Tag Archives: God

A Sermon on Sunday – James 1

After the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami David Bentley Hart wrote an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal asking, “Where was God in the Tsunami?” He received numerous responses ranging from atheists asserting that the tsunami proves that there actually is no God at all, to gratitude from others who appreciated his perspective, to severe criticism from many who argued that, on account of God’s all-encompassing providence, we must insist and conclude that God sent the tsunami for his own ultimate though hidden purposes. There is a brand of theology that sees God as “all-controlling” for his own good purposes. Everything that happens can ultimately be traced back to “God’s good plan.” How can we possibly trust a god like that?

James knew about the trials and troubles that can come storming into life. He knew the pain and heartache of unjust criticism, of grinding poverty, of oppressive governments and social systems. Yet in spite of it, James absolutely insists on the utter, unchanging, uncompromising goodness of God. In the first chapter of his letter he has two texts which declare his utter conviction that God is a good and generous God.

Who Was James & Why Was He Writing?

James 1:1
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.

Although we cannot be certain, it is often thought that the author of this epistle was James, the brother of Jesus. Imagine being the brother of Jesus!

James did not always believe in Jesus. The gospels say explicitly that Jesus’ family did not believe in him, and that they thought he was nuts (John 7:5; Mark 3:21).Yet here he is calling himself a servant (= slave) of Jesus—whom he calls Lord, and writing a letter in his name. What happened? The resurrection: “then he appeared to James” (1 Corinthians 15:7). James became the leader of the church in Jerusalem, gained a reputation as a holy man and became known as James-the-Just, and eventually, in about 62AD, was martyred.

James is writing to “the twelve tribes of the Dispersion.” This enigmatic address indicates that James was writing for a Jewish audience amongst those who had been “scattered” or dispersed among the gentiles. We get some clues concerning his audience from accounts in Acts which tell of the Jerusalem church being dispersed as a result of persecution that arose around Stephen’s martyrdom (ch. 7; 8:1; 11:19). Was James writing to Christian refugees driven out of their homes and city, jobs, families and livelihoods? Accepted by neither gentiles nor by other Jews, these displaced Christians faced grave difficulties, and James writes to encourage and strengthen their faith.

Chapter One: An Overview

After his one line greeting James gets right down to business. Verses 1-8 deal with the trials that come crowding into our lives, trials sent not from God, but simply the circumstances of life, or even spiritual opposition. It is possible that James is thinking especially of economic trials because of the amount of attention he gives to this matter, not least in vv. 9-11.

But trials arising on the outside are not the only difficulty Christians face: temptations also arise from within. In both cases it is our faith that is being tried; these tests come not to build our faith but to destroy it—trials by discouraging us and tempting us to give up, temptations by luring us away from God, causing our faith to shrivel. Pressure from without and pressure from trouble within—we are in a right state, aren’t we! But whether from without or from within, James’s admonition is the same: stand fast! Persevere!

James finishes the chapter with further admonitions about the true nature of the new life Christians have entered into: an active life of compassion and holiness, doers of the word and doers of the work.

There is much we can speak about in this chapter—weeks of sermons! But today I want to focus especially on what James says in this chapter about God—the good and generous God.

God, the Single-Minded Giver
Right in the middle of James’s discussion of the trials we face he suggests that we ask God for wisdom—so that we might know how to conduct ourselves in the trial, perhaps even, how we might be delivered from it.

James 1:5
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.

One of the most important things we could pray for in the midst of a trial is wisdom—that spiritual/practical understanding of God’s will and purpose as it applies to everyday life. Notice that James does not say we ought to pray for deliverance from the trial, but for wisdom so that we might know how we are to conduct ourselves in the midst of the trial. It is spiritual because it comes from God and is directed towards the fulfilment of God’s purposes. But it is also practical because God’s purposes are realised in daily existence and daily life. The command to ask is present: we should continually ask God for this!

But note what James says about God in this passage:

  1. God is the giving God – this is the kind of God that God is. God so loved the world that he gave…
  2. God gives generously– the Greek word here (haplōs) is unusual but insightful: it does mean generously, but it means more than that: it means to be wholehearted, or single-minded: God is single-minded in his giving. That is, God is wholeheartedly and single-mindedly generous.
  3. God gives to all– his generosity is universal, limitless, and without restriction

James thus gives us grounds for great confidence in our prayer—as long as we ask in faith! How can we be double-minded when God is single-minded in his generous giving!

The Always-and-Only Good God
James’s second passage comes in his discussion of temptations we face. In verse thirteen James insists that

James 1:13, 16-17
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. … Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers and sisters: Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

Once more James insists on the utter goodness of God: to the very depths of his being and unto all eternity; in all his works; in his deepest purposes, intentions, will and motivations, God is good. God is goodness itself; he is transcendentally good, and there is in God nothing but goodness. God is unchangingly, single-mindedly, wholeheartedly and generously good!

How might we respond to this? By standing fast in trials and temptations, persevering and enduring. By trusting God, hoping in God, believing in God, rejoicing in God, drawing near to God, waiting on God, and loving God.

Reading Karl Barth on Election (5)

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:44-51, The Foundation of the Doctrine.

Barth names the fourth inadequate foundation for the doctrine of election as a doctrine which begins with a view of God in terms of omnipotent will. God is wrongly conceived if viewed as absolute power, and God’s election is also wrongly conceived if viewed as a sub-set of a thorough-going determinism in which God is viewed as the almighty causative agent of every happening. Certainly, for Barth, God is almighty but God’s divinity is not considered in abstraction from election. Indeed, his election is the context within which we conceive of his divinity and providence. The god of absolute power is not the God of Scripture (44-45).

