The Doc File

The online journal of Luke Dockery

Scripture Reflections: Our Utter Dependence Upon God

In a previous post, I discussed my intentions to share some brief thoughts spurred on by my daily Bible reading this year. I have, so far, not done this as well as I had hoped, but today represents the next installment.

Genesis 2 provides a focused look at the creation of humanity, man first, and then woman taken from man’s side. Genesis 2.7 reads (this is from the Jewish Publication Society translation):

“The LORD God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.”

Man becomes a living being only after God breathes into Him. We are utterly dependent upon God for our very existence. 

In some ways, this may seem so obvious that it appears to not be insightful at all. Believers would universally agree with the sentiment: of course we are dependent upon God for our existence. Scripture emphasizes this in so many different places and in so many different ways:

  • In the wilderness, the people of Israel were utterly dependent upon God’s daily provision of manna.
  • At the end of Job, God appears to Job in a whirlwind and confronts him with the limits of Job’s wisdom, and God’s unfathomable provision for, governance of, and interaction with His creation.
  • In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells His disciples not to be anxious, but to trust that their heavenly Father would provide for their needs.
  • Later, Jesus tells His disciples that apart from Him, they can do nothing.
  • In 1 Corinthians, Paul teaches that although Christians labor in God’s vineyard (he uses himself and Apollos as examples), it is God who causes the growth.
  • In Colossians, Paul talks about Jesus as the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of all things: the fabric of existence is held together by Him.

So, again, this all seems obvious enough. But I am not sure that we consistently live in accordance to this obvious truth:

  • We assume that life is a right, and just take for granted that we will continue to wake up day after day. But life is a gift, not a right: we wake up day after day only by the merciful provision of God. We are utterly dependent upon Him.
  • We scramble frantically to save and plan and store for the future, and feel calm and comfort when we have set enough aside to “provide for ourselves.” It is wise to be good stewards of what God has blessed us with, but it is God who holds the future in His hands and provides for us. We are utterly dependent upon Him.
  • We agonize over political developments in our nation and pledge our loyalty to candidates who pledge to fix what is wrong. If the wrong person is put in charge, we fear that everything may fall apart. It is appropriate for us to seek the welfare of our communities and nation, but it is God who sits enthroned above the universe, who determines the times and seasons of earthly kingdoms, and who is actively supplanting the kingdoms of the world with His own eternal kingdom. We are utterly dependent upon Him.
  • We worry about injustices and evils throughout our world and work ourselves into great fervor trying to remedy what is wrong (and great despondency when the injustices and evils persist despite our efforts). Of course, love of neighbor should prompt us to alleviate suffering and promote justice in our world, but our efforts will not fix this world; God’s efforts will bring about a better one. We are utterly dependent upon Him.
  • (This last one is especially for church leaders.) We stress over trying to do all the right things to make our congregations as healthy as possible. What can we do to help people grow as disciples? To help them better understand Scripture and process life through a Christian worldview? To be more focused on the kingdom and less distracted by other matters? To ensure that our churches will bounce back healthy after the pandemic? It is appropriate for church leaders to be concerned about their churches and work toward their health, but it is Christ who is the head of the church and who has promised its endurance. We are utterly dependent upon Him.

We are utterly dependent upon God for our very existence. That’s it; that’s the post. The idea is simple enough. But if we believe it, internalize it, and order our lives in response to it, it changes everything.

Restorationism and the Very Flawed Church at Corinth

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to take a graduate school class on 1-2 Corinthians, and as part of that class, read several commentaries and lots of articles. One of my favorite reads was Conflict & Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians by Ben Witherington III.

Here is one particularly insightful quotation from Witherington:

Careful attention to the historical and social matrix of the Pauline communities makes it clear that the early ekklesia [church] was far from perfect. As often as not, Paul was busy exhorting Christians to change their ways. If we believe that the Christian community of today should in some sense be biblically shaped and if we hold up the example of the Pauline communities, then we must say “go and do otherwise” at least as often as we say “go and do likewise.”

