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Sunday, 21 July 2019

Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI, and Paul the Apostle (Part 2)

Yesterday, Americans and others around the world waxed nostalgic about the Apollo 11 lunar landings that took place 50 years ago. One of the world leaders who sent greetings (and blessings) to the astronauts on the moon was Pope Paul VI. A year earlier, the Pope had issued an encyclical letter called Humanae Vitae that, while far less well-known than the moon mission, was also of great historical significance. It was in this document that the Pope set out the Church's teaching that artificial birth control, defined as 'any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means,' is morally unacceptable. The theological basis for this papal ruling was the principle, 'based on the natural law as illuminated and enriched by divine Revelation,' that sex has two essential qualities: one procreative (the generation of new life) and the other unitive (uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy), and that sexual acts must not be isolated from either of these.

In the first article in this two-part series, we looked at how the teaching of Humanae Vitae is anticipated in Paul's Letter to the Romans. In particular, just as Humanae Vitae declares based on natural law that the sex act must not be sundered from its procreative purpose, so Paul in Romans 1:26-27 condemned sex acts that abandon the 'natural function' of sex and are 'against nature.' Since Paul believes that unnatural sex acts follow from a failure to acknowledge God's creatorship, and since the terms he uses for 'male' and 'female' recall the creation account in Genesis 1:27-28, it follows (we argued) that for Paul the procreative aspect is essential to the 'natural function' of sex. This was borne out by setting Paul's argument in the context of other Hellenistic Jewish writers of his time (e.g., Philo, Josephus, and Pseudo-Phocylides), who also ground sexual morality in 'nature' (phusis), referring explicitly to the procreative aspect.

In this second article, we look at Paul's teachings about sexuality in 1 Corinthians. In this case, the relevant material spans much of three chapters (5 to 7) rather than just two verses, so we will not be able to reconstruct Paul's whole argument but only to make a few select observations. Paul comments extensively on the problem of 'sexual immorality' (Greek: porneia), first giving instructions regarding a case of incest in the Corinthian church (5:1-13) and then, having included certain sexual sins in a vice list (6:9-10), he makes a more general comment about porneia (6:12-19). These latter remarks presuppose that some Corinthian church members are using the services of prostitutes. Finally, in chapter 7, Paul offers detailed instructions concerning marriage and virginity.

The Basis for Paul's Sexual Morality

Paul's instructions concerning the case of incest at Corinth make it clear that he regards the Torah as an authoritative source on sexual morality. Paul instructs the Corinthian church to expel a man who 'has his father's wife' (1 Cor. 5:1). This language is borrowed directly from Lev. 18:8 and 20:11 LXX. It is quite possible that this man's sexual partner was his stepmother and not a blood relative, and furthermore that his father was deceased. Paul nevertheless regards it as 'sexual immorality' (porneia) of a kind 'not even found among the Gentiles.' This last remark implicitly reinforces the Jewish notion, already seen in Romans 1, that sexual immorality is stereotypical Gentile behaviour due to the Gentiles' idolatry and ignorance of God (including in this case the Torah). Paul again invokes the Torah in the expulsion formula he uses in 1 Corinthians 5:13: 'Purge the evil person from your midst' (see Deut. 13:6; 17:7; 19:19; 21:21; 22:21, 24; 24:7 LXX). An indirect appeal to the Torah is also likely in Paul's use of the term arsenokoitai in his vice list in 1 Corinthians 6:9. The meaning of this term—of which Paul's is the earliest extant usage—is disputed among scholars but most likely refers to males who penetrate other males,1 and the term was probably coined (whether by Paul or another Hellenistic Jew) from the words arsenos ('male') and koitēn ('bed') in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 LXX.

In Romans 1, we found that Paul's ideas on sexual (im)morality were grounded in his understanding of creation, for which his source was of course the creation narratives in Genesis 1-2 (also part of the Torah). This dependency is again evident in 1 Corinthians 6:16, where Paul quotes from Genesis 2:24 LXX: '"For the two," it says, "shall become one flesh".' This Genesis text stresses the unitive aspect of the sexual act, while Genesis 1:27 stresses the procreative aspect (by describing the gendered creation of humanity as 'male and female,' followed immediately by the imperative to procreate in v. 28). It is noteworthy that these two creation texts (Gen. 1:27 and 2:24) are precisely those quoted by Jesus in the Gospels (Mark 10:6; Matt. 19:4) to justify his teachings on marriage and divorce. That Paul's sexual morality in Romans and 1 Corinthians is grounded in the same two creation texts is probably not coincidental, but suggests his familiarity with the Jesus tradition later preserved by Mark.

Sex and Nature

We saw in the previous article that, in Romans 1, Paul's decisive criterion for determining sexual acts to be moral or otherwise was the 'natural function.' In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul anticipates and refutes an argument from 'natural function' that can be—and often has been—used to undermine the unitive aspect of the sexual act, that is, its exclusive use in the intimacy of a monogamous marital bond. The argument is conveyed in the aphorism, 'Food for the belly and the belly for food' (1 Cor. 6:13). It is not clear whether some Corinthians were actually using this line to justify going to prostitutes, or whether Paul is manufacturing a hypothetical justification in order to strike it down. However, the implicit argument is one of analogy: food and the belly are made for each other; thus, when we are hungry, we are justified in satisfying our appetite. In the same way, sex and the sexual organs are made for each other; thus we are equally justified in satisfying our sexual appetites (even if that means going to a prostitute).2

Notice that this argument takes a page out of Paul's book; it is an argument from nature and the created order, just like Paul's argument concerning sexual (im)morality in Romans 1. It is thus quite ingenious, and indeed does not violate the 'natural' procreative function of sex. However, as Paul goes on to explain, sex that is had only to satisfy an appetite, for instance with a prostitute, violates the unitive aspect of sex, which is not merely natural but spiritual. Paul therefore turns to the more transcendent purposes of creation: 'The body...is not for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body...your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you...you are not your own' (1 Cor. 6:13, 19). Paul alludes to the way that the marital union decreed in Gen. 2:24 signifies the union between Christ and the Church (1 Cor. 6:16-17)—an idea that will be elaborated on in Ephesians 5:23-32. Paul warns the Corinthians that 'anyone who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her.' There is a unitive, spiritual dimension to the sexual act and there are thus untold spiritual implications for those who debase sex by, for instance, going to a prostitute.

The Importance of Sexual Morality for Paul

Christians today who take a traditional, conservative position on issues of sexual morality are often portrayed, including by other Christians, as prudish or petty. 'Millions of people are starving but all you're worried about is sex,' so the argument goes. Why be so preoccupied with sexual sin while turning a blind eye to far more grievous sins committed against social justice? This criticism is justified: if a preoccupation with sexual morality causes us to de-emphasise social justice more generally, then we are indeed in serious trouble. However, the solution is not to disregard or downplay the demands of sexual morality in favour of social justice. Our approach should be both/and, not either/or.

There are a number of ways in which Paul's teachings in 1 Corinthians 5-6 show that he understood sexual morality to be a very important aspect of the Christian life. Firstly, we have Paul's aforementioned instructions concerning the reported case of maternal or step-maternal incest in Corinth: expulsion from the congregation ('Purge the evil person from your midst'). Numerous scholars interpret 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 to be a 'happy ending' to this story: the man had repented and was to be restored to his place in the church. Secondly, we have Paul's remark that 'the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God' (1 Cor. 6:9-10), with 'unjust' by no means limited to sexual sins but inclusive of them. Forgiveness of sins and a new, chaste identity is available in Christ (1 Cor. 6:11), but to continue unrepentant in sexual immorality would be to forfeit one's eternal destiny. Thirdly, Paul explicitly says that sexual immorality is distinct from other sins in its gravity: 'Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person (ho porneuōn) sins against his own body' (1 Cor. 6:18). Fourthly, Paul's whole instructions concerning sexual morality could be summarised in the command, 'Avoid sexual immorality' (pheugete tēn porneian, 1 Cor. 6:18). Paul's choice of verb could hardly be more emphatic: the literal meaning of pheugō is 'flee,' as from moral danger (cf. Mark 14:50; John 10:12).

