Bibliology

John Webster Constructively Critiques Karl Barth’s Bible

John Webster, obviously, very much so appreciates Karl Barth, and in fact, he appreciates Barth’s idea on Scripture as “prophetic and apostolic testimony” (or Witness). But his barthexegeteappreciation is not without constructive critique and engagement. Here’s what he has to say, he is presenting various approaches to Scripture; this is his accounting of Barth’s:

Much less likely to beguile us into such problems is a third concept, namely that  of Scripture as prophetic and apostolic testimony, much used by Barth throughout his writings, but found elsewhere in Reformed theology. What makes this a particularly helpful term is the way in which it retains the human character of the biblical materials without neglect of their reference to the Word and work of God. The very genre of ‘testimony’—as language which attests a reality other than itself—is especially fitting for depicting how a creaturely entity may undertake a function in the divine economy, without resort to concepts which threaten to divinise the text, since—like prophecy or apostolic witness—testimony is not about itself but is a reference beyond itself. However, some careful specification is needed, because the notion of Scripture as human testimony to God’s revealing activity can suggest a somewhat accidental relation between the text and revelation. This is especially the case when the essential unsuitability or creaturely fragility of the testimony is so stressed (in order to protect the purity of the divine Word) that there appears to be little intrinsic relation between the texts and the revelation to which they witness. In this way, the annexation of the Bible to revelation can appear almost arbitrary: the text is considered a complete and purely natural entity taken up into the self-communication of God. The result is a curious textual equivalent of adoptionism. If the difficulty is to be retarded, however, it has to be by careful dogmatic depiction of the wider scope of the relation between God and the text, most of all by offering a theological description of the activity of God the Holy Spirit in sanctifying all the processes of the text’s production, preservation and interpretation. Thereby the rather slender account of divine action vis-à-vis the text is filled out, without falling into the problems of undermining the creatureliness of the text which afflict talk of accommodation or the analogy of the hypostatic union.[1]

 Webster provides substance to some concerns that I’ve had in regards to Barth’s approach to Scripture. I’ve appreciated and even favored much of Barth’s thought, but not uncritically; and not whole-sale, it is nice to hear somebody who knows Barth as well as Webster does, provide a balanced appropriation and constructive critique of Barth. Webster employs the category of sanctification to provide a “place” for Scripture’s function within God’s mode of Triune speech and self-witness. In other words, instead of making Scripture the location for assuaging our epistemological needs; he places it within the realm of Revelation, which is co-ordinate with reconciliation. Meaning that God’s self-presentation penetrates our very beings, bringing us into His presence and recreates us through the activity of the Holy Spirit’s creativity and movement drawing us into the divine life through Christ. Scripture is attached to this self-communication of God as it is seen as the locale wherein the Spirit takes creaturely media (like our written word), and sanctifies these words in service to the Word of God who is God’s self-interpreting Word.

So in a nutshell: a doctrine of Scripture, according to Webster, should be under the category of soteriology vs. epistemology (by way of order); traditionally it is the other way around.

 

[1]John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, 23-4.

 

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On Using Holy Scripture with Appeal to John Webster’s Appeal to an Old Lutheran

John Webster comments on the place that Scripture should have in our lives. He references an “old Lutheran divine,” A. Calov, on the “use of the article on Scripture”:

kingjamesversionThis article is to be used in the following manner: We are to recognize and accept without reservation the holy Scripture . . . as the Word of Almighty God, and we are to regard and cherish it as the most precious of treasures . . . We are devoutly to give audience to God speaking in the Word, we are to reflect upon His Word day and night and we are to explore it with true piety and utmost devotion . . . We are to turn neither to the right nor the left from Scripture, nor are we to suffer ourselves to be moved to the slightest degree by the solicitation of others or the desires of our own flesh, lest in some way we introduce something in doctrine or life which is contrary to better knowledge or against our conscience . . . We are to gain comfort from them alone in every necessity of body and soul, and through patient consolation of the Scriptures have a sure hope of life and remain steadfast to the end of life.[1]

What is of importance is that folks actually use the Scriptures, and approach them in such a way that we believe that God speaks to us of Himself through the Scriptures. There is a place for “critical” engagement of Scripture, but I’m afraid that critics have it backwards if they think they’re the ones doing the critiquing!!