Barth identifies the tendency to subordinate election as one moment in an overarching providence in Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventura, and Zwingli. It is to Calvin’s credit that he broke with this tradition, treating providence together with creation, and predestination as the climax of the grace of God revealed and active in Jesus Christ. However, “that predestination should not only be subordinate to providence but superior to it was apparently not what Calvin intended” (46). Thus, Calvin’s followers again returned to the former tradition in which the ruling concept of the doctrine of election became once more, that of an “absolutely free divine disposing” (46). Barth cites extensively from the recently published volume by Boettner to show the contemporary continuation of this approach, which he attributes to Gomarus rather than Calvin (47).

Barth rejects this approach: “latet periculum in generalibus” (‘danger lurks in generalities!’; 48).

Once again we must say that use has been made here of a presupposition which is not so self-evident as it makes itself out to be. Recourse has been had here to an apparent movement in formal logic from the general to the particular, without any demonstration whether or not such a procedure corresponds to the specific logic of this subject. … If [the doctrine of election] is grounded upon the logical necessity of the free and omnipotent divine will active both in general matters and in particular, both in the world as a whole and also in relation to the salvation and damnation of man, this means that it is…abstractly grounded so far as concerns the electing God (48).

For Barth, the electing God must be properly identified, not abstracted from a general theory of deity. God is sovereign and does indeed rule, but as the one God has self-determined himself to be, in the concrete limitation of his being as given in this election, the particular God known in his self-revelation. Thus,

The true God is the One whose freedom and love have nothing to do with abstract absoluteness or naked sovereignty, but who in His love and freedom has determined and limited Himself to be God in particular and not in general, and only as such to be omnipotent and sovereign and the possessor of all other perfections (49).

If God is viewed abstractly in terms of absolute power and omnipotent will, not only is he viewed in a manner distinct from his self-revelation and the testimony of Scripture (49), it is difficult to escape the danger of portraying God as a tyrant, and of understanding his rule as that of absolute caprice (50-51).

Infinite power in an infinite sphere is rather the characteristic of the government of ungodly and anti-godly courts. God Himself rules in a definite sphere and with a definite power. What makes Him the divine Ruler is the very fact that His rule is determined and limited: self-determined and self-limited, but determined and limited none the less; and not in the sense that His caprice as such constitutes His divine being and therefore the principle of His world-government, but in such a way that He has concretely determined and limited Himself after the manner of a true king (and not of a tyrant); in such a way, then, that we can never expect any decisions from God except those which rest upon this concrete determination and limitation of His being, upon this primal decision made in His eternal being; decisions, then, which are always in direct line with this primal decision, and not somewhere to right or lift of it in an infinite sphere (50).

It is impossible to read these comments written in the early 1940s without hearing veiled references to the absolutist tyranny of Hitler’s Third Reich. Although God is indeed Almighty, his rule is not to be confused with the absolutist pretensions that marked Hitler’s rule. In the decision of election God has determined his being to be God only in a particular way.

The Best Book I’ve Never Read

The Color Purple Book CoverWell, that is probably an overstatement based in ignorance: there are undoubtedly many great books I have never read! Nevertheless, about a year ago I started listening consistently to audio books when cycling or doing the housework and so on. Usually I listen to novels, especially since I do not have much time to read novels anymore. A little while back I listened to Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and then listened to it again.

The book is an extraordinary work, harrowing and brutal, devastating in its portrayal of inhumanity, sensitive and tender in its realistic portrayal of the beauty and tragedy of humanity. The audio performance was itself part of the pleasure; read by the author, every nuance and inflection drew me more deeply into an unknown world, as the story implicated and accused me, frightened and outraged me, touching my heart with its pathos and vision. It is both a cry of rage and protest against the injustice and inhumanity we humans inflict on one another, and a stubborn affirmation of hope in the midst of suffering, of endurance against all odds, of a kind of triumph in the end as we become more and more who we truly are.

Yet this becoming is neither easy nor automatic. Virtues grow slowly and under great pressure, and it is these that sustain a great and ordinary life. Walker does not idolise suffering, excuse injustice, or laud poverty. Nor is she ‘politically correct.’ Her major character, Celie, emerges into freedom only with great difficulty, slowly becoming the character and finding the community by which she becomes who she is.

(I wonder if Stanley Hauerwas has written on this story? I must see what I can find.)

The Color Purple is a deeply spiritual, deeply theological book, though the theology conveyed is neither biblical nor orthodox. In a preface to a newer, British edition Walker reflects,

Twenty-five-years later, it still puzzles me that The Color Purple is so infrequently discussed as a book about God. About ‘God’ versus ‘the God image’. After all, the protagonist Celie’s first words are ‘Dear God’. Everything that happens during her life, spanning decades, is in relation to her growth in understanding this force. I remember attempting to explain the necessity of her trials and tribulations to a skeptical fan. We grow in our understanding of what ‘God/Goddess’ means, and is, by the intensity of our suffering, and what we are able to make of it, I said. As far as I can tell, I added.

The book is an epistolary novel, the drama, characterisation and plot progressing by means of a series of letters written by Celie and her sister, Nettie. Many of the letters, especially in the earlier sections of the book begin simply, ‘Dear God.’ The final letter of the book begins, ‘Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear everything. Dear God.…’ Walker clearly holds a pantheistic, or at least panentheistic, view of God in which the divine is deeply immanent within everything, a faithful creator and life-giving, life-affirming Spirit. She revolts against the intellectual idolatry that reduces God to the white, to the male, to the human. From the perspective of Christian orthodoxy, her rejection of Jesus Christ as attested in Scripture as the revelation of God is deeply troubling. From the perspective of the lived history of her family and people, it is hardly surprising.


There is much in this critique that Christian orthodoxy could listen to and learn from. Walker’s vision of the grace given in the order of creation is deeply moving and inspiring. Her understanding of the sinfulness of humanity is also particularly acute—at least to a degree. Where she departs from Christian orthodoxy is in limiting God to the order of creation. Hers is a religion of nature, and ‘redemption’ a reconciliation of the human spirit with this universal and universally-available reality.

