The Inner-Theo-Logic of Holy Scripture: A Protestant Reflection

I wanted to offer a very brief reflection on: Inner-Theo-Logic and how that functions in the process of thinking ‘orthodox’ thoughts vis-à-vis biblical interpretation; within the bounds of the Protestant understanding of the ‘Scripture Principle.’ When we think about the nature of Scripture, by way of its compositional form, what we quickly realize is that in every case it is occasional. Think about the New Testament, for example, each and everyone of the ‘books’ that make up the NT has an historical audience and context and occasion in mind, an occasion that prompted the writing of the book (e.g. epistle, etc.). The same can be said of the Old Testament; each of the books has a particular context and occasion that prompted its writing within the Providential overture of God. Ultimately we might want to think of the whole canon, ‘canonically,’ and allow its final shape to become the ultimate occasion (ultimate with an eschatological relativization) which we even today come to read it within. But the basic point I want to alert us to is that the Bible is not giving us a Systematic Theology or Christian Dogmatic; yet, this does not mean that the Bible does not have all the facets embedded within it that give us the building blocks for developing systematic theologies and Christian Dogmatics. Indeed it is these building blocks that entail what I am referring to as Scripture’s ‘inner-theo-logic.’ But what am I getting at? This: each of the biblical authors had a theological context they were writing from; often as Prophets and Apostles with brand-new Revelation directly from God. Yet when they wrote they didn’t always seem to grasp just exactly how deeply profound their writing was (and is); in regard to the theology they were nascently presuming upon even if they didn’t fully realize it, or get its implications. Even so, that’s exactly what was going on; they were operating out of cultic and ecclesial conditions, conditions shaped directly by the Prophets and Apostles themselves, that supplied them with the ability to write what they did. And they were able to write the way they did, typically in very assertive ways about who God is and what God was and is about, because they were presupposing off of Revealed realities that they’d come to know through intimate encounter with this living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob come in Jesus Christ.

If the above is the case I find it terribly interesting that there are traditions in the Christian church who believe that they have the best corner on identifying and explicating what in fact this ‘unspoken’ inner-theo-logic must in fact be in order for the text of Holy Writ to make the claims, and teach the things that it does. So we have the ‘outer-clarity’ of the text, but then its ‘inner-clarity’; this is the fairly standard way for Protestants to parse a way towards Scripture. They would typically relate the outer-clarity to the occasional prima facie level of the text, and the inner-clarity would be referred to, again, what I have called the inner-theo-logical reality of the text. But this is what I find extremely strange: Why is it that some traditions (and they in fact are the traditions they are because they believe they have come to have a better or the best corner on Scripture’s inner-theo-logical reality) believe that they alone maintain the orthodox understanding of what the inner-theo-logic is, and by this standard they come to conclude that others either have a heterodox or even heretical grasp of what the inner-theo-logic of Scripture is? Often, one tradition against another will label or symbolize the ‘other’ tradition (from theirs) with names like ‘Barthianism’, NeoOrthodoxy, Arminianism, Calvinism, Lutheranism, Thomism, Nominalism, Neo-Platonism, Kantianism, Hegelianism, et al. And based upon a history of development, from within their tradition, they will look out at these other traditions (from theirs) and simply label the development of the inner-theo-logic that makes up these other tradition’s grasp of Scripture’s reality as sub-standard and even anti-thetical to the Gospel (in certain instances).

What I would like to call folks to is a position and attitude of prudence. In other words, I think there should be a sort of moratorium on superficially drawing off of ‘my’ tradition’s anathematization of ‘other’ traditions, simply because that’s part of my tradition, and instead look deeper at the inner-theo-logic itself, at an ideational level, and critically engage with the ideas themselves. We need to get past the labels, and see if in fact there might well be merit to theological ideas, maybe even just some fruit bearing constructively retrievable merit, that we shouldn’t simply cast off because that’s what my tradition says I should do (in a historical sense of continuity with my tradition). All I’m saying is that as Christians it would do us well to operate constructively and recognize that there is fruit in the various strands ‘out there’ that we might call the inner-theo-logic or tradition within the inner-workings of Scripture’s witness itself; the inner-workings that make the tradition what it is. But we need to ask ourselves what is the most regulative feature we might appeal to, in the domain of theological reality, that might give us the best chance at identifying fruitful lines in the various formations in the development of the inner-theo-logic, and on the other hand might help us to see what needs to be discarded.

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Irenaeus Against John MacArthur: What Hath Creatio Ex Nihilo to Do With the Genesis and Exodus of Biblical Interpretation?

I am going to apply the following quote on theological interpretation of scripture (TIS) from Colin Gunton to a popular pastor among many conservative evangelical Christians; i.e. John MacArthur. The reason I am going to apply the following quote to MacArthur is because part of my passion is to take deep school theology and use that to help correct what I consider to be wayward theological method and application as that is distilled, indeed, through people like John MacArthur. We could apply the quote and its content to many other evangelicals in North America and abroad, but MacArthur, because of his ubiquitous presence (at least in the circles I grew up in) works well as a typological character who I think needs correcting. What might seem ironic (or asinine, depending on the person) to some is that I would dare to correct someone like MacArthur; someone who prides himself on being slavishly committed to biblical exegesis in order to establish every jot and tittle of his exposition and sermonic form. In principle I think, at least for us Protestant Reformed, I can certainly get behind the idea that we want to establish all of our doctrine and teaching based upon biblical exegesis. But the problem arises, especially for folks like MacArthur, when one simply presumes upon some sort of prima facie mode of biblical exegesis; as if what counts as Literal-Grammatical-Historical is simply a neutered or generic way of engaging with texts, in particular the biblical text, such that whatever is produced through thorough application of this method will simply be just what the Bible says. This is the mode of MacArthur; he believes that his exegesis comes prior to his theology, but I am countering that he has a prior commitment to a certain theological paradigm that informs his exegesis in ways he can’t seem to imagine (we all have theological premises informing our engagement with Holy Scripture).

Colin Gunton as he is engaging with a Christian doctrine of creation, particularly the notion of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing), and as he has been developing Irenaeus’ theology in this direction, brings theological interpretation of scripture into his discussion. I am just going to quote him at length (as is typical of my blogging style), and then we will draw off of what he has to intone about TIS and how I think we can apply that to MacArthur in particular and to many conservative evangelical pastors in general. Gunton writes:

What, then, is to be understood by a theological interpretation? At the very least we must essay an integration, if not systematisation, of the various biblical witnesses to creation, and not simply Genesis, in the light of the God made known in Jesus Christ and by the Spirit who relates the world to the Father through him. If we accept Irenaeus’ strong contention that the God of Jesus Christ is the one who created in the beginning, we must interpret Genesis in the light of God’s involvement in the material historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. This enables us not to read trinitarian themes directly into the book of Genesis, as if the author were in some way theologising in a consciously trinitarian way, but to understand the forms of divine action there depicted as the acts of the triune God. This is particularly well illustrated if we see that part of the divine engagement with creation in Genesis 1 involves the ministerial use of parts of the created order in the forming of others. When God says ‘Let the earth bring forth’ we have a picture of divine action enabling the sovereign creator intends. As we shall see, this has important implications for the way we shall understand the relation of creation and evolution.

