Five Practices for Actually Doing Theological Exegesis

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

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

Voss wonders,

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

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

So what are these practices?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soli Deo Gloria

When it Comes to the Bible, Sometimes It’s Best To Say, “I Don’t Know”

This is Idris Elba playing a guy named 'Luther.' Martin Luther said this quote. Ergo, I feel justified using this picture to get you to read the article.

This is Idris Elba playing a guy named ‘Luther.’ Martin Luther said this quote. Ergo, I feel justified using this picture to get you to read the article.

The Bible can be a hard book at times. And that’s so for a number of reasons. In the first place, we’re sinners and so we don’t always like listening to what God has to say through it. Kind of like when your mom would call you to take out the trash from up the hall–you manage not to “hear” the message.

Beyond that, sometimes even when you want to understand it’s just plain difficult. It’s a grown-up book, translated from a different language (two or three, actually), at a remove of thousands of years, across cultures, and shared histories. What’s more, this collection of narratives, poetry, visions, and letters concerns itself with the most sublime and transcendent Subject of all: God and his works.

Of course, that’s not to say we can’t understand it all. That would be rather extreme. No, much of the Bible can be read and understood by most, and there is enough that can be understood by all so that they may know what they need to be saved and live life with God. God has can and does reach us through his Word. That’s the classic doctrine of the clarity of Scripture.

All the same, the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture does not teach that no part of the Bible is difficult, or that it will always be equally obvious to all (2 Pet. 3:16). There will be much that is beyond us. And this is important for believers to admit, at times, for a number of reasons I’ll get into in a moment.

But first, I was reminded of this point as I was reading some Luther the other night. At this point, he’s preaching through the John 3 and he comes to the line about being born again of water and the Spirit and the difficulties of interpretation. Luther thinks that Munzer has badly misinterpreted the Scriptures here and he moves to correct him, but before doing so, he makes an important point:

But let these words stand, and do not indulge in subtle arguments, even though they appear foolish and strange to reason. Take them in their simple sense, just as they read, not as some have interpreted them. Munzer, for example, declared that water here symbolizes affliction and temptation. One must not be willful with the Word of God. It is better to say: “I do not understand the words,” than to alter them. It is better to leave my hands off and to commend it to God than to add to or detract from God’s words. Holy Writ must be treated with veneration and profound awe. In their impudence, however, the schismatic spirits do not do this; they are forward, as we read in the second chapter of the Second Epistle of St. Peter. They consider the Word of God nothing else than the word of man (2 Peter 2:10). But don’t meddle with God’s Word. If you do not understand it, accord it the honor to say: “I shall wait until I do understand it.”

Sermons on the Gospel of St. John, Chapters 1-4, pg. 283

There is a wisdom in slowing down in your interpretation of Scripture. God’s Word is holy. It is the set apart of his apostles and prophets–heralds of the Holy One–for the divine purpose of drawing his people into fellowship with the Triune God. It is, therefore, as a Kingly proclamation, nothing to be trifled or meddled with. It must “be treated with veneration and profound awe.” In which case, Luther says there will come times when it’s entirely appropriate to say, “I do not understand the words.” There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

I think it’s especially important for those of us called to teach the Bible–whether in the classroom or the pulpit–to give heed to Luther’s here.

There is a pressure for the pastor or the teacher to be the one who knows everything all the time. Now, of course, it’s quite reasonable for us to expect the pastor to know some things. Maybe even more things than most in the congregation. (Though, as any pastor knows, there are usually a number of saints who can give you a run for your seminary education sitting in the pews). Still, whether it’s self-imposed or put on them by others, the pressure to “know it all”; to have every verse down, ready to comment on, and every theological equation solved is there.

And so the temptation is to spout off an answer when we really don’t know what we’re talking about. Here are some reasons it’s better to just say “I don’t know,” sometimes.

First, as Luther says, we avoid dishonoring God’s Word that way. When we say God’s Word says something it doesn’t, we’re altering it. We’re changing what God’s written to us and that is no small thing. Now, to be sure, every preacher has done this at some point, even in their earnest desire to preach the Word. And I believe God understands and has mercy on these things. But to do so, not out of earnest conviction, but merely because one hasn’t given enough thought to the issue or simply in order to have something to say and prop up your pride is sinful. When faced with a passage too difficult, better to simply say, “I don’t know.”

