Sunday, June 20, 2010

Commentary on Scripture: 1 John

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with out eyes... we proclaim to you so that you too may have fellowship with us.

1 John 1:1 ~~ This letter begins on a combative note, stating the humanity of Christ from the beginning and arguing against the Gnostic heresy. Where the Gospel of John begins with a largely abstract discourse on the Word, in an effort to persuade people to belief in Christ, the First Epistle of John begins with the apostles' concrete experiences of the Word, in an effort to exhort believers to growth.

1 John 1:1 ~~ Note the verbs in this verse: "heard," "seen," "looked at" (indicating a more intense gaze, akin to a double-take), "touched." All of them are strongly physical verbs, emphasizing even in vocabulary the humanity of Christ.

1 John 1:2 ~~ Father and Son are seen as coequal and co-eternal ("the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us").

1 John 1:3 ~~ The emphasis in this verse is not on the verb "proclaim," but on the truth and profundity of the Word.

1 John 1:8 ~~ to deny our sin nature is self-deceit; that is, a denial of our rational nature.

1 John 1:9 ~~ This is a famous verse, but it's worth noting the specific words. "He is faithful and *just* to forgive us our sins." Usually justice is set in opposition (or at least in apposition) to mercy and God's providential grace; this verse seems to equate the two.

1 John 2:1 ~~ John points to the present redemption (forgiveness of our sin) and the future restoration (glorification of our nature).

1 John 2:2 ~~ Christ's atonement was in propitiation for the sins of Christians *and* those of the whole world (certainly including the sins of unbelievers, and presumably also including any 'structural sins' that pertain to institutions but not individuals).

1 John 2:3-4 ~~ Obedience to God's commands is the sign of faith and of the 'knowledge of God.'

1 John 2:7-8 ~~ This passage equates the "old commandments" with the commands made new by the Atonement.

1 John 2:9,11 ~~ Love is the living evidence of eternal life (cf. 2:25, in which eternal life appears as the promise; thus, love is also the evidence of hope).

1 John 2:10 ~~ To love is to abide in Light, and to avoid causing others and oneself to stumble.

1 John 2:12-14 ~~ This is a fascinating section. These verses state the purpose of the letter in writing first to "little children," then to "fathers," and finally to "young men." The first set of sentences address all three groups in the present tense; the second set writes in the past tense ("I am writing... I have written"). While some interpretations place "fathers" after "young men," it appears based on the order that "young men" is intended to go last, as that category seems to represent the most mature traits.

1 John 2:16 ~~ This verse was foundational for St. Augustine, and is analyzed at length in his Confessions. According to Augustine, the "lusts of the flesh" correspond to the desires and passions of the body; the "lust of the eyes" correspond to the intellectual pride and false glory of the spirit; and the "boastful pride of life" correspond to the self-centeredness and self-will of the idolatrous soul. In my own hermeneutic, following C.S. Lewis's tripartite division of human nature into rational, spirited, and appetitive elements, I would place the "lusts of the flesh" in the appetitive, the "lust of the eyes" with the rational, and the "boastful pride of life" with the spirited elements of the human soul.

1 John 2:20-21 ~~ "Anointing from the Holy One" gives spiritual discernment.

1 John 2:24 ~~ Obedience is to abide in what "you heard from the beginning." This includes both faith and doctrine; thus, to abide in orthodoxy, even in church traditions, is to abide in the Father and in Christ.

1 John 2:25 ~~ Eternal life (our future glorification, and personified by Jesus Christ) is the foundation for our hope.

1 John 2:26 ~~ Here is a clear statement of purpose for the letter: John seeks to correct error and establish the truth of the Gospel.

1 John 2:27 ~~ Truth is received through the anointing received from Christ. This is both the basis for salvation and sufficient for knowledge, such that there is no further need for teaching.

1 John 3:1 ~~ Children of God have received a great blessing from God, but is alienated from the world.

1 John 3:2-3 ~~ We have hope of glorification, though we do not yet know the details, except that "we will be like Him" and "see Him just as He is." This hope leads us to purify ourselves in anticipation of His judgment.

1 John 3:4-6 ~~ Sin is lawlessness; thus, Christ abolished sin by fulfilling and perfecting the Law.

1 John 3:6 ~~ "No one who abides in Him sins" seems to be a paradox, or at least an ambiguous statement. Perhaps the verse indicates that "sin" is not oriented in deeds but in attitudes. Or perhaps the verse indicates that, due to Christ's atoning sacrifice, sins are no longer held against Christians who abide in Him (Galatians contains a good deal of material on this subject, and the doctrine of Christian liberty).

