Another Response to Kevin Vanhoozer: Reformed Theology, the Genus — Evangelical Calvinism and Classical Calvinism, the Species

This is a second installment to a post where I offered some more response to Kevin Vanhoozer in regard to his chapter length critique of evangelical Calvinism—you can (and should) read that post here. Graciously, Vanhoozer responded to my post in the comments section of that post (you can of course read those there). In one of his comments he succinctly summarizes his ongoing and lingering question (and problem) with evangelical Calvinism and our approach to salvation issues. Professor Vanhoozer commented:

I suppose my lingering question is this: if the Incarnation means that  all humans are elect (because the Son assumes/elects human nature), and if the atoning work of Christ benefits all human twotonecalvinbeings, and if Jesus’ vicarious humanity includes his faith on my behalf, then it would seem that his saving work is sufficient for all.

The usual response at this point is that I am imposing a Western logico-causal framework onto the discussion, whereas I’m only trying to think clearly!

This type of lingering question is not actually unique to Vanhoozer, it has been the primary push-back I have received here at the blog over the last seven years (ever since I started this particular blog). It is the type of question that is worthy of a PhD dissertation, one that maybe I’ll research and I write someday. But until then all you’re going to get are blog posts J.

In Responsio

I think the simple response to what Vanhoozer writes, particularly when it comes to his point about ‘sufficient for all’ is to say: no. No, we are not, of course, affirming of that old Peter Lombardian adage of ‘sufficient for all, efficient for the elect’ that many a Reformed has used to speak of the efficacy (or in-efficacy) of the atoning work of Christ. Since this post isn’t just intended to be a direct response to Vanhoozer, but also informative for others, let me share a description and some history on this adage of ‘sufficient for all, efficient for the elect.’ Escondido theologian, and church historian, R. Scott Clark explains it this way:

In the midst of controversy over the nature of God’s sovereignty, Godescalc of Orbais defended Augustine vigorously and suffered for it. He taught that there are two “worlds,” that which Christ has purchased with his blood and that which he has not. Thus when Scripture says that Christ died for the “world” (e.g., John 3:16) it is extensive of all those Christ has actually redeemed, but it does not include everyone who has ever lived. 18 In the same way, those passages which seem to say that Christ died for all, in all times and places must but understood to refer to all the elect. Thus he saw 1 John 2:2 not as a problem passage, but a proof-text for definite atonement.19

The Lombard’s teaching on the atonement is most famous for his use of the distinction between the sufficiency of Christ’s death and its efficiency. Though they are not familiar to many of us today, from their publication in the late 12th century until the late 16th century, Peter’s Sentences were the most important theological text in the Latin-speaking world. Theological students even earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in the Sentences.

In Book 3, distinction 20 he taught that Christ’s death was “sufficient” to redeem all (quantum ad pretii) but it is “efficient” only “for the elect” (pro electis).20 This distinction, though not followed by all Western theologians after Lombard, was adopted by most until the nominalist movement (e.g., William of Ockham, d. 1347) overturned the “Old School” (via antiqua).21

In his great work, Summa Theologiae, Thomas distinguished between God’s will considered as his antecedent will, by which he could be said to have willed the salvation of all; and his will considered as consequent, i.e., what he actually decreed to exist, i.e., that only the elect would be saved and that some will be reprobated (damned).22 Later, Protestant theologians would revise this distinction to refer to his revealed and hidden will. With respect to his revealed will, God is said to desire certain things (i.e., that none should perish). It is his revealed will that we should know the existence of a hidden decree (who will be saved and who will perish) but the content of that decree is part of his hidden will.

Thomas also made it very clear that he adopted Lombard’s sufficient/efficient distinction but also taught unambiguously that Christ died effectively only for the elect.[1] 

Vanhoozer is implying since not all believe, and yet Christ died for all humanity (so EC), then it would seem that, according to Vanhoozer’s logic, that evangelical Calvinists are majoring on one half of the equation: i.e. that Christ’s death is sufficient for all, but only hypothetically efficient for the elect. But of course this is where we so disparately depart from one another; i.e. evangelical Calvinists from classical Calvinists (such as Kevin Vanhoozer).

To take this in another direction a bit I am going supply a few quotes, and provide some reflection on them in the context of this response to Vanhoozer. As Vanhoozer rightly observes the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ is the key for evangelical Calvinists. This doesn’t, at a first order level, have to do with the question Vanhoozer is concerned with in regard to his conclusion that our view leads to a ‘Christ sufficient for all’ view, but it absolutely implicates it. So, as has been cycled through over and over here at the blog, we see Jesus as both the object and subject of God’s election and reprobation; we see Jesus as archetypal humanity before God, as such we do not think of humanity in abstraction, we think it from Christ’s humanity as the imago Dei. As such redemption and reconciliation (and all that attends that) has been exhaustively realized in Jesus Christ’s humanity. George Hunsinger unpacks this reality well as he explains Barth’s thinking at this very point:

To say that Jesus Christ is the “pioneer of faith” (Heb. 12:2), Barth suggests, is not to say that his faith is merely the exemplar of ours, but that it is the vicarious ground and source of our faith. “There is vicarious faith,” writes Barth, “… only in the form of the faith which Jesus Christ established for us all as the archegos tes pisteos (Heb. 12:2), who empowers us for our own faith, and summons us to it, even as he stands there in our stead with his faith. Through his faith, we are not only moved but liberated to believe for ourselves” (IV/4, 186). Our faith may be said to exist “as a predicate” of his in the sense that whatever is real and true “in this Subject” is the foundation for whatever is correspondingly real and true in us (cf. II/2, 539). In short, our subjective apprehension of God does not exist independently, but only insofar as its source, mediation, and ground are found in the humanity of Jesus Christ.[2]

We might say that in Christ, the second Adam (the greater Adam cf. Rom. 5): what it means to be human has a brand new horizon. In other words, what it means to be human before God, is what Christ’s humanity is for us; truly the One for the all; not just sufficiently (to use the Lombardian language), but efficiently—since his humanity is the all of what it means to be genuinely human before and with God. But Vanhoozer’s issue is how does what Christ did in his vicarious humanity work its way into the rest of humanity; if this re-birth (or re-creation) has happened then how does that implicate all other humans? The answer to that question is the Holy Spirit, and by individual faith. Robert Dale Dawson does a superb job of explaining how this Spirit breathed miracle takes place in the theology of Barth; he writes:

The Miraculous Character of the Power of Transition

The power of the resurrection is, therefore, in Barth’s view, the power of the transition from Jesus Christ in himself pro nobis to human persons. Not only is the power of the resurrection active as a revelatory event, it is also clearly a miraculous power. It is not to be understood as a factor or phenomenon, albeit extraordinary and striking, in the closed nexus of world occurrence. Nevertheless, it is a definite power with a definite character, the power and character of resurrection. It is the power of God:

The power of the transition on which the New Testament counts when it looks from the basis and origin of its witness in Jesus Christ to its goal in the existence of Christians is absolutely unique as the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Barth describes the particular character of this power of transition as light, liberation, knowledge, peace and life. Summarizing, he asserts: ‘It aims at enlightened, liberated and understanding life which is at peace in all dimensions. … The power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ may be known by the fact that it snatches man upwards.’ That is to say, this power is ‘the power which proceeds from His resurrection, and He Himself as the Resurrected.’ As such, this power sows ‘a seed which is not only psychical by physical, and gives nourishment which is not only spiritual but material – a whole preservation of the whole man.’

As this miraculous power of transition, the resurrection of Jesus Christ enables human persons to live in the hope of their own resurrection and eternal life. The proof of the power of the resurrection, according to Barth, lay in the fact that it reveals the life of the man Jesus as ‘exalted to participation in the eternal life of God’ and in so doing it effectively brings the human person ‘the promise of eternal life which is given in it, making it his own, and moving him for his part to make it his own, to grasp it, to allow it to be the comfort and confidence and hope of his life as he still lives it in the shadow of death.’ No other force can bring about this miraculous result, that is, the enabling of men and women, who receive and possess the promise, ‘to live a life which already defies death, and arrests that discontinuity, and persists even in that flight through the times.’

It is on account of this miraculous power of God, says Barth, that it is both possible and actual that a human person becomes and is a Christian. The answer to our plaguing question can only be that:

deriving from Jesus Christ, i.e., His resurrection, there is a sovereignly operative power of revelation, and therefore of the transition from Him to us, of His communication with us; a power by whose working there is revealed and made known to us our own election as it has taken place in Him … and therefore the deliverance and establishment of our own being, so that our existence receives a new determination. It is by the operation of this power that we become and are Christians.

Once again, it is in his description of the particularity and definiteness of the miraculous power that Barth adds force to his argument that the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is indeed the transition of reconciled human being and action in him to the remaining anthropological sphere.[3]

Whatever, then, is possible for the ‘remaining anthropological sphere’ is only so because it first became realized in the humanity of Jesus Christ for all.

Evangelical Calvinists, such as myself, are fundamentally at odds with Vanhoozer’s more classical Reformed perspective right from the starting block. In other words, we might use much of the same lexicon, but per Barth’s radical reformulation of that lexicon, insofar as evangelical Calvinists imbibe that vibe, we depart. We are much more Eastern (and even patristic) in many ways in contrast to what I would suggest is the more Western (and mediaeval) character of classical Reformed theology; the type that I think Vanhoozer is critiquing evangelical Calvinism from.

Patristic theologian par excellence, Donald Fairbairn, offers a way forward (from a patristic theological vantage point), with particular reference to the issue of predestination, extent of atonement, so on and so forth that I think the feeling of evangelical Calvinism coheres with quite well. Fairbairn writes:

To spell this idea out a bit more, I suggest that in our discussion of election/predestination, we should not place such priority on God’s choosing particular people that we imply he has nothing to do with those he will not ultimately save. Conversely, I suggest that we not place such priority on God’s universal desire to save that we imply that he deals exactly equally with everyone and all differences between people are due to their own responses to God (responses that God foreknows). Rather, I suggest that we place the priority on God’s eternal decision to honor his own relationship with his beloved Son and his Spirit by bringing people into that relationship. God’s eternal will was, first and foremost, a will to accomplish human redemption through the person and work of his Son and his Spirit. That eternal will included within its determination all that God ordained to happen, all that he knew would happen, all that both he and we would do. This means that when a person begins to trust in Christ or a believer prays for the salvation of others or someone proclaims the gospel, these people are privileged to share in what God has from all eternity determined that he would do. We are not merely the means by which he achieves his purpose, we are somehow privileged to be a part of the determination of that purpose, the establishment of the will of God in connection with his Son Jesus Christ. Such a way of looking at the relation between election and human action may help to ease the logjam the Western discussions of this issue have created for a millennium and a half. But even if it does not succeed in doing that, such a way of looking at the issue does place the emphasis where Scripture indicates it should lie–not on a seemingly arbitrary decree or on allegedly independent, free human action but instead on Christ the beloved Son of the Father, the one in whom we are chosen to participate.[4]

Along with the patristic trajectory offered by Fairbairn, along with Karl Barth’s focus, along with T.F. Torrance’s resourcefulness; evangelical Calvinists are not concerned with answering the ‘who’ question of election when that is in reference to individual people. We are not concerned with explaining a theory of causation (like classical Calvinism does with primary and secondary causation, etc.); we are content to simply attribute salvation to all that has been done in Christ, and to the work that the Holy Spirit brings to that as he miraculously creates space for all of humanity to echo in the yes of God, in Jesus Christ. This might well sound Arminian, but of course Arminianism works within the same theological and metaphysical sphere that we find funding classical Calvinism; evangelical Calvinists simply do not fit into that mold of conception or analysis.

Summary

In brief, I think at the end of the day (not to shut discussion down), evangelical Calvinism is doing something much different than classical Reformed theology. While we do have, on the negative side of things, critical points of departure from (and critique of) classical Federal theology (or Westminster Calvinism); on the other side, the positive side, we are proposing a style of Reformed theology that thinks from a wholly other starting point—from a fundamentally different hermeneutic. Does that mean we are not open for critique? No. But it does mean that the level of critique needs to be at the more formal level, I suppose. It’s hard to say that Calvin’s or the Apostle Paul’s emphasis is more this or that, when in order to say that, the informing hermeneutic helps us to reach that conclusion; i.e. in other words, it is hard to say the Apostle Paul says this or that without engaging in petitio principii, at least if that’s the basis of the critique (even if its not the only basis of critique).

Professor Vanhoozer, I very much so appreciate your willingness to interact with me, and the evangelical Calvinists. I do think it is possible, by way of mood, for us to constructively engage with each other; but at least for my money, in many ways, as I’ve been iterating over and again, we are probably different species even if within the same genus.

 

[1] R. Scott Clark, resource is no longer available. I originally posted this quote in this blog post.

[2] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, 96, Nook.

[3] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 147-48.

[4] Donald Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 197-98.

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Reading Scripture in the Life of the Trinity, Theosis

I must admit, ever since encountering Patristic theology and their hermeneutics in seminary (back in 2002) for the first time, my compass for hermeneutical theory began to take a tailspin. And then a little later, as I continued to dig, and engage with Thomas Torrance, Karl Barth, John Webster, Matthew Levering, and even some Puritans, my compass became even more erratic. I was trained, informally, as an evangelical (growing up as the son bible-compassof a Baptist pastor), to study the Bible inductively, and really through the rationalist history of religions school and German higher criticism that sliced and diced Scripture into manageable, and even unrelated pieces. When I entered Bible College (the first time in 1992, and then 1996-97 at Calvary Chapel Bible College, and then finally my alma mater 1998-2001 at Multnomah Bible College) I began to be taught, formally, how to interpret Scripture, again, in a fragmented way, which could only at the end of my Bible study attempt to integrate Jesus into my biblical interpretation somehow. This culminated for me (which at this point looks like it will be my terminal degree), in 2002-03, when I entered seminary at Multnomah Biblical Seminary; I began work on an MA in Biblical Studies, which included course work, crowned with a Master’s thesis paper, which I had to defend in order to earn my MA. I chose to do my thesis paper on I Corinthians 1:17-25, which was an exegetical analysis of that pericope. I successfully defended that in 2003, and earned my MA in Biblical Studies. But what this paper did (100 pages as it was), was demonstrate and illustrate how I used to study the Bible back then; very analytically, inductively, expositionally, verse by verse, and through hermeneutical premises that were and have been largely absent from the bulk of the Christian church. In other words, even though my passage of consideration was about Jesus and the cross, my method of interpretation was not premised, hermeneutically, upon the reality of Jesus and the cross; instead it was premised upon premises provided for evangelical Bible study that were provided for it by people who are not evangelical (historically and even culturally understood), and who might even be antagonistic to the Christian faith. In the end I actually liked what I was able to produce for my Master’s thesis paper (my examiners did too), but I wonder what it would have looked like if it had been given shape under hermenutical pressure that was more intentionally Christ centered?

Is it even possible to exegete under a ‘Christ-centered’ and Trinitarian pressure? The early church believed it was possible, and proceeded without apology to exegete the Old Testament as if it was all about Christ; and under the Apostolic mantle provided for that method by the authors of the New Testament themselves. Donald Fairbairn (a Patristics expert par excellence) has just helped me, immensely, to think about this issue once again, in a very helpful and definitive way. My compass has been wandering here and there, hermeneutically, I have been deeply influenced, as I mentioned, by T. F. Torrance, and in particular to this issue, by his book Divine Meaning: Studies in Patristic Hermeneutics; but I have had problems, quite frankly, trying to practically conceive of a way to interpret and apply Scripture in a way that is genuinely Christ centered, hermeneutically, and at the same time, critically available to the tools provided by what might be called ‘modern’ exegesis (literary, canonical, historical, etc.). This is where what Fairbairn, in a straightforward and succinct way has helped me with today; he has placed hermeneutics, at least in the way I am appropriating it, within the realm of the Greek Christian understanding of theosis, so in the domain of Christian salvation (soteriology)–this would fit well, in some respects, with Matthew Levering’s idea of participatory history. Let me share the two paragraphs from Fairbairn that have helped and edified me today; I hope they will be edifying for you too:

Roots Of Patristic And Modern Old Testament Interpretation

At this point, we as evangelicals should notice a significant incongruity latent in our situation. We accept (albeit with reservation) a method of biblical interpretation that historically arose among scholars who rejected most of our core convictions about the Bible–that it is from God, that it is a book telling a single story, that its various writings are fundamentally unified, that its central subject is Christ. Furthermore, without giving the matter a lot of thought, we reject allegory as a way of interpreting the Hebrew Bible, a way that is found in the New Testament and that was widely used in the early church, even though that kind of interpretation grows out of the same convictions that we share. It is indeed ironic that when a church father who shares all of our basic convictions argues for a connection between this Old Testament passage and that New Testament reality, we reject his argument out of hand because our masters in the school of modern interpretation (masters who do not share our convictions) have branded such exegesis as allegory. And it is even more ironic that our adherence to a plain-sense, nonallegorical method is so intense that the New Testament itself disturbs us when it connects the Testaments in a way that sounds like allegory to us. We wind up thinking that Paul and Matthew were allowed to handle the Old Testament this way because they were divinely inspired, but surely we must not handle the Old Testament this way.

If we recognize the incongruity I have been discussing, then we should also see that there is more than “mere allegory” going on when the church fathers interpret the Old Testament. In contrast to modern liberals (who might see no unifying theme in Scripture) and in partial contrast to modern conservatives (who tend to organize Scripture around concepts such as the covenant or the dispensations which have governed God’s dealings with humanity), the church fathers tended to see the scarlet thread, the unifying theme of Scripture, as Christ. Again, this unifying theme places the emphasis in a rather different place than we do. We today start with ourselves and ask how God relates to us. The church fathers started with God, and especially with Christ, and asked how we participate in Christ. This is why virtually all of patristic thought saw theōsis–humanity’s becoming somehow a participant in the divine life–as the link between God and humanity. Furthermore, this is why one strand of patristic thought, the one I think is most fruitful for us today, understood theōsis in terms of the Father’s relationship to the Son and saw our participation in this relationship as the scarlet thread of the Christian faith. If one does theology in the way the church fathers did, with the life of the three trinitarian persons at the heart, then one will seek to find those trinitarian persons–especially the preincarnate Son–throughout the Old Testament.[1]

This is the way that T.F. Torrance sought to interpret Scripture (just read his two volumes: Incarnation & Atonement), and it is the way that I personally believe is the most fruitful and edifying way for Christians to engage in as exegetes.

So instead of using dispensations (as I was trained to do), or ‘the covenant’ (as people who attend places like Westminster Theological Seminary are trained to do) as hermeneutically regulative for the biblical interpretive process; along with Fairbairn, Torrance, the Patristics, Barth, Webster, Levering and others, it is better, in my estimation, to allow our hermeneutical theory and practice to be established by the One who has given revelation of Himself to begin with; and it is better to practice exegesis from within this relationship, within the realm of ‘salvation’ or ‘reconciliation’ and ‘participation’ in God’s triune life mediated through Christ. Does this mean that we cannot employ modern critical tools while doing exegesis? I don’t think so. But what it means is that we won’t let those tools (whatever they are) be the basis for our hermeneutical theory. In other words we won’t just read Scripture ‘as literature’ (because it is more not less than literature, it has a different location from other literature,  what might be called ‘profane literature’); we won’t just read Scipture ‘as history’ (because it is more not less than history, it is where God providentially has interpreted through His Son for us, His life for us, and our life for Him through the vicarious humanity of Christ through Apostolic Deposit); and we won’t, then, read Scripture but within the domain of grace, and in particular faith, which is established by its rule in Jesus Christ.

 

[1] Donald Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity: An Introduction To Theology With The Help Of The Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 114-15.

*repost

Grace is a Person, not a Thing: Part Deux. Constructive Appeal to Cyril of Alexandria with reference to Donald Fairbairn

The Apostle Paul writes in his epistle to Titus: “11 For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men,12 teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, 13 looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, …” We have a blessed hope and a cyril2glorious salvation, and it is personal, it is a person; it is God Immanuel, God with us in Jesus Christ our Savior!*

There has been a tendency, and in some major quarters in Protestantism (post Reformed orthodoxy, or more popularly known as classical Calvinism or scholastic Calvinism) to reduce ‘speak’ about this ‘blessed hope’ of ours down to impersonal language;  and further a reduction of salvation to a forensic transaction that ultimately, I would contend depersonalizes salvation. As Evangelical (Calvinist) Christians we want to get away from this tendency; we want to focus on biblical reality, and revealed theology wherein the ‘metaphysics’ that we appeal to as the basis of our theological exegesis of the biblical text is grounded in the Text’s reality, in Jesus Christ (who happens to be a person, the second Person of the Trinity). When we do this we will avoid speaking of grace as something that we cooperate with, and we will avoid thinking of grace as a quality that we are given through which we are enabled to activate faith in Christ. Unfortunately this is indeed what the classical Calvinist has done with Grace (gratia); note Reformed orthodox scholar, Richard Muller as he gives us the scholastic Reformed definition of grace:

gratia: grace; in Greek, χάρις;  the gracious or benevolent disposition of God toward sinful mankind and, therefore, the divine operation by which the sinful heart and mind are regenerated and the continuing divine power or operation that cleanses, strengthens, and sanctifies the regenerate. The Protestant scholastics distinguish fiveactus gratiae, or actualizations of grace. (1) Gratia praeveniens, or prevenient grace, is the grace of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon sinners in and through the Word; it must precede repentance. (2) Gratia praeparens is the preparing grace, according to which the Spirit instills in the repentant sinner a full knowledge of his inability and also his desire to accept the promises of the gospel. This is the stage of the life of the sinners that can be termed the praeparatio ad conversionem (q.v.) and that the Lutheran orthodox characterize as a time of terrores conscientiae (q.v.). Both this preparation for conversion and the terrors of conscience draw directly upon the second use of the law, the usus paedagogicus (see usus legis). (3) Gratia operans, or operating grace, is the effective grace of conversion, according to which the Spirit regenerates the will, illuminates the mind, and imparts faith. Operating grace is, therefore, the grace of justification insofar as it creates in man the means, or medium, faith, through which we are justified by grace…. (4) Gratia cooperans, or cooperating grace, is the continuing grace of the Spirit, also termed gratia inhabitans, indwelling grace, which cooperates with and reinforces the regenerate will and intellect in sanctification.Gratia cooperans is the ground of all works and, insofar as it is a new capacity in the believer for the good, it can be called the habitus gratiae, or disposition of grace. Finally, some of the scholastics make a distinction between gratia cooperans and (5) gratia conservans, or conserving, preserving grace, according to which the Spirit enables the believer to persevere in faith. This latter distinction arises most probably out of the distinction between sanctificatio (q.v.) and perseverantia (q.v.) in the scholastic ordo salutis (q.v.), or order of salvation….[1]

This definition of grace might sound good if you are a philosopher who has been trained in scholastic philosophy and theology for years and years, but for people of the Book, people who are simple Bible readers we are looking for something else, something more Revealed, something, well, more simply Biblical.

But to say what I just said might be misleading. We aren’t looking for something less theological, but something more theological. What I mean is as we read the Bible we are looking for the inner-ground the inner-logic or ground upon which the Bible begins to make sense. My contention is that Jesus Christ is the One who makes every passage of Scripture make sense; and in our particular case (per the topic of this post) he alone should be considered to be the One who serves as the very domain of Salvation, as the very embodiment of grace that serves as the reality and ground upon which we are saved.

Before we ever got to the Protestant Reformation, scholastic Reformed theology, medieval scholastic Tridentine Roman Catholic theology, Palamite Eastern Orthodox theology, we had theologians like Cyril of Alexandria. Donald Fairbairn, in concluding remarks to an essay he wrote for the theological journal of the Thomas F. Torrance Theological Fellowship, Participatio, wrote this about Cyril’s understanding of justification[2]. I will quote Fairbairn at length, as what he writes implicates everything we have been discussing thus far; it indicts and implicates not only the post Reformed orthodox view of grace and salvation, but some conceptions of Greek Orthodox views, as well as Roman Catholic conceptions; it confronts any view of salvation and God’s grace that depersonalizes grace by abstracting or decoupling grace from its very reality and embodiment in the second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ. Here is Fairbairn at length:

From what I have written, it is clear that there are important similarities and differences between Cyril’s understanding of justification and that of Protestantism. Cyril repeatedly writes of the believer’s righteousness as one that is given by another, by Christ, from the outside. This emphasis on Christ as the source of the Christian’s righteousness is similar to the Protestant understanding of the passive nature of the Christian’s righteousness. Cyril, as much as Luther or any Protestant subsequently, sees the righteousness or holiness of the Christian as that which belongs to Christ and which Christ actively grants to the believer, who passively receives it through faith and grace. But as we have seen, there are also differences between Cyril and many classical Protestant writers. Cyril does not adopt a forensic framework as the dominant aspect of his soteriology. He does not distinguish justification and sanctification to any great degree at all. And he certainly does not make justification the central idea of his soteriology. Thus, Cyril stands as a caution against the potential dangers of a theology that is too exclusively forensic or makes the justification/sanctification distinction too sharply.

When one examines Cyril’s relation to modern Eastern Orthodoxy, we find that there are also similarities and differences. The participatory nature of salvation shines very clearly in both Cyril and modern Orthodoxy. But on the other hand, two things about Cyril’s understanding of participation stand in partial contrast to some expressions of modern Orthodoxy. First, the basis for Cyril’s understanding of participation is not the qualities of God (whether they be the energies, as in later Palamite theology; qualities such as incorruption and immortality that dominate the attention of many Greek patristic writers; or even qualities like righteousness and holiness on which this article has focused), but the person of Christ. For Cyril, participation is at heart personal. We become righteous when we are personally united to the one who is righteous, to Christ. (Notice again that this exactly parallels the fact that we become sons of God when we are united to Christ, the true Son.) Second, the very fact that participation is at heart personal means that it is not fundamentally gradual or progressive. The outworkings of union with Christ are indeed gradual, but union with Christ himself, effected in baptism at the very beginning of Christian life, lies at the heart of Cyril’s concept of participation. To say this even more directly, for Cyril even deification is primarily the present state of the believer, rather than the culmination of a process, and his teaching on justification undergirds this fact.

At this point, readers from both Protestant and Orthodox traditions may object that their tradition does in fact emphasize personal union with Christ. This is true. There are some – perhaps many – voices within both traditions that possess such an emphasis. But my point is that in both Protestantism and Orthodoxy, the centrality of personal union with Christ tends to be obscured by these other emphases: forensic justification in Protestantism and a more mystical and/or progressive approach to union with God in Orthodoxy. I ask my readers to recognize these tendencies, even though the mistakes to which they can lead are sometimes successfully avoided.

With that caveat registered, I suggest that as one looks at these two sets of similarities and differences between Cyril on one hand and either Protestantism or Orthodoxy on the other, they expose a false dichotomy that has perhaps hindered dialogue between the two groups. Protestants, schooled in on-going disputes with Roman Catholicism, are often quick to point out the difference between imputed righteousness and imparted or infused righteousness, and the classical Protestant concept of justification is closely tied to the first of these, in opposition to the second. It seems to me, though, that Protestants sometimes extend this dichotomy into an opposition between imputed righteousness and participatory righteousness, thus unhelpfully applying concepts borrowed from anti-Catholic polemic to anti-Orthodox polemic. (Whether those concepts are appropriate even in dialogue with Roman Catholics is another question, but one I will not address here.) I believe Cyril’s thought demonstrates that this is a false dichotomy. Instead, Cyril teaches us that participatory righteousness – or better, our participation in the one who is himself righteous – is the very heart of imputed righteousness. To say this in Protestant terms, the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the Christian when the Christian is united to Christ, who is the righteous one. But to say the same thing in Orthodox terms, participation in Christ, because it is a personal participation granted to the believer at the beginning of Christian life, implies that his righteousness becomes ours.

As a result, I suggest that a deeper consideration of Cyril’s doctrine of justification can both challenge Protestants and the Orthodox, and help to uncover latent common ground between them. Protestants need to recognize that justification is not merely or even mainly transactional, but primarily personal and organic. We are united to Christ as a person, and as a result, his righteousness is imputed to us. The forensic crediting of righteousness grows out of the personal union. At the same time, the Orthodox need to recognize that the gradual process of deification (even the continual reception of life-giving grace through the Eucharist, one of Cyril’s greatest emphases) is grounded in an initial personal union with Christ, and thus, both righteousness and deification are at heart gifts that Christ gives us when he gives himself to us. Perhaps both Protestants and Orthodox can then recognize that as Christians, we are righteous, holy, and even divine, because – and only because – we are in Christ. And if we are righteous, holy, and divine in Christ, then throughout Christian life we will progressively become more and more who we already are.[3]

As we can see there is serious depth to what Fairbairn has written, and all that you just read from him is his conclusion to a the preceding body of his essay where he supports all of his conclusions from dealing directly and textually with Cyril himself. Fairbairn, I believe, strikes a collegial and irenic tone, but what he has written strikes a coarse blow to conceptions of salvation, that again, depersonalize and overly philosophize conceptions of salvation and grace. As you can see in Fairbairn, he is an equal opportunity critiquer, not just of certain strands of Greek Orthodoxy, not just of strands of Protestantism, but of all traditions within Christian reality that would attempt to make salvation a discussion about philosophical ‘qualities’ rather than a discussion about how God in Christ is salvation, is grace.

We have luminaries strewn throughout the history of the Christian church, like Cyril and even Calvin (with his conception of duplex gratia or double grace view of salvation) wherein salvation is framed according to their reading of Scripture, by the person of Jesus Christ himself and not by legal, juridical, forensic categories. The emphasis, then, as Fairbairn has noted, should be one of participation in Christ when we conceive of salvation. That salvation is an alien reality outside of us, that comes to us as God in Christ penetrates our humanity with his vicarious humanity, and by union with him we become the benefactors of God’s great salvation that He is for us in spirit and in truth as we are adopted into His family as His daughters and sons as we participate in the anointed humanity of Jesus Christ for us (as He in Himself and by nature is the Son of God).

 

*Here’s Part One if you missed it: click here

[1] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastics Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 129-30.

[2] Fairbairn’s essay is included with the rest of the essays that make up Participatio’s Vol. 4 (2013) edition in T.F. Torrance and Eastern Orthodoxy: Theology in Reconciliation.

[3] Donald Fairbairn, “Justification in St. Cyril of Alexandria, With Some Implications for Ecumenical Dialogue,”Participatio Vol. 4 (2013): 142-44.

Grace and Salvation as Personal, not Impersonal: Against Scholastic (Calvinist, Arminian, and Roman Catholic), Moralistic Therapeutic Deist, Palamite and Other Theories of Salvation

The Apostle Paul writes in his epistle to Titus: 11 For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men,12 teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, 13 looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, …” We have a blessed hope and a glorious salvation, and it is personal, it is a person; it is God Immanuel, God with us in Jesus Christ our Savior!

cyrilThere has been a tendency, and in some major quarters in Protestantism (post Reformed orthodoxy, or more popularly known as classical Calvinism or scholastic Calvinism) to reduce ‘speak’ about this ‘blessed hope’ of ours down to impersonal language;  and further a reduction of salvation to a forensic transaction that ultimately, I would contend depersonalizes salvation. As Evangelical (Calvinist) Christians we want to get away from this tendency; we want to focus on biblical reality, and revealed theology wherein the ‘metaphysics’ that we appeal to as the basis of our theological exegesis of the biblical text is grounded in the Text’s reality, in Jesus Christ (who happens to be a person, the second Person of the Trinity). When we do this we will avoid speaking of grace as something that we cooperate with, and we will avoid thinking of grace as a quality that we are given, through which we are enabled to activate faith in Christ. Unfortunately this is indeed what the classical Calvinist has done with Grace (gratia); note Reformed orthodox scholar, Richard Muller as he gives us the scholastic Reformed definition of grace:

gratia: grace; in Greek, χάρις;  the gracious or benevolent disposition of God toward sinful mankind and, therefore, the divine operation by which the sinful heart and mind are regenerated and the continuing divine power or operation that cleanses, strengthens, and sanctifies the regenerate. The Protestant scholastics distinguish fiveactus gratiae, or actualizations of grace. (1) Gratia praeveniens, or prevenient grace, is the grace of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon sinners in and through the Word; it must precede repentance. (2) Gratia praeparens is the preparing grace, according to which the Spirit instills in the repentant sinner a full knowledge of his inability and also his desire to accept the promises of the gospel. This is the stage of the life of the sinners that can be termed the praeparatio ad conversionem (q.v.) and that the Lutheran orthodox characterize as a time of terrores conscientiae (q.v.). Both this preparation for conversion and the terrors of conscience draw directly upon the second use of the law, the usus paedagogicus (see usus legis). (3) Gratia operans, or operating grace, is the effective grace of conversion, according to which the Spirit regenerates the will, illuminates the mind, and imparts faith. Operating grace is, therefore, the grace of justification insofar as it creates in man the means, or medium, faith, through which we are justified by grace…. (4) Gratia cooperans, or cooperating grace, is the continuing grace of the Spirit, also termed gratia inhabitans, indwelling grace, which cooperates with and reinforces the regenerate will and intellect in sanctification.Gratia cooperans is the ground of all works and, insofar as it is a new capacity in the believer for the good, it can be called the habitus gratiae, or disposition of grace. Finally, some of the scholastics make a distinction between gratia cooperans and (5) gratia conservans, or conserving, preserving grace, according to which the Spirit enables the believer to persevere in faith. This latter distinction arises most probably out of the distinction between sanctificatio (q.v.) and perseverantia (q.v.) in the scholastic ordo salutis (q.v.), or order of salvation….[1]

This definition of grace might sound good if you are a philosopher who has been trained in scholastic philosophy and theology for years and years, but for people of the Book, people who are simple Bible readers we are looking for something else, something more Revealed, something, well, more simply Biblical.

But to say what I just said might be misleading. We aren’t looking for something less theological, but something more theological. What I mean is as we read the Bible we are looking for the inner-ground the inner-logic or ground upon which the Bible begins to make sense. My contention is that Jesus Christ is the One who makes every passage of Scripture make sense; and in our particular case (per the topic of this post) he alone should be considered to be the One who serves as the very domain of Salvation, as the very embodiment of grace that serves as the reality and ground upon which we are saved.

Before we ever got to the Protestant Reformation, scholastic Reformed theology, medieval scholastic Tridentine Roman Catholic theology, Palamite Eastern Orthodox theology, we had theologians like Cyril of Alexandria. Donald Fairbairn, in concluding remarks to an essay he wrote for the theological journal of the Thomas F. Torrance Theological Fellowship, Participatio, wrote this about Cyril’s understanding of justification[2]. I will quote Fairbairn at length, as what he writes implicates everything we have been discussing thus far; it indicts and implicates not only the post Reformed orthodox view of grace and salvation, but some conceptions of Greek Orthodox views, as well as Roman Catholic conceptions; it confronts any view of salvation and God’s grace that depersonalizes grace by abstracting or decoupling grace from its very reality and embodiment in the second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ. Here is Fairbairn at length:

From what I have written, it is clear that there are important similarities and differences between Cyril’s understanding of justification and that of Protestantism. Cyril repeatedly writes of the believer’s righteousness as one that is given by another, by Christ, from the outside. This emphasis on Christ as the source of the Christian’s righteousness is similar to the Protestant understanding of the passive nature of the Christian’s righteousness. Cyril, as much as Luther or any Protestant subsequently, sees the righteousness or holiness of the Christian as that which belongs to Christ and which Christ actively grants to the believer, who passively receives it through faith and grace. But as we have seen, there are also differences between Cyril and many classical Protestant writers. Cyril does not adopt a forensic framework as the dominant aspect of his soteriology. He does not distinguish justification and sanctification to any great degree at all. And he certainly does not make justification the central idea of his soteriology. Thus, Cyril stands as a caution against the potential dangers of a theology that is too exclusively forensic or makes the justification/sanctification distinction too sharply.

When one examines Cyril’s relation to modern Eastern Orthodoxy, we find that there are also similarities and differences. The participatory nature of salvation shines very clearly in both Cyril and modern Orthodoxy. But on the other hand, two things about Cyril’s understanding of participation stand in partial contrast to some expressions of modern Orthodoxy. First, the basis for Cyril’s understanding of participation is not the qualities of God (whether they be the energies, as in later Palamite theology; qualities such as incorruption and immortality that dominate the attention of many Greek patristic writers; or even qualities like righteousness and holiness on which this article has focused), but the person of Christ. For Cyril, participation is at heart personal. We become righteous when we are personally united to the one who is righteous, to Christ. (Notice again that this exactly parallels the fact that we become sons of God when we are united to Christ, the true Son.) Second, the very fact that participation is at heart personal means that it is not fundamentally gradual or progressive. The outworkings of union with Christ are indeed gradual, but union with Christ himself, effected in baptism at the very beginning of Christian life, lies at the heart of Cyril’s concept of participation. To say this even more directly, for Cyril even deification is primarily the present state of the believer, rather than the culmination of a process, and his teaching on justification undergirds this fact.

At this point, readers from both Protestant and Orthodox traditions may object that their tradition does in fact emphasize personal union with Christ. This is true. There are some – perhaps many – voices within both traditions that possess such an emphasis. But my point is that in both Protestantism and Orthodoxy, the centrality of personal union with Christ tends to be obscured by these other emphases: forensic justification in Protestantism and a more mystical and/or progressive approach to union with God in Orthodoxy. I ask my readers to recognize these tendencies, even though the mistakes to which they can lead are sometimes successfully avoided.

With that caveat registered, I suggest that as one looks at these two sets of similarities and differences between Cyril on one hand and either Protestantism or Orthodoxy on the other, they expose a false dichotomy that has perhaps hindered dialogue between the two groups. Protestants, schooled in on-going disputes with Roman Catholicism, are often quick to point out the difference between imputed righteousness and imparted or infused righteousness, and the classical Protestant concept of justification is closely tied to the first of these, in opposition to the second. It seems to me, though, that Protestants sometimes extend this dichotomy into an opposition between imputed righteousness and participatory righteousness, thus unhelpfully applying concepts borrowed from anti-Catholic polemic to anti-Orthodox polemic. (Whether those concepts are appropriate even in dialogue with Roman Catholics is another question, but one I will not address here.) I believe Cyril’s thought demonstrates that this is a false dichotomy. Instead, Cyril teaches us that participatory righteousness – or better, our participation in the one who is himself righteous – is the very heart of imputed righteousness. To say this in Protestant terms, the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the Christian when the Christian is united to Christ, who is the righteous one. But to say the same thing in Orthodox terms, participation in Christ, because it is a personal participation granted to the believer at the beginning of Christian life, implies that his righteousness becomes ours.

As a result, I suggest that a deeper consideration of Cyril’s doctrine of justification can both challenge Protestants and the Orthodox, and help to uncover latent common ground between them. Protestants need to recognize that justification is not merely or even mainly transactional, but primarily personal and organic. We are united to Christ as a person, and as a result, his righteousness is imputed to us. The forensic crediting of righteousness grows out of the personal union. At the same time, the Orthodox need to recognize that the gradual process of deification (even the continual reception of life-giving grace through the Eucharist, one of Cyril’s greatest emphases) is grounded in an initial personal union with Christ, and thus, both righteousness and deification are at heart gifts that Christ gives us when he gives himself to us. Perhaps both Protestants and Orthodox can then recognize that as Christians, we are righteous, holy, and even divine, because – and only because – we are in Christ. And if we are righteous, holy, and divine in Christ, then throughout Christian life we will progressively become more and more who we already are.[3]

As we can see there is serious depth to what Fairbairn has written, and all that you just read from him is his conclusion to the preceding body of his essay where he supports all of his conclusions from dealing directly and textually with Cyril himself. Fairbairn, I believe, strikes a collegial and irenic tone, but what he has written strikes a coarse blow to conceptions of salvation, that again, depersonalize and overly philosophize conceptions of salvation and grace. As you can see in Fairbairn, he is an equal opportunity critiquer, not just of certain strands of Greek Orthodoxy, not just of strands of Protestantism, but of all traditions within Christian reality that would attempt to make salvation a discussion about philosophical ‘qualities’ rather than a discussion about how God in Christ is salvation, is grace.

We have luminaries strewn throughout the history of the Christian church, like Cyril and even Calvin (with his conception of duplex gratia or double grace view of salvation) wherein salvation is framed according to their reading of Scripture, by the person of Jesus Christ himself and not by legal, juridical, forensic categories. The emphasis, then, as Fairbairn has noted, should be one of participation in Christ when we conceive of salvation. That salvation is an alien reality outside of us, that comes to us as God in Christ penetrates our humanity with his vicarious humanity, and by union with him we become the benefactors of God’s great salvation that He is for us in spirit and in truth as we are adopted into His family as His daughters and sons as we participate in the anointed humanity of Jesus Christ for us (as He in Himself and by nature is the Son of God).

[1] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastics Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 129-30.

[2] Fairbairn’s essay will also be included with the rest of the essays that made up Participatio’s Vol. 4 (2013) edition in a forthcoming edited book dedicated to the theology of Thomas F. Torrance and Greek Orthodoxy.

[3] Donald Fairbairn, “Justification in St. Cyril of Alexandria, With Some Implications for Ecumenical Dialogue,”Participatio Vol. 4 (2013): 142-44.

Starting Salvation With Jesus, and Ending Salvation With Jesus: From the Patristics to Barth and Torrance

Donald Fairbairn, Patristics theologian par excellence, has written a rich and very accessible book entitled Life In The Trinity: An Introduction To Theology With The Help Of The Church Fathers. I would highly eleisonrecommend this book to you, and even recommend it as a devotional type of book if you are interested in doing your devotions with the Trinity.

I have just recently finished reading through a section of the book that is discussing Christian salvation, and in particular, God’s action and human action in the realm of salvation. After sketching the common dilemma that has obtained in the Western branch of the Protestant church (i.e. Calvinism V Arminianism, e.g. emphasis on God’s choice or humanity’s choice in salvation – to be a bit reductionistic) in regard to salvation, Fairbairn offers an alternative that he has gleaned from his years spent with the Church Fathers. Here is what he has written:

To spell this idea out a bit more, I suggest that in our discussion of election/predestination, we should not place such priority on God’s choosing particular people that we imply he has nothing to do with those he will not ultimately save. Conversely, I suggest that we not place such priority on God’s universal desire to save that we imply that he deals exactly equally with everyone and all differences between people are due to their own responses to God (responses that God foreknows). Rather, I suggest that we place the priority on God’s eternal decision to honor his own relationship with his beloved Son and his Spirit by bringing people into that relationship. God’s eternal will was, first and foremost, a will to accomplish human redemption through the person and work of his Son and his Spirit. That eternal will included within its determination all that God ordained to happen, all that he knew would happen, all that both he and we would do. This means that when a person begins to trust in Christ or a believer prays for the salvation of others or someone proclaims the gospel, these people are privileged to share in what God has from all eternity determined that he would do. We are not merely the means by which he achieves his purpose, we are somehow privileged to be a part of the determination of that purpose, the establishment of the will of God in connection with his Son Jesus Christ. Such a way of looking at the relation between election and human action may help to ease the logjam the Western discussions of this issue have created for a millennium and a half. But even if it does not succeed in doing that, such a way of looking at the issue does place the emphasis where Scripture indicates it should lie–not on a seemingly arbitrary decree or on allegedly independent, free human action but instead on Christ the beloved Son of the Father, the one in whom we are chosen to participate.[1]

This will be too vague of an alternative for the scholastically Reformed mind among us, or even the evangelical mind. We want all of our theological “i’s” dotted and “t’s” crossed a certain way. But if a person is willing to live with some revelational dialectical tension, then what Fairbairn suggests from his reflection on the writings of the Fathers, will be resonant.

Interestingly, Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, both Western theologians (Barth is even considered ‘scholastic’ by many) would affirm Fairbairn’s suggestion; but with further nuance and development. George Hunsinger writes on Barth, this:

[…] To say that Jesus Christ is the “pioneer of faith” (Heb. 12:2), Barth suggests, is not to say that his faith is merely the exemplar of ours, but that it is the vicarious ground and source of our faith. “There is vicarious faith,” writes Barth, “… only in the form of the faith which Jesus Christ established for us all as the archegos tes pisteos (Heb. 12:2), who empowers us for our own faith, and summons us to it, even as he stands there in our stead with his faith. Through his faith, we are not only moved but liberated to believe for ourselves” (IV/4, 186). Our faith may be said to exist “as a predicate” of his in the sense that whatever is real and true “in this Subject” is the foundation for whatever is correspondingly real and true in us (cf. II/2, 539). In short, our subjective apprehension of God does not exist independently, but only insofar as its source, mediation, and ground are found in the humanity of Jesus Christ.[2]

Barth represents someone who works, as a theologian, within the domain offered by the Patristics and noticed by Fairbairn where he makes his ‘suggestions’ from. If the focal point of salvation starts with God’s Triune life, and his Revealed life in the Son, Jesus Christ, I conclude that it will sound something like Fairbairn’s suggestions and proceed something like Barth’s (as described by Hunsinger) locution.

Passion

Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life; no man comes to the Father except through him! This is where the heart of God is at for us, in the Son. Salvation constructs that don’t start and end here, in the Alpha & Omega of God, in my view, are not worth their salt in theological discussion. Salvation constructs that orbit around a psychologized self, or work from the bottom up (i.e. start in a frame that is concerned about ‘my salvation’ and how it relates to God’s salvation) are not commendable. Wherever we start the discussion, is where we will end up. If we start talking about salvation in Christ, then we will end in Christ; if we start the discussion with ourselves, we will end up with ourselves.

 

 

[1] Donald Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 197-98.

[2] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, 96, Nook.

Reading Scripture In the Life of the Trinity, In Theosis

I must admit, ever since encountering Patristic theology and their hermeneutics in seminary (back in 2002) for the first time, my compass for hermeneutical theory began to take a tailspin. And then a little later, as I continued to dig, and engage with Thomas Torrance, Karl Barth, John Webster, Matthew Levering, and even some Puritans, my compass became even more erratic. I was trained, informally, as an evangelical (growing up as the son bible-compassof a Baptist pastor), to study the Bible inductively, and really through the rationalist history of religions school and German higher criticism that sliced and diced Scripture into manageable, and even unrelated pieces. When I entered Bible College (the first time in 1992, and then 1996-97 at Calvary Chapel Bible College, and then finally my alma mater 1998-2001 at Multnomah Bible College) I began to be taught, formally, how to interpret Scripture, again, in a fragmented way, which could only at the end of my Bible study attempt to integrate Jesus into my biblical interpretation somehow. This culminated for me (which at this point looks like it will be my terminal degree), in 2002-03, when I entered seminary at Multnomah Biblical Seminary; I began work on an MA in Biblical Studies, which included course work, crowned with a Master’s thesis paper, which I had to defend in order to earn my MA. I chose to do my thesis paper on I Corinthians 1:17-25, which was an exegetical analysis of that pericope. I successfully defended that in 2003, and earned my MA in Biblical Studies. But what this paper did (100 pages as it was), was demonstrate and illustrate how I used to study the Bible back then; very analytically, inductively, expositionally, verse by verse, and through hermeneutical premises that were and have been largely absent from the bulk of the Christian church. In other words, even though my passage of consideration was about Jesus and the cross, my method of interpretation was not premised, hermeneutically, upon the reality of Jesus and the cross; instead it was premised upon premises provided for evangelical Bible study that were provided for it by people who are not evangelical (historically and even culturally understood), and who might even be antagonistic to the Christian faith. In the end I actually liked what I was able to produce for my Master’s thesis paper (my examiners did too), but I wonder what it would have looked like if it had been given shape under hermenutical pressure that was more intentionally Christ centered?

Is it even possible to exegete under a ‘Christ-centered’ and Trinitarian pressure? The early church believed it was possible, and proceeded without apology to exegete the Old Testament as if it was all about Christ; and under the Apostolic mantle provided for that method by the authors of the New Testament themselves. Donald Fairbairn (a Patristics expert par excellence) has just helped me, immensely, to think about this issue once again, in a very helpful and definitive way. My compass has been wandering here and there, hermeneutically, I have been deeply influenced, as I mentioned, by T. F. Torrance, and in particular to this issue, by his book Divine Meaning: Studies in Patristic Hermeneutics; but I have had problems, quite frankly, trying to practically conceive of a way to interpret and apply Scripture in a way that is genuinely Christ centered, hermeneutically, and at the same time, critically available to the tools provided by what might be called ‘modern’ exegesis (literary, canonical, historical, etc.). This is where what Fairbairn, in a straightforward and succinct way has helped me with today; he has placed hermeneutics, at least in the way I am appropriating it, within the realm of the Greek Christian understanding of theosis, so in the domain of Christian salvation (soteriology)–this would fit well, in some respects, with Matthew Levering’s idea of participatory history. Let me share the two paragraphs from Fairbairn that have helped and edified me today; I hope they will be edifying for you too:

Roots Of Patristic And Modern Old Testament Interpretation

At this point, we as evangelicals should notice a significant incongruity latent in our situation. We accept (albeit with reservation) a method of biblical interpretation that historically arose among scholars who rejected most of our core convictions about the Bible–that it is from God, that it is a book telling a single story, that its various writings are fundamentally unified, that its central subject is Christ. Furthermore, without giving the matter a lot of thought, we reject allegory as a way of interpreting the Hebrew Bible, a way that is found in the New Testament and that was widely used in the early church, even though that kind of interpretation grows out of the same convictions that we share. It is indeed ironic that when a church father who shares all of our basic convictions argues for a connection between this Old Testament passage and that New Testament reality, we reject his argument out of hand because our masters in the school of modern interpretation (masters who do not share our convictions) have branded such exegesis as allegory. And it is even more ironic that our adherence to a plain-sense, nonallegorical method is so intense that the New Testament itself disturbs us when it connects the Testaments in a way that sounds like allegory to us. We wind up thinking that Paul and Matthew were allowed to handle the Old Testament this way because they were divinely inspired, but surely we must not handle the Old Testament this way.

If we recognize the incongruity I have been discussing, then we should also see that there is more than “mere allegory” going on when the church fathers interpret the Old Testament. In contrast to modern liberals (who might see no unifying theme in Scripture) and in partial contrast to modern conservatives (who tend to organize Scripture around concepts such as the covenant or the dispensations which have governed God’s dealings with humanity), the church fathers tended to see the scarlet thread, the unifying theme of Scripture, as Christ. Again, this unifying theme places the emphasis in a rather different place than we do. We today start with ourselves and ask how God relates to us. The church fathers started with God, and especially with Christ, and asked how we participate in Christ. This is why virtually all of patristic thought saw theōsis–humanity’s becoming somehow a participant in the divine life–as the link between God and humanity. Furthermore, this is why one strand of patristic thought, the one I think is most fruitful for us today, understood theōsis in terms of the Father’s relationship to the Son and saw our participation in this relationship as the scarlet thread of the Christian faith. If one does theology in the way the church fathers did, with the life of the three trinitarian persons at the heart, then one will seek to find those trinitarian persons–especially the preincarnate Son–throughout the Old Testament.[1]

This is the way that T.F. Torrance sought to interpret Scripture (just read his two volumes: Incarnation & Atonement), and it is the way that I personally believe is the most fruitful and edifying way for Christians to engage in as exegetes.

So instead of using dispensations (as I was trained to do), or ‘the covenant’ (as people who attend places like Westminster Theological Seminary are trained to do) as hermeneutically regulative for the biblical interpretive process; along with Fairbairn, Torrance, the Patristics, Barth, Webster, Levering and others, it is better, in my estimation, to allow our hermeneutical theory and practice to be established by the One who has given revelation of Himself to begin with; and it is better to practice exegesis from within this relationship, within the realm of ‘salvation’ or ‘reconciliation’ and ‘participation’ in God’s triune life mediated through Christ. Does this mean that we cannot employ modern critical tools while doing exegesis? I don’t think so. But what it means is that we won’t let those tools (whatever they are) be the basis for our hermeneutical theory. In other words we won’t just read Scripture ‘as literature’ (because it is more not less than literature, it has a different location from other literature,  what might be called ‘profane literature’); we won’t just read Scipture ‘as history’ (because it is more not less than history, it is where God providentially has interpreted through His Son for us, His life for us, and our life for Him through the vicarious humanity of Christ through Apostolic Deposit); and we won’t, then, read Scripture but within the domain of grace, and in particular faith, which is established by its rule in Jesus Christ.

 

 

[1] Donald Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity: An Introduction To Theology With The Help Of The Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 114-15.