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A thought occurred to me as I was listening to the OnScript podcast today, an episode that featured two former college-mates of mine, Tim Mackie and Jonathan Collins (of The Bible Project), the thought was: can God be conceived of strictly from Scripture? In other words, can God be conceived of apart from his reception in and from Scripture as that has been developed through the centuries in the Christian church (all orthodox traditions)? Further, can a literary lens alone be the lens for giving us the most faithful account of who God is in Scripture as Scripture attests to him?

It is a very modern way to think God from Scripture only (de nuda Scriptura), and yet this seems to be the way that so many evangelicals are introduced to; and in the name of sola Scriptura no less. I am not suggesting that literary or Bible as literature approaches have zero value, but I am suggesting that for the Christian church an accurate conception of God has always come with deep theological reflection; and a subsequently produced theological grammar (the ecumenical councils are case in point). Further, I am not suggesting that The Bible Project or On Script podcasts suffer from this solo Scriptura approach, per se, but that the discipline they operate in and from indeed does (as that is sourced in history of religions text-critical disciplines as shaped by Enlightenment innovation).

What this points up for me, once again, is the high importance of theological-exegesis (or theological interpretation of Scripture TIS). In other words, I contend that Christians have no context for knowing who God is simply by referral to Scripture alone; there is a reception of knowledge bequeathed to the churches, in regard to who God is, that dogmatically precedes Scripture. And this points up further attending to the need for understanding what Scripture actually is in the first place; in other words: what is Scripture’s ontology (or ‘being’) relative to its place before God? Does Scripture have a theological location in God’s economy? And if it does what impact does that have on its reception, hermeneutic, and praxis in the churches? Can we just presume on a sort of universal ‘preunderstanding’ or ‘pre-orthodoxy’ in regard to who God is, and how we have knowledge of God, can we simply presume upon an unstated assumption that ‘faithful orthodox’ Christians just have this conglomerate knowledge of God such that we simply get straight to the Bible without attending to that first?

My contention is that Scripture has an ontology (following John Webster in his book Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch), and that Scripture ultimately has no illuminative meaning for the Christian apart from intentionally acknowledging that. That is, that Holy Scripture, in order for it to be received as ‘Holy’ and thus not just as ‘literature,’ must be fully cognizant of Scripture’s givenness and reality before God. Without this ground my sense is that an approach to Scripture based upon a vague acknowledgement of “well yeah, we’re all Christians here, we all affirm that Scripture is God given and that God is Triune” will make a subsequent engagement with Scripture, based upon this sort of thin thinking, end up providing us with a knowledge of God that might yield what the Bible as literature approach to the Bible will produce for us. It might, by coincidence, produced characteristics about God that are univocal with the God understood as orthodox by the rule of faith produced in the grammar of the creeds; but most likely it will produce knowledge of God that produces emphases that are more concordant with the literary critic’s situadedness and cultural location. Do you see what I’m getting at here? I’m looking for a ‘control’ a regula fidei (‘rule of faith’) that has catholic (universal) reach as we consider who God is for the 21st century church. A control that is in the foreground, not the background.

Do I think Tim Mackie, Jonathan Collins, the OnScript crew repudiate the sort of theological import I am trying to bring to the way a knowledge of God is conceived vis-à-vis the Bible? No. But the discipline they work from actually does. This is the quagmire evangelicals have found themselves ensconced within. A piety that sincerely loves Jesus, but a bibliology and subsequent hermeneutic that largely takes its cues from a Biblical Studies discipline that pretty much has nothing to do with confessional reality or affirmation in the true and living God; this is what that discipline believes makes their method ‘critical.’ Sure, you can be an orthodox Christian and work in the field of Biblical Studies, but unfortunately such a person will have to work over-time to make an attempt to bring their work into discussion with the confessional and catholic heritage of the Christian church.

I am very appreciative of The Bible Project. I was trained by the same professor that Tim Mackie and Jonathan Collins were at Multnomah Bible College. I taught the same ‘lab’ in Bible Study Methods under the aegis of this professor that Mackie did. I used Mackie’s notes to help me get ideas when I taught this lab. What The Bible Project represents is just a continuation and amplification of what we were all taught by this particular professor. I learned much about how to study the Bible canonically and inductively through this training; not to mention literarily. But as an end in itself this is not sufficient. The Bible has an ontology, and it is given that ontology by God in Christ and the economy shed abroad in that reality; a reality accommodated by God for us. Learning how to engage with Scripture “critically” though, in my book, means that we first learn how to dialogue with God “critically.” That we recognize that God comes before Scripture and that in Christ Scripture has its telos and meaning. In the field of Biblical Studies its practitioners are often at pains to find THE theme of canonical Scripture; or the theme for each book of the Bible; or what have you. If we start with a Dogmatic and theological basis for Scripture’s ontology we will see that Scripture is best situated, and necessarily situated in a doctrine of creation/recreation, within which its meaning is given (its res). If, in general, creation’s meaning has always already been grounded in Jesus Christ, then how much more so is Scripture’s as a book inscribed within and under the pressures of creaturely media; under the pressure of God’s givenness for us in Jesus Christ?

