equal. Most people unconsciously ask “what,” “when,” and “where?” but very few ask meaningful questions of “how,” and – perhaps more particularly to exegesis – “why?” Asking questions deliberately and frequently is crucial to good exegesis because the whole aim of reading the Bible is not to know, but to understand.

    Stupid Questions
    You may, though sparingly.
  2. Find a reliable text. The Old and New Testaments were written in biblical Hebrew and Greek respectively, and so it figures that the most reliable texts are those transcripts recorded in the original languages. In this respect, if you’re trying to communicate the Bible on a high level, your starting point would be to learn these languages, though even having a single year’s worth of language study is inadequate (and potentially dangerous).

    Most people however, do not have the capacity (both in terms of time and aptitude) to devote to these pursuits, but this doesn’t disqualify them from reading the Bible properly. I won’t engage in a debate over Bible translations, but I will tell you which ones I use for what purposes and why.

    ESV: I use the English Standard Version for general reading.  This is a good, moderate translation that balances grammatical integrity with readability and so, in a sense, you kind of (but not always) get the best of both worlds.

    NRSV/NASB: The New Revised Standard Version and the New American Standard Bible are not your most loving friends, but they are your most objective friends. These Bibles make no apologies when they give you a hard time, but once you begin to understand where they’re coming from (American, and they are suckers for the original languages), you’ll appreciate their efforts to preserve the original grammar. For “serious” study, this is where I would point you, but realistically, there is little reason why you would ever opt these translations over the ESV.

    (N)KJV: The King James Version gets characterised a lot as the grumpy old man of Bible translations. And sure, he is hated by some, and worshipped by others; but love him or hate him, he is acknowledged by all. Whatever your opinion of the KJV, this translation probably does this best in capturing the essence of biblical poetry (and it reads beautifully). I use the KJV when I’m doing any serious study of poetry in the Bible.
  3. Understanding propositions.
    Words in and of themselves don’t communicate a lot. For instance, “Jesus” makes little sense on its own, and can be used quite indiscriminately. The “Jesus” portrayed in the Gospel of Matthew is not the same characterisation as the “Jesus” portrayed in the Gospel of Mark, or of Luke, or of John, and certainly quite different to the “Jesus” in the Book of Revelation. In fact, “Jesus” alone might not even be in reference to the Christian Bible – “Jesus” might actually be “Jesus Malverde” – a folk saint in Mexico that conveniently happened to be the first reference that popped up when I Googled “Mexican Jesus.”

    The point is, words convey substance only when they are used in relation to one another: either by qualifying that word (e.g. “Jesus is love” or “Jesus Christ”), or attributing agency to that word (e.g. “Jesus sent” or “Jesus was sent”). Of course, these rudimentary phrases and clauses themselves have rather ambiguous interpretative values, which is why we need to think in terms of propositions: the basic meaning of a sentence.

    Take for instance, the statement: “Jesus is good.”
    This statement can have a variety of interpretations: (a) it could be a comment on the morality of Jesus; or (b) it could be a comment on the ability of Jesus (e.g. “Jesus is good [at golf].”); or (c) it could be a comment on the advantage of Jesus (e.g. “Jesus is good [for me].”); or a comment on the quality of Jesus (e.g. “Jesus is good[ness embodied].”). Of course, these propositions (that is, meanings) do not have the same interpretive values (and in fact, at least one of them probably isn’t true), but I think I have illustrated my point sufficiently: clauses and phrases generally do not carry concrete propositions in and of themselves.
    NB: “how” and “why” are great questions to ask in these instances.
  4. Relating Propositions to One Another.
    So once you understand the syntax of a statement, you might find that the meaning is still not yet altogether clear. This is because the meaning of a statement is usually supplemented (and sometimes even supplanted) by surrounding statements.

    Take for instance, 1 Thessalonians 5:6:
    “So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.”

