Against the Person Who Says: “All I Need is Me and My Bible, Me and My Jesus”

Many in the churches, particularly the evangelical churches, remain aloof to the reality of what might be called, ‘the hermeneutical dilemma.’ I have been writing on this over the last two decades, off and on, until my fingers have been bloodied (from striking the same keystrokes); and yet, still the same thing. People cannot imagine how it is that they are all products of teaching! They will sit there with a straight face and tell you that they don’t believe in theology, they just need and read the Bible. But then these same people will sit and listen to teachers who tell them this is all they need; that this is and was the intent of the Protestant notion of sola Scriptura. And yet the obvious, while it is beating them about the ears, roundabout, is absolutely lost on them! They cannot discern how it is that the teachers telling them that all they need or are being taught is Holy Scripture, is in fact a distinct thing from some sort of phantasmal naked Bible. In other words, these teachers teaching these people these things are themselves engaging in a hermeneutical or theological interpretation of Holy Scripture. There is no naked Scripture (nuda Scriptura), there is only Scripture as it has been given to and for us in the reality of God’s economy as that finds its res or reality in Jesus Christ. The second someone claims to simply be reading Scripture apart from doctrinal commitments, or what is better identified as theological teaching, this person has fallen prey to a self-refuting circle. The basic point is this: interpretive tradition, even if that comes to be that a person claims to have to biblical interpretive tradition, is in fact as inevitable as being a created being in the midst of a world that is sustained by the powerful Word of God (who is outside of us, in regard to His eternal and triune Life).  

I am not saying that the Bible cannot be studied for all its worth from within its own canonical strictures. But even that approach stems from a prior development wherein a person has self-consciously (or maybe unconsciously, as this post is trying to underscore) decided that this would be the best most internally consistent way to interpret Holy Scripture. The reality remains that even this approach, what we might call a second, second naivete, is rife with a logico-deductive decision to interpret from a place that isn’t itself Scripture. What I would hope people could come to grasp is that while they are denying that they have theology, or a hermeneutic (an interpretive system) informing the way they interpret Scripture, that these people would stop and pause long enough to recognize that in fact, by creational definition, they in fact do have these things operative as they approach Scripture. If you are a creature, and not the Creator, you and I, by definition, are defined by factors beyond our control. These factors form our preunderstandings about all of reality. When we remain unconscious of these factors, like the naïve idea that we simply interpret Scripture nakedly, we have the propensity to read foreign factors into Scripture, and then name them naked Scripture, unawares of how it is that these prior factors (or self-projections) are being read into Scripture. Admitting that we have these ‘factors’ at play, merely because we are finite contingent creatures, goes a long way towards developing good critical factors that help to prevent us from reading into (eisegeting) Scripture realities that are not there. I am only presenting a negative account of how interpretive tradition, factors, hermeneutics unawares destructively impacts the Bible reader’s engagement with Scripture.  

The point: when you sit there listening to your pastor, reading your favorite devotional, or picking up your Daily Bread, or listening to your most esteemed podcasters, and then say you don’t need anything but you and your Bible, you are refuting yourself for the whole critical world to see. It is best to admit that we all have interpretive tradition informing the way we interpret Holy Scripture, and then attempt to identify what in fact the factors are, in regard to the entailments of said interpretive tradition. Only then will the Bible reader be on better ground to engage with Scripture in a way that allows Scripture to be read out of itself (exegesis) towards and from its reality in Jesus Christ. Since most evangelicals, in particular, and other Christians, in general, fail to make this recognition, they will continue to naively approach Scripture under the delusion that they can do so under the powers of their own untarnished rationales.  

One superficial, but broad-sweeping consequence of this can be observed on theological YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and other like platforms. Christians developing whole subcultures under the faulty guise that they simply read Scripture without prejudice, philosophy, or self-predication (in regard to assigned meanings). The real-life consequence of creating these sand-based subcultures is that people spend hour upon hour arguing about things that have no actual correspondence to the concrete reality of God Self-revealed in Jesus Christ. In other words, failure to recognize the reality of interpretive tradition, factors, and hermeneutics leads people to build self-generated interpretive castles grounded upon self-projection and idolatry rather than the more sure Word of prophecy revealed in Jesus Christ.  

A Response to the Reformed Baptists: Against Naked Scripture Reading

What’s going on with these Reformed Baptists? I’m referring to people like James White, Rich Pierce (White’s sidekick), Owen Strachan et al. I just had a fun exchange with White’s guy, Pierce on Twitter. It’s always the same thing with these guys. I cut my teeth in the blogosphere with these types of extended engagements with the JMac crew over at the Pyromaniacs blog back in the day. White, and his whole Alpha and Omega crew, along with the Apologia guys, and then people like Strachan and Jeff Johnson, and all their followers in the so-called Reformed Baptist camp suffer from the same sort of arrogant naivete. They all operate with this notion that it’s possible for the biblical interpreter to read Scripture without a hermeneutic. In other words, they simply believe that they purely read the 5 Points of Calvinism out of the text of Scripture (or a modified/heretical understanding of the Trinity, in some cases). They don’t acknowledge any reception history from its development in the Reformed history of ideas. In fact, they are anti-Confessional (except maybe for the London Baptist Confession of Faith, the parts that resonate with them). Here’s a sampling of my recent excursion with that really nice guy, Rich Pierce:

This guy took this tone with me immediately, in a previous tweet exchange. This is how it always goes with them. The irony is that they operate out of an Enlightenment rationalist/naturalist hermeneutic, not confessionally Reformed whatsoever. They fail to recognize that all reading is interpretation, and that confessional Christian reading is simply the mode that has given the orthodox categories we use to think the Trinity and Christological loci like the hypostatic union, homoousios so on and so forth. Instead, they read from the confessionalism provided for by the naturalism inherent to the Enlightenment; being confessional is an inescapable reality of interpretation (any kind of interpretation). The only people in Reformation history who claimed to read the Bible outwith confessionalism were the Socinians (and maybe the Anabaptists before them). That’s the spirit people like White, Pierce, Strachan et al. operate from. Indeed, in Strachan’s case, and now White is defending him, he arrives at his eternal functional subordinationism (EFS) of the Son, precisely because of their anti-ecclesial confessional reading of Holy Scripture. No matter how much testosterone these guys muster up to counter critiques like mine, just as Pierce does above, the facts of the theo-logic, they are ignoring, remain.

What they don’t understand is how the order of authority works. People like White/Pierce seem to think that if you use conciliar categories (like we get from Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon etc.) that somehow you are denying the Protestant Scripture Principle (or more colloquially, sola Scriptura), but that is to engage in a radical error of thought. The ecumenical confessions/creeds, for example, are subordinate to Holy Scripture insofar that they are attempting to supply a grammar for the inner-theo-logic of the text. In other words, given the occasional nature of the text, which it always is, even if the occasion turns out to be purely canonical, the authors of Scripture make theological assertions; that is, they leave many things either inchoate or unstated in their respective communications about God. What the creeds/confessions do, in principle, is come along and recognize that things are stated about God, in Scripture, that require a grammar; particularly so that the Church can know the difference between truth and error; not to mention, so that the Church can speak and think intelligibly about God. There is no inherent denial of the Protestant Scripture principle in this endeavor. The only real problem that can and has obtained, at points, is that the ‘metaphysic’ used to flesh out said biblical theo-logic could potentially be at odds with the Scriptural categories and witness vis-à-vis God. This has always been the basis of my critique with reference to the developments of scholasticism Reformed dogma in the 16th and 17th centuries. But this sort of thinking goes right over the heads of people like White, Pierce, Strachan et al.

In order to end this post on a positive note, let me share something I’ve shared multiple times in the past from Oliver Crisp. He offers a nice taxis, in regard to how to think the relationship of Holy Scripture to the creeds, confessions, and theologoumena. And with this we’ll close:

  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]

It would be nice if the Reformed Baptists under consideration could internalize the above, but they won’t. Instead, they will continue to appeal to their egos and insecurities and respond the way Pierce did to me in the aforementioned. Unfortunately, these things have real life consequences; like denying an orthodox understanding of the Holy Trinity (as we now see in Strachan, and White’s defense of him). This is why sometimes I’ll bring this sort of discussion up for consideration. Peoples’ eternal souls are literally at stake in many cases.

 

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

On the Christological Exegesis of the Biblical Text: Christ the Centraldogma of Everything

The Old Testament makes no sense without Jesus as its centraldogma. It was really only after the advent and development of a post-Enlightenment deconfessionalized naturalist biblical studies movement wherein my thesis statement would make no sense. For the Christian, the idea that the Old Testament has any meaning other than its witness to Jesus, and its fulfillment therein, in principle makes no sense. Jesus himself thought as much: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me . . . .” There is historical nuance, descriptions of historical narratives, development of historical characters, and much more in the Old Testament. But without their ultimate referent in Jesus Christ, they have no meaning, no context. They only remain a series of potentially inspiring, and variously interesting stories about a nation amongst the nations, but without Jesus Christ as its canonical-contextual ground, again, these stories remain largely aloof to anything relevant towards the meaning of life before God (coram Deo). Barth agrees:

But when they say that this subject is Jesus Christ, who according to the will of God was slain under Pontius Pilate and was raised from the dead by the power of God, we can only say again that the ultimate exegetical question in relation to these passages—the question of their subject—is identical with the question of faith: whether with the Synagogue both then and now we do not recognize Christ. This question obviously cannot be settled by the Old Testament passages as such. The final result of the passages as such is the difficulty. Again, it is naturally impermissible to accept the reply of the apostles solely because we cannot solve these difficulties in the exegesis of the text itself, or because, on the other hand, we share with them an idea that Jesus Christ is supremely fitted to occupy the place where we are pulled up short. The apostles themselves did not reach their answer as a possibility discovered and selected by themselves, or as a final triumph of Jewish biblical scholarship. They did so because the Old Testament (Lk. 24.27f) was opened up to them by its fulfilment in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and because in light of this fulfilment Old Testament prophecy could no longer be read by them in any other way than as an account of this subject. If we accept the decision of the apostles—for the same reasons as they did, compelled by the affirmation that the elect king, of whom they speak, is Jesus of Nazareth, will be not merely possible but necessary as the last word in the exegesis of these passages, the last word! So far we have mentioned His name in our investigation of these passages. We have remained within the Old Testament world and its possibilities. We have tried in this world to bring out and think through what is said there about the elect king. But we have been forced to the conclusion that the entity in question cannot be brought out or apprehended within the Old Testament world: whether we think of it in terms of the monarchy as willed by God, or of the person of the elect king; whether we think of the matter itself or of its unity. Therefore the decisive question: What is the will of God in this matter? and whom does He will for this purpose? is not a question which can be unambiguously answered from the passages themselves.1

Thomas Torrance summarizes what Barth is after this way:

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.2

Some people, like Helmut Thielicke, see Barth, and Torrance, respectively, as Christomonist. The idea being that Barth et al. so reduce the contours of Holy Scripture to Jesus, that nothing else is seemingly significant in itself. For the Lutheran, Thielicke, his critique largely stems from his desire to read the Bible through the Law/Gospel dialectic, but for others, the critique of Christomonism simply arises from the facile notion that Barth and company reductionistically reduces all of reality, including Scripture’s, to Jesus Christ. As a Christian, I am left scratching my head in regard to this critique. The Apostle Paul writes, “that their hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” If Paul is right, and he is, then in what way is seeing Jesus everywhere, and in every way, monist and/or reductionistic? It seems to me that people who make such critiques have already posited a priori some other meaning of Scripture, constructed from some other place than Scripture, about Scripture’s principial meaning as that is found in Jesus Christ alone (Solo Christo).

In certain sectors, there is a lot of talk about theological interpretation of Scripture or theological exegesis these days. But for my money, the only game in the Kingdom, hermeneutically, should really be designated Christological exegesis; at least for the genuinely Christian approach to all things. Barth, and Torrance following, reflect the sort of Christological exegetical approach that I believe every Christian should be about. We see this, even radically so, in someone like Martin Luther, and John Calvin in lesser ways, and I think we ought to see this more today among the exegetes wherever and whenever (which is a huge ask these days) they might actually be found. To not be a Christological exegete only leads to the sort of impoverished biblical exegesis we see attending so much of the evangelical world in our contemporary culture. If all of reality is about Jesus, then this, at least, ought to imply that all of biblical exegesis is self-same. How this gets fleshed out can only happen insofar that the analogy of the Incarnation is allowed to inform our exegetical efforts. Some form of the Chalcedonian Pattern, as George Hunsinger would call this, needs to be the imprimatur of the exegete’s Christian existence. But will the Lord really find such biblical exegetes on earth?

 

1 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 §35: Study Edition Vol 11 (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 196.

2 Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931, 196. 

The Big Words of Theology: Pushing into the Depth Dimension of the God Beyond the Words

I often get accused, or maybe that’s too strong, I often am told by some of my contacts on social media that their eyes glaze over when coming to a post or tweet of mine. They are referring to the theological jargon I often use when giving self-expression to some thought I have about God, or anything related. I like to say that either 1) I’m speaking freely, or 2) that the jargon I’m using has a theological context within which it makes sense; and that it is used for precision purposes among those who study such things. But the ultimate point remains: technical theological language is useful insofar that it is symbolizing a deeper (than the word) theological reality that no other word[s] heretofore have been found suitable. I like to encourage people to push on, to elevate, and get past the “prestige jargon,” and attempt to stretch and think into the depth dimension that the words are inviting them/us into. This is what TF Torrance is after when he writes the following:

Throughout the last two chapters our thought has centered on the Triunity of God as three Persons, one Being, and towards the end of the last chapter attention was directed particularly to the concept of perichoresis for our understanding of the coactivity of the Holy Trinity. It was pointed out that it is very easy when using technical terms to think concepts rather than the realities denoted by them. Technical terms are a kind of theological shorthand which helps us to give careful expression to basic truths and their conceptual interconnections, as we noted earlier, in the passage of theological clarification from one level of understanding to another and back again. However, in the last resort they are no more than empty abstract propositions apart from their real content in the specific self-communication of God to us in his revealing and saving acts in history in which he has made himself known to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It was such an essentially dynamic approach to the coactivity of the three divine Persons that we found to be entailed in the theological shorthand of perichoresis.1

TF’s reference to ‘perichoresis’ is fitting. How many people on the street, or in the pew, would have ever heard of perichoresis? And of course, this is to the point. People, often, are much too squeamish when it comes to thinking big. But personally, this baffles me. The God we serve, who is our Lord, spoke, and the world leapt into existence. The God we worship is the Ultimate, is the ineffable God whose ways are not our ways; but He has stooped to our ways by assuming our humanity that we might begin to peer into the Holy of Holies of His Triune Life.

So, let’s get past the eyes glazing over stage, when it comes to big theological words, and imagine that in Christ we have now been given the capacity to be more enamored, more enthralled by the majesty of our ineffable God in such a way that the words used, in an attempt to provide some intelligible and articulate way to think God, aren’t greater than the gift God has given us to see Him with through the eyes of faith (the faith of Christ). As TFT says elsewhere with reference to Holy Scripture (my paraphrase): ‘The words of Scripture are the signs (signum) that point beyond themselves to their reality (res) in God in Jesus Christ.’ This is why Jesus says to Thomas, ‘when you see me you see the Father.’ Jesus is the ultimate signum whoin we see the reality of the Triune God in the Face of God’s Son, enfleshed. The veil, serves as the means of revelation wherein the Deus absconditus (hidden God) becomes the Deus revelatus (revealed God); never predicated by the human condition, but predicating it in a constant frame, and event[uating] of the anointing work of the Holy Spirit (so An / -enhypostasis).

My last paragraph here is an attempt to illustrate further usage of big words in the service of their greater reality found in God in Jesus Christ.

 

1 Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark), 203. 

First Listen Before We Speak: The Role of Tradition in the Evangelical Churches

A rather troubling issue for the Protestant can be the relation between tradition and scripture. So many Christians believe that tradition is just something that Roman Catholics have, and that us Protestant Evangelical Reformed types simply have the Bible; and thus us Protestant types have a hard time making a critical distinction between our personal interpretations of the text of scripture, and scripture itself. We should just admit that we have interpretive tradition operative in our lives as much as Roman Catholics do; we just don’t have an ecclesiological construct that imbues our interpretive traditions with the kind of magesterial and principled force that Roman Catholics do—but we might even function like we have this too (i.e. when we elevate our particular denomination’s interpretive tradition to a magesterial and binding level). Karl Barth would be one of the first theologians in line to tell all of us that we, as Protestant Christians, have interpretive tradition shaping the way we interpret and approach the scriptures. Robert McAfee Brown has written a whole chapter on Karl Barth and Tradition; he concludes his chapter thusly:

In the difficult area of the relationship of Scripture and tradition, Barth has broken some fresh ground upon which new approaches can be constructed. He delivers us from what can be a very perverse notion of sola Scriptura that would assert that we go to the Bible and to the Bible alone, as though in the process we could really bypass tradition. He delivers us from a kind of biblicism that is content to rest simply with a parroting of the vindication, “the Bible says …, the Bible says….” He confronts us with the necessity of taking tradition with utmost seriousness, and seeing it as a resource for the articulation of our own faith, so long as we keep it under Scripture and not alongside Scripture. He builds fences against the kind of subjectivism that is the morass of Protestant individualism, by pointing out that just as the church must first listen before it speaks, so must we first listen before we speak, and that when we do speak we many not jauntily set up our own private insights as though they had some kind of definitive worth simply because they are our insights. And he provides the supreme criterion by which all else, whether Scripture, tradition, church fathers, private insight, church structure, or whatever, must be judged — namely the criterion of the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Whatever the witnesses to the Lordship of Jesus Christ we must retain. Whatever jeopardizes the Lordship of Jesus Christ we must discard. That the issue between what to retain and what to discard is momentous, constitutes both the glory and the risk of being a Christian. [Robert McAffee Brown, Chapter 1: Scripture and Tradition in the Theology of Karl Barth, edited by George Hunsinger, Thy Word is Truth: Barth on Scripture, 18-9.]

This reality could be distressing for some of us; it could challenge us to think that we don’t come to scripture naked, but that we come to it garbed in whatever swaddling clothes our spiritual mothers and fathers have clothed us with. As we come to scripture, as Brown points out in regard to Barth’s approach, we need to do so with the question: “Does what I believe scripture to be communicating coalesce with the fact that Jesus is Lord?” What does “Jesus is Lord” mean? For Barth I would suggest that it meant that God in Jesus Christ is the free and self determining God who elected in Christ (by electing our humanity for himself) to not be God without us; but to be God for us and with us (Imannuel). If you have an interpretation of scripture that challenges or negates this fact of who God is in Christ; then this should signal to you (and me) that we have a wrong understanding of scripture.

An example of having a wrong interpretation of scripture — in light of the above criterion that Jesus is Lord — could be to test and see whether what you think scripture is communicating about God in Christ makes God contingent upon creation. In other words, might you (might I) be interpreting scripture in a way that sets up creation prior to covenant; prior to God’s life revealed in Jesus Christ? So that we domesticate God in a way that makes him a predicate of our philosophical assumptions about how we think God should be or act; or do we so emphasize an personal experience of God that we forget that he is still sovereign Lord and God, that he isn’t just some sort of emotional experience we associate with him as him, once or twice a week (or more)?

Theological Ontology and Biblical Interpretation: How This Impacts People Like NT Wright, Andrew Perriman, and Everyone

Theological ontology and biblical interpretation are not often paired in the way they should be. Samuel Adams (someone I’ve had correspondence with in the past) wrote his PhD dissertation on this locus; it was published in 2015 with the title: The Reality of God and Historical Method: Apocalyptic Theology in Conversation with N. T. WrightI just happened upon a Facebook thread, based on a post from a friend, wherein a (unbelieving, as I discern it) NT studies guy (someone I have some history with online) falls prey to the sort of naïve historicist epistemology that someone like N. T. Wright promotes. Someone else who falls prey to this, and someone I have had an argument with in reference to the themes that Adams is promoting in his work is a biblical studies scholar named, Andrew Perriman. In order to “de-thread” the argument I was having with Perriman approximately 5 years ago, I am going to share my response to him, where I also quote salient portions of his press-backs to me. I don’t think many have considered the gravity of these things before, and so I hope this brief exposure will at least pique your interest. Here’s the exchange (at least as I frame it in my responses back to Perriman):

Andrew wrote:

If we are then left with a gulf between our understanding of the Bible and dogmatic tradition, then we have to do something about it. My preference is to regard dogmatics as part of the narrative, as much subject to prevailing worldviews (pace Adams) as New Testament apocalyptic. The answer is not to keep allowing theologians to make scripture say what they think it ought to say.

This is quite a negative view of what theologians do! But since you reject (below) the idea of the ‘inner-logic’ of Scripture, negativity makes sense. What’s interesting, though, is that you don’t seem to hold the same view when it comes to the capacity that historical-criticism can and can’t do. Apparently historical-criticism does not attempt to reconstruct the “inner-history” within which the text of Scripture is located and written within. To me your critique is a double-edged sword, and you ought to fall on it as much as any theologian (if they ought to at all).

The history of interpretation is framed by confessional Christian dogmatics; that is undeniable. Yes, post-enlightenment has moved some beyond confessional so-called pre-critical interpretive practices; but that’s a crying shame. At the same time, I’m not totally antagonistic towards what has happened in the critical and now post-critical periods—there is some value there—but I only see that value tempered by also realizing the role and frame that Christian dogmatics offer, with particular reference, again, to the history of interpretation as a resource for the interpretive process. I’m not advocating an all or nothing, but a some here a some there.

Andrew wrote:

I’m afraid that sounds to me like a theological fiction. To ascribe an “inner logic” to scripture is just the same as the old sensus plenior argument—it’s a way of smuggling meanings into the Bible that don’t belong there.

Eh, I’ve just addressed this above. Historians do just as much “smuggling” ostensibly as do the theologians; not buying that response.

Andrew wrote:

Clearly Israel believed it was participating in history with YHWH. This is not conflating two different models. It is simply recognising that the biblical narrative has to do with a historical community’s experience of God. So I would turn it around: the concrete historical experience of the community is the ground for any more abstract notions of participatory history.

I would flip this on its head (your flip) and say: the concrete particularity of God’s life in Jesus Christ enfleshed and those in union with Him by the Holy Spirit is the ground of experience through which God is known, and by which all other historical particularities in regard to Israel make sense (moving from shadow to substance/telos). Participation is not grounded in an abstract historical experience of the “people of God,” it is grounded first in God’s own participatory life for us in Christ, and it is this vertical reality that implicates how linear history (so called) makes sense in relation to Him and His in-breaking into the world. There is no Israel, there is no history, there is no revelation without that first order reality who is God (In the beginning). If you are going to read from bottom-up (i.e. Israel’s experience of God back to God), then I would suggest the better route, as I just noted, would be to start with Christ (as the par excellence particularity of Israel’s history) and work from there (a posteriori).

Andrew wrote:

… how would the ancients have explained their own metaphysics?—but a very difficult one, because they didn’t ask the questions in the sort of terms that you presuppose; in fact, the question may be anachronistic and meaningless.

This seems really rather strange to me, Andrew! You seem to have much more confidence (maybe of the enlightenment sort) to access what in fact the ancients actually thought. And then you seem be building a whole hermeneutic based upon your confidence and ability to reconstruct the ancient near east psyche. I think Adams is critiquing this very notion, and rightly so! This is about theological ontology and epistemology, and your treatment of things doesn’t seem to critically engage with that reality at all (i.e. the noetic effects of sin etc and how that impacts theological enquiry and hermeneutical/exegetical conclusions). You can assert that what Adams, and what I am saying is meaningless and anachronistic, but that fully misses the point here; again, the point has to do with theological/hermeneutical epistemology which is intextricably tied to theological ontology. You can dig your heals in all you like at this point, you claim a certain access to history, etc, but that does not engage with the elephant in the room which happens to be a theological elephant — this is where Adams’ (and of course I haven’t read him so I’m guessing based upon what you’ve written and knowing in general where he is coming from) thesis I think pretty much leaves your position listless. J

Andrew wrote:

… There’s nothing peculiar about it. The problem is that for 1500 years the church forgot what the original context was and assumed that its dogmatic conclusions were all that was needed to guarantee an accurate reading of the text.

No Andrew, I think this is rubbish! The church did not forget anything (your position is starting to sound a little like the Ladder Day Saints!), the mind of the church, if properly conceived, is first grounded in the life of God’s life in Christ by grace. This takes us back to my early response to you about participation (in this comment). Jesus never abandoned his church, but to read what you just wrote (and what many others in your mode do like NT Wright et al) one would think exactly that; i.e. that God’s presence had been absent until the ball got rolling to its current trajectory (in sectors, like yours, in biblical studies) — that just silly and absurd! In fact there is a movement of theological retrieval and ressourcement that is attempting to draw from the riches that lay in the heritage of the Christian church. Now just because you seem to think that that heritage is either not there or defunct doesn’t make it so — God forbit it! — it just means that you have chosen to believe that the enlightened mind is better suited to access the real life categories of Scripture than is the “pre-critical” mind. But I refuse to accept that, in fact I take it as pretty much blasphemous thinking! If we follow through on your logic God had abandoned his church for 1500 years; the years that gave the church the grammar for the Trinity, the hypostatic union, the homoousious, etc. This is why I actually think you do reject the idea of participatory history, because it is that reality that believes that God has always been present in his church providing dialogically conditioned ways of knowing him through Holy Scripture by the Spirit.

Anyway, Andrew, we are on totally different wave lengths here; as I’m sure you and Adams are. But the hurdle that you haven’t overcome or even really engaged with, as far as I can see, is the hurdle of explicating and engaging with the notion of a theological epistemology (which is a very important piece, even fundamental piece of thinking Christian dogmatically — which is maybe why you haven’t really engaged with it). To simply defer to the mind of the ancients only illustrates your disengagement here (with theological epistemology); because you are already presupposing upon an epistemology that believes it can access the ancients mind unabated, at least enough to say with enough certainty that allows for you to develop a whole hermeneutic that ostensibly gets God in Christ more right than does the Trad of the Christian church (in ALL of its history thus far).

To be clear: I’m not saying there is no value in attempting to reconstruct history, ancient minds, etc; but it is dangerous to presume that that is the basis for establishing a robust hermeneutic. It is dangerous because it remains contingent upon you and others’ capacity to reconstruct the history, and as such is susceptible to winds and waves of the historian’s mind rather than the mind of Christ.

Perriman ended up writing a whole long post in response to my pushback here. All he ended up doing was doubling down on his thesis, without actually responding to my points on theological ontology/epistemology.

I am somewhat known (at least in the online theological world) for my intense focus on prolegomena, or methodological considerations when it comes to doing theology and biblical interpretation. The debate between Perriman and myself ought to illustrate why. I will have to get into explicating further what these things entail more fundamentally in a later post. Suffice it to say that if people do not critically attend to these matters, such people could become lost in a suffocating loss of Christian faith and reality; and this, all in the name of critical realism. The basic point is this: the Christian ground for epistemology is not based in an abstract naked self, but instead in God’s fulsome Self and Being for us in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. This is where the concrete reality of the real comes to be known; that is as humanity is confronted by the Triune Being who has always already been in the ultimacy of His life as the prius of all that is following.

In nuce: people need to take the noetic effects of the Fall much more seriously. The resurrection says so.

 

On One People of God in Jesus Christ: Contra Dispensationalism’s Two People of God in Israel and the Church

Dispensationalism is a purported biblical hermeneutic that operates from its self-acclaimed sine qua non: a literal[ist] hermeneutic. Charles Ryrie writes: 

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….1 

A consequence of this results in the most basic sense of what it means to be dispensationalist. Dispensationalists, to lesser and greater degrees, emphasize a distinction between ethnic Israel (God’s chosen covenant people), and the Church (which Ryrie identifies as the mystery aspect of God’s kingdom). Because dispensationalists claim to follow a ‘common-sense’ notion of a literal reading of Scripture, they feel compelled to maintain that there are two people of God: Israel and the Church. When their literalistic reading of the Bible is coupled with the modern notion of progressive-revelation (which really comes, ironically, from the post-Enlightenment History of Religions train of thought), this results in reading national Israel as God’s primary focus of salvation-history; rather than seeing the One Israel was chosen to mediate to the world (Jesus Christ) as the primary focus of Scripture’s witness.  

Historically, and in the main, the history of interpretation (so the span of Church history) has read Scripture from a Christological orientation. In other words, the Church has sought to read the Old Testament promises in light of their fulfillment and reality in Jesus Christ. This then sees one people of God even while recognizing its two aspects in both Israel and the Church. The Apostle Paul illustrates this understanding quite well when he writes: 

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.2 

Paul’s pattern, following Jesus’, was to the ‘Jew first, and then to the Gentiles.’ But because the Jews, in the main, rejected their own Messiah, by lineage, God turned to the Gentiles (cf Acts 10; Rom. 9—11), bringing many into the Kingdom, with the aim of making the Jews jealous. But what remains the same, in light of the promises made to Israel, as those have now been fulfilled in their reality in Jesus Christ, is that God has always already only had one people. But this can only be appreciated if we read Scripture, as the Apostle Paul does, along with Jesus and the rest of the NT writers, through a theological hermeneutical lens. In other words, the ‘literal hermeneutic’ doesn’t lead a person to the conclusions that Jesus maintained, in regard to the promises made to Israel with reference to Him; nor do they lead to the idea that God’s promises to Israel were always and only with reference, not to Israel, per se, but to Israel’s reality, in the Jew from Nazareth, Jesus Christ. Only a New Testament theological hermeneutic allows the Bible reader to arrive at this conclusion.  

What the dispensationalist cannot appreciate about this is that the non-dispensational people who read Israel and the Church this way are not engaging in some form of supersessionism or replacement theology. Non-dispensational readers of the Old Testament, like Jesus and the Apostle Paul, see ethnic Israel remaining, even as a preamble to the Church, but they don’t play Israel’s vocational role off against the Church, as if God has two distinct people. As Paul has clearly argued: God only has one people, and they are given their grounded reality in the singular person of Jesus Christ (the Messiah of Israel). National Israel, and the promises made to her, have not been revoked (cf. Rom. 11:29); God forbit it! It is just that national Israel has come to full blossom in her reality, as the mediators of the Mediator, in Jesus Christ. According to the Apostle Paul Jesus is the ‘Israel of God’; as such, Israel’s role and identity as God’s covenant people has been eternally established in the shed blood of the New Covenant as that is realized in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is Israel; He is the reason none of the promises made to national Israel can ever be revoked. But He is also the reason why there is only one covenant people of God, because just as Israel found her reality, proleptically, as they were mediating the Messiah for the nations through her long and rugged history; likewise, the Church finds her reality, as she retrospectively, looks back to the promises fulfilled in Jesus Christ. In this sense Israel is in the Church, and the Church in Israel, just as both of her realities are united in the hypostatic union of God and all of humanity in Jesus Christ’s re-created humanity wherein there no longer is ‘Jew nor Gentile.’  

I beseech my dispensational brothers and sisters to repent, and come to affirm the realization that there is simply one people of God in Holy Scripture; and His name is: Jesus Christ! The fallout of not affirming this is rather deleterious, spiritually. What happens is that the dispensationalist teacher focuses more on the nation of Israel than it does Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is not the centraldogma of Holy Scripture for the dispensationalist; national Israel is. And yet, as I have been arguing, this approach gives us a false-dilemma. There is no reason to create a competition between Israel and the Church as dispensationalists generally do (I am not referring to Progressive Dispensationalists, who avoid this “competition”). Instead, it is better to see all of humanity as Israel in and through the concrete and elect humanity of Jesus’ ethnically Jewish blood. Gentiles have been brought into the promises made to ethnic Israel, just as Jesus is the reality of those promises. In this way, the Church (Gentiles in the dispensational parse) is not ‘ethnic Israel,’ but she now finds her reality as the one people of God as she participates in Israel’s reality in Jesus Christ. When dispensationalists fail to appreciate this, they end up abrogating the very point of Israel:  

And now the Lord says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him— for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord, and my God has become my strength— he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers: “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” -Isaiah 49:5-7 

The above passage from the Prophet Isaiah is what we see the Apostle Paul re-presenting in Ephesians 2 in light of its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The point and telos of Israel has never been herself, but to mediate the Savior of the world to the nations; including herself, as part of those nations. She has a unique role in that mediatory process, just as the Virgin Mary did. But this role is only relative, and thus not absolute, in regard to its relationship to the reality it had been chosen to mediate to the world. Prophetic history pace dispensationalism is not about national Israel, per se, it is about her reality: the son of David, Jesus Christ. If this would take hold among dispensational teachers maybe they would spend less time teaching geo-politics from their pulpits, and spend more time educating their people on who this great God of Israel is. Maybe they would spend more time teaching their people Nicene theology, and thus the people could stand in greater awe of the God they have become participants with as they come to have a grammar that brings an intelligibility to their worship and witness that heretofore they never had.  

 

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

2 Ephesians 2:11-22. 

On Being an evangelical biblicist and Scripture’s Holy Depth Dimension as an Antidote

I was going to write a post on the topic of biblical hermeneutics and exegesis. But then I searched my blog, and as usual I found a post that I had already written on the very topic I was setting out to compose for you my fine readers. So, let me re-share the post I have already written, and hopefully it will make the point I was inspired to make before I realized I’d already made it.

I grew up as a ‘biblicist’ evangelical, or at least this was the label we freely chose to self-identify with. It meant we eschewed labels like ‘calvinist’ or ‘arminian,’ or what have you. It meant we just believed what the bible simply taught, and like ‘good Bereans’ we tested all things by the canon of Scripture in order to make sure that what people were teaching was true or not true. But then I became “educated,” and I realized how complex things were when it comes to a doctrine of Scripture and a biblical hermeneutic. As I pushed further into the theological world I began to realize that many Christians through the millennia had come to interpret Scripture through the regulative reality propounded by what came to be known as the consensus patrum, and what many associate with that as ‘classical theism.’ I came to realize that being a biblicist in the sense that I was operating, in the past, was really based on a modern construct of a form of biblical rationalism; i.e. an approach to Scripture that was given birth in revivalism, pietism, conversionism, and probably most central: Fundamentalism. In this approach I believed everything could be reduced down to propositions, and that all important Christian teaching could simply be found by reading and studying the bible over and over again. At a level, even a fundamental level, in principle, this is true; indeed, this is what the Protestant Reformers identified as the ‘scripture principle.’ But 20th century evangelicals, of the revivalist hue, took this principle in a different direction; eschewing all else but Scripture, or so they thought. American evangelicals, “my people,” of the 20th century, believed, and continue to believe that Holy Scripture can be read as a tabula rasa (or white slate) without ever imagining that there is a depth dimension to Scripture; an informing theo-logical reality that allows Scripture to assert what it does in its various teachings and ways.

I am still an evangelical. I am still a biblicist. But I understand these days how every single bible interpreter engages in what is called theological exegesis. In other words, we all interpret Scripture based on a prior theological grid that we have consciously or unconsciously assimilated into our lives. Many people still believe this as I did for many years; in regard to an ability to simply read Scripture for all its worth without recognizing the role that ‘theology’ plays in their interpretive process, and exegetical conclusions. I think we do best to recognize that Scripture has a depth dimension, as TF Torrance calls it, and understand that Scripture is merely the signum (sign) of which Jesus is its res (reality). If we mistake the sign for the reality we will expect more of the sign than it can deliver. We must understand, as John Calvin did, that Scripture really has an instrumental value; as such its purpose, as is all of creation’s, is to give way to its reality as it bears witness to Jesus Christ. It is when we operate with this ‘ontology of Scripture’ (or understanding of its place vis-à-vis God) that we will be set up better to be genuine biblicists.

A genuine biblicist, in my view, is someone who can be honest about the limit of Scripture’s capacity. What I mean is that they can recognize that Scripture only has meaning when it is understood that Jesus is its altitude. If we can’t accept that the Word of God ultimately is Jesus Christ, and not the bible, per se, then we will expect Scripture to be Holy without its Holy reality; we will end up projecting our own “holy” ambitions into the text, and allow our own navel-formed aspirations to become Scripture’s reality. I believe, with all good intention, this is what I used to do to Scripture. Thankfully, Scripture’s reality, if we are committed to inhabiting it constantly, has the power and resource to break through this sort of good intentioned naïveté and contradict the self-projected divinities we so often impose on it as the canonic text. I used to believe I had a very high view of Scripture, but it turns out, at a functional level, that I had a very low view of Scripture.

All of the above said: it is a complex when we consider the role that the so called consensus patrum and/or the great tradition of the Church has vis-à-vis Scripture, and its interpretation. This is where my biblicism rises up. When I think a foreign construct (potentially even aspects of so called ‘classical theism’) is being imposed on Scripture, displacing Scripture’s reality and claiming to offer its most normative understanding, it is at this point that I object. It is at this point that I go solo Christo. But this is a complex indeed, and one that we will have to revisit later. I just wanted to register my thoughts on these things again, because for some reason they are thoughts that constantly attend my daily existence as a Christian person.

On Literalist Bible Readings, Supersessionism and Replacement Theology: As Riposte to James Kaddis and Olivier Melnick

I just finished listening to someone I consider a friend, and someone who is definitely a brother in Christ: James Kaddis. He was having his weekly discussion with his friend, Olivier Melnick, on the nation of Israel; particularly as that pertains to biblical prophecy from the Dispensational framework. In this particular discussion the topic was what they call: Replacement Theology. Most people, in the “business” will know what this is referring to by its more common terminology of: Supersessionism. The idea is that the Church has become the new Israel, thus displacing Israel and all of the Old Testament promises made to her. James believes that anyone who holds to ‘replacement theology’ is ultimately evil, and probably not saved; Melnick seems to agree with that. The problem though, and this is what the rest of this post will engage with, is that both Kaddis and Melnick (and many in their tribe) are too reductionistic with refernce to the history of interpretation on this issue, thus leading them to construct a caricature of anyone who is not a Pretribulational, Premillennial Dispensationalist. Both Kaddis and Melnick maintain that if someone is operating with a proper biblical hermeneutic (meaning ‘literalistic’ V literalist), that they will arrive at the dispensational perspective (this is also what one of dispensationalism’s most prominent teachers, Charles Ryrie, maintained).

What I want to do in this post, in particular, is to engage with what in fact a ‘literal’ hermeneutic entails. Much of the body of this post will be in reference to a post I wrote some time ago dealing with the same issue. After we survey how ‘literal’ has developed in the history of interpretation I will close by applying that understanding to the question of so-called ‘replacement theology,’ and how much of what Kaddis and Melnick assert as entailing replacement theology reflects too facile of an understanding of the history of interpretation.

A Survey of ‘Literal’ vis-à-vis Biblical Hermeneutics

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.

Applying a Historical Biblical Literalism to Supersessionism

What the aforementioned survey reveals is that what it meant (and ought to mean currently) in the history of interpretation to be ‘literal,’ particularly as that is understood from within a medieval Catholic and Protestant frame, respectively, is that Christian biblical literalism, principially, finds its centrum and absolute focus on Jesus Christ. In other words, a historic understanding of a biblical literalism isn’t one that is grounded in a post-Enlightenment rationalism, such as we find that in the biblical theology movement and history of religions schools, which gets further distilled into something like we find in Ryrie’s and dispensationalism’s literalism; no, a historic Christian understanding of biblical literalism, again, sees Christ as the meaning and referent point of all the Old Testament promises (Jesus thought this too, see Jn 5.39 etc.). A historical biblical literalism sees Jesus Christ, not the nation of Israel, per se, as canonical regulator of how the Christian exegete arrives at their respective exegetical conclusions.

And this leads us into the question under consideration: has the whole Christian tradition and its history of interpretation suffered from a supersessionism or ‘replacement theology?’ If you’re a non-dispensational interpreter of Holy Scripture, as ALL Christians have been, up until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as dispensationalism developed in the UK and the USA therein, does this mean you are an antisemite? The answer to that question is a loud NO! Have there been antisemites in the Church since its very inception? Yes, Marcion among others come to mind. But most in the history of interpretation, at least most who have been nuanced in this area, have outright rejected supersessionism as the Gnostic heresy of someone like Marcion and his so-called Marcionitism is. To hold to a biblical literalism, as our survey has helped to clarify, didn’t (and doesn’t) lead the exegete to be a ‘replacement theologian’ (so-called), but instead to see the promises made to the nation of Israel fulfilled in the person who served and serves as these promises’ reality; we are of course referring to the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

In my view, Jesus Christ is the Israel of God. He is ethnically Jewish, and scandalously so (according to the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 1.17-25); He was and is the One for the many; for the Jew first then the Gentile. He is the One new humanity of God (cf. Eph 2.12ff) wherein both Jew and Gentile alike are made one as they participate in Christ’s risen humanity. Christ is the ground that the root of Abraham and its olive tree finds its sustenance from. Jesus is God’s Israel, and all the promises have been and yet will be (now-and-not-yet) fulfilled in Him. Jesus made all of the promises to Israel, as actualized in Him, open for the whole world. He is the Jew first for the whole world; for the house of Israel, and for the Gentiles. Jesus will forevermore remain the Son of David, the seed of the woman referred to in the so-called proto-evangelium (cf. Gen. 3.15); He is forevermore the Jew from Nazareth. This is the historical Christian reading of biblical prophecy as that is realized in its reality in Jesus Christ. This reading has always already militated against heresy known as supersessionism and/or ‘replacement theology.’ Here is something I once wrote (circa 2007) back when I was still a dispensationalist. But I was attempting to offer a charitable reading of amillennialism (or any non-dispensational understanding of the Bible). You will notice how it militates against facile readings that renders anything other than a dispensational reading as an antisemite reading.

1) The non-dispensational reading of the Bible is highly Christocentric: it makes Christ the center of all the biblical covenants (even the “Land” covenant or Siniatic). 2) It notes the universal scope of the Abrahamic Covenant (as key) to interpreting the rest of the biblical covenants. 3) It sees salvation history oriented to a person (Christ), instead of a people (the nation of Israel). 4) It emphasizes continuity between the “people of God” (Israel and the Church are one in Christ Eph. 2:11ff). 5) It provides an ethic that is rooted in creation, and “re-creation” (continuity between God’s redemptive work now, carried over into the eternal state then) 6) It emphasizes a trinitarian view of God as it elevates the “person”, Christ Jesus, the second person of the trinity as the point and mediator of all history. 7) It flows from a hermeneutic that takes seriously the literary character of the Scriptures (esp. the book of Revelation).

It is not insignificant that a site like Monergismdotcom picked my description up, and used it (and continues to) as a summary of what the amillennial position entails.4 This shouldn’t be seen as insignificant because Monergismdotcom is a proponent of classically Reformed theology (which I am a well-known critic of online and in print), of the sort that Kaddis and Melnick would label as promoting ‘replacement theology.’

I would invite James Kaddis (who I love as a brother), and Olivier Melnick to dig deeper on these things, and push past the superficial caricatures that are often pervasive in the evangelical world. There are surely mainline Protestant traditions out there, such as the PCUSA et alia, that do operate with a supersessionism (which is illustrated by their support of the BDS movement etc.), but most Reformed and Lutheran people are not supersessionist; even if they aren’t dispensational, which they of course are not. Thus, I would ask my brothers to consider these things more carefully and with a more nuanced brush. We should want to accurately represent even those we consider our theological opponents; this is a sword that cuts both ways.

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. 

4 Monergism.com.

 

Riposte: The Apocalyptic Paul Against Scott Swain’s ‘god of the Philosophers’

I

I take special care of those who have publicly criticized our Evangelical Calvinism in published form, as Scott Swain has; especially when they promote mayonnaise as a worthy food product. As such, and on this mundane occasion (since this is a blog post), let me alert my readers to a short essay Swain has written for Pro Ecclesia. The title of his essay is: God, Metaphysics, and the Discourse of TheologyThis locus has special place for me precisely because it has to do with a prolegomenological (totally made-up word) issue; as this has been of particular focus for me (even in published form). Here is Swain’s abstract:

Abstract 

In chapter 4 of his book, God in Himself, Steven Duby grounds theology’s use of metaphysical language and concepts in Scripture’s prior usage of such language and concepts. The following article seeks to fortify Duby’s argument by showing how the discourse of the gospel subversively fulfills the quest of Greco-Roman philosophy and religion to ground divine worship in a proper understanding of the divine nature.1

As we can see Swain’s method will be to engage with Steven Duby’s work (also a friend) on theology proper; with their shared focus on arguing for the classical—and Thomistic!—method of deploying and synthesizing the Greeks with Christian Dogmatic development. They both wholeheartedly maintain that the Hellenic grammar and categories are ‘fitting’ and ‘expedient’ for the Evangel’s promulgation. After describing the problem Duby seeks to engage, as that has ostensibly been presented by the ‘liberal’ (my word) theology of the 19th century moderns, in regard to a development of theology proper, Swain summarizes Duby’s thesis thusly:

In chapter 4 of his book, Duby engages modern Protestant theology’s claim that the discourses of theology and metaphysics are ultimately incompatible. Following precedents in Scripture and tradition, he attempts to show why and how theology may use the language and concepts of metaphysics faithfully and fruitfully in speaking of the gospel’s God while avoiding many of modern Protestant thoughts’ deepest worries.2

II

Swain, subsequent to this, parses out the various highpoint themes of Duby’s response in argument (we will not engage with that for space and time limits). As Swain’s Abstract underscores, his aim will be to ‘fortify’ the groundwork that Duby has laid out in his book length treatment of the matter. In nucethey both (Duby and Swain, respectively) maintain that Greek metaphysics ought to be deployed in helping the Ecclesia to think God. For Swain, in particular, this entails an argument from Scripture; with focused reference on Paul in the Areopagus (cf. Acts 17.22-34). But before we get to that, Swain is clear on one basic premise; this is not unique to him. As a preamble to all else that follows in Swain’s argument for the usefulness of Greek metaphysics towards an intelligible proclamation of the Gospel, he is clear that what makes the “two-books” of nature (general and special revelation) corollary is God’s providence. He rightfully makes a distinction between Divine Inspiration and Providence, but then allows the Divine qualification to bring a conselium between the two such that the former might be complemented by the latter. He writes (in extenso):

Evangelical discourse is a “third language” that “inherits two languages,” the primary language of Israel’s scriptures and the secondary language of Greek philosophy and religion. Evangelical discourse claims to fulfill the discourse of Israel’s scriptures and the discourse of pagan philosophy and religion. But it claims to fulfill them in two different ways.

The language of Israel’s scriptures and the language of the gospel are bound together by divine inspiration. These two forms of discourse are authored by one God and proclaim one message of salvation. Israel’s scriptures proclaim this message in the mode of promise. The gospel proclaims this message in the mode of fulfillment. Evangelical discourse announces the surprising fulfillment of the promise of Israel’s scriptures, the revelation of a “mystery” once hidden but now revealed (Eph. 3:9; Col. 1:26) and, in so doing, often confounds the expectations of its hearers (Luke 24:25; 1 Cor. 1:23). Nevertheless, evangelical discourse also holds that the mystery it proclaims is hidden within the Old Testament writings themselves and therefore wholly continuous with them as their necessary fulfillment (Luke 24:26-27; John 5:39, 46; Rom. 16:25-27; Eph. 5:32).

The language of Greek philosophy and religion and the language of the gospel are bound together by divine providence. Greek philosophy and religion are not the product of divine inspiration. They are not “pedagogues” (cf. Gal. 3:24) designed to lead the Gentles to Jesus Christ. Greek philosophy and religion are characterized by idolatry, error, and unrighteousness, and the gospel calls their adherents to repentance (Acts 17:30; Rom. 1:18). For this reason, Christian theology cannot hope to find a smooth fit, a hand and glove correlation between evangelical discourse and pagan discourse. The gospel is “foolishness to the Greeks” (1 Cor. 1:23). Evangelical discourse subverts pagan discourse.

That said, there is no absolute metaphysical contrast between evangelical discourse and pagan discourse. Although these two forms of discourse are not bound together by divine inspiration, they are bound together by divine providence. Although Jew and Greek, Christian and non-Christian do not share a common language, they do share a common human nature; both are objects of God’s providential goodness. The existence of Greek philosophy and religion presupposes the existence of God’s general revelation (Rom. 1:20-23). Idolatry is parasitic on religion, error is parasitic on truth, and unrighteousness is parasitic on righteousness. For this reason, in subverting the idolatry and error of pagan discourse, evangelical discourse may also claim to fulfill its deepest, albeit distorted, longings (Acts 17:26-27). The gospel can take up the language, concepts, and even the judgments of pagan discourse, make them its own, and proclaim in Jesus Christ their fulfillment. The word of the cross confounds the Greek quest for wisdom. But in doing so, it also answers that quest. For Christ is “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24).

In the gospel’s subversive fulfillment of pagan philosophy and religion, we find the evangelical logic for critically appropriating the language and concepts of metaphysics in the discourse of theology. As we will see more fully below, the discourse of the gospel and the discourse of pagan philosophy and religion not only share common language and concepts. They also share a common judgment, namely, the conviction that divine worship should correspond to the divine being and nature. This shared judgment grounds the gospel’s claim to fulfill pagan philosophy and religion and warrants Christian theology’s use of metaphysical language and concepts in speaking of the gospel’s God.3

I shared this in full because I want my readers to understand exactly what Swain’s proposal is (and because by copying and pasting it saves me the time of summarizing his argument in my own words, and thus fulfills the blogger’s dream of covering lots of ground in short amounts of time). So, we can see that Swain presupposes as a basic a priori that a belief in God’s providence is essential in grounding an argument for deploying Greek metaphysics as the most fitting grammar, as a ‘handmaiden’ to the inspired witness of Scripture, in regard to the Gospel’s intelligible and thus kerygmatic proclamation.

Subsequent to this, in the next section of the essay (which you can read for yourself of course), Swain attempts to make his argument by developing an exegesis of Acts 17, and the means the Apostle Paul uses to ‘prove’ to the Greeks that Jesus is Lord; and that the ‘unknown’ god, is in fact the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as revealed in Christ. Whether or not Swain is successful in his argument here, the reader will have to discern (notice his reference to interpretatio). Swain sees what he calls a ‘subversive fulfillment’ in the fittingness of Greek metaphysics for articulating a Christian theological dogmatic. He maintains that while there isn’t a one-for-one correspondence between the Greek god of Pure Being, and the God revealed in Christ, at the same time, as the long quote above reinforces, for Swain, there is a ‘parasitic’ correlation between the Greek gods and the true God such that the latter, through the wisdom of the cross, can in-break and subvert the secular with the sacred; to the point that what the Greeks only grasped in part (by reflecting on nature simpliciter), they might now know in [ful]fill through the ultimate revelation of the God of nature in Jesus Christ.

III

In light of the above (hopefully I shared enough in order for you to get the gist) I only have one question: where does Swain get his understanding of Divine providence from? As noted previously, Swain needs this premise about the commonality that providence provides for shared spheres of knowledge between the Pagans and Christians, vis-à-vis God, in order to argue that Greek metaphysics provides the most fitting grammar necessary for articulating God. What if the concept of providence Swain is operating with itself is Hellenic? How does Swain know that God’s providence functions this way; ie as the ground of shared knowledge about God between the Greeks and the Christians (albeit in an asymmetrically corresponding way)?

Is the Apostle Paul’s intent to show the Aeropagites that Zeus or an ‘unknown god’ is in fact Yahweh? Or is it to show them that their longing for ultimacy can only be fulfilled as they place their faith in a God who is sui generis? Indeed, the Apostle Paul himself didn’t come to know God by means of Greek metaphysics; surely a man of his learnedness (and he was brilliant for his day, in general) would have had recourse to think God along with Philo et alia by way of Greek metaphysics. But that isn’t the correlation he makes in Galatians (1.11-17), instead he writes:

 “For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone;  nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.”

Should we surmise from Paul that the Greeks provided a framework for thinking the revealed God, as that knowledge-frame is conditioned by a reflection on the natural order of things in the created sphere? Or should we rather conclude that Paul believed that who he encountered in Christ was solely based on a sui generis confrontation such that even his Jewish teachers could never have imagined (like the ones who crucified the Christ)? The Galatian Paul, the epistolary Paul, who by genre is intending to didact his readers and hearers, asserts that he didn’t receive his knowledge of the living God by even his Hebrew fathers, but instead through the revelation of the risen Christ himself. We don’t see Paul affirming the teachings of the Greeks as fitting in regard to coming to a genuine knowledge of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Instead, we see him discomfiting the fittingness of any ‘man’, whether Jew or Greek (see I Cor. 1.17-25), to furnish grounds for thinking the revealed God (Deus revelatus). If anything, according to the ‘apocalyptic Paul,’ as we find in Galatians, there is a discorrespondence between the Greek conception of God, and instead one that is purely grounded in the Hebraic understanding of a God revealed.

IV

In the end, really, I think Swain’s essay is funded by tautologous thinking, and remains petitio principii as far as his major premise on Divine providence. I think that if we are careful to focus on the intention provided for by the literary types found in Scripture, that what we actually get in the didactic (think discourse literature) Paul of the Galatian correspondence is what he wants the churches to understand as sacra doctrinaWhen an argument, such as Swain’s, is grounded in a narrative trope, as we find in the Lukan story of the Acts of the Apostles, it is hard to tell whether what is being communicated therein ought to be taken as prescriptive or descriptive; normative or non-normative. Typically, and I would say always, narrative literature, such as we find in Acts, is descriptive and non-normative. What this means for Swain’s biblical argument is that it doesn’t come with the same force we find in the discourse literature (ie Galatians), which is thus intended to be prescriptive and thus normative, for the Church’s understanding on doctrinal matters. In other words, it would have served Swain better, in an attempt to make a biblical argument on this matter, to do so from an Epistle of Paul’s rather than a narrative account that could be taken in a variety of ways. But then I would argue that the delimiter, in regard to the way that Paul is arguing in the Aeropagus, was purely a situational moment wherein he subverted (or negated) the whole edifice upon which Greek knowledge of the gods was built. Since Paul’s knowledge of God was clearly built on God’s Self-revelation, rather than on Greek metaphysics. That is, he was discarding the bases upon which the Greek’s ‘unknown god’ was built upon, and saying that what they were ultimately seeking for could not be found in the No-God they had left a placeholder for, and instead could only be found in the revealed God that no man had ever thought of prior to His showing up in the face of Jesus Christ.

1 Scott R. Swain, “God, Metaphysics, and the Discourse of Theology,” Pro Ecclesia (2021): 1.

2 Ibid., 2.

3 Ibid., 5-6.