Monthly Archives: September 2014

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:9-11

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:9-11
Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away .

The Great Reversal
Our study of this passage has concluded that it is a continuation and specific application of the theme commenced in verse two. That is, one of the major tests being experienced by James’ community concerns the issue of poverty and wealth. But this is not simply “an issue,” such that it might be considered apart from the actual life-setting and life-experience of the community. James’ listeners are suffering, a poor and despised group in an unfamiliar land. Further, their faith in Christ has isolated them from the help they might otherwise have received from the Jewish diaspora community. Perhaps they face the temptation to curry the favour of their wealthier kinsmen; perhaps also the temptation to relinquish their faith in Jesus the Messiah and return to the synagogue. It is clear from 2:1-6 and 4:1-3 that the community is at least distracted if not riven with such attitudes and conflicts.

Further, I have argued that the syntax of vv. 9-10 requires that we read James’ exhortation to the rich as addressed to the rich believer. While the poor may rejoice in that they have been exalted, the wealthy are given arguably the more difficult task: to rejoice in their humiliation. James is using dialectical language to set forth the inherent tension the believer experiences. On the one hand the social and financial reality of each group remains unchanged with respect to their position in the broader society. On the other hand, James envisages a day when there shall occur a “great reversal” in the fortunes of the poor and the rich whereby the poor will be exalted in reality, and the rich, especially those who have acted unjustly (5:1-6), will be humbled.

James’ words echo a theme common in the Jewish tradition and which also found expression in the teaching of Jesus, especially the Lukan version of the beatitudes (Luke 6:20-26). Here Jesus looks forward to the eschatological dénouement in which the great reversal will take place. Mary, too, celebrates this hope in her prophetic song, although now the reversal is spoken of as already fulfilled:

He has done mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble (tapeinos). He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty-handed (Luke 1:51-53).

(Scot McKnight (96) rightly draws attention to the impact Mary had on the fledging Christian community through her two sons.)

Thus, James’ eschatological horizon provides the grounds for why both the poor and the rich might rejoice. The poor look forward to the coming kingdom in which all things will be made right, and the rich likewise rejoice in that they have now discovered that the coming day will not be the terror to them it might otherwise have been. Nevertheless, this exaltation and humiliation are not simply eschatological, for already the poor are exalted, and already the rich are humbled. What might this mean, since it is evident that their socio-economic status remains unchanged?

Here James’ dialectic has a new twist: a social reversal has occurred – in the church. Although future in itself, the great reversal issues in a radical transformation here and now in one’s own perception of oneself, and in the community. Here and now there is a re-ordering of expectation, of desire, of value, and of relationships on account of the new reality which has arrived in Jesus the Messiah, and which will be enacted in the eschatological judgement. Here and now the poor are welcomed as honoured, indeed, primary members of the kingdom community. Here and now the rich embrace humiliation, precisely by entering into solidarity with the poor and despised Jesus followers. The Christian community enacts on the historical level the hope to be realised in the kingdom of God. It is becoming a community in which one’s identity is founded, not on one’s socio-economic status, but on one’s status in Christ. A trans-valuation has occurred with the values and priorities of the earthly city giving way to the values and priorities of the heavenly city. James has a vision of the eschatological kingdom which exists not only in the future, but impinges upon the present, and presses toward expression in the community of God’s people, here and now.


Ignatius of Loyola on Unity

Ignatius of LoyolaI liked this quote when I came across it recently during my devotional time. It is a little neo-Platonic, perhaps, but full of godly exhortation for all that!

“The most wonderful thing is unity with Jesus and with the Father. In him we shall partake in God if we firmly resist and flee all the arrogant attacks of the prince of this world. Unity of prayer, unity of supplication, unity of mind, unity of expectancy in love and in blameless joy: this is Jesus Christ and there is nothing greater than he. Flock together, all of you, as to one temple of God, as to one altar, to one Jesus Christ, who proceeded from the one Father, who is in the one and returned to the one.”

