My Three Study Bibles

study bible“Of making many books, there is no end.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12)

To read this, you’d think the Teacher was perusing a recent publishing catalogue, skimming through the “study Bible” section. Each year it seems that another one, or two, or ten are printed by the same publishing house, aimed at an ever narrower slice of the Evangelical consumer base. First, it’s the “Patriots” Bible. Then, it’s the Eco-study Bible. Or the Student’s Study Bible. Or the Red-headed, Left-handed, Immigrant’s Study Bible. And the standard-issue, ESV Study Bible for New Calvinists looking to up their game. The longer (and more cognizant) I’ve been around the Evangelical world, the easier it’s been to become cynical about the whole industry and the concept as a whole.

But then I remember my own study Bibles and I have to tap the breaks on my cynicism ever so slightly. You see, I’ve had three study Bibles in my time, each quite crucial in my spiritual and intellectual development.

First, when I was a sophomore in high school, I started a break-time Bible study with my friend. Initially, we just began to meet at one of the tables to read the Psalms together and pray. Then, more and more people began to join us, so we had to move inside to a classroom to read. Pretty soon, I got the idea to actually start reading a bit and saying something about what we read. Novel idea, I know. That’s when I asked my parents for a study Bible–because as many sermons as I heard, when I got to Romans and Paul started dropping “circumcision” all over the place, I knew I was out of my league.

So my parents got me the NIV Life Application Study Bible. Of course, being a life application Bible, it wasn’t very in-depth on doctrine or massive exegetical insights. All the same, for a high schooler looking to learn enough to share some insights with 10 other high schoolers at break, it was eye-opening. I knew the Bible was the Word of God, but who knew so much of it could speak to my daily issues? In any case, that was my Bible all through the rest of high school and served me well.

Then, came college. Without going into a lot of details, college started out as a dry time for me. Even though I was still in church, I was frustrated at God for some goods I thought he had failed to deliver even though he never promised them. Which is typical. In any case, around Christmas, I knew something had to change, so I started going to a new church and asked my parents for the straight NIV Study Bible that focused more on historical and intertextual notes. And they came through and bought it for me. And I started reading it every day. I’d pray, read the text, and the notes and even began looking up the cross-references. I’d make my own illegible, incorrect notes as well. And things started to come alive for me.

Of course, there were a variety of factors involved at the time including the new church, an iPod (no joke), and a Bible study with some caring dudes. All the same, when my life caught fire again, along with a call to ministry, one of the things it involved was a mass consumption of Scripture. I basically tore through that study Bible. Thankfully, at the time, I was hungry for the Bible as the Bible, so I wasn’t just skipping to the study note section (which is all too easy to do for some). All the same, I learned so much just by reading the text and all the helpful explanatory notes.

I’m older now, a bit more theologically-experienced, and I get the dangers of printing text alongside the text. But seriously, when I was younger, with no access to a theological library, or commentaries, or articles the way I was later in seminary, at church, and now back in seminary, those notes were an entry-way into a new exegetical world. And so, by the end of college, my second study Bible was tore up. I had to shelve it because of how jacked up it had gotten from overuse and carrying it around everywhere.

Finally, when I hit my MA, I got a third kind of study Bible. As it was more of an academic degree, I had to purchase an SBL approved NRSV one. So I snagged myself a HarperCollins Study Bible—which I preferred to the New Oxford Annotated one—and I got to work. This was a different experience, of course. There was almost no life application. Nor was an overly-“theological” approach to commentary the norm. All the same, it proved a trusty entry-way as well, into a more historical and academic approach to the text (with some of the common, boilerplate, historical-critical assumptions) that I would have to master if I was going to get through the degree. So I put some mileage on that one, as well.

Why go into all this? Well, for one thing it’s nostalgic for me to remember. Second, I suppose it’s to remind myself that a number of the things that it’s easy for me to get cynical about the more I press on in my faith (simple, Evangelicalish things that are easily distorted and vulgarized through marketing), had some positive purpose for people. And they probably still do. Taste-wise nor in theological temperament, I don’t connect to some of the worship anthems I used to, but there are a great many of them that are theologically sound and spiritually-salutary songs that I’d be wrong to scorn or write off.

