Revised Edition: What’s the Difference Between solo Scriptura and sola Scriptura? And Interpretive Tradition, I Have Mine What’s Yours?

In this post I am offering a revision, of sorts. I am going to consolidate two posts that I’ve had up in the last few days, into one; and in the process attempt to correct some things that I said about the movement ReThinking Hell (RH), and at the same time explain a distinction between what I mean when I speak of solo Scriptura versus sola Scriptura. Once I’ve accomplished that I will briefly touch upon the type of interpretive-theological tradition I’m committed to as an Evangelical Calvinist.

To begin with, let me make a correction, let me not speak of RH in global terms; let’s think of them in more partitive ways when it comes to their hermeneutical approach vis-à-vis its doctrine of Scripture. As the founder of RH (Peter Grice) has been letting me know via email, their approach is more diffuse, made up of the tapestry of hermeneutical approaches that characterizes the panoply of evangelical theologians and exegetes. Okay, I’m willing, at this point to grant him that. Nevertheless, there are some prominent voices in their ranks, such as Preston Sprinkle and Chris Date who forward what we might call, and what I am calling, the solo Scriptura approach. In light of that we will take a look at an emphasis that Sprinkle believes is valuable about the approach that RH takes to the Bible. He writes in endorsement of ReThinking Hell:

Hell is a crucial topic, especially for Evangelicals. And it needs to be revisited. For too many years—thousands, actually—believers have thought about Hell with closed Bibles. It’s time to reopen them. It’s time to think biblically, not confessionally or traditionally, about this misunderstood and debated doctrine. Rethinking Hell is doing the church a great service by stirring discussion and forcing us to read what the Bible says about Hell.[1]

If I were going to provide my own definition of what constitutes a solo Scriptura (or nuda Scriptura) approach I couldn’t be more precise than what Sprinkle offers. It is placing the Bible and its teaching in competition with confessionalism and church tradition; it is to buy into the enlightenment idea that we can read the Bible without the received understanding and permutations of the church in the history of the interpretation; that we can read the Bible without informing theologies “tainting” our exegetical conclusions. This, I contend, is the mood offered by a movement like ReThinking Hell (or at least by some of its most prominent voices); and they advertise it straightaway by lifting that type of spirit up through using Sprinkle’s endorsement of them as a place to go for undercutting the traditions (at least the tradition on hell) and confessions of the church by abstracting the Bible from its theological and intellectual context. Let me clarify, before we get ahead of ourselves; I’m not saying that contending with the tradition is bad, as we work it into dialogue with the scriptural witness, instead I am challenging the idea that we can or should read the Bible in an abstract way that is removed from the reality of its reception in the church’s history and the theology that that reception has produced. I am contending that solo Scriptura people, even if they claim otherwise, per enlightenment constraints, believe we can read the Bible “nakedly” (de nuda).

In contrast to this, sola Scriptura understands that it is not possible or advisable to read the Bible theology-less; and that the tradition of the church is an important aspect of engaging with the text of Scripture at an exegetical level. Angus Paddison offers some good words here, let’s listen in:

The prime responsibility of Christology is not first to be original but faithfully to read the ‘divine address’ that is Scripture. In order to fulfill this task, theology does of course need resources other than Scripture. This is to recognize with Robert Jenson that if we think sola Scriptura means understanding Scripture “apart from creed, teaching office, or authoritative liturgy” then we are resting on an ‘oxymoron’ (think of the obvious contradiction of the church that says it has no creed but the Bible). If the first responsibility of talking about Christ is to evince an attention to Scripture, we need to be more precise about the nature of doctrine and its relationship to Scripture.

Calvin himself, to alight upon a theologian firmly associated with a sola Scriptura approach, was keenly aware that theology always needed to deploy extra-canonical words and resources. That we use words and concepts not found in Scripture itself – in a bid to help us understand this same text – is not a sign that we have departed from the fabric of Scripture. Writing against his opponents Calvin writes that if

they call a foreign word one that cannot be shown to stand written syllable by syllable in Scripture, they are indeed imposing upon us an unjust law which condemns all interpretation not patched together out of the fabric of Scripture . . . [i]f anyone, then, finds fault with the novelty of the words [Calvin is talking of such words as ‘Trinity’ and ‘Persons’] does he not deserve to be judged as bearing the light of truth unworthily, since he is finding fault with what renders the truth plain and clear.

When Calvin’s counsel is not heeded, sola Scriptura often mutates into biblical scholarship alone. Understanding the Bible in this way of thinking is wholly defined by reference to its (often putative) context of production. It is as if we are reading a text that has had no impact, a text without any subsequent readers. Writing more than 50 years ago G.E. Wright’s diagnosis (not espousal) of this mindset common among ‘biblical Christians’ drawn to biblical scholarship is still remarkably apposite:

When one has the Bible, what need is there for subtleties and sophistries of theology? In evangelical Christianity, the Bible is typically read with scan regard for the long and intricate dialogue with the Bible that is the history of Christian theology. Many (most?) Protestant Biblical scholars are attracted to the field in the first place by an evangelical piety of this kind, and – whatever else is abandoned under the notoriously destructive impact of so-called “historical-critical method” – the abstraction of the biblical texts from their theological Wirkungsgeschichte is tenaciously maintained.

