Wisdom from James, Richard Bauckham, and Soren Kierkegaard

Sometimes you read a book or a portion of a book that penetrates the heart and reminds you of how wonderfully sharp the truth really is.  I just finished reading one.  I wouldn’t recommend buying it, partially because it’s out of print and extremely expensive and partially because it belongs to a specialized field.  But for me and where I’m at in the here and now, it was particularly refreshing and clearing.  It reminded me of things that I simultaneously hold dear and wrestle with every day.  Perhaps that’s what it means for a sinner to hold dear the values of the kingdom — to wrestle with them every day.

In James: Wisdom of James, Disciple of Jesus the Sage, Richard Bauckham suggests that James writes as a Jewish-Christian sage in the tradition of his half-brother Jesus.  He shows, among many other things, how James’ moral exhortations mirror those of Jesus.  I hope it might be beneficial to share some quotes from the book.  I preface this with the recognition that because I’ve said good things about the book, it’s now over-hyped, which means you won’t respond the same way I did because you’ll be expecting too much.  But I still think the quotes are worth sharing.

Bauckham references Søren Kierkegaard extensively in the book, not because he agrees with everything Kierkegaard said but because Kierkegaard loved the letter of James and made some very penetrating comments about the wisdom of James as it confronts the maladies of the Christian church.  I know that Kierkegaard is questioned in our circles, but because I don’t know why, I’m not going to refrain from quoting him here.  This is not an endorsement of him or what he believed, but that shouldn’t be taken as a disclaimer that eviscerates the power of what he says below.  Some of the quotes sound threatening to some things we value in our circles.  So be it.

Kierkegaard:  “Christian scholarship is the human race’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the New Testament, to ensure that one can continue to be a Christian without letting the New Testament come to close.” *

Bauckham, on James 1:22-25 and the mirror analogy about hearers and doers of the Word:  “”Kierkegaard detects in his own age a possibility the parable in James does not explicitly envisage: that of observing only the mirror and not seeing oneself in it.  This is what happens when biblical scholarship intervenes between the text and its hearers or readers.  While professedly aiming at establishing the correct interpretation of the text so that readers can understand it and then appropriate it in faith, in fact biblical scholarship raises so many questions about the text that it can never conclusively answer, and continually generates so many lines of supposedly objective enquiry that its effect is to postpone faith and obedience to God’s word indefinitely” (3).

Bauckham:  “[Kierkegaard] is not, of course, claiming that all biblical texts are [easily understandable].  There are obscure passages.  His point is that there are enough perfectly clear ones to keep one busy without having to wait for the conclusions of biblical research before one can live as a Christian” (7).

Bauckham, describing Jesus’ moral teachings:  “Jesus’ ethical demands are more radical than those of the Torah, as conventionally interpreted . . .  This difference results from taking as seriously as possible the central moral requirements of God’s will for his people Israel and pressing their implications as far as possible” (97; emphasis added).

Bauckham, on the extreme nature of Jesus’ teachings:  “Hyperbole is employed to bring home the radical demands of God’s will.  There is no moderation, no compromise, no concern for conventional practicality” (97).

Bauckham:  “God’s eschatological action, in judgment or vindication, is the criterion for judging right or wrong acts, rather than the socially accepted view or the consequences for oneself in the natural course of events” (98).

Bauckham, on Jesus’ focus on God’s compassion, grace, and generosity:  “Assurance of the goodness and generosity of God makes it possible to live with radical trust in his provision, free of anxiety and the quest for security” (99).

Bauckham, on the goal of Jesus’ teachings:  “Jesus’ wisdom instruction is directed to forming and informing a counter-cultural community, which differs from the world because it pioneers the life of God’s coming kingdom” (100).

Bauckham, on how James’ teaching echoes that of his brother Jesus:  “James lacks the moderation, practical compromise, and alignment with social convention that are often characteristic of the Jewish wisdom tradition, focusing rather on the Torah’s demand for perfection, understood as extensively and intensively as possible” (100).

Bauckham, describing James’ calls to endurance:  “Endurance is not mere waiting for [the coming of Christ], but courageous resistance in living by the values of God’s counter-cultural rule until it comes in power” (104).

Bauckham:  “Purity of heart is not inactive inwardness.  It is the inwardness that is consistently expressed in every action” (167).

Bauckham, on prayer:  “Prayer cannot be the mechanical cause of an effect, but must be part of the believer’s relationship with the personal God” (206).

Bauckham, on prayer:  “Prayer has always been difficult, but the difficulty of prayer in the modern western world has its own specific profile.  The fundamental reason why prayer became difficult in the modern period was humanity’s modern self-image as those who, especially through technology, have gained control over the world.  Rather like affluence, this assumed position of mastery over the world has deluded modern people into trusting their own capacity to achieve all human ends and has promoted a sense of autonomy and self-sufficiency to which prayer is alien.  Whereas petitionary prayer is recognition of the limits of human abilities, the modern age has encouraged the sense that all problems have human solutions and that all human desires may in the end be realizable by human means, especially through the unlimited potentialities of technology.  While problems and desires with which human resources can deal are constantly being created by advertising, problems which have no solutions and desires which cannot be met are suppressed” (207).

Bauckham, on prayer:  “There is also the danger that in some forms of contemporary spirituality prayer itself is redefined, in theory or in practice, as another technique by which people can master their destiny or control things.  This is prayer as spiritual technology” (207).

Kierkegaard:  “Most people really believe that the Christian commandments (for example, to love one’s neighbour as oneself) are intentionally a little too severe — like putting the clock on half an hour to make sure of not being late in the morning.” **

* Søren Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers, vol. 3, ed. and trans. H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975), 270; quoted by Bauckham, Wisdom of James, 1.

** Søren Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard, ed. W. H. Auden (London: Cassell, 1955), 23; cf. Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, Kierkegaard’s Writings 16, ed. and trans. H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 479; quoted by Bauckham, Wisdom of James, 158.

2 thoughts on “Wisdom from James, Richard Bauckham, and Soren Kierkegaard

  1. Thanks Gunner. These quotes are particularly applicable to those who tend to over-analyze problems and their “solutions” and delay what really is simple obedience. I don’t know anyone like that, do you…

    Love you brother, press on.


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