Monthly Archives: March 2017

David Ford Lectures

David FordThis week I have had opportunity to attend two events with Professor David Ford from Cambridge. The first was a seminar for faculty and HDR students from the various theological institutions around Perth. The theme of the seminar was a theological hermeneutic for reading the gospel of John. Professor Ford has been writing a theological commentary on John—for many years now—and brought a wealth of reflection on John’s gospel to the seminar. The second event was a public lecture at Murdoch University on “Healthily Plural Civilisation,” the third in a series of lectures on the theme Religion, Violence, and a Vision for Twenty-First Century Civilisation.

The public lecture began with a reading of the epigraph of celebrated Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail’s forthcoming The Five Quintets. The poem, apparently, rehearses the history of modern western culture through engagements with luminaries in the fields of the arts, economics, politics, the sciences, and philosophy and theology, posing a vision for the humane continuation of the civilisation. It sounds like an extraordinary achievement.

Ford exposited the eight stanzas of the epigraph to distil a series of mottos or “headlines” toward a vision of peaceful and flourishing civilisation in the twenty-first century, with a particular appeal to the religions and the universities, the two locations of his life’s work. The eight mottos are

  • Inspirational wisdom
  • Imaginative creativity
  • Generous economics
  • Covenantal politics
  • Wise sciences
  • Deep reasonings
  • Peaceful intensities
  • Celebratory delight

I especially appreciated Ford’s implied exhortation to take daring risks for the sake of building peace-filled relationships and communities, and his insight that genuine formation occurs through intentional practices of face-to-face intensive conversations with colleagues and peers, and across generations.

Ford, I think, practises what he preaches. He regularly participates in inter-religious groups reading one another’s sacred texts and engaging in dialogue with them. Thus he reads Christian scriptures with Jews and Muslims, and presumably, Jewish and Islamic scriptures with the same groups. In a social context he tells of spending a week in a US prison with inmates gaoled for life, exploring Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. It seems he has drunk deeply in the wells of the Christian scriptures and tradition and has found a means of expressing that tradition in faithful and joy-filled life in and for the world.

I reproduce here the first and eighth of the stanzas from O’Siadhail’s epigraph:

Be with me Madam Jazz I urge you now
Riff in me so I can conjure how
You breathe in us more than we dare allow…

In all our imperfections we advance
Trusting in creation’s free-willed chance;
Sweet Madam Jazz in you we are the dance.

Adam as Antitype?

roemerbrief2-787x1024Last week I prepared my proposal for the Karl Barth Study Group at this year’s ANZATS conference in Adelaide:

Adam as Anti-Type?
Reading Romans 5:12-21 with Barth

In Romans 5:14 Paul speaks of Adam ὅς ἐστιν τύπος τοῦ μέλλοντος—“who is a type of the coming one.” In the first edition of his commentary on Romans, Barth translates τύπος with Gegenbild—“antitype.” This curious translation raises a question concerning the validity of Barth’s interpretation of Paul’s letter, at least in this passage. Nevertheless, John Webster has claimed that “whatever abiding interest and worth [Barth’s commentary on Romans] may have stands or falls by its success in fulfilling” Barth’s stated intention to interpret Scripture (see Webster in Greenman & Larson (eds), Reading Romans Through the Centuries, 205-206).

This paper tests Webster’s claim by examining Barth’s exposition of Romans 5:12-21 in the first edition of his commentary, detailing the interpretive moves Barth makes and assessing their validity in light of his theory of interpretation, and as an exposition of Paul’s text. In particular, Barth’s treatment of the Adam-Christ parallel is explored, as an example of his theological interpretation. The focus of this paper is on the first edition of Der Römerbrief, though with an eye to Barth’s later treatments of the same passage in the second edition of the commentary (1922), A Shorter Commentary on Romans (1940-41), and Christ and Adam (1952).

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:23

JamesJames 2:23
Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’, and he was called the friend of God. 

James now brings his illustration of Abraham justified on account of his works to its climax. His obedience in the “binding” (Aqedah) of Isaac constitutes the fulfilling of Genesis 15:6 which says that “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Episteusen de Abraam tō theō, kai elogisthē auto eis dikaiosunēn).

James cites the LXX version of this text, as Paul does in Romans 4:3; the two citations are identical, even including the added de. That both authors use the same text indicates its significance in early Christianity, although they are using it differently, as we noted in our comment on verse 21. Genesis 15 records a visionary encounter Abraham experienced, in which he is allowed to dialogue with God. Abraham complains: what is the point of God’s promise of blessing if he has no heir to pass the blessing onto? God leads Abraham to view the starry night sky and says, “See the number of the stars? So shall your offspring be” (v. 5). Verse six, then, is the verse cited by James (and Paul) about Abraham’s faith and his being regarded righteous by God.