Such endeavors help identify historical-criticism, the engine of much biblical scholarship, as the modern attempt to “start over” in a manner that left behind the gifts of the past’ [sic]. Accordingly, historical criticism is notoriously restricted in what history it is interested in. Fundamentalism and historical criticism both presume that the church and the church’s teaching is an obstacle, not an aid, to reading Scripture well.[2]

In the quote I emboldened: “often mutates into biblical scholarship alone.” This is the warp and woof of what constitutes a solo Scriptura versus sola Scriptura approach, as Paddison so helpfully develops for us as he engages with Calvin. And this, I contend, is exactly the type of approach that funds the work that ReThinking Hell is engaged in (or at least the work that is being done by some of its most prominent members); the Sprinkle quote suffices to illustrate this in spades. As I’ve listened further to some of RH’s spokesman in debate (Chris Date in particular), he goes out of his way to make sure that all he wants to know is how Scripture speaks of hell. What he means is what the solo Scriptura approach will produce for him. It is rooted, as Paddison helps us see, in the enlightenment project that seeks to move the church away from the church, ironically, as it reads Holy Scripture. This is the way of a naked modernity penetrating the church in such a way that it ends up distorting Scripture’s witness to Christ rather than enhancing it.

I believe ReThinking Hell’s approach (at least some of its more prominent voices) is less than desirable when it comes to engaging with Scripture. I don’t think the solo Scriptura approach is grounded in a rich Christology, nor do I think it thinks about Scripture’s place ontologically as that is embedded in a Christian Dogmatic way of thinking (as described by John Webster so well in his little book Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch). Do I think this is a problem that characterizes some of ReThinking Hell’s members alone? No. It’s a problem that the evangelical church at large is ensconced within; some of RH’s members simply reflect the evangelical culture they are part of.

What is My Interpretive Tradition?

As is clear for anyone who has read here for any amount of time this section is wasted on you; you know where I’m coming from. For matters of full disclosure, and anyone who happens upon this post who doesn’t know, let me make it exceedingly clear who informs my approach and why. My approach is largely funded by Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance.

I believe Karl Barth has done a revolutionary thing in regard to the categories and motifs he has offered the church. Yes, Barth might be a single man, but his reworking of election/predestination (as he inherited some of that from a French school of thought), and his style of Christ concentration is nothing more than an interpretive tradition in and  of itself; as explanatory and weighty as what we get from Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, Athanasius, Augustine et al. So why would I attempt to do theological-exegesis from outside of a theological tradition that I think provides the greatest explanatory power when we come to consider some very basic realities as we get into engaging with the inner-logic of the text of scripture? Indeed, this isn’t just true for me, it’s just as true for those who claim to “just be reading the Bible;” this is the irony of the solo Scriptura approach, or at least of an approach that believes it can read the Bible without theology necessarily informing their exegetical conclusions. It is inevitable and inescapable that we all bring theological preunderstandings to the text (and I contend this can be a good thing if its good theology). The hermeneutic and interpretive tradition I work from is Barthian, Torrancean (Thomas Torrance), and one that attempts to resourcefully and constructively receive from the whole of church tradition; albeit through the broader framework I have already noted.

Conclusion

I don’t think the basis of ReThinking Hell’s approach, in general, really appreciates the role that interpretive tradition plays for them in coming to their own conclusions about hell. They can’t just read the Bible and come to those conclusions, there are too many other things going on. So my question to them is what do they think represents their theological tradition; what is their hermeneutical framework being funded by? Do they think this framework has anything to do with their exegetical conclusions, or do they believe that their exegetical conclusions have purely funded their subsequent development on a theology of hell? I am positive (because I’ve heard him say this over and over again now) that Christ Date, of ReThinking Hell, believes that biblical exegesis comes prior to and indeed supplies the furniture of any developing theological framework post exegesis. This is why I say some prominent voices at ReThinking Hell are solo Scriptura thinkers, because they absolutely are. Yet the irony remains, even solo Scriptura proponents have informing theological frameworks funding their exegetical conclusions, even when it comes to their theology of hell; it’s just that they haven’t been self-critical enough to admit that, nor transparent enough for others to recognize what that is. So it’s left to outsiders to attempt to identify what that is for them, and let others know what in fact is informing their approach; theologically. If for no other reason but that we are transparent about how we are approaching Scripture. That’s an important fact to know when we are looking to others to teach us what the Bible says.

 

[1] Preston Sprinkle, ReThinking Hell Endorsements, accessed 09-23-17. [emboldening mine]

[2] Angus Paddison, Scripture a very Theological Proposal (New York: T&T Clark International, 2009), 66-7. [emboldening mine]

 

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John MacArthur’s and The Shepherd’s Conference’s Ironic De-elevation of the Bible: When the Bible Becomes Bigger than God

biblebiggerthangod
Credit, David Hayward

Since the Shepherd’s Conference Summit 2017 at John MacArthur’s church just ended I thought I would continue to take this opportunity to highlight something about the type of biblicism that characterizes what we find present there. It is ironic, really, because the staff pastors at Grace Community Church I have had interaction with (some very recently) would make you think that anything but a simple and pure approach to the Bible is nothing else but idolatry. Yet if you listen to many of the speakers they have at their conference it quickly becomes evident that they are not being consistent in their stated or presumed approach. I think the real issue is that they have so uncritically received a particularly styled form of Reformed theology, in highly baptistic and rationalistic form, that they can make no distinction between that and what the Bible may or may not be saying.

