Maybe you hopped on board when we launched our Christmas videos, Meet the Nativity. They were seen half a million times, and we gave away 1700 evangelistic books on the back of that campaign.
Maybe you first heard of us through The Gospel in 90 seconds. Again, that video reached half a million people as I talked through the Light, Life and Love of God.
Perhaps you first encountered us this Easter, when we launched 12 videos on the topic of Easter and Comedy. Taking our cue from Easter Sunday being April Fools Day, we explored Easter as the Divine Comedy.
Speaking of Divine Comedy, maybe you picked up our latest evangelistic book. It’ll only take you an hour to read but Andrew Wilson said it’ll take a decade to think through (which I thought was a bit over the top as a commendation, but it’s very nice he said it).
Or maybe we’ve met in person. Recently Speak Life has been on mission to Glasgow, St Andrews, All Souls, Langham Place, Canary Wharf, Brighton, Coleraine and Bangor. In all these places we’ve seen people trusting Jesus for the first time.
At the same time our regular output has blessed thousands each day. From Reading Between the Lines, a daily devotional, to Thorny Questions where Paul Feesey and I tackle big objections to the Christian faith each week. We also record the LIVEcast each Tuesday lunchtime to a live online audience and release it each Friday as a podcast.
That sounds like a lot doesn’t it? It is. And wouldn’t it be a shame to miss all these resources which we offer to you free? As we seek to get in line with GDPR, can you please opt in so that we can keep you informed of our world-reaching resources. Just click on the link below and we’ll sign you up properly. If you haven’t clicked since May, we can’t guarantee that you’ll stay on our lists. So take 30 seconds now, and if you’re in the UK and you add your postal address, we will send you for free a copy of Divine Comedy, to read and give away to friends.
And while we have you, could you consider supporting us at Speak Life? As you can see, we’re pretty active. This is a good investment if you want gospel seed to be sown on many soils. We’re raising funds for an apprentice evangelist – someone who will come alongside Paul and I, learn theologically and practically how to share the gospel and who can serve the ministry in all that we do, in proclamation and media.
Details of how you can support are below.
Moving forwards, look out for my new evangelistic book: Long Story Short. This fun, fast-paced Bible overview is written to introduce the Scriptures to those with no prior experience of Christian faith. We would love to see this resource get into the hands of many and to transform lives. It comes out with Christian Focus Publishing at the end of June.
Finally, will you pray for our team, working hard to make all this happen. As we move towards summer, things will be a little less busy so please pray for recharging and refreshing over the summer and for God to water the seed that’s been scattered that new life might spring up all over the world.
So then… please sign up – or re-sign up – to our mailing list, get your free Divine Comedy, consider donating to our apprentice fund, and share this video with your friends. We’d love to spread the word about these free resources. And until next time, keep speaking life.
The happy ending is justly scorned as a misrepresentation; for the world, as we know it… yields but one ending: death.
― Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces
The ancient Greeks thought of tragedies as “high art” and comedies as “low art.” They reckoned that tragedies were truthful engagements with the world as it is. Comedies, on the other hand, were considered to be frivolous escapes from life’s harsh realities. Still today, ‘Best Picture’ Oscars are much more likely to be awarded to dramas than comedies. We struggle to believe that there’s much depth or reality to comedies. We like them. We just don’t think they’re, well, serious.
Christians, though, should think differently. We ought to take comedies — true comedies anyway — with the utmost seriousness. The Bible, after all, is shaped like a comedy. It gives a blissfully happy ending for embodied, earthly life. While the rest of the world makes its peace with the grave and resigns itself to a tragic fate, Easter ought to make Christians think again. In particular we should have a more sophisticated view of the stories told in the world. We need to realise this: some rib-ticklers are really tragedies; and some tear-jerkers are really comedies.
Some rib-ticklers are really tragedies
Monty Python’s Life of Brian is considered by many the greatest comedy film of all time. I can understand why. The writing and performances are exquisitely crafted. I’ve often used excerpts from the film in sermons because their skewering of the pomposity and absurdity of human religion harks back strongly to the Biblical prophets. It harks back to Jesus himself. Jesus was constantly making fun of the “religious” (see Matthew 6 or Matthew 23 for some scorching take-downs of the first century “Bible-thumpers”).
In its day though Life of Brian drew howls of outrage from many religious conservatives. In Britain, Anglican Bishops appeared on television in their finery to denounce the film and its makers. But I think they may have objected to the wrong thing. Sharp humour is not a problem, or it least it shouldn’t be for those who have read their Bibles. Sharp humour directed at religion is not a problem either, in fact religion is the chief target of satire in the Bible. These aspects of Life of Brian should have been welcomed and celebrated.
