All will be saved, not just the elect

Calvinists teach that God has divided all the people of the world into “the elect” who will be saved and others who will not. All have sinned; God will have mercy only on “the elect” and condemn the others to the eternal punishment their sins deserve.

One of the main Bible passages used to support this idea is Romans 9-11. But in fact here Paul is teaching something quite different: in the end both “the elect” and the others, those who are “hardened”, will be saved – at least among the ethnic Israelites whom he has in view here. This becomes clear when one reads this section of Romans carefully, as I did when preparing my post Restoring the Kingdom to Israel.

The Apostle PaulPaul starts this section by making a distinction among the descendants of Abraham between “the children of promise”, the true Israel chosen by God, and the descendants of Ishmael and Esau who were not chosen (9:6-13). I don’t see this passage as about eternal salvation at all, but about being called for God’s purposes. More to the point, it is not really about believing and unbelieving Jews in Paul’s time, although it is building the background for Paul’s discussion of this matter.

Paul first brings up the idea that only some Israelites will be saved with a quotation from Isaiah (9:27-28). He moves into explaining how Gentiles and Jews are saved on the same basis, their confession of faith (10:12-13). Then he comes back to the question of whether God has rejected his original chosen people – to which his answer is an unambiguous “By no means!” (11:1, NIV). He teaches that

at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. 6 And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.

7 What then? What the people of Israel sought so earnestly they did not obtain. The elect among them did, but the others were hardened …

Romans 11:5-7 (NIV 2011)

Now at first sight this looks like strong support for the Calvinist position, that God has chosen by grace an elect remnant, and “the others”, like Pharaoh (9:17-18), are hardened beyond recovery and so bound for eternal punishment. However, Paul is quick to reject this understanding. After quoting the Hebrew Bible to show that “the others” have stumbled, he writes:

Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. 12 But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring!

Romans 11:11-12 (NIV 2011)

Paul explains his enigmatic hint about their “full inclusion” (Greek pleroma, “fullness”) a few verses later:

Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, 26 and in this way all Israel will be saved.

Romans 11:25-26 (NIV 2011)

Thus he makes it clear that, at some future time, the hardening of “the others”, the Israelites who have stumbled, will be reversed, so that these people, as well as “the elect” in Israel, will be saved.

Now when Paul says “all Israel will be saved”, I don’t think we need to assume he means every individual. This is not universalism of the kind that Rob Bell was unjustly accused of. More likely “all” here means large numbers from all groups, including “the others” as well as “the elect”. Does it mean that Jews who died as unbelievers will have another chance to believe after death? Possibly. But what is very clear is that exclusion from the original group of “the elect” does not imply eternal damnation.

Calvinists like to quote this verse from early in Paul’s argument, as if it proves their point that God hardens the hearts of some people so that they will not be saved:

God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

Romans 9:18 (NIV 2011)

But, after showing that hardening does not imply eternal damnation, Paul ends his argument with the other side of the same picture:

God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.

Romans 11:32 (NIV 2011)

So what does it mean to be among “the elect”? As I quoted Chris Wright in my March post Election: not to be saved but to save others:

If we are to speak of being chosen, of being among God’s elect, it is to say that, like Abraham, we are chosen for the sake of God’s plan that the nations of the world come to enjoy the blessing of Abraham.

In other words, when Paul writes of the elect in Israel, they are those Jews like himself who were chosen by God to bear witness to the Gentiles. And when he writes of God’s elect or chosen people without specifying Jews (8:33, 1 Corinthians 1:27-28, Ephesians 1:4, Colossians 3:12 etc), he is referring to all who are called to bring God’s message of salvation to the world. Now by that he intends all Christian believers. But, as is clear from the example of the Jews, that by no means implies that others will not subsequently believe and be saved.

Noah's flood came from Canada – British scientists

Was Noah’s flood caused by the sudden emptying of a huge glacial lake in Canada, which led to a catastrophic rise in sea level? This was suggested in a 2007 press release from the University of Exeter here in England, quoting one of the university’s professors, with the title ‘Noah’s flood’ kick-started European farming. The same material was also published by ScienceDaily, but with a question mark added to the title.

This press release is about a proper scientific paper published in a respected journal. It must be rare for such papers to mention biblical stories. No creationist pseudo-science is in sight.

I came across this paper while researching for a discussion on Facebook about my recent post Instone-Brewer: Did Noah’s Ark actually happen? One of my friends in that discussion suggested that a flood caused by rivers would not last as long as the biblical flood is said to have lasted. In response I looked into the possibility that the flood could have been caused by a sudden rise in sea level – and found that the Exeter scientists had got there before me.

