What have we heard?

ICETE Triennial Listening Team report

2 November 2018

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein. (Ps. 24.1 ESV)

This is the note that has been sounded, at least as the psalmist might well have expressed it were he listening in, during these days together in Panama.

While that note has rung, in plenary addresses and workshops and mealtime conversations and walks along this ocean that YHWH has created for his enjoyment and for ours, a group of your friends has been listening in as well.

I think I’d better explain …

Among the curious thoughts banging about inside Riad’s febrile brain over the past year has been the notion that for the second ICETE triennial in a row, a Listening Group should attempt to discern God’s voice amid the warp and woof of presentation and conversation … and then to dare the unthinkable ambition of reporting back to you on what we think you … that is, we … have heard.

It has been a labor of love carried out somewhat clandestinely by these otherwise very un-spy-like people.


Shadi Fatehi, Pars Theological Centre

Elias Ghazal, Middle East and North African Association for Theological Education

Evan Hunter, ScholarLeaders International

Mardochée Nadoumngar, Overseas Council

Daniel Owens, Hanoi Bible College & reSource Leadership International

Ivan Rusin, Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary

Prabhu Singh, South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies

Joanna Feliciano-Soberano, Asian Theological Seminary

Mariel Deluca Voth, Global Associates for Transformative Education


Although these wonderful friends have made this a boisterously pleasant task, it has not been a simple one.

What image, after all, captures the task of summarizing what five days of conversation have wrought?

  • Is this a ‘striving after the wind’—Qohelet/Ecclesiates—a grasping at the fleeting thing that does not allow its own capture?
  • Is it a narrow impoverishment of what has in fact been a broad abundance?
  • In the light of my appearance and accent, is this a neo-colonialist appropriation of other people’s stories and then a retelling in my own interests?
  • Is it a behavior very much unlikethat of David Corbin’s ant, one which does not know its own limitations and so engages in self-destructive behavior and even community-destroying conduct?
  • Or, after five long days of words, it is tropical pelting of the ground with more and more rain long after the soil has exhausted its capacity for absorption?

Well, I hope it is none of these things.

Instead, I hope that what you will hear from me on behalf of ten sisters and brothers who have listened for you is a little bit like the task of a delightful United World Mission colleague of mine who is among us in these days.

Jocabed Solano is a Panamanian follower of Jesus. Like a few of the hotel workers who have looked after us this week, Jocabed is also a member of the Cuna Nation, a people who once owned the land on which this hotel is built.

Jocabed works for Memoria IndígenaIndigenous Memory. She visits with the communities of her people and of other indigenous people in this part of the Lord’s world and they recount to her their collective memory of the indigenous Christian workers who have sown, watered, nourished and harvested the grace of Jesus among them. Because most of these people do not write, Jocabed listens very carefully and then writes down the stories they have told her. Although she is the writerof these wonderful narratives that come to her in spoken form, she is not the authorof the stories that these narratives bear. She has merely captured and then given to her people a record of what they have known.

Jocabed’s ministry—the exercise of her vocation—rescues the story of thisAmerica’s indigenous peoples from the vagaries of declining memory. More importantly, it provides each community with a shared version of its own story. Jocabed says the very best thing is that her work helps the communities of her people to recover and then hold fast to their own identity.

Jocabed’s loving labors are not unlike what our … well, your … Listening Team has attempted to do this week. I would now like to tell you about what we think you have known … so that you can consider it, contest it, debate it, celebrate it, refute it, ponder it … and so remember who you … well,we … are becoming.

So here is what we have heard: seven things.

One: We’re all on the same side.

This worries me a little.

I wonder how many of you participated in our ICETE Triennial in 2015.

In Turkey we debated whether the end results of theological education can be measured … should be measured … whether assessment is a cancer invading the sacred heart of what we do … or a necessary obedience to assure its fruitfulness.

As we pursued the argument, I felt as though my heart was being torn out. Every loud declaration seemed to require a qualification.  Every bold pass of the brush and its color felt like it could only be looked at if first seasoned with nuance … every point seemed like it could be debated, must be debated, and that the very debate of it was both essential for our survival as theological educators … and the potential seed of polarization among us who carry our vocation around like a birthmark.

The air, as I recall it, was thick with three words: ‘Well, yes, but …’

Not so the Secular-Sacred Divide.

Who is for it? Where are its partisans and cheerleaders and intellectual defenders?

Where are the desperate cries that something precious will be lost if we make the tragic misstep of actually preparing our students for the world outside, if we actually mold their lives to the calling that occupies them Monday through Saturday?

We all agree on this one, we’re all on the same side. We may need help with means, but the end, it would seem, is a blissful consensus.

History is over. Let’s just figure out our methods.

This worries me a little.

There is much to celebrate in this Hallelujah Choir of ours. Few among us will regret the demise of impassioned arguments about the priority of evangelism over social action … what was that? Who would hold up to an admiring light some of the evangelical escapism that abandoned our Abrahamic vocation in YHWH’s world in favor of lifeboat survival plans? That was a malady that has taken some of us decades to outgrow. Who could be found insisting that it really is a better and more important thing to be a preacher or a biblical scholar than an engineer or a nurse or a gardener?

As a veteran of the Antalya Listening Group, I can tell you that our gathering on one side of the matter here in Panama—at least our gathering there in theory— has changed the nature of our task this time around.  But more of that as we move ahead.

Now of course history has notended. We have much to learn and a world of challenges to face, methods to change, and opportunities to redeem.

We have so very much to discover, plenty of which to repent, and lifetimes or significant portions of them to invest in a world whose very fulness testifies to the Creator’s glory.

But let us not miss the small detail … or is it a very large one? … that nasty dragons hang out in places where we all think we agree.


Two: We (still) don’t integrate enough.

Maybe paradoxically, this was the point that was heard at highest volume by our Listening Group. It generated some very earnest self-criticism on your behalf.

