Sunday, 14 March 2021

Jesus and paradox

How can something be hidden and un-hidden at the same time, clear to children and unclear to the better educated? How is it that something which Jesus’ disciples can hear is in a sense completely un-hearable to others at the same time? To some people this may be a contradiction. To others, it’s a paradox that is only explained by an underlying truth.

For instance…

When Jesus says his words are for those who have ears to hear, he is answering his disciples’ question of why his words go misunderstood. It’s the sort of enigmatic reply that Jesus is known for. Even the phrase “for those who have ears to hear” is curious. It’s a humorous word picture, not a statement of philosophy. Some people who have ears are like people who don’t have ears, Jesus is saying, and therefore they are like a deaf person even if they heard every word he said. Confused?

I’m going to talk about the Trinity. Many people would run a mile at the thought. Discussion of the Trinity has been appropriated by philosophers for well over a thousand years. In my book on the Trinity, I take the subject out of the realms of philosophy and into the world of semitic thought, a world of word-pictures rather than logic statements, where thoughts are often conveyed in narratives and images without explanatory notes.

It’s not an easy thing for many in the west to get their heads around this. Western intellectual thinking long long ago had a paradigm shift that separated it from semitic ways of thinking. Valid in its own way, western rationalism serves many useful and important purposes. But it can be tone deaf to the music of the Bible. How do we attune our ears to the world of semitic thought? It’s not just a different way of seeing, but more like different eyes to see with. It’s not just different ways of hearing, but in Jesus’ word-picture, a matter of having ears at all. It’s not irrational, but it is different.

Let me make an analogy that people in the west can understand more readily. Ikea furniture instructions. The sort of instructions that come with pictures and without words. Because they are sold in different countries that speak in different tongues. Ikea know that a picture of a plank and a screw means the same everywhere, and it is most efficient for them to sell their product with universal pictures rather than multiple translations. But what happens when you take it home and try to put it together? One person will be in a state of frustration complaining to a partner that “the pictures are not very explicit,” only to be told annoyingly by their partner, “yes, they are.” The partner will, to their irritation, say, “Look the pictures show you that this size screw goes into this size plank on this side.” And the first person moans again, “That’s not explicit to me,” and the second person just doesn’t understand why the pictures are not clear and explicit to the first person. And it's frustrating at times because Ikea have decided that explicit images are more valuable than explicit statements. I'm using the two different meanings of the word explicit: visually clear and not hidden; or verbally explanatory to remove doubt as to meaning.

The first person might have been happier if Ikea furniture came with well-written verbal instructions alongside the pictures. Because that is some people’s key idea of explicit. But not everyone's. Ikea believe the diagrams are explicit (tested by people's ability to readily follow and understand them).

Another example. Which is more explicit for a child reading a Janet and John book, the picture of the red ball in the air, or the statement – here in the English language - that “the red ball is in the air”? To the child, of course, the image is clear and explicit and sufficiently so, but the English adult wants the child to learn the explicit statement in the English language. It is possible to be verbally clear and explicit only because it has a clear and explicit image first. But, as we become more educated, we forget that the image is clear and explicit, because verbal reasoning becomes dominant over the visual in Western thought. In fact, part of the problem is that we use the word explicit in the two different senses of the word, and we have a view as to which is more important, a bias for the verbal over the visual. 

So much so that if you ask an adult in Britain what it means to be speak of an explicit image, their brain will reach for a qualifier: e.g. “Do you mean sexually explicit images?” (Meaning that there are body parts that are not hidden.) Or we might think of explicit violence in a movie. But change the context, and the language is used casually. The Ikea image is “not very explicit,” but the television footage of a footballer committing a foul in the penalty area “is pretty explicit.” We know the conversation: the foul tackle is pretty explicit in the TV pictures, but not from where the referee was standing at the time. Eyes to see, ears to hear. We still know an explicit picture when we see one. Basically, explicit means that the object, the ball in the air for instance, is fully in view and not hidden. This is rather different from what a philosopher defines as “explicit,” which means that a verbal statement is clearly explained beyond doubt. And the historic problem with understanding the Trinity is connected to the fact that discussion of it has been appropriated by the intellectual verbal discipline of philosophy, and it is hard for Western philosophers to stomach the idea of their discipline ever being subordinate to the word-pictures and narratives of Scripture. It's a bit like the dichotomy between a silent movie and a talkie - in the early days, many critics thought silent movies the superior art form, communicating truth through explicit and implicit imagery, whereas most films later came to be dominated by dialogue. (The rise of CGI has shifted the balance back a bit.)

Jesus claims that there are things that are explicitly clear to children and simultaneously hidden from adults. Contradiction or paradox? Another way of putting it: there are things that are straightforwardly knowable but only to those “who have ears to hear.” Contradiction or paradox? It’s paradox in the sense of an apparent contradiction that leads to underlying truth. An image is only clear and explicit to your understanding if you can focus your eyes on it. Jesus is saying that his words are misunderstood only if your ears are not attuned to them.

There is a terrific youtube channel which analyses Beatles recordings to observe oddities that listeners have probably never noticed, with the premise that once you hear this, you can’t unhear it. That’s a great way of putting it. My book on the Trinity does something similar. As I said, in my book I take the subject out of the realms of philosophy and into the world of semitic thought, a world of word-pictures rather than logic statements, where thoughts are often conveyed in narratives and images without explanatory notes. I show for example the picture of a triune God in 2 Chronicles 5-7. There we have the word-picture and narrative of God in heaven listening to prayer whilst God's Name resides in his earthly temple and God's Glory fills that temple. I show it to people and we find that once you see it, you can’t un-see it. Being Western thinkers, we can be immediately tempted to try to appropriate it hastily back into the language of philosophy and wrestle with questions such as, where are statements about “being” and “persons,” but the point of my book is to retrieve it back to semitic thought until we have grasped it. The force of explicit propositional statements and the force of explicit word-pictures can amount to two different things. 

The place to start understanding the Trinity is the word-pictures and narratives of semitic thought.  Borrowing the language of science for a moment, we make our observations first. We look at the word-pictures first. We can posit our logic theories afterwards. But we can’t start with abstract theories and project them back onto the Bible. That is precisely not the way to read the Bible at all. That is not letting the Bible speak to us. Remember how the Ikea pictures are clear and explicit in meaning to one pair of eyes and not to another. Remember how the footballer’s foul tackle is explicit in the TV pictures but yet was not from where the referee was standing at the time: once you see it, you can't un-see it.

When Jesus spoke in paradoxes, he did so to makes us think, but not to make us only abstract thinkers. He did so to make us ask, why are we not hearing what others can hear? Why are we not seeing what others can see and understand clearly and explicitly? The ball is in the air and not at all hidden. We can’t solve the problem by being Western rationalists. Other worldviews are available, worldviews communicated in word-pictures and narratives.

