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What kind of world do we live in? [Paul Blackham]

This is taken from Paul Blackham's comment here but it's too good to leave in the blog's underbelly:

"Several years ago I had some conversations about the kind of world we live in: what are the most ‘natural’ assumptions to make about it? As you can imagine this got nowhere because what appears to be ‘natural’ is already determined by our inner convictions, the state of our heart, the framework of our minds, our spiritual state.

Some people I spoke to, including atheists and Christians, genuinely believed that the most ‘natural’ assumptions to make about the world are that it is almost a ‘neutral’ or ‘value-free’ or ‘meaning-less’ environment in which the actors [humanity and if applicable god/gods/demons/angels etc] play. Thus the meaning comes from the players, from the things they say and do, whereas the stage itself has no message as such. Some of the Christians did concede that an indirect knowledge of the existence, power and wisdom of ‘God’ might be derived from the ‘stage’ but that no substantial or saving or personal knowledge of ‘God’ was available from the stage itself. Needless to say the atheists and agnostics tend to be more aggressive than that, arguing that there is nothing at all in the whole universes that has any intrinsic meaning, nothing beyond religious humans/documents that speak of the Person and Work of Christ, no ‘bare facts’ that tell the gospel story.

It would not be too hard to trace the genealogy of these assumptions and that view of the universe to the Enlightenment split between fact and meaning, the attempt to start from an ‘objective’ or ‘value-free’ view of reality. That is precisely what the early modern writers were trying to do and they explicitly speak about excluding ‘tradition and theology’ from all observation. [The contrast with Jonathan Edwards is amazing, when we consider when he is writing and observing the world around him.]

Now, obviously, with this kind of assumption will make us read not only ‘nature’ but also history in a particular way. If the world is essentially either devoid of meaning [atheists/agnostics] or else the meaning is ambiguous or of limited value [a non-specific deity who is powerful and wise etc] then it is easy to see how ancient people would be regarded. They are too early in the labourious upward climb of science/progressive religion/ethical development/civilisation. If there is no meaning [as the atheists suggest] then the only knowledge to be gained is the ‘brute facts’ of the mechanisms of the universe and because the ancients had clouded such knowledge with mythology and religion their grasp of such things was at best basic but more likely completely absurd. For those who accept the basic framework but allow ‘God’ to be another player who has ‘intervened’ in the mechanical system, then yes, perhaps ‘God’ was able to somewhat boost the progress of his own religious group, introducing hints of further heights on the long road ahead, whilst ensuring that the people at the current stage of development kept their minds fixed on the stage they were at.

So, now we are at our current stage [final?] of the progress we can look back on those on the lower slopes in antiquity and with affectionate congratulations applaud those who were able to glimpse beyond the slope they were climbing to the fog-shrouded heights of the mountain. It was good that they did that, and perhaps the glimpses of the higher slopes encouraged them on, but ultimately all they were required to do was labour on up the specific slope they were on.

However, what if the world is radically different than that?

What if the universe is packed full of meaning and theology? What if [to use the Enlightenment terms] the myth is fundamental and the ‘mechanisms’ are superficial? What if, to put it in stark terms, it is of quite trivial importance to know how electric works but extremely important to know what Adam and Eve did when they listened to a talking snake?

Far from a world empty or light on meaning, the world around us is utterly overflowing with the Person and Work of Christ and His gospel. The world is full of the glory of the Living God, full of the shining expression of the character and ways of the Father, Son and Spirit. Far from struggling to find hints, as a race we run around with our fingers in our ears and our eyes shut tight desperately trying to suppress the truth about this glorious Living God.

Romans 1:18-20 is remarkable. Paul does not suggest that general hints of a non-specific deity are deducible from sustained meditation on the heavens but that “what may be known of God” is plain and not just the visible and superficial aspects of God’s work are revealed but even the invisible divine nature is “clearly seen’. At first sight it seems ridiculous, if we have anything like the ‘neutral’ view of the universe. How is it even conceivable that the INVISIBLE divine nature can be mediated into expression in the creation let alone the sheer avalanche of knowledge that this would imply?!?

“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”

This is why Athanasius says that everybody who considers the world can clearly see that a Divine Word is mediating the revelation of the Invisible God.