Ignatius of Loyola, cited in Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, 443f.

Bruce McCormack on Chalcedonian Christology

council-of-chalcedonThe Council of Chalcedon in 451 is one of the milestones of Christian theology where the church sought to understand the relation between the deity and the humanity of Jesus Christ. In its famous Definition, the Council affirmed its faith as follows:

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach people to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence , not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten God , the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.

Bruce McCormack unpacks the achievement and significance of the christology of Chalcedon as “two natures in one person,” with the person being identified as God. He depicts the form as Chalcedonian christology as follows:

The diagram shows that the two        McCormack - Chalcedon Christology 1
natures coming together to form the
one person, but that person is  identified with the person of the Logos. As such, the Logos is the acting subject of the union and the human nature of Jesus, although real, plays no active role in the work of Christ.[1]

The main problem, for McCormack, is that Chalcedon remains ambiguous, open to both Apollinarian and Nestorian distortions. One the one hand, the Alexandrian christology which won the day at Chalcedon, while rejecting Apollinarianism, still proposed a way of understanding the person of Christ in which the Logos was the acting subject, and the humanity of Jesus a passive instrument in his hands.

The heart of [Apollinarian Christology] lay rather in…the drive to understand the Logos as the ruling principle of Christ’s human nature. Apollinarius’s own way of achieving that end—through the notion that the Logos simply takes the place of the human mind (nous)—was rather crude. A more sophisticated way of achieving the same goal would be through the affirmation of a “communication” between the divine nature and the human nature such that it becomes reasonable to think of the Logos as acting upon his human nature. In both cases, the human nature is reduced to the status of a passive instrument in the hands of the Logos; it is the object upon which the Logos acts. Against this tendency it has to be said that if the mind and will that are proper to Christ’s human nature do not cooperate fully and freely in every work of the God-human, then Christ’s humanity was not full and complete after all.[2]

On the other side, theologians for centuries have divided between the natures—in opposition to Chalcedon—parcelling out the work of Christ in such a way that some work is attributed to the divine nature and some to the human nature. This means for McCormack that “the ‘natures’ were made ‘subjects’ in their own right. The singularity of the subject of these natures was lost to view—and with that, the unity of the work.”[3] The reason for this widespread tendency is the hold that the concept of divine immutability has had on theology since ancient times. “It was unthinkable for the ancients that God could suffer and die. Only a human was believed able to do that. Confronted by theopaschitism, even the most Cyriline theologian often turns into a Nestorian.”[4]

However contrary they are with respect to their results, both of the tendencies we have examined—the tendency toward Apollinarianism resident in the thought that the Logos is the operative agent who achieves redemption in and through his human nature, as well as the tendency toward Nestorianism generated by the flight from a mutable God—have the same source. Their source is a process of thought that abstracts the Logos from his human nature in order, by turns, now to make of the human nature something to be acted upon by the Logos and now to make of that nature a subject in its own right in order to seal the Logos off hermetically from all that befalls that human nature from without. In both cases, the Logos is abstracted from the human nature he assumed…[5]

That is, the subject of the person of Jesus is understood as the Logos, rather than the God-human in his divine-human unity. Thus McCormack proposes a different way to understand the person of Jesus Christ:

In this portrayal, the person stands outside   McCormack - Chalcedon Christology 2
and above the two natures as it were,
so the person is not aligned with the Logos,
but with the man Jesus Christ in his
divine-human unity. The arrow indicates
that there is a communication to the divine nature of that which belongs to the human nature. That is, the acts and experiences of the human nature are also experienced by the Logos in his union with the human nature, so that as Jesus suffers and dies, he does not do simply simply in his human nature, as such. Jesus Christ in his divine-human unity suffers and dies, and the Logos experiences this suffering and death instead of being sheltered from it. In this way suffering and death are taken up into the very life of God so that God takes upon himself in the person of the Incarnate, the suffering and death that properly belongs to humanity.


