Monthly Archives: February 2016

Scripture on Sunday – Exodus 31:1-11

Supermarket WorkerAs I was reading the Bible one morning this week, I had “a moment.” Not a major moment, a life-transforming moment, not a remember-this-for-the-rest-of-my-life-because-God-spoke-to-me moment, not a spiritual experience moment, but a moment nonetheless. The passage I was reading was Exodus 31, where the Lord tells Moses about Bezalel and Oholiab, two master craftsmen who are to take charge in the construction of all that God has commanded Moses to build with respect to the tabernacle and its furniture, as well as the high priest’s garments and accoutrements.

I love these kinds of moments—an “ah-ha” moment, a moment of inspiration or understanding, of fresh vision, of renewed understanding, of seeing something I had not quite seen before in the scriptures. It came simply as an insight or an idea, yet perhaps from the one Spirit who not only inspired the scriptures in ages past but continues to confirm them and speak through them afresh in every generation. The passage tells of God equipping Bezalel with his Spirit. I have heard that this is the first occasion in the Hebrew Bible in which a person has been said to be “filled with the Spirit of God” (v. 3). The whole passage reads,

The Lord spoke to Moses: See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft. Moreover, I have appointed with him Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and I have given skill to all the skilful, so that they may make all that I have commanded you. … They shall do just as I have commanded you.

The question raised by this passage concerns whether this infilling of the Holy Spirit was given to Bezalel specifically for the task of construction of the tabernacle and all that that involved, or whether it was a more general filling which enabled him to become the craftsman he was.

I have always simply assumed that God was equipping Bezalel for this particular task. This view understands the anointing of the Spirit as the empowerment of God’s people for particular forms of service, mainly leadership or prophecy in the Old Testament, or a broader range of activities in the New Testament. In particular, then, this work of the Spirit falls under the redemptive work of the Spirit in the lives of those who are already God’s people.

The “moment” I had last week was a sudden realisation that what we often understand as the innate talents and abilities of a person—which must be developed, honed and trained, to be sure—are, or at least may be, the very specific gifts of the Holy Spirit to each individual. This passage suggests that in the case of Bezalel, Oholiab and “all the skilful,” the very skills that these possess, as well, therefore, as the initial abilities which make such skill development possible, are the gift of the Holy Spirit. This indicates further the creational presence of the Holy Spirit with every person, assuming, legitimately I believe, that every person has some skill, some talent, some orientation or ability which singles them out as gifted and unique. It may be an ability in the realm of mathematics, sports or colours, of abstract thought or mechanics, of music, comedy, baking, or any other innumerable possibilities.

If my meditation has any validity, this verse suggests that

  1. There is no person devoid of the Spirit’s grace in a creational if not a redemptive sense. Given that the divine ruah is the life principle in humanity (see Genesis 2:7; Psalm 104:29-30), there is no person outside of the Spirit’s creational ministry in any case; but this adds an additional layer of meaning to that ministry.
  2. The talents and abilities of people are not simply natural gifts, but gifts of grace given by the creator Spirit. These may be distinguished, of course, from the “spiritual gifts” in passages such as 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, which are special gifts given to members of the body of Christ for evangelism and edification. But they are gracious gifts nonetheless.
  3. God gives these gifts as means by which we might join God in his creative work. Each of the abilities mentioned in the text are creative expressions, intended for the worship, service and glory of God. More broadly, however, they are also the kinds of work which contribute to the common good of the community generally.
  4. Although the text speaks particularly of various crafts, the idea might legitimately be extended to other arts, and to all forms of work which add to the commonwealth.
  5. The gifts, talents and abilities of others are gifts to be welcomed and celebrated as the diverse and empowering grace of the Spirit—with the acknowledgement, of course, that such gifts can be turned in directions never intended by the Spirit.
  6. Our gifts and talents are to be nurtured and developed so that we might become skilful in our work, contributing as best we can as valuable members of our society—though our value as persons can never be reduced to the contribution we are able—or unable—to make.
  7. That our work—when we are using and developing the grace given to us—is divine service and divine stewardship, a means of glorifying God. While we should never worship our work, our work may indeed become worship.

In sum, work is a dignified activity, a means by which we not only express the innate and developed gifts with which we have been endowed, but contribute to the common good and glorify the God who has so graced us. Work, then, as a “structure” within the created order, is to be welcomed and celebrated. Further, if at all possible, our work should be an expression of those particular gifts that we have received. I suspect that then we will not only make a contribution, but will find a degree of satisfaction and joy in our work that may otherwise escape us. This is not always possible in formal employment. If so, perhaps we can find other ways of bringing these gifts to expression in life-affirming, community-building and God-glorifying ways.