In light of this continued inability to make a critical distinction between their interpretive tradition and what the Bible might or might not say itself, I thought I would commend to them the way John Calvin approached this issue. Here Angus Paddison explicates for us how Calvin approached the relationship of the Bible with interpretive tradition:

Calvin himself, to alight upon a theologian firmly associated with a sola Scripturaapproach, was keenly aware that theology always needed to deploy extra-canonical words and resources. That we use words and concepts not found in Scripture itself – in a bid to help us understand this same text – is not a sign that we have departed from the fabric of Scripture. Writing against his opponents Calvin writes if

they call a foreign word one that cannot be shown to stand written syllable by syllable in Scripture, they are indeed imposing upon us an unjust law which condemns all interpretation not patched together out of the fabric of Scripture … [i]f anyone, then, finds fault with the novelty of words [Calvin is talking of such words as ‘Trinity’ and ‘Persons’] does he not deserve to be judged as bearing the light of truth unworthily, since he is finding fault with what renders the truth plain and clear.

When Calvin’s counsel is not heeded, sola Scriptura often mutates into biblical scholarship alone. Understanding the Bible in this way of thinking is wholly defined by reference to its (often putative) context of production. It is as if we are reading a text that has had no impact, a text without any subsequent readers. Writing more than 50 years ago G.E. Wright’s diagnosis (not espousal) of this mindset common among ‘biblical Christians’ drawn to biblical scholarship is still remarkably apposite:

When one has the Bible, what need is there for subtleties and sophistries of theology? In evangelical Christianity, the Bible is typically read with scant regard for the ling and intricate dialogue with the Bible that is the history of Christian theology. Many (most?) Protestant Biblical scholars are attracted to the field in the first place by an evangelical piety of this kind, and – whatever else is abandoned under the notoriously destructive impact of the so-called “historical critical method” – the abstraction of the biblical texts from their theological Wirkungsgeschichte is tenaciously maintained.

Such endeavors help identify historical-criticism, the engine of much biblical scholarship, as the modern attempt to “start over” in a manner that left behind the gifts of the past’. Accordingly, historical criticism is notoriously restricted in what history is interested in. Fundamentalism and historical criticism both presume that the church and the church’s teaching is an obstacle, not an aid, to reading Scripture well.[1]

It is very unfortunate that John MacArthur et al. continue to forge forward with this idea that they alone have somehow cornered what the Bible is actually saying versus the rest of the Christian world, so to speak. They ought to follow the advice of John Calvin, and at least admit with more humility that they like every other Christian ought to approach the Word of God with trembling. That’s the irony of this, MacArthur et al. in their singular pursuit of elevating Holy Scripture have really only marginalized it by their belief that they alone have conquered it through methodological exegesis and exposition; as if the language and words themselves are ends in themselves, they are not.

 

[1] Angus Paddison, Scripture a very Theological Proposal (London/New York: T&T Clark International, 2009).

Reading the Bible For All Its Worth: Protestants and sola Scriptura Against Wooden-Literalist Bible Reading Habits

I just recently had a discussion with someone I know, a pastor, who took pride in the fact that I labeled his approach to biblical interpretation as wooden-literal. I have written against this approach for many years, and so when it came down to this little exchange I was having with this pastor it became real;  it became real because he was arguing from such a literalist approach that holy_biblehe wouldn’t even admit a women could potentially teach a man, even as a prophetess of Yahweh (i.e. Huldah). He claimed that because the word ‘teach’ is never used with reference to what Huldah communicated hortatorily to King Josiah that this in itself could not be used to illustrate a woman teaching or even authoritatively communicating God’s Word to a man or men. This exchange left me somewhat dumbfounded although not totally surprised.

The questions though are these: Does the Protestant commitment to sola Scriptura (‘Scripture alone’) mean that Protestants, historically, are committed necessarily to a wooden-literal mode of interpreting the Scriptures? Does it mean that Protestants have no regard for the history of biblical interpretation, for the ecumenical councils of the church (i.e. like where we get our orthodox grammar for God as Triune, and for Chalcedonian two-natures one person Christology, etc.), and that we must simply be slavishly and rationalistically tied to the biblical words themselves; as if they have some sort of structural meaning inherent to themselves? No, nein! This is not what Protestants have been committed to in their reading practices of the Bible. This is not what sola Scriptura entails. Instead, what my pastor friend is actually working from, ironically, is what rose up out of the Enlightenment and 19th century biblical studies; a ‘de-confessionalized’  historical-critical approach to reading the Bible. Gerhard Hasel identifies when this way of reading the Bible happened, and who signaled it most decisively:

The late Neologist and rationalist Johann Philipp Gabler (1753-1826), who never wrote or even intended to write a Biblical theology, made a most decisive and far-reaching contribution to the development of the new discipline in his inaugural lecture at the University of Altdorf on March 30, 1787. This year marks the beginning of Biblical theology’s role as a purely historical discipline, completely independent from dogmatics. Gabler’s famous definition reads: “Biblical theology possesses a historical character, transmitting what the sacred writers thought about divine matters; dogmatic theology, on the contrary, possesses a didactic character, teaching what a particular theologian philosophizes about divine matters in accordance to his ability, time, age, place, sect or school, and other similar things….”[1]

It is this split between theological (i.e. dogmatics) or churchly (i.e. confessional) readings of the Bible that is informing my pastor friend’s understanding of reading the Bible in a wooden literalistic way. It is an overreaction, by some, to fear of being drawn back into the Roman Catholic church (which is my pastor friend’s fear directly, since this was his background) and having a magisterium tell you what the Bible means coupled with an enlightenment rationalizing mode towards reading the Bible in a way that might have any connection whatsoever to the historical interpretations of said texts found in Holy Writ. So it isn’t an outright appropriation of all of the 19th and 20th century accretions of the biblical studies ‘movement,’ instead it is a selective appropriation of that such that an emphasis on the rationale of the bible reader’s individualistic reading of the text of Scripture dominates in such a way that in extreme cases only the very words themselves (almost without reference to the broader canonical context either intertextually i.e. the whole of the canon or intrattextually i.e. particular books of the Bible being studied have any say in how various words, sentences, and paragraphs ought to be understood).

