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

Barclay’s “Paul and the Gift” According to Barclay W/ A Couple Of Notes

paul and the giftEverybody has been raving about John Barclay’s Paul and the GiftPeter Leithart’s given the work some extended attention and my Mere Fidelity podcast compatriot Andrew Wilson has been blogging through it with his characteristically incisive analysis. The word on the street is that this is the book that’s going to blow up a number of paradigms in New Testament studies, especially studies in Paul, for the next couple of decades, upsetting (or delighting) advocates of both Old and New Perspectives on Paul. As someone who originally cut his teeth theologically on these debates, and has long had the intuition that something of a middle way” was likely closer to the truth than has been typically granted by advocates, I was immediately intrigued.

Thankfully, Eerdmann’s heard my plea for a review copy (yes, I was provided one, though without the requirement of a positive review or anything like that). As soon as a clear bit of space opened up this last weekend, I dove in. And, well, after the first hundred pages or so, the hype appears well-deserved. Barclay’s thesis about the nature of grace in Paul is surprisingly unique, nuanced, and extensively well-researched. What’s more, for all the heavy footnoting and sourcing, as of yet, the writing is clear, elegant, and the argument flows quite naturally, even intuitively once the lines have been drawn out. When you hear what Barclay’s up to, you almost begin to think, “Well, of course, how come we haven’t framed it like this before?”

Which raises the question some of you may be asking, “Well, what is Barclay up to?” At this point, there have been a number of helpful summaries of some of the key moves that Barclay makes, but as it happens, Barclay himself cleanly lays out his three main moves, sections, or theses (however you want to put it), early on in the work. I figured I’d just let the man clarify the project on his own behalf:

  1. “Grace” is a multi-faceted concept best approached through the category of gift. It is susceptible to “perfection” (conceptual extension) in a number of different ways, which do not constitute a unified package. Some who discuss this theme will maximize the superabundance, the priority, or the efficacy of grace, and others its incongruity with the worth of the recipients (as gift to the unworthy). Others again will urge the singularly of grace (that God is nothing but gracious), and some that God’s gifts are given “with no strings attached.” These are not better or worse interpretations of grace, just different, and it is perfectly possible to speak of grace without defining it, for instance, as gift to the unworthy. These perfections have been various deployed in the history of reception of Paul, though some are better supported than others by Pauline texts themselves. Much in Jewish interpretations of grace, and in the history of interpretation of Paul, can be clarified by distinguishing between these six perfections.
  2. Grace is everywhere in Second Temple Judaism but not everywhere the same. Instead of uniformity, a careful examination of the texts indicates diversity in their representations of divine beneficence; they differ, for instance, on whether God’s mercy is properly applied without regard to worth. Paul stands in the midst of this diversity. His theology of grace does not stand in antithesis to Judaism, but neither is there a common Jewish view with which it wholly coincides.
  3. Paul’s theology of grace characteristically perfects the incongruity of the Christ-gift, given without regard to worth. This theology is articulated within and for Paul’s Gentile mission, and grounds the formation of innovative communities that crossed ethnic and other boundaries. This incongruous gift bypasses and thus subverts pre-constituted systems of worth. It disregards previous forms of symbolic capital and thus enables the creation of new communities whose norms are reset by the Christ-gift itself. Grace took its meaning in and from Paul’s experience and social practice: the nature of the gift was embodied and clarified in novel social experiments. In the subsequent interpretation of Paul, within and established Christian tradition, this motif has played a number of other roles, but has generally shifted from undermining the believers’ previous criteria of worth to undercutting their self-reliance in attaining to Christian norms or their understanding of this effort as necessary for salvation. (6-7)

Again, I’m only a little over 100 pages in, but so far he’s delivering up the goods. I’ll make a few observations early on, all the same.

First, his literature review on the subject of the gift in modern anthropology and philosophy is, as I said, extensive, though, without the sense of being overwhelming. Actually, for those interested, it pairs well with Leithart’s work in Gratitude: An Intellectual History that I just noted last week. This conversation sets up his analysis of, not only contemporary Western thought on the nature of the gift and the way that it has shaped our interpretation of Paul, but also sets up his discussion of the Greco-Roman milieu into which Paul would have been preaching.

