A Crash-Course in Revelation (Or, Reformedish Thoughts on Scripture According to Westminster)

The crew doing some "theologizing" at Westminster Abbey.

The crew doing some “theologizing” at Westminster Abbey.

I’m a Bible guy. I got my M.A. in Biblical studies, so it ought to come as no surprise that not only the content, but the nature of Scripture itself (or rather, the complex of theology surrounding God, Scripture, and hermeneutics that Kevin Vanhoozer calls ‘First Theology’)  is frequently on my mind. This is especially the case since it’s constantly under dispute and the subject of great confusion in our current intellectual climate. One of the unfortunate things that I’ve found in the process of engagement with my peers, is how often modern criticisms of what are taken to be ‘classic’, or ‘traditional’ approaches to these things are really aimed at popularized bastardizations of more classic, nuanced accounts.

On Vanhoozer’s advice, I’ve found that one of the best ways of thinking through the nature of these things is by going back to some of the virtuoso performances in the history of theology–the great creeds and confessions–to see the way theologians of the past have articulated these issues. Though I’m no expert on the document, I thought it might be a profitable exercise to quote and offer brief, running commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith’s first chapter on Holy Scripture. While there are a lot of things I would like to say beyond what the Westminster Divines offered up, I think it’s still a remarkably clear, relevant treatment of the issue. And I don’t just say that because I’m a Presbyterian; I think many who’ve never been exposed to the document will feel similarly after encountering it. 

Before I begin though, I’d like to reiterate that I am not an expert on the document. This is going to be a kind of rough-shot commentary. I’ll do my best to avoid what I think are disputed areas among the Reformed, but I’m probably going to fall afoul of more expert analysis. For many of you it may even be beneficial to simply skip my commentary and read the text itself. If I get any of you to do even that, I’ll be happy. That said, let’s begin:

1. Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.

Contrary to some popular pictures, the Reformed acknowledge some form of general revelation. In other words, Scripture is not the only place that God has spoken to us about himself. Following Romans 1, the Westminster Divines (pastors, theologians, etc.) said that God has revealed himself to the human heart in the light of nature and creation. The problem is that due to sin we take that revelation, if we recognize it at all, and fall into idolatry with it, worshiping creation rather than the Creator as divine. That revelation doesn’t serve to save, but only to condemn for our “suppression of the truth” in unrighteousness. Instead of a rope pulling us to salvation, we turn it into a noose to hang ourselves with.

This is key point, then: if we’re going to find out what we need to know for salvation, for being restored to right relationship with God–in other words, the Gospel–Scripture is God’s method for clarifying the truth about God that has been obscured in our hearts and minds through sin. So while we might experience God in nature, and find bits of common grace truth in the literature of non-Christian writers, the only place we can go to hear God’s final, ultimate truth about himself and the things concerning salvation is in the revelation given to us in Scripture; it is the only Word designed to pierce the fog-cloud of idolatry and sin.

2. Under the name of Holy Scripture, or the Word of God written, are now contained all the books of the Old and New Testaments, which are these:

It’s a list of the traditional Protestant 66 book canon, here omitted for space. Consult the index of your Bible.

3. The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of the Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.

Protestants had a very clear logic for excluding the intertestamental writings as divinely-inspired, most of which I have forgotten except the fact that the Jews didn’t accept them as part of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible/Old Testament).

4. The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.

5. We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.

These two sections go together. Essentially, contrary to Roman Catholic claims, the Westminster Divines said that Scripture’s authority does not rest on the judgment of the Church’s Magisterium or authority. Nor is it dependent on any particularly smart individuals, or any of the rational arguments that might be forwarded in its favor in terms of evidence. While these certainly can help confirm our judgment of it as witnesses, ultimately, though, we accept the Scriptures because we recognize their inherent authority as God’s own Word. In other words, the Church recognizes an authority already possessed by the Scriptures themselves–they don’t authorize them. God’s self-testimony is enough to recognize the voice of the Holy Spirit who inspired the Bible and then illumine our hearts to recognize it. God’s Word is self-authenticating.

6. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

Alright, so there’s a lot going on here. First, everything you need to know to be saved, live a Christian life, and enter into glory is either directly stated in Scripture, or flows as a logical corollary of what is there stated. Which means that nobody can add doctrines that are not in Scripture, or don’t flow from Scripture into the number of things a Christian must affirm to be saved, or an obedient disciple. An example of what I’m talking about is the difference between the doctrine of the Trinity and mariological teachings. The doctrine of the Trinity can be derived as a necessary corollary of very explicit teaching about the unity of God and the divinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To reject the doctrine of the Trinity forces you to reject much of Scripture’s explicit teaching, even though there is no one silver-bullet verse laying out Nicene orthodoxy. On the other hand, pretty much nothing in Scripture necessitates a belief in Mary’s sinlessness, immaculate conception, and assumption into heaven although the Roman Catholic church has declared it to be a dogma. In fact, there’s a pretty solid case that the Scriptures point in the other direction on this issue.

Still, the Divines did say even though everything you need to know is in there, you still need the illumination of the Holy Spirit–God’s work of ‘lighting up’ the text, so to speak–to recognize that truth. Also, even though everything you need to know is there, that doesn’t mean everything you might want to know is there. In other words, there are some areas where you’re going to have to make some pragmatic decisions about the way you run the church, society, and so forth that–while they need to be consistent with the Bible–don’t have a straightforward blueprint in Leviticus or something.

7. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

This is probably the most interesting section to me. Often people take the doctrine of the perspicuity, or clarity of Scripture to mean that Reformed theologians think every text is “obvious” and “clear” on a straightforward reading. It’s then charged with a premodern naivete about the problem of “interpretive pluralism”–something we’ve apparently discovered in the last 10 years or so–and declared it to be the nefarious origin of silly, pop-Evangelical “me and my Bible” approaches that have left us with thousands of denominations, and so forth.

Now, it’s true that the doctrine has fallen on hard times. And certainly, in the hands of some it has been turned into a recipe for anti-intellectualism and radical individualism. But clearly we see that, as it is propounded by the Westminster Divines, this picture is simply not all there is to it. They acknowledge very clearly that there are some fuzzier passages in the text. It’s not all quite so obvious as anti-intellectual types might think.

What the Divines do assert, though is that the main outlines of the faith–Jesus, the cross, God, grace, and so forth–can be known by someone who takes the time study with the “use of the ordinary means.” By the “ordinary means”, from what I’ve read, this means something along the lines of attention to grammar, genre, logic, etc. In other words, you don’t have to have a specially authorized Magisterium, operating with a special, secret apostolic tradition accessible to no one, to plumb the secret depths of the Bible in order to understand the basic message of salvation. Yes, even the “unlearned” who take the time to carefully read can come to know the basics of what they need to know–a “sufficient” understanding–even if there’s plenty in the Scriptures that’s probably only accessible to the scholars. (Often, though, I find that not even pastors and teachers take the time to apply “the ordinary means” well enough. We live in an age of sloppy readers.)

8. The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by his singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal unto them. But, because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded, in the fear of God, to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that, the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner; and, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, may have hope.

God has preserved through providential means the Hebrew text of the OT and the Greek of the NT so that these texts might be the final court of appeal when it comes to disputes within the Church. But, since not everybody has the time, nor the opportunity to learn Greek and Hebrew, there should be vernacular translations in every language so that ordinary people might have the blessings and comfort available to us in the God’s Word. The promises of God in Scripture are not simply the province of the scholar, but the possession of the layman looking to know and love God through what he has revealed of himself.

9. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.

This is another important section when it comes to developing a hermeneutic, or method of interpretation, that is consistent with our beliefs about the nature of the Bible as God’s Word. Because we believe that all of Scripture is inspired by God, even though we recognize that there are difficult parts that require more special attention, we believe that Scripture is self-consistent because God is self-consistent; God is not a bumbler who contradicts himself. Because of that, our baseline principle of interpreting troubling sections of Scripture is to set them against the light of the clearer sections. If a certain unclear verse makes it appear that there might be more than one God, we stop and set it against the multitude of very clear verses that teach that there is only one Creator God.

Incidentally, one method that the early Church developed to do this well, is summarizing the clearest outlines of what Scripture teaches into creeds like the Apostles’ Creed, or the various summaries referred to by the Fathers as the Rule of Faith. These were by no means comprehensive statements of the Bible’s contents, but they were basic outlines drawn from Scripture that would keep you from going off the rails when it came to trouble. Note, the Rule of Faith was not some extraneous standard, or philosophical system imposed on the text, but really an outline drawn from Scripture itself. In a sense, it’s an instance of tradition being deployed as a support for maintaining biblical doctrine.

