Jesus and the Coherence of Scripture

Jesus and the BibleHaving gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith (Romans 12:6)

Historically, the Church has taken this verse as an exegetical basis for reading the Scriptures according to the “analogy of faith”  (which shouldn’t be confused with Karl Barth’s version) or the “analogy of Scripture.” The assumption is that prophets are being urged to keep their prophecies consistent with the faith they have received–the deposit of apostolic truth already given to them. They shouldn’t prophesy anything that contradicts what has already been revealed by the Lord, for that would point to a contradiction in Spirit’s revelation and therefore God himself. This reading was then built out into the principle of interpretation that Scripture ought to be read in line with Scripture–it is “self-interpreting” in that sense. And there are a few versions of what this means.

Back in the 80s, Henri Blocher argued in an article in the Scottish Bulletin of Theology (“The ‘Analogy of Faith’ in the Study of Scripture: In Search of Justification and Guidelines’), that the primary sense is the practice of interpreting individual texts in light of the whole of Scripture:

The main application of the analogy is the comparison of all relevant passages on any topic, under the methodical duty to avoid substantial contradictions. It implies a systematic character in biblical interpretation, the totality of a coherent Scripture being the norm. One is not far from the older idea of the ‘hermeneutical circle’, the reciprocal determination of the whole and of the parts. (23)

While this process would have been relatively uncontroversial from the Fathers on into the Post-Reformation period, in the contemporary scene this endeavor becomes far more dubious. Historical critics allege that strong assertions of the coherence of the Biblical books within the canon imposes a false uniformity on a set of diverse texts. They charge that this approach is prone to dehistoricized readings that smack more of the theological systems of the readers than the intentions of the authors in question.

Instead, we need to understand that we have “conversations” (arguments?) going on in Scripture between the various authors, whom often are not only saying distinct things, but may often be contradicting each other in the process. Rather than saying John and Mark are highlighting different angles of what it means for Jesus to be Messiah, or that they are making the same judgments with different language, we must admit that they actually have contradicting Christologies at key points.

From a more theological angle, Blocher mentions those who would resist analogy of faith readings by pointing to the accommodating nature of God himself:

Ever-changing life! Cannot the God of life and of paradoxical kenosis, the-God who writes straight on crooked lines and takes pleasure in always surprising us, speak through contradictions? The opposite, traditional, opinion is charged with Western, or Greek, of Cartesian, ‘rationalism’!

On this view, truth emerges in the midst of the contradiction, the dialectic, the negotiation going on within the canon itself. Theologians, therefore, are not to attempt to harmonize texts and their theologies, but should either affirm the contradictions as contradictions, or  construct some canon within the canon that allows us to adjudicate the disputes in our modern context. Pretty heady stuff, right?

Blocher, however, is not persuaded by this line of reasoning. No, instead he points out that everywhere in Scripture the unity and coherence of revealed truth is assumed:

At all stages of biblical history, coherence is highly valued, and ascribed to whatever teaching is believed to have come from God. Truth, emeth, rhymes with eternity, immutable permanence (Ps. 119:160, etc.). The law of the Lord is pure, that is, perfectly homogeneous, more thoroughly purged of dross than refined silver and gold; all his ordinances go together as one in their lightness (Ps. 19:9). No miracle may authorize unorthodox prophecies (Dt. 13:lff). Inspite of God’s freedom to display new things in history, failure to harmonize with the dominant tone of earlier revelations raises doubts on the authenticity of a message (Je. 28:7ff). Paul exhorts his readers to be of one mind (Phil.2:2, etc.); they are to grow into the unity of faith (Eph. 3:13), since there is only, under one Lord, one faith and one baptism (v.5). His preaching is not ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ (2 Cor. 1:18), an echo of Jesus’ famous words…Paul insists that his message is identical with that of the other apostles (1 Cor. 15:11); their approval and recognition gave him the assurance that he was not running in vain (Gal. 2:2). In the face of misinterpretations, 2 Peter 3:16 reaffirms this accord. John highlights the three witnesses’ agreement (1 Jn. 5:8), and the Fourth Gospel puts forward the theme of ‘repetition’, not parrot-like indeed, but meeting a concern for identity of substance (Jn. 8:26, 28; 16:13). Discord is a symptom of untruth, as it was in the case of the false witnesses of Jesus’ trial (Mk. 14:56,59). Contradictors are to be refuted (Rom.16:17; Tit.l:9): it could never be done if the standard itself embraced several conflicting theologies. (29-30)

