Why Israel? T.F. Torrance and the Hermeneutics of History

incarnation_large“Why Israel?”

There are a number of angles from which we could ask this question. Why would God choose this nation among all the nations? Indeed, why should God choose any nation at all? That’s the question that’s often been termed the “scandal of particularity.” Western thinkers have often been offended that the salvation of the universe brought about by the God of the whole cosmos is given to us through specific, historical acts at a particular time and place. It all seems so narrow.

Push deeper and you’ll see there’s another question: “Why history?” Why should God waste all that time? Why thousands of years of slow interaction with the patriarchs, kings, and prophets of Israel? Why concern himself with the blood, sweat, and tears poured out in Ancient Canaan? Why should salvation come this way? And even more, why should we be concerned with such things? Now that Jesus has come and a universal salvation has come to humanity, why must we be bothered about such things?

T.F. Torrance tackles the subject towards the beginning of his landmark volume Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ. (Yes, for those wondering, I’ve finally managed to get around to Torrance). One of the elements that clearly marks his theology of the Incarnation is just how hermeneutical you have to be, in order to grasp it. This is so in at least two ways. First, the Incarnation is a hermeneutical event in that the Word of God comes revealing God to us. Jesus is the exegesis of the Triune God (John 1:17).

Second, and this is where we return to Israel, it’s that we must understand the interpretive Word of God against it’s proper pre-history, the election of Israel (37, 40-41). As Torrance notes, “if you are to understand something you must have the conceptual tools with which to grasp it and shape the knowledge of your mind” (41). But how do you go about acquiring the right conceptual tools to grasp the infinite God? You can’t do it of your own effort, could you? No, God himself would have to provide them to you. And that’s exactly what he has done in the election of Israel to himself as a people .

Torrance essentially argues that the history of Israel–all of its centuries-long struggle with grace, rebellion, resistance, slavery and redemption, exile and judgment, cultus and worship, prophecy and song–all forms the necessary interpretive background for understanding the person and work of Jesus. God’s election, patience, grace, love, and judgment of Israel are (among other things), his way of furnishing his people with the proper conceptual tools for understanding the coming of the Son into the world. This is part of what it means for the Son to come “in the fullness of time” (Galatians 4).

Why Israel? Because without Israel, we could not know mighty work of God in Christ. Torrance sums up the point in this magnificent paragraph:

Thus the knowledge of God, of Christ, and of the Jews are all boundup inseparably together, so that when at last God came into the world he came as a Jew. And to this very day Jesus remains a Jew while still the eternal Son of God. It is still through the story of Israel, through the Jewish soul shaped by the hand of God, through the Jewish Scriptures of the Old Testament and the Jewish Scriptures of the New Testament church, that the gospel comes to us, and that Jesus Christ is set before us face to face as Lord and saviour.

Apart from this Old Testament prehistory and all the biblical revelation through Israel, we would not have the tools to grasp the knowledge of God: apart from the long history of the Jews we would not be able to recognize Jesus as the Son of God’ apart from the suffering and agony of Israel we would not understand the cross of Calvary as God’s instrument to atone for sin and to enact once and for all his word of love and pardon and grace. Apart from the covenant forged in sheer grace with undeserving and rebellious Israel, and the unswerving faithfulness of the divine love, we would not be able to understand the mystery of our restoration to union with God in Jesus Christ. Apart from the context of Israel we would not even begin to understand the bewildering miracle of Jesus.

The supreme instrument of God for the salvation of the world is Israel, and out of the womb of Israel, Jesus, the Jew from Nazareth — yet he was no mere instrument in the hands of God, but very God himself, come in person in the form of a servant, to work out from within our limitations and recalcitrance, and to bring to its triumphant completion, the redemption of mankind, and our restoration to fellowship with the very life of God himself. (43-44)

While a number of answers could be given to the question, “Why Israel?” and “Why History?”, Torrance points us to the very important hermeneutical one: without them we could not have the saving knowledge of God that we needed.

This is just one of the many reasons Marcionism and all those theologies that would belittle or leave behind the Old Testament are so damnably dangerous. Christ comes clothed in the gospel, as Calvin says, and the textiles and prints are drawn from the history of God’s dealings with Israel. When we strip Christ of these glorious garments, we inevitably clothe him in the idolatrous, conceptual patterns of our own making, robbing ourselves of the truth of God come in Christ.

In a sense, Torrance reminds us that understanding takes time. And so God accommodates himself to us by coming in Christ as the culmination of Israel’s very specific history. And this too is grace.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Language For God in Patristic Thought by Mark Sheridan

patristicStudying Christian history, it’s funny to see the way certain verses take on out-sized significance for how the Bible is read and the faith is interpreted in the tradition. For instance, Etienne Gilson has traced the way a certain “metaphysics of the Exodus” developed around the declaration of the LORD, “I AM who I AM” (Exod. 3:14).

In his study of Language for God in Patristic Tradition:Wrestling with Biblical Anthropomorphism, Mark Sheridan shows that the verse, “God is not as man to be deceived nor as the son of man to be threatened” (Numbers 23:19) and an early (mis)rendering Deuteronomy 1:31 (“As a man takes on the manners of his son”) were two of the key texts that shaped and gave rise to ancient Christian methods of interpreting Scripture. Following the tradition of Philo of Alexandria and others, the Fathers had an explicitly theological method for reading Scripture, especially as it pertained to speaking of the ways and works of God in human language in ways “appropriate” and “fitting” to the divine being. This especially concerned the ascription to God of things like human hands, feet, physical activity (anthropomorphism) as well as human emotions like delight, surprise, repentance, or even anger (anthropopathism), which were particularly problematic for the Fathers.