Angus Paddison helpfully describes this type of dilemma, and how the Protestant understanding of sola Scriptura itself militates against the mode of interpretation my pastor-friend finds himself deploying as he reads the Bible. Paddison here is talking about how Christology ought to implicate our reading of Scripture, how that impacts sola Scriptura, and how this even impacts John Calvin’s own reading of Scripture (hermeneutically and exegetically). Paddison writes at some length:

The prime responsibility of Christology is not first to be original but faithfully to read the ‘divine address’ that is Scripture. In order to fulfill this task, theology does of course need resources other than Scripture. This is to recognize with Robert Jenson that if we think sola Scriptura means understanding Scripture ‘”apart from creed, teaching office, or authoritative liturgy’” then we are resting on an ‘oxymoron’ (think of the obvious contradiction of the church that says it has no creed but the Bible). If the first responsibility of talking about Christ is to evince an attention to Scripture, we need to be more precise about the nature of doctrine and its relationship to Scripture.

Calvin himself, to alight upon a theologian firmly associated with a sola Scriptura approach, was keenly aware that theology always needed to deploy extra-canonical words and resources. That we use words and concepts not found in Scripture itself – in a bid to help us understand this same text – is not a sign that we have departed from the fabric of Scripture. Writing against his opponents Calvin writes that if

they call a foreign word one that cannot be shown to stand written syllable by syllable in Scripture, they are indeed imposing upon us an unjust law which condemns all interpretation not patched together out of the fabric of Scripture … [i]f anyone, then finds fault with the novelty of the words [Calvin is talking of such words as ‘Trinity’ and ‘Persons’] does he not deserve to be judged as bearing the light of truth unworthily, since he is finding fault with what renders the truth plain and clear.

When Calvin’s counsel is not heeded, sola Scriptura often mutates into biblical scholarship alone. Understanding the Bible in this way of thinking is wholly defined by reference to its (often putative) context of production. It is as if we are reading a text that has had no impact, a text without any subsequent readers. Writing more than 50 years ago G.E. Wright’s diagnosis (not espousal) of this mindset common among ‘biblical Christians’ drawn to biblical scholarship is still remarkably apposite:

When one has the Bible, what need is there for subtleties and sophistries of theology? In evangelical Christianity, the Bible is typically read with scant  regard for the long and intricate dialogue with the Bible that is the history of Christian theology. Many (most?) Protestant biblical scholars are attracted to the field in the first place by an evangelical piety of this kind – whatever else is abandoned under the notoriously destructive impact of so-called “historical-critical method” – the abstraction of the biblical texts from their theological Wirkungsgeschichte is tenaciously maintained.

Such endeavors help identify historical-criticism, the engine of much biblical scholarship, as the modern attempt to “start over” in a manner that left behind the gifts of the past’. Accordingly, historical criticism is notoriously restricted in what history it is interested in. Fundamentalism and historical criticism both presume that the church and the church’s teaching is an obstacle, not an aid, to reading Scripture well.[2]

Conclusion

We have surveyed how current day bible reading practices have come to be among both evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians alike. We have noted that for such readers, those who engage in this type of Bible reading, that it has more to do with Enlightenment rationalism, and a certain theory of linguistics and historicism than it does with the Protestant sola Scriptura principle and how Protestants ever since the 16th century have engaged in the reading and exegesis of Holy Scripture.

If the above is so, it would behoove my pastor-friend to reconsider how he is approaching Scripture. He might want to ask: “Am I reading the Bible in a way that fits better with Protestant confessional historical Christianity, or am I reading it from certain impulses that are actually antagonistic to that? The ultimate goal, of course, is to ‘read the bible for all its worth.’ I contend that confessional Christianity offers the best resources for doing that; particularly when it sees Christ as the rule and key for understanding all of Scripture. That said, I am not against paying attention to philology, semantics, literary realties in Scripture, history, so on and so forth; it’s just that appealing to that in slavish and rationalistic ways is not going to yield, in my view, the best exegetical conclusions.

 

 

[1] Gerhard Hasel, Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 21-2.

[2]Angus Paddison, Scripture a very Theological Proposal (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 66-7.

Grudem’s, Ware’s, et al.’s evangelical Biblicism; it should be abandoned

I still think, as the first post I wrote on all of this indicated, the Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, et al. and this whole EFS (Eternal Functional Subordination) debate is a result of Grudem’s, Ware’s, et al.’s commitment to an evangelical Biblicism. The belief that Scripture ought to be able to answer—in propositional form—all of the systematic questions that we want it to answer; questions formed holy_bibleby an evangelical sub-culture that expects absolute, rationalist certitude in regard to what God has ostensibly revealed in Holy Scripture. Whether the question has to do with male-female gender relations, or whether its pre-trib, post-trib, mid-trib, pre-wrath, or if whether the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father; whatever the question is at the moment, there is an evangelical expectation that if we squeeze Scripture hard enough, and just the right way we will get the absolute results we are looking for.