[1] McCormack, Bruce L., “The Ontological Presuppositions of Barth’s Doctrine of Atonement,” in The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Theological & Practical Perspectives, ed. Hill, Charles E. & Frank A. James, (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004), 350.

[2] McCormack, “Ontological Presuppositions,” 352-353.

[3] McCormack, “Ontological Presuppositions,” 354.

[4] McCormack, “Ontological Presuppositions,” 355.

[5] McCormack, “Ontological Presuppositions,” 355.

Bruce McCormack on Modern Christology

“Colorful Jesus Painting”

“The Person of Christ” in Kapic & McCormack (eds), Mapping Modern Theology, 149-173.

McCormack introduces his essay on the Person of Christ by noting that the doctrine of the person of Christ has to do with the ontological constitution of the mediator as divine and human. This duality of Jesus’ being has its roots in Scripture, and led to ancient debates culminating in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon. Here the essential parameters of the doctrine were set: the union of two natures—divine and human—in the one person, Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Chalcedon did not fully settle the christological questions. The relation of the two natures to one another, and the identification of the Subject of the person’s activity continued to arise in the history of the church as matters of controversy. For example, in the seventh-century, the church debated whether, in fact, Jesus had two wills. The Sixth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople III, 681) concluded that he did, the human will functioning as any other human will, though always in agreement with the will of the Logos. The sacramental dispute between Lutheran and Reformed theologians in the Reformation period revolved around whether the attributes of the one nature may be applied to the other nature, or whether the attributes of each nature should more properly be attributed to the person of Christ. For example, may we say that Jesus’ humanity is omnipresent or that God can die? Or would we better apply these various attributes to the person of Jesus in his unique divine-human unity?

In the modern period, a growing awareness of human self-consciousness and development posed sharp questions to Chalcedon. Cyril of Alexandria had portrayed Jesus’ humanity as static, almost an inert instrument of the Logos who was the acting Subject of the man Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Constantinople III affirmed that each nature possessed its own mind and will. In 1848, then, David Friedrich Strauss argued that this must mean that Jesus was possessed of two personalities, one infinite and one finite. If this was so, it must inevitably mean that Jesus’ divine nature overwhelms his human nature with the result that his humanity differs from ours. Is Jesus fully and genuinely human? This modern concern is one that McCormack shares.

McCormack identifies the Friedrich Schleiermacher and Georg Hegel as the two men who set the agenda for modern christology. Schleiermacher conceived of God in classic terms of an absolute and omnipotent God standing outside the created order. Nevertheless God’s activity is directed toward the world as a continual causative power, guiding and sustaining the ‘system of nature’ as a whole. God’s whole creational and providential purpose finds its climax and goal in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is perfectly open to God and so possesses a perfect God-consciousness. So powerful is this God-consciousness that he is able to live a sinless life and so become the Redeemer who communicates the power of his own God-consciousness to others. But Schleiermacher is concerned about human development and so in his view, the divine essence unites itself to human nature in the person of Jesus only gradually. This allows room for personality development in the human Jesus, as McCormack notes:

It was only as Jesus’s “higher powers” (reason and will) developed that the uniting activity could produce that redemptive power that would emanate from him to those who came after. To be sure, the uniting activity was present in such a way that it kept him preserved from sin at every point—but always in a manner congruent with his stage of human development.[1]

Because Jesus has a perfect passivity with respect to God’s uniting activity,

he is the replication in human form of the pure activity which God is—an incarnation of God by any other name. And he alone can be this. It is in him alone that the creation of human nature is made complete (in his pure receptivity to God). This is something that can only happen once. Therefore, Christ is utterly unique, and what takes place in him is final (in the sense of being unrepeatable) and universal in its significance.[2]