[1]A. Calov, Systema 1, 517, cit. from R. Preus, The Inspiration of Scripture. A Study of the Theology of the Seventeenth Century Lutheran Dogmaticians (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1957), 12 cited by John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, 68.

 

Prayer and Scripture in Barth’s Theology contra His Reformed Critics

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The Bible for the Christian is the place to be, so to speak. It’s the place I want to be, because particularly as a Reformed Protestant Christian I believe this is the special place that God has decided and ordained to encounter His people; those with eyes to see and ears to hear. As of late I have been pressing into, once again, the theology of the Post Reformation Reformed Orthodox theologians—the theologians who followed behind the magisterial reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin; the theologians who are known as the ‘schoolmen’ or even the intellectual fathers—it is these theologians who helped to develop the Protestant Bible reading ethic with the belief in the priesthood of all believers. It was these theologians who believed, starting even with Luther (and prior, think of Wycliffe et al.), that the Bible should be in the vernacular so that all Christians could encounter God for themselves; so that all believers could be confronted with the living voice of God (viva vox Dei). This reading ethic for us Protestants presses on.

And yet those who claim heir to these Protestant forebears believe that they alone have the keys to this kingdom; to the truly Reformed and Protestant kingdom. Which means that if you don’t align with the neo-Calvinists, neo-Reformed of the 21st century, then you simply are a sub-classed Christian. It is this sub-class status that the neo-Reformed place someone like Karl Barth in (who I consider my teacher); even though Barth was someone who helped stem the tide of German liberal Protestantism in Western Europe in the early and mid 20th century. Barth believed he was working as a Reformed theologian in the spirit of the Reformed faith, in the spirit of semper reformanda (always reforming). Barth believed that the Reformed scripture principle was of utmost importance, and it informed his own theological program as a fundamentum (foundation). Indeed, personally I think Karl Barth represents the best of the Reformed faith, particularly with his focus and emphasis on actually engaging with the Bible and its theology grounded in Jesus Christ. Note what Barth writes in his book from 1923 The Theology of the Reformed Confessions; he is reflecting on the Reformed scripture principle and how it was articulated among certain early Reformed confessions. Here he is referencing the Berner Synodus and how prayer and Bible reading ought to be the mainstay, particularly for pastors, but indeed for all Christians. Barth writes:

Taken together, all these documents emphasize as the first admonition, often expressly incorporated into the confession: One should read the holy Scripture. Theologians especially should do this “night and day” [“noctes diesque”], as the Bohemian Confession demands (M 454, 32). Zwingli, speaking of his Short Instruction, says that it would be in vain if those who teach it do not firstly petition God “that he give them grace, and afterwards search in the Scriptures diligently, remaining therein day and night, and as well finally they do not show a disposition to built the true Jerusalem” (23,11[–13]). In its thirty-seventh and thirty-eighth chapters, the Berner Synodus gives its pastors weighty instruction, still valuable today, regarding how they should do this. Above all, they should pray:

[I]t is abundantly plain that prayer is an emptying and preparing of the hear, so that a person might grasp and retain the meaning and counsel of God that is concealed in the letters. Otherwise, lacking devotion one will read the Scripture like a worldly history and apply only one’s reason to it. Such a reading produces nothing more than inflated carnal wisdom, which is subsequently imposed upon the poor congregation as though from God and the Word of God…. If the prayer is made from a repentant, thirsty heart, then the book should be opened and carefully read as God’s Word, which it truly is, and not as human word. While doing so, one should persist in that intensive prayer until a little divine understanding flows down from above. The reader is obligated to accept this and to consider immediately that the Holy Spirit speaks in it for his chastising improving. That is, the reader should freely engage with God alone, excluding all other creatures, with a simple and committed spirit. He should not consider what he should tell the people but rather how he himself might receive from God further light and knowledge.

