Scripture and Theology

Human sexuality and the Bible

The recent Israel Folau controversy has highlighted various issues: freedom of expression in modern society, the place of religion in Australian society, the ethics of professionalism … and questions of biblical interpretation.

For people within the Uniting Church, the Basis of Union provides a foundation for careful and prayerful thinking about scripture. The Basis affirms that the witness of scripture is to be understood through the work undertaken by scholarly interpreters, by insights that have arisen in scientific and medical investigation, by understandings that have developed in society, as we better understand how human beings operate and how they function. All of these are important matters to consider when we think about human sexuality.

A number of passages are regularly cited in relation to matters of human sexuality, and particularly homosexuality. We need to think about those sections of scripture in the light of this way of approaching the biblical texts.

Elizabeth and I have written a brief discussion of the texts most often cited when “homosexuality” is debated by Christian people–especially conservative Christian people. It is an expansion of our earlier blog post (noted below).

A longer discussion of these issues is now posted on the Uniting Network website (see http://www.unitingnetworkaustralia.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/02-Human-Sexuality-in-Biblical-Perspectives.pdf) as part of a collection of resources for Open and Affirming Churches (see http://www.unitingnetworkaustralia.org.au/open-and-affirming-project/)

LGBTIQ+ people often refer to these passages as the “clobber passages”, since they are regularly (mis)used to “clobber” people who identify as LGBTIQ or other related designations.

These texts were originally written either in Hebrew or in Greek, so there are questions about how particular words should be translated, whether there are exact equivalences in English, and so on. Many translations use the word “homosexual” where the original language actually requires more nuance in translation.

A second factor is that we need to reflect on the cultural customs of the societies within which the Bible came to be written. It is important to consider how these cultural customs have shaped the way in which the words were written. “Homosexuality” is a modern concept, which was not known to the writers of the biblical texts in the way that we understand it.

Scripture does not include anything relating to the loving, committed, lifelong relationship of two people of the same gender. So we need to take care when we use these “clobber passages” in our discussions. None of them should actually be used to criticise LGBTIQ+ people.

Alongside these passages, there are many sections of scripture which provide a more positive outlook on human sexuality. So we have offered a short reflection on a number of the key affirming and inclusive verses.

Our discussion of these passages can be read at

http://www.unitingnetworkaustralia.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/02-Human-Sexuality-in-Biblical-Perspectives.pdf

Geoff Thompson has a careful consideration of the cluster of issues in the Israel Folau scenario at https://theconversation.com/amp/why-christians-disagree-over-the-israel-folau-saga-118773

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2018/07/30/marrying-same-gender-people-a-biblical-rationale/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/13/affirmations-we-can-make-together/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/05/26/once-again-affirming-our-diversity-celebrating-joyous-marriages/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/15/when-you-suffer-the-whole-body-of-christ-suffers/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/10/26/marriage-of-same-gender-people-a-gift-to-the-whole-church/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/09/19/discernment/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/07/31/abundant-grace-liberating-hope/

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First Peoples in Australia, Scripture and Theology

The DNA of the UCA (part II)

Two years ago, for the fortieth anniversary of the formation of the Uniting Church in Australia, I prepared a resource exploring the key characteristics of this church. This week, for the 52nd anniversary, I am reposting those thoughts. Here is a second set of five key characteristics.

VI A very important dimension to being the church in this country is that we are a church in Covenant with the First Peoples of Australia. From its earliest years, the Uniting Church has been involved in actions which express our solidarity with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Older members will recall events at Noonkanbah Station in the Kimberley in 1980, when Uniting Church members stood in solidarity with the traditional owners, the Yungngora people, against the mining of their land.

The Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) was established in 1985, and a Covenant between the UAICC and the UCA was implemented in 1994. This Covenant recognises that working for reconciliation amongst people is central to the Gospel.

