Won’t Get Fooled Again? Machen on Old-School “Jesus v. The Bible” Liberalism

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.

Machen(Ecclesiastes 1:9)

The Teacher was a bit of a pessimist, so we might be prone to suspect he’s engaging in a bit of dour hyperbole. And certainly, with respect to things of the gospel, this is not strictly true. God does a new thing in Jesus Christ for us and our salvation. He creates righteousness out of sin, life out of death, and makes saints out of sinners. That said, taken at a this-worldly level, he’s got a good point. Natural patterns progress, currents come and go, winds maintain fairly regular rhythms, and so forth. What’s more, even at the historical level, yes, there are changes, differences made, breaks and developments, because humans are thinking, choosing, acting beings who can diverge from the script—and yet one constant that remains is basic human nature.

I bring all this up simply to make the point that the history of philosophy and theology, while constantly progressing, developing in a bewildering variety of forms and particular details, exhibits a series of repeating patterns. A burst of rationalism and confidence usually sets the prelude to a wave of skeptical criticism. Derrida is not Montaigne is not Pyrrho, but we’d have to be blind to not see some line of continuity and familiar elements even though we can find significant differences between the thinkers. Ideas tend to make a comeback.

This is one of the reasons it’s so instructive to study the conflicts in our church history—the same mistakes tend to crop up on a regular basis, even if they do happen to show development in terms of sophistication or contextual concerns. The battles of our theological forefathers, while not an exact match for our own, can often shed light on the structure of our current debates.

Gresham Machen’s classic piece of polemics Christianity and Liberalism is one such text. Written at the height of the Fundamentalist/Modernist conflict, Machen set out to clearly set out the choice before the Church. But it wasn’t so much a choice between two variations of Christianity as so many thought, but between two different faiths altogether, with different doctrines of revelation, salvation, God, Christ, and more. In other words, it wasn’t just a dispute about variations in our understanding of the incarnation, but whether there was an incarnation!

One of the key battle-grounds, of course, was Scripture: what is its nature and authority? Is it inspired or infallible? If so, how so? If not, why not? Modernists were critical for what had become the usual reasons: science, historical criticism, the moral character of the OT, and so forth. I revisited the text recently, though, and was surprised (and yet not surprise) to find Machen critiquing one very familiar argument forwarded by the liberals of his day:

The modern liberal rejects not only the doctrine of plenary inspiration, but even such respect for the Bible as would be proper over against any ordinarily trustworthy book. But what is substituted for the Christian view of the Bible? What is the liberal view as to the seat of authority in religion? The impression is sometimes produced that the modern liberal substitutes for the authority of the Bible the authority of Christ. He cannot accept, he says, what he regards as the perverse moral teaching of the Old Testament or the sophistical arguments of Paul. But he regards himself as being the true Christian because, rejecting the rest of the Bible, he depends upon Jesus alone.

So, here we are, some ninety years ago facing the now-familiar “Jesus over the Bible” view of authority and revelation. Of course, Machen was unimpressed with its earlier version, “This impression, however, is utterly false. The modern liberal does not really hold to the authority of Jesus.”

Why does he say this? For two reasons that I can see. First, excerpting Jesus from his narrative setting in both Old and New Testaments limits our ability to actually understand him. Much as T.F. Torrance argues, Jesus only makes sense (his works, his deeds, his aims) only against the backdrop of Israel as well as the witness of the Gospels and the preaching of the apostles through whom we receive our witness about him. What’s more, this runs against the practice of Jesus who both affirmed the Old Testament as the word of God and appointed his apostles to authoritatively teach concerning him and his works in the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

The second point, though, is that even still, without these considerations, the vaunted allegiance to Jesus’ unique authority begins to erode upon closer inspection:

As a matter of fact, however, the modern liberal does not hold fast even to the authority of Jesus. Certainly he does not accept the words of Jesus as they are recorded in the Gospels. For among the recorded words of Jesus are to be found just those things which are most abhorrent to the modern liberal Church, and in His recorded words Jesus also points forward to the fuller revelation which was afterwards to be given through His apostles. Evidently, therefore, those words of Jesus which are to be regarded as authoritative by modern liberalism must first be selected from the mass of the recorded words by a critical process. The critical process is certainly very difficult, and the suspicion often arises that the critic is retaining as genuine words of the historical Jesus only those words which conform to his own preconceived ideas. But even after the sifting process has been completed, the liberal scholar is still unable to accept as authoritative all the sayings of Jesus; he must finally admit that even the “historical” Jesus as reconstructed by modern historians said some things that are untrue.

