Start the new Decade with a bit of Both/And

Thirty-five years ago, Cambridge opened new worlds to me — I used to think 1 January was New Year’s Day, Hogmanay in Scotland. The Cambridge University Diary, however, designated the day thus: CIRCUMCISION: University LIbrary closed to readers. A good day to stay out of the stacks, then. And what an embarrassing, not quite Anglo-Saxon thing ‘Circumcision’ sounds like! Messy, painful, foreign.

Up to 1752, new year in England, for most legal and general purposes, had been the Annunciation — Lady Day, 25 March, nine months before Christmas (geddit?). In a Christian scheme of time, the good news of the Incarnation made an appropriate start to the year. After 1753 it still did, but New Year’s Day, by default, became the Circumcision. Now we start each new year of grace with a liturgical reminder of Jesus’s location within the old law of … er, grace or works?

The old law was, in fact, a law of grace, not a simple game of works. God gave circumcision as a sign of his favour towards his people, their specialness (to use a rather cheesy term) and their identity. It was a way of personalising their belonging and identity by expressing it in an individual’s flesh. It was some of the troops who turned the observance of circumcision into a legalistic game of Brownie Points, and when they did this they were going beyond the original intentions of its Framer.

This matters, partly as a matter of good theology, but also because historically whenever Christians have rejected their Jewish roots, it has done them no good and cursed them and all the world, shamefully. Supersessionist fantasy leads directly to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the ghetto, ultimately the gas chamber. From Marcion to the Eisenach Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life, be very afraid when Christians start trying to slew off their Jewish roots.

Anyway, the relationship between grace and works is actually rather interesting. Any fool can play one off against the other, indeed most fools do. Either we are home and dry, or we have to work our socks off to attain our heavenly home. But what if the truth was not either, or neither, but, simultaneously, both? Get out of jail free, and then work your freedom as vigorously and in as disciplined a way as if you still had to work your passage, but freely this time?

I’m fascinated by the way that when you lay before Christians, in a descriptive rather than loaded way, the dozen or so classic theories of atonement in the New Testament, people of all stripes, including many who often major in their sermons on one simple theory full stop, tend to end up choosing two, not one.

Furthermore if you put down the theories on two cards, one labelled ‘get out of jail free’ and the other ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling’, usually they choose one from each card. Why not? The ability to walk down the sidewalk and chew gum simultaneously is a virtue, not a limitation.

So the Circumcision is not a feast of legalism, or a reminder of grace. Legalism is always bad news, and pure antinomianism is always fantasy. The Brownie Point circuits are too profoundly hardwired into human nature for this to be otherwise. Rather the Circumcision is a time to celebrate the joy of both/and theology — like light as wave and packet, life in Christ gloriously free and also infinitely challenged.

A secure identity, and everything to live for. Happy New Year!

Alan Wilson is area Bishop of Buckingham in the diocese of Oxford.

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peterpi
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peterpi

Thank you, Alan Wilson for your willingness to link all forms of anti-Semitism. Bravo! Religious anti-Semitism led to secular anti-Semitism led to the death camps. It’s also amazing how many alleged Christians I meet who insist Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t Jewish. I’ll guarantee you he wasn’t Christian, and I mean no offense. But, whatever he may or may not have thought of himself, he didn’t worship himself. The Gospels are filled with examples of Jesus’ devout observance of Judaism. Sadly though, at least in the US, the Feast of the Circumcision is becoming the Feast of the Holy Name. One… Read more »

Father Ron Smith
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Father Ron Smith

If you were a Roman Catholic, like R.I.W., you would have been celebrating neither the Holy Name of Jesus nor the Feast of the Circumcision but a Solemnity of Our Lady. We, this morning in my parish in N.Z. celebrated all three at once. So, not just one or two, but three celebrations in one day. I wonder whether the circumcision bit was more to do with personal hygiene for males than a plan by God to disfigure little boys? Oops! However, I have been asked, as a priest, whether it might be necessary for adult converts to Christianity to… Read more »

Frances
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Frances

“God gave circumcision as a sign of his favour towards his people, their specialness (to use a rather cheesy term) and their identity. It was a way of personalising their belonging and identity by expressing it in an individual’s flesh.”
What about the women?

cryptogram
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cryptogram

From what I remember of undergraduate researches some 40+ years ago, the likelihood is that circumcision was a betrothal rite in orgin, rather than anything to do with hygiene. A man sine proputio was already spoken for – a symbol of the loss of virginity or something. It probably became a sign of the covenant in the exilic period.
Attaching theological reasons to long-standing practices is something which even Anglicans do.

Caelius Spinator
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Caelius Spinator

“From what I remember of undergraduate researches some 40+ years ago, the likelihood is that circumcision was a betrothal rite in orgin, rather than anything to do with hygiene.”

Exodus 4:24 is quite suggestive on this score, though pre-exilic Jewish theology on the subject must have been fascinating.

