Monthly Archives: August 2014

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:10

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:10
and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. 

It is clear in this verse that James intends a contrast with verse nine. There he instructed the lowly to exult in their exaltation, while now he turns his attention to the rich (ho plousios) and speaks of their being brought low (tapeinōsei). Ho plousios means to be materially wealthy and is thus set in contrast to those belonging to the lower socio-economic strata addressed in verse nine. Whereas the lowly (ho tapeinos) are now exalted, the exalted (in the material sense) are now ‘brought low,’ the NRSV translation making the connection and contrast with verse nine explicit. Indeed the two verses demand to be read as a couplet with the syntax of verse nine governing the sense of verse ten. James’ command to the lowly in verse nine (kauchasthō) applies also to the rich in verse ten, the single instruction to boast or to glory being addressed to both groups.

It is also likely that the ho adelphos (‘brother,’ translated as ‘believer’ in the NRSV) from verse nine should be carried forward to verse ten. This is a more controversial claim, with a number of commentators arguing that ho plousios in James should be understood as referring to the ungodly and unbelieving rich who are described and decried in 2:6-7 and 5:1-6. Davids, for example, acknowledges that the syntax could refer to a rich believer, but argues that James would hardly consider such a rich person to be ‘truly Christian’ (77). In this case the exhortation is to the rich to really embrace the humiliation of identification with the poor Christian community so that they may truly have something to boast about! So, too, Scot McKnight views the rich here as the enemies of Christ and the Christian community, and so interprets James’ language as rich prophetic irony: the boasting and humiliation of the rich will soon be turned to humiliation (98-100). The NRSV supports this interpretation by inserting ‘the rich’ a second time into the verse. Despite these arguments, it is preferable to follow the natural sense of the syntax and to understand James as referring to a believer who is also rich. This wealthy Christian is to boast, not in his or her riches—McKnight is almost certainly correct to suggest that Jeremiah 9:23-24 lies in the background of James’ thought here—but rather, in their humiliation (NASB), because (hoti), says James, ‘like the flower of the grass’ (hōs anthos chortou) or perhaps better, a ‘flower of the field,’ or a ‘wildflower’ (NIV), he or she ‘shall pass away’ (pareleusetai).

A particular temptation for the rich is to rely on their wealth, perhaps even coming to believe that their wealth shields them from the trials that afflict the rest of humanity. “A rich man’s wealth is his strong city, and like a high wall in his own imagination” (Proverbs 18:11; cf. 10:15). This illusion is strengthened by the fact that wealth does to some degree function in this way. A large bank balance does shelter its owner from many common trials, just as a large estate filled with assets and enviable treasures may tempt its owner to believe in their invincibility, and to boast of their accomplishments. But James adopts a common image from the Palestinian countryside to depict the fate of all humanity—including the rich.

As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. When the wind has passed over it, it is no more, and its place acknowledges it no longer. But the lovingkindness of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him (Psalm 103:15-17).

A voice says, “Call out!” Then he answered, “What shall I call out?”
“All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever”
(Isaiah 40:6-8).

James calls the rich to recognise their mortality in common with all people. They, too, ‘shall pass away,’ all their wealth and earthly glory notwithstanding. While their wealth may prove a shield in some affairs, ultimately the only lasting treasure is the fear of the Lord arising from his Word. As a believer they have embraced his Word. James now exhorts them to embrace the humiliation of association with the Christian community, of identification with the scandalous message of Jesus, for this is the true basis of glorying as Paul also insisted: “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31).

Karl Barth – A Remarkable Life #3

Time Cover BarthThis is my third and final instalment of observations drawn from Eberhard Busch’s excellent account of the life of Karl Barth.

Barth’s view of the relations between male and female has been rejected by most in the days since his death. In this respect, he was certainly a man of his time arguing that female follows male as B follows A. The two are equal and definitely necessary, but just as definitely ordered. Busch’s story shows Barth living in a largely male world, with many male associates and peers. Nevertheless, women also show up in his life in many and varied ways, as friends and associates, as students and scholar-peers (though only one or two of these), and as fellow partisans in the struggle (see p. 317 for the story of Hebelotte Kohlbrügge who in July 1942 smuggled in her mouth, a microfilm of Barth’s message to the confessing churches in Holland!).

There was also, of course, a woman in his life, and I don’t mean Nelly, his wife. He married Nelly in 1913 and she remained his faithful wife all his days, and was mother of their five children. Nevertheless, the (other) woman in his life was Charlotte von Kirschbaum (“Lollo”), introduced to Barth in 1924 and who became a permanent member of his household in 1929. Without Lollo, Barth would not have been Barth. She became his assistant, typing and checking his works, handling his vast correspondence, participating in discussions with him and others, and accompanying him on his journeys, his semester-length stays in Germany immediately after WWII, and even on his holidays. We naturally conjecture as to the nature of their relationship, and in our time, given our fascination with all things sexual, many simply assume that it was such. We will never know whether or not that was the case for there is simply no record or comment to that effect by Barth or any of his family or associates. Her presence in the Barth house caused tensions for decades, and yet she was also treated as one of the family by the children, and after her death, buried by Nelly in the family tomb. Later in her life she began to give lectures and also wrote some of her own work. Barth himself acknowledged that he could not have accomplished anything near what he did without her participation and assistance. She was obviously a very capable and intelligent woman who chose a difficult (and selfless?) life in order to make a largely unseen contribution to Barth’s highly visible and significant career. Several biographies have been written about Charlotte—not all complimentary to Barth; I must read them also.