So, even after declaring our allegiance to Jesus, we sometimes find that the words of Jesus as we actually have them in the Gospels—his pronouncements on eschatology, marriage, his exclusive authority, etc.—must be cleaned up. So, how did they deal with such a challenge to their claim that they follow Jesus? Machen elaborates:

So much is usually admitted. But, it is maintained, although not everything that Jesus said is true, His central “life-purpose” is still to be regarded as regulative for the Church. But what then was the life-purpose of Jesus? According to the shortest, and if modern criticism be accepted the earliest of the Gospels, the Son of Man “came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark x. 45). Here the vicarious death is put as the “life-purpose” of Jesus. Such an utterance must of course be pushed aside by the modern liberal Church. The truth is that the life-purpose of Jesus discovered by modern liberalism is not the life purpose of the real Jesus, but merely represents those elements in the teaching of Jesus − isolated and misinterpreted − which happen to agree with the modern program.

We might paraphrase and say that for the liberals of Machen’s day, the central truth of Jesus’ story, his life, his consciousness is what mattered. Some of the details, certain specific teachings, or doings, if they’re not part of this central story, can be discarded or relativized without much harm done. Of course, the question becomes how you decide what counts:

It is not Jesus, then, who is the real authority, but the modern principle by which the selection within Jesus’ recorded teaching has been made. Certain isolated ethical principles of the Sermon on the Mount are accepted, not at all because they are teachings of Jesus, but because they agree with modern ideas. It is not true at all, then, that modern liberalism is based upon the authority of Jesus. It is obliged to reject a vast deal that is absolutely essential in Jesus’ example and teaching − notably His consciousness of being the heavenly Messiah. The real authority, for liberalism, can only be “the Christian consciousness” or “Christian experience.”

Now, of course, this not an exact parallel with the kinds of arguments we find today. Downstream from the Liberal/Fundamentalist debates, our culture has shifted, and the more explicit liberalism with its anti-supernaturalism, its platitudes about universal truth, and so forth don’t set as well. We don’t mind the resurrection—we love it, in fact. As Trevin Wax has recently pointed out, old school liberals had more problems with the Creed than with the 10 Commandments, but we’ve sort of switched that up. All the same, this is one of those important moments to remember that a historical “precedent” need not be exact in all of its details and may have serious, significant differences. (In other words, Hus really was a precursor to Luther, despite their differences.)

If you look at it, though, it’s not hard to look around the theological landscape (internet or otherwise) to recognize many of the same old moves being made. We have a core Jesus consciousness, or “story” being appealed to over and against the actual words and deeds of Jesus and the apostles that he authorized to interpret and tell us that story. Some parts of Jesus’ teaching (the ones that happen to fit really well with left and center-left, progressive ethical or theological sensibilities) are upheld as the core of the message and life of Jesus and then used as a rule, a canon within the canon, to determine what really counts. Machen draws out some more of the problems with that:

But how shall the findings of the Christian consciousness be established? Surely not by a majority vote of the organized Church. Such a method would obviously do away with all liberty of conscience. The only authority, then, can be individual experience; truth can only be that which “helps” the individual man. Such an authority is obviously no authority at all; for individual experience is endlessly diverse, and when once truth is regarded only as that which works at any particular time, it ceases to be truth. The result is an abysmal skepticism.

In a sense, I’m sort of repeating myself. But the fact is that history seems to be repeating itself. With variations, of course, but still, the pattern is there, plain as day, for all to see.

And please hear me, I really don’t want to dismiss the differences. The ability to recite the Apostle’s Creed without crossing your fingers, affirming Jesus’ death and resurrection, his Messiahship, and so forth, are not small, theological potatoes. This is not exactly your grandfather’s liberalism. Thank God for that.