Nevertheless there is still a problem with Life of Brian. The problem is not that the film is a comedy. The problem is that the film is not a comedy. It contains moments of pure hilarity but it is unquestionably a tragedy. The hero, Brian, is constantly mistaken for Jesus, and he ends up, like the true Messiah, crucified. Yet for Brian there is no resurrection, no rescue, no happily ever after. Instead there is a chorus of the crucified singing “Always look on the bright side of death, just before you draw your terminal breath.” These are not the words of a comedy. In fact you could not find more quintessentially tragic lines than the ones that end the film: “Life is quite absurd and death’s the final word.”
I submit that Life of Brian should be considered one of the all time great films. But it is not a great comedy. It is, instead, a great tragedy. And I mean that in every sense. It is a rib-tickling tragedy.
Some tear-jerkers are really comedies
The Lord of the Rings is perhaps the mirror image of Life of Brian. Its joyful ending is one to make you cry. That is by design. JRR Tolkien invented a word to describe the classic plot twist where tragedy turns to comedy. He called it a “eucatastrophe”, that is “a good catastrophe.” This is a glorious interruption, upending all our expectations. It’s an asteroid of pure joy landing in the midst of our sorrow. And precisely because it’s an unexpected clash of comedy and tragedy it provokes in us an awesome joy, a tear-filled wonder. It connects with the deepest reaches of the human soul. Tolkien wrote:
“The Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible… and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love.”
Think of John 21. Mary is distraught. She has come to the tomb to be near her Lord. Where have they taken him? All is lost. And then he speaks her name. That is the moment of eucatastrophe. And we can well imagine that now the tears really flow. Before it was an anxious whimper, now they come in waves. Before her chest was tight with fear, now her heart really aches. Before she was just about holding it together, now she falls apart: Joy and Sorrow, lost in Love.
Compare the two kinds of ending. Brian took us on a raucous journey, but we get to the end and realise it was all gallows-humor. Like the anxious man whistling through the graveyard to keep up his spirits, the laughter rings hollow. And it ends all too quickly. This is the human tragedy.
In Return of the King, Tolkien brings us a very different conclusion. Pippin, who may have contributed to Gandalf’s death, looks at him now — this risen lord — and sees the very opposite of hollow laughter:
In the wizard’s face he saw at first only lines of care and sorrow; though as he looked more intently he perceived that under all there was a great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth.
This is Easter laughter and it’s priceless. In a world of laugh-out-loud tragedies, Jesus brings to weak failures like us an ending so good, we might weep. It is our heart’s deepest desire, the world’s true destiny: the tear-filled comedy.
Here’s a collection of quotations from Russell Brand’s compelling ode to the 12 Steps: Recovery.
As Jesus said, “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick.” Brand speaks as someone who knows the power of the sickness and our profound need for a help that comes from beyond.
1. “Here in our glistening citadel of limitless reflecting screens we live on the outside. Today we may awaken and instantly and unthinkingly reach for the phone, its glow reaching our eyes before the light of dawn, its bulletins dart into our minds before even a moment of acknowledgement of this unbending and unending fact: you are going to die.
You and your children and everyone you love is hurtling toward the boneyard, I know you know. We all know but because it yields so few ‘likes’ on Facebook, we purr on in blinkered compliance, filling our days with temporary fixes. A coffee here, an eBay purchase there, a half-hearted wank or a flirt. Some glinting twitch of pleasure, like a silvery stitch on a cadaver, to tide you over. And you’re probably too clever to ‘repose in God’, or to pick up some dusty book where the poetry creaks with loathing for women, or gays or someone. Maybe if quantum physics could come up with some force, or web, or string or something that tethers the mystery to something solid, something measurable, you’d think again but until then there’s nothing but an empty grave and a blank tombstone, chisel poised. So no one’s going to blame you if you perch on a carousel of destructive relationships and unfulfilling work, whirling round, never still, never truly looking
within, never really going home.”
2. “Be honest, have you ever sat down and inventoried all of the things that bug you: the childhood skirmishes; seething stings of patricidal rage; your fury with the government or traffic or global warming or racism, or Apple for continually changing their chargers? When are you planning to become the person you were born to be? To ‘recover’ your connection to an intended path? On holiday? When the kids leave school? When you get a pay rise? Tick-tock, tick-tock, chisel poised.”
3. “Do you have that sense that something is missing? A feeling in your gut that you’re not good enough? That if you tick off some action, whether it’s eating a Twix, buying some shoes, smoking a joint or getting a good job, you will feel better? If you do, it’s hardly surprising because I believe we live in an age of addiction where addictive thinking has become almost totally immersive. It is the mode of our culture. Consumerism is stimulus and response as a design for life. The very idea that you can somehow make your life all right by attaining primitive material goals – whether it’s getting the ideal relationship, the ideal job, a beautiful Berber rug or forty quids’ worth of smack – the underlying idea, ‘if I could just get X, Y, Z, I would be okay’, is consistent and it is quite wrong.
