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Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 4

Read 1 Samuel 4 

It seems that some years have passed since the “man of God” prophesied the Lord’s rejection of Eli’s house (2:27-36). Eli is now ninety-eight years of age, and almost blind. Until now the focus of the story has been on Shiloh, and on Samuel. Now the focus expands to take in national affairs, and Samuel disappears. Israel’s old enemies the Philistines, who had troubled Israel in the days of Samson, return once more to trouble them again. The chapter has two major parts. Verses 1-11 describe the Israel’s loss on the battlefield, while verses 12-22 describe the death of Eli.

In the early part of the chapter, the two armies face each other, and in an initial battle, Israel is defeated with a significant loss of life. After the battle the elders of Israel determine that God has allowed this defeat (GNB), or more directly, that the Lord himself has defeated Israel (NRSV, ESV). They therefore call for the ark of the covenant of the Lord so that God may be among them and save them from the Philistines. Despite the enthusiasm of the army, the plan fails, Israel is decisively defeated, the ark is captured and the two sons of Eli die in the battle, as prophesied by the man of God in 2:34.

The loss of 4000 soldiers in battle would an extraordinary loss. To lose 30,000 would be devastating to the nation as a whole. A whole generation of men—the loss of army, husbands, fathers, sons, farmers, etc. The magnitude of the slaughter is unimaginable, and such a massive defeat would decimate and impoverish the nation. Numbers in the Hebrew Bible are a problematic matter for biblical scholars, and a number of interpretations are suggested including, the numbers are to be understood literally, symbolically, as hyperbole, or re-translated since the Hebrew word ’elep can mean not only “thousand” but family or clan or tribal leader. Many scholars suggest the third option has the least problems and so is to be preferred. (And though I have said that a thousand times, no one believes me!) Nonetheless, even allowing for numeric inflation, this was a devastating loss for Israel, resulting in their being occupied by the Philistines for over twenty years. The Judges’ cycle of apostasy, oppression and deliverance is being repeated here.

A question arises as to whether the soldiers and the elders have a superstitious regard for the ark. Are they “taking the name of the Lord in vain,” as it were, presuming on God in a kind of civic religion that assumes “God” will give them victory no matter the condition of their ongoing relation with God? Evans takes this interpretation, and warns that symbols of the divine presence cannot be treated superstitiously as though we can manipulate God and gain our own ends (42). There is no doubt that this is a perennial issue in Christian spirituality. It seems that we are endlessly creative in devising means of “using” God to get what we want. We imagine that God’s power is an impersonal “force” that we can “tap into” and direct toward our advantage. Such forms of spirituality are more akin to magic and superstition than biblical faith.

Murphy takes a different view, arguing that “the elders had every reason to think that the ark is literally the presence of the Lord.” It was “a strategy of good faith, not superstition” (37). In Judges the conquest of the land is initiated by the priests carrying the ark across the Jordan. At Jericho, the ark led the people as they marched around the city. Yet in this case, there will be no victory, not because God now is impotent, but because of divine judgement: Hophni and Phineas accompany the ark. “The battle at Ebenezer is lost, not because of the elders’ supposing that the ark would automatically save them, but because of the impious behavior of Eli’s sons” (37).

This view finds implicit corroboration in the text itself. Four times in three verses (vv. 3-5) the ark is named the “ark of the covenant of the Lord.” While it is certainly true that the covenant of God with Israel provided many privileges, benefits and blessings to the people, it came also with obligations and responsibilities—obligations that Eli and his sons, at least, had forsaken. Eli had “scorned” God’s sacrifices and offerings, and honoured his sons above Yahweh (2:29). Though the sons accompanied the ark, they had violated their office, the people, the people’s sacrifices and worship, and so the covenant itself. Though they accompanied the ark, the blessing of the covenant would not accompany them.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 2:12-36

Read 1 Samuel 2:12-36

Elkanah and his family have returned home, and the focus now shifts to Shiloh, where Samuel remains, serving the Lord. But all is not well at Shiloh, as the first verse of this passage notes: ‘Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the Lord.’ The passage has four scenes: first a description of Eli’s sons’ disregard for the peoples’ offerings; second, a brief cameo of Hannah and Samuel’s interaction in succeeding years as Samuel grows; third, Eli remonstrating with his sons over their behaviour and warning them of the dire consequences that will follow; and fourth, a prophecy against Eli and his house by an unknown ‘man of God.’

