Being Studious So We Know What and Who the Gospel Is: ‘The Weapons of Our Warfare Are Mighty’

In light of tragedy I often hear pastors and teachers in our 21st century context downplay the Gospel; as if the Gospel ultimately is indeed some sort of insurance policy, but at the end of each day does not have the resource to confront the types of tragedies we are faced with on a daily basis as Christians. As if the Gospel itself is not effulgent with the life of very God of very God. Maybe one reason Christians think of the Gospel in these terms—in domesticated and muted terms—is because they have failed to appreciate that understanding the Gospel requires rigor and work. In other words, we live in a fallen state (still!), and as a result even though salvation is by grace alone understanding what grace alone entails requires great depths of work and study. Maybe pastors and teachers gut the Gospel the way they do, particularly in light of travail and torment in people’s lives, because they are simply lazy; as are most in the church. Maybe the Gospel actually is the power of God, and not in some mystical sense, just as the Apostle Paul has asserted (by the Spirit!). Maybe the Gospel has the resource to actually make the crooked straight even in the in-between we currently inhabit, and we ought to entrust ourselves to it (Him) more rather than less. Maybe if we committed to exerting the necessary energy of putting the work in we’d have a greater depth understanding of the Gospel and see it for what it actually is, and for what it actually has the capacity to accomplish in us and for us.

The late John Webster offers a challenging word on this front as he develops his theme on theological theology. He confronts the sin of laziness, and underscores how important it is for Christians to be studious in regard to gaining proper understanding of the fullness attendant with the Gospel. Webster ties study of the Gospel (he calls this theology) into ends and purposes; and notes the impact that the end has on purpose. But more than that, as noted, he wants to impress how if the Christian is to appreciate what they actually have in the Gospel they need to work and be studious. He writes:

Christian theology pursues scientific ends, that is, the acquisition of that knowledge of its matter which is proper to creatures, in accordance with its cognitive principles. Pursuit of scientific ends is an element of the fulfillment of our intellectual nature, and is a creaturely good. Human creatures are by nature studious. We have an appetite to acquire knowledge beyond what is necessary for the immediate fulfillment of our animal nature, and we possess intellectual powers which we apply to satisfy this appetite. Well-ordered, temperate studiousness is not self-derived or wholly spontaneous; it is creaturely, the exercise of powers which have been given and which are moved, preserved and fortified by a movement beyond themselves. Studiousness is the arduous application of these powers; it is not indolent or casual, but concentrated, determined, painstaking and resistant to premature termination.

All theological activity requires this kind of purposive pursuit of scientific ends: revelation awakens theological science. It is through study that God becomes actually intelligible, and defects in the acquisition and exercise of studiousness threaten the attainment of other ends in theology. However, pursuit of scientific ends is instrumental and interim: necessary, but not sufficient or final. Forgetfulness of the instrumental status of scientific ends arises from disordered intention: our purposes for this activity fail to coincide with its intrinsic ends, and excessive devotion to scientific ends inhibits attainment of the true ends of theological intelligence. Much harm to theology is done by this disordered purpose. Theology’s object becomes one which is ours to appropriate or master by scientia; its cognitive principles become naturalized; the dependence of theology on divine instruction is neglected. Some kinds of institutional setting in which theology is undertaken may provide opportunities for such distortions to flourish, but their chief cause is the crookedness and futility of our intellectual nature after the fall. Only with the restoration and regeneration of that nature can our purposes be taught to direct themselves to fitting ends; theology will be theological as it is caught up in this renewal.[1]

It is important to identify, as Webster does, the internal battle we all are facing as Christians. The struggle is indeed real, and we should not be naïve to this as Christian warriors. We are enveloped in the very life of the living God in Christ, and in this envelopment we have been given the mind and heart of Christ. This is where we have the ‘renewal’ to do genuinely theological theology. Meaning: this is where we have the ability to grow deep into the reality of the pleroma (fullness) of the Gospel. Webster’s points are well taken; sin retards our desire, even as Christians, especially as Christians to seek God while he might be found call upon him while he is near. But we must not give into the baser desires of the old nature that continues to seek to assert itself where it has been crushed like the serpent’s head that it is.