In addition, he should consider his own faith experience up to now, as well as other writings that might contradict his present understanding, and “pray for more insight while he continues with determination in such practice until the truth of the scripture completely illumines his heart, producing a composed gratitude and zealous consideration of the knowledge he has received” (M 54, 10[–33]). Moreover, he should certainly make use of old and new books and commentaries. “May they be properly read ‘judiciously’ [cum judicio], with understanding and improvement. What a joy it is when one discovers that God has given him something with which the gifts of other people agree or that perhaps others have not yet attained. He should not be proud of this, since he has requested it from God and knows very well what will follow if he should fall into rampant arrogance” (B. Syn. 101). Finally, the pastors should “together compare the Scriptures,” confer, conduct “conversations” about the gospel, “each one with his neighbor, who is also God-fearing and desires to gain further knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” They should be not “biting, angry, stubborn,” and insistent upon their own opinion already formed , but thankful for the smallest thing “of Christ and his gifts that one might find in another person” (B. Syn. 102[–3]). This is how the Reformed principle of Scripture should take shape in living theological practice. |[1]

Barth refers to this in the affirmative. We see the role that prayer and Bible reading played for Barth in his own theological development and posture as a Reformed theologian. When you read Barth for yourself all of the demonizing of him melts away, particularly when it comes to the way that Barth thought of Holy Scripture and the instrumental role it played in his theological development. I grow weary of the neo-classically-Reformed piling on Barth based upon absurd caricature and lampooning. I grow tired of people pissing on Barth making claims about Barth and what he thought about Scripture as if they speak from some holy height; they don’t, and it is un-Christian and irresponsible to make claims about Barth and his views of Scripture that are simply not true. And more than that, it is ironic that Barth himself, in his reverence for Scripture out-Scriptures most of his classically Reformed critics (i.e. think of Cornelius Van Til, Carl Henry, and the way that Christianity Today back in the day tarred and feathered him, particularly in regard to what he ostensibly believed about Scripture).

I say that Barth’s critics are ironic because when you actually read the theology that funds these critic’s theology you quickly realize that they rely more on classical philosophical thinking than Barth does; by a long shot. When you read the post reformed orthodox theology you realize that it is funded by Aristotelian Thomist intellectualist assumptions about God and every other subsequent cogitation. Barth’s theology, by contrast, attempts to think directly from revelation, from Jesus Christ. Barth attempts to embody the ideal of the Reformed Protestant scripture principle as we see illustrated beautifully in what I just quoted from him (the rest of his book is loaded with the same). So Barth, as a modern, thinks from the categories of Scripture itself much more directly than what we find funding his critic’s theology; which is ironic.

To leave though on a positive note: I am indebted to Barth and Thomas Torrance for doing Reformed theology in a way that attempts to think only Deus dixit[2], after God has spoken; and to do so in a principled way, as if Jesus Christ is the exegesis of God (Jn. 1.18). I commend Barth and after Barth theologians to you for this very reason. And I challenge those critics of Barth to actually read Barth and quit denying him to people who would benefit from him most; people sitting in the pews, and out on the streets.

[1] Karl Barth, The Theology of the Reformed Confessions, trans. Darrell L. Guder and Judith J. Guder (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 51-2.

[2] See Barth’s Göttingen Dogmatics.

John Webster on Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Holy Scripture

John Webster is commenting on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s understanding of our relation to Scripture. It’s not as if we give scripture its ground through imbuing it with our exegetical prowess; no, it’s that our ground is given footing as we find ourselves related to God in Christ through  Scripture’s story. This fits with the point that Webster is driving at, over-all, throughout his little book; that BPK 10.016.073Scripture should be seen as an aspect of soteriology — sanctification in particular. And that Scripture is a part of God’s triune communicative act, ‘for us’, caught up in His self-Revelation itself. In other words, for Webster, as for Bonhoeffer (per Webster), Scripture shouldn’t be framed as a component of our epistemological foundation (wherein we put Scripture in its place, in effect), but Scripture is a mode of God’s gracious speech that acts upon us by the Spirit. And it is through this divine speech, that is grace, that we find ourselves — outside ourselves — in Christ, and thus in the Story of Scripture. This should have the effect of placing us under Scripture (which Luther would call ministerial) versus over Scripture (magisterial) — to simplify. Here’s the quote (a little introduction by Webster, and then a full quote of Bonhoeffer [also, notice the idea of vicariousness that Bonhoeffer appeals to as well]):

[M]ore than anything else, it is listening or attention which is most important to Bonhoeffer, precisely because the self is not grounded in its own disposing of itself in the world, but grounded in the Word of Christ. Reading the Bible, as Bonhoeffer puts it in Life Together, is a matter of finding ourselves extra nos in the biblical history:

We are uprooted from our own existence and are taken back to the holy history of God on earth. There God has dealt with us, with our needs and our sins, by means of the divine wrath and grace. What is important is not that God is a spectator and participant in our life today, but that we are attentive listeners and participants in God’s action in the sacred story, the story of Christ on earth. God is with us today only as long as we are there.

