Tag Archives: Theology

One Bible – Two Testaments

I’m part of a group called Bible School which meets in the home of the person who runs it on Thursday evenings. We study the Bible in the sense of looking at the background, origins and usage of it, and in the past I gather the group has also spent time wrestling with doctrinal issues.

Yesterday evening we had an interesting discussion on the relationship between the Old and New Testaments and were asked to consider the theological relationship (as opposed to the sociological or historical) between the two. After some further reflection, I’ve come to a few conclusions I thought I’d air to see what others think.

One of my personal bugbears is the way some people seem to look at the Old Testament and be able to ‘see Jesus’ all over the place. Now, I’m NOT saying that this is impossible or an illegitimate practice. If God is Trinitarian then this has always been the case as the divine nature is eternal and unchanging, and, as Michael Ramsey put it, God is Christlike and there is no un-Christlike-ness within God at all. Consequently, it is not surprising if reflections by the people of Israel about the nature of God have a Christ-like character, if you will, and that profound resonances with the Gospel narratives can be found within the Old Testament. This is, I suppose, the beginnings of a doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture, though I would not wish to go as far as postulating the infallibility or inerrancy of Scripture as there is clearly a journey being made by the people of God (in Israel in the OT and Paul and others in the NT) in terms of their understanding of the divine nature. For a couple of examples, note the gradual move from a tribal understanding of God to a more universal conception following exile in Babylon and also the changing understanding of the consequences of sin down the generations (re the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ healing of the blind man where the disciples ask about the origin of the man’s blindness).

Having said that, I want also to highlight three potential pitfalls:

1)  The OT has an integrity of its own which can get lost if we ‘Christianise’ it too readily. Canonical criticism (reading a passage in the light of the whole of Scripture) is a sound hermeneutical technique (Walter Moberly is, I gather, a principle advocate) but we need also to consider the historical and literary critical questions in order to form a rounded picture. Some texts such as the early chapters of Genesis to pick a common example suffer from being ripped from their original context and re-interpreted to suit Christianity, both in terms of their riches being lost and difficult questions being side-stepped.

2) It is tempting to use the Old Testament simply as a proof-text for Christianity. We search through the Bible for texts which appear to point to Christ (or at least can be read that way) and disregard the rest. We then fail to appreciate the OT at all. Moreover, this approach ignores the possibility that just as the NT authors drew heavily on the OT and no doubt came to understand it in the light of Christ, seeing prophecy fulfilled (see the Road to Emmaus story), maybe they came to understand Christ in the light of OT and recast the stories of Jesus’ life in the style of these narratives. I understand that the practice is called Midrash and was common in Jesus’ time – the Gospels are not journalistic accounts as we know them today (which does not mean they are ‘fiction ‘ devoid of historical content) but are narratives told  by people steeped in a particular culture and shaped by a national history and expectation (even Luke, a gentile author, draws heavily on the OT). 

3) We can come to Scripture with a particular doctrinal position already established and search for evidence to back it up. For instance, I’ve had discussions with Christians about penal substitutionary atonement who have focused on Isaiah 53 and the Suffering Servant. (It’s true that there are remarkable similarities between the Cross and the OT text, but Second Isaiah has a history of its own and ultimately we are not sure to whom the author was referring. Whilst my point about the guidance of the Holy Spirit comes into play here, I think, we must not forget the very Jewish origins of the text, of exile in Babylon and the hope of deliverance from the God of the Exodus. Both readings are useful and insightful.) While again I do not think it is illegitimate to see how well doctrines measure up to Scripture (in fact I believe it is vital so as to maintain the proper balance between Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience, in which, at least for Anglicans, Scripture is the final authority – in that sense we believe in sola scriptura), I think we need to be doing solid exegesis and not trying to force the Bible to fit pre-conceived views, and this is arguably harder with the OT than the NT, simply because of the time-gap between its authorship and now, and the comparative lack of knowledge of it in Christian circles.