Nevertheless, when we look at real ancient religion we do not find a neat progression from animism to polytheism to monotheism and onto [possibly] Trinitarianism. The concept of blood atonement [substitution, expiation] is surely at the very pinnacle of gospel truth and divine revelation, yet the need for atoning blood, even a human sacrifice, is understood [if in corrupted terms] by almost the entire human race in every continent. The natural world around us constantly teaches us of the Father, Son & Spirit and the gospel: whether in the way that seeds die and are resurrected into glorious new bodies; the daily triumph of light over darkness; the inability of the chaotic oceans to overwhelm the land; the gospel story of the seasons; the biography of Jesus in the stars; the fact that the eight-legged spider destroys the flies; the clean animals live together in harmony; the invisible wind has such power; the worship of the trees constantly clapping their hands in the presence of that wind; the glory of the clouds; the way in which we become one flesh to produce a third; the pattern of fatherhood/parenthood derived directly from the Father Himself across the whole world in so many varied ways; what happens to bodies when the life is taken from them; the structure of music; the inter-relation of colours; the patterns of mathematics; the hydrologic cycle of rain and evaporation; the sun with its light and warmth… and so on and so on. Just throwing down the first ones that come to mind is an almost overwhelming process.

Job 12:7-10 – “ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.”

Even when we come to consider the confused ways that human beings have acknowledged all these truths in their religions and myths we are constantly bumping into half-remembered and twisted versions of the full truth. Nuggets of extremely sophisticated theology are found in rotting mounds of human religion.

The ancient world is packed with stories of dying and rising gods. Although James Frazer did a great service in bringing many of these stories back into general circulation, the church fathers mention them as further confirmations of the gospel. Going back to the earliest roots of human civilisation we find these stories of a father-son relationship at the centre of the gods [Odin-Thor is the one most Europeans are familiar with] and the cycle of death and resurrection/rebirth for the gods. If the Eleusinian Mysteries really do go back as far as 1800 BC then at the very centre of this most ‘sacred’ mystery there is this story of Persephone returning from the underworld. The Egyptian Osiris myth may go back to the 3rd millennia BC. Of course we find these patterns of myth/theology all over the world because the entire world not only preaches all this to us but also the ancient church itself taught all this things when Noah was the senior minister of the global church. When I read ancient Hebrew writers I expect them to be thinking of the Father, Son & Spirit, of the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, of the coming day of judgement and the new creation to follow etc. I expect to learn from them how to live as a follower of Jesus in a pagan world. I expect them to be at least as sophisticated and profound in their theology as the pagan religions around them!

“The Divine Light, we are told, ‘lighteneth every man’. We should, therefore, expect to find in the imagination of great Pagan teachers and myth makers some glimpse of that theme which we believe to be the very plot of the whole cosmic story – the theme of incarnation, death and rebirth. And the differences between the Pagan Christs [Balder, Osiris etc] and the Christ Himself is much what we should expect to find. The Pagan stories are all about someone dying and rising, either every year, or else nobody knows where and nobody knows when. The Christian story is about a historical personage, whose execution can be dated pretty accurately…” [C. S. Lewis Is Theology Poetry?]

In other words, then, we are not only asking what kind of assumptions do we have about the ancient Hebrew people, but we are also asking what kind of assumptions do we have about the entire world. What kind of world do we live in? When we preach the gospel of Jesus we are giving expression to the truths that are written into and shouting from all the natural world around us. The ancient Hebrew church was living in a world where the story of Jesus death and resurrection was already being told in demonic religious corruptions.

When I read Philo and the Dead Sea Scrolls I find myself reading people who had minds full of deep gospel, who understood the Trinitarian God in incredible ways. Yes, the language is usually different and the terms are not the ones settled by later Mediterranean Christianity, but the ideas are the same. I’ve learned so much of Christ from them. Philo’s preaching of Christ from in Who is Heir? is glorious.

I’m well aware that the new religion of Judaism that comes in the second century AD and after is a very different affair. The kind of writings preserved there are not nearly so Christological or gospel-filled. We even find prayers explicitly against ‘the Nazarenes’, rejecting the followers of Jesus as heretics! I’m very nervous of projecting that later Judaism that has rejected the Hebrew religion back into the first century and earlier.

Michael Heiser has specialised in Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Scriptures from the time before Jesus’ birth. In one chapter of his book “The Divine Council in Late Canonical and Non-Canonical Second Temple Jewish Literature” he examines the way that Christ was represented in the literature of the time. It certainly goes a long way to explaining why Jewish theologians of the time did not have a problem with “Trinitarianism”: why the multi-personal One God of Israel was far from being a new idea.

“The word for “word” in Aramaic is memra. That means in the passages we looked at a few paragraphs ago, instead of talking about the Logos of God or the “Word” of the Lord, we’d be talking about the “Memra of the Lord” coming to people. It just so happens that in the Targums—those Aramaic translations of the Old Testament the Jews of Jesus’ day were used to reading as their Bible—the Memra of God as a manifestation of God or as a “second God” shows up in many places.

