What Does it Mean to Read the Bible ‘Literally?’ Against the Literalistic and other Literalisms via the Sensus Literalis

Of course even as theological exegetes of Holy Scripture, more so, we want to take the text as Literal. But what does this actually entail; what does it mean to be literal in our interpretation? Dispensationalists like Charles Ryrie assert that the sine qua non of the dispensational hermeneutic is to read the Bible literally; he asserts if the reader engages in this type of reading practice they will end up as a dispensationalist. Others, like Doug Hamp similarly assert that their method is of the literal type; but in Hamp’s et als. case he does not end up as a dispensationalist, instead he ends up focusing on a Jewish or Hebraic understanding of the text of Scripture—even in its New Testament iteration (e.g. rather than reading the Bible from an post-Nicene Christologically sourced tradition).

So what does it mean to read the Bible literally? Do we follow a wooden-literal approach, like the aforementioned, wherein what it means to be ‘literal’ actually entails being literalistic to the point that every word in the Bible is read without recognizing the various literary qualities inherent to the text (such as is presented by the types of narrative, poetry, or discourse inherent therein etc.)? I.e. that when figures of speech are used they are read as literal realities rather than figures symbolizing some greater reality that transcends its own figural reality. The Protestant Reformed, following their medieval forebears had an understanding of what interpreting Scripture ‘literally’ entailed, but it was much different than what we find in the modern-critical period wherein a rationalist positivism prevails. Note Richard Muller’s definition of the Latin sensus literalis:

sensus literalis: literal sense; the fundamental literal or grammatical sense of the text of Scripture, distinguished into (1) sensus literalis simplex, the simple literal sense, which lies immediately in the grammar and the meaning of individual words, and (2) sensus literalis compositus, the constructed or compounded literal sense, which is inferred from the Scripture as a whole or from individual clear, and therefore normative, passages of Scripture when the simple literal sense of the text in question seems to violate either the articuli fidei (q.v.) or the pracecepta caritatis (q.v.). See historicus; quadriga.[1]

As defined the previous adherents to ‘literal’ interpretation would want to affirm this definition (but they diverge radically from this premodern principle of biblical interpretation). We see, particularly in Muller’s notation on compositus, an allusion to what was called the analogia fidei (analogy of faith) or analogia scriptura (analogy of scripture); the principle where the clearer passages were deployed to shed light on the crux interpretums (the difficult passages to interpret). All of this presupposes a level of clarity or perspicuity inherent to the text that the Reformers held dear based upon their belief that Scripture was representative of the place where the living voice of God (viva vox Dei) could be encountered; undergirding this, further, was the belief that this God, in all of his graciously accommodating ways, intended to communicate exactly what he wanted within the providential unfolding of salvation history as disclosed in Holy Scripture. What is key to this, key for our purposes, is to recognize that in this sensus literalis it is largely funded by a very theological understanding of things. What it means to read the Bible literally is necessarily couched in and from the reality that God has spoken (Deus dixit), and thus to read the Bible ‘literally’ means to read Scripture with attention to the centrality of God’s voice given its primary vocalization through his Self-revealed and explicated reality in his Son, Jesus Christ.

To help us expand on this notion of reading Scripture in a literal key, in the historic mode of the sensus literalis, Stephen Fowl helpfully develops this further; and with reference to what I would contend is Scripture’s primary referent (cf. Jn 5.39), Jesus Christ. Fowl shows how in the case of the medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, a very ‘literal’ interpreter of Holy Scripture, what it meant to be a literal Bible interpreter wasn’t just to attend to the simplex, but more pointedly it was to recognize that the ‘simple’ (i.e. the grammatical, historical, literary contours) had a telos (purpose), that it had a res (reality) that it pointed to as its depth reality.

The foundation for Aquinas’s scriptural interpretation was the “literal sense” (sensus literalis) of Scripture. For Aquinas, the literal sense of Scripture is what the author intends. Thomas holds that the author of Scripture is God, or more precisely, the Holy Spirit. The human authors under the Spirit’s inspiration are significant though secondary in this respect. The Spirit is capable of understanding all things and intending more by the words of Scripture than humans could ever fully grasp. This means that believers should not be surprised to find that there may be many manifestations of the literal sense of a passage. Here is what Thomas says in the Summa Theologiae: “Since the literal sense is what the author intends, and since the author of Holy Scripture is God, Who by one act comprehends everything all at once in God’s understanding, it is not unfitting as Augustine says [Confessions XII], if many meanings are present even in the literal sense of a passage of Scripture” (Summa Theologiae 1.Q.1 art. 10). This notion of authorial intention, which is very different from the modern hermeneutical accounts of authors mentioned above, will allow someone to treat christological interpretations of Isaiah as the literal sense of that text without disallowing other more historical accounts of the literal sense of Isaiah. Moreover, such an approach will allow Christians to treat Psalm 139 in ways that do not invite Christians to pray for revenge on their enemies. Thus, such an approach will keep theological concerns primary in theological interpretation rather than making theological concerns subsidiary to hermeneutical concerns.[2]

For Thomas Aquinas, and the premodern world he inhabited, what it meant to read the Bible ‘literally’ had range; what was privileged was the theological over the “historical-critical.” This belief, about the primacy of the theological, was fueled by the further belief that the world was God’s, that it was providentially administered and sustained by his Word and for his Word; as such interpreters like Aquinas (Luther, Calvin, et al.) felt it warranted to simply read Scripture as if the world belonged to God, and the cattle on a thousand hills, and that the reality of Scripture had an elevation point that redounded in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. So to read the Bible literally from this vantage point was to see the Christ as the primary referent point wherein all else, all the historical proclivities and contingencies unfolded in the panorama of salvation-history, were hued by their canonizing reality in Jesus Christ. Unsurprisingly we see this in Martin Luther’s interpretive approach as well; note:

Luther makes an important distinction between the literal-historical meaning of his Old Testament text (that is, the literal meaning of text, as determined by its historical context), and its literal-prophetic sense (that is, the meaning of the text, as interpreted as referring to the coming of Christ and the establishment of his church). The Christological concentration, which is so characteristic a feature of the Dictata, is achieved by placing emphasis upon the literal-prophetic, rather than the literal-historic, sense of scripture. In this manner, Luther is able to maintain that Christ is the sensus principalis of scripture.[3]

Here we have further elaboration of what Muller referenced for us as the simplex sensus literalis in Luther’s own approach to reading the Bible ‘literally.’ In flow with Fowl’s elucidation of Aquinas, Luther has literal-prophetic; this nuance between the ‘prophetic’ and the ‘historical’ nicely illustrates, again, how in the premodern era of biblical interpretation there was an emphasis upon the theological, more pointedly the christological character of the text of Scripture and its reading. All of this is couched in the theological ideation that this is God’s world, and under his providential governance and giveness. Viz. that there is not an abstract autonomous world of history and artifacts wherein the biblical interpreter can stand within as a ‘critical’ interpreter of Scripture that keeps them sanitized or unimplicated by their own locatedness as creatures before a holy Creator.

I confess that this is the way I approach my reading of Holy Scripture. Does this mean that some of the relative gains garnished by the turn to the modern must be completely evacuated? No, it simply means that the theological ought to be given priority of place in the biblical interpretive process, and that the so called ‘critical’ is given due notice only within this sort of humiliating reality (i.e. humiliating in the sense that the critical reader of Scripture is not so critical after all; in the sense that they/we are sinners). Does reading the Bible theologically mean that we cannot pay attention to various historical vicissitudes present within the text that might not seem to have direct relation to the Messiah? No, it just means that when engaging with historical instances, or personages in the text of Scripture, that we will always be cognizant of the fact that they are part of a greater historical sweep wherein their place within the salvation-history unfolded and deposited in the text of Scripture only has telos, only has meaning in light of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ.


