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Of course even as theological exegetes of Holy Scripture, more so, we want to take the text as Literal. But what does this actually entail; what does it mean to be literal in our interpretation? Dispensationalists like Charles Ryrie assert that the sine qua non of the dispensational hermeneutic is to read the Bible literally; he asserts if the reader engages in this type of reading practice they will end up as a dispensationalist. Others, like Doug Hamp similarly assert that their method is of the literal type; but in Hamp’s et als. case he does not end up as a dispensationalist, instead he ends up focusing on a Jewish or Hebraic understanding of the text of Scripture—even in its New Testament iteration (e.g. rather than reading the Bible from an post-Nicene Christologically sourced tradition).

So what does it mean to read the Bible literally? Do we follow a wooden-literal approach, like the aforementioned, wherein what it means to be ‘literal’ actually entails being literalistic to the point that every word in the Bible is read without recognizing the various literary qualities inherent to the text (such as is presented by the types of narrative, poetry, or discourse inherent therein etc.)? I.e. that when figures of speech are used they are read as literal realities rather than figures symbolizing some greater reality that transcends its own figural reality. The Protestant Reformed, following their medieval forebears had an understanding of what interpreting Scripture ‘literally’ entailed, but it was much different than what we find in the modern-critical period wherein a rationalist positivism prevails. Note Richard Muller’s definition of the Latin sensus literalis:

sensus literalis: literal sense; the fundamental literal or grammatical sense of the text of Scripture, distinguished into (1) sensus literalis simplex, the simple literal sense, which lies immediately in the grammar and the meaning of individual words, and (2) sensus literalis compositus, the constructed or compounded literal sense, which is inferred from the Scripture as a whole or from individual clear, and therefore normative, passages of Scripture when the simple literal sense of the text in question seems to violate either the articuli fidei (q.v.) or the pracecepta caritatis (q.v.). See historicus; quadriga.[1]

As defined the previous adherents to ‘literal’ interpretation would want to affirm this definition (but they diverge radically from this premodern principle of biblical interpretation). We see, particularly in Muller’s notation on compositus, an allusion to what was called the analogia fidei (analogy of faith) or analogia scriptura (analogy of scripture); the principle where the clearer passages were deployed to shed light on the crux interpretums (the difficult passages to interpret). All of this presupposes a level of clarity or perspicuity inherent to the text that the Reformers held dear based upon their belief that Scripture was representative of the place where the living voice of God (viva vox Dei) could be encountered; undergirding this, further, was the belief that this God, in all of his graciously accommodating ways, intended to communicate exactly what he wanted within the providential unfolding of salvation history as disclosed in Holy Scripture. What is key to this, key for our purposes, is to recognize that in this sensus literalis it is largely funded by a very theological understanding of things. What it means to read the Bible literally is necessarily couched in and from the reality that God has spoken (Deus dixit), and thus to read the Bible ‘literally’ means to read Scripture with attention to the centrality of God’s voice given its primary vocalization through his Self-revealed and explicated reality in his Son, Jesus Christ.

To help us expand on this notion of reading Scripture in a literal key, in the historic mode of the sensus literalis, Stephen Fowl helpfully develops this further; and with reference to what I would contend is Scripture’s primary referent (cf. Jn 5.39), Jesus Christ. Fowl shows how in the case of the medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, a very ‘literal’ interpreter of Holy Scripture, what it meant to be a literal Bible interpreter wasn’t just to attend to the simplex, but more pointedly it was to recognize that the ‘simple’ (i.e. the grammatical, historical, literary contours) had a telos (purpose), that it had a res (reality) that it pointed to as its depth reality.

The foundation for Aquinas’s scriptural interpretation was the “literal sense” (sensus literalis) of Scripture. For Aquinas, the literal sense of Scripture is what the author intends. Thomas holds that the author of Scripture is God, or more precisely, the Holy Spirit. The human authors under the Spirit’s inspiration are significant though secondary in this respect. The Spirit is capable of understanding all things and intending more by the words of Scripture than humans could ever fully grasp. This means that believers should not be surprised to find that there may be many manifestations of the literal sense of a passage. Here is what Thomas says in the Summa Theologiae: “Since the literal sense is what the author intends, and since the author of Holy Scripture is God, Who by one act comprehends everything all at once in God’s understanding, it is not unfitting as Augustine says [Confessions XII], if many meanings are present even in the literal sense of a passage of Scripture” (Summa Theologiae 1.Q.1 art. 10). This notion of authorial intention, which is very different from the modern hermeneutical accounts of authors mentioned above, will allow someone to treat christological interpretations of Isaiah as the literal sense of that text without disallowing other more historical accounts of the literal sense of Isaiah. Moreover, such an approach will allow Christians to treat Psalm 139 in ways that do not invite Christians to pray for revenge on their enemies. Thus, such an approach will keep theological concerns primary in theological interpretation rather than making theological concerns subsidiary to hermeneutical concerns.[2]

For Thomas Aquinas, and the premodern world he inhabited, what it meant to read the Bible ‘literally’ had range; what was privileged was the theological over the “historical-critical.” This belief, about the primacy of the theological, was fueled by the further belief that the world was God’s, that it was providentially administered and sustained by his Word and for his Word; as such interpreters like Aquinas (Luther, Calvin, et al.) felt it warranted to simply read Scripture as if the world belonged to God, and the cattle on a thousand hills, and that the reality of Scripture had an elevation point that redounded in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. So to read the Bible literally from this vantage point was to see the Christ as the primary referent point wherein all else, all the historical proclivities and contingencies unfolded in the panorama of salvation-history, were hued by their canonizing reality in Jesus Christ. Unsurprisingly we see this in Martin Luther’s interpretive approach as well; note:

Luther makes an important distinction between the literal-historical meaning of his Old Testament text (that is, the literal meaning of text, as determined by its historical context), and its literal-prophetic sense (that is, the meaning of the text, as interpreted as referring to the coming of Christ and the establishment of his church). The Christological concentration, which is so characteristic a feature of the Dictata, is achieved by placing emphasis upon the literal-prophetic, rather than the literal-historic, sense of scripture. In this manner, Luther is able to maintain that Christ is the sensus principalis of scripture.[3]

Here we have further elaboration of what Muller referenced for us as the simplex sensus literalis in Luther’s own approach to reading the Bible ‘literally.’ In flow with Fowl’s elucidation of Aquinas, Luther has literal-prophetic; this nuance between the ‘prophetic’ and the ‘historical’ nicely illustrates, again, how in the premodern era of biblical interpretation there was an emphasis upon the theological, more pointedly the christological character of the text of Scripture and its reading. All of this is couched in the theological ideation that this is God’s world, and under his providential governance and giveness. Viz. that there is not an abstract autonomous world of history and artifacts wherein the biblical interpreter can stand within as a ‘critical’ interpreter of Scripture that keeps them sanitized or unimplicated by their own locatedness as creatures before a holy Creator.

I confess that this is the way I approach my reading of Holy Scripture. Does this mean that some of the relative gains garnished by the turn to the modern must be completely evacuated? No, it simply means that the theological ought to be given priority of place in the biblical interpretive process, and that the so called ‘critical’ is given due notice only within this sort of humiliating reality (i.e. humiliating in the sense that the critical reader of Scripture is not so critical after all; in the sense that they/we are sinners). Does reading the Bible theologically mean that we cannot pay attention to various historical vicissitudes present within the text that might not seem to have direct relation to the Messiah? No, it just means that when engaging with historical instances, or personages in the text of Scripture, that we will always be cognizant of the fact that they are part of a greater historical sweep wherein their place within the salvation-history unfolded and deposited in the text of Scripture only has telos, only has meaning in light of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ.

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 279.

[2] Stephen E. Fowl, Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 49-50 kindle.

[3] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Oxdford/New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 80. Quote sourced from this post: The Quingentesimus of the Protestant Reformation and the Analogia Lutherano in Christ Concentrated Biblical Exegesis.

