Barth Against Andy Stanley, Quasi-Marcionites, Socinians, and Other Heresiarchs

Andy Stanley has recently and rightfully come under fire for his diminution of the Old Testament for 21st century evangelical Christians. He offers the church a sort of quasi-Marcionism that would elevate the New Testament Jesus while denigrating and antiquating the Old Testament God; as if the latter has no real meaningful relationship with the former. But anyone aware of Holy Scripture’s sense, meaning, and trajectory will almost immediately recognize how far Stanley has slipped into the absurd.

As Thomas Torrance has done, in his little book The Mediation of Christ, all Bible interpreters ought to recognize how central the Old Testament witness and reality is to the New Testament witness and reality. We ought to appreciate that the Old Testament and New Testament have the same canonical and regulative reality (res) in Jesus Christ; and read them together as a piece. This is where Stanley et al. fail to read the Bible accurately, and with any sense of theological acuity. He ironically stumbles just on the scandal of the Gospel as that has history of salvation sense – as that has protological gravitas in the promises of the Old Testament. He stumbles because he doesn’t read the Bible eschatologically; as if the circle of God’s Triune Life doesn’t sit above in the heavenlies breaking in and throughout the histories of the Old and New Testaments as a canonical whole. He stumbles by not seeing the face of Christ in the first Adam, the Israelites, the kings and prophets, and the suffering servant of Jobian and Isianic motif.

Along with Thomas Torrance et al., Karl Barth also understands the significance of the Old Testament; he gets how the New Testament would make absolutely no[n] sense without the context of the Old. Here Barth operates in a very catholic sense as he, along with many of the Patristics, counter someone like Marcion, and underscores the significance of the Old Testament reality for the New Testament Christian; as that all is conditioned by Jesus Christ.

To indicate the axiomatic character of the statement that Christ was manifested as the Expected One even in the time of the Old Testament, we may make the further point that this statement was one which was taken for granted by the whole of the early Church from the 2nd century up to and including the Reformation and the orthodoxy of the 17th century determined by the Reformation, in spite of all the changes in the interpretation and evaluation of the Old Testament. Marcion in the 2nd century and the Socinians in the 16th were already in the eyes of the Church of their time regarded as opponents of the Old Testament, theologians with whom one could not discuss, against whom one could only dispute as against heretics—in fact the last resort could not dispute at all, because in abandoning the Old Testament they had abandoned not something but everything, namely the New Testament itself as well, and the whole New Testament at that. No-one can annul or take away the Old Testament without also confounding the New Testament, since the new appeals again and again to the old as it stands in itself (Quenstedt, Theol. did. pol., 1685 I, c. 4, sect. 2, qu. 5, beb. obs. 5). So obvious to the early Church was the recognition that Christ is also manifest in the Old Testament. A. v. Harnack, who admittedly had no desire that this recognition should prevail, in his spirited way propounded the thesis that “to reject the Old Testament in the 2nd century was an error which the great Church rightly rejected; to cling to it in the 16th century was a destiny from which the Reformation could not yet withdraw; but still to preserve it after the 19th century as a canonical source in Protestantism is the result of a religious and ecclesiastical paralysis. … To make a clean sweep at this point and honour the truth in confession  and instruction is the mighty act—already almost too late—required to-day of Protestantism” (Marcion, 2nd edn., 1924, 217, 222). Upon which the simple comment to be made is that by this “mighty act” the Evangelical Church would lose her identity with the Church of the first sixteen centuries, “The Gospels are ‘the flesh of Christ’ and the apostles the priesthood of the Church,” writes Ignatius of Antioch; “but leave us also the dear prophets, because their proclamation also aims at the Gospel, because they too hope for and expect Him, are saved by faith in Him, being in unity with Jesus Christ … witnessed by Jesus Christ and counted with Him (Ad Philad. 5, 2). They lived according to Jesus Christ, in spirit they were His disciples and were expecting Him as their Teacher; they were persecuted for His sake and were moved by His grace (Ad Magn. 8, 2; 9, 1).[1]

It seems like it should be as simple as the way Barth puts it. It seems like the Christian should easily recognize how important the Old Testament not only was, but remains in the face (prosopon) of the risen Christ! But nothing is ever this simple in the confusion and morass that is the human complexity. Nevertheless, the clarion voice of the living Christ shines brightly through the halls of catholic and canonical history with all those with ears to hear, and eyes to see.

 

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2 §14, 75-6. The italics are Latin and Greek sections offered in the English translation.

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The Word of God as the CentralDogma for Protestant Theology

For me, a theology of the Word is definitive for what it means to be a Protestant Christian; as such, I think our theologies ought to be conditioned by their reposition upon the Word of God. There seems to be some slide in this area among Protestant retrievers; i.e. the guys and gals who are in the process of developing a ‘Reformed Catholicity’ among other nomenclature. As Protestants we should have a de jure or principled commitment to Holy Scripture and its reality in Jesus Christ as the primal initiative for all things theological and praxis. The Word of God ought to be the centraldogma of all that Protestant theology entails and is characterized by, such that when people read a Protestant theology they are thrust back, not upon the church, but Scripture, and its reality in Christ. I think this was a central motivation for the magisterial reformers, and is why we ended up with a sola scriptura. But, as Protestants, in our zeal to ‘recover’ the Great Tradition of the Church, we are seemingly being seduced back into the scholastic tradition-building tradition; and the ecclesial authority attendant with that, thus losing the actual authority of Scripture. As Protestants we say all else, in regard to a theory of authority, is subordinate to Holy Scripture; but in practice, and theological endeavor, I see something else happening.

John Calvin offers a good word on Scripture’s special place for his type of Protestant theology. In the following he is in early discussion on his concept of knowledge of God, and how he sees God’s Word as the special place that the ‘children of God’ are given to have an accurate, and thus non-idolatrous, knowledge of God. The moment we digress into Trad-itional knowledge of God, at least as our regulative authority, we have crossed over into speculative rather than revealed knowledge of God. As one of the early pre-post-Reformed orthodox Reformed theologians, Calvin understood this, in regard to the character that a Word-based theology ought to have for his Protestant brethren and sistren. He writes:

Since it is evident that God used His word with those whom He wanted to instruct fruitfully, because He saw that His form and image which He had imprinted in the edifice of the world was not sufficient, we must walk by this path if we desire with a good heart rightly to contemplate His truth. We must, I say, return to the word in which God is shown very well and painted as if living by His works, when these are considered no according to perversity of our judgment but according to the rule of the eternal truth. If we turn away from this word, no matter how quickly we go, we will never arrive at the goal because we are not running in the path. For we must take into account that the light of God which the apostle calls “inaccessible” is for us like a labyrinth to lose us unless we are led through it by the directing of the word, so that it is better for us to limp along in this path than to run quickly outside of it. That is why David, having recounted how the glory of God is preached by the heavens, the works of His hands proclaimed by the firmament, His glory manifested by the well-ordered succession of day and night, then comes down to the commemoration of His word (Ps. 19[1]). “The law of the Lord,” he says, “is without blemish, converting the soul; the testimony of the Lord is true, giving wisdom to the lowly; the righteousness of the Lord is right, rejoicing the hearts; the precept of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes” (Ps. 19[7-8]). By this he signifies that the teaching by creatures is universal to all, but the instruction by the word is specific to the children of God.[1]

We can understand Calvin better as we place the above quote into his teaching on the twofold knowledge of God,[2] more broadly; but for our purposes, what is important to highlight is the centrality the Word of God has for Calvin at a base level. For the Protestant there is an aversion to speculation about God, and “Godness,” just at the point that we (as Protestants) are committed to what God has revealed of Himself to and for us in Christ as attested to by the canon that Holy Scripture is.

As I broach this issue, in regard to the material and formal sufficiency of God’s Word, what you might also be alerted to is why I have chosen to go the way I have, in regard to the tradition I have, in Reformed theology. I think to be catholic, in the best sense, is to be committed to the rule of Faith, who is Scripture’s reality, Jesus Christ. I know that many believe that to be genuinely catholic these days, means to one degree or the other, that we tie ourselves into the Tradition of the Church. But I think prior to that, and more decisive than that, what it really means to be catholic is to be tied into the humanity of God in Jesus Christ; how can we be more catholic than that?[3]

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, trans. by Elsie Anne McKee (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 37.

[2] From the quote we can also pickup Calvin’s notional thinking on the sensus Divinitatis, but again, for our purposes we are focused on the Word in this post.

[3] There are many related and underwriting threads just waiting to be pulled upon in regard to my question here, like: 1) theory of authority, 2) theory of revelation, 3) ecclesiological theory in general, 4) how we think catholicity vis-à-vis progressive historical developments etc.

Reading Holy Scripture as God’s Love Letter to Us: ‘Love Seeking Understanding’

I remember as a young evangelical lad sitting in my Sunday school chair and the teacher telling us that the Bible is God’s Love Letter to us; and that it should be read as such. That impacted me; it stayed with me; it hasn’t really left me. This is the stuff of a warm-hearted piety that I still think represents the best of an evangelical ethos; and it is one that I want to get across to my own kids. Clearly
this sort of mood can become problematic as well; the focus can quickly go to seed in a radical and modern turn-to-the-subject sort of way. But this needn’t be the case. What can help keep this ‘love letter’ approach to Scripture from going to seed is to understand that the anchor of Scripture’s reality is the triune Life of God in Christ. If we can approach this with that perspective, the perspective we find in I John 4.19, ‘God first loved us that we might love Him,’ then we have a fighting chance of reading Holy Scripture in an intimate fashion; as if we are hearing our Bridegroom’s voice whisper sweet-somethings into our ear.

Just as is the case with any idea (typically) there is a lineage; in other words, this idea of ‘love letter’ isn’t original to my Sunday school teacher (even if he wasn’t aware of the genealogy), someone as significant (relative to the cultivation of ideas) as Søren Kierkegaard had this idea of Scripture present in his own frame of reference. To help us appreciate this further let us hear from one of Kierkegaard’s contemporary interpreters, Andrew Torrance (in full):

To become a Christian, a person needs to know what is expected of the Christian in this world. For Kierkegaard, this requires a person to turn to the word of God as it is revealed in Scripture, particularly in the New Testament. A person must come to know both God and God’s will fro Scripture, and he must strive to conform to Scripture’s message, as it addresses him in his life before God. By so doing, she will find herself being discipled in the process of becoming a Christian.

Accordingly, Kierkegaard immersed himself in Scripture – as a thinker devoted to proclaiming what Christianity is and what Christianity requires of us. This gave him enormous clarity on some issues, but also left him with a radical uncertainty on others, prompting him to turn prayerfully to God for guidance. While Kierkegaard did not devote extensive time to considering the more complex questions of exegesis and hermeneutics, he does offer some clear guidance as to how the Christian should approach and relater herself to Scripture. For him, as we shall now see, Scripture is to be read as a letter from a beloved. This letter is, in many respects, easy to understand, providing clear ethical guidance. Yet it is also highly challenging, prompting the reader, on the one hand, to stand in awe of the holiness of the beloved, and, on the other, to turn to the beloved for guidance in the face of uncertainty

Reading a Letter from a Beloved

In the wake of Hegel, Christian scholarship in Denmark had welcomed and, indeed, embraced a detached and critical reading of the Bible. Against this, Kierkegaard insisted that Scripture should be read’ in the same way’ that one would read a letter from a beloved. He prescribed that the Christian should give herself time to be ‘alone with God’s Word’ and should occupy herself with her relation to God. She must ‘not concern [her]self objectively with the letter from the beloved’. That is, she must not primarily concern herself with speculative analysis of the biblical texts (the letter), but with hearing the personal message that God (the beloved) speaks to her through Scripture.

As David Cain rightly notes, ‘how one reads is decisive in determining what one reads’. And, for Kierkegaard, what the Christian is supposed to be reading is the word of God, something that historical-scientific scholarship is not in a position to discover. The ‘historical-critical method’, as Murray Rae notes, ‘harbours prejudicial assumptions which are critically determinative of the results it achieves’. For Kierkegaard, these prejudicial assumptions critically determine that a person does not read the Bible as God’s word. To read God’s Word, a person must view Scripture as the object of faith (Troens Gjenstand) and must read it with the eyes of faith (Troens Øie). By so doing, she can come to read Scripture as an ‘individual who has received this letter by God or from God’. That is, she can come to read Scripture earnestly, as a love letter through which God speaks to her.

To read Scripture in this way, Kierkegaard proposes, a person must read it ‘without a commentary’; indeed, he describes this as the ‘Principal Rule’. Like so many of Kierkegaard’s vehement statements, this comment needs to be taken cum grano salis, keeping in mind his particular concern. Richard Bauckham puts it well when he notes: ‘Kierkegaard’s attitude to biblical scholarship is a necessary over-reaction, necessary as a corrective but an overreaction all the same’. Kierkegaard’s concern here is that commentaries were encouraging an objective reading of the Bible that focused on the intellectual question ‘What precisely is the meaning and context of this biblical passage?’ in such a way as to disregard the personal and existential question ‘What is God saying to and asking of me through and by means of the scriptural passage?’

Kierkegaard observes that, under the pressure of scholarly doubt, orthodox Christians were continually studying God’s message without appropriating this message to their daily lives. For him, this pointed to the fact that ‘they seem completely to forget that God still exists [er til]’. That is, orthodox Christians had become so caught up with examining the letter that they had forgotten about the one who sent the letter. In particular, they were acting as though there was no God addressing them through the words of Scripture, calling them to faith and action. The scholarship that so-called orthodoxy was pursuing, Kierkegaard observes, ‘makes God’s Word into something impersonal, objective, a doctrine – instead of its being the voice of God that you shall hear’. As such, he describes ‘Christian scholarship’ as ‘the human race’s enormous invention in order to protect itself against the N.T., in order to ensure that a person could continue to be a Christian without the N.T. getting altogether too close to him’. By keeping themselves removed from Scripture, scholars were undermining the possibility of their being affected, challenged or provoked by its message. Such detachment stops readers from allowing God’s word to speak into their lives, to inspire repentance and discipleship.

To know the true meaning of Scripture, for Kierkegaard, a person must be given to relate to Scripture faithfully. This requires a person to devote herself passionately to Scripture in response to the love of God. By so doing, a person will come to engage with Scripture with a new mind: she will come to relate to Scripture by way of ‘a … shifting from one genus to another, a leap, whereby I break the chain of reasoning and define a qualitative newness’. In this respect, Kierkegaard’s hermeneutic very much finds itself in alignment with the Anselmian principle of faith seeking understanding, although it is perhaps better associated with a love seeking understanding. Accordingly, the task of Christian scholarship should always be to facilitate and complement a faithful reception of Scripture.

At this point, it should be made clear that Kierkegaard does not altogether neglect the fact that scholarship is needed to assist a faithful reading of Scripture. The Bible needs to be translated and, at times, carefully interpreted – as is evident in Kierkegaard’s own careful engagement with Scripture. However, drawing on the metaphor of Scripture as a love letter that needs to be translated, Kierkegaard notes that once a person ‘is finished with the translation’ ‘he reads his beloved’s letter’. Indeed, he goes so far as to describe the ‘scholarly preliminaries’ as a ‘necessary evil’ that are required as a means of bringing a person to the point where he can read ‘the letter from his beloved’. The problem with the scholarly preliminaries is that they stall the process of Christian becoming by taking time – time that could be spent hearing and actively responding to the message. As such, for Kierkegaard, when the Christian spends time on the scholarly preliminaries, he should feel an urgency to get through this process quickly so that he can get on to responding to Scripture. The Christian should feel the kind of urgency that a lover would feel if he were to receive a love letter from a beloved that was in need of translation. As soon as he has heard the message, the Christian should be off at once to fulfil his beloved’s wish.

One more point that the Christian needs to bear in mind when reading Scripture as a letter from a beloved is that Scripture is not merely a letter that has been left behind 2,000 years ago. Kierkegaard describes it as an ‘unfortunate confusion’ when, on a scholarly reading of the New Testament, people are given to ‘think that God is far away, that it is 1800 years since [Christ] died’. Scripture is to be read as a letter from the living God who continues to speak to its faithful readers. Accordingly, the Christian can read Scripture with the knowledge that God is with her in her faithful reading, and is there to help guide her in her reading. Scripture should not merely be read as a record of God’s love but as a living testimony to the loving God who continues to present alongside us.[1]

To say Kierkegaard resonates with my own experience would be a severe understatement. A little later in life I was hit with an existential crisis that lasted for more than a decade (I’ve detailed that in other posts); it was in this crisis, as a Christian, that Holy Scripture became my balm. I think this is an important piece to reading Kierkegaard. To come to Scripture expecting to hear God’s voice speaking to us, speaking to us as the Lover no less, requires a sense of desperation and deep need. This is what cultivated within me, personally, my desperate need to hear from my Lord; and is why I have been voraciously reading Scripture through and through for the last twenty-three years—in earnest! I am sure that many others can resonate with this experience.

I mean, does this resonate with you? Kierkegaard was reacting to overly-rationalized approaches to Scripture in his own context (as Torrance points out), but don’t we have these in our own evangelicalism? Currently, it seems, we either have too much of quiet time focus on me-and-my-Jesus/me-and-my-Bible approach, or the other extreme of analyzing Scripture as if it belongs in a petri-dish of pre-critical/critical/post-critical labyrinths of hermeneutical glaze. Surely there is some sort of balance to be had between these polars. But more importantly, and to the point of Torrance’s Kierkegaard, I maintain, along with Kierkegaard, that if we aren’t reading Scripture as a love letter, if we aren’t reading Scripture intent on hearing our Lord’s voice (i.e. the sheep know their Shepherd’s voice); then we are most definitely reading Scripture all wrong! Beyond all the noise in Christendom there is a still small voice whispering God’s blessings into our hearts; we need to be still and know that He is LORD; we need to be quiet and know that God is in His Holy Temple—speaking to us who He is for us, and letting us know over and over again, seventy times seven even, that He loves us and He will never forsake us; even if we forsake Him.

 

[1] Andrew B. Torrance, The Freedom To Become A Christian: A Kierkegaardian Account of Human Transformation in Relationship with God (London/New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 118-21.

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.

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.