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 

Reading with the Principle of Charity in the Republic of Language

charityReading is an activity which, common as it is, requires some reflection to be done well. This is especially the case when dealing with reading arguments in difficult or possibly indeterminate texts. While many technical principles can be developed in connection with various kinds of texts in different genres, some principles can be seen to apply across genres, especially since they concern the morality of reading texts.

Many of us haven’t stopped to consider reading as a moral act, but it is deeply so. Reading is a communicative act involving author(s), text(s), and reader(s). While I can’t delve deeply into it, one helpful image from (surprise, surprise) Vanhoozer is that of being a “citizen” of language. Language is our common realm, the kingdom, the republic within which we live and move and having our social being. As such, there are rights and responsibilities within it for both speakers and hearers, in order that we do justice to one another as fellow citizens. Once the image is in place, it’s fairly intuitive to begin filling it in.

In his recent work Reading Barth with Charity: A Hermeneutical Proposal (pp. xii-xiii), George Hunsinger draws our attention to the recent appeal to one such principle, the “principle of charity”, in reading texts in recent analytic philosophy. Hunsinger says there’s no single, definitive account of it, but he helpfully summarizes the main lines of it for us:

  • The principle of charity seeks to understand a point of view in its strongest form before subjecting it to criticism. A suspension of one’s own beliefs may be required in order to attain a sympathetic understanding.
  • One assumes for the moment that the ideas under consideration, regardless of how difficult they may seem, are both true and internally coherent. The emphasis falls on seeking to understand the texts as they stand rather than on picking out difficulties or contradictions.
  • If apparent contradictions are found, an active attempt is made to resolve them. Donald Davidson has suggested, for example, that the principle of charity means attempting to maximize sense and optimize agreement when it comes to doubts about the inner coherence or factual veracity of the viewpoint under consideration.
  • If it is possible to resolve apparent contradictions (or ambiguities) through a sympathetic interpretation, a presumption exists in favor of that interpretation. A presumption exists by the same token against any interpretation that resorts to the charge of inconsistency without attempting to resolve apparent contradictions.
  • Only if no successful interpretation can be found is one entitled to conclude that a viewpoint is inconsistent or false. Critique is always possible but only after an adequate effort has been made for an interpretation that does not call a viewpoint’s truth or coherence into question precipitously.,
  • The attempt to maximize intelligibility through the resolution of apparent contradictions is related to a corollary, which is called “the principle of humanity.” As Daniel Dennett explains, one should attribute to the person whose views one is considering “the propositional attitudes one supposes one would have oneself in those circumstances.”

That about sums up what I’ve seen of the principle, especially in analytic discussions. This is true both in philosophy and theology. I can recall a number of sections in Alvin Plantinga’s work where he’ll consider an opponent’s position in two or three possible forms, at times even strengthening their arguments, before going on to refute them nonetheless. This principle can also be seen Oliver Crisp’s habit–which has proved confusing to some–of considering and strengthening a number of positions he doesn’t actually hold.

For myself, I think there’s something deeply Christian and honest about the principle of charity. It’s a form of Christian virtue; an exercise in loving your neighbor as yourself within the republic of language. We would want others to extend to us the benefit of the doubt, strenuously work through our arguments, and imaginatively attempt to enter into our concerns and intuitions in order to come to understand why we’ve come to hold what we hold. This is an angle on what Matthew Lee Anderson has called “intellectual empathy.”

What’s more, considering arguments in this manner can help clarify the actual issues at stake in a given conversation. Doing your interlocutor the favor trying your best to make sense of their position means that when you do actually get around to arguing against it, it can only be that much stronger of an argument. Or, it may be that it’s only then you see the person actually has a solid point!

That said, a friend of mine has also argued it’s important that this principle be weighed or balanced against the principle of accuracy. In the picture above, there is a danger that in your attempt to actually be charitable, you end up inadvertently misrepresenting your opponent anyways. Due to your own unavoidable intuitions, it may be you end up saying, “Well, they couldn’t possibly mean that, because that doesn’t make sense,” when, in fact, that’s exactly the position they do hold. Sometimes the benefit of the doubt becomes dubious. And that is a case where, despite your charitable intentions, the truth is not actually served.

All the same, I know for myself, consciously striving to be charitable in my pursuit of accuracy curbs my natural tendency to read with my own blinders on. In other words, striving for charity slows me down enough to achieve accuracy. Of course, I struggle and fail–quite spectacularly, at times. Yet I would propose that principles of moral interpretation such as that of charity have become all the more pressing to adopt and practice as our internet age has pressed even more of our communication to be textually-mediated. We are constantly reading, interpreting, and engaging with the texts of other authors, other citizens of language like ourselves. If we fail to practice charity in interpretation, one of our most socially and morally formative practices, it can’t help but bleed out into other areas of our thought and life.