Perhaps the key verse in the chapter is 30b: ‘for those who honour me I will honour, and those who despise me shall be treated with contempt.’ Associated with this is the prophetic declaration in verse 35 that God will raise up for himself a faithful priest, who shall do ‘according to what is in my heart and in my mind.’ This verse, as well as the contrast in this passage between Hophni and Phinehas on the one hand and Samuel on the other, provide some indication of what it is to honour the Lord. Further definition of this will be provided later in the book, in chapter 12. The verse provides another hermeneutical lens by which to understand the unfolding narrative.

The first scene (vv. 12-17) portrays Hophni and Phinehas’s complete disregard—indeed contempt (v. 17)—for the worship of God’s people, taking the best of their sacrifices—by force if necessary—for their own benefit. Later we hear that they are having sex with the women who serve at the tent of meeting—hopefully not by force—and that this is generally known. In the fourth scene Eli is implicated in their behaviour for he has not restrained his sons, but rather has made himself fat on the offerings of God’s people. He ‘honours’ his sons above God (v. 29). Though God holds Eli responsible for the exercise of his office, he does not diminish the responsibility of Hophni and Phinehas. They have dishonoured God and his worship, their own office and the people. They have abused their position and power, serving themselves rather than God, and mistreating the people of God. God’s judgement will be harsh—both will die on the one day. The priesthood will removed from Eli and given to the as-yet-unnamed faithful priest.

In the midst of all this Samuel ministers to the Lord as a little priest in a linen ephod made for him annually by his mother. Like Jesus (cf. Luke 2:52), Samuel grew physically and spiritually, gaining favour both with the Lord and with others. The simple devotion of Hannah and Samuel contrasts sharply with the lives of Hophni and Phinehas, the “anti-priests” who have inverted their true roles (Murphy, 24).

These episodes show the corrupt state into which the national and religious leadership has fallen. Israel remains a tribal society, though the shrine at Shiloh has become a centre of religious and political focus, with Eli “at the apex of the network of local judges and assemblies, a ‘superjudge’” (Murphy, 12). The narrative, therefore, provides the theological justification for the judgement that will fall upon Eli and his house, as well as continuing the introduction of this special child who will become the final judge in Israel prior to the emergence of the monarchy. Despite Samuel’s presentation as a “little priest,” it is unlikely that he is the faithful priest who will replace Eli and his family. Some commentators suggest that the faithful priest is actually Zadok who served as priest in David’s reign, though Christians might also view this as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ priesthood, for he is the truly faithful priest who has done according to all that is in God’s heart and mind (Evans, 37; cf. 1 Kings 2:35).

The severity of divine judgement promised to Eli and his house reflects the standard of holiness required of God’s ministers, and the distance that this holiness makes between itself and sin (Murphy, 25). Abuse of power, position and privilege is always despicable, even more so when it also involves sexual abuse. When those who claim to represent God engage in these kinds of abuse it is especially reprehensible. In this passage we learn that Yahweh refuses to cohabit with such sin and will hold his ministers to account. Leadership implications for ministers today are plain: God calls us to faithfulness in ministry, to honour God above all else, and to find our ministry within the compass of that who is the “true minister of the sanctuary,” the true faithful witness and high priest: Jesus Christ. Religion without faith and piety is not just hypocritical; it is dangerous.

A Prayer on Sunday

Painting by Elizabeth Polfus. See elizabethpolfus.com

Behold, Lord, an empty vessel that needs to be filled.
My Lord, fill it.
I am weak in the faith; strengthen me.
I am cold in love; warm me and make me fervent,
that my love may go out to my neighbour.

I do not have a strong and firm faith;
At times I doubt and am unable to trust you altogether.
O Lord, help me. Strengthen my faith and trust in you.

In you I have sealed the treasure of all I have.
I am poor; you are rich and came to be merciful to the poor.

I am a sinner; you are upright.
With me, there is an abundance of sin;
in you is the fullness of righteousness.
Therefore I will remain with you,
of whom I can receive, but to whom I may not give.

Amen.

