On Literalist Bible Readings, Supersessionism and Replacement Theology: As Riposte to James Kaddis and Olivier Melnick

I just finished listening to someone I consider a friend, and someone who is definitely a brother in Christ: James Kaddis. He was having his weekly discussion with his friend, Olivier Melnick, on the nation of Israel; particularly as that pertains to biblical prophecy from the Dispensational framework. In this particular discussion the topic was what they call: Replacement Theology. Most people, in the “business” will know what this is referring to by its more common terminology of: Supersessionism. The idea is that the Church has become the new Israel, thus displacing Israel and all of the Old Testament promises made to her. James believes that anyone who holds to ‘replacement theology’ is ultimately evil, and probably not saved; Melnick seems to agree with that. The problem though, and this is what the rest of this post will engage with, is that both Kaddis and Melnick (and many in their tribe) are too reductionistic with refernce to the history of interpretation on this issue, thus leading them to construct a caricature of anyone who is not a Pretribulational, Premillennial Dispensationalist. Both Kaddis and Melnick maintain that if someone is operating with a proper biblical hermeneutic (meaning ‘literalistic’ V literalist), that they will arrive at the dispensational perspective (this is also what one of dispensationalism’s most prominent teachers, Charles Ryrie, maintained).

What I want to do in this post, in particular, is to engage with what in fact a ‘literal’ hermeneutic entails. Much of the body of this post will be in reference to a post I wrote some time ago dealing with the same issue. After we survey how ‘literal’ has developed in the history of interpretation I will close by applying that understanding to the question of so-called ‘replacement theology,’ and how much of what Kaddis and Melnick assert as entailing replacement theology reflects too facile of an understanding of the history of interpretation.

A Survey of ‘Literal’ vis-à-vis Biblical Hermeneutics

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.

Applying a Historical Biblical Literalism to Supersessionism

What the aforementioned survey reveals is that what it meant (and ought to mean currently) in the history of interpretation to be ‘literal,’ particularly as that is understood from within a medieval Catholic and Protestant frame, respectively, is that Christian biblical literalism, principially, finds its centrum and absolute focus on Jesus Christ. In other words, a historic understanding of a biblical literalism isn’t one that is grounded in a post-Enlightenment rationalism, such as we find that in the biblical theology movement and history of religions schools, which gets further distilled into something like we find in Ryrie’s and dispensationalism’s literalism; no, a historic Christian understanding of biblical literalism, again, sees Christ as the meaning and referent point of all the Old Testament promises (Jesus thought this too, see Jn 5.39 etc.). A historical biblical literalism sees Jesus Christ, not the nation of Israel, per se, as canonical regulator of how the Christian exegete arrives at their respective exegetical conclusions.

And this leads us into the question under consideration: has the whole Christian tradition and its history of interpretation suffered from a supersessionism or ‘replacement theology?’ If you’re a non-dispensational interpreter of Holy Scripture, as ALL Christians have been, up until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as dispensationalism developed in the UK and the USA therein, does this mean you are an antisemite? The answer to that question is a loud NO! Have there been antisemites in the Church since its very inception? Yes, Marcion among others come to mind. But most in the history of interpretation, at least most who have been nuanced in this area, have outright rejected supersessionism as the Gnostic heresy of someone like Marcion and his so-called Marcionitism is. To hold to a biblical literalism, as our survey has helped to clarify, didn’t (and doesn’t) lead the exegete to be a ‘replacement theologian’ (so-called), but instead to see the promises made to the nation of Israel fulfilled in the person who served and serves as these promises’ reality; we are of course referring to the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