1 John 3:8 ~~ "Son of God appeared... to destroy the works of the devil" (cf. 3:5).

1 John 3:10 ~~ The practice of righteousness, and the love for the brethren define our souls and act as the signs for our redemption.

1 John 3:11 ~~ This verse seems slightly ironic, pointing to John 13:34-35.

1 John 3:12-13 ~~ Cain hated Abel for his righteousness (for the degree to which Abel's offering pleased God). In the same way the world despised Christ and his followers.

1 John 3:14-15 ~~ Love is the sign and necessary result of a life in Christ. To hold hatred in one's heart for a brother is to deny that life, and deny the imago dei that dwells in our own nature.

1 John 3:16 ~~ All Christians are commands to lay down their lives for our fellow believer (cf. Ephesians 5:21-25).

1 John 3:17 ~~ Charity is a basic duty for anyone and everyone in the Christian walk.

1 John 3:19-21 ~~ "God is greater than our heart." We judge ourselves (perhaps from the Law, or our consciences, or even our psychological insecurities) far more harshly than God does. If we in the Church, in full view of our imperfection, are not troubled by our conscience, this verse seems to indicate that we may have confidence in our salvation.

1 John 4:1 ~~ Christians are to be discerning in accepting the authority of prophets and teachers.

1 John 4:2-3 ~~ John provides a test for authority: a true spirit, sent from God, will confess the Incarnation, and proclaim the mystery of a fully human yet fully divine Son of God. In other words, we are to judge spirits based on the content of their teaching concerning Jesus Christ.

1 John 4:5-6 ~~ John provides a second test for authority: a true spirit, sent from God, will attract an audience of believers. Thus, we are to judge spirits based on their audience's knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ.

1 John 4:7-8, 11-12 ~~ Christians are called to love one another. Why? (1) Love is from God; God is the source of perfect Love. (2) Love is intrinsic to our Christian faith. (3) We know God through Love; God makes Himself known by Love. (4) God is Love, and we must recognize the unity of His nature. (5) God loved us first, and Love is the only proper response to His gift. (6) God will abide in us, as we obey Him and express ourselves in Love. (7) We are perfected in His Love.

1 John 4:16 ~~ This is a summary and recap of previous items (see also vv. 4:13a, 4:15, 4:19).

1 John 4:17-18 ~~ God's love, perfected in us, is a source of confidence (cf. 1 John 3:21) and drives out fear (including our internal insecurities). Fear (of punishment) is incompatible with the spirit of grace.

1 John 4:20-21 ~~ John presents a two-part proof that that hating one's brother while remaining a Christian is not only logically impossible (can we hate what is seen but love what is unseen and further removed from us?) but also incompatible with obedience (as contrary to the commands of God).

1 John 5:2-3 ~~ Christians are called to love one another. How? (1) Love God. (2) Love obedience ("observe His commandments"). Love is demonstrated through obedience, and obedience to God is not burdensome.

1 John 5:6 ~~ John vociferously opposed the Docetist heresy that distinguished the human Jesus from the divine Christ. Jesus Christ came by water (baptism) and by blood (crucifixion); this demonstrates that Jesus Christ remained fully God and fully human throughout His life.

1 John 5:7-9 ~~ John appeals to human standard of proof: multiple witnesses (in accordance with Jewish law, three). "Spirit" may refer to either the Annunciation, the seed of God at Christ's birth, or to the dove at Christ's baptism. "Water" likely refers to His baptism, though it may refer to the water at Christ's birth. "Blood" likely refers to His crucifixion, though it may refer to the blood at Christ's birth. Some manuscripts also add another set of three witnesses in heaven, as the previous three are on earth: Father, Word, and Holy Spirit. These manuscripts provide one of the earliest unequivocal references to the Trinity, and to the Unity of Christ ("and these three are one").

1 John 5:14 ~~ We can have confidence in God's answer to prayer, provided that (1) we keep His commandments and seek His joy -- as stated in 3:21-22 -- and (2) we pray according to His will -- as stated in 5:14.

