Do not “prejudge divine things from human”: Tertullian on Divine Anger

tertullianI have been doing a little digging in Tertullian’s work The Five Books Against Marcion the last couple of days. The five books cover an astonishing amount of ground (creation, hermeneutics, prophecy, goodness, Christology, etc.), which makes sense once you consider what a convoluted mess Marcion’s theology actually was. They didn’t call him the “arch-heretic” for nothing.

One important area is his treatment of divine anger.Obviously, the Marcionites thought attributing anger or wrath to God was unfitting, which partially motivated their rejection of large portions of the Old Testament and New.  Mark Sheridan has touched on the issue of the Fathers’ handling of Biblical anthropomorphism in Language for God in Patristic Tradition, and shown how the different strategies involved were concerned with making sure we were reading the Bible in a way that is “fitting” to God’s dignity and majesty.

Tertullian engages one argument from fittingness he thinks utterly flawed. He says that some say that if God is angry, or jealous, etc. then that leads to the thought that he is changeable, therefore corruptible, and open to death. He responds thus:

Superlative is their folly, who prejudge divine things from human; so that, because in man’s corrupt condition there are found passions of this description, therefore there must be deemed to exist in God also sensations of the same kind. Discriminate between the natures, and assign to them their respective senses, which are as diverse as their natures require, although they seem to have a community of designations. We read, indeed, of God’s right hand, and eyes, and feet: these must not, however, be compared with those of human beings, because they are associated in one and the same name. Now, as great as shall be the difference between the divine and the human body, although their members pass under identical names, so great will also be the diversity between the divine and the human soul, notwithstanding that their sensations are designated by the same names. These sensations in the human being are rendered just as corrupt by the corruptibility of man’s substance, as in God they are rendered incorruptible by the incorruption of the divine essence.

Tertullian argues that it’s folly to pre-judge realities predicated of God based on the human reality named with the same word. He doesn’t use the term, but he’s essentially arguing for a form of the doctrine of analogy. We must “discriminate between the natures” and realize that God’s “hands” and “feet” couldn’t possibly mean God has the same sorts of hand we do, only bigger.

In a similar way, we need to think of the movements of the soul of God (if we can speak that way), in a way that distinguishes the from our human experience of these realities. In humanity, these are corrupted and corruptible. But God is incorruptible, so we need to purify our conception of these realities before we think about whether this sort of “sensation” is truly dignified or worthy of God.  In which case, to think anger of unworthy of God on the basis of the fact that our sinful, corrupt, hasty anger would be unworthy of God is a crass mistake.

Tertullian makes the point that this principle is also applicable when it comes to the “good” qualities nobody has a problem with:

Then, again, with respect to the opposite sensations,—I mean meekness, patience, mercy, and the very parent of them all, goodness,—why do you form your opinion of the divine displays of these (from the human qualities)? For we indeed do not possess them in perfection, because it is God alone who is perfect.

His warning should be considered when we come to discussions about the love or compassion of God. Nobody tends to raise any red flags at the thought that God is love. Nobody’s trying to cut that doctrine out. But we still move far too quickly from our experience of love, of compassion, meekness, and goodness to trying to explain what God’s love, compassion, meekness, and goodness. We are corruptible, and so even the emotions we tend to thing of as “good”, can go bad. Mercy can become leniency, meekness can become cowardice, empathy can lead into over-identification and co-dependence.

He moves again to anger and then broadly speaks to a variety of affections which God can have:

So also in regard to those others,—namely, anger and irritation. we are not affected by them in so happy a manner, because God alone is truly happy, by reason of His property of incorruptibility. Angry He will possibly be, but not irritated, nor dangerously tempted; He will be moved, but not subverted. All appliances He must needs use, because of all contingencies; as many sensations as there are causes: anger because of the wicked, and indignation because of the ungrateful, and jealousy because of the proud, and whatsoever else is a hinderance to the evil. So, again, mercy on account of the erring, and patience on account of the impenitent, and pre-eminent resources on account of the meritorious, and whatsoever is necessary to the good. All these affections He is moved by in that peculiar manner of His own, in which it is profoundly fit that He should be affected; and it is owing to Him that man is also similarly affected in a way which is equally his own.

The Five Books against Marcion, Book II, chapter XVI

Tertullian’s rule is that God has affections, either negative or positive, only in such a way that they do not disturb his incorruptibility, goodness, or happiness. God is perfect and so every affection he has will be consistent with that perfection. And all movements he engages in out of those affections will only be those which are consistent with his ultimate goodness. We are not sure exactly what they are like in God, but we can be sure they will only happen “in the peculiar manner of His own.” And this is true of even those affections such as indignation, wrath, and anger.

While I’m not sure how much this tracks with later, more detailed, articulations of the impassibility of God, it does highlight a few helpful points.

First, Tertullian’s points themselves are just worth heeding. Distinguish the natures. Understand that you can’t simply read human experience up into God’s life without remainder, or the need to purify it on the basis of his perfection.

Second, while not all Church Fathers were comfortable ascribing anger and wrath to God, at least some (see also Lactantius’ De Ira Dei). They weren’t crass literalists, either. They knew about the limits of human speech and about the perfection of the divine nature. But instead of purging anger or wrath as the Marcionites (as well as some Fathers who nonetheless disagreed with them), they moved to purify, or clarify it, and not “prejudge divine things from human.”

It seems both of these lessons are still relevant today.

Soli Deo Gloria

Gandalf, Job, and the Indignant Love of God

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.” (Job 38:1–3)

gandalf-job-and-the-indignant-love-of-god_350_233_90Easily one of the most bracing passages in Scripture, God’s words to Job are exhilarating in their majestically aggressive grandeur. After 36 chapters of divine silence in the face of Job’s comforters and Job’s passionate self-defense—indeed, his prosecution of God’s justice and character—the Holy One opens his mouth and reduces Job to stunned, repentant silence.

At first glance, of course, it’s easy to see these speeches simply as magnificent assertions of the Lord’s raw power over human puniness. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Who determined its measurements—surely you know! What were you doing when I was pinning up the stars like twinkle lights, little fella?” It sounds like an old man putting a young buck in his place: “I was working this job before you were in your mama’s womb.”

God seems downright salty here.

You can read the rest of the article here at The Gospel Coalition.

Five Practices for Actually Doing Theological Exegesis

bibleA couple of weeks ago I wrote a brief introduction to the idea of Theological Interpretation of Scripture. For class I was recently assigned an excellent little article on the subject by Hank Voss, “From ‘Grammatical-Historical Exegesis’ to ‘Theological Exegesis’: Five Essential Practices” Evangelical Review of Theology (213) 37:2, 140-152, which I figured would be worth examining as a follow-up to it.

In the article, Voss points out that while there’s been a good amount of theological argument for the necessity of what he calls “theological exegesis” (TE), there has been less practical elucidation as to how it’s actually supposed to work. People agree that theological interpretation is important, that simple grammatical-historical exegesis (GHE) is not enough, but there’s less direction and clarity as to how we’re supposed to go about moving from GHE to TE.

Voss wonders,

“How do global theological educators equip leaders in the church to practice theological exegesis? More specifically, how do we balance an emphasis on the human and divine authorship—which has tended to an evangelical strength—while paying greater attention to traditional Evangelical weaknesses: readers, their contexts, and their interpretive communities?” (141)

In order to address the gap, Voss proposes five practices that together constitute a framework and practical pattern for teaching pastors, preachers, and future theologians the exercise of theological exegesis (142).

So what are these practices?

1) Faith Seeking Understanding – First, theological exegesis recognizes that our reading of Scripture flows from faith. Theological exegesis assumes you already believe in Christ and want to know him in Scripture. For that reason, you treat the Bible as a different sort of text than Shakespeare or the New York Times. You read this text already believing in order that you might understand, not reading to understand and then maybe believe. Voss sees two implications of this principle.

  • First, sin is an epistemological category. We must reckon with the fallenness of our interpretive efforts and come to the text dependent on the Lord.
  • Second, dependency on the Lord implies “common hermeneutics” will be turned on its head (143). Reading with faith seeking understanding is prayerful reading, singing even, of the text, that acknowledges the spiritual dimension as prior.

