Dr John Dickson

Australian thinker, writer, and speaker — public advocate for the Christian Faith

Do the Healings of Jesus Provide a Program for Today? Yes and No.

The historical evidence for Jesus’ healings (already examined) is clear, and most experts today, whether religious or not, agree that he must have performed deeds which others deemed ‘miracles’. But what was the meaning of the healings, in the mind of Jesus himself? For this, we have good evidence. 

Jesus’ deeds are portrayed in our texts as a sign within history of the restoration of all things at the end of history. Jesus’ power over sickness, evil, and nature are a preview, you might say, of God’s coming kingdom. This is a point Jesus himself makes at the end of a dispute with the Pharisees (a strict sect of first-century Jews) in the Gospel of Matthew: “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Matthew 12:22–28) The same statement is found in Luke 11:20, meaning it derives from the early source (shared by Matthew and Luke) known to scholars as Q, from the German word Quelle or 'source'.

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Healing the Blind

(Duccio, 13th century)

Usually, the “kingdom of God” mentioned in this source is a future reality. It refers to the moment when all creation will be brought into conformity with the wise and loving purposes of the Creator. The technical word for this is eschatology. Justice will reign, peace will ensue, and all nature will thrive and flourish. In the well-known Lord’s Prayer (or “Our Father”), for instance, Jesus taught his disciples to pray “Your kingdom come,” a plea for God’s dominion over the world to come soon.

In the passage just quoted, however, Jesus describes that kingdom as present in some way in his ministry of healing and exorcism: “the kingdom of God has come upon you,” he says. What was usually described by Jesus (and other biblical writers) as an ultimate future reality is glimpsed, he reckoned, in his startling deeds. The renowned classicist and historian of religion David Flusser (a Jew not a Christian) puts the point well in his study of Jesus’ life:

[Jesus] established his claim to the eschatological office by pointing to his preaching of salvation and to his supernatural works of healing. Jesus saw these things as an unmistakable sign that the era of salvation had already dawned.
— (Flusser, The Sage of Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius, 28)

According to Christian Scripture, only in the final kingdom of God will there be no more pain, death, and discord. As the second-to-last chapter of the New Testament envisions: "He [God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." (Revelation 21:4)

What is promised in prophecy and vision here in the book of Revelation (and elsewhere) was, the Gospels say, temporarily experienced within history in the ministry of Jesus: evil was overthrown, frail bodies were restored, and nature itself was put right. The “kingdom of God” had in miniature come upon them. And, as we have seen, it left its mark throughout the ancient sources. As much as the miracles point to Jesus’ compassion and authority, more fundamentally they preview the renewal of all things in the kingdom to which Jesus invited his hearers.

Miracles Today?

For Christian believers in my readership I should probably add that I do believe that God in his mercy chooses to heal people today—sometimes through prayers, sometimes without them. He did this in Old Testament times; he will do it in contemporary times, the New Testament assures us (e.g., James 5:14–16). In my view, the many fully verified unexplained medical recoveries are the “miraculous” work of the Creator, whether or not the people involved are Christians, or prayed.

But I want to stress this is not what the Gospels are trying to teach us in their accounts of Jesus’ miracles (nor is it a point I wish to stress in a book like this). What Jesus did within history was not a program that is meant to be enacted in the ongoing life of the church; it is rather a window into a future kingdom that is hoped for and proclaimed by the church.

The purpose of Jesus’ startling deeds was not to evoke a belief in miracles today but rather to inspire a longing for the day when God’s kingdom comes fully upon the world. That’s the perspective of the Gospels. Throughout history, Christian faith has always involved a restless hope—a hope captured perfectly in the prayer “Your kingdom come!” The previews of the kingdom glimpsed in Jesus’ miracles has typically made Christ’s followers dissatisfied with the way things are and desperate for the way things Christ said they would one day be. Christian hope is thus confident but restless: it praises God for the preview (in Jesus’ life) and pleads him for the finale (in the “kingdom come”), when evil will be overthrown, humanity healed, and creation itself renewed.

Throughout the ages this restless hope has also inspired diligent work while waiting. Christians pray not only “Your kingdom come,” but also “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In theory—and others can judge if this is worked out in practice—people who have glimpsed the future in the healing deeds of Jesus commit themselves to serving the world, just as he did, in whatever way they can this side of the kingdom. They relieve suffering at every opportunity and resist evil wherever they see it. The creation of Christian hospitals and hospices in fourth-century AD Rome and the (largely Christian) movement to abolish slavery in eighteenth-century England were, in part, motivated by this ancient (theo)logic.

Recently I was in Rome shooting scenes for a documentary (on this mixed history of the church) about a remarkable woman who, while virtually unknown today, was amongst the most notable women of the fourth century. Fabiolo was born into one of the founding families of Rome and was one of the capital’s wealthiest people. She suffered greatly in an abusive marriage, before gaining rare permission to divorce her husband and begin again. At some point she met Christians, who by this period could be found in all ranks of imperial society. She heard the news about Christ, and devoted herself to the powerful, tender Master we read about in the Gospels. What Fabiola did next was extraordinary.

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Fabiola of Rome

(died AD 399)

 Fabiola sold her entire holdings, turned it into cash, and devoted herself, and all her resources, to assisting the poor and sick of Rome. She established what may well have been the first public hospital in history. Hospitals were part of the military apparatus of the empire, of course, but the idea of throwing open the doors of medical care to the whole population was novel. Remarkably, she tended to people not just with her money but with her own hands. “How often she carried on her own shoulders poor filthy wretches tortured by epilepsy!” wrote an eyewitness and friend. “How often did she wash away the purulent [pussy] matter from wounds which others could not even endure to look at! She gave food with her own hand, and even when a man was but a breathing corpse, she would moisten his lips with drops of water.” She expanded her operation. “Rome was not large enough for her kindness. She went from island to island, and travelled round the Etruscan Sea, bestowing her bounty” (Jerome, Letters. Translated by F. A. Wright. Loeb Classical Library 262. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1933, 77.6).

In this sense Jesus’ healing ministry recorded in the Gospels did provide a program for the church in society—not in the ministry of “faith healers” but in practical attempts to repair what is broken in the world. The logic is simple: we might not yet possess all the resources of the “kingdom come” but we do know its aims—to renew human life and put an end to evil—and these aims shape what we strive for here and now. That is the theory. I am painfully aware the church hasn’t always lived up to its confession of Jesus the Healer.

This is an excerpt from A Doubter's Guide to Jesus, out February 2018 

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Equal and Opposite Errors about Jesus

It is hard to imagine a more obvious statement about Jesus than that he was a teacher. Many of his sayings have become proverbial in English, used regularly without any remembrance of where they come from: “salt of the earth,” “love thy neighbour,” “do unto others,” “the good Samaritan,” “prodigal son,” “blind leading the blind,” “judge not, lest you be judged,” “the one who lives by the sword, dies by the sword,” “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” “cast the first stone,” “eat, drink, and be merry,” “sign of the times,” “go the extra mile,” and so on. Recently, I met with an Australian politician who explained how he has “always tried to live by the famous John F. Kennedy quotation, ‘To the one who has been given much, much is required.’” He was surprised—and delighted—to learn that JFK got it from Jesus!

But there are two equal and opposite mistakes people make when thinking about the man Jesus. The first is made by the general public, the second by Christians.

Probably the most enduring image of Jesus in contemporary society is that of a teacher. If he is thought of at all, he is viewed as the archetypal wise man, someone who left behind great words to follow, a kind of Gandhi-figure. This was brought home to me powerfully when I took part in a discussion about Jesus some years ago on Triple J radio, the young and hip station of Australia’s national broadcaster. The last twenty minutes of the show was talkback. Callers were invited to ring in and tell us what they thought of Jesus, or ask me any questions. I braced myself for the worst. To my delight, every caller—and there must have been ten—liked Jesus. What the callers especially appreciated were his teachings, the way he critiqued religious authority, demanded peace, and preached love and tolerance toward all classes of people. We could, in fact, have been talking about Gandhi!

None of the callers mentioned Jesus’ healings or his claim to be the Messiah, God’s Son. There was nothing about his death on the cross or reported resurrection to life. Jesus the teacher was the only thing on the table.

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Jesus Teaches

14th-century Fresco

This is the first mistake people make in assessing Jesus: They so magnify his role as teacher that they end up diminishing, or ignoring altogether, some of the most striking and indispensable features of the Jesus of history. The result is a truncated Jesus; a Jesus of my preference and imagination.

This singular emphasis in our culture on Jesus as a teacher can be traced to a French philosopher and historian Joseph Ernest Renan (1823–92) who published his Life of Jesus in 1863 to much acclaim. Renan stripped Jesus of theological grandeur and cast him as a charming moral teacher whose morality was so strict he lost popularity and was eventually rejected. You have probably never heard of Renan but his idea entered our world as a cultural “meme” that is now very popular. Experts today, however, think of Renan’s portrait of Jesus as one-dimensional. It is a classic example of projecting our own values onto a historical figure. As a philosopher of the Enlightenment, Renan fashioned his “preferred” Jesus: a teacher of humanist values.


Joseph Ernest Renan


    (1823 - 1892)

Equally flawed is the Christian (especially Protestant) overreaction to the general public’s teacher-Jesus. In seeking to affirm his climactic role as the Saviour who died and Lord who rose again, some in the modern church so downplay his role as teacher that he becomes almost unrecognisable as the Jesus of the Gospels, the Jesus of history. The conviction that he is more than a teacher can lead to the practical conclusion that he is hardly a teacher at all. The teachings recorded throughout the middle chapters of the Gospels come to be thought of as a mere precursor to the real ministry of Christ recorded in the final chapters.