In 2009, the Preamble to the UCA Constitution was revised to recognise the difficult history of relationships between the First Peoples and the later arrivals, as Second Peoples. Our present relationship is one which seeks to ensure that we commit to the destiny together which we share as Australians.

VII In the same year that the Congress was formed, the Uniting Church declared that it is a multicultural church, which rejoices in the diversity of cultures and languages which are found across Australia. The Basis of Union recognises that we share much, as Australians, with people of Asia and the Pacific. The Uniting Church has maintained strong relationships with churches from these regions, as well forging new links with churches in Africa and the Middle East.

The Statement to the Nation, issued in 1977, acknowledged that the Uniting Church seeks a unity that transcends cultural, economic and racial distinctions. Within Australia, there are currently 12 national conferences based on regional groupings and people from 193 language groups who belong to the Uniting Church.

Each Sunday, worship takes place in Uniting Churches in 26 different languages, not including the many indigenous languages used in worship by first peoples across our church.

Through UnitingWorld, we maintain partnerships with churches in Asia, the Pacific, Africa and the Middle East. We are truly a multicultural church. Through the Relations with Other Faiths Working Group, the Uniting Church has been active in developing relationships with other faith communities. We are firmly committed to constructive interfaith relations.

VIII Over 40 years, the Uniting Church has shown that it is a church which is prepared to engage in difficult discussions about contentious issues. Our Basis of Union commits us to learn from the insights of contemporary scientific and historical studies, and affirms that we remain open to correction by God in the way we order our life together.

In the early years of the Uniting Church, debates about Baptism were the focus of great controversy. Infant baptism had been an integral part of the worship practices of each denomination which joined the Uniting Church, but Ministers and Elders Councils were receiving regular requests for baptism by adults who had been baptised as infants but had come to a personal faith later in their lives. After debates stretching through the 1980s and 1990s, the Uniting Church has developed a clear set of protocols to cover such requests.

Another area of enduring controversy has been that of human sexuality. There is a wide diversity of opinion within society relating to such matters, and this diversity is present within the Uniting Church. Once again, from the 1980s though into the present era, lively debates regarding human sexuality have taken place in the various councils of the church. In dealing with such issues, we have learned how to debate with respect and integrity with ongoing conversations looking to employ a “Space for Grace” process to encourage respectful, empowering, and inclusive decision-making. Let us hope that this trait stays firmly embedded in the DNA of the UCA.

IX The Uniting Church inherited from its predecessor Churches a strong commitment to advocating for justice for all. Many Uniting Church congregations and members are actively committed to serving those people who find themselves on the margins of society. This commitment was clearly articulated in the 1977 Statement to the Nation and it has been evident in many actions undertaken by Uniting Church members over the decades.

The Uniting Church has joined in common cause with other groups and organisations in society, in advocating for a welcoming attitude towards refugees; in lobbying for a fair and just system of caring for people who are experiencing poverty and homelessness; in seeking equity for workers in their workplace; and in many other issues.

A regular stream of policy documents and public resolutions point to a clear and unbroken commitment to seeking justice for all.

X In like manner, the Uniting Church has always been a church which honours the environment and supports a sustainable lifestyle.

Although such matters are firmly on the radar of the public now, they have long been integral to the DNA of the UCA. Once again, the 1977 Statement to the Nation flagged such commitment. A series of subsequent documents attest to the ongoing determination of the church to live responsibly, in such a way that we minimise the damage we cause to the environment in which we live.

Our partnerships with Churches in the Pacific have intensified our awareness of the negative impacts that are resulting from climate change. We know that we need to act now, to reduce the threat.

So, many congregations and individual members of the UCA are seeking to implement practices that will reduce their carbon footprint on the planet. We know that we owe it to future generations, to live responsibly in the present.

For the first five key characteristics, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/18/the-dna-of-the-uca-part-i/

So: these are ten strands to our DNA, as far as my thinking is concerned. What about you?

Would you add anything? Take anything away?

What do you think are the essential aspects of our UCA DNA?