Our salvation is ‘from outside ourselves’ (extra nos). I find salvation, not in my own life story, but only in the story of Jesus Christ . . . What we call our life, our troubles, and our guilt is by no means the whole of reality; our life, our need, our guilt, and our deliverance are there in the Scriptures. – John Webster, Holy Scripture, 83 citing Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Life Together,” 62.

Reflecting on Biblical Inerrancy

*I thought I would repost this because I just listened to a podcast created by a pastor in Portland, OR named John Mark Comer where he interviews professor of theology at Western Seminary in PDX, Gerry Breshears. My view of this doctrine hasn’t really changed from the time I originally wrote this following post back quite a few years ago. Here is the link to the podcast produced by John Mark and Gerry Breshears, and then a link to a podcast I created on this topic not too long ago (where I partially read this post, but reflect further):

John Mark and Gerry on Inerrancy.

Bobby Grow on Inerrancy.

biblejesusI was recently asked by Brian LePort to fill out a questionnaire on my view of Biblical Inerrancy. He posted my responses to his questions, here. But I thought I would repost what I wrote here at my blog as well. So that’s what the following represents.

Do you use the word “inerrancy” to describe your understanding of Scripture? Why or why not? (If not, can you explain your “doctrine of Scripture?”)

I grew up ardently advocating for this terminology; it has only been over the last few years that I have taken a different approach to my doctrine of Scripture vis-á-vis an ontology of Scripture. While maintaining my identity as an Evangelical (Reformed) Christian, and some of the received history that this entails (including the intention that inerrancy sought to capture–e.g. the trustworthiness of Scripture); I would probably eschew emphasizing the language of inerrancy relative to my position (even though I remain sympathetic to it, and those who still feel the need to use it).

In a nutshell: I see Scripture within the realm of soteriology (salvation), and no longer (as the classically Reformed and Evangelical approach does) within the realm of epistemology (or a naked Philosophy). Meaning that I think a proper doctrine of Scripture must understand itself within its proper order of things. So we start with 1) Triune God, 2) The election of humanity in the Son (Covenant of Grace), 3) Creation, Incarnation (God’s Self-revelation), 4) The Apostolic Deposit of Christian Scripture (e.g. the New Testament re-interpretation of salvation history [i.e. Old Testament] in light of its fulfillment in Christ). This is something of a sketch of the order of Scripture’s placement from a theological vantage point (I don’t think the tradition that gave us inerrancy even considers such things). So I see Scripture in the realm of Christian salvation (sanctification), and as God’s triune speech act for us provided by the Son, who comes with the Holy Spirit’s witness (through Scripture). Here is how John Webster communicates what I am after:

First, the reader is to be envisaged as within the hermeneutical situation as we have been attempting to portray it, not as transcending it or making it merely an object of will. The reader is an actor within a larger web of event and activities, supreme among which is God’s act in which God speaks God’s Word through the text of the Bible to the people of God, as he instructs them and teaches them in the way they should go. As a participant in this historical process, the reader is spoken to in the text. This speaking, and the hearing which it promotes, occurs as part of the drama which encloses human life in its totality, including human acts of reading and understanding: the drama of sin and its overcoming. Reading the Bible is an event in this history. It is therefore moral and spiritual and not merely cognitive or representational activity. Readers read, of course: figure things out as best they can, construe the text and its genre, try to discern its intentions whether professed or implied, place it historically and culturally — all this is what happens when the Bible is read also. But as this happens, there also happens the history of salvation; each reading act is also bound up within the dynamic of idolatry, repentance and resolute turning from sin which takes place when God’s Word addresses humanity. And it is this dynamic which is definitive of the Christian reader of the Bible. [John Webster, “Hermeneutics in Modern Theology: Some Doctrinal Reflections,” Scottish Journal of Theology, 336]

So I see Scripture as God’s second Word (Jesus the first and last Word) for His people the Church. From this perspective inerrancy becomes a non-starter, since Scripture is no longer framed apologetically; but instead, Christically, and positive witness for the Church.