Second, by doing so, not only do you honor God’s Word, but you teach your people to honor God’s Word. You teach them humility before God’s Word that they then take with them to their own study. What’s more, by admitting your own lack of knowledge at certain points, you give them permission to “not know” things and yet continue to study nonetheless. I think that was one of the more helpful things I did for my students. They all knew I read and studied like crazy, but I’d still have moments where I’d have to look at them and say, “You know, I have to go look that up more. I’m just not sure.”

Finally, it should help prevent you from discrediting God’s Word in the ears of your hearers. Unfortunately, your bad teaching that flows from your inability to just admit you’re beyond your depths can turn people off from the Bible because of the distortion you inject into it. Speculative, shallow, half-cocked answers to difficult questions don’t make you sound smarter, they only make the Bible sound worse. Being willing to simply admit you don’t know avoids that danger.

Obviously, none of this is an argument for simply shutting up and never preaching anything. As I said, I think there’s plenty that’s clear, and with some study, we are able to truly understand, preach, and teach the Bible. All the same, it’s okay to admit there are times it’s beyond us. It may be that in precisely that way we treat it as we ought: as God’s Holy Word.

Soli Deo Gloria

Turretin: Been There, Done That (Or, The Same Old Challenges)


This is not Francis Turretin.

Francis Turretin’s theology is interesting for a number of reasons.  First, it’s not just any old systematic theology. It’s an “elenctic” theology, which means it’s conducted in a particular fashion and is shaped apologetically. Though the account is orderly and flows in a fairly clear manner, Turretin isn’t actually covering every issue in a systematic or organic fashion. He’s covering the material by arguing for, or against positions held by atheists, Catholics, Anabaptists, and so forth, and generally getting to what he thinks ought to be covered in order to maintain the faith.

What’s interesting is that this reveals both the similarities and the differences between our context and the 17th Century context in which Turretin was writing. On the one hand, it’s been fascinating to find the questions that exercised theologians the time that most today wouldn’t bother about. For instance, Turretin devotes several questions and multiple pages to the issue of which texts ought to be used, the Vulgate, the Hebrew and Greek, the Septuagint, and so forth in his dispute against the Roman Catholic theologians, whereas I can’t imagine any major systematics trifling with the issue today. Moments like these reveal the way certain issues that are massive in our current context, will one day become footnotes in ever-shifting conversations.

On the other hand, it’s instructive to note the parallels or the similarities. When you notice a 17th Century theologian addressing a trend you still run across, then you begin to note broader, more perennial problems. So, again, when it comes to Scriptures, Turretin spends a lengthy section (Vol 1, Q. V, pp. 70-86) devoted to answering the charge that the Scriptures contain real contradictions. This question actually exemplifies both dynamics. People have always been concerned with contradictions within Scripture, and yet Turretin spends most of his time answering numeric and genealogical oddities instead of the kinds of problems most harmonizing apologists trouble themselves with nowadays.

Still, that’s not the section that caught my eye. What I found fascinating was his listing of the various opponents he was attempting to defend the Scriptures from, as well as their various motives for proposing contradictions in Scriptures.

First, he says, come the atheists and unbelievers:

“…yet the enemies of true religion and of Scripture in every age flatter themselves that they have found not a few contradictions in it and boast of their discoveries in order to overthrow its authenticity; Porphyry, Lucian (of Samosata), Julian the Apostate and others formerly of the Gentiles, and many atheists of the present day who declare that they have met with many contradictions in it which cannot in any way be reconciled. Thus there is the necessity of taking up this subject particularly in order that the integrity of the Scriptures may be preserved safe and entire against their wicked darts. (Vol. 1, Q.V,  Sec. I)

Obviously, this is unsurprising. Unbelievers are going to try to undermine the truth of the Scriptures. Dawkins and his high school fanboys will be on to exploiting any possible errors. The next three types of “under-miners”, though, are the ones whose motives I find most interesting because they are believers who “affirm” the Scriptures, and yet press the issue of contradictions all the same.