There is a prequel of sorts to this story. Back in the very early 90s I rented the movie from the local video store. I didn’t last long: the opening rape scene was an affront, the lesbian encounter part way through not to be borne. I mentioned the movie in a sermon not too long after that, telling how I had turned it off. A woman in the congregation came up to me afterwards, surprised at my reaction to the film, and describing it as one of the most meaningful movies she had ever seen. Fortunately I could accept that what was difficult for one person was not necessarily the same for another (“for whatsoever is not of faith is sin”—Romans 14:23).

In hindsight, I think I see things more clearly. She was a woman; I, male. She was in her forties with more life experience and maturity, as well as more suffering and difficulty. I was barely thirty, if that, and with a much more ‘moral’ understanding of God. My own sexual brokenness and vulnerability played a large role in my reaction, as did the very black-and-white biblical hermeneutic I had in those days. It is possible the movie did not do justice to the story. But no matter how faithful or otherwise Spielberg was in his adaption of the book to the screen, it is more likely that I did not have either the life-maturity, spiritual maturity or theological maturity to hear, let alone penetrate, its message.

Twenty-five years later I am deeply touched and humbled by this story. Good literature does that: it holds up a mirror to ourselves, opening the soul to deeper understanding of itself, life, the world, and sometimes, God. Good literature probes, accuses, interrogates, and questions. And it does it in such a winsome and alluring fashion, we hardly notice it occurring. Alice Walker won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, and with good reason. This is a book to savour. I will read it for myself as time allows. I will also listen to it again, just to hear Alice Walker read me back into this world at once so alien and so presently real.

New Volume on the Doctrine of God

Sonderegger_Katherine_photo2014I first came across Kate Sonderegger because she is a Barth scholar. Her early work was on Barth and the Jews, and she has written a number of Barth essays in various volumes. She is another of a growing number of prominent female theologians, one who has just published the first volume of a projected series on systematic theology. Her first volume is on the doctrine of God and here it appears she is establishing her credentials as an independent thinker, certainly breaking with the path blazed by Barth and followed by so many others in the twentieth-century. Sonderegger’s Doctrine of God begins not with the trinity but with the one God and then proceeds with a discussion of the classic attributes of this one God: God’s omnipresence, omnipotence and omniscience. Michael Allen has conducted an interview with Kate about her new volume on the doctrine of God. (And part 2 of the interview also arrived today…)

I remember as an undergraduate writing an essay on the trinity in Barth and Moltmann, and coming down on the side of Barth who starts with the one God. Moltmann criticised Barth for this, but my impression was that Barth had the better of it. The biblical witness testifies to the unity of God and only then proceeds to discuss his triunity. Moltmann wanted to start with the triunity of God but in my estimation never quite made it back to establishing the divine unity.

The publisher’s blurb reads:

The mystery of Almighty God is most properly an explication of the oneness of God, tying the faith of the church to the bedrock of Israel’s confession of the LORD of the covenant, the LORD of our Lord Jesus Christ. The doctrine of divine attributes, then, is set out as a reflection on Holy Scripture: the One God as omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient, and all these as expressions of the Love who is God. Systematic theology must make bold claims about its knowledge and service of this One LORD: the Invisible God must be seen and known in the visible. In this way, God and God’s relation to creation are distinguished—but not separated—from Christology, the doctrine of perfections from redemption. The LORD God will be seen as compatible with creatures, and the divine perfections express formally distinct and unique relations to the world.

This systematic theology, then, begins from the treatise De Deo Uno and develops the dogma of the Trinity as an expression of divine unicity, on which will depend creation, Christology, and ecclesiology. In the end, the transcendent beauty who is God can be known only in worship and praise.

A Sermon on Sunday – James 1:12-18


Saint_James_the_JustI have not preached this sermon, but prepared it to see how I might approach this passage if I were called upon to preach it in a congregational context. Moving from exegesis to exposition is not always easy, and I am not overly happy with this sermon as it presently stands. Hopefully it would be developed and improved as I prepared it with a specific audience in mind. Perhaps its focus would be sharpened, and story, illustration and application would bring this somewhat cerebral text to life.


The Two Loves

I am not sure I agree with the way Monica tells the story, but here goes…

We had been married a little under two years, had recently returned home from a six-month short-term mission experience in Indonesia, had our first baby, and were preparing to move to rural WA for our first pastoral appointment. I was obviously tired and had gone to bed earlier than Monica—after working hard all day, and then preparing sermons into the evening, I might add! When Monica came in I was asleep, but apparently half sat-up, turned, looked at her, eyes open and asked, “What’s the password?”

“What password? What do you mean?”

“What’s the password?”

Realising that I was still asleep even though sitting half upright and talking (it had happened before, unfortunately, and to my everlasting shame!), she said again, “I don’t know what the password is. You’ll have to tell me the password.” To which I replied—apparently in a deep, husky voice, “Desire!

For some reason, Monica still thinks that’s a funny story and loves to re-tell it, even thirty years later! She leaves out, of course, the most important point: the reason the word desire was so prominent in my mind…

Desire. What kinds of things do you desire? Do your desires run in good directions? No doubt some of them do. But our desires, typically, are a mixed bag of good and not-so-good. Our passions can shape the direction of our life for extraordinary achievement or they can run amuck. James turns his attention to these things in our passage this week.

Read the text: James 1:12-18

 Human Passions

In verse 13 James takes aim at an attitude that was evidently a problem amongst his listeners, who were blaming God for the troubles and temptations they were experiencing. Instead of “the devil made me do it” they were saying, “God is making me do it!”

It is convenient to attribute our temptations to God. If God is tempting us, we can hardly be blamed for giving in to the temptation. No, in fact, we would be doing God’s will by giving in! Although we might think this is all a bit silly, it is not all that uncommon for someone to justify their behaviour—sometimes even unconscionable behaviour—by claiming God had led them into it, that God has a higher purpose for them, and this activity is part of a bigger plan, that God has spoken to them, that God is love and surely he would not want them “suffer” any longer. Actually, it is amazing how easy it is to justify even sinful behaviour by attributing some blame to God.