See also https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/15/what-i-really-like-about-the-basis-of-union/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/20/alongside-the-basis-of-union-there-was-the-statement-to-the-nation/

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Scripture and Theology

The DNA of the UCA (part I)

Two years ago, for the fortieth anniversary of the formation of the Uniting Church in Australia, I prepared a resource exploring the key characteristics of this church. This week, for the 52nd anniversary, I am reposting those thoughts. Here are the first five characteristics.

I When the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian churches joined together in 1977 to form the Uniting Church in Australia, they declared that this union was both in accord with the will of God, and that it was a gift of God to the people of God in Australia.

Since then, the Uniting Church has been a church which is committed to working ecumenically with other Christian denominations. That commitment is one very important aspect of our DNA as a Uniting Church.

We belong to the National Council of Churches in Australia and the World Council of Churches, where we co-operate with many denominations.

Nationally, we have participated in ongoing conversations with other denominations (Anglican, Lutheran, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic). At the grassroots level, our ministers participate in local ministers’ associations in hundreds of towns and cities across the nation. We are an ecumenical church.

II The Uniting Church is a church which values the ministry of all the people of God and seeks to order itself in accordance with the will of God. Our Basis of Union affirms that every member of the church is engaged to confess Christ crucified, and every person is gifted by the Spirit to engage in ministry in their own particular way. We are a church that values the ministry of each and every person.

Throughout the last 40 years, we have held our structures and forms of ministry accountable to ongoing scrutiny. Alongside the Ministry of the Word, to nurture and guide Congregations, we have introduced the Ministry of Deacon, to focus attention on people living on the margins.

We have also undertaken important conversations about membership and the relationship of Baptism to Holy Communion. We now have a clear commitment to an open table when we gather for The Lord’s Supper: all who are baptised (whether adult or child, whether confirmed or not) are welcome to share at this table.

III The Basis of Union makes it very clear that we are a church which is committed to equality and mutuality of women and men in ministry. Even before 1977, the three previous denominations had ordained women to ministry.

Since 1977, many women have stood on an equal basis alongside men, as Ministers of the Word, Deacons, Elders, Church Councillors, Lay Preachers,
Lay Presiders, Chaplains, and Pastoral Carers. We value the insights and experience of women.

In this our 40th year, lay and ordained women serve in leadership positions across all councils of the Uniting Church from Presbytery Chairpersons to Moderators to the Assembly General Secretary. Many couples minister together as husband and wife. Gender equality is most certainly part of our DNA!

IV Another contribution that the UCA has made has been to highlight the importance, when we gather in council, of being open to the Spirit, and seeking to discern the will of God.

We live this out in our councils by practising a process of consensus decision-making. The Manual for Meetings sets out the various elements that are involved in making decisions by discernment: a time of information, a time of deliberation, and a time of decision-making.

The infamous “coloured cards” are only one small part of the whole. The focus is on listening to the Spirit before we speak, and striving to find a way forward that most, if not all, people can see as the will of God for the church. This way of decision-making, which originated in the UCA, has now been adopted by the World Council of Churches and a number of its member Churches.

V Over the last 20 years, the Uniting Church has developed a firm commitment to strong professional standards, for Ministers as well as for lay people who exercise leadership in the church. Our commitment to professional standards emerged initially in response to the problems of sexual misconduct within the church. A whole section of the Regulations is now devoted to this.

Since 1999, all Ministers have been expected to adhere to a Code of Ethics, and this has most recently been revised to provide a Code of Ethics Ministry Practice for Ministers and a Code of Conduct for Lay Leaders. Ministers and pastors undertake regular training in aspects of this code, in ethical ministry workshops.

This, too, is integral to the DNA of the UCA.

For part two, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/18/the-dna-of-the-uca-part-ii/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/15/what-i-really-like-about-the-basis-of-union/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/20/alongside-the-basis-of-union-there-was-the-statement-to-the-nation/

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Scripture and Theology

Harness the passion, but restrain the rhetoric. Musing on the role model which Paul offers in Galatians.

