Reading Scripture With An Evangelical Calvinist: Adam Nigh On Reading The Bible Like A Fundamentalist, Or Not

I am rereading our edited book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church, because a friend, Larry Garcia, is reading it for the first time; so I thought, ‘why not freshen up on PICKWICK_Templatethis most excellent book of ours, and read it along with Larry?’ So I am reading Adam Nigh’s chapter (the third chapter of the volume), which is entitled: The Depth Dimension of Scripture: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Calvinism. Essentially what Adam is doing is sketching and detailing Thomas F. Torrance’s approach and hermeneutical theory to Scripture; and I must say, Adam does a great job. In the chapter, and in the introduction to the chapter, Adam defines how Torrance critiques both the “Liberal” and the “Fundamentalist” errors to interpreting Scripture—in a sense, both being just different sides of the same proverbial coin. Let me focus on the Fundamentalist side, since this hits closer to home for me than does the purported Liberal side.

What Adam vis-à-vis Torrance identifies as problematic with  what might be said to be the problem—as someone else I know has termed it—’is to confuse inspiration for incarnation.’ Read what Nigh writes on this:

The other dualistic strategy for reading Scripture we will call flat exegesis (biblicism9 and fundamentalism10 are Torrance’s primary terms for it, though the latter expresses more than an approach to Scripture). Where allegorical and demythologizing readings of Scripture stretch the connection between the words of the text and the Word of God mediated through them to or beyond the breaking point, flat exegesis fails to make any differentiation at all between the human words and the divine Word. The Word of God is conflated with the intelligibility of the words of Scripture so that its verbal propositions are equated with the truth they propose.11 Scripture is thus not a creaturely servant of the self-revealing God but functionally takes his place, possessing and dispensing his truth in its literary forms. John Webster notes that this typically takes place when the notion of biblical inspiration is focused more on the desire for an inerrant source of universal truth in the context of theological controversy rather than on the place of Scripture in the divine soteriological economy. “When this is allowed to happen, the scriptural word . . . becomes the Word, the Word made text, formalized, decontextualised and so dogmatically displaced.”12 [Adam Nigh, “The Depth Dimension of Scripture: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Calvinism,” in Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church eds. Myk Habets and Bobby Grow (Euguene: OR, Pickwick Publications, 2012), 70.]

Nigh’s and Torrance’s point is not to suggest that Scripture is not God’s Word to His people, and for His world; instead it is to identify how we should approach Scripture, and realize that its primary point is to place us into an ongoing deep and personal (properly understood) dialogue with the God of Scripture, in Christ by the Spirit. So who gets to control Scripture, in this (Torrance/Nigh) understanding, is not different political or theological ideological agendas, but God in Christ himself. It emphasizes that God in Christ is Lord, and we are not. And it takes Scripture away from us in a way that will not allow us to speak in ‘thus saith the Lord’ over-tones over against other Christians or perspectives that might disagree with our’s.

Personally, for me, this is a really refreshing re-orientation to Scripture. I have been part of the evangelical culture wars for a long long time now. And I have seen Scripture used as a mallet, over and again to be beat other Christians (from my own position or whatever) over the head—indeed, I shudder to say, I have also been such a practitioner,  I have used the Scriptures, more than once, to try and beat others around the ears until they would finally listen to what I (as speaking for God through my “right” interpretation of the text) wanted them to know about the “truth.” What a proper nuanced doctrine of Scripture ought to do, is exactly what Nigh’s quote on Torrance identifies; it ought to identify how God’s Word is not susceptible to my manipulation and employment towards my theological ends over and against other people’s ends. And it ought to take the keys out of my hands, and yours, and recognize that Jesus alone has, and in fact is the key to His Word deposited for us, as it is, in Holy Scripture in a refreshing (i.e. the Spirit’s breath) and dialogical way.

One other thing I should note: An underlying premise that is operative in the Nighian and Torrancean account is that we ought to approach Scripture Christianly, and thus, not primarily as ‘historians’ or ‘grammarians’ (even though both of these latter realities can be important components toward and engagement with the text of Scripture). So if we are going to approach Scripture with the Bavinckian and Barthian supposition of Deus dixit (i.e. God has spoken), then we ought to understand that this is firstly a rich and deep theological supposition; one that in itself is derived from hearing from the Son. 

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. ~Hebrews 1:1-2

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2 comments

  1. Myself, I seek to approach Holy Scripture in the Judeo-Christian reality, historically and theologically! (Btw, this does include something of the biblical genre or genres). And though I cannot fully use Van Til’s apologetic in Scripture, I do believe in the so-called “presuppositional” authority of the Holy Scripture, itself! Surely it does appear that Calvin was here also! (See btw too his Commentary on Genesis (first published in Latin 1554 ; first English Translation 1578. And then the first full so-called modern English translation 1847, from here we get The Banner Of Truth Trust version, 1975 through 1992.)

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