In my view, Jesus Christ is the Israel of God. He is ethnically Jewish, and scandalously so (according to the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 1.17-25); He was and is the One for the many; for the Jew first then the Gentile. He is the One new humanity of God (cf. Eph 2.12ff) wherein both Jew and Gentile alike are made one as they participate in Christ’s risen humanity. Christ is the ground that the root of Abraham and its olive tree finds its sustenance from. Jesus is God’s Israel, and all the promises have been and yet will be (now-and-not-yet) fulfilled in Him. Jesus made all of the promises to Israel, as actualized in Him, open for the whole world. He is the Jew first for the whole world; for the house of Israel, and for the Gentiles. Jesus will forevermore remain the Son of David, the seed of the woman referred to in the so-called proto-evangelium (cf. Gen. 3.15); He is forevermore the Jew from Nazareth. This is the historical Christian reading of biblical prophecy as that is realized in its reality in Jesus Christ. This reading has always already militated against heresy known as supersessionism and/or ‘replacement theology.’ Here is something I once wrote (circa 2007) back when I was still a dispensationalist. But I was attempting to offer a charitable reading of amillennialism (or any non-dispensational understanding of the Bible). You will notice how it militates against facile readings that renders anything other than a dispensational reading as an antisemite reading.

1) The non-dispensational reading of the Bible is highly Christocentric: it makes Christ the center of all the biblical covenants (even the “Land” covenant or Siniatic). 2) It notes the universal scope of the Abrahamic Covenant (as key) to interpreting the rest of the biblical covenants. 3) It sees salvation history oriented to a person (Christ), instead of a people (the nation of Israel). 4) It emphasizes continuity between the “people of God” (Israel and the Church are one in Christ Eph. 2:11ff). 5) It provides an ethic that is rooted in creation, and “re-creation” (continuity between God’s redemptive work now, carried over into the eternal state then) 6) It emphasizes a trinitarian view of God as it elevates the “person”, Christ Jesus, the second person of the trinity as the point and mediator of all history. 7) It flows from a hermeneutic that takes seriously the literary character of the Scriptures (esp. the book of Revelation).

It is not insignificant that a site like Monergismdotcom picked my description up, and used it (and continues to) as a summary of what the amillennial position entails.4 This shouldn’t be seen as insignificant because Monergismdotcom is a proponent of classically Reformed theology (which I am a well-known critic of online and in print), of the sort that Kaddis and Melnick would label as promoting ‘replacement theology.’

I would invite James Kaddis (who I love as a brother), and Olivier Melnick to dig deeper on these things, and push past the superficial caricatures that are often pervasive in the evangelical world. There are surely mainline Protestant traditions out there, such as the PCUSA et alia, that do operate with a supersessionism (which is illustrated by their support of the BDS movement etc.), but most Reformed and Lutheran people are not supersessionist; even if they aren’t dispensational, which they of course are not. Thus, I would ask my brothers to consider these things more carefully and with a more nuanced brush. We should want to accurately represent even those we consider our theological opponents; this is a sword that cuts both ways.

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. 

4 Monergism.com.

 

ανοιγω: The Heavens are Continuously Open in Christ

Believe it or not I have a minor in NT Greek, and an MA in NT studies; you might never know that based on the content of my online postings. Of course, I also have a double major in bible and theology, and another emphasis in historical theology (both at the undergrad and grad levels, respectively). Anyway, I thought in light of this I would do a post that focuses on NT Greek.

Under the tutelage of Dr. Dale Wheeler for first year Greek something stood out to me; it was just an offhand remark Dr Wheeler made about the word ανοιγω (ἠνεῴχθησαν) in Matthew 3.16. In English the passage reads: “When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him” (NKJV).[1] The word ‘opened’ is in the present active indicative, which means that the heavens are now continuously open to Him. The implication of this for all those participatio Christi (participating in Christ), is that the heavens are always already open for you. Indeed, the heavens are continuously open for the world, for all those who will repent and acknowledge Jesus as Lord. This reminds me of the priestly imagery used in the epistle to the Hebrews:

19 Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, 21 and having a High Priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, 25 not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching. –Hebrews 10.19-25

As I look up at the sky at night (when I work) I imagine all the saints of history (so all Christians), and this great cloud of witnesses (think Heb 11) as part of this great ‘chain of being’ all bounded together in the πíστiς Xρiστoȗ (faith of Christ). The Good News, the Evangel is that the heavens are open because Christ has torn them open for us by re-conciling the world to God in His consubstantial divinity/humanity (Theanthropos) for us. He has ascended filling the whole cosmos with the very pleroma (fullness) of God, a πλήρωμα that He has consubstantially and eternally shared with the Father and the Holy Spirit; and now a pleroma He has consubstantially shared with us by assuming our humanity that we might assume His divinity by GRACE, not nature.