10. The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.

All of this leads very naturally into a summary statement about the doctrine of sola scriptura about which there is much confusion. Often-times this principle is taken to mean that tradition, the writings of the Fathers, and the councils are to be ignored while we only focus on a “pure” reading of the Bible that isn’t influenced by any tradition. Not only is a traditionless reading of the Bible impossible, that’s actually not what it meant to the Reformers or how sola scriptura functioned in their hands. Instead, it meant that all of these other sources of theological wisdom and authorities are finally to be submitted and subject to the Scriptures. Councils, commentaries, and creeds are great–but they are finally to be tested against the light of Scripture. Yes, all of these things may be helpful, beneficial, and as a whole necessary, but ultimately they are ancillary. We should read the Fathers, but like Protestants.

As Kevin Vanhoozer says, tradition is an expert witness, but not the final judge–that role is reserved for the Holy Spirit speaking Scripture:

Sola Scriptura refers to the practice of attending the Spirit speaking in the Scriptures as the final appeal in doctrinal disputes. How do we recognize the Spirit’s speaking? Church tradition enjoys the authority not of the judge but of the witness. Better: tradition enjoys the authority that attaches to the testimony of many witnesses. In this light, we many view the church fathers and church councils as expert witnesses as to the sense of Scripture in the courtroom drama of doctrine. Neither the Fathers nor the councils sit on the bench; the triune God has the final say. The task of theology is to cross-examine the witnesses in order to offer proximate judgments under the ultimate authority of the presiding judge: the Spirit speaking in the Scriptures.

To practice sola scriptura  is to treat Scripture alone as the “norming norm” and tradition as the “normed norm.” A theology that practices sola scriptura recognizes the ministerial authority of tradition, namely, its ability to nurture individals in and to hand on the apostolic faith through the church’s corporate witness. Canon may be the cradle of the Christian doctrine, but tradition is its wet nurse.

The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Account of Doctrine, pg. 234

Well, at this point I’ve rambled long enough. I hope this has been even somewhat helpful for some of you. If you liked what you read in the Westminster Confession, I’d encourage you to read through the rest of the document and follow out its Scripture references. It’s a very edifying experience. For those looking for a more in-depth treatment and analysis of four historical approaches to relating Scripture and Tradition, I would point you to this article by Tony Lane on the subject “Scripture, Tradition, and Church: An Historical Survey.”

Soli Deo Gloria

‘I Am of Christ’, or Jesus-Juking for the Gospel

thiseltonI appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:10-12)

I’m preaching through 1 Corinthians with my students this year and after only a couple of weeks, it appears this is going to be a transformational study for me. At least I hope it will. Unfortunately, while I’m trying to preach the flow of the text, and not rush through the letter, I don’t actually to examine each verse in the kind of detail it could be, or would satisfy my own interests. (As a college pastor you slowly learn that you even need to be careful to die to yourself when it comes to preaching in the way that would please you, but might not really edify the students.)

Case in point, after preaching through 1:10-2:5, the natural section, I realized I was still fascinated with that little phrase in v. 12, “I am of Christ.” What’s going on with that? Why would Paul treat someone claiming that they “follow Christ” as a problem? Isn’t that the point? Generally speaking, yes, but it appears there’s something more subtle at work here.

After his initial intro, Paul dives right into the problem of divisions in the Corinthian body (1:10-17). Apparently these young, ex-pagan Christians had imbibed (or failed to leave behind) their surrounding culture’s status-obsessed ethos. In his massive commentary on 1 Corinthians Anthony Thiselton says that among these new believers, many of whom had gone from ‘rags to riches’, or were hoping to, the issue of “status inconsistency” loomed large (pp 12-13). And so, per the shame-honor society they inhabited, they had brought their attitudes about social advancement through the right patron-client, or teacher-student relationship into the church.

Whether for reasons of style, initial relationship, or some other quality, people had begun picking teams. “I follow Paul” say the loyalists who remembers Paul as the man who planted the flag for Christ in Corinth. “I follow Apollos” say the newbies impressed by the guest lecture series he gave when he was in town. “I follow Cephas” say the old-schoolers who like following one of the original disciples. And on it goes. Like sports fans who have taken a harmless preference and turned it into an identity-marker and are ready to knife each other in the parking lot, believer is dividing against believer over who preaches the Gospel better.

But who, then, are those who say, “I follow Christ?”

