Kevin Vanhoozer Corrects N.T. Wright’s 5-Act Hermeneutic

Wright againWhile many other scholars have made similar points, Kevin Vanhoozer and N.T. Wright have probably done more than any other theologians to help me understand the Bible as a drama. As opposed to viewing the text as a static collection of theological bullet-points, they suggest we conceive of it in active, narrative terms, with a plot whose development yields the doctrine which gives life to the Church. So, when one of them offers up a criticism and nuance of the other’s approach the way Vanhoozer does here, I’m definitely interested:

Tom Wright has thrice put forward a model for conceiving biblical authority that trades on the notion of biblical improvisation. He compares the drama of redemption to a Shakespeare play, most of whose fifth act is missing. The church has the first four acts (creation, fall, Israel, Christ) but must work out the fifth act (church) for herself, all the while remaining in character. It is not enough for the actors “merely to parrot what has already been said”; they must go beyond the sacred page and find—improvise!—the conclusion. Still, the first four acts are the “authority” for the fifth act, hence the idea of “improvising with a script.”

This suggestive model has much to commend it. However, I see the fall not as its own act, but as the conflict in the first act, creation. I prefer to see each of the five acts of the theodrama as set in motion by a divine act. Hence: creation, election of Israel, Christ, Pentecost and the church, consummation. On my dramatic reckoning, the church does not have to work out the ending so much as to live in its light. The essential thing is to play the right act. The church is no longer in Act 2, under the law, nor in Act 3, in which case it would have to do the work of Christ. Nor is it already in Act 5, as some in the first-century church at Thessalonica with an over-realized eschatology mistakenly thought. No, the church is in Act 4, an in-between the first and second comings of Christ time, marked by the firstfruits of the end time but not yet at the end.

-Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology, (Kindle Locations 2961-2973).

On one level I find this all rather compelling. The more traditional Creation, Fall, and Redemption (or Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation) is still rather serviceable. Wright’s suggestion is helpful, though, in that it distinguishes Israel’s phase thereby ensuring we don’t simply skip over it straight to Jesus–as if we could. It also helps us remember that while Israel is part of the Jesus plan, it is still a distinct phase, not to be confused with Christ’s work or that of the church.

Vanhoozer’s rolling the Fall back into the first act of Creation is also admirable for it’s theocentricity–God-centeredness. When it comes to thinking through the different acts as periods of human action, the Fall needs to be accounted for in our moral and theological reflection, but isn’t really stage on its own, it’s a presupposition for the rest. The narration of salvation-history is governed by God’s gracious action, not human sin.

I don’t have much to comment beyond that except to ask: what do you all think? Theologians, Bible-types, any thoughts?

Soli Deo Gloria

‘The Philosopher’, ‘The Theologian’…A Reformedish Lexicon

Thomas Aquinas famously referred to Aristotle as ‘The Philosopher’, throughout his writings, not because he followed him slavishly on every point, but because for the Angelic Doctor, Aristotle was the philosopher. More than any other secular thinker, Aristotle’s questions, formulations, and answers shaped and were re-shaped in Aquinas’ thought. For myself, I’ve realized that there are a number of intellectual influences that have played similar roles for me. Their thought has so penetrated the warp and woof of my own that I decided to create a Reformedish lexicon of key figures, both for fun and to encourage others to drink deeply at the wells of wisdom found here:

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

“The Theologian” – I’ve already documented Kevin Vanhoozer’s greatness. Though he is a theologian’s theologian, his humble, eclectic, and faithful approach to God, Scripture, and doctrine in general has deeply shaped my own and will continue to for the foreseeable future.

Lewis“The Apologist” – C.S. Lewis was one of the first Christian prose writers I ever encountered. Like most, he took me in with the clarity of thought & expression, marvelous knack for making complex doctrines seem quite reasonable, accessible, and even more, beautiful. In college, Lewis let me grapple with the big toughies like hell, sin, and evil with intellectual dignity. What’s more, he saved me from thinking apologetic philosophy had to be boring and dull, or, even worse, disconnected from the proper worship of God.

kierkegaard 2“The Thinker” – Soren Kierkegaard is a hard one to pin down. He is a philosopher, but even more than that, he is a thinker-of-life who pressed me into the depths of my own darkened heart during my angstiest college days. I can safely say that if it were not for encountering his works Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death in college, I probably would not be married to my McKenna today. Also, his epistemology hustled me along the way to embracing the proposals of…

plantinga 4“The Philosopher” – Alvin Plantinga is my favorite living philosopher. Working in Anglo-American Analytic tradition, it is hard to estimate the impact Plantinga’s had on modern philosophy and especially philosophy of religion. The man single-handedly refuted the logical problem of evil in the 1970s, kicked classic foundationalism in the face, and made it safe to be a Christian in a philosophy program again. Plantinga gives not only good answers, but teaches us to ask the right sort of questions in the face of aggressive skeptical attacks on the faith.

