Emil Brunner’s Simple Faith (1)

In 1935 Emil Brunner published a little book entitled Unser Glaube: Eine christliche Unterweisung, translated by John W. Rilling in 1936 into English as Our Faith. Just 123 pages, the booklet contains thirty-five brief meditations from ‘Is there a God?’ to ‘Life Eternal.’ Or perhaps the sections called be called sermonettes, for they have an easy, down-to-earth and relatable style. It seems to have won an audience: the English translation underwent continual reprint until at least 1965, the year before his death in 1966. Overshadowed throughout his life—and since then—by the towering figure of Karl Barth, Brunner was nonetheless a significant theologian in his own right. This little book reflects his deep concern to provide an accessible introduction to Christian faith for those outside the church, as well as initial instruction for those inside. As such, it is a work of apologetics and catechesis, a pastoral theology in service of Christian faith. Not only does the book provide an introduction to ‘our faith’ but also to the thought of Brunner himself.

Brunner begins his little work with a foreword, the first words of which are:

“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” That is no simile, but a literal law of life. There is a pernicious anaemia of the soul, a starvation of the soul as well as of the body. Humanity in our time suffers from chronic under-nourishment of its soul. … The Bible can nourish us only if it is understood and personally appropriated as God’s own Word. … The performance of this task, in my opinion, is the true service of theology—to think through the message of God’s work in Jesus Christ—think it through so long and so thoroughly that it can be spoken simply and intelligibly to every person in the language of their time (Brunner, Our Faith, 9).

In these words, we capture several of Brunner’s orienting convictions: the Bible is ‘God’s own word’ given for human nourishment. But it must be understood and personally appropriated as such. This is the true service of theology: not merely theoretical or metaphysical speculations, but the thoughtful exposition of this Word in light of and in reference to God’s work in Jesus Christ, that men and women might hear and understand this message.

But Brunner also has a broader horizon in view: as dark clouds gather over Europe and the east “many are beginning to listen to Truth which is not from man.”

The Word of God is the one thing which is able to unit East and West, the whole dismembered mankind, and to reshape it into one big family of nations. May it help in bringing to our consciousness that we are all called to one aim as we are all created by one Creator after His image (9-10).

The Word of God nourishes not merely a privatised faith or spirituality, but a vision for a world renewed. Christian faith has personal and devotional implications, yes; it is concerned also not merely with the self but with others, and indeed, all. It has missional and moral implications also. Our Faith is in God—Creator and Saviour of all.

Over the next little while I plan to give a brief precis of Brunner’s reflections on the faith, using his little book as a guide.

Scripture on Sunday – Mark 14:1-11

This is surely one of the most poignant stories in Mark’s gospel, even more so given its setting. In this passage we see again something common in Mark’s gospel: one story inserted into another. Mark uses this ‘sandwich’ technique to highlight a common theme between the two stories, or alternatively, a contrast between them. In this instance, the beautiful story of a generous act of devotion (vv.3-9) contrasts with an overarching narrative of vicious conspiracy, hate, and betrayal (vv. 1-2, 10-11).

You can read the passage here.

We are in the final days of Jesus’ life. His religious opponents want to kill him, stealthily, for they are afraid of the people (cf. 11:32). The people considered that John Baptist was a prophet; they seem to have a similar or even higher regard for Jesus, especially as we consider their response to his entry into Jerusalem (11:1-10). The chief priests and scribes are pursuing their own agenda, one not shared by the people. That they were determined to act in secret should have been a warning to them that their intent was not ‘above board.’

Jesus was at the home of Simon (the leper!), reclining at table in the company of others. Mark does not say who these others are, though Matthew states quite plainly that it was the disciples (Matt. 26:8; cf. Luke 7:36ff). Perhaps Mark wanted to avoid this since he has already noted that the disciples have ‘left everything’ to follow Jesus (10:28).

(I prefer not to harmonise the accounts in the four gospels since they seem to have a different context and content, especially in Luke and John. This may reflect variance in the oral tradition or the gospel authors’ editorial purposes. Although an interesting question, it is one to explore some other time!)

During the meal an unnamed woman approached and poured expensive perfume over his head. We are given no motive for this act in Mark, no context. What has she done and why has she done it? What led to this? What was she seeking to express or communicate? What was she saying—for herself? What was she saying—to Jesus? Why here, why now? How did she have access to so great a treasure? Was it a spur of the moment act, or something well-considered? Will she, did she, later regret it? How would she explain it?