One reason we tend to commit the fallacy of idealism when we reflect on the early ekklesia is that we have assumed that the “determining factors of the historical process are ideas and nothing else, and that all developments, conflicts and influences are at bottom developments of, and conflicts and influences between, ideas.” Such a premise too often leads to the false conclusion that if we get our ideas about the faith right or if we emulate “the pattern” of the early ekklesia, then our Christian community will be what it ought to be.

But if we read Paul’s letters carefully, they reveal that right living and proper social interaction both within the Christian community and with the larger world were at least as much of a concern as right thinking, and evidently the early Christians had difficulties with all these matters.

Ben Witherington III, Conflict & Community in Corinth, p. xv

As many readers know already, and as I have written about before, I am a spiritual descendant of the American Restoration Movement, which is based on the premise that Christians should seek unity in God’s church by emulating the teachings of the New Testament and following the example of the early church. I believe that such an approach is fundamentally valid, but I think Witherington provides some important words of caution.

When we read about different congregations of the early church in the pages of Scripture, we come across some like the church at Corinth or some of the seven churches of Asia in the Book of Revelation that serve better as negative examples of what not to do rather than examples that we should try to follow today. So, when we say that we want to be like the church of the New Testament, we need to understand that we don’t exactly mean that, because the various New Testament congregations of which we are aware varied greatly in practice, and not all of them are worth emulating. Because of that, sometimes we might clarify our restorationist goals by saying that we want to be the church of the New Testament as conceptualized and instructed by apostolic teaching. But Witherington provides a caution here too, since having the right ideas and beliefs does not necessarily lead to right practices. And after all, what does it matter what we think if we don’t live right?

To me, none of this discredits the validity of the Restoration principle, but it does mean that we should be careful when we talk about it and as we seek to apply it. For example, rather than seeking to emulate the practices of the early church in wholesale fashion, we should examine biblical texts carefully to see where and how first century congregations were affirmed or reproved for their beliefs and practices, and choose to emulate them accordingly. Furthermore, we need to realize that faithful Christianity is about more than simply believing the right things; it also entails living in a certain way. As Witherington points out, the latter does not necessarily follow the former. At the same time, while it is true that right ideas do not guarantee right practices, it’s also true that wrong ideas make right practices nearly impossible.

God is concerned with both: He wants us to believe certain things, which in turn empower us to live a certain way. And from this perspective, the positive and negative examples of the early church, along with apostolic teachings preserved in the New Testament, are incredibly helpful.

Learning from the Apostolic Fathers: Clement

I have long been interested in church history, and especially the history of the early church, but despite this, I have not done a good job of immersing myself in early Christian writings outside of the New Testament. To work towards remedying this deficiency, I began reading The Apostolic Fathers in English late last year as part of my daily devotional reading. Generally speaking, the term “Apostolic Fathers” refers to early Christian theologians from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, some of whom would have known some of the apostles personally and sought to pass on their teachings. More specifically, “Apostolic Fathers” is frequently used in reference to Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna.

While these writings are not part of the Christian canon, I have still found them to be interesting and insightful, and I wanted to share some reflections from a few of them in a short series of posts. Today, I want to focus on 1 Clement.



Clement of Rome and 1 Clement

The letter known as 1 Clement is written on behalf of the church at Rome to their fellow believers in Corinth.[1] It is believed to have been written at roughly the same time that John wrote the Book of Revelation, but while the latter has a very negative portrayal of the Roman government, the perspective of 1 Clement is more positive. As Michael Holmes states:

“…The elements of peace, harmony, and order that are so important to the author (or authors) of this letter reflect some of the fundamental values of Roman society. Thus it provides important evidence of the diverse and creative ways in which Christians sought to come to terms with the Greco-Roman culture and society within which the church was so rapidly expanding.”[2]

Clement of Rome

First Clement is unified in style rather than disjointed, which suggests one author rather than a composite work, and well-attested ancient tradition identifies this author as Clement (despite Clement not being named in the text itself). The exact identify of “Clement” is harder to discern, however. Catholic Church tradition identifies him as the third bishop of Rome after Peter, but the “office of monarchical bishop, in the sense intended by this later tradition, does not appear to have existed in Rome at this time.”[3] More likely, church leadership consisted of a group of presbyters or bishops, of whom Clement was likely a leading figure. It was probably written during the last two decades of the first century.