Anyone who says that the Church needs to relax its teachings on sexual morality cannot cite Paul in support. It is certainly true that some conservative Christians make sexual morality their hobby horse to the exclusion of other important moral issues, especially concerning social justice. However, the critique of such people should not be, 'Focus on social justice and stop going on about sexual sin' (which rests on a false dichotomy), but, 'These you should have done, without neglecting the others' (cf. Matt. 23:23).

Paul and Abstinence

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul has a lot to say about abstinence. Paul says that temporary abstinence within marriage is morally acceptable (1 Cor. 7:5), which anticipates the teaching of Humanae Vitae, which also approves of temporary abstinence and states that it is the only acceptable method of birth control. However, more prominent in this chapter is Paul's emphasis that total abstinence, lifelong virginity, is a good and noble calling. This is arguably the most radical feature of Paul's sexual morality within his Second Temple Jewish context. The author of Pseudo-Phocylides gives the prevailing Jewish view at the time: 'Remain not unmarried, lest you perish nameless. And give something to nature yourself: beget in turn as you were begotten'3 These instructions are directed at men; women did not even have a choice in the matter, as a woman's marriage was a transaction between her father and her husband-to-be. This moral obligation to marry and procreate stands in stark contrast to Paul's statements in 1 Corinthians 7. Paul expresses a wish for 'everyone to be as I am' (i.e. celibate), while acknowledging that celibacy is a 'gift from God' that not all possess (1 Cor. 7:7). Thus it is 'a good thing for [the unmarried and widows] to remain as they are' (1 Cor. 7:8), provided that they have the required self-control. Paul's instructions about 'virgins' in 1 Corinthians 7:25-40 concern both females and males, though the term itself is syntactically feminine.4 Paul makes it clear that, at least in the case of a widow, she is free to decide whom to marry and whether to marry (1 Cor. 7:39-40).

Paul thus takes an important step toward liberating women to determine their own vocation, whether it be marriage or virginity, and anticipates the Christian rite of consecrated virginity (e.g., nuns) and the celibacy of priests.5


Careful study of material in Romans and 1 Corinthians shows that, for Paul, the sexual act has a 'natural function' tied to its procreative potential, and has a unitive, spiritual function that explains why it is permissible only in the monogamous intimacy of the marital union. Paul's teachings thus anticipate those of Pope Paul VI nineteen centuries later in Humanae Vitae. Paul's letters show that he understood sexual morality to be vitally important to the Christian life, undermining those in his day and ours who regard the Church as prudish and petty when it speaks out against sexual immorality. Finally, Paul's teachings on abstinence and virginity in 1 Corinthians 7 anticipate the teaching of Humanae Vitae that temporary abstinence is an acceptable method of birth control, and also underlie the historic Christian practices of consecrated virginity and priestly celibacy.


  • 1 See, most recently, the detailed philological arguments of John Granger Cook, 'μαλακοί and ἀρσενοκοῖται: In Defence of Tertullian’s Translation,' New Testament Studies 65 (2019): 332-352. Paul himself uses arsēn in his description of homoerotic sex acts in Rom. 1:27, and also uses koitē in the sense of 'sexual promiscuity' in Rom. 13:13. Cook establishes a semantic field consisting of other compound nouns formed from either arsēn or koitē (or similar elements) and finds a general pattern by which 'a male has sex with the person (or animal) referred to by the nominal form that appears first in the construction (e.g. μητροκοίτης means "one who penetrates a mother".' This, together with usage of arsenokoitēin other texts from the second century C.E. onward, supports the meaning of 'one who penetrates a male' as most likely. However, numerous scholars have defended other meanings of arsenokoitai (and malakoi), arguing that they have more specialised connotations relating to, e.g., sexual violence, pederasty, or cultic prostitution. For further exegetical observations on the acts referred to in Romans 1:26-27, see the footnotes in my previous article.
  • 2 David E. Garland points out that the verb koilia ('belly') is occasionally used in the LXX as a euphemism for sexual organs (2 Kgdms 7:12; 16:11; Ps. 131:11; Sir. 23:6), which may have facilitated the food-belly/sex-genitals analogy (1 Corinthians [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic], 230).
  • 3 Pseudo-Phocylides, Sentences 175-76 (trans. Walter T. Wilson, The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides [Berlin: de Gruyter, 2005], 187).
  • 4 The definite article preceding the word parthenos ('virgin') in 1 Corinthians 7:28, 34 is  (feminine). Thus, although the word parthenos can be used of males (cf. Rev. 14:4), Paul probably uses it exclusively for female virgins here. Nevertheless, it is clear from Paul's remarks in 1 Corinthians 7:27-28, 32-33, 36-38 that he has in mind the possibility of a celibate life both for men (like himself) and women.
  • 5 Of course, the notion that virginity is a holy and venerable calling would have been rooted in the life of Jesus himself, and also finds support in the saying of Jesus in Matthew 19:12 (cf. Isa. 56:3-5).

Thursday, 11 July 2019

Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI, and Paul the Apostle (Part 1)

51 years ago, in July 1968, Pope Paul VI published an encyclical letter called Humanae Vitae ('Human Life') that is one of the most counter-cultural documents ever produced by the Catholic Church. In 1968, the Sexual Revolution was in full swing in the West, and social norms (and legal codes) concerning sexual behaviour were rapidly changing or would change in the future as a result. Specifically, sexual and related behaviours that were becoming or would become increasingly normalised in society included artificial contraception (especially the Pill), abortion, pornography, masturbation, premarital sex, casual sex, and homosexual sex. The common denominator to all of these items is the driving of a wedge between sex and procreation. The only essential purpose of sex is enjoyment (including relational bonding, for the more conservatively and monogamously minded); pregnancy is an incidental side effect that can be welcomed, avoided, or terminated as desired.

Against this background—and against the advice of some of his theological advisers—Pope Paul VI authoritatively taught in Humanae Vitae that the sexual act has two essential purposes, namely unitive and procreative. The unitive purpose is to unite married couples in mutual love, thus strengthening the marital bond. The procreative purpose is to produce offspring and thus perpetuate the human race. These purposes are intimately related in that a strong marital union contributes to a healthy setting for raising children. By declaring both of these purposes to be essential to the sexual act, the Pontiff implicitly reinforced the Church's long-standing prohibition on non-procreative sexual acts (e.g., masturbation, oral sex, anal sex) and explicitly forbade the use of contraception: 'any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation' is excluded. The only family planning method that is permitted is periodic abstinence, i.e. to 'take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile.' In effect, the Pope ruled all the 'fruits' of the Sexual Revolution off-limits. This was a radical stand to make, as by this time most of the Protestant world had embraced contraception as an acceptable family planning method, and many observers—Catholic and non-Catholic—assumed that the Pope would follow suit.

Humanae Vitae does not quote any Scripture, since it is intended more as a pastoral instruction than a theological treatise. Nevertheless, my recent study of the letters of St. Paul have led me to marvel at how aptly Pope Paul VI was named; for his teachings in Humanae Vitae are anticipated in the writings of his namesake apostle. (This is true despite the fact that Paul (and Scripture generally) offers no direct teaching on contraception.) In what follows I will briefly comment on Paul's ideas on sexuality and marriage based on passages in Romans and 1 Corinthians, and compare them to Humanae Vitae.