Lake AgassizThe culprit, apparently, was Lake Agassiz, a huge prehistoric body of fresh water which covered a large part of what is now Canada and a smaller part of the northern USA, centred in what is now Manitoba. This lake, according to Wikipedia, “held more water than contained by all lakes in the world today”. Its waters were dammed up by the Arctic ice sheet.

As that ice sheet gradually melted at the end of the last major ice age, on at least two occasions the water from Lake Agassiz escaped rather suddenly into the oceans. The first event, around 11,000 BC, is thought to have triggered off a thousand year mini-ice age called the Younger Dryas. Presumably this freeze caused the lake to form again. But renewed warming caused the water from Lake Agassiz and from the linked Lake Ojibway to the east to escape again around 6,400 BC. Again this led to a cold period, but not as long or severe as the Younger Dryas. Since then, it seems, the large glacial lakes have never formed again, although some remnants remain as modern lakes.

The important point concerning Noah’s flood is the rather obvious one that the release of all that water into the oceans caused a significant rise in sea levels worldwide – and one which has never been reversed. Estimates of what Wikipedia calls a “near-instantaneous rise” range up to 4 metres, although the Exeter paper gives a more conservative figure of 1.4 metres.

This rise in sea level would not of course have covered “all the high mountains under the entire heavens”, as recorded in Genesis 7:19 taken literally. But it may have caused especially catastrophic flooding in the Black Sea region. The Exeter paper links this with Noah’s flood. But I would look elsewhere, as David Instone-Brewer does, to low-lying Mesopotamia. What would the effect of the sea level rise have been there?

Now “near-instantaneous rise” should not be taken as implying something like a tsunami. Probably the sea did not spill on to the land in the way seen in recent videos from Japan. But once Lake Agassiz started to break through the ice it could quickly have carved out a very wide channel, and so need not have taken many years to drain. Scientific papers mentioning a period of 200 years are probably only giving a maximum time. There is no reason to doubt the biblical account that the waters rose for forty days (Genesis 7:17), although this is probably to be understood as a round number rather than a precise figure.

The account in Genesis also mentions both that “all the springs of the great deep burst forth” (7:11), a good poetic fit for the bursting of a glacial lake, and that there were forty days of rain (7:12), perhaps caused by the initial disturbance of weather patterns by the rush of fresh water into the oceans – although the following cold spell was generally also dry.

Thus floodwaters flowing down the rivers into Mesopotamia would have met sea water flowing up them. No doubt channels would have become blocked with sand and silt, and a huge low-lying area would have been flooded with nowhere for the water to drain away. The recent Mississippi floods give an idea of how this event might have looked, but there would have been no artificial levees to contain the flooding and no floodways to channel it into the sea. Indeed probably quite a lot of land was permanently lost to the Persian Gulf. But further upstream the floods eventually retreated, but only after 150 days (7:24).

So, I would continue to argue as I did in my previous post, the biblical account if understood as intended, and not as a detailed record of events, tells a realistic story of a huge regional flood which could have happened, which indeed scientists also tell us actually did happen. There is no scientific record of the actual ark, but then one would not expect that. But science agrees with the Bible story in saying that a flood did happen – and adds some interesting details such as that it had its origin in Canada.

Instone-Brewer: Did Noah’s Ark actually happen?

Dr David Instone-BrewerAs part of a series “Embarrassing Bible Texts?” in Christianity magazine, David Instone-Brewer, of Tyndale House, Cambridge, asks, Did Noah’s Ark actually happen? Were six million land species really rescued in one boat? He concludes that there was a real flood, and a real ark in which “the precious animal stock – specially bred by generations of farmers” was rescued, but that this flood was not worldwide. Neither is he is quite saying that it was a local flood. Rather he links this with a flood attested by proper scientific observation:

Archaeologists in the 1930s found evidence of an amazingly widespread flood (or floods) which covered the whole plain of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers – an area of 140,000 square miles – before 3000 BC. This wasn’t just a shallow flood; even the silt they found deposited by this water was eight feet deep! The whole country is flat, with just a few small hills, so this flood would have been utterly devastating; there is simply no high ground to run to for hundreds of miles. The area was the homeland of the ancient Middle Eastern world and the whole population living there must have been wiped out by this flood. It was a disaster on a scale never seen anywhere in the modern world.