For the next few weeks, the Revised Common Lectionary includes sections from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. I am interested to explore this text in relation to our contemporary context, and particularly consider what sort of role model Paul offer us, as he writes this short but potent letter.

The letter to the Galatians begins in a dramatic, striking fashion. There can be no doubting the passion that is driving Paul as he writes (or, more likely, dictates) this message to the Galatian believers. The very way that this letter starts is instructive.

Almost all of his letters begin with a prayer of thanksgiving, designed to strengthen the relationship between Paul and those to whom he writes. Not so in Galatians: in place of a friendly thanksgiving, Paul launches straight into a devastating criticism of the Galatians, with the wordsI am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you …[that you] are turning to a different gospel … [that] some are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.

In quick succession, he criticises their activities, attacks the beliefs they have adopted from their teachers, and invokes a curse on their heads (1:6-9). That is quite a dramatic opening section! As the letter proceeds, he accuses the Galatian believers of being fools who have been bewitched by deceivers; he accuses them of biting and devouring one another; he criticises them for urging Gentile converts to be circumcised and to adopt full adherence to the Torah. This is no gentle, reflective spiritual meditation; this is full-on partisan polemics!

What do we make of this language used by Paul?

Strong language is not uncommon in Paul’s letters. It was also widespread amongst the educated class of the day, who had been taught how to mount a strong and effective criticism by the careful use of rhetorical techniques. Rhetoric was taught to privileged young (male) members of Greco-Roman society—which would have included Paul. Many of the techniques taught in those schoolrooms are in evidence in the letter to the Galatians.

Paul uses familiar rhetorical techniques to address the situation in Galatia, to expose his concerns, and to articulate his point of view. Other teachers had visited the Galatian community, and had taught them things that were at odds with what Paul was teaching. Paul uses rhetoric to persuade the Galatians to dissociate themselves from the teachings which apparently had been so effective amongst them. 

If we knew precisely who the Galatians were, what group of teachers had been active amongst them, or what specific matters caused Paul to write this letter, we might be better placed to adjudicate on this matter. Unfortunately, we don’t have this kind of information.

The letter is sent to communities of faith in a whole region (Galatia, 1:2), not a single city or town. Acts indicates that Paul visited there with Barnabas he visited Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:14–14:23) and later with Timothy (18.23). But we learn no further specifics of the Galatian churches from Acts. There is a similar vagueness about the date of the letter; “late 40s or early 50s” is most often cited. So the specifics of the origins of this letter are not entirely clear.

Nevertheless, the dynamic that we can perceive within this letter, between its author, Paul, and the disciples in the region of Galatia, are quite interesting. Perhaps, even, disturbing. Certainly, to be sure, challenging. Not only with his dramatic language at the start, but also in the middle of the letter, Paul is in full flight: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? … Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?” (3:1, 3).

And towards the end of the letter, he launches into the Galatians yet again, providing a long list of “the works of the flesh”, those negative things that they are doing (5:19-21), and then seeking to persuade them to change their behaviour , “Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.” (5:26).

The letter is peppered with such robust, assertive, even aggressive polemic.

In the church today, as in the wider society, we regularly encounter similarly robust conversations, in which aggressive name calling and simplistic sloganeering abound. In the Uniting Church, debates over sexuality have, for decades now, often lapsed into accusations of heresy, advocacy of progressive views, reinforcement of allegedly orthodox stances, and charges of being inspired by Satan. Such is the way of our discussions together, sadly.

In reflecting on such discussions in the context of this letter from scripture, I think we can validly affirm the model that Paul provides, at least in this: articulating what we hold as important, in ways that are clear, through advocacy that seeks to be compelling, in terms that aim to be persuasive. We all need to implement this in our lives. Be clear about what we believe, stand firm for what we value. Those are valuable elements in the model that Paul provides for us.