Even at theological college we were frequently told that almost a quarter of each of the four Gospels is given over to describing Jesus’ death and resurrection. Mark’s Gospel, in particular, was described to us as a “Passion narrative with extended introduction.” It was not until years later that it dawned on me: If 25 percent of each Gospel is concerned with Jesus’ death and resurrection, this means 75 percent is concerned with his life and teaching!

I certainly want to affirm that Jesus’ death and resurrection are presented in the earliest Christian sources as his crowning achievements, and I will have a lot more to say about these in the rest of the book. All I am saying at this point is that, although Jesus was more than a teacher, he nevertheless was a teacher. Historically speaking, Jesus’ fame as a teacher is one of the most prevalent themes of the ancient sources.

This is an excerpt from A Doubter's Guide to Jesus - released Feb 2018

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Is History Real?

For the last decade or so I have worn a silver denarius around my neck. This Roman coin was roughly equivalent to a “day’s wages” in the first-century—and a bit more today. Mine has the image of Emperor Tiberius on the front (the obverse) and his mother Livia on the back (the reverse). That tells us it was struck sometime between AD 14-37 (in the mint of Lyon, it turns out), because the dates of Tiberius’ reign are precise and certain. I wear this little piece of Roman history partly for sentimental reasons. It’s the coin Jesus of Nazareth held up—I mean the denomination not the very coin—when he was cornered over whether Jews in Judaea and Galilee should pay taxes to Rome. “Who’s image and inscription is this?,” he asked as he held up a denarius. “Caesar’s”, they answered. “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” he famously replied, “and to God what is God’s!” It is a very clever reply, with all sorts of fascinating implications about the separation of church and state. And my ancient pendant has led to some fun conversations over the years, usually after someone asks, “What’s that around your neck, a Saint Christopher or something?”

                                                                                                 Denarius of Tiberus (AD 14-37)

                                                                                                 Denarius of Tiberus (AD 14-37)

I also wear this artefact for more intellectual reasons. It is a powerful reminder to me that the ancient past is as real and solid—or was as real and solid—as this lump of metal around my neck. I often take it in my fingers and let my imagination run wild: Perhaps a worker was handed this after a brutal twelve-hour shift in the ash mines of Naples. Maybe a Senator tossed it to his musicians after a particularly pleasing performance of the ‘Song of Sicilus’ (a hit in the day, whose key line was “Enjoy life while you’ve got it”). What groceries did my coin buy? How many goblets of wine were drunk at its expense, in how many different cities? What sordid dealings did it pay for? Was it ever stolen? And who was the poor mug that eventually lost it in the dirt, to be recovered almost twenty centuries later? 

Our speculations could abound, of course. But my point is more substantial: the work, lives, loves, music, food, scandals, and accidents of the first century were once just as real as the coin around my neck, and just as tangible as anything we smell, taste, touch, hear, and see today. 

My coin is a kind of bridge back in time. Its inscriptions reveal how the Romans viewed their emperors: divi Augusti filius, son of the god Augustus (Tiberius’ adoptive father). The portraiture is semi-realistic: each emperor looks completely different, and they are mostly pretty ugly (Google: ‘Emperor Nero denarius’). It probably seems sweet that Tiberius put his mum on the back of his coins, idealized as the goddess Pax (‘Peace’). But it’s complicated. He might have owed her, since rumours abounded that she had got rid of a couple of potential rivals. More concretely, her presence on such a widely used coinage underlines what ancient written sources all affirm: this woman was a serious player in the politics of Rome, from the time she divorced her first husband to marry Augustus in 39 BC through to her death in AD 29. All of this stuff we can say we ‘know’ beyond doubting. 

History is real. It isn’t Middle Earth or “a galaxy far, far away.” It is part of the story of this same planet earth we inhabit today. And all of us are biologically linked to people who lived in the same period (and perhaps even place) that we’re exploring in this book. Each of us has a great, great grandmother (x ~40) who lived, worked, hoped, ached, and laughed at the very time (late 20s AD) when Livia died, Tiberius ruled, Pontius Pilate harassed the residents of Judea, Jesus taught crowds in Galilee, and the prolific Roman author Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) was starting primary school. 

History is not just real; it is knowable. Not fully knowable, of course. Probably less than 1% of ancient remains remain today. But 1% is enough to provide precious insight into the real lives of first-century men and women.

Try this thought-experiment  ... (more to come)


By Dr John Dickson (St Andrew’s Anglican Church, Roseville) 

A PDF of this blog can be downloaded here.

The classical, or traditional, view of marriage is not dumb or mean. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. And nor is it particularly religious, even though it coincides with what the major Faiths teach.

The clearest arguments for preferring the classical notion of marriage have not received much airtime. This is perhaps because those arguments seem merely academic compared to the heartfelt appeals of YES-campaigners and the serious concerns of the NO-campaigners. And I sincerely hope my attempt to rehearse some more abstract reasonings don’t disregard the very real hopes and fears of our community.

If the polls are right, a change to Australian marriage law is only a matter of time. I, for one, won’t be grumpy about that. The benefits of living in a liberal democracy far outweigh any angst people may have over losing an argument like this. I also hope and pray that if same-sex marriage is legalized it will make a positive impact on the mental health outcomes of the LGBTI community.

My purpose in outlining the classical case for marriage isn’t to bolster the NO-campaign. It is to clarify why being un-persuaded about same-sex marriage is not necessarily thoughtless or heartless. What follows, then, is a kind of ‘eulogy’ for traditional marriage, a tribute to a venerable idea that seems to have failed to commend itself to a majority of Australians. 

1. Equality in marriage

Many who disagree with the concept of same-sex marriage still feel the force of the key argument in its favour. If marriage is a bond of love between two adults, it makes perfect sense to extend the legal definition of marriage to include couples of the same sex. After all, same-sex love is just as real as the love between people of the opposite sex. Given this fact, and assuming marriage is just a bond of adult love, same-sex marriage follows as a matter of logic, and of justice.

But while everyone can (and should) accept that same-sex love is as important as heterosexual love, many do not believe that marriage should be thought of simply as a bond of love between adults. Many see marriage as definitionally connected to the one kind of human bond that can (at least in principle) create children. In other words, it is the union of a man and a woman. This emphasis on ‘procreation’ can, of course, be questioned: What about the elderly or infertile couple? I will try answer this below. But the key point remains: If we think of marriage as linked in some way to procreation, same-sex marriage just doesn’t follow, either as logic or justice. Rejecting same-sex marriage involves no judgement about the quality of same-sex love, let alone homophobia. It simply acknowledges that same-sex couples are a different kind of human bond, one that doesn’t have the defining characteristic of marriage.

Every definition of marriage excludes bonds of love that don’t fit the definition. For example, the proposed redefinition of marriage will still exclude polyamorous unions (not to be confused with polygamy). The loving bond of a bisexual man and his male and female lovers will be excluded from any definition that insists marriage can only be between two people. But this ‘exclusion’ does not involve a negative judgement about bisexuality or the quality of polyamorous love. It simply follows from the two-person definition of marriage. In exactly the same way, excluding same-sex couples from marriage isn’t a judgement about the quality of same-sex love. It is a logical consequence of the opposite-sex definition of marriage.

The question is: What is the best definition of marriage—is it a bond of love between adults (of either sex) or the union of a man and a woman?

2. The universality of marriage

All cultures we know anything significant about have affirmed the same core idea of marriage, as the union of a man and a woman. Evidence of any other concept of marriage is entirely lacking from the historical record, despite unsourced claims to the contrary. Even in polygamous cultures, where an elite male takes several wives, the classical definition of marriage is still operating: the man is thought to have several separate marriages, each involving a union between just one man and just one woman.

The customs and laws surrounding marriage have, of course, differed over time and throughout cultures. But the central idea of marriage is universal.

The ancient Roman view of marriage offers a helpful illustration. The Romans were famously open to same-sex relationships—perhaps more than we are today—but they did not entertain the idea of the ‘marriage’ of people of the same sex. This was not because of ‘homophobia’! It was simply because they saw marriage as a unique class of human bond that could (in principle) create and raise shared offspring. Consider the words from a treatise on marriage by the first-century philosopher Musonius Rufus, known as the ‘Socrates of Rome’, a pagan not a Christian:

“The husband and wife should come together for the purpose of making a life in common and of procreating children, and furthermore of regarding all things in common between them, and nothing peculiar or private to one or the other, not even their own bodies. In marriage there must be, above all, perfect companionship and mutual love of husband and wife, both in health and in sickness and under all conditions, since it was with desire for this as well as for having children that both entered upon marriage.”
(Musonius Rufus, Fragments, 13A).

The quotation puts the lie to the common claim that ancient marriage was all about property, inheritance, and the power of men! There is no denying that patriarchy and hierarchy coloured ancient marriage—along with everything else—but the ideal for the Romans, as for other cultures, was the loving mutuality of a man and a woman as the proper context for raising shared offspring. That’s what marriage was about.

These notions probably sound religious, almost biblical. Similar ideas are indeed introduced in the book of Genesis (Gen 1:27-28; 2:21-24) and reaffirmed by Jesus himself (Matthew 19:4-6). But this is simply because all cultures shared the same perspective. What’s more, the Bible itself makes clear that marriage is not a religious practice, only for the faithful, but a common Good given by the Creator for the benefit of all cultures.

What is the significance of noting this unanimous opinion of history? Certainly not to offer an ‘argument from tradition’, the assertion that things should ‘remain the same’ because ‘they’ve always been that way’. The point is more substantial. When humans throughout history have agreed about a central feature of life, it should at least give us pause to ask: Why? What did the rest of humanity see that we have missed? As G.K. Chesterton famously quipped, “Never move a fence until you know why it was put there.”

