Biblical Studies

Salvation By Allegiance Alone: Introducing a Book Review Series and Some Engagement with Scot McKnight

I plan on doing a type of dialogical review of Matthew Bates’ recently released book, Salvation By Allegiance Alone, through a series of posts. I wanted to introduce the book to you all by quoting, at length, part of the foreword written by Dr. Scot X. McKnight. McKnight works and thinks from a largely Wesleyan/Arminian perspective, and so you will understand why he is so excited by Bates’ proposal; which you will see the basic lineaments of that proposal described by McKnight in the following quote.

Allegiance, then, is at the heart of grace as it was perceived in the ancient world. Grace was not simply—or ever—pure gift in spite of what some say today. One must define terms by their usage not by our contemporary beliefs or usages. Grace can both be one hundred percent gift and at the same time summon the gifted person with an obligation, a heartfelt and intentional duty, to respond in gratitude and behavior in accordance with the new social bond created by the gift-giver’s gift. This grace runs right through the Old Testament, through Judaism, and into the New Testament. What distinguished the kind of Judaism that did not believe in Jesus and the one that did was not the appearance or absence of grace itself but how grace was understood. It is, then, a popular misunderstanding of Paul to conclude that grace did not obligate the Christian—the one who received God’s gift of Christ and redemption—to respond to God through real behavioral change. Grace in fact required a life of gratitude, praise, and—here’s the language from Matthew Bates’s outstanding book—“allegiance to Jesus as king.”

Some theologians (past and present) think that any kind of obligation attached to grace must somehow entail a dangerous works righteousness. Such people are wrong. But you’ll have to read Salvation by Allegiance Alone to see how deftly and biblically Matthew Bates dismantles this worry about works while simultaneously offering fresh proposals regarding how a gospel-infused allegiance connects with righteousness.

I want to approach the obligation of grace from another angle, that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As a college student I became a voracious reader and, so, as a sophomore I began reading Bonhoeffer, beginning with (what was then called) The Cost of Discipleship. Perhaps his most enduring contribution to Christian theology, at least Christian ethics, is his section on “costly grace,” a concept that put into words my deepest convictions and concerns about the church I was then witnessing. The church was marked by sanctimonious attendance, judgmentalism on all outsiders, expressed certitude of the security of the believer because of a single act of accepting Christ into one’s heart, and rigor in theological propositions. It was also a church pockmarked body-wide with a lack of love, a lack of genuine holiness, and an inability to foster discipleship in the heart of the true believer. Sadly, what it lacked was created by its deficient gospel: “if you just believe” was its watchword and safety net. But “believe” meant mental acceptance and a single act of reception, and never meant what the term also means in the whole Bible: the kind of faith that is also faithfulness.

The superficiality of American evangelicalism’s gospel-obsession with security and assurance has led me at times to wonder if we should not teach justification by discipleship. Or justification by faithfulness. But Matthew Bates has landed on a beautiful and biblically sound term: allegiance. When Jesus first called the four disciples along the Sea of Galilee he didn’t say “receive me into your heart” but “follow me.” When a crisis arose among his followers he didn’t say “you’re safe” or “get your orthodoxy on” but “deny yourself and take up your cross.” Moreover, when he finished the greatest sermon on earth, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus didn’t say “Repent and believe these things” but “the one who hears these words of mine and does them.” So, too, the apostles Paul, Peter, and John called their listeners to a life swamped by the Spirit, a life of holiness amidst suffering, and a life of living in the light of love. These apostolic expressions are all condensed in this book into the term “allegiance.”

King Jesus summons people into a kingdom where he alone is king, and kings expect one thing from their subjects: allegiance.[1]

I have only read a few pages beyond the foreword thus far, but I have been listening to and reading some interviews (and a debate) that Matthew has done since the release of his book. I am also “friends” with him on FaceBook and have gotten to get more of a feel of where he is coming from that way as well; particularly as that is based upon the folks who are commenting in favor of his book and where they are coming from theologically.