But that’s not how Scripture really works; at least I don’t think so, and neither does Angus Paddison and P.T. Forsyth. Note as Paddison elucidates (and cites) Forsyth’s doctrine of Scripture:

As can be seen from our explorations thus far, Forsyth first and foremost locates Scripture in relation to God’s activity, an action best regarded as ‘not merely a gospel of definite truth but of decisive reality, not of clear belief but of crucial action’. This plea that we attend to a lively activity of God – rather than a series of propositional truths about God – explains Forsyth’s resistance to dry freezing Scripture and regarding it as little more than ‘an arsenal of Christian evidences’. Scriptural reading is to resist having commerce with stupefied orthodoxies. Christian faith is not ultimately faith in doctrines but rather a faith in those realities and powers which Scripture and doctrine attempt to articulate. The power of Jn 3.16 is not that it is a message about God’s love for us; it points to God’s love enacted for us. Finely-wrought doctrinal systems are prone to misunderstand faith as an intellectual assent to truths articulated, rather than the soul’s ‘direct contact with Christ crucified’. Biblical readers who domesticate the Bible into systems of orthodoxy are liable to forget that it is the theologian’s ‘hard and high fate to cast himself into the flame he tends, and be drawn into its consuming fire’. To be ‘biblical’ is therefore to apprehend that Scripture’s core

is not a crystallization of man’s divine idea, it is not even a divine declaration of what God is in himself; it is his revelation of what he is for us in actual history, what he for us has done, and forever does. (PTF)

Being biblical is a matter of apprehending correctly God’s redemptive activity into which Scripture has been drawn and is now located.

No belief is scriptural simply because it be met with the Bible. We do not believe in the contents of the Bible, but in its content, in what put it there, and what it is there for. For it is a means, and not an end. We believe in the Gospel, the Gospel of God’s Grace justifying the ungodly in Christ’s cross and creating the Bible for that use. (PTF)

Scripture is located by the gospel, before it is located by us.[1]

This is not to say that this dialogical approach to Scripture undercuts any meaningful way towards ‘knowing God’ through Scripture; just the opposite. But what it does say is that our expectations, when approaching Scripture, should be transformed by the One we encounter in Scripture.

What does this do to the way Grudem, Ware, et al. approach Scripture, or what should it do for anyone who approaches Holy Scripture? It should depressurize the hot air we often bring to Scripture, and reorient our understanding of Scripture as the place we encounter the living voice of the living God. It should destabilize our equilibriums in such a way that philosophical certitude, and self-assured posture are no longer the requirements we expect Scripture to meet.

I think the Patristics, by and large, particularly at the ecumenical councils, approached Scripture more in the way that PT Forsyth understands it, and less in the way that Grudem, Ware, et al. do.

 

[1] Angus Paddison, Scripture a very Theological Proposal (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 18.

In Response to Richard Beck and Derek Rishmawy: Fundamentalists, Hermeneutics, and Sola or uh Solo Scriptura

In the past I have written much on a reality I was first introduced to in 1999 at Bible College; i.e. the reality that we all as Christian Bible interpreters have an interpretive tradition. Recently Richard Beck made the claim in regard to Christian Fundamentalism that,

… we all have a hermeneutic. The only question is whether you are consciously vs. unconsciously using a hermeneutic. Fundamentalists are interpreting the text unconsciously. Fundamentalists are interpreting the text right and left, they are just unaware that they are doing so. This lack of awareness is what produces the sorts of statements described above.[1]

biblegunIn other words as Derek Rishmawy summarized, “For Beck, though, the mark of a fundamentalist is that they alone believe they don’t have a hermeneutic, even when they do.”[2] So Beck’s critique against Fundamentalists, and against what he wrongly calls out as Sola Scriptura (which he should have labeled Solo Scriptura), is that when Fundamentalists claim: “this is the clear teaching of Scripture,” that they are providing a “diagnostic” of themselves insofar that they are not even self-aware enough to recognize that they are indeed doing interpretive work when engaging with and reading Holy Scripture.

I fully agree with Beck’s assessment of Fundamentalists, but it is too short-sighted, and in fact like I alluded to above this isn’t reflective of a historic understanding of Sola Scriptura or the historic notion of ‘Scripture alone’, instead what Beck is referring to is the more naïve concept that can be labeled as Solo Scriptura or de nuda Scriptura, ‘Scripture all by itself.’ Sola Scriptura never denied the reality of interpretive tradition, and in fact made robust and thick appeals to it during the time of the Protestant Reformation, say among folks like Martin Luther, John Calvin, et al. Beyond simply entailing the idea that Scriptural interpretation involved appeal to prior interpretive tradition, say with reference to Augustinian, Athanasian, Irenaen, et al categories, the concept of Sola Scriptura was also meant to signify a new theory of authority. In other words, Scripture, as one of the principia of the Protestant Reformation, was the place of which all else was subordinate, even the church. So the church was not the magesterium, but Scripture now held that place of authority for Protestants.

