Spirituality

Reflections on Ruth

Recently, my wife and I read through the book of Ruth as part of our devotional time. It’s a beautiful little story, composed of a series of tautly narrated scenes that are all the more powerful for their understated grace. Artful and elegant, it manages to convey its message in a few, quick strokes. And, of course, I shouldn’t forget the memorable characters featured in the book – Naomi, Boaz, and above all, Ruth herself. Given its succinctness, Ruth can easily be read through in the space of about 15 minutes, and provides the reader with a satisfying and cathartic experience. There’s also much by way of rich theology that can be extracted from the book; indeed, though it is short, Ruth is far from superficial. It contains reflections on friendship, covenant, sacrifice, the scope of salvation, the power of the noble, independent woman, and the unseen hand of a providential God.

These are important themes, and I certainly want to touch upon some of them. Reading the book, however, led to me to look afresh at the character of Ruth. I must admit that I haven’t always given her the attention she deserves. When I was growing up, sermons or studies about Ruth tended to focus on Boaz and his role (from a Christian perspective) as a “type” – a prefiguring, that is – of Jesus. The main thrust of the message was that just as Boaz redeemed Ruth and Naomi from a precarious existence and an uncertain future (thus fulfilling his role as kinsmen-redeemer), so Jesus redeems us from sin and estrangement from God. This is true so far as it goes, and we should always be ready to adopt a Christological lens as we read the OT. But an all-too-hasty reliance on this sermonic trope means that not only do we fail to read Ruth on its own terms (as opposed to a mere prelude to Jesus); we tend to marginalise Ruth herself. Restricting ourselves to Boaz’s typological status, and the function he plays in the narrative, has the perverse effect of reducing Ruth to a patient – a passive recipient of another’s activity. Perhaps this reflects the male-dominated nature of theology and pastoral ministry: it’s easier to interpret the narrative from the point of view of the male protagonist than it is someone of the opposite sex. It might also have something to do with the concerns of low-church evangelicalism, which tends to read Christ into as much of the OT as possible. A figure like Boaz is certainly ripe for such an interpretation, even if that means neglecting other features of the text. But my point is that this focus drastically minimises Ruth’s central importance to the narrative. She is hardly a mere respondent to a male actor’s primary role; rather, she herself is a powerful, independent, savvy individual, whose own actions propel the narrative forward.

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In any case, it’s on Ruth that I want to concentrate my (sometimes recursive) reflections, drawing on the main elements of the book as they relate to its eponymous character. From the very beginning of the narrative, she proves her enduring worth to those around her, particularly her mother-in-law, Naomi. Just as Boaz tends to be the focus of many a sermon, to the exclusion of the story’s female characters, so is his evolving relationship with Ruth foregrounded within narrative synopses. But I’d say that the relationship between Ruth and Naomi is just as crucial. Certainly, Naomi’s shift from bitter emptiness to fulness of joy was in no small measure due to the actions of her daughter-in-law. We tend to take for granted the deep compassion Ruth extended towards Naomi, as well as the degree to which she relinquished her own rights for the sake of her mother-in-law. However, it’s precisely this familiarity that means a closer examination is warranted.

To appreciate just how radical Ruth’s actions were, some context is probably necessary. Within the first five verses of the book, Naomi is rendered widowed and childless, having witnessed the deaths of both her husband and her adult sons (1:3-5). Having moved with Elimelech to Moab to escape famine, she was now isolated in a foreign land – a stranger with no one to care for her. In the patriarchal societies of the Ancient Near East, a woman without a male relative to provide guardianship was in a very precarious position. We might recall that brief episode in Luke 7, where Jesus raises a woman’s son in the town of Nain (vv.11-17). Not only are we told that the woman was a widow; Luke also informs us (quite deliberately) that the man who had died was her “only son” (v.12). Of course, in raising a dead person to life, a great and awesome miracle had been performed. But lying behind the spectacle was Christ’s deep concern for the woman’s parlous social and economic condition, given her last male relative was dead. The evangelist’s aim is to underscore Jesus’ compassion for the vulnerable and marginalised, here rendered to a grieving widow by miraculously re-uniting her with her son (v.15). Naomi was in much the same position as that woman. For all intents and purposes, she had been left with nothing – save for the apparent knowledge that she was bound to die alone, bereft, crushed and empty (cf. Ruth 1:21).

This is what Naomi believed – indeed, it is what she was bitterly resigned to. Even in the narrative’s initial scenes, however, there are seeds of hope, of redemptive transformation. That hope is embodied in Ruth the Moabitess. We may note in passing the interesting, perhaps deliberate, parallel between the two women: both of them travelled from one country to another, with Naomi migrating to Moab and Ruth journeying to Israel with her mother-in-law. But whereas Naomi’s time in Ruth’s homeland occasioned grief and loss, Ruth’s relocation was accompanied by – and actively presaged – the eventual transfiguration of Naomi’s present emptiness (cf. 4:14-15). That transfiguration began with Ruth’s signal decision to remain with her mother-in-law (1:16-18). She, along with her sister-in-law, Orpah, sought to go with Naomi back to her homeland. But whilst Orpah eventually returned to her own people, Ruth did not. Instead, she committed herself entirely to Naomi, renouncing her own rights – indeed, her own life – to care for her mother-in-law.

Ruth 1:16-18 is a “hinge” moment in the narrative, on which much of the rest of the story turns. Refusing Naomi’s exhortation to go home to her own family, Ruth pledged her undying loyalty. She promised to be with Naomi, and to make her mother-in-law’s people her own. Just as noteworthy, of course, was Ruth’s commitment to Naomi’s – and Israel’s – God. The words of 1:16-18 bear the unmistakeable marks of a covenantal promise, in what amounts to a triumph of precise narrative art. The “You/I will” (or “Your/will be my”) contrast occur no fewer than five times in this excerpt, which reflects what I have already said about Ruth’s comprehensive and unwavering commitment to bind herself to Naomi’s fate. This was solidarity in its truest sense: Ruth identified her own life trajectory so completely with her mother-in-law’s that what was true for the latter was to be true for the former. Moreover, she placed herself under the weight of divine punishment if anything but death itself separated her from Naomi (“May the Lord deal with me…”). Ruth not only promised to unite her life to Naomi’s; she also rendered herself accountable before Yahweh, thereby accepting the consequences of failing to fulfil her vow. This was no cheap boast, but rather the perfect expression of covenantal devotion, sealed with an oath before Israel’s great lawmaker and sovereign.

Talk of such friendships is somewhat foreign to our modern ears. A covenant implies a legal agreement, something that has binding force on the parties involved. It’s the very antithesis to what an “authentic” relationship should be, so one might say. It’s true that we have probably become somewhat inured to the liquidity of contemporary relationships. Many friendships (though not all) tend to be characterised by a kind of casualness – a transience that is often allied with a basic regard for one’s own convenience, preferences or interests. Call it the consequences of radical individualism, if you like, or the reification of the autonomous self. The point is that people aren’t likely to place themselves under the stringencies of what amounts to a legal obligation, where their rights may be curtailed, and they themselves may be called upon to walk the difficult road of self-abnegation; even marriage, which is probably the closest approximation we have to the idea of a bond grounded in covenant and law, is becoming far rarer – and, where it does occur, seems far more fluid and impermanent.

So, when we read something like Ruth’s vow of loyalty, we might be surprised by the self-relinquishing depth of her decision. It seems a little strange: who, after all, “forgets” themselves in such a profoundly comprehensive way for another person? Perhaps some do, but in the ordinary course of events, it’s hardly common. Ruth would seem to be something of an anomaly. But is that because she made a foolish decision to give so much of herself to Naomi, without properly thinking through the consequences of her actions? Or is it because we (and by “we”, I mean the culture at large) have drifted away from what true friendship is meant to look like – that is, the kind of self-giving friendship as the Creator designed (cf. John 15:13)? When even the ties of marriage can dissolve with the rapidity of melting snow – and often do so with the tacit approval of a permissive culture – we shouldn’t wonder why we might find a story of bold, robust, covenant-making friendship to be rather startling.

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As such, we cannot miss the radical nature of Ruth’s actions; nor should we downplay the total sacrifice she was undertaking. Think, for example, of the great cultural and geographical shift she had to undergo. Even today, migration from one country to another is no small feat, often entailing a significant amount of upheaval: an unfamiliar environment, social and cultural dislocation, possible loneliness, uncertain prospects, weak or ambiguous social networks, and so on. Imagine, then, someone making that choice without the benefits of modern telecommunications or international travel, travelling to a land where, historically, his or her people are regarded with suspicion (cf. Num 25:1ff). A sombre finality would have cast itself over Ruth’s decision, for she was not likely to see her family again (cf. 2:11). She was going to leave everything she knew – everything that anchors and grounds and stabilises a person – to take up an uncertain existence in a foreign land, with a people who considered those of her ilk to be idolaters and scoundrels. For all intents and purposes, Ruth’s decision meant permanent separation from her past. What, in turn, could she realistically (from this point in the narrative, at least) look forward to? As I have noted, Naomi was fatalistic about the loss she had experienced, and the diminishing likelihood that life would issue in anything else but gnawing emptiness. And yet, Ruth appeared to be entirely undeterred by such unwelcome prospects, so determined was she to forsake her life for her mother-in-law.

We ought not neglect the religious-spiritual concerns underpinning Ruth’s decision. Her choice to cleave to her mother-in-law was governed, not only by her concern for Naomi, but by the recognition that the God her mother-in-law followed was, in fact, the true Lord (cf. 2:12). Naomi even urged Ruth (implicitly, perhaps) to return to the deities of her own tribe and family (1:15). But Ruth was unswayed: she determined to follow Yahweh, as Naomi did, and in fact showed a purer faith at this point than her mother-in-law. Although she was about to embark on a journey with a woman whose own prospects were very dim indeed, Ruth seemed to understand that by doing so, she was actually joining the community of the elect, and cleaving to the world’s rightful sovereign. To anticipate some of what I want to say below, Ruth combined the basic tenets of God’s will in her person and promise: to love him, and to give of oneself to others. True piety finds its expression in charity, especially as it is directed towards the lowly and the weak (cf. Jas 1:27a); love of God and love of neighbour cannot but go together (cf. 1 John 4:20-21) as the sum and substance of Torah devotion. Ruth recognized the truth of Israel’s chosen status before a holy God, even as she recognized the consequent demands that flowed from this identity.

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Ruth’s actions have been described as an example of “excessive altruism” (Martin Luther King, jnr.). This is quite true: Ruth was driven only by a selfless, unerring concern for Naomi’s welfare. And she proved her worth, substantiating her earlier promise to bind herself to her mother-in-law. Reading through Ruth 2, for example, we find the Moabitess expending herself in service of her mother-in-law, engaging in the arduous task of gleaning grain so that they had enough to eat (vv. 3, 17-19, 23). During this time, she encountered Boaz, one of the family’s kinsmen-redeemers (vv. 8-13). The chapter ends, poignantly enough, by telling us that “[Ruth] lived with her mother-in-law” – a reminder that Naomi, despite her embittered complaint (cf. 1:21), was neither bereft nor alone. The scene is set, of course, for Ruth’s night-time rendezvous with Boaz, and their eventual union.

There is much that we ourselves may glean. We should not simply understand Ruth’s altruism in a merely secular sense. The author shared with his or her contemporaries a thoroughly spiritual worldview, where one’s moral actions were inseparable from one’s religious identity. More to the point, Ruth’s acts of compassion – expressed in the humble earthiness of her work – clearly distilled the core demands of Torah. As the biblical scholar, Isabel Docampo, has written, “From the moment she uttered her pledge to Naomi in the middle of Moab’s fields, Ruth enacted God’s love as taught by the Torah”. Her actions not only reflected concern for the needs of another; they were deeply linked, by way of obedience to the demands of holy love, to her promise to serve Yahweh. Seen in the context of that double pledge (1:16-17), Ruth’s sacrificial love beautifully embodied (prospectively, of course!) Jesus’ admonition that the whole Law is summed up in the two greatest commandments: love the Lord with all your soul, heart, mind, and strength; and love your neighbour as yourself (cf. Mark 12:29-31). Ruth’s was a demonstration of obeisance to the deepest intentions of the Law – thus marking out this Moabitess as a true follower of Yahweh.

We would do well to appreciate this point. I have already noted that Ruth’s devotion to Naomi outweighed whatever regard she had for her own security, and that she understood Yahweh to be the One in whom she might take refuge. In all of this, Ruth completely subverted then-conventional notions concerning the identity of the righteous, and the boundaries of the covenant community. Recall that for many Israelites, Moabites – and Moabite women, in particular – were indelibly linked with that notorious incident in Numbers 25. Such “heathens” were but a snare to God’s elect, and allowing them entry to the covenant community was inviting spiritual and moral pollution. Biblical tradition holds that Moab’s kings had either waylaid or actively oppressed the Israelites (Judges 3:12-30; 11:17). More relevantly, Moab’s women were associated with harlotry in biblical imagination, having seduced God’s people to commit both sexual immorality and idolatry (Num 25:1-3). However, Ruth stood these traditions on their heads. Not only did she not undermine or the purity of the redeemed community; she positively enriched it with her lavish, unwavering commitment to love of God and love of neighbour. Rather than leading local Israelites astray, Ruth offered her contemporaries an unsullied distillation of what it meant to truly align oneself with the purposes and will of Yahweh.