So then, to wrap up another post that’s gone far longer than I had intended, practice charity in all your reading. Beginning with this post.

Soli Deo Gloria

How Nicaea and Chalcedon Can Help you Read Your New Testament. (Or, Wesley Hill on Paul and the Trinity)

Paul and the TrinityDoing systematic theology through exegesis and exegesis using systematic categories can be a tricky business. A little knowledge of history can show us the way that sometimes our easy recourse to our inherited theological grids may have short-changed our exegesis. For instance, are NT references to the Son of God so obviously and cleanly statements of deity as many have traditionally believed or are they references to his Davidic lineage? And when Jesus calls himself the “Son of Man” is he really referring to his human nature or, as most recent scholars have suggested, is it a reference to the heavenly, divine figure of Daniel 7, “One like the Son of Man”? In both cases, we see that some pressure from our inherited theological systems has forced our exegesis to miss some things. Critical evaluation has undermined some old conclusions, but happily enough, in this case, it ended up reinforcing the basic theological structure on more secure historical grounds.

In recent times, though, there’s been a movement in biblical studies towards recovering classic theological categories and doctrines for the sake of aiding historical interpretation. In his recent work Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters, Wesley Hill argues that by consciously avoiding trinitarian categories in an effort to be “historical” in their interpretation of Paul in his Jewish context, scholars have been working with one hand tied behind their backs. This is especially the case in their approach to texts regarding Christology and the doctrine of God.

Redoubling Around “High” and “Low” Christologies.

While moving away from a focus on titles like “Lord” and “Christ” in the last few years, much of the discussion has been caught up in understanding how Paul’s Christology modifies (or doesn’t) his monotheism. In other words, it assumes a view of God and the world, then tries to figure out where Paul places Jesus on the spectrum of things. Is his view of Jesus “high” or “low”? Does it “threaten” his monotheism, or is Jesus unified or differentiated or subordinated enough to protect against polytheism, modalism, or whichever danger seems more pressing to you as a scholar? Hill’s argument, insofar as I’m not destroying it, is that a retrieval of trinitarian categories like “relationality” and reading strategies like “redoublement” are helpful in moving us past some of the difficulties created by the low/high paradigm.

With the fathers like Athanasius, medievals such as Aquinas, and even recent relational theologies, Hill argues we need to understand that the identities of Father, Son, and Spirit are mutually-defining in the texts in such a way that both unity and differentiation is accounted for. God is the one who raised Jesus Christ by his Spirit (Romans 8:11), and so forth. The Father’s person is defined by his relation to the one who would become Jesus and his Spirit. Jesus is the one who has always been the Son of that Father. The Spirit is the Lord, the Spirit of God as well as the Spirit of the Son. That is who he is and always has been.

Or with the idea “redoublement”, we see that there are two non-ultimate but equally appropriate ways to consider and read texts about Jesus’ relationship to God. First, in many places we find language about what is “common” to them both,  for instance, the “form” or nature and equality that the Son shares with God (Phil. 2:6). But also, and just as important, is the differentiated relation between the two as we see that the Son whose elevation and gift of the “name that is above all names”, still ends up glorifying “God the Father” who is distinct from the Son (Phil. 2:11).

The same movement is useful in other key texts such as 1 Corinthians 8:6, where we have a clear inclusion of Jesus within the key monotheistic Shema which asserts YHWH as Lord and God against all false, non-existent lords and gods of the nations. Two options usually present themselves to the interpreter. Either keep the distinction between Jesus and God and downplay the significance of the inclusion or recognize it, but play down the very clear distinction between Jesus and God. The concept of redoublement helps us accept both the asymmetrical differentiation according to person–Jesus isn’t simply absorbed into a flat “God” identity–but also Jesus’ place on the Creator side of the Creator/creature distinction at the heart of the text.

Watson’s Chalcedonian Clarification

Hill develops all of this at length, through careful, historically-sensitive exegesis of the Greek text, dealing with historical proposals by scholars such as Hurtado, Bauckham, McGrath, and others. Parallel to Hill’s work, though, I’ve been reading through Thomas Watson’s sermons on the Westminster Catechism, A Body of Practical Divinity and was reminded of the way recovering Chalcedonian categories for New Testament interpretation helps clarify exegetical difficulties as well.

