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

Vanhoozer on Enns on Inerrancy

inerrancy viewsThe new Counterpoints book Five Views on Inerrancy came in the mail yesterday so, of course, I tore into it immediately. I’ll say it right now, if you’re at all interested in this conversation, you should pick it up. The quality of the essays and the various responses have all been top-notch for their respective positions–and I’ve only read the Mohler and Enns essays!

While we’re on the subject of Peter Enns, I have to say I was impressed. Not convinced, but impressed. I was also impressed by the various criticisms leveled at it, many which are worth quoting at length, but I’ll only do that with Kevin Vanhoozer’s because, well, it sums up my basic complaints and gives a bit of a hint as to where Vanhoozer will later go himself:

I endorse Enns’ call to conform our doctrine of Scripture to the Bible that we actually have rather than the one we think God ought to have written. My own essay contrasts an “inerrancy of glory” (aka “perfect book inerrancy,” a cultural construct) with an “inerrancy of the cross.” I draw this distinction in order to urge an inerrancy of the cross that recognizes the wisdom of God in the surprising textual form he has given it rather than the form we may think it ought to have had. Enns simply identifies inerrancy with perfect book theology, however, and then devotes most of his essay to exposing its nakedness. I agree that perfect book inerrancy, “by placing on it expectations it is not designed to bear” (p. 84), fails to do justice to Scripture. However, in my own chapter, I explore a constructive alternative. I wish Enns had tried to do this too.

Instead, Enns spends most of his chapter reacting to what I judge to be a caricature of inerrancy— what David Dockery, whom I discuss in my own chapter, calls “naive” rather than “critical” inerrancy. Enns would have been better off discussing the original drawing— namely, the definitions offered by John Frame or Paul Feinberg— rather than demeaning the assumptions and interpretive practice of anonymous inerrantists. Who are these faceless villains (“ is it I, Peter”)? Enns nevertheless makes a valid point: the doctrine of inerrancy has been hijacked by various bands of exegetical pirates who insist that the gold of true Bible knowledge is secure only in their own interpretive treasure chests.

Enns thinks the core issue is “how inerrancy functions in contemporary evangelical theological discourse” (p. 83, my emphasis). Why should the function rather than the nature of inerrancy be the crux of the matter? We don’t throw away other doctrines, like divine sovereignty or the atonement, just because some people misunderstand or misuse them. No, we try to set them right. Curiously, Enns is not interested in definitions. Even his title focuses on function: “Inerrancy, However Defined, Does Not Describe What the Bible Does.” This is strange. Why should inerrancy— the claim that the Bible is without error— describe what the Bible does? Enns’ essay suffers from two confusions: (1) a failure to distinguish the nature of inerrancy from its use and (2) a failure to distinguish inerrancy’s right use from various abuses.

–Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology) Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

He goes on from there to actually substantiate his claims about Enns’ essay (with some style). But yes, Enns often reduces inerrancy to its political function; in essence he falls afoul of the principle that abuse does not remove use. As for more nuanced accounts, those are sort of dismissed as possibilities with a hand-wave towards the insurmountable obstacle of biblical scholarship. Actually, I’ll go ahead and quote Vanhoozer again with this little gem on whether or not we should rush to accept the so-called “scholarly consensus” in archaeology, or whether it’s appropriate to trustingly wait it and see what new light is shed:

Why is Enns in such a hurry to capitulate to the prevailing scholarly consensus? Theories, consensus opinions, and schools of thought all come and go. Christians are not to be blown about by every wind of academic fashion. I wonder: does he think, in light of the problem of evil, that we should concede that God does not exist? After all, there is considerably more evidence of gratuitous evil in the world than there is that ancient Jericho had no walls. It’s not clear to me how, on Enns’ scorecard, the theist fares any better than the inerrantist. Should we therefore reframe our doctrine of God to fit the prevailing extratextual “evidence”?

I found the comparison to the epistemological situation we find ourselves in with the problem of evil helpful. The point is that there is a lot of apparently pointless evil out in the world, and that could count as “evidence” that God does not exist. Indeed, it does count as evidence. And yet, as philosophers will point out, that’s not the only evidence there is, in which case the theist can put that to one side for a moment, without immediately scrapping their belief in God every time something inexplicably tragic happens. In the world of biblical scholarship where judgments on key questions like this shift every 20 years, it’s reasonable to slow the rush to throw inerrancy on the dust-heap of discarded doctrines.

