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James and a Living Gospel

James and a Living Gospel

Our pastor at Chumuckla Community Church started a sermon series on the book of James. This provoked me to look again at Bruce Epperly’s little book Holistic Spirituality: Life Transforming Wisdom from the Letter of James. Here’s a sample:

Despite Martin Luther’s misguided dismissal of James as “an epistle of straw,” due to James’ emphasis on agency and lifestyle rather than receptive grace as central to Christian experience, James is good news for congregants and seekers. It is the gospel lived out in everyday life, not by words alone or doctrinal requirements, but by actions that transform the world. This is the good news of Jesus Christ who shows us the pathway to abundant life, and not a dead letter or a soul-deadening creed or abstract doctrines about the divinity of Jesus unrelated to daily life. James invites us to be companions on the pathway of the living Christ. (p. 4)

Dave Black quoted today from Gordon Fee’s commentary on the epistles to the Thessalonians, discussing the connection between believing and living. I’m going to link to Dave’s post again tomorrow, when I briefly discuss Bible commentaries, but Dave’s post is worth reading in this connection as well.

Bruce Epperly comments again on the supposed contrast between James and Paul:

While Paul’s theology is often contrasted with the Letter of James, both Christian leaders believed that faith without works is dead (James 5:17).8 Paul affirms “the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (5:6). (Galatians: A Participatory Study Guide, p. xxvii)

I think we frequently see contrasts when we should see differences in emphasis and even in circumstances.

 

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How Was Jesus Portrayed as Crucified to the Galatians?

How Was Jesus Portrayed as Crucified to the Galatians?

 You foolish Galatians! Who put you under a spell? Was not Jesus the Messiah clearly portrayed before your very eyes as having been crucified? I want to learn only one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the actions of the Law or by believing what you heard? (Galatians 3:1-2, ISV, from BibleGateway)

I only managed to discuss about the first five verses of Galatians during my Thursday night Bible study. Next week I’ll look some at the Spirit and the Law in Romans as well as in the rest of this chapter.

There are two key points I see in the two verses I quoted.

  1. Paul tells the Galatians that Jesus was “clearly portrayed” to them as crucified. How is that? They obviously didn’t all witness the actual crucifixion. The answer, I think, is that Paul, both in words and in life, portrayed a crucified savior. It’s worthwhile to think about how this might work and how we might each portray Christ crucified to others.
  2. The Galatians should know, according to Paul, by the fact that they received the Spirit. Now how do they know that they have received the Spirit? There are many ways in which people claim to be able to know. Pentecostals might pick speaking in tongues. Holiness Christians might look to the presence of holiness in the life. But I would suggest that this is primarily an internal experience. Yes, a genuine internal experience will bear fruit, but the question here is not whether someone else can tell, but what you know yourself. Paul had likely heard the testimonies of those impacted by his portrayal of Christ crucified, and having heard those, he was shocked that one could abandon such an experience for someone else.

I suspect, in fact, that for many of the readers/hearers of this letter, the reminder of that experience did, in fact, have a serious impact on their thinking. Why indeed am I looking for another way to receive something I already have? What do I think will be better about my life in the Spirit following circumcision.

Teachers and preachers might take a lesson here about trusting the experience of their hearers. Refresh their memory; remind them of their experience. Trust the Spirit.

Here’s my video.

When Definitions Tangle: Law vs Law and Will vs Will

When Definitions Tangle: Law vs Law and Will vs Will

I might have said collide, as sometimes seems to be the case, but let’s start with tangle. Here’s Paul in Romans 2:

12 All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. 15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them 16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all. (Romans 2:12-16, NRSV, courtesy of BibleGateway.com).

What definition of “law” can you use that will actually make sense of everything Paul is saying. Those who have sinned “apart from the law” also perish “apart from the law.” First inclination is to think those without Torah perish without Torah. Of course we might compare Romans 7:7 and ask just where is sin without a law. To get out of Pauline literature, we might note that 1 John 3:4 identifies sin as the transgression of the law (or lawlessness), while (back to Paul again) “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). Pardon me for jumping about, but I’m illustrating the problem of definitions here.