[1] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 279.

[2] Stephen E. Fowl, Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 49-50 kindle.

[3] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Oxdford/New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 80. Quote sourced from this post: The Quingentesimus of the Protestant Reformation and the Analogia Lutherano in Christ Concentrated Biblical Exegesis.


The Enlightenment, Biblical Studies, and the Development of the Dispensationalist and Hebrew Roots Hermeneutic (With Reference to Doug Hamp)

Here’s a repurposed post. I originally applied this to Dispensationalism. This time I want to expand its reach and application to another form of biblical literalism I’ve been exposed to from a guy I had contact with back in my Calvary Chapel days. He has since changed his positions, and leans heavily into the Hebrew Roots or Messianic movement; all in the name of reading the bible “literally.” It’s interesting, because the method for interpreting the bible literally isn’t really determined canonically, but instead by a foreign sense of what “literalness” entails prompted by an Enlightenment impulse. The person I’m referring to is a guy named, Doug Hamp. For example of what I’m referring to you can watch an interview he took part in in the following video click hereYou will have to take the principles I apply to dispensationalism and apply them to Hebrew Roots. There is an inherent primitivism to the hermeneutic, one that actually takes Lessing’s ‘Ugly Ditch of History’ in reverse and simply leaps back to the first century church as if church history is absent. I see Hebrew Roots, and like movements in ethos, as something like the millennarian sects like we find in the LDS or JWs; the idea that an ‘awakening’ happens with the implication that all of the preceding church history has been in the dark. There is a serious history of religions feel to the whole movement; an emphasis upon a type of biblical progressive evolutionary process. To be clear Hebrew Roots is not dispensationalist, indeed, Hamp has renounced is dispensationalism. But what hasn’t been abandoned is the Literal, Grammatical, Historical (LGH) type of hermeneutic that indeed funds dispensationalism and Hebrew Roots just the same. It’s pretty ironic.

I just found this buried in my saved documents in Word. It gets into some reasons why I have abandoned Dispensationalism as my hermeneutic (which I did approx. twelve years ago), as it tries to draw attention to the impact that the Enlightenment had upon the context within which Dispensationalism developed as a system of biblical interpretation. I don’t think I have ever shared this post before here at the blog, but maybe I have. Either way I think it is apropos to share this given the two videos I just did today on Dispensationalism on FaceBook Live.

There is no doubt a retreat, or migration as it were of evangelicals from engaging with doctrine, but insofar as doctrine is still present for many evangelicals of a certain era anyway, what informs them most, at least hermeneutically is the hermeneutic known as Dispensationalism. It was this hermeneutic that I was groomed in myself, not only as a kid, but in and through Bible College and Seminary (of the Progressive sort). Dispensationalism, without getting into all of the nitty gritty, is a hermeneutic that prides itself on using the ‘literal’ way of reading Scripture in a ‘consistent’ form as they claim; it is a hermeneutic that maintains a distinction between Israel and the Church (in its classic and revised forms); and it is a hermeneutic that simply seeks to read its understanding straight off the pages of Scripture in the most straightforward ways possible (again ‘literally’ with appeal to Scottish Common Sense Realism[1]). One of its most ardent proponents says it like this:

Literal hermeneutics. Dispensationalists claim that their principle of hermeneutics is that of literal interpretation. This means interpretation that gives to every word the same meaning it would have in normal usage, whether employed in writing, speaking, or thinking. It is sometimes called the principle of grammatical-historical interpretation since the meaning of each word is determined by grammatical and historical considerations. The principle might also be called normal interpretation since the literal meaning of words is the normal approach to their understanding in all languages. It might also be designated plain interpretation so that no one receives the mistaken notion that the literal principle rules out figures of speech….[2]

The Dispensationalist’s hermeneutic springs then from a philosophy of language that holds to the idea that language corresponds to real and perceptible things in reality, and as such, based upon this assumption attempts to, in a slavish way (to this principled understanding of language and reality) reads Holy Scripture in such a way that comports with language’s and history’s most basic and simple and normal component parts (i.e. as it can be reconstructed through critical and rationalist means).

It is no surprise that Dispensationalism developed when it did, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when what it meant to do Biblical Studies and exegesis of Scripture was to engage Scripture through developmental/evolutionary criterion for reconstructing Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) history (the periods that Biblical Scripture developed within), and using various other literary criteria for determining Scripture’s origination and the cultural-societal-rhetorical contexts that gave it rise. In other words Dispensationalism developed in a context wherein things are only true insofar as they comport with the canons of observable and empirical protocol. G.C. Berkouwer describes this development this way:

We now confront the noteworthy fact that, during the rise of historical criticism, concentrated attention to the text of Scripture was considered vital and necessary. Criticism protested against every form of Scripture exposition which went to work with a priori and external standards. It wanted to proceed from Scripture as it actually existed; it sought to understand Scripture in the way in which it came to us in order thus to honor the “interprets itself.” This is what it claimed in its historical exposition of Scripture: something supposedly free of all the a prioris of dogmatic systems or ecclesiastical symbolic. In that way justice could be done to Scripture itself.[3]

Maybe you noticed something in the Berkouwer quote, he is implicitly noting something that happened in the 18th century—again remembering that this is the context which the Dispensationalist hermeneutic developed within and from—there was a split (as a result of Enlightenment rationalism among other forces) between doing confessional/churchy biblical interpretation/study from the kind of biblical interpretation/study that came to dominate what it meant to do ‘critical’ biblical study. This split was given formalization in the mid-1700s first by publications from Anton Friedrich Büsching and then most notably by G. Ebling; Gerhard Hasel summarizes it this way:

Under the partial impetus of Pietism and with a strong dose of rationalism Anton Friedrich Büsching’s publications (1756-58) reveal for the first time that “Biblical theology” becomes the rival of dogmatics. Protestant dogmatics, also called “scholastic theology,” is criticized for its empty speculations and lifeless theories. G. Ebeling has aptly summarized that “from being merely a subsidiary discipline of dogmatics ‘biblical theology’ now became a rival of the prevailing dogmatics.”[4]

Dispensationalism developed within the new ‘critical’ approach to doing biblical studies, although it was attempting to still honor its pious commitment to Scripture as Holy and God’s. But it did so under the ‘Modern’ constraints provided for by Enlightenment rationalism; its philosophy of language (i.e. the literalism we have already broached), grounded in Scottish Common Sense Realism, was very so much so moving and breathing in and from a non-confessional, non-dogmatic mode of doing biblical study. Hasel once again describes the ethos which the Dispensational hermeneutic developed within:

In the age of Enlightenment (Aufklärung) a totally new approach for the study of the Bible was developed under several influences. First and foremost was rationalism’s reaction against any form of supernaturalism. Human reason was set up as the final criterion and chief source of knowledge, which meant that the authority of the Bible as the infallible record of divine revelation was rejected. The second major contribution of the period of the Enlightenment was the development of a new hermeneutic, the historical-critical method which holds sway to the present day in liberalism [dispensationalism] and beyond. Third, there is the application of radical literary criticism to the Bible …. Finally, rationalism by its very nature was led to abandon the orthodox view of the inspiration of the Bible so that ultimately the Bible became simply one of the ancient documents, to be studied as any other ancient document.[5]

It might appear that what was just described sounds nothing like who the practitioners of the dispensational hermeneutic are (i.e. evangelical Bible loving Christians). That would be correct, but the point is to note that dispensational hermeneutes don’t ever really abandon the Enlightenment principles nor the split from confessional hermeneutics that the Enlightenment produced between the disciplines. Instead dispensationalism attempts to work with and from the material and rationalist principles provided by the Enlightenment;  primarily meaning that the Dispensational hermeneutic hopes to be able to go immediately to the text of Scripture, through its grammatical and historical analysis under the supposition that biblical language simply functions like any other literary language does under its plain and normal meanings without any pretext or reliance upon its (potential) theological significance. Instead its theological significance can only be arrived at after abstracting that out from the plain meaning of the words of Scripture.