It is not difficult to discover why diverse cultures put the same ‘fence’ in place. There is, at least, some logic and good intention behind the tradition.

3. The logic of marriage

It is perhaps the most basic truth of our existence that everyone comes into the world through the union of one man and one woman. All societies observed this fact and highlighted the male-female bond as a bedrock reality by giving it the unique title ‘marriage’. This is why marriage has exactly the three defining features it does: (1) two people, (2) of the opposite sex, (3) who intend to stay together. All three features are logically interconnected as the only way to hope that new human beings will be raised by the people directly responsible for their existence. If that’s worth hoping for, classical marriage makes sense.

Traditional societies did not wait for children to be born to a couple before they declared them ‘married’. Nor were they unaware that some marriages did not produce offspring. Yet, it was equally obvious that this is the only kind of human bond that can, and usually does, create children. Couples that were infertile or elderly were still considered ‘married’, because the term wasn’t a description of the outcome of the union but a marker of the kind of union it was. There is only one class of human bond that can, even in principle, create and raise shared offspring. All male-female unions were known as ‘marriage’ for the simple reason that all such unions—whether or not they produced children—pointed to the incomparable Good that is inherent to the male-female bond, in a way that isn’t the case (by definition) for same-sex bonds. The common claim that we cannot link marriage to procreation because some marriages can’t have children misunderstands the classical view. 

4. The good in marriage

But why should any of this matter? Even if it is admitted that there is a certain logic to the traditional understanding of marriage, why fight to preserve that understanding when it exacerbates feelings of exclusion among LGBTI Australians?

The answer turns on how important we think it is that new members of the human family are raised by the two people responsible for their existence—for their DNA, physiology, personality, and genealogical history. If we decide that this is not especially important, there will be little motivation to preserve the classical use of the term ‘marriage’. If, on the other hand, we think that—all things being equal—kids raised by their mother and father is an incomparable moral and social Good (for children, parents, and society), it makes sense to reserve the title ‘marriage’ for the only kind of union that is inherently capable of this Good, intrinsically oriented toward it, and usually achieves it.

A unique bond serving a unique Good warrants a unique title. Redefining marriage to mean just ‘a bond of adult love’ removes the very thing that made marriage a bedrock institution in the first place (the in-principle capacity to create and raise shared children), and so diminishes the place given to marriage in our society. Just as the well-intentioned school policy that “every child gets an award” can, over time, water down the very notion of an award, so including any loving adult relationship as ‘marriage’ diminishes the notion of marriage itself. This is not because same-sex love is inferior to heterosexual love. It is because same-sex couples do not serve the same (in-principle) goal as couples of the opposite sex.

None of this questions same-sex couples adopting children. Adoption almost always benefits children, and so is almost always a good thing. But single people can also adopt, as can de facto couples. This doesn’t make the adults involved ‘married’. As I have said, marriage doesn't refer to the outcome of having children in a household. It is the marker of a unique class of relationship that embodies a unique hope—that a child would know and be known by the two people who brought her into the world, and love and be loved by those very same people. If that hope really matters, so does classical marriage.


My purpose in writing this ‘eulogy’ to traditional marriage is simply to highlight that disagreeing with the concept of same-sex marriage is not necessarily thoughtless and heartless. It arises from an abiding conviction that societies are enhanced by giving more (not less) emphasis to the most basic unit of human community: the one kind of human bond inherently oriented toward raising shared offspring. We can, and should, affirm same-sex couples for the inherent goods they represent (love, joy, intimacy, and more) but, like the ancient Romans, we should be able to honour such relationships without redefining the bedrock institution of marriage in a way that sidelines the very thing that makes it bedrock.

Whatever happens in the coming months, we should give each other permission to profoundly disagree about these important matters and strive to respect and understand each other all the same. We all still have to get along the day after any new legislation.

Is Jesus Missing from the Oxford Classical Dictionary? Or, Why Internet Scepticism is Sometimes Really Dumb.

John Loftus is a former evangelical theology student who lost his faith and started the popular atheist blog “Debunking Christianity”. A few weeks ago, he published a piece by a regular contributor Harry McCall, whom Loftus describes as “having a background in high-level biblical scholarship.” McCall’s article questions the existence of Jesus—of course—under the headline, “For the fourth time Jesus fails to qualify as a historical entry in The Oxford Classical Dictionary (OCD).” 

After building up the importance of the OCD (quite rightly) as the “ultimate work on the classical world”, the author points out that the editors of the newly published 4th edition of the dictionary fail to give Jesus an entry—as they do for thousands of other historical figures from Graeco-Roman antiquity, such as Julius Caesar, Cicero, and so on. There is an entry on ‘Christianity’, of course, but even here, so McCall tells us, the entry highlights the many unknowns in the expansion of the new religion. “In conclusion,” he declares with innocent delight, “while Christian apologists may find proof of Jesus as a historical figure in a few Classical authors, the professional editors and contributors of this long standing ultimate reference work on the classical world would strongly disagree!” 

Whether ignorance, deliberate deception, or just good old-fashioned dogmatic blindness, this line of reasoning provides an unhappy window into much that is wrong with evangelical atheism. John Loftus knows more about Christianity than the average atheist. He should know better than to give airtime to the intellectual gibberish of Harry McCall.

The following critique is not really intended as a rebuttal of the arguments of Loftus and McCall—which cannot be taken seriously—but, rather, as an illustration of the absence of truth-telling in much internet scepticism. 

The difference between classical and Near Eastern studies

First, while comprehensive for the Greek and Roman worlds, the Oxford Classical Dictionary has very little interest in events or figures of what is called the ancient Near East (Israel, Syria, Nabatea, and so on). Jesus is formally part of that history not Graeco-Roman history. In the Oxford tradition, especially, the ‘classical world’ is a wholly different subject area from that of Near Eastern and Jewish studies (or what is sometimes called Oriental studies). Oxford University, for example, the publisher of this famous academic dictionary, has a Faculty of Classics which deals with Greece and Rome and a Faculty of Oriental Studies which treats Israel, Mesopotamia, and so on. It was this latter faculty that was home to one of the great Jesus scholars of the last 40 years, Professor Geza Vermes. McCall and Loftus show no awareness of this basic division in the study of the ancient world. (My own university, by the way, Macquarie University, seeks to bridge this divide with its Ancient History Department, where students can study both the Classical and Near Eastern / Jewish worlds within a single program. But we are special!).

Other certain figures without entries in the OCD

Secondly, illustrative of this academic division between classical and oriental studies, especially at Oxford, is the fact that the Oxford Classical Dictionary fails to give entries on a multitude of important figures from ancient Israel, Syria, Nabatea, and so on, people who certainly existed. Some Jewish figures appear in the OCD, on account of their direct involvement in the affairs of Greece and Rome (Herod and Philo, for example), but the vast majority of significant historical figures in Judea and Galilee fail to get their own entry. I am thinking of Caiaphas, the high priest of Israel at the time of Jesus. Or Izates, the king of Adiabene who along with his mother Helena were the most famous converts to Judaism in the period and whose tombs in Jerusalem can be visited to this day. Then there’s the 1st-century BC tyrant king and high priest Alexander Jannaeus, whose coins are littered throughout archaeological digs in the region. Then there are the leading rabbis of the period, Hillel, Shammai, and Gamaliel, or the great rebel leaders such as Judas of Gamla the founder of a mass rebellion in Judea in AD 6 and Eleazar who led the revolt against Rome right through to his death at Masada in AD 73. 

All of these figures were as well known in the period as Jesus of Nazareth (some more so). None of them earns an entry in the OCD. Why? Because they are not formally part of Classical history in the Oxford tradition. They are, however, found in the standard works of Jewish and Near Eastern history. And no one doubts their existence. 

That King Izates and Jesus of Nazareth fail to get their own entry in the Oxford Classical Dictionary is no more significant than the fact that there is no article on Cicero in the four volume Cambridge History of Judaism (where, by the way, there is an 50-page article on the historical Jesus).

What the Oxford Classical Dictionary actually says about Jesus

Thirdly, what the ‘Debunking Christianity’ article fails to mention is even more revealing than what it claims. One can forgive John Loftus and Harry McCall for not knowing their Classical history from their Near Eastern and Jewish history, but it is very difficult to understand their omission of what the OCD in fact says about Jesus in its entry on Christianity. McCall gives the appearance of having dealt with the content of the entry. He quotes from its closing paragraph (which concerns the 4th-century expansion of Christianity). But it is telling that he says nothing about the opening paragraphs of the entry, which set the figure of Jesus in his world and contains such statements as: “The first followers of Jesus inhabited a political system, the Roman empire, that regarded Jews as singular…”; “Jesus lived, therefore, in a divided Palestine …”; “It is likely that Jesus reflected several tendencies in the Judaism of his day …”; “Jesus emphasized the imminent ending of the visible world and the judgement of God …”; and so on. 

The existence of Jesus is treated as certain in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, even if the reason he rates a mention in this standard Classical reference work is that it was Christianity—rather than Jesus himself—that went on to become an important feature of the Greek and Roman worlds. 

The conclusion of the ‘Debunking Christianity’ article—that the professional historians of the OCD equivocate on the existence of Jesus—is fanciful. If McCall and Loftus aren’t evidence of the ignorance or dishonesty of evangelical atheism, they are surely examples of its one-eyed dogmatism. As a result, sometimes internet scepticism is really dumb.