We have to deal here not only with declared atheists and Gentiles who do not receive the sacred Scriptures but also with those who, seeming to receive them, indirectly oppose them For instance, the Enthusiasts who allege the imperfection of the written word as a pretext for leading men away from it to their hidden word or private revelations; the papists, who while maintaining the divinity of the Scriptures against the atheists, do not scruple with arms fitted to themselves to oppose as much as they can its own and so the entire cause of Christianity, and to deliver it up to the enemy by insisting upon the corruption of the original so as to bring authority to their Vulgate version. Lastly, many Libertines who, living in the bosom of the church, are constantly bringing forward these various difficulties and apparent contradictions in order to weaken the authority of Scripture. (Vol. 1, Qu. V, Sec. II)

To be clear, we have:

  1. Enthusiasts who want to supplement the written word with their own “spiritual” insights.
  2. Roman Catholics who press inconsistencies in order to argue for the Vulgate (and the Magisterium in the long run).
  3. Libertines who press the “contradictions” in order to undermine the authority of the text, presumably in order to create space for their own deviations.

I found this fascinating because, with some minor variations, we basically have the same kind of moves being made by similar groups. We still have Enthusiasts or Spiritualists today.  For many, we encounter them in the hyper-Pentecostal types supplanting the text for the movements of “the Spirit” who overrules the dead “letter” of Scripture. Or, they can be found in their more postmodern descendants appealing to textual indeterminacy, aporia, or “tensions” in the text in order to introduce the insights of their own favorite cultural interpreter to fill the gap. (My current favorites are Girardian interpretations that posit discrepancies between OT and NT in order to introduce their words about mimetic theories apparently “hidden from the foundation of the world” and so forth.) Roman Catholics (though not all), will appeal to similar difficulties and tensions as a reason to stick to an authoritative Magisterium that can settle all of this nasty interpretation business for us, and just hand us a nice, clean list of doctrines. Finally, there are the modern-day Libertines, be it old-school Liberals, or progressive Revisionists, who appeal to Bible difficulties of all sorts in order to create space for reshaping Christian ethics along new lines.

Apparently this sort of thing is not as new as we’re tempted to think. I don’t know about you, but I find comfort in that.

Of course, this doesn’t excuse us from taking their objections and challenges seriously. Turretin’s example is important here in that while he doesn’t budge an inch, and he’s just as liable as any of his age to engage in some polemical flaming (we often fail to account for the rhetorical and political climate of earlier ages when we judge the writings of earlier theologians), he takes his opponents seriously enough to later report their challenges accurately and answer them with intellectual diligence.

Turretin is also instructive also in who he doesn’t list for criticism or condemnation: honest readers in the Church troubled with Bible difficulties. One could see that as an indication that he doesn’t believe they exist, but it’s also important to note that he doesn’t immediately shut down the question of difficulties. In fact, he spends the next fifteen or so pages running through dozens of them, producing the readings and opinions of various scholars and their attempts to resolve these difficulties, carefully noting the variety of options. He doesn’t simply close the conversation with a “Shut up and believe, sinner.” It seems his concern is to answer the question of contradictions presented by his opponents, precisely for those sitting in the pews who might be led astray or be deprived of the confidence of the Scriptures. Be gentle and tender with the doubters, even as you protect them from the challengers.

The current challenges we’re tempted to think of as unprecedented obstacles to a rather straightforward trust in Scripture for establishing doctrine and life, are really just iterations of very old tunes. We’ve been here before, risen to the challenge, survived, passed on the faith, and moved on to meet the next version of the same old thing.

Soli Deo Gloria

Luke Skywalker Never Shot A Blaster Rifle (Or, a Couple Options in Progressive Revelation)

lukeblasterI’ve been thinking of the issue of progressive revelation a bit lately. It keeps coming up the rather feisty discussions around the nature of Scripture, the character of God, and what we do with the Old Testament. Often-times people on both sides of the growing split (and those somewhere in the middle) will appeal to the concept, agree that it’s important for Christians to acknowledge, and yet there remain significant, troubling differences between the conversation partners as to the way this idea ought to be employed in developing our thoughts about God. Actually, it seems that in the current discussions, there is not merely a debate about the application of the concept, but rather there seem to be two entirely different kinds of progressive revelation on offer. Bear with me as I think out loud here.