Charlotte von Kirschbaum c1950s
Charlotte von Kirschbaum c1950s

Old Age
As an old man with frequent health battles, Barth remained interested in theology, in his students, and in questions of the wider world. By now he was an international citizen, and guests from around the world came to visit him in Basel and to chat over their small kitchen table Bruderholzallee 26 in Basel. When, in December 2011 I visited his archives now housed there, I was told by archivist and curator, Hans Anton Drewes, that the then pope, Benedict XVI had visited Barth and sat at that table as the young and up-and-coming Joseph Ratzinger.

Of course, in old age other friends and associates were also growing frail and dying. I teared over as I read (and am tearing now again as I write),

In April 1966 Emil Brunner had also died. Shortly beforehand, Barth had sent him a “message through his friend Peter Vogelsanger: ‘If he is still alive and it is possible, tell  him again, “Commended to our God,” even by me. And tell him, Yes, that the time when I thought that I had to say “No” to him is now long past, since we all live only by virtue of the fact that a great and merciful God says his gracious Yes to all of us.’ These words were the last that Brunner heard in his life… (476-477).

He still lectured from time to time, and on the night before he died was preparing a lecture to be given to a forum of Catholic and Reformed theologians in January 1969. The title was typical: “Starting Out, Turning Around, Confessing.” Barth was always “beginning again at the beginning,” seeking to hear again and afresh the Word of God spoken to us in Jesus Christ and witnessed in Holy Scripture. His work was interrupted by two phone calls, one from his godson Ulrich, and later, a phone call from his oldest friend Eduard Thurneysen whom he had known since his student days. The two friends spoke about the gloomy world situation before Barth said, ‘But keep your chin up! Never mind! “He will reign!”’ Afterwards, he did not return to his work but went to bed for the final time, Nelly finding him in the morning.

The sentences he had just written and to which he did not return after the call from Thurneysen were about the need for the church to listen to the Fathers in the faith who have gone before, for “‘“God is not a God of the dead but of the living.” In him they all live’ from the Apostles down to the Fathers of the day before yesterday and of yesterday” (498).

In my view, Karl Barth is one of those Fathers to whom we do well to listen.

Karl Barth – A Remarkable Life #2

Time Cover BarthToday I continue to post some observations drawn from Eberhard Busch’s Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts which I highly recommend.

The living and true God, the high and holy God, the transcendent and immanent God, the one God revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the person of Jesus Christ, God the Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer, God the Wholly Other, the Good and Gracious God who has come to us and judges and calls us in Jesus Christ: this God was the centre of Barth’s existence, from whom and towards whom he lived. It was the reality of this God who ever stands over against us which drove Barth’s break with the Liberal theology of his student years, and it was the knowledge of this God revealed decisively in Jesus Christ that continued to drive his innovative theology over the course of his career.

Dismayed by the capitulation of all but one of his Liberal teachers to the war policies of Kaiser Wilhelm in 1914, Barth and his friend Eduard Thurneysen knew they could no longer follow this theology, and so sought a “wholly other” foundation for theology (it was Thurneysen who first used the famous phrase). They tried starting again with Kant, Schleiermacher and Hegel, but found them more and more dissatisfying. In the end, they turned again to Scripture and found, “Lo, it began to speak to us.” Barth began his career with exegesis, especially of Romans, and it was this work which catapulted him into public awareness. For much of his career he taught not only theology but also New Testament exegesis. His Church Dogmatics abound with extended passages of biblical exegesis and exposition. About to be expelled from Germany by the Gestapo in 1935, he said in his final words to this students:

We have been studying cheerfully and seriously. As far as I was concerned it could have continued in that way, and I had already resigned myself to having my grave here by the Rhine! I had plans for the future with other colleagues who are either no longer here or have been away for a long time – but there has been a frost on our spring night! And now the end has come. So listen to my last piece of advice: exegesis, exegesis and yet more exegesis! Keep to the Word, to the scripture that has been given us (259).

Theology and Church
Theology, of course, is what Karl Barth is most well-known for. This was not only the field of his expertise, but also his passion. As early as 1902, shortly before his sixteenth birthday, and on the eve of his confirmation, ‘I made the bold resolve to become a theologian: not with preaching and pastoral care and so on in mind, but in the hope that through such a course of study I might reach a proper understanding of the creed in place of the rather hazy ideas that I had at that time’ (31). Theology, for Barth, is a human endeavour of response to the Word of God spoken to us in Jesus Christ. It is faith seeking understanding, the free and joyful science of God who has given himself to be known by us. It demands our very highest, deepest and most concentrated thought, and yet it is still grace if we come to know God at all. Indeed, as Barth struggled to grasp how he might arrange and structure the doctrine of reconciliation, ‘I dreamed of a plan. It seemed to go in the right direction. The plan now had to stretch from christology to ecclesiology together with the relevant ethics. I woke at 2 a.m. and then put it down on paper hastily the next morning’ (377). Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation (Church Dogmatics IV/1-4) is seen by many as a modern classic—and its outline came in a dream!