These are some concerns off the top I have. Maybe they aren’t yours, or you think I’m overstating. I don’t think I’m overstating though. What do you think?     

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My last post has highlighted what it looks like when a hermeneutic isn’t explicitly or intentionally related to a genuinely Christian reading of Holy Scripture. The results of engaging in biblical interpretation in this way allows for an un-tetheredness from the reality of the text of Scripture which allows the interpreter to impose whatever their chosen flavor of hermeneutic or philosophy might be (i.e. something like a reader response approach to Scripture wherein cultural fluctuations, and personal predispositions determine the way the text is read and understood).

In contrast to this John Webster offers an alternative (and historical) treatment and ontology of Holy Scripture wherein Scripture’s theological reality—the reality of the triune life as revealed in Christ—is given the regulative power it ought to have for Christians. You will note, starting a reading and reception of Scripture this way recognizes from the get go that the Bible comes couched within its own explicitly framed confessional position wherein Christ and the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the ‘domain’ wherein Scripture finds its orientation and thus meaning. In other words, to approach Scripture this way is to do so with the full recognition that we as Christians are determined to be, as a people, by the inner depth reality of Scripture itself. What this does is to give the keys (i.e. the authority) to the reality of Scripture to the Giver of Scripture; it is to recognize that Scripture is a work of God and that God’s work cannot, and shan’t not, be torn asunder from the person of God’s life in Christ. As such when we read Scripture it is not an epistemological source-bed wherein an unentangled unSpirit filled person can simply enter in and read off a series of historical facts (or myths, whatever the case might be); no, to approach Scripture this way, through its Self-determined reality vis-à-vis God in Christ, means that the reader is entangled in the telos of Scripture; is enmeshed in an interpenetrative way with the reality of Scripture, such that Scripture, its reality, is reading us more than we are reading ‘it.’ This is why John Webster places Scripture in the realm not only of soteriology, but more pointedly in the frame of sanctification (Jn 17.17). Scripture isn’t ‘open’ to whatever mode, whatever way we want to fashion it; nein, Holy Scripture, is, for the Christian, the holy ground wherein the Christian engages in a dialogue with the living voice of God afresh and anew, and in that process is transformed from glory to glory (cf. II Cor. 3.18).

Stephen Fowl summarizes some of this for us as he offers a sketch of Webster’s theology of Scripture. Fowl writes, particularly engaging with Webster’s thought on how Scripture came to be read naturalistically rather than theologically:

This recognition becomes difficult to square with a doctrine of revelation if that doctrine is divorced from its subsidiary role in relation to the doctrine of God. As Webster argues, just such a divorce occurred in the history of modern theology. Rather than a doctrinal assertion related to God’s triune identity, theologians came to think of revelation as an epistemological category requiring philosophical rather than theological justification. “Understood in this dogmatically minimalistic way, language about revelation became a way of talking, not about the life-giving and loving presence of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Spirit’s power among the worshipping and witnessing assembly, but instead of an arcane process of causality whereby persons acquire knowledge through opaque, non-natural operations.” Once one moves in this direction it becomes easier to understand why some attempts to defend the divine nature of Scripture tend to focus their attention on establishing either the incorruptibility of the text or the benign nature of the processes by which the texts of Scripture come to us. The most extreme manifestation of this concern is found in those theories or doctrines of Scripture that require some form of divine dictation where the human authors of Scripture simply record the words the Spirit speaks to them.[1]

In other words, when philosophical epistemology becomes the warp and woof of a theological conceiving of a doctrine of Scripture, what is produced is some form or some emphasis upon the quality of Scripture itself (as an end in itself); i.e. inerrancy. What is lost in this endeavor is a proper focus on Scripture’s ontology; in other words, Scripture’s character and ‘place’ is lost when we fail to see it within the domain of God’s life in Christ, by way of its ordering, and instead we place it as a cipher between ourselves and God. Scripture in this case, when understood as an epistemological source, becomes an artifice of social analogizing rather than the holy ground that it actually is vis-à-vis God as its giver and speaker. Do you see the problem? God becomes the tail and we the dog who wags the tail; Scripture’s place is displaced to the point that it is contingent upon whatever philosophical program we want to impose upon it; whatever pet theological paradigm or hermeneutic we want to bring to it to enhance or degrade its inerrant properties. This should not be so.