Of course, a number of these readings can be contravened, difficulties could be brought forward, and it could be argued that, well, that’s just a couple of apostles, a Psalmist, and a prophet or two. We, though, are Christians who follow Jesus, not Paulinists who follow Paul.

Well, okay, but what does Jesus say about the issue? While there are any number of directions you could take this, Blocher points to an instructive bit of dialogue in the Gospels–Jesus’ confrontation with Satan in the wilderness:

And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time. (Luke 4:9-13)

Satan attacks Jesus by using Scripture in order to lead him towards disobedience from the Father’s will. So what’s Jesus’ response? The same as it is with the Pharisees and the Sadducees–he quotes Scripture in order to correct a twisted use of Scripture. Blocher expands on this point:

As a matter of fact, the whole logic of our Lord’s appeal to Scripture in argument (and similarly of his apostles’) would instantly collapse if the presupposition of scriptural coherence were taken away. Even against the Tempter, Jesus relies on the internal consistency of his Father’s Word, quoting Scripture to rebuff a twisted use of Scripture. ‘It is written’ would no longer settle an issue if it were conceded that several contradictory views compete with each other on the pages of the Book. The authority of the Word of God would no longer function as it does in Scripture in that case (how could it function at all as supreme?). (30)

Jesus’ response to the Tempter assumes the unity and coherence of Scripture and in this he is followed by his disciples.

Of course, none of this rules out the need for care in applying the of the analogy of faith. There are bad harmonizations. People can be ham-fisted and too quick to assume that John was saying exactly the same thing with his Logos-Christology as Mark when, in fact, Mark is making a slightly different and complementary point about Jesus in the “Son of Man” sayings. Or again, there are ways of trying to harmonize timelines that ignore the nature of biblical history writing which didn’t have the same standards of precision as we do today. Nor should we rush to find the consistencies without careful study, lest we lose the truth in our haste to defend it. The fact that Scripture is coherent and unified does not mean that it is flat and undifferentiated. Respecting that reality may take time, patience, and the vulnerability required to not foreclose interpretive horizons.

Reading with the analogy of faith, the part in light of the whole, means taking seriously the distinctness of each passage within the pattern of the whole, none of which rules out thinking historically, or contextually about them. That’s the kind of reading allows you to recognize, for instance, the different historical situations James and Paul are facing with respect to the issue of faith and works. Or again, we begin to say the way that Paul’s message about the salvation that comes through Jesus the King is not a deviation from Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom, since Paul is writing post-death-and-resurrection. Of course the emphasis is going to shift, even if there’s a proper continuity between the two.

So then, all those who decide to read Scripture in light of Scripture are not simply guilty of historical anachronism, a fear of biblical tensions, or a need for “Cartesian” certainty. They’re simply trying to be faithful to the pattern modeled to them by their Lord.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Reformed Catholicity of Herman Bavinck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soli Deo Gloria

On “Moving The Conversation Forward”

conversationI don’t know how often I’ve heard the phrase “moving the conversation forward.” We could be talking sex ethics, church and culture, science and faith, or whatever. Every subject has a conversation around it and it’s always supposed to be going forward. Now, I have to say, I don’t always know what that means. Of course, it’s very simple to say what the string of words mean together. There is a “conversation” between interlocutors on an issue, and it is to be “moved forward.” But meaning is also a function of use. So there’s a question of “how is this being used?” Well, I can think of three senses.