The Church Tower at Barmen
The Church Tower at Barmen

But theology, for Barth, is a discipline in and for the church, and indeed, for the entirety of his career Barth remained a man of the church. It is no accident that his major work is called Church Dogmatics—he had changed the title from an earlier attempt which was titled Christian Dogmatics. Barth wanted to make sure that theology is an activity of the church, and that the church rather than the academy was the proper locus for theology, although theology could legitimately be undertaken in the university so long as it remained true to its proper theme and method. Barth did theology to support and inform the proclamation of the church, and throughout his career pastors and preachers remained amongst his most avid readers. If only that remained true today! Theology is not an end in itself, but exists as a ministry of and to the church that it may be faithful in its other ministries of preaching and teaching. In so doing the church remains a teaching church and a hearing church, the place where God’s gift of revelation continues in the power of the Holy Spirit, and the church is thereby continually formed and reformed, gathered, built up and sent.

Not only is theology in and for the church, but as Busch makes crystal clear in his account of Barth’s life, theology is also and simultaneously in and for the world. Theology is done in the world as well as in the church, for God’s Word comes to us as people in the world and God’s call makes us responsible to the world. For Barth, then, theology and ethics belong indissolubly together, and always in this order: right thought about God issues in right thought about the world and the church’s life in the world, and so generates an active life in correspondence to the active God revealed in Jesus Christ. Barth lived an active life in the world. During his Safenwil pastorate (1911-1921) he was known as the ‘Red Pastor’ because of his socialist convictions and activity on behalf of the poor workers in his village undergoing industrial transformation. He was deeply involved in the Confessing Church and the theological and ecclesial resistance to Hitler. After the war he pleaded for the forgiveness of the Germans and participated actively in its reconstruction, and was just as deeply involved in the politics of the Cold War, at odds with his many friends on both sides of the Atlantic because he refused to be caught up in anti-Communist fervour, but instead sought to support the church living under Marxist regimes.

Karl Barth – A Remarkable Life #1

Time Cover BarthAlthough first published in German in 1975, and in English translation in 1976, Eberhard Busch’s Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts is still the go-to text for the story of Karl Barth’s remarkable life and theological development. That is not to say that this is the final word on his life; far from it, for we are still awaiting a full-scale critical biography. Perhaps someone might undertake this task for the fiftieth-anniversary of Barth’s death in 2018. (Do any German-speaking historians read this blog?) This work is not so much a biography as an account of Barth’s life, almost an itinerary, or a leafing through his diary, with Barth himself providing a running commentary on the various episodes of his life, the people he met, and the momentous events and days in which he participated.

Over the course of his life Barth wrote the 6,000,000 or so words of his unfinished magnum opus Church Dogmatics, hundreds of formal lectures and articles, hundreds more lectures to his students, hundreds of sermons (especially while pastor at Safenwil), and thousands of letters. Busch has carefully mined all these resources and more besides, such as radio broadcasts and recordings of class conversations, in order to let Barth tell, in his own words, the story of his life. The result is a large book of over 500 pages covering the whole of his life from his early childhood in Basel as a lively and perhaps even somewhat wild boy, through his student and pastoral years, to his early career in Göttingen and Münster as young professor, his participation in the church struggle against Hitler and the Nazi ideology which engulfed the nation and church, through the years of his global prominence, and to the final twilight years in which he still remained active and involved in theology despite advancing age and associated health concerns.

Barth’s theological development and commitments are naturally a primary focus of the work, and Busch has included sufficient summaries, excerpts and commentary to give the reader a good sense of Barth’s thought at each particular phase of his career. But the book also has extensive accounts of his family and friendships, his interactions, journeys and conflicts, which allow the very human and at times flawed character of the man to be clearly seen. The inclusion of more than 100 photographs add depth, colour and interest to the story, and the several maps, family tree, and extensive references help the reader, especially those not familiar with the history or geography of Barth’s time, to read profitably.

Eberhard Busch has done us a salutary service in preparing this account. I recommend it highly to any and all theological students, and anyone participating in Christian ministry. It is a story of a man living in extraordinary times, whose uncommon intellect, abundance of hard work, and network of relationships issued in a remarkable life of witness to Jesus Christ, and a substantial contribution to the work of church in his day.

Busch, Karl Barth LifeI have just read, for the first time actually, the whole book from cover to cover. Previously I have only read those earlier sections immediately relevant to my work. Reading the whole has given me a fresh appreciation and sense of this remarkable life. Over the next few days I will record some observations of those things which stood out to me as particularly significant.

Extraordinary Times
Born May 10, 1886 and died December 10, 1968, Barth lived through two world wars and was deeply involved in both—not so much as a soldier, although he did enlist in Switzerland’s defence force in WWII, despite being in his 50s—but in thinking through what it meant to be church, to be a Christian, to do theology, in such turbulent and distressing times. Other movements included the rise of Christian socialism in Switzerland, the communist revolution in Russia and then the rise of international communism, especially the Stalinist variety, the attempted putsch in Germany, the Weimar Republic and its failure, the Confessing Church, Barmen, the atomic bomb, the eastern bloc and the Cold War: maybe it is the case that extraordinary times call for extraordinary characters. Barth was certainly an extraordinary man in extraordinary times.