Let us close with a quote from Webster that clarifies all of this that much more closely:

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.[2]

This represents the type of approach we will take if we read Scripture as it ought to be read; viz. theologically.

 

[1] Stephen E. Fowl, Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 8 kindle.

[2] John Webster, “Hermeneutics in Modern Theology: Some Doctrinal Reflections,” Scottish Journal of Theology, 336.

There seem to be magisteriums everywhere; interpretive that is—something Christian Smith identified as Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism. It is the saddling of Holy Scripture with certain authoritative church structures—such as we find in Roman Catholicism, or Eastern Orthodoxy—or certain authoritative confessional/catechetical structures (again funded by a certain theory of ecclesial authority found in many of the Protestant and classically Reformed and Lutheran Confessions). We also find this same type of harnessing of Holy Scripture in Low Church traditions; these are typically associated with particular personalities/pastors. Beyond this, and this is the whence of many liberal and evangelical communions, there is a stirruping of Holy Scripture with the wits of this or that historico-critical biblical exegete and their idiosyncratic engagement and interpretation of the text of Scripture (Rudolf Bultmann on one hand, and NT Wright on the other come quickly to mind). There is this always already attendant hermeneutical problem, it seems, when someone wants to engage with Scripture. A complex within which Scripture is received, and within this complex there is an attendance of various claims to Scripture’s actual meaning for the church. Whatever the expression of this might be one thing stands out: the Bible and its meaning, more than not, has become slavishly tied to the layering of various historical and linear accretions of meaning that bind the Bible’s reality to the warp and woof of an abstract human history rather (as situated within an ecclesial superstructure) than to the living reality of Scripture given over and over again by the miracle of the Holy Spirit as Jesus Christ breaks through such accretions as the risen One who is indeed King of the world; and in particular, King of the Church wherein Scripture has been given embassy to reach into the lives of every tribe, nation, and tongue.

I think, once again, what is at issue is how ecclesiology and the text have been thought together; and how Authority for the Christian is thought from there. If the ground of the church is understood as something inherent to the church and not ecclesia quae extra nos (outside of us as the church), then Scripture’s meaning as corollary will become bounded to this type of inherent pure natured reality, and not understood as the Free floating instrument that is intended to be managed by none except its living reality in Jesus Christ. Karl Barth opines masterfully here (which is the inspiration for this post):

If, then, apart from the undeniable vitality of the Church itself there stands confronting it a concrete authority with its own vitality, an authority whose pronouncement is not the Church’s dialogue with itself but an address to the Church, and which can have vis-à-vis the Church the position of a free power and therefore of a criterion, then obviously in its writtenness as “Bible” it must be distinguished from and given precedence over the purely spiritual and oral life of ecclesiastical tradition. It is true that this real, biblical Canon is constantly exposed to absorption into the life, thought and utterance of the Church inasmuch as it continually seeks to be understood afresh and hence expounded and interpreted. Exegesis is always a combination of taking and giving, of reading out and reading in. Thus exegesis, without which the norm cannot assert itself as a norm, entails the constant danger that the Bible will be taken prisoner by the Church, that its own life will be absorbed into the life of the Church, that its free power will be transformed into the authority of the Church, in short, that it will lose its character as a norm magisterially confronting the Church. All exegesis can become predominantly interposition rather than exposition and to that degree it can fall back into the Church’s dialogue with itself. Nor will one banish the danger, but only conjure it up properly and make it acute, by making correct exposition dependent on the judgment of a definitive and decisive teaching office in the Church or on the judgment of a historic-critical scholarship which comports itself with equal infallibility. If we assume that one or other of these authorities is worthy of the Church’s highest confidence, then either way the Church goes astray in respect of the Bible by thinking that in one way or the other it can and should control correct exposition, and thereby set up a norm over the norm, and thereby capture the true norm for itself. The exegesis of the Bible should rather be left open on all sides, not for the sake of free thought, as Liberalism would demand, but for the sake of a free Bible. Here as everywhere the defence against possible violence to the text must be left to the text itself, which in fact has always succeeded in doing something a purely spiritual and oral tradition cannot do, namely, maintaining its own life against the encroachments of individual or total periods and tendencies in the Church, victoriously asserting this life in ever new developments, and thus creating recognition for itself as a norm.[1]