Injunctions against sexual immorality (porneia) are a common feature of the Pauline and deutero-Pauline1 epistles (1 Cor. 6:9-10; 2 Cor. 12:21; Gal. 5:19-21; 1 Thess. 4:3-5; Eph. 5:3-5; Col. 3:5-9; 1 Tim. 1:9-10). However, these are generally brief warnings and 'vice lists' that offer little insight into the theological grounding of Paul's sexual ethic. We do observe that sexual immorality is of 'the flesh,' the morally compromised aspect of human nature (Gal. 5:19), and that it correlates with idolatry and 'the Gentiles who do not know God' (1 Thess. 4:5; Eph. 5:5). The material that gives us greater insight into Paul's sexual ethic is found in Romans 1:18-32 and in 1 Corinthians 5-7.

Romans 1:18-32 is a section of the letter that contributes to a wider argument. Paul here effectively assumes the guise or role of a scrupulously law-observant Jew or Jewish Christian in order to indignantly condemn Gentiles for their idolatry and resulting loose morals. By v. 32 his Judaeo-centric readers are cheering him on as he unloads on the 'Gentile sinners' (for this phrase see Gal. 2:15). However, it is all a setup: beginning in 2:1 he turns the tables on self-righteous fellow Jews in order to eventually conclude that 'all, both Jews and Gentiles, are under sin' and in need of the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:9, 24). The point is not that Gentiles are actually good and Jews are bad, but that everyone is bad. Therefore, Paul's attack on Gentile sin in Romans 1:18-32, although a clever rhetorical device, does represent his actual views.

The main thrust of Romans 1:18-32 is that the Gentiles are culpably ignorant of God and idolatrous, and that as a result God has 'given them up' to their human fallenness ('the lusts of the hearts,' 1:24; 'degrading passions,' 1:26; 'their undiscerning mind,' 1:28), resulting in all kinds of wicked behaviour enumerated in vv. 29-31. However, in vv. 25-27 Paul singles out certain immoral sexual behaviour for special censure:
25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and revered and worshiped the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. 26 Therefore, God handed them over to degrading passions. Their females exchanged natural relations for unnatural, 27 and the males likewise gave up natural relations with females and burned with lust for one another. Males did shameful things with males and thus received in their own persons the due penalty for their perversity. (NABRE)
Now, Romans 1:26-27 is one of what LGBT Christians refer to as 'the clobber passages' that are used as proof texts (often without any nuance) to oppose same-sex relationships/marriage, or simply to make gay people feel unwelcome. My intention is certainly not to 'clobber' anyone but only to carefully examine Paul's contextual meaning. Notice that the immoral sexual behaviour described in vv. 26-27 results from denying God's creatorship.2 This implies that, for Paul, sexual morality is grounded in God's creative design, i.e., in nature. This is confirmed when Paul describes the illicit behaviour as an exchange or abandonment of 'the natural function' or 'the natural relations' (Greek: tēn phusikēn chrēsin) and as 'contrary to nature' (para phusin). By referring here to humans in their sexuality as 'male' (arsēn) and 'female' (thēlus) (terms Paul rarely uses),3 Paul alludes to the Genesis creation story ('he made them male [arsēn] and female [thēlus],' Gen. 1:27 LXX) and so grounds his understanding of 'the natural function' in the sexual complementarity of creation and the accompanying responsibility to procreate (Gen. 1:28). This reading of Paul's intent is supported by evidence from his historical context in Hellenistic Judaism.4

In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI follows in his namesake's footsteps, emphasising that the Church's teaching on marriage 'is based on the natural law as illuminated and enriched by divine Revelation'. The Church acknowledges and defers to God's 'wisely ordered laws of nature,' including the natural phenomenon of sexual procreation. While Paul in Romans 1:26 probably refers to female-female homoerotic acts,5 just as 1:27 clearly refers to male-male homoerotic acts,6 it would be consistent with Paul's reasoning to regard as 'contrary to nature' and thus immoral any sexual act that involves a departure from 'the natural function' of sex, which includes its procreative purpose. Thus, in prohibiting measures intended to 'obstruct the natural development of the generative process,' Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae drew a conclusion that had been anticipated by Paul the Apostle in Romans 1:26.

The second part of this article will look at Paul's teaching on sex and marriage in 1 Corinthians 5-7, and how this too anticipates the teaching of Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae.


  • 1 The deutero-Pauline epistles are those that claim to have been written by Paul but that many modern scholars believe were written by someone else in his name, even after his death. The deutero-Pauline letters mentioned here are Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Timothy. Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, and 1 Thessalonians were all indisputably written by Paul himself.
  • 2 The link that Paul identifies between idolatry and sexual immorality is causal: the one leads to the other. Of course, in making this connection Paul would have been well aware of the sexual debauchery and prostitution that often accompanied idolatrous worship. However, this does not mean that Paul condemns sexually immoral acts only when practiced as part of idolatrous worship. The text is clear that he condemns such acts because they are intrinsically contrary to the natural order.
  • 3 Neither of these words occurs elsewhere in Paul's letters apart from Gal. 3:28, where the gendering of humans is again the point at issue. In the entire rest of the New Testament, the words arsēn and thēlus occur together only in Matt. 19:4 and Mark 10:6, both quotations from the creation story of Gen. 1:27 made to ground Jesus' teaching on marriage.
  • 4 For example, Paul's contemporary Philo of Alexandria describes homoerotic acts as 'contrary to nature' (para phusin, the same phrase Paul uses in Rom. 1:26) and condemns pederasty not only because of the damage it does to the violated young men but because the pederast disregards his responsibility to procreate (Special Laws 3.37-39). Elsewhere, he condemns the men of Sodom for discarding 'the law of nature' regarding sexuality (On Abraham 133-136). Josephus, Paul's younger contemporary, explains that Jewish laws allow no sexual intercourse except that 'according to nature' (kata phusin), namely of a man with his wife, and that only for procreation (Against Apion 2.199). He later condemns the Elean and Theban Greeks for doing 'that contrary-to-nature (para phusin, again same phrase as Rom. 1:26) and licentious thing of intercourse with males,' adding that they attribute such practices to their gods in order to justify their 'improper and contrary-to-nature (para phusin) pleasures' (Against Apion 2.273-275). The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides (first century B.C.E./first century C.E.) makes it obligatory to marry and procreate to 'give something to nature' (phusei, 175-76) and to 'Go not beyond natural (phuseōs) sexual unions for illicit passion' (190) (text and translations from Walter T. Wilson, The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides [Berlin: de Gruyter, 2005]). The same general moral principle that God's laws follow from the created order of nature is apparent in 4 Maccabees (late first century C.E.): 'Therefore we do not eat defiling food, for, believing that the law is divine, we know that the Creator of the world shows us sympathy by imposing a law that is in accordance with nature (kata phusin)' (4 Macc. 5.25-26 NETS). Finally, Wisdom of Solomon 14 identifies idolatry as the origin of sexual immorality (porneia, v. 12) and more specifically of 'inversion of procreation' (geneseōs enallagē, v. 26). The similarities between this passage and Romans 1:18-32 are so striking that numerous scholars have argued for some sort of literary dependence.
  • 5 It is also possible, though less likely, that the sexual acts 'contrary to nature' involving females that Paul has in mind here are heterosexual oral and/or anal sex. The former is condemned in one other early Christian text, the Epistle of Barnabas (cf. 10.8). What makes female-female homoerotic acts the most likely meaning is that only females are mentioned as the actors and that the male-male acts in v. 27 are likened to those in v. 26 using the word 'likewise' (homoiōs).
  • 6 Most English translations, for understandable reasons, neglect to convey the sexual explicitness of the Greek text. The phrase translated 'Males did shameful things with males' in the NABRE renders arsenes en arsesin tēn aschēmosunēn katergazomenoi. Aschēmosunē does literally mean 'disgrace' but is used as a euphemism for genitals in the Septuagint (Ex. 20:26; Lev. 18:6; Deut. 23:14) as well as in Rev. 16:15 (cf. BDAG 147). Given the sexual context of Rom. 1:27 it is best understood in this sense here, and so a literal translation of this phrase would be, 'Males working the member in males,' an obvious reference to male-male sexual intercourse.