How one reconciles this with the stringent demand of Deuteronomy 23:3-6, I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps the one tradition was intended as an abstract legal requirement, to be “relaxed” in the face of the irresistible fact of a non-Israelite’s allegiance to Yahweh. Perhaps we have here more than one tradition pertaining to the nation’s relationship to foreign peoples. Whatever the case, Ruth’s participation in the redeemed community – culminating with her marriage to Boaz – was a sign that the ever-present temptation to limit God’s covenant blessings on the basis of ethnicity was, in fact, a violation of the basic thrust of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 12:1-3). One commentator has said that Ruth shows us – and, one would think, its original audience – that “true religion is supranational”, such that a “foreigner who trusted in God and wished to be identified with the people of God was worthy of full acceptance” (Charles Oxley). The reality of Ruth’s membership within the covenant community looked forward to the great vision of the prophets, who held out the eschatological hope of the universal reach of Yahweh’s blessings (e.g., Isa 2:1-5; 25:6ff; 56:3-8). With the actions of its central character, the book of Ruth functions as a rebuke to a narrow cast of mind that rigidly ties true religiosity with a persons’ ethnic or cultural features (cf. John 1:12-13). At their worst, such characteristics can become pernicious idols in the life of those who are bound by them, restricting thereby the extent and scope of God’s grace. For the book of Ruth, on the other hand, ethnicity is completely de-coupled from piety; what counts is, again, obedience before God, of which charity and selfless devotion towards others is a key manifestation (cf. Micah 6:8).

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If Ruth the woman disturbs settled accounts of foreigners, then her character and actions also help to overturn other accepted notions – this time around gender, sex, and male-female relations. Her efforts, of course, were instrumental in Naomi’s own journey from emptiness and loss to redemption and fullness. I noted earlier the seeds of hope, even as Naomi resigned herself to the bitterness of death, that lie in the narrative: Ruth’s vow to remain with her mother-in-law, despite their being no obligation to do so; and the author’s subtle comment in 2:22 that Naomi returned to Israel – not alone, but “accompanied” by Ruth, at the time of harvest. Throughout the narrative, Ruth is presented as someone who takes the initiative, who does not wait to be acted upon, but engages decisively in action. It is action that is neither rash nor foolish. If wisdom could be seen in part as the artful calibration of ends with means, so that the desired result is brought about, then Ruth was very wise indeed. However, this was more than mere shrewdness. As Boaz himself remarked, Ruth was already known as a “woman of noble character” (3:11), which suggests that not only did she possess practical nous, but integrity and honour in abundance.

Far from being a mere recipient of paternalistic largesse, Ruth forged her path through adversity and loss. Instead of remaining helpless and inert before the welter of economic and social challenges she likely faced (migration, cultural dislocation, relative poverty, “outsider” status, etc.), this Moabitess laboured with tireless determination to provide for both herself and her mother-in-law. Ruth is presented as the very epitome of the savvy, independent woman, who engages with others in the open, public realm of the field and the workplace. It was her initiative that sustained Naomi upon her return to Bethlehem; and, even if we grant the necessity of Boaz’s decision to welcome both Ruth and Naomi into his household as their kinsmen-redeemer (4:9-10, 13-15), this was the direct result of Ruth’s earlier approach (3:7-13). His immediate response, we might recall, suggests that he saw her actions as a gracious gift to him (v.10). Certainly, it reverses the usual train of events, where masculinity is often associated with activity and initiative, and femininity functions as a passive, demure counterpoint. We are thus left with a narrative construction of women that would have challenged the prevailing patriarchal ethos. As the great OT scholar, Claus Westermann, perceptively argued, the book of Ruth “is one of the few [ancient] narratives in which the thoughts and actions of a woman comprise the events that to a large degree characterize the story…” He went on to argue – quite rightly – that Ruth’s actions effectively “upend the established order”, for she is neither “dependent” nor “subordinate”. Yes, Boaz is important to the story, and it would be a mistake to marginalize his role. But it is Ruth who drives the narrative forward, to such an extent that her decisions – the decisions of a poor, foreign female, no less – determine the trajectory of events. If one were wanting to use story to challenge or undercut dominant notions concerning social hierarchy and value, one would be hard pressed to do better than this subversive little romance.

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One final comment, of a Christological nature, before drawing my reflections to a close. At the beginning of my reflections, I said that many sermons on Ruth emphasise Boaz’s role as a type of Christ: as the ageing Bethlehemite (cf. 3:10) redeemed Naomi and Ruth from a spectral existence lived on the edges of local society, so Christ redeems us from the perils of our sin-soaked alienation from God. This is true, and we ought not to dismiss the various signs the OT holds up to the final messianic revelation. But if what I have said about Ruth is true, could it not also be the case that she be seen as a kind of pre-figuring of Christ? After all, who was it that acted faithfully and compassionately, extending herself for another’s good? Who laboured and toiled and sacrificed to sustain their life? Who ensured that they would not be left alone, condemned to a life of scarcity and want? Who identified herself so radically with another’s fate? Who summed up the deepest demands of the Law in her own person? And whose actions guaranteed her mother-in-law’s transfiguration from emptiness to wholeness? In all these ways, Ruth acted out the kind of grace that Christ embodied in excelsis. Even without the obvious conceptual link of redemption (Boaz, Naomi’s and Ruth’s kinsmen-redeemer; Christ, our redeemer [cf. Mark 10:45; 1 Cor 1:30; Gal 3:13; Eph 1:7; Col 1:14]), I think we’re on solid ground in seeing certain links between Ruth’s sacrificial efforts, and the (far greater) sacrifice undertaken by Jesus (again, see John 15:13). Not only men, but women, too, may be assured that they have the chance to reflect the gracious, self-abnegating love of the divine in their own lives – love that redeems and heals and transforms and comforts. Apart from anything else, the story of Ruth shows us, I think, that the spirit of Christ may be witnessed in even the most unlikely of individuals. The liberality of God in calling a people to himself – a people formed by his word and spirit to embody the character of his Son – knows no bounds. If we restrict it on the basis of nationality, culture, gender or social status, then we do so to our own loss.

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One Same-Sex Marriage, a Conscientious Objector, and Three Failed Arguments (Part Two)

Introduction

A few weeks ago, I began a short series examining several arguments that have been put forward by Australian advocates of same-sex marriage, many of whom think that conscientious objectors within the commercial wedding industry should not be allowed to withhold their creative talents from a same-sex wedding. In my first post, I critically engaged the claim that a dissenting wedding operator is analogous to a racist business owner who refuses to serve certain people based on the colour of their skin. As anybody who read that piece will know, I found the argument sadly wanting, even as I acknowledged that efforts like mine to rebut it aren’t likely to make a substantial difference to the overall trajectory of the debate. Nevertheless, I continue in the hope that conducting discussions on the basis of a shared commitment to reason and civility — not to mention a sincere and open pursuit of the truth — remains a worthwhile enterprise. This is particularly so in a liberal democracy, which can only properly survive if such conduct is not just accepted, but practiced.

Religious Expression and Journalistic Fallacies

In this post, I want to tackle a slightly different attempt to legitimize restrictions upon dissenting wedding operators. Like the focus of my previous piece, this argument is based on the alleged analogy between opposition to SSM and forms of conduct that are widely (if not universally) condemned. Unlike the analogy between race and SSM, this one is concerned with narrower questions regarding acceptable (and indeed, unacceptable) manifestations of religiosity.

On the day the results of Australia’s SSM plebiscite were revealed, the journalist Michael Bachelard wrote a piece for the Fairfax press, in which he averred that “religious freedom is, and should be, limited”. This basic thesis formed the backdrop to his specific point: namely, that there is no reason to allow a wedding vendor to refuse service to a same-sex couple on the grounds of a sincere religious belief. In fact, he claimed that there are obvious reasons why such practices should be prohibited, and went on to cite several examples of religiously-inspired activity that is nonetheless deemed illegal. Among them were the Jesus People and Children of God (cultish groups that have engaged in the violent sexual abuse of women and children) and certain Muslim sects that practice female genital mutilation (hereafter, FGM). Bachelard seemed to think that because Australian law already prohibits sexual abuse and FGM — even if they are practiced by sincere religious individuals — there exists clear and principled precedent for restricting the ability of a religious wedding operator to refuse to service to a same-sex wedding.

At a glance, the argument appears to be quite persuasive. But to take a well-worn cliché: looks can be deceiving. Beneath its superficial cogency lie several problems, which taken together prove to be fatal. Bachelard’s claimed analogies aren’t really analogous at all, at least in the relevant sense. Quite the opposite: as we shall see, there are a number of crucial differences between Bachelard’s selected examples, and the case of a dissenting wedding vendor.

Excursus: Pre-empting a Predictable Objection (Yet Again)

I will examine those differences shortly. But before I do that, I want to briefly highlight another erroneous element in Bachelard’s argument. At one point, he criticises the (since aborted) attempts by Liberal Senator, James Paterson, to introduce a SSM bill into parliament, which would have given conscientious objectors in the commercial wedding industry the right to refuse service to a same-sex wedding. Bachelard contends that everyone ought to abide by anti-discrimination laws, “in the name of a civilized society, in not discriminating against people for who they are” (emphasis mine). Bachelard wants to say that a religiously conservative wedding vendor who does not wish to service a same-sex wedding is in clear violation of anti-discrimination law — and is, to that extent, engaging in self-evidently unlawful activity, just as the abusive member of the Jesus People is when he molests children.

Such activity would of course be unjust if it were done on the basis of the italicised portion of the quote above. But is someone who refuses to lend his creative talents to a same-sex wedding really “discriminating against people for who they are”? As I sought to show in my previous essay, that refusal is grounded in one’s beliefs about the true shape and nature of marriage. It is not about the identities or attributes of the participants per se, but about the structure of the event in which they are participating. Indeed, as I also demonstrated in that earlier piece, the parties to an event and the event itself are logically distinct; to oppose the latter does not require a person to hold any animus against, or evince bad faith towards, the former. Dissenting wedding operators who have been hauled before judges and anti-discrimination boards have made it abundantly clear that they are more than happy to serve gay and lesbian couples for a variety of occasions. In addition, the recent ruling by a Californian judge in just such a case suggests that not only is a refusal to service a same-sex wedding not a genuine instance of unfair discrimination; being compelled to provide that service may actually constitute a violation of the rights of the wedding vendor in question. So it’s not at all clear that what Bachelard assumes (which is precisely what he does) is correct. This will be important as we proceed, lest anyone is tempted to rest on the facile riposte that conduct of this kind is unjustly — and obviously — discriminatory.

Same-Sex Weddings, FGM and Sexual Abuse: Some Crucial Dis-analogies

Let’s return, however, to Bachelard’s alleged analogies, and why they fail on multiple levels. To begin, there is a wide gulf in the degree of harm experienced by those who have supposedly been wronged. I would argue that the examples in Bachelard’s article are, in fact, vastly different in their effects. For example, a girl who endures FGM suffers injury in a way that a same-sex couple — who might be faced with the indignity of a religiously conservative florist refusing to arrange their wedding bouquets — does not. Apart from the excruciating pain of the procedure itself, a victim of FGM will likely experience a combination of some (or all) of the following symptoms, often for many years: painful periods, excessive bleeding, labour difficulties, infections, urinary problems, unhealed wounds, or even death.  Of course, a same-sex couple confronted with an unwilling wedding operator is likely to feel aggrieved and embarrassed. No one would want to deny that such an experience could well leave one feeling quite humiliated. Nor would one wish to trivialise such experiences. But the question of degree or proportion is paramount. Certainly, it’s difficult to equate that kind emotional hardship — which may be rather ephemeral, depending on the circumstances — with the acute, long-term physical and psychological suffering a young female experiences as a result of a forced clitoridectomy.  The severity of the one is, I would suggest, far outweighed by the other.

This is not to say that such differences are sufficient in themselves to secure dissenting wedding vendors a reprieve (even if they should give us pause to wonder whether Bachelard has been too hasty in grouping these examples together): if publicly manifesting one’s religious beliefs leads to harm (whether physical or emotional), then perhaps it doesn’t really matter how severe or enduring that harm is. One may argue that even if they do differ in degree, they might nonetheless fall under the same broad rubric of “harm”; as such (so the argument might go), they should be liable to penalties commensurate with the severity of the offence.

But in this instance, a difference in degree is accompanied by, and connected to, a qualitative distinction. Whilst measuring the harm experienced by the victim of FGM or sexual abuse is relatively straightforward, at least in legal terms, things are not so easy in the case of a same-sex couple claiming emotional or dignitary harm as a result of being refused service by a wedding vendor. The former case involves material injury to one’s person — in other words, harms that can be publicly identified and verified. They possess a tangibility that injuries associated with supposedly insulting conduct by another person lack. Indeed, the relationship between a certain act and one’s subjective experience of offence or emotional distress is more remote than the tight, causal connection between the practice of, say, FGM and the experience of personal suffering. Whilst the latter is, by its very nature, bound to cause harm, the extent to which the former causes injury is based on the internal states and perceptions of those who may be in a position to make such a claim. This renders the notion of dignitary or emotional injury far more slippery: whilst the consequences of FGM can be readily defined and substantiated, it is much more difficult to obtain proof of emotional harm that can be publicly countenanced.  This is not to say that it does not, in general, exist, or that those making such claims are lying. It is merely to argue that they are far harder to capture legally than actions that quite clearly violate the liberty of another individual by causing material — and, supervening upon that, psychological — injury.

