Jesus and the Coherence of Scripture

Jesus and the BibleHaving gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith (Romans 12:6)

Historically, the Church has taken this verse as an exegetical basis for reading the Scriptures according to the “analogy of faith”  (which shouldn’t be confused with Karl Barth’s version) or the “analogy of Scripture.” The assumption is that prophets are being urged to keep their prophecies consistent with the faith they have received–the deposit of apostolic truth already given to them. They shouldn’t prophesy anything that contradicts what has already been revealed by the Lord, for that would point to a contradiction in Spirit’s revelation and therefore God himself. This reading was then built out into the principle of interpretation that Scripture ought to be read in line with Scripture–it is “self-interpreting” in that sense. And there are a few versions of what this means.

Back in the 80s, Henri Blocher argued in an article in the Scottish Bulletin of Theology (“The ‘Analogy of Faith’ in the Study of Scripture: In Search of Justification and Guidelines’), that the primary sense is the practice of interpreting individual texts in light of the whole of Scripture:

The main application of the analogy is the comparison of all relevant passages on any topic, under the methodical duty to avoid substantial contradictions. It implies a systematic character in biblical interpretation, the totality of a coherent Scripture being the norm. One is not far from the older idea of the ‘hermeneutical circle’, the reciprocal determination of the whole and of the parts. (23)

While this process would have been relatively uncontroversial from the Fathers on into the Post-Reformation period, in the contemporary scene this endeavor becomes far more dubious. Historical critics allege that strong assertions of the coherence of the Biblical books within the canon imposes a false uniformity on a set of diverse texts. They charge that this approach is prone to dehistoricized readings that smack more of the theological systems of the readers than the intentions of the authors in question.

Instead, we need to understand that we have “conversations” (arguments?) going on in Scripture between the various authors, whom often are not only saying distinct things, but may often be contradicting each other in the process. Rather than saying John and Mark are highlighting different angles of what it means for Jesus to be Messiah, or that they are making the same judgments with different language, we must admit that they actually have contradicting Christologies at key points.

From a more theological angle, Blocher mentions those who would resist analogy of faith readings by pointing to the accommodating nature of God himself:

Ever-changing life! Cannot the God of life and of paradoxical kenosis, the-God who writes straight on crooked lines and takes pleasure in always surprising us, speak through contradictions? The opposite, traditional, opinion is charged with Western, or Greek, of Cartesian, ‘rationalism’!

On this view, truth emerges in the midst of the contradiction, the dialectic, the negotiation going on within the canon itself. Theologians, therefore, are not to attempt to harmonize texts and their theologies, but should either affirm the contradictions as contradictions, or  construct some canon within the canon that allows us to adjudicate the disputes in our modern context. Pretty heady stuff, right?

Blocher, however, is not persuaded by this line of reasoning. No, instead he points out that everywhere in Scripture the unity and coherence of revealed truth is assumed:

At all stages of biblical history, coherence is highly valued, and ascribed to whatever teaching is believed to have come from God. Truth, emeth, rhymes with eternity, immutable permanence (Ps. 119:160, etc.). The law of the Lord is pure, that is, perfectly homogeneous, more thoroughly purged of dross than refined silver and gold; all his ordinances go together as one in their lightness (Ps. 19:9). No miracle may authorize unorthodox prophecies (Dt. 13:lff). Inspite of God’s freedom to display new things in history, failure to harmonize with the dominant tone of earlier revelations raises doubts on the authenticity of a message (Je. 28:7ff). Paul exhorts his readers to be of one mind (Phil.2:2, etc.); they are to grow into the unity of faith (Eph. 3:13), since there is only, under one Lord, one faith and one baptism (v.5). His preaching is not ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ (2 Cor. 1:18), an echo of Jesus’ famous words…Paul insists that his message is identical with that of the other apostles (1 Cor. 15:11); their approval and recognition gave him the assurance that he was not running in vain (Gal. 2:2). In the face of misinterpretations, 2 Peter 3:16 reaffirms this accord. John highlights the three witnesses’ agreement (1 Jn. 5:8), and the Fourth Gospel puts forward the theme of ‘repetition’, not parrot-like indeed, but meeting a concern for identity of substance (Jn. 8:26, 28; 16:13). Discord is a symptom of untruth, as it was in the case of the false witnesses of Jesus’ trial (Mk. 14:56,59). Contradictors are to be refuted (Rom.16:17; Tit.l:9): it could never be done if the standard itself embraced several conflicting theologies. (29-30)

Of course, a number of these readings can be contravened, difficulties could be brought forward, and it could be argued that, well, that’s just a couple of apostles, a Psalmist, and a prophet or two. We, though, are Christians who follow Jesus, not Paulinists who follow Paul.

Well, okay, but what does Jesus say about the issue? While there are any number of directions you could take this, Blocher points to an instructive bit of dialogue in the Gospels–Jesus’ confrontation with Satan in the wilderness:

And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time. (Luke 4:9-13)

Satan attacks Jesus by using Scripture in order to lead him towards disobedience from the Father’s will. So what’s Jesus’ response? The same as it is with the Pharisees and the Sadducees–he quotes Scripture in order to correct a twisted use of Scripture. Blocher expands on this point:

As a matter of fact, the whole logic of our Lord’s appeal to Scripture in argument (and similarly of his apostles’) would instantly collapse if the presupposition of scriptural coherence were taken away. Even against the Tempter, Jesus relies on the internal consistency of his Father’s Word, quoting Scripture to rebuff a twisted use of Scripture. ‘It is written’ would no longer settle an issue if it were conceded that several contradictory views compete with each other on the pages of the Book. The authority of the Word of God would no longer function as it does in Scripture in that case (how could it function at all as supreme?). (30)

Jesus’ response to the Tempter assumes the unity and coherence of Scripture and in this he is followed by his disciples.

