Grace and gracelessness

I’ve edited this to reflect the version that was subsequently published on the ABC Religion and Ethics Website in Australia. Nick, 15 July 2016.

The term “Evangelical” is notoriously hard to define. Grace features somewhere in most definitions; graciousness is occasionally in shorter supply.

In a poorly-timed opinion piece, Michael Bird wonders when “social progressives” will realise that they can’t simultaneously support LGBTI rights and oppose Islamophobia. Some Muslims have appalling views on homosexuality, ergo, Muslims must by rights suffer when social progressives come after Christians and other religious communities (as he thinks they surely will).

More precisely: if progressive political parties like the Australian Greens try to bring religious groups into the purview of anti-discrimination laws, Muslims will suffer, and social progressives’ heads – unable to bear the “paradox” – will simply explode.

I’m not sure the Social Progressive Cabal would let me join their bid for global domination, but I am a fully signed-up liberal democrat. So, I suspect, is Michael Bird. And while debates about the place of religion in pluralist liberal democracies will always be complicated, I’d like to suggest that it’s not quite as hard to walk and chew gum as Bird appears to think.

To live in a liberal democracy requires an act of sympathetic imagination – particularly from those who belong to majorities, and even more particularly from those who belong to powerful ones. For example, middle-class men of European descent (like me) need to imagine how we’d see things if, by accident of fate, we found ourselves in a minority – particularly in a small and powerless one. What respect and dignity would we want the majority to accord us, our way of seeing the world and our way of doing things? What could the majority reasonably expect of us in return?

It’s not my intention here to suggest that there’s something inherently virtuous about being in the minority. A temptation into which minority groups sometimes fall is to glory in victimhood and indulge in fantasies of revenge (or even its realisation). This kind of ressentiment runs deep in Christianity’s DNA, but there’s plenty to go around elsewhere. It clearly underwrites the stories that a certain kind of Islamism tells about itself as well. It’s even common among majorities who feel as though they’re losing their grip on power. That may be why we find a striking incidence of this pathology among men of European descent at the moment.

Likewise, it’s worth acknowledging that sympathetic imagination can only ever be approximate. Different groups identify and prioritise their values differently. To imagine yourself into the place of another group will always require a kind of translation, and translation, as Michael Bird knows, never works perfectly.

On the other hand, translation gets us most of the way most of the time. Fortunately, it’s helped by the fact that few of us belong straightforwardly to one group or another. So I’m not just a middle class man of European descent. I’m also a gay man, and a (lacklustre) Catholic. My experience in the latter two minorities gives me some inkling of what it might feel like to be a Muslim in the present climate. I’m also lucky enough to have good Muslim workmates and associates with whom I can talk about this, however tentatively (though I don’t want them ever to feel as though they have to justify their place in the universe, any more than I want to feel I have to justify mine).

I can’t claim anything more than a superficial understanding of Islam, but I do understand very well what it’s like to have ignorant majorities windily opine about what “people like me” think and do. This is why I viscerally detest both Islamophobia and homophobia.

It’s also, incidentally, why I would strenuously oppose most (though not all) attempts to restrict religious freedoms – especially as religious belief becomes a minority avocation in New Zealand, and maybe soon Australia. If that “not all” seems a slippery out, I’d ask Bird whether he thinks religious freedom should be entirely unfettered. Should Evangelical husbands of a certain ilk have the right to physically “discipline” their wives, as surely once they did, and still occasionally do? Should migrants from northeastern Africa have the right to mutilate their daughters’ genitals? If, as I’d guess, his answer is no, then this is not a debate between “social progressives” and “religious” people, but between citizens of a liberal democracy.

But if the rights and freedoms of liberal democracy seems too dull and cramped a framework in which to continue this discussion, then I’d suggest that generosity and graciousness of spirit would get us a lot further than unlovely attempts to divide and conquer.

Two upcoming lectures

Just a quick post about a couple of in the next fortnight. You’re warmly invited to both.

Detail from: Dr King preaching at Old St Paul’s before James I (1603-25) 1616 (oil on panel) by John Gipkyn (fl.1594-1629) Society of Antiquaries of London, UK/ The Bridgeman Art Library Nationality / copyright status: British / out of copyright

Paul’s Cross and the Culture of Persuasion in Early Modern England

Torrance Kirby, Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Director of the Centre for Research on Religion, Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University, Montréal, Canada

Located at the epicentre of the City of London, the outdoor pulpit of Paul’s Cross was a key site in the expansion of a popular early-modern ‘culture of persuasion’. Paul’s Cross contributed significantly to the transformation of England’s political and religious identity and to the emergence of a ‘public sphere’ of discourse.

