Proofing, Indeed Proving Church Dogma-Doctrine: The Scripture Principle as the Protestant’s Authority

Christian Dogmatics the church’s orderly understanding of scripture and articulation of doctrine in the light of Christ and their coherence in him.

Dogma the church’s authoritative formulation of doctrine in accordance with apostolic teaching.[1]

As Barth works at developing his thinking on Revelation, as that relates to the Trinity, he once again underscores just how important the Protestant Scripture Principle is (and was) to the “proofing” of real Dogma versus what I’d like to call No-Dogma. For Barth Christian Dogmatics, theology in the main must start with God’s Revelation as that is attested to in Holy Scripture. But for Barth he first develops, in a dialectical way, an ontology for Holy Scripture prior to engaging with Scripture as Holy. In other words, Revelation itself, God’s life as revealed in Christ as the Triune Second, becomes the condition or the predicator of what is deposited in Scripture; in short: God’s Triune life is the res (reality) that allows Scripture to be an aspect of God’s Self-Revelation insofar as that Revelation finds its reality as it points beyond itself to Jesus Christ.

What this does in the “proofing” process, in regard to seeing if a so called Church dogma elevates to actual dogma, or in the end, descends to the status of no-dogma is that it allows Scripture and its reality to be the regulator for such determinations. In other words, it takes away any sort of self-proclaimed authority that something like the Roman Catholic church declares for itself in the teaching magisterium, on the one hand, and on the other it similarly mitigates modern theology’s reduction of spiritual authority to the ‘teaching’ magisteria of human reason, self discovery, and human experience (as those become conflated with Godself). Barth says a loud Nein! and simply calls the Christian back to the authority of God, as God’s own best exegete, and demonstrates how Holy Scripture itself is indeed holy precisely because of its givenness to us in Christ as God’s emissary of graciousness to meet us in our deep need for Him. For Barth, Holy Scripture is the Church’s authority, and beyond that it is her authority precisely because its root, its inner-reality is found in the eternally Triune life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in covenant for us as that became seeded in His free choice to become human for us that we might become like Him by the grace of the resurrected Christ. God is the authority for Barth, and Scripture has its ‘being’ and given order in relation to God’s choice to descend and meet us in the face of Christ; it is in this face (prosopon) that God’s voice speaks (loquitur) as we encounter Him on each page, in every iota of the blood stained ink used to pigment the vellum upon and through which it has been written.

Barth writes,

It thus follows that we cannot prove the truth of the dogma that I not as such in the Bible merely from the fact that it is a dogma, but rather from the fact that we can and must regard it as a good interpretation of the Bible. Later we shall have to show why it is that dogmas must be approached with some prejudgment in favour of their truth, with some very real respect for their relative, though not absolute, authority. But this includes rather excludes the fact that dogmatics has to prove dogma, i.e., to indicate its basis, its root in revelation or in the biblical witness to revelation. If dogma had no such root, if it could be shown that its rise was mostly due to eisegesis rather than exegesis, if, then, it could not be understood as analysis of revelation, it could not be recognised as dogma.

In this sense we cannot recognise as dogma a whole series of Roman Catholic dogmas, e.g., that if justification coincident with sanctification, or that of Mary, or that of purgatory, or that of the seven sacraments, or that of papal infallibility. As little, naturally, can we recognise as dogma the specific dogmas of Protestant Modernism such as that of the historical development of revelation or that of the continuity between God and man in religions experience. We fail to detect the “root” that these teachings would have to have in revelation or its biblical attestation to be able to be dogmas.[2]

The “root” for Barth is God; God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God has chosen that Scripture be Holy precisely as it becomes the ground upon which the burning bush shines forth brightly in the eyes of the Lamb which are like fire (cf. Rev. 1:14). It is as we encounter God’s voice in Scripture that we can come to discern between the holy and the unholy (cf. Lev. 10); at which point we can move beyond the milk, and begin feasting on the meatier things of WHO God is (cf. Heb. 5:11-14). For Barth it is all about Who God is before thinking about what and that God is. And this is the “root” of Holy Scripture, as its reality, and thus authority for all those who will come to God in Christ. This is why for Barth God is not simply the object, but also, and we might add, antecedently, the subject of theological reality. For Barth it’s not possible or desirable to disentangle a theology of the Word, from the eternal Logos; instead he is constantly concerned with underscoring the fact that without the Living God, without the Living God descending to us in Christ, there is no context for Scripture to be Scripture; indeed there is no context for creation to be creation. But the choice is God’s; He, according to Barth, has elected to be for us by becoming us, and in this becoming Scripture becomes Holy just as it becomes the vocalization of God’s voice for us as the church militant.