Furthermore, as I just asserted above, Beck’s critique stopped short, it isn’t just the Fundamentalists who embody the kind of ‘emotional instability’ that leads to ex cathedra like pronouncements of ‘this is clearly what the Bible teaches,’ indeed it is also the so called ‘Liberals.’ In other words, all humans are prone to thinking they are right and everyone else is wrong, even if this is held in a collectivist sense; i.e. a tribe of people find their identity sociologically around a set of common-shared belief about this or that. The problem isn’t really that either, I would contend, i.e. the idea that we think we are right (even if it is group-think), and everyone else is wrong in regard to this or that biblical interpretation; the problem is the attitude with which that approach is held. It is okay to be convicted by the idea that the view you hold about Scripture is indeed what ‘Scripture clearly teaches,’ it is just not okay to absolutize that approach resulting in a sectarian attitude where I look at other views and other people as necessarily less than me, or my group/tribe.

With all of that said, let’s close with some good words on this and Sola Scriptura with reference to John Calvin from Angus Paddison:

Calvin himself, to alight upon a theologian firmly associated with a sola Scriptura approach, was keenly aware that theology always needed to deploy extra-canonical words and resources. That we use words and concepts not found in Scripture itself – in a bid to help us understand this same text – is not a sign that we have departed from the fabric of Scripture. Writing against his opponents Calvin writes if

they call a foreign word one that cannot be shown to stand written syllable by syllable in Scripture, they are indeed imposing upon us an unjust law which condemns all interpretation not patched together out of the fabric of Scripture … [i]f anyone, then, finds fault with the novelty of words [Calvin is talking of such words as ‘Trinity’ and ‘Persons’] does he not deserve to be judged as bearing the light of truth unworthily, since he is finding fault with what renders the truth plain and clear.

When Calvin’s counsel is not heeded, sola Scriptura often mutates into biblical scholarship alone. Understanding the Bible in this way of thinking is wholly defined by reference to its (often putative) context of production. It is as if we are reading a text that has had no impact, a text without any subsequent readers. Writing more than 50 years ago G.E. Wright’s diagnosis (not espousal) of this mindset common among ‘biblical Christians’ drawn to biblical scholarship is still remarkably apposite:

When one has the Bible, what need is there for subtleties and sophistries of theology? In evangelical Christianity, the Bible is typically read with scant regard for the ling and intricate dialogue with the Bible that is the history of Christian theology. Many (most?) Protestant Biblical scholars are attracted to the field in the first place by an evangelical piety of this kind, and – whatever else is abandoned under the notoriously destructive impact of the so-called “historical critical method” – the abstraction of the biblical texts from their theological Wirkungsgeschichte is tenaciously maintained.

Such endeavors help identify historical-criticism, the engine of much biblical scholarship, as the modern attempt to “start over” in a manner that left behind the gifts of the past’. Accordingly, historical criticism is notoriously restricted in what history is interested in. Fundamentalism and historical criticism both presume that the church and the church’s teaching is an obstacle, not an aid, to reading Scripture well.[3]

So Paddison takes things a step further, and in a fruitful direction I think. Not only does his analysis highlight the shortcomings of Beck’s analysis – that this hermeneutical naïveté should be restricted to Fundamentalists alone – but Paddison also identifies, as I asserted previously, that the problem is not just an issue of ‘emotional imbalance’ (as Beck theorizes in his post), but that there is a critical component that lies behind this ostensible emotional imbalance; it is the move away from the historic Protestant understanding of Sola Scriptura, and a move towards Solo Scriptura, as if the text of Scripture can be abstracted out of its theological and confessional location, and instead approached in a ‘naked’ way simply reconstructing what the text itself says by appeal to historical-grammatical-rhetorical-literary analyses. We see this move to Solo Scriptura, even if in different ways, by both ‘Liberals’ and ‘Fundamentalists,’ and we see this move being held up by Enlightenment rationalist historicist-critical approach to the text of Scripture. This move fosters the belief, the Modernist/rationalist belief that our mind’s have the capacity to cut through all presuppositions, tossing off the husk and getting to the kernel and essence of what Scripture means; this move allows folks (with the proper attitude in place, or improper as the case may be) to assert that ‘this is clearly what the Bible is saying,’ without any consideration that there just might be traditional, confessional, and theological categories informing their conclusions – even if they think they have been able to get beyond all of that. In the end, I would contend that Fundamentalists (and Liberals) are part of a tradition of biblical interpretation known as rationalism that does indeed evince itself as reflective of an emotionally unstable and imbalanced approach to not only Scripture, but life itself.

[1] Richard Beck

[2] Derek Rishmawy

[3] Angus Paddison, Scripture a very Theological Proposal (London/New York: T&T Clark International, 2009),

Towards a Biblical Doctrine of Inspiration

Yesterday I attended the Evangelical Theological Society’s regional meeting for the Pacific Northwest, held at Western Theological Seminary in Portland, OR. I made a new friend there with a brother who is like minded, and shares a lot of concerns that I do, theologically. His area of emphasis (as he heads into the beginning stages of PhD study), in regard to research, has to do with a Christian biblical doctrine and understanding of inspiration. He in fact delivered a paper, which I listened to, where he proposed a kind of trajectory for developing a Christian Dogmatic frame for locating biblical inspiration relative to God. After he finished reading his paper, as is customary at such conferences, there was a short Q&A period. During that time one of the questioners brought up the issue of how the words of Scripture are somehow properties of divine disclosure; divine discourse. This led further to an even more general consideration, brought up by my friend in response, in regard to: ‘How is Scripture God’s Word for us today?’