The Logic of Classical Marriage

The institution of marriage as classically understood is grounded in an objective fact of universal human experience. While all kinds of bonds of love exist in the world, only the lifelong bond of a man to a woman—and just one man to one woman—has the power to create and nurture a new family and so move the wider human family toward its unfolding history. Put another way, only a bonded pair of complementary sexes is able both to produce children and ensure they grow up in the care of their mother and father. These unique powers have been recognised and honoured throughout almost all human cultures by giving marriage a unique status and name. 

It was always known that some marriages were unable to create a new family. Yet these bonds were still recognised and honoured as marriages because, while hindered through defect or the divine will from creating and nurturing a family, they were nonetheless oriented toward the same goal and thus bore witness to the intrinsic powers of this unique bond under normal circumstances. Childless marriages throughout history were viewed as (something like) faithful but injured members of the same team striving toward the same goal. Committed same-sex relationships, on the other hand, were never granted the status of 'matrimonium' (to use the official Roman language) precisely because, while a somewhat accepted bond of love, such unions by definition could not be oriented toward the same goal of creating human beings and ensuring that those human beings grow up in the care of their mother and father. 

Please understand: I don’t offer any of this as a reason why Australians must not support ‘gay marriage’. I freely acknowledge that I have no special privileges in society. Christians have no right to tell the nation what to do. Persuasion, service, and prayer are all we've got, and all we really need. 

I offer this thought simply to underline why I continue to feel that marriage as classically understood is not a fluid concept but one grounded in an objective fact of universal human reality. I hope that others might at least recognise that there is a certain logic to the classical vision of marriage. It is not an arbitrary religious dogma but a precious and near-universal judgment of the human experience. It is not merely a claim that "things have always been done this way". Rather, it is an explanation of the logical rationale of why human cultures have privileged a particular vision of marriage. 

In the end, the sky won’t fall in if Australia approves gay marriage. In some ways, it will allow the church to discard the unwanted mantle of the ‘moral policeman’ and get on with being Dostoevsky’s beautiful ‘Idiot’. 

I remain committed to honouring LGBTI Australians and, as a Christian, to ‘losing well’. Christ showed us how to profoundly love and profoundly disagree at the same time. I am looking forward to fresh opportunities to embody this twofold ethical feat in His name.


Chapter 1 of John Dickson’s A Sneaking Suspicion (published 1993; revised 2006; suspended by the NSW Department of Education and Communities, May 2015)

It might seem strange to start this book by talking about sex, but it seemed to me that wherever I put this chapter, you'd probably have read it first anyway (I know I would). So to save you the trouble, I've put it first.

Before Madonna was the respectable mother-figure of the music scene, she put out a movie that was probably designed to shock. One scene of In Bed With Madonna was especially interesting.


During one of her onstage performances, a huge bed appears on stage. Madonna slips into sexual over-drive and begins rolling around the bed in a display of not-so-subtle sensuality. Her dancers also get excited, rubbing their bodies against hers and stroking the hot spots, so to speak. All this, to the words, "Like a virgin, touched for the very first time".


As you can well imagine, everyone is having a great time-Madonna, the dancers, the concert audience and those watching the film. Everyone except the Canadian police. In the film, we watch the men-in-uniform rock up to the 20,000 seat concert hall with a demand: cut that naughty scene or be 'shut down'. Madonna's promoters are genuinely worried and scurry up to her dressing room and tell her the bad news. She thinks for a moment and decides to ignore the police demands for 'decency' and go on with the show as planned. In this case, the 'express yourself' mentality wins the day.


This scene in the film illustrates two directly opposite attitudes toward sex.


1.   Sex is naughty. Ban it.


2.   Sex is wonderful. Flaunt it.


I'm assuming you're an average human being like me, so we don't really need to spend any time discussing the flaws in the first view. It's negative, boring and denies the obvious fact that humans are sexual creatures.


But to be honest, I'm concerned that the 'flaunt it' approach is dangerous, cheap and is ultimately a rip off (so to speak). Let me explain.





The 'experts' on sex, or 'sexperts' for short, are everywhere in our society, all of them offering advice on this important topic. You'll find them on TV, on radio and, if the number of pages is anything to go by, teen mags would have to be the expert of the lot. And what's the message of the mags? Although the photos change from article to article the main point never changes—if you want to do it, just do it, but do it safe!


Then there's Sydney's Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Surely if anyone knows how to bring sex to the masses it's these guys and gals. It's the largest annual 'cultural' event in Australia, and it's all about sex. There's groovy music, bright costumes, risqué choreography, and a message that booms out loud and clear to the whole country-sex is about the freedom to do and be whatever you want!


And of course the movies can bring us the closest thing to the real thing in full technicolour and surround sound. In fact, with the help of gorgeous actors, stirring background music and the big screen, what they deliver is even better than the real thing. And what is the message of the movie sexperts? The best sex happens when you're beautiful and not married (at least not married to the person you want to have the best sex with)!


Take the movie The People Vs Larry Flynt as an example. Larry Flynt was the editor of Hustler, one of the world's top selling men's magazines. He is also rated as one of the great sexual 'heroes' of the twentieth century. In the movie Larry is this heroic businessman who has to fight against the intolerance and self-righteousness of some sections of American society. Larry has a life full of excitement, pleasure and most of all, freedom. That's until some closed-minded bigot shoots him. Our hero now has to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, paralyzed. Larry is more than a hero. He's a martyr—someone who sacrifices so much in his fight for sexual freedom. That's how the movie goes, anyway.


But if you scratch beneath the surface of all the hype you find some pretty interesting facts. Turns out the real Flynt was by many reports just a greedy businessman with an insatiable sexual appetite; an appetite that has led to all sorts of allegations against him concerning sleazy, oppressive and demeaning sexual activity. His own daughter was protesting outside the opening night begging people not to believe the lie presented in the film.


Finding this out made me realize that the Larry Flynt story is a good example of what's true of nearly all our modern sexperts. On the surface they seem to be the great promoters and freedom-fighters for sex, but when you scratch beneath the beautifully glossy surface, it's just the opposite. The promoters turn out to be demoters; their fight doesn't bring freedom, it sets a trap, which many of us fall into.


The teen mags aren't really interested in giving advice that will lead to the best sex life. They tell us what they think we want to hear, so that we'll keep buying the magazine, so that advertisers will keep buying advertising space, so that they'll keep making money (remember, many of these magazines have more advertising managers than writers on their staff). If they thought you wanted to hear, "Be celibate!", that's exactly what they'd be saying. Although they go on and on about sex, they don't appear to value sex at all, except as a way of selling magazines.


Kevin Williamson, a major TV and movie producer (Dawson's Creek, Scream, Cursed), claims: "We present sexual issues without any judgements, we don't preach, we just show teens talking about what's important to them". In reality though, most TV shows (including his) do preach; they just do it in a slick and subtle way. Beneath the expensive exterior, people like Williamson are just peddling the same cheap message: If it feels good, do it! Just do it safe!


The same is true of the movies and the Mardi Gras. On the surface they look like they're fighting for sexual freedom, but beneath the gloss and volume it turns out that they're really promoting sexual selfishness, triviality and unfaithfulness.


Here's some examples of what I mean.


One of those attractive blonde 'singers' (whose name we easily forget) had a hit single some time back in which the key lyric said: "Do to me what your eyes say you want to do. Do it, read my lips."


I've often wondered what would happen if this young woman went to a few high schools I know and said to the blokes, "Boys, do to me what your eyes say you want to do". Most girls wouldn't dream of letting blokes do even half of what our hormone-blurred eyes say we want to do—sorry blokes!


Or then there's the effort by Justin Timberlake, 'Take me Now'. In it he sings, "I'm hungry for your loving; You got me working, honey; I'm hot just like an oven; So take me now". Here 'loving' is reduced to being 'taken'. I reckon if I said this to my wife, after laughing at me she'd probably hit me. So she should.


And as for the song by Nickelback I have in front me ... well maybe we shouldn't lower the tone any further.


Anyway, I expect these 'singers' don't really mean everything they sing, but it makes me wonder why they'd bother with such obviously cheap words. I guess you can justify anything if it sells a few CDs.


The Family Planning Association of NSW once sponsored a diary called the Fact and Fantasy File, which they said was designed to make you "better informed about your own body, sex and relationships". The diary, and an associated sex-info telephone 'hot-line', was banned by the government. But not before a couple of thousand copies of the book got out to school students, nurses and me.


I think I read it with a fairly open mind, but I must say I was under­impressed. It wasn't the explicit details that concerned me (I am a married man). It was the cheap picture of sex that the authors painted. For a group that wanted to promote sex, they did a very poor job. For example, how's this for a poem about sexual intimacy?


   Love is great 

   Love is golden 

   Love is made

   In the back of a Holden


And the handy sex tip for March 13th is sure to please your partner: “If you find sex boring, thinking about other things that make you sexually excited during intercourse can heighten the experience.”


Imagine your reaction when, during an intimate moment, you discover that your partner is fantasizing about someone other than you. I don't know about you, but I'd feel pretty humiliated and jealous, and any sense of intimacy would be lost in an instant. This sort of fantasizing may 'heighten the experience' of pleasure but not of the whole sexual encounter nor, more importantly, the relationship of trust between two people.


One episode of the TV Sex series gave similar advice. It encouraged us to fantasize as much as we like during sex but just keep it to ourselves so as not to hurt our partner's feelings. Sounds fine if you're only in it for the physical encounter. However, most of us agree that sex is meant to be the expression of a relationship. Relationships are built on loyalty and honesty, not mental unfaithfulness and deceit.


