I wanted to offer a quick reply-post to Derek Rishmawy’s post on the purported value of reading the Bible through a Latin forensic reading of Holy Scripture and the subsequent doing of theology therefrom. Derek writes:
A similar sort argument is often lodged against the Western tradition in general. Depending on the subject, it is charged that the Latin tradition has always tended towards a more forensic, legal conception of the salvation, the relationship between God and man, etc. Instead of blaming feudal social arrangements, here we meet the claim that the Roman legal tradition exerted undue force, through say, Tertullian, Ambrose, or that perennial (because undeniably influential) whipping boy, Augustine.
Sometimes this is done with an eye towards promoting a superior Eastern account of deification. Or it is used by contemporary theologians to try to supplant the account with some proposal of their own, more attuned to the cultural needs of the current moment. Because, you know, moderns have no concept of guilt and such.
Now, as Sonderegger demonstrated in that last post, simply noting that a point is contextually-rooted, or more appealing to someone in a different cultural context, does not mean it is not translatable or valid in our own.
But let’s go even further. Conceding that Anselm was influenced by feudalism, and the West in general by Latin legal tradition, isn’t it just possible that was a good thing at points? Isn’t it just possible that these cultural influences were not hindrances but providential helps in aiding the church recognize real truths within Scripture that, say, a more Eastern perspective focused on gnosis and ontology might tend to gloss over? Or from which our contemporary culture, possibly over-prone to therapeutic denials of guilt, might want to avert its gaze?
I mean, think about the narrative of Scripture. God is presented as Lord, king, and judge of the earth. He gives Israel a Law-covenant to order their relationship summed up in the 10 Commandments. This covenant is a legal-relational reality which, beyond cultic elements, has large sections of material concerned with the organization of Israel as a people, the administration of justice, courts, and so forth. Indeed, both Leviticus and Deuteronomy have large chapters which include blessings and curses based on the legal-relational matter of obedience and fidelity God as the covenant-Lord.
One of the patron saints of Evangelical Calvinism, Thomas Torrance, refers to Augustine’s influence on the development of Christian ideas/theology as the Latin Heresy; for one reason among others (i.e. what he sees as a dualistic/Platonic problem), because he believes Augustine unduly elevated the forensic/juridical to an improper level when thinking things salvific.
But I think, really, Rishmawy’s post sort of misses the critique; at least from the Torrance angle—and from other angles of the same critique (not just from Torrance). It isn’t that the ‘legal’ aspects found in Scripture are unimportant or absent, it is that, at least for my money, these shouldn’t be understood as the frames of how we think of a God-world relation. Derek writes further as he brings up John Calvin and the role that Derek sees the forensic playing in Calvin’s theology (under Augustinian pressure no doubt):
Nonetheless, it should give pause to those of us tempted to appeal to neat “just-so” stories about cultural influence, which often amounts to no more than a sophisticated form of the genetic fallacy. The question can never merely be a matter of whether Calvin’s legal background pushed him towards a legal understanding of atonement. The question is whether that legal background blinded or enlightened him to something in the text.
Again, the issue isn’t whether or not the ‘legal’ aspects are present or not in Scripture—they clearly are—the question is: Whether or not this aspect should be allowed to frame the way the theologian and biblical exegete not only approaches the scriptural witness itself, but beyond that, whether or not they should approach the res (reality) of Scripture this way? In other words, does God want us to approach him through the idea that his relationship to us is contingent upon legal matters being settled first, or does he want us to approach him as a bride approaches her Bride-groom; as if God first loved us that we might love him? This is the point of the critique; it’s the point of the critique targeted at Federal theology and Westminster Calvinism that I am wont to make here at the blog and in our books etc.
It’s not that the ontological must be in competition with the legal framing of Scripture, it’s just that the ontological is the ground for any legal happenings to take place to begin with. I mean could you imagine a world made up of a legal framing vis-à-vis God without the ontological being in place first (by way of logical and even chrono-logical ordering)? No? Me either; I mean we wouldn’t even be here if there was no ontology. As a rule I follow the axiom that ‘being’ precedes ‘knowing,’ and knowing, whether that be of the legal or romantic sort (or other sorts), is premised first upon there being ‘being’ in the first place. This is one reason why here at The Evangelical Calvinist we place such an emphasis upon ontology; why we follow what Torrance has called the ontological theory of the atonement etc; it’s because there is a depth dimension to reality, to a God-world relation, that the legal frame alone cannot handle nor account for. And in highlighting this, simply following the contour of Holy Scripture we would be remiss to not mention that God’s primary “metaphor” for framing his relationship to humanity is not legal (not even in Genesis), it is that of a bride-groom (cf. Gen 2; Eph 5 for the Pauline recapitulation of Gen 2. etc) with his bride who walks in the cool of the garden with her. The legal is present, but not prior to the romantic/affective (which I take to be the ontological grounding of all else).
Addendum: I’ve heard back from Derek, and he thinks my post distorts the real intention of his post. He didn’t apparently have Torrance’s program in mind when writing his post, and thus believes that me bringing TFT into this discussion skips off the atmosphere of the real referents of his post (whoever and whatever those might be). Be that as it may, I do think TFT fits squarely within the sights of the type of critique Derek is responding to (just survey the landscapes of such critiques in the literature), and let me know if you can find better candidates than Thomas F Torrance (with his strong language of Latin Heresy etc.).
 Derek Rishmawy, On the “Legal Influence” of the Latin West (A Thought on Culture and Atonement), accessed 02-16-2018.