1. Consistent/Adjunctive. The first concept of progressive revelation I take to be the more traditional of the two. In this case, the progress of revelation means a real growth in the knowledge of God from the beginning of the narrative in Genesis to the end of the narrative in Revelation. At the same time, it is continuous, self-consistent knowledge of God that unfolds and expands as the story progresses. While in the First Testament, we learn that God is by nature one, the New Testament revelation of the Incarnation and the Trinity does not change that, though it significantly alters our understanding of what the confession of God’s oneness means.

In other words, we don’t go from monotheists to tritheists–we go from monotheists to Trinitarian monotheists. It is not the YHWH was lying when he said that he alone was God and that his glory he would give to no other. Instead, it turns out that the Son who took on flesh in Jesus Christ was always to be identified with YHWH. YHWH remains the same today, yesterday, and forever, and all that was said of him in the First Testament is true, but now it there is a deeper layer and dimension to that truth. In a sense, it is by addition, but it’s even more than that. To steal an image from Lewis, it’s less like simply going from a square to a bigger square, but understanding that the square is a cube.

2. Contradictory/Disjunctive.  This one we might call the “evolutionary” view in that it often coincides with an evolutionary understanding of religion inherited from the older history-of-religions approach popular in European scholarship of the last couple centuries. This kind of progressive revelation isn’t progression by way of natural narrative development, or by way of simple addition. Instead, it’s more about moving from higher to lower understanding, not simply less clear to more clear. Older, more primitive religious conceptions such as the worship of multiple gods (polytheism) gives way to the worship of a chief god (henotheism), and eventually to belief in one Creator God (monotheism).*  It includes the possibility not only of expansion in our knowledge of something, but the contradiction of it. For that reason, we may also term this a “disjunctive” kind of progressive revelation.

The most popular example I’ve been seeing lately is about God’s activity in history. The classic extreme version of this is the Marcionite rejection of the Old Testament God as the revelation of a vicious, deficient, Demiurge who is superseded by the revelation of the loving Father of Jesus Christ who wants to save us from our miserable creation. The more recent model, though, is not that extreme. Instead, many suggest that our knowledge of God progresses by learning that while the Ancient Hebrews had some real encounter and true revelation of the Creating and Redeeming God, the revelation of Jesus Christ in the New Testament reveals that there was much falsehood and error mixed in, given their limited vantage point and backwards cultural presuppositions. The advent of Jesus then, “clarifies”, not only by sharpening edges still fuzzy in the OT, or adding a depth dimension, but by also by straightforward negation.  In many ways, God is actually not what Hebrew Scriptures have proclaimed, but only what Jesus in his incarnation reveals him to be. Of this sort of “christocentrism”, we have spoken before.

Revealing Luke Skywalker

Let me clarify illustrate the differences between the two types of progressive revelation by using Star Wars, because Star Wars.

In the first type, we find an analogy in the revelation in The Empire Strikes Back that Darth Vader has actually been Luke Skywalker’s father the whole time. This is the kind of narrative revelation that is mostly consistent and adjunctive. This is a new fact about Luke that is a shock to the viewer, but it is primarily one that fills out his character, even while it does not contradict what we’ve come to see about Luke’s activities, characteristics, and so forth–at least insofar as we haven’t made our entire of Luke dependent on his not-being-Darth Vader’s son. Yes, our understanding is changed of him and that even changes the way we watch the first movie again. We reinterpret Obi-wan’s words, hearing resonances and layers we didn’t see before. But again, this is essentially a filling out of his character that forwards the narrative in ways that do no violence to what has come before.

Now, imagine a different kind of progression in the story. Imagine that in coming to Return of the Jedi, upon viewing Luke Skywalker’s near-exclusive use of light-saber, we are given to now understand that in the first couple of movies, Luke actually never used a blaster rifle, it being inconsistent with his Jedi ways; it was merely the way Leia and Han understood him at the time. On this scenario, yes, Luke is a character throughout the whole story, and yes, there are some strong continuities, but the narrative unity of the storyline is severely disrupted, rendering its coherence seriously suspect and the author rather confused.