For instance, there are a number of texts in the New Testament that suggest Christ has been exalted, or that upon his resurrection and Ascension he received a new, kingly status that he didn’t possess in the past:

…concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, (Romans 1:3-4)

…Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, (Philippians 2:9)

But if the Son is eternally God, then how can he be exalted at a certain point in time after the resurrection? How can he receive a name that has always been his from all of eternity? In these texts, interpreters as far back as the first couple of centuries have found reason to see some sort of adoptionism whereby Jesus was not always God, but becomes the Son of God at a particular point in time.

Commenting on the Catechism’s section on the exaltation of Christ, Watson addresses the difficulty posed by these texts:

In what sense has God exalted Christ?

Not in respect of his Godhead, for that cannot be exalted higher than it is: as in his humiliation, the Godhead was not lower; so in his exaltation, the Godhead is not higher: but Christ is exalted as Mediator, his human nature is exalted.

In a move that parallels, complements, and possibly clarifies our retrieval of redoublement, Watson draws on the affirmation that Christ has two natures, both a human and divine one. The Son has eternally always been the Son of the Father, equal in power, glory, beauty, and divine authority. And yet, at a particular point in time he assumed–added to himself–a human nature that has not always sat on the throne of heaven, but has walked in humility and weakness as a peasant in the 1st Century. This union, the person of the Godman, the Mediator, according to Watson, is the subject of these texts speaking of the exaltation of Christ. It’s not simply the Son according to his divine nature, nor a simply human Jesus abstracted from the Son–that Jesus can’t exist. No, it is the Son in his humanity who is exalted and newly acclaimed as king upon the throne of the universe.

Of course, Hill deals with sort of thing in his work as well. Still, reading Hill alongside Watson has further reinforced the value of reading both modern and historical authors, as well as biblical and systematic theologians, as legitimate sources and models for the practice of reading Scripture. It doesn’t have to be the sort of either/or affair it sometimes becomes in certain academic contexts. a number of helpful, further insights on the reading historical texts in a

Indeed, in this work, Hill himself is a model for reading historical texts in a theologically-responsible way and reading texts theologically in a historically-responsible way. I’d highly commend his work to anyone looking to see it done right. May his tribe increase.

Soli Deo Gloria

7 Rules for Reading and Explaining the 10 Commandments

Heston, bro. 'Nuff said.

Heston, bro. ‘Nuff said.

It’s odd to think that you need rules for reading rules, but according to Francis Turretin, it’s a must. It’s really just good hermeneutics. Since each type of biblical literature needs to be approached on its own terms as well as within the broader scope the story of Scripture and theology in general, it makes sense to put up some guard-rails in order to protect against distortion, perversion, and neglect. This is especially the case when it comes to the Law of God. I mean, think about Jesus’ encounters in the Gospels–what were most of his conflicts about? The interpretation and application of the Law. “Who is my neighbor?”, or “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment?” At the heart of life as a member of the people of God, is understanding what to do with the Law. This isn’t about legalism, but simply asking the question, “What does loving God look like when Jesus says, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’ (John 14:15)?”

That’s probably why in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology Turretin has a topic subdivision dedicated to the subject lasting a solid 170 pages. Indeed, one of the subsections (Vol 2, Topic 11, Q. VI) is dedicated to outlining seven rules that need to be observed preachers, theologians, and teachers of the Scriptures in order to properly explain and apply the full meaning of each of the Ten Commandments.

So what are the rules for the rules?

1. Inside Out. First, we have to remember that “the law is spiritual, respecting not only the external acts of the body, but the internal motions of the mind.” In other words, mere outward obedience isn’t all that’s required. Jesus told us that adultery wasn’t only a matter of keeping your pants on, but of guarding your eyes and your heart from lust, and murder is something you can do with a word as well as a knife (Matt. 5:22-28). True obedience flows from the motives of the heart; this is the deeper righteousness than the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law could muster.

2. “Thou Shalt Not” Also Means “Thou Shalt.” Second, “in affirmative precepts, negative, and in negative, affirmative are contained.” In other words, when the Bible says, “do this” there’s an implied “don’t do that”, and vice versa. So, when the Bible commands us not to be thieves, Luther, in his catechism said that it is also commending generosity and living with an open hand. Or again, Turretin says that the command not to kill means we ought to also “cherish our neighbor’s life in every way we can”, because God “wishes his life to be dear and precious to us.” Having no other God’s but the Lord alone, also invites and enjoins us to truly worship the Lord. As my old pastor used to put it, every “thou shalt not”, has a “thou shalt” alongside it.