As a community, we don’t believe in false dichotomies involving sacred and secular, yet we keep practicing them as though we do.

Here’s where I think the soul of the matter rests: we don’t need to be persuaded to integrate. We need to be shown how …to integrate.

This, I think, is why Ruth’s language of towers of power and eradication—and Ruth, you know I say this with great respect—fails to convince some of us. Those words sound us-and-them-ishwhen in fact our failings are internal and much regretted.  The enemy is not at the gates. He is in fact inside of us, as daughters and sons of cultures that are afflicted with false dichotomies that are, arguably, the very definition of ‘sin’.

So even though we heard that the topic of the Secular-Sacred Divide may not have had the legs to run well for the full four and a half days that were loaded into it … we detected a certain hunger for the kinds of ‘here’s how you could do it’ examplingthat came in some plenaries and not a few workshops.

Perhaps our truest prayer is this: Lord, we believe in bridging the SSD. Help our unbelief.

Three: Tell Us Why and How

Maybe this thirst for exampling explains why Gordon blew us away with his plenary address. Gordon spoke as a man in full discovery mode as he chronicled a kind of Gordonian break-out in Calgary.

If you’ll pardon a bit of rat-a-tat delivery,

  1. Learn how to preach for Monday morning.
  2. Develop the capacity to speak hope against the backdrop of lament.
  3. We witness to the in-breaking of the kingdom in word and deed.
  4. Learn how to navigate the political sphere // how to engage in principled compromise.
  5. When a society becomes more secularized, it becomes more and more polarized/fragmented. May we be known as peacemakers.
  6. We won’t be instruments of transformative change as long as we stay in our own spheres of theological and spiritual conviction. Let’s learn the skills of engaging ecumenism.

Then this: ‘Will we have the courage … will we be the Daniels and Esthers of our day?  … our students come to us riddled with fear … Yet we know that Christ sits on the throne of the universe …’

Gordon on faculty recruitment: ‘Will this person lower the anxiety level in our house?’

Somehow, Gordon’s talk struck us as … will you pardon me a bit of jargon … actionable data. We felt as though we could do that thing that Gordon said.

I still do, as I stand here.

This very morning, Terry’s slide ‘Can we Imagine Practical Solutions?’ is as provocative a slide as I have ever seen on a screen. I intend to take Terry’s paper back to Medellín, Colombia to an informal conversation circle that I shepherd along among a few colleagues on my patio.

This is not rocket science, it seems to me. Yet Terry’s presentation is fulsome with viable possibilities that seem to be very much within reach.


Four. Theology is an action formed in community for the sake of obedience.

Our Listening Group was about the most non-sloganish group of human beings you could imagine assembling. Still, we loved this phrase from Ruth’s community in Costa Rica.

The language helped us to register the fact that theology is directional. It is purposeful rather than simply there. It is dynamic rather than static. It is, as we have learned to observe under the tutelage of Chris Wright and others, missional.

Aligned with Ruth’s words, theology is a verb rather than a noun. Those of us whose souls naturally grin to Latin Americantunes will be reminded of Arjona’s ‘Jesús,hermanos míos,es verbo, no sustantivo.’ (translation: Jesus, my brothers is a verb not a noun.)

Furthermore, theology is communal property and communal activity.

Now a guy like me who eats caveats for breakfast is always going to battle to find an honored space for the individual scholarwho is jolted awake at 3:15 a.m. with an explanation for that particular Hebrew infinitive absolute right there where it seems never to have belonged …!

Yet the steady rhythm of theology as a community affair that we’ve heard … or at least we think we’ve heard … is essential to the wresting of the community’s faith and identity from clergy hands in those places—high church and very, very low—where it has too long been the property of our priests. And more importantly, since many of those priests will be happy to be relieved of their burden, this theology must be placed in the hands of the avocado salesman and the architect and the stay-at-home mother and the civil servant and the bright young philosophy student who plays the drums in church on Sundays.


Five: It takes grit.

We found encouragement somehow, in the prospect of steady advance towards the dismantling of the secular-sacred divide.

There were Mark & Ian, reminding us that overcoming SSD will take ‘determination and skill over many years’ … something like digging a really big canal in order to join two oceans in a country with a little land and a lot of water.

That had the ring of reality to it. It sounded like a long campaign we could commit to.

After Ian had used that delectable phrase about ‘inducing change in our students without starting a revolution’, an African brother leaned over to Listening Group member Evan Hunter and asked ‘What, can’t we have revolutions now?’ or words to that effect.

I suspect our Listening Group would agree with me that bridging theological education’s secular-sacred divide will require a revolution or two … but that most of the heavy lifting will be done by sheer grit. If this is so, then we may be more helpfully supported along our journey by our sages thanby our prophets. Terry Halliday’s superb—in fact, stirring—address this morning encourages this intuition.


Six: Marvin should pray more.

I feel like I should explain that I don’t actually mean that Marvin doesn’t pray enough. Even if I knew Marvin well enough to think that, I probably wouldn’t address it in this context.

What I refer to is that prayer… on Thursday morning. He thanked our Maker and Divine Blesser for all those foods … and all that human ingenuity … all that Common Grace.

Maybe this dot connects with the earlier one about needing examples and some hand-holding. When Marvin prayed like that, I felt that, ‘Hey, I could pray like that, too ….’.

It wouldn’t be in Italian and so the food parts wouldn’t sound nearly as good, but I could deploy the liturgical exercise of prayer as gratitude for God’s Monday-through-Sunday blessings … and my students, if they heard me pray like Marvin, could do that, too.

Maybe we’d win a small victory … Maybe the Lord would be elevated on the praises of his people … Maybe the sacred-secular divide would slip just a little bit into our history. Maybe the earth really is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.

And maybe it’s on the tip of our tongues to say so. To God. To each other. And to a sad and tired world.


Seven: Secularism is shot through with paradoxes.

I thought of my beautiful Christian brothers and sisters in the little Pennsylvania German community where I grew up, scared to death at losing what they would call ‘the Christian values that have sustained our nation’, when I heard … for example ….