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The first time I attended Bible College was just after I graduated high school in 1992; I attended a small Conservative Baptist Bible College in Phoenix, Arizona, at that time called Southwestern College (it is now called Arizona Christian University). I was a bible and theology major, as such I had an introduction to Systematic Theology class; it was taught by an old school theology standingthomasaquinasprofessor, meaning he was of the very conservative, almost fundamentalist type (and he was also an old guy). The text he had us use for our primary theology text was Charles Ryrie’s Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth. When the title says ‘Basic’, it indeed is very basic theology, almost completely cut off from any of the confessional riches available in the Protestant past. But what is typical of Ryrie’s theology relative to other “evangelically” oriented theology texts is his appeal to philosophical proofs for the existence of God in the prolegomena of the text itself.

For Ryrie’s part, the first proof for God’s existence he appeals to is the cosmological argument; he explains it this way:

General revelation comes to mankind in several ways.

1.Through Creation

1.Statement. Simply stated this line of evidence (the cosmological argument for the existence of God) points out that the universe around us is an effect which connotes an adequate cause.

2.Presupposition. This line of evidence depends on three presuppositions: (a) every effect has a cause; (b) the effect caused depends on the cause for its existence; and (c) nature cannot originate itself.

 3.Development. If something now exists (the cosmos) then either it came from nothing or it came from something which must be eternal. The something eternal in the second option could either be the cosmos itself which would have to be eternal, or chance as an eternal principle, or God the eternal Being.

To say that the cosmos came from nothing means it was self-created. This is a logical contradiction, because for something to be self-created it must exist and not exist at the same time in the same way. Furthermore, self-creation has never been scientifically demonstrated and observed.[1]

Ryrie goes on and elaborates this further, but this represents a good representation of his line of thought. Clearly there are more sophisticated presentations of this argument, starting with Thomas Aquinas himself, and even by contemporary thinkers like William Lane Craig. But the basic tenets of the argument are presented by Ryrie, and are probably what most young bible college students, seminarians, and pastors have been exposed to in their training.

I open this post up like this to actually transition to a critique of approaching theology proper, to approaching God in this way. For the rest of this post we will consider young Karl Barth and his critique of the cosmological argument for the existence of God.

The Marburg Barth

Karl Barth attended Marburg University in Germany under the watchful eye of Wilhelm Herrmann, among other theology and biblical studies professors. Barth graduated from Marburg in 1908, but did not immediately enter pastoral ministry, instead he stayed on in the Marburg area and wrote for Die Christliche Welt. Kenneth Oakes gives us more background information:

Slow to enter pastoral work immediately after his university studies, Barth stayed in Marburg for another year, working as an editorial assistant for Die Christliche Welt, a journal published under the direction of Martin Rade, a friend and colleague of Herrmann. Thus from 1908-9 Barth was allowed to imbibe more deeply the ‘modern school’ and Marburg theology….[2]

During this time, according to Oakes, Barth wrote two pieces that caused some controversy, at least for some.[3] We will consider the second piece, which has to do with Barth’s critique of the cosmological argument, and that whole mode of theologizing. Oakes details this at length for us:

The second and more revealing piece as regards theology and philosophy is a talk Barth wrote against the cosmological proof for the existence of God. In this piece, Barth begins with an explanation of the argument’s formulations in Thomas Aquinas, the defence of the possibility for knowing God in Vatican I, Leo the XIII’s recommendation of Aquinas in the 1879 Aeterna Patris, and the censuring of the agnosticism of modern philosophy and philosophy of religion in the 1907 encyclical Pascendi. He covers the distinction between the natural knowledge of God and the revealed knowledge of God, along with their concomitant disciplines, natural and revealed theology. He then considers the cosmological argument as found within J.A. Becker’s work and Thomas’ five ways. He defends Thomas against the common charge of pantheism, although he thinks Thomas comes close to such a position at times. Nevertheless, Barth is still worried about the status of God’s ‘Persönlichkeit,’ a good Ritschilian concern, in Thomas’s doctrine of God. Barth wonders whether the free and textured identity and agency of God is lost when God is described in abstract and impersonal terms such as the highest thing, the most necessary being, or the first cause.

The cosmological proof has two serious problems. The first is philosophical. Barth brings the full weight of Kant’s critical philosophy onto the proof. Following Kant, he argues that the cosmological proof tacitly depends upon the ontological proof, and that the ontological proof (or at least Anselm’s version of it) fails insofar as the proposition ‘God is’ is deemed to be analytic (the predicate ‘is’ adding nothing to the subject ‘God’). The cosmological proof fails, as the ontological proof on which it relies is specious. The second problem is theological. Barth argues that even if the cosmological proof were true, what it proves would remain quite different from the God of Persönlichkeit:

Such is clear: the way of the syllogism, of the subordination of individual, empirical things underneath universal concepts, absolutely does not reach a final, real, and in this respect transcendent being, but only to the idea of one, to the idea of a being about whom there is nothing to say other than that he is the negation of his not-being on the one hand, and that he is absolutely prior to everything finite on the other; by its construction and the concepts used such a being remains entirely within the world.

By definition, philosophical metaphysics can neither reach the God beyond the cosmos nor his specific ‘personality,’ and in this judgment Kant and the modern theology are in complete agreement.[4]

Remember, this is the young Barth, barely a college graduate, but this type of critique from him in regard to ‘natural theology’ and knowledge of God given foundation through philosophical proofs, would perdure in Barth’s thought and life throughout.

In a very reduced sense Barth is arguing that the philosophers might be able to prove a conception of godness all day and all night, but at the end or beginning of the day all they’ve proven is something they were able to conceive of through their own intellectual prowess; i.e. they haven’t begun to access the holy of holies and touch the feet of the living and true God.

I agree with Barth, in contrast to Ryrie, Aquinas, Craig, et al., and this of course is what makes Barth such a controversial figure for so many evangelical theologians (young and old) to this day. They fundamentally disagree with Barth’s critique of something like the cosmological argument since they base so much of their theological methodology and approach upon the foundations laid by people like Thomas Aquinas and the rest of that tradition which is imbibed deeply by the post-reformation reformed orthodox theologians.

What This Has Meant To Me

As I noted, my seminal introduction to systematic theology started with Charles Ryrie, and a very basic presentation of the cosmological argument or proof as a credible foundation for how I could know with certainty that God exists, and that he exists in a certain way. But this has never satisfied me. Later I went to Multnomah Bible College, this time I was presented with more sophisticated instruction, but at base the way I was taught to think of God from Ryrie remained the way I was taught to think of God by my professors at Multnomah. It wasn’t till I attended seminary, at Multnomah’s seminary, where I was finally introduced to historical theology, and I began to explore, quite deeply, the history of ideas and how they were given formation. It was a breath of fresh air to realize that there was another way, a way that I believed was more faithful to the God I was encountering over and again as I read Holy Scripture.

I was introduced to Barth and Torrance (a bit), in seminary as well. I graduated from seminary in 2003, but it wasn’t until about 2006 that I started reading Barth and Torrance intensely, and I found what I was looking for in their critiques and way of thinking; particularly as that has to do with this very issue. I had already given up on the idea that God could or should be “proven,” but it wasn’t until I hit Barth and Torrance that I really appreciated how to work that out by focusing on revelational theology; by focusing on Christ as the key. Yes, in seminary, in my studies of John Calvin and Martin Luther et al. I was introduced to what is called kataphatic or ‘positive theology,’ and I relied on both Calvin and Luther, deeply, to enable me to move forward into a revealed theology approach.  But what I found in Barth and Torrance were teachers who took that to the next level, and offered a grammar and way to think that filled out what I only latently picked up through Calvin and Luther.

It is refreshing to know that God cannot nor should not be “proven.” If we think he can be the foundations for how we are thinking of God, by definition and method, are not supplied by God in Jesus Christ, but instead by our own trained wits. Our wits will always let us down, but the Word of God will endure forever.

 

[1] Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (USA: Victor Books, 1986), 28-9.

[2] Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 28.

[3] Ibid., 29.

[4]Ibid., 29-30.

Theology is used frequently, and very often, generically. I use it in a certain way, personally, with a certain understanding when I use it. But what has become apparent to me, particularly because of a recent post on FaceBook, is that what theology and theologian actually entail, definitionally, is not as apparent as I had thought. In this post I will try to offer some definition of what I mean when I refer to theology and theologian.

When I first graduated high school in 1992 I attended what at that time was called Southwestern College in Phoenix, Arizona. For my first semester Systematic Theology class we used Charles Ryrie’s Basic Theology.[1] Here is my first real exposure to a definition of what Systematic Theology, or simply theology entails:

The word “theology,” from theos meaning God and logos meaning rational expression, means the rational interpretation of religious faith. Christian theology thus means the rational interpretation of the Christian faith.

At least three elements are included in that general concept of theology. (1) Theology is intelligible. It can be comprehended by the human mind in an orderly, rational manner. (2) Theology requires explanation. This, in turn, involves exegesis and systematization. (3) The Christian faith finds its source in the Bible, so Christian theology will be a Bible-based study. Theology, then, is the discovery, systematizing, and presentation of the truths about God.[2]

This a pretty straight-forward vanilla understanding of what theology is. There are components hidden within Ryrie’s definition that I think need some interrogating, and we will do some of that as this post proceeds.

After my first exposure to Ryrie’s theology I left Southwestern (after a semester), and just went home and starting working. After awhile though the Lord, through some circumstances, began to tug on my heart which eventuated in me enrolling and attending Multnomah Bible College in Portland, Oregon. The primary, school-wide, go-to Systematic Theology text used at Multnomah was Millard Erickson’s Introducing Christian Doctrine (this text was used at both the under-grad and grad levels). This became the occasion for my next exposure to a definition of what theology entails. Erickson writes:

To some readers, the word doctrine may prove somewhat frightening. It conjures up visions of very technical, difficult, abstract beliefs, perhaps grounded dogmatically. Doctrine is not that, however. Christian doctrine is simply statements of the most fundamental beliefs that the Christian has, beliefs about the nature of God, about his action, about us who are his creatures, and about what he has done to bring us into relationship with himself. Far from being dry or abstract, these are the most important types of truths. They are statements on the fundamental issues of life: namely, who am I, what is the ultimate meaning of the universe, where am I going? Christian doctrine is, then, the answers that the Christian gives to those questions that all human beings ask.

Doctrine deals with general or timeless truths about God and the rest of reality. It is not simply the study of specific historical events, such as what God has done, but of the very nature of the God who acts in history. The study of doctrine is known as theology. Literally, theology is the study of God. It is the careful, systematic study, analysis, and statement of Christian doctrine. Certain of its characteristics will help us understand the nature of the theological enterprise:

1.Theology is biblical….2.Theology is systematic….3.Theology is done in the context of human culture. 4. Theology is contemporary….5. Theology is practical….[3]

These were my first exposures to what theology entails. At a certain level they are pretty benign and descriptive: i.e. theology is the study of God. But on further analysis what these definitions, respectively, provide for, despite Erickson’s protest that theology is not dry and abstract, is a rather intellective-centered, abstractive process of reducing Scripture and God to propositions. And in Erickson’s case, he sees theology quite philosophically, even “world-viewish,” as if a primary task of Christian doctrine is to provide answers to profane philosophical questions about the meaning of life and so forth.

This was not satisfying for me, but until I hit seminary these were the types of definitions of theology I “labored” under. When I finally hit seminary in 2002 things changed. Dr. Ron Frost, my historical theology and ethics professor in seminary, introduced me to historical theology. At this point I realized that theology had a history, and that there was whole lineage underlying the ideas and doctrine I understood to be Christian Systematic Theology. At this point my horizons broadened and the world opened up; I began to read Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, Sibbes, Perkins, Gunton, Barth, et al. and the world of theology took on a whole new shape and hopefulness for me.

One thing led to another over the years, and I am where I am currently. Once Frost (and Paul Metzger) opened these doors for me, and as I went through them and kept reading and studying I of course bumped up against Thomas F. Torrance and Karl Barth, and then John Webster (and others). For the rest of this post I will engage with, in particular, Webster’s thoughts on what theology entails.

I am going to share from Webster at extenso (at some length!), as you read what Webster has to say—and it will require some sustained attention on your part to follow the various lines he is tracing—you might think “hmm, this sounds a lot like what was shared from Ryrie and Erickson.” Superficially that could be the case, but if you pay attention closely you will see that Webster is actually critiquing the approach that Ryrie and Erickson describe; Webster highlights the ontology of theology as couched within soteriology and theology proper, as if theology as a human endeavor has an ordered place relative to God and the idea that God has spoken (Deus dixit). Here is Webster:

The presentation of the genus and tasks of systematic theology has to begin quite far back. Understanding what systematic theology (or any other division of theological study) is about depends upon grasping the nature and ends of rational creatures; and such an account rests finally upon an understanding of God and the works of God. Systematic theology is an exercise of reason in the domain of God’s saving and revelatory goodness to creatures. Undertaking it well requires that practitioners orient the work of the mind within that domain, in order to receive instruction and assistance in their task. This is why a primary requirement of the pursuit of the task – neglect of which is so easy and so disastrous – is the confidentia divini auxillii of which Aquinas spoke in the prologue to the Summa theologiae.

To unfold the matter a little more full: (1) Determining the possibility, nature and responsibilities of theology requires appeal to material theological doctrine. Indeed, prolegomena to systematic theology is an extension and application of the content of Christian dogmatics (Trinity, creation, fall, reconciliation, regeneration and the rest), not a ‘pre-dogmatic’ inquiry into its possibility. ‘[D]ogmatics does not wait for an introduction.’ The fact that in its prolegomena systematic theology invokes doctrine means that this preliminary stage of the argument does not bear responsibility for establishing the possibility of true human speech about God, or for demonstrating how infinite divine truth can take finite form in human knowing. Prolegomena is, rather, the contemplative exercise of tracing what is the case, and explicating how and why it is so. (2) More closely: specifying a theological sense of scientia is a derivative task, one to be undertaken only after clarification of the economy of salvation and revelation within which theological reason fulfils its calling. Recall the order of the very first two articles of the Summa theologiae: Aquinas only asks whether Christian theology is a science (1a. 1.2) after asking whether another teaching is required apart from philosophical studies (Ia. 1. 1) and, crucially, the answer which he gives to the first question is, in essence, an appeal to the saving and revelatory works of God as that by which the human good is secured and made known. ‘It should be urged that human well being [salus] called for schooling in what God has revealed, in addition to the philosophical researches pursued by human reasoning.’ The setting of theology is thus not simply the immanent sphere of human inquiry, but the transcendent vocation of rational creatures. Schooling in divine revelation is necessary ‘because God destines us for an end beyond the grasp of reason … Now we have to recognise an end before we can stretch out and exert for it. Hence the necessity for our welfare [salus] that divine truths surpassing reason should be signified to us through divine revelation’. (3) A definition of theology and its various tasks thus rests upon teaching about God and the human good; and the deepest disagreements about the nature of theology commonly arise, not simply from divergent conceptions of scientia, but from differing understandings of God and the creatures of God.

Adopting this starting point in the context of mainstream Anglo-American scholarly study of systematic theology presumes what Lewis Ayres has called ‘a wider critique of the culture of systematic theology’. Much might be said by way of analysis of that culture (or cultures: at least on the surface there is not much consensus). One feature, commonly encountered but not often remarked upon, is that of granting a certain priority to an understanding of systematic theology as a mode of public engagement over systematic theology as an act of contemplative intelligence. Positioning systematic theology in this way affects not only conceptions of the ends of theology (as, essentially, a practical science of Christian history and action), but also conceptions of its sources, its modes of argument, the virtues required of its practitioners and – and most of all – its material content, for in systematic theologies of this type, rather little tends to be said of God in se. This may go along with disinclination for, even suspicion of, systematic theology as dogmatics, and preferences for conceptions of the systematic task as open, free and cumulative learning.[4]

As usual with Webster he is careful to sketch out a theological taxis or order or ontology even for defining what theology is in the first place. As Webster does with his doctrine of Scripture, here in his defining of theology, he acknowledges, as he must, that theological endeavor is a creaturely and intellective endeavor, but he places that activity within the realm of God’s Triune life and Self-revelation; more particularly he places theological activity within the prior reality of salvation. It is here where genuine doxological reflection about God can take place. It at this point that theology has the capacity and resource to press deeply into the interior reality of God, and where theology is not just an exercise in answering philosophical world-view questions (Erickson) or a process of rational abstraction (Ryrie and Erickson). Instead, theology is a dialogical exercise where Christians engage with the living God and make Him known as they participate in His effervescent life.

Theology for the Christian, as Webster hits upon, can take on different cues and diverse shape; depending upon the conception of God the theologian starts out with to begin with. Theology in its most base form is simply study of God, but after that things pick up and we get into the complexities of how that task takes shape; and under what type of pressure. I would contend with Webster that the best pressure is the pressure provided for by God’s life revealed in Jesus Christ; this should be the context the theologian operates within, a context where doxology and the living Triune God are at its center.

I would like to say much more, and unfortunately this post ended up taking a bit of a different shape than I’d hoped for in the beginning; but hopefully there has been something interesting communicated.

 

 

 

[1] Which might clue you in on what type of school it was. It was a Conservative Baptist Bible College, with all the doctrinal distinctives and culture that typically attends a Conservative Baptist Bible College.

[2] Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology (USA/Canada/England: Victor Books, 1986), 13.

[3] Millard J. Erickson, Introducing Christian Doctrine, ed. L. Arnold Hustad (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1992), 15-16.

[4] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London/New York: T&T Clark International A Continuum Imprint, 2012), 133-35.

Thomas Reid

Thomas Reid

There is no doubt a retreat, or migration as it were, of evangelicals has taken place from engaging with doctrine, but insofar as doctrine is still present for many evangelicals of a certain era anyway, what informs them most, at least hermeneutically is the hermeneutic known as Dispensationalism. It was this hermeneutic that I was groomed in myself, not only as a kid, but in and through Bible College and Seminary (of the Progressive sort).

Dispensationalism, without getting into all of the nitty gritty, is a hermeneutic that prides itself on using the ‘literal’ way of reading Scripture in a ‘consistent’ form as they claim; it is a hermeneutic that maintains a distinction between Israel and the Church (in its classic and revised forms); and it is a hermeneutic that simply seeks to read its understanding straight off the pages of Scripture in the most straightforward ways possible (again ‘literally’ with appeal to Scottish Common Sense Realism[1]). One of its most ardent proponents says it like this:

Literal hermeneutics. Dispensationalists claim that their principle of hermeneutics is that of literal interpretation. This means interpretation that gives to every word the same meaning it would have in normal usage, whether employed in writing, speaking, or thinking. It is sometimes called the principle of grammatical-historical interpretation since the meaning of each word is determined by grammatical and historical considerations. The principle might also be called normal interpretation since the literal meaning of words is the normal approach to their understanding in all languages. It might also be designated plain interpretation so that no one receives the mistaken notion that the literal principle rules out figures of speech….[2]

The Dispensationalist’s hermeneutic springs then from a philosophy of language that holds to the idea that language corresponds to real and perceptible things in reality, and as such, based upon this assumption attempts to, in a slavish way (to this principled understanding of language and reality) reads Holy Scripture in such a way that comports with language’s and history’s most basic and simple and normal component parts (i.e. as it can be reconstructed through critical and rationalist means).

It is no surprise that Dispensationalism developed when it did, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when what it meant to do Biblical Studies and exegesis of Scripture was to engage Scripture through developmental/evolutionary criterion for reconstructing Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) history (the periods that Biblical Scripture developed within), and using various other literary criteria for determining Scripture’s origination and the cultural-societal-rhetorical contexts that gave it rise. In other words Dispensationalism developed in a context wherein things are only true insofar as they comport with the canons of observable and empirical protocol. G.C. Berkouwer describes this development this way:

We now confront the noteworthy fact that, during the rise of historical criticism, concentrated attention to the text of Scripture was considered vital and necessary. Criticism protested against every form of Scripture exposition which went to work with a priori and external standards. It wanted to proceed from Scripture as it actually existed; it sought to understand Scripture in the way in which it came to us in order thus to honor the “interprets itself.” This is what it claimed in its historical exposition of Scripture: something supposedly free of all the a prioris of dogmatic systems or ecclesiastical symbolic. In that way justice could be done to Scripture itself.[3]

Maybe you noticed something in the Berkouwer quote, he is implicitly noting something that happened in the 18th century—again remembering that this is the context which the Dispensationalist hermeneutic developed within and from—there was a split (as a result of Enlightenment rationalism among other forces) between doing confessional/churchy biblical interpretation/study from the kind of biblical interpretation/study that came to dominate what it meant to do ‘critical’ biblical study. This split was given formalization in the mid-1700s first by publications from Anton Friedrich Büsching and then most notably by G. Ebling; Gerhard Hasel summarizes it this way:

Under the partial impetus of Pietism and with a strong dose of rationalism Anton Friedrich Büsching’s publications (1756-58) reveal for the first time that “Biblical theology” becomes the rival of dogmatics. Protestant dogmatics, also called “scholastic theology,” is criticized for its empty speculations and lifeless theories. G. Ebeling has aptly summarized that “from being merely a subsidiary discipline of dogmatics ‘biblical theology’ now became a rival of the prevailing dogmatics.”[4]

Dispensationalism developed within the new ‘critical’ approach to doing biblical studies, although it was attempting to still honor its pious commitment to Scripture as Holy and God’s. But it did so under the ‘Modern’ constraints provided for by Enlightenment rationalism; its philosophy of language (i.e. the literalism we have already broached), grounded in Scottish Common Sense Realism, was very so much so moving and breathing in and from a non-confessional, non-dogmatic mode of doing biblical study. Hasel once again describes the ethos which the Dispensational hermeneutic developed within:

In the age of Enlightenment (Aufklärung) a totally new approach for the study of the Bible was developed under several influences. First and foremost was rationalism’s reaction against any form of supernaturalism. Human reason was set up as the final criterion and chief source of knowledge, which meant that the authority of the Bible as the infallible record of divine revelation was rejected. The second major contribution of the period of the Enlightenment was the development of a new hermeneutic, the historical-critical method which holds sway to the present day in liberalism [dispensationalism] and beyond. Third, there is the application of radical literary criticism to the Bible …. Finally, rationalism by its very nature was led to abandon the orthodox view of the inspiration of the Bible so that ultimately the Bible became simply one of the ancient documents, to be studied as any other ancient document.[5]

It might appear that what was just described sounds nothing like who the practitioners of the dispensational hermeneutic are (i.e. evangelical Bible loving Christians). That would be correct, but the point is to note that dispensational hermeneutes don’t ever really abandon the Enlightenment principles nor the split from confessional hermeneutics that the Enlightenment produced between the disciplines. Instead dispensationalism attempts to work with and from the material and rationalist principles provided by the Enlightenment;  primarily meaning that the Dispensational hermeneutic hopes to be able to go immediately to the text of Scripture, through its grammatical and historical analysis under the supposition that biblical language simply functions like any other literary language does under its plain and normal meanings without any pretext or reliance upon its (potential) theological significance. Instead its theological significance can only be arrived at after abstracting that out from the plain meaning of the words of Scripture.

Conclusion

John Webster summarizes what happened during this period of development this way (and what he describes applies to the development of the Dispensational hermeneutic as well):

To simplify matters rather drastically: a dominant trajectory in the modern development of study of the Bible has been a progressive concentration on what Spinoza called interpretation of Scripture ex ipsius historia, out of its own history. Precisely when this progression begins to gather pace, and what its antecedents may be, are matters of rather wide dispute. What is clear, at least in outline, is that commanding authority gradually came to be accorded to the view that the natural properties of the biblical text and of the skills of interpreters are elements in an immanent economy of communication. The biblical text is a set of human signs borne along on, and in turn shaping, social religious and literary processes; the enumeration of its natural properties comes increasingly to be not only a necessary but a sufficient description of the Bible and its reception. This definition of the text in terms of its (natural) history goes along with suspension of or disavowal of the finality both of the Bible and of the reader in loving apprehension of God, and of the Bible’s ministerial function as divine envoy to creatures in need of saving instruction.[6]

Whenever you hear someone say they just interpret Scripture ‘literally’ dig deeper to see if what they mean is ‘literalistically’ under the constraints of what we described provided for by the Enlightenment.

To be clear, following the Enlightenment does not, of course, nor necessarily terminate in the Dispensational hermeneutic, in fact a case can be made that what the Enlightenment did to biblical studies, in some ways provided for some fruitful trajectory as well (insofar as it highlights the fact that the Bible and its phenomenon cannot be reduced to historist or naturalist premises themselves); but we will have to pursue that line later. Suffice it to say, Dispensationalism is not the pure way to Scripture that its adherents want us to think that it is. It does not spring from Christian confessional premises, and in fact ignores the fact that indeed Scripture study and exegesis is actually a theological endeavor at its heart. The only way to get a plain meaning of Scripture is to read it through the lens of God’s life revealed and exegeted in Jesus Christ.

[1] See Thomas Reid, “If there are certain principles, as I think there are, which the constitution of our nature leads us to believe, and which we are under a necessity to take for granted in the common concerns of life, without being able to give a reason for them — these are what we call the principles of common sense; and what is manifestly contrary to them, is what we call absurd.” The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Reid (2004), 85.

[2] Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism. Revised and Expanded (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 80.

[3] G.C. Berkouwer, Studies In Dogmatics: Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), 130.

[4] Gerhard Hasel, Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues In The Current Debate. Revised and Expanded Third Edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1989), 19.

[5] Ibid., 18-19 [Brackets mine].

[6] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason(London/New York: T&T Clark, A Continuum Imprint, 2012), 6.

The following is primarily intended to follow up on a discussion I had this last Wednesday with my pastor (Daniel), and other brothers from my church (Calvary Chapel, Vancouver/Downtown). We were talking, in general, gracejesusabout our views on “eschatology,” and attempting to articulate the lineaments of our various positions; or maybe, even, for some of us, trying to figure out where we are at (I know where I am at on this stuff, at this point). As most know, Calvary Chapels are as staunchly classical Dispensational, Premillennial, Pretribulational as they come; and usually (especially in Southern California) they hold to a rather idiosyncratic intensity in their application of classical Dispensationalism. My pastor, is dispensational (progressive, though … which is laudable), Pretrib and Premil. My other brother (at our meeting), Cameron, is pretty sure he is coming down as Historic Premillennial (good, Cameron! J ); and the other brother at our meeting (the Worship Pastor at our church), Chris, seems to be open and working towards his own view on these things. And, then there is me; I am currently an exegetical historical premil (which also means post-trib), and a theological amillennialist.

We covered a broad range of things in our discussion, and in our discussion, I attempted (in our short time we had together) to provide some historical background in regard to the setting in which the dispensational hermeneutic took shape (i.e. from Scottish Common Sense Realism, from positivism, from Enlightenment rationalism, etc.). And then attempted to explain how and why I reject the Literalistic, Grammatical, Historical approach on offer with classical Dispensationalism; and then briefly hint at why I jettison the ‘literalistic’ (which is rationalist) “L” in the literal for the classical Dispensational hermeneutic, and instead affirm an actual “Literal” understanding of Scripture in terms that are defined by the way the New Testament itself uses and interprets the Old Testament promises in light of Jesus Christ as their fulfillment. And so in this sense, I explained how I understand “Literal” interpretation (see Calvin’s sensus literalis, for example); and then along with this qualification,  how I attach this “kind” of literal to the grammatical-historical (I also like to see the “L” as literary).

Okay, so you have a better understanding now with what was going on in our conversation. With this understanding in mind, and with a kind of critique of my “L” approach, from my pastor (although, I would not say it was a critique, per se, just a concern that I was maybe moving too fast and ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ — meaning that I am probably adopting an allegorical approach or something), I want to share what would be informing the kind of thinking that might fear what I appear to be doing with my own (I would say, more historic) understanding of what being literal actually entails. Who better to provide this kind of insight, into this kind of apprehension (towards my direction), than Charles Ryrie (popularizer and stalwart of classical Dispensational hermeneutics)? The following is Ryrie critiquing Daniel Fuller, professor emeritus, from Fuller Theological Seminary; Fuller would maintain a more historical premil kind of view (which might as well be amillennial for Ryrie). Here is Ryrie on Fuller:

Thus, the nondispensationalist is not a consistent literalist by his own admission but has to introduce another hermeneutical principle (the “theological” method) in order to have a heremeneutical basis for the system he holds. One suspects that the conclusions determined the means used to arrive at them—which is a charge usually hurled at dispensationalists.

Fuller’s problem is that apparently his concept of progressive revelation includes the possibility that subsequent revelation may completely change the meaning of something previously revealed. It is true that progressive revelation brings additional light, but does it completely reverse to the point of contradiction what has been previously revealed? Fuller’s concept apparently allows for such, but the literal principle built upon a sound philosophy of the purpose of language does not. New revelation cannot mean contradictory revelation. Later revelation on a subject does not make the earlier revelation mean something different. It may add to it or even supersede it, but it does not contradict it. A word or concept cannot mean one thing in the Old Testament and take on opposite meaning in the New Testament. If this were so, the Bible would be filled with contradictions, and God would have to be conceived of as deceiving the Old Testament prophets when He revealed to them a nationalistic kingdom, since He would have known all the time that He would completely reverse the concept in later revelation. The true concept of progressive revelation is like a building—and certainly the superstructure does not replace the foundation.[1]

Ryrie’s fear is really an apologetic fear, and not a theological or even biblical one. The fear for Ryrie is that if we don’t follow a wooden-literal, and positivistic hermeneutic, that we will end up denying the inerrancy of Scripture, and indeed, in the end, undercut any space for a rational belief in God. So this is one thing (a category confusion, and illustrative of the Fundamentalist reactionary mode that so dominates Ryrie’s approach, and how that reaction stands in as a touchstone and shaper of his hermeneutic, in general).

Secondly, for Ryrie, he believes that a “theological” reading of Scripture means that we have carte blanch for interpreting Scripture “spiritualistically;” we see this in his critique of Fuller. But this is highly problematic, for Ryrie, and his view, because what he fails to appreciate is that his “literalist” approach comes just as loaded with “theological” freight as does any other purported “theological” method. It is just that classical Dispensationalism, in general, and Charles Ryrie, in particular, operate from a theory of language and reality that, again, takes shape from a naturalist, empiricist understanding of reality; such that, in the end, the linear march of history, and the usage of language by people that shapes that, becomes determinative for how reality “just is.” In other words, for Ryrie, it is as if a ‘normal, plain, and literal’ engagement with observable reality (inclusive of language itself) can simply be read in a way that theological presuppositions are mere abstractions of language itself; as if language is not innately theological in its giveness; as if language itself does not come from the sustainer of creation itself — which would or should make one think that language is thoroughly theologically charged, in general (especially when we are dealing with the language of the Bible). Ironically, Ryrie, just prior to the quote I shared above appeals to this same thing; i.e. that language is given by God. But then he uncritically presumes that if this is the case, that biblical language, then, ought to be as simple as reading Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, which, again, is to actually abstract biblical language from its rich Christian and theological origination; and instead, to locate it in the realm of a pure nature that is abstract from God, in the end.

To be “literal” for me, when it comes to biblical hermeneutics, is to follow the way the New Testatment authors consistently engage with the Old Testament and its application and reinterpretation in and through Christ as its ultimate reality (just as Christ is the ultimate reality and purpose for all of creation cf. Col. 1:15ff.). This is not to change or contradict the original intent or meaning of the Old Testatment, instead, it is to fully appreciate that the New Testatment authors (under inspiration) used the various heremenutical approaches available to them in their second Temple context. It is to appreciate that they applied things that would “naturally” appear to be applicable to the nation of Israel, and expand those out to their actual and always referent in Jesus Christ. To be literal for me is to follow the demands expected by the various literary realties that govern the Bible as a piece of special literature: i.e. types, genres, and forms. To be literal for me is to assume that whenever we read the bible we are engaging in a theological exercise, par excellence. The Bible, itself, as read by Christians through the centuries, is governed by the theological concept that God has spoken (Deus dixit), and that God speaks (viva vox Dei, ‘the living voice of God’).

If we start out reading the Bible as Christians, and thus Christianly, we will not end up being a classical or even a progressive Dispensationalist. And this is because, again, we will read the Bible in a way that starts with Christ (cf. Gen. 1:1 with John 1:1, which is a very theological gloss on Gen. 1:1 by the evangelist, John), the son of David. If we start out reading the Bible with the nation of Israel, and then do so through a wooden-literalism (as I have describe it above), then we will end up reading the Bible as if it is primarily about the nation of Israel (with Christ included in the discussion, but not primary to it). So either way, it is a rather circular venture; the difference between what I would call the Christ[ian] approach versus the ‘Israel’ approach, is that the Christian approach has the space for someOne outside of the contours of natural history to break in on its understanding, and thus serve as history’s point and reality; whereas, the Israel approach takes its orientation from the closed and immanent orientation provided by natural history and its linear and progressive unfolding alone.

Obviously, Christians are on both sides of this equation (and it is certainly possible to frame this in less polarizing ways); but of course, I think the side I am on is the genuinely Christian one, and I am hopeful that you all might join me here (if you haven’t already). Good times!


[1] Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism, Revised and Expanded (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 84.

The following will be jolting to an Evangelical’s ear. This is Thomas Torrance’s rationale for understanding Holy Scripture to be errant; the analogy he uses, or really the ontology he uses is that of fallen humanity. He correlates humanity’s fallenness, and human language as part and parcel with this, as the mode which Scripture takes as God’s redemptive and inerrant Word takes hold of human language, and in his in-spirated obedience ‘bends’ it back to find its purpose in its reality; the reality to which it points. So for Torrance, it is unthinkable to think that Scripture could be anything other than errant; only because it is this very human language that needed to be redeemed in the first place. With this as the reality, Torrance’s aversion to biblical inerrancy is not a function of holding to what Evangelicals might consider Liberalism (the kind of ‘Liberalism’ that gave rise to Christian fundamentalism and the doctrine of inerrancy in the first place); but instead Torrance’s account is situated within his Christological/soteriological frame in which Scripture—according to Torrance—ought to be situated. Here’s Thomas F. Torrance,

[T]he extraordinary fact about the Bible is that in the hands of God it is the instrument he uses to convey to us his revelation and reconciliation and yet it belongs to the very sphere where redemption is necessary. The Bible stands above us speaking to us the Word of God and yet the Bible belongs to history which comes under the judgment of God and requires the cleansing and atoning activity of the Cross. When we hear the Word of God in the Bible, therefore, we hear it in such a way that the human word of Holy Scripture bows under the divine judgment, for that is part of its function in the communication of divine revelation and reconciliation. Considered merely it in itself it is imperfect and inadequate and its text may be faulty and errant, but it is precisely in its imperfection and inadequacy and faultiness and errancy that God’s inerrant Holy Word has laid hold of it that it may serve his reconciling revelation and the inerrant communication of his Truth. Therefore the Bible has to be heard as Word of God within the ambiguity of its poverty and riches, its weakness and power, and heard in such a way that we acknowledge that in itself in its human expression, the Bible comprises the word of man with all the limitations and imperfection of human flesh, in order to allow the human expression to fulfill its divinely appointed and holy function for us, in pointing beyond itself, to what it is not in itself, but to what God has marvellously made it to be in the adoption of his Grace. The Bible itself will pass away with this world, but the Word of God which it has been inspired to convey to us does not pass away but endures for ever. [Thomas F. Torrance, Divine Meaning: Studies in Patristic Hermeneutics, 9-10]

This, then, does not represent an insensitive frontal attack on Biblical inerrancy; in fact Torrance’s project seeks to understand Scripture from within a Christically framed understanding of the relation of the divine and the human in the hypostatic union realized in Jesus Christ. Torrance’s view of Scripture is corollary with his view on the ‘kind of humanity’ that Christ assumed in the incarnation; viz. a fallen human in need of redemption (so Scripture as human language).

This kicks against the goads, as I already noted, for the American Evangelical. I would suggest though, that one of the reasons this is hard teaching for the Evangelical is because it takes Scripture and its mastery away from our control; and instead it places the control of Scripture in the hands of its reality, Jesus Christ. No longer is Scripture open for public consumption, but for Torrance the Bible is a decidedly Christian venture that requires eyes and ears of faith to see and hear God’s Word confront us through it. Here is how Charles Ryrie would respond to Torrance:

[T]he logic of some still insists that anything involving humanity has to allow for the possibility of sin. So as long as the Bible is both a divine and human Book the possibility and actuality of errors exist.

Let’s examine that premise. Is it always inevitable that sin is involved where humanity is?

If you were tempted to respond affirmatively, an exception probably came to mind almost immediately. The title of this chapter put the clue in your mind. The exception is our Lord Jesus Christ. He was the God-Man, and yet, His humanity did not involve sin. So He serves as a clear example of an exception to the logic pressed by people who believe in errancy.

The true doctrine of the God-Man states that He possessed the full and perfect divine nature and a perfect human nature and that these were united in one Person forever. His deity was not in any detail diminished; His humanity was not in any way sinful or unreal, though sinless; and in His one person His natures were without mixture, change, division, or separation.

Similarly, the Bible is a divine-human Book. Though it originated from God, it was actually written by man. It is God’s Word, conveyed through the Holy Spirit. Sinful men wrote that Word but did so without error. Just as in the Incarnation, Christ took humanity but was not tainted in any way with sin, so the production of the Bible was not tainted with any errors. [Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology, 83]

And Ryrie further:

[…] Even if the errors are supposedly in “minor” matters, any error opens the Bible to suspicion on other points which may not be so “minor.” If inerrancy falls, other doctrines will fall too. . . . When inerrancy is denied one may expect some serious fallout in both doctrinal and practical areas. [p. 77]

For Torrance, Scripture is in God’s hands first; for Ryrie, for Scripture to be Scripture it is in our hands first—once we’ve “proven” through scientific rigor, that Scripture is reliable, then we can approach the Bible as reliable, and in fact God’s Word to humanity. So for Ryrie it all depends upon our defense of Scripture; if we can’t prove it to be Scripture (without error), then it is no longer a reliable Word from God, and thus Christianity ought to go the way of other myths—this is the implication of Ryrie’s approach.

I could say much more, but this post just went over that magic word count number for posts on blogs (a 1000 words), and so I better stop or you won’t read.

*repost from quite awhile ago.

The following will be jolting to an Evangelical’s ear. This is Thomas Torrance’s rationale for understanding Holy Scripture to be errant; the analogy he uses, or really the ontology he uses is that of fallen humanity. He correlates humanities’ fallness, and human language as part and parcel with this; as the mode which Scripture takes as God’s redemptive and inerrant Word takes hold of human language, and in his in-spirated obedience ‘bends’ it back to find its purpose in its reality; the reality to which it points. So for Torrance, it is unthinkable to think that Scripture could be anything other than errant; only because it is this very human language that needed to be redeemed in the first place. With this as the reality, Torrance’s aversion to biblical inerrancy is not a function of holding to what Evangelicals might consider Liberalism (the kind of ‘Liberalism’ that gave rise to Christian fundamentalism and the doctrine of inerrancy in the first place); but instead Torrance’s account is situated within his Christological/soteriological frame in which Scripture—according to Torrance—ought to be situated. Here’s Thomas F. Torrance,

[T]he extraordinary fact about the Bible is that in the hands of God it is the instrument he uses to convey to us his revelation and reconciliation and yet it belongs to the very sphere where redemption is necessary. The Bible stands above us speaking to us the Word of God and yet the Bible belongs to history which comes under the judgment of God and requires the cleansing and atoning activity of the Cross. When we hear the Word of God in the Bible, therefore, we hear it in such a way that the human word of Holy Scripture bows under the divine judgment, for that is part of its function in the communication of divine revelation and reconciliation. Considered merely it in itself it is imperfect and inadequate and its text may be faulty and errant, but it is precisely in its imperfection and inadequacy and faultiness and errancy that God’s inerrant Holy Word has laid hold of it that it may serve his reconciling revelation and the inerrant communication of his Truth. Therefore the Bible has to be heard as Word of God within the ambiguity of its poverty and riches, its weakness and power, and heard in such a way that we acknowledge that in itself in its human expression, the Bible comprises the word of man with all the limitations and imperfection of human flesh, in order to allow the human expression to fulfill its divinely appointed and holy function for us, in pointing beyond itself, to what it is not in itself, but to what God has marvellously made it to be in the adoption of his Grace. The Bible itself will pass away with this world, but the Word of God which it has been inspired to convey to us does not pass away but endures for ever. [Thomas F. Torrance, Divine Meaning: Studies in Patristic Hermeneutics, 9-10]

This, then, does not represent an insensitive frontal attack on Biblical inerrancy; in fact Torrance’s project seeks to understand Scripture from within a Christically framed understanding of the relation of the divine and the human in the hypostatic union realized in Jesus Christ. Torrance’s view of Scripture is corollary with his view on the ‘kind of humanity’ that Christ assumed in the incarnation; viz. a fallen human in need of redemption (so Scripture as human language).

This kicks against the goads, as I already noted, for the American Evangelical. I would suggest though, that one of the reasons this is hard teaching for the Evangelical is because it takes Scripture and its mastery away from our control; and instead it places the control of Scripture in the hands of its reality, Jesus Christ. No longer is Scripture open for public consumption, but for Torrance the Bible is a decidedly Christian venture that requires eyes and ears of faith to see and hear God’s Word confront us through it. Here is how Charles Ryrie would respond to Torrance:

[T]he logic of some still insists that anything involving humanity has to allow for the possibility of sin. So as long as the Bible is both a divine and human Book the possibility and actuality of errors exist.

Let’s examine that premise. Is it always inevitable that sin is involved where humanity is?

If you were tempted to respond affirmatively, an exception probably came to mind almost immediately. The title of this chapter put the clue in your mind. The exception is our Lord Jesus Christ. He was the God-Man, and yet, His humanity did not involve sin. So He serves as a clear example of an exception to the logic pressed by people who believe in errancy.

The true doctrine of the God-Man states that He possessed the full and perfect divine nature and a perfect human nature and that these were united in one Person forever. His deity was not in any detail diminished; His humanity was not in any way sinful or unreal, though sinless; and in His one person His natures were without mixture, change, division, or separation.

Similarly, the Bible is a divine-human Book. Though it originated from God, it was actually written by man. It is God’s Word, conveyed through the Holy Spirit. Sinful men wrote that Word but did so without error. Just as in the Incarnation, Christ took humanity but was not tainted in any way with sin, so the production of the Bible was not tainted with any errors. [Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology, 83]

And Ryrie further:

[…] Even if the errors are supposedly in “minor” matters, any error opens the Bible to suspicion on other points which may not be so “minor.” If inerrancy falls, other doctrines will fall too. . . . When inerrancy is denied one may expect some serious fallout in both doctrinal and practical areas. [p. 77]

For Torrance, Scripture is in God’s hands first; for Ryrie, for Scripture to be Scripture it is in our hands first—once we’ve “proven” through scientific rigor, that Scripture is reliable, then we can approach the Bible as reliable, and in fact God’s Word to humanity. So for Ryrie it all depends upon our defense of Scripture; if we can’t prove it to be Scripture (without error), then it is no longer a reliable Word from God, and thus Christianity ought to go the way of other myths—this is the implication of Ryrie’s approach.

I could say much more, but this post just went over that magic word count number for posts on blogs (a 1000 words), and so I better stop or you won’t read.

Maybe you have grown up in a Covenantal system, amillennial in orientation. Maybe your idea of Dispensationalism goes as far as what you’ve heard of Left Behind “eschatology,” or if you’re a little older; Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth. Usually when Covenant theologians want to disparage Dispensationalism the first few words out of their mouth will have “Left Behind” or Hal Lindsey in them. But to me, if a theologian or biblical interpreter wants to “critically” engage something, he or she should go to the strongest point, the strongest voices available; it is here where a constructive criticism can take place. In that vein I thought it would be helpful, as we get started here, to take a look at the etymology of the word Dispensation; and further, to catch a glimpse at how this word works as definitive of the Dispensational system. To help us out, let me refer to one of those most prominent voices available, in the 20th century, in regards to articulating the tenets of Dispensational thought; here’s Charles Ryrie on the etymology of “Dispensation”:

The English word dispensation is an Anglicized form of the Latin dispensatio, which the Vulgate uses to translate the Greek word. The Latin verb is a compound, meaning “to weigh out or dispense.” Three principal ideas are connected to the meaning of the English word: (1) “The action of dealing out or distributing”; (2) “the action of administering, ordering, or managing: the system by which things are administered”; and (3) “the action of dispensing with some requirement.” In further defining the use of the word theologically, the same dictionary says that a dispensation is “a stage in a progressive revelation, expressly adapted to the needs of a particular nation or period of time. . . . Also, the age or period during which a system has prevailed. . . .”

The Greek word oikonomia comes from the verb that means to manage, regulate, administer, and plan. The word itself is a compound whose parts mean literally “to divide, apportion, administer or manage the affairs of an inhabited house.” In the papyri the officer (oikonomos) who administered a dispensation was referred to as a steward or manager of an estate, or as a treasurer. Thus the central idea in the word dispensation is that managing or administering the affairs of a household.