A Free Bible; I like that! There almost seems to be a nihilism about Barth’s approach to Scripture; a healthy nihilism, in my view. In other words, if one were to take to heart what Barth is expressing (like I do), you would almost feel a sense of helplessness; as if church tradition, the “critical” exegetes, and my pastor cannot provide the type of authoritative reading of Scripture that I’d always hoped to have. Ultimately, I don’t think Barth is against any of the aforementioned offices in the church (in fact I know he’s not), but he wants to ensure that the Bible, and more importantly, the Bible’s reality, have the actual freedom to be the norming norm that Protestants, in particular, claim it to be. I don’t think though that most Protestant churches, let alone Catholic and Orthodox, have provided the kind of freedom for the Bible that Barth is calling for. This is because, as Barth notes implicitly in his explication, the churches have so absorbed various accretions and interpretations into their relative identities (across the spectrum from Catholic to Low Church evangelical), that Scripture’s reality, Jesus Christ, no longer has the regulative space to confront and encounter people with His voice as it is spoken in Scripture afresh and anew. So in this sense I think Barth’s nihilism is a necessary acid that needs to be applied to the Church’s approach to herself as the church, and as corollary to the Church’s deployment and appropriation of Holy Scripture (one way or the other) within the lifeblood of her existence as the Church.

Barth might seem almost anarchical when it comes to things like this (in fact to almost every doctrine he touches), but that’s only because he is calling people back to the reality that Jesus is Lord, and that we are not. People generally rebuff such exhortation, and simply label all of Barth (genetically) as a heretic; but this, in my view, is to their own destruction. Does the Bible have the Freedom in your life, in your church’s life that Barth is calling for? If it doesn’t, why not?

 

 

[1] Karl Barth, CD I/1, 103-04.

The tension present between the role of church tradition and the bible, and how the two mutually implicate one or the other (or don’t) is not going away any time soon. There are those who want to believe that they can be strict, even slavish wooden bible literalists; then there are others who believe that the tradition of the church functions magisterially in the biblical interpretive process; and yet others who want to attempt a kind of dialectic between the two (I’d say the best of the Reformed sola Scriptura approach resides here). As a Reformed Christian, and evangelical, I hold to the ‘scripture principle’ that scripture itself is authoritative and the norming norm over and against all else; even tradition. Of course I’m not naïve enough to think that the scripture principle itself is not its own ‘tradition,’ but it is so heuristically. Here is how Oliver Crisp breaks down the various tiers of principles relative to how scripture, church tradition, regional creeds, and theological opinion all ought to relate one with the other (from a Reformed perspective):

  1. Scripture is the norma normans, the principium theologiae. It is the final arbiter of matters theological for Christians as the particular place in which God reveals himself to his people. This is the first-order authority in all matters of Christian doctrine.
  2. Catholic creeds, as defined by and ecumenical council of the Church, constitute a first tier of norma normata, which have second-order authority in matters touching Christian doctrine. Such norms derive their authority from Scripture to which they bear witness.
  3. Confessional and conciliar statements of particular ecclesial bodies are a second tier of norma normata, which have third-order authority in matters touching Christian doctrine. They also derive their authority from Scripture to the extent that they faithfully reflect the teaching of Scripture.
  4. The particular doctrines espoused by theologians including those individuals accorded the title Doctor of the Church which are not reiterations of matters that are de fide, or entailed by something de fide, constitute theologoumena, or theological opinions, which are not binding upon the Church, but which may be offered up for legitimate discussion within the Church.[1]

I think this is a helpful overview (I’ve shared it before, in fact, in years past). But I also wanted to share, at some length, a quote from Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink that fleshes this out even further. They are in the midst of discussing Christology and how the tradition of the church played the role that it did in providing the grammar that the church has held as the orthodox grammar towards speaking about the relationship of God and humanity/humanity and God in the singular person of Jesus Christ. Necessarily, in the midst of their discussion they are broaching the very issue I am highlighting in this post—i.e. how we ought to think about the relationship between church tradition and biblical teaching. They write (in extenso):

In a sense, and depending on where we currently find ourselves, the christological decisions of the fourth and fifth century are stations that we might have passed. We accept them gratefully while appropriating them critically. We need to pay attention to the underlying issues in the christological debate, to see where positions had to be guarded and why certain concepts that were introduced were needed. The conclusion of the Council of Nicaea that Jesus is of one essence (homo-ousios) with the Father, for instance, is much easier to understand when we realize that it was prompted by the desire to safeguard the thoroughly biblical idea that we cannot ensure our own salvation. God himself must become involved in the world—if we as human beings—are to be rescued from ruin, and for that reason Jesus must share the same “being,” or essence, with God. We simply are not like the fictional Baron Munchausen who, according to a well-known story, was able to pull himself out of the mud by his own hair. In brief, we do not accept the formulas because they happen to be part of the tradition, but because we discover genuine biblical motives behind these statements and in what they want to signal. One could say that the christological decisions (Niceno-Constantinopolitan and Chalcedon) are the directives of a former generation for how to handle the gospel story, the message of the God of Israel, and the Father of Jesus Christ.