3. A Head For a Whole. Third, “in all the precepts synecdoche is to be acknowledged.” A synecdoche is a figure of speech where one piece of something stands for the whole. In other words, the command forbidding one sin, actually is a stand-in for the class of sins of which it is a part. This is another way of looking at the deepening of the Law we see in Jesus’ commands to look at our heart motives. Also, you begin to see that in the rest of the OT law, much of the commands about property are just an expansion of the original command not to steal, or covet. The command against adultery rules out a variety of sexual sins, and so forth.

4. More of the Same. Fourth, connected to that last is that “in the effect, the cause in the genus, the species, in the related, the correlative is included.” This is complicated at first glance, but essentially he means that anything it takes to fulfill a law is also included in the law. So, if chastity is included in your avoidance of adultery, so is your moderation in eating habits which teach you to exercise self-control overall. Or, if children are commanded to honor their parents, parents are also commanded to instruct their children with care, in the Lord, and in loving-kindness. Even more, if you’ve paid attention to any catechisms, usually the command to honor parents is seen as the foundation for respecting the authority of magistrates, judges, and so forth. The same principle underlies both.

5. First Things First. Fifth, “the precepts of the first table take preference over those of the second.” Most Reformed divide the 10 Commandments into two tables, counting the first four commandments as being concerned more directly with the worship of God, and the second set of six being aimed at our responsibilities to our neighbor. With this in mind, when there’s a conflict, we give the first section priority: God comes first. We honor God’s Name over our parents, or the magistrate, if the choice ever comes up. Turretin sees this as flowing from Jesus’ own words when he says our love for mother and father must seem like hate compared to our devotion to him (Lk. 14:26). Or again, moral worship is more important than ceremonial worship because “God desires mercy not sacrifice” (Hos. 6:6).

6. Always Sometimes. Sixth, Turretin tells us that “some precepts are affirmative” (meaning they’re telling us to complete something) and “others negative” (telling us to avoid something), “the former bind always, but not to always, the latter always to always.” What that oddly-phrased principle means is that, even though the positive commands and duties are always in force, you can’t always be currently acting on them. I can’t honor my parents concretely when they’re not around, or give to the poor when I’m driving through a rich neighborhood. That said, I’m always supposed to avoid theft, murder, and so forth. The only command he makes an exception for is Loving God–you can do that wherever and whenever.

7. Above All, Love. Seventh, and finally, Turretin says “the beginning and end of all the precepts is love.” This is his lengthiest and most comprehensive rule. Love is the “end” and the “fulfilling” of the law (1 Tim. 1:5; Rom. 13:10).

Love discharges all the claims of God’s beneficence and of man’s obedience. As all God’s blessings flow form love and are contained in it, so all man’s duties are included in love. The love of God is the fullness of the gospel; the love of man is the fullness of the law. God is love and the mark of the sons of God is none other than love (John. 13:35).

By identifying the two greatest commands, Jesus shows us that love has a “two-fold” object, both God and humanity. As we already saw, the love of God comes first because God must always come first, from which flows the love of humanity. But what do those two commands imply? Why is the first, the “greatest command”, and how is the command to love our neighbor “like it”?

Well, the first is the “greatest command” for three reasons:

  • It has the greatest object, God.
  • It demands the most from us; body, soul, strength, and mind are to be attuned to loving God at all times.
  • It is comprehensive. There isn’t a single action in our life that isn’t directed towards the love of God.

The second is like it, not in terms of importance, but in other senses:

  • It is like it because both loving God and neighbor requires purity of heart.
  • It has the same authority as commanded by God and tending towards his glory.
  • It has the same punishment, as violating both commands leads to death.
  • They are dependent on one another. You can’t love God and hate your brother, and vice versa (1 John 4:20).

So end Turretin’s rules for reading, interpreting, and teaching the 10 Commandments. He goes on, of course, to give four more rules for how to properly obey the commands, but that might be a post for another day.

Before closing, a final observation is in order. Turretin may seem to be repeating the error of the Pharisees in seeming to add laws on top of laws and rules for avoiding the rules. In fact, that’s precisely what he’s trying to avoid in many cases. Not only does he have a section devoted to arguing against addition commands, if you see what he’s doing, in most of these sections he’s simply trying to apply Jesus’ principles to the reading of the Law. For Turretin, Jesus gives us the truest, deepest meaning of the laws God gave. He restores the laws from their false, burdensome interpretations, and reminds us of their deep rooting in the benevolence of God, who gave wise laws to his people in order to lead them down the path of life.