A theology of creation does not in any case limit it biblical basis to Genesis 1, but is concerned with the meaning of the scriptural understanding of creation as a whole. Because Irenaeus’ focus is incarnational he looks at the whole of scripture through what happened in Jesus Christ, and refuses to become preoccupied, as were some of his opponents, with the exchange of ‘proof-texts’. This is not to say that we should hold that the biblical writers were consciously trinitarian thinkers. Clearly, they were not. The doctrine of the Trinity is a doctrinal development dedicated to saying something of who the God is who creates and redeems the world. In its turn and in its light, this enables an interpretation of the Bible’s teaching as a whole. Thus, when Psalm 33:6 says that ‘by the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth’, we may recognise the adumbration of a conception which is later filled out by an understanding of the personal presence of God made explicit by Jesus Christ and the Spirit. As we have seen, the heart of the matter is the concept of mediation which the Bible makes possible, generating as it does its unique doctrine of creation out of nothing.[1]

Does that make sense? Maybe a further illustration might help: Think of what the Evangelist in the Gospel of John did. He “re-interpreted,” or per Irenaeus’ style, he recapitulated the original creation account in Genesis 1.1 by linking his linguistic harmonizing in John 1.1 “In the Beginning God” with his introduction of the Logos or Word to the world. In other words, in light of Jesus Christ what is presented in the Old Testament is re-understood in light of its fulfillment and substantive res (reality) as that is actualized in the Son, Jesus Christ. This is something of a further illustration of what Gunton is after in his linking of biblical interpretation into the context of a doctrine of creation. I.e. without God in Christ there would be no creation, or indeed recreation, wherein all of reality could come to have a Christ conditioned Triune shape and meaning. In other words, particularly as Gunton leaves off with a reference to creatio ex nihilo, what Irenaeus was about, according to Gunton, is basing his interpretation of Holy Scripture within a grandeur context than simply reading off its purported ‘face’ and absolutizing biblical meaning and reality from there. No, what Irenaeus, according to Gunton was about was recognizing that Scripture has a depth dimensional context and reality, and that that only comes as its total canonical orientation is found in and from its ever afresh ever anew referencing beyond itself, beyond its paper and ink, to its flesh and bloodied reality in Jesus Christ and the Triune life co-inhering therein.

Let me try to bring this down a notch (never an easy thing to do): in Irenaeus’ frame, in particular, and in a theological exegetical frame in general, what theological interpretation of scripture entails as a method of biblical interpretation, is the full recognition that scripture itself only has meaning as it constantly is referring itself to its deep reality in Jesus Christ (cf. Jn 5.39). It recognizes that all of reality only has reality as a contingent reality as that is given forth by the Word of God in Jesus Christ. Gunton, through Irenaeus, is showing that at least for the theological interpretation of scripture mode, we must presume upon the reality of who God is as revealed in Jesus Christ in order to cognize any sort of biblical meaning; if in fact we can first recognize that the Bible only has meaning as an instrument mediating something greater than itself to us (something or someOne who has made clear that He alone upholds all things by the word of His power; even Scripture’s meaning as that is found in his Word).

Does John MacArthur fit into this sort of theological interpretation of scripture, or does he operate from somewhere else? The irony is, as we examine his antecedents, when it comes to his hermeneutical method and exegetical practice, is that he operates off of Enlightenment text critical premises that are actually in contest with the sort of Irenaean hermeneutic we have been touching upon in this post. If this is the case (and it is), then how can we accept that MacArthur is actually offering us the Gospel According to Jesus when he is working from hermeneutical premises that themselves are concocted from ideational commitments that are in fact antagonistic to the sort of rich and deep theological pedigree of interpretation that someone like Irenaeus operated from? MacArthur doesn’t self-critically even think from a doctrine of creation and recreation (resurrection) as the basis within which the Bible can find orientation and meaning. MacArthur naively presumes upon a certain method of biblical interpretation that starts with a sort of rationalist common sense notion of reality and language that sees words and meaning abstractly accessible by the powers of human wit and a pressing into linguistic and historical realities without recognizing how reality itself is contingent upon the Word of God. In other words, MacArthur doesn’t make an intentional (Dogmatic) connection between meaning generation and God’s Word as the predicator of all meaning; even Scriptural meaning. He doesn’t allow that primal reality to form his development of a biblical hermeneutic and exegetical practice. As such he falls short in untold manner of ways in his exposition and sermonic deliveries.

 

[1] Colin E. Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical And Systematic Study (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), Loc 924, 931, 937 kindle.

Some Thoughts on the Bible and Knowledge of God: Prompted By an OnScript Podcast with The Bible Project Founders

A thought occurred to me as I was listening to the OnScript podcast today, an episode that featured two former college-mates of mine, Tim Mackie and Jonathan Collins (of The Bible Project), the thought was: can God be conceived of strictly from Scripture? In other words, can God be conceived of apart from his reception in and from Scripture as that has been developed through the centuries in the Christian church (all orthodox traditions)? Further, can a literary lens alone be the lens for giving us the most faithful account of who God is in Scripture as Scripture attests to him?

It is a very modern way to think God from Scripture only (de nuda Scriptura), and yet this seems to be the way that so many evangelicals are introduced to; and in the name of sola Scriptura no less. I am not suggesting that literary or Bible as literature approaches have zero value, but I am suggesting that for the Christian church an accurate conception of God has always come with deep theological reflection; and a subsequently produced theological grammar (the ecumenical councils are case in point). Further, I am not suggesting that The Bible Project or On Script podcasts suffer from this solo Scriptura approach, per se, but that the discipline they operate in and from indeed does (as that is sourced in history of religions text-critical disciplines as shaped by Enlightenment innovation).

What this points up for me, once again, is the high importance of theological-exegesis (or theological interpretation of Scripture TIS). In other words, I contend that Christians have no context for knowing who God is simply by referral to Scripture alone; there is a reception of knowledge bequeathed to the churches, in regard to who God is, that dogmatically precedes Scripture. And this points up further attending to the need for understanding what Scripture actually is in the first place; in other words: what is Scripture’s ontology (or ‘being’) relative to its place before God? Does Scripture have a theological location in God’s economy? And if it does what impact does that have on its reception, hermeneutic, and praxis in the churches? Can we just presume on a sort of universal ‘preunderstanding’ or ‘pre-orthodoxy’ in regard to who God is, and how we have knowledge of God, can we simply presume upon an unstated assumption that ‘faithful orthodox’ Christians just have this conglomerate knowledge of God such that we simply get straight to the Bible without attending to that first?

My contention is that Scripture has an ontology (following John Webster in his book Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch), and that Scripture ultimately has no illuminative meaning for the Christian apart from intentionally acknowledging that. That is, that Holy Scripture, in order for it to be received as ‘Holy’ and thus not just as ‘literature,’ must be fully cognizant of Scripture’s givenness and reality before God. Without this ground my sense is that an approach to Scripture based upon a vague acknowledgement of “well yeah, we’re all Christians here, we all affirm that Scripture is God given and that God is Triune” will make a subsequent engagement with Scripture, based upon this sort of thin thinking, end up providing us with a knowledge of God that might yield what the Bible as literature approach to the Bible will produce for us. It might, by coincidence, produced characteristics about God that are univocal with the God understood as orthodox by the rule of faith produced in the grammar of the creeds; but most likely it will produce knowledge of God that produces emphases that are more concordant with the literary critic’s situadedness and cultural location. Do you see what I’m getting at here? I’m looking for a ‘control’ a regula fidei (‘rule of faith’) that has catholic (universal) reach as we consider who God is for the 21st century church. A control that is in the foreground, not the background.

Do I think Tim Mackie, Jonathan Collins, the OnScript crew repudiate the sort of theological import I am trying to bring to the way a knowledge of God is conceived vis-à-vis the Bible? No. But the discipline they work from actually does. This is the quagmire evangelicals have found themselves ensconced within. A piety that sincerely loves Jesus, but a bibliology and subsequent hermeneutic that largely takes its cues from a Biblical Studies discipline that pretty much has nothing to do with confessional reality or affirmation in the true and living God; this is what that discipline believes makes their method ‘critical.’ Sure, you can be an orthodox Christian and work in the field of Biblical Studies, but unfortunately such a person will have to work over-time to make an attempt to bring their work into discussion with the confessional and catholic heritage of the Christian church.

I am very appreciative of The Bible Project. I was trained by the same professor that Tim Mackie and Jonathan Collins were at Multnomah Bible College. I taught the same ‘lab’ in Bible Study Methods under the aegis of this professor that Mackie did. I used Mackie’s notes to help me get ideas when I taught this lab. What The Bible Project represents is just a continuation and amplification of what we were all taught by this particular professor. I learned much about how to study the Bible canonically and inductively through this training; not to mention literarily. But as an end in itself this is not sufficient. The Bible has an ontology, and it is given that ontology by God in Christ and the economy shed abroad in that reality; a reality accommodated by God for us. Learning how to engage with Scripture “critically” though, in my book, means that we first learn how to dialogue with God “critically.” That we recognize that God comes before Scripture and that in Christ Scripture has its telos and meaning. In the field of Biblical Studies its practitioners are often at pains to find THE theme of canonical Scripture; or the theme for each book of the Bible; or what have you. If we start with a Dogmatic and theological basis for Scripture’s ontology we will see that Scripture is best situated, and necessarily situated in a doctrine of creation/recreation, within which its meaning is given (its res). If, in general, creation’s meaning has always already been grounded in Jesus Christ, then how much more so is Scripture’s as a book inscribed within and under the pressures of creaturely media; under the pressure of God’s givenness for us in Jesus Christ?

These are some concerns off the top I have. Maybe they aren’t yours, or you think I’m overstating. I don’t think I’m overstating though. What do you think?     

“Pure exegesis (“reading out”) without any eisegesis (“reading in”) is an illusion”: Engaging With the Hermeneutical Problem and Theological Exegesis

My MA degree is effectively an MA in New Testament Studies; with a Master’s thesis on I Corinthians 1.17-25. I minored in NT Greek in undergrad as well, so studying Koine Greek was a significant aspect of my training during school. What I came to realize was that translation work was just as much about exegesis and interpretive work as was the writing of a commentary. To embrace this idea in an absolute way challenges the more traditional (at least as that is understood in a Grammatical-Historical sense post-Enlightenment) notion that theology is only arrived at after an objective-exegesis of the text has been accomplished. In other words, to arrive at my conclusion we would have to be admitting of some level of eisegesis; viz. some level of ‘reading into the text’—this is an absolute violation of all that is holy in the traditional notion of exegeting or ‘reading out of the text’ (or is it?).

In light of this introduction I wanted to share something from David Congdon as he describes this sort of question as it took form as a debate between Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann. What Congdon helps to show is that while Barth asserts his commitment to the more traditional understanding I just described, what Barth actually is committed to is something more akin to Bultmann’s view; that is, that there is always already interpretation embedded in translation (that eisegesis is a component part of the translational event).[1] Here is the way Congdon describes it:

Barth’s attempt to identify a moment of interpretation prior to translation is impossible, according to Bultmann, because the very act of interpretation is inherently an act of translation. Even purportedly scientific and objective modes of exegesis are already engaging in translation simply by virtue of using contemporary terms and methods. An interpretation utterly free from translation would not even be possible were we alive at the time of the apostles, since the very hearing of the words involves—even demands—a response from the hearer. Pure exegesis (“reading out”) without any eisegesis (“reading in”) is an illusion. Barth himself recognized as much in the third draft of his preface to R1: “Those who do not constantly ‘read in’ [einlegen] because they contribute to the subject matter cannot ‘read out’ [auslegen] either.”

Bultmann supports his case by appealing to another statement by Barth, namely, his claim that “the concept of dogma . . . is an eschatological concept.” From this Bultmann draws the conclusion that the New Testament message can only be presented “in Auseinandersetzung, in a definite antithesis,” since every human presentation is a historical act that is qualitatively other than the eschatological act of God. Consequently, “there are only relative, provisional formulations,” and the message must always be “reformulated (‘translated’)” in each new situation. All interpretation is translation because all interpretation occurs within the historicity of existence.[2]

We feel Kant’s presence and impact here, no doubt. But beyond that it pinpoints an important reality about our own situatedness and how that impacts our engagement with reality; with God. For Barth God’s choice to be for us in Christ comes prior to our encounter with the Christ (and as such grounds that encounter); for Bultmann, God’s choice to be for us in Christ comes simultaneously with our choice to be for Christ in the encounter of kerygmatic faith. As corollary we can see how this would impinge upon Barth’s desire to have an interpretation of Scripture prior to its translation; but I would want to side with Bultmann, and Barth who, as Congdon highlights, contradicts himself at certain levels. While not wanting to reject an idea of the antecedent reality of God’s choice to be for us in Christ (Barth and the trad) and conflate that with our choice to be for Christ as the ground (Bultmann) I do think that the hermeneutical problem we are attending to is most overtly on the side of Bultmann’s thinking (and Barth’s even as that stands in some contradiction to his doctrine of election); that we must in fact ‘read into’ the text if we are also going to ‘read out of’ the text of Holy Scripture.

So what regulates then? How do we keep from so existentializing or subjectivizing our reading of Scripture (from an abstract humanity) that we escape a further problem of projecting ourselves into the text; isn’t this the problem and critique of theological liberalism in general? Congdon, along Bultmannian lines, might want to simply reverse the dilemma by arguing that there is a simultaneity to the subject’s reading of the text in the always already event of kerygmatic faith. That is, that the faith of the risen Christ as the content of the kerygma, as that is realized in the reader and encounter itself grounds what is ‘read into’ the text. If we were to go with a Barthian ‘eisegesis’ what would regulate for him is the objective reality of God’s choice to be for us in Christ; i.e. that Christ himself in dialogical reality (e.g. in a way that we are hearing his voice by the Spirit) is the reality that is ‘read into’ the text just as he is ‘read out of it’ as its dogmatical prior.[3]

Either way: Theological exegesis, Theological Interpretation of Scripture and the reality of interpretation as translation and translation as interpretation go hand-in-hand. This is why I am an ardent proponent of theological exegesis; interestingly so were the premoderns. The premoderns of course read the Bible theologically from different soundings than did either Barth or Bultmann. Although I think Barth’s impulse (along with Thomas Torrance’s) was more in the spirit of the premoderns than is Bultmann’s.[4]

[1] Congdon notes some more technical reasons for Barth’s commitment to the more traditional rather than existential view of Bultmann, but we won’t engage with those just now (at least not in depth).

[2] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 198-99.

[3] I’m not as concerned with “erasing” metaphysics as is Congdon. Interestingly not even Congdon can fully erase metaphysics; or maybe he can, but at what cost?! Unfortunately I think this is what drives, at a prior level, Congdon’s whole mode of theologizing; i.e. the desire to offer a scholastically clean post-metaphysical or anti-metaphysical theological means.

[4] Congdon attempts to problematize Barth’s ‘prior’ by critiquing Barth’s understanding of history and a prior theological history (as the antecedent). I don’t think I follow or agree with Congdon’s critique here; even if I did I’m willing to live with the paradoxical nature of Barth’s understanding, and the tension therein, just as I think Barth’s theology fits better with the reality of the mysterium trinitatis and the creedal reality of ecclesial and catholic grammar than does Bultmann’s (which in the end is the way Congdon goes; with Bultmann).

The ‘Good’ of Tradition; The Impossibility of Reading Scripture Without Theology

What I realized in seminary while immersed in historical theology and new testament studies was that doing theological exegesis and engaging with the tradition of the church is an inescapable reality; even for those who claim to be doing otherwise. The fact that we are human, extended out into space and time located on a continuum conditioned by the forces of intellectual and theological history is indisputable. As such it is dangerous and irresponsible to pretend like we can just read the Bible as if we are John Locke’s tabula rasa being stimulated by the text alone; thus forming notions of God in Christ as if abstract monads, incurved selves with no relation to other selves along a continuum of growth and development as that has taken place in the church and in socio-cultural-ideational history in general. In other words nobody, not even so called text-critical biblical scholars read the Bible outwith tradition; and that’s okay!

Stephen Holmes in his little book Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology offers a wonderful and precise sketch of the reality of tradition/theology vis-à-vis the reading of Holy Scripture. I first read his book (which I will be quoting from) in 2005, just two years after I graduated from seminary. His first two chapters helped solidify my thoughts in this area, thoughts that had been given birth even as early as my time in undergrad (bible college); and that developed with much more awareness because of my time spent in historical theology during seminary. Because I think this continues to be a reality that I’d say most free church evangelicals, in the pews, don’t really have a handle on; because this continues to be a reality that many scholars who have gone the route of ‘biblical studies’ don’t really have a handle on; I think it is important for me to reiterate this again (and again, and again).[1] With this in mind let me share some of Holmes’ thinking in this direction; he will problematize some of the facile manner I have presented some of this in as well (for purposes of ease and time I am going to offer pictures of the text I want to present; hopefully that is not too cumbersome for you the reader):

.[2]

We could say much more, but hopefully the weight, indeed the pressure from what is shared is felt. Indeed, as Holmes notes, an unmediated access to the text is always something that we are struggling towards, in the sense that we are engaging with the actual content and material reality of the text itself; viz. Jesus Christ. But even as we are constantly in this spiraling and toilsome task, even as we attempt to get as close as possible to the inner-reality of the text in Christ; the grammar we will use to even speak of Christ comes in mediated form through the Niceno-Constantinopolitano-Chalcedono verbiage developed in the ecumenical church councils. This does not lessen the reality of the living voice of God we encounter in Scripture, it only is to admit to the reality that God is constantly the One who must lower himself to us in Christ by the Spirit and encounter us before we can encounter him in and through all the shrouded contours of our own machinations. But this is a hopeful reality; i.e. we come to encounter Christ through the tradition as that impinges upon our interpretive capacities as we come to the text. The text becomes the instrument through which our traditions themselves constantly take shape as we dialogically encounter the risen Christ by the Spirit upon each page turned of the holy ink. In other words, it is this hope, our hope that God is graciously willing to speak to us afresh and anew in our baby talk so that we might genuinely know him and make him known. It is in this dialectical or prayerful process of reading Scripture that the categories of the always reforming and developing tradition of the church have the ability to transmute into a reality that brings us closer and closer to a more fulsome knowledge of him. I wonder if this makes sense to you; I wonder if it makes sense to me (it does!)?

I hope people can appreciate not just the negative aspects of tradition, but more importantly the positive; indeed the inevitable reality of tradition/theological development. It’s a natural reality of being creatures in the theater of God’s glory that is within the domain of his living Word in Jesus Christ. On the analogy of the incarnation, by the overshadowing power of the Holy Spirit, in the new creation of Jesus Christ’s vicarious humanity, as we walk by faith not by sight, we have been given eyes to see and ears to hear the living voice of God (viva vox Dei); tradition is simply the churchly expression of that encounter. What is important is to remember that this encounter is something that happens afresh and anew as we come to trembling to him, yet in boldness, through the ‘spectacles’ of his written Word.

This is a lively and exciting topic. We can say more, of course. Hopefully, if nothing else, what has come through is that not a single soul can approach Holy Scripture without doing so through various iterations of tradition and theological development. This is not a bad thing, but a good thing. In order to understand this as a good thing the bible reader, the Christian must have a good grasp on the reality that a theological ontology has upon a theological/Christological conditioned epistemology (and I will have to explain what I mean by that, if you don’t know, at a later time or in the comments).

 

[1] I’ve also come to realize that you never know who might be reading your blog posts.

[2] Stephen R. Holmes, Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 6-8.

What Does it Mean to Read the Bible ‘Literally?’ Against the Literalistic and other Literalisms via the Sensus Literalis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Engaging with Doug Hamp’s Book: Corrupting the Image: Angels, Aliens, and the AntiChrist Revealed

I am going to begin a series of running posts that engage with a book written by Douglas Hamp; I believe it was accepted as his PhD dissertation at Louisiana Baptist University. Hamp’s book is entitled: Corrupting the Image: Angels, Aliens, and the Antichrist Revealed. As you can tell by the title it is not the usual fare I deal with here at the blog, but I think something like this warrants attention; if only because it is this type of literature that pervades the imaginations of many in the North American evangelical sub-culture. Beyond his PhD from LBU, Hamp also has an earned MA in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.

When I was doing my undergrad degree I took a class called Hermeneutics; in that class my professor, as a warm-up, so to speak, would have us do hermeneutical builders where we would examine a sample piece of biblical (or other type of literature) exegesis done by various commentators and exegetes spanning the centuries and into the contemporary. In these builders we were to identify the hermeneutical principles said exegete was deploying in their exegetical work, and attempt to identify where he or she was in error (if they were); based upon what type of hermeneutic they might be following (e.g. wooden-literal, allegorical, higher-critical, etc.). The benefit of engaging in such an exercise is that the student’s skills in critically identifying problems in someone’s hermeneutic (if there were or are any) were sharpened. As we look at Hamp’s book consider this process as a sort of hermeneutical builder, one that I am doing, but that I am including you in as well.

Before we precede further let me offer a caveat. I have a loose connection with Hamp from years past. He was involved in a ‘school of ministry’ (Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa School of Ministry) as an assistant instructor where he oversaw their online journal, among other responsibilities. He published a few of my past blog posts in that journal, and as such I made a connection (one that he apparently doesn’t remember). I attended Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa and their Bible College back in the  years covering 1995 through 1998; and when I say ‘attended’ I mean I was at church probably five days out of the week. This represents a shared background with Hamp (even though we never physically crossed paths), and is why I ever came across Hamp to begin with; it was only within the last couple of months that I became aware that he has since left Calvary Chapel and established his own speaking, apologetics, online, debate ministry (not to mention a Messianic-like congregation in Denver Colorado called ‘The Way Congregation’). You can check out his many videos and presentations via YouTube. As you’ll see he has some pretty substantial reach among some of the masses in the broader sub-section of evangelicalism. It is because of this reach and impact that I feel somewhat compelled to engage with his book in an attempt to offer a counter-voice to what he is offering folks without the necessary training and thus critical capacity to discern where Hamp is coming from and how he is arriving at his exegetical conclusions. Let me just say upfront: as I have listened to many of Doug’s teachings (via YouTube) over the last many weeks, it has become apparent to me that he has some seriously aberrant views; and they are all related to his chosen hermeneutic.

Hamp iterates over and over again that he follows a very literal hermeneutic when he interprets Scripture; I’d have to say I agree with him. In order to gain a grasp on Hamp’s hermeneutical commitments, and how those get applied and cashed out in his book, let me share at some length what he says about his hermeneutic in the preface of his book: 

MY METHOD

Due to my language studies in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, I have been able to do my own linguistic research throughout this book. I primarily conducted my own investigation of words and phrases using theWord Bible Software and therefore, I may not always cite a lexicon for authority. TheWord allowed me to search words in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic and trace their usage throughout the entire Bible. I used primary sources wherever possible and drew my own conclusions from those. However, I did frequently turn to secondary literature to demonstrate that there are others that have come to similar conclusions—therefore when I state that a Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic word means such and such, the conclusion is based on my investigation. If I cite another, then I state the source. I use extra-biblical material (e.g. the Book of Enoch and the Targumim) as I would a modern commentary—it is not sacred canon. However, unlike a modern commentary, those ancient works were often written by Jews who very likely had some insight that we do not. The method of discovery throughout this book will be to take the words as literally as possible and use the grammatical-historical approach of interpretation and we will find that doing so will make all of the pieces fit precisely.[1]

From the start we get a sense of Hamp’s approach; he emphasizes that he is able to do his own linguistic research in the original languages. The way Hamp seems to use this reality in his teaching and writing is to give his very ‘original’ (novel) insights an air of insider or special authority. But beyond that what I have emboldened above is what I primarily want to emphasize. When you read what Hamp writes about following a literal grammatical-historical approach this might not sound that radical; indeed it might even sound text-critical of the history of religions sort, or of the dispensational sort; it is neither. When Hamp writes ‘literal’ he means hyper-literalistically; in other words he believes the hermeneutical key to the whole of Scripture—and this is where he believes most of the history of Christian biblical interpretation has gone severely awry—is to take everything in Scripture to what I would contend is its literalistic breaking point. Some of the examples of how this works out in Hamp’s exegesis are: 1) he believes that God literally has hands, feet, a head, and a human body (which sounds more like Kenneth Copeland’s or the Latter Day Saints’ understanding of God); 2) he maintains that Christians are under the requirements of the Torah (in other words that we should be keeping the Mosaic Law inclusive of Sabbath keeping [which sounds more like Judaizing rather than following Christ]); 3) he holds to a form of British Israelitism,[2] albeit in a very idiosyncratically construed sense. In other words, he argues that when the Monarchy of Israel was divided into the Southern and Northern Kingdoms (the Northern=the ten tribes), that the Northern kingdom during the Assyrian exile were dispersed among the ‘Gentiles’ to the point that they, ‘the house of Israel’ (distinct in Hamp’s parlance from the ‘the house of Judah who are the real Jews), become representative of the Gentiles simpliciter canonically. Based upon this he argues that the New Covenant, made with the house of Judah (the Southern Kingdom) and the house of Israel (the Northern Kingdom) could only be fulfilled with ‘the house of Israel,’ or “the Gentiles” if God dies and thus reinstates a new marriage covenant that includes both Jew (the Southern Kingdom) and Gentile (the Northern Kingdom). He arrives at these conclusions based upon the idea that God gave ‘the house of Israel’ (the Gentiles) a certificate of divorce and that according to God’s Law of Marriage (which Hamp pulls from Romans 7:1-6; cf. Exodus) he could not renter covenant relationship with his divorced ‘spouse’ the house of Israel, or post-exile, now known as the ‘Gentiles’, unless he figured out a work-around his own law of marriage. Hamp argues that this is what God accomplished in the Incarnation; viz. God figured out a way to re-marry Israel/Gentiles by dying, thus freeing him from his inability to be in relationship with them per his Toranic marriage strictures laid out in Deuteronomy (i.e. that a spouse wasn’t free to remarry unless the former spouse died). As God died and rose again with a new ‘DNA’ in Christ, he was free to re-establish a blood cut covenant relationship with his lost house or the “commonwealth” of Israel (which is code for the Gentiles), and with Judah (or the Jews); thus reuniting the Ju-dahns and Gentiles in the one new humanity of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2);[3] 4) Hamp maintains that the Torah is ‘eternal,’ meaning that it apparently has its own ontological value vis-à-vis God (which oddly sounds more like the way Muslims think of the Qur’an).

These and other similar oddities, unmentioned, are examples of where Hamp’s literal hermeneutic takes him. They are harrying waters to be sure.

Let me close this post with Hamp’s basic thesis which he will unfold throughout the whole of his book. You will see, even in its very liminal form, given in his thesis statement, that his argument will very much so consistently fit with his stylized form of being ‘literal.’

Genesis 3:15 tells us of two seeds that will come upon the world—one will be the Seed of the Woman, which is Jesus. However, the other seed spoken of is Satan’s and that is where my research took off. I wanted to discover if the seed of Satan (Antichrist) would be an imitation of the virgin birth and if so, how that was possible genetically. What I uncovered was a war to destroy the image of God led by Satan since the earliest of times.[4]

And a little bit later as he is beginning to make his argument in this direction he writes:

Satan will use man’s desire to be his own god to deceive him into believing the ultimate lie—that his fallen messengers are both the Creators and saviors of man. He will not do this openly but will deceive mankind through demons which are masquerading as “aliens” who are spreading the message that the inhabitants of the earth can evolve to be like them and obtain transcendent powers. Finally, the seed of the Serpent will come; he will be a man who will be greater than his fellows, who will understand sinister schemes and shall rise up and become the Antichrist.[5]

What we will see as we engage with Hamp’s work is that he will attempt to read the Nephilim or ‘sons of God’, of Genesis 6 et al. as satan’s plan to enter humanity, ‘in the flesh’ which was hatched in ‘the days of Noah’, and in and through a hybrid (half demon half human) the spawn of the serpent, the AntiChrist will be thrust upon the world. This theory actually isn’t unique to Hamp, in fact if you google Nephilim I think you will find an abundance of ‘end times’ literature that posits the theory Hamp is arguing for; albeit in his own unique way (although his application of this to the production of the AntiChrist is unique).

I think what’s important to bear in mind as we work through Hamp’s book (we’ll see if I actually remain motivated enough to do that!) is that his study in this book represents what stands behind his PhD! As far as I can tell thus far, Hamp theorizes without engaging with any critical alternatives or theories to his own; he does his exegesis, as far as I can tell, without allowing any critical biblical scholars (in the guild) to challenge his work. In other words, as far as I can tell, Douglas Hamp’s mode is to simply press his study upon the untrained in the church without any sense or need to allow his work to be interrogated critically by other scholars with their PhDs or even MAs in the field. Hamp has engaged in live debate with quite a few folks, but as far as I can tell none of them are critical scholars. So Hamp’s work is primarily presented uncritically, even though he has a PhD based upon his study, and without any sort of critical push back. It seems to me that he will simply reject, out of hand, anyone who does not follow his form of doing “*literal*” exegesis. Be that as it may, this is why I have any sort of inkling to engage with Hamp’s work. It is not to elevate it, or give it undue attention; instead my hope will be to offer a critical voice in response to Hamp’s study for people who might be searching for such things online (if you do that now, as far as I can see, all you will find are uncritical responses to Hamp’s work).

This now ends the current hermeneutical builder.

 

[1] Douglas Hamp, Corrupting the Image: Angels, Aliens, and the Antichrist Revealed (USA: Defender Publishing LLC, 2011), 13 kindle [emboldening mine].

[2] Frankly, ‘British Israelitism’ is the closest parallel idea I can think of when attempting to identify what is going on in Hamp’s theory in regard to the Northern Kingdom or ‘The House of Israel’ being assimilated into the Gentile world to the point that in Hamp’s world this reconstitutes them, canonically, as The iteration of what it means to be “Gentile;” say in the Apostle Paul’s mind (see Eph. 2). It is interesting that Hamp doesn’t follow through on this logic when the Southern Kingdom, or ‘The House of Judah’ is exiled into the Babylonian empire; one wonders why they maintained their seminal Jewish identity while in the case of the Northern Kingdom’s exile they ostensibly were unable to keep their Semitic lineage. Further, it is also interesting, based upon Hamp’s purported ‘literal’ hermeneutic, that he seemingly glosses the Northern Kingdom by figurally re-reading them as representative of what it means to be Gentile in a Jew-Gentile complex. Presumably, the blood-line of the Southern Kingdom, while in Babylon, likewise became “corrupted” and “Gentilized” while there. This is evidenced by their adoption of the Aramaic language, and their practice of intermarrying with the Gentiles as evidenced in Ezra-Nehemiah. Hamp’s theory seemingly breaks down in a variety of ways; this, I would contend would be one of them.

[3] I will give Hamp credit for extra-vigilant novelty in his theorizing. I can honestly admit in all my years of formal and informal training in studying the bible and the history of interpretation I have never heard of such a thing. Yes, fragments of parts of Hamp’s theory, but not pulled together in such a unique, and frankly, inane sort of way.

[4] Hamp, Corrupting the Image, 13.

[5] Ibid., 23.

Reading God: Retrieving Classical Theism as orthodoxy, and The Role of Theologia Naturalis

I have been thinking about writing this post for some time; indeed, I’m sure somewhere in the archives of my blog I’ve written on this, in gist, quite a bit. But I wanted to offer something fresh on this topic, a topic that is near and dear to my heart; it is a topic that affects each and every Christian who wants to know God better. What I am referring to is hermeneutics. The way I refer to this word is more broadly construed than simply referring to the common understanding of ‘the art and science of biblical interpretation.’ When I use this word I am also referring to the inner-theo-logic that allows Holy Scripture to assert and articulate the things that it does (in its very occasional offerings). For me, and for many of us, those of us interested in resourcing and retrieving the past for present interpretive purposes, what begins to happen as we attempt to consciously construct a hermeneutic is that we realize we are up against something greater than simply learning Greek, Hebrew, text criticism, philology, rhetorical analysis, narratoloy, so on and so forth. In other words, when we look to the past what we find is that our forbears very intentionally engaged the text of Scripture with some very deep questions; questions that were given by engaging with the text, but questions that invite the interpreter to delve deep into what Thomas Torrance has called the depth dimension of the text. In other words, the symbols (words) of the text are seen as instruments, lenses (as Calvin has opined) that point beyond itself unto a deeper clarity; the clarity of God’s life in Jesus Christ for us.

The above noted, for the rest of this post, I want to engage with ‘how’ people in the 21st century are attempting to listen to the past; and from what footing. In other words, there is a majority report among younger (as they learn it from their older counterparts) theologians and exegetes that seems to say that just because something developed in the ‘orthodox’ stream of so called “pre-modern” biblical exegesis, and hermeneutical development, that the depth reality therein (i.e. the theological res) just is and must be The orthodox way for how we ought to proceed into the future as biblical exegetes and hermeneuticians. Matt Emerson, just today in fact, put up a post at his group blog illustrating exactly this; he writes:

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that there were quite a few major movements in twentieth century theology, from a variety of theological streams, that concerned themselves with overturning or significantly revising classical Christian theism (CCT). Influences as varied as biblical theology, apologetics, philosophy, church history, and the history of interpretation have contributed to the suspicion, revision, and rejection of CCT. These rejections, revisions, and suspicions have resulted in everything from process theism to denials or thorough revisions of, for example, simplicity and impassibility. The basic gist of objections to these and other CCT-related doctrines is that they are unbiblical and philosophically untenable. And, at bottom, that basic objection rests on the assumption that CCT developed via reflection on God through the lens of Greek philosophy rather than through the lenses God’s Word or his actions in history.

This kind of gross mis-characterization needs to stop. The early Christian theologians were just as concerned as, say, 21st century conservative evangelicals, with demonstrating that their doctrinal formulations were thoroughly biblical. The distinction between pre-modern and modern exegesis and theology is not that the former is philosophical and the latter is biblical, but between what counts as “biblical” in either period. For pre-modern interpreters, “biblical” meant considering passages in their original historical and literary context, but it also meant considering those passages in their canonical, narratival, and metaphysical context.[1]

Just as a caveat; I like Matt, and am not “picking on” him in a particular; I only am referring to him because he has offered the most recent example of what I want to engage with in this post (and it is a post I’ve been thinking about writing for a long time, as I’ve noted).

Now, do I disagree with Matt, in principle? Nein. We need to be careful to engage with the past carefully. But what I see informing Matt’s thought is a critique that I often make here of classical Calvinism, in particular, and classical theism (of the medieval sort) in general, in regard to the mode that is used in the appropriation of the past. In other words—how to say this—my question is: Why must we just receive the past; why is the test of reception, ostensibly, to see just how closely we can mimic (repristinate) the past in our own language today? This seems to be what Emerson et al. are calling us to; i.e. that just because it’s there—in the history of ‘orthodox’ interpretation—that this placement has been providentially ordered by God. As such, and if this is the case, the logic seems to flow, our job is to reiterate over and over again what the past orthodox church has articulated; as if knowledge of God is as “immutable” as God himself. But what if knowledge of God isn’t “immutable?” What if nostra theologia (our theology) is merely proximate; what if our knowledge of God is really an eschatological reality, as Karl Barth maintained?

When Emerson et al. lift up loci like Divine impassibility and simplicity what doesn’t seem to get emphasized is that these terms themselves have a history; and in light of Emerson’s post this seems ironic to note because it seems to be what Matt is hoping to emphasize. In other words, why must I as a 21st century Christian pretend like only the 3rd, 4th, 16th, and 17th centuries in the church represent peek moments, or the most intense moments wherein God has providentially moved upon his church (as far as theological development)? Yes, we can all recognize that some very formative things happened, doctrinally, for the church catholic in these periods—the latter set of centuries for the Protestants in particular—but why does this necessarily mean that I must read God the same way these saints read God? Can’t I acknowledge that they indeed, for their time under their metaphysical categories and pressures, read him as faithfully as they could; but then also recognize that further developments have taken place since then which might indeed allow me to take the categories and doctrinal developments they left behind and reify them further under the developing knowledge of God that the church is confronted with over and again in ongoing dialogical encounter with the Living Word of God?

There is a latent theologia naturalis (natural theology) attending Emerson’s et al. observations about engagement with and retrieval of the past, and for some, indeed for many in this tribe that’s fine. But for many others, including myself, natural theology, particularly of this sort, the sort that presumes that human beings, even regenerate ones, have this inherent capacity to simply read Divine things off the cover of history that has developed in the last two millennia in the church, this is not acceptable! But this is the mode; this is the method; this is the prolegomena; this is the hermeneutic Emerson et al. operate with and from, and so it is a natural thing to chide those who reject such an approach with an almost shock that folks might be critical of such an approach (e.g. the approach Emerson is calling us back to). The irony to me is that viewing history this way—from the natural theological way I just noted—is itself a product of a history of religions, text-critical mode of thinking and method that developed precisely because of the British Enlightenment.

Do we need to just accept Divine impassibility, simplicity, immutability, and omni-theology just because it just is the orthodox way? Maybe. But how about leaving open the possibility that such categories are only proximate ectypal loci that the church has fumbled around with in order to attempt to talk about an ineffable God? If we leave this as a possibility we might be allowed to have some constructive space to dynamically engage with these categories in such a way that they might not only be marginalized, as far as their adequacy to do the heavy lifting of God-talk, but in such a way that the terms themselves might be free to be reified further under the pressure of the Living God we have to do with on an ongoing basis as the Living Church of God in Jesus Christ. You see, this is what I’m looking for; not a way to be reckless, or progressive, but instead always reforming (semper reformanda) under the weighty reality of the God with whom we have to do in Christ; and with the full realization that we actually can still talk to this God today (in the 21st century), and that he still talks back to us and for us. Orthodoxy is greater than not lesser than what the past developed; and our knowledge of God, according to the Apostle Peter, is one that has the capacity to be growing (II Pet. 3). This is my concern with what Emerson et al. are presenting us with. There seems to be a fear, a need for shoring up the wreckage that the mainliners and progressives have done in the evangelical church; but I don’t think ‘fear’ should motivate the way we think about what or how we retrieve the past. Is there an orthodoxy in the past? Yes. But orthodoxy is an on the way reality, and one that is guaranteed as such by the reality that Jesus is coming again; but hasn’t come yet.

 

[1] Matt Emerson, Early Christian Interpretation and Classical Christian Theism, accessed 03-09-2018.

 

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

The tension present between the role of church tradition and the bible, and how the two mutually implicate one or the other (or don’t) is not going away any time soon. There are those who want to believe that they can be strict, even slavish wooden bible literalists; then there are others who believe that the tradition of the church functions magisterially in the biblical interpretive process; and yet others who want to attempt a kind of dialectic between the two (I’d say the best of the Reformed sola Scriptura approach resides here). As a Reformed Christian, and evangelical, I hold to the ‘scripture principle’ that scripture itself is authoritative and the norming norm over and against all else; even tradition. Of course I’m not naïve enough to think that the scripture principle itself is not its own ‘tradition,’ but it is so heuristically. Here is how Oliver Crisp breaks down the various tiers of principles relative to how scripture, church tradition, regional creeds, and theological opinion all ought to relate one with the other (from a Reformed perspective):

  1. Scripture is the norma normans, the principium theologiae. It is the final arbiter of matters theological for Christians as the particular place in which God reveals himself to his people. This is the first-order authority in all matters of Christian doctrine.
  2. Catholic creeds, as defined by and ecumenical council of the Church, constitute a first tier of norma normata, which have second-order authority in matters touching Christian doctrine. Such norms derive their authority from Scripture to which they bear witness.
  3. Confessional and conciliar statements of particular ecclesial bodies are a second tier of norma normata, which have third-order authority in matters touching Christian doctrine. They also derive their authority from Scripture to the extent that they faithfully reflect the teaching of Scripture.
  4. The particular doctrines espoused by theologians including those individuals accorded the title Doctor of the Church which are not reiterations of matters that are de fide, or entailed by something de fide, constitute theologoumena, or theological opinions, which are not binding upon the Church, but which may be offered up for legitimate discussion within the Church.[1]

I think this is a helpful overview (I’ve shared it before, in fact, in years past). But I also wanted to share, at some length, a quote from Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink that fleshes this out even further. They are in the midst of discussing Christology and how the tradition of the church played the role that it did in providing the grammar that the church has held as the orthodox grammar towards speaking about the relationship of God and humanity/humanity and God in the singular person of Jesus Christ. Necessarily, in the midst of their discussion they are broaching the very issue I am highlighting in this post—i.e. how we ought to think about the relationship between church tradition and biblical teaching. They write (in extenso):

In a sense, and depending on where we currently find ourselves, the christological decisions of the fourth and fifth century are stations that we might have passed. We accept them gratefully while appropriating them critically. We need to pay attention to the underlying issues in the christological debate, to see where positions had to be guarded and why certain concepts that were introduced were needed. The conclusion of the Council of Nicaea that Jesus is of one essence (homo-ousios) with the Father, for instance, is much easier to understand when we realize that it was prompted by the desire to safeguard the thoroughly biblical idea that we cannot ensure our own salvation. God himself must become involved in the world—if we as human beings—are to be rescued from ruin, and for that reason Jesus must share the same “being,” or essence, with God. We simply are not like the fictional Baron Munchausen who, according to a well-known story, was able to pull himself out of the mud by his own hair. In brief, we do not accept the formulas because they happen to be part of the tradition, but because we discover genuine biblical motives behind these statements and in what they want to signal. One could say that the christological decisions (Niceno-Constantinopolitan and Chalcedon) are the directives of a former generation for how to handle the gospel story, the message of the God of Israel, and the Father of Jesus Christ.

There also is an important theological reason to exercise this “hermeneutic of trust” with respect to the tradition’s unifying message of the person of Jesus. Christ himself promised his disciples that the Spirit would lead them into all truth (John 16:13). It would be incredibly callous to suggest that the tradition is completely in the dark. At the same time, this promise gives no guarantee against the possibility of some obscuring or ideological manipulation of the gospel, whether presented in very high church or in popular forms. Therefore, we must always be critical in our dealings with the tradition; we must be selective on the basis of what the apostles and prophets have given us in the Bible.

When faced with the question of whether the tradition is a legitimate source for our Christology, we therefore give this dual answer. On the one hand, we gratefully accept the christological decisions of the church that came from the ecumenical councils. We thus abide by the course and the outcome of the christological debate. We move on, even though we realize that some alternatives might have been condemned at these councils owing to church politics and that the conclusions might well have turned out differently or have ended in the (often rather broad) margins of the church. But we trust that this is a case of hominum confusione Dei providentia (God’s providence [may be executed in the midst of] human confusion). On the other hand, our task is always to return to the biblical texts and, within their range of possibilities, take a critical look at the decisions and the terminology the councils used. Going back to the Bible this way is needed for several reasons. Something clearly present in the texts may have been lost in the process of debate; going back to the texts thus may represent an enrichment. But we also face a problem of comprehension when ancient languages become a stumbling block in a changed context, and we may need to reinterpret and reword the context of the dogma because of those changes. The struggles recent generations of believers and theologians have had with certain concepts of classic Christology represent a real problem we may not simply brush away.[2]

I find these to be wise words, and represent a good way for attempting to negotiate this kind of tenuous situation between tradition and the Bible. It touches, of course, on issues of authority in the church and how that relates to the biblical and theological interpretive processes itself.

Someone I have found fruitful towards engaging in this kind of negotiation between taking the trad seriously, and at the same time allowing the reality of Holy Scripture to be determinative, is Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Bruce McCormack offers these good words on Barth in this regard:

I say all of this to indicate that even the ecumenical creeds are only provisional statements. They are only relatively binding as definitions of what constitutes “orthodoxy.” Ultimately, orthodox teaching is that which conforms perfectly to the Word of God as attested in Holy Scripture. But given that such perfection is not attainable in this world, it is understandable that Karl Barth should have regarded “Dogma” as an eschatological concept. The “dogmas” (i.e., the teachings formally adopted and promulgated by individual churches) are witnesses to the Dogma and stand in a relation of greater or lesser approximation to it. But they do not attain to it perfectly—hence, the inherent reformability of all “dogmas.” Orthodoxy is not therefore a static, fixed reality; it is a body of teachings which have arisen out of, and belong to, a history which is as yet incomplete and constantly in need of reevaluation.[3]

This offers a different slant on all that we have been discussing thusly. Barth’s thinking (as distilled by McCormack) on the eschatological character of church ‘dogma’ is an important caveat in all of this. It points up the provisional and proximate nature that church dogma, as that is related to the biblical teaching, entails.

Much more could be said, but let me simply close by saying: as Christians our ultimate authority is the living Word of God, Jesus Christ. Insofar as Holy Scripture is “attached” to the living Word as the ordained Holy ground upon which God has chosen to most definitively bear witness to himself in Jesus Christ, then we as Christians do well to live under this reality; the reality that Jesus is Lord, and his written Word, for our current purposes as Christians, serves as the space wherein Christians might come to a fuller knowledge of God and their relationship to him as he first has related to us. Within this matrix of fellowship, though, we ought to remember the role that tradition plays in this as the inevitable interpretive reality that is always already tied into what it means to be humans before God; and in this thrust, then, we ought to be appreciative and attentive to what God has been working into his church for the millennia; and we ought to appreciate that he continues to speak into his church.

 

[1] Oliver Crisp, god incarnate, (New York: T&T Clark International, 2009), 17.

[2] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 397-98.

[3] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 16.

The Go Eat, Drink, and Be Merry Way of Reading the Bible: Robert Jenson Helping Us Read the Bible Confessionally Once Again

It isn’t that we haven’t referred to this at the blog before, but I like the way Robert Jenson discusses the futility of late-modern biblical scholarship’s enlightened drive to deconfessionalize their reading of Holy Scripture; as if they can read it purely historically (history-of-religions), without reference to the very reality that has held it together from its genesis—the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s as if we can apply the Apostle Paul’s logic and argument from I Corinthians 15 to modern biblical scholarship’s mode; indeed, such scholars, after they finish dissecting the Bible for the day might as well go eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow they die along with the rest of us. Robert Jenson writes:

There is yet a further question: Is there in fact “the” biblical narrative, running through all the Scriptures’ historical discontinuities and non-narrative genres? Israel and the church have supposed there is because they have seen one chief agent throughout. If we say the Christian God is the God identified by the biblical narrative, we must also say there is “the” biblical narrative only as we read the temporally, culturally, and religiously various documents in Scripture as witness to the continuing action of one and the same agent.

The circle just traced is benign. We will follow the one biblical narrative, to identify the one biblical God, only as we read the Bible by the purpose for which the church assembled this book in the first place, to be in its entirety and all its parts witness to Jesus’ Resurrection and so to a particular God. Whenever someone has tried to construe the unity of Scripture otherwise than by the identity of this God, the book has fragmented, first into Hebrew Scripture and New Testament and thereupon into traditions and genres and redactions within each. And when communities other than the church—in modernity, the communities of various ideologies and particularly the surreptitious such community of supposedly autonomous scholars—try to appropriate the Bible for their own purposes, the book falls into more shards—to which, of course, anyone is welcome.

The insistence of late-twentieth-century hermeneutics on the determining role of “communities of interpretation” is fully justified. What is sometimes not then faced is that some bodies of text, like the Bible, were created by specific communities for interpretive purposes, and have no unitary entity at all apart from those communities’ antecedent interpretation of them. The final reason that one cannot interpret the Bible independently of the church and its dogma is that without these there is no such book. The modern attempt to interpret Scripture “historically” has been intrinsically self-defeating and has now defeated itself, since it has curiously supposed that to interpret the Bible historically we must abstract from the history for whose attestation the church assembled this collection in the first place, the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ.[1]

One aspect of this, in order to avoid us from collapsing this into a strictly ecclesiocentric reading of Scripture, is to end where Jenson ends: “the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ.” What is given determinative ultimacy for the church’s reading of the text, for any reading of Holy Scripture, is not some sort of magesteria of the church, but indeed the all constitutive event of God’s life being in becoming in the Incarnation to the Resurrection. In this way the hermeneutic and approach to Scripture reduces back to Christmas and Easter, Pentecost and Ascension; to the person of Jesus Christ himself, the telos of all creation and thus of Scripture as a special aspect of that creation.

It is hugely unfortunate that what Jenson is calling the church back to is still not being taken to heart, even by people who say they are the primary of us all who hold the highest view of Scripture of all; i.e. the evangelicals (of which I am reluctantly one), with their doctrine of inerrancy in tow. The evangelicals, among other sub-communities within the church (and outside of it), have adopted the fragmentizing ways into Scripture foisted upon it by the very folks Jenson is referring to. They are attempting to read the Bible from a community that has sharded the Bible into various forms and redacted pieces, and subsequently created a whole hermeneutic around such proclivities, which has resulted in a field of biblical studies that is strangely (but not so strangely) at odds with what has held the Bible together for millennia in the Christian church; the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Why would I want to read the Bible like that? Why would I want to borrow tools from communities that subjectively project their own histories upon the canon of Holy Scripture, and read it that way? I don’t want to.

Has there been no value created by modern biblical studies? I wouldn’t go that far. But at the same time, to attempt to read the Bible from directions that are anti-thetical to Scripture’s very reality makes no sense.

 

[1] Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 1: The Triune God (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 58-9.