John Webster summarizes what happened during this period of development this way (and what he describes applies to the development of the Dispensational hermeneutic as well):

To simplify matters rather drastically: a dominant trajectory in the modern development of study of the Bible has been a progressive concentration on what Spinoza called interpretation of Scripture ex ipsius historia, out of its own history. Precisely when this progression begins to gather pace, and what its antecedents may be, are matters of rather wide dispute. What is clear, at least in outline, is that commanding authority gradually came to be accorded to the view that the natural properties of the biblical text and of the skills of interpreters are elements in an immanent economy of communication. The biblical text is a set of human signs borne along on, and in turn shaping, social religious and literary processes; the enumeration of its natural properties comes increasingly to be not only a necessary but a sufficient description of the Bible and its reception. This definition of the text in terms of its (natural) history goes along with suspension of or disavowal of the finality both of the Bible and of the reader in loving apprehension of God, and of the Bible’s ministerial function as divine envoy to creatures in need of saving instruction.[6]

Whenever you hear someone say they just interpret Scripture ‘literally’ dig deeper to see if what they mean is ‘literalistically’ under the constraints of what we described provided for by the Enlightenment.

To be clear, following the Enlightenment does not, of course, nor necessarily terminate in the Dispensational hermeneutic, in fact a case can be made that what the Enlightenment did to biblical studies, in some ways provided for some fruitful trajectory as well (insofar as it highlights the fact that the Bible and its phenomenon cannot be reduced to historicist or naturalist premises themselves); but we will have to pursue that line later. Suffice it to say, Dispensationalism is not the pure way to Scripture that its adherents want us to think that it is. It does not spring from Christian confessional premises, and in fact ignores the fact that indeed Scripture study and exegesis is actually a theological endeavor at its heart. The only way to get a plain meaning of Scripture is to read it through the lens of God’s life revealed and exegeted in Jesus Christ.

[1] See Thomas Reid, “If there are certain principles, as I think there are, which the constitution of our nature leads us to believe, and which we are under a necessity to take for granted in the common concerns of life, without being able to give a reason for them — these are what we call the principles of common sense; and what is manifestly contrary to them, is what we call absurd.” The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Reid (2004), 85.

[2] Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism. Revised and Expanded (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 80.

[3] G.C. Berkouwer, Studies In Dogmatics: Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), 130.

[4] Gerhard Hasel, Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues In The Current Debate. Revised and Expanded Third Edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1989), 19.

[5] Ibid., 18-19 [Brackets mine].

[6] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason(London/New York: T&T Clark, A Continuum Imprint, 2012), 6.

Reading God: Retrieving Classical Theism as orthodoxy, and The Role of Theologia Naturalis

I have been thinking about writing this post for some time; indeed, I’m sure somewhere in the archives of my blog I’ve written on this, in gist, quite a bit. But I wanted to offer something fresh on this topic, a topic that is near and dear to my heart; it is a topic that affects each and every Christian who wants to know God better. What I am referring to is hermeneutics. The way I refer to this word is more broadly construed than simply referring to the common understanding of ‘the art and science of biblical interpretation.’ When I use this word I am also referring to the inner-theo-logic that allows Holy Scripture to assert and articulate the things that it does (in its very occasional offerings). For me, and for many of us, those of us interested in resourcing and retrieving the past for present interpretive purposes, what begins to happen as we attempt to consciously construct a hermeneutic is that we realize we are up against something greater than simply learning Greek, Hebrew, text criticism, philology, rhetorical analysis, narratoloy, so on and so forth. In other words, when we look to the past what we find is that our forbears very intentionally engaged the text of Scripture with some very deep questions; questions that were given by engaging with the text, but questions that invite the interpreter to delve deep into what Thomas Torrance has called the depth dimension of the text. In other words, the symbols (words) of the text are seen as instruments, lenses (as Calvin has opined) that point beyond itself unto a deeper clarity; the clarity of God’s life in Jesus Christ for us.

The above noted, for the rest of this post, I want to engage with ‘how’ people in the 21st century are attempting to listen to the past; and from what footing. In other words, there is a majority report among younger (as they learn it from their older counterparts) theologians and exegetes that seems to say that just because something developed in the ‘orthodox’ stream of so called “pre-modern” biblical exegesis, and hermeneutical development, that the depth reality therein (i.e. the theological res) just is and must be The orthodox way for how we ought to proceed into the future as biblical exegetes and hermeneuticians. Matt Emerson, just today in fact, put up a post at his group blog illustrating exactly this; he writes:

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that there were quite a few major movements in twentieth century theology, from a variety of theological streams, that concerned themselves with overturning or significantly revising classical Christian theism (CCT). Influences as varied as biblical theology, apologetics, philosophy, church history, and the history of interpretation have contributed to the suspicion, revision, and rejection of CCT. These rejections, revisions, and suspicions have resulted in everything from process theism to denials or thorough revisions of, for example, simplicity and impassibility. The basic gist of objections to these and other CCT-related doctrines is that they are unbiblical and philosophically untenable. And, at bottom, that basic objection rests on the assumption that CCT developed via reflection on God through the lens of Greek philosophy rather than through the lenses God’s Word or his actions in history.

This kind of gross mis-characterization needs to stop. The early Christian theologians were just as concerned as, say, 21st century conservative evangelicals, with demonstrating that their doctrinal formulations were thoroughly biblical. The distinction between pre-modern and modern exegesis and theology is not that the former is philosophical and the latter is biblical, but between what counts as “biblical” in either period. For pre-modern interpreters, “biblical” meant considering passages in their original historical and literary context, but it also meant considering those passages in their canonical, narratival, and metaphysical context.[1]

Just as a caveat; I like Matt, and am not “picking on” him in a particular; I only am referring to him because he has offered the most recent example of what I want to engage with in this post (and it is a post I’ve been thinking about writing for a long time, as I’ve noted).

Now, do I disagree with Matt, in principle? Nein. We need to be careful to engage with the past carefully. But what I see informing Matt’s thought is a critique that I often make here of classical Calvinism, in particular, and classical theism (of the medieval sort) in general, in regard to the mode that is used in the appropriation of the past. In other words—how to say this—my question is: Why must we just receive the past; why is the test of reception, ostensibly, to see just how closely we can mimic (repristinate) the past in our own language today? This seems to be what Emerson et al. are calling us to; i.e. that just because it’s there—in the history of ‘orthodox’ interpretation—that this placement has been providentially ordered by God. As such, and if this is the case, the logic seems to flow, our job is to reiterate over and over again what the past orthodox church has articulated; as if knowledge of God is as “immutable” as God himself. But what if knowledge of God isn’t “immutable?” What if nostra theologia (our theology) is merely proximate; what if our knowledge of God is really an eschatological reality, as Karl Barth maintained?