Then we have verse 13, where the “doers of the law” will be justified, except that we can refer to Galatians 2:16 (another book, but still Paul), where we are informed that nobody will be justified by the works of the law. So is Paul referring to the same law in Galatians 2:16? I’m not going to resolve all this here. I’m just suggesting the serious need to look at definitions. I’ve heard these various passages put together, and I myself have quoted 1 John 3:4 as though it came from Paul, just because I have it squirreled away in my brain along with Paul-talk.

But just with Paul’s discussion we may be looking at some tangles, as verse 14 suggests that Gentiles, not possessing the law, might instinctively do what the law requires. Now doubtless this doesn’t refer to the Gentiles instinctively knowing to practice Leviticus 6, which provides detailed instructions for a trespass offering. Not to mention any number of chapters around it. So there’s something other than the details of Torah that Paul has in mind here. From verse 15, “what the law requires is written on their hearts” suggests the same thing, and apparently God will judge them according to the law that they have.

My own though here and throughout the writings of Paul is that he sees an overall law of God which is then instantiated for those God is working with. The law (as you have it) reflects the law (as God desires it), and expectations are laid on you accordingly. The closest reflection of living by God’s law would be when our acts proceed from faith (Romans 14:23). I’m not really trying to fill out this thesis here. Rather, I’m suggesting that a great deal of confusion in reading Paul would be eased if one were as flexible in understanding the word “law” and connected phrases as Paul is in using the term.

Which leads me to the term “will.” What is God’s will? What is God’s plan? Some people are wonderfully comforted with the idea that God has a plan for their lives. Others are not that happy that they don’t really have a choice. Sometimes these ideas clash even when they are used by people who would both (or all) say that they want to live “in God’s will.”

But what do we mean by that?

I would suggest that we, in the modern church, are even more flexible in our use of “will” than Paul is in his use of “law.” I would suggest that God’s will is actually a very flexible thing. God’s plan for your life is that you make the best use of your gifts and talents according to the principles of God’s law. Just what has God decided and what is left to you? Listen, think, act, and enjoy.

God is flexible enough to deal with it!


(Featured Image credit: Openclipart.org.)

Bloody Sacrifices and Salvation

Bloody Sacrifices and Salvation

One of the problems with understanding biblical talk about salvation is that we do not live with a sacrificial system. For many Christians, the whole idea of sacrifices is that someone sinned and a bloody sacrifice was required for atonement. Christians believe that because of one bloody sacrifice, that of Jesus on the cross, no other bloody sacrifices need be offered, and we’re very relieved. In Judaism, the sacrifices have been replaced by Torah observance, without sacrifices due to the absence of the temple. Despite the desire of some Jews to rebuild the temple, I suspect the majority are quite happy with its absence.

This was emphasized to me recently as I prepare for (never ending) episodes of my study on Paul, especially as I read Galatians, and even more as I read Hebrews. The problem is that every word needs to be defined, and we are, to a large extent, convinced that we already know what the words mean. In fact, we are so convinced that we can define ourselves right past the message of the scripture we’re reading. As Mark Twain said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” (Read more at BrainyQuote).

My purpose here is not to provide a new and perfect (I have been reading Hebrews, after all!) answer to the question of what sacrifice really means. The word means different things in different places. I has a range or ranges of meaning. In cultic terms, as opposed to the more personal,, it seems to grow out of the idea that one needs to communicate with the divine. That can be as simple as the need to present your petitions effectively or as complex as wanting to hear from God, or from the gods, what is the ultimate plan for the physical universe, always assuming there is one.

That’s why you have a complex array of sacrifices and rituals in any religious system. The actual sacrifices and rituals evolve as worship takes place, and as people believe they receive communications, or more specifically directions, from the divine. The actual rituals are a mix of what people expect such things to be (tradition), from what people perceive to have worked (accurately or not), what people have heard, and available options and resources. These rituals will also combine the perceived needs of people, secular authorities, and religious authorities in various measures.

It may seem somewhat irreverent to some to apply this kind of process to biblical rituals, but as I argue in my book When People Speak for God, communication involves at least two termini, and one of those, in this case, is human. The lesser (slower, narrower, less precise) terminus determines the quality of the received message. In addition, a culture does not turn on a dime. Even revolutions are actually evolutionary to some extent.

The result is that the cultic system serves a range of needs. In modern Christianity we’ve come to think of salvation in rather simple terms: Avoid hell, and go to heaven. The intervening problem is that we’re sinners (though that term can get complex too), and the solution is the sacrifice of Jesus. All of which can be quite helpful except that it leaves us living in this world with all the many and varied issues in our lives.