Another example. John’s Gospel is a tour de force of paradoxes. John wants to make us think, but not merely to make us abstract thinkers. That’s why he communicates his paradoxes in word-pictures and narrative. Here is an example.

This is by way of a meditation on John chapter 20. Here Jesus says, the Father is “my God, and your God” and later Thomas calls Jesus “my Lord and my God”.

That’s a thought-provoking contrast, but that’s not all. In this chapter, Jesus tells Mary not to touch him and this is when Jesus says to her that the Father is “my God, and your God”; and a few verses later Jesus tells Thomas to touch him, and this is when Thomas calls Jesus “My Lord and my God”. It’s a striking juxtaposition. Here are the verses from John 20:

John 20:17, 27-29: ‘Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not;

for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God…

Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side:

and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God.

Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.’ (KJV – out of copyright!)


This is surely a deliberate contrast - what do we learn from it?:

- Jesus’ first command, not to touch him,

when Jesus says to Mary that the Father is

“my God, and your God”;

and then

- Jesus’ second command, to touch him,

when Thomas calls Jesus,

“My Lord and my God.”


The way John relates the resurrection narrative is surely intended to make us think about these two moments together.

The first excerpt emphasises Jesus’ humanity in relationship to the Father - before and after the resurrection the human Jesus has a God, the Father. This is as a Christian expects, for Jesus “had to be made like his brothers in every way” (Hebrews 2:14, 17). We, who are flesh and bone, have a God to worship and so therefore must the flesh and bone Jesus.

The second excerpt presents his humanity (ie ‘touch me’) and his divinity {‘my Lord and my God’ says Thomas to him}. Contradiction or paradox?

John’s gospel climaxes as foreshadowed in the prologue: the divine Word made flesh (John 1:1, 14). In his humanity Jesus is a flesh and bone man (John 1:14) whose God is the Father (John 20:17); at the same time, Jesus in his divinity (John 1:1) is ‘my God’ (John 20:28).

John loves paradox. It’s signalled in Jesus’ contradictory instructions to touch him and not to touch him, and it goes a step deeper with Jesus speaking of “my God” and being hailed by Thomas as “my God.” It’s not a contradiction, but a deliberate paradox to open our eyes and ears to underlying truth.

Here’s another way of communicating about these verses about Jesus.

The prologue: John 1:1 presents Jesus as ‘god’ without the definite article in the Greek, saying “and the word was god” (most translations, which a minority would translate as “a god”); and the narrative climaxes in John 20:28 when the Greek unambiguously supplies the definite article, with Thomas calling Jesus “the god of me” (that is, to translate the Greek literally). This verse is normally translated in English as “my God”, not as “the God of me”, obscuring the fact that the definite article (“the”) is unambiguously supplied in the Greek, declaring Jesus as “the God”.

Here in the climax of the narrative any lingering questions from John 1:1 about Jesus’ divinity are answered. He is “the God of me”.

Only the incarnate Son could be “my God” to Thomas, and yet at the same time speak of the Father as “my God.” Therefore to myself writing this post, both the Father and the Son are “my God.” That’s the message to me of John chapter 20. Does it resolve all the philosophical questions we might ask about it? Absolutely not. Is it communicating in semitic thought, in narrative and word pictures? Yes, absolutely. To begin to understand, then, philosophy had to be subordinate to the word-pictures and narrative.

I hope this meditation gives you a chance to think how you might look to Jesus and call him “the Lord of me and the God of me,” the divine Word made flesh.

What I’ve written here is bound to offend some people. Why? The answer is in narrative:

And when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying in the temple, and saying, Hosanna to the son of David; they were sore displeased,

And said unto him, Hearest thou what these say? And Jesus saith unto them, Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise? (Matthew 21:15-16 KJV)

Sometimes hard to take for those of us with an extensive Western education, but Paul wrote: “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise” (1 Cor 1:27). Contradiction or paradox? You decide. John Lennon once, commenting on how musicologists were analysing Beatles' songs, said that intellectuals have proven that you can be a genius and not have a clue what's going on. In my life, I often come back to that. 

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Review by Eddie Arthur of my book 'God in 3D'

Review by Eddie Arthur of my book God in 3D: Finding the Trinity in the Bible and the Church Fathers

Reproduced here with permission  

Books I Have Read: God in 3D

The thing about this book is that it is completely novel. You won’t find discussion of persons, essences or hypostases. It takes an approach to the Trinity which is rooted in Biblical theology rather than in dogmatics.

I’ve read a lot of books on the Trinity over the years, but nothing quite like God in 3D: Finding the Trinity in The Bible and the Church Fathers by Colin Green. It’s a fascinating book built around the central, simple theme that the Old Testament description of the Temple contains basic threads that point to the triune nature of God, which is more fully revealed in the New Testament.

The book is a medium format paperback of just over 250 pages. The style is probably best described as academic-light. It is aimed at a general readership, and there is a light smattering of footnotes and a good bibliography. Unfortunately, it will set you back about £20 for a paperback at and even the Kindle version is not cheap (don’t even think about buying the hardback).

"This is a journey to discover how the first Christians were primed by the temple stories of the Old Testament and prepared by Jesus to understand the three-in-one God – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." (p. 1)

"You don’t need to have had any special training. This book is for the train or untrained reader alike, for anyone who wants to understand the Trinity, and for anyone who may have doubts about understanding it." (p. 2)

It is difficult, nay impossible, in a short review to give a detailed overview of the argument of a book like this one. The central theme is that when the Old Testament speaks of God’s Name and His Glory dwelling in the Temple, these point to the Son and the Spirit, who while the transcendent God (the Father ) dwells in heaven. I will admit that I didn’t find the first chapter which introduced this topic very convincing. However, there is an appendix which outlines the academic case for the argument which I found very helpful. I would suggest reading this appendix either before or immediately after, reading the first chapter.

Having set out his case, the author goes on to demonstrate how the themes of the book are present through the New Testament and on into the writings of the Fathers. There is an important chapter on discipleship, a theme which distressingly is often missing from popular books on the Trinity. This chapter has helpful suggestions on prayer, reading the Bible, the Lord’s supper and the communal life of the church.

The thing about this book is that it is completely novel. You won’t find discussion of persons, essences or hypostases. It takes an approach to the Trinity which is rooted in Biblical theology rather than in dogmatics. I will leave it to the systematic theologians to discuss the merits or demerits of this approach. From my point of view, it presents a welcome alternative to some of the of the Trinitarian literature that I have read. It made me think and reflect on my own practice, rather than wrack my brains trying to understand what was going on – and that’s never a bad thing.