We don’t know. The woman never says a word. Others around the table, however, have plenty to say. They are indignant and critical:

“Why has this perfume been wasted? For this perfume might have been sold for over three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they were scolding her (vv. 4-5).

We now see the extent of the woman’s act: 300 denarii was a year’s salary for the common labourer. This is an extraordinary, an outrageous, act; such a fortune, simply poured out! How much good this money might have done! How noble it would have been to give the money to the poor! How practical, how necessary! What a waste simply to pour it out!

And how virtuous the critics appear, quite prepared to do something with someone else’s money! It is too easy to sit in the critic’s chair, comfortable and uncommitted, non-participatory and non-productive. It is too easy to sit in the critic’s chair and to launch barbs at those who are active, who are committed, who are doing something. Such indignation and criticism provide a false sense that one is ‘doing’ something. It betrays a sense of superiority, of finer judgement, of better knowledge.

The critics perhaps feel secure, knowing that they are criticising someone socially inferior, a nameless woman, a ‘nobody.’ But Jesus defends the woman saying,

Let her alone. … For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them; but you do not always have me (vv. 6-7).

Is this a veiled rebuke from Jesus to the critics: “If this is so important to you, don’t just talk about it, nor criticise this woman: go do it!” Whenever you wish you can do good for the poor!

The story of the woman’s act stands in contrast to that of Judas, the chief priests and scribes, and the ‘others.’ Judas values Jesus as having some worth: he could be betrayed for some money. The chief priests and scribes ascribe ‘negative value’ to Jesus: he is a worthless person, a threat to be eliminated. The ‘others’ consider the woman’s act a ‘waste’ though Jesus says that she has done him a good deed (v. 6). She has, in a public act that appears to spring from gratitude and devotion, given him an outrageous gift, perhaps all she possessed (cf. 12:44)—and he has with gratitude received it and honoured her.

Nothing given to and for Jesus is ever wasted.

Baptism and Identity

These days, it seems, we wear our identities on the outside, writ large. We proclaim and display them, manipulate and manage them. It’s become very important to carve out a space for ourselves, to be the somebody we are in such a way that, for others, there’s no mistaking it.

Is this so very different from the way things have always been? Maybe, maybe not. Who we are, as well as our sense of who we are, have always been important. Especially when we’re young and ‘becoming,’ or, ‘discovering,’ who we are.

In the present cultural moment, these things have become more prominent, and curious. On the one hand, a person’s identity in modernity has become a project of the autonomous self, and the technological and cultural milieu encourage the development and display of one’s unique identity. On the other, we’ve seen in the last several decades, a resurgence of ‘group identity’ where belonging to – identifying with – one’s tribe has become increasingly foundational, and thereby a cornerstone in one’s personal uniqueness.

But this, too, is probably the way it has always been: identity as an interplay of the intersecting aspects of one’s life, personal attributes and experience, community, and so on. Perhaps one factor in the present moment is the degree of independence one has in choosing their tribe and identity. Again, this is a luxury not everyone has equally.

Does becoming a Christian complicate or simplify one’s identity? I suspect that this is not an easy question to answer. For some people it will be the former, for others the latter. For many, perhaps, first complication before things becoming simpler. But it could go the other way as well, with the nature of a person’s Christian experience resembling a lifelong wrestle.

Nevertheless, it does appear that Christian identity is ‘a thing’: that, ideally, some features of Christian identity are discernible across time and tradition. To speak like this is to speak normatively rather than with reference to the diversity of Christian experience. It is to suggest that there is, in fact, a Christian ideal to aspire to, in spite of the great and often legitimate diversity of Christian experience and expression that has existed and continues to exist.

More precisely, we can speak of Jesus Christ as he is set forth in the Scriptures of the Old and the New Testaments as the archetype and exemplar of Christian identity. He is the pattern, the standard, and the goal. A Christian is one called to follow Jesus, to be conformed to Christ. It is evident that this will involve a hermeneutical exercise—who is this Jesus to whom I am called to conform?—and therefore inevitable variety and diversity in Christian experience and identity formation.