First, there’s the idea of “growth in mutual understanding.” When you start a conversation between people who disagree on an issue, it’s possible to be separated from each other in at least two senses. First, you can disagree on the issue. I support A, and you support B. Second, we can disagree about what the issue even is. I might support A, but you think I support C, and while you support B, I suppose you support D. In this case, the conversation can “move forward” when we grow to understand each other’s actual position, even if neither of us actually move away from our original position.

Second, there’s the sense of “new, intellectual ground being broken.” In this usage, it could be that while you support B and I support A, in the conversation, it’s possible that in the course of the conversation we find that E is an option that neither of us had been considered before that deals with both of our concern. In this option, an impasse is broken and we both move forward together.

Third, there is the sense of “you move to agreeing with me.” In this case, I support A, which is further beyond B, and so the conversation moves forward when you catch up with me. And this, I take it, is actually the most common use.

Here’s the couple of interesting things I’ve noticed about the these senses:

First, the third sense is usually somewhat hidden, or parasitic on the first or the second uses. In other words, when many today suggest we try to “move the conversation forward”, the idea is we’re to be open to find a new middle ground, or move towards greater mutual understanding is implied. And who doesn’t want that? But the problem comes when you enter the conversation, under the guise of the first or second sense, yet what you really mean is the third.

Second, we often don’t notice that in inviting people to “move the conversation forward” in the second sense, you’re already asking them to accept the premise that whatever position they currently hold is unworkable and like ought to be moved beyond. But even there you’re subtly begging the question.

Of course, I don’t think most people don’t do this consciously. Rather, we subconsciously assume that “if the discussion is properly had, once you actually understand my views, you’ll end up agreeing with me.”  Or, “if the discussion is properly had, once we actually talk it all through, we’ll end up with some third position that’s not yours.” We have trouble imagining that at the end of the conversation, at least one or both of us will remain in the same place, or that it “moves forward” only in the first sense.

This is caught up with another phenomena I’ve noted before, which is our tendency to think that everyone holding a position on an issue (atonement, salvation, etc) must be in the same place process-wise as we ourselves are. So, if I’m only now discovering the other side’s view on a subject, and I’ve hitherto held my position naively, then I tend to assume that all of my interlocutors must be in that same epistemic boat. It fails to occur to me that others might have had those “conversations”, made their judgments on the issue one way or another, and have now justifiably moved on to a different conversation entirely.

In any case, this equivocation on the sense of the term “moving the conversation forward” is a peeve precisely because of its rhetorically obscuring quality. Instead of openly proceeding with the very understandable and commendable goal of trying to debate or persuade someone into a position you hold as true, or out of one you believe is false, we falsely move under the more “humble” guise “moving the conversation forward.” In which case, if you don’t want to be “open” to a new way of thinking because you’ve already given it due thought, well, isn’t that still so “narrow” and backwards and stultifying to the conversation which ought to be going “forward”? It becomes a rather disingenuous rhetorical tool to move the conversation in your direction without owning your intended aims.

I have no solution here other than to commend a greater sense of self-awareness regarding our speech and intentions. There are times when you enter the conversation in order to learn, or in order to move beyond current paradigms, or, quite legitimately, in order to persuade others of a position you honestly hold.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity 50th Episode (Ask Us Anything!)

Mere FidelityAbout a year and half ago, Alastair Roberts, Andrew Wilson, and I recorded a phone chat we had on a couple of theological topics. We posted it up at Mere Orthodoxy under the title Casting Across the Pond. Two weeks later, Matthew Lee Anderson joined the crew and the Mere Fidelity podcast was born. It’s been a joy to the four of us ever since. We hope it’s been a joy for you, our listeners. You all have made it possible for us to keep going.

In order to celebrate our 50th episode, we decided to do an “Ask Us Anything” episode. Things included in this discussion: do animals go to heaven? How did the podcast get started? Why do some people use grape juice over wine in communion? And, how is Alastair such a freak when it comes to reading books? We hope you enjoy the show as much as we did.

Soli Deo Gloria

Are We Really Just Like Those Who Embraced the Gentiles?