(Martin Luther)

Reading Scripture as Spiritual Practice

A month or so ago I decided to read through some of the Old Testament historical narrative books, given that it has been sometime since I have done so. I decided to start with Ruth and read it a chapter a day several times before moving to 1 Samuel. One of my spiritual practices is to read a portion of scripture and then journal one page of reflections about it. For the last couple of years my attention has been given largely to Psalms and James, with other bits and pieces of scripture thrown in. With James I might focus on a single verse for days at a time, though I do prefer to work with larger portions of text. At present I am reading a chapter of the Minor Prophets and a chapter of 1 Samuel most days.

Alongside my reading of the biblical text, I like to also use a commentary or two. Typically, I read a passage for a day or several days, journaling as I go. And then I pick up the commentaries to see what they say. I find that I am often on a good track in my own deliberations. I find often that I learn new things about the text that enriches my reading and deliberations. I sometimes find I disagree with the commentators’ interpretations, or have gone in different directions in my own interpretation. Using several commentaries helps protect against singular views, bringing different perspectives into dialogue that mutually inform and condition the various readings.

My interpretations are no doubt idiosyncratic, though I do endeavour to practise good exegesis. I try to hear what the biblical authors were saying in their own context. I try to read with some degree of historical and literary expertise, though my historical knowledge is better for New Testament reading than Old Testament. The commentaries are indispensable for this kind of background work which often so illuminates the text.

Of course, I bring myself to the text as well. This is one of the benefits of dwelling with the same text for days at a time. After a few days of meditating on a passage, and having done initial exegetical work, all kinds of life-observations and questions that concern my present circumstances begin to surface. More importantly, I think, implications and applications, and theological, ethical and pastoral connections begin to show up and impress themselves upon me. The biblical passage starts to work its way into my consciousness and do its work. Sometimes this can be deeply instructive, or comforting, or challenging, or enlivening. The Spirit speaks through the Word, mostly unobtrusively, and so quietly—though sometimes not so quietly—shapes and reshapes my thoughts and imagination, my commitments and priorities, my intentions and behaviours. Often, I am led to prayer.

Reading the biblical text slowly, exegetically, reflectively helps me get past the “professional hazard” of reading just for information, or to tick off another occasion of legalistic accomplishment, or for sermon preparation. It also helps me get past a “merely exegetical” reading where I am slicing and dicing, examining and parsing, acting as though I am the master of the text, and it is simply a thing to be studied and understood, as though at a remove from my life. Journaling my understanding, insights, and responses slows me down further, helps me internalise the text, and draws forth thoughts and insights that I might otherwise have missed. I am often struck by what I write—not because what I write is a stroke of genius, but rather that things emerge that I did not anticipate. I usually start with ideas already known or anticipated, but as I write insights dawn, wisdom comes. Engaging the commentaries expands this process, slowing it further, introduces dialogue and further reflection leading to additional insight and creativity. Marinading in the text like this evokes a stillness and an openness to the breath of the Spirit, and to prayer. “Text” becomes Scripture. It becomes more of a “living word” that accompanies me through the day. It speaks.

I love this little cluster of spiritual practices that has so shaped and continues to shape, my life. It is a fountain of life and an opening of wisdom for me. I am not sure how it started, but I recall filling exercise books with my studies and reflections as a young Christian. Now I use a handsome leather bound journal because I want to keep the records of these encounters and reflections. I still only write a page a day – maybe 300 words, maybe 400. It is the only form of journaling that has ever “worked” for me.

Is there time enough simply to meditate my way through the entirety of Scripture like this? I don’t know, but I hope to try! This little set of practices, along with the practice of regular corporate worship, are those practices which have sustained my spiritual life over the years. I cannot do without either of them, and when one or the other slips, so too does my spiritual vitality.

A passage in Proverbs helps capture the vitality of the Word for me. The passage focuses on parental instruction, though in the book the “my son” texts seem to convey a divine as well as a human exhortation.

My son [my daughter], keep your father’s commandment, and forsake not your mother’s teaching. Bind them on your heart always, tie them around your neck. When you walk, they will lead you; when you lie down, they will watch over you; and when you awake, they will talk with you. For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life… (Proverbs 6:20-23).

A Sermon on Sunday – James 2

If in James 1 we hear of the good and generous God, then James 2 could be understood as speaking of the good and generous church—those who are the people and children of this good and generous God; those who are the recipients of his good and generous grace of salvation.