The biblical concept of sacrifice was not quite so narrow. Or, rather, I should say that the biblical concepts of sacrifice were not quite so narrow. There is no particular reason to assume that every author in scripture is going to use the word “sacrifice” (or rather, various words sometimes so translated) in precisely the same way. If you read the texts carefully, you’ll find they are quite varied and nuanced.

In Leviticus, the world is made up of sacrifices. That’s because, for the most part, Leviticus is a book giving instructions about the cult to priests who were to carry it out. In that book sacrifices speak to the continuous presence of God, to atonement for specific sins, to atonement for guilt perceived for unknown reasons, to thanksgiving for blessing, to rituals for healing and purification, and ever so much more. The sacrifices were an integral part of the way the community of Israel was to live in community with its God.

The sacrificial system was not universally loved. For the prophets, it was often a dead routine carried out in Jerusalem by a nation in rebellion. Even earlier we have Samuel’s comment to Saul:

22 And Samuel said,
“Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
as in obedience to the voice of the LORD?
Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed than the fat of rams.

(The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (1 Samuel 15:22). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.)

Or as Hebrews Hebrews 10:5-7 quotes Psalm 40:6-8:

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,
“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body you have prepared for me;
6 in burnt offerings and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.
7 Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’
(in the scroll of the book it is written of me).”

The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Hebrews 10:5–7). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Now the author of Hebrews puts Psalm 40:6-8 into the mouth of Jesus, and here emphasizes something that is often missed in Christian discussions of atonement. One of the claims made by various New Testament writers was that Jesus accomplished God’s will in a way that humans had failed to do. It’s not that we don’t have in mind the idea that Jesus accomplished God’s will. Rather, it is because that is not part of our view of atonement.

I think this is why we so often have trouble understanding something like John 3, in which yet another different view of atonement is presented, one in which we immediately “have” eternal life. The typical response to this is that I’m going to die. How is it that I can have eternal life? But that’s because we get off the track of a desire to create community here and to be in communion with God (and both of these concepts invite further discussion and definition), and have limited our idea to one thing. Where do I spend eternity?

That is a question that doesn’t work well in isolation. It makes faith, salvation, and atonement a narrow and selfish thing. It’s not that we shouldn’t want to care for our eternal reward. Rather, it’s because we shouldn’t try to plan our eternity independently and as a solely future event.

I’m mostly raising questions here, and providing way too little in pointing the way. The key thing I’d like to suggest is that we need to quit reading scripture in the elementary or high school sense of “look the word you don’t know up in the dictionary.” That’s a good starting point. But then you need to allow the context of one author’s work build a nuanced definition for you.

I recall reading Ludwig von Mises’s book Human Action back when I was in college. It’s more than 800 pages of rather intense prose. In that book von Mises creates his own vocabulary. He’ll say that a particular word (psychology, for example, which he replaces with thymology [but not precisely]) has problems of definition. Then he defines the word himself and proceeds to use it in further discussion. If you don’t pay attention, you’ll wind up completely baffled a few pages further. You can’t use the dictionary, because the word is not there. What you can do is develop your own understanding of the term as von Mises uses it.

Try that with your Bible. It can be rewarding!


(Featured image is from Adobe Stock [#126750439] and is licensed. It is not public domain.)
Perspectives on Paul: Some Comparisons between Galatians and Romans

Perspectives on Paul: Some Comparisons between Galatians and Romans

This will continue the discussion, dealing more with definitions. In the area of soteriology (the study of salvation) we frequently make the same statements in terms of words and structure, yet mean something quite different by it. “Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins” means quite different things, depending on who is saying it.

Perspectives on Paul: Introducing Salvation

Perspectives on Paul: Introducing Salvation

We’re going to start our look at Paul’s soteriology by reading Galatians 2:15-3:18 and looking at Bruce Epperly’s fourth lesson in Galatians: A Participatory Study Guide, “The Dynamics of Grace.” Here’s a quote:

Three key words are present in Galatians – grace, justification, and faith. Put simply, grace is God’s love embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The cross of Christ is victorious over sin and liberates us to live freely through God’s Spirit. Grace can’t be earned, but is God’s loving gift for all who have gone astray. Earning God’s love by following the law ends up separating us from the grace of God. God gives us everything, but we want to justify ourselves as if the cross and resurrection never occurred. We can’t nullify God’s grace by our dependence on Jewish law; but we can diminish our experience of grace. (p. 34)

Tonight I’m going to talk about some views of what salvation is, what we are saved from, what we are saved to, and how this is accomplished.

