This article has appeared in a new Irish journal, called Irish Pages, ISSN 1477-6162, published on 9th May 2002.


The Court of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland is its highest authority for hearing a charge against one of its clergy for his or her beliefs. The judges consist of three bishops and four members of the legal profession. A sentence might be the loss of one's job or removal from holy orders. Among a number of charges put forward against me by my bishop, Most Rev Richard Clarke, is the charge that I deny the divinity of Christ. Members of the clergy, at both their ordination and their institution to a new post, make declarations of assent to historic formularies of the faith. I was called to a hearing of the Court on 8th April 2002 at which the trial was adjourned to 10th May 2002.

To my mind, all religious traditions are pointing to the ineffable and the indescribable and are asking questions about meaning and purpose (the meaning of both our own lives and that of the universe); they all evolve over time and contain much diversity of thinking and believing; they are continuously in need of re-interpretation. The historic Creeds of Christianity, as well as the documents that came to form the New Testament, were formulated in thought forms that belong to a very different age to ours. In both my articles and in media interviews I have been trying to express, in contemporary language, the meaning of faith from within the perspective of an evolving Christian tradition. I have joined a discussion and a debate that has been going on since our modern era began, there have been many conflicting viewpoints expressed.

The Shoah (the Holocaust), as well as the assumptions on which our modern scientific understanding of the world are based, are commonly cited as reasons for not believing in an interventionist God. Does this mean, therefore, that it does not make sense to understand, in a literal way, the story of the Son of God being sent from heaven to be the Saviour of the world? Does it mean that we cannot rationally take this story to refer to something that happened as a historical event? If it is not true as a historical fact, can the story be true in some other way?

Two other issues concern me, which relate to life both in Ireland and throughout the world. It seems to me that the implications of believing in a non-interventionist God affect dialogue between members of the Christian faith tradition and those of other faith traditions. In the past Christians have seen their tradition as having a superior position, in relation to others, because of their doctrine of the Incarnation (for which belief in an interventionist God is required). Secondly, the image of God in the Christian tradition comes across as primarily male (think of the doctrine of the Trinity: one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit or of the Lord's Prayer: "Our Father"). While there have been female images of God in Christianity's evolving tradition, they have never had a sufficiently important place, to my mind. As the implications of believing in a non-interventionist God are worked out, it seems to me that there can be much greater emphasis put on the notion that God transcends gender and is not to be thought of as primarily male. I believe we need far more symbols and images that come from the feminine world, as well as to hear more frequently the female voice speaking to the world, in both compassion and fury, in the name of her God.

We need to begin at the Enlightenment.

The Jesus of history

The Enlightenment usually dated from c.1650-1780 saw the end of the pre-scientific medieval world-view. Beliefs such as volcanoes and avalanches being acts of God, or famine and disease being punishments from God or a person being capable of wielding supernatural powers belonged to that old world-view. So did belief in an interventionist God. The Enlightenment heralded the new age of Reason. Since 17th Century both the understanding of history and the methods of historical investigation have developed very considerably and continue to do so. It has put theology and the 'beliefs of the faithful' into crisis.

For theologians it has meant trying to distinguish between the 'Jesus of history' and the 'Christ of faith'. "The distinction between the two figures is the difference between a historical person who lived in a particular time and place and was subject to the limitations of a finite existence, and a figure who has been assigned a mythical role, in which he descends from heaven to rescue humankind and, of course, eventually returns there" (1). The ground-breaking work of scholars such as Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768), David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) and Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) has been built upon by scholars from around the world too numerous to name; Irish scholars, such as Sean Freyne, have made significant contributions. It has been called the quest for the historical Jesus.

"The question of the historical Jesus was stimulated by the prospect of viewing Jesus through the new lens of historical reason and research rather than through the perspective of theology and traditional creedal formulations." (2). It was seen that the documents of the New Testament, and other Christian writings of the same era, contain the stories of the 'Christ of faith'; and that it requires considerable 'detective work' to find the 'Jesus of history' behind and within some of those stories. The vast range of differing interpretations of Jesus, and of his significance and meaning, that has emerged over the last 250 years has been affected by the stages to which modern historical methods and self-understanding had reached and by the current dominating philosophical climate of the day. It has also been influenced by the socio-economic-political and cultural backgrounds of the scholars, and by a variety of other factors that relate to hidden assumptions and motives, values, personality and gender differences and psychological and spiritual development.

