Category Archives: Scripture

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:26

James 2:26
For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

In this final verse of the chapter James reiterates with another metaphor the same point he has been making all along in this section: that a workless faith does not “work,” it cannot save, it is dead. He begins with a common anthropological image: “For just as the body without the spirit is dead” (Hōsper gar to sōma chōris pneumatos nekron estin). It is possible to translate pneumatos as “breath” in which case James is stating a simple biological fact. Most English translations render the term as “spirit,” drawing on familiar biblical imagery that assumes that the spirit animates and gives life to the body (so McKnight, 258). The point of the verse, however, is neither biology nor anthropology but the relation of faith and works.

Thus, just as the body without the spirit is dead and lifeless, “so faith without works is also dead” (houtōs kai hē pistis chōris ergon nekra estin)—lifeless, unproductive and impotent. The faith of which James speaks is “that faith” of verse 14, the faith which is faith only as confession in verse 19, the workless faith of verse 20, faith which is alone in verse 24. This is not faith at all in its true New Testament sense. True faith, for James, is inseparable from works of obedience toward God and mercy toward others. The faith which we rest in the good and generous God, calls forth a similar character in those who believe, such that their lives too, become good and generous toward others.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:25

James 2:25
Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road?

James now turns from the patriarch to the prostitute in a second illustration of his point, in case anyone think Abraham was a shoe-in with God. Just as Abraham had been “justified by works” so also (“likewise…also” homoiōs de kai) was Rahab.

Rahab’s story is found in Joshua 2 and Joshua 6:15-25. It is of interest that these passages never mention her faith, although it is clear that she has regard for the God of the Hebrews as the one who is “God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (Joshua 2:11). Nevertheless her “works” are indicative of her belief that “the Lord has given you the land” (2:9). Therefore Rahab “welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road” (hypodexamenē tous aggelous kai hetera hodō ekbalousa). Rahab’s works consist in the welcome, protection and lodging she gave to these vulnerable messengers in their time of need, and her sending them out in safety. One might complain that Rahab lied in order to accomplish her ends, and that she was acting in self-interest; that is, there was nothing praise-worthy in her works at all. How could such works as these become the basis of justification, and that before a holy God?

If anything, these concerns make James’ argument all the stronger. Not just righteous Abraham, but Rahab the prostitute (Rhaab hē pornē) was “justified by works” (ex ergon edikaiōthē). Rahab’s concerns were not entirely selfish however; in her interactions with the spies she mentions herself only indirectly. Rather her concern is for her parents and siblings and their families. Nevertheless, for all her demerits, Rahab and her family are saved from the destruction of Jericho and are incorporated into Israel and its history (Joshua 6:25).

Why does James choose Rahab has his example of justification by works? Two reasons may be given. First, the figure of Rahab fascinated the Jews to the extent that she was lauded as the archetypal proselyte (Davids, 133-134). So, too, the Christian tradition found in her an example of the righteous gentile who became a member of the people of God. Matthew includes a “Rahab” in Jesus’ genealogy which is commonly assumed to be this same Rahab despite the chronological difficulties of the passage (Matthew 1:5). The author of Hebrews also includes her in the list of Israel’s heroes and heroines of faith, clearly identifying her faith with her reception of the spies (11:31). The first-century Roman bishop Clement included Rahab along with Abraham as an example of “faith and hospitality:”

On account of his faith and hospitality, a son was given him [Abraham] in his old age … On account of her faith and hospitiality, Rahab the harlot was saved (The First Epistle of St Clement, ch. 10, 12).

This link of faith and hospitality—generous kindness to the poor and other vulnerable people—provides a second reason James’ use of Rahab as his example. Her reception and care for the outsider and stranger, because they were members of the people of God, also serves James’ whole argument in this chapter. Her example is precisely the opposite of the figure in verse 16 who sends the poorly clothed and hungry person away without any practical care. Thus, her works of hospitality are paradigmatic of the kind of works James expects to see amongst those in his congregation.