One of the primary characteristics to emerge from his story was Barth’s energy: he was a vibrant and dynamic person, accomplishing a vast amount of work and maintaining a punishing schedule of classes, meetings, lectures and international trips. He certainly slowed as he aged, but even then maintained quite high levels of participation in affairs theological, ecclesial and civil. He was a diligent networker and correspondent, obviously an extrovert, who enjoyed people and maintained enduring friendships and other associations over the course of his life. Yet there was also a certain pugnacious aspect to his character, evident in childhood scraps with his peers, his take-no-prisoners approach to the dispute with Brunner, his brother’s complaint that Karl was ‘a man who would brook no opposition’ (269). Thus he managed to lose friends and alienate colleagues as well, at times, being sharply critical of those with whom he disagreed. Especially during the church struggle of the 30s, the severity of the circumstances seemed to demand an “all-or-nothing,” black and white approach to the issues; one either sided with or against the gospel, and no sitting on the fence was possible.

And then, of course, his uncommon intellect, nurtured by the formidable German education system. Barth (and his associates) were deeply immersed in biblical studies and theology, had mastery of literature and philosophy, Greek, Hebrew, Latin (Barth was also fluent in French and then also learned English), the Patristic fathers and the Reformers, as well as living in the golden age of German culture prior to WWI. This, of course, also suggests his privilege, for only those of the right class got to go to university, and to participate in the kinds of circles in which Barth naturally fit all his life. He came from Old Basel society, from generations of pietist ministers on both sides of his lineage. Early in his life he rejected pietism as a way of being Christian, and yet it is evident that the influence of his pietist heritage marked him all his days: religion and theology could never simply be intellectual, but always was oriented to the good and gracious God, with “a touch of enthusiasm.”

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:9

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:9
Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up.

At first glance these verses appear to mark an abrupt change of theme and help support the idea that James is a collection of unrelated homiletical materials pieced together to form a letter representing the central themes of James’ teaching. It is possible, however, to read these verses as part of James’ overall theme in the first part of this chapter. First, verse twelve will return to the theme of the blessedness of those who endure under trial, suggesting that all the material from at least verse two through to verse twelve belongs together. Second, the opening word of verse nine (kauchasthō) is another third person singular imperative, extending the string of imperatives James has used in his opening section. Further, the word means to boast or to glory in which is not too far removed in concept if not language, from the opening thought of verse two where James exhorts his hearers to ‘count it all joy.’ In Psalm 149:5 (LXX) the word is set in parallel with joy: “Let the godly ones exult in glory; let them sing for joy on their beds.” Finally, a number of commentators understand these verses as an application of the opening section, identifying a particular trial, and indeed likely the major form of trial, being experienced by James’ community. The theme of wealth and riches, and the temptations associated with them recurs throughout the letter. The second chapter especially, indicates that this is a present trial and temptation for the community. Together, these contextual clues suggest that these verses should be understood as a continuation of the primary theme in this first chapter. That is, the community is to rejoice in the midst of their ongoing trials, enduring them steadfastly with faith, hope, and prayer for wisdom, and especially with reference to the vexed issue of economic difficulty, privation and temptation.

James turns his attention first to the lowly brother or sister(ho adelphos ho tapeinos), the reference to ho adelphos indicating that he refers not to the lowly in general, but to those in the community of God’s people. Tapeinos means humble or lowly, but in this context, especially given the contrast with ho plousios in verse ten, is to be interpreted in socio-economic terms rather than with respect to attitude or demeanour. The word is used in this sense in the Old Testament, and often in contexts in which the Lord is near to those who are tapeinos, to hear their prayer and to judge in their favour (e.g. Psa. 10:18; 18:27; 34:18; 102:17; Isa. 11:4). In 4:6 James will cite Proverbs 3:34 which declares that God gives grace to the tapeinos. Such favour is also in view in 2:5 where God has chosen the poor (ptōchos) to be the heirs of his kingdom. James, therefore, exhorts the person in ‘humble circumstances’ (NASB; NIV) to glory in their high position (NASB; en tō hypsei autou) because (reading en in a causative sense) they have been ‘raised up.’

Everything depends on the reality of this exaltation. Already they are the recipients of God’s grace and the special objects of God’s favour. Although not rich in this world they are rich in faith (2:5) and as such are heirs of the eternal kingdom. This, too, is divine wisdom, as James brings an eschatological worldview to bear on the circumstances of his readers. Only on the basis of divine grace and promise may the poor rejoice. From an earthly perspective they have no reason to boast. Just as joy in the midst of suffering is counter-intuitive, so too is boasting in the midst of poverty and affliction. But in the light of God’s present favour and eschatological promise, they may indeed boast for they have been made brothers and sisters in the very family of God.

2014 Archibald Prize

Penelope Seidler by Fiona Lowry, winner 2014 Archibald Prize
Penelope Seidler by Fiona Lowry, winner 2014 Archibald Prize

I was in Sydney recently and took the opportunity to visit the Art Gallery of NSW to view the portraits submitted for this year’s Archibald Prize. Now I am not an artist in any sense of the word, and could only stand amazed at so many of the paintings, admiring the skill and composition of the artists. I was glad that there were volunteer tour guides explaining and giving story about each of the paintings and sometimes, of the techniques involved. I enjoyed the experience so much, I might make it an annual pilgrimage!