In an even more applied sense: as we continue to mourn the loss of Pastor Andrew I fear that Christians won’t allow this tragedy to forge them into the steely new creations they have been made in and through their gracious union with Jesus Christ. As Christians we are in a spiritual battle, and the means of our battle, the weapons of our warfare are not fleshly but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds. But what does this really mean? Is this some sort of mystical appeal that we simply live ethereally into as a New Ager does in their transcendental reflections? No. The weapons of our warfare are exactly what Webster was referring to; it entails work and being studious around the Gospel; around growing into the grace and knowledge of God in Jesus Christ and who he is for us as he is eternally in himself. If we fail to sharpen these weapons, which requires labor, we will indeed reduce the Gospel to some sort of shallow insurance policy shorn of the very power of God that it actually is. Armed with such a Gospel we will remain impotent, and the attacks of the evil one will land hard and furious; we won’t know what hit us till we are on the brink of destruction (even as Christians).

As a brother in Christ I implore you, at the very least, to daily take up your Bible and read it; internalize it. More, I implore you to read sound theology, and learn the tools that will allow you to interpret Scripture in depth ways. The end is to know and love God; the purposes of our activity are to be shaped by this end. If so, if we take this to heart we will be constrained by the love of Christ (the end), and motivated in the proper ways toward reaching the end of who we are in Jesus Christ.

[1] John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers In Christian Theology: Volume 1: God And The Works Of God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 219-20.

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Is The Devil Real? The Bible’s Take Contra Friedrich Schleiermacher’s

Alexandre Cabanel’s Fallen Angel, 1868

Is the Devil real; some refer to this as: is the Devil personal? Yes, I personally think the Devil is real. I can only arrive at this conclusion based upon the Dominical affirmation and teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is important, I think, because the biblical reality not only asserts that this is the case, but it frames the ‘spiritual battle’ Jesus Christ undertook, and the same battle that his church continues to undertake, as the church militant, in such terms that are clear that our battle is not ‘against flesh and blood, but against the rulers and powers and principalities’ that inhabit the ‘air’ as it were (read the whole Epistle to the Ephesians). None of this is to mention, of course, the most pivotal section of scripture in the whole of the Bible (it could be argued) in regard to the Fall. Genesis:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

We have other references in the Old Testament that refer to the ‘spiritual battle’, particularly in Daniel 10; note:

12 Then he continued, “Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. 13 But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia. 14 Now I have come to explain to you what will happen to your people in the future, for the vision concerns a time yet to come.”. . . 20 So he said, “Do you know why I have come to you? Soon I will return to fight against the prince of Persia, and when I go, the prince of Greece will come; 21 but first I will tell you what is written in the Book of Truth. (No one supports me against them except Michael, your prince.)

And then of course the infamous battle that Jesus had with the Devil in the wilderness (a recapitulation of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness) in Matthew (and the Synoptic attestation):

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:“‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

If we didn’t have the Old Testament witnesses the New Testament account of Jesus’s battle wouldn’t make sense, for one thing. For another thing what we do have in the ‘spiritual battle’ that Jesus undertook in the wilderness and the victory he won (think Irenaeus and recapitulation as far as hermeneutical and soteriological method) is not ‘parabolic’ in literary form but historical prose; in other words its intention is to detail a concrete event with theological depth per the reality of the euaggelion, per the Gospel reality that Jesus is in the incarnation. In other words, the reality of the Devil to this account in Matthew (and Mark) is just as central to the canonical narrative as is Genesis 3 with our first introduction to the Devil. There is a continuity of salvation-history in regard to the character and function of the Devil from the first Adam to the second Adam (to pick up on the Pauline motif cf. Rom. 5), and his role in introducing humanity to an evil that he had already partaken of. This is not to suggest that the Devil is evil, like in a Manichean or dualist sense, or that he helps explain the origin of evil—this would only exceed the bounds and thrust us into a mode of speculation that we dare not engage in as those committed to a revelational theology—but it is to recognize through attention to the text’s development that the Devil ought to be understood in a realist and at least ontic sense insofar as he has agency and volition in his textuality.

In short, the text, I contend, wants us to believe that the Devil is a real entity who is maliciously oriented against God and his purposes in Jesus Christ. The text wants us to think that the Devil wants to undo what God has done, and is doing in and through the resurrection power of the risen Christ in the human and created order in general. The text, as we think this canonically, wants us to think that the Devil is real; has agency, ‘prowls around like a roaring lion’; is leader of a cohort that has been made a public spectacle of at the cross of Christ; is ‘accuser of the brethren’ cast down from heaven in warfare with the heavenly host, that soon, along with the rest of death will be put under the Christ’s foot once and for all never to be heard of again. In other words, the text wants us to think that the Devil, with all his ‘being’ wants to destroy the good and very good creation and recreation of God in Jesus Christ; not to mention all of those who are participants in Christ’s life by the Spirit.