Who should read this book? I wouldn’t give it to someone who had never really thought about the Trinity, I’d offer someone like that Delighting in the Trinity by Tim Chester. However, for someone who has read a little theology and wants to know more, this would be an excellent follow up book to some of the basics. If only it didn’t cost so much.

I was provided with a review copy of this book by the author, but I have tried not to let this generosity influence my review. If I thought it was a stinker, I would have said so.

This review was originally posted at:

Sunday, 21 February 2021

Book review: Dale Tuggy’s ‘Trinity,’ independently published 2013


Dale Tuggy’s book began life as an encyclopaedia article on the Stanford website. It is rather like the curate’s egg - good in parts. As for what it sets out to do, Tuggy writes: ‘This article surveys these recent “rational reconstructions” of the Trinity doctrine, which centrally employs [sic] concepts from contemporary analytic metaphysics, logic, and epistemology‘ (pg 1). This is an interesting endeavour, given that recent “rational reconstructions” are a rather niche area, and a good summary is to be welcomed.

Nonetheless, its survey falls a bit short of that aim for reasons I’ll explain. The key part of such a book is its review of what other scholars have written on the subject, and we find mixed results. There are two main flaws. One flaw is erroneous readings of other scholars’ work. I will give three examples of this.

First example: Tuggy’s paraphrase of James Anderson. (This example refers to James Anderson, Paradox in Christian Theology: An Analysis of its Presence, Character and Epistemic Status, Paternoster, 2007.) Tuggy writes: “Orthodox belief about the Trinity, Anderson holds, involves one in believing for example, that Jesus is identical to God, the Father is identical to God, and that Jesus and the Father are not identical” (Tuggy pg 47). Tuggy’s citation is pages 11-59 of Anderson’s book. On checking, I can’t see Anderson say that. Perhaps Tuggy has in mind what Anderson writes on pg 30, but if so it is an erroneous paraphrase of this: “the Father is identical with, not distinct from, the one divine ousia (essence, substance, Godhead); likewise for the Son and Spirit.” It is frustrating when checking a source reveals something different from what is claimed. Saying “identical” to “God” (as a count noun) is, I’m sure, not what Anderson meant by saying “identical with… the one divine ousia.” This is a serious difference.

Second, Tuggy claims that “Augustine’s mediaeval successors all reject three-self approaches to the Trinity.” (One- and three-self theories are central to the book, as I’ll explain.) Tuggy’s citation for this is Richard Cross’s article in Rethinking Trinitarian Theology: Disputed Questions and Contemporary Issues in Trinitarian Theology, T&T Clark, 2012.) Tuggy cites pages 26-27 of it. However, turning to it we find that it doesn’t refer to “three-self” anything. Rather, Cross’s book does say this: “Medieval views of the Trinity are all clearly in the so-called ‘Latin’ camp” (Cross, pg 27). Tuggy imposes his ‘one/three-self’ framework, categorising the ‘Latin camp’ as 'one-self', as if these were equivalent – and he does not make it clear that this is not what Cross is saying either.  

Third, Tuggy seems to attribute to Richard Cross (Duns Scotus, Oxford University Press, 1999, page 69) this thought - Tuggy writes: “The persons, as it were, partially but don’t entirely “overlap”, as each is also partly composed of a unique personal property…” So, Tuggy. But this is not what Cross is saying. Indeed my suspicions were alerted by Tuggy’s peculiar talk of a person “partly composed of a… property.” What Cross actually writes is this: “What Scotus means is that the Father is not a part of the Son; not being the Father is a necessary property of the Son. (It is not a necessary property of the divine essence; hence the Father is formally distinct from the divine essence, but really distinct [in the relevant sense] from the Son.)” (Cross, pg 69). This does not mean a divine person being “partly composed of a… property.” Curiously, such is the sort of thing some Unitarians say pejoratively of the doctrine of the Trinity.

To be clear, the only citations that I cross-checked where these three, and all three are erroneous readings of these scholars, which is troubling.

I said two main flaws, and the other is to do with how Tuggy uses a one/three-self idea. The thing is, this is meant to be a literature review of writers’ ideas. But the writers he covers have largely not considered the sort of one/three-self framework Tuggy writes about. But his literature review gives the impression of centuries’ old ‘one/three-self’ debates. To show why this is problematic, a bit more detail.

Tuggy centre-stages the idea of a “one-self God.” He claims, “God in the Bible is always portrayed as a great self” (pg 4). This may well strike the reader as odd. It’s not a Bible phrase. It’s also not something you usually hear people describing the God of the Bible as. He quotes Brian Leftow using the term “one-self” for God (pg 8) and Swinburne. (Curiously. Francis Joseph Hall (1857–1932) doesn’t get a mention or a bibliography entry. Hall, however, brings a theological nuance to ‘self’ that Tuggy doesn’t.) That’s it. And yet Tuggy’s literature review features much talk of a “one-self Trinity” and a “three-self Trinity” in a way that the literature he reviews doesn’t generally correspond to. Theologians through history who never classified their work in this way are nevertheless assigned to these categories by Tuggy, and the paradigm for this is his definition of 'self,' which is not one of theological depth or nuance. (I hope he wouldn't mind me saying that. It's not meant as a criticism.) So let’s see how this second main flaw plays out.

So, under his classification of “one-self” Trinity theory: Tuggy claims that Barth and Rahner “endorse one-self Trinity theories” (pg 6) even though Barth scholars, for example, will be wondering when Barth ever did “endorse” such a thing (is it really appropriate to re-frame Barth’s divine self and modes this way?); also Leftow; and “Augustine is arguably a one-self trinitarian” (pg 90). Tuggy rather imposes his taxonomy on Augustine: “One must say “three persons”, but for Augustine these are not three selves” (pg 91). I’m pretty sure that question was never even put to Augustine. If it were possible to time travel, Augustine would no doubt not rely on Tuggy’s definition of ‘self’ anyway for the purposes of theology, but would draw up a definition and come to any conclusions on that basis under his own control. (I mention Tuggy’s ‘self’ definition further below.)

Unfortunately, what Tuggy is doing is veering off from the regular job of a literature review, which should actually be allowing authors to speak clearly, not to awkwardly squidge them into categories they didn’t choose for themselves. Some taxonomy may be inevitable, but not done like this. It becomes apparent why some of Tuggy’s citations give entirely the wrong impression of what other scholars have said - see my three examples above – it’s because Tuggy is pressing them into service to do something other than a literature review normally would.

Under his classification of “three-self Trinity theory” (a.k.a Constitution Trinitarianism – pg 21) Tuggy lists, for instance, Rea and Brower, Stephen T. Davis, and Hasker. Again, is this really the task of a literature review?

