Monthly Archives: April 2015

Two Articles on Sexual Ethics

gay_liberation_monument_manhattan - Sculpture by George Segal
gay_liberation_monument_manhattan – Sculpture by George Segal

Two interesting articles over at First Things. What is of interest to me in both articles is the question of what constitutes marriage, and more fundamentally, what the “good” of marriage is.

The first article (“Sex and Danger at UVA”) is a response by two senior academics to the University of Virginia’s response to the now discredited Rolling Stone article of December 2014 which reported on a supposed gang rape and rape culture at the University. The article argues that the University is complicit in the development of a destructive culture of sexual practice that is harmful, especially to women. The article navigates the difficult relationship between women’s choice, which the authors want to affirm, and the (quaint-sounding?) idea that women must be protected from rapacious attitudes, practices and environments which is the main burden of the essay. Their argument hangs on the implicit idea that the political culture based on rights and freedom is insufficient to secure the kinds of relationships between the sexes which are mutually beneficial and honouring. Habits, practices and structures which help form virtuous patterns of character and interaction are required.

The second article by Peter Leithart (“The Failure of Gay Marriage”) questions what gay marriage will do to marriage itself, and suggests that its impact will be negative. However, he does not assign the blame for this to the gay community. Rather, it is the result of heterosexual attitudes adopted decades ago which value marriage primarily as a romantic attachment.

“The whole set of fundamental, irrational assumptions that make marriage such a burden and such a civilizing force can easily be undone.” This is a powerful argument, but doesn’t give sufficient weight to a point that Schulman acknowledges early on: The fact that “romantic marriage” was invented by heterosexuals, and the detachment of sex from marriage and marriage from kinship was accomplished long before anyone began seriously proposing gay marriage. Gay marriage may further damage marriage; but heterosexuals damaged marriage nearly beyond recognition all on our own.

A Wonderful Resource: The Wheaton Theology Conference

Jesus SculptureThis year’s Wheaton Theology Conference, was conducted just a couple of weeks ago. The theme this year was The Image of God in an Image Driven Age. The audio and video are not on their website yet, but hopefully they will appear before too long. As usual, the list of speakers includes some newcomers as well as seasoned scholars with distinguished careers.

For several years now, one of my favourite resources has been to download the audio lectures from the Wheaton Theology Conference and listen to them over and over as I walk or cycle. The quality of the lecture series is excellent, with well-regarded scholars bringing high-quality content.  My favourite series so far are the series on Bonhoeffer and Life in the Spirit. But there are excellent lectures/essays in all the series.

I also collect the books, which are published about a year later.  I have about nine of the series in published format. The books go back further than the audio available, and Vose library has copies of the books that go back probably to the beginning of the series – more than twenty years now.

Whether via the books, the audio or the video, you will encouraged, inspired and challenged by this wonderful resource.

Scripture on Sunday – Mark 10:51

BlindBartimaeusMark 10:51
And answering, Jesus said, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Aside from all the literary and symbolic significance of this little story within Mark’s overarching narrative, this is a wonderful miracle story, as well as an amazing statement from the lips of Jesus.

Bartimaeus was a hopeless case: blind, poverty-stricken, socially isolated. But he had obviously heard of Jesus and cried out for mercy, ignoring and resisting all attempts to silence him. He pushed through the crowd and gained the ear of Jesus who called for him and asked this amazing question: What do you want me to do for you? After healing him, Jesus said, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.”

In fact, it was God’s power operative in and through Jesus that made him well. But Jesus said it was his faith that made him well. His faith.

This verse, like many others in the gospel of Mark, is a great challenge and a great encouragement. For Mark, faith is the fruit of hopelessness and desperation, a turning to Jesus as to one’s only hope. Yet faith has a potential far beyond what we could ever imagine: Fear not! Believe only!

What is the character of Bartimaeus’ faith, at least as it is presented to us in this story? By far the most important feature is the object of his faith: Jesus. We could, however, speak also of his single-minded focus and determination, and his persistence. The nature of his faith is also indicated in his action once healed. Whereas Jesus told him to “go his way,” Bartimaeus “followed him on the way.” He chose Jesus’ way rather than his own way. Jesus was “on the way” to Jerusalem, to Calvary, and to death; and Bartimaeus followed. Some people want faith in the same way they want a tool: to get a particular job done and then put the tool away. Bartimaeus’ faith drew him into a life of following Jesus in the way of the cross.