So how can we reconcile this with the Bible passages which appear to teach a worldwide flood:

The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. 19 They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered. 20 The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than fifteen cubits.

Genesis 7:18-20 (NIV 2011)

Instone-Brewer is certainly correct to point out that the Hebrew word eretz, here translated “earth”, can also mean “land”, as in eretz Yisrael which is the normal Hebrew for “the land of Israel”.

More problematic is the phrase “all the high mountains under the entire heavens”. Yes, the Hebrew for “mountain”, har, can also refer to quite a small hill, as in 1 Samuel 26:13. And perhaps “under heaven” can mean within the visible horizon, as Instone-Brewer suggests from Deuteronomy 2:25. But it seems unlikely that “all the high mountains” and “the entire heavens” can be understood in this way.

So how should we understand passages like this? Instone-Brewer seems to treat the Genesis story as a literal account of historical events, and then tries to argue that those historical events did not happen as commonly understood. I don’t think that quite works. It seems to me that if the account is literal, it is about a worldwide flood – one which scientists tell us could never have happened.

However, we need to consider what the authors’ intentions were in writing the accounts in the early part of Genesis, about the creation and the fall as well as the flood. They were not writing scientific papers but stories. And these stories are intended not so much to tell the past as to teach God’s ways – in the case of the flood story, as Instone-Brewer writes,

the message that God hates evil and is willing to take drastic steps to deal with it.

Didactic stories the world over use figures of speech such as hyperbole for dramatic effect. So it would hardly be surprising to find hyperbole in an account like that of the flood. A clear candidate for this kind of hyperbole is Genesis 7:19 quoted above, which turns a flood covering small hills in a local area into a worldwide one reaching above Himalayan peaks.

One might ask, how can one tell which statements in the Bible are hyperbolic, and so can be ignored as unhistorical? But that is the wrong question. If the story is not intended to teach history, one cannot expect to get any reliable historical information from it. That may be frustrating for modern scholars, but it is true. If one wants to know what happened in the past, didactic stories from the Bible or elsewhere may give useful indications, but they can never give the kind of reliable details one might obtain from inscriptions or archives intended as records of events.

In my recent post Harold Camping: once Reformed, now a heretic I suggested that that infamous preacher of the Rapture might have been led astray by his engineering background into

taking Bible verses out of context and reading into them a meaning that their authors and God never intended.

I also suggested that this approach might be typical of creationists. This is seen also in the reading of the Noah’s Ark story as an engineer’s literal report of the height of the water. I suggested in a Facebook comment on the Camping post that

engineers, and physical scientists like myself, tend to be rather literal minded and so to prefer a more fundamentalist approach to the Bible, whereas those trained in the humanities tend to be more liberal theologically.

Well, in this case “those trained in the humanities” (and I am also that) are likely to be better qualified than engineers to understand the implications of the literary genre of the text. If their conclusions seem liberal rather fundamentalist, that doesn’t make them less valid.

Did Jesus accept one each of gay and lesbian couples?

Bible-Thumping Liberal Jesus never mentioned homosexuality, most people say. But Ron Goetz, the Bible-Thumping Liberal, doesn’t quite agree, in a post Luke’s Gay Apocalypse: “Two Men in One Bed”:

Well, technically, he didn’t, at least not as an abstract category. But he did mention four gays and lesbians–flesh and blood, living, breathing homosexuals.

Thanks to John Meunier for the link. But is there any substance in this apparently improbable claim? Here is the passage in which Goetz finds this mention:

I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. 35 Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.

Luke 17:34-35 (NIV 2011)

And I’m sorry to say that this translation already shows the weakness of Goetz’s argument. He quotes the verses from KJV, which reads “two men” where the updated NIV has “two people”, and misunderstands “men” as implying that these two people are male. Unfortunately there is nothing in the Greek text to suggest that they are. So, if we reject as Goetz does the argument that in ancient times men who were not sexual partners, and perhaps whole families, often shared beds, we end up with the conclusion that these two in one bed are what they most commonly are, at least in our culture: a married couple.

Now some might want to argue differently from the Greek text, noting that the words translated “one” and “the other” are both masculine in verse 34 (but feminine in verse 35). But that is easily explained. Jesus clearly didn’t want to specify either that the man was taken and the woman left or vice versa. So, in the Greek version of his words, the appropriate grammatical gender was used for people of unknown sex, and that is the masculine.