Why should we, as disciples, not learn from our Master? That’s what Turretin did and it’s what he invites us to do.

Soli Deo Gloria

5 Thoughts on the Logic of Exile as Judgment

fall of samaria2 Kings 17 recounts the story of the Fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians and her Exile:

But the king of Assyria found treachery in Hoshea, for he had sent messengers to So, king of Egypt, and offered no tribute to the king of Assyria, as he had done year by year. Therefore the king of Assyria shut him up and bound him in prison. Then the king of Assyria invaded all the land and came to Samaria, and for three years he besieged it. In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria, and he carried the Israelites away to Assyria and placed them in Halah, and on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes. (2 Kings 17:4-6 ESV)

At first it looks like a simple case of power politics gone wrong. Hoshea backs the wrong horse in putting his trust in Egypt, calling down the wrath of the more potent political power found in Shalmaneser’s Assyria army. Open and shut case here, right? If we’re dealing with the purely human level of motivation and machination, then yes. But the author of Kings invites us to peer deeper into the providential working of God in the events of Israel’s Exile. Please don’t skim this, but read it carefully:

And this occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and had feared other gods and walked in the customs of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel, and in the customs that the kings of Israel had practiced. And the people of Israel did secretly against the LORD their God things that were not right. They built for themselves high places in all their towns, from watchtower to fortified city. They set up for themselves pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree, and there they made offerings on all the high places, as the nations did whom the LORD carried away before them. And they did wicked things, provoking the LORD to anger, and they served idols, of which the LORD had said to them, “You shall not do this.” Yet the LORD warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer, saying, “Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes, in accordance with all the Law that I commanded your fathers, and that I sent to you by my servants the prophets.”

But they would not listen, but were stubborn, as their fathers had been, who did not believe in the LORD their God. They despised his statutes and his covenant that he made with their fathers and the warnings that he gave them. They went after false idols and became false, and they followed the nations that were around them, concerning whom the LORD had commanded them that they should not do like them. And they abandoned all the commandments of the LORD their God, and made for themselves metal images of two calves; and they made an Asherah and worshiped all the host of heaven and served Baal. And they burned their sons and their daughters as offerings and used divination and omens and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger. Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight. None was left but the tribe of Judah only. (2 Kings 17:7-18 ESV)

Reflections on the Exile as Judgment. As I was reading through this story earlier this year, I was struck with the clear progression at work here. In this short narrative passage, we have a constellation of disputed but crucial themes involved in understanding the deeper logic at work in our theology of atonement and sovereignty. I’ll list them in no particular order:

  1. Sin as Idolatry – First of all, sin is presented to us as both relational and legal violation. The LORD gave Israel the Law, the covenant that codifies in its clear commandments the special relationship between the LORD and his chosen people. All of Israel’s sinful actions are committed “against the LORD”. To despise God’s commandments is to despise the God who gives them. This point is deepened when we reflect on the fact that the sin that is singled out here, almost exclusively, is that of idolatry in its various forms. Reflecting both the metaphors of King and husband, Israel’s violation of the 1st and 2nd commandments can only be seen as a betrayal of trust, fealty, and fidelity to her covenant Lord. In the covenant we have a relationship of law and love. Indeed, in their placement as the head of the commands, we are instructed to understand that, first and foremost, all sin has a God-ward dimension that cannot be reduced to its horizontal implications.
  2. Patience – Next, the God of the Old Testament is radically merciful and patient. After clear violation after violation, God sends warning after warning, prophet after prophet, both before and after the period of the kings of Israel, in order to draw his people away from their sin. I’ve told my students this before, but the history of Israel is not the history of God getting mad and destroying things. Instead, it is the history of God having patience with a people that repeatedly, irrationally, and violently reject him, until his hand is forced to act.
  3. Wrath – His warnings go unheeded. In fact, they seem to provoke only greater disobedience and idolatry of such depravity that includes child sacrifice and every sort of abomination that the Canaanites who dwelt in the land before them were driven out for. And so, God is presented to us as one is who is provoked to “anger” and wrath by sin. Three times God’s anger is mentioned here in this passage, twice after a laundry list of Israel’s sins, and once in the judgment formula. I’ve mentioned Volf’s reflections on God’s anger before, but once again we’re faced with the reality that the holiness, goodness, and yes, the love of God means he does not shrug his shoulders with a “meh”, in the face of gross evil, or really, any evil. For Though God’s emotions mustn’t be thought of in a simplistic fashion, we cannot deny the reality that God observes human sin and idolatry with great displeasure and the will to ultimately remove them. With references to God’s wrath/anger reaching spanning between 400-600 times in the Old Testament alone, if we are to take the revelation of God to Israel seriously, we cannot brush this aside.
  4. Judgment – Which brings us to the Exile. The judgment and exile of the Northern kingdom is clearly presented to us in what can only be described as a judicial execution of as the God’s anger at sin. “Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight.” Judgment is the enacting in history of the LORD’s moral evaluation of Israel’s actions in eternity. Given our prior reflections, we can’t help describing it as a penal judgment rendered in reference to the covenant law. This is not just some “Western, legalizing” interpretation of the event, as is so commonly charged, but a reading that flows from carefully attending to the logic of the text, as well as its placement within the broader narrative of God’s dealings with Israel. That said, we see the logic of the Exile as well. If the land is symbolic of, and part of, the covenant blessings Israel enjoys as part of her relationship with the LORD, it only makes sense that her rejection of the LORD would result in exclusion from the land. It is the “fearful symmetry” of judgment we’ve talked about before.
  5. Multiple-Agency – Finally, this judicial execution is presented both as the work of both divine and human agents. Shalmaneser is clearly given responsibility, acting for what were presumably less than holy reasons like imperial dominance and greed. And yet, in the inspired author’s presentation, without denying or explaining away the freely chosen actions involved, the ultimate agent of judgment is the LORD himself. Again, “And this occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the LORD their God”, and “Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight.” We see, then, both Divine and human agency at work in one and the same event, one wicked, and one wholly righteous in the destruction and Exile of Israel. While no explicit theology of mulitple-agency is cleanly laid out here, something like it is clearly presupposed.

