Monday, January 21, 2013

An Affinity for discussion

I'm not going to try and summarise the contents of the papers delivered at last week's Affinity Theological Studies Conference. My guess is that they will be posted in Affinity's online theological journal, Foundations at some point anyway. (See here and here for papers from the 2011 conference on the doctrine of Scripture). My aim is to reflect a little on some of the issues raised by the papers and to say a word or two about the format of the conference. 

1) Bringing the ancient text of Scripture into dialogue with cutting-edge concerns

We live in a world that has thrown up new moral concerns; economic globalisation and social justice, the legitimacy or otherwise of the use of torture by democratic regimes in combating terrorism, not to mention bioethical  issues such as embryonic stem cell research. The Bible may not address these matters directly, but are there biblical principles that can be brought to bear upon them? Part of the role of the church is to try and help its members to think biblically about the whole of life and that includes ethical reflection on economics, war, medical research and so on.

2) Brining the academy into dialogue with the church

Most of the speakers were academic specialists in their field. A couple were also pastors with a background in law and economics respectively. Responding to the issues under discussion involved grappling with biblical ethics in general before specific matters could be addressed. That in itself is a demanding task, requiring thought on the relationship between general and special revelation, the differences between Old Testament and New Testament ethics, the nature of Christian love and the intersection of the "Two Kingdoms"; that of this world and the kingdom of God. The papers given by Stephen Clark, Joshua Horden and Paul Helm were more directly theological. On the biblical studies front, Gordon Wenham offered an excellent study on the Psalms as Torah. Andy Hartropp, both an economist and theologian helped us to think through the Bible's teaching on wealth and social justice. Leonardo De Chirico's paper offered a fresh, if controversial   approach to bioethical issues. Pastors aren't usually specialists in the areas just mentioned. That is why it is important to bring the academic lectern into dialogue with the church pulpit. Part of the role of Christians in the academy is to help enable pastors to equip the people of God to face the ethical challenges of the 21st century.

3) The value of discussion

Discussion is an important element of the Affinity Theological Studies Conference. Papers are circulated beforehand for delegates to read and then introduced by their authors at the event. When that's done conference-goers gather in small groups of around half a dozen people to work their way though a list of pre-set questions. This helps to facilitate a structured discussion of the various papers. Following that delegates convene for a plenary discussion, where speakers are questioned and the issues thrashed out. It's probably fair to say that the small group sessions work better than the plenaries. I like discussion and found the format stimulating. Sometimes the papers were lacking in the area of practical application so it was helpful to try and work out how we might apply what was written in a local-church context.

4) Controversy

As I've already hinted, Leonardo De Chirico's paper was probably the most controversial of the lot. In fact, Joshua Horden used the introduction to his paper as an opportunity to critique De Chirio's key proposals. The Italian pastor argued that human life in the image of God does not begin at conception, but when the embryo is implanted in the womb. In the plenary discussion session he made it clear that he is not in favour of abortion, or research on embryos. But he has no problem with IVF that involves the destruction of 'surplus embryos' on the grounds that in nature several embryos are lost for every baby that is born. The speaker made implantation in the womb determinative of human life in the image of God, as from that moment the embryo stands in relationship to its mother. He cited Scriptures such as Jeremiah 1:5 and Galatians 1:15 to seek to prove his point. But as was argued in discussion, it is doubtful that the Bible makes a clear distinction between conception and implantation when speaking of the womb. Also, the idea that human life in the image of God, or 'ensoulment', does not begin at conception, has a distorting Christological effect. The church confesses that at the incarnation Christ assumed a full human nature, body and soul. Contrary to Apollonarian error, the divine logos did not take the place of the soul of Jesus. From conception the incarnate Son was a divine person with a complete psyco-physical human nature. If ensoulment is ordinarily delayed until implantation, then that involves an 'Apollonarian' stage on Christ's human nature, which is inconceivable according to orthodox teaching on the person of Christ.

Given the controversial nature of De Chirico's paper there was some potential for heated debate in the discussion sessions. But points of disagreement were raised courteously and the speaker attempted to clarify and explain his views in a gracious and thoughtful manner. Although some delegates agreed with him, most, I think were unconvinced. However, his paper and the discussions that followed drove us back to the Scriptures to explore what the Bible teaches on the beginning of human life.

The conference broke up early due to an expected heavy snow fall, so no panel discussion took place. 

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