At the same time, I want to quarrel with the apostle in terms of the manner by which he does this. Aggression which feeds conflict, confrontational polemic which becomes vituperative hate speech, serves nobody any good. Let us not take this element of the model that is provided in Galatians; let us steer away from personalised name-calling and theological sloganeering wherever we can.

Was Paul effective and successful in convincing the saints in Galatia to turn from the pathway they were travelling, to adopt new practices and implement new patterns of discipleship? We don’t actually know. We have his powerful words of persuasion as a testimony to his passion, but no follow-up communications indicating how the Galatians responded.

I suggest that it is good for us to hold to that passion which Paul exhibited, but we need to work hard to ensure that our discussions remain constructive, that our debates demonstrate respect for the other, that our words to one another will build up rather than tear down.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/17/let-your-gentleness-be-known-to-everyone/

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Scripture and Theology

“Do you believe in the Triune God?”

Every so often, I get asked the question, “Do you believe in the Triune God?”

My answer to that question involves consideration of a number of areas.

One. History

I accept that the Trinity is a helpful way of understanding God that the church has employed throughout most of its history. It arose within the debates that took place amongst philosophically-aware teachers of the church in the third and fourth centuries, so as an historical phenomenon, I can see that it makes a lot of sense within that context.

Three persons, consubstantial, of the same nature, co-inheriting, all makes sense in terms of the philosophical context of the day. Clearly, these were important ideas at the time; they generated vigorous debates amongst church leaders for quite some time!

That was how they thought and wrote, so analysing and describing God in terms of ‘persons’, ‘substance’ and ‘essence’, was utilising the tools of the time. From my studies of the period, and of many of the writings of these teachers as they debated and probed the ideas, I find I can generally admire their intellectual strength and spiritual insight in the course of these debates.

Viewed contextually, in their own time within history, the affirmations about God as “triune” make good sense. I value the concept of the Trinity as a fine example of good, honest, contextual theology.

Two. Scripture

I don’t find that there is a clearly-articulated awareness of a “three-in-one, one-in-three” divine being within either testament of the Bible. At best there are hints and clues which later investigators used, in the 3rd to 5th centuries, as the basis for their own theoretical speculations.

Neither the Hebrew Scriptures nor the Greek New Testament are informed by the developed neo-platonic worldview which was held by those Christian teachers of later centuries. So none of the writers of books which are placed into scripture can articulate things in the way that was later developed.

It is clear to me that a number of the individual elements (both the ‘persons’ and their attributes, or qualities) which made up the fourth-century concept of a triune God, are all to be found within the works of assorted first century followers of Jesus, which were eventually collected together as part of Christian scripture, the New Testament.

It is also clear to me that many of these elements are most certainly not found, in the way they are used in Christian theology, in the Jewish writings from centuries prior to Jesus, which were collected together as Hebrew Scripture.

So the individual elements can be seen if we identify a number of New Testament texts, extract those elements from their context, and combine them artificially into a new combination of ideas that we then grant the status of a reality. Clearly, the fully-fledged, totally integrated concept that the later fathers developed, is not there. Scripture does not testify to the “three-in-one” concept of God that is articulated in later theology.

This is an important distinction to maintain. Perhaps you can argue that individual elements are present in some biblical passages for assorts books. But certainly I cannot see how the final, integrated idea is put forward at any point in Scripture.

And, of course, there are numerous ways of understanding God, articulated in both testaments, which are not of primary consideration in the “doctrine of the Trinity” that arose over time. Hebrew and Greek writers offer a wide range of diverse insights into what God may well be like. A “triune God” is one, but by no means the only, deduction to be drawn from scripture.

Three. Liturgy

Personally, I find that the threefold pattern of prayers and litanies that have been developed within the church is a useful, and often quite poetic, help in shaping public worship and private prayers. And that makes sense, since the pattern of threes is a common technique in public speaking, in speeches, in jokes, and so also in liturgies.