Tuggy’s definition then: “A self is being which is in principle capable of knowledge, intentional action, and interpersonal relationships. A god is commonly understood to be a sort of extraordinary self” (pg 3). A common understanding? Common among whom? Besides, the term “self” seems rather limiting to me as a descriptor for a transcendent God. It seems that what Tuggy is trying to do is to persuade us that ‘self’ should be central to our discourse by presenting it as if it has already been central to our discourse for a long time.

With so many problems, it would be difficult to conclude that this is a successful literature review. Where does that leave this book? To recap, Tuggy’s book sets out to review recent philosophical discussions about the Trinity, particularly novel and experimental thought (a brave endeavour to review it). It is thought-games that philosophers play, a cat and mouse game of whether Unitarians or Trinitarians (and which ones) can erect a better philosophical framework of words and logic to explain or dismiss theories about the Trinity. But like Tom and Jerry, the fight always has another day. A lot of theologians are averse to the experimental approach to the doctrine as unnecessary and risking unorthodoxy, and so this sort of material is simply not in view across a wide range of published work on the Trinity.

This short book is written as a history spanning centuries, and it necessarily does so in a concise way, and it can’t be expected to be comprehensive. If you were hoping to find the likes of Moltmann or Pinnock given a mention here, you’ll be disappointed.  The emphasis though is on new experimental suggestions about the Trinity.

A note of caution: the reader needs to know, before reading this book, the basics of the doctrine of the Trinity, or otherwise could be left with quite the wrong impression of what it is. One would expect accuracy from Tuggy who has decades of study behind him. And yet one finds this on page 1 about the traditional doctrine of the Trinity:

“The guiding principle has been the creedal declaration that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of the New Testament are consubstantial… this is understood to mean that all three named individuals are divine.”

Individuals? Understood as that by whom? Not by everyone of course. It is a rather extreme expression of Social Trinitarianism as espoused by Richard Swinburne. (See Richard Swinburne, The Christian God. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994. pg 27.) Tuggy erroneously starts his book off as if this were the unequivocal historical tradition, which it is far from being. Yet Tuggy writes of its “imperial enforcement towards the end of the fourth century” (pg 1). This aberration at the top of his article/book is compounded further when he claims that “the doctrine of the Trinity as explained at the top of the main entry” was “clearly and fully asserted” around the end of the Arian controversy (pg 72). No, I can’t find any council clearly and fully asserting “three divine individuals” and the fault isn’t mine here. Does Tuggy know what is actually traditional and orthodox? Of course he does, so this is troubling. 

On pg 25 this goes further: “Richard Swinburne… argues that it is uncharitable to read the ecumenical councils’ claim that “there is only one God” as asserting that there’s only one divine individual, as that would contradict their commitment to there being three divine individuals.”

Why leave the impression that the historic councils committed to “three divine individuals”? They did not use this language, and language is key. Swinburne uses this phrase (quoted on pg 26). The councils didn’t, and it is wrong to leave the impression that they did. I don’t think it would have taken the councils very much time to dismiss the term out of hand! (James Anderson points out that a reading like this diverges from the Church Fathers’ intentions. See Anderson, 2007, pg 42-43.)

So the book goes askew on page 1, and throws the tracks just as the train is leaving the station. It would be easy for the unaware reader to be thrown with it, not realising that Tuggy is reading in a sometimes idiosyncratic way, to put it politely. The destination, for Tuggy, is to conclude that the doctrine of the Trinity is fundamentally flawed and cannot be saved by modern experimental thought. It’s an idiosyncratic approach to a review of others' theology.

Oddly, when Tuggy does refer to something traditional and orthodox, he claims it is a modern interpretation attributable to Bohn! – “Bohn argues that orthodoxy, by the standards of the New Testament or the “Athanasian” Creed, requires that the persons of the Trinity be distinct… but not that any is identical to the one God” (pg 40). I don’t see anything novel in that.

It seems at times that the term ‘self’ is used by Tuggy in a way that mischaracterises the doctrine of the Trinity too. Thus: “Trinitarians hold this revelation of the one God as a great self… if these divine persons are selves, then the claim is that there are three divine selves, which is to say, three gods” (pg 3). No Trinitarian who really knows what they are talking about ever made any such claim to the best of my knowledge. It’s a caricature of extreme Social Trinitarians and it’s being used to smear all Trinitarianism. I would be embarrassed to write something that gave the wrong impression so badly. Tuggy’s usage of the words “individuals” and “self” often clutters the book with confusion about the subject at hand. Sometimes, it is difficult to resist the impression that this is polemics from the Unitarian camp: “We literally can’t believe what is expressed Trinitarian language, if we don’t grasp the meaning of it” (pg 46). It doesn’t help if an inability to make sense of a doctrine arises from one’s own presentation of it. (I'm also mystified as to how a seemingly subjective "We literally can’t believe" statement is in an encyclopaedia entry on a university website.) 

A niche subject that appears in philosophical literature is relative identity theory/ies. This is an idea only of the last century or so. But Tuggy’s use seems off-centre (pg 13-14), more or less as a way of arriving at the formal logic conundrum below. Tuggy depends on use of the count noun ‘God’ to promote a well-trodden Unitarian argument against the Trinity, and he claims that Trinitarians (e.g. Leftow – see pg 10) fail to provide a good response to this:

 1. the Father = God

 2. the Son = God

 3. God = God

 4. the Father = the Son (from 1-3)

Knowledgeable Trinitarians will wince at the un-nuanced travesty that this argument amounts to. The somewhat artificial problem is avoided merely by replacing ‘God’ with the word ‘divine’ and explaining what is meant by the word divine, as done by many intelligent orthodox Trinitarians. Once this is done, there is no need for 4 to follow 1-3 at all. (See his examples on pg 10, 16.) Tuggy also uses ‘being/beings’ as a count noun to the same effect. It’s an exercise in constructing problematic verbal frameworks. The problem is an artificial philosophical one, though much discussed in the literature. But instead of “being,” we could easily offer something like “existence-havers” or “existers” and the problem falls away. A lot of these knots are ones that Trinitarian debates tied in the first place, and one sometimes senses the Unitarian’s glee at seeing Trinitarian dialectic wrestling over self-made problems.