5.30pm, Monday 29th February, lecture theatre 206-220, Arts 1, 14a Symonds Street

Patrick He, Haidan Christian Church, Beijing,

Christianity in Xi Jinping’s China

Professor Ryan Dunch, University of Alberta and Professor Richard Masden, UC San Diego

Acclaimed international scholars discuss the context and significance of Protestant and Catholic Christianity in contemporary China

6-7pm, 3rd March, Owen Glenn Building, Case Room 2 (260-057)

“Self-styled bishop”

A tweet from SecularNZ this morning reminded me about a phrase that irritated me in a New Zealand Herald article last week. In yet another story about the finances of Destiny Church, the article referred to its leader as “self styled bishop Brian Tamaki.”

Without entering into a discussion of Tamaki, his church or its finances, I wonder what the writer thought the difference was between a “bishop” and a “self-styled bishop.”

Like other men and women who get to be called “bishops,” Brian Tamaki had the title conferred on him by other leaders of his church in 2005. In this respect it makes no more sense to describe Pope Francis as a “self-styled pope.” Francis I may style himself “pope,” but like Bishop Tamaki, he also had the title officially conferred on him by other leaders of the Catholic church in 2013. Like “Bishop” Tamaki, “Pope” Francis shares his title with a number of contemporary  contenders.

Webb, Murray, 1947-. Webb, Murray, 1947- :Destiny Church [Brian Tamaki] [ca 15 December 2004]. Ref: DX-001-962. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
My guess is that the confusion comes from some expectation that “bishop” is an exclusively Catholic, Anglican or Orthodox term – that, somehow, unless you wear a purple shirt and/or a mitre, you don’t get to be called a bishop.

In fact, “bishop” comes to us from the New Testament via the Old English word biscop. Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:1-7 refer to church leaders called episkopoi in Greek (Old English biscop is just a rendering of the piskop in the Greek episkopos).

ROME, THE VATICAN-12 MARCH 2013 : The Cardinals are leaving the Pro Engleindo Mass, which is immediately prior to their entrance into the Sistene Chapel for the voting process that elects the new Pope. Cardinal O’Malley from Boston is the one with the white beard. Image by Jeffrey Bruno. Licence:

Episkopos is notorious difficult to translate, and its origins are uncertain. It may come from the non-religious world of the early Christian era, referring to someone in charge of a building site or other group activity. In this context it’s sometimes translated as “overseer” or “superintendent.” It may come from the Septuagint (a Jewish-Greek translation of the Old Testament), where Ezekiel is called to be a “watchman” or episkopos for the people of Israel (Ezekiel 33:3). Here the office is something more like a prophet.

Of course “bishop” could have both origins. Unfortunately, though, the New Testament doesn’t tell us much about what an episkopos does, except that, according to 1 Timothy at least, he should be of irreproachable character and the “husband of only one wife.”

In the two centuries following the Reformation, most Protestant churches wanted to abandon the term “bishop” because they associated it with what they regarded as the corruption of the medieval church. But Protestants were aware that episkopos was in the Bible, and so they experimented with translating it in different ways. They also experimented with what the office meant in practice (beyond being irreproachable and the “husband of only one wife”).

John Wesley ordaining Thomas Coke as a “General Superintendent” in 1784, a move that greatly scandalised Wesley’s fellow Anglicans. They believed that Wesley, as a priest, had no right to do this. Coke later called himself a “bishop.” Anglicans felt the same way about this title as the New Zealand Herald appears to feel about Bishop Tamaki. Source:

So, for example, John Knox’s Church of Scotland experimented with an office known as the “superintendent,” before abandoning after a few decades. Some modern Methodist churches still have leaders called “superintendents.” Other Methodists opt for the older translation of “bishop.” A lot of Protestant churches who don’t use either term would still argue that their leaders and ministers met the job-description of “oversight” or “watching” implied in the Biblical Greek.

Which is all a long way of saying that there isn’t a standard blueprint for what a “bishop” is, does or wears. There’s also no regulating body, patent office or copyright agency that gets to decide who can and can’t use the title “bishop.”