Monday, 24 June 2019

Gender Attraction and the Meaning of 'This Is My Body'

Having celebrated the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi) yesterday, it seems appropriate to reflect on the words of institution found in four New Testament passages (Matthew 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24), the last of which was part of yesterday's Mass Readings. There is perhaps no biblical instance of the verb 'to be' that is more debated in meaning than the phrase, 'This is my body.' In the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, since antiquity, 'is' has been understood literally. He who had previously miraculously transformed water into wine and multiplied loaves now miraculously transforms bread into his flesh and wine into his blood. Since the Reformation, however, most Protestants have understood 'is' metaphorically: the bread only symbolises or evokes the body of Christ. This article is not going to end this long-running debate; it seeks only to draw attention to a subtle feature in the Greek text of these passages that may have some bearing on the meaning.

In all four above-mentioned texts, the words of institution are (in some order) τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ σῶμά μου, a 'copular clause' consisting of subject (τοῦτό, 'this'), copula (ἐστιν, 'is') and predicate nominative (τὸ σῶμά μου, 'my body'). Nothing remarkable here. What is remarkable is the gender of the word τοῦτό, a feature that is impossible to convey in an English translation. The word τοῦτό is neuter in gender, whereas its apparent referent, ἄρτος ('bread') is masculine. Ordinarily, the gender of a pronoun agrees with the noun for which it stands, and so we would expect the pronoun to be masculine, οὗτος.1

Before pondering what this little grammatical anomaly might mean, let us look more closely at the key Greek clause (following the NA28 critical text) in all four passages (with my translations of the immediate context):
While they were eating, Jesus, taking bread and giving thanks, broke it. And giving it to his disciples, he said, 'Take, eat; this is my body' (Λάβετε, φάγετε, τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ σῶμά μου). (Matthew 26:26)
And while they were eating, taking bread and giving thanks, he broke it and gave it to them and said, 'Take; this is my body' (Λάβετε, τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ σῶμά μου). (Mark 14:22)
And taking bread, giving thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, 'This is my body which for you is given (τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ σῶμά μου τὸ ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν διδόμενον). This do in my remembrance.' (Luke 22:19)
That the Lord Jesus, on the night on which he was betrayed, taking bread and giving thanks, broke it and said, 'This my body is for you (τοῦτό μού ἐστιν τὸ σῶμα τὸ ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν). This do in my remembrance.' (1 Corinthians 11:23-24)
Again, the gender of the word τοῦτό ('this') does not agree with the gender of ἄρτος ('bread'), as it ought to do if, as generally assumed, 'this' does refer to the bread that Jesus has just broken. How do we explain this? Some scholars have argued that 'this' does not refer to 'bread,' or to any other noun, but rather to an action, such as Jesus' action of breaking the bread. A recent blog post by Steve Black defends this interpretation, which can also be found in print, for instance in a book by Bruce W. Winter.2 'This,' Jesus says as he tears the bread, 'is my body.' It is a visual metaphor: as the bread has been torn; so will his body be torn.

There are, however, two contextual problems with this interpretation. The first is that, in all four passages above, the words of institution are accompanied by a command, and in at least three of the four, the command appears to entail eating 'this,' which must therefore be a physical substance and not an action.3 The second contextual problem is that, in all four passages, 'This is my body' is paralleled by words of institution for the cup, which also commence in all four cases with τοῦτό. And, in all four cases, this τοῦτό unmistakably denotes 'the cup' (or, more specifically, its contents)4 and not an action.5 Given the obvious parallel structure between the two sayings ('This is my body'; 'This [cup] is my blood/the new covenant in my blood'), which is surely deliberate (for liturgical symmetry), it is far more likely that 'this' refers to the physical substance at hand than that it refers to an action.

If 'this' denotes the physical substance at hand, and not an action, then why the neuter gender? What we have here is a syntactical feature of ancient Greek that Daniel B. Wallace refers to as 'gender attraction.'6 This occurs in a copular clause (subject + copula + predicate nominative) when the subject is a pronoun but, instead of taking the gender of the noun to which it refers, it takes the gender of the predicate nominative. Hence, although 'this' is a pronoun referring back to 'bread,' it does not take the gender of 'bread' but attracts the gender of the predicative, 'body.' According to Wallace, gender attraction 'occurs when the focus of the discourse is on the predicate nominative: the dominant gender reveals the dominant idea of the passage' (my emphasis).

NT examples of gender attraction cited by Wallace, along with others identified by myself, are summarised in the table below.7 It appears that, in like manner, the four NT passages containing the words of institution 'This is my body' use gender attraction, using the neuter τοῦτό instead of the masculine οὗτος to stress that 'my body,' not 'bread,' is the dominant idea.

Pronoun Subject
Noun Referred to
Predicate Nominative
Matt. 13:38
οὗτοι, ‘these’ (masc. plural dem. pronoun)
τό...καλόν σπέρμα, ‘the good seed’(neut. singular)
οἱ υἱοί τῆς βασιλείας, ‘the sons of the kingdom’ (masc. plural)
Stresses masculine allegorical referent of good seed in parable of the wheat and weeds8
Mark 15:16
, ‘which’ (neut. rel. pronoun)
τῆς αὐλῆς, ‘the palace’ (fem.)
πραιτώριον, ‘praetorium’ (neut.)
Fairly mundane example; emphasis falls on praetorium as more specific descriptor; cf. similar instance in Mark 15:42 (/παρασκευὴ/προσάββατον)  
Acts 16:12
ἥτις, ‘which’ (fem. rel. pronoun)
Φιλίππους, ‘Philippi’ (masc.)
πόλις, ‘city’ (fem.)
Another mundane example; emphasis falls on Philippi’s status as a city rather than the name itself
Gal. 3:16
ὅς, ‘who’ (masc. rel. pronoun)
τῷ σπέρματί σου, ‘your seed’ (neut.)
Χριστός, ‘Christ’ (masc.)
Places emphasis on Christ as ultimate identity of ‘seed’ promised to Abraham in Genesis.
Eph. 6:17
, ‘which’ (neut. rel. pronoun)
τὴν μάχαιραν τοῦ πνεύματος, ‘the sword of the Spirit’ (fem.)
ῥῆμα θεοῦ, ‘the word of God’ (neut.)
Stresses neuter allegorical referent of sword in ‘armour of God’ metaphor
1 Tim. 3:15
ἥτις, ‘which’ (fem. rel. pronoun)
οἴκῳ θεοῦ, ‘the household of God’ (masc.)
ἐκκλησία θεοῦ ζῶντος, ‘the church of the living God’ (fem.)
Stresses ‘church’ as more formal, precise descriptor than ‘household’
Phlm 12
τοῦτ’, ‘this’ (neut. dem. pronoun)
αὐτόν, ‘him’ (masc.), referring to Onesimus
τὰ ἐμὰ σπλάγχνα, ‘my beloved,’ ‘my very heart’
Stresses emphatic, emotive description of Onesimus’ closeness to Paul
Rev. 4:5
, ‘which’ (neut. plur. rel. pronoun)
ἑπτὰ λαμπάδες πυρὸς, ‘seven flaming torches’ (fem. plur.)
ἑπτὰ πνεύματα τοῦ θεοῦ, ‘seven spirits of God’ (neut. plur.)
Emphasises reality denoted by torches seen in vision
Rev. 20:14
οὗτος, ‘this’ (masc. dem. pronoun)
λίμνη τοῦ πυρός, ‘the lake of fire’ (fem.)
θάνατος δεύτερός, ‘the second death’ (masc.)
Emphasises reality denoted by lake seen in vision

Now, this insight does not unambiguously resolve the sacramental vs. metaphorical, Catholic vs. Protestant debate over the meaning of the words of institution. One could associate 'This is my body' with allegorical cases of gender attraction such as Matt. 13:38 and Eph. 6:17 (see table above), in order to classify it as a fundamentally metaphorical statement. Or, one could associate 'This is my body' with mystical cases of gender attraction such as Rev. 4:5 and 20:14 (see table above), in which a visible thing is some transcendent reality, and so assert that the bread really is Christ's body. Unquestionably, 'This is my body,' with 'this' denoting something visible and about to be eaten, is far more vivid than elements of a fictitious parable. However, all that we can say for certain is that the text is constructed so as to make 'my body' the dominant idea, the point of emphasis, in Jesus' words as he describes the food he is distributing to his disciples. The syntax alone cannot definitively resolve the issue.