    Taken as an isolated sentence, this is a pretty concrete imperative. But thankfully (hopefully) we all have sense enough to realise that such statements are coloured and qualified by accompanying propositions. This is a good example of why identifying pericopes (sections of a text, particularly that of the Bible; and for any book for that matter), are crucial to interpretation. Let’s look at the fuller pericope of 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6:

    1Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. 2For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 4But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. 5For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. 6So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.”

    Or let’s look at Philippians 2:12:
    “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling …”

    Taken in isolation, this propositional statement would be understood to the general effect of: “I need to figure out where I stand in terms of my faith.” But our understanding of this statement needs to be tempered with the following verse, “… for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” It is clear that in relating these propositional statements together that there is a clear sense in which the passage should be understood as: “As a Christian there are certain practices of my faith that I am obligated to do, because God is working in me for (probably) the goodwill of other human beings and for his pleasure.” A whole theological principle hinges upon the (correct) interpretation of this verse.

    Likewise, John 3:16:
    “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

    Most people have probably misunderstood this passage because they think either (a) don’t read Greek (this is a great reason why you should learn), or (b) they think it is unspiritual to respect literary principles in the Bible. Inasmuch as God’s love is certainly of the highest degree, “so” (Gk. “οὕτως”) is in reference to the manner (that is, in what way) God loved the world. This is qualified in the preceding verses of 14 and 15, and is grammatically coherent because οὕτως is always used to refer to something previously mentioned.

    “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life … For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

    Relating propositions to one another is significant then, not only because:
    (a) it helps us to realise the meaning of any single statement in light of surrounding statements; but also,
    (b) it allows us to identify relationships between propositions; and
    (c) taken even further, we can understand the purposes of the author (though in limited ways for certain texts); and
    (d) recognise the logical progression of an argument (though this only becomes readily apparent as you read and understand the full scope of a text).
  5. Finally, appreciate the beauty of the Bible.
    I use the word ‘beauty’ deliberately because I think there is an important sense in which Christians are not struck by the beauty of the Bible; that is, the combination of qualities (theological, moral, ethical, aesthetic, literary, historical) that makes reading the Bible pleasing. There is a part of me that feels mortally wounded every time I hear someone set the Bible down after a few minutes with an exasperated sigh, “I can’t do this anymore”; or when someone mentions in passing with an air of nonchalance, “Oh, I haven’t read my Bible this past week.”Now – believe me – reading the Bible is hard work. It requires the full effect of both our cognitive enzymes and the Holy Spirit for us to engage with the Word of God on a meaningful level. But I am also of the opinion that if you approach Scripture with a high view, and that you recognise from the outset that if this truly is God’s Word, then you should be able to perceive (at the very least) reflections of godly beauteousness that other texts may take up as a cheap imitation, but certainly never matched. Approach the Bible with the level of esteem it’s due, and you will not set it down without effect. Practically, this usually means teasing out the finer details of a passage (usually these details are encased in the syntax of a statement, inner-biblical allusions i.e. parallel language of one passage to another, or careful use of particular words). We will go into some really great examples of this at work in a later article.

So, perhaps the question to be addressed here is not so much to do with interpreting the Bible per se, but rather with stirring our affections to want to interpret the Bible more widely and deeply; to make the time to read the Word of God with deliberate intention. And I think (and this may just be pure speculation) the problem that appears to be plaguing Christians of our demographic is not even with reading the Bible and making intellectual assent our goal, but it is with the practice of the Bible that appears to be the great stumbling block.

In the next article, we shall look at the hermeneutic cycle in operation holistically, and hopefully lay down some ethical paradigms for biblical interpretation.