Hegel, more a philosopher than a theologian, approaches the question very differently. Whereas Schleiermacher clings to classical theism, Hegel’s God is a being-in-becoming, a God who is realising his divine being in and through the processes of world history. God is not a being complete and external to the world. Rather, God is on a journey to become who he is; God requires another to become self-conscious. Thus, God posits another alongside himself, a finite creature, the world, and in the world, a particular finite and personal creature, who is yet identified with God himself: Jesus Christ. Now, God has another over against himself in whom he also recognises himself. This other—Jesus—is separate from God, the opposite of God, and indeed in his suffering and death experiences the very antithesis of all that God is. In Jesus Christ, then, God has created and embraced and experienced the extremity of human alienation, finitude and death, and has taken it into the very life of God, triumphing over it.

The God who identifies himself with the crucified Jesus by raising him from the dead is the God who is made known as Self-sacrificial love, a love that goes to any extreme to be reconciled with the object of his love. And in that all of this is revealed to those who follow Jesus, their knowledge of God is made to be the vehicle of God’s own Self-knowledge. God knows himself in and through their knowledge of him.[3]

Albrecht Ritschl
Albrecht Ritschl

McCormack then goes onto discuss other forms modern christology has taken, including the kenotic christology of Gottfried Thomasius, the moral-historical christology “from below” of Albrecht Ritschl, and the “classical” yet post-metaphysical christology of Karl Barth. McCormack refers to all these christological models as the “basic paradigms” which shape the contours of almost all other modern christologies, including those of Moltmann and Pannenberg, the liberationists and feminists, Walter Kasper and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

McCormack’s essay is typically thorough, learned and well worth reading. Yet a significant question can be raised about his treatment of modern christology. McCormack argues that,

Modern Christology was born in a reaction not so much against the theological values that sought expression in and through those categories [of the Chalcedonian formula] as against the categories themselves. We make a huge mistake at the outset if we understand modern Christology as simply a repudiation of the dogma of the church. Initially, at least, it was anything but that. … The modern period saw a transformation in the categories employed to explain the basic values that came to expression in the formula, but no abandonment of those values.[4]

McCormack identifies these values very simply in terms of the Chalcedonian formula: Jesus is both divine and human in one person. By limiting the theological values of Chalcedon and the broader ancient tradition in this fashion he can suggest that Schleiermacher, Hegel and Ritschl are, to some extent at least, “orthodox” in a Chalcedonian sense. He is, of course, certainly aware that this is a problematic suggestion and acknowledges with respect to Schleiermacher and Hegel,

For both, the triunity of God is the consequence of the divine act of relating to the world in Christ and through the church. The Trinity is an eschatological rather than a protological reality. And that means, as Schleiermacher put it, God is not differentiated in himself in independence of his union with Christ and with the church.[5]

Surely this is a fatal departure from ancient theological values in which God is eternally the triune God, and Christ and the Spirit are eternal God. Why, then, has McCormack argued thus?

[1] McCormack, “The Person of Christ,” 159.

[2] McCormack, “The Person of Christ,” 160, original emphasis.

[3] McCormack, “The Person of Christ,” 162.

[4] McCormack, “The Person of Christ,” 150-151, 157.

[5] McCormack, “The Person of Christ,” 163.

Bruce McCormack on Barth’s Doctrine of Election

Bruce McCormack“Grace and Being: The Role of God’s Gracious Election in Karl Barth’s Theological Ontology” in McCormack, B.L., Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, 183-200.

This was the article that started what has become a debate if not a furore, in Barth studies. In his essay McCormack not only sketched the primary outlines of Barth’s doctrine of election but registered ‘a critical correction against Barth,’ aiming to remove what he viewed as an inconsistency in Barth’s thought.[1] To understand what this critical correction is, it is necessary to briefly trace McCormack’s argument in the essay.