There is, however, one last point to which I would like to draw attention. In Eph. 1:22-23 we have a statement that is remarkably similar to the words of institution: God gave Christ as 'head over all things in the church, which is his body.' In this instance, Catholics and Protestants should be able to agree that this is not a literal statement. It describes a mystical reality deeper than a metaphor (a reality very much linked to the Eucharist), but no one asserts that the Church literally is the flesh-and-blood body of Christ. In view of this, it is fascinating to note the syntactic difference between Eph. 1:22-23 and the words of institution. Here, we have τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ ('the church,' fem.), ἥτις ('which', fem.) ἐστὶν τὸ σῶμα αὐτοῦ ('is his body,' neut.). Gender attraction is not used here; the pronoun remains feminine, so 'the church' remains the dominant idea in view.9 Given that this statement falls within the Pauline corpus,10 as do the words of institution in 1 Cor. 11:24, it marks a significant syntactic contrast. Why is it that when describing the Eucharistic food as 'my body,' gender attraction is used (so heightening the emphasis on 'my body' as opposed to the visible specimen of bread), but when describing the Church as 'his body,' gender attraction is not used? One possible explanation is that the Eucharistic food 'is' Christ's body in a more fundamental way than the Church is. The Church is Christ's body indirectly, as a result of her partaking of the Eucharistic food that is directly, actually Christ's body.


  • 1 The word 'this' is a proximal demonstrative pronoun: pronoun because it stands in for a noun, demonstrative because it points something out (in the speaker's/writer's physical or conceptual setting), proximal because it points out something nearby, drawing attention toward the speaker (as opposed to the distal demonstrative pronoun 'that,' which points out something distant, away from the speaker). Notice that in English, the form of a demonstrative pronoun changes if it stands in for a plural noun: 'these' rather than 'this'; 'those' rather than 'that.' The number of the pronoun must agree with the number of the noun for which it stands. The same is true in ancient Greek, but because—unlike English but like many modern languages such as French and German—all nouns are also gendered, the demonstrative pronoun ordinarily agrees with the noun for which it stands not only in number (singular or plural) but also in gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter, in Greek).
  • 2 Bruce W. Winter, After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 153-54.
  • 3 In Matthew and Mark, the accompanying command immediately precedes the word 'this' and clearly concerns a physical substance: 'Take, eat' (Matthew); 'Take' (Mark). Contextually, 'this' surely refers to that which they are to take and eat. In 1 Corinthians and Luke, the accompanying command is 'this do' (τοῦτο ποιεῖτε) and immediately follows the words of institution. Here, τοῦτο does refer to an action, but not exclusively the action of breaking the bread. The Pauline context shows that Paul interprets 'this do' primarily in terms of eating.In Paul's discussion of the Lord's Supper in 1 Corinthians 10-11, while he does refer once to 'the bread we break' (10:16), his emphasis is on eating the bread (10:17; 11:20, 26, 27, 28, 29, 33). Indeed, the same command 'this do' accompanies the words of institution for the cup, where no obvious action is in view. In 11:26, Paul directly explains the two 'this do' commands thus: 'For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.' The command in Luke is admittedly ambiguous: the Lucan context offers few clues as to what 'this do' entails, and does not repeat the command for the cup (presumably Luke assumes his audience is familiar with the liturgical implications). Luke does elsewhere show special interest in the 'breaking of bread' (Luke 24:35; Acts 20:7), but nevertheless 'this do' for Luke probably refers to the entire procedure of taking bread, giving thanks over it, breaking, distributing, and eating.
  • 4 'The cup' in Luke and 1 Corinthians is an instance of synecdoche, referring to the liquid in the cup rather than the container. This is particularly clear in Paul, where the repeated phrase 'drink the cup' (1 Cor. 10:21; 11:26-28) makes no sense if 'cup' (the direct object) refers only to the container. Matthew 26:27 and Mark 14:23, by contrast, refer to drinking from the cup (ἐξ αὐτοῦ); but in these instances, τοῦτό in the words of institution probably refers specifically to the liquid and not to the cup: in the phrase 'this is my blood,' 'this' can hardly denote a container. Matthew and Mark do use the idiom 'drink the cup' elsewhere (Matt. 20:22-23; 26:42; Mark 9:41; 10:38-39).
  • 5 'This is my blood of the covenant that for many is poured out... (τοῦτο γάρ ἐστιν τὸ αἷμά μου τῆς διαθήκης πολλῶν ἐκχυννόμενον...', Matthew 26:28); 'This is my blood of the covenant that is poured out for many. (τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ αἷμά μου τῆς διαθήκης τὸ ἐκχυμμόμενον ὑπὲρ πολλῶν', Mark 14:24); 'This cup [is] the new covenant in my blood, which for many is poured out.' (τοῦτο τὸ ποτήριον ἡ καινὴ διαθήκη ἐν τῷ αἷματί μου τὸ ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν ἐκχυμμόμενον, Luke 22:20); 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood' (τοῦτο τὸ ποτήριον ἡ καινὴ διαθήκη ἐστιν ἐν τῷ ἐμῷ αἷματι, 1 Corinthians 11:25). In Matthew and Mark, 'this' is the object of the pouring-out action, and so can only be the cup. In Luke and 1 Corinthians the word 'cup' (ποτήριον) is explicitly supplied: 'this cup'.
  • 6 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 338.
  • 7 There are several other instances that are text-critically uncertain: Eph. 1:13-14 (ὅς/τῷ πνεύματι τῷ ἁγίῳ/ἀρραβὼν, where however NA28 reads ὅ rather than ὅς; Col. 1:27 (ὅς/τὸ πλοῦτος or τοῦ μυστηρίου/Χριστὸς, where however NA28 reads ὅ rather than ὅς); Rev. 5:6 (ἅ/ὀφθαλμοὺς/τὰ [ἑπτὰ] πνεύματα τοῦ θεοῦ, where however NA28 reads οἵ rather than ἅ, and κέρατα could also be the referent noun in addition to ὀφθαλμοὺς)
  • 8 Similar gender attraction occurs in the Parable of the Sower in Luke 8:14-15, where τὸ (neuter) implicitly denotes seed, for which the masculine plural pronoun οὗτοι is then used. Cf. Matt. 13:19-22; Mark 4:15-20.
  • 9 A reverse case can be seen in Col. 1:24, which speaks of 'his body, which is the church' (τοῦ σώματος αὐτοῦ, ὅ ἐστιν ἡ ἐκκλησία), where gender attraction likewise does not occur: the relative pronoun ὅ is neuter, agreeing with the referent noun τοῦ σώματος ('his body') rather than the feminine predicate nominative ἡ ἐκκλησία ('the church').
  • 10 Granting that the authorship of Ephesians is a subject of considerable scholarly debate, with Pauline authorship being a minority position.

