How Jesus Took the ‘Leap of Faith’ For Us: The Relationship of Historicity, Faith, and Christianity

Christianity it has been said is one of the most historically contingent, and grounded religions out there. Indeed. If as the Apostle Paul argued, ‘if Christ be not risen our faith is in vain.’ But historicity and facticity often get in the way of what is of even more import, and that is what actually happened in the ‘history’ making event, in the ‘fact’ making event. What happened, for the Christian (and for the unbelieving world) is even more important than being able to “prove” that it did indeed happen. The reality of what Christ did in the incarnation, lived life, cross, death, burial,
jesusleapresurrection, ascension, and current priestly session are all realities, that in themselves ground the possibility, epistemically (and ontologically, for that matter) wherein our ‘beings’ as human agents come to have the apparatus needed in order to actually see what indeed did happen in history; it gives us the conditioning needed, the illumination required in order to have space to taste and see that God in Christ is indeed good. Historicity remains highly important for the Christian, relative to who God is and has revealed himself to be in Christ. But what is more important is what was accomplished in that history. This is what Thomas Torrance is getting at as he appeals to Kierkegaard on how faith and history, bounded up in the Christ event, implicate one another, and then us as people in need of more than just brute history for our salvation. TFT writes:

The Nature of faith: Kierkegaard on the apprehension of God in time

Now let us turn for a moment to the teaching of Kierkegaard that if we are to apprehend a historical fact we must apprehend not simply what has actually taken place and is now a static fact of history, but apprehend the happening itself, and indeed how it happened. But in apprehending a movement, the coming into being of a historical event, we must behave in terms of it. This apprehension involves an act of decision or an act of faith. Thus the New Testament witnesses report the events or happenings in the life of the historical Jesus, but they also bear witness to their belief that Jesus disclosed and authenticated himself to them as the Christ, the Son of the living God. Yet in the nature of the case they cannot transmit in ideas or factual reports that to which they bear witness in their belief. Their witness and belief challenge us to decision and belief with them, and only by an act of decision or belief can we enter into the situation that confronted them, and apprehend what they apprehended. Our way of apprehending Christ’s self-presentation in his actions must involve on our part a way of action corresponding to his action. Our mode of knowing Christ must be analogous to the mode of Christ’s coming into being in history. This entails on our part a movement of reason which Kierkegaard called the ‘leap of faith’, or resolution, or a decision.

There is no doubt that this is important. Unless in some real sense we share here in the life of Christ, we really cannot apprehend him; unless in some real sense what took place in his crucifixion and resurrection takes place also in an analogous way in our own experience, it can finally mean nothing to us. That is a very strong emphasis, for example, in the fourth Gospel. The truth conveyed to us by Christ is not simply a truth revealed by word, but a truth embodied in his person, so that to apprehend it we must personally have an experience of Christ himself as the one sent by the Father. Only by going through Christ to the Father can we come to know Christ as the Son of the Father. Only by an act of decision in obedience to the challenge of Christ can this come about. In Kierkegaard, the important element is not found in the decision of faith itself, but in the fact of Christ behind the decision. In encounter with Christ, decision derived its importance from the person of Christ himself, and therefore the decision cannot be abstracted from what Christ himself was and did.[1]

In our History Channel age we get so hung up on rationalist certitude about everything that what often gets lost is the significance of said history itself; in and of itself. If what Torrance describes vis-à-vis Kierkegaard has teeth, what should stand out to us is that as we talk about historicity and factualism, all along, the resurrected Christ is sitting there at the right hand of the Father just smiling as he sees the masses wringing their hands (or not) about whether he really died and rose again to begin with.

For the Christian, according to Torrance, it’s not ultimatelyreally even faith alone that matters, what matters is that Christ is standing behind that faith as a channel waiting to encounter us over and over again. The good news is that ‘faith’ itself is not something that we have to construct or muster up out of our own resources; for as Torrance develops in the following paragraphs to what I just shared from him, it is the importance of Christ’s vicarious faith for us that is made available to us in Christ (which we have addressed multiple times here at the blog in the past). For the Christian history is important, facts are important; but Jesus is more important.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, Illnois: IVP Academic, 2008),

God’s Love is the Incarnation: Why Christians Celebrate this Season

It is so easy to get caught up in the fast paced materialistic trappings of pagan/secular Christmas rituals; it is all around. But as Christians we are content with a slower pace, a redemptive rhythm that is contingent not upon might, nor marybabypower, but upon the quiet moving of the Spirit of God in Jesus Christ. As Christians during this season, in a heightened way, we focus our attention on what God in Christ has done; how he has broken into these flesh and blood bodies we inhabit, and brought God and humanity together in the hypostatic union of his singular life in the eternal Logos, the Christ. In other words, during this Christmas season, in intensive ways, Christians are essentially celebrating God’s big grace for us as he has forever reached into our lives, and brought us into his Triune life of ineffable proportion. As Christians, this season, we are rejoicing in the reality that we have come to embrace, that apart from God’s incarnation in Christ we would be like wandering stars for whom the black darkness has been reserved forever; we are rejoicing because we have come to rest in the fact that God is love—the incarnation says so. As Christians this Christmas we are reposing in the reality that the incarnation signals the death of all religions that attempt to reach up to God; that the incarnation demonstrates the once and for all reality that only God could bridge such a gap; that without God in Christ humanity would remain forever grasping at the unattainable. We are full of hope this Christmas season as we rest in the unshakable reality that the incarnation of God has signaled to the world; a world moving so fast it can’t stop long enough to contemplate such depths. But Christians aren’t of this world, not this Christmas season, or any season; we are of a different order, the order that recognizes what God did for humanity in the incarnation, what humanity of its own resource could never even imagine doing for itself. Thomas Torrance articulates the depth dimension of what we are celebrating this Christmas, this way:

If this mystery, the unity of God and man in Jesus Christ is God’s own act, then, ‘what God has joined together, let not man put asunder’. The very fact that it takes God almighty – and even he at such desperate cost – to join God and man in Jesus Christ, tells us in unmistakable language that this is not what we can do. We cannot join God and man together. We are unable to bridge the gap between God and man, nor can we ascend up to heaven and bring God down from there. But it is here face to face with the incarnation in space and time, the union of God and humanity in Christ, that we learn properly for the first time. Only when we see this union actualised in Jesus Christ do we know that we could never join man and God together.