Of course, none of this rules out the need for care in applying the of the analogy of faith. There are bad harmonizations. People can be ham-fisted and too quick to assume that John was saying exactly the same thing with his Logos-Christology as Mark when, in fact, Mark is making a slightly different and complementary point about Jesus in the “Son of Man” sayings. Or again, there are ways of trying to harmonize timelines that ignore the nature of biblical history writing which didn’t have the same standards of precision as we do today. Nor should we rush to find the consistencies without careful study, lest we lose the truth in our haste to defend it. The fact that Scripture is coherent and unified does not mean that it is flat and undifferentiated. Respecting that reality may take time, patience, and the vulnerability required to not foreclose interpretive horizons.

Reading with the analogy of faith, the part in light of the whole, means taking seriously the distinctness of each passage within the pattern of the whole, none of which rules out thinking historically, or contextually about them. That’s the kind of reading allows you to recognize, for instance, the different historical situations James and Paul are facing with respect to the issue of faith and works. Or again, we begin to say the way that Paul’s message about the salvation that comes through Jesus the King is not a deviation from Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom, since Paul is writing post-death-and-resurrection. Of course the emphasis is going to shift, even if there’s a proper continuity between the two.

So then, all those who decide to read Scripture in light of Scripture are not simply guilty of historical anachronism, a fear of biblical tensions, or a need for “Cartesian” certainty. They’re simply trying to be faithful to the pattern modeled to them by their Lord.

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

Trophimus I Left Sick (Blocher On Why More Aren’t Healed)

Paul healing DujardinI’ve had occasion to write about the problem of healing, or lack thereof, before on this blog. There are a number of challenges for modern Christians when they read reports of miraculous healing in the Scriptures. First, trained as we are to think in largely physicalist parameters, conceiving the universe as something of a closed continuum, there is our initial skepticism that the miraculous is even possible. Of course, there are formidable arguments against this view, and we appear to be less hostile to the miraculous than we have been in generations past.

And so for many of us, the problem is far different. We admit that if there is an omnipotent God, it’s easily possible for him to heal. The question for us is “why doesn’t he do so as he used to?” We read the New Testament and find a wealth of reports of physical healing on an extraordinary level. The blind gain sight, the lame walk, the deaf hear, and even the dead are raised. And this is not only Jesus in his ministry pulling off fantastic feats like this, but in that of the apostles.

Indeed, so much healing was going on it verges on the ridiculous:

And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them. (Acts 19:11-12)

Paul could blow his nose, drop his handkerchief, and God would use that rag to heal people of diseases and cast out demons. If that’s the case, then why not more? Why does it seem relegated to then and there and not here and now? We’re just as sick as they were in the 1st Century. We know people who would come to believe if they saw someone healed, so why don’t we see more? Is it, as so many faith-healers and their like teach, simply a matter of our weaker faith? Do we remain ill because of our faithlessness?

This last week I had the honor of sitting in a small Q&A discussion with theologian Henri Blocher as he’s in town giving the Kantzer lectures in Revealed Theology at TEDS. His topic his been related to the problem and possibility of evil, so naturally some of our questions turned there. One fellow student asked him just that question. He responded with three general lines of thought, which I’m going to relay in an artificial order and much more poorly than he originally articulated it.

First, he pointed out that we’re often victims of optical distortion when it comes to our reading of the New Testament evidence. While it’s true that there are many instances healing in the early the Church, we often ignore the evidence that points us in the other direction. For instance, while it’s true that Paul had a powerful ministry of healing, we also read him write in his final greetings in his second letter to Timothy that he had “left Trophimus, who was ill, at Miletus” (4:20). Now, if healing was as automatic and plentiful as all that, it seems that Paul–handkerchief healing master–wouldn’t have left his co-worker for the gospel sick, now would he?

Second, Blocher pointed out that, while not restricted to this situation, miraculous signs and wonders seemed to accompany the inbreaking of the gospel into a new mission ground as a sign of its truth. Then, upon the establishment of the Church in that area–miracles may not die out entirely–but Christians themselves, in their holy living, are to be the chief signs of the gospel. Depending on how charismatic you are, you’ll find that one more or less convincing.

Finally, humble and cautious as he tends to be in any area of theologizing that isn’t closely grounded in the text, Blocher reminded us that we are ultimately dealing with the wisdom of our free God. Our God is personal and supremely so–Father, Son, and Spirit–and so he responds to our prayers with the discretion and care of one who can say yes and–at times-no, according to his own good plans. Any theology that expects God to act on command has forgotten that it is dealing, not with a dispensing machine, but with our saving Lord.

We must, for these reasons, be careful about speculating about the faithfulness of our brothers and sisters who pray for healing and yet do not receive it. Nor should we be quick to doubt the infinite goodness, power, and love of our God who has healed us of our most grievous ills–sin and death–by suffering these ills himself, on our behalf, in the man Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria