Sixteenth century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza didn’t like Christian Dogmatics or her theologian’s very much; in fact he sounds, unfortunately, very much so like many today—of course his reasons were a little different from many today, but not that much, at least not in the way that Matthew Levering describes it. Here is how Levering describes Spinoza’s relationship with the theologian:
Yet, as Spinoza sees it, the salvation of these common people is seriously impeded by the nonsense taught by theologians. As Spinoza argues, with much evidence on his side, “people in general seem to make no attempt whatsoever to live according to the Bible’s teachings. We see that nearly all men parade their own ideas as God’s Word, their chief aim being to compel others to think as they do, while using religion as a pretext. We see, I say, that the chief concern of theologians on the whole has been to extort from Holy Scripture their own arbitrarily invented ideas, for which they claim divine authority.” Theologians not only do not live piously, loving their neighbor, but moreover their work, motivated by greed and lust for power, simply fosters controversies that result in the common people equally displaying hatred of neighbor. In their passion to be believed and followed, theologians claim that the most profound mysteries lie hidden in the Bible, and they exhaust themselves in unraveling these absurdities while ignoring other things of value. Having invented these false complexities in the Bible, theologians insist that others must follow their ideas, and “the bitterest hatred” and contention results among the common people. In light of the peril faced by the common people, Spinoza seeks to outline better principles for interpreting “what the Bible or the Holy Spirit intends to teach.” [Matthew Levering, Participatory Biblical Exegesis, 114-15.]
Wow, this hits so close to home. Being a student of Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance and other such theologians I have been accused more than once of the same kind of gibberish that Spinoza accuses theologians from his day of. In fact, this kind of accusation was actually just made toward me today.
There are speculative theologians around, but then there are also revelational theologians (of which tribe I am); theologians who follow what historically was identified as the via positiva (positive way) and the kataphatic approach instead of the via negativa (negative way) and the apophatic approach. Revelational theologians, by and large, seek to work a posteriori from what has been given in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ, who exegetes or explains (John 1.18) His life with the Father by the Holy Spirit. Thomas Torrance has identified this kind of positive way as theological science, something that he picked up from Karl Barth. Torrance describes this kind of mode in Karl Barth this way:
[. . .] Barth found his theology thrust back more and more upon its proper object, and so he set himself to think through the whole of theological knowledge in such a way that it might be consistently faithful to the concrete act of God in Jesus Christ from which it actually takes its rise in the Church, and, further, in the course of that inquiry to ask about the presuppositions and conditions on the basis of which it comes about that God is known, in order to develop from within the actual content of theology its own interior logic and its own inner criticism which will help to set theology free from every form of ideological corruption. [Torrance, Theological Science, 7 cited by Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church Chapter 4, 102.
If only Spinoza would have been around later, he would have understood that the best of theologians think from Christ, and that Scripture is not a mystery waiting to be un-locked, but a hymn book waiting to be sung to its glorious reality, Jesus Christ.
It is this aspect that I would love to see many Biblical Studies folk and Theologians embrace; that is, that reading Scripture must be understood from its ultimate center (methodologically and in every way), in Jesus Christ (Jn. 5.39). And that doxology (worship) is the mode by which Scripture is most appreciated, as if the living voice of God in Christ can be encountered every time we crack its pages. This does not ignore that involving ourselves in this kind of koinonial (fellowshipping) exercise requires toil and hard work (II Tim. 2.15), and that there are critical tools available to engage in this process of encounter and sanctification; but it is to highlight that the purpose and aim of reading Scripture is only given shape by its Revealed reality and continual giver, God in Christ by the Spirit. And thus contra, Spinoza, and anyone else of like mind, approaching Scripture as a theologian is not intended as some sort of mysterious exercise of abstract speculation, but it is to repentantly and obediently to seek to hear from the Teacher and reality of Scripture in dialogical form. Because the sheep know their Shepherd’s voice and we listen!