I write all of the above to get to Friedrich Schleiermacher; just who you were waiting for! Most evangelical and Reformed Christians couldn’t give two cents for what Schleiermacher thinks; I get that. Nevertheless, I think it is interesting, if not important, to understand where someone as giant and genius as Schleiermacher stood on such things. His theology of the devil is actually pretty scant, and as he notes (as you will see) unnecessary for a Christian theology. Clearly he reflects the ‘enlightened’ thinking of his times, and presupposes upon the developing ‘higher criticism’ of his day. You will see this reflected in what he has to say about the non-importance of the devil relative to scriptural teaching and Christian living. As you read him along with me here, what I opened up with above will become clear; you will see why I wrote what I did in anticipation of what Schleiermacher thinks. He writes:

Thus, even if only a few scriptural passages treat of the devil, or even if all the passages actually cited here and those otherwise still reputable for the purpose treat the devil, all grounds for taking up this notion as an enduring component in our presentation of Christian faith-doctrine would be lacking to us. Accordingly, all grounds would also be lacking for defining the notion so much more closely that everything that is ascribed to the devil could also really be considered together. This is so, for in Christ and his disciples this notion was not used as one that would be derived from the Sacred Scriptures of the old covenant, nor even as on that would be acquired from divine revelation by any pathway whatsoever. Rather, it arose from the common life of that time, thus in the same way in which it more or less arises in all of us, despite our complete ignorance as to the existence of such a being. Moreover, that wherefrom we are to be redeemed remains the same, whether the devil exists or not, and that whereby we are redeemed also remains the same. Thus, the very question concerning the existence of the devil is also no question for Christian theology at all. Rather, it is a cosmological question, in the broadest sense of the word, exactly the same as that concerning the nature of the firmament and of heavenly bodies. Moreover, in a presentation of faith-doctrine we actually have just as little to affirm as to deny on this topic, and likewise we can just as little be required to hold a dispute over that notion in a presentation of faith-doctrine as to provide a grounding for it. What the biblical deposit shows is nothing more than that the notion was a confluence of two or three very different components among the Jewish people themselves. The first component is the servant of God who locates the whereabouts of wickedness, and who has a certain rank and work among the other angels, but of whom there can be no talk of being cast out from being near God. The other main component is the basically evil being of oriental dualism, modified in such a way that the Jews alone would have been in a position to adopt the new version.[1]

Schleiermacher, clearly, was under the influence of his times; as such the Bible was undergoing a radical displacement in regard to being a trustworthy gateway into the strange world operative under the strictures of supernatural reality, as he attempted to theologize.

There are many today, Christians even, who have little time to ponder whether or not the devil is real; many believe we have enough concrete expressions of evil, systemically and personally, to take up our time and attention. But according to the brief survey of Scripture I offered previously this is errant. The Bible, contra Schleiermacher wants us to think that we are engaged in a real life battle with a ‘personal’ satan who seeks to not only destroy our souls, but the souls of every person for whom Christ died; and along with that the rest of creation as that is tied to our stewardship.

From a personal perspective I have experienced all types of spiritual warfare, in fact I’ve experienced some right now as I’ve come to type this post. I’ve had encounters with tangible contact points with the kingdom of darkness, been exposed to people who are demon-possessed, and confronted such realties in the name of the living Christ. This is why this is important; because it’s a real life struggle that each of us as soldiers of Christ faces on a daily basis. Maybe one positive point we could take from Schleiermacher, in a recontextualized way, is that we don’t want to give the devil too much of our time and focus; but along with the Apostle Paul we don’t want to be ‘ignorant of his devices’ or reality either!

Further, I wouldn’t want to close this post without noting that the ‘spiritual’, just as the resurrection of Christ illustrates, is disembodied, per se. In other words, even though the devil is a ‘spirity’ entity (as are his cohorts) does not mean, as we can infer from Scripture, that his means are always or mostly of the so called ‘paranormal’ sort. Typically, especially in the Western enclave, his most heinous manifestations of evil are very material in orientation. We see this extended into space and time in terms of economic, sexual, physical forms of violence and abuse; in systemic and structural ways. But we ought to remember, nonetheless, that standing behind such ‘beastly’ action is indeed the kingdom of darkness in all its grossness. Devil be damned!

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. –Ephesians 6.10-12

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete. –II Corinthians 10.3-6

 

[1] Friedrich Schleiermacher, Christian Faith Volume One, trans. by Terrence N. Tice, Catherine L Kelsey, and Edwina Lawler (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 242-43.

