Mere Fidelity: What is the Relationship Between Biblical Exegesis and Systematics?

Mere FiOver the last year or so, I’ve had to give some greater thought to the question of the relationship between biblical exegesis and the discipline of systematic theology. Questions about which discipline stands closer to the text. Or whether there is a relationship of logical priority or necessity. Which one needs the other and so forth.

Well, on this episode we take up the question and basically Alastair and I fight about it for a while, Matt asks very reasonable questions, and we all come to an agreement that I’m right. Or something like that.

Also, we have theme music now!

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Soli Deo Gloria

Classifying Biblical Theodicies (Or, Must There Be Only One?)

lisbonEvil and theodicy are central to the storyline of the Bible. Indeed, they are central to much of the great secular and especially religious literature in history. Theodicy, for those unaware, is the term coined (or simply popularized) by Leibniz referring to the sort of rational justifications or explanations given for the co-existence of evil and God (or the gods). Antti Laato and Johannes C. de Moor’s massive, edited work Theodicy in the World of the Bible is a collection of essays dedicated to exploring the various sorts of theodicies on offer both in the Ancient Near Eastern texts (ranging from Sumerian, Assyrian text to 2nd Temple Jewish text) surrounding the world of the Bible as well as the biblical materials themselves (both Old and New Testaments). They do so both for historiographical as well as properly theological reasons, calling on specialists to describe, critique, and retrieve the perspectives of the ancients for reflection today.

A Typology of Theodicies

In an attempt to lend order to the various essays and perspectives, in their introduction Laato and De Moor come up with a helpful typology of the kinds of theodicies found in the texts their contributors deal with. After listing various categories, they narrow their options down to the monotheistic, non-dualist options given in the Jewish-Christian theological tradition (p. xxx):

  1. Retribution theology
  2. Educative theodicy
  3. Eschatological theodicy
  4. The mystery of theodicy
  5. Communion theodicy
  6. Human determinism

The names tend to be straightforward, but I’ll briefly give you the gist of each, but know that I’m leaving out references to a number of the texts they use in each section.

Retribution theology as a theodicy explains human suffering in terms of human responsibility and divine punishment for sin. Humans are given free will, which they are legally accountable for (per the widespread covenant theology found both in the ANE and the Biblical record), and as violators, much of the evil suffered is the result of divine retribution. Much of the theodicy given in the OT surrounding the Exile falls under this rubric, as well as the Deuteronomistic literature and vast swathes of the Wisdom texts. Disobedience results in curse, just like Leviticus and Deuteronomy warned (xxx-xxxviii).

Educative theodicy can be found in places like Job, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ruth, and other types of wisdom literature. In essence, suffering is allowed in the light of the righteous because through it he gains understanding he would not have had otherwise. Naomi learns God’s purposes span farther than she could know as her suffering leads to the birthline of the Davidic king. (xxxix-xlii).

Eschatological theodicy tries to justify God allowing evil by pointing ahead to either the reward of the righteous in the afterlife, or the judgment of the wicked to come. This thread is found in some of the prophetic literature such as Isaiah, Daniel, and so forth. Here, the emphasis showing that much human suffering will shown to not have been in vain. It is a theodicy of comfort, in that regard. (xlii-xlv)

The mystery of theodicy refers to the various traditions which emphasize the fact that we just don’t know what God is up to. Here, humanity’s epistemological limits are compared to the divine’s limitless, unfathomable wisdom. The book of Job and Qoheleth are taken as paradigms here, as well as Maimonedes reading of Job or the theology of 4 Ezra. Lamentations also contains texts that conform to this pattern (xlvi-xlviii).

Communion theodicy emphasizes the fact that in the midst of suffering, the afflicted may draw closer to God in the end. Psalms is a key witness here. But again, so is Job. Here Laato and De Moor also include the tradition of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, where his expiatory, redemptive suffering actually brings the nation into closer to God through reconciliation. For that reason, its hard to classify it under communion alone, because it (along with the later martyr traditions in the Maccabees) blending suffering for sin with restored relationship. Indeed, often the martyr traditions following blend educative and eschatological dimensions as well (xlvii-liv).

Finally, human determinist theodicies appeal to a certain, necessary human sinfulness or with divine determinism. Here Laato and De Moor have less material, and the Biblical material they adduce is hints in Paul and Qoheleth. It seems the biblical material about Israel’s stiff-necked nature and Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy might fit nicely here as well.