The Suspects

In a special section, Thiselton lays out six proposed options for understanding the “Christ” party in Corinth (pp. 129-133):

  1. Judaizers?  F.C. Baur suggested it was Judaizers opposed to Paul’s anti-law party on the grounds that he wasn’t one of the original 12 disciples, but it appears there’s little exegetical support for this, especially when you understand that the parties here aren’t theological, but politically-motivated.
  2. Ultra-Spirituals? Other think it is hyper-spiritual gnostics who appeal to “Christ” as a way of getting around human means of revelation or authority structures. Think the hyper-Pentecostal who says that he doesn’t need pastors, or seminary eggheads, but Jesus just speaks to him. This would make sense with a lot of the themes in the letter.
  3. Interjection from a Copyist? Some think it’s just a inserted phrase that got copied in by accident when one dude indignantly wrote “I follow Christ” after reading it, and a later copyist mistook that marginalia for Paul. Quite unlikely for textual reasons, though.
  4. Misreading for Crispus?  A couple think maybe Kristou (of Christ) was originally Krispou (of Crispus), and that got misread. Again, highly unlikely for textual reasons.
  5. Pauline Rhetoric: Hypothesis and Declaration?  Paul likes using irony, sarcasm and other rhetorical techniques to drive points home. Couldn’t this be an example of this? On this reading, the phrase is supposed to be contrastive and that it’s not part of the critique, but is Paul’s own solution. But again, the construction of the phrase gives no sign of that.
  6. Pauline Rhetoric: Irony? Again, Paul’s creative, maybe he’s suggesting a “Christ party” just to show how silly this whole approach is. This works theologically, but again, the Greek construction makes it less likely.

So Thiselton says that option #2 is the most likely and I’m inclined to agree with him. Essentially, you’ve got a group of semi-Gnostic types, critical of authority, skeptical of the claims of teachers, and “men” have claimed to be able to go directly to the source via the Spirit, or whatever, without having to depend on authorized carriers of the traditions and so forth. “I follow Christ” turns out to be just another fleshly slogan, a Jesus-Juke used as a cover an all-too-human way of finding your identity outside of Christ.

Now, of course, the point of knowing all of this isn’t mere historical curiousity, but spiritual edification and practical application in the present.

Boasting In Not Boasting

Right off the bat, whatever you end up making of the Christ party, it’s obvious that the critique of personality-driven ministry and celebrityism in the church, especially in Evangelical circles, is worth meditating on. Far too many of us, like the Corinthians, have bought into our current culture eerily similar status-obsession and have sought to define ourselves via our party, our tribe, and their respective figureheads. “I follow Keller”, or “I follow Warren”, “I follow Wright”, or “I follow Driscoll–er, I mean…let me get back to you.” Young Reformedish guy that I am, I’ll be the first to confess I fall into this trap far too easy. I mean, it’s not just that I know you’re wrong when you disagree with Keller/Vanhoozer/Bavinck/Calvin, it’s that all-too-often your disagreement feels like a fundamental rejection of my way of being. And my brothers and sisters, this clearly should not be so.

Still, I wonder about the modern-day “Christ” party among us. It’s pretty easy to spot that sort of thing on the progressive wing of things: people who boast about being anti-power, anti-empire, anti-celebrity, anti-Evangelical-entertainment-industrial complex, all the while getting “I am of Boyd” and “I am of Hauerwas” tattooed on their firstborns. (You Anabaptists know I still love you, right? Well, some of you at least.) Deeper still, though, are the theological approaches that tend to relativize formal teaching structures in the name of the some vague, ‘way of Jesus’–modern-day heirs of those that Luther and Calvin deemed the “enthusiasts” during the Reformation.

But criticizing other tribes is too easy. What does this look like among the Reformed? This is maybe a little harder as there usually isn’t any obvious gnosticism, or telltale anti-authoritarian signs to pick up on. The “Christ” party is a bit more subtle. Now, As a young whipper-snapper, I suppose I have to be careful here.* Let me say clearly that I really enjoy Carl Trueman’s work–both academically, and his stuff over at Reformation21. As a young guy who is in very clear danger of falling into the kind of name-veneration and proxy status-seeking, I really take his warnings against that sort of thing to heart, even when it’s a bit uncomfortable. What’s more, I appreciate that he lives his anti-celebrity approach. When you email him, no joke, he really is his people.