Addiction is when natural biological imperatives, like the need for food, sex, relaxation or status, become prioritized to the point of destructiveness. It is exacerbated by a culture that understandably exploits this mechanic as it’s a damn good way to sell Mars bars and Toyotas. In my own blessedly garish addiction each addictive pursuit has been an act of peculiar faith that the action will solve a problem.”
4. “No wonder people hanker after animalism and raw thrills. No wonder people go dogging, hot real breath on a windscreen, torch lights and head lights searching, huddled strangers clutching in the dark for the piercing relief of orgasm. No wonder people use porn, hunched over a laptop, grasping and breathless, serious and dutiful like a zealous attendant clerk at a futile task. From this form of escape I am not long exempt. I usually laugh afterwards. As soon as the biological objective has been reached I am ejected from the mindless spell. I look down on myself and sometimes enquire out loud, ‘What was that all about?’, like some monkey man coming to consciousness, and I glance back transcended, ‘Was that honestly your best idea at solving the way you
feel? Now get me some tissues and a bible.’”
5. “What are we doing when we’re masturbating? Or swallowing mindless food. Or swilling silly drinks? Who there do we serve? What is the plan?”
6. “What happens when you don’t follow the compulsion? What is on the other side of my need to eat and purge? The only way to find out is to not do it, and that is a novel act of faith.”
7. “Here’s some good news for the fallen, for those of you that are reading this in despair, the junkies, the alkies, the crack-heads, anorexics, bulimics, dyspeptics, perverts, codependent, love-addicted, hopeless cases: I now believe addiction to be a calling. A blessing. I now hear a rhythm behind the beat, behind the scratching discordant sound of my constant thinking. A true pulse behind the bombastic thud of the ego drum. There, in the silence, the offbeat presence of another thing. What could it be, this other consciousness? Just the sublime accompaniment to my growing nails, pumping heart and rushing blood? These physical and discernible bodily phenomena, do they have a counterpart in a world less obvious? Are we addicts like the animals that evidently pre-emptively fled the oncoming tsunami, sensing some foreboding? Are we attuned to prickling signals that demand anaesthesia? What is the pain? What is it? What does it want?”
8. “Where I have found this program most rewarding and yet most challenging is in the way that it has unravelled my unquestioned faith that I was the centre of the universe and that the purpose of my life was to fulfil my drives, or if that wasn’t possible, be miserable about it in colourful and creative ways. So whilst this program will work for you regardless of creed or lack of creed, it will also disabuse you of the notion, however conscious of it you are, that you and your drives are the defining motivations for your life. The reason I worked the 12 Steps was because I was desperate. The reason I continue to is because they have awakened me to the impossibility of happiness based on my previous world view: that I am the centre of the world and that what I want is important.”
9. “My mentor sat and smoked and listened hour after hour while I unloaded the deadening burden… The main thing was there was nothing I said that was too terrible or too trivial to shock or bore him. He identified throughout and through this practical communication an unexpected thing happened: the veil of separation that I had lived my life behind lifted. The tense disconnectedness that I had always felt lifted. It is commonly understood that the opposite of addiction is connection. That in our addictive behaviours we are trying to achieve the connection. Think of it: the bliss of a hit or a drink or of sex or of gambling or eating, all legitimate drives gone awry, all a reach across the abyss, the separateness of self, all an attempt to redress this disconnection.”
10. “I don’t wake up in the morning and think, ‘Wow, I’m on a planet in the Milky Way, in infinite space, bestowed with the gift of consciousness, which I did not give myself, with the gift of language, with lungs that breathe and a heart that beats, none of which I gave myself, with no concrete understanding of the Great Mysteries, knowing only that I was born and will die and nothing of what’s on either side of this brief material and individualized glitch in the limitless expanse of eternity and, I feel, I feel love and pain and I have senses, what a glorious gift! I can relate, and create and serve others or I can lose myself in sensuality and pleasure. What a phenomenal mystery!’ Most days I just wake up feeling a bit anxious and plod a solemn, narrow path of survival, coping. ‘I’ll have a coffee’, ‘I’ll try not to reach for my phone as soon as I stir, simpering and begging like a bad dog at a table for some digital tidbit, some morsel of approval, a text, that’ll do.”
11. “My steps 4 and 5 reveal that I am, when in my addiction, selfish, self-centred and think that all my problems will be solved if I get fame, money, power, plaudits, sex and glory. That I think I am some kind of God/Hitler/Gengis Khan/Jesus figure. And that I can’t cope with this world and its occupants unless I have a hook-up to a great er source of power than my ego can provide. When I confess the details of the trauma I had experienced and the shame that I still felt. When I revealed the things that I never thought I’d tell anybody, I felt relief. I also had to acknowledge my helplessness, my brokenness, my need to change deeply. Through the compassion and love of those I shared with I experienced the power of these principles and the reality of forgiveness, of redemption. I felt willing to change not just my obvious addictive behaviour but also the patterns, thoughts and feelings that had long underwritten them.”