Here is an act of pure grace, the stupendous and absolutely free act of God almighty, and it carries with it the irresistible inference that what God has done here for us, we cannot do for ourselves. In fact the incarnation tells us plainly that all our efforts  to go from humanity to God are useless and false – all our efforts to join man to God are judged and disqualified, and by this fait accompli in Jesus Christ they are completely set aside and revealed to be utterly wrong. God has done the impossible, the incredible thing in Jesus Christ, but it is only now that he has done it that we see how utterly impossible it actually is, impossible for us to accomplish from the side of humanity.[1]

This Christmas season we Christians are celebrating what God has done for us in Jesus Christ by bringing God and humanity together in the singular person, Jesus Christ. There is so much depth and reality to this season on the Christian calendar; one that this fast paced world runs right by. Just as baby Jesus was born in a dusty little stable, unbeknownst to the mighty Roman Empire all around; so too, today, that reality remains unchanged. People, sadly, don’t realize just how fully charged this world is with the glory of God come in the babe and finally the man from Nazareth.

The incarnation, and our celebration of it as Christians is a multifaceted thing; one tinged with the soberness of all that has been accomplished for us in Christ, but also one laced with the reality that people all around remain aloof to this truly unparalleled reality of God become man; not in abstraction, but for them, for us. This Christmas season, if nothing else, is really about the evangel that God loved us first that we might love him. amen.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 9-10.

A Response to John MacArthur’s and Mike Riccardi’s Outlandish Misreading of Karl Barth’s Theology

Ultimately what John MacArthur thinks about Karl Barth is of no consequence, relative to reality. The problem though is that MacArthur, et al. in the evangelical and Reformed world has a huge impact as he speaks into the lives of his barthmacarthurparishioners and all those who hear him on radio and on the web. Just in the last couple of days I had a scrum (a brief one) with one of John MacArthur’s protégées, Mike Riccardi.Riccardi is a young guy who has a couple of degrees from The Master’s Seminary, and is on pastoral staff at Grace Community Church. I’ve known Riccardi through blogging for years, and was also “friends” with him on Facebook. The scrum he and I had got me interested in seeing if I could find out if MacArthur had ever said anything about Barth from the pulpit; and he has. I found a Q&A he did on April 18th, 2010 at his church. During that Q&A someone asked him about Karl Barth. His response was of course in line with the gist of what Ricarrdi shared on his wall at Facebook, and gets reflected in all those who sit under the teaching of MacArthur, Riccardi, et al; this was made clear in the comment thread under Ricarrdi’s post. Here is how MacArthur responded to the question about Barth:

Now the view of Karl Barth, and Karl Barth is a German and they keep resurrecting Him. If he would just stay dead, we wouldn’t have to deal with this stuff. But liberal theologians love to raise these dead Germans and make them issues. Karl Barth basically denied Scripture truth. He denied the historicity of Scripture, not just Genesis 1 to 11 but the whole thing. He said, “Redemptive history happened but it didn’t happen in history…the German…it happened in Heiliachikdalickta [sic], it happened in elevated super-duper history. He had a kind of category, a mystical category in which redemptive history occurred. So if you say to Karl, “Do you believe in Genesis?” Yes. “Did it happen in history?” No. “Do you believe in the resurrection?” Yes. “Did it happen in history?” No. “Do you believe in the miracles of Jesus? Did they happen in history?” Well they happened in holy history. And it’s a…it’s a…it’s a split world in which he lives. But he…he did the same thing to Genesis that he does with everything. And this is…it has a name, it’s called neo-orthodoxy. And the reason they called Karl Barth a neo-orthodox was the whole world of German theology was liberal. They were all liberal, back in the nineteenth century, they were all liberal and Karl Barth said, “This is not good, you’ve thrown all the miracles out, you’ve thrown everything supernatural out of the Bible. You’ve emptied the Bible of all of this. That’s not good, we’ve got to put it back. Well let’s put it all back.”

Only he couldn’t get it all the way in to history, he just put it back in holy history. So he was called a neo-orthodox cause it was a new kind of orthodoxy that allowed for all of this but not in history, but in the Heiokiachikdalickta, whatever that is…holy history.

So, Karl Barth’s approach to Genesis was the same as his approach to the resurrection. It’s always the same with him. It is not orthodoxy. It is not orthodoxy. It is called neo-orthodoxy, it is liberalism in another dress. And, of course, he would…he would call Genesis 1 to 11 nothing more than sort of spiritual saga, spiritual narrative, spiritual poetry.[1]


Was Karl Barth a German? Come on MacArthur, he was Swiss. Right from the get go we can see that MacArthur’s knowledge of who Barth actually was is suspect. This inaccuracy about Barth’s nationality carries through into MacArthur’s response relative to the entailments of Barth’s theology.

I wrote a post[2] not too long ago that addresses directly MacArthur’s misconstrual of Barth’s approach to history, and in particular how Barth related historical (“calendar” or linear) history to God’s providential inbreaking into that in the events of salvation history (i.e. those recorded in the biblical text). Here’s what I wrote; it silences MacArthur’s critique to the point that MacArthur ought to repent of what he wrongly said of Barth:

I just finished an essay (chapter) by George Hunsinger on Karl Barth’s kind of ‘post-critical’ approach to biblical interpretation. The essay itself is awesome, if in fact you are interested in Barth’s approach to such things. In one of the footnotes Hunsinger describes Barth’s usage of what Barth called Saga as a designation that Barth used in his second naïveté approach to biblical criticism/interpretation (we will have to get into what that means later i.e. second naïveté). What is interesting about Barth is that he did not shy away from the findings of the higher critics of Scripture of his day, but he instead said to them (in my paraphrase): “okay, so now what?” Barth was of the belief that Revelation, attested to in the witness of Holy Scripture, was not something that historical reconstruction or critics ultimately had access to; in other words the critics could only go so far, they could only go so far when attempting to capture revelational phenomenon through naturalistic critera/categories. It is within this reality that Barth used his genre of saga to engage with the theological/revelational reality attested to all throughout the pages of Holy Scripture. Here is what Hunsinger writes:

“Saga” or legend was a term Barth used over against “myth” and “history.” “Myths” were stories that embodied timeless truths, while “history” in the historicist sense excluded God on principle from its accounts. “Sagas” or legends, by contrast, were stories about actual, unrepeatable events in which God could depicted (whether directly or indirectly) as the central acting subject. On the human side, sagas involved elements of theologically informed intuitions (Vorstellungen) as well as imaginative or poetic depictions (Darstellungen) of events that were in some sense beyond ordinary depiction. Although grounded in actual occurrences, sagas were not primarily reports, but witnesses to divine revelation. Barth used the term “saga,” for lack of a better term, in order to bring out the special literary genre of biblical stories about the world’s creation, the Virgin Birth, Christ’s resurrection, and other such ineffable occurrences. It represented a kind of critical realism that was unacceptable to historicists for its audacity and to literalists for its reticence.[3]

Access to the revelation (events) in biblical history, for Barth then, would be grounded in faith (analogia fidei); not because these events are not real or actual but because they are acts that supranaturally go beyond what counts as natural in and through our perceived and observable experiences, in other words, they are acts of God. These acts of God or ‘miracles’ also have a key function in Barth’s theology of revelation. As we just left off with (in the Hunsinger quote), Barth placed ‘miracles’, i.e. the ‘world’s creation,’ the ‘Virgin Birth,’ ‘Christ’s resurrection,’ etc., into his genre of saga. Barth’s understanding of miracles is this,

the special new direct act of God in time and in history. In the form in which it acquires temporal historical actuality, biblically attested revelation is always a miracle, and therefore the witness to it, whether direct or indirect in its course, is a narrative of miracles that happened. Miracle is thus an attribute of revelation.[4]

We can see how saga and miracle functioned within Barth’s conception of revelation. Saga was the genre of revelation (in the Bible’s narrative unfolding), and miracle was a predicate of the revelation itself attested to by the witness deposited within Holy Scripture.

What we have in Karl Barth is an evangelical (in the German sense of that word) who worked through the findings of Modern biblical criticism. He found a constructive way to acknowledge it (criticism), and then in his next step, in stride to move beyond it in such a way that Gerhard von Rad could say of Barth on the occasion of his death (Barth’s) in 1968: “What a miracle that one should appear among us who did nothing else than to take God at his Word.”[5]

I can only aspire to be an evangelical like Barth. Unlike the evangelicalism that I have grown up in in North America, Barth was able to approach the text fully acknowledging the value of higher criticism, while at the same time moving beyond it to the theological reality of the text through his second naïveté (approach); i.e. basically what we were engaging within our discussion of ‘saga’ and ‘miracle.’ North American evangelical biblical scholarship, again unlike Barth, instead of being able to move beyond higher criticism has become mired down, ironically in the weeds of higher criticism in their apologetic mode of attempting to thwart higher criticism through their attempt to out ‘critic’ the higher critics on the higher critic’s terms. In the process, evangelicals never really have the capacity (within the discipline of biblical studies) to engage with the text theologically and thus on its own terms. So I would rather be like Barth, in principle, as I approach the Bible.

MacArthur completely misrepresents Barth’s understanding of history, and he does so as a parrot of Cornelius Van Til; i.e. the critique that MacArthur makes of Barth’s doctrine of Scripture, theory of Revelation, and theory of History (Historie/Geschichte) is a bad rendition of Van Til’s misreading of Barth.

For further treatment of this issue, and misreading of Barth see Darren Sumner’s article Revelation and History: Cornelius Van Til’s Critique of Karl Barth where he dismantles Van Til’s reading of Barth (on this particular issue[s]), and thus undercuts MacArthur’s caricature of Barth.


John MacArthur and Mike Ricarrdi have demonstrated that they aren’t competent to comment on Barth; so they shouldn’t! If they want to then they need to put in the time to do that in a Christian and honorable manner. Even if they disagree with him they need to do their best to accurately represent his theology, especially to the people they have sway with in their church and beyond.


[1] John MacArthur, Transcript (April 18th, 2010). YouTube video where he offers this response (start at 58 minutes).

[2] Original Post

[3] George Hunsinger, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed: Doctrinal Essays on Barth and Related Themes (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 125 fn. 27 kindle.

[4] Karl Barth, CD I/2, 63-4 cited by George Hunsinger in, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed, 125 fn. 16 kindle.

[5] Gerhard von Rad quoted by Smend in, Karl Barth als Ausleger, 216 cited by George Hunsinger, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed, 125 fn. 20 kindle.

Who Was the Real Karl Barth? A Friend or Foe of Evangelicals, or the Progressives and Mainliners?

Who was the real Karl Barth? He’s not someone who would fit in with so called evangelicals, but he’s also not someone who would fit in with mainline or barthpicture2progressive Christians either; at least not in the North American context. Kenneth Oakes sketches Barth’s place this way:

One wonders what Barth’s prospects would be for employment at certain higher education institutions in the US given his acceptance of evolution, his socialism, his unwillingness to speak out against unpopular communist regimes, his suspect doctrine of Scripture, his use of the category of ‘saga’ to exegete the book of Genesis, his acceptance and use of a great deal of historical-critical methods, his universalism, his eschatology, his revisionist doctrinal tendencies, his freedom towards historical confessions, and his unusual personal life. Barth would also most likely encounter hiring difficulties at other institutions given some of his remarks on women, homosexuality, Judaism, Islam, and other religions, his biblicism, and his seemingly exclusivist understanding of revelation and the person and work of Jesus Christ….[1]

Now if you’re not looking to hire Barth, but instead looking for a great theological teacher to learn from then he will be a great resource. There are many things about Barth, as much as I talk about him, that I don’t agree with; Oakes’ sketch hits upon some of the aspects of Barth that that would entail. But his work in the areas of theology proper, Christology, theory of revelation, election, so on and so forth are invaluable; at least it is to me. That said, I still find Thomas F. Torrance to be the guy who constructively appropriates Barth best, and works Barth’s insights, particularly on election, into the tradition of the church in very orthodox ways.

[1] Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 250, n.6.

Barth’s Five Warnings on Philosophy and Biblical Exegesis: Scripture Alone is Domina

Kenneth Oakes in his book Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy engages with Barth’s “five points” or as Oakes calls them “five warnings” for how to use barthstampphilosophy in Biblical exegesis. I thought it would be instructive to survey what Oakes writes as he engages Barth in this way. We will read what Oakes writes on this at some length, and then I will offer my own reflection and engagement with Oakes’ engagement with Barth.

Barth offers five ‘points’ to remember in the use of philosophy within exegesis, but one might as well call them five ‘warnings.’ (1) The interpreter of Scripture ‘must have a fundamental awareness of what he is doing.’ ‘Awareness’ does not mean compiling a list of hermeneutical influences or a constant reflexive monitoring between reading Scripture and reflecting upon oneself reading Scripture. The issue is one of humility, which in this context means acknowledging that every philosophy is different from and inadequate for reading Scripture. Prior notions of human agency, the good life, moral obligations, and the fundamental nature of being are not just different from those in Scripture, but they actively prevent hearing the Word. (2) The presupposed philosophy can only be a hypothesis. While the text must be approached with assumptions, reading Scripture requires a willingness to alter these commitments in order to hear the Word. More problematic than the unsuitable nature of one’s presuppositions is ‘false asceticism,’ when one abandons the task entirely either out of despair or fails to bring the whole of oneself and one’s philosophy to this task. One thus should not forbid exegetical attempts undertaken by others with differing philosophies. As one’s reading   possesses the character of a hypothesis or essay, one must be prepared to change one’s own thought forms and philosophies, perhaps even converting to a different philosophy in the process. (3) The philosophy used for interpreting Scripture cannot be given independent consideration or become an end in itself. Such an interest might overwhelm the actual endeavor at hand: the interpretation of Scripture. Barth is not finally uninterested in the tools brought forward, he merely presumes that decisions to employ or alter philosophies within dogmatics should be made in the course of exegesis itself and not in some pre-theological space which theologians may enter and exit. Bath states, ‘in dogmatics, it is no doubt possible and even necessary to think and speak historically, psychologically, politically and philosophically. But in dogmatics we cannot treat this kind of thinking and speaking with final seriousness.’ Unconditional loyalty should never be bestowed upon any philosophy:

In this connexion it is hardly relevant to distinguish between good and bad, between the philosophies of this or that school. Nor is it relevant to seek a philosophy which cannot become dangerous in this way. There is none which must become dangerous, because there is none which we cannot have without positing it absolutely. There is none which cannot possibly become dangerous, because there is none which we cannot posit absolutely, that is, in disloyalty to Scripture erect its presentation into principle and an end in itself.

Barth realizes that this is a vicious flattening of various philosophies and he immediately qualifies this conclusion in his next point. (4) While there is no essential or necessary reason to prefer one scheme or philosophy to another in interpreting Scripture, this does not imply overlooking ‘the immanental significance of the difference of philosophical schools and tendencies,’ or the fact that individuals have definite and justifiable reasons, whether aesthetic, logical, or historical, for preferring one school to another. As Barth notes elsewhere, ‘a free theologian does not deny, nor is he ashamed of, his indebtedness to a particular philosophy or ontology, to ways of thought and speech.’ His main concern is to deny any necessary link between a particular philosophy and the faithful reading of Scripture. This is not to discount a certain type of necessity or assert that one’s tools do not matter at all: ‘the necessity which there is is particular: in a specific situation this or that particular mode of thought can be particularly useful in scriptural exegesis, and it can then become a command to avail oneself of it in this particular instance.’ While there are particular necessities for using certain philosophies in concrete circumstances, trouble arises when any specific philosophy is evaluated into a normative one for all times and places. The Word of God is free to use any philosophy for its self-expression. Throughout the history of interpreting Scripture there has hardly been some form of thought dangerous in itself that has not become fruitful and useful through grace (that is, sanctified). (5) The most legitimate and fruitful use of a scheme of thought for interpreting Scripture is a critical one, and yet Scripture is not an object of criticism but represents a subject who criticizes. With this understanding of criticism, Barth can claim that ‘philosophy—and fundamentally any philosophy—can be criticised in the service of the Word of God, and it can then gain legitimate critical power.’ To assert anything else is to underestimate the judging and renewing potency of the Word. Barth uses this claim as a deflationary measure for theology, affirming that ‘it is not really a question of replacing philosophy by a dictatorial, absolute, and exclusive theology, and again discrediting philosophy as an ancilla theologiae … In the face of its object, theology itself can only with to be ancilla. That is why it cannot assign any other role to philosophy.’ Philosophy and theology are both ancillae, for ‘Scripture alone can be the domina. Hence there is no real cause for disputes about prestige.’ If Scripture remains the domina, the result is that ‘we will not need totally or finally to fear any philosophy,’ and ‘perhaps not in practice but in principle’ theologians can ‘adopt a more friendly and understanding attitude to the various possibilities which have manifested themselves or are still manifesting themselves in the history of philosophy, and to make a more appropriate use of them.’[1]

I actually think that what Oakes quotes from Barth in this long development sums up the gist of what Barth’s ‘warnings’ are all about, it is this: “Scripture alone can be the domina.” Or when Oakes quotes Barth in a prior development of his book, this from Barth’s Church Dogmatics I/1, 445:

Philosophy, ethics, politics, and anything else suggested here may all have their own dignity and justification in their own spheres but they are the philosophy, ethics and politics of sinful and lost man whose word, however profound and true it may be, cannot be recognized as judge over the Word of God which is addressed in the name of God to these sinful and lost men, as judge, therefore over Church proclamation.

Barth is a theologian of the Word who offers a fat theology of the Word. It is because the Word is so primary and primal for Barth that he’s unafraid of engaging with various philosophies and theologies. It is the freedom that the Word provides that allows, for Barth, the space to think constructively, imaginatively, and resourcefully; a space that I fear too many North American evangelicals shrink back from.

What we, as evangelicals and Protestants ought to maybe imitate in Barth is his willingness to be so unapologetically segregated by the Word of God, unto God, that all else is seen as relative, and potentially useful; as if the history and creation we inhabit isn’t a history and creation unto itself as an end, but that history and creation are God’s history and God’s re-creation in Jesus Christ; this is a theology of the Word. That the Word of God is not a preamble but is the amble by which all other reality can hope to find order and being relative to God.

What I see in Barth’s theology of the Word is a fearlessness, an anti-apologetic approach to all things; again, because he has a principial understanding of what Christian actually means when doing theology and philosophy.

[1] Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 186-88.

