All posts by Michael O'Neil

About Michael O'Neil

Hi, thanks for stopping by! A couple of months ago a student gave me a cap embroidered with the words "Theology Matters." And so it does. I fervently believe that theology must not be an arcane academic pursuit reserved only for a few super-nerdy types. Rather, theology exists for the sake of the church and its mission. It exists to assist ordinary believers read and enact Scripture in authentic ways, together, and in their own locale, as a local body of faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. I love the way reading and studying Scripture and theology has deepened my faith, broadened my vision, enriched my ministry and changed my life. I hope that what you find here might help you along a similar path. A bit about me: I have been married to Monica for over thirty years now and we have served in various pastoral, teaching, missions and leadership roles for the whole of our lives together. We have three incredible adult children who with their partners, are the delight of our lives. For the last few years I have taught theology and overseen the research degrees programme at Vose Seminary in Perth, Western Australia. I also assist Monica in a new church planting endeavour in our city. In 2013 my first book was published: Church as Moral Community: Karl Barth’s Vision of Christian Life, 1915-1922 (Milton Keynes: Paternoster). I can say that without a doubt, it is the very best book I have ever written and well worth a read!

The Splintering of the Evangelical Soul

An interesting article in Christianity Today by Timothy Dalrymple, president and CEO of the organisation. The article, “The Splintering of the Evangelical Soul,” is a diagnostic-explanatory account of why,

Couples, families, friends, and congregations once united in their commitment to Christ are now dividing over seemingly irreconcilable views of the world. In fact, they are not merely dividing but becoming incomprehensible to one another.

Although we inhabit the same reality, Dalrymple says, we inhabit different ‘worlds.’ The article explores sociological reasons for the splintering of the evangelical worldview that gave the movement a sense of cohesion in a former generation. It explores what he calls the ‘informational world’ shaping the belief structures of people in our culture, the interplay of information sources and a person’s plausibility frameworks that filter information sources and content. Three informational sources are critical and evangelicals are in the midst of crisis with respect to each of them. The sources are media, authorities, and community.

Michael O. Emerson, a sociologist and scholar of American religion at the University of Illinois at Chicago, recently said he has studied religious congregations for 30 years but has “never seen” such an extraordinary level of conflict. “What is different now?” he asked. “The conflict is over entire worldviews—politics, race, how we are to be in the world, and even what religion and faith are for.” What I have offered above is a model for understanding how we have come to such a pass, and a mere suggestion of how we might begin the generational project before us.

We are not without hope. Lies ring hollow at the end of the day. Hatred is a poor imitation of purpose, celebrity a poor replacement for wisdom, and political tribes a poor comparison to authentic Christian community. We are a people defined by the resurrection of the Son of God. We are called to be redeemers and reconcilers.

The article is worth reading, especially for those interested in the future of evangelicalism.

Image: that used in the article;  Illustration by Mallory Rentsch / Source Images: Kimson Doan / Unsplash / imtmphoto / Getty Images

Theology & the University: An Interesting Discussion

The Brisbane Chapter of ANZATS (= Australian & New Zealand Association of Theological Schools) conducted an interesting discussion today that I was able to join by Zoom. The discussion was titled, “Theology and the University: Queen of the Sciences?” Two essays were distributed prior to the discussion, and three papers given during the session on related themes.

The two essays distributed were John Webster’s “Regina Artium: Theology and the Humanities” (from, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason) and Linn Marie Tonstad, “(Un)Wise Theologians: Systematic Theology in the University,” IJST Vol. 22, Number 4 (October 2020).

Webster argues that theology is not merely one discipline amongst the humanities but is in fact the ‘Queen of the (Intellectual) Arts.’ Using especially Bonaventure and also Augustine as his main conversation partners, Webster argues that all created intelligence and all creaturely intellectual work is a ‘gift from above’ (James 1:17), creaturely thought illuminated by the ‘Father of lights.’ This is a theological appraisal of the origin and goal of human intellectual endeavour.

For Bonaventure, theology describes what, according to Holy Scripture, the world is: the temporal passage of created being back to its creator. This history is irreducible to other terms, and so there can be no profane understanding of the arts of the mind, because creatureliness is basic. For Augustine, too, the arts of the mind are not secular, but of divine institution; but they are caught up in wickedness, and discriminating use of them – most of all in the interpretation of the Bible – depends on their being broken away from captivity to vice (187).