There also is an important theological reason to exercise this “hermeneutic of trust” with respect to the tradition’s unifying message of the person of Jesus. Christ himself promised his disciples that the Spirit would lead them into all truth (John 16:13). It would be incredibly callous to suggest that the tradition is completely in the dark. At the same time, this promise gives no guarantee against the possibility of some obscuring or ideological manipulation of the gospel, whether presented in very high church or in popular forms. Therefore, we must always be critical in our dealings with the tradition; we must be selective on the basis of what the apostles and prophets have given us in the Bible.

When faced with the question of whether the tradition is a legitimate source for our Christology, we therefore give this dual answer. On the one hand, we gratefully accept the christological decisions of the church that came from the ecumenical councils. We thus abide by the course and the outcome of the christological debate. We move on, even though we realize that some alternatives might have been condemned at these councils owing to church politics and that the conclusions might well have turned out differently or have ended in the (often rather broad) margins of the church. But we trust that this is a case of hominum confusione Dei providentia (God’s providence [may be executed in the midst of] human confusion). On the other hand, our task is always to return to the biblical texts and, within their range of possibilities, take a critical look at the decisions and the terminology the councils used. Going back to the Bible this way is needed for several reasons. Something clearly present in the texts may have been lost in the process of debate; going back to the texts thus may represent an enrichment. But we also face a problem of comprehension when ancient languages become a stumbling block in a changed context, and we may need to reinterpret and reword the context of the dogma because of those changes. The struggles recent generations of believers and theologians have had with certain concepts of classic Christology represent a real problem we may not simply brush away.[2]

I find these to be wise words, and represent a good way for attempting to negotiate this kind of tenuous situation between tradition and the Bible. It touches, of course, on issues of authority in the church and how that relates to the biblical and theological interpretive processes itself.

Someone I have found fruitful towards engaging in this kind of negotiation between taking the trad seriously, and at the same time allowing the reality of Holy Scripture to be determinative, is Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Bruce McCormack offers these good words on Barth in this regard:

I say all of this to indicate that even the ecumenical creeds are only provisional statements. They are only relatively binding as definitions of what constitutes “orthodoxy.” Ultimately, orthodox teaching is that which conforms perfectly to the Word of God as attested in Holy Scripture. But given that such perfection is not attainable in this world, it is understandable that Karl Barth should have regarded “Dogma” as an eschatological concept. The “dogmas” (i.e., the teachings formally adopted and promulgated by individual churches) are witnesses to the Dogma and stand in a relation of greater or lesser approximation to it. But they do not attain to it perfectly—hence, the inherent reformability of all “dogmas.” Orthodoxy is not therefore a static, fixed reality; it is a body of teachings which have arisen out of, and belong to, a history which is as yet incomplete and constantly in need of reevaluation.[3]

This offers a different slant on all that we have been discussing thusly. Barth’s thinking (as distilled by McCormack) on the eschatological character of church ‘dogma’ is an important caveat in all of this. It points up the provisional and proximate nature that church dogma, as that is related to the biblical teaching, entails.

Much more could be said, but let me simply close by saying: as Christians our ultimate authority is the living Word of God, Jesus Christ. Insofar as Holy Scripture is “attached” to the living Word as the ordained Holy ground upon which God has chosen to most definitively bear witness to himself in Jesus Christ, then we as Christians do well to live under this reality; the reality that Jesus is Lord, and his written Word, for our current purposes as Christians, serves as the space wherein Christians might come to a fuller knowledge of God and their relationship to him as he first has related to us. Within this matrix of fellowship, though, we ought to remember the role that tradition plays in this as the inevitable interpretive reality that is always already tied into what it means to be humans before God; and in this thrust, then, we ought to be appreciative and attentive to what God has been working into his church for the millennia; and we ought to appreciate that he continues to speak into his church.

 

[1] Oliver Crisp, god incarnate, (New York: T&T Clark International, 2009), 17.

[2] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 397-98.

[3] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 16.

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.

 

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.

 

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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 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.

*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.

 

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.

Welcome

Hello my name is Bobby Grow, and I author this blog, The Evangelical Calvinist. Feel free to peruse the posts, and comment at your leisure. I look forward to the exchange we might have here, and hope you are provoked to love Jesus even more as a result. Pax Christi!

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A Little Thomas Torrance

“God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.” -T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

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