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

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

1 And 2 Kings as Wisdom Literature

kingsOver and over again, I’ve been convinced that the individual passages and books of Scripture only yield their full fruit when read in the context of the whole canon. If individual words take their meaning and nuance from whole sentences, sentences from paragraphs, and paragraphs in the sweep of larger arguments, then assuming the unity of the Scriptures, individual books can only take their full and proper meaning from being read against the rest of Scripture. Peter Leithart takes this even further, by showing the way that even the type of literature we understand a book to be shifts when set in conversation with the rest of  Scripture.

In his illuminating introduction to his Brazos commentary on 1 and 2 Kings–a clear example of biblical narrative if there ever was one–Leithart suggests that it can profitably read as wisdom literature along with Proverbs and Ecclesiastes:

The book of Kings can thus be fruitfully read as wisdom literature, albeit in a rather counterintuitive way. Proverbs describes wisdom as the way to life and prosperity: those devoted to Lady Wisdom are told that “riches and honor” as well as “enduring wealth and righteousness” come with her (8:18). According to Proverbs, there are stable patterns in the world, a moral cause-and-effect overseen by a just God, who rewards those who fear him. Yet, much of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament teaches an apparently contradictory message. Job is blameless in all his ways, yet suffers such excruciating loss that he concludes that Yahweh has abandoned him, and Ecclesiastes seems to directly challenge Proverbs with its recurring message that the wise and the foolish are both teetering toward the grave (Eccles. 2:14—16). Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are not contradictory, but rather highlight two poles of the biblical understanding of wisdom: if Proverbs teaches that Yahweh operates by a moral calculus, Ecclesiastes teaches that this calculus is as much beyond our grasp as Yahweh himself is, and as a result we experience the world as “vapor” (often mistranslated “vanity”) that slips away when we try to understand or control it.

The book of Kings might be read as a historical endorsement of the viewpoint of Proverbs. Good and faithful kings achieve unbelievable wealth and notoriety (Solomon) and are miraculously delivered from enemies (Hezekiah) (2 Kgs. 18-19). Bad kings brace themselves for stinging rebukes from prophets, die randomly in battle (1 Kgs. 22:34-36), and are devoured by wild dogs and scavenging birds (14:11; 2 Kgs. 9:36-37). Though the judgment of the wicked is doubtless a strong theme in 1-2 Kings, the overall effect of the narrative is the opposite, closer to Ecclesiastes than to Proverbs. Wicked kings are delivered as frequently as righteous ones: Ahab defeats the Arameans twice (1 Kgs. 20) before falling to a “chance” Aramean arrow, and Ahabs son also defeats the Arameans twice (2 Kgs. 6-7). Wicked Jehoash of Israel trounces righteous Amaziah of Judah (14:8—14), and Yahweh leads Israel in triumph over Aram during the reigns of Jehoahaz and the equally wicked Jeroboam II (13:22-25; 14:23—27). The book of Kings, especially 1 Kgs. 1-11, narrates the limitations of royal wisdom, while the book as a whole demonstrates the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, a wisdom that finds history elusive, unfathomable, uncontrollable. In its treatment of wisdom, then, 1-2 Kings is prophetic literature, demonstrating that wisdom is essential yet ultimately ineffectual to secure the health and salvation of Israel. –1 & 2 Kings, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, pg. 19

Soli Deo Gloria

Five Practices for Actually Doing Theological Exegesis

bibleA couple of weeks ago I wrote a brief introduction to the idea of Theological Interpretation of Scripture. For class I was recently assigned an excellent little article on the subject by Hank Voss, “From ‘Grammatical-Historical Exegesis’ to ‘Theological Exegesis’: Five Essential Practices” Evangelical Review of Theology (213) 37:2, 140-152, which I figured would be worth examining as a follow-up to it.