But this view of theology is difficult for many to accept:

Talk of divine motion . . . seems to us to threaten rational autonomy and responsibility. . . . God does not move the mind as an archer propels an arrow . . . God moves from within, not simply as a causal force from without. Yet in order to grasp this, we have to detach ourselves from the assumption that the natural life of creatures is secular life (188).

That is, all creaturely existence, including the work of the mind, occurs within the encompassing context of the divine origin and goal of all things. All the intellectual arts from designing and weaving a basket to abstruse philosophy are intended to lead us to God. In our fallen condition, however, this intention is hidden from us. It is the task of theology not merely to inquire about God, but to consider all things relative to God as origin and end.

This is why theology may be called the queen of the arts, though that appellation only makes sense against the background of a now lost understanding of the hierarchy of studies in which theology is the point at which the divine illumination of all things is made an object of contemplation (191).

Linn Marie Tonstad rejects this view as an attempt to justify theology’s place in the university, and indeed as an imposition of power with respect to the other disciplines in the humanities. She is concerned especially, with more aggressive approaches (she names Milbank as an example) which would launch a counter-attack against theology’s despisers whether by telling a better story, undermining the other’s foundational commitments, etc., in order to insist that unless these other disciplines are ordered to theology and so find a means of “participating in God’s self-knowledge . . . they are objectively and demonstrably null and void” (502).

Tonstad argues that theology is subject to the same epistemological and socio-cultural limitations and pressures that assail all the disciplines, and attempts to ‘master’ another is not only wrong-headed but ultimately futile. The university context inevitably shapes the way in which theology is practised:

The university values what is new and ground-breaking; it values the originality ascribed to a single scholar; it values radical programs or critiques of existing structures, discipline-shifting paradigms; . . . The pressure to distinguish oneself within a field offering shrinking rewards becomes ever more intense. . . . Theology, as a result, becomes a practice of self-protection (505-506).

She reasons from 1 Corinthians 1 that appeals to wisdom can be an attempt to mastery, but God chooses the foolish things of the world to bring to nought the things that are. Therefore, theology ought aim at foolishness and unmastery, a non-defensive theology of failure utterly aware of its own contingency and susceptibility to judgement.

Such a non-defensive position does not seek to colonize other disciplines by instructing them in their proper ends or by accusing them of being about nothing. For the text instructs theologians that God sometimes chooses what is nothing for God’s own ends, and it is not the business of the theologian to determine when God is doing just that (511).

I find I agree and disagree with both scholars and perhaps Tonstad’s suggestion that the university context distorts theological inquiry is most apt. She focusses on the economics of the university—neo-liberalism and capitalism are the enemy—though I wonder if the modes of rationality in the modern university are equally or even more problematic. This, too, may be part of her critique, especially when she speaks of the university rewarding the novel and the radical. As one engaged in queer theology—and a tenured professor at Yale—she also benefits from the system she critiques. The same was true, of course, of the late John Webster who enjoyed a celebrated career in prominent institutions in the United Kingdom. Webster’s rigorously theological approach to the question, though, has the merit, of insisting that human intellectual gifts and inquiry are graced, even if, under the conditions of the fall, they do not exhibit or realise the full intent of that grace.

In my view, the true home of theology is not the university but the church, though I suggest that Tonstad would reject this suggestion as well. The Yale theologian rightly warns against the kind of wisdom that seeks mastery or dominance over others, and rightly emphasises the contingency and limits of theological assertion. Her concern that theology be much more self-critical than critical of the other disciplines is not misplaced. My worry, however, comes from what she does not say here. May the Christian have theological confidence at all? Does the fact that we cannot know the truth comprehensively mean that we cannot know it at all? It seems she has problematised theological activity in order to propose a posture appropriate for theology while eroding or denying the possibility of any normative truth claims. While she has rightly intuited the social location of Paul’s ‘Corinthian wisdom,’ it seems she has emptied it of its content, and so of its saving power.