Dr. J.R.D. Kirk says he has finally “come out” as fully accepting and affirming of non-celibate, gay and lesbian Christians within the community of the Church. Which, he himself seems to note, should really come as a surprise to no one after reading his recent posts or his scholarly work on the subject.

As it turns out, his arguments for this decision are fairly unsurprising as well.

To his credit, Kirk says that none of the verses in the Old or New Testaments go his way on this issue. They’re all fairly against same-sex erotic activity in a general way, not merely with reference to specific practices like idolatry or pederasty. So, he had to find another paradigm for making theological decisions that takes us beyond, or even formally contrary to Scripture. He did that in the paradigm of the inclusion of the Gentiles.

In inviting in the Gentiles to the Church, the apostles and early Jewish believers had to transgress and go beyond a lot of clearly written commands. In a nutshell, they did so because of their experience of the Spirit in the lives of these Gentile believers who had been “washed” and made pure. Think Peter and Cornelius (Acts 10). This is really not a great summary, so you should go read the article, make sure I’m not misrepresenting him, and then come back for the rest of this.

I bring this up, not because I have any particular beef with Dr. Kirk–he seems like an amiable fellow. Still, his argument has been shared widely, and likely comes as a welcome novelty to some looking to rethink their position on this existentially challenging issue. So, I figured it would be worth commenting on.

Now, having written on this very argument before, I suppose it’s alright if I begin by just quoting myself on a very similar argument a while back. Then, I’ll add a few points just to deal with some of Kirk’s additional materials. Finally, as always, this is far from an extensive treatment of the issues involved. I’m trying to do the very limited work of seeing whether Kirk’s argument does what he says it does.

Six Reasons For Thinking This is Not Like the Gentile Thing

I’m not convinced Peter’s encounter with Cornelius is an adequate model for Christians reconsidering their position on same-sex relationships within the Christian body. Ironically enough, it highlights a number of reasons for caution against breaking with 2,000 years of the Church’s scriptural teaching on this point:Peter Baptizing the Centurion Cornelius by Fra...

1. No New Revelation – One clear distinction between the two situations is that no special revelation has happened with respect to same-sex relationships. Peter wasn’t transformed by a mere experience of the “sincere faith” of the Other he had despised, but was given a supernatural revelation and confirmation in the form of a vision and the Spirit empowering Cornelius with visible, supernatural signs, so that as an authoritative apostle, he could testify to God’s acceptance of the Gentiles by faith. As far as I know there aren’t any apostles, witnesses of the risen Christ, walking around having experienced new, authoritative revelation on this issue. We should be careful not to act is if there has been.

2. Sexual Attraction is Not Race – Without fully elaborating on this point, the analogy problematically presumes a Biblical equivalence or adequate similarity between sexual attraction and race or ethnicity. I’ll just say that even when inborn, sexual attraction is not equivalent to race or ethnicity. My Arabness is not something I act on in the same fashion as my sexual and romantic inclinations. That is an increasingly common category mistake that does injustice to the complexity of both race and sexuality, especially within a Biblical framework.

3. There Was a Plan For Cornelius – What’s more, the Scriptures have always testified to the future-inclusion of the Gentiles as Gentiles within the covenant people of God. Passages could be multiplied ad nauseum, but Isaiah presents us with a vision of God’s plans for the nations:

It shall come to pass in the latter days, that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2:2-3)

Being a Gentile was never sinful per se, but only as it was connected to idolatrous practices that inevitably went along with being outside the covenant. In other words, the Israelites were commanded to be holy, different from the Gentiles because of election and the unrighteousness of Gentile actions, not because non-Jewishness was inherently unrighteous. What’s more, within the Old Testament, there were covenantal purposes for Israel remaining distinct and separate from the Gentiles precisely because the election of the Jews would eventually be for the sake of the Gentiles (Gen. 12:1-3).