However, I don’t for one moment imagine that the way I shape my litanies and prayers is a full and final reflection of the inner nature, the “essential being”, of God. That points in some ways to God, but by no means defines the essence of God. So I am open to other patterns and structures in worship, and in talking about God, as well.

Four. Doctrine

I do have a degree of frustration with the way that what appears to be a fixed, solidified understanding of ‘the Trinity’ or ‘the Triune God’ has taken hold, not only in many liturgies, but also in much theological writing and thinking, and doctrinal treatises, in our own time. This doctrine seems to have become a touchstone for orthodoxy, a test as to how genuine one’s doctrinal understanding is. We have solidifed our view of God into a Trinitarian formula.

The effect of this “solidification” of views about God has been that it has squeezed the life out of a wide range of other expressions as to who God is, how we relate to God, and what we understand of the mystery of the deity. Our doctrine (teaching) about God needs to be open to our range of experiences as we encounter and engage with and meditate upon God.

One way that systematic thinkers have grappled with the doctrine is by focussing on the notion that the Trinity places the idea of ‘community’ right at the heart of God; and that this then provides a mandate for exhorting our fellow human beings to live relationally, in community, with one another. That is an attractive idea, to be sure — and one that is much needed in modern society.

But how do we really know what is at the heart of God? what is the essential nature of God, within God’s own self? We can’t be sure that this is actually how God is. And why do we need an abstract theory of ideas and concepts to validate the exhortation to live in community? A theoretical philosophical doctrine, shaped so long ago, isn’t really a convincing argument in modern public discourse, I would have thought.

Five. Polemics.

Modern theologians are quite taken by the notion that the doctrine of the Trinity provides some unifying vision that enables Christian believers to feel content in their close relationship with God, and affirmed in their positive relationships with other people of faith (and beyond …).

I find it ironic, however, that the process by which this unifying vision emerged was through a series of entirely pragmatic political powerplays exercised by a group of church fathers who soughty and gained control over the church.

Those patristic patriarchs “played hard”, confronted alternative points of view, argued vociferously against them, expelled their proponents from the church, and created creeds which shut out these so-called ‘deviant’ or ‘heretical’ opinions. They were convinced that they possessed The Truth, and any other view was Beyond The Pale.

The irony is that such modern theologians can so readily overlook the hardball powerplays of the patriarchal pugilists, and create theories and pictures of trinity-as-communion, trinity-as-unity-in-diversity, and the whole idealistic perichoretic thing.

I’m somewhat sceptical of the conclusions to which such modern theologians arrive (very nice as they are, very appealing as they emerge), largely because these theologians appear to be completely oblivious to the rough, painful and highly politicised process by which the doctrine was created.

I wonder: would any of the fathers of old have been up on Discipline Charges, given they ways that they prosecuted their arguments and dealt with dissidents, if they were miraculously transported into the contemporary church??

Six. Prayer

It seems to me that the doctrinal stranglehold of the Triune God has limited, confined—even belittled—our human grasping after God, our human imaginings of who God is, our human efforts to articulate something of how we might gain access to the inner workings of God.

I am actually quite unsure as to how we human beings can do this with final, definitive confidence, so I much prefer the openness of pondering about, and praying with, God, that is not limited by trinitiarian formulae and dogmas. Prayer, after all, is opening ourselves to a renewed encounter with the divine.

I do not believe that the Trinity as a doctrine has nothing at all to offer to us today. That is not so. But, by the same token, there is so much more to ponder, explore, and explain, beyond this strict triune formula, so I think we need to be regularly reminded that we ought to be opened up to those possibilities.

So I am happy to have a place for “the Triune God” amongst the various ways in which I think about and relate to God. But it is not the one and only thing to be said, or thought, or prayed, in relation to God.

Seven. Mission and Meaning.