For me, the astonishing feature of the story is Jesus’ incredible question: What do you want me to do for you? Is this question only for Bartimaeus? Might it also be for those who cry out to Jesus in their need and determine in their hearts to “follow him on the way”? Nevertheless the question is too big for me: what could I possibly ask? And yet, Jesus asked it as a simple question and Bartimaeus gave him a simple and very specific answer.

What do you want me to do for you?
How might you answer?

Why Study Theology?

The Evangelist St. Matthew with his symbol, the angel (The National Library of the Netherlands)
The Evangelist St. Matthew with his symbol, the angel (The National Library of the Netherlands)

I found the link to this story which appeared a couple of years ago in The Atlantic on the ACT website. Entitled “Study Theology Even if You Don’t Believe in God,” it argues that theology is still the “Queen of the Humanities” because “theology is the closest thing we have at the moment to the kind of general study of all aspects of human culture that was once very common, but is now quite rare.”

To study theology well requires not faith, but empathy. If history and comparative religion alike offer us perspective on world events from the “outside,” the study of theology offers us a chance to study those same events “from within”: an opportunity to get inside the heads of those whose beliefs and choices shaped so much of our history, and who—in the world outside the ivory tower—still shape plenty of the world today.

I do not agree that one can study theology well without faith. Without faith, I think theology devolves to religious studies rather than theology. But here I am showing my bias. Her central point, I think, still stands, all the more in a world where the humanities are marginalised in favour of other more robust and ever-so-practical disciplines, such as business, law, and the sciences. I am all for business, law and the sciences, but I fear the loss of the humanities threatens us with the loss of our humanity. While instrumental reason can effect vast changes in our understanding and utilisation of the world and its resources, it may do so at the expense of those very factors which constitute us as truly human. According to, instrumental rationality is the dominant mode of thought in the industrialised world, and works by reducing all factors in any situation to “variables to be controlled.” Such reductionism sounds somewhat like the unjust judge of Jesus’ parable: “I fear not God nor respect man.”

Theology protests such reductionism by insisting that humanity is created in the image of God, to serve as a steward in God’s creation, ordering all things to God’s good purposes. Theology reflects upon the nature, origin and destiny of humanity and the human community within the orders of creation and redemption. Such reflections serve to limit human greed and hubris, and so the uses toward which instrumental reason may be devoted. The study of theology can serve as a bulwark against the dehumanising features of modern technological society, helping us retain a vision of what it means to be human, instead of seeking to be gods.

Karl Barth, “The Gift of Freedom” Pt. 2

hercules-at-the-crossroads-4226Last week I posted the first part of this summary/reflection on Barth’s essay here.

Christian freedom—and therefore according to Barth, human freedom—is not simply the human capacity to choose between alternatives, nor a vision of the autonomous person standing aloof from all other circumstances, powers and persons. True freedom is not freedom from, but freedom for. It is not realised in solitary detachment from others, but only in encounter and communion with them. It is not the power to assert one’s own desire and will, and so to preserve, justify and therefore save oneself. Rather, true freedom and thus true humanity consists in joyful obedience and thankful response to God.

Human freedom is freedom only within the limitations of God’s own freedom. … It awakens the receiver to true selfhood and new life. It is a gift from God, from the source of all goodness … Through this gift man who was irretrievably separated and alienated from God is called into discipleship. This is why freedom is joy! … Freedom is the joy whereby man acknowledges and confesses this divine election by willing, deciding, and determining himself to be the echo and mirror of the divine act.[1]

Freedom, for Barth, is not autonomy, but precisely its opposite: dependence upon God. It consists not in isolation from God but in being bound to God, in relation with God, and in correspondence to the divine way of being revealed in Jesus Christ. In this relation we are set free to be and become truly human: God’s creature, God’s partner, God’s child. These three categories of human being and freedom correspond to God’s relation to humanity as creator, reconciler and redeemer. As God’s creature we are freed to be truly human, living in dependence upon the gracious God, and in right relation with others. As God’s partner we are freed to echo God’s Yes and God’s No in our own decision and act, and so live a life of faith and love as a pilgrim and witness to the reality of God and the freedom God gives. As God’s child we are freed to live in this fallen and darkened world according to hope in the as yet unseen future which will be ours through God’s promise. On the basis of this promise we are freed to live toward this future, to pray, to work and ultimately to die. “A Christian is one who makes use of this freedom to pray and to live in the hope of the end which will be the revelation of the beginning.”[2] Freedom, in Barth’s vision, is the gift from God by which unfree and enslaved humanity is set free for the service of thankful obedience, for participation in the causa Dei, for the joy and hope of being God’s child both here and hereafter.