For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; 10 and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power. –Colossians 2.9-10

This is where my sense of liveliness comes from; the very liveliness of the living and triune God; knowing that He holds the heavens open, continuously, that we might fellowship and sup with Him all the days and nights of our lives, and for all eternity. God is open for us in Christ; that is all that matters.

[1] βαπτισθεὶς δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εὐθὺς ἀνέβη ἀπὸ τοῦ ὕδατος: καὶ ἰδοὺ ἠνεῴχθησαν [αὐτῷ] οἱ οὐρανοί, καὶ εἶδεν [τὸ] πνεῦμα [τοῦ] θεοῦ καταβαῖνον ὡσεὶ περιστερὰν [καὶ] ἐρχόμενον ἐπ’ αὐτόν: :Matt. 3.16 (GNT).

 

 

Being ‘Lived-Out’ Rather than ‘Conference Christians’: Engaging with Douglas Campbell’s Apostle Paul

Is there a place for all the theological and pastoral conferences that happen annually? Sure, at some level I think they are healthy insofar as they bring people together for networking and fellowshipping purposes. But when that becomes the reduction of what the Christian life is, particularly for ‘professional’ Christians, there might be something wrong. I think this has become the case with much of what’s going on in evangelical Christianity. We might think of The Gospel Coalition, Together 4 the Gospel, Shepherd’s Conference, and a host of many others (inclusive of all the academic conferences). It is in these places that many find their Christian identity. Some of the ‘elite’ in these settings are elevated to rock-star status, with autographs and book signings as the hallmark. Indeed, some of these folks are on a conference tour almost year-round; to the point that if they are pastors, they pretty much become guest speakers in their home churches.

I just picked up Douglas Campbell’s new tome: Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love. I am just starting to dig in, and in the introduction he speaks to what we were just thinking about. He is starting to detail the way he thinks the Apostle Paul would operate, and how he would think of what characterizes much of Christianity in America today. He writes:

I sometimes wonder what Paul would make of the conferences at which scores of highly learned people sit around and debate for hours tiny semantic nuances preserved in his writings. I expect he might be patient with this exercise for a while, but then at some point I’m pretty sure that he would jump up—possibly wielding a whip—and shout: “For goodness sake! Haven’t you read what my writings actually say? You’re not meant to be sitting around debating them. You are meant to be out there doing what they tell you to do—meeting people and fostering Christian communities in service to our Lord. Get off your backsides and get moving!” Doubtless this challenge would be accompanied by the sounds of tables being overturned and piles of pristine books crashing to the floor.

There is such a thing as a scholar-activist, and I venture to suggest that scholars of Paul should by and large be scholar-activists. If we are not, then we are royally missing the point, and I suspect that our interpretations of Paul will suffer as well. . . .[1]

I remember being a fresh student at Multnomah Bible College, just off the streets of living out the faith in the workplace and elsewhere. By time I had arrived I’d read through the whole Bible four times, and the NT tens of times; having memorized three books of the NT as well. I was in the midst of spiritual warfare, and relying on Scripture not as an academic piece of literature to be debated, but the living Word of God burning as fire in my bones. I remember towards the end of my first semester we had a schoolwide barbeque on a beautiful Spring Pacific Northwest day. I’d learned that there was a group of guys (fellow students ahead of me by a year or two) who were really well versed in Scripture, and even learned. So, that day I thought I would at least go and stand by them, and attempt to participate in their discussion about the biblical text. What I quickly learned, sadly, was that the text, for them (at that point at least) was more about its critical and academic content more than it was the living bread by which a Christian might find daily sustenance and life. This discouraged, saddened, and angered me all at once.

