Scripture on Sunday – James 2:18

JamesJames 2:18
But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.

This verse is not as straight-forward as it first appears, although having said that, its point is clear nonetheless. In verses 14-17 James made his very simple point, that faith without works is dead. Such a confession of faith cannot save, nor do any good for the one making the confession. In light of James’ previous discussion of divine judgement, this is very serious indeed. In this verse James insists that faith and works cannot be separated.

“But someone will say” (’all’ erei tis) ‘You have faith, and I have works’ (su pistin echeis, kagō erga echō).

An initial reading of this verse makes it seem as though the “someone” who is speaking is actually James himself, or someone who agrees with his position, because the saying appears to distinguish the speaker (“I”) who has “works” from an opponent (“You”) who has only a faith without works. The problem with this seemingly straight-forward interpretation, however, is that the opening phrase (but someone will say) is a typical rhetorical device in the ancient world to introduce a hypothetical debating partner who takes an opposing position. But it seems that this opponent is echoing James’s view—hence the difficulty in the verse!

The difficulty is compounded by the fact that commentators are unsure where the opponent’s words end: with the simple phrase, “you have faith,” so that James’s response begins with the “I have works.” Or do the opponent’s words include the whole phrase as I have suggested above? Or do they extend to take in the rest of the verse as well?

Most commentators agree that the opponent’s words include the whole phrase as I have it above, and that James’s response begins with the “show me.” But why would an opponent say, “You have faith, and I have works”? Would not an opponent reverse this to say, “I have faith and you have works”?

Again, most contemporary commentators accept a solution suggested by J. B. Mayor in his 1913 commentary, and supported by J. H. Ropes in 1916. Mayor suggested that the pronouns in the first phrase should be understood in a generic and impersonal way so that the verse reads something like, “on the one hand one says … and on the other hand another says” (see the discussion in McKnight, 238). By interpreting the verse in this manner the opponent might be understood to be saying something like, “Well, everyone has a different gift, or a different way of relating to God. Some relate to God simply by faith while others relate to him by works.” In this way the opponent is suggesting that faith and works are two distinct and separable ways of relating to God, and that Christians might choose one way or the other.

James repudiates this view in the strongest terms. He begins by challenging this opponent to “Show me your faith without works” (deixon moi tēn pistin sou chōris tōn ergōn)—an impossibility, since faith is only visible or revealed in the activity it elicits. And in return James will show his opponent by means of his works the faith that he has: “And I by my works will show you my faith” (kagō soi deixō ek tōn ergon mou tēn pistin). Vlachos points out that there is a chiastic structure in this phrase in which James says faith…works … works…faith, rhetorically highlighting the inherent connection he sees between faith and deeds (Vlachos, 93).

In this second half of the verse the same pronouns are used as in the first part, but here they have a specific and personal reference. This is the weakness of the interpretation suggested by most commentators (that is, the interpretation requires that the same pronouns in both parts of the verse need to be interpreted in different ways). Nonetheless, as Moo notes, “In the final analysis, this interpretation has fewer difficulties that the [other options] and should probably be adopted” (Moo, 106). He notes further that “most scholars now adopt this view, although most with some reluctance” (106).

James, then, uses the device of an imaginary debating partner to insist that faith and works are inseparable: there can be no genuine faith that is not also expressed in works. He will sharpen this argument in verse 19.

“That Pretentious Business”

Luther by Lucas CranachScott Hendrix notes Martin Luther’s comments on holiness from a sermon by Luther given on June 24, 1525.

The greatest holiness one could imagine drew us into the cloister. . . . We fasted and prayed repeatedly, wore hair shirts under woolen cowls, led a strict and austere life. In short, we took on a monkish holiness. We were so deeply involved in that pretentious business that we considered ourselves holy from head to toe.

Luther had lived as a monk for 16 years by the time he was excommunicated in 1521. Nevertheless, he came to see that monastic holiness was an unattainable goal. Luther ultimately sought a less demanding and more merciful Christianity, says Hendrix, which would liberate people from anxiety about reaching heaven and redirect their concern toward others in place of themselves (in Scott Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer,  27, 13).