Keller“The Preacher” – Timothy Keller falls under so many different categories (apologist, thinker, etc.), but at core, he is a Gospel-preacher. All of the other hats he puts on serve to accent his main call, which is to preach the Gospel to the Religious and the Irreligious alike. His several books and lectures on preaching have deeply shaped my own approach in various areas of ministry, but it may be hundreds of sermons exposing my idolatry and pointing me to Christ that have played the deepest formative role in my own spiritual theology. God has used Keller to shape the core of my understanding of God’s transforming grace through the Gospel.

Wright again“The Scholar” – I loved Paul before I read N.T. Wright, but I don’t think I knew Paul until I read Wright; the same goes for Jesus. While I don’t follow him everywhere he goes, more than anyone else Wright has introduced me to the vibrant, dynamic, pulsating historical reality of the Gospel in the New Testament. Whether it is Jesus facing off with the Pharisees, or Paul shepherding his flocks in the shadow of the Roman Empire, Wright simply will not allow us to imagine we are dealing with anything less than a full-orbed social-historical-political-theological-cosmological Jesus whose kingship has implications for everything.

john-calvin“The Reformer” – I’ve written a good amount on John Calvin over the last few months, and given a number of reasons to dig into his commentaries. Like most of these men, Calvin wore a number of hats, including scholar, theologian, and preacher. For me, he has been The Reformer. While I do love me some Luther, standing in the Reformed tradition as I am, it has been Calvin’s programmatic vision for the reformation of preaching, theology, and the Church that captured my imagination more than any of the other Magisterial Reformers. Indeed, a number of my other influences have openly paid tribute to Calvin’s influence on their own thought.

If you find yourself having never read someone on this list, I’d encourage you to do a quick Google on one, pick a work that seems interesting and go for it.

Soli Deo Gloria

What Has Chicago to Do With Nicaea? Or, “Inerrancy Isn’t In the Bible”

inerrancy viewsOne of the frequent complaints against the doctrine of inerrancy is that, not only is a theological novelty taught nowhere until the 19th century, more than that, “it’s not in the Bible.” Nowhere is there a verse that says the “Bible is completely true in all that it affirms in history, theology, etc. in the original autographs” and so forth. So how then, if we’re Sola Scriptura Protestants, can we go about insisting on it, or other variations like “infallibility” (which, is actually the more comprehensive term), as a sort of de fide doctrine?

As you may know, I’ve been reading the Counterpoints Five Views on Inerrancy book that just came out. You may also know that I unashamedly love Kevin Vanhoozer’s work in this area–and, actually, any area to which he speaks. There’s no surprise, then, that I found his comments on the issue particularly helpful.

In his main essay, he has a number of sections dealing with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. In one, he deals with the charge that the CSBI unnecessarily elevates the doctrine as well as redeploys a distinction used in his Drama of Doctrine, between a judgment of Scripture and it’s conceptual expression, to clarify how a doctrinal can be biblical without being mentioned explicitly in Scripture:

Article 16  [of CSBI] states “that the doctrine of inerrancy has been integral to the Church’s faith throughout its history.” It also denies that inerrancy is “a reactionary position postulated in response to negative higher criticism.” To refute the claim that the doctrine of inerrancy was “invented” by nineteenth-century Princeton is also to rebut the objection that inerrancy, along with the Chicago statement, is a provincial and parochial concern. Can it be done? A full-orbed demonstration of inerrancy’s historical pedigree is beyond the scope of the present essay. Others have been there, done that. I propose instead to compare and contrast the Chicago statement to the creedal statement on the Trinity of the Council of Nicaea. To be sure, the framers of the Chicago statement explicitly say in the preface that they do not propose to give the statement “creedal weight,” but this is not the salient feature of my comparison. I propose to focus instead on a certain parallel between inerrancy and homoousios.

Chicago is not Nicaea: the gospel itself is not directly at stake in inerrancy, nor is it clear whether there was in Chicago a counterpart to Athanasius. I am nevertheless struck by four similarities: (1) the notions of homoousios and inerrancy both arose at a time when the truths they express— in the one case, the full deity of the Son, in the other, the divine truth of the Scriptures— were being challenged; (2) both homoousios and inerrancy are technical terms that have proven to be stumbling blocks to many; (3) neither term is biblical, in the sense of occurring in Scripture; yet (4) both terms reflect underlying biblical convictions or judgments.