The winning painting, by Fiona Lowry,  actually shone, and was beautiful to look at. Lowry uses an airbrush technique to produce her work – at least the couple I saw – and the result was luminous. She had asked her subject, Penelope Seidler, to visit a place of particular memory for her. They went to the property that she and her husband had once owned. At some point while they walked the grounds of the old homestead, Seidler had turned and looked up at the old house. Lowry has captured her at that moment, and this was the result.

Morpheus, by Andrew Mezei
Morpheus, by Andrew Mezei

I also loved the painting Morpheus by Andrew Mezei, and perhaps if I were the judge, this one may have won. It was much smaller than Lowry’s work, and almost renaissance in its style, with mythological and symbolic elements enhancing the subject – Professor Kate Leslie, an anaesthetist and leading researcher into awareness and dreaming experienced by patients under general anaesthesia. The fish (representing the dreams), the poppies (opiates and sedation), the finger stirring the water and creating the ripples, the water itself, and the pebbled bed: a magnificent painting, in my humble and unschooled opinion! But, having said that, Lowry’s portrait of Seidler was also magnificent and a worthy winner.

All the portraits can be seen here, and other entries I found captivating included those by:
a) Jandamarra Cadd (Archie Roach) – this painting communicated massive dignity;
b) Anh Do (his father) – Do’s father was a baker and the painting looked like it had been done with a cake-icing knife!
c) Vincent Fantauzzo (himself, as his son!?) – a large painting; the eyes are amazing;
d) Tim Maguire (Cate Blanchett) – technique: the second frame adds blue;
e) Mirra Whale (Tom Uren) – She captures something very human in this portrait;
f) Mariola Smarzak (Wendy) – Not sure why I liked this one so much; an intense realism?

Any favourites?

The World the Missionaries Made

Picture by early British Baptist missionary Alice Seeley Harris, who used her photos to expose abuses in the colonies. Her work helped end the bloody rule of King Leopold in the Belgium Congo in 1908. Picture from CT.
Picture by early British Baptist missionary Alice Seeley Harris, who used her photos to expose abuses in the colonies. Her work helped end the bloody rule of King Leopold in the Belgium Congo in 1908. Picture from CT.

In their January/February 2014 issue, Christianity Today reported the research findings of Robert D. Woodberry in an article entitled “The World the Missionaries Made.” Woodberry’s findings suggest that Protestant conversional missionaries who operated independently of colonial powers laid the foundations for the development of healthy societies and democracy in many parts of the developing world. These findings are counter to common stereotypes of missionaries as culturally imperialist and destructive. He also notes that this was a largely unintended consequence of their work, a sign of God’s greater purposes being worked out through devoted but imperfect people.

The full report of Woodberry’s research was published in the prestigious American Political Science Review as The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy.

A Sermon for Sunday: James 1:2-8

Saint_James_the_JustSorry for the inordinate length of this post. Having spent a number of weeks on the exegesis of this passage, I wanted to prepare a sermon based on the passage, moving from exegesis to exposition. I have not preached the sermon, and it would change somewhat according to the audience and context, and as story, illustration and application are added and focused. It could be shortened if time was limited, or extended to two sermons to allow for more extensive exposition of the supporting texts and ideas. I have tried to avoid moralising and to use the passage to preach the gospel, though with faithfulness to James’ idiom. Let me know if you think it works.



A common experience is misconception: we read the data wrongly and get the wrong impression; we have false hopes and unrealistic expectations. Perhaps we think we will get married and live happily ever after: never the slightest spat; this one person will delight me, nurture me, inspire me—til death do us part! Maybe we start a new job or join a new church with high hopes that soon come crashing down. We go to a reputation restaurant and leave disappointed. We think the Dockers will win the Grand Final…

Many believers tend to have misconceptions and unrealistic expectations about the Christian life. Sometimes, having experienced something of the good and gracious God, having received answers to prayer, and the blessings of Christian acceptance and fellowship, having been taught about the victory we have in Christ, some believers may gain the impression that the Christian life is one of continual blessing and endless triumph, praise, thanksgiving and victory. If only that were true! Generally it does not take too long to be disabused of these misconceptions because, simply speaking—you’ve seen the bumper stickers: “stuff” happens.

From the very first words of his letter, James wants to set us straight, but also give us a fresh perspective concerning the nature of Christian life.

     Read the Text: James 1:2-8

James’ words are almost incomprehensible: rejoice when the tough times come! I like J.B. Phillips’ rendition of this verse: When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives, my friends, don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends! What was James thinking? Welcome trouble? Invite it in like a long-lost friend? Rejoice in trials? The worse it gets the better we like it? At least he is not telling us to go looking for trouble! He doesn’t have to, because you know as well as I do that trouble comes, “ready or not.” Troubles and trials come to everybody. Is there anyone here who has not faced some kind of test even this week? For some, the trials may have been a minor inconvenience or a momentary frustration. For others, the trials are far more serious, perhaps even a matter of life and death, of major stress or life-change. For others still, the whole course of their life is a continual trial and hardship: unrelenting pain, physical or emotional; the grief of loved ones gone and never returning, of dreams which can never be fulfilled, of reversals from which it seems there is no return.

