The Early Church Read Holy Scripture In A Principled Christ Concentrated Way, So Should We

39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, –John 5:39

25 And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. –Luke 24:25-27

The early Christians took these passages to heart. They believed that the Apostolic hermeneutic, the one that followed the teaching of Jesus himself, like we find in the passages mentioned, was a deeply Christ concentrated one. It is this approach that Martin Luther and John Calvin took to heart; in their respective ways. Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance et al. in the modern period have likewise taken this hermeneutic to heart. When Christians take a Christ conditioned hermeneutic seriously it does things to the way they read Holy Scripture. It takes the focus off of me-centeredness, or nation-centeredness (like we get in Dispensationalism), and instead places the primacy of focus on the primacy of Jesus Christ; as if God’s plan was to reveal Himself from the very beginning (cf. Gen 1:1; 3:15 etc.). JND Kelly comments on how this sort of hermeneutic took hold early for the Patristic Fathers of the Christian Church:

The inspiration of Scripture being taken for granted, the Church had to work out the methods of exegesis to be employed in interpreting it. The fundamental issue here, as was very soon perceived, was to determine the precise relation of the Old Testament and the New, or rather (since the earliest stage there was no specifically Christian canon), to the revelation of which the apostles were witnesses. As has already been mentioned, the solution arrived at consisted in treating the Old Testament as a book which, if it were read with unclouded eyes, would be seen to be Christian through and through. In adopting this attitude Christian theologians and teachers were merely following the example of the apostles and evangelists, and indeed of the Lord Himself. It is evident from every page of the gospel records that the incarnate Christ freely took up, applied to Himself and His mission, and in so doing reinterpreted, the key-ideas of the Messiah, the Suffering Servant, the Kingdom of God, etc., which He found ready to hand in the faith of Israel. In harmony with this the essence of the apostolic message was the proclamation that in the manifestation, ministry, passion, resurrection and ascension of the Lord, and in the subsequent outpouring of the Spirit, the ancient prophecies had been fulfilled. Whether we look to the fragments of primitive preaching embedded in Acts, or to St. Paul’s argumentation with his correspondents, or to the elaborate thesis expounded in Hebrews, or to the framework of the evangelists’ narratives, we are invariably brought face to face with the assumption that the whole pattern of the Christian revelation, unique and fresh though it is, is ‘according to the Scriptures’. In this connexion St. Luke’s story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus is highly instructive, for it presents a vivid picture of the primitive Church’s conviction that all the events of Christ’s earthly career, together with their profound redemptive implications, are to be understood as the fulfilment of what was written about Him ‘in the law of Moses, and in the prophets and in the psalms’, and that the ultimate warrant for this conviction was His own express authorization.[1]

Kelly helps summarize the early Christ concentrated way of interpreting Scripture. It was the supposition that Holy Scripture, both Old and New Testaments were thoroughly about Jesus and His fulfillment of the promises made by the Old Testament Prophets. As a result of ‘critical’ biblical studies, and the naturalistic assumptions that attend this sort of Enlightenment project, this Christ-centered exegetical approach was lost to things like History of Religions, and reading the Bible in a de-confessionalized way. Ironically, this is the sort of mode that has not only produced things like the Jesus Quest, and Rudolf Bultmann, but indeed, it has just as readily produced hermeneutical approaches like we see in Dispensationalism (an approach that focuses on the nation of Israel as the key to biblical prophecy rather than Jesus Christ).

There are clearly various ways to be Christ-concentrated in approach. But it is in keeping, I’d argue, with the Dominical teaching, with the Apostolic witness, and the early Church Fathers to see Jesus in every nook and cranny of the text of Holy Writ. If we are going to err, let us err in this direction rather than in the alternative directions which read the confessional and canonical and covenantal Jesus out of the text, only to displace Him with their own culturally-conditioned lenses that end up looking like the collective-cultural-self.

[1] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, Revised Edition (New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), 64-5.


The Inner-Theo-Logic of Holy Scripture: A Protestant Reflection

I wanted to offer a very brief reflection on: Inner-Theo-Logic and how that functions in the process of thinking ‘orthodox’ thoughts vis-à-vis biblical interpretation; within the bounds of the Protestant understanding of the ‘Scripture Principle.’ When we think about the nature of Scripture, by way of its compositional form, what we quickly realize is that in every case it is occasional. Think about the New Testament, for example, each and everyone of the ‘books’ that make up the NT has an historical audience and context and occasion in mind, an occasion that prompted the writing of the book (e.g. epistle, etc.). The same can be said of the Old Testament; each of the books has a particular context and occasion that prompted its writing within the Providential overture of God. Ultimately we might want to think of the whole canon, ‘canonically,’ and allow its final shape to become the ultimate occasion (ultimate with an eschatological relativization) which we even today come to read it within. But the basic point I want to alert us to is that the Bible is not giving us a Systematic Theology or Christian Dogmatic; yet, this does not mean that the Bible does not have all the facets embedded within it that give us the building blocks for developing systematic theologies and Christian Dogmatics. Indeed it is these building blocks that entail what I am referring to as Scripture’s ‘inner-theo-logic.’ But what am I getting at? This: each of the biblical authors had a theological context they were writing from; often as Prophets and Apostles with brand-new Revelation directly from God. Yet when they wrote they didn’t always seem to grasp just exactly how deeply profound their writing was (and is); in regard to the theology they were nascently presuming upon even if they didn’t fully realize it, or get its implications. Even so, that’s exactly what was going on; they were operating out of cultic and ecclesial conditions, conditions shaped directly by the Prophets and Apostles themselves, that supplied them with the ability to write what they did. And they were able to write the way they did, typically in very assertive ways about who God is and what God was and is about, because they were presupposing off of Revealed realities that they’d come to know through intimate encounter with this living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob come in Jesus Christ.

If the above is the case I find it terribly interesting that there are traditions in the Christian church who believe that they have the best corner on identifying and explicating what in fact this ‘unspoken’ inner-theo-logic must in fact be in order for the text of Holy Writ to make the claims, and teach the things that it does. So we have the ‘outer-clarity’ of the text, but then its ‘inner-clarity’; this is the fairly standard way for Protestants to parse a way towards Scripture. They would typically relate the outer-clarity to the occasional prima facie level of the text, and the inner-clarity would be referred to, again, what I have called the inner-theo-logical reality of the text. But this is what I find extremely strange: Why is it that some traditions (and they in fact are the traditions they are because they believe they have come to have a better or the best corner on Scripture’s inner-theo-logical reality) believe that they alone maintain the orthodox understanding of what the inner-theo-logic is, and by this standard they come to conclude that others either have a heterodox or even heretical grasp of what the inner-theo-logic of Scripture is? Often, one tradition against another will label or symbolize the ‘other’ tradition (from theirs) with names like ‘Barthianism’, NeoOrthodoxy, Arminianism, Calvinism, Lutheranism, Thomism, Nominalism, Neo-Platonism, Kantianism, Hegelianism, et al. And based upon a history of development, from within their tradition, they will look out at these other traditions (from theirs) and simply label the development of the inner-theo-logic that makes up these other tradition’s grasp of Scripture’s reality as sub-standard and even anti-thetical to the Gospel (in certain instances).

What I would like to call folks to is a position and attitude of prudence. In other words, I think there should be a sort of moratorium on superficially drawing off of ‘my’ tradition’s anathematization of ‘other’ traditions, simply because that’s part of my tradition, and instead look deeper at the inner-theo-logic itself, at an ideational level, and critically engage with the ideas themselves. We need to get past the labels, and see if in fact there might well be merit to theological ideas, maybe even just some fruit bearing constructively retrievable merit, that we shouldn’t simply cast off because that’s what my tradition says I should do (in a historical sense of continuity with my tradition). All I’m saying is that as Christians it would do us well to operate constructively and recognize that there is fruit in the various strands ‘out there’ that we might call the inner-theo-logic or tradition within the inner-workings of Scripture’s witness itself; the inner-workings that make the tradition what it is. But we need to ask ourselves what is the most regulative feature we might appeal to, in the domain of theological reality, that might give us the best chance at identifying fruitful lines in the various formations in the development of the inner-theo-logic, and on the other hand might help us to see what needs to be discarded.

Some Thoughts on the Bible and Knowledge of God: Prompted By an OnScript Podcast with The Bible Project Founders

A thought occurred to me as I was listening to the OnScript podcast today, an episode that featured two former college-mates of mine, Tim Mackie and Jonathan Collins (of The Bible Project), the thought was: can God be conceived of strictly from Scripture? In other words, can God be conceived of apart from his reception in and from Scripture as that has been developed through the centuries in the Christian church (all orthodox traditions)? Further, can a literary lens alone be the lens for giving us the most faithful account of who God is in Scripture as Scripture attests to him?

It is a very modern way to think God from Scripture only (de nuda Scriptura), and yet this seems to be the way that so many evangelicals are introduced to; and in the name of sola Scriptura no less. I am not suggesting that literary or Bible as literature approaches have zero value, but I am suggesting that for the Christian church an accurate conception of God has always come with deep theological reflection; and a subsequently produced theological grammar (the ecumenical councils are case in point). Further, I am not suggesting that The Bible Project or On Script podcasts suffer from this solo Scriptura approach, per se, but that the discipline they operate in and from indeed does (as that is sourced in history of religions text-critical disciplines as shaped by Enlightenment innovation).

What this points up for me, once again, is the high importance of theological-exegesis (or theological interpretation of Scripture TIS). In other words, I contend that Christians have no context for knowing who God is simply by referral to Scripture alone; there is a reception of knowledge bequeathed to the churches, in regard to who God is, that dogmatically precedes Scripture. And this points up further attending to the need for understanding what Scripture actually is in the first place; in other words: what is Scripture’s ontology (or ‘being’) relative to its place before God? Does Scripture have a theological location in God’s economy? And if it does what impact does that have on its reception, hermeneutic, and praxis in the churches? Can we just presume on a sort of universal ‘preunderstanding’ or ‘pre-orthodoxy’ in regard to who God is, and how we have knowledge of God, can we simply presume upon an unstated assumption that ‘faithful orthodox’ Christians just have this conglomerate knowledge of God such that we simply get straight to the Bible without attending to that first?

My contention is that Scripture has an ontology (following John Webster in his book Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch), and that Scripture ultimately has no illuminative meaning for the Christian apart from intentionally acknowledging that. That is, that Holy Scripture, in order for it to be received as ‘Holy’ and thus not just as ‘literature,’ must be fully cognizant of Scripture’s givenness and reality before God. Without this ground my sense is that an approach to Scripture based upon a vague acknowledgement of “well yeah, we’re all Christians here, we all affirm that Scripture is God given and that God is Triune” will make a subsequent engagement with Scripture, based upon this sort of thin thinking, end up providing us with a knowledge of God that might yield what the Bible as literature approach to the Bible will produce for us. It might, by coincidence, produced characteristics about God that are univocal with the God understood as orthodox by the rule of faith produced in the grammar of the creeds; but most likely it will produce knowledge of God that produces emphases that are more concordant with the literary critic’s situadedness and cultural location. Do you see what I’m getting at here? I’m looking for a ‘control’ a regula fidei (‘rule of faith’) that has catholic (universal) reach as we consider who God is for the 21st century church. A control that is in the foreground, not the background.

Do I think Tim Mackie, Jonathan Collins, the OnScript crew repudiate the sort of theological import I am trying to bring to the way a knowledge of God is conceived vis-à-vis the Bible? No. But the discipline they work from actually does. This is the quagmire evangelicals have found themselves ensconced within. A piety that sincerely loves Jesus, but a bibliology and subsequent hermeneutic that largely takes its cues from a Biblical Studies discipline that pretty much has nothing to do with confessional reality or affirmation in the true and living God; this is what that discipline believes makes their method ‘critical.’ Sure, you can be an orthodox Christian and work in the field of Biblical Studies, but unfortunately such a person will have to work over-time to make an attempt to bring their work into discussion with the confessional and catholic heritage of the Christian church.

I am very appreciative of The Bible Project. I was trained by the same professor that Tim Mackie and Jonathan Collins were at Multnomah Bible College. I taught the same ‘lab’ in Bible Study Methods under the aegis of this professor that Mackie did. I used Mackie’s notes to help me get ideas when I taught this lab. What The Bible Project represents is just a continuation and amplification of what we were all taught by this particular professor. I learned much about how to study the Bible canonically and inductively through this training; not to mention literarily. But as an end in itself this is not sufficient. The Bible has an ontology, and it is given that ontology by God in Christ and the economy shed abroad in that reality; a reality accommodated by God for us. Learning how to engage with Scripture “critically” though, in my book, means that we first learn how to dialogue with God “critically.” That we recognize that God comes before Scripture and that in Christ Scripture has its telos and meaning. In the field of Biblical Studies its practitioners are often at pains to find THE theme of canonical Scripture; or the theme for each book of the Bible; or what have you. If we start with a Dogmatic and theological basis for Scripture’s ontology we will see that Scripture is best situated, and necessarily situated in a doctrine of creation/recreation, within which its meaning is given (its res). If, in general, creation’s meaning has always already been grounded in Jesus Christ, then how much more so is Scripture’s as a book inscribed within and under the pressures of creaturely media; under the pressure of God’s givenness for us in Jesus Christ?

These are some concerns off the top I have. Maybe they aren’t yours, or you think I’m overstating. I don’t think I’m overstating though. What do you think?     

The ‘Good’ of Tradition; The Impossibility of Reading Scripture Without Theology

What I realized in seminary while immersed in historical theology and new testament studies was that doing theological exegesis and engaging with the tradition of the church is an inescapable reality; even for those who claim to be doing otherwise. The fact that we are human, extended out into space and time located on a continuum conditioned by the forces of intellectual and theological history is indisputable. As such it is dangerous and irresponsible to pretend like we can just read the Bible as if we are John Locke’s tabula rasa being stimulated by the text alone; thus forming notions of God in Christ as if abstract monads, incurved selves with no relation to other selves along a continuum of growth and development as that has taken place in the church and in socio-cultural-ideational history in general. In other words nobody, not even so called text-critical biblical scholars read the Bible outwith tradition; and that’s okay!

Stephen Holmes in his little book Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology offers a wonderful and precise sketch of the reality of tradition/theology vis-à-vis the reading of Holy Scripture. I first read his book (which I will be quoting from) in 2005, just two years after I graduated from seminary. His first two chapters helped solidify my thoughts in this area, thoughts that had been given birth even as early as my time in undergrad (bible college); and that developed with much more awareness because of my time spent in historical theology during seminary. Because I think this continues to be a reality that I’d say most free church evangelicals, in the pews, don’t really have a handle on; because this continues to be a reality that many scholars who have gone the route of ‘biblical studies’ don’t really have a handle on; I think it is important for me to reiterate this again (and again, and again).[1] With this in mind let me share some of Holmes’ thinking in this direction; he will problematize some of the facile manner I have presented some of this in as well (for purposes of ease and time I am going to offer pictures of the text I want to present; hopefully that is not too cumbersome for you the reader):


We could say much more, but hopefully the weight, indeed the pressure from what is shared is felt. Indeed, as Holmes notes, an unmediated access to the text is always something that we are struggling towards, in the sense that we are engaging with the actual content and material reality of the text itself; viz. Jesus Christ. But even as we are constantly in this spiraling and toilsome task, even as we attempt to get as close as possible to the inner-reality of the text in Christ; the grammar we will use to even speak of Christ comes in mediated form through the Niceno-Constantinopolitano-Chalcedono verbiage developed in the ecumenical church councils. This does not lessen the reality of the living voice of God we encounter in Scripture, it only is to admit to the reality that God is constantly the One who must lower himself to us in Christ by the Spirit and encounter us before we can encounter him in and through all the shrouded contours of our own machinations. But this is a hopeful reality; i.e. we come to encounter Christ through the tradition as that impinges upon our interpretive capacities as we come to the text. The text becomes the instrument through which our traditions themselves constantly take shape as we dialogically encounter the risen Christ by the Spirit upon each page turned of the holy ink. In other words, it is this hope, our hope that God is graciously willing to speak to us afresh and anew in our baby talk so that we might genuinely know him and make him known. It is in this dialectical or prayerful process of reading Scripture that the categories of the always reforming and developing tradition of the church have the ability to transmute into a reality that brings us closer and closer to a more fulsome knowledge of him. I wonder if this makes sense to you; I wonder if it makes sense to me (it does!)?

I hope people can appreciate not just the negative aspects of tradition, but more importantly the positive; indeed the inevitable reality of tradition/theological development. It’s a natural reality of being creatures in the theater of God’s glory that is within the domain of his living Word in Jesus Christ. On the analogy of the incarnation, by the overshadowing power of the Holy Spirit, in the new creation of Jesus Christ’s vicarious humanity, as we walk by faith not by sight, we have been given eyes to see and ears to hear the living voice of God (viva vox Dei); tradition is simply the churchly expression of that encounter. What is important is to remember that this encounter is something that happens afresh and anew as we come to trembling to him, yet in boldness, through the ‘spectacles’ of his written Word.

This is a lively and exciting topic. We can say more, of course. Hopefully, if nothing else, what has come through is that not a single soul can approach Holy Scripture without doing so through various iterations of tradition and theological development. This is not a bad thing, but a good thing. In order to understand this as a good thing the bible reader, the Christian must have a good grasp on the reality that a theological ontology has upon a theological/Christological conditioned epistemology (and I will have to explain what I mean by that, if you don’t know, at a later time or in the comments).


[1] I’ve also come to realize that you never know who might be reading your blog posts.

[2] Stephen R. Holmes, Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 6-8.

How solo Scriptura is Demonic: Conditional Immortality, Annihilationism, and a Defense of After Barth Theological Exegesis

In this post I want to respond to a comment made in my previous post from a reader named, Phil Lueck. My last post was going to simply serve as an introduction to a larger post I had intended on writing as an argument against what is called conditionalism, conditional immortality, and often is associated with annhiliationism. I was motivated to write such a post because I had just recently
joined a group on Facebook called Re-Thinking Hell; one of its founding members is a guy named Chris Date (a Masters student at Fuller Seminary NW), and then there are others. They engage in debates (in real life and online) promoting what they think is the only viable reading of the text when it comes to ‘hell’ or ‘punishment’ texts; i.e. their conditionalism. After I’ve now had the chance to interact with them in their group, and listened to a few video interviews of Chris Date about his style of conditionalism, I’ve come to realize that they are simply advocating for a solo scriptura approach; the idea that people can read the bible, pretty much, without presuppositions and theological preunderstandings—which is horrifically dangerous. I shared a link to my previous post in that group, and one of the admins made it clear that they only wanted to hear what the Bible says about hell; they wouldn’t be that interested in getting into theological or Christian Dogmatic concerns. Oh, he was clear that he’d considered all the theological stuff (as if that’s distinct from biblical exegesis), and that he didn’t want me, really, to offer the type of post I was intent on offering. He thinks that I prioritize theology over scripture (again as if those two things can be disentangled in the neat and tidy ways he seems to think). This segues us back to Phil’s comment; let me share that, and then I will offer some response to him. If I seem defensive, it’s because I am. Here’s Phil:

Dear Bobby,

I have been reading your posts for several years and have appreciated your sand[sic], even when I have not agreed with you. While I have had a long interest in TFT and a more recent interest in Barth, I am not a Confessional Christian. I have studied church history, Christian thought and historical theology enough (M.A., Wheaton Grad School) to realize the diversity that exists within Christianity makes for significant challenges to the Reformation concept of the authority of God as it is mediated through Scripture.

Two years ago, after considerable consideration, I changed my understanding of Hell, from the traditional ECT view to CI. I have found a useful site for that understanding. However, I do not merely believe just anything that they post. The test of truth for the evangelical believer must, in the final analysis, be Scripture. If I find a weakness in your site it is that your appeal to the truth of your theological understandings on just about any biblical text or theme seems to loyalty to Torrance and Barth.

I await you your follow of today’s post and trust that you will seek to make a greater place for the Scriptures themselves (i.e. some independent exegesis) instead just of using TFT and Barth as your support.

Blessings in Christ,

Phil Lueck

We can quickly see how Phil’s disposition fits the description I provided of those I encountered in the group: ReThinking Hell. But Phil, as does anyone who advocates for solo scriptura or de nuda scriptura (the idea that we can just read the Bible for all its worth without theological preunderstandings forming our exegetical conclusions), has a serious dilemma. The dilemma arises when Phil, or any solo scriptura advocate have to make interpretive decisions, and even translational decisions when it comes to the text of scripture; particularly when we are doing exegesis in the original languages.

Okay, so from Phil’s comment, he thinks I favor Barth and Torrance too much when I interpret scripture. But then I’m left asking: who does Phil favor; and who does the ReThinking Hell crowd favor? You see, the fact is this: theological-exegesis is something that all Christians do. Yes, those still under the spell of modernity would like to think that they can approach the text as a tabula rasa and simply allow the external stimuli and data of the text of scripture fill out the blank pages of their brain; but this just is not the case (Kant, if nothing else deconstructed that notion). Since this isn’t the case, since biblical exegesis will always already be a spiraling dialogue between scripture’s inner theo-logic and the lexical and grammatical realities of the text itself, it would do everyone really well to admit how this whole process works; and adjust their hermeneutical approaches accordingly.

Phil has to engage in the work of developing a theological-anthropology, as do those who are proponents of ReThinking Hell, in general; but as far as I can see that doesn’t even enter their minds. This is interesting, really, because the very premise of conditional immortality is grounded in how we conceive of the nature or being of humanity; i.e. when humans were created, originally, were they immortal or simply mortal awaiting immortality? In other words, the primary question, contra Chris Date, isn’t the nature of ‘eternal punishment’, as he asserts in the video interviews I’ve watched of him; but instead the issue here has to do with the nature of humanity itself. But interrogating this issue is not a matter of simply reading the text of scripture and using the analogy of scripture, comparing this scripture with that scripture in the interpretive process; no, it’s much more basic than even that. The process here is one where the interpreter must engage with the inner-logic of scripture; in other words, we mustn’t go beyond scripture, but we must dig into the depth-dimension of scripture. This is what theological-exegesis entails, and this is what ReThinking Hell proponents reject.

So they aren’t interested in me writing a post that engages this issue from a theological-exegetical approach; they want me to offer a more enlightened biblical exegetical process and conclusion based upon the type of form/redaction criticism interpretive process they’ve inherited as evangelicals. They want me to ignore confessional exegesis; they want me to ignore the history of interpretation; they want me wipe my brain clean of any other stimuli I might bring to the text, and simply offer a clean prima facie reading of the text that they themselves have ostensibly offered the church catholic.

As far as Phil’s desire to see me not rely so much on Barth and Torrance, I’m afraid he’s not appreciating the revolutionary type of thing Barth, in particular, has offered the church. Barth might be a single man, but his reworking of election/predestination (as he inherited some of that from a French school of thought), and his style of Christ concentration is nothing more than an interpretive tradition in and  of itself; as explanatory and weighty as what we get from Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, Athanasius, Augustine et al. So why would I attempt to do theological-exegesis from outside of a theological tradition that I think provides the greatest explanatory power when we come to consider some very basic realities as we get into engaging with the inner-logic of the text of scripture? I’m wondering what interpretive tradition informs Phil’s exegesis of the biblical text? Or what about Chris Date of ReThinking Hell? He claims to be a Calvinist, a classically styled Calvinist; which of course means his interpretive tradition comes mediated through Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and Augustine; to one degree or another. This is the type of non-criticalness that a commitment to a solo scriptura can foster; it can cause someone like Phil to tell me to quit relying so much on Barth and Torrance, when he in the same instance is relying on his own broader theological framework and interpretive tradition, at a macro, first order level.

In light of all these developments I’m really not all that motivated to write that long post on conditional immortality anymore. Not to mention that in that group on Facebook, once I shared my post from last night it caused a few in the group to come after me. I actually de-joined the group and one of them stalked me to my page and private messaged me attempting to egg me on into further jousting and debate; that didn’t make me happy at all (it caused some unfortunate words on my part). I think I’ll let this issue die immortally for a bit, and maybe revisit it when I’ve cooled off a little. I’ll just leave with this parting shot: solo Scriptura is demonic.



Reading Scripture with Calvin and the Inevitability of Theological Exegesis for All

The following is a post I wrote many years ago now; it’s rather short and to the point, but it’s about a very important thing that continues to remain a problem johncalvinsickbedfor many a Christian. It can be a very positive thing once the Christian Bible reader can be humble enough, and/or critical enough to come to recognize the inevitable reality that it is. What I am referring to is the reality of theological exegesis; we all do it, and it has been done ever since the Patristic beginning (meaning the theology that was developed in the so called ecumenical councils; the theology we consider orthodox today relative to the Trintarian and Christological grammar we employ as Christians). The following post broaches this topic once again, I can only hope that if you don’t realize that the way you read Scripture comes from a particular theological tradition, that in fact you will indeed come to realize that you do in fact read Scripture from a particular theological tradition[s]. Here’s what I had to say, appealing to John Calvin, back some time ago.

. . . Calvin, like the other reformers, understood that scripture could not stand without a framework of intepretation. And that framework ultimately supported his theological conclusions. This was precisely how it worked in Reformed, Lutheran and Catholic churches of the sixteenth century.[1]

I have recently been in a dialogue with a guy who clearly loves the Lord. We have been discussing the idea that God is the Gospel. This idea actually troubles this fellow, “that God is the Gospel,” he has said:

I’ve been going over this and talking it over with people. I am unwilling to say that God is the gospel. The gospel is the proclamation of the saving redemptive work of Christ. That is the way scripture defines the word “gospel”. It’s very specific. To go beyond that is to go beyond the teaching of scripture, the way scripture defines the term for us and I am unwilling to go there.

The reasons supporting the phrase “God is the gospel” presented so far are not based on exegesis of scripture, but rather on philosophical reasoning. In fact I find the reasoning to be specious. By the same reasoning one might conclude that God is the author of sin. Logic would lead us to believe that was true if we were not fenced in by the limits of scripture.

For this gentleman, the Gospel is strictly a verb, and is not a subject too — which it is. Not to digress, but to illustrate, in contemporary ways, the importance of Calvin’s own approach to scripture. That is, part of interpretation is to recognize that we are indeed interpreting. And that it is okay, and necessary, to go deep into the inner logic and implication of scriptures’ own assumptions. Calvin was aware of the fact that we all have grids of interpretation that we bring to the text, and part of this “spiraling” process of interpreting scripture is to allow scripture and Christ’s life to impose its own categories of thought upon our preconceptions.

In our case, with the fellow I mention above, if he realized that even his desire to read scripture in the way that he does (rather “woodenly”), is in fact a consequence of his prior commitment to an interpretive framework; then he would quickly realize that “his commitment” itself is not “scripture.” That his interpretive paradigm in fact — and I think this is safe to say — is resting on a certain philosophical arrangement that, unfortunately, is unbeknownst to this well intending brother in Christ.


[1] Bruce Gordon, Calvin, 108.


The Christology of Leo’s Tome, The Chalcedonian Settlement, and Miscellaneous Thoughts on Church Trad and Biblical Interpretation

I wanted to share J.N.D. Kelly’s summarizing of the theses presented in Pope Leo I’s Tome. The writings which helped contribute to what became known as the Chalcedonian settlement which occurred at the Council of Chalcedon in 451ad. It is this “settlement” which has been used, thenceforth, as the standard or canon for determining whether or not someone’s view of Jesus Christ is orthodox iconjesusfaceor heterodox, if not downright heretical. As you will see through Kelly’s summary what Leo offered in his Tome wasn’t necessarily original to him, instead it served as a good codification of what had come before him in the various christological struggles (which the Council of Nicaea in 325ad is related to in some important conceptual matters). Here is Kelly:

The Christology which appears in Leo’s Tome has no special originality; it reflects and codifies with masterly precision the ideas of his predecessors. The following are the chief points he was concerned to bring out. First, the Person of the God-man is identical with that of the divine Word. As he expressed it, ‘He Who became man in the form of a servant is He Who in the form of God created man’. Though describing the incarnation as ‘self-emptying’ (exinanitio), he claimed that it involved no diminution of the Word’s omnipotence; He descended from His throne in heaven, but did not surrender His Father’s glory. Secondly, the divine and human natures co-exist in this one Person without mixture or confusion. Rather, in uniting to form one Person each retains its natural properties unimpaired (salva . . . proprietate utriusque naturae et substantiae), so that, just as the form of God does not do away with the form of a servant, so the form of a servant does not diminish the form of God. Indeed, the redemption required that ‘one and the same mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, should be able to both die in respect of the one and not to die in respect of the other’. Thirdly, the natures are separate principles of operation, although they always act in concert with each other. So we have the famous sentence, ‘Each form accomplishes in concert with the other what is appropriate to it, the Word performing what belongs to the Word, and the flesh carrying out what belongs to the flesh’. Lastly, the oneness of the Person postulates the legitimacy of the ‘communication of idioms’. We can affirm, for example, that the Son of God was crucified and buried, and also that the Son of Man came down from heaven.

These four theses may not have probed the Christological problem very deeply; it is obvious that they left the issues which puzzled Greek theologians largely untouched. They had the merit, however, of setting out the factors demanding recognition fairly and squarely. Moreover, they went a long way towards meeting the points of view of both the schools of thought struggling for supremacy in the East. Antiochenes could recognize their own theology in Leo’s vigorous affirmation of the duality in Christ, and of the reality and independence of the two natures. Some of his sentences, indeed, particularly the one cited above, were to prove stones of stumbling to Alexandrian Christologians. Nevertheless these latter, too, could see the essentials of their standpoint vindicated in the Pope’s unerring grasp of the identity of the Person of the Incarnate with that of the eternal Word. As he expressed it in a Christmas sermon, ‘It is one and the same Son of God Who exists in both natures, taking what is ours to Himself without losing what is His own’.[1]

It may or may not trouble some that Leo was a Roman Pope, but what this should illustrate for Christians across the spectrum is that we share an ecumenical past when it comes to the most basic stuff of our theological grammar and how we understand who God has revealed Himself to be in His Son, Jesus Christ. Beyond that, it is important to recognize that what we take for granted today as orthodoxy, when we speak of Christ’s two natures and the hypostatic union, or the Trinity, was something that developed over time within the mind of the church. We can be the most Free non-denominational Bible church out there, but it is important to remember that the orthodoxy we affirm when it comes to two-nature Christology, etc. is something that binds us to the church catholic itself. It is these realities, and church historical developments that ought to cause people who claim a nuda scriptura or solo Scriptura approach (meaning people who often claim the label of Biblicist) to come to terms with the fact that even they operate with some very basic tradition as the foundation for how they conceptualize God and Jesus Christ; which of course then impacts the way they  interpret and read Holy Scripture itself.


[1] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines. Revised Edition (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), 337-38.

The Quingentesimus of the Protestant Reformation and the Analogia Lutherano in Christ Concentrated Biblical Exegesis

As I announced on FaceBook a week or so ago, given that we are in the year that leads to the Quingentesimus, or 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation (i.e. October 31st, 1517), I have decided, in celebration, to devote much of my reading to the primary or as they are called, magisterial reformers. As such, since my blogging follows my reading, much more of my posting will beardedlutherlikewise be characterized by this period of theological development in the earlier years of the Protestant Reformation. My last post actually reflects this trajectory, as will this one. I will still of course be posting on Barth’s, Torrance’s, and other people’s theologies (and other topics of interest); but the character of my posting will have more of the historical theological thrust than maybe you’ve gotten used to from me (although if you’ve been reading me for awhile you will have seen me posting quite a bit on historical theological issues—in fact that’s all I originally posted on when I first started blogging in 2005).

Enough of this housekeeping, in this post I want to highlight the type of Christ concentrated or Christ-centered hermeneutic that Martin Luther followed in his exegesis. We will appeal to Alister McGrath in order to highlight how Luther wanted to see Jesus Christ in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament and the Psalter. As we lead into the quote from McGrath,  he has just finished sketching the medieval Quadriga (i.e. literal, allegorical, tropological/moral, and anagogical) method for interpretation. He is noting how folks like Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, et al. still worked within that medievally styled framework, but with a focus on the literal as the foundation for the other three senses. Within the literal, as we will see, there was further distinction between ‘literal-historical’ and ‘literal-prophetic;’ we will let McGrath explain the rest:

Luther makes an important distinction between the literal-historical meaning of his Old Testament text (that is, the literal meaning of text, as determined by its historical context), and its literal-prophetic sense (that is, the meaning of the text, as interpreted as referring to the coming of Christ and the establishment of his church). The Christological concentration, which is so characteristic a feature of the Dictata, is achieved by placing emphasis upon the literal-prophetic, rather than the literal-historic, sense of scripture. In this manner, Luther is able to maintain that Christ is the sensus principalis of scripture….[1]

For further development of how this works itself out in both theory and practice in the medieval context, but with particular focus on how this works out in Thomas Aquinas’s exegesis, check Matthew Levering’s outstanding book Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation.

This distinction is interesting to me, particularly because we as evangelical Calvinist follow a Christ-concentrated hermeneutic as birthed in the theologies of both Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, respectively. What we see in both of their theologies is an exegetical norm that I would suggest follows the Luther[an] or even Thomist focus upon the literal-prophetic component rather than with as much concern on the literal-historic; albeit abstracted somewhat from the Luther-esque medieval and Quadriga framework. If you read Levering’s work, he identifies this type of distinction in the literal aspect of the Quadriga as linear-historical (which would correlate with Luther’s literal-historical) and participatory-historical (which would correlate better with Luther’s literal-prophetic sense). As Levering highlights, these two aspects do not need to be in competition one with the other, but in some ways can be complementing.

As someone deeply influenced by both Barth and Torrance, and also someone who reads more broadly than just Barth or Torrance, I am committed to both senses of the literal. But, if we are going to use the Luther[an] distinction, the emphasis will be upon the literal-prophetic as regulative towards understanding the significance or telos of the literal-historical as situated providentially within the created order which is for Christ (which according to McGrath fits well with Luther’s emphasis of seeing Christ as the sensus principalis of Holy Writ).

[1] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Oxdford/New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 80.

‘First Adam’ ‘Second Adam’: And Barth’s Canon within the ‘Canon’

I was just reading Everett F. Harrison’s commentary on Romans in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary; in particular I was reading his coverage of Romans 5:12-14, I was motivated to look over some commentaries I have on hand because of the discussion surrounding the historicity of Adam amongst some contemporary biblical exegetes (like Peter Enns and others). Of course, and rightly so, most commentators are not going to be engaging in speculation about whether Adam was a historical personage or not; instead, the steady exegete will seek to lay bare the intent of the genesisparticular passage’s message as understood (intra and intertextually) through the theology, in our instance, of the Apostle Paul. In light of this, I wanted to focus on Harrison’s own exegesis of Paul in Romans 5:12-14 juxtaposed with what he thinks is Karl Barth’s reading of this same pericope; in particular, what Harrison thinks of Barth’s understanding of the person of Adam vis-á-vis the person of Jesus Christ as Paul’s ‘second Adam’. Here is the text in question:

12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned — 13 To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. 14 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come. –Romans 5:12-14 (NIV)

The issue I want to consider, relative to Harrison’s reading of this text juxtaposed with Barth’s, is the critique that Harrison offers of Barth’s ‘theological-exegetical’ reading of this passage; in particular the ‘image of God’ in the theology of the Apostle Paul. Harrison, somewhat in passing, notices that Barth understands Paul’s usage of Adam in a way that is only typological of Paul’s real point about the image of God, that Barth thinks should really be in reference to the ‘second Adam’, or Jesus Christ. Harrison summarizes, and questions Barth’s reading in this way:

In his book, Christ and Adam (Harper, 1956), Karl Barth has advanced a provocative interpretation of Adam as a type of Christ. He has attempted to reverse the order: “Man’s essential and original nature is to be found … not in Adam but in Christ. In Adam we can only find it prefigured. Adam can therefore be interpreted only in the light of Christ and not the other way round” (p. 29). It should be evident, however, that Paul’s thought here is not moving in the orbit of man as made in the image of God and therefore in the image of Christ who is the image of God. To import the preexistence of Christ is to introduce an element foreign to Paul’s purpose and treatment in this passage….[1]

Harrison may be right, de jure or in principle, that Paul’s own orbit of thought may have not been fully articulated, even to himself, in regards to a full blown, what we might call, Chalcedonian Christology (or even a Johannine one); but, de facto, or in actual fact, Harrison, I think is wrong to suggest that Paul’s own unarticulated theology does not invite the exegete and theologian to step deeper into the theological trajectory that Paul’s occasional writings presuppose. In other words, I think Harrison is wrong to assert that Paul’s ‘orbit’ of thought cannot be driven further than even the Apostle Paul drove it in his own context. I float this, because much of Paul’s own theology, delimited as it is by the type of literature he was inking ‒ Epistle – by definition is going to remain unarticulated and enthymemic (or some of his premises are unstated and just presumed on his part). So for Harrison to suggest what he has in regard to Paul’s thinking about the ‘second Adam’ as primary to the ‘first Adam’ relative to understanding, theologically, the function that the image of God language ought to play in Paul’s accounting; I think is highly presumptuous.

Karl Barth is obviously committed to a theological exegetical approach to interpreting scripture. He is committed to what some have called a ‘principial’ and intensive christocentrism in his reading of holy writ; such that he seeks to ground all of his reading of scripture, as if scripture’s reality (res) only is realizable when couched in its teleological (‘purposeful’) shape provided by Jesus Christ himself.

So the question is: Is Barth playing fast and loose with scripture, imposing his own theological grid and ‘canon’ on the canon of scripture; thus morphing it into a re-imagined wonder world of modern theological impulses? Or, is Barth following the trajectory that Jesus himself set in the reinterpretation of the Old Testament scriptures as if those scriptures were really all about him? Not just about him at a surface glance, but about him in all of his depth and reality as the ‘eternal Logos’, and the second person of the Trinity.

I think Harrison sets up a false dilemma, placing a historical-critical reading (Harrison’s) in competition with a depth theological reading that Barth follows. These approaches don’t need to be seen as discordant, one with the other, but instead they can (and ought to) be understood as mutually implicating and complementing one of the other. Such that the historic-critical realities of Paul’s own textured thought are what lead us (by their own presupposed theological depth and context) to the kind of reading that someone like Barth or even John Calvin have offered in regards to Paul’s letter to the Romans (and elsewhere).

repost from an old blog.


[1] Everett F. Harrison, Romans, in 10 Expositors’s Bible Commentary: Romans through Galatians, edited by Frank E. Gæbelein, 63.

John Calvin and Theological Exegesis

Randall Zachman makes a great point in highlighting Calvin’s understanding of the relationship between Biblical exegesis/interpretation and “Sound theology”/dogma:

. . . The Institutes and the commentaries are intended by Calvin to open access to Scripture for future pastors, whereas the catechism and the weekly sermons are meant to open access to Scripture for members of the young-calvincongregation. For Calvin, the proper understanding of Scripture depends on familiarity both with the summary of the rudiments of doctrine and with Scripture itself. Those who lack this kind of training, even though they are expert in the Hebrew language, will inevitably misunderstand Scripture. “But it generally happens with men who are not exercised in the Scripture, nor imbued with sound theology, although well acquainted with the Hebrew language, yet hallucinate and fall into mistakes even in first rudiments.” [Calvin’s Comm. on Ps. 73:26] As a teacher and preacher, Calvin sought to exercise his students in Scripture and imbue them with sound theology; . . . [brackets mine] (Randall C. Zachman, “John Calvin As Teacher, Pastor, And Theologian: The Shape of His Writings and Thought,” 108)

This is what dawned on me somewhere between Bible College and Seminary. When I went to Bible College I was full of the idealism that I was going to learn the Biblical languages (so I minored in NT Greek), and thus be able to thoroughly understand and interpret the concepts and doctrine of Scripture (on that basis alone). What I began to realize, as I did syntactical analysis, is that even knowing the “languages,” I still had to make interpretive decisions (even in doing translation work — from the Greek to English). So I went on to seminary and did a Masters thesis which was an “exegetical/language” based thesis (on I Corinthians) — although my passage was really inspired by Martin Luther’s theology of the cross — and I took further language classes (like Hebrew and Greek); but this time it was alongside historical theology (not just systematic like in the undergrad). Anyway, what I’m getting at, and what has led me down the path I’ve been on now since seminary, is the point Zachman is highlighting on Calvin’s thinking. That is that just knowing the Biblical languages isn’t enough. Every Biblical exegete operates and moves within a theological milieu or system; and this “system” is going to impact the way that particular exegete makes his/her interpretative decisions as they approach the text of Scripture (it’s just how it is). So what motivates me is to engage the implications, the “inner logic” of Scripture (e.g. deal with the underlying theological framework that the Scripture writers and Apostles assume in their largely occasional writings) so that I am aware of what is informing my “interpretive decisions” as I approach the text. I think this is what Calvin was on about, and I think it’s something we all need to be mindful of as we endeavor to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Furthermore, working through the dogmatic concepts implied by the text and Christ’s life is not just a negative concern (my point above: e.g. “so that I am aware of what is informing my ‘interpretive decision'”), but there is a very positive side to doing the “inner logic” stuff too. And that is that we become aware of the implied intentions of the particular writers and Holy Spirit as we engage the text of Scripture. In short, we become quickly aware that the canon of Scripture has a very Trinitarian/cruciformed-christoformed shape to it. The grammar and syntax of the text is really only intended to be in service to this undeniable and great reality: Jesus Christ!

“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; . . . ” ~John 5.39 (NASBU)