Peter’s experiences with Cornelius then, are a personal, experiential confirmation of a movement already foreshadowed in Scripture. So any modification revealed does not come as a radical disjunct, but comes as part of the surprising fulfillment of what is already written.. As difficult as it is to accept, there is no such prophecy, foreshadowing, or hinting that homosexual behavior is something that will one day be sanctioned and blessed for God’s children.

4. The 1970s Were Not Eschatological – Following this is an insight from Kathryn Greene-McCreight: the Sexual Revolution is not a new eschatological event. Cornelius’ inclusion, along with the rest of the Gentiles, was brought about by the eschatological turning of the ages. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the particular covenant with national Israel was fulfilled, pouring forth into the always-intended blessing of Gentiles joining Jews in being built up into Christ. (Rom. 4; 15:8-12; Gal. 3; Eph. 2:11-22) Nothing similarly climactic has happened in salvation history to suggest a new administration of God’s covenant is in place, which includes behaviors clearly forbidden to God’s people in both Old and New Testaments. In that sense, unlike Peter, we’re not standing in a eschatologically-new situation calling for a radical revision of Christian theological ethics. The 1970s were a big deal, but not that big.

5.  About Those Conversions… –  Which brings me to the theological repentance of Paul, Augustine, and Luther. Paul’s conversion of attitude towards the Gentiles was, as with Peter, the result of scales falling from his eyes in light of the Risen Christ, to see past his own religious nationalism. It was an authoritative revelation that shifted his perspective, not a new experience of diversity. Augustine changed his mind on a number of issues, but in his Retractions you see that it’s constantly a process of going back to the Word and letting it correct his earlier Manichaeism and Neo-Platonism. Luther’s theological reformation was an attempt to recover what he believed had actually already been revealed, but was covered over by years of scholastic teaching.

While Paul’s conversion was qualitatively different from Luther’s and Augustine’s, all were transforming encounters with God’s Word, Incarnate, written, or both. Paul’s was inspiration, and we could say Augustine and Luther’s experiences were illumination of what had already been said. We need to make sure that when we change our minds about something on the basis of “new biblical insights, movements of the Spirit, and new friends” we don’t turn God into a confused deity who contradicts himself because he’s changed his mind.

6. Already Included–In Christ – Finally, and this one is probably the most crucial to understand, the New Testament already includes those with same-sex attractions on the same grounds as it does everybody else–union by faith with Christ whose shed blood purchases forgiveness and whose Holy Spirit sanctifies us from all uncleanliness. The Gospel is for everyone. Really. God’s family is open, adopting new sons and daughters with all sorts of struggles and backgrounds. I too shudder at the idea of calling impure that which Christ calls clean. I too think the grace of God extends far and wide–if it didn’t, I wouldn’t stand a chance.

What I also don’t want to do, though, is blunt the Gospel and its promise of new Creation that says, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:11) I would hate to look at my brother struggling with same-sex attraction and say, “Yeah, that’s true of everything except your sexuality.” No, the Gospel gives us a better, if not always easier, hope than that.

On the Presence of the Spirit

Alright, what else is there to be added?

A few points. First, it needs to be reiterated that–to my knowledge–a great defenders of the traditional view of things have no objections to acknowledging the presence of the Spirit in the lives of LGBT people. I also don’t object to talking about them having been cleansed in keeping with the New Testament. The difference, I take it, comes with our understanding of what that means and what theologically follows from that reality.

For instance, as we’ve already noted, Paul said the young, ex-pagan Christians in the church of Corinth had been cleansed. They were holy, saints of God. Now, given the sweep of the letter, do we think he believed they had nothing yet to repent of? Does having the Spirit automatically mean that every desire you still have even with the presence of the Spirit is blessed and cleansed by the Spirit? Reading the rest of the New Testament authors (John, Peter, James, Hebrews?) ought to disabuse us of that idea fairly quickly.

Acknowledging someone has the Spirit doesn’t mean ruling out the reality that there are sins, brokenness, and areas in their lives in need of further spiritual growth, healing, strength to endure through, or outright repentance. I can probably name about 10 in my own life right now that I can only pray don’t rule out the presence of the Spirit.