More broadly speaking, in a secular, liberal democracy, all religions deserve equal treatment under the law. So if I want to call myself the Dalai Lama, Pope or Jedi Master, the law has no interest in this. Nor, I think, does the secular media – except, perhaps, as a matter of curiosity.

But if I were to use my church’s money in ways that looked legally questionable, then both law and media would have an interest, and both would entitled to call me to account.



Advent offering: 8 December

Fresco of the Virgin Mary, Kariye Camii, Müzesi or Chora Church, Istanbul

I’d been intending to continue with my theme of “Advent” as Second-Coming and Judgement today, but, on reflection, it seemed a bit gloomy.

So, given that 8 December is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Catholic church, I thought I’d head down another arcane historical alleyway , and look at some of the iconography associated with the Virgin Mary in Orthodox art – specifically the inner narthex (a kind of porch) of the Chora Church in Istanbul, Turkey.

These mosaics (and the above fresco) were produced in the 13th century. In the early 16th century, the Turks turned the church into a mosque (Kariye Camii) and whitewashed over the mosaics. But the artwork was rediscovered after the Second World War. In the 1950s restoration of the frescos and mosaics began, and the mosque was turned into a museum.

The mosaics in the inner narthex show a sequence of stories about the Virgin Mary. These stories are probably unfamiliar to most western Christians – Catholic or Protestant – but are familiar to Eastern Christians, as well as to Muslims, through the accounts of the Virgin Mary in the Qur’an. They come from the so-called Protoevangelium of James or the Infancy Gospel of James, a 2nd century Jewish-Christian text written as a kind of “prequel” to the synoptic Gospels.

The Protoevangelium didn’t make it into the various canons of Scripture, but it was used by “orthodox” Christian writers like Clement of Alexandria (2nd-3rd cent.) and John Chrysostom (4th-5th cent) as a source of information about the family of Jesus, and particularly his mother Mary.

The first of these mosaics shows Joachim and Anna (or Anne) the parents of Mary cherishing their newborn daughter. Anna’s story in  Protoevangelium 1-5 parallels that of her namesake Hannah in 1 Samuel 1. She is barren and is promised by an angel that she will conceive. She promises to devote the child, male or female, to the service of God in the Temple.

A version of the same story can be found in the Qur’an 3:36. There Mary’s father is named Imran. His wife is given no name, but she likewise dedicates the child in her womb to the service of God.

Joachim and Anna cherish their new daughter, Kariye Camii, Müzesi or Chora Church, Istanbul

The second image shows Joachim and Anna presenting their daughter to Zechariah, the high priest in the Temple (Protoevangelium 7). The child Mary then dwells in the Temple, miraculously educated by a dove and fed by an angel (Protoevangelium 8) – that’s her and the angel under the canopy at the back.

Again Qur’an 3:37 refers to both the presentation to Zechariah and the miraculous feeding of Mary.

Presentation of the Virgin Mary in the Temple, Kariye Camii, Müzesi or Chora Church, Istanbul

When the Virgin Mary reaches puberty at the age of 12, the priests become concerned that her presence in the Temple will “defile” the sanctuary, and so they decide that she must be married off. Zechariah assembles the “widowers of the people” and has them all bring their staffs to the Temple. The episode echoes God’s choice of Aaron and the tribe of Levi as priests in Numbers 17, except that in this case the widower Joseph’s staff doesn’t flower, as Aaron’s did. Instead, God chooses Joseph as a husband for Mary by making a dove alight on the staff. Joseph betroths himself to Mary, then goes away to build a house for her (Protoevangelium 8-10).

There is an oblique reference to this episode in Qur’an 3:44 when God mentions to Muhammad that he [Muhammad] was not there when “pens” or “lots” were cast to see who should have responsibility for Mary.

Joseph wins the hand of Mary in Marriage. Here, interestingly his rod seems to bloom like that of Aaron in Numbers 17. No sign of a dove. Kariye Camii, Müzesi or Chora Church, Istanbul

In the final image, Mary, together with the “undefiled virgins of the House of David,” are given wool to spin and weave a veil for the Temple (Protoevangelium 10). It is while she is weaving the veil that the archangel Gabriel appears to Mary and announces that she is to be the mother of the Saviour. At the same time, Mary learns from a new high priest, Samuel, that Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah, is also to bear a child: John the Baptist (Protoevangelium 11-12).