Wise and Innocent

A newspaper article a few weeks ago reported on a federal inquiry into the status of religious freedom in Australia (see Rebecca Urban, “Christians Under SeigeThe Australian May 6, 2017). Urban detailed several instances in which Christians have faced social pressure on account of their convictions:

A Melbourne IT specialist engaged to work on the Safe Schools program was sacked after privately expressing concerns about the contentious initiative during a staff meeting, with his employer later accusing him of “creating an unsafe work environment”. Lee Jones, a Christian who was general manager of a business at the time, had told his boss he would work on the project despite his views but was dismissed regardless. He was in a staff meeting when asked his opinion about Safe Schools. His response was that he would not want his own children to be taught some of the more controversial elements of the program…

In another case, a pub­lic servant in Victoria was given a warning for complaining about being pressured to take part in a gay pride march. The man, also a Christian, later asked to be taken off the email list of the department’s LGBTI network as he found emails “offensive by reason of his religious background”. He was issued a notice to show cause why he should not be disciplined…

An Alice Springs teacher was threatened with disciplinary action last year for expressing opposition to same-sex marriage on a Facebook forum. Despite the comments being made outside school hours, he was issued a notice to show cause. The Northern Territory Education Department has since dropped the action…

Finally, an Adelaide ­university student was suspended last year after offering to pray for a student who was stressed over her workload and later voicing his opinion about homosexuality. The student had said that he would treat a gay person kindly “but (didn’t) agree with their choice”. He was ordered to undergo “re-education” but sought legal advice and the university withdrew the allegations.

It seems that hostility toward Christian faith is increasing in our culture, and Christians would do well to be prepared to endure it. Perhaps more “progressive” Christians will not need to be so concerned, especially if they have found ways to affirm those things that progressive culture also affirms.

But what of those of us who are not so comfortable with aspects of the progressive social agenda, who perhaps even find them antithetical to Christian convictions? What are Christians to do when it is wrong to withdraw from public engagement, but threatening to so engage? What might appropriate response look like?

In this context, Jesus’ words from Matthew 10:16 provide guidance: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” (NASB).

Because Jesus has sent us out, our place is indeed, “in the world,” and even among the “wolves.” Christians must not withdraw from public space and public dialogue, but their presence is to be wise and innocent. Sometimes Christian engagement in the public sphere is less than wise; at other times it is far from innocent. Wise engagement is required lest we be ravaged; innocence is necessary lest we give ground for accusation or inflame existing tensions.

Jesus’ choice of animal imagery in this text indicates something further about this engagement: the wolf and the serpent are carnivorous, seeking prey, while the sheep and the dove are not and do not. Though they have no fangs, however, the sheep and the dove are not without some defence. Both may flee when danger presents, though the sheep will also certainly lose even if it flees. I once saw a small flock of sheep react when the sheepdog entered the paddock. They stood shoulder to shoulder facing the dog, turning as it walked by keeping it always in view, always presenting its united front to the intruder. Such a strategy would hardly work against a pack of hungry wolves, however; in that case the sheep can do little more than hope that their shepherd is close at hand. The sheep is inherently vulnerable and so needs both shepherd and flock; so too perhaps, the believer in the world.

Jesus applies the serpent image to the disciple, though this is not a commission for the church to grow fangs, to hunt, to seek prey. It is to be shrewd as a serpent and innocent as a dove, the two qualities mutually conditioning. “Without innocence the keenness of the snake is crafty, a devious menace; without keenness the innocence of the dove is naïve, helpless gullibility” (Wilkins, Mattthew [NIVAC], 392). It is “tempting” to recall the Genesis 3 passage where the serpent cunningly tempted Eve with deceptive argument, drawing her away from God and his word of command and promise. Perhaps the church can similarly learn to argue shrewdly but innocently, using truthful argument to draw interlocutors toward God and the word of his grace.

“Let your speech be always with grace,” says Paul, “seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person” (Colossians 4:6). This, too, is good counsel. “Salty grace” suggests a winsome, though steadfast presence, one which communicates both truly and truthfully. Too much salt, of course, destroys a dish; but some salt is necessary, especially when conversation is bland or clichéd. So, too, grace is essential, especially when conversation has become polarised or hostile. To “know how you are to respond” will require a thoughtful Christianity, which suggests that believers must have thought through their convictions to such a degree that they can articulate them in interesting, rational, non-defensive, and persuasive ways. Perhaps a good dose of humour and light-heartedness will lubricate the conversation, reminding us also that the battle is Lord’s.