In our text, however, the situation is probably a little different. James’ hearers are undergoing real suffering and hardship, very possibly economic oppression and marginalisation, and they are angry. Perhaps they want to take matters into their own hands, and strike out at those who are oppressing them. With bitterness of spirit they are blaming God for their troubles, and perhaps even suggesting that God wants them to rise up against their oppressors.

“Let no one say when he tempted, ‘I am tempted by God.’” James rejects this position out of hand, because God is always and only good, and he never changes. God cannot be tempted with evil for in himself, God’s goodness is his holiness and he is beyond temptation. Further, God’s will is that his people also be holy, so why would he tempt them to evil? For James, the very idea is ridiculous. Perhaps we are tempted, then, by the devil? But no, in this case James does not go there either, but lays the responsibility squarely at our own feet. We are responsible: “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.”

Desire in and of itself is not necessarily wrong. We can desire good things, both for ourselves and for others. Our passions can be noble. This weekend in Perth we have seen the results of noble passions, with the “giants” who have visited our city to open this year’s Perth International Arts Festival. A passion for art, creativity and excellence resulted in a series of street festivals as hundreds of thousands of people turned out to enjoy the spectacle of the giants. This week in Perth we have also seen the results of ignoble passion, again in the arts, with the opening of Fifty Shades of Grey in the cinemas, exploiting prurient interests and celebrating dominance and power.

James is familiar with the dual nature of our passions and draws on ancient Hebrew concepts to set forth his understanding of the nature of sin. The Hebrews believed that two impulses are at work in the human person, the yetzer hara‘ and the yetzer hatov. The first yetzer is the evil impulse, and the second is the good impulse. Our impulses, desires and passions can run in either direction, and when they run with the yetzer hara‘ we are lured into sin, enticed by a particular kind of bait, and snared in the trap of sin. Our own desires lead us into a trap. One commentator says that we are “hooked by own bait.”

James gives a biological analogy of the birth and development of sin: desire “conceives” and “gives birth” to sin. But sin is not the end of the story. The sin develops and grows and comes to maturity and eventually “gives birth” to death. We could probably push this analogy too far, and turn it into some kind of “mechanics of sin.” Paul refers to “the mystery of iniquity” which highlights the incomprehensible nature of sin. Nevertheless, if we add intention and action to illegitimate desire, sin results, and if we pursue and persevere in sin “the child grows up” exerting an increasing dominion over our lives. “Make no mistake!” says James: sin is deadly and death-dealing. What appears as a harmless little desire here may grow into a destructive habit or devouring addiction.

Divine Purpose

“Make no mistake!” says James. Illegitimate desire leads to sin, and sin leads to death. We are wrong if we think that this is God’s will for us. God is the lord and giver of life, not the lord and ruler of death! “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above,” says James, “coming down from the Father of lights.” God is only and always good, insists James¸ and he never changes in this his character and temperament, but only wills and does that which is good. He cannot will evil and does not will evil, and so cannot tempt us with respect to evil. Even God’s judgement, ultimately, is for the good.

James calls God “the Father of lights” which is almost certainly a reference to God as the creator of the heavenly lights—the sun, moon and stars—and so a reference to God’s universal sovereignty and goodness. But God is unlike the heavenly lights that he has created. Whereas they change, even in the midst of their regularity, due to lunar phases and solar eclipses, God never varies in his basic character of goodness, his good intent and purpose. God intends good for his creation, and is kind to the just and to the unjust (Matthew 5:45; Acts 14:17). God intends good for you and for me, which is why he warns us concerning the destructive nature of sin. Even in its fallen and alienated state, God wills the restoration of his creation, rather than its destruction. Yes, God is judge and he will judge the wickedness of humanity as James clearly declares in other passages. But destruction is not God’s purpose. Not only is God creator, he is also the redeemer.

In verse 18 God’s redemptive purpose comes more clearly into focus. “Of his own will,” says James, “he brought us forth by the word of truth that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” God, the Father of lights, has given us birth! In a daring image, James applies the image of pregnancy and birth to God. God himself has conceived us, carried us and brought us to birth through the “word of truth”—the gospel of our salvation (Ephesians 1:13; Colossians 1:5). Of all God’s “good and perfect gifts,” this is the very best: the redemption and regeneration we have in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit so that we have actually become God’s own children! Notice that the whole emphasis is on God’s purpose and God’s activity, and so on grace. James is not teaching a theology of works, but like Paul, is a theologian of grace.

The contrast between God’s will here and human desire in verse 15 is unmistakable. Whereas human desire gives birth to sin and death, God’s will gives birth to life and new creation: we are “born again.” This is language used by Jesus, Peter and John to portray the new life believers have in Christ. Something marvellous, something miraculous occurs when someone becomes a Christian: we are actually, really born … a second time! We are born into God’s kingdom, born into God’s family, born spiritually. This is new life, a new hope, a new beginning, a fresh start, a new creation. You are not who you used to be. I am not who I used to be be. We are not who we used to be.

Scot McKnight, however, reminds us that the new birth is not simply personal. The “us” is corporate, the messianic community, the church. This is a helpful reminder that while salvation is personal, it is neither private nor simply individual, but has a corporate intention and public aspect. Indeed, McKnight goes on to say that,

The “new birth” of James is both intensely personal and structurally ecclesial: God’s intent is to restore individuals in the context of a community that has a missional focus on the rest of the world (131).