Still, among the Reformed, or at least the internet-Reformed, there’s a dangerous tendency to boast in the fact that you don’t boast in men. Which, incidentally, is not quite the same thing as boasting in the cross of Christ alone. What I mean is that a lot of people have adopted the “I don’t follow celebrities to get my identity” ethos as their own, inverted-mirror way of constructing their identity. Is a pastor too popular? Might be a sellout. Did he write a book? Probably a sellout. Did it sell well? Definitely a sellout. Unlike me. I’m never gonna write a book, or if I do, I will make sure that nobody likes it. In other words, it’s still a way of being that is far too concerned with human estimations of associations, power, and rankings, and isn’t completely resting in the fact that it is “because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).

To reiterate, I know I’m probably still far too stuck in the ‘I am of Keller’ phase of things to sit comfortably under the preaching of this text, as are many of my friends in the wing of things I seem to be landing in. That said, for those of us looking to move beyond it, be careful you don’t confuse a fleshly Jesus-Juke with a true confession of Christ alone as the object of your faith.

Soli Deo Gloria

*As a side-note: Being fairly new to this wing of things, I’ve often thought it would be helpful for someone to create a map of the American Reformed world: “Thar be Kuyperians! “, or “Land of the Theonomists, watch for stones”, or “Here reside Old-Siders, quote none before 1700″, or “Beware Reformed Cannibals: They eat their own!”

Does God Let His Kids Lie About Him? A Thought (or Two) on the Enns/Bell Interview

enns

Look that face. What a friendly-looking dude. You almost hate disagreeing with him. Almost. ;)

Does God let his kids lie about him? That’s the question I found myself asking after reading this interview of Pete Enns by Rob Bell. Enns has a new book on the Bible coming out, and it promises to be the new progressive-Evangelical handbook for scrapping your old doctrine of Scripture, so, of course, Bell pulled him onto the blog to chat. Unsurprisingly the issue of ancient science and Old Testament violence came up.  I’ll quote Enns said about it at length, because why not?:

OK, so can we focus on one specific issue here that troubles a lot of people? In your book you do a spectacular job of explaining those violent passages in the Old Testament. Can you give my readers a bit on that?

I spend a chapter on in my book on God’s commend to the Israelites to exterminate every Canaanite man, woman, and child and take over their land. This is the go-to example many point to of God acting more like Megatron than a God of love. 

This is a huge issue that has bothered people ever since there’s been a Bible. It’s nothing new. It’s hard to find Christians or Jews that don’t have at least some problem with this. When we hear of modern genocides, where perpetrators claim that God is on their side, we just call that ethnic cleansing at the hands of crazy people. So how can Christians say God opposes genocide today when he commanded it yesterday? That’s what we call a real theological problem.

Well, that and the fact that Jesus said, “Love your enemies” and “my kingdom is not of this world” rather than “Let’s kill all the Gentiles [Romans] and take back our land.” So, on top of the moral problem, Jesus doesn’t seem to be on the same page with what God says in the Old Testament. 

This issue is involved enough that you can’t Tweet an answer. You really need to walk through the paces of discovering the Bible’s ancient voice. We take a step back and try to understand the Israelites as ancient people with ancient ways of thinking. They weren’t like the “nice Christians” we meet at church picnics and who listen to gospel quartets.

The Israelites lived at a rough time, the Iron Age, when nations fought tooth and nail over land and resources and the gods fought right along side of them, leading the charge

The nations that won had the mightier gods, and victory (slaughter, pillaging) gave gods honor. Losing meant your god was either a wimp or he was mad at your people for some reason and wanted to teach them a lesson in obedience. 

The Israelites were part of this ancient Iron Age world of warring, land acquisition, and destroying the enemy. They fit right in, and to expect their God-talk to be on a totally different page is to start off on the wrong foot. 

We shouldn’t cheer the Israelites and emulate them, which is what Christians with a violent streak throughout history have done—Spanish conquerors of the “West Indies” or European settlers of “America” treat the “new world” like it was Canaan and take over. And neither can we sidestep or minimize the violence, which is another strategy Christians have had for handling these passages.

They are what they are, and the Bible looks the way it does because God lets his children tell the story

Children tell stories of their parents from their point of view as children, which is not the whole story. Think of boys bragging about their dads on the playground. I loved my father and I defended his honor. He was a mighty man who could lift heavy objects, was a sharpshooter, brilliantly smart, and as strong as any man anywhere. 

Not everything I said about my dad was fully and objectively true, but this is how I saw my father, a description born of love, from my youthful perspective, that followed the “rules of the playground.” 