2) Faithful to the Original Contexts —  Second, none of this rules out grammatical-historical exegesis. Voss suggests we must listen to original authors as we would want to be listened to; the golden rule applies here as well. Paying attention to the Divine Author doesn’t mean ignoring the human authors when reading the text. In fact, listening for the former happens as we pay attention to the latter. This means we will avail ourselves of all possible literary, historical, and contextual tools and helps as possible in our exegesis (144).

3) Analogy of Faith – Third, theological exegesis will operate in line with the Reformation emphasis on analogy of faith as a correlate of Sola Scriptura. (145) By the analogy of faith, Voss here is referring to the analogia totus Scripturae. In other words, comparing all the relevant biblical material in order that Scripture might interpret Scripture. This practice relies on the assumption of whole-canon discourse by God through human discourse in the various texts comprising the canon. For this practice, Voss appeals to Jesus’ own reading of Scripture in conversation with the Pharisees as an example (Matthew 22:29-32; 145-146). Jesus’ own practice shakes up some of the “rigidity” of modern reading practices. Voss sees hopeful developments in this area with the proposal of canonical-linguistic readings such as those of Kevin Vanhoozer as well as the renewed interest in the New Testament use of Old Testament in Biblical studies.

4) Rule of Faith – Fourth, Voss suggests that theological exegesis will adopt reading along with the Rule of faith (ROF). This principle is a necessary “Christian” and “catholic” way of reading. In some sense, it is best of thought of as a further subset of Analogy of faith in that the Rule of Faith is an “authoritative summary of Scripture’s message” and so entirely consistent with Evangelical convictions (147), Voss further specifies that the ROF reading implies at least three things:

  1. First, the ROF reads Scripture as the single story of creation, fall, incarnation, redemption, and consummation. All Scripture is read in that frame. (147-148)
  2. Second, the ROF finds Christ at the center of Scripture’s story. Christ is the point of the whole of Scripture, though the details here aren’t always quite spelled out in each text. (148)
  3. Third, the ROF reads Scripture trinitarianly (149). This is not a ham-fisted sighting of the Trinity under every bush, but recognizing the Trinitarian shape of the narrative of the whole and reading in light of it.

5) Community of Faith – Finally, Voss suggests we adopt a rule of reading with the “whole” church (catholica regula) . Exegetes ought to read in light of the “Pentecostal plurality” of the history of interpretation in the Church catholic. If we truly have a Pauline and New Testament understanding of the Church (1 Cor. 12), we’ll set ourselves to listen the Spirit’s voice speaking in illumined readings of Scripture throughout the whole body (150). This involves at least two dimensions. First, the church is a historic, present, and eschatological reality, and so we must listen to the voice of historic church as well, paying attention to readings of Scripture that come from patristic, medieval, Reformation, and modern eras. Second, we must attempt to take a step outside the West to hear the global church–the bulk of it, currently–reading Scripture.

With these five practices, Voss invites the church to begin practicing a theological reading of Scripture that acknowledges we are not simply reviewing a dead letter, or an important cultural artifact, but are reading to discern–to be discerned by–the Voice of the Lord.

Soli Deo Gloria

When it Comes to the Bible, Sometimes It’s Best To Say, “I Don’t Know”

This is Idris Elba playing a guy named 'Luther.' Martin Luther said this quote. Ergo, I feel justified using this picture to get you to read the article.

This is Idris Elba playing a guy named ‘Luther.’ Martin Luther said this quote. Ergo, I feel justified using this picture to get you to read the article.

The Bible can be a hard book at times. And that’s so for a number of reasons. In the first place, we’re sinners and so we don’t always like listening to what God has to say through it. Kind of like when your mom would call you to take out the trash from up the hall–you manage not to “hear” the message.

Beyond that, sometimes even when you want to understand it’s just plain difficult. It’s a grown-up book, translated from a different language (two or three, actually), at a remove of thousands of years, across cultures, and shared histories. What’s more, this collection of narratives, poetry, visions, and letters concerns itself with the most sublime and transcendent Subject of all: God and his works.