One thing I will note, inchoately, is that based upon my impression, what potentially may be missing in this whole mix is an adequate development, in regard to Bates himself, of a theological ontology as the basis of his hermeneutic in general. My concern is that the theological in exegesis is not adequately addressed, and that what we are given then is just more of the type of ‘naturalist’ engagement with the text that I would say even attends the work of N.T. Wright in his exegetical conclusions. In other words, if Christology, for my money, is not the framework from whence Bates comes to his exegetical conclusions, particularly as his book deals directly with both soteriological and theological-anthropological issues, then the proposal itself will not be as fruitful as it could have been or should be. If McKnight’s comment—“When a crisis arose among his followers he didn’t say “you’re safe” or “get your orthodoxy on”—is indicative of the tone we are supposed to expect from Bates, then I am afraid, I, at least, am going to be very disappointed with what Bates presents.

Materially, when someone can assert/argue that someone in union with Christ today could not be in union with Christ eschatologically or in the final salvation, all this reduces down to, traditionally, is no more than the classically Arminian view that a person can ‘lose their salvation’; or on the classical Calvinist side, it boils down to the notion that ‘someone who may have professed Christ or even looked like they were “saved” were never really saved to begin with.’ Bates believes people can be in union with Christ today, but at the same time may well not be in eternal union with Christ when that final day comes. Is his conclusion any different than the Arminian’s? No. How he gets there might well be more innovative and creative relative to the way he marshals the “biblical data,” but his conclusion is tried and true throughout the centuries; whether that be within a Roman Catholic or Protestant expression.

What I would hope to be present is something like Karl Barth’s and Evangelical Calvinism’s Christologically conditioned doctrine of election and union with Christ. What I would hope to be in the hermeneutical mix, for Bates, is a heavy commitment to the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. If “allegiance,” as Bates interprets that, was somehow located objectively in the vicarious humanity, in the vicarious faith and faithfulness of Christ for us, then what he is communicating might not be so problematic theologically. But I am getting the sense that all of that “theological ontology” is missing within Bates’ offering; I’m getting the sense, particularly from McKnight, that Matthew is simply engaging in the work, ostensibly, of biblical studies—and that understood from the deconfessionalized mode bequeathed by the Enlightenment etc.—and that these highly important theological and inner-theological connective tissues are not really present. That’s what concerns me most about what I am sensing about Bates’ offering. Maybe he’ll surprise me.

Stay tuned. As I read through Matthew’s book, as I noted, I plan on doing a running and critical kind of review of his book. Again, I hope I am moving too fast and jumping to unfounded conclusions too early. But I’m thinking I’m not.

[1] Scot McKnight, “Foreword,” in Matthew Bates, Salvation By Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and The Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2017), 11 Scribd version.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

 

 

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

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

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.

Observations:

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.

Synthesis:

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.

 

 

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.

‘First Adam’ ‘Second Adam’: And Barth’s Canon within the ‘Canon’

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 genesisparticular passage’s message as understood (intra 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:

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)

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 regards to Paul’s letter to the Romans (and elsewhere).

repost from an old blog.

 

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

Hope for Today in the Apocalyptic of the Book of Revelation: Patristic Readings of Revelation

Richard Bauckham’s two books on the book of Revelation, The Theology of the Book of Revelation and The Climax of Prophecy are both excellent (which is an understatement)! I just started a new book (which I will take some time getting through it as I can) called Apocalyptic Thought In Early Christianity (Holy Cross Studies in Patristic Theology and History) edited by Robert J. bannerpantocratorDaly, SJ. The first chapter I have encountered is entitled: “I Know Your Works”: Grace and Judgment in the Apocalypse and is written by Theodore Stylianopoulos. As is usual for me study of the book of Revelation, if done right, evokes excitement and wonder. Stylianopoulos’s chapter, even as we are just getting started, is getting off on the right foot!*

I think the theme of Revelation that challenges and excites me the most is the idea of the holiness of God, and that He is Pantokrator (Παντοκράτωρ), ‘Almighty.’ The idea that within that reality we are faced with two kingdoms (no, not of the sort that we get from the so called Escondido Theology), or to get more Augustinian (even though Stylianopoulos does not), with two cities: The City of God juxtaposed with The City of Man.