God’s ultimate purpose is finally seen in the final phrase of the verse: “that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” God’s redemptive vision is as large as creation itself. Because God has his eye on the whole of creation, he has brought forth the community of God’s people. The Father of lights has not abandoned his creation but is leading it towards its consummation. Just as God called Abram because he had his eye on “all the families of the world,” so God has brought forth the church, not simply to be the sole recipient of his goodness and blessing, but that through the church, his every good and perfect gift might also be directed to every creature. Such a gracious God is not leading people to fall as some in the community seem to be asserting (v. 13). Rather, the good and gracious God is one who strengthens them to endure the test that God’s purposes for them and for the entirety of the creation might be realised

Our Perseverance

So, make no mistake! Sin is deadly, but God is good. And God has a divine purpose for his creation, including us. Nevertheless, in this life we face troubles without and temptations within. Pressure on the outside, pressure on the inside. But whether without or within, James’ admonition is the same: persevere, hold fast, stand firm, resist!

Every believer is confronted with this choice, whether to give play to their sinful desires or stand firm against them. But James also has a final—and surprising—word of wisdom for us. Standing fast is not a matter of will power or gritted teeth determination. Just as the root of sin is found in desire rather than the will, so the secret of perseverance is found in our desire, in this case, in our desire and love for God.

In verse 12 James reiterates the advice he gave earlier, encouraging his hearers that those who do stand firm will be blessed, and indeed, will receive “the crown of life.” If desire leads to sin which gives birth to death, testing met with perseverance leads to life. In this verse, the crown of life is the final eschatological victory, the hope of eternal life in the kingdom of God. Blessed, not only in time but in eternity. Blessed not only as individuals, but as the community of God’s kingdom in the midst of a renewed creation. This blessing is given, according to James, “to those who love God.” In the final analysis, the Christian life is about who or what we will love. Will we love God, or will we turn our love inward and love ourselves? Augustine and Luther have famously defined sin as homo incurvatus in se—the human being turned in on themselves. But God calls us to a higher love, to love God with all our heart and soul and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.

What does it mean to love God? In broader biblical perspective we see that love for God involves keeping his commandments (John 14:15). It means to keep his word in our hearts (Deuteronomy 6:4-6). In this context, however, it might best be understood in terms of loyalty to God and to God’s will in the face of pressure to compromise and capitulate. It means to look to God, to hope in God, to approach God in prayer, and to trust in God. It means to rejoice in God and find our boasting, joy and life in him. The Christian life is neither a cynical quest for reward nor a fearful avoidance of hell. It is not simply a stoic endurance of affliction or a herculean withstanding of temptation. It is a life of joy rather than gritted teeth, of hope rather than fear, of faith rather than despair, of generosity rather than selfishness, and supremely, of love.

Scripture on Sunday – More on James 1:17

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:17
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

Several theological questions gather around this verse. First, does this verse speak of the common grace which is the divine goodness which is given to all to all and sundry whether they believe in God or not? Because the name “Father of lights” has a creational and thus universal sense, it is possible to see in this verse a reference to the universal goodness of God. After all, the Lord is “good to all” (Psalm 145:8). God is unchanging and unremittingly benevolent, causing his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and his rain to fall on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45), satisfying our hearts with food and gladness (Acts 14:17). Such a reading, however, is not natural to the context. James is addressing his “beloved brothers and sisters” who have been “brought forth” by God’s will through the word of truth (v. 18). He gives generously to those who ask in faith nothing doubting (vv. 5-8). Thus, although this verse might it be used to support the idea of common grace taught explicitly elsewhere, here it is better to think of it as an exhortation to believers to trust God’s goodness rather than assign temptation to him.

The second question concerns God’s immutability. According to James, in God there is “no variation” or “shadow of turning.” Clearly James holds the Old Testament tradition that God does not change (see, for example, Malachi 3:6; Numbers 23:19). But in what sense does God not change? The question is important because of the way the concept of God’s immutability, his changelessness, has been understood in the Christian tradition. For many, God’s immutability is understood in absolute terms, as though God is absolutely unchanging in his being and essence. Behind this idea lies the concept of the divine perfection: if God is absolutely perfect he could never be subject to change, for any change would be for the better (in which case he was not actually perfect before), or for the worse (in which case he is no longer perfect). This philosophical concept of absolute divine immutability, however, renders God unable to love or respond emotionally to his creation. God becomes aloof, sitting in transcendent splendour above the created order and untouched and unmoved by its pain, need and suffering. Such a picture of God, however, is far removed from the biblical portrait of God whose heart was broken over humanity’s fall into sin (Genesis 6:5-6), and who is portrayed by Jesus as running to greet his wayward child who now returns (Luke 15:20).

In what way, then, is God “without variation” or “shadow of turning”? It is unlikely that James was thinking in metaphysical terms in the sense that God is ontologically incapable of any change. The Old Testament references indicate that God is unchanging with respect to his character and intention—ideas which fit the context of this verse well. God is unchanging in his goodness and in his will to bless. God is also unchanging in his righteousness and holiness. As such God stands opposed to evil in all its forms and will not countenance evil in the lives of his people. How, then, could God tempt his people toward evil? For James, such a view is unthinkable in light of the unwavering goodness of God.


Scripture on Sunday – James 1:17

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:17
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

Certainly James does not want his congregation to misunderstand the serious ramifications of sin which lead to death. Nevertheless, his warning in verse 16 is perhaps more directed to the positive truth which now comes into view in this verse: he especially does not want them to be deceived about the constant, consistent and unchanging goodness of God. We have already noted that some among his listeners have been deceived about God’s goodness, including assigning evil intention and temptation to God. In this verse James counters this view with a firm declaration that God is always and only good, and that God never changes. Therefore God is not the one who tempts them, nor does God send evil upon his people. Rather, God is the source of every good gift, the giver of “perfect” gifts, single-mindedly good and generous (v. 5).

The opening phrase of the verse is thought by many commentators to be an ancient proverb because it forms a hexameter, a series of words whose syllables form six rhythmic sections (Vlachos, 47). Davids suggests that the original saying could have been something like “every gift is good and every present perfect” (86). Applied in this context, it affirms the divine goodness in simple and homely terms.

The NRSV translates the phrase as “every generous act of giving (pasa dosis agathē), with every perfect gift” (kai pan dōrēma teleion; cf. NASB, Holman, and others). While it is correct that dosis may be translated in terms of an act, it is more likely that James is using the two terms dosis and dōrēma as synonyms and as such does not intend any distinction of meaning between them. McKnight (124) also suggests that given the poetic nature of the phrase, neither should we seek to draw distinction between “good” (agathē) and “perfect” (teleion); in the whole phrase James has one thought and one intent, which is to declare the goodness of God.

These good and perfect gifts are from above (anōthen estin), “coming down” (katabainon) from the “Father of lights” (apo tou patros tōv phōtōv). The phrase indicates the heavenly origin of these gifts, and the present tense suggests that such gifts are continually descending from above. What are these gifts which continually descend from above? James does not say. However, he has already spoken of God giving wisdom to those who ask in faith (v. 5). In chapter three he will speak of the wisdom which is “from above” (3:15, 17). We might readily, therefore, consider wisdom as one of the gifts that God gives. But we need not limit God to this gift; every good gift and every perfect gift is from above. Not only the blessing of wisdom, but salvation, healing and forgiveness (5:15), answers to prayer (5:16-18), eschatological redemption and reward (1:4, 12)—all these and more besides are the generous gifts that the Father of lights gives to his children.

While the overall thrust of the verse is quite simple and clear, the details are less so. The term “Father of lights” appears only here in Scripture, and probably intends to designate God as the creator (“Father”) of the heavenly lights—the sun, moon and stars, recalling Genesis 1:3, 14-18. That God is associated with light rather than darkness adds to the emphasis that he is not the source of temptation.  The final phrase adds to our picture of God’s character by insisting that with respect to God there is “no variation” (par’ hō ouk eni parallagē) “or shadow due to change” (ē tropēs aposkiasma). Not only is God good, he never changes; that is, God is only and always good. Although none of the terms used here are technical astronomical terms, parallagē and tropēs are commonly used in astronomical contexts. This adds support to the idea that “Father of lights” refers to God the creator of the heavenly bodies (Moo, 76).

How the phrase is to be interpreted, however, is less clear. James could be simply likening God’s goodness to the regular and dependable movements of the heavenly bodies, or he could be saying that God is unlike the heavenly bodies, for they are ever shifting in their course, subject to change and shadows during the lunar cycle or eclipses. The final phrase of the verse, “shadow due to change” suggests that the latter interpretation is best. Thus God never changes nor is he changed. Does he therefore send tests and temptations? No, he sends that which is good, and, since he is unchanging, he could never send evil (Davids, 88).

Bruce McCormack on Barth’s Doctrine of God

God-the-Father-1779-xx-Pompeo-Girolamo-BatoniBarth’s Doctrine of God in Church Dogmatics Volume II/1

McCormack argues that Karl Barth has developed a post-metaphysical—i.e. Christological—doctrine of the divine being in which God assigns his own being to himself, and constitutes himself as triune, in the singular event of divine election. That is, God is who and what he is only in this decision. The result of reading Barth in the way McCormack does is that he can assert (a) that there is no immanent trinity prior to this divine determination of God’s own being; and (b) there is no “eternal Son” as such, that is, no eternal Son who has an existence independent of and prior to the divine determination that the Son’s being would consist in his union with humanity.[1]

McCormack turns to Church Dogmatics II/1 where Barth discusses “The Being of God in Act.” Barth agrees with Augustine, Aquinas and the Protestant scholastics that God is actus purus: the living God whose very essence is life. But Barth wants also to go further and insist that God is actus purus et singularis.[2] McCormack interprets this in terms of Barth’s later statement: “No other being exists absolutely in its act. No other being is absolutely its own, conscious, willed and executed decision.”[3] He goes on:

This is why God is actus purus et singularis. The eternal act in which God determines to be God-for-us in Jesus Christ and the act in time in which this eternal act reaches its (provisional) goal are a “singular” act, an act utterly unique in kind. God is what he is in this act—which is not true of anyone or anything besides God.[4]

God is what he is in the eternal act of divine election in which God determined his own being as God for and with us in the covenant of grace. Indeed, God is Jesus Christ in his second mode of being, not simply the “eternal Son.” McCormack argues that Jesus Christ can be both the electing God (i.e. the subject of the decision of election) as well as the consequence of the decision of election because in Barth’s view of the triune God there is but a single subject, whether in the mode of being of Father or of Son. Thus the decision which constitutes the person of Jesus Christ—and also the eternal Son—is also his decision because as the one God he participates in the sole divine subjectivity. McCormack is aware that he is straining the limits of language and logic:

Logically, the “transformation” of a Subject into another mode of being cannot be carried out by a Subject who already is that mode of being; otherwise no “transformation” has taken place at all. In truth, however, Barth’s claim will never be understood where we rest content with playing with the logic of Subject-object relations. What is happening here is quite simply a refinement of Barth’s earlier doctrine of the Trinity.[5]

Instability in Barth’s Doctrine

McCormack argues that Barth’s concept of the eternal being of God was altered as a consequence of his mature Christology. Barth, he notes, actualised and historicised the being of Christ, and so also of God. In so doing he preserved the immutability of God while jettisoning divine impassibility and timelessness. (Here McCormack reiterates his contention that Chalcedonian Christology remained in some ways ambiguous in its treatment of Christ’s person, and in other ways is not wholly sufficient for contemporary Christological reflection. See my earlier posts in this series on Chalcedonian Christology and Barth’s Historicised Christology.)

In the next sections of his essay, then, McCormack identifies three aspects of Barth’s doctrine of God in II/1 in which the Swiss theologian still works within the frame of a classical metaphysic to some degree at least, which produces, in McCormack’s view, instability and incoherence in his earlier doctrine. McCormack traces this instability to Barth’s desire to retain God as God, to secure the divine freedom of God from us and for us. Thus, he speaks of God’s “immutable vitality” as something that God possesses in himself above and beyond the “holy mutability” assigned to the attitudes and actions of God in the coming of Jesus.[6] So, too, the power of God, his divine omnipotence, is viewed in II/1 as something prior to and above his work of creation and redemption, etc. God could have been omnipotent in a different form. After his doctrine of election, however, Barth says, “May it not be that it is as the electing God that He is the Almighty, and not vice versa?”[7] McCormack finds great significance in the vice versa of this citation, where the “door is firmly closed against the possibility that election…will be seen as simply one possibility among others available to a God whose omnipotence has been defined in abstraction from what he has actually done in Jesus Christ.[8] Such is the case also with God’s knowledge and will.

There is an instability at the heart of Barth’s treatment of the being of God in Church Dogmatics II/1—an instability which finds its root in the belief that to God’s “essence” there belongs both a necessary element and a contingent element. … To define the “essence” of God in terms of both necessity and contingency, of immutability and mutability, of absoluteness and concreteness is to allow both elements in these pairs to be canceled out by the other. An essence that is contingent, mutable, and concrete is not and cannot be necessary, immutable, and absolute—unless God is necessary, immutable, and absolute precisely in his contingency, mutability, and concreteness. Where the two are allowed to fall apart as polar elements, the result can be only incoherence.[9]

The reason for this instability in Barth’s doctrine lies in the fact that Christology does not control his theological ontology. Once Barth has reworked his doctrine of election in Church Dogmatics II/2, these kinds of tensions are, says McCormack, eliminated.

[1] In fact, McCormack quite openly notes that “what I offer in the pages that follow is a reconstruction—what Barth ought to have said, had he followed through, of the ontological implications of his revised doctrine of election with complete consistency.” See McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 211, emphasis added; cf. also pp. 211-213, 215, 234, 237-239.

[2] Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics II/1: The Doctrine of God, ed. Torrance, G. W. Bromiley & T. F., trans., T. H. L. Parker, W. B. Johnston, H. Knight, J. L. M. Haire (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), 264.

[3] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 215. McCormack is citing Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1, 271, though the emphasis is his.

[4] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 215, original emphasis.

[5] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 218.

[6] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 233.

[7] Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics II/2: The Doctrine of God, ed. Torrance, G. W. Bromiley & T. F., trans., Bromiley, G. W. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), 45.

[8] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 236.

[9] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 237-238, original emphasis.

Karl Barth – A Remarkable Life #2

Time Cover BarthToday I continue to post some observations drawn from Eberhard Busch’s Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts which I highly recommend.

The living and true God, the high and holy God, the transcendent and immanent God, the one God revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the person of Jesus Christ, God the Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer, God the Wholly Other, the Good and Gracious God who has come to us and judges and calls us in Jesus Christ: this God was the centre of Barth’s existence, from whom and towards whom he lived. It was the reality of this God who ever stands over against us which drove Barth’s break with the Liberal theology of his student years, and it was the knowledge of this God revealed decisively in Jesus Christ that continued to drive his innovative theology over the course of his career.

Dismayed by the capitulation of all but one of his Liberal teachers to the war policies of Kaiser Wilhelm in 1914, Barth and his friend Eduard Thurneysen knew they could no longer follow this theology, and so sought a “wholly other” foundation for theology (it was Thurneysen who first used the famous phrase). They tried starting again with Kant, Schleiermacher and Hegel, but found them more and more dissatisfying. In the end, they turned again to Scripture and found, “Lo, it began to speak to us.” Barth began his career with exegesis, especially of Romans, and it was this work which catapulted him into public awareness. For much of his career he taught not only theology but also New Testament exegesis. His Church Dogmatics abound with extended passages of biblical exegesis and exposition. About to be expelled from Germany by the Gestapo in 1935, he said in his final words to this students:

We have been studying cheerfully and seriously. As far as I was concerned it could have continued in that way, and I had already resigned myself to having my grave here by the Rhine! I had plans for the future with other colleagues who are either no longer here or have been away for a long time – but there has been a frost on our spring night! And now the end has come. So listen to my last piece of advice: exegesis, exegesis and yet more exegesis! Keep to the Word, to the scripture that has been given us (259).

Theology and Church
Theology, of course, is what Karl Barth is most well-known for. This was not only the field of his expertise, but also his passion. As early as 1902, shortly before his sixteenth birthday, and on the eve of his confirmation, ‘I made the bold resolve to become a theologian: not with preaching and pastoral care and so on in mind, but in the hope that through such a course of study I might reach a proper understanding of the creed in place of the rather hazy ideas that I had at that time’ (31). Theology, for Barth, is a human endeavour of response to the Word of God spoken to us in Jesus Christ. It is faith seeking understanding, the free and joyful science of God who has given himself to be known by us. It demands our very highest, deepest and most concentrated thought, and yet it is still grace if we come to know God at all. Indeed, as Barth struggled to grasp how he might arrange and structure the doctrine of reconciliation, ‘I dreamed of a plan. It seemed to go in the right direction. The plan now had to stretch from christology to ecclesiology together with the relevant ethics. I woke at 2 a.m. and then put it down on paper hastily the next morning’ (377). Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation (Church Dogmatics IV/1-4) is seen by many as a modern classic—and its outline came in a dream!