Alana’s story: measles in infancy...

How can those who suffer in these ways ever make sense of James’ advice? Actually, it’s more than advice: it’s a command. Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind. How can we possibly obey so counter-intuitive a command? Where’s the joy in trials? How can we rejoice when life threatens, hurts and disappoints?

It is evident that James wants to reframe our understanding of life and its many and various trials. He wants God’s people to have new wisdom, godly wisdom, and a new perspective so that when the trials come, they may view them with new eyes, so that they may even become productive rather than destructive. What is James wants us to know?

1. Trials come, but they have a special meaning for Christians

Everyone faces all kinds of trials, and Christians are not exempt (1 Cor. 10:13). Trials arise simply on account of life in a fallen and broken world. These are the conditions of existence faced by all and sundry. Other trials emerge because of human sinfulness and foolishness—our own and that of others. Christians will face all kinds of trials because of these features of life, just as everyone else will. You don’t have to go looking for trouble…

But Christians also face trials specifically on account of their faith. Trials arise because we are Christians: persecution, the suffering which arises because we refuse to participate in the sinfulness of the world, the difficulties which may arise because we have chosen to do the good. We may be forced to wonder if it is really worth being Christian at all. But our faith is also tested even in the normal trials of life: we may wonder where is God when it hurts? Does God care, or have we been forsaken? Is God even real, or have we mistakenly believed in God? Would it not be easier if we simply gave up our belief? It is for this reason that James refers to trials as tests of our faith. No matter how practical an issue we face, in the end what is being tested, tried, probed, pressured and put to question, is our faith.

“These things are sent to try us…” Yes—and No. Another common misconception amongst Christians especially, is that God sends these trials for the purpose of perfecting us, maturing us, or teaching us some lesson. To say this, I believe, is to confuse purpose and effect. God may bring a positive effect out of our trials, but this is not to say that God purposed the trial for this effect. I want to affirm that God is sovereign over all things, that there is not one moment nor one millimetre of this world which is not subject to his vision and power. But to say this is not to suggest that God is the only actor in this world and in our lives. Indeed, James holds a vision of reality similar to other New Testament writers, and to that of his brother, Jesus.

See Ephesians 6:10-13; 1 Thessalonians 3:1-5; 1 Peter 5:8-9; Luke 22:21-32
The apostles Paul and Peter, and the Lord Jesus each warn us of the spiritual context in which the believer’s faith is tested. There is a spiritual enemy whose attack is directed against our faith. These tests do not come to build our faith, but to destroy it.

Why? Because our faith is precious (2 Peter 1:1), a precious gift by which we have been brought into a living relation to God and made heir of all his promises (Romans 5:1-2). Without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6), and indeed Jesus wondered whether, at his return, he would find faith on the earth (Luke 18:8). Thus, he gave the great assurance to Peter—and so also to us—that he prays for us that our faith would not fail (Luke 22:32; cf. Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25), for it is by faith that we overcome the world (1 John 5:4) and inherit eternal life (John 3:16; Hebrews 6:12). Indeed, we are preserved by the power of God through faith, and our faith will result in praise, glory and honour to God at the coming of Christ (1 Peter 1:5-6). How precious is our faith! No wonder the enemy of our souls directs his attack against this most precious gift of God.

Given what is at stake, James goes on to teach us how to stand in the midst of trial.

2. Rejoice in Hope

And so we are back where we began. James’ first instruction is that we rejoice in the face of testing and trials. We do not rejoice for the test—which intends our hurt—but in the midst of the test, trusting that God can provide a way of escape and deliverance (1 Corinthians 10:13; Psalm 34:19), and that regardless of what happens, our very lives and our every hope are in his hands. Many passages of Scripture instruct us to rejoice in God even in the midst of testing (e.g. Psalm 27:5-6; 50:23; Jonah 2:9; Matthew 5:11-12). We rejoice in God’s saving grace and promise. We rejoice in the hope which is laid up for us in heaven beyond the vicissitudes of this life.

It is only possible to have such joy, even in the midst of suffering, if we know these ways of God. Because you know, says James. Not only are we to know and believe the hope which awaits us beyond this life, the hope of eternal life and blessing and grace in Christ, but we are also to know that as we stand fast in the midst of the trial, as we persevere and endure, as we exercise the very faith that is under attack, and hold fast to it trusting God, then the trial intended to destroy our faith actually serves to strengthen it! Indeed, the trying of our faith develops patience, endurance and perseverance.

Hypomonē – replacing and strengthening the pillars under Garrett Road bridge. When faith is threatened and begins to sag or weaken, endurance is the strength that helps us stand and withstand. Instead of buckling and collapsing under the pressure, our faith is supported and strengthened.