12. “In justifying our misery, we recommit to it. The odyssey of recovery begins in earnest when we become willing to truly change. Not content to rotate the object of addiction, we become ‘entirely ready for God to remove our defects of character.'”
13 “We have been taught that freedom is the freedom to pursue our petty, trivial desires. Real freedom is freedom from our petty, trivial desires.”
14. “Each time I have done it [made amends for past wrongs] I have felt a subtle awe and unbidden tearfulness. I have felt humbled. I have felt the grace that occurs when you decide to put aside your own way of doing things and surrender to another way.”
15. “Carl Jung’s verdict [is] that what chronic addicts need is a spiritual experience and ongoing communal support.”
16. “We’ve learned to live with shame and pain, we’ve learned to live disconnected, cast out of Eden. We have forgotten that we can return. The reason you must tackle your addiction no matter how moderate it may seem or whether it be socially sanctioned is it will, in the end, fail you. Because the drive, the fuel, the impetus behind it is legitimate and it’s goals are legitimate –
connection – in the end it will not settle for a simulacrum. It will be found out.
That’s why you’re lucky if you’re addicted to crack or smack. They are fast-hemorrhaging, fast-failing systems. They provide anaesthetic and distraction but are so bloody medically unsound they are quickly exposed as dupes. Sex and food can sustain a longer masquerade.
Now admittedly you see fewer people hunched over in doorways on ice cream than you do on meth but anyone who knows someone who suffers from an eating disorder will tell you that the sufferer is similarly derelict. And because what we are dealing with is a spiritual condition, a post-religious spiritual calling, the inner condition is what we must address.
When you start to drink, wank, eat, spend, obsess, you have lost your connection to the great power within you the great power in others, the great power in all things. There is something in you speaking to you and you don’t understand it because you’ve never learned its language. So we try to palm it off with porn and consuming but it is your spirit calling and it craves connection. Spend time alone, write, pray, meditate. This is where we learn the language.”
17. [We are all] “trainee corpses.”
18. “There is no freedom without forgiveness.”
19. “You can never quench your spiritual craving through material means.”
20. “We crave connection, but so much of the time we are not alive, neutralized. Who are you when you’re listening to the radio in traffic? You are not you, you are on standby. Mostly we are free-floating and disengaged, lost in the spectacle.”
As Father, Son and Holy Spirit our God is Sender, Sent and Proceeding. His being is irreducibly bound up in sending – in mission. He is the out-ward focussed God, the spreading God. In the words of David Bosch, he is “a Fountain of sending love.
2. Life in God means life on mission.
To be “godly” is to share in God’s own missionary life.
3. The Father is over our missionary efforts.
He is the real One who summons the world to faith in Christ and who orders all things that they might be brought under His feet (Eph 1:10).
4. The Son is the centre of all our missionary efforts (Rom 1:3-4).
He is the One proclaimed – the substance of all our proclamation (Colossians 1:28). Good thing too because He is unbelievably attractive. Speak of Him and you cannot go wrong.
5. The Spirit is the power of all our missionary efforts.
As we go we are ‘clothed with power’ (Luke 24:49). The One whose very nature is to make known the Son is with us and speaks through us.
6. The world is utterly lost.
The natural state of the race of Adam is disconnection from the God of life – it is perishing. It’s hell to be Christless (Ephesians 2:12).
7. The gospel is the power of God for salvation (Rom 1:16).
God is unleashing divine potency as we testify to Christ.
8. In Christ, I’m already who I need to be.
I already am salt and light (Matt 5:13-16). I am a witness (Acts 1:8). I am priestly (1 Peter 2:9). Whether I act on this or not, I don’t have to become evangelistic. In the community of the church, God has made us what we need to be.
9. My greatest problem is not the culture but me.
My flesh is the real enemy to evangelism not lack of evangelistic techniques! My flesh curves me in on myself when mission is to extend myself into the lives of others. My desire for comfort, ease, and approval is what stops me gospelling.
10. Christ has earned me the right to speak.
All authority is Christ’s (Matthew 28:16-18) and he gives it to his people (Matthew 28:19-20). I don’t earn the right to speak, the Risen Jesus has earned it already. “Therefore go!”
11. Giving myself away is the happy life.
As I share Jesus I benefit hugely – I come to appreciate all the good things I have in Christ as I articulate them (Philemon 6). And as I give myself to others I follow in the way of Christ, the way of blessing. (Mark 8:35)
12. Disgrace for the sake of the Name is glorious (Acts 5:41).
There is nothing like evangelism for experiencing standing with Jesus as one chosen out of the world (John 15:18-21).
13. Nothing is neutral (Matt 12:30).
My friends, family, colleagues and the public space is not neutral but conveys spiritual values all the time. I never ‘inject’ God-talk into the world. All talk is god-talk, that is – talk about ultimate spiritual values. I never need to be ashamed that I’m the one forcing spiritual views on another. Such proselytising is a necessary part of all conversation. I may as well bring true God-talk to bear.