Further to this, however, is the life of genuine innocence and virtue in community. Unless believers inhabit communities of grace their witness will surely fall flat. Both doves and sheep flock, and corporate witness of the church’s life adds substance to its arguments. The corporate life of the community is also necessary to sustain the believer in their witness within the world. The knowledge of Christian truth-claims and the nurture of Christian convictions, the courage to stand firm under trial, and the hope that undergirds it: all these are part of the formation that occurs in the Christian community as a community of grace, theological instruction, and moral deliberation.

Above all is the wisdom and innocence of the cross as the way of the true God and so also the true disciple in the world. This is the way of intentional vulnerability:

Jesus does not say that we are to “become” sheep, but, more fundamentally, that when we go into the world in his obedience we are in fact going out “as” sheep. . . . This “sheepishness” is due to the nonviolent nature of Jesus’ work, as we learned from the Sermon on the Mount. We are not primarily fighters, we are not allowed to be haters, and we cannot even use the arsenal of invective that revolutionary movements find necessary for motivation. . . . Jesus’ cross is not an exception to the rule of discipled life; it is the rule (Frederick Bruner, Matthew, Volume 1, 472).

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:24

James 2:24
You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

With this verse the illustration concerning Abraham is concluded and James universalises and applies his argument. “You see” (horate) is second-person plural and marks a transition from James’s argument with his imaginary interlocutor, to him addressing his listeners as a whole. His conclusion makes two assertions, the one positive and the other negative (McKnight, 255). The positive conclusion is: “you see that a person is justified by works.” James emphasises the works by placing them before the verb: hoti ex ergōn dikaioutai anthrōpοs (literally, “that out of works, a person is justified”). This picks up the language of verse 21 where James has previously argued that Abraham was “justified by works.” The negative conclusion follows: “and not by faith alone” (kai ouk ek pisteōs monon).

The supposed contradiction between James and Paul is sharpest with this verse, where James appears to directly contradict what Paul asserts in Romans 3:20, 28:

For by works of the law no one will be justified in his sight … For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

Moo argues correctly that Paul would wholeheartedly agree with James concerning his argument “not by faith alone,” but that “it is impossible to imagine Paul saying, ‘a man is justified by works’” (Moo, 115). Once more, however, we must insist that Paul and James are engaged in different arguments due to the different circumstances each is facing. Paul speaks of the beginning of the Christian life, of the initial justification of sinners by grace through faith—without works “of the law.” One’s obedience to the law’s dictates, especially the so-called “boundary markers” of Judaism by which one might be considered “in,” provide no basis for justification. Further, the faith spoken of by Paul is steadfast faith in God through Christ. This faith is not antithetical to works, and will indeed issue in all kinds of works, though these works are the expression of the faith by which the person has been saved.

James, in contrast, is arguing against what may be considered a distortion of Paul’s teaching, whereby one considers that an intellectual commitment to monotheism is sufficient to please God. Further, he is speaking not of initial justification but of final judgement, in which one’s works demonstrate the reality of one’s faith. Nor is James saying that one is saved by the works “of the law,” although his overarching use of works may include obedience to the Torah as it was mediated to the messianic community through Jesus. His emphasis in the chapter as a whole is on works of mercy toward the poor, and obedience toward God.

The key to the verse is the little word “alone” (monon). Justifying faith is never “alone,” but comes to expression in action. The problem with the position set forth by the interlocutor is that faith is separated from works and considered sufficient and complete without works. Faith, however, is a whole-of-life reality, engaging the whole person in response to God, and so cannot be limited to a cognitive or confessional commitment that does not issue in a whole-of-life response to the will and ways of God. Such “faith” is not faith at all, does not justify, cannot save, and is dead.