In the article, Voss points out that while there’s been a good amount of theological argument for the necessity of what he calls “theological exegesis” (TE), there has been less practical elucidation as to how it’s actually supposed to work. People agree that theological interpretation is important, that simple grammatical-historical exegesis (GHE) is not enough, but there’s less direction and clarity as to how we’re supposed to go about moving from GHE to TE.

Voss wonders,

“How do global theological educators equip leaders in the church to practice theological exegesis? More specifically, how do we balance an emphasis on the human and divine authorship—which has tended to an evangelical strength—while paying greater attention to traditional Evangelical weaknesses: readers, their contexts, and their interpretive communities?” (141)

In order to address the gap, Voss proposes five practices that together constitute a framework and practical pattern for teaching pastors, preachers, and future theologians the exercise of theological exegesis (142).

So what are these practices?

1) Faith Seeking Understanding – First, theological exegesis recognizes that our reading of Scripture flows from faith. Theological exegesis assumes you already believe in Christ and want to know him in Scripture. For that reason, you treat the Bible as a different sort of text than Shakespeare or the New York Times. You read this text already believing in order that you might understand, not reading to understand and then maybe believe. Voss sees two implications of this principle.

  • First, sin is an epistemological category. We must reckon with the fallenness of our interpretive efforts and come to the text dependent on the Lord.
  • Second, dependency on the Lord implies “common hermeneutics” will be turned on its head (143). Reading with faith seeking understanding is prayerful reading, singing even, of the text, that acknowledges the spiritual dimension as prior.

2) Faithful to the Original Contexts —  Second, none of this rules out grammatical-historical exegesis. Voss suggests we must listen to original authors as we would want to be listened to; the golden rule applies here as well. Paying attention to the Divine Author doesn’t mean ignoring the human authors when reading the text. In fact, listening for the former happens as we pay attention to the latter. This means we will avail ourselves of all possible literary, historical, and contextual tools and helps as possible in our exegesis (144).

3) Analogy of Faith – Third, theological exegesis will operate in line with the Reformation emphasis on analogy of faith as a correlate of Sola Scriptura. (145) By the analogy of faith, Voss here is referring to the analogia totus Scripturae. In other words, comparing all the relevant biblical material in order that Scripture might interpret Scripture. This practice relies on the assumption of whole-canon discourse by God through human discourse in the various texts comprising the canon. For this practice, Voss appeals to Jesus’ own reading of Scripture in conversation with the Pharisees as an example (Matthew 22:29-32; 145-146). Jesus’ own practice shakes up some of the “rigidity” of modern reading practices. Voss sees hopeful developments in this area with the proposal of canonical-linguistic readings such as those of Kevin Vanhoozer as well as the renewed interest in the New Testament use of Old Testament in Biblical studies.

4) Rule of Faith – Fourth, Voss suggests that theological exegesis will adopt reading along with the Rule of faith (ROF). This principle is a necessary “Christian” and “catholic” way of reading. In some sense, it is best of thought of as a further subset of Analogy of faith in that the Rule of Faith is an “authoritative summary of Scripture’s message” and so entirely consistent with Evangelical convictions (147), Voss further specifies that the ROF reading implies at least three things:

  1. First, the ROF reads Scripture as the single story of creation, fall, incarnation, redemption, and consummation. All Scripture is read in that frame. (147-148)
  2. Second, the ROF finds Christ at the center of Scripture’s story. Christ is the point of the whole of Scripture, though the details here aren’t always quite spelled out in each text. (148)
  3. Third, the ROF reads Scripture trinitarianly (149). This is not a ham-fisted sighting of the Trinity under every bush, but recognizing the Trinitarian shape of the narrative of the whole and reading in light of it.

5) Community of Faith – Finally, Voss suggests we adopt a rule of reading with the “whole” church (catholica regula) . Exegetes ought to read in light of the “Pentecostal plurality” of the history of interpretation in the Church catholic. If we truly have a Pauline and New Testament understanding of the Church (1 Cor. 12), we’ll set ourselves to listen the Spirit’s voice speaking in illumined readings of Scripture throughout the whole body (150). This involves at least two dimensions. First, the church is a historic, present, and eschatological reality, and so we must listen to the voice of historic church as well, paying attention to readings of Scripture that come from patristic, medieval, Reformation, and modern eras. Second, we must attempt to take a step outside the West to hear the global church–the bulk of it, currently–reading Scripture.