This is not a book about things written in the Bible. (You don’t need the fingers of one hand to count the Bible verses cited in this book). And don’t expect to find here any exploration of biblical semitic thought. This is a book of western philosophy, a realm which creates its own thought-worlds, and in particular it is a review only of a niche area of it. (It doesn’t acknowledge the existence of non-western worldviews, which is not unusual for this kind of book.) Trinitarianism has both semitic and western developments. Which brings me to ‘mystery,’ an idea that Tuggy covers. In Tuggy’s way of looking at it, Trinitarians use the label ‘mystery’ where a thing about God is held to be true without a fool-proof logic formula for it. Tuggy’s acid test for verifying a doctrine seems to be possessing a flawless logic formula, and he is hardly sympathetic to Trinitarian mystery. Eventually in this book, the thought peeps through that actually anyone’s belief in God at some point encounters mystery (pg 105). In the logic-driven west, we all draw a line in the sand somewhere on the mystery spectrum. The difference is where each of us does so, and Tuggy draws a line against the Trinity.

On mystery, Tuggy does acknowledge without proposing a reply the argument that there are real mysteries: “Sometimes an analogy with recent physics is offered: if we find mysteries (i.e., apparent contradictions) there, such as light appearing to be both a particle and wave, why should we be shocked to find them in theology? (van Inwagen 1995, 224-7)” (Tuggy pg 47). (In drawing attention to this, this is not to say that we should place too much store in analogies from creation.) There is a good deal in Tuggy's book on mystery – he uses the philosophers' word ‘mysterian’ signifying the the human brain is not sufficiently equipped to understand some things – and it is interesting to read other scholars' responses to Tuggy on it. It’s also worth noting that there are scholars who maintain that the doctrine of the Trinity is possible and intelligible to the human mind, although Tuggy gives more attention to the mysterian human problem. 

Sometimes when I read what Tuggy writes about the history of the church, the historian in me quietly sighs. His description about the late second century:

‘a “catholic” movement, a bishop-led, developing organization which, at least from the late second century… [was] out-competing many gnostic and quasi-Jewish groups’ (pg 80-81).

He doesn’t qualify what he means by ‘organization’ or ‘quasi-Jewish’ and doesn't explain what he means by the scare quotes around 'catholic.' Another example – Tuggy says that:

‘No theologian in the first three Christian centuries was a trinitarian in the sense of a [sic] believing that the one God is tripersonal’ (pg 81).

Well, that’s a bit too bold. How about Tertullian, On Modesty, XXI, 16? Or particularly Cyprian’s Epistle 72 to Jubaianus?

Now, some notes on the edition. References are in the text, not in footnotes or endnotes, and sometimes a book is cited without page numbers, e.g. ‘Holmes 2012’ – see Tuggy pg 24. There is a bibliography, but due to a fault by someone (Amazon printed on demand, so maybe them) the bibliography skips straight from M to R. So, for example, Pruss is missing from it. The book is also littered with typos and poor drafting: “the the” is not untypical. We read of ‘Trinitians’ and ‘Trinitarinas.’ Persons become ‘Perons,’ and we meet ‘Gregory of Naziansus.’ I could go on. It is difficult to believe that this article/book went through much, if any, independent editing, let alone peer review. Given that it first appeared on the Stanford website as an online encyclopaedia entry, it’s perplexing in its faults.

On a personal note, I prefer to see what semitic thought portrays, and to see if western philosophy can catch up. Nonetheless there is much to enjoy in this book, and the most enjoyable part for me was its history of Unitarian movements from the 16th century onwards, although it seems slightly odd that around 15% of a book titled ‘Trinity’ is devoted to a short history of Unitarianism. (And I don't mean to say that this is simply due to Tuggy being a Unitarian who sometimes criticises Trinitarian positions. Only Tuggy can confirm whether that forms a part of his motivation in any case.) And if I take one main thing from this book, it is a desire to read Duns Scotus. But if a serious reader wants an introduction to historic and recent Trinitarian philosophical ideas, a better book than this would be *An Introduction to the Trinity* by Declan Marmion and Rik Van Nieuwenhove (Cambriidge University Press, 2011).

Disclaimer 1: philosophy is not my area of research and training and I am more than happy to be corrected on anything I’ve said above, and to make corrections.

Disclaimer 2: Tuggy’s online version of the article had a substantive revision on November 20th 2020, which I have not had time to compare with the book version, except to check that it still has the delightful typo ‘trinitarinas’ and the non-objective "We literally can't believe" statement.)


Scholars engaging with Tuggy

Some online posts that may be of interest, to see scholars engaging with Tuggy on some of these points:

Edward Feser touches on the theme of ‘self’ - Edward Feser: Dude, where’s my Being?

Edward Feser on God as “being” - Edward Feser: Present perfect

Aidan Kimel critical of extreme Social Trinitarianism and engaging with Hall - Father, Son, Spirit as Divine Selves | Eclectic Orthodoxy (

Other reading

George Plasterer on how Barth uses his concept of the divine self - Barth on the Trinity | Karl Barth: Church Dogmatics





Thursday, 31 December 2020

Does the Bible teach that slaves can be beaten and mistreated?


Does the Bible teach that slaves can be beaten and mistreated? I have seen this written on the internet. Let’s break this down:


·         Does the Bible teach – we should never be so broad in examining ancient texts. Let’s focus. The question is narrower than the whole Bible. It’s narrower even than the Old Testament. If we narrow it down to the Pentateuch (the five books from Genesis to Numbers) we are getting warmer and need to start paying more attention. If we narrow down further to the Torah (Moses’ law) we are zooming in and adjusting our focus better still. If we narrow it down to the book of Exodus, we are getting very warm. If we narrow it down to a few chapters, that will be about right for our most detailed work. If we zoom in on only a couple of verses, or a few words, that’s too close – we wouldn’t be able to see the wood for the trees. We need to get to about the right distance to read the verses in context, but ready also to turn an eye to anything especially relevant from broader contexts. I’ll do that: focus on context in Exodus, with relevant broader stuff referred to.


·         that slaves – always define terms. In the case of Israelite “slaves,” these are really indentured servants, not chattel slaves. In the case of non-Israelite slaves, these are more like chattel slaves, but not like the industrialised slavery of the Roman Empire or the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The world of Moses’ law is more ancient, more inward-looking, more about what goes on within one’s own clan and one’s own wider family. If for example, an Israelite sends his son or daughter into indentured servitude, they won’t be shipped off and cut off from the protection of their kinsfolk. They are probably not far from their family networks, where concerned relatives can keep an eye out for them.


·         can be beaten – that’s what this article is about.


·         and mistreated – the Bible never says “mistreat.” Whatever we might think according to our values, those who preserved Moses’ law didn’t think it was a charter for mistreatment. They believed it was fair, so we need to understand what was going on in their reasoning.



So vague statements like “the Bible says slaves can be beaten and mistreated” are misleading on multiple levels, and we need a more scientific discourse than that. That’s what I am aiming to do here. And the first thing is to look at what verses say in context, and in more than one translation, and with an eye on meanings found in the original languages. (Hebrew in this case.) Why assume we have the right to give poorly informed opinions and conclusions?