Now, of course, I’m only giving you a couple of samples here. Both Vanhoozer and Enns have plenty more to be say here–no one can be quickly dismissed. Still, I hope this little taste whets your appetite for the rich feast of excellent scholarship and theological engagement you’ll find in this volume.

Soli Deo Gloria

Hodge and Warfield: Our View of Inspiration Reflects Our View of God

Great beard. Great theologian.

Great beard. Great theologian.

Based on Twitter it seems like everybody is talking about the doctrine of Scripture at this year’s gather of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). It seemed fitting then to highlight this little gem from the modern grand-daddies of the doctrine of Inspiration, Archibald Hodge and B.B. Warfield:

…it is also evident that our conception of revelation and its methods must be conditioned upon our general views of God’s relation to the world, and His methods of influencing the souls of men. The only really dangerous opposition to the Church doctrine of Inspiration comes either directly or indirectly, but always ultimately, from some false view of God’s relation to the world, of His methods of working, and of the possibility of a supernatural agency penetrating and altering the course of a natural process. But the whole genius of Christianity, all of its essential and most characteristic doctrines, presuppose the immanence of God in all His creatures, and His concurrence with them in all their spontaneous activities. In Him, as an active, intelligent Spirit, we all live and move and have our being. He governs all His creatures and all their actions, working in men even to will, and spontaneously to do His good pleasure. The currents, thus, of the divine activities do not only flow around us, conditioning or controlling our action from without, but they none the less flow within the inner current of our personal lives confluent with our spontaneous self-movements, and contributing to the effects whatever properties God may see fit that they shall have.

–INSPIRATION, by Archibald Hodge and Benjamin Warfield, The Presbyterian Review 6 (April 1881), pp. 225-60.

As Vanhoozer* never tires of pointing out, the God question and the Scripture question can’t be separated. What you think about one is bound to affect what you think about the other.

Soli Deo Gloria

*I’ve been busy so this will have to serve as a place-holder for my “Engaging KJV” series. Should be back to it next week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soli Deo Gloria 

What’s So Great About Vanhoozer? (Engaging KJV Part 1)

I don't know what he's thinking right here, but it could probably serve as a Ph.D. thesis.

I don’t know what he’s thinking right here, but it could probably serve as a Ph.D. thesis.

When it comes contemporary systematic theology Kevin J. Vanhoozer is the man. I think I’ve said something like this before, but The Drama of Doctrine single-handedly saved my theology of Scripture when I was in my semi-emerging phase. His recent work Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship is probably the most important text engaging the doctrine of God and first theology (the confluence of God, scripture, and hermeneutics) that’s come out in the last 10 years. (I’ve summarized Vanhoozer’s summary of what that’s about here.) At least, in my admittedly unqualified opinion.

Imagine my excitement, then, when I got my hands on Southeastern Theological Review‘s volume for Summer 2013, which is dedicated entirely to interacting with Remythologizing. The volume is based on an ETS symposium dedicated to the subject, consisting mainly of four critical essays by Stephen Wellum, Oliver Crisp, and Fred Sanders and is capped off by a final response article by Vanhoozer himself. I’ve been waiting to read some constructive engagement with his work, but since the book is relatively new (only a couple of years old), and has been prohibitively priced (until now), there hasn’t been much.

I’ll just say that for those interested in an introduction to Vanhoozer’s project, or further discussion of the important issues involved, these are excellent essays from top scholars. Vanhoozer’s piece alone is worth the price. In order to encourage readers to either pick up the book, or follow up with the essays, over the next few weeks, I’ll write one post addressing each of the respective essays, probably picking out a key passage framing a critical issue, as well as sections from Vanhoozer’s own response.

What’s So Great About Vanhoozer? For this first week, though, I’d like to summarize a small section from Guest Editor Mark Bowalds’ introductory piece “A Generous Reformer: Kevin Vanhoozer’s Place in Evangelicalism.” Using an early piece in the Vanhoozer corpus, Bowald highlights four key features of Vanhoozer’s theological practice that make him necessary reading for those interested the future of Evangelical theology.