14. The Gospel is about everything!
Fundamentally I don’t have to turn the conversation to spiritual things. It’s already spiritual and it has already been addressed by the Father in the Son and by the Spirit. (I just have to figure out how! – but that will come in time.)
15. Church is God’s mission strategy for the world
Christ’s people are already chosen, dearly loved and special in our world-focussed, outward-looking-ness (1 Pet 2:9). I have a whole body – the body of Christ – behind me. In fact no, let me re-phrase. The body of Christ surrounds me as an intrinsically evangelistic organism. The burden is never on my shoulders.
16. The community in its unity is vital (John 13:34-35; John 17:20-26).
Before I have loved the unbeliever, my love of the believer (if done in view of the world) has already witnessed powerfully to Christ.
17. The community in its diversity is vital (Eph 4:10-12; 1 Peter 4:10-11).
I have been uniquely gifted in the evangelistic task and I am surrounded by others (who I need) who are likewise uniquely gifted.
18. I don’t have to be holy first then a missionary.
I strive for holiness in mission. It is the outward-looking holding-up-of-Christ that is the umbrella activity of the Christian under which my holiness is worked out. So we don’t wait to evangelise while we sort out our personal walk. We use mission to conquer those besetting sins and habits (they won’t be properly conquered any other way!).
19. I don’t have to be polished first and then a missionary.
My life on mission is how I am discipled. As I go I learn. And all I really need is the testimony of John 9: “I was blind but now I see.”
20. There is reward for the evangelist!
“Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” (Daniel 12:3)
“I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” (Luke 16:9)
“What is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you?” (1 Thes 2:19)
In my debate with Musharraf Hussein (listen to the audio, read some follow-up reflections here and here) he made the claim repeatedly that Trinity was a late development. He reckoned the doctrine was thrust onto the church by Constantine in the 4th century at the Council of Nicaea.
Such an assertion is not uncommon. The underlying thought is that everyone was unitarian until a few nefarious characters hijacked Christianity. Maybe the chief baddie was Paul, maybe it was Constantine, but somebody sullied the pure doctrine of Tawhid and we had to wait till the 7th century for Muhammad to put people right again.
What’s worrying is that many Christians seem to share similar thoughts about Trinitarian trajectories. Some think that the Old Testament was essentially unitarian but that there was a shift in the 1st century to trinitarianism. If such a position is assumed it becomes difficult to disagree with a Muslim who reckons we should stick to Moses and the Prophets. If unitarianism is original, why complicate matters? And if the New Testament is such a big development/departure, why aren’t there any chapters in Paul’s letters that begin, “Now, regarding the matter of the Trinity. The Spirit has revealed the doctrine in these last days and so we now declare to you what was kept hidden in ages past…” In fact why does no-one ever attempt to teach the Trinity? It’s always just assumed.
I think this tells us that we’ve been working with faulty trajectories.
The faulty Muslim trajectory says:
There’s a foundation of unitarianism and the key date for development was the 4th century. Later, in the 7th century, Islam put things right, returning to Moses’ doctrine of God.
The faulty Christian trajectory says:
There’s a foundation of unitarianism and the key date for development was the 1st century. In the 7th century, Islam failed to follow the new trajectory and remained with Moses’ understanding.
But the true Christian trajectory says:
The foundation is essentially trinitarian (or proto-trinitarian) and the key dates for development were the 2nd and 7th centuries AD when Jewish and then Muslim theologians rejected Christianity. It’s Christianity alone which has maintained Moses’ doctrine of God.
Let me unpack this third position.
Moses’ doctrine of God was of a multi-personal Being. God is one – Moses proclaims it proudly (Deuteronomy 6:4). But this one-ness is a compound unity. Throughout the Old Testament, God approaches people through his Word/ Glory / Angel, who is both from the LORD and is the LORD. (See many Old Testament passages where this truth lies right on the surface). Moses’ doctrine of God is emphatically not Muhammad’s doctrine of God. And nor is it Maimonides’ doctrine of God (Maimonides was a 12th century Jewish theologian heavily influenced by Aristotle and hugely influential on modern day Jewish theology).
The “development” is not from a unitarian Old Testament into a trinitarian New Testament. To think this way is to grant to Muslim and modern Jewish theologians that they are right about Moses but that Christians have departed from him. This is not the way the New Testament argues.
No, trinitarianism is not the development, unitarianism is. In fact, to call it a development is incorrect. Unitarianism is a devolution, a corruption. Alan Segal, a Jewish theologian, wrote The Two Powers in Heaven to show that it was commonplace in the 1st century to believe in Two Powers: the Ancient of Days together with the Son of Man; The Most High God together with His great High Priest, the Word; etc; etc. Such teaching was uncontroversial and promulgated by colossal figures like Philo of Alexandria. It was only in the second century AD that the Jewish authorities, in reaction to Christianity, began to distance themselves from this teaching. Jewish scholars like Segal acknowledge that it was precisely because “Two Powers” theology sounded so Christian that the Jews began to anathematise it.