I think these are very pertinent questions, and as such I would like to provide some response; response in engagement with two lights in this particular area: John Webster and Angus Paddison. Throughout the rest of this post we will consider some ways that might be helpful toward thinking about what in fact inspiration actually is (from a Christian Dogmatic vantage point), and how God’s Word might be God’s Word for us today. Shall we begin?

I would submit that as Matthew Levering has duly noted and developed[1] the primary way that Scripture is God’s Word for us today reposes upon the reality that Scripture lives and breathes within the web of God’s present (not just past) life for us. In other words the category of participation becomes a powerful resource for how we should conceive of how Scripture not only has signified God’s Word for us from the past, but continues to do that for us in the present. In other words, Scripture itself has an ontology or is webbed into a relationship of discourse from on high; i.e. it participates in the Divine discourse as an embassy of God’s Triune speech, speech that is enlivened by the Holy Spirit as He (the third person of the Trinity) bridges the heavenly discourse with our discourse and knowledge of God. This introduces a host of directions we could take (like: the internal witness of the Holy Spirit, the complex of divine and human agency relative to inscripturation, etc.), but let’s try to focus our attention, in this post, in one dominant direction.

Signum and Res (‘Sign’ and ‘Reality’); these are the two categories that best help us, I submit, towards understanding how we ought to think of ‘inspiration’, theologically, and attendant to that (definitively) how God’s Word for us is his Word for us today. I could put this in my own words, and will (by way of reflection below), but let’s allow Angus Paddison a word on this:

Seeing Scripture is an exercise in seeing the actions in which it is a participant, and so we should properly seek of not just seeing Scripture but also of seeing beyond Scripture. Karl Barth’s category of Scripture as a ‘witness’ is helpful here in reinforcing the kind of vision required. To have one’s attention grabbed by a witness is to look away from her and towards that which she witnesses. The aim of reading a text written by a biblical author like Paul is not to seek out the putative historical circumstances behind this or that pronouncement, but to look towards the reality which so radically reorientated Paul’s life. Just as when we look out of a window at people staring upwards and yet cannot see the plane they are doubtless staring at, so too Paul ‘sees and hears something which is above everything, which is absolutely beyond the range of my observation and the measure of my thought’. Reading Paul as a witness upturned by grace, rather than prioritizing his status as author, is to follow the direction of his gaze, daring to see that which he points us towards. Good witnesses urge us to look not at them but at that which they indicate to us – a ‘successful’ witness is one who recedes as his object of attention begins to absorb our attention. Scripture is then not the end point of our vision, but is rather an invitation to see in what kind of contexts it is intelligible as Scripture.[2]

Paddison identifies at least three helpful hooks we might hang our doctrine of Scripture (vis-à-vis doctrine of inspiration) upon: 1) the category of ‘participation’, 2) the Barthian category of ‘witness’, and 3) the category of ‘vision’ or ‘reality’. As you think about it, what encompasses all of these categories is an uber-category of ‘instrumentality’; this a category not far removed from John Calvin’s own thinking about Scripture as spectacles. But let’s not stop here, lets push further into what Paddison introduces us to by hearing from Webster on how this might relate even further to developing a theological understanding and doctrine of biblical inspiration and how understanding the word’s of Scripture as ‘signs’ might accomplish this for us; indeed, Webster’s thoughts dovetail quite well with Paddison as he writes,

To speak of these signs as divinely instituted is to say that they are brought into being by an impulse which simultaneously employs and sublates human authorship. This, we shall see, does not compromise the integrity of text or authorship and authorial intention, but it does set those realities and activities in a movement whose primary agent is God himself. God initiates and directs this movement; to say anything less would be to compromise the notion of revelation. This divine direction is such that the biblical signs bear the divine Word to their hearers. The speeches of the prophets and apostles are not simply a sort of linguistic wager, rather perilously reaching towards divine speech. They are the actual occasion and mode of its utterance, and the presence of its authority to judge, command and bless. And this, not by way of conversion or confusion – the prophetic and the apostolic signs remain human, not divine or angelic words – but by way of the mystery of divine institution. Here, as Augustine puts it, God did not ‘broadcast direct from heaven’ but spoke ‘from his human temple’.

There is, therefore, a relation between the words of the biblical text and divine speech. It is not that the sermo humana is just occasionally or accidentally related to the sermo divina, or that the divine Word is so loosely annexed to the fallible human word that all we may legitimately discover in Scripture are traces of divine speech rather than God’s self-utterance. As a divinely instituted sign, Scripture is not a response to a distant Word, a Word which does not take determinate creaturely forms into its service; nor does Scripture signify the divine Word merely by traces of ‘excess’. If scriptural signs do, indeed, constitute the temple from which God makes divine utterances, then we need not be overzealous in separating divine Word and human service, or too pessimistic about God’s capacity to sanctify human texts. God so acts as to make the text capable, fitting and fruitful in the publication of his Word. This is part of what is meant by verbal inspiration: God’s Word is not at risk when spoken through the ministry of the prophets and apostles.[3]