The Irrelevant Trinity

Rublev Icon TrinityFred Sanders is correct to argue that the first step in speaking about the trinity is not to establish the relevance of the doctrine.  Rather, he argues for the reality of the immanent Trinity as the presupposition of the gospel, and the ground and origin of divine grace toward humanity and all created things. I particularly like his language of “God…in himself, at home, within the happy land of the Trinity above all worlds…”

The cry in our day always seems to be for a practical doctrine of the Trinity, for relevance, application, and experiential payoff. Indeed, it is true that the doctrine of the Trinity changes everything about Christian life. But the wisest Christian teachers have always known that shortcuts to relevance are self-defeating. In bypassing the deep sources of reality, they not only miss the truth but ultimately deliver less practical benefit. When it comes to the difference that the doctrine of the Trinity can make in our lives, it is crucially important that we begin with a recognition of God in himself before moving on to God for us. What we need to begin with is a profoundly impractical doctrine of the Trinity. With that in place, we can really get something done…

The Trinity isn’t for anything beyond itself, because the Trinity is God. God is God in this way: God’s way of being God is to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit simultaneously from all eternity, perfectly complete in a triune fellowship of love. If we don’t take this as our starting point, everything we say about the practical relevance of the Trinity could lead us to one colossal misunderstanding: thinking of God the Trinity as a means to some other end, as if God were the Trinity in order to make himself useful. But God the Trinity is the end, the goal, the telos, the omega. In himself and without any reference to a created world or the plan of salvation, God is that being who exists as the triune love of the Father for the Son in the unity of the Spirit. The boundless life that God lives in himself, at home, within the happy land of the Trinity above all worlds, is perfect. It is complete, inexhaustively full, and infinitely blessed. (Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God, 95, 62).

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:14-26 (Cont’d)

JamesLast week I paused the verse-by-verse commentary of James in order to provide an orientation to this important section in James’ letter. I will continue these reflections today. Last week we noted that James and Paul use similar terminology in their teaching but with different meanings. If we are to understand the broader message of the New Testament with respect to these matters—faith, works and justification—it is essential to grasp what each of these authors is saying in their own context. A number of commentators insist that James and Paul are not at odds with one another as is sometimes supposed; rather, their respective visions of the Christian life are “complementary not contradictory” (see Moo, 45-46; Newman, “Righteousness” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, 1056).

Behind both Paul and James’ understanding of justification stands the reality of divine judgement—a point raised by James in the verse immediately prior to this section (James 2:13). It is plain that for both James and Paul believers will stand before God at the final judgement. This is the ultimate cosmic context within which all history and every person, including every Christian person, stands. Mark Seifrid, therefore, notes that

No less prominent is the theme of individual judgment according to works (Heb 9:27-28; Rev 1:7; 2:7; 2:23). Each one will be called to give an account for his or her deeds (Heb 4:13; 13:17; 1 Pet 4:5-6). The NT authors are careful to apply the prospect of judgment to Christians themselves. As the judge of all, God will render his verdict impartially. Believers, although they name God as “Father,” must not presume upon grace (1 Pet 1:17-19; Heb 10:30; cf. Jas 2:9). … If the cross has worked a right standing with God for the believer, how is it that the believer must yet face judgment? Between this prospect and the proclamation of forgiveness in Christ stands an irreducible paradox. Yet to a certain extent lines of convergence can be traced. … That is not to say that all uncertainty is removed from the visible community of Christians; otherwise the warnings of judgment would make no sense. The church on earth yet remains under testing. Nevertheless, where saving realities are present they manifest themselves in persevering faith and obedience, which secure the believer in the final judgment (“Judgment” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, 623-624).

What James attacks in this section is a kind of false faith limited to doctrinal correctness, which he warns will not suffice in the day of judgement. To say this, however, is not to say that one’s works are sufficient for justification. James never contemplates the idea that works could exist without faith. Rather, true faith issues in works of perseverance, obedience, faithfulness and mercy with the result that one’s faith is shown to be genuine (Davids, “Faith and Works” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament, 368). In this respect both Paul and James are in agreement.

Why then, is it necessary for James to take this approach in his teaching? Davids suggests that perhaps there is conflict in the community, where some people are refusing to share their resources with others who are needy (Davids, “Faith and Works,” 368). A better proposal, I think, comes from Moo who suggests that James is facing false teachers who are distorting Paul’s teaching of justification, suggesting that one must only “believe” with no further requirement in terms of the outworking of Christian life and service. The verse-by-verse study will provide an opportunity to test Moo’s proposal.