So, I reckon that Trinity Sunday provides a new missional opportunity. The missional task that we face is to follow the example provided by the contextualised development of doctrine by the church fathers. This Trinity Sunday, instead of sermons that grind through abstruse and remote arguments for the Trinity, I would hope we can begin to find ways, in the contemporary context, where we can talk about God and bear witness to our faith, using concepts that are understandable and ideas that are enlivening.

If we want to talk about the divine delight in deep relationships and God’s desire to relate fully to our world, then concepts of incarnation, God coming “down” to earth, hypostatic equality, co-inherence and perichoresis, just won’t cut through in the contemporary era.

We need to move beyond the ossified conceptualisation of God from so many centuries ago, and begin to create our own language and our own ideas for bearing witness to what we know in God. Mere repetition of ancient speculation and debate will not suffice.

It seems to me that, if we want to engage adequately in mission, we have to be immersed in our world, fully part of the communion of daily life. One critical problem is that when we devote time to speaking of the Trinity, using abstract philosophical terms drawn from the foreign languages of antiquity, then we are privileging the voices of male patriarchs from antiquity, over the lived experience of faithful people in these present time.

The Gospel is surely that God’s generous self-outpouring is evident in actions which foster justice and deeds which demonstrate compassion; in loving relationships and in living the values of the kingdom. Words which are uttered about concepts which are about imagined entities and their relationships, will not suffice. We need new images, concepts and doctrines: new images to reflect who God is for us, new concepts to help us think further about God, and new doctrines to speak clearly about God in our contemporary context!

(The image is a literalist personification of the doctrine of the Trinity, from the so-called Dogmatic Sarcophagus, c. 350 CE, kept in the Vatican Museums)

Geoff Thompson has recently written a thoughtful and challenging reflection on the Trinity at http://xenizonta.blogspot.com/2019/06/trinitarian-disruption.html

Craig Mitchell has offered these words (to a familiar tune) which provide a supportive expression of how we encounter the triune God in our lives at https://craigmitchell.typepad.com/mountain_masala/2012/05/creator-companion-comforter.html?fbclid=IwAR39O1mfvMFx4dKIPtUhuUKfldiW4LAZZp2zgh4A6j37AGCh4tPDyWjGDqQ

For my musings about the creeds and what they contain, see

https://johntsquires.com/2018/10/30/affirming-the-teachings-of-jesus/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/02/interpreting-the-creeds-in-a-later-age/

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Scripture and Theology

The Paraclete in John’s Gospel: exploring the array of translation options (John 14, 15, 16)

The Gospel reading for this Sunday (John 15) contains a rather unusual word, which is translated in various ways across the range of English translations. The word (in Greek) is parakletos. It appears four times in the Gospel of John (14:16, 14:26, 15:26, and 16:7) and once more in the first epistle of John (1 John 2:1). How should this word be translated?

First, a word about translations. There is a range of possibilities for undertaking a translation of the Bible into modern English, stretching across a spectrum that ranges from formal correspondence translations, all the way to dynamic equivalence translations. 

At one end of the spectrum, formal correspondence translations place a high value on sticking closely to the original biblical language. They follow, as closely as is possible, what was written in the original language. Where the original Greek or Hebrew is obscure, it may attempt to assist the reader in some measure; but the sentence structure of the original language is basically adhered to, and there are approximately the same number of words in the translation as in the original. 

At the other end of the spectrum of translations, dynamic equivalence translations move the emphasis away from the original language; the overriding concern of the translators is to communicate the meaning of the text in contemporary, idiomatic English expression. There are anumber of such translations that have been published over the years.

When we turn to this single Greek word, used in John and 1 John to describe the Holy Spirit, we find that the Revised Standard Version translates this word Parakletos, as Counsellor. The same term is used in the New International Version.

Both translations aim at formal correspondence as much as possible. The term counsellor infers that the spirit is a guide for Christian faith; one who relates one-to-one with the Christian person, who walks alongside them, encouraging them and offering advice where relevant. This is a fair translation of the Greek word used here.