If you were to provide a brief definition of the doctrine of inerrancy what would it include?

Millard Erickson has provided the best indexing of innerancy[s]; he has: 1) Absolute Inerrancy, 2) Full Inerrancy, and 3) Limited Inerrancy (see Millard Erickson, “Introducing Christian Doctrine [abridged version],” 61). Realizing that there is nuance then when defining a given inerrancy, I would simply assert that inerrancy holds to the plenary verbal inspiration of Scripture; meaning that Scripture is both Divine-human speech, or Divine revelation (or God’s Words). And since God cannot lie, Scripture must be totally without any error; because if it has error then God has lied.

Can there be a doctrine of inerrancy divorced from the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy? If so, what are the “practical” consequences? If not, why?

I think the Chicago Statement, given its recognition for literary and genre analysis of the text of Scripture has effectively allowed for the possibility of qualifying inerrancy to the point that you might end up with my current view.

How does your doctrine of Scripture impact your hermeneutics? Can you use Genesis 1-11 as a case study/example?

I would simply say that I see Genesis 1–11 as the first instance of the LORD’s first Word of grace; viz. we have God introduce himself as the personal God who created, and for the purpose of creation communing with him by and through the Son (Gen. 3:15). So, no, I don’t  follow Henry Morris and the Institute of Creation Research  in defending a wooden literal reading of this section of Scripture. I see it literally, but as God’s  introduction of himself to his Covenant people such that His people might know what he intends for his creation; viz. that we commune with him through the Son. It is through this purpose for creation that all other idolatrous parodies (like those in the Ancient Near East) fall by the way side and are contradicted by creation’s  true purpose, in Christ.

____________________

I would recommend John Webster’s little book: Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic SketchHis book articulates and informs my view on this like no other I have ever come across.

I would be interested in knowing what you think about my response; and like to hear what your own view is on this issue. I am highly sympathetic to the impulse that charged the construction of inerrancy (i.e. to defend the reliability of Scripture as God’s words to humanity), but I ultimately think there are better ways to frame Scripture rather than from the defensive and largely reactive posture that gave inerrancy rise. To be totally frank; when I read Scripture I still cannot but read it as if (because I believe this to be the case) it is indeed completely accurate relative to the standards of accuracy it originally intended to be accurate by.

 

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.

Saga and Miracle in the Post-Critical Bible Interpreter, Karl Barth

I just finished an essay (chapter) by George Hunsinger on Karl Barth’s kind of ‘post-critical’ approach to biblical interpretation. The essay itself is awesome, if in fact you are interested in Barth’s approach to such things. In one of the footnotes Hunsinger describes Barth’s usage of what Barth called Saga as a designation that Barth used in his second naïveté approach to biblical barthyoungcriticism/interpretation (we will have to get into what that means later i.e. second naïveté). What is interesting about Barth is that he did not shy away from the findings of the higher critics of Scripture of his day, but he instead said to them (in my paraphrase): “okay, so now what?” Barth was of the belief that Revelation, attested to in the witness of Holy Scripture, was not something that historical reconstruction or critics ultimately had access to; in other words the critics could only go so far, they could only go so far when attempting to capture revelational phenomenon through naturalistic critera/categories. It is within this reality that Barth used his genre of saga to engage with the theological/revelational reality attested to all throughout the pages of Holy Scripture. Here is what Hunsinger writes:

“Saga” or legend was a term Barth used over against “myth” and “history.” “Myths” were stories that embodied timeless truths, while “history” in the historicist sense excluded God on principle from its accounts. “Sagas” or legends, by contrast, were stories about actual, unrepeatable events in which God could depicted (whether directly or indirectly) as the central acting subject. On the human side, sagas involved elements of theologically informed intuitions (Vorstellungen) as well as imaginative or poetic depictions (Darstellungen) of events that were in some sense beyond ordinary depiction. Although grounded in actual occurrences, sagas were not primarily reports, but witnesses to divine revelation. Barth used the term “saga,” for lack of a better term, in order to bring out the special literary genre of biblical stories about the world’s creation, the Virgin Birth, Christ’s resurrection, and other such ineffable occurrences. It represented a kind of critical realism that was unacceptable to historicists for its audacity and to literalists for its reticence.[1]