Yet such variety will occur within a somewhat bounded field: while many forms of life and identity may find their place within the field—from ancient Christian asceticism to modern evangelical Christianity to forms of Christian mysticism—not everything will. The New Testament writers clearly saw some forms of life and identity as contrary to life in Christ. It is also the case that we cannot always discern where the boundaries lie, or to shift the metaphor, what distinguishes the wheat and the weeds. Careful theological reflection and pastoral discretion are required, along with humility and generous hospitality as the posture we adopt when considering these matters and engaging in dialogue.

These days, it seems, we wear our identities on the outside, writ large. Hopefully this is the case with Christian identity, that we might truly be the Christian we are in such a way that, for others, there’s no mistaking it.

I have reflected on some of these issues in a new article recently published at Religions entitled “The Role of Baptism in Christian Identity Formation.” The abstract for the article is:

The construction of one’s identity in late modernity is sometimes viewed as a project of the autonomous self in which one’s identity may shift or change over the course of one’s existence and development. For the Christian, however, one’s identity is both a divine gift, and a task of ecclesial formation, and for both the gift and the task, Christian baptism is fundamental. Baptism represents the death of the self and its rebirth in Christ, a decisive breach with the life that has gone before. Baptism establishes a new identity, a new affiliation, a new mode of living, and a new life orientation, direction, and purpose. This paper explores the role of baptism in the formation of Christian identity, finding that Christian identity is both extrinsic to the self and yet also an identity into which we are called and into which we may continually grow. The essay proceeds in three sections. It begins with a survey of recent philosophical reflection on the concept of identity, continues by reflecting on the nature of Christian baptism in dialogue with this reflection, and concludes by considering in practical terms how baptism functions in the process of conversion–initiation toward the formation of mature Christian identity.

On Reading and Memorising Scripture

In the third chapter of Psalms as Torah, Gordon Wenham argues that the Psalms should be understood as an anthology intended for memorisation. (I note that his point could and should probably be extended to all Scripture.) Drawing on the work of Paul J. Griffiths, Wenham distinguishes a ‘consumerist’ (modern) approach to reading from ‘religious reading.’ In the age of the printed book and of the internet, modern writings whether blogs or learned tomes are ephemeral, read, perhaps noted, and then discarded. They have no particular authority and different readers ascribe different value to them.

Religious reading, on the other hand, is different for the texts are treated with reverence as an ‘infinite resource,’ as a treasure house of wisdom, etc. As such, the words are read and re-read over and over and in time, tend to be committed to memory. “And as a reader memorizes a text, he becomes textualized; that is, he embodies the work that he has committed to memory”:

‘A memorized work (like a lover, a friend, a spouse, a child) has entered into the fabric of its possessor’s intellectual and emotional life in a way that makes deep claims upon that life, claims that can only be ignored with effort and deliberation.’ … A memorized text has a peculiarly character-forming effect on the memorizer. The text becomes part of his character; he lives in it and lives it out (Wenham, Psalms as Torah, 53, citing Paul J. Griffiths, Religious Reading, 46-47).

“Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly,” said the apostle (Colossians 3:16). “Your word have I hidden in my heart” said the Psalmist (119:11).So, too, the Sage of Proverbs reminds us to “Give attention to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. Do not let them depart from your sight; keep them in the midst of your heart. For they are life to those who find them and health to all their body” (4:20-22). For “when you walk about, they will guide you; When you sleep, they will watch over you; and when you awake, they will talk to you. For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching is light; and reproofs for discipline are the way of life” (6:22-23).

Reading, praying, singing, and memorising the words of Scripture are character-forming, life-directing, and transformative. This is a good reminder for me at the start of 2023.

Happy New Year 😊

Douthat: The Americanization of Religion

Picture Credit: daria-rom-fT4BRGAK5aQ-unsplash

I came across this article in the New York Times by Ross Douthat, author of The Decadent Society (2020) and Bad Religion (2013). He is reflecting on the latter book given its ten-year anniversary, and what has changed in American religious life since 2013.

Today, though, my sense is that Jesus himself is less culturally central, less necessary to religious entrepreneurs — as though where Americans are going now in their post-Christian explorations, they don’t want or need his blessing.

That shift in priorities doesn’t tell us exactly where they’re going. But it’s enough for now to say that the “post-Christian” label fits the overall trend in American spirituality more than it did a decade ago.