Varied Answers for Variegated Experiences

Laato and De Moor’s typology and helpful literature review points up nicely one of my major problems with certain kinds of theodicies that I see offer: too many insist that only one or two of these theodical angles are the proper answer to or explanation of suffering. Actually, it seems that in light of the fact that all of these themes are at play in the Biblical text, it’s probable that we are meant to understand them all playing a partial role in explaining the problem of evil in the Scriptures. For that reason, we should refrain from settling on just one answer, or reducing our explanations to simple, pat answers. We should also slow down from rejecting these answers as part of the Biblical analysis, as some have done, simply because it doesn’t account for a certain experience or text. Taken as a total answer it might not, but as a partial dimension, it could be very helpful.

Its undeniable that sometimes evil befalls us because of evil choices leading to suffering (both for the perpetrator and victim). Beyond that, Scripture attests that evil does often provoke God’s retribution in this life. Of course, discerning that retribution is a dicey business for those without eyes to see (as Elisha had), or lips cleansed by God’s purifying fire (as Isaiah did), so it is wise to refrain from presuming all suffering is the direct result of sin as the disciples did (John 9). From another angle, it may be that we suffer evil because God is delaying retribution and so evil will have its recompense in the next life, and undeserved suffering will be rewarded at that time as well. What’s more, it could very well be that God allows certain instances of suffering in order to teach us, or to draw us nearer to himself. Finally, as I’ve already argued, it could be that some ultimate explanation for particular evils or evil as a whole will only be unveiled at the end of all things. Mystery can coexist with the acknowledgement that there are various dimensions to the problem of evil.

The biblical corpus is multi-faceted as is its theological witness. I don’t mean that it is self-contradictory, but that it preserves a plurality of voices testifying to the various, real, dimensions of human existence in the world that need to be reckoned with and not simply flattened into each other. And that makes sense given that it’s the revelation of God and his works. God himself knows to understand the whole from his eternal, unified, singular perspective, but for finite beings such as ourselves, we need multiple angles, or lenses on the world to make sure we get a more appropriate understanding of the whole.

Let us not, then, flatten or deny that witness in search of cheap, easy answers.

Soli Deo Gloria

Final Review: Assorted Thoughts on John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift

paul and the giftI’ve already written once about John M.G. Barclay’s phenomenal new work Paul and the Gift. We also plan on taking up the issue on the Mere Fidelity podcast soon. All the same, having just finished the work, I wanted to address a few themes and offer a few assorted and incomplete judgments about the work. If you’re interested in the thesis of the, Barclay’s own summary of his work that I excerpted here ought to fill you in as he basically delivered on what he promised. And more.

First, an evaluative point: the book really is ground-breaking and it’s set to light up the field of Pauline studies. I don’t think all the rave reviews from other scholars are just an exercise in academic back-scratching, at this point. If you’re at all interested in discussions around the New Perspective or Old Perspective on Paul, Judaism, and justification, this should be on your list along with the other major recent works by Wright, Dunn, and so forth.

Beyond that, I simply wanted to note some thematic takeaways, quibbles, and comments.

Vindication of the Reformers. From a theological and historical perspective, the first thing I noticed was the way Barclay’s work offers at least a partial vindication of the Reformer’s use of Paul in the medieval debates over justification. Recall that Barclay makes a couple of key points.

First, yes, Judaism in general had a very present theology of grace. On that point, E.P. Sanders was correct. Second, “grace” didn’t mean the same thing for all of Paul’s Jewish contemporaries. “Grace is everywhere in Judaism, but it is not everywhere the same.” For many, grace meant the “priority” or “super-abundance” or “singularity” of God’s favor, but for Paul it particularly meant the “incongruity”–the unfittingness–of God’s grace to the undeserving. Second, writing after Augustine and Luther left their mark on the interpretation of grace, when Sanders saw someone affirming the priority of “grace”, he also read into it the “incongruity” of grace because he assumed that everywhere the word is used, it must have that resonance. Not so.

Now, this offers a partial vindication of the Reformers in that, theologically, whatever else you might say about a possible individualism, or misreading of the nature of “works-righteousness”, they were affirming the incongruity of grace against the medieval theology of grace that had managed to sneak “congruity” or worth back into the picture. By conceiving God as “graciously” accepting the merit of the saints which could be procured by good works, penance, “doing what is in us”, and so forth, there is still an element of God accepting or rewarding on the basis of achieved worth or “fittingness”, that’s not dependent on the grace of Christ alone. And this conception of “congruent” grace seems to mirror some of the theology found in 2nd Temple Jewish texts, against which Paul’s teaching stands out starkly.