1 John 5:16-17 ~~ We pray for those who commit sin, and God will give them life. This passage makes an interesting (and paradoxical) distinction between "sin not leading to death" and "a sin leading to death." My Bible's commentary interprets this as Gnostic amorality, but it is unclear what those phrases mean and how they are construed here. John isn't certain whether we ought to pray for those who commit the "sin leading to death" -- it may be outside prayer, and thus possibly outside grace (recall the irrevocable judgment placed against those who "blaspheme against the Holy Spirit"). John states "all unrighteousness is sin" (implying that all sin is under the judgment of God), "and" (perhaps this conjunction should be "but"?) "there is a sin not leading to death" (implying that this sin, or category of sin, might not be under the judgment of God). This entire verse is thoroughly confusing.

1 John 5:18-19 ~~ For a follower of Christ there is no sin (cf. Gal. 5:1), and is kept by God. While "the whole world is in the power of the evil one," he cannot touch those of us who believe.

1 John 5:20 ~~ Christ came and gave us knowledge of Himself as God and as Life.

1 John 5:21 ~~ This is a highly abrupt end to a letter. Perhaps John meant this statement ("guard yourselves from idols") as a summary statement of the epistle.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Commentary on Scripture: James

James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad: Greetings.

James 1:2-4 ~~ "Consider it all joy... when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." In these verses, we are supposed to find joy in endurance, which is rather paradoxical (patience is waiting with hope; endurance is waiting without hope but only trust). The reason joy resides in endurance is because endurance contributes to our perfection. The purpose of the "testing" of our faith is our own perfection. This fits with one of the major themes of James: namely, after we are justified by faith through grace, we are restored (Romans 8:30 "glorified") by works and deeds.

James 1:5-6 ~~ Wisdom is a gift from God, freely given to those with faith. Restoration and perfection follow after salvation and justification.

James 1: 9-10 ~~ Notwithstanding the commands against pride, we are supposed to take pride in our spiritual condition: the pauper ought to take pride in his trials, while the rich man takes pride in his future humiliation that will reveal the omnipotence of God.

James 1:12 ~~ "For once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life...." Salvation (justification) precedes and allows room for glorification.

James 1:13-14 ~~ God does not tempt us to evil; temptation arises from the excess of our lusts or passions.

James 1:15 ~~ "Lust" gives birth to sin, which when brought to fruition produces death (see also Romans 5:13-14 on the types of sin).

James 1:16 ~~ "Do not be deceived." This remark (even if taken in context) provides a positive command to seek not only virtue (good deeds) but truth (good words). This is perhaps why James later transitions from "faith without works is dead" to "if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man."

James 1:17 ~~ This remark provides solid Scriptural support for the Augustinian teachings on the ontology of evil. "Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights." God is entirely good; nothing can exist outside God. Thus, evil must exist outside God, and therefore cannot have independent existence. Evil is the negation or corruption of the good.

James 1:18 ~~ Humans are the "first fruits among His creatures," just as Christ was the "firstborn of Nature." This leads me to wonder if perhaps God's gift to us extend to animals; that is, if we are able to extend the common grace of our nature to animals just as Christ extended the special grace of His mercy to us. Perhaps our tendency to anthropomorphic perception of domesticated animals (like cats and dogs) is in fact rooted in a change in the animals themselves through domestication and contact with humans. C.S. Lewis has some good content on this in "That Hideous Strength."

James 1:19 ~~ "Quick to hear, slow to speak"; this verse seems to indicate that the silence of contemplation is a necessity of Christian life.

James 1:19-20 ~~ "Slow to anger, for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God"; this verse states that our 'righteous indignation' cannot achieve the intensity or purity of God's wrath, and therefore ought to be employed sparingly, if at all.

James 1:21 ~~ "All filthiness and all that remains of wickedness" (this contrasts degrees of sin: corruption versus depravity). "The word implanted, which is able to save your souls" (there is a native or common grade for goodness, rooted in the imago dei or "image of God.")

James 1:23-24 ~~ If we hear the Word without acting upon it, we are like the person who sees his true self in a mirror yet forgets it. Please note: to hear the Word is to see our true selves.

James 1:25 ~~ "The perfect law, the law of liberty"; this is the main theme of the Letter to the Galatians.

James 1:26 ~~ Religion is worthless if it does not bridle our tongue or lends clarity to our self-perception. This verse is also interesting in that it correlates a failure to control our speech with a self-deceit in our heart.

James 1:27 ~~ Pure and undefiled religion is to lead a life of charity, compassion, and moral purity. James' emphasis on "works" is not purely external, expressed in acts of charity, though that is a major focus.