Access to the revelation (events) in biblical history, for Barth then, would be grounded in faith (analogia fidei); not because these events are not real or actual but because they are acts that supranaturally go beyond what counts as natural in and through our perceived and observable experiences, in other words, they are acts of God. These acts of God or ‘miracles’ also have a key function in Barth’s theology of revelation. As we just left off with (in the Hunsinger quote), Barth placed ‘miracles’, i.e. the ‘world’s creation,’ the ‘Virgin Birth,’ ‘Christ’s resurrection,’ etc., into his genre of saga. Barth’s understanding of miracles is this,

the special new direct act of God in time and in history. In the form in which it acquires temporal historical actuality, biblically attested revelation is always a miracle, and therefore the witness to it, whether direct or indirect in its course, is a narrative of miracles that happened. Miracle is thus an attribute of revelation.[2]

We can see how saga and miracle functioned within Barth’s conception of revelation. Saga was the genre of revelation (in the Bible’s narrative unfolding), and miracle was a predicate of the revelation itself attested to by the witness deposited within Holy Scripture.

What we have in Karl Barth is an evangelical (in the German sense of that word) who worked through the findings of Modern biblical criticism. He found a constructive way to acknowledge it (criticism), and then in his next step, in stride to move beyond it in such a way that Gerhard von Rad could say of Barth on the occasion of his death (Barth’s) in 1968: “What a miracle that one should appear among us who did nothing else than to take God at his Word.”[3]

I can only aspire to be an evangelical like Barth. Unlike the evangelicalism that I have grown up in in North America, Barth was able to approach the text fully acknowledging the value of higher criticism, while at the same time moving beyond it to the theological reality of the text through his second naïveté (approach); i.e. basically what we were engaging with in our discussion of ‘saga’ and ‘miracle.’ North American evangelical biblical scholarship, again unlike Barth, instead of being able to move beyond higher criticism has become mired down, ironically in the weeds of higher criticism in their apologetic mode of attempting to thwart higher criticism through their attempt to out ‘critic’ the higher critics on the higher critic’s terms. In the process, evangelicals never really have the capacity (within the discipline of biblical studies) to engage with the text theologically and thus on its own terms. So I would rather be like Barth, in principle, as I approach the Bible.

 

[1] George Hunsinger, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed: Doctrinal Essays on Barth and Related Themes (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 125 fn. 27 kindle.

[2] Karl Barth, CD I/2, 63-4 cited by George Hunsinger in, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed, 125 fn. 16 kindle.

[3] Gerhard von Rad quoted by Smend in, Karl Barth als Ausleger, 216 cited by George Hunsinger, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed, 125 fn. 20 kindle.

The Fundamentalists, Holy Scripture and Apologetics: A Critique and Description from G.C. Berkouwer

Someone who would be considered a conservative thinking Dutch Reformed theologian from the actual Netherlands, G.C. Berkouwer, has some interesting things to say about Christian Fundamentlists and the way that they have engaged, or disengaged with a proper doctrine of Scripture. Because I think this needs to be heard I will quote GCB at length, and then offer my own reflection upon what he has written afterword. Here is Berkouwer at some length:

Upon closer scrutiny … fundamentalism proves to be far from a simple phenomenon. The use of the word “fundamentalistism” becomes unclear if it is intended to indicate the necessary preservation of the foundation that results, according to Scripture, in a blessing (I Cor. 3:10-12; Mt. 7:24ff). Such a use of the term implies that fundamentalism is no more than an echo berkouwerof the biblical testimony that speaks of the foundation that is laid (I Cor. 3:11), of the value of an anchor of the soul that is sure and steadfast (Heb. 6:19; II Pet. 1:10-21), and that speaks of faith as a substance which also expresses an inviolable certainty (Heb. 11:1 – “the assurance of things hoped for”). This foundation as such, therefore, cannot explain the nature of fundamentalism. To be sure, many expressions from the fundamentalist camp frequently give the impression that the acceptance of a fundamental truth and a certainty that cannot be subjectified are at stake, especially when its members gladly accept the name “fundamentalist” to set them apart from those who have fallen victim to the influence of subjectivism. This, however, terminates the discussion at the point where it actually should begin. Especially concerning the doctrine of Holy Scripture, the fundamentalists’ call to a simple and childlike acceptance of Scripture – no matter how seriously they mean this – is not unique to them, because in this respect they are not any different from many others who are equally convinced that God’s Word is a lamp to our feet and a light upon our path. The issue is undoubtedly far more complicated, as is already evident from the many analyses of this phenomenon.

Ahlström described fundamentalism as “a fervent but poorly informed protest movement against extreme and militant liberalism.” Stonehouse mentions that fundamentalism evidences a lack of sound biblical knowledge and historical perspective and has “certain emphases and peculiarities” that make it impossible to identify it with orthodoxy. This and similar criticism is by no means intended to deny the good intentions of fundamentalism: no good cause is served by making it the butt of “professional gossip.” It would be incorrect to ignore its legitimate “wholeness of dedication” in the discussion. The person who concurs in the lamentation of Psalm 11:3 (“If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”) cannot avoid trying to analyze fundamentalism’s apologetics, especially its view of Holy Scripture and its authority.

I believe I am judging no one unfairly when I say that fundamentalism, in its eagerness to maintain Holy Scripture’s divinity, does not fully realize the significance of Holy Scripture as a prophetic-apostolic, and consequently human, testimony. It is true that fundamentalists do not deny the human element in Scripture, but they allow their apologetics to be determined by the fear that emphasis on the human witness may threaten and overshadow Scripture’s divinity. From an historical and psychological point of view, this reactionary position is quite understandable in the light of much “humanizing” of Holy Scripture that has taken place. Yet that does not prevent other, more serious, problems from presenting themselves; for it is God’s way with and in Scripture that is at stake. Fundamentalism has hardly come to grips with the problem of whether attention for the human character of Holy Scripture might be of great importance for its correct understanding. Fundamentalists often give the impression that the point at issue is the acceptance or rejection of the vox Dei, of Scripture’s infallibility. They suggest, that, in spite of many divergences within fundamentalist circles in understanding Scripture, an a priori acceptance of Scripture’s infallibility precludes all dangers. Thus, they manifest great tolerance for all who maintain the fundamentalist view of Holy Scripture. They tend to relativize concrete obedience in understanding Scripture. The result is that their apologetic, which is meant to safeguard Scripture’s divine aspect, threatens in many respects to block the road to a correct understanding of Scripture, which is normative, by ignoring and neglecting its human aspect.[1]

This is an interesting critique and description of what Fundamentalism is and does. It is interesting to me, in particular, because many of the people who I know (in theological circles) would place someone like Berkouwer in the ‘fundamentalist’ camp simply because he is rather traditional and affirming of classical (i.e. pre-critical and confessional) understanding of Holy Scripture. But as is obvious, GCB has something more particular and geographic in mind, his focus of course is the North American Fundamentalist who came to the fore at the end of the 19th and early part of the 20th century[s].

What I wonder is if North American evangelicals have actually escaped this critique or if they only continue to reinforce it with doctrines like biblical inerrancy? I think Berkouwer would believe that evangelicals are only a new iteration of this old style Fundamentalism that he is describing from his vantage point. I wonder if neo-Evangelicals like Kevin Vanhoozer and his style and articulation of biblical inerrancy escapes Berkouwer’s critique or only enlivens it, but maybe in more sophisticated ways than originally conceived of by its original architects (in re. to biblical inerrancy)?

Another thing of note is how Fundamentalists build their whole edifice of Christianity upon rationalist arguments against their ‘Liberal’ counterparts. What Berkouwer rightly notices is that this type of reactionary movement and ‘intellectualist’ response (by the Fundamentalists) ends up doing exactly the opposite of what the Fundamentalists are hoping for; i.e. that is to ardently affirm the veracity and reliability and authority of Holy Scripture. What GCB implicitly is suggesting is that Fundamentalists argue with such vigor for Scripture’s inerrancy that that in and of itself becomes an end in itself with its own idiosyncratic hermeneutic in tow.