Sheridan traces the various Scriptural and philosophical intuitions shaping the Fathers of the early Church from essentially three sources: Greco-Roman reading strategies, Hellenistic Jewish appropriations, and finally, the New Testament texts themselves.  First comes the strategy of allegorical interpretations developed by the Hellenistic exegetes in order to save texts like Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey from the moral critiques of the philosophers like Xenophanes, who took aim at the questionable morals and oh-so-human depictions of the gods in such works. Hellenistic Jews like Philo redeployed them in order to read the Old Testament narratives and Law for apologetic and edificatory purposes. Later on, seeing warrant in Pauline and New Testament allegorical and typological readings of the Old Testament, the Fathers drew on the Philonic tradition in order to aid them in their own Christological and moral readings of Scripture.

Having established this groundwork, Sheridan examines the way the Fathers treated key problem texts such as the creation narratives, patriarchal misconduct, or even the Divine command in the Conquest of the Holy Land. He also devotes a lengthy chapter to patristic interpretation of the Psalms, both for their anthropopathic and anthropomorphic language, as well as their morally compromising character in the imprecatory language. Finally, he ends with some comparisons between modern and ancient strategies for reading Scripture, and a very helpful, summary appendix on the theological structures and presuppositions to patristic interpretation. In a sense, it sort of sums up the work as a whole.

First of all, some positives. The book is clean, clear, and well-researched. Sheridan’s obviously an expert and he’s done a marvelous job setting out his theses from the primary sources, focusing on some of the key patristic figures such as Chrysostom, Augustine, and especially Origen. Second, his commentary is uncluttered, to the point, and informative. Next, Sheridan’s great at not simply focusing on the shape of the reading strategies, nor simply doing history for antiquarian interest. He cuts to the heart of the theological issues involved by returning to the question that concerned the Fathers which still concerns us today: what are we to say about God in light of the Scriptures? What is fitting to ascribe to him? These are not easy questions to answer but Sheridan helpfully makes available patristic perspectives that could prove fruitful for current generations to adopt, redeploy, or at least consider as they do their own wrestling with the text, as every generation must do afresh.

On the negative side, I had a couple complaints. First, I found it a bit odd that while the Fathers’ concern with how to treat ascriptions of anger or violence to the Godhead seems to be a special concern, there is no treatment of one of the clearest texts on the matter, Lactantius’ De Ira Dei (On the Anger of God). You can’t treat everything, but that text also might undermine the fairly consistent portrait of the Fathers’ handling of the issue. Second, Sheridan’s own theological interests come out towards the end chapters comparing Ancient and Modern strategies for reading the Bible, especially with respect to texts like the moral failures of the patriarchal narratives, or the conquest narratives, judgment, and so forth. He’s fairly critical of the modern, “literalist” approaches, clearly favoring ancient and, to be honest, rather moralizing interpretations. That said, he gives a fairly thin theological argument in favor of his preference beyond descriptively and unsympathetically explaining modern approaches and saying something like, “that doesn’t seem like enough does it?” Rarely does he theologically argue against modern concern for issues of historicity, sensitivity to genre, and so forth.

In general, though, I came away both more appreciative and critical of the Fathers’ interpretive efforts. Their theological concerns are not always our theological concerns, nor are their prejudices our prejudices. When reading Genesis, we’re not typically afraid that our hearers will think God has actual, physical hands he’s shaping Adam with. We’re worried about evolution and science, while the Fathers were worried about a fall back into the mythology their hearers had just come from, and so rightly aim to highlight God’s distinction from the gods they knew. This is corrective and instructive. Popular preaching in many churches isn’t as concerned as it might be that people draw the wrong impression from the anthropopathic portrayals of God’s ways with us. We fail to consider what it means that “God is not a man.” What’s more, for those interested in Christ-centered preaching, some of the Christological readings Sheridan draws our attention to are simply fantastic. Chrysostom, in particular, comes out shining like a star. Origen, as well, rose in my admittedly prejudiced estimation.

All the same, though I’m quite allergic to modernist, chronological snobbery, I simultaneously came away more appreciative of some of the advances of in modern hermeneutics by comparison. We simply can’t do the same kind etymological theology that was common at the time. Taking seriously historical context, comparative religious backgrounds, and more sober philological work has curbed our tendency to seek out “hidden meanings” often divorced from the literal sense of the text (which not all Fathers did!). And this is a good thing. I don’t think turning the story of Hagar and Sarah into an allegory of moving from the study of logic and rhetoric to the deeper study of philosophy is an adequate reading of the text, as some of the Fathers did. Nor, for all their problems, do I think turning the conquest narratives into a treatment of the conquest of the vices of the soul a reading that respects the texts as the historical narratives as they were given to us.

In sum, the Fathers were careful, sensitive, educated, and time-bound interpreters of Scripture, whose readings and ways of reading are worth our time and attention. They are our spiritual and theological Fathers worthy of our respect, consideration, and apprenticeship, though not our slavish imitation.

