Liberalism, “Hermeneutics”, and Interpretive Solipsism

hermeneuticsRecently, Richard Beck wrote a post about the practice of Sola Scriptura, reading with a hermeneutic, and our emotional awareness of the process. He notes that everybody reads with a hermeneutic, a set of intepretive principles, biases, and presuppositions that guide our understanding of Scripture. For Beck, though, the mark of a fundamentalist is that they alone believe they don’t have a hermeneutic, even when they do. This is why it’s a fundamentalist move to say something like, “Well, the Bible clearly says”, or “I’m just reading the text, here”–as if things were really that simple. Beck says that this signals a striking lack of self-awareness.

For example, saying something like “this is the clear teaching of Scripture” is similar to saying “I’m not a racist.” Self-aware people would never say either one of those things.

Self-aware people would say things like “I don’t want to be a racist” or “I try not to be racist” or “I condemn racism.” But they would never say “I’m not a racist” because self-aware people know that they have blind spots. Self-aware people know they have unconscious baggage that is hard to notice or overcome.

And it’s the same with how self-aware people approach reading the bible. Self-aware people know that they are trying to read the bible in an unbiased fashion. Self-aware people work hard to let the bible speak clearly and it its own voice. But self-aware people know they have blind spots. They know that there is unconscious baggage affecting how they are reading the bible, baggage that they know must be biasing their readings and conclusions. Consequently, self-aware people would never, ever say “this is the clear teaching of Scripture.” Just like they’d never claim to be unbiased in any other area of life, racism being just one example.

I have to say, he’s got a point. I’ve seen this happen. Many fundamentalists operate as if they don’t have a hermeneutic and it’s naive and unhelpful, precisely because we want to be subservient to the Word of God, not our own blinders.What’s more, as a couple of my progressive friends noted, this sort of fundamentalism isn’t restricted to conservatives. There can be progressive “fundamentalisms” with a similar lack of self-awareness in reading the Scriptures.

That said, I did want to register a few comments, that, while not entirely contradictory, may offer some nuance.

First, the statement “the Bible clearly says…” may have more than one reference point. In other words, I think Beck has put it a bit strongly when he contends than no self-aware reader of Scripture would ever say, “The clear teaching of Scripture is…” or some statement along those lines. I suppose my question is, after study, after prayer, after wrestling, what should they say?

“The Scriptures unclearly say…” Well, obviously nobody wants to be stuck with that.

“My hermeneutic leads me to believe that…” That might seem initially more honest, but the problem is that we’re now in the position where it seems the hermeneutic, not the Scriptures are doing all the work. More on that later.

Instead, it seems entirely possible that someone who is quite aware of their perspective, hermeneutic, and so forth, might read, study, struggle, and arrive at the conclusion that, “The Scriptures clearly say…” To deny that possibility is to bind God’s capabilities as a speaker to our capabilities as interpreters and hearers. It’s to restrict our doctrine of revelation within the confines of our anthropology, rather than our theology.

In other words, for some, the statement “The Scriptures clearly say…” is uttered, not so much in relation to our abilities as a reader, or our lack of hermeneutic, but a statement about God’s ability as a speaker. In acknowledging finitude, sin, and the need for interpretive humility, we need to take care not to chain the Word of the Lord our God with human fetters.

Second, as a friend noted online, there’s a bit of fuzziness as to what we mean by “a hermeneutic.” For some, having a hermeneutic means something along the lines of “proper principles of interpretation” like considering grammar, historical context, literary principles, and so forth. For others, it’s a bit thicker, including theological presuppositions about the nature of the text and what it says. And, for some, it’s about the unavoidable ideological tilt and finitude we bring to our reading of the text. In other words, there are “hermeneutics” as clarifying lens helping us engage the text, and for others, it speaks more of the unavoidable distance and subjectivity of our encounter with it. It’s not entirely clear which Beck means in this post.

Which leads me to my third comment. Earlier this week, I joked online that, if Beck is right and a fundamentalist is someone who believes they don’t have a hermeneutic, then a Liberal is someone who only has a hermeneutic. In other words, there’s a danger to interpretation in both directions.

Opposite Beck’s fundamentalist, it’s possible to end up with the sort of self-absorbed, interpretive, solipsist who thinks it’s interpretation and “hermeneutics” all the way down, with no actual encounter with the sort of Text, or Voice, or Word, that can break through the fog. We run the risk of thinking all we can ever speak of is our differing hermeneutics and not the Text we’re both trying to read. We’re “self-aware” to the point that all we’re aware of is our Self, or Social Location, or Gender, or Community. At that point, our interpretive discussions just become a form of philosophy with Scriptural vocabulary.