All the same, many of the same root problems with your grandfather’s liberalism are there, nonetheless, simply with different symptoms. They haven’t gone away, nor are they any less corrosive in the long run.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Reformed Catholicity of Herman Bavinck

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It's a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It’s a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

Herman Bavinck is one of the, if not the, finest, confessionally-Reformed dogmaticians of the last two hundred years. Anyone who has encountered his work and knows the depth of his learning, his sound orthodoxy, and creatively faithful articulation of the Reformed faith in the face of his modern context.

Those same readers, though, could also testify to Bavinck’s credentials as a theologian of the Church catholic, despite his location at the small confessional school at Kampen. Indeed, George Puchinger notes, “History has its ironies but it cannot be denied: the most ecumenical protestant dogmatic theology in fact appeared in Kampen, the place where theology was practiced in the most isolationist manner” (cited in James Eglinton, Trinity and Organism, pg. 93)

Bavinck’s method of developing doctrines historically and organically certainly played a role in this. In pretty much every locus in the Reformed Dogmatics, Bavinck takes the time to review each doctrine according to broader cultural material, as well as the Old and New Testament witness. A large bulk of his chapters, though, consist of an extensive historical survey that give an irenic account of each topic from the Fathers (East and West), to the Medievals, through the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, Post-Reformation, and modern period across Roman, Lutheran, Reformed, and Radical traditions.

But even Bavinck’s skill as a historian doesn’t cut to the heart of his Reformed Catholicity. References to Augustine, the Cappodocians, Hilary, and Pseudo-Dionysius, as well as Thomas, Scotus, and the medievals all play a role in his formation of doctrine now. That’s because Bavinck had a depth theology of the witness of the Holy Spirit in the tradition of the Church that speaks to his approach to dogmatics.

First, he notes that human knowledge, especially our theology and religion, is only and always grounded in our existence as humans in community. Long before Alasdair MacIntyre came on the scene, Bavinck knew that knowledge was traditioned:

Abstractions—universals—do not exist in reality. The tree, the human being, the science, the language, the religion, the theology are nowhere to be found. Only particular trees, human beings, sciences, languages, and religions exist. Just as a language is associated with a particular people, and science and philosophy are always pursued in a certain school and ideological context, so religion and theology can be found and nurtured only in a related community of faith.

Of course, that means that we come to knowledge of our faith on in the churches we inhabit–they are the “natural soil” of religion. There are limitations to this, of course. There isn’t one pure theology, or pure church, but many churches and many theologies. And it will be this way until the church reaches the maturity and the unity of the Son of God at the end of all things (Eph. 4). That said, the churches, for all their division, are not disqualified from the purposes of God with respect to our knowledge of the truth.

It is not apart from the existing churches but through them that Christ prepares for himself a holy, catholic church. Nor is it apart from the different ecclesiastical dogmas but through them that the unity of the knowledge of God is prepared and realized.

How can Bavinck affirm this in the face of all the division and doctrinal strife? Because he had a solid grasp of the now/not yet quality to the Church’s possession of doctrinal truth. What’s more, he knew that it is to the Church that God has promised the Holy Spirit:

This significance of the church for theology and dogmatics is grounded in the link that Christ himself forged between the two. He promised his church the Holy Spirit, who would guide it into all truth. This promise sheds a glorious light upon the history of dogma. It is the explication of Scripture, the exposition that the Holy Spirit has given, in the church, of the treasures of the Word.

It is this understanding that reveals the root of Bavinck’s own approach to the broader church tradition in which he stood as a confessional theologian of the Church catholic. Here’s how he conceived of the dogmatician’s job in this light:

Accordingly, the task of the dogmatician is not to draw the material for his dogmatics exclusively from the written confession of his own church but to view it in the total context of the unique faith and life of his church, and then again in the context of the history of the whole church of Christ. He therefore stands on the shoulders of previous generations. He knows he is surrounded by a cloud of witnesses and lets his witness merge with the voice of these many waters. Every dogmatics ought to be in full accord with and a part of the doxology sung to God by the church of all ages. – Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 1: Prolegomena, pg. 86

Bavinck sought to craft a dogmatics that blended its voices into the that of the broader choir of the church throughout the ages, even as he sung it in his own deep, Reformed baritone.

None of this, of course, threatens the Scripture principle. Though the dogmatician is a student of the tradition, learning from what has come before, grateful for that deep cloud of witnesses, Scripture not the Church, is still the self-authenticating norm of all theology. All the same, it is his commitment to Scripture, or rather, the Triune author of Scripture, that authorizes Bavinck’s aim to speak beyond the confines of his own Reformed tradition to speak to the broader Church over which Christ is Lord.

Soli Deo Gloria

People Disagreed With Jesus About the Bible Too

Jesus talking“Yeah, but there are so many interpretations of that text, so many denominations claiming Scripture for their own, you can’t really say there’s a wrong way of reading it.”

If you’ve been in a Bible study or spent more than about 10 minutes surfing pop theology writings, you have probably run across a claim of this sort. The idea is that with so many different readings of Scripture, it’s either arrogant or hopeless to think we can come to a determinate, or correct understanding of it. In other words, the mere fact of interpretive disagreement ought to put us off from claiming anything very strong for our interpretations of Scripture.

This sort can take a couple of different forms.

First, someone can go full-blown, radical skeptic and just say that the text has no inherent, determinate meanings, only uses. Or maybe that it’s a springboard for our own thoughts about God and Jesus and so forth, but no more. In this view, the plasticity, the squishiness, if you will, of interpretation lies within the text.

Second, someone can say that the text means something(s), but the problem lies with us as readers. Given the variety of interpretations, it’s arrogant to claim that we know what it says. We’re fallen, finite, and therefore dubious readers. We ought not claim too much for ourselves. Now, I’ll come back to this, because it’s important to note there’s something to this point. We are sinners and that does affect things.

Here’s the main problem with these views when taken too far, though: Jesus’ own use of Scripture.

Over and over again in his disputes with the Pharisees and the Sadducees, Jesus appealed to the Scriptures in order to refute his opponents. One classic text comes up with his debate with the Sadducees over whether there is marriage at the time of the Resurrection or not. They posed a “gotcha” question in order to trap him–which is always silly when you’re dealing with Jesus–and here’s his reply:

But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” And when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching. (Matthew 22:29-33)

The money quote is that line about “you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” Jesus accuses them of being wrong precisely because they’re misreading the text that they apparently should have known. And this isn’t the only time he says this sort of thing. Jesus constantly accuses his opponents as well as his disciples with missing what they should have seen in the text (Mark 7:13; Luke 24:25–26; John 5:39-40).

Jesus’ use of Scripture, then, presumes that the words of the Bible have a determinate meaning (which can be complex!) that can be read and discerned. Jesus isn’t flustered, or worried, nor does begin to expound a radical interpretive skepticism, simply because his opponents disagree with him. He just says they’re wrong because they got the text wrong. They didn’t know how to read it. He did.

That, at least, is rules out the first version.

You may still try to appeal to the second version, though, and as I said, there’s something to that. Jesus speaks very clearly about human sin, blindness, and hardness of heart as obstacles that hinder reception and proper interpretation of the Bible. But to stop there ignores a number of realities, a couple of which we can only gesture at.

First, again, Jesus himself does appeal to Scripture in his arguments in such a way that presumes that, then and there, some of his hearers should be able to follow.

Second, pushing deeper, we have to place our thoughts on interpretation within the broader sweep of Jesus’ work of salvation. Jesus doesn’t simply redeem our inner, spiritual souls, nor only our physical bodies, but also our created intellects. We forget that Jesus came to be the light that gives sight to the blind–and not only to those physically, but spiritually blind (Isa. 29:18; John 9). He does so by shining out as the Incarnate, Crucified, and Resurrected one, whose whole purpose was to be the one who reconciles and shows us God’s truth, by being God’s Truth with us (Matthew 1:23), who overcomes the darkness that did not recognize it (John 1).

Third, connected to this, Jesus commissions his apostles to preach and teach the gospel, making disciples on his authority, in his personal presence through the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:7-8). As Jesus said to his disciples, to some it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 13:11) through the preaching of the Word. He empowered those apostles to preach a Word which, through the work of the Spirit, overcomes even sinful resistance, lightening even darkened minds and hearts (Eph. 1:17). That is the same apostolic Word which is inscripturated in the New Testament. 

All of this is why we are commended to follow the example of the Jews in Berea, who we’re told were more noble than many other communities Paul encountered. Why? Because in their eagerness, they examined “the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). The Bereans are not berated as arrogant, proud, or interpretively naive. They are faithful in their desire to do the hard work of trusting that in the Scriptures God has spoken in a way that he can be heard if we would but listen.

None of this, of course, removes the difficulties involved with the reality of plurality in interpretation. It does, I submit, put the brakes on us simply tossing our hands up in the air every time we come upon a disputed verse or issue. There is truth in the text and we can know it. Why? Because Jesus said so.

Soli Deo Gloria

Three Concepts You’ll Need To Settle the Domain of the Word

Domain of the wordMost Christian doctrines don’t make sense unless you’re thinking properly about a whole bunch of other doctrines. The recent LA Theology Conference made that point about atonement. Unless you’ve got a good handle on the nature of Jesus’ incarnation or the creation, you probably won’t be able to keep Christ’s atonement in its proper biblical shape. Things go wonky without them (not to mention a few others).

John Webster argues the same thing is true of the doctrine of Scripture in his fairly recent and highly-praised work The Domain of the Word and his earlier, excellent little offering Holy Scripture. Unless you have certain elements in the doctrine of God, the church, and providence in proper order–who God is, how he acts, and what he happens to want to do with the texts–our reflections on what the Bible actually is will inevitably fall short. You have to approach the Bible “indirectly”, as it were, by appreciating its place in the broader scope of the Triune God’s creative and saving communicative activity in history.

While I can’t even begin to scratch the surface of Webster’s rich, subtle reflections on this point, I thought it would be worth roughly and very inelegantly summarizing a small segment early on in the first chapter of The Domain of the Word (pp. 13-17), where he elaborates on the importance of thinking of Scripture with three central concepts in mind: providence, sanctification, and inspiration.

The Word and the Word 

To begin, though, he sets up a bit of a contrast. For about as long as there’s been doctrinal reflection on the nature of Scripture, people have tried to think of it along the lines of an incarnational analogy. Just as Jesus is the Godman, comprised of both Divine and human natures, so the Scriptures are something of a lesser incarnation. The divine Word or words, are given to us in fleshly, human form. Hebrew, Greek, human linguistic structures and mediums are the housing for a message that transcends far beyond that.

Now, this analogy can go in all sorts of directions. Classically, it has been used as a helpful way of understanding the simultaneous humanity and perfection of the Scriptures. Just as Jesus was both human and yet perfect because divine, so God’s written Word is given through human means, yet nonetheless perfect as having come from the mouth of God. More recently, others have used it to talk about Scripture’s usefulness as a divine text that, nonetheless, exhibits the limitations and, in some constructions, errors and sins of all humanity (much to the chagrin of anybody who’s paying attention to the Christological implications).

In order to avoid undue divinizing of Scripture, creating an unfortunate blurring of the Creator/creature distinction, as well as a host of other difficulties, Webster points us in a different direction, and suggest that we locate our idea within the three concepts we already mentioned. In this way, Webster wants to capture the way Scripture fits in God’s various workings, beginning from the most general (providence) to the most specific (inspiration).

Three Key Terms

First, locating our doctrine of Scripture with relation to the doctrine of providence reminds us that the various words, passages, texts, and books of the Bible were written in the midst of the history over which God is Lord. A sparrow doesn’t fall to the ground without the Father’s consent, how much more the Scriptures which form his self-testimony? In other words, we need to desecularize our view of the processes of culture and history which produced these texts (and all other texts for that matter). This isn’t to deny the human, cultural and historical influences on the way Scripture came to be the way it is, but it is to remember that all of history’s movements come together under God’s hands. When you look at the historical process, you need to realize you’re not seeing all the action when you’ve accounted for human psychological, political, and even theological motivations. Father, Son, and Spirit rule over history governing, preserving, and upholding all its activities–even that of the production of Scripture. God’s providence doesn’t compete or deny the natural and the human, but sustains and underlies it.