I share this anecdote not to declare myself ‘holier than thou,’ but to illustrate how Holy Scripture can become one thing to this group of people, and something solely different to another. If we extrapolate out from my anecdote, I think we might recognize how my co-students’ attitude back then is indeed what Campbell is taking aim at now. This sort of attitude about Scripture, in general, and Paul’s epistles, in particular, is exactly the attitude that Scripture, and the Lord of Scripture desires to contradict. We do indeed, as Campbell rightly notes, see in certain heady circles that Scripture is only ‘talked about,’ as if the act itself is effectual in itself. Indeed, we do need to have understanding of Scripture, but at some point, it is time to act it out in the faith of Christ. We are called to be ‘living sacrifices’ by the Apostle, ‘smoked out like burnt offerings’ in the way we live before God. Conference Christianity does not foster this sort of ‘drink offering’ faith; instead it cultivates a posture of sitting back and talking in theoretical and abstract terms about what the Bible might be saying here or there. This is neither Pauline nor Dominical Christianity, as such I think Campbell is right about what Paul might have thought about the sort of conference Christianity we see dominating much of the Christian landscape in America. May we not be ‘conference Christians,’ but instead ‘lived-out Christians.’

 

[1] Douglas A. Campbell, Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020), 4-5.

Irenaeus Against John MacArthur: What Hath Creatio Ex Nihilo to Do With the Genesis and Exodus of Biblical Interpretation?

I am going to apply the following quote on theological interpretation of scripture (TIS) from Colin Gunton to a popular pastor among many conservative evangelical Christians; i.e. John MacArthur. The reason I am going to apply the following quote to MacArthur is because part of my passion is to take deep school theology and use that to help correct what I consider to be wayward theological method and application as that is distilled, indeed, through people like John MacArthur. We could apply the quote and its content to many other evangelicals in North America and abroad, but MacArthur, because of his ubiquitous presence (at least in the circles I grew up in) works well as a typological character who I think needs correcting. What might seem ironic (or asinine, depending on the person) to some is that I would dare to correct someone like MacArthur; someone who prides himself on being slavishly committed to biblical exegesis in order to establish every jot and tittle of his exposition and sermonic form. In principle I think, at least for us Protestant Reformed, I can certainly get behind the idea that we want to establish all of our doctrine and teaching based upon biblical exegesis. But the problem arises, especially for folks like MacArthur, when one simply presumes upon some sort of prima facie mode of biblical exegesis; as if what counts as Literal-Grammatical-Historical is simply a neutered or generic way of engaging with texts, in particular the biblical text, such that whatever is produced through thorough application of this method will simply be just what the Bible says. This is the mode of MacArthur; he believes that his exegesis comes prior to his theology, but I am countering that he has a prior commitment to a certain theological paradigm that informs his exegesis in ways he can’t seem to imagine (we all have theological premises informing our engagement with Holy Scripture).

Colin Gunton as he is engaging with a Christian doctrine of creation, particularly the notion of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing), and as he has been developing Irenaeus’ theology in this direction, brings theological interpretation of scripture into his discussion. I am just going to quote him at length (as is typical of my blogging style), and then we will draw off of what he has to intone about TIS and how I think we can apply that to MacArthur in particular and to many conservative evangelical pastors in general. Gunton writes:

What, then, is to be understood by a theological interpretation? At the very least we must essay an integration, if not systematisation, of the various biblical witnesses to creation, and not simply Genesis, in the light of the God made known in Jesus Christ and by the Spirit who relates the world to the Father through him. If we accept Irenaeus’ strong contention that the God of Jesus Christ is the one who created in the beginning, we must interpret Genesis in the light of God’s involvement in the material historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. This enables us not to read trinitarian themes directly into the book of Genesis, as if the author were in some way theologising in a consciously trinitarian way, but to understand the forms of divine action there depicted as the acts of the triune God. This is particularly well illustrated if we see that part of the divine engagement with creation in Genesis 1 involves the ministerial use of parts of the created order in the forming of others. When God says ‘Let the earth bring forth’ we have a picture of divine action enabling the sovereign creator intends. As we shall see, this has important implications for the way we shall understand the relation of creation and evolution.