Theology, as faith seeking understanding, has its own particular rationality as Webster insists. Certainly, it may be a critical venture, demanding the utmost exercise of our intellectual gifts. Yet it arises on account of faith and is directed toward the building up and promulgation of faith through the ministry of the church. Separated from this context, theology may be tempted to substitute a mode of rationality and an ethos contrary to its one foundation, Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11). The task of theology whether academic or ecclesial is not merely “therapy for [theology’s] desire for recognition” (Tonstad, 511), but the knowledge of him “who is made unto us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30).

Ignatius on the Spiritual Exercises

Last week I used introductory comments from Ignatius to define the Spiritual Exercises and their purpose. In 1536 Ignatius wrote a letter to a Father Miona in which he commends the Exercises. In fact, he implores his friend to take the Exercises and almost dares him not to enjoy and be benefited by them!

Let me repeat once and twice and as many more times as I am able: I implore you, out of a desire to serve God our Lord, to do what I have said to you up to now. May His Divine Majesty never ask me one day why I did not ask you as strongly as I possibly could! The Spiritual Exercises are all the best that I have been able to think out, experience and understand in this life, both for helping somebody to make the most of themselves, as also for being able to bring advantage, help and profit to many others. So, even if you don’t feel the need for the first, you will see that they are much more helpful than you might have imagined for the second.

See: Letter 6, ‘In praise of the Spiritual Exercises‘ in Saint Ignatius of Loyola: Personal Writings, Penguin Classics, 138-139.

Evangelicals and Nationalism

Much has been written about Evangelical support for Donald Trump over the last few years. Was this support an aberration? How could so-called Bible-believing Christians have supported so unlikely a candidate? Why did they resonate with his rhetoric and policy positions? In a recent interview on Politico Elizabeth Neumann, herself an Evangelical and so a sympathetic observer, identified several reasons why some American evangelicals fell for this temptation.

Religious nationalism is nothing new, of course, and nor is it restricted to North American Evangelicals or Christians generally. Many Christian groups over the centuries have fallen in line with the nationalist aspirations of their political masters. Where the head of the church or religion is also the head of state, the problem is compounded. But the head of state need not be the head of the church for religious nationalism to take hold of a population or certain segments of it. When a nation views itself and its destiny in terms of empire, and where a cultural synthesis occurs between church and state so that the aims of the church become aligned with those of the state, the conditions are ripe for the emergence of religious nationalism.

Part of the problem here, as Neumann contends, concerns the authoritarian streak that runs through some streams of Evangelicalism. But part of it might also be traced to a theological malaise in which the Christian imagination has been subverted and co-opted to the vision of the secular order. In a brief discussion of the rise of Nazism in Weimar Germany James Hawes argues:

It is worth hammering this point home: if you’re trying to forecast whether a random German voter from 1928 will switch to Hitler, asking whether they are rich or poor, town or country, educated or not, man or woman and so on will scarcely help at all. The only question really worth asking is whether they are Catholic or Protestant (The Shortest History of Germany, 164).

He cites Jurgen W. Falter: “Hitler’s strongholds were clearly in the Lutheran countryside.” Further, only 17% of Nazi voters came from the predominantly Catholic regions (Der Spiegel, 29 January, 2008, in Hawes, 164).

Why and how did this religious support for Hitler surge between 1928 and 1933. No doubt part of the answer to the story is the ongoing suffering and shame of the German people which Hitler manipulated to his own purposes. But the Protestants were vulnerable to this manipulation also for theological reasons. Over the preceding centuries, and arguably back to Luther’s appeal to the German princes to support the Reformation, German Protestantism had actively looked to political authorities for support and in return also supported the political authorities.

Karl Barth also recognised the theological roots of Protestant support for Hitler’s regime in the preface to the first part-volume of his Church Dogmatics, published in 1932, the year before Hitler came to power in Germany.

Or shall I rather bemoan the constantly increasing confusion, tedium and irrelevance of modern Protestantism, which, probably along with the Trinity and the Virgin Birth, has lost an entire third dimension—the dimension of what for once, though not confusing it with religious and moral earnestness, we may describe as mystery—with the result that it has been punished with all kinds of worthless substitutes, that it has fallen the more readily victim to such uneasy cliques and sects as High Church, German Church, Christian Community and religious Socialism, and that many of its preachers and adherents have finally learned to discover deep religious significance in the intoxication of Nordic blood and their political Führer? (CD I/1: xiv).