Of course, that’s not to say we can’t understand it all. That would be rather extreme. No, much of the Bible can be read and understood by most, and there is enough that can be understood by all so that they may know what they need to be saved and live life with God. God has can and does reach us through his Word. That’s the classic doctrine of the clarity of Scripture.

All the same, the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture does not teach that no part of the Bible is difficult, or that it will always be equally obvious to all (2 Pet. 3:16). There will be much that is beyond us. And this is important for believers to admit, at times, for a number of reasons I’ll get into in a moment.

But first, I was reminded of this point as I was reading some Luther the other night. At this point, he’s preaching through the John 3 and he comes to the line about being born again of water and the Spirit and the difficulties of interpretation. Luther thinks that Munzer has badly misinterpreted the Scriptures here and he moves to correct him, but before doing so, he makes an important point:

But let these words stand, and do not indulge in subtle arguments, even though they appear foolish and strange to reason. Take them in their simple sense, just as they read, not as some have interpreted them. Munzer, for example, declared that water here symbolizes affliction and temptation. One must not be willful with the Word of God. It is better to say: “I do not understand the words,” than to alter them. It is better to leave my hands off and to commend it to God than to add to or detract from God’s words. Holy Writ must be treated with veneration and profound awe. In their impudence, however, the schismatic spirits do not do this; they are forward, as we read in the second chapter of the Second Epistle of St. Peter. They consider the Word of God nothing else than the word of man (2 Peter 2:10). But don’t meddle with God’s Word. If you do not understand it, accord it the honor to say: “I shall wait until I do understand it.”

Sermons on the Gospel of St. John, Chapters 1-4, pg. 283

There is a wisdom in slowing down in your interpretation of Scripture. God’s Word is holy. It is the set apart of his apostles and prophets–heralds of the Holy One–for the divine purpose of drawing his people into fellowship with the Triune God. It is, therefore, as a Kingly proclamation, nothing to be trifled or meddled with. It must “be treated with veneration and profound awe.” In which case, Luther says there will come times when it’s entirely appropriate to say, “I do not understand the words.” There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

I think it’s especially important for those of us called to teach the Bible–whether in the classroom or the pulpit–to give heed to Luther’s here.

There is a pressure for the pastor or the teacher to be the one who knows everything all the time. Now, of course, it’s quite reasonable for us to expect the pastor to know some things. Maybe even more things than most in the congregation. (Though, as any pastor knows, there are usually a number of saints who can give you a run for your seminary education sitting in the pews). Still, whether it’s self-imposed or put on them by others, the pressure to “know it all”; to have every verse down, ready to comment on, and every theological equation solved is there.

And so the temptation is to spout off an answer when we really don’t know what we’re talking about. Here are some reasons it’s better to just say “I don’t know,” sometimes.

First, as Luther says, we avoid dishonoring God’s Word that way. When we say God’s Word says something it doesn’t, we’re altering it. We’re changing what God’s written to us and that is no small thing. Now, to be sure, every preacher has done this at some point, even in their earnest desire to preach the Word. And I believe God understands and has mercy on these things. But to do so, not out of earnest conviction, but merely because one hasn’t given enough thought to the issue or simply in order to have something to say and prop up your pride is sinful. When faced with a passage too difficult, better to simply say, “I don’t know.”

Second, by doing so, not only do you honor God’s Word, but you teach your people to honor God’s Word. You teach them humility before God’s Word that they then take with them to their own study. What’s more, by admitting your own lack of knowledge at certain points, you give them permission to “not know” things and yet continue to study nonetheless. I think that was one of the more helpful things I did for my students. They all knew I read and studied like crazy, but I’d still have moments where I’d have to look at them and say, “You know, I have to go look that up more. I’m just not sure.”

Finally, it should help prevent you from discrediting God’s Word in the ears of your hearers. Unfortunately, your bad teaching that flows from your inability to just admit you’re beyond your depths can turn people off from the Bible because of the distortion you inject into it. Speculative, shallow, half-cocked answers to difficult questions don’t make you sound smarter, they only make the Bible sound worse. Being willing to simply admit you don’t know avoids that danger.

Obviously, none of this is an argument for simply shutting up and never preaching anything. As I said, I think there’s plenty that’s clear, and with some study, we are able to truly understand, preach, and teach the Bible. All the same, it’s okay to admit there are times it’s beyond us. It may be that in precisely that way we treat it as we ought: as God’s Holy Word.