  • a German-speaking Russian Mennonite say ‘secularism is a great blessing to the Free Churches …’
  • an Indian seminary principal say ‘In India, we always want a secular culture’.

Rooted in their context, my dear Pennsylvanian friends would have no idea what these two brothers were talking about …

So let us not imagine when we talk about secularism as self-conscious participants in a global church that we are agreeing with each other … at least not until we have had a good, long conversation sufficient to make ourselves understood.

Indeed, members of our Listening Group got a real charge out of hearing the stories of our brothers and sisters in exploration of the many facets of secularism … and of God’s presence with them in places where ‘secular’ is a many-splendored thing.

Sometimes, when the sacred has become life-denying, there is deep Providence in the secular.

Secularism is shot through with paradoxes.


What we didn’t hear …

Not what I have delivered myself of those seven things we’ve heard, our Listening Group has met the lion’s share of its obligations.

Yet it would be irresponsible to stop here, since some of our observations fit best into the category of things we did not hear. These are things we expected to hear, but in the course of our week together, our listening for them was met with silence.

Just two things, and then a concluding thought …


One: We didn’t hear adequate definitions of terms.

Over and over, I heard members of our Listening Group say that too many assumptions were being made about words like ‘secular’, ‘sacred’, and the ‘secular-sacred divide’.

It was almost as though the conference topic was pregnant with more than one baby, and the quintuplets all spilled out at the same time. There they were, squirming around and pooping on the carpet, and we were chasing them in circles without really ever catching up with any one of them.

For example …

  • Does ‘SSD’ refer to a regrettable retreat into a small and exclusive piety that denies the fullness of God’s world?
  • Or ought the reference lead us rather to strategizing about how to live in a world where Christian privilege is absent and the biblical saints that come most to mind are the Jeremiahs, the Esthers, and the Daniels?
  • Or is the enemy to be confronted a Western weed that has grown prolifically in the soil of non-western landscapes? One that makes it easy to regret the arrival of the missionary boots that carried the germ?
  • Or is a creation-denying dualism the problem, one that invites us to await the destruction of earth that is really little more than the stage upon which personal redemptive drama is rehearsed?
  • Or is secularism rather a malady that afflicts followers of Jesus in all places, but which takes a different form in each of them, a kind of rough approximation to ‘sin’ or to something like it?
  • Or is it more, as one Listening Group member suggested, that we’re simply not yet very good at reading our context(s)?
  • Or are we referring to our disappointment that the church in countries with lots of Christians is not having a greater impact on society in those places, many of which remain as corrupt and dehumanizing as ever?

Different speakers seemed to us to make their own assumptions about the topic at hand. We missed what might have been an orienting definition of terms at the outset.


Two: What about the Bible’s own secular-sacred divide?

Agreement and consensus can be a very beautiful thing indeed.

But ‘groupspeak’, if I may for a moment deploy that pejorative adjective in a community as beautiful as this one, always leads eventually to smug self-confidence.

So I wonder: On what flanks are we open to risks to which we are blind, particularly because the biblical witness itself is shot through with the categories of sacred and profane?

… and profane does not often mean ‘bad’, ‘evil’, or ‘ugly.’ It means ‘common’ and can mean ‘good’ … even those familiar words ‘the common good’.

One member wondered about the ingrained differentiating notion of biblical concepts like priesthood and of those ‘dedicated to ministering the Word of God’.

What does this biblical current aim to teach us about reality when it traffics in its own sacred-profane distinctions? And do we run any risks to ourselves and others by happily ‘moving beyond’ the possibility that such distinctions have any enduring pertinence for the people of God in our day?

You’ll understand that this is a question rather than an accusation. But it is a genuine question. We listened … but we didn’t hear anything about that.

It strikes me as something other than a fruitful silence. Perhaps it is one that begs filling up with careful deliberation.


Conclusion: What do the seraphim see?

For some years, I’ve been fascinated by Isaiah’s throne-room vision in chapter six of the book that bears his name.

In that vision, the Seraphim—thundering, burning figures who seem somehow to stand in as princes of Creation itself—cry endlessly together about a reality that is difficult to see in this torn, dark, thrusting world here below.

The Seraphim seem never to tire of declaring that Yahweh—whose supremacy their own greatness does not challenge—is Qadosh, Qadosh, Qadosh … Holy, Holy, Holy.

Then they say this of creation. ‘The whole earth is full of his glory.’

The problem is that it is not self-evident that the text actually says that. The Hebrew grammar and the syntax are strange. Although it taxes conventional understanding, it is more than possible that the second half of the Seraphims’ unending declaration is that ‘The fulness of the earth is his glory.’

In my opinion, this meaning would accord well with the long prophetic book’s juxtaposition of the glory of fulness, on the one hand, with the tragedy of disintegration and negation and emptiness, on the other…

Every flurry of biodiversity, every engineer’s fresh insight, every gardener’s loving touch of leaf and petal, every baby nursing at her mother’s breast, every student’s wide-eyed discovery, every geneticists’s pregnant intuition, every tree growing unobserved by human eyes to and through the canopy of a Panamanian rain forest, every Colombian vallenato, every life-giving hallway conversation, every lover’s sigh, every Onesimus’ principled subservience, every Monday-morning commute, every theologian’s response to Terry’s Macedonian Call, every …

Well, you get the picture.

‘Holy … Holy … Holy … the fulness of the earth is his glory.’

Maybe … just maybe … our flawed and awkward efforts at meaningful reflection this week … limping representatives of Jesus’ global church … have made the Seraphims’ creed a little less ludicrous … a little more plausible … a little more to be longed-for and made real here below … in word and in deed.

May it be so, dear ICETE family.

These are the things we think that we have heard.