I believe that I understand the present-day authorities of the Church better than they understand themselves when I ignore their well-known resentment against what should have been their most important task, appealing from authorities badly informed to authorities which are better informed. I am firmly convinced that, especially in the broad field of politics, we cannot reach the clarifications which are necessary today, and on which theology might have a word to say, as indeed it ought to have, without first reaching the comprehensive clarifications in and about theology which are our present concern (CD I/1: xvi).

A great danger for the church is that it loses its theological moorings and so substitutes other commitments and convictions in place of Jesus Christ—‘the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death’ (Barmen Declaration, Thesis 1, 1934). Barth, too, understood ‘there is within the Church an Evangelical theology which is to be affirmed and a heretical non-theology which is to be resolutely denied’ (CD I/1: xv). It is evident that the non-theology to be denied was the theological assimilation to National Socialism that occurred in the so-called German Christians.

Some—certainly not all—North American evangelicals fell into the same danger in their naïve support for the Trump agenda. This is not to say, of course, that everything Trump did was evil. But by accepting the Trump package, these evangelicals lost their ability ‘to discern what is excellent’ (Philippians 1:10) and in the end accepted and even celebrated a leader who exemplified a form of life alien to that of Jesus and his kingdom.

Defining an Ignatian Spiritual Exercise (ii)

Yesterday’s post asked what a spiritual exercise is. Today I continue unpacking Ignatius’ definitions to explore his intent for those undertaking the Exercises.

Ignatius gives the purpose of the Exercises: the overcoming of self and the (proper or ideal?) ordering of one’s life in relation to God. Expanded, this means that one undertakes the exercises to free oneself from ‘disordered attachments’ so that they may decide freely to dispose their life in accordance with what is good for the soul.

Ignatius presupposes that the self develops all manner of attachments which are detrimental to the spiritual life, although seemingly beneficial to the self. There appears to be a contrast between the ‘self’ and the ‘soul’ where the former identifies the person independent of their relation with God, while the latter speaks, as already noted, of the person in light of their relation with God. Ignatius presupposes that what is good for the self may not be good for the soul. What is good for the soul, however, will (ultimately) benefit the whole person. That Ignatius argues on Christian grounds is evident. He is presupposing a Christian understanding of life and after-life, of sin and salvation, etc., a worldview taken for granted in sixteenth century Christian Europe. What is good for the soul may in fact not appear to be beneficial for the self but makes sense in the light of eternity.

The word ‘attachments’ here is one of the “key terms in the psychological vocabulary of the Spiritual Exercises” referring to the feelings, judgements, and emotional structures and responses of the heart. Some attachments are positive while others are ‘disordered,’ perhaps opposed to reason and good judgement. These can operate in many ways and at many levels within the self, even to the point of altering perceptions of reality.[1] It likely is equivalent to what Jonathon Edwards and others referred to as the ‘affections.’ One’s attachments are disordered to the degree that they limit or hinder one from seeking and finding the divine will. Any commitment or judgement that constrains one’s response to God would, I imagine, be considered by Ignatius as ‘disordered,’ that is, as an attachment that is wrongly related to God and his will, and which functions therefore against the welfare of the whole person seen in the light of eternity.

Ignatius seeks an ordering of one’s life in freedom from disordered attachments. It should be noted that some attachments might preclude a decision to seek and find the divine will. The self is bound by its attachments in ways which turn or distract the person from relationship with God. It is also possible, however, that one might seek the divine will under the impulse of disordered attachments, by coercion for instance, or to find acceptance with one’s peers. Ignatius indicates that a true decision for God and his will can only be made in freedom.

Anyone undertaking the Spiritual Exercises or any form of spiritual discipline has already made a ‘decision for God and his will’ in some sense. Ignatius is obviously aiming at a deeper, whole-of-life, and transformational decision. He is aiming at the ‘overcoming of the self’ in its alienation from and resistance to God in favour of an existential deposition of the self into an entirely committed form of life—an existence wholly ordered toward God.

Then Jesus said to them all, “If any want to become my followers,
let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.
For those who want to save their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake will save it”

(Luke 9:23-24).

[1]  Joseph A. Munitiz and Philip Endean, ed. Saint Ignatius of Loyola: Personal Writings, Penguin Classics ed. (London: Penguin, 1996; reprint, 2004), xv.