1. “First among these characteristics is his commitment to affirm and promote that quintessential feature of evangelical theology: the unrivalled authority of Scripture and the appropriate and fitting practices of its reading.” (pg. 3) Though nuanced, complex, and catholic (in the best sense), Vanhoozer’s theology unquestionably Evangelical, especially in its orientation to, and robust affirmation of the authority of Scripture. Indeed, anyone who has trucked through Is There a Meaning in This Text?, First Theology, or The Drama of Doctrine has seen his passion for, not only the authority of Scripture in the abstract, but it’s lived practice. For Vanhoozer, theology is not only scientia, but also sapientia, a lived out wisdom that gives the life of the Church its particular form. Scripture is not properly read until it is performed by a company of disciples steeped in the Theo-Drama of the Gospel.

2. “The second feature on display early on is his fearless and insatiable appetite to explore and read broadly and engage positively with diverse traditions and authors.” (pg. 4) Among the many accolades his books could (and have) been awarded with, Vanhoozer’s could probably qualify for that of most interesting bibliographies. For instance, in The Drama of Doctrine, alongside the theological titles of expected theologians (Calvin, McGrath, Webster, Barth, Von Balthasar), you’ll find Jeffrey Knapp’s study Shakespeare’s Tribe: Church, Nation, and Theater in Renaissance England and Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares. Beyond that, you’ll find these works seamlessly blended with the insights of philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Gadamer, Riceour, Searle, and Habermas. Vanhoozer won’t be limited to the usual suspects when it comes to theological dialogue.

3. “Third, he displays a unique confidence in drawing from this great breadth of material, integrating and weaving it creatively and humorously into dialogue with evangelical thought.” (pg. 4) Following off of this, it must be noted that he engages this diversity well. As Bowald points out, with section titles like “Propositional Paradise Lost? Some problems with the Concept of Revelation”, he’s obviously comfortable playing with the big boys (and girls), and it shows in his delightfully playful literary demeanor. This isn’t mere whimsy, or the sign of an unserious thinker, however, but rather a mode of communication that displays the confidence that Evangelical doctrine ought to engender. Instead of insular jeremiads, or timid, lowest-common denominator forays out into the broader theological world, Vanhoozer displays a creative ease building on and generously critiquing his interlocutors from a generously Evangelical vantage point.

4. “The last noteworthy…aspect of Vanhoozer’s work which emerges from the foundation of these first three, is his willingness to hold on loosely to method.” (pg. 4) As Bowald points out, this feature of Vanhoozer’s thought and practice is often misunderstood. While he definitely has a clear theological method, Vanhoozer is quite comfortable employing various conceptual aids in an ad hoc, bricolage fashion in order to supplement traditional doctrines; a little speech-act theory here, a bit of acting methodology there, and a dash of continental hermeneutics there and you have a retooled doctrine of Sola Scriptura ready for use.  For “serious” theologians, who need there to be a more explicit, linear, link-up between method and articulation, this can be a bit disorienting. (Of course, that’s part of the reason nobody reads them.) Bowald is keen to note, however, that this flows from his humble and generous approach to theological science–a willingness to appropriate and employ whatever insights he can, always in submission to the Word of God.

All of this amounts to a very winsome, irenic, and moderating, yet essentially conservative figure. (In a sense, think Tim Keller, but in systematic theology.) As Bowald notes: “Evangelicals have always been better at building moats than bridges. Evangelical theology tends to be insular and centripetal; Kevin Vanhoozer’s approach to theology is porous and centrifugal.” (pg. 5) All of this goes doubly for the Reformed. Vanhoozer manages to be confessional without being cantankerous, faithful without being fearful. Besides the importance of his constructive answers on the actual material questions he addresses , he is an exemplar of an approach theology interested in reaching, without compromise, beyond the borders of our own little, insular world.

And isn’t that what a truly Evangelical theologian ought to do?

Soli Deo Gloria

Part 2 – Does Diversity of Form Lead to Diversity of Message In Theology?

Part 3 – Is Vanhoozer Still a 5-Point Alvinist?

