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Reckoning with righteousness

 'Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.'

The preacher was reading from the book of James. It was a passage all about how faith is useless if it isn't accompanied by good works - actually feeding the hungry instead of just saying you'll pray that they'll have food! And James used Abraham, that patriarch of the Jewish faith, as an example of someone whose faith showed up in action.


'Hang on,' I thought. 'I'm sure I've seen that quote in one of Paul's letters, too.'

I flicked back a few pages and found it in Romans 4.

 'Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.'

But in this passage, Paul is arguing exactly the opposite thing! The whole chapter is about how we can't earn righteousness through works, but only by faith. And Paul uses Abraham as an example of this, too. Abraham was righteous because he trusted God, not because he followed the law.

So the exact same quote is used by two Biblical writers to support entirely opposite arguments.

I'm that strange person who gets quite excited about that. Not because I'm trying to play Paul and James off against each other. Actually, I suspect that they probably agreed much more than this makes it sound like they did. But because this epitomizes something about understanding the Bible, which has been niggling at the back of my brain for a while.

What "the Bible says" is always changing. And that's a good thing.

One word for this is contextualisation. We see it throughout the Bible itself (which was written over hundreds of years) as well as during the history of the church. In this example, Paul and James were writing to different groups of people with different issues and understandings. 

Paul was trying to explain how this new faith in Jesus meshed with the existing Jewish law. His readers were dealing with questions like, 'Do you have to follow the law to be a Christian?' and 'Does this mean all those years of being a Jew were worthless?' So Paul is emphasising that, all along, it was the faith behind the law which God was interested in.

James, presumably, is writing to a church that has taken that message a bit too seriously! They are so free in their faith that they are forgetting that it should involve being nice to each other, not discriminating, and helping those in need. James tells them pretty sharply that a faith without discipline and compassion is no faith at all.

So it's not that one is using the Torah correctly and one is not. They are both seeking the truth which is in there, and applying it to the different contexts that they are in. They are acknowledging that they are part of this sacred tradition, but reinterpreting it according to their current understanding.

This happens over and over again in the Bible.

Cheryl B. Anderson* gives the example of Exodus 20:5, where God says he will punish children for their parents' sins, and Jeremiah 31, where God says, the day is coming when everyone will be responsible for their own sin, not anyone else's. Jesus uses the formula, 'You have heard that it was said... but I say to you,' in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) but also insists that he is fulfilling the law rather than abolishing it. And the entire book of Hebrews is written to demonstrate that Jesus has superseded the Temple sacrificial system. It was good as far as it went, the writer explains, but it was pointing to a heavenly reality that has only now been revealed.

In all these examples and many more, the theme is: This is the tradition, and this is the new interpretation of it. This is the new event that has changed our understanding. This is why we believe we are following on in the same tradition, not creating a completely new one.

We are still called to reckon with righteousness.

Of course, this process didn't finish when the Bible was bound up in its current form. Every time we agree that women don't have to wear hats in church, or that people shouldn't own slaves, or that getting remarried after a divorce can be a good thing to do, or that genocide is morally wrong, we are reinterpreting the Biblical tradition. We are reckoning what is righteous in our time, place, and context.

And, as I said before, I firmly believe that this is a good and necessary thing. It isn't a lack of respect for the Bible, or a complete jettisoning of its message. Like the prophets and apostles themselves, we try to stand in the tradition of those who came before, but also hear what God is saying now, to us.

All this takes place at a community level, not just an individual one. Any new interpretation ultimately has to be accepted by the community as valid, as it in turn becomes tradition. This can be a frustrating and fractious process, as we see in the prophets and the early church, and also today as we debate women's rights, LGBT inclusion, and racial equality. Like Paul and James, we find people using the same words to support opposite viewpoints, as we find our way to a new understanding.

Don't say, "The Bible says".

All this is why I feel that saying, 'The Bible says...' about contentious issues is very unhelpful. The Bible says many things. It is a holy and beautiful and complicated and challenging collection of writings. Some of what it says is contradicted or re-interpreted within the Bible itself. Other things have changed as we've gone along, over the last 2000 years. Describing one side of an argument as 'Biblical' implies that the other side isn't. It just increases polarization and disagreement.

So maybe, instead, we can try reckoning with righteousness. I reckon this is righteous, what do you reckon? This is the event that has made me question the tradition, and this is how I think God might be acting now. This is how I think it fits with what God has done before, and his character as shown in Jesus. I reckon this is righteous, what do you reckon?

If you ask me, that's Biblical.


*Cheryl B. Anderson, The Bible for Normal People podcast, ep.173

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