By way of his ambitious Living as the People of God (1983), Christopher Wright attempted61B2R7pA2mL._SY346_
to address the paucity of serious reflection on Old Testament ethics by providing ‘a comprehensive framework within which Old Testament ethics can be organized and understood.’ The intervening two decades between the book’s original publication and the 2004 updating of that work as Old Testament Ethics for the People of God had witnessed a florescence of writing on the topic. While the reawakening of popular and scholarly interest in Old Testament ethics is to be welcomed, no part of it lessens the value of Wright’s enduring ‘comprehensive framework’.

Wright has inherited from his mentor, the late John R.W. Stott, the knack for wrestling complexity into clarity without lurching into simplistic reductions. Already in the book’s introduction, we see evidence of this in Wright’s ‘ethical triangle’: 

God, Israel and the land—these were the three pillars of Israel’s worldview, the primary factors of their theology and ethics. We may conceptualize these as a triangle of relationships, each of which affected and interacted with both the others. So we can take each ‘corner’ of this triangle in turn and examine Old Testament ethical teaching from the theological angle (God), the social angle (Israel), and the economic angle (the land).

Wright apologizes, even if not fervently, for the absence of the individual that some readers will note in this schema. Yet in this reader’s estimation, that missing individual will show his or her face often enough in the pages that follow, particularly when one is poised at the ‘social angle’ corner of Wright’s admittedly artificial but nonetheless instructive triangle.

Wright alerts us that he intends to seek an underlying worldview, ‘a comprehensive set of assumptions that a person or culture make in order to answer several fundamental questions that face humans everywhere. Those questions will include “Where are we? … Who are we? … What’s gone wrong … and, What’s the solution?”.’



Wright begins, if not surprisingly then directionally, with the claim that Old Testament ethics ‘is fundamentally theological. That is, ethical issues are at every point related to God—to his character, his will, his actions and his purpose.’

Yet the ‘God’ in question is neither naively nor intentionally left undefined. The deity in question has a name (YHWH) and a character that involves constant divine initiative ‘in grace and redeeming action … This then becomes a matter of response and gratitude within a personal relationship, not of blind obedience to rules or adherence to timeless principles.’

Old Testament law is embedded in the story of YHWH’s interaction with his people Israel; indeed, ‘Israel’s response to the LORD is meant to be, in broad social terms, a mirroring of the LORD’s own actions toward Israel.’ Any abstraction of ‘law’ from this relational matrix is then a distortion, combatted as much by the Old Testament prophets as by the New Testament’s apostle Paul. Further, this YHWH who redeems also forgives and speaks. 

YHWH speaks and acts in the past, but he also promises to continue speaking and to act into the future, indeed to the end of time. In calling out these features of Old Testament ethics in the book’s earliest pages, Wright has hurled a corrective shot across the bow of most popular modern and post-modern understanding of biblical laws and ethics. To mix metaphors somewhat turbulently, he has established a dense relational matrix for all that he will say about law and ethics in pages that still await their turning:

Old Testament ethics, based on history and bound for renewed creation, is thus slung like a hammock between grace and glory.

  1. The Social Angle

Even if ethics begin with God, Wright argues, they do not flow ‘directly into the consciousness of individuals’, nor do they arrange themselves as a sequence of abstract principles. Rather, the God with whom such ethics originates chooses the messy, historical route of creating a people and then giving himself in relationship to them. Nor does God simply choose and redeem individuals. Wright describes a deity who is highly committed to a people-project, from the earliest days of Abraham’s calling:

In the structure as well as the theology of [Genesis 18.19], ethics stands as the middle term between election and mission. The distinctive ethical quality of life of the people of God (‘keeping the way of the LORD’, ‘doing righteousness and justice’) stands as the purpose of election on the one hand and the means to mission on the other. It is the fulcrum and heartbeat of the verse.

Wright is eloquent on Israel’s experience, purpose, and destiny. Exegeting Deuteronomy 4:32-40, he finds the passage pregnant with the unique experience of God’s revelation and redemption, the unique knowledge of the LORD, the unique responsibility to live in the midst of nations in a way that is constant with this experience and knowledge. Indeed, it is the author’s capacity to distill Old Testament ethical instruction into such dense and pithy arrangement without the reductionism that often accompanies the exercise that accounts for the surprising accessibility of the book.

Wright finds in the trajectory of Israelite ethics an insistent concern for the well-being of the most vulnerable rather than the opportunistic maximization of wealth. There is a corresponding strong resistance to the centralization of power, paired with a ‘preference for diverse and participatory politics, which tolerated—and indeed sought—the voice of criticism and opposition from the prophets, even if some of them paid a heavy price.’ The transition to monarchy was fraught, for the very reason that monarchy would tend to take its clues from the surrounding nations, where these foundation principles were not in play.

Wright wants us to regard the society and laws of Israel as a paradigm, for it is in this paradigmatic reading that we find the legacy of Old Testament ethics to be supple and responsive enough to allow us to envisage a society in which its foundational principles become or at least inform our own. Yet Israel is both particular and unique. How then can such paradigms relate to our own ambition to live in their light? Here Wright is at pains to demonstrate how paradigms can fruitfully work, with a few attendant cautions about how their use can fail. His claim is that a paradigmatic approach respects context and its idiosyncracies in a way that attempting to derive ‘principles’ too often does not. Wright argues that ‘the concept of paradigm includes the isolation and articulation of principles, but is not reducible to them alone.’ Indeed, even within the boundaries of the Old Testament, paradigmatic thinking is in evidence, not least in the frequent reflection that is found there upon the ongoing relevance of Israel’s foundational Exodus experience.

  1. The Economic Angle

It seems a native implulse of Wright’s anti-gnostic campaign (nowhere does the author call it this) that he should place strong emphasis on the social angle and then proceed without hesitation to the economic angle. His starting point, the theological angle, fuels rather than restrains movement in these directions. Wright is keen to push back against some Anglo-Saxon views of land, property, and money that would abstract these matters and so remove them from the relational context which Wright finds a matter of insistence in the biblical witness.