Unfortunately though, some of us are influenced by these views. In a Girlfriend magazine article entitled, "Let's Talk About Sex", a survey was conducted asking teenage girls about their sexual views. One worrying point in particular was made. It read that in deciding when to have sex, 66% of the girls surveyed said "they came to a mutual decision ... they both felt it was the right thing to do". The magazine then concluded by saying this was "a very sensible decision". The problem with 'feeling' it's the right thing to do is that many blokes feel it's right any time! The warm fuzzies of new love, combined with the strong drive of the sexual urge, are not reliable indicators for such important decision making.


These are just a few of the many, many examples in modern society where sex is discussed without mention of relationships. It's as if physical pleasure is all that there is to sex. As soon as we accept the advice of these 'sexperts' we're heading for a hollow, confusing and even harmful view of sex—one that threatens to ruin our relationships. We'll end up wondering why on earth we can't hold down a romantic friendship, and why commitment, trust and honesty are so foreign to our relationships. It's an undersell-a rip off.




In all the wide discussion, debate and argument about condom machines in schools, AIDS, abortion and homosexuality, I've been amazed at how little is being said about the intimate side of sex.


In the Girlfriend article just mentioned they also reported that, after having sex, most girls in their survey "felt really close to their boyfriends". This is not surprising.


Any psychologist, sex therapist or average person on the street will tell you that a sexual encounter is often a 'whole person' encounter. By this I mean that there is an emotional and psychological impact which accompanies sexual intercourse. It's not just a physical act, like going to the toilet. It touches deep emotions. It is this 'deeper' dimension to sex that many of us are being conned out of.


My first car was an orange Datsun 1200. It got me from A to B, but it really was a rust bucket. It only cost me a thousand bucks, so I didn't treat it too well and had no problem lending it out to any of my friends. I figured that if they crashed it, it was no big deal. Suppose though, I owned a Porsche 968. I can assure you, I'd care for it with my life and certainly wouldn't lend it out. In my mind, such a valuable machine deserves the utmost care. But what's this got to do with sex and relationships?

The media 'sexperts' can fool us into believing a Datsun view of sex. Lend it out. It's not that special. But in God's eyes, sex is more like a Porsche. It is valuable. It demands care. It is something precious to us (and to him), not merely the machinery by which we get about and enjoy ourselves.

If humans were just glorified apes who wear Nikes, then it probably makes sense to live entirely by our 'natural' instincts. However, if there is something different about us humans, if relationships are a vital key to our fulfilment, if there is a God who has carefully designed a plan for our sexual lives, then it makes sense to preserve our expression of sexual intimacy until we find a partner with whom life-long commitment, loyalty and trust have meaning.

Far from being against sex, God is very much for it. It's not as if Adam and Eve discovered sex one day and thought, "Oops, let's not tell God. He's bound to get annoyed". Remember, the Creator is creative. He could have invented a method of having kids that involved spitting on each other's big toe, if he had wanted to. But instead, he invented sex—fantastic, enjoyable, intimate and exciting. And because sex is so valuable, God has given some very smart guidelines and rules for its enjoyment and to keep us from getting hurt and from hurting others. The so-called 'sexperts' usually say these guidelines are restrictive and boring, but that might just be because they have been tricked into thinking that the 'Porsche' is a 'Datsun'.

Actually, God's insistence that we enjoy sex in the context of a life­long relationship of loyalty and trust is the most liberating and meaningful sexpert advice around. When you're in bed with someone who has promised to devote their life to you for keeps, the experience is so much better. For a start there is a deep, mutual trust-something that is essential for great sex, and near impossible to find in a casual sexual relationship. More than that, because you're with your life-time partner, you have all the time in the world to get better and better at enjoying each other physically. The desire to get what you want while you can (a very selfish and unsatisfying approach to sex) gives way to a desire to give all you can for as long as you can (a very satisfying approach to sex). The pressure to 'perform' (something that often hinders 'performance') gives way to mutual acceptance and enjoyment of each other (something that often heightens 'performance'). The list of the benefits of God's rules about sex could go on and on.


Unlike today, in first century Palestine (when Jesus was alive), sexual immorality was a very big deal. A true story is recorded in the Bible about a woman who was known to have "lived a sinful life in that town". There are no prizes for guessing what people meant by that phrase. One day Jesus happened to be in town having a meal at the home of a prominent religious leader named Simon and this woman turned up. Now, it was bad enough for a normal person to turn up without an invitation, so imagine what it was like for a woman with her reputation. To make things worse, she came into the room, fell down at Jesus' feet and burst into tears. Imagine the scene now. Here was this woman in all her fear and shame in a room full of self-righteous religious people. As you'd expect, Simon was furious, not only with the woman but also with Jesus. He thought to himself, if Jesus really was a man sent from God he'd be able to tell what kind of woman she was and would tell her to back off. But the point is this: Jesus did know what kind of woman she was and still welcomed her. In fact, Jesus even defended her in front of all these important guests. To top it all off, he then turned to her and spoke what must have been the kindest words she had heard for a long time: "Your sins are forgiven". I'm sure she could hardly believe her ears. She had been used to guilt and rejection, but here was someone offering her acceptance and forgiveness. These words marked a new beginning in her life.

I suppose some of you are aware of the big rip-off that robs sex of intimacy and leaves us with a cheap substitute. Some of you have experienced it first hand.

When I read this story and others like it (the Bible is full of them), I am strongly reminded that in Jesus' mind there is no such thing as a 'point of no return'. No matter what we've done or become, the great news is that there can be restoration, forgiveness and a new beginning.

I suppose some of you are aware of the big rip-off that robs sex of intimacy and leaves us with a cheap substitute. Some of you have experienced it first hand. When I read this story and others like it (the Bible is full of them), I am strongly reminded that in Jesus’ mind there is no such thing as a ‘point of no return’. No matter what we’ve done or become, the great news is that there can be restoration, forgiveness and a new beginning 

For suspicious minds

1. What attitudes about sex do you think you’ve absorbed from movies and the media? Do you think these are accurate?

2. Would you describe your attitude to sex as a ‘Porsche’ or a ‘Datsun’?

3. Does God’s attitude to sex make sense to you?

4. Try reading the story about Jesus and the sexually immoral woman. You’ll find it in Luke, chapter 7, starting at verse 36. If you were this ‘sinful’ woman, what impact on your life would this meeting with Jesus have?

Is there such a thing as a Christian way to vote

Introduction: Mixing Religion and Politics

 "He who says politics and religion do not mix understands neither one." (Mahatma Gandhi)

I am the true ‘swinging voter’. In the numerous elections of my life (beginning with the Federal election of July 1987), my personal votes have been fairly evenly split between Labor and The Liberal, or Coalition, parties. 

  In what follows, then, I have no agenda. The last thing on my mind is to influence which party you vote for.I do, however, want to insist that people who identify themselves as Christian should vote in a way that is informed by their faith, whatever decision they finally make. While Christianity is not party political, it is political in the broader sense. At a fundamental level, faith concerns life in society—the word ‘politics’ comes from the Greek politeuō, meaning to live as a citizen. Everyone who is concerned with the life of our wider community  (as every Christian must be) is ‘political’ in the larger sense of the word.In essence, what I want to do in this short article is outline how some basic Christian beliefs should – and should not – influence a Christian’s vote. I write with a dual audience in mind. I want to encourage Christians to be more thoughtful about their political opinions and I hope to demonstrate for the religious ‘spectator’ that, despite some rather potent counter-examples in North America, the ‘Christian vote’ is a vote for the good of the nation not an attempt to impose religious law on a secular society.I begin with how a Christian ought not to vote.

A) How Not to Vote

  1. Precedent: ‘how we always vote’

  Voting patterns are sometimes based on little more than family heritage (‘We have always voted for x’) or geographical location (‘Most people vote for y where I live’). I want to suggest that voting by personal or demographic precedent is not a thoughtful vote, and whatever else a Christian vote must be it must be thoughtful. Something as important as the way, and by whom, we are governed must be approached with seriousness and due reflection. Otherwise, believers are hardly loving God “with all the mind.” Christians must also resist the temptation, born of cynicism, to disengage from their responsibilities as voters and citizens.That would be to retreat from “loving one’s neighbour.”

  2. Christian favouritism

  Secondly, and perhaps a little controversially, voting for a candidate simply because s/he is a Christian, or our brand of Christian, is morally suspect; it is a religious form of favouritism. Having Christians in parliament is no guarantee—or even indicator—that our nation will be marked by peace, justice, compassion, truth and so on. Sadly, history is littered with counter-examples.

  Voting for a candidate simply because s/he is a Christian is morally suspect

  By all means, a Christian may vote for Christian candidates who also have a track record for diligence, leadership and justice, but it would be irresponsible to favour men and women simply because they are known as ‘Christians’, attend churches or frequent prayer breakfasts and the like. Theologically speaking, good government is not the special preserve of believers. Chapter 13 of Paul’s epistle to the Romans makes clear that even the pagan governments of Rome were to be thought of as ‘established by God.’ Indeed, secular, non-Christian rulers are described by the apostle as ‘God’s servants.’ The point deserves deep reflection.

  3. Economic prosperity

  Thirdly, the main parties and most of the major media tend to make ‘economic prosperity’ a central election issue. This is a window into the soul of a country. However, Christians must seriously question a fixation with the ‘bottom line’. In a society such as ours, one without deep faith, economic prosperity may be the only measurable form of success, but the follower of Christ ought to think otherwise.Naturally, if one sincerely believes that national prosperity happens also to be the best way to achieve other, more important, goals for society, then the Christian will appropriately vote with this in mind. However, the believer should always remember the way the pursuit of wealth is given very short shrift in the Bible:

  For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (1 Timothy 6:10).

