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EFAC Australia

Essentials

Is guilt still a force in modern life? Ben Underwood recommends a recent essay on the persistence of guilt in the broken moral economy of the West.
Ben Underwood is editor of Essentials and Associate Minister at St Matthew’s Shenton Park, WA

I have a spirituality reading group, made up of fellow Shenton Park men, which I convene in order to have a chance to talk to my fellow suburbanites about deep things. Members take it in turns to choose an article, poem, book chapter, Youtube clip or immersive VR experience for us to digest and discuss. The rules are that stimulus material has to be short, and it has to raise the big questions. It’s a lot of fun, and has given me an opportunity to talk of Christian things with my neighbours. The last meeting we had was my turn to choose our material, and I stumbled across a great essay, which I felt would get us going. I was not disappointed, and we had an excellent evening of robust discussion.

Peter Brain rubs the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith into the heart of the pastor.
Bishop Peter Brain has just retired from the Parish of Rockingham, WA.

Martin Luther’s famous saying that justification by faith is the article of a standing or falling church has proven true over the past 500 years, but can be applied equally to those who are called to pastoral ministry.

The versical from Morning and Evening Prayer: 'Clothe your ministers with righteousness along with its response: And make your chosen people joyful, remind us that a very real benefit of justification by faith is that, when evident in the life and preaching of the minister, it will bring church members much joy'. This quote from Psalm 132:9 reminds us of the reformed nature of ministry, with the word minister replacing priest. Reformed pastors know that their standing with God is secure through faith in Christ not because of the size of the church they serve or the gifts they may have. Security in this truth will keep us from despair when there appears to be little response, from pride when there is and from using our members as fodder to feed our egos or drive our agendas. Ministers will want to live rightly in glad response to the one who has so graciously justified us through faith in Christ alone. This will bring joy to ministers and people alike along with glory to God.

Book Review 

Paul and the Gift. John Barclay. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2015 (656 pp.)

John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift is the most significant contribution in Pauline theology since E. P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977). That’s a big call en the proliferation of books in the past 40 years amidst a ferocious debate on Pauline theology; not the least being

N. T. Wright’s monumental Paul and the Faithfulness of God. What sets Barclay’s work apart is that he offers an approach that may make the debate less polarised and move scholarship beyond the present impasse. His approach to Paul is fresh, bold and incisive, while his thesis is possessed of rigorous logic, clear methodology and great clarity. The result is a reading of Romans and Galatians which is coherent, consistent and compelling.

The premise of the book is that modern conception of “grace” – as “a gift given without expectation of return” (unreciprocated) is a recent cultural product that is very much at odds with Greco-Roman and Jewish assumptions about gift-giving. In particular, ancient conceptions of gift were never free from the expectation of reciprocation. Not only is Paul’s theology of grace incorrectly read through this modernist lens, but the exegesis of key Pauline texts and the theology that is constructed upon it lacks sufficient nuance to represent him properly.

Far from being a singular concept Barclay examines the cultural dimension of gift exchange and finds that grace is a multi-faceted idea that can be understood (or “perfected”) in six different ways:

  • Superabundance – the abundance and/or permanence of the gift;
  • Singularity – the giver is characterised by this trait alone, without any corresponding concern for justice/ judgement;
  • Priority – the giver initiates the giving without any prior action on the part of the recipient;
  • Incongruity – the gift bears no relation to the worthiness of the recipient;
  • Efficacy – the gift achieves its purpose;
  • Non-circularity – there is no expectation of reciprocity (69).

Given the number of meanings that can be attached to grace Barclay examines more than a dozen theologians in order to observe which aspects they highlight and why they stress those particular facets. Luther offers the richest interpretation of grace, perfecting five of the six aspects

– superabundance, singularity (to a large extent), priority, incongruity and non-circularity; only efficacy is absent in Luther’s theology. His emphasis on non-circularity is especially significant because it gives Luther’s theology its particular character. As Barclay writes, “Against all possible misunderstandings, Luther insists again and again that these works will result from faith … but he refused to allow that they are integral to faith or to justification lest they become again a necessary means to salvation … Stripped of this conditionality, believers act out of love for God, not from self-concern” (114). As we will see, it is this understanding of grace, the non-circularity of the gift, that Barclay will claim is absent in Pauline theology.

While both Luther and Calvin emphasise the superabundance and incongruence of grace, along with the priority of God in salvation they differ in respect of non-circulatory. As Barclay explains, “Calvin’s task — and considerable achievement — is to position a life of good works within the scheme of salvation, without making these gifts instrumental in obtaining or ‘meriting’ grace, that is, without compromising the priority and incongruity of grace” (124). The purpose of salvation is regeneration (124), therefore Calvin maintains the strong prospect of moral progress (sanctification) (127). Grace “incites” the believers will towards obedience. Thus efficacy of grace is a major emphasis, as the Spirit graciously works to bring about sanctification in the believer’s life (129). However, Calvin does not perfect the non-circularity of the gift. As Barclay quotes Calvin, “In all covenants of his mercy the Lord requires of his servants in return uprightness and sanctity of life” (Institutes, III.17.5). Importantly for Calvin, “the believers’ return to God, which arises from God’s grace, is never instrumental in acquiring initial or subsequent grace from God. Nonetheless, believers’ active commitment to holiness is a necessary sign of the grace that activates their work” (130). Calvin expects the circulation of love towards the neighbour as part of their return to God.

Since the 1970s the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) has challenged the Reformed consensus on Paul, in particular the characterisation of first-century Judaism as a religion of works, as opposed to Christianity with its emphasis on grace. According to NPP scholars like James Dunn, “works of the Law” were not performed in Judaism to gain divine favour, but were “badges” of belonging to the people of God. The problem with Judaism was not its understanding of grace, but its insistence that believers were marked by circumcision, food laws and Sabbath observance and not faith in Christ. Because faith in Christ and not works of the Law is the marker of being “in” salvation is open to all without (ethnic) distinction, and reconciliation among believers, especially Jews and Gentiles, is the major implication of the gospel (cf. Gal 3:21). The “righteousness of God” (Rom 1:17), is not the alien righteousness of Christ imputed to the believer, but God’s own faithfulness to the Abrahamic covenant in bringing salvation to all the nations while remaining true to Israel. According to E. P. Sanders Paul was in agreement with Judaism that “works are the condition of remaining ‘in,’ but they do not earn salvation” (157). This schema highlights the priority (and probably the superabundance) of grace, but its insistance that works are necessary for remaining ‘in’ indicates that non-circularity does not figure.

The NPP has been received with alarm from those who see it undermining the Reformers’ emphasis on grace. Barclay explains this angst: “if salvation is ‘by grace alone’… it is not sufficient that it is merely prior: it must be incongruous with the work of the recipient (even at the final judgement) and efficacious in one form or another (through the work of the Spirit) (169. Emphasis added).”

However, Barclay makes the vital point in response to this critique that they have assumed “a particular definition of ‘grace’… and little attempt is made to distinguish between the different meanings of the term or (in our terms) the different perfections of this motif” (169). It is here that Barclay’s work offers the possibility of exciting new insight, applying his six perfections of grace to gain a more nuanced understating of Pauline theology in the hope of moving beyond the simple dichotomies that have developed.

However, before we get to Paul, Barclay examines in detail five Jewish texts from the Second Temple period (530BC to AD70) that reflect on the beneficence of God. What he discovers is that “grace is everywhere in the theology of Second Temple Judaism, but not everywhere the same” (565). Surprisingly perhaps, Paul’s answers “stand in close proximity” to these voices, though with his own unique perspective (328). Where Paul is distinctive is not in his belief in a gracious God, but in the significance of the “Christ-event,” its implications for Gentile mission and his emphasis on the incongruous nature of the mercy of God.