Why You Can’t Pit Jesus Against His Bible (@TGC)

Every so often, the champions and foes of “Red Letter” Christianity break out their arguments, sharpen them up, and take to the internet. Champions say we’ve ignored the words of Jesus—highlighted in some modern Bibles with red lettering—for far too long. They want us to take up the radical call to discipleship Jesus issued in the Sermon on the Mount. The foes say that even printing these words in red creates a false, canon-within-a-canon that distorts the Scriptures.

it_is_finishedOf course, there is a good sense in which we ought to give heightened priority to the words and deeds of Jesus. Unfortunately, some other self-described, “Red Letter” Christians do more than them priority. Instead, they contrast and even set in opposition the words of Jesus from the writings of Paul, or some other similarly ill-tempered and unprogressive disciple. While problematic, that approach is even less concerning than the tendency to pit Jesus against the Bible he grew up with: the Old Testament. Jesus’ words and character are contrasted with the Old Testament law, or the various commands of God scattered throughout the narrative sections of the Torah. So where Jesus and the Old Testament seem to conflict on violence, neighbor-love, sexuality, or some other hot topic, go with Jesus, they say. If you have to pick between red or black letters, go with red.

At the risk of kicking off another round of ‘robust dialogue’, here are three reasons why that approach doesn’t really work.

You can read the reasons over at The Gospel Coalition.

Jesus’ Favorite Book

torahSadly, for orthodox Christians who would readily confess Christ’s divinity and humanity, it’s very easy to forget Jesus was a real person sometimes. By that I mean that he probably had a lot of the normal personal tastes, likes, dislikes, and so forth, that we would think of. He probably had dishes that Mary made he was particularly fond of, or stories Joseph told that he loved best, or friends up the street he would duck out to go play with. You might even imagine that there were spots he loved to go think, or hide away, much as we all do.

That we forget this is tragic because it robs us of part of the glory of the Gospel that God became man, a specific man, at a particular time and place, who could fully identify with the experience of being a human person.

I was reminded of this the other day when I ran across a remarkable quote by Christopher Wright in David Murray’s book Jesus on Every Page on Jesus and the Old Testament.  He quotes Wright at length:

In the midst of the many intrinsically fascinating reasons why Old Testament study is so rewarding, the most exciting to me is the way it never fails to add new depths to my understanding of Jesus. I find myself aware that in reading the Hebrew Scriptures I am handling something that gives me a closer common link with Jesus than any archaeological artifact could do. For these are the words he read. These were the stories he knew. These were the songs he sang. These were the depths of wisdom and revelation and prophecy that shaped his whole view of ‘life, the universe and everything.” This is where he found his insights into the mind of his Father God. Above all, this is where he found the shape of his own mission. In short, the deeper you go into understanding the Old Testament, the closer you come to the heart of Jesus. (After all, Jesus never actually read the New Testament!)

–Christopher J.H. Wright, Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament, pg. ix

I’d never really thought about it that way, but the Bible was Jesus’ favorite book. (Now, being a peasant, I’m not sure that he had access to many others, but that doesn’t change the point.) When you’re reading the Old Testament, you’re reading words that Jesus read, sang, prayed, dwelt on, meditated over, struggled with, memorized, and loved.

When we were dating, McKenna and I made up a list of movies we wanted the other to see because they were particularly important to us. Watching those movies together was as experience we wanted to have with each other, yes because we liked the movies, but at a deeper level, because we felt that they revealed something about us to each other. In a similar way (alongside of the theologically-thicker ways), when you dive into the Old Testament, you’re learning something the very human Jesus who walked the earth 2,000 years ago. As Wright points out, this is just one more reason for us to dive into the Old Testament.

Of course, the joy of that is that is not to feel closer to someone who lived and loved a very long time ago. The still very-human, though resurrected and ascended, Jesus still loves those texts, has revealed himself in them, and promises to give himself to us through them if we will only meet him there.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Word of Sauron, The Word of Tolkien, and the Word of God

sauronA long time ago, I used to argue with people on blogs. Wait…yeah, I guess I still do. But the story I’m setting up was a long time ago. One of said blogs I argued on was that of my buddy Mike, an old youth pastor of mine who was going the way of the Bell and McLaren (pre-the really, really lame stuff). He’d post some controversial thought to ‘ask a question’ and I’d be the little gadfly college philosophy student who’d jump in and jostle with him. (Also, this was pre-Reformedish days. I would have laughed in your face if you’d have told me in 6 or 7 years I’d be quoting Calvin.)

In any case, he had raised the issue of Scripture one of those posts. Among other questions he was asking whether ‘all’ of the Bible was the Word of God, or only some of the parts, especially those where Divine Speech is specifically denoted, such as in the Prophets. Are the horrifying narrative sections, or the sections where the thoughts and emotions of the prophets, the psalmists, or the god-hating pagans with speaking parts, are speaking truly God’s Word?