In an earlier letter, written to George Spenlein, another monk, Luther said, “Beware of aspiring to such purity that you will not wish to be looked upon as a sinner, or to be one. For Christ dwells only in sinners” (April 8, 1516, cited in Hendrix, 47).

Christianity Today’s Book of the Year, 2017

Fleming RutledgeChristianity Today have nominated Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion as 2017 Book of the Year. 

“Fleming Rutledge has always had a reputation for bold, relentlessly scriptural, and Cross-centered preaching. In this book, the work of a lifetime, she pulls back the lid on the deep well of exegetical, theological, and spiritual reflection that has nourished her ministry. If previous generations of evangelicals looked to John Stott’s The Cross of Christ as their definitive work on Christ’s atoning work, I predict future generations of evangelicals will return again and again, in the same way, to The Crucifixion. This book is a classic in the making, one that will go on nurturing gospel-rich preaching for decades to come.” —Wesley Hill, assistant professor of biblical studies, Trinity School for Ministry

An excerpt from the book:

It makes many people queasy nowadays to talk about the wrath of God, but there can be no turning away from this prominent biblical theme. Oppressed peoples from around the world have been empowered by the scriptural picture of a God who is angered by injustice and unrighteousness. If we are resistant to the idea of the wrath of God, we might pause to reflect the next time we are outraged about something—about our property values being threatened, or our children’s educational opportunities being limited, or our tax breaks being eliminated. All of us are capable of anger about something. God’s anger, however, is pure. It does not have the maintenance of privilege as its object but goes out on behalf of those who have no privileges. The wrath of God is not an emotion that flares up from time to time, as though God has temper tantrums. It is a way of describing his absolute enmity against all wrong and his coming to set matters right….

Where is the outrage? It is God’s own; it is the wrath of God against all that stands against his redemptive purpose. It is not an emotion; it is God’s righteous activity in setting right what is wrong. It is God’s intervention on behalf of those who cannot help themselves.

Baptized in the Spirit 6 (Frank Macchia)

Baptized in the SpiritHaving outlined his approach to ecclesiology, Macchia continues his discussion by considering three classic biblical metaphors for the church in their relation to Spirit-baptism: the church as the people of God, the body of Christ, and the temple of the Holy Spirit. The Baptism with the Holy Spirit serves to distinguish the old and the new people of God, forms the church as the body (and bride) of Christ, and continually adds new members to it. The Spirit-filled body and temple is a missional entity, testifying in the world to an alternate—eschatological—reality.

The Spirit-filled temple reaches in priestly ministry and prophetic witness for the four corners of the earth in order to foreshadow the coming new creation as the final dwelling place of God. … The church as the temple of the Spirit becomes the harbinger of the sanctification of creation into the very image of Christ as God’s dwelling place to the glory of God (204).

Turning from the classic metaphors to the creedal marks of the church, Macchia identifies a variety of ‘marks’ which have been used by various groups in Christian history to describe the nature and activity of the church. He suggests that all these various marks are mutually supporting and informing lenses through which the classical marks—the church as “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic”—have continuing relevance. Macchia views the marks as describing the eschatological people of God, and therefore as a vision to be pursued and embodied by the church in the present, in discipleship, service, and witness.

The classic marks are not replaced by these other ‘marks’ but are qualified and read through these others as lenses. The marks as eschatological gifts of the Spirit bestowed by Christ are also goals in which we are constantly to be renewed and toward which we strive (209).

Understanding the marks in the light of Spirit-baptism provides interesting insight into the nature of the church. The unity of the church is not uniformity or the formation of one “world-church,” but communion in the midst of an increasingly diversifying plurality of Christian experience and expression, though within a common confession. The tongues of Pentecost bear witness to this dynamism, so that “the unity of Pentecost is thus not abstract and absolute but rather concrete and pluralistic” (218). This is a unity that “respects and fulfills the scattering and diversification of peoples from Babel. Otherness is not denied but embraced in this differentiated and complex unity of the church at Pentecost” (218). Thus the church embraces the tensions of diversity, respecting others and avoiding uniformity or conformity.