This brings me to a further dis-analogy: that which concerns the distribution of rights and possible harms between the two parties. In the case of religious leaders practicing FGM or sexual abuse, there is a clear, even radical, asymmetry of rights or entitlements. The right of vulnerable individuals not to be violated by the activity of others automatically negates the alleged “right” of the person perpetrating those acts to manifest his religious convictions in this way. The sacrosanct nature of one’s person is part of the bedrock of our legal system. It is regarded as morally and legally inviolable, such that an act that attempts to impinge upon that status is necessarily deemed unlawful. Religious motivation, however genuine it may be, is irrelevant in these circumstances — as are any claims of “harm” that might be “suffered” by the perpetrator if he were compelled to cease his activity. Moreover, whilst the injuries associated with Bachelard’s examples are readily apparent in the case of the victims, corresponding claims made by perpetrators would be so intangible — so indefinable — as to defy verification.

However, there seems to be a much closer balance between the alleged rights or harms of a dissenting wedding vendor and those of a same-sex couple wanting to wed. Whatever rights a same-sex couple may claim in this context, and whatever alleged distress they may have experienced as a result of being rebuffed — these must be weighed against the rights of a person to maintain integrity and cohesion between inner conviction and outward expression. On the one hand, we have noted that claims of emotional injury or dignitary harm are theoretically problematic. Even on the assumption that such notions could be defined coherently and measured intelligibly, it does not follow that precipitating conduct should be penalized (in the way that conduct causing material or bodily harm ought to be). Indeed, as the American legal scholar, Andrew Koppelman (himself an advocate for SSM) has pointed out:*

“The dignitary harm of knowing that some of your fellow citizens condemn your way of life is not one from which a law can or should protect you in a regime of free speech”.

On the other hand, dissenting wedding vendors can also claim that they possess certain rights. Religiously conservative wedding vendors can assert that having to lend their creative talents to a same-sex wedding potentially violates their deeply-held convictions: engaging in activity that implicitly legitimizes a ceremony of which a person disapproves forces them to dis-integrate their views and their conduct. It is at least arguable that the religiously conservative cake-maker (for example) has the right not to participate in something he regards as immoral, in order to avoid complicity. We might recall what I said earlier about the Californian judge, who recently ruled that forcing a Christian baker to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian couple was a violation of her right to freedom of speech and expressive conduct. In addition, Bachelard’s argument ignores the possible harms such vendors may have to endure, regardless of the choice they make. Those who do not wish to participate in a same-sex wedding are, in many instances, confronted with the prospect of two unwelcome alternatives: violate their consciences and sacred convictions; or succumb to often hefty financial and pecuniary penalties.

Active and Passive Manifestations of Religion: A Fundamental Difference

There is one final difference between Bachelard’s chosen examples, and that of the dissenting wedding vendor. It centres on the direction of activity between the two parties, and the asymmetry between passive and active manifestations of one’s (in this case, religious) beliefs. I have hinted at this difference already, in referring to the kinds of violations of which a practitioner of FGM is guilty, but which appear to be absent in the case of a religiously conservative wedding vendor. However, I think it important to flesh this out a little more.

In the case, say, of an acolyte of the Jesus People abusing a minor within their spiritual community, we have a clear example of one individual acting upon another, thereby curtailing his right to liberty and freedom from degrading treatment. Indeed, I think most would agree that the act, by its very nature, violates the victim’s person, and, in most cases, harms them materially. The religious believer in this instance manifests his convictions in an active manner; he commits a certain act against another individual, which necessarily restricts or smothers their rights. In that sense, it’s a zero sum game: the active party imposes himself upon a vulnerable, unconsenting or unwilling recipient, which entails the simultaneous extension and restriction of one’s freedom of action. As I have already noted, it is for this reason that such behaviour, whatever its inspiration, is rightly considered unlawful — and indeed, criminal.

However, the religiously-inclined wedding vendor who refuses to lend his creative talents to a same-sex wedding is engaged in passive abstention. Here, the question of (religiously-motivated) imposition is irrelevant, for it simply does not exist. The vendor seeks to preserve coherence between inner conviction and outward activity, whilst avoiding duplicitous, hypocritical or morally inconsistent behaviour, and does so by refraining from participation in the event. In other words, he merely omits to do something. As the American columnist David Brooks (another advocate of SSM) has recently written, religiously conservative wedding operators who refuse to participate creatively in a same-sex wedding aren’t trying to restrict others’ (in this case, gay) rights; nor are they imposing themselves on other people. They are simply asking not “to be forced to take part” — i.e., they seek leave to abstain from contributing materially to something with which they disagree. Where someone who practices FGM assumes an active, dominant role in the relationship with the victim of such a procedure, a Jack Phillips or a Barronelle Stutzman is simply “withdrawing” from certain activity. This does not affect the hypothetical same-sex couple in the same way that sexual abuse, say, affects its victim: apart from the relative difficulties surrounding the notion of dignitary harm, the couple in this scenario is not restricted or coercively acted upon, as the passive parties in Bachelard’s initial examples most certainly are.

Indeed, whereas the individuals in Bachelard’s opening examples necessarily violate the integrity of another’s person, the same cannot be said of the hypothetical wedding vendor. In arguing for limits to expressions of religious belief, Bachelard presumes that anything less would lead to the unwelcome expansion of pernicious activity, under the guise of maintaining religious liberty (Bachelard even dismisses countervailing calls as “bogus”, clearly implying that those who advocate in this direction are cynically using religious freedom as a veneer to advance oppressive practices). This, of course, would explain why he has framed the debate with examples that most people are likely to see as clear and violent threats to civil liberties. But again, he overlooks key features of the active-passive distinction I have tried to highlight. Religious practices such as FGM and cultish sexual abuse are what we might term inherently “expansionist” — that is, they expand the range of the perpetrator’s activity at the expense of his victim. By contrast, the actions of conscientious objectors within the commercial wedding industry are “preservationist”: as Brooks’ earlier observation suggests, they seek merely to preserve what they believe could be undermined through participation in an event that contradicts their basic convictions. Limiting freedom of religion in the former instances goes without saying, given their active tendency towards the suffocation of rights and the generation of suffering. The notion that similar restrictions should be applied to the latter is, at the very least, a contestable proposition.

Final Reflections

Bachelard’s argument is likely to appeal to those who already agree that withholding commercial wedding services to a same-sex couple is an egregious example of invidious discrimination. It’s also bound to appeal to many of the uncommitted, who aren’t likely to ask whether his contention has any merit, or whether it’s fair to group an unwilling baker (say) with child rapists and mutilators of the flesh. In that sense, Bachelard’s not unlike the targets of my last piece on this topic, since they also sought to draw connections between superficially similar acts. Intentional or not, his rhetoric has the effect of circumventing a person’s critical faculties: having first been confronted with examples of religiously-motivated violence, the unwary reader is lured into docile acceptance of the proposition that the sacred convictions of religiously-sensitive wedding operators should be met with the same kind of righteous fury. This is simply guilt-by-association, but without the label.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, I am not arguing that there should be no limits on alleged expressions of religious belief. What I have written here should make that clear. But I also think that there are principled reasons for allowing some religious freedoms whilst disallowing others. That, too, should be clear from what I have written. But the problem, as I see it, lies in the basic orientation of a piece like Bachelard’s. Underlying the words themselves is the fundamentally negative belief that religion is, and has been, a largely malignant influence on society. Whether one is referring to an imam who mutilates young girls or a dissenting wedding vendor, it is important that manifestations of religious or spiritual belief — especially those in the public arena — be kept on a taut leash. That leash, of course, is to be held by the secular state, which (to change the metaphor) must corral such expressions so that the baleful forces of superstition and religious bigotry do not corrode our modern, progressive way of life. If anyone objects to this project, their claims can safely be dismissed as a rear-guard action, aimed at  shoring up the last vestiges of religious privilege. Or so the assumption goes, anyway.

But it’s time to conclude. Despite his own certainty on this question — one might call it a kind of secular zeal — Bachelard’s claimed analogy breaks down at almost every relevant point. He is left with the mere shell of an argument, which not only fails to advance a good-faith dialogue, but positively frustrates it. Unfortunately, given the times in which we live, his offering is likely to fuel efforts that further restrict the right of religious conservatives to live in harmony with their deeply-held convictions.

*Please note that the article to which I have linked was not penned by Koppelman, but by the legal academic, Sherif Girgis, who quoted the same excerpt that I did. It appears the original piece is no longer available for viewing online (it was originally published in the Southern Californian Law Review).

 

Worshiping the “God” of MTD: Modern Idolatry, Ancient Roots

This is a piece I wrote a couple of years ago for a certain magazine, but it was not published. So you, dear readers, may enjoy it now. 

A little over a decade ago, the sociologist of religion, Christian Smith, examined the lives of religious contemporary American teenagers, interviewing, among others, young Christians. What he discovered was very revealing.

According to Smith, most of those he spoke with held views about God and their relationship to him, which, whilst bearing a faint resemblance to the religion in which they had grown up, were, in many ways, dramatically different – owing more to contemporary cultural and spiritual norms than to ancient religious traditions. Smith argued that these beliefs formed a kind of spiritual ‘complex’, and was the de facto (and dominant) religion amongst teens in the United States. Smith christened this phenomenon, ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ (or MTD for short).

The concept of MTD needs some unpacking. Smith contended that religious teens held to several fixed points in their creed: God, generically defined, wants all people to “be good, nice and fair to each other,” with goodness here being defined in a vague sort of way; God also, governs the world at a distance, though he might not intervene all that frequently; when he does intervene, it is to help people solve problems that confront in their lives; the chief aim in life is to develop a positive self-image – something that God is supposed to guarantee; and that ‘good’ people will go to heaven. For the teens Smith interviewed, these elements were axiomatic, amounting to belief in a laissez-faire god, whose interventions are chiefly therapeutic, who asks people to practice a fairly banal kind of morality, and who guarantees – based upon adherence to that morality – a place of enjoyment in the hereafter.

What was really astounding was Smith’s discovery that most of his subjects had not developed their ideas independently; rather, they had imbibed them from the religious communities of which were a part. This led Smith to contend that they were simply reflections of a wider phenomenon, prevalent in mosques, synagogues and (importantly) churches. If that is so, then MTD encompasses many more people, not just those Smith interviewed.

* * *

Whilst the modern world – with its consumerism, deep individualism and transactional view of so much of life – is particularly conducive to the propagation of something like MTD, we should not make the mistake of thinking that some “golden age” of religion lies somewhere beyond the range of our own historical grasp. And, more to the point, neither Christians individually, nor the church corporately, has been immune to the phenomenon. I am reminded, for example, of the great popularity that the Prosperity “Gospel” has achieved in many putative Christian communities: trust in God, and all your (material) dreams will come true! A generation or two ago, families may have gone to church, not because they discerned a divine summons to be a part of a new, spiritual community, but because of cultural constraints. The real goal, it seems, was not obedience to God, the ground and centre of all that is, but cultural integration and local respectability. Similarly, when Christianity was the dominant civil religion in the West, developing contacts within a local church community could do wonders for an aspiring businessman. Again, God was seen an instrument, and religion merely functional – lacking, perhaps, truth and significance in itself, and reduced to a means towards a more fundamental (in this case, economic) end.

Such a phenomenon stretches back even further, all the way to the very dawning of Christianity. About two decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul had to wrestle with a raft of problems besetting the church in Corinth. Called to live out a life of holiness and obedience before the God that had liberated them, the Corinthian Christians had tried to fuse the Gospel with pagan ideas of religion and spirituality. Far from seeing the Gospel – and the God who stood behind it – as something to which they were called to yield, the Corinthians viewed it as something that could be used to get ahead. This is reflected, amongst other things, in what Paul says about personality cults (1 Cor 1:10-12, 3:1-9), sexual immorality (5:1-6), and self-aggrandizement through the exercise of spiritual gifts (Chs. 12-14). In all these ways, the Corinthians had fallen into the trap of treating God as secondary, as little more than an instrument that could be manipulated for other ends.

It is for these reasons that contemporary individualism can only ever function as one type of explanation for the phenomenon of MTD. Sure, it can well flourish in such an environment: a spiritual creed that emphatically places the individual at its centre certainly plays well to our present age. But if what I have said is true, then using God, or the divine, for oneself is not merely the preserve of the modern age; using God as an instrument – a kind of secondary tool – is something to which people in every age are prone. Perhaps, beneath the varied manifestations of superficial spirituality and counterfeit piety lies the primal reality of the humanity’s propensity towards idolatry – of reducing the transcendent God to a human fabrication, which can then be tamed and exploited. Paul, of course, knew this well, when he excoriated humanity for its tendency to exchange the glory of the immortal Creator for bits of his creation (Romans 1:20-23, 25). Even the Corinthians, living so soon after the events of Easter, had constructed for themselves an idol that bore only faint resemblance to the God of the Gospel that Paul preached. Whether it’s in its ancient or modern guise, idolatry succeeds in turning God – and the spirituality that flows from him – into a mere function of a person’s own psychological interests and desires.

* * *

How different this is from an authentically Christian view of God and ourselves. As I was thinking about MTD, three main differences stood out, which together have profound implications for the construction of a genuine Christian spirituality. First, MTD seems to reflect a very ego-centric view of spirituality and religion, and is to that extent well-suited to our present, individualistic age. This is seen particularly in the way it shapes a person’s ethical outlook. Whilst MTD makes room for fairness and niceties, it promotes a kind of ‘no-cost’ morality, which will only go so far as the needs and interests of the individual will allow. As Smith discovered even this system of morality was, for many of his subjects, another means of attaining subjective wellbeing: ‘do good, feel good’, in other words. Neither (divinely-mandated) goodness, nor the image-bearing objects of that goodness, are ends in themselves; on the view of MTD, they are instruments for the more self-centred goal of bolstering personal self-esteem.