We must also be clear that works are not “added” to faith, as though the two ideas were separable. Rather, works of obedience and mercy are the way in which faith becomes visible in one’s life and in the world, and so is shown to be faith. Scot McKnight provides excellent insight into the relation of faith and works, while arguing that we allow the biblical text itself to lead the way we think of this relation, rather than forcing it to conform to a predetermined theological conviction:

I see a tendency, which seems to me to be a subtle attempt to let the Reformation have too much influence on exegesis, to prefer this formula: faith is demonstrated by works. What this does is salvage faith as the sine qua non of salvation. which may well be sound theology, but it lacks the nuance of James. (Some have argued that it is James who lacks the nuance and is in need of help.) Instead of locking into the term “demonstration,” I suggest we use each of the four terms James himself uses, and I suggest we use these terms liberally:

Works show faith (2:18).          
Faith works with works (2.22a).
Faith is perfected by works (2.22b).      

Works fulfill faith (2.23).          

While we may be most comfortable with the first and least comfortable with the second, both the third and fourth are instances as much, if not more, of the second as of the first. Yes, works demonstrate faith, but they also perfect and fulfill faith and, as James goes to great pains to emphasize, the two work together to produce a working faith that saves. His emphasis is on their inseparability, not on distinguishing them or on their sequential relationship (McKnight, 244, original emphasis).

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).

Really?

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).

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.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:21

JamesJames 2:21
Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?

With this second rhetorical question James introduces his first biblical illustration to demonstrate that faith without works is fruitless. The grammar of the sentence (ouk) indicates that a positive answer is anticipated to this question, that is, that “our ancestor Abraham” (Abraam ho pater) was indeed “justified by works” (ex ergōn edikaiōthē). That James refers to Abraham as “our father” indicates the Jewish heritage of his readers, and of the interlocutor, and calls to the evidence stand the progenitor of the whole race. If this was the case with Abraham, why would it be any different for his descendants?

James asserts that Abraham was justified by works when or because or as “he offered his son Isaac on the altar” (anenegkas Isaak ton huion autou epi to thusiastērion). The participle anenegkas has been translated in each of the ways suggested in the various English versions of the New Testament. While the translation when may be the best (Vlachos, 96), each is possible, and perhaps in the end it makes little difference: it was because and as Abraham offered his son to God that he was justified. This, at least, seems to be James’s intent.

The event to which James refers is described in Genesis 22:1-6 where God tests Abraham and Abraham obeys God’s voice. Abraham’s obedience results in the confirmation of the blessing promised by God to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3, and the reiteration of the blessing pronounced in Genesis 15:1-6. We have already seen in the first chapter of this letter that the themes of testing, and of hearing and doing are prominent for James. It may be that these elements in the Abraham story drew him to use Genesis 22.

In verse 23 James will support his contention that Abraham was justified by this act of obedience by referring back to Genesis 15:6. James does not read the text in Genesis 15 in a chronological sense as though Abraham was first justified and then later obeyed. Rather, he reads the story as a whole in which Abraham’s trust in God (Genesis 15) and his obedience to God (Genesis 22) are all of apiece. Abraham’s actions of obedience were not simply a demonstration of his faith but were the expression of his faith.

Two aspects of James’s teaching in this verse are worth considering. First, Abraham’s “works” in this illustration are not those of care and compassion toward the poor, but of devotion and faithful obedience to God. This suggests, perhaps, that the works that James has in view in the entire passage are not simply works of mercy, but all those works which issue from a genuine faith in God.

Second, we must consider what James means by the term “justify.” It is very easy to read James through a Pauline lens and suggest that the term is identical in both New Testament authors. Such a move is problematic since it would then mean that James and Paul stand in stark contradiction to one another with Paul arguing that “a person is justified by faith apart from works” and James arguing the opposite (cf. Romans 3:28). A number of commentators, however, note that whereas Paul uses the term to speak of the initial work whereby sinners are brought into right relationship with God on the basis of faith, James uses the term to speak of the ultimate declaration of God in the last judgement on the basis of a whole life lived. The matter, therefore, is between initial and final justification (see, e.g. Moo, 110).

I will take this matter up further once the whole passage has been studied.

Why Study the Biblical Languages?

MelanchthonIn her The Roots of the Reformation Gillian Evans devoted many pages detailing the recovery of the biblical languages by the Renaissance and Christian humanists which played a decisive role in the Reformation. Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) claimed that Hebraei bibunt fontem, Graeci rivos, Latini paludes—“the Hebrews drank from the spring, the Greeks from a river, the Latins from a swamp” (Evans, Roots, 264).