This is the logic of exile: Israel violates God’s covenant at length, ignores God’s mercy, provokes God’s anger, and brings down God’s judgment. I’ve chosen one key passage where it is laid out rather cleanly, but it’s important to note that each of those five points could be buttressed with skads of verses, narratives, prophecies, and long-range themes in Scripture.

The Cross as Exile – So that people don’t misunderstand, breaking down the logic of exile takes on the importance it does for me because, again, it is that logic that informs part of how we understand Jesus’ glorious, representative work for us on the Cross. As the author of Hebrews hints at, Jesus’ execution on the cross was that of the Levitical scapegoat, carrying the sins of the people beyond the camp in a mini-representative-Exile:

So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. (Hebrews 13:12 ESV)

What’s more, in line with the curse of execution, he suffered “outside the gate” as the Law prescribes (Lev. 14; Num. 15; Deut 17) to exhaust the covenant curse of Exile-as-judgment in our place as our great High Priest, make us holy once more, and institute a new covenant with the people–a truer, more inviolable one–in his own blood:

Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. (Hebrews 2:17 ESV)

But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. (Hebrews 10:12-18 ESV)

I know that I’ve only just sketched a basic, partial, and patchwork understanding of these New Testament texts, but when you understand the logic at work in the Exile of Israel, you can begin to see how deeper logic of Jesus’ Exile on the Cross as divine judgment on sin isn’t just some “rationalistic, systematic-theological”, or “medieval”, imposition on them, but rather a way of understanding them describing the Cross as the culmination of a number of themes central to the divine drama of God’s faithful relationship to unfaithful Israel. Again, the dark backdrop of sin and judgment is the only one in which the light of sacrifice and grace can be see in all of its glory.

Soli Deo Gloria

Does Diversity of Form Lead to Diversity of Message in Theology? (Engaging KJV Pt. 2)

Last week I kicked off a little series engaging Kevin Vanhoozer’s Remythologizing Theology by working through the essays devoted to it in a recent volume of the Southeastern Theological Review. I opened with an appreciative post outlining Vanhoozer’s unique place in Evangelical theology, but from there I figured it would make sense just going through the various essays in order, beginning with Stephen J. Wellum’s “A Critical Appreciation of Kevin Vanhoozer’s Remythologizing Theology.

“A Critical Appreciation” aptly sums up the thrust of the essay; it’s appreciative, then critical. Wellum begins with an excellent multi-page summary outline of RT, noting carefully the methodological as well as material proposals Vanhoozer is making. From there, he moves into three areas of criticism within his overall appreciative take on the work. While Wellum raises some material issues (how does the author-analogy for sovereignty deal with reprobation?), he settles in mostly on issues of theological framework, truth, and method.