Christian ethics is much more radical than that, for two main reasons. On the one hand, it is founded upon the figure of Jesus himself, who gave us a model of sacrificial service before God and others. Where MTD uses the self as the yardstick of what is right and good, for Christian spirituality, it is the character and life of Jesus that grounds all ethics. Similarly, where MTD is focused primarily upon the individual, Christianity is focused, in large part, upon others. Many of Jesus’ parables have this flavour about them. He talks, for example, of the “wise and faithful” person as characterised by a willingness, in deference to God, to serve others with what he or she has (e.g., Luke 12:42ff).

It’s hard, too, not to think of what Paul says when he writes to the church in Philippi. The believers there should adopt an attitude like that of Jesus himself, who “made himself nothing”, “taking the…nature of a servant”, and “humbling himself…to death…on a cross” on behalf of others (Philippians 2:5-8). This represents a far more comprehensive, far more sweeping, approach to the ethical – indeed, the righteous – life. It is a life that revolves, not around the needs of self, but around the needs of others, even if that means sacrificing what is cherished or treasured. True Christian spirituality asks a person to order his or her life around an enduring commitment to the needs of others. Indeed, Paul’s exhortation in Philippians points to the dramatic nature of this commitment, as the Christian seeks to emulate Christ: it must lead to an imitative willingness to put aside any claims one might have, whether those claims relate to one’s status, possessions, comforts – even, according to the passage, one’s own life.

On the other hand, the kind of ethical change that authentic Christian spirituality demands – indeed, enables – moves far beyond the essentially affirmative formula of MTD. Given that MTD rests on the individual’s moral estimations for its ethical centre, it can never be truly transformative. Jesus’ well-known exhortation that one must be “born again” in order to “see” God (John 3:3) points subtly in this direction: the present, transient world can never provide the resources for a genuinely spiritual life; one must “begin again”, as it were, with the life of the Christian representing such a break from the past that it can be described as a new birth. In this, we must remember the centrality of the figure of Christ: he functions, not only as the paradigm for authentic Christian living, but as the foundation making it possible in the first place. Christian orthodoxy calls for a complete re-ordering of a person’s life, ethically and spiritually, as a person’s old nature is left behind, and a new nature is adopted (Col 3:5, 10). And this can only come about because of the pioneering work of Jesus himself. It is, of course, through him that one may undergo that change, as one is taken from the realm of sin and death and corruption, and placed under the aegis of him who sets the pattern for true, image-bearing living. MTD, by contrast, makes no room for the fundamental renovation of a person’s nature, nor can it; it can only encourage superficial change at best.

The second main difference I discerned is deeply related to the first. The ego-centric nature of MTD implies that God is also treated as a means to an end. God is reduced to a kind of “cosmic butler” (Smith), there largely to satisfy our wants and resolve our problems. God is ‘consumed’, so to speak, providing a product – in this case, spiritual harmony and psychological peace – to people whose main concern is to derive from religion whatever they can to help them along in life. Again, it’s difficult to overstate the difference here from a genuine Christian view of God. If true religion calls for service to others as a clear demonstration of piety, then it also sees obedience to God – from which flows the call to give of oneself to one’s fellows – as the greatest good. What the Gospel does is upend our relationship to the transcendent. God is not a “cosmic butler”, but the Lord of the cosmos; Christ, as the one who uniquely reveals this God, is the master; his claim over our lives – leading inevitably to the summons to self-giving love – is total and comprehensive. Moreover, he is not some kind of instrument, or the means to a more fundamental end, precisely because he is, in himself, the ultimate end and fulfilment of all things. He is utterly transcendent — sovereign over everything — whilst also constituting the existential ground of all that is. As Paul put it, when he preached to the pagans of Athens, “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Christian spirituality remains adrift unless it is tethered to an acknowledgement of God as the One upon whom everything exists, and from whom all life flows. He is the beginning and the end, the source and the summit, of all existence. Trying to use God to reach something that one sees as the ultimate goal (as MTD implicitly does) is like a person who, having lost a torch in the middle of the day, decides to use the brilliance of the sun to search for it – hoping then they will be able to find that little source of light, and use it for the illumination they so desperately seek.

At any rate, the deism of MTD ironically undercuts whatever comfort one might seek from this kind of god. He is a distant deity: neither greatly concerned with the world’s affairs (save for wanting to guarantee psychological stability in certain people), nor driven to do anything, fundamentally, about it. He is the absentee-landlord of eighteenth-century deism, with a little bit of Oprah-inspired therapeutic wisdom thrown in for good measure. This brings me to the third main difference between the creed of MTD and authentic Christian belief. Whilst the God of Christian theology and tradition is transcendent, he is most certainly not distant. For it is in his transcendence – his freedom from all constraints, both material and metaphysical – that he is able, at the same time, to be intimately involved in the affairs of his creation. Reading through, say, John’s Gospel, shows us the twin truths of God’s supremacy and closeness, upon which a robust Christian spirituality may be built. He is, on the one hand, the Creator of all things, who through his Word has fashioned and animated this world (John 1:1-3). But he is also the heavenly Father, who condescends to those who are his, welcoming them into the intimate fellowship of the Trinitarian community (John 14:23; 17:26). What follows is an abiding, deep-rooted joy, based upon the enduring presence of the Creator himself. It is, in other words, the goal and focal point of true spirituality. With its offers of superficial succour, tied as they are to the vagaries of a person’s psychological state, the God of MTD represents a parody of what union with the divine is meant to look like.

* * *

MTD, then, is simply the latest in a litany of creeds and spiritual ‘packages’ offering the mirage of piety and religious devotion. At any rate, if we were to follow its underlying logic, we’d be left with a domesticated deity, denuded of his sovereign majesty. Any claim he might want to make upon us would be empty, since we would ultimately be at the centre of our spiritual lives. Such a relationship appears to be a far cry from what both Scripture and Christian tradition have affirmed about the Creator: he who brought the worlds into being with his command, who declared that he is the self-existent “I AM”, and who confronted Job in the storm. The temptation towards idolatry which confronts every age is something that also confronts the church as it seeks to represent God faithfully and genuinely.

The challenge for us, I suppose, is to humbly yield to the God who has created us, and upon whom we utterly depend. We must allow ourselves to be shaped by this God, who calls us – summons us – to be his. We cannot afford to fall into the trap of trying to look beyond him for whatever he can provide for us. He is, as I said, the ultimate foundation of everything else, such that there is no ‘beyond’. That way lies the false gods of human imagination, as do all efforts to ‘massage’ our image of the divine according to whatever cultural trends may presently be in vogue. The God Christians are called to follow cannot be tamed by human designs, or be made to fit into convenient packages, for the very reason that he is the One within whose plans and purposes we are called to fit. Such an acknowledgment is part of the very fabric of authentic Christian spirituality. Being a Christian, and pursuing a life of discipleship, requires the willingness to enter into a narrative that is not of one’s own making, one that has been opened up by the epochal work of Christ: a “world” that establishes the boundaries of truth and reality, morality and holiness. It can be difficult and demanding, in that we are not the ultimate legitimators of what constitutes the good. However, with that acknowledgement comes the opportunity to reflect and embody the ultimate Ground of all goodness – to live and act according to our (divinely-intended) natures.

To embody a fully-orbed life of Christian faith, we cannot fall into the trap of ‘consuming’ religion in order simply to satisfy some kind of spiritual dimension. As we approach God – as we approach the crucified and resurrected Christ – we are confronted with One who upends our assumptions about our relation to the divine, and subverts all of the idols that we may have constructed. For God is the One over every dimension, public and private, which compose the rather messy projects we call our lives. When we adopt this kind of posture, and clothe ourselves in this kind of thinking, we will find that those longings for fulfilment, transcendence, completeness and calm – all worthwhile and legitimate in themselves – are paradoxically met. It is a life of death and resurrection, of radical transformation, where one’s old existence is swallowed up by newness of life (cf. 1 Cor 15:53-54). It is something that contemporary constructions of spirituality, reflecting as they do the strictures and finitude of the present world, could never hope to emulate.

Meaning and God’s Attributes

My last few blog posts have tackled some fairly controversial issues, which have a habit of arousing very strong emotions. The intensity of those debates can tax both the mind and the soul, so every once in a while a change of pace is warranted. This brings me to the topic of the present piece, namely, the nature of God. Lately, I have been reflecting on some rather thorny questions concerning God and certain of his attributes. Some may think this a rather boring, irrelevant or altogether esoteric matter. However, if (as I believe) God is the very foundation and source of all there is — the ground of all being, as it were — then it’s difficult to think of anything more exciting, or important. Moreover, as a Christian, it is my duty (and indeed, a rare pleasure) to try and develop as clear a picture of the Creator as my finite mind will permit.

I don’t intend to examine the existence of God per se. Instead, I want to explore two related features of the Christian conception of God, the problems they can pose for understanding, and the means by which they might be illuminated in new and fresh ways. I am referring, on the one hand, to God’s dual nature — at once transcendent and immanent — whilst on the other, to the uniquely Christian declaration that Christ is the principle of unity within creation. These are heady concepts, to be sure; a word about each is therefore in order.

To begin, Christianity insists that God is simultaneously transcendent over creation and immanent within it. Other monotheisms — Judaism, for example — share this way of talking about God, though the way the doctrine is expressed and extrapolated in those traditions may be somewhat different. Christians consistently affirm God’s complete and utter sovereignty over the creation; creation itself relies on his conserving activity to remain in being, moment-by-moment. Given he is the metaphysical ground of all there is, God is not confined by what he has created: he is not limited by it, or susceptible to its influences (unless he deigns to be so influenced). He is radically distinct from the world he has fashioned, operating, if you like, on his own, unique plane of being. Additionally, God is neither exhausted nor fully comprehended by our conceptual categories; the frames of reference we may have devised to understand him are necessarily limited, for their “object” transcends them all. Indeed, for all their intellectual and theological value (and they can be very valuable), those categories cannot possibly capture a being — Being itself — who is by nature completely unbound by finite reality.

At the same time, God is no absentee landlord; rather, he deeply involved in this creation. The world over which God presides is filled at every point by the divine presence; God’s immanence means that he is intimately related to  it, permeating every nook and cranny so that creation brims with his essence. This dual nature is beautifully captured by Isaiah 55:9-11, which speaks of Yahweh’s purposes being higher than those of man — “as the heavens are higher than the earth” — even as he sends out his word, his wisdom, into the world to nourish his works. It is also why the Apostle Paul can declare in Ephesians 4:6 that God is not only “over all”, but “through all and in all”.*

The second attribute is, to my mind, probably more difficult to comprehend. It is the somewhat astounding theological claim that Christ, the Word and Wisdom of God, is the principle of unity within creation — that is, the One in whom “all things hold together”, as Paul declares (Col 1:17). The doctrine bears some resemblance to certain strains of Greco-Roman philosophy, even if its formulation under the aegis of apostolic and patristic thought was quite unprecedented. Like the ancient Stoics, the writers of the NT held that the phenomenal world is not simply a random, unintelligible mass: they affirmed the belief that it is an ordered place, pervaded by a principle of rationality which bequeaths to it unity and coherency. For the apostolic writers, this principle has an intrinsically personal — indeed, relational — dimension. Whether this was expressed in the Johannine concept of the incarnate Logos (John 1:1, 14), or by way of Paul’s wisdom Christology (e.g., Col 1:17), the writers of the NT declared that the world is pervaded by the cosmic Christ — God’s very word, wisdom and mind. Borrowing ideas from the OT’s wisdom tradition (e.g., Prov 8:22ff), they claimed that Christ is just that principle of rationality to which the Stoics and others referred. As the medium of God’s creative prowess, he provides the unifying structure for what would otherwise be a fragmented or chaotic realm; he draws together the various members of the created world into a harmonious whole, “sustaining” it in power (Hebrews 1:3).

It should be noted that these doctrines are deeply intertwined. Christ’s role as the principle of unity within creation presupposes a God who is both intimately involved with it, whilst remaining utterly sovereign. Indeed, if Christ, a reflection of the divine character, was not transcendent, then he could not be the sustaining, unifying cause that underlies creation; he would simply be a finite part of it, as little able to govern all things as we are. If he was not immanent, he would not — could not — be the principle of unity holding the disparate parts of creation together. He could not be the metaphysical “cement” that inheres, and adheres, all things. Conversely, God’s dual nature comes to full expression in the cosmic Christ’s powerful conserving activity, as he penetrates and upholds the created order. His immanence is not amorphous — a vague and nebulous presence — but guarantees the wise and ordered nature of the world we inhabit. Similarly, his transcendence does not entail distance, but omnipresence, so that everything is imbued with, and held together by, his own effulgence.

