Virtues: the lost key to discipleship?

At a clergy conference last year, one of the speakers made a sharp comment about Church school leadership. He observed that the fashion in leadership has been for “values”, and pointed out that many schools and businesses print “our values” on the wall of their establishment, but noone actually follows them. He made the case for schools using the Christian idea of “virtues” instead, We’ve found a set of Christian “values” really…er… valuable at the school of which I am a governor, but I have a hunch the speaker was dead right.

So many modern church “vision statements” veer between giddy excitement and self-reliant business speak, and so many church leaders admit to talking a lot about “disciplemaking”, but not knowing how to do it. I believe that talking about – no, cultivating – the virtues is what we are missing.

The Virtues trampling the Vices – Strasbourg Cathedral

A recent sermon theme I was given – “Prudence” –  encouraged me to write about them more generally.

What are “virtues”?

“Virtues” are about character – that part of us that, like the word “Brighton” through a piece of seaside rock confectionery, runs inside us and is there at whatever point you look. Character is our innate way of acting and reacting in every circumstance and moment of choice, whether good or evil.

The word “virtue” came to us from the ancient Greeks ( the Greek is aretē or hexis, and the Latin virtus or habitus). Sometimes it is better translated as “excellence” or “strength”, especially in relation to what Aristotle called the intellectual virtues (see below). Virtues according to Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics are a state of character which chooses and performs acts “at the right time, with the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way”. For him, virtue is often a mean between two extremes: courage lies between fear and confidence; temperance/self-control lies between pleasures and pains.

Aristotle listed  “intellectual virtues” (science, art, reason, philosophy) as well as moral ones (liberality, magnificence, pride, friendliness). The four key or “cardinal” ones (cardo means “hinge”, the ones on which character turns) among the ancient Greeks were prudence (common sense), courage, self-control and justice. Much of the way he writes about these virtues is man-centred:  the goal of flourishing life (happiness or eudaimonia) is attained by cultivating virtues through practice and contemplation of them.

What does Christian theology make of the virtues?

Although some of them, such as pride, came to be seen by Christian tradition not as virtues but vices, there are great similarities to this Greek tradition in the New Testament.The apostle Paul writes about the ninefold fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23. The fruit includes “self-control” (enkrateia),  the same virtue as in Socrates and Aristotle, and “patience” (hupomonē, also highlighted by Jesus in Luke 8:15 of the seed sown on good soil) resembles the habit of “perseverance” in Aristotle’s “courage”. Both are also referred to in 2 Peter 1:6.

Paul also prefaces his “household codes” (setting out behaviour in the church and family) with the call to the “new self” of virtue (Ephesians 4:20-5:20), speaking of kindness, compassion, wisdom and thanksgiving. “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience…over all these virtues put on love which binds them together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:12, 14).

So although it seems unlikely that Paul (a trained Jewish Pharisee) drew heavily on Aristotle, he knew of the idea of “virtues” and found similar lists of Christian spiritual “fruit” and “clothing” important in urging godly living on others.

How does the gospel renew the virtues?

Jesus and his disciples also transformed the idea of virtues. They added compassion, forgiveness, and especially, love. They also transformed the goal of virtue (living in conformity with the coming kingdom of God) and the means of cultivating it (see next article on virtue and, briefly, below). Paul’s image of the virtuous life is not an individual attaining moral perfection alone (as in Aristotle) but the life transformed through the mind being renewed. It is the new life of Christ in his people, the perfection of Humanity in Him, the dawning of new creation, the tasting of the glory of God by the Spirit of God.

Augustine is probably the early Church Father who wrote most about virtues. He was nervous of some of Aristotle’s man-centred language. He saw habit (virtue acquired by nature, through repetition, according to Aristotle) as a man-centred enemy of real virtue, which comes from grace. We do not cultivate the virtues in ourselves, God grows them in us through faith. So Augustine preferred to speak of consuetudo or “custom” instead of habitus or “habit”. To the cardinal virtues he added the “theological”ones of faith (fides), hope (spes) and love (caritas). All virtue, he said, comes from love of God, not human effort.