With these five practices, Voss invites the church to begin practicing a theological reading of Scripture that acknowledges we are not simply reviewing a dead letter, or an important cultural artifact, but are reading to discern–to be discerned by–the Voice of the Lord.

Soli Deo Gloria

Language For God in Patristic Thought by Mark Sheridan

patristicStudying Christian history, it’s funny to see the way certain verses take on out-sized significance for how the Bible is read and the faith is interpreted in the tradition. For instance, Etienne Gilson has traced the way a certain “metaphysics of the Exodus” developed around the declaration of the LORD, “I AM who I AM” (Exod. 3:14).

In his study of Language for God in Patristic Tradition:Wrestling with Biblical Anthropomorphism, Mark Sheridan shows that the verse, “God is not as man to be deceived nor as the son of man to be threatened” (Numbers 23:19) and an early (mis)rendering Deuteronomy 1:31 (“As a man takes on the manners of his son”) were two of the key texts that shaped and gave rise to ancient Christian methods of interpreting Scripture. Following the tradition of Philo of Alexandria and others, the Fathers had an explicitly theological method for reading Scripture, especially as it pertained to speaking of the ways and works of God in human language in ways “appropriate” and “fitting” to the divine being. This especially concerned the ascription to God of things like human hands, feet, physical activity (anthropomorphism) as well as human emotions like delight, surprise, repentance, or even anger (anthropopathism), which were particularly problematic for the Fathers.

Sheridan traces the various Scriptural and philosophical intuitions shaping the Fathers of the early Church from essentially three sources: Greco-Roman reading strategies, Hellenistic Jewish appropriations, and finally, the New Testament texts themselves.  First comes the strategy of allegorical interpretations developed by the Hellenistic exegetes in order to save texts like Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey from the moral critiques of the philosophers like Xenophanes, who took aim at the questionable morals and oh-so-human depictions of the gods in such works. Hellenistic Jews like Philo redeployed them in order to read the Old Testament narratives and Law for apologetic and edificatory purposes. Later on, seeing warrant in Pauline and New Testament allegorical and typological readings of the Old Testament, the Fathers drew on the Philonic tradition in order to aid them in their own Christological and moral readings of Scripture.

Having established this groundwork, Sheridan examines the way the Fathers treated key problem texts such as the creation narratives, patriarchal misconduct, or even the Divine command in the Conquest of the Holy Land. He also devotes a lengthy chapter to patristic interpretation of the Psalms, both for their anthropopathic and anthropomorphic language, as well as their morally compromising character in the imprecatory language. Finally, he ends with some comparisons between modern and ancient strategies for reading Scripture, and a very helpful, summary appendix on the theological structures and presuppositions to patristic interpretation. In a sense, it sort of sums up the work as a whole.

First of all, some positives. The book is clean, clear, and well-researched. Sheridan’s obviously an expert and he’s done a marvelous job setting out his theses from the primary sources, focusing on some of the key patristic figures such as Chrysostom, Augustine, and especially Origen. Second, his commentary is uncluttered, to the point, and informative. Next, Sheridan’s great at not simply focusing on the shape of the reading strategies, nor simply doing history for antiquarian interest. He cuts to the heart of the theological issues involved by returning to the question that concerned the Fathers which still concerns us today: what are we to say about God in light of the Scriptures? What is fitting to ascribe to him? These are not easy questions to answer but Sheridan helpfully makes available patristic perspectives that could prove fruitful for current generations to adopt, redeploy, or at least consider as they do their own wrestling with the text, as every generation must do afresh.

