The Reforming Catholic Confession

reforming-catholic-confession-logo500 years on downstream from the Reformation, one of the most common charges against the Reformers is that they divided the Church. What’s more, once the division came, inevitably division after division followed, with fragmentation, fissiparousness, and ecclesiastical foment.

Beyond that, what have we got to show for all that division? With our various and sundry denominations, views on baptism, end-times, and so forth, what was the theological and spiritual gain? To many, the answer is, “not much.”

In an effort to answer that charge, and more importantly, to give positive witness to the gospel truths of the Reformation, a group of Protestant theologians have drafted, signed, and offered up “A Reforming Catholic Confession: A ‘Mere Protestant’ Statement of Faith to mark the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.” The idea for it first hit Wesleyan theologian, Jerry Walls, who reached out to a range of theologians, one of which was my own adviser Kevin Vanhoozer. Vanhoozer responded positively, they got to working together, drew in dozens of other collaborators across the theological spectrum, and over a long period, together crafted and hammered out the confession presented today.

With nearly 250 signatories drawn from every continent and spanning most Protestant theological traditions and Communions (Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, Free Church, Nazarene, Pentecostal, etc.), this has as decent of a shot at the claim of being “global” and “ecumenical” as you can get for Protestants.

I would encourage you to read the Statement here. You can see it covers 12 articles from the Triune God, creation, fall, redemption through the work of Jesus Christ in the Gospel, the Church, and concluding with Last Things. In covering this range, their hope is to give testimony to “the catholic substance of the faith (the consensual tradition worked out over the first few centuries of church history about the triune God) according to the Protestant principles of the faith (sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide).”

I would also encourage you to go read the “Explanation” as to what provoked the statement, what its aims are, what it’s trying to do (and not do), and how that plays into the particular kind of document this is. And this piece over at Christianity Today is very helpful. Finally, check out this little video snippet with Vanhoozer on the Confession:

You can catch the rest of the interview here.

To be clear, the point is not to offer up a new confession for Churches to adopt and replace your old ones. Nor is it to be a new political litmus test for good standing in Protestantism, or Evangelicalism (that is quite contrary to its intended use). Nor is it even to be a lowest common denominator harmony of the confessions.

The drafters clearly state, “We continue to appreciate the distinctive emphases of our respective churches, denominations, and confessional traditions.” The Mere Protestantism they’re giving witness to takes place in the “rooms” of the house, not simply the hallway they’re describing (to steal an image from Lewis). So, if you’re worried particular distinctives or emphases don’t seem to appear in the document, they’re not trying to erase them or take them away from you (put your muskets away, nobody is coming for Westminster, fellas).

Instead, it is an attempt to give testimony to the fact that despite our sin and confusions, despite our fallibility and error, despite all possible outward signs, despite the as-yet unresolved differences still among us, God’s Spirit was at work in the Reformation and is still at work in the Protestant churches that it birthed. In an age of polarization, there is greater confessed unity in the gospel among us than we’re tempted to believe. What’s more, it confesses that there was a permanent gain for our understanding of the gospel in the Reformation worth preserving, confessing, and passing on.

I’m not typically a “signer.” I’m wary of hastily jumping on to this or that statement, pronouncement, and so forth, so I can appreciate the hesitation some may have at this point. All the same, I think this one is worth your time and consideration.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

Biblical Authority After Babel by Kevin Vanhoozer (Or, An Antidote To Shame-Faced Protestantism)

biblical-authority-after-babel-pic

At Babel, the LORD God pronounced judgment on human hubris. Scattering humanity through the confusion of language, he fractured it into warring tribes and nations. For many, after the Reformation a similar scattering occurred.  On a certain telling, when the Reformers set forth the doctrine of sola scriptura differing theological tribes, tongues, and nations emerged, perpetually at theological (at time actual) war with one another, and a legion of ills followed in the wake of their battles.

The charges are various. For some the Reformation’s “dangerous idea” (McGrath) landed us in a place of “pervasive interpretive pluralism” (Christian Smith) which begat such bastard sons as secularism (Brad Gregory), skepticism (Richard Popkin), and schism (Hans Boersma and Peter Leithart). In other words, the crisis of interpretive authority led to a loss of ecclesial unity and, according to many, it could not help but do so.  And you could probably throw in Charles Taylor’s “disenchantment” thesis for good measure too.