Thomas Aquinas  devoted a large section of his Summa theologica to the subject of Christian ethics and virtue (I-II q. 49-64 on habits and virtues). He borrowed extensively from Aristotle’s language of “habit”, and his list of virtues is similar in some ways, with the same four cardinal ones as the ancient Greeks. But he also disagreed with Aristotle about the definition of the most important moral virtues (love, faith and hope), the end or goal (God), and the means (grace).

Aristotle saw virtues as indelible habits which once gained, we exercise perfectly. Once a person has learnt courage they will instinctively be courageous in every situation . Aquinas disagreed, Because he saw virtue as connected first to will, not to reason, the person has an act of will, or choice, to make every time. Animals may be “creatures of habit” (lacking “will” to make moral choices) but we are the real experts at true “habit”, because true “habit” or “virtue” requires an act of will (I-II q.50 a3, ad 2)That means that virtue is a moral or spiritual matter, not (as in Aristotle and Plato) an intellectual one.

He also went further, and like Augustine before him, made a distinction between the “moral” or “cardinal” virtues above and the “theological” virtues of faith, hope, and love. In this he was simply following Paul’s “these three remain” of 1 Corinthians 13.These three are for Aquinas the vital virtues which are only seen in Christians, and through which the Christian is able to express other virtues. So only Christians can be really virtuous.

Many Protestants assume that Aquinas favoured nature over grace, or nature and grace together,  in salvation and what many call “sanctification”. Instead we should hold to salvation “by grace alone”. He is thus accused of being “Pelagian” or “semi-Pelagian” (a reference to Augustine’s opponent who held these views). Yet  Aquinas was clear that spiritual virtues come from God, not man. So he also agreed with Augustine about grace and the Spirit, as opposed to nature and habit, being the way that we grow virtuous. We may be able to learn intellectual virtues such as science, but moral virtues are “infused” in us by God, not acquired by learning or practice. (I-II q.51 ad 4).  His definition of a virtue is clear whose work it is, A good quality of the mind, by which we live rightly, of which noone makes bad use, which God works in us without us” I-II q.55, a4

At this point medieval Aquinas is as Protestant as Reformation Calvin, “Seeing then that no good work proceeds from us unless insofar as we are regenerated – and our regeneration is wholly of God – there is no ground for claiming one iota in good works” (Institutes III 15 7).

Virtues are Spirit-enabled character traits which arise from faith and express our membership of and commitment to the kingdom of God. I think we need to cultivate and discuss them much more than most Protestants presently do.

A second article will ask why faith, hope and love are key “virtues” and how we cultivate them.

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“Jesus didn’t treat Scripture as infallible”: really?

Having given a copy of an NT Wright’s “Surprised by Scripture” to someone for Christmas, knowing that they sympathise with his “neoevangelical” theology and voluminous writing style, I was surprised when they thanked me, and commented that they also liked Brian Mclaren’s new “We make the Road by Walking” on the Bible.

I came across this article in which McLaren (above) summarises his position. In a nutshell I think it is fair to say that he is against the notion of the infallibility of the Bible, seeing this as a modernist and restrictive doctrine, and that his diagnosis is that post-modern humility following two World Wars and a Holocaust demands that we recognise not just that the Church (tradition) is fallible, but that the Bible is too. And he claims to justify this from the teaching of Jesus.

Biblical scholar BB Warfield described a century ago1 how the Bible writers use words like “revelation” to describe God’s communication to mankind. The words (Hebrew גָלָה, galah, Greek αποκαλυψισ, apocalypsis) describe seeing what was veiled before, hidden things being laid bare.

The idea that the Bible is trustworthy rests on this habit of it describing itself first as a “revelation”, a divine oracle not a manmade work.

In 2 Peter 1:19-21 Peter describes the apostles of Jesus as eyewitnesses  of Jesus’ glory. He also goes on to say that this revelation is “made more sure” by the words of the Old Testament prophets :

no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit“.