Though his section on the absence of apologetics, or rather the assumption of a Reformed theological framework, is worth pursuing, it overlaps with the thrust of Crisp’s essay, so I’ll leave that to the side for this post. What I’d like to do is frame Wellum’s question to Vanhoozer on the issue of literary forms, and then summarize what Vanhoozer has to say in his puckishly-titled follow-up article “Vanhoozer responds to the four horsemen of an apocalyptic panel discussion on Remythologizing Theology.”

mediumMore Than One Medium, More Than One Message? – Back in the day, Marshall McLuhan taught everybody that the “medium is the message”–essentially form and content are inseparable; how you say something is part of what you’re saying. For instance, print media and visual media are two very different things and they radically shape what is being communicated. Vanhoozer is well-known for giving the dictum a theological twist and arguing that the form, or forms, of the message–specifically the various genres of literature in Scripture–should play a role in our theologizing about the message, especially in Is There a Meaning in this Text? and The Drama of Doctrine.

It’s here that Wellum starts to wonder, “are literary forms overblown?” (pg. 24) See, it’s not just that Vanhoozer claims we should be paying more attention to genre so we can figure out that you’re not supposed to read Revelation the same way you read the book of Acts. That’s all fine and good. What causes his query is the further claim that he sees Vanhoozer making–that the plurality of mediums and genres (canonical plurality) yields a plurality of conceptualities and theologies (theological plurality.) Quoting Vanhoozer in DoD (pg. 275):

The plurality on the level of the canon may call for an equivalent plurality on the level of interpretative traditions. If no single conceptual (read, confessional) system is adequate to the theological plentitude of the canon, then we need a certain amount of polyphony outside the canon, too, in order to do justice to it. The church would be a poorer place if there were not Mennonite or Lutheran or Greek Orthodox voices in it.

Applying the idea to atonement theology, this would mean that instead of privileging one of the many metaphors used to speak of Christ’s work to one, single, conceptual framework, a remythologizing approach will let them all come to play and shape our understanding. In RT, he says something along the same lines about our theology of God. Again, he quote Vanhoozer,“The reality of God outruns any one theologian’s attempt to conceptualize it, just as Scripture outruns the attempt of any one interpretative scheme to capture its meaning (RT, p. 474).”

At this point, Wellum throws up his hands and confesses that he’s not quite sure what to make of all of this. It’s all fine and good to think through the various genres of Scripture, as we struggle to do theology that honors all that God revealed, but “why does this lead to theological diversity?” (pg. 25) Sure, we should think through and include all the metaphors used in Scripture when thinking through the Cross, but isn’t it possible to take them all into account and land at an account of things that is better than other attempts? “…does this entail that there is no single conceptual system which accurately understands the Scripture, or at least, in terms of the areas that are central to an understanding of the Gospel?” (pg. 25) Pushing further, Wellum also asks whether this holds up in light of the inter-textual usage of the Old Testament texts by New Testament authors, who seem to appropriate texts freely across literary forms as they re-read them in light of the redemptive-historical story-line of Scripture.

These are good questions. So what does Vanhoozer have to say about it? Well, as with everything he says, he says it playfully and humbly–especially since Wellum happens to be his former student.

The Master Responds – So what’s he getting at? Well, to begin Vanhoozer does a little clarifying as to what he does not mean by theological plurality:

The first thing to be said is that I am careful to locate diversity on the level of vocabulary (e.g., metaphors) and concepts, not the more fundamental judgments that underlie them (e.g., ontological judgments). A second
preliminary observation: diversity is not the same thing as indeterminacy or contradiction. To be sure, there is a certain tension in saying that the same basic theological judgment may be rendered in more than one set of concepts, some of which catch certain nuances better than others. But we need only think of the various metaphors to describe the saving significance of Jesus’  cross to see how canonical perspectives generate theological perspectives. (pg. 75)

In other words, don’t take this too far. Recognizing understandable theological plurality is not a charter contradictory or incoherent doctrinal formulations. It is, however, a call to humility in our theological pronouncements given our finiteness and the fecundity of texts themselves.

Next, Vanhoozer happily concedes Wellum’s last observation about the NT author’s seeming emphasis on redemptive-historical readings over ones sensitive to literary form. That said, in the dispute between Christ and the Tempter (Luke 4), Vanhoozer points out that they’re not just trading true propositions. The issue up for dispute is where these statements fit in the canonical narrative of redemption. In other words, the issue of re-reading texts in light of redemptive history is still an issue of appreciating form–in this case, the form of the whole canon.

