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Just a brief word on my reading of NT Wright’s new book Paul And The Faithfulness of God: I am very happy to learn things in a critical fashion from the heart and head of Wright; there is a richness to grasping the reality paul-and-the-faithfulness-of-godthat the linear historical aspect and development of the story of Scripture, unfolded, provides for us—it in fact humanizes and personalizes Scripture (at least for me). It allows me to resonate better with the characters of Scripture in concrete and thus not abstract ways; with the result that I sense a connection between the character’s of Scripture and their lived realities, and mine. In other words, what developing and reconstructing the history of the New Testament period does for me, personally, is allow me to appreciate better how what, for example, the Apostle Paul was writing to Philemon, could just as easily be written to a Christian CEO of a corporation today (with its employees, socio-culturally being viewed as parts of the machinery of the wheel that makes the corporation and the world go ’round).

But then there is also a lacuna in what Wright offers, at least for me. Simply understanding the linear flow of salvation-history—as Wright is so expert at detailing—just cannot do it for me spiritually. Just like when I was in Bible College and Seminary, I learned how to use the tools of literary analysis to interpret the text of Scripture. After awhile I could identify a chiastic structure or inclusio a mile a way; but after awhile, I began to say “who cares?” Wright has this same affect on me. I think all of the things he develops and underscores and un-covers are really neat, but there has to be more to it. What I find missing in Wright is what Matthew Levering has called the participatory historical reality and what Thomas Torrance has called the dialogical and depth dimension of Scripture. In other words, Scripture needs to have more of a theological frame, and grace-conditioned ontology and order supporting it; in other words, it needs a doctrine of God behind it that explicitly understands that God has spoken & speaks. I think what is missing for me, with Wright, still, is an emphasis on Scripture and prayer; an emphasis on the fact that we personally know the Teacher & Savior of Scripture, and that he speaks, we listen, and we know his voice. I like to focus on that; and indeed, the neat things Wright and others bring out about the history of Scripture, can be prayed through as well. But I think Wright just needs to spend more time and focus on this particular reality; especially sense he is not just a historian, but a theologian (as they say).

*This is a re-post, and a test-post. This post is one of my highest yielding viewed posts that I have ever had in a single day. I want to see what it does this time around. My blog has actually been dying as of late (like hardly any hits, only about a 100 a day, when it was averaging about 300 to 400 hits a day). I want to see if the blogosphere is as fickle as I think it is. 🙂

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Here is our next guest contribution provided by Lawrence (Larry) Garcia. I met Larry a couple of years ago (maybe), where else, but on Facebook. He is a great brother, loves Jesus, and has become intrigued more recently with Thomas F. Torrance’s offering in particular. Larry brings an interesting perspective as he is also very well read in the sphere of current biblical studies issues, and in particular, revolving around N.T. Wright. As you will see his most excellent and provocative short essay engages with biblical studies folks, and brings them into conversation with TF Torrance. Let’s welcome Larry, and be edified and provoked by what he has written. If you would like to contribute a short essay or article for the blog having to do with some themes (for, against, or indifferent) of Evangelical Calvinism (as you understand them), then please, like Larry, contact me, and we’ll see what we can do towards getting your article published here. Here is Larry.

larrygarciaBio: Lawrence Garcia is the current head pastor of Academia Church in Goodyear-Phoenix, AZ and blogs over at The Unlikely Theologian where he engages in weekly theological, pastoral, and missional reflection. He enjoys dance, cooking, and reading all things N.T. Wright and T.F. Torrance. His ultimate mission is to show that deep theological reflection and real life co-inhere and uphold one another.

If E.P. Sanders’ 1977 watershed work, Paul And Palestinian Judaism, forced anything upon Pauline studies at all, it made it face up to the fact that Judaism[1] was not a legalistic monolith where everyone’s chief aim was to accomplish self-justifying works as sort of proto-Pelagian. After a fresh re-examination of the extensive literature of the Second-Temple and rabbinic traditions Sanders coined an alternative term to describe what he would style as “covenantal-nomism,” a “pattern of religion” that held together the tension between God’s gracious formation/election of the nation of Israel and their reciprocal response by way of the covenant. Sanders stated:

The ‘pattern’ or ‘structure’ of covenantal nomism is this: (1) God has chosen Israel and (2) given the law. The law implies both (3) God’s promise to maintain the election and (4) the requirement to obey. (5) God rewards obedience and punishes transgression. (6) The law provides for means of atonement, and atonement results in (7) maintenance or re-establishment of the covenantal relationship. (8) All those who are maintained in the covenant by obedience, atonement and God’s mercy belong to the group which will be saved. An important interpretation of the first and last points is that election and ultimately salvation are considered to be by God’s mercy rather than human achievement.[2]

Of course, when the texts largely confirm (even if we go with something like Caron’s “variegated nomism” to give allowance for some “legalistic” sects during the period, even the “ethnocentric nomism” proposed by Bird) this so-called “pattern,” the temptation is either to say Paul himself misunderstood his contemporaries  (doubtful) or Paul shared in a Christianized version of covenantal nomism (à la Sanders or VanLandingham) or Paul introduces something altogether new in total disconnection to what went before (more de-Judaizing, thus introducing a radical revelational and soteriological break in salvation history).

In fact, something radically “new” seems also to be rejected on purely exegetical grounds, because for the life of me I cannot locate a final judgment passage where works do not appear to be decisive on some level. It seems, Sanders’ work has brought back into focus what Paul and others never lost sight of: that in the final judgment works seem to play a major if not central factor on the outcome. This is where N.T. Wright comes in and takes a seat at the bar of Pauline perspectives. Picking up on Sanders’ key insights (Sanders never fully develops the continuity between Paul and Palestinian Judaism at this point into anything theologically satisfying) Wright, on the other hand, offers a robust account of the role of works in the final judgment (or, even, “justification” as Romans 2 puts it) through a pneumatic axis between justification in the present based off of Christ’s representative faithfulness and final vindication in “accordance with the whole life led.”

Some critics have picked up on Wright’s use of the word “based” (when used in the context of final vindication) as if this means Wright is trying to serve up (albeit in a back door route) a semi-Pelagian account of works and end-time justification, but this, as I see it, is simple pedantry which ignores the wider context in which Wright is clearly appealing to the work of the Spirit in the believer to produce the justifying fruit. Wright responds:

But I want now to emphasize particularly that this future justification, though it will be in accordance with the life lived, is not for that reason in any way putting in jeopardy the present verdict issued over faith and faith alone. Precisely because of what faith is—the result of the Spirit’s work, the sign of that Messiah-faithfulness which is the proper covenant badge—the verdict of the present is firm and secure. “The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” Of course. Nothing that Paul says, or that I say, about future justification undermines that for a moment. The pardon is free, and it is firm and trustworthy. You can bet your life on it. It is everlasting. It will be reaffirmed on the last day—by which time, though you will not be fully perfect even at your death, the tenor and direction of your life, through the Spirit’s grace, will have been that patience in well-doing which seeks for glory, honor, and immortality. Following that final verdict, to quote another great hymn, we will be “more happy, but not more secure.” That is the truth of justification by faith in the present time, as Paul stresses in Romans 3.[3]

This, to me, is fine as it goes and is obviously supported everywhere in the NT (VanLandigham at least got this correct). But here come the Aristotelian trained critics who realize that if final justification/vindication is based on the obedience of the believer and not Christ’s complete work, then, it cannot be of grace (even after taking into account Wright’s pneumatic component). Take what Phil Johnson says in a blog post for Ligonier Ministries (which I take to be a good sample of the concern of many over Wright’s account) contra Wright:

That’s troubling for two reasons: first, it makes a person’s covenant faithfulness—obedience—the basis of final justification, thus grounding the ultimate declaration of righteousness in the believer’s own works, rather than grounding justification completely in the finished work of Christ on our behalf.[4]

Thus, for many, a final vindication of the believer in accord with their Spirited transformed life is a complete contradiction of justification based on the “finished work of Christ on our behalf” alone. It is, for them, an absolute either/or. And even if the works are given mention they are not in anyway soteriological, having had a bearing on the outcome itself and at best only serving as a witness of an election already given before time began.

However, as I see it, the either/or here (grace/works in the role of final vindication/justification) is not forced upon us by the Bible, but a restraining dualism in our epistemology that in a priori way rejects what Scripture seems to hold together and without apology to our desire for rationalistic satisfaction and consistency. In fact, this is when Torrance walks in and sits snuggly but cautiously next to Wright and Sanders on the one hand and rather suspiciously over against their critics on the other.

You see, I find in Torrance an epistemological answer to the discussion above. For starters, Torrance, I believe, would concede to the pattern of religion noted by Sanders, but would choose to state it in different, albeit theological[5] terms. Sanders’ “covenantal nomism” is for Torrance a “covenanted way of response,” but with some key differences. Elmer Colyer in his How To Read T.F. Torrance states:

Thus while the covenant involved God and Israel, it is a covenant of pure grace established by God in which God effects reconciliation with humanity at its worst in rebellion against God. Within the conflict between God and Israel, God provides Israel with a covenanted way of response in the ordinances of worship and liturgies of atoning sacrifices so that the Israelites could come before God, receive forgiveness and restoration to covenant partnership with God, and fulfill Israel’s vicarious priestly mission in history.[6]

What is important to note is, that for Torrance, “pure grace” within the covenant does not mean “less of man” or less of Israel, but “all of Israel” in their appointed worship and ordained liturgical service. Torrance is not following logico-casual reasoning, but using the “inner logic of grace” supplied by the vicarious humanity of Christ (who is the embodied fulfillment and telos of the OT “covenanted way of response”) where the epistemological categories to work through human and divine agency are to be truly discovered—and where both are fully appreciated.

You see, Torrance is a critical-realist that believes objects of reality are truly knowable and afford their own conceptual matrix (and hence appropriate logical categories during the process) for those seeking to articulate their nature (kata physin); by the way, Torrance is simply following the same epistemological turn that science made when breaking free of the logico-casual boundaries of Newtonian physics following Einstein et al. In sum, if the question of grace and human works at the end of the age are going to be satisfactorily answered and accounted for, we have to do it within the categories that Scripture and Christ provide as the conceptual matrix. And not with Aristotelian categories and frameworks in hand (which give rise to polarized statements like Phil Johnson’s above).

The “inner-logic of grace” for taking into account the question of grace/works (at the end of the age, even at every point of the ordo salutis!) is to be discovered in the hypostatic union in Christ’s own person who is both fully divine and fully human. Remember, to say that Jesus is fully divine in no way diminishes his humanity; in Jesus’ own ontological existence “fully divine” and “fully human” coexist in all of their respective paradoxical glory and mystery and majesty.

Thus, when we employ the OT “covenanted way of response” in approximation with the hyspostatic union (“the inner logic of grace”) as the conceptual matrix for final vindication we will see that we won’t be forced to accept the false antithesis between Christ’s completed work and our works through and in relation to the Spirit which will both be present as the paradoxical axis for our final verdict. “All of grace” for the God of revelation and reconciliation does not mean “less of man” or much worse, “none of man,” but as Torrance would say, “all of man.”

In Jesus’ person, the place where his divinity upholds and accounts for and sustains his humanity, is the theo-logical and soterio-logical categories for noting that at the end of the age “all of grace” in light of Christ’s completed work through the Spirit will mean all of man’s works, all of man’s freedom, and all of man’s fulfillment of the law. Christ is, after all, as Torrance would say a “Personalizing Person” who, when he acts, gives rise to “humanized humans” whose humanity, and the works therein, will not be diminished a single degree in light of the cross, but will be gloriously accounted for and upheld. Where all of grace is proclaimed at the close of the age of sin and death there we shall also hear, “Well done my good and faithful servant.” I’m sure, Sanders, Wright, and Torrance could all toast to that!


[1] Some even prefer to call it Judiasm(s) to denote the multivalent nature of the way people applied this worldview/religion.

[2] E.P Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), pg. 422).

[3] N.T. Wright, Jusitifaction: Yesterday, Today, and Forever, Jets March 2011.

[4] Phil Johnson, What’s Wrong with Wright: Examining the New Perspective. I’m tempted to write a post about the cessation of Wright/wrong puns among bloggers and authors.

[5] As increasingly is being recognized, no one approaches a text with a theological tabula rasa, we all have theological and epistemological presuppositions in this regard.

[6] Elmer M. Coyler, How To Read T.F. Torrance: Understanding His Trinitarian & Scientific Theology (Downers Grover: InterVarsity Press, 2001), pg. 99.

Just a brief word on my reading of NT Wright’s new book Paul And The Faithfulness of God: I am very happy to learn things in a critical fashion from the heart and head of Wright; there is a richness to grasping the reality paul-and-the-faithfulness-of-godthat the linear historical aspect and development of the story of Scripture, unfolded, provides for us—it in fact humanizes and personalizes Scripture (at least for me). It allows me to resonate better with the characters of Scripture in concrete and thus not abstract ways; with the result that I sense a connection between the character’s of Scripture and their lived realities, and mine. In other words, what developing and reconstructing the history of the New Testament period does for me, personally, is allow me to appreciate better how what, for example, the Apostle Paul was writing to Philemon, could just as easily be written to a Christian CEO of a corporation today (with its employees, socio-culturally being viewed as parts of the machinery of the wheel that makes the corporation and the world go ’round).

But then there is also a lacuna in what Wright offers, at least for me. Simply understanding the linear flow of salvation-history—as Wright is so expert at detailing—just cannot do it for me spiritually. Just like when I was in Bible College and Seminary, I learned how to use the tools of literary analysis to interpret the text of Scripture. After awhile I could identify a chiastic structure or inclusio a mile a way; but after awhile, I began to say “who cares?” Wright has this same affect on me. I think all of the things he develops and underscores and un-covers are really neat, but there has to be more to it. What I find missing in Wright is what Matthew Levering has called the participatory historical reality and what Thomas Torrance has called the dialogical and depth dimension of Scripture. In other words, Scripture needs to have more of a theological frame, and grace-conditioned ontology and order supporting it; in other words, it needs a doctrine of God behind it that explicitly understands that God has spoken & speaks. I think what is missing for me, with Wright, still, is an emphasis on Scripture and prayer; an emphasis on the fact that we personally know the Teacher & Savior of Scripture, and that he speaks, we listen, and we know his voice. I like to focus on that; and indeed, the neat things Wright and others bring out about the history of Scripture, can be prayed through as well. But I think Wright just needs to spend more time and focus on this particular reality; especially sense he is not just a historian, but a theologian (as they say).

Let me post a long comment I made on my friend’s wall, Lawrence Garcia, on barthderspiegelFacebook; the comment is seeking to clarify a problem that I perceive is present in N.T. Wright’s kind of biblicism and historicism:

@Larry, let me clarify a few things:

1) I have never claimed (in fact the opposite) that I don’t read Scripture w/o as you say ‘extra-canonical presuppositions’, my point is different, actually.

2) Barth’s usage of historical criticism would not end up with NT Wright’s usage of it; in fact Barth actually uses historical criticism against historical criticism. Meaning that for him historical criticism actually implodes upon itself terminating in the dogmatic and theological realities of the text (the living Word of God) behind the text (the written and proclaimed word of God). Here is how TF Torrance describes Barth’s prolegomena/hermeneutic:

**Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ. [Thomas F. Torrance, “Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931,” 196]**

So the way Barth uses historical criticism is not in a naturalist way (pace Wright), but an intentionally and principial christological way, as if redemptive history’s inner reality is God’s life [the Covenant] (so a theologically rich and dogmatic way) of which creation becomes the outer expression. If anything, Barth’s usage of historical criticism might terminate in Brevard Childs or Hans Frei (but even these guys are too ecclesiocentric for Barth’s approach, ultimately). Anyway, to appeal to Barth’s historical criticism and its application actually supports what I am getting at and not what you appear to be, Larry.

redwright3) Larry, I ask the “so what” not to register disagreement (per Hector’s perception) so much, or as if I don’t understand how NPPr’s answer that, but I, in this instance I use it rhetorically to make a larger point, and that is; so how is someone supposed to move from a discipline (history) that is by definition “descriptive” to a discipline that is by definition for Christians “prescriptive” and “constructive” (theology)? Are we just simply able to read off of what “is” (historical and naturalist reconstruction) and convert that into what “ought” to be/or is (theological and dogmatic construction)? As I read what Wright & co. are attempting, their answer to my question resides in a usage of Scripture that is *solo scriptura* (V. sola scriptura), and the method for moving from “is” to “ought” is a self-directed natural theological approach, and thus one that it is not driven by a chastened Christian belief that accurate reconstruction of history (as if history itself is “Revelation” as if there is a ‘pure nature’) cannot really be done given the noetic effects of the Fall and the ‘darkening’ that that has cast, like a shadow, upon our capacities to know God. I don’t see Wright attending to this issue at all in his method, and so this is why his “theological/exegetical” conclusions are highly suspect to me. This is why Barth, Torrance & co. press the idea that *Revelation “is” Reconciliation”, because outwith, there is no possible or natural way to access a pure kind of history [which is a myth V. mythos] that might ultimately terminate in providing meaningful revelational truth. As my friend Darren Sumner has written about Barth in this regard:

**… God does not relate to time in the same way that creatures relate to time. As the Son of God, Jesus Christ relates to time from the eternal point of view — that of the Creator; and as Son of Man, we might say that his relation to time is “temporally determined.” The sense in which Jesus Christ is “before Adam” is not as the Logos incarnatus or ensarkos but as the Logos incarnandus — that is, in the mode of anticipation of the incarnation that takes place in time. This is real for the being of the eternal Son — but it is not so without the corresponding moment of its actualization. With respect to revelation, then, because God is its subject it must come into history from without.**

So because I reject natural theology (and affirm what Barth in reified form has called an analogy of faith/relation), then I ultimately must reject NT Wright & co’s. movement from their descriptive historical work to their theological/exegetical conclusions. That said, I don’t fully reject Wright’s (et al) work, in the sense that as a historian he incidentally is uncovering some very helpful and fruitful lines of inquiry that have theological import. But because I don’t accept the kind of anthropology that funds Wright’s approach about “Revelation” and our capacity to access it, then I will remain critically suspect of his work and theological conclusions because I disagree with his apparent theory of revelation (and thus his doctrine of Scripture and subsequent ontology of Scripture), and the confidence he has in our kind of “natural” capacity to read revelation directly off of the pages of a tenuously shaped reconstruction of history.

4) Furthermore, I don’t see either Barth or Torrance stuck in the 20th century, per se; I see them as intentionally and critically engaging with the Tradition of the Christian church (from the 20th century to be sure!), based upon an ideal and their belief that God has spoken and continues to speak right throughout the history of His church (so this includes the 1st century a.d. right through the Patristic, Medieveal, Reformational, Modern, etc. periods). And I see Wright cutting most of this heritage off when he writes things like this:

**Second, I take care precisely NOT to ‘fault’ the great creedal tradition. I use the two classic creeds in my regular prayers and worship – in the Anglican manner: the Apostles’ Creed every day, and the Nicene Creed at the Sunday Eucharist. (Just as they do at Calvin, of course.) The creeds are not the ‘villains’. They were not written to provide a teaching syllabus. They are the symbol, the badge, the list of things that were controversial early on which the church had to hammer out. The problem comes – and at what point in church history this occurred I couldn’t say, that not being my period – when the creeds are used as teaching outlines; because of course they skip precisely over the ‘middle bits’ of the gospels, and thereby, quite accidentally and non-villainously, collude with a quite different movement, with which many of my readers tell me they are all too familiar: a form of Christianity in which it would be quite sufficient if Jesus of Nazareth had been born of a virgin, died on a cross and never done anything in between. The rise of such a truncated form of Christianity is not at all (I suggest) the fault of the wonderful and beloved Creeds, but of quite different movements which have then (ab)used them as a teaching outline which has reinforced (quite accidentally in terms of the Creeds’ original purpose) the omission of the kingdom of God as a present reality. In other words, I not only don’t reject Nicene Christianity, I embrace it, affirm it, love it, live it, and pray it. But the best sort of Nicene Christianity has always insisted that you read the gospels themselves, and indeed pray the Lord’s Prayer, and that these are just as important for shaping who we are in Christ as the formulaic creeds themselves. They weren’t intended to ‘cover all the bases’, and to use them as though they were is, however subtly, to misuse them. And what then happens is a form of ‘Christianity’ from which the main thing Jesus himself was doing and talking about has quietly been removed or hushed up. Very convenient, of course, especially after the Enlightenment.**

So Wright, in my view, gives lip service to these creeds (because he must), but does not see them as providing serious theological grammar for helping us actually understand who God is, and thus helping us to engage with the theological implications of the text of Scripture (and I should say that both Barth and Torrance only critically receive the creeds themselves, in fact Barth critiques and moves beyond them at points, but in actual conversation with them). So, I don’t really see an “catholic” appreciation, in actual mode and practice, in Wright; this gets back to my earlier point on “solo scriptura”.

Conclusion) With all of the above noted, ultimately, it isn’t that I don’t think Wright is not making some important material historical findings relative to clearly articulating the Gospel (i.e. like I think the idea of an emphasis on corporate salvation is important); my issue with Wright is that he really does cut off and even pooh-pooh the teachings of the church catholic (especially for people who un-critically sit at his feet), except for the fact (as I read him) that he offers a charitable gesturing towards it when he must. I think Wright should definitely be included in the ongoing conversation that God is having with His people, the church. But I don’t think Wright is the latter day prophet and thus dominating voice (nor his tribe) that many seem to think (and for some of the reasons I have noted above).

Barth and Torrance definitely have some problems of their own, but I think that their general critique of natural theology as applied to Christian theological/exegetical conclusions is spot on. So in the end, maybe some of my misgivings with Wright are more of an ultimate (methodological) concern V. a proximate one, relative to some of the interesting historical things he is uncovering.

I should also clarify, beyond what I wrote to Larry; I am still on the way here, or in short, I am still processing and learning myself. But the above represents the way I have been processing now for the last few years, at least. Although, how self-consistent I am with what I sketch above, in regard to Barth’s approach, is hard to say, at points.

It is important to remember that the text of Scripture is not just Literature, it is that, of course, with all of its conventions and literary devices, to boot; but it is more than this as well. My North American Evangelical tradition has adopted a mode of biblical interpretation (which I think is actually changing in some sectors) known as the Literal Grammatical Historical method; it is this method, by and large, that has given us the various expressions of the dispensational hermeneutic we have (as Americans) become all too familiar with—indeed it was this methodology that I was largely trained in, in both undergrad and Seminary (and my Master’s Thesis on I Corinthians 1:17-25 employs in slavish form). Here is how I described the LGH in another post I once wrote years ago, and then what, I then, in seminal form was coming to see as a better way forward (and still do):

wright1

I think our epistemological approach shouldn’t be rooted, necessarily, within a “rationalist” framework . . . which is where the LGH was shaped. That is, the LGH developed out of the “History of Religions” school of thought, at the turn of the 20th cent., and from other “rationalistic” streams of thought concurrent with this time period. Fundamentalists revolted against the “higher criticism” inherent to these schools, and combined with “Scottish Sense Realism” developed an Evangelically charged hermeneutic that (and I’m oversimplifying a bit here) was still consonant with their “liberal” brethren . . . albeit Evangelically charged! So instead of allowing arbitrary readings of history to primarily serve as the “epistemology” of scripture; I think it serves us better to approach it with Christ-centered spectacles which assumes a “positive” Christian hermeneutic provided in the scriptures. So that, the “history of Jesus” is indeed the history of scripture; and not various socio/cultural reconstructions. Furthermore, instead of doing biblical intepretation, or approaching scripture with socio-analysis as the primary methodological apparatus (which is where the LGH comes from); Karl Barth gives us the best way forward for approaching scripture (even though his points have to do with “theology”). His way forward is to start with the historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, as determinative of theology and its method. Here is T. F. Torrance on Barth:

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ. [Thomas F. Torrance, “Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931,” 196]

So as I was thinking then, I think now a better way forward to interpreting Scripture must have Jesus himself as the principled reality that serves as the rule and regulator of our interpretive decisions. Scripture should be viewed sacramentally in the sense that it is only a ‘sign’ of which finally gives way to its depth as it finds that in its ‘reality’, Jesus Christ. Matthew Levering provides further insight into how a flat kind of literal interpretive mode of operation came to find its existence in the history of ideas; he writes:

[…] Levine argues that Erasmus “began to think of the Bible principally as a record of history, rather than an arsenal of theological texts, above all as the story of Christ on earth—Christ as the supreme exemplar to be followed and imitated.” Behind Erasmus, Levine finds the mid-fifteenth-century humanist Lorenzo Valla: “For Valla, grammar was the supreme science, or at least the indispensable preliminary that was required for understanding any writing, and hence any doctrine…. In these crucial matters, the philologist was above the theologian.” [Matthew Levering, Participatory Biblical Exegesis, 22.]

I would say this is true in my experience, and it seems to be the continuing reality even as Evangelical exegesis continues to develop into more sophisticated expressions; like in NT Wright’s work for example. I have nothing against learning the Biblical Languages (I have), and using historical reconstruction etc. as part of the tool box that we use to interpret Scripture. But what I do have a problem with is when there is not proper attention given to the inner-logic and theological depth upon which Scripture turns, and wherein Scripture finds its reality; this would be like trying to ride a bike with just the spokes and wheel with no tire, you might be able to ride the bike, but it won’t move at optimum performance, it might hurt, and you probably will even crash and burn.

This is how I see the Evangelical obsession with appealing to NT Wright, and others in this camp, as the definitive way for reading Scripture. Scripture has Triune-Christological-depth as its ultimate context and canon. If we fail to see this reality as that which gives the text its ultimate sense and meaning, then we might be able to produce elaborate socio-cultural-historico reconstructions of the text, but in the end, there is really no dialogue taking place with the living author of the text, Jesus Christ. I see modern Evangelical exegesis, mostly, as an horizontal endeavor done in the name of vertical reality; and thus without vertical reality giving it the life it truly has in its ordained capacity to serve as the communicative medium and instrument that it is. I will offer more (later) on the better way, that I see as an alternative to the LGH, and now the critical movement provided by the likes of NT Wright and others.

Jerusalem besieged, 70 A. D.

I thought this was an interesting point made by N. T. Wright in his book Paul: Fresh Perspectives, he is discussing the nation of Israel and how Israel functions in the theology of the Apostle Paul. The point I am lifting from Wright here is a point that illustrates his dismay over North American Dispensational readings of Paul’s theology, in particular his conception of the second coming of Christ. Here is what Wright writes:

[…] For some, alas, the very phrase ‘second coming’, and even perhaps the word ‘eschatology’ itself, conjures up visions of the ‘rapture’ as understood within some branches of (mostly North American) fundamentalist or evangelical Christianity, and as set out, at a popular level, in the ‘Left Behind’ series of novels by Tim F. Lahaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, and the theology, if you can call it that, which those books embody. That scheme of thought, ironically considering its fanatical though bizarre support for the present state of Israel, is actually deeply un-Jewish, collapsing into a dualism in which the present wicked world is left to stew in its own juice while the saints are snatched up to heaven to watch Armageddon from a ringside seat. (p. 145, Nook edition)

And then he goes on in the next paragraph to develop the Apostle Paul’s actual thinking, in contrast to dispensationalism, on such things; he continues to write:

This is massively different from anything we find in Paul [referring to the dispensationalist reading he just mentioned], for all that the central text for the ‘rapture’ theology is of course I Thessalonians 4.16-17. What we find in Paul at this point is four things, in each of which we see the still-future Jewish eschatology redrawn around the Messiah…. (p. 145, Nook edition)

He goes on to develop his ‘four things’, which I don’t want to get into at this point. Instead, I simply want to draw attention to the way that N. T. Wright (unsurprisingly) thinks of dispensational theology. I have come to agree with Wright about my former dispensationalism (I am an American Evangelical after all). But what does Wright mean when he writes ‘That scheme of thought, ironically considering its fanatical though bizarre support for the present state of Israel, is actually deeply un-Jewish, collapsing into a dualism in which the present wicked world is left to stew in its own juice while the saints are snatched up to heaven to watch Armageddon from a ringside seat’? It is something that I have harped on for quite some time, whenever I write about dispensationalism; that is, this neo-Platonic, hard and fast distinction between Israel and the Church (the Church=for Wright ‘the saints snatched up’). It is this distinction that ironically, but not, makes the Church God’s saints, and the nation of Israel his Covenant People; such that the latter are judged (even though Jesus already was … he was the Jew, wasn’t he) by God in the ‘Great Tribulation’ (Daniel’s so called 70th Week, or Jacob’s Trouble, cf. Jer. 30:7), and the former are the beneficiaries of Christ’s death for them on the cross. So we end up with this strange dualism between God’s “two people,” with the result that one still has to go through a blood letting of unimaginable depth, and the other has been released from such blood letting (the Church) through their Savior, Jesus Christ. My depiction might seem crude, but this is the inevitable conclusion to consistent and honest classical dispensational theology.

Wright, in the end, is right that dispensational theology offers a bizarre picture of what it means to ‘support’ the nation of Israel. Their theological framework has abstracted the nation of Israel out from Christ (in this dispensation, anyway … i.e. the so called “Church Age”), and essentially placed them into a situation that has them facing something akin to a medieval Roman Catholic conception of purgatory; but instead dispensationalists have named it, ‘The Great Tribulation’, riffing on Jesus’ words in the Olivet Discourse.

What say you Dispensationalist?

PS. In the end, though, I think Wright unhelpfully ends up offering an ecclesiocentric view of God’s people, instead of grounding God’s people (the Pauline ‘One New Man’ cf. Eph. 2.11ff) in God’s life in Christ as his new creation in his covenant life of grace. So I think Wright is still in need of some dogmatic reflection, and I am happy to see that he seems to be open to some correction by some of his more recent interaction with Kevin Vanhoozer (esp. in areas having to do with union with Christ theology).

**This is a repost from another blog of mine. I wrote this many months ago.

I have been thinking a lot about hell lately; a joyous thought 😦 . This has mostly been prompted by the fact that my brother is going to be reading Gregory MacDonald’s The Evangelical Universalist; and as a result of my interaction with Jackson Baer, the author of the newly released book What The Hell (for which I did a review). I came across a great little video and discussion provided by NT Wright on the topic, and I would like to share it with you:

Certainly the Medieval impact on views of hell are over-wrought (as Tetzel would have it). But, nevertheless, hell is a reality disclosed in scripture no matter how you want to slice it. You may want to slice it out, actually; but you must engage in some fanciful exegesis, in my view, in order to get there. There are clearly theological principles that a theologian or Christian might appeal to in order to use this as the inner-logic through which the Christian interprets the reality of scripture (like God’s as love, or Triune); but nevertheless, the exegete still must work down into the depth of the text (which presupposes the text) in order to get to the inner-logic. In other words, if we follow the contours of the text; then we must acknowledge, at the least, that Jesus, for example, taught and believed in a literal hell (Gehenna, what have you); that involves eternal conscious torment (cf. Mk. 9 etc.). I still don’t see any way around this; I’ll let you know if I ever do.

I know I have beaten this drum over and over again; so I am sure you won’t mind me beating it at least one more time now. It continues to amaze me that many Evangelicals hold to the belief that when they study the Bible they simply engage in exegesis; Literal, Grammatic, Historical kind. This is the kind of exegetical approach I was trained in, in both Bible College and Seminary. And it is common belief that if we simply squeeze the words enough, do more syntactical analyses, and read it in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic; that out pops the answers to all of our theological questions.

Don’t get me wrong, I do think that there is a legitimate place in our hermeneutical systems for engaing in observational interpretation of the text of Scripture. But what is so often missing in this equation, for my solo scriptura brethren, is that we all assume certain theological axioms handed down to us from our theological forefathers. In other words, as Christians, when we read the words LORD, Lord, or God in the Old Testament; we do so with the assumption that this “LORD” is triune (one God, three persons who are this one God) in nature. And this theological assumption heavily guides and shapes many (if not all) of our exegetical decisions when we are interpreting sacred text. What amazes me though, is that while this unconscious assumption (usually) is present in my LGH ‘solo scriptura’ brethren’s approach; these same folk continue to argue for a Literal, Grammatical, Historical method of interpretation. And this in contrast to what some, me included, would call theological exegesis. This rather bothers me! Bible exegetes who reject theological exegesis for biblical exegesis, either are really naive or really arrogant; or both. We all do theological exegesis; even if you say you follow the LGH. So why not be honest, and admit this up front? That way we won’t have one group saying that they follow the Bible, while they say the other group is just following their theology instead.

A perfect example of this is N. T. Wright. There are many many people out there who seem to think that Wright is simply doing biblical exegesis; i.e. no theology. And yet this couldn’t be further from the truth for Wright. I have heard and read Wright say multiple times that he can see no other way to read Scripture than from a Covenantal vantage point (which I am on board with as well, in qualified ways). And yet the Covenantal way of reading Scripture is a thoroughly theological way to read the text; a way that was primarily developed (in Protestant form) in the post-Reformed orthodox era. So even the poster-boy for Biblical Studies admittedly does theological exegesis. If this is so, then this begs the question; is someone’s theology good or bad? Enter theologian stage left . . . 😉

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Hello my name is Bobby Grow, and I author this blog, The Evangelical Calvinist. Feel free to peruse the posts, and comment at your leisure. I look forward to the exchange we might have here, and hope you are provoked to love Jesus even more as a result. Pax Christi!

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A Little Thomas Torrance

“God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.” -T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

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