But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. (James 3:17)
Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. (Philippians 4:5a)
I’ve been thinking a bit about James 3:17 lately, along with the exhortation from Paul in Philippians 4:5 and half a dozen or so other related verses in the New Testament.
My train of thought goes back to the final months of last year, as I looked on with a growing sense of bewilderment at the American political process careening toward its inevitable and ghastly culmination in the events of January 6.
Mathewes draws a distinction between rhetoric that aims at persuasion and that which is aimed at mobilisation … When the latter drowns out the former, bad things happen.
Along the way my thoughts were brought into clearer focus by this short blog post from the American religious studies professor, Charles Mathewes, who draws a distinction between the kind of rhetoric that aims at persuasion (working on the—sometimes very charitable!—assumption that your interlocutor’s views are based on reasons, and seeking to change the audience’s assessment of the strength of those reasons), and rhetoric that is aimed exclusively at mobilisation: that is, rhetoric that assumes the irrationality and incorrigibility of your opponent and simply seeks to stir your own side to take action. When the latter drowns out the former within the discourse of a political community, argues Mathewes, bad things happen.
My thoughts were further stimulated in the aftermath of the Capitol siege, when I read this interview in Politico with Elizabeth Neumann—a former government advisor on strategies for preventing domestic terror attacks. The focus of the interview’s first half was on why believers in some versions of evangelicalism seem to have been disproportionately vulnerable to the risk of being recruited into conspiracy theories and violent insurrection. Her answer was blunt and direct. In the words of the interviewer’s summary, she depicted QAnon’s popularity in some circles “not as an aberration, but as the troubling-but-natural outgrowth of a strain of American Christianity”:
In this tradition, one’s belief is based less on scripture than on conservative culture, some political disagreements are seen as having nigh-apocalyptic stakes and “a strong authoritarian streak” runs through the faith. For this type of believer, love of God and love of country are sometimes seen as one and the same.
The interview’s second half shifted the focus from analysing the problem toward strategies for addressing it. In a context such as this, Neumann told the interviewer, the antidote was not less Bible but more:
To fix that, you really have to go back to Scripture. You can’t just be like, “Christian nationalism is wrong.” You have to go back to what the Bible says, versus what you were taught as an American Christian, where it was so interwoven . . . . My thesis here is that if we had a more scripturally based set of believers in this country—if everybody who calls themselves a “Christian” had actually read through, I don’t know, 80 percent of the Bible—they would not have been so easily deceived.
So far so good, in my opinion at least! It’s hard to argue against a proposal for more Bible reading. But there is more required of us, it seems to me, than just an increase in the quantity of Scripture that we consume. What is also of vital importance is the quaIity of our engagement with the Bible and our engagement with one another as we talk about Scripture together.
This is where James 3:17 comes in. According to James, there is a kind of wisdom that is “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (3:15) and a contrasting wisdom that is “from above” (3:17). What distinguishes them is not just their content—biblical ideas versus non-biblical or anti-biblical ideas—but the dispositions and motives of those who exercise them and the behavioural outcomes that they give rise to.
- Earthly wisdom arises from “jealousy and selfish ambition” and produces “disorder and every vile practice”
- Heavenly wisdom is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.”
Much of this is unsurprising—exactly the sort of thing we would expect the New Testament to say. But tucked away in the middle of his description are a couple of words that caught my eye, translated by the ESV as “gentle” (epieikēs) and “open to reason” (eupeithēs).
Open to Reason – Epieikēs
“Open to reason” is a pretty good translation of the second word, which is typically used to mean something like “persuadable” or (in some contexts) “obedient.”
But it would probably be an even better translation for the first word, epieikēs. Translators of the New Testament often use a word like “gentle” to translate epieikēs, suggesting a meaning that relates primarily to our individual, interpersonal relationships, and it is true that the word can sometimes carry that meaning.
But its commonest use—within and beyond the New Testament—relates to politics, judgment and conflict resolution. The virtue epieikēs speaks of is, primarily, a judicial and political one. Wisdom that is epieikēs is “open to reason.” It …
- takes the time to observe carefully and listen sympathetically;
- is attentive to the nuances and shades of grey that can too easily be obscured or obliterated by the rhetoric of winner-takes-all controversy;
- deliberates critically and self-critically before it comes to a decision.
This is the kind of cool-headed, fair-minded approach to debate and decision-making that comes from God.
Paul insists that we approach interactions with the peaceable, gentle, reasonable demeanour of those who are secure in the knowledge that ‘the Lord is at hand.’
Paul is a fan of this quality too:
- In Philippians 4:5 he points to epieikes (ESV: “reasonableness”) as the civic virtue appropriate for Christians, whose citizenship is in heaven.
- He seeks to persuade the Corinthians, not with the overheated rhetoric of the super-apostles, but with the epieikeia of Christ (2 Cor 10:1).
- He says that church leaders should be “not violent” and “not quarrelsome” but epieikēs (1 Tim 3:3).
- He commends the same virtue to all believers in their dealings with everyone, within and beyond the church (Tit 3:2).
Paul was no stranger to vigorous controversies and difficult decisions; his example was hardly a warrant for conflict avoidance! But he insists that we approach interactions such as these not with the aggression or manipulativeness of those who think they need to win at all costs, but with the peaceable, gentle, reasonable demeanour of those who are secure in the knowledge that “the Lord is at hand” (Phil 4:5b).
Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Virtue
Epieikeia has always been a virtue that Christians ought to cultivate and to look for in their leaders. But in times like these, as the culture wars march on from battle to battle and combatants on both sides seek to co-opt Christians into their ranks, it seems to me that it is a virtue of particular relevance and importance.
Within our own internal debates and decision-making processes, we have an opportunity to practise this kind of listening, speaking, and thinking so that it is pervasively present and evident to all. And in our contributions to the wider debates and discussions of our culture we have the chance to be the kind of people who “speak evil of no one,” who “avoid quarrelling,” are “gentle” (epieikēs), and “show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Tit 3:2).
Epieikeia may not be the most heroic or the most overtly spiritual-sounding of virtues, but it is of critical importance if we are to build and sustain the kind of communities God calls us to. May God make it more and more evident among us.
 Thus it’s the quality that Tertullus, the lawyer for Paul’s accusers, flatteringly attributes to governor Felix in Acts 24:4. Outside Scripture, Aristotle famously uses the word in his Nicomachean Ethics to describe the “equity” that pays close and careful attention to the particular case being decided, rather than relying on the strict application of fixed and inflexible rules.