McCormack begins by correctly asserting that Barth’s revision of Calvin’s version of the doctrine has more to do with the doctrine of God than with the question of who belongs amongst the elect, although Barth does indeed replace Calvin’s double predestination with a universal election. Barth asks who the predestining God is, and more fundamentally, how it is possible that God could become human without introducing a rift into the very being of God. He addresses both questions by positing Jesus Christ as the subject of election: the God who elects is none other than the God revealed in the person and history of Jesus of Nazareth. From all eternity God self-determined to be God for us, God who became human in history in the person of Jesus Christ, and who, through his human experience of death, took death itself into the very life of God in order to triumph over it and deliver all humanity from its power. Because election is an eternal decision of self-determination, God’s being is unchanged by the incarnation and crucifixion. That is, God is in himself and from all eternity, what he became in time in the person of Jesus Christ:

God does not cease to be God in becoming incarnate and dying in this way. God takes this human experience into his own life and extinguishes its power over us. But God is not changed on an ontological level by this experience for the simple reason that God’s being, from eternity, is determined as a being-for this event.[2]

As stated, Barth’s intent in formulating his doctrine in this way, was to identify the electing God. God is not an absolute and hidden despot who has for reasons beyond human comprehension, divided humanity into those elect and those reprobate. Rather, the electing God is Jesus Christ whom we encounter in the history of redemption. God’s election is not a twofold division of humanity in eternity, but a covenant of grace whereby God takes upon himself the wrath that ought to have fallen on humanity in order to be gracious to us in Christ.

Thus far McCormack has accurately reported the intent and content of Barth’s doctrine. But McCormack wants to go further, and to suggest that the divine decision of election is constitutive of the divine being. Initially, he argues as follows:

In what sense, then, is the incarnation of the “Son” and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit “constitutive” of the eternal being of God? In this sense only: as a consequence of the primal decision in which God assigned to himself the being he would have throughout eternity (a being-for the human race), God is already in pretemporal eternity—by way of anticipation—that which God would become in time.[3]

If one considers the decision of election as an eternal self-determination, then one can understand McCormack’s point in this citation. Because there is no before and after in eternity, God’s eternal decision has no before and after, so that God is, was, and always will be the God he determined to be in this primal decision. Further, because God determined to be God in relation with humanity, to become human, to dwell within human persons, these determinations which would become actuality in time and place, are already actual—by way of anticipation—in the eternal being of God.

It is at this point that McCormack introduces his innovative proposal:

Throughout the exposition provided above, an unarticulated question hovered in the immediate background…what is the logical relation of God’s gracious election to the triunity of God? … It should be noted that Barth never put the question to himself in this precise form… Logically, his mature view of election would have required the retraction of certain of his earlier claims about the relation of revelation and triunity, finding in them a far too open door to the kind of speculation his mature doctrine of election sought to eliminate. … Of course, it would always remain true for Barth that God is triune in himself (in pretemporal eternity) and not just in his historical revelation. Were God triune only in his revelation, the immanent Trinity would collapse into the economic Trinity. But that God is triune for the sake of his revelation? How could Barth deny this without positing a mode of existence in God above and prior to God’s gracious election—the very thing he accused Calvin of having done?[4]

McCormack insists that Barth’s mature christology, grounded in his doctrine of election, and developed subsequently to his doctrine of the Trinity, requires a change in his doctrine of the Trinity. In this citation, McCormack goes “beyond” Barth, suggesting that “God is triune for the sake of his revelation.” This appears to suggest that God’s triunity is incidental to his essential being, but this is not what McCormack means. He spells it out more clearly as follows:

These commitments require that we see the triunity of God, logically, as a function of divine election. Expressed more exactly: the eternal act of Self-differentiation in which God is God “a second time in a very different way” (CD I/1: 316, 324) and a third time as well is given in the eternal act in which God elects himself for the human race. The decision for the covenant of grace is the ground of God’s triunity and therefore of the eternal generation of the Son and the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son. In other words, the works of God ad intra (the trinitarian processions) find their ground in the first of the works of God ad extra (viz., election). And this also means that eternal generation and eternal procession are willed by God; they are not natural to God if “natural” is taken to mean a determination of being which is fixed in advance of all actions and relations.[5]