When Emerson et al. lift up loci like Divine impassibility and simplicity what doesn’t seem to get emphasized is that these terms themselves have a history; and in light of Emerson’s post this seems ironic to note because it seems to be what Matt is hoping to emphasize. In other words, why must I as a 21st century Christian pretend like only the 3rd, 4th, 16th, and 17th centuries in the church represent peek moments, or the most intense moments wherein God has providentially moved upon his church (as far as theological development)? Yes, we can all recognize that some very formative things happened, doctrinally, for the church catholic in these periods—the latter set of centuries for the Protestants in particular—but why does this necessarily mean that I must read God the same way these saints read God? Can’t I acknowledge that they indeed, for their time under their metaphysical categories and pressures, read him as faithfully as they could; but then also recognize that further developments have taken place since then which might indeed allow me to take the categories and doctrinal developments they left behind and reify them further under the developing knowledge of God that the church is confronted with over and again in ongoing dialogical encounter with the Living Word of God?

There is a latent theologia naturalis (natural theology) attending Emerson’s et al. observations about engagement with and retrieval of the past, and for some, indeed for many in this tribe that’s fine. But for many others, including myself, natural theology, particularly of this sort, the sort that presumes that human beings, even regenerate ones, have this inherent capacity to simply read Divine things off the cover of history that has developed in the last two millennia in the church, this is not acceptable! But this is the mode; this is the method; this is the prolegomena; this is the hermeneutic Emerson et al. operate with and from, and so it is a natural thing to chide those who reject such an approach with an almost shock that folks might be critical of such an approach (e.g. the approach Emerson is calling us back to). The irony to me is that viewing history this way—from the natural theological way I just noted—is itself a product of a history of religions, text-critical mode of thinking and method that developed precisely because of the British Enlightenment.

Do we need to just accept Divine impassibility, simplicity, immutability, and omni-theology just because it just is the orthodox way? Maybe. But how about leaving open the possibility that such categories are only proximate ectypal loci that the church has fumbled around with in order to attempt to talk about an ineffable God? If we leave this as a possibility we might be allowed to have some constructive space to dynamically engage with these categories in such a way that they might not only be marginalized, as far as their adequacy to do the heavy lifting of God-talk, but in such a way that the terms themselves might be free to be reified further under the pressure of the Living God we have to do with on an ongoing basis as the Living Church of God in Jesus Christ. You see, this is what I’m looking for; not a way to be reckless, or progressive, but instead always reforming (semper reformanda) under the weighty reality of the God with whom we have to do in Christ; and with the full realization that we actually can still talk to this God today (in the 21st century), and that he still talks back to us and for us. Orthodoxy is greater than not lesser than what the past developed; and our knowledge of God, according to the Apostle Peter, is one that has the capacity to be growing (II Pet. 3). This is my concern with what Emerson et al. are presenting us with. There seems to be a fear, a need for shoring up the wreckage that the mainliners and progressives have done in the evangelical church; but I don’t think ‘fear’ should motivate the way we think about what or how we retrieve the past. Is there an orthodoxy in the past? Yes. But orthodoxy is an on the way reality, and one that is guaranteed as such by the reality that Jesus is coming again; but hasn’t come yet.


[1] Matt Emerson, Early Christian Interpretation and Classical Christian Theism, accessed 03-09-2018.


The Go Eat, Drink, and Be Merry Way of Reading the Bible: Robert Jenson Helping Us Read the Bible Confessionally Once Again

It isn’t that we haven’t referred to this at the blog before, but I like the way Robert Jenson discusses the futility of late-modern biblical scholarship’s enlightened drive to deconfessionalize their reading of Holy Scripture; as if they can read it purely historically (history-of-religions), without reference to the very reality that has held it together from its genesis—the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s as if we can apply the Apostle Paul’s logic and argument from I Corinthians 15 to modern biblical scholarship’s mode; indeed, such scholars, after they finish dissecting the Bible for the day might as well go eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow they die along with the rest of us. Robert Jenson writes:

There is yet a further question: Is there in fact “the” biblical narrative, running through all the Scriptures’ historical discontinuities and non-narrative genres? Israel and the church have supposed there is because they have seen one chief agent throughout. If we say the Christian God is the God identified by the biblical narrative, we must also say there is “the” biblical narrative only as we read the temporally, culturally, and religiously various documents in Scripture as witness to the continuing action of one and the same agent.

The circle just traced is benign. We will follow the one biblical narrative, to identify the one biblical God, only as we read the Bible by the purpose for which the church assembled this book in the first place, to be in its entirety and all its parts witness to Jesus’ Resurrection and so to a particular God. Whenever someone has tried to construe the unity of Scripture otherwise than by the identity of this God, the book has fragmented, first into Hebrew Scripture and New Testament and thereupon into traditions and genres and redactions within each. And when communities other than the church—in modernity, the communities of various ideologies and particularly the surreptitious such community of supposedly autonomous scholars—try to appropriate the Bible for their own purposes, the book falls into more shards—to which, of course, anyone is welcome.

The insistence of late-twentieth-century hermeneutics on the determining role of “communities of interpretation” is fully justified. What is sometimes not then faced is that some bodies of text, like the Bible, were created by specific communities for interpretive purposes, and have no unitary entity at all apart from those communities’ antecedent interpretation of them. The final reason that one cannot interpret the Bible independently of the church and its dogma is that without these there is no such book. The modern attempt to interpret Scripture “historically” has been intrinsically self-defeating and has now defeated itself, since it has curiously supposed that to interpret the Bible historically we must abstract from the history for whose attestation the church assembled this collection in the first place, the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ.[1]

One aspect of this, in order to avoid us from collapsing this into a strictly ecclesiocentric reading of Scripture, is to end where Jenson ends: “the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ.” What is given determinative ultimacy for the church’s reading of the text, for any reading of Holy Scripture, is not some sort of magesteria of the church, but indeed the all constitutive event of God’s life being in becoming in the Incarnation to the Resurrection. In this way the hermeneutic and approach to Scripture reduces back to Christmas and Easter, Pentecost and Ascension; to the person of Jesus Christ himself, the telos of all creation and thus of Scripture as a special aspect of that creation.

It is hugely unfortunate that what Jenson is calling the church back to is still not being taken to heart, even by people who say they are the primary of us all who hold the highest view of Scripture of all; i.e. the evangelicals (of which I am reluctantly one), with their doctrine of inerrancy in tow. The evangelicals, among other sub-communities within the church (and outside of it), have adopted the fragmentizing ways into Scripture foisted upon it by the very folks Jenson is referring to. They are attempting to read the Bible from a community that has sharded the Bible into various forms and redacted pieces, and subsequently created a whole hermeneutic around such proclivities, which has resulted in a field of biblical studies that is strangely (but not so strangely) at odds with what has held the Bible together for millennia in the Christian church; the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Why would I want to read the Bible like that? Why would I want to borrow tools from communities that subjectively project their own histories upon the canon of Holy Scripture, and read it that way? I don’t want to.

Has there been no value created by modern biblical studies? I wouldn’t go that far. But at the same time, to attempt to read the Bible from directions that are anti-thetical to Scripture’s very reality makes no sense.


[1] Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 1: The Triune God (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 58-9.

How to Read the Book of Revelation: Against Modern Day Astrological Numerology and other Aberrations

Given that according to some prognosticators the world is facing certain apocalyptic and cataclysmic reorientation starting in September 23rd, 2017, I thought I would reshare something I wrote awhile ago that engages with how to interpret the book of Revelation. Since these prognosticators are tying their predictions and prognostications to their interpretation of Revelation 12, it only seems fitting to test such an approach against a critical baseline for how the book of Revelation was originally composed, and for whom. If we push into this “baseline,” I contend, that what we will find will show these modern day prognosticators for who they are; i.e. hucksters (maybe even with good intentions) who haven’t taken the proper time to understand basic hermeneutical rules when it comes to interpreting biblical literature. So in an attempt to help address this issue, I give you the following (realizing that this is only a blog post with major space limitations; so a fuller development cannot be provided here, but hopefully it will provide enough grist for the reader to have some critical hooks to hang their hats of discernment on in this evil age).