The New Revised Standard Version has made a significant change from its parent translation, the RSV. In place of the term Counsellor, the NRSV prefers the term Advocate. The Jersualem Bible and the New Living Translation also use this term. It has quite a different nuance in English. 

The usual location for the term advocate, in contemporary English, is the courtroom; so we move from the intimacy of the counselling relationship, to the public realm of judicial hearings. By describing the spirit as an advocate, these translations are describing the spirit as a person who represents the Christian person and stands up for their rights, who ensures that the believer is given a full and fair hearing at the day of judgement. 

The NRSV translation, Advocate, is equally as valid as the alternative, Counsellor, since the Greek term they both translate actually contains both shades of meaning  it refers to one who walks beside and supports, as well as one who stands on behalf of and represents. Either translation corresponds formally to the original term. But, in opting for one or the other of the nuances of the term, the meaning has actually been specified far more narrowly than in the original language. Such are the limitations of translations. 

The Good News Bible, a dynamic equivalence translation, translates the word for the Spirit in John 14-15 as Helper. The New American Standard Bible and the translation made by J.B. Philips also use the term Helper.

This choice of word is obviously related to the sense of Counsellor, but it is very limited in meaning. A counsellor can certainly help; usually they have specific skills and expertise that they bring to bear into a situation. By contrast, the word helper suggests someone who is in a subordinate position, one who pitches in by assisting with the more menial tasks, and perhaps one who is at the beck and call of the one requesting the help. 

This kind of nuance might give some insight into the role of the spirit, who does come to the aid of the Christian person and provide assistance. Nevertheless, the English word helper sits somewhat at odds with the broader Christian conception of the Holy Spirit. It is a limited, over-simplistic view of the role of the Holy Spirit.  

A fourth option for translating this term is the word Comforter, which appears in the King James Version, the so-called ‘Authorised Version’ of 1611. This also is an accurate translation of the word Parakletos, for it was used in ancient writings to describe the comfort, or consolation, to those who were aggrieved. By opting for this translation, the KJV was also being faithful to the text. 

However, there are other considerations to be made here. Because the KJV is so old – it is over four centuries since this translation was made  it can sometimes be less relevant to contemporary understandings. The word “comfort” has shifted in meaning over the centuries, and to us it now conveys an image of the kindly parent, hugging the distressed child, drying their tears, settling them down into bed; a domestic image which may well describe something of the role of the spirit, but which loses so much of the broader scope inherent in the term.

In addition to the formal correspondence and dynamic equivalence translations, a third type of bible version which can be bought today is the Paraphrase. Although some of these versions claim to be translations, there is a significant difference. A paraphrase will happily move very far from the original text of the Bible, in order to convey in precise detail the particular nuance of the passage being translated. Most paraphrases deliberately use a number of words, a phrase, to convey one of the possible meanings of the original word. 

A popular contemporary paraphrase is The Message. In this instance, it uses just one word for Paraclete, which it renders as Friend. That is nice and cosy—but not quite grasping the range of meanings in the Greek! 

Finally, let me note a fifth option for translating the Greek term for the Holy Spirit in John 14-15. The Jerusalem Bible translates the term parakletos as Advocate; but in revising the JB, the New Jerusalem Bible has decided simply to transliterate the term from Greek into English. It thus uses the non-English term, the Paraclete, at this point. The virtue of this is that all the possible meanings are inherent in the term. We need to explore what it means, using biblical dictionaries or commentaries. Thus, this translation has encouraged us to work out what the word means for ourselves. 

The disadvantage of this translation is that, from a simple reading of the text, we have absolutely no idea what a Paraclete is. It is not an English word, and it is as puzzling as reading the original Greek. We cannot simply read this translation; we have to stop, think, explore, and question. Depending upon the situation, this may be appropriate and valuable, or frustrating and unhelpful.

The bottom line, for me, is: use a range of translations … explore the alternatives that are chosen in each of them … and use this range, to ponder the significance of the text that is under investigation!

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