Those whom God enabled to write the Scriptures had their unique personalities. They were not simply buckets into which God poured his undifferentiated revelation.Yet all of the Bible writers were speaking from God. So the New Testament writers always refer to the Old Testament writings (their “bible”) as true and authoritative, whether calling them “the Scriptures” (eg 1 Corinthians 15:3,4) or “Scripture” (as here), or whether referring to God who “spoke” in the past (Hebrews 1:1-3) or who “speaks” through those ancient writings still (Hebrews 3:7).

The Bible is inspiredGod speaks

Peter says that the prophets who wrote the Old Testament were “carried” by the Holy Spirit. This is not the same as saying they were “guided” or “led”. To be guided means I play a part, but to be carried is to be entirely passive. The Bible writers are wholly reliant upon the Spirit of God in them to bring the Word of God through them.

In fact the translation “inspired” (2 Timothy 3;16) is better translated “breathed-out” by God (Greek θεοπνευστοσ, theopneustos)2. It is not that God breathes into Scripture but that God breathes out Scripture . That is why the prophetic message is “made more sure” or “completely reliable” (NIV translation, 2011). It’s not made up by man in some words. It is breathed out or inspired by God  in every word.

Hence God said to  Jeremiah “I have appointed you a prophet…I have put my words in your mouth” (Jeremiah 1:5-9) and the repeated refrain of his colleagues is “Thus says the LORD“. Apostles like Paul were aware of a similar authority to speak God’s words. This is very different from me today saying “I think God might be saying…” and is the unique privilege of the Bible writers, because they were “carried along” by the Spirit.

So it is because God in his love chose to reveal himself that he inspired the Bible, and because he inspired the Bible that he reveals Himself in it. I think it is right to criticise theologians (however right in other ways) who last century hesitated to affirm what Peter says here about verbal inspiration. It is not enough to say  like Barth that Christ is the true Word who encounters us when we read the (fallible) Bible (McLaren sounds so close to Barth here),  or like von Rad that God only revealed himself in the great redemptive acts of history like the Red Sea.

He revealed and still reveals Himself in God’s written Word, through which we encounter Christ His living Word.

The Bible is infallible

Theologians call this being “infallible” or “inerrant” (though there is a difference in that the latter is a narrow version of the former). Liberal Bible readers dislike either word, because they prefer to see parts of the Bible as untrue or contradictory. But when we say the Bible is inspired and therefore infallible we are not saying it gives a literal account of evolution (it does not intend to teach science) or of time (the great ages of some people in the Bible are sometimes symbolic of blessing).

No, we are saying that the Bible is absolutely true and trustworthy (the positive way of saying it is infallible) in what it intends to say about about God, humanity, the world and salvation. (Inerrancy however is often taken to mean that the Bible is correct in every factual statement it appears to make and I find this less helpful).

The Protestant Reformation bequeathed some very helpful clarifications of how this works. First, the New Testament sheds light on the Old through showing prophecy  being fulfilled. Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jericho, Ruth and Jonah  all make more sense when seen as pointing ahead to the salvation God will send through Jesus. Biblical theology, and Tom Wright’s “five-act model”3 of the Bible, follow from this. Second, parts of the Bible should be harmonised. Rather than setting parts of the Bible against others (for instance, Paul’s emphasis on faith and James’ on works) as if one or other is mistaken, we should make the effort to see how each contributes a unique perspective without contradicting the other.

So the (Reformation) Church of England statement of faith, the 39 Articles, says in Article VII, “the Old Testament is not contrary to the New; for in both everlasting life is offered to Mankind through Christ“. Article XX goes on “it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.”

Theologians and Archbishops are not infallible. Nor are sermons of clergy and decisions of Synods. Even the church creeds are potentially fallible because written not by Spirit-inspired Bible writers but by later church leaders. They are only to be trusted, says Church of England Article VIII, because “they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture“.