 He notes also a Pew Research Centre Report that gives four possible scenarios for American Christianity over the next few decades, three predicting precipitous decline and none of them anticipating growth. But Douthat is not entirely without hope that Christianity might experience some kind of rebirth:

I wouldn’t expect a social scientist to anticipate that kind of reversal. But Advent and Christmas aren’t about trends extending as before; they’re about rupture, renewal, rebirth. That’s what American Christianity needs now — now as ever, now as in those first days when its whole future was contained in the mystery and vulnerability of a mother and a child.

This link should lead to the article at NYT.

For a different kind of overview, see this article in the Huffington Post.

Anne Brontë’s ‘Religious Melancholy’

After the untimely death of her two remaining sisters, Charlotte Brontë wrote a ‘Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell’ in which she revealed that the authors of the books designated by these names—Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey—were, in fact, Emily and Anne Brontë (See Anne Brontë, Agnes Grey, Penguin Classics, lvii-lxiv). She defends her sisters from some of the criticisms they have received from reviewers. Of Anne, in particular, she writes: ‘She was a very sincere and practical Christian, but the tinge of religious melancholy communicated a sad shade to her brief, blameless life’ (lxi). Again, Anne,

Was religious, and it was by leaning on these Christian doctrines in which she firmly believed, that she found support through her most painful journey . . . Anne’s character was milder and more subdued [than Emily’s] . . . but was well-endowed with quiet virtues of her own. Long-suffering, self-denying, reflective, and intelligent, a constitutional reserve and taciturnity placed and kept her in the shade, and covered her mind, and especially her feelings, with a sort of nun-like veil, which was rarely lifted (xliii).

Anne’s faith was both a blessing and a strength to her life, especially in the suffering that preceded her death, and also, in Charlotte’s opinion, a detriment that threw a ‘sad shade’ across her life. It is worth noting, however, that Charlotte’s second comment suggests this tendency may have arisen also on account of her ‘constitutional reserve’—her natural disposition.

It is possible, however, that Charlotte was assigning to Anne the attributes Anne ascribed to Nancy Brown in Agnes Grey. In her novel, Nancy was a widow, afflicted and incapacitated with several disabilities, whom the protagonist, Agnes, would visit.

‘Well, Nancy, how are you to-day?’
‘Why, middling, miss, i’ myseln – my eyes is no better, but I’m a deal easier i’ my mind nor I have been,’ replied she, rising to welcome me with a contented smile, which I was glad to see, for Nancy had been somewhat afflicted with religious melancholy
(Agnes Grey, 87).

The ensuing narrative makes clear that the cause of this religious melancholy was an overly-scrupulous conscience, the fruit of a moralistic approach to Scripture reinforced by a moralistic form of ministry. When the local Rector visits the poor of the parish,

He’s sure to find summut wrong, and begin a calling ’em as soon as he crosses th’ doorstuns: but may-be, he thinks it his duty like to tell ’em what’s wrong; and very oft he comes o’ purpose to reprove folk for not coming to church, or not kneeling an’ standing when other folks does, or going to th’ Methody chapel, or summut o’ that sort… (88).

The Rector is clearly more concerned with the outward performance of religious duty and convention than he is with the lives and condition of the poor folk he visits. He scorns Nancy’s spiritual fears, and accuses her of laziness and unfaithfulness. If she would simply stop making lame excuses and go to church, everything would be fine. He is entirely dismissive of her spiritual need and the reality of her physical pain and disability. How different he is from the new curate, Mr Weston, who is genuinely concerned for the spiritual and material welfare of the parishioners, who listens compassionately, and speaks and acts with kindness!

But the problem is not solely in the Rector, for Nancy herself has absorbed the moralism so pervasive in her day:

I was sore distressed, Miss Grey – thank God it’s owered now – but when I took my Bible, I could get no comfort of it at all. That very chapter ’at you’ve just been reading troubled me as much as aught – “He that loveth not, knoweth not God.” It seemed fearsome to me; for I felt that I love neither God nor man as I should do, and could not, if I tried ever so . . . And many – many others, miss; I should fair weary you out, if I was to tell them all. But all seemed to condemn me, and to show me ’at I was not in the right way (89).