The relevance of James’ teaching today need hardly be questioned. On the one hand, some Christians seem to suggest that Christian faith stands or falls with right-believing, as though the content of one’s belief is what justifies. This is clearly and decisively repudiated by James in this passage. Faith cannot be reduced to right-belief. Certainly our beliefs structure, strengthen and support our faith, but they are not our faith. While sound beliefs are desirable, and wrong beliefs are to be avoided, it is certainly possible to have genuine faith in Jesus even without correct beliefs. Nevertheless, even today there are those who distort Paul’s teaching of grace, perverting the gospel to teach a self-centred and consumerist doctrine. Here the relevance of James’ message is plain.

Others make the opposite mistake and suppose that our works, especially humanitarian works of mercy and justice, are what justify us. The call to mercy and justice found in both the Old and New Testaments is addressed to the community of God’s people, to those who have already come into a saving relationship with God through grace, and who are therefore called to imitate God and express his goodness in the world. Works of justice and mercy are an expression of faith not a replacement for faith. Though Christians must surely give thanks for and support those who participate in such work, they also do well to bear witness to Christ as the source, motivation and goal of all such work.

In the early twentieth-century, Christoph Blumhardt, a German Pietist pastor and Social Democrat member of the German Reichstag (Parliament) was a controversial figure because he refused to allow Christians to become comfortable as bourgeois members of society, insisting rather that faith in Christ must move us to participate in the ongoing work of his kingdom:

Neither in heaven nor on earth is it possible just to settle down comfortably in something through grace and do nothing and care for nobody else. If I am saved by grace, then I am a worker through grace. If I am justified by grace, then through grace I am a worker for justice. If through grace I am placed within the truth, then through grace I am a servant of truth. If through grace I have been placed within peace, then through grace I am a servant of peace for all men. (Blumhardt, “Joy in the Lord,” in Action in Waiting, 66).

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:14-26

James(I know it is late Monday, but I will keep the regular title of this post for continuity’s sake!)

Read James 2:14-26

Before I tackle this passage verse-by-verse, I want to stand back a little to get an overview of some the issues connected with this most central and most controversial of sections in James’ letter. The central message is unambiguous, being repeated three times: “faith without works is dead” (2:26; cf. vv. 17, 20). The issue is not so much understanding what James has said, as it is the apparent conflict between what James says here and what is said in other New Testament texts, especially Paul. A comparison of two key texts sets the issue in stark relief:

James 2:14, 21          
What use is it, brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but he has not works? Can that faith save him? … Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?

Romans 3:28
For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.

The centrality of the doctrine of justification by faith for Luther, and in Protestantism generally, caused Luther famously (or perhaps infamously) to relegate James to the least of the books in the New Testament:

Which are the true and noblest books of the New Testament? … In a word St. John’s Gospel and his first epistle, St. Paul’s epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and salvatory for you to know, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. Therefore St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it (Luther, “Preface to the New Testament” in Lull, T. F. (ed.), Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 116-117).

Many Christians have for centuries followed Luther’s lead, subordinating James to Paul and as a result not hearing James’ distinctive message as clearly as they might. Some modern scholars have suggested that the New Testament documents represent different forms of Christianity; thus Paul’s writings express the faith and experience of a law-free Gentile church, while James expresses the faith and experience of a law-affirming Jewish Christianity (see Moo, 45, who cites as an example, Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, 251-252). The question we face is whether there is a fundamental disjunction between the message of James and that of Paul, with respect to this central issue.

The major part of the problem revolves around the language and imagery used by James, including the key terms faith, works and justified, as well as his use of Abraham as an example of one who is justified on account of his works. Paul uses these same terms in his letters when discussing justification, and also uses Abraham as an example of one who is justified on account of his faith without any works. A careful examination of the passage, however, shows that James and Paul are approaching this topic from different directions and use the same terminology in different senses.

Thus, when Paul speaks of faith, he has in mind personal, whole-of-life commitment and allegiance to Jesus Christ. James, too, can speak of faith in this sense (cf. James 1:3, 6-8; 2:1, 5; 5:15). But in this passage, James is speaking of “faith” in an entirely different sense: he is speaking of one who claims to have faith, probably understood in the sense of right-belief, but whose life shows no evidence of genuine whole-of-life allegiance to Jesus. In this case, their life contradicts their profession. James mocks this kind of “faith” which is limited to doctrinal correctness: “the demons also believe!” (v. 19). For James, this kind of mental assent which does not penetrate to the heart and find expression in the concrete action of life, is no faith at all.

