A Response to the Mystics and Pluralists: From a Reformed Theology of the Word

I just listened to a podcast where both presenters are former Calvinists (one Baptist the other Presbyterian). Now one of them has converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, while the other is a ‘Christian Mystic’ (whatever that entails). One is now a Christian universalist, who sounds like he approves of a Rahnerian anonymous Christian mode and transcendental Christ-consciousness, while the other seemingly is a Hickian pluralist. They both are against creedal (credo) belief (relatively speaking), and instead affirm what they identify as religious (religio) belief; the latter being some form of mystical meta material that holds all of reality together (some might think of the Logoi theology of some of the patristics at this point). There is a deep commitment to an apophatic theology among these two. They find the apparent antinomies of Calvinism and Arminianism to be intolerable, but they are okay with deep mystery when it comes to their respective worldpictures. One of them has read some Barth and Torrance, and appreciates them, it’s just that he thinks they are irrational when it comes to their inner-theo-logic vis a vis universalism. This guy is a priori committed to Christian universalism, he believes if Barth and TFT were consistent with their logic that they would also have to be absolute universalists. Since they aren’t, according to this guy, they run afoul of being consistent, and thus present an incoherent theology. Both he and his buddy maintain that Barth and TFT are simply too contradictory to follow on this point, and thus ought to be placed into the same camp as the classical Calvinists and Arminians when it comes to the false superstructure they are offering. Interestingly, these guys fail to appreciate the dialogical/dialectical nature of Barth’s/TFT’s approaches, respectively, when it comes to thinking things theological in nature; even if one of them acknowledges that they have this mode of theological existence informing their respective ways. In the end, they sound more New Age (or Gnostic) than Christian.

When a principled theology of the Word is abandoned for an amalgam and idiosyncratic appropriation of the consensus fidelium you never know where the person will end up. People, in the main, are clearly fed up with the phoniness of evangelical Christianity; I am too. But the alternative, for my lights, isn’t to simply cobble together some sort of mystical religion wherein cohabitation with an ostensible religious psychology becomes the mainstay. To be genuinely Christian, in my view, means that the person must think God from God in a principial way. In other words, to be genuinely Christian in mode means to think God from God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ; and to do so from a robust theology of the Word. When Scripture becomes the wax-nose of a purported mystical approach, it no longer has ultimate meaning as a Christian text. When the scandal of particularity is swallowed by the mystery of the universe, as has been by the two I’m referring to in this post, Scripture loses its ordained place as the place where God has freely chosen to speak as if in the burning bush. God is not a pervasive energy, or stream of consciousness pervading through the cosmos. He is a particular and scandalous God who has freely chosen to reveal Himself in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. Once that scandal is no longer the centraldogma of someone’s mode as a purported Christian, all one has left is some form of [Christian] Gnosticism of the sort that I think the guys I have been referring to have imbibed.

Systems of theology aren’t bad, just bad systems are bad. Systems of theology are as inevitable as tradition-making is. These two guys want to reject systems that they see as totalizing machinery. Of course, in their rejection they simply posit a new system of their own. It is true that scholasticism may have anticipated the totalizing systems of rationalism. Even so, to reject systems in toto, as I just noted, cannot follow. It’s simply a matter of whether or not a system is held with the right amount of humility or not. For the Christian, the best system will understand its relative place next to eschatological reality. All good systematic theology recognizes its proximate value insofar that ‘final’ judgment on things is always already left open to its eschatological and coming reality in Jesus Christ. This is the basis of the Reformed semper Reformanda, a basis that classical Calvinists can only pay lip service to these days. Nevertheless, to replace bad systems with a mystical system doesn’t solve anything, it only, by definition darkens things by thinking and speaking in the negation.

I recognize this is a rather cryptic post, but I wanted to offload after I spent two hours watching this podcast unfold last night.

 

On Being an evangelical biblicist and Scripture’s Holy Depth Dimension as an Antidote

I was going to write a post on the topic of biblical hermeneutics and exegesis. But then I searched my blog, and as usual I found a post that I had already written on the very topic I was setting out to compose for you my fine readers. So, let me re-share the post I have already written, and hopefully it will make the point I was inspired to make before I realized I’d already made it.

I grew up as a ‘biblicist’ evangelical, or at least this was the label we freely chose to self-identify with. It meant we eschewed labels like ‘calvinist’ or ‘arminian,’ or what have you. It meant we just believed what the bible simply taught, and like ‘good Bereans’ we tested all things by the canon of Scripture in order to make sure that what people were teaching was true or not true. But then I became “educated,” and I realized how complex things were when it comes to a doctrine of Scripture and a biblical hermeneutic. As I pushed further into the theological world I began to realize that many Christians through the millennia had come to interpret Scripture through the regulative reality propounded by what came to be known as the consensus patrum, and what many associate with that as ‘classical theism.’ I came to realize that being a biblicist in the sense that I was operating, in the past, was really based on a modern construct of a form of biblical rationalism; i.e. an approach to Scripture that was given birth in revivalism, pietism, conversionism, and probably most central: Fundamentalism. In this approach I believed everything could be reduced down to propositions, and that all important Christian teaching could simply be found by reading and studying the bible over and over again. At a level, even a fundamental level, in principle, this is true; indeed, this is what the Protestant Reformers identified as the ‘scripture principle.’ But 20th century evangelicals, of the revivalist hue, took this principle in a different direction; eschewing all else but Scripture, or so they thought. American evangelicals, “my people,” of the 20th century, believed, and continue to believe that Holy Scripture can be read as a tabula rasa (or white slate) without ever imagining that there is a depth dimension to Scripture; an informing theo-logical reality that allows Scripture to assert what it does in its various teachings and ways.

I am still an evangelical. I am still a biblicist. But I understand these days how every single bible interpreter engages in what is called theological exegesis. In other words, we all interpret Scripture based on a prior theological grid that we have consciously or unconsciously assimilated into our lives. Many people still believe this as I did for many years; in regard to an ability to simply read Scripture for all its worth without recognizing the role that ‘theology’ plays in their interpretive process, and exegetical conclusions. I think we do best to recognize that Scripture has a depth dimension, as TF Torrance calls it, and understand that Scripture is merely the signum (sign) of which Jesus is its res (reality). If we mistake the sign for the reality we will expect more of the sign than it can deliver. We must understand, as John Calvin did, that Scripture really has an instrumental value; as such its purpose, as is all of creation’s, is to give way to its reality as it bears witness to Jesus Christ. It is when we operate with this ‘ontology of Scripture’ (or understanding of its place vis-à-vis God) that we will be set up better to be genuine biblicists.

A genuine biblicist, in my view, is someone who can be honest about the limit of Scripture’s capacity. What I mean is that they can recognize that Scripture only has meaning when it is understood that Jesus is its altitude. If we can’t accept that the Word of God ultimately is Jesus Christ, and not the bible, per se, then we will expect Scripture to be Holy without its Holy reality; we will end up projecting our own “holy” ambitions into the text, and allow our own navel-formed aspirations to become Scripture’s reality. I believe, with all good intention, this is what I used to do to Scripture. Thankfully, Scripture’s reality, if we are committed to inhabiting it constantly, has the power and resource to break through this sort of good intentioned naïveté and contradict the self-projected divinities we so often impose on it as the canonic text. I used to believe I had a very high view of Scripture, but it turns out, at a functional level, that I had a very low view of Scripture.

All of the above said: it is a complex when we consider the role that the so called consensus patrum and/or the great tradition of the Church has vis-à-vis Scripture, and its interpretation. This is where my biblicism rises up. When I think a foreign construct (potentially even aspects of so called ‘classical theism’) is being imposed on Scripture, displacing Scripture’s reality and claiming to offer its most normative understanding, it is at this point that I object. It is at this point that I go solo Christo. But this is a complex indeed, and one that we will have to revisit later. I just wanted to register my thoughts on these things again, because for some reason they are thoughts that constantly attend my daily existence as a Christian person.

The Text and Canon of Christ’s Life: Holy Scripture

“and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God”

The Bible, Holy Scripture, the Word of God is neglected at alarming rates by Christians; at least according to the polls, and based upon what the churches look like. I think and work in the ‘theological’ world, but for me this means being constantly bathed in the words of Holy Scripture. If Scripture is God’s ordained place for us to encounter His dearly beloved Son, Jesus Christ, then it behooves the Christian to be saturated in its text; just so that they might be saturated in the very power of the resurrected Christ. Christ is the res (reality), and the text is the signum (sign) that points beyond itself (like Calvin’s spectacles) to its transcendent yet immanent reality for us in Jesus Christ. It is as the Christian inhabits Scripture that they are made aware of the reality and ground of their life in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ; a life that is indestructible, and not only impervious to death, but an eternal life that has dismantled death from the inside/out. And yet this ‘last enemy’ remains; death that is.

The Apostle Paul was well aware of this last enemy, and he informs the Christians in Ephesus of the means by which they might confront death, and its minions, who is the satan and his fallen cohort. As the Apostle knew, while living in the far country of this world system, the Christian would be beat here and there by the darts and lies that the great deceiver would attempt to thrust at them; with the might of a dragon. God in Christ has provided for us (pro nobis) the means, through Holy Scripture, by which the Christian cannot just be an ‘overcomer,’ but be so through a vibrant life of participatio Christi (participation with Christ in the triune life of the living God). Jesus in His humanity for us understood the outright power of simply inhabiting Holy Scripture; of internalizing it, and organically living it out. We see this best in the satan’s attempt to tempt Jesus in the wilderness.

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’ Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him. –Matthew 4:1-11

As many of you already know Jesus is recapitulating Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness because of their failure to obey God’s Word. Here Jesus quotes Deuteronomy at the satan, from that very context, and prevails over the devil himself by the living Word of God; ironic, since He is that Word in Himself (in se). But this is how Christians ought to inhabit God’s Word, just as Jesus did. We need to inhabit, internalize, and deploy it (by the Spirit) in such a way that it is canonical and contextual. This means, in order to experience the power of the Word of God, as that finds its reality in Jesus Christ and the triune life of God, that we need to rightly divide it (II Tim. 2:15). We need to labor over it, and in it. We need to allow the canonical reality of the text itself, as that finds its life blood through Immanuel’s veins, to so flow through our lives that it might shine out of our broken bodies into a shadowy and dark world.

But I am afraid Christians are not being vigilant in knowing, inhabiting, meditating, and thus rightly dividing the Word of God which is truth. There is a raging spiritual attack to keep Christians from their primary means of offense (let alone defense), in regard to taking up the Word of God and reading it. The Christian will never experience the real power of God in their lives outwith an obsessive, even myopic focus on Holy Scripture. The very breath of creation and recreation itself underwrites the very ink and paper upon which God has chosen to disclose Himself to and for the world; indeed as that lowly paper and ink bears witness to the flesh and blood of God in Jesus Christ. The satan knows that if he can keep the Christian away from the text of Holy Scripture, OR if he can indoctrinate people with bad hermeneutics (i.e. which would mean that people mishandle Scripture for their own vein or misguided ends), that the Christian will have no power to be an ‘overcomer.’ Remember the seven sons of Sceva in the book of Acts? They attempted to do an exorcism, as the Apostle Paul and the other Apostle’s were known for, and the demons said they knew who Paul was, but they didn’t know these men; at which point the demonic power surged through their human dwelling place and beat the Scevans to a bloody pulp. This remains the reality today. Even if they aren’t always physically beating people up (although they still do that too), they most certainly are entrapping people, Christians, who do not know the reality of Holy Scripture.

Kyrie eleison. Lord have mercy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Avoiding Traditionism On One Hand, and Biblicism On the Other

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

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

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

Katherine Sonderegger’s Bible: To Err is Human

Inerrancy is a terrible framework to build a doctrine of Scripture from. Building a theological doctrine should never start from a negation, but from a positive starting point that has the capacity to bear real conceptual and theological fruit. I think John Webster, in his little book Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch provides the best way forward for thinking a doctrine of Scripture, alongside what he calls an ‘ontology of Scripture.’ An ontology of Scripture entails a way of thinking Scripture from a theological taxis within a God/world relation. In other words, an ontology of Scripture entails seeing Scripture in its proper light and orientation as a reality given by God in and through Christ in the event of salvation. It is humanity’s reconciliation with God, in the mediating humanity of Jesus Christ, that Scripture finds both its gravitas and res (reality); since Scripture has no meaning, no telos outwith its givenness in Jesus Christ (Jn 5.39; Col 1.15ff etc.). In other words, as Webster argues, Scripture ought to be understood with particular reference to soteriology; even more pointedly, in the realm of sanctification. It is as we are participatio Christi, as we are being sanctified from glory to glory, that the rose colored glasses become clearer and clearer as the day of salvation draws closer today than it was yesterday. It is as we encounter Christ in Scripture that we are set apart over and again until that great day of beatific vision. So, there is, indeed, and instrumentality to Scripture, as Webster et al. are wont to emphasize, including Katherine Sonderegger; but this does not also need to mean that Scripture, as the looking-glass for seeing and encountering God in Christ, must also then have the capacity to be fallible. Webster doesn’t take that turn, but Sonderegger et al. does. That’s what I want to highlight in this post.

Katherine Sonderegger in a chapter she has written for the book Dogma and Ecumenism: Vatican II and Karl Barth’s Ad Limina Apostolorum gives us insight into her doctrine of Scripture. As I just alluded to above she posits that Scripture is fallible, or that it can contain errors given its human composition. She maintains that the church’s tradition, and the supervening and providential work of the Holy Spirit can and will direct Holy Scripture to its proper end in Christ; but she takes the unnecessary step of casting doubt on Scripture’s veracity, in regard to the factual statements it makes about things related to history, cosmology, science, so on and so forth. The context she writes the following within is her engagement with Vatican II’s Dei Verbum, and in that context she wants to press the idea of Scripture as being an instrument; but I contend she presses that metaphor to its theological breaking point. She writes:

You’ll note that I opened the door a bit to the notions of fallibility, of scriptural error. Now this is no small topic, no abstract or cool tenet of the schools, but rather a “painful school of honesty,” to borrow Schweitzer’s celebrated phrase, a testing crisis of the Christian faith in modernity. Dei Verbum, you remember, forged a delicate sentence to capture the wide-ranging opinions of the Fathers and periti on the doctrine of inerrancy. The full sentence—itself a master of joinery!—reads: “Since all that the inspired authors, or sacred writers, affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures.” Now an entire treatise could be written on this complex sentence so I will not pretend to do it justice here. But commentators have been quick to point out that this truth God “wishes to see confided to the sacred Scriptures” is for our salvation; we are not in the presence here of a mere scrupulously correct instruction book. God’s intention or will for the creature, the liberation and healing of the whole world, is the proper subject-matter of the Holy Bible. Now it seems to me that the image of the mirror would allow us the wide-open vista of a reflection that is itself true and without error, even if the reflective instrument is itself flawed, partial, even woefully inadequate. I see my gray hair quite accurately, unmistakably even, in the poorest Woolworth looking-glass. There are limits, to be sure. Cardboard does not reflect; even the components, glass without the silvering, show nothing. But we might, in this image of the mirror, capture something infinite distance between God and his creatures, including the works of their hands, yet remain still children of the Word, seeing in part and in a riddle, yet truly, faithfully, and in confidence of the whole that will be seen one day, God willing, face to face.[1]

Her doctrine of Scripture, as sketched in this passage, sounds close to Barth’s, ironically. I say ironically because her theological prolegomenon (theological methodology), with her respective theory of revelation in tow, does not have Barth’s Christ concentration; indeed she is heavily critical of this concentration (see her Systematic Theology V1). Because Barth has his ‘threefold form of the Word’ (the eternal Logos, written, and preached/proclaimed) he has the sort of theological recourse to think Scripture within the Christological/soteriological frame that Sonderegger does not equally have (I will have to develop this more later).

As you read my concern in this post you might think that I simply want to argue for a crypto-inerrancy position, but that really isn’t the case. I do believe that the intention of biblical inerrancy is right, because it wants to affirm the reliability and utter truthfulness of Holy Scripture as God’s ordained means of presenting Himself afresh and anew through its reality in the encountering Christ therein. But I don’t think that a doctrine of inerrancy, as a doctrine of Scripture, per se, is the best way for framing Christian Scripture; as already alluded to earlier. My problem is that when people want to operate with a confessional notion of Scripture, as Webster, Sonderegger, Barth et al. do, that it is unnecessary, in my view, to get into the binary of an error or inerror discussion about Scripture. But Sonderegger (and Barth and TF Torrance et al) feel compelled to emphasize, at points, Scripture’s errors, in order to magnify the Holiness of a triune God who can still use it for His purposes of encountering the world through its reality in Christ.

But really, I see that WHOLE discussion as an orientation provided for by modernity rather than by Scripture’s witness itself. In other words, I see it as a capitulation to the higher critics and their text-criticism of Scripture on the one hand, while on the other attempting to salvage Scripture (in a rather, ironically, Schleiermacherian mode) as an instrument that God can still use despite its many errors; as those are related to points of science and the facts of history. This is an unnecessary attempt to work around a foreign naturalism and historicism imposed on the text of Scripture. For my money it would be best if this discussion was left to the side; which is why I like Webster’s approach so much (he doesn’t fall prey to feeling compelled to say Scripture has error or doesn’t have error, since he sees Scripture from within a genuinely Christian dogmatic frame).

PS. I also like Barth’s deployment and appropriation of Paul Ricoeur’s concept of second naïveté as he engages with a doctrine and reading of Holy Scripture. This is something that Sonderegger also does not have in her tool-box.

[1] Katherine Sonderegger, “Holy Scripture as a Mirror of God,” in Dogma and Ecumenism: Vatican II and Karl Barth’s Ad Limina Apostolorum, edited by Matthew Levering, Bruce L. McCormack and Thomas Joseph White, OP (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2020), 51-2.

Confronting the Bible-All-By-Itself-Guys in the Churches: Theology as the Corrector

Online interaction is what it is; we all know what it is by now. Christian social media is an interesting place, eh. Just recently I had a reminder (on Twitter) what it is like to run into a brother (apparently) who harbors some serious insecurities based upon his lack of knowledge (i.e. lack of study), and ego issues. In this particular instance I commented on someone else’s thread (I don’t even think I really “know” them), in regard to a question orbiting around a so-called ordo salutis. I challenged this person, a bit, because their position sounded rather semi-Pelagian. So, I poked back on what this Tweeter was asserting, and this guy, the one in question, didn’t understand what I had to say, per se; he just knew he didn’t like it. I attempted to offer a bit further explanation in regard to his push-back, and he really didn’t like my gist. He believed my response was too intelligentsia, to the point that I was outstripping what Scripture allows for. In other words, he believed that my responses were rubbish simply because I used concepts and language that he has no familiarity with; thus eo ipso I must be an arrogant priss who simply appeals to jargony language in order to ‘fudge’ my way around offering concrete and ‘biblical’ responses. And yet my responses represent a start towards very concrete answers; the problem: the person has to have some level of theological acumen in order to appreciate said responses. Since this fella doesn’t have this acumen (which is different from not having the smarts, per se), his come-back to me was that I must be an arrogant full-of-myself egg-head who has abandoned the simplicity of the Gospel long ago. This is what I want to address, briefly, in this post.

I tire of this sort of arrogance. I am referring to the arrogance of my interlocutor. His testosterone levels surely have gotten in the way of his ability to engage in any sort of meaningful way. He wanted me to operate in a mode he deemed acceptable, to think in a way commensurate with his lights rather than mine. He wasn’t interested in ‘learning’ anything, instead he simply wanted me to submit to his way of thinking; which appeared to be to denigrate thinking theologically. He wanted me to only speak from biblical categories, as if theological grammar and categories are non-correlative with thinking ‘biblically.’ He wanted me to adopt his solo Scriptura mode of thinking and speaking, when I repudiate that, and am only comfortable in thinking in terms of sola Scriptura. In other words, I understand Scripture to be an occasional volume, as far as its composition, which trades on theological assumptions that lie just underneath what it overtly expresses in its various types, genres, and forms. This means that in order to actually understand Scripture we must dig deep, toil even, and seek to understand how it can make claims about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit being distinct persons, but one and the same God. In order to understand Scripture we must ask how Scripture can speak of Jesus being fully human and fully God. And if we must dig into Scripture this way, in order to understand its primary subject matter, i.e. Jesus Christ (cf. Jn. 5.39) and the triune God He reveals, then this means that all of Scripture, if it’s going to be Holy, finds its orientation and meaning from this sort of deep theological leveling. Once we can accept this we have now joined the church catholic, and the communio sanctorum (‘communion of the saints’); we have come to the point of recognition that Scripture, as TF Torrance says, has a ‘depth dimension,’ that outwith understanding this the would-be biblical exegete will be hopelessly mired in attempting to make sense of Scripture without really understanding Scripture’s real ground and context in Jesus Christ.

My Twitter interlocutor has never, apparently, been introduced to the world of theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS), or theological exegesis. Thus for him, his reading of Scripture remains on mute; and he attempts to ostensibly order Scripture by his lights rather than the light of God in Jesus Christ. And so when he comes across someone like me he is confronted by, what to him must feel like an invasion by some alien life form who thinks it is superior to him. And so he almost immediately charged me with being arrogant because I did not fit into his expectation of what a serious Christian exegete ought to be. But then I ask myself: who is the one being arrogant here? I spent seven years of my life (and $60K) being formally trained on how to interpret Scripture, read the Bible in its original languages, learn how to think with the past (dead guys and gals), and learn the art of thinking constructively, along with the theologians, about who God is as revealed in Jesus Christ as attested to in Holy Scripture. But I’m the arrogant one because I have spent my time doing that homework, and my interlocutor hasn’t. None of this is about being ‘smarter’ than anyone else; it is simply about how God distributes various gifts within the body of Christ for its edification. The irony is, is that because there are so many egos out there in the church, particularly among men, that people like me, with all my training and praying, are cast aside as know it all theological geeks with no meaningful space for providing the church with anything of temporal and eternal value. I have had this experience over and again by pastors I have come into contact with, at the MANY churches we have attempted to be part of, once they realize I have some level of theological acumen. For some reason they believe my goal is to move in and take over their kingdom (which is a laughable concept — especially if you knew me in person — I’m actually a really nice non-threatening person, although I do have lots of passion for the Gospel).

Anyway, all I can say to all of this is: look at the state of the Free low-evangelical churches in America. This is the ecclesial context I grew up in, and where I have attempted to stay for all these years. Maybe if these types of churches allowed space for us theological-geek types to be more present for the discipling process, it might have a lot more depth and not produce so many atheists and Nones; it might not be so impotent, and quit capitulating to the culture as it does. I guess we will never really know. My interlocutor, at least his attitude, is a lost cause; insofar as his attitude is pervasive in the evangelical churches, they too are lost causes.

On Being an evangelical biblicist and Scripture’s Holy Depth Dimension as an Antidote

I grew up as a ‘biblicist’ evangelical, or at least this was the label we freely chose to self-identify with. It meant we eschewed labels like ‘calvinist’ or ‘arminian,’ or what have you. It meant we just believed what the bible simply taught, and like ‘good Bereans’ we tested all things by the canon of Scripture in order to make sure that what people were teaching was true or not true. But then I became “educated,” and I realized how complex things were when it comes to a doctrine of Scripture and a biblical hermeneutic. As I pushed further into the theological world I began to realize that many Christians through the millennia had come to interpret Scripture through the regulative reality propounded by what came to be known as the consensus patrum, and what many associate with that as ‘classical theism.’ I came to realize that being a biblicist in the sense that I was operating, in the past, was really based on a modern construct of a form of biblical rationalism; i.e. an approach to Scripture that was given birth in revivalism, pietism, conversionism, and probably most central: Fundamentalism. In this approach I believed everything could be reduced down to propositions, and that all important Christian teaching could simply be found by reading and studying the bible over and over again. At a level, even a fundamental level, in principle, this is true; indeed, this is what the Protestant Reformers identified as the ‘scripture principle.’ But 20th century evangelicals, of the revivalist hue, took this principle in a different direction; eschewing all else but Scripture, or so they thought. American evangelicals, “my people,” of the 20th century, believed, and continue to believe that Holy Scripture can be read as a tabula rasa (or white slate) without ever imagining that there is a depth dimension to Scripture; an informing theo-logical reality that allows Scripture to assert what it does in its various teachings and ways.

I am still an evangelical. I am still a biblicist. But I understand these days how every single bible interpreter engages in what is called theological exegesis. In other words, we all interpret Scripture based on a prior theological grid that we have consciously or unconsciously assimilated into our lives. Many people still believe this as I did for many years; in regard to an ability to simply read Scripture for all its worth without recognizing the role that ‘theology’ plays in their interpretive process, and exegetical conclusions. I think we do best to recognize that Scripture has a depth dimension, as TF Torrance calls it, and understand that Scripture is merely the signum (sign) of which Jesus is its res (reality). If we mistake the sign for the reality we will expect more of the sign than it can deliver. We must understand, as John Calvin did, that Scripture really has an instrumental value; as such its purpose, as is all of creation’s, is to give way to its reality as it bears witness to Jesus Christ. It is when we operate with this ‘ontology of Scripture’ (or understanding of its place vis-à-vis God) that we will be set up better to be genuine biblicists.

A genuine biblicist, in my view, is someone who can be honest about the limit of Scripture’s capacity. What I mean is that they can recognize that Scripture only has meaning when it is understood that Jesus is its altitude. If we can’t accept that the Word of God ultimately is Jesus Christ, and not the bible, per se, then we will expect Scripture to be Holy without its Holy reality; we will end up projecting our own “holy” ambitions into the text, and allow our own navel-formed aspirations to become Scripture’s reality. I believe, with all good intention, this is what I used to do to Scripture. Thankfully, Scripture’s reality, if we are committed to inhabiting it constantly, has the power and resource to break through this sort of good intentioned naïveté and contradict the self-projected divinities we so often impose on it as the canonic text. I used to believe I had a very high view of Scripture, but it turns out, at a functional level, that I had a very low view of Scripture.

All of the above said: it is a complex when we consider the role that the so called consensus patrum and/or the great tradition of the Church has vis-à-vis Scripture, and its interpretation. This is where my biblicism rises up. When I think a foreign construct (potentially even aspects of so called ‘classical theism’) is being imposed on Scripture, displacing Scripture’s reality and claiming to offer its most normative understanding, it is at this point that I object. It is at this point that I go solo Christo. But this is a complex indeed, and one that we will have to revisit later. I just wanted to register my thoughts on these things again, because for some reason they are thoughts that constantly attend my daily existence as a Christian person.

Barth Against Andy Stanley, Quasi-Marcionites, Socinians, and Other Heresiarchs

Andy Stanley has recently and rightfully come under fire for his diminution of the Old Testament for 21st century evangelical Christians. He offers the church a sort of quasi-Marcionism that would elevate the New Testament Jesus while denigrating and antiquating the Old Testament God; as if the latter has no real meaningful relationship with the former. But anyone aware of Holy Scripture’s sense, meaning, and trajectory will almost immediately recognize how far Stanley has slipped into the absurd.

As Thomas Torrance has done, in his little book The Mediation of Christ, all Bible interpreters ought to recognize how central the Old Testament witness and reality is to the New Testament witness and reality. We ought to appreciate that the Old Testament and New Testament have the same canonical and regulative reality (res) in Jesus Christ; and read them together as a piece. This is where Stanley et al. fail to read the Bible accurately, and with any sense of theological acuity. He ironically stumbles just on the scandal of the Gospel as that has history of salvation sense – as that has protological gravitas in the promises of the Old Testament. He stumbles because he doesn’t read the Bible eschatologically; as if the circle of God’s Triune Life doesn’t sit above in the heavenlies breaking in and throughout the histories of the Old and New Testaments as a canonical whole. He stumbles by not seeing the face of Christ in the first Adam, the Israelites, the kings and prophets, and the suffering servant of Jobian and Isianic motif.

Along with Thomas Torrance et al., Karl Barth also understands the significance of the Old Testament; he gets how the New Testament would make absolutely no[n] sense without the context of the Old. Here Barth operates in a very catholic sense as he, along with many of the Patristics, counter someone like Marcion, and underscores the significance of the Old Testament reality for the New Testament Christian; as that all is conditioned by Jesus Christ.

To indicate the axiomatic character of the statement that Christ was manifested as the Expected One even in the time of the Old Testament, we may make the further point that this statement was one which was taken for granted by the whole of the early Church from the 2nd century up to and including the Reformation and the orthodoxy of the 17th century determined by the Reformation, in spite of all the changes in the interpretation and evaluation of the Old Testament. Marcion in the 2nd century and the Socinians in the 16th were already in the eyes of the Church of their time regarded as opponents of the Old Testament, theologians with whom one could not discuss, against whom one could only dispute as against heretics—in fact the last resort could not dispute at all, because in abandoning the Old Testament they had abandoned not something but everything, namely the New Testament itself as well, and the whole New Testament at that. No-one can annul or take away the Old Testament without also confounding the New Testament, since the new appeals again and again to the old as it stands in itself (Quenstedt, Theol. did. pol., 1685 I, c. 4, sect. 2, qu. 5, beb. obs. 5). So obvious to the early Church was the recognition that Christ is also manifest in the Old Testament. A. v. Harnack, who admittedly had no desire that this recognition should prevail, in his spirited way propounded the thesis that “to reject the Old Testament in the 2nd century was an error which the great Church rightly rejected; to cling to it in the 16th century was a destiny from which the Reformation could not yet withdraw; but still to preserve it after the 19th century as a canonical source in Protestantism is the result of a religious and ecclesiastical paralysis. … To make a clean sweep at this point and honour the truth in confession  and instruction is the mighty act—already almost too late—required to-day of Protestantism” (Marcion, 2nd edn., 1924, 217, 222). Upon which the simple comment to be made is that by this “mighty act” the Evangelical Church would lose her identity with the Church of the first sixteen centuries, “The Gospels are ‘the flesh of Christ’ and the apostles the priesthood of the Church,” writes Ignatius of Antioch; “but leave us also the dear prophets, because their proclamation also aims at the Gospel, because they too hope for and expect Him, are saved by faith in Him, being in unity with Jesus Christ … witnessed by Jesus Christ and counted with Him (Ad Philad. 5, 2). They lived according to Jesus Christ, in spirit they were His disciples and were expecting Him as their Teacher; they were persecuted for His sake and were moved by His grace (Ad Magn. 8, 2; 9, 1).[1]

It seems like it should be as simple as the way Barth puts it. It seems like the Christian should easily recognize how important the Old Testament not only was, but remains in the face (prosopon) of the risen Christ! But nothing is ever this simple in the confusion and morass that is the human complexity. Nevertheless, the clarion voice of the living Christ shines brightly through the halls of catholic and canonical history with all those with ears to hear, and eyes to see.

 

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2 §14, 75-6. The italics are Latin and Greek sections offered in the English translation.