Indeed the notion of relationship is so central to biblical ethics in Wright’s portrayal that land functions ‘as a kind of covenantal thermometer—measuring Israel’s relationship with God at any one time.’ Here Wright’s argument leans hard against facile assumptions of a ‘land gift’ that is abstracted both from the relational matrix in which the land is assigned to Israel and the paradox of YHWH’s giving of a land to Israel even as it remains in important respects YHWH’s land.

In the biblical presentation, land is an item of great suspense. Because it is both God’s gift and subject to God’s ownership, it can be given and it can be taken back. And it can be promised in ways that do not remove the recipients of the promise from accountability for the way in which they take possession of and live within the land. Israel has no ‘natural, autochthonous claim to their land’:

So many of the detailed instructions of the law come into this category of responsibility in respect of the land, directly or indirectly, that is easily the most comprehensive of the ethical and theological principles governing the law. It is the belief that the LORD owns the land and demands accountability in the use of it from his tenants that generates the literal earthiness of Old Testament ethics. Nothing you can do in, on, or with the land is outside the sphere of God’s moral inspection. From major issues of the defense of the national territory down to how you prune your fruit trees, every area of life is included. Based on such a principle, so simply stated (the land belongs to the LORD), Old Testament ethics could be both comprehensive and yet deeply practical and particular. This, in turn, gives enormous paradigmatic power to this dimension of the Old Testament texts.

It is not difficult to see how a biblical theologian who comes to the matter of biblical prophecy by this path (an avenue, importantly, that reflects the Bible’s own general presentation of law, then prophecy) would find himself at odds with an unreflective ‘Christian Zionism’, which too easily misses the evident contingency of Old Testament treatment of the land. But this comment takes me well ahead of Wright’s argument.


  1. Ecology and the Earth

Turning to the fraught transition between Old Testament land theology and what these days (though not when Wright was writing this work) is called ‘creation care’, Wright discovers that the same twin themes that pervade Old Testament engagement with ‘the land’ also permeate its claims about the earth: divine ownership and divine gift.  Further, Wright’s paradigmatic approach opens the way to mapping the values of Old Testament ethics onto matters (such as the environment) that were not of obvious concern to its writers in a contact very different from our own.

Wright surveys a good creation that represents the product and artists of a good God. He glimpses as well that its purpose is good, no matter how we construct an understand of the death and decay that he assumes are hard-wired into creation rather than an unfortunate consequence of ‘the Fall’. This reader finds the goodness angle (supported without doubt by Wright’s insistence on viewing such things from a theological angle), in combination with his recognition of the Bible’s de-divinization of nature, to be solid, orienting, and even refreshing. Yet he pushes back against an extreme version of the de-divinization theory which would claim the Israel’s ‘desacralized’ nature to the point of rendering it an object to be harnessed for human benefit with no restricting strings attached. Because nature is treated by the Old Testament authors in its relationship to YHWH, there is room to allow something sacred in nature without claiming that it is divine.

Wright recognizes that science’s characteristic aversion to teleology drains creation of its sense of purpose. Scientism (rather than science) becomes deaf to what nature declares about its Maker and its consequent goodness in the past, in the present, and in those eschatological thoughts that it discloses about creation’s future.

When he turns to the role of humans within and as part of creation, Wright expertly teases out the biblical nuances of servant-kingship even as he tackles matters relating to man’s having been made ‘in the image of God’ and having been entrusted with ‘dominion’ over creation in a way that no non-human beings are so commissioned.

Wright has done his readers a service not only by offering us the content of this very fine chapter, but also by the surprising and as far as I can see unprecedented decision to place ‘ecology and the earth’ at the head of the ‘themes in Old Testament ethics’ that the book’s second of three chapters engage.

  1. Economics and the Poor

Neither will Wright loosen his grip on the theological lens when he turns to ‘Economics and the Poor’ in his fifth chapter. His opening lines subordinate non-theological economic calculation to what he considers to be a deeper truth, theological and inevitably economic:

(S)uch individual property rights, even when legitimate always remain subordinate to the prior right of all people to have access to, and use of, the resources of the earth. In other words ‘I (or we) own it’ is never a final answer in the economic moral argument. For, ultimately, God owns all things and I (or we) hold them only in trust. And God holds us answerable to himself for others who might have greater need of that which is in our possession.

Christian readers who are inclined to free-market logic—like this one—sit up straight at such words, wondering where they will lead.

In Wright’s hand, they lead to an argument for pragmatic (rather than ideological) arrangements that owe their flexibility to the author’s paradigmatic construction of ethical solutions based on the commitment of the biblical materials to equitable distribution, contingent ownership, the meaningfulness of work, the reality of the curse, the expectation of redemption, and then the maximal freedom that such prior commitments will allow to economic actors. 

Always, there is a careful leaning towards the biblical voice:

Biblical justice, however, goes beyond a calculus of rights and deserts. Because it is fundamentally relational it always blends into compassion for those who are vulnerable. So, in biblical economics, wealth that God has enabled us to produce must always be held and used with a compassionate heart and hand.

This chapter—the reader may weary of my repetition—repays repeated and careful reading, leaving this reviewer longing only for some words about how such a view of biblical economics should take the shapes of advocacy and realization within a democratic political process.

  1. The Land and Christian Ethics

Wright’s sixth chapter (‘The Land and Christian Ethics’) asks whether the threads of land theology, ecological perspectives and economic laws and institutions ‘can be drawn through into Christian ethics. What hermeneutical methods are available to enable us to use Old Testament teaching regarding the land within a Christian framework that is, of course, governed by the New Testament?’ The author’s response to this query takes note of paradigmatic, eschatological, and typological approaches, wishing to underscore that the three approaches are complementary rather than mutually exclusive. Indeed, he treats them almost as overlapping maps that can regularly be overlaid upon the same Old Testament ethical instruction.

Inevitably, Wright plunges into the ‘theology’ of that particular land which is among this earth’s most contested turf:

In one sense the land is almost completely absent from the New Testament. The physical territory of Palestine is nowhere referred to with any theological significance in the New Testament. The land as a holy place has ceased to have relevance. The vocabulary of blessing, holiness, promise, gift, inheritance and so on is never used of the territory inhabited by the Jewish people anywhere in the New Testament as it so frequently is in the Old. This is partly because the Christian churches rapidly spread beyond its borders to other lands throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. But much more importantly it is because the holiness of the land, and indeed all its other attributes in Old Testament thinking, was transferred to Christ himself. The spiritual presence of the living Christ sanctifies any place where believers are present.

However, far from comprising a doctrinaire supercessionism, this is where Wright’s approach becomes both subtle and eminently useful. That the land of Palestine becomes a kind of non-issue in the New Testament does not drain the matter of land of its theological significance, for it self-evidently was a matter of great and even theological significance in the Old Testament. Wright’s paradigmatic approach draws him back to the biblical material when land is in view and motivates him to seek the ‘ends’ of Old Testament land theology and to consider how the stewardship of land as an economic given today might move Christians to responsible and fruitful engagement with economic and environmental care. For these reasons, Wright exhibits a reticence toward the language of ‘replacement theology’ and a preference for the vocabulary of ‘extension’ or ‘fulfillment’ theology. Neither Marcion nor the Docetists will not be found stalking these pages.

Along the way, Wright deconstructs airy notions of ‘fellowship’, which he replaces with a definition that finds concrete socio-economic content in this New Testament notion of shared life.

Wright wants his readers to experience his paradigmatic approach producing useful principles, while the typological and eschatological methods make ethical thought and action to be matters of promise. He sketches a matrix of human activity with which God participates and interferes transcendently in the drawing forward of history towards divine ends and outcomes. Aware that his audience may need to see these three overlapping approaches in action, Wright provides an extensive discourses on how the Old Testament Jubilee—as the subject of a case study—might fare in Christian hands.

  1. Politics and the Nations

In ‘Politics and the Nations’, Wright seeks to rehabilitate the political from the marginal or even despised slice of modern Christian attention that it often occupies. His argument quickly becomes both covenantal and trinitarian, as one would expect from a Christian biblical theologian, even if that expectation is in the hands of some such writers one that is disappointed. Wright probes the expected Genesis texts and finds in them both demographic plurality and divine intentionality vis-à-vis not only Israel but also ‘the nations’. The author’s treatment here is not highly original and yet it loses no value for that reason, since Wright’s argument rehearses solid ‘evangelical’ biblical theology that has with dazzling uniformity failed to impact popular Christian conscience, at least in the West in the first quarter of the twenty-first century.

In this chapter, Wright lives by his own rules, for he has insisted that the Christian reader of the (largely Pentateuchal and Deuteronomistic) texts that he tackles here must take history seriously. And he does so. When he graduates into Israel’s struggle with and in exile and post-exilic restoration, Wright’s argument remains nuanced and respectful of the vexing circumstances from which the biblical literature emerged. Everywhere there is light cast into the shadows of modern Christian dealing with (or failure to deal with) political understanding and engagement in a world of many nations in which no Israelite or Christian theocracy exists. His paradigmatic approach, though he uses the terminology less here than heretofore, finds a diversity of models of the state and yet seeks a norm that can at the very least enlighten and orient our own sometimes puzzling thrusts at political responsibility in a context where reading prescriptions off the biblical page has no hope of success.

  1. Justice and Righteousness

Wrights discussion of ‘justice’ in his eight chapter (‘Justice and Righteousness’) place the matter not simply within the context of instruction for the good society but also at the very core of creation itself. If justice were to perish, Wright avers on behalf of the biblical witness, the very foundations of creation would crumble. Yet ‘righteousness’ in common discourse often sounds out a kind of good behavior in the abstract. Wright reminds us that justice and righteous very frequently occur together, forming ‘a simple complex idea expressed through the use of two words’. As he leads us through the linguistic map upon which this complex notion finds its native terrain, Wright is still pressing us into the concrete historical reality of Old Testament ethics. He has few harsh words for those who approach ethical principles as abstractions, but he clearly has no stomach for this way of taking up matters that for him are somehow earthier than all that.

Like an investor diversifying his ‘puts’, Wright scans the multiple genres of the Old Testament in a way that demonstrates that the priority which the entire corpus places on justice depends on no small cluster of isolated verses. Just as before but even more so—if one may put things in this way—Wright demonstrates that justice is so near to the core of the Lord’s persona that all that he creates must certainly be infused but and all upon whom he places responsibility must surely be commanded and shaped by justice. Israel knew this to be true, at least in her better moments, and Wright’s recurrent ‘leap(s) to universality’ demonstrate that the author believes the claims of justice to be incumbent upon modern human beings and the institutions and aggregations they create as well.

Eloquently closing the chapter with a reflection upon Psalm 33, Wright nearly sings and so I shall allow him to bellow on here at some length:

The final word, however, must go to those great forgers of the faith of Israel—their worship songwriters. For it is indeed in the Psalms that we find this great, heart-bursting anticipation of the LORD as the God who comes. And the fact that God is going, inexorably coming, is a summons to rejoicing and praise, not only among his people, but throughout all the earth, and indeed in all creation. Why? Why is it a matter of cosmic rejoicing that God is coming?

Because when God comes, things will be put right. God comes to judge—in the authentic Old Testament sense of that word—to right wrongs, destroy wickedness, vindicate the righteous and finally establish justice, right relationships between God and people, among people, and between people and the created order.

No wonder then, that the whole of creation is invited to join the song of joy. This again, like Psalm 33, is a world-transforming vision, setting before the faith-imagination of the worshipper not a dream of what might be but a vision of what will be. And this future is such a reality even now to the eyes of faith that it can be celebrated in advance, and proclaimed to the nations as the good news of the kingdom of God. For this is what it will be like when God, YHWH, the biblical LORD GOD, finally establishes his reign …’.