As Bauckham does so well in his books, he develops this theme found in the book of Revelation: i.e. the theme that God’s kingdom in Christ trumps the kingdoms of this world; and in the book of Revelation, in historical context, the Roman world and its kingdom. As Bauckham underscores, what the book of Revelation is doing, by its appeal to apocalyptic language and imagery, is showing these early Christians (and now us later ones too) through evocative and picturesque language that, indeed, Rome is not it. It is showing the Christians, that while their most immediate experience seems pressing, with all of its visceral and experienced realities, including martyrdom for Christ, that this is not the final reality, or even the total present reality. That standing above and over the City of Man is the City of God, where the King of kings and Lord of lords rules, and is coming from to vindicate the martyrs persecuted for His name. It is this type of apocalyptic reality that I have found hopeful (because God is God and He is Almighty even when it might not look like it), and it is this reality that Stylianopoulos’ further provides layering for as he writes about the choices that the Christian has in the Roman context of whether they are going to serve Caesar as lord, or the living Lord of apocalyptic reality as Lord. If the Christian follows the latter, according to Stylianopoulos, it will look decidedly different than what it looks like to follow Caesar as lord; and it might even eventuate in death. Stylianopoulos writes:

For the seer, there is no room for compromise. The choice is either between Rome and its works (Rev. 18:6) or Christ and his works (Rev. 2:26). The two ways are irreconcilable. Rome’s ways are marked by self-glorification (“goddess Roma”), wealth, luxury, and prosperity by which it deceives and corrupts the nations while concealing its abominations of violence, injustice, wantonness, lies, and slavery (Rev. 18:1–19). Not least, Rome is accountable to God for the blood of the saints who are killed for resisting its idolatrous practices. To follow Rome, as the “earth- dwellers” do, is to participate in its abominations of murder, sorcery, immorality, thefts, all motivated by the worship of demons (Rev. 9:20–21). Thus the saints are commanded: “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues” (Rev. 18:4). This call, of course, is not for physical withdrawal but for a distinctly countercultural way of life in the midst of Greco-Roman society. In contrast, Christ’s way is the way of the slain Lamb bearing testimony to God’s truth and achieving victory through suffering and death. To follow the slain Lamb, as the saints do, is to participate in Jesus’ witness to God’s word and in Jesus’ suffering because of their own witness and suffering in active resistance to the prevailing culture. The assumption is that to live as a Christian is to live in the world and not apart from it. However, the choice provokes conflict and entails suffering, even the prospect of death (Rev. 13:9–10). The supreme ideal is symbolized by the 144,000 martyrs who stand victorious and sing praises before God’s throne. The recurrent calls for faithfulness to God and the Lamb, and the exhortations to patient endurance to the point of death, signify that for the author of the Apocalypse the greatest commendable work is martyrdom itself.[1]

Conclusion

There are many directions we could take all of this, but let me close it this way. In light of the horrific events of November 13th in Paris it would be easy to reduce the evil that we saw on the streets there to the ISIS combatants that executed so many people. But when we consider what we find in the book of Revelation, in its theological implications, what becomes clear is that it isn’t just ISIS, but that it is the kingdoms of this world (including France, Europe in toto, USA, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, etc., etc.) that represent the City of Man in total; the ‘city’ or ‘kingdom’ that stands against the purposes of God and His kingdom in Christ. This does not mean that God does not providentially use (see Rev. 17) the kingdoms of this world to make sure that justice is wrought (Rom. 13). This does not mean that there aren’t clear and bright lines between evil and good (in a relative sense). But what it does mean is that even “good” intentions apart from participation in Christ’s goodness aren’t really good at all. It means that things are quite complicated, and that there is an undercurrent for prestige and power even among countries that appear to be ‘good.’ And as Christians if we desire to live and stand for righteousness in Jesus Christ, that ultimately this will place us at cross-purposes even with the ostensibly good countries in the world. In fact, as we bear witness to Christ it will expose the darkness that underwrites the power present in every human government.