Enter Vanhoozer, stage text. In his new book Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity, Vanhoozer moves to defend the Reformation against its critics by articulating it in a broader context with the other four solas (grace, faith, Christ, glory). Together they yield the proper interpretive matrix (the ontology, the economy, and teleology of interpretive authority) shaped by the gospel which yields a properly ‘catholic’ “Mere Protestant Christianity” that is “inflected by the Reformation.”

Now, in what follows I won’t attempt a typical, “objective” review. That would be silly. I’m one of Vanhoozer’s grad students and I saw the thing before it went to print. I also won’t attempt a sort of full-scale summary review. Patrick Schreiner’s engagement over at The Gospel Coalition has a pretty helpful condensation of the main moves of the argument (with charts!).

Instead, I’d like to simply offer a few framing remarks and suggestions about its relevance to the contemporary theological and churchly scene.

What’s It Isn’t and What It is: Retrieval for Ressourcement

First, I think what the book is not should be stated clearly at the outset. Even though the work is an examination of the five solas, Vanhoozer is explicitly not trying to mount an historical defense of the Reformation against these charges. He doesn’t think “the accidental truths of European history” should ever be “the proof of necessary truths of Protestant theology.”

In which case, it should be unsurprising that this is not a book of history. So while there are discussions of Luther and Calvin’s theology, if you’re looking for a nice, historical survey of the key points of the Reformation, you may want to try elsewhere.

Instead, Vanhoozer’s argument is an explicit retrieval of historical theology in order to resource it for the challenges of the present. So when he dips into the theology of the Reformers as summarized by the solas, he is taking them as a historical beginning to be constructively developed or unpacked beyond its original remit in a way that’s consistent with it, but not simply a repristination or rehash.

When you read about the doctrine of sola fide, then, yes, you’ll get a discussion of the historical challenge the Reformers made. But you’ll also see the way that faith alone grounds a broader theology of trust in testimony that undercuts the skepticism so often laid at its door. (See Schreiner’s review for more.)

In that sense, it’s a theological argument for why some of what has been must not necessarily be.

Who It’s For: Embarrassed Protestants (And Others)

I’ve written a before about the tendency for young Protestants in the academy, or just theologically-inclined pastors and students, to tend to feel sheepish about the Reformation. After getting over the triumphalistic Protestantism of their youth, they read all the criticisms, learn that after postmodernity Sola Scriptura just obviously can’t work, and so forth, and they start seeking elsewhere for theological heft and health. I’ve seen it over and over again.

While I think the book’s aims an applications expand farther than this, I believe Vanhoozer’s new work serves as something of a beefed up, theological manifesto for what Fred Sanders called “Glad Protestantism.” In it, many a struggling, young Protestant can find a needed line to save them from being swept away across the Tiber (or the Bosphorous). And this is both at the level of actual communion, as well as theological practice and ethos.

That said, the work also offers a corrective towards the kind of anti-confessional, a-historical, an-ecclesial, me-and-my-study-Bible Protestantism that often provokes these crises of conscience among the aforementioned, embarrassed Protestants!

In other words, it’s an argument for remaining (and becoming) good Protestants, not only in name, but in practice.

Challenge, Defense, and Manifesto

There’s a healthy balance of challenge, manifesto, and defense involved, then. Vanhoozer rightly acknowledges the sort of weaknesses that ought to be worked on. Indeed, the point of mounting a theological retrieval is to urge theological renewal in the Evangelical church through appropriation of the rich veins of ore left to us in our common Reformational heritage.

Beyond that, though, he manages to transfigure some other situations on the ground into glories to be appreciated and leaned into. One such instance is learning to appreciate the proper “Pentecostal Plurality” encouraged by the solas which yield diverse, contextual, theological insights for the whole church. Often our angst at the loss of certain forms of “visible” unity stems from a failure to appreciate the eschatological dimension to God’s work of unifying his Church’s common confession. Appropriate to a healthy, small-“c” catholic, Mere Protestantism (or, if you prefer, Reformed Catholicity) is an appreciation for the eschatological tension at work—the now and not yet of striving for unity where possible, seeking to learn from one another, while not despairing over those areas where we cannot reach it.