On the negative side, I had a couple complaints. First, I found it a bit odd that while the Fathers’ concern with how to treat ascriptions of anger or violence to the Godhead seems to be a special concern, there is no treatment of one of the clearest texts on the matter, Lactantius’ De Ira Dei (On the Anger of God). You can’t treat everything, but that text also might undermine the fairly consistent portrait of the Fathers’ handling of the issue. Second, Sheridan’s own theological interests come out towards the end chapters comparing Ancient and Modern strategies for reading the Bible, especially with respect to texts like the moral failures of the patriarchal narratives, or the conquest narratives, judgment, and so forth. He’s fairly critical of the modern, “literalist” approaches, clearly favoring ancient and, to be honest, rather moralizing interpretations. That said, he gives a fairly thin theological argument in favor of his preference beyond descriptively and unsympathetically explaining modern approaches and saying something like, “that doesn’t seem like enough does it?” Rarely does he theologically argue against modern concern for issues of historicity, sensitivity to genre, and so forth.

In general, though, I came away both more appreciative and critical of the Fathers’ interpretive efforts. Their theological concerns are not always our theological concerns, nor are their prejudices our prejudices. When reading Genesis, we’re not typically afraid that our hearers will think God has actual, physical hands he’s shaping Adam with. We’re worried about evolution and science, while the Fathers were worried about a fall back into the mythology their hearers had just come from, and so rightly aim to highlight God’s distinction from the gods they knew. This is corrective and instructive. Popular preaching in many churches isn’t as concerned as it might be that people draw the wrong impression from the anthropopathic portrayals of God’s ways with us. We fail to consider what it means that “God is not a man.” What’s more, for those interested in Christ-centered preaching, some of the Christological readings Sheridan draws our attention to are simply fantastic. Chrysostom, in particular, comes out shining like a star. Origen, as well, rose in my admittedly prejudiced estimation.

All the same, though I’m quite allergic to modernist, chronological snobbery, I simultaneously came away more appreciative of some of the advances of in modern hermeneutics by comparison. We simply can’t do the same kind etymological theology that was common at the time. Taking seriously historical context, comparative religious backgrounds, and more sober philological work has curbed our tendency to seek out “hidden meanings” often divorced from the literal sense of the text (which not all Fathers did!). And this is a good thing. I don’t think turning the story of Hagar and Sarah into an allegory of moving from the study of logic and rhetoric to the deeper study of philosophy is an adequate reading of the text, as some of the Fathers did. Nor, for all their problems, do I think turning the conquest narratives into a treatment of the conquest of the vices of the soul a reading that respects the texts as the historical narratives as they were given to us.

In sum, the Fathers were careful, sensitive, educated, and time-bound interpreters of Scripture, whose readings and ways of reading are worth our time and attention. They are our spiritual and theological Fathers worthy of our respect, consideration, and apprenticeship, though not our slavish imitation.

Soli Deo Gloria

Liberalism, “Hermeneutics”, and Interpretive Solipsism

hermeneuticsRecently, Richard Beck wrote a post about the practice of Sola Scriptura, reading with a hermeneutic, and our emotional awareness of the process. He notes that everybody reads with a hermeneutic, a set of intepretive principles, biases, and presuppositions that guide our understanding of Scripture. For Beck, though, the mark of a fundamentalist is that they alone believe they don’t have a hermeneutic, even when they do. This is why it’s a fundamentalist move to say something like, “Well, the Bible clearly says”, or “I’m just reading the text, here”–as if things were really that simple. Beck says that this signals a striking lack of self-awareness.

For example, saying something like “this is the clear teaching of Scripture” is similar to saying “I’m not a racist.” Self-aware people would never say either one of those things.

Self-aware people would say things like “I don’t want to be a racist” or “I try not to be racist” or “I condemn racism.” But they would never say “I’m not a racist” because self-aware people know that they have blind spots. Self-aware people know they have unconscious baggage that is hard to notice or overcome.