None of the above is yet a straightforward argument one way or another, but more of an exercise in clarification. Of course, I do think that proposals which make greater sense of the unity of the narrative are inherently preferable for a number of reasons. First, they give us a greater sense that the ultimate Author of Scripture is the God of Scripture, and not simply a second-trilogy Lucas sans the special effects. This strengthens our ability to affirm a unity of revelation, and therefore the unity of covenant, or the good, saving purposes of the God of both Testaments.**

Still, clarifying our options can be a helpful exercise for further conversation and study on this point and any excuse for a Star Wars analogy in theology, right?

Soli Deo Gloria

*It should be noted that much of this European scholarship was heavily influenced by Enlightenment presuppositions of a colonialist, imperialistic, and Anti-Semitic sort.

**This also makes more difficult the inadvertent Anti-Semitism of the most history-of-religions approach to progressive revelation.

“I Don’t Deserve to Read the Bible…”: Three Attitudes for Christian Preachers and Scholars

with the cloudsJames Hamilton opens the preface to his new book on the theology of Daniel in this surprising and refreshing way:

I don’t deserve to read the Bible, much less write about it. What a privilege to have God reveal himself to us in his word. What a great God, keeping covenant and steadfast love, forgiving iniquity transgression and sin, and everywhere manifesting his power and love. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars, and yet he also speaks so tenderly that the bruised reed doesn’t break. I join the ranks of the heavenly hosts, the saints across space and time, and everything in this cosmic temple to ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name. Would that I could do so in a way worthy of him. I thank God the Father through Christ the Son by the power of the Spirit for his merciful salvation, full and complete revelation, and gracious provision.

With the Clouds of Heaven: The Book of Daniel in Biblical Theology, pg. 15

Every Sunday when my pastor finishes reading the text of Scripture he’s going to preach from he says, “This is the Word of the Lord”, and the congregation responds “Thanks be to God.” There’s a beautiful reminder of the nature of God’s revelation as a gift to us. God didn’t have to say anything. He doesn’t owe us any truth beyond what we’ve already heard and suppressed in our ungodliness (Rom. 1), and yet in Scriptures, he gives us his sure word of promise for us to cling to, rely on, by comforted with, and use as a means of communion with Him.  This is surely a cause for rejoicing.

I know this in general, but when I read these words, I had to stop ask myself, “How many times have I thought  ‘I don’t deserve to read the words on these pages’?” How many times have you? It might have occurred to me once or twice, but there’s something bracing and beautiful about reading it put so bluntly. Even more so, it struck me that these words were penned by a biblical scholar who has written hundreds, thousands of pages, even, about the Scriptures. And here he is opening up his (very careful) work of biblical theology with the admission that he is unfit to the task.

This got me thinking about how I approach the Scriptures, especially as one trained to do so for the ministry of the Church. All of this has been said before, of course, much better, wiser, and likely clearer than I will. Still, in Hamilton’s little intro paragraph, I see him modelling three qualities any scholar or preacher of the text ought to aspire to in their study and instruction of God’s Word.

1. Humility.  The first, obviously, is humility. There is no doubt that Hamilton is deeply humbled before the text in front of him. As a word from God, the text has priority and authority in the relationship, as it is a mediation and form of God’s own personal address. I listen attentively to the Scriptures because I want to listen attentively to God’s voice in them. Now one of the corollaries of this reality is that I don’t assume a relation of dominance to the text. The Scriptures are not there for me to pick up and use for my own ends and devices; God has his own purposes to accomplish through his word and so I endeavor to bend my study to his agenda, not the other way around. Also, and I’ve written about this before, I am not the judge before which Scripture is proved true or false. Scripture is true and I am judged true or false in light of it. An attitude of humility before the text will not squelch intellectual struggle and striving, but, in fact, it will drive me further into intellectual striving so that I might be able to understand God’s truth as fully as he allows given then means I have available to me.

2. Piety – The second attitude is piety, by which I mean the recognition of the fact that the Bible is not just some text to be studied like any other. Yes, we use all the means available to us including philological, literary, historical, and philosophical exegesis when attempting to understand God’s word, but we do that in order to understand it as a personal, spiritual, transformative word. Kierkegaard has compared it to a lover receiving a letter from a loved one in a foreign tongue. The work is not over once the linguistics are done and words are translated on the page. To truly hear it, we must then accept it as a word from the great Lover and Author of our salvation. Scholarship is great, but grasping the meaning of the text through these means is ultimately only a means to being grasped by God himself through the text.

