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On not leaving it to the snake –H. Cox

December 10, 2013

ON not leaving it to the snakeI re-read this book recently. It was published in 1964 and it is obviously dated but its main message is still relevant.

The ‘snake’ is the character in the Garden of Eden myth who tells humankind what to do. When we allow others to control us, we are not fully human, do not live up to our potential and the world is the worse.

Teenagers often giver into peer pressure but we need to grow up and become autonomous.

We can’t blame original sin for our failure to make decisions

The world needs a new style of saint: not one who escapes from worldly affairs but one who is fully involved in shaping our world for the better. Anger, political involvement and disobedience can be obedience to the gospel. What sort of church do we need – one that legitimates and supports the state (as with Constantine, in state or established churches of Luther and Calvin) or the church of the radical reformers, who challenged the state and suffered so much that pietism grew?

Theology’s task is to guide, criticise and deepen prophecy. The Old Testament isn’t as very ‘religious’ book; hence talk of ‘religious’ and ‘non religious Jews’ is somewhat odd. Jesus was neither an ecclesiastic nor an existentialist so the gospel isn’t about church or about personal piety but about changing the world. Because the church has lost the plot, secular movements for change like Marxism are heretical visions of the Christian hope. The liberal view of history, that things are always improving, progressing, is wishful thinking. When we improve one area of life, the snake will undo some other progress.

In Ephesians 2:12  (at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world) is understood by Cox as a preface to the calling of gentile Christians to share the Jewish participation in making/shaping history. This isn’t something I see clearly in the context of Paul’s writing here, though id like to be persuaded.

The examples of shaping history that he gives are clearly out of date, though modern parallels aren’t hard to find. He talks of the eastern bloc countries before the fall of the iron curtain, e.g. of Christians in East Berlin’s Gethsemane Church and in Leipzig’s Nikolaikirche.

My favourite part of this book is his call to the laity to get out more: … the ministry of the laity is not a “religious ministry” in the ecclesiastical sense of the term. It is a relational, reconciling ministry expressed within the secular matrix of the world. It is the church’s primary ministry in our age. The clergy’s job is not primary but derivative. Its significance is drawn from its service to the primary ministers, the laymen. The clergy serve as “minis­ters to the ministers,” as “kitchen troops in the divine army” (to use Hans Rendi Weber’s simile). And kitchen troops should be court-martialed if they confuse the fighting men, either by adjuring them to spend more and more time in the mess hall, or by implying repetitiously that the only truly military job in the army is that of kitchen officer, while the rest are not really “full-time.”

The changing scene demands a new stratagem. Can the church change? Can it meet the post-modern man by living out through its laity the mission with which the God who lives in the world has commissioned it? The obstacles are formidable. The familiar ways of our fathers are comfortable and, if increasingly irrelevant, still secure. The new world is frightening and untried. But the call is unmistakeable: “Get out from your own country and from your kindred and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you . . . and by you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

I also like his critique of ‘Jesus is my personal saviour and friend: Modern man grasps his identity through his personal style of life. But the identity he grasps is mediated to him by constant interaction with his society, his family, his work, his community. Thus the achievement of a personal identity is a social phenome­non. The “new life,” or “new self,” which is the gift of God in Christ, is likewise a social self. Conversion too is a social process. It is just as impossible to be a Christian merely inwardly as it is to be a father, employer, or citizen inwardly. All these are social-relational designations, hence Pascal’s famous dictum, “an indi­vidual Christian is no Christian.”

My earlier thoughts were: It was the title of the book and the fact that this must be the only book by this writer that I had not read which made read it. It was written in the 1960s but still needs to be heeded. It suggests that the sin of Adam and Eve was to allow the snake to tell them what to do and thus to abdicate responsibility. Humans, if they are fully mature, are to participate in the making of history. Christians need to avoid the twins of apocalyptic thought, which looks for an imposed utopia from above, and Greek transcendalism, which looks beyond this world to a heavenly paradise, and they are to side withe prophetic tradition in discerning the signs of God’s activity within the historical process and to participate in it – all ideas I have proclaimed in sermons and essays before and which I see my role as being.

Whereas lay people used to be dominated. by a clerical caste, progressive clergy today are hidebound by a laity who seek to imprison them in clerical roles. The N.S.M has a vital role to play here in breaking the idols which the clergy have been made into. It will be a pain­ful process because he will be misunderstood and attacked by both sides. Prophets were always without honour in their own countries.

Church historians write several pages about Luther but very little about the radical move­ments in the Reformation and Cox suggests that the Reformation was really a medieval event because it was solely concerned with the Church. I would dispute that insofar as Calvin and the Puritans stressed the importance of participating in the work of legislation and in war and the work ethic that arose owed a lot to the Reformation, but Cox is right in saying that Christians see the Reformation largely in churchy terms.

There is a good section about the discernment of the times and of God’s activity in secular history which begins with an anecdote to the effect that Luther was so preoccupied with church affairs in Rome on his visit that he did not notice the flowering of Renaissance art. Clericalism is also preoccupied with church affairs and Cox quotes Hans Rudi Weber as saying that the clergy are the kitchen troops in the divine army and they should be court marshalled if they suggest that the troops should stay overlong in the mess instead of going out to fight, yet so many clergy measure the faithfulness of the laity by the amount of time they devote to church meetings.

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