In the third section of the lecture Barth addresses the nature of “evangelical ethics.” A person does the good when she obeys the divine command implicit in the gift of freedom, and with which she is confronted in every new moment. The divine command is the immediate encounter between God and the human agent. God does not deal with us through the intermediary of a rule, a principle, a natural law, reason, conscience, or even the Bible. Certainly ethical reflection, pastoral exhortation, brotherly admonition, study and doctrine are all appropriate as preliminary words, but none of these in and of themselves constitute the divine command. The final word belongs to God in the moment of encounter with the free human agent. Ethics, therefore, may search for and point toward the will of God as it has been revealed and known in different times, places and circumstances. Its task, however, can never be to mediate the divine command, to take the place of God, of human freedom, of the encounter between the two; that is, it can never become a law.

Ethics according to our assumptions can only be evangelical ethics. The question of good and evil is never answered by man’s pointing to the authoritative Word of God in terms of a set of rules. It is never discovered by man or imposed on the self and others as a code of good and evil actions, a sort of yardstick of what is good and evil. Holy Scripture defies being forced into a set of rules; it is a mistake to use it as such. The ethicist cannot take the place either of the free God or of the free man, even less of both together.[3]

The task of ethics, therefore, is to remind us of and direct us to our responsibility before God. It emphasises the reality and conditioning of human existence. It may offer provisional conclusions and conditional imperatives but will leave the pronouncement of unconditional imperatives to God.[4]

Ethics is reflection upon what man is required to do in and with the gift of freedom. The ethicist should not want to attempt too little either. He must want to realize his calling and his talents. It is not enough to insist that human life is to be lived under the divine imperative. Ethical reflection must go further and ask the question to what extent this is so. Neither the freedom of God’s commandment nor that of man’s obedience is an empty form. Human action takes place at the point of contact between these two spheres of freedom. Each of these is characterised by its own content, tone, and extent. Ethical reflection has to concentrate upon these. It has to begin with the recognition that the free God is the free man’s Lord, Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer, and that free man is God’s creature, partner, and child. This insight will be gained at the very source of Christian thinking, in Holy Scripture, where ethical reflection will also renew, sharpen, and correct its findings in continuous searching. In addition, ethical reflection may and must consult the Christian community in its past and present history. It must do this in order to be admonished, nourished, enriched, perhaps also stirred and warned, by the use which the fathers and brethren made and still are making of Christian freedom.

Therefore, ethics is not without signposts in its attempt to point to God’s authoritative word of judgment. If it is based on the knowledge of God and of man, it will receive its contour. It will not point to a vacuum, but to the true God, the real man, and the real encounter between them. The ethical quest is and remains a quest and yet is not totally devoid of fulfilment. Indirect as it may be, the quest is a witness to God’s concrete word. Ethical reflection may and must be genuine search and genuine doctrine, genuine because true ethics does not deprive God, its object, of His due power and glory. It leaves the uttering of the essential and final word to God Himself. But it does not shrink away from the preliminary words which are necessary to focus man’s wandering thoughts on the one center where he, himself free, shall hear the word of the free God, the commandment addressed to him, the judgment falling upon him, and the promise waiting for him.[5]

This long citation is very important in understanding Barth’s view of the divine command. The command is not simply equated with the commands of Scripture. Further, many commentators on Barth’s ethics have worried about the possibility of an immediate command coming to each person in each instance of their lives. They worry that human ethical reason is evacuated of any significance, that Barth’s concept is simply irrational, and that actual people are most unlikely to hear such a command in the to-and-froing of their daily existence. This passage makes it clear, however, that the divine command comes not as a bolt out of the blue, nor is it so alien to us as to be unrecognisable. Christian ethics may prepare for the command through reflection on the particular cases and circumstances confronting us; through reflection on Scripture and history, through pastoral exhortation, study, brotherly admonition, etc. But ultimately, ethical existence is the free response the person makes to God in the moment of encounter.

Barth appends a final section to his essay which functions as a sort of illustration or application of his view of freedom specifically with reference to the work of theology. Nevertheless, the categories of thought used here serve to illustrate how the work of ethics also proceeds. He lays out his thought in five points;

  1. Begin at the beginning, that is, in prayer, liturgy and devotion as a response to God’s prior action, especially his revelation in Christ and culminating in the resurrection;
  2. Begin too with Scripture where this revelation is witnessed and heard;
  3. Be free to draw on other frameworks of understanding, other approaches to the issues at hand;
  4. Reflect in dialogue with the church and for the church, drawing in peers, confessions, the fathers, governing authorities, etc.;
  5. Reflect in joyful, critical and free dialogue with other contemporaries, even and especially those with whom you disagree.

When Barth does ethics, he refuses to tell us what to do. Rather he describes in thoroughly theological terms, the moral field in which our existence takes place, and in which we are called to act. The great and central reality of this field is God himself. In him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). In every moment of our lives we are confronted by a reality from beyond ourselves, by which we are addressed, and to whom we are responsible. This “whom” has reached out to us in Jesus Christ and called us to himself. This is evangelical ethics.


[1] Ibid., 78-79.

[2] Ibid., 83.

[3] Ibid., 85, original emphasis.

[4] Ibid., 86.

[5] Ibid., 87-88.

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:27

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:27
 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

James turns now from that form of religion which is worthless and empty, to that “religion which is pure and undefiled before God, the Father” (thrēskeia kathara kai amiantos para tō theō kai patri). The language calls to mind the vison of purity in the Old Testament, and indicates as McKnight (168) notes, the condition and aptness of those who may live in the land or enter the temple, and whose lives exhibit utter fidelity to God and the Torah. In this case, however, it is the religious observance itself rather than the religious person which is described as pure and undefiled. What James has in mind is not the excellence, exuberance or expressiveness of the worship service. Pure religion is not found in flawless performance of religious duties or rituals, but in a life of faithful devotion to God in which God’s values are enacted in our lives. It is wrong to assume that James would do away with religious services of worship, or with formal expressions of devotion. What he insists upon is religious conviction that issues in moral goodness. Here James stands in a direct line deriving from the prophets:

I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies … Take away from me the noise of your songs; … But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:21-24).

“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?” says the Lord; “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts.… I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moon and your appointed feasts, my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. …  Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:11-17; cf. Isaiah 58:1-14; Micah 6:1-8).

James identifies the particular kind of religious practice that God values, desires and accepts in terms of two aspects of God’s righteousness which are to be integrated into the believing community: God’s compassion, and God’s holiness. Or we might say that God’s righteousness and holiness has a social dimension as well as a personal dimension. Some Christian groups emphasise the one side at the expense of the other, but James insists that both sides must be emphasised and nurtured in the Christian community, for both aspects are constitutive of true righteousness and hence of true religious devotion.

Therefore, true religion “is this” (hautē estin): “to visit orphans and widows in their distress” (episkeptesthai orphanous kai chēras en tē thlipsis). Orphans and widows are regularly mentioned in Scripture as those particularly in need of assistance, and God’s people are commanded to care for them not only in view of their need, but in order to embody and enact God’s own care for the vulnerable (see, for example, Exodus 22:22 and Deuteronomy 10:17-18; cf. Deuteronomy 24:17-22; 27:19). God cares for the vulnerable through the care expressed and enacted by his people. In the Old Testament, the basis for this requirement was twofold. Because God cares for the orphan and the widow, so God’s people are to do likewise. Because God had redeemed his people from their own slavery and suffering, now they were to do likewise on behalf of others who suffer and are afflicted. In both testaments “orphans and widows” are a paired category, and exemplify more generally those in need of care (Vlachos, 64), including others who may be vulnerable, or socially and economically marginalised, such as the homeless, the unemployed, the refugee, the frail aged, or the chronically ill.

The particular action James prescribes is that the believer “visit” (episkeptesthai) the afflicted. Here again Vlachos (64) is helpful, noting that the word is used in both testaments of God “visiting” his people in order to rescue them (e.g. Genesis 50:24; Ruth 1:6; Acts 15:14; cf. Luke 1:68, 78; 7:16), and in the New Testament of visiting the sick and imprisoned (Matthew 25:36). Jesus not only taught his followers to visit those in need but also practised such care himself, buttressing his teaching with his example (e.g. Mark 1:29-30; 2:15-17; 5:21-24). Visitation requires personal engagement with the afflicted on their turf, and so also involves a degree of commitment and risk on the part of those who visit, who may be required to leave their own comforts and the safety of their own environment for a time. Note, too, that visitation which pleases the Father is not confined to the community of the believers, although it must also include those within the community. James has already shown that God, the “father of lights” is the universal father and creator, and so God’s compassion extends to all. Finally, Scot McKnight (168-169) notes that episkeptesthai is a cognate of episkopos, the New Testament word for overseer or bishop, and comments on the “sad irony” that so much scholarship concerning church leadership and governance is focussed on issues of authority rather than the pastoral ministry of visitation.

True religion is also characterised as “to keep oneself unstained by the world” (aspilon heauton tērein apo tou kosmou). The apostle Peter uses aspilon to refer to Christ as a “spotless” sacrifice (1 Peter 1:19), where the term is paired with amōmos (“without blemish”) which is used often in the Old Testament with reference to sacrificial offerings (Davids, 103). Though the term can have a cultic reference, here James uses it with a moral sense. Indeed it is arguable that this is what it also means in 1 Peter; that is, Jesus is “without blemish and without spot” in the sense that he is without sin. So, too, the believing community is to remain unstained or unspotted in and despite its interactions with the world. The ministry of visitation will invariably involve the congregation in the life and conditions of the world. So, too, will the responsibilities and engagements of everyday life. The community is not to withdraw or become isolated from the world. But neither can it become the “friend” of the world (James 4:4).

Although the New Testament knows nothing of a metaphysical dualism between God and the world, the sense of a moral dualism is thorough-going, being found especially in Paul and John, as well as here in James. That is, although the world as a natural creation is good and belongs to God the creator, the “world” as a system of human culture and activity is often organised in opposition to the will of God, betraying a disposition toward that which is evil (Davids, 103; cf. Vlachos, 65). It is on this basis that James denies that one can simultaneously be a friend both of God and of the world (4:4). Thus although the community exists in active engagement with the world, there is also an inevitable distance from the world in terms of its cultural values and priorities. This tension surfaces often and in many different forms in the life of the Christian community. In James, it is likely that the kinds of “worldliness” he has in mind concern envy, covetousness and greed which issue in strife, conflict, division and malice (see 1:9-11; 2:1-13; 3:13-16; 4:1-3; 13-17). Nevertheless, all kinds of sin bring forth death (1:14-15), and there can be no doubt that James called his listeners to moral purity in all its forms. True religion involves both generous compassion and moral cleanliness. To keep oneself unstained from the world means to avoid its patterns of thought, and to refrain thinking and acting in accordance with its value system and priorities (Moo, 87).

In verses 26-27, then, James describes true religion in terms of (a) bridling one’s tongue, (b) caring for the afflicted, and (c) maintaining holiness in the midst of the world. In some respects, each of these characteristics is necessary for those who would be “friends of God” (James 4:4). These three aspects of true religion will become his main focus in the remainder of his letter, with chapter three picking up the theme of the tongue, chapter two the necessity of active compassion for the poor, while chapter four calls for humble repentance and holiness.

The Essential Seminary Reading List

woman reading book in front of fire with cat loomingThis one for the bibliophiles amongst us…

Books and Culture blog has recently posted two somewhat interesting posts on books (a hardly surprising topic). First, The Essential Seminary Reading List. I like the opening story as much as the book suggestions, none of which I have actually read. The second post, 20 Books That Are Changing Ministry, surveys some popular evangelical authors for their suggestions. I have read some of these.

Both lists may be faulted, however, for neither includes that most excellent book by moi!

It got me thinking, however, about what I would recommend as essential reading for theological students (note the emphasis here! I am not making these suggestions for those majoring in biblical studies or practical theology, although they too would benefit from these suggestions, I think). Such lists are difficult to make since one can only recommend what one has read, and often what we have read is only a very narrow slice of what is available. My recommendations, therefore, are sometimes more in terms of categories than titles, though I do append a title for each category.

            What books have you found best? Which have informed, challenged, shaped             your life and thought? Leave a comment and let us know!

  1. A large one-volume systematic theology in order to get a comprehensive overview of the field of systematic theology. There are many choices here, but I will recommend either Erickson’s Christian Theology or Grenz’s Theology for the Community of God. Both are Evangelical-Baptist, both quite comprehensive, both widely regarded, both biblically oriented and philosophically aware. Erickson is a more conservative Evangelical, while Grenz was more progressive.
  2. Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction. How could I not include at least one volume by Barth? This was Barth’s “swan-song,” his final series of lectures and concern what it means to actually do theology and more particularly, what it means to be a theologian. The book is accessible and profound, and serves as a great introduction to this modern church father.
  3. Roger Olson, The Story of Christian Theology. Not only is it necessary to gain an overview of the content of the Christian faith, it is also necessary and helpful to gain an understanding of the progress and development of Christian theology through history. Olson provides a very readable narrative which leads the reader through “twenty centuries of tradition and reform.”
  4. A good history of the church. Not only is it necessary to get an overview of the history of theology, but church history itself, for theology never occurs in a vacuum. Rather, it is informed and shaped by the culture and events of the times in which it emerges. Besides, church history is both fun and infuriating, filled with incredible and inspiring characters as well as tragic events, decisions and moments. At Vose, we use Justo González, The Story of Christianity, Vols. 1 & 2, for an engaging and accessible introduction to the topic.
  5. A substantial volume on Christian ethics, especially one dealing with the task of moving from Scripture to ethics. The Christian faith is not simply about knowing or believing: it must be expressed in life. Stassen & Gushee’s Kingdom Ethics or Richard Hays’ The Moral Vision of the New Testament are both an excellent place to start. For those wanting to explore Old Testament ethics, see Chris Wright’s Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. Other, more systematic rather than biblical treatments, can be found in Grenz, The Moral Quest, Thielicke, Theological Ethics Vol. 1, or Ramsay, Basic Christian Ethics.
  6. At least one “classic” from the tradition: Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word, or Augustine’s Confessions, Luther’s The Freedom of the Christian, Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Wesley’s Forty Four Sermons, etc.

Well, that’s a start. These are essentials. Other books that have meant much to me include Barth’s Church Dogmatics – those volumes, at least, which I have read. Hauerwas’ A Community of Character and Hannah’s Child; Eugene Peterson’s Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places; Lois Barrett et al., Treasure in Clay Jars: Patterns in Missional Faithfulness; George Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament; and so the list goes on…

Karl Barth, “The Gift of Freedom” Pt. 1

Hercules at the Crossroads between Virtue and Vice (Annibale Carracci, 1596)

On September 21, 1953 Karl Barth gave an address at a meeting in Bielefeld of the Gesellschaft für Evangelische Theologie (Society for Evangelical Theology). It was published in a little collection of three essays entitled The Humanity of God. I am away from home at the moment and so cannot check Busch to find out what was going on at the time, but there is clear evidence in the lecture that Barth is engaging with some contemporary conversations and issues.

The most important thing to note at the outset is the subtitle of the lecture: “Foundation of Evangelical Ethics.” When Barth uses the term “Evangelical” he is referring to Protestant theology rather than evangelicalism as it is commonly known today. It may be, however, that Barth has in mind evangelical as gospel; what is beyond question, however, is that Barth is arguing for an ecclesial ethics, one specifically for the Christian community, rather than for humanity generally. Indeed, his ethics are possible only as an evangelical ethics and not otherwise.

The lecture progresses in four sections, the final section serving almost as an excursus. Although it seems natural to discuss the seeming reality of human freedom, Barth asks, “Why deny priority to God in the realm of knowing when it is uncontested in the realm of being? If God is the first reality, how can man be the first truth?”[1] Barth insists that beginning with God does not in any way imply the abrogation of human freedom, although some may want to argue the point with him. God’s freedom is not naked sovereignty or bare omnipotence, but relational freedom, the freedom in which God in covenantal grace gave and gives himself to humanity to be humanity’s God. God’s freedom is not freedom from, but freedom for. God is free to determine his own being to be God for us in and through Jesus Christ. God’s freedom was and is expressed in the gospel, and although surely God’s vision and purpose includes all his creatures, God’s particular interest concerns his human creature, indicated in his becoming human in his Son.

The well-known definitions of the essence of God and in particular of His freedom, containing such terms as “wholly other,” “transcendence,” or “non-worldly,” stand in need of thorough clarification if fatal misconceptions of human freedom as well are to be avoided. The above definitions might just as well fit a dead idol. Negative as they are, they most certainly miss the very center of the Christian concept of God, the radiant affirmation of free grace, whereby God bound and committed Himself to man, making Himself in His Son a man of Israel and the brother of all men, appropriating human nature into the unity of his own being.[2]

In the second section of the lecture, Barth turns his attention to human freedom and here his exposition runs entirely counter to modern expectations. Human freedom is indeed the gift of God, grounded in God’s own freedom. But God is not simply the source of human freedom; he is also its object and goal. The natural freedom given to humanity in creation has been lost through sin, by which humanity is alienated from God and self. Humanity does not now know its original freedom, nor indeed what it means to be human.[3] Barth therefore implies that we cannot know what freedom is and entails by phenomenological analysis of human existence and action. We can, of course, understand the human capacity of choice, decision, and action, but this in itself is not freedom.