My thesis, in brief, is this: while the term inerrant or the concept of inerrancy may be new, the underlying judgment is not. I owe the concept/ judgment distinction to David Yeago, who in a seminal article developed it in connection to Nicaea. Yeago thinks that Paul’s language in Philippians 2: 6, about the Son’s isos theos (“ equality with God”), is saying the same thing as Nicaea’s very different concept homoousios (“ of the same substance”). It is essential “to distinguish between judgments and the conceptual terms in which those judgments are rendered” so that “the same judgment can be rendered in a variety of conceptual terms.”  Similarly, I submit that inerrancy is saying (nearly) the same thing as John’s language in Revelation 21: 5 about the Word of God being pistoi kai alethinoi (“ trustworthy and true”).

The doctrine of inerrancy expresses a nonidentical equivalence to what Scripture teaches about itself. The problem with concepts, however, is that they gradually acquire a medley of associations, each of which affects the core meaning. Although it expresses a biblical judgment, the concept of inerrancy also shows signs of its cultural and historical locatedness. The challenge, then, is to affirm the underlying judgment together with the concept of inerrancy, provided that we can free the latter from unhelpful cultural accretions in order to free it for ministering the whole counsel of God.

–Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology), pp. 212-213

In other words, inerrancy expresses a Biblical truth in different terms, in a similar way that the word  homoousios, or even ‘trinity’ does.

Of course, Vanhoozer goes on to actually make the case from Scripture that his rendition of inerrancy, an “Augustinian, Well-Versed Inerrancy”, actually is consistent with what we find there. Still, the concept/judgment distinction helps us see that the issue of whether or not a doctrine is “biblical” isn’t a simple matter of looking it up in a concordance, or finding an adequate proof-text.

Soli Deo Gloria

(Also, for what it’s worth, Vanhoozer points out that not even Chicago gives inerrancy creedal weight the way some proponents would. It’s not de fide for everybody.)

ACTUAL VANHOOZER SPEAKING on Augustinian Inerrancy (Video)

For those of you who are curious, and you should be, here is the short video by Kevin Vanhoozer (a.k.a. The Theologian) on his Augustinian account of a “Well-versed” inerrancy that was shown at ETS 2013 last month. I highly commend it to you, especially as a teaser for his account in the Five Views book on the series. I won’t say any more because ACTUAL VANHOOZER SPEAKING:

Soli Deo Gloria

Vanhoozer on Enns on Inerrancy

inerrancy viewsThe new Counterpoints book Five Views on Inerrancy came in the mail yesterday so, of course, I tore into it immediately. I’ll say it right now, if you’re at all interested in this conversation, you should pick it up. The quality of the essays and the various responses have all been top-notch for their respective positions–and I’ve only read the Mohler and Enns essays!

While we’re on the subject of Peter Enns, I have to say I was impressed. Not convinced, but impressed. I was also impressed by the various criticisms leveled at it, many which are worth quoting at length, but I’ll only do that with Kevin Vanhoozer’s because, well, it sums up my basic complaints and gives a bit of a hint as to where Vanhoozer will later go himself:

I endorse Enns’ call to conform our doctrine of Scripture to the Bible that we actually have rather than the one we think God ought to have written. My own essay contrasts an “inerrancy of glory” (aka “perfect book inerrancy,” a cultural construct) with an “inerrancy of the cross.” I draw this distinction in order to urge an inerrancy of the cross that recognizes the wisdom of God in the surprising textual form he has given it rather than the form we may think it ought to have had. Enns simply identifies inerrancy with perfect book theology, however, and then devotes most of his essay to exposing its nakedness. I agree that perfect book inerrancy, “by placing on it expectations it is not designed to bear” (p. 84), fails to do justice to Scripture. However, in my own chapter, I explore a constructive alternative. I wish Enns had tried to do this too.

Instead, Enns spends most of his chapter reacting to what I judge to be a caricature of inerrancy— what David Dockery, whom I discuss in my own chapter, calls “naive” rather than “critical” inerrancy. Enns would have been better off discussing the original drawing— namely, the definitions offered by John Frame or Paul Feinberg— rather than demeaning the assumptions and interpretive practice of anonymous inerrantists. Who are these faceless villains (“ is it I, Peter”)? Enns nevertheless makes a valid point: the doctrine of inerrancy has been hijacked by various bands of exegetical pirates who insist that the gold of true Bible knowledge is secure only in their own interpretive treasure chests.