I did say “partial” for a reason, though. Two related points of difference to note are Barclay’s criticism of Lutheran “non-circularity” and his position on works at the final judgment. Barclay points out that it’s only with Luther that we first find a prominent emphasis on the “non-circularity” of grace, or it’s “unconditional” character in which God’s gift of grace expects no “return” of any kind. It’s a “pure” gift in the modern sense. That’s not something Barclay finds in Paul. For Paul, grace is unconditioned by any notion of worth, but it is not unconditional; Paul expects a change in the life of the believer that issues in good work that will be approved of at the eschaton.

Even with those points made, Barclay’s very careful and sensitive survey of both the 2nd Temple literature and the reception history of Paul does end up highlighting significant parallels between the Reformation debates and Paul’s 2nd Temple context that are illuminating.

Sociology. Second, Barclay, like so many current interpreters of Paul, stresses the sociological dimension to Paul’s theology. Thankfully, Barclay doesn’t use that to screen out or kick to the side classic concerns about individual salvation and such. Still, Barclay is very clear that Paul’s main aim is to create a community of Jew and Gentile upon the joint recognition that both have been received without respect to worth, not according to the old values systems of the world, or according to Torah, but only because of the incongruous grace of God through Christ in the New Age.

Barclay goes into all sorts of helpful social dynamics that Paul’s moral instruction cuts off or addresses, setting things in Jewish and Greco-Roman social context. This angle is a real gain from recent, New Perspective and social science emphases. I found especially illuminating the way Barclay draws on Pierre Bordieu’s notion of practice, habitus, and the body as the site of sanctification.

That said, Barclay can maybe go too far along the sociological angle for my taste. Consider his paraphrase of Galatians 2:15-21:

You and I, Peter, are Jews, used to thinking of ourselves as categorically distinct from “Gentile sinners.” But we know (though conviction and experience) that a person (whether Gentile or Jew) is not considered of worth (“righteous”) by God through Torah-observance (“living Jewishly”), but through faith in (what God has done in) Christ. We look to God to consider us valuable (“righteous”) in Christ, not through obeying the Torah, and this is so even if (in situations like Antioch’s) our resulting behaviour makes us look like “sinners” (“living in a Gentile fashion”). Does that mean that Christ has led us into sin? No way! Only if one were to reinstate the Torah as the arbiter of worth (“righteousness”) would “living like a Gentile” in Christ be classified as “transgression”. In fact (taking myself as a paradigm), I have died to the Torah – it is no longer what constitutes my standard of value – because I have been reconstituted in Christ. My old existence came to an end with the crucified Christ; my new life has arisen from the Christ-event and is therefore shaped by faith in the death of Christ, who loved me and gave himself for me. This divine gift I will by no means reject: if “righteousness” were measured by the Torah, the death of Christ would be without effect.

While there’s much that’s clarifying in this reading, the translation of “righteousness” into the language of “worth”, or the way he focuses in other places on the “transgression” of Torah as a cultural framework of evaluation, or the “recalibration of social norms”, seems more appropriate as a preacherly contextualization for late-modern, Westerners than a straightforward, historical reading of Paul.

Apocalyptic-Augustinian-Lutheran. Barclay says that depending on how you look at it, he might be an Augustinian-Lutheran appropriating New Perspective themes, or vice-versa. So, a strong theology of the incongruity of grace, meets social context and a more fine-grained, positive evaluation of Judaism.

What’s more, Barclay has his eye on drawing on the focus of recent “apocalyptic” readings of Paul highlighting Jesus as divine activity that ruptures history and which avoids presenting salvation as the smooth development of potentialities inherent within it. At the same time, unlike some other apocalyptic readings, he acknowledges that in Galatians and especially Romans, salvation happens in fulfillment of the promises to Israel that came before.

All the same, I’ll just put my cards on the table and say that the Augustinian-Lutheran-Apocalyptic Paul still needs more Calvin and the Reformed emphasis on redemptive-history. (Which is interesting because I thought his treatment of Calvin to be very helpful, historically). This is one of those places where Wright, though he can get a bit carried away, is right to give us “big story” readings of Paul’s letters. Also, I don’t think Barclay has done quite enough justice to the positive, continued place of the Law as instruction in Paul’s thought, even though he does give positive place to the growth of holiness and practice of good works in the life of the believer.

