Hermeneutics

Revised Edition: What’s the Difference Between solo Scriptura and sola Scriptura? And Interpretive Tradition, I Have Mine What’s Yours?

In this post I am offering a revision, of sorts. I am going to consolidate two posts that I’ve had up in the last few days, into one; and in the process attempt to correct some things that I said about the movement ReThinking Hell (RH), and at the same time explain a distinction between what I mean when I speak of solo Scriptura versus sola Scriptura. Once I’ve accomplished that I will briefly touch upon the type of interpretive-theological tradition I’m committed to as an Evangelical Calvinist.

To begin with, let me make a correction, let me not speak of RH in global terms; let’s think of them in more partitive ways when it comes to their hermeneutical approach vis-à-vis its doctrine of Scripture. As the founder of RH (Peter Grice) has been letting me know via email, their approach is more diffuse, made up of the tapestry of hermeneutical approaches that characterizes the panoply of evangelical theologians and exegetes. Okay, I’m willing, at this point to grant him that. Nevertheless, there are some prominent voices in their ranks, such as Preston Sprinkle and Chris Date who forward what we might call, and what I am calling, the solo Scriptura approach. In light of that we will take a look at an emphasis that Sprinkle believes is valuable about the approach that RH takes to the Bible. He writes in endorsement of ReThinking Hell:

Hell is a crucial topic, especially for Evangelicals. And it needs to be revisited. For too many years—thousands, actually—believers have thought about Hell with closed Bibles. It’s time to reopen them. It’s time to think biblically, not confessionally or traditionally, about this misunderstood and debated doctrine. Rethinking Hell is doing the church a great service by stirring discussion and forcing us to read what the Bible says about Hell.[1]

If I were going to provide my own definition of what constitutes a solo Scriptura (or nuda Scriptura) approach I couldn’t be more precise than what Sprinkle offers. It is placing the Bible and its teaching in competition with confessionalism and church tradition; it is to buy into the enlightenment idea that we can read the Bible without the received understanding and permutations of the church in the history of the interpretation; that we can read the Bible without informing theologies “tainting” our exegetical conclusions. This, I contend, is the mood offered by a movement like ReThinking Hell (or at least by some of its most prominent voices); and they advertise it straightaway by lifting that type of spirit up through using Sprinkle’s endorsement of them as a place to go for undercutting the traditions (at least the tradition on hell) and confessions of the church by abstracting the Bible from its theological and intellectual context. Let me clarify, before we get ahead of ourselves; I’m not saying that contending with the tradition is bad, as we work it into dialogue with the scriptural witness, instead I am challenging the idea that we can or should read the Bible in an abstract way that is removed from the reality of its reception in the church’s history and the theology that that reception has produced. I am contending that solo Scriptura people, even if they claim otherwise, per enlightenment constraints, believe we can read the Bible “nakedly” (de nuda).

In contrast to this, sola Scriptura understands that it is not possible or advisable to read the Bible theology-less; and that the tradition of the church is an important aspect of engaging with the text of Scripture at an exegetical level. Angus Paddison offers some good words here, let’s listen in:

The prime responsibility of Christology is not first to be original but faithfully to read the ‘divine address’ that is Scripture. In order to fulfill this task, theology does of course need resources other than Scripture. This is to recognize with Robert Jenson that if we think sola Scriptura means understanding Scripture “apart from creed, teaching office, or authoritative liturgy” then we are resting on an ‘oxymoron’ (think of the obvious contradiction of the church that says it has no creed but the Bible). If the first responsibility of talking about Christ is to evince an attention to Scripture, we need to be more precise about the nature of doctrine and its relationship to Scripture.

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

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

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

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

Such endeavors help identify historical-criticism, the engine of much biblical scholarship, as the modern attempt to “start over” in a manner that left behind the gifts of the past’ [sic]. Accordingly, historical criticism is notoriously restricted in what history it is interested in. Fundamentalism and historical criticism both presume that the church and the church’s teaching is an obstacle, not an aid, to reading Scripture well.[2]

In the quote I emboldened: “often mutates into biblical scholarship alone.” This is the warp and woof of what constitutes a solo Scriptura versus sola Scriptura approach, as Paddison so helpfully develops for us as he engages with Calvin. And this, I contend, is exactly the type of approach that funds the work that ReThinking Hell is engaged in (or at least the work that is being done by some of its most prominent members); the Sprinkle quote suffices to illustrate this in spades. As I’ve listened further to some of RH’s spokesman in debate (Chris Date in particular), he goes out of his way to make sure that all he wants to know is how Scripture speaks of hell. What he means is what the solo Scriptura approach will produce for him. It is rooted, as Paddison helps us see, in the enlightenment project that seeks to move the church away from the church, ironically, as it reads Holy Scripture. This is the way of a naked modernity penetrating the church in such a way that it ends up distorting Scripture’s witness to Christ rather than enhancing it.

I believe ReThinking Hell’s approach (at least some of its more prominent voices) is less than desirable when it comes to engaging with Scripture. I don’t think the solo Scriptura approach is grounded in a rich Christology, nor do I think it thinks about Scripture’s place ontologically as that is embedded in a Christian Dogmatic way of thinking (as described by John Webster so well in his little book Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch). Do I think this is a problem that characterizes some of ReThinking Hell’s members alone? No. It’s a problem that the evangelical church at large is ensconced within; some of RH’s members simply reflect the evangelical culture they are part of.

What is My Interpretive Tradition?

As is clear for anyone who has read here for any amount of time this section is wasted on you; you know where I’m coming from. For matters of full disclosure, and anyone who happens upon this post who doesn’t know, let me make it exceedingly clear who informs my approach and why. My approach is largely funded by Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance.

I believe Karl Barth has done a revolutionary thing in regard to the categories and motifs he has offered the church. Yes, Barth might be a single man, but his reworking of election/predestination (as he inherited some of that from a French school of thought), and his style of Christ concentration is nothing more than an interpretive tradition in and  of itself; as explanatory and weighty as what we get from Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, Athanasius, Augustine et al. So why would I attempt to do theological-exegesis from outside of a theological tradition that I think provides the greatest explanatory power when we come to consider some very basic realities as we get into engaging with the inner-logic of the text of scripture? Indeed, this isn’t just true for me, it’s just as true for those who claim to “just be reading the Bible;” this is the irony of the solo Scriptura approach, or at least of an approach that believes it can read the Bible without theology necessarily informing their exegetical conclusions. It is inevitable and inescapable that we all bring theological preunderstandings to the text (and I contend this can be a good thing if its good theology). The hermeneutic and interpretive tradition I work from is Barthian, Torrancean (Thomas Torrance), and one that attempts to resourcefully and constructively receive from the whole of church tradition; albeit through the broader framework I have already noted.

Conclusion

I don’t think the basis of ReThinking Hell’s approach, in general, really appreciates the role that interpretive tradition plays for them in coming to their own conclusions about hell. They can’t just read the Bible and come to those conclusions, there are too many other things going on. So my question to them is what do they think represents their theological tradition; what is their hermeneutical framework being funded by? Do they think this framework has anything to do with their exegetical conclusions, or do they believe that their exegetical conclusions have purely funded their subsequent development on a theology of hell? I am positive (because I’ve heard him say this over and over again now) that Christ Date, of ReThinking Hell, believes that biblical exegesis comes prior to and indeed supplies the furniture of any developing theological framework post exegesis. This is why I say some prominent voices at ReThinking Hell are solo Scriptura thinkers, because they absolutely are. Yet the irony remains, even solo Scriptura proponents have informing theological frameworks funding their exegetical conclusions, even when it comes to their theology of hell; it’s just that they haven’t been self-critical enough to admit that, nor transparent enough for others to recognize what that is. So it’s left to outsiders to attempt to identify what that is for them, and let others know what in fact is informing their approach; theologically. If for no other reason but that we are transparent about how we are approaching Scripture. That’s an important fact to know when we are looking to others to teach us what the Bible says.

 

[1] Preston Sprinkle, ReThinking Hell Endorsements, accessed 09-23-17. [emboldening mine]

[2] Angus Paddison, Scripture a very Theological Proposal (New York: T&T Clark International, 2009), 66-7. [emboldening mine]

 

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How solo Scriptura is Demonic: Conditional Immortality, Annihilationism, and a Defense of After Barth Theological Exegesis

In this post I want to respond to a comment made in my previous post from a reader named, Phil Lueck. My last post was going to simply serve as an introduction to a larger post I had intended on writing as an argument against what is called conditionalism, conditional immortality, and often is associated with annhiliationism. I was motivated to write such a post because I had just recently
joined a group on Facebook called Re-Thinking Hell; one of its founding members is a guy named Chris Date (a Masters student at Fuller Seminary NW), and then there are others. They engage in debates (in real life and online) promoting what they think is the only viable reading of the text when it comes to ‘hell’ or ‘punishment’ texts; i.e. their conditionalism. After I’ve now had the chance to interact with them in their group, and listened to a few video interviews of Chris Date about his style of conditionalism, I’ve come to realize that they are simply advocating for a solo scriptura approach; the idea that people can read the bible, pretty much, without presuppositions and theological preunderstandings—which is horrifically dangerous. I shared a link to my previous post in that group, and one of the admins made it clear that they only wanted to hear what the Bible says about hell; they wouldn’t be that interested in getting into theological or Christian Dogmatic concerns. Oh, he was clear that he’d considered all the theological stuff (as if that’s distinct from biblical exegesis), and that he didn’t want me, really, to offer the type of post I was intent on offering. He thinks that I prioritize theology over scripture (again as if those two things can be disentangled in the neat and tidy ways he seems to think). This segues us back to Phil’s comment; let me share that, and then I will offer some response to him. If I seem defensive, it’s because I am. Here’s Phil:

Dear Bobby,

I have been reading your posts for several years and have appreciated your sand[sic], even when I have not agreed with you. While I have had a long interest in TFT and a more recent interest in Barth, I am not a Confessional Christian. I have studied church history, Christian thought and historical theology enough (M.A., Wheaton Grad School) to realize the diversity that exists within Christianity makes for significant challenges to the Reformation concept of the authority of God as it is mediated through Scripture.

Two years ago, after considerable consideration, I changed my understanding of Hell, from the traditional ECT view to CI. I have found RethinkingHell.com a useful site for that understanding. However, I do not merely believe just anything that they post. The test of truth for the evangelical believer must, in the final analysis, be Scripture. If I find a weakness in your site it is that your appeal to the truth of your theological understandings on just about any biblical text or theme seems to loyalty to Torrance and Barth.

I await you your follow of today’s post and trust that you will seek to make a greater place for the Scriptures themselves (i.e. some independent exegesis) instead just of using TFT and Barth as your support.

Blessings in Christ,

Phil Lueck

We can quickly see how Phil’s disposition fits the description I provided of those I encountered in the group: ReThinking Hell. But Phil, as does anyone who advocates for solo scriptura or de nuda scriptura (the idea that we can just read the Bible for all its worth without theological preunderstandings forming our exegetical conclusions), has a serious dilemma. The dilemma arises when Phil, or any solo scriptura advocate have to make interpretive decisions, and even translational decisions when it comes to the text of scripture; particularly when we are doing exegesis in the original languages.

Okay, so from Phil’s comment, he thinks I favor Barth and Torrance too much when I interpret scripture. But then I’m left asking: who does Phil favor; and who does the ReThinking Hell crowd favor? You see, the fact is this: theological-exegesis is something that all Christians do. Yes, those still under the spell of modernity would like to think that they can approach the text as a tabula rasa and simply allow the external stimuli and data of the text of scripture fill out the blank pages of their brain; but this just is not the case (Kant, if nothing else deconstructed that notion). Since this isn’t the case, since biblical exegesis will always already be a spiraling dialogue between scripture’s inner theo-logic and the lexical and grammatical realities of the text itself, it would do everyone really well to admit how this whole process works; and adjust their hermeneutical approaches accordingly.

Phil has to engage in the work of developing a theological-anthropology, as do those who are proponents of ReThinking Hell, in general; but as far as I can see that doesn’t even enter their minds. This is interesting, really, because the very premise of conditional immortality is grounded in how we conceive of the nature or being of humanity; i.e. when humans were created, originally, were they immortal or simply mortal awaiting immortality? In other words, the primary question, contra Chris Date, isn’t the nature of ‘eternal punishment’, as he asserts in the video interviews I’ve watched of him; but instead the issue here has to do with the nature of humanity itself. But interrogating this issue is not a matter of simply reading the text of scripture and using the analogy of scripture, comparing this scripture with that scripture in the interpretive process; no, it’s much more basic than even that. The process here is one where the interpreter must engage with the inner-logic of scripture; in other words, we mustn’t go beyond scripture, but we must dig into the depth-dimension of scripture. This is what theological-exegesis entails, and this is what ReThinking Hell proponents reject.

So they aren’t interested in me writing a post that engages this issue from a theological-exegetical approach; they want me to offer a more enlightened biblical exegetical process and conclusion based upon the type of form/redaction criticism interpretive process they’ve inherited as evangelicals. They want me to ignore confessional exegesis; they want me to ignore the history of interpretation; they want me wipe my brain clean of any other stimuli I might bring to the text, and simply offer a clean prima facie reading of the text that they themselves have ostensibly offered the church catholic.

As far as Phil’s desire to see me not rely so much on Barth and Torrance, I’m afraid he’s not appreciating the revolutionary type of thing Barth, in particular, has offered the church. Barth might be a single man, but his reworking of election/predestination (as he inherited some of that from a French school of thought), and his style of Christ concentration is nothing more than an interpretive tradition in and  of itself; as explanatory and weighty as what we get from Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, Athanasius, Augustine et al. So why would I attempt to do theological-exegesis from outside of a theological tradition that I think provides the greatest explanatory power when we come to consider some very basic realities as we get into engaging with the inner-logic of the text of scripture? I’m wondering what interpretive tradition informs Phil’s exegesis of the biblical text? Or what about Chris Date of ReThinking Hell? He claims to be a Calvinist, a classically styled Calvinist; which of course means his interpretive tradition comes mediated through Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and Augustine; to one degree or another. This is the type of non-criticalness that a commitment to a solo scriptura can foster; it can cause someone like Phil to tell me to quit relying so much on Barth and Torrance, when he in the same instance is relying on his own broader theological framework and interpretive tradition, at a macro, first order level.

In light of all these developments I’m really not all that motivated to write that long post on conditional immortality anymore. Not to mention that in that group on Facebook, once I shared my post from last night it caused a few in the group to come after me. I actually de-joined the group and one of them stalked me to my page and private messaged me attempting to egg me on into further jousting and debate; that didn’t make me happy at all (it caused some unfortunate words on my part). I think I’ll let this issue die immortally for a bit, and maybe revisit it when I’ve cooled off a little. I’ll just leave with this parting shot: solo Scriptura is demonic.

 

 

How to Read the Book of Revelation: Against Modern Day Astrological Numerology and other Aberrations

Given that according to some prognosticators the world is facing certain apocalyptic and cataclysmic reorientation starting in September 23rd, 2017, I thought I would reshare something I wrote awhile ago that engages with how to interpret the book of Revelation. Since these prognosticators are tying their predictions and prognostications to their interpretation of Revelation 12, it only seems fitting to test such an approach against a critical baseline for how the book of Revelation was originally composed, and for whom. If we push into this “baseline,” I contend, that what we will find will show these modern day prognosticators for who they are; i.e. hucksters (maybe even with good intentions) who haven’t taken the proper time to understand basic hermeneutical rules when it comes to interpreting biblical literature. So in an attempt to help address this issue, I give you the following (realizing that this is only a blog post with major space limitations; so a fuller development cannot be provided here, but hopefully it will provide enough grist for the reader to have some critical hooks to hang their hats of discernment on in this evil age).

Richard Bauckham’s books The Theology of the Book of Revelation & The Climax of Prophecy are resources that all Christians should avail themselves of. Let me provide an introduction, of sorts, into the basic argument of Bauckham’s book[s].  And of course, given the nature of my blogging pattern and style, I will also be reflecting upon the theological and exegetical issues that Bauckham’s writing is touching upon—as well as the more applied and correlative issues that Bauckham’s work only implicates, that is, the popular issues of dispensationalism, amillennialism, premillennialism, & postmillennialism. That said, let me wade us into what Bauckham thinks constitutes the basic trajectory and original purpose for writing the book of Revelation (which will implicate all kinds of things). Here is what Bauckham writes on the original audience and purpose of the ‘Epistle of Revelation’, and then a bit on how Bauckham thinks this reality cashes out in application (theologically and pastorally):

Thus it would be a serious mistake to understand the images of Revelation as timeless symbols. Their character conforms to the contextuality of Revelation as timeless symbols. Their character conforms to the contextuality of Revelation as a letter to the seven churches of Asia. Their resonances in the specific social, political, cultural and religious world of their first readers need to be understood if their meaning is to be appropriated today. They do not create a purely self-contained aesthetic world with no reference outside itself, but intend to relate to the world in which the readers live in order to reform and to redirect the readers’ response to that world. However, if the images are not timeless symbols, but relate to the ‘real’ world, we need also to avoid the opposite mistake of taking them too literally as descriptive of the ‘real’ world and of predicted events in the ‘real’ world. They are not just a system of codes waiting to be translated into matter-of-fact references to people and events. Once we begin to appreciate their sources and their rich symbolic associations, we realized that they cannot be read either as literal descriptions or as encoded literal descriptions, but must be read for their theological meaning and their power to evoke response.[1]

We leave off from Bauckham with a bit of a teaser; he goes on and provides some examples of what he describes in the quote paragraph of above. Suffice it to say, it can readily be observed that Bauckham, even in the small notation above (the quote), is getting at two popular, and I would say, erroneous, ways of reading the book of Revelation. Bauckham is getting at a naked idealism way of interpreting Revelation (as it has been in the history) which usually involves a presupposition of dualism; meaning that the book of Revelation is often construed as an ethereal book that depicts a cosmic struggle between good and evil. While there is an aspect where this is true for Bauckham, we can obviously see that he sees much more particularity, unity, and concreteness to the message and theology and history that make up this book than the classic idealism approach does. And then in the next breath, we also see Bauckham challenging what I will call the futurist, premillennial, dispensational reading of Revelation (the kind given popular expression in ‘The Left Behind’ series of books by Lahaye and Jenkins). He thinks it is in error to read Revelation as if its primary semantic and conceptual pool is predictive in nature; in other words, he sees it as highly problematic to read current events (like ours) into the book of Revelation, as if this was what John and the Holy Spirit had in mind when it was originally penned. Bauckham does not see the book of Revelation as a secret code book awaiting the decoder key (current events) to, in fact, decode it. No, he sees all of the events, people, and picturesque language of Revelation as grounded in a labyrinth of inter-related complexities that bubble up from the Old Testament apocalyptic genre (like that found in Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc.); and then he sees this context being applied to the ‘current’ events of the Roman empire of which the seven churches addressed in the Revelation are located.

There is much more to Bauckham’s thesis about the book of Revelation; like he sees the point of the book of Revelation as most pertinent to the Christians in the Roman empire who were suffering great tribulation and suffering, to the point of martyrdom. He sees the point of the book as primarily something to provide comfort and perspective for those being killed by the Roman persecution of the Christians. He sees the vindication of the Christian martyrs as the crux for understanding the composition of Revelation; and all of the apocalyptic language in the book, as providing God’s perspective over against the secular, mundane Roman perspective which these Christians were inhabiting. Bauckham sees the book of Revelation as predictive, in the sense that God’s people (all of us) will be vindicated at his coming (the second time, based on the first), as he crushes the powers of the nations, but not as the world would think, but as ‘the lamb slain before the foundations of the world’. So we see Bauckham’s vision of Revelation as correlative with the trajectory already set throughout the canon of the Old Testament apocalyptic literature; something like Daniel 2 comes to my mind:

44 “In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. 45 This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands —a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces.

“The great God has shown the king what will take place in the future. The dream is true and its interpretation is trustworthy.”

It is this kind of motif that Bauckham thinks shapes the book of Revelation, but not in light of its promise (like we leave it in the book of Daniel), but in light of its fulfillment, and thus reinterpretation ‘in Christ’. There is much more to say (and I will), but this should be enough for now.

 

[1] Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 19-20.

 

The Enlightenment, Biblical Studies, and the Development of the Dispensational Hermeneutic

I just found this buried in my saved documents in Word. It gets into some reasons why I have abandoned Dispensationalism as my hermeneutic (which I did approx. eleven years ago), as it tries to draw attention to the impact that the Enlightenment had upon the context within which Dispensationalism developed as a system of biblical interpretation. I don’t think I have ever shared this post before here at the blog, but maybe I have. Either way I think it is apropos to share this given the two videos I just did today on Dispensationalism on FaceBook Live.

There is no doubt a retreat, or migration as it were of evangelicals from engaging with doctrine, but insofar as doctrine is still present for many evangelicals of a certain era anyway, what informs them most, at least hermeneutically is the hermeneutic known as Dispensationalism. It was this hermeneutic that I was groomed in myself, not only as a kid, but in and through Bible College and Seminary (of the Progressive sort). Dispensationalism, without getting into all of the nitty gritty, is a hermeneutic that prides itself on using the ‘literal’ way of reading Scripture in a ‘consistent’ form as they claim; it is a hermeneutic that maintains a distinction between Israel and the Church (in its classic and revised forms); and it is a hermeneutic that simply seeks to read its understanding straight off the pages of Scripture in the most straightforward ways possible (again ‘literally’ with appeal to Scottish Common Sense Realism[1]). One of its most ardent proponents says it like this:

Literal hermeneutics. Dispensationalists claim that their principle of hermeneutics is that of literal interpretation. This means interpretation that gives to every word the same meaning it would have in normal usage, whether employed in writing, speaking, or thinking. It is sometimes called the principle of grammatical-historical interpretation since the meaning of each word is determined by grammatical and historical considerations. The principle might also be called normal interpretation since the literal meaning of words is the normal approach to their understanding in all languages. It might also be designated plain interpretation so that no one receives the mistaken notion that the literal principle rules out figures of speech….[2]

The Dispensationalist’s hermeneutic springs then from a philosophy of language that holds to the idea that language corresponds to real and perceptible things in reality, and as such, based upon this assumption attempts to, in a slavish way (to this principled understanding of language and reality) reads Holy Scripture in such a way that comports with language’s and history’s most basic and simple and normal component parts (i.e. as it can be reconstructed through critical and rationalist means).

It is no surprise that Dispensationalism developed when it did, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when what it meant to do Biblical Studies and exegesis of Scripture was to engage Scripture through developmental/evolutionary criterion for reconstructing Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) history (the periods that Biblical Scripture developed within), and using various other literary criteria for determining Scripture’s origination and the cultural-societal-rhetorical contexts that gave it rise. In other words Dispensationalism developed in a context wherein things are only true insofar as they comport with the canons of observable and empirical protocol. G.C. Berkouwer describes this development this way:

We now confront the noteworthy fact that, during the rise of historical criticism, concentrated attention to the text of Scripture was considered vital and necessary. Criticism protested against every form of Scripture exposition which went to work with a priori and external standards. It wanted to proceed from Scripture as it actually existed; it sought to understand Scripture in the way in which it came to us in order thus to honor the “interprets itself.” This is what it claimed in its historical exposition of Scripture: something supposedly free of all the a prioris of dogmatic systems or ecclesiastical symbolic. In that way justice could be done to Scripture itself.[3]

Maybe you noticed something in the Berkouwer quote, he is implicitly noting something that happened in the 18th century—again remembering that this is the context which the Dispensationalist hermeneutic developed within and from—there was a split (as a result of Enlightenment rationalism among other forces) between doing confessional/churchy biblical interpretation/study from the kind of biblical interpretation/study that came to dominate what it meant to do ‘critical’ biblical study. This split was given formalization in the mid-1700s first by publications from Anton Friedrich Büsching and then most notably by G. Ebling; Gerhard Hasel summarizes it this way:

Under the partial impetus of Pietism and with a strong dose of rationalism Anton Friedrich Büsching’s publications (1756-58) reveal for the first time that “Biblical theology” becomes the rival of dogmatics. Protestant dogmatics, also called “scholastic theology,” is criticized for its empty speculations and lifeless theories. G. Ebeling has aptly summarized that “from being merely a subsidiary discipline of dogmatics ‘biblical theology’ now became a rival of the prevailing dogmatics.”[4]

Dispensationalism developed within the new ‘critical’ approach to doing biblical studies, although it was attempting to still honor its pious commitment to Scripture as Holy and God’s. But it did so under the ‘Modern’ constraints provided for by Enlightenment rationalism; its philosophy of language (i.e. the literalism we have already broached), grounded in Scottish Common Sense Realism, was very so much so moving and breathing in and from a non-confessional, non-dogmatic mode of doing biblical study. Hasel once again describes the ethos which the Dispensational hermeneutic developed within:

In the age of Enlightenment (Aufklärung) a totally new approach for the study of the Bible was developed under several influences. First and foremost was rationalism’s reaction against any form of supernaturalism. Human reason was set up as the final criterion and chief source of knowledge, which meant that the authority of the Bible as the infallible record of divine revelation was rejected. The second major contribution of the period of the Enlightenment was the development of a new hermeneutic, the historical-critical method which holds sway to the present day in liberalism [dispensationalism] and beyond. Third, there is the application of radical literary criticism to the Bible …. Finally, rationalism by its very nature was led to abandon the orthodox view of the inspiration of the Bible so that ultimately the Bible became simply one of the ancient documents, to be studied as any other ancient document.[5]

It might appear that what was just described sounds nothing like who the practitioners of the dispensational hermeneutic are (i.e. evangelical Bible loving Christians). That would be correct, but the point is to note that dispensational hermeneutes don’t ever really abandon the Enlightenment principles nor the split from confessional hermeneutics that the Enlightenment produced between the disciplines. Instead dispensationalism attempts to work with and from the material and rationalist principles provided by the Enlightenment;  primarily meaning that the Dispensational hermeneutic hopes to be able to go immediately to the text of Scripture, through its grammatical and historical analysis under the supposition that biblical language simply functions like any other literary language does under its plain and normal meanings without any pretext or reliance upon its (potential) theological significance. Instead its theological significance can only be arrived at after abstracting that out from the plain meaning of the words of Scripture.

Conclusion

John Webster summarizes what happened during this period of development this way (and what he describes applies to the development of the Dispensational hermeneutic as well):

To simplify matters rather drastically: a dominant trajectory in the modern development of study of the Bible has been a progressive concentration on what Spinoza called interpretation of Scripture ex ipsius historia, out of its own history. Precisely when this progression begins to gather pace, and what its antecedents may be, are matters of rather wide dispute. What is clear, at least in outline, is that commanding authority gradually came to be accorded to the view that the natural properties of the biblical text and of the skills of interpreters are elements in an immanent economy of communication. The biblical text is a set of human signs borne along on, and in turn shaping, social religious and literary processes; the enumeration of its natural properties comes increasingly to be not only a necessary but a sufficient description of the Bible and its reception. This definition of the text in terms of its (natural) history goes along with suspension of or disavowal of the finality both of the Bible and of the reader in loving apprehension of God, and of the Bible’s ministerial function as divine envoy to creatures in need of saving instruction.[6]

Whenever you hear someone say they just interpret Scripture ‘literally’ dig deeper to see if what they mean is ‘literalistically’ under the constraints of what we described provided for by the Enlightenment.

To be clear, following the Enlightenment does not, of course, nor necessarily terminate in the Dispensational hermeneutic, in fact a case can be made that what the Enlightenment did to biblical studies, in some ways provided for some fruitful trajectory as well (insofar as it highlights the fact that the Bible and its phenomenon cannot be reduced to historicist or naturalist premises themselves); but we will have to pursue that line later. Suffice it to say, Dispensationalism is not the pure way to Scripture that its adherents want us to think that it is. It does not spring from Christian confessional premises, and in fact ignores the fact that indeed Scripture study and exegesis is actually a theological endeavor at its heart. The only way to get a plain meaning of Scripture is to read it through the lens of God’s life revealed and exegeted in Jesus Christ.

[1] See Thomas Reid, “If there are certain principles, as I think there are, which the constitution of our nature leads us to believe, and which we are under a necessity to take for granted in the common concerns of life, without being able to give a reason for them — these are what we call the principles of common sense; and what is manifestly contrary to them, is what we call absurd.” The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Reid (2004), 85.

[2] Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism. Revised and Expanded (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 80.

[3] G.C. Berkouwer, Studies In Dogmatics: Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), 130.

[4] Gerhard Hasel, Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues In The Current Debate. Revised and Expanded Third Edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1989), 19.

[5] Ibid., 18-19 [Brackets mine].

[6] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason(London/New York: T&T Clark, A Continuum Imprint, 2012), 6.

Reading Scripture with Calvin and the Inevitability of Theological Exegesis for All

The following is a post I wrote many years ago now; it’s rather short and to the point, but it’s about a very important thing that continues to remain a problem johncalvinsickbedfor many a Christian. It can be a very positive thing once the Christian Bible reader can be humble enough, and/or critical enough to come to recognize the inevitable reality that it is. What I am referring to is the reality of theological exegesis; we all do it, and it has been done ever since the Patristic beginning (meaning the theology that was developed in the so called ecumenical councils; the theology we consider orthodox today relative to the Trintarian and Christological grammar we employ as Christians). The following post broaches this topic once again, I can only hope that if you don’t realize that the way you read Scripture comes from a particular theological tradition, that in fact you will indeed come to realize that you do in fact read Scripture from a particular theological tradition[s]. Here’s what I had to say, appealing to John Calvin, back some time ago.

. . . Calvin, like the other reformers, understood that scripture could not stand without a framework of intepretation. And that framework ultimately supported his theological conclusions. This was precisely how it worked in Reformed, Lutheran and Catholic churches of the sixteenth century.[1]

I have recently been in a dialogue with a guy who clearly loves the Lord. We have been discussing the idea that God is the Gospel. This idea actually troubles this fellow, “that God is the Gospel,” he has said:

I’ve been going over this and talking it over with people. I am unwilling to say that God is the gospel. The gospel is the proclamation of the saving redemptive work of Christ. That is the way scripture defines the word “gospel”. It’s very specific. To go beyond that is to go beyond the teaching of scripture, the way scripture defines the term for us and I am unwilling to go there.

The reasons supporting the phrase “God is the gospel” presented so far are not based on exegesis of scripture, but rather on philosophical reasoning. In fact I find the reasoning to be specious. By the same reasoning one might conclude that God is the author of sin. Logic would lead us to believe that was true if we were not fenced in by the limits of scripture.

For this gentleman, the Gospel is strictly a verb, and is not a subject too — which it is. Not to digress, but to illustrate, in contemporary ways, the importance of Calvin’s own approach to scripture. That is, part of interpretation is to recognize that we are indeed interpreting. And that it is okay, and necessary, to go deep into the inner logic and implication of scriptures’ own assumptions. Calvin was aware of the fact that we all have grids of interpretation that we bring to the text, and part of this “spiraling” process of interpreting scripture is to allow scripture and Christ’s life to impose its own categories of thought upon our preconceptions.

In our case, with the fellow I mention above, if he realized that even his desire to read scripture in the way that he does (rather “woodenly”), is in fact a consequence of his prior commitment to an interpretive framework; then he would quickly realize that “his commitment” itself is not “scripture.” That his interpretive paradigm in fact — and I think this is safe to say — is resting on a certain philosophical arrangement that, unfortunately, is unbeknownst to this well intending brother in Christ.

 

[1] Bruce Gordon, Calvin, 108.

 

Barth’s Five Warnings on Philosophy and Biblical Exegesis: Scripture Alone is Domina

Kenneth Oakes in his book Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy engages with Barth’s “five points” or as Oakes calls them “five warnings” for how to use barthstampphilosophy in Biblical exegesis. I thought it would be instructive to survey what Oakes writes as he engages Barth in this way. We will read what Oakes writes on this at some length, and then I will offer my own reflection and engagement with Oakes’ engagement with Barth.

Barth offers five ‘points’ to remember in the use of philosophy within exegesis, but one might as well call them five ‘warnings.’ (1) The interpreter of Scripture ‘must have a fundamental awareness of what he is doing.’ ‘Awareness’ does not mean compiling a list of hermeneutical influences or a constant reflexive monitoring between reading Scripture and reflecting upon oneself reading Scripture. The issue is one of humility, which in this context means acknowledging that every philosophy is different from and inadequate for reading Scripture. Prior notions of human agency, the good life, moral obligations, and the fundamental nature of being are not just different from those in Scripture, but they actively prevent hearing the Word. (2) The presupposed philosophy can only be a hypothesis. While the text must be approached with assumptions, reading Scripture requires a willingness to alter these commitments in order to hear the Word. More problematic than the unsuitable nature of one’s presuppositions is ‘false asceticism,’ when one abandons the task entirely either out of despair or fails to bring the whole of oneself and one’s philosophy to this task. One thus should not forbid exegetical attempts undertaken by others with differing philosophies. As one’s reading   possesses the character of a hypothesis or essay, one must be prepared to change one’s own thought forms and philosophies, perhaps even converting to a different philosophy in the process. (3) The philosophy used for interpreting Scripture cannot be given independent consideration or become an end in itself. Such an interest might overwhelm the actual endeavor at hand: the interpretation of Scripture. Barth is not finally uninterested in the tools brought forward, he merely presumes that decisions to employ or alter philosophies within dogmatics should be made in the course of exegesis itself and not in some pre-theological space which theologians may enter and exit. Bath states, ‘in dogmatics, it is no doubt possible and even necessary to think and speak historically, psychologically, politically and philosophically. But in dogmatics we cannot treat this kind of thinking and speaking with final seriousness.’ Unconditional loyalty should never be bestowed upon any philosophy:

In this connexion it is hardly relevant to distinguish between good and bad, between the philosophies of this or that school. Nor is it relevant to seek a philosophy which cannot become dangerous in this way. There is none which must become dangerous, because there is none which we cannot have without positing it absolutely. There is none which cannot possibly become dangerous, because there is none which we cannot posit absolutely, that is, in disloyalty to Scripture erect its presentation into principle and an end in itself.

Barth realizes that this is a vicious flattening of various philosophies and he immediately qualifies this conclusion in his next point. (4) While there is no essential or necessary reason to prefer one scheme or philosophy to another in interpreting Scripture, this does not imply overlooking ‘the immanental significance of the difference of philosophical schools and tendencies,’ or the fact that individuals have definite and justifiable reasons, whether aesthetic, logical, or historical, for preferring one school to another. As Barth notes elsewhere, ‘a free theologian does not deny, nor is he ashamed of, his indebtedness to a particular philosophy or ontology, to ways of thought and speech.’ His main concern is to deny any necessary link between a particular philosophy and the faithful reading of Scripture. This is not to discount a certain type of necessity or assert that one’s tools do not matter at all: ‘the necessity which there is is particular: in a specific situation this or that particular mode of thought can be particularly useful in scriptural exegesis, and it can then become a command to avail oneself of it in this particular instance.’ While there are particular necessities for using certain philosophies in concrete circumstances, trouble arises when any specific philosophy is evaluated into a normative one for all times and places. The Word of God is free to use any philosophy for its self-expression. Throughout the history of interpreting Scripture there has hardly been some form of thought dangerous in itself that has not become fruitful and useful through grace (that is, sanctified). (5) The most legitimate and fruitful use of a scheme of thought for interpreting Scripture is a critical one, and yet Scripture is not an object of criticism but represents a subject who criticizes. With this understanding of criticism, Barth can claim that ‘philosophy—and fundamentally any philosophy—can be criticised in the service of the Word of God, and it can then gain legitimate critical power.’ To assert anything else is to underestimate the judging and renewing potency of the Word. Barth uses this claim as a deflationary measure for theology, affirming that ‘it is not really a question of replacing philosophy by a dictatorial, absolute, and exclusive theology, and again discrediting philosophy as an ancilla theologiae … In the face of its object, theology itself can only with to be ancilla. That is why it cannot assign any other role to philosophy.’ Philosophy and theology are both ancillae, for ‘Scripture alone can be the domina. Hence there is no real cause for disputes about prestige.’ If Scripture remains the domina, the result is that ‘we will not need totally or finally to fear any philosophy,’ and ‘perhaps not in practice but in principle’ theologians can ‘adopt a more friendly and understanding attitude to the various possibilities which have manifested themselves or are still manifesting themselves in the history of philosophy, and to make a more appropriate use of them.’[1]

I actually think that what Oakes quotes from Barth in this long development sums up the gist of what Barth’s ‘warnings’ are all about, it is this: “Scripture alone can be the domina.” Or when Oakes quotes Barth in a prior development of his book, this from Barth’s Church Dogmatics I/1, 445:

Philosophy, ethics, politics, and anything else suggested here may all have their own dignity and justification in their own spheres but they are the philosophy, ethics and politics of sinful and lost man whose word, however profound and true it may be, cannot be recognized as judge over the Word of God which is addressed in the name of God to these sinful and lost men, as judge, therefore over Church proclamation.

Barth is a theologian of the Word who offers a fat theology of the Word. It is because the Word is so primary and primal for Barth that he’s unafraid of engaging with various philosophies and theologies. It is the freedom that the Word provides that allows, for Barth, the space to think constructively, imaginatively, and resourcefully; a space that I fear too many North American evangelicals shrink back from.

What we, as evangelicals and Protestants ought to maybe imitate in Barth is his willingness to be so unapologetically segregated by the Word of God, unto God, that all else is seen as relative, and potentially useful; as if the history and creation we inhabit isn’t a history and creation unto itself as an end, but that history and creation are God’s history and God’s re-creation in Jesus Christ; this is a theology of the Word. That the Word of God is not a preamble but is the amble by which all other reality can hope to find order and being relative to God.

What I see in Barth’s theology of the Word is a fearlessness, an anti-apologetic approach to all things; again, because he has a principial understanding of what Christian actually means when doing theology and philosophy.

[1] Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 186-88.

Thank God for Jesus! Corrupted Interpreters that We Are

Karl Barth saw quite clearly, as a modern theologian himself, the hermeneutical problem that plagues each and every one of us. He had the 18th and 19th century theologians in mind when he penned the following, but the critique is applicable to all humans. I.e. there is not one period in the history of the church, or its intellectual history that has greater elevation than any other; I’m not spectaclesreally sure this has dawned on many of us. In my evangelical circles, particularly among the scholarly class there is a move back to Post Reformed orthodox theology as if it is the answer to what ails evangelicalism and the 21st century Protestantism in North America, and abroad. I’m not contending that there aren’t resourceful riches to be had from within that period of Protestantism, but again, it is theology done by broken human thinkers, just as much so as is present within the 18th and 19th centuries of the church. Here is what Barth writes in this regard:

We have to describe as a philosophy the systematized commonsense with which at first the rationalists of the 18th century thought they could read and understand the Bible, and later, corrected by Kant, the school of A. Ristchl, which was supposed to be averse to every type of speculation and metaphysics. It is all very well to renounce the Plationism of the Greek fathers, but if that means that we throw ourselves all the more unconditionally into the arms of the positivists and agnostics of the 19th century, we have no right to look for the mote in the eye of the ancient fathers, as though on their side there is a sheer hellenisation of the Gospel, and on ours a sheer honest exegetical sense for facts. There has never yet been an expositor who has allowed only Scripture alone to speak.[1]

The implications of this are deep and wide. What this should signal for all of us is that we need to have a sense of utter humility before the Word of God, and allow it, first and foremost, to do its interpretive work over and on us.

Barth is not saying we can’t know anything, just the opposite. Instead he is alerting us to the reality that what we can know of God, according to the Bible, is fully contingent upon God’s Word, and His confrontation and contradiction of our disordered faculties therefrom. In other words, we need to be inserted into the life of God Himself (by the grace of adoption) if we ever hope to have any knowledge of Him or even ourselves. Thank God for Jesus!

[1] Karl Barth, CD I/2, 728 cited by Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology and Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 185.

Reading the Bible For All Its Worth: Protestants and sola Scriptura Against Wooden-Literalist Bible Reading Habits

I just recently had a discussion with someone I know, a pastor, who took pride in the fact that I labeled his approach to biblical interpretation as wooden-literal. I have written against this approach for many years, and so when it came down to this little exchange I was having with this pastor it became real;  it became real because he was arguing from such a literalist approach that holy_biblehe wouldn’t even admit a women could potentially teach a man, even as a prophetess of Yahweh (i.e. Huldah). He claimed that because the word ‘teach’ is never used with reference to what Huldah communicated hortatorily to King Josiah that this in itself could not be used to illustrate a woman teaching or even authoritatively communicating God’s Word to a man or men. This exchange left me somewhat dumbfounded although not totally surprised.

The questions though are these: Does the Protestant commitment to sola Scriptura (‘Scripture alone’) mean that Protestants, historically, are committed necessarily to a wooden-literal mode of interpreting the Scriptures? Does it mean that Protestants have no regard for the history of biblical interpretation, for the ecumenical councils of the church (i.e. like where we get our orthodox grammar for God as Triune, and for Chalcedonian two-natures one person Christology, etc.), and that we must simply be slavishly and rationalistically tied to the biblical words themselves; as if they have some sort of structural meaning inherent to themselves? No, nein! This is not what Protestants have been committed to in their reading practices of the Bible. This is not what sola Scriptura entails. Instead, what my pastor friend is actually working from, ironically, is what rose up out of the Enlightenment and 19th century biblical studies; a ‘de-confessionalized’  historical-critical approach to reading the Bible. Gerhard Hasel identifies when this way of reading the Bible happened, and who signaled it most decisively:

The late Neologist and rationalist Johann Philipp Gabler (1753-1826), who never wrote or even intended to write a Biblical theology, made a most decisive and far-reaching contribution to the development of the new discipline in his inaugural lecture at the University of Altdorf on March 30, 1787. This year marks the beginning of Biblical theology’s role as a purely historical discipline, completely independent from dogmatics. Gabler’s famous definition reads: “Biblical theology possesses a historical character, transmitting what the sacred writers thought about divine matters; dogmatic theology, on the contrary, possesses a didactic character, teaching what a particular theologian philosophizes about divine matters in accordance to his ability, time, age, place, sect or school, and other similar things….”[1]

It is this split between theological (i.e. dogmatics) or churchly (i.e. confessional) readings of the Bible that is informing my pastor friend’s understanding of reading the Bible in a wooden literalistic way. It is an overreaction, by some, to fear of being drawn back into the Roman Catholic church (which is my pastor friend’s fear directly, since this was his background) and having a magisterium tell you what the Bible means coupled with an enlightenment rationalizing mode towards reading the Bible in a way that might have any connection whatsoever to the historical interpretations of said texts found in Holy Writ. So it isn’t an outright appropriation of all of the 19th and 20th century accretions of the biblical studies ‘movement,’ instead it is a selective appropriation of that such that an emphasis on the rationale of the bible reader’s individualistic reading of the text of Scripture dominates in such a way that in extreme cases only the very words themselves (almost without reference to the broader canonical context either intertextually i.e. the whole of the canon or intrattextually i.e. particular books of the Bible being studied have any say in how various words, sentences, and paragraphs ought to be understood).

Angus Paddison helpfully describes this type of dilemma, and how the Protestant understanding of sola Scriptura itself militates against the mode of interpretation my pastor-friend finds himself deploying as he reads the Bible. Paddison here is talking about how Christology ought to implicate our reading of Scripture, how that impacts sola Scriptura, and how this even impacts John Calvin’s own reading of Scripture (hermeneutically and exegetically). Paddison writes at some length:

The prime responsibility of Christology is not first to be original but faithfully to read the ‘divine address’ that is Scripture. In order to fulfill this task, theology does of course need resources other than Scripture. This is to recognize with Robert Jenson that if we think sola Scriptura means understanding Scripture ‘”apart from creed, teaching office, or authoritative liturgy’” then we are resting on an ‘oxymoron’ (think of the obvious contradiction of the church that says it has no creed but the Bible). If the first responsibility of talking about Christ is to evince an attention to Scripture, we need to be more precise about the nature of doctrine and its relationship to Scripture.

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

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

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

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

Such endeavors help identify historical-criticism, the engine of much biblical scholarship, as the modern attempt to “start over” in a manner that left behind the gifts of the past’. Accordingly, historical criticism is notoriously restricted in what history it is interested in. Fundamentalism and historical criticism both presume that the church and the church’s teaching is an obstacle, not an aid, to reading Scripture well.[2]

Conclusion

We have surveyed how current day bible reading practices have come to be among both evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians alike. We have noted that for such readers, those who engage in this type of Bible reading, that it has more to do with Enlightenment rationalism, and a certain theory of linguistics and historicism than it does with the Protestant sola Scriptura principle and how Protestants ever since the 16th century have engaged in the reading and exegesis of Holy Scripture.

If the above is so, it would behoove my pastor-friend to reconsider how he is approaching Scripture. He might want to ask: “Am I reading the Bible in a way that fits better with Protestant confessional historical Christianity, or am I reading it from certain impulses that are actually antagonistic to that? The ultimate goal, of course, is to ‘read the bible for all its worth.’ I contend that confessional Christianity offers the best resources for doing that; particularly when it sees Christ as the rule and key for understanding all of Scripture. That said, I am not against paying attention to philology, semantics, literary realties in Scripture, history, so on and so forth; it’s just that appealing to that in slavish and rationalistic ways is not going to yield, in my view, the best exegetical conclusions.

 

 

[1] Gerhard Hasel, Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 21-2.

[2]Angus Paddison, Scripture a very Theological Proposal (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 66-7.

The Christology of Leo’s Tome, The Chalcedonian Settlement, and Miscellaneous Thoughts on Church Trad and Biblical Interpretation

I wanted to share J.N.D. Kelly’s summarizing of the theses presented in Pope Leo I’s Tome. The writings which helped contribute to what became known as the Chalcedonian settlement which occurred at the Council of Chalcedon in 451ad. It is this “settlement” which has been used, thenceforth, as the standard or canon for determining whether or not someone’s view of Jesus Christ is orthodox iconjesusfaceor heterodox, if not downright heretical. As you will see through Kelly’s summary what Leo offered in his Tome wasn’t necessarily original to him, instead it served as a good codification of what had come before him in the various christological struggles (which the Council of Nicaea in 325ad is related to in some important conceptual matters). Here is Kelly:

The Christology which appears in Leo’s Tome has no special originality; it reflects and codifies with masterly precision the ideas of his predecessors. The following are the chief points he was concerned to bring out. First, the Person of the God-man is identical with that of the divine Word. As he expressed it, ‘He Who became man in the form of a servant is He Who in the form of God created man’. Though describing the incarnation as ‘self-emptying’ (exinanitio), he claimed that it involved no diminution of the Word’s omnipotence; He descended from His throne in heaven, but did not surrender His Father’s glory. Secondly, the divine and human natures co-exist in this one Person without mixture or confusion. Rather, in uniting to form one Person each retains its natural properties unimpaired (salva . . . proprietate utriusque naturae et substantiae), so that, just as the form of God does not do away with the form of a servant, so the form of a servant does not diminish the form of God. Indeed, the redemption required that ‘one and the same mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, should be able to both die in respect of the one and not to die in respect of the other’. Thirdly, the natures are separate principles of operation, although they always act in concert with each other. So we have the famous sentence, ‘Each form accomplishes in concert with the other what is appropriate to it, the Word performing what belongs to the Word, and the flesh carrying out what belongs to the flesh’. Lastly, the oneness of the Person postulates the legitimacy of the ‘communication of idioms’. We can affirm, for example, that the Son of God was crucified and buried, and also that the Son of Man came down from heaven.

These four theses may not have probed the Christological problem very deeply; it is obvious that they left the issues which puzzled Greek theologians largely untouched. They had the merit, however, of setting out the factors demanding recognition fairly and squarely. Moreover, they went a long way towards meeting the points of view of both the schools of thought struggling for supremacy in the East. Antiochenes could recognize their own theology in Leo’s vigorous affirmation of the duality in Christ, and of the reality and independence of the two natures. Some of his sentences, indeed, particularly the one cited above, were to prove stones of stumbling to Alexandrian Christologians. Nevertheless these latter, too, could see the essentials of their standpoint vindicated in the Pope’s unerring grasp of the identity of the Person of the Incarnate with that of the eternal Word. As he expressed it in a Christmas sermon, ‘It is one and the same Son of God Who exists in both natures, taking what is ours to Himself without losing what is His own’.[1]

It may or may not trouble some that Leo was a Roman Pope, but what this should illustrate for Christians across the spectrum is that we share an ecumenical past when it comes to the most basic stuff of our theological grammar and how we understand who God has revealed Himself to be in His Son, Jesus Christ. Beyond that, it is important to recognize that what we take for granted today as orthodoxy, when we speak of Christ’s two natures and the hypostatic union, or the Trinity, was something that developed over time within the mind of the church. We can be the most Free non-denominational Bible church out there, but it is important to remember that the orthodoxy we affirm when it comes to two-nature Christology, etc. is something that binds us to the church catholic itself. It is these realities, and church historical developments that ought to cause people who claim a nuda scriptura or solo Scriptura approach (meaning people who often claim the label of Biblicist) to come to terms with the fact that even they operate with some very basic tradition as the foundation for how they conceptualize God and Jesus Christ; which of course then impacts the way they  interpret and read Holy Scripture itself.

 

[1] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines. Revised Edition (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), 337-38.

The Quingentesimus of the Protestant Reformation and the Analogia Lutherano in Christ Concentrated Biblical Exegesis

As I announced on FaceBook a week or so ago, given that we are in the year that leads to the Quingentesimus, or 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation (i.e. October 31st, 1517), I have decided, in celebration, to devote much of my reading to the primary or as they are called, magisterial reformers. As such, since my blogging follows my reading, much more of my posting will beardedlutherlikewise be characterized by this period of theological development in the earlier years of the Protestant Reformation. My last post actually reflects this trajectory, as will this one. I will still of course be posting on Barth’s, Torrance’s, and other people’s theologies (and other topics of interest); but the character of my posting will have more of the historical theological thrust than maybe you’ve gotten used to from me (although if you’ve been reading me for awhile you will have seen me posting quite a bit on historical theological issues—in fact that’s all I originally posted on when I first started blogging in 2005).

Enough of this housekeeping, in this post I want to highlight the type of Christ concentrated or Christ-centered hermeneutic that Martin Luther followed in his exegesis. We will appeal to Alister McGrath in order to highlight how Luther wanted to see Jesus Christ in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament and the Psalter. As we lead into the quote from McGrath,  he has just finished sketching the medieval Quadriga (i.e. literal, allegorical, tropological/moral, and anagogical) method for interpretation. He is noting how folks like Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, et al. still worked within that medievally styled framework, but with a focus on the literal as the foundation for the other three senses. Within the literal, as we will see, there was further distinction between ‘literal-historical’ and ‘literal-prophetic;’ we will let McGrath explain the rest:

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….[1]

For further development of how this works itself out in both theory and practice in the medieval context, but with particular focus on how this works out in Thomas Aquinas’s exegesis, check Matthew Levering’s outstanding book Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation.

This distinction is interesting to me, particularly because we as evangelical Calvinist follow a Christ-concentrated hermeneutic as birthed in the theologies of both Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, respectively. What we see in both of their theologies is an exegetical norm that I would suggest follows the Luther[an] or even Thomist focus upon the literal-prophetic component rather than with as much concern on the literal-historic; albeit abstracted somewhat from the Luther-esque medieval and Quadriga framework. If you read Levering’s work, he identifies this type of distinction in the literal aspect of the Quadriga as linear-historical (which would correlate with Luther’s literal-historical) and participatory-historical (which would correlate better with Luther’s literal-prophetic sense). As Levering highlights, these two aspects do not need to be in competition one with the other, but in some ways can be complementing.

As someone deeply influenced by both Barth and Torrance, and also someone who reads more broadly than just Barth or Torrance, I am committed to both senses of the literal. But, if we are going to use the Luther[an] distinction, the emphasis will be upon the literal-prophetic as regulative towards understanding the significance or telos of the literal-historical as situated providentially within the created order which is for Christ (which according to McGrath fits well with Luther’s emphasis of seeing Christ as the sensus principalis of Holy Writ).

[1] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Oxdford/New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 80.