The holiness of the church is secured by the Holy Spirit who mightily indwells it as the presence of a holy God who transforms his people. The church is sanctified through the gospel, its members through their incorporation into the holy community, and by being set apart for a holy task. They are continually being transformed as they live in accordance with Word, Spirit and the community.

Macchia understands catholicity in terms of “fullness” rather than universality, and discusses the term in a sense analogous to his discussion of unity. The Spirit blesses the church with a rich variety of spiritual, historical, denominational, and cultural gifts, no one group or church being the true fullness all on its own. Here Macchia also discusses the ecumenical challenge, as well as what he calls the “Catholic claim.”

We cannot discuss catholicity in avoidance of this Catholic claim. It must be taken seriously. We must ask whether or not we are guilty of gazing so intently on the pneumatological constitution and eschatological fulfillment of catholicity in the new creation that we are blind to the christological institution of the church and its historic continuity as the visible body of the faithful. I believe that Küng is right that there is historical validity to the “mother church” idea. The Roman Catholic Church has a certain “parental” role in the family tree of the Christian church in the world (227).

He continues, however:

Suffice it to say here that the “mother” Catholic Church belongs herself to a heritage in the outpouring of the Spirit to which she is as accountable as any of us and on which she can, in my view, lay no privileged claim. We as her children and grandchildren respect her role in history in passing on to us a precious heritage in the form of witness. But our reception of this witness draws us to the same source from which she has received it and must continue to receive it. There are thus limits to how far one can stretch the metaphor of her maternal role in relation to us (228, original emphasis).

A Spirit-baptized view of apostolicity understands it in terms of leadership and mission. Apostolic succession is a characteristic of the whole church and not simply one office in it. “If Pentecostalism is anything,” says Macchia, “it is ‘apostolic’ by intention. Its original mission was dedicated to the ‘apostolic faith,’ and many Pentecostal churches around the world since then have raised the banner of ‘apostolic’ quite high” (229). The whole church shares the original faith, experience and mission of the earliest apostles and the churches they founded (230). Just as the Spirit led and gifted the original churches, so the Spirit continues to supply the church with guidance and gifts for its contemporary mission.

Macchia concludes his ecclesiological reflections with consideration of the sacraments, and “marks” more specifically associated with the Pentecostal churches—charismatic fullness and preaching. Sacraments and spiritual gifts are means by which the Spirit’s gracious presence is mediated to and experienced in the church and the world. Water baptism can only be understood in relation to Spirit-baptism: the two are inseparable, even if in one’s experience, one is not conscious of this relation (249). Macchia thus maintains the unity of Spirit and water baptism, while still allowing space for distinction between the two in terms of one’s experience. So, too, the heart of the sacramental meal is the epiclesis in which the Spirit’s presence and work in invoked. Too often, however, the liturgy “does not linger over this. It does not wait for this to happen” (253). Macchia therefore argues for a more interactive liturgy whereby participants are encouraged to “open up to deeper experiences of divine infilling than they might be prone to have if sitting in isolation on a pew” (254).

We should shift the focus from the transformation of the elements to Christ’s participation by the Spirit in the communal act and our communion with him and one another by means of the same Spirit (255).

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:17

JamesJames 2:17
So also faith, by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

With this summary statement, James brings his illustration and three rhetorical questions to its climax. What good is it if one says they have faith but do not have works? No good at all—such faith is “dead.” Can that faith save the person? No—such faith is “dead” (nekra estin).

“Dead” faith is lifeless, inoperative and impotent. It has and can have no lasting value, effect or impact. In fact, it is not faith at all. For James, faith must be a living reality in one’s life, vigorous and energetic, issuing in works. Faith cannot be without works (ean mē echē erga) or “by itself” (kath heautēn). Genuine faith so orients the believer to God, that it determines the life of the believer in directions which correspond to the character and activity of God.

We have already seen that, for James, this character may be understood in terms of moral purity and generous compassion (1:26-27). A living faith is accompanied by works—the kind of works James has identified in his illustration: works of love towards others in the congregation, especially the poor; works of mercy in which their bodily needs are cared for.

Unless faith does issue in such works of love, its claim is empty.