Sadly Goetz has been led astray in the same way as Wayne Grudem, although in a different direction. Both were brought up in the 1960s reading Bible versions, like KJV and RSV, in which the word “man” was often intended to be understood in its older gender generic sense. But both misunderstood some of these passages according to the male only sense of “man” which has dominated in English at least since those 1960s. And sadly they read their misunderstandings back into the original language Bible text, and allowed them to reinforce their very different cultural presuppositions.

Goetz does better in looking at the context, to answer the objection that his interpretation goes against it. He finds the mention of Sodom in verses 28-29, and writes:

I don’t believe the sin of Sodom was homosexuality. But there are many today who believe that it was, and I think most of the Jewish believers in Luke’s audience may have believed it as well.

Jesus knew that by recounting key details of Sodom’s destruction, his audience would have man-on-man sex on its mind.  Jesus intended for us to understand that the “two men in one bed” were gay. It is no accident that for more than a hundred years every minister preaching on the rapture from Luke 17 has had to disavow the sexual content of verse 34.

The problem here is that Goetz seems to be extrapolating this understanding of the sin of Sodom back from “today” and “for more than a hundred years” to nearly 2000 years ago, at first tentatively with “most … may have believed” and then as an unqualified assertion “Jesus knew”. But, as Joel quoted only a few days ago from Jennifer Wright Knust’s words in the New York Times,

“Sodomy” as a term for gay male sex began to be commonly used only in the 11th century and would have surprised early religious commentators. They attributed Sodom’s problems with God to many different causes, including idolatry, threats toward strangers and general lack of compassion for the downtrodden.

So I’m afraid Goetz’s case from the context looks very weak – and ironically the arguments against it come from his fellow liberal Bible scholars like Knust.

Goetz is more convincing in his follow-up posts on “Two Women Grinding Together,” part 1 and part 2, when he argues that in verse 35 the word “grind” is being used as a metaphor for lesbian sexual activity. Unfortunately he ruins his argument towards the end of part 2, when he tries to connect the Greek verb Luke uses, aletho “grind”, with letho “be unseen” and aletheia “truth”. His suggestion that aletho can be split up as a-letho and so originally meant “not be unseen” looks to me like a folk etymology. The 19th century Greek scholars Liddell and Scott were far more likely correct to see aletho as a variant of aleo, the verb for “grind” used by Plutarch as a euphemism for lesbianism.

So did Luke intend these verses to be about homosexuality? I don’t think we can rule this out completely. It seems to me unlikely that it was his main intention. But I would accept that there might have been some deliberate innuendo in his wording, to leave open the possibility that even in same-sex couples one might be taken and the other left behind. And, as I discussed concerning the parallel passage in Matthew in the first of my recent posts on the Rapture, in this case the one who is taken goes not to heaven but to God’s judgment.

That parallel in Matthew, 24:40-41, is interesting because in it there is almost no possibility of a reference to homosexuality. It is daytime, and the first two people are working together in a field, whereas, as Goetz also discusses, the two women are explicitly grinding at a mill, not Blake’s “dark satanic” variety but a hand-mill. Now I am usually rather sceptical about using source criticism in exegesis. But in the case of such a parallel between Matthew and Luke I think most source critics would hold that Matthew’s version is closer to the original version of the saying. That implies that it is closer to what Jesus really said.

So it seems highly improbable that in this saying Jesus was at all talking about homosexuals. His message is not that only one of each gay couple and one of each lesbian couple will be taken away to be judged, and the other will escape by being left behind. Rather it is to all of us, irrespective of sexual orientation. We will not escape just because our partner, at work or in the sexual sense, does, but each of us individually will face God’s judgment. And it will come at a time that

no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, [nor even Harold Camping!,] but only the Father.

Matthew 24:36 (NIV 2011)

Women in 1 Timothy 2: sense from Ian Paul

Revd Dr Ian PaulIt was only this morning that I discovered Psephizo, the blog of Revd Dr Ian Paul, who describes himself as

on the staff of St John’s, Nottingham (one of 11 Anglican colleges in England), currently as Dean of Studies and teaching New Testament and Practical Theology.

This morning I borrowed from Ian Paul for my post The Rapture? Why I want to be Left Behind. His similar post Why I want to be Left Behind was the first I had seen on his blog, but there is a great deal of other good material there.

Of particular interest to me was his series Can women teach?, in three parts: part 1, part 2, part 3. This is in fact part of a longer series, for as Ian writes at the start of each post in the series,

I am in the process of writing a Grove Biblical booklet with the title ‘Women and authority: key biblical texts’ which aims to explore all the key texts in 28 (or more likely, 32) pages! Due out this month.