Enns thinks the core issue is “how inerrancy functions in contemporary evangelical theological discourse” (p. 83, my emphasis). Why should the function rather than the nature of inerrancy be the crux of the matter? We don’t throw away other doctrines, like divine sovereignty or the atonement, just because some people misunderstand or misuse them. No, we try to set them right. Curiously, Enns is not interested in definitions. Even his title focuses on function: “Inerrancy, However Defined, Does Not Describe What the Bible Does.” This is strange. Why should inerrancy— the claim that the Bible is without error— describe what the Bible does? Enns’ essay suffers from two confusions: (1) a failure to distinguish the nature of inerrancy from its use and (2) a failure to distinguish inerrancy’s right use from various abuses.

–Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology) Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

He goes on from there to actually substantiate his claims about Enns’ essay (with some style). But yes, Enns often reduces inerrancy to its political function; in essence he falls afoul of the principle that abuse does not remove use. As for more nuanced accounts, those are sort of dismissed as possibilities with a hand-wave towards the insurmountable obstacle of biblical scholarship. Actually, I’ll go ahead and quote Vanhoozer again with this little gem on whether or not we should rush to accept the so-called “scholarly consensus” in archaeology, or whether it’s appropriate to trustingly wait it and see what new light is shed:

Why is Enns in such a hurry to capitulate to the prevailing scholarly consensus? Theories, consensus opinions, and schools of thought all come and go. Christians are not to be blown about by every wind of academic fashion. I wonder: does he think, in light of the problem of evil, that we should concede that God does not exist? After all, there is considerably more evidence of gratuitous evil in the world than there is that ancient Jericho had no walls. It’s not clear to me how, on Enns’ scorecard, the theist fares any better than the inerrantist. Should we therefore reframe our doctrine of God to fit the prevailing extratextual “evidence”?

I found the comparison to the epistemological situation we find ourselves in with the problem of evil helpful. The point is that there is a lot of apparently pointless evil out in the world, and that could count as “evidence” that God does not exist. Indeed, it does count as evidence. And yet, as philosophers will point out, that’s not the only evidence there is, in which case the theist can put that to one side for a moment, without immediately scrapping their belief in God every time something inexplicably tragic happens. In the world of biblical scholarship where judgments on key questions like this shift every 20 years, it’s reasonable to slow the rush to throw inerrancy on the dust-heap of discarded doctrines.

Now, of course, I’m only giving you a couple of samples here. Both Vanhoozer and Enns have plenty more to be say here–no one can be quickly dismissed. Still, I hope this little taste whets your appetite for the rich feast of excellent scholarship and theological engagement you’ll find in this volume.

Soli Deo Gloria

‘Who has made man’s mouth?’ A Couple of Thoughts On Humility and Boldness in Theology

scyllaArrogant idolatry and cowardly silence are the Scylla and Charybdis of modern theology. While some prattle on, boastfully sure about the God who obviously fits their preconceived notions of deity and cultural expectations, others are too suspicious or scared to speak in more than a doubtful whisper about him.

John Webster speaks to the tension in this tight little passage (also, he gets more done in a hundred small pages than many modern theologians do in three-volumes of theologico-philosophic meandering):

‘You shall not profane my holy name, but I will be hallowed among the people of Israel; I am the Lord who sanctify you’ (Lev. 22.32). This requirement–that God be feared and his name hallowed–is in many respects the requirement of theological reason. Reason can only be holy if it resists its own capacity for idolatry, its natural drift towards the profaning of god’s name by making common currency of the things of God. A holy theology, therefore, will be properly mistrustful of its own command of its subject-matter; modest; aware that much of what it says and thinks is dust. God’s holiness means that theology stands under the prohibition: ‘Do not come near’ (Ex. 3.5). Accordingly, theology will be characterized less by fluency and authority, and much more by weakness, a sense of the inadequacy of its speeches to the high and holy matter to which it is called to bear testimony.

Nevertheless, this prohibition is not an absolute moment by which reason is entirely incapacitated. Alongside the prohibition stands with equal force an imperious command to speak: ‘Who has made man’s mouth?…Is it not I, the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be your mouth and teach you what you shall speak’ (Ex. 4:11-12). The command is also a promise–that God will make holy reason capable of that which sin makes it incapable; that because the speeches of reason are in the hands of God, they may also serve in the indication of the gospel’s truth. Idolatry is reproved, not by silence, but by speeches that set forth what God has taught. And in such speeches, holy reason gives voice to the fear of God.