Intertwined, complementary…and also rather arcane**. However clear these summaries may be, they do not change the fact that we are handling some very enigmatic ideas — ones that have caused an endless parade of philosophers and theologians (not to mention laypeople at large) a great deal of intellectual angst. The fact that God is not an object of sense experience, and so is not susceptible to empirical observation, makes this task even more vexing. Trying to comprehend such stubbornly elusive concepts is like attempting to grasp the rapidly fading tendrils of an early-morning mist. For instance, I’ve tried to offer an intelligible snapshot of the doctrine of Christ as the principle of creation, but how can we understand the truth that lies behind it? In what way does the invisible and immaterial God hold material things together (that is part of the larger question of how an immaterial God interacts with materiality)? How does one actually conceive of the Christian’s claim that the apparently disparate elements of creation find coherency as they are drawn together by, and in, the divine Logos? As for God’s simultaneous transcendence and immanence, this has been a stumbling block to many people, and can appear at first glance to be inherently, embarrassingly, contradictory. As just one example among many, the atheist blogger Austin Cline has argued that at an “irresolvable tension” exists between these two poles of the divine nature. He is of the opinion that something simply cannot be transcendent and immanent simultaneously, and that any affirmation to the contrary forces one into an intellectual muddle.

Theologians and philosophers of a theistic bent have tried to offer solutions to these problems over the centuries. For example, Thomas Aquinas wrote that God’s transcendence actually entails his immanence. Far from being irreconcilable or contradictory, Aquinas argued that they are, in fact, complementary attributes. Because he is the sustaining cause of all that exists (and as such, transcends all things), God must be present — that is, immanent — in order to uphold the entire cosmic production. Moreover, because being is, according to Aquinas, a thing’s fundamental quality, then God must be present “in all things innermostly”. I, for one, think this is quite persuasive. I am also persuaded that, however difficult it may be to think of the world as pervaded by a kind of cosmic rationality (understood in personal terms by Christians), it seems likelier than the atomistic, mechanistic picture favoured by many moderns. At the same time, I also recognize that formulations like Aquinas’ are bound to strike some as recondite as the (apparent) conundrums they are designed to unravel. Is there any way of making these doctrines a little more intelligible? A “real-world” analogy, perhaps, that concretizes what might otherwise appear to be abstract and vaporous? I think there is.

Meaning as an Aid to Understanding

The concept of meaning can act as an aid to understanding as we grapple with the aspects of God’s being (as conceived by Christians) that I have outlined. It can shed light on how God can be simultaneously transcendent and immanent, whilst illuminating the view that there exists a (personal) principle of order and rationality that permeates the phenomenal world. But what do I…er…mean by “meaning”? Simply this: meaning could be described as the “aboutness” of something, be it a sentence, a picture, or a facial expression. For something like a sentence, meaning is the message “encoded” in the combination of words the author or speaker has chosen to use. It is the information that the user (broadly defined) intends to convey in his or her message. My writing this blog post is designed to communicate certain propositions, thoughts, etc., which are reflected in the words I have chosen to deploy.

The above will suffice as a good, working definition of meaning. Let’s see, firstly, how it can help us understand God’s dual nature. Take the following sentence: “The boy threw the ball to the girl”. If you’re a competent user of English, you’re likely to recognize the scenario the sentence is about — that is, the event to which it points. It will inevitably conjure a particular image, consisting of a male child using a casting action to convey a spherical object (often of recreational value) to a female child. The marks that compose the sentence will be readily understood as constituting an intelligible message. Indeed, the message is immanent within the sentence, in that the latter is “invested” with the former. Meaning is also immanent within individual words. By means of physical markings, “boy” means, points to, or represents a male child (usually under 18). Going back to the level of syntax and sentence structure, it would seem that not only does a message somehow “infuse” the physical marks one might use to communicate it; as theologian Kevin Vanhoozer, author of the stimulating book, Is There A Meaning in This Text?, has argued, meaning “cannot grasped apart from them [i.e., those marks]”. As he goes on to say, the intangibility of meaning is known through the tangibility of written characters (or, alternatively, audible sounds).

And yet, meaning is not confined to a particular collection of markings. It’s not “shut in”, as it were, but transcends any one set of words. “It is more than vocabulary and syntax”, as Vanhoozer observes. It may pervade those markings, but is neither restricted nor reducible to them. Indeed, the meaning of a sentence is more than the sum of its constituent parts. We might think about it this way: whilst I can write “the boy threw the ball to the girl”, and successfully convey my intended meaning, this in no way precludes others from simultaneously doing the same thing. Conversely, their writing the same sentence does not evacuate meaning from my own scribblings. We can all successfully “point to” the objects that are represented by the words we are using, even if the sentences we write are identical. If meaning were to be tied to words in a non-transcendent way, this would be impossible. As it is, whilst meaning and words are intimately related — such that it could be called a relation of “immanence” — it does not exclude the former’s capacity to outstrip the limits of the latter. In fact, being able to convey the same information, using the same words as other language users, presupposes it.

Like God, then, meaning bears a dual nature: transcendent on the one hand, immanent on the other. As we have seen, these qualities are not contradictory; rather, they are complimentary, and necessarily so. If something as mundane as the meaning of words and sentences can be understood in this manner, then whatever other difficulties attach themselves to grasping the divine nature, the simultaneity of his transcendence and immanence should not be one of them.

So much for that conundrum. What about the idea that, for Christians, there exists a principle of order or rationality within creation, one that is identified with Christ, the very wisdom of God (cf. John 1:1-4)? Again, meaning provides a model for comprehension. As we have seen, the meaning of words invests them with intelligibility, whilst the principles of language supply shape and coherency to an otherwise random assemblage of markings. Of course, this is not the whole story. As Vanhoozer (among others) has noted, meaning is as much a verb (something that results from human action) as it is a noun (something that is “embedded” in words). The principle of unity is ultimately sourced in the intentions of the speaker/writer. Nevertheless, meaning acts as the proximate principle of unity, order and rationality for a chain of words a language user may string together. We may use our stock example once more: “The boy threw the ball to the girl”. Each word is imbued with its own meaning, such that the marks are no longer unintelligible etchings, but vehicles of representation that can be understood by other language users. Similarly, the sentence as a whole is ordered by those same principles of intelligibility: the words that compose it are rationally related, in that they are arranged in a given sequence to communicate a particular message. Meaning, though immaterial, is a substantial reality, and is mediated through the variety of linguistic combinations (“deeds and events”, as one literary theorist put it) to which it bequeaths order.

Hopefully, you can see where I am going with all this. Christ, the divine Word, permeates the created world, supplying it with a kind of order that resembles meaning’s relationship to words and sentences (incidentally, the example I am using also offers us very rough analogy as to how something immaterial [meaning] can exert some kind of influence over something material [written or spoken words]). Like meaning’s role in structuring the sounds and signs of which a  certain message is composed, the divine wisdom structures this world in a way that ensures its rational intelligibility. It is a world of reasoned cause-and-effect, of patterned beauty, which is (in principle, anyway) susceptible to rational, scientific explanation. Both meaning and divine wisdom act as adhering agents, cementing the various constituents of their respective worlds — one linguistic, the other phenomenal — in a comprehensible way.

Conclusion

My aim in this essay has been to show that certain Christian doctrines, whilst apparently guilty of incomprehensibility, can in fact be readily understood. If I am right, there is no need for special pleading here: the common example of meaning’s relationship to words — something of which we are all intuitively aware — suggests that superficial contradictions regarding God’s nature, or allegedly esoteric claims about cosmic principles of rationality, have analogues in the world of everyday material things.

*Yes, I am aware that some scholars dispute Pauline authorship of Ephesians. I myself think that Paul wrote the letter, but I acknowledge that not everybody sees it that way.

**Of course, this is not the same as saying they are untrue.

 

Wealth and Poverty in the Letter of James

Introduction

The letter of James is famed for its stirring ethical clarity. This is especially true of its teachings on wealth and poverty, which constitute one of the leading concerns of James’ missive. In this essay, I will argue that James provides a coherent ethical view of wealth and poverty for his audience,[1] which undergirds his specific exhortations on the matter. The essay itself will unfold in three (unequal) sections. First, I will exegetically survey the relevant passages in James, parsing his main lines of thought according to three, conceptual categories: the epistle’s notion of eschatological reversal; its prophetic critique of wealth and economic injustice; and its forceful moral entreaties. Second, I will “delve beneath” those initial results and argue that the ethics of the OT and of Jesus have decisively shaped James’ economic teachings. Finally, I shall outline the implications of the aforementioned, particularly in relation to James’ overall theological-ethical agenda. Indeed, it is within this overarching framework that James’ economic counsel must be placed, as he sets out his vision for a people renewed, living in a liminal age.

James’ Teachings

The five main passages on wealth and poverty in James (1:9-11; 1:27; 2:1-7; 2:14-17; 5:1-6) reflect a cohesive programme for how to approach these matters. I have grouped James’ teachings within three inter-related categories, linked by his theocentric outlook: the eschatological reversal of status; prophetic denunciations of the (unrighteous) wealthy; and exhortations towards proper treatment of the destitute. These categories represent different facets of the larger issue of wealth and poverty in James’ epistle, evincing a spirit of social and economic egalitarianism.[2] Moreover, because these threads are woven into James’ controlling narrative, I shall pick them up at the essay’s end.

James’ teachings on wealth and poverty often focus on the eschatological reversal of the fortunes of rich and poor.[3] Indeed, James signals his conviction that present struggles (cf. 1:2-4) – borne out of economic deprivation and/or the exploitation of the poor by the rich[4] – are transitory, subject to God’s ultimate (i.e. eschatological) verdict and purposes.[5] This lies behind his initial exhortations on the matter, in 1:9-11: the Christian in lowly circumstances (“brother”) should exult in his “high position,”[6] whilst the “one who is rich” should focus upon his “low position.”[7] For James, present status and hierarchies will be overturned – reversed – when God’s purposes are fully and finally revealed. Poor believers are to “take pride” in their impending vindication in God’s kingdom, and are encouraged to look beyond their current earthly status (v.9);[8] the rich, on the other hand, are to “boast” in nothing more than the fact that they have been accepted as servants within that same kingdom (v.10-11).[9]

James 1:9-11 effectively argues that God will erase present injustices.[10] Believers should therefore evaluate themselves by spiritual, not material, standards, and orient their lives around God’s final purposes, rather than the present.[11] James underscores the ephemeral nature of riches when he says that the affluent believer may pass away even as he goes about his business (v.11). Life’s impermanence, James implies, should caution against overreliance on material goods for one’s security; thoughts of self-sufficiency, owing to economic security, are anathema (cf. 4:13-16). Significantly, James speaks of one’s future eschatological position as simultaneously present – of a status that is already a reality, even if it awaits final consummation.[12] I will return to the larger issue of this tension at the essay’s end.

Eschatological reversal also surfaces in Jas 2:1-7. There, James castigates his audience for discriminating between people based upon their socio-economic status – an issue that seems to have been very real in the communities to which James wrote, given the space he devotes to the matter.[13] James partly bases his criticisms on the fact that such favouritism is wholly contrary to God’s own special concern for the lowly and downtrodden – demonstrated particularly in the fact that he has “chosen” the poor to inherit his kingdom (v.5).[14] Like 1:9-11, the ethical exhortations in 2:1-7 are partly rooted in God’s eschatological judgments. Because the Creator and Judge has deigned to exalt the poor, any kind of behaviour within the church that mirrors the stratified world around it is sinful. James 2:1-7 also contrasts earthly poverty with spiritual wealth (esp. v.5), implying that worldly status and divine worth do not necessarily coincide. James’ point is clear: not only is it wrong to treat poor brethren so disdainfully, as it is they to whom God directs his mercy; a believer’s present earthly position, whether she be poor or rich, in no way reflects social relationships within God’s kingdom.

James’ denunciations of the wealthy in 5:1-6 reflect similar concerns to 2:6b-7, and demonstrate the relationship between this polemical exposure and James’ belief in the eschatological erasure of status and hierarchy.[15] James 5:1-6 offers a trenchant critique of the rich, tinged with prophetic indignation.[16] His letter speaks not only about the future (though partly realized) upheavals of the present socio-economic order, where misery will befall the unrighteous rich (vv. 1-2, 5); the catalogue of sins listed in 5:1-6 reflects James’ warnings about the present dangers of “unrighteous Mammon”, cohering with passages elsewhere which evince a condemnatory attitude towards materialism and avarice (cf. 4:13-16).[17] Here, wealth’s transience gives way to the testimony of judgment (vv.2-3). Of course, James does not denounce the wealthy qua wealthy. He states precisely why they are liable to judgment: they have acted oppressively and exploited the poor (vv.4-6).[18] But he also criticises them for hoarding their wealth whilst others have suffered penury (v.3b). In any event, James writes convinced that the unrighteous rich will not be able to sin with impunity forever.[19]

As noted, these passages are joined together by an important theological point of orientation for James – the purposes and nature of God. James, for example, can say that the Lord hears the cries of the exploited (5:4c): in a world where they are defenceless, he is their guardian.[20] Rooted in God’s supreme compassion and mercy, Jas 1:27 and 2:14-17 exhort his audience to use wealth and resources righteously – upholding the vulnerable, and supporting those who are materially bereft. For him, the proper stance towards wealth and economic status is imitative of God. James 1:27 explicitly links care for the poor – exemplified via widows and orphans – to unsullied religion acceptable to God.[21] He condemns rapacity (4:2; 5:1ff), whilst commending generosity.[22] James calls the Lord “Father,” subtly suggesting that care for the fatherless recapitulates God’s own paternal largesse (1:27; cf. 1:17). So, too, 2:14-17, where authentic devotion, reflected in the language of “faith,” is expressed via deeds of mercy towards impoverished brethren.[23] Indeed, James’ illustrative choice is telling. One may also cite 2:1-7, which reflects James’ concern about honouring, godly attitudes towards poverty and the poor.