Resistance Fighter, Pastor, Martyr: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The plaque above reads:
“[Here] in this church preached and was confirmed
in 1932, the resistance fighter, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Born 4th February 1906, and died in Flossenbürg on the 9th April, 1945.”
[my translation]

As with all historical figures, Bonhoeffer’s worldview was coloured by the socio-political circumstances in which he lived. The careful historian however, is cautious to guard against sweeping generalisations of Bonhoeffer’s influence, but nevertheless retain a sense of proportion as to the impetus afforded by Bonhoeffer to the Nazi resistance. Germany’s defeat in the Second World War – and therefore, the toppling of the Nazi regime – are largely attributed to the combined effects of Hitler’s military overreach on both fronts, and the persistent efforts and good fortune of the Allied Forces. Bonhoeffer’s role, from this point of view, is relatively minor. Nevertheless, the incentive for biographical interest in Dietrich Bonhoeffer – and justifiably so – stems as much (if not more) from his theological and ethical profundity as from his political actions. For the sake of brevity, this essay will not discuss in detail Bonhoeffer’s theological hermeneutic of foundational reality and responsibility. Rather, this essay will seek to explain the significance of Bonhoeffer’s opposition during the Third Reich by way of (1) the unique characteristics and circumstances available to Bonhoeffer, and (2) the principles that underpinned Bonhoeffer’s motivations to step into the sphere of public resistance where many of his co-religionists did not.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not only a man of vision, but also a man of theological thought, of moral rigour, and of sufficient intestinal fortitude to vocalise this vision against overwhelming Nazi despotism. Of course, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also an anomaly of his time. The notoriously absent opposition, particularly with respect to the German Church, has arguably remained one of the greatest tragedies and failures of the German people in history. Barring but a few exceptions, Germany was plagued by a contagion of the worst kind: the silent majority, unable (or unwilling?) to denounce the evils of the Nazi regime; let alone take a stand in civil insurrection. Bonhoeffer’s life was exceptional precisely because so few around him possessed the same moral courage to oppose an essentially evil manifestation of the German spirit.

The plight of the Jewish people in Nazi Germany began in April 1933 with the introduction of the Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums (The Civil Service Restoration Act), which would later become the foundation for the Nürnberger Gesetze of 1935. Bonhoeffer, among the first Christian theologians to recognise the incompatibility of Nazi anti-Semitism with the Christian faith, responded swiftly, penning “Die Kirche vor der Judenfrage” on the 15th April 1933[1], though his arguments in a post-Holocaust politico-theological paradigm are unconvincing, prompting some such as Franklin Littell to judge that Bonhoeffer’s “inadequate understanding of the nature of the church was the most tragic element in his eventual martyrdom.” [2] Although this is not an altogether untruthful statement, it is nevertheless one that deserves careful examination. Bonhoeffer was reared on the theological heritage of Martin Luther and German realpolitik; a product of hegemonic thought in the Wilhemine era[3] whose lineage could be traced back in turn to Machiavellianism.[4] Eberherd Bethge writes,

“[Bonhoeffer] grew up in a family that derived its real education … from a deeply-rooted sense of being guardians of a great historical heritage and intellectual tradition … this meant learning to understand and respect the ideas and actions of earlier generations.”[5]

In this respect, it is almost an unfair representation of Bonhoeffer on Littell’s account – in the same way that one would hardly blame a dog for barking, so too should we respect the fact that individuals will be flawed inasmuch as their context defines them so.

Needless to say however, Bonhoeffer’s motivation in his role against the Nazi regime was significantly different in principle from the majority of his contemporaries. Bonhoeffer’s resistance, contrary to those whose prime concern was the salvaging of a defeated dishonoured Germany, largely (though I will argue, not completely) stemmed from a theological conviction that institutionalised racial discrimination and ideas of ethnic superiority were utterly incompatible with a Christian worldview:

“Civil courage … depends on a God who demands responsible action in a bold venture of faith, and who promises forgiveness and consolation to the man who becomes a sinner in that venture.”[6]