–John Webster, Holiness, pp. 28-29

And, of course, my boy Vanhoozer says something along the same lines with a bit more style:

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, pg. xvi

So how do we speak well of God? By proceeding with humble obedience, listening before we speak, and submitting every word to the Word for judgment and grace.

Soli Deo Gloria

Inerrant Text ≠ Inerrant Interpretation (TGC)

inerrancy-of-Scripture-570x427-300x224

I recently ran across a couple of different writers raising questions about the value of affirming inerrancy or infallibility for the Bible, both of which hinged on the link between the text and interpretation. One wondered aloud at the coherence of claiming an infallible text when you’re a finite sinner, whose faculties are limited, likely disordered by sin and self-will, and whose interpretations must therefore be flawed. The other, a little more boldly, claimed the doctrine unnecessary, only serving human arrogance by lending added weight to the claimant’s own fallible pronouncements.

While both objections are quite understandable, and the first quite reasonable, they share a common failure to distinguish between theological claims being made about the Bible itself, and those for our interpretation of the Bible. In other words, it’s the difference between inspiration and illumination, and their relationship to the text.

I clarify these relationships and give two reasons why an infallible text matters despite our errant interpretations here at the The Gospel Coalition.

Hodge and Warfield: Our View of Inspiration Reflects Our View of God

Great beard. Great theologian.

Great beard. Great theologian.

Based on Twitter it seems like everybody is talking about the doctrine of Scripture at this year’s gather of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). It seemed fitting then to highlight this little gem from the modern grand-daddies of the doctrine of Inspiration, Archibald Hodge and B.B. Warfield:

…it is also evident that our conception of revelation and its methods must be conditioned upon our general views of God’s relation to the world, and His methods of influencing the souls of men. The only really dangerous opposition to the Church doctrine of Inspiration comes either directly or indirectly, but always ultimately, from some false view of God’s relation to the world, of His methods of working, and of the possibility of a supernatural agency penetrating and altering the course of a natural process. But the whole genius of Christianity, all of its essential and most characteristic doctrines, presuppose the immanence of God in all His creatures, and His concurrence with them in all their spontaneous activities. In Him, as an active, intelligent Spirit, we all live and move and have our being. He governs all His creatures and all their actions, working in men even to will, and spontaneously to do His good pleasure. The currents, thus, of the divine activities do not only flow around us, conditioning or controlling our action from without, but they none the less flow within the inner current of our personal lives confluent with our spontaneous self-movements, and contributing to the effects whatever properties God may see fit that they shall have.

–INSPIRATION, by Archibald Hodge and Benjamin Warfield, The Presbyterian Review 6 (April 1881), pp. 225-60.

As Vanhoozer* never tires of pointing out, the God question and the Scripture question can’t be separated. What you think about one is bound to affect what you think about the other.

Soli Deo Gloria

*I’ve been busy so this will have to serve as a place-holder for my “Engaging KJV” series. Should be back to it next week.

Is Vanhoozer Still a 5-Point Alvinist? (Engaging KJV Pt. 3)

This is the third entry in my series “Engaging Kevin J. Vanhoozer”, devoted to Kevin Vanhoozer’s work Remythologizing Theology by working through the essays devoted to it in a recent volume of the Southeastern Theological Review. You can read part 1, and part 2.

Fabulous beard. Horrible philosophy.

Fabulous beard. Horrible philosophy.

Oliver Crisp’s entry “Remythologizing, Projection, and Belief: A Reply to Vanhoozer,” is almost entirely focused with the methodological component of Vanhoozer’s project. Leaving aside the material proposals about the doctrine of God, Crisp analyzes what he sees to be a major gap in Vanhoozer’s armor, threatening to undercut his whole project: namely, his epistemology.

Projection Issues – One of Vanhoozer’s main foils in Remythologizing Theology is Ludwig Feuerbach, whose main claim was that all of Christian theology is just anthropology, or our best thoughts about ourselves projected onto the screen of eternity. Crisp summarizes:

Belief in God, on this view, is simply the reification of certain notions we have about ourselves, the projection onto the clouds of a father-like entity that is no more real than any other figment of human imagination. (pg. 32)

He then formalizes it in good analytic fashion, into what he calls the “Problem of Projection (PP)”:

(PP) Christian theological language about God is disguised language about the needs of human beings: such language reifies cherished human religious thought, values, beliefs. (pg. 33)

Vanhoozer’s remythologizing approach (which I’ve summarized here) is proposed as an answer to the problem by returning to the text as God’s own self-presentation, or Divine self-projection through Word and Spirit, as given us in God’s speech to us in Scripture. Theology in this view is a responsive, dialogical reality, attending to the story (mythos) of the Theo-Drama, not a monological mythology of our own making.