“Almighty God, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; so help us to hear them, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them that, through patience and the comfort of your holy word, we may embrace and forever hold fast the hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ, Amen”.

(Collect for the Last Sunday after Trinity)

The next post on how we view the Bible will look specifically at Jesus’ attitude to the Scriptures.

BB Warfield “The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible” (1955 Edition), p97

2 Ibid, p133

3 Scripture and the Authority of God, 2005

Mission(al): what’s in a name?

wwp-018_1z

When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper, some of them – particularly verbs, they’re the proudest – adjectives you do anything with, but not verbs – however, I can manage the whole lot them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”

“Would you tell me, please,” said Alice, “what that means?”

Humpty Dumpty gave a lengthy explanation of what he meant by the word.

“That’s a great deal to make one word mean,” Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

“When I make a word do a lot of work like that,” said Humpty Dumpty, “I always pay it extra.”

 The word “mission” should be paid extra for all the things we make it mean today. In the last few years “mission” has included everything that the Church does, from cross-cultural evangelism to litter-picking or campaigning on social justice  issues. It has Biblical roots going back to Jesus “sending” (the root of the Latin term missio) his disciples after the resurrection: “as the Father sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20:21). So I think we should retain the word, and its related adjective “missional”.

But given the confusion about what should or should not be called “mission”,  a look at the word’s definition and scope  is overdue.

Mission is not just for “missionaries”

Because the words of Jesus “as the Father sent me, so I am sending you” are followed by him “breathing on them” and saying “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:21-22), this moment has been called John’s version of Luke’s Day of Pentecost – the giving of the Holy Spirit to empower us to share the good news of his kingdom. All who follow Jesus are sent (commissioned) by Jesus.

Whilst we recognise the particular calling of some to leave home and share the good news in other nations, it is clear that it is not just those we call “missionaries” who are sent to do mission. We are all missionaries, the moment we receive Christ, his Spirit, and his Commission to “make disciples of all people”. Mission is not just for those labelled “missionaries”.

Mission is not unchanging

The word “missional” in particular has been in vogue in some church circles over the last 20 years or so. It reflects a rediscovery, to some extent, that the way in which churches reach out to their culture needs to be flexible and sensitive to that culture.

missional-graphic-2

One of the spurs to this impetus was the British theologian Lesslie Newbigin, who spent 30 years in cross-cultural mission in a non-Christian culture (India). He was shocked to return to Britain in 1980 and find that in that period, this country had effectively become non-christian too, and the Church was still operating as if everyone around shared Christian belief, and was not ready for mission. His books “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society” and “The Open Secret: an introduction to the theology of mission” remain key to the modern interest in mission in the West today.

The missional movement has rightly identified that in the West today the ordinary person does not any longer give the Church much attention, look to the Church in time of need, or know much at all about the Bible story. We cannot simply keep “doing” church the way we did 30 years ago. We have moved (as Tim Keller from Manhattan is fond of putting it) from doing mission in Acts 2 (Scripturally-influenced Jerusalem) to Acts 17 (pagan Athens). Mission needs to change the shape of Church life to reach each generation that comes along in our culture.

In recent years this has meant realising that churches will connect more with our culture if we do not simply repeat what we believe to the world around us, but demonstrate the difference faith makes in life; if we send disciples out into the culture and don’t just expect people to come to church uninvited; if we speak not only about what we believe but the difference faith makes in life; if we recognise that coming to faith is not just an event but a journey of exploration.

Missional churches show the people around them a community that is both connected with their culture (speaking their language instead of religious jargon, for instance) and  counter to that culture when it comes to issues of money, sex and power. Missional churches  have doctrines which we believe, but we are also respectful towards those who those who differ from us. All of this is somewhat different from 50 or even 30 years ago. So mission is not unchanging.

Mission(al) is not new

When I read some of the writings of “missional” church leaders I get the impression that they think mission started with them. Everything that came before was hidebound, inwardly-focussed, formal, and aimed only at those who were already Christians.