I said we were getting warmer when we narrow down to the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. The first pages of it (in Genesis) set an agenda for everything that follows. They have a vision of God’s perfect world: the garden of Eden. It’s so foundational that when we get to the end of the New Testament, they are talking about spiritually getting back to Eden, a garden-like new earth and a new heaven. If these are God’s ideas of perfection, then ask yourself what would God allow in Eden? What would God allow in the New Heavens and the New Earth? Eden is a place where people are not at first fallen from perfection. There would be no assaults there anyway, but could Israelites imagine assault in Eden without punishment? Hardly. They maintained a dream of perfection free from violence, amidst the chaos of the world.


In Genesis, after Eden, people are fallen from perfection, and so when it comes, Moses’ law is a law for the fallen. You can't discover all God's ideals from laws for the fallen. Judge God's ideals by his ideals where clearly pictured, such as Eden. Don't defend what God would not ideally have wanted. When I see that Christians have tried to defend slavery because they have thought it is part of God’s perfect law, I feel like tearing my hair out. Moses’ law is not God’s perfect law. It is a law for a fallen world. There was a higher standard than Moses’ law according to Jesus, and it was the perfect world of Eden. After the fall comes Moses’ law, and for this I turn to slave laws in Exodus. Moses’ law was a guidebook, a legal manual for ancient Israel’s legal experts and priests. It’s more than a list of do’s and don’ts. It’s a lesson in how to think justly for Israel’s legal experts.  



Exodus 20-21


I said we are getting into the right area when we zoom in on Exodus. Does Exodus 21:20 really mean that if a master strikes his slave with a rod and they die the master will be punished, but if they don't die the master won't be punished for beating his slave? Actually, no, Exodus 21 isn’t saying that at all.


What it is: an example of how these are illustrations for the jurist - the legal expert - in how to determine proportionate justice for a crime of assault. It doesn’t say beating with rods isn’t assault. It says non-fatal beating with rods won’t incur the death penalty but a different punishment. The judge is meant to think about illustrations such as this to teach him how to decide on real cases of assault and murder. Thus, we need to understand why it says that if the injured slave doesn't die within a day or two the injured slave is not to be “avenged” – i.e. the master is not to be executed.


In the hypothetical case, the judge already knows it was assault (and is allowed to punish the slave master proportionately). The explanatory context is found in Exodus 20 and following. Fundamental and well known are these prior verses: Exodus 20:13 "thou shalt not murder"; and Exodus 21:23-24 "you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth". These are illustrations of proportionate justice for training judges. That doesn't literally mean that an eye-gouging villain’s own eye always has to be gouged out too. It means the judge should come up with a punishment proportionate to an offence. It’s a lesson, not a fixed statute. It does give a jurist permission to apply it literally to a guilty eye-gouger, but the jurist is allowed to think for himself and handle it proportionately in other ways too. That’s the point.


The proportionate penalty for murder is execution: "a life for a life." The idea is to affirm the value of a life. Nothing less than a life is equivalent in value to a life. So the death penalty applies for murder. If a master murders a slave, the punishment is death for the master (Exodus 21:20).


The master will be executed. The slave's life is a life like anyone else's. We may or not agree with the death penalty, but we should agree with Exodus that the slave's life is a life worth no less than any other.


Remember, these chapters are training for judges in learning to reason about justice, not an exact set of laws to be followed rigidly without thinking.


Back to justice for beaten slaves. As we will see, a correct reading of Exodus 21:21-27 is that the slave-beating master either forfeits his life or else forfeits certain “property”, depending on whether the slave survives or not. It’s punishment either way.


Punishment for assault generally is guided by the principle "an eye for an eye." If a master assaults a slave and the slave loses an eye, the law suggests to the judge to think like this: the master isn't to lose his eye, he is to lose his property, that is, lose ownership of his slave. The slave master is punished for beating his slave in that way (Exodus 21:26-27).


Thus verse 26 “An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye."


In that case, instead of “a master’s eye for a slave’s eye”, it’s “a slave’s freedom for his eye.” This is seen as proportionate and more remedial in this illustration.


Thus, the slave master actually is still supposed to be punished if his beaten slave recovers. There is a switch from verse 21 to verse 26, but it is concealed by bad translations.


·         A common translation of verse 21: "they [slave owners] are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property." (Note that “not punished” is the bad translation and I’ll come back to that.)


·         Verse 26: “An owner [slave-owner] who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye.”


These two verses would contradict each other if “not punished” were the right translation. "Not punished" is obviously a bad translation. This is clear because there is punishment for the master and it is set out in v. 26 - the master loses his property, the slave goes free.


So what would be a better translation of v. 20-21? "Avenged" is a better translation. If a slave dies, the dead slave is avenged, a life for a life. The murdering slave master will be executed. If the slave recovers, he is alive obviously, so a life is not to be avenged. Rather the punishment is that property is forfeited. The slave master loses his property. For his crime of assault he is punished, but a life is not “avenged.” This is why the translation “not avenged” makes sense and the translation “not punished” simply does not.


The point is this. The judge is taught to punish the slave-beating master where it hurts him - in his pocket – and in a way that gives the slave a just remedy. The slave was property. Now the slave is free. Loss of human property is the master's punishment for assaulting his slave.


This is how the judge is being taught to think. It doesn't need a literal eye to be lost or a literal tooth to fall out. These are illustrations. It just needs proportionate justice for an offence. Assault your slave causing bodily harm and your slave ceases to be your property. A good remedy for the injured slave.


Following this illustration, a jurist could also consider that such would be a proportionate remedy for a beaten slave who had witnesses but no injuries to show for it.



Another illustration


Therefore, it is important to understand how the law of Moses was intended to function in its ancient context. Another illustration to help get our minds around this comes in the mistaken mis-reading of Moses’ law that assumes a raped woman must marry her rapist. The ancient background which this mis-reading completely overlooks is that when a woman married a man, this was seen as two whole families being married together. The woman’s father was not obliged to have his family married to a rapist’s family. He could say “no,” and the raped woman could ask her father to say “no.” I mention this example to emphasise that this was a world different to ours and we may have difficulty understanding it. I highly recommend this article – on that particular question - which helps us to understand that ancient world better:


Sunday, 4 October 2020

“How Good Was Jesus if He Didn’t Eliminate Slavery?“ An online discussion.

There has been a fascinating and cordial discussion online recently between the Christian Tom Gilson and the atheist Bob Seidensticker about slavery and the ethical goodness of Jesus. I thought it deserving of some comment which may be of interest to those who have been following it.