Richard Bauckham’s books The Theology of the Book of Revelation & The Climax of Prophecy are resources that all Christians should avail themselves of. Let me provide an introduction, of sorts, into the basic argument of Bauckham’s book[s].  And of course, given the nature of my blogging pattern and style, I will also be reflecting upon the theological and exegetical issues that Bauckham’s writing is touching upon—as well as the more applied and correlative issues that Bauckham’s work only implicates, that is, the popular issues of dispensationalism, amillennialism, premillennialism, & postmillennialism. That said, let me wade us into what Bauckham thinks constitutes the basic trajectory and original purpose for writing the book of Revelation (which will implicate all kinds of things). Here is what Bauckham writes on the original audience and purpose of the ‘Epistle of Revelation’, and then a bit on how Bauckham thinks this reality cashes out in application (theologically and pastorally):

Thus it would be a serious mistake to understand the images of Revelation as timeless symbols. Their character conforms to the contextuality of Revelation as timeless symbols. Their character conforms to the contextuality of Revelation as a letter to the seven churches of Asia. Their resonances in the specific social, political, cultural and religious world of their first readers need to be understood if their meaning is to be appropriated today. They do not create a purely self-contained aesthetic world with no reference outside itself, but intend to relate to the world in which the readers live in order to reform and to redirect the readers’ response to that world. However, if the images are not timeless symbols, but relate to the ‘real’ world, we need also to avoid the opposite mistake of taking them too literally as descriptive of the ‘real’ world and of predicted events in the ‘real’ world. They are not just a system of codes waiting to be translated into matter-of-fact references to people and events. Once we begin to appreciate their sources and their rich symbolic associations, we realized that they cannot be read either as literal descriptions or as encoded literal descriptions, but must be read for their theological meaning and their power to evoke response.[1]

We leave off from Bauckham with a bit of a teaser; he goes on and provides some examples of what he describes in the quote paragraph of above. Suffice it to say, it can readily be observed that Bauckham, even in the small notation above (the quote), is getting at two popular, and I would say, erroneous, ways of reading the book of Revelation. Bauckham is getting at a naked idealism way of interpreting Revelation (as it has been in the history) which usually involves a presupposition of dualism; meaning that the book of Revelation is often construed as an ethereal book that depicts a cosmic struggle between good and evil. While there is an aspect where this is true for Bauckham, we can obviously see that he sees much more particularity, unity, and concreteness to the message and theology and history that make up this book than the classic idealism approach does. And then in the next breath, we also see Bauckham challenging what I will call the futurist, premillennial, dispensational reading of Revelation (the kind given popular expression in ‘The Left Behind’ series of books by Lahaye and Jenkins). He thinks it is in error to read Revelation as if its primary semantic and conceptual pool is predictive in nature; in other words, he sees it as highly problematic to read current events (like ours) into the book of Revelation, as if this was what John and the Holy Spirit had in mind when it was originally penned. Bauckham does not see the book of Revelation as a secret code book awaiting the decoder key (current events) to, in fact, decode it. No, he sees all of the events, people, and picturesque language of Revelation as grounded in a labyrinth of inter-related complexities that bubble up from the Old Testament apocalyptic genre (like that found in Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc.); and then he sees this context being applied to the ‘current’ events of the Roman empire of which the seven churches addressed in the Revelation are located.

There is much more to Bauckham’s thesis about the book of Revelation; like he sees the point of the book of Revelation as most pertinent to the Christians in the Roman empire who were suffering great tribulation and suffering, to the point of martyrdom. He sees the point of the book as primarily something to provide comfort and perspective for those being killed by the Roman persecution of the Christians. He sees the vindication of the Christian martyrs as the crux for understanding the composition of Revelation; and all of the apocalyptic language in the book, as providing God’s perspective over against the secular, mundane Roman perspective which these Christians were inhabiting. Bauckham sees the book of Revelation as predictive, in the sense that God’s people (all of us) will be vindicated at his coming (the second time, based on the first), as he crushes the powers of the nations, but not as the world would think, but as ‘the lamb slain before the foundations of the world’. So we see Bauckham’s vision of Revelation as correlative with the trajectory already set throughout the canon of the Old Testament apocalyptic literature; something like Daniel 2 comes to my mind:

44 “In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. 45 This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands —a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces.

“The great God has shown the king what will take place in the future. The dream is true and its interpretation is trustworthy.”

It is this kind of motif that Bauckham thinks shapes the book of Revelation, but not in light of its promise (like we leave it in the book of Daniel), but in light of its fulfillment, and thus reinterpretation ‘in Christ’. There is much more to say (and I will), but this should be enough for now.


[1] Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 19-20.


The 2nd Adam as the Ground and Reality of the 1st Adam: Reading Romans 5 With or Against Barth

I was just reading Everett F. Harrison’s commentary on Romans in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary; in particular I was reading his coverage of Romans 5:12-14, I was motivated to look over some commentaries I have on hand because of the discussion surrounding the historicity of Adam amongst some contemporary biblical exegetes (like Peter Enns and others). Of course, and rightly so, most commentators are not going to be engaging in speculation about whether Adam was a historical personage or not; instead, the steady exegete will seek to lay bare the intent of the particular passage’s message as understood (intratextuality and intertextually) through the theology, in our instance, of the Apostle Paul. In light of this, I wanted to focus on Harrison’s own exegesis of Paul in Romans 5:12-14 juxtaposed with what he thinks is Karl Barth’s reading of this same pericope; in particular, what Harrison thinks of Barth’s understanding of the person of Adam vis-á-vis the person of Jesus Christ as Paul’s ‘second Adam’. Here is the text in question, first in English and then the Greek text:

12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned — 13 To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. 14 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come. –Romans 5:12-14 (NIV)

12 δια τουτο ωσπερ δι ενος ανθρωπου η αμαρτια εις τον κοσμον εισηλθεν και δια της αμαρτιας ο θανατος και ουτως εις παντας ανθρωπους ο θανατος διηλθεν εφ ω παντες ημαρτον 13 αχρι γαρ νομου αμαρτια ην εν κοσμω αμαρτια δε ουκ ελλογειται μη οντος νομου 14 αλλα εβασιλευσεν ο θανατος απο αδαμ μεχρι μωυσεως και επι τους μη αμαρτησαντας επι τω ομοιωματι της παραβασεως αδαμ ος εστιν τυπος του μελλοντος –Romans 5:12-14 (GNT)

The issue I want to consider, relative to Harrison’s reading of this text juxtaposed with Barth’s, is the critique that Harrison offers of Barth’s ‘theological-exegetical’ reading of this passage; in particular the ‘image of God’ in the theology of the Apostle Paul. Harrison, somewhat in passing, notices that Barth understands Paul’s usage of Adam in a way that is only typological of Paul’s real point about the image of God, that Barth thinks should really be in reference to the ‘second Adam’, or Jesus Christ. Harrison summarizes, and questions Barth’s reading in this way:

In his book, Christ and Adam (Harper, 1956), Karl Barth has advanced a provocative interpretation of Adam as a type of Christ. He has attempted to reverse the order: “Man’s essential and original nature is to be found … not in Adam but in Christ. In Adam we can only find it prefigured. Adam can therefore be interpreted only in the light of Christ and not the other way round” (p. 29). It should be evident, however, that Paul’s thought here is not moving in the orbit of man as made in the image of God and therefore in the image of Christ who is the image of God. To import the preexistence of Christ is to introduce an element foreign to Paul’s purpose and treatment in this passage….[1]

Harrison may be right, de jure or in principle, that Paul’s own orbit of thought may have not been fully articulated, even to himself, in regards to a full blown, what we might call, Chalcedonian Christology (or even a Johannine one); but, de facto, or in actual fact, Harrison, I think is wrong to suggest that Paul’s own unarticulated theology does not invite the exegete and theologian to step deeper into the theological trajectory that Paul’s occasional writings presuppose. In other words, I think Harrison is wrong to assert that Paul’s ‘orbit’ of thought cannot be driven further than even the Apostle Paul drove it in his own context. I float this, because much of Paul’s own theology, delimited as it is by the type of literature he was inking ‒ Epistle – by definition is going to remain unarticulated and enthymemic (or some of his premises are unstated and just presumed on his part). So for Harrison to suggest what he has in regard to Paul’s thinking about the ‘second Adam’ as primary to the ‘first Adam’ relative to understanding, theologically, the function that the image of God language ought to play in Paul’s accounting; I think is highly presumptuous.

Karl Barth is obviously committed to a theological exegetical approach to interpreting scripture. He is committed to what some have called a ‘principial’ and intensive christocentrism in his reading of holy writ; such that he seeks to ground all of his reading of scripture, as if scripture’s reality (res) only is realizable when couched in its teleological (‘purposeful’) shape provided by Jesus Christ himself.

So the question is: Is Barth playing fast and loose with scripture, imposing his own theological grid and ‘canon’ on the canon of scripture; thus morphing it into a re-imagined wonder world of modern theological impulses? Or, is Barth following the trajectory that Jesus himself set in the reinterpretation of the Old Testament scriptures as if those scriptures were really all about him? Not just about him at a surface glance, but about him in all of his depth and reality as the ‘eternal Logos’, and the second person of the Trinity.

I think Harrison sets up a false dilemma, placing a historical-critical reading (Harrison’s) in competition with a depth theological reading that Barth follows. These approaches don’t need to be seen as discordant, one with the other, but instead they can (and ought to) be understood as mutually implicating and complementing one of the other. Such that the historic-critical realities of Paul’s own textured thought are what lead us (by their own presupposed theological depth and context) to the kind of reading that someone like Barth or even John Calvin have offered in regard to Paul’s letter to the Romans (and elsewhere).

I originally wrote this post back in 2012, but I thought I would share it again. If you’re interested in reading further with reference to Barth’s thinking about the Logos asarkos and how his theology of the pre-temporal Christ functions in his theological exegesis, then check out what he has to say in CD IV/1.


[1] Everett F. Harrison,“Romans,” in 10 Expositors’s Bible Commentary: Romans through Galatians, edited by Frank E. Gæbelein, p. 63.


An Exegetical Analysis of the Word anti in Matthew 20:28, and Its Argument for Substitutionary Atonement

Here is an mini-exegetical paper I wrote for my advanced NT Greek class in seminary back in 2002. I argue that the Greek word anti fits better with the idea of ‘substitution’ versus an exemplary view as an alternative. There isn’t any real theological exegesis going on here; instead, just straight lexical analysis and engagement with some critical commentators. In fact, back then, I didn’t
christcrucifiedeven know what theological exegesis was. Here it is:

Matthew 20:28 provides teaching that has been the point of much controversy. There is argument over what anti, should mean. Depending on the meaning of this word, there is support for the notion of Christ’s death as substitutionary for all humanity; or rather that Christ’s death was only “for the sake of”—i.e. as an example for how others should live their lives before God.

Therefore understanding the way this word can function will provide necessary insight on what position of the atonement this passage supports: substitution for example. Hence this study provides lexical analysis of anti, as well as interaction with particular scholars; for the purpose of ascertaining the best reading of this word (i.e. anti), and passage (i.e. Matt. 20:28).

Thesis Statement:

Jesus’ ultimate gift of service was to provide comprehensive substitutionary atonement for all humanity.

My Translation:

Just as the son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life a ransom in-the-stead of the many. Matthew 20:28.


The broader context of Matt. 20:28 is found in the preceding verses 20-27. In vss. 20-23 the mother of James and John approaches Jesus and requests that her sons be allowed to sit and rule with Jesus in His coming kingdom. Verses 23-28 provide the response of the other ten disciples as they realize James and John are trying to get on the inside track of everyone else in the company of Jesus. Verse 28 is the climax of Jesus’ response back to the apostles, and what it means to be a true follower of Him.

Lenski points out, in vs. 28, that Jesus’ attitude was not how much He could get (i.e. like the disciples were demonstrating, cf. vss. 20-24), but rather how much He could give for others (R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel, 792). Thus the language of service and servant-hood substantiates Jesus’ purpose for coming to earth. Many scholars agree up to this point (see Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel, 792; Leon Morris, The Gospel According To Matthew, 512-13; Robert Gundry, Matthew, 404; Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8—20, 546).

The difference arises after the epexegetical kai. (See Lenski, Matthew, 792) is given. Luz argues that the intent of the passage is only to highlight the example of service that Jesus provides for the disciples to follow. And that this passage does not heavily emphasize the idea of lytron (=ransom, BAGD=price of release, the ransom money for the manumission of slaves, 483). Nor does this passage, according to Luz, emphasize anti (=in the stead of or substitution, see lexical analysis provided later in this study). Note Luz:

For Matthew the idea of a ransom or “substitute” is probably less important here than the radical nature of Jesus’ service. Jesus took his service to others so seriously that he gave his own life for “many.” (Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8—20, 546).

To the contrary many other scholars believe that this passage has everything to do with the notions of both ransom and substitution. The thought reflected is that lytron and anti explicitly point to the fact that Jesus truly served as the substitutionary ransom to the Father. And that this in fact serves to provide the substance for “what kind” of service Jesus came to provide. Note Blomberg’s comment as representative of this position:

The word “ransom” (lytron) would make a first-century audience think of the price paid to buy a slave’s freedom. “Life” is the more correct translation here for psyche, which in other contexts sometimes means soul. Though it has been disputed, anti (“for”) means instead of or in the place of. (Craig Blomberg, Matthew, 308; see also Leon Morris, Matthew, 512-13).

Therefore Blomberg represents this passage as a straightforward statement of Christ’s substitutionary atonement.

Lenski similarly comes to the same conclusion as Blomberg, but he does not believe that anti can be translated as “instead of,” rather he believes that contextually the relationship of the two substantives lytron and pollon point to the substitutionary understanding in this passage. Note Lenski:

On the root idea of anti.: “face to face,” . . . “The idea of ‘in the place of’ or ‘instead’ comes where two substantives place opposite to each other are equivalent and so may be exchanged.”—thus the ransom is exchanged for the many. . . . “These important doctrinal passages teach the substitutionary conception of Christ’s death, not because of anti of itself means ‘instead,’ which is not true, but because the context renders any other resultant idea out of the question.” . . . The efforts to overthrow these findings are to a great extent not exegetical but dogmatical . . . . (Lenski, Matthew, 794).

Thus Lenski provides nuanced argument, from the context, of how and why anti should be highlighting the substitutionary nature of Christ’s atonement. This is not in disagreement with Blomberg, but rather points out how the context, as a principle, determines the precise meaning of anti.

