Theological thoughts about the Leveson report

Tomorrow, the House of Commons will vote on Lord Leveson’s key recommendations concerning press regulation. Is there a theological perspective on this subject? Let me answer as a Baptist… A commitment to protecting freedom of belief has always been a central concern of the Baptist movement, albeit expressed in various different ways. (I trace some of them in ch. 6 of my Baptist Theology, looking at Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams, Isaac Backus, E.Y. Mullins, and Nigel Wright along the way.) The commitment is, for Baptists, profoundly theological, and also pragmatically inevitable. Baptist theology (I there argue) focuses on the direct address of Christ to each particular human person, and so the primary responsibility of every human person for her own religious commitments. As Helwys famously had it, in 1612, ‘…man’s religion to God is between God and themselves. The king will not answer for it.’ And nor will priest, bishop, pastor, prime minister, or anyone else. Anyone, in any role, who attempts to coerce belief is trespassing on the office of Christ himself, and so (in the classical Baptist theological logic) is simply and precisely an antichrist. Pragmatically, Backus put the point well, if rather waspishly: ‘The business of laws is not to provide for the truth of opinions, but for the safety and security of the commonwealth, and of every man’s goods and person; and so it ought to be; for truth certainly would do well enough if she were once left to shift for herself. She seldom has received, and I fear never will receive, much assistance from the power of great men; to whom she is but rarely known, and more rarely welcome…’ Legislation simply cannot change what I believe to be true; this is obvious; and so legislating to try to change my – or anyone else’s – beliefs is clearly idle and futile. From freedom of belief, it is not difficult to derive a commitment to freedom of speech – the state cannot coerce my belief, and should not force me to perjure myself by saying things I do not in fact believe (civic prayers and oaths were the great sticking-point for Williams). There are some potential issues at the edges of this commitment: public speech that might serve to destabalise the commonwealth, or to provoke violence or discrimination against an individual or group; Baptists would traditionally err on the side of defending even dangerous speech, finally for theological reasons (the security of the commonwealth is in God’s hands, not the governments’…); we would also traditionally insist on freedom of (religious) practice, which potentially raises more difficult issues (when the state judges my religious practice to be harmful to my children, or otherwise unethical, for example). What of the issues addressed by Leveson? The freedom of the press has – rightly – been a noble and tenaciously-held ideal; in its classical form, however, it offers protection in one direction only, and that direction is now, probably, the wrong one. The history of Baptist calls for freedom of conscience that I have sketched makes this point well: it is striking, in reading early Baptist calls for the freedom of belief, to observe that they assumed that totalitarian regimes were normal. The early Baptist discussions were offered by writers who, although deeply counter-cultural in their vision, nonetheless assumed that the power negotiation ran between the magistrate and the subject, with no other centres of authority at work. In the context of nation-states in which the (state) church was an agent of the totalitarian regime – which is to say, the whole of early-modern Europe, more or less (this is obviously true for any Protestant nation, including England; I think it remains true in subtlely different ways for each Roman Catholic nation, but I omit here the necessary lengthy discussion about negotiations between prince and pope in different contexts) – the gradual development of a press was the establishment of a subversive, non-establishment, voice, and a subversive and non-establishment voice that could actually be heard. (In England, the point was made powerfully in the language of the ‘three estates’: clergy, nobility, and commons were united in preserving the regime; the rise of the ‘fourth estate’ – the free press – was a fundamental challenge to, or at least check upon, the established order.) The press therefore had a privileged moral position, from a Baptist perspective: its was the voice that challenged the government whenever the government mistook itself for God. No doubt one does not need to be a Baptist (or other dissenting Christian) to applaud the rise of an estate that questioned, rather than upholding, the established order, but Baptists have an...