Thank God for Jesus! Corrupted Interpreters that We Are

Karl Barth saw quite clearly, as a modern theologian himself, the hermeneutical problem that plagues each and every one of us. He had the 18th and 19th century theologians in mind when he penned the following, but the critique is applicable to all humans. I.e. there is not one period in the history of the church, or its intellectual history that has greater elevation than any other; I’m not spectaclesreally sure this has dawned on many of us. In my evangelical circles, particularly among the scholarly class there is a move back to Post Reformed orthodox theology as if it is the answer to what ails evangelicalism and the 21st century Protestantism in North America, and abroad. I’m not contending that there aren’t resourceful riches to be had from within that period of Protestantism, but again, it is theology done by broken human thinkers, just as much so as is present within the 18th and 19th centuries of the church. Here is what Barth writes in this regard:

We have to describe as a philosophy the systematized commonsense with which at first the rationalists of the 18th century thought they could read and understand the Bible, and later, corrected by Kant, the school of A. Ristchl, which was supposed to be averse to every type of speculation and metaphysics. It is all very well to renounce the Plationism of the Greek fathers, but if that means that we throw ourselves all the more unconditionally into the arms of the positivists and agnostics of the 19th century, we have no right to look for the mote in the eye of the ancient fathers, as though on their side there is a sheer hellenisation of the Gospel, and on ours a sheer honest exegetical sense for facts. There has never yet been an expositor who has allowed only Scripture alone to speak.[1]

The implications of this are deep and wide. What this should signal for all of us is that we need to have a sense of utter humility before the Word of God, and allow it, first and foremost, to do its interpretive work over and on us.

Barth is not saying we can’t know anything, just the opposite. Instead he is alerting us to the reality that what we can know of God, according to the Bible, is fully contingent upon God’s Word, and His confrontation and contradiction of our disordered faculties therefrom. In other words, we need to be inserted into the life of God Himself (by the grace of adoption) if we ever hope to have any knowledge of Him or even ourselves. Thank God for Jesus!

[1] Karl Barth, CD I/2, 728 cited by Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology and Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 185.

Harnack’s Hellenization Thesis, Heretics, and Evangelizing Metaphysics: Robert Jenson, Thomas Torrance, and Thomas Aquinas

In this post I will write off the top, for the most part, at least when referring to Thomas Torrance, and will offer some suggestions about how I think Torrance operated in his constructive methodology of retrieving patristic theology, and how that may have informed his critique of later theologians like Thomas Aquinas.

Evangelizing Metaphysics and Orthodoxy

An important reality to grasp in regard to the development of Christian Dogma and theology through the centuries, particularly in the first four centuries of the church, is the idea of what Robert Jenson calls the evangelization of metaphysics. As Jenson writes against Harnack’s Hellenization thesis that the early church was overcome by appeal to classical Greek philosophical categories in aquinas1.jpgits articulation of the implications of the Gospel, Jenson argues that this was not the case at all (as reported by Peter Leithart)! Instead, as Jenson develops the early church took Hellenic philosophical categories and repurposed them, or reified them in such a way (a non-correlationist way) that they were essentially gutted of their former meaning and given new meaning under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ; the lexical realities were still present (i.e. at the level of the words used), but within their new context driven by God’s revelation in the economy of His life, they lost any resemblance (i.e. the words) to what they used to mean within the classical philosophical context, and became resurrected words within a new grammar given reality by the logic of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

Here is how Peter Leithar frames this as he quotes Robert Jenson:

Harnack’s hellenization thesis has been subjected to searching criticism, and an alternative account of the interaction of Christianity with Greco-Roman civilization has been offered. Writing not as a historian of dogma but as one of Harnack’s dreaded “dogmaticians,” Robert Jenson describes the relation of the gospel to philosophy during the first four centuries as an “evangelization of metaphysics.” Far from being conformed to Hellenistic categories and forms, the church in the persons of her theologians employed Greek concepts and terms to express something that Greek philosophy could never have envisioned. For Jenson, the central issue concerns time. Greek metaphysics and religion, he argues, were an elaborate effort to escape the corrosive effects of time.

It was the great single dogma of late Mediterranean antiquity’s religion and irreligion, that no story can be “really” true of God, that deity equals “impassibility.” It is not merely that the gospel tells a story about the object of worship; every religion of antiquity did that. The gospel identifies God as “He who brought Israel from Egypt and our Lord Jesus from the dead.” Therefore the gospel cannot rescind from its story at any depth whatsoever of experience, mystical penetration or theologia. Developed trinitarian liturgy and theology appeared as the church maintained the gospel’s identification of God in the very teeth of what everybody knew to be of course and obviously true of God, and in every nook of practice or theory where uncircumcised theological self-evidency lurked.[1]

I would like to suggest that Thomas Torrance in a principled way has attempted to do this same thing. Torrance works within the classical tradition, particularly as articulated by Athanasius; and he uses the grammar of the patristics like ousia (being) and hypostases (persons) inherited from his reading and understanding of the Niceno-Constantinopolitano creeds and what he calls the Athanasian-Cyrilian axis. Torrance uses the patristic concepts of De Deo Uno&De Deo Trino when he develops his doctrine of God and Trinitarian theology, but he uses them under advisement. In other words unlike, say the early medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, Torrance doesn’t simply appeal to God’s ‘ousia’ and ‘hypostases’ in a philosophical way; he doesn’t refer to God’s impassibility or immutability, or the omnis of God without reifying them or concretizing said concepts under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation simpliciter.

I would like to suggest that what Torrance did was to take what the early church did, and apply it to theological categories that had developed in the history of the church over the centuries in a way that he believed had lapsed back into purely Greek philosophical ways of understanding and “grammarizing” God. In a sense, and alongside Jenson’s thinking, Torrance believed the Harnackian thesis that the early church Hellenized the Gospel, it’s just that Torrance believed that (just like Jenson does) Harnack’s thesis only applies to the heretics of the early church, particularly with reference to Arius and his later disciple Eunomius; this is where Torrance’s Athanasian-Cyrilian axis is important. Torrance believed it was possible to evangelize metaphysics, and he believes that’s what happened in the Nicene and Constantinopolitan church councils, and later at Chalcedon.


In summary, Torrance believed that there has always been this kind of thread present within the development of dogma and church doctrine. In other words, he believed that there was always a heretical thread (a Hellenic thread) and an orthodox thread (and maybe a heterodox thread somewhere in between in this complex) at play within the walls of the church. So if we come up against someone like Thomas Aquinas, I believe Torrance would think that Aquinas veers toward, at least, a heterodox thread, and overly-Hellenizing thesis in his development of a doctrine of God. That because Aquinas so relied upon Aristotle’s categories (so Thomist classical theism), he indeed began to think God in a way that did not adequately work from an evangelized metaphysic, which resulted in presenting a God who was more of a mechanical-monad, a singularity, rather than a God who is by definition Triune, dynamic and relational. Torrance might look at Aquinas’ doctrine of God and see the classical concepts of ousia and hypostases at play, and Torrance might even find Aquinas’ emphasis upon God’s ‘being’ commendable (versus voluntarist emphases like those found in Scotism etc.), but Torrance would look at the whole picture presented by Aquinas and relegate his material conclusions in regard to God as overly-Hellenic. At this point Torrance would feel free to emphasize God’s antecedent-being (in se) as determinative for all else (like Aquinas) and in line with what has been called unity-of-being theology (like what is found in Athanasius’ theology), but then he would take said emphasis from Aquinas and other overly-Hellenized theologians and ‘evangelize’ it under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. And he would scold Aquinas just as Athanasius scolded the Arians by saying that it is better to “signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name God from his works alone and call him Unoriginate.”[2] Clearly, Torrance would not place Aquinas into the same category as Arius (i.e. heretic), but he might just well think of Aquinas as heterodox on this front, precisely because, for Torrance, Aquinas failed at being a good “evangelist.”

[1] Peter J. Leithart, Athanasius: Foundations of Theological Exegesis and Christian Spirituality (Michigan: Baker Publishing, 2011), 57 Scribd version.

[2] Athanasius cited by Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian Of The Trinity (Ashgate Publishing Limited, England, 2009), 73.

Cultural Christianity’s Shielding Itself From Its Source: Søren Kierkegaard’s Critique of Soft Cultural Christianity

Christianity in America, in the West, and pretty much everywhere, at one point or another, and in one period of history or another always ends up collapsing in its particular culture so deeply that it is hard to distinguish between what is actually Christian and what isn’t. I think it would be safe to say that we currently inhabit a time in human history, and in my personal experience in North kierkegaardAmerica, wherein Christianity has really become more of a folk and cultural expression rather than an expression that is given its primary shape by the Gospel and biblical reality itself.

Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard experienced this same type of Christianity in his own day and age in 19th century Denmark. There are many parallels between the type of folk and/or cultural Christianity that he critiqued, and the cultural Christian in 21st century North America that needs similar critique. It is critique, primarily, of Christians who have fallen victim to the spirit of this age by syncretistically conflating this age, and all of its mores, or lack thereof, with the Gospel itself. It is a critique of a cultural Christianity that shies away from the determinations and implications of the Gospel in favor of a softer, gentler, more “gracious” Gospel that is like warm buttermilk and sandwiches to the soul.

Stephen Backhouse in his recently released book Kierkegaard: A Single Life (which I’ll be writing a review of soon), offers insight on Kierkegaard’s critique of his Danish Christianity. In Backhouse’s development of Kierkegaard’s critique he offers two quotes that illustrate just how Kierkegaard went about his critique. I offer this up with hopes of spurring us on unto love and good works. Backhouse writes:

Søren’s long-held antipathy to Christendom hardens during the silent years, as does his conviction that it is now beyond redemption. Ultimately, it is the Christendom over which Mynster [Kierkegaard’s family pastor] and his successors preside that is the issue, more than any one priest. The official relationship of state and church, whereby clergymen were effectively civil servants of the country and agents of civilization is clearly a problem for Kierkegaard:

A modern clergyman [is] an active, adroit, quick person who knows how to introduce a little Christianity very mildly, attractively, and in beautiful language, etc.—but as mildly as possible. In the New Testament Christianity is the deepest wound that can be dealt to a man, designed to collide with everything on the most appalling scale—and now the clergyman is perfectly trained to introduce Christianity in such a way that it means nothing; and when he can do it perfectly, he is a paragon like Mynster. How disgusting!

Yet “Christendom” does not begin and end with the established church. In short, the “established church” might well be Christendom, but not all “Christendoms” are established churches. Christendom is a way of being, thinking, and feeling that has far more to do with the cultural appropriation of Christianity than it does with any specific legal agreement between church and state. Christendom is what happens when people presume they are Christians as a matter of inherited tradition, as a matter of nationality, or because they agree with a number of common-sense propositions and Christianised moral guidelines. Kierkegaard sees Christendom as a process by which groups adopt, absorb, and neuter Christianity into oblivion, all the while assuming they are still Christian. Christendom is adept at shielding itself from its own source, for Christianity’s original documents offer a deep challenge precisely to the form of civilized life that Christendom represents.

The matter is quite simple. The New Testament is very easy to understand. But we human beings are really a bunch of scheming swindlers; we pretend to be unable to understand it because we understand very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly at once. But in order to make it up to the New Testament a little, lest it become angry with us and find us altogether wrong, we flatter it, tell it that it is so tremendously profound, so wonderfully beautiful, so unfathomably sublime, and all that, somewhat as a little child pretends it cannot understand what has been commanded and then is cunning enough to flatter Papa. Therefore we humans pretend to be unable to understand the N.T.; we do not want to understand it. Here Christian scholarship has its place. Christian scholarship is the human race’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the N.T., to ensure that one can continue to be a Christian without letting the N.T. come too close…. I open the N.T. and read: “If you want to be perfect, then sell all your goods and give to the poor and come and follow me.” Good God, all the capitalists, the officeholders, and the pensioners, the whole race no less, would be almost beggars: we would be sunk if it were not for … scholarship!

During this time, Søren begins to sound out medicinal, frequently gastroenterological, ways of talking about the situation. An 1854 entry reads simply: “Christianity in repose, stagnant Christianity, creates an obstruction, and this formidable obstruction is the sickness of Christendom.”[1]

What Kierkegaard critiques is what I inhabit, by and large, in North American evangelicalism, in particular, and in North American Christendom in general. We need to repent, and not be afraid to say so. We need to understand the Ultimate we are up against in the living God, in the Lord Jesus Christ and simply cry out Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy!


[1] Stephen Backhouse, Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2016), 171-73.

The “Trinitarian Revival,” and Does Jesus Come After or Before the Oneness of God?


Katherine Sonderegger identifies Karl Rahner and Karl Barth, respectively, as the seminal heads who initiated what has been called the Trinitarian Revival. She writes:

The “Trinitarian Revival” has been traced to twin geniuses: Karl Rahner and Karl Barth. Rahner’s remarkable essay for his encyclopedia, Mysterium Salutis, now published separately as The Trinity. Joseph Donceel, trans. New York: Herder, 1970. (New York: Crossroad, 2003) provides the template for considering much Christian piety as “sheer monotheism”—see p. 42, note 43. Karl Barth announced the Trinity as a form of revelation in his Church Dogmatics, I.1, thereby joining the modern doctrine of revelation to the Triune God as proper and sole Subject of dogmatics. Because of the Christological concentration of these doctrines of the Trinity, they remain distinctly modern, belonging to the pronounced Christological focus of modern theology, and not simply as variants on Peter Lombard’s Sentences and early Trinitarianism in the doctrine of God.[1]

Ultimately Sonderegger does not think this style of “revival” has been a good thing; the above quote is a footnote she wrote tied to commentary she was offering on the impact that modern theology, a la Barth et al., has had upon the shape of Trinitarian theology. She sees the emphasis upon the threeness of God (de Deo trino), promoted by Barth, Rahner, et al., as something that has had a negative impact upon understanding God as One (de Deo uno). Sonderegger writes:

Once more we must pause before a seemingly anodyne, wholly biblical phrase: the One God. Perhaps nothing so marks out the modern in systematic theology as the aversion to the scholastic treatise, De Deo Uno. It belongs not to the preface but rather the body of the dogmatic work to lay out the broad movement in present day dogmatics that has pressed the treatise De Deo Trino to the fore; indeed, it crowds out and supplants the exposition of the One God. But even here we must say that the doctrine of the Trinity, however central to the Christian mystery, must not be allowed to replace or silence the Oneness of God. God is supremely, gloriously One; surpassingly, uniquely One. Nothing is more fundamental to the Reality of God that [sic] this utter Unicity. Such is God’s Nature; such His Person: One. Oneness governs the Divine Perfections: all in the doctrine of God must serve, set forth, and conform to the transcendent Unity of God. Now, to say all this aligns the Christian doctrine of God with the faiths of Abraham, Judaism, and Islam; indeed of all monotheisms—for monotheism is not a shame word! The Christian affirmation of divine Unicity opens it, like the merciful and welcoming Lord it serves, to the peoples and faiths of the good earth. But this cannot serve as ground for such a fundamental axiom in dogmatics. Rather, we must appeal to Holy Scripture.[2]

She clearly has a problem with the modern turn in what has now come to be called Trinitarian theology (ironically because of the modern turn). It appears, though, that she is over-correcting by so emphasizing the Oneness of God that she already is starting to lose sight of how the Oneness is oneness by almost denigrating the Threeness of God; which would be ironic because ever since at least the councils of Nicaea and Constantinople the threeness and oneness of God have been inextricably linked within the Christian grammar.

But as we recall in the footnote I shared from her, she does mention Peter Lombard’s Sentences. This might clue us into the turn-back she is attempting to make, and how she thinks a doctrine of God should develop. It says much about her theory of revelation; she’s obviously not a Barthian (or potentially not even an Athanasian). Like Lombard she is going to want to follow the progressive unfolding of Scripture in salvation history. As such she opens to the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, and works her way, in a seemingly linear fashion, from there until she gets to Jesus. Once she gets to Jesus in the New Testament she will start reflecting on the threeness of God. Sonderegger is actually following not only Lombard’s lead, but the lead found in the scholastic developments of theology embedded in Post Reformed orthodoxy.

I once wrote about how the scholastics Reformed placed a rupture between the Oneness of God and the Threeness. Here’s what I wrote as I had just finished comparing how a doctrine of God is developed in various Reformed confessions, and a chatechism:

At first blush there might not be much apparent difference between TheWestminster Confession of Faith (WCF), The Belgic Confession of the Faith (BC), The Heidelberg Catechism (HC) and The Scott’s Confession 1560 (SC); but this requires further reflection. The “Westminster” tradition starts talking about God by highlighting his “attributes,” these are characteristics that are contrasted with what humans are not (analogia entis). We finally make it to God as “Father, Son, Holy Spirit,” but not before we have qualified him through “our” categories using humanity and nature (analogia entis) as our mode of thinking about “godness.” This is true for both the WCF and the BC. Jan Rohls provides a helpful insight on this when he speaks to the nature of the composition of many of the Reformed Confessions (including both the WCF and the BC):

It is characteristic of most of the confessional writings that they begin with a general doctrine of God’s essence and properties, and only then proceed to the doctrine of the Trinity. The two pieces “On the One God” (De deo uno) and “On the Triune God” (De deo trino) are thus separated from each other. . . .[3]

We now see this move being made in Sonderegger’s work. It’s not a new thing then, but a call back to the calmer waters, as Sonderegger might see it, of classical theism; and away from the turbulent seas that modern theology has presented the church with.

Should we be afraid of speaking of God’s Oneness and Threeness in the same breath? Was the ancient church afraid of doing so? I don’t think so. Thomas Torrance, who I also once quoted has this to say about this type of move by Sonderegger:

. . . in the Scots Confession as in John Knox’s Genevan Liturgy, the doctrine of the Trinity is not added on to a prior conception of God—there is no other content but the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There was no separation here between the doctrine of the One God (De Deo Uno), and the doctrine of the triune God (De Deo Trino), which had become Roman orthodoxy through the definitive formalisation of Thomas Aquinas. This trinitarian approach was in line with The Little Catechism which Knox brought back from Geneva for the instruction of children in the Kirk. “I believe in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ his Son and in the Holy Spirit, and look for salvation by no other means.” Within this trinitarian frame the centre of focus in the Confession and Catechism alike is upon Jesus Christ himself, for it is only through him and the Gospel he proclaimed that God’s triune reality is made known, but attention is also given to the Holy Spirit. Here once again we have a different starting point from other Reformation Confessions. Whereas they have a believing anthropocentric starting point, such as in the Heidelberg Catechism, this is quite strongly theocentric and trinitarian. Even in Calvin’s Institute, which follows the fourfold pattern in Peter Lombard’s Sentences, the doctrine of the Trinity is given in the thirteenth chapter within the section on the doctrine of God the Creator. Calvin’s Genevan Catechism, however, understandably followed the order of the Apostles’ Creed. The trinitarian teaching in the Scots Confession was by no means limited to the first article for it is found throughout woven into the doctrinal content of subsequent articles.[4]

Sonderegger would most likely respond that Torrance is simply a modern theologian himself; following in the steps of Barth and Rahner working out the so called “Trinitarian Revival.” But I think she’s wrong. I think Torrance’s insight, as well as the facts on the ground, blunts her critique of the modern trajectory within Trinitarian theology. Sure, yes, modern theology has flavored Trinitarian theology a certain way (i.e. in almost anti-metaphysical ways, which is what I think Sonderegger is really troubled by), but I don’t think the allergy of speaking of God’s Oneness and Threeness together is as present say in Pro-Nicene theology as she seems to want to make it.