For that reason, I can imagine another young man headed to the ministry deriving great insight from his first study Bible. Or the mom and dad without time to take a class in advanced hermeneutics, still looking to grow in their knowledge of Scripture in order to instruct their children in the Word of life. Or the small group, Bible study leader. Or the missionary without a book budget who needs a teaching aid through the Old Testament contextual issues. And so on.

So, I suppose, for all their possible flaws, I’m saying I loved my study Bibles and I’d caution against the sort of easy scorn those of us with a stack of commentaries on our shelves might be tempted towards. Though there are real dangers to be avoided and some egregious marketing practices to be condemned, there is real, spiritual value in a good study Bible.

Soli Deo Gloria

Can I Drag That Into Church?

snow bootsThis last Sunday was the first time I ever went to church in the snow. Chicagoland had its first snowfall of the season on Friday night continuing into Saturday, immediately transforming the landscape, covering the last vestiges of autumn red, gold, and hints of green, into a dense carpet of white powder. For a California boy, it was all a bit magical. I’d never seen snow fall before–certainly not outside my window.

Of course, that also means I’ve never dealt with snow as a reality of life. Because it is a reality of life out here. So much so that you have to get special gear for it. Not only jackets, gloves, and boots, but gear for your car like ice-scrapers for your windows and shovels to move the all the snow the snow-plow pushed up against your car in the morning. And there’s not just one kind of snow, the lovely white powder. There’s also slush. And Ice hiding under the powder and slush. And the salt, that gets poured out to get rid of the powder and the slush and the ice.

Needless to say, it can get a bit messy, especially when you’re trying to walk indoors. No matter how hard you try, or how good your boots or doormat are, it’s difficult not to track your mess inside, without taking off your shoes altogether. And even then, if the snow has been kicked up on the legs of your pants, it’s just inevitable.

Which brings me to church.

Every week at church one of our pastors leads us through a time of corporate confession of sins and an assurance of pardon. This week my pastor Jason noticed the tentative way people were walking into church. “Are we allowed to come in like this on the clean wood floors? Is all the salt, slush, dirt, and powder too much of a mess for church this morning?”

He pointed out that’s the way all too many of us walk into church every week: “Am I allowed to come in like this? Is this mess okay in here? Can I come sit in the pews with all the slush, grime, and filth from my life? Is this sin too dirty to clean up? Is my mess going to stain the carpet? Do I have to make sure I’m gotten every single speck off before I walk through the door?”

The good news of the gospel is that God’s church is a place of welcome because the God of the Gospel is a hospitable God. Our forgiving Father does not require you to clean up your mess to come through the door. In fact, in the gospel, he has sent his Son out into the highways and byways to collect you from the cold and the slush you’ve been wearily trodding in. In baptism, he himself gives you a new set of clothes–his own garment of righteousness to clothe you. And he sits you down to be warmed by the gift of the fire of the Holy Spirit. Finally, in the Lord’s Supper, he feasts you on the bread of life and the cup of the new covenant.

So to answer the question, “Can I drag this dirt into church?” Yes! Of course, you can. That’s the only way anybody ever makes it through the door.

Soli Deo Gloria 

Final Review: Assorted Thoughts on John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift

paul and the giftI’ve already written once about John M.G. Barclay’s phenomenal new work Paul and the Gift. We also plan on taking up the issue on the Mere Fidelity podcast soon. All the same, having just finished the work, I wanted to address a few themes and offer a few assorted and incomplete judgments about the work. If you’re interested in the thesis of the, Barclay’s own summary of his work that I excerpted here ought to fill you in as he basically delivered on what he promised. And more.

First, an evaluative point: the book really is ground-breaking and it’s set to light up the field of Pauline studies. I don’t think all the rave reviews from other scholars are just an exercise in academic back-scratching, at this point. If you’re at all interested in discussions around the New Perspective or Old Perspective on Paul, Judaism, and justification, this should be on your list along with the other major recent works by Wright, Dunn, and so forth.