James 2 has two major sections, each beginning with a hypothetical story and rhetorical question. In both stories the focus is on the response of the congregation to someone who is poor, which James then uses to teach his listeners about the true nature of the Christian life. In many ways, this whole chapter can be read as an exposition of the “true religion” that James mentions at the end of chapter one. True religion involves a life of faith—and works, of love—understood in terms of mercy.

A Problem in the Church

James 2:1-7   (NRSV)
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

Although this is a hypothetical story, it is likely that it represents attitudes and actions that are actually occurring in the congregations that James is writing to. Notice verse 6: “But you have dishonoured the poor!” These, whom God has chosen! These, who are the special objects of his favour, grace and blessing!

Does God play favourites?
Is God a respecter of persons?
Does God have a “preferential option for the poor”?

God chose Israel—the smallest, weakest, most inconsequential of nations (Deut. 7:6-9). God chooses the weak things of the world to confound the mighty, the foolish, base and insignificant things… Certainly the poor are to be rich in faith, and to love God. James is drawing on a rich seam of the Old Testament here, the idea of the Anawim, those poor who having no hope in this world, cry out to God and put their hope and trust in him. James is also echoing the Jesus of the Lukan beatitudes who pronounces blessings on the poor and woes upon the rich (Luke 6:20-26).

Nevertheless, favouritism like this is incompatible with faith in Jesus Christ, because Jesus himself became poor, identified with the poor, proclaimed good news to the poor, and identified with them. Those who show this kind of favouritism, who reflect the dominant values of the world rather than those of the kingdom of God, have become evil judges with evil thoughts.

The Royal Law

What, then, does God want in the church? We see in verse 8:

James 2:8-9
You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

The “royal” (basilikon) law is the law of the kingdom (basiliea). In verse 13 James refers to it as mercy, and repeats, though negatively, Jesus’ beatitude about mercy.

Matthew 5:6
Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.

James 2:12-13
So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgement.

What is mercy but love-in-action, love with its sleeves rolled up? We get an indication of what James means in the second half of the chapter: mercy is active, mercy works, mercy is moved by the needs of another, mercy presses beyond words to works. Mercy gets involved. Mercy visits the orphan and the widow in their affliction (1:27). Mercy is personal, relational, involved, and active.

The good and generous church is a community of care imaging, reflecting, representing and proclaiming the good and generous God. We are called to be God’s good and generous community because God is good and generous, and because we have been the recipient of his good and generous grace.

We accept others as he has accepted us. We extend to others the generous goodness he has extended to us. We watch out for and care for others the way he watches out for and cares for us. We are his heart, his hands, his lovingkindness and mercy here and now, in our place and in our time. We are a kingdom community, a good and generous church because we are, already, the people of the good and generous God.

A Prayer of Confession

I came across this prayer in Ray Anderson’s On Being Human. Then I prayed it as part of the congregation at Evensong in Adelaide last Sunday. It is the last line of the first stanza that grabs me: and there is no health in us. The prayer is from the Book of Common Prayer (1928), “Morning Prayer.”

ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father;          
We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.          
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.    
We have offended against thy holy laws.        
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done;
And we have done those things which we ought not to have done;
And there is no health in us.

But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.          
Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults.      
Restore thou those who are penitent, according to thy promises
declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord.         
And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake
that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life,          
To the glory of thy holy Name.           
Amen.

New Issue of Crucible Available

The new issue of Crucible has just been published online and is available here.

The issue is focused on the theme of  migration. The editorial states that “one of the most
pressing issues facing our world today is mass migration. From the “boat people” debate in Australia to the refugee crisis in the Middle-east and Europe, the world is struggling with some of the biggest mass migrations in history.” There are several peer-reviewed articles addressing this matter, some other articles and resources, plus book reviews including my own review on Frank Macchia’s Baptized in the Spirit.