Crisp Anxieties – All that’s fine and well says Crisp, but there’s a hitch. Who’s to say all of this isn’t just another story? (pg. 33) Why should the Feuerbachian or the modern theologian buy this account? In other words, where’s the epistemology to to match it? All of this just seems to assume a view about God and Scripture, without an account of why we should accept scripture as God’s speech. Crisp takes us through a brief tour of Vanhoozer’s epistemological comments in other works, especially The Drama of Doctrine (DoD), to set up his problem (and solution.)

When it comes to epistemology, Vanhoozer has described himself as a postfoundationalist and an aspectival realist. Instead of coherentism’s metaphor of an interconnecting web of knowledge and foundationalism’s structure metaphor, with certain core, stable beliefs holding up the whole, Vanhoozer’s aspectival realism offers us a map. It is a framework of interpretation through which we see the world; it must be coherent, as well as have some connection to reality if it is to work, is admittedly limited, and yet it is testable, refinable, and correctable on the basis of new insights and information.

And yet, Crisp says, Vanhoozer’s a bit of a “theological magpie”, taking bits and pieces of various frameworks and piecing them together as they fit his own project. So, along with the map, in DoD Vanhoozer seems to adopt some of Alvin Plantinga’s reliablist account of knowledge even though it is a moderate form of foundationalism.

plantinga 4

Your thought has been judged and found wanting.

For those without knowledge of Plantinga’s account (which I favor heavily) Crisp explains:

On this way of thinking, what we believe is innocent until proven guilty. Such beliefs are formed by epistemic mechanisms that function according to a design plan aimed at truth. In his earlier work Vanhoozer even flirts with the Plantinga-inspired notion of properly basic beliefs.10 These are beliefs that are (a) noninferential, that is, not held on the basis of other beliefs from which they are inferred, and (b) justified or warranted, that is, formed in an epistemically responsible manner. (pg. 36)

Here’s where things get interesting. Crisp says this would be great, except that it seems Vanhoozer has dropped this line of thinking in RT because “proper basicality is embedded in a foundational epistemology” that he likely rejects as a postfoundationalist. In any case, he doesn’t mention it in the later work.

This becomes problematic in RT because, well, let me just let Crisp explain again:

Much of the work in this most recent volume involves the spinning out of his particular peroration on the claim that Scripture is the vehicle for divine discourse. But with so much riding on this claim, it is strange that he does not do more to shore up its apparent vulnerability. For, absent the notion of properly basic beliefs, it is not clear (to this reader, at least!) how he can ground the assertion that his hermeneutical framework, and his theological myth, is more likely to be closer to the truth of the matter than the frameworks and myths of his interlocutors. He has not provided an adequate means by which we can adjudicate whether his canon-linguistic approach to doctrine, or his more recent remythologizing approach to theology, is closer to the truth than either Bultmann or Feuerbach. (pg. 37)

In other words, Vanhoozer hasn’t given us a compelling epistemological reason to accept his picture over the others on offer. For someone who doesn’t accept fideism, the truth, or justification question is still up in the air. Along with another proposal derived from the material content of the faith, Crisp suggest that Vanhoozer’s Projection Problem could be cleared up with a heavy dose of Plantinga’s modest foundationalist epistemology, properly basic beliefs and all. It’s a good epistemology, it fits with the project, and Crisp even helpfully tells a little story about how all of this can work together:

What he can say is this. Although we cannot guarantee that we have the absolute truth of the matter, we can be sure that our hermeneutical framework, that is, the framework of canon-linguistic remythologized theology, provides some purchase on the truth, sufficient for us to be confident that it provides a theological myth or story more complete and more accurate than that of Bultmann or Feuerbach. Granted there is no “view from nowhere”—not even the canonical-linguistic view—from which to survey the epistemological landscape and make judgments about it. Nevertheless, what Vanhoozer provides is both internally coherent and a good fit with the biblical material, wherein (as he puts it) we find the mighty speech acts of God. Because our cognitive and linguistic faculties work according to a design-plan aimed at truth, we can move beyond perspectivalism to aspectivalism. That is, we can have some confidence that our theologically attuned hermeneutical frameworks give us the truth of the matter, or near enough, at least some (most?) of the time. Furthermore, because we are fashioned according to a design plan we can know certain things about God because he has designed us to be receptive to him. (pg. 36)

So what does Vanhoozer have to say about all of this?