Unfortunately, I’d suggest, many North American evangelicals (and more broadly) have taken up the mantle of what Barth calls ‘Protestant Modernism.’ Evangelicals, in the main, by sublimating God’s voice with their own (in other words, conflating their voice as God’s voice cf. Feuerbach’s critique on ‘projection’) have rendered their lives authority-less based upon no-dogma. While they often pay lip service to Scripture as their authority, because of their abandonment of critical and constructive theological thinking, they are unable to recognize that Scripture has ‘authority’ not because they say so, but because God has made it so as Scripture’s “root” and inner-reality. Scripture is not the evangelical’s possession; nein, the evangelical, along with the rest of humanity have been bought with the blood of Jesus Christ (cf. I Cor. 6:18-19). This thinking needs to bleed through into the evangelical’s idea about Scripture. The best place to start for the evangelical is to become saturated in Holy Scripture; in other words, “quiet times” aren’t sufficient. If we are to hear God’s voice we need to be listening, and we can’t do that if we don’t have the stereo of God’s Word playing in our hearts and mind in a meditative practice moment by moment. God help us!

[1] T. F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, edited by Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), Glossary.

[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1§8, 16.

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The Instrumentality of Holy Scripture for Hugh Binning: The Intersection of Ink and Paper/Flesh and Blood

Hugh Binning (1627–1653) a Scottish theologian who died at the tender age of 26 produced such an output of theological work you’d think he’d lived well into his senior years. I am currently (and slowly) reading through his Works (which by the way are public domain and therefore available for free electronically via kindle), and I’m just upon his doctrine of Scripture. His Works are lectures which have a sermonic feel which come with a depth of spiritual learnedness that only a mind and heart infatuated with the love of Christ could generate.

What I want to highlight is the way he connects the res or reality of Scripture to its writtenness and symbols (signum). If you read Binning you will see that he holds to a traditional Reformed understanding on a doctrine of inspiration, but that like Calvin he places an emphasis upon Scripture’s instrumentality (think of Calvin’s metaphor ‘spectacles’). Here he writes with a piety of language that we are wont to find in the modern tongue; with an economy of language that drips with the didacticism of Paul’s letters; and a heart clearly enflamed with a love of Christ and the Triune life.

I wish that souls would read the scriptures as profitable scriptures with the intention to profit. If you do not read with such a purpose, you read not the scriptures of God, the become another book unto you. But what are they profitable for? For doctrine, and a divine doctrine, a doctrine of life and happiness. It is the great promise of the new covenant, “You shall be all taught of God.” The scriptures can make a man learned and wise, learned to salvation, it is foolishness to the world, “but the world through wisdom know not God.” Alas! what then do they know? Is there any besides God? And is there any knowledge besides the knowledge of God? You have a poor petty wisdom among you to gather riches and manage your business. Others have a poor imaginary wisdom that they call learning, and generally people think, to pray to God is but a paper-skill, a little book-craft, they think the knowledge of God is nothing else but to learn to read the Bible. Alas! mistake not, it is another thing to know God. The doctrine of Jesus Christ written on the heart is a deep profound learning and the poor, simple, rudest people, may by the Spirit’s teaching become wiser than their ancients, than their ministers. O, it is excellent point of learning, to know how to be saved. What is it, I pray you to know the course of the heavens,—to number the orbs, and the stars in them—to measure their circumference,—to reckon their motions,—and yet not to know him that sits on the circle of them, and not know how to inhabit and dwell there? If you would seek unto God, and seek eyes opened to behold the mystery of the word, you would become wiser than your pastors, you would learn from the Spirit to pray better, you would find the way to heaven better than they can teach you, or walk in it.[1]

For Binning there is a greater point to Holy Scripture, it points beyond itself to its reality in God in Jesus Christ. That said he does not want people to move beyond focus on the written Word, instead he wants them to read it as if the viva vox Dei (living voice of God) is present, winsomely inviting them into a knowledge of and encounter with the living Christ that befuddles them where they stand.