Johanson, The Word in this World (Review)

Johanson, Kurt I. (ed.)
The Word in this World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth 
trans. Christopher Asprey (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2007). 
66pp. ISBN: 1-57383-411-4

This little booklet contains two Barth sermons from different periods of his life, a foreword by Eberhard Busch, an introduction by William Willimon, an afterword by Clifford Anderson and acknowledgements by the editor which tell the story of how the booklet came into existence. Altogether it is an attractive and interesting little package. Johanson declares his hand on page 24: “It is also a clarion call to the pastors who herald the glorious gospel of our God from the pulpit, and to those who hear it in the pew, to powerfully proclaim and witness to the Word in this world.” But not only pastors:

I want nothing more than the church, and her scholar-preachers, to be able to offer, in one unified voice, as a part of her calling, a confident word to the world. It is my simple hope and prayer that the Pastor and the Professor can work together toward the recovery of courageous and powerful biblical preaching (28).

Thus the book is concerned with Barth as homiletician rather than theologian, although in truth, the two cannot be separated: “The main value of Karl Barth for us contemporary preachers is that he is a theologian,” says Willimon (10), for “thin descriptions of God are killing our sermons” (18). Thus, Barth’s insistence on the priority of the biblical text, on giving “close, obedient attentiveness” to God by means of this text is what preaching is about. Further, this attentiveness concerns itself, says Eberhard Busch, not simply with what God said once-and-for-all, but with what God says. “Barth learned from the Reformers that the sermon in the service of worship is to correspond to the prophetic office of Jesus Christ” (7-8).

So what do we find in Barth’s sermons? The first, from April 1912 when Barth was just twenty-five years old and a newly-minted pastor, is a pastoral response to the sinking of the Titanic which had occurred earlier that week. The second, from November 1934, was preached in Bremen’s Frauenkirche in the darkening days of the Nazi regime. The first is the work of the young “Red” pastor of Safenwil, the second, that of the seasoned professor of Bonn (although he was stood down from his position shortly afterwards) and a leader in the Confessing Church.

In Barth’s Titanic sermon we see the young liberal pastor at work. His text is not Scripture but a world event. For this Barth, God speaks to and addresses us through these events, though we must make the meaning from them. Barth assumes that we can read the will and purpose of God in and through the events of the world. The “divine spirit in humanity” is equated with human progress, creativity and inventiveness. God wills this progress, this mastery over nature (36). We see also the young socialist pastor at work as he blames the disaster on capitalism. Barth even notes that the president of the shipping company “is among those who have been rescued—unfortunately, we are almost tempted to say” (40)!

The argument of the sermon develops in three points. First, Barth addresses the hubris of humanity which draws divine judgement from God. Second, he insists that this hubris is grounded in self-interest and leads to destruction. Finally, the way of Christ, or of mercy, is seen in the self-sacrifice of some ordinary sailors that others might live. This spirit must prevail.

So this shipping disaster doesn’t merely point up our helplessness and our faults, our broken arrogance and our secret egoism. Nor does this [mercy] just proclaim to us our transience and its cause. It declares to us with a clarity we rarely experience that God’s purposes are advancing in the world. One senses something of how Christ is becoming an ever greater force in the world, when one reads of those who did not seek to save themselves but did their duty, who ultimately did all they could, not for themselves but for others, who silently and nobly retreated in the face of death to allow those who were weaker than them to continue on the path of life. In view of facts such as these, it takes great unbelief to keep referring to our age as evil and godless (41-42).

As a communicative exercise, it is possible to appreciate Barth’s style and rhetoric. He draws on a contemporary event that has captivated the daily press and is no doubt prominent in the thought and discussion of his parishioners. The reader can sense the energy and pastoral concern with which the sermon might have been delivered. As a sermon, however, some commentators have given Barth a great Fail. Barth himself lamented, in later life, about this sermon delivered in his “misspent youth.” Why the concern? A number of reasons might be given, but primarily, Barth later came to expect the biblical text to be the master of the sermon, something obviously not the case in this sermon, focussed as it is on a contemporary event. The sermon is more social comment than biblical exposition. More problematic, Barth does not preach Christ at all in this sermon, but uses the name of Christ—only once in the sermon—as a cypher, or as a symbol for an ideal of human and social progress. Just two years later Barth’s liberal optimism came crashing down with the onset of the war which forced a radical re-evaluation of his theology, on the basis, not least, of his discovery of the “new world in the Bible.”