3. Stand Fast Together

But, says James, adding a second command, let perseverance finish its work. In other words, we must stand fast until the end, as Jesus also taught, the one who endures to the end shall be saved (Matthew 10:23; 24:13). How could we ever do this? Only together, only in the company and with the encouragement of our brothers and sisters in Christ. James has addressed these commands not primarily to individuals, but to the community of the church, his brothers and sisters in the faith. We need one another more than we realise, and over the course of our lives together, we will have many opportunities to give and receive encouragement and care, and help one another stand firm in our faith. Those who are strong are to help bear the burden of the weak for tomorrow we may be the weak in need of their strength (see Romans 15:1-2).

But there is also something more at work here. We are to let perseverance have its perfect work so that [we] may be perfect—mature and complete—not lacking anything. For James, this is the way to maturity, to wholeness, to perfection. God is able to bring good out of that which was intended for evil! He is able to make all things—even the attacks designed to overcome us—work together for good, so that we might be conformed to the image of his Son Jesus (Romans 8:28-29). That you may be perfect!—what vision and confidence James has for his suffering people! James views Christian maturity in terms of mature and virtuous character, and this character is formed and refined as we stand fast together, encouraging and supporting each other, that we might grow, more and more, into the very image of Christ. This is what we were made for—to become a people of character, a truly human community!

4. Pray—and stay—in faith

James finishes his exhortation with two further commands and a very solemn warning. The two commands are let him ask of God and, let him ask in faith. In every trial we need the kind of wisdom that we have already been receiving from James. But we also need the particular wisdom required for the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves, so that we can respond wisely and appropriately. And so James commands any who lack wisdom to ask God for it, and he encourages us that it will be given to us.

But while we may lack wisdom, we must not lack faith! Again we are alerted to the importance of faith in the Christian’s relation with God. Of the various virtues mentioned in this passage—faith, joy, perseverance, wisdom, mature character—faith is singled out as preeminent. We have already mentioned that without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). Without faith it is also impossible to receive the answers to our prayers. Let not that [doubt-filled] person think that they shall receive anything from the Lord.

Over against the steady trustingness of faith stands the unstable, wavering nature of doubt. To some extent we all doubt sometimes. To doubt is to stand wavering between two options, non-committal and undecided. However, Martin Luther has helpfully suggested that although we cannot stop the birds from flying over our heads, we can stop them from building a nest in our hair! Doubtful thoughts will come into our minds and when they do we must let perseverance finish its work! We can stand together and help one another to trust in God. This kind of doubt is normal and not what James assails in this text.

What James assails is the doubt which has become entrenched in a person’s life to such an extent that it now characterises them: they are a doubter. James graphically portrays this person in terms of the restless, ceaseless, shifting movement of the stormy sea, tossed and thrown hither and thither, driven this way and that: in other words, this person is precisely the opposite of the settled strength and confidence of those who have let perseverance finish its work. They are a double-minded, two-souled, unstable, indecisive, uncommitted kind of person. They cannot, will not and do not commit themselves unreservedly to God. They cannot, will not and do not entrust themselves to his promise and his care alone. They cannot, will not and do not depend rest their hope fully upon God. Let not that person expect to receive anything from the Lord—anything!

A great secret to answered prayer is to pray in faith and then to stay in faith. Nowhere in Scripture is this more clearly taught than in Jesus’ words in Mark 11:22-25, where Jesus teaches that when we pray we must “believe that you have received it, and you shall have it.” The believer believes the answer has been given when they pray, and before they ever actually receive the answer. They must believe first and then “you shall have it.” I once heard an elderly preacher with a whole life of experience say, “Between every prayer and its answer there is a wilderness, and what you do in that wilderness determines whether or not the prayer will be answered.” What was he saying? Pray in faith and then stay in faith. Continue to trust. Let perseverance finish its work!

How can we possibly have such unwavering faith? Here pastor James provides another piece of practical Christian wisdom: keep your eyes firmly fixed on the good and gracious God, rather than on yourself! Instead of worrying about whether or not our faith is sufficient, turn away from yourself and look solely toward the good and gracious God. In verse five James magnifies the generosity of the good and gracious God, who gives generously to all without finding fault. The Greek text is even stronger: God gives with single-minded generosity. Over against the double-minded person stands the single-minded God! God is single-minded in his grace and generosity toward us, and calls us to be single-minded in faith and trust toward him. He is the good and gracious God, the generous-hearted God who has promised to accompany us through every moment of this life, to hear and answer our prayers, and to bring us safely into his heavenly kingdom! This is the good and gracious God who holds our entire existence—past, present and future—in the palm of his hands; the God who will never leave or forsake us.

Trust in this good and gracious God!
Stand fast in the good and gracious God!
Rejoice in the good and gracious God … that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing!

Morning Prayer

Morning-PrayerI found this beautiful prayer in Isaiah 33:2 the other morning, and have prayed it each morning since:

O Lord be gracious to us; we wait for you. Be our arm every morning, our salvation in the time of trouble.

Verses 5-6 of the same chapter have the following exhortation:

The Lord is exalted, for he dwells on high; he will fill Zion with justice and righteousness, and he will be the stability of your times, abundance of salvation, wisdom and knowledge; the fear of the Lord is His treasure.

How to Think Theologically (Stone & Duke)

Learning TogetherHoward W. Stone & James O. Duke, How to Think Theologically
(Second Edition; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006).