The material on 1 Timothy 2:8-15 is apparently a section from the Grove Booklet, or a draft of it. As such it is an eminently sensible brief introduction to the main issues with this passage. It interacts in scholarly but concise way with the main arguments for and against taking this passage as prohibiting women from teaching. The discussion fully justifies the conclusion concerning

the picture emerging from careful exegesis of this text, as a corrective that, far from suggesting hierarchical order of men over women, is restoring equal partnership in the face of arguments for a hierarchical ordering of women over (or independent of) men.

The Biblical Argument for Social Justice

Tyson asked me to comment on a post on his blog wayfaring stranger (but not lost) entitled The Basis for Social Justice in the Bible. The following is based on my comments there. It also provides some background material for my criticism of the Westminster 2010 Declaration.

It seems to me that Tyson made an indisputable case that God’s people in the Old Testament were expected to practise social justice and care for the poor, and that that was enforced by the Law of Moses. There are clear provisions in that Law requiring all Israelites to make adequate provisions for the poor, for widows and orphans, and for destitute foreigners. And there are clear if sometimes implicit sanctions against those who do not do this.

Tyson also argues from Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The position is perhaps even more clear in Amos and Micah, especially Amos 2:6-7, 5:11-12,24, 8:4-6 and Micah 6:8-16.

But there is a weakness in Tyson’s argument which is clear in his last sentence:

Christians today do not live in a theocracy like the Israelites did when given the law of Moses, but we can apply biblical principles to government in regard to social justice the same way we advocate on behalf of the unborn and to protect families.

Ancient Israel was a theocracy in which divine commands were enforced by the government. But we live, for the most part, in secular states. And it may well be wrong for Christians to expect secular states to enforce on the general population rules intended for the people of God – on social justice issues just as much as on moral ones. If it is not wrong, a careful theological case needs to be made for this – and Tyson omitted this step.

So perhaps the Old Testament is not the place to look for the principles we should apply. At least we should be looking to the books of Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah, and parts of Genesis and Exodus, where Israelite believers lived under pagan governments. Or we should be looking at the New Testament where the same applies. In Matthew 23:23 for example we find a clear endorsement of the principle of social justice – but at an individual and community level, not a governmental one.

There is of course a democratic argument that if the majority of the people, or their representatives, are in favour of (for example) social justice, an elected government has the right to impose this. However, we also accept that the government does not have the right to go against certain fundamental human rights even of a minority, and that might include the right to enjoy one’s property without excessive taxation etc. But that is not really a biblical way of arguing.

Joseph, Daniel and Nehemiah are perhaps the only biblical believers to hold high government office outside the theocratic state of Israel. So it is valid for us, living outside a theocracy, to look to them as examples on these issues.

Consider for example how Joseph dealt with the famine in Egypt, in Genesis 42 and 47. For seven years he taxed those who had an abundance by taking a share of their grain. And then when the famine came he sold this grain back to the people in exchange for their money, their livestock and their land – thus in effect nationalising these. He then (47:26) imposed a lasting 20% tax on agricultural produce. This sounds remarkably like state imposed socialism to me. And, although this is implicit, it seems to have had God’s blessing.

Now I’m not suggesting that anyone uses this as a biblical argument for something like communism. But it does show how state intervention to provide for the poor is highly biblical, even outside a theocratic state. Therefore it gives a justification and an encouragement for believers like us, Christians with significant influence in democratic societies, to seek to persuade secular states to impose on their countries, and on the world, social justice according to the biblical principles laid out in the Old and New Testaments. So let’s go ahead and do that.

Jonah's whale returns to the coast of Israel

For decades I have been taught that the fish that swallowed the prophet Jonah, and then vomited him up on the beach near Joppa, could not have been a whale. After all, I was told, there are no whales in the Mediterranean Sea. So, the argument often went on, the story of Jonah cannot be true and the Bible cannot be trusted.

So it should “shock” biblical scholars as well as conservationists that, as reported by the BBC,

A gray whale has appeared off the coast of Israel

– and indeed is pictured with Herzliya Marina, just up the coast from Joppa/Jaffa, in the background. Apparently these whales normally live only in the North Pacific, and none have been sighted in the North Atlantic or the Mediterranean for centuries. But for some unknown reason this individual, perhaps one of a colony of gray whales, has swum half way round the world to the coast of Israel.

So, when we read in Jonah 1:17 (TNIV) that

the LORD provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah

he could well have brought it all the way from the Pacific – and so the absence of whales in the Mediterranean is no barrier at all to taking the story of Jonah as a true one.