Canon Andrew Godsall
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Canon Andrew Godsall

Thank you for the both/and approach. It is interesting how the debates about grace/faith/works continue to run along the protestant/evangelical/catholic ‘fault lines’. And interesting that whilst the nouveau puritanical approach heavily stresses grace taking us straight to heaven, it goes down the opposite line of saying that some works can take us straight away from it. Hence people like Peter Ould in his blog can dare to suggest that Gene Robinson and Jeffrey John (and presumably people like me) are leading people down a ‘wide road to hell’ (his phrase, not mine) by teaching, as we do, that those in… Read more »

rjb
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rjb

An interesting essay, though I wish you had taken the matter a step further and brought the Islamic attitude to the revealed law into some focus. While Christians are still rightly anxious about our relationship with Judaism, the question of serious theological approaches to Islam seems to me to be a more pressing – though related – one. After all, Judaism and Islam have far more in common with each other, in terms of religious philosophy, than either does with Christianity. Muslims, like Jews, are puzzled by the Manichean separation of law and grace. For Muslims, the divine ordering of… Read more »

Edgar Wallace
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Edgar Wallace

Thank you very much for this excellent reflection on Law and Grace. As a priest friend often says: Now that there is nothing we have to do; what are we going to do?” The Law is not a way to salvation, but a way of living salvation. I also agree with Bishop Alan’s warning about the great dangers of Christianity’s separation from our Jewish roots. We have certainly see the horrors caused by that. Increasingly though, I have encountered fundamentalist Christians espousing a Zionist theology, almost to the exclusion of the Pauline understanding of Grace. It seems to me this… Read more »

Father Ron Smith
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Father Ron Smith

“Hence people like Peter Ould in his blog can dare to suggest that Gene Robinson and Jeffrey John (and presumably people like me) are leading people down a ‘wide road to hell’ (his phrase, not mine) by teaching, as we do, that those in faithful same sex partnerships are also within God’s graceful plan ‘just as they am’.” – Canon Andrew Godsall – I’ve long considered anything Peter Ould might say on his blog is to be taken with a huge pinch of salt. His contention is that homosexuality is a ‘behavioural problem’, rather than an in-built reality for many… Read more »

BillyD
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“After all, Judaism and Islam have far more in common with each other, in terms of religious philosophy, than either does with Christianity.”

It doesn’t seem that way. Islam, like traditional Christianity, is universalist, in that it wants to supplant other belief systems. Modern Judaism does not. And some Muslim approaches to the Koran reminds me a lot of Southern Baptist bibliolatry in ways that Jewish attitudes towards the Bible do not.

Lila
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Lila

Fascinating discussion on the both/and aspects of grace/works. I’m reading an essay by Jacques Ellul in which he discusses the Hegelian dialectic in terms of thesis/antithesis giving way to something altogether different from both, but having flavours of both–the synthesis. The way Jacques puts it, it sounds like the New Creation envisioned by St. Paul and I wonder if the New Creation is the synthesis–the beyond both “all works” and “all grace.”

peterpi
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peterpi

I have read that male circumcision was a substitute by the ancient Israelites for human sacrifice. Rather than sacrifice the entire baby, the Israelites, who were horrified at the idea and/or ordered by God not to, “sacrificed” the foreskin. The bible says it’s a sign of the original covenant between Abraham and God. Jews continue it as a sign that covenant is still alive and binding. Similar, in a way, to some Christians celebrating Holy Communion/Eucharist “in remembrance of me [Jesus]”. Frances, you asked about the women. My cheeky answer is that women didn’t count. Among Orthodox Jews, women are… Read more »

MarkBrunson
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My fear is that it is, or will be used to be, another simplistic answer. The Zionism of the fundamentalist Christians is an example of what will happen if we reduce our questions of relationship to merely “our Jewish roots.” It is a very complex relationship, and one honored more in a healthy understanding of our similarities *and* differences than in a mere wistful looking at what – we think – Jews do. In some cases, it was good that we abandoned some things. Frances, for instance, asked “What about women?” Some answer may be found in the prayer: “Baruch… Read more »

John Anthony
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John Anthony

Your comments regarding Circumcision: “And what an embarrassing, not quite Anglo-Saxon thing ‘Circumcision’ sounds like! Messy, painful, foreign” shows a certain ignorance of British and colonial practise from the 1890s to 1950. For that period of time circumcision was widely practised amongst the British upper and middle classes, indeed all the Royal Family males were routinely circumcised. Circumcision was widely practised in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and Rhodesia until fairly recently so although you regard it as messy it is certainly not foreign. You would have to be over 60 in the UK to be routinely circumcised but… Read more »

MarkBrunson
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I realize, upon re-reading, that my remarks on Modern Judaism being informed by Christianity was a mistatement, insofar as it would be taken to mean that Christianity added something to Judaism.

I believe that it was informed through the MISDEEDS of Christianity in the past – a demonstration of how not to do it. Everything that Jesus taught rose from that Jewish thought and tradition, but it was the suffering at the hands of those Christians who ignored those compassionate teachings that drove home the lessons.