James’ Influences

Whether viewing economics through the lens of eschatology, or urging his audience to use what they have compassionately and justly, James grounds his teachings in God’s character and purposes. However, he did not create this perspective de novo; rather, his economic teachings reflect dependence upon a long and rich tradition, stemming from OT-Jewish thought regarding God’s just and merciful character, and the corresponding obligations placed upon his people.[24] James’ letter builds upon, and grows out of, this consistent biblical theme.

James’ reliance on OT prophetic and wisdom traditions has long been recognized, as has his use of categories of vulnerable people the OT frequently employs (Jas 1:27; cf. Deut 10:18; Ps 68:5).[25] Particularly influential for James’ teachings regarding wealth and poverty, however, is the law. This is clearly seen in 2:1-13, where James condemns partiality in the redeemed communities. He roots his condemnation in an extended application of the law of neighbour love, found in Leviticus 19:18 (cf. Jas 2:8ff), and his teachings reflect a broad dependence on the law’s social concern.[26] An expression of God’s character and will, the law informs James’ economic teachings, especially at this crucial point (cf. 1:27, applying the command to follow the word). Partiality (or selfishness and apathy in the face of poverty) is contrary to the law – and, therefore, contrary to the fundamental image of God as compassionate Father who treats all image-bearers equally.

However, James doesn’t simply allude to OT-Jewish tradition; his letter also echoes the voice of Jesus. For James, God’s attitudes to poverty and wealth – as well as the corresponding obligations of God’s people – are particularized and fulfilled in Jesus (e.g. 2:1).[27] Scholars note the many verbal links between Jesus and James.[28] For our purposes, Jesus’ social and economic teachings are relevant. Contrasts between listening to, and obeying, the word (Jas 1:22/Matt 7:24ff); promises to the poor of a royal inheritance (Jas 2:5/Matt 5:3); denunciation of the wealthy (Jas 5:1-6/Lk 6:24-26); the basic importance of eschatological reversal (Jas 1:9-11/Matt 19:30; 20:16); and, most saliently, the significance of the Levitical law of neighbour love (Jas 2:8/Matt 22:34-40), all suggest Jesus’ overriding influence upon James’ thought. Reference to the “royal law” (Jas 2:8) nuances OT legal codes according to the law of the kingdom (v.5; cf. 1:25), embodied in Jesus.[29] For James, the law – which helps animate his teachings on wealth and poverty – is taken up into the ethics of Jesus, becoming the implanted word that “can save” (1:21).[30] James views the communities to which he writes as the Messianically-renewed people of God (cf. the language of 1:1b),[31] and writes in the light of that reality. Jesus, God’s agent in eschatological restoration, constitutes the defining voice behind James’ economic exhortations and admonitions, shaping them at a deep, structural level.[32]

James’ Controlling Narrative

For James, God’s past revelation and future purposes – effecting justice, denouncing economic oppression and commanding mercy – are drawn together in Jesus’ establishment of a redeemed community, embodying God’s kingly righteousness. This leads us to James’ controlling narrative, tellingly illuminated by 1:18 (with its overtones of new creation):[33] the church is the “first fruits” of God’s redemptive reign.[34] His teachings on wealth and poverty reflect reliance upon this fundamental salvation-historical story.[35] Consequently, James urges his audience to live according to the requirements and implications of the eschatological inauguration of God’s kingdom, anticipating its consummation via a just, compassionate – indeed, counter-cultural – approach to the harsh socio-economic milieu they inhabit.[36]

And so we come full circle, returning to the fruits of our exegetical survey. James’ broader eschatological concerns and context,[37] within which he situates his teachings on wealth and poverty, are clear. Aside from the already-surveyed confluence between eschatology and economics,[38] James’ whole letter brims with eschatological conviction: he consistently invokes divine judgment to motivate right living (2:12; 4:12; 5:7-9), whilst picturing the Christian life as a trajectory moving towards its final goal (1:2-4). Moreover, James’ partly realized (i.e. inaugurated) eschatology suggests that he thinks of his audience as living in a liminal phase – the first of a burgeoning, divinely-ordained future (1:18; cf. 2:5). His audience, having been “birthed” through God’s saving word (v.18), operate as his redemptive vanguard. Through his instructions on wealth and poverty, James implies that the values of the kingdom should be practiced proleptically – offering an “advance model” of what God’s just reign will look like.[39]

Paired with this view is James’ sustained, thematic call to “wholeness,” “completeness” or “perfection.”[40] The audience’s obligation to approach wealth and poverty in the way(s) he urges are part of a complex of behaviours by which believers, both individually and communally,[41] demonstrate their devotion towards God and each other. James seeks to encourage economic behaviour that is oriented towards God’s present injunctions and his future rule. His letter is replete with terms that reflect this constellation of thought,[42] and it carries concern for ethical completeness (and within that, a godly approach to economics) in a number of ways: commendation of “pure religion” (1:27); a “whole” faith, manifested in good deeds; endurance towards one’s spiritual telos or goal (1:2-4); criticism of the “double-minded” (1:7-8); and, in a crucial passage, the excoriation of spiritual “adulterers” and encouragement towards purity (4:1-10). James urges unity within Christian assemblies (cf. 2:1-7), which coheres with the complete devotion and spiritual wholeness to which he enjoins individuals.[43] He repeatedly envisages eschatological “wholeness” as a present requirement; by calling them to live in an “undivided” manner – to which acting righteously in regards to wealth and poverty provides powerful attestation[44] – James instructs his audience to anticipate the ultimate perfection that a just and compassionate God will bring (cf. 2:5).

Conclusion

The foregoing analysis has attempted to provide a summation of the main facets of James’ teachings on wealth and poverty. His letter features several, related concerns that are especially prominent: the eschatological reversal of socio-economic status/hierarchy; the prophetic exposure of economic unrighteousness and oppression; and the corresponding regard for those who are impoverished and/or vulnerable. James evinces basic sympathy towards the victims of present injustices, grounding it in God’s nature and purposes, and the corresponding ethical implications for his people. James relies upon the consistent witness of the OT regarding treatment of the poor, evidenced in his use of the law to condemn practices contrary to God’s fundamental character. That character is, for James, exhibited in Jesus, the decisive voice in the letter’s economic-ethical teachings. These findings suggest that James’ instructions on wealth and poverty are situated within a controlling narrative, one which sees Jesus as the inaugurator of God’s (partly realized) eschatological kingdom. James writes to his audience as the “first fruits” of that inauguration, urging them to embody God’s perfect rule through economic justice and generous stewardship.

Bibliography

Bauckham, Richard. James. New Testament Readings. London: Routledge, 1999.

————————-. “Eschatology.” Pages 333-339 in New Bible Dictionary (Third Edition). Edited by I.H. Marshall, A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer & D.J. Wiseman. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2011.

Beale, Greg K. “Eschatology”. Pages 330-345 in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments. Edited by Ralph P Martin and Peter H. Davids. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1997.

Blomberg, Craig L. From Pentecost to Patmos – Acts to Revelation. Volume Two: New Testament Survey. Nottingham: Apollos, 2006.

Carson, D.A. “James,” Pages 997-1013 in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Edited by G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.

Davids, Peter. Commentary on James. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.

Johnson, Luke T. The Letter of James – A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. 1 vol.; Anchor Bible 37A; Garden City: Doubleday, 1995.

————————. Brother of Jesus, Friend of God – Studies in the Letter of James. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.

————————. Sharing Possessions – What Faith Demands, Second Edition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011.

Lemcio, E.E. “The Unifying Kerygma of the New Testament.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 33 (1988): 3-17.

McCartney, Dan G. James. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.

Martin, Ralph P. James. Word Biblical Commentary 48. Waco: Word, 1988.

Maynard-Reid, Pedrito U. Poverty and Wealth in James. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1987.

Moo, Douglas. James. Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.

Ross, Allan P. Holiness to the LORD – A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002.

Wachob, Wesley Hiram. The Voice of Jesus in the Social Rhetoric of James (Studies in the New Testament Series 106. Cambridge: CUP, 2000.

Wall, Robert. “James, Letter of.” Pages 545-561 in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments. Edited by Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1997.

Williams, Robert Lee. “Piety and Poverty in James.” Wesleyan Theological Journal 22 (Fall, 1987): 37-55.

Winbery, Carlton L. “The Attitude Toward Wealth in the Letter of James.” Theological Educator 34 (Fall, 1986): 26-34.

Witherington III, Ben. The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought-World of the New Testament. Volume 1 – The Individual Witnesses. Downers Grove: Inter-varsity Press, 2009.

[1] See Douglas Moo, James (PNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 22-24; Craig L. Blomberg, From Pentecost to Patmos – Acts to Revelation. New Testament Introduction and Survey, Volume 2 (Nottingham: Apollos, 2006), 390, for similar reconstructions of the identity of James’ audience.

[2] Luke T. Johnson, The Letter of James – A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (1 vol.; AB 37A; Garden City: Doubleday, 1995), 82.

[3] Ralph P. Martin, James (WBC 48; Waco: Word, 1988), 25-26; Dan G. McCartney, James (BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 70-71.

[4] Moo, James, 65. On the socio-economic conditions of the first century, see Pedrito U. Maynard-Reid, Poverty and Wealth in James (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1987), 12-23.

[5] On eschatology and the later NT (and James esp.), see Greg K. Beale, “Eschatology,” DLNTD, 330-333, 335; Richard Bauckham, “Eschatology,” NBD, 333-334.

[6] Carlton L. Winbery, “The Attitude Toward Wealth in the Letter of James,” TE 34 (Fall, 1986): 28.

[7] Moo, James, 68, argues that the rich person is a Christian; cf. Martin, James, 25-26. I agree with Moo that the term “brother” (v.9) governs both individuals.

[8] Robert Lee Williams, “Piety and Poverty in James,” WTJ 22 (Fall, 1987): 43.

[9] Winbery, “The Attitude,” 29; Moo, James, 66.

[10] Winbery, “The Attitude,” 28.

[11] McCartney, James, 98.

[12] Martin, James, 25, 28; Johnson, The Letter of James, 185; Moo, James, 30.

[13] Moo, James, 98.

[14] Moo, James, 35.

[15] Winbery, “The Attitude,” 31-32.

[16] Moo, James, 211.

[17] McCartney, James, 232.

[18] Moo, James, 210.

[19] Johnson, The Letter of James, 309.

[20] Moo, James, 216.

[21] Martin, James, 52.

[22] Johnson, Sharing Possessions – What Faith Demands, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 92.

[23] Martin, James, 52.

[24] See Moo, James, 35-36 for a discussion of this general theological-ethical trend; cf. Peter Davids, Commentary on James (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 42.

[25] See D.A. Carson, “James” CNTOT, 997-1013. On the influence of wisdom and prophecy, see Johnson, The Letter of James, 32-34.

[26] See Johnson, The Letter of James, 30-32; Johnson, Brother of Jesus, Friend of God – Studies in the Letter of James (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 127-135; Carson, “James,” 999-1000. On Leviticus 19, see Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the LORD – A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002), 351-365.

[27] The consequential relationship between faith in Jesus and rejection of partiality is clear. See Wesley Hiram Wachob, The Voice of Jesus in the Social Rhetoric of James (SNTS 106; Cambridge: CUP, 2000), 77.

[28] See esp. Ben Witherington III, The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought-World of the New Testament. Volume 1 – The Individual Witnesses (Downers Grove: Inter-varsity Press, 2009), 298; Wachob, The Social Rhetoric, 138.  

[29] Moo, James, 98, 112; Carson, “James,” 1000.

[30] McCartney, James, 110.

[31] The language suggests that James sees his audience as the renewed “Israel” of God. See Davids, Commentary, 63.

[32] Bauckham, James (NTR; London: Routledge, 1999), 147.

[33] McCartney, James, 111.

[34] Moo, James, 24, 80.

[35] On the unifying story of the NT, see E.E. Lemcio, “The Unifying Kerygma of the New Testament,” JSNT 33 (1988), 6.

[36] On the narrative cast of James’ letter, see Robert Wall, “James, Letter of,” DLNTD, 556-557; Bauckham, James, 100; Winbery, “The Attitude,” 33; Johnson, The Letter, 85-88.

[37] McCartney, James, 70-71.

[38] Cf. Moo, James, 36-37.

[39] Bauckham, James, 173; Moo, James, 24.

[40] See Bauckham, James, 165, 173-179, for an extended treatment; Martin, James, lxxix.

[41] McCartney, James, 71-72.

[42] See esp. Martin, James, lxxix.

[43] McCartney, James, 71-72.

[44] Moo, James, 97-98.

The Johannine Jesus and the “I am”

Introduction

The Jesus of the Fourth Gospel is an enigmatic figure, making tantalizing claims about his ultimate identity. His so-called “I am” statements, sprinkled throughout John, are no exception. Allusive and oblique, they are nonetheless freighted with cosmic significance. This essay will argue that the “I am” statements of John’s Gospel constitute an implicit, yet definite, claim to deity, and that this can be substantiated via an exploration of Old Testament ideas latent within the formula. Unfolding in three stages, it will first survey the two main ‘types’ of “I am” statements Jesus employs, demonstrating the formula’s verbal reliance upon key OT texts, and arguing for their fundamental reference to God’s unique covenantal character. The essay will then build upon those preliminary conclusions, offering a broader theological and salvation-historical account of Jesus’ claim, and highlighting several interlocking thematic links between the Johannine Jesus and previous instances of God’s redemptive-revelatory activity. Finally, it will attempt to properly nuance the “I am” formula, sketching out the distinctiveness of Jesus’ divine identification – particularly in light of its relationship to John’s overall Christological-theological presentation.