Defining an Ignatian Spiritual Exercise (i)

In the opening paragraph of his Spiritual Exercises Ignatius provides a statement of purpose:

Spiritual exercises having as their purpose the overcoming of self and the ordering of one’s life on the basis of a decision made in freedom from any ill-ordered attachment [paragraph 21].[1]

In the first of his Annotations—directions given to those giving and receiving the Exercises—he writes:

The term ‘spiritual exercises’ denotes every way of examining one’s conscience, of meditating, contemplating, praying vocally and mentally, and other spiritual activities, as will be said later. For just as strolling, walking and running are exercises for the body, so ‘spiritual exercises’ is the name given to every way of preparing and disposing one’s soul to rid herself of all disordered attachments, so that once rid of them one might seek and find the divine will in regard to the disposition of one’s life for the good of the soul [paragraph 1].[2]

These two definitional statements provide an entrée into Ignatius’ intent with respect to the Spiritual Exercises. In today’s post we use these statements to understand what a spiritual exercise is. Tomorrow I will unpack the statements a little more to understand their purpose.

First, Ignatius tells us what a spiritual exercise is: any form of prayer undertaken for the specific purpose of the development, health, and strength of the ‘soul,’ analogous to physical exercises undertaken for the health and strength of the body. Although this is not a novel thought, it is useful. Paul the Apostle uses similar language in 1 Timothy 4:8 to affirm the superior value of spiritual endeavour: “For bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it hold promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”

The familiar image of physical exercise applied to the spiritual life carries notions of regularity and consistency, focus on particular developmental activities, the nurture of health through practice, the pursuit of greater excellence, consistent performance, and other similar ideals. This exercise is undertaken for the good of the ‘soul,’ which is probably best understood here as a reference to the whole of one’s life and existence viewed from the perspective of one’s relationship to God. It is better to avoid the idea as a reference to some constituent aspect of the human person, some faculty or part of the person, distinct from their other ‘parts.’

These spiritual exercises primarily are forms of prayer, though other activities are also in view. One might think of such things later identified commonly as spiritual disciplines, including activities of service, or solitude or fasting or confession and so on. In this definition Ignatius identifies the examination of conscience, prayer, meditation, and contemplation. During his Exercises Ignatius will develop some of these at length.

[1] Joseph A. Munitiz and Philip Endean, ed. Saint Ignatius of Loyola: Personal Writings, Penguin Classics ed. (London: Penguin, 1996; reprint, 2004), 289.

[2] Ibid., 283.

Scripture on Sunday – James 3:18

James 3:18
And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace (NASB).

And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace (NRSV).

There are several connections between this verse and the one that precedes it, most notably the references to peace and to fruit. The wisdom from above is ‘full of mercy and good fruits,’ while this verse speaks of the ‘fruit (harvest) of righteousness.’ More prominent is the reference to peace (eirēnē; εἰρήνῃ) which echoes—and amplifies—the second of wisdom’s characteristics. James commenced his reflections on wisdom with the question posed in verse thirteen, Who is wise and understanding among you? He concludes with a short aphorism that answers the question: those who make peace. This prominent characteristic stands in contrast to the disorder and evil that arises because of selfish ambition and jealousy (v. 16).

The ‘harvest of righteousness’ (karpos de tēs dikaiosunēs; kαρπὸς δὲ τῆς δικαιοσύνης) is an image used in both the Old and the New Testaments to speak of the blessings that attend the life of the righteous. It may be James has Isaiah 32:15-20 in mind. When ‘the Spirit is poured upon us from high,

The effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever. My people will abide in peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places’ (vv. 17-18).

While James does not mention the Spirit in this section, many commentators suggest that his references to the wisdom from above function in a manner similar to the work of the Spirit. The text in Isaiah brings together references to the Spirit ‘from above,’ fruitfulness, righteousness, peace, and sowing (cf. Isaiah 48:17-18; Proverbs 11:30; Amos 6:12). In Philippians 1 Paul prays that the church’s love might so abound with knowledge and discernment, that they would approve what is excellent, and so be ‘filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God’ (vv. 9-11). Both the Isaianic and the Philippians texts refer to a corporate blessing upon the community of God’s people in which they are both secure and fruitful.