Beyond that, I simply wanted to note some thematic takeaways, quibbles, and comments.

Vindication of the Reformers. From a theological and historical perspective, the first thing I noticed was the way Barclay’s work offers at least a partial vindication of the Reformer’s use of Paul in the medieval debates over justification. Recall that Barclay makes a couple of key points.

First, yes, Judaism in general had a very present theology of grace. On that point, E.P. Sanders was correct. Second, “grace” didn’t mean the same thing for all of Paul’s Jewish contemporaries. “Grace is everywhere in Judaism, but it is not everywhere the same.” For many, grace meant the “priority” or “super-abundance” or “singularity” of God’s favor, but for Paul it particularly meant the “incongruity”–the unfittingness–of God’s grace to the undeserving. Second, writing after Augustine and Luther left their mark on the interpretation of grace, when Sanders saw someone affirming the priority of “grace”, he also read into it the “incongruity” of grace because he assumed that everywhere the word is used, it must have that resonance. Not so.

Now, this offers a partial vindication of the Reformers in that, theologically, whatever else you might say about a possible individualism, or misreading of the nature of “works-righteousness”, they were affirming the incongruity of grace against the medieval theology of grace that had managed to sneak “congruity” or worth back into the picture. By conceiving God as “graciously” accepting the merit of the saints which could be procured by good works, penance, “doing what is in us”, and so forth, there is still an element of God accepting or rewarding on the basis of achieved worth or “fittingness”, that’s not dependent on the grace of Christ alone. And this conception of “congruent” grace seems to mirror some of the theology found in 2nd Temple Jewish texts, against which Paul’s teaching stands out starkly.

I did say “partial” for a reason, though. Two related points of difference to note are Barclay’s criticism of Lutheran “non-circularity” and his position on works at the final judgment. Barclay points out that it’s only with Luther that we first find a prominent emphasis on the “non-circularity” of grace, or it’s “unconditional” character in which God’s gift of grace expects no “return” of any kind. It’s a “pure” gift in the modern sense. That’s not something Barclay finds in Paul. For Paul, grace is unconditioned by any notion of worth, but it is not unconditional; Paul expects a change in the life of the believer that issues in good work that will be approved of at the eschaton.

Even with those points made, Barclay’s very careful and sensitive survey of both the 2nd Temple literature and the reception history of Paul does end up highlighting significant parallels between the Reformation debates and Paul’s 2nd Temple context that are illuminating.

Sociology. Second, Barclay, like so many current interpreters of Paul, stresses the sociological dimension to Paul’s theology. Thankfully, Barclay doesn’t use that to screen out or kick to the side classic concerns about individual salvation and such. Still, Barclay is very clear that Paul’s main aim is to create a community of Jew and Gentile upon the joint recognition that both have been received without respect to worth, not according to the old values systems of the world, or according to Torah, but only because of the incongruous grace of God through Christ in the New Age.

Barclay goes into all sorts of helpful social dynamics that Paul’s moral instruction cuts off or addresses, setting things in Jewish and Greco-Roman social context. This angle is a real gain from recent, New Perspective and social science emphases. I found especially illuminating the way Barclay draws on Pierre Bordieu’s notion of practice, habitus, and the body as the site of sanctification.

That said, Barclay can maybe go too far along the sociological angle for my taste. Consider his paraphrase of Galatians 2:15-21:

You and I, Peter, are Jews, used to thinking of ourselves as categorically distinct from “Gentile sinners.” But we know (though conviction and experience) that a person (whether Gentile or Jew) is not considered of worth (“righteous”) by God through Torah-observance (“living Jewishly”), but through faith in (what God has done in) Christ. We look to God to consider us valuable (“righteous”) in Christ, not through obeying the Torah, and this is so even if (in situations like Antioch’s) our resulting behaviour makes us look like “sinners” (“living in a Gentile fashion”). Does that mean that Christ has led us into sin? No way! Only if one were to reinstate the Torah as the arbiter of worth (“righteousness”) would “living like a Gentile” in Christ be classified as “transgression”. In fact (taking myself as a paradigm), I have died to the Torah – it is no longer what constitutes my standard of value – because I have been reconstituted in Christ. My old existence came to an end with the crucified Christ; my new life has arisen from the Christ-event and is therefore shaped by faith in the death of Christ, who loved me and gave himself for me. This divine gift I will by no means reject: if “righteousness” were measured by the Torah, the death of Christ would be without effect.

While there’s much that’s clarifying in this reading, the translation of “righteousness” into the language of “worth”, or the way he focuses in other places on the “transgression” of Torah as a cultural framework of evaluation, or the “recalibration of social norms”, seems more appropriate as a preacherly contextualization for late-modern, Westerners than a straightforward, historical reading of Paul.

Apocalyptic-Augustinian-Lutheran. Barclay says that depending on how you look at it, he might be an Augustinian-Lutheran appropriating New Perspective themes, or vice-versa. So, a strong theology of the incongruity of grace, meets social context and a more fine-grained, positive evaluation of Judaism.

What’s more, Barclay has his eye on drawing on the focus of recent “apocalyptic” readings of Paul highlighting Jesus as divine activity that ruptures history and which avoids presenting salvation as the smooth development of potentialities inherent within it. At the same time, unlike some other apocalyptic readings, he acknowledges that in Galatians and especially Romans, salvation happens in fulfillment of the promises to Israel that came before.

All the same, I’ll just put my cards on the table and say that the Augustinian-Lutheran-Apocalyptic Paul still needs more Calvin and the Reformed emphasis on redemptive-history. (Which is interesting because I thought his treatment of Calvin to be very helpful, historically). This is one of those places where Wright, though he can get a bit carried away, is right to give us “big story” readings of Paul’s letters. Also, I don’t think Barclay has done quite enough justice to the positive, continued place of the Law as instruction in Paul’s thought, even though he does give positive place to the growth of holiness and practice of good works in the life of the believer.

Is Paul’s Grace Real Grace? One of the brilliant points Barclay makes about the whole discussion around whether Judaism was gracious or not, is that people have been coming into the discussion with a master concept of grace that doesn’t recognize its various shades and “perfections”, which don’t always have to come together as a package. This is why Sanders was right to think Judaism had grace in it and wrong to think that Paul disagreed with various of his contemporaries about the issue of God’s grace. In other words, it wasn’t only that they disagree as to whether or not Jesus was the only mediator of it, but it truly was about its nature.

At this point, this is where I put my theologian-in-training hat back on (if I ever happen to take it off). The question I’m toying around with is whether “grace in Paul” simply is grace for the confessional theologian.

In other words, it makes sense for a religious historian to be somewhat neutral about which 2nd Temple Jewish theologian had a “better” conception of grace in order to not prejudge the sources from a Christian standpoint. What’s more, we shouldn’t be anachronistic or slanderous, saying that all Jewish religion at the time was legalistic, graceless, and so forth. It wasn’t.

But the time comes when we must speak dogmatically and make normative statements about other conceptions of grace on the basis of Scripture. If we follow Barclay’s case out to its dogmatic conclusions, according to Paul, according to Scripture, to speak of God’s grace without recognizing (and maybe even denying) that it is not according to merit or worth–even though you see that it’s abundant, prevenient, and so forth–is to speak wrongly of grace. This is no attempt to denigrate Judaism, or certain forms of it, but if we take Paul’s letters as revelation—then where Paul disagrees with his contemporaries about grace on the basis of the “Christ-event”, they are wrong.

Now, this might cut against the grain of Barclay’s methodological aims, but at the end of the day, that’s what I think his exhaustive study of grace in Paul has shown us.


To wrap up, none of my quibbles disqualifies anything I’ve said about the book as a must-read bit of Pauline scholarship. Its top-rate and I’ve benefitted from it immensely. Even though it’s not a full-dress commentary, there’s no way I’m going to preach or teach in Galatians or Romans without consulting the passage references, since it’s chocked full of exegetical insights waiting to be applied.

So, yes, if you’re wondering, right about now would be a good time to start adding it to your Christmas list.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Rejection of Cain: Halbertal Contra Girard on Sacrifice and Violence

On SacrificeOne of the most influential accounts of the nature of religious violence and sacrifice in the 20th Century comes from the (quite sadly) recently deceased giant, Rene Girard. For those unfamiliar with it, he begins with an understanding of humans as essentially mimetic or imitative creatures. We desire what we desire because we see others desiring it. Joey has a toy, so little Johnny wants it. This structure of desire has a number of implications, one of which is a build-up of psychic antagonism fueled by frustrated desire, jealousy, and so forth. This toxicity builds up in societies over time and so it needs a spiritual outlet, so a scapegoat is chosen. The scapegoat must be someone close enough to blame, but not close enough to be too important–the outcast (beggar, leper, racial minority, etc) who is hateable and dispensable. They are taken, “sacrificed”, and violently expulsed so that the society can work out its pent up mimetic rage and allow social equilibrium to be restored.

This scapegoat mechanism is taken to be at the root of the ritualized violence of sacrifice as well as the sacred myths we tell from the Greeks on down until the present day. The unique thing, on Girard’s view, about Christianity is that it tells us the scapegoats we choose are innocent. Specifically the story of Jesus, the innocent victim of the mob, in his life, death, and resurrection exposes the scapegoating mechanism for what it is and allows us to break free from the cycle of mimetic violence.

Now, I’ve written appreciatively and critically about Girard before. He’s got a phenomenal eye for social and anthropological dynamics, but for my tastes, his theory of sacrifice has some missing elements. For one thing, despite his best intentions, it fails to take seriously the inner coherence of some of his subjects’ own self-understanding as to just what they’re doing when engaged in ritual and sacrifice. From another angle, Anabaptist theologian D. Snyder Belousek has argued, it’s too much an a priori theory imposed upon the texts–at least the biblical ones–than one drawn from them (Atonement, Justice, and Peace, pg. 173 ). Certainly on sacrifices of atonement there’s something clearly missing with respect to the expiation of guilt and the notion of sin having a Godward orientation. These are just a couple of the reasons I’ve been skeptical of the uses to which he’s been put in recent theology on atonement and violence.

Halbertal on Sacrifice

This is why I was pleased to encounter Jewish philosopher Moshe Halbertal’s little work On Sacrifice, in which he engages the dynamics of sacrifice and violence, as well as the notion’s expansion into our political life, offering a counter-understanding from that of Girard. In Halbertal’s account, sacrifice takes its roots in the relational cycle of gift-giving which secures relationships of love between persons. Sacrifices are a specialized form of gift we engage in when the relationship is asymmetrical as it is with God or the gods. We don’t engage in the normal gift cycles with him because he is not our equal. Instead, our sacrifices, our gifts to him, are an expression of gratitude in returning a portion of what he has given to us. Before they are anything else, sacrifices have a relational purpose aimed at communion.

From there, later dimensions such as atonement are added on, but the gift/relational dimension is primary and foundational. Sacrifices for atonement include not only the original sense of gift, but the acknowledgement of a breach than needs to be healed, made up for, or “paid” back (though not in crassly commercial terms). The underlying aim is still that of inclusion in the relationship of communion and gift-giving, though.

Halbertal points out there is an uncertainty that naturally enters into the picture. Gifts can be rejected, which is even worse, in many ways, than being left out of the gift cycle. It’s one thing to be forgotten. It’s quite another to be seen, to be acknowledged, but then turned away and purposely excluded as unacceptable, as immoral, as lacking in some fundamental way. To have your “gift” deemed unworthy. Halbertal suggests this is partially why ritual develops around sacrifice. Ritual, in some ways, formulaically secures the proper mode of offering a sacrifice in such a way that it won’t be deemed unworthy, but will be accepted.

Incidentally, this is why it’s a mistake to see ancient rituals as fundamentally magical–at least in the biblical account. A magical understanding of sacrificial ritual is the fetishization and deterioration of the sacrificial process which, at core, is a relational practice aimed at securing the relationship of communion. This is part of the prophetic critique of the prophets against the sacrificial system in later centuries; instead of using it as the LORD had intended, for the sake of strengthening communion and relationship, they had turned it into an ex opere operato affair that “worked” even if the worshippers heart was set on other things.

Sacrifice and the Violence of Cain

Now, all of this is relevant in shedding light on a number of important texts related to sacrifice and violence. I’ll take time only with one that Halbertal works with, namely the story of Cain and Abel. In this story, Halbertal sees a number of the basic features of his account of sacrifice, atonement, and some of the dynamics of violence connected to it.

Cain and Abel both offer gifts to God, but Abel is accepted while Cain is rejected. The text is silent as to the reason and Halbertal takes this silence as the suggestion that it’s a matter as mysterious as “human love and endearment” (9). While I think there’s an element of mystery, it’s also important to note that God himself implies that Cain’s offering was rejected because he found some real fault in it (Gen. 4:6-7). All the same, Halbertal insightfully points out the relational stakes involved in the risk of sacrifice and the pain Cain experienced in the rejection of his gifts:

A proper understanding of Cain’s and Abel’s sacrifices provides an alternative to Girard’s account concerning the nexus of violence and sacrifice. The source of violence is in the rejection from the sacrificial bond, the exclusion from the gift cycle. Because Cain’s gift was refused, he was excluded from the most meaningful bond. He brought forward his gift, thus showing his desire to take part, and was slapped in the face, annihilated…. (19)

As we said earlier, it’s far worse to have your gift rejected than to simply be ignored. It is stronger than being ignored, but rather examined and then put to the side consciously. Halbertal says this rejection is the root of Cain’s violence:

Cain asserted his presence through an act of violence. He destroyed the bond that he was excluded from and then made his weight felt again. The response to rejection from the cycle of bounty, to marginalization from what constitutes being itself, might be the deepest element of violence.

Here we see, I think, where Girard’s insight about the jealousy involved in mimetic violence both rings true and needs to be deepened. Which is precisely what Halbertal does:

The first murder was not only motivated by jealousy; it came from the acute response to banishment and isolation. The exclusion from the possibility of giving is a deeper source of violence than the deprivation that results from not getting. (20)

At the core of being human is a sense of having something to offer and to be received as such. Cain’s violence, then, flows from his exclusion from the cycle of gift-giving and the would to his sense of worth as an actor capable of making an acceptable offering.

Before moving on with Halbertal’s analysis, for myself, if I had to hazard a speculative (though fairly conservative) guess at the difference between Cain and Abel’s sacrifices, it’s that in a post-fall context, Cain’s offering failed to acknowledge the atoning dimension. It’s possible that his gift failed to acknowledge the breach of sin. He tried to offer the sacrifice of one who had a knowledge of his own sin as Abel’s sacrifice of the sheep–foreshadowing the temple sacrifices for sin–clearly did. Cain’s offering, then, was laced with pride and arrogance.

Speculation aside, Halbertal’s analysis of sacrifice also sheds light on the nature of God’s judgment upon Cain:

Cain’s punishment was proper and accurate, a kind of perfect retribution. He was not executed but rather excluded forever. He was cast away, to wander. “Cain left the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden” (Gen. 4:16). His initial sacrifice from the fruits was meant to ensure the continuation of that bounty; he wished to return the fruits he was given in order to get more of them, thereby fueling that crucial process. Can was punished: “If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on the earth” (Gen. 4:12). The land–Cain’s source of bounty and life–will turn barren. (21)

Halbertal’s comments are suggestive in a number of ways. First, Cain’s judgment is to be cast out from God’s presence as well as the land the and its bounty that he tried to secure from God. It is a fitting retribution that matches the essence of the crime. What’s more, it’s one that is consistent with the heart of judgment throughout the rest of the Old Testament, especially Israel’s exile from the Land and the Presence of the Lord.

Second, beyond my own speculative guess above, Halbertal–despite claiming the text is mysteriously silent on why Cain is rejected–suggests another angle. Cain’s exile from the fields he plants hints at the possibility of idolatry–valuing the Land over God and using his sacrifice as magical means to attain it. In other words, in Cain we already have the instrumentalized distortion of the sacrifice. But again, that’s only a possibility.