Second, locating our doctrine of Scripture with relation to the idea of sanctification reminds us of the important work of the Holy Spirit in the lives and histories of the writers of Scripture. Humans can be sanctified by the Spirit, set apart as holy, in order to serve as God’s ambassadors and mouthpieces. So can the human words of those apostles and prophets that God called and commissioned to proclaim his words to the nations. For Webster, the Spirit’s work of sanctification is the middle term between providence and inspiration, and speaks of the Spirit’s preparation and setting apart of the particular persons and processes of the production of Scripture (events, literary elements, redaction, reception, etc). The Spirit set apart the prophets (Jeremiah, Paul), cleanses their lips (Isaiah), and specifically teaches them how to speak his words (Peter). He does this, not by denying their humanity, but calling it, redeeming it, and perfecting it by way of purification. Scripture is Holy because of the Spirit’s work in consecrating these instruments (humans and their histories) for his own.

Third, we come to the final term of ‘inspiration.’ This is the final and most specific term which refers, not to God’s broader process, or some generic notion of inspiredness that all literature falls under. Instead, it is this specific superintendence and supervenience of God in and through his human servants who speak specific words as the Spirit moves them. Webster says we must be careful not to separate this from either providence or sanctification as if God’s inspiration is some intrusive overturning of human, creaturely processes. It’s not a detached miracle that competitively suspends the human dimension, resulting in a mechanical activity, but an organic movement by the Spirit to heal particular authors, Paul, or Peter, so their specific word given in Scripture can be those through which the Spirit addresses us.

Webster concludes this section by noting that the resulting words provided by the Spirit are not some arbitrary deposit of ‘inspiredness’ that does its work all by itself apart from God’s continuing use of it. Instead, they are a settlement of the Word. After God has breathed out these words of Holy Scripture, we have reached a definitive stage in the publication, or revelation of God’s Word that determines all future hearing and receiving of the Word. After this, we don’t need more inspiration, or a more comprehensive supplement that goes further on beyond what the apostles have written. Rather, we need the renewal of heart that leads to listening and receiving the Word that has already been spoken for what it is.

Of course, in looking at this inadequate little summary, the key doctrine underlying all three of these terms is thinking through the nature of divine activity. God is the ultimate root of all Christian doctrine. Human epistemic limitations due to finitude and sin, social formation of language, history, and so forth, are not the final, determining factors here. It’s not that we ought not consider these realities, but as we do, we dare not forget that it is the Triune God sets the limits to the Domain of the Word.

Soli Deo Gloria

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.

Carl Trueman: The Papacy Is Not *That* Obvious…

CarlTruemanOften-times in modern conversations between Catholics and Protestants, the challenge of the apparent chaos of Protestant interpretive pluralism is wielded against the idea that Scripture is “perspicuous” or clear enough with regard to the issues of salvation and so forth. The idea is that Protestants opened up a Pandora’s box with the doctrine of sola scriptura, that scripture alone, ultimately, is our final norm for theology. Of course, there’s the usual misunderstanding here that for the early Reformers this didn’t mean ignoring tradition entirely, but even when that is conceded, the point is still raised that Protestants have made a mess of things. It should be obvious given all of our denominations, and all of our theological disputes, that the “clarity” of Scripture isn’t all that clear, and that’s one more reason we need Papal authority, and the teaching magisterium of the Roman Church in order to give us something solid to stand on. It’s one, or the only, check we have against the sort of interpretive anarchy we see in all of our “Well, I feel like this means…” Evangelical Bible studies.

In a review of Brad Gregory’s book The Unintended Reformation, which, among other things, argues along these lines, Carl Trueman argues that this line of thought tends to forget one key issue: the perspicuity of Scripture was put forward as a response to the mess of the Medieval papacy:

I wonder if I am alone in finding the more stridently confident comments of some Roman Catholics over the issue of perspicuity to be somewhat tiresome and rather overblown. Perspicuity was, after all, a response to a position that had proved to be a failure: the Papacy.  Thus, to criticize it while proposing nothing better than a return to that which had proved so inadequate is scarcely a compelling argument.