A Sermon on Jeremiah 4: A Chance to Hear Me

Here is a rare chance to listen to my speaking voice. I only just discovered, a week after I preached it, that my sermon on Jeremiah 4 was recorded and made available on my church’s website. Or if you are looking for this recording some time in the future, when it is no longer near the top of this page, then here are direct links to the MP3 files: standard quality, high quality. The sermon as I preached it follows the text I posted last week quite closely, but not precisely as I ad libbed at times.

A Sermon on Jeremiah 4

Things have been quiet on this blog recently for several reasons. One is that my wife and I are entertaining a visitor from Italy. Another is that yesterday I had a rare opportunity to preach at my home church, to the traditional evening service with a small congregation of mostly older people.

The passage I was given to preach on was Jeremiah 4:5-31 – quite a challenge for any preacher, I would think. I decided not to mention the election at all as I couldn’t find an easy way to fit it in with this passage. Indeed it was difficult to bring any direct application, but I did bring a few lessons about how prophecy worked and still works now.

Some of the bloggers I read regularly often post their sermons on their blogs. And usually I don’t read those sermons. So I am not really expecting my readers here to do so. But then a few of you might want to read it. Also there might be friends of mine who missed it, and this is a convenient way to let them see what I had to say. So I am posting it here, following the “more” marker (which I don’t often use) for those of you reading the blog front page. I made one small edit to the notes to disguise the name of a congregation member. “Mones” is our vicar who also led the service.

Continue reading

Effective prayer: James 5:16-17

The last part of James 5:16 has come to my attention recently from two different directions.

It was one of the passages I looked at  for my post at Better Bibles Blog about the meaning of energeo in Galatians 5:6 – this verb, in fact exactly the same form of it, is used in a similar way in both these verses (and I note for Mike Aubrey‘s benefit that both are in split noun phrases, the specifically Greek construction “hyperbaton”). Joel Hoffman also comments on this verse in his post on Galatians 5:6.

And then the same sentence came up again as I read chapter 13 of Adrian Warnock’s book Raised with Christ and prepared part 6 of my review of that book. Adrian quotes this part verse from ESV (p.172 of his book):

The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.

The ESV offers a marginal reading:

The effective prayer of a righteous person has great power.

The TNIV rendering is

The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

So which of these, if any, is correct? If James’ usage of energeo is similar to that of Paul (and that is something which should not be assumed), then I can apply the conclusion I came to in my BBB post, and which is supported by J. Armitage Robinson, as linked to in a comment at BBB by Tony Pope. That conclusion is that the passive of energeo, as found here, implies a divine or superhuman agent and can be understood as something like “be set into operation”. The implication of this for James 5:16 is that the prayer he has in mind is set into operation by God, that he is the one who makes it effective.

It is hard to be sure, in the absence of any definite articles, whether the participle of energeo here is to be understood as attributive (“effective prayer”) or predicative (“prayer is effective”). But if James had intended a double predicate as in the TNIV rendering it seems odd to me that he would use an indicative verb and a participle in parallel in this way. So it seems more likely to me that the participle is attributive.

Thus I come down to preferring the ESV marginal reading, but with “effective” to be understood as “put into effect by God”. Prayer, even that of a righteous person, is not powerful simply because of the form of words, but only as God works through it and makes it effective. And since energeo in the New Testament is often linked with working of miracles, surely this verse implies that God intervenes supernaturally, miraculously, to put our prayers into effect.

James’ first example of this kind of prayer certainly had a miraculous effect:

Elijah … prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years.

James 5:17 (TNIV)

I note that “prayed earnestly” here is literally “prayed with prayer”, probably a Hebraic idiom of emphasis. As Adrian points out, there is no record in the Bible of Elijah saying any normal kind of prayer to this effect. What is recorded is these words of Elijah, addressed to Ahab:

“As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.”

1 Kings 17:1 (TNIV)

Surely this is what James had in mind as Elijah’s prayer, which was emphatic or earnest – and effective. That implies that this kind of declaration in God’s name is a form of prayer.

So perhaps our prayers would be more effective if they were a little less “Please, God, do such and such, if it is your will” and a bit more “As the Lord lives such and such will happen”. First, of course, we need to know from God’s word that “such and such” is in line with his general will, and then hear from God that it is his intention for our situation. But if as we pray, instead of making pious wishes, we listen to God to know what he wants to do and then declare that he will do that, then we too will find that God makes our prayers effective.