The concept of freedom as man’s rightful claim and due is equally contradictory and impossible. … Man has no real will power. Nor does he get it by himself. His power lies in receiving and in appropriating God’s gift. … God does not put man into the situation of Hercules at the crossroads. The opposite is true. God frees man from this false situation. He lifts him from appearance to reality. … It would be a strange freedom that would leave man neutral, able equally to choose, decide, and act rightly or wrongly! What kind of power would that be! Man becomes free and is free by choosing, deciding, and determining himself in accordance with the freedom of God. … Trying to escape from being in accord with God’s own freedom is not human freedom. Rather, it is a compulsion wrought by powers of darkness or by man’s own helplessness. Sin as an alternative is not anticipated or included in the freedom given to man by God.[4]

Apart from the gospel, then, humanity is “unfree.” What freedom is can be known only by understanding Christian freedom, that freedom which is given to humanity in Jesus Christ. Barth, echoing Luther, insists that freedom can be understood only in terms of “the freedom of the Christian.”[5]

To Be Continued …

[1] Karl Barth, The Humanity of God, trans., J. N. Thomas & T. Weiser (St. Louis: John Knox, 1960), 70.

[2] Ibid., 72.

[3] Ibid., 80.

[4] Ibid., 76-77.

[5] Ibid., 75, 82.

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:26

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:26
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 

In the final two verses of chapter one, James summarises his discussion in the chapter, brings it to its climax, and also prepares for the major discussion that he will undertake in the next sections of the letter. It is possible that in these verses James identifies the key theme of the chapter, and indeed, of the entire epistle: true religion. The word translated “religion” (thrēskos, adjective, in verse 26a, and thrēskeia, noun, 26b, 27) is used only infrequently in biblical Greek, the adjective (26a) only here. Generally it describes outward expressions of religious devotion and may be used in either a positively (e.g. Acts 26:5) or negatively (e.g. Colossians 2:18). James uses it in both senses in these two verses, negatively in verse 26, while positively in verse 27. While it is unclear what particular expressions of religious devotion James may have in mind in his initial comments, it is likely that he would include such things as prayer, fasting and corporate worship (Davids, 101).

For the third time in this chapter James uses an ei tis construction (“if anyone”; cf. vv. 5, 23). Although his statement is set up as a conditional clause, he probably has an actual situation in mind. In this case, there are, perhaps, some who parade their religious observance and think themselves uncommonly spiritual: “If any think they are religious” (Ei tis dokei thrēskos). The problem, however, is that if these same people fail to “bridle their tongue” (mē kalinagōgōn glōssan autou), they have “deceived their own hearts” (alla apatōn kardian autou) about the true nature of their religious practice: their undisciplined speech subverts and undermines their devotion so that they are not actually “religious” at all.

James, of course, has already raised the use of the tongue in verses 19-21, where we found that he was concerned that some in the congregation were tearing at one another with angry and malicious words. What the believers must learn instead is to “bridle” or “restrain” their tongue. Kalinagōgōn, the word used here (and in 3:2), may have been coined by James for it appears in Greek for the first time in this verse (Davids, 101), and only in these instances in biblical Greek. The participle is in the present tense and so suggests that the persons concerned speak in undisciplined ways at the same time that they consider themselves religious.

Finally, James brings his conditional clause to a devastating conclusion: “their religion is worthless” (toutou mataios hē thrēskeia). Mataios means that something is useless, futile or worthless, and in this statement means that their diligent religious practice produces nothing of value either before God or in their own lives. Their religious practice is empty and perhaps even fraudulent. Just as the one who only hears the Word without doing it is deceived, so the person who practices their religion without disciplining their tongue is deceived. Just as angry speech cannot and does not produce the righteousness of God (v. 19), so religious activities without accompanying works do not produce anything of value or worth. It is the “doer of the work” who is blessed (v. 25), and the first work that James highlights is the difficult work of taming the tongue. True religion, true spirituality requires this discipline.

As we have repeatedly seen in our discussion of James 1, James’ teaching echoes the teaching of Jesus who also emphasised the importance of disciplined speech:

Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgement people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned (Matthew 12:33-37).

Our speech is a truer indication of our heart than our religious practice. The way we speak and use our words reveals the nature, condition and content of the heart. If our heart is filled with vicious anger and malicious intent, it will be betrayed in our speech, and all the religious practice in the world will not cover or disguise the truth of our condition.