The Memra actually became a well-known character in the Old Testament for Jewish readers of the Aramaic Bible. Throughout the Aramaic Bible, the Memra is introduced or “used” in passages where it looked like there was more than one Yahweh in a passage, or where there was a second god figure who seemed to be interchanged with Yahweh. Let that sink in: Jews who went to synagogue before Jesus’s day werereading a Bible that had the Word—the Memra—as a deity figure in addition to the God of Israel. Jews knew that “the Memra was God” before John ever wrote.

For example—and this one is curious in Hebrew and English—take a look at Genesis 19:24, which describes the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah:

Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven.

Kind of odd, isn’t it? The Lord (Yahweh in Hebrew) is the one raining fire out of heaven from the Lord (Yahweh). It really looks like there are two Yahwehs here! My view is that’s the case, in a manner of speaking. There is the invisible Yahweh, God the Father who is spirit. The other is the visible Yahweh that appeared to Abraham in Genesis 15 as the Word, who later appeared to him again to share a meal and speak to him about these wicked cities. As I will argue in this book at length, Yahweh in flesh or manifest as a visible person is Yahweh the Son, the second person of a Jewish godhead. The other was Yahweh in heaven, the Father. Amazingly, the Targum picked up on this and “solved” the odd wording of Genesis 19:24 by inserting the Memra into the verse. Here is how the Targum renders Genesis 19:24:

'Then the Memra of the Lord [Yahweh] rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven.'”

In one sense I regret posting this because I don’t want to waste our time with studies of non-Biblical material.

It was claimed that the prophets would have been far more explicit about Christ if they had really understood it all. However, from my own perspective, that seems to beg the question. The prophets seem to me to be extremely explicit. the LORD God of Israel is Jesus and they speak about Him [and to Him] all the time. The pattern of the Hebrew Scriptures is not 90% God the Father with little bits of the Son popping up every now and again. Rather, it is the Son and the Father being mediated by the Son at all times. Remember, as Jude said, it was Jesus who delivered the people from Egypt.

For myself, I found that as I understood the way that the prophets and the patriarchs speak about Christ and the gospel, I understood more and more of what they were saying. The classic example is the new creation and Abraham. Abraham was preaching about his new creation hope by living in tents in a region where the most desirable living was in the new urban cities. If I am looking for moments when Abraham stood on a soap box and preached ‘sermons’ on the Second Coming then I wonder if I am imposing an alien expectation onto that ancient patriarch. This is true in so many different ways. How did Abrarham express his faith in the resurrection in Genesis 22? How did Moses show that he preferred Christ over all the luxuries of Egypt? Instead of expecting the patriarchs and prophets to talk in the Greek categories and language of 3rd century bishops [or even 21st century Bible students] perhaps we need to be careful to allow them to express the Christian Faith in their own way, using the actions and terms that they really did."

0 thoughts on “What kind of world do we live in? [Paul Blackham]

  1. Josh VB

    Brilliant stuff...

    Where's a good start to get more of the gospel sermon of nature? And (because I'm going to get frustrated if I don't know the answer) what's the significance of the eight-legged spider getting the fly?

  2. Paul Blackham

    The Biblical new creation symbolism of the number eight is written into the natural world around us in so many ways. My favourite has got to be the spider with its eight legs. The Hebrew word for a fly is zebub and one of the titles for the devil is baalzebub - 'The lord of the flies' or 'the god of the flies'. Flies, in both the Bible and the world around us today, are associated with death, decay and disease - signs that the world is exiled from God. It is so wonderful that there is a special category of creature that lives to kill flies. The spider is a little preacher telling us that the time of the flies is limited. There will be a day when the reign of the flies will end! Whenever we see a spider let's redouble our efforts to live as new creatures even now.

  3. Paul Blackham

    I took it for granted that I didn't need to spell out why the number 8 is all about the new creation in Scripture

  4. Tim V-B

    Number 8. Well, it's the first day of the new week. So it's resurrection morning. There were 8 in the ark - undergoing a new creation. Circumcision was on the 8th day, a sign of new creation.

    There must be more, though. And you cannot tease us about the octopus!

  5. Rich Owen


    The spider also has eight eyes. But it does the fly killing using the vibrations on the web. The eyes (i think) detect polarised light... and so mostly only any good at knowing the difference between light and dark. Essential skills for the preacher.

    They still freak me out though. *eeeeyuck*

  6. Rich Owen

    The octopus... I'm intrigued.... they need to die in order to bring new life?

    Tell me there is something in those suction cups cause they are properly weird.

  7. Rich

    Hmm. Could it be that the octopus so enjoys to crush and consume shellfish? Lev 11:10. Am I clutching at straws? :)

  8. @AndrewFMK

    1. There's a tantalising reference to a book in this post "As I will argue in this book at length" - I'd like to read it!
    2. You've got me thinking about the theology of the Octonauts...

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