An Ontology of Scripture and How that Ought to Calm MacArthurite Waters, But it Wont!

In light of some recent run-ins, provoked by my posts on John MacArthur, I’ve unfortunately had to ban two different guys from my blog. The issue underneath the whole loggerheads has to do with Biblical exegesis, and more to the point theological-exegesis (which neither of my interlocutors were keen on admitting is even a reality). As a result of those unfortunate exchanges, I thought I would share a post I posted quite awhile ago at another blog of mine. It gets into dealing with what Scripture actually is to begin with—within God’s economy—and then how once that issue is dealt with what it will ostensibly do towards how we approach Scripture as exegetes and disciples of Jesus Christ.

Something that would go a long way in allowing Christians to dialogue with each other instead of at each other is to come to terms on what Scripture actually is. As an Evangelical Christian (maybe you can relate), I have far too often been party to moments wherein a particular doctrinal topic is under consideration. Both sides, as Evangelical Christians, believe they have Scripture on their side; and thus each side appeals disparately to Scripture as their silver bullet (to win the argument, and substantiate their point). And yet, there is obviously a problem here; since both can provide apparent cogent and coherent intepretations of the same text which apparently favor their doctrinal point—then the question is: how do we adjudicate who is right and who is wrong? But, really, the question needs to step back further; we need to get to the first order issue prior to the second (which is where the debates and arguments and back-and-forths take place). The first order issue is to come to terms with what indeed Scripture is, and where it has its place relative to God and his communication to us through his Son by the Holy Spirit. While discerning this, at the same moment, we should realize that even articulating ‘what’ Scripture is and ‘where’ it is placed relative to God; won’t end all debate (we’ll just end up debating about Scripture’s place). Nevertheless, this will help us to deal with deeper issues instead of secondary issues that at the end of the day have more to do with philosophy of history and literature rather than Jesus Christ. I understand that I am being rather oblique in this post (or vague), but I would like to continue to build on the trajectory that this post sets in the days and months to come. I was prompted to write this post because of John Webster; here’s what I read, and here’s what he wrote in this regard:

With respect to Scripture, for example, lack of clarity about the tasks of biblical interpretation (in which the tug-of-war between “historical” and “theological” interpretation is but one episode) is symptomatic of the absence of shared conceptions of the nature of Scripture and of the tasks which it undertakes in the divine economy. The absence of bibliology, and the widespread assumption that a doctrine of Scripture is exegetically and hermeneutically otiose, cannot be compensated for by further refinement of strategies of interpretation. We need to figure out what the text is in order to figure out what to do with it; and we determine what Scripture is by understanding its role in God’s self-communication to creatures.[1]

The short answer is that Scripture is about Jesus; it is from Jesus, given by Jesus, and takes us beyond itself to its reality in Jesus. This will reframe multiple things, like; 1) Ontology of Scripture, 2) Hermeneutics 3) Biblical Theological Grammar, 4) Usage of Scripture, 5) Christian Spirituality/Doxology, etc.

Without careful attention to an ontology of Scripture (it’s place in the economy of God, and within a theological taxis or ‘order’ of things), all we are left with, particularly as Protestant exegetes is in impassible ditch of pervasive interpreting pluralists when it comes to our exegetical conclusions and our ability to engage in collegial dialogical discourse among ourselves.

[1] John Webster, ATR/90:4, 734-35.

 

John MacArthur’s and The Shepherd’s Conference’s Ironic De-elevation of the Bible: When the Bible Becomes Bigger than God

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Credit, David Hayward

Since the Shepherd’s Conference Summit 2017 at John MacArthur’s church just ended I thought I would continue to take this opportunity to highlight something about the type of biblicism that characterizes what we find present there. It is ironic, really, because the staff pastors at Grace Community Church I have had interaction with (some very recently) would make you think that anything but a simple and pure approach to the Bible is nothing else but idolatry. Yet if you listen to many of the speakers they have at their conference it quickly becomes evident that they are not being consistent in their stated or presumed approach. I think the real issue is that they have so uncritically received a particularly styled form of Reformed theology, in highly baptistic and rationalistic form, that they can make no distinction between that and what the Bible may or may not be saying.

In light of this continued inability to make a critical distinction between their interpretive tradition and what the Bible might or might not say itself, I thought I would commend to them the way John Calvin approached this issue. Here Angus Paddison explicates for us how Calvin approached the relationship of the Bible with interpretive tradition:

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

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

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

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

Such endeavors help identify historical-criticism, the engine of much biblical scholarship, as the modern attempt to “start over” in a manner that left behind the gifts of the past’. Accordingly, historical criticism is notoriously restricted in what history is interested in. Fundamentalism and historical criticism both presume that the church and the church’s teaching is an obstacle, not an aid, to reading Scripture well.[1]

It is very unfortunate that John MacArthur et al. continue to forge forward with this idea that they alone have somehow cornered what the Bible is actually saying versus the rest of the Christian world, so to speak. They ought to follow the advice of John Calvin, and at least admit with more humility that they like every other Christian ought to approach the Word of God with trembling. That’s the irony of this, MacArthur et al. in their singular pursuit of elevating Holy Scripture have really only marginalized it by their belief that they alone have conquered it through methodological exegesis and exposition; as if the language and words themselves are ends in themselves, they are not.

 

[1] Angus Paddison, Scripture a very Theological Proposal (London/New York: T&T Clark International, 2009).

The Bible is not the End, Jesus Is: Reflections on a Distinction Between Paper, Papal, and Jesus

Jesus is the reality. Everything else is in service to him, particularly Holy Scripture. Karl Barth famously had Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece above his desk in his study; this illustrates well what genuinely Christian theology should be all about: Jesus. As Thomas Torrance often highlights Jesus is the res (reality) while Scripture is the signa (symbol), or witness bearer. Indeed each of us as ambassadors of Jesus Christ function, in proclamation, much as Scripture does (although even subordinate to that, in a qualified way), as those who bear witness to the reality of Jesus Christ.[1]

mattiasgrunewaldUnfortunately what has often happened is that what was supposed to be witness to Jesus instead confused themselves with the reality (of Jesus) himself, and absolutized themselves as an end (even if only relatively construed) rather than a means or symbol or witness bearer to the end, Jesus Christ. A fundamental aspect of the Protestant Reformation was to correct this overplay by the Roman Catholic Church, by developing a theology of the Word. Indeed this became known as the ‘Scripture principle,’ and serves as a hallmark of the Protestant-turn as it were. As should be, Scripture, relative to a theory of authority, ascended to its rightful place within Protestantism, but as with all things human, this turn went too far, and replaced  papal with paper; Protestantism, particularly the Post Reformed Orthodox, and the theology that seeks to repristinate that contemporaneously, began to identify Scripture as an absolute end—in other words the ontology of Scripture lost its rightful place, relative to God, and ascended to heights that really only should belong to the reality of all things, Jesus Christ. Emil Brunner explains it this way:

Doctrine, rightly understood, is the finger which points to Him, along which they eye of faith is directed towards Him. So long as faith clings to the “finger”, to the interpretative doctrine, it has not really arrived at its goal; thus it is not yet actually faith. Faith is the encounter with Him, Himself, but it is not submission to a doctrine about Him, whether it be the doctrine of the Church, or that of the Apostles and Prophets. The transference of faith from the dimension of personal encounter into the dimension of factual instruction is the great tragedy in the history of Christianity. The Reformers were right when they rejected the unconditional authority of ecclesiastical doctrine as such; but when the theologians of the Reformation began to believe in a doctrine about Jesus Christ, instead of in Jesus Christ Himself, they lost the best fruit of the Reformation. Reformation theology was right in setting up the Biblical doctrinal authority above the ecclesiastical authority as their norm; but they were wrong, when they made the Biblical doctrine their final unassailable authority, by identifying the Word of God with the word of the Bible. When they did this, in principle, they relapsed into Catholic error; the Protestant faith also became a doctrinal faith, belief in dogma, only now the Biblical dogma took the place of the doctrine of the Church. Protestant orthodoxy arrested the development of the Reformation as a religious awakening.

This distinction between “Jesus Christ Himself” and the doctrine about Him, as final authority, must not, however, be misunderstood in the sense of separation. We do not possess “Jesus Christ Himself” otherwise than in and with the doctrine about Him. But it is precisely this doctrine, without which we cannot have “Him Himself”, which is not Himself, and therefore has only a relative authority. This authority increases the more plainly and clearly as it is connected with Jesus Christ Himself. Thus it is precisely the duty of a genuinely religious—which means, also, a genuinely critical—system of dogmatics to undertake a careful examination of this necessary, obvious connexion between Jesus Christ and the doctrine concerning Him.[2]

There is this constant struggle, well for some, between getting stuck in doctrine and making it to a point where we get beyond the doctrine to its reality in Jesus Christ. As Brunner rightfully leaves off, there is an inextricable linkage between the reality (as absolute) and the witness/doctrine (as relative); but if we are not careful we will fall prey to majoring on the minors, and failing to realize that in the end it has really always already been about a personal encounter with the personal and living God revealed afresh in Jesus Christ.

 

 

[1] Think of Barth’s three-fold form of the Word.

[2] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God: Dogmatics: Vol. I (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949), 54.

Reading Scripture for Information or Instead for Encounter with the Living Voice of God: A Trinitarian Account of Scripture Reading

When we read the Bible as Christians we are doing so from a certain disposition, or we should be. When we read the Bible as Christians we aren’t primarily doing so in order to map out all of its ancient near eastern context, or figure out where all the chiasmus and inclusios are, or to understand how this syntax matches up with that syntax, or reconstruct a ‘historical Jesus’ and/or ‘Apostle Paul’ who fits within all of the historicist apparatus we can avail ourselves of; no, when we read Scripture alongside the rest of the saints, presently and in the history (and in the heavenlies) we are scriptureribbonseeking to hear from God, to hear His living voice viva vox Dei. Christians, if they do in fact read Scripture at all, need to get back to this confessional Christian approach and reading ethic; one where God’s voice in Christ has the primacy and not our biblical studies guilds, or our personalist and individualist postures.

Thomas Torrance, along with John Webster (elsewhere) articulates the importance of approaching Scripture as if it is the holy ground upon which, indeed, we move beyond reducing it all down to manageable propositions, and instead allow the wild nature of Scripture to reign supreme in our lives as it mediates God’s Word to us by the Spirit’s activity in our lives in the event of justification and process of sanctification. Here’s what TF Torrance writes:

In a faithful interpretation of the New Testament we many not treat the words employed in it as if they were no more than transient linguistic symbols detached from any objective content in divine revelation, and as if they were not lively oracles through which God speaks to us in Person. Rather must we treat them as words which the incarnate Word of God has deliberately assimilated to himself in communicating and interpreting himself to us in the course of his reconciling activity. That is to say, in the words of the Bible through which the Word of God’s trinitarian self-revelation reaches us, we have to do not with some divine Word detached from his Being and Activity, but with the very Being of God speaking to us and acting upon us in an intensely personal way. In and through them we encounter the living Word who is identical with God himself, the Word in whom we have to do with the Person and Act of God, the Son made man in Jesus Christ, and are thereby summoned to personal commitment of faith in Christ and through cognitive union with him to have knowledge of God the Father. Thus we interpret his human words as the direct personal address of God in whom he communicates to us not just some information about himself but his own divine Self, and therefore interpret them not from a centre in the man Jesus detached from his Deity, but from the organising and controlling centre of his divine-human reality. To indwell the words of Christ, therefore, is to participate in the mutual indwelling of God and man in him, or the mutual indwelling of the Father and his incarnate Son. And so through union with Jesus Christ we are drawn by the Spirit of the Father and of the Son into the Communion of the Father and the Son.[1]

I think this challenges the typical evangelical and Reformed way of approaching Scripture; it is less about epistemology and gaining information about God, and instead more about ontology/soteriology and having a personal encounter with the risen Jesus as he’s given spiration by the Spirit’s resurrection. It is about participating in the triune life through Christ, and understanding that there is no rupture between the person and work of Jesus; and no rupture between the consubstantial being of the Son with the Father, and the Son with humanity as he mediates that in his consubstantial life of being both God and man in his singular person as the eternal Son (Logos).

Reading Scripture in this frame, then, is a dialogical exercise. In other words, it pivots on prayerful relation to God through Christ, and understanding that He has freely chosen to meet us as we meet him in the intersection of His life as human, in Christ, and realize that the communicative context for that, for us, takes place primarily in the triune speech act known as Holy Scripture. Practically, the way this works itself out is by simply prayerfully and consistently reading Scripture; or as Torrance said it ‘indwelling’ Scripture, allowing it to wash over us over and again, and understanding that its context cannot be detached from its giveness in the incarnation of God in Christ.

None of this is to intimate that understanding the linguistic realities of Scripture, its cultural situadedness, so on and so forth have no place; it’s just to recognize that none of that should have primacy of place. Scripture has a context, and it is God’s triune life in Christ for us. When we read Scripture it shouldn’t primarily be an intellectualist activity (as I fear way too many Christians think), but instead a devotional and doxological activity where we are set apart  (Jn. 17.17) ever amore ever afresh as we encounter the living voice of God in the christological context of His life found in and throughout the pages of Holy Writ. Scripture and its reality in Jesus Christ should act upon us ever before we attempt to act upon it.

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Pesons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 42.

John Webster Constructively Critiques Karl Barth’s Bible

John Webster, obviously, very much so appreciates Karl Barth, and in fact, he appreciates Barth’s idea on Scripture as “prophetic and apostolic testimony” (or Witness). But his barthexegeteappreciation is not without constructive critique and engagement. Here’s what he has to say, he is presenting various approaches to Scripture; this is his accounting of Barth’s:

Much less likely to beguile us into such problems is a third concept, namely that  of Scripture as prophetic and apostolic testimony, much used by Barth throughout his writings, but found elsewhere in Reformed theology. What makes this a particularly helpful term is the way in which it retains the human character of the biblical materials without neglect of their reference to the Word and work of God. The very genre of ‘testimony’—as language which attests a reality other than itself—is especially fitting for depicting how a creaturely entity may undertake a function in the divine economy, without resort to concepts which threaten to divinise the text, since—like prophecy or apostolic witness—testimony is not about itself but is a reference beyond itself. However, some careful specification is needed, because the notion of Scripture as human testimony to God’s revealing activity can suggest a somewhat accidental relation between the text and revelation. This is especially the case when the essential unsuitability or creaturely fragility of the testimony is so stressed (in order to protect the purity of the divine Word) that there appears to be little intrinsic relation between the texts and the revelation to which they witness. In this way, the annexation of the Bible to revelation can appear almost arbitrary: the text is considered a complete and purely natural entity taken up into the self-communication of God. The result is a curious textual equivalent of adoptionism. If the difficulty is to be retarded, however, it has to be by careful dogmatic depiction of the wider scope of the relation between God and the text, most of all by offering a theological description of the activity of God the Holy Spirit in sanctifying all the processes of the text’s production, preservation and interpretation. Thereby the rather slender account of divine action vis-à-vis the text is filled out, without falling into the problems of undermining the creatureliness of the text which afflict talk of accommodation or the analogy of the hypostatic union.[1]

 Webster provides substance to some concerns that I’ve had in regards to Barth’s approach to Scripture. I’ve appreciated and even favored much of Barth’s thought, but not uncritically; and not whole-sale, it is nice to hear somebody who knows Barth as well as Webster does, provide a balanced appropriation and constructive critique of Barth. Webster employs the category of sanctification to provide a “place” for Scripture’s function within God’s mode of Triune speech and self-witness. In other words, instead of making Scripture the location for assuaging our epistemological needs; he places it within the realm of Revelation, which is co-ordinate with reconciliation. Meaning that God’s self-presentation penetrates our very beings, bringing us into His presence and recreates us through the activity of the Holy Spirit’s creativity and movement drawing us into the divine life through Christ. Scripture is attached to this self-communication of God as it is seen as the locale wherein the Spirit takes creaturely media (like our written word), and sanctifies these words in service to the Word of God who is God’s self-interpreting Word.

So in a nutshell: a doctrine of Scripture, according to Webster, should be under the category of soteriology vs. epistemology (by way of order); traditionally it is the other way around.

 

[1]John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, 23-4.

 

On Using Holy Scripture with Appeal to John Webster’s Appeal to an Old Lutheran

John Webster comments on the place that Scripture should have in our lives. He references an “old Lutheran divine,” A. Calov, on the “use of the article on Scripture”:

kingjamesversionThis article is to be used in the following manner: We are to recognize and accept without reservation the holy Scripture . . . as the Word of Almighty God, and we are to regard and cherish it as the most precious of treasures . . . We are devoutly to give audience to God speaking in the Word, we are to reflect upon His Word day and night and we are to explore it with true piety and utmost devotion . . . We are to turn neither to the right nor the left from Scripture, nor are we to suffer ourselves to be moved to the slightest degree by the solicitation of others or the desires of our own flesh, lest in some way we introduce something in doctrine or life which is contrary to better knowledge or against our conscience . . . We are to gain comfort from them alone in every necessity of body and soul, and through patient consolation of the Scriptures have a sure hope of life and remain steadfast to the end of life.[1]

What is of importance is that folks actually use the Scriptures, and approach them in such a way that we believe that God speaks to us of Himself through the Scriptures. There is a place for “critical” engagement of Scripture, but I’m afraid that critics have it backwards if they think they’re the ones doing the critiquing!!

[1]A. Calov, Systema 1, 517, cit. from R. Preus, The Inspiration of Scripture. A Study of the Theology of the Seventeenth Century Lutheran Dogmaticians (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1957), 12 cited by John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, 68.

 

The Word of God with its Four Standpoints: Power to Change from Glory to Glory

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I cannot emphasize enough what a radical work Holy Scripture as God’s Holy Word has done in my life personally. It all started back in 1995, the Lord introduced a crisis of faith into my life, a crisis that lasted for years and years; full of heavy anxiety, depression, and dark nights of the soul. It was this crisis of faith that propelled me to push deep into Holy Scripture; Scripture became my daily bread, it was my sustenance. I memorized it (books), read through it over and over again, I even went so far as to sleep with my Bible (it brought that much peace and comfort for me). The Lord has used His Holy Word to transform my life from glory to glory, and He still is. The “mystery” of all of that transformative power in my earlier days didn’t have as much clarity to me; I just knew that Scripture was powerful and that it was God’s Word, and that I needed it to survive.

What I didn’t realize back then, as much, is how intimately related the written Word was to its reality, the eternal Logos, Jesus Christ. In a way I somewhat imbued the written Word with secret mystical powers immanent to itself; as if it was its own terminus (the way an North American understanding of inerrancy does currently). But as I continued to read Scripture that understanding was busted open to the point that Scripture, for me, asserted its instrumental nature. I began to see, apart from any insight from trained theologians or exegetes, that Scripture was living and the living voice of God precisely because it pointed beyond itself to its reality (res), Jesus Christ. I began to understand that Scripture’s reality was not contingent upon my capacity to make it so, but that it has its own objectivity extrinsic from me; that it is only contingent upon the Triune God’s life and reality in Jesus Christ. Once this clicked for me Scripture became even more holy  because I understood that this was the place, the holy ground where I could encounter the living God in Jesus Christ.

As I have continued to study, all of this has gained even more clarity. Someone who has helped me the most (no surprises for any of you!) is, Karl Barth. Here is what he has to say about the Word, as he articulates his theology and ontology of the Word (in extenso):

(1) First, the Word of God as directed to us is a Word which we do not say to ourselves and which we could not in any circumstances say to ourselves. Every human word, including that of proclamation and even the Bible, we could and can perhaps say to ourselves as such. Encounter with the human word as such is never genuine, irrevocable encounter, nor can it be. Encounter with the Word of God is genuine, irrevocable encounter, i.e., encounter that can never be dissolved in union. The Word of God always tells us something fresh that we had never hear before from anyone. The rock of a Thou which never becomes an I is thrown in our path here. This otherness which is yet related to us and made known to us, though only in this way, stamps it fundamentally and comprehensively as the Word of God, the Word of the Lord, compared to which all other words, however profound or new or arresting, are not words of the Lord. Whatever God may say to us will at all events be said in this way; it will be said as the Word of the Lord.

(2) Secondly, the Word of God as this Word of the Lord directed to us is the Word which aims at us and smites us in our existence. No human word has the competence to aim at us in our existence and no human word has the power to smite us in our existence. The only word that may aim at us in our existence an can smite us in our existence is one which questions and answers us in just the same way as death might question and answer us at the end of our existence. But death is dumb. It neither questions nor answers. It is only the end. It is not really a thing outside and above our existence which can aim at our existence and smite it. The Word of God is the Word of the Lord  because it comes from the point outside and above us from which death itself would not speak to us even if it could speak at all. The Word of God applies to us as no human as such can do, and as death does not do, because this Word is the Word of our Creator, of the One who encompasses our existence and the end of our existence, by whom it is affirmed and negated, because everything has come into being and preserved by this Word, and without it would not exist. He who makes Himself heard here is the One to whom we belong. Whatever He may say, it will be said in this relation of the Creator to His creature.

(3) Thirdly, the Word of God as the Word of the Creator directed to us is the Word which has obviously become necessary and is necessary as a renewal of the original relation between us and Him. The fact that God speaks to us, that He reveals Himself to us, i.e., that He turns to us in a wholly new way, that as the Unknown He makes Himself known – even after creating us and although we belong to Him – all this implies on the one side of a criticism of the reality of the present relation between Him and us and on the other side a declaration on His part to uphold and re-establish the relation in spite of this criticism of His. Neither of these could be the content of a human word. Only the One who has instituted the relation to confirm and renew it when it is disrupted or destroyed. Only God can pronounce the verdict and give the promise and raise the claim which all lie equally in the concept of revelation. Under this third aspect of its purposiveness the Word of God is the Word of reconciliation, i.e., the Word of the Reconciler, of the God who effects a new creation, who sets up His covenant with us afresh in judgment and grace. Whatever God may to us, it will at all events be said in this relationship of renewal.

(4) Fourth and finally the Word of God as the Word of reconciliation directed to us is the Word by which God announces Himself to man, i.e., by which He promises Himself as the content of man’ s future, as the One who meets him on his way through time as the end of all time, as the hidden Lord of all times. His presence by the Word is His presence as the coming One, coming for the fulfillment and consummation of the relation established between Him and us in creation and renewed and confirmed in reconciliation. Again this final Word cannot be a word of man. Human words are never final words. They are never the promise of a specific and definitive coming of the Other. It is proper to God’s Word and to God’s Word alone to be also the full and authentic presence of the Speaker even if this be as the coming One. God’s Word is the Word of our Redeemer, i.e., of the Lord who will be Lord as He was and is, who in His relation to us keeps faith both with Himself and us. In this way He is Lord indeed, the Lord of all lords. And whatever God may say to us, it will at all events be said always in this final, consummating, eschatological relation too.

Again, what God says to us specifically remains His secret which will be disclosed in the event of His actual speaking. The concrete fullness of what He has said and will say specifically to men is and remains in truth His own business. We can only cling to the fact – but we must cling to it – that when He spoke it was, and when He will speak it will be, the Word of the Lord, the Word of our Creator, our Reconciler, our Redeemer. Understanding it as directed and applying to us, we are well advised to keep what we think and say about it open in at least these four directions, to be ready and vigilant from these four standpoints.[1]

There is no natural theology prior to God’s Word, God’s Word discloses the reality of all realities, even creation’s, in Jesus Christ. It His Word which is living and powerful because His Word is Him; it is Jesus Christ. What I have come to understand (and this is my evangelical Calvinist view) is that the Word both theo-logically and chronologically precedes the written Word, or the latter is nothing more than an idol. God’s Word is distinct from man’s word, as such it has something meaningful and transforming to say to us.

[1] Karl Barth CD I/1, 132-43.

Reading Scripture as Participatory, Transformative, and as Encounter–with John Webster

When we read Scripture as Christians it isn’t a matter of simply finding all of the neat little literary nuances, or distilling all of its inner-logical reality for all its worth; in other words, for the Christian reading Scripture is not an intellectual exercise alone. To read Scripture for the Christian, first and foremost it is a participative event wherein we are encountering the viva vox Dei (living voice of God); an event from moment to moment that is transforming us from ‘glory to glory’. John Webster says it this way,

… the reader is to be envisaged as within the hermeneutical situation as we have been attempting to portray it, not as transcending it or making it merely an object of will. The reader is an actor within a larger web of event and activities, supreme among which is God’s act in which God speaks God’s Word through the text of the Bible to the people of God, as he instructs them and teaches them in the way they should go. As a participant in this historical process, the reader is spoken to in the text. This speaking, and the hearing which it promotes, occurs as part of the drama which encloses human life in its totality, including human acts of reading and understanding: the drama of sin and its overcoming. Reading the Bible is an event in this history. It is therefore moral and spiritual and not merely cognitive or representational activity. Readers read, of course: figure things out as best they can, construe the text and its genre, try to discern its intentions whether professed or implied, place it historically and culturally — all this is what happens when the Bible is read also. But as this happens, there also happens the history of salvation; each reading act is also bound up within the dynamic of idolatry, repentance and resolute turning from sin which takes place when God’s Word addresses humanity. And it is this dynamic which is definitive of the Christian reader of the Bible.[1]

All too often, I think, reading Scripture becomes a casualty of academia. Indeed, even as Webster notes, the academic intellective has its place, and done from the right motives can be fruitful; but the terminus of reading Scripture for the Christian, I would contend, should be to know God and Him crucified. Reading Scripture, because it brings us into direct contact with God in Christ by the Spirit, ought to have the impact of making us look more like its author and less like the words that shape the profane world we inhabit in this time in-between.

[1] John Webster, “Hermeneutics in Modern Theology: Some Doctrinal Reflections,” Scottish Journal of Theology, 336.

 

‘The Whole Life, Activity, and Passion of Jesus Christ’ as the Ground for Reading Scripture: With Reference to Thomas Forsyth Torrance

Reading Scripture and its practices continue to be very important to me. I am a Christian, as such I hold that the Scriptures have a certain and intended ontology; an order relative to its place within the economy of God and His Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. As such when I approach Scripture I approach it confessionally and Dogmatically; which means that I approach, as noted, as a Christian sciencebiblefrom within a frame of reference that logically understands that God precedes Scripture just as He does creation itself. Of course the difference between creation simpliciter and Scripture is that Scripture becomes Holy because it, as John Webster so elegantly develops, reposes upon its genesis as God’s triune speech-act for us as it is given for us, first and ontologically, in its real text, in the Logos ensarkos, the enfleshed Word, in the Incarnate son of God, Jesus Christ.

What I would like to do for the remainder of this post is to continue to highlight the impact that approaching Scripture this way has upon the way we read it as Christians; or the way it should impact the way we read it. As I noted, there is an order and thus ontology to Scripture. Scripture therefore is not the ultimate, but its reality is, Jesus is. Scripture from this frame of reference is subordinate to its reality found in Jesus Christ; once we recognize this we can appreciate Scripture and its ‘being’ in God’s economy the way we ought to, and as a result read Scripture the way it was intended to be read from within the Domain of God’s Triune life. Here’s how Thomas F. Torrance unfolds this:

The Holy Scripture is not Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate. We may express this differently by saying that Jesus Christ the incarnate Word of God is not merely a reflection of divine Light, a transparent medium through which that Light shines into the world, nor is he therefore merely a witness to the Light, for he is identical with the Light to which he bears witness. He is in fact “the real Light,” the Reality of the enlightening Light of God of which all created light is a reflection and to which it bears witness (John 1:9). In the same way we must say that the Holy Scriptures are not themselves the real Light that Christ is, but are what they are only as enlightened by him and as they therefore bear witness to him beyond themselves. In no way can the light of the Scriptures substitute for the Light of Christ, for they are entirely subordinate to his Light. Indeed it may be said that if the Scriptures are treated as having a light inherent in themselves, they are deprived of their true light which they have by reflecting the Light of Christ beyond themselves—and then the light that is in them is turned into a kind of darkness.[1]

Does that make sense? It seems quite self-evident to me that this is the way we ought to approach Holy Scripture. I.e. Scripture does not precede God in Christ, but God in Christ precedes Scripture; if we get this backwards Scripture’s ontology can only at that point be derived from the authority and reality we give it, and its meaning can only be reduced down to the sense that we make out of it as we analyze its literary structures, grammatical connections, syntactical arrangements, historical situations, its historical development, its traditioned sources etc. This is a concerning and profound thing; I think that largely this has become the frame through which modern Biblical Studies operates (whether that be in so called Liberal or Fundamentalist locations).

Torrance extrapolates further; he provides a way forward for how reading Scripture within its proper orientation and ontology in relation to Christ ought to look. He writes,

so far as the New Testament Scriptures are concerned, the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ constituted the ground on which they were understood and validated, brought about a radically new conception of God and a complete transformation of man’s outlook in terms of a new divine order, and—thus bracketing within them the whole life, activity, and passion of Jesus Christ—gave rise to the basic framework within which the New Testament Scriptures are set and have to be interpreted. That is to say, the incarnation, passion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ gave the New Testament the comprehensive scope within which all its writings took shape and form. Thus these realities forced themselves upon the mind of the Christian community in sharp antithesis to what people had believed about God and in genuine conflict with the framework of secular thought or the prevailing world view; they took root in the church, which they had called into existence, only through a seismic restructuring of people’s religious and intellectual beliefs. Through the New Testament Scriptures the self-revelation and self-communication of God in the incarnation, passion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ continue to supply the objective framework within which the gospel is to be understood and the Scriptures are to be interpreted. But they are ultimates, carrying their own authority and calling for the intelligent commitment of faith, and they provide the irreducible ground upon which continuing theologico-scientific inquiry and formulation take place.[2]

This seems quite radical, I think, to typical North American evangelical and mainline Biblical Studies (i.e. the discipline) ears. It takes the Bible back from the naturalist approach that has come to dominate what it means to do Biblical exegesis (see Gabler [1787]), and places the Bible itself, again, back into its proper orientation and ontology relative to God. Torrance’s challenge is for Christian exegetes and students of Scripture to repent and come back to reading Scripture with Jesus Christ as its theological and real life center. As we can see from the prior quote, as Torrance develops it, the ground of Scripture’s meaning is particular to ‘the whole life, activity, and passion of Jesus Christ.’ If this is the case it is not possible nor advisable to attempt to roam over large areas of academic discipline when attempting to read Holy Scripture; it is important instead to attend to Scripture’s scope and reality grounded and conditioned by Jesus Christ Himself. If we do this we will be in a good place to actually hear from the Lord of Holy Scripture, and will be able to avoid our attempts to adoptionistically attach our readings and exegetical conclusions of Scripture onto God (this is what happens if we follow naturalistic or maybe we could say Ebionite readings of Scripture).

[1] T.F. Torrance, Reality and Evangelical Theology: A fresh and challenging approach to Christian revelation (Philadelphia, The Westminster Press, 1982), 95.

[2] Ibid., 105-06.

The Fundamentalists, Holy Scripture and Apologetics: A Critique and Description from G.C. Berkouwer

Someone who would be considered a conservative thinking Dutch Reformed theologian from the actual Netherlands, G.C. Berkouwer, has some interesting things to say about Christian Fundamentlists and the way that they have engaged, or disengaged with a proper doctrine of Scripture. Because I think this needs to be heard I will quote GCB at length, and then offer my own reflection upon what he has written afterword. Here is Berkouwer at some length:

Upon closer scrutiny … fundamentalism proves to be far from a simple phenomenon. The use of the word “fundamentalistism” becomes unclear if it is intended to indicate the necessary preservation of the foundation that results, according to Scripture, in a blessing (I Cor. 3:10-12; Mt. 7:24ff). Such a use of the term implies that fundamentalism is no more than an echo berkouwerof the biblical testimony that speaks of the foundation that is laid (I Cor. 3:11), of the value of an anchor of the soul that is sure and steadfast (Heb. 6:19; II Pet. 1:10-21), and that speaks of faith as a substance which also expresses an inviolable certainty (Heb. 11:1 – “the assurance of things hoped for”). This foundation as such, therefore, cannot explain the nature of fundamentalism. To be sure, many expressions from the fundamentalist camp frequently give the impression that the acceptance of a fundamental truth and a certainty that cannot be subjectified are at stake, especially when its members gladly accept the name “fundamentalist” to set them apart from those who have fallen victim to the influence of subjectivism. This, however, terminates the discussion at the point where it actually should begin. Especially concerning the doctrine of Holy Scripture, the fundamentalists’ call to a simple and childlike acceptance of Scripture – no matter how seriously they mean this – is not unique to them, because in this respect they are not any different from many others who are equally convinced that God’s Word is a lamp to our feet and a light upon our path. The issue is undoubtedly far more complicated, as is already evident from the many analyses of this phenomenon.

Ahlström described fundamentalism as “a fervent but poorly informed protest movement against extreme and militant liberalism.” Stonehouse mentions that fundamentalism evidences a lack of sound biblical knowledge and historical perspective and has “certain emphases and peculiarities” that make it impossible to identify it with orthodoxy. This and similar criticism is by no means intended to deny the good intentions of fundamentalism: no good cause is served by making it the butt of “professional gossip.” It would be incorrect to ignore its legitimate “wholeness of dedication” in the discussion. The person who concurs in the lamentation of Psalm 11:3 (“If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”) cannot avoid trying to analyze fundamentalism’s apologetics, especially its view of Holy Scripture and its authority.

I believe I am judging no one unfairly when I say that fundamentalism, in its eagerness to maintain Holy Scripture’s divinity, does not fully realize the significance of Holy Scripture as a prophetic-apostolic, and consequently human, testimony. It is true that fundamentalists do not deny the human element in Scripture, but they allow their apologetics to be determined by the fear that emphasis on the human witness may threaten and overshadow Scripture’s divinity. From an historical and psychological point of view, this reactionary position is quite understandable in the light of much “humanizing” of Holy Scripture that has taken place. Yet that does not prevent other, more serious, problems from presenting themselves; for it is God’s way with and in Scripture that is at stake. Fundamentalism has hardly come to grips with the problem of whether attention for the human character of Holy Scripture might be of great importance for its correct understanding. Fundamentalists often give the impression that the point at issue is the acceptance or rejection of the vox Dei, of Scripture’s infallibility. They suggest, that, in spite of many divergences within fundamentalist circles in understanding Scripture, an a priori acceptance of Scripture’s infallibility precludes all dangers. Thus, they manifest great tolerance for all who maintain the fundamentalist view of Holy Scripture. They tend to relativize concrete obedience in understanding Scripture. The result is that their apologetic, which is meant to safeguard Scripture’s divine aspect, threatens in many respects to block the road to a correct understanding of Scripture, which is normative, by ignoring and neglecting its human aspect.[1]

This is an interesting critique and description of what Fundamentalism is and does. It is interesting to me, in particular, because many of the people who I know (in theological circles) would place someone like Berkouwer in the ‘fundamentalist’ camp simply because he is rather traditional and affirming of classical (i.e. pre-critical and confessional) understanding of Holy Scripture. But as is obvious, GCB has something more particular and geographic in mind, his focus of course is the North American Fundamentalist who came to the fore at the end of the 19th and early part of the 20th century[s].

What I wonder is if North American evangelicals have actually escaped this critique or if they only continue to reinforce it with doctrines like biblical inerrancy? I think Berkouwer would believe that evangelicals are only a new iteration of this old style Fundamentalism that he is describing from his vantage point. I wonder if neo-Evangelicals like Kevin Vanhoozer and his style and articulation of biblical inerrancy escapes Berkouwer’s critique or only enlivens it, but maybe in more sophisticated ways than originally conceived of by its original architects (in re. to biblical inerrancy)?

Another thing of note is how Fundamentalists build their whole edifice of Christianity upon rationalist arguments against their ‘Liberal’ counterparts. What Berkouwer rightly notices is that this type of reactionary movement and ‘intellectualist’ response (by the Fundamentalists) ends up doing exactly the opposite of what the Fundamentalists are hoping for; i.e. that is to ardently affirm the veracity and reliability and authority of Holy Scripture. What GCB implicitly is suggesting is that Fundamentalists argue with such vigor for Scripture’s inerrancy that that in and of itself becomes an end in itself with its own idiosyncratic hermeneutic in tow.

Personally I find Berkouwer’s analysis to be very accurate. I grew up in Fundamentalist Christianity in North America (as have so many others). This all rings so true to me, and unfortunately it continues to ring true for too many Christians out there. People are getting ripped off from the riches and heritage bequeathed to us by Christ as He has provided for that through the centuries of His church. Evangelicals who imbibe Fundamentalism (positively, or like the so called Progressive Christians, negatively) are malnourished, and as a result for all of their Bible knowledge and “sword drilling” they are ultimately missing the depth dimension of Holy Scripture in its realistic fullness, the reality: Jesus Christ.

[1] G.C. Berkouwer, Studies In Dogmatics: Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), 21-3.