Yet James’ text also differs from that in Isaiah. Whereas Isaiah speaks of peace as the fruit of righteousness, James speaks of the fruits of righteousness as ‘sown in peace’ (en eirēnē speiretai; ἐν εἰρήνῃ σπείρεται). Here the work of peace, itself a fruit of wisdom, is prior to the harvest of righteousness, and a condition for its growth. Further, this harvest is sown by or for those who make peace (tois poiousin eirēnēn; τοῖς ποιοῦσιν εἰρήνην). Almost all English Bible versions translate the preposition by, while many or perhaps even most commentators prefer to translate it for (Vlachos, 126). The former alternative, a rare construction in the Greek New Testament, lays the emphasis on the agency of the those doing the work of making peace. The latter alternative, more common in Greek, emphasises the blessings gained or to be enjoyed by those who make peace. To me, the context seems to favour the first, more difficult alternative. In contrast to the kind of ambitious leadership that fosters division, jealousy, and disorder, those who make peace create the environmental conditions in which righteousness can flourish. Or to state the matter differently: the fruits of righteousness cannot be nurtured except by those who serve in a righteous manner, that is, peaceably, and in accordance with the wisdom which is from above.

It will be noted that James’ words here echo Jesus’ seventh beatitude: Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God (Matthew 5: 9). Evidently, they shall be called children of God because their work of peacemaking makes them like God. They are doing the work of God, bearing the likeness and character of God, and exhibiting and carrying forth the priorities of God. The activity of making peace makes them like the Son of God who in and through ‘the blood of his cross’ was reconciling all things to God and ‘making peace’ (Colossians 1:20). The kingdom of God is a kingdom of peace (Romans 14:17). Therefore, all Christians are to ‘pursue what makes for peace’ (Romans 14:19), and indeed, ‘as much as it depends on [them], live peaceably with all’ (Romans 12:18). All this pertains because God himself is not the author of confusion but of peace (1 Corinthians 14:33). Again, the coming of Christ intended ‘peace on earth among those with whom he is pleased’ (Luke 2:14),

because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace (Luke 1:78-79 ESV).

In a world filled with jostling, discord, violence, and war, God desires communities of peace, reconciliation, wholeness, and welfare. The task of the wise and spiritual leader, therefore, includes this task of nurturing communities of peace by working peacefully and unselfishly, seeking concord, practising humility and all the virtues enumerated in verse seventeen.

Scripture on Sunday – James 3:17

James 3:17
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.

In this verse James sets the ‘wisdom from above’ (hē de anōthen sophia; ἡ δὲ ἄνωθεν σοφία) in stark contrast with that wisdom which is ‘earthly, unspiritual, and demonic’ (v.15). The ‘from above’ echoes 1:17, and shows that this wisdom is one of the good gifts given by the father of lights. In fact, the verse picks up many themes already mentioned in the letter, showing that the whole of James’ letter is a sample of that ‘wisdom which is from above.’ If true religion is ‘pure’ (1:27) and gentle (3:13), so also is wisdom. Just as mercy ‘triumphs over judgement,’ so this wisdom will be merciful in its judgements. It is unwavering (1:6-8) or impartial and without hypocrisy (chapter 2).

I noted in my comments on verse 13 what wisdom is: “the God-given ability of the transformed heart to discern and to practice God’s will” (Bauckham, James: Wisdom of James, Disciple of Jesus the Sage, 152). In this verse James will describe what wisdom does, or perhaps better, the effects true wisdom produces in the life of the one who embraces it (Moo, 135).

James speaks of wisdom not in terms of speculative insight into the mysteries of the world or the divine, nor pragmatic wisdom for success in life, but in terms of virtue. The virtues listed include some which are relational in nature (peaceable, gentle, and reasonable) and others which refer to the character or works of the agent (pure, merciful, unwavering, without hypocrisy, and full of good works). Together they provide a perspective into what characterises a wise and virtuous life.