Building on this, there is a bit of manifesto relevant to some of the discussions that have been swirling around the issue of Evangelicalism of late. One thinks of the skepticism as to whether bland, a-theological Evangelicalism as a proper heir to the Reformation (Trueman), or calls for the Future of Protestantism to be basically some sort of Reformed Anglicanism (Leithart), or suggestions that, in a post-Trump world, we ought to abandon the word “Evangelical” altogether and redoubt to more solid confessional identities (Roberts).

Following his call for an appreciation of Pentecostal plurality, Vanhoozer argues for developing the kind of strong, Protestant denominationalism that is neither sectarian, nor blandly or generically ecumenical. Indeed, the surprising suggestion at the end of the book is that the sort of revitalized, Reformational, trans-denominational unity supported by the 5 solas is and can be best realized in a denominationally-structured evangelicalism! It is within the solid, older houses of the Protestant tradition, then, that evangelicalism can play the revitalizing role to which it has always been best suited.

In that sense, Vanhoozer’s proposal for “Mere Protestantism” is the needed theological backbone for any movement to take up the term “evangelical” and “steal it back” (Jacobs).

But I don’t want to give away too much, so I’ll let you pick up the book to see that counter-intuitive argument for yourself.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, I’ll simply say that this book is vintage Vanhoozer: the gracious, inviting style, the treasure-trove of theological insights, references, puns, and tightly-spun arguments. It’s on an extremely important subject for those concerned with the health of the Church, the nature of Scriptural authority, and the future of Protestant Christianity.

So go ahead and pick it up.

Soli Deo Gloria

Pictures At A Theological Exhibition by Kevin Vanhoozer

Pictures At a Theological ExhibitionIn 1874, Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky created his famous, 10-piece suite of music Pictures at an Exhibition. The work was originally composed in honor of the work of his friend and creative compatriot, Viktor Hartmann, an architect and artist. When Hartmann died, a number of his friends organized a special exhibition of over 400 of his works as a tribute. Mussorgsky’s contribution was to composes this work, which was a soundtrack, of sorts, for the exhibition, based on 10 of Hartmann’s works.

Both Hartmann and Mussorgsky were committed to the idea of a distinctly Russian spirit in art as opposed to the excessive Westernization they feared would overwhelm it. And so while Hartmann’s art was devoted to capturing Russian scenes such as children playing, women gossiping, and so forth, Mussorgsky’s Pictures aims to capture that same feel, capturing the atmosphere of Russian folk songs, and so forth, that suffuses the whole. These “pictures” distill, not only Hartmann’s art, but the social and cultural message of Hartmann’s vision of a distinctly Russian spirit. They present a vision of an alternative culture, an alternative way of being, that helps counteract the spirit of Westernization, and helps Russians remain true to their identity.

It is from this composition that Kevin Vanhoozer draws the title for his recent collection of essays Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of the Church’s Worship, Witness, and Wisdom. Much like the Russia of Mussorgsky’s day, Vanhoozer thinks the Church is called to resist the Westernization of her culture, “to the extent that it conflicts with the culture, as it were, of the kingdom of God.”

To that end, then, he argues that the Church must be steeped in the pictures, the metaphors given in the biblical exhibition, aimed at shaping the life of the holy nation of God’s people. To do so, the Evangelical church must recover a sense of the importance of rehabilitating a properly biblical imagination.

For too long, imagination has gotten a bad rap as another word for “fantasy”, “illusion”, “making things up”, or failing to come to grips with reality. Imagination, though, is a way of seeing meaningful connections, to perceive meaningful wholes with the mind’s eye, or the thoughts of the heart—sometimes in ways that are not always immediately apparent. This is not always a matter of making things up, then. In fact, the point Vanhoozer wants to make is that our imaginations can and must be shaped by these holy metaphors, these biblical images and parables that help us see the world through the eyes of the heart shaped by faith.  A biblically-formed imagination is what helps us live into the reality of what is “in Christ”, or the “theodrama” we’re inhabiting in the midst of our modern world, so to speak.

That’s why essays in this work aim to cultivate just such a biblical imagination, both by addressing specific images, or scenes from the church’s life (worship, the exposition of Scripture, etc), but also by articulating a way of doing theology that is aimed at the pastoral application of theology within the life of the Church.

Now, I won’t be so silly as to try and give some sort of “objective” review of the book. Vanhoozer is my advisor, I am a long-time reader, and I did type up the author index for the thing (while listening to Mussorgsky’s composition, of course). All the same, I figured I’d note a couple of features of the work that would give you a feel for what’s going on and why it’s probably worth your time.

First, this collection of essays is fairly unique from Vanhoozer precisely because a large number of them were delivered orally before they were printed here. There are a variety of lectures and sermons that, while still aiming high on the content level, retain their lively, spoken feel. (Yes, that means dozens and dozens of imaginative images and persuasive puns). They are “theology on the ground” and “snapshots” of ministerial theology at work in the local church setting. Also, an added bonus, since many of the sermons are expositions of Scripture, you get a feel for what Vanhoozer means when he’s talking about the “Theological Interpretation of Scripture.” For many, this might make this volume a perfect access point into Vanhoozer’s broader body of work.

Second, it’s true, Vanhoozer always seems to manage to comment on issues regarding method and prolegomena in theology. Even here, the whole thrust of the work is concerned with doing theology in a certain way. Heck, it has one of his best, short pieces on inerrancy that I’ve read (and I think I’ve read them all at this point).  That said, in this collection there’s plenty of “material” theology regarding pressing, everyday church issues.

For instance, his essay on inerrancy is actually aimed at helping pastors properly handle Scripture in the context of the church. Or again, there are a couple of essays on the theology of worship, song, beauty, and the arts for the local church. Towards the back end, he’s got a sermon on the pressing, contemporary issue of status anxiety and the way it’s addressed by the cross of Christ that’s simply good, pastoral theology. (I drew on some of its themes to preach to a group of college kids just the other day!) Probably the most interesting (because most distinct) essay in the whole bunch is the piece on the ethics of brain enhancing bio-technology. (But maybe that’s just because I’m in grad school and would be sorely tempted to use it as I take German this summer.)

All that to say, there are a number of reasons you may just want to take a stroll through Vanhoozer’s latest gallery of faith speaking understanding.

Soli Deo Gloria

Forget Me Not (Twitter And The Fear of Death)

dark twitterHave you ever been worried you’ll be forgotten by a friend? Say they go on a long trip, or you move, and that nagging fear comes along: if I’m out of sight, will I be out of mind? Will they move on? Will our time together become just a background memory, recalled when triggered, but mostly left in the dustbins of our excess memory banks?

And the deeper question, of course, is “do I matter?” Because our thoughts are an indicator of what matters to us. If someone is thinking about us–if we are at the center, or at least the conscious periphery of their thought–then we matter to them in some way, right? If they care, then we must have value.

I started thinking about this after reading some of Tony Reinke’s interview with Kevin Vanhoozer over the weekend. They delve into all sorts of fascinating issues of discipleship in a digital age, but the segment that caught my attention came at the end:

Two anxieties drive much of what we do today: status anxiety (what will people think of me?) and the newer disconnection anxiety, which is tied to FOMO (fear of missing out). Put briefly: I connect, therefore I am. The question, however, is: connect to what? I’m afraid that, for many, the answer too often is the empire of the entertainment-industrial complex. We live in what has been described as an “attention economy,” and the Sunday morning sermon seems weak in comparison to a Safari surfing session. The latter enables us to ride the waves of popular culture and opinion. The sobering question for the disciple is whether our attention is being drawn to something worthwhile.

Spectacles are ephemeral, which is why those who suffer from FOMO are always on the lookout for The Next Big Thing. Disciples who are awake to reality have their attention fixed on the only breaking news that ultimately matters; namely, the news that the kingdom of God has broken into our world in Jesus Christ. This breaking news demands our sustained attention and a wide-awake imagination.

There’s so much to comment on in this little chunk alone. Still, the “I connect, therefore I am” bit caught my attention, especially as a fairly engaged Twitter user.

Much of the drive to connect online is definitely filtered through and shaped by the attention economy. What’s more, that economy can be an economy in a very real sense for many of us on social media. Having the right opinion at the right time on the right issue can be lucrative in ginning up writing gigs.

But honestly, beyond the crassly economic dimension, I think many of us who spend a significant amount of time online for blogging, work, or communication purposes have felt that existential anxiety.We want to be noticed. We want to be recognized, seen, heard, and I would add, remembered.

This is everybody from the 13-year-old girl wondering if her Instagram post will get as many likes as those of the other girls in her class to the political analyst hoping for Retweets on her latest, insightful live-tweet about the recent presidential debate.

I have to confess, there are seasons and days where I’ve noticed a certain anxiety about not having written anything in a while, or tweeted anything semi-clever in a few hours. Am I a particularly vain person? Possibly. But then, that’s not the sort of thing you’re able to judge for yourself.