I’ll close by quoting one of my favorite passages from Vanhoozer, which, while not exactly speaking to hermeneutics but God-talk more generally, charts a helpful middle-course:

Those who would be honest to God must strive to avoid both pride and sloth in their God-talk. Theological pride overestimates the adequacy of human language and thought; theological sloth underestimates the importance of responding to the provocations of God’s self-revelation. The one goes before destruction; the other pre-empts instruction. Yet it is hard to miss the recurring biblical theme that God wills to communicate and make himself known: “The word of the Lord came to . . .”; “the Lord said . . .”. Theology is ultimately irresponsible if it fails either to attend to what God says or to think about the nature of the one who addresses us.

–Kevin Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship, pg. xvi

Soli Deo Gloria 

Pastor-Theologian? Pastor-Scholar? What’s the Difference?

pastor as theologianThere’s been plenty of buzz in the air lately around the idea of the “pastor-scholar” and how the job is or isn’t impossible. And how we used to have pastor-theologians, but no longer. Or how being a scholar must be possible for the pastor because pastors are theologians and theologians are scholars and…you see the problem. There’s a lot of talk around the issue, but some confusion as to just what everyone is talking about. In order to help aid the discussion along, I figured I’d canvas and categorize a few recent articles, books, and so forth, on the subject and note some distinctions and differences.

Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan: Vanhoozer and Strachan have recently put forward the idea of the pastor as public theologian, or organic intellectual. The argument, in a nutshell, is that pastors, before they are counselors, business managers, “strategic leaders”, or whatever else, are ministers of the Word, and therefore the theologians of the public of their local churches. Pastors are in the business of theology, ministering the reality of what is “in Christ” to their people. That said, they are not arguing for (or against) the idea of pastors being scholars writing academic works, teaching courses, and so forth. It’s just a different thing than what they’re talking about.

Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson: Wilson and Hiestand are arguing for the unique spot of the ecclesial theologian, who does occupy that weird, middle ground of being a local church pastor who simultaneously participates and even lead the conversation in both the academy and the church. Note, this isn’t just the Vanhoozer/Strachan localist model, nor is it the pastor as popularizer of theology model (think the pastor who writes pop-theology books). But someone like a Calvin or Augustine doing game-changing theology from the social location of the local church. They don’t say all pastors should be this kind of theologian, but certainly that some should, and that this unique role ought to be recovered in our churches. So, in this case, the pastor-theologian is a scholar.

Mark Jones: In a nutshell, Jones argued that being a scholar, doing original research and so forth, requires an enormous amount of work that occupies you full time. So does being a pastor. Ergo, no true pastor-scholars because there’s no possible way of doing a good job of both unless you water down the meaning of either pastoring or scholarship. That said, a pastor-theologian? Ya, sure. That can happen.

Andrew Wilson: My boy Wilson wrote something fairly similar to Jones, basically noting the extreme difficulty of the actual practice of being a full-time pastor and a scholar. It’s got some serious tensions in it, but he doesn’t rule it out–he says it’s “nearly” impossible. Note what he does not say: he does not say it is totally impossible, nor does he ever question the idea that a pastor could be a theologian in the sense that Vanhoozer and Strachan argue for, nor even Wilson and Hiestand.

There have been other pieces, as well, with variations on these themes. Let me note two or three points that should be made clear.

Not all advocates of the pastor-theologian are advocates of the pastor-scholar.

Not all critics of the pastor-scholar are opposed to the pastor-theologian.

Much tends to ride on what you make of the terms “pastor”, “scholar”, and “theologian.” The stricter you are about the requirements of time, footnotes, pastoral visits, and position in the academy, the less likely you are to find the prospect of the pastor-scholar to be feasible. What’s more, it’s not wise to conflate the terms “scholar” and “theologian” as some tend to do. Jeff Robinson had some helpful concluding thoughts in that direction over at the Gospel Coalition today.

Well, again, I hope this little bit of explication helps as I’m sure there are not a few people confused by the welter of recent publications on the issue. And if that doesn’t, I suppose it isn’t inappropriate to note that Mere Fidelity did have a podcast with both Kevin Vanhoozer and Gerald Hiestand on the subject. You can listen in here.

Soli Deo Gloria

Theological Interpretation of Scripture? Three Dimensions

Jesus and the BibleWhat is Theological Interpretation of Scripture (TIS)? It’s kind of a hot new thing in the theological academy–at least among those of a more conservative orientation–but despite the various publications and authors laying claim to it, there doesn’t seem to be a clear, unified usage of the term. At least not that I’ve heard or read.