3. Gratitude – Finally, there is a clear sense of gratitude. As we already noted, revelation is a free act of condescension. God didn’t have to give us more of the truth we had already rejected.  This is why approaching the text with anything less than a profound sense gratitude to God constitutes a failure to recognize its connection to the free gift of the gospel. Union with Christ comes through faith, and faith comes by hearing the word of the Lord now given to us chiefly in Scripture. The Scriptures, then, are not just a record of God’s saving acts, but are themselves a key means by which the Father accomplishes his work through the Son and the Spirit.

As always, more can be said, but this will do for now. May we aspired to read the Scriptures with a heart that says, “I don’t deserve to read this book, but by the grace of my Father in Christ, I can.”

Soli Deo Gloria

Abraham, Cultural Distance, and Offering Up Our Moral Conscience

abraham and isaacMy friend Rachel got me thinking about the story of Abraham and Isaac again the other day. I think the first time I really gave it any deep thought was in reading Kierkegaard’s famous meditation on the nature of faith in Fear and Trembling. The entire thing is an examination of Abraham’s terrible choice, his decision whether or not to offer up Isaac as a burnt offering to God. (Actually, on a biographical note, that book’s partially responsible for me being married to my wife. But that’s a story for another time.) I took up the text again in seminary, ended up looking at some of the rabbinic treatments of the issue, and wrote a short paper on it.

In any case, upon reading the story the question comes up for many of us, “Would we? Could we ‘pass’ that terrible test of faith that Abraham did that dreadful day?” I don’t have a child yet, so I can’t say I know the full reality of what it is to love a son–let alone an only son. I love my nephew and to even briefly consider his loss fills me with terror. To think that my God could command that I perpetrate the deed is terror upon terror. In good conscience, I don’t think I could do it.

But here’s the thing, if I were Abraham I’m not so sure what I’d do.

What do I mean by that?

All too often in these discussions of troubling texts, we collapse the cultural distance between us and the biblical characters. Human nature is, in many ways, constant. Conscience is one of those basic human features. Across cultures, everybody has a clear sense of right and wrong, norms against which we must not cross, and an internal compass about these sorts of things. That said, any student of culture knows there are some significant variations across cultures as well. “Self-evident truths” held by post-Enlightenment Americans are not all that apparent to equally intelligent Middle Easterners or citizens of the Majority world. The conscience of a 1st Century citizen might be very sensitive about an issue you and I wouldn’t blink twice about, and vice versa. Our cultural presuppositions and plausibility structures do a significant amount of work here.

Where does this come in with Abraham? Well, I think it becomes a factor in two ways: cultural distance and revelational distance. These two are bound up with each other.

I Went to Sunday School

First, it’s been said by biblical scholars before, but it bears saying again: child sacrifice was fairly common for a number of Ancient Near Eastern cults of Abraham’s day.* We have archeological digs filled with tiny human skulls and skeletons that were burned in the fire. At least two of early Israel’s neighbor competition deities, Molech and Chemosh both demanded child sacrifice. Abraham was a recovering idolater in this context. He didn’t grow up in church, Sunday school, or youth group. He grew up around idols, sacrifice, and the pagan gods most of his life. He didn’t live in the 21st Century West. I’m not a cultural relativist, but we neglect this reality much to our harm when it comes to these texts.

For Abraham to receive a command from the God he’d been following for some years now was not unintelligible. It wouldn’t be easy, or simple, but it wouldn’t be unthinkable to him. In Abraham’s mind, the firstborn does belong to God. In fact, that’s actually a deep truth that runs all through the Bible. The firstborn does belong to God as you can see very clearly in the principle of the Passover (Exodus 12) and the redemption of the firstborn and their replacement with the Levites (Numbers 3). Without this, you can’t understand Jesus’ role as the firstborn who redeems all of creation (Colossians 1).  God was testing him according to his own standards of ultimate devotion even though he had no intention of accepting it.

Still, what differed with God was the mode of the offering of the firstborn. Abraham didn’t know God’s character. A few encounters over the years isn’t a full bio of God. Remember, in Genesis 18, with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham still thought he had to talk God into being merciful. He didn’t know God’s commitment to life and that he’d only come to judge a once it had become so wicked as to have less than ten righteous people in the whole thing. And so, God “tested” him, and taught him through that haggling experience. In a very similar way, God was testing him according to his own standards of ultimate devotion even though he had no intention of accepting it. Did he have as much devotion to YHWH as the idolaters did? As much devotion as he would be willing to offer them?

