James in a Nutshell

jamesTwo nights ago at our Bible Study in Lochboisdale we thought about how we would answer if someone asked:

what is James (the New Testament letter) about?

We came up with a suggestion for ‘James in one sentence’ – and it’s actually the second part of James 2:18…

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.

The idea of our faith being intimately linked with our deeds runs through every chapter that we’ve studied so far. When I pass through trials, what do I do? Blame God, or trust the Father of creation who gives good things and purposes to bring redemption to all of his creation (Ch.1)? Religion is worthless if it is not about what we do: control our speech, care for the needy (Ch.1). When I see the world’s social stratifications in the church, what do I do? Perpetuate the injustice of the world, or express the values of God’s Kingdom (Ch.2)? If I am a teacher, what do I do? Act arrogantly, or lead and teach humbly (Ch.3)? In my relationships in the church, what do I do? Perpetuate quarrels out of envy, slandering others, or repent and seek the way of humility (Ch.4)? In the Reformed church faith and works have been held at too great a distance from one another. True faith is an obedient faith. Faith is about doing, not just thinking. Faith without works is dead (and so is works without faith).

The concept of wisdom is also important to James. It crops up in 1:5, 3:13, 3:15 and 3:17. But if we remember that wisdom is ‘living well in God’s good but fallen world’, we see that wisdom infuses the whole letter and underlines the same point about living out (through our deeds) the faith in Jesus Christ that we have embraced in our hearts. In fact, it is only those who follow Jesus Christ in faith who can gain this ‘wisdom from above’. We’ve noted at a few points in the chapters we’ve studied so far the closeness of what James is writing to the Sermon on the Mount. That, in essence, is a wisdom discourse from the lips of Jesus the wisdom teacher. Christians must reject the wisdom of the world (specifically here the jealousy and ambition of the world’s value system) and seek the humility of the wisdom that is pure and peaceable.

Finally, we discussed something else that has jumped out (for me at least) during our studies. This is a letter exhorting Christians to live out their faith in the context of the Church. Too often, an individualistic approach to, say, the control of the tongue is adopted when we teach this material. The context is the Church: leaders, teachers, the persecuted, the poor, the rich, the sick. And this is especially clear when we see that at the heart of the letter is an exhortation to those who have set themselves up as teachers: the ship is directed by a small rudder, and that rudder will bear a greater responsibility for its journey. May we who teach be given grace.

Wisdom: Living Well

moth2As I posted some time back, the definition of biblical wisdom which I learnt at my alma mater, Highland Theological College (during the excellent Wisdom Literature module) was:

Wisdom is living well in God’s good, but fallen, world.

I think this is an excellent working definition, but I would like to amend it.

Wisdom is living well in God’s good world, both in the fallen and in the redeemed.

Not quiet as snappy, but I believe that wisdom itself (including the task of wisdom) will be a feature of the renewed earth. In the regeneration (as Jesus calls it in Matt 19:28), the realisation of true wisdom in every person, through the resurrection of bodies totally aligned to the motivation of God’s Spirit (1 Cor 15:44), will be one feature of the life of the new community, with Christ, our wisdom, as the head.

New Creation Theology in James

tetons-snake-riverThe book of James is packed with wisdom themes. Creation and wisdom are closely connected, so we might expect creation theology to be present in James’ writings.

Like the wisdom writers, James alludes to creation to make his points: the surf of the sea, the flowering grass, the sun, all these appear in the first few lines of the letter. Later on, horses, forests and fires make an appearance. But the most significant creation theology in the letter is found at the end of chapter 1.

Against those who portray God as a crafty trickster, seeking his people’s failure, James argues that God’s commitment to his people is seen in his commitment to his creation (as an aside, this is precisely the argument used in Jeremiah 31:35ff). God is the ‘Father of the lights’, an allusion to Genesis 1:3. The great lights, the sun and moon, are constant because God is constant in his giving of good gifts. And the commitment of God to redeeming creation is seen in his bringing new life to humans through faith in Christ. But this is just the beginning of a redemptive process that will embrace all creation.

He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created. (Jam 1:18 NIV)

What this verse doesn’t mean is that those early Christians who James writes to are just the beginnings of God’s church – many more people will become Christians. The Greek word ktisma in the LXX is used to refer to the whole of creation, not just humanity. To argue that suddenly James is restricting its scope to humans only is very strange, but such interpretations are common. One popular NIV study Bible adopts precisely this interpretation, displaying and perpetuating the ignorance of creation theology in the NT that seems so widespread.

The true meaning of the verse is that the redemptive work accomplished through Christ in the hearts and lives of believers in the here and now is just the very first expression of a redemptive purpose which will one day embrace all of creation. It is what Paul writes of in Romans, 1 Corinthians and Ephesians. Our bodies will be redeemed, and the whole structure of the cosmos will be redeemed as the context for eternal life. That is the true goal of the gospel of Jesus the Messiah.

[Christians] have been reborn by the word of truth, the gospel…But redemption does not stop here, for the full harvest will follow the firstfruits and the consummation will include the whole creation.  Peter Davids

The Book of Creation

P5250109For the whole sensible world is like a kind of book written by the finger of God—that is, created by divine power—and each particular creature is somewhat like a figure, not invented by human decision, but instituted by the divine will to manifest the invisible things of God’s wisdom. 

Hugh of St Victor, De tribus diebus 4.

The Other Book

P3190019In Scotland, the people of God are the ‘people of the Book’. It’s a moniker that points to the Reformation principle of the centrality of the Bible. Augustine wrote about two books, not only the Book of Scripture but also the Book of Nature:

Some people, in order to discover God, read books.
But there is a great book:
the very appearance of created things.
Look above you! Look below you!
Note it. Read it.  (Sermon, Mai, 126)

I get to read chapters of The Other Book most days. The other morning, I paddled my canoe out onto a cold, mirror-calm loch in the early morning sunshine. A short-earred owl was hunting the banks; a pair of black-throated divers took flight as I rounded a headland; geese circled, calling, overhead; pairs of mergansers, mallards and eider swam nearby. The fish were rising. The previous day I’d walked up behind a local hill and watched golden eagles hunting on and off for an hour on the same slope being patrolled by hen harriers. All of these things filled me with joy – and turned my heart to the Creator, who has founded the earth in wisdom.

God’s power and presence are mediated to us in the things that he has made. I am blessed to live in a place where the book is open in front of me every day. But, even in a city the book can be read. In the park in the grass is a world of many creatures. Overhead, peregrine falcons and kestrels hunt, even in urban environments. Take time to look up, or down, and you’ll see them. Look above you! Look below you!

What is Wisdom?

solomonWe’ve been discussing James’ references to wisdom in our Bible Study here in Lochboisdale. What is it? Here are our few brief thoughts…

  • wisdom is a gift from God (James 1:5)
  • wisdom is a task, something we do, not simply a theoretical thing (James 3:13)
  • the world has it’s own take on wisdom (James 3:15-16)

We can also say that wisdom is…

  • rooted in understanding the grand purpose of God in Jesus Christ – an extremely important point (Eph 1:17-19)
  • closely associated with understanding God’s creation (Prov 3:19)
  • to be taught and learned (Prov 1:7-8)
  • only truly possible through a relationship with God (Prov 1:7)

All of these things feed into the definition I was taught at my alma mater:

Wisdom is living well in God’s good, but fallen, world.

Wisdom is a neglected theme in the church. This may be because of its close ties to creation theology, itself a neglected area. There’s a lot more to say about wisdom and I hope to say more on this blog in time.