Christian Humanism: The Spirit of Theologizing I Prefer Over Against the Scholastic Way

The way we think God determines all else. I prefer to think God as He is given to us in the categories of Holy Scripture. For me this means that the way I think God is going to emphasize concrete presentation of God such that an overly heavy reliance on metaphysical categories is going to be absent. This might explain, once again, why Barth has been such a pivotal theologian for me. That said, I continue to read deeply in historical theology—e.g. I am currently reading through Peter Lombard’s Sentences—and I gain enrichment and value from the catholic tradition; which is indeed heavily reliant upon Hellenic patterns of thought, and thus metaphysics, when it comes to its grammarization of God. Even so, I think we can do more than, not less than the tradition, in the sense that we can once again take the Christian Humanist ethos to heart, and work within an ad fontes mode wherein the source we go back to, in our theologizing, is Scripture itself; in a very intentional way. It is a hard path to chart, that is, being someone who can appreciate all that has gone before in much of the Christian Dogmatic tradition, but at the same time want to engage with that tradition in constructive ways with the hope of elevating Scriptural patterns for knowledge of God rather than philosophical ones. This, to me, is the greatest weakness of the Protestant evangelical recovery movement currently underway. It seems to be aware of its commitment to sola scriptura, but instead has seemingly opted for operating in the Roman Catholic mode of scholastic Christianity. I think the better way is the Christian Humanist way, the way, I’d contend that Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Karl Barth all imbibe in their theological works, respectively. This is the spirit I seek to emulate, and one I commend to you as well.

The Theologian For Us. Jesus Christ: The Word “Theology” and its Pagan Origin But Reception by Historic Protestants

The word theology is a transliteration of the Latin theologia which itself is a transliteration of the Greek. Richard Muller helpfully develops the etymology of how ‘theology,’ the word, came into usage among Christians, and in particular how that took form among the Protestant Reformed Christians during the 16th and 17th centuries. Let me quote Muller at some length on this in two jesusbibleseparate chunks, and then I will close with some final reflection.

The word theologia is of Greek origin, taken over into Latin, and then borrowed or adopted by the fathers of the church from gentile writers. According to Aristotle and Cicero, the poets were to be called “theologians” because they spoke of the gods and of “divine things.” Thus, by adaptation and extension of the classical usage, Lactantius refers in his De ira Dei to those who know and worship God rightly as theologi and to their knowledge as theologia. Early on, moreover, Christians referred to the apostle John as Theologus, “the Theologian,” in titles added to the Apocalypse. Alsted adds to this the fact church fathers, like Nazianzus, were called Theologus because they wrote about and defended the doctrine of the Trinity.[1]

Like so much in the Christian heritage, in the ‘fullness of time’ as it were, us Christians have retexted grammar provided for by the classical Greek thinkers. You could imagine though, that as the Protestant Reformation took place, Christian Humanist movement that it was (i.e. ad fontes ‘back to the sources’ e.g. the Biblical text in its original languages and to the Patristics/Church fathers), the Protestant scholastics almost stumbled over the appropriation of the language theologia or theology; because in their minds it was too closely associated with Hellenistic philosophy, paganism, and what had caused so many of the problems that they were protesting against within the Roman Tridentine Catholic system.

The fact that the term theologia itself is not a biblical but an ancient pagan term cause the Protestant scholastics some brief anxiety. After all, the Reformation was, if nothing else, a profoundly biblical movement, zealous to avoid anything in religion that could not be justified from Scripture and careful, particularly in its first several decades, to formulate its theology upon the text of Scripture and to avoid the use of classical as well as medieval sources. The classic use of the term theologia by Aristotle and Cicero was not easily assimilated by Protestant system either on the basis of the ancient inscription to John as Theologus or on the basis of the usage of the fathers of the church, since pagan “theology” neither had access to supernatural or special revelation nor was capable of a proper use of reason in discerning the truths of natural revelation. What Christians call theology, by way of contrast with the ancient pagan usage,

is a science of divine things … which treateth of God, nor according to human reason, but divine revelation, which showeth not only what God is in himself, but also what he is toward us; nor doth it only discusse of his nature, but also of his will, teaching what God expecteth of us, and what we should expect from God, what we should hope for, and what we should feare. [Du Moulin, Oration in Praise of Divinity, 10-11.]

Some further, preferably biblical, justification of the term was desirable. Turretin resolves the problem by making a distinction between the term theologia and its significance:

The simple terms from which it is composed do occur there, as for example, logos tou theou and logia tou theou, Rom. 3:2; I Pet. 4:10; Hebrews 5:12. Thus it is one thing to be in Scripture according to sound (quoad sonum) and syllables, or formally and in the abstract; and another to be in Scripture according to meaning (quoad sensusm) and according to the thing signified (rem significatam), or materially and in the concrete,; “theology” does not appear in Scripture in the former way, but in the latter. [Turretin, Inst. theol., I.i.2.]

Theologia, then, indicates heavenly doctrine (doctrina coelestis) and has, in addition to the scriptural references to logia tou theou, words of God, a series of scriptural synonyms: “wisdom in a mystery (1 Cor. 2:7), “the form of sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13), “knowledge of truth according to piety” (Titus 1:1), and “doctrine” (Titus 1:9). Again, the thing signified by the term is discussed throughout Scripture.[2]

Just as with everything else in the Protestant Reformation words themselves were put to the test by way of the canon of Holy Scripture. The word ‘theology’ passed the test because it signifies something that truly is grounded in the reality found in the text of Scripture as it finds its reality and order of being from Godself. In a denotative or generic sense, just as with its origin, the word theologia and theologi (i.e. theology’s practitioners) can be used very generally with reference to anyone who studies a particular conception of god; however, when Christians use the term we understand that the reference of this word is to the Triune God, and that Jesus Christ himself is truly Theologus pro nobis (The Theologian for us).

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 152.

[2] Ibid., 153.

*repost, a favorite of mine

The Historical Theology Texts That Stand Behind Me

I thought I would share three texts that have served most foundational for me in my theological development. Each of these texts was assigned to me by my former Historical Theology and Ethics professor in seminary, Ron Frost. I was privileged to serve as his teaching fellow and, as a result, became mentored by him. I will say that without Ron Frost at the seminary, my time at seminary would not have been as great as it was (and that’s saying a lot because so many of my other seminary profs were excellent in their own right, and in their own ways). But the texts that remain formative for me are these:

J.N.D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrine: Revised Edition.

Steven Ozment’s The Age of Reform 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Relgious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe.

And as supplementary readings (although I read the whole thing):

Geoffrey Bromiley’s Historical Theology: An Introduction.

You will notice that these are all historical theology related. I continue to maintain, that without having a foundation in the classical sources (so a reified ad fontes or ‘back to the sources’), and without having a grasp of their general doctrinal frameworks and trajectories, that it will be nay impossible for genuinely Christian theological development to take place. I take this as a given just as we find this sort of sentiment implied by the Apostle Paul when he writes in Ephesians 4: “11 And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ,13 till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; 14 that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, 15 but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ ….” This is a basic or fundamentum reality for me as a Christian; I believe we stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before us, and we are given a theological imaginary to think from thence.

So, I commend these texts to you. They will open you up to the ‘sources’, and allow you to engage in constructive theological theology in ways, that outwith, will not be possible. We see the dangers of people who attempt to do theology without this requisite background; they end up engaging in thought that is unmoored from the foundations that Jesus himself has offered his church, with the intention of causing edification and growth into the grace and knowledge that he himself is.

Ironically, I am often thought of us as a “Barth blogger,” or a “Torrance blogger,” and I’m fine with that. But it should be known that this only reflects the tip of the ice-berg for me. Years ago, when I first started blogging (in 2005), I might have been known as a “Luther blogger, Calvin blogger, or Sibbes blogger,” respectively. Typically my blogging is driven by whatever I’m reading at the time (as so many of you know by now). But in general Barth and Torrance have come to dominate the types of posts I generate; pretty much, because I have adopted that ‘tradition’ (and it is a tradition, just as much as the Thomist or Bavinckian or Calvinian are interpretive traditions in their own right) as my interpretive tradition. But, again, all of that is chastened by the sources. I have not lost sight of those, nor have I become a progressive-modern-liberalesque theologian who sees the past as a naïve and a pre-critical time (even if it was pre-critical … which actually is where its value is); least not in the pejorative sense that these former theologians see it as. Ultimately I will follow the theologians who point me most to Jesus Christ, no matter what period I find them in. I might be critical of some of the metaphysics as they are received by many these days; the metaphysics of say the mediaeval periods etc. But I can also critically recognize that these theologians were doing the best they could with what they had materially and formally available to them. I can recognize that they had the same impulses I have, in the sense that they wanted to magnify Jesus for the church in the sort of edifying ways that Paul refers us to.

Pax Christi.



What is God? No. Who is God? The Impasse that Gave Us a Stillborn Evangelical and Reformed Faith

Who is God? Or maybe the question is: What is God? The latter question is what the Post Reformed orthodox theologians were concerned with, and it is this question that we receive an answer for in the Westminster Confession of the Faith. But I am actually more interested in who God is. I’d rather allow who God is to define what God is, rather than allowing what God is to define who He is. The former presupposes that God is personal and revelatory, while the latter could simply operate off of a conception of God or Godness that could potentially be impersonal and discoverable. And yet because the Post Reformed orthodox or classical Calvinist theologians were attempting to answer what God is, this allowed them to slip back into an approach to the God of the Bible that did not necessarily have to start with the God of the Bible revealed in Jesus Christ in order to arrive at the categories it required to grammarize or speak of God for the church. As such, I would contend, the God articulated, say by the WCF, and the ‘what God’ therein, actually offers a rather distorted picture of the God of the Bible in a God-world relation since methodologically it reverts back to a speculative philosophical and a priori conceiving of God and brings that to the God of the Bible revealed in Jesus Christ; and attempts to synthesize the God conception say conceived of by someone like Aristotle with the God of the Bible. Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink summarize this issue nicely when they write:

Through the ages many have tried to synthesize the Greek-philosophical approach to the content of the biblical faith, but these attempts were rarely successful, as the philosophy usually received priority (Augustine being a positive exception). The most impressive example is found in the theology of Thomas Aquinas (thirteenth century). However, twentieth-century research has shown that the biblical-theological dimension of Aquinas’s doctrine of God was much more extensive and decisive than had long been assumed. Nonetheless, Aquinas saw the ideas of Aristotle in particular as a significant tool. Arabic scholars were instrumental in rediscovering Aristotle’s work, and Aquinas and others gratefully employed it for the Christian doctrine of God. Aquinas starts with the general question about the being, properties, and acts of God, so that who God is (or is not) is in the first instance discussed with reference to the classic answers of Aristotle’s metaphysics, while the section about God’s interaction with the world uses more biblical language. However, when he deals with the specifically Christian concept of God in relation to the doctrine of the Trinity, Aquinas offers a speculative, philosophical interpretation of the immanent Trinity rather than foregrounding the biblical stories about the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. This is also true for many other representatives of medieval Scholasticism.

Among the Reformers, Calvin and especially Luther were very critical of the concepts and speculative character of the scholastic doctrine of the Trinity. But apparently this critique was soon forgotten. Numerous theologians of later Protestant orthodoxy (between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries) adopted the pattern of medieval scholastic thought without much further ado, including its basis in a general , highly transcendent view of God in the locus de Deo. Their preferred description of God is that of an eternal and infinite spiritual being, adding only toward the end any reference to a number of properties regarding God’s turn toward us. This pattern is also visible in the confessional documents of the era. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647), for instance, defines God as “a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth” (question 4), a statement that, as late as the mid-nineteenth century, Charles Hodge could praise as “probably the best definition of God ever penned by man” (ST: 1:367). It should be noted, however, that this definition is given in reply to the question “What is God? (not “Who is God?”), as is typical of post-Reformation orthodoxy.[1]

This issue continues to dog the development of contemporary “Reformed” theology, and even evangelical theology that operates from that mood as is typified in the work being done for the churches by The Gospel Coalition.

It seems to me that many in the evangelical and contemporary Reformed church, particularly in the West, want to stick with what they see as the tried and true path; what some have referred to as the old paths. But my question is this: as those regulated, in principle, by the Scripture principle—referring to us Protestants—why is there a type of slavish need to be in lock-step with theological reflection that operated in and from a 16th and 17th century milieu wherein Aristotle primarily gets to define what the grammar should be for articulating God for the church of Jesus Christ? It is as if the Confessions and Cathechisms of the Protestant Reformed church have become the new magisterium of the church; that Protestants haven’t just replaced a personal Pope for a paper one (i.e. the Scriptures), but that they have succumbed to the idea that the tradition of the latter day Protestant Reformed church (16th and 17th centuries) was given by God providentially. Yet if this is so what has happened to the ‘scripture principle’ for us Protestants? If we want to absolutize the theology of say the Westminster Confession of Faith as the most proper distillation of the Bible’s teaching, then in what material way can a distinction be drawn between the theology of that Confession and the teaching of Scripture itself? In what meaningful way, if indeed we want to absolutize certain Reformed Confessions, can we maintain that all of the Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformed church are indeed subordinate to Holy Scripture? I don’t think we can.

What Kooi and Brink highlight for us is that there is a problem, in regard to the development of a doctrine of God, for the Protestant Reformed church; both in the past and presently. A mentor and former professor of mine, Ron Frost, argued similarly to Kooi and Brink’s point about a kind of still birth relative to the Protestant Reformation; i.e. a betrayal of the type of critique that Luther made in regard to the substance metaphysics funding late medieval theology relative to a doctrine of God (the metaphysics of Aristotle as deployed and appropriated by Thomas Aquinas et al.). Here is what Frost has to say:

An alternative paradigm, advocated here, is that Luther’s greatest concern in his early reforming work was to rid the church of central Aristotelian assumptions that were transmitted through Thomistic theology. To the degree that Luther failed—measured by the modern appreciation for these Thomistic solutions in some Protestant circles—a primary thrust of the Reformation was stillborn. The continued use of Aristotle’s works by Protestant universities during and after the Reformation promoted such a miscarriage. Despite claims to the contrary by modern proponents of an Aristotelian Christianity, Aristotle’s works offered much more than a benign academic methodology; instead, as we will see below, his crucial definitions in ethics and anthropology shaped the thinking of young theological students in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who read the Bible and theology through the optic of his definitions. Luther recognized that Aristotle’s influence entered Christian thought through the philosopher’s pervasive presence in the curricula of all European universities. In his scathing treatise of 1520, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther—who for his first year at Wittenberg (1508-9) lectured on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics four times a week—chided educators for creating an environment “where little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and Christian faith, and where only the blind, heathen teacher Aristotle rules far more than Christ.”[2]

We see his concern is the same as Kooi and Brink’s. What we also see is that beyond simply focusing on the problem that Aristotle’s categories bring in regard to a doctrine of God (i.e. Kooi and Brink), Frost rightly highlights the linkage that Luther saw between Aristotle’s God and subsequent teachings in regard to developing a theological anthropology and ethics. And this is the point I want to drive home in closing: what we think about God, in regard to who we think God is, determines every other subsequent theological development after that commitment. In other words, a doctrine of God, in a proper dogmatic and theological ordering (taxis) of things is of basic and first order value; who we understand him to be will dictate the way we come to theological conclusions later, whether that be in regard to theological anthropology, salvation, or what have you. This is why I press on this issue so much, it is that central. And I believe that the starting point for so much of what counts as Reformed and evangelical theology today is eschew; and I think it is eschew precisely at the point that this post is highlighting. God help us!

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 134-35.

[2] R.N. Frost, “Aristotle’s “Ethics:” The “Real” Reason for Luther’s Reformation?,” Trinity Journal (18:2) 1997, p. 224-25.

The Whole Church of Jesus Christ Needs to be ‘Always Reforming,’ Not Just the Reformed: Christian Humanism’s Significance for the 21st Century Church

In the past I have referred to Christian Humanism in my blog posts, and the significance I see in that medieval movement towards fostering the atmosphere where the Protestant Reformation could foment and burn. Personally I have been motivated by this ad fontes (back to the sources) movement, particularly with its desire to get back to the Bible and paleo-Christianity; without that erasmusimpetus, in fact, The Evangelical Calvinist would never have become a reality. To this end, let me share a bit more about Christian Humanism, or the studia humanitatis, as Alister McGrath describes that with particular focus on one of its most important promulgators, Erasmus. McGrath writes:

In a prefatory epistle, written in 1518 to Paul Volz, a monastic reformer, Erasmus indicated that his intention is publishing the Enchiridion was to provide a simple and yet learned philosophia Christi for the educated layman. Erasmus directed most of his criticism against scholastic theologians towards the specialised theological language they used, which made their writings unintelligible to the layman. Indeed, it is a hallmark of Erasmus’ criticism of scholastic theologians, that their verbal formulations are singled out as being of greater importance than the actual theological substance of these formulations.

In the Enchiridion, Erasmus lays great emphasis upon the need to study scripture incessantly, and to read commentaries upon them written by the fathers, rather than the schoolmen, as the former were much closer in time to the sources of doctrine than latter. In general, Erasmus’ interest in scripture and the fathers reflects the general humanist desire to return to antiquity, rather than any profound skepticism concerning the orthodoxy of later medieval theology. Although his personal creed remains elusive, Erasmus’ method is clear: the Christian church must return to her sources, and break free from the scholasticism which so addled her of late. With this end in mind, Erasmus himself undertook extensive editorial work, including the publication of the Novum Instrumentum omne in 1516. This work not only included the full Greek text of the New Testament, but also a new Latin translation which differed from the Vulgate at points of potential theological significance, along with extensive notes justifying these alterations. Erasmus’ editions of patristic texts were notable in two respects. The first is their accuracy and comprehensiveness, which made them indispensable to scholars. It is, however, the second respect which particularly claims our attention: the works of St Augustine were not given any pride of place among these texts. This reflects Erasmus’ marked preference for Jerome, whom he regarded as the essential embodiment of the ideals of the Renaissance. In a letter of 21 May 1515 to Leo X, Erasmus declared his intention to encourage the re-emergence of Jerome as the Christian theologian. As early as that year, Erasmus had defined Jerome, not Augustine, as summus theologus. Although the western theological tradition may be regarded as essentially an extended commentary upon the works of St Augustine particularly with respect to the theological renaissance of the twelfth century, Erasmus effectively called this foundation into question with his predilection for noster Hieronymus. The humanist concern for accurate texts was thus not without its theological overtones.[1]

Christian Humanism may sound like a purely literary movement, but even as McGrath underscores, it was more than that; a movement with serious theological implications. It might also appear that humanism of this sort was antagonistic towards specialized theological or ecclesial vocabulary, but that would be a mis-reading. Instead, humanism was critical of such language-systems becoming terminal in themselves; with the result of creating a culture that was too inwardly focused. Indeed, a culture that in effect cut Christian people off from the fount of Christian reality and truth as found in the Apostolic Deposit of the New Testament. What Christian Humanism brought was not just a method, but a spirit that fostered critical space for critical engagement with the church and of course other areas of engagement.

Here at The Evangelical Calvinist I am still motivated by this kind of reformational spirit, and committed to the ad fontes of Christian Humanism. The thing is, I think, at this point, that spirit and those tools need to be turned on Protestant Reformation theology itself. I see a need for reinvigoration and renewal within Reformed Christianity; that’s what has motivated me for years, i.e. to bring reformation to church of Jesus Christ by pointing people to the terminal source of all reality, Jesus Christ Himself. I believe Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth, both as Reformed theologians, represent what it looks like to be involved in this type of Christian Humanist and reformational spirit; both seeing the need to bring critique and theological development to Reformed theology. It isn’t, obviously, just Reformed theology that needs to be ‘always reforming’ (semper reformandum), but Christian theology and the Christian church in general. The spirit we find in Christian Humanism, I believe, is a spirit that should live on!

[1] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross  (Oxford/New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 44-5.

Ontology of Grace and Substance Metaphysics

Some have said that talk of ‘substance’ metaphysics is erroneous, I’ll do a post on who in the days to come. Until then I think the following is instructive towards understanding, theologically, what substance metaphysics is referring to when the locus is grace. It is unfortunate when grace is depersonalized, because insofar as God in his being in becoming is grace, if this ontology of grace is aquinas2applied to God we end up with a monad and not a personal God who is Triune.

As of late I’ve been talking with a few folks about Grace, and what Thomas Aquinas thought of it, and how he defined it using Aristotle’s categories of substance and qualities. Below I’m going to give a definition from a Latin theological dictionary on created grace or habitual grace.

habitus gratiae: habit or disposition of grace; a divine gift infused into the soul in such a way as to become a part of human nature. The habitus gratiae can therefore also be called gratia creata, created grace, as distinct from the uncreated power of God that brings it into existence, gratia increata. In addition, according to its function, the habitus gratiae can be called justifying grace (gratia iustificans) or sanctifying grace (gratia sanctificans). This concept, together with a related concept of an infused righteousness (iustitia infusa, q.v.), was rejected by the Reformers in so far as it cannot be correlated with the doctrine of a forensic justification (iustificatio,q.v.) on the ground of the alien righteousness (iustitia aliena) of Christ imputed to believers by grace alone through faith. The habitus gratiae implies an intrinsic righteousness to the believer, whereas the Reformer’s concept of imputed righteousness is extrinsic. Righteousness is viewed by the reformers and the Orthodox as inherent, or intrinsic …, in relation to the work of the Spirit in sanctification (sanctificatio,q.v.), but the concept, here, is expressed in terms of cleansing (renavatio, q.v.) rather than in terms of an infused disposition or habit. [Richard Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology, 134]

In other words, created grace, for the Protestant, is incommensurate with the concept of grace as foreign and external mediated by the righteousness of Christ;and applied by the Holy Spirit. For Roman Catholics, historically as noted above, grace becomes part of the person, in the accidents, which is intrinsic to the person. The implication is that grace is something that can be manipulated by the person, depending on their particular disposition — this typically has been known as semi Pelagianism.

The Church as the ‘Translated’ Faith, a Maasai Creed, and the Dominant ‘Faith of Christ’

The domination of Biblical exegesis and Theological development by White male Europeans in the church’s history continues to be a mantra chanted by many who are seeking to do exegesis and theology from a post-colonial, anti-empire hermeneutic; in other words, there are many who disagree with what they feel is the impingement of one perspective on Christian reality and expression over others. It is true, that the male species of the European variety has dominated the construction of theological grammar, and the conclusions in exegetical decisions for centuries; but this does not mean that what has been constructed, and what has been concluded is not valid or sound, it simply reflects the reality that all theology, and exegesis is contextually derived. And this, in and of itself fits well with the Christian reality of indigenizing the ‘faith’ into particular expressions relative to the panoply present in the human race. The problem, of course, comes in, when one expression, does indeed become the norming one simply because it is the dominant one. But really what needs to be considered within this kind of ‘dilemma’ is whether we need to “chuck” this kind of ‘dominating’ expression for other contextualized readings of the Bible, and other contextualized theological constructions? That seems to be how some people want to proceed; by elevating ‘their’ particular contextualized production of theological and exegetical flare for what has in the past been the dominant one. But this doesn’t seem very ‘Christian’ either, we are just exchanging one dominate form of theology for another one; it is all about who has the ‘power’ it seems.


What if, instead, we acknowledged that, yes, indeed, there has been a domination of the theological landscape for many years, but instead of replacing that, why not place that into conversation with other expressions of Christian reality from different regions of the world, and different socio contexts from the dominant one? I think that is the better way to proceed. Todd Billings writes of all of this in his book The Word Of God For The People Of God. He quotes a Christian creed given voice by the Maasai Tribe in Africa, and then he concludes the section he provides this quote from with a summary about how contextualized offerings of theology and exegesis are inevitable within the Christian community, and that this is a good thing to be cherished, not a bad thing to be repudiated.

First the creed from the Maasai, and then Billings summarizing thought:

We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the beautiful world and everything good in it. He created man and wanted man to be happy in the world. God loves the world and every nation and tribe on the earth. We have known this High God in darkness, and now we know him in the light. God promised in the book of his word, the bible, that he would save the world and all the nations and tribes.

We believe that God made good his promise by sending his son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left his home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, he rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.

We believe that all our sins are forgiven through him. All who have faith in him must be sorry for their sins, be baptized in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love and share the bread together in love, to announce the good news to others until Jesus comes again. We are waiting for him. He is alive. He lives. This we believe. Amen.[1]

Here is Todd Billings summarizing how powerful the contextualization of Christian thought is, and how and why we should appreciate it. The Masai creed helps to illustrate the beauty of all of this, and the freshness available in the Christian faith as we serve and worship the living, loving God in Jesus Christ for us (pro nobis):

In summary, the indigenizing of the Christian message – tied to contextual readings of Scripture – is a work of the Spirit that we should celebrate. In terms of our norm stated at the outset (“scriptural interpretation from diverse contexts can be received as mutual enrichment, gifts of the Spirit”) that indigenizing can be used by God to open new doors for the understanding of Scripture. Unlike the Enlightenment tendency embedded in some historical-critical approaches to see the cultural particularity of the reader as an obstacle to be overcome, cultural difference in scriptural interpretation can be a sign of the Spirit of Pentecost making the word of God penetrate the idiom, narratives, and practices of various cultures. The very act of translating the Bible into many languages implies the striking claim that Christianity is a religion of revelation “without a revealed language.” There is no such as an untranslated manifestation of Christianity. “The church anywhere and everywhere is situated … in a translated environment.”[2]

Christianity is a big thing, because it is grounded in its conditioned reality in Jesus Christ, from within the Triune life of God for all, not for some.

[1] J. Todd Billings, The Word Of God For The People Of God: an entryway to the theological interpretation of Scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 121.

[2] Ibid., 122.

Reading Scripture In the Life of the Trinity, In Theosis

I must admit, ever since encountering Patristic theology and their hermeneutics in seminary (back in 2002) for the first time, my compass for hermeneutical theory began to take a tailspin. And then a little later, as I continued to dig, and engage with Thomas Torrance, Karl Barth, John Webster, Matthew Levering, and even some Puritans, my compass became even more erratic. I was trained, informally, as an evangelical (growing up as the son bible-compassof a Baptist pastor), to study the Bible inductively, and really through the rationalist history of religions school and German higher criticism that sliced and diced Scripture into manageable, and even unrelated pieces. When I entered Bible College (the first time in 1992, and then 1996-97 at Calvary Chapel Bible College, and then finally my alma mater 1998-2001 at Multnomah Bible College) I began to be taught, formally, how to interpret Scripture, again, in a fragmented way, which could only at the end of my Bible study attempt to integrate Jesus into my biblical interpretation somehow. This culminated for me (which at this point looks like it will be my terminal degree), in 2002-03, when I entered seminary at Multnomah Biblical Seminary; I began work on an MA in Biblical Studies, which included course work, crowned with a Master’s thesis paper, which I had to defend in order to earn my MA. I chose to do my thesis paper on I Corinthians 1:17-25, which was an exegetical analysis of that pericope. I successfully defended that in 2003, and earned my MA in Biblical Studies. But what this paper did (100 pages as it was), was demonstrate and illustrate how I used to study the Bible back then; very analytically, inductively, expositionally, verse by verse, and through hermeneutical premises that were and have been largely absent from the bulk of the Christian church. In other words, even though my passage of consideration was about Jesus and the cross, my method of interpretation was not premised, hermeneutically, upon the reality of Jesus and the cross; instead it was premised upon premises provided for evangelical Bible study that were provided for it by people who are not evangelical (historically and even culturally understood), and who might even be antagonistic to the Christian faith. In the end I actually liked what I was able to produce for my Master’s thesis paper (my examiners did too), but I wonder what it would have looked like if it had been given shape under hermenutical pressure that was more intentionally Christ centered?

Is it even possible to exegete under a ‘Christ-centered’ and Trinitarian pressure? The early church believed it was possible, and proceeded without apology to exegete the Old Testament as if it was all about Christ; and under the Apostolic mantle provided for that method by the authors of the New Testament themselves. Donald Fairbairn (a Patristics expert par excellence) has just helped me, immensely, to think about this issue once again, in a very helpful and definitive way. My compass has been wandering here and there, hermeneutically, I have been deeply influenced, as I mentioned, by T. F. Torrance, and in particular to this issue, by his book Divine Meaning: Studies in Patristic Hermeneutics; but I have had problems, quite frankly, trying to practically conceive of a way to interpret and apply Scripture in a way that is genuinely Christ centered, hermeneutically, and at the same time, critically available to the tools provided by what might be called ‘modern’ exegesis (literary, canonical, historical, etc.). This is where what Fairbairn, in a straightforward and succinct way has helped me with today; he has placed hermeneutics, at least in the way I am appropriating it, within the realm of the Greek Christian understanding of theosis, so in the domain of Christian salvation (soteriology)–this would fit well, in some respects, with Matthew Levering’s idea of participatory history. Let me share the two paragraphs from Fairbairn that have helped and edified me today; I hope they will be edifying for you too:

Roots Of Patristic And Modern Old Testament Interpretation

At this point, we as evangelicals should notice a significant incongruity latent in our situation. We accept (albeit with reservation) a method of biblical interpretation that historically arose among scholars who rejected most of our core convictions about the Bible–that it is from God, that it is a book telling a single story, that its various writings are fundamentally unified, that its central subject is Christ. Furthermore, without giving the matter a lot of thought, we reject allegory as a way of interpreting the Hebrew Bible, a way that is found in the New Testament and that was widely used in the early church, even though that kind of interpretation grows out of the same convictions that we share. It is indeed ironic that when a church father who shares all of our basic convictions argues for a connection between this Old Testament passage and that New Testament reality, we reject his argument out of hand because our masters in the school of modern interpretation (masters who do not share our convictions) have branded such exegesis as allegory. And it is even more ironic that our adherence to a plain-sense, nonallegorical method is so intense that the New Testament itself disturbs us when it connects the Testaments in a way that sounds like allegory to us. We wind up thinking that Paul and Matthew were allowed to handle the Old Testament this way because they were divinely inspired, but surely we must not handle the Old Testament this way.

If we recognize the incongruity I have been discussing, then we should also see that there is more than “mere allegory” going on when the church fathers interpret the Old Testament. In contrast to modern liberals (who might see no unifying theme in Scripture) and in partial contrast to modern conservatives (who tend to organize Scripture around concepts such as the covenant or the dispensations which have governed God’s dealings with humanity), the church fathers tended to see the scarlet thread, the unifying theme of Scripture, as Christ. Again, this unifying theme places the emphasis in a rather different place than we do. We today start with ourselves and ask how God relates to us. The church fathers started with God, and especially with Christ, and asked how we participate in Christ. This is why virtually all of patristic thought saw theōsis–humanity’s becoming somehow a participant in the divine life–as the link between God and humanity. Furthermore, this is why one strand of patristic thought, the one I think is most fruitful for us today, understood theōsis in terms of the Father’s relationship to the Son and saw our participation in this relationship as the scarlet thread of the Christian faith. If one does theology in the way the church fathers did, with the life of the three trinitarian persons at the heart, then one will seek to find those trinitarian persons–especially the preincarnate Son–throughout the Old Testament.[1]

This is the way that T.F. Torrance sought to interpret Scripture (just read his two volumes: Incarnation & Atonement), and it is the way that I personally believe is the most fruitful and edifying way for Christians to engage in as exegetes.

So instead of using dispensations (as I was trained to do), or ‘the covenant’ (as people who attend places like Westminster Theological Seminary are trained to do) as hermeneutically regulative for the biblical interpretive process; along with Fairbairn, Torrance, the Patristics, Barth, Webster, Levering and others, it is better, in my estimation, to allow our hermeneutical theory and practice to be established by the One who has given revelation of Himself to begin with; and it is better to practice exegesis from within this relationship, within the realm of ‘salvation’ or ‘reconciliation’ and ‘participation’ in God’s triune life mediated through Christ. Does this mean that we cannot employ modern critical tools while doing exegesis? I don’t think so. But what it means is that we won’t let those tools (whatever they are) be the basis for our hermeneutical theory. In other words we won’t just read Scripture ‘as literature’ (because it is more not less than literature, it has a different location from other literature,  what might be called ‘profane literature’); we won’t just read Scipture ‘as history’ (because it is more not less than history, it is where God providentially has interpreted through His Son for us, His life for us, and our life for Him through the vicarious humanity of Christ through Apostolic Deposit); and we won’t, then, read Scripture but within the domain of grace, and in particular faith, which is established by its rule in Jesus Christ.



[1] Donald Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity: An Introduction To Theology With The Help Of The Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 114-15.

“It isn’t voluntary”: Our Parents, Our History

One thing that really helped me in learning to be a more “critical” theological thinker was to be immersed into the world of historical theology, in particular Reformational and Patristic theology, in my seminary days. Prior to this kind of immersion I felt somewhat aloof, kind of wandering around in a theological smorgasbord wherein I as the informed (because I had earned, at that point, a BA degree with a double major in Bible and Theology and a minor in NT Greek) agent, and ‘Free’ thinking Free church member had all the regal resources of something like the Wesleyan Quadrilateral at my fingertips; I had a kind of relative omniscient capacity to philosophically, and in a suspended kind of disposition, analyze the theological and exegetical options, and by my own voluntary act insert myself into whatever theological trajectory or narrative that I so desired. Okay, I am overstating this a little. My point is to highlight the kind of voluntary nature of my position prior to being introduced to the problematization of that provided by gaining a historical and critical perspective of things.


What I realized as I began reading and studying the developments of the early Christian church (the Patristic era), is that things were so much more dynamic, so much less cut and dry than things seemed to me prior to this engagement. I began to realize that I was part of a continuous move of God in Christ in His church that wasn’t something that was voluntary, but something that was highly intentional and given ongoing eschatological force by the continuous in-breaking of God’s life upon His people; and that by my participation in this move of God in Christ, I had entered into something that was not of my own making, nor of my own decision. I had entered into something that was of God’s making, and of his work, and by entering into this work of His (in His church), I have become attached to a body of humanity that is not our own. In other words, for good or for ill, I have become part of a reality that transcends me, but decisively includes me, in personal ways, in this particular transcendence, in Christ. An implication of this is that in some ways I don’t have a say in what has come before (just as children don’t have a say in who their parents are); I don’t have a say in whether or not I like the fact that part of God’s movement in Christ in His people the church has included decisions, arguments, and subsequent development of grammar that has become known as the Tradition of the church or the Apostolic Doctrine. But for good or for ill, this is the reality; I can kick and scream against this reality, OR, I can engage in dialogue with this reality with hopes of building upon and growing through the nourishment available through this work of God in His church. This does not mean I cannot critically engage with my inheritance, as part of this great continuum and move of God in Christ, but it does mean that I have to recognize that I am not the Master (even if I have a Master’s degree), and I don’t get to say who my ‘parents’ are; they simply are.

I think the thrust of my points here are twofold: 1) We cannot just look over the past and history of the Church as one monolithic blob that has no real import for me today, we have to engage with this blob, and in so doing our own posture will be problematized sufficiently in such a way that we will realize that the past is our present, as we are in continuous dialogue with God through His people, both past and present; 2) More simply, we will gain a proper orientation toward our own and personal theological development, as we realize that the past often critiques our present held beliefs, and at the same time provides new critical and thus fruitful ground upon which to constructively build and engage with contemporary churchly concerns that have real life consequent for our fellowship one with the other.

Conversational [Dialogical] Theology: Being a Catholic Interpreter, with Advice for N.T. Wright

If the Christian life is dialogical, or shaped by conversation with God and His people; which it is (I would argue). And if Jesus Christ, according to Paul, promised that He would build His Church up by providing it with teachers/elders, evangelists, et al (Eph. 4); which He did. And this promise has come to fruition through all of the centuries since Jesus ascended, and into the present; then how can we ignore the fact that the Christian faith, and its self-understanding is catholic (i.e. universal, and reaches across all periods of the Christian church)?

I have learned much through engagement with N.T. Wright, but one lacuna or gap in his thinking (intentionally so on his part), is his failure to properly or thickly appreciate my point in the paragraph above. His common quip is that the Medieval church (and the early Reformed one) ‘got the right answers, but asked the wrong questions’ in regard to understanding the nature and ontology of Christian salvation. And that this, then, has had a distorting affect upon the subsequent development of the Christian church, since. And so, by and large (other than a head-nod, when he is pressed), Wright waves his hand over this whole period (from at least the 14th century into much of the present time—and he even goes after the ecumenical councils and the Greek Church Fathers), and acts as if he (and in many ways, he alone) can recover Christian truth about salvation, in particular, that had heretofore been lost; as if the gates of hell had prevailed against the Church of Christ, until he (and some of his company) have recently come on scene. Surely this is problematic, and overwrought! I have learned much from Wright, but Jesus has capably and conceptually been forming His church without Wright and our current situation, just as He said He would, through the teachers He has provided His church with through the centuries.

Thomas Torrance offers a better perspective on how to think about the dialogical nature of Christian interpretation and conversation/fellowship with God and His people. You will notice that in what Torrance communicates, he does not denigrate historical studies (which is what N.T. Wright’s discipline is), but gives them their rightful place; but he expands this idea of historical studies out beyond Second Temple Judaism, and into the history of the Church and history of interpretation, as if Jesus really has been offering fresh encounters with His people over all of the centuries of the churches’ existence. Torrance writes:

(iii) It is the combination of historical and ecumenical studies that is particularly valuable. Historical studies are necessary for the understanding of our brethren from another historical tradition, and yet it is only by engaging in conversation with those who belong to a Church that has embodied another historical tradition that we can fully understand the history of the Church. This applies not only to the separated Churches of the Evangelical world, but to the relations between so-called “Evangelical” and so-called “Catholic” Churches, between East and West, and indeed between the people of the New Covenant and the people of Israel who persist in living only according to the Old Covenant. It is thus that theological activity is enabled as fully as possible to engage still in conversation with the fathers of the Old Testament, with the Greek and Latin fathers of the ancient and mediaeval Church, and with the fathers of the Reformation in all its branches. We have to take very seriously the requirement of God to appear before Him, and to engage in conversation with Him, not alone, but with the whole company of God’s people past and present. It is thus that it belongs to the very nature of theology to be essentially catholic, and it is enabled to be that by historical and ecumenical dialogue with the fathers and brethren alike. [Thomas F. Torrance, The School of Faith: The Catechisms of the Reformed Church, lxviii-lxix.]

It is clear how Torrance thinks about this then. And I think it is much more of a healthy and balanced alternative than the sense that N.T. Wright often portrays in his own thinking. Ironically, I would note, Wright does not actually move away from the classic redemptive-historical-soteriological mode of Reformed-covenantal exegesis; instead he simply reorients it, by re-shaping it, a bit, through his historical reconstructive work of Second Temple Judaism. So he hasn’t really asked new questions from the Reformers, he has simply come up with new answers, albeit largely in the same ecclesio-soterio/centric frame that many of the ‘Reformers’ were working through.

The difference that Torrance offers, from Wright, is that he grounds his dialogical approach to theology/hermeneutics in a doctrine of Christ/God; which has to be the hermenutical order we follow. We must follow a Christ-centered hermeneutic as the key to providing the proper frame through which the right questions can finally be asked. As Torrance also writes of the best of the Reformed tradition:

[…] It is in that light that the Reformation as a movement for theological reform is to be understood, that is, as a thoroughgoing criticism of all the received doctrines in the light of correspondence to the Gospel and coherence with the central doctrine of Christ, and a radical reforming and correcting of these doctrines by bringing them into obedient conformity to the doctrine of Christ. It was in that movement of faithfulness to Christ and His Gospel that Reformed theology came to understand both the nature of true theology and the nature of its systematic presentation through consistent obedience to the Truth as it is in Christ Jesus. [Thomas F. Torrance, “The School of Faith,” lix-lx.]

So it isn’t that Torrance, like Wright, is receiving medieval categories and thought forms uncritically; it is just that Torrance (unlike Wright) is critically ‘receiving’ the history of Christian thought by submitting it to the reality of Jesus Christ Himself. So the methodology is a principled Christological one, and one that is in constant flux as it is given fresh voice through conversation with God in Christ by the Spirit. We don’t need to toss the whole thing and start over (which is often the impression that comes across through Wright), but we need to be in submission to the Lordly voice of the Christian heritage and present, in a way that we operate, as Torrance would say, with ‘repentant’ thinking; Jesus’ voice, the voice of the living God, being that which regulates our reception of His voice given in the past through and to His people. So as in dialogue, healthy ones, this is an ongoing reality.