God tested him, and then revealed himself to Abraham as the gracious Lord, who provides the sacrifice.

I’m a Christian

This is where the second form of distance from this situation comes in: All throughout Israel’s history, the Lord has to reiterate over and over that he does not want child sacrifice to happen. Multiple times in Jeremiah he says something like,

And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. (Jeremiah 7:31)

Israel’s kings even made their children pass through the fire in the valley of Hinnom outside the gates of Jerusalem. The people built high places. Apparently this was the kind of thing that it was very tempting for Israelites, even after Abraham’s day to do–to offer up sacrifices, the fruit of their love, to their gods in the fire.

We live in a culture that has been shaped by the text and presuppositions of Scripture on this, when Abraham did not. Western culture did not place the high value upon human life that we (allegedly) do, except through the influence of the Scriptures on our cultural conscience. In the ancient Greco-Roman Empire, Christians distinguished themselves by forbidding the dangerous and deadly (for both mother and child) abortions at the time. What’s more, they made a practice of rescuing infants who were regularly abandoned to die outside the gates of the city. It is this conscience that we inherit.**

Abraham didn’t have that either. So when I say, couldn’t, I mean it. I’m not an Ancient Near Easterner. I’m also not a recovering idolater (well, not in that sense.) I’m a Christian who has a Bible and knows the revealed character of God. God has strongly commanded that these things are evil and contrary to his purposes. So if God came to me today with these commands, I’d probably think it was a demon because he has clearly forbidden it in Scripture and, contrary to some popular readings, God doesn’t simply contradict himself.

I’m Not a Knight of Faith

There’s one more difference, though, between Abraham and myself: I’m not always sure I have his faith. See, if the New Testament is any help in understanding the story, apparently Abraham didn’t expect to walk back down the mountain alone that day.

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. (Hebrews 11:17-19)

I suppose this is what Kierkegaard was talking about when he spoke of the difference between the knight of infinite resignation and the knight of faith. Infinite resignation sacrifices the child believing that’s the end of it. Faith believes God’s good and he’ll give the child back. Abraham believed the knife wasn’t the end of the story. He thought, in some mysterious way, he was coming back down the mountain with Isaac.

Binding and Offering Up Our Conscience

There’s always more to say, but I suppose I’ll end with a word about conscience since that’s what provoked some of these meditations. We give ourselves a lot of credit on this one. We think the same thing about Germany and WWII. “I would never participate in that.” But most normal Germans did. At the right time and place, with the right cultural history behind us, many of us would do a lot of things we never would imagine doing now.

I mean, in our own ways, we do. Today there are a great number of men and women who honestly, legitimately think according to their conscience they are doing good by defending a woman’s right to choose an abortion. Of course, if a certain line of moral reasoning is true, then Abraham’s choice begins to look a bit closer to us in the 21st Century West. And we’re vocal about it. That’s how disoriented a strong conscience can be.

This is why, though Scripture tells us that conscience is important, and we ought not sin against it (Romans 14), we probably shouldn’t make it the final judge of things (1 Corinthians 4:3-5). We need to listen to our conscience, to be sure, but we also ought to submit them to the Word in order that we might be transformed according to the renewing of our minds so that we can know what God’s good and perfect will is (Romans 12:1-2).

That doesn’t mean we should stop questioning, thinking, reading, studying, and just settle for the first, obvious reading of any text we come to. No, all too often that will lead us astray and may even lead us to affirm things out of “deference” to God that he himself would never affirm. Some more Kierkegaardian wrestling on this point would probably do the church some good. All the same, as Christians we confess that God is God and God is good. And so we will trust his word and wrestle with it until we can his goodness in it. We will struggle until we can offer our consciences up to God and ask him to teach us, trusting that we will receive them back whole and healed.

And thank God, I think he is patient with us in those times.

Soli Deo Gloria

*See Jon D. Levenson’s excellent The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. 
**For more on this, see The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark and Atheist Delusions by D.B. Hart.

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