The Lungs of Jesus Christ: Postcritical Theological Interpretation of Scripture contra the “Historical” Way

There are people who want to focus on what the Bible actually says, in the way that it says it; and there are people who want to focus on barthglasseswhat they think the Bible says according to their canons of extraneous criticism developed under the pressures provided by their peers. Karl Barth was a Dogmatic theologian and biblical exegete who wanted to focus on the former, on what the Bible actually says, according to its ordained conventions and reality found in Jesus Christ.

I have noticed, maybe you have too, a movement taking hold within a demographic of younger (as far as biological age) and even baby boomer Christians who in the past would have identified as evangelical Christians, but who are now more in step with what has loosely been called ‘Progressive’ Christianity. But it isn’t just this demographic, it is also the tribe I grew up in; dispensationalists are just as participatory in this process of reading the Bible through prefabricated rules developed from a historist approach toward the Bible. We could blame all of this on an uncritical (or maybe even a critical) appropriation of Enlightenment engagement of Scripture, which indeed, focuses on the formation of the canon of Scripture, and its text latent contours through criteria that are external to Scripture itself. One consequence of this is that those who follow this trajectory end up having ongoing discussions about the Bible, but never really engage with the material theological content of the Bible. The Bible gets reduced to a text that is useful for reconstructing the history of religions, but not useful for encountering the living God reported upon within its pages (and its special history relative to its reality found in Jesus Christ).

George Hunsinger, a Karl Barth scholar, professor par excellence at Princeton Theological Seminary has written about how Barth worked as a postcritical interpreter of Scripture; recognizing that the critical scholarship I was speaking about above has its place, but it really isn’t all that enlightening toward actually engaging with the text of Scripture – whose context is ultimately the Triune life of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Here is Hunsinger:

As understood by Barth, the function of biblical criticism was mostly preliminary (NS, 233). It pertained to history in them modern sense of the term. It allowed various elements of the texts to be distinguished, whether they be historical, or legendary, or conflations of past and present occurrences. Critical distinctions like these had to be made. But after they were made, wrote Barth, “they can be moved again into the background, and the whole [text] can be read, with this tested, critical naïveté, as the totality it professes to be” (IV/2, 479 rev.).

Historical and non-historical elements flow together at this point (cf. III/1, 80-81). Verifying the miracles historically ceases to be of great importance. What matters is the sort of events being reported: events that are incomparable and mysterious. “The ill-advised hunt for a historical truth supra scripturam [prior to Scripture] is called off,” wrote Barth, “in favor of an open investigation of the veritas scripturae ipsuis [the truth of Scripture itself]” (I/2, 494 rev.). What emerges as the sole object of exegesis, from a theological standpoint, is the texts themselves. No other option makes sense if the following is true: “Revelation stands, no, it happens, in the Scriptures,” wrote Barth, “and not behind them. It happens. There is no way around this in the biblical texts – in their actual words and sentences – given what the prophets and the apostles, as witnesses to revelation, wanted to say and have said.”

Theological exegesis is determined by this picture of the attested events (NS, 234). It tries to respect what it finds in the texts. It operates with a hermeneutic that allows them to correct our ordinary picture of what is and is not possible.

Scriptural exegesis rests on the assumption that the message which Scripture has to give us, even in its apparently most debatable and least assimilable parts, is in all circumstances truer and more important than the best and most necessary things that we ourselves have said or can say. In that Scripture is the divinely ordained and authorized witness to revelation, it entails a claim to be interpreted along these lines; and if this claim be not duly heeded, it remains at bottom inexplicable. (I/2, 719 rev.)[1]

A baby boomer scholar who is very popular among the progressive Christians, Peter Enns, just recently wrote this on his Facebook wall: “If I hear one more Enlightened One claim that source criticism of the Pentateuch is dead and buried and has been replaced by literary analysis, I am going to file a lawsuit for academic slander.” Enns is someone who is doing a good job revivifying something that I think Barth believes should be in the background, and not at the forefront of how exegesis of the text of Scripture ought to proceed. I am with Barth.

Hey, if you want to spend your time engaging in the never ending process of source, form, and redaction criticism, when doing Bible study, done under a naturalist-historist mode of operation that is up to you! But if you want to actually encounter the living Word of God in Scripture, then I suggest you accept Barth’s invitation to feast at the banqueting table of Holy Scripture and its compelling and breathing reality found from the lungs of Jesus Christ. Let Scripture impose its special and strange, and even foolish reality upon you, instead of you imposing your reality upon it.

[1] George Hunsinger, “Postcritical Scriptural Interpretation: Rudolf Smend on Karl Barth,” in Thy Word Is Truth: Barth On Scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012) ed. George Hunsinger, 42.

Advertisements

Peter Enns and ‘Natural’ Bible Reading

Peter Enns just wrote a blog post in response to Andrew Wilson’s Christianity Today’s review of Enns’ new and rather controversial book (for many) The jeromebibleBible Tells Me So. In Enns’ article he identifies twelve rhetorical strategies “evangelicals” like Andrew Wilson use when responding to critiques of the Bible, like Enns’, where the Bible’s historical and textual contradictions are emphasized; emphasized through a certain historist-text-critical lens. Here Enns describes the “why” of these rhetorical strategies–deployed by evangelicals as they are–and in his description what Enns believes about Scripture (in contrast to his “evangelical” interlocutors) becomes apparent:

These strategies—which are not necessarily deployed consciously—are aimed at protecting evangelical theological boundaries but do so at the expense of those evangelicals, who, through the course of reading and studying scripture, come upon legitimate questions for which they are seeking thoughtful answers. Issues like the tribal violence of God, true (not apparent) contradictions, and historical problems are quite real and cannot long be kept at bay through these strategies.[1]

For the rest of this post, we will survey (sort of) some of the history that has led Enns to become an “anti-inerrantist,” which is ironic, to say the least.

Some Of The History

People haven’t always thought of the Bible through the lenses that people like Enns and inerrantists (usually associated with evangelical and Fundamentalist Christianity [being forwarded by today, most ardently, by neo-Reformed types like John Piper, Westminster Theological Seminary, et al]) do. Prior to the turn to enlightenment modernity, and the higher criticism of the bible that developed as a result (among other things), people used to think of the bible as the place where the God of history in Jesus Christ encounters and meets us; inviting us into his life which is history. Far from discounting the historical veracity of Scripture what was emphasized more was a participation of God’s people in the history of God’s life disclosed in Scripture which found its telos or ‘end’ (purpose) in his beloved Son, Jesus. Matthew Levering identifies this conception of biblical history (the one I just said that finds its ‘end’ in Jesus Christ) as a ‘participatory’ view of history; he labels the theory of history that Enns and the inerrantists follow (solely, as far as developing a doctrine of Scripture) as linear history. According to Levering (and others, many others) linear history by the eighteenth century had become the dominate way of thinking about the reality of Scripture and the way that people ought to approach it. Notice Levering (as he provides a brief survey and diagnosis on this very line of thought):

By the seventeenth century, the participatory understanding of historical reality was on its last legs among intellectuals, although the overall unity of the onward-marching linear-historical moments was still presumed.

Hans Frei finds a similar logistic conceptualism in Enlightenment biblical hermeneutics, although unlike Lamb he does not, so far as I know, draw the connection to late-medieval thought. Discussing the “supernaturalist” position on the Bible offered–within the context of the emergence of historical criticism–by the eighteenth-century Lutheran theologian Sigmund Jakob Baumgarten, Frei notes that for Baumgarten the accuracy of biblical history “ ‘be brough to the highest degree of probability or the greatest possible moral certainty in accordance with all the logical rules of a historical proof.’” By the eighteenth century, logical rules of historiography took priority over the Bible’s narrative as the ground on which Christians could understand themselves. These rules envisioned God’s action as radically “external” to human action, and thus extrinsic to historical accounts of Scripture’s genesis and meaning. In patristic and medieval hermeneutics, by contrast, not logical rules of historiography, but faith in a providential God grounded the assumption that the books of the Bible displayed the divine pattern of salvation. This faith nourishes and is nourished by the Church’s biblical reading, understood as a set of embodied and liturgical practices constituting the Church’s conversatio Dei.[2]

Just to reinforce Levering’s sketch of things, let me also refer to John Webster who writes similarly to Levering:

To simplify matters rather drastically: a dominant trajectory in the modern development of study of the Bible has been a progressive concentration on what Spinoza called interpretation of Scripture ex ipsius historia, out of its own history. Precisely when this progression begins to gather pace, and what its antecedents may be, are matters of rather wide dispute. What is clear, at least in outline, is that commanding authority gradually came to be accorded to the view that the natural properties of the biblical text and of the skills of interpreters are elements in an immanent economy of communication. The biblical text is a set of human signs borne along on, and in turn shaping, social religious and literary processes; the enumeration of its natural properties comes increasingly to be not only a necessary but a sufficient description of the Bible and its reception. This definition of the text in terms of its (natural) history goes along with suspension of or disavowal of the finality both of the Bible and of the reader in loving apprehension of God, and of the Bible’s ministerial function as divine envoy to creatures in need of saving instruction.[3]

Conclusion

Peter Enns and the “Inerrantists” come from this same trajectory, the linear historical one that both Levering and Webster highlight for us. Whether you are Enns or the inerrantist, Scripture is reducible to linear-historical reconstruction and the way that sentences are syntactically structured, etc. Enns and the inerrantists might want to get to a point where Scripture can become a ‘spiritual’ thing (Enns says as much at the end of that blog post of his I linked to above; and the piety of the inerrantists bears testimony to this exceedingly so … there is a heart warmed feeling and love for God, by both Enns and the inerrantists), but the bedrock of their doctrine of Scripture won’t ever really allow them to; there are too many hurdles to jump prior to ever getting there (to living in a participatory depth in regard to the Bible and what it is in relation to its order as given by God). And so Enns and the inerrantists end up developing theories of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) that have taken shape by their acquiescence to the bible “as history,” natural history before it is supernatural history; and this ends up having a deleterious effect upon everything else.

It is because of this (and I am focusing on Enns in this post) that I see Enns as dangerous and not edifying to the larger evangelical body of Christ (the younger or millennial generation, so called, in particular).

I hope younger Christians, in particular, will turn to a more robust and participatory understanding of biblical history. Understanding that Scripture is part of God’s invitation to converse with him, the Triune God.

 

[1] Peter Enns, Source.

[2] Matthew Levering, Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, 2008), 21-2.

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

‘Schooled in the faith of Christ’: Thomas Torrance Responds to Rachel Held Evans’ “Questioning” Approach

As you all know I had an interesting engagement with Rachel Held Evans this last week here at the blog; particularly because I chose to write too quickly, jesusteacherand thus not respectfully of RHE. In the aftermath of that I have continued to think about ways to engage with RHE, and her post on Abraham and Isaac (which was really a post on hermeneutical theory). What was more central though to Rachel’s post was actually her questioning of how God is represented as the one who commanded the Israelites to go into the Canaanite nations and slaughter them (Rachel uses the more provocative language of ethnic cleansing, with all of the modern political and ethical connotations attached to that that language conjures for all of us). I want to take another shot at engaging with Rachel, and the content of her post. In particular I want to focus, this time on how she has claimed that she is simply engaging in honest questioning of the text of scripture and its ethical implications. Many others, in Rachel’s defense, also asserted that this is all that Rachel is doing. The post that got me in trouble with many of her readers (whether those readers be fans or not of Rachel’s writings in general) revolved around the fact that I was questioning Rachel’s questioning. Of course the way I came at Rachel, like I have already noted, was disrespectful and not right on my part. But I still think in spite of my foolishness in that first post, there was still a nub of criticism therein that was legitimate. In that sense then, let me focus on one aspect of Rachel’s general and overall mode; i.e. on the way that she approaches just about every issue: She tends to claim that all that she is doing is being a skeptic, a ‘questioner.’ It is this mode that I will engage throughout the rest of this post.

Learning To Be ‘Christian’ Questioners

Is it right to be a skeptic, a questioner, a ‘naked-questioner’ as a Christian; or do we as Christians have a higher calling a more ennobling task set before us? I would argue that we have a higher task set before us, one that we do not get to determine, but one that is imposed upon us. Those of us, Rachel included!, who name Jesus as Lord are not allowed to ask random, or arbitrary questions of God in Jesus Christ; we have been called to submit to the questions and answers imposed upon us by God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. And so this brings me back to Rachel’s mode[1], she claims to be an honest questioner and skeptic, and that she is bringing her experience, science, modern ethics, etc. to God, and asking him to meet her expectations based upon those various loci. Note Rachel as she ‘questions’ God’s apparent ruthlessness (in the story of Joshua toward the Canaanites) based upon the aforementioned loci:

This is a hard God to root for.  It’s a hard God to defend against all my doubts and all the challenges posed by science, reason, experience, and intuition.   I once heard someone say he became an atheist for theological reasons, and that makes sense to me. Once you are convinced that the deity you were taught to worship does evil things, it’s easier to question the deity’s very existence than it is to set aside your moral objections and worship anyway.[2]

But this is not what we have been called to as Christians, as I just noted; with the Revelation of God in Jesus Christ there comes a method, a set of questions that God has determined as the norming questions that he would have us ask of him, conditioned as they are by the center of his life given for us in his Son. Thomas F. Torrance (as he reflects on Karl Barth’s method of theologizing) might counsel us (including Rachel and her readers) this way:

. . . Barth found his theology thrust back more and more upon its proper object, and so he set himself to think through the whole of theological knowledge in such a way that it might be consistently faithful to the concrete act of God in Jesus Christ from which it actually takes its rise in the Church, and, further, in the course of that inquiry to ask about the presuppositions and conditions on the basis of which it comes about that God is known, in order to develop from within the actual content of theology its own interior logic and its own inner criticism which will help to set theology free from every form of ideological corruption.[3]

For Barth, for Torrance there is not an arbitrary way to question God or the way he acts, there is a concrete way that is given to us. It is a way that is not in our hands, not reposing upon our intellectual misgivings; it is a way that is imposed upon us, and thus not in our control – and so it scandalizes us. Torrance comments further on this way as he thinks about the benefits of catechesis and the scientific method (which means seeing Jesus alone as the regulator and giver of the questions that God has given us to bring to him as a freewill offering):

… The really scientific questions are questions which the object, that we are studying, through its very nature puts to us, so that we in our turn put only those questions which will allow the object to declare itself to us or to yield to us its secrets. The more we know about a thing the more we know the kind of questions to ask which will serve its revealing and be the means of communicating knowledge of it. This scientific principle has to be applied to Christian instruction, and it is here that we see the fundamental importance of the catechetical method. The young learner does not know enough as yet to ask the right questions. We have to encourage him to ask questions, but also to learn that only the appropriate questions will be a means of knowledge. This is nowhere more true than in regard to Christian communication. Christianity does not set out to answer man’s questions. If it did it would only give him what he already desires to know and has secretly determined how he will know it. Christianity is above all the question the Truth puts to man at every point in his life, so that it teaches him to ask the right, the true questions about himself, and to form on his lips the questions which the Truth by its own nature puts to him to ask of the Truth itself that it may disclose or reveal itself to him….[4]

Conclusion

I would suggest, moving away from Rachel H Evans, but staying close, that Rachel’s popularity (other than the fact that she is a smart, intelligent, genuine person) has a lot to do with the way people, Christian people in general have been trained to approach God. Christians, especially in North America, have been trained to approach God on their own heart-felt terms, and the questions that arise out of that frame of reference. Rachel Held Evans’ approach, I would suggest, embodies that in a way that gives voice and words to the questions that so many post-evangelicals have. They are questions, I would further suggest, that are hang-overs from their evangelicalism; apologetic questions that arise from an apologetic faith. This remains, among other things, a great irony of the Rachel Held Evans movement (and I am simply referencing her prominence among many many like-minded sojourners), if I can call it that; a desire, in some sense to be “post” evangelical, and yet still operating from the very premises of evangelicalism (as far as the kind of rationalist and apologetic questions that have plagued it for so long).

As an alternative, Rachel Held Evans & companions, all Christians could follow Thomas Torrance’s advice and be ‘schooled in the faith of Christ’ and allow his life to impose upon us his questions (and then answers). This way there will be a ‘rule of faith’ regulating our approach to God that will keep us from asserting a lordship of our own, and allow us to assume a posture wherein we recognize that Jesus is Lord, and that we can only then operate in and from the domain of his Word, instead of in and from the domain of our own words.

 

[1] Why am I focusing on Rachel so much? Because she is high profile, and has massive impact upon a gigantic swath of the Christian church. Her influence is massive! And so she deserves special attention, especially if she is ‘teaching’ people how to think biblically and theologically; and she is!

[2] Rachel Held Evans, SOURCE

[3] Torrance, Theological Science, 7.

[4] Thomas F. Torrance, The School Of Faith: The Catechisms of the Reformed Church (Eugene, OR: Wipf&Stock Publishers, 1996), xxvi.

A Post With a Life of Its Own: Concern for Younger (and ‘Older’) Christians Coming Up and Being Discipled in the ‘Progressive’ Winds

I am genuinely saddened and thus concerned for the range of confusion out there in the Christian church in particular. We run to and fro between extremes of doctrine and the winds of change foisted upon us by our socio-cultural mores. We interpret Scripture by using the categories and emphases provided for us through our own pervasive and situations and conditions. We become ensnared by flights of theological fancy that have more to do with sensationalism and immediacy than they do with God as revealed in Jesus Christ. I think part of this comes from the fact that we are very insecure people (so a little psychology). We have no grounding in the God revealed in Jesus Christ, even though we love him. We don’t read the Bible, ourselves, the culture, etc. from him; but instead we attempt to read him from ourselves, our experiences, our cultures, and various regional and national modes of life.

churchfatherssmall

Theologically though this is backwards isn’t it? It is known in the history of ideas as Pelagianism (that nature is neutral in regard to God, and what we do with him depends upon our choice not his), or in the realm of theological ideas as Adoptionism–this is a Christological heresy that says that the Christ simply ‘adopted’ the humanity of a man named Jesus at his baptism; the effect being that there is a detachment between the person of the eternal Son and the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ. And so Jesus ends up getting used as a kind of instrument through which God accomplishes his salvation purposes, and nothing else. The result though, is that there is an artificial attachment of humanity (or manity) to the eternal Son, and one that is undertaken from below (TF Torrance writes in this regard about adoptionism: ‘the theory that Jesus was born human but adopted to be the Son of God’).

Wow, this post has taken a life of its own. I intended to write on the doctrine of assurance of salvation through quoting something from TF Torrance, and then commenting further from there. So sticking with the theme of this post then, my point is this: We do not or ought not direct God and his ways from our ways; his ways, his act in his Son Jesus Christ ought to serve as definitive for how we conceive of him, and should motivate us to do so as we think of his great love for us revealed as it is in the cross of his eternal Son, Jesus Christ.

I think the reason I ended up going this way in this post is because of the angst I am feeling about how ‘windy’ the evangelical (so called progressive) branch of the church has become, and is becoming (esp. in regard to ethics). There seems to be no regard whatsoever for the tradition of the church, and how we ought to critically engage with that as we read the Scripture situated as it is from with the Triune speech of God given by the breath of the Holy Spirit from the humanity and apostolicity of Jesus Christ.

#streamy