And it’s the same with how self-aware people approach reading the bible. Self-aware people know that they are trying to read the bible in an unbiased fashion. Self-aware people work hard to let the bible speak clearly and it its own voice. But self-aware people know they have blind spots. They know that there is unconscious baggage affecting how they are reading the bible, baggage that they know must be biasing their readings and conclusions. Consequently, self-aware people would never, ever say “this is the clear teaching of Scripture.” Just like they’d never claim to be unbiased in any other area of life, racism being just one example.

I have to say, he’s got a point. I’ve seen this happen. Many fundamentalists operate as if they don’t have a hermeneutic and it’s naive and unhelpful, precisely because we want to be subservient to the Word of God, not our own blinders.What’s more, as a couple of my progressive friends noted, this sort of fundamentalism isn’t restricted to conservatives. There can be progressive “fundamentalisms” with a similar lack of self-awareness in reading the Scriptures.

That said, I did want to register a few comments, that, while not entirely contradictory, may offer some nuance.

First, the statement “the Bible clearly says…” may have more than one reference point. In other words, I think Beck has put it a bit strongly when he contends than no self-aware reader of Scripture would ever say, “The clear teaching of Scripture is…” or some statement along those lines. I suppose my question is, after study, after prayer, after wrestling, what should they say?

“The Scriptures unclearly say…” Well, obviously nobody wants to be stuck with that.

“My hermeneutic leads me to believe that…” That might seem initially more honest, but the problem is that we’re now in the position where it seems the hermeneutic, not the Scriptures are doing all the work. More on that later.

Instead, it seems entirely possible that someone who is quite aware of their perspective, hermeneutic, and so forth, might read, study, struggle, and arrive at the conclusion that, “The Scriptures clearly say…” To deny that possibility is to bind God’s capabilities as a speaker to our capabilities as interpreters and hearers. It’s to restrict our doctrine of revelation within the confines of our anthropology, rather than our theology.

In other words, for some, the statement “The Scriptures clearly say…” is uttered, not so much in relation to our abilities as a reader, or our lack of hermeneutic, but a statement about God’s ability as a speaker. In acknowledging finitude, sin, and the need for interpretive humility, we need to take care not to chain the Word of the Lord our God with human fetters.

Second, as a friend noted online, there’s a bit of fuzziness as to what we mean by “a hermeneutic.” For some, having a hermeneutic means something along the lines of “proper principles of interpretation” like considering grammar, historical context, literary principles, and so forth. For others, it’s a bit thicker, including theological presuppositions about the nature of the text and what it says. And, for some, it’s about the unavoidable ideological tilt and finitude we bring to our reading of the text. In other words, there are “hermeneutics” as clarifying lens helping us engage the text, and for others, it speaks more of the unavoidable distance and subjectivity of our encounter with it. It’s not entirely clear which Beck means in this post.

Which leads me to my third comment. Earlier this week, I joked online that, if Beck is right and a fundamentalist is someone who believes they don’t have a hermeneutic, then a Liberal is someone who only has a hermeneutic. In other words, there’s a danger to interpretation in both directions.

Opposite Beck’s fundamentalist, it’s possible to end up with the sort of self-absorbed, interpretive, solipsist who thinks it’s interpretation and “hermeneutics” all the way down, with no actual encounter with the sort of Text, or Voice, or Word, that can break through the fog. We run the risk of thinking all we can ever speak of is our differing hermeneutics and not the Text we’re both trying to read. We’re “self-aware” to the point that all we’re aware of is our Self, or Social Location, or Gender, or Community. At that point, our interpretive discussions just become a form of philosophy with Scriptural vocabulary.

I’ll close by quoting one of my favorite passages from Vanhoozer, which, while not exactly speaking to hermeneutics but God-talk more generally, charts a helpful middle-course:

Those who would be honest to God must strive to avoid both pride and sloth in their God-talk. Theological pride overestimates the adequacy of human language and thought; theological sloth underestimates the importance of responding to the provocations of God’s self-revelation. The one goes before destruction; the other pre-empts instruction. Yet it is hard to miss the recurring biblical theme that God wills to communicate and make himself known: “The word of the Lord came to . . .”; “the Lord said . . .”. Theology is ultimately irresponsible if it fails either to attend to what God says or to think about the nature of the one who addresses us.