For James, then, there is no such thing as a true and living faith which does not produce works. … Works are not an “added extra” any more than breath is an “added extra” to a living body. …

James does not argue for faith instead of works or works instead of faith or even works above faith, but for faith and works. Both are important and must equally be present or else the other alone is “worthless” (Davids, 122, 123).

Finally, we must note once more, that James views the Christian community as a proleptic social manifestation of the “great reversal” which will come to pass at the eschaton (see the post on James 1:9-11). Here and now, in the concrete life of the Christian community, a new social order is to emerge in which poor are dignified as valued and equal members of the community, and their bodily needs are met by those in the community with the means to do so.

Vicki Lorrimar on Science & Faith

Vicki LorrimarThe first issue of a new magazine “connecting” science and faith has been released in the UK. The opening article is by our good friend, Vicki Lorrimar.

As Christians we are all amateur theologians, seeking to know and understand our maker. Perhaps we should extend this view to consider ourselves as amateur scientists too. God equips us with curiosity and imagination to seek out answers, to understand the created world and our place within it, and to do our bit in helping the whole of nature to flourish. Thus science and faith are mutually enriching, vital dimensions of human relationship with the Creator and his creation.

To see a previous two-part article Vicki wrote for Theology and Church, see “Can Science Determine Morality?”

Social Justice and Christian Faithfulness

alysia-harris2Our new little small group read “Justice is more than a political issue now—it’s a spiritual one.” Alysia Harris is an award-winning poet whose poems “come from a love for the world and from a desire to see it transformed” (from her web-page). She is also an educator, scholar, and activist. Until now, I had not heard of her, but some of the lines of poetry on her homepage are extraordinary:

Obese as the night sky is, its greed does not outweigh the first mouthful of dawn.

We ain’t no Medusas here but each one of us got a stare that could cut glass.

I like much of what Alysia has said, including her (very radical) commitment to reconciliation, and to acting locally and relationally, her recognition that the state is not our liberation, and her conviction that social justice must “be done” through a theological lens.

I would have liked to see more about the church, the community of Jesus, as the place where those commitments are to be realised – if we are to “turn again to” and follow the way of Jesus. And I cannot help but wonder if making Christian faith a subset of “my identity” will ultimately subvert the gospel – if “I” rather than Christ remains the centre of my identity and agency (see, e.g. Gal. 2:20; Phil. 1:21; 3:20).

There are important issues here, including the slippery relation between Christian faithfulness and progressive politics. (See my recent post on Relevance or Resilience).

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:15-16

JamesJames 2:15-16
If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? (NRSV)

James now passes onto his third rhetorical question, presenting an illustration, demonstrating that words alone, without deeds that correspond to the words, are empty and useless. Most commentators agree that the illustration is hypothetical, with McKnight referring to it as a “comic example” which “would be humorous if it were not so tragic” (229). Nevertheless, as Davids also suggests (121), the illustration is not one without immediate relevance to the community, and like the illustration in vv. 2-3, may be indicative of attitudes and behaviours which do exist or have occurred in the community.

Like vv. 2-3, the scenario is presented as a two-part hypothetical followed by the question. The first part describes the presence and condition of someone in the assembly whose poverty is indicated by their dress which is not so much shabby (cf. vv. 2-3) as inappropriate for cold weather, and by their lack of daily food. The second part then describes the words and action of another congregational member, before James presses his question. There is a further similarity between vv. 2-3 and vv. 15-16: in both cases there is a concern on James’ part for the unworthy treatment of the poor in the midst of the congregation. The poor person is to be welcomed with the same degree of acceptance and honour accorded to others; they are also to be cared for so that the “needs of the body” are catered for. Whereas in vv. 2-3 it is not clear whether the wealthy and poor persons are Christians, here the poor person is definitely identified as a “brother or a sister.” Finally, the function as well as the form of the two illustrations appears similar: James chooses an illustration relevant to the life of the community, perhaps even occurring in the congregation, since he says, “and one of you says to them…”

James is all inclusive in his description of the poor person, explicitly including both genders: “if a brother or a sister” (ean adelphos ē adelphē) in his description of the poor. These poor hyparchōsin gymnoi (literally, “are naked” as in the NRSV, though variously translated as “poorly clothed,” “in rags,” “in need of clothes,” or “without clothes” [Vlachos, 87-88]). They also lack daily food (leipomenoi tēs ephēmerou trophēs). Vlachos observes that James’ use of the present tense, and the somewhat unusual verb hyparchōsin (“to exist”) indicates an enduring state of poverty and suggests that the individuals suffer constant want (87-88). Their abject need is evident.