The search for the historical Jesus has been aided by new knowledge about the socio-economic conditions under which he lived, the extent of Hellenization in 1st century Palestine, and the nature of provincial life in that part of the Roman empire. The discovery in 20th century of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi manuscripts (including the Gospel of Thomas) have also contributed to a fuller understanding. However, to my mind, the major factor has been the methods developed to assess the probability of the words of Jesus, as recorded primarily in the gospels, being his authentic words. One eminent Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, founded in U.S.A. in the mid-eighties, estimates that 50% of the words ascribed to Jesus in the Synoptic gospels (St. Mark, St. Matthew, St. Luke), St. John's gospel and the gospel of St. Thomas are not authentic words of Jesus. Each age and culture, no matter how modern the techniques of historical investigation used will, though, to some extent find its own 'Jesus of history'. A range of criteria have been developed and refined over the last two hundred years to aid scholars find the words most likely to have been said by Jesus. If he only spoke in Aramaic, then the best we have are the Greek translations, with a few exceptions, of those words. These criteria fall into a number of main groups: it is possible to see how one writer has altered the text of another writer (for example, the authors of Matthew or Luke have changed the text of Mark's gospel); Jesus used a distinctive language and oral style found in aphorisms and parables; sometimes the needs and problems of the church were addressed by words of Jesus put on his lips by the church; the beliefs of the church about the significance of Jesus were expressed by Jesus himself through constructing sayings and speeches and putting them on his lips. This is but the briefest summary of a complex area of scholarship over which there is diversity of opinion.

The Christ of faith

There are differences as well as similarities between my current thinking about the Jesus of history and that of the Jesus seminar and their founder, Robert Funk (3). They would see Jesus as a wandering sage (or teacher) and John the Baptist as an eschatological prophet. While I, too, see Jesus as a wandering sage, teaching through remarkable parables and unusual aphorisms; I also see both Jesus and John the Baptist as 'end-time' prophets who expected a supernatural intervention by God to restore the fortunes of their nation, giving back to them both independence and peace in a kingdom ruled over by their God. We agree in thinking that the first generation of Christians thought that Jesus would return, within their lifetimes, to usher them into a new kingdom, now envisaged as being in heaven.

The ancient community of Israel was a small nation by comparison with the much bigger ones who dominated life in the Middle East over the period of a thousand years before the birth of Jesus. The members of this community believed that their God was intimately involved with their history, out of his love for them as 'his own people'; and they developed a way to understand their defeats and misfortunes as expressing both the anger of their God and his punishment on them for their disobedience to him and his laws. After their experience of exile in Babylon (beginning in 586 BCE) and in the centuries following, some of them developed a hope that some day their God would drive away for ever their enemies and that their fortunes as a nation would be restored (see, for example, Daniel, especially chapters 7 and 12).

For this strand of Judaism, it was a nationalistic and religious utopian vision. Their God would reign in power and glory. This new kingdom which would follow on after the resurrection of the dead and the judgement of all was thought by various groups in 1st century Judaism to be around the corner. The Essene community living at the Dead Sea expected it at any moment, and John the Baptist saw it as his mission to warn people about it. The judgement would be fearsome according to John the Baptist. The group called the Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, would not have agreed with this vision.

What some Jews assumed, at this time, in the development of Israel's religious tradition as it evolved, were several beliefs. First of all, they did not think of people when they died as going 'straight to heaven' to enter an eternal dimension of life. Rather they thought of their dead as waiting in some shadowy existence below the ground for the arrival of the judgement day. Before the exile they had not believed in an after-life at all, it was a relatively recent belief for them to have adopted. Secondly, they seem to have thought that God would appoint an agent for the task of bringing in the new kingdom (a messiah or several messiahs? Or a Son of Man figure? See chs. 7 and 12). Thirdly, they appeared to believe that there would be a time of tribulation and trial before the day that the new kingdom would dawn (see Daniel again and the gospels).

Whether Jesus of Nazareth was a wandering sage or rabbi, or whether he was an 'end-time' prophet like John the Baptist, his aphorisms and parables are part of his continuing legacy. Pontius Pilate probably sentenced Jesus to death because he appeared to be looked on by some of the volatile pilgrims, who had arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover festival, as a messiah. Neither Pilate nor the Jewish leadership wanted civil unrest fired by deep religious beliefs and nationalistic hopes.