  If precedent, favouritism and prosperity are faulty grounds upon which to base the Christian vote, what factors should inform such political choices?

B) How a Christian ought to vote

  1. Vote for others

Firstly and most importantly, a Christian vote is a vote for others, not oneself. It is fundamental to the Christian outlook that life be devoted to the good of others before oneself:

  Honour one another above yourselves (Rom 12:10).

  In humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others (Philippians 2:3-4). 

  In the political realm Christians should use whatever influence they have to contribute to others, to ‘consider others better’ than themselves. This is a foreign concept for many. Typically, the small business operator decides to vote for the party that promises to do more for small business. Union members vote for the party guaranteeing more power to the Unions. Corporations with staffing issues tend to support the party offering the most flexible industrial relations policy. Aspirational voters favour the party they think will best help them climb the ‘ladder of opportunity’. Such voting considerations may not be wrong but they are inadequate for the Christian. Those who follow the One who gave himself up for us all will endeavour to put their private interests aside and seek instead to serve the wider community.

  In their vote Christians must ‘consider others better than yourselves.’

  In short, in thinking through the policies of the Government, the Opposition and the minor parties, the Christian should not be thinking of him or herself—my family, my industry, my way of life. He or she will instead consider the wider public good. In their vote Christians must ‘consider others better than yourselves.’

  2. Vote for the moral health of the community

  Secondly, the moral health of our community provides another motivation for the Christian’s vote. Personally, I think the church has no right to seek to impose a Christian way of life on a largely secular society (‘What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?,’ said Paul in 1 Cor 5:12). Having said that, as citizens who believe that a society’s health depends (in part) on living as the Creator designed, Christians will want to ponder: which party and/or policies will promote the values applauded by the Creator, the values of justice, harmony (nationally and internationally), sexual responsibility, honesty, family and mercy.In this regard, we will want to think through such issues as abortion, stem-cell research, treatment of asylum seekers, same-sex marriage, care for the elderly and so on, and then factor our conclusions into our voting patterns. For the Christian, moral health far exceeds economic prosperity as an honorable goal for society. As the book of Proverbs says:

Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people (Proverbs 14:34).

  This moral concern of the Christian will invite the description (by some) ‘right-wing’ or ‘conservative’. The tag is partly accurate, though in other respects the Christian stance will appear ‘left-wing’ and ‘liberal’. It is true that those with a classical Christian view of family will resist party support for same-sex marriage. Equally, though, Christians will be pained at the thought of punitive measures being meted out to genuine refugees and/or their separated family members. ‘Right’ and ‘left’ are incomplete descriptions. One of the blind spots of our modern public discourse is an inability to recognize nuance. We do not have categories such as ‘right-wing liberal’ or a ‘left-wing conservative’—Jesus, of course, was both and more.

  3. Vote for the poor and weak

  Thirdly, in voting for the ‘other’ the Christian will principally have in mind the poor and powerless. We will use our vote for those who need our vote more than we do. The mandate for this throughout Scripture is overwhelming:

  Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed.  Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked (Psalm 82:3-4).

  He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God (Proverbs 14:31).

  Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress (James 1:27).

  a Christian vote is one sincerely motivated by a concern to see the disadvantaged cared for—whether they be the elderly, Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders, the unemployed, the homeless or drought-affected farmers

  Voting for the underprivileged in Australian society has traditionally been seen as a vote for the Labor Party—this is certainly how that party has historically understood itself. Others, however, argue that the most effective way to help the poor and weak is to increase prosperity at the ‘top’ of society so that wealth can trickle down to those who need it most. This has traditionally been an argument put by the conservative side of Australian politics. I do not want to make a judgment about either model. I simply want to insist, in the strongest terms, that a Christian vote is one sincerely motivated by a concern to see the disadvantaged cared for—whether they be the elderly, Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders, the unemployed, the homeless, refugees or drought-affected farmers. Whatever socio-economic model Christians believe in, they ought to vote for those who need their vote more than they do.

  4. Vote for the gospel

  Fourthly, almost by definition, Christians are to live for the eternal good of others (1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1). Concern for the advancement of the Christian message throughout Australia, therefore, will potentially play a part in a Christian’s voting patterns.Is one party better for the gospel than another? Probably not. Hence, I raise this purely as a ‘hypothetical’ issue. One day, however, a particular policy may (humanly speaking) work against Christian freedom to promote Christ – the ancient Christians faced this in the harshest terms, as do many in other lands today. In our context, it may be that one day a major (or minor) party will propose banning voluntary religious education lessons in state schools. Christians would be within their citizenly rights to seek to use their democratic privilege—the vote—to affect this policy. However such an issue will probably not be determinative for the Christian’s vote, since ultimately Christians believe the message of Christ moves forward by spiritual rather than human power and the other factors mentioned above must also be given their due weight.

  5. Vote prayerfully

  Finally, a Christian vote is a prayerful one. The Scriptures urge believers to pray for leaders and for governments. And, ultimately, believers will see this as more important even than their vote.

  I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:1-3).

  The connection between these sentences is subtle and fascinating. God’s people are urged to pray for those in power (vv.1-2a) with the result that ‘we’ (God’s people) can get on with the business of living peaceful and godly lives (v.2b). Moreover, this outcome somehow works to the pleasure of the God who wants all people to be saved (vv.3-4). In other words, good government enables the church to live its life of good works and God’s missionary desires to be fulfilled. This comes about not through the vote—as important as that is—but through prayer. Christian activism is expressed most pertinently on the knees. There is nothing here about praying for a ‘Christian society’—whatever that is—only that prayers should be offered for the (secular) leadership of a nation so that God’s people can get on with their core business of living lives of peace and goodness and seeking to promote the news of ‘God as Saviour.’ It is a mistake, in other words, for Christians to pin their hopes for a nation on a political process. The 'Christian vote' will always remain a secondary tool in the church's repertoire of involvement for the good of the world.

The comprehensiveness of the 'collects' - a spectator's guide to prayer in the Anglican tradition - by Michael Jensen


Nearly everybody prays. 

Prayer is one of those human universals, like drinking water, and trying to find a good Wi-Fi signal. Even the person who claims not to believe in God surprisingly finds him or herself at prayer. The gestures of prayer seem to make so much sense: confessing our sins, giving thanks for what he have, asking for blessing, protesting against the way things are.

Plato recognized this quite some time ago, when he wrote: 

All men... who have any degree of right feeling, at the beginning of every enterprise, whether small or great, always call upon God.

In his momentous book The Varieties of Religious Experience, which is a vast study of religious traditions and experiences across time and cultures, William James concluded that prayer was the vital heart-beat of all religious consciousness.

And yet, we know from the Holy Scripture itself that prayer can be a futile, idolatrous activity. Prayer is not good in and of itself. The fervid and ultimately ridiculous dancing and self-harming of the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel is pathetic because their god does not actually exist – or, maybe, as Elijah goads them, he is on the toilet, or having a nanna nap. Jesus contrasts true Christian prayer with the prayers of the pagans, who hope that they will be heard because of their many and repetition words, and the hypocrites, who make a great display of their piety for all the world to see. The point of the parable of the unjust judge is that the true God is not like the judge: he does not finally give in to our requests because he gets tired of us nagging, and so the disciples should not give up because God actually desires to give us good things.

And so it was a tragedy when Christian prayer became itself what the Bible critiqued.

Prayer is all about the God to whom one prays: that is, it is shaped by the God one is addressing.

In medieval Christianity before the Reformation there had developed a veritable industry of prayer. We have already seen how, in the chantry houses of Europe, the monastic movement made the business of prayer their very own. The demands of a daily life of prayer were too onerous for the everyday Christian. The monks, friars, nuns and other religious functionaries took the burden on themselves on behalf of the rest of the social order. As a result, they lived apart, sequestered from the everyday concerns of family life, political life and economic life.

What was this prayer for? Those who prayed had a job to do to plead with God on behalf of society for its protection and its wellbeing. They prayed against the uncertainties of human life – against plague and pestilence, famine and misfortune. They prayed not simply to God but also sought the help of the host of saints, and of the Virgin Mary. And the prayers in a church service were in Latin, so that the unfailing impression given was that prayer was a matter of uttering mystical words like a spell.

It is worth asking: what image of God do you get from this practice of prayer? He is more unjust judge than the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, one of the saddest ironies is that the prayer that Jesus introduced in order to counter an essentially pagan practice of prayer became itself used as a mantra in a foreign language repeated in order to get God’s attention.

The Reformation of the sixteenth century was a revolution in prayer because it was a revolution in God. To put it in a nutshell: if we are justified by faith alone, then we pray to God not to impress him but to respond to him as our heavenly Father because of what Jesus has done for us. He is an Almighty, but also a most merciful God.

The new liturgy was to be called The Book of Common Prayer. To pray together is a significant reason that Christians gather. But they gather to pray to the God who has drawn them to himself in Christ, justifying them freely by his grace. 

They pray to God with no need for any other mediator than Christ himself, and as sinners but confident in Christ of meeting a gracious and merciful God in their hour of need.

And they are to pray in intelligible words – words that they understand. The prayer of the Christian as a creature of the word of God corresponds to that word by being something understood. There is no hint that prayer is a kind of mindless repetition of a formula of talismanic sounds. Though there is a place for the inarticulate groanings of the inner being in private prayer, this is not tantamount to a form of mystical prayer. Public prayer must edify the congregation; they can only truly say ‘Amen’, and thus only truly pray, if they hear and understand what is prayed. Furthermore, public prayer was designed to be truly congregational. It was certainly to be led by the Minister, but the congregation were invited to pray aloud, either alongside him or in response.