It is now evident why McCormack’s proposal has generated intense discussion amongst Barth scholars. First, he goes beyond what Barth said and continued to say into his late career. Second, his proposal appears illogical: how can God’s decision be constitutive of God’s being, in the sense of being its ground? Surely God must be prior to his decision? Third, if God’s decision issues in the eternal missions of the Son and the Spirit, then does God as a monad somehow precede God as triune, despite the rhetoric of it being an eternal decision? Care is needed here, for McCormack takes pains to reiterate time and again that he is speaking of a logical relation that has nothing to do with temporal categories. Nevertheless, the questions must be put and have been put to McCormack, who has also risen to the challenge of defending his proposal against his critics. How successfully he has done so remains to be seen.


[1] McCormack, Bruce L. “Grace and Being: The Role of God’s Gracious Election in Karl Barth’s Theological Ontology.” In Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, 183-200. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008: 193. (Originally published in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth (ed. John Webster; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 92-110.

[2] McCormack, “Grace and Being,” 189.

[3] McCormack, “Grace and Being,” 191, original emphasis.

[4] McCormack, “Grace and Being,” 192-193, original emphasis.

[5] McCormack, “Grace and Being,” 194, original emphasis.

A Sunday Prayer

a-beautiful-Dragonfly-resizecrop--Eternal God and Father, by whose power we are created and by whose love we are redeemed: guide and strengthen us by your Spirit, that we may give ourselves to your service, and live this day in love to one another and to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(From: An Australian Prayer Book, 89)

Bruce McCormack on ‘Modern’ Theology

JacobWrestlingAngelBruce McCormack asks what constitutes and characterises modern theology as ‘modern,’ as opposed to ancient theology. He considers this question in two introductions: first to his Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, and second in Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction. In the first introduction, McCormack argues,

The conviction I came to at that time is one I still hold today: that it was the rise of ‘historical consciousness’—by which I mean the awareness that all human thinking is conditioned by historical (and cultural) location—that was most basic to the emergence of what we tend to think of as ‘modern’ theology today (10-11).

McCormack identifies two preconditions necessary for the emergence of historical consciousness in German culture: Kant’s limitation of what may be known by the theoretical reason in phenomenal reality, and second, the emergence of early romanticism in Herder and Hamann. “It was the confluence of these two developments especially which brought an end to Enlightenment rationalism and made possible the first truly modern theologies” (11). McCormack goes on to identify the features which characterise modern theology:

Beyond the historicizing tendencies unleashed by the rise of historical consciousness, any truly ‘modern’ theology will also include the following: an acceptance, in principle at the very least, of critical methods for studying the Bible; a recognition of the loss of respect among philosophers for classical metaphysics in all of their (Greek) forms; the recognition of the breakdown of the old Aristotelian-biblical cosmology in the course of the seventeenth century; and acceptance of the necessity of constructing doctrines of creation and providence which find their ground in more modern theological and/or philosophical resources.

Negotiable elements (i.e. those found in some ‘modern’ theologians but certainly not in all) include the following: a relatively positive stance towards evolutionary science…; nonfoundationalism, and opposition to natural theology (11).

In the second introduction McCormack covers much of the same ground though with a little more detail and discussion. Here he speaks of three defining moments in the move toward modern theology:

  1. The Rise of Science and its challenge to traditional orthodoxy, especially in the field of creation. Traditional theological authorities, especially Scripture, could no longer be taken at face value, but required interpretation in the light of new knowledge and new realities.
  2. The Rise of Critical Philosophy and its challenge to our knowledge of God. Kant’s dualist epistemology meant that God could not be known. Enter Hegel, whose speculative theological philosophy brought God back into knowledge, but understood now in personalist terms as an infinite Subject rather than in terms of classical metaphysics as an infinite Substance.
  3. Given God’s personal subjectivity, revelation came to be understood in terms of personal self-disclosure rather than the communication of information, and Scripture as a witness to revelation, as revelation only in a secondary and derivative sense.