A Theology of Scars and Remembrance

God has a way of keeping his people close to his side; I would like to suggest one of his primary means for doing this is through suffering. For the remainder of this post I want to attempt to offer a theology of scars and remembrance.

We all walk through various forms of suffering in this life, this is what it means to live in a fallen world; there is fall-out in this fallen world—both internal and external to ourselves—that we will in one way or the other be exposed to and experience in various measures of intensity and duration. The wisdom of God was to enter this world precisely at the point of our weakness, and redeem and reverse the human travail from there (I Cor. 1.17-25); as we walk through whatever suffering we are going to be faced with that will leave these scars, whether those be physical, spiritual-emotional, or all of the above. This has been my experience after walking through many years of various trials.

In my early twenties (starting in 1995) I began to experience severe anxiety attacks, deep depression, associated with a doubt of God’s existence (even though I still believed in Him), and a host of other emotional-psychological woes that wouldn’t abate for a period of at least six years. I won’t wear you out with indexing the details of all the woes I struggled with during that season, but suffice it to say there are deep and abiding scars left over from that season. Indeed, God in Jesus Christ brought me healing and comfort through it all; but He let me go through it, in all of its excruciating torment and pain. Yet, He never left or forsook me; He cared for me through apocalyptic in-breakings bringing total relief to tortuous moments where I thought all sanity would finally be lost; and He did this over and over again. He brought relief this way so much, He met me in the depths so frequently that I began to have confidence and expectation that He would deliver me through each episode of despondency and horror. In the midst of the torment He was building His life into mine in such ways that I would learn to recognize His voice, to understand His presence, and to expect Him to show up just when all seemed lost. When this series of events happens over and again for a season of years you begin to have an abiding trust in God that no one can rattle or shake. You begin to realize that the very ground of your identity and essence as a person is fully contingent upon the Living God and His Word of sustenance. If nothing else, this is what this season of time taught me about God. Yet it came with scars. The scars are reminders that I am not my own, that I’ve been bought with a hefty price, and my life can never go beyond the life that God chooses to give me in and from Himself in His Son, Jesus Christ.

Fast forward to 2009, another epic trial hit me; this time it wasn’t just me, but it would impact my young family—my wife and two kids, most immediately (but all of my family). I was diagnosed with what is normally a terminal and incurable cancer called Desmoplastic Small Round Cell Tumor (DSRCT). I thought I had experience anxiety before—and I had—but this brought things to a new level. This season that lasted just about a year held me in a state that went beyond anxiety, it took me to depths of anguish that I didn’t know were possible. Attendant with this season of life there was, of course, the physical component to the suffering that I had never experience previously in any measure in my life. The chemo literally ravished my body, and the lack of having a sense of ‘future’—with my family on this earth—was more than overwhelming. Yet again, the Lord met us in so many ways it would be hard to detail them. He provided for us financially, with the best of medical care, He provided me with what I could only describe as “visions” of Him, He made sure we knew He was tangibly present by angelic visitors, and so many other means of provision. And for some reason, only known to Him, He walked us through that to the point that I was allowed to live. This season of suffering likewise brought scars, not just emotional-psychological, but this time I have physical scars I can look down at on my belly and upper chest. What was made clear in this season is that at the deepest depths God is faithful to meet us where we need Him most; He meets us in our moments of deepest suffering and anguish and reveals Himself in the times where by all outward appearances He seems to be Hidden.

I sketch these two seasons of suffering from my own life to help segue into some biblical passages that I think tie into my own moments of suffering, and into the moments of human suffering in general which we all are partakers of to one degree or another. Let me quote some of these passages, and then I will offer some reflection on them as they relate to this topic of consideration.

13 The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt. 14 “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast. Exodus 12:13-14

When all the nation had finished passing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, “Take twelve men from the people, from each tribe a man, and command them, saying, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the midst of the Jordan, from the very place where the priests’ feet stood firmly, and bring them over with you and lay them down in the place where you lodge tonight.’… that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever.” Joshua 4:1-3, 6-7

67 Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word. 71 It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes. Psalm 119:67, 71

42 saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” 43 And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. 44 And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. 45 And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, 46 and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” Luke 22:42-46

28 After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” 29 A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. 30 When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. John 19:28-30

27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” John 20:27

14 But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. 16 And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. 17 From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. Galatians 6:14-17

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers,  of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 10 He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. II Corinthians 1:8-10