But there is hope, and this is why I enjoy the book of Revelation so much! It shows that while the Beastly kingdoms have their ways, so too does the Kingdom of Christ. And even when things appear one way, as if the Beast, the kingdoms of this world are winning, that in reality they have already been crushed by the King of kings, by Jesus Christ!

[1] Theodore Stylianopoulos, “I Know Your Works”: Grace and Judgment in the Apocalypse in Robert J. Daly, SJ, ed., Apocalyptic Thought In Early Christianity (Holy Cross Studies in Patristic Theology and History) (Baker Publishing Group, 2009), 35 Scribd version.

*One critique I have of Stylianopoulos’s essay is that he presumes, in Protestant speak, an Arminian maintenance idea of salvation. In other words, he appears to hold that ‘works’ and ‘conquering’ in the book of Revelation indicate that even though we have been given a glorious gift in salvation through Christ, that it remains possible for the believer to lose this gift. Stylianopoulos is a Greek Orthodox, so rather than reading things through an Arminian lens, what really is bearing on his view in this regard is his Orthodoxy. This disagreement notwithstanding, his commentary on the idea of ‘works and judgment’ in the book of Revelation still bears some good fruit.

T Torrance, The Grammatico-Historico Biblical Exegete: With Reference to John Webster

What I want to continue to engage with in this post will be in reference to, Thomas Torrance’s hermeneutics; and this time instead of focusing simply on his revelational/ontic frame towards Scripture we will get further into what Torrance had to say about grammatical-historical-literary exegesis of the text. Sometimes the impression can be given that Torrance may have had no place glossbiblefor such consideration in his approach; the impression might be that he was so consumed with the Dogmatics of things that everything else is simply swallowed up, including thinking about the importance of actual concrete biblical exegesis and practice. John Webster writes this of Torrance:

For Torrance, questions about the nature and interpretation of Scripture are subordinate to questions about divine revelation; bibliology and hermeneutics are derivatives from principles about the active, intelligible presence of the triune God to his rational creatures. This way of ordering matters not only explains a certain reluctance on his part to spell out much by way of a doctrine of Holy Scripture (attempts to do so, he fears, risk isolating Scripture from its setting in the divine economy), but also sheds light on the fact that what he has to say about the nature and interpretation of the Bible is concerned only secondarily with Scripture as literary-historical text and primarily with Scripture as sign – that is, with Scripture’s ostensive functions rather than with its literary surface or the historical processes of its production. A theological account of the nature of Scripture and its interpretation takes its rise, not in observations of immanent religious and literary processes, as if the texts could be understood as self-articulations on the part of believing communities, but in the doctrine of the self-revealing triune God.[1]

The latter part of Webster’s thoughts is what we covered somewhat in this post; it is this reality, indeed, that I think sets Torrance’s approach apart from many other approaches to Holy Scripture. And yet, as Webster also notes, there does seem to be a ‘reluctance on his part to spell out much by way of a doctrine of Holy Scripture,’ and we might add his apparent commitment to see the literary-historical features present in most accounts of biblical hermeneutics as secondary to Scripture’s reality and/or ontology relative to its givenness within the economy of God’s life. I have had these concerns myself with Torrance’s apparent lack of engagement with concrete exegetical questions, and more pointedly with wonderment about how he actually interpreted Scripture itself (i.e. did he actually use literary-historical-grammatical-rhetorical tools, etc.). If you read his (TF Torrance’s) book Divine Meaning: Studies in Patristic Hermeneutics you might be pushed further into the impression that indeed Torrance really had no room for getting into the nitty-gritty details of literary driven biblical exegesis (Webster in another essay voices the same concern in regard to TF Torrance’s approach to things as presented in Divine Meaning). Of course, it would be too quick to conclude that Torrance really has nothing to say about such things; and too quick to conclude that Torrance does not engage in a type of “concrete” biblical exegesis in any of his works—with his posthumously published volumes Incarnation&Atonement (his Edinburgh, New College Lectures) we have a demonstration that this is not the case.