More and more, those who rejected Christ began to harden against the doctrine of God that Christians were proclaiming (and remember, Christians were proclaiming it from the Hebrew Scriptures). More and more though the enemies of Christianity became anti-trinitarian. It got to the point where, in the 7th century, a new ‘prophet’ arose so opposed to the Trinity he came to the world with a new religious text: one shot through with quips like “Say not three” and “God does not beget, nor is he begotten.” That is the real trajectory for unitarianism – a corruption from Moses’ original doctrine of God, accelerated decisively by the coming of God’s Son in the flesh.
When it comes to grasping Moses, neither Muhammad nor Maimonides are much help. Those thinkers represent a departure from the original teaching of Scripture. The Bible’s bedrock doctrine of God is emphatically not unitarian. This means that as Christians we don’t have to choose between our Hebrew roots and trinitarian theology – they are entirely of a piece. It is modern Judaism and Islam that reckon they have to choose. And in rejecting the Trinity they have lost both Moses and his God.
I made the point that unitarianism (the belief that God’s one-ness is a mathematical singularity) is not obvious. In fact it involves you in the very thing unitarians wish to avoid: idolatry. Either it makes you posit a lifeless, mute, dark God or a needy God or both (read here for those two arguments).
In this post I want to present a third argument for why unitarianism leads to idolatry. It’s all about Jesus.
In our debate, Musharraf claimed that the 4th century council of Nicaea was the place where the Trinity was invented. Or at least Nicaea was where the doctrine was thrust upon the church by Constantine and his romanising influence. Historically this is nonsense. The first three centuries of the New Testament church were thoroughly Trinitarian already. And besides, the whole point of the debate was to say that there wasn’t only three centuries of proto-Nicene theology prior to the council. Actually there were millennia of proto-Nicene theology – from Genesis onwards!
So Nicaea was not an alien development thrust on God’s people. (For more, listen to the debate). Here though I want to raise something else about Nicaea – something I touched on early in our conversation. The problem for the Muslim is that no-one at Nicaea represents anything like the Muslim position. Not Arius, no-one. And no non-Trinitarian Christian prior to Nicaea said anything about doctrine of God that would be remotely acceptable to a Muslim – not the docetics, not the adoptionists, not the Ebionites. No-one who had a ounce of regard for the New Testament or the person of Christ could have a Muslim doctrine of God. Why? Because Jesus.
Even if you were a heretic who conceived of Jesus as a man adopted into the life of God as his Son, you had a far more exalted Jesus than Islam could ever accommodate. And the Jesus that Arius represented at Nicaea was even more exalted than that. Arius claimed:
We know one God – alone unbegotten, alone everlasting, alone without beginning… who begot an only-begotten Son before eternal times, through whom he made the ages and everything.
Here we have an only-begotten Son who is older than the universe and is the mediator of all creation. Remember Arius reliedon passages like Proverbs 8 concerning Wisdom (which everyone at Nicaea agreed referred to the Son). Arius therefore said that, obviously, the Son is a partner with the LORD and works together with him as his Craftsman. From both Old and New Testaments you can’t get around it, there’s something divine about Christ. For Arius he is emphatically a lesser deity. But nonetheless he made the world and is in some sense divine.
That’s the Arian Jesus. That is emphatically not the Muslim Jesus. And it could not be the Muslim Jesus because of the Muslim doctrine of God. For anything like Islam to get off the ground whilst also holding onto Jesus, the history of religions would have to wait a long time. We would have to wait until the biblical Jesus was forgotten. We would have to wait 700 years and move 700 miles south into the desert. There would need to be another book essentially supplanting the Bible – a book which mixes in apocryphal gospels and Talmudic material. This new religion would have to dilute and dilute and dilute the biblical Christ until there was virtually nothing left. Then Islam could accommodate Jesus.
Of course even this Quranic, 1-part-in-1000-diluted-Jesus is still pretty cool. He’s still born of a virgin for goodness sakes. He does incredible miracles. He will judge the world. But over half a millennium after he lived, and with a major rebrand as ‘Isa’, Muhammad just about manages to de-God Jesus. Enough to make him palatable for unitarian consumption anyway. Just about.
(By the way this is the opposite of the mythology that imagines Jesus to have become increasingly deified in the popular imagination as the centuries progressed. In fact the trajectory runs in the other direction. It’s the earliest preaching, creeds, hymns and gospels that speak in the most exalted terms about his deity. People have to forget Jesus and ignore the earliest, most trustworthy sources (the New Testament) in order to make him just a prophet. Those who deal with him up close and personal recognise the enormity of his divine person).