In response to this, I came up with an analogy, on the fly, once again Lord of the Rings-related, to answer how I thought, at a minimum, even those sections could be considered the ‘Word of God.’ Once again, remember this is my 21-year old, still-really-piecing-it-together self:

“One way that I think about the way that the whole Bible is the Word of God, is thinking about it much like I think about The Lord of the Rings being the word of ‘Tolkien.’ It is at least all the Word of God in that he is its Divine Author. (I don’t mean to imply some kind of dictation theory of Scripture. I think its possible to have more than one author of a text at different levels. See Wolterstorff or Vanhoozer on this.) That said, not every word spoken in the text can be taken as his direct ‘word’ revealing his thoughts and desires in normative sense–certainly not those uttered by Sauron or Saruman. But, at the same time, those words are there in the text at Tolkien’s prerogative and are part of the overall “Word” that he speaks through the text and so can be taken as his Word.

In the same way, the words of the pagans in Scriptures are God’s Word in the same way that Sauron’s words are Tolkien’s word. There is a way that Tolkien can show us something about or say something about the nature of evil, through the evil words and actions of Sauron, which Tolkien himself would never do or say. In this way, the words and actions are properly Sauron’s, but they are also Tolkien’s in the context of the larger story he is authoring. In an analogous way God says things through these texts in a way that accounts for and does not reduce the multiple human voices, genres, etc, but also accomplishes his specific purposes in the world through the Text as its over-arching Author. Of course, this is an analogy and it kind of breaks down, but I think captures part of the picture.

A few years on, I’d probably massage a few phrases here and there, but in the main, I still find the analogy useful. God’s authorship of Scripture is a nuanced and layered one. That I affirm the Bible as God’s Word in its totality, does not mean I’m proposing a flat reading of the text, that fails to take into account narrative or genre dynamics. Far from it. In fact, it means I have to take care to read it even more carefully, not brushing past or carelessly dismissing any of God’s words, in order to discern just what exactly the Spirit is communicating through the inspired Word.

Soli Deo Gloria

Vanhoozer’s 10 Theses On “Remythologizing” in Plain(er) English

remthologizingOne of the great things about college ministry is that I’m often forced to think through whether I actually understand all the nerdy, academic theology I read. Exhibit A: Kevin Vanhoozer’s Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship is easily one of my top 5 nerdy, theological texts I own. I’ve read it twice and constantly find myself coming back to it, even though it’s not something I’d teach a college Bible study through. Well, just last week I happened to mention the text around one my college students and she immediately wanted to know what “remythologizing” was.

Welp. I mean, when someone asks you about Vanhoozer, what are you supposed to do? Ignore it?

That launched us into an hour-long discussion explaining the difference between systematic theology and biblical theology, Bultmann and demythologizing, the confluence of God, scripture, and hermeneutics that Vanhoozer calls “first theology” and so much more. (She asked very good questions.) In the middle of this crash course, I ended up talking through Vanhoozer’s “10 Theses on Remythologizing.” Inspired by Lewis’ dictum that, if you can’t put it in common English, you probably don’t know it, I attempted to translate the theses into normal-person speak for my intelligent, but non-expert student.

Given that not many people have read this very important text yet–and it is very important text, one of the most important in the last 20 years probably–I figured I’d attempt a command performance of the on the spot translation summary act I did for my student the other night, only in print, and maybe not as dumb. Maybe. I’ll essentially be trying to translate Vanhoozer’s own elaborations on the theses, in plain(er), Rishmawy-language.

Ten Theses On Remythologizing
Briefly, in many ways Vanhoozer’s project is kind of a counter-point to Bultmann’s program of ‘demythologization’ that de-storifed (mythos is story) the Gospels into timeless existential truths. In contrast, Vanhoozer’s aim is to take seriously the shape and form of the story of Scripture as God’s own communication to us of Who he is, while also avoiding Feuerbach’s notion that all god-talk is simply human projections of our best attributes onto the screen of eternity. So Vanhoozer puts forward his own program of “remythologizing” that he initially summarizes in these ten theses.

One key term to know is “theodrama”, which simply smashes “theos” and “drama” together in order to speak of the divine actions in redemptive history (God doing stuff in the story of the Bible). When Vanhoozer says, “theodramatic”, basically it means “having to do with God doing and saying stuff in the Bible.”

