‘And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’
Up to this point the narrative of the crucifixion has focused on the physical sufferings of Jesus: the flogging, the crown of thorns, and his immolation on the cross. Six hours have now passed since the nails were driven home. The crowd have jeered, darkness has covered the land, and now, suddenly, after a long silence, comes this anguished cry from the depths of the Saviour’s soul.
Britain’s Muslims have us all living on a knife-edge, desperately trying to find a compromise between saying it as we see it on the one hand, and avoiding offence to the followers of the Prophet on the other. The BBC, clearly terrified of being accused of bias, seems to assign every terrorist-related story to a Muslim member of staff, conveying the impression that at least half the population are of this persuasion; and whether appearing on screen or before a Parliamentary Committee every Muslim family has to be accompanied by a lawyer of their own faith, presumably to intimidate interviewers (and send out signals to their co-religionists).
It gladdened the heart, then, to hear Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, tell Muslims to stop apologising for jihadists. It was an appropriate response to those who, a few days before, had been blaming the security services for turning that nice boy, Mohammed Emwazi, into the brutal executioner, Jihadi John. The police and MI5 clearly had good grounds for keeping him under surveillance and, with hindsight, the only complaint must be that they did not harass him enough. In any case, could any personal grievance justify a man gloating on camera as he hacks-off an aid-worker’s head with a bread-knife? This is a man whom every self-respecting Muslim will disown without hesitation or qualification.
The area which above all others captured the attention of Scotland’s Reformed theologians was the doctrine of the church. This was especially true of the 17th century, but the 19th century also produced a voluminous literature, including James MacPherson’s splendid overview, The Doctrine of the Church in Scottish Theology. It is here, too, that Scottish theology achieves its greatest international significance. Calvinism as a world movement has two great branches, the Dutch and the Scottish, the former represented by the Dutch Reformed family, the latter by the Presbyterian. Today, the Presbyterian family is thoroughly established in North America,Australia,New Zealand, Africa,Korea,Japan and indeed wherever the gospel has been carried by the missionary advance of the last two centuries. Inevitably, the children no longer cling to their mother’s apron-strings, yet all acknowledge that their roots are in the Scottish Reformation and that they inherited their principles, more or less complete, from their Scoto-Irish spiritual forebears.
Every believer has some theology of the atonement. Faith, after all, is trust in a crucified Saviour, and without some understanding such faith is impossible. Faith knows from the beginning who died on the cross, and it knows, too, why he died. He died for our sins.
But faith can never be content with such elementary knowledge. It wants to live its whole life at the foot of the cross, seeking with every passing day to understand it better.
Many centuries have passed since there was any meaningful dialogue between Muslims and Christians, mainly because the two religions are like chalk and cheese. Christianity is a profoundly theological faith: Islam, like Judaism, is a way of life. Jews have the Torah, Muslims have Sharia, but while both appear to build on the Old Testament, the two sets of laws have diverged widely. There is no parallel in Judaism to Islam’s attitudes towards women, nor would Judaism tolerate the thousand-lash floggings which besmirch the name of Saudi Arabia; something we should stop condoning on the principle, ‘It’s a sovereign state, and that’s their way.’ In Verwoerd’s South Africa, apartheid was their way, and the world responded with crippling sanctions. Why go pussy-footing around Saudi Arabia?
Anyway, as I was going to say, because Islam is first and foremost a way of life it has no detailed theology of, for example, sin and salvation; and where it does venture into theology it is usually only to deny Christian beliefs.
Which is not to say but that there are things we seem to agree on, not least with regard to Jesus. Muslims agree that he was born of a virgin, that he performed wondrous miracles of healing, that he raised the dead, and that he was a great prophet: indeed, next to Mohammed, the very greatest.
Yet when all is said and done, Islamic theology is much more negative than positive. It’s a theology of denial, and the most remarkable of its denials is that Christ was never crucified. God, it is claimed, would never have allowed such a fate to befall a great prophet. Instead, he was taken up to heaven, and some other man was crucified in his place (some have suggested it was Judas Iscariot).