The Usage of the Word

The various forms of the word dispensation appear in the New Testament twenty times. The verb oikonomeo is used once in Luke 16:2, where it is translated “to be a steward.” The noun oikonomos appears ten times (Luke 12:42; 16:1, 3, 8; Rom. 16:23; 1 Cor. 4:1, 2; Gal. 4:2; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 4:10) and is usually translated “steward” or “manager” (but “treasurer” in Rom. 16:23). The noun oikonomia is used nine times (Luke 16:2, 3, 4; 1 Cor. 9:17; Eph. 1:10; 3:2, 9; Col. 1:25; 1 Tim. 1:4). In these instances it is translated variously (“stewardship,” “dispensation,” “administration,” “job,” “commission”). (Charles Ryrie, “Dispensationalism,” 25)

And for a concise and too simple of a definition of Dispensationalism as a system of thought here is Ryrie quoting from the Scofield Reference Study Bible:

A dispensation is a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God. Seven such dispensations are distinguished in Scripture. (Charles Ryrie, “Dispensationalism,” 23)

This should provide a little more thickness of understanding for those who know nothing of dispensational theology. It has serious students who spent their whole lives in Evangelical seminaries in America (primarily) developing and articulating it for the masses. The basic idea of dispensationalism is that it is a “stewardship” and “testing” that God gives to man during a period of time in the progressive unfolding of salvation history; once man (like the Nation of Israel) fails at keeping the requirements of a specific dispensation, this triggers the start of a new dispensation provided by God for man to “steward.” This turns into 7 distinct cycles for the Classic and Revised Dispensationalist (and 4 cycles for the Progressive Dispensationalist — and for the PD there is actually a fluidity to the dispensations so that they build on each other like the Covenants in “Covenant Theology” — more on this later). We will, in the near future, outline the 7 dispensations that make-up Classic dispyism, and then also take a look at the 4 dispensations identified by Progressive Dispensationalists.

For most people, and American Evangelicals, who do not inhabit the environs of the bibliosphere; or who will never set foot in the hallowed halls of seminaries, like it or not, it is this kind of theology that still provides shape (interpretively) for most of them. Most Evangelicals don’t know a lick about N. T. Wright’s reification of Pauline Studies and New Testament Biblical Theology; they get dispensational premillennial pre-trib teaching Sunday in-Sunday out. In light of this I think it is important for theology and Bible students to still be sensitive to this reality (culturally), and understand the impact that this has had (and is having, less and less — simply because “self-help” sermons predominate Evangelical sermons nowadays more than back in the Ryrie days etc.).

There is a certain methodology a theologian or exegete should follow if they want to be considered a Christian Theologian or Exegete. The methodology a Christian Theologian or Exegete should follow is one that principally starts with Jesus as the goal (telos) of their theological and exegetical work; one that sees Jesus as the inner-coherence and unity of meaning inherent to the Christian’s formal source of witness, the Bible. Insofar as the theologian and/or exegete proximates their work to this standard; then what they produce can be considered, Christian.

[I thought a good practice for me, here at the blog, would be to start my posts out with an intentional thesis statement. And so the above attempts to do that. Of course how I develop and defend said thesis may remain in an undeveloped state given time constraints, and the nature of blogging (at least for) itself.]

In thinking about this post I wanted to provide a counter-voice to the voice I want to feature as the featured voice for this post. I used to have an excellent quote on hand that would have done a great job in providing the foil I am looking for to at least illustrate my thesis statement above. The quote I once had (but has since been deleted from one of my multitudinous blogs) was from that stalwart Fundamentalist theologian B. B. Warfield of pre-Westminster Theological Seminary, Princeton Theological Seminary fame. In summary, what his quote stated was axiomatic for what provided the general shape of the ‘Christian’ Fundamentalist Faith; and that is that Christian Fundamentalism, according to one of her best (Warfield), was an Apologetic Faith. Meaning that contrary to the Liberal Theological tradition that was seeping into places like Warfield’s Princeton; that Warfield’s (Fundamentalist) Christianity was one that sought to meet Liberal Theologie’s claims upon their grounds. In other words, if the ground of ‘Liberal Theology’ was primarily one that found purchase from rationalistic and so called ‘man-centered’ ground (like positivism, historicism, pietism, etc.); then Fundamentalist Christianity was eager to meet this ‘problem’ by doing so on the same grounds. In brief (and this nut-shells that quote from Warfield I once had): the one who could out-think and out-argue the other (Liberal versus Fundy), wins! Warfield (and Fundamentalist, and even American Evangelicalism) attempted to defeat Liberal Christianity by adopting their principles of proof; by using positivistic logic; by seeking to establish the veracity of the Bible, and the miracles therein, thus providing ‘something’ upon which Christians could indubitably stand and believe. Warfield & co. were not alone in trying to preserve the integrity of “Conservative-Classical-Christianity;” the yester-year preceding someone like Warfield had seen an apologetic Christianity thrive and take shape as well. A Christianity wherein we could have something like a systematic theology entitled Enlectic Theology (Turretin’s — meaning apologetic or defensive theology). This ground swell provided a tradition that Warfield could appeal to, and in this tradition he was given a methodology that sought to provide proof of God’s existence through philosophical reasoning (in the Medieval era this was called the via negativa or negative theology).

The above serves as a brief sketch (longer than I wanted — and very oversimplified) of maybe an organic relationship that inhered between the 17th and late 19th early 20th centuries Anglo-European/American theological development. In this vein, and for this post, I thought I would take a look at an old Systematic Theology text-books we used during one of my under-grad experiences; Charles Ryrie’s Basic Theology. I was not let down by the method and order that Ryrie appropriated for his “Theology.” It is one that he inherited from many in the Medieval-scholastic era; one that has pedigree with someone like Francis Turretin’s Enlectic Theology (and I mean in mode); and one that fulfills the on-going trajectory set by the Fundamentalist Warrior, B. B. Warfield. Starting in Ryrie’s Chapter 5, entitled Revelation of God, he starts his discussion out, on General Revelation, by providing the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God (a classical argument that argues for the existence of finite creation by positing the need for an infinite cause); then he gives us the Teleological Argument, the Moral Argument, and the infamous Ontological Argument — all classic philosophical proofs seeking to provide rational proof for the existence of God.

I sketch all of the above in order to provide a salient quote that throws the above approach into relief. Christian Theology does not start where Warfield or Ryrie started; it does not feel the need to prove the material content of what it seeks to provide grammar for. Christian Theology should assume (as the Scripture’s do) the triune God whom she worships, and this supposition should present us with the categories and theological furniture necessary to carry out the vocation of what it means to be a Christian Theologian or Exegete. In short, Apologetics should not provide the methodological ground for how we proceed in our Dogmatic reflection as Christians. If we are Christians we don’t need to prove to ourselves the belief that God is triune; our self-identity already presupposes said belief (and this is evidenced in the way that someone like the Apostle Paul wrote his epistles; he didn’t argue for the Trinity or the existence of God prior to penning his letters, he presupposes this as the reality that shapes his identity and thus the material that he exhorts his brothers and sisters through in the various churches he wrote to). With this is mind I have come across a great quote from someone who will remain un-named (you can try and guess who it is though 😉 ); and with this quote I will close:

[I]t is obvious that an adherent of some other faith might perhaps be completely convinced by the above account that what we have set forth is really the peculiar essence of Christianity, without being thereby so convinced that Christianity is actually the truth, as to be compelled to accept it. Everything we say in this place is relative to Dogmatics, and Dogmatics is only for Christians; and so this account is only for those who live within the pale of Christianity, and is intended only to give guidance, in the interests of Dogmatics, for determining whether the expressions of any religious consciousness are Christian or not, and whether the Christian quality is strongly expressed in them, or rather doubtfully. We entirely renounce all attempt to prove the truth or necessity of Christianity; and we presuppose, on the contrary, that every Christian, before he enters at all upon inquires of this kind, has already the inward certainty that his religion cannot taken any higher form than this. [ _______________ cited by Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox And Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, 72]

I am withholding the name of the theologian cited, because it may be a source of stumbling for some; and thus cause them to not appreciate what he is communicating (I will say that it is not Karl Barth). Evangelical Calvinist theological-exegetical methodology operates from this posture. It seeks to follow a Christian methodology, like, for example, the Apostle Paul assumed in his writings. It is not our intention to prove God’s existence, the veracity of the Scriptures, etc. before we feel that we can then do theology or exegesis. Instead, as Christians, we recognize that our self-identity necessitates that we move and breathe as such; and this self-conscious reality has a dramatic impact (or should) upon how we proceed as theologians and exegetes. It is this movement that I believe allows someone to say, in general, that they are operating as a genuine Christian theologian or exegete. What do you think?

 

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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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