Moreover, Bonhoeffer’s uniqueness also stemmed from his being exclusively equipped to critique the Hitler regime in ways largely impossible for other Christian Germans. For one, Bonhoeffer’s Staatsgedanken was inimitable insofar as his understanding of the state was shaped by his experiences of the Christian faith in other countries, with particular respect to his participation in the New York Harlem community. Besides this, Bonhoeffer’s involvement as one of the theological doyens of the expanding ecumenical movement elicited a kind of magnetism to Bonhoeffer’s banner that could not be replicated by others. Lastly, the unique influences of his friend and mentor, Karl Barth, and that of his grandmother, Julia Bonhoeffer, ought not to be taken lightly. Whereas Barth’s influence fed into an initiative to practice theological opposition at a time when legal opposition was not a viable solution[7], Julia Bonhoeffer’s own ethos had a profound impact upon the formative years of Dietrich’s life[8] – an investment would pay its dividends in full in due course.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer changed the world, and I’m here like …

Of course, no biography of Bonhoeffer is complete apart from an analysis into the theological and ethical motivations for resistance. Although there is undoubtedly an element of compassion for the Jewish people that prompted Bonhoeffer’s thoughts and deeds, we must also ask to what extent Bonhoeffer viewed Hitler’s anti-Semitism as a primer to the final de-Christianisation of Germany as a whole? Perhaps these sentiments are synthesised in Bonhoeffer’s statement, “Wenn heute die Synagogen brennen, dann werden morgen die Kirchen angezündet werden.”[9] This coincides neatly with Bethge’s remark that, for Bonhoeffer, information “was for him the first act – so he could maintain independence of judgment.”[10] Such a mentality accounts for Bonhoeffer’s involvement and later departure from the Bekennende Kirche, and the role its (in)action played in the development of Bonhoeffer’s resistance to Nazism. The Confessing Church was conceived upon good and necessary principles: “[those] who could and would not accept the religious ideas … and policies of the Nazi rulers, and who sought to reserve the purity of the gospel.”[11] To this end, the Confessing Church established a number of seminaries supported wholly by free-will offerings to ensure independence from the state. Despite these efforts, Bonhoeffer’s criticism against the Confessing Church’s moral laxity against Nazism was warranted: they had made the decisive first theological step, but had refused to apply that theology into a legitimate social hermeneutic.[12] Bonhoeffer was convinced that despite its best and honest intentions, an “irresponsible”[13] church could not, as a matter of principle, represent the essential substance of the people of God. [14] Whereas Bonhoeffer was discontented to bunker down in the safety of the Church and ignore the injustices committed against the Jews, the vast majority of his peers in the Confessing Church were sadly compliant to the Nazi government. As Jewish persecution rose exorbitantly with the close of the 1930s and culminated in the atrocities of the Kristallnacht, Bonhoeffer became increasingly disappointed and disillusioned with the Confessing Church.

In Bonhoeffer’s Christian ethic, the Church could not surrender their responsibilities, nor await a definitive action from God as a kind of deus ex machine – rather, all things hinged upon the Christian’s “conformation to Christ … in accordance with reality”[15]“Christian ethics enquires about the realisation in our world of the divine and cosmic reality which is given in Christ.”[16] Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s political resistance was not concerned with yielding desired outcomes inasmuch as he believed there was an overwhelming moral incentive to do so. In fact, Bonhoeffer, shortly before his incarceration, began to question the real utility of Nazi resistance: “Sind wir noch brauchbar?[17] His answer to this pathetic question is equally melancholic: “Wird unsere innere Widerstandskraft gegen das uns Aufgezwungene stark genug … daß wir den Weg zur Schlichtheit und Geradheit wiederfinden?”[18] Resistance to Nazism, with or without any prospect of success, was warranted by virtue of the fact that it was the responsible thing to do, before both men and before God. For Bonhoeffer, the theologian and practical ethicist of the Christian faith, there was no foreseeable future for him apart from a radically exclusive allegiance to God. A total loss of civil liberties in the present opened the door for Bonhoeffer to a pure, inner freedom compatible with his Christian faith. [19] Thus, motivated by both political and religious beliefs, Bonhoeffer, alongside many others, perceived that the testimony of Germany before history (and at the least for Bonhoeffer, before God) was at stake. This mentality is best exemplified in the solidarity of those of the Schwarz Kapelle, with one commentator going so far as to identify Claus von Stauffenberg (who despite his devout Roman Catholic upbringing is described by his military contemporaries as a man driven wholly by reason[20]) as the political symbol, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as the theological figurehead. [21] Thus, although this does not exhaust Bonhoeffer’s impulses to oppose the Nazi regime, there was nevertheless a very real sense in which Bonhoeffer was compelled to resistance for the express purposes of preserving Christian orthodoxy and his nation’s legacy:

“Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilisation may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilisation.”[22]

In summary, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not per se instrumental in the abolition of the Nazi regime. Rather, he wrote rich and interesting theology, synthesised ideas and tensions between the Church and state, developed a Christian socio-political ethic that stood in stark contrast to political zeitgeist, and vocalised opposition when all his contemporaries remained silent. The fact that Bonhoeffer achieved all these despite the extreme and trying circumstances of his day is remarkable, and biographical interest in Bonhoeffer is accordingly justified among the Christian Church today.

giphy (1)
If reading 3,000 words of my thoughts on Dietrich Bonhoeffer made you feel grateful, then imagine reading multiple biographies on this great man.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures and Notes, 1928-1936, from the Collected Works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Abingdon Press, 1977) at 221-29.

[2] Franklin Littell, ‘The Churches and the Body Politic’, Daedalus, 96/1 (1967) at 23.

[3] Cf. Leopold Von Ranke, ‘Die Großen Mächten’, (ed. Friedrich Meinecke edn.: Insel-Verlag zu Leipzig, 1916).

[4] Ruth Zerner, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Views on the State and History’, in A. J. Klassen (ed.), A Bonhoeffer Legacy: Essays in Understanding (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981) at 131-57.

[5] Eberherd Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian, Christian, Contemporary (London: Collins, 1970) at 4.

[6] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘After Ten Years’, Letters and Papers from Prison: The Enlarged Edition (New York: Macmillan, 1972) at 6.

[7] Raymond Mengus, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Decision to Resist’, The Journal of Modern History, 64/Supplement: Resistance Against the Third Reich (1992) at 138.

[8] Cf. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gesammelte Schriften: Auslegungen – Predigten, 1931-1944 (München: Kaiser, 1958) at 459.

[9] Eberherd Bethge, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer Und Die Juden’, Konsequenzen: Dietriech Bonhoeffers Kirchenverständnis heute, (Munich 1980) (1980) at 198.
“If today the synagogues burn, then tomorrow the churches will be lit.” (my translation)

[10] Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian, Christian, Contemporary at 701-02.

[11] Ernst Christian Helmreich, The German Churches under Hitler: Background, Struggle, and Epilogue (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979) at 156.

[12] Mengus, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Decision to Resist’, (at 141.

[13] That is, for Bonhoeffer, “irresponsibility” was characterised by a failure to live up to a standard of moral maturity, and of inaction with the powers and influence available to them.

[14] Cf. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Die Mündige Welt V: Dokumente Zur Bonhoefferforschung, 1928-1945 (Munich: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1969) at 104.

[15] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (New York: Macmillan, 1965) at 113-14.

[16] Zerner, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Views on the State and History’, at 147-50.

[17] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Widerstand Und Ergebung: Briefe Und Aufzeichnungen Aus Der Haft (Gütersloher Verlaghaus, 2005).
“Are we still needed?” (my translation)

[18] Ibid.
“Will our inner resistance against the (the pressures/persecutions) forced upon us be strong enough … that we will find again the road to simplicity and righteousness?” (my translation)

[19] Mengus, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Decision to Resist’, (at 146.

[20] cf. Hans Bernd Gisevius, Bis Zum Bitteren Ende (Droemer Knaur, 1987) at 503-14.

[21] Mengus, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Decision to Resist’, (at 140.

[22] Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian, Christian, Contemporary at 559.