10 For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. 11 For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, Hebrews 2:10-11

17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. Revelation 1:17-18

These only represent a small sampling of the various passages we could refer to when thinking about a theology of scars, remembrance, and suffering; but they are the ones that most immediately came to mind. Very early on God provides new life for His people through the shedding of innocent blood; He creates a framework wherein sacrifice and substitution for the other becomes the means by which we are to understand our relationship to God. There was much travail and anguish that attended this time of Passover; there was death and judgment, and yet out of this sprung new life, and the hope for all of humanity that would ultimately come through the offspring of Israel in the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ. As Leviticus notes ‘the life is in the blood,’ and it is this that comes through most clairvoyantly as we contemplate what happened in Exodus; life was lost, through suffering and the death of the other, in order that life might be reborn in the creation of a new people that would ultimately lead to life for the nations. But I want to highlight the tie in between suffering and new life.

As this new people is formed through much tribulation God has the priests place remembrance stones in the Jordan as a sign of God’s faithfulness; we might see them as ‘scars’ that the people in solidarity could look back upon and remember that they are a people not of their own making, but of the creative hand of Yahweh. These ‘scars’ were intended to be a resource for the people to look at particularly in times where they might be tempted to forget God’s faithfulness; more positively, they were intended to be a sort of sacramental means by which the people were to understand God’s presence in their lives, and for their lives in a very concrete rock hard way.

King David understood how important affliction was; he knew of his heritage and the God who created and formed his lineage. He was so aware of God’s faithfulness that he could look upon his deep and tortuous suffering as the means by which he understood God to be showing Himself faithful to him rather than as an onerous overlord arbitrarily beating him for sadistic purposes. He could look at suffering and affliction and know that there God’s faithfulness was present in it, and that God was using it to teach deep and abiding things about Himself to David.

We meet the son of David, Jesus Christ, in the travail of the Garden; the substantive Passover (I Cor. 5:7). He along with David knew that in order for the plight of new life to come to pass He, as the Lamb of God, must endure suffering for the ‘joy set before Him.’ The depth of His anguish only caused Him to press that much more deeply into His Father’s sustenance and love in reliance upon the Holy Spirit’s comforting presence. Even while in the intensity of the suffering, He knew the Father’s faithfulness would carry Him through in and through the bond of eternal love that He shared with the Father through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Christ’s great travail, most notably observed in the Garden, ironically where the Fall of Humanity occurred (in ‘the Garden’ Gen. 3), eventuated in the deepest travail to ever be experienced in all of history. The suffering and tribulation that Jesus experienced at the point of the cross was of depths that no greater suffering will ever or ever has been known throughout all the long corridors of human suffering and travail. The suffering Jesus endured required that the very ground of His humanity be Divine in nature; outwith this fortification His frail dusty humanity would have been vaporized into the oblivion that the Devil himself and humanity’s incurved souls would have hoped for.

But He is risen! Even in His resurrected body, as Thomas realized, the scars of the cross remained. They will serve as reminders and signs of remembrance for all eternity that God’s faithfulness is greater than humanity’s unfaithfulness; that what it means to be truly human before God is to be reconciled to Him in New Creation and Reconciliation. These scars, at a macro-level, serve to remind us that God in the Son is not untouched by human suffering and anguish, but that His heart is immediately in the midst of all that we walk through in this life, and in the life to come in eschatological vision.

We see the Apostle Paul, as a partaker of the Divine nature, experiencing suffering tribulation and anguish in the same sorts of ways we’ve seen starting in Exodus, in the King David, and ultimately in Jesus Christ himself. The Apostle Paul, like King David understood the value of the trials (even though he’d rather not walk through them cf. II Cor. 12), and could later look at all of his scars and gain great strength and purpose from realizing that God would never leave or forsake him. The Apostle Paul, as he cared for the various churches, wanted people to realize that this pattern was going to be normative for all those who would become spiritual participants in the life of God through Jesus Christ. His writings are filled with notations of how the Christian life will be one that is lived out of brokenness, and in this brokenness God’s resurrected life in Jesus Christ will be made strong and complete; will be the place where He is borne witness to most, and His glory displayed for the world to see and experience.

We understand as we look at Christ that the hope we have laid before us in the heavenlies is one where His indestructible life is the reality. Not an ethereal abstract reality to the human experience, but one where the human experience has been assumed, renewed, and resurrected in the triumph of the living God. The scars of Jesus show the world that there is real hope.