Nancy seems to read the Bible as a Word that condemns, as a mirror that highlights every flaw. For her, there is no comfort in the Bible; rather, it is fearsome, demanding, condemning. The ministry of the Word and the ministry of the Church had combined to produce a ‘religious melancholy’ in her, a sense of unworthiness and despair that robbed her of faith, hope, joy, and endurance. Anne Brontë, despite her sister’s observation of her own life, is clearly rejecting this form of ministry and spirituality. Moralism—a concern for establishing one’s own moral worth by adhering to a system of morality that one accepts as necessary to be a good person acceptable to God and others—is a graceless substitute for the gospel of Christ, and produces the kind of bitter fruit seen in the self-righteous callousness of the Rector and Nancy’s spiritual despair. Moralism, both religious and secular, is a common temptation for anyone who wants to live a good life.

It is true that Scripture can convict our hearts and show us our fault. But as Martin Luther clearly counsels, we are to read the Bible as both Law and Promise. Thus, while the Bible does convict us of wrong being and doing, it also calls us out of ourselves, and beyond ourselves, to the promise of grace and forgiveness in Jesus Christ. Our worth and acceptance are grounded in him—alone! Freed from the pressure and necessity of having to establish our own moral worth and acceptability, we are freed also to hope, to rejoice, and to love others freely.

“It is good for the heart to be established by grace” (Hebrews 13:9).

Scripture on Sunday – James 3:2

James 3:2
For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. (NASB)

The opening sentence of this verse continues the first-person plural of verse 1b, and may be read as though James continues his instruction concerning teachers. Verse one, however, is not addressing teachers directly but the congregation generally—‘my brothers and sisters’—about those who might consider becoming teachers. The congregation knows that ‘we’—teachers—will be subject to greater scrutiny in the judgement, and thus, not many (πολλοὶ) of them should become teachers. In this verse the ‘we’ returns to its general sense: “For we all stumble in many ways” (polla gar ptaiomen hapantes; πολλὰ γὰρ πταίομεν ἅπαντες)—James again, is addressing all his ‘brothers and sisters.’

This statement is a truism: each one of us continues to stumble in many ways (NASB) or, ‘over and over again’ (JB)—the polla can signify either meaning, and there is little between them. Although the way in which we stumble may differ from one person to the next—we do not all stumble in exactly the same way—each does stumble, and likely does so ‘over and over again.’ To ‘stumble’ seems to indicate relatively minor transgressions, what McKnight (274) refers to as ‘peccadillos.’ But even a minor transgression may become a more serious issue for the teacher whose more visible public role may mean that the stumble has greater or broader impact.

Now James will focus on a particular issue: while all may stumble in different ways, it is virtually inevitable that all will stumble with respect to their speech. This is, of course, particularly the case for teachers whose role involves a good deal of public speaking. Nevertheless, while “if anyone” (ei tis; εἴ τις) could certainly refer to teachers, it could equally refer to anyone at all. James is making a general statement that he will discuss further in what follows. “If anyone does not stumble in what he says” (en logō ou ptaiei; ἐν λόγῳ οὐ πταίει), literally, ‘in word’ (en logō) “he is a perfect man” (houtos teleios anēr; οὗτος τέλειος ἀνὴρ). Typically, James refers not to an abstract ‘sinless perfection,’ some indefinable or intangible ideal, but to a fully developed maturity of character. We have seen in 1:4 that to be teleios refers to mature character shaped by endurance in the face of trial and suffering. It is described as being complete or entire, lacking nothing. 1:25 suggests that such ‘perfection’ is the fruit of a life shaped by the ‘perfect (teleion) law of liberty,’ as one gazes into and practises the Word and is a doer of the work. Here, the ability to control one’s tongue so as not to stumble in word, is indicative of such maturity. Those able to bring the tongue into submission are also, according to James, “able to bridle the whole body as well” (dunatos chalinagōgēsai kai holon to sōma; δυνατὸς χαλιναγωγῆσαι καὶ ὅλον τὸ σῶμα). So difficult is it to control one’s tongue, that mastery here suggests a degree of self-control that is able to master one’s other passions and appetites as well.

This verse is a forceful reminder (Davids, 138) of 1:26 where, if one fails to ‘bridle’ (chalinagōgeō) one’s tongue, their religion is worthless. For James, a controlled tongue is central to genuine spirituality and indicative of maturity.