While we will never know for certain what triggered the disciples' claims that God had raised Jesus to new life beyond the grave, one thing to my mind must be clear. Believers in God agree that the existence of God cannot be proved, although in the Christian tradition attempts have been made to do so by many distinguished theologians, through the centuries, such as Anselm and Aquinas. If God's existence cannot be proved, then it follows, I consider, that the disciples needed faith to believe in Jesus' resurrection; for only God could bring back to life someone who had died. If the disciples met Jesus, after his death, in a way that did not require faith, then his resurrection would be a proof of God's existence. So this means, for me, that Jesus' resurrection belongs to the faith stories that emerged about him after his death, a point not always (I think) clearly appreciated. These stories belong with others to what is called the stories of the 'Christ of faith'. We have noted already another related belief: that he would come back again (see 1 Thessalonians ch.4 ) to usher in the new kingdom. This kingdom very soon after Jesus' death ceased to be thought of, by his followers, as an earthly one; but as a heavenly kingdom. In fact, Jesus has not returned as they expected, and the world has continued on its way.

The various interpretations of the meaning that the first generation of Christians found in the death of the Jesus of history also came to form part of the faith stories of the 'Christ of faith'. Their scriptures (the Old Testament) were hugely influential in the task of drawing out the meaning of his life and death as they were now coming to perceive it. He was believed to be the one who had destroyed human death, which had come into the world as a result of sin. Secondly, they believed, he had borne, through accepting death, the punishment which should have been faced by the rest of the human race (those already dead, those who were alive and those not yet born). Thirdly his death was believed to have been a sacrifice made to God.

Many people (though not by any means all who subscribe to Christian faith) recognise difficulties in these interpretations of what Jesus' death was believed to have meant or achieved. Some of their objections are these : from science, death is a natural process and not (as traditionally believed) a punishment for sin and a power needing to be defeated (e.g. Romans 5.12 "Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all because all men sinned.); from ethics, an innocent person (claimed to be Jesus) should not bear the punishment of the guilty (e.g. Romans chs.5 & 6); from theology, to require for the forgiveness/salvation process a human death and sacrifice suggests divine sadism (e.g. Hebrews 9.11-14 "But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.").

Whatever one may think of these objections; it is clear that for the first generation of Christians the Jesus of history became in their faith stories a Saviour and a Mediator. The Christ of faith was growing in meaning and significance for them. The faith stories, whether they be his birth stories or the theological discourses put on Jesus' lips in St John's gospel, all help to portray who the Christ of faith was for Christians of the first century CE. Some of the stories would speak of him as God's pre-existent Son and of the Word made flesh ("and the Word was God" St John 1.1).

Theologians today examine the Mediterranean world of this 1st century in which the gospel was formulated and preached. They know of its many other religions, especially those that speak of a dying and rising god. It was a world very different to ours in 21st century. People then believed in interventionist gods; in some of the stories they told, these gods might procreate children of human and divine parenthood (think of the stories of Greek mythology). In Acts 14 we read that some of the people of Lystra could say of Paul and Barnabas: v11 "The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!" vv12-13 'Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, because he was the chief speaker, they called Hermes. And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was in front of the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the people'. It was a world where, for worship, animal sacrifice was common, such as in the Temple worship of Judaism in Jerusalem. It was a time when the Roman emperor was sacrificed to as another god; a world where there was a strong belief in the supernatural, and where many miracles were believed to have happened. It was held that special people could perform supernatural actions.

The Jesus of history believed to be risen and alive, believed to be the Saviour of the end-time, was now being interpreted and believed to be a divinity as well. See 1 Cor. 8.6: "To us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ". The title 'Lord' suggests a belief in divinity. The Christ of faith and the stories of what was believed about him continued to grow in the centuries leading up to the formation of the historic Creeds of the early church especially those that related to doctrines of the Incarnation and of the Trinity. All of this was taking place in a pre-scientific world in which interventionist gods were believed to be continuously at work. If it was possible to believe in a person who was both fully divine and fully a human being at the same time in such a world; it is very difficult to do so in 21st century. This is a part of the controversy in which I am engaged.

History and Faith

What are the connections, as I see them, between the Jesus of history (whose story lies behind and within the stories of the Christ of faith which are found in the New Testament and in other early Christian writings), and those stories of the Christ of faith, and the mysterious God we reach out to, seeking to adore and serve? I referred briefly to the parables and other sayings of the Jesus of history. In these he speaks of his belief (as a member of the ancient community of Israel) that God can be trusted to be both infinitely loving and endlessly forgiving. The Christ of faith, believed to be both Saviour and divine, embodies these values of love and forgiveness. There would have been no Christ of faith if there had not been, first, a Jesus of history. However, if the stories of the Christ of faith are not to be taken in a literal and historical sense, they can still have another sort of truth.