Finally, one of the key points to understand, is that Vanhoozer’s reflections on form and genre are an attempt at correcting against some approaches to the place of genre in theology on offer.  For so many Evangelical theologians, possibly including Wellum, understanding genres is important so that you can better crack open the shell of the text, and get to the juicy propositional content. Vanhoozer’s basic hunch about the forms of biblical discourse is that they “do more than provide packaging for theological content.” (pg. 75) Vanhoozer’s concern is that we see Scripture not merely as a treasure-trove of divine propositions to be deciphered and reassembled in the proper, systematic order.

God had particular purposes in using wisdom, apocalyptic, narrative, instead of one, clear, monological form, and this is an insight of theological importance:

Form is also an ingredient in “rightly handling [orthotomeo] the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). It is through the various literary forms of Scripture, including stories and histories, that the divine authorial imagination shapes our view of God, the world, and ourselves, thus forming us to be those who can make right judgments concerning fittingness. (pg. 76)

At a more than systematic level, the forms of Scripture train the disciple in ways of seeing, hearing, knowing, loving, and responding to drama of the Gospel, and that says something about the God of the Gospel.

One of Ricoeur’s line in particular continues to intrigue me: “Not just any theology can be wed to the narrative form.” How much more is this the case with a theology wed to history, apocalyptic, wisdom, prophecy, law, and gospel! (pg. 76)

A Clarifying Word – For some, questions will remain. I have a couple myself. Knowing this, Vanhoozer points the inquisitive to works by Ricoeur, as well as his own essay “Love’s Wisdom: the authority of Scripture’s form and content for faith’s understanding and theological judgment ” (Journal of Reformed Theology 5, 2011) At the end of the day, given the amount of space he had, this is a helpful, clarifying word, though not a final one from Vanhoozer.

Still, in the space he takes, we find a challenge to go back to the text and really see the formal diversity for what it is: not an obstacle to be puzzled apart, reduced to a clear, propositional form, but God’s diverse word that strikes “all the chords of the human soul, not just the intellectual”, in order to train us to take our place in the grand Theo-drama of redemption.

Soli Deo Gloria 

Meet the Family

victoria_family_tree_1901Family trees can be fascinating. At some point we all get this itch to find out where we come from, who we are, or whether our ancestry contains some famous personage. We have this sense that knowing our roots says something about who we are; our identity is caught up in our heritage. I know for myself, there’s been a rumor going around that there is some Crusader blood somewhere up the family tree on my mother’s side, the Bendecks. I did some digging online–the kind you can do without paying money for blood tests and all that–and there might be something to it.

John Jefferson Davis points out that this fascination with our ancestry ought to be one more thing driving us to read our Bibles:

How do we understand our fundamental identity and purpose in life as we approach the Scriptures in prayerful meditation? Our sense of personal identity, either conscious or unconsciously presupposed, does influence the way we approach texts. If I am looking at a set of papers and hearing my friend explain her family tree and the fruits of her genealogical research, I may listen with polite and sincer interest; if someone shows me surprising new information about my family tree–that I am descended from some great celebrity from the past–then my interest is even deeper!

The Bible is, in a very real sense, my “family tree.” I read the biblical text not as an outsider but as an insider. Jesus Christ, the central character in the entire biblical narrative is not a stranger to me but–by virtue of my union with him–is my ancestor, my brother, and my beloved friend. “My lover is mine and I am his…His banner over me is love.” (Song 2:16, 4)

Meditation and Communion with God: Contemplating Scripture in an Age of Distraction, pg. 80

This, I think, was one of the advantages of being raised in in Sunday School; I’ve always had a vivid sense that when I was learning the flannel-graph stories about the patriarchs, I was learning something about myself. In ways more subtle than a 2nd grader could grasp, I was being ecclesially and scripturally-formed.

In one sense, I’ve always known that the Bible is not about me. It certainly wasn’t addressed to me when it was written, but the original communities which formed the people of God addressed by the prophets and apostles; my name appears nowhere in the text. At a deeper level though, Scripture is not about somebody else, but intimately involves me because I am united to its main character. Because of that, when I read the genealogy of Christ in Matthew 1, I’m not just reading about Jesus’ royal lineage, but my own. If I am in Christ, then King David is my flawed but glorious grandfather; Ruth is my redeemed pagan grandmother; Jacob is my ingenious but duplicitous forefather. As Paul argues, by faith I am included in the covenant people of God so that I am one of the heirs promised to Abraham (Rom. 4). Because of this, the failures of Israel are my family’s failures as are her glories.

And this is simply one more reason we should want to read our Bibles–it’s how we meet the family.

Soli Deo Gloria