I suppose what I’m getting at is, Kirk’s arguments in this respect don’t seem to overturn our older understanding about the meaning of the presence of the Spirit.

On the Sabbath

Next, we come to the Sabbath parallel. Now, the problems with this one are legion. First, let’s remember there are Sabbatarians. But really, there is a long history of interpretive disagreements within the orthodox tradition here, with sophisticated hermeneutics attached them (skipped over by Kirk) that stems from one main difference between the Sabbath and the same-sex issue: we seem to have verses written by apostles in the inspired New Testament witness as well as the practice of the early church that points to the, at least partial, restructuring of the Sabbath command because of the change in the covenants brought about in Christ. In other words, the debate about altering our understanding of the Sabbath comes from a feature which Kirk notes the same-sex relationship issue doesn’t have: New Testament warrant.

The New Testament apostles who very firmly reiterated the Old Testament’s restrictions on sexual ethics, were also the same ones who saw a change in the administration in the covenant on the basis of it’s fulfillment in Christ (Hebrews 4; Gal. 4:10;  Col. 2:16). Which means that it’s fully possible to do our theologizing about these matters as most Christians (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant) without explicitly extending ourselves beyond, or rather against, the logic or the clear text of the New Testament, as Kirk suggests we ought to in respect to sexual ethics. For a fairly classic treatment of the issues, here’s Calvin. For a more contemporary treatment, Michael Horton has a helpful article.

Of course, I forgot to mention Jesus’ own comments about being the Lord of the Sabbath in his own controversies with the Pharisees (Mk. 2:27-28).  I suppose, though, it makes sense to remind everyone that another feature of Kirk’s logic on this position is holding that Jesus himself actually got his theology of divorce and marriage wrong. So, maybe Jesus’ words don’t help much there, either. Which, for most Christians, is probably enough reason to be hesitant about accepting Kirk’s invitation.

Soli Deo Gloria

Gratitude: Leithart’s History of Western Philosophy According to Grandma’s Tureen

gratitudeI love a good intellectual history when I can get my hands on one. Intellectual histories, if done right, give you a solid blend of philosophical (theological, etc) engagement, history, and joy of a well-told story. That’s exactly what Peter Leithart delivers in his recent (2014) offering Gratitude: An Intellectual History. Many will know that the idea of “the Gift” has gotten a lot of attention over the 20th Century in philosophy, anthropology, and related fields. When anthropologist Marcel Mauss “rediscovered” the reciprocity involved in the process of gift-giving in the tribal culture of Polynesia and Melanesia, he kicked off a chain of reflection on the conditions and reality of the gift. What goes into making a gift a gift? What are the ties implied in the giving of the gift? Contemporaries tend to think of gifts as, of necessity, having “no strings attached.” But if every gift implies an obligation, a “debt” of gratitude, can there every truly be such a thing as a gift?

Leithart noticed a gap in the literature. While there’s no end of resources on the gift, there’s little that’s focused on the corresponding category: gratitude. Gifts and gratitude go together. But just exactly what that means, it turns out, has been a matter of debate and controversy over the centuries in the West. Gratitude hasn’t always been simply an issue of thank you cards after your wedding—indeed, it probably never has been simply an issue of anything. The circle of gifts and gratitude have made the world go round, encompassing everything from the deepest questions of political theory, interpersonal ethics, and the nature of the divine-human relationship itself. Paul, lest we forget, says ingratitude–not acknowledging God’s gifts for what they are–is at the heart of human rebellion against God (Romans 1).

Taking an expansive view, Leithart, then, aims to tell the story of the Western history’s various political, philosophical, theological, and cultural orientations towards the nature of gift and the corresponding enactment of gratitude. Guided by Leithart’s steady hands, we are led through a movement from circles of honor in ancient Greece and Rome, to the ingratitude of Jesus, on to the patron(age) saints of the Middle Ages, the disruptive ingratitude of the Reformers, an attempt to bend the circles into straight lines in modernity, and up through the methodological ingratitude of postmodernity. Summarizing this engagement is beyond me. That said, it’s not beyond Leithart to summarize himself. And that’s exactly what he does at the end of the work, using a delightful thought experiment: Grandma’s gift soup tureen.

Leithart asks us at the beginning of the book to enter into the dilemmas of gift of gratitude by imagining this situation:

Imagine that your beloved grandmother gave you a rather ugly soup tureen as a wedding gift. Seeing as you have no use for the tureen, how ought you respond? You would, of course, write an appropriately deceptive note of thanks, but what then? Would you box the tureen away and never use it? Would you use it to feed the cat? What if Grandma were coming for dinner? Would you let her see you using her gift to feed the cat?…Variations on the hypothetical can be spun out further…but the point is clear enough. Gifts, especially from a respected giver, carry something of the giver with them. (16-17)

Gifts carry a responsibility, then, of showing proper gratitude and an ethic that is associated with it.

With this in mind, Leithart decides to summarize his story by playfully imagining what a variety (though not the totality!) of the figures treated in his narrative would tell you about how to respond to Grandma’s ugly, gift tureen:

  • Aristotle would warn you that receiving the tureen puts you in a position of inferiority and that, if you want to be a virtuous and independent person, you should pay Grandma back with a bigger gift as soon as possible. Then forget you ever received the gift in the first place.
  • Cicero would tell you to follow accepted custom, take the gift, look for a chance to reciprocate, and expect that your good offices will advance your political career.
  • Seneca would encourage you to exaggerate the quality and beauty of the gift, to appear at Grandma’s door every morning to accompany her on her way to the grocery store, loudly celebrating her generosity at every stoplight. He would encourage you to look for the right time and way to repay her.
  • Jesus and Paul would tell you to honor and love Grandma, thank God with sincerity, and move on.
  • The Beowulf poet would encourage you to pass out soup tureens to your employees to display your largesse.
  • Calvin and Luther would tell you to thank God, while recognizing you do not deserve the tureen or your grandmother’s love. They would remind you that grace is a gift that can never be repaid.
  • Hobbes would tell you that you should receive the tureen in such a way that Grandma will never regret having given it to you, which means, do not use it to feed the cat.
  • Locke would say that you should thank her and show esteem for her, so long as her gift was not an attempt to influence your decision to vote Democrat.
  • Adam Smith would tell you that gratitude is a proper sentiment in response to something that give pleasure, like a tureen.
  • Kant would tell you that since Grandma gave first, you are obligated to her by a sacred duty, a debt that can never be repaid.
  • Kierkegaard would remind you that we are to thank God even in suffering.
  • Nietzsche would urge you to show gratitude especially if the tureen is ugly, to show Grandma how powerless she is to harm you.
  • Heidegger would mumble something incomprehensible in German, hike up his lederhosen, and leave with Nazi salute.
  • Mauss would be at the head of a gaggle of anthropologists warning you that there is no such thing as a free gift, that Grandma might return later to reclaim her property, and that her display of generosity is likely a power play intended to put you in her debt.
  • Derrida would say that you soiled the gift as soon as you said thank you.
  • Marion would strip the tureen to its essence of pure givability, and you and Grandma would both disappear into phenomenological vapor. (217-128)

And there you have it: the history of Western thought on gratitude, served up in Grandma’s tureen. If this hasn’t whet your appetite, I’m not sure what else I can say. I suppose I’ll say this: Peter Leithart has written first-rate book. It’s a gift for which I’m very grateful. (To God, of course.)

Soli Deo Gloria

7 Things Hebrews Says About Jesus (Or, Condensed Christology)

christ pantokratorThe New Testament is chock-full of stunning passages on the nature of Christ. Arguably, chief among them stands the opening lines of the epistle to the Hebrews. While we don’t know who the author of Hebrews was, nor the exact time and setting of the letter, it’s very clear that he had one key purpose in writing to the churches: strengthen, secure, and refocus their faith in the supremacy and sufficiency of Jesus Christ. In order to do so, he’ll engage in lengthy arguments about his supremacy to angels, Moses, the Priesthood, his better covenant, and more, at length. Unlike other authors, though, he doesn’t slowly work his way around to the conclusion. No, he hits them with both barrels in his opening shot:

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, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. (Hebrews 1:1-4)

Engaging in a full-blown exegesis of this text is far beyond me–at least in a short post–but I did want to highlight some of the key points of astonishingly comprehensive-yet-condensed Christology. Here are, then, seven things the author of Hebrews says about Christ.

  1. Son. The first thing that the author notes is Jesus is “his Son.” Now, in what exact sense Christ is the “Son” here will be filled out in, I think, a couple of the other things he will say about him. But whatever else he says, the title under which he possesses all these other categories and accomplishes all of his works is as the Son.
  2. Revealer. Secondly, the Son is the ultimate capstone of God’s self-revelation. In former times, God spoke in various ways, through prophets, through poets, historians, and the other authors of Scripture, inspired by God. But now God speaks–God communicates God’s will, God’s works, and God’s wisdom–in the person of the Son. He is the culmination–though, not the denial!–of all that God has spoken before.
  3. Heir of All Things. It is this Son, who has also been appointed the “heir of all things.” Now, what does that mean? Well, the Son is Son, in one sense, according to the flesh. As the Psalms testify (2, 110), he is the Royal Son of David, heir to the throne of Israel, the blessings of the covenant, and even more, the true Son of Adam, heir to the kingdom of the whole world.
  4. Creator. Next, this Son who has been appointed heir of all things according to his humanity seems to have a deeper claim on the world: he is the agent through whom God “created the world.” Here, the author of Hebrews says something fascinating. Just like the John (1:1-3) and Paul (Col. 1), he operates with the clear, Jewish delineation between the Creator and the creation, and just like them, he has the Son on the Creator side of the line. If the world was made through him, what is he not? Any other thing in the world. We might hear echoes here of Wisdom (Proverbs 8).
  5. Radiance of Glory and Imprint. The Son, we are told, is the radiance, the shining, the “refulgence”, of the glory of God. This is part of his role as Revealer. Of course, in Scripture, God’s glory and God’s person are irrefragably bound up together as a the sun is with the rays of light pouring forth from it. The Son reveals God’s glory precisely because he is the “exact imprint”, the one who has the very “form” and shares the “nature” of God (Phil. 2).
  6. Sustainer. In case you’re still a bit skeptical, we also learn that the Son is the one who “upholds the universe.” How? By “the word of his power.” The Son, then, is the one who sustains the world in existence at every moment. He is the source of its coherence, integrity, and continued being (again, cf. Col. 1:15-16). Hebrews has a Christologically-focused doctrine of providence.
  7. Purifier. Beyond the work of creation, providence, though, stands that of salvation. This condensed Christology turns out to be short-hand account of the entire economy of redemption. The Son is, in a way that will be filled out at length in the rest of the letter, the one who “makes purification for sins” for his brothers and sisters. He does this both through what he is (the true Priest and Mediator), but also in his work, presenting a better sacrifice to remove the stain of sins, as well as sealing a better covenant in his blood. All of this is confirmed in his being “seated at the right hand of Majesty on high” having completed his work once and for all.

All of these titles and works could be expounded for pages, filled out with multiple Scripture references, and derive multiple spiritual applications from each. For now, though, I simply want to note just how high a view of Christ we are given in these verses.

Jesus, the Son, is the agent of revelation, creation, providence, and salvation–all divine works. Alongside key passages in John, Paul, and Revelation, it’s quite easy to see how the Fathers at Nicaea and Chalcedon came to the conclusions about the person of Christ that they did. It wasn’t a matter of Greek, philosophic, metaphysicalisation (if that’s even a word) of the Gospel. Rather, it was simply an effort to expound and explain the already-dense, theologically-thick testimony to the glory of Christ given in the pages of the New Testament centuries earlier. 

Soli Deo Gloria