To wrap up, though, Halbertal has given us an illuminating and suggestive account of the nature of sacrifice and its relationship to violence. I’d highly commend the work to any interested audiences.

Soli Deo Gloria


Jesus and the Coherence of Scripture

Jesus and the BibleHaving gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith (Romans 12:6)

Historically, the Church has taken this verse as an exegetical basis for reading the Scriptures according to the “analogy of faith”  (which shouldn’t be confused with Karl Barth’s version) or the “analogy of Scripture.” The assumption is that prophets are being urged to keep their prophecies consistent with the faith they have received–the deposit of apostolic truth already given to them. They shouldn’t prophesy anything that contradicts what has already been revealed by the Lord, for that would point to a contradiction in Spirit’s revelation and therefore God himself. This reading was then built out into the principle of interpretation that Scripture ought to be read in line with Scripture–it is “self-interpreting” in that sense. And there are a few versions of what this means.

Back in the 80s, Henri Blocher argued in an article in the Scottish Bulletin of Theology (“The ‘Analogy of Faith’ in the Study of Scripture: In Search of Justification and Guidelines’), that the primary sense is the practice of interpreting individual texts in light of the whole of Scripture:

The main application of the analogy is the comparison of all relevant passages on any topic, under the methodical duty to avoid substantial contradictions. It implies a systematic character in biblical interpretation, the totality of a coherent Scripture being the norm. One is not far from the older idea of the ‘hermeneutical circle’, the reciprocal determination of the whole and of the parts. (23)

While this process would have been relatively uncontroversial from the Fathers on into the Post-Reformation period, in the contemporary scene this endeavor becomes far more dubious. Historical critics allege that strong assertions of the coherence of the Biblical books within the canon imposes a false uniformity on a set of diverse texts. They charge that this approach is prone to dehistoricized readings that smack more of the theological systems of the readers than the intentions of the authors in question.

Instead, we need to understand that we have “conversations” (arguments?) going on in Scripture between the various authors, whom often are not only saying distinct things, but may often be contradicting each other in the process. Rather than saying John and Mark are highlighting different angles of what it means for Jesus to be Messiah, or that they are making the same judgments with different language, we must admit that they actually have contradicting Christologies at key points.

From a more theological angle, Blocher mentions those who would resist analogy of faith readings by pointing to the accommodating nature of God himself:

Ever-changing life! Cannot the God of life and of paradoxical kenosis, the-God who writes straight on crooked lines and takes pleasure in always surprising us, speak through contradictions? The opposite, traditional, opinion is charged with Western, or Greek, of Cartesian, ‘rationalism’!

On this view, truth emerges in the midst of the contradiction, the dialectic, the negotiation going on within the canon itself. Theologians, therefore, are not to attempt to harmonize texts and their theologies, but should either affirm the contradictions as contradictions, or  construct some canon within the canon that allows us to adjudicate the disputes in our modern context. Pretty heady stuff, right?

Blocher, however, is not persuaded by this line of reasoning. No, instead he points out that everywhere in Scripture the unity and coherence of revealed truth is assumed:

At all stages of biblical history, coherence is highly valued, and ascribed to whatever teaching is believed to have come from God. Truth, emeth, rhymes with eternity, immutable permanence (Ps. 119:160, etc.). The law of the Lord is pure, that is, perfectly homogeneous, more thoroughly purged of dross than refined silver and gold; all his ordinances go together as one in their lightness (Ps. 19:9). No miracle may authorize unorthodox prophecies (Dt. 13:lff). Inspite of God’s freedom to display new things in history, failure to harmonize with the dominant tone of earlier revelations raises doubts on the authenticity of a message (Je. 28:7ff). Paul exhorts his readers to be of one mind (Phil.2:2, etc.); they are to grow into the unity of faith (Eph. 3:13), since there is only, under one Lord, one faith and one baptism (v.5). His preaching is not ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ (2 Cor. 1:18), an echo of Jesus’ famous words…Paul insists that his message is identical with that of the other apostles (1 Cor. 15:11); their approval and recognition gave him the assurance that he was not running in vain (Gal. 2:2). In the face of misinterpretations, 2 Peter 3:16 reaffirms this accord. John highlights the three witnesses’ agreement (1 Jn. 5:8), and the Fourth Gospel puts forward the theme of ‘repetition’, not parrot-like indeed, but meeting a concern for identity of substance (Jn. 8:26, 28; 16:13). Discord is a symptom of untruth, as it was in the case of the false witnesses of Jesus’ trial (Mk. 14:56,59). Contradictors are to be refuted (Rom.16:17; Tit.l:9): it could never be done if the standard itself embraced several conflicting theologies. (29-30)