“I am” in Context

John’s Gospel uses “I am” on several occasions. Some are conventional forms of self-identification (e.g. 1:20). Others, however, carry weightier significance. I will identify two such categories of “I am” statements: those where Jesus used the “I am” formula absolutely; and those where he combined it with a predicate, or vivid image. One shouldn’t force the distinction: a common bed of theological meaning underlies any apparent division. Moreover, the latter unfurls what is latent in the former.

The Johannine Jesus uses the absolute “I am” statements in the Fourth Gospel without any qualifying predicate. John 8:58 is the classic example. In a steadily escalating debate over his identity and origin, Jesus boldly asserts that “before Abraham was born, I am!” His interlocutors understand this seemingly truncated turn of phrase: immediately, they attempt to kill him (v.59). Their hostility indicates an implicit interpretation of blasphemy. Jesus’ opponents, it seems, invested his pronouncement with the kind of meaning that would have led them to conclude he was, remarkably, claiming deity. John 8:24, 28 are also pertinent, as is 18:5-6. The latter passage, where Jesus confronts a detachment of arresting soldiers, is further indication of claimed deity. The party’s prostrating response – after the evangelist emphasises Jesus’ distinctive reply – certainly implies a theophanic experience.

These are inferences, of course. But why did Jesus’ statements arouse such reactions? What kinds of associations would his contemporaries have made? Here, overtones become echoes – deliberate allusions to a rich stream of OT thought, capturing foundational disclosures of God’s utter uniqueness and covenantal faithfulness. Jesus’ judicial and religious opponents, it seems (particularly in 8:58-9), understood this connection. Indeed, abundant evidence for antecedent OT usage exists, which reveals the burgeoning development of “I am” as a divine name.

Of the various OT texts that might be surveyed in this regard, Isaiah 40-55 is especially important, employing self-referential statements linguistically similar to Jesus’ “I am” formula. In the second major section of Isaiah, repeated promises of divine redemption and covenantal faithfulness appear amidst doubts about Yahweh’s willingness, or ability, to rescue his people (aroused by the calamity of exile, and the apparent triumph of pagan “gods” over Israel’s sovereign). The term, “I am [he],” and its cognates, are used to reveal, among other things, Yahweh’s absolute uniqueness – Israel’s sole guarantor of salvation. Isaiah 41:4 and 43:10-13 are prime examples in this regard. Chapters 44-46 are also apposite, where the “I am” formula is employed several times in a similar context, with similar import (cf. 44:6; 45:5-6, 18: 46:4, 9). In addition, Jesus’ “I am” utterances arguably rely upon Exodus 3:14, where Yahweh disclosed his character to Moses with the appellation, “I am who I am.” Like Isaiah 40-55, Exodus 3:14 is set within a larger, covenantal-redemptive context (which the Fourth Gospel echoes). Divine self-disclosure points again to Yahweh’s matchlessness and loyalty. Jesus’ “I am” statements reverberate with sounds of Yahweh’s titular declarations in Isaiah and Exodus. Recalling such expressions, Jesus deliberately appropriated the divine name, perpetuating a historical pattern characterised by Yahweh’s repeated self-revelation (cf. Jn. 17:11). Jesus’ opponents rightly interpreted these “I am” statements as references to a sacred-divine unveiling.

This OT verbal background applies equally well to the seven instances of the predicated “I am,” fleshing out the absolute form, and underpinning various facets of Jesus’ salvific relationship to humanity. For instance, Jesus claimed to be the “resurrection and the life,” prefacing that declaration with “I am” (Jn. 11:25). In so doing, he appropriated something that, ordinarily, belonged to God alone – and in the process, implicitly presented himself as the locus of resurrection life. Sometimes, Jesus clearly drew from OT images and threads. He claimed to be the “bread of life” (6:35), plainly alluding to the feeding of the Israelites after their flight from Egypt (Exodus 16) – and the source, the enfleshment, of true life. His declaration to be “light” (8:12), it seems, echoed the OT’s use of light as a metaphor, not just for illumination, but for salvation (e.g. Isa. 42:6, 49:6). Similarly, as the “true vine” (15:1), Jesus claimed to be the divine reality to which OT Israel – frequently depicted in these terms (e.g. Ps. 80:8-11; Isa. 5:7) – pointed.

John 10:1-21 is a particularly good example of these realities. By declaring, “I am the good shepherd” (vv.11, 14), Jesus consciously alluded to Ezekiel 34 (cf. 37:24-28), boldly contrasting himself with Israel’s false leaders. In that passage, Israel’s “shepherds” are castigated for their predatory ways (vv.2-10); Yahweh vows that he himself will come and shepherd his people, whilst paradoxically promising the advent of a Davidic figure to reign over the nation (vv.11-24). Jesus re-applied Ezekiel’s promise to himself, asserting that he was that “shepherd,” and that he would provide security and comfort for God’s afflicted (albeit leaving the relationship between the Davidic ruler and Yahweh ambiguous). In so using the “I am” formula, Jesus identified himself with past instances of revelatory activity. Moreover, he frequently combined them with known scriptural images to substantiate his claim to be the consummating distillation of the salvific promises to which he alluded.

“I am” – Thematic Resonances

As the foregoing analysis implies, the “I am” statements signalled more than appropriation of the divine self-appellation. Indeed, they went beyond an abstract, metaphysical assertion. The “I am” formula’s OT grounding suggests that Jesus situated himself within a salvation-historical narrative, identifying (climactically) with a particular god, via particular acts – Yahweh, whose past revelations provided the boundaries for his own self-disclosure. The formula is pregnant with several interlocking theological themes and motifs, once more linking Isaiah 40-55 and Exodus to the Johannine Jesus. Three in particular stand out: the cosmic lawsuit; the revelatory-redemptive nexus; and the seminal significance of the image of exodus itself. They form a triadic relationship, having been woven together to inform a deeper understanding of the significance of the “I am” formula.

To begin, Jesus’ “I am” utterances are part of a scriptural-historical pattern of judicial contests between Yahweh and his adversaries. Both Isaiah 40-55 and Exodus feature what could be called the cosmic lawsuit motif, pitting God and false claimants to deity against each other in a supra-natural trial. Indeed, the question of knowledge of God’s identity hangs over both these portions of the OT. In Isaiah, Yahweh repeatedly reveals himself against a panoply of lifeless idols; in Exodus, he’s unveiled as the authentic Lord, over and against Pharaoh and his pantheon. The key link is the polemical unveiling of the true God in a judicial conflict, where his acts yield knowledge of his character (Exod. 6:2, 6-7, etc.). “I am [he]”, whether in Exodus 3:14, or Isaiah 40-55, hooks into this divine self-identification, and is achieved amidst controversy over who the true, universal sovereign is (cf. Exod. 5:2).

This trenchant disclosure does not, however, stand in isolation. As noted, these passages are part of a broader covenantal framework. In God’s effort to redeem Israel from slavery, or draw it out of exile, the cosmic lawsuit gives way to a deeper redemptive thrust. Yahweh’s exposure of false deities and his own, contrasting claims – by virtue of the evocative “I am” – are in the service of his desire to faithfully save his people. Thus, divine knowledge and divine redemption merge, and are twin components of the logic of Exodus and Isaiah 40-55. Finally, the exodus itself constitutes a seminal link: its founding reality becomes paradigmatic for future liberation by the time of Isaiah 40-55. Indeed, the references to the exodus in Isaiah are particularly vivid, establishing continuity between God’s salvation-historical acts.

The Johannine Jesus, by way of his “I am” pronouncements, relied upon this scriptural edifice, even as he presented himself as its capstone. “I am” is an allusion to a multi-faceted, redemptive narrative. The Fourth Gospel’s cosmic lawsuit, for example, is a well-known motif, reaching a crescendo in Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. Adversarial-legal passages, such as Jn. 5:16-47 or 8:12-59, offer glimpses, as do the frequency of words such as “testimony” and “witness,” references to judgment and divine verdicts (e.g. 3:19ff; 5:22, 28-30; 11:31; 16:8-11), and the Holy Spirit’s depiction as counsellor or advocate.

The Johannine concept of truth takes on a decidedly judicial “hue” in this context, seen most clearly in the repeated disclosures of authentic deity. Jesus’ “I am” pronouncement in 8:58 (and 8:24, 28) is rooted in this environment, and is a particularly clear reflection of the wider cosmic contest, built into the Fourth Gospel’s narrative, between the true God and his opponents (cf. 1:4-5; cf. 19:15c). Controversy over Yahweh’s rightful status as universal Lord is transmuted into a trial over Jesus’ kingly identity (e.g. 19:15). Echoing those crucial portions of Exodus and Isaiah, Jesus offered himself, polemically, as true deity – Yahweh’s unique representative. The “I am” formula, so allusive in its brevity, encapsulates this fundamental (and exclusively authentic) unveiling (8:28). But, also like those OT passages under examination, such revelation was indissolubly linked with salvation: Jesus adopted the “exclusive soteriological function” claimed of Yahweh, where acknowledgement of the “I am” meant life (8:24, 51, 58; esp. 11:25-26; cf. 17:3). Conceiving of truth as revelation, John’s Gospel uses the “I am” statements to encapsulate the authentic character of God, as revealed in Jesus. It is in this regard that John’s frequent use of glory as a metaphor for divine light/truth, explicating Jesus’ identity as its ultimate channel, is relevant: “I am” reflects an understanding of redemptive enlightenment – the already-surveyed conjunction of divine knowledge, communion and salvation. The culmination of that nexus, of course, occurred at Calvary, the paradoxical site of Jesus’ ultimate unveiling as Israel’s true saviour-king (8:28). “I am,” as used by Jesus, is the functional, verbal equivalent of the image of Yahweh’s radiance.

The Fourth Gospel also employs the key motif of exodus as an overarching framework, using its seminal influence to flesh out the nature of Jesus’ salvific ministry. Features include: echoes of the tabernacle’s establishment, a key plank in Yahweh’s salvific-covenantal project (1:14); the corresponding use of divine glory to communicate a key dimension of Jesus person and ministry (e.g. 1:14; cf. 40:34-38); various Mosaic comparisons (1:15; 3:14); the wider import of Isaiah 40:1-3 in John 1:23 (trading, as the former passage does, on exodus imagery); allusive references to the paschal lamb (1:29); imagistic overtones of the exodus in Jesus’ “born again” declaration (esp. 3:5); typological use of the Israelites’ feeding in the wilderness (John 6); salvation as freedom from slavery (8:31, 34); Jesus’ crucifixion at Passover, consummating that event’s anticipatory significance; and, of course, the “I am” formula itself (given its already-noted provenance). Passing the exodus through an Isaianic prism, Jesus obliquely claimed to be the same “I am” who had already achieved redemption for his people, and vowed to do so again. He deployed the formula to identify himself intimately with the God of the exodus – signalling the inauguration of a new exodus, as promised in the Isaianic literature. Isaiah 40-55 and Exodus 3:14, then, should be combined as part of a layered backdrop to Jesus’ own claim – which his “I am” statements reflect – to be the salvific God’s climactic self-revelation.

“I am” God?

One shouldn’t conclude from the above account that Jesus was baldly claiming to be Yahweh/God, without remainder. His pronouncements were, it must be said, far more subtle. Whilst he appropriated uniquely divine prerogatives (bestowal of life, judgment, etc.), and implied unity with God (10:30), Jesus paradoxically distinguished himself from the Father, explicitly referring to this difference at several points (e.g. 4:34; 5:19). It’s important, in this final section, to nuance his solemn assertion of deity found in the “I am” formula.

Importantly, Jesus’ “I am” statements can be viewed in light of John’s unique Christological-theological presentation, particularly as it is found in the prologue (1:1-18). The notion of the divine logos (or Word/wisdom/mind) is pertinent, underpinning the distinctiveness of Jesus’ “I am” utterances. John 8:12 (bookending Chapter 8 with v.58) recalls the prologue’s characterisation of the Word as light, and coheres with allusive references to Jesus-as-Temple, the “site” of Yahweh’s resplendence (= glory, above p.5; see 1:14; 2:12-25; cf. Exod. 40:34-38). Tapping into a rich vein of Jewish theology about the transcendent God’s simultaneous immanence, John’s Gospel depicts Jesus as God’s embodied wisdom, identified with his nature, yet distinct (cf. Isa. 55:11; Prov. 8:22ff). The “I am” statements link Jesus with Yahweh’s activity and being, echoing the prologue’s portrayal of the divine Word as supervening agent in creation. Yahweh’s kingship, to which this essay has already referred, is of a piece with the Johannine picture of God’s presiding over creation: he is the universal sovereign, to which authorship of creation attests. Furthermore, this identity is “concretized,” so to speak, in Jesus and his “I am” claims. John 8:58 is especially apposite, strongly implying Jesus’ pre-existence, and contrasting it with creation’s contingency and finitude (represented, in this case, by Abraham’s qualified existence [cf. 1:1-3]). Functions attributed to Jesus are attributed to the logos, and these connections reflect the Gospel’s conviction regarding his co-inherence, his ontological identification, with Israel’s – and the world’s – God (14:10). Jesus is seen as, and declared himself to be, God’s mediating presence in the creation (1:9-10), witnessing to humanity as the climactic bearer of the divine name (cf. Heb. 1:1-3).