The Church Tower at Barmen
The Church Tower at Barmen

But theology, for Barth, is a discipline in and for the church, and indeed, for the entirety of his career Barth remained a man of the church. It is no accident that his major work is called Church Dogmatics—he had changed the title from an earlier attempt which was titled Christian Dogmatics. Barth wanted to make sure that theology is an activity of the church, and that the church rather than the academy was the proper locus for theology, although theology could legitimately be undertaken in the university so long as it remained true to its proper theme and method. Barth did theology to support and inform the proclamation of the church, and throughout his career pastors and preachers remained amongst his most avid readers. If only that remained true today! Theology is not an end in itself, but exists as a ministry of and to the church that it may be faithful in its other ministries of preaching and teaching. In so doing the church remains a teaching church and a hearing church, the place where God’s gift of revelation continues in the power of the Holy Spirit, and the church is thereby continually formed and reformed, gathered, built up and sent.

Not only is theology in and for the church, but as Busch makes crystal clear in his account of Barth’s life, theology is also and simultaneously in and for the world. Theology is done in the world as well as in the church, for God’s Word comes to us as people in the world and God’s call makes us responsible to the world. For Barth, then, theology and ethics belong indissolubly together, and always in this order: right thought about God issues in right thought about the world and the church’s life in the world, and so generates an active life in correspondence to the active God revealed in Jesus Christ. Barth lived an active life in the world. During his Safenwil pastorate (1911-1921) he was known as the ‘Red Pastor’ because of his socialist convictions and activity on behalf of the poor workers in his village undergoing industrial transformation. He was deeply involved in the Confessing Church and the theological and ecclesial resistance to Hitler. After the war he pleaded for the forgiveness of the Germans and participated actively in its reconstruction, and was just as deeply involved in the politics of the Cold War, at odds with his many friends on both sides of the Atlantic because he refused to be caught up in anti-Communist fervour, but instead sought to support the church living under Marxist regimes.

Scripture on Sundays – James 1:5

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:5
But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.

James trusts that through the work of endurance we ultimately will be so complete as to “lack nothing” (v. 4). In the present, however, it is entirely possible that we may lack various attributes, among them, wisdom. This new paragraph continues James’ reflection on the theme of trials, and uses the link-word leipō (“lack”) to connect verse five to verse four.

Why does James single out wisdom rather than, say, peace or courage, love or unity? These, too, are significant and worthy virtues, even and especially in the midst of trials. But James directs his listeners to wisdom, and will later devote a whole section to wisdom as something he desires for his listeners. Wisdom is crucial to maturity. Wisdom is important in times of stress and trial. Wisdom guides action and response. Even James’ “knowing” in verse three is an aspect of wisdom. In singling out wisdom, James stands in a long Hebrew tradition which valued wisdom as “the principal thing” (cf. Proverbs 4:7 KJV). The best thing for which we might ask is not deliverance from trials but wisdom that we might conduct ourselves wisely in the midst of them.

What, exactly, is wisdom (sophia)? In the New Testament the term is used with a range of meanings, including the knowledge of God’s plan of salvation or of God’s eschatological purpose (e.g. 1 Corinthians 1:18-30; Ephesians 1:8-11). In his first letter to the Corinthians and that to the Colossians, Paul contrasted forms of speculative religious wisdom with the true wisdom which is found in Christ. Members of these communities wanted to appear spiritually wise by claiming secret forms of wisdom by which they knew spiritual mysteries, or the processes by which to become truly spiritual (Colossians 2:8-23). Paul rejects these religious expressions of wisdom as worldly. So, too, James contrasts earthly wisdom with that true wisdom which is from above (3:13-18). Since the true wisdom is from above, it is a gift given by God rather than a natural endowment humanity is graced with or can develop apart from a relationship with God. The wisdom humanity can develop is earth-bound rather than divine. In this text, then, James shows us that wisdom is given to the believer in response to prayer. It is not a speculative kind of wisdom intent on exploring and explaining esoteric spiritual mysteries. It is spiritual wisdom—the gift of God—but is also intensely practical, providing a true perspective on the nature of life and trials, and oriented to the kind of virtuous character befitting the people of God. Moo (62) identifies wisdom as a practically oriented virtue that gives life direction for the godly. It includes insight into God’s will and the way that will is to be applied in the common circumstances of life. For Davids (72), this gift from God enables the believing community to see history from a divine perspective and so also enables them to stand firm in the midst of the trial.

Hence James commands any who lack wisdom to ask for it: aiteitō (ask), as a present imperative suggests that God’s people should continually ask for such wisdom, and indeed may do so with great confidence because the God to whom the prayer is addressed is “the giving God.” By declaring God to be the giving God (para tou didontos theou) who gives generously or wholeheartedly (haplōs) and without reproach (oneidizontos) to all (pasiv), James provides great assurance to those who pray to this God for wisdom: “it will be given to them” (kai dothēsetai autō).

Confidence in prayer is the fruit of confidence in God, which in turn is based upon the knowledge of God’s gracious character and God’s will (cf. 1 John 5:14-15). James simply assumes (no doubt on the basis of the Old Testament, e.g. Proverbs 2:1-5) that God wills to give wisdom to his people. Thus his whole focus is on the generous character of God whose generosity is universal, indiscriminate and inclusive (“to all”; cf. Matthew 5:45 where God gives sunshine and rain to all indiscriminately). This generosity is underlined in James’ use of haplōs, which appears in this form only here in the New Testament. The word is usually translated in English versions as “generously” which is an appropriate translation. But it also means “singly” or “simply” in the sense of being undivided, wholehearted, or perhaps best, given the thought James will develop in verses 6-8, “single-mindedly.” That is, God is wholeheartedly and single-mindedly generous. Or as Vlachos (25) so nicely states it, “God’s giving is as wholehearted as it is universal.” To emphasise the point James also notes that God gives freely and without reproach, without demeaning the recipient or showering them with shame. God is no “fool” who gives with one hand and takes back with another, generous with nothing except criticism (cf. Sirach 20:14-15). Those who come to God in prayer will find that God gives sincerely and without reserve or criticism. God’s commitment to his people is total and unreserved, and so they may expect to receive (Davids, 73). How, then, can we be double-minded toward a God who is so single-mindedly generous?