When Paul speaks of “the works of the Law” he usually has in mind the ceremonial works including such things as circumcision, Sabbaths and holy days, food laws, etc., although it is also true that he repudiates all and any kind of work whether ceremonial or moral as the basis of one’s justification by God (e.g. Ephesians 2:8-9). But, and this is important, Paul never diminished the abiding validity of the moral demand of the law. So in passages such as Galatians 5:6 (“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love”) or 1 Corinthians 7:19 (“Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God”) we find a message very similar to that which James presents in this passage. Significantly, James appears entirely unconcerned about the issue of circumcision, perhaps because he was writing to Jewish Christians. More importantly, however, and despite the portrayal of James in Acts 21:18-26 and Galatians 2:12 as one who continued as a law-abiding Jew even as a Christian, in his letter James never appeals to or affirms any aspect of the ceremonial law, even while he assumes the continuing validity of the law itself. Even in this passage, James’ emphasis is on works of mercy toward the poor—continuing the theme of 2:1-13, the work of obedience to God in the case of Abraham, and faith itself as a work in the case of Rahab. The key for James is that genuine faith is active, issuing in obedience to God.

Finally, James and Paul are using the term “justified” (dikaioō) in different ways, something also illustrated in their different appeals to the example of Abraham. Paul speaks of justification as one’s initial transfer into right relationship with God on the basis of Christ’s atoning death, received through faith, just as Abraham also was justified by God on the basis of his faith prior to receiving the covenant sign of circumcision. James in this passage is speaking of one’s ultimate justification at the final judgement where the authenticity of one’s faith is demonstrated by the works and activity of one’s life (so Moo, 46-47; Seifrid, “Righteousness” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, 624). Thus, although Abraham was initially accepted into right relationship with God, his faith was tested and proven—even by God—over the course of his life, and so demonstrated as genuine.

Evans, The Roots of the Reformation (Review)

The Roots of the ReformationEvans, G. R., The Roots of the Reformation: Tradition, Emergence and Rupture
(Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012), 528pp.
ISBN: 978-0-8308-3947-6

Gillian Evans, Professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at Cambridge University, has written a lively history, tracing the theological, ecclesial and socio-political roots of the Reformation. The twenty-three chapters are divided broadly into three historical periods, although the treatment of the topic is thematic rather than chronological. In the first part (chapters two through nine, after a brief introductory chapter), Evans introduces the themes which emerged in the early years and centuries of the church and which will occupy the major part of the story: the ideas of church and faith, the Bible, becoming and remaining a member of the church, the recurring problem of sin, especially in the lives of those already baptised, sacraments, church organisation and decision-making, and the relation between church and state.

Part two, entitled “Continuity and Change in the Middle Ages,” explores issues of monasticism and monastic education, the invention of the universities, the beginnings of academic theology, the rise of the preaching orders and the arts of preaching, lay religious experimentation and the emergence of rebels and dissidents. Layered throughout the treatment of these matters, however, are notes on and discussion of the themes introduced in the first part, clearly demonstrating the continuing presence and relevance of these central issues, while also highlighting how they developed, morphed and changed in the medieval period.

Part three, “Continuity and Change From the Reformation” (chapters sixteen through twenty-three), deals with the Reformation period itself, beginning with the Renaissance, and following the story of Luther and his heirs, Henry VIII and English Lutheranism, the Anabaptists, Calvin and the Puritans, and the Catholic Reformation, before two final chapters on new dimensions of the church and state issue, and new questions with respect to the Bible. Again, this part continues the exploration of the the central issues raised in part one in these new social, political and religious landscapes. A brief conclusion is then followed by a thirty page “Handlist of Reformation Concerns and Their History” – a synchronic and thematic treatment of the key issues which students studying church history units will find very helpful indeed.

The central argument of the book is clear: those issues which were so important in the progress of the Reformation were not new. Their roots go back to the earliest days of the church, and indeed, the same issues had come to the fore, sometimes in differing form, time and again in the Patristic and Medieval periods – and would continue to do so in the post-Reformation period, right up to the present. They are perennial. Further, it becomes clear that it was not simply the issues or the personalities themselves which drove the “success” of the Reformation. Where previous attempts at reform had been effectively suppressed, the new social, political and educational realities of the early sixteenth century meant that Luther’s Reformation, and those of his associates, were given the opportunity to take root and become established.

The great strength of the book is not simply Evans’ identification and discussion of the Gillian Evanscentral issues, but her mastery of the primary sources, and her artful telling of the story. Numerous characters are introduced through their memoirs and other writings, and interesting bypaths are explored, the whole picture becoming more and more detailed, coloured, and vibrant in the telling. The style is easy, deeply informed, and at times quite humorous – for example, Abelard’s shift into the profession of theology, “an obvious career move” (162), or the wry comment that “Henry…began to feel that there was much to be said for the Lutherans’ ideas, especially the view that the pope was antichrist, a usurper, and that the proper head of a local church was the Christian magistrate, in fact just such a magistrate as himself” (323).

Ultimately, the crux of the Reformation was salvation: how ordinary people might experience the grace of God in salvation and Christian life based solely on the saving efficacy of Christ’s work at the cross, and communicated through the Scriptures.