Eventually, looking back from a later vantage point, I realized how much my dad-talk actually limited my father, but that was how we talked and I wasn’t able, obviously, to take a step back and tell my father’s story some other way. 

And even if I could, if I had said things back then like how hard he worked to support us, how he stayed up when I was throwing up at night, and how he never missed my Little League games, I wouldn’t have gotten across to the other guys how awesome my dad was, how much better he was than all the others.

The Israelites described God according to their “rules,” how they and the people around them understood gods in general. And here’s a huge lesson in there for us today. 

We always perceive God from our vantage point, according to ways of thinking we aren’t even aware of most of the time. In these stories, the Bible gives us a glimpse of ancient Israelites doing that very same thing. 

So, when we read these stories, we don’t read them as absolute rules to live by or the final word about what God is like. Christians believe that in the Gospels, we get a deeper understanding about God from Jesus. The Gospels don’t allow us to remain where the Iron Age Israelites were in their understanding of God.

In other words, the Bible isn’t a rulebook for Christian living. It is a narrative that has movement and a trajectory. 

And while we’re at it, archaeologists are about as sure as you can be that the mass extermination of Canaanites that the Bible talks about didn’t happen—which is good news, I think. This helps us see these stories are stories that tell us how the ancient Israelites, at least at some point in their history, understood God.

And that, I realize, is a very long answer, but it’s as short as I can make it.

Alright, there’s a lot going on in there, some of it good and some of it bad. It’s kind of a variation on the Jesus-Tea-Strainer theme we’ve chatted about before. But like I said, the main question I’m left with is, “Does God allow his kids to lie about him?” Because that’s the basic thrust of Enns’ answer, right? The Israelites are young kids, excited about their dad, who told tall, pretty violent, tales about him in terms their kid conceptions of reality could grasp. And God looked on smilingly, letting it go because they meant well.

Now, to some degree I go along with a theology of accommodation in revelation. Most Reformed do. Calvin used to say that God used a sort of baby-talk to tell his children about himself, using terms they would understand to communicate. Bavinck developed this way of thinking at length. Isn’t what Enns saying kind of like that? Kind of, but where they part ways is the issue of truth. Does divine accommodation mean that well-meaning lies are okay about God? Calvin, Bavinck, and most of the Christian tradition would probably say no.

Indeed, looking at the thrust of the Old Testament revelation, God doesn’t seem to take lying about him too well. What are the first few commands?

And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. (Exodus 20:1-7)

So:

  1. Don’t worship other gods.
  2. Don’t make idols or false representations of me.
  3. Don’t misuse my name and cheapen it.

Well, it seems to me that making up stories about God, saying he did a bunch of stuff he didn’t really do, like commanding a bunch of stuff he would never command because it’s clearly abhorrent to him, would probably fall afoul of 2 and 3, don’t you think? I mean, if Enns’ reading of the New Testament is right, and Jesus really is uber-pacifistic to the degree that all judgment or violence is just completely foreign to the nature of God, then these stories aren’t just tall tales, but pretty big whoppers. In fact, they’d seem to be blasphemous.

Now that would be odd wouldn’t it? For God to deliver commands to us about not falsely representing him and taking his name in vain, through narratives that falsely represent him and take his name in vain? What kind of confusing father is that? A little exaggeration here and there is one thing, but to fundamentally miss a key component like that is kind of a big deal. I mean, especially when God seems particularly picky about the “no false images” thing (Ex. 32-33).

In fact, in his helpful little work Against the Gods, John D. Currid has argued that when the OT picks up images from the surrounding culture, there’s usually a polemical edge. In other words, the OT revelation is often-times taking up cultural ideas and then subverting them, or explicitly opposing them through ironic use. I’m not that convinced, then, that God would inspire, or semi-inspire, or even simply ‘tolerate’ texts remaining in Scripture, his covenant documents, that grossly misrepresent him to his covenant people, the nations, and future generations of believers. It’s not just about inerrancy, but about having a trustworthy God. Accommodation is one thing, but if your accommodation includes aggressive falsehood, it’s actually not accommodation but misrepresentation.

Beyond that, the issue of culture and chronological snobbery pops up again. Enns makes the point that we always view God from our vantage point, thinking of God in terms that our culture finds amenable and understandable. But if that’s the case, then shouldn’t we slow the train down on judging the stories the Israelites told? Shouldn’t we be careful about our own modern, therapeutic ideas of parenting, democracy and such creeping in to our theology? Why is our culture’s judgment about the divine, or violence, or whatever, obviously more trustworthy? Because it’s ours? I don’t think Enns wants to go there.