Soli Deo Gloria

Liberalism, “Hermeneutics”, and Interpretive Solipsism

hermeneuticsRecently, Richard Beck wrote a post about the practice of Sola Scriptura, reading with a hermeneutic, and our emotional awareness of the process. He notes that everybody reads with a hermeneutic, a set of intepretive principles, biases, and presuppositions that guide our understanding of Scripture. For Beck, though, the mark of a fundamentalist is that they alone believe they don’t have a hermeneutic, even when they do. This is why it’s a fundamentalist move to say something like, “Well, the Bible clearly says”, or “I’m just reading the text, here”–as if things were really that simple. Beck says that this signals a striking lack of self-awareness.

For example, saying something like “this is the clear teaching of Scripture” is similar to saying “I’m not a racist.” Self-aware people would never say either one of those things.

Self-aware people would say things like “I don’t want to be a racist” or “I try not to be racist” or “I condemn racism.” But they would never say “I’m not a racist” because self-aware people know that they have blind spots. Self-aware people know they have unconscious baggage that is hard to notice or overcome.

And it’s the same with how self-aware people approach reading the bible. Self-aware people know that they are trying to read the bible in an unbiased fashion. Self-aware people work hard to let the bible speak clearly and it its own voice. But self-aware people know they have blind spots. They know that there is unconscious baggage affecting how they are reading the bible, baggage that they know must be biasing their readings and conclusions. Consequently, self-aware people would never, ever say “this is the clear teaching of Scripture.” Just like they’d never claim to be unbiased in any other area of life, racism being just one example.

I have to say, he’s got a point. I’ve seen this happen. Many fundamentalists operate as if they don’t have a hermeneutic and it’s naive and unhelpful, precisely because we want to be subservient to the Word of God, not our own blinders.What’s more, as a couple of my progressive friends noted, this sort of fundamentalism isn’t restricted to conservatives. There can be progressive “fundamentalisms” with a similar lack of self-awareness in reading the Scriptures.

That said, I did want to register a few comments, that, while not entirely contradictory, may offer some nuance.

First, the statement “the Bible clearly says…” may have more than one reference point. In other words, I think Beck has put it a bit strongly when he contends than no self-aware reader of Scripture would ever say, “The clear teaching of Scripture is…” or some statement along those lines. I suppose my question is, after study, after prayer, after wrestling, what should they say?

“The Scriptures unclearly say…” Well, obviously nobody wants to be stuck with that.

“My hermeneutic leads me to believe that…” That might seem initially more honest, but the problem is that we’re now in the position where it seems the hermeneutic, not the Scriptures are doing all the work. More on that later.

Instead, it seems entirely possible that someone who is quite aware of their perspective, hermeneutic, and so forth, might read, study, struggle, and arrive at the conclusion that, “The Scriptures clearly say…” To deny that possibility is to bind God’s capabilities as a speaker to our capabilities as interpreters and hearers. It’s to restrict our doctrine of revelation within the confines of our anthropology, rather than our theology.

In other words, for some, the statement “The Scriptures clearly say…” is uttered, not so much in relation to our abilities as a reader, or our lack of hermeneutic, but a statement about God’s ability as a speaker. In acknowledging finitude, sin, and the need for interpretive humility, we need to take care not to chain the Word of the Lord our God with human fetters.

Second, as a friend noted online, there’s a bit of fuzziness as to what we mean by “a hermeneutic.” For some, having a hermeneutic means something along the lines of “proper principles of interpretation” like considering grammar, historical context, literary principles, and so forth. For others, it’s a bit thicker, including theological presuppositions about the nature of the text and what it says. And, for some, it’s about the unavoidable ideological tilt and finitude we bring to our reading of the text. In other words, there are “hermeneutics” as clarifying lens helping us engage the text, and for others, it speaks more of the unavoidable distance and subjectivity of our encounter with it. It’s not entirely clear which Beck means in this post.

Which leads me to my third comment. Earlier this week, I joked online that, if Beck is right and a fundamentalist is someone who believes they don’t have a hermeneutic, then a Liberal is someone who only has a hermeneutic. In other words, there’s a danger to interpretation in both directions.

Opposite Beck’s fundamentalist, it’s possible to end up with the sort of self-absorbed, interpretive, solipsist who thinks it’s interpretation and “hermeneutics” all the way down, with no actual encounter with the sort of Text, or Voice, or Word, that can break through the fog. We run the risk of thinking all we can ever speak of is our differing hermeneutics and not the Text we’re both trying to read. We’re “self-aware” to the point that all we’re aware of is our Self, or Social Location, or Gender, or Community. At that point, our interpretive discussions just become a form of philosophy with Scriptural vocabulary.

I’ll close by quoting one of my favorite passages from Vanhoozer, which, while not exactly speaking to hermeneutics but God-talk more generally, charts a helpful middle-course:

Those who would be honest to God must strive to avoid both pride and sloth in their God-talk. Theological pride overestimates the adequacy of human language and thought; theological sloth underestimates the importance of responding to the provocations of God’s self-revelation. The one goes before destruction; the other pre-empts instruction. Yet it is hard to miss the recurring biblical theme that God wills to communicate and make himself known: “The word of the Lord came to . . .”; “the Lord said . . .”. Theology is ultimately irresponsible if it fails either to attend to what God says or to think about the nature of the one who addresses us.

–Kevin Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship, pg. xvi

Soli Deo Gloria 

Reading with the Principle of Charity in the Republic of Language

charityReading is an activity which, common as it is, requires some reflection to be done well. This is especially the case when dealing with reading arguments in difficult or possibly indeterminate texts. While many technical principles can be developed in connection with various kinds of texts in different genres, some principles can be seen to apply across genres, especially since they concern the morality of reading texts.

Many of us haven’t stopped to consider reading as a moral act, but it is deeply so. Reading is a communicative act involving author(s), text(s), and reader(s). While I can’t delve deeply into it, one helpful image from (surprise, surprise) Vanhoozer is that of being a “citizen” of language. Language is our common realm, the kingdom, the republic within which we live and move and having our social being. As such, there are rights and responsibilities within it for both speakers and hearers, in order that we do justice to one another as fellow citizens. Once the image is in place, it’s fairly intuitive to begin filling it in.

In his recent work Reading Barth with Charity: A Hermeneutical Proposal (pp. xii-xiii), George Hunsinger draws our attention to the recent appeal to one such principle, the “principle of charity”, in reading texts in recent analytic philosophy. Hunsinger says there’s no single, definitive account of it, but he helpfully summarizes the main lines of it for us:

  • The principle of charity seeks to understand a point of view in its strongest form before subjecting it to criticism. A suspension of one’s own beliefs may be required in order to attain a sympathetic understanding.
  • One assumes for the moment that the ideas under consideration, regardless of how difficult they may seem, are both true and internally coherent. The emphasis falls on seeking to understand the texts as they stand rather than on picking out difficulties or contradictions.
  • If apparent contradictions are found, an active attempt is made to resolve them. Donald Davidson has suggested, for example, that the principle of charity means attempting to maximize sense and optimize agreement when it comes to doubts about the inner coherence or factual veracity of the viewpoint under consideration.
  • If it is possible to resolve apparent contradictions (or ambiguities) through a sympathetic interpretation, a presumption exists in favor of that interpretation. A presumption exists by the same token against any interpretation that resorts to the charge of inconsistency without attempting to resolve apparent contradictions.
  • Only if no successful interpretation can be found is one entitled to conclude that a viewpoint is inconsistent or false. Critique is always possible but only after an adequate effort has been made for an interpretation that does not call a viewpoint’s truth or coherence into question precipitously.,
  • The attempt to maximize intelligibility through the resolution of apparent contradictions is related to a corollary, which is called “the principle of humanity.” As Daniel Dennett explains, one should attribute to the person whose views one is considering “the propositional attitudes one supposes one would have oneself in those circumstances.”

That about sums up what I’ve seen of the principle, especially in analytic discussions. This is true both in philosophy and theology. I can recall a number of sections in Alvin Plantinga’s work where he’ll consider an opponent’s position in two or three possible forms, at times even strengthening their arguments, before going on to refute them nonetheless. This principle can also be seen Oliver Crisp’s habit–which has proved confusing to some–of considering and strengthening a number of positions he doesn’t actually hold.

For myself, I think there’s something deeply Christian and honest about the principle of charity. It’s a form of Christian virtue; an exercise in loving your neighbor as yourself within the republic of language. We would want others to extend to us the benefit of the doubt, strenuously work through our arguments, and imaginatively attempt to enter into our concerns and intuitions in order to come to understand why we’ve come to hold what we hold. This is an angle on what Matthew Lee Anderson has called “intellectual empathy.”

What’s more, considering arguments in this manner can help clarify the actual issues at stake in a given conversation. Doing your interlocutor the favor trying your best to make sense of their position means that when you do actually get around to arguing against it, it can only be that much stronger of an argument. Or, it may be that it’s only then you see the person actually has a solid point!

That said, a friend of mine has also argued it’s important that this principle be weighed or balanced against the principle of accuracy. In the picture above, there is a danger that in your attempt to actually be charitable, you end up inadvertently misrepresenting your opponent anyways. Due to your own unavoidable intuitions, it may be you end up saying, “Well, they couldn’t possibly mean that, because that doesn’t make sense,” when, in fact, that’s exactly the position they do hold. Sometimes the benefit of the doubt becomes dubious. And that is a case where, despite your charitable intentions, the truth is not actually served.

All the same, I know for myself, consciously striving to be charitable in my pursuit of accuracy curbs my natural tendency to read with my own blinders on. In other words, striving for charity slows me down enough to achieve accuracy. Of course, I struggle and fail–quite spectacularly, at times. Yet I would propose that principles of moral interpretation such as that of charity have become all the more pressing to adopt and practice as our internet age has pressed even more of our communication to be textually-mediated. We are constantly reading, interpreting, and engaging with the texts of other authors, other citizens of language like ourselves. If we fail to practice charity in interpretation, one of our most socially and morally formative practices, it can’t help but bleed out into other areas of our thought and life.

So then, to wrap up another post that’s gone far longer than I had intended, practice charity in all your reading. Beginning with this post.

Soli Deo Gloria

7 Rules for Reading and Explaining the 10 Commandments

Heston, bro. 'Nuff said.

Heston, bro. ‘Nuff said.