In their recent Seasonal Messages the leaders of all our main political parties called in one way or another for a return to Christian values. It wasn’t always clear whether these values included belief in a deity, but the party-leaders were unanimous about charity. Perhaps they would also want to include humility? This would be a fine thing. After all, it was of this grace that Augustine said that it was the first thing in Christianity, and the second thing, and the third thing; and if our leaders espouse it we are left with an alluring picture of Messrs Cameron, Milliband and Clegg standing outside No. 10 each saying to the other, ‘After you!’ (with a wistful Mr. Salmond looking on).
But humility comes at a price. Thinking others better than yourself and putting their interests before your own doesn’t come to any of us naturally, and least of all to politicians. Humility is not an act, but an attitude of mind. It is the willingness to be nothing, and it’s no guarantee of a Nobel Peace Prize. In fact, the only man who ever really exemplified it ended up being crucified, and that wasn’t just by the press.
The trouble with Christmas is that it reminds me of all the people who are not going to enjoy it: Alistair Cooke, the sacked England cricket-captain; a friend recently diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease; North Sea oil-workers facing unemployment; Syrian refugees; Christians in Iranian jails; the victims of ancient hatreds in the country of Jesus’ birth.
Yet there is still the magic of it. It’s been a couple of years since I last hanged my stocking, modern Christmas-puddings no longer contain threepenny-bits, I can’t see much hope of going sledging down the moor, trousers frozen hard from knees to boots, and even if I do get an apple, an orange and a bottle of lemonade they won’t taste the same as they did in 1947, when an oxo-cube was a treat. But there is still the joy of sending letters to Santa telling him I’d like socks; the joy of seeing others glad with what he’s brought them; the luxury of a day when you can do nothing, with the tacit approval of conscience; the turkey which is ‘perfectly cooked’ even when it isn’t, and tastes better than a Bronze even though it’s only a Frozen.
And, above all, the carols: ringing in my head ever since Primary Three, and now ringing out at Classic FM, Free Church carol-services, and school-concerts where Buddhists, Muslims and Edinburgh City councillors join happily with Christians in singing of ‘our heavenly Lord, that with his blood mankind hath bought’.
When Paul wrote his First Epistle to the Corinthians, he clearly felt himself forced on the defensive. Some parties in the church there were highly critical of his ministry and compared him very unfavourably with the ‘super-apostles’: men distinguished both by the superior wisdom they taught and by the rhetorical skills they deployed in delivering their message. Paul has no inclination to answer the charges on these terms. He cannot claim to be either as erudite a philosopher or as mesmeric an orator as these brilliant communicators. But, then, that wasn’t what he was about. His call was to a very different kind of ministry: ‘we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’ (1 Cor. 1:23-24) Nor was he merely claiming that this was the best style of ministry for him personally. His claim was that if we are called to the ministry of the word (whether as apostles, prophets, evangelists or pastors) this is the only legitimate way of performing the duties of our office.
But, more specifically, what is he saying?
The popularity of the phrase semper reformanda seems to be on the up-and-up. Yet two serious questions haunt it.
The first, though far the less important, is, Who was the first to use it. Many have enquired and searched diligently but the answer still seems to elude us. It doesn’t occur in any of the great Reformed confessions or in the works of the magisterial Reformers, including Calvin. It’s not even clear what exactly we’re looking for. The phrase, semper reformanda, can’t stand by itself, yet we don’t seem to know what other bits were originally attached to it. Presumably, the subject of semper reformanda should be ecclesia reformata, so that whatever semper reformanda means it is something that should be done either by or to the Reformed church. But the precise statement, Ecclesia reformata reformanda est, is proving very difficult to find; and if found at all will probably turn up in the writings of one of the more obscure theologians (or their opponents), not in the works of one of the Masters.