Soli Deo Gloria

Turretin: Been There, Done That (Or, The Same Old Challenges)

Beentheredonethat

This is not Francis Turretin.

Francis Turretin’s theology is interesting for a number of reasons.  First, it’s not just any old systematic theology. It’s an “elenctic” theology, which means it’s conducted in a particular fashion and is shaped apologetically. Though the account is orderly and flows in a fairly clear manner, Turretin isn’t actually covering every issue in a systematic or organic fashion. He’s covering the material by arguing for, or against positions held by atheists, Catholics, Anabaptists, and so forth, and generally getting to what he thinks ought to be covered in order to maintain the faith.

What’s interesting is that this reveals both the similarities and the differences between our context and the 17th Century context in which Turretin was writing. On the one hand, it’s been fascinating to find the questions that exercised theologians the time that most today wouldn’t bother about. For instance, Turretin devotes several questions and multiple pages to the issue of which texts ought to be used, the Vulgate, the Hebrew and Greek, the Septuagint, and so forth in his dispute against the Roman Catholic theologians, whereas I can’t imagine any major systematics trifling with the issue today. Moments like these reveal the way certain issues that are massive in our current context, will one day become footnotes in ever-shifting conversations.

On the other hand, it’s instructive to note the parallels or the similarities. When you notice a 17th Century theologian addressing a trend you still run across, then you begin to note broader, more perennial problems. So, again, when it comes to Scriptures, Turretin spends a lengthy section (Vol 1, Q. V, pp. 70-86) devoted to answering the charge that the Scriptures contain real contradictions. This question actually exemplifies both dynamics. People have always been concerned with contradictions within Scripture, and yet Turretin spends most of his time answering numeric and genealogical oddities instead of the kinds of problems most harmonizing apologists trouble themselves with nowadays.

Still, that’s not the section that caught my eye. What I found fascinating was his listing of the various opponents he was attempting to defend the Scriptures from, as well as their various motives for proposing contradictions in Scriptures.

First, he says, come the atheists and unbelievers:

“…yet the enemies of true religion and of Scripture in every age flatter themselves that they have found not a few contradictions in it and boast of their discoveries in order to overthrow its authenticity; Porphyry, Lucian (of Samosata), Julian the Apostate and others formerly of the Gentiles, and many atheists of the present day who declare that they have met with many contradictions in it which cannot in any way be reconciled. Thus there is the necessity of taking up this subject particularly in order that the integrity of the Scriptures may be preserved safe and entire against their wicked darts. (Vol. 1, Q.V,  Sec. I)

Obviously, this is unsurprising. Unbelievers are going to try to undermine the truth of the Scriptures. Dawkins and his high school fanboys will be on to exploiting any possible errors. The next three types of “under-miners”, though, are the ones whose motives I find most interesting because they are believers who “affirm” the Scriptures, and yet press the issue of contradictions all the same.

We have to deal here not only with declared atheists and Gentiles who do not receive the sacred Scriptures but also with those who, seeming to receive them, indirectly oppose them For instance, the Enthusiasts who allege the imperfection of the written word as a pretext for leading men away from it to their hidden word or private revelations; the papists, who while maintaining the divinity of the Scriptures against the atheists, do not scruple with arms fitted to themselves to oppose as much as they can its own and so the entire cause of Christianity, and to deliver it up to the enemy by insisting upon the corruption of the original so as to bring authority to their Vulgate version. Lastly, many Libertines who, living in the bosom of the church, are constantly bringing forward these various difficulties and apparent contradictions in order to weaken the authority of Scripture. (Vol. 1, Qu. V, Sec. II)

To be clear, we have:

  1. Enthusiasts who want to supplement the written word with their own “spiritual” insights.
  2. Roman Catholics who press inconsistencies in order to argue for the Vulgate (and the Magisterium in the long run).
  3. Libertines who press the “contradictions” in order to undermine the authority of the text, presumably in order to create space for their own deviations.

I found this fascinating because, with some minor variations, we basically have the same kind of moves being made by similar groups. We still have Enthusiasts or Spiritualists today.  For many, we encounter them in the hyper-Pentecostal types supplanting the text for the movements of “the Spirit” who overrules the dead “letter” of Scripture. Or, they can be found in their more postmodern descendants appealing to textual indeterminacy, aporia, or “tensions” in the text in order to introduce the insights of their own favorite cultural interpreter to fill the gap. (My current favorites are Girardian interpretations that posit discrepancies between OT and NT in order to introduce their words about mimetic theories apparently “hidden from the foundation of the world” and so forth.) Roman Catholics (though not all), will appeal to similar difficulties and tensions as a reason to stick to an authoritative Magisterium that can settle all of this nasty interpretation business for us, and just hand us a nice, clean list of doctrines. Finally, there are the modern-day Libertines, be it old-school Liberals, or progressive Revisionists, who appeal to Bible difficulties of all sorts in order to create space for reshaping Christian ethics along new lines.

Apparently this sort of thing is not as new as we’re tempted to think. I don’t know about you, but I find comfort in that.

Of course, this doesn’t excuse us from taking their objections and challenges seriously. Turretin’s example is important here in that while he doesn’t budge an inch, and he’s just as liable as any of his age to engage in some polemical flaming (we often fail to account for the rhetorical and political climate of earlier ages when we judge the writings of earlier theologians), he takes his opponents seriously enough to later report their challenges accurately and answer them with intellectual diligence.

Turretin is also instructive also in who he doesn’t list for criticism or condemnation: honest readers in the Church troubled with Bible difficulties. One could see that as an indication that he doesn’t believe they exist, but it’s also important to note that he doesn’t immediately shut down the question of difficulties. In fact, he spends the next fifteen or so pages running through dozens of them, producing the readings and opinions of various scholars and their attempts to resolve these difficulties, carefully noting the variety of options. He doesn’t simply close the conversation with a “Shut up and believe, sinner.” It seems his concern is to answer the question of contradictions presented by his opponents, precisely for those sitting in the pews who might be led astray or be deprived of the confidence of the Scriptures. Be gentle and tender with the doubters, even as you protect them from the challengers.

The current challenges we’re tempted to think of as unprecedented obstacles to a rather straightforward trust in Scripture for establishing doctrine and life, are really just iterations of very old tunes. We’ve been here before, risen to the challenge, survived, passed on the faith, and moved on to meet the next version of the same old thing.

Soli Deo Gloria

Luke Skywalker Never Shot A Blaster Rifle (Or, a Couple Options in Progressive Revelation)

lukeblasterI’ve been thinking of the issue of progressive revelation a bit lately. It keeps coming up the rather feisty discussions around the nature of Scripture, the character of God, and what we do with the Old Testament. Often-times people on both sides of the growing split (and those somewhere in the middle) will appeal to the concept, agree that it’s important for Christians to acknowledge, and yet there remain significant, troubling differences between the conversation partners as to the way this idea ought to be employed in developing our thoughts about God. Actually, it seems that in the current discussions, there is not merely a debate about the application of the concept, but rather there seem to be two entirely different kinds of progressive revelation on offer. Bear with me as I think out loud here.

1. Consistent/Adjunctive. The first concept of progressive revelation I take to be the more traditional of the two. In this case, the progress of revelation means a real growth in the knowledge of God from the beginning of the narrative in Genesis to the end of the narrative in Revelation. At the same time, it is continuous, self-consistent knowledge of God that unfolds and expands as the story progresses. While in the First Testament, we learn that God is by nature one, the New Testament revelation of the Incarnation and the Trinity does not change that, though it significantly alters our understanding of what the confession of God’s oneness means.

In other words, we don’t go from monotheists to tritheists–we go from monotheists to Trinitarian monotheists. It is not the YHWH was lying when he said that he alone was God and that his glory he would give to no other. Instead, it turns out that the Son who took on flesh in Jesus Christ was always to be identified with YHWH. YHWH remains the same today, yesterday, and forever, and all that was said of him in the First Testament is true, but now it there is a deeper layer and dimension to that truth. In a sense, it is by addition, but it’s even more than that. To steal an image from Lewis, it’s less like simply going from a square to a bigger square, but understanding that the square is a cube.

2. Contradictory/Disjunctive.  This one we might call the “evolutionary” view in that it often coincides with an evolutionary understanding of religion inherited from the older history-of-religions approach popular in European scholarship of the last couple centuries. This kind of progressive revelation isn’t progression by way of natural narrative development, or by way of simple addition. Instead, it’s more about moving from higher to lower understanding, not simply less clear to more clear. Older, more primitive religious conceptions such as the worship of multiple gods (polytheism) gives way to the worship of a chief god (henotheism), and eventually to belief in one Creator God (monotheism).*  It includes the possibility not only of expansion in our knowledge of something, but the contradiction of it. For that reason, we may also term this a “disjunctive” kind of progressive revelation.

The most popular example I’ve been seeing lately is about God’s activity in history. The classic extreme version of this is the Marcionite rejection of the Old Testament God as the revelation of a vicious, deficient, Demiurge who is superseded by the revelation of the loving Father of Jesus Christ who wants to save us from our miserable creation. The more recent model, though, is not that extreme. Instead, many suggest that our knowledge of God progresses by learning that while the Ancient Hebrews had some real encounter and true revelation of the Creating and Redeeming God, the revelation of Jesus Christ in the New Testament reveals that there was much falsehood and error mixed in, given their limited vantage point and backwards cultural presuppositions. The advent of Jesus then, “clarifies”, not only by sharpening edges still fuzzy in the OT, or adding a depth dimension, but by also by straightforward negation.  In many ways, God is actually not what Hebrew Scriptures have proclaimed, but only what Jesus in his incarnation reveals him to be. Of this sort of “christocentrism”, we have spoken before.

Revealing Luke Skywalker

Let me clarify illustrate the differences between the two types of progressive revelation by using Star Wars, because Star Wars.

In the first type, we find an analogy in the revelation in The Empire Strikes Back that Darth Vader has actually been Luke Skywalker’s father the whole time. This is the kind of narrative revelation that is mostly consistent and adjunctive. This is a new fact about Luke that is a shock to the viewer, but it is primarily one that fills out his character, even while it does not contradict what we’ve come to see about Luke’s activities, characteristics, and so forth–at least insofar as we haven’t made our entire of Luke dependent on his not-being-Darth Vader’s son. Yes, our understanding is changed of him and that even changes the way we watch the first movie again. We reinterpret Obi-wan’s words, hearing resonances and layers we didn’t see before. But again, this is essentially a filling out of his character that forwards the narrative in ways that do no violence to what has come before.

Now, imagine a different kind of progression in the story. Imagine that in coming to Return of the Jedi, upon viewing Luke Skywalker’s near-exclusive use of light-saber, we are given to now understand that in the first couple of movies, Luke actually never used a blaster rifle, it being inconsistent with his Jedi ways; it was merely the way Leia and Han understood him at the time. On this scenario, yes, Luke is a character throughout the whole story, and yes, there are some strong continuities, but the narrative unity of the storyline is severely disrupted, rendering its coherence seriously suspect and the author rather confused.

None of the above is yet a straightforward argument one way or another, but more of an exercise in clarification. Of course, I do think that proposals which make greater sense of the unity of the narrative are inherently preferable for a number of reasons. First, they give us a greater sense that the ultimate Author of Scripture is the God of Scripture, and not simply a second-trilogy Lucas sans the special effects. This strengthens our ability to affirm a unity of revelation, and therefore the unity of covenant, or the good, saving purposes of the God of both Testaments.**

Still, clarifying our options can be a helpful exercise for further conversation and study on this point and any excuse for a Star Wars analogy in theology, right?

Soli Deo Gloria

*It should be noted that much of this European scholarship was heavily influenced by Enlightenment presuppositions of a colonialist, imperialistic, and Anti-Semitic sort.

**This also makes more difficult the inadvertent Anti-Semitism of the most history-of-religions approach to progressive revelation.

“I Don’t Deserve to Read the Bible…”: Three Attitudes for Christian Preachers and Scholars

with the cloudsJames Hamilton opens the preface to his new book on the theology of Daniel in this surprising and refreshing way:

I don’t deserve to read the Bible, much less write about it. What a privilege to have God reveal himself to us in his word. What a great God, keeping covenant and steadfast love, forgiving iniquity transgression and sin, and everywhere manifesting his power and love. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars, and yet he also speaks so tenderly that the bruised reed doesn’t break. I join the ranks of the heavenly hosts, the saints across space and time, and everything in this cosmic temple to ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name. Would that I could do so in a way worthy of him. I thank God the Father through Christ the Son by the power of the Spirit for his merciful salvation, full and complete revelation, and gracious provision.

With the Clouds of Heaven: The Book of Daniel in Biblical Theology, pg. 15

Every Sunday when my pastor finishes reading the text of Scripture he’s going to preach from he says, “This is the Word of the Lord”, and the congregation responds “Thanks be to God.” There’s a beautiful reminder of the nature of God’s revelation as a gift to us. God didn’t have to say anything. He doesn’t owe us any truth beyond what we’ve already heard and suppressed in our ungodliness (Rom. 1), and yet in Scriptures, he gives us his sure word of promise for us to cling to, rely on, by comforted with, and use as a means of communion with Him.  This is surely a cause for rejoicing.

I know this in general, but when I read these words, I had to stop ask myself, “How many times have I thought  ‘I don’t deserve to read the words on these pages’?” How many times have you? It might have occurred to me once or twice, but there’s something bracing and beautiful about reading it put so bluntly. Even more so, it struck me that these words were penned by a biblical scholar who has written hundreds, thousands of pages, even, about the Scriptures. And here he is opening up his (very careful) work of biblical theology with the admission that he is unfit to the task.

This got me thinking about how I approach the Scriptures, especially as one trained to do so for the ministry of the Church. All of this has been said before, of course, much better, wiser, and likely clearer than I will. Still, in Hamilton’s little intro paragraph, I see him modelling three qualities any scholar or preacher of the text ought to aspire to in their study and instruction of God’s Word.

1. Humility.  The first, obviously, is humility. There is no doubt that Hamilton is deeply humbled before the text in front of him. As a word from God, the text has priority and authority in the relationship, as it is a mediation and form of God’s own personal address. I listen attentively to the Scriptures because I want to listen attentively to God’s voice in them. Now one of the corollaries of this reality is that I don’t assume a relation of dominance to the text. The Scriptures are not there for me to pick up and use for my own ends and devices; God has his own purposes to accomplish through his word and so I endeavor to bend my study to his agenda, not the other way around. Also, and I’ve written about this before, I am not the judge before which Scripture is proved true or false. Scripture is true and I am judged true or false in light of it. An attitude of humility before the text will not squelch intellectual struggle and striving, but, in fact, it will drive me further into intellectual striving so that I might be able to understand God’s truth as fully as he allows given then means I have available to me.

2. Piety – The second attitude is piety, by which I mean the recognition of the fact that the Bible is not just some text to be studied like any other. Yes, we use all the means available to us including philological, literary, historical, and philosophical exegesis when attempting to understand God’s word, but we do that in order to understand it as a personal, spiritual, transformative word. Kierkegaard has compared it to a lover receiving a letter from a loved one in a foreign tongue. The work is not over once the linguistics are done and words are translated on the page. To truly hear it, we must then accept it as a word from the great Lover and Author of our salvation. Scholarship is great, but grasping the meaning of the text through these means is ultimately only a means to being grasped by God himself through the text.

3. Gratitude – Finally, there is a clear sense of gratitude. As we already noted, revelation is a free act of condescension. God didn’t have to give us more of the truth we had already rejected.  This is why approaching the text with anything less than a profound sense gratitude to God constitutes a failure to recognize its connection to the free gift of the gospel. Union with Christ comes through faith, and faith comes by hearing the word of the Lord now given to us chiefly in Scripture. The Scriptures, then, are not just a record of God’s saving acts, but are themselves a key means by which the Father accomplishes his work through the Son and the Spirit.

As always, more can be said, but this will do for now. May we aspired to read the Scriptures with a heart that says, “I don’t deserve to read this book, but by the grace of my Father in Christ, I can.”

Soli Deo Gloria