Mr. Standfast

"Nothing taken for granted; everything received with gratitude; everything passed on with grace." G. K. Chesterton

April 15, 2004

Notes on Moule's The Meaning of Hope (1)

The Meaning of Hope is a little book originally published in 1953, subtitled, A Biblical Exposition with Concordance. My edition was published in 1970 by Fortress Press. It author, C. F. D. Moule, was an English scholar of the middle 20th century, a contemporary of Lewis, Barclay, & J. B. Phillips, who specialized in ancient Greek and Hebrew. This book is only 72 pages in length, with the last dozen or so dedicated to the listing of all the Biblical occurrences of the word hope.

The five chapters are titled:

1) Assorted Hopes
2) Hope, Faith, and Love
3) The Anchor and the Helmet: The Past Tense
4) Hope Within the Christian Fellowship: The Present Tense
5) The Wider Hope: The Future Tense

In chapter 1, "Assorted Hopes," Moule dedicates himself to explaining the meaning of the word in both Testaments. In so doing he is first careful to show what it does not mean.

Biblical hope, Christian hope, is not "expectation strongly tinged with doubt." That's the way we often used the word today. "I hope" is something we say when we are anything but certain. It's is a kind of desperate wishing, even as we expect the worst. We look at today's cloudy sky and say, "I hope it doesn't rain tomorrow." But the Biblical word is much stronger, much more full of assurance than that.

A more positive meaning of hope in modern usage is "the expectation of future good." This is the optimistic and anticipatory sense of the word. Moule writes, "The object of hope is still in the future, but deemed to be attainable." But even this sense is not characteristic of Bible usage (although certainly not non-existent: see Romans 8:24-25, Titus 3:7).

So if Biblical hope is neither "expectation tinged with doubt," nor "expectation of future good," what is it? To answer that question, Moule looks to the object of hope; that is, to the thing hoped for. When the Bible uses the word hope, it is not talking about just any hope, but the hope of salvation. Eternal life. Eternal fellowship with and worship of God. It is the object of hope which fundamentally separates Christian hope from all others.

Moule spends some time investigating this idea. He seems to want to show the importance of differentiating merely hopeful thinking from the firm assurance based on the clear revelation of God. As an example, he cites ancient Israel during the time of Jeremiah. The people were confidant that their nation would stand forever against all enemies. After all, hadn't Isaiah said, "Behold, I lay a sure foundation in Zion." (28:16) Surely the Temple itself was that foundation, and would forever remain inviolable, even as it had in the days of the Assyrian invasion, when the enemy had reached the very gates of Jerusalem before turning back. Now, this is certainly "hopeful" thinking, but it is not an example of true Biblical hope. It was, instead, false hope, leading to a bogus optimism, a misplaced sense of security against which the prophet Jeremiah was forced to contend (see Jer. 28). Moule says, "These false prophets were not primarily interested in God and His will, but in securing a comfortable expectation of prosperity on the material level."

You can see how an example like that provided in Jeremiah 28 really accentuates the difference between mere "positive attitude" or wishful thinking, which can be self-serving and ultimately misleading, and a truly God-focused hope. What makes hope truly hopeful then, is its object: that in which one's hope is placed.

Moule provides another interesting example to elucidate this point further. In Matthew 16:21-23, "the Apostle Peter himself goes down a similar false trail of material expectation." Peter is not able to accept the necessity of Christ's death, and speaks words of apparent hopefulness in response. "Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!"

What Peter was not yet able to understand was that his true hope and ours is in just the very thing he wanted most to avoid: Christ's death. His words presaged complete despair, not hope, and Jesus had to sharply rebuke Peter, for he was going seriously astray here. Moule writes: "In many ways such as this, God is continually weaning us from our false hopes, in order to lead us instead to the One Hope, which is--Himself."

But it's interesting that, many years later, writing his first epistle, Peter should cite Isaiah's prophecy: "Behold, I lay a sure foundation in Zion . . . and the one who trusts in [or, hopes in] him will never be put to shame." Peter had learned, you see, the meaning of the Cross, and in so doing he had learned that real hope must be centered on the source of all hope, Jesus Christ.

To summarize, Moule has laid the groundwork for his discussion of Biblical hope by making three fundamental points about the word as it is used in Scripture.

"First, that the Biblical writers, generally speaking, kept their words which are rendered by the English 'hope' for something better than doubtful and misgiving wishes."

"Second, that the Bible shows that hope in the sense of confident expectation of future well-being proved to be ill-founded whenever it was divorced from the perfect and upright character and will of God and applied instead to merely self-regarding matters of well-being, escape from distress, and so forth--even when these were dressed up in respectable, religious phrases."

"And thus, thirdly, in a word, that expectation only becomes justified and sound when it is reposed in God Himself--God who, for the Christian, is perfectly revealed in Christ . . . The only hope worthy to be entertained is in terms not alone of material and spiritual salvation or progress, however idealistically conceived, but of these as viewed in relation to the Person of God himself who is revealed in Christ, and as worked out in the Body of Christ, the church."


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