Christology as a Case Study: The Relationship Between Church Tradition and the Bible as Fonts of Authority and Divine Knowledge

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.

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A Reforming Catholic Confession: On a Doctrine of Holy Scripture: Infallible rather than Inerrant?

I just signed what is called A Reforming Catholic Confessionas I understand it, it was mostly written by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, in consultation with a steering committee led by Jerry Walls. It is an attempt, as it states, to offer a Mere Protestant Confession wherein the ‘highest common denominator’ between all Protestants is being sought in regard to doctrinal agreement. One of the impetuses for this confession is that we are coming up on the 500 year anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation (i.e. when Martin Luther nailed his theses on the Wittenberg door on October 31st, 1517). The part of the confession that speaks to a doctrine of Scripture says this:

HOLY SCRIPTURE

That God has spoken and continues to speak in and through Scripture, the only infallible and sufficiently clear rule and authority for Christian faith, thought, and life (sola scriptura). Scripture is God’s inspired and illuminating Word in the words of his servants (Psa. 119:105), the prophets and apostles, a gracious self-communication of God’s own light and life, a means of grace for growing in knowledge and holiness. The Bible is to be believed in all that it teaches, obeyed in all that it commands, trusted in all that it promises, and revered in all that it reveals (2 Tim 3:16).[1]

Surprisingly, to me, I actually signed this confession, as I already noted. I say surprising because much of what is being communicated these days by evangelicals and the classically Reformed is tied down to some very absolute ways of understanding the Protestant and in particular the Reformed faith (think again of The Gospel Coalition). But I think this confession, largely because of the wisdom of Kevin Vanhoozer, is sensitive to many of the hot-issues out in the evangelical Protestant church at large; and one of those involves the language of inerrancy. As you can see the confession intentionally avoids using this language, and instead uses the more traditional language of infallible. Many evangelicals don’t like that language; they think it’s too vague and flexible. But when measured by the historic Protestant faith and the view of the reformers such language is appropriately fitting for a catholic (meaning universal) confession of faith that is intended to have the capacity to represent large swaths of Protestant Christians from a broad spectrum of traditions and denominations. That notwithstanding there are many out there who won’t sign this confession simply because the language of infallibility is used rather than inerrancy; for the reasons I already noted. That’s too bad.

In this context I thought I would repost something I wrote many years ago in regard to my own understanding on inerrancy. I was one of five or six people representing different traditions questioned by a popular blogger back then (2010) about how we understood the language of inerrancy’; as I recall I was representing the Reformed-Barthian-Torrancean mood, but still of course as an evangelical. The following represents my response from back then, and as I reread it I don’t think I would really change much; I’d probably just make it longer and develop it further. But as far as the lineaments go, in regard to my view, I still would say that this represents my position pretty well. Let’s turn to that now.

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.[2]

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, Christologically, and as 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 inerrancy[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.

Recommendation For Further Reading

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 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.

 

[1] A Reforming Catholic Confession of Faith, accessed 09-15-2017.

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

 

A Roman Catholic’s (Hans Urs von Balthasar’s) Doctrine of Scripture: Christ, the Holy Ground that Makes Scripture Holy and Intelligible

As a Reformed Protestant Christian Holy Scripture is very important to me, for obvious reasons. But of course how we understand and develop a doctrine of Scripture, and its ontology relative to God, is diffuse. I am prone, also obviously (at this point) to follow Karl Barth’s theory of revelation, and how that implicates, then, the development of a so called theology of the Word. In light of that, then, the following quote (I’m about to share) from Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar might seem ironic (since he is well, Roman Catholic). But what you’ll see is that what Balthasar offers, as he argues from his ‘aesthetic’ and ‘beauty’ based theological paradigm, is that what he articulates in regard to Scripture’s ontology is quite coordinate with what we might find in Karl Barth’s or even Thomas Torrance’s understanding of Scripture. You will also read something in the quote that I don’t fully agree with, even if I think it can be qualified in such a way that still fits within say something like Barth’s threefold form of the Word, or the classical Reformed’s fourfold form of the Word (well at least in a kind of incidental way). Here is what von Balthasar has to say about the Word:

It was this image, seen with the eyes of faith and of faith’s insight, that the eye-witnesses rendered, first, an oral and then a written testimony. And, just as the Holy Spirit was in their eyes so that the image should spring into view, so, too, was he in their mouth and in their pen so that the likeness (Nachbild)which they drew up of the original image (Ur-Bild) should  correspond to the vision which God’s Holy Spirit himself possesses of God’s self-representation in the flesh. We must, then, repeat that Scripture is not the Word itself, but rather the Spirit’s testimony concerning the Word, which springs from an indissoluble bond and marriage between the Spirit and those eyewitnesses who were originally invited and admitted to the vision. With such an understanding of Scripture, we can say further that its testimony possesses and inner form which is canonical simply by being such a form, and for this reason we can ‘go behind’ this form only at the risk of losing both image and Spirit conjointly. Only the final result of the historical developments which lie behind the text—a history never to be adequately reconstructed—may be said to be inspired, not the bits and scraps which philological analysis thinks it can tear loose from the finished totality in order, as it were, to steal up to the form from behind in the hope of enticing it to betray its mystery by exposing its development. Does it not make one suspicious when Biblical philology’s first move in its search for an ‘understanding’ of its texts is to dissect their form into sources, psychological motivations, and the sociological effects of milieu, even before the form has been really contemplated and read its meaning as form? For we can be sure of one thing: we can never again recapture the living totality of form once it has been dissected and sawed into pieces, no matter how informative the conclusions which this anatomy may bring to light. Anatomy can be practiced only on a dead body, since it is opposed to the movement of life and seeks to pass from the whole to its parts and elements. It is not impossible that certain relations within the canonical form itself may occasionally call for and justify such a procedure. But one should first ask whether such attempts to work back ‘scientifically’ to real or alleged sources are not most useful when they once again demonstrate the indivisibility of the definitively expressed Word. With respect to our scholars, may we not credit the Holy Spirit with a little divine humour, a little divine irony? And would it be wholly erroneous to find some connection between this divine irony and humour and the Gospel’s fourfold form? This would suggest that the unique and divine plasticity of the living, incarnate Word could not be witnessed to other than through this system of perspectives which, although it cannot be further synthesized, compensates for this by offering a stereoscopic vista. And the divine irony would further suggest that the main fruits to be gathered from the very unfruitfulness and failure of the scientific experiment would be the every clearer exigency of returning to the one thing necessary. We must return to the primary contemplation of what is really said, really presented to us, really meant. Regardless of how distasteful this may be to some, we must stress that, in the Christian realm, such contemplation exactly corresponds to the aesthetic contemplation that steadily and patiently beholds those forms which either nature or art offers to its view. Inspiration in its totality is to be grasped only in the form, never in psychology and biography. And, therefore, it any kind of Biblical philology is to be fruitful, it must have its point of departure in form and must lead back to it. Only ‘Scripture’ itself possesses the power and the authority to point authentically to the highest figure that has ever walked upon the earth, a figure in keeping with whose sovereignty it is to create for himself a body by which to express himself. But a body is itself a ‘field’, and it requires another ‘field’ in which to expand, a field part of whose form it must already be if it is to stand in contrast to it. Christ’s existence and his teachings would not be a comprehensible form if it were not for his rootedness in a salvation-history that leads up to him. Both in his union with this history and in his relief from it, Christ becomes for us the image that reveals the invisible God. Even Scripture is not an isolated book, but rather is embedded in the context of everything created, established, and effected by Christ—the total reality constituted by his work and activity in the world. Only in this context is the form of Scripture perceivable.[1]

If you’re familiar at all with Brevard Child’s canonical critical approach, or Barth’s second naïveté approach, or Thomas Torrance’s mediation of Christ approach, or George Lindbeck’s cultural linguistic approach, or Matthew Levering’s participatory approach; then what Balthasar is communicating might be familiar to you, at some level or resonance anyway.

The only real pushback I’d offer Balthasar is against his claim that Scripture is not properly understood as the Word. Scripture itself, in its own “self-understanding,” canonically read, refers to itself as the Word of God (see Hebrews 4:12 and its surrounding near context). But that said, Balthasar’s basic point is well taken. Scripture itself is part of a web of realities and finds its orientation and “Holiness” (as John Webster so eloquently argues!) only insofar as it is properly situated within the economy of God’s Triune life. Scripture has an ‘ontology’ (or ‘being’) relative to the ‘order’ provided for, again, in the economy of God’s life—which is reference to his penetration into the world, in a God-world relation, wherein he has chosen to accommodate himself to and for us, within the created and contingent realm of things wherein humans have been given space to function in a coherent and intelligible fashion; but only because God by his Word, has graciously and freely chosen for that to be the outcome of things (i.e. creation and now recreation itself). In other words, per Balthasar’s basic premise, Scripture has no context or importance without its primary context provided for by the living reality of God’s Word who is Jesus Christ, the eternal Son (cf. John 1:1). We see how Balthasar thinks this doctrine of Scripture impacts how we interpret it.

Which brings up another important point: I would contend along with Balthasar, that attempting to access Scripture’s meaning apart from Christ as regulative of that, apart from a dialogical context wherein the interpreter is in ongoing contact with Scripture’s reality through prayer (i.e. Christ and the Triune life), that mere text-critical analysis will never be able to get at what Scripture is really all about; i.e. encounter with the living God in Jesus Christ. If Jesus is the context of Holy Scripture, if he is the Holy ground of Scripture, then to not take our sandals off on that ground, and tremble (cf. Is. 66), means we will skip off the real meaning of Scripture every time! Balthasar is onto something.

[1] Hans Urs Von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics. I: Seeing the Form (San Francisco: Igantius Press/New York: Crossroad Publication, 1983), 31-2.

John Webster on Scripture as Witness with Reference to Barth and the Reformed

John Webster on a constructive way into Barth’s doctrine of Scripture, and the role that testimony ought to play in a general doctrine of Scripture.

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]

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

 

An Ontology of Scripture and How that Ought to Calm MacArthurite Waters, But it Wont!

In light of some recent run-ins, provoked by my posts on John MacArthur, I’ve unfortunately had to ban two different guys from my blog. The issue underneath the whole loggerheads has to do with Biblical exegesis, and more to the point theological-exegesis (which neither of my interlocutors were keen on admitting is even a reality). As a result of those unfortunate exchanges, I thought I would share a post I posted quite awhile ago at another blog of mine. It gets into dealing with what Scripture actually is to begin with—within God’s economy—and then how once that issue is dealt with what it will ostensibly do towards how we approach Scripture as exegetes and disciples of Jesus Christ.

Something that would go a long way in allowing Christians to dialogue with each other instead of at each other is to come to terms on what Scripture actually is. As an Evangelical Christian (maybe you can relate), I have far too often been party to moments wherein a particular doctrinal topic is under consideration. Both sides, as Evangelical Christians, believe they have Scripture on their side; and thus each side appeals disparately to Scripture as their silver bullet (to win the argument, and substantiate their point). And yet, there is obviously a problem here; since both can provide apparent cogent and coherent intepretations of the same text which apparently favor their doctrinal point—then the question is: how do we adjudicate who is right and who is wrong? But, really, the question needs to step back further; we need to get to the first order issue prior to the second (which is where the debates and arguments and back-and-forths take place). The first order issue is to come to terms with what indeed Scripture is, and where it has its place relative to God and his communication to us through his Son by the Holy Spirit. While discerning this, at the same moment, we should realize that even articulating ‘what’ Scripture is and ‘where’ it is placed relative to God; won’t end all debate (we’ll just end up debating about Scripture’s place). Nevertheless, this will help us to deal with deeper issues instead of secondary issues that at the end of the day have more to do with philosophy of history and literature rather than Jesus Christ. I understand that I am being rather oblique in this post (or vague), but I would like to continue to build on the trajectory that this post sets in the days and months to come. I was prompted to write this post because of John Webster; here’s what I read, and here’s what he wrote in this regard:

With respect to Scripture, for example, lack of clarity about the tasks of biblical interpretation (in which the tug-of-war between “historical” and “theological” interpretation is but one episode) is symptomatic of the absence of shared conceptions of the nature of Scripture and of the tasks which it undertakes in the divine economy. The absence of bibliology, and the widespread assumption that a doctrine of Scripture is exegetically and hermeneutically otiose, cannot be compensated for by further refinement of strategies of interpretation. We need to figure out what the text is in order to figure out what to do with it; and we determine what Scripture is by understanding its role in God’s self-communication to creatures.[1]

The short answer is that Scripture is about Jesus; it is from Jesus, given by Jesus, and takes us beyond itself to its reality in Jesus. This will reframe multiple things, like; 1) Ontology of Scripture, 2) Hermeneutics 3) Biblical Theological Grammar, 4) Usage of Scripture, 5) Christian Spirituality/Doxology, etc.

Without careful attention to an ontology of Scripture (it’s place in the economy of God, and within a theological taxis or ‘order’ of things), all we are left with, particularly as Protestant exegetes is in impassible ditch of pervasive interpreting pluralists when it comes to our exegetical conclusions and our ability to engage in collegial dialogical discourse among ourselves.

[1] John Webster, ATR/90:4, 734-35.

 

John MacArthur’s and The Shepherd’s Conference’s Ironic De-elevation of the Bible: When the Bible Becomes Bigger than God

biblebiggerthangod

Credit, David Hayward

Since the Shepherd’s Conference Summit 2017 at John MacArthur’s church just ended I thought I would continue to take this opportunity to highlight something about the type of biblicism that characterizes what we find present there. It is ironic, really, because the staff pastors at Grace Community Church I have had interaction with (some very recently) would make you think that anything but a simple and pure approach to the Bible is nothing else but idolatry. Yet if you listen to many of the speakers they have at their conference it quickly becomes evident that they are not being consistent in their stated or presumed approach. I think the real issue is that they have so uncritically received a particularly styled form of Reformed theology, in highly baptistic and rationalistic form, that they can make no distinction between that and what the Bible may or may not be saying.

In light of this continued inability to make a critical distinction between their interpretive tradition and what the Bible might or might not say itself, I thought I would commend to them the way John Calvin approached this issue. Here Angus Paddison explicates for us how Calvin approached the relationship of the Bible with interpretive tradition:

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

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

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

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

Such endeavors help identify historical-criticism, the engine of much biblical scholarship, as the modern attempt to “start over” in a manner that left behind the gifts of the past’. Accordingly, historical criticism is notoriously restricted in what history is interested in. Fundamentalism and historical criticism both presume that the church and the church’s teaching is an obstacle, not an aid, to reading Scripture well.[1]

It is very unfortunate that John MacArthur et al. continue to forge forward with this idea that they alone have somehow cornered what the Bible is actually saying versus the rest of the Christian world, so to speak. They ought to follow the advice of John Calvin, and at least admit with more humility that they like every other Christian ought to approach the Word of God with trembling. That’s the irony of this, MacArthur et al. in their singular pursuit of elevating Holy Scripture have really only marginalized it by their belief that they alone have conquered it through methodological exegesis and exposition; as if the language and words themselves are ends in themselves, they are not.

 

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

The Bible is not the End, Jesus Is: Reflections on a Distinction Between Paper, Papal, and Jesus

Jesus is the reality. Everything else is in service to him, particularly Holy Scripture. Karl Barth famously had Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece above his desk in his study; this illustrates well what genuinely Christian theology should be all about: Jesus. As Thomas Torrance often highlights Jesus is the res (reality) while Scripture is the signa (symbol), or witness bearer. Indeed each of us as ambassadors of Jesus Christ function, in proclamation, much as Scripture does (although even subordinate to that, in a qualified way), as those who bear witness to the reality of Jesus Christ.[1]

mattiasgrunewaldUnfortunately what has often happened is that what was supposed to be witness to Jesus instead confused themselves with the reality (of Jesus) himself, and absolutized themselves as an end (even if only relatively construed) rather than a means or symbol or witness bearer to the end, Jesus Christ. A fundamental aspect of the Protestant Reformation was to correct this overplay by the Roman Catholic Church, by developing a theology of the Word. Indeed this became known as the ‘Scripture principle,’ and serves as a hallmark of the Protestant-turn as it were. As should be, Scripture, relative to a theory of authority, ascended to its rightful place within Protestantism, but as with all things human, this turn went too far, and replaced  papal with paper; Protestantism, particularly the Post Reformed Orthodox, and the theology that seeks to repristinate that contemporaneously, began to identify Scripture as an absolute end—in other words the ontology of Scripture lost its rightful place, relative to God, and ascended to heights that really only should belong to the reality of all things, Jesus Christ. Emil Brunner explains it this way:

Doctrine, rightly understood, is the finger which points to Him, along which they eye of faith is directed towards Him. So long as faith clings to the “finger”, to the interpretative doctrine, it has not really arrived at its goal; thus it is not yet actually faith. Faith is the encounter with Him, Himself, but it is not submission to a doctrine about Him, whether it be the doctrine of the Church, or that of the Apostles and Prophets. The transference of faith from the dimension of personal encounter into the dimension of factual instruction is the great tragedy in the history of Christianity. The Reformers were right when they rejected the unconditional authority of ecclesiastical doctrine as such; but when the theologians of the Reformation began to believe in a doctrine about Jesus Christ, instead of in Jesus Christ Himself, they lost the best fruit of the Reformation. Reformation theology was right in setting up the Biblical doctrinal authority above the ecclesiastical authority as their norm; but they were wrong, when they made the Biblical doctrine their final unassailable authority, by identifying the Word of God with the word of the Bible. When they did this, in principle, they relapsed into Catholic error; the Protestant faith also became a doctrinal faith, belief in dogma, only now the Biblical dogma took the place of the doctrine of the Church. Protestant orthodoxy arrested the development of the Reformation as a religious awakening.

This distinction between “Jesus Christ Himself” and the doctrine about Him, as final authority, must not, however, be misunderstood in the sense of separation. We do not possess “Jesus Christ Himself” otherwise than in and with the doctrine about Him. But it is precisely this doctrine, without which we cannot have “Him Himself”, which is not Himself, and therefore has only a relative authority. This authority increases the more plainly and clearly as it is connected with Jesus Christ Himself. Thus it is precisely the duty of a genuinely religious—which means, also, a genuinely critical—system of dogmatics to undertake a careful examination of this necessary, obvious connexion between Jesus Christ and the doctrine concerning Him.[2]

There is this constant struggle, well for some, between getting stuck in doctrine and making it to a point where we get beyond the doctrine to its reality in Jesus Christ. As Brunner rightfully leaves off, there is an inextricable linkage between the reality (as absolute) and the witness/doctrine (as relative); but if we are not careful we will fall prey to majoring on the minors, and failing to realize that in the end it has really always already been about a personal encounter with the personal and living God revealed afresh in Jesus Christ.

 

 

[1] Think of Barth’s three-fold form of the Word.

[2] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God: Dogmatics: Vol. I (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949), 54.

Reading Scripture for Information or Instead for Encounter with the Living Voice of God: A Trinitarian Account of Scripture Reading

When we read the Bible as Christians we are doing so from a certain disposition, or we should be. When we read the Bible as Christians we aren’t primarily doing so in order to map out all of its ancient near eastern context, or figure out where all the chiasmus and inclusios are, or to understand how this syntax matches up with that syntax, or reconstruct a ‘historical Jesus’ and/or ‘Apostle Paul’ who fits within all of the historicist apparatus we can avail ourselves of; no, when we read Scripture alongside the rest of the saints, presently and in the history (and in the heavenlies) we are scriptureribbonseeking to hear from God, to hear His living voice viva vox Dei. Christians, if they do in fact read Scripture at all, need to get back to this confessional Christian approach and reading ethic; one where God’s voice in Christ has the primacy and not our biblical studies guilds, or our personalist and individualist postures.

Thomas Torrance, along with John Webster (elsewhere) articulates the importance of approaching Scripture as if it is the holy ground upon which, indeed, we move beyond reducing it all down to manageable propositions, and instead allow the wild nature of Scripture to reign supreme in our lives as it mediates God’s Word to us by the Spirit’s activity in our lives in the event of justification and process of sanctification. Here’s what TF Torrance writes:

In a faithful interpretation of the New Testament we many not treat the words employed in it as if they were no more than transient linguistic symbols detached from any objective content in divine revelation, and as if they were not lively oracles through which God speaks to us in Person. Rather must we treat them as words which the incarnate Word of God has deliberately assimilated to himself in communicating and interpreting himself to us in the course of his reconciling activity. That is to say, in the words of the Bible through which the Word of God’s trinitarian self-revelation reaches us, we have to do not with some divine Word detached from his Being and Activity, but with the very Being of God speaking to us and acting upon us in an intensely personal way. In and through them we encounter the living Word who is identical with God himself, the Word in whom we have to do with the Person and Act of God, the Son made man in Jesus Christ, and are thereby summoned to personal commitment of faith in Christ and through cognitive union with him to have knowledge of God the Father. Thus we interpret his human words as the direct personal address of God in whom he communicates to us not just some information about himself but his own divine Self, and therefore interpret them not from a centre in the man Jesus detached from his Deity, but from the organising and controlling centre of his divine-human reality. To indwell the words of Christ, therefore, is to participate in the mutual indwelling of God and man in him, or the mutual indwelling of the Father and his incarnate Son. And so through union with Jesus Christ we are drawn by the Spirit of the Father and of the Son into the Communion of the Father and the Son.[1]

I think this challenges the typical evangelical and Reformed way of approaching Scripture; it is less about epistemology and gaining information about God, and instead more about ontology/soteriology and having a personal encounter with the risen Jesus as he’s given spiration by the Spirit’s resurrection. It is about participating in the triune life through Christ, and understanding that there is no rupture between the person and work of Jesus; and no rupture between the consubstantial being of the Son with the Father, and the Son with humanity as he mediates that in his consubstantial life of being both God and man in his singular person as the eternal Son (Logos).

Reading Scripture in this frame, then, is a dialogical exercise. In other words, it pivots on prayerful relation to God through Christ, and understanding that He has freely chosen to meet us as we meet him in the intersection of His life as human, in Christ, and realize that the communicative context for that, for us, takes place primarily in the triune speech act known as Holy Scripture. Practically, the way this works itself out is by simply prayerfully and consistently reading Scripture; or as Torrance said it ‘indwelling’ Scripture, allowing it to wash over us over and again, and understanding that its context cannot be detached from its giveness in the incarnation of God in Christ.

None of this is to intimate that understanding the linguistic realities of Scripture, its cultural situadedness, so on and so forth have no place; it’s just to recognize that none of that should have primacy of place. Scripture has a context, and it is God’s triune life in Christ for us. When we read Scripture it shouldn’t primarily be an intellectualist activity (as I fear way too many Christians think), but instead a devotional and doxological activity where we are set apart  (Jn. 17.17) ever amore ever afresh as we encounter the living voice of God in the christological context of His life found in and throughout the pages of Holy Writ. Scripture and its reality in Jesus Christ should act upon us ever before we attempt to act upon it.

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Pesons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 42.

John Webster Constructively Critiques Karl Barth’s Bible

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] See Barth’s Göttingen Dogmatics.