When my wife and I are in London, we generally attend the church of my Inn of Court. Barristers must be members of at least one of four “Inns”—medieval guilds of lawyers. I am a member of both Middle Temple and Lincoln’s Inn. (I was called to the bar at Middle, and subsequently joined Lincoln’s in part because of its superior wine cellar; but that is another story.) Each Inn has its own church or chapel; they are “Royal Peculiars,” that is, directly responsible to the Queen and not under the authority of the local bishop (in this instance, the Bishop of London). Traditionally, they are—like the barristers themselves—conservative in temperament, using the 17th-century Book of Common Prayer’s magnificent liturgies.
During the so-called legal “long vacation” in the summer months, one needs to find another worship location. Close to Ludgate Circus is St Bride’s Church, designed by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of 1666, and traditionally the church of the journalists (when they inhabited Fleet Street). On the Ninth Sunday after Trinity (13 August 2017) we attended service there, especially because of the wonderful Choral Eucharist.
The downside was the preacher: The Revd Canon Alison Joyce, rector of St Bride’s. After it was too late to go elsewhere, I remembered a sermon she had preached some time ago on death, arguing, with no mention of the biblical teaching that death is the product of sin (Rom. 3:23) or that Christ is the answer (Rom. 6:23), that death is essential to the human race since otherwise the world would be overpopulated and people would still be forced to live even though suffering from the dreadful diseases and pain of extreme old age.
Joyce’s sermon on this occasion was an interpretation of Matthew 14: 22-33, where our Lord walks on water.
She began—encouragingly—debunking a Florida university professor who claimed that a rational explanation for the event was the extreme climate at the time: ice formations on the Sea of Galilee would have given the impression that Jesus was walking on water.
The rector then followed this with her own brand of rationalism (a rationalism picked up, to be sure, from the literary critics of the New Testament). Said she: We must understand what the Gospel writers were actually doing: They wrote to show how special Jesus was. The feeding of the 5,000 was to show that Jesus was infinitely more important than the Old Testament prophet Elisha, who had miraculously fed a small number of people (II Kings 4: 42-44)—and the walking on the water was so much more effective than Old Testament parallels—that those hearing the story would have seen the merits of believing in Jesus (cf. Job 9: 8).
Moreover, said she, what good would Jesus’ actually walking on water be to us today? Whereas Jesus’ message to Peter and the other disciples, “Fear not,” is available to us right now in our difficulties. The miracle of calming fear and giving us hope takes place all the time in the church and in the lives of believers.
What is going on here?
1) The text is being dehistoricized, in flat disregard of what the Gospel writers say they are doing, namely, presenting the precise facts of Jesus’ earthly ministry (Luke 1: 1-4; cf. II Peter 1: 16).
2) A new, unhistorical meaning is being given to the text on the basis of Old Testament parallels. These parallels are, of course, genuine and function as “types” of Christ, but they hardly suggest that the New Testament writers redid the events of Jesus’ life in defiance of what actually occurred–to show that he was greater than what one finds in the Old Testament. Moreover, how could they have gotten away with it? The Gospel materials were in circulation when hostile witnesses of Jesus’ ministry were still alive; they would surely have blown the whistle on such falsifications—they had means, motive, and opportunity.
3) If the miraculous event did not in fact occur, why should one accept the spiritual lesson the preacher draws from it? Jesus said, notably, “If I have told you earthly things and you believe not, how shall you believe if I tell you of heavenly things?” (John 3: 12).
4) The obvious reason for handling the text as Joyce did is to avoid having to assert and defend the miraculous. But isn’t a miraculous Resurrection the very heart of Christian faith, and would we not potentially lose even that if such an interpretive method were forced on the New Testament? Maybe there wasn’t a historical, bodily Resurrection at all—maybe the important thing is to see that Jesus is more life affirming than Old Testament prophets?
Conclusion: The preacher’s rationalism is no better, and no more justifiable, than the Florida professor’s appeal to ice formations. Indeed, it is far more dangerous, for it provides the ideal opportunity to disabuse ourselves of the factual reality of the saving biblical message—of the factuality of the very Incarnation itself. A God who miraculously created the cosmos out of nothing is surely capable not only of de facto Virgin Births and Resurrections, but also of de facto walkings upon water.
John Warwick Montgomery
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Even Christians with little or no knowledge of legal apologetics have heard of Frank Morison’s classic, Who Moved the Stone?—a powerful case for the facticity of the resurrection of our Lord. This issue of the Global Journal features Australian legal scholar Philip Johnson’s fine essay on that great Christian writer and his contributions. Also, and appropriately, Boyd Pehrson, another non-lawyer (Morison was a layman), refutes a lawyer-skeptic who has endeavoured to deep-six the Editor’s legal apologetic for the truth of the Faith.