So then, back to Nicaea. There are 318 bishops. 316 of them are against Arius. Now imagine you put a Muslim in a time machine and place them at the council. Whose side should they prefer?
You might imagine that they would prefer Arius. After all it’s Arius who has a doctrine of God that sounds closer to tawhid (the Islamic doctrine of God’s oneness). Remember what Arius said. God is “alone unbegotten, alone everlasting, alone without beginning.” That word “alone” sounds pretty Islamic.
But careful now. Because if our time-travelling Muslim chooses the Arian side, what has he done? He has actually multiplied divine beings. Arius thought of Christ as a divine being subordinate to the Most High. He had to because the biblical material would not let him think any less of the Son. But then, this is the dilemma for any who face up to the Scriptural Christ: Does this divine Son exist within the one divine being of God, or outside? Arius said outside. And so he committed shirk. “Shirk” is the foulest sin in Islam – it means associating partners with God. But that’s what Arius does. Arius is forced to see Christ as another divine being who partners with God in all his work. This is of course completely unacceptable to Muslims. But – here’s the point – it’s completely unacceptable to Christians too.
This is why Arius was condemned. The orthodox bishops at Nicaea were adamant that there are not multiple divine beings. There is only one God. The Son is not a second, lesser deity who the Almighty uses in creation and redemption. The Son is “of one being with the Father” as the creed says. The ‘partnership’ of Father and Son is not of two beings. Christians are revulsed by the thought, just as Muslims are. But the fact remains, the Scriptures speak of some kind of ‘partnership.’ The LORD creates through his Wisdom, the Most High reveals himself through his Sent One, the Ancient of Days rules through his Son of Man. You cannot get around this if you’re at all honest in your reading of the Bible. But Nicaea is insisting that what we see in this union is not the interaction of two deities – a greater and a lesser one. Blasphemy! Orthodox Christians have always condemned Arianism because it multiplies gods. Heresy! No, God is one. The doctrine of the Trinity insists on it. The doctrine of the Trinity upholds it. Therefore a Nicene reading of Scripture is the one that is true to monotheism. When a Nicene theologian reads these Scriptures about the Ancient of Days and his Son of Man, she sees a Father-Son union that is the very essence of God’s unbreakable oneness. It’s the doctrine of the Trinity that keeps us from shirk.
So this is the choice you must make. Once you take Jesus seriously – once you take him Scripturally – you must either become Trinitarian, seeing him as internal to the unique and unified divine identity, or you must put him outside that identity. If you do the latter, you make for yourself another god.
I genuinely mean both sides of these tweets. I really did learn from Musharraf. I was struck by his regular quoting of Muslim scripture. It showed a real trust in the authority of his scriptures rather than simply the cleverness of his arguments. I should have done more of that.
I went into the debate with the intention of discussing some specific Scriptures from Genesis and Daniel. I wanted to show how, in its own context, the Old Testament speaks of a multi-personal doctrine of God. “The Angel of the LORD” (in Genesis) and “the Son of Man” (in Daniel) are titles for the pre-incarnate Christ and if we take the Old Testament Scriptures seriously then we must see that in their own context they proclaim the compound unity God.
When it came to it though, I spoke more generally about the whole sweep of Scripture because I felt I didn’t want to get bogged down in one particular verse. But maybe the problem was with me. “Bogged down”, eh? The Bible doesn’t bog us down, does it? I probably should have approached the debate as intended and brought the specific Scriptures to bear, pressing home their implications. Ah well. Regrets!
On the other hand I hope that Musharraf, and other Muslims listening in, would also learn from the debate. In particular I would love Muslims to consider whether the Muslim doctrine of God is itself incoherent or even idolatrous.
Idolatrous? Yes, let me show how Islam’s unitarian doctrine of God actually makes the Muslim guilty of the very last crime they wish to commit. Tawhid – the Muslim doctrine of God’s mathematical oneness – entails shirk – the sin of associating partners with Allah, i.e. idolatry. This is true in three ways. In today’s post let me show two reasons the Muslim commits idolatry and then next week, I’ll unpack the third reason.
The Muslim Doctrine of God (tawhid) entails the sin of idolatry (shirk) because:
The Bible says that Christ is God’s eternal Word (John 1:1); His eternal Radiance (Hebrews 1:3); His eternal Son (John 17:24). This means that God has always been expressing himself, always shining, always giving life. If God’s eternal being does not include this expression/shining/life-giving then it would make God mute, dark and lifeless. The Bible has a name for gods who are mute, dark and lifeless. It calls them idols.
A Muslim may respond to the above by saying that Allah’s attributes include self-expression, radiance, life-giving, etc. The mathematically singular Allah does not need a Son or Spirit in order to be communicative, or so the argument goes. Unfortunately for the Muslim this doesn’t work. If Allah is essentially communicative then he is incomplete until he shares himself with creation. If he is essentially loving and merciful (as the Quran says) then he needs creatures to be loving and merciful towards. But the Bible has a name for gods who are needy. It calls them idols.