Monday, 10 June 2019

What or Who is the Holy Spirit? Christadelphian and Trinitarian Definitions

There is no better time than Pentecost Sunday to reflect on pneumatology: the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. In my years of blogging, often in conversation with the theology of Christadelphians (the unitarian sect in which I was raised and to which I formerly belonged), I have written a fair bit about the activity of the Holy Spirit, criticising the traditional Christadelphian view that the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the post-apostolic church and remains dormant today (a position I have called hyper-cessationism). I have previously focused my critique of Christadelphian pneumatology on this functional aspect, because it is not only totally foreign to the New Testament vision of the Church, but quite literally fatal to the whole Christian project, since "the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor. 3:6). Without the Spirit no one can confess that Jesus is Lord or belong to him (1 Cor. 12:3; Rom. 8:9). It is, to me, perplexing and disturbing that anyone can think that they are capable of following Jesus without the Holy Spirit working in their hearts and in their ecclesial community. Jesus warned his disciples, "Without me you can do nothing" (John 15:5), and went on to explain that the Holy Spirit would be his means of empowering them after his physical departure from the earth. We could paraphrase Paul's question to the Galatians (Gal. 3:3) by asking Christadelphians, "Having begun its mission by means of the Holy Spirit, is the Ecclesia of God to complete its mission by mere human will and power?"

Because of this fundamental impasse over functional pneumatology, it always seemed a bit pointless to me to interact with Christadelphian ideas on the more abstract matter of ontological pneumatology, i.e., what or who the Holy Spirit is. However, ontology is actually the more fundamental issue, since what the Holy Spirit does follows from what or who the Holy Spirit is. Moreover, while the hypercessationist functional pneumatology is not universally held among Christadelphians—it was never explicitly codified in their Statement of Faith and my sense is that it has been toned down or abandoned by significant swathes of Christadelphians today—what does seem to be universal among Christadelphians is the denial "that the Holy Spirit is a person distinct from the Father" (Doctrines to be Rejected #6). This is part of Christadelphians' broader denial of Trinitarian orthodoxy in favour of a unitarian view of God.

In this article, as a prelude to further intended writings on pneumatology and personhood, my aim is to summarise what Christadelphians affirm about the Holy Spirit and contrast it with classical Christian dogma.

Christadelphian Definitions of the Holy Spirit

The Christadelphian Statement of Faith does not contain any article specifically about the Spirit (which is telling in itself). The first article of the BASF does affirm, within a proposition about God, that God is "everywhere present by His Spirit, which is a unity with His person in heaven." This affirmation, properly qualified, would not be objectionable from a Trinitarian standpoint. However, as the Doctrine to be Rejected quoted above clarifies, the BASF is not declaring that God and His Spirit (and His Logos-Son) are a unity of persons, but that God's Spirit is numerically and personally indistinct from God. The Spirit is mentioned three further times in the BASF, but all of these are passing references to the Spirit's role in the earthly life of Jesus. The Christadelphian Statement of Faith does not offer a definition of the Holy Spirit. It clearly states what Christadelphians do not believe the Spirit to be: a person. However, it does not clearly state what Christadelphians do believe the Spirit to be.

For more insight into Christadelphian ontological pneumatology—what the Holy Spirit is, according to Christadelphians—we can look to other Christadelphian literature. We will have to offer the same disclaimer as for any other Christadelphian doctrinal issue: anything we find in Christadelphian literature amounts to privately held opinions; there is no such thing as an official Christadelphian position on this doctrine.1

The most widely encountered definition of the Holy Spirit found in Christadelphian literature is that the Holy Spirit is "God's power." For example, a website called Australian Christadelphians summarises Christadelphian beliefs about God thus: "There is only one eternal, immortal God. Jesus Christ is his only begotten son and the Holy Spirit is his power." Catechetical materials produced by the Christadelphian Bible Mission (CBM) state that "The Spirit of God is His power through which He makes and supports all things." 

A slightly more nuanced definition of the Holy Spirit is offered by Christadelphian apologists James H. Broughton and Peter J. Southgate: "The Holy Spirit is the Father's mind and power."2 They go on to describe God's Spirit as "His agent," while qualifying that this agent is "not a separate person" and does not have "its own volition."3

A biblical unitarian article—not Christadelphian, but endorsed by Christadelphian apologist Dave Burke in an online debate on the Trinity—gives a two-pronged definition of the Holy Spirit:
In every verse of Scripture in which pneuma hagion, holy spirit, is used, it can refer either to (a) one of the names of God, one which emphasizes His power in operation, or (b) the gift of God.
A problematic feature of all of these definitions of the Holy Spirit—God's power, God's mind, God's impersonal agent, one of God's names, the gift of God—is their lack of ontological or philosophical precision. Consider the most common Christadelphian definition: the Holy Spirit as God's power. There is plenty of biblical evidence identifying or linking the Spirit with God's power, but does this amount to an ontological definition? Does it tell us what the Holy Spirit really is? Clearly not. For instance, this definition does not on its own resolve the issue of whether the Holy Spirit is a person. Christ is also identified in Scripture as the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:24), but I doubt that anyone would claim that "the power of God" is an adequate definition of Jesus Christ.4 Likewise, the statement "the Holy Spirit is the power of God" is true but is not a satisfactory definition of the Holy Spirit. It raises more ontological questions than it answers: "What do you mean by 'power'? What sort of power?"

19th-century Christadelphian writers like John Thomas (the founder of the movement) and Robert Roberts (his protégé) did, to their credit, attempt to clarify further what they meant by defining the Holy Spirit as God's power. They described the Spirit in quasi-physical terms as a kind of energy or matter.5 Indeed, Robert Roberts appears to have identified God's Spirit as nothing other than electricity.6 I suspect that most Christadelphians today who are aware of Roberts' claims are a little embarrassed by them. Nevertheless, one has to commend the early Christadelphians for recognising that "God's power" does not suffice as an ontological definition of the Spirit, and seeking to provide greater clarity. The "electricity hypothesis" seems to have been quietly dropped but not replaced with another ontologically precise definition.

Other definitions of the Holy Spirit that one encounters in Christadelphian literature, such as God's mind, God's agent, etc., are no more ontologically satisfying.7 Perhaps most puzzling is the biblical unitarian definition of the Holy Spirit as one of the names of God or the gift of God. This definition suggests that "Holy Spirit" does not name a real entity; it is merely a term used in Scripture to refer to other entities (two in particular). The Holy Spirit is thus reduced to a label, rather than a distinct reality.

In light of the shortcomings of the above definitions, I think the question needs to be put to Christadelphians and other unitarians anew, "What is the Holy Spirit?" Is it an abstraction, like a property or attribute of God? Something more concrete, like a force or form of energy or matter? Is "Holy Spirit" merely a label or does it name a specific transcendent reality?

The Trinitarian Definition of the Holy Spirit: Is it Worth Considering?

The Christian dogmatic consensus that was formalised at the Council of Constantinople (381 A.D.) and has stood ever since defines the Holy Spirit as a divine person, numerically distinct from the Father and the Son but consubstantial (of one substance or nature) with them as God. Unpacking this definition in detail will have to await another article. What I want to do here is to try and convince Christadelphian readers at least that a closer look at this definition is merited. To do so I want to make two brief observations and one brief biblical argument.

The first observation is that the Trinitarian definition of the Holy Spirit achieves what the Christadelphian and unitarian definitions do not. It is ontologically precise, assigning the Spirit to a specific ontological category, namely person, and even more specifically, divine person. Moreover, one notices in Christadelphian and unitarian discourse a concern to both identify the Spirit with God and distinguish the Spirit from God; hence in the biblical unitarian definition above the Spirit is one of God's names (completely identified with God) or God's gift (distinct from God). The Church Fathers shared this same concern, but addressed it not by bifurcating the Spirit into two different things (an impossibility since the Spirit is one), but by offering a definition of the Spirit that simultaneously affirms both the identification with God and the distinction from God, holding them in tension.

