Kevin Vanhoozer and Daniel Treier just came out with a new book on how to do Evangelical theology, Theology and the Mirror of Scripture: A Mere Evangelical Account. And that’s a good thing, since Evangelical theology seems to be in a bit of disarray. While there are a number of encouraging developments in the Evangelical academic scene (the rise of theological interpretation, biblical theology, interdisciplinary work, etc.), there are some cracks beginning to show (disunity at the level of doctrine and practice brought on by a variety of factors), both in the academy and in the church (and the para-church).
In the inaugural volume of the new series “Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture”, Vanhoozer and Treier set out to offer a positive proposal, both for what counts as Evangelical theology, as well as how to proceed to practice it.
The difference between this and some other accounts is that this not a sociological account as many have tried to be, nor is it a boundary-driven, historical account. It is theological proposal for what a “Mere” Evangelical theology–properly “anchored” in the gospel of God and the trinitarian God of the gospel reflected in the “mirror” of Scripture–ought to be. It is an admittedly normative account, aimed at steering Evangelical towards an understanding of the discipline of theology as the pursuit of wisdom, meant to build up the communion of the saints.
Now, obviously, I might be a bit biased, but it seems that if anybody’s got a shot at giving Evangelicalism a bit of a theological booster shot, it’ll be the dynamic duo of Vanhoozer and Treier. For those who know their work, it’s vintage theological theology. That said, for those who are wondering, no, this isn’t just another formal book about method. There’s a lot of material theology going on in these pages.
But a book summary is not why I’m writing this post. Instead, I wanted to share a little nugget from what I’m guessing was one of Vanhoozer’s chapters.
Admiring v. Flying Boeing 747s
Evangelical theology prides itself on being, above all else, biblical. Indeed, one of the sine qua nons of “biblical” Evangelical theology would seem to be a “high view of Scripture” that establishes it as our chief source and norm for all of our theological reflection and practice. And it is. It is, I would submit, a necessary condition for the practice of Evangelical theology. Yet contrary to what many seem to popularly hold, it is not a sufficient condition. What do I mean by that? Vanhoozer can explain and illustrate:
…it is one thing to hold a high view of Scripture, quite another to know how, where, and when to use Scripture to establish a theological proposal. To think that having a high doctrine of Scripture leads to a right use of Scripture is to fall prey to a non sequitur. It is one thing to admire a Boeing 747, quite another to pilot it. It is simply false to think that affirming the verbal plenary inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible gives one proprietary rights over its interpretation. More is required of the biblical interpreter than belief that. As we shall see, being biblical means not simply holding views about the Bible, but also ability to handle it rightly, and that requires being a certain kind of person. –Theology and the Mirror of Scripture: A Mere Evangelical Account, pp. 82-83
In other words, Evangelicals like to talk about being “biblical” in our theology, but all too often we assume that simply means holding a particular view of inerrancy, or the literality of Scripture. It’s as if by virtue of uttering the terms “inerrant” or “infallible” over the text, ex opere operato our interpretations will automatically become more competent and the resulting theology is thereby “biblical.”
Now, of course, I do happen to think there are times when a higher view of Scripture will have interpretive dividends (and so far as I know, so do Vanhoozer and Treier). All the same, the fact of the matter is that there are many pastors and parishioners who can give me an excellent, believing answer about the Bible being God’s Word, his perfect revelation to us, and guide for all of life, while offering up interpretations of it that are ham-fisted, clumsy misapplications of the actual texts in question. What’s more, most who have spent any time reading academic work know there are scholars who have a lower view of Scripture, but are extremely insightful in their use of Scripture–their ability to handle the text. (This, incidentally, is one reason for seminarians and pastors not to limit themselves solely to Evangelical authors in their studies, as well as to be less hasty to write off “liberals” and “progressives” as summarily as many often do.)
We need to be careful, then, not to confuse our view of Scripture with our use of Scripture. As I’ve argued before, believing in an infallible text does not make one an infallible interpreter. Human interpreters, even those who want to take God at his Word, are finite, struggle, and fail. The biggest challenge for many in affirming a high view of Scripture is how poorly it is often used by those who do affirm a high view. For that reason, it’s important to strive to become Spirit-empowered readers who are disciplined in the interpretive virtues. What’s more, it’s important to learn to read the text according to the purposes for which God has given it (training up the saints), in the context within which it was sent (the church). All of these factors and more, Vanhoozer and Treier argue, move us from becoming people with a right view of Scripture to a right use of Scripture. Or at least, that’s where I think they’re going. I haven’t finished the book yet.
I hope that serves as enough of an encouragement and a teaser both to challenge you to tune up, not only your view but your use of Scripture, as well as an invitation to pick up the book. I’m sure it’s going to become a classic text in Evangelical theology.
Soli Deo Gloria