Finally, yes, the passages in question can be pretty troubling. Still, I think there are answers that are helpful. I’ve got my own article on the issue of the conquest of the Canaanites trying to treat the issue in historical and theological context. But again, I’d point people to the work of Paul Copan in Is God a Moral Monster?or this helpful piece by Alastair Roberts. I’d also argue that even if Jesus does point us to a pacifistic ethic (which I doubt), there are ways of relating the Old and New Testaments in such a fashion that you don’t have to argue the OT was false in certain ways.

Because I’m lazy, I’ll quote myself from a post on a related subject:

So what do we say instead? I…would say something like, “Well, looking at Christ, his affirmation of the OT, as well as instruction to the effect that he has fulfilled and we’re moving on now, let’s look back and see how this command was functionally-appropriate for the time.” It’s a way of accepting all of what Jesus says when he affirms:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

There’s both an affirmation that it’s all true, it was all valid, and yet, at the same time, now that Christ has come, we aren’t going back there. God spoke it all and did it all–every single law, judgment, story, and so forth–to somehow point forward towards a climax of grace and justice in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But of course, if you just cut bits out, or say the Israelites or Moses were confused at such & such point when the text says “the word of the Lord”, then you’re actually leaving out some of the testimony to the Glory of Christ.

Well, there’s more to say, but I suppose I’ll end my ramble here. Do I think God accommodates himself to be understood by his children? Yup. Do I think that includes lies about him? Nope. And neither should you.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. I like Pete Enns. He seems like a fun guy and I’d love to consume a sandwich and beverage with him at some point. So, though we disagree, please don’t be a jerk in the comments.

Legit Ladies of the Exodus

moses motherI love noticing layers and dimensions to the narratives of Scripture that I haven’t seen before. I was particularly edified the other day when reading an older post by my Mere Fidelity compatriot, Alastair Roberts, on the early chapters of Exodus. Among other things, he takes some time to highlights what a dominant role the godly, courageous women play early on in the story. I thought it was worth quoting at length:

Throughout Exodus 1 we see the fertility and liveliness of the children of Israel and the thwarted efforts of Pharaoh to arrest their growth. First, Pharaoh afflicts the Israelites, setting taskmasters over them, and forcing them to build supply cities. Later on the description of the process of making bricks will recall the building of Babel in Genesis 11. Pharaoh then speaks to the Hebrew midwives, instructing them to kill the sons and spare the daughters. The killing of the sons prevented the children of Israel from defending themselves or challenging the Egyptians, while the daughters would be spared for Egyptian men. Once again we see a threat to the promised seed and to the woman by the serpent/dragon figure. The dragon wants to kill the seed that threatens him and use the woman to produce his own seed.

The Hebrew midwives, like the godly women of Genesis, deceive and lie to the tyrant. The women of the Hebrews are contrasted with the Egyptian women, who lack their vigour. The sense is of a divinely given life that is continually outpacing the death-dealing tyrant that is fruitlessly seeking to overtake and arrest it. Having failed with the midwives, Pharaoh then instructs his people to kill every Hebrew baby boy, while saving the daughters alive. The fact that midwives are mentioned should also alert us to the fact thatIsrael is about to undergo a national birth.

It is important that we recognize that this story, as in the case of other great stories of Exodus, focus at their outset on faithful women (Rachel and Leah, Hannah, Mary and Elizabeth). Exodus 1 and 2 are all about women and especially daughters – the Hebrew midwives, the Hebrew mothers, the daughters of the Israelites, Jochebed, the daughter of Levi (2:1), Miriam, the daughter of Jochebed (v.4), Pharaoh’s daughter and her maidens (v.8), and the seven daughters of Midian (2:16). Our attention is typically on the slain sons and on Moses, and we miss the crucial role that the women play in the story.

It is the women who outwit the serpent, Pharaoh, and mastermind the salvation of the Hebrew boys. It is Jochebed and Miriam who bring about Moses’ salvation and the daughter of Pharaoh who rescues him. The place of women in the narrative will be important as we go along. Having registered the importance of this detail, we will remark upon its presence at various points as we proceed.