I’m following the headings in Bob Seidensticker’s posts, and my comments are underneath each heading. If that seems confusing to follow, you can match it to his numbered posts here. Bob Seidensticker’s numbered headings each refer to particular comments that Tom Gilson made. My comments mainly cover Seidensticker’s responses to Gilson. The background is that Gilson has written a book on the ethical goodness of Jesus, and Seidensticker challenges it with the subject of his attitude to slavery. Where Seidensticker veers away from the subject of Jesus’ ethical goodness, I am passing over it to stay on topic. Seidensticker links to prior blogs written by Gilson.


1. Jesus came “to set the captives free”

Bob Seidensticker deserves an answer for “Where’s the rejection of slavery? “Captives” suggests people taken captive during battle, and “prisoners” suggests criminals in prison.”

Luke 4:17-21 is the passage in question. The fact is that this was invoking the Jubilee, which does actually call for the release of Hebrew slaves (Deut 15:1-18, where they are better characterised as “indentured servants” really).

It’s worth adding that Jesus here is also invoking the Golden Age vision of Isaiah 10, 11, 61, 65, in which lions become vegetarians and wolves and lambs sleep side by side, a time without oppression. Golden Age visions of Jesus’ era typically extended to imagining a world without slavery, and it would be strange to exempt Jesus from that. Seidensticker more or less concedes that: “Jesus didn’t end slavery because, in his mind, the end of this Age was at hand. Slavery would end at the same time.” Slavery would end: that is what Jesus would expect. That’s only half the story though. The Jubilee was for this world. Invoking the Jubilee was a signal to get on with living out the principles of the Jubilee. Living under Roman colonial rule, what could be achieved was limited, but Jesus did believe that his community of followers could model the age to come. (More on that later.)

However, referring to Luke 4, Seidensticker claims that “If overturning slavery was what Jesus meant, he would’ve stated that plainly.” This is open to challenge on at least two grounds. Firstly, this reductionist idea that only things stated plainly are said at all is an illusory understanding of human language. Jesus’ language is carefully coded in the way you expect of conquered peoples living under oppressive foreign colonial rule: the coded invoking of the Jubilee for was those who had ears to hear, not a message to the Romans.

This brings me to my second point. Seidensticker’s demand for a call to be issued by a subject people in Roman territory under Pontius Pilate for “a society-wide, perpetual rejection of the institution of slavery” may be described as historically naïve. Commentators need greater awareness of the perils of resisting Rome generally, and Pilate particularly (see Luke 13:1-3 and the stories in Josephus’ Antiquities about Pilate). That could sound like a slave revolt in the making and could have bloody consequences: imagine a pogrom of the Jews. The Romans crucified thousands to deter slave revolts. Goodness, even just claiming to be King of the Jews got Jesus executed by the Romans. His words in Luke 19:41-44 are not those of someone who wanted to throw Jews under the bus by openly publishing a manifesto for the end of Roman slavery.

Meanwhile, in the context of his debate with Gilson, we should set aside his switches away from the subject of Jesus’ character such as “As for Jesus’s goal… There’s a lot of godly violence in the Old Testament.”


2. Jesus’s resurrection means we’re reconciled with God

Seidensticker here makes a switch away from the subject of Jesus, and I would set it aside except that it leads to Gilson’s next point that Seidensticker responds to. This is the switch: “As far as we read in the Bible, slavery wasn’t a moral problem to wrestle with… The Bible message is that slavery is only bad when it’s done to you.” There is an important contradiction in those two points. If it is bad when it is done to you, then it is bad, plain and simple (and the rabbis were adept at spotting such things). So, Gilson is correct to mention the Golden Rule. In that vein, I could say much about how the Israelites are repeatedly told in the Old Testament that they should know not to oppress foreigners because they themselves had been oppressed in Egypt. But that would be developing my conversation, not responding to their own. So…


3. “[Jesus] taught the Golden Rule, which necessarily leads to the end of slavery”

Seidensticker argues that

“the Golden Rule [was] applicable to just Jews. And the “others” in “do to others” was also likely interpreted to mean only fellow Jews.”

This is not convincing. As said, the Jews were told to remember not to oppress foreigners because they had been oppressed themselves in Egypt.

Seidensticker is not on his strongest ground here. He writes that the Golden Rule

“doesn’t “necessarily [lead] to the end of slavery.” This claim is ridiculous since slavery obviously didn’t end in Jesus’s time or in the time of his disciples. It continues today…”

As a side note, he seems unaware that in Jesus’ day there were actually Jewish groups who eschewed slavery in their communities as part of their vision for an ideal world. But to answer this point, just because multiple cultures practice slavery, it doesn’t erase the history of Christians abolishing slavery in particular times and places.


4. “[Jesus] condemned greed and self-centeredness, the root of the enslaving spirit”

Seidensticker comments: “Greed and self-centeredness? Now we’re really getting far afield.” Actually, Gilson does open up an important line of discussion here. There are three fundamental reasons why people do wrong when they desire them in dysfunctional ways: money, power, sex. Slavery is powered by these drives and cannot be stopped unless a culture recognises that greed and self-centredness are actually bad. Slavery is on the rise today, a day in which greed and self-centredness – lust for money, power, and sex – are celebrated at the heart of declining western culture. Just watch the methods of advertising on TV. But condemning greed is only a building block towards the western condemnation of slavery. Here is another building block:


5. “[Jesus] taught love for all, even enemies, which must lead to the realization that all persons have equal worth”

In answer, Seidensticker makes another switch from the subject of Jesus: “Oh, please. There’s the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Actually, the 1948 declaration was possible only because people had that insight long before. Since Seidensticker has switched from Jesus to later history, I will be cheeky and do the same and refer to the fact that this insight was explored in the anti-slavery writing of 4th century Christian author Gregory of Nyssa and of course in the writings of the abolitionists. 1948 was somewhat late to the party but very necessary and certainly merits the mention.

Seidensticker then switches away from the subject of Jesus again to the Old Testament, so we can move on.


6. “[Jesus] taught sexual morality” “[This] undercut one of the most unpleasant aspects of slavery as it was practiced then.”

Seidensticker again switches from the subject of Jesus to the Old Testament, so we can move on. But it is indeed worth recognising Jesus’ denunciation of lust in Matthew 5 and Paul’s explicit ban on sex outside of monogamous marriage in 1 Corinthians 7. This does outlaw sex with slaves.


7. Jesus’s overall anti-slavery message was clear

Seidensticker misses a good deal here. He writes, switching from Jesus to Paul:

“The indifference we find in Jesus we also see in Paul:

Were you a slave when you were called [to be a Christian]? Don’t let it trouble you. . . . Each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them (1 Corinthians 7:21–4).”

His elision above is unworthy. This is what he has removed with his elision: “if you can gain your freedom, do.” This is not what indifference looks like.