Paul uses this text to show that Abraham was justified by God solely on the basis of his faith, prior to his receiving the sign of circumcision. James, however, in a manner not unlike that common in Judaism, sees in this statement “a type of timeless sentence written over the life of Abraham” (Davids, 129). That is, God’s justification of Abraham is not limited to this occasion, but is a summary of God’s attitude toward Abraham on the basis of his whole life. Indeed, Davids suggests that the deliverance Abraham (or more correctly, Isaac) received in Genesis 22, was a reward for his prior works of righteousness, understood in terms of hospitality and mercy (130). Although Davids’s first point has merit, his second seems unlikely.

In what sense, then, are we to understand the first part of James’s verse: “Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says…” (kai eplērōthē hē graphē hē legousa). The key term here is eplērōthē (“fulfilled”) which is sometimes used in the New Testament to describe an Old Testament passage finding its “fulfilment” in the New Testament. That is, the Old Testament passage may be seen (a) as a prophecy that has come to pass, or (b) as a text that has deeper meaning and more enduring significance in the light of the coming of Jesus. Neither of these possibilities fit the context here.

Moo suggests that James sees the Genesis 15:6 text “fulfilled” in Genesis 22 in terms of confirmation and validation. That is, Abraham was truly counted righteous by God on account of his faith in Genesis 15, and his subsequent obedience in Genesis 22 demonstrates the validity of this divine judgement.

The initial declaration of righteousness on the basis of faith is given its ultimate meaning and validity through the final declaration of righteousness on the basis a ‘faith that works’ (Moo, 114).

Like Davids, Moo understands James as citing the verse “as a ‘motto’ standing over all of Abraham’s life” (114).

McKnight’s view differs again. Noting that “fulfilled” can mean to “fill up” and so to have a similar sense to “perfected” in verse 22, he sees James referring not to the Scripture itself being fulfilled in Genesis 22, but to what the Scripture says being fulfilled. That is, it is Abraham’s faith that is fulfilled—perfected—in the test of Genesis 22.

Thus, the Aqedah brings to full completion the faith Abraham exercised in Genesis 15 when he complained that the promise of a child was unfulfilled. … The faith that trusted YHWH’s word came to completion when Abraham lifted Isaac to the altar (254).

This view does justice to both Genesis 15 and 22, as well as James. In Genesis 15 Abraham believed God’s promise that he would have a child, and through that child, an “astronomical” progeny. In Genesis 22 he offers that child to God still believing God’s ability to bring the promise to pass. Thus James is correct to see the two as linked: the faith with which Abraham trusted God and so was counted righteousness, was not perfected until it was tested. In this way, the statement of Genesis 15 refers not solely to the trust of that chapter, but indeed stands as a declaration over the whole of Abraham’s life, and so includes the works which are the expression of his faith.

“And he was called the friend of God(kai philos theou eklēthē). Again James draws on Jewish tradition generally, and two Old Testament texts specifically (2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8) in which Abraham is described as God’s friend. In the first text Jehoshaphat ascribes the term to Abraham (perhaps remembering the covenant ceremony of Genesis 15?). In the second text, God himself refers to Abraham as “my friend.” James’s use of the image of friendship in this context clearly shows that justification should not be understood in merely judicial or legal terms. To be counted righteous is to be brought into a right relationship with God not simply in a legal or judicial sense, but to be brought into a kind of relational closeness and fellowship with God that is best described as friendship. Again, Scot McKnight is helpful here:

To be God’s friend is to be in the people of God…, to be in the right, to be saved, and to be a person who in fellowship with God lives out the life God designs for those on earth (255).

On Hermeneutics and Ethics

reading group 2In her essay entitled “Christian Character, Biblical Community, and Human Values” Lisa Sowle Cahill includes a discussion of the pluralistic nature of the biblical text and implications for interpreters.

Many interpreters point to the pluralistic, internally dynamic structure of the biblical canon itself as a model for theological reflection, and Newsom herself is sympathetic to this approach. She advocates ‘dialogic truth and the polyphonic text,’ in which the different voices in the text are brought into intersection at the level of practical engagement and conversation among interpreters. Similarly to Newsom, Werner Jeanrond calls for a new form of interdisciplinary, reading-centered biblical theology that is both critical of ideologies in the text and resistant to any final systematization, especially one that is ‘ecclesially imposed.’ “Biblical theology encourages all nondogmatic models and paradigms of describing continuities and discontinuities in the complex development and religious challenge of biblical monotheism. It calls for an ongoing ideology critique of any systematizing attempt.” (see Brown (ed), Character & Scripture: Moral Formation, Community, and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 10-11).


That was my response as I read this paragraph. All and any perspectives are welcome, but don’t try to say that a particular biblical passage means something, or that it has a particular message. Is there really no place in biblical study for normative theological instruction and ethical admonition? Does acknowledgement of multiple voices and perspectives in Scripture mean that the drawing of conclusions is thereby somehow proscribed?