As can be seen, then, this isn’t merely a matter of later theologizing. In the aforementioned use of Ezekiel 34, Jesus himself fused the paradoxical combination of a divine-human shepherd in his own person. John 14:6, where Jesus claims, “I am the way…”, touches upon the enigma of his twin-status as the supreme revelation of Yahweh and the distinct channel, mediator – even enfleshment – of divine truth; indeed, to know Jesus is to know the Father (Jn. 14:9-10), and Yahweh’s singular reality is “devolved,” in a sense, to his uniquely qualified representative. “I am” functions as a subtle reference to Jesus’ divine status, whilst discouraging facile attempts to baldly equate him with Yahweh. Therefore, although he claimed deity, Jesus did so in a way that didn’t exhaust the Godhead. “I am” isn’t a totalizing declaration of godhood, but points to Jesus’ status as God’s true “image” – the incarnation of Yahweh’s wisdom. The Johannine picture of God’s manifold nature calibrates the import of Jesus’ statements, holding in tension his dual identity as Yahweh’s manifest presence and a discrete personage. “I am,” in this environment, successfully preserves the Son’s essential deity, but without collapsing it into the being of the Father.

Conclusion

It is apparent that the Johannine Jesus, according to his “I am” statements, sought to (obliquely) claim divinity. The formula bears clear linguistic parallels with OT instances of God’s self-identification – found, above all, in places such as Isaiah and Exodus – encompassing his uniqueness and covenantal loyalty. Moreover, Jesus’ declarations captured a complex web of fundamental salvation-historical themes and motifs, building upon those striking verbal similarities. The cosmic lawsuit, the coalescence of revelation and salvation, and the use of exodus as a defining image for that process, form a coherent backdrop to Jesus’ “I am” statements. More than an inert, metaphysical assertion, his declaration signalled the climax of God/Yahweh’s redemptive-revelatory activity, to which the surveyed background pointed. Past acts of self-disclosure converged in Jesus, crystallized – in abbreviated form – in the “I am” formula. Importantly, Jesus remained within the confines of monotheism, utilising Jewish categories to explicate his own, distinctive claims to deity. Rather than offering up an exhaustive declaration of godhood, the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel presented himself as God’s supreme self-expression: participating eternally in divine life, embodying divine truth, but retaining a distinct identity. Properly contextualised, Jesus’ “I am” statements buttress this paradoxical portrayal.

Ephesians 2 and the “Problem” of the Law

I was in a Bible study group a number of weeks ago, delving in Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church. The group camped at Ephesians 2:11-22 for a little while, discussing Paul’s reflections on how Christ’s death has accomplished unity between Jew and Gentile. As Paul himself puts it, the death of Christ “is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (v.14). He goes on to declare that the law was “abolish[ed]” in Christ’s flesh, with the creation of “one new man” the result (v.15). I think everyone agreed that this was something to be cherished.

What struck the group as strange, however, was Paul’s blunt statement about Christ “abolishing…the law with its commandments and regulations” (Eph. 2:15a). As one member seemed to suggest, a de-contextualised reading might imply that Jesus’ death had simply done away with the law. Apart from appearing to be inconsistent with what Jesus himself said (cf. Matt. 5:17-20), this particular group member further suggested that it could lead to overly liberal interpretations regarding the ethical demands placed upon Christians – a salient point, particularly in a society that seems to hold traditional Christian sexual ethics in some disregard.

No firm conclusions were reached, and there was some confusion over what, precisely, Paul meant. What was his main point? Was he saying, point-blank, that the law had truly been abolished? Was it completely obsolete? Was Paul offering justification for some kind of antinomianism? Here, I hope to provide some (general) pointers for interpreting the great Apostle, looking at what he meant in speaking of the law as he did, before sketching out the wider implications of the main thrust of the passage.

Firstly, it should be noted that to read Ephesians 2:15 in isolation is to fail to “read” it at all. That is, one has indeed de-contextualised the verse, neutering its true significance. Shorn of all context, and wrenched from its literary environment, a verse of Scripture can be harnessed by anyone, to substantiate all kinds of agendas. This verse is no different. It’s important, then, that one takes account of the passage in its entirety, which means reaching back to Ephesians 2:11.

After waxing lyrical about the manifold blessings that God has prepared for believers, and proclaiming the gift of divine salvation in the midst of transgression and death, Paul focuses his analysis upon the Gentile congregants and their union with Christ. He speaks of their past – denied citizenship in Israel, far from God, and lacking knowledge of either his law or his truth. “But now,” Paul says, the Gentile believers have been “brought near” through Christ. Prompted by the import of this divinely-wrought act, Paul spends some verses speaking about its implications. However, he is also alert to the pressures encountered by the church in Ephesus (to which vv.11-18 seem to allude), and his letter is, at this point, motivated by those issues. Paul briefly refers to Jews, who were sometimes called (and called themselves) “the circumcision” (v.11). In some churches, demands were made that Gentile Christians undergo the rites and obey the laws of Judaism. Their derision of these individuals as “uncircumcised” had the effect of creating two “classes” of Christian within the body of Christ. Whether that was happening in the Ephesian church is less clear – one certainly doesn’t encounter the “live” issue of Jew-Gentile relations here as in Galatians. At any rate, Paul is making a general, expansive point about the new unity that exists between Jew and Gentile as a result of what Christ has achieved.

Jews (and even many Jewish Christians) put great stock in their ethno-national identity as Jews: God’s chosen people, members of Israel and participants in the covenants. The Jewish people had long used circumcision, along with such strictures as food laws and Sabbath-keeping, as particularly obvious identity markers to guarantee the integrity and purity of the religious community. And although many Jews, along with Gentiles, had been saved into the newly forged household of God, they were still intent on cleaving to those symbols of covenantal uniqueness. The law was viewed as an indispensable identity marker of God’s people. But Paul wants to focus upon the epochal work of Jesus Christ, whose death has, in fact, assured non-Jews of salvation.

Thus, it is not the case that verse 15, where Paul speaks of Christ abolishing the law in his flesh, is meant to be interpreted in some kind of abstract, de-historicised fashion. Paul is not suggesting that the law, as a general moral code, is no longer relevant. Indeed, in Ephesians 2:10, which is situated just before the passage in question, the Apostle speaks of believers as God’s “workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (italics mine). Paul is no antinomian, committed as he is elsewhere to a high standard of (Christ-centred) ethics (see, for example, Rom. 12:9-21; 13:8-14).

Clearly, then, Paul was not embarking on a way of life bereft of moral behaviour, and his words regarding the status of the law should not be construed as such. The problem was not with the law per se. Rather, Paul speaks of the abrogation of the law, narrowly defined as the means of establishing membership of the people of God. For it was not the law, in its role as the substantiating force behind a particular ethno-religious identity, that was to be the foundation of one’s status as God’s elect. Paul is quite emphatic: it is Christ Jesus, who provides the final guarantee of one’s entry into God’s house by abolishing the divisive role to which the law (or at least elements of it) had been put. In him (i.e. Christ), Paul says, has a new people been created – forged out of the patchwork of sinful humanity, and drawn together under the unifying auspices of Jesus himself.

This is the main thrust of Paul’s proclamation in 2:13-18. He acknowledges that at one stage, Gentiles were far from God. However, he goes on to declare that peace has come through Christ and his sacrifice, reconciling Gentile sinners to God – not through the law, but through him in whom sin was condemned, once-and-for-all (cf. Rom. 8:3). Paul is not thinking of an inner tranquillity when he speaks of peace. Instead, he refers to the objective peace between God and the reconciled sinner, having been brought about by the death of the Messiah. He becomes the basis for one’s status as a member of God’s house; it is upon faith in Christ, and not the law, that a person is declared to be saved. In Christ, we find the fulfilment of the law, whose life and death satisfied the requirements of the law on behalf of those who trust in him. As such, there was no need for the Gentile believers at Ephesus to become culturally (if not ethnically) Jewish, for whatever merit circumcision had (not to mention other such markers), it could no longer operate as the determining factor in laying down the boundaries of the redeemed community. The law, to the extent that it was relevant, could not be used to prop up the unique privilege of being counted as member of the divine family.

Moreover, it is precisely because of Christ’s death that Jew and Gentile can come together in newly fashioned unity. Since the law cannot act as the “backbone” of covenantal identity, it cannot be said to divide. Christ has come to tear down that “dividing wall of hostility” – in other words, to bring to an end the law’s use as boundary marker between Jews and Gentiles – so that “one new man” may be fashioned out of the old (vv.14-15). At this point, we should be alert to the evocative use of that image, “dividing wall of hostility,” which likely refers to the structures of the Jerusalem temple that prevented non-Jews from going beyond a certain point. Those structures have been torn down; Jesus is the final, consummating basis for entry into, and ongoing membership in, God’s kingdom. As Paul explicitly says, this was his (i.e. God’s) express “purpose”; God intended it from the beginning, such that all racial, ethnic and national differences – even those conceived within the context of a religious-covenantal identity – would be utterly transcended.

As such, the vertical peace that exists between God and sinners as a consequence of the death of Jesus is matched by the horizontal peace that exists between Jews and non-Jews (cf. v.16). According to Paul, a kind of triadic unity has been created: not simply the reconciliation of ethnic groups; nor merely the end of enmity between God and individual sinners; but a comprehensive reunion between these three “parties” via the cross. Ethno-religious identity has ceased to be relevant, for the One to whom the law points has superseded it. This is no new theme, or theological novelty, that Paul has introduced. Elsewhere, in making much the same point, he declares that there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, because an overarching oneness has been achieved in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28).

Thus, we see that for Paul, the death of Jesus has erased division, boasting, religious chauvinism – indeed, that sense of spiritual and covenantal superiority – which existed to hamper the Gentiles as they sought to receive the mercy of God. Gentiles qua Gentiles can access that mercy, having been brought near by the same Christ who saves Jews, too. This is also an important point, for Paul is careful to say that not only has Christ’s death granted non-Jews access to God; Jews need to appropriate the benefits of Calvary as well. In verse 14, he states that Christ “is our peace,” thereby including Jews. In verse 16, he writes that both Jews and Gentiles have been reconciled to God “through the cross,” strongly implying that both groups – contrary to what some may have thought – needed just that.  And in verse 18, he explicitly says that “we both have access to the Father by the one Sprit.” Christ’s death has made a way, and it is by God’s Spirit that one acknowledges, receives and responds effectively to that salvific work. Paul could not have been plainer in subverting the seemingly insurmountable power of the law as the guarantor of covenantal identity. Nor could he have been clearer in challenging the “false confidence of the Jews, who…boasted that they were the holy people, and chosen inheritance, of God,” (Calvin). If one is to boast, it can only be in what Christ has done.

***

From what we have seen in this (admittedly) wide-ranging survey, it is not the case that Paul sought to tear down the law-as-ethical-statement in order to replace it, say, with some version of antinomianism. Far from it; Paul’s point in Ephesians 2:11-22 is quite different, and it is a point worth celebrating. Paul demonstrates the double triumph of Jesus’ death: having the effect, not only of bringing individual sinners into relationship with God, but of drawing those same sinners – divided, perhaps, by a raft of ethnic and cultural differences – into relationship with one other. Due to the epoch-making work of Christ, the law’s role as the basis for one’s covenantal status has been rescinded. Paul did not seek to abrogate the law in some kind of abstract, ethical sense. To be sure, we are not called upon to obey the law in exactly the same way, or with exactly the same goal in mind, as the ancient Israelites. It is still deeply relevant, but only in so far as its teachings and strictures are taken up into Christ’s own, and only to the extent that they can be passed through a Christological prism – (re)interpreted in the light of Jesus’ life, ministry, teachings, death and resurrrection. In any case, Paul was thinking of the law in a very specific way when he spoke of Jesus’ death “abolishing” it.

Moreover, it is precisely Paul’s statements on this matter – found in Ephesians 2 and elsewhere – that should give us pause. Nothing can possibly supersede the achievement of Christ; his death and resurrection, and the Spirit-impelled trust one puts in them, is all that is required for someone to be counted a member of God’s household (cf. Eph. 2:19b). However, it is equally true that many who have, across the ages, declared this to be so have also added to that exclusive truth the accoutrements of their own culture, undermining the kind of radical, Christo-centric unity eulogised by Ephesians 2:11ff. Colonial expansion may have brought the gospel, but its proclamation was distorted by, amongst other things, the demand that Christianisation entail Westernisation. More recently, it could be said of many churches – even those that echo the Reformation cry of justification by faith (in Jesus) – unconsciously try and fuse the radically liberating message of Christ with the time-bound norms of post-war, middle class culture. Even today, we who would say “yes and Amen” to Paul’s words in Ephesians 2 may be guilty of offering up a new set of identity markers that take their place alongside the inimitable accomplishments of Christ. All such practices have the effect of diminishing those accomplishments – of saying, in effect, that they were not enough. Similarly, they frustrate the universal scope of the gospel, which is meant to encompass people from every tribe and language and nation and tongue under the unifying grace of the triune God. The result is division within the company of Christ, something that is completely at odds with the basic thrust of Paul’s Ephesian missive.

Many, of course, would baulk at such suggestion; their doctrine, they might argue, is robust and pure, whilst they are deeply committed to the transcendent and reconciling power of the Gospel. But it is imperative, if our doctrine is to remain an embodied reality, that we all resist the temptation mask the universality of God’s grace with the particularities of our own cultures.