The essential complaint rising up from the grass roots…was that the institutional church had overextended itself and was making excessive claims, requiring the faithful to comply with human impositions which were not God’s requirements at all. So this was at root an ecclesiological challenge as well as a personal one. Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith was a bold attempt to cut through layers of complexity and detailed requirements, and to offer believers a simple promise. All they had to do was believe. They did not have to earn their way to heaven by doing penances or good works. Anyone could hope for heaven who had Christ as his or her Savior. But to adopt that view was to reject much of the apparatus of the institutional church, by which it set much store and in which it had a large investment, financial as well as spiritual (466).

The book has not been without criticism, however, especially in its first edition, where a number of errors of historical detail were identified by scholars. The publishers acknowledged these faults and quickly responded by issuing a corrected second edition. This raises an interesting question concerning the value of the book overall. For me, Evans’ book is valuable because of her wide-angle approach to the Reformation and its causes. It tells a large and complex story encompassing many centuries. The errors of factual detail are important, but concern the detail of the story at the micro rather than the macro level. Make no mistake: the errors were errors indeed, and needed to be corrected if the book was to retain its value. Nevertheless, it is at the level of the big picture, tracing the significant themes which weave through the centuries continuing and changing, that the book makes its contribution and by which it should ultimately be appraised. On this basis I consider the book to be valuable, but also counsel prospective buyers to ensure they obtain the revised edition. (This review concerns the first edition.)

This work will reward anyone seeking a more comprehensive understanding of the Reformation, or indeed, the sheer scope and variety of western church history up to the Reformation. Students and ordinary Christians will benefit much from reading this story and thinking not only about the Reformation but about contemporary Christian life and church in the light of the many developments, events, personalities and conflicts that Evans has so masterfully detailed. Teachers will also appreciate Evans’ work for its detailed exposition, her insightful argument concerning the key issues which lay deeply rooted in the history leading to the flowering of the Reformation, the abundant use of diverse primary sources, and the many byways and cameos which make the story so come alive.

For myself, I appreciated all this, and more besides: the careful nuance whereby Evans distinguished new and emerging developments helped me understand and distinguish aspects of the story which previously had been hazy. Further, the many insights into everyday Christian life in these earlier periods of our own story, and pastoral strategies employed for the care and development of God’s people then, help me think about Christian life and pastoral formation now. There is much to appreciate and reflect on in this commendable text.

Susanna Wesley’s Trinitarian Theology

Susanna_WesleyFred Sanders (The Deep Things of God, 68-69) tells a wonderful story of Susanna Wesley’s trinitarian theology:

“Her journal from about 1710 includes an impressive entry that shows how seriously she took the doctrine. She began by accusing the great Aristotle of falling into error when he taught that the world eternally existed along with God, “streamed by connatural result and emanation” from all eternity. She mused that “this error seems grounded on the true notion of the goodness of God,” which Aristotle “truly supposes must eternally be communicating good to something or other.” It is true that the Supreme Being is infinitely good and that his goodness is of a kind to be always inclined to give itself away to others. Without any further information, this speculation would demand an eternal world as the eternal recipient of God’s self-giving goodness. An eternally, essentially self-giving God would require an eternal world. But that sort of eternal world would make God dependent on the world for his own satisfaction. Without the world, God would be a frustrated giver.

“The conclusion, which Susanna Wesley found utterly unacceptable, would be that God depended on something outside himself to make possible his full self-expression. Pondering this mistake in the great Aristotle’s philosophy, Susanna mused, “It is his want of the knowledge of revealed religion that probably led him into it.” Aristotle’s problem came from the fact that he had no access to the revealed doctrine of the Trinity.

For had he ever heard of that great article of our Christian faith concerning the Holy Trinity, he had then perceived the almighty Goodness eternally communicating being and all the fullness of the Godhead to the divine Logos, his uncreated Word, between whose existence and that of the Father there is not one moment assignable.

“Susanna Wesley’s skirmish with Aristotle is a pretty tidy speculative engagement with the philosopher, and it is worth remembering that Susanna was not a theology professor but a full-time homeschooling mother when she wrote it. Little John Wesley was probably about seven years old at the time Susanna recorded these thoughts in her personal devotional journal. She obviously had a lively intellect and a mind for what mattered. What mattered, in her well-formed evangelical Trinitarianism, was that the deep Trinitarian background of the gospel stayed firmly in place so the astonishing graciousness of God’s free grace could be seen for what it is. … She knew that the gospel derives its power from the infinite background of who God is.”

A Sermon on Sunday – James 1: 19-27

JamesMy studies in James over the last year and more are beginning to bear some homiletical fruit. For the last month I have been preaching out of James 1, one sermon at Mt Hawthorn Baptist Church on James 1:2-8, and three sermons covering the whole chapter at Harmony Baptist Church in Mosman Park. Today is part three of this little series.


