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

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?