The women and the seed are in direct conflict with the tyrant because the story of the Exodus grows out of the enmity established between the woman and her seed and the serpent and his seed in Genesis 3:15. Until Moses grows up, the only man really active within Exodus is the greater serpent, the dragon Pharaoh. Exodus 1:15—2:10 is a story of Eve and the dragon.

Yes, when we think of heroes of the faith, there are a lot of mens’ names on that list. But we shouldn’t for an instant forget the story of the Gospel is one that includes both men and women. We have a great many fathers in the faith, but we also have some really, really legit mothers as well.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity Podcast: The Trinity and the Bible w/ Fred Sanders!

fred sandersThis week’s podcast we had the honor of having Fred Sanders on the show. For those of you who don’t know him, he’s one of my favorite people and an excellent trinitarian theologian working over at the Biola Torrey Honors program. We talked with Fred about what goes into developing the doctrine of the tradition based on the Bible, tradition, and so forth. As usual, Fred’s great. If you like the discussion and are interested in Fred’s work, you can check him blogging at Scriptorium Daily or his excellent book on the Trinity The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything.

A couple of things to note, though. First, the sound quality on my end is a bit shoddy. It’s mostly fine, but the first minute there is rough. We’re working on it.

Second, please do take time if you can to rate and if possible review the podcast over at our iTunes RSS feed. Also, feel free to subscribe.

Soli Deo Gloria

Kevin Vanhoozer Corrects N.T. Wright’s 5-Act Hermeneutic

Wright againWhile many other scholars have made similar points, Kevin Vanhoozer and N.T. Wright have probably done more than any other theologians to help me understand the Bible as a drama. As opposed to viewing the text as a static collection of theological bullet-points, they suggest we conceive of it in active, narrative terms, with a plot whose development yields the doctrine which gives life to the Church. So, when one of them offers up a criticism and nuance of the other’s approach the way Vanhoozer does here, I’m definitely interested:

Tom Wright has thrice put forward a model for conceiving biblical authority that trades on the notion of biblical improvisation. He compares the drama of redemption to a Shakespeare play, most of whose fifth act is missing. The church has the first four acts (creation, fall, Israel, Christ) but must work out the fifth act (church) for herself, all the while remaining in character. It is not enough for the actors “merely to parrot what has already been said”; they must go beyond the sacred page and find—improvise!—the conclusion. Still, the first four acts are the “authority” for the fifth act, hence the idea of “improvising with a script.”

This suggestive model has much to commend it. However, I see the fall not as its own act, but as the conflict in the first act, creation. I prefer to see each of the five acts of the theodrama as set in motion by a divine act. Hence: creation, election of Israel, Christ, Pentecost and the church, consummation. On my dramatic reckoning, the church does not have to work out the ending so much as to live in its light. The essential thing is to play the right act. The church is no longer in Act 2, under the law, nor in Act 3, in which case it would have to do the work of Christ. Nor is it already in Act 5, as some in the first-century church at Thessalonica with an over-realized eschatology mistakenly thought. No, the church is in Act 4, an in-between the first and second comings of Christ time, marked by the firstfruits of the end time but not yet at the end.

-Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology, (Kindle Locations 2961-2973).

On one level I find this all rather compelling. The more traditional Creation, Fall, and Redemption (or Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation) is still rather serviceable. Wright’s suggestion is helpful, though, in that it distinguishes Israel’s phase thereby ensuring we don’t simply skip over it straight to Jesus–as if we could. It also helps us remember that while Israel is part of the Jesus plan, it is still a distinct phase, not to be confused with Christ’s work or that of the church.

Vanhoozer’s rolling the Fall back into the first act of Creation is also admirable for it’s theocentricity–God-centeredness. When it comes to thinking through the different acts as periods of human action, the Fall needs to be accounted for in our moral and theological reflection, but isn’t really stage on its own, it’s a presupposition for the rest. The narration of salvation-history is governed by God’s gracious action, not human sin.

I don’t have much to comment beyond that except to ask: what do you all think? Theologians, Bible-types, any thoughts?

Soli Deo Gloria

ACTUAL VANHOOZER SPEAKING on Augustinian Inerrancy (Video)

For those of you who are curious, and you should be, here is the short video by Kevin Vanhoozer (a.k.a. The Theologian) on his Augustinian account of a “Well-versed” inerrancy that was shown at ETS 2013 last month. I highly commend it to you, especially as a teaser for his account in the Five Views book on the series. I won’t say any more because ACTUAL VANHOOZER SPEAKING:

Soli Deo Gloria