It is worth noting that James’ concern for the proper use of the tongue continues a prominent strand of reflection in Israel’s wisdom tradition and in the teaching of Jesus. It is worth noting also that while Scot McKnight’s argument that ‘body’ in 3:2 refers to the messianic community supports his contention that James is referring to and addressing teachers throughout this section, this seems an unlikely interpretation of the verse (276). James does not develop the ‘body’ metaphor for the church as Paul does in his writings, and makes no reference to this idea anywhere in his letter. And while it is true that James’ overall purpose is harmony in the congregation, he will arrive there by a different route.

Scripture on Sunday – James 3:1

James 3:1
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

With this verse James begins a new topic—or does he? It is possible to read the verse in connection with what has already been said, as though James is warning the church, and especially his interlocutor of 2:18ff., of the dangers of being a false teacher. But it seems more likely the beginning of a new section, as signalled by the words, “my brothers and sisters” (adelphoi mou; ἀδελφοί μου—cf. 1:2, 16, 19; 2:1, 5, 14), and perhaps one in which he is addressing those who would be or are presently, teachers in the congregation. But this, too, is somewhat problematic, since in verse two James begins a long argument for control of the tongue, with reference to teachers disappearing altogether. In the latter half of the chapter he deepens the discussion by considering the character of true wisdom and suggesting that only those who display the characteristics of the ‘wisdom from above’ may be considered truly wise. Again, there is no explicit reference to those who teach. The first verse, then, appears to be a fragment, the apparent commencement of a new section in the letter yet isolated from what follows. We have at least three options concerning how to interpret the verse:

  • As a single-verse admonition, disconnected both from what precedes and what follows it.
  • As the commencement of a new theme in which verses 2-12 are particularly directed toward would-be and actual teachers.
  • As connected more particularly to Vv. 13-18 which also addresses the leadership of the community, so that vv. 2-12 are viewed as a (not unrelated) digression, but with a more general intent than applying only to teachers.

It seems best to adopt the third option. James addresses the whole community, even in verse one, and not merely teachers alone, though what he says across both major sections of the chapter and especially the second, is relevant also to those who seek this ministry.

“Not many of you” (Mē polloi; Μὴ πολλοὶ), says James, “should become teachers” (didaskaloi ginesthe; διδάσκαλοι γίνεσθε). Of the whole community, only few should ‘become’ teachers. The idea of becoming a teacher in the early Christian communities could well be desirable: in a world with few opportunities for advancement, especially for those of the lower classes, the role of teacher promised increased status and reward (Davids, 136).

Was this a role to which anyone could aspire and so take to oneself? Or was one called to the role by God, with this call being recognised by the community, with the result that one was appointed to the task? The answer is probably bothand. On the one hand, Jesus, Paul, and presumably the other apostles recruited followers to learn the ways of the Christian life and ministry, and who were thereby equipped and appointed for service in the churches. On the other hand, in 1 Timothy 3:1 Paul makes a ‘trustworthy statement’ saying that anyone aspiring to the office of an overseer desires a fine work. It is possible, then, and even legitimate, for a person to seek such roles within the Christian community. It is noteworthy, though, that Paul qualifies this aspiration by noting first that it is the work more than the office itself, which is sought, and second, by listing the characteristics suitable for those who would serve in this way. Perhaps James intends something similar in this chapter; that is, by detailing the character, ethos, and practices of mature spirituality he provides a criterion for the community by which they might recognise those suitable for the role of teacher, and also a standard for the would-be teachers themselves.

The New Testament makes clear that while many people sought to be teachers not all were suitable. Some were accused of being ‘false’ teachers intent on leading others astray, others of having poor motivations, still others of having inadequate knowledge. As we shall see, James 3 suggests that there were those in his communities who were seeking this role within the churches for reasons other than the wellbeing of the people of God.

According to James, those who teach can expect a stricter judgement: “for you know (eidotes; εἰδότες) that we . . . will be judged with greater strictness” (hoti meizon krima lēmpsometha; ὅτι μεῖζον κρίμα λημψόμεθα). This reminder should serve to give pause to those intent on seeking a teaching ministry. Moo (119-120) suggests that the teacher will be subject to a closer scrutiny of both their doctrine and their life, for those who presume to teach are thereby claiming greater knowledge of Christian truth. The teacher has responsibility both for the content of their teaching and for their life which is to illuminate and exemplify what is taught. The content of the teaching is presumably, the word of truth (1:18), the perfect law of liberty (1:25), and the contours of ‘pure and undefiled religion’ (1:27). James does not reference either the gospel per se, or the ‘word of Christ,’ though his own reliance on Jesus’ teaching would suggest this. In broader canonical sense, however, one would have to speak of faithfulness to the apostolic witness, to the gospel, to the message of the New Testament. Not only must the teaching be sound with respect to knowledge and doctrine, but the teacher is to embody the message; their life is to display a congruence between word and work.