Of course, a number of these readings can be contravened, difficulties could be brought forward, and it could be argued that, well, that’s just a couple of apostles, a Psalmist, and a prophet or two. We, though, are Christians who follow Jesus, not Paulinists who follow Paul.

Well, okay, but what does Jesus say about the issue? While there are any number of directions you could take this, Blocher points to an instructive bit of dialogue in the Gospels–Jesus’ confrontation with Satan in the wilderness:

And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time. (Luke 4:9-13)

Satan attacks Jesus by using Scripture in order to lead him towards disobedience from the Father’s will. So what’s Jesus’ response? The same as it is with the Pharisees and the Sadducees–he quotes Scripture in order to correct a twisted use of Scripture. Blocher expands on this point:

As a matter of fact, the whole logic of our Lord’s appeal to Scripture in argument (and similarly of his apostles’) would instantly collapse if the presupposition of scriptural coherence were taken away. Even against the Tempter, Jesus relies on the internal consistency of his Father’s Word, quoting Scripture to rebuff a twisted use of Scripture. ‘It is written’ would no longer settle an issue if it were conceded that several contradictory views compete with each other on the pages of the Book. The authority of the Word of God would no longer function as it does in Scripture in that case (how could it function at all as supreme?). (30)

Jesus’ response to the Tempter assumes the unity and coherence of Scripture and in this he is followed by his disciples.

Of course, none of this rules out the need for care in applying the of the analogy of faith. There are bad harmonizations. People can be ham-fisted and too quick to assume that John was saying exactly the same thing with his Logos-Christology as Mark when, in fact, Mark is making a slightly different and complementary point about Jesus in the “Son of Man” sayings. Or again, there are ways of trying to harmonize timelines that ignore the nature of biblical history writing which didn’t have the same standards of precision as we do today. Nor should we rush to find the consistencies without careful study, lest we lose the truth in our haste to defend it. The fact that Scripture is coherent and unified does not mean that it is flat and undifferentiated. Respecting that reality may take time, patience, and the vulnerability required to not foreclose interpretive horizons.

Reading with the analogy of faith, the part in light of the whole, means taking seriously the distinctness of each passage within the pattern of the whole, none of which rules out thinking historically, or contextually about them. That’s the kind of reading allows you to recognize, for instance, the different historical situations James and Paul are facing with respect to the issue of faith and works. Or again, we begin to say the way that Paul’s message about the salvation that comes through Jesus the King is not a deviation from Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom, since Paul is writing post-death-and-resurrection. Of course the emphasis is going to shift, even if there’s a proper continuity between the two.

So then, all those who decide to read Scripture in light of Scripture are not simply guilty of historical anachronism, a fear of biblical tensions, or a need for “Cartesian” certainty. They’re simply trying to be faithful to the pattern modeled to them by their Lord.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: The Transfiguration

Mere FidelityAnd after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” And the disciples asked him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.

(Matthew 17:1-13)

The Transfiguration is one the most enigmatic and suggestive episodes in all the Gospels. This week on Mere Fidelity, Alastair, Andrew, and I had a truly fascinating conversation on the Transfiguration from biblical and theological perspectives. It’s one of my favorite discussions we’ve had in a while. I hope this conversation is as much of a blessing and challenge to you for it was for us.

Soli Deo Gloria