Either Allah is needy and can, through the help of creation, communicate/shine/give life, or Allah is not needy and is shut up within himself as a mute, dark, lifeless god. He could be one kind of false god or another kind of false god. But, having rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, the Muslim God can never be anything but an idol.
Listen to the debate when it’s out and, next week, I’ll write some more here reflecting on the very different doctrines of God which Christianity and Islam proclaim.
So far 367000 people have retweeted it. That’s a very decent response. Certainly better than violence. Cvjetanovic has used his freedom of speech and freedom of assembly to espouse race-based garbage. Having done so he is not free from the consequences of that speech and that assembly. He has lived by the angry torch-lit protest, now he dies (figuratively) by the angry torch-lit tweet-storm. There’s a poetic justice there.
But is that our only reaction to Peter Cvjetanovic? If so I hazard to suggest that it won’t solve the problem of racism. Because what is racism? It’s basically the most naked and vulgar expression of “the flesh.” The Bible uses the word “flesh” to describe our natural instinct to raise ourselves up rather than pour ourselves out. It’s been said that you understand “flesh” when you knock off the last letter and read it backwards. Flesh is all about self. I trust myself, I serve myself, I strengthen myself, I assert myself, I boast in myself – this is the flesh and it sticks to me like skin to my bones.
Racism is the most obvious expression of “the flesh”. “The flesh” says: “I’m OK, I’m secure, I have an identity because of something in me, something you don’t have.” The flesh raises itself up, over against others, in order to make a name for itself. To be driven by the flesh you could point to your own achievements, intelligence, ideology, looks, strength, gender, sexuality, wealth, fame, influence – you could point to anything in you and that would be “the flesh.” But there’s nothing more obviously carnal than pointing to your own skin and saying “Look! Look at my flesh! It’s right there on the surface. I’m somebody because I’m white.” That’s pathetic. It’s tragic. It’s diabolical. It’s the flesh undisguised.
But it’s also why racism will not be fought simply by shaming. Exposure is good. Exposure helps. It brings the darkness out into the light. But shame-storms? Not so much. Why? Because we enjoy them too much. There is a deep part of us – mostly hidden, largely unacknowledged – that’s glad Peter Cvjetanovic exists. I mean he’s perfect – right down to his pasty torchlit face and immaculate side-parting. Twitter asks us, relentlessly: “Do you condemn Peter Cvjetanovic and all his ilk?” Gladly, we cry as we slam ‘RETWEET.’ Job done. Good Guys 367000, Racists 0.
But what’s happened to our flesh – our own flesh? This is important because it’s not just the flesh in Charlottesville that needs condemning. The flesh in me needs to be condemned too. And something else needs to take hold or else the whole world is doomed to replay the carnage of this last weekend, both offline and on. So let me suggest a three-fold response:
First, expose the darkness.
Yes indeed, retweet the photo if you like. And certainly call evil “evil” because racism is definitely evil. But then also…
Second, admit that I am part of the problem.
I wouldn’t join this march, but like Peter Cvjetanovic’s namesake I’ve warmed myself by fires that I shouldn’t have in order to find acceptance. I too have taken the easy route, fallen in with the wrong crowd and trusted in unworthy grounds for my sense of self. I too seek an identity in ways that make me despise and diminish others. Maybe it’s because of my progressiveness, my piety, my pure theology, who knows but I too have flesh and that flesh needs condemning.
Third, admit that he is part of the human race.
Cvjetanovic is not a different species. He’s me. We don’t like to think this way. Miroslav Volf said that ordinarily “I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners.” We must do the opposite. Having included myself in the community of sinners, I also need to include Cvjetanovic in the community of humans. Which means, having condemned the evil of racism, I pray for the poor bigot.
Maybe something like this:
Dear Lord Jesus, we have seen this weekend the fig leaves stripped away and the flesh in all its horror. We grieve. Lord have mercy.
We desperately need your grace because we all warm ourselves by the wrong fires, we all trust in the wrong saviours, we all condemn the wrong things – our neighbours and not our sins. We live by the flesh and we ought to die by the flesh.
But Lord Jesus, you took our flesh and you took our sin. You gave yourself to a torch-lit mob, you were convicted by an unjust system, you were shamed by hate-filled crowds, you were torn apart by the politics of envy and pride. Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned you stood, sealed my pardon with your blood: Hallelujah, what a Saviour!
Lord, reveal yourself again to my heart. Assure me that my flesh is condemned in your cross and my life is hidden in your risen glory. May I know myself crucified with you and therefore dead to the flesh.
Reveal yourself to Peter and to all those swept up in this false gospel of flesh-righteousness.
Reveal yourself to a world so intent on justifying self and shaming others.
As you once revealed yourself through the mob, the hatred, the darkness and the death of Golgotha, reveal yourself again – through your gospel, through your people, even through me. Amen.