James 2:1-9 ~~ We as Christians are not to show favoritism. However, the only application James gives is to avoid showing favoritism to the rich over the poor. yet James goes on to say that God shows favoritism by exalting the poor and humbling the rich. But this seems to be God's prerogative, as in verses 8-9 James states that any partiality we show violates the "royal law" (that is, the Greatest Commandment, to "love thy neighbor as thyself." This is no "preferential option for the poor" in terms of social justice (see also 5:7-11). James merely makes the point that while all favoritism is wrong, favoritism on behalf of the rich is especially so.

James 2:9-11 ~~ one violation of the Law constitutes sufficient proof to define us as transgressors of the Law. This may be taken as a general point, though it is noteworthy that the only examples cited of the Law are excerpts from the Ten Commandments and the Greatest Commandment, which may weaken his point.

James 2:12-13 ~~ Within the context of the law of liberty, judgment is exercised according to merit and deed, by extending mercy to those who were merciful, etc.

James 2:14 ~~ This is a key verse for James, and in the debates between faith and works (which seems to be one of the key disagreements between Protestants and Catholics). Yet it is worth noting that this verse, which supports a strong emphasis on works, occurs within the "law of liberty," which is extended by grace. Thus, grace places us under a law of liberty, in which works confirm our salvation and determine our blessings and glorification.

James 2:19-20 ~~ Merely to believe in God, and in the Shema (the Hebrew declaration of the unity of God, found in Deuteronomy 6:4 - "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One"), is insufficient, for even the demons recognized the unity of God. Our belief must take the form of faith, which must be perfected in works of love.

James 2:21-23 ~~ Do these verses teach justification by works? No, only perfection by works. This is a posterior action to justification (see Romans 8:30). In this sense, James speaks of the Scriptures as being fulfilled when it spoke of Abraham's faith before it was confirmed and perfected by the sacrifice of Isaac.

James 2:26 ~~ Just as body is to spirit, so faith is to works. My philosophical training makes me wonder if there might be a third term, namely "body is to spirit :: faith is to works :: matter is to form."

James 2:26-3:1 ~~ This seems a very abrupt transition (see also 5:1). The rest of the letter flows smoothly because thoughts, even when those themes and points seem only distantly related. Yet, in light of 1:16, it may be that James considers good speech (and correct thought, i.e. "orthodoxy") to be a component of good works.

James 3:1 ~~ Teachers will incurs stricter knowledge than others, for their knowledge is greater and they have responsibility not only for the care of their own soul but also others. Romans 2:11-16 contain an expanded doctrine of salvation, that we are judged and condemned (and blessed) based on the degree of knowledge we possess, which is corroborated by this verse. We ought not to forget James 5:19-20 which reveal the greater blessing awaiting the teachers who admirably perform their responsibilities and preserve the souls under their care.

James 3:2 ~~ Here is a corollary to all those remarks about living the Christian life in word and deed: words are in fact the more challenging of the two!

James 3:3-8 ~~ This passage on the dangers of the tongue is fairly well known. Consider this in light of the verses that follow, however. (The tongue is a powerful instrument, able to affect our minds, the way we think.)

James 3:9-13 ~~ The tongue is able to bless or curse, and ought not be both. Just as good deeds manifest true wisdom, good words manifest a true heart. (The tongue manifests our minds and the dispositions of our hearts).

James 3:13-14 ~~ Contention, strife, jealousy, and ambition are signs of earthly or demonic "wisdom." When I first read this, I found it fascinating that the Bible seems to accept the existence of a wisdom that is not only not from God but also is antagonistic to Him, which seems to conflict with the message of Proverbs ("the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom"). I'm still not sure what to make of this, though it is entirely possible that James was merely using the word "wisdom" to describe a pretender to the throne, a shoddy counterfeit that masquerades as wisdom but whose effects reveal it to be otherwise.

James 3:17 ~~ The sequencing here is interesting. "The wisdom from above is first pure" (unalloyed by error) and only then revealed by the virtues of speech. This verse also reveals a guide to noble rhetoric. To articulate the good in a pure and uncompromising way yet also have it received, the Christian must be: "peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, [and] without hypocrisy." This deserves a lot more analysis, but I'll leave it there for now.

James 4:1-3 ~~ Dissension and conflict originate from the passions of the flesh, and therefore do not arise from Godly or virtuous motivations. This seems to be consistent with James' appraisal of anger in 1:20, though the general argument that all conflict is a sign of ungodliness or evil is more challenging, not least because of James' own depiction of Godly wisdom as "unwavering."

James 4:4-5 ~~ the Spirit of God made to dwell within us cannot coexist a spirit of "friendship with the world."