Roof story – looked okay but was not. When I stepped on it, it started to give beneath my feet. The roof structure lacked integrity, being flawed, internally compromised. Integrity refers the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished; a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition. What you see is what you get: it is honest, it is true.

James, too, is concerned with that which is true. He is very concerned with true Christianity, genuine religion, authentic spirituality, a faith which has integrity, a theme which comes to the fore in the climax of chapter one.

Before launching into today’s text, however, let’s retrace some of the ground we have already covered in the last two weeks:

  • When Troubles Come – Pressure from the outside intended to destroy our faith. Our response: Stand fast! Persevere! We persevere in praise and thanksgiving, in prayer and faith, and we stand fast together; and all this because God is the generous God, single-minded in his goodness.
  • When Temptations Come – Pressure on the inside which threatens to lure us away from God, his blessing and his purpose. Our response: Stand fast! Persevere! We persevere in love for God first and foremost, and in the new life God has given us, participating in God’s mission in the world, and looking forward to “the crown of life” in the world to come; and all this because God is only, ever and always good.

In our text today, James continues this theme addressing, as it were, two big questions:

  1. What is the character of this new life? What is it like?
  2. How do we live this new life?

James 1:19-25                           
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent, and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues (perseveres!) in it – not forgetting what they have heard but doing it – they will be blessed in what they do. (Or, “not forgetting what they have heard, but being a doer of the work…”)

Receive the Implanted Word
How do we live this new life that God has given? By the same means by which it began—the Word of God who “has given us birth through the Word of truth” (v. 18). Thus James says, “Get rid of all moral filth, and the evil that is so prevalent, and humbly accept the word planted in you which is able to save you” (v. 21).

  • The word implanted is designed to grow and bring forth a harvest of righteousness in our lives.
  • KJV: the “engrafted” Word. Fruit-tree analogy – grafting the new life of God into our lives. How? Through reading, hearing and meditation of the Scriptures.

But be “doers of the Word, not hearers only!” Meditation in the Scriptures leads to action. Those who only hear the Word without obeying it deceive themselves: their spirituality is not authentic.

James’ teaching here is an echo of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of Matthew 4:4: “One shall not live by bread alone, but by every Word which proceeds from the mouth of God.” According to Jesus, believers are to live by the Word of God, allowing God’s Word to speak to us, counsel us and guide us, direct us and shape us, as we orient our lives toward the presence, the purpose and promises of God. God calls us to lives shaped and moulded and trained by Scripture. The “forgetful hearer” simply “goes his way,” the word having no enduring impact or effect on his daily life. This forgetful hearer is headed for trouble—Matthew 7:24-27.

And so we come again to verse 25: “But the one who looks into the perfect law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts (or, a doer of the work), he shall be blessed in his doing.” James, in this verse, shifts his language from Word to “law,” and from being “doers of the Word” to “doers of the work.” What do these shifts mean? Quite simply, James emphasises the call and the demand of the gospel. In chapter two he will bring this out with great clarity: “faith without works is dead.” The gospel is not simply the promise of salvation in and through Jesus, but also the call to follow him. Many commentators believe that James considers that Jesus’ teaching constituted the law made new, that the “law” here refers to Jesus’ ethical teaching. It is clear that for James, real religion, authentic spirituality, is a matter of obedience to the Word of truth, the gospel, the teaching of Jesus, the Word of God, and that such obedience is crowned with blessing, both now “in the doing,” and with a crown of life in the age to come (v. 12).

What Is This New Life Like?
What “work” does James have in mind? What does it mean to be “a doer of the Word/work?” At this point James gets very specific and says very clearly what this “work” is:

James 1:26-27
Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Here James identifies three characteristics of “real religion, authentic spirituality, and genuine faith”—the kind which goes beyond the performance of a few religious practices that do not have any enduring impact on our daily existence. These three characteristics are his major concerns and will be picked up in the rest of the letter.

  1. A New Community

Watch your words—tame your tongue! The most seemingly spiritual person in the world is not spiritual at all if they do not keep a tight rein on their tongue! How easily words slip out: words of frustration and anger, words of criticism, demeaning, shaming words. Perhaps James has in mind especially angry words:

James 1:19-20                                  
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. 

Importantly, however, James does not have an abstract interest in the tongue: one scholar has noted that there are 29 commands in this letter directly addressing speech ethics. This is a primary concern of James,’ and will occupy the main part of chapter 3, as well as re-appearing in chapters 4 and 5. But again, James’ interest is not abstract; he is concerned about the use of the tongue because of power to destroy the community of God’s people. Verses 19-20 are not just Readers Digest good advice! They are directed against those in the community who are at war with one another, expressing anger and malice toward one another, quarrelling and fighting with one another, and as St Paul says, biting and devouring one another. Sins of the mouth tear down the people of God. Failure to bridle the tongue, to speak wisely and with respect and care undermines genuine spirituality. Thus, for James, authentic spirituality involves being a genuine and loving community. Notice how many times James refers to his listeners using the term “brothers and sisters” (vv. 2, 16, 19; 2:1, 5, 14, etc.). The church is a new family, intimately related as siblings, and called to care for and respect one another. What a tragedy when families fight and hurt and desert one another!