  1. Law and the Legal System

In ‘Law and the Legal System’ (chapter 9), Wright begins helpfully by noting the ‘paeans of praise’ of the law of which Psalm 19 is a parade example. People who could talk like that, indeed sing in that way, were not groaning under a burden of legalism, as too much Protestant reading of Paul might suggest. Rather …

Holiness is … a way of being: a way of being with God in covenant relationship, a way of being like God in clean and wholesome living, a way of being God’s people in the midst of an unholy and unclean world. Preserving that holy cleanness among God’s people—ritually, morally, physically, socially, symbolically—is the primary thrust of the laws in the book of Leviticus.

If Wright’s reference is narrowly to Leviticus in the section just quoted, he walks the reader of this chapter through the major sections and the sub-genres of law in the Old Testament. Wright eases us away from rigid and superficial readings of biblical law as monochromatic, nothing for example as he surveys ‘family-focused justice’ the ‘fluidity between families acting to administer justice and public authorities acting to do so.

In my judgment, the care with which Wright treats pluriform legal instruction and prescription in its lived context paves the way for his rather extensive treatment of how we can read such material paradigmatically with a view towards nourishing the good life in our own legally needy moment(s) without overlooking ‘the prior necessity of experiencing God’s grace, redemptive or restorative, if genuine social justice is to be established, maintained, or restored.’

  1. Culture and family

In ‘Culture and family’ (chapter 10), Wright dares to cross the minefield involving distinctives that marked Israelite ways and means off from those of the cultural milieu in which they lived, moved, and had their being. He finds a spectrum of Israelite views about the established practice of other peoples. They range from ‘rejection and prohibition’ to ‘qualified toleration’; examples (e.g. idolatry, child sacrifice, divorce, polygamy, slavery) are provided for each, with the corresponding nuances.

Curiously, but with crescendoing plausibility as one advances in this chapter, Wright is on his way to speak of the centrality of the family in Israelite society and life:

So deeply embedded is the family in Israel’s covenantal self-understanding and socioreligious practice that Waldemar Janzen argues that what he calls ‘The Familial Paradigm’ was the dominant motif in the ethical consciousness of Israel. From a variety of narratives (which he regards as of equal, if not greater, importance to Torah laws) he lists the major components of the familial paradigm as the gift, continuance and enhancement of life; the possession of land, as the prerequisite of familial viability; and the ethical imperative of hospitality—especially to those beyond the kinship boundaries.

Having placed family as the core context of Israelite shared life and perhaps suggested that here lies one of the critical distinctives of the nation in its milieu, Wright gives us an extended treatment of the family’s ups and downs in the Old Testament materials, followed by a rather extended ‘application’ (the word now sounds thin and insufficient) for the Christian believer of (a) the nuanced view of surrounding practices as was earlier discussed in Israelite terms and (b) the ways (plural) in which family does, can, or should figure paradigmatically at the core of Christian life and purpose.

  1. The Way of the Individual

Wright purposely begins with communitarian ethics, then in time narrows the lines of the conversation to the individual. The sequence is representative of his understanding of what biblical ethics pretends to be:

Now if that is the kind of society God wants, this is the kind of person you must be if you belong to it. Individual ethics are thus derived from the theology of the redeemed people of God. Put another way, individual ethics in the Old Testament, just as much as social ethics, are covenantal. The covenant was established between God and Israel as a people, but its moral implications affected every person with it.

It doesn’t require an extremely discerning reader to guess that Wright will display an aversion to ethics that are thin and arbitrary in terms of individual conduct. That is, he’ll want us to know why the way we behave serves the construction of a shalom-infused community rather than simply ‘how a Christian is supposed to act’.

Yet it is possible—indeed, trendy—to allow community-speak to crowd out the rigorous demands that biblical ethics place upon that individual. Wright avoids doing so, in part by leveraging the conventional observation that Deuteronomic mandate oscillates between the plural and the singular, that is, the community and the individual. It seems as though the author senses that correct ‘balance’—if that is the proper word—will emerge as readers see with acuity how demanding even grace-based covenantal ethics are on both the community and its enveloped individuals. And this awareness flourishes best when it is nourished by worship, another communitarian practice that shapes its constituent individuals.


  1. A Survey of Historical Approaches

In a chapter that some authors might have placed at the outset of a work like this, Wright borrows Richard Longenecker’s three-part typology of Christian engagement with Old Testament law and ethics via ‘Marcionite’, ‘Alexandrian’, and ‘Antiochene’ categories. These three inclinations recur throughout the history of Christian thought and practice. Wright works not only through the usual suspects who appear in similar conventional lineups but also engages more recent phenomena such as dispensationalism, theogony, Messianic Judaism, and the UK’s Jubilee Centre.

  1. Contemporary Scholarship: A Bibliographical Essay

A thirteenth chapter surveys some three dozen contributors to the literature on Old Testament Ethics in the quarter century since the work was first published. Wright is methodologically generous in not apply a theological filter in selecting the cadre of contemporary scholars he deems worthy of note.

  1. Hermeneutics and Authority in Old Testament Ethics

In his final chapter, Wright tackles the vexed hermeneutical problems inherent in any effort to find normative guidance from the Old Testament. He sketches a three-stage task, the first of which is to ‘get there’; that is, ‘to project ourselves by some means into the world of Israel of the Old Testament, and to ask ethical questions of the environment we find ourselves in.’

If that is possible, then we must ‘get back from there’; that is, ‘to ask how we in our world should respond to what we have been confronted with in our exploration of the biblical world.’

Finally, ‘we shall have to have to answer the question as to whether and how anything we bring back from the world of ] Old Testament Israel carries ethical authority in our own day.

Clearly, the fact that Wright has produced a work of Old Testament ethics of this girth does not suggest that he believes that task is facile or suitable for the faint of heart. Nor is this evangelical writer inclined to perform his craft behind ideological wall that shield him from the inconvenient questions of those who do not approach matters from his theological stance. The questions of authority and relevance are never far from hand in this extended and, one might say, cautiously bold essay. 