The second observation concerns apologetic writings and debates about the Holy Spirit involving Christadelphians or other unitarians. In my experience, the main Christadelphian apologetic objective is to prove from Scripture that the Holy Spirit is not a person (thus countering the Trinitarian claim). However, the argument usually proceeds without any attempt to define what a person is. (To be fair, quite often the Trinitarian interlocutor in the debate makes the same omission.) Cases in point can be seen in The Great Trinity Debate between Dave Burke and Rob Bowman,8 and Broughton and Southgate's book.9 This is a crucial oversight for two reasons. First, it is obvious that in any debate over the proposition, "X is a person," the truth or falsehood of the proposition hinges on what is meant by "person." Second, "person" is not the sort of simple, obvious concept for which a definition can be assumed without stating it. The concept of personhood has been debated by philosophers up and down the centuries and remains a hot topic today (e.g., concerning ethical debates over the rights of fetuses, humans suffering from dementia, and animals). If even human person is not a concept one can take for granted, a fortiori the same holds for the concept of divine person. Thus, a good definition of personhood may help to resolve the theological differences between Christadelphians and Trinitarians concerning the Holy Spirit.

Some Christadelphians are likely to become uncomfortable with or even tune out any attempt to rigorously define what a person is. "Away with your philosophy; just look at what the Bible says, which is simple and straightforward." In my view, this is a case of trying to having one's cake and eat it too.10 Nevertheless, hoping to reach Christadelphians who may have this mindset, I want to close this article with a short argument for the Holy Spirit's personhood that does not require a technical definition of personhood.

Certain biblical passages, especially in the New Testament, speak of the Holy Spirit in quasi-personal terms. Christadelphian/Trinitarian debates on the Holy Spirit typically go back and forth over whether such quasi-personal language amounts to literary personification (describing a non-personal entity in personal terms for effect) or literal personification (describing an actual person). In the absence of a definition of personhood, this back-and-forth seems futile. However, what I find compelling for the Trinitarian case is not the quasi-personal language per se but a specific claim of Jesus that flows from the Farewell Discourse (chapters 14-17) of the Gospel of John. According to John 14:16, Jesus told his disciples, "And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate (allos paraklētos) to be with you always" (NABRE). Like Jesus, the Holy Spirit is an Advocate. Like Jesus, the Holy Spirit is sent from the Father (John 15:26 cp. 8:42). Like Jesus, the Holy Spirit teaches (John 14:26 cp. 7:16-17). Like Jesus, the Holy Spirit does not speak on his own, but what he hears (John 16:13; cp. 5:30; 7:17). Throughout the Farewell Discourse, the template that Jesus uses to teach his disciples about the Holy Spirit is himself. Crucially, however, he does so while simultaneously distinguishing the Spirit both from the Father and from himself: "the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name" (14:26); "the Advocate...whom I will send you from the Father" (15:26). Trine formulas used elsewhere in the New Testament—most notably in Matthew 28:19 but also, inter alia, in 2 Corinthians 13:14, reinforce this idea: Jesus Christ, the Son, is another of what the Father is, and the Holy Spirit is another of what the Father and the Son are. It is this eminently biblical insight that gave rise to the doctrine of the Trinity.

Of course, this insight gives rise to a very important question: what are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? To what category do these three belong? The early Church wrestled with this question at length and finally settled on the answer that they are hypostases, a Greek word whose accepted English translation (in this context) is "persons." Our next article will therefore explore the concept of personhood in more depth.


  • 1 As Christadelphians do not have any structure or body authorised to make rulings at a higher level than the local congregation, there is no mechanism by which dogma can be constructed for Christadelphians collectively.
  • 2 James H. Broughton and Peter J. Southgate, The Trinity: True or False? (2nd edn; Nottingham: The Dawn Book Supply, 2002), 82.
  • 3 Broughton and Southgate, The Trinity, 93, 97.
  • 4 Some Samaritans also acclaimed Simon Magus as "the 'Power of God' that is called 'Great'" (Acts 8:10). This claim was false, but it does show that in the historical context of the early Church, identification with the power of God and identification as a person were not mutually exclusive.
  • 5 John Thomas writes that "This ruach, or spirit, is neither the Uncreated One who dwells in light, the Lord God, nor the Elohim, His co-workers, who co-operated in the elaboration of the natural world. It was the instrumental principle by which they executed the commission of the glorious Increate" (Elpis Israel [4th edn; Findon: Logos, 1866/2000], 34). He goes on to define God's ruach as His "instrumentally formative power," adding, "From these testimonies it is manifest that the ruach or spirit is all pervading...The atmosphere expanse is charged with it; but it is not the air: plants and animals of all species breathe it; but it is not their breath: yet without it, though filled with air, they would die" (Elpis Israel, 34). Finally, after discussing the chemical composition of the atmosphere, he concludes, "These three together, the oxygen, nitrogen, and electricity, constitute 'the breath' and 'spirit' of the lives of all God's living souls" (Elpis Israel, 35). Robert Roberts describes God's Spirit as "that mighty effluence which radiating from Himself, fills all space, and constitutes the basis of all existence" (Christendom Astray [Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 1884/1969], 142). Becoming more ontologically detailed, he continues: "the higher forms of intelligence cannot exclude the perception that if God has evolved the material universe out of His own energy, and sustains and controls it by His power, that energy cannot be a nullity, but must be an actually present force in the economy of things. Now, it is a fact that in our day, there has been discovered a subtle, unanalysable, incomprehensible principle, which, though inscrutable in its essence, is found to be at the basis of all the phenomena of nature—itself eluding the test of chemistry or the deductions of philosophy. Scientists have called it ELECTRICITY... Could a better name be devised than what the Scriptures have given it—SPIRIT?" (Christendom Astray, 143-44). Roberts goes on to distinguish "Holy Spirit" from "Spirit" in general: "Spirit concentrated under the Almighty's will, becomes Holy Spirit, as distinct from spirit in its free, spontaneous form" (Christendom Astray, 144-45).
  • 6 See quotation in previous note. The Christadelphians' reduction of the Spirit to energy and matter was subjected to blistering criticism by one of Roberts' contemporaries, one David King. In an 1881 pamphlet entitled The History and Mystery of Christadelphianism, preserved online here, King quotes statements from Thomas and Roberts like the above and comments, "God, then, we are asked to believe, is a material being, residing in some local centre. That which, in scientific terms, is called Electricity is in the Bible described as Spirit; the Omnipresence of God means that electricity flows from Him everywhere; the Holy Spirit is, 'that same free spirit, gathered up, as it were, under the focalization of the divine will, for the accomplishment of divine results.' Well, we have always felt something like awe at the thought of the immediate presence of the Holy Spirit, which, of course, if this doctrine be true, was but foolish superstition, seeing we have merely to do with electricity, which we control by lightning rods, send along wires at pleasure, convey into lamps to light our streets and entertainments, and get manifestation of its indwelling in the body of our puss, when in the dark we stroke its black coat the wrong way! We use this language in no flippant manner, but in sober sadness. Christadelphianism is responsible for thus terribly trifling with the nature of Deity, for this letting down of God to their sensuous conception."
  • 7 Defining the Spirit as the mind of God is not very helpful. To speak of God's "mind" is anthropomorphic, analogical language, and clearly not ontologically precise. To speak of the Spirit as God's "agent" is no more helpful, particularly when it is stated that this agent is not personal and not distinguishable from God. How can one exercise agency without volition, and without being distinguishable from the one on whose behalf one acts?
  • 8 In this debate, Burke argued at length that the Holy Spirit is not a "divine person" or a "literal person," without ever stating what he meant by "person," "divine person," or "literal person." In his opening statement, Burke had declared that "God is a personal being Who exists as a single divine Person (Yahweh; the Father)," affirmed "the unitary nature of His personhood," and declared the Father and the Son to be "two separate persons who exist as individual beings." Commenting on the Shema (Deut. 6:4), Burke states, "Biblical Unitarians can read this verse and accept what it is saying without any qualification whatsoever: Yahweh is one; ie. one person." Despite repeating such statements over and over, Burke never offers any definition of "person" or "personhood," although he does criticise Trinitarians for having "developed new definitions for the words 'being' and 'person.'" He implicitly appeals for his own definition of 'being' and 'person' to "regular human communication" (!), still without stating how he defines these terms. Having declared earlier in his opening statement that "Any proposed definitions of a word must be supported from several examples of identical usage," Burke defaults on his own principle by not even proposing a definition of the word "person," much less supporting his definition. Bowman, for his part, also does not offer a definition of personhood even as he seeks to defend "the Trinitarian position that the Holy Spirit is a divine person."
  • 9 Broughton and Southgate devote a subsection of their book to the question, "Is the Holy Spirit a person?" To defend their negative answer to the question, they explore various biblical passages about the Holy Spirit and pose such rhetorical questions as, "Is a 'person' divisible into fractions?" and "Is a 'person' a 'fluid'?" (The Trinity, 102-103), but offer no definition of "person."
  • 10 This is so for two reasons: one, because the Christadelphian Statement of Faith uses the word "person" to describe God, and "person" is not a simple and straightforward concept. Two, because anyone engaging in argument is practicing philosophy, and the typical Christadelphian aversion to technical, philosophically rigorous argument is itself the result of a philosophical approach (rooted in a philosophical school known as Common Sense Realism).