It’s odd to think that you need rules for reading rules, but according to Francis Turretin, it’s a must. It’s really just good hermeneutics. Since each type of biblical literature needs to be approached on its own terms as well as within the broader scope the story of Scripture and theology in general, it makes sense to put up some guard-rails in order to protect against distortion, perversion, and neglect. This is especially the case when it comes to the Law of God. I mean, think about Jesus’ encounters in the Gospels–what were most of his conflicts about? The interpretation and application of the Law. “Who is my neighbor?”, or “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment?” At the heart of life as a member of the people of God, is understanding what to do with the Law. This isn’t about legalism, but simply asking the question, “What does loving God look like when Jesus says, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’ (John 14:15)?”

That’s probably why in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology Turretin has a topic subdivision dedicated to the subject lasting a solid 170 pages. Indeed, one of the subsections (Vol 2, Topic 11, Q. VI) is dedicated to outlining seven rules that need to be observed preachers, theologians, and teachers of the Scriptures in order to properly explain and apply the full meaning of each of the Ten Commandments.

So what are the rules for the rules?

1. Inside Out. First, we have to remember that “the law is spiritual, respecting not only the external acts of the body, but the internal motions of the mind.” In other words, mere outward obedience isn’t all that’s required. Jesus told us that adultery wasn’t only a matter of keeping your pants on, but of guarding your eyes and your heart from lust, and murder is something you can do with a word as well as a knife (Matt. 5:22-28). True obedience flows from the motives of the heart; this is the deeper righteousness than the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law could muster.

2. “Thou Shalt Not” Also Means “Thou Shalt.” Second, “in affirmative precepts, negative, and in negative, affirmative are contained.” In other words, when the Bible says, “do this” there’s an implied “don’t do that”, and vice versa. So, when the Bible commands us not to be thieves, Luther, in his catechism said that it is also commending generosity and living with an open hand. Or again, Turretin says that the command not to kill means we ought to also “cherish our neighbor’s life in every way we can”, because God “wishes his life to be dear and precious to us.” Having no other God’s but the Lord alone, also invites and enjoins us to truly worship the Lord. As my old pastor used to put it, every “thou shalt not”, has a “thou shalt” alongside it.

3. A Head For a Whole. Third, “in all the precepts synecdoche is to be acknowledged.” A synecdoche is a figure of speech where one piece of something stands for the whole. In other words, the command forbidding one sin, actually is a stand-in for the class of sins of which it is a part. This is another way of looking at the deepening of the Law we see in Jesus’ commands to look at our heart motives. Also, you begin to see that in the rest of the OT law, much of the commands about property are just an expansion of the original command not to steal, or covet. The command against adultery rules out a variety of sexual sins, and so forth.

4. More of the Same. Fourth, connected to that last is that “in the effect, the cause in the genus, the species, in the related, the correlative is included.” This is complicated at first glance, but essentially he means that anything it takes to fulfill a law is also included in the law. So, if chastity is included in your avoidance of adultery, so is your moderation in eating habits which teach you to exercise self-control overall. Or, if children are commanded to honor their parents, parents are also commanded to instruct their children with care, in the Lord, and in loving-kindness. Even more, if you’ve paid attention to any catechisms, usually the command to honor parents is seen as the foundation for respecting the authority of magistrates, judges, and so forth. The same principle underlies both.

5. First Things First. Fifth, “the precepts of the first table take preference over those of the second.” Most Reformed divide the 10 Commandments into two tables, counting the first four commandments as being concerned more directly with the worship of God, and the second set of six being aimed at our responsibilities to our neighbor. With this in mind, when there’s a conflict, we give the first section priority: God comes first. We honor God’s Name over our parents, or the magistrate, if the choice ever comes up. Turretin sees this as flowing from Jesus’ own words when he says our love for mother and father must seem like hate compared to our devotion to him (Lk. 14:26). Or again, moral worship is more important than ceremonial worship because “God desires mercy not sacrifice” (Hos. 6:6).

6. Always Sometimes. Sixth, Turretin tells us that “some precepts are affirmative” (meaning they’re telling us to complete something) and “others negative” (telling us to avoid something), “the former bind always, but not to always, the latter always to always.” What that oddly-phrased principle means is that, even though the positive commands and duties are always in force, you can’t always be currently acting on them. I can’t honor my parents concretely when they’re not around, or give to the poor when I’m driving through a rich neighborhood. That said, I’m always supposed to avoid theft, murder, and so forth. The only command he makes an exception for is Loving God–you can do that wherever and whenever.

7. Above All, Love. Seventh, and finally, Turretin says “the beginning and end of all the precepts is love.” This is his lengthiest and most comprehensive rule. Love is the “end” and the “fulfilling” of the law (1 Tim. 1:5; Rom. 13:10).

Love discharges all the claims of God’s beneficence and of man’s obedience. As all God’s blessings flow form love and are contained in it, so all man’s duties are included in love. The love of God is the fullness of the gospel; the love of man is the fullness of the law. God is love and the mark of the sons of God is none other than love (John. 13:35).

By identifying the two greatest commands, Jesus shows us that love has a “two-fold” object, both God and humanity. As we already saw, the love of God comes first because God must always come first, from which flows the love of humanity. But what do those two commands imply? Why is the first, the “greatest command”, and how is the command to love our neighbor “like it”?

Well, the first is the “greatest command” for three reasons:

  • It has the greatest object, God.
  • It demands the most from us; body, soul, strength, and mind are to be attuned to loving God at all times.
  • It is comprehensive. There isn’t a single action in our life that isn’t directed towards the love of God.

The second is like it, not in terms of importance, but in other senses:

  • It is like it because both loving God and neighbor requires purity of heart.
  • It has the same authority as commanded by God and tending towards his glory.
  • It has the same punishment, as violating both commands leads to death.
  • They are dependent on one another. You can’t love God and hate your brother, and vice versa (1 John 4:20).

So end Turretin’s rules for reading, interpreting, and teaching the 10 Commandments. He goes on, of course, to give four more rules for how to properly obey the commands, but that might be a post for another day.

Before closing, a final observation is in order. Turretin may seem to be repeating the error of the Pharisees in seeming to add laws on top of laws and rules for avoiding the rules. In fact, that’s precisely what he’s trying to avoid in many cases. Not only does he have a section devoted to arguing against addition commands, if you see what he’s doing, in most of these sections he’s simply trying to apply Jesus’ principles to the reading of the Law. For Turretin, Jesus gives us the truest, deepest meaning of the laws God gave. He restores the laws from their false, burdensome interpretations, and reminds us of their deep rooting in the benevolence of God, who gave wise laws to his people in order to lead them down the path of life.

Why should we, as disciples, not learn from our Master? That’s what Turretin did and it’s what he invites us to do.

Soli Deo Gloria

Retribution in the Sermon on the Mount? (Or, the Jesus You Find At the Bottom of a Well)

JJesus and the crowds.D. Crossan has apparently written a book about How to Read the Bible and Remain a Christian. In light of the obvious, almost trite, irony of a man whose rejection of basic Christian orthodoxy extends to even a denial of the resurrection of Christ, attempting to tell people how to remain Christians, one must wonder what the point of engaging such a work with seriousness. Well, the reality is that he’s taking up one of the most recent causes du jour, which we’ve had reason to deal with on this blog on a regular basis: the problem of reconciling violence in the Scriptures with the allegedly non-violent God revealed in the preaching and person of Jesus.

Now, I’ll be honest, I haven’t read the text, but I have read his earlier God and Empire text, and from what it looks like, Crossan’s working with much the same presuppositions, with less of a focus on America-as-Rome narrative, but cashing out a more general thesis about Scripture and violence. Collin Garbarino has an excellent review of the work over at First Things. He quotes Crossan’s main thesis:

Throughout the biblical story, from Genesis to Revelation, every radical challenge from the biblical God is both asserted and then subverted by its receiving communities—be they earliest Israelites or latest Christians. That pattern of assertion-and-subversion, that rhythm of expansion-and-contraction, is like the systole- and diastole cycle of the human heart.

In other words, the heartbeat of the Christian Bible is a recurrent cardiac cycle in which the asserted radicality of God’s nonviolent distributive justice is subverted by the normalcy of civilization’s violent retributive justice. And, of course, the most profound annulment is that both assertion and subversion are attributed to the same God or the same Christ.

For Crossan, the Bible needs to be read in light of Jesus, but not the Jesus of Revelation, or anything like that, but the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount given in the Gospels. Garbarino quotes him again:

This biblical patterning of yes-and-no justifies my choice of the nonviolent Jesus of the Incarnation over the violent Jesus of the Apocalypse as the true Jesus. Put simply, the nonviolent Jesus is the Christian Bible’s assertion, acceptance, and affirmation of the radicality of God while the violent Jesus is its corresponding subversion, rejection, and negation in favor of the normalcy of civilization.

What we see here is another variation, albeit a bit more radical, of some of the Jesus Tea-strainer hermeneutic.

In an oversimplified nutshell, for many, the arrival of Jesus, his preaching in the Sermon the Mount, his rejection of retaliation against enemies, his message of forgiveness, love, and open-armed reconciliation leads to a clear conclusion: Jesus rejected wholesale the logic of justice as retribution, or any component which contains violence. “Mercy over justice”, if you will. If that’s the case, then we must read the Scriptures as presenting us with two logics: a retributive, violent logic present in Deuteronomy, the Law, OT narratives, and Paul’s more unreconstructed moments, and a prophetic, non-retributive logic given to us in the prophets and ultimately in Jesus that overcomes retribution. God simply is not like that. Now go reorganize your atonement theology, doctrine of God, and revelation accordingly.

I bring all this up because I found his response to this sort of thing so helpful and compelling. With apologies to First Things, I’ll go ahead and quote it at length:

It seems to me that Crossan will need to cut the Sermon on the Mount down to just a few sentences bereft of context if he wants to maintain a Jesus who is primarily concerned with everyone getting their fair share. When read in context (that’s something we historians do), the Sermon on the Mount contains quite a bit of retributive justice.

The Sermon on the Mount is found in Matthew’s Gospel, the Gospel that condemns the Jews for their inability to see Jesus for who he was. At the beginning of the Gospel, Matthew juxtaposes the king of the Jews with the gentile magi, a comparison which doesn’t leave the Jewish king looking too good. At the end of the Gospel, Matthew records the people of Jerusalem shouting, “His blood be on us and on our children!” The Sermon on the Mount is an integral part of Matthew’s argument that the Jews missed their Messiah, not some parenthetical aside that somehow managed to slip into an otherwise tightly constructed theological narrative.

At the beginning of the Gospel, Matthew presents Jesus as being the fulfillment of the promises to Israel. Just as Israel experienced exile in Egypt, baptism in the Red Sea, and wandering in the wilderness, Matthew depicts Jesus as experiencing exile in Egypt, followed by baptism in the Jordan, followed by wandering in the wilderness.

Which brings us to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Jesus, like Moses before him, goes up on the mount to deliver a new law to the people. Crossan imagines that it’s here we see God’s distributive justice, “God’s radical dream for an earth distributed fairly and nonviolently among all its people.”

In Crossan’s defense, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount sounds warm and fuzzy. In the Beatitudes, Jesus announces that those who mourn will be comforted and that the meek will inherit the earth. It seems to me, however, that Jesus demonstrates good homiletic technique—hook the audience and then let them have it. Jesus moves swiftly from comforting his audience to causing great discomfort.

After pronouncing blessings on all of the good people, Jesus says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Wait a second—didn’t he just say that the poor in spirit receive the kingdom of heaven? So the poor in spirit must be more righteous than the Pharisees, the guys who were experts on the Law? The audience would do well to consider whether Jesus thinks them poor in spirit.

Then he says that we’re going to hell if we’re angry. And he also says that we’re going to hell if we’ve ever looked on a woman with lust. And then he says that we can’t defend ourselves from our enemies.

And then Jesus says, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

This talk of hell is pretty heavy stuff. Jesus’s law is heavier than the Law of Moses, and if you don’t follow his law perfectly, he says you stand condemned. Perhaps Jesus was referring to himself in those Beatitudes, not his hearers. After all, neither the prophets nor the Romans ever called the Jewish people “peacemakers.”

Here’s the frustrating part about this. There’s no real winning with this kind of hermeneutic, no matter how many texts you pile up.

One really can’t argue with Crossan, however, because his methodology ensures that he’s always right. If one brings up some contrary evidence to his thesis, he’ll just apply his editorial pen more liberally and label that bit of Jesus inauthentic. This isn’t how one ought to read the Bible if one wants to stay Christian.

The same thing is true with (some) other versions of Tea-Strainer hermeneutic. Produce yet another text in the Old Testament or Paul, or whoever, and it’s often simply a text that needs to be overcome, or subverted, or read backwards, sideways, or in a code we finally cracked in the 1970s.

Here’s the problem, though: either you take Matthew’s presentation as the proper context for reading Jesus’s words as Garbarino does, or you’re left with a very awkward operation of reading the words of Jesus as given to us by Matthew against Matthew. This puts us in the rather intellectually unenviable position of having to assert that Matthew is a somewhat reliable witness to the historical Jesus in many cases, but that he’s a rather poor one in others, or simply an inept theologian. It seems that he, as a disciple, or the disciples from whom he gleaned these stories, words, and theological interpretations didn’t understand Jesus quite as well as we do now. Reading at a 2,000-year remove in the 21st century, we’re finally piecing together the real, true, deep intentions of Jesus, using hermeneutical presuppositions given to us through the witness of the text, despite the text, that his disciples who authored the text have missed somehow.

Or again, I’ve made this same point with the accounts of God striking down Ananias and Sapphira as well as the Tetrarch Herod in judgment in the book of Acts. In the text, the author clearly identifies God or God via an angel, as ordering the very retributive judgment. Now, the thing to remember is that this is the same author as the Gospel of Luke, who gives us a fair amount of the picture of Jesus who tells us to forgo vengeance, love our enemies, and so forth. Either we’re to believe that Luke, or whoever you think wrote it, didn’t see the very clear contradiction, or maybe we should allow Jesus, and the Bible, to have a far more complex, yet unified message than that.

This, of course, is just a rehash of the old historical-critical Jesus Seminar problem. First, you take a statement or two from the Gospels that you label “The sorts of thing we know Jesus could say”, whether because it’s different enough from the kinds of things later disciples said, or its similar to the particular political movement you’ve chosen to set Jesus against, (or it fits with your 1970s-style political socialism) something like that. Then, you measure all the rest of the statements against it, usually pressing for strict dichotomies in order to rule out “the sorts of things we know Jesus couldn’t say”, or “the sorts of things we’re not quite as sure about.” At the end, you get the classic problem of historians staring down the well of history to find the Jesus behind the Gospels, only to end up seeing a Jesus who looks very much like a bearded, 1st Century version of themselves looking back up at them.

The same sort of logic is at work in a number of the Tea-strainer hermeneutics. Attempts to split Jesus off from the “retributive logic” found in Scripture inevitably leads to accusing the New Testament authors of a schizophrenic presentation of Jesus himself, or with the inconsistent attempt to uphold the Jesus of the Gospels, without actually upholding the Gospels. With Crossan, a bona fide historical critic, you at least get the benefit of an explicit acknowledgement of what’s going on.

Soli Deo Gloria

What’s So Great About Vanhoozer? (Engaging KJV Part 1)

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

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

When it comes contemporary systematic theology Kevin J. Vanhoozer is the man. I think I’ve said something like this before, but The Drama of Doctrine single-handedly saved my theology of Scripture when I was in my semi-emerging phase. His recent work Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship is probably the most important text engaging the doctrine of God and first theology (the confluence of God, scripture, and hermeneutics) that’s come out in the last 10 years. (I’ve summarized Vanhoozer’s summary of what that’s about here.) At least, in my admittedly unqualified opinion.

Imagine my excitement, then, when I got my hands on Southeastern Theological Review‘s volume for Summer 2013, which is dedicated entirely to interacting with Remythologizing. The volume is based on an ETS symposium dedicated to the subject, consisting mainly of four critical essays by Stephen Wellum, Oliver Crisp, and Fred Sanders and is capped off by a final response article by Vanhoozer himself. I’ve been waiting to read some constructive engagement with his work, but since the book is relatively new (only a couple of years old), and has been prohibitively priced (until now), there hasn’t been much.

I’ll just say that for those interested in an introduction to Vanhoozer’s project, or further discussion of the important issues involved, these are excellent essays from top scholars. Vanhoozer’s piece alone is worth the price. In order to encourage readers to either pick up the book, or follow up with the essays, over the next few weeks, I’ll write one post addressing each of the respective essays, probably picking out a key passage framing a critical issue, as well as sections from Vanhoozer’s own response.

What’s So Great About Vanhoozer? For this first week, though, I’d like to summarize a small section from Guest Editor Mark Bowalds’ introductory piece “A Generous Reformer: Kevin Vanhoozer’s Place in Evangelicalism.” Using an early piece in the Vanhoozer corpus, Bowald highlights four key features of Vanhoozer’s theological practice that make him necessary reading for those interested the future of Evangelical theology.

1. “First among these characteristics is his commitment to affirm and promote that quintessential feature of evangelical theology: the unrivalled authority of Scripture and the appropriate and fitting practices of its reading.” (pg. 3) Though nuanced, complex, and catholic (in the best sense), Vanhoozer’s theology unquestionably Evangelical, especially in its orientation to, and robust affirmation of the authority of Scripture. Indeed, anyone who has trucked through Is There a Meaning in This Text?, First Theology, or The Drama of Doctrine has seen his passion for, not only the authority of Scripture in the abstract, but it’s lived practice. For Vanhoozer, theology is not only scientia, but also sapientia, a lived out wisdom that gives the life of the Church its particular form. Scripture is not properly read until it is performed by a company of disciples steeped in the Theo-Drama of the Gospel.

2. “The second feature on display early on is his fearless and insatiable appetite to explore and read broadly and engage positively with diverse traditions and authors.” (pg. 4) Among the many accolades his books could (and have) been awarded with, Vanhoozer’s could probably qualify for that of most interesting bibliographies. For instance, in The Drama of Doctrine, alongside the theological titles of expected theologians (Calvin, McGrath, Webster, Barth, Von Balthasar), you’ll find Jeffrey Knapp’s study Shakespeare’s Tribe: Church, Nation, and Theater in Renaissance England and Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares. Beyond that, you’ll find these works seamlessly blended with the insights of philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Gadamer, Riceour, Searle, and Habermas. Vanhoozer won’t be limited to the usual suspects when it comes to theological dialogue.

3. “Third, he displays a unique confidence in drawing from this great breadth of material, integrating and weaving it creatively and humorously into dialogue with evangelical thought.” (pg. 4) Following off of this, it must be noted that he engages this diversity well. As Bowald points out, with section titles like “Propositional Paradise Lost? Some problems with the Concept of Revelation”, he’s obviously comfortable playing with the big boys (and girls), and it shows in his delightfully playful literary demeanor. This isn’t mere whimsy, or the sign of an unserious thinker, however, but rather a mode of communication that displays the confidence that Evangelical doctrine ought to engender. Instead of insular jeremiads, or timid, lowest-common denominator forays out into the broader theological world, Vanhoozer displays a creative ease building on and generously critiquing his interlocutors from a generously Evangelical vantage point.

4. “The last noteworthy…aspect of Vanhoozer’s work which emerges from the foundation of these first three, is his willingness to hold on loosely to method.” (pg. 4) As Bowald points out, this feature of Vanhoozer’s thought and practice is often misunderstood. While he definitely has a clear theological method, Vanhoozer is quite comfortable employing various conceptual aids in an ad hoc, bricolage fashion in order to supplement traditional doctrines; a little speech-act theory here, a bit of acting methodology there, and a dash of continental hermeneutics there and you have a retooled doctrine of Sola Scriptura ready for use.  For “serious” theologians, who need there to be a more explicit, linear, link-up between method and articulation, this can be a bit disorienting. (Of course, that’s part of the reason nobody reads them.) Bowald is keen to note, however, that this flows from his humble and generous approach to theological science–a willingness to appropriate and employ whatever insights he can, always in submission to the Word of God.

All of this amounts to a very winsome, irenic, and moderating, yet essentially conservative figure. (In a sense, think Tim Keller, but in systematic theology.) As Bowald notes: “Evangelicals have always been better at building moats than bridges. Evangelical theology tends to be insular and centripetal; Kevin Vanhoozer’s approach to theology is porous and centrifugal.” (pg. 5) All of this goes doubly for the Reformed. Vanhoozer manages to be confessional without being cantankerous, faithful without being fearful. Besides the importance of his constructive answers on the actual material questions he addresses , he is an exemplar of an approach theology interested in reaching, without compromise, beyond the borders of our own little, insular world.

And isn’t that what a truly Evangelical theologian ought to do?

Soli Deo Gloria

Part 2 – Does Diversity of Form Lead to Diversity of Message In Theology?

Part 3 – Is Vanhoozer Still a 5-Point Alvinist?