Jesus, too, in Mark 12:38-40, warned of a stricter judgement for those who abuse their positions of trust. Those who use their position as a vehicle to honour and personal advancement, or who use it exploit the vulnerable will “receive greater condemnation” (lēmpsontai perissoteron krima; λήμψονται περισσότερον κρίμα; cf. Luke 12:47-48).

Devotional Use of the Psalms

Even I, by no means an Old Testament scholar, am familiar with the common suggestion that the first two psalms serve as an introduction to the whole book. I recall one reading from my undergraduate days in which the author mentioned this, and noted that the first psalm especially, but also the second, commended ‘theological reflection’ as the purpose of the psalms. This perspective was supplemented by other perspectives which suggested this purpose as prayer and praise, extended further by other views which located the meaning of the psalms in the liturgical structures of ancient Israel’s worship.

In his essay, “Towards a Canonical Reading of the Psalms,” Gordon Wenham argues similarly to the first of my undergraduate readings (See Wenham in, Bartholomew, Hahn, Parry, Seitz, and Wolters (eds), Canon and Biblical Interpretation Scripture & Hermeneutics series, Volume 7 (Paternoster), 333-351). Wenham does not suggest that a canonical reading is the only way in which to read and interpret the Psalms, but that it is fruitful and warranted to read them also in this way. His primary argument is that available evidence suggests a deliberate arrangement of the Psalter in which individual psalms are carefully situated within the whole, and sets the whole within a wisdom framework that also incorporates a prominent royal theme that raises questions concerning the Davidic dynasty and hope for a ‘New David’ in Israel’s future.

A canonical reading of individual psalms will read them with several contextual horizons in view:

  1. The whole Psalter, and especially the particular psalm’s near neighbours.
  2. The Jewish canon (i.e., the Hebrew Bible), and,
  3. The Christian canon of Old and New Testaments.

I found several of Wenham’s points very helpful for my own use of the psalms, and especially this citation from Gerald Wilson’s The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter which, to my mind, reclaims the Psalms from the sphere of the professional scholar for use by every member of the people of God.

The effect of the editorial fixation of the first psalm as an introduction to the whole Psalter is subtly to alter how the reader views and appropriates the psalms collected there. The emphasis is now on meditation rather than cultic performance; private, individual use over public, communal participation. In a strange transformation, Israel’s words of response to her God have now become the Word of God to Israel (336). 

Again, this is not a case of either private devotional use or public participation in communal worship. Although it may well be the case that the psalms had their origin in Israel’s liturgical life, this is not their meaning. The editors’ selection of Psalm 1 at the head of the Psalter has effected this ‘strange transformation.’ The opening psalm authorises a devotional approach, the reception of these words as God’s Word to his people which they may also use in their theological reflection, their prayer and worship, their lament and celebration, devotionally and privately as well as devotionally and corporately.

“As If Nothing Had Happened”: Karl Barth’s ‘Responsible’ Theology

My latest essay has just been published at Religions, Vol. 13 No. 3 as part of a special issue concerning “Karl Barth’s Theology in a Time of Crisis” edited by Mark R. Lindsay. My essay examines how theology might proceed responsibly, in times of crisis. It explores Barth’s treatise Theological Existence Today, to understand Barth’s own response to the crisis confronting German Protestantism in the face of Hitler’s rise to power.

The abstract for the essay is:

Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in early 1933 precipitated an ecclesial and theological crisis in the life of the German churches. Karl Barth responded to the crisis in his treatise Theological Existence Today, calling the German church to steadfast faithfulness in the face of increasing pressure to compromise the central commitments of its faith. This essay provides an exposition of Barth’s treatise, exploring his understanding of theological existence, and evaluating his rather infamous assertion that he would “carry on theology, and only theology, now as previously, and as if nothing had happened”. It finds that Barth called his peers to ‘responsible’ theology, the practice of which required a particular ethos and specific methodological commitments. Such responsibility was critical if the church was to retain both its integrity as the people of God, and its ministry, during this crisis.

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