Liberal Theology

in the Contemporary World

Editorial by Paul Badham

from Modern Believing, Vol 52:4 - Oct 2011

Women Bishops

The gradual acceptance of women as fully equal with men has been a long process. Two hundred years ago all the professions, almost all positions of authority, and all opportunities for advanced study were closed to women. Gradually the situation has changed. Slowly one by one the Universities have opened their doors to women, as have the learned professions so that women have been able to become doctors and lawyers, lecturers and professors, Members of Parliament, and Magistrates and even members of the stock exchange. In every case millennia of tradition and prejudice had to be overcome. But in every case the emancipation of women has proved beneficial and few would now wish to return to the traditions of past centuries.

In this context it is sad that the Church has seemed the last bulwark against change. Historically one of the great claims made for Christianity had been that it had elevated and protected the position of women in its early centuries. St. Paul saw it as part of the Gospel message that the distinction between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female had in principle been abolished in Christ (Galatians 3.28). It is tragic that it has taken almost two thousand years for slavery, anti-semitism and discrimination against women to be overcome.

Fortunately it now looks as if the Church of England will next year take the necessary steps to allow women to become Bishops on a basis of equality with men. As Hilary Cotton's article shows this is not yet 100 per cent certain but all the early Diocesan votes have been overwhelmingly positive and if this continues to be the case it would seem that the consensus of Church opinion had moved decisively.

As a theologian working in a University rather than a Church context the most recent controversies have been baffling. In Universities we too have been slow to recognize women. In my first term as an undergraduate I remember what a fight it was to get women membership of the Oxford Union. In my department at Lampeter I remember the appointment of our first woman lecturer in Theology, and then our first professor and finally our first Head of Department. Not everyone welcomed such changes but it would have been simply unthinkable to contemplate a person being permitted to obtain an alternative male line manager from another department if he did not approve of a woman's headship.

The Nativity Narratives and Jewish Folk-lore

In recent decades there has been growing confidence in the academic world about what we can know of the historical Jesus. However this new confidence does not extend to the nativity narratives. Most scholars who write on the historical Jesus do not allude to them at all. Even Pope Benedict's two volume study of Jesus of Nazareth is explicitly 'from the baptism in the Jordan' onwards, and most scholars think that Luke's Gospel originally began at what we now think of as that third chapter.

The reason for this is that the nativity stories read more like 'haggadah' or 'midrash' than history. In other words they read like stories created for theological reasons from Old Testament texts. Most Christians are happy to acknowledge Midrash at work in those elements of the Christmas story which do not derive from the Gospels themselves. For example the ox and ass bowing before Christ can readily be seen as echoing Isaiah 1.3 The Ox knows his Owner and the Ass His Master's Crib. Similarly the attribution of Kingship to the three wise men clearly comes from applying to Jesus the prophecies of Isaiah 60.3-6. Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your rising... they shall bring gold and frankincense.

Professor Gareth Lloyd Jones shows that this does not only apply in such cases but that midrash has also shaped the Gospel narratives themselves. In his article he highlights the importance of stars as predictive of important events and draws attention to the way the story of the 'Magos' Baalam in the book of Numbers was developed further in Jewish folklore as illuminative of the future Messiah. He also documents the parallels between Jesus and Moses and the place of dreams in Jewish haggadah. His article vividly illustrates the presence of Jewish Folklore in Matthew's Infancy Stories.

Digital Privacy

Individual privacy is increasingly under threat in contemporary society from the way in which almost limitless quantities of information can be stored and reproduced by modern digital technologies. Eric Stoddart focuses on three examples of this: the national database, loyalty cards and socialnetworking sites. His article shows how rapidly digital technology has changed our world and in particular the world of the younger generation. This raises important questions for Christian theology and ethics. Stoddart's article draws attention to issues which will become increasingly important in the years ahead and his article is a valuable wake-up call.

Celebrating the Authorized version

Throughout 2011 there have been many celebrations of the four hundredth anniversary of the King James Bible. As part of this we are including a sermon by Dr. Simon Taylor of St. Mary's Redcliffe which focuses on the translatability of the Bible. Almost all scholars believe that Jesus taught in Aramaic yet from the beginning his words have come to us in Greek, then for centuries in Latin and for the last four hundred years in the majestic English prose of the AV and its successors. Yet the wonderful thing about the way Jesus taught is that it loses so little in translation. Parables are readily translatable in a way that metaphysical speculation is not. So the message of Jesus himself which lies at the heart of Christianity is available to all.