Vanhoozer’s Confession – As it turns out, it’s all been a happy confusion since he basically agrees. Says Vanhoozer:

Crisp has to ask if I am still a “five-point Alvinist,” because Alvin Plantinga is an epistemological foundationalist while I appear to hold to some kind of postfoundationalism. The problem here is semantic, and can be fairly easily cleared up (I take full responsibility for any misunderstanding). The simple explanation is that I accepted Plantinga’s objections to classical foundationalism, and his proposed positive alternative. Plantinga argues that it is rationally acceptable (warranted) to believe in the existence of God without evidence, proof, or even argument (because belief in God is “properly basic”). Initially, this seemed to be a kind of Calvinist post-foundationalism. In retrospect, however, I acknowledge that Plantinga prefers to describe his Reformed epistemology as a version of foundationalism. Understood in Plantinga’s way, then, I too am happy to call myself a “modest” or “chastened” foundationalist. And I am therefore delighted to accept Crisp’s proposal that belief in Scripture as normative is a properly basic belief (I say as much in Is There a Meaning in this Text?), especially if this lets me escape, Houdini-like, from the Problem of Projection.  (pg. 78)

As you can imagine, I’m grateful to Crisp for squeezing this clear confession of Plantingan faith out of Vanhoozer. I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m a Plantinga fan, so I read Crisp’s account with great interest as I’d had thoughts along the same line.  I’d actually always sort of blended Plantinga and Vanhoozer together in my head hoping that it made sense, so it’s nice to get confirmation and a little constructive clarity from Crisp and Vanhoozer himself.

So, for those who are wondering, yes, one can be Vanhoozerian and a Five-Point Alvinist. All is right in the world.

Soli Deo Gloria

Does Diversity of Form Lead to Diversity of Message in Theology? (Engaging KJV Pt. 2)

Last week I kicked off a little series engaging Kevin Vanhoozer’s Remythologizing Theology by working through the essays devoted to it in a recent volume of the Southeastern Theological Review. I opened with an appreciative post outlining Vanhoozer’s unique place in Evangelical theology, but from there I figured it would make sense just going through the various essays in order, beginning with Stephen J. Wellum’s “A Critical Appreciation of Kevin Vanhoozer’s Remythologizing Theology.

“A Critical Appreciation” aptly sums up the thrust of the essay; it’s appreciative, then critical. Wellum begins with an excellent multi-page summary outline of RT, noting carefully the methodological as well as material proposals Vanhoozer is making. From there, he moves into three areas of criticism within his overall appreciative take on the work. While Wellum raises some material issues (how does the author-analogy for sovereignty deal with reprobation?), he settles in mostly on issues of theological framework, truth, and method.

Though his section on the absence of apologetics, or rather the assumption of a Reformed theological framework, is worth pursuing, it overlaps with the thrust of Crisp’s essay, so I’ll leave that to the side for this post. What I’d like to do is frame Wellum’s question to Vanhoozer on the issue of literary forms, and then summarize what Vanhoozer has to say in his puckishly-titled follow-up article “Vanhoozer responds to the four horsemen of an apocalyptic panel discussion on Remythologizing Theology.”

mediumMore Than One Medium, More Than One Message? – Back in the day, Marshall McLuhan taught everybody that the “medium is the message”–essentially form and content are inseparable; how you say something is part of what you’re saying. For instance, print media and visual media are two very different things and they radically shape what is being communicated. Vanhoozer is well-known for giving the dictum a theological twist and arguing that the form, or forms, of the message–specifically the various genres of literature in Scripture–should play a role in our theologizing about the message, especially in Is There a Meaning in this Text? and The Drama of Doctrine.

It’s here that Wellum starts to wonder, “are literary forms overblown?” (pg. 24) See, it’s not just that Vanhoozer claims we should be paying more attention to genre so we can figure out that you’re not supposed to read Revelation the same way you read the book of Acts. That’s all fine and good. What causes his query is the further claim that he sees Vanhoozer making–that the plurality of mediums and genres (canonical plurality) yields a plurality of conceptualities and theologies (theological plurality.) Quoting Vanhoozer in DoD (pg. 275):

The plurality on the level of the canon may call for an equivalent plurality on the level of interpretative traditions. If no single conceptual (read, confessional) system is adequate to the theological plentitude of the canon, then we need a certain amount of polyphony outside the canon, too, in order to do justice to it. The church would be a poorer place if there were not Mennonite or Lutheran or Greek Orthodox voices in it.

Applying the idea to atonement theology, this would mean that instead of privileging one of the many metaphors used to speak of Christ’s work to one, single, conceptual framework, a remythologizing approach will let them all come to play and shape our understanding. In RT, he says something along the same lines about our theology of God. Again, he quote Vanhoozer,“The reality of God outruns any one theologian’s attempt to conceptualize it, just as Scripture outruns the attempt of any one interpretative scheme to capture its meaning (RT, p. 474).”