A theology of creation does not in any case limit it biblical basis to Genesis 1, but is concerned with the meaning of the scriptural understanding of creation as a whole. Because Irenaeus’ focus is incarnational he looks at the whole of scripture through what happened in Jesus Christ, and refuses to become preoccupied, as were some of his opponents, with the exchange of ‘proof-texts’. This is not to say that we should hold that the biblical writers were consciously trinitarian thinkers. Clearly, they were not. The doctrine of the Trinity is a doctrinal development dedicated to saying something of who the God is who creates and redeems the world. In its turn and in its light, this enables an interpretation of the Bible’s teaching as a whole. Thus, when Psalm 33:6 says that ‘by the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth’, we may recognise the adumbration of a conception which is later filled out by an understanding of the personal presence of God made explicit by Jesus Christ and the Spirit. As we have seen, the heart of the matter is the concept of mediation which the Bible makes possible, generating as it does its unique doctrine of creation out of nothing.[1]

Does that make sense? Maybe a further illustration might help: Think of what the Evangelist in the Gospel of John did. He “re-interpreted,” or per Irenaeus’ style, he recapitulated the original creation account in Genesis 1.1 by linking his linguistic harmonizing in John 1.1 “In the Beginning God” with his introduction of the Logos or Word to the world. In other words, in light of Jesus Christ what is presented in the Old Testament is re-understood in light of its fulfillment and substantive res (reality) as that is actualized in the Son, Jesus Christ. This is something of a further illustration of what Gunton is after in his linking of biblical interpretation into the context of a doctrine of creation. I.e. without God in Christ there would be no creation, or indeed recreation, wherein all of reality could come to have a Christ conditioned Triune shape and meaning. In other words, particularly as Gunton leaves off with a reference to creatio ex nihilo, what Irenaeus was about, according to Gunton, is basing his interpretation of Holy Scripture within a grandeur context than simply reading off its purported ‘face’ and absolutizing biblical meaning and reality from there. No, what Irenaeus, according to Gunton was about was recognizing that Scripture has a depth dimensional context and reality, and that that only comes as its total canonical orientation is found in and from its ever afresh ever anew referencing beyond itself, beyond its paper and ink, to its flesh and bloodied reality in Jesus Christ and the Triune life co-inhering therein.

Let me try to bring this down a notch (never an easy thing to do): in Irenaeus’ frame, in particular, and in a theological exegetical frame in general, what theological interpretation of scripture entails as a method of biblical interpretation, is the full recognition that scripture itself only has meaning as it constantly is referring itself to its deep reality in Jesus Christ (cf. Jn 5.39). It recognizes that all of reality only has reality as a contingent reality as that is given forth by the Word of God in Jesus Christ. Gunton, through Irenaeus, is showing that at least for the theological interpretation of scripture mode, we must presume upon the reality of who God is as revealed in Jesus Christ in order to cognize any sort of biblical meaning; if in fact we can first recognize that the Bible only has meaning as an instrument mediating something greater than itself to us (something or someOne who has made clear that He alone upholds all things by the word of His power; even Scripture’s meaning as that is found in his Word).

Does John MacArthur fit into this sort of theological interpretation of scripture, or does he operate from somewhere else? The irony is, as we examine his antecedents, when it comes to his hermeneutical method and exegetical practice, is that he operates off of Enlightenment text critical premises that are actually in contest with the sort of Irenaean hermeneutic we have been touching upon in this post. If this is the case (and it is), then how can we accept that MacArthur is actually offering us the Gospel According to Jesus when he is working from hermeneutical premises that themselves are concocted from ideational commitments that are in fact antagonistic to the sort of rich and deep theological pedigree of interpretation that someone like Irenaeus operated from? MacArthur doesn’t self-critically even think from a doctrine of creation and recreation (resurrection) as the basis within which the Bible can find orientation and meaning. MacArthur naively presumes upon a certain method of biblical interpretation that starts with a sort of rationalist common sense notion of reality and language that sees words and meaning abstractly accessible by the powers of human wit and a pressing into linguistic and historical realities without recognizing how reality itself is contingent upon the Word of God. In other words, MacArthur doesn’t make an intentional (Dogmatic) connection between meaning generation and God’s Word as the predicator of all meaning; even Scriptural meaning. He doesn’t allow that primal reality to form his development of a biblical hermeneutic and exegetical practice. As such he falls short in untold manner of ways in his exposition and sermonic deliveries.

 

[1] Colin E. Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical And Systematic Study (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), Loc 924, 931, 937 kindle.

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.

Conclusion

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.