The collects that were to be prayed week by week during the church year were an added bonus. The collects are school for prayer, so called because they formed a kind of summary of the teaching of Scripture that was being read, and so were listed to accompany the readings listed for the different days of the year.

The collects of the Book of Common Prayer come from a variety of sources – not all were authored by Cranmer. Only a few were specially composed for use in post-Reformation services. They are distinguished by – and were heavily criticized by the Puritans for – their brevity.

They follow a similar pattern: opening with an Invocation of God according to his attributes and sometimes according to some piece of the narrative of redemption; then stating a Doctrine, which grounds the Petition that follows; The Petition itself; an “Aspiration”, or the desired result of the prayer; and the Termination, which usually points to the mediation of Jesus Christ.

Invocation, Doctrine, Petition, Aspiration, Termination. 

Thus, the collect for the second Sunday in Advent:

BLESSED Lord, (invocation) who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning (doctrine); Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them (Petition), that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. (Aspiration and Termination).

or the collect for the first day of Lent:

Almighty and everlasting God (Invocation) you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent (doctrine): Create and make in us new and contrite hearts (petition), that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness (aspiration); through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever (termination). Amen.

What these prayers do is that they shape our piety on the basis of grace. They do not coach us to nag God; they teach us about God. They direct us to him in response to his gracious character; they teach us about the narrative of salvation; they make us bold to ask for the things we need and desire; but they do not kid us about our worthiness to obtain them other than by the merits of Jesus Christ.

Of course, Anglican prayer can become what medieval prayer had become. We can make in the fine poetry of these prayers an idol. They can become as alienating in form as a prayer in Latin, vainly repeated in the hope that God hears sixteenth century English more readily than that of the twenty-first. But this would be to empty the collects of the BCP of everything they are trying to teach us about truly Christian prayer.

The Rev'd Dr. Michael Jensen is a theologian and writer, and is the Rector of St Mark's Darling Point

I like the idea of Jesus being married, but not at the expense of all historical reasoning

Honestly, folks, this business about the discovery of a document revealing Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene (and their two kids) is so entirely bunkum I feel embarrassed even commenting on it. But since quite a few have asked, I will swallow my pride and say:

1. The document referred to in these claims is NOT a Gospel of any kind and it is NOT even about Jesus. 

2. The document is called Joseph and Aseneth, and is not new. We have 16 manuscript copies of it, and the one in the British Library (in Syriac), from which this claim is made, is listed in all the scholarly literature. 

3. Joseph and Aseneth is a (fictitious) Jewish tale telling of the biblical patriarch Joseph's marriage to the converted Gentile Aseneth.

4. The authors of this new claim are suggesting that this long known Jewish tale is actually 'code' for a life of Jesus, a code no pseudepigrapha scholar has picked up before.

5. Permission for this code-reading is found in what they think are clear Christian phraseology in Joseph and Aseneth: Joseph is called "a son of God" (like many other Jewish figures; and, indeed, in the same text Aseneth is called "daughter of the Most High") and there is a reference to the "bread and cup of life" (which are common enough Jewish phrases).

6. Further permission is found in the covering letter of this Syriac version of Joseph of Aseneth, which speaks of the "hidden meaning" of "our Lord". But that's nuts! It was routine for scribes to read all ancient stories as containing an allegory pointing to the redemptive work of Jesus. They do it with the biblical story of Joseph in Pharaoh's house. They do it with Moses. They do it with David. And so on.

7. To claim that the rollicking Jewish story of Joseph and Aseneth (set in Egypt in the second millennium BC, by the way) is really code for Jesus' ministry in first-century Israel is to engage in pure mischief. All scholars of ancient Judaism know this document. None thinks it is about Jesus. 

8. The principal author, Simcha Jacobovici, a film maker, has form: he was the director of the Lost Tomb of Jesus, a Discovery Channel farce about the claimed discovery of Jesus' tomb!

I quite like the idea of Jesus being married - the New Testament itself celebrates marriage - but not at the expense of all historical reasoning.

Why I Might Not be Corrupting the Evangelical Church, After All: a brief response to Andrew Kulikovsky's claims in Creation Ministries International

I have long believed that if I can’t defeat an argument without misrepresenting it, I am probably not the one to defeat it. In this context, I find it disappointing and revealing that Andrew Kulikovsky’s recent article for Creation Ministries International engages in the most blatant misuse of my words I have ever encountered (and I’ve been misrepresented once or twice on other issues!).

I won’t seek to rebut the substantial point about Young Earth Creationism (I have made my peace with this topic). Nor will I make the relatively easy case that plenty of Old Earth evangelical churches and ministries are, in fact, thriving throughout the world. And I won’t reiterate my apology of a year ago—following my appearance on Q&A—for the flippant and unloving way I spoke about 6-Day Creationists on the show. It was sincere, and I hope I haven’t made myself an enemy of your movement. 

What I want to do here is point out what seem to me Andrew’s four incontestable misrepresentations of my views, all the more glaring because he uses contrived ‘renditions’ of my words to make his points. His quotes come from transcripts of my appearance on Q&A last year and an interview on gay marriage on the Centre for Public Christianity website

First, Andrew is wrong to suggest I employ Augustine in support of an old earth. It is well known Augustine believed in a young earth. It is equally well known he believed the six days of Genesis 1 were not actual days but symbols of something else, a view shared by Philo, Clement, and others, as I have outlined elsewhere. I refer to Augustine for one point only (on Q&A and in my writings on the subject): to show that a non-concrete interpretation of Genesis 1 is not (necessarily) a nervous reaction to modern science; it has an ancient precedence. To scold me for using Augustine to support of an old earth is simply to misrepresent what I have said on numerous occasions, including in the Q&A episode quoted!

Secondly, Andrew strings the clauses of my sentences together in a rather cheeky way in order to make me say something completely at odds with what I actually said. Apparently, “Dickson also believes that 13.72 billion years ago ‘there was a bang and evolution by natural selection’.” Obviously, the standard model of evolution has the process beginning 4 billion or so years ago. Thus, Andrew declares with triumph, “So who is really ignorant of biblical, historical, and scientific scholarship?" The problem is, Andrew achieves this feat by completely misconstruing the sentence, which in fact makes the point that many Christians today are comfortable with (a) a ‘bang’ 13.72 billion years ago and (b) evolution by natural selection. I don’t even think the ABC transcript Andrew links to can possibly be read Andrew’s way, but I am sure those who watch my delivery of the line in ABC iVew will wonder at Andrew’s overzealous ‘adjustment’ of my sentence. 

Thirdly, Andrew selectively quotes a 12 minute interview conducted for the Centre for Public Christianity on the difficult topic of Same Sex Relationships. He uses the content of the video to underline the point that old earth creationism leads to further theological corruption in other important areas, like sex and marriage. He gives his readers the impression that I reckon (in Andrew’s words) “we have no right to advocate for legislation that accords with Christian morals and ethics.” This misconstrues what the interview actually says, and I urge people to view it for themselves. My point—made repeatedly—is that the church, as the church, does not have a mandate from Scripture to “block legislation” or “impose legislation” in a democracy that wants things to be otherwise. However, the interview makes perfectly clear that I think Christians should have a strong voice in the public square advocating for God’s ways in marriage. Christ has given us the tool of “persuasion”, and we should be using it, I say. When Andrew concludes with “The only Christian action that seems to please homosexuals is silence—which is effectively what Dickson advocates!”, he shows just how disinterested he is in the important nuances maintained throughout the interview. And, presumably, anyone who has heard me in the public square on this topic—on the ABC, the Fairfax newspapers, and so on—will find Andrew’s rendition of my approach rather mischievous. 

Still on the topic of same sex relationships, fourthly, Andrew misleads his readers by suggesting that I want Christians to apologise for affirming the Bible’s teaching on marriage. He writes, “[Dickson] believes that the church should apologize to gay people for its comments on homosexuality, and until it does, Christians have no right to speak about it! Why the church and Christian leaders should apologize for proclaiming what the Bible clearly teaches (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; 1 Corinthians 6:9–10) Dickson does not say.” Again, there are important nuances here which Andrew’s impatience leaves him ill-equipped to observe. My statement in this interview—put repeatedly in the media—is that “Christians ought to apologise for allowing our Christian convictions about sex  to lead to very unChristian language and behaviour on the topic of sex.” That Andrew can turn this into a reference to apologising for the teaching of Scripture itself is most unfortunate. 

I believe Andrew has done a disservice to Creation Ministries International by misrepresenting almost everything I have said. I fear that CMI itself has done a disservice to its readership by not carefully reviewing Andrew’s piece before publishing it. I genuinely hope for better connections between us in the future.  


A Letter to My Church about Islam and the Current Crisis

Dear St Andrew’s,

I want to talk briefly about Islam and the awful events of recent weeks. 

Speaking about the Faith of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims is difficult, complicated by at least two factors. First, as with Christianity, there is a huge spectrum of belief and practice in the Islamic world. The five pillars of Islam are shared by all adherents (confession of faith, daily prayer, gifts to the Mosque, fasting during Ramadan, and a pilgrimage to Mecca) but, beyond this core, the Sunni, Shia, and Sufi see things quite differently. 

The second problem has to do with us. Westerners tend to impose their own imaginings onto Islam. Following September 11 years ago, and again more recently, people seem to break into two camps: those that rush to condemn Muslims per se as violent and poisonous, and those that defend Islam as a perfectly loving, non-retaliatory, democratic religion.

Both groups are a little ‘imperialistic’, imposing their own perspectives onto a tradition without letting that tradition be itself. The first group projects its fears and tribalism onto Islam. The second projects its liberal democratic views of ‘what a religion ought to be’ (mostly informed by the best bits of Christianity). The instincts of the latter group are probably nicer, but both are ultimately unwilling to listen to and understand this ancient faith. 