Wyndy Corbin Reuschling on Moral Conscience

Wyndy_Corbin-ReuschlingThis semester I have been teaching an introductory unit in Christian ethics and for my undergraduate students, assigned Wyndy Corbin Reuschling’s Reviving Evangelical Ethics as a text. I also required a report on the book to ensure students actually read it! Previously, I have assigned Arthur Holmes’ Approaching Moral Decisions, which is also a good book. Nevertheless, I found Holmes a little conservative and dated in some respects, and felt that Corbin Reuschling had a good contribution to make to the subject. I also want to include some women in my reading lists where an appropriate text is available, to help even up the voices that students are reading and listening to.

Wyndy Corbin Reuschling writes as an evangelical concerned that evangelicals have thinned out their moral reflection, as well as the moral nature of Christian salvation and life because of historical commitments to patterns of piety, and modern commitments to cultural priorities such as pragmatism, personal fulfilment, and ecclesiastical success. Corbin Reuschling surveys the three classic models of ethical reflection—deontology, teleology and virtue ethics—via a discussion of major theorists in each field—Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill and Aristotle. She then explores in quite broad terms how a central aspect of each of these classic models finds expression in evangelical spirituality. The subtle shift from ethics to spirituality is not made overtly, but is probably intentional, and highlights Corbin Reuschling’s conviction that evangelicalism has a “thin” ethics. Thus she insists that spiritual formation is moral formation, and that one cannot be transformed into the image of Christ without an accompanying commitment to the moral and ethical concerns of Jesus.[1] In this vein, she associates deontology with evangelical biblicism, virtue with therapeutic forms of piety, and suggests that evangelical pragmatism might be considered as a kind of “spiritual utilitarianism.” In the final chapter she presents her own constructive proposal in terms of the development of a robust moral conscience, supported by robust Christian community, and a developed competence based in practical wisdom.

Corbin Reuschling begins by distinguishing between an “antecedent” conscience, an idea more at home in Roman Catholic moral philosophy, and a “consequent” or “judicial” conscience, more familiar in Protestantism. An antecedent conscience is simply a conscience developed prior to the ethical moment when one is faced with a dilemma, a choice, or some other ethical challenge. Corbin Reuschling defines conscience as follows:

Conscience is the active integration and use of our abilities to assess moral issues with our passionate moral commitments that reflect the heart of God’s justice with practiced determination to live and act according to our moral convictions. … This begs the necessity for the formation of an “antecedent conscience,” which Charles Curran describes as the capacities and sensitivities we need prior to an action to guide and direct our decisions in order to act according to the orientation that our moral values and sense of goodness give us.[2]

Later in the chapter she also approves van der Ven’s definition of conscience as “considered conviction … developed in and through sustained processes of thought, reflection, discovery, prayer, and dialogue.”[3] Clearly, such a conscience is not innate but rather must be formed. Nor is it private, because one’s conscience is socially mediated. The formation of robust Christian conscience, therefore, requires:

I. A deep and continuing immersion in and reflection on Scripture in order to,

  1. Confront each person and the community with the reality of evil in ourselves and in the world;
  2. Illuminate and motivate us with a renewed moral vision including the church as an alternative community, Christ and his cross as our essential paradigm, and the vision of the kingdom of God as our goal;
  3. Discover rich sources of moral wisdom, especially in the biblical narratives.

II. A community where these narratives are taught, where conscience is formed, where identity is narratively constructed, and where moral discourse and deliberation are encouraged and practised.

III. Skills of practical wisdom (phronesis) leading to moral competence. Practical wisdom includes the skills by which we move from the abstract to the particular, from the conceptual to the concrete, aware of the unique, contingent and open-ended nature of every moral situation. Practical wisdom is the application of “considered convictions” to this particular situation. It involves making moral judgements with reference to norms and values. It takes personal and corporate agency and responsibility seriously, with respect to this

By recovering the idea of conscience and situating its formation and use within the community, Corbin Reuschling retains the sense that each moral agent bears responsibility for their own decisions and actions, without privatising the moral life or to modern evangelical individualism. This unique balancing of the personal and the communal is a significant contribution.

Much more could be said about the book. By and large my students appreciated her moral vision, and the rigor she brought to the study. This, perhaps, is the best commendation I can give the book: they have suggested that I use it again next time I teach the unit.

[1] Wyndy Corbin Reuschling, Reviving Evangelical Ethics: The Promises and Pitfalls of Classic Models of Morality (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2008), 124.

[2] Ibid., 149, original emphasis.

[3] Ibid., 163-164.