For a thousand years Western Christianity had relied on the Latin Vulgate and the numerous commentaries and glosses that had arisen around that translation. Copyist errors, traditional and philosophical interpretations, and certain translational decisions by Jerome in the fourth century all muddied the waters of biblical interpretation. Hence the humanist and Reformation cry, Ad fontes!—“Back to the sources!”

One of the Reformers, Philipp Melanchthon insisted that learning the biblical languages was essential:

Led by the Holy Spirit, but accompanied by humanist studies, one should proceed to theology . . . but since the Bible is written in part in Hebrew and in part in Greek—as Latinists we drink from the stream of both—we must learn these languages, unless we want to be “silent persons” (Evans, 264).

john1118greekwordle

Likewise Martin Luther, according to biographer Scott Hendrix:

Erasmus need not have worried that Protestant reformers would destroy good scholarship. All the leading reformers were trained in the classics and most had earned advanced degrees. They had no intention of abolishing the study of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, since the knowledge of those languages helped to make the reformation possible. Writing to a familiar supporter in 1523 Luther emphasized that point:

“Do not worry that we Germans are becoming more barbarous than ever before or that our theology causes a decline in learning. Certain people are often afraid when there is nothing to fear. I am convinced that without humanist studies untainted theology cannot exist, and that has proven true. When humanist studies declined and lay prostrate, theology was also neglected and lay in ruin. There has never been a great revelation of God’s word unless God has first prepared the way by the rise and flourishing of languages and learning, as if these were the forerunners of theology as John the Baptist was for Christ” (Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer, 169).

Luther’s final sentence is well worth considering. I have often repeated to my students a comment my former Greek professor made to me: “If you can learn to read the Scriptures in the original languages you will gain 20-25% additional insight into the text.”

A Challenging Day in Church

Zacchaeus Stained GlassGoing to church can be a bit of a challenge, especially for those not used to the practice. The environment is unfamiliar, as are the people, and what goes on. Even those who attend regularly can find it a challenge, for a variety of reasons.

I found it a challenge last week, but in a different kind of way. After a time of congregational worship, three of the younger pastors shared their reflections on what has been the month’s preaching theme: The Table. Each of the pastors anchored their reflections in a story from the gospels. Josh spoke of Jesus and Zacchaeus having a meal together, and of its resulting in Zacchaeus’s repentance (Luke 19). Jess spoke of the rich, young ruler whose “table” was too full for Jesus to have a place, even though he was hungry for eternal life (Luke 18). Andrew referred to Jesus eating at the home of Matthew the tax-collector (Matthew 9) as the on-lookers asked, “Why does Jesus eat with such scum?” (NLT)

The short reflections circled around coming to Jesus, making space for him in our lives, and following him. I was challenged, however, arrested even, by these gospel texts. In the Zacchaeus story Jesus proclaims “Today salvation has come to this house.” What is this salvation of which Jesus speaks? For Zacchaeus, his repentance was a concrete turning from greed to give to the poor. His turning to the poor was, for Jesus, a sign of his turning to God.

So, too, the rich young ruler came to Jesus seeking eternal life. Jesus’ answer: “Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me.” Again, the link between “salvation” and generosity to the poor is evident. Finally, Andrew’s reflection showed Jesus amongst the outcast (though these tax-collectors were not poor in the economic sense), the “sick”, the morally bankrupt, sharing the table, enjoying friendship, joining them and calling them to himself.

So what is “salvation” or “eternal life”? What does it look like? What is the nature of this salvation that Jesus came to bring? It involves more than a simple “sinner’s prayer.”

Much more could and probably needs to said to answer these questions adequately. As is often the case, however, it was not so much what the preachers were saying, but what the Holy Spirit was saying through them as they opened Scripture for the congregation. The Holy Spirit was challenging me. That’s one of the main reasons I still go to church week-after-week: to gather with the people of God in a place where the Word of God is heard and the Spirit of God is active. I don’t think I would still be a Christian without this (sometimes challenging) spiritual practice.

And so I went home challenged.

And also grateful for the ministry of Josh, Jess and Andrew—all Vose students past or present—who serve God by serving his people. As another year at Vose is about to commence, I hope that many more students and graduates will take up the humbling call to serve God in Word and Spirit and congregation—and wherever else the Lord may call.