I’ll leave you to decide …

[1] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology. Volume 1 Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), xxiii, n. 4.

[2] Ibid., xiv.

[3] 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, 2012), 108.

[4] Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology cited Ibid., 110.

Reading the Bible For All Its Worth: Protestants and sola Scriptura Against Wooden-Literalist Bible Reading Habits

I just recently had a discussion with someone I know, a pastor, who took pride in the fact that I labeled his approach to biblical interpretation as wooden-literal. I have written against this approach for many years, and so when it came down to this little exchange I was having with this pastor it became real;  it became real because he was arguing from such a literalist approach that holy_biblehe wouldn’t even admit a women could potentially teach a man, even as a prophetess of Yahweh (i.e. Huldah). He claimed that because the word ‘teach’ is never used with reference to what Huldah communicated hortatorily to King Josiah that this in itself could not be used to illustrate a woman teaching or even authoritatively communicating God’s Word to a man or men. This exchange left me somewhat dumbfounded although not totally surprised.

The questions though are these: Does the Protestant commitment to sola Scriptura (‘Scripture alone’) mean that Protestants, historically, are committed necessarily to a wooden-literal mode of interpreting the Scriptures? Does it mean that Protestants have no regard for the history of biblical interpretation, for the ecumenical councils of the church (i.e. like where we get our orthodox grammar for God as Triune, and for Chalcedonian two-natures one person Christology, etc.), and that we must simply be slavishly and rationalistically tied to the biblical words themselves; as if they have some sort of structural meaning inherent to themselves? No, nein! This is not what Protestants have been committed to in their reading practices of the Bible. This is not what sola Scriptura entails. Instead, what my pastor friend is actually working from, ironically, is what rose up out of the Enlightenment and 19th century biblical studies; a ‘de-confessionalized’  historical-critical approach to reading the Bible. Gerhard Hasel identifies when this way of reading the Bible happened, and who signaled it most decisively:

The late Neologist and rationalist Johann Philipp Gabler (1753-1826), who never wrote or even intended to write a Biblical theology, made a most decisive and far-reaching contribution to the development of the new discipline in his inaugural lecture at the University of Altdorf on March 30, 1787. This year marks the beginning of Biblical theology’s role as a purely historical discipline, completely independent from dogmatics. Gabler’s famous definition reads: “Biblical theology possesses a historical character, transmitting what the sacred writers thought about divine matters; dogmatic theology, on the contrary, possesses a didactic character, teaching what a particular theologian philosophizes about divine matters in accordance to his ability, time, age, place, sect or school, and other similar things….”[1]

It is this split between theological (i.e. dogmatics) or churchly (i.e. confessional) readings of the Bible that is informing my pastor friend’s understanding of reading the Bible in a wooden literalistic way. It is an overreaction, by some, to fear of being drawn back into the Roman Catholic church (which is my pastor friend’s fear directly, since this was his background) and having a magisterium tell you what the Bible means coupled with an enlightenment rationalizing mode towards reading the Bible in a way that might have any connection whatsoever to the historical interpretations of said texts found in Holy Writ. So it isn’t an outright appropriation of all of the 19th and 20th century accretions of the biblical studies ‘movement,’ instead it is a selective appropriation of that such that an emphasis on the rationale of the bible reader’s individualistic reading of the text of Scripture dominates in such a way that in extreme cases only the very words themselves (almost without reference to the broader canonical context either intertextually i.e. the whole of the canon or intrattextually i.e. particular books of the Bible being studied have any say in how various words, sentences, and paragraphs ought to be understood).

Angus Paddison helpfully describes this type of dilemma, and how the Protestant understanding of sola Scriptura itself militates against the mode of interpretation my pastor-friend finds himself deploying as he reads the Bible. Paddison here is talking about how Christology ought to implicate our reading of Scripture, how that impacts sola Scriptura, and how this even impacts John Calvin’s own reading of Scripture (hermeneutically and exegetically). Paddison writes at some length:

The prime responsibility of Christology is not first to be original but faithfully to read the ‘divine address’ that is Scripture. In order to fulfill this task, theology does of course need resources other than Scripture. This is to recognize with Robert Jenson that if we think sola Scriptura means understanding Scripture ‘”apart from creed, teaching office, or authoritative liturgy’” then we are resting on an ‘oxymoron’ (think of the obvious contradiction of the church that says it has no creed but the Bible). If the first responsibility of talking about Christ is to evince an attention to Scripture, we need to be more precise about the nature of doctrine and its relationship to Scripture.

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

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

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

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

Such endeavors help identify historical-criticism, the engine of much biblical scholarship, as the modern attempt to “start over” in a manner that left behind the gifts of the past’. Accordingly, historical criticism is notoriously restricted in what history it is interested in. Fundamentalism and historical criticism both presume that the church and the church’s teaching is an obstacle, not an aid, to reading Scripture well.[2]


We have surveyed how current day bible reading practices have come to be among both evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians alike. We have noted that for such readers, those who engage in this type of Bible reading, that it has more to do with Enlightenment rationalism, and a certain theory of linguistics and historicism than it does with the Protestant sola Scriptura principle and how Protestants ever since the 16th century have engaged in the reading and exegesis of Holy Scripture.

If the above is so, it would behoove my pastor-friend to reconsider how he is approaching Scripture. He might want to ask: “Am I reading the Bible in a way that fits better with Protestant confessional historical Christianity, or am I reading it from certain impulses that are actually antagonistic to that? The ultimate goal, of course, is to ‘read the bible for all its worth.’ I contend that confessional Christianity offers the best resources for doing that; particularly when it sees Christ as the rule and key for understanding all of Scripture. That said, I am not against paying attention to philology, semantics, literary realties in Scripture, history, so on and so forth; it’s just that appealing to that in slavish and rationalistic ways is not going to yield, in my view, the best exegetical conclusions.



[1] Gerhard Hasel, Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 21-2.

[2]Angus Paddison, Scripture a very Theological Proposal (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 66-7.