While Cahill acknowledges and appreciates the “Bible’s internal pluralism” and sees in it a model for a dialogical theology and ethics, she remains dubious about this approach to Scripture:

My own conviction is that sheer pluralism is not adequate as a Christian moral response to injustice in the world. Christian morality requires some more determinate understanding of what it means to begin to live in the reign of God, to form a community as body of Christ, or to be transformed by the Lord’s Spirit. . . . Although the celebrators of diversity eschew the . . . interest in something substantial as the working material of theology, I find it essential to Christian character ethics to define at least a few desirable characteristics (11, 13).

To that end Cahill argues that Christian morality “can and should be centered in virtues like repentance, reconciliation, love, compassion, solidarity, mercy, and forgiveness” (11).

Although overly confident specific extrapolations of biblical ethics can and have been unjust and oppressive, complete deconstruction of normative meaning is not an acceptable alternative. It is not enough to say Christian character will be formed in a number of quite disparate communities that have in common only that they have read Scripture idiosyncratically. The general virtues Christian character should exhibit are evident enough from the standpoint of even a historically oriented and critical biblical hermeneutic (14).

Pneumatologia Crucis – A Thesis

ThesisCongratulations to Carolyn Tan who last week submitted her Doctor of Theology thesis for examination. Carolyn has been working consistently and diligently for about six years to bring this work to completion. Her thesis asked the deceptively simple question, “What was the Holy Spirit doing at the Cross?” It is an excellent thesis and I hope that it will be well-received by the three examiners. Here is Carolyn’s abstract:

Exploring a cruciform pneumatology
The subject of the gospel of divine-human reconciliation in Jesus Christ is the triune God, and at the centre of this reconciliation is the cross. The Father gives us his Son; the Son is our high priestly sacrifice; what then of the Spirit? Does the Holy Spirit’s work pause between Gethsemane and the resurrection? What does the phrase διὰ τοῦ πνεύματος αἰωνίου (‘through eternal Spirit’) in Hebrews 9:14 mean? This study critically examines the theological perspectives of John Vernon Taylor, Jürgen Moltmann and John D. Zizioulas, from whom three views of a pneumatologia crucis are discerned. First, the Spirit is the ‘bond of love’ between the Father and the Son at the cross, uniting them in the moment of their greatest ‘separation’. Second, the Spirit is the Son’s co-worker, enabler and power throughout the passion. Third, the Spirit unifies humanity to the Son, so that humanity dies, is buried, and rises with Christ. On their own, each perspective has strengths and weaknesses. In particular, the view that the Spirit is the unitive agent within the godhead is problematic because it lacks a strong biblical basis. Karl Barth, who does not directly address the role of the Spirit at the cross, nevertheless provides the intriguing concept of the Spirit as divine Judge (along with the Father and the Son) and specifically the one who carries out God’s full judgement in Jesus Christ, the Elect. Integrating these theological perspectives with an in-depth examination of the manuscript, exegetical and hermeneutical history of Hebrews 9:14, this study proposes that Christ is the pneumatic crucible of the Father – the Spirit empowers the Son and unites humanity to Christ; in Christ, the Spirit executes God’s judgement on humanity; in Christ, sinful humanity dies and new humanity is re-born in the Spirit to become children of God.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:22

JamesJames 2:22
You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. (NRSV)

You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected. (NASB)

Not only was Abraham justified by works, says James, his faith was perfected or brought to completion by his works. Abraham’s faith included his works; it was a working faith, active, seen, demonstrated and thus shown to be genuine in, through and by his works.

James utilises another play on words in this verse to make his point. Still speaking to his interlocutor (“you see that” – blepeis hoti), James insists that Abraham’s “faith was working with his works” (hē pistis sunērgei tois ergois autou). Or we might say, Abraham’s faith only “worked” because it had works. James goes further: “and as a result of the works (kai ek tōn ergon), faith was perfected” (hē pistis eteleiōthē).

Abraham’s works were the means by which his faith was brought to completion. The NASB here reflects the order of the Greek text, and shows that, as in verse eighteen, James has included another chiastic structure (faith…works…works…faith), again highlighting the inseparability of faith and works. Yet, this verse also shows that while faith and works are inseparable, they may be distinguished (McKnight, 251).

 It is not so simple that we could say first he had faith and then he had works, and once he had both he had what it takes to get salvation. The faith of Abraham, the faith itself, worked itself out in works and it is the faith itself that is completed by works. It was a working faith, not faith plus works (McKnight, 252).

Eteleiōthē indicates that something happened to the faith: it was perfected. The verb can also be interpreted as completed, or made complete, or brought to its intended end. That is, Abraham’s faith only reached its maturity or its goal as it was acted upon by his works. His works, then, were an essential aspect of his faith, and without his works, his faith was incomplete and immature.