An excursus asks ‘What about the Canaanites?’, a question about violence so notorious that one cannot avoid it and must ask it even when many other ethical conundrums can await their turn in silence.

Wright places the Israelite conquest of the Canaanites within the restricted dimensions and ethical context in which the biblical texts present it, then argues that YHWH’s final purpose of blessing all nations does not eradicate judgement, specifically that judgment by which he ‘harnesses unfairness’ (Goldingay) for eventual justice. He notes as well that Israel is threatened with similar judgement should her injustice reach Canaanite proportions.

An extensive bibliography draws the book to its conclusion.

As I prepare to post this review of Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, I am currently teaching a course in biblical theology at the Biblical Seminary of Colombia, where it is my privilege to teach. I have taken the slightly adventurous step of deploying the Spanish translation of Wright’s more recent and better-selling The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative as the core text for our semestral ruminations. As emerging Colombian leaders join me in wrestling these more than 700 pages into subservience, I cannot help but observe the genetic relationship between Wright’s older Ethics and the recent Mission of God.

In both, motivated readers will find the kind of integration between academic rigor and pastoral-missional concern that has become this prolific author’s signature. Only on the rarest occasion does one sniff suspiciously that Wright may be engaging in a bit of reductionism in order to bolster a hobby-esque topic. Rather, Wright takes his time from the beginning to the end of a chapter, counting on the interest and tenacity of his reader without any evident need to show his scholarly back-office work more than the matter at hand requires.

It might be argued that Old Testament Ethics for the People of God engages early 21st-century readers regarding two of their children who are among others most easily abandoned: the Old Testament, on one hand, and theologically grounded ethics on the other.

This book is strong medicine, likely to be taken at its intended dose only by those who most genuinely fear the disease it battles and most robustly celebrate the health and strength that it heralds as God’s good gift to God’s missional people on God’s good earth.

41TErMtvHSLHow does a book like this even happen?

Sue Hubbell loves her Ozarks and the people who live there, loves her bees, and by all appearances has a thing going with words and the art of stringing them together. It seems that beekeepers now join flyfishers as unlikely creators of great writing.

Who knew?

Hubbell weaves her tales of bees and sweet countryside around the four seasons of her craft. This makes for four long chapters, perhaps the only defect in an otherwise enchanting read. Along the way we learn a fair piece about keeping bees (much of it in the ‘let them be bees’ category). We also taste and feel the Missouri seasons and warm to the spirit of a woman who has learned to live so well in her adopted countryside.

The result is a book worth reading at least twice. Then, after a rest, perhaps a third time.

Somehow the book’s simple title perfectly frames the easy lilt of its prose. Nothing is difficult here. Just beautiful.

In a season when a determined minority of parents are happy to say that the mass-51uoveg1vTL._AC_UL640_QL65_education emperor has no clothes, it is good to have this little manual from Dorothy Sayers’ pen to provide a well-grounded model of what a real emperor just might look like, fully clothed.

A portion of this 1947 broadside (for in spite of its exquisitely respectful prose, this is precisely what it was) by a British classicist and novelist is that Sayers sounds as though she is writing in early 21st-century America. Via an argument that fast-forwards with magnificent ease, she dares to suggest that Western culture has in a sense gone mad and is employing the mechanics of education to assure that its children remain just as loony as their parents. In other words, Lost Tools is a polemic against those who are responsible for the misplacement of the darned things and/or committed to their non-discovery.

Sayers thinks that education was once done well in the West, and that its hammer, saw, and chisel are recoverable with a bit of effort.  Continue Reading »

51cgEgMuAnL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_It is a fortunate and powerful thing moment when a thinker trained for policy analysis finds his voice as a story-teller. That Ian Toll has lent that voice to narrating events in ‘the other war’ is a profound boon.

The persistent thread around which Toll weaves his story of the early war in the Pacific is the Alfred Thayer Bahan doctrine of concentration and battle wagons. The weaving is a subtle art in Toll’s hands, because the astonishingly brief moment between Pearl Harbor and Midway both debunked Bahan’s confidence in the battleship and proved that even Japan’s naval might was fallible when deployed without due concentration.

The author has delved deep into the minds of both Japanese and American warriors, from deck-swabbers and lowly engineers to admirals and their quirks. The result is a profoundly respectful telling, one that never allows the reader to forget that both strategy and humanity were as fully in play as it is possible to imagine. Continue Reading »

Kate Fox’s 2008 (updated and revised, 2014) exercise in English national self-flagellation 51M4+GxPOkL._AC_UL872_QL65_is what we used to call a ‘sprawling’ work.

But that might be to suggest that a single gripping plot line traceable through the book’s 228 pages envelopes an unusually vast cast of characters or detours remarkably into literary tributaries, like one of those fat Russian novels that nonetheless retains its power to draw the reader through, page after page.

That is not the case here.

But hold on, don’t get your knickers in a twist. I mean this review to shed a positive light on a thoroughly enjoyable book of which I have already clocked two front-to-back readings.

In truth ‘sprawling’ might be a bit of (learned) English understatement of a deficiency when ‘unedited’ would express the thing with more candor. Continue Reading »

517a4WwQTZL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_When a book like Lynn Vincent’s and Sara Vladic’s Indianapolis lies open on lap or desk, a reader sometimes forces himself from page to page. This one does, at any rate.

This slow march signals no deficiency in the book itself. In fact, this latest entry on the U.S. Navy’s single worst disaster is fluid, witty, somber, and smart. The book ought to be a page-turner.

It’s the story that hurts, the awful, aching tale of seawater, sharks, men driven to lunacy, a breathtakingly inept response to the disappearance of one of the era’s most storied (heavy) cruisers, and then the arguable scapegoating of the ship’s captain for failing to avoid the Japanese submarine he could never have known was there. Continue Reading »