The italicized quotations are his, and again, the rest is my attempt at translation:

1. “Remythologizing is not a “fall back into myth” but a spring forward into metaphysics.” (27) This is not about mythologizing the text, taking us back to all-too-human gods of myth, but taking seriously the mythos, the plotof the biblical storyline to see what it reveals to us about the nature of God and the world. What must the God who acts in this story be like in order to do and say the kinds of things we see in the biblical narrative. To do that, we have to pay attention to the narrative very closely.

2. “Remythologizing means recovering the “who” of biblical discourse.” (28) At it’s heart, remythologizing is a project focused on the main character of the drama, God, who presents himself to us in the Scriptures through Word and Spirit. What attributes and characteristics does this God show himself to have in light of what he says about himself?

3. “Remythologizing means attending to the triune “who” of communicative action.” (28) Remythologizing is necessarily trinitarian theology because the one doing the saying in the narrative is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (or, Father, Word, & Breath). That will shape the way we understand God’s self-communication.

4. “Remythologizing conceives the God–world relation in primarily communicative rather than causal terms.” (28) Instead of more classical categories like ‘causality’, which has some more physicalist connotations, Vanhoozer wants to rethink God’s relation to the world on the analogy of communication. The God of Scripture is a speaking God who brings us the world into being through speech and saves it through his Word. That should shape the way we conceive things.

5. “Remythologizing means rethinking metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics alike in theodramatic terms.” (29)  Instead of trying to shove the story of the Gospel into some pre-made grid like modern science, history, or secular metaphysics, Vanhoozer wants us to do things the other way around. Instead, the story of the Gospel is the criterion by which we judge all else. In fact, it generates its own metaphysical categories around God’s communication made flesh, Jesus Christ.

6. “Remythologizing means faith seeking, and demonstrating, theodramatic understanding through fitting participation in the triune communicative action.” (29) Theology is not a neutral affair. To understand God’s actions in Christ truly, there is an active element. I must be trying to situate myself within the story appropriately for this work to be properly undertaken. (This was a tough one.)

7. “Remythologizing means taking Christ, together with the Spirit-breathed canon that the living Word commissions, as the chief means of God’s self-presentation and communication.” (29) “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” ( Heb. 1:1–2). Remythologizing pays attention both to the grand story of Scripture and the Incarnation at the center, as well as the various genres, modes, and methods God has used within it to communicate himself to us. In fact, the Scriptures not only report God’s communication, but are, in fact, part of the action.

8. “Remythologizing is a form of biblical reasoning, a matter of thinking about the subject matter along the various forms of biblical discourse that present it.” (29) It’s not a matter of thinking or reading the Bible, but thoughtfully paying attention to the way the Bible teaches us to think. For instance, paying attention to the particular way a metaphor is used to communicate truth as opposed to a straightforward syllogism.

9. “Remythologizing means attending to biblical polyphony and recognizing the dialogical nature of theodramatic testimony and theological truth.” (30) God isn’t a boring communicator and the subject matter is too grand to be captured in simple fashion. Vanhoozer’s project is about paying attention to all the different ways and means, as well as angles (history, eschatology, ontology) and perspectives (divine, human, powers) from which the truth is communicated in order to “do justice” to the diverse voices in Scripture. Remythologizing shouldn’t result in flat theology.

10. “In sum, remythologizing is best defined in contrast to demythologizing as a type of first theology.” (30) First theology is how your doctrine of God, Scripture, and hermeneutics all play into one another. Remythologizing is Vanhoozer’s proposal for how that all should go together in light of the triune God’s communicating activity in the theodrama of Scripture.

Of course, Vanhoozer does much more than just put forward a methodology in this work. He shows you what he means by all of this in the process of doing some real theology involving close reading of texts, addressing issues in the doctrine of God in like the Creator/creature relationship as well as God’s impassibility, developing a doctrine of the Trinity along the lines of communicative categories, and bridging the gap between Thomism and Barthianism.  Among other things.

The long and the short of it, though, is that remythologizing is a renewed program of thinking about God on the basis of what God has said and done in Jesus Christ and the Scriptures in the power of the Spirit. In many ways, it’s simply a retooling, a new articulation of a very old approach. Of course, as Pascal says, “Let no one say I have said nothing new; the arrangement of the material is new. In playing tennis both players play the same ball, but one plays it better.”

Vanhoozer plays the ball quite well in our postmodern context and theologians of all stripes would do well to learn from this master theological re-arranger.

Soli Deo Gloria