The Evangelical Calvinist

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Archive for the ‘Hermeneutics’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



Written by Bobby Grow

March 9, 2018 at 11:40 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Written by Bobby Grow

October 27, 2017 at 2:28 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is My Interpretive Tradition?

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

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


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


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

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


Written by Bobby Grow

September 25, 2017 at 2:30 am

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

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

Dear Bobby,

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

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

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

Blessings in Christ,

Phil Lueck

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

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

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

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

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

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



Written by Bobby Grow

September 21, 2017 at 6:01 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Bobby Grow

January 1, 2017 at 10:50 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Bruce Gordon, Calvin, 108.


Written by Bobby Grow

December 29, 2016 at 1:33 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Bobby Grow

December 13, 2016 at 2:59 am

Thank God for Jesus! Corrupted Interpreters that We Are

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Bobby Grow

December 12, 2016 at 3:22 am