Yes, it is true that Protestant interpretive diversity is an empirical fact; but when it comes to selectivity in historical reading as a means of creating a false impression of stability, Roman Catholic approaches to the Papacy provide some excellent examples of such fallacious method.  The ability to ignore or simply dismiss as irrelevant the empirical facts of papal history is quite an impressive feat of historical and theological selectivity. Thus, as all sides need to face empirical facts and the challenges they raise, here are a few we might want to consider, along with what seem to me (as a Protestant outsider) to be the usual Roman Catholic responses:

Empirical fact: The Papacy as an authoritative institution was not there in the early centuries. 

Never mind.  Put together a doctrine of development whereby Christians – or at least some of them, those of whom we choose to approve in retrospect on the grounds we agree with what they say  – eventually come to see the Pope as uniquely authoritative.

Empirical fact: The Papacy was corrupt in the later Middle Ages, building its power and status on political antics, forged documents and other similar scams. 

Ignore it, excuse it as a momentary aberration and perhaps, if pressed, even offer a quick apology. Then move swiftly on to assure everyone it is all sorted out now and start talking about John Paul II or Benedict XVI.  Whatever you do, there is no need to allow this fact to have any significance for how one understands the theory of papal power in the abstract or in the present.

Empirical fact: The Papacy was in such a mess at the beginning of the fifteenth century that it needed a council to decide who of the multiple claimants to Peter’s seat was the legitimate pope.

Again, this was merely a momentary aberration but it has no significance for the understanding of papal authority.  After all, it was so long ago and so far away.

Empirical fact: The church failed (once again) to put its administrative, pastoral, moral and doctrinal house in order at the Fifth Lateran Council at the start of the sixteenth century.  

Forget it.  Emphasise instead the vibrant piety of the late medieval church and then blame the ungodly Protestants for their inexplicable protests and thus for the collapse of the medieval social, political and theological structure of Europe.

Trueman is no rabid Rome-hater, but points these things out in blunt form because he’s:

...simply responding with the same forthrightness with which certain writers speak of Protestantism. The problem here is that the context for the Reformation – the failure of the papal system to reform itself, a failure in itself lethal to notions of papal power and authority – seems to have been forgotten in all of the recent aggressive attacks on scriptural perspicuity.  These are all empirical facts and they are all routinely excused, dismissed or simply ignored by Roman Catholic writers. Perspicuity was not the original problem; it was intended as the answer.   One can believe it to be an incorrect, incoherent, inadequate answer; but then one must come up with something better – not simply act as if shouting the original problem louder will make everything all right. Such an approach to history and theology is what I call the Emerald City protocol: when defending the great and powerful Oz, one must simply pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

Of course, none of this is an actual argument for the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture, or sola scriptura. For that, I’d commend Mark D. Thompson’s fine book A Clear and Present Word.  All that same, these are points ought to be kept in mind the next time the papacy, or the magisterial authority of the Roman Catholic Church, is presented as an obvious answer to the issue of Protestant interpretive pluralism.

It’s not that obvious.

Soli Deo Gloria

Economic Shalom–Bolt’s Theology of the Market Beyond Biblicism

boltEconomics is complicated. Establishing a Christian approach to economics seems even more daunting a task, especially given the amount of ink that’s been spilled when it comes to a Christian approach to money and wealth. Trying to wade into the conversation without any sort of guide then, can be overwhelming. As someone who has only begun to stumble towards developing my own thought in this area, I was delighted to receive a copy of John Bolt’s new little volume in the Acton Institute’s series of primers on faith and work, Economic Shalom: A Reformed Primer on Faith, Work, and Human Flourishing.

Though the cover’s a bit drab and uninspiring, the writing is not. Bolt manages to deliver an accessible, lively introduction to basic economics in what amounts to an “unapologetic defense of a free market economy set within a democratic liberal polity” (pg. 171) from a Reformed theological perspective. I emphasize “a” Reformed perspective for two reasons. First, Bolt explicitly draws from a primarily from the Dutch Reformed tradition, most specifically from the thought Neo-Calvinists like Herman Bavinck and Abraham Kuyper. Also, as is evident in his arguments against them, there are other Reformed voices who would probably disagree with his construal.