Lexical Analysis of anti

Liddell and Scott, 153:

Liddell and Scott provide the semantic range from the classical perspective as:

. . . of place, opposite, over against, formerly quoted from several place of Hom. . . . in Hom. often to denote equivalence . . . he is as good as many men . . . a guest is as much as a brother . . . to denote exchange, at the price, in return for . . . for money paid . . . in preference to . . . .

The classical meaning can carry the notion of in exchange or in return for. This provides legitimate semantic domain for the nuance of substitution as some argue for in Matthew 20:28’s usage of the word.

BAGD, 72:

Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker provide the semantic domain from the Koine perspective:

. . . in order to indicate that one person or thing is, or is to be, replaced by another instead of, in place of . . . in order to indicate that one thing is equiv. to another for, as, in place of . . . Gen. 44:33 shows how the mng. in place of can develop into in behalf of, for someone, so that av. becomes=uper . . . lytron av. pollon a ransom for many 20:28; Mk 10:45 . . . .

BAGD substantiates the discussion provided by Lenski, that the two substantives, lytron and pollon in relationship with anti indeed provide this word with the notion of substitution.


Provided the two positions presented above (i.e. Luz and Blomberg/Lenski), and coupling these positions with the lexical analysis; it is the belief of this study that indeed 20:28 is explicitly discussing the substutionary nature of Christ’s ultimate service for humanity.

Luz’s and the other scholar’s position, show a position that is informed by a dogmatic theological position. And each of these scholars proceed to impose their dogmatism onto passages such as Matthew 20:28, thus producing an interpretation that fits their presupposed theological grid (i.e. Christ was only providing an “example” to follow, not the nature of  His atonement).

The plain reading of the passage is to recognize that indeed Christ is emphasizing service, but that that service is defined by His substitutionary atonement at the cross.


Selected Bibliography

Bauer, W. A Greek-English Lexicon Of The New Testament: And Other Early Christian Literature. Translated by W. F. Arndt and F. W. Gingrich. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1957.

Blomberg, Craig L. Matthew: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of

Holy Scripture NIV Text. The New American Commentary, ed. David S. Dockery. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992.

Gundry, Robert H. Matthew: A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church under Persecution. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1994.

Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Lenski, R. C. H. The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Ohio: The Wartburg Press, 1960.

Liddell, Henry George and Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon. Great Britain: Clarendon Press, 1968.

Luz, Ulrich. Matthew 8—20. Hermeneia—A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, ed. Helmut Koester. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: Eerdman Publishing, 1995.

________. The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross. Eerdmans Publishing, 1956.



The Christology of Leo’s Tome, The Chalcedonian Settlement, and Miscellaneous Thoughts on Church Trad and Biblical Interpretation

I wanted to share J.N.D. Kelly’s summarizing of the theses presented in Pope Leo I’s Tome. The writings which helped contribute to what became known as the Chalcedonian settlement which occurred at the Council of Chalcedon in 451ad. It is this “settlement” which has been used, thenceforth, as the standard or canon for determining whether or not someone’s view of Jesus Christ is orthodox iconjesusfaceor heterodox, if not downright heretical. As you will see through Kelly’s summary what Leo offered in his Tome wasn’t necessarily original to him, instead it served as a good codification of what had come before him in the various christological struggles (which the Council of Nicaea in 325ad is related to in some important conceptual matters). Here is Kelly:

The Christology which appears in Leo’s Tome has no special originality; it reflects and codifies with masterly precision the ideas of his predecessors. The following are the chief points he was concerned to bring out. First, the Person of the God-man is identical with that of the divine Word. As he expressed it, ‘He Who became man in the form of a servant is He Who in the form of God created man’. Though describing the incarnation as ‘self-emptying’ (exinanitio), he claimed that it involved no diminution of the Word’s omnipotence; He descended from His throne in heaven, but did not surrender His Father’s glory. Secondly, the divine and human natures co-exist in this one Person without mixture or confusion. Rather, in uniting to form one Person each retains its natural properties unimpaired (salva . . . proprietate utriusque naturae et substantiae), so that, just as the form of God does not do away with the form of a servant, so the form of a servant does not diminish the form of God. Indeed, the redemption required that ‘one and the same mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, should be able to both die in respect of the one and not to die in respect of the other’. Thirdly, the natures are separate principles of operation, although they always act in concert with each other. So we have the famous sentence, ‘Each form accomplishes in concert with the other what is appropriate to it, the Word performing what belongs to the Word, and the flesh carrying out what belongs to the flesh’. Lastly, the oneness of the Person postulates the legitimacy of the ‘communication of idioms’. We can affirm, for example, that the Son of God was crucified and buried, and also that the Son of Man came down from heaven.

These four theses may not have probed the Christological problem very deeply; it is obvious that they left the issues which puzzled Greek theologians largely untouched. They had the merit, however, of setting out the factors demanding recognition fairly and squarely. Moreover, they went a long way towards meeting the points of view of both the schools of thought struggling for supremacy in the East. Antiochenes could recognize their own theology in Leo’s vigorous affirmation of the duality in Christ, and of the reality and independence of the two natures. Some of his sentences, indeed, particularly the one cited above, were to prove stones of stumbling to Alexandrian Christologians. Nevertheless these latter, too, could see the essentials of their standpoint vindicated in the Pope’s unerring grasp of the identity of the Person of the Incarnate with that of the eternal Word. As he expressed it in a Christmas sermon, ‘It is one and the same Son of God Who exists in both natures, taking what is ours to Himself without losing what is His own’.[1]

It may or may not trouble some that Leo was a Roman Pope, but what this should illustrate for Christians across the spectrum is that we share an ecumenical past when it comes to the most basic stuff of our theological grammar and how we understand who God has revealed Himself to be in His Son, Jesus Christ. Beyond that, it is important to recognize that what we take for granted today as orthodoxy, when we speak of Christ’s two natures and the hypostatic union, or the Trinity, was something that developed over time within the mind of the church. We can be the most Free non-denominational Bible church out there, but it is important to remember that the orthodoxy we affirm when it comes to two-nature Christology, etc. is something that binds us to the church catholic itself. It is these realities, and church historical developments that ought to cause people who claim a nuda scriptura or solo Scriptura approach (meaning people who often claim the label of Biblicist) to come to terms with the fact that even they operate with some very basic tradition as the foundation for how they conceptualize God and Jesus Christ; which of course then impacts the way they  interpret and read Holy Scripture itself.


[1] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines. Revised Edition (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), 337-38.

Doubting the Theologians and Biblical Interpretation

I am not totally sure what is happening to me tonight, but it is either conviction or an overly-sensitive conscience. I have been posting a lot on Karl Barth lately, and if not Barth my other usual suspects are Thomas Torrance and John Calvin. But I am really having a problem with all of this right now, and it is really bothering me. I am not confessing to some deep down angst about my reading of Barth, et al.; but what I am doing right now is being honest about something that has been bothering me for awhile. It is a personal thing really, and it involves some personal background snoopytheologyand history in order to provide the proper context for what I want to get off my chest.

As I have shared way too many times to count, in the past, the Lord got a hold of me in some pretty radical ways back in 1995 when I was 21. I grew up the son of a Baptist pastor, and became a Christian when I was a little kid; I even was a little evangelist leading my 5 year old friend to the Lord. I have always had a heart for Jesus, and a love for Him ever since He touched my heart at a young age (something like a Samuel experience—i.e. the way I came to Christ waking up in the middle of the night and wanting to ask Jesus into my heart, I went in and woke my parents up and they led me to the Lord at 3.5). And I grew up with that sensitive heart for him, and being involved in my dad’s pastoral ministry and evangelism from a young age into my teens. Out of high school I became lukewarm, but that was the point that the Lord got a hold of me again in some rough ways. It was during that time that I began to read through the Scriptures voraciously, memorizing books of the Bible, and feeling the need to tell every person I came into contact with about Jesus—in evangelical parlance I was “on fire for Jesus!” This led me into formal biblical and theological studies, and even to where I am with all of that today.