With all of the above noted, I was encouraged to come across some things he had to say about this in his 1981 published Payton lectures from Fuller under the title Reality and Evangelical Theology: A fresh and challenging approach to Christian revelation. While what he writes does not undercut Webster’s insights into his (TFT’s) secondary concern with literary-historical issues related to biblical exegesis; what it does do is show how Torrance actually does have a place for using these types of grammatico-historico-literary-rhetorico tools towards engaging with the text of Scripture. Of course as you will see he sees these as the necessary and instrumental supports, and natural-flowing realties present in the text, given its given nature by God in Christ. In other words, as you will see, he does not see this type of engagement with the text as an terminus in itself, but in service of the signum (or ‘sign’) function of the text; so he doesn’t see such engagement with the text as a foreclosing upon and/or harnessing of God’s Self-revelation (which funds the reality of the text), but instead in service of this Self-revelation and within the accommodating movement of God and embodiment of created media within the economy of His life of incarnation in Jesus Christ. Torrance writes:

In view of the way in which the primary reference of biblical statements to God relies upon the secondary reference of those statements to one another in coherent sequences, a great deal of attention must also be given to how the statements in biblical texts are to be read within their own syntactical or formal-logical structures and within the whole context in which they are found. This must be done if reasonable interpretation is to be offered and any rational account of the meaning to be assigned to them is to be given. In fact, only if we pay careful attention to the orderly connections built up by words, sentences, and continuous reports may we be in a position to discern how, through their objective reference, the Holy Scriptures may yield their own interpretation. Moreover, it is when we allow the biblical texts to declare their own syntactical meaning to us in this way that we are restrained from imposing upon them an objective meaning alien to what they actually say.

Determination of the coherent patterns of sense and meaning in biblical passages and documents is not so easy as it might at first appear on the syntactic and semantic surface. Much hard thought and work is required in exegetical and critical inquiry to lay bare what we call their inner rational sequence. The interpreter must seek to clarify rather more than the grammatico-syntactical sense of passages. He must probe into the reasonable ground underlying their linguistic signification, and that needs a comparative examination of their signifying components including the many images, analogies, figures, representations, and idioms that are employed, in order to determine as far as possible their exact sense and then to distill out of them and bring to consistent expression the basic conceptuality they carry. Analytical and synthetical work of this kind calls for a deep perception and judgment on the part of the interpreter in deciding what is finally irrelevant overtone and what is essential to the real meaning intended. It is only as the linguistic and conceptual forms are matched to one another that their inner rational sequence may be disclosed in an adequate and semantically helpful way.[2]

Closing

Much more could and should be said, but suffice it to say: Thomas F. Torrance, while always the consonant Christian Dogmatician, certainly had place in his approach and thinking for deploying the ‘regular’ and even historical exegetical tools of grammatico-historico analysis of the text of Scripture. While I am encouraged by this, what ought to be kept at the forefront, is that TF Torrance, while committed to regular exegetical practice, always saw such endeavor from a unitary theological vision starting with an order of God’s being leading to an order of knowing within the context of a Christ concentrated doctrine of creation. This is where he saw Scripture located within God’s economy, and this is the frame of reference within which the literary-grammatical-historical realties of the text of Scripture find their inner-logical/inner-theological-meaning from. If context determines meaning, for Torrance, then the context of Scripture is Jesus Christ!

[1] John Webster, The Domain Of The Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London/New York: T&T Clark International, 2012), 89.

[2] T.F. Torrance, Reality and Evangelical Theology: A fresh and challenging approach to Christian revelation (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1982), 114-15.

The Dispensational Hermeneutic, An Enlightenment Invention: Ryrie, Berkouwer, and Webster in Relief

Thomas Reid

Thomas Reid

There is no doubt a retreat, or migration as it were, of evangelicals has taken place 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 historist 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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