“And one of you says to them” (eipē de tis autois ex hymōn) brings this hypothetical illustration close to home: “someone from among your community.” The words spoken are in the form of a blessing: ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’ (hypagete en eirēnē, thermainesthe kai chortazesthe). “Go in peace” is a standard Semitic blessing of good will, that the person go on in a state of peace and well-being (Vlachos, 88). “Keep warm and eat your fill” correspond to the nakedness and hunger of the person identified in verse fifteen. These verbs can be interpreted in two distinct ways, either as “keep yourself warmed and filled” (i.e. the verbs understood in the middle voice) or “be warmed and filled” (i.e. the verbs understood in the passive voice).

The first option places the responsibility for the poor person’s well-being upon themselves, whereas the second becomes a form of prayer. Vlachos (89) prefers the first interpretation, and because the verbs are in the second person imperative, he is probably correct; the speaker is telling the poor what they must do. Nevertheless, a number of interpreters including McKnight, prefer the second option so that the speaker is saying something along the lines of, “May God’s peace be upon you; may God warm you; may God fill you up.”

This may be an overinterpretation but, if so, not by much: the false piety, the false claims, and the false religion of those who have faith but do not have works are palpable in this letter (cf. 1:26-27) (McKnight, 231).

In the end, as Davids (122) notes, the question makes little difference to James’ main point: the speaker does nothing. “And yet you do not supply their bodily needs” (mē dote de autois ta epitēdeia tou sōmatos). Ta epitēdeia tou sōmatos refers to those things necessary for the body, the physical staples of life, which in this context refer to food and clothing. It would be legitimate, I think, to extend this to other necessities of life including shelter for the homeless.

James is concerned for bodily needs and physical necessities, and especially but perhaps not exclusively, for those in the congregation (cf. Galatians 6:10). To send someone on their way, even with a blessing of peace, is of no use whatsoever, if in the sending they remain cold and hungry. James obviously intends the speaker (and the community—dōte is second person plural) not only wish them peace and welfare, not only have good will and intention toward the poor, not only feel kindly—but to give (dōte) them the things needed for bodily life and welfare. This calls the speakers to use their own substance and share what they have with the person in need. James is concerned with “the need of the body” and not simply the condition of the “soul.” To bless or to pray, and to not give what is needed—“What is the good of that?”

Baptized in the Spirit 5 (Frank Macchia)

Baptized in the SpiritChapter 5 Toward a Spirit-Baptized Ecclesiology

At 101-pages, this is easily the longest chapter in the book. The first half of the chapter is devoted to a number of sections in which Macchia details the approach he takes to ecclesiology, before an exploration of the classic marks of the church, and a consideration of preaching, sacraments and charismatic fullness as additional marks of the Spirit-baptised church. “The central thesis of this chapter is thus that Spirit baptism gave rise to the global church and remains the very substance of the church’s life in the Spirit, including its charismatic life and mission” (155, original emphasis).

Macchia begins with two sections that argue for a relational ecclesiology, in which koinonia is the central motif. The Holy Spirit is the mediator of communion both within the divine trinity and between God and humanity. Spirit-baptism is fundamentally a relational event which issues in the creation of the church as a new community with renewed human sociality. The church is to echo and embody the relationality and open hospitality of the holy Trinity.

The Spirit is the Spirit of communion. Spirit baptism implies communion. This is why it leads to a shared love, a shared meal, a shared mission, and the proliferation/enhancement of an interactive charismatic life. Spirit baptism thus implies a relationship of unity between the Lord and the church that is not fundamentally one of identity but rather communion. … Spirit baptism has a relational structure that has communion at its essence, the communion of self-giving love (156-157, 160).