But I think there’s a level of fear at being forgotten involved. Sure, I actually love the fun and frivolity of much of Twitter. The GIFs. The jokes. The nested conversations. The reality is, though, deep down there’s part of me that’s scared if I’m out of sight, I’ll be out of mind and I won’t matter anymore.

In a sense, this is one dimension of the looming fear of death that most of us in contemporary, American society never want to wrestle with or name anymore.

When you’re dead, eventually you’re forgotten. Even if you leave a “legacy”, it’s on the truly rare individual who is immortalized in song, statue, or prose. But those are forgotten too. How much more likely are we to be lost in an internet age when every second there are millions and billions of bits of data (stories, articles, ebooks, photos, videos, etc) being uploaded and (figuratively) papering over our photographs on the walls of history?

Of course, Twitter’s one of the most absurd ways of trying to fight the fear of death. The internet is forever, they say, but we all know that’s usually only for terrible things. In a sense, life on Twitter is very much an Ecclesiastes sort of experience. Work hard. Enjoy. Laugh. But remember that you’re going to die and all the followers you built and the reputation you’ve acquired as an insightful GIFer will fade quickly. Invested with existential weight, it too is a vanity of vanities.

Instead, I recall the concluding admonition of the editor:

Now all has been heard;
    here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
    for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
    including every hidden thing,
    whether it is good or evil.

(Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

As the Reformers were wont to remind us, we live life coram Deo–before the face of God. While it’s true that there is something of a threat of judgment–a call to remember the fear of the Lord–for those who are secure in knowing it through Christ that judgment comes (Rom. 2:16), there is a beautiful promise.

He is the eternal One who never forgets us, who keeps our lives ever before him–even those we fail to upload in perfect “Earlybird” filters. We are his creatures, his handiwork, and his adopted children who are never out of sight and never out of mind. Death is not the end, therefore. God will remember us into the resurrection and the age to come irrespective of our social media presence, but because of the presence of his Spirit of promise bestowed upon us in Christ (Eph. 1:13-14).

Soli Deo Gloria

Four Themes for Pastor Theologians at the CPT Conference 2015

pastor theologianThis week I had the privilege of attending The Center for Pastor Theologians’ first annual conference in Oak Park. I’ve been excited about it for some time, not simply because of the buzz around the subject right now, but also because of the space I inhabit in my own studies, having recently (temporarily?) left my position in the local church. Now, I unfortunately could only make one of the days, but thankfully, it was the largest bulk of the time. That said, what I did catch was on point. Todd Wilson and Gerald Hiestand know how to put a conference together.

First off, Calvary Memorial felt like it was designed to host this sort of event. I mean, really, when I say it’s beautiful, I’m not just blowing smoke. Second, the size of the conference was really nice. I’m terrible with numbers, but it seemed like maybe two hundred or so people were, which is great for meeting, chatting, and feeling like you’re not being herded around like a bunch of cattle. I had the pleasure of meeting a number pastors and students working through some of issues I’ve been chewing on. Beyond that, the line-up was great. Not only the plenaries–which I’ll get to–but the breakout sessions, which featured speakers who could have easily been plenary speakers. If I had some spare cash and any extra time to read, the exhibitor section would have been tempting as well, with their sizable discount on books. All that to say, I look forward to coming back next year.

Oh, and one more thing: I think the thing that surprised me the most was the worship. For one thing, I was surprised at how good it was. The worship team had a tightly ordered, historic, yet contemporary liturgical order with each plenary session that actually ministered to some burdens in my soul. And that’s the second thing: I expected to be challenged and stimulated intellectually, there, but I was blessed to be comforted spiritually. But shouldn’t spiritual benefit be one of the impacts of a theological conference?

The Speakers

Now, as I mentioned, I only made it for the Tuesday portion, but that included the plenaries by Peter Leithart, James K.A. Smith, and Kevin Vanhoozer. While I was sad to miss Wilson and Hiestand’s pieces and the panel discussion, I was far from feeling robbed. All three were in fine form. Leithart discussed the Pastor as Biblical theologian, Smith, the Pastor as Political theologian, and Vanhoozer, the Pastor as Public theologian. Here’s what was funny: while all of the talks were distinct, content-rich, and focused on different aspects of the pastor’s theological work, there were some very clear–though, I think, unplanned–commonalities and themes. What I’d like to do is highlight four of them, summarizing and drawing on the different talks to do so.