The intended recipient of the letter is the church at Corinth. This group of Christians had received repeated correspondence from Paul in previous decades, and the spiritual problems of that church (and divisiveness in particular) clearly persisted after his death. In the days of Clement, some of the younger men in the church at Corinth had apparently deposed the leadership of the congregation, and the church at Rome was so distressed by this turn of events that they produced this letter and dispatched mediators in an effort to restore unity and order to this fractured church.[4]

Themes and Insights from 1 Clement

Close Dependence on ScriptureAs I read 1 Clement, I was struck by the degree to which the author relied on Scripture, and the Hebrew Bible in particular, to make his argument. Clement gives ancient examples of both jealousy and good behavior from the Book of Genesis, and warns the Corinthians about the former while admonishing them to follow the latter. Although he references New Testament texts less, Clement is still closely connected to the apostolic era, and invokes Jesus, Peter, and Paul as examples to follow.

Orthodox TheologyI was also interested to see 1 Clement’s affirmation of key Christian doctrines that, although taught in the New Testament, are sometimes dismissed by critical scholars as later theological developments that early Christians wouldn’t have recognized. Clement is an early, extrabiblical witness to the doctrine of resurrection:

“Let us consider, dear friends, how the Master continually points out to us the coming resurrection of which he made the Lord Jesus Christ the first fruit when he raised him from the dead.”

(1 Clement 24.1)

He also reflects Trinitarian language and thinking:

“Do we not have one God and one Christ and one Spirit of grace that was poured out upon us?”

(1 Clement 46.6)

Finally, although this is a less controversial idea in the history of Christian theology and interpretation, Clement heavily emphasizes the doctrine of unity. Indeed, the whole letter represents an urging for the Corinthian Christians to give up their schisms, submit to their rightly established leadership, and be united in Christ.

A Marvelous PrayerI was struck by a beautiful prayer near the end of 1 Clement, and wanted to share a section of it:

“You alone are the benefactor of spirits and the God of all flesh, looking into the depths, scanning the works of humans; the helper of those who are in peril, the savior of those who are in despair; the creator and guardian of every spirit. You multiply the nations upon the earth, and from among all of them you have chosen those who love you through Jesus Christ your beloved servant, through whom you instructed us, sanctified us, honored us.

We ask you, Master, to be our helper and protector. Save those among us who are in distress; have mercy on the humble; raise up the fallen; show yourself to those in need; heal the sick turn back those of your people who wander; feed the hungry; ransom our prisoners; raise up the weak; comfort the discouraged. Let all the nations know that you are the only God, that Jesus Christ is your servant, and that we are your people and the sheep of your pasture.

For you through your works have revealed the everlasting structure of the world. You, Lord, created the earth. You are faithful throughout all generations, righteous in your judgments, marvelous in strength and majesty, wise in creating and prudent in establishing what exists, good in all that is observed and faithful to those who trust in you, merciful and copassionate: forgive us our sins and our injustices, our transgressions and our shortcomings.”

(1 Clement 59.3-60.1)

Concluding Thoughts

To compare it to New Testament writings, 1 Clement is a very long letter (about 50% longer than Paul’s longest letter, 1 Corinthians), and Clement is painstakingly deliberate about the way in which he constructs his argument and structures his plea to the Corinthian Christians. Perhaps this is because, unlike Paul, he cannot rely upon apostolic authority and instead has to build the weight of authority from lengthy biblical examples.

This means that 1 Clement not a fast-paced read, but it is absolutely worthwhile. The extended use of Scripture as the foundation for Christian behavior and practice is exemplary, and the drumbeat emphasis on the importance of love and unity within the Christian community is need in every time and place. First Clement is an edifying early-Christian writing that all Christians would do well to read, reflect upon, and appreciate.


[1] Michael W. Holmes, ed., The Apostolic Fathers in English (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006): 36-38, is the source of the background information that follows.

[2] Holmes, 36.

[3] Ibid., 37.

[4] Ibid.