The Christ of faith points to the mysterious God of infinite love and endless forgiveness, whom both Jesus and his followers had believed in, and who is still believed and trusted in today. The stories of the Christ of faith are saying that we are found loveable, forgivable and reconcilable by God. This is what is believed to be true. It is this same truth of faith that is metaphorically referred to in the Pauline saying " in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself" (2 Cor.5.19). The stories of the Christ of faith telling of his birth, death and resurrection are metaphors of faith that transcend the literal and point us to realities beyond our normal range of knowledge.

Confusing the stories of the Jesus of history and the stories of the Christ of faith has caused immense trouble for the churches. It has not been easy for many people to make the distinction between them; particularly since the Christ of faith stories (about the coming and return of a Son of God as Saviour, Mediator and Divine person) are intimately connected to the stories of the Jesus of history, the man from Nazareth. One example would be the stories of Jesus' resurrection appearances. Many Christians would still see them as historical reports, albeit of an unusual and unique event. Mary, so the faith story goes, met the risen Christ and saw him with her own eyes; here was the man she had come to know and love over the last few years and who had been put to death by crucifixion on the previous Friday. The disciples had a meal with the risen Christ; again he is the same person that they had shared supper with on the previous Thursday evening. As was noted earlier, only God can raise someone back to life after he or she has died. If the resurrection stories really were descriptions of historical events, then it would prove the existence of God, which believers do not accept to be possible. We believe God exists, we do not know it. So this means, to my mind, that the resurrection stories are faith stories and belong to the Christ of faith stories, stories whose truth is not dependent on these stories being taken literally, as descriptions of historical events, but rather is dependent on a metaphorical and symbolical interpretation; pointing, as they can, to what we believe to be true about God and his love and forgiveness. Indeed, even to speak of historical objectivity is to use a post-Enlightenment concept and, therefore, to introduce a reverse anachronism to the 1st century. Many scholars consider that 1st century writers were primarily concerned with expressing meaning rather than historical literalism in the modern sense.

I believe that Jesus would be both amazed and horrified if he were able to come back and meet us today. As a practising Jew, he would have had no idea that a new religion had been founded in his name, nor of the beliefs formulated about him, nor of the forms of worship in which his name and his story figure so prominently. He would feel very remote from our world and culture. Jesus of Nazareth lived in a very different world from ours today. Yet despite all the differences, he shares some fundamental values with those who in one way or another sense that they have some significant things in common with him. His religion was that of ancient Israel, of 1st century CE Judaism, and in Temple or in synagogue, he found vehicles to use to convey his worship to Israel's God. These vehicles may be quite different from those used in Christian worship, but what they transport is much the same: praise and gratitude, penitence and remorse, bewilderment and pain, trust and rage, dependence and responsibility. Many of the ethical and spiritual values of ancient Israel's faith are found in the Christian way of life too: peace, forgiveness, justice, compassion, hope, accountability, freedom, dignity, worth, love, and co-operation. He believed that we live in a moral universe and that ultimately we are accountable for our lives to a moral God. It is in this sense that we should understand the traditional image of the kingdom of God.

Silence and God

Is there a way to understand the Incarnation which takes us away from having to use the Greek and Latin philosophical concepts of the first five centuries CE which suggested it was plausible to believe that in the one 'person' there could be both a human person and a divine person? I share with others a belief that the church is in transition as it continues to move from a pre-scientific supernatural world in which its creeds were formulated into a modern world. Space needs to be provided for fresh thought that may not appear to be orthodox, but may be a bridge leading to a new orthodoxy. This is how the church's intellectual life has progressed in the past. There are many examples of how, over differing issues, some members' thinking went ahead of the 'corporate faith' of the church as an institution, and then later on the 'corporate faith' caught up with its membership.

Karl Barth described theology as rational wrestling with mystery. Theologians do their work of thinking about God, as do 'ordinary believers' by using a range of different analogies, metaphors and symbols. Two of the ways in which the relationship between human beings and God have been imagined involve thinking in both personal and non-personal analogies. Using a non-personal analogy we can think of God as like an ocean; and we, and all the rest of her creation, are the waves on the ocean. Speaking like this, we can state a belief that we live in God or say that God is in everything. Using the images of ocean and wave poetically we can say that God (as ocean) knows the life of the wave from the inside, God is in the wave. Here is a way to express that the divinity of God was intimately connected with the humanity of the Jesus of history, that God knew human life and experience from the 'inside', by being so connected to Jesus. Clearly, however, such a connection is unique only in the sense that each human being's life is believed to be unique.

On the other hand, to use personal analogies is to think in terms of an 'I-Thou' relationship, as Martin Buber described it. Here God is thought of as like a person. We stand before such an all-embracing God and are found to be loveable, forgivable and reconcilable. We also stand before such a moral God as beings who have been created as moral beings, who are held accountable and responsible. We are created in love, for love, and by a God of love.

While a considerable number of members of the Christian churches no longer find it credible to believe in an after-life and might interpret concepts such as 'resurrection' in terms of this life's experiences; I find myself still believing in life after death. To believe in life after death is not something that I can prove, any more than I can prove the existence of God. However, because I believe that we are infinitely precious to God, and loved and valued beyond our imaginings; I still find it plausible to believe that there is meaning beyond death in a new moral universe, which we cannot begin to conceive. It is highly mysterious; but, such is the goodness of God, that I believe and trust that all evil will finally be vanquished (but in that deeply demanding way of 'overcoming evil by doing good').

We are social beings whose humanity is significantly dependent on our relationships not just with each other, but with the cosmos and its Creator. I find it appalling that so many of us, particularly in the so-called developed world, go on daring to live lifestyles in painful contradiction to our professed beliefs and values in a global village full of the horror, humiliation, and neglect of others' basic needs as people. The sociologist, Francis Fukuyama, in his book, called 'The Great Disruption', on the transition from an industrial age to an Information age, wrote that he thinks that the mainline religions will see a decrease in the importance of the creedal aspects of their evolving faith traditions. A religious tradition is sometimes described as having four components: creed, cult, code and community. He has suggested that people will go on joining the mainline churches for several reasons. They will want to belong to a community with a value system (a code) that their children can be brought up in. They will want a community with rituals and resonance that connect deeply with the past. He believes that there will be more emphasis on orthopraxy (right practice) and much less on orthodoxy (right belief), the creedal aspect of religious traditions will be recognised for what it is: a rational wrestling with mystery where there can legitimately be considerable diversity in the speculation undergone.

A point that he does not make is that the stories both of the Jesus of history and of the Christ of faith will almost certainly function like the great plays of someone like Shakespeare. For generations, people have found that a production of Hamlet, Macbeth or Lear has spoken with power and meaning to them and has helped them understand a little more of the mystery of what it means to be human. So too, in all probability, the Christian stories will continue to speak with power and meaning to our human condition.

Even in the pre-scientific age of interventionist gods people were aware of the hiddenness, silence, and mystery of such gods. In our modern age, this hiddenness, silence and mystery are more apparent. The sense of the silence, absence, and unknowability of God has pervaded the modern era and fills the poetry of someone like R.S. Thomas and was reflected on deeply by Simone Weil. It raises the question of who are we in the face of such mystery.


I have written of religions, elsewhere, as being like motorways that are constantly in need of another lane. In other words, I am saying that it is normal for there to be much diversity within an evolving religious tradition. Some will travel along a conservative lane, some down an evangelical lane, some down a liberal or radical lane. As new understandings and interpretations emerge, more lanes are required to accommodate those journeying with fresh ideas. Ultimately to live with faith is to admit that we do not know for sure about God nor indeed about the rightness of our ethical commitment. God may or may not exist. We remain problematic to ourselves, and life retains its mysterious quality. Part of our identity, wrote John Caputo, is that we do not know who we are. W.H. Auden thought that one good way to live with this sense of the mystery of who we really are is by laughter, which is both a protest and an acceptance.

The broad church that I believe is important to maintain will continue to contain diversity of thinking and believing as the stories of Christianity, preserved and interpreted within the Christian community, are passed on to the next generation. In particular, the understandings of the Christ of faith stories will to, my mind, continue to require to be received with tolerance, broad-mindedness, generosity of spirit and mutual respect, as believers remain mindful that nobody knows for certain when it comes to the things of God. I hope the seven judges of the Court of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland will have these things in mind when they sit to deliberate and decide on their judgement.

1. Page 7, The Five Gospels, Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar.
2. Page 2, op cit.
3. See both The Five Gospels, and Honest to Jesus, Robert W. Funk.

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