This intention of Binning’s is no different than what we find in Luther, Calvin, or Barth. The goal of Scripture for all of them is to mediate us to the Mediator, as the Mediator mediates himself to us in the mediate by the Spirit’s blissful breath of fire and call for constant mortification and recantation before a Holy God of Triune love and white-hot holiness. Ultimately, for Binning, Scripture is the place where the wisdom of God becomes translucent for us in the face of Jesus Christ; a place outwith the Christian is as good as dead afloat in a world breaming with human witting that likes to masquerade as genuine light.

[1] Hugh Binning, The Works of the Rev. Hugh Binning (A Public Domain Book), Loc 1519, 1526, 1533 Kindle Version [emphasis mine].

The Scripture Principle: The Word’s Reality and its Generation of Passion

Karl Barth was a theologian who understood the most important thing about theology; he understood that if the theologian is going to speak about God, that he or she will only be able to do that after God has spoken (Deus dixit). As a Reformed theologian, and thus as a theologian of the Word, Barth knew that the primary witness, the primary means by which the theologian, the pastor might speak about God was as he encountered the living God in the Apostolic Deposit of Holy Scripture. This is something that many of Barth’s detractors don’t appreciate about him; they don’t make themselves aware of the reality that Barth was fully committed to the ‘Scripture principle’ of the Reformed churches.

In the following these things become apparent as Barth waxes eloquent about the centrum that Scripture just is in the process of proclamation and bearing witness to God from God.

We might illustrate this impression by an example that is very dear to me, namely, by the strange process that led especially to the formation of the Reformed churches in the 16th century. I call them strange because the most positive impulse accompanying the many negative and from a Christian standpoint very dubious things that were also at work was to us the amazingly passionate rediscovery, acknowledgment, and assertion of the ancient canonical literature, because in a way that was acute, sudden, and revolutionary the Bible again became the marching orders and direction to preach, because it was understood as the cannon not merely in the critical sense but also in the imperative sense. In this field the ancient book — and much more distinctly than in the Lutheran reformation, the book itself — the whole Bible and not just a specific truth in the Bible as in the case of Luther, commanded with an almost uncanny dynamic a new attention, respect, and obedience. To a degree and with an intensity that are almost intolerable to us today, people had to speak again about God in the light of this historical datum as though it could be done and had never been attempted before. Read some of the sermons of Calvin with this in mind. How this man is grasped and stilled and claimed — not too quickly must one suppose by his experience of conversion, or by the thought of predestination, or by Christ, or even, as is commonly said, by passion for God’s glory —  no, but in the first instance simply by the authority of the biblical books, which year by year he never tired of expounding systematically down to the very last verse! How this man, moving always along the uncrossable wall of this authority, copying down what he finds copied there, as if the living words of God were heard there (as he himself says in the Institutes), becomes himself wholly voice and speech and persuasion, and can never exhaust or empty himself, as though nothing were more self-evident than this torrential talk about God in spite of all the objections which might be urged against it, and which he himself knew well enough! Why was this? In the first instance we can find no other reason than this: Because he heard Moses, Jeremiah, and Paul speak about God, because he heard there the trumpet that summoned him to battle. In something of the same way 1400 years earlier, in the historically obscure early period when the old book as not yet old, the oral and written witness of the same prophets and apostles affected the people of the second generation and brought about the rise of the early church, that is, the rise of Christian preaching.[1]

Barth believed Scripture, the preached Word was the whence from which the Christian could speak God. May we imitate Barth as he imitated Christ.