Scripture Reflections: God’s “Invitations” in Genesis 1

This year as part of my daily Bible reading I am doing some journaling and notetaking, and I thought it might be a useful discipline to share some of my reflections here on The Doc File. I use the word discipline because this is a habit I would like to cultivate that I hope will be beneficial for myself and readers alike (I did something similar several years ago but fizzled out after a few posts).

So, my goal for these brief posts will be two-fold:

(1) To remark on aspects of the biblical text that I find to be of interest that the reader may or may not have thought about previously.

(2) When possible, to point ahead to the work and person of Jesus Christ. I believe the Bible is a unified story that points to Jesus, which means that He is frequently alluded to or foreshadowed in some way throughout the biblical canon.


One of the things I love about reading Scripture is how you can notice something in a very familiar text that you had never noticed previously. Genesis 1 is one such text: I have no idea how many hundreds of times I have read it in my life, but its depths seem to be endless, constantly offering up new discoveries. This time, as I was reading through, I was struck by the rhythmic quality of the text: over and over again, God speaks, “Let there be” (light, an expanse, the sprouting of vegetation, etc), and over and over again, we have the repeated narrative comment, “And it was so.”

It is as if God is inviting creation to take place and unanimously, automatically, creation responds to the invitation of the Creator: God speaks, and it is so.

On the sixth day, God speaks into existence the pinnacle of creation: humanity, created in God’s own image. As image-bearers, humans are given a divine vocation: to rule over creation (under God’s authority), to fill the earth, master it, till and tend the garden of Eden, and give names to the animals (Genesis 1.26, 28; 2.15, 20).

Such creatures obviously possess enormous potential for cooperation in God’s good plans, but ironically, it is in this pinnacle of creation where we see a break in the pattern of the unanimous, automatic response to God’s invitation of how things are supposed to work. As we see in Genesis 3, rather than accepting God’s invitation to rule under His authority, Adam and Eve fail to reflect the divine image and seek to establish their own autonomy and authority instead. They eat of the forbidden fruit with disastrous consequences.

This has remarkable implications. That God allows His image-bearers to ignore His invitations of co-rule shows how He honors humanity with freedom. Far from an automatic response where God reveals His will and humans unanimously and immediately respond in accordance with that will, God invites us to reflect His wisdom and authority but does not force it upon us. He does all that can be done to bring us around to His side, but He allows us to pave the path to our own destruction. He is grieved by our poor choices, but He honors us too much to prevent them.

What a marvel to be given such ability with such freedom, such potential for good or evil!

As C.S. Lewis says in Prince Caspian:

“You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve,” said Aslan. “And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content.”

Or, in the words of George MacDonald:

“However bad I may be, I am the child of God, and therein lies my blame. Ah, I would not lose my blame! In my blame lies my hope.”

What humanity desperately needs is an exemplar, someone who will harness the dangerous gift of freedom, submit to the wisdom and authority of God, and in so doing, perfectly reflect the divine image.

Of course, we have such a Someone; His name is Jesus.

Reading and Walking in 2020

 

In April 2013, I started walking laps around the church auditorium while studying or reading. I found this helped me to focus better, and also it was a good way to be a little less sedentary while at work.

Each lap around the auditorium was approximately 74 yards:

This past year was strange due to COVID-19. Back in the spring when we suddenly became concerned about the pandemic, I began working from home, and did so for about 12 weeks. During that time, I walked and ran around my neighborhood a lot, and listened to a lot of audiobooks and podcasts while doing so, but quite naturally, fewer days in the office meant less opportunities for walking laps. Once I returned to the office, however, I was still not going to the gym, which meant that I was coming in early some days and getting a lot of reading done those days.

Without further ado, here are my totals for the year:

Total Laps in 2020: 6,836 (approximately 118 yards per lap)

Total Distance in 2019: 458.3 miles

Total Distance to date: 3419.4 miles

In 2020, my totals were the equivalent of walking from Erie, Pensylvania down to Cleveland, Ohio, through Columbus and Cincinnati, and finally stopping in Louisville, Kentucky.

I was surprised but pleased that my totals increased from last year. I have certainly spent enough time walking around the Cloverdale auditorium over the last 18 months that people have become aware of this unusual practice and now joke with me about it.

It has been a couple of years (2018) since I hit 500 miles for the year; that is my goal for 2021.

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