James 4:7-10 ~~ This is a fascinating list of commands. "Submit to God": most of the other commandments are conditional or purposive, while this one is unconditional, unequivocal, and uncompromising. This is the foundation of everything else. "Resist the devil, and he will flee from you": this begins the sequence of 'do this, so that...' statements. It is also parallel to "Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you." In both, faith and endurance are rewarded. "Cleanse your hands, you sinners": this first type of sin lies in action, in deed, in transgression. "Purify your hearts, you doubled-minded": this is the second form of sin, which resides in thought, in heart and soul. Verse 9 is the exception, and I will treat it below. "Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and he will exalt you." This last point is the end to which the first command ("submit to God") is directed. We submit and have faith that we might be saved; we humble ourselves and act on that faith that we might be exalted.

James 4:9 ~~ This is the exception to the list of commands, and a strongly paradoxical statement that seems to conflict with the very idea of exaltation (v. 10) and the joy we find in the Presence of God. Consider these words in prayer: "Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom." My instinct is to root this in the personality of Saturn, in the character of the suffering Christ (which makes intuitive sense given Christ's ultimate victory over death and the turn to exaltation in verse 10). But I'm not sure if that is entirely satisfactory.

James 4:11-12 ~~ The criticism of the brethren or of the church by believing Christians is a failure of humility. I think this is a vitally important message for a lot of Christians today who seek to define themselves and their faith in opposition to the established Church.

James 4:13-16 ~~ The confidence we hold in the future or in our own worldly success is likewise a failure of humility, and a sign of our arrogance. To consider the future with an certainty is akin to boasting, and as such is evil. To affix "God willing" to every statement may be archaic, but it would be a useful reminder to us.

James 4:17 ~~ This, with 5:1, provides a very abrupt transition into the final section. By itself, it also provides a doctrine of sins of omission (best known through the immortal words of Ogden Nash): "To one who knows the good and does not do it, to him it is sin." This incidentally dovetails nicely with Romans 2:11-16.

James 5:1-6 ~~ These verses strongly condemn the rich, the powerful, and the corrupt elites. It is interesting to note that the condemnation is phrased in a rather mocking way oriented around eschatology: "It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure!"

James 5:6-11 ~~ These verses strongly exhort the poor to patience and endurance without complaint (conflicts and jealousy are treated and disparaged in 3:14 and 4:1). James also draws parallels to Job and the prophets. This is very emphatically not the doctrine taught by advocates of "liberation theology" and the "preferential option for the poor," nor is it consistent with the radical movement of Marxism or communism. The church ought to push to better treatment of the poor, but within the context of its own action. The church's role should not be stirring up the poor in revolt, since this preys on their existing passions and lusts. The greatest moral development lies in the areas of our lives that are the most challenging to us: for the poor who suffer, this often means learning to suffer with patience. This is a challenging message, and not a message that ought to be delivered by those who do not also suffer, but it is a healthy message consonant with the thrust of Scripture. I would interpret Ephesians 5 in the same manner.

James 5:12 ~~ Christians are called to be trustworthy, which is a very challenging command since our reputations often do not lie within our control.

James 5:13 ~~ Suffering is met with supplication, good cheer met with thanksgiving to God.

James 5:14-16 ~~ These statements actually form a fascinating doctrine of prayer, including teachings on purpose and efficiency. Also, it is interesting that we are to confess our sins to others, and pray for the spiritual health of others, for the same object: that we ourselves may be healed.

James 5:16-18 ~~ Here is a fascinating statement, that I lack time to explore: "The effective prayer of the righteous man can accomplish much." Note that it doesn't say it can accomplish everything, nor does it define what is meant by "effective" prayer. But the example of Elijah (see 1 Kings 17:1,18:41-46).

James 5:19-20 ~~ A necessary corollary to James 3:1. Teachers will be held to a higher standard than others, but if they meet that standards and acquit themselves well of the souls in their care, they will receive great blessing.

James 5:20 ~~ An odd and abrupt end to a letter marked with abrupt rhetorical transitions. This seems less to be a letter in the mold of Paul (with the multitude of greetings and blessings at the end) and more in like with Luke (with the greetings to "Theophilus" at the beginning but little content at the end. Perhaps this was because the letters by James and Luke were general letters to the church, meant for a wide audience, and extra content at the end would merely distract from the message, whereas Paul wrote his letters to specific audiences and thus found that personalized greetings would enhance the audiences' receptivity to the message.

The grace of salvation and joy of glorification rest upon you.