Which brings me to a point that’s worth highlighting on the relationship between biblical studies and theology in general. There are times where it seems that biblical scholars beholden to philosophical categories and presuppositions–whether in the Medieval, Reformation, or Enlightenment period–have distorted and misread the text. We’ve imposed our own culture’s categories and read binaries that simply don’t apply to the text, or blurred lines that should have been kept sharp. Barclay’s use of the anthropological and philosophical nature of the gift, though, appears to be one of those cases where we see that extra-biblical conceptual analysis can help us cut through our own cultural fog in order refine our reading of Scripture in ways that highlight and clarify the text, rather than obscure it.

Second, before actually tackling Paul Barclay devotes a little over 100 pages to analyzing the reception history of Paul’s theology of grace throughout a diverse series of historical figures such as Augustine, Marcion, Calvin, and down on into recent critical scholars. What’s more, as Wilson noted, he does it as someone who actually seems to have read the historical sources and not simply resorting to hackneyed, caricatured, hand-waving about them. And guess what? It seems also to have paid exegetical dividends in allowing him to engage in finer conceptual analysis of the nuances of the various “perfections” of the concept of grace. This is but one more area where we can see that a solid grasp and greater engagement with historical theology have salutary effects beyond mere antiquarian interest. Modern exegetes can learn from the readings (and misreadings) of the past for today.

Well, I’ll wrap things up here for now. Suffice it to say, I don’t imagine I’ll agree with everything Barclay has to say–that rarely happens with anybody in NT scholarship, I’m excited to engage it nonetheless. I plan on offering up at least a couple more posts related to Barclay’s work and the the Mere Fidelity boys have already committed to having an episode (or two!) on the subject. So keep an eye out for that.

Soli Deo Gloria

Vanhoozer & Carson: Is Biblical Theology Really Closer to the Text Than Systematic Theology?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece on Henri Blocher’s take on the relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology, which I found quite helpful (his take, not my piece, that is). I’d like to return to the subject, though, for a couple of reasons. First, I’m in a class on Prolegomena, and I’m in the process of trying to get straight what it is I’m doing when I say I’m studying systematic theology–so this is sort on my mind. Second, that means I’ve run across a couple of interesting, recent articles on the subject worth comparing. As it happens, they both are by Trinity professors.

Carson on Biblical and Systematic

carsonFirst, there is what I found to be a characteristically helpful piece over at The Gospel Coalition by D.A. Carson on the way the various sub-disciplines of theology (biblical, systematic, historical, pastoral) affect how we read the Bible, as well as their relationship to each other. In it, Carson defines the various disciplines, gives their particular marks, notes their relationship to the text, necessity, as well the various feedback loops between them. I’ll focus on his take on biblical and systematic theology for now.

According to Carson, Biblical theology (BT) answers the question of how God has revealed himself organically and historically. For that reason, it reads the Bible progressively, assumes the unity of the canon, works inductively from the text, and “makes connections the Bible itself authorizes.” It does this by focusing on the works of individual books or writers and traces interlocking, interweaving themes between them. For that reason, we might say it’s a story-focused theology.

On the other hand, Carson says systematic theology (ST) is a bit different. Assuming the unity of the text as BT does, systematics focuses on what the Bible says about certain subjects like God and the world. It’s organization, then, is systematic and logical and oriented toward specific subjects. What’s more, it’s ordered towards communicating these truths to the culture and other philosophical worldviews.

Comparatively, Carson says, “BT is historical and organic; ST is relatively ahistorical and universal.” The former is necessary for understanding the storyline, the latter for gaining depth and clarity of subject. Of necessity, then, systematics can “legitimately” work at 2 or 3 levels removed from the text. Though, for that reason, while systematicians may cherish narrative, ST will be, of necessity, a bit more distant from the concerns of the text than BT.

Exegesis and BT have an advantage over ST because the Bible aligns more immediately with their agendas. ST has an advantage over exegesis and BT because it drives hard toward holistic integration.

ST tends to be a little further removed from the biblical text than does BT, but ST is a little closer to cultural engagement. In some ways, BT is a kind of bridge discipline between exegesis and ST because it overlaps with them, enabling them to hear each other a little better. In some ways, ST is a culminating discipline because it attempts to form and transform one’s worldview. BT is important today because the gospel is virtually incoherent unless people understand the Bible’s storyline. ST is important today because, rightly undertaken, it brings clarity and depth to our understanding of what the Bible is about.

Again, I found much of Dr. Carson’s analysis about the relationship between BT and ST quite helpful. That said, my own advisor, Dr. Vanhoozer, thinks of the relationship a bit differently, especially on the question of whether systematics works at more of a remove from the text than biblical theology.

I’ll devote a bit more space to his article because, well, I think systematics is constantly fighting an uphill battle here and it needs some unpacking.

Closer to the Biblical Text?

Vanhoozer tackles the subject in an article in the recent volume Reconsidering the Relationship Between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the New Testament dedicated to Robert Gundry  (“Is the Theology of the New Testament One or Many? Between (the Rock of) Systematic Theology and (the Hard Place of) Historical Occasionalism”, pp 17-38). Most of the the article is beyond me to summarize at this point, but at least part of what he’s up to is challenging the notion that systematics is at something of a disadvantage compared to biblical studies when it comes to being attuned to the concerns of the text.

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

Another way of putting Carson’s concerns, as well as those of other biblical theologians such as James Hamilton, is that biblical theology explicitly seems to think and make its main connections within the confines of the Bible’s own thought-world, sticking to such symbolic and typological markers like Temple, Land, and so forth (24-25). The danger of systematics is that it threatens to distort that thought-world by squishing the text into unfitting conceptual molds drawn from without the text, in order to engage concerns not immediate to it. States Vanhoozer:

As we have seen, some (they’re usually exegetes or biblical theologians) claim that systematic theology changes the rich wine of redemptive-history and typology in to the water of timeless truths and philosophical concepts (26).

This is exactly the charge Yale theologian David Kelsey makes in Proving Doctrine. To answer Kelsey’s fear, Vanhoozer draws on the distinction forwarded by Lutheran theologian David Yeago between that of “concept” and a “judgment.” Yeago argues that the very same “judgments” of Scripture can be rendered in different conceptual thought forms. So, the idea is that different terms can adequately and similarly refer to and describe the same underlying reality. For this reason, Vanhoozer says of systematics:

…at its best, it preserves the same “thought world” of the biblical authors, and understands their symbolic universe, in new interpretive categories and with different conceptual terms. (27)

In a certain way this is nothing new. It’s a variation on what Athanasius said in De Decretis. The philosophic term homoousius used at Nicaea is just a “non-identically equivalent” conceptual rendering of Paul’s judgments about the nature of the Son written in specific times and particular churches like the Philippian (2:6) and the Colossians (2:9), (27).

If Nicaea says the same thing – if, like the apostle Paul, it judges Jesus Christ to be the unique Son of God – in different terms, then we may say that its dogmatic judgment is every bit as biblical as the attempt to set forth Paul’s theology in its own terms. Indeed, this is precisely what makes systematic theology biblical: that it renders the same underlying apostolic judgments in different conceptual terms. (28)

From History to System

At this point, I can easily imagine someone saying, “Yes, well, that may be. But how exactly, then, does Vanhoozer conceive of the relation between the two disciplines? Or, rather, how do we construe systematic theology in a way that keeps its ‘conceptual’ renderings faithful to the redemptive-historical, contextual judgments that God has given us in Scripture?”

Vanhoozer attempts to briefly forward a form of theology as wisdom that is:

…both context-sensitive – alert to particular occasions, past and present – and ontologically-attuned to the reality that is in Christ, a reality that ought to be expressed, in some conceptuality, by everyone, everywhere, and at all times. (34)

He has three theses as to how the conversation should move forward (as it turns out, I’ve learned he really likes theological theses) in the reunion of biblical and systematic theology:

  1. “Descriptions of redemptive-history, while necessary, are theologically incomplete until one spells out their ontological implications (i.e., their presuppositions about what is real), not least because history itself is a staging area for divine speech and action.” (35) In other words, yes, we must focus the action, the drama of the unfolding of redemptive history. But in order to properly understand the movements, we need to be prepared to unfold some of the necessary ontological or metaphysical realities that make it possible. So, what kind of a being, what kind of natures, must Jesus the Christ have in order to do and be the culmination of the historically-unfolding reality the Bible presents us with? What kind of God must the Holy One of Israel be (Triune) if he is the faithful covenant Lord who comes to save us himself through his two hands (Son and Spirit)? You can’t properly understand the story without these ontological and systematic judgments spelled out. Actually, Wesley Hill has recently argued in his work Paul and the Trinity that key, historically-situated New Testament texts in Christology are actually best read using the categories of systematic theology.
  2. “The “line” of redemptive-historical development that biblical theology traces is actually the “plot-line” of a unified drama of redemption; systematic theology ministers understanding by saying what the whole drama means and by setting forth, and exploring, its ontological presuppositions.” (35-36) Second, biblical theology rightly pays attention to the unity-in-diversity of the different acts, witnesses, and authors in their unique voices and canonical places. Systematics is about viewing those same realities in light of the one, broad, over-arching drama that has the Triune God as its author and lead protagonist, and fleshing out what the means for disciples drawn into that continuing drama today.
  3. “Biblical theology describes what the biblical authors are saying/ doing in their particular contextual scenes, to their particular audiences, in their own particular terms and concepts; systematic theology searches out the underlying patterns of biblical-canonical judgments, and suggests ways of embodying these same theodramatic judgments for our own particular cultural contexts, in our own particular terms and concepts.” (37) God didn’t write a systematic theology text, dropped from the sky in supra-historical form. The diverse texts come to us in all their glorious, historical particularities and differing emphasis (James contra antinomianism, Paul against–well, whatever the latest consensus is). All the same, this diversity serves to manifest the mind of Christ which applies to all times and all places. Understanding the particular apostolic judgments that embody the universal mind of Christ, at times, requires expressing the same judgments of Scriptures in differing conceptual forms according to our diverse contexts–be it a 4th century church council or a 21st century seminary.

To sum up, systematics isn’t that thing that happens after biblical theology does its thing.

Systematic theology is not simply a second step that follows biblical theology; rather, it is a partner in the exegetical process itself, explicating the text’s meaning by penetrating to the level of judgments: moral, ontological, and theodramatic. By studying the various ways in which Jesus’ disciples embodied the mind of Christ in their own contexts (i.e., the diverse historical occasions that prompted the apostles to write), disciples today come to learn how they can express the same theodramatic judgments– the same judgments about what is fit for followers of Jesus to say and do – via different language and concepts, in situations far removed from the original context. (38)

At the close of this, I think it’s clear that from their different perspectives and disciplines, Carson and Vanhoozer aren’t actually that far off from each other in their evaluations of the differing roles of BT and ST. I think Vanhoozer would simply hasten to add that they’re both about the same distance from the text as well.

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

People Disagreed With Jesus About the Bible Too

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

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

This sort of charge can take a couple of different forms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That, at least, is rules out the first form of the objection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soli Deo Gloria

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

christ pantokratorThe New Testament is chock-full of stunning passages on the nature of Christ. Capable of standing alongside such texts as John 1:1-17 or Colossians 1:15-20, we face the opening lines of the epistle to the Hebrews 1:1-4. 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 a couple of the other qualities which he ascribes to 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 been appointed the “heir of all things.” What could this 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.” Note the echoes here of God’s Wisdom (Proverbs 8). With that reference in mind, we see 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, but also just like them, he has the Son on the Creator side of the line. The logic is clear: if the world was made through him, what is he not? Any other thing in the world. No, he is their Creator.
  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 not only the one who brings the world into existence, he sustains it 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

Mere Fidelity: Karen Swallow Prior talks Animals

Mere FidelityI couldn’t be there because of a scheduling conflict, but for this week’s Mere Fidelity episode, Matt Lee Anderson, Andrew Wilson, and Alastair Roberts are joined by our friend Karen Swallow Prior (the author of the recent biography of Hannah More, Fierce Convictions and Chief Executive Director of the Evangelical Intelligentsia). They discuss the recent evangelical statement on the welfare of animals by the Every Living Thing Campaign. Apparently Roberts goes a bit wild, citing poetry, defending cat videos, and who knows what else. It’s a real animal house.

As always, we hope you enjoy and are edified.

Soli Deo Gloria