–Kevin Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship, pg. xvi

Soli Deo Gloria 

Theological Interpretation of Scripture? Three Dimensions

Jesus and the BibleWhat is Theological Interpretation of Scripture (TIS)? It’s kind of a hot new thing in the theological academy–at least among those of a more conservative orientation–but despite the various publications and authors laying claim to it, there doesn’t seem to be a clear, unified usage of the term. At least not that I’ve heard or read.

What I’d like to do in this (brief) post is simply note three threads, or types of TIS, I’ve seen in my little bit of reading on the subject as a bit of a quick reference to the interested, and then invite others to add what they’d like in the comments.

Theological location of the Text. The first thread or theme I’ve seen highlighted in theological interpretation is the idea that we read the text of Scripture in a theological context. By that I don’t simply mean that most of us read it in our churches. No, the idea is that the Bible is not just like any other book that we might happen upon in the library. It’s a book that is the result of God’s own saving activity. It is not only the story of redemption, but part of the activity of the Triune God’s “economy” of salvation. It is part of how God gets his saving work done, not only an informational book about it. In which case, we need to understand that we don’t approach this book like any other, treating as a mere product of history, but as the result of divine activity. What’s more, as Christians, we are to understand ourselves as readers dependent on the gracious illumining work of the Holy Spirit. Along with that, different accounts will place more or less emphasis on the community of faith as the proper location of interpretation in the “economy of grace.”

Reading for Theological Content. Second, either flowing from this, or separate, theological interpretation of Scripture means trying to read the text for, you know, actual theology. Instead of treating it as a bit of interesting history or “religious thought”, to be picked apart for the light it sheds on the beliefs and the experiences of ancient Jews and Greeks, we read it in order to learn about God. So, when we read Paul speaking of Christ as the Image of the invisible God, firstborn over all creation, and so forth, (Col. 1:15-20) it’s not enough to simply speak of the way his conception of Christ may or may not be related to Philo’s thought on Pre-existent Wisdom, or that of other 2nd Temple Jewish thought. We need to speak of what that text is actually telling us about the nature of the Triune God we worship. It’s not simply a text for there and then, but the revelatory self-attestation of the Triune God, meant for the church today. In other words, theology is not something we do after or in addition to exegesis. Exegesis is aimed at theological truth.

Reading with Explicitly Theological Presuppositions. Third, theological interpretation of Scripture also often means reading the text with explicitly theological presuppositions in mind. In other words, instead of acting as if we can come to the text “objectively”, without presuppositions, as neutral scholars, we come to the Bible openly acknowledging that we’re reading it as Christians, as Trinitarians, and so forth. For some, that means using a certain understanding of redemptive history to guide our reading. Others would emphasize a regula fidei “rule of faith” reading that takes its orientation from the Apostles’ Creed. For others, a “Christ-centered” hermeneutic is involved, or perhaps a more comprehensive confessionalism is called for. In any case, it’s not only a matter putting our theological cards on the table, but putting them to work, allowing our reading of Scripture to be shaped by what we believe to be true on the basis of Scripture, in order to arrive at more holistic interpretations. Hopefully, then, we will be reading in a way that honors the intended purposes for which God gave the Scriptures: a saving knowledge of Father, Son, and Spirit.

Obviously, as I noted before, this is incomplete, so I welcome further comment and correction. For those interested, it’s hopefully been a start.

Soli Deo Gloria 

By the way, if you’re really interested, I’d point you to Todd Billings The Word of God for the People of God, Kevin Vanhoozer’s The Drama of Doctrine, Scott Swain’s Trinity, Reading, and Revelation and John Webster’s The Domain of the Word.