I can’t give a balanced account of Islam in a brief News note. I do want to say two things. First, it is undeniable that, in certain contexts, the Quran sanctions the use of force to defend and promote the honour of Islam. And Muhammad himself was a highly successful military commander, inspiring the incredible conquests of the first caliph Abu Bakr. The peace created by early Islam was not unlike the ancient pax romana, the ‘peace of Rome’, where conquest was thought to be bring stability and unity to the world. The so-called ‘Islamic State’ terrorists in Syria and Iraq today are trying to recreate this ancient caliphate. They have a genuine religious tradition to draw upon. 

That said, it is equally clear that most Muslims in the world today do not support the actions of IS. While it seems to be reported only in passing, many important Islamic scholars and imams around the world, including in Australia, have roundly condemned the Islamic State, declaring it ‘haram’, a powerful religious term meaning forbidden by Allah (‘halal’ meaning sanctioned/approved). While most of these religious leaders would accept the permissibility of military jihad under certain conditions, they do not accept the beheading of journalists in Syria, or random attacks on the streets of Australian cities. 

I have no doubt that almost all the Muslims we’re likely to meet in Sydney wish us no harm. They want what we want—health, safety, education, and a future for their kids. Those that are religiously observant—remember, many Muslims are nominal—are of course keen to see Islam spread throughout Australia. They naturally think sharia law is wiser than secular democracy (and this is an argument we may increasingly need to have). But they do not want to hurt us to achieve their ends. It is no cliché to say that the vast majority of Australian Muslims are law-abiding and peace-loving, just as it is also true that some of them find inspiration for violence in their sacred traditions. It is complicated! 

Finally, whatever conclusions we come to about the technicalities of Islamic belief and practice, God’s true Word teaches us two highly relevant things for the current crisis. First, civil authorities have sanction from the Creator to use force to protect the innocent and bring justice. In Romans, Paul writes, “For the one in authority [speaking of Roman authority] is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). I support the actions of our government, the military, and our State and Federal police. Let’s join together in praying for them at this time of heightened tension and risk. 

In the same epistle, however—indeed, in the preceding chapter—the apostle insists that the Christian community itself has no share in the exercise of sanctioned force. Rather, believers have one course of action when confronted with opposition. They are to follow the Lord Jesus in enduring suffering, refusing to retaliate, and committing to love enemies. Paul writes:

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath (Romans 12:12-19).

Paul is no doubt reflecting here on the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28). These things lie at the centre of the Christian life, for they are at the heart of the gospel of the One who endured a Roman cross for sinners. 

In the end, I have a simple thing to say, and I feel a strong sense of God’s pleasure in saying it. Common sense and Christian faith urge us to shun both a naïve recasting of Islam as the mirror-image of liberal democracy, and a hateful projection of our own tribalism onto Australian Muslims. Instead, let’s go out of our way in the coming weeks and months to pray for the Muslims around us and to convey love and friendship toward them. 

I commit to pray for every Muslim I see, and when I meet Muslims personally I will try to express friendship in Christ’s name. I gave it a go last week at Adelaide airport. I greeted a Muslim family, conveyed my fear that recent media coverage might make them feel under the microscope, and expressed my sincere welcome and friendship. They were taken aback, but the woman held her hand to her heart and said, “Thank you. That means so much to me!” The look on her face almost made me cry. I tried it moments later with my taxi driver and he laughed, “Oh no! I am a Hindu!” Still, you get the point! 

We follow the Lord who bears the wounds of love and reconciliation. 

God bless,


John Dickson
Senior Minister
St Andrew’s Roseville, 
NSW, Australia
28 September, 2014


If Dickson's wrong, he's wrong in the right way - guest blog from the Rev Andrew Judd

I am delighted to post this guest blog by the Rev Andrew Judd, grandson of my first hermeneutical mentor, the New Testament scholar and former Archbishop of Sydney, Donald Robinson. Andrew doesn't agree with my argument for women preaching in church but he wrote to me 'off line' to say he reckoned his grandfather would think I was "going about it in precisely the right way." If I'm wrong, in other words, I'm wrong in the right way. I love it! So I asked him if he would allow me to post his thoughts here. I hope you enjoy them.

Wrong in the right way - by the Rev Andrew Judd

Tony Payne contributed a volume to Women, Sermons and the Bible which seeks to show that John, along with Michael Bird, has been “blown along” by the malodorous winds of two figures, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Anthony Thiselton (WSB, loc 3588). He takes issue with the “two horizons” approach to hermeneutics, implying that following this approach is the mistake which leads to the kind of theological error which Dickson and Bird have made. He then contrasts this approach with biblical theology, which tells us that we are at “precisely the same point” (WSB, loc 3722) in salvation history as the New Testament Christians, and so can read their writing in an uncomplicated way as the word of God to us. 

With great respect to Tony Payne, to whom we owe a great debt for his contribution to Christian publishing, I think he has inadvertently muddied the waters on this issue. 


I should lay some cards on the table before I proceed. I count both Claire Smith and John Dickson as dear friends. I am not yet convinced by John’s argument in Hearing Her Voicethat “teaching” in Pauline usage is so closely tied to the task of transmitting the apostolic deposit. But I am grateful to both authors for their engagement on the issue: both John and Claire are committed to finding out what the text actually says, and doing it. They are not afraid to follow the word of God wherever it takes them – even if that means being politically incorrect, or departing from what the church has historically taught. This is as it should be. 

The “two horizons” approach has almost nothing to do with why John is wrong

I am no lover of the “two horizons” approach – I am too enamoured of the vision of Biblical Theology developed at Moore College by my grandfather Don Robinson and spread throughout the world by my own hermeneutics lecturer, Graeme Goldsworthy. But the limitations of that particular articulation of an evangelical hermeneutic (there is no other way of describing it) have little to do with the present debate. 

Don Robinson describes hermeneutics in this way:

“Hermeneutics is the term used for the science of interpretation. In regard to the Bible this means, first, how one understands the Bible or any part of it in its original context, and secondly, how one transfers this understanding to our own situation. This second stage is more than being able to understand the original text in terms which are intelligible to our modern culture; it is trying to discover what relevance the original utterance or passage might have for us today.” 
(Donald Robinson, “Using the Bible Today”, 1.)

The debate between John and Claire is an argument at this first, most basic level of hermeneutics. It’s an argument about the “plain meaning”. It’s not about how to apply apostolic instructions to our lives. It’s about the semantic range of a Greek word in a Greek sentence in a bunch of Greek documents written by Greek speakers. There is a gap between us and those words, but it is not the same type of gap which the two horizons people are normally talking about. 

John and Claire aren’t arguing about the “significance” of an uncontroversial text to our modern situation. John isn’t disputing the “comparable particulars” between Paul’s day and ours in order to dispute whether that text still applies. He is arguing about something more preliminary: what the text meant in its original context. According to Don Robinson, John is going about it in precisely the right way – the “critical-historical” method (Robinson, “Using the Bible Today, 2). John is rightly marshalling all the information we have about Paul’s conceptual and linguistic world (especially other parts of scripture) to work out what Paul had in mind. Claire just thinks he’s wrong. 

To point out the obvious, we need historical information to understand the plain meaning of the apostolic instruction, before we even get to the task of applying it, because we are not first century Greek speakers immersed in the same linguistic world as Paul. When you pick up a Greek dictionary you are picking up the collated results of the kind of careful historical enquiry that John is attempting. 

Of course, Tony Payne doesn’t actually disagree with this approach to reading. He agrees that “exegesis is always an activity of history – of looking at what a word meant in a particular time and place” (WSB, loc 3847). 

So why all the fuss then? I can suggest two things.

First, Tony Payne has, I think, been too hasty to lump John together with Michael Bird and Gordon Fee. His mistake (and we simply must assume it is inadvertent, not malign) is to diagnose John’s “assembling exegetical and historical data” (WSB, loc 3811) as symptomatic of a “two horizons” approach, done to work out the significance of a text, rather than its meaning. (By the way, this distinction which Tony Payne introduces between “meaning” and “significance” is probably not helpful in clarifying the debate: it is a distinction borrowed from one particular hermeneutical approach by American writer E.D. Hirsch, and has its own problems.) The main thing these three writers have in common on this issue seems to be the conclusion they reach, not their hermeneutic. 

Second, it sounds like the underlying issue is a reluctance to let Bible nerds get between us and God’s Word. If we listen to the results of John’s careful study of what the words mean, then Tony Payne worries that we have to “rely” on historical arguments (WSB, loc 3742), and may end up “in the hands of scholars” (WSB, loc 3742). At one level, I sympathise with the sentiment – let no fine sounding fellow with a doctorate take your Bible out of your hands! 

But actually, the church cannot afford to ignore what our Bible scholars tell us about what the Bible means. To do so is not evangelicalism. Don Robinson points out that a return to the plain meaning of the text, and therefore the critical-historical method, was precisely what the reformers fought for. Under God, we are always “in the hands of scholars” who faithfully translate the Greek into our native tongue. That’s why evangelicals take Bible scholarship so seriously (and why presumably amongst the gifts of the Holy Spirit is a gift of people with skills in “languages” (1Cor 12:10)). 


I mentioned at the start that I’m not yet convinced by John’s argument. But his method – of carefully studying what the words meant in their original setting – is exactly what we should expect from a fellow evangelical, eagerly listening to the Word to hear better what it is saying. One thing I am sure of: if John is wrong about women preaching, he is wrong in the right way.