Conclusion

I’ve written this post more as an exercise in reminding myself that God is faithful at all costs; that His love will never cease; and that His ability to take care of His people (including me) is unmatched by any challenge we might face in this life. My scars sometimes become more apparent to me than at other times; I’ve been pressed into a situation, once again, where my weaknesses and inabilities in myself are on full display for me to see. And I can recognize these moments as God’s mercy in my life, keeping me from drifting from His more sure Word for my life. Hopefully my reflecting can serve as some sort of reminder to you of His faithfulness to you in your own life; that you will be able to value the scars in your life, and appreciate the development of new ones—even though these are not welcomed when we are walking through whatever we are walking through. At the very least our scars can cause us to remember God’s faithfulness in the past, and this might provide the kind of Manna we need to walk through whatever dark night of the soul we might be experiencing this time. Maybe, ever so faintly, we will see our scars as grounded in the scars of the Son for us; and in that vision recognize that our lives are securely grounded in the One who has ‘died’ and yet ‘alive forevermore.’

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.

 

Job 19. Miscellaneous Personal Reflection. Death and Suffering, Incarnation and Resurrection

I am an avid Bible reader, and have been one since 1995; by the grace of God. Indeed, this is where it all started for me; i.e. where the love of theology has come from. But I’m afraid this reality about who I am doesn’t come through enough in my posts; so in an effort to remedy that I’m hoping to post reflective posts on wherever I’m at in my Bible reading at that point. I’m currently in the book of Job, and one of my favorite passages of Scripture is found in Job 19. Let me share the section I’m thinking of, and you’ll see the passages I particularly like emboldened. I will share more on the other side.

13 “He has alienated my family from me my acquaintances are completely estranged from me. 14 My relatives have gone away; my closest friends have forgotten me. 15 My guests and my female servants count me a foreigner; they look on me as on a stranger. 16 I summon my servant, but he does not answer, though I beg him with my own mouth. 17 My breath is offensive to my wife; I am loathsome to my own family. 18 Even the little boys scorn me; when I appear, they ridicule me. 19 All my intimate friends detest me; those I love have turned against me. 20 I am nothing but skin and bones; I have escaped only by the skin of my teeth. 21 “Have pity on me, my friends, have pity, for the hand of God has struck me. 22 Why do you pursue me as God does? Will you never get enough of my flesh? 23 “Oh, that my words were recorded, that they were written on a scroll, 24 that they were inscribed with an iron tool on lead, or engraved in rock forever! 25 I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. 26 And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; 27 I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me![1]

I don’t really want to try and wax eloquent, but I do want to share from the heart as I reflect upon this passage.

Job obviously was no stranger to human suffering, indeed, we might call him a ‘type’ of the Suffering Servant; in fact I think we’d have exegetical (intertextual) warrant for that. But look at the depth of his suffering given poetic voice in the passage I’ve shared; like many of the Psalms Job moves from utter despair to utter hope. What I love the most about Job’s hope is the contrast we see between the God that he has come to know through his suffering with the God that his “friends” throughout the pages of Job presume to know as the true God. Indeed Job seems to have the same conception of God that his friends have, in the beginning, but as we progress through the book we see an intimacy forged, and knowledge of God gained in and through the suffering Job experiences. It’s as if everything else is torn away, and Job is shorn down to his bare bones; what he finds there is the hope of the Incarnate God (Deus incarnandus). This seems to be an inescapable observation, that is that Job had an idea of the ‘incarnation’ (maybe thinking back to the Genesis theme of God walking in the cool of the garden, and projecting that out proleptically as a real and coming hope). Job also seems to have an understanding of the resurrection; this is all amazing to me. Ostensibly Job is one of the earliest books of the Bible, at least the history it covers, and yet here we have a man who somehow knows the Covenant God, Yahweh, and somehow has an idea about incarnation and resurrection.

What I’m impressed with most is the idea that death and suffering, in God’s economy, within his covenant with humanity (typified in Israel) leads the submitted person to the reality that our only hope is the incarnation and the resurrection of God in Christ for all of us. I see this as the ‘depth dimension’ of what Job is about; that suffering and death only lead us deeper into God. As the Apostle Paul opined ‘he had the sentence of death written upon him so that he wouldn’t trust himself but in the One who raises the dead.’ Job had this same Pauline expectation and hope driven into him through the death and suffering he was pushed up against.