Read More

On the Divine Names

In a comment on the previous post, Scott drew my attention to a post by Denny Burk, who says ‘While we don’t believe that God has a gender, we do believe that He has revealed Himself as God theFather and never as mother.’ This reminded me that Krish Kandiah pointed me late last year to a post by Matthew Hosier (on the Think Theology Blog) in which Matthew (who I don’t think I have met) argues a similar point, though with a bit more theological precision than Burk offered. His formulation ran as follows: (1) naming God as Mother is different to naming God as Father, in that ‘Mother’ is clearly used metaphorically of God in the Scriptures, whereas ‘Father’ is not; so (2) ‘Father’ is the proper name for God: “Father” is the proper name of God, and is no more metaphorical than my name being “Mr Hosier.” Sure, God at times acts in ways that are like a mother (that’s a metaphor), but Father is who he is. From this, Matthew argues that (3) this has decisive bearings on the ‘egalitarian-complementarian debate’ and (4) that understanding this truth allows us to enter fully into Trinitarian worship – citing Mike Reeves’s excellent recent book. What to do with this? We need to think very clearly about how we name God, in particular making the distinction between what the tradition called the divine names, which name the one God who Father, Son and Holy Spirit together are, and the hypostatic names, ‘Father’, ‘Son’, and ‘Holy Spirit’. Getting this distinction right was near the heart of both the Cappadocian and Augustinian formulations of trinitarian doctrine. When we look for the divine names, we find a series of Biblical ascriptions of titles to God which do not, at first sight, appear to be metaphors. In the OT, we have supremely YHWH, the Name revealed to Moses when he asked God at the burning bush, ‘what is your name?’, but also such ascriptions as Elohim (‘God’ – assuming a pl. of majesty…), Eloah (‘God’), El Shaddai (‘God Almighty’ or ‘many-breasted God’, depending on which etymology you believe), El Elyon (‘God of Gods’), Adhonai (‘Lord’), … which do not appear to be metaphorical usages. As Brueggeman points out somewhere, however, the more characteristic ways for Israel to express their faith used verbs (‘The One who brought us up out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery’) or adjectives (‘The Lord, The Lord, the gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love…’), not nouns. Is ‘Father’ a divine name? The answer must be yes: consider Dt. 32:6, where God is clearly spoken of as the father of Israel (‘your father, who created you, who made you and established you…’); this usage, however, is obviously – if not metaphorical, at least in some sense non-literal (in fact the fourth-century decision enshrined in orthodox trinitarianism was that all divine names are in some sense non-literal, for some very good reasons) – and God is described as a mother in the Scriptures in just the same way, and probably with a similar frequency. So the OT might invite us to say ‘YHWH is the proper name of God,’ but not ‘Father is the proper name of God’; what of the NT? Jesus certainly names God as ‘Father,’ and that is of course decisive; at the same time, there is a careful inclusion of Jesus himself in narratives of the divine life. This happens in a whole series of ways – see various books by Bauckham or Hurtado – but, to take the two most obvious, Jesus is repeatedly named as kurios, ‘Lord’, the title that translates the divine name YHWH in the OT; and OT confessions of faith in God are expanded to name Jesus alongside the Father (the expansion of the opening clause of the Shema in 1 Cor. 8:6 is perhaps the most obvious example). This creates a problem for us if we say that ‘Father’ is ‘the proper name of God’: if ‘Father’ is the proper name of God, then the Son, Jesus, is not God, because not properly called ‘Father’.  Strikingly, this was almost precisely the argument that was played out in the Cappadocian response to Eunomius, the great anti-Trinitarian heresiarch of the fourth century (he was far more significant than Arius). Eunomius argued, on the one hand, that human words could successfully apply literally to God, and that God’s proper name was ‘the ingenerate One’ – thus suggesting that the Father is truly God, having no origin, whereas the Son, whose essence is to be generated by the Father, is simply not God. Choosing ‘Father’ as the proper name for God leads to exactly the same problem; the Son...

Read More

On Mothering Sunday: Gregory of Nyssa on calling God ‘mother’

Gregory claims that the Bible calls God mother, and so we must be prepared to also.

Read More

On International Women’s Day: Why I can no longer defend the ministry of women in the church

I have defended the ministry of women in the church in public for a while now, including on this blog.

I don’t think I can do it any longer.

Not because of any lack of calling or gifting in their ministry, but because of a lack in mine.

Read More
get facebook like button