Personally I find Berkouwer’s analysis to be very accurate. I grew up in Fundamentalist Christianity in North America (as have so many others). This all rings so true to me, and unfortunately it continues to ring true for too many Christians out there. People are getting ripped off from the riches and heritage bequeathed to us by Christ as He has provided for that through the centuries of His church. Evangelicals who imbibe Fundamentalism (positively, or like the so called Progressive Christians, negatively) are malnourished, and as a result for all of their Bible knowledge and “sword drilling” they are ultimately missing the depth dimension of Holy Scripture in its realistic fullness, the reality: Jesus Christ.

[1] G.C. Berkouwer, Studies In Dogmatics: Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), 21-3.

Reading Scripture with Jesus. He Holds All Things Together.

When we read Holy Scripture I would think that we would want as much foreign matter, from Scripture, out of that mix. In other words, I would think that as we engage with Scripture we would want to encounter the living Word (Jesus Christ) to whom it gives and bears witness unabated! This is what drives me in my quest to know God through Holy Scripture. I don’t want anything to get in the way of knowing God in Jesus Christ.

The reality is, in light of the above, because we are creatures, human beings, is that we all come to Scripture with preunderstandings and presuppositions given shape and form by whatever socio-cultural context we have grown up within. Speaking for myself, as a North American evangelical, I have grown up in a certain context that tells me how I ought to read Scripture; namely from a Dispensational hermeneutic (which I have since repudiated). Now this isn’t the case for all N. American evangelicals, some are groomed in what is called Covenant theology, others in Anabaptist peace theology, others in more ‘liberal’ theology etc. But the point stays the same, we all bring preunderstanding to the text of Scripture, and for Christians we are groomed in it by whatever interpretive tradition or church setting that we fellowship in.

But nobody really wants to collapse their theological tradition into the text of Scripture; everybody wants to believe that their theological tradition bubbles up out of the text (exegesis). So this begs the question, how do we avoid eisogesis (reading our theologies and our gods into the text of Scripture)? My money is on a certain rule of faith (regula fidei), a rule of faith reified from its Patristic context into a more constructive understanding; in other words, the reality, I would contend, that holds all of Scripture together (just as He does with creation in general), is Jesus Christ. Thomas Torrance (as he is reflecting on this very thing as it gets applied to the soteriological concerns orbiting around so called limited atonement and universalism) writes this:

For Torrance, apprehension of the cross involves a conversion of the reason in which we bow our own reason before the reality and mystery of Christ and seek to understand it (as far as we may) out of itself without reducing it to logical schemata of our own making which inevitably break it up into separate elements to distort it. We need to hold together what scripture holds together, refusing to categorise it in ways that distort that wholeness. If we cannot understand how scripture holds together certain things which we find difficult (such as the unconditional love and forgiveness of God for all, the finished work of Christ, the gospel imperative to repent and believe, and the fact that some refuse and are judged by the very gospel that offers them life) then it is not open to us to resolve the tension through a man-made logical schema which emphasises some elements as [sic] the expense of others. We need to be crucified with Christ in our natural reason and through the transforming of our mind begin to penetrate into ‘the interior logic of scripture’ so that we may learn to think as scripture thinks and hold together what it holds together in Christ. Both universalism and limited atonement for Torrance fail to do that. . . .[1]

As Torrance underscores we want to allow the mystery of God become man in Jesus Christ to hold all of the unstated premises of Scripture together. If we approach Scripture with this rule for reading we won’t impose artificial theological frameworks (and metaphysics) upon Scripture but we will allow the viva vox Dei (the living voice of God) to confront us as we encounter the living reality of Scripture all through its pages, as we encounter the resurrected Son of Man, Jesus Christ.

I actually believe that what stands behind most readings of the Bible today (at least for evangelicals who basically think from classically Reformed Augustinian/Thomist metaphysics) unfortunately end up flattening Scripture out because they involve an imposition upon the text’s reality.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, ed. Robert T. Walker,Atonement, 188 fn. 70

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.