Thankful for the Gift of Suffering for Jesus?

Thankful for the Gift of Suffering for Jesus?

Because you have been graciously given this on behalf of Christ:
not only in Him to believe,
but also for Him to suffer. (Philippians 1:29, excessively literally)

I’ve been meditating on two texts as the new year begins, Philippians 1:27-30, and Ephesians 5:1-2. I’ve been kind of ignoring this suffering thing so far. But last night listening to music in worship at Freedom Church Pensacola, it suddenly struck me to think: Do we have any songs in which we actually praise or thank God for suffering? There may well be, but I don’t recall one off-hand.

This is certainly not a criticism of the church I was in at the time I thought it. I don’t recall this sort of thing anywhere. We don’t talk about it in the way Paul does here. In fact, we don’t really want to acknowledge the reality of suffering. Often our singing, praying, preaching, and indeed our living presents the pretense that nothing ever can or will go wrong. Have you ever heard anyone say in church, when a testimony is called for, that they have had a horrible week and just don’t know how they can go on? No! That’s a sign that they’re crazy. The intelligent and sane ones pretend.

I don’t think Paul is saying here that suffering is wonderful and good in itself. I think the privilege is that the suffering that will come—and despite our desires, it will—is not vain and of no worth, but rather it is suffering on  behalf of the kingdom. It’s not cheering that there is pain, but rather cheering from the pain that whatever happens is not in vain.

This reminds me of the Battle Hymn of the Republic and the frequent change of the line “as He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free” to “as He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free.” (You can find more on this here.) Those who have served in the military know that dying may be necessary. It’s not what you live for, but many people have faced death for their nation. Many Christians have faced or are now facing death for their faith. It’s a reality, but just as we change the line in the song, we’d rather not talk about it. Certainly, we don’t want to sing about it.

Conducting ourselves in a way that is worthy of the gospel (Philippians 1:27) may involve annoyance, discomfort, suffering, and even death. God’s gift is that we do it in, with, and through Jesus Christ.

 

Experience, Authority, and Paul (Galatians 1:1-2:14)

Experience, Authority, and Paul (Galatians 1:1-2:14)

Last night for my perspectives on Paul series I reviewed what we’ve discussed so far and wrapped up my discussion of Paul’s claim to authority as an apostle. I can summarize this as follows: The Bible records religious experience, i.e., people’s experience of God in one way or another. (Even revelation, such as a vision, is an experience of the divine.) In order to understand, or even better, connect with the same narrative, one needs experience.

Beyond the summary, let me note that my own personal experience of the moment is not decisive and authoritative. Yet experience does eventually become authoritative within a particular tradition.

I mentioned some books I worked on at the end of last year as well as others I consulted. Here are some books and notes.

Philosophy for Believers by Edward W. H. Vick. In particular, chapter 6, “Experience and God.”

Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers by Alden Thompson. I was working on this in December. I think one of the key contributions Alden makes to the discussion is to focus so strongly on observing the process of inspiration in progress. One might say, “experiencing the experience.”

The Ground of God: Contemplative Prayer for the Conteporary Spirit by Donna Marie Ennis. I brought this book in simply because it reflects spiritual experience. Often the intellectual approach reflected by biblical exegesis and systematic theology is contrasted and opposed to a mystical approach. I think an ideal will mix both experience and intellectual study. It was fun to read Alden’s and Donna’s books over the same period of time.

Galatians: A Participatory Study Guide by Bruce Epperly. Bruce takes a fresh and refreshing approach to Paul. Often progressive writers dismiss Paul while more conservative writers read him in a narrow way. Bruce is a progressive, but he sees Paul as a creative, challenging, and exciting pioneer of theological thought.

Meditations on the Letters of Paul by Herold Weiss. Herold’s approach to Paul is incredibly helpful with a series of essays on themes Paul addresses. This is his second book subtitled “Exercises in Biblical Theology.” The first was Meditations on According to John. One of the key contributions, I think, is to help bring together biblical exegesis and theological reflection, which are often divorced, unfortunately.

So here’s the video: