Reading Scripture in the Life of the Trinity, Theosis

I must admit, ever since encountering Patristic theology and their hermeneutics in seminary (back in 2002) for the first time, my compass for hermeneutical theory began to take a tailspin. And then a little later, as I continued to dig, and engage with Thomas Torrance, Karl Barth, John Webster, Matthew Levering, and even some Puritans, my compass became even more erratic. I was trained, informally, as an evangelical (growing up as the son bible-compassof a Baptist pastor), to study the Bible inductively, and really through the rationalist history of religions school and German higher criticism that sliced and diced Scripture into manageable, and even unrelated pieces. When I entered Bible College (the first time in 1992, and then 1996-97 at Calvary Chapel Bible College, and then finally my alma mater 1998-2001 at Multnomah Bible College) I began to be taught, formally, how to interpret Scripture, again, in a fragmented way, which could only at the end of my Bible study attempt to integrate Jesus into my biblical interpretation somehow. This culminated for me (which at this point looks like it will be my terminal degree), in 2002-03, when I entered seminary at Multnomah Biblical Seminary; I began work on an MA in Biblical Studies, which included course work, crowned with a Master’s thesis paper, which I had to defend in order to earn my MA. I chose to do my thesis paper on I Corinthians 1:17-25, which was an exegetical analysis of that pericope. I successfully defended that in 2003, and earned my MA in Biblical Studies. But what this paper did (100 pages as it was), was demonstrate and illustrate how I used to study the Bible back then; very analytically, inductively, expositionally, verse by verse, and through hermeneutical premises that were and have been largely absent from the bulk of the Christian church. In other words, even though my passage of consideration was about Jesus and the cross, my method of interpretation was not premised, hermeneutically, upon the reality of Jesus and the cross; instead it was premised upon premises provided for evangelical Bible study that were provided for it by people who are not evangelical (historically and even culturally understood), and who might even be antagonistic to the Christian faith. In the end I actually liked what I was able to produce for my Master’s thesis paper (my examiners did too), but I wonder what it would have looked like if it had been given shape under hermenutical pressure that was more intentionally Christ centered?

Is it even possible to exegete under a ‘Christ-centered’ and Trinitarian pressure? The early church believed it was possible, and proceeded without apology to exegete the Old Testament as if it was all about Christ; and under the Apostolic mantle provided for that method by the authors of the New Testament themselves. Donald Fairbairn (a Patristics expert par excellence) has just helped me, immensely, to think about this issue once again, in a very helpful and definitive way. My compass has been wandering here and there, hermeneutically, I have been deeply influenced, as I mentioned, by T. F. Torrance, and in particular to this issue, by his book Divine Meaning: Studies in Patristic Hermeneutics; but I have had problems, quite frankly, trying to practically conceive of a way to interpret and apply Scripture in a way that is genuinely Christ centered, hermeneutically, and at the same time, critically available to the tools provided by what might be called ‘modern’ exegesis (literary, canonical, historical, etc.). This is where what Fairbairn, in a straightforward and succinct way has helped me with today; he has placed hermeneutics, at least in the way I am appropriating it, within the realm of the Greek Christian understanding of theosis, so in the domain of Christian salvation (soteriology)–this would fit well, in some respects, with Matthew Levering’s idea of participatory history. Let me share the two paragraphs from Fairbairn that have helped and edified me today; I hope they will be edifying for you too:

Roots Of Patristic And Modern Old Testament Interpretation

At this point, we as evangelicals should notice a significant incongruity latent in our situation. We accept (albeit with reservation) a method of biblical interpretation that historically arose among scholars who rejected most of our core convictions about the Bible–that it is from God, that it is a book telling a single story, that its various writings are fundamentally unified, that its central subject is Christ. Furthermore, without giving the matter a lot of thought, we reject allegory as a way of interpreting the Hebrew Bible, a way that is found in the New Testament and that was widely used in the early church, even though that kind of interpretation grows out of the same convictions that we share. It is indeed ironic that when a church father who shares all of our basic convictions argues for a connection between this Old Testament passage and that New Testament reality, we reject his argument out of hand because our masters in the school of modern interpretation (masters who do not share our convictions) have branded such exegesis as allegory. And it is even more ironic that our adherence to a plain-sense, nonallegorical method is so intense that the New Testament itself disturbs us when it connects the Testaments in a way that sounds like allegory to us. We wind up thinking that Paul and Matthew were allowed to handle the Old Testament this way because they were divinely inspired, but surely we must not handle the Old Testament this way.

If we recognize the incongruity I have been discussing, then we should also see that there is more than “mere allegory” going on when the church fathers interpret the Old Testament. In contrast to modern liberals (who might see no unifying theme in Scripture) and in partial contrast to modern conservatives (who tend to organize Scripture around concepts such as the covenant or the dispensations which have governed God’s dealings with humanity), the church fathers tended to see the scarlet thread, the unifying theme of Scripture, as Christ. Again, this unifying theme places the emphasis in a rather different place than we do. We today start with ourselves and ask how God relates to us. The church fathers started with God, and especially with Christ, and asked how we participate in Christ. This is why virtually all of patristic thought saw theōsis–humanity’s becoming somehow a participant in the divine life–as the link between God and humanity. Furthermore, this is why one strand of patristic thought, the one I think is most fruitful for us today, understood theōsis in terms of the Father’s relationship to the Son and saw our participation in this relationship as the scarlet thread of the Christian faith. If one does theology in the way the church fathers did, with the life of the three trinitarian persons at the heart, then one will seek to find those trinitarian persons–especially the preincarnate Son–throughout the Old Testament.[1]

This is the way that T.F. Torrance sought to interpret Scripture (just read his two volumes: Incarnation & Atonement), and it is the way that I personally believe is the most fruitful and edifying way for Christians to engage in as exegetes.

So instead of using dispensations (as I was trained to do), or ‘the covenant’ (as people who attend places like Westminster Theological Seminary are trained to do) as hermeneutically regulative for the biblical interpretive process; along with Fairbairn, Torrance, the Patristics, Barth, Webster, Levering and others, it is better, in my estimation, to allow our hermeneutical theory and practice to be established by the One who has given revelation of Himself to begin with; and it is better to practice exegesis from within this relationship, within the realm of ‘salvation’ or ‘reconciliation’ and ‘participation’ in God’s triune life mediated through Christ. Does this mean that we cannot employ modern critical tools while doing exegesis? I don’t think so. But what it means is that we won’t let those tools (whatever they are) be the basis for our hermeneutical theory. In other words we won’t just read Scripture ‘as literature’ (because it is more not less than literature, it has a different location from other literature,  what might be called ‘profane literature’); we won’t just read Scipture ‘as history’ (because it is more not less than history, it is where God providentially has interpreted through His Son for us, His life for us, and our life for Him through the vicarious humanity of Christ through Apostolic Deposit); and we won’t, then, read Scripture but within the domain of grace, and in particular faith, which is established by its rule in Jesus Christ.


[1] Donald Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity: An Introduction To Theology With The Help Of The Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 114-15.


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4 Responses to Reading Scripture in the Life of the Trinity, Theosis

  1. Bobby, thanks for this. Reading about your background, I see my own experienced mirrored in many ways by yours. The observation that you make concerning how many evangelicals interpret Scripture is one to which I was first alerted by Kevin Vanhoozer. Although he was not referring to exactly the same issue, the fundamental point remains the same: many conservative evangelicals ironically approach Scripture with the same presuppositions and methodologies that give rise to the very positions that they ardently oppose (i.e. liberalism, Roman Catholicism, etc.). The difficulty is that many seem unaware of the presuppositions that they have adopted and thus their interpretations appear simply the as “plain meaning” of the text. That is why speaking from a more trinitarian and christologically-concentrated position sounds almost like a foreign language.

    Something I wanted to run past you is this. I have been trying to do a bit of “catch-up” on your blog posts from the past, and I have noticed the considerable amount of time you have spent critiquing the Thomist underpinnings of Federal Calvinism. I am currently reading a book in which the author (not Muller) argues that while the Aristotelian/Thomist framework applies in terms of methodology to Reformed orthodox thought, it does not greatly impinge on the content. He argues that the Reformed scholastics were freely borrowing from the prevailing thought patterns of their time in the effort to articulate and consolidate Protestant theology in a way comprehensible to that time. Apart from the fact that this statement itself seems suspiciously conditioned by Aristotelian philosophy (i.e. a split between the accidents of methodology and the substance of theology), would you not agree that this is a false dichotomy? I think that I remember reading a review that Myk Habets wrote of one of Muller’s works in which he raised precisely this issue. In other words, it is a naive assumption that we can adopt any methodology in terms of our approach to Scripture and theology and expect the content of the result to not be substantially effected or altered.

    This is one of the things I have been learning from Torrance and his reflections on a “scientific” approach as well as patristic hermeneutics. If I understand him correctly, he asserts that our hermeneutical and theological method must be controlled and determined by the nature of the object that we are investigating, which in the case of theology is actually a divine subject to whom every thought must be taken captive. That is to say, we cannot seek to know God in a manner different than that which he himself has chosen to reveal himself to us. Inasmuch as “in these last days he has spoken to us in his Son”, we must consciously ground our approach to this revelation ‘a posteriori’ in a way which accords with the nature of that revelation itself rather than ‘a priori’ determining what we think might be the most effective or logical way of doing so. Would this be a more or less accurate way of characterizing an EC vs. a FC approach?

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  2. Mike Spies says:

    One of the best books I’ve found concerning the early church Fathers and how they interpreted scripture is ” The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death” by John Behr. I highly recommend it as it pertains to your search for a better hermeneutic of scripture one which places Christ at the center.

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  3. Bobby Grow says:


    Yes, “dualism” is the critique made by Torrance most pointedly toward Post Reformation theology as well as Thomism. Maybe the best way to think of this, theologically, is to think of it Christologically. Torrance critiques that the Post Reformed orthodox rupture God’s person in Christ from His works (i.e. by using the decrees as a mechanism for thinking God’s relation to His creation, rather than thinking directly from His Self revelation in Christ). But yes, the problem is how dualisms work throughout much of theology, and this is one of TFT’s primary critiques in his books: Ground and Grammar of Theology and Theological Science. You should check those books out to get a good grasp on the critique.

    And yes, you’re right about TFT’s a posteriori approach to theology; or what he also calls kata physin, i.e. according to the nature. It is to think God from Christ, and not God then Christ etc. And yes, this would could be one distinction, broadly, between EC and Federal Calvinism. But it is more complex than that as well; but in the main, yes.

    I’m sorry I still need to respond to your email :-).


  4. Rein Zeilstra says:

    Hi guys
    It is curious isn’t it that barely we escape the early literalist clutches and we query how far posteriori re-contextualisation may stretch. I find my interpretation borders lay not beyond the trust placed in other godly lives around us that reflect the actuality of the living Christ. It endeavors to be staunchly proud and amazed of and by the Gospel but in any utterance of it smells the air first and often retires respectfully of others’ freedom to decline to an arcane hidden discipline and prayer on behalf; the display whereof however is invariably of courteous interest in others behind the masks. It bears reproach gladly and answers insults softly but firmly. Well I am 75 now and it has taken me now half a Christian century of slipping of the track Bunyan style to be simply content to be there for others in the giving of self without smothering or force feeding. Am I growing into the Christ of God, well I hope so. Blessings


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