This reality, at least to me, is not the most comforting thing. I mean it does portend that we will and must go through all types of tribulation as we enter the kingdom of Christ, in the kingdom come who is Christ; but then there is this ultimate type of hope. And even in the immediate as Paul also knew, and Job came to know, God’s grace is sufficient and heightening even in the deepest depths; so elevating, in fact, that we get to see God’s face, his glory, in Christ in ways we never have before. For Job this meant that he got to know God in a personal and relational way, contrary to his friends who walked away from the experience only frustrated by the fact that all they were able to do was project a god from their own insecurities that in the end was found wanting by the true and living God.

There is something to be said for suffering before God. It isn’t that we can say it desirable, or easy; or even part of what God ultimately desires. The most we can say about human suffering is that it isn’t something that is absent in God; he is present with us in the deepest of ways because he freely and graciously elected the human predicament for himself to not be God without us but with us in Jesus Christ. In other words, human suffering (death), and all the angst and alienation we experience in our daily lives, to one degree or another, has come to have ultimate and immediate value because God has freely chosen that his life for us be cruciform in shape. He can sympathize with our weaknesses in ways that no one else can. I know that from experience, and I’m sure many of you do as well.

Job is one of the most Christ anticipating books in the canon of Scripture; at least I think so. And now you can see why I might think that.

[1] Job 19, NIV.

Miscellenies on Natural Theology in Acts 7, Romans 1, and the Late Post Reformed Orthodox

I am in the book of Acts in my Bible reading right now, and something just hit me, even though I’ve read it literally hundreds of times, that in Stephen’s speech in chapter 7 we have a perfect example and intertextual (i.e. canonical) link between what the Apostle Paul wrote of in Romans 1, and what Stephen articulates as he is recounting the history of Israel with particular focus on  Moses and the Exodus. We pick up Stephen mid-way through his speech to the religious leadership here:

39 Our fathers were unwilling to be obedient to him, but repudiated him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt, 40 saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us; for this Moses who led us out of the land of Egypt—we do not know what happened to him.’ 41 At that time they made a calf and brought a sacrifice to the idol, and were rejoicing in the works of their hands.42 But God turned away and delivered them up to serve the host of heaven; as it is written in the book of the prophets, ‘It was not to Me that you offered victims and sacrifices forty years in the wilderness, was it, Ohouse of Israel? 43 You also took along the tabernacle of Moloch and the star of the god Rompha, the images which you made to worship. I also will remove you beyond Babylon.’[1]

And then the Apostle Paul famously writes this in Romans 1:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. 25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.26 For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural,27 and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.28 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer,God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, 29 being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips,30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 without understanding, untrustworthy,unloving, unmerciful; 32 and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.[2]

Often the Pauline passage is referred to, at least by some within the classical Calvinist tradition (or even with someone like Emil Brunner), as a kind of exegetical defense and apparent prima facie illustration and maybe even prescription for a natural theology. But I’d like to suggest that given Paul’s own Hebraic-Jewish psyche and milieu as he wrote to the Roman church (a mixed church of both Gentiles and Jews, cf. Acts 28:16-17), he would have had what we see Stephen (ironically a Hellenistic Jew) referencing in mind, I would argue, in regard to the knowledge of God that people had available to them in creation. It wouldn’t be an abstract or purely discoverable knowledge of God, but instead one grounded in the fact and reality that God had personally revealed Himself to His covenant people the Jews as we see it most explicitly disclosed in Exodus 3:15 and the famous tetragrammton or the ‘I am that I am’ passage, where God names Himself for His covenant people as YHWH. I would want to argue that the universe that the Apostle Paul inhabited was so saturated with this background reality that it would be like tacit knowledge that fueled even what he pens in Romans 1; i.e. that there is no abstract knowledge of the true and living God, but instead an concrete and particular knowledge of God revealed to Moses and His covenant people as the prefigural mediators of God’s salvation to all nations [ethnos] (cf. Gen. 15 and the ‘Abrahamic Covenant’).

Interesting, at least to me, that we see the same progression Paul writes of in Romans as we see Stephen reference in his biblical theologizing of the history of salvation as embedded in the Torah (or Latinized Pentateuch). God freely and graciously gives Himself to His covenant people, who in fact, I would argue along with TF Torrance, are simply prefigural of the true Mediator, the second and greater Moses, the second and greater Adam, Jesus Christ. Without a revealed knowledge of God there is no true God to deny or rebel against; I think this is the backdrop of the Apostle Paul’s writing in Romans 1, and I think Stephen’s speech (as recorded by Luke, the author of Acts) helps provide further context and substantiation for how prevalent this background context was in the period of Second Temple Judaism.