The first and primary characteristic of wisdom is its purity (prōton men hagnē estin; πρῶτον μὲν ἁγνή ἐστιν), a term which for Moo connotes moral blamelessness (135), and for Davids, the unmixed motives of the single-hearted person who serves only God (154). Moo interprets the word in accordance with its use in the New Testament generally, where it refers to the inner purity and moral excellence appropriate for God and for his people. It is noteworthy that the Stoics also referred to the wise as the agnoi (BDAG, 11-12). Nevertheless, in view of the immediate context in which James challenges those who only appear spiritual but who in fact serve with impure motives, and in view of the reference to the ‘double-minded’ in 4:8, it seems better to follow Davids here, though without dismissing Moo’s insight that purity is also a key concern for James (cf. 1:27). That James refers to purity first and subsequently develops his list with a then (epeita; ἔπειτα῎), not only suggests that purity is the first in a series, but also the head waters from which the rest of the virtues flow (see Vlachos, 125).

The next three virtues listed by James (peaceable, gentle, willing to yield) all begin with an e sound, while the final two terms (without partiality and without hypocrisy) all begin with an a sound. James is presenting an alliterative and rhythmic list probably with the intent of rendering it memorable.

The first, ‘peaceable’ (eirēnikē; εἰρηνική) simply means peace-loving and is set in contrast to the disorder and contention spoken of in verse 16 (see NIDNTT, 2:780). It is a characteristic ‘conducive to harmonious and salutary relationship’ (Danker, Bibleworks). ‘Gentle’ translates epieikēs (ἐπιεικής) which BDAG gives a range of possible meanings: yielding, gentle, kind, courteous, tolerant (292; also Vlachos, 125 who suggests that in essence it denotes noncombativeness). The final term is eupeithēs (εὐπειθής), translated in the NRSV as ‘willing to yield’ or as ‘open to reason’ in the ESV, perhaps indicating a readiness to listen or to engage in dialogue, though see BDAG (324) where it is rendered obedient or compliant. Wisdom is peaceable because it is gentle and open to reason (Moo, 136). James certainly is not referring to contexts where false teaching is in play, or to a person without convictions, but the character of the wise and understanding person of verse 13 whose life displays this ‘meekness of wisdom.’

The second set of virtues mercy and good fruits (eleous kai karpōn agathōn; ἐλέους καὶ καρπῶν ἀγαθῶν) are coupled together with the word mestē (μεστὴ), ‘full of.’ If the uncontrolled tongue is ‘full of’ deadly poison (v. 8), wisdom is ‘full of’ mercy and good fruits. James has already spoken of mercy as that practical love which shows itself in action, in ‘works’ (2:8-13, 14-26). He uses the word fruit here in place of works perhaps to indicate the organic effect of wisdom, though the use of erga (works) in verse 13 clearly shows that the two terms are functionally equivalent.

A final couplet completes the list: ‘without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy’ (adiakritos, anupokritos; ἀδιάκριτος, ἀνυπόκριτος). These terms also clearly refer to the material dealt with in the second chapter: those who would be genuinely spiritual leaders cannot fall into the failures and sins addressed there. Adiakritos, however, might also be translated ‘unwavering,’ and so refer to the unstable person of 1:6-8. Both terms refuse any form of duplicity in one’s own character and in one’s relations with others.

The overall impact of James’ list is that the wisdom which is from above is characterised by relational virtues and practices that build community, foster relationships, make space for others with forbearance and gentleness, and is open to listen, reason, and dialogue. This wisdom seeks to benefit others at the expense of self, and as such is the equivalent of the love that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13. Many commentators note that what James attributes to wisdom in this passage functions as the Spirit does in Paul’s writing (e.g. Davids, 154; Moo, 135). Earthly, natural, and demonic wisdom tears at the fabric of community, abusing relations and chooses rather to serve self. In contrast, the wisdom which is from above is an active wisdom, responding to the needs of others in mercy and generous service, without partiality, prejudice, or discrimination, and without pretence or insincerity. This is a wisdom that conforms the wise and understanding person to the life and priorities of the one God, and of the kingdom which is above. The wise person is meek and peaceable, good and generous, exhibiting the gracious character of the God from whom this wisdom comes, all the while exhibiting also the holiness and purity that befits his children.

Scripture on Sunday – James 3:16

James 3:16
For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.

In this highly compressed saying James reiterates and summarises the point he has made in verses 14-15 where he warned his listeners that jealousy and envy, selfish ambition and rivalry are a form of wisdom ‘from below’—‘earthly, natural, and demonic.’ The Greek text has no verbs and so heightens the emphasis on place: ‘for where (hopou gar; ὅπου γαρ) jealousy and selfish ambition, there (ekei; ἐκει) disorder and every evil thing’ (Vlachos, 124). There is a sense of inevitability in the admonition, a warning of an unbroken link between cause and effect. Wherever this kind of ‘wisdom’ is operative there will also be these effects which are destructive to the life of the community, and a contradiction of its essential nature.

The first of the effects is disorder (akatastasia; ἀκαταστασία), also translated in some versions as ‘confusion’ (NKJV) or ‘disharmony’ (NJB). The term is used in an adjectival form (akatastatos; ἀκατάστατoσ) in 1:8 and 3:8 to describe the instability of the double-minded man, and the restlessness of the untamed tongue. In 1 Corinthians 14:33 Paul uses it to argue that God is not the author of confusion (akatastasias; ἀκαταστασίας) but of peace, and in his gospel Luke uses it with reference to ‘tumults’ (Luke 21:9). Instead of a community life that is peaceable and well-ordered, there may be instead a fracturing of harmony with outbreaks of disturbances and dissension.

A second result of jealousy and selfish-ambition is ‘every evil thing’ (pan phaulon pragma; πᾶν φαῦλον πρᾶγμα), or perhaps, every evil practice (ESV, NIV). All manner of evil accompanies the outbreak of disorder in the community.

So, too, envy is particularly deadly. James, in these verses, may be influenced by Wisdom 2:24: ‘It was the devil’s envy that brought death into the world, as those who are his partners will discover’ (NJB). So, too, Matthew notes that ‘Pilate knew it was out of jealousy’ that the chief priests and elders of the people had handed Jesus over (Matthew 27:18). The final command of the Decalogue acts to counter the problem of envy. If Paul finds in the love of money the root of all evil, James sees it more fundamentally as the fruit of envy. The two concepts are not far removed from each other, and while James’ emphasis appears to be on would-be teachers and leaders in the community, their motivation is often the acquisition of status and the financial rewards that accompany such elevation.

Lockdown and Location

Image by Queven from Pixabay

Over the last year, we in Perth have looked on with some degree of horror at the suffering experienced by so many in different parts of the world, and even Australia, as a result of COVID-19. For most of us here in Perth, we have been only slightly inconvenienced.

Then this morning, after ten months of an almost COVID-free life, we find ourselves in a five-day hard lockdown. Things can change overnight!

Of course, we hope that the lock down will only go for five days, but much will depend on the results of testing and contact tracing over the next few days. But whatever happens, we are not alone, we are never abandoned, we are always accepted, and we are ever cared for by God. That’s part of the grace of being a Christian.

In Philippians 4:1-9 we are reminded that we are deeply loved and rejoiced over. Just as Paul loved and longed for his friends at Philippi, so God loves and rejoices over each of his children. We are loved with a love that is eternal, unconquerable, and deeply personal; we are loved.

Knowing that we are so loved by God is wonderfully liberating. Being so loved, we don’t have to expend endless energy seeking affirmation and validation or employ endless strategies of self-promotion and self-protection. Being so loved, our hearts can be liberated to trust and to serve. Being so loved we can, as Paul exhorts, stand firm in the Lord, agree in the Lord, rejoice in the Lord, and be at peace in the Lord.

The people of Western Australia have had a sharp reminder that we live in uncertain times. This is true. But while our times and circumstances are uncertain, God’s steadfast love is never uncertain, nor his faithfulness, nor his power. Whenever we are troubled or anxious, whenever we are challenged by circumstances beyond our control, we can turn with prayer and thanksgiving to the God who loves us and cares for us, and promises to be with us on this journey of life.

And nor is his love limited merely to us, for his love embraces the whole of creation, humanity, and history. And so with hearts liberated by love we can turn to God not only with our own concerns and anxieties, but also on behalf of those around us.

Paul is encouraging his friends—and us—to see, understand, and live our whole lives in the Lord. Certainly we live in the world and share all of its vicissitudes, joys and sufferings, but our citizenship is in heaven (3:20), our identity in Christ. We live in the world in accordance with the grace given us in Christ. As Jesus also said: “…in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

And so, wherever you are, and whatever your circumstances:

May the peace of God that passes all understanding
guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus,
and the God of peace be with you.

Photo Credit: https://www.vperemen.com