Scripture, Open for Business: Knowledge of God in Christ and Scripture in Circular Dialogue
February 11, 2013
I have been struggling with a hermeneutical tension for a while now, especially since I have become exposed more and more to Barth (and even Torrance). Although I would lay the blame with this tension more on my own predisposition rather than at the feet of either Barth or Torrance. And in fact maybe the real cause for my hermeneutical tension has been how Barthians (in general) appear to shutdown engagement with scripture in favor of a prior centraldogma commitment to a christology that somehow drops from heaven without scripture; as if scripture can somehow be decentralized from the only ordained place of God where he has chosen to disclose his Son to us through the Holy Spirit’s inspiration and illumination. In other words, there seems to be a proclivity among Barthians to shut down exegetical discussion (and I know there are exceptions to this trend … Matt Frost is an exception), in favor of dogmatic reflection; as if the latter can somehow be developed without intricate dependence on the former. This is a lacunae for me that must be filled; in other words, that’s not a liveable posture for me. As an Evangelical (still), scripture has to take pride of place; and sound exegetical practice must inform the categories by which we proceed as theological exegetes. It is not enough to assert a depth dimension of hermeneutics without moving beyond that into what that actually means and looks like in exegetical practice. Does the text itself get to have any implicit say in the way it ought to be interpreted literarily, socio-culturally, theologically; or do Dogmatic theologians get to construct the (Christological) categories that we then bring to the text as its interpretive control? I have had the distinct sense over the last few years—indeed, a sense of loss at some level—that Scripture has lost its central place in my own personal praxis as a Christian person. I don’t lay this blame squarely at Barth’s feet, Torrance’s, or even their followers (of whom I am one); but at the same time, I would also assert that this sense, this feeling of loss (for me) has not simply materialized out of thin air. It is not enough to assert that Scripture is a central place for Barth (and indeed in his way, it was for him … just look at the voluminous citation of scripture through his CD), there needs to be an actual ongoing and material engagement with it (not just incidental or simple proof texting here and there).
Upon further reflection (as I sit here and write this), part of my personal problem[s] (which are legion ;-) ) might not be as much with what I sense as a deemphasis upon Scripture by Barth and Torrance; in fact it might be an issue with the way the disparate parties (me juxtaposed with Barth and Torrance) interpret Scripture itself. Another thing to consider is that both Barth and Torrance were not, by discipline, Biblical Studies guys, per se; but instead, they were, obviously, Christian Dogmaticians. My own predisposition, while drinking freely from the Dogmatic fount, is still much more Biblical Studies in orientation. So maybe my problem simply arises from this distinction alone. But I don’t really think so; I think that for Barthians, Torrancians, and Calvinians (for that matter), in general, there can be the potential to move and breath without Scripture’s disclosure as primary to understanding who Christ is.
In the following, Francis Watson is responding to E. P. Sanders, and Sanders’ approach to hermeneutics (and Paul). Watson’s critique of Sanders is that Sanders’ Christology shuts down, instead of opens up dialogue with Scripture as primarily informative for presenting the categories through which God in Christ is known. Watson intones in regard to Sanders’ approach this way:
[T]he implication here is that Paul’s disagreement with Judaism derives from a christological conviction that is self-grounded and self-sufficient, and that the pervasive appeal to scripture is merely a secondary consequence of that primary conviction. In this account, the relationship between christology and scripture is a unilateral one: christology determines how scripture is read, but christology itself is not itself determined by the reading of scripture. In the last resort, that would mean that scripture is dispensable for Paul. His christology stands or falls on its own account, irrespective of whether it issues in plausible readings of scripture. It is only his polemical or apologetic concerns that lead him into extensive exegetical engagement, forcing him to defend his christological conviction on ground less than ideal for his purposes. If the light that illumines Paul shines upon scripture only from the outside, then the formal possibility of dialogue on scriptural terrain will remain unrealized and Pauline exegesis will be no more than a secondary application of Pauline dogmatism….[Francis Watson, Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith, 16.]
So in an applied way, my concern is Watson’s with Sanders; except I am applying my cross-hairs towards Barth and Torrance (and their students, myself included—so I am being self-critical at some level), and their kind of Christological dogmatism. I think Watson’s critique is presciently applicable in the way I am appropriating it. For Barth and Torrance as Dogmaticians, they are concerned with providing a proper ontology for Scripture; which means they are seeking to present a properly theologically oriented order to where Scripture finds its voice relative to the giver of Scripture, God in Christ—with this I have no quarrel, indeed, I heartily recommend their trajectory (especially as it is taken up by John Webster!). But my concern is that this kind of necessary backgrounding work is made the foreground; meaning that this kind of undergirding theological order begins to preclude the integrity of Scripture’s own dialectical voice in relation to its giver. That when the background of Scripture becomes the foreground (hermeneutical theory and exegetical practice), that Scripture’s inter-relation with its reality becomes marganlized to a point that it is secondary (and thus really has no voice)—and what becomes primary in its place are the machinations of particular Dogmaticians (i.e. not just Barth, Torrance, Calvin, but any other Dogmatician … you fill in the blank). I think this has been the source of my feeling of loss; I cannot countenance the notion that Scripture is in anyway secondary to who I know God in Christ to be. And I can’t live having one Dogmatician, or another telling me what the proper Christological categories must be (based on their prior constructive work); I am way too Protestant for that (and Trad, still)!
Without futher ado (and as usual, this post has run much longer than I had intended … I still need to read my Bible for goodness sake!), here is how Watson responds to what he senses as Sanders’ shutting down of dialogue with Scripture; as a result of Sanders’ (Watson thinks) misreading of Paul’s own approach to doing Dogmatic theology, in particular, Christology. Here is Watson (,I presume ;-) ):
[F]or Paul, it is more important that scripture should shed light on Christ than that Christ should shed light on scripture. Paul has no independent interest in the meaning of scripture as such: the meaning of scripture is identical to its significance, and both are to be found in its manifold, direct and indirect testimony to God’s saving action in Christ. Scripture is not a secondary confirmation of a Christ-event entire and complete in itself; for scripture is not external to the Christ-event but is constitutive of it. Paul proclaims not a pure, unmediated experience of Christ, but rather a Christ whose death and resurrection occur “according to the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15.3-4). Without scripture, there is no gospel; apart from the scriptural matrix, there is no Christ. The Christ who sheds light on scripture is also and above all the Christ on whom scripture simultaneously sheds its own light. In Galatians 3, for example, Paul does not simply assert that scripture must be read differently in the light of Christ, so as to refute opponents who appeal to scripture on their own ground. Rather, Paul’s rereading of scripture is determined by his single apostolic preoccupation with the Christ-event, which must be interpreted through the lens of the scriptural witness.
If there is no unilateral imposition of christological meaning onto scripture, and if the relationship of Christ and scripture is a circular one, then the possibility is reopened of dialogue with scripture, and with others about scripture…. [Francis Watson, Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith, 16-17.]
I don’t think it is either Barth’s or Torrance’s intent to shutdown engagement with Scripture; nevertheless, I do think, that at points, their reception has indeed had this effect on many of their students. So instead of discussing the actual Christology of the text of scripture we end up discussing accretions of Barthian, Torrancian (or whomever) Dogmatic/Christological development; or we end up scholastically bereft of the text of Scripture (ad fontes), and left with the heft of theological tradition.
I am sure that I am overstating things to some degree; but I am just being open and honest with where I am at personally with my own approach to appropriating the genius insights of Barth, Torrance, and any other Dogmatist out there. sola scriptura, solus Christus, soli Deo Gloria!