At this point, Wellum throws up his hands and confesses that he’s not quite sure what to make of all of this. It’s all fine and good to think through the various genres of Scripture, as we struggle to do theology that honors all that God revealed, but “why does this lead to theological diversity?” (pg. 25) Sure, we should think through and include all the metaphors used in Scripture when thinking through the Cross, but isn’t it possible to take them all into account and land at an account of things that is better than other attempts? “…does this entail that there is no single conceptual system which accurately understands the Scripture, or at least, in terms of the areas that are central to an understanding of the Gospel?” (pg. 25) Pushing further, Wellum also asks whether this holds up in light of the inter-textual usage of the Old Testament texts by New Testament authors, who seem to appropriate texts freely across literary forms as they re-read them in light of the redemptive-historical story-line of Scripture.

These are good questions. So what does Vanhoozer have to say about it? Well, as with everything he says, he says it playfully and humbly–especially since Wellum happens to be his former student.

The Master Responds – So what’s he getting at? Well, to begin Vanhoozer does a little clarifying as to what he does not mean by theological plurality:

The first thing to be said is that I am careful to locate diversity on the level of vocabulary (e.g., metaphors) and concepts, not the more fundamental judgments that underlie them (e.g., ontological judgments). A second
preliminary observation: diversity is not the same thing as indeterminacy or contradiction. To be sure, there is a certain tension in saying that the same basic theological judgment may be rendered in more than one set of concepts, some of which catch certain nuances better than others. But we need only think of the various metaphors to describe the saving significance of Jesus’  cross to see how canonical perspectives generate theological perspectives. (pg. 75)

In other words, don’t take this too far. Recognizing understandable theological plurality is not a charter contradictory or incoherent doctrinal formulations. It is, however, a call to humility in our theological pronouncements given our finiteness and the fecundity of texts themselves.

Next, Vanhoozer happily concedes Wellum’s last observation about the NT author’s seeming emphasis on redemptive-historical readings over ones sensitive to literary form. That said, in the dispute between Christ and the Tempter (Luke 4), Vanhoozer points out that they’re not just trading true propositions. The issue up for dispute is where these statements fit in the canonical narrative of redemption. In other words, the issue of re-reading texts in light of redemptive history is still an issue of appreciating form–in this case, the form of the whole canon.

Finally, one of the key points to understand, is that Vanhoozer’s reflections on form and genre are an attempt at correcting against some approaches to the place of genre in theology on offer.  For so many Evangelical theologians, possibly including Wellum, understanding genres is important so that you can better crack open the shell of the text, and get to the juicy propositional content. Vanhoozer’s basic hunch about the forms of biblical discourse is that they “do more than provide packaging for theological content.” (pg. 75) Vanhoozer’s concern is that we see Scripture not merely as a treasure-trove of divine propositions to be deciphered and reassembled in the proper, systematic order.

God had particular purposes in using wisdom, apocalyptic, narrative, instead of one, clear, monological form, and this is an insight of theological importance:

Form is also an ingredient in “rightly handling [orthotomeo] the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). It is through the various literary forms of Scripture, including stories and histories, that the divine authorial imagination shapes our view of God, the world, and ourselves, thus forming us to be those who can make right judgments concerning fittingness. (pg. 76)

At a more than systematic level, the forms of Scripture train the disciple in ways of seeing, hearing, knowing, loving, and responding to drama of the Gospel, and that says something about the God of the Gospel.

One of Ricoeur’s line in particular continues to intrigue me: “Not just any theology can be wed to the narrative form.” How much more is this the case with a theology wed to history, apocalyptic, wisdom, prophecy, law, and gospel! (pg. 76)

A Clarifying Word – For some, questions will remain. I have a couple myself. Knowing this, Vanhoozer points the inquisitive to works by Ricoeur, as well as his own essay “Love’s Wisdom: the authority of Scripture’s form and content for faith’s understanding and theological judgment ” (Journal of Reformed Theology 5, 2011) At the end of the day, given the amount of space he had, this is a helpful, clarifying word, though not a final one from Vanhoozer.

Still, in the space he takes, we find a challenge to go back to the text and really see the formal diversity for what it is: not an obstacle to be puzzled apart, reduced to a clear, propositional form, but God’s diverse word that strikes “all the chords of the human soul, not just the intellectual”, in order to train us to take our place in the grand Theo-drama of redemption.

Soli Deo Gloria