Thus, “Baptism in the Spirit is baptism into an ecclesial dynamic, the ecclesial Spirit” (167, original emphasis). The church, grounded in the gift of the Spirit, is a network of “graced relationships,” a foretaste of the redemption to come. The ecclesial Spirit sanctifies and transforms us. The power of the Spirit for witness is not some external naked energy which comes upon the church for mighty works, but is primarily “the power of love at work among us” (177).

Koinonia is not simply a matter of redemption, for human being is ontologically relational—this is part of what it means to be in the imago Dei. Yet this relationally has been decisively distorted by sin. In redemption, the self is not obliterated but renewed. Macchia develops a relational and ecclesial anthropology in which the dialectic of the self-in-relation and the self-in-solitude (before God) constitutes true and free human being, and which issues in non-oppressive relations. Spirit-baptism decentres the self, renewing and re-establishing it on a new foundation in the love of God.

The Spirit is the one in the many. This Spirit brings people into the common life of the divine communion in a way that does not abolish their otherness but rather enhances and fulfills it. They are stripped of their self-centered tendencies and liberated to be all that they were meant to be in the midst of their uniqueness (176).

A second set of sections deals with problematic matters in ecclesiology, the challenge of pluralism on the one hand, and the relation of church and kingdom on the other. With respect to the challenge of pluralism, Macchia insists that the claim of the church is grounded in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who, as the risen and ascended Lord, is the Spirit-Baptizer, the one alone who can and does bring us into fellowship with God. His gift of the Spirit demonstrates and confirms his deity, and hence his uniqueness and pre-eminence.

Yet, the Pentecost event is also inherently and radically plural and inclusive—as witnessed in the gift of tongues from all nations. Thus, the church also is a plural and inclusive company, rather than a hierarchical and domineering institution. Macchia insists that ecclesiology must be both christological and pneumatological. To emphasise only one side or the other is to lose the dynamic of the church which is grounded in the pre-eminence of Christ as the saving revelation of God, and/or the diversity and relationality of the church grounded in the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

At Pentecost, the legitimate reaching for God implied in various cultures and religious expressions finds fulfillment in the grace of God revealed in the crucified and risen Christ as the one who imparts the Spirit in the latter days. Their differences and past histories are not dissolved but affirmed and granted a new loyalty and a new direction. In the process all idols are forsaken and the cultures are pruned. But the critical pruning is demanded of the church as well. Though the church is the central locus of the kingdom of God in the world, the church is also a loving fellow traveler with the world’s religions while pointing them to the superiority of Christ. Spirit baptism can be developed so as to respond to [the] critique of ecclesiastical superiority in the world but in a way that rejects [the] reduction of Jesus to simply one symbol of the sacred among others (188).

The offence of the Christian claim remains:

Drawing the boundaries of the Spirit Baptizer to Christ alone is exclusivistic Christologically, but…we deal here with an exclusivism of Christ “and not with the self-serving principle of sectarianism.” It is an exclusivism of the one who is uniquely inclusive on the ecclesiological level. … There is simply no way of eliminating the risen Christ as the Spirit Baptizer from the gospel without affirming another gospel (189, original emphasis).

Finally, Macchia argues that the relation of the church to the kingdom must be understood dialectically, whereby there can be neither separation nor identification of these two realities. The church is not the kingdom, but is established by the kingdom as its witness and sign (191-192; cf. 165).

There is no critical dialectic between Jesus and the Spirit. He is the king and the Spirit the kingdom. But, as noted above, there is such a dialectic between the Spirit/kingdom and the church. Thus, the church is not the final word but a penultimate witness to the word of the kingdom who is Christ (192).

Indeed, Macchia suggests that the church will ultimately “exhaust” its purpose when in the eschaton it is “caught up in the more expansive new Jerusalem” (166). This eschatological reserve, together with the knowledge that the church is the church of the Crucified, helps keep the church from being triumphalist. Any continuity between the kingdom and the church is established as a gift by divine grace and is never the possession of the church in itself. The church may strive toward the kingdom, but does so in a spirit of repentance, witness and obedience (197).