Monday, 27 May 2019

Moral Theology vs. "What the Bible Says"

Over the years I have observed, in discourse amongst Christians, a certain approach taken to moral questions that arise, say in a Bible study group or an online discussion, along the lines of, "Is it wrong to x?" or, "Is it okay to x?" where x is a particular behaviour or practice. In my experience, I have often seen the question rephrased, either by the questioner or someone else, in the form, "What does the Bible say about x?" In this brief (by my standards) article, I will argue that this approach to constructing Christian morality, which on its face appears ideal, is problematic, and that thoroughgoing moral theology is better.

The question, "What does the Bible say about x?" implicitly makes direct biblical witness—what the Bible does or does not say about x—the definitive criterion for answering the original right-or-wrong question. An obvious difficulty is that there are numerous behaviours of contemporary relevance—e.g., abortion, same-sex marriage, gambling, masturbation, smoking marijuana, cremation, contraception, cloning, physician-assisted suicide, littering, polluting—about which the Bible has little or nothing to say directly. If we take same-sex relationships as a (particularly controversial) case in point, there are about half a dozen passages that together form the crux interpretum for those debating the 'biblical' point of view. In the equally heated debates over abortion, there are even fewer texts that directly bear on the matter. On numerous other issues mentioned above, the Bible is completely silent.

Christians taking the "What does the Bible say about x?" approach to morality often disagree on both the meaning and relevance of the salient passages (if there are any). There is inevitably a "No" camp (those who hold behaviour x to be forbidden) and a "Yes" camp (those who hold behaviour x to be permissible, or at least subject to personal freedom of conscience). However, both sides of the debate often appear to presuppose that a binding conclusion on the goodness or wickedness of behaviour x can be reached only if the Bible makes an explicit statement on the matter. The Bible's silence is equated with God's silence, and in a civilisation in which personal liberty and autonomy are paramount values, God's silence is understood as his signal that each individual is free to arrive at a personal position and behave accordingly. This is why the "No" camp clings doggedly to a handful of proof-texts that they assert are airtight and unambiguous (to overcome the force of personal autonomy), while the "Yes" camp is often content to merely cast reasonable doubt on the "No" proof-texts (more specifically, by pointing to ambiguities in exactly what behaviour is being forbidden, or disputing whether the prohibition is still in force). If God's will concerning behaviour cannot be discerned with the explicitness of a "Thus says the Lord," it is safer to refer the matter to the court of personal autonomy.

Serious problems with the "What does the Bible say about x?" approach to morality should be apparent to the reader. For one, by limiting the scope of God's revealed moral law to direct biblical testimony on specific behaviours (prescriptions and proscriptions), we are handcuffed—perhaps even God is handcuffed—from making decisive judgments, and speaking as Christians with collective conviction, on a large number of relevant moral issues. The church, endued with heavenly authority to "bind and loose," seems only to be able to hand its members slipknots, which they may pull or not as they see fit. The "Yes" camp seems to have overlooked the possibility that God's will concerning behaviour x might be discernible even in the absence of a direct biblical commandment or precedent. Meanwhile, the "No" camp entrenches itself behind proof-texts and becomes almost obsessively concerned with behaviour x as the moral battleground for the present generation. Their opposition to behaviour x strikes others as pedantic and mean-spirited because the "No" camp seems to oppose it simply because "the Bible tells me so" and not as part of a holistic, coherent moral framework. "The Bible says you can't do x," moreover, is likely not the best formula for proclaiming the Good News.

If "What does the Bible say about x?" is not a sound approach to discerning the will of God, what is the alternative? It is moral theology. Mostly, but not exclusively, associated with the Catholic Church, moral theology can be defined as
That branch of Theology which states and explains the laws of human conduct in reference to man's supernatural destiny, the vision and fruition of God. As a science, it investigates the morality of human acts, that is, the moral good and the moral evil in conduct in relation to man's ultimate end.1
The difference between moral theology and the approach criticised above does not lie in the authority assigned to Scripture. The Catholic Church holds Sacred Scripture to be divinely inspired and infallible, biblical interpretation plays an indispensable role in moral theology, and indeed the Ten Commandments are the rubric within which Catholic moral theology is usually expressed (as, for instance, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church). Rather, what distinguishes moral theology from "What does the Bible say about x?" is, firstly, that moral theology draws on resources other than revelation, such as philosophy (especially natural law) and science; and, secondly, moral theology does not seek a "Yes/No" judgment on the morality of a behaviour as an end in itself, but only in relation to humankind's ultimate purpose, as ordained by the Creator. Moral theology first posits underlying aspects of the human condition, such as free will, knowledge, responsibility, and sin. It defines virtues and vices. It sets the moral law concerning specific aspects of human life (e.g., sexuality) within their divinely intended purpose. These features of moral theology enable the Church—not by her own strength but under the direction of the Holy Spirit—to arrive at sound, authoritative judgments concerning the rightness or wrongness of specific behaviours, even when those behaviours are not directly addressed in the Bible.

We might summarise by saying that, whereas the "What does the Bible say?" approach to morality is concerned primarily with the what of right and wrong, moral theology is concerned with the why, convinced that God's law is not arbitrary or helter-skelter but rational, coherent, and compelling. If you want to see Catholic moral theology at its best, read the famous encyclical Humanae Vitae ("Human Life") of Pope Paul VI (1968), which set out the Catholic Church's (much-maligned) teaching concerning contraception. The document makes no attempt to claim that the Bible says anything directly concerning contraception, and does not address contraception as one more isolated moral issue, but places it in the context of a coherent theology of human sexuality, oriented toward the divinely ordained purpose of human life itself—hence the choice of title.

I must say in closing that I have used the "What does the Bible say about x?" approach to morality as a foil, knowing full well that there is not a sharp dichotomy between this approach and moral theology, but rather a continuum. Many Christians who make this question their starting-point for investigating a moral issue still attempt to situate the behaviour in question in relation to more fundamental moral-theological concepts, and to arrive at general principles of conduct rather than merely a list of dos and do nots. In like manner, moral theologians are not averse to seeking direct biblical testimony concerning a particular behaviour. Even where the Bible is crystal clear on the "what" of morality, though, moral theology helps to illuminate the "why," which is equally important. There are too many Christians making arguments like, "Behaviour x is wrong, because the Bible says it is, end of discussion," or, conversely, "The Bible says nothing about behaviour x, and therefore it is permissible," or, "therefore, it is subject to personal freedom of conscience." The antidote to this muzzling of the will of God is moral theology.


  • 1 Henry Davis, Moral and Pastoral Theology: A Summary (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1952), 1.