As for Philemon, Seidensticker comments: “that was just a letter with an appeal for clemency for one runaway slave that happened to be a friend of Paul’s. It was no attack on the institution.” It’s rather more than that. Paul asks a slave-owner to treat a runaway slave who has wronged him as his honoured guest, as Paul, himself, as a brother. This is resistance to slavery-culture.

Seidensticker keeps away from the words of Jesus – perhaps because he can’t actually find any comments from Jesus on the institution of slavery - citing multiple New Testament epistles instead. Therefore, I’m not going to do more than take one of them: “Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate but also to those who are harsh” (1 Peter 2:18). Actually, the Greek doesn’t say “those who are harsh” but those who are “crooked” (σκολιοῖς). And if we don’t stop there, 1 Peter 2:18-24 proves to be deeply sympathetic to slaves. It voices what slaves often knew: that their masters often abused them when they had done nothing wrong. And on that basis, it says to slaves that they are like Christ when he was wrongly abused, and Peter promises to slaves healing by Christ’s wounds. 1 Peter thus says that Jesus and slaves are identified with each other in their suffering. Again, this is not what indifference looks like.


8. Bible slavery was nothing like American slavery

Here, I would like to offer a corrective to points made by both Gilson and Seidensticker. Seidensticker sort of gives the nod to something Gilson says: “If slavery improved in first-century Judea as compared to Old Testament times, I would like to see evidence that it was due to Judaism.”

Actually, it's the other way round. Greco-Roman slavery of Jesus’ day was much worse for slaves than under the Old Testament Jewish law. In Jesus’ day in Palestine, the Jews were living under the Romans' slavery laws, and it is difficult to tell to what degree Moses’ laws existed side by side with Roman law. (Josephus gives us some clues.) The Romans industrialised chattel slavery, and theirs was probably the worst in human history up to that point. (Antebellum American slavery was worse still by far.) A comparison to illustrate the point: in antebellum history, two groups who worked on plantations were Irish and Africans. And the Irish were effectively indentured servants; whereas the Africans were chattel slaves. In Bible times, the Jews under the law of Moses were like the indentured servants; whereas slaves under Roman law - in Jesus’ day - were chattel slaves. Among Roman chattel slaves the most unfortunate worked in the mines and their lives were utter hell. (But unlike the enslaved Africans, some Roman chattel slaves in the cities fared somewhat better.) So, Moses’ law for Jewish “slaves” – like the indentured Irish on the plantations. Roman law for their slaves in the mines – like the enslaved Africans on the plantations. 

Seidensticker tends to point to the laws about foreign slaves in Moses’ laws which fall in-between the two. This is getting very lengthy, so I would just refer to the scholarly discussion of foreign slaves in ancient Israel in the article “Orthodox Approaches to Biblical Slavery” by Gamliel Shmalo, published in The Torah U-Madda Journal, Vol. 16 (2012-13), pp. 1-20.

At a tangent, Seidensticker says “apologists will point to The Fall® and say that society’s problems are all mankind’s fault.” Surely an atheist precisely believes slavery is the fault of human beings. And in fact, prior to apologists, this argument about the Fall was used by abolitionists. It’s actually a very important argument that I’ve referred to elsewhere.


9. You underestimate how entrenched slavery was

This is an important statement by Gilson about historical background, but Seidensticker switches to theology: “Remind me sometime to explain what “omnipotent” means.” So we can move on and get back to Jesus.


10. Jesus did end slavery, just not right away

Gilson says that Jesus’ revolution of values led in the direction of changing society. Seidensticker: “it’s just handwaving to imagine it having changed the world.” This article is long enough, so I’ll signpost to Tom Holland’s recent bestseller which covers the good, the bad and the ugly in Christian history: Dominion.

In the end on slavery, Seidensticker claims something that he has not demonstrated: “The simplest explanation is that Jesus didn’t care”; but he does very fairly acknowledge that Jesus did have compassion for the disadvantaged. Seidensticker simply exempts slavery from Jesus’ compassion. This is nor persuasive. Let me offer some examples.

·         Jesus was accused of having the lowest of the low for dinner pals, probably including prostitutes who were almost certainly slaves (Mark 2:15-17). You have to assume that he listened to their point of view on life. His parables often reveal horrific treatment of slaves, possibly reflecting their experiences.

·         Jesus says that anyone who wants to be first among his disciples must be as a slave (Mark 10:44). This more or less forbids the disciples from being slave-masters.

·         Corresponding to that, John 13:12–17 has the ground-breaking story of Jesus at meal-time choosing to do a slave’s job, bending down to wash the disciples’ filthy feet. And then telling them that he was modelling the way they were to be to each other. If they were to do that kind of thing, their Christian community wouldn’t “need” slaves. It would be their own job from now on. It really suggests that Jesus was setting up for his followers to be a non-slavery community like the Essenes, and that John’s Gospel was originally received in the church in that spirit.

Let’s see how Paul builds on Jesus’ ethics, by way of making some closing observations of my own.

·         “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28)

o   In other words, in the ideal world to come, there will be no slaves under human masters, and this is already the case spiritually with freedom “in Christ.” Notice that Paul doesn't say that "slave and master" are all one in Christ. He says "slave" and "free." It would send out a problematic message to say that "slave and master" are all one in Christ.

·         It's the existence of masters that Paul sees as the moral problem. Relating to the Golden Rule, Paul writes: “do not use your freedom for self-indulgence… through love become slaves to one another… love your neighbour as yourself” (Gal 5:13-14).

o   Here, Paul interprets “loving your neighbour as yourself” as each being one another’s “slaves” in mutual kindness. Thus, in describing his ideal picture of a Christian community, Paul eliminates "masters" from the equation, spiritually to begin with. (This shows the relevance of the Golden Rule to Paul.) This is quite a slap in the face to slave-masters. Only by taking the role of fellow slaves do they have a part in this.

o   It means that the way Paul looked at the world, he knew there was a moral problem with the institution of slavery itself. It’s “masters” that Paul removes from this spiritual equation, meaning that the fundamental moral problem with the institution is people being “masters” over other people. If you are loving your neighbour how you love yourself, then you can't be your neighbour’s slave-master, because you wouldn't like it the other way round. Being the master is disqualified as a form of loving your neighbour in Paul's argument. This is resistance to slavery-culture and its fundamental inequality.

Seidensticker argues that Jesus and Paul chose to change nothing in society because the end was nigh. On the contrary, they were very much for the church modelling the values of the world to come where possible, and this is what we see in the above sample.

If Tom Gilson and Bob Seidensticker wish to comment on anything I have written, that would be more than welcome, and I am grateful to them for having such a stimulating discussion.