The second sermon is entirely different and reflects this discovery. According to Hughes Oliphant Old, Karl Barth’s Bremen sermon was “one of the outstanding sermons of the twentieth century” (25). The sermon is clearly addressed to the congregation living “in these days and times” of great temptation and struggle, urging them to courageous obedience to the lordship of Jesus. In this sermon the biblical text is front and centre, and the sermon begins without fanfare, introduction, or contextual remarks. Barth’s method is simply to exposit the biblical text itself (Matthew 14: Jesus—and Peter—walking on the water), line-by-line. Yet the exposition is not “historical” but applied as though the text speaks directly as “our story.”

The way to counteract paganism in the form of National Socialism is by close, obedient attentiveness to another God. The very form and structure of the sermon is itself a kind of theological claim (Willimon, 21).

Barth provides a theological and ecclesial interpretation of the text. In Barth’s hands, Peter images the Confessing Church, boldly stepping out in obedience to Jesus, but fearful and faltering—and also helped! It is hard to imagine a more forthright summons to the church assailed by Hitler’s regime, yet this is precisely how Barth is applying the biblical text. Just as Peter by his action was distinguished from the other disciples,

There is distinction like this in the church; people who are distinguished by what is demanded of them, distinguished by the dangers to which they expose themselves, but also distinguished by the help that comes their way. And distinction like this, a specific event like this, has always been the mystery of the great periods of the Christian church. Is it the case that distinction like this is to be granted to us too in these days and years, to us, to our evangelical church, in that from the midst of everything that bears the name of church, a crowd has dared to step out in obedience and become the confessing church? (56)

No longer the young, liberal, we see here Barth as an ecclesial theologian of the Word, doing theology for the sake of proclamation, that the church might truly be the church, bound only to one lord, and thus truly free. Discernment in the time of decision is often unclear and even fraught. But the church must risk obedience and act. We do wait; we must hasten! And Christ is with us.

And if you say to me, “Indeed, but isn’t there always still room for error; couldn’t the voice of our own hearts always try to pass itself off as the voice of Jesus Christ?” then my reply is, “We may and must continually seek the word, the conclusive word of Jesus Christ himself, in the word to which the prophets and apostles are witnesses, the word of those who for every age have born testimony to him, to his revelation, to his work, to the love of God which has appeared in him.” And whoever hears this testimony to him knows that he himself is there, that the light is there, the truth is there, the victory is there; not a human victory but God’s victory in his church, even in such times of tribulation and division as we are now living through. We can be sure that the victory is always on the side of the Holy Scripture, and so it is today (53).

Doctrine as Life-Skill

In his excellent essay on “Providence” (in Kapic & McCormack, Mapping Modern Theology, 203-226) the late John Webster suggests that the classical doctrine of providence was not so much metaphysical speculation as practical theology,

Providing orientation and consolation to believers by instructing them in how to read the world as an ordered, not random, reality—ordered by divine love and directed by divine power for God’s glory and the creature’s good (207).

Thus the knowledge of providence is not theoretical or metaphysical knowledge, but

One of the skills required for and reinforced by living life in a certain direction. . . . Knowledge of providence can [console and direct] because it refers us to the objective realities of God’s antecedent purpose, present active care, and promises for the future (216).

When I read this I was intrigued by the idea of doctrine understood as a skill for Christian life and service. Those Christians equipped with a theological understanding of providence are prepared in some sense for living “in a certain direction,”—that is, toward God. The doctrine orients and consoles, provides direction and a framework for thinking about life’s blessings and difficulties, opportunities and threats. It provides assurance that life is fundamentally purposeful and in some way ordered, and so also encourages the believer to live purposefully and confidently in trust that the provident God sees, provides, directs and cares.

If this is true of the doctrine of providence, is it true of other doctrines also? Do they also provide certain “skills” for fruitful Christian living “in a certain direction”? Beth Felker Jones argues that this is the case in her Practicing Christian Doctrine in which she argues that theology and Christian life are bodily realities which press towards visibility in the world. Therefore the careful articulation of doctrine must issue in practice if it is to be faithful to its intent. Doctrines are not simply about intellectual development or “getting the faith right.” They are equipment for Christian life.

The corollary is also true: a Christian without doctrinal foundations may be considered “unskilled in the word of righteousness” (Hebrews 5:13). We owe to ourselves and to our congregations to learn and teach good doctrine, and to reflect and deliberate on the significance and implications of these doctrines in the mundane affairs of daily life that we may become skilful with respect to Scripture, doctrine and life.