God and the new Physics

Is God better understood as 'Being Itself' rather than as the 'Supreme Being'? Popular Christianity has normally opted for the second, but philosophical theologians including Origen and Aquinas in past millennia and Paul Tillich and his successors in more recent times, have often preferred to talk of God in terms of Being. The question is of considerable contemporary relevance in the light of scientific discussion of the 'Big Bang' as the apparent beginning of the Universe as we know it. Dr. Peter Mills offers a helpful guide to the current scientific debate in his article on 'Existence'. He also relates these discussions to Christian understandings of creation. He urges that any overall metaphysic must not only take account of the case for determinism but must also recognize our experience as persons of having a mental or spiritual life in which we exercise free will, take responsibility for our own decision making, and make moral choices.

The Afterlife: Life in God

The issue of God as Being is also raised in an article by Tim Belben on the afterlife. Since for Aquinas God's essence is also his existence it is hard to see how individual existence distinct from God can be possible in an afterlife whether that is conceived in terms of immortality or resurrection. However this difficulty is not only one for existence after death. It is an issue which baffled Augustine about our separate identity in the here and now. Since God fills heaven and earth we cannot really speak of God coming into our hearts. Where could he come from since he is omnipresent and therefore present in everything already. Tim Belben amusingly cites a poem about the Hindu understanding of Brahma to illustrate that the problem of reconciling human individuality with divine omnipresence is not only a problem for Christianity.

Tim Belben thinks that Christological thinking within a Trinitarian framework may help to indicate a way forward and like Peter Mills he relates his theological thinking on this to contemporary discussions in modern science.

Modern Believing

For a hundred years Modern Believing and its predecessor The Modern Churchman has sought to help the Church come to terms with new knowledge particularly in relation to modern science, biblical criticism and contemporary philosophy. It has also encouraged the Church to adjust to ethical challenges emerging from a rapidly changing society. This work remains essential. The one addition that Jesus made in his summary of 'first and great commandment' was to add that we should love God 'with all our mind' as well as with 'heart soul and strength' (Matthew 22.37 and Deuteronomy 6.5.) It is tragic that there appears to be a growing gulf between the presuppositions of the intellectual world and an increasingly conservative and inward looking Church. Yet there is no valid reason why this should be. The intellectual case for belief in God is stronger now than it has been for decades. In his introduction to the twentieth century section of a new five volume History of Western Philosophy of Religion, Professor Charles Taliaferro notes that

philosophy of religion has formed a major vibrant part of some of the best philosophy of the twentieth century... At the close of the century there are more societies, institutions, journals, conferences and publishing houses dedicated to philosophy of religion than any other area of philosophy.[1]

Such a situation would have been unthinkable forty years ago. Yet this is worlds away from how the situation is perceived by the general public. There is an urgent task to transform the situation. That is what Modern Church exists to do and where Modern Believing can help.

New Editor for Modern Believing

It has been a great privilege for me to have been editor of Modern Believing for the past five years. I now pass the baton on to Professor Adrian Thatcher. Professor Thatcher is currently Visiting Professor of Theology at the University of Exeter and Honorary Fellow at the University of Plymouth. His many publications have focused on Christian Marriage, Christian Ethics and the Use and Abuse of the Bible. He is a member of the Council of Modern Church, and chaired its 2011 Conference. He is very well placed to take the journal forward and I am delighted that he will succeed me from the January edition of 2012.

I thank all those who have worked with me over the years. In particular I thank Rosalind Lund and Abi Hyde who have served as Editorial Assistants during this period and also I thank Christine Alker in the MC office and Jonathan Clatworthy for all his help and advice. In the case of Abi Hyde I thank her for corresponding with contributors, copy-editing, proof-reading and negotiating with publishers. I also thank Dr. Michael Brierley for his very valuable work as Reviews Editor. On a practical level the Modern Believing email address will remain [email protected] though such emails will now go to Mrs. Caroline Major, Professor Thatcher's Editorial Assistant.

New President of Modern Church

Following his retirement as Bishop of Lincoln, John Saxbee has also retired from the presidency of Modern Church. We are most grateful for his leadership over the past decade and we are delighted that he will become a Vice President.

His successor as President of Modern Church will be The Reverend Professor John Barton [2], Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford. Professor Barton was Canon Theologian of Winchester Cathedral from 1991 to 2004 and from 2000 to 2005 and 2009 to 2010 he represented the clergy of Oxford University on General Synod. He sits on the governing body of Ripon College Cuddesdon and is one of the General Editors at Oxford University Press. His research interests lie in the Old Testament Prophets; Biblical Ethics; Canon; Biblical Interpretation; and Old Testament Theology. The importance of using Biblical criticism in the Christian Church has from the beginning been a major concern for Modern Church and we are delighted to have as President one who is making so major a contribution to this through his research and teaching.


[1] Graham Oppy and Nick Trekakis (Eds.) The History of Western Philosophy of Religion (Durham, Acumen, 2009 ) vol.5 p.1

[2] Information that follows about Professor Barton contains some inaccuracies in the printed journal. These have been corrected here.

Revd Prof Paul Badham is Emeritus Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David (Lampeter Campus) and a Modern Church Vice-president.