What I’d like to do in this (brief) post is simply note three threads, or types of TIS, I’ve seen in my little bit of reading on the subject as a bit of a quick reference to the interested, and then invite others to add what they’d like in the comments.

Theological location of the Text. The first thread or theme I’ve seen highlighted in theological interpretation is the idea that we read the text of Scripture in a theological context. By that I don’t simply mean that most of us read it in our churches. No, the idea is that the Bible is not just like any other book that we might happen upon in the library. It’s a book that is the result of God’s own saving activity. It is not only the story of redemption, but part of the activity of the Triune God’s “economy” of salvation. It is part of how God gets his saving work done, not only an informational book about it. In which case, we need to understand that we don’t approach this book like any other, treating as a mere product of history, but as the result of divine activity. What’s more, as Christians, we are to understand ourselves as readers dependent on the gracious illumining work of the Holy Spirit. Along with that, different accounts will place more or less emphasis on the community of faith as the proper location of interpretation in the “economy of grace.”

Reading for Theological Content. Second, either flowing from this, or separate, theological interpretation of Scripture means trying to read the text for, you know, actual theology. Instead of treating it as a bit of interesting history or “religious thought”, to be picked apart for the light it sheds on the beliefs and the experiences of ancient Jews and Greeks, we read it in order to learn about God. So, when we read Paul speaking of Christ as the Image of the invisible God, firstborn over all creation, and so forth, (Col. 1:15-20) it’s not enough to simply speak of the way his conception of Christ may or may not be related to Philo’s thought on Pre-existent Wisdom, or that of other 2nd Temple Jewish thought. We need to speak of what that text is actually telling us about the nature of the Triune God we worship. It’s not simply a text for there and then, but the revelatory self-attestation of the Triune God, meant for the church today. In other words, theology is not something we do after or in addition to exegesis. Exegesis is aimed at theological truth.

Reading with Explicitly Theological Presuppositions. Third, theological interpretation of Scripture also often means reading the text with explicitly theological presuppositions in mind. In other words, instead of acting as if we can come to the text “objectively”, without presuppositions, as neutral scholars, we come to the Bible openly acknowledging that we’re reading it as Christians, as Trinitarians, and so forth. For some, that means using a certain understanding of redemptive history to guide our reading. Others would emphasize a regula fidei “rule of faith” reading that takes its orientation from the Apostles’ Creed. For others, a “Christ-centered” hermeneutic is involved, or perhaps a more comprehensive confessionalism is called for. In any case, it’s not only a matter putting our theological cards on the table, but putting them to work, allowing our reading of Scripture to be shaped by what we believe to be true on the basis of Scripture, in order to arrive at more holistic interpretations. Hopefully, then, we will be reading in a way that honors the intended purposes for which God gave the Scriptures: a saving knowledge of Father, Son, and Spirit.

Obviously, as I noted before, this is incomplete, so I welcome further comment and correction. For those interested, it’s hopefully been a start.

Soli Deo Gloria 

By the way, if you’re really interested, I’d point you to Todd Billings The Word of God for the People of God, Kevin Vanhoozer’s The Drama of Doctrine, Scott Swain’s Trinity, Reading, and Revelation and John Webster’s The Domain of the Word. 

Locating Atonement: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics (Review)

locating atonementFred Sanders and Oliver Crisp sure know how throw a party. Or “theology conference.” This past year’s LA Theology Conference was focused on the idea of “locating atonement” and they pulled out all the stops, drawing in names like Bruce McCormack, Matthew Levering, Michael Horton, and a host of others. Their stated aim was to take us beyond the important, yet typical questions plaguing atonement discussions over the last 70 years such as: How many typologies or “theories” of atonement are there? Which one is right? How do we relate them? and so forth. Instead, they tasked their presenters with examining the subject of atonement in light of its relations to other doctrines. Ten months later, they’ve delivered an exciting new volume on atonement theology Locating Atonement: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics.

As a general comment on the collection of essays as a whole, it’s important to note that they’re not presented as one, unified work. There is a diversity among the contributors with respect to issues like impassibility, penal substitution, how much “ontology” plays a role in our accounts of atonement, and so forth. That said, a few characteristics come through. First, they’re all top-notch. Second, they demonstrate a broadly catholic, if predominantly Western orientation, attuned to the theological tradition that comes before it. Finally, as technically erudite as these essays can get, all of them have their eye on the preaching and teaching of the Church, not merely the formulations of the academy.

Though all the essays were worth engaging–so I will–my comments on each will vary because, well, this review got away from me. That said, length of summary should not be necessarily read as an indication of the relative value of each essay.

After Sanders and Crisp’s intro, Adonis Vidu opens up the constructive essays by taking up a thread in his work in Atonement, Law, and Justice on simplicity and divine action (one of my favorites of 2014). Specifically, he sets about trying to set the atonement in the context of the trinitarian principle that the external works of the Trinity are undivided. In other words, there are no works that the Son does in which the Father and the Spirit are not intimately and also equally involved since they have one shared nature, will, and mind even though possessed their own particular way. So, while it is the Son who becomes incarnate, he does so in the power of the Spirit and in accordance with the will of the Father and so forth. Using this classic principle and a strongly Thomistic account of simplicity and pure being, Vidu tries to help smooth out some of the less helpful ways we popularly think about atonement, specifically with the idea that the Father is somehow acting on or against the Son in a way that threatens the unity of the Godhead. In doing so, Vidu raises some important and salutary concerns, trying to direct our attention to the classic tradition which formed the theological context in which our atonement doctrines were originally formulated and outside of which, it can likely only suffer distortion. My only concern is that while he has forcefully and rightly protected the undivided unity of action, I’d love to see him fill out the distinctness within that unity a bit more.

Matthew Levering’s delightful essay relates the doctrine of creation and atonement by engaging Nicholas Wolterstorff on the issue. Wolterstorff recently challenged the “reciprocity principle” at the heart of satisfaction accounts of atonement, essentially by appealing to Jesus’ rejection of the principle in the Sermon on the Mount. This, in turn, shapes his objections to classic satisfaction accounts. In response, first, Levering counters by showing that Wolterstorff’s reading of Jesus and the New Testament is simply wrong on its own terms. Jesus actually reaffirms the reciprocity principle in a number of places as do the apostles. Second, he grounds this reading theologically by expounding Aquinas’ account of God’s gift of distributive justice with the gift of creation. But I won’t blow that for you. Suffice it to say that this is a quintessentially careful piece of theological reasoning from Levering that you won’t want to ignore.

In his piece, Jeremy Treat argues that covenant is an integrative doctrine for atonement theology, which allows us to cut through a number of false dichotomies plaguing us in the contemporary discussion. In a sense, he strives to give a broadly covenantal approach, situating Jesus’ work as the recapitulation and fulfillment of the story of Adam and Israel, attempting to appeal even to the non-Reformed. Using covenant as the key grid for organizing our understanding of atonement, Treat argues that atonement can be both legal and relational, individual and corporate, retributive and restorative, as well as make sense of the unity of Christ’s atoning life, death, and resurrection. These twenty pages would save us all a lot of grief if they were broadly digested within the church. Also, if you haven’t picked up Treat’s The Crucified King–which you should have–this ought to whet your appetite for it.

Benjamin Myers offers up a piece relating atonement and incarnation by expositing the “patristic model” of atonement. In doing so, he’s trying to move us past Gustaf Aulen’s rather skewed “classical” ransom account of atonement offered up in Christus Victor, which tended to obscure things a bit. In past times, writers like J.N.D. Kelly had referred to this stream of thought as something of a physicalist account because it hinges on the Son becoming man, joining his immortal deity to our mortal natures, passing through life, and overcoming death by filling our mortality with his unconquerable life through resurrection. And that’s a horrible summary of Myers’ careful 12-step case. Myers has done us all a favor in highlighting and recapturing a stream of Patristic thought often lost to us in the post-Aulen discussion–a 12-step program, if you will. My one argument is with his treatment of Athanasius that, for my money, tries a little too hard to screen out the penal and forensic elements within it. Indeed, it’s rather instructive to compare his essay at this point to Levering’s earlier appeal to those same passages in conjunction with Thomas. All the same, strong showing from the Australian contingent.

Kyle Strobel and Adam Johnson have a rather unique essay on the relationships between wisdom and atonement. It’s a rather phenomenal little piece that treats the atonement as a work of God’s Wisdom, rescuing the world from its folly through the foolishness of the cross. I’m temped to say it’s almost a way of retelling the whole economy of redemption from the angle of wisdom.  It’s a treasure trove of theological insight (might have been the most surprising essay at the conference for me) and word on the street is Johnson is following it up with a little work on atonement that should be smashing.

Luke Stamps treats the often-forgotten yet crucial doctrine of dyothelitism (that Christ had two wills, a human and a divine one according to each nature) with respect to the atonement.  This is one of those places where clear, systematic thinking is most helpful with exegesis. There are number of key insights here, but for me, the bit that finally clicked was the way monothelitic accounts of Christ’s will, of necessity, require a social trinity doctrine. Without understanding that Christ has two wills–one human and one divine will shared with Father and Spirit–the only way Christ can pray “Not my will but yours”, is if the Son as God has a will distinct from that of the Father and the Spirit. Some might want to go there, but Stamps shows why this reading might have some costs to our doctrine of the Trinity we should not be willing to pay.

Daniel J. Hill and Joseph Jedwab’s essay focuses on relating atonement and the very concept of punishment. Without actually arguing for its justness, they present an argument for the conceptual coherence of the idea of the Son being punished for or assuming responsibility for the sins of others. It’s a fairly analytic essay and, for what it aims to do, fairly helpful. That said, it’s necessarily quite limited.

Eric T. Yang and Stephen Davis offer up a piece analyzing the link between wrath and atonement. They present a somewhat standard defense of the notion of the appropriateness of affirming wrath as an affection or emotion in God, with a disappointing but typical rejection of impassibility. What’s more, they argue that not simply penal substitutionary accounts, but other forms ought to consider incorporating a robust notion of divine wrath in their readings of the atonement.

T. Mark McConnell relates the doctrine of atonement with the much-neglected issue of shame as distinct from guilt. Guilt says, “I have done wrong”, while shame says, “I am wrong.” According to McConnell, not only are we living in a society that is awash in shame, even if it’s lost its sense of guilt, at the heart of the Scriptures is a story about God overcoming Adam’s nakedness and shame in the Garden. Drawing on Ireneaus and the theology of the vicarious humanity of Christ from T.F. Torrance, McConnell lays out the way that understanding atonement as recapitulation allows us to see Christ reconstituting and remaking us as overcoming of our alienating shame in his reconciling life, death, and resurrection. Jesus is the one who bears our shame away, killing it on the cross, and clothing us once more. Overall, this is a very important pastoral dimension to the atonement that ought to be regained where it has been lost. That said, I would definitely shy away from adopting the “fallen humanity” view which McConnell has forwarded–I think something like his model can and must be constructed without it–nor would I necessarily foreground shame as prior and deeper to the problem of guilt as McConnell has. Bracing essay, nonetheless.

Alongside Vidu’s, Bruce McCormack’s essay on atonement and human suffering is the densest of the various pieces, defying easy summary. It’s also one of the most conflicted for me. In order to treat the problem of suffering and the will of God, McCormack develops a theological account of the death of Jesus as the will of God. First, he treats it in terms of the Gospel accounts where Jesus’ death is seen as the apocalyptic outpouring of the wrath of God upon the Son. McCormack then turns to deepening the New Testament witness through H.U. Von Balthasar’s profound theology of the cross and his account of the judgment of hell and being with the dead. Though, of course, with his own Christological corrections. With this account in place he argues for the uniquely redemptive nature of Jesus’ death as an answer, not to mere physical death, but as the foundation for the resurrection. It is a condemnation of the old order, paving a way for the new. For myself, I couldn’t go with this tinkering with impassibility, view of synthetic construction of the gospels, and a couple other Barthian themes related to God’s being and history. All in all, though, a stimulating and moving read.

I’ll be blunt and say that Elenore Stump’s was the most frustrating for me. Of course, it was sharp work. It is Stump; she’s brilliant. But theologically, her attempt to offer a cut-rate account of the atonement’s relation to the Eucharist thinly-conceived, had some some rather semi-Pelagian tendencies. That said, her discussion of second-person experiences and the role of story in our spiritual formation was illuminating.

Michael Horton rounds out the books with his chapter on Ascension and atonement. He provocatively sets out to answer H.U. Von Balthasar’s charge that Protestantism can’t encompass or reckon with Ireneaus’ basic attitude in theology. He does so in tracing out two streams of thought on ascent and descent, salvation, and metaphysics. One is an Irenaean stream and another Origenist, with Origen the less congenial of the two. It’s a tale of two ascensions, two deifications, two Eucharists, and two metaphysics. Unsurprisingly, Calvin and the Reformed tradition a la Bavinck are clearly the heroes here. And I agree with that point. But Horton does his best to show them in continuity with a broader “catholic” tradition, as well. Again, this one defies simple explanation, but it’s really a first-rate piece to close down the house.

Well, that about wraps it up. If you haven’t picked up on it, yet, I highly recommend the volume. Oliver Crisp and Fred Sanders have done a bang-up job pulling this all together.

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 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 in the process of discernment that 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