But James takes his vision of community even further, in verses in this chapter we have not yet read:

James 1:9-11                                        
Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation – since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.

The poor and lowly can rejoice in their new position in Christ! They have been exalted by God into the highest place. Though their earthly circumstances have not yet changed, they may hope for the future when the “great reversal” takes place, when the lowly are exalted and the mighty are brought low (cf. Luke 1:51-53; 6:20-26).

Arguably much more difficult, the rich are also commanded to “take pride in” or boast in—their humiliation! In James’ day, the church was mainly composed of the poor. But if a rich man or woman became a Christian and a member of the Christian community, there was a real humiliation involved. Now they were identified with a socially despised and dishonoured group of people. Now they associated with the poor and the outcast, the disreputable and the unclean. Becoming a Christian involved real social downward mobility—and James tells them to rejoice!

Here James’ words take on a new twist: a social reversal has occurred – in the church. Although the great reversal in itself still lies in the future, it issues here and now in a radical transformation of 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, 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 revaluation 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.

  1. A Community of Care and Compassion

James’ second characteristic of real religion is compassion—love in action, hands-on, sleeves-rolled-up care for the vulnerable in our midst. Just as God visited his old covenant people in order to rescue them, so God’s people are to visit and care for those in need. Widows and orphans were amongst the most powerless groups in the ancient world. It is, of course, legitimate to extend the metaphor in our age and location to those who are in need, though they may not be widows and orphans. I have been greatly challenged by Eugene Peterson’s rendering of this verse:

Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.

The vulnerable in our society include the homeless and loveless. They may also be the mentally ill, the elderly, the physically disabled, the indigenous, the abandoned, the unemployed, the refugee or recent arrival. To be a “doer of the work” involves caring for those in our networks and our neighbourhood who are vulnerable.

  1. A “Clean” Community

Finally James zeroes in on our own moral purity and personal holiness. He calls his listeners to keep themselves “unstained from the world.” James is not a dualist; he believes that this is God’s world because God is the universal Creator and Father of Lights. Nevertheless, the “world” is here seen in its fallenness, in its organisation against the will, the ways and the wisdom of God.

It is clear that James envisaged a decisive turning away from sin, sinful patterns of life, and concrete sinful practices: Make no mistake! (v. 16). Put away all evil! (v.21). What kind of sins does James have in mind?  No doubt all kinds of sin. But his emphasis in this letter focusses on interpersonal sins, especially those of the tongue, selfish ambition in the community, and those which oppress or fail to give due heed to the poor. There is a real engagement in the world and yet at the same time a genuine separation from its values, commitments and practices.

There is need for mature wisdom here (v. 5), because sometimes there is tension between the first two characteristics of authentic spirituality, and the third. Can a community welcome and care for those who are not “clean”? Perhaps a way forward here, is to apply Jesus’ wisdom from Mark 9:50: “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other.” We can be strict on ourselves and gentle and kind toward others. Too often churches have this the wrong way around.

Two big questions:

  1. How do we live this new (Christian) life? By receiving (and doing) the Word. By being doers of the Word and of the Work.
  2. What is the nature of this new life? A life in welcoming, caring community in which we seek to love, trust and serve God together, and become vessels of his goodness in the world.

The Top Ten

TOP10A couple of days ago I marked the second anniversary of this blog. Over the last two years I have posted 252 posts on all kinds of topics, using a variety of styles. I have no way of tracking which have been most popular or most read. But here are ten that I have enjoyed the most. They are in no particular order.

  1. This first post was not written by me, but by one of our students at Vose Seminary: good stuff! Gunkel, Bultmann and Barth Walk into a Bar

  2. The second post came from reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice again. This time I read the two critical introductions that accompany the novel in the Penguin Edition, and discovered that being a reader always involves interpretation – whether of Jane Austen or of Scripture: On Being a Reader, Even of Scripture

  3. My studies in Psalms 9-11 were particularly insightful for me. My reflections here became the basis of a paper I later presented at ANZATS. An Ethics of Presence and Virtue Part 1 and Part 2

  4. I include a little auto-biographical info in this one, and reflect on one of my adolescent heroes: We are All Bohemians Now

  5. Our students at Vose are a constant source of inspiration and provocation (in a good and useful way). This post had its genesis in a Facebook discussion on the “Vose Students” page. Facebook theology is a good thing: Alive & Powerful: The Old Testament as the Word of God?