So, at the end of all of that, I want to affirm the continuity between the OT and NT but want to stress

1) we need to let the OT speak for itself and take it seriously without ‘Christianising’ it;

2) there is a radical discontinuity with the resurrection of Christ, which is simultaneously the completion of the old and the beginning of the new creation, to paraphrase NT Wright’s Easter sermon from a couple of years ago. We are not bound to the entirety of the OT world-view and new possibilities are open. I believe it’s no accident that Mary Magdalene saw the risen Jesus and mistook him for the gardener…

Living in a black hole?

A scientist on a research project hijacks a spaceship which he prepares to enter a black hole, with the expectation that exiting out the other side will take him into a whole new universe. Sounds like science fiction? Well, it was the basic plot of a rather poor movie from the 1970s with the stunningly original title ‘The Black Hole‘, but if a recent paper in the Physical Review, one of the most prestigious journals,  is right, it might not be so mad after all…  

The gist of the paper is described in an article in this week’s New Scientist. According to Nikodem J. Popławski of Indiana University, it is possible that our universe exists inside a black hole, or that by passing through a black hole in our universe, we could enter a whole new world. This apparently bizarre concept requires some explanation:  

It’s hard to underestimate the impact Einstein had on the way we view the world. Working in mid-seventeenth century Cambridge (ironically at Trinity College when he was a Unitarian), Sir Isaac Newton formulated his theory of gravity that stood as the best explanation for nearly three-hundred years till a lowly clerk in the Swiss Patent Office changed everything. The results of this change of dominant theory ranged from the gradual shift in physics (as new ideas often take time to gain credibility, and this really was a revolution) to the impact on theology and philosophy, in which it arguably contributed to the collapse of the Enlightenment world-view that relied heavily on Newton’s mechanistic, clock-work view of the universe for its origins in the thought of the English Deists such as John Locke.  

Newton’s view of the world was essentially a common-sense one. The universe could be modelled by taking time as an absolute, independent quantity and having the usual three spatial dimensions we experience every day. When Einstein formulated his theories of relativity, he took it to be axiomatic that the speed of light was constant in a vacuum and that the laws of physics are the same in every inertial frame (for which read frame of reference, or point of view if you will). One consequence of this is that time is no longer an absolute, but rather is bound up with space and affected by the motion of particles and the presence of massive objects such as stars. That’s why physicists talk about ‘space-time’.  

Now, one perhaps surprising thing to note is that Newton could never pin down was what gravity actually is. He could model its results (and his theory is still a very useful approximation to Einstein’s) yet couldn’t define it. Einstein, faced with the same problem, conceptualised it as being a result of the shape of space-time. In other words, in general relativity (GR),  gravity is geometry. The classic example of this is nicely illustrated in this video.  

A black hole is the result of the gravitational collapse of a massive star – we’re talking something like thirty times the mass of the Sun. When this occurs, the fabric of space-time is severely distorted. In the heart of  a black hole, there is understood, in classical GR, to be a singularity, which is a point where all the laws of physics break down and of infinite density and space-time curvature (which is very bad, as infinities in equations cause no end of bother!). This singularity is surrounded by an event horizon. This marks the point at which even light, the fastest thing there is, cannot escape the gravitational pull upon it. If you go pass that point, you’re stuck in the inevitable path towards destruction at the singularity. In a black hole, no-one outside can hear (or see) you scream…  

Another key object we need to know about here is properly called an Einstein-Rosen bridge (but is commonly known as a wormhole) which is sort of like a tunnel that connects two different regions of space-time, allowing fast travel between them. The problem is the stability of these ‘tubes’; they are liable to collapse upon being entered by matter. This gets us into the wonderful world of quantum theory and negative energy (which is not supposed to be allowed, but might be after all…), and means that such structures are at most theoretical as yet. However, for the sake of the argument, let’s suppose that somehow or other, they exist.  

Now, there are different regions of space-time with differing properties either side of an Einstein-Rosen bridge or a singularity in a black hole. This means that passing through into the interior of a black hole or going through an Einstein-Rosen bridge (if it were possible) would result in us emerging into a different universe or part of the universe. Popławski’s paper suggests that, with a slight modification of classical GR, it could be that “observed astrophysical black holes may be Einstein–Rosen bridges, each with a new universe inside that formed simultaneously with the black hole. Accordingly, our own Universe may be the interior of a black hole existing inside another universe”.  