In fact, of course, the Church has been missionary over the entire 20 centuries since the Great Commission of Jesus to “make disciples” (Matthew 28:16-20) and the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2)! How else did the good news of Christ reach the shores of Britain 1500 years ago and become surely THE dominant cultural and spiritual influence over the succeeding years? Are we saying that the apostles, and Augustine of Canterbury, and Patrick and Columba, and George Whitefield and John Wesley, and Williams Booth and Wilberforce, Billy Sunday and Billy Graham, and a million other evangelists, leaders and church planters, had no missional heart? Certainly every one of these found a different way to communicate the good news in their generation, but communicate it they did.

Mission has always been the energy of the Church, and we simply need to discern what shape it should take in each generation.

Nor, for that matter, are many of the concerns of the modern “missional church” movement new either. The existential search for meaning and relationship (often described as one of the things a missional church will seek to address) has been the search of human beings since Augustine of Hippo’s famous line in his Confessions “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee” – and long before him. We all need love and hope, whether we are young “millenials” or middle-aged; we always have done, and the mission of God has always brought those things to the needy. Mission and its need is not new!

In following posts on Mission we will look further at “missional” thinking, and in a culture of “mission statements”, we will ask the key question “Whose mission is it anyway?”

(An adapted version of a post on the website of Christ Church Cockfosters.)

Do you “love” the Bible?

“All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever means they use, they all tend to this end.” (Blaise Pascal (below), Pensees).

blaise-pascal1

This insight that desire, the pursuit of what is good, is common to all human beings is found not only in philosophers like Aristotle but great Christian thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas – and Pascal.

The surprise to many Christians, however, is that desire, far from being a wicked thing, is at the heart of real faith. So in a lecture entitled “The Weight of Glory”, CS Lewis famously said  that true desire is directed towards God, who is goodness itself, and all desire is weak and false if expressed without reference to Him .

“If we consider the unblushing rewards and staggering nature of the rewards promised in the gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong but too weak…We are far too easily pleased.”

Love (as opposed to suffering) is after all one of the cardinal virtues according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, and joy (not misery) is the fruit of the Spirit.

 Desiring God’s Word

Is it extreme, though, to talk not only about “loving God” but also “loving the Bible”? I’ve often heard passionate Christians express disapproval of those who “idolise the Bible” when they should be loving God. Is this, though, necessarily two different things?

Psalm 119 is beautifully constructed in 22 poetic stanzas, in which each line begins with a new letter of the Hebrew alphabet (א, ב, ג, etc). This beautifully neat “A-Z in praise of God’s Word” makes us wonder at the Bible’s beauty. Then almost every line refers to (what we would call) the Bible – the law of the Lord, his statutes, his ways, his precepts, his decrees, his commands, his word (see verses 1-9).

I delight in your decrees” he says in v16. “I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches” (v14).

Is such love for the Bible really meant to be my experience, or was the Psalm writer a bit extreme? Is he a bit like a cricket nut who delights in knowing the most obscure laws of that eccentric sport?

No, we are meant to delight in the Bible, and we will be deeper people if we do. The hint of why this is true is in that word “your”. To delight in the Bible is not to worship the words of a mere man (which is foolish) or of a distant god (which is superstition) but to love the words of someone we personally love. Your Lord. To hear his Word  is like playing a favourite piece of music again and again for the joy it brings me, or rehearsing the words of love spoken to me by a lover or parent.

The second hint is in verses like 77 which make God’s character and His Word equivalent to each other. “Let your compassion come to me that I may live; for your law is my delight” Likewise v.81 “My soul faints with longing for your salvation, but I have put my hope in your word”. There is no separation between God’s Word and God’s person (as Aquinas identified). His Word comes as an expression of his thoughts. So I cannot love God without loving His Words. Similarly, to love His written Word is to love His incarnate Word (John 1) – His Son Jesus – and vice versa.

That is why to live by His Word is also to live under His personal guidance (“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path“, v.105) and His protection (“You are my refuge and my shield; I have put my hope in your word”, v.114).