Is Paul’s Grace Real Grace? One of the brilliant points Barclay makes about the whole discussion around whether Judaism was gracious or not, is that people have been coming into the discussion with a master concept of grace that doesn’t recognize its various shades and “perfections”, which don’t always have to come together as a package. This is why Sanders was right to think Judaism had grace in it and wrong to think that Paul disagreed with various of his contemporaries about the issue of God’s grace. In other words, it wasn’t only that they disagree as to whether or not Jesus was the only mediator of it, but it truly was about its nature.

At this point, this is where I put my theologian-in-training hat back on (if I ever happen to take it off). The question I’m toying around with is whether “grace in Paul” simply is grace for the confessional theologian.

In other words, it makes sense for a religious historian to be somewhat neutral about which 2nd Temple Jewish theologian had a “better” conception of grace in order to not prejudge the sources from a Christian standpoint. What’s more, we shouldn’t be anachronistic or slanderous, saying that all Jewish religion at the time was legalistic, graceless, and so forth. It wasn’t.

But the time comes when we must speak dogmatically and make normative statements about other conceptions of grace on the basis of Scripture. If we follow Barclay’s case out to its dogmatic conclusions, according to Paul, according to Scripture, to speak of God’s grace without recognizing (and maybe even denying) that it is not according to merit or worth–even though you see that it’s abundant, prevenient, and so forth–is to speak wrongly of grace. This is no attempt to denigrate Judaism, or certain forms of it, but if we take Paul’s letters as revelation—then where Paul disagrees with his contemporaries about grace on the basis of the “Christ-event”, they are wrong.

Now, this might cut against the grain of Barclay’s methodological aims, but at the end of the day, that’s what I think his exhaustive study of grace in Paul has shown us.

Concluding

To wrap up, none of my quibbles disqualifies anything I’ve said about the book as a must-read bit of Pauline scholarship. Its top-rate and I’ve benefitted from it immensely. Even though it’s not a full-dress commentary, there’s no way I’m going to preach or teach in Galatians or Romans without consulting the passage references, since it’s chocked full of exegetical insights waiting to be applied.

So, yes, if you’re wondering, right about now would be a good time to start adding it to your Christmas list.

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

What Does Systematic Theology Add to Biblical Theology?

booksI’ve been on a bit of a Henri Blocher kick since his visit to Trinity this last week and I have to say it’s been paying off. For instance, I looked up an article of his, “The Justification of the Ungodly” in the second Paul volume, Justification and Variegated Nomism to thumb through this weekend. While most of it is caught up with the nature of justice and justification in relation to the New Perspective, Blocher opened up with some important insights on the nature of systematic theology as different from other disciplines.

Important, at least, to me. When people ask me what I’m studying and I say, “Systematic theology”, I can’t tell you how many times I get the question, “Okay, so what makes it ‘systematic’ theology?” Then when you try and explain that it’s systematic versus “biblical”–but not unbiblical!–you just get this funny stare until you sputter something about a logical ordering of topics and hope the subject changes. If you’ll pardon the comparison, I’m reminded of that famous line of Justice Potter Stewart on trying to define what counts as pornography:

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description…and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it...”

(I leave it to others to decide whether there are any more comparisons between the two phenomena to be made.)

All the same, there have been a number of different approaches to distinguishing the two sub-disciplines of biblical and systematic theology–a couple of which I will probably return to in the future–but I think Blocher’s little section gets at some key insights worth laying out.

Blocher begins to get at the issue with this initial paragraph:

On the one hand, systematic theologians draw from Scripture the substance and light of their thinking. They are not seeking for another source or standard. In Berkouwer’s words: “Beyond the word of Scripture we dare not go, in speech or in theological reflection; for it is in this word that God’s love in Jesus Christ is revealed. There is nothing beyond that.” This dependence entails for them a major interest in the work of biblical scholars, through whom they receive knowledge of scriptural contents. On the other hand, they also make their own contribution to the joint enterprise of Bible study: as Heinrich Ott emphasized, Dogmatics should be included in the “hermeneutical circle.”

Protestant, Evangelical, and especially Reformed systematic theologians are–or ought to be–firmly committed to the normative status of the text of Scripture for doing theology. Sola Scriptura is not something we simply confess, but something we practice. Scripture alone is the final authority, and so faithful theologians will want to be attentive to what biblical studies has to say. We are concerned with and must draw the roots of our theologizing from solid exegesis.

But is theology anything more than exegesis? Blocher asks, “How distinctive is the contribution of systematic theology?” What do systematicians do beyond repeating the biblical scholars? Blocher’s brief answer begins, first, by dispelling the notion that or some sort of faith-interest or presupposition is what separates the two:

Theological interests motivate exegetes and historical critics as well; they cannot dispense with theological criteria to guide their search nor with a “fiduciary framework” (Polanyi’s phrase) to give meaning to their findings; they do think these findings “together.”

It’s not, then, that systematics’ only contribution is a theological bias–no matter what some biblical scholars might claim. No, what systematics does is deepen the reading.

Systematic (or dogmatic) theology only pushes a little further the effort at synthesis, representing the “whole” as opposed to the “parts” in the older construal of the hermeneutical circle; critical integration becomes its specific object; it establishes itself at a few more removes from textual ground level, in a more reflective mood. It does so in deliberate interaction with the history of Christian thought (and, in various degrees, with “human” thought, past and present). Systematic theology thus faces more openly or squarely the challenge of personal commitment: “What do you say. . . ?” (cf. Matt 16:15). It delineates and expounds for the use of the church the credendum: the focus is no longer on what Paul thought and believed – but nostra res agitur. The systematic concern for appropriation makes one vulnerable, exposing the person in the weakness of his or her faith. It corresponds to the other construal of the hermeneutical circle, the involvement of subject with object.

A few things are worth noting here.

First, Blocher is already assuming that biblical studies/theology is a “synthetic” task. Biblical scholars are trying to forward readings of biblical texts that bring together the various parts into a coherent, synthetic whole. Systematic theology shares that concern but pushes a bit further down the road. Or, to change the metaphor, a bit further back from the pages of Scripture, in order to take in the broader sweep.

Second, systematic theology typically does this in conversation with other historical-theological readings of Scripture. Biblical studies, as a discipline, is typically concerned with recent scholarship, Ancient Near Eastern or Greco-Roman backgrounds, and so forth, but not so much with Patristic, Medieval, or Reformation readings of those same texts. Though, that does seem to be changing in some circles. All the same, systematic theology typically takes the history of exegesis as a more obvious conversation partner, since systematics–or dogmatics, to introduce another term–is a churchly activity.

Which brings me to the third point Blocher makes–the subjectivity of systematics. Here, it seems that Blocher sees systematics more openly owning the subjective, confessional dimension to theology. As he says, it’s not so much a matter of only putting together “what Paul believed then”, as drawing conclusions about “what Paul believed then”, for “what we as the church believe now.” Theoretically, biblical studies can be done with some separation from personal confession. Obviously, it can’t be done entirely so. Believing Paul to be an inspired, authoritative writer does shape the way you come to the text. Believing in the possibility or reality of miracles will change how you construct the intention and theology of the Gospel writers. Still, it’s possible to have a brilliant Pauline scholar who can describe the apostle’s thought then, without actually subscribing to it. The systematic theologian cannot do that. The theologian puts forward claims as truths to be owned by the individual, the community they are a part of, and, ultimately, the world.

There is likely more to be said about the relationship and distinction between biblical and systematic theology, but this seems like an excellent place to start.

Soli Deo Gloria

Kierkegaard, Keller, La Dispute, and the Promise of Covenant Love – Part 1

Regine Olsen

Sadly, everybody remembers her as Kierkegaard’s fiance and not the wife of her husband…that guy.

February is here and love is in the air–or maybe that’s packaged chocolates and commercial opportunity. In either case, the subject of love and romance will be coming up again, which is why I must once more bring up my favorite philosopher: Soren Kierkegaard.

For those of you who know a little of his biography, he seems an odd choice to turn to on the subject of love–he was one of my philosophers who failed at it. Tragically he broke off his engagement with the lovely Regine Olsen because he felt his depressive melancholy made him unsuitable as a husband. What could we possibly learn from him about love?

Well, for one thing, he’s experienced at failure, so that gives you some insight. Still, Kierkegaard, for all of his Danish weirdness, has this going for him: he’s easily one of the most biblical, prophetic thinkers of the modern period. Under both his own name, and through pseudonyms, he made it his aim to present Christianity anew, true Christianity, with force to a culture that thought it already understood it.

Works of Love and La Dispute
In his Works of Love he turns his meditations to the biblical concept of love. The first half is an extended exploration of the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). The piece that captured my attention was the focus he gives to the “you shall” in Jesus’ command–the fact that Jesus commands love at all. Kierkegaard emphasizes, “You shall love–this, then, is the word of the royal law.” Again, “the mark of Christian love and its distinguishing characteristic is this, that it contains the apparent contradiction: to love is a duty.” (pg. 40) Later he writes, “Only when it is a duty to love, only then is love eternally secured against every change, eternally made free in blessed independence, eternally and happily secured against despair.” (pg. 44)

Against the popular, romantic “poetic” conception of love that dominated the intellectual scene of his day, Kierkegaard pressed the idea that the highest form of love was not the “spontaneous”, sudden, seizing form of love that sweeps over a couple of lovers, but rather love as duty–love as something secured by the eternal, the command of God. The love of the lovers is beautiful, yes, but it is fleeting–it can change. Even if it lasts, it’s not to be trusted entirely. It can leave. La Dispute gives us one of the best, contemporary expressions of this kind of love on their album, “Somewhere At The Bottom Of The River Between Vega And Altair“, exploring the dynamics of a failed marriage, rent asunder by the wife’s affair.

Speaking in the aftermath, the wife sings, “I know I tore two worlds apart but I can’t change the way I felt./Love swept in like a storm and ripped the hinges from the doors./Love poured in like a flood, I couldn’t stop it anymore. I will not be drowned” (Sad Prayers for Guilty Bodies), or, even more poignantly:

Oh husband, I could not control it
Husband, I could not abstain
One cannot stop the wind from blowing
Nor refuse the falling rain
Love stirred up a storm inside me
Wrapped its arms around my waist
I failed you dear, I’m sorry, oh I’m sorry
There was nothing I could do
No, there was nothing I could
Sure as the rain will fall
Some love just fails without reason

(Last Blues for Bloody Knuckles)

Poetic love is that inherently unstable, emotional chaos that sweeps over us with great passion, and apparently can leave us as quickly. Matt Chandler calls this the “naked angel in a diaper” theory where basically, at any point, cupid can show up and strike you. It has no rhyme or reason, like the blowing of the wind or the falling rain.

Kierkegaard points out that the poets instinctively know this; note how often their lovers swear, make promises, and bind themselves to each other in their love. Still, if they only swear by themselves, it is an insecure promise because humans are changeable, unstable. Only when you swear by something higher, something eternal, duty, God himself, can love be something secure. “The love which simply exists, however fortunate, however blissful, however satisfying, however poetic it is, still must survive the test of the years. But the love which has undergone the transformation of the eternal by becoming duty has won continuity.” (pg. 47)

Kierkegaard, Keller, and Covenant Love
Kierkegaard was pointing his culture to a love “transformed by the eternal”: covenantal love. When we hear the word “covenant” today, we mostly don’t know what we’re dealing with. Contracts are closest thing we can imagine, but that’s far too impersonal for the biblical notion of covenant. The concept and language of covenant in the Bible is that of a legal bond, a union based on promises before God and humans of fidelity, friendship, love, exclusivity, and trust.

Now to us this “legalizing” of the relationship seems to drain all of the emotion, the passion–the love!–out of things. For moderns, it’s either love or law, not both. Tim Keller has recently pointed out that, in fact, the law, the promise, especially the marriage promise, doesn’t kill emotion and intimacy, but actually is a testimony to it and increases it. (The Meaning of Marriage, pp 84-85) Marriage–the public, binding promise–is the ultimate expression of romantic love because its the giving of the whole self. Someone who doesn’t want to eventually get married to the person they’re dating is basically saying, “I don’t love you enough to curtail my freedom for you.” How intimate. Ultimately, only when romantic love is set within the framework of a binding obligation do the lovers truly have space to reveal their true selves, without fear of abandonment or rejection. Until then, you’re still on the performance platform, constantly under pressure to put your best foot forward to make sure the other person doesn’t bolt. Ironically, only when you give up your “freedom”, your romantic autonomy, are you able to be truly free to be with the other.

Love, it turns out, hangs on a promise.

So what does love have to be if it’s something I can promise? How is it different than the poetic love that Kierkegaard is speaking of? In my next post, I’ll lay out more clearly the difference between this covenant love and the poetic love.

Soli Deo Gloria