Essentially, what I’m suggesting is that there is no ground for natural theology provided for in Romans 1. I actually think Richard Muller agrees with me, which you can read about in his Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Three as he highlights how the early and high Post Reformed orthodox theologians didn’t actually have a full-frontal natural theology at play in theology; Muller shows that it wasn’t until the 18th century where a naked type of natural theology became prominent for the Post Reformed orthodox in its late iteration. It was those who followed after Christian Wolff, known as the Wolffian’s who really argued for a natural theology as the basis and prolegomena for theological endeavor in late Post Reformed orthodox theology. Note Muller as he comments on how and when this shift happened; here he is referring to the “proofs of God,” which were used by the early and high orthodox theologians only in apologetic discussion and not as the basis for actual theologizing:

… The proofs now lose their purely apologetic function and become a positive prologue offered by reason to the system of revelation. Here, for the first time in the development of Reformed theological system, natural or philosophical theology provides a foundation on which revelation can build: we have lost the inherent fideism of the seventeenth century Protestant scholastics.[3]

I find this very interesting. Often you will hear contemporary Reformed theologians who believe they are simply re-iterating what their orthodox forefathers first iterated in founding their theological endeavor upon a natural theology. Clearly the early and high orthodox theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries were not Barthians by any stretch of the imagination, but they did have much more in common with Barth and Torrance in some ways than is often acknowledged; at least insofar as they had a lively fideism at play, and a staunch stance upon revelational Word-centered theology and theologizing.

Conclusion

This post actually needs a conclusion to tie some of the loose links together, but I’m not going to. I just think Barth and Torrance might well have had more in common with the early and high orthodox theologians than many think; at least in regard to the issue of natural theology. Yes Barth and Torrance radicalize things, but they never would have gotten there without the rigorous (in principle) Word based theology found in the early and high Post Reformed orthodox theologians. That’s interesting to me.

[1] Acts 7:39-43, NASB.

[2] Romans 1:18-32, NASB.

[3] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: Volume Three, The Divine Essence and Attributes (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 194.

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.

The Theology of the Cross in Job Says No to Natural Theology and the Theology of Glory

The book of Job provides such a visceral and existential reality toward unfolding human suffering in the context of a God-world relation. What is interesting (and this is an insight I picked up while in Ray Lubeck’s class in undergrad Old Testament Biblical Theology), is that the whole story of Job is framed by the ‘suffering-servant’ motif which starts with Moses, and is reiterated in Isaiah jobsuffering53. Understood through this canon, the book of Job ought to be read through a redemptive-historical nexus wherein the suffering of Job, while evincing existential reality and heart-ache, should not be read as an ad hoc peering into one man’s suffering as an exemplary for how we should deal with our own suffering (even though it does provide depth for this!), but instead Job’s suffering should be understood as a foreshadowing of The Suffering-Servant’s suffering for all humanity. Job’s suffering then is not simply a gratuitous one that is offered as a stand-alone story of how God and evil in the world might relate; but this story provided by Job’s life is oozing rich with cross-shaped depth that finds its real reality in the cross of Jesus Christ. We see Job vindicated by Yahweh at the end of the book, over against his “friends” or naysayers who thought they knew best; and yet what is realized is that for some unfathomable reason, God most often (as Job illustrates) has us walk through horrific instances of suffering if for no other reason but that we would cease trusting in our own resources and learn a pattern of trust and filial relationship with Him that will be much more precious than Saint Peter’s notion of pure gold (i.e. ‘our faith’). Further, what this pattern of suffering and vindication also demonstrates is that God is not interested in instant gratification, but He is long-suffering, and understands the ultimate outcomes of such suffering; nevertheless, as the Psalmist notes, he also remembers that our frames are but dust. Job’s vindication, is largely one where his friend’s “wisdom” about God is shown to be foolish and ridiculous, and Job’s simple relational and dynamic trust in God was shown to be lasting and fruitful.

One more interesting point to me that stands out about Job’s “friends;” they were basing their knowledge of God on a natural theology. They thought that God worked a certain way, based on a certain sense of creational power that they had observed by way of reflection; but what Job’s vindication shows at the end of the book, is that God’s real wisdom comes revealed in cruciform shape. A shape wherein we have no resources in and of ourselves, and in that moment where we are in total desperation, and absolute dependence on God’s sustenance alone. I can’t think of a book in the Bible where an analogy of faith versus an analogy of being is more starkly contrasted than what we find in the book of Job.

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.