So the writer concludes, “Your statutes are wonderful; therefore I delight in them.” (v.129)

Dwelling in, and on, God’s Word

So here it is, the Bible: “true about me, true about people, true about the world, true about the future, true about the past, true about the good life, and true about God” (Kevin De Young, Taking God at His Word, p17), demanding obedience and delivering goodness. What should I do with it? As De Young summarises:

Sing it, speak it, study it, store it up , obey it, praise God for it, pray God would act according to it.

The following posts (which are edited from a longer series on the website of the church I pastor) will explore how and why the Bible is trustworthy, adequate, vital and accessible to us all in what it says. But, hard as they are to understand at some points, dry as personal Bible reading can be at times, let’s delight in the Scriptures too.

Freedom, good and evil

william_blake_good_and_evil_angels_print

With the events in Paris still raw in all of our minds, I like all of us have been reflecting on the question atheists routinely ask of believers, “If God exists, why does he let this happen?” If God is good (1 John 1:5; Deuteronomy 32:4, etc) and powerful, why has he created a world where things such as this are allowed to happen?

There are several lines of argument which theists (those who believe in a personal and loving Creator) take, including the “free will”, “best of all possible worlds” and “value of soul-making” ones. Others have written great books on this question, of which I’d recommend especially Don Carson’s “How Long, O Lord?” and “God and Evil” edited by Chad Meister Jr and James K Dew.

I would like to put a word in here for the wisdom of someone whom Protestants have too long ignored or even regarded as “unsound”, yet who is widely regarded as one of THE great Christian thinkers of history to rank alongside Augustine, Anselm and (I’d add) Calvin: the “angelic doctor”, Thomas Aquinas. I’ve had the stimulating joy of reading a little of his mountainous, dense writing in recent months, and a couple of the multiple books about his philosophy and theology, and I’ve been humbled and helped.

He writes extensively about God, goodness and evil. He first of all distinguishes “natural evil” (such events as earthquakes and sickness) from “moral evil” (human acts which hurt others or created things). In other words, there is “evil suffered”, which comes to us because of the order of the world God has made, and “evil done”, whose cause (man, or God?) is the relevant and more difficult question for us now.

Turning then to “moral evil”, with remarkable clarity he notes that everything that has being has goodness (because being comes from God’s creation, and God’s creation is only good). We are made as human beings to be and do good. Every act is foreseen and created by God. Where does moral evil then come from – God, or free will? Aquinas, like Augustine before and Calvin after him, does not believe we have been granted a simple “free will” whereby God is, or chooses to be, powerless to stop us doing bad things, because God’s power and sovereignty are the final cause of everything, or God is not God. So how does Aquinas square the circle of God’s goodness and human evil?

Following Augustine before him, the move he makes which helped me better grasp the interaction of divine sovereignty and human responsibility is brilliant and, to me, compelling: evil, or suffering, such as we saw in Paris last week, is not a positive “thing” (in his language, a “substance”) but simply a lack or privation of good.

Evil consists entirely in not-being”1

Evil arises through some particular thing being lacking, but good arises only from a whole and integral cause [he means ultimately, God]”2.

When I shoot someone from an evil motive, it is not that evil is “present” (for evil has no positive being) but that I am doing (to put it mildly) less than the good I should be doing instead. So when I follow God’s created order in me and will for me, I do good.  But when I fall short of it (we call this “sin” along with Paul in Romans 3:23), the cause of that lies not in God’s will but mine. Evil is the lack of the good God intends in and for us, a tragic falling from perfection. Though we all have good in us as long as we exist (because however evil, we are created by God who is good) we all have it in us to fall into evil.

So Paris last week brought home the extreme consequences of humanity’s lack of goodness, but it did not bring into question God’s goodness.

As an aside here about freedom and evil, Carl Trueman has posted this helpful thought on the challenge facing Western liberal democracy not only from Islam but from those on the extreme right and left.