As an aside: I often get this sense that us Christians think we own the Word of God, and as such we feel the burden to make it relevant to the church and the world. But this is not our prerogative; God has called us to stand on the rooftops and proclaim the living Word of God as if our lives and the lives around us depended upon it. As Moses says in Deuteronomy ‘the word is not a vain thing, it is our very life’ (my paraphrase). I’ve noticed a slippage in my own posture lately. I used to be much bolder about evangelizing the Word to anyone and everyone around; on the streets, in the market-places, and backwaters of wherever I find myself in this fleeting world. I’m reminded as I write this post about the Word, that the Word of God, its reality in the Gospel, is indeed the very power of God. I don’t need to apologize for it or shrink back as I’m confronted with the words of others throughout the days; I need to submit to God resist the Devil and do what I was put on this earth to do: bear witness to the risen God in Jesus Christ! I need to press into the Word and allow it to press me back and out towards a world and a church that needs to live in the sober realization that would lead the Apostle Paul to yell this “let God be true and everyman a liar!” I need to allow the passion of the Christ, the passion that underwrites the very writ that Scripture is, the passion of Christ that looks out on an unbelieving world and an unbelieving church and causes him to weep, to cut me. This is the reality of the Word that I need to let compel me into a life lived from Christ’s searing holiness which leads to a serious com-passion for others. When I come to recognize my own deep need for the living God, as he sanctifies me in this recognition, and meets me with his purifying eyes, I come to have a burden for others; as my burden has been shouldered by Christ. All of this and more comes from the realization that Barth had about the Word; it comes from the staggering realization that the written Word is powerful and earth-shattering precisely at the point that it brings its readers and students into encounter with its living reality in the risen Christ.

[1] Karl Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics: Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 54-5.

‘Thy Word is Truth, Sanctify Them by Thy Word’: Reading Scripture Theologically Rather than as Nature Lovers

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, the reader is to be envisaged as within the hermeneutical situation as we have been attempting to portray it, not as transcending it or making it merely an object of will. The reader is an actor within a larger web of event and activities, supreme among which is God’s act in which God speaks God’s Word through the text of the Bible to the people of God, as he instructs them and teaches them in the way they should go. As a participant in this historical process, the reader is spoken to in the text. This speaking, and the hearing which it promotes, occurs as part of the drama which encloses human life in its totality, including human acts of reading and understanding: the drama of sin and its overcoming. Reading the Bible is an event in this history. It is therefore moral and spiritual and not merely cognitive or representational activity. Readers read, of course: figure things out as best they can, construe the text and its genre, try to discern its intentions whether professed or implied, place it historically and culturally — all this is what happens when the Bible is read also. But as this happens, there also happens the history of salvation; each reading act is also bound up within the dynamic of idolatry, repentance and resolute turning from sin which takes place when God’s Word addresses humanity. And it is this dynamic which is definitive of the Christian reader of the Bible.[2]

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

 

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

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

A Reflection on the Word of God

The Word of God. The Word of God has changed my life, and continues to. I have never known life outwith God’s Word in my life; I was surrounded by it and Him one way or the other since conception. I went long spans without being deeply saturated in it—in seasons of my youth—but this has not been the case over the last 23 years. God’s Word I have come to realize, by being in it every day, and it being in me, is more than the written Word; it is the living Word of God, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the Word of God, and the written Word and proclaimed Word are derivations that find their ground and being in the living Word to whom they bear witness moment by moment. This is the reality of the Word I came to know simply by being in the Word; I did not fall in love with the Written Word nor the Preached Word, even though I was and am succored by them, I fell in love with the living Word; the Word who breathes life, moment by moment, afresh and anew, into the Written and Preached Words. I battle, by the grace of God, to dwell within the confines of the Written Word and allow it to serve as the holy ground upon which I encounter the living Word for me in Jesus Christ; my Savior.