In his final section Barclay proceeds to exegete closely Galatians and Romans. He hopes that the preceding 328 pages of work will allow him to do so wary of preconceptions concerning the meaning of grace, and in particular, allow him to dispense with the modern Western notion of grace as “pure” gift that is given with no strings attached. Barclay’s exegesis is scintillating, providing clarity to the structure and argument of these letters that is rare. He is at pains to provide an explanation that gives equal weight to every section and every verse, not sublimating those which do not sit comfortably into his reconstruction of Paul’s argument. As a result — and this is the real benefit of this whole volume — we are able to see the argument of these letters, the theology of Paul and these important doctrines with far greater precision and nuance than before.

So what did he find concerning grace? In both Galatians and Romans he finds that “Paul figures God’s gift or favour as incongruous with the worth of its recipients.” Paul’s emphasis on the incongruity of God’s gift is seen, for example, where Paul argues,

The righteousness of God is revealed in Christ in the justification of sinners (3:21-26); Christ does not for the good, but for the ungodly (5:6-8). Paul parades not the match but the mismatch between the act of God and the value or condition of its human beneficiaries: divine faithfulness is displayed in human faithlessness (3:1-8), life is created out of human death (4:16-22) (490).

Paul “explores the incongruity of grace, which he relates to the Christ-event as the definitive enactment of God’s love for the unlovely, and to the Gentile mission, where the gifts of God ignore ethnic differentials of worth and Torah based definitions of value (‘righteousness’)” (565–566).

Because everyone without distinction, including the Jews, are unworthy of grace we receive this gift irrespective of worth, meaning that it belongs to no one race and is for every person regardless of ethnicity.

If incongruity is radicalised by Paul and the preeminent way he understands grace, what of the other perfections? Barclay argues that grace in Paul is not non-circular. That is, there is an expectation of reciprocity in God’s gift of Christ. “God’s grace is designed to produce obedience, lives that perform, by heart-inscription, the intent of the Law” (492). God intends to transform the human condition as he brings about the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5) which is the life created through God’s incongruous gift. God judges sinners according to their obedience that arises out of faith and not their ethnicity. Importantly, Barclay adds, “it is the act of God that produces the necessary human obedience … This power is incongruous in its impact on sinful human material, but its transformative results are finally congruous with the last judgement of God” (467). Moreover, the good work that leads to eternal life “is an act of divine power, an incongruous gift to sinful humanity whose transformative effects will be evident at the judgement” (473).

Some will protest that grace with reciprocity is not grace at all; leaving an approach that is not sufficiently reformed and opens the door to works. However, this is where Barclay’s taxonomy and historical perspective are so useful. His view of Paul is largely at odds with Luther (and also modern notions of gift requiring no reciprocity), but entirely consistent with Calvin’s reading of grace. It is reformed in promoting the priority of grace, its efficacy and, most of all, its incongruity. Where it differs is in respect of singularity and noncircularity, which makes it different to Luther, but not unreformed.

Barclay entertains the hope that his approach might bridge the NPP and Reformed view of Paul providing a basis for some kind of consensus. My view is that his approach is too similar to that of the NPP (closer than Barclay seems prepared to admit) to form a bridge. His understanding of “works of the law” may be broader than Sanders’, and his analysis of Second Temple Judaism far more nuanced, but in both of these he remains well inside the NPP camp. His understanding of the righteousness of God as subjective, and his apparent rejection of imputation also place him in the NPP orbit. Like the NPP he interprets Paul against the background of the Gentile mission, and understands the doctrine of justification as being more about the constitution of the people of God than personal salvation. This approach is a considerable step forward in overcoming many of the objections that have been levelled at the NPP, and his taxonomy clarifies several aspects of the debate, but it cannot be understood or represented as a “third-way” or “bridge” between the various perspectives.

It is not necessary to read every one of the 656 pages of Paul and the Gift. The one hundred page analysis of Second Temple texts can be missed, and the excellent summary chapter read instead. The same could be said for the historical survey – except that he offers such a helpful refresher of historical theology that it is a worthwhile read. Moreover, this is not a dry book of purely academic interest. Pastors and lay people will find a great deal of fresh and accessible material that will stimulate their thinking on key Reformation doctrines and greatly enhance their preaching – especially of the Reformation, Romans and Galatians.