As a result of these defining moments, modern theology either accommodates its interpretation of Scripture to knowledge gained elsewhere, or mediates traditional theological values in entirely new forms. It puts aside classical metaphysics and theism, and seeks to understand God and the God-world relation in new ways. It embraces biblical criticism as a matter of principle, while not necessarily affirming every form of criticism.

McCormack notes that not all theology done in modernity is actually ‘modern.’ It is only characterised as modern if it shares these modern commitments. Nor is a return to pre-modern theology desirable or legitimate, for the modern challenge has arisen precisely because of problems inherent in classical thought. McCormack therefore approves these three moves and obviously wants to be a ‘modern theologian’ in this sense, but is also very aware that these three commitments have often led modern theologians in unbiblical, unorthodox directions. His intent is to be a modern theologian, but within the orbit of biblical orthodoxy. Has he managed to walk this fine line?

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:11

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:11
For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.

Verse eleven extends the natural image James uses, and also sharpens his warning, generalising the fate which awaits the rich and thereby intensifying his warning to the wealthy believer in particular.

The fate of the wildflowers in the field was proverbial, with Jesus also using this image in his teaching (Matthew 6:28-30). Here today and gone tomorrow, the image speaks of the fragility and transience of life (Zerwick & Grosvenor, 691). Although James has a different purpose to that of Jesus, the image is similar. In the morning the flowers of the field spring up and flourish and yet by evening, they have fallen under the blistering assault of the sun and its heat (cf. Psalm 90:5-6). The word translated ‘heat’ in the NRSV (kausōni) literally means scorching wind (NASB) and may have Jonah 4:8 in the background, where God appointed with the sun a ‘scorching east wind’ to assail Jonah so that he despaired of life.

Vlachos makes the helpful observation that the four aorist verbs in this verse are all linked with kai (and), which provides a rhythmic pulse: aneteilen … kai exēranen … kai … exepesen kai … apōleto (i.e., risen … and withers … and … falls and … perishes). He suggests that this rhythmic pulse emphasises the cause and effect relation between each of the verbs, as well as the inevitability and swiftness of the action (35). The rising sun will inevitably wither the grass so that its flower falls from the stem and so perishes on the ground.

The NRSV translates kai hē euprepeia tou prosōpou autou apōleto as ‘and its beauty perishes.’ Literally the phrase is ‘and the beauty of its face perishes.’ The NASB translates as ‘the beauty of its appearance is destroyed,’ thus retaining the genitive, but losing the personification of the image (‘its beautiful face is destroyed’), and its resulting power when applied to the rich person (cf. 2:1).

The final phrase returns to the rich person (ho plousios) and so hints that verses 10-11 may be read as a chiasm:

A – The rich…
B – The flower of the field…
B1 – The flower of the field…
A1 – The rich…

Just as the flowers of the field will wither, fall and perish, so the rich person will ‘wither away’ (maranthēsetai) in the midst of their ‘busy life’ (en tais poreiais autou). Marainō appears only here in this form in the New Testament. Typically the word is used to refer to the withering of plants or the death of humans, usually in the sense of a gradual fading or wasting away (Vlachos, 36; Davids, 78). Poreia means journey’ or ‘way of life,’ so that some commentators link this text to 4:13-17 and suggest that the rich person is a travelling merchant who will meet their end in the midst of their business trips (so Vlachos, 36, and McKnight, 103). Davids (78) suggests this is stretching the phrase and the context too far, and prefers a more generic reference to their ‘way of life.’ In both readings, however, it is notable that the demise of the rich is described in historical rather than eschatological terms, and so again, is suggestive that the rich person is to consider their life in the light of their own mortality and its implications.