Local. The first theme that clearly stood out was their focus on the local setting of the pastor. Leithart explicitly grounded his reflections around the activities of of the preacher in the “parish” ministry of study, pulpit, and table, as he sees one of the challenges of the pastor as biblical theologian is to develop new methods since much biblical scholarship that’s arisen in the academy is simply unusable by the church. As Vanhoozer joked, “Location! Location! Location!” is not only a principle of real estate, but of the reality of gospel-theologizing. Local pastors are theologians who are to know the specific locales–geographical, cultural, and spiritual–of the people (the public) to whom they are ministering. Smith even spoke of pastors as cultural ethnographers who are keen observers of their people and their environments, observing and reflecting on the cultural liturgies that shape the polis that exerts spiritual formative influence on their people.

Apocalyptic. Connected with this is the pastor as “apocalyptic” theologian. I believe the term was Smith’s, but it easily could apply to all three, though especially Leithart who framed his reflections around a close reading Revelation 17. In any case, local pastor-theologians are to be keen cultural observers, in part, in order to “unveil” and unmask the unreality of the prominent paradigms of the good life shaping our people without their understanding. Smith spoke of the “purging of the Christian imagination” that is partly the work of the pastor theologian who exegetes the festivals and practices of Empire. A theological sociologist, of sorts. Vanhoozer also stressed the formative power of culture, returning to some the themes from his work Everyday TheologyPart of ministering the reality of what is “in Christ” to the public of your people, means exposing the lies of the principalities and powers at work in the everyday rituals and narratives that hold our imaginations captive to the bestial practices of Empire.

Canonical. Of course, unsurprisingly, all three stressed the ministry of the Word as forming a canonical consciousness. Vanhoozer noted that the sermon is the “quintessential theological act”, which pastor-theologians practice in order to communicate the excellence of Christ and shape the congregation into who they already are in Christ. Leithart also stressed the ministry of the Word, suggesting that for the Word to have this effect, sermons must begin to take the shape of deep Bible studies, which illumine the narratival, typological, and theological depth of the texts, in order for our people to begin to inhabit the world of the Gospel. Hearing his phenomenal handling of Revelation 17 and the various theological, cultural, and political implications in his presentation, it’s hard to disagree. Looking to the practice of St. Augustine, Smith emphasized the preaching of the Word as well, but also pointed to Augustine’s theological work in his letters to the general Boniface, in which he gave biblical counsel in order to shape Boniface’s vocational self-understanding. The theological ministry of the Word expands beyond the pulpit for the pastor of a sent people living in a secular age.

Liturgical. Finally, all three, unsurprisingly if you know their work, emphasized the liturgy and especially ministering the sacraments as key theological activities of pastor theologians, both for shaping their theologizing and their people. Vanhoozer says the Lord’s Supper is the “summa and apologia” of the gospel; it is a “verbal, visual, and visceral” summary of the good news. As such, it is a powerfully formative liturgical practice for shaping the theological imagination of the polis of the church. The Table and the Pulpit go together in the work of the pastor theologian.

Of course, I’m still barely scratching the surface of these talks, especially since abstracting commonalities like this obscures the unique arguments of Leithart, Smith, and Vanhoozer. For that reason, I’d encourage you to go check out these talks and those of Hiestand and Wilson on the CPT Vimeo channel, which will be posted up by next Monday. I know I’ll be checking in to catch up on the sections I missed myself. In the meantime, they’ve got some helpful videos already up.

To sum up, the conference was a

Soli Deo Gloria

Vanhoozer & Carson: Is Biblical Theology Really Closer to the Text Than Systematic Theology?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece on Henri Blocher’s take on the relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology, which I found quite helpful (his take, not my piece, that is). I’d like to return to the subject, though, for a couple of reasons. First, I’m in a class on Prolegomena, and I’m in the process of trying to get straight what it is I’m doing when I say I’m studying systematic theology–so this is sort on my mind. Second, that means I’ve run across a couple of interesting, recent articles on the subject worth comparing. As it happens, they both are by Trinity professors.

Carson on Biblical and Systematic

carsonFirst, there is what I found to be a characteristically helpful piece over at The Gospel Coalition by D.A. Carson on the way the various sub-disciplines of theology (biblical, systematic, historical, pastoral) affect how we read the Bible, as well as their relationship to each other. In it, Carson defines the various disciplines, gives their particular marks, notes their relationship to the text, necessity, as well the various feedback loops between them. I’ll focus on his take on biblical and systematic theology for now.

According to Carson, Biblical theology (BT) answers the question of how God has revealed himself organically and historically. For that reason, it reads the Bible progressively, assumes the unity of the canon, works inductively from the text, and “makes connections the Bible itself authorizes.” It does this by focusing on the works of individual books or writers and traces interlocking, interweaving themes between them. For that reason, we might say it’s a story-focused theology.

On the other hand, Carson says systematic theology (ST) is a bit different. Assuming the unity of the text as BT does, systematics focuses on what the Bible says about certain subjects like God and the world. It’s organization, then, is systematic and logical and oriented toward specific subjects. What’s more, it’s ordered towards communicating these truths to the culture and other philosophical worldviews.

Comparatively, Carson says, “BT is historical and organic; ST is relatively ahistorical and universal.” The former is necessary for understanding the storyline, the latter for gaining depth and clarity of subject. Of necessity, then, systematics can “legitimately” work at 2 or 3 levels removed from the text. Though, for that reason, while systematicians may cherish narrative, ST will be, of necessity, a bit more distant from the concerns of the text than BT.

Exegesis and BT have an advantage over ST because the Bible aligns more immediately with their agendas. ST has an advantage over exegesis and BT because it drives hard toward holistic integration.

ST tends to be a little further removed from the biblical text than does BT, but ST is a little closer to cultural engagement. In some ways, BT is a kind of bridge discipline between exegesis and ST because it overlaps with them, enabling them to hear each other a little better. In some ways, ST is a culminating discipline because it attempts to form and transform one’s worldview. BT is important today because the gospel is virtually incoherent unless people understand the Bible’s storyline. ST is important today because, rightly undertaken, it brings clarity and depth to our understanding of what the Bible is about.

Again, I found much of Dr. Carson’s analysis about the relationship between BT and ST quite helpful. That said, my own advisor, Dr. Vanhoozer, thinks of the relationship a bit differently, especially on the question of whether systematics works at more of a remove from the text than biblical theology.

I’ll devote a bit more space to his article because, well, I think systematics is constantly fighting an uphill battle here and it needs some unpacking.

Closer to the Biblical Text?

Vanhoozer tackles the subject in an article in the recent volume Reconsidering the Relationship Between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the New Testament dedicated to Robert Gundry  (“Is the Theology of the New Testament One or Many? Between (the Rock of) Systematic Theology and (the Hard Place of) Historical Occasionalism”, pp 17-38). Most of the the article is beyond me to summarize at this point, but at least part of what he’s up to is challenging the notion that systematics is at something of a disadvantage compared to biblical studies when it comes to being attuned to the concerns of the text.

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

Another way of putting Carson’s concerns, as well as those of other biblical theologians such as James Hamilton, is that biblical theology explicitly seems to think and make its main connections within the confines of the Bible’s own thought-world, sticking to such symbolic and typological markers like Temple, Land, and so forth (24-25). The danger of systematics is that it threatens to distort that thought-world by squishing the text into unfitting conceptual molds drawn from without the text, in order to engage concerns not immediate to it. States Vanhoozer:

As we have seen, some (they’re usually exegetes or biblical theologians) claim that systematic theology changes the rich wine of redemptive-history and typology in to the water of timeless truths and philosophical concepts (26).

This is exactly the charge Yale theologian David Kelsey makes in Proving Doctrine. To answer Kelsey’s fear, Vanhoozer draws on the distinction forwarded by Lutheran theologian David Yeago between that of “concept” and a “judgment.” Yeago argues that the very same “judgments” of Scripture can be rendered in different conceptual thought forms. So, the idea is that different terms can adequately and similarly refer to and describe the same underlying reality. For this reason, Vanhoozer says of systematics:

…at its best, it preserves the same “thought world” of the biblical authors, and understands their symbolic universe, in new interpretive categories and with different conceptual terms. (27)

In a certain way this is nothing new. It’s a variation on what Athanasius said in De Decretis. The philosophic term homoousius used at Nicaea is just a “non-identically equivalent” conceptual rendering of Paul’s judgments about the nature of the Son written in specific times and particular churches like the Philippian (2:6) and the Colossians (2:9), (27).

If Nicaea says the same thing – if, like the apostle Paul, it judges Jesus Christ to be the unique Son of God – in different terms, then we may say that its dogmatic judgment is every bit as biblical as the attempt to set forth Paul’s theology in its own terms. Indeed, this is precisely what makes systematic theology biblical: that it renders the same underlying apostolic judgments in different conceptual terms. (28)

From History to System

At this point, I can easily imagine someone saying, “Yes, well, that may be. But how exactly, then, does Vanhoozer conceive of the relation between the two disciplines? Or, rather, how do we construe systematic theology in a way that keeps its ‘conceptual’ renderings faithful to the redemptive-historical, contextual judgments that God has given us in Scripture?”

Vanhoozer attempts to briefly forward a form of theology as wisdom that is:

…both context-sensitive – alert to particular occasions, past and present – and ontologically-attuned to the reality that is in Christ, a reality that ought to be expressed, in some conceptuality, by everyone, everywhere, and at all times. (34)

He has three theses as to how the conversation should move forward (as it turns out, I’ve learned he really likes theological theses) in the reunion of biblical and systematic theology:

  1. “Descriptions of redemptive-history, while necessary, are theologically incomplete until one spells out their ontological implications (i.e., their presuppositions about what is real), not least because history itself is a staging area for divine speech and action.” (35) In other words, yes, we must focus the action, the drama of the unfolding of redemptive history. But in order to properly understand the movements, we need to be prepared to unfold some of the necessary ontological or metaphysical realities that make it possible. So, what kind of a being, what kind of natures, must Jesus the Christ have in order to do and be the culmination of the historically-unfolding reality the Bible presents us with? What kind of God must the Holy One of Israel be (Triune) if he is the faithful covenant Lord who comes to save us himself through his two hands (Son and Spirit)? You can’t properly understand the story without these ontological and systematic judgments spelled out. Actually, Wesley Hill has recently argued in his work Paul and the Trinity that key, historically-situated New Testament texts in Christology are actually best read using the categories of systematic theology.
  2. “The “line” of redemptive-historical development that biblical theology traces is actually the “plot-line” of a unified drama of redemption; systematic theology ministers understanding by saying what the whole drama means and by setting forth, and exploring, its ontological presuppositions.” (35-36) Second, biblical theology rightly pays attention to the unity-in-diversity of the different acts, witnesses, and authors in their unique voices and canonical places. Systematics is about viewing those same realities in light of the one, broad, over-arching drama that has the Triune God as its author and lead protagonist, and fleshing out what the means for disciples drawn into that continuing drama today.
  3. “Biblical theology describes what the biblical authors are saying/ doing in their particular contextual scenes, to their particular audiences, in their own particular terms and concepts; systematic theology searches out the underlying patterns of biblical-canonical judgments, and suggests ways of embodying these same theodramatic judgments for our own particular cultural contexts, in our own particular terms and concepts.” (37) God didn’t write a systematic theology text, dropped from the sky in supra-historical form. The diverse texts come to us in all their glorious, historical particularities and differing emphasis (James contra antinomianism, Paul against–well, whatever the latest consensus is). All the same, this diversity serves to manifest the mind of Christ which applies to all times and all places. Understanding the particular apostolic judgments that embody the universal mind of Christ, at times, requires expressing the same judgments of Scriptures in differing conceptual forms according to our diverse contexts–be it a 4th century church council or a 21st century seminary.

To sum up, systematics isn’t that thing that happens after biblical theology does its thing.

Systematic theology is not simply a second step that follows biblical theology; rather, it is a partner in the exegetical process itself, explicating the text’s meaning by penetrating to the level of judgments: moral, ontological, and theodramatic. By studying the various ways in which Jesus’ disciples embodied the mind of Christ in their own contexts (i.e., the diverse historical occasions that prompted the apostles to write), disciples today come to learn how they can express the same theodramatic judgments– the same judgments about what is fit for followers of Jesus to say and do – via different language and concepts, in situations far removed from the original context. (38)

At the close of this, I think it’s clear that from their different perspectives and disciplines, Carson and Vanhoozer aren’t actually that far off from each other in their evaluations of the differing roles of BT and ST. I think Vanhoozer would simply hasten to add that they’re both about the same distance from the text as well.

Soli Deo Gloria