Tim Foster, Victoria

Peter Jensen meditates upon how, as we read it, the Bible is in some ways jarring and puzzling, but also infinitely precious.
Peter Jensen was Archbishop of Sydney from 2001 to 2013.

This day, as far as I am aware, I met my first Tibetan. More than that, my first Tibetan Christian. I had been praying for this over the years since 2008, aware that there is a handful of Tibetans in Australia, mainly refugees. I had acquired a Tibetan Bible from India and had vowed that I would pass it on to my first Tibetan when I met them. And so I did, to the evident huge delight of the recipient. That joy reminded me how easy it is to take the scriptures for granted and how wonderful it is that they should be so readily available in our own tongue. This, of course, is the fruit of the Reformation. We praise God for William Tyndale for a start.

The more I read the Scriptures, the more I am filled with awe. Like the God whose Spirit inspired them, they are not to be treated lightly. Living as we do, in a society whose thought-forms are utterly alienated from God, we are frequently reminded how very strange the Bible is. I sometimes think that they are rather like a rough, irascible, shaggy unmannered uncle who comes to stay, creating unease and curiosity in equal measure.

Let’s try to answer some questions about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Is Luke’s Sermon on the Mount the same as Matthew’s or from some other occasion?

It is a mistake to see it as a Sermon on a Plain. Jesus has been praying in a mountain about the selection of his twelve apostles. He has called them to himself and now descends to a level place (on the mountain) where he meets with the crowds.

Is Jesus addressing the disciples or the crowds?

The picture Luke paints of the occasion is interesting. There are the twelve newly appointed apostles, a great number of disciples, and a representative gathering of the laos (people) of Israel from all over the land and beyond. Jesus is invested with power – truly the Messiah amidst his people. The Beatitudes have special reference to disciples (“having raised his eyes on his disciples”), but are heard by all.

Who are those who are pronounced happy? Are they four different categories of person or one?

Jesus characterizes his disciples (more than the twelve) as “poor-hungry-weeping”. This is how Israel in exile understood itself; God was the protector of the helpless and now the nation had fallen into that state. Through Isaiah God had promised that be would save poor, hungry, mourning Zion. But that raised the question whether all Israel would be saved, or only some. In the fourth beatitude Jesus identifies true “poor-hungry-weeping Zion” as those who are hated, excluded and insulted because of their association with the suffering Son of Man.

How can these people be said to be happy?

True disciples will be happy - when Messiah establishes his kingdom and all forms of poverty and need are abolished. They are happy now because they know their sufferings are light and momentary and will give way to something glorious: they rejoice in what will be. Christians are consoled when they suffer rejection because of Jesus, because they know their reward is great in heaven. I don’t think this means when they go to heaven, but that good things are stored up for them now and later with God, who is in heaven.

Who does Jesus address as rich, well-fed and laughing?

These are those who can be characterized as opposite to disciples. Remember that Jesus is addressing the whole people with disciples mingled amongst them. Each person needed to decide for himself or herself whether he or she would believe Jesus’ gospel and stand by the Son of Man and suffer exclusion for his sake, or to seek acceptance from those with influence. Jesus implies that these latter are a non-Israel whose fate is to lose even the good things they now enjoy, and whose laughter will turn to bitter tears on the day the kingdom is revealed in all its fullness.

So what is going on here?

Jesus is announcing the coming of the kingdom for Israel but warning that it will only be enjoyed by those who stand with him in the time of his rejection and suffering. Those who prefer what this world has to offer above the promises of the kingdom will ultimately lose everything, but those who go on believing the gospel will inherit Israel’s restoration future where poverty, hunger and unhappiness will be things of the past. Jesus is dividing the people.

The Politics of Rage

Dale Appleby

"The Second Coming: On the politics of rage". Christos Tsiolkas. The Monthly Dec 16-Jan17

The White Queen: One Nation and the Politics of Race. David Marr Quarterly Essay 65 2017

Christos Tsiolkas concludes his article by bemoaning the impact of anger in public debate: “...but this rage and this pornography of wrath, it is proving dangerous.” (35). His discussion claims that rage is everywhere and expressed by all kinds of parties. “There is a narrative of this anger…: that the rage festers in the disenfranchised white working class of the globalised capitalist world.” (30) A narrative he says, which is mistaken. “We are fooling ourselves if we believe the rage is only misogynistic or rural, only white and right-wing, baby-boomer and not millennial.” (30)

His view is that it has invaded all aspects of public discourse. Some if it is the language of elites used against those who don’t speak that language – the less educated for example. “...identity politics has become a weapon to punish any ambivalence of thought and expression, any incorrect use of gendered, racial or theoretical nomenclature, and to launch accusations of bad faith.”

(31) Some of it is exacerbated by “..the internet, which allows for a lubrication and indulgence in wrath just as much as it does for lust” (30). It shows itself in the increase in dichotomies, false distinctions and separations. Each group thinking in their own bubbles, class divisions and lack of understandings. His suggestion is that “We have to relearn listening and we have to relearn argument, to free both activities from the indulgent wrath of the new digital age.” (34)

David Marr discusses the rise and influence of Pauline Hanson and her One Nation Party. Despite her appeal to those disaffected with politics and politicians, those fed up with the influence of elites, and her positioning as part of a working class and nostalgic group, her central appeal has to do with race, according to Marr. The focus of the rage against other races has changed over the years. At present it is Muslims. Previously it was Aborigines and Asians. Dr Anne Aly agrees with various researchers who think that there is around 14 per cent of the population that are clearly hostile to Muslims and another 10 per cent that hold vaguer fears towards Muslims (17).

Marr thinks Hanson has harnessed the fear and anger of this part of the population. Her power, he says, is not just that it has won her another term in the Senate, but that she holds sway over a significant voting block which affects the fortunes of the major parties. Hence the gradual and unashamed adoption of many of One Nation’s policies by the Government, and the refusal of any of the leaders of the major parties to call her on her racism. Because that would immediately alienate a group which the major parties need to woo.

Marr’s essay outlines a deliberate use of fear and racial hatred to promote a political agenda. Hanson would say that she is merely giving that 24 per cent of the population a voice. Marr’s conclusion is that “the far right where politicians are spending so much energy harvesting votes these days is not Australia. Nearly all of us are somewhere else, scattered around the centre, waiting for a government that will take this good, prosperous, generous country into the future.” (95).

Both essays are rational and irenic. Both are speaking the language of their group. Marr’s is an attempt to explain and dismiss. Tsiolkas offers some advice about listening and arguing. And a plea to give up anger. But what is the alternative, or antidote, to engineered anger?

At a community level, fear and engineered hate are ways of reinforcing tribal boundaries. Because tribal boundaries are felt as means of retaining security. Listening and arguing better may be of some help to those who want less tribal conflict. But some of the talk needs to be inside the tribe to identify other ways not to be afraid. And leadership that shows a path for righteous anger not to become festered anger.

I was at a meeting of EFAC members recently at which the discussion came around to the kind of hate that is directed towards evangelicals. Some of it is passive, of course, and most of it may not be addressed directly. Yet there is a strong antipathy to what evangelicals are perceived to stand for. Inside the evangelical tribe there is a strong desire to listen and argue gently, humbly and in a conciliatory spirit. There is also anger particularly by those who are chronically marginalised. But evangelicals don’t need to be afraid and they don’t need to feed their anger. Either as members of a church or as citizens in a nation.

What they do have is a way of thinking, living and feeling that follows the principle of “blessing those who curse you”, and of “doing to others what you want them to do to you”. Marr wants a government to lead this nation into a better future. Christians still have the opportunity to show their church and nation (and political parties) how the tribes of the earth can listen and argue and grow together in friendship.

by Neil Bach

Recently I read the first of three large fictional works described as ‘thrillers’. One critic described these monumental detective stories as books ‘that will not be forgotten once closed’. The writer of the trilogy was brilliant at weaving his story and creating tension, but as the first story proceeded I was confronted with descriptions of violence and sexual perversion amongst most characters that highlighted the worst and evil aspects of our societies. The descriptions were not necessary to sustain the book’s plot and they left me feeling that my soul had been assailed rather than enlightened. Consequently I only flicked through the last sections of the book to see who were the villains, and took the remaining two volumes back to the library without reading them.

It is just one sobering example of my own survey of society. My recent experience of ‘retiring’ from full time Christian ministry has meant being able to watch more films than the average one per year my wife and I saw at a cinema. I have also engaged afresh with the general culture. Despite the many wonderful benefits in our societies my recent experience leaves me troubled at western societies’ direction. Secular and non-Christian values have been disseminated and are absorbed by western people in an extremely wide way. Further our society not only finds little room for God, but some within it are currently engaged in seeking to deconstruct the Christian values that have made our society great.

I know that I am not alone, and my observation of western democracies indicates to me that conservative people of Christian persuasion are saying, “we’ve had enough and are not allowing our society to disappear down some sink hole of godless irrelevance.”

From where do I draw strength at the present time? There are three things that act for me, as anchors for my soul, to give hope in Christ-like living.

The first is the anchor of the cross of Christ. Despite the existence of Easter celebrations in the west, the cross of Christ is easily pushed to the edges in modern Christian writing and living, and often the cross’ meaning is diluted. For the cross is the only answer to the reality of evil in our world, it is the only solution … for education, psychology, and decent living, that have their place, cannot deal with evil. Billy Graham once wrote “Jesus’ greatest work was accomplished in just three dark hours on Calvary where he died for our sins.”[i]

That work showed God’s deepest love for us, the depravity of human evil he had to deal with, and his deep hatred of sin. Christ’s death dealt with God’s rightful anger at human sin, and paid the penalty for our sins. He stood in our place, and gained salvation for all who put their trust in God’s completed work at the cross.[ii] God converts those who accept the power of the cross into their lives, and makes us new creatures able to live for him in his world. Our values and lives are transformed and so is the society in which we live when it accepts the importance of the cross and Christianity.

The second is the anchor of the Holy Spirit. The slave trader turned clergyman John Newton said “The religion of a sinner stands on two pillars, namely what Christ did for us in his flesh, and what he performs in us by his Spirit. Most errors arise from an attempt to separate these two.”[iii] It is true in my experience that to just trust in the cross of Christ, as crucial as that is, is not enough. I need to daily seek the fullness of the Holy Spirit to live for God[iv]; to deflect and defeat the wrong values and experiences the world can offer. When I have neglected to live in the Spirit’s power, thinking I could exist on cruise control, I have been diminished in effectiveness. Spirit living means to deeply understand the Bible, through study and daily reading and then praying earnestly for God’s strength, sensitivity and wisdom day by day. It means responding to God’s agendas not mine. It starts with my own person and radiates like a stone thrown into the pond, to all my thoughts and actions and to everyone and every organization that I meet and correspond with. This is to do what Scripture teaches, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”[v]

The third is the anchor of a future that is God’s future. It strongly encourages my heart that God’s kingly rule continues to be felt in his world now, to transform people and institutions, and that this rule of God will not end. We are assured that the future is God and God’s heaven. Years ago a friend and I walked on a campus and a great number of people leaving a class were walking the other way. My young Christian friend, not long converted, said to me, “story of my life walking against the crowd.” He is still doing it. So are all Christians, not weighed down by a world that is for the moment, walking in the other direction.

We know that by embracing the power of the cross, seeking the filling of the Holy Spirit, and anticipating our future hope, we can be the powerful instruments for God in a society needing him.

 


[i] ‘What kept Jesus on the cross?’. Billy Graham, Decision March 2001, p1

[ii] Romans 3:21-26

[iii] Memoirs of the Rev  John Newton’.John Newton, Newton’s Works April 1839, xlvii.

[iv] Ephesians 5:18

[v] James 1: 5 New International Version, 2011

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