The Qur’an does not mention the story of the spinning of the veil of the Temple, though Qur’an 19:1-11 does mention that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist was struck dumb (Protoevangelium 10; Luke 1:20-22). It also gives two accounts of the Annunciation of Jesus’s birth to Mary (Qur’an 3:45-51; 19:17-21), though with  details that differ from those in the Protoevangelium or the Gospel of Luke.

I could go on, but the other pictures I took in the Chora Church are not of a very high quality, and this is already a long post.

However, the reason I thought I’d show these images on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, is that they give a sense of the incredibly complex typological readings of Scripture that puzzle or scandalise modern readers, but are so characteristic of Early Christianity.

The idea that Mary was conceived “without sin” (the Immaculate Conception) seems at arbitrary and improbable to anyone who assumes that Scripture is only to be read literally. To be fair, even Thomas Aquinas was sceptical about the Immaculate Conception, and Catholics weren’t absolutely required to believe in it until 1854.

Even so the idea arises out of an ancient and complicated Early Christian hermeneutic which connected the Virgin Mary symbolically with the Daughter of Zion, the Temple, the Holy of Holies, the Church as the new Israel and the Heavenly Jerusalem. To expand on these connections in any detail is far more than I can do here. Suffice it to say that, from the second century onwards, Mary began to stand for God’s eternal choice or “election” of Israel as the means by which redemption would come to the whole world, and for the heavenly Jerusalem which would mark this work’s completion.

Moreover, when we recognise the authority of the Protoevangelium in early and medieval Christianity, the passages relating to Mary in the Qur’an become less unfamiliar to modern Christians; it becomes clear that this was one of a number of common sources on which both religious traditions drew.

For more on the relationship between the Protoevangelium and the Qur’an, see: Hosn Abboud, Mary in the Qur’an: A Literary Reading. Routledge Studies in the Qur’an. London: Routledge, 2014.

Advent offering: 7 December

The Last Judgement, central door, western façade, Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Paris

I was probably not a very pious little boy. Even so, my little boy’s imagination was gripped by religion. One of the notions to grip it was the possibility that the world could end at any moment. I remember walking down a steep Dunedin street with a friend – we can’t have been older than seven – shouting, “the world could end… NOW! The world could end… NOW!” Every time we yelled “NOW” we screamed with laughter and stamped our feet into the pavement – as if just this combination of words and acts would bring Jesus back to earth and the universe, with all its teeming galaxies and vast expanses, to a fiery demise.

I’m not sure where I got this idea from. Catholicism, especially 1970s New Zealand Catholicism, wasn’t big on the end of the world. Granted, every Sunday at Mass we confessed that, “he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” But I don’t think anyone had a precise timetable in mind.

So I was confused many years later, when an intelligent American postgrad asked over coffee if I was “pre-mil,” “post-mil,” or an “a-mil.” These terms, familiar to a certain kind of American Protestant, were completely new to me. They exposed me to a sub-culture in which Christians still do anxiously speculate about the precise timetable for Jesus’s return, sometimes in astonishing detail.

Jesus the Judge, Central Door, western façade, Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Paris

Why do I mention this in the season of Baby Jesus, decking the halls, holly and jolly? Because the “Advent” – the coming or arrival – to which this season refers isn’t primarily that of Baby Jesus. After all, Baby Jesus has already come. Rather, they refer to the coming mentioned in the apocalyptic texts of Scripture: of Jesus the judge, the one descending on the clouds, the Alpha and Omega, the rider on the white horse, his eyes as a flame of fire, his robe dipped in blood, etc. As anyone who’s had the doubtful pleasure of watching New Zealand’s First Light channel will be aware, Seventh Day Adventists, aren’t called “Adventists” because they like picking chocolate out of calendars. It’s because they’re focussed – sometimes minutely so – on Jesus’s second “advent” or arrival.

Christianity has never not been without this obsession. In fact, one of the striking things about the history of Christianity is how regular and respectable End Time predictions have been (regular, respectable, and wrong, of course). On the other hand, since at least the fourth century, the apocalypticism woven into Christianity’s DNA has competed with a countervailing agnosticism. This is famously summed up in Augustine’s exasperated rebuke to those who thought the wickedness of the age heralded the End Times:

People  talk about ‘evil times,’ and ‘troubling times.’ Let us live well and the times will be good. The times are us; as we are, so are the times. Sermo 80.8.

In other words, you’d do better to devote your short attention-spans to living better lives, than to prepping for Armageddon, while wagging your finger at everyone else.

That advice has probably been heeded by much of Christianity most of the time since then. It probably still represents the dominant outlook in New Zealand Christianity today.

Even so, the sense of a more imminent doom has never gone completely underground. Indeed, as popular culture and global events bear witness, you don’t need to be Christian – or even religious – to have a nagging sense that it could all be over soon.

The last trumpet and the resurrection of the dead (1 Thessalonians 4:16), central door, western façade, Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Paris

And here’s where I end, in full-throated, radio vicar, Thought-for-the-Day mode. One of the salutary functions of Advent is to remind us that, sooner or later – maybe very soon, maybe much later – it will end for each of us.  As someone who loathes paperwork, I am very fond of advice I first heard from Dame Cicely Saunders, one of the founders of the hospice movement:

Whoever said on his death bed, ‘I wish I had spent more time in the office?’

Still, given that my world might end “NOW,” or even “NOW,” I suppose that I should learn to spend even that time in the office as well as I can – and the times outside it even better.

The fate of the wicked, central door, western façade, Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Paris
Angels enjoying a ringside view, Last Judgement, central door, western façade, Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Paris



Yesterday’s grand book launch

Yesterday evening, University of Auckland staff, students and friends of Auckland TheoRel celebrated the launch of a new volume, Sexuality, Ideology and the Bible: Antipodean Engagements, co-edited by Auckland TheoRel staff Robert Myles and Caroline Blyth, and published by Sheffield Phoenix Press. A good time was had by all.

Some photos:

(Thank goodness we kept those balloons around from Helen’s and Derek’s farewell on Tuesday)

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Ngā mihi mō tō manaakitanga mai

Yesterday morning we said goodbye to Helen Bergin and Derek Tovey who are retiring after two decades teaching Theology at the University of Auckland (as well as at the Catholic Institute of Theology in Helen’s Case, and Saint John’s College in Derek’s).

Both were involved in the Auckland Consortium for Theological Education, became the School of Theology at the University of Auckland in 2003.

As we launch into a BA Major in Theological and Religious Studies within the Faculty of Arts, we hope we can build something worthwhile on the foundations that Helen, Derek and many others have already laid.

Thanks to Therese Kiely and other students for the hard work – during exam time, too – that went into getting this farewell ready.

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Is Housing a Human Right?

State houses at Arapuni Hydro Works

Dr Zain Ali of the Islamic Studies Research Unit, along with the Auckland Interfaith Council and the Child Poverty Action Group have organised this meeting on a subject that affects most Aucklanders (and mostly in a bad way for the young, those on even middling salaries, and those who are renting):

Is Housing a Human Right? A Public Dialogue

  • Paul Barber, New Zealand Council for Christian Social Services
  • Dr Clair Dale, Child Poverty Action Group
  • Rau Hoskins, Te Matapihi – National Māori Housing Organisation
  • Professor Paul Morris, UNESCO Chair in Interreligious Understanding and Relations, Victoria University

7pm, Monday 31st Augusts, Saint Matthew in the City, corner of Hobson and Wellesley Streets.

For more information contact Zain Ali,, 021 164 0093

(Feel free to share the attached Poster)

Very unimaginative and literal-minded church historian spoils everybody’s fun…

Twitter, etc. have been buzzing for the last few days with the figure from an illuminated manuscript, who looks like Yoda from Star Wars, to wit:

from Decretals of Gregory IX with gloss of Bernard of Parma (the 'Smithfield Decretals') (c1300-1340), British Library Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 30v
from Decretals of Gregory IX with gloss of Bernard of Parma (the ‘Smithfield Decretals’) (c1300-1340), British Library Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 30v

In the interests of ploddingly dull accuracy, I feel obliged to point out that this figure is probably supposed to represent the devil dressed as a university lecturer (don’t say that it’s never occurred to you that your lecturers might be shape-shifting demons).

One of the less demonic academics inhabiting the pages of the Decretals of Gregory IX with gloss of Bernard of Parma (the 'Smithfield Decretals') (c1300-1340), British Library Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 26v. This one is wearing the academic's
One of the less demonic academics inhabiting the pages of the Decretals of Gregory IX with gloss of Bernard of Parma (the ‘Smithfield Decretals’) (c1300-1340), British Library Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 26v. This one is wearing the academic’s “pileum” or cap – an ancestor of the modern academic mortar-board.

Specifically, he probably represents a doctor of canon law, since the manuscript in which he appears is a copy of the Decretals of Gregory IX with a commentary by Bernard of Parma (and not a commentary on the story of Samson as alleged by one source*).

The Decretals were also known as the “extra book” (liber extra) because they were compiled in the 13th century as an addition to the so-called Decree of Gratian, the main collection of canon law composed a century earlier.

Image from the index of the volume showing a representative of Pope Gregory IX handing canon law to the judges or doctors of the law. On the far right a layman is pleading his suit before a judge of a canon law-court. From Decretals of Gregory IX with gloss of Bernard of Parma (the 'Smithfield Decretals') (c1300-1340), British Library Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 3v.
Image from the index of the volume showing a representative of Pope Gregory IX handing canon law to the judges or doctors of the law. On the far right a layman is pleading his suit before a judge of a canon law-court. From Decretals of Gregory IX with gloss of Bernard of Parma (the ‘Smithfield Decretals’) (c1300-1340), British Library Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 3v.

While this probably sounds recondite and tedious (or both), one of the interesting features of the Decretals is that they codified the 12th century papal legislation against heresy, which led to the establishment of the first inquisitions in the south of France. This legislation also compared heresy to treason, implying that in certain cases it could be punished by execution.

However, even if this volume contains the legislative basis for the persecution of heretics by the medieval church, the illuminations are often quite critical of those charged with upholding this legislation – not only the demonic doctor of canon law, but also the kind of bishop whose sole aim in life is to prey on his flock.

Bishop fox preaches the prosperity gospel to his flock of geese. From Decretals of Gregory IX with gloss of Bernard of Parma (the 'Smithfield Decretals') (c1300-1340), British Library Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 3v.
Bishop fox preaches the prosperity gospel to his flock of farmyard birds. From Decretals of Gregory IX with gloss of Bernard of Parma (the ‘Smithfield Decretals’) (c1300-1340), British Library Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 49v.

Fortunately, the corrupt and exploitative clerics eventually get what is coming to them.

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The farmyard birds take their revenge on the fox, from From Decretals of Gregory IX with gloss of Bernard of Parma (the ‘Smithfield Decretals’) (c1300-1340), British Library Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 48v.

See, this is almost as much fun as Master Yoda.

(If you want to view more of this manuscript yourself, it’s on the British Library website here:

* Note: the NPR story which alleges that this manuscript is a commentary on the story of Samson is probably referring to the illustrations of the story of Samson which run along the bottom of the page in this section of the manuscript. For example, the bottom of the “Yoda” page (f. 30v) shows Samson bringing honey home to his father and mother – Judges 14:9. These have nothing to do with the text above.

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Harrowing of Hell

Jesus releasing the souls of the patriarchs and matriarchs from hell, beginning with Adam and Eve. 12th century fresco in the Kariye Camii Müzesi or Chora Church, Istanbul. Satan lies bound at Jesus’s feet, together with a profusion of broken keys and locks that once kept the prisoners captive.

The medieval English knew this scene as the “Harrowing of Hell.” It’s played to comic effect in the York Mystery Plays. Jesus arrives in great solemnity to break down the gates of hell and liberate the captives inside. Satan and the demons panic like the owners of a tinny house who have just realised that the police are battering down the front door.

The belief that Jesus descended into hell after his death is based on a number of biblical texts including1 Peter 4:6 For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit. 1 Peter 19-20: For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient… 

The so-called Apostles’ Creed, dating from the fourth century, also professes belief in the descent into hell.

This wasn’t easy to reconcile with the later Christian belief that the souls of the dead went immediately to eternal punishment or reward (the latter usually via purgatory). In other words, under this view, there shouldn’t have been any souls in hell for Jesus to liberate: they either deserved to be there and had to stay, or they were already in heaven. This was why many Protestant exegetes especially, were inclined to spiritualise these and similar verses away, arguing that they refer to Jesus’s “spiritual” typological presence in the Old Testament – e.g. in the warnings to Noah.

However, the older tradition persisted in the medieval church, and was partly responsible for belief in a hypothetical “borderland of the patriarchs” (Latin limbus patrum) – a fringe area around hell (but not quite hell) in which the souls of the Old Testament’s mothers and fathers waited for release by Jesus.

By the time of Dante’s Divine Comedy, this limbus also included virtuous pagans like Virgil, who would never get to heaven, but were not wicked enough to be consigned to hell. While deprived of the vision of God, they were believed to enjoy the highest kind of “natural” blessedness – i.e. to be as happy as any human can be in this life.

Happy Easter.