So here I am tonight (or early morning), and I have four books on my night stand about the theology of Karl Barth. I’ve already read untold books just like these ones over the last eleven years in particular; and the same can be said in regard to Thomas Torrance, John Calvin, and many other theologians (too many to be named). But what I am feeling really convicted about, if I should use that word, is a question that keeps haunting me with some intensity. The question is: who cares?! Who cares what Barth, or Torrance, or Calvin et al. thinks about what the Bible says? Isn’t the Bible itself capable of communicating what it means, in its own given context, without hearing from the theologians or even critical biblical exegetes? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going anti-intellectual on you all, but this is an honest question for me. What is keeping what I am doing from being a so called reader response hermeneutic? When I read Barth et al., yes he and they offer some very interesting, imaginative, and even provocative ways to read Scripture and its inner-theo-logical implications. But at what point does their influence cease being interesting, and instead act as a regulative way that governs the way that I am interpreting Holy Scripture? My question isn’t just for my narrow list of teachers, but it’s for all theologians and challenges whoever someone’s favorite theologian or interpretive tradition is.

When I really committed to reading and studying Scripture, before God, some twenty-one years ago, I committed to know Him through His Word. I want to make sure that I am not conflating someone else’s word with His Word; and I am sure Barth et al. would want to avoid this same thing! But it seems to me that us Protestants have our own popes, and our own interpretive magesterium. I do believe that theological exegesis is inevitable, and in itself is not a bad thing. But I want to always make sure that I am being self-critical enough to not be reading my favorite theologian’s opinions (theologoumena) into Scripture as if Scripture is not perspicuous enough (and that principle itself comes from Protestant theologians) to speak itself from its own literary and theological context.

It doesn’t matter if its Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Amandus Polanus, Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, John Webster, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Musculus, Junius, Arminius, Bullinger, Bucer, Baxter, Gill, Robert Jenson, Pannenberg, William Perkins, Francis Turretin, Vos, et al. et al. I don’t want to think that I am giving anyone the ability to fabricate or create meaning for Scripture that is not present in Scripture itself. Does this sound like I am being anxious? I think it does sound that way, because I actually am. I’ve studied too much at this point, and continue to study, and realize that it’s very possible to lose touch with the text of Scripture itself. Sure I can appeal to the reality of theological exegetical reality, and that we are finite human beings; as such we will always be fighting to know the depth dimension of Scripture deeper and higher than we do today. But in that process, again, I am really leery about getting too far removed in that rationalization, and allowing the theologians and critical biblical scholars too much voice, to the point that they are allowed to create meaning for Scripture that Scripture itself does not have in itself as it finds it reality in Jesus Christ (and this last clause comes from the impact that Barth and Torrance have had on me).

I just don’t want to lose my first love.

What Hath Johann Philipp Gabler to do with Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem and the EFS Debate?

The recent online debate in regard to the so called eternal functional subordination (EFS) of the Son to the Father in an ostensible eternal Father-Son authority-submission framework has lost ‘some’ steam it seems in the theoblogosphere (I think personally I wrote approx. eleven posts on the topic in a span of about three weeks). That notwithstanding it is still percolating, for one reason, I would suggest, because the national Evangelical Theological Society’s meeting this year is on the doctrine of the Trinity. To me that seems as a harbinger of things to come, and continues to eternalsubordinationdemand preliminary attention—as we’ve seen occurring online—to this yet unresolved debate (which will most certainly remain the case in my estimation, since this debate in the evangelical/Reformed world has been brewing to one temperature or another for years without production of anything that resembles a drinkable coffee).

In this post, I would like to offer another brief foray into this theological development, by observing something. For Protestant Christians, in particular, the Bible is the final authority for doctrine and practice. That said, for some Christians, concordant with Scripture as authoritative, this includes the history of interpretation. In other words ecclesial tradition remains definitive for how scripture is read; particularly when discussing ecumenical matters such as the triadic nature of God, and who God in Christ is. Sola scriptura, held by the magisterial reformers, and subsequent post reformed orthodox reformers, did not ever imagine that pro-Nicene theology would ever be understood as at odds with the authority of Scripture, but that pro-Nicene theology, instead, was derivative of the teaching of Holy Scripture. Other Christians, particularly with reference to this debate, like Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem, et al. seem to verbally affirm sola scriptura, but in practice function in the realm of what can be called solo scriptura (Scripture all by itself, something that stands outside of the confessional normativity of the ecumenical councils that sola scriptura remains sensitive to). I want to suggest that Ware et al. who argue for EFS, indeed work with this solo scriptura idea, and that at a functional level seem to do so in a kind of de-confessionalized way; in a way that might make someone like Gabler and other early enlightenment critics proud.

By caveat, let me also say that what I am about to share will not hold true for Ware, Grudem, et al. in fact; but in principle I think that the methodological turn I am going to describe, by reference to Gerhard Hasel’s introduction to Johann Philipp Gabler, will maybe help press further into what is informing folks like Grudem, Ware et al.

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 though 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.” Gabler’s inductive, historical, and descriptive approach to Biblical theology is based on three essential methodological considerations: (1) Inspiration is to be left out of consideration, because  “the Spirit of God most emphatically did not destroy in every holy man his own ability to understand and the measure of natural insight into things.” What counts is not “divine authority” but “only what they [Biblical writers] thought.” (2) Biblical theology has the task of gathering carefully the concepts and ideas of the individual Bible writers, because the Bible does not contain the ideas of just a single man. Therefore the opinions of the Bible writers need to be “carefully assembled from Holy Writ, suitably arranged, properly related to general concepts, and carefully compared one with another ….” This task can be accomplished by means of a consistent application of the historical-critical method with the aid of literary criticism, historical criticism, and philosophical criticism. (3) Biblical theology as a historical discipline is by definition obliged to “distinguish between the several periods of the old and new religion.” The main task is to investigate which ideas are of importance for Christian doctrine, namely which ones “apply today” and which ones have no “validity for our time.” These programmatic declarations gave direction to the future of Biblical (OT and NT) theology despite the fact that Gabler’s program for Biblical theology was conditioned by his time and contains significant limitations.[1]

Does this sound like who Ware and Grudem are as evangelical theologians? No. But what it describes is a historical move that took place by which evangelical scholarship of past days was affected deeply. There was a move away from thinking confessionally, which historic reformed theology was committed to with sola scriptura, and instead an emphasis in biblical studies/theology was fostered such that the Bible came to have a “non-traditioned” reading associated with it.

It helps me to try and make sense of how evangelical scholars like Ware, Grudem et al. have gotten to where they’ve gotten by taking a look at the history of ideas. What evangelical thinkers did at the turn of the 20th century and onward was attempt to throw away all of the “higher-critical” stuff we see described in Gabler’s declarations, but hold onto the naturalist non-confessional reading of Scripture when it comes to the discipline of biblical studies. I personally believe that this is what is funding the mood that allows Ware and Grudem et al. to get to where they get in regard to eternal functional subordination between the Father and Son in their inner life (in se). Because pro-Nicene theology, and historic Christian confessional thinking and engagement with Holy Scripture does not.

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