Crazy, but the maths seems to make sense (I knew there had to be advantages to doing this PhD stuff!). The problem of how to get through a wormhole still remains, alas, but it could be the substance (pardon the pun) for some new sci-fi…  

In terms of the implications for science, I reckon that if true, this research renders problematic the idea of a ‘theory of everything’ as the limits on our ability to travel between universes are such that we would only have very partial knowledge of the way the network of universes operates. We can only talk about our visible universe.  

Cosmic inflation


In that sense, it’s a bit like inflationary theory, which predicts a period of rapid expansion shortly after the Big Bang in which quantum fluctuations result in different parts of the universe having different values for the fundamental constants, such as the speed of light, the charge on the electron and so on. 

In the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang, before the fundamental particles, quarks, electrons and so on, have formed we are dependent on the murky and random world of quantum mechanics. One key rule here is the Uncertainty Principle of Heisenberg, which states that we cannot know the position of a particle and its velocity simultaneously with complete accuracy. The more we know about one, the less we can know about the other. This has implications for the vacuum of energy that would be present at that early stage of the universe, in that it would cause fluctuations in that field (as zero is too precise a value for it to take) that result in areas with different values of fundamental constants. As the universe expands, we end up with discrete regions, our visible universe being just one of many. This limits our ability to speak about the universe as a whole, as we can only know anything about our little portion. 

Now, I’ve explored some of the theological implications in my talk on physics and Christianity of current physics thinking, and think the questions raised by the inflationary model apply here. Moreover, in what sense can we speak of the cosmic implications of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus? Does it only apply to our visible universe, or what? I don’t know the answer to this and will, when I get the time, do some reading around what others think, but it’s a fascinating question.

Honesty is always the best policy?

Life got even more ludicrous today.

I’ve been waiting for my Jobseeker’s Allowance to come through and it’s taken nearly two months to discover the problem – my theology course. I need this sorted to have the piece of paper to take to the council to claim my housing benefit, so it is very important.

When I first signed on, I made the mistake of being honest about doing my theology course. The rules say that anything involving sixteen hours or more study time per week constitutes full-time study (which seems silly to me – a bit like adult prices starting from age twelve) and thus would mean one is not entitled to benefits. Now, my course involves one (at its peak two) evening classes a week of two-and-a-half hours each. Even then with private study hours matching contact hours, I have only been doing ten hours per week study at most.

However, as I discovered recently when trying to use a computer in a postgraduate-only room in the university, they (Durham University, who validate my theology course) have registered me as an undergraduate (despite me technically still being a postgraduate, though as I have been viva-ed already, I’m not any more). What’s more, they have me down as a full-time student.

Therefore, I find myself in a fix. What counts in the eyes of the law is the title, not the reality. Thus, being registered as a full-time student, I officially do sixteen hours plus in a week, by definition, even though this does not match the reality. The implication is that the money I was hoping to get paid will not appear as the course only finished yesterday and it’s only from today that I am not a full-time student, not when I made my claim after my PhD viva.

It seems crazy to me that a desire to be honest and upfront could cause so many issues. I stand to lose about £400 in JSA and another £310 in housing benefit as a result of this. The theology course people are refusing to send a letter to the Job Centre explaining the reality of the situation, or that seemed to be the gist of the phone conversation I had this morning. I don’t know if the Job Centre will accept there was an honest misunderstanding, or whether I’ll now be accused of making a false claim.

Moreover, this was money I was planning to use for a deposit on a flat when the time comes to move to start my job, whichever one that ends up being. I’ve already taken out a loan from my bank, so I don’t think borrowing more is an option, so if I need to find a deposit and first month’s rent, plus meet the cost of moving, I could be up shit creek without a paddle unless maybe my employer can help, but of course they have no such obligation. My parents may be able to help, but that’s also a case of ‘wait and see’. I would have been much better off and had far less stress if I had lied, which surely is wrong!?!

Ever feel the walls are closing in? There’s only one thing to sing at a time like this, on the basis that anything is better than a nervous breakdown: