Christology as a Case Study: The Relationship Between Church Tradition and the Bible as Fonts of Authority and Divine Knowledge

The tension present between the role of church tradition and the bible, and how the two mutually implicate one or the other (or don’t) is not going away any time soon. There are those who want to believe that they can be strict, even slavish wooden bible literalists; then there are others who believe that the tradition of the church functions magisterially in the biblical interpretive process; and yet others who want to attempt a kind of dialectic between the two (I’d say the best of the Reformed sola Scriptura approach resides here). As a Reformed Christian, and evangelical, I hold to the ‘scripture principle’ that scripture itself is authoritative and the norming norm over and against all else; even tradition. Of course I’m not naïve enough to think that the scripture principle itself is not its own ‘tradition,’ but it is so heuristically. Here is how Oliver Crisp breaks down the various tiers of principles relative to how scripture, church tradition, regional creeds, and theological opinion all ought to relate one with the other (from a Reformed perspective):

  1. Scripture is the norma normans, the principium theologiae. It is the final arbiter of matters theological for Christians as the particular place in which God reveals himself to his people. This is the first-order authority in all matters of Christian doctrine.
  2. Catholic creeds, as defined by and ecumenical council of the Church, constitute a first tier of norma normata, which have second-order authority in matters touching Christian doctrine. Such norms derive their authority from Scripture to which they bear witness.
  3. Confessional and conciliar statements of particular ecclesial bodies are a second tier of norma normata, which have third-order authority in matters touching Christian doctrine. They also derive their authority from Scripture to the extent that they faithfully reflect the teaching of Scripture.
  4. The particular doctrines espoused by theologians including those individuals accorded the title Doctor of the Church which are not reiterations of matters that are de fide, or entailed by something de fide, constitute theologoumena, or theological opinions, which are not binding upon the Church, but which may be offered up for legitimate discussion within the Church.[1]

I think this is a helpful overview (I’ve shared it before, in fact, in years past). But I also wanted to share, at some length, a quote from Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink that fleshes this out even further. They are in the midst of discussing Christology and how the tradition of the church played the role that it did in providing the grammar that the church has held as the orthodox grammar towards speaking about the relationship of God and humanity/humanity and God in the singular person of Jesus Christ. Necessarily, in the midst of their discussion they are broaching the very issue I am highlighting in this post—i.e. how we ought to think about the relationship between church tradition and biblical teaching. They write (in extenso):

In a sense, and depending on where we currently find ourselves, the christological decisions of the fourth and fifth century are stations that we might have passed. We accept them gratefully while appropriating them critically. We need to pay attention to the underlying issues in the christological debate, to see where positions had to be guarded and why certain concepts that were introduced were needed. The conclusion of the Council of Nicaea that Jesus is of one essence (homo-ousios) with the Father, for instance, is much easier to understand when we realize that it was prompted by the desire to safeguard the thoroughly biblical idea that we cannot ensure our own salvation. God himself must become involved in the world—if we as human beings—are to be rescued from ruin, and for that reason Jesus must share the same “being,” or essence, with God. We simply are not like the fictional Baron Munchausen who, according to a well-known story, was able to pull himself out of the mud by his own hair. In brief, we do not accept the formulas because they happen to be part of the tradition, but because we discover genuine biblical motives behind these statements and in what they want to signal. One could say that the christological decisions (Niceno-Constantinopolitan and Chalcedon) are the directives of a former generation for how to handle the gospel story, the message of the God of Israel, and the Father of Jesus Christ.

There also is an important theological reason to exercise this “hermeneutic of trust” with respect to the tradition’s unifying message of the person of Jesus. Christ himself promised his disciples that the Spirit would lead them into all truth (John 16:13). It would be incredibly callous to suggest that the tradition is completely in the dark. At the same time, this promise gives no guarantee against the possibility of some obscuring or ideological manipulation of the gospel, whether presented in very high church or in popular forms. Therefore, we must always be critical in our dealings with the tradition; we must be selective on the basis of what the apostles and prophets have given us in the Bible.

When faced with the question of whether the tradition is a legitimate source for our Christology, we therefore give this dual answer. On the one hand, we gratefully accept the christological decisions of the church that came from the ecumenical councils. We thus abide by the course and the outcome of the christological debate. We move on, even though we realize that some alternatives might have been condemned at these councils owing to church politics and that the conclusions might well have turned out differently or have ended in the (often rather broad) margins of the church. But we trust that this is a case of hominum confusione Dei providentia (God’s providence [may be executed in the midst of] human confusion). On the other hand, our task is always to return to the biblical texts and, within their range of possibilities, take a critical look at the decisions and the terminology the councils used. Going back to the Bible this way is needed for several reasons. Something clearly present in the texts may have been lost in the process of debate; going back to the texts thus may represent an enrichment. But we also face a problem of comprehension when ancient languages become a stumbling block in a changed context, and we may need to reinterpret and reword the context of the dogma because of those changes. The struggles recent generations of believers and theologians have had with certain concepts of classic Christology represent a real problem we may not simply brush away.[2]

I find these to be wise words, and represent a good way for attempting to negotiate this kind of tenuous situation between tradition and the Bible. It touches, of course, on issues of authority in the church and how that relates to the biblical and theological interpretive processes itself.

Someone I have found fruitful towards engaging in this kind of negotiation between taking the trad seriously, and at the same time allowing the reality of Holy Scripture to be determinative, is Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Bruce McCormack offers these good words on Barth in this regard:

I say all of this to indicate that even the ecumenical creeds are only provisional statements. They are only relatively binding as definitions of what constitutes “orthodoxy.” Ultimately, orthodox teaching is that which conforms perfectly to the Word of God as attested in Holy Scripture. But given that such perfection is not attainable in this world, it is understandable that Karl Barth should have regarded “Dogma” as an eschatological concept. The “dogmas” (i.e., the teachings formally adopted and promulgated by individual churches) are witnesses to the Dogma and stand in a relation of greater or lesser approximation to it. But they do not attain to it perfectly—hence, the inherent reformability of all “dogmas.” Orthodoxy is not therefore a static, fixed reality; it is a body of teachings which have arisen out of, and belong to, a history which is as yet incomplete and constantly in need of reevaluation.[3]

This offers a different slant on all that we have been discussing thusly. Barth’s thinking (as distilled by McCormack) on the eschatological character of church ‘dogma’ is an important caveat in all of this. It points up the provisional and proximate nature that church dogma, as that is related to the biblical teaching, entails.

Much more could be said, but let me simply close by saying: as Christians our ultimate authority is the living Word of God, Jesus Christ. Insofar as Holy Scripture is “attached” to the living Word as the ordained Holy ground upon which God has chosen to most definitively bear witness to himself in Jesus Christ, then we as Christians do well to live under this reality; the reality that Jesus is Lord, and his written Word, for our current purposes as Christians, serves as the space wherein Christians might come to a fuller knowledge of God and their relationship to him as he first has related to us. Within this matrix of fellowship, though, we ought to remember the role that tradition plays in this as the inevitable interpretive reality that is always already tied into what it means to be humans before God; and in this thrust, then, we ought to be appreciative and attentive to what God has been working into his church for the millennia; and we ought to appreciate that he continues to speak into his church.

 

[1] Oliver Crisp, god incarnate, (New York: T&T Clark International, 2009), 17.

[2] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 397-98.

[3] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 16.

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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.

Is the Reformed Faith a Thomistic Faith or a Biblical Faith?

The Reformed faith is a Biblical faith, an exegetical faith; as such it remains an open endeavor per the confessional norms provided for by Scripture. Richard Muller writes, “… the theologians of the Reformation neither produced a monolithic system nor set up their own theological systems as norms apart from the exegesis of Scripture, ….”[1] It doesn’t seem as if those who claim to be
thomasstampReformed today appreciate this. Instead what seems to have obtained in the Reformed world, in general, is that a certain reading of Scripture, from a certain commitment to a form of the Reformed faith gets conflated with the idea that theirs is the sole representative of the Reformed faith; both contemporaneously and historically. As if they are simply just reading the Bible for all its worth, but it really isn’t that simple.

The fact of the matter is is that there are prior commitments, by all Christian readers of Scripture (Reformed or not), prior theological commitments imported into our reading of Scripture; commitments that help us arrive at our exegetical conclusions. Within the pale of the Reformed faith it is no different; what is different is that for many in the Reformed faith there is an uncritical (sometimes it is critical though, as we will see) adoption of a certain metaphysic as if this metaphysic is self-same with the Bible itself. But why should any critical thinking person accept this? Why is one metaphysic, one theo-logic, more sacrosanct, more holy than the others? Answering these questions is challenging, but we need to at least identify that these are questions. I don’t see many in the Reformed world acknowledging this; instead I see a triumphalism about their version of the Reformed faith, and in this triumphalism all others who take a different approach to the Reformed faith are considered heterodox, or even heretical (think of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance to an extent).

I have highlighted, over and over again, the metaphysic and “system” that the Reformed faith is by and large shaped by in large swaths of its quarters (but not all); in the history and contemporaneously. The metaphysic, the hermeneutic is what is called Thomism; i.e. the synthesis of Aristotelian categories with Christian theology through the work of the angelic doctor, Thomas Aquinas. It is this synthesis that funds so much of the shape of the Reformed faith, but most of its adherents simply believe that what they believe is the Bible alone as they shout sola Scriptura from the rooftops.

Richard Muller, one of the premiere ecclesiastical historians of the late medieval, post reformation reformed orthodox period substantiates my points about Thomism this way as he sketches the developments that took place during the scholastic Reformed period (you will notice that Arminius is part of his discussion):

Finally, we must address the question of the intellectual tendency of Protestant scholasticism, particularly the tendency of Arminius’ theology. Why did Protestant scholasticism take on a decidedly Thomistic character—why, specifically, did Arminius’ theology lean toward Thomism rather than toward Scotism and nominalism, despite the clear impact of a more Scotistic or nominalistic perspective on Reformed epistemology and on the definitions of theology found in the Reformed theological prolegomena? In the first place, the relationship of the earlier codifiers of Reformed theology was quite different and considerably more pronounced than the relationship of members of the same generations of Reformers to either Scotism or nominalism. Of the early codifiers of Reformed theology, only Musculus was trained in Scotist and nominalist theology. As Ganoczy has shown, the Scotist tendencies in Calvin’s thought relate not to early training in Paris but to later reading and they hardly indicate an immersion in Scotist theology. By way of contrast,  Bucer, Vermigli, and Zanchi were all trained as Thomists and, in the case of the latter two thinkers, elements of Thomism were integrated into full-scale theological systems. The Thomistic model, particularly as developed by Zanchi, was highly influential in Reformed circles—as is witnessed by the parallel interest in Aquinas by other writers of Zanchi’s generation like Lambert Daneau. In addition, contemporaries of Arminius instrumental in the development of early Protestant orthodoxy—thinkers like Arminius’ predecessor at Leiden, the Basel theologian Amandus Polanus von Polansdorf, and the great Lutheran dogmatician Johannes Gerhard—all drew heavily on the scholastic tradition, in particular on the work of Thomas Aquinas.

In the second place, the revival of Aristotelianism and of scholasticism in Roman Catholic circles in the sixteenth century had, as its intellectual centerpiece, a revival of Thomism. Not only was there a flowering of interest in Aquinas’ thought as witnessed by the many fine editions and commentaries on Thomas’ works printed in the sixteenth century, there was also a notable shift of emphasis in the study of Aquinas. Whereas medieval Thomism, due to the reliance of medieval theological study on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, had focused on Aquinas’ commentary on the Sentences, the sixteenth century, because of the work of Thomas de Vio, Cardinal Cajetan, and others found the greater Aquinas, the mature Aquinas of the Summa theologiae. Although many other scholastics received attention in the sixteenth century—many scholastic systems and treatises appeared in print—none were given the close analytical attention that Thomas received. Not only were the Summa theologiae and the Summa contra gentiles printed in five editions, they were also the subject of numerous commentaries. Here again, the work of Cajetan must be noted. In addition, this interest went beyond the bounds of the Dominican order: the Jesuit order, at the insistence of its founder Ignatius of Loyola, looked to Thomas Aquinas as its primary theological guide. This revival of Thomism represented a marked shift from the theological and philosophical tendencies of the fifteenth century. As Oberman has argued, the Thomism of the later Middle Ages was hardly the force that it eventually came to be. Not only was it the “young Thomas” of the sentence commentary who “determined the profile of the total Thomas,” it was also a highly “metaphysical Thomas” who was taught by the late medieval Dominicans rather than the careful interpreter of Scripture and the fathers. In this context, Franciscan theology, particularly the theology of Scotus appeared as powerful and attractive alternative, which worked its way into some of the theology of the early Reformation. The rising tide of Thomism in the sixteenth century, presenting as it did the Thomas of the Summa, offered the world a more strictly Augustinian doctrine of grace than that found in the commentary on the Sentences and, in addition, a Thomas more adept at scriptural and patristic argumentation.[2]

Concluding Remarks

Without a doubt the Reformed faith is a faith deeply marked by a high theology of the Word; it is a “Biblical faith.” Nevertheless, as Muller so clearly delineates for us, it isn’t all that simple. Even during the post reformed orthodox period (i.e. 16th and 17th centuries) there was a hodgepodge of metaphysics bandied about in order to help work out what might be called the ‘inner-logic’ of Holy Scripture. But as Muller makes clear, Thomism rued the day; an Aristotelian-Augustinianism provided much of the bed rock and theological bases from which Scripture was exegeted. It is this form of the Reformed faith that for some reason has become absolute for so many today (I would say for various reasons).

I think that what this should illustrate, at the least, is that the triumphalism of many in the Reformed faith should be squelched; it should be turned down a bit. You are not purist Bible interpreters, anymore than us evangelical Calvinists are after Barth. You chide Reformed people who follow after Barth for not being truly Reformed, but on what basis? Is it because we do not simply want to repristinate the post reformed orthodox past and assert loudly THAT THIS IS WHAT THE BIBLE MEANS in its disclosure? The fact that you all are committed to an Aristotelian faith, by and large, should at least make you more humble when approaching others in the Reformed faith (like evangelical Calvinists) who believe that we have found, if not a better way, at least an alternative way to read the Bible in the same type of confessional ‘always Reforming’ mode per the dictates of Scripture that you all believe you are doing. Unless you want to claim that Thomism (Scotism, et al.) are univocal, self-same with the teaching of Holy Scripture, it would be an error to look down your noses at those who repudiate that metaphysic for something else; something that we (as evangelical Calvinists) believe is more proximate with the ‘dynamic’ and ‘dialectical’ nature of Scripture’s teaching.

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1991), 33.

[2] Ibid., 34-6.

A Response to Al Mohler on Tradition and the Trinity with Reference to Richard Muller

Dr. Al Mohler just wrote a post today in regard to the ongoing “evangelical” and “Reformed” debate about the so called eternal, functional subordinationist view endorsed and articulated by Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, et al. Mohler offers some pretty hard critique of folks who have been critiquing Grudem, Ware, et al. with reference to their thinking about God’s inner life (i.e. the eternal councilofnicaeasubmission of the Son to the Father as ostensibly a model for gender relations between men and women here on earth). Mohler writes:

Recent charges of violating the Nicene Creed made against respected evangelical theologians like Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware are just nonsense — they are precisely the kind of nonsense that undermines orthodoxy and obscures real heresy. Their teachings do not in any way contradict the words of the Nicene Creed, and both theologians eagerly affirm it. I do not share their proposals concerning the eternal submission of the Son to the Father, but I am well aware that nothing they have taught even resembles the heresy of the Arians. To the contrary, both theologians affirm the full scope of orthodox Christianity and have proved themselves faithful teachers of the church. These charges are baseless, reckless, and unworthy of those who have made them.[1]

Strong words, particularly in light of whom, among others, has offered said critique of Grudem and Ware, et al.; none other than Patristic scholars, par excellence, Lewis Ayres and Michael Barnes. Both of these scholars are authorities in their field. Don’t get me wrong, appeal to credentials in and of itself doesn’t prove anything, but credentials actually are important, and in this case are meaningful. Not whether or not they are respected evangelical theologians, but rather that both of these scholars have expertise in a field that has direct bearing on this debate; so much expertise, that to say that their critique of Grudem and Ware, et al. should bring into question who is promoting the nonsense here (i.e. Ayres, Barnes, Trueman, et al. or Mohler in this instance). By the way, Carl Trueman has already responded directly to Mohler here.

So this is what is happening on the ground today. But I would like to provide a little historical perspective on why folks like Ayres, Barnes, Trueman, and so many more are offering the critique that they are. I also, at the same time, want to provide further historical insight into the trajectory that folks like Grudem, Ware, et al. are moving from in regard to how they are reading Scripture (which I touched upon early on in this debate here). Richard Muller, as he is writing about how Holy Scripture served as the Reformed authority for all doctrine and practice, juxtaposed with Roman church tradition, helps illustrate from what basis legitimate critique is being made of Grudem’s, Ware’s respective proposal in regard to the Trinity and eternal submission between the Father and the Son. What Muller writes also illustrates where the Grudem/Ware mode might fit in. As Muller explains the reformers move away from the traditional  Roman quadriga method of biblical interpretation, he becomes instructive for our purposes as he writes:

From the perspective of this developing pre-critical exegetical model, the movement away from the quadriga toward an increasingly critical access to the literal meaning of the text in its original languages served as an admirable weapon in the Reformation polemic against ecclesiastical abuses and doctrinal accretions or excesses; it proved to be a major challenge to Protestantism as the era of orthodoxy dawned. The Reformers, operating at least initially in the context of traditional Catholicism, were able to adjust and revise certain key doctrinal points — like the doctrines of justification and the sacraments — by recourse to exegesis, while at the same time assuming the churchly stability of the larger body of doctrine. (It was one of the functions of the radical Reformation, perhaps the most forcefully in its antitrinitarian moments, to test this assumption and to demonstrate the impossibility of holding on to the larger body of traditional dogmatic formulations when the tradition as a whole was set aside.) The Protestant orthodox, however, were left with the task of reconstructing a churchly and confessionally governed dogmatics in the context of a hermeneutical revolution. Doctrines like the Trinity, the Person of Christ, the fall, and original sin, which had developed over centuries and with the assistance of an easy mingling of theological exegetical traditions and of an exegetical method designed to find more in a text that what was given directly by a grammatical reading, would now have to be exposited and exegetically justified — all in the face of a Roman Catholic polemic against the sole authority of Scripture as defined by the Reformers over against the tradition and the churchly magisterium, a polemic made all the more telling by the presence of the teachings of the Radicals.[2]

As a distillation: 1) Muller identifies how a ‘literal’ reading of Scripture for the magisterial Reformers helped distinguish themselves from their Roman counter-parts in regard to important doctrines like justification, the sacraments, and so forth. But what Muller also highlights, is that for the early Reformers (like Luther, Calvin, et al.) the tradition of the church also stood as the broad informing framework within which these other exegetical challenges were happening. In other words, the Nicene-Constantinople-Ephesian-Chalcedonian creeds which provided the Trinitarian and Christological grammar remained decisive and authoritative for these first-tiered Protestant Reformers (of course this is not to say that someone like Calvin did not have his own ways towards thinking about the Trinity i.e. his whole autoTheos locus in regard to the Son). 2) Muller also highlights the role that the so called Radical Reformers had in this movement towards affirming the authority of Scripture over-and-against the tradition of the church. It were these autonomous anti-authoritarian Radicals, Muller contends, who slid furthest away from the authoritative nature of the ecumenical councils pronouncements and attempted to do a new thing solely from Scripture all by itself (i.e. solo Scriptura); without, for example, any recourse to the Trinitarian grammar provided for by the catholic (universal) councils of the church. 3) Finally we have, per Muller, the Post-Reformed orthodox theologians who were wanting to clarify further the work bequeathed to them by the initial Reformers; the work of allowing Scripture be the sole authority (i.e. norma normans), while at the same time honoring the tradition of the church (i.e. norma normata) when it came to working through the complex matrix of attempting to speak of the ineffable Triune God. The Post-Reformed felt tasked with justifying the Trinitarian grammar of the councils by Scripture.

Dr. Mohler in his post from earlier today asserted that Grudem and Ware, et al. are not repudiating the Nicene-Constantinopolitan settlement; which is why he claims critiquing them is non-sense. Granting that this is a complex thing, if one honestly looks at what Grudem and Ware are saying, respectively, it would seem that they are operating in a more Radical mode of operation rather than what the magisterial and/or Post-Reformation Reformers were on about. While the Tradition does have profound and complex implications tied into it, it is not complex when it comes to this particular issue.

Grudem and Ware come from somewhere, as we all do, but if we were to use the Muller index to place them along the Protestant continuum of things, I think they would fit closer with the Radical Reformers. Not maybe in tone, or function, but in hermeneutical practice. There is precedent indeed in the Protestant Reformed history to radically elevate the Word above church and church tradition, but as the Reformers understood this does not mean that the Trinitarian grammar produced by these early councils was confusing or murky; so much so that within that ostensible ambiguity people like Mohler could appeal to complexity in order to keep the peace among the evangelicals and the Reformed. It is rather black and white when it comes to what the early church taught in regard to who God is. Yes, working out the patterns of all of that becomes more complex, but one thing that is true, as Ayres and Barnes have pointed out, the early church did not believe that God had three wills (tied into the hypostaseis), nor that the Son was eternally subordinated and submissive to the Father (in se).

I can see where the Grudems and the Wares come from in the world of Protestantism, but in this instance their Radical departure from catholic reality, with reference to God’s Tri-unity, I would contend places them outside of the pale of orthodoxy. Biblicism goes awry when its reality is reduced to slavish adherence to literalist-grammaticism, instead of slavish adherence to the Word’s reality, the eternal Logos, Jesus Christ. What I hear in Mohler’s remarks is an appeal to the ‘good’ and the impact that evangelicals like Grudem and Ware have had upon the evangelical church in North America. But that’s really not of issue, what’s of issue is whether or not what they are communicating about God not only fits into the tradition of the church, but into the sensus literalis compositus[3] and the theological reality (res) of Scripture as a whole.

 

 

[1] Albert Mohler, Heresy and Humility — Lessons from a Current Controversy, accessed online 06-28-2016.

[2] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Scripture The Cognitive Foundation of Theology. Volume Two (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 443-44.

[3] See Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology, 279. “sensus literalis compositus, the constructed or compounded literal sense, which is inferred from the Scripture as a whole or from individual clear, and therefore normative, passages of Scripture when the simple literal sense of the text in question seems to violate the articuli fidei,” or ‘articles of the faith’.

Karl Barth, More evangelical Than The evangelicals: Thinking About Institutionalized Protestantism versus Jesus

I want to think further about a line of thought that I’ve been reflecting on a bit today; i.e. the issue of institutionalized Protestant orthodoxy. For us Protestants, a branch of the Western church, we are quite Free in our association as Christians, and in the way we think about Christianity. We come from the 16th century Protestant Reformation, and so called Radical Reformation (e.g. pipebarthAnabaptist); within these trajectories the evangelical mood has arisen in various expressions and strands. Some of these strands are more self-consciously and intentionally connected to the reality
of their genesis in the Protestant Reformation, and Radical Reformation, but others are not; for most, I would venture to say, in North American and Western evangelicalism, we stand on a pretty loose and fast understanding of Christianity, one that orbits around me-and-my-Jesus/me-and-my-Bible. Us evangelicals believe in a type of Biblicism that is solo Scriptura, but not sola Scriptura; meaning we like the way ‘scripture alone’ sounds, but we prefer to live even more privately than that with ‘scripture all by itself.’ Evangelicals, in the main, aren’t much into digging too deep into their heritage and history; they are satisfied with the belief that church history started the day they were “saved,” and maybe the day their local church or denomination started (as long as that doesn’t go back much further than a hundred years or so).

But things have been changing, and for many younger evangelicals (and older too) they want more depth; they want to know they are a part of something that has roots. What these types are finding is that there is this reality known as Post Reformation Orthodoxy. Post Reformation Orthodoxy is the theology that developed in the wake of the magisterial Protestant Reformation (you know, the one Martin Luther started), particularly in late 16th and 17th centuries, respectively. People like the idea of Protestantism having historical place; they like to think that it isn’t just the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox who have a body of churchly teaching and standards for “orthodox” doctrine. So once these types do some digging they find a whole bunch of Reformed confessions and catechisms that contain theological and doctrinal standards that give Protestant Christianity historical place and identity, and a body of doctrine that they believe becomes almost canonical for how a Protestant Christian ought to proceed. Richard Muller illustrates this as he is discussing the role of orthodoxy for these early Protestant forebears. He writes,

The problem of “orthodoxy” is slightly different: it is not a problem of definition. At some level, even its critics recognize that orthodoxy indicates “right teaching” or the desire for “right teaching.” The problem is not so much what the term is thought to mean as the attitude that has sometimes been found among the most zealous proponents of orthodoxy–and, in the case of “Protestant orthodoxy” the contrast created by a juxtaposition of stereotypes, a dynamic Reformation faith versus a rigidly defined and fundamentally inflexible system of dogmas. There is, certainly, a legitimate historical contrast that can be made between the teachings of the earliest Reformers in their struggle against the corruption and abuse of the late medieval or Renaissance church and the institutionalized forms of late-sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestantism working to maintain its confessionally codified teachings. But we must avoid the tendency to canonize the rebellion and demonize its result. The Reformers themselves were concerned with right teaching and it was they who produced the basic confessional documents of Protestantism. The institutionalized orthodoxy of the later generations labored to preserve the confessions of the Reformation as the foundational documents of the Protestant churches.[1]

So there we have it, let’s admit it: Us Protestants have a heritage; we have our own ‘orthodoxy.’ If this is the case, then it behooves us evangelicals, at least those so inclined, to press into our ‘orthodox faith,’ and start getting about the business of drinking deeply of the waters that this well has to offer. We better start making sure other evangelicals know that we have a heritage, and that it looks very much so like so called Protestant Post-Reformation Orthodoxy! We like to know that we have something institutional, and stable to hold onto at an ecclesial level; tradition gives us a sense of location and safety, a sense of control. So whatever this ‘orthodoxy’ turns out to be, if its “our orthodoxy,” we will nourish it, and cherish it, and make it home; we might even feel so comforted by it that we will get Master degrees and PhDs getting to know it for all its worth.

But really, isn’t the church more catholic than that? Isn’t the church more catholic than this tradition or that tradition? Isn’t the catholicity (i.e. ‘universality’) of the church not quite as stable as we would like, and characterized more by a vulnerability than any one theological identity or interpretive tradition can provide? Isn’t there really only one regula fidei or rule of faith for the church; one canonical high-water mark that is the ultimate theological identity-shaper? None of these questions are intended to suggest that Protestant Post Reformation Orthodoxy has no place (same goes for the other traditions in Christianity), but instead it is to highlight the fact that none of them are absolute! None of these traditions, inclusive of PPRO, are totalizing offerings of the Christian faith; they are simply representative of different ways at the Christian reality.

If this is the case, if traditions, even the Protestant one, are not totalizing shouldn’t this give us less gusto in our sense of ‘orthodoxy?’ Shouldn’t this cause us to look less to orthodoxy, and more to Jesus Christ as the real rule; the rule that transcends this tradition, or that tradition? Yes, even the grammar we use to speak of an ‘orthodox’ understanding of Jesus was given reality at the ecumenical church council of Chalcedon of 451a.d. But Jesus is not held down even by this tradition; He is Lord of the church, and even of its tradition (in all of its expressions).

This is one reason I’m such a fan of Barth. He understands that all interpretive traditions are relative to Christ; to God’s Self-revelation. Barth in my view fits well with the Free way of thinking about things; he fits well with the sentiment hoped for by the Biblicists and solo Scripturaists among us. But Barth even flips all of that on its head, by making the turn to the subject, the turn to the subject of God in Jesus Christ (he turns modernity on its head, and thus modern evangelicalism). So let me quote what I just quoted on Barth’s theology from Adam Neder in my last post as I close this post.

… while fully conversant with and significantly indebted to the vast resources of the church’s reflection on the person and work of Christ, Barth regarded himself to be primarily accountable to Holy Scripture, not church dogma, and thus asked that his Christology be judged, above all, by its faithfulness to the New Testament presentation of the living Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, one regularly finds Barth justifying a Christological innovation with the argument that the New Testament depiction of Christ requires it (or something like it) and that the older categories are inadequate to bear witness to this or that aspect of his existence. In other words, and quite simply, Barth understood himself to be free to do evangelical theology — free, as he put it, to begin again at the beginning. And this approach, it seems to me, is one that evangelicals have every reason to regard with sympathy rather than suspicion.[2]

Barth’s not much into the institutional Protestantism that Muller references. He is willing to cull from that period, and all periods, with the hope that Christ be magnified. But He sees Christ magnified most when our theology starts and ends with Christ alone (solus Christus), and not by repristinating this or that period of this or that ‘orthodox’ faith. Barth (and Torrance for that matter) is a committed “Reformed theologian,” but only insofar that the spirit of the Reformed faith is honored; the semper reformanda ‘always reforming’ spirit. Not in light of a repristinated and absolutized orthodoxy, but in light of Jesus Christ as cosmic Lord over His church, and its tradition[s].

So this is another reason why I think evangelicals would do well to follow Uncle Karl’s lead; he’s more evangelical than the evangelicals.

[1] Richard A. Muller, After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 33.

[2] Adam Neder, History in Harmony: Karl Barth on the Hypostatic Union, in Bruce McCormack and Clifford Anderson eds., Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011), 150.

A Response to First Things’ Matthew Rose’s Barth’s Failure

David Congdon just responsed to Matthew Rose’s First Things article entitled: Karl Barth’s Failure. What Rose meant by failure is this:

Karl Barth was the greatest theologian since the Reformation, and his work is today a dead letter. This is an extraordinary irony. Barth aspired to free Christian theology from restrictive modern habits of mind but in the end preserved the most damaging assumptions of the ideas he sought to overcome. This does not mean he no longer deserves serious attention. Barth now demands exceptionally close attention, precisely because his failures can teach us how profound the challenges of modernity are for theology—and show us the limits of a distinctly modern solution to them.[1]

Congdon putatively demonstrates in his response that the real issue underlying Rose’s critique of Barth as a ‘modern theologian’ (which really is an unremarkable insight), is not that Barth was a modern in his theologizing, but that he was a Protestant (Rose is a certain style of Roman Catholic). Congdon concluded his insightful piece this way:

Put plainly: modernity is Protestant, so to reject modernity is to reject Protestantism. Perhaps that is the underlying message of Rose’s article. Barth finally fails, because he remains, at the end of the day, a theologian of the Reformation.[2]

With the fact that Barth was a modern theologian duly noted, and the reality that as Congdon has promoted, that for Rose what really is meant by ‘modern’ is ‘Protestant’ and his kind of scholastic Roman Catholic animus towards it (towards Protestant theology and epistemology in general). Let me focus on a particular strand of argument that Rose made to critique Barth’s modern approach toward appropriating knowledge of God. Rose writes of Barth:

Barth’s second and deeper mistake was to sever the mind’s speculative relation to God. He dissolved the classical synthesis of faith and reason, collapsing all theological understanding into an exercise of faith…. His basic error is evident in his rejection of natural theology, which holds that careful observation of contingent beings can disclose the necessary being of God. This argument comes in several permutations, most of which are sketched by Thomas Aquinas, but its success in demonstrating God’s existence was arguably a secondary concern. The primary purpose of traditional natural theology was to show the indissoluble connection between the human intellect and a transcendent God who is Being itself.[3]

Rose’s real concern with Barth is that Barth rejected what Thomas Aquinas became famous for, for his synthesis of Aristotelian metaphysics and epistemology therein, with Christian theology; this synthesis became known as classical theism. Within this synthesis of faith and reason, for Aquinas what was determinative was his idea of a hierarchy of ‘being’ (which we see Rose appealing to in the aforementioned quote), and how an interlocking relation obtains between being-positing-lower being, creating the possibility for lower being (human being) to reason its way back to highest being (God) through analogical inference (i.e. reasoning that through communicable aspects of God’s being in human being negated, that God’s inner being can be categorized and known through reflection upon human being and God’s works in general embedded in creation). Thomas Aquinas has written:

. . . the proposition that “God exists” is self evident in itself, for, as we shall see later, its subject and predicate are identical, since God is his own existence. But, because what it is to be God is not evident to us, the proposition is not self-evident to us, and needs to be made evident. This is done by means of things which, though less evident in themselves, are nevertheless more evident to us, by means, namely of God’s effects.[4]

It is this, it is the role that faith by grace (sola gratia), etc. that along with Congdon, I would suggest that Rose is bothered by (since Rose is committed to the kind of movement towards knowledge of God that Thomas Aquinas offers). But this is not a particularly modern V pre-modern (or critical) issue; again, it (as Congdon insightfully has pointed out) is really a rehashing of the counter-Reformation and the council of Trent’s salvo against the Reformed conception and formal principle of the Protestant Reformation, sola Scriptura. Barth, as a Reformed theologian, took his cues from these Reformed solas and principles; and in his modern mode he developed his particular theology of the Word from within these principles which are radically Christ-concentrated principles (V radically Church-concentrated pace Rose)—i.e. grace, faith, Scripture, etc.

One of Karl Barth’s greatest (if not the greatest!) English speaking students, Thomas Torrance (who Barth believed captured his own thought better than anyone else in his day) wrote this of Barth’s approach to theology, knowledge of God, and the role that the faith of Christ played in the revelational theology of Karl Barth:

… Barth insisted that revelation is rational event, for in revelation God communicates to us his Word, and conveys to us his truth, requiring of us a rational response in accordance with the rational nature of his Word, and also a self-critical relation to his truth as it calls us in question. Not only is revelation God’s act and his being in that act, but Logos, the source and fountain of all rationality. It follows that knowledge of God in his revelation is rational in its own right, rational in the ground of the supreme and self-sufficient rationality of its divine object, God-in-his-Word. Indeed, in revelation theology is concerned with a depth in objective rationality that transcends that of any other kind of knowledge and of every other science. Barth will have nothing to do, therefore, with some kind of faith-knowledge that is basically romantic and non-conceptual and which needs rationalizing through borrowed forms of ethics and philosophy. Knowledge of revelation is ab initio rational, for it is engagement in a divinely rational communication.[5]

What Torrance helps to substantiate is that Barth’s ‘revelational’ theology is not primarily developed through Kantian or modern categories (even though these are categories that Barth is indeed responding to and working with, in his own reified way), but that Barth’s trajectory is set through his engagement with Protestant principles, in particular with his development of a theology of the Word that rejects the Thomist (i.e. Rose) analogy of being (analogia entis) in favor of a Protestant analogy of faith.[6]

For Barth it is not a turn to ‘our subject’ (which would be the modern move that Barth is responding to), but a turn to God’s subject revealed to humanity through His eternal Word, Jesus Christ. Barth, as Torrance notes elsewhere, is essentially turning modern theology on its head by using classically Protestant themes, grounding faith & reason not in our subjects, but in God’s subject as the object and knowledge that breaks humanity free from the ‘bondage of our wills.’

Basically, my response here is a riff off of what David Congdon already cleared for us with his response to Matthew Rose. Karl Barth is as modern as Matthew Rose is a post-modern theologian. But this does not relativize Barth’s material and theological insights and critique, primarily, of classical theism’s failure to recognize that the only genuinely basic ground for knowing God cannot come from an a priori (a prior) ground latent within human being, but only through an a posteriori given that God graciously provides of himself in his Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. The access itself comes from a Godward direction, and the ‘faith’ or ‘knowledge of God’ (pace Calvin) that humanity comes to know God through is in that relation of faith (i.e. trust) inherent in the already relation of the Father and Son; so in other words, Barth offers up a robust and radical Christ-centered theology of the Word—theology that any self-respecting high-churchin Roman Catholic would find reprehensible.[7]

 

 

[1] Matthew Rose, http://www.firstthings.com/article/2014/06/karl-barths-failure, accessed 5-15-14.

[2] David Congdon, http://fireandrose.blogspot.com/2014/05/in-defense-of-modernity-response-to.html, accessed 5-15-14.

[3] Rose.

[4] Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 7.

[5] Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth, Biblical and Evangelical Theologian (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1990), 45.

[6] I have written on this distinction further in my personal chapter in my edited book (with Myk Habets), see: Bobby Grow, “Analogia Fidei or Analogia Entis? Either Through Christ or Through Nature,” in eds. Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications An Imprint of Wipf and Stock, 2012), 94-113.

[7] There are Roman Catholics, though, of a different stripe from Matthew Rose; just to be clear.

I am Just a Bible Believing, Bible Reading Dilettante/At Least That’s What Some Might Think

As of late (like last night and in the last few weeks), I have been engaging with fundamentalismideas surrounded ecclesial authority, biblical authority, tradition, sola scriptura, and ecclesiology in general. The reality that comes through to me, once and once again, is that I am simply a Bible believing, Bible reading, Bible fellowshipping Christian.

For many, the above is too naïve or simple; for some (like a guy’s testimony I just listened to; i.e. Jason Stellman’s), there is a longing or need to be part of a lineage that they perceive as genetic, unbroken, successive, and thus authoritative. I don’t really have this need. Sure, yes, indeed, I want to see myself as part of the body of Christ and God’s people that has stretched the boundaries of salvation history; but I don’t have this need to see God so conflated, so collapsed with His work in His church, in His people, that I need, then, to identify with a group that claims to be the embodiment and concrete reality of this kind of collapse of God (with His authority embedded into this collapsed state of ecclesial affairs). I believe God’s people are everywhere, everywhere where Christ by the Spirit is. I believe the true church of Christ is both visible and invisible; and that the church’s esse or essence is in God’s life of Triune relation itself—and so I don’t think the Church of Jesus Christ (not latter day saints 😉 ) has an address or country code (like next to the Tiber River in Rome and Vatican City).

And so, given the above, it is probably not very surprising that I am an Free church evangelical. And now this gets even more personal, and less critical (maybe even pious to some). I became a Christian at an early age. I walked with the Lord for years growing up. I became lukewarm out of high school. The Lord got a hold of me through some very hard circumstances a few years out of high school. I began to walk closely with the Lord as a result of the crises that were introduced into my life out of high school (graduated from high school in 1992). And what this meant for me was an obsessive determination to read, read, and reread Scripture (which led to further Bible and Theological training in formal way in the following years to come). And this is still true for me today. I had a real and existential need to be ministered to as a result of the crises that were introduced into my life back in and around 1995. The only thing that brought peace to my mind back then (and still!) was to be ensconced, entrenched, and saturated in Holy Scripture; it was the only place that I could genuinely encounter God’s first Word, Jesus Christ. It was the only place where I could find rest, and hope; in someone who obviously loved me and cared for me beyond measure.

My point in sharing the above is to highlight and deepen a little how I might be understood and perceived. It might explain why I like Karl Barth (and Thomas Torrance) so much. What I have finally found in someone like Karl Barth, is a Protestant and evangelical theologian who provides grammar to my long lost and wandering theological feelings. He provides an imaginative and creative (which are both good things) way to think about God’s Word and scripture, and how these two things (along with the proclaimed ‘Word’) coinhere and relate. Most importantly to me, what Barth affirms, is something that I have known for years and years through my own personal experience; and that is, that Scripture is the primary place where God encounters each one of us in his church, in personal, contradictory (to our own thoughts), comforting, convicting, and even endearing ways. And so Scripture for Barth is the norming norm of his mode of operation as a Christian and theologian; as it is and always will be for me. I don’t need any other authority, any other way, than the authority and the way encountered through the pages of Scripture, in all of its particularity and universality. The church gathers around this reality, the church does not possess this reality (Jesus), but Jesus possesses the church, and inhabits her by the Holy Spirit (by which we inhabit Him, by grace). When we read, hear, and live Scripture together we bear witness to the reality that enlivens each of our steps. I know without this reality, I would be hopelessly lost.

I close now with a quote from Adam Neder on Karl Barth, and Barth’s exemplary appreciation for Holy Scripture as the reality upon which all other churchly thought and decisions must be subordinate:

[…] while fully conversant with and significantly indebted to the vast resources of the church’s reflection on the person and work of Christ, Barth regarded himself to be primarily accountable to Holy Scripture, not church dogma, and thus asked that his Christology be judged, above all, by its faithfulness to the New Testament presentation of the living Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, one regularly finds Barth justifying a Christological innovation with the argument that the New Testament depiction of Christ requires it (or something like it) and that the older categories are inadequate to bear witness to this or that aspect of his existence. In other words, and quite simply, Barth understood himself to be free to do evangelical theology — free, as he put it, to begin again at the beginning. And this approach, it seems to me, is one that evangelicals have every reason to regard with sympathy rather than suspicion. [Adam Neder, History n Harmony: Karl Barth on the Hypostatic Union, eds. McCormack and Anderson, 150.]

Posturing Toward a Defense of Christian Church Tradition

It might seem odd that someone who likes Karl Barth as much as I do would write a post entitled the way this one is—of course I also like Thomas Torrance, which would make my title less surprising. Something of concern to me is that I see a wave among many Christians today who are almost completely rejecting the Tradition of the Christian Church—if the Trinity and Chalecdonian Christology weren’t a part of the Trad my guess is that Church popeTradition would completely be ignored or even ridiculed as a Hellenistic imposition of thought upon the truth of Christian Revelation (which is typically understood as Scripture by most Christians). In fact, as I digress for a minute, it seems to me that many in the mode I am describing really only give the doctrine of the Trinity lip service because they feel they must; but again, in the back of their minds there is this still small voice that keeps harassing them that is saying something like: “the Trinity, the homoousion, and even concepts like hell are essentially results of hierarchical, patriarchal, colonial, imperalistic thought required by the Graeco-Romans, but not by Scripture (not really).”

Church Tradition is an imposition on Scripture … it is, and someone knows this for sure? And felt the need to let the rest of us know?

As a Protestant Christian (which still matters, this distinction that is), I affirm the idea that Scripture is the final arbiter of all things related to the once for all Faith delivered to the saints. And yet, I think this way from a theological tradition; that is as a Christian, I accept that Scripture itself, and its canonization, flows from the conviction that God has spoken, and that the Scriptures represent the Apostolic Deposit and most faithful witness to this reality (that God has spoken). And yet, notice, I read Scripture not de nuda, but I do so based upon a Christian and Churchly Tradition. So when I come across Christians today who basically trounce Church Trad in favor of the most contemporary readings of Scripture today—i.e. and not in conversation with the Trad, but instead talking about it in mocking tones—I have to wonder what kind of consistency this represents?

I am all for checking Church Trad by Scripture, and by its voice and reality, Jesus Christ; but I also believe that Scripture is coordinate with this voice, and not disparate from it. And so I don’t see two canons, but one.

Ultimately the test, indeed, is Christ. He is the measure, by His Scripture’s, by which Church Tradition (even the one that says that Scripture is Scripture) must be judged. But if we hold to a high polity that Jesus really has provided teachers for His Church (Eph. 4), then we won’t try to skirt Church Trad, but we will constructively engage with it. The best of Church Trad does not flow from imposing anything on the Scriptures or Jesus Christ, but instead it helps serve the Gospel by providing a grammar for it that allows us to make sense of things that stand right on the border of the ineffable and ultimate nature of our God.

Here is a good order and way to think about Scripture, Tradition, etc.

  1. Scripture is the norma normans, the principium theologiae. It is the final arbiter of matters theological for Christians as the particular place in which God reveals himself to his people. This is the first-order authority in all matters of Christian doctrine.
  2. Catholic creeds, as defined by and ecumenical council of the Church, constitute a first tier of norma normata, which have second-order authority in matters touching Christian doctrine. Such norms derive their authority from Scripture to which they bear witness.
  3. Confessional and conciliar statements of particular ecclesial bodies are a second tier of norma normata, which have third-order authority in matters touching Christian doctrine. They also derive their authority from Scripture to the extent that they faithfully reflect the teaching of Scripture.
  4. The particular doctrines espoused by theologians including those individuals accorded the title Doctor of the Church which are not reiterations of matters that are de fide, or entailed by something de fide, constitute theologoumena, or theological opinions, which are not binding upon the Church, but which may be offered up for legitimate discussion within the Church. [Oliver Crisp, god incarnate, (New York: T&T Clark International, 2009), 17.]

Conversational [Dialogical] Theology: Being a Catholic Interpreter, with Advice for N.T. Wright

If the Christian life is dialogical, or shaped by conversation with God and His people; which it is (I would argue). And if Jesus Christ, according to Paul, promised that He would build His Church up by providing it with teachers/elders, evangelists, et al (Eph. 4); which He did. And this promise has come to fruition through all of the centuries since Jesus ascended, and into the present; then how can we ignore the fact that the Christian faith, and its self-understanding is catholic (i.e. universal, and reaches across all periods of the Christian church)?

I have learned much through engagement with N.T. Wright, but one lacuna or gap in his thinking (intentionally so on his part), is his failure to properly or thickly appreciate my point in the paragraph above. His common quip is that the Medieval church (and the early Reformed one) ‘got the right answers, but asked the wrong questions’ in regard to understanding the nature and ontology of Christian salvation. And that this, then, has had a distorting affect upon the subsequent development of the Christian church, since. And so, by and large (other than a head-nod, when he is pressed), Wright waves his hand over this whole period (from at least the 14th century into much of the present time—and he even goes after the ecumenical councils and the Greek Church Fathers), and acts as if he (and in many ways, he alone) can recover Christian truth about salvation, in particular, that had heretofore been lost; as if the gates of hell had prevailed against the Church of Christ, until he (and some of his company) have recently come on scene. Surely this is problematic, and overwrought! I have learned much from Wright, but Jesus has capably and conceptually been forming His church without Wright and our current situation, just as He said He would, through the teachers He has provided His church with through the centuries.

Thomas Torrance offers a better perspective on how to think about the dialogical nature of Christian interpretation and conversation/fellowship with God and His people. You will notice that in what Torrance communicates, he does not denigrate historical studies (which is what N.T. Wright’s discipline is), but gives them their rightful place; but he expands this idea of historical studies out beyond Second Temple Judaism, and into the history of the Church and history of interpretation, as if Jesus really has been offering fresh encounters with His people over all of the centuries of the churches’ existence. Torrance writes:

(iii) It is the combination of historical and ecumenical studies that is particularly valuable. Historical studies are necessary for the understanding of our brethren from another historical tradition, and yet it is only by engaging in conversation with those who belong to a Church that has embodied another historical tradition that we can fully understand the history of the Church. This applies not only to the separated Churches of the Evangelical world, but to the relations between so-called “Evangelical” and so-called “Catholic” Churches, between East and West, and indeed between the people of the New Covenant and the people of Israel who persist in living only according to the Old Covenant. It is thus that theological activity is enabled as fully as possible to engage still in conversation with the fathers of the Old Testament, with the Greek and Latin fathers of the ancient and mediaeval Church, and with the fathers of the Reformation in all its branches. We have to take very seriously the requirement of God to appear before Him, and to engage in conversation with Him, not alone, but with the whole company of God’s people past and present. It is thus that it belongs to the very nature of theology to be essentially catholic, and it is enabled to be that by historical and ecumenical dialogue with the fathers and brethren alike. [Thomas F. Torrance, The School of Faith: The Catechisms of the Reformed Church, lxviii-lxix.]

It is clear how Torrance thinks about this then. And I think it is much more of a healthy and balanced alternative than the sense that N.T. Wright often portrays in his own thinking. Ironically, I would note, Wright does not actually move away from the classic redemptive-historical-soteriological mode of Reformed-covenantal exegesis; instead he simply reorients it, by re-shaping it, a bit, through his historical reconstructive work of Second Temple Judaism. So he hasn’t really asked new questions from the Reformers, he has simply come up with new answers, albeit largely in the same ecclesio-soterio/centric frame that many of the ‘Reformers’ were working through.

The difference that Torrance offers, from Wright, is that he grounds his dialogical approach to theology/hermeneutics in a doctrine of Christ/God; which has to be the hermenutical order we follow. We must follow a Christ-centered hermeneutic as the key to providing the proper frame through which the right questions can finally be asked. As Torrance also writes of the best of the Reformed tradition:

[…] It is in that light that the Reformation as a movement for theological reform is to be understood, that is, as a thoroughgoing criticism of all the received doctrines in the light of correspondence to the Gospel and coherence with the central doctrine of Christ, and a radical reforming and correcting of these doctrines by bringing them into obedient conformity to the doctrine of Christ. It was in that movement of faithfulness to Christ and His Gospel that Reformed theology came to understand both the nature of true theology and the nature of its systematic presentation through consistent obedience to the Truth as it is in Christ Jesus. [Thomas F. Torrance, “The School of Faith,” lix-lx.]

So it isn’t that Torrance, like Wright, is receiving medieval categories and thought forms uncritically; it is just that Torrance (unlike Wright) is critically ‘receiving’ the history of Christian thought by submitting it to the reality of Jesus Christ Himself. So the methodology is a principled Christological one, and one that is in constant flux as it is given fresh voice through conversation with God in Christ by the Spirit. We don’t need to toss the whole thing and start over (which is often the impression that comes across through Wright), but we need to be in submission to the Lordly voice of the Christian heritage and present, in a way that we operate, as Torrance would say, with ‘repentant’ thinking; Jesus’ voice, the voice of the living God, being that which regulates our reception of His voice given in the past through and to His people. So as in dialogue, healthy ones, this is an ongoing reality.

‘From’ Christ, not ‘For’ Christ: “Why don’t you have a category for obedience?”

I have lots of people email (instead of comment) me about my various posts here at the blog. Recently I received an email from someone who wondered why I didn’t have a category (in my categories for the blog) designated as “obedience”? I haven’t emailed this person back yet, but I thought before I did that I would respond to this rather interesting observation here at the blog first (it seems fitting for me to do so).

adam-eve-garden-of-eden-1To start with, I do have a category entitled “ethics,” which deals with issues and instances of concrete instantiations of Christian obedience (or disobedience); and then I do deal with Christian obedience in many posts, but they aren’t under a specific category of “obedience,” but instead those can be found under the category of “salvation” (and then a lengthy process of weeding through this posts will ultimately yield results that show I have dealt with questions that are oriented around Christian obedience). But I would like to answer this question with more particularity, and clarity on why my blog does not emphasize this category (as important as it is!). My blog does not emphasize this category (in the way my interlocutor is wondering, I presume) because the way I think of our relation to God in Christ, has Christ in the way; and I mean in the way of you and me (logically, theo-logically). Historically, and classically, Evangelicals (given their hybrided dependence upon Reformed/Covenant theology) have emphasized relation with God through a mode of emphasizing law-keeping conditioned by forensic categories of thought (just read an Evangelical systematic theology if you don’t believe me). And insofar that I have eschewed this classical mode, I have abandoned emphasizing law-keeping (code for ‘obedience’, usually) as the emphasis by which I understood relationship with God, and how I conceive of Christian holiness (or obedience as its subsequent expression). To provide an example of where the Evangelical heritage comes from, theologically, in this regard; let me quote Kim Riddlebarger (a contemporary advocate of Covenant Theology, and member of the White Horse Inn radio broadcast, along with Michael Horton), as he sketches the original and lasting relationship and way that he (and the classically Reformed) think of how God and man (God/world) relate to each other through the Covenant of Works (or Creation):

[A]s redemptive history unfolded, the first Adam—the biological and federal representative of all humanity—failed to do as God commanded under the terms of the covenant of works. The Lord God said to Adam, “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Gen. 2:17). This covenant of works or, as some Reformed writers speak of it, the “covenant of creation” lies at the heart of redemptive history. Under its terms God demanded perfect obedience of Adam, who would either obey the terms of the covenant and receive God’s blessing—eternal life in a glorified Eden—or fail to keep the covenant and bring its sanctions down upon himself and all humanity. Adam’s willful act of rebellion did, in fact, bring the curse of death on the entire human race. This covenant of works is never subsequently abrogated in the Scriptures, a point empirically verified when ever death strikes. This covenant also undergirds the biblical teaching that for any of Adam’s fall children to be saved, someone must fulfill all the terms of the covenant without a single infraction in thought, word, or deed (Matt. 5:48; 1 Peter 1:16). [Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding The End Times, 47.]

Much could be said in critique of this conception of things (and I have already said much, just check my category “critiquing classical Calvinism”), but in order to not get side-tracked from the point of this post, let me stay particular to my intention. In predictable form (since Covenant theology has Creation preceding Covenant), Riddlebarger allows Creation to condition Covenant instead of seeing Covenant (God’s life of gracious love) conditioning Creation (one serious fall out of this theological ordering is that Jesus becomes conditioned by creation instead of conditioning creation himself as homoousion—I digress!). In other words, when Reformed thinkers like Riddlebarger, and his whole tradition, start theologizing and biblical exegeting they start where Riddlerbarger starts, with Law (or the Covenant of Works/Creation). And yet, as Ray Anderson has highlighted (along with others), what should be understood (first), is that God spoke and created (which is an act of grace as corollary with His overflowing life of Triune love). So what grounds any relation with God, first, is not Law-keeping, but the fact that God spoke (which is grace)! This might seem to be a subtle shift, but it is profound!

Following this shift of emphasis, what becomes primary is not my personal obedience (and Law-keeping), but God’s in Christ for us. As Thomas Torrance has written (as I just quoted this in a post below this one),

[…] Under the gracious impingement of Christ through the Spirit there is a glad spontaneity about the New Testament believer. He is not really concerned to ask questions about ethical practice. He acts before questions can be asked. He is caught up in the overwhelming love of Christ, and is concerned only about doing His will. There is no anxious concern about the past. It is Christ that died! There is no anxious striving toward an ideal. It is Christ that rose again! In Him all the Christian’s hopes are centred. His life is hid with Christ in God. In Him a new order of things has come into being, by which the old is set aside. Everything therefore is seen in Christ, in the light of the end, toward which the whole creation groaneth and travaileth waiting for redemption. The great act of salvation has already taken place in Christ, and has become an eternal indicative. [see full text here].

This does not mean that personal obedience is not important, but it frames it in a way that allows me to keep my eye on Christ instead of first looking at myself (and then reflexively looking at Christ: i.e. reflexive faith], as if I, myself, can somehow be abstracted out of the only true humanity which is Christ’s. So I “seek first His kingdom and righteousness, then all these other things will be added unto me” (and I only seek first, because He first loved (and sought) first that I might love Him, through Him by the Spirit). My relationship with God is not dependent upon my obedience, but Christ’s obedience for me (us); and so this ought to go along ways in illustrating why I don’t have a separate category (apart from Christology) for obedience in my sidebar. Thomas Torrance in his (posthumously published) book Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ really captures the import of this shift and way of framing things from God’s gracious Self directed life for us in contrast to the Legalistic emphasis that the classical Covenant of Works flows from:

(iii) The holiness of the church is its participation through the Spirit in Christ’s holiness

 This holiness is actualised in the church through the communion of the Holy Spirit. He only is the Spirit of holiness, he only the Spirit of truth; and therefore it is only through his presence and power in the church that it partakes of the holiness of Jesus Christ. Since the holiness of the church is its participation through the Spirit in Christ’s act of self-consecration for the church, then that is the only holiness, the only hallowing of the church there is. That is the holiness which was actualised in the church when it was baptised with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the union of the church with Christ was fulfilled from the side of the church as well as from the side of Christ.

The church is not holy because its members are holy or live virtuous lives, but because through his presence in the Holy Spirit Christ continues to hallow himself in the midst of the church, hallowing the church as his body and the body as his church. Thus the true holiness of the members is not different from this but a participation in it, a participation in the holiness of Christ the head of the church and in the holiness of the church as the body hallowed by Christ. Participation in this holiness however involves for the members of the church a life of holiness, just as it involves a life in Christ, of faith relying upon his faithfulness, of love that lives from the overflow his love, of truth that comes from the leading of the Spirit. Because the church is the body of Christ in which he dwells, the temple of the Holy Spirit in which God is present, its members live the very life of Christ through the Holy Spirit, partaking of and living out the holy life of God. Therefore personal holiness, and all the qualities of the divine life and love found in their lives, are the fruits of the Holy Spirit. [Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement, edited by Robert Walker, 386-87.]

There is a lot to comment on here as well, but I must limit myself. I will just say that it is this reversal of things (i.e. placing the Covenant of Grace [God’s life Pre-destined]) from Law to Grace that explains why I don’t have a category explicitly labeled “obedience”. It isn’t because I don’t think Christian obedience is important, it is because I think the gr0und of this emphasis is roundly rooted in Jesus Christ for us (and thus I have a category for Christology instead). It isn’t that I don’t think personal obedience or holiness are important, I do! Instead, it is because I am persuaded that focusing on Christ and God’s Triune life of gracious love, and participating in that from the Spirit’s unioning activity will produce obedience and the life of Christ through the members of our bodies as they are constantly given over to the death of Christ that His life might be made manifest through the mortal members of our body. We obey, only because Jesus obeyed for us first. We don’t obey to ensure that we are one of the elect that God purchased from the mass of “perdituous” humanity; we obey because God loved us first that we might love Him back through the mediating and priestly Spirit anointed humanity of Jesus Christ. It is only through this framing of things that I feel I can live out this exhortation from St. Paul:

 It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. ~Galatians 5:1

Without the freedom of God for us in Christ I live under a burdenouss yoke that really ends up being hell; which, I am pretty sure this is what Jesus came to save us from (ourselves), and for Himself (and His shared life in the Monarchia or God-head). So obey, but only from Christ by the Spirit, not for Christ so you can find God’s approval.