Once I realized that the Written Word was only an embassy for something greater than itself I began to appreciate the Written (and Preached) Word that much more. The Written Word has its being, its ontology, outside of itself in the inter-council of God’s Triune life. This has taken the burden off of the Written Word to be more than it is; and has allowed it to operate in the relative freedom it has been granted, over and again, by its reality found in the resplendent life of the eternal Logos. When the Written Word of God is given its proper order, relative to God’s economy, it has the capacity to become the place where God speaks His own Words to me (and the church, of which I am a member); it becomes the place that is no longer under my control or my construction, but a place that is contingent upon the freedom of Divine grace. When the Written Word understood from a proper ontology, when it is not seen as a relic of human imagination, but instead as a gift given by God, who is obligated to no man, the Written Word gains the type of ascendancy it should have; one that is not contingent upon the text-critics, or the exegetes, or the theologians, but that is contingent upon the a se life of  God who has graciously and freely given His Word to and for the World. The World, and even the church in the world, does not have a say about God’s Written Word, not in regard to its reality, instead the Word is the One who has say about the World and the church in the World. In this way the Word is understood to be truly living. Not because it derives its life’s-breath from the Written Word, the Proclaimed Word, the World or the Church, but because the Word of God gives life to all else. The Word of God does need to be approved by anyone, and in this sense it is truly life giving and unique; it is all of this, because its reality and being are not of this world, even as it interfaces with this world over and over again; in this world’s phenomenal reality. But it remains untrapped by the trappings of this world insofar as the Word of God holds this world together by the Word of His Power.

A Free Bible; A Free Church; Only If the Church Can Deconflate Her Self Understanding From Jesus’s Voice And Reality

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Why Can’t I Just Read the Bible to Know Who God Is? Identifying the Modern Impact on Evangelicals and a Tentative Way Forward

Following up on the last post, let’s continue to think about how things have been conceived of in the history of the church’s thinking, and how things have potentially changed. When I write ‘potentially’ I use this passive to signal the push back I am anticipating to this particular post; I will attempt, throughout, to redirect some of the concerns that might arise in regard to the content I will be referring to in order to make my own peculiar point (cryptic enough yet?).

I am somewhere in-between on the spectrum that is between what we might call pre-modern and modern theology; my sensibilities tend heavily toward modern modes, but in such a way that I want to resource and retrieve the past for the 21st century church (and for myself). In my last post I decried the impact that synthesizing Aristotelian philosophy has had upon the development and grammarization of an ostensibly orthodox doctrine of God; but I didn’t provide any real alternatives. The content often shared here on The Evangelical Calvinist, and in our two edited books does get into alternative ways of developing a doctrine of God in conversation with the past categories. But in some ways I want to be more radical, yet still retaining my evangelical and Reformed identity; I want to be a theologian who is genuinely always reforming as that is dictated by dialogue with the living Word of God on an ongoing basis. I want to hold onto what George Hunsinger has called the ‘Chalcedonian Pattern’ in reference to Barth’s appropriation and engagement with the past, and allow that pattern to regulate the way forward—so recognizing that God has indeed spoken in the past, but under the realization that he continues to speak. This is my conviction: that God is not done with his church yet, and so I am unwilling to give certain periods of church history a sacrosanct status; in other words, I am unwilling to give the 16th and 17th centuries in the development of Protestant theology the type of end all status that I’d say 90% (or more) of conservative evangelical theologians are currently giving it today. Further, it is important to understand this (about me): I don’t ultimately see myself as a Reformed Catholic; if anything I see myself as a catholic Reforming. In other words, I am a Protestant. This means that, in principle, I go to Holy Scripture as my primary authority (not ecclesial tradition); and I realize that the Bible itself is not the end, but only the ground upon which I come into encounter with the living Word of God who stands behind Scripture giving it its telos or purpose or meaning.

So what’s an alternative way forward to thinking God? Answering this question becomes more challenging. Not because I don’t have my thoughts on this, but because the moment I share what I am about to share people will immediately read me into a particular category, read all the stereotypes of that category onto me, and then wash their hands of me and move on. How do I know people will do this? Because I’ve done it myself. All of that notwithstanding, let me share, indeed, an alternative way forward. What I am going to share is simply to register relative ways forward, not necessarily absolute; but I think it is something to be considered and reckoned with. The author I am sharing draws out certain conclusions about why he thinks modern theology has become a requirement, simply because of the developments of ideas in the history. I am more free-floating than that, and don’t think his conclusions are fully justified or necessarily able to be periodized in the way he wants to. In other words, I think the inclinations he ties fully into modern developments were in fact present at least as far back as the Nominalist medieval times. David Congdon writes of the shift that took place from doing premodern theology to modern theology this way (this will be a lengthier than normal quote):

What is the condition of possibility for a modern theology? In pursuing this question, we are not asking what it is that makes a theology modern as opposed to, say, premodern? We are rather asking, in typical transcendental form: Given that there is such a thing as modern theology, what must be the case in order to make such a theology possible? What must be true about the Christian faith to make sense, for example, of Karl Barth’s “reconstruction of Christian orthodoxy” under the conditions of modernity?[1] At a minimum, an answer to this problem must be that Christianity is intrinsically capable of being reconstructed. But then, what is it about the Christian message, the gospel, that permits, even empowers, this process of reconstruction?[2] How does one carry out this process responsibly?

Assuming that the notion of modern theology is not dismissed outright as oxymoronic—on the basis of the false belief that the conditions for modernity are antithetical to the conditions for Christianity—a typical rejoinder is that this line of inquiry is nevertheless asking about the conditions of possibility for liberal theology, understood as a modern reinterpretation of Christianity.[3] The assumption is that such a theology is beyond the bounds of genuine Christianity. Liberalism is repudiated as an “accommodation” to modernity, which conforms the gospel to an alien context that demands a thorough reconstruction of traditional doctrines.[4] Ironically, at the same time that liberalism is disparaged as an accommodation to modernity, mission is praised as a “contextualization” of the gospel for a particular culture. This presents us with a dilemma: the same logic rejected under the name of liberalism is affirmed under the name of mission. The only discernible difference, it seems, is chronological.[5] Reinterpreting cross- culturally is the gospel; reinterpreting crossculturally over time, apparently, is heresy. Christianity can be reconstructed synchronically but not diachronically. Matters are only made more confusing when we find Paul’s method in 1 Cor 9:19-23 defined as “missionary accommodation.”[6] Where exactly does mission end and the threat of liberalism begin?

The problem represented by the apparent tension between liberalism and mission comes to expression, however obliquely, in Joseph Cahill’s retrospective on Rudolf Bultmann’s legacy. “All forms of liberalism, be they political, social, economic, or religious,” he writes, “are ultimately based on accommodation—accommodating old truths to new realities.”[7] Later in the article, he then situates Bultmann in the context of “missionary efforts at propagating the gospel”:

[Matteo] Ricci’s visit to Nan-ch’angin in 1595, to Nanking in 1597, to Peking in 1601, and [Roberto] de Nobili’s work in India, beginning in 1610, were brief and early flashes across the religious sky—efforts at accommodation to the realistically pluralistic world which have only recently begun to have a permanent effect. The basic question they and their immediate followers raised (now surfacing in serious fashion) was whether or not different styles manifested in varying religious conventions, genres, habits, and linguistic modes of expression could conceal similar religious substances. In his own way, Bultmann raised the same question but confined it to the Bible and “modern man.” Could Christianity, by contact with supposedly alien religions, be subject to creative transformations? Could divergent axial mythologies be modified by deferential encounter? Could the assumed hegemony of one culturally postulated form of claimed transcendence create a common universe of discourse with another form? These questions posed by de Nobili and Ricci were logical extensions of the Bultmannian problematic.[8]

While the notion of “religious substances” is not exactly faithful to Bultmann’s thought, the problematic that Cahill describes certainly is. Unfortunately, he does not go on to thematize the question of mission and accommodation. He instead fleshes out the present cultural situation in terms of a “new axial period,” that is, a period shaped by new convictions, assumptions, and myths that shape one’s self-identity and consciousness. Cahill describes this new age as “dominated by historical consciousness.”[9]

By referring to historical consciousness Cahill draws on themes developed extensively by Bultmann’s contemporaries and students, especially Friedrich Gogarten and Gerhard Ebeling. According to Gogarten, the old metaphysical and teleological interpretation of the world and our existence in it, which understood the world to be the unfolding of an overarching divine plan, was replaced by a historical interpretation:

Just as the contents of a play are established beforehand in the major and minor roles which appear in it, so too the occurrences in this history are predetermined in the “spiritual substances of all hierarchies,” which “are united in the church into a mystical body, which extends from the trinity and the angels that are nearest to the trinity down to the beggar at the church door and to the serf kneeling humbly in the furthest corner of the church to receive the sacrifice of the Mass.” But since history is understood in this way as a kingdom of metaphysical essences or substances, moved teleologically in itself and encompassing the entire world in this teleology, we lose precisely what we understand as the actual occurrence, namely, the living personal experiences of particular individuals in their distinctiveness and responsibility, their historical significance. Their historicity is taken away when history anticipates them by occurring within the framework of metaphysical essences. And it is only because this metaphysical framework contains the life of human beings with all that has happened that they have a part in the history which takes place there.[10]

Modernity is the age in which this metaphysical understanding of history was called radically and irrevocably into question, as indicated paradigmatically by the rise of the historical-critical method. “Only with the collapse of traditional western metaphysics, i.e., with the loss of its self-evident character, did the historicity of existence fully enter into consciousness,” out of which arose “the freedom, but also the absolute necessity, to regard the historical [Historische] in its pure historicalness [Historizität].”[11] No longer was the hierarchical and essentialist “chain of being” taken for granted. No longer was the ecclesiastical tale of our given place in God’s order accepted on faith. It was no longer assumed that the old stories could narrate each person’s identity. For those institutions and ideologies that pend on this authority, new strategies were devised to shore up faith: most notably, Roman Catholics put forward the doctrine of papal infallibility in the early 1870s, while Reformed Protestants formulated the doctrine of biblical inerrancy in the early 1880s. Both sides were able to claim that such views were held long before they were codified in their modern form, and yet it is significant that these doctrines were codified when they were.

This brings us back to our starting question: what is the condition of possibility for a modern theology? To put it another way, what enables theology to address the collapse of traditional metaphysics and the rise of modern historical consciousness while remaining in genuine contact with the kerygmatic content of faith? How is it possible, to use Cahill’s phrase, for Christianity to “be subject to creativetransformations?”[12] The only satisfactory answer to this question is one that understands the logic behind such creative reconstruction as internal to Christianity. Understood appropriately, mission is this logic. It is what makes the transformations of Christian faith possible, insofar as mission is essentially the pursuit of vernacular modes of Christian existence. Mission is the daring venture of theological reconstruction. It articulates the possibility and process of (re)interpreting the faith for a new time and place. The task now, following on Cahill’s suggestive remarks, is to understand this missionary impulse at the heart of Christianity in conjunction with the hermeneutical problem posed by historical consciousness. In order to address the new mission situation of modernity we need a theology, conditioned by historical consciousness, that incorporates this missionary, and thus hermeneutical, logic into its very understanding of the gospel. This brings us to the immediate concern of the present study.[1]

I shared all of that to give you all the broader context from whence Congdon is working from. He has found his way forward, by and large, through the impulses provided for by Rudolf Bultmann; I have not. But what I want to really highlight is how things have shifted from the premodern to the modern; at least as far as the way the world and reality are conceived. Some folks simply reject this reality, but it’s interesting, because these folks, in many ways are simply reading many of the assumptions they were born under (i.e. as modern people) back into the history; as if 16th and 17th century thinkers were reading the Bible under the same lights as we currently do today. In other words, many 21st century evangelicals simply want to pretend like they aren’t “modern” and repristinate the past theological developments as if they aren’t involved in an interpretive process when they do that. I’d rather acknowledge my place as a modern person, and attempt to recognize any good that may have developed as a result of the times we live in and under (or those more close to us like in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries).

What I am really trying to do here is complexify and problematize how things currently stand for evangelicals. I grew up as a conservative evangelical, and in many ways I am still a conservative evangelical (although not of the Trumpian sort). Evangelicals are renowned for their desire to be Biblicists; those impulses are still present within me as well. I think it naïve to think we can read the Bible nakedly (i.e. de nuda scriptura or solo scriptura), but at the same time I want to allow Scripture (within an proper ontology of Scripture relative to its Dogmatic placement in the Domain of God’s life in Christ) to actually speak for itself; i.e. more than I think the metaphysics of the 16th and 17th century Protestant church allows for. The “modern shift” actually, I would argue, is what has ingrained this attitude toward being the type of Biblicists that evangelicals want to be. In other words, I think evangelical Protestants are much more a phenomenon of modernity than they are of the 16th and 17th century Protestant developments. This is not to say that that period (16th and 17th centuries) has no bearing on how evangelicals think about God so on and so forth, but instead it is to identify the type of Biblicist mode that orients the way modern evangelical Protestants look to the past from. It is a mode that is less metaphysical and more existential in orientation (and I’m not sure why that’s an inherently bad thing).

So we have shifted, in some important ways, and along with Congdon I actually think this shift in some ways is inescapable; and I even think there are many things of value as a result of the modern shift. One of the values I see is that we are invited to look more closely at the person and work of Jesus Christ as the lens through which we might construct a knowledge of God. In other words, if in fact we have moved beyond an essentialized universe constructed by a kind of hierarchical interlocked chain of being- from-God-to-all-other-contingent-reality (so Aristotle, Aquinas et al.) then we are no longer to read godness off of the discoverable world (as the philosophers did). We are, as Christians, at that point, fully and absolutely contingent upon God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ in order to know who God is. This is a valuable thing, I think; and it’s a value that someone like Karl Barth not only realized but lived into in his theologizing (and Thomas Torrance benefited greatly from this as well).

This is my tentative way forward. I think what Congdon notes in regard to mission is very important. Missionaries have to learn new languages, become enculturated, and learn the customs of the people groups they come to live with and among. As this process takes place the natural outflow is to begin the process of translation; translation presupposes a stable reality, or a fixed reality that is translatable (i.e. the objective reality of God’s Triune life). This is what I think is required for the 21st century church. Of course, it’s not quite as simple as translating from English to German; as we have been noting, the way reality itself is conceived of in the modern and now postmodern periods is quite distinct from the so called premodern (although we can see antecedents to the modern in Nominalism, and other currents of past times). As a result new categories for thinking reality, and those categories and the pressures they create come to bear upon the way Christians think God. They don’t change who God is, but they change our understanding of God in some important ways; and this is why Congdon was intent on ending what we heard from him by highlighting the importance of hermeneutics.

Yes, conservative evangelical and reformed thinkers can pretend they are not modern and postmodern people, but they are. They can attempt to repristinate the past, and somehow re-enculturate the 21st century with the 16th and 17th centuries as found in Protestant and Catholic Western Europe. But why? Do we really want to allow the BIBLE and its reality to genuinely regulate the way we think God, or would we rather allow the PHILOSOPHERS do that? As it currently stands, I’d say the philosophers are winning the day in the evangelical/reformed world.

I’m not claiming to have an absolute way forward; I’m simply noting a problem that I see in the current way for doing evangelical/reformed theology. I’m not suggesting that we see ourselves as some new breed of latter day saints who think that the church was corrupt in all its teaching up until the “liberation” of the modern period. Instead I am suggesting that we allow some of the goods provided for by the modern period to disentangle God from the onerous baggage that has accrued to his name through the overly-laden philosophical categories imposed upon him. I am asking us to consider some deconstruction when it comes to synthesizing God with metaphysics that end up distorting who he has revealed himself to be (I contend). I am asking us to think that God is actually Love, and really does have passions and emotions, and that these aren’t simply figures of speech. I am asking us to allow Holy Scripture and its reality in Jesus Christ to be the standard by which we determine whether or not our conception of God is orthodox, and not bequeath that privilege to the philosophers who supposedly discovered the “God-categories” latent in the universe.

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology(Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015), xvii-xxii.

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.

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.