  6. Eberhard Busch is a renowned Barth scholar and biographer. His large biography of Barth is not really a biography as much as an exposition of Karl Barth’s remarkable life. I read it from cover to cover for the first time during my sabbatical and recorded my reflections in three parts: Karl Barth – A Remarkable Life Part 1, and Part 2, and Part 3.

  7. I have written a number of formal reviews of books on the blog. This one was one of the better reviews. It is to be published in Colloquium  some time this year: Book Review: Reformed Theology (Allen)

  8. Another book I read during my sabbatical, or at least started then, was Roger Olson’s The Journey of Modern Theology. This is a big and well-written exposition of the major shifts and trends in theology from the eighteenth century to the present. Olson uses the image of a “ghost” to describe the powerful and ongoing influence of Hegel in modern theology. I discuss it in No Worldless God!” The Ghost of Twentieth-Century Theology

  9. Recently a student who enjoyed one of my units in theology also complained: Theology is too Hard! This was my response to him.
  10. Other posts from time to time include a little humour, criticism of various theological positions, some social comment, notable quotes, book notes, etc. One of the things I have enjoyed is discovering some poetry. I haven’t included much of it here, but here are a few examples: Preaching the Atonement with John Donne; or at Christmas, An Advent Poem, or finally, An (Unrequited) Love Poem.

Hope you enjoy revisiting some of these!

Two Years of Blogging

Why BlogTwo years, 252 posts, somewhere in the vicinity of 153,030 words (allow a margin of error of a few thousand), and many, many hours, maybe more than I anticipated.

When I started this blog, I did so for myself rather than for any putative readership. Of course I hoped for readers and hoped that not only would some people find my writing interesting enough to return, but that some might even find it helpful. Whether that is the case, I cannot say. Certainly I do not get many comments, but from what I can tell, the trend in the last few years is that people on rarely comment on blogs nowadays. Even bloggers who used to have quite a number of commentators now report far fewer. There are exceptions, of course. Some, such as Scot McKnight, Rachel Held Evans, and Roger Olson seem to have maintained their following over the years.

Google Analytics tell me I get between 750-900 visitors most months, but of that, only 25-35% are return readers. The rest could well be robots, or so someone told me. My son has told me that from time to time I have had nasty hackers attacking the blog, but I am totally oblivious to such things! Still, I am heartened by the number who apparently return – blessings on you!

My purpose in starting the blog, as I stated earlier, was for me: to record some of my own thoughts in digital format, to keep some book notes and Scripture studies, and mostly, to develop habits, skills  and content in writing.

How have I gone? All in all I am quite happy with how the blog has developed. The backbone of the blog has turned out to be Scripture studies, which I try to publish most Sundays. I started with Psalms and only got to Psalm 11, but have had a short newspaper piece published from my studies of Psalms 9-11, have delivered a paper at a national conference on these Psalms, and aim to write it up for publication in an Australian journal. The editor of the journal has not seen it yet, but has encouraged me to submit it.

I started my James posts to contribute to an online bible commentary which started with some enthusiasm but now has fallen into a hole. I don’t hold much hope for that project which is unfortunate; I think it could have been a blessing. Still, I kept my word to the editors and finished my commentary on James 1, and it is on the website – one of the few finished chapters last time I looked. I have been encouraged to continue my study through James, and who knows, maybe in time I will be able to publish a “commentary for preachers” or something similar. Tell you what I have learned, however: I am not a professional New Testament scholar! Tell you something else: I have been very deeply challenged by this intensive, extended engagement with James.

My studies in Bruce McCormack’s work also resulted in a paper delivered at ANZATS last year. It needs more work, but I would like to publish it. I have also written several formal reviews which will be published in Australian journals in the near future,as well as a number of posts on matters of interest to me especially to do with the nature of Scripture, hermeneutics, theological interpretation, Karl Barth, and novels.

Will I continue to invest time and energy in this? Is it worth it? I find I am not as disciplined as I would like to be in getting my reading noted and reviewed, mainly due to time pressures and because I am a slow writer. The main thing I wanted to do was develop habits of regular writing, and the Sunday posts especially, have helped me to write thoughtfully, regularly, systematically and with focus. I intend to continue this work.

I have not been as successful in applying this same kind of rigor with respect to theological topics. That will be my aim in the next year: to become more focused on some particular writing projects that may then develop into something more substantial. I guess that may limit the appeal of what I do, but hopefully will help me become more fruitful in this work as a ministry and as an academic pursuit.

Again – to those who visit from time to time, perhaps even regularly: thank you! I hope that what I do may continue to prove worthy of your time and attention.

On Thursday I will post a list of some of the best posts from the last two years, a Top Ten of sorts…