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.

Barth’s Covenantal Theology as the Reification of Hegel

If you are familiar with Barth’s Covenantal theology, and how he reifies that in his doctrine of God and election, then the following development, from Michael Gillespie, on Hegel’s view of the state might be rather striking to you. Here is Gillespie:

This reconciliation of natural consciousness and spirit, of natural causality and freedom, of the individual and society is the state. “This essentiality is itself the unification of the subjective and the rational will: it is the ethical whole—the state, which is the actuality in which the individual has and enjoys his freedom, but in which it is the knowing, believing, and willing of the generality.” True freedom for the individual is only possible insofar as his actions are in accordance with the general movement of spirit itself. The “freedom” of capricious natural desires is only license and in truth the subjection to natural causality. Real freedom is thus only possible in an through the ethical life of the political community which unites the natural desires of the individual with the rational objects established by society for those desires: it is only the state that can guarantee a reconciliation of these two through laws and education.

Human beings in Hegel’s view can be truly free only when they live within convention, within the prevailing ēthos, and yet they tend naturally to obey only their desires and to seek only their own satisfaction. The state imposes a necessity supported by force and ultimately by the power of life and death that constrains the individuals to act in accordance with prevailing conventions. The freedom that men enjoy within the state is thus not the freedom that arises from a mutual limitation of their natural freedom but the concord of individual and society, of the subjective will of the individual and the objective general will of the society. “The subjective will, passion, is the motivating, the actualizing; the is the inner; the state is the present-at-hand, actual ethical life. For it is the unity of the general, essential will and the subjective, and that is the ethical community.” The state in Hegel’s view is neither a collectivity of individuals nor a people (Volk) as a whole, but the concrete actuality and ground out of which both arise and within which both subsist. Both the subjective will, i.e., natural consciousness as both consciousness of nature and natural desiring soul, and the objective or general will, as the inner idea or rational form, constitute the twofold that in its synthesis is the state: “For the true is the unity of the general and the subjective will; and the general is in the state in the laws, in general and rational determinations.” What is fundamentally true and real is neither the individual nor the society but the state, which establishes and maintains laws as the expression of its rationality. Moreover, as we saw earlier, the absolute alone is true or the true alone is absolute. The state is not merely the corporeal and therefore ephemeral reconciliation of the individual and society but a moment of the absolute itself, of the ultimately real phenomenological ground. It is in this sense that Hegel concludes, “The state is the divine idea, as it is present-at-hand on earth.”[1]

Some say Barth equally suffers from Hegelianization, as much as the classical theists (who in many ways he is in critique of) suffer from Hellenization. No matter, it isn’t ultimately the form, per se, but how much the form is capable of being evangelized in a way that the pressure of the kerygma is magnified rather than the grammatical form it commandeers.

It is interesting though, when the thinker can see the parallels between Barth’s reification of God’s covenantal relationship to the world, and how that seems to be anticipated in Hegel’s philosophy of the state. For Hegel the inner ground of historic and civil order, per Gillespie is the state. For Barth, the inner ground of creation is the covenantal life of God’s graciousness. In this we can see how Barth was a modern theologian, indeed. Just as he flipped Kant’s dualism of the noumenal and phenomenal on its head, through the Deus absconditus/Deus revelatus combine in the hypostatic union of the singular person, Jesus Christ. Similarly, Barth flips Hegel’s style of immanentized dialecticism on its head by using his categories, and redeploying those in such a way that the creaturely realm is re-creaturized, and God is re-divinized by seeing the divine attributes that Hegel collapses into Geist, as understood as rightfully and always God’s to begin with.

This is how all constructive theology, and its attendant grammars, have always been done; i.e. by appropriating current ideation and philosophical constructs in such a way that the grammar supplied by said constructs is reified or ‘evangelized’ in such a way that the material content of the philosophic is so gutted, so non-correlationized, that the Gospel itself shines as bright as the morning sun shines on our weary and horizontal faces. Solo Christo.


[1] Michael Allen Gillespie, Hegel, Heidegger, and the Ground of History (Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), 90-1.

An Addendum to My Last Post: Dialogical Scripture Reading and the Normal Tools

Let me say something in clarification of my last post. What I wrote there, with reference to biblical hermeneutics, might sound like existentialist confusion at some level. It might sound like I think utilizing literary, grammatical, historical, and canonical tools in biblical exegesis is not a viable option. But I am exactly not saying this. What I am saying is that the way I approach Scripture, through the Chalcedonian pattern, has to do with a theological ontology, and ontology of Scripture. In other words, my primary approach to Scripture has to do with what Barth calls dialekin (see his Göttingen Dogmatics), or dialectic, or dialogical engagement with the text. This means that my engagement with Scripture, in this mode, is one that expects a dialogical encounter with the viva vox Dei (living voice of God) as He speaks, through Christ, throughout the total canon of Holy Scripture; in all its inter and intratextual and canonical vividness. There is an existential aspect to this, in an I-Thou sense of encounter; but the existential isn’t one that comes from below, but above as that is unilaterally shaped and given by God in Jesus Christ. I just didn’t want anybody thinking that I no longer see value in the normal biblical interpretive tools that often attend the exegesis of the text.

That said, those tools will be utilized in a way that is determined by the reality of the text, and thus the necessary paradoxes that come with the text’s res as that is revealed in the breath of Jesus Christ. This means, furthermore, that I will not engage Scripture in what TF Torrance identifies as the necessitarian logico-deductive schemata that Reformed and Lutheran orthodoxy approaches the text with; or we might say, in the Ramist/Agricolan mode that has shaped scholasticism Reformed and Lutheranism since the genesis of those movements. No, my approach to biblical interpretation will be principially and intensively regulated by the rule of faith, who I understand to be Jesus Christ (in contrast, but with some overlap with the Patristic regula fidei). My approach to Scripture, thus, is more of a con-versation I engage in through the koinonia I share with the triune God as that is mediated through my participation with Christ in and through his Spirit anointed humanity. But the literary and canonical critical tools are still utilizable within this sort of dialogical mode.

Not sure this really concretizes things much better than my original post. But since the reality of Holy Scripture is a subject there is going to be some serious relational and personalist resonances involved in the way that I approach Scripture; or maybe it would be better to say: in the way that Scripture and its reality approaches and confronts me as God’s living voice is proclaimed throughout every jot and tittle of its Christoformed and staurological disclosure. Maybe it would be even better to say that I read Scripture in a mode of prayerful doxology as that is pushed into me through participatio Christi.

Reading the Bible Through the ‘Chalcedonian Pattern’ is the Only Genuinely Christian Way

Orthodox (little ‘o’) Christians of all ages have affirmed the Chalcedonian grammar about the two-natures/singular person Christology. The Chalcedonian council was a council convened in 451 AD in order to mitigate a variety of heretical christologies that had been plaguing the patrological church.[1] Ever since, the grammar produced has been the standard, the regula (rule) by which all other christological efforts are measured. The grammar has become so pervasive, that at least among the orthodox, all Christians operate with even a tacit understanding of it (although recent polls suggest that more than 30% of so-called evangelical Christians do not affirm the deity of Christ; which is why I keep qualifying with ‘orthodox’). As any good theology does, Chalcedon, and in this case, in a catholic way, offers a theological grammar that finds its correspondence in conceptions presupposed in the inner-logic of Holy Scripture. With this noted, here is the Creed of Chalcedon:

We, then, following the holy fathers, all with one consent teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body; coessential with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the mother of God, according to the manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one person and one subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning have declared concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the creed of the holy fathers has handed down to us.[2]

The point of rehearsing these things is to get us somewhere else, in a related way. I contend that since all orthodox Christians, in every place, operate with these conciliar categories—two natures/singular person—with reference to Jesus Christ, that it is this fortification, these grammatical loci, that fundamentally give hermeneutical shape to the way that even the most low-church evangelicals think Christ. As a subsequent implication then, this tacit Chalcedonian grammar, is, or should be the explicit way Christians interpret all of Scripture (both Old and New Testaments). More crudely put: since the conciliar Christ is fundamental to how orthodox Christians think Christ, and if Scripture is, at a first-order level, intensively and principially in reference to Christ, if Scripture is the sign (signum) to its greater and ontological reality (res), Jesus Christ, then all Christian exegesis of Holy Scripture will be and must be regulated by this sort of catholic (universal) Christological standard. That is to say, if Christians are going to think who Christ is through the Chalcedonian grammar, in an essential, but proximate way (vis-à-vis eschatological reality), eo ipso they will interpret Scripture through this rule insofar that Scripture refers to Jesus and the triune God as its inherent and life-breathing reality.

With the aforementioned noted, we now turn to Karl Barth; and in particular, with noted attention to an interpretive mechanism George Hunsinger has identified as a helpful key in regard to understanding the way Barth (and after Barth exegetes and theologians) constructively applied the Chalcedonian grammar, as a pattern towards his exegesis of Scripture whilst paying close attention to Scripture’s inner-theologic (which is what theological exegetes do). In the following Hunsinger describes the way this pattern looks when applied to various theological loci, as those are identified in the under-bubbling of Holy Scripture’s witness:

The coherentist mode of testing, as it emerged in the survey of rationalism, also plays a decisive role in Barth’s justification of his position on double agency. Directly and indirectly, therefore, it serves to justify his reliance on the conceptions of miracle and mystery in that position. On the exegetical or hermeneutical premise that the terms of the Chalcedonian pattern are rooted in the biblical testimony regarding how divine and human agency are related, the mode of doctrinal testing proceeds as follows. The Chalcedonian pattern is used to specify counterpositions that would be doctrinally incoherent (and also incoherent with scripture). “Without separation or division” means that no independent human autonomy can be posited in relation to God. “Without confusion or change” means that not divine determinism or monism can be posited in relation to humanity. Finally, “complete in deity and complete in humanity” means that no symmetrical relationship can be posited between divine and human actions (or better, none that is not asymmetrical). It also means that the two cannot be posited as ultimately identical. Taken together, these considerations mean that, if the foregoing conditions are to be met, no nonmiraculous and nonmysterious conception is possible. The charge of incoherence (as previously defined) thereby reveals itself to be abstract, in the sense that it does not adequately take all the necessary factors into account. It does not work inductively from the subject matter (as attested by scripture)–as the motif of particularism would prescribe. Instead, it starts from general considerations such as formal logic and applies them to certain isolated aspects of the more “concrete” position. At the same time, the charge may well have implicated itself, wittingly or unwittingly, in one of the rejected couterpositions.[3]

We see, in Hunsinger’s description, the way Barth used the revealedness of the miracle of God become human in Jesus Christ as the standard by which Christian exegetes ought to approach the many paradoxes that emerge from a world that is shaped, and given purpose (telos) by the reality of its confrontation by God in Christ. In other words, if what Chalcedon has attempted to describe (albeit through a series of ‘without’ negations) about the mysterium incarnatio (mystery of the incarnation), is indeed of an otherworldly origin, then the Christian engagement with Scripture, and all of reality, will take its hermeneutical cue and shape from this miracle; viz. it will not allow thisworldly conceptions of God, and thus Jesus Christ as the Theanthropos (Godman), to be determinative: 1) of how they think of a God-world relation, and 2) (as a subsequent) towards the way they interpret Scripture—insofar that Jesus Christ is Scripture’s centraldogma.

The point of highlighting the so-called Chalcedonian pattern is to note, at a first-order level, the way that orthodox Christians consciously or sub-consciously (as the case may be) approach their thinking of who Jesus Christ is. And then, at a second-order level, as that is determinative for the way Christians think Jesus, particularly as that finds concrete reference within the evangelical character of the triune life, of whom he is integral, and insofar that Jesus Christ is indeed the warp and woof of Holy Scripture, it is this miracle that ought to regulate, in a categorical way, the mode by which Christians interpret the Bible. Insofar that this Chalcedonian pattern is diminished, either through lack of intentional education, or merely by lack of education, per se, the Christian’s interpretation of Holy Scripture will be lacking; if not totally deleterious to the Christian’s soul and Kingdomed way of life.

A secondary point: many evangelical Christians operate with a sort of “cancel-culture” when it comes to church history and the history of interpretation. They often suffer from the myopia and fall-out that turn-to-the-subject modernity has projected into the soul of postmodern humanity. As such, they will, again, tacitly affirm, if they are ever confronted with it, that they believe Jesus is both fully God and fully human (so Chalcedon). But they won’t intentionally or self-consciously apply the emergent pattern this should evince for them, in regard to the regulative role that the miracle of the incarnation ought to play for them in their interpretation of Holy Writ. So, because they are willfully (and thus woefully) ignorant of the history of interpretation; because they are often intentionally devoid of the spirit of Church History (and her ideas); they will simply interpret Scripture from their own rationalizing about things, rather than from the miracle of the incarnation (particularly as that is given intelligible grammar by the Chalcedonian creed and its constructive engagement).

The fall-out is that many (most) modern evangelicals, particularly in North America, and the West in general, will piously affirm Jesus as the Godman, and yet proceed ignorantly blissfully as if this affirmation does not have the sort of pressure and force it ought to have on everything else following. In other words, they will and do read Scripture as if it is solely about them, and the Jesus they have constructed from their own desires and projections therefrom, instead of reading it, as the Chalcedonian pattern requires; as if Scripture is about how God freely chose to become human in Christ for them, for the world. In short: evangelical Christians, because the Chalcedonian pattern is not the pattern of their thinking as Christians, live in a world of dissonance and self-manufacture, rather than the miraculous world given shape by the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. Evangelical Christians of this order, as such, live in a rationalist, positivist, individualistic, empiricist world that is not given shape by the faith of Christ (pistis Christou); but instead it is given shape by the limit of their own short and self-sighted vision—albeit, all in the name of Jesus Christ.[4]

An Addendum: Click Here

 

[1] See the following description provided by Protestant Reformed Churches in America, “The Creed of Chalcedon, A.D. 451, is not mentioned by name in any of our three forms of unity, but the doctrine set forth in it is clearly embodied in Article 19 of our Confession of Faith. It constitutes an important part of our ecumenical heritage. The Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon settled the controversies concerning the person and natures of our Lord Jesus Christ and established confessionally the truths of the unity of the divine person and the union and distinction of the divine and human natures of Christ. It condemned especially the error of Nestorianism, which denied the unity of the divine person in Christ; the error of Apollinarianism, which denied the completeness of Christ’s human nature; and the error known as Eutychianism, which denied the duality and distinction of the divine and human natures of our Lord Jesus Christ. What was confessionally established at Chalcedon concerning the person and natures of Christ has continued to be the confession of the church catholic ever since that time.”

[2] Ibid.

[3] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology(New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 195-6 nook version. 

[4] I have hit on many themes in this post. It is not as coherent as I’d like, but it represents a first draft of a possible essay on such things.

A Riposte to Leighton Flowers and Dr. Brian With Reference to Their Video Response @ Me

I think after this post I will quit engaging with Leighton Flowers and crew (but maybe not, that all depends). I just came across a video where he and his friend, Brian (a PhD in NT, not theology, clearly), respond to a critique post of mine directed at Flowers’ approach to interpreting Holy Scripture. Here is the blurb I quickly wrote up as I shared this video to my FB and Twitter feeds:

Leighton Flowers responds to a critique post of mine starting at 7:44 and running through 21:00. He and his friend just talk around what I was getting at. Ironically, they end up illustrating my critique of their approach by reverting to their sort of rationalist traditioned reading of Scripture. It is really strange to engage with folks who are not self-perceptive enough to see their own foibles, esp. when those are being pointed out to them. But then they deflect those back onto their critics (me) Lol. Flowers’ friend, a PhD in NT (not theology, clearly) calls my approach postmodern (very strange). But this is what you get when you engage with low church evangelicals who have no clue about the Christian Dogmatic tradition, and how that has taken form in the Church catholic. They dispense with catholicity in favor of re-inventing the wheel based on their own reconstruction (interpretation) of the Christian faith and Holy Scripture. But, again, this is what you get when you start with a turn-to-the-subject hyper individualism out of touch with the confessional nature of the Christian faith. And this is why I find folks like Flowers and his friend so dangerous to the Christian faith; they are the epitome of what has been dangerous to my own faith in the past. So, when I come across it I seek to alert others to its errors, and hope to provide a way forward that is more in tune with a reality contingent upon a source (Jesus Christ and the triune God) outside of themselves.

You can watch Leighton’s and Brian’s response to me here (it starts at 7:44 and runs approx. through the 21-minute mark). I want to expand a little more on their response to me; more than what I just shared in the aforementioned blurb.

Brian was really hung up on my language of all humanity being ENSLAVED to our interpretative traditions. But as Steve Holmes rightly underscores (Stephen R. Holmes, Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 6-8):

This is not something that can simply be swiped away, as Brian and Leighton attempt to do, unless of course the person is appealing to their people. Ironically, as I alluded to earlier, Brian and Leighton fall right into this point, even as they attempt to criticize my underscoring of it, by going back to “their tradition of biblical theology and soteriology.” This is ironic, indeed, because it is the very point of my criticism of them. The fact that they cannot see that, and then by not seeing it, appeal to their own particular traditioned way of reading Scripture should alert people to how imperceptive their educators are; viz. if they are looking to people like Leighton, and his friend Brian et al., as their teachers.

Further, Dr. Brian calls my approach, that is my approach to focusing on a Christ concentrated hermeneutic: Postmodern. He claims that I end up deconstructing all other traditions, and then presume that my own ‘christological’ approach is the only viable way forward. In a sense, this is true; but it isn’t just true for me, but for Leighton and Brian et al. I would imagine all sentient people have arrived at particular convictions and conclusions in regard to the way that they engage with reality in general, and the Christian reality (for Christians) in particular. There is nothing inherently “postmodern” about that. Indeed, and ironically, this is simply an attempt to “boogeyman” me into a straw-box that Leighton and his friend think they can easily dispense of once they have placed me therein. Unlike these fellas, I am not averse to labels, indeed, labeling is just as inherent to being human as traditioning is. In other words, labeling positions (you know like Leighton’s self-described provisionism) is a shorthand, precision way of engaging with a complex or basket of ideas as those are held within a sort of systematic frame of reference. But the point is here: my approach is not inherently postmodern, instead it works from a Christian confessional background that is grounded in the Christian Dogmatic tradition of the Church catholic.

But this is the point, which I also alluded to previously: Flowers and company, are situated in the Fundamentalist/Evangelical individualist tradition that starts, by way of theological or hermeneutical methodology, in an abstract rationality that is idiosyncratic and original to the individual knowers. This was my point of critique, which Leighton attempted to respond to, when he pushed back against my claim that his approach is: anthropocentric or as he calls it ‘from-below.” Both Leighton and Brian need to do more reading on problems associated with what has been called: solo Scriptura or nuda Scriptura. They both are proponents of this approach, and as such, they communicate this to the people looking up to them as faithful guides into the world of Holy Scripture and systematic theology.

Further, Flowers takes issue with me saying that he speaks from a ‘resurrected voice of Pelagius.’ He cannot stand this charge. But anyone familiar with what he teaches on so-called ‘total inability’ (or more commonly understood in the history: total depravity, and its noetic and moral implications) knows that he is in line, let’s say, rather than with Pelagius full-blown, with someone like John Cassian. Again, because of Leighton’s non-Dogmatic orientation, he cannot fathom where this charge comes from. He believes that he can simply assert away that this charge just is not true; while at the same time advocating for a position that correlates almost exactly with Pelagius’ in regard to the neutrality of the moral agency latent within a broken, but not completely “inable” orientation towards God. I’ve already spilled enough e-ink in other posts, in regard to Leighton’s inchoate Pelagianism, that I will not belabor that further here. He simply does not understand the broad contours and moods that makeup the landscape of ecclesial historical ideas vis-à-vis their ideational categorizations (i.e. the dreaded “labeling” again).

Finally (although I think I’ve missed some of their response to me), Leighton, in general, hides behind this idea that if someone is going to critique him, they need to provide concrete examples or he doesn’t know how to engage with the critique. I think the article he and his buddy are responding to, of mine, offers all kinds of concrete examples that he could respond to; but it, again, this would require that he is versed in the realm of Christian Dogmatics (which he discounts out of hand; for reasons already alluded to). I give plenty of examples, in regard to the way he interprets and approaches Scripture; in regard to the way he approaches history of ideas; in regard to the way that his approach to soteriology is not grounded in a dogmatic ordering of things. I don’t feel compelled to offer exact examples (although I have done that in some other posts in reference to Flowers) all the time, because I figure that anyone who reads something like an article on Flowers, is already aware of a whole stable of examples that Flowers hits upon, thematically, seemingly everyday in his vlogcasts.

Oh, one more thing: Brian (and Leighton) almost seemed dumbfounded by the idea that I said we should think our theologies, and exegetical conclusions, from Jesus. Brian, in particular, couldn’t fathom how that would be possible apart from Holy Scripture. But this, again, illustrates the absolute rationalist approach he (and Leighton), are ENSLAVED to. They don’t think of Scripture, as John Webster rightly does, as if it has an ontology. In other words, they cannot even imagine how we might think Scripture from within a Christian Dogmatic ordering of things (a taxis). As such, just like with soteriology, they think Scripture in terms of an abstraction that only has value insofar as they can mine its data, as if archeologists trying to make sense of an artifact, and construct an understanding of it that fits within the realm of what they have determined biblical theology to entail. But you see who is regulative in this sort of interpretive and value-enriching process, right? It isn’t contingent upon Scripture’s res (reality) being regulated by the catholic Jesus (think the ‘Chalcedonian pattern’ that has served regulative for most of Church history when it comes to interpreting Holy Writ cf. Jn 5.39). No, it is contingent, instead, upon some sort of abstract realm of positivism that abstract wits have the capacity to manage and manipulate, with greater or lesser outcomes, based upon the interpreter’s disposition, training, and aptitude to approach Scripture with a minimal amount of presuppositions and pre-understandings. Because Brain (and Leighton) seemingly are critically unaware of the history and development of modern bible reading practices, as those developed in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the naturalist bed those were consummated in, they simply cannot imagine what I mean when I refer to: thinking our theologies and exegetical conclusions from Jesus.

My point doesn’t pivot on a competition between Scripture and Jesus—this is the false dilemma and premise Brian critiques me from—but instead, it is grounded in the idea, as John Calvin, Karl Barth, TF Torrance, John Webster, and other luminaries propound, that Scripture is the signum (sign) that points beyond itself to its res (reality) who is the, Christ. In other words, Brian and Leighton fail, in regard to their doctrine of Scripture, and thus hermeneutics, because they essentalize Scripture to the point that it ends in their interpretation of it, instead of being understood as the instrument whereby Christians come to encounter the living God in the risen Christ. I see Scripture from an instrumentalist vantage point, as most  Christians have in history, versus, the Leightonian and Brianian approach, that absolutizes Scripture as an epistemological end in itself; and end that has no idea that there is a theological ontology that stands antecedent to Scripture’s reality as a created medium that serves the instrumental purpose of pointing beyond itself and its many interpreters. Essentially, Brian’s and Leighton’s response to me fails, on this front, because, for at least one reason, they have an inadequate doctrine (and no ontology) of Holy Scripture. This is why Brian (and Leighton) seem so perplexed by my point on ‘from Jesus.’

Again, I would caution folks who are looking to Leighton and company for a healthy theological education. They, in my view, have not done enough homework, particularly in the area of Christian ideas, and the development of Reformed theology in particular, to be of any service to the would-be learner. I know this sounds harsh: but it is my considered opinion after listening to Leighton for about a year and a half now. My reason for saying this about Leighton should be illustrated by the themes I touched upon throughout this post. If someone wants to marginalize the history of Christian ideas, the history of theological grammar, and displace that with their reconstruction of the Christian faith, without engagement with the conciliar faith of historic Christian reality, then you know you are in a hazardous harbor. That’s what I think we get with the ministry of Leighton Flowers. Is he a nice guy? Clearly. Does this necessarily make him a trustworthy guide into the realm of theological and biblical studies? Nein.

 

Evangelical Hermeneutics, Christological Patterns, and Scripture-All-By-Itselfism

Evangelicals, for good measure, at least in sentiment, claim to be committed to Scripture alone (sola Scriptura). But in reality, the majority of evangelical Christians are really committed to Scripture all by itself (nuda Scriptura solo Scriptura). What most evangelicals think about Scripture all by itself, is just that: i.e. that they don’t have tradition aiding them in the way they interpret Scripture. So, they operate with this sort of naivete about what tradition is, and how its inescapable reach implicates even their “interpretation” of Scripture; i.e. it isn’t just the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox who have “tradition.” But my question is why, why do evangelicals operate with this sort of theological naivete? The response to that question is multiplex, let me focus on just one angle into that via a suggestion.

I think evangelicals operate with the sort of interpretive naivete that they do, vis-à-vis the Bible, because they have never been “catechized” into the conciliar, and thus historic categories of the Christian reality. In other words, evangelicals, in the main (although per a recent poll, this is becoming less and less the case too), believe the Chalcedonian grammar that Jesus is both fully God and fully human in a singular person; and the Nicaean-Constantinopolitan grammar that God is one in three/three in one. But they only know this, if they do, tacitly. They don’t appreciate the serious hermeneutical gravitas that gave rise to such orthodoxizing grammars as that obtained in the patristic churches. As such, these grammars about who Christ is, and who God proper is, are, for them, accidental rather than essential realities of the Faith.

My contention is a simple, but I think a profound one: evangelicals, in the main, are not educated, in their early Christian formations with the sort of theological and christological categories that allow them to even begin thinking about scriptural interpretation in terms of a necessarily theological way. Surely, this development of Christianity has to do with the modern turn-to-the-subject/individual and the rise of individualism that engendered. Modern humans consider their personal con-sciences to be the terminus of all that is real and holy. Insofar as evangelicals are slavishly “modern” in this way, to think in terms of conciliar grammars or from within the communio sanctorum (communion of the saints), is rather anathema to them. As such, they only are able to think in terms of “me-and-my-Bible,” as their hermeneutical norm. Some might call this the rationalist way; I would.

Just some notations I thought I would make. Carry on.

Avoiding Traditionism On One Hand, and Biblicism On the Other

In brief. There is a fine line, for the Protestant Christian, to navigating not falling into an absolute creedalism, and on the other hand, into an absolute naked biblicism (i.e. solo Scriptura, nuda Scriptura). This navigation is not necessarily charted by finding a so-called via media, but instead it is an attempt to simply recognize the authority of Scripture (e.g. Protestant Scripture Principle), and at the same time recognize that even that principle is a deeply dogmatic one that has developed from paying attention to the confessional and thus evangelical nature of the church catholic. My goal as a Protestant Christian is to live in and out of the confessional nature of the church and reality, while at the same time recognizing that I do not want to allow for a scholasticized commentary-tradition that ends up hybridizing Scripture’s meaning rather than magnifying it. But on the other side, we do indeed have a false notion of a naked biblicism wherein certain Christian traditions have erroneously run sloppily along with an undeveloped notion of what sola Scriptura actually entails, thus opting for a rationalist engagement of Scripture where the individualized interpreter is king or queen.

We want to be confessionally oriented Christians who understand that what that entails is that we are part of the broader communio sanctorum (communion of the saints). Often I will hear low-church evangelicals (which I am low-church myself) ridicule Christians who pay attention to the theologians, and what has come to be called theological exegesis. So, what these types of Christians are saying is this: don’t listen to the theologians, just listen to MY interpretation of Scripture instead; since my interpretation of Scripture is Scripture. Can it get anymore shallow or facile than this? But this attitude reigns supreme all throughout the land of North American evangelicalism. Many caught in this trap end up escaping this flame only to jump into the frying pan. In other words, many who escape this sort of naïveté end up in high-church confessionalism where Scripture ends up being read through the magisterium of said tradition’s confessions (I have the Westminster Confession of Faith in mind).

Evangelical Calvinists, like me, want to recognize the confessional, even conciliar nature of the Christian churchly reality, and at the same time allow the Scripture principle to operate with all of its minimalist due; in regard to the One it bears witness to. In other words, the Evangelical Calvinist alternative, along with many in the broad tradition of the historic church, is to simply operate with an analogy of faith wherein the faith of Christ is that faith. We want to operate with his personalising reality as the fundamentum of the Scripture’s meaning, thus avoiding the accretions of too many confessions built up, one on the other; on the other hand, we want to recognize that nobody can read Scripture as an island unto themselves. So, in my view, the best way to do this, as an Evangelical Calvinist, is to be a conciliar Christian; meaning that we allow the early theology proper and christological church councils to be regulative in the interpretive task of reading Scripture—insofar that those councils adequately provided an orthodox grammar for thinking the triune God and the Christ. And insofar that those councils weren’t developed enough, it is best to continue to constructively engage with them until we all attain to the unity of the faith that Christ is for us; and I am referring to the eschatological reality of all things.

Contra Good Ole’ Boy Hermeneutics in Response to Leighton Flowers: With Reference to John Webster and the Conciliar Age

For some reason I continue to listen to this popular level voice, Leighton Flowers, as he attempts to critique and offer an alternative to classical Calvinism. I just listened to one of his newish videos (pertinent discussion starts in and around 28 minutes) where he interacts with a Calvinist friend of his. In this video he reveals his hermeneutical approach, which is pretty clear after you’ve listened to him for awhile. He sees the ecumenical church councils, for example, like Nicaea-Constantinople, Chalcedon, so on and so forth as ‘inspiring’ but not derivatively ‘authoritative,’ insofar as they aren’t scripture in themselves. In fact Flowers tells his friend that he sees the [Holy Spirit “inspired”] conversation he is having with his friend as potentially as ‘authoritative’ as these councils. So, as I have noted before, Flowers, in the name of sola Scriptura (but he is really solo Scriptura) has swallowed an Enlightenment rationalism ‘whole-hog,’ wherein he sees himself as the interpretive center in isolation from past doctors of the church. And yet, with this dissonance (that he doesn’t experience, as he should), he presumably affirms the definitive language of Trinitatis (Trinity), and the Christological grammar that developed in the conciliar age. For some reason he doesn’t have the capacity to make the connection between that grammar as fundamentum to everything he thinks about who God is in Christ, and how that implicates the way the Christian, historically and into the present, has interpreted Holy Scripture. He operates out of an anthropological ground like we might find in John Locke’s theory on tabula rasa.

In order to offer a correction, that Flowers himself will not take (he claims to be humble and teachable in a good ole’ boy sort of way, but he isn’t), let me offer up an excellent word on these things from theologian, par excellence, John Webster. You will note that what Webster says, following, stands in stark contraposition to what this chap, Flowers maintains. Here is how John Webster sums up his discussion on the relation of ‘The Word’ (Jesus) to biblical interpretation (hermeneutics). Webster has been arguing against the usual modes of hermeneutical consideration, as anthropology; and through a ressourcement of Barth, he is presenting a ‘way’ that provides for a thick dogmatically oriented mode of hermeneutical theory.

To sum up: because God in Jesus Christ speaks, because Jesus is God’s living Word, then the ‘hermeneutical situation’falls under the rule: ‘We do not know God against his will or behind his back, as it were, but in accordance with the way in which he has elected to disclose himself and communicate his truth’. Once this is grasped, then doctrines begin to do the work so frequently undertaken by anthropology or theories of historical consciousness in determining the nature of the hermeneutical situation, thereby making possible the ‘formed reference’ which is the basic mode of theological depiction.[1]

In other words, modern hermeneutical proposals that seek to propound a theory of biblical interpretation that aren’t first given shape by a direct encounter with the Word (Jesus), dogmatically, will always fail to encounter Jesus for who he actually is because the interpretive event is not dominated by him, but them. This hermeneutical error not only applies to Flowers, but many other so-called biblical exegetes who have swallowed the higher-critical mode of a naturalist biblical hermeneutic. As Barth underscored in his Göttingen Dogmatics, we can only rightly do biblical and Christian theology Deus dixit, after ‘God has spoken.’ This necessarily entails that we can only do theological exegesis of the biblical text from the grammar, or implicates of God’s life for us in the mysterium that is the Theanthropos, the Godman, Jesus Christ. This is the only genuine Christian way for reading Scripture; i.e. through the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. It is in this foundational and fertile ground wherein the Divine Meaning can be ascertained aright; “for no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (I Cor 3.11).

If the Christian is going to be part of what has been called the communio sanctorum (‘communion of the saints’); if they are going to live in the vibrancy of the Church catholic; they will realize they are not a ‘clean-slate,’ that they are not a hermeneutical island with ‘me-and-my-Bible’ in hand. They will repudiate anthropologies that suffer from turn-to-the-subject[ivism], as the rationalist mode (like the one Flowers operates with) suffers from, and instead will recognize that as they were ‘born from above,’ they were born into a holy communion that is grounded in the very triune life of God Himself. The Christian will recognize that we all interpret Scripture from a particular tradition, one way or the other; since tradition making is as inevitable as being a creature with extension into time and space, and all that entails. A misguided Christian might think they are able to read Scripture de nuda (nakedly), but what they will really be doing is reading Scripture from a naturalist tradition that has no Christian confessional grounding whatsoever. When the Christian attempts to operate this way with Scripture, they are bound to come to exegetical conclusions that reflect their deepest and most innate (natural) desires. In other words, because of anthropological, and thus epistemological definition, they will really only be able to read Scripture homo in se incurvatus (from an incurvature upon themselves); they will only be able to read Scripture, from this vantage point, out of  categories that have been constructed from self-projection (see Feuerbach for this critique)—the history of higher criticism and Jesus Quest illustrates how this trajectory concludes. No amount of good ole’ boy piety or piousness can overcome this sort of hermeneutical dilemma. Sorry Leighton.

[1] John Webster, “Hermeneutics in Modern Theology: Some Doctrinal Reflections,” Scottish Journal of Theology, 328.

 

If Peter Ramus is Your Homeboy When it Comes to Biblical Hermeneutics You Ought to Shudder: I’m Looking at You, Classical Calvinists

Classical Calvinism, or Westminsterian Calvinism, or scholasticism Reformed, or Federal theology, so on and so forth has a particular way of exegeting Holy Scripture, and for me it is an absolute turn-off; it should be for you too. Have you ever heard of Peter Ramus? If you haven’t, you should look him up. His locus methodology was appropriated by Federal (Covenantal) theology, and used to abstract particular doctrinal topics (loci) from Scripture’s greater canonical whole, and then harmonize said topics through theological confessions like we find in the Westminster Confession of Faith. The problem with this approach, for my money, is that it propositionalizes teachings in Scripture that never intended to be read in the sort of haphazard or broken way that they are; that is relative to the canonical reading Scripture intended to be read from as that is ruled by the reality of Jesus Christ. Paul Hinlicky has this nice description of ‘Ramism’ as he contrasts its approach to Scripture, and how that is fleshed out in what he calls Protological Divine Simplicity (he uses James Dolezal as his example) versus what we find in a canonically oriented reading of Scripture (and he refers us to the post-liberal, George Lindbeck for that alternative—prior to this he refers to Brevard Childs, who I am a fan of, and was trained to read Scripture from in his canonical critical approach). So, Hinlicky:

The rule theory of Christian doctrine is above all credited in recent times to George Lindbeck’s seminal critique of propositionalism in theology, The Nature of Doctrine. Dolezal’s book is a textbook case, hermeneutically, for propositionalism in that the diverse testimonies of Scripture are ahistorically and uncritically torn from their context in God’s history with His people, principalized (i.e. turned into free-floating abstractions) and as such harmonized according to an agenda other than the revelation: “God consigned all to sin in order to have on all.” Lindbeck’s hermeneutical critique of propositionalism, however, does not amount to noncognitivism in theology; rather, it specifies the way in which cognitive claims regarding God are to be made—that is, in first order, directly Spirited discourse (“Be of good cheer, your sins are forgiven!” For “Jesus is Lord.” And Jesus is Lord because “God has highly exalted Him” who undertook your lot and bore your burden. And God exalted Jesus because God freely chose to surpass the wrath of His love by the mercy of His love).[1]

To help explicate what Ramism entails even further, let’s read along with Richard Muller as he describes the impact Peter Ramus had on the Post Reformed orthodox biblical hermeneutic:

In this era, the French and Dutch Reformed also developed, and did so under the pressure of intense persecution at the hands of Roman Catholics. In addition to the framing of the French Reformed faith by the Gallican Confession, the third quarter of the sixteenth century saw the development of a distinct French Reformed style that would be exported to other Reformed centres, notably to England, in the latter part of the century: specifically, the rhetorical and logical or dialectical models of Petrus Ramus (c. 1515-72), much debated in their time, had a vast impact on the structuring of Reformed theology in the early orthodox era. Ramus argued for the replacement of Aristotelian categories of predication with topics elicited from the materials of argument, at least in the organization and exposition of the major academic disciplines, including theology. This approach itself was not at all revolutionary: the use of a topical or place logic had been effectively advocated in the fifteenth century by Rudolf Agricola, and the Agricolan pattern had been developed by Melanchthon and, arguably, adopted by Calvin as well. Ramus’ importance stems instead from the pointedness of his advocacy of the topical method and, above all, from his connection of the topical model with a method of division of the topic into subtopics, all organized into the form of charts utilizing ‘French brackets’ as a visual tool.

The massive impact of this approach is seen in Reformed tracts, treatises, theological systems, and commentaries of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. In brief, Ramus offered his age as an approach to organization and, indeed, architectonics, that proved eminently useful in the construction of well-argued systems of theology and in the production of clearly organized biblical commentaries. In the latter case, as evidenced in the works of Johannes Piscator (1546-1625) and Jean Diodati (1576-1649), the diagrams could be effectively conjoined with the rhetorical analysis of text. Ramus’ influence, however, must be fairly strictly limited to method: older scholarship has claimed an association between the advocacy of Ramist logic and non-predestinarian, a posteriori, salvation-historical and covenantal approach to theology. This claim, however, fails for lack of any solid historical documentation. There is, in the first place, a clear use of Ramist method by staunch predestinarians; in the second place, there is no ultimate separation in Reformed theology between covenantal and predestinarian thinking, and in the third place there is no clear association of Ramism with the foundations of Reformed covnenant thought.[2]

Muller helps us appreciate the sort of deep impact that Ramus had on the development of Post Reformed orthodox theology as it sought to exegete Holy Scripture. I mean, you know, if you’re into slicing and dicing Scripture up into bite-sized pieces without any real concern for its canonical whole as that finds its res (reality) in Jesus Christ; more power to ya! I’m just not a fan of reading Scripture this way. I really do prefer reading it as a contextual whole, and allowing its very composition and final canonical form, as that is regulated by its witness to Jesus Christ, to shape the way that I read and meditate on Holy Scripture.

Yes, I am being a little snarky, but that’s what Ramism does to me. I take my Bible reading rather seriously, so when I come across someone who has injected a methodology into its reading that abstracts its intended contextual flow to be broken down into pieces, per an a priori system of theological development, I find myself balking at such attenuations. I would say this is a fundamental flaw in the whole of classical Calvinist theology. If its biblical hermeneutic presents us with this sort of artificial apparatus for reading Scripture, and developing doctrine, just think of what it is doing to its whole theological presentation. I shudder at the thought of being submissive to such biblical gymnastics as we hope to develop the sacra doctrina of Holy Writ. Solo Christo

[1] Paul R. Hinlicky, Divine Simplicity: Christ the Crisis of Metaphysics (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2016), 202.

[2] Richard Muller, The Cambridge Companion To Reformation Theology, 136-37.

*I would have rather found a thug life picture of someone like Amandus Polanus or someone, but Edwards will have to do.