Ultimately, we need to remember that the Christian faith, unlike atheism, does have something positive to say about evil in the human race. God is able to bring good from evil (supremely in Christ’s willing but unjust crucifixion), to protect his people against it (Revelation 12:14), to turn evil people into good ones through the love of Christ, and in the end, when Christ’s kingdom comes, to turn evil out of creation forever (Revelation 20:10).

The Bible tells the story of men and women who grappled with evil they had done, and with evil done to them. It carries words such as those of Psalm 37:1, “Fret not because of evil people”, and of Job in his suffering,

“The fear of the LORD – that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding” (Job 28:28).

1 Questiones disputatae de potentia Dei 3,16 ad3

2 Summa Theologica I-II 19, 17 ad 3

What is worth killing for?

charlie hebdo shooting

In the pre-enlightenment Western world, it was common to put someone to death for holding all kinds of view that society or religion deemed blasphemous. In the same century that Anglican Reformers were being burnt at the stake in Oxford for their views on the sacraments, Servetus, anabaptist and antitrinitarian, had the dubious privilege of being burnt in effigy by the Catholics in France and in actuality by the Protestants in Geneva.

But mercifully, the enlightenment, largely through its discovery of the dignity of the created human person in the Bible, has taught the Western world the value of freedom of speech, as well as freedom of conscience. We no longer burn heretics or put blasphemers to the sword. We may seek to persuade the mind and heart, but we respect the person.

We have also learnt that the best response to outrages such as this is tolerance, meeting hatred with unity and xenophobia with acceptance. Again, I suspect that we have learnt these values from the Christian faith which has so influenced Western culture: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” said Jesus (Matthew 5:44).

Freedom has been coming under trial as Biblical faith in the West, having largely been the river through which it flowed into our culture, is ironically finding its own freedom of thought and belief under threat in moral and ethical areas. But freedom of speech is still a precious Western value which we need to unite with all in prizing.

The attack on the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo is unsurprising to many, given both the satirical style of that magazine (its cartoons are justifiably seen as potentially offensive) and the Islamic fanaticists’ response to their work (firebombing the same place in 2011). If anything the taking of hostages in a kosher supermarket the next day is even more horrifying since totally without provocation.

Most of us became aware of this hard-edged and intolerant side to Islam when Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses (1988) was condemned and he was placed under Fatwa. Observers of the journalistic and Islamic world suggest we will see more of this clash of fundamentalist ideology and free speech in months to come. Failure to speak up more in defence of Rushdie then, suggests Padriag Reidy in the Telegraph, has enabled Islamic extremism’s denial of free speech to grow influential since  unopposed.

Historian Tom Holland has recorded TV programmes about the ideology underneath Islamic terrorism and writes in The BBC Magazine about the need to be clear about protecting free speech as a value worth dying for. Although sceptical eighteenth century philosopher Voltaire (in some ways, patron saint of secular revolutionary France) is not an obvious icon for orthodox Christians at this time, he did champion freedom in a way that needs to be remembered today. Tom Holland prefers his lampooning of self-promoting authority of all kinds to the terrorists’ execution of perceived blasphemers.

I suspect we will need to have the same clarity about defending freedom of conscience, as well as speech, in future too: there will be in the West, as already elsewhere, those who want to kill people not only for the provocative cartoons they draw, but for the peaceful creed they follow.

The world in 2015

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In the news today is a shocking bombing in Paris prompted apparently by a desire to oppose religious freedom of speech. This follows the creeping growth in Germany in recent days of an Islamophobic movement which needs firm condemnation and marginalisation from political and religious leaders on all sides. Paranoia and use of religion to justify violence and xenophobia are on the rise. Europe is not a dull place to live.

On a more positive note, are there signs that faith is striking back against the strident voice of secular humanism? I was delighted to read this piece by AN Wilson, writer and former atheist-turned believer.

There are also intelligent faith voices speaking to the immense cultural confusion about marriage, like this remarkable speech to the Vatican last month from Lord Sacks which covers everything from the biology of gender and reproduction to its anthropology, sociology and Scriptural basis.