Conclusion

I walk away from this engagement with these thoughts: 1) God’s Word is God’s Word for us insofar as we understand its participatory relationship (i.e. its ontology) within the web of God’s Triune speech and discourse for us today bridged by the Holy Spirit’s witness bearing role in relation to the publication of Scripture’s words; 2) that the primary category under which a confessional and principled Christian doctrine of Scripture and inspiration ought to be framed is ‘instrumentality’, in other words, Scripture is not an objective end in itself, but given its ontology in relation to its direct giveness by God, it becomes the sanctioned instrument through which God intends to make his reality known; and 3) the words of Scripture do not have any capacity in themselves to be ‘revealing things,’ but they only become this continuously as they by the Holy Spirit’s charge point us beyond themselves to their reality (the ‘signum’/’res’ matrix), their living reality found in God’s eternal Logos, as he communes among himself in Trinitarian discourse and bliss – so it would be wrong, then, to attempt to reduce the words of scripture themselves down into a ‘qualitative’ understanding as if the words themselves could serve as ‘containers’ or ‘receptacles’ of God for us, they cannot (this takes us, later, into a discussion about the impact that substance metaphysics has had upon the Western church in regard to developing not just our relative doctrines of Scripture, but everything else theological and ecclesiological as well).

 

[1] Matthew Levering, Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), 1-310.

[2] Angus Paddison, Scripture a very Theological Proposal (New York, NY: T&T Clark. A Continuum Imprint, 2009), 2-3.

[3] John Webster, The Domain Of The Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London/New York, NY: T&T Clark. A Continuum Imprint, 2012), 10.

Just Say No to Dry-Freezing Scripture: Being Biblical without being Propositional

I was taught to do Bible study by reducing the various sections of Scripture to propositions; even the Hebrew poetic sections. So the brownbibleprimary goal of biblical interpretation according to the way I was taught in Bible College and even Seminary (to a point) was to conclude with a principle to every passage of Scripture, or every paragraph (pericope) of Scripture that I read. It would go something like this (inductive Bible study): 1) Observation, 2) Interpretation, 3) Principlization, 4) Application; maybe you have been taught to study the Bible this way too, it is quite popular. And as far as it goes, it can be helpful, but at the end of the day it isn’t all that satisfying; at least not to me.

Beyond all of that, a by-product of reducing all of Scripture to a galleria of propositions is that we end up having a host of competing interpretations of these propositions as we place them into our prefabricated systematic systems of theology; which would help explain how we end up with so many tribes of interpretation out there, and so much dissonance among various Christians (and confusion among young Bible students … i.e. people get confused about the legitimacy of any passage of Scripture given the array of interpretations on the same passages of Scripture among the so called professional exegetes and commentators).

I think there is a better way to proceed; a way where we don’t reduce Scripture to propositions, but allow it, instead, to bring us into encounter with the purifying fire of God’s lively life in Christ. Isn’t this what Jesus said Scripture was ultimately about, Him (Jn. 5.39)? Scottish theologian P.T. Forsyth has some refreshing thoughts on this, as reported by Angus Paddison:

As can be seen from our explorations thus far, Forsyth first and foremost locates Scripture in relation to God’s activity, an action best regarded as ‘not merely a gospel of definite truth but of decisive reality, not of clear belief but of crucial action’. This plea that we attend to a lively activity of God – rather than a series of propositional truths about God – explains Forsyth’s resistance to dry freezing Scripture and regarding it as little more than ‘an arsenal of Christian evidences’. Scriptural reading is to resist having commerce with stupefied orthodoxies. Christian faith is not ultimately faith in doctrines but rather a faith in those realities and powers which Scripture and doctrine attempt to articulate. The power of Jn 3.16 is not that it is a message about God’s love for us; it points to God’s love enacted for us. Finely-wrought doctrinal systems are prone to misunderstand faith as an intellectual assent to truths articulated, rather than the soul’s ‘direct contact with Christ crucified’. Biblical readers who domesticate the Bible into systems of orthodoxy are liable to forget that it is the theologian’s ‘hard and high fate to cast himself into the flame he tends, and be drawn into its consuming fire’. To be ‘biblical’ is therefore to apprehend that Scripture’s core

is not a crystallization of man’s divine idea, it is not even a divine declaration of what God is in himself; it is his revelation of what he is for us in actual history, what he for us has done, and forever does. (PTF)

Being biblical is a matter of apprehending correctly God’s redemptive activity into which Scripture has been drawn and is now located.

No belief is scriptural simply because it be met with the Bible. We do not believe in the contents of the Bible, but in its content, in what put it there, and what it is there for. For it is a means, and not an end. We believe in the Gospel, the Gospel of God’s Grace justifying the ungodly in Christ’s cross and creating the Bible for that use. (PTF)

Scripture is located by the gospel, before it is located by us.[1]

I can hear you now: ‘Are you saying that we shouldn’t use propositions when we are attempting to explicate or understand the teachings of Scripture?’ No, that’s not really what I am saying, nor is it what Angus Paddison or PT Forsyth is saying; instead what is being communicated is that Scripture is much more, not less than propositions. And in fact, that Bible reading’s ultimate goal should be to know God in worshipful encounter, with the realization that he is the living God, the living Word in Christ for us. In other words, he actually ‘is risen,’ he actually lives, and he speaks! As the evangelist says ‘he speaks, and his sheep know his voice;’ this is the primary role Scripture plays, as a place where the redeemed come to know their Redeemer in lively encounter.

I think this will sound too abstract for many of you, but for me it is like cold crisp water rolling down into my parched soul. It has made Scripture something exciting, and given it its rightful place before God as his instrument to administer his life to ours in and through the domain of his life in Christ.

[1] Angus Paddison, Scripture a very Theological Proposal (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 18.