I picked this book up at the book table during our recent ANZATS Conference. The next day they replaced it with a third edition copy – D’Oh!

Stone & Duke have written their smallish, easy-to-read book with students and interested lay people in mind. Their basic premise is that all Christians are theologians simply because they are Christian. Their passion, however, is that Christians approach all of life with a theological frame of mind; that they learn to live in the everyday rough-and-tumble world informed by and responsive to a developed theological framework which helps them in their decision-making and action. In a word, their desire is to nurture informed Christian life rather than supply an academic method for “getting the right answer.”

The book is divided into three sections with chapters 1-4 laying the foundation for theological reflection. The chapters explore what theology is and how it is approached, adopting the ancient characterisation of theology as “faith seeking understanding.” The authors rightly insist that theology is a human activity, a response to God grounded in faith. Theology is personal but not private. It is an interactive practice, dialogical, corporate and communal, grounded and occurring in the Christian community. These chapters address the distinction between “embedded” or implicit and possibly pre-reflective theology, and “deliberative” theology, which is an explicitly chosen and committed theology, based in critical reflection on one’s beliefs and practices.

Stone & Duke use the metaphor of a craft to describe theology. Theology is something learned and developed through practice and growth in skill. The task of theology is to interpret all of life through a lens of faith, bringing all the various features, facts and experiences of life into explicit relation to Christian theological categories and truth claims. But even this lens, and these categories need to be assessed, and Stone & Duke provide four tests for assessing our theological perspectives:

  1. Is it “Christian” – i.e., conformed to the gospel?
  2. Is it intelligible, and plausibly coherent?
  3. Does it have moral integrity?
  4. Is it valid – i.e., true to life, Scripture, and actually true?

Ho to Think TheologicallyThe authors identify the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral—Scripture, tradition, reason and experience—as the resources (rather than “sources”) required for theological reflection. Of these, Scripture is primary, but reason is the most active, at work in our interpretation of Scripture, in the exploration and evaluation of tradition and experience, and in the work of building connections between theology and all the other disciplines of academic inquiry.

Chapters 5-7 form the heart of the book, and provide the three categories of thought that are to guide life-related theological reflection. The first category is the gospel which more than anything else, is the story of the love of God revealed Jesus’ life and ministry, death and resurrection, and the meaning of this story as it is unpacked in the writings of Scripture. Theological reflection involves bringing all of life into explicit correlation with the major features of this story including what it means to embody this story in the world, and how this gospel is communicated and its benefits received by people through faith.

The second category concerns the human condition, by which Stone & Duke mean the reality of sin as the basic problem of human existence, and how that problem finds resolution through the provision of salvation and the means of grace. The authors insist that without clear thought around these matters, we will fail to address the issues of real-life at the level required to see God’s transformative work. The final category of thought required for fruitful theological reflection is vocation which addresses the inescapable question: “What must we do? How are Christians called upon to act?” (100). In many situations a variety of responses and actions are possible, so Stone & Duke provide guidance for choosing the most fitting response, which include assessing the real reasons for why we typically act as we do, identifying distinctly Christian reasons to guide our response. The point is “to choose one particular view or action that is the most fitting expression of Christian faithfulness in a given situation” (107).

It is worth noting that Stone & Duke do not prescribe the particular way in which these critical categories of thought must be believed. In fact, just the opposite. They insist that there are varieties of ways in which issues of gospel, sin and salvation, and vocation have and are understood in the Christian tradition, and that deliberative theological reflection will be open to explore, question and evaluate each of them. Their intent is to help communities of believers come to grips with the content and meaning of these doctrines within their own traditions and situations.

The final section of the book (chapters 8-9) detail some of the practices involved in critical theological reflection and the spiritual disciplines which support it. These chapters locate the practice of theological reflection in the community of faith, and insist that theological reflection be aligned with spiritual formation. Participation in Christian community and practices of spiritual formation help serve to keep theological reflection from becoming merely an individual and purely cognitive exercise in which the believer’s faith becomes privatised and intellectual rather than spiritual. For these authors, “spiritual formation is a bridge between theological reflection and day-to-day experience” (127).

We need a theology that prepares us for the difficult business of being Christian in the fray of the real world, undergirds our commitment, and guides our action. … To act in accordance with our Christian commitments, often there will not be the luxury of extended theological consideration. The theological work has to be done in advance—deliberative theological reflection—so that its results can inform our every choice. … [As Christians we] need a foundation of prior deliberative theological reflection to prepare us as best as possible for dozens of daily choices as well as the life-altering decisions we face. … We believe that developing basic clarity on the issues raised by the three diagnostic exercises (gospel, the human condition, and vocation) will stand the Christian in good stead when facing the myriad of difficult situations that every day presents (129-130).

Paul commended the Roman church saying, “I myself am satisfied about you, brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another” (Romans 15:14). This useful book will help contemporary Christians and churches follow in Rome’s footsteps, providing a means to develop the skills of theological reflection with an eye toward this kind robust discipleship and praxis. The clear framework and practical case studies illuminate how congregations might actually practise theological reflection. Leading congregations in intentional and systematic reflection on the gospel, the human condition, and vocation will help them think Christianly, something urgently needed in a culture in which we are very often more shaped by the culture than we are by Christ.