Now, while I don’t have the time give it the justice of a full review, I did want to highlight the couple of key strengths that make this a valuable resource for those looking to give deeper thought to the issues of faith and economics.

The primary strength of Bolt’s proposal is try to move us past the simple biblicism that tends to run rampant in these theological discussions. In the first chapter, he disposes of the idea that there is clearly one “biblical economics” that can be cleanly read off the surface of the text. He does so partially by surveying the economic thought of three major christian ethicists, Walter Rauschenbusch, Ronald Sider, and David Chilton, using essentially the same biblicistic assumptions, end up with a wide variety of contradictory economic proposals ranging from interventionist socialism to theonomic libertarianism.

Instead, he holds up the thought of Herman Bavinck, who put forward a more chastened reading of Scripture that takes into account it’s salvific purposes:

A Reformed approach to the Bible resists reading it in a flat manner as so many disparate bits and pieces of inspired, useful knowledge that can be picked up here and there as we have need of them. A Reformed handling of Scripture does not treat it as a manual for child-rearing one day and a textbook for financial management the next. It is a mistake to go to the Bible for scientific knowledge, a point John Calvin already made in his Genesis commentary when he observed that the words “let there be a firmament” (1:6) are meant not for the sophisticated mean of learning but “for all men without exception” and can be understood even by the “rude and unlearned.” Calvin then added: “He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere.” Two important aspects of Reformed hermeneutics are illustrated here: The first is the perspecuity of Scripture, the conviction arising from the priesthood of all believers that Scripture’s essential message can be grasped by all who have been renewed by the Holy Spirit. Reformed people do not rely on a priestly caste of theologians to tell them how to read the Bible. Second, though the Bible is relevant for every dimension of human life, it has a very specific and well-defined purpose: “that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). The Bible is a salvation book and not an economics textbook or social renewal manual. And it is with this particular focus on salvation that Bavinck addresses the question of the Bible’s relevance for economics. (pg. 15)

Instead of piling up a bunch of verses and trying to see which specific commands can be cleanly mapped onto the current political system, Bavinck proposes we recover the main spiritual purpose of the Scriptures–the restoration of fallen man to God through the Gospel. From there, humans begin to be restored to their proper relationships with each other and are enabled to begin taking up the form of life rooted in God’s creational norms. Where do we go to find those norms? Well, back to the Scriptures, but now, we don’t go looking for particular commands, but the general principles that underlie and inform them. For this reason, Bavinck won’t speak directly of a “biblical economics”, but rather an economic system that is consistent with Scripture.

While not slavishly following Bavinck at all points, Bolt’s approach is broadly consistent with it. He offers up a defense of the ordered liberty of free-market capitalism as consistent with a broad biblical theology we find in Scripture: creation bursting with potential awaiting cultivation; the freedom and vocation the of Imago Dei; the universal sinfulness of humanity after the Fall; our epistemic limitations as finite creatures; the providence and sovereignty of God in the allocation of resources; biblical principles of work and charity from the wisdom literature; a conception of justice as opportunity and the restraint of evil; the truth of our redemption through Christ; an amillenial eschatology that eschews over-reach or pessimism. It is in light of these principles that he draws on the work of economists to deal with the market, consumerism, ordered liberty, and social inequality.

I’ll be brief about the second strength, as it follows directly from the first: Bolt demonstrates a humble restraint in his judgments on a where rhetoric typically runs wild. Because of this, Bolt goes about explaining basic economic concepts, demonstrating their compatibility with Scriptural principles, and dealing with common Christian objections to a market economy with sanity and grace. While it’s easy to imagine a number of robust challenges to Bolt’s account, it won’t be on account of undue dogmatism or a lack of Christian charity.

All of that to say, I would warmly commend Economic Shalom to anyone tired of simplistic accounts, both on the Right and the Left, theologically and politically. Bolt has done the Church a service writing it.

Soli Deo Gloria