Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Response to Lucy Larkin

By the Rev Tony Nicholls

Thank you Lucy for your thought provoking and interesting engagement with our understanding of: the Bible; creation; and the connection between the two. While in many ways the introduction resonates with me, I find myself unable to “suspend my suspicions”. For what I am asked to do is to treat the Bible as a revered person, a wise elder, a mentor or a spiritual director. Now each of these people are excellent resources in life, but at the end of the day, they are each simply another person giving advice in one form or another. They only have as much authority as I give them. But when we come to the Bible, we come to listen to the almighty and powerful Lord of the universe. God’s speech through the Bible has an altogether different authority to that of other humans who give advice. When this Lord of the universe warns us about something, it carries infinitely more weight than when a created being warns us about something. However I did appreciate the encouragement given to come to the Bible in humility and patience, ready to be surprised and challenged. We must always be open to God speaking to us in fresh ways, and bringing a greater depth of understanding through the words of the Bible.

Although it is helpful to be reminded that Scripture is not equal to God, I think we need to be careful not to distance Scripture from God. For when we read the Bible, we are listening to God speak. The Bible is the primary means that God uses to communicate with us. It is true that God spoke through humans living in a very different time and culture to our own. But this does not make the Bible any less God’s communication to us. We may need to work hard to understand the culture and context of the Bible, and then work hard to understand how it applies to us today, but it is nevertheless God’s words to us today.

I must admit that whenever I hear the earth spoken of as a being, as something that has a relationship with God, I become very nervous. For although God created the earth and all the creatures on it, the earth itself is not a thinking being like humans. Earth is the place that all other things dwell: humans, animals, plants, etc. But it is not itself a thinking being. I think the danger is in raising the importance of earth to the level of humans, or even above the level of humans. However in the creation account, and throughout the Bible, God clearly lays out the primary importance of humans, of those creatures created in the image of God.

This is not to say that because humans are more important than the earth they dwell on, that they can do whatever they feel like doing to the earth. Instead, humankind is given the responsibility, as Lucy points out, to rule over and care for the earth.

Lucy has very helpfully drawn out in her paper the idea that the Bible is not a collection of books written in one particular style, to be read in one particular way. She has used the language of grammar to show that the authors of the books of the Bible write in the way one would expect human authors to write, that is in different moods. This is perhaps seen to be a corrective to clause 2 of the Jerusalem Declaration, which seems at first glance as though it implies the whole Bible is a rule book to be obeyed. However this is to misunderstand the intent of clause 2 of the Jerusalem Declaration. For in order to translate, read, preach, teach, and obey the Bible accurately, one must recognise and make sense of the: grammar, genre, and context. Thus the way that a Psalm is taught and obeyed will be quite different to the way a narrative or an epistle is taught and obeyed. Just as at the grammatical level an indicative will be taught and obeyed differently to the way an imperative or an optative is taught and obeyed.

Despite my somewhat negative approach to some of the arguments in this paper, I must say that I agree with much of the overall thrust of the paper. I do think it’s important for humans to care for the earth, to rule it wisely as God’s caretakers. Thanks Lucy for your challenge to us.

PS – I just read Phillip’s comments regarding the priority of indicatives over imperatives in the Bible, and the particular mention of the Ten Commandments. Excellent point! Reminds me of what I learnt in ethics at Bible College


  1. Dear Tony,

    Thanks for your thoughtful engagement with my paper and for raisng the points that you have. Look, I know I've done an ABBA to Phillip's Motzart or Barbara's Duke Ellington, or Warren's Heavy Metal(sorry Warren I somehow find I don't know any names of heavy metal bands so can't be specific)Yes the analogy of the Bible as a wise person has its faults, all analogies break down at some point. I suppose the implicit point I was hoping to get across, which I'll make explicit now, is that the GAFCON statement seems to me to operate in the realm of indicatives and imperatives, whereas in the Bible there are other 'moods' that need to be listened to as well for wisdom to result.

    As to your point about the earth spoken of as a being. I'm sorry if this was the impression I gave,I must be more careful with my language. I certainly don't think of the earth in those terms. I think of it as the place where a collection of beings, including humans dwell.It does, however have an integrity of its own independent of human validity, and a relationship with God perhaps via the Holy Spirit which is also independent of human knowing. This is a point that I see God making in the final chapters of Job. 'Do you, O man know when the mountain goat gives birth?.. etc'...

    When you say there is a danger of raising the earth to the level of humans I would want to stress that we are earthly beings too. The physical matter that makes up our bodies can't so easily be dismissed as not integral to who we are.
    Beware of slipping into a spirit/matter division that owes more to Platonic/Greek dualism than it does to the worldview of the ancient Hebrews.

    Thanks for the debate Tony

    Love Lucy

  2. I also wonder Lucy if the Earth is also a way of speaking about the Community of all created things which human beings are part